(LEGENDS OF DIMMINGWOOD: BOOKS 1-3)
Book 1: Magic of Thieves — In a province where magic is forbidden and its possessors are murdered by the cruel Praetor, young Ilan, born with the powerful gift of her ancestors, has only one hope for survival. Concealment. In the shadow of Dimmingwood, she finds temporary protection with a band of forest brigands led by the infamous outlaw Rideon the Red Hand. * * * * * Book 2: Betrayal of Thieves — Ilan has narrowly escaped her last encounter with the soldiers of the evil Praetor but many of her outlaw friends have not been so fortunate. When her closest companion is dragged off to Selbius for execution, Ilan has no choice but to defy the captain of the forest brigands and journey to the stronghold of her enemies. * * * * * Book 3: Circle of Thieves — In the wake of a painful betrayal, Ilan abandons her friends among the river people to return to the peace of shadowy Dimmingwood. But things in the forest are not as she left them. A deadly new enemy is attacking the local villagers, threatening the very existence of the forest outlaws. -— Books 4, 5, & 6 sold separately -—
C. Greenwood's Magic of Dimmingwood series were the first books I thought of when I came up with the idea for Epic Elves. This is an archetypal tale of magic, adventure, and a band of thieves concealed in their forest stronghold… but heroes can't remain hidden forever. – Anthea Sharp
"Exciting action, interesting characters, magic and magical weapons. What more could be asked?"– Amazon Reviewer
"An absolute must read!"– Amazon Reviewer
"C. Greenwood writes a great adventure tale with a group of champions that are a delight to watch grow. Can't wait for the rest of the story– Amazon Reviewer
The wagon wheels splashed through pools of filthy water as we lurched down the rutted road. The driving rain had ended hours ago but left its evidence in the deep mud and sodden leaves strewn across our path. The wind hadn't abated, and I flinched each time I heard it stirring through the tree branches overhead, knowing another shower of cold droplets was about to be shaken loose to patter down on us. Occasionally, a ray of golden sunlight would peek from behind a thick layer of clouds and fall across our path, as if to taunt us with its promised warmth, but as suddenly as it appeared, it would be snatched away again, leaving us in this depressing world of gray.
The winding road we followed soon twisted and led us into a forest of firs and elder trees. Here, thick-trunked sentinels loomed over our path, hedging us in like rabbits in a snare, so that I had an uncomfortable desire to turn and head back out into the open. But if the peddler shared my unease, he kept it to himself as our wagon rolled steadily onward until the grassy meadowland behind was lost from view.
The wood was still and heavy with shadows. Only small patches of overcast sky revealed themselves through the green canopy overhead, and nothing stirred the foliage on either side of the road. There was a sameness to the passing scenery, and every towering tree, every splintered trunk or thick stand of ferns, looked like the one before it.
I shivered, scarcely feeling my frozen fingers and toes, and wished Master Wim would stop and build a fire to warm us. But he never gave any indication he noticed the weather, and he appeared perfectly comfortable in his heavy cloak and sturdy boots. Perhaps he didn't feel the bite of the wind through the strips of wool twined about his hands.
I was surreptitious in studying the peddler because he made it plain early on that he wanted nothing to do with me. I wasn't to chatter or ask foolish questions such as when we would arrive at our destination or when we could eat. I had been ordered not to shift in my seat or to stand, as it would make the horse nervous.
Seeming all but oblivious to my presence now, the old man kept his gaze fixed on the road. He had one foot propped atop the wooden board at our feet, and I noticed a crooked bend to that knee, which might have caused him to limp awkwardly when on foot. From time to time, he dropped a hand to massage the damaged joint, and when he did, a grimace would spread across his features. They weren't particularly attractive features even without the scowl. His closely set eyes were a frosty shade of blue-gray, like ice over a winter pond, and his long nose bent sharply downward at the tip. His skin was like a faded map, with wrinkles for pathways and moles and age spots sprinkled around generously, like markers.
I was so intent on examining my companion's flaws that I noticed immediately when his brow furrowed in concern. Snapping my attention to the road ahead, I was met with an unexpected sight. We had just rounded a bend, and we suddenly found ourselves facing an obstacle. A thick tree lay fallen on its side, covering the full width of our path and blocking any traffic that might have passed. The trunk was so wide a large man couldn't have reached both arms around its base, let alone have had a hope of shifting it an inch to either side.
