Author's note: this is a short sample of the first chapter, as I'm hoping to get this published eventually. Reviews and constructive criticisms are always welcome :)

Kandrina sipped her tea carefully, keen to avoid dripping any on the antique journal she was currently taking notes from. She was sat at her desk in Remlik's study, helping him examine some of the old journals of the Pokole Explorer's Guild. They had disbanded centuries ago, before the tribal merging, and their findings had become the subject of myths and children's tales. Recently, however, there had been a surge of interest in the Guild and their explorations, and many people had cited her and Remlik as the reason behind it. Their recent discoveries about the Colourless and the Li Buqu seemed to have inspired a lot of people's curiosity about the lands and races outside of the People's territory; Remlik was overjoyed at that, and had immediately begun searching for the explorers' journals.

He had tracked down a few, hidden in the libraries of Pokole; slowly, others had surfaced, as scholars revealed parts of their own private collections that they had kept secret until the fall of the old priests. Remlika had made copies of those that the owners did not want to part with, and Remlik was starting to build up quite a collection himself. The two of them had been making notes from the journals for a few weeks now, in an attempt to build up a more detailed picture of what creatures and people existed outside of the tribal lands, and whether they were likely to be friend or foe.

She made a few more notes on her parchment about the elven villages scattered throughout the hills, and turned to watch Remlik for a moment. He sat at his desk on the other side of the room, head bowed low over a sheaf of notes in his lap. He occasionally leant forwards to draw something on the large sheet of parchment covering his entire desk; he had told her last week he wanted to make a detailed map of the entire known continent, based on information from the journals, hence all the note-taking Kandrina had been doing. She had officially become his apprentice six months ago, and moved into the twins' spare room once everything had settled more or less back to normal after the Lizard War. Although she had technically been working with him since her adulthood ceremony two years ago, they had been too busy to get around to declaring her apprenticeship at Tewen town hall.

Kandrina took the opportunity to stretch her neck and arms a bit; she'd lost track of how long she'd been hunched over her desk, but it felt as though every muscle in her body had seized up. The fire in the grate was burning low, she noticed, and her teacup was almost empty. Might as well fix both problems at once, she thought, as she grabbed her cup and walked across to the fireplace. "Do you need a refill, Remlik?" she asked while she poured out her own.

Remlik looked up from his map, his dark eyes glinting in the firelight, and his usually tidy ebony hair ruffled and uncombed. He tended to neglect personal grooming somewhat when he was engrossed in a particular study. "Oh, yes please, Kandi. How are your notes coming along?"

"Fairly well," she replied, pouring more tea into his cup before setting the kettle back on the fire. She tossed another log into the grate, and sat back down. "This one seems to be about the elf villages in the hills; there are a few mentions of the dwarves as well, though nothing detailed about them. It's mainly the elves," she told him.

"You haven't got one of C's journals, have you? I think he spent a bit of time in the hills, though he was more interested in the south and west," he said, half mumbling the last sentence to himself.

Kandrina checked the front page of the journal. Underneath the Explorer's Oath, which was faithfully hand-copied into every journal, the name 'Seranti' was just about legible. "No, it's someone called Seranti. I think the last one I read was one of C's, though," she told him. "It had a lot of entries about the ice giants in the south. Was C famous or something, then?" she asked, curious. Remlik had mentioned an explorer called 'C' a few times now, always with a certain amount of reverence in his tone. It reminded her of the way her father had once spoken about the priests.

Remlik finally set down his quill and leant back in his chair. "C isn't just famous, Kandi; he's practically legendary. He was one of the Guild's most adventurous members," he told her. She settled back in her chair, ready for one of Remlik's lectures. "He was the first to travel far enough south to discover the ice giants, and wrote several journals about them. They say he stayed among them long enough to learn their ways, and became accepted into their society. He was also well known amongst the dwarves, and spent a lot of time mapping out their lands. Rumour has it he was also the only person ever to venture into the Forest of the West, and return alive."

That caught Kandrina's interest. "Return alive?" She had never heard much about the Forest of the West, nor had anyone else she knew; the place was something of a mystery, only mentioned in passing in a few old books.

Remlik nodded. "Yes, according to some of these journals the Forest was supposed to be the home of vicious spirits, who were extremely protective of the place. The dwarves call them 'Diyrae'… I don't know if you remember, I think Worrald mentioned them last time we were out there. Anyway, the legend says that a handful of explorers tried going in there, but none of them returned. C refused to believe any of it, said it was all nonsensical superstition, and they'd probably just been eaten by wild cralek or something. I think we've got a copy of his last journal here somewhere… well, not his last one, but the last one that got back home." He stood up and rummaged around on the bookshelf for a moment. "Here it is. I'll read the final entry out for you:

'Entry seventy-one. As I intend to dispel these ridiculous rumours of evil spirits and phantoms lurking in the Great Forest, I have returned to the dwarves for a while. I shall spend some time here, preparing for the journey and reacquainting myself with my old friend Dallikey, whose village this is; he and his lady wife have kindly offered to house me while I am here. He tells me that although this is the furthest western boundary of the dwarven lands, I still have four days' riding and another three of walking ahead of me to reach the fabled Forest. Apparently, horses refuse to go near the Forest, so I shall have to hike the last stretch.

