The tales of an unapologetic nerd
This brand new addition to the Mapweaver family will take place in the winter months leading right up to the start of the first book. It is a cozy little prequel, set in the days before Fox discovers his magic or Lai discovers her past. Fans of the series have often longed to sit back at The Five Sides Inn and Tavern, and simply enjoy a drink or a song by the fire. Now, that is exactly what I have planned for you. Immerse yourself in the warmth and community of Thicca Valley storytelling, and spend Deep Winter with our heroes in the simpler times, before the weight of the world was on their young shoulders.
Official release date is yet to be announced but, in the meantime, please enjoy this first chapter of Deep Winter Tales From The Five Sides.
Chapter One: When The Stories Began
The snows were falling in Thicca Valley. Whispers of a bone-deep chill were creeping into every cabin, slipping beneath the doors and forcing their way through the smallest cracks around the window frames. Wind howled its way through the mountain roads and echoed in the mines like the ghosts of long-dead wolves, filling the air with a bite of ice and foreboding that only Deep Winter could conjure. It shook every pane of glass and battered at every wall, begging to be let inside. Demanding it. Trees and rooftops alike creaked under the weight of the snow, and moaned in harmony with every fresh blizzard that raged through the Highborn Mountains. The sun had disappeared completely, hidden behind a thick blanket of snow clouds, making the days often just as deathly cold as the night. A cold that seeped its way beneath fur cloaks and thick leathers, and infected the dreams of the valley folk.
But in The Five Sides Inn and Tavern, the darkness and the chill were kept actively at bay by the beating heart of community pulsing within its many rooms. It was light and cheerful inside, with hot and blazing fires set in both the massive fire pit in the center of the common room, and the smaller fireplaces set into the stone along one wall or else burning merrily in the kitchen. Even the lanterns hanging overhead and the candles adorning many of the tables did their best to add to the flickering warmth and comfort.
What the fire could not warm, the food and drink could. There was piping hot stew, laden with potatoes and rabbit, poured into tankards like ale and gulped down with an eager joy. There was fresh bread right from the kitchens, brought out steaming on massive wooden boards, butter and jams melting on its crust as easily as ice on a summer’s day. There were hot ciders, spiced and tingling, and sipping broth that tasted of vegetables and the last remnants of the summer harvest. And where the hot drinks could not reach, the flowing wine and fresh ale warmed the souls of the Thiccans, loosening their tongues and bodies and encouraging all manner of dance and song.
Forric Foxglove – called Fox by everyone who knew him – watched it all happen like a ripple in a lake, from the moment the first miners came in before sundown until well into the night when the tavern was filled with music and comradery. He slipped in and out of the crowds with Lai, delivering plates of hot lamb and warm goat milk. Scooping up empty flagons of ale and refilling them before the patrons even noticed they were missing. Dodging in and out of half-drunken singers clambering up on the tables, and barely avoiding getting swept up in a fast-paced country jig that broke out just before midnight. Fox didn’t need to participate in such things himself – watching them was more than enough. And traversing the crowded and chaotic inn without spilling a drop? That was a dance in and of itself, and far more complicated than anything the Thiccans could manage.
Finally, he and his best friend Lai collapsed on opposite benches at an empty table in the corner, their jobs done for a moment as every patron was fed and every cup full to the brim. The two grinned at each other, exhausted but exhilarated.
“Nothing like Deep Winter, is there?” said Lai breathlessly, tucking behind her ear a strand of thick, black curls that had come loose from her braids. “When you could die if you stay outside too long, but we celebrate all night at the tavern.”
“Maybe,” said Fox, “we all just treat every night here like it could be our last.”
Lai raised her own mug of hot cider in a mock toast, and Fox clanged his tankard against hers. “Cheers to danger and Deep Winter, then,” she said, and the pair drank.
Not for the first time, Fox wondered if other fourteen-year-olds were quite so casual about their chances of surviving any one season. Then again, he often wondered if other nations were so aware of their own mortality as Sovesta was, isolated and frozen in the northernmost reaches of the Central Kingdoms. Here, the winter cold dominated the year, and harvest times were sacred. Farmers and miners alike pushed themselves to the brink of exhaustion every day during the working months, taking advantage of springtime thaw and summer sun. But when the brutality of winter finally struck, there was often nothing left to do but wait. Wait for the sun to emerge and melt the ice. Wait for the calves to be born, or the ground to be soft enough to plough once more. Wait for the mountain roads to be safe, and the yearly trading caravan that took all their waresmen and merchants south every winter to return.
And that was when the stories began.
“Do you have anything planned for tonight?” asked Fox, his cider now finished and warming his throat and belly comfortably.
Lai was still sipping her drink, and smirked over the rim of her cup. “Oh I dunno ... seems a bit unfair to the rest of the storytellers, don’t you think? Might take a pass tonight, and let the others have a go.”
“Oh don’t feign modesty now,” said a gangly, wild-haired young man as he brushed past her and squeezed onto the bench beside Fox. Her cousin Picck grinned at Lai, and elbowed Fox playfully as he teased, “You couldn’t stay away from the chance to be the center of attention any more than Fox here would choose to be.”
