Goodwin’s Road Sample


If a certain country road hadn’t been constructed, Supreme Emperor Goodwin would never have come to rule these lands.

Perhaps some would prefer to say: “if it weren’t for increased trade in the kingdom.” Or better still: “if Goodwin’s family hadn’t grown such amazing radishes or made such palatable ale.”

But I’ll tell you that Goodwin’s tale begins with a country road. Once you understand the kind of man our Supreme Emperor has always been, you’ll see how a mere road could propel him to the exalted position he has today.

We will begin this tale before the road is built.

You haven’t heard anything about that period, now, have you? The bards don’t find it very exciting. Did you know our most-beloved Supreme Emperor lived on a quiet family farm with thirty-eight of his relations and never wished to leave it? Oh yes. I can’t say if it’s still there now, waiting for him to come home, but he was definitely a more provincial sort before the road appeared.


Goodwin was born the elder of two sons to a reclusive farming family way out in West Kavil. His family had lived and worked on their plot of land for over fifteen generations, and it was purposely settled as far away from any neighbors as possible. They didn’t need to go to the villages for trade, nor make the fortnight trek for new clothes. The family farm had always been entirely self-sufficient.

They liked the quiet.

Every decade or so, the latest round of teenaged children would make that two-sennight trip to the nearest town in hopes of finding a spouse. Few returned, but those who did were fanatical about maintaining their peace.

Plants and animals were fine, but noisy sentients were to be avoided at all costs.

Well, that isn’t entirely true. Goodwin’s mother missed conversations, socialization, tea, and bickering in the marketplace. She missed musicians and poets, jewelers and blacksmiths, street vendors hawking all sorts of things. Goodwin’s mother was ever ready to make an excuse to go into town.

Lucky for her, she didn’t need one.

I won’t comment on the luck of the world.

The brother? Oh all right, but I was just getting into the rhythm there.

When Goodwin was three, his mother quickened with child again. I suspect this was her excuse to see someone to whom she wasn’t related; she needed a midwife, after all. And it was the midwife who named the younger brother. She joked, as anyone might, that when you have one son named “Goodwin,” wouldn’t it be amusing to name the next “Badwin?”

Goodwin’s mother took this to heart, and “Badwin” was born that year.

When Goodwin was seven and his brother was four, they worked side-by-side in the fields, picking and hoeing and doing whatever it is farmers do. Goodwin quickly discovered, however, that work was something one should vaguely claim to have done while actually doing as little as possible.

When Goodwin was eight, he not only shirked his duties, but blamed his lack of productivity on Badwin. “He got in my way,” or “No, that’s my stack of wheat bales.” Badwin’s reputation correspondingly tumbled.

While this kept Goodwin out of trouble, it was not a useful trick for children who liked to eat come winter.

When Goodwin was nine, he realized he needed a way to make other people do his work for him. Clever boy, he invented a strategy: exchanging chores.

He traded picking with an uncle in one row, the uncle’s baling with a cousin in the kitchens, the cousin’s chopping with Badwin on toilet duty, and so on and so forth. He borrowed today’s hoeing against next month’s sweeping, and when his deals were made Goodwin had traded all of his chores away. Oh, he looked busy, standing in the fields and getting a dishonest tan, but he’d found that strategy and “managing” were far better than actual labor.

His parents never noticed this “laziness.” (Is it really lazy when the mind works, whether the body does or does not?) They’d been fooled by their own naming conventions and saw, from their remove, only what they expected to see.

Goodwin was the classical archetype of a picturesque farming child. He had straw yellow hair, bleached near-white by the sun, that fell over bronzed–yet, freckle-less–skin and into sky-blue eyes. He kept his short fingernails neatly groomed, and his physique spoke of toning and exercise. Indeed, he was the fastest runner of the other four children his age at the farm. The strongest swimmer and brightest chess player as well. There was nothing for which Goodwin was unsuited.

Badwin, however, was not nearly so perfect. Oh, he wasn’t flawed in any way, merely mediocre. He had dark hair and a few freckles on his splotchy tan. While he was good at outdoor sports and played a mean game of hit-the-wicket by the sheep pens, he never learned to excel in them, working mostly on his chores. Many of those chores had been Goodwin’s before trading, but that just proved Badwin wasn’t going to beat his older brother at chess either.

