Note: This is the first of four stories in the Farlands Quartet. Don't worry, though. Each one stands alone as its own story. If you're interested in pursuing the saga, however, keep an eye out for the next three books: Winds of Change, Sea of Opportunity, and Forest of Lies. I'll start putting them up once I've started writing them. For now, though, here's this.

Chapter One

Where am I?

The answer seemed to come from the wind and waves all around. He tasted it in the sharp tang of the sea, heard it in the rhythmic thump of the waves that broke across his back, felt it in the stiffness of his hair, his clothing, and the scratchiness of the sand caking both, smelled it in the heady musk of rotting seaweed and moldy cloth that clung to him like a heavy miasma of death and decay.

The Farlands.

Nothing specific, just a series of images and impressions: a sense of being chased, of seeking sanctuary; a sense of epiphany, of finding a place of safety; a sense of despair, of paradise slipping from his grasp; a sense of hope, of moving in the right direction. Everything afterward was a confused jumble of light, sound, and terrified panic. And everything before…wasn't there.

What am I doing here?

He stirred slightly, his fingers clenching around fistfuls of gritty sand, and turned his face away from the dark, wet beach beneath him. The blinding sunlight stabbed painfully at the sensitive brown orbs between his grime-encrusted lashes. His head pounded in sync with the waves, and he realized abruptly that his entire body ached with the deep, throbbing agony of long, constant abuse.

He tried to push away from the ground, but the hand he worked beneath him slipped in the sand when his arm began to tremble violently, and he fell back, his entire being quivering with the incredible effort. After a moment, he tried again, and met with just as much success as before. Finally, he gave up the struggle and simply lay there, eyes closed, fighting just to maintain his fragile grip on consciousness. Even that battle, however, was doomed to failure long before it began.

Who am I…?

TRISTAN!

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His second awakening was considerably less painful, but just as alarming. And empty. He felt warm and comfortable, but could not remember why. He realized he wore nothing but a pair of cotton trews, realized he rested atop a hill of hides, furs, and rags, realized warm stones bundled in material lay against his bare skin, realized that a cool cloth covered his brow and eyes.

A whisper of breath, a rustle of cloth, a scrape of wood on wood, and the damp rag was peeled away. He blinked at the sudden, watery light that spilled out from around the skinny, feminine figure that leaned over him.

The girl—for it was, indeed, a young girl—fell back in surprise. He tried to lift a hand in a peaceful gesture, but he could not seem to put forth the effort required to perform the action.

Then the girl disappeared, only to be replaced with the looming, gleaming, rust-speckled form of a very large man clad head-to-toe in very heavy-looking armor.

Startled, he dove for safety, rolling over a hot stone and down off the primitive bed. He hit the hard ground and struggled desperately to flee, but his legs did not seem to work quite right. He had just made it to his hands and knees when a massive, gloved hand clamped down around his arm and yanked him upright. He staggered woozily and almost broke free quite by accident, but the iron grip held tight.

"Raven! Raven, let him go!"

The hand opened convulsively, and he sank to the ground, trying hard to scrape his hands and knees as little as possible. A cool little palm touched his forehead, and gentle fingers whispered down the side of his face. "It's okay. We're friends."

He looked up into the open young face, lined now with deep concern and framed with a cascade of long, lustrous locks of spun sunshine. He struggled to form words. "So am I."

The girl sat in the dirt beside him. "Is your name Tristan? We heard you yelling that as you slept."

He considered this for a moment, tearing his gaze away from the piercing, blue-green depths of her eyes to examine his weathered hands. There was sand gathered beneath the nails. "Yes. It must be."

"What do you mean?"

It suddenly occurred to him that perhaps it would not be wise to let on how vulnerable he was. Especially not with the enormous monstrosity called Raven so near at hand. "Forgive me, I am not well. Yes, I am Tristan." Fact or fiction, it would have to do.

The girl rocked back on her heels, regarding him thoughtfully as he carefully worked himself into a cross-legged sitting position. "My name is Aryn." She indicated her hulking companion where he stood at her back like some enormous iron lapdog. "And this is Ser Dremenon Ravenwood."

Tristan—for whatever reason, he was Tristan now—nodded warily in the general direction of the imposing knight.

"We've come over from Verdun to escape the chaos," Aryn informed him matter-of-factly.

"Haven't we all?" he muttered darkly.

Aryn shook her pretty little head. "Not everyone."

Ser Dremenon Ravenwood dropped a heavy hand on her golden head. "Enough." The single word rolled out like thunder, like a stampede suddenly set loose, like the crashing waves of a typhoon as they rent the world from limb to limb…

Not the world. The ship

Tristan shook himself free of the strange reverie and lurched unsteadily to his feet. Aryn rose quickly and moved as though to support him, but Dremenon held her back, openly leery of the stranger his young friend had adopted. Aryn, though clearly nonplussed by her companion's suspicion, accepted it with a roll of her eyes and settled for offering verbal assistance.

"Be careful. I did what I could, but I'm still learning the art of healing and you were banged up pretty badly."

Now that he thought about it, Tristan did feel considerably better than he had when last he woke. He rubbed his forehead ruefully, attempting to gather his scattered wits. "Forgive me. I have been remiss in my manners. You have my thanks. Is there anything I can do to repay your kindness?"

"There is," Aryn replied solemnly. "Travel with us, Tristan."

"Where to?"

"People have been fleeing to the Farlands for nigh on three years now, so there must be colonies of some sort somewhere. The first one we find is our destination."

"Are you sure this is wise?" Dremenon rumbled ominously.

The girl seemed undaunted by his hulking menace. She turned to confront him. "We've already come across a whole host of unsavory beasts, Raven. It cannot hurt to have another hand, should we meet them again. Besides, he's a warrior."

This was news to Tristan, but he did not deny it. The sheathed sword and thick leather belt Aryn offered him certainly served as convincing proof. Perhaps he was a warrior.

"He's probably fresh from the battlefields of Verdun," Dremenon thundered.

"Are you, Tristan?" Aryn asked, her eyes lighting with sudden interest.

"You might say that," Tristan replied guardedly.

"And what is that supposed to mean?"

"Frankly, I don't see how my past is any of your concern," Tristan shot back, growing bolder by the moment now that he had a means of defending himself.

Dremenon glowered, but Aryn laughed, a sound eerily reminiscent of the most wonderfully crafted tinkling bells of purest silver across an open expanse of cerulean sea. The knight's hard, threatening edge melted in an instant, and even Tristan relaxed into the pleasantly disarming sound. "I begin to like you, friend Tristan. I suspect these next few days will prove to be unexpectedly amusing." She looked from knight to wayfaring stranger, grinning. "Well, let us set forth in search of our goal."

Dremenon nodded once and, with a great creaking of armored joints, stooped to pick up a bulging knapsack set on the ground before him. He dug out a fine linen shirt and tossed it to Tristan before slinging the pack over his broad shoulder. Aryn separated the warm rocks from the crude bedroll Tristan had awoken upon and rolled it into a tight bundle before tying it off with a length of rope and throwing it over her shoulder, careful not to impede her access to the quiver settled there. Tristan kicked dirt over the nearby fire.

Within moments, the mismatched company set out, heading inland, into the deep, dark woodlands.