Lai snorted into her cider, choking back a laugh as Fox chuckled.
“He’s not wrong,” said Fox, and Picck ruffled his hair affectionately.
It was true: just as much as Fox enjoyed bathing in the atmosphere as only an audience member, Lai loved telling her own stories. Or re-telling those that had been played out a hundred times before. Growing up in the tavern, Lai had heard them all. She knew every song before it was finished being written, and caught tales from travelers just passing through town, even if no one else had a chance to meet them. Her father, Borric Blackroot, owned the Five Sides Inn and Tavern, and had always encouraged Lai to participate in the day-to-day of the business. And during Deep Winter, that business was stories.
Now, Lai stretched out her legs along the bench and pressed her back against the stone tavern wall, shivering for a moment before settling in with her warm cider once more. “The crowd seems particularly lively tonight,” she said, gazing out on the joyous patrons. Their laughter filled the air, mingling with the pipe smoke and fire pit haze, and the thick scent of meat and mead. “Not the right sort of evening for a love story.”
“Maybe the Wolves of Thunder?” Picck suggested. “Or one of the old hero tales!”
Fox perked up at this, tearing his own gaze away from the blizzard outside that was trying to batter down the windows. “Tell that one about Halvric the Hunter! It’s always been one of Father’s favorites.”
Lai smiled at him, and Fox knew she understood at once. They’d been best friends for so long that, sometimes, Fox didn’t need to say it: she knew Fox was worried about the caravan.
The caravan. He all at once longed to be out there, on the road with Father and the other waresmen, and also feared that it wouldn’t return. Any number of things could go wrong ... monsters lurking in the dark, avalanches waiting to bury them alive, bandits on the highway, war breaking out amongst the other kingdoms ... there was no end to Fox’s worry. And while he usually managed to keep himself occupied, practicing his own skills with the fur trade to impress Father when he returned each spring, his anxieties sometimes still ran away with him. And so, on nights like tonight, he clung to the hope of a good story. A story worthy enough to pull him out of his own worries and distract him.
A story good enough to distract all of them. Every wife, worried her own husband would not return. Every child worried about their father, or elderly parent worried about their son. The valley community as a whole wondering if, this year, perhaps the caravan would fail. If the trades did not go well, bringing home the goods and coin needed to survive another year, what then?
“Halvric the Hunter,” Lai echoed thoughtfully. “Yes, I think that’s a perfect tale to tell tonight.” She threw back the rest of her cider, slammed her tankard down on the table with a hearty whoop of joy, and clambered up to stand on her bench. “Picck, ring me in!” she said, and her cousin leapt to his own feet at once. He grabbed her empty and abandoned cider mug and began to clang it incessantly against the overhead beam that was within easiest reach of his long arms.
“Hear ye, hear ye!” Picck shouted, the clamor of metal on wood echoing through the tavern and shaking the nearest lanterns where they hung, the noise and leaping shadows sending a stillness rippling through the room. “Gather your drinks and find your seats! For a mighty tale we tell this night!”
Wild cheers erupted as tavern patrons young and old scrambled to find a comfortable place to listen. The air was filled with the scraping of many chairs and table legs, and a slight scuffle broke out in the back corner as two young boys fought over prime spots by the fire. As the shuffling and shifting slowly began to subside, the banging of Picck’s tankard slowed to a more rhythmic beat. More tankards took up the pounding, a great thump, thump, thump of anticipation making the whole of The Five Sides vibrate. Even the winds outside seemed to fall into step with the makeshift music, hammering at the walls and windows in time with the table and tankard drums.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said Picck, putting on an air of great showmanship as Lai took several deep, preparatory breaths. “Tonight’s tale is one of hope and action! A story of valiant glory, and honor, and triumph over great evil!”
The excitement in the room swelled like a bubble, threatening to burst at any moment. Fox could feel it, like a warmth even the brightest bonfire could not provide. Every eye was turned their way, gazing expectantly at Lai and Picck, even as Fox tried to make himself as invisible as possible, pressing himself further into the corner where his bench met two stone walls. But he could see everyone, watching them eagerly. Even the stairs that led up to the rented rooms were filled with patrons, sitting with their drinks and waiting. The long bar along the back wall was crowded with children, sitting cross-legged and trying to see over the heads of the taller adults. Tables were re-purposed as chairs, and flecks of drink filled the air like snow with every beat of mug against wood.
“Tonight,” Picck said once more, milking the moment far more than Fox thought was entirely necessary, “we follow the heroic tale of Halvric the Hunter! The man whose arrow saved the world!”
The tavern erupted once more in chaos and cheers, the rhythm of the tankards breaking apart into applause and supportive banging at random, until Lai leapt onto the table top like a performer taking the stage, and quiet began to fall. The innkeeper’s daughter glanced sidelong at Fox, and winked as a knowing smirk crept across her pale face. Then, with a final deep breath and an unspoken promise of adventure that made the very candles shudder with anticipation, Lai began her tale.
Kaitlin Bellamy is a freelance actor, indie author, and all-around nerd. Welcome to her world, adventurer. It's gonna get weird.