Meet the Characters: Recovery: Kastrian

One last meet the characters post, this time for a certain pirate prince. Recovery is now out!

Kastrian

The wind, at least, was honest.

It blew clean towards Aliann and the north, carrying Kastrian and his ship away from the Isles as the sails strained above him and Conquest cut through the water as sharply as the weapon she was under the trappings of diplomacy.

Kastrian stood by her rail, half listening to the calls and banter of his crew, half recalling the islands they had just left—their bare golden cliffs, the forests of pine that crept across their hill tops, the pirates that lurked in their bays, demanding tribute of the fisher folk and the farmers.

Poor foolish land folk, he thought bitterly, who had still not learned to run as soon as the black ships came into sight.

“You going to open that?”

He hadn’t heard Rinor approach and he jumped a little.

“Sorry.” Rinor offered him an easy grin of apology and came to lean against the rail, breathing in easily. The wind caught his hair, lifting it off his forehead, and he laughed. “Good to heading home, isn’t it?”

Kastrian managed a careless-seeming shrug of his own. His secretary was only a few years his junior but sometimes he made Kastrian feel very old and very weary. “Aren’t the isles our home, our true and first hearth?”

Rinor’s smile didn’t fade but he met Kastrian’s gaze squarely. “I don;t know. Are they, Prince of the Sea?”

Young, yes, but the boy wasn’t stupid either. Kastrian stared back at him, neither of them speaking, until Rinor’s gaze fell away.

And wasn’t that something to be proud of—that he could still intimidate his closest employee, the only soul in Aliann who still had any trust in him.

“What’s the box, Kas?” Rinor asked again.

Kastrian looked again at the same wooden chest by his feet, the one Gorlan had taken out of the safebox in his cabin and gifted to him with such a smile that Kastrian knew whatever it contained was a taunt, not the reward he craved most. He didn’t want to open it—didn’t want to see what his king had commanded this time. He said, because Rinor was also the only person left that he had even a scrap of trust in himself, “‘Beware of the gifts of kings.’”

“‘They come bound in expectations,’” Rinor said back. “Stop quoting the Book of the Dragon and get it over with.”

Kastrian couldn’t stop his mouth from twisting up in amusement. Before his nerve failed him again, he reached down and flicked the box open.

Inside a fold of leathery cloth covered something. A note sat atop it. It said simply, Wear this.

“Is that—?” Rinor started, his voice shaking.

Kastrian shook his head. “Goatskin. Look at the colour.”

Rinor relaxed slowly. “I thought.”

“Our king likes to play games.” Kastrian tossed the note overboard, watching in satisfaction as the wind snatched it away. Then he folded back the goatskin and recoiled.

A mask looked up at him—a festival mask for a winter in Aliann, but one whose like he had never seen before, a blue-green monster with fangs and bulbous eyes, half-fish, half-lizard, all vile. Kastrian’s hands tightened around the coverings, every instinct telling him to hurl the thing overboard.

“Don’t!” Rinor said sharply. “We’re still on open sea. He’ll know.”

That was true, and Kastrian took three long breaths, forcing back decades worth of rage and hate again. He did not want to wear this thing—did not want to carry it into Aliann, the city which had always welcomed him.

“What is it?” Rinor asked, his distaste showing in his voice.

“A hydra,” Kastrian said, closing the lid of the box so he didn’t have to look at it. “You know the stories they tell of such things in Aliann.”

“He wants you to attend balls masked as their legendary foe? Is it meant as a threat?” Rinor looked puzzled. “That’s indirect, even for him.”

“A threat, yes,” Kastrian said, but did not elaborate. Rinor was still a relative innocent, a minor player in this dangerous game that he and Gorlan played in regard to the floating city. Rinor did not need to know that this was more than a threat to Aliann. It was a promise, one that could be already swimming in their wake or clinging to their hull, a promise Gorlan would force Kastrian to keep.

One which would destroy Aliann, if he couldn’t find someone to do what he could not. He could never be a hero for Aliann—would always be the monster from the sea.

Kastrian looked up, north to where the first hazy hint of the lagoon bar showed against the horizon, and hoped with all his heart, that someone there would be ready to fight him.

Every monster had its matching hero, after all.

Didn’t it?

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Recovery: Meet the Characters: Roland

With five days to go until Recovery comes out, meet another of the characters. Here is Lord Roland, Voice of Shara on the ruling council of the city of Aliann.