No, there was nothing particularly wrong with Badwin, but his name got him every time. Always, people assumed anyone named Badwin couldn’t possibly be a Kind and Gentle soul. He must instead be Evil, Cruel, and Arbitrary. Living in the shadow of his brother’s accomplishments, Badwin could only hope to go unnoticed.

When Goodwin was eleven years old, the road was built, and life at the farm went downhill from there.

The road passed directly in front of the family’s homestead, and every year it grew more and more heavily traveled as merchants’ wares increased and as the household’s fame grew. Oh yes, Goodwin’s family’s honor was its own downfall.

There were neither taverns nor inns along this road, no guard-posts and no outlaws. There was a great bunch of nothingness between towns of trade in this section of the country. That was, after all, why Goodwin’s family had settled there. So, traveling merchants and musicians and their hired guards would stop at the farm, reveling in the availability of shelter and the thought of a hot meal. And the family was hospitable: feeding the travelers, giving them drinks, and putting them up for the night in their own beds.

The travelers responded as they usually did to such kindnesses with tales of the places they’d visited, boisterous music, and games.

The travelers were not quiet.

The peace had been broken. Many of Goodwin’s family were angered and upset by this turn of events, but there was little they could do without being rude or giving their guests anything less than the best they had to offer.

The situation only got worse. In two turns of the seasons, the homestead became famous in the neighboring villages for its amazing radishes and palatable ale. Within three years of the road’s construction, it became all the fashion to travel out to the little farm in the middle of nowhere for lunch and keep the poor dears company. This of course meant more tale-telling, ballad-singing, and game-playing.

Goodwin hid in his room or the fields whenever a knock came on the door, though he’d sneak back in to cajole candies or trinkets from the guests one at a time. He could handle crowds for short periods if he thought the reward might be worthwhile.

Goodwin was miserable. Badwin was wretched. The family had no recourse but to stick it out and hope this trade thing died down.

And so it went. For years the family suffered. They couldn’t bring themselves to move after so many generations on the land. As the children grew older, they became more and more bitter–except for the ones who hated silence, of course–that their peaceful childhood had been denied them.

Finally, some good came from the horrid, bardic noise-makers. When Goodwin was seventeen, he first heard the “Ballad of Emperors.” Now, the idea of an Emperor was radical at the time. There hadn’t been one in hundreds of years, not since the Parliamentary system had been established.

But Goodwin didn’t have any concept of society’s greater political organization, and he latched onto this ballad as his saving grace, and perhaps it was his Destiny. He convinced the traveling bard to teach him the whole thing, which was a simple task because–as with everything else–Goodwin had impressive vocal and instrumental talents. He didn’t care for the music, though, but for the story.

The ballad tells the tale of a land stricken by war which is united under the First Emperor. The First Emperor begins his life as a lowly stable-boy, who is so saddened by the state of the fighting clans that he vows to unify all the tribes into a single, harmonious country. The stable-boy goes on a “quest”–Goodwin shuddered every time he heard the word–to find the knowledge to create peace. Instead of finding knowledge, the First Emperor finds the “Talisman of Reme.”

A “talisman.” Why is it always a “talisman?” They seem so pointless and overdone, and what is the technical definition anyway?

Right, so the First Emperor finds the “Talisman of Reme,” such that any who look upon it will concede their political will to the wielder. The First Emperor initially goes to each individual General in his or her war camp, but soon discovers that it’s much more effective to just climb up a hill or building and shout: “Hey, look at me!” The people look and immediately fall under his political rule. Everything else about their lives and loves remains the same, but the fighting ends once the citizens are united into one political body.

“This,” thought Goodwin, “is just what I need. Once I find this”–he paused to make a face–“Talisman of Reme I will take over Parliament and get rid of this ****ing road.”

Goodwin had no love of Parliament. They had, after all, sanctioned the road in front of his formerly happy home.

The only clue in the ballad as to the Talisman’s whereabouts was that the First through Twelfth Emperors had kept it in the catacombs of the castle at Moyenar before both were lost. That would have to do.