But the tree didn't hold my gaze long for my attention was swiftly drawn to the collection of rough-looking men clustered around it. There were half a dozen of them, dressed mostly in ragged clothing of dappled brown or green. A few were outfitted in mismatching pieces of leather armor or chainmail, and here and there, daggers or short swords were in evidence. The men lacking blades were armed with quarterstaffs or cudgels, and many of them carried bows. They were a lean and ragged-looking lot, and even at a distance, menace was clearly written across their hard faces. Small as I was, I had the sense to be afraid.
Wim cried, "Brigands!"
He slapped the mare with his reins, urging her to speed. The frightened animal charged ahead, and I clung tight to the edge of my seat as we shot forward. The road was rocky and pitted, and the wagon lurched alarmingly from side to side, and as we drew nearer to the obstacle ahead, I didn't know which danger was greater, that we would plow full-speed into the felled tree or that our wagon might tip before we reached that point and both of us would be crushed beneath it. Cold fear dug its claws into my belly, and I squeezed my eyes shut.
Wim must have realized the disaster we drove toward for, at the last possible instant, he hauled back on the reins. Even braced as I was, I was nearly thrown from the wagon as we jolted to a sudden halt. I had been desperately wedging my toes against the footboard while bracing my back against the seat behind me, but neither precaution prevented my being slung sideways. My head smacked loudly against the back of the seat, and I couldn't help crying out. Beside me, Wim seemed to have been jarred by the stop as well.
"Don't think about turning that rickety cart around," an unfamiliar voice warned us. "We chose this spot for the narrowness of the path."
I gaped at the speaker, an immense mountain of a man with a mane of wild, half-braided red hair that flowed to his waist. He towered at least a foot taller than an ordinary man and, with hands massive enough for uprooting saplings, looked as impassive a barrier as the fallen tree he stood atop. The men flanking him appeared to be awaiting a signal from this giant, but instead of giving one, he leapt down and strode toward us.
Wim glanced back the way we'd come and tightened his grip on the reins, but the big stranger was right. There was no room for turning our wagon around, and the peddler must have been reluctant to leap to the ground and dash for escape. A man of his age had little hope of outrunning anyone, even without his crooked knee.
The giant seemed to follow Wim's thinking too. "A wise decision, old bones," he said. "You wouldn't get far before my friends shot you down. They're always eager for some live-target practice, although I fear you would make poor sport with that twisted leg."
Coming to lean easily against the side of the wagon, he tapped Wim's bad knee for emphasis. His height was even more impressive at this proximity, and I noticed now the series of long, ridged scars slashed at an angle across his face, lending a hard look to features that might otherwise have been cheerful.
Ignoring my perusal, the big man said to Wim, "Now then, old man. Suppose we come to an agreement that will mutually benefit both of us and speed you on your way."
"You speak of robbery," Wim snarled.
"Not at all. Think of it instead as a much-needed donation to the favorite cause of our band's captain."
"And what noble cause would that be?"
"Why, that of feeding himself and his good followers, of course," said the giant. "I can see you're a compassionate man who would never deny a handful of hungry strangers the coin to purchase a decent meal."
"Would it do any good to refuse what you've already decided to take from me?" Wim asked, glaring darkly.
"That's the spirit, good fellow," said the giant. "Now empty your pockets into this little bag, and be quick. My companions and I are wet, weary, and not our usual, patient selves today."
He produced a worn sack, which he extended with a little flourish, but Wim ignored the offering.
"The Praetor has no use for thieves in his province," he warned the big stranger. "Steal from an honest peddler today if it pleases you. But I warn you, soon enough you'll all be hunted down and hung."
"I won't argue with you, old man. I've advised you to pay the toll. If you lack sufficient coin, we won't mind helping ourselves to the goods in your wagon. No need to make a fuss. No one will be hurt so long as you cooperate, and I feel sure you'll have the wisdom to do just that."
But Wim, no longer cowed, said, "You vermin will see no coin from me, and you'll keep your filthy hands off my wagon. I'll report you to the Praetor when I reach Selbius and see the lot of you arrested. I see many of you already bear a thief's brand, so the second offense means death."
He smiled grimly, as if already witnessing the lot of them swinging from a gallows.
One of the listening outlaws, a wiry man with a cudgel, showed his teeth. "Maybe we're too desperate to care," he said. "Maybe we're hungry enough to eat skinny old peddlers before they go running to the Praetor."
Wim licked his lips as if realizing he may have spoken too vehemently, and his hand disappeared inside his cloak.