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Sometimes, even after all these years, Roland wakes and doesn’t know where he is.
It’s as if, no matter what his waking mind knows, in his sleep he forgets he is in Aliann and wakes expecting the cold dry bite of a winter dawn in Shara or the sound of the prince’s guard matching outside his window.

It’s always a surprise to wake to the soft sound of water on the quay, the long calls of the boatmen, the creak of timbers. The air feels heavier in Aliann, damp and mild in winter, humid in summer, weightier somehow but also softer. It is easy to let things slide here, to make deals rather than stick to resolutions. There’s always something moving in Aliann, alliances shifting, promises being redefined, power and influence dancing around each other faster and faster until the inevitable stumble and bow of defeat.

But his prince would never have sent him here at all if he was the sort of man to stick rigidly to a principle rather than do whatever was needed for the sake of Shara. He is here to speak for Shara, to deal for Shara, to lie for Shara.

Except last time he went back to the city where he was born and all roads end, the cold haunted him and he dreamed of Aliann every night. He looked at the steep, winding roads of Shara and thought of the gleaming canals, watched the summer storms gather over the mountains and yearned for the mists that rise from the lagoon.

Sometimes, sitting in the council he thinks of Aliann’s interests first and Shara’s second and he’s not sure if that means he should resign his position or hold to it all the more.
Behind him, the mattress creaks and Philammon says, voice soft with sleep, “It’s to early to be worrying.”

“I’m not worried,” Roland lies and turns onto his back. Philammon props himself up on his elbow and grins down at him. His hair is on end, curls springing in every direction. There’s a line of ink down the side of his cheek, and he’s already starting to fidget with the energy that drives him through every day at a pace which is dizzying, even for this restless city.

He’s far too young and beautiful and brilliant for a weary old politician. His presence here in Roland’s life, the easy way he loves him—it is yet another way that Aliann confounds him.

“Worrying,” Philammon says again and leans down to kiss the end of Roland’s nose. “About?”

“Places,” Roland says. “Loyalties.”

Philammon wrinkles his nose. “Nothing I can print then?”

“You only want me as a source,” Roland grumbles.

His lover grimaces. “Don’t even joke about it.”

Roland almost argues that he wasn’t the one to start the joke. But Philammon’s attention has shifted, his head up as he listens. Roland goes quiet, hears voices passing, running feet, the distant clang of the tide bell, the faint whisper of wind.

“Tide’s not due to turn, but the bell’s ringing and the watch are running,” Philammon murmurs. He’s already moving, throwing his clothes back on in a rush, pulling his hair into a messy knot at the back of his head.

Roland watched him, a little bemused. He still doesn’t understand how anyone can tell all that from a few moments listening. Perhaps you have to be born to it, to the rhythm of the tides and the curl of the wind. He reluctantly heaves himself upright, though. Philammon’s instincts are rarely wrong, and if this is more than a dock fight, the palace should know.

“If it’s something I need to know—” he starts.

“I’ll yell at the guard until they go running,” Philammon says, grabbing a quill off the desk, shoving an ink bottle into his pocket, and tucking a curl of paper through his belt. He darts back across the room, kisses Roland quickly and firmly, and then is gone at a run.

Left alone in the quiet, Roland shakes his head and smiles, before staring to look for his own clothes. This too is Aliann—unpredictable, so fast to react he is left blinking, but never dull, not for a moment.

Whatever worries haunt him in the first light of dawn, he knows he’s never going to leave.

*

Wondering how Roland will manage his torn loyalties? You’ll just have to read the book. Pre-order links below:

DSP Publications Amazon.co.uk Amazon.com

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Recovery: Meet the Characters: Tama

And here is the second of my introductions to the supporting cast of Recovery. Here’s Tama, a few days before she first appears in the book.

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Tama was in the middle of the frost fair when the page found her. He was a tiny little thing, his green and copper livery tabard hanging down past his knees, and her first instinct was to pat him on the top of his fur lined cap and buy him some warm spicebread. But he wore the green dragon and that meant he was on royal business, so she contented herself with dropping to one knee on the ice and saying, “I hear you, voice of the crown.”

He stood up straight, puffing his shoulders out, and said, “His highness the prince of Shara summons you, lorewitch.”

“I hear and obey.” Then she did give in to temptation and reach out to grab the sleeve of her nearest friend. “Ingund, buy this gentleman something hot to eat, will you?”

Ingund turned around, spotted the page, and made a squeaky noise of delight which made him flush red with indignation.

Sigi, who Tama hadn’t thought was listening, said, “A royal summons? Ooh, Tama, what have you done?”