And so, Goodwin said good-bye to his family, spat in contempt at the noisy travelers for the last time, shouldered his pack, and bega his search for the Talisman of Reme.

Chapter 1: Travelers

Ashe Levik , Mage
Spring, deep-forest

The smoldering bits of wood that had once been trees mocked Ashe Levik’s skill. Oh, he’d fried the oncoming beast all right, killed the vicious animal in its tracks, but he’d also taken some of the forest with it. He was somewhat ashamed of his lack of precision with explosive luminary balls, a basic skill he’d practiced years ago as an undergraduate, but he wasn’t going to complain too much. In the end, he lived and the beast did not. That was all that really mattered. Plus, he could have a semi-charred snack.

Not for the first time, he wondered if this shortcut through the deep forest was a good idea. Good idea or not, the decision had been made.

Resolved to be positive, he found a dry patch of ground next to a thick tree-trunk and sat to meditate. The day’s rains had let up, and hopefully-to-be-reinstated Professor Ashe Levik was going to take advantage of the comparatively fair weather.

He cleared his thoughts as best he could when he was wet and sore and everything smelled like green. He was used to researching in his study, surrounded by stone and wood and books, with shops available whenever he needed something. This deep forest with its near-constant darkness and utter lack of amenities was not what he’d expected at this stage in his life. Collegiate mages didn’t travel in the wilderness.

Still, he was a professional. So he calmed his mind and brought all of his emotions and attributes into balance. With stability achieved, he reached out with his astral fingers. He envisioned the distance between his forest location and his house in the city, then followed that path until he could slip into the house’s pantry.

It was exactly as he’d left it two nights ago, full of food and so-far undisturbed by looters. When Ashe had set out, he’d taken nothing with him, yet his home was still in perfect order. That was a surprise because, while his departure may not have been common knowledge yet, plenty of people knew he was gone. He grimaced to think that no one wanted his things, tainted by a misunderstanding of his work. Unthinking fiends all of them!

Shaking off such unbalancing thoughts before they could unmoor his astral body from either location, he selected the most perishable items in his home’s pantry and pulled them along to where his physical self waited among the trees. He wanted to eat those before they went off. It wasn’t like he’d have the chance to go food shopping anytime soon. Burnt wildebeest aside. Soon, even if his house remained untouched, Ashe would run out of food and fresh water.

He peeled an orange and sectioned it. The bright citrus cells exploded between his teeth, and cool acidity filled his throat. It cleaned out the musky traveling dirt that seemed to have taken up residence in his mouth. He really should have brought a scarf to wear over his face and filter out the road. He popped the other sections onto his tongue quickly, one after the other; he couldn’t help himself. They were so sweet and fragrant.

Cheep cheep.” On unsteady feet, a baby bird hopped towards his discarded orange peel. It was barely larger than the orange itself, and half-covered in yellow fluff. The other half was charred singe.

“Oh, you poor thing.” Ashe broke a day-old baguette into tiny crumbs and deposited them on the ground just ahead of the feeble hopping. “I’m so sorry.” The bird must have got caught in Ashe’s desperate flight from the wildebeest.

He snapped his fingers to start a fire in the wet leaves. The bird could warm itself there and enjoy its Ashe-given bounty. Hopefully such small magecraft wouldn’t cause him trouble with the Mages’ Consortium in Paknesh.

He snorted. If they complained about his doing survivalist magic while he tried to reach them, they didn’t deserve to have their sanctions followed.

He bit into a perfectly ripe peach. Juice dripped down his hand, and he shook it off viciously, drops flying everywhere. There was no point in his keeping any other peaches from this batch for himself any longer.

He centered his mind again and reached out with his astral tendrils. From his pantry, he grasped the bag of remaining fruit, and with a second cord–this one much weaker–he extended his senses towards the boarding house he sponsored. Regardless of his difficult straits, he should keep up with his charity. . . and his promises.

By the time he’d actually moved the parcel from one location to the other, his soul’s astral tendrils had thinned to mere threads. Summoning was much easier than banishing. Much easier.

But he had done it! People who couldn’t waste money on such luxuries would feast on fresh peaches tonight.

