Braddock is now the Meadow Master.
His people are building a town in the wilderness, his women are pregnant, and he has a powerful ally in the smuggler merchant, Red Eyes.
Things are going well. But life on Tardoon is never easy.
Now, Braddock must rescue Cascadia from the river hag, explore the dangerous city of Black Harbor, petition a powerful sorceress, and free a mysterious woman imprisoned in gemstone.
Meanwhile, huge predators menace his people, marauding centaurs hunt Elizabeth, and the wicked sprite queen, Hortensia, plans to kill everyone Braddock loves.
Can an Earthman running low on ammo wrangle a world of monsters and magic?
Warning: This series contains adult themes, explicit scenes, graphic violence, undefined relationships/harem, and a strong male protagonist with the rough and ready attitude of an American frontiersman. Read at your own risk.
Release date: September 25, 2020
Publisher: Independently published
Print pages: 428
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Braddock heard her before he saw her.
They moved slowly downstream toward a bend in the river, chunks of ice melting away before the orange aura surrounding the The Icebreaker.
Braddock had agreed to accept Red Eyes’ invitation and travel immediately to Black Harbor. He didn't like departing from Wrangler City so abruptly but waiting longer would’ve made no sense.
He needed ammunition now.
And even though there was much work to be done in the meadow, the workload would only increase with warmer weather.
Also, Red Eyes knew the way, and a trip onboard The Icebreaker would take only days, whereas an overland voyage would cost him weeks.
And, of course, there was the matter of Cascadia.
Red Eyes and his crew had warned Braddock about the river hag. Like so many beings on Tardoon, river hags were magical. They lived a long time, hundreds of years, perhaps even thousands. Born old, they sacrificed youth for extreme longevity in a bitter and withered husk.
Regardless of age, river hags were a scourge, something to be avoided at all costs. They were tricky and conniving and loved nothing more than manipulating people.
Nothing, that is, except man seed.
The entire riverboat crew agreed Braddock was taking a huge chance by exposing his existence to the river hag, who would not rest until she had what she wanted from him.
They shared horrible stories of men and hags. Most of these tales featured unfortunate men being polymorphed into sentient genitalia, nailed to a roof, and milked night and day for seed that was sold to monster girls and used by the hag herself in the darkest of magic and the creation of unholy minions.
Hags employed curses and corrupting spells and were notoriously difficult to kill.
“River hags are half weasel and half cockroach, those blasted river witches,” Duggan the dwarf said. He was a beefy little fellow with a keg belly, thick forearms, and a booming voice that burst like a cannon blast from his thick, red beard. “This singing nymph must be very special indeed for you to risk contact with a river hag.”
“She is,” Braddock assured him.
And now, rounding the bend in the river, Braddock heard Cascadia's lovely voice singing.
“When a lonely nymph… was splashing in her pool…”
A dilapidated shack with a bowed and mossy roof came into view. A chaotic display of animal pelts hung haphazardly from its dark and splintery siding. Upon the thistle-choked mud patch of a lawn, fish hung drying on skeletal wooden frames over smoldering fires.
Nearby, an assortment of indistinguishable goods cluttered low tables to either side of a crude wooden walkway that stretched from the decrepit dock to the sagging trading post, the door to which stood wide open.
Braddock registered the place in a distracted glance. Seeing no threat, he scanned for the source of the voice which continued, “Man fell from the sky… and made her a fool…”
And then he saw Cascadia.
His heart skipped a beat.
At this distance, he could see only a suggestion of her blue face and shoulders, flowing brassy hair, and the glint of a shining metal collar around her neck. Chained inside a small lagoon beside the trading post, she continued to sing, her voice as mournful and lovely as a siren’s.