Tama laughed and shrugged. No need to tell them it was probably nothing—she preferred it when they forgot her connection to the crown, loose and informal as it was. “I guess I’ll find out. Tell Gisela I’m sorry to miss her singing.”

They waved her off and she made her way out of the performance tent, apologising every time she slid into someone. Luckily, it was a merry crowd, and soon she was out onto the open ice, skimming back towards the bank as fast as she could manage, dodging between other skaters and party-goers, waving at the few people who shouted her name—most of her old classmates were still here in Shara, waiting for the high passes to thaw before they headed out to new chapterhouses and assignments. The snow had come early this year, taking many of them off-guard. She had done a few short trips already, helping move convoys of emergency food out to some of the surrounding towns and helping them take stock of rations and plan for the rest of the winter. This could well just be another of those.

But Prince Alerin had summoned her himself. Another rationing run would have been organised by the chapterhouse, not by the prince. Could it be something else—the one task she’d been hoping for ever since her fathers first sent word from the desert? Could the prince finally be sending out a party to find a dragon? Could he be sending her?

The idea was so wonderful that she jumped a little, forgetting that while she was as quick on her skates as anyone who had spent the last three winters in Shara, she wasn’t good enough to actually land on ice. She went staggering, feet sliding in different directions, and then lost any chance of regaining her balance once she got the giggles. Several people came skimming over to help her up, but she waved them off cheerfully, scrambled upright, and continued on at a more sedate pace.

It probably wasn’t going to be a dragon, despite her hopes. It was a bad time of year to send people up into the High Amels, which made the Sharan alps look like mere sand dunes in comparison. No, she would almost be certainly be waiting for the spring before that chance came along.

Well, maybe it was just social, then. The roads to the south and east were still open, and her fathers should be due for a stop in Shara soon, before they started back towards Hirah to overwinter until spring hiring. Yes, that was the most likely.

It wasn’t as exciting as dragons, but it still put a smile on her face as she queued up to get off the ice. She hadn’t seen her fathers since she finished her novitiate, and she wanted to know where they had been, what they had seen, how the world had changed since she last set foot upon the road.

A penny got her over the ditch some enterprising river man had cut along the edge of the ice, and she sat on a step to get her skates off before heading up into the city. Down here, the taverns were overflowing with fairgoers, music rolling out every time a door was opened, and she found herself whistling as she headed uphill, sticking to the main streets where the cobbles had been shovelled clear of snow.

Shara in winter always made her think of sugared almonds and marzipan—all its houses painted in pastel shades and snow weighing down every roof. She didn’t think she would ever stop enjoying it, but she had been here long enough. It was time to take to the road again, to see other cities, other colours. She missed the Anniel delta, where the cranes went whooping out over the shivering reeds, and the hot blast of the road through the Alagard, the urgent chaos of Hirah in the spring, and the elegance and greed of Aliann.
If it was not dragons, let it at least be a mission which would let her ride across the world again. She was a merchant’s daughter, a child of the road, never to be caught in one place for long.

Up and up, the road zigzagging towards the palace where it stood on the bluff above the city. The banners on the houses changed—the bright colours of the merchant guilds and inns giving way to more and more copper and green—every barracks flew the green dragon rampant, the dragon of Shara, symbol of its ancient power.

Maybe she would meet that dragon one day—be the one to rouse Sharnyn from his long slumber. Or maybe it would be Quarllian—he would need help to rebuild his library, surely? Markell was out there too, Isara, Arden (though rumour had it someone was already on that quest). And there were others too—not just the seven who had led the war against the Shadow, but all their brothers and sisters who had stood with them upon the plains of Eyr.

Oh, what a wonderful time to be alive!

And here was the palace, and she went skipping past the gatehouse with a smile for her cousin Lothar, who rolled his eyes at her from behind his helmet. Poor dutiful Lothar—she couldn’t imagine living his life. Thank the Dreamlord that her father had come along at just the right moment to seduce Papa away from family tradition and off to the open road instead.

Even the public parts of the palace felt very warm after the crisp winter air, and she took her hat and gloves off to shove in her bag with her skates, trying to comb her hair flat with her fingers. Even after all these years, she never quite felt smart enough for the palace. She just wasn’t meant for marble halls and silk wallpaper and paintings of people who could trace their bloodlines back to Sharnyn’s last hoard.

Unlike the prince, though, she didn’t have to live here, so she buried her discomfort behind a smile and walk up to the doors to the prince’s study with a bounce in her stride.
The guards on the door know her, but she bowed all the same. Sharans liked ceremony.