The giant broke in with, "Enough talk. Let's see some coin."
"Never," said Wim.
The big man shrugged and stepped back, saying, "Very well then. I fear we won't part on kindly terms." He nodded to his companions. "Fellows, see what you can do to persuade this old fool to change his mind without killing him. Murders only make the way patrol more vigilant."
He settled himself on a nearby tree stump, as if preparing to watch some form of entertainment, while his companions closed in. In a flash, a burly man with a beard and shaved head seized me roughly by the neck of my cloak and tried to remove me from his way. Instinctively, I sank my teeth into his arm and, as the brigand thrashed, attempting to shake me loose, I was dragged out of the wagon and hit the ground headfirst. The pain stunned me, and a fuzzy blackness ringed the edge of my vision. Dizzily I tried to summon the inner flame of magic I had touched so effortlessly once before, but I couldn't find it.
When the world stopped turning and the pain and darkness receded, I remembered Wim. One brigand had grabbed the old man and was attempting to drag him down from his perch on the wagon seat. The peddler struggled, and I saw the glint of steel as he retrieved a short knife from inside his cloak. He was about to plunge it into his attacker when the other man stabbed him first. I stared, horrified, as the old man's lifeless body fell forward, landing heavily near me. A pool of crimson blood quickly pooled around him.
If I was frozen with shock, no one else was. The red-haired giant swooped in and struck the face of the man who had done the killing, shouting at him about disobeying orders, while the other brigands ignored the arguing men and swarmed over the wagon, quickly emptying it of anything of value. Although I was distantly aware of these activities, my mind scarcely took them in. I couldn't tear my gaze away from Wim's wide eyes, staring unseeing toward the treetops.
Someone came to stand over me. He was speaking, but I didn't respond, and when he waved a hand before my face, I ignored that as well, keeping my gaze fixed on Wim. Had my Mama's eyes stared blankly like that when she was dead? Had Da's?
"What have you there, Brig?" asked the redheaded giant, joining the man beside me.
"I don't know," the first one said. "A vicious little cur, I think. Bites like one, at least." He knelt and with surprisingly gentle hands turned my face away from Wim's corpse, asking, "Where are you from, child? Do you live nearby?" I recognized him as the man with the shaved head, whom I had bitten.
When I held my tongue, he tried again. "Do you have a name? What's your father's name?"
Again I refused to answer, and the bald man frowned, saying to the giant, "I don't know about this one, Dradac. What are we to do with it?"
The giant shrugged. "I think it is female—a little girl, to be exact. As to what's to be done with her, I suggest we leave her right here. She's no concern of ours."
"But she's only a wee one, isn't she? What if she dies or comes to some hurt?"
The giant said, "Don't care if she does. Children are a cursed plague. But I imagine someone will pass this way and find her in a day or so. If you're concerned, put her up on the mare and send her back the way she came."
It's a long ride to the nearest village," the bald man pointed out. "Do you think she's big enough to stay on the horse and keep it to the road?"
"How should I know? I'm not the one with children. Maybe we could tie her onto the horse?" As he spoke, the giant stooped to examine me more closely and winced, evidently unimpressed with what he saw. "Ugly little critter, isn't she? If we do save her, I don't think any future sweethearts will be thanking us. What's she got on her mouth?"
"My blood. She took a chunk out of my hand earlier. Look at it."
"A revolting sight. Let's leave the little biter to fend for herself."
"I don't feel I can do that."
"Then she's your problem," the giant said. "The rest of us are moving out. But a word of advice. If you're considering doing anything stupid, like bringing her back to camp, think again. Rideon would have both our hides."
The bald man was silent a moment before apparently coming to the same conclusion. He rose and turned away, following the other brigands as they tramped off into the underbrush.
After they were gone, I stirred enough to wrap my arms around myself as shivers wracked my body, not all of them from the cold. Even with my head averted, I couldn't get the memory of Wim's corpse out of my mind. I had seen many deaths lately.
I became aware of the sound of something large crashing through the underbrush. The noise grew nearer, and then the returning brigand broke out onto the road.
Scooping me up in strong arms, the bald man said, "Come along then, little dog. I've been thinking on it, and I cannot abandon you here."
At last I found my tongue. "I'm not a dog; I'm a girl. Dogs don't talk."
"And girls don't bite."
He lifted me up onto his broad shoulders, and we moved off after the others, leaving the road, horse and wagon, and dead peddler behind.