'I intend to gather as much information as I can from the dwarves regarding the Forest and what I am likely to find there; though many of the more superstitious are reluctant to speak of the place, there must be some with more reasonable minds. I shall begin a fresh journal tomorrow, and use it to detail all the dwarves can tell me about the Great Forest. This journal ought to arrive back at the Guild Hall within a few weeks, as I am sending it by mounted messenger. My preparations for the trip to the Forest, and my findings within, shall be detailed in a fresh journal.' That's it; the fresh journal he said he'd start never made it back," Remlik told her.

"Why not? Did he lose it in the Forest?" Kandrina asked.

"Maybe. No one knows what happened out there," he replied. "C lost more than a journal in the Forest, though; the legend says that when he finally returned, he was never the same. There are a lot of different versions of the story, people supposing and imagining what he might have found out there, but nothing certain. He spent the rest of his life locked in his home, paranoid about something. Nobody has ever figured out what affected him so badly. It's probably in the lost journal, but I suppose we'll never know unless someone finds it," he said wistfully.

Kandrina thought hard, staring absently into the fire. This lost journal sounded like quite a mystery, and according to Remlik, it was a scholar's job to unravel mysteries and uncover the facts at the heart of them. Besides, the entry he had just read to her had caught her interest, and now she was curious about the Forest herself. "If C was staying with the dwarves before his journey, would he have gone back there after leaving the Forest?" she asked idly, turning to look at him.

Remlik tipped his head, looking thoughtful. "Possibly. He'd certainly have gone through the dwarven lands to get back home; he might have stopped at a few villages along the way," he replied. "Do you think he might have left his journal with the dwarves, Kandi?"

She shrugged. That particular possibility hadn't occurred to her, but she had had another thought. "Maybe, but I'd bet that he at least told some of them what happened, or what he found. It might be worth going out there to see what we can find out."

"You could be right," Remlik said with a smile. "We can make some plans, head out there and investigate a bit. I'll ask Wordarla if she's got a map of the dwarf lands next time she comes over."

Kandrina smiled back. Wordarla, the dwarven alchemist and a childhood friend of Remlik and his sister, had come back to the People's lands to help during the Lizard War, and had decided to stay after it ended. She had reopened her potion shop in Tewen, and often came to visit her old friends. "Sounds like a plan," she yawned. It was long past sunset, and she was starting to feel weary.

Remlik glanced up at the clock on the mantel, clearly trying to stifle a yawn of his own. "It's getting late. Shall we call it a night? We can carry on in the morning," he said, standing up to put out the fire. "Leave everything where it is; we'll only have to get it all back out again. Go get some sleep, Kandi, I'll wake you at sunrise."

She stood and stretched. "Alright. Goodnight, Remlik." She gave him a quick hug, then headed to her room. Since their first kiss at Chief Jindara's party, they had not had a lot of time or space to examine their budding romance. In a way, that was one reason Kandrina wanted to go on another journey with him, so they could work out their feelings away from distractions and her father's watchful eye. She wasn't entirely sure how she felt about it; they had been friends for a long time, and she had enjoyed their one and only kiss, but she had absolutely no idea how to have a relationship with someone. Until a few years ago, she'd been too young to think about it, and since coming of age, she'd been too busy. She fluffed her pillow into shape and settled down, drifting into sleep quickly.

Braklarn gazed thoughtfully out of the window at the setting sun, trying to bring to mind anything that could help his wife with her current problems. Not only was she unsure of what to do with the displaced citizens of Marnak, many of whom had set up a camp on the plains north of Tewen, but also her brothers Onkadal and Semark had been acting oddly since the end of the Lizard War. Onkadal had been behaving far more aggressively than usual, making a habit of marshalling his soldiers on the plains and drilling them as though preparing for battle; Semark had become very distant and uncommunicative, which seemed to be worrying Jindara more than Onkadal's behaviour.

"It's no use; I can't think of any way to get through to the pair of them," she exclaimed from behind him. He turned to face her. "Onka won't listen to me, no matter what I try; he's never been able to accept my authority. But at least he responds to my messengers, even if it is just to argue. Semark has ignored everything I've sent him, and now I have no word from the east at all. We haven't heard from Entamar lately, either."