“Tama Lattimar, to see Prince Alerin.”

They swung the doors open in from of her and she walked in to find out what her future held.

*

Wondering what the prince wants with her? Well, you know what to do 😉 Pre-order links below:

DSP Publications Amazon.co.uk Amazon.com

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Wha Daur Meddle Wi Me? (Liddesdale 2/2)

On my second day in Liddesdale, I went in search of some of the grim history of the region. In the middle ages, the wild moors on either side of the border were caught up in the constant low-level hostilities between England and Scotland. The borders rapidly became a no-man’s land of warring clans, constant raids, and endless destruction. There are few villages here, and the only buildings which still stand from that era are built of solid stone–anything else was swiftly burnt to nothing and it is a rare fortress which hasn’t been razed at least once. Liddesdale was notorious for being the most wild and lawless of these frontier lands. Fortified peel towers along the Liddel Water were once the stronghold of the reiver families of Liddesdale–the Armstrongs and Elliots (whose motto forms the title of this post and tells you all you need to know about their character) and the smaller families that rode with them. At the head of the valley stands Hermitage Castle, one of the oldest surviving castles in Scotland.

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The castle. The archway is not an entrance but designed to support an extra buttress which ran around top of the keep in times of siege.

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The view from outside the keep.

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Inside the keep. By some weird quirk, it felt colder and windier inside than it did once I finally stepped out again.

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After many changes of hands, the castle eventually came into the hands of the Bothwells. Mary, Queen of Scots famously risked her health riding here to see her supporter and later husband, the 4th Earl of Boswell, when he lay at death’s door after a run in with one of the local Elliots.

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The prison tower, which is only accessible from above. The most famous legend associated with it is that of Sir William Douglas, the so-called ‘Flower of Chivalry’, who imprisoned his old comrade Sir Alexander Ramsey, leaving him down here to starve. Legend has it that he survived for fourteen days on nothing but the grains of bread that fell through the cracks in the floor from the granary above.

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Weird stone face in the window.

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Looking east along Hermitage Water.

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With so much bog surrounding the castle, only one side was vulnerable to the new invention of cannons. The earthwork in the foreground was created to address that weakness.

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Just west of the castle lies the remains of an old chapel. The original castle stood here–here too would have been the castle of wicked Lord de Soulis, legendary wizard, summoner of demons, and tyrant. The real de Soulis was not boiled alive in lead by his outraged tenants, as the legend claims, but was executed for treason.

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The chapel and the surviving gravestones.

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Hermitage Water

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Looking back as I walked to the bus stop a mile away.

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Back in Newcastleton, by the war memorial.

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All that remains of Mangerton Tower, the Armstrong tower just north of the border, taken from the embankment of the old railway line.

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Just a random waterfall.

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This green space is right on the border and was once a meeting point on truce days. Here ‘Kinmont Willie’ Armstrong was captured on a truce day, prompting his kinsmen to launch a raid on Carlisle Castle to get him back (there’s a ballad about it–there are ballads about all these stories).

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Back over the border. 

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This path through the woods is the model for  a very haunted one my character walks down most days.

On the third day, I rested my blistered feet with a round trip by bus. First I headed north to Hawick (pronounced Hoyk), a sturdy little town on the Teviot that is still known for its woollen mills.

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Looking along the high street as I hunt for somewhere that sells blister plasters.

I then caught another bus back south and over the border to Carlisle, where I headed straight for the castle.

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This corner was once the tower where Mary, Queen of Scots, was held under arrest for years.

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The keep. By the time you get to the top floors the walls are thicker than I am tall.

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Back in Newcastleton, walking up towards my guesthouse, it was hard to imagine all the violence and destruction these hills have seen.

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Across the border (a week in Liddesdale 1/2)

Some of you will know, from odd comments I’ve made here and there, that I’m working on a new ghost story set in the Scottish borders. A little bit of fun with a set of randomly generated map coordinates landed me dead on the border at the bottom of Liddesdale, which turned out to be a place with more history and legends than any one book can do justice to. I’ve been writing from the comfort of my study in the home counties, but I was beginning to hit the limits of what I could do without setting my feet on the ground and breathing in the actual place, so last week I headed north for three days to see it for real.

One of the first things I picked up when I got to my guesthouse was a guide to local walking routes. I was delighted to see that the longest one in there was very close to a hike I’d had my protagonist do early in the book (he’s younger and fitter than me, so does a longer loop, but this was as close as I was willing to try). The loop took me from the village of Newcastleton, where I was staying, up into Kershope forest, and then down to the border, along it for a few miles, and then back up an abandoned railway line to the village).