His hands shook, and he warmed them at the fire alongside his baby bird companion. His fingers were still sticky. He licked at tacky spots on his palms, chewing at the clinging nectar with angry teeth.

I just wanted to help the poor, damn it! To help all mankind!

If he could just reach the Consortium’s meeting place on the other side of the forest before any horrid rumors took hold, he could make sure they understood that. His reputation would remain untarnished when they realized that it was all just a big misunderstanding and that he’d never done anything unethical at all. His research practices were all entirely aboveboard.

Of course, he could choose to ignore the Mages’ Consortium at any time. In which case, their dismissal would be completely irrelevant. He just wouldn’t be licensed to teach, to work for any certified company or institution, or to publish his research.

He could become a hermit-like hedge witch. Out in the middle of nowhere. Like this forest, with its uncivilized lack of plumbing.

An ominous rumble shuddered the trees and set his righteous heart to thudding. The leaves overhead clicked and pittered, and Ashe dreaded was coming next. Springtime in the forest. It was awful.

He pulled up the hood of his woolen traveling cloak, covering any wisps of graying hair before rain could penetrate the tree cover. Then, levitating for both the silence and the freedom from mud, he floated in the direction of Paknesh.

With any luck, he’d find a traveling partner wandering through the forest, one who could catch prey instead of just incinerating it. Luck is not something I have in abundance. At least, not the good kind.

He made minute course changes every time he dodged a tree or circumvented a large spider web, checking his astral anchor to be sure he was heading the correct direction. Whining growls echoed from the trees, and he had just decided to avoid whatever could be making those, when he spotted another human being.

It was a blond man, his back to Ashe, surrounded by yowling overgrown cats. The man crouched in the hull of an old, dead oak. As Ashe observed, it became apparent that a knee-high feline had wedged its front paw between two rocks and gotten stuck. It whined, and the other cats whined along in sympathy. Efficiently, the man in their midst levered a stick under one rock and freed the prisoner. He cleaned the resultant cuts and scritched the animal behind the ears as if it were a domesticated pet.

The oversized cat launched itself at the young man’s shoulder, mock-growling and toppling them both into the mud. With a soft exhalation that could have been from the fall or from amusement, the man rolled about with the cat until the injured party’s friends joined the game. Then he returned to the dry hollow where the remaining animals rubbed up against him and duly accepted their own scratches behind the ears.

Why would anyone be out in this godsforsaken forest? Whatever the reason, the young man was patient and kind to animals. He seemed nice enough, and Ashe thought he ought to introduce himself. Maybe they could travel together for a while. He’d bet the young man was proficient in navigating these woods.

A ferocious growl preceded the appearance of a new player on the scene before he could. A man-sized feline with teeth the length of Ashe’s hand approached the cat-doctor. Watching, Ashe’s fingers went slick with sweat and his shoulders chilled underneath his traveling cloak. That thing could rip a person apart in scant moments!

Ashe choked on air, desperately keeping quiet as he quaked with fear. The young man, however, didn’t appear concerned; he continued to play with the first cats, haughtily ignoring the predator, even as some of his retinue slipped off to rub at the newcomer’s ankles.

Kittens? Those big cats are kittens? What if one bit that man in play? The cat-doctor was clearly foolish. Still, the giant cat wasn’t attacking. If the blond could befriend such a creature, then he wouldn’t have to worry about the other dangerous animals in the forest. That could be an asset. Yes, this young man would definitely make a good travel companion, provided he was going in the right direction.

Gods knew Ashe was equally as likely to die in this wilderness as to make it to Paknesh alone. He didn’t want to die.

As Ashe continued to watch (and wait for the huge animal to leave), he wondered if there were anyone watching him. After all, he was spying on someone unnoticed; couldn’t he be a victim as well as a perpetrator? No, he was being paranoid. No one from the city had followed him. They’d have announced themselves or attacked him already, surely.

Why, then, did he feel that tell-tale itch in the back of his head? Paranoia. Just paranoia.

Ah, the big cat was finally gone. Scary thing, that.

“Hello,” he called, floating over. “Would you happen to be traveling towards Paknesh?”

((end of sample))