Braklarn shook his head. "Not since that note from your ex-assistant four months ago. But Entamar has always been quiet; that's probably nothing to worry over." Jindara's assistant had gone out to the small, isolated village to check on things shortly after the end of the war, and had sent a letter of resignation back, declaring his intention to remain there and start a family with his new wife. "Tironde has been in touch though, hasn't she?"

Jindara sighed heavily. "Yes, she's still speaking to us. Not that she's sent much good news of late. You read her last letter, didn't you?"

"I did, and I still don't see what's so awful about it," Braklarn replied. "Just because some fishermen are starting to pray to Alrin-Fora again doesn't mean we're all heading for anarchy. They make their living from the sea; it makes sense that they worship a sea goddess," he said.

"Alrin-Fora isn't the problem, husband. I don't care if an absent sea goddess returns or not; the trouble will start when people begin worshipping some of the other old gods. We do not need disciples of war, vengeance and chaos running around spreading their vicious doctrines. It's bad enough having temples to death and suffering around here." She paused, staring into space. "What if the return to the old gods also means a return to the old ways? The tribes have been united for a century and a half now, and we have all come to rely on each other; we may not be able to cope with a separation, especially if it is forced on us by a few impulsive malcontents," she said.

This gave Braklarn pause; he had not considered that angle before. He had to admit things were looking uncertain, though. Onkadal was probably plotting ways to take over the Chieftaincy, gods only knew what Semark was doing out in Wirba, and now that he thought about it there had been a small number of dissidents among the People for some time. Since the old priests fell almost three years ago, there had been whispered rumours about splitting up the tribes and going back to the old ways. In light of all that, he could see why Jindara was so concerned. "Then you and your siblings need to show the People that the tribes are better off together," he told her softly.

Jindara focused on him, her concern for her people clearly etched into her face. "How can we? Two of my brothers are hardly even speaking to the rest of us at the moment."

"What about Devurak? If they spoke man-to-man, could he make Onkadal see reason?" asked Braklarn after a few minutes' thought. "That could at least help solve the known problem."

"That could work," Jindara replied slowly. "I can talk to Devurak about it; he's just as bothered by Onka's attitude as I am. But what about Semark? It's not just me he's ignoring, nobody else has heard much from Wirba since the Lizard War, either. Entamar going quiet is one thing, but…" she allowed her sentence to trail off, and resumed staring into the distance.

Braklarn turned back to the window, thinking hard. He remembered from his history lessons that before the tribal merging, Entamar and Wirba had been close allies; if the union did break down, they may well revive that alliance, but did it have anything to do with both towns' current silence? "He'd find it harder to ignore a personal visit," he murmured. "Maybe you or I should go out there and see what's happening for ourselves."

"Do you think that's wise?" Jindara sounded sceptical. "We've got no idea what's happening out there; maybe a group of secessionists has overthrown him, and that's why we haven't heard anything. If that is the case, it could be dangerous for either of us to show our faces."

Braklarn was fairly certain that was the worst-case scenario, but even if it was true, they would still need to find out in order to do something about it. He would go to Wirba himself, but first he needed to calm Jindara's nerves. He turned to face her, only to find that she was gazing at the floor. "If secessionists had taken over Wirba, wouldn't they be trying to keep suspicion at bay until they were able to assert their position? Cutting off contact would be the quickest way to ensure everyone knows something's wrong out there, so I don't think they'd do it. Why don't I head out there in a few days for a surprise visit to my brother-in-law? I can see what's going on, at least, and come back and report to you and the others," he suggested. "I can take care of myself, and I can always transport out if things do get ugly."

"Well… if you're sure you can keep yourself safe," Jindara replied. "I don't want Larinde growing up without her father." She smiled weakly at him before resuming her staring contest with the floor. "Now we just need to make a decision about Marnak. Do you think it's worth trying to rebuild the town?"

That was a much more complex topic. Personally, Braklarn would have said they should cut their losses, leave the rubble as it was, and try to settle the people from Marnak elsewhere. But while some of them might be able and willing to move to other towns, many of Marnak's citizens had lost their homes, livelihoods, and families. Those people were not inclined to completely abandon the town that had been home to their ancestors for generations. "I would say not, but I can't make that kind of decision for so many people. Maybe you should ask them; after all, it's their homes that were lost. They should have some say in whether they have to leave their past behind."

Jindara finally looked up and met his eyes properly. "Maybe you're right. But I don't like the idea of spending an enormous amount of time and resources to build a whole new town. Those damned lizards didn't exactly leave us much to work with; we probably can't re-use much of that pile of rubble." She rose and walked over to the window. For a while, husband and wife stood side-by-side, looking out. On a clear day, one could just make out some smudges of brownish-grey on the horizon – the nearest two villages of Akram. Today, however, a thick fog obscured almost everything beyond the glass. "I'll draft a notice tonight, asking former citizens of Marnak to attend a meeting in the town hall. I can lay out the facts and hold a vote; whatever the majority decide, we can work out a plan from there."