You’ll have to excuse the occasional giddy tone to this write-up, because the whole trip was one of those magical holidays you just fall into sometimes, to the extent that I’m feeling bad about inflicting such a nasty ghost on such a wonderful place. The first day began with surprise Bucks Fizz over breakfast, courtesy of the other couple staying at the guest house, who were celebrating their silver wedding and insisting on splitting the bottle around the table.

Heading out with a spring in my step, I began the climb out of the village. Newcastleton is a relatively young village, built in the 1790s by a local landowner as a model village for weavers. His grand plan was a financial failure, but by then the original settlement further up the valley had been flattened. It’s a pretty little place these days, and the only settlement of any size for miles and miles.

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Here it is in its entirety, sitting along the bank of the Liddel Water.

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Climbing up the lane, views of the hills to the north open up. This all looks serene now, but go back five hundred years and this was one of the bloodiest and most war torn places in Europe. The border clans of Liddesdale and the surrounding valleys were reivers of the worst kind (more on this in my next post, because I spent the second day of my holiday visiting some of their sites).

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Up and up, towards the edge of the forest. The trees are relatively new–the first trees were planted in the 1920s when the land was given over to the Forestry Commission. These days, timber is still the main product of the area, but the forest is also a centre for mountain biking, with trails leading off towards Kielder Water, ten miles to the east.

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Into the woods…

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Despite the cloak of trees, this is still moorland, and everything is damp. Streams trickle out of cracks, moss covers every exposed surface, and every path oozes thick mud.

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I think this is the Clintheugh Linn (I’d lost track of myself on the instructions by this point, but since there was only one path, wasn’t too worried).

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And then there was a landmark! Here, where three paths met, I found a carving. There’s nothing there to give any context or explanation. It’s just a lump of rock, with a hole in the middle and the words to Jerusalem carved on one side and those to Auld Lang Syne on the other (honestly, I giggled for the next mile–so bizarre!). 

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Confident of my location again, I set a good pace south towards England.

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That next ridge is on the far side of the border.

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This is the fabulously named Muckle Thwater Gill, running down towards Kershope Burn.

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Heading downhill.

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And this is the border itself. The line between England and Scotland runs along the Kershope Burn here. I’d used this river as the model for a fictional one in my WIP, so my excitement levels were rising. Just look at those brooding hills! 

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Standing on the border (okay, on the bridge over the border)!

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The path turns downstream on the English side until it comes out on this road. In my WIP, this leads up to a scatter of houses, included a very haunted old fortified manor. In reality, there is nothing here but forest.

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Several minor characters meet an untimely end on this road which runs north from the same point. I probably shouldn’t have been grinning so happily as I took this picture.

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Further along the river, and here’s another little feeder stream tumbling down into it.

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Looking north from the English side–pretty much the view my protagonist has from the window of the haunted house.

The path then met the road again at the tiny hamlet of Kershopefoot, from where an old railway line turned footpath runs back up to the village. I was footsore and weary by the time I stumbled along it, but this was one of the best walks I’ve done for a long time.

And the best was yet to come…

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Recovery: Meet the characters: Esen

It’s just a month to go until Recovery is released, so I thought it might be fun to start introducing some of the cast. Here, to get us started, is a familiar face. Those of you who have read Reawakening will remember Esen (if you haven’t read Reawakening, stop now, because this post will include spoilers!). Here she is a few weeks before Recovery starts, arguing with a dragon (as you do).

Esen_quote

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A Cold Misty Day on the North Downs Way

I wrapped myself up in three layers today and took off for the hills. My route today was one I know well–out to the outskirts of town, along the riverbank, and then up onto the North Downs Way to meander along the edge of the ridge through the woods until I cam down into Guildford fifteen miles later.

Much as I love exploring new places, there’s a special delight to a well-known path. This stretch of the North Downs Way was the first solo hike I ever did, and I’ve walked it many times since, both alone and in company. You build up your own mental map over time–not the landmarks recorded on maps or described in guidebooks, but ones made of memories–the fairy door, the knoll where we saw the adder, the bank where I saw a deer on the way home from work once.

It was a lovely day, and one of startling contrasts. In the shades, the frost never lifted but in places lay as thick as snow. Under the sunlight, the woods were golden. The usually soft paths were rock hard underfoot and the mist hung in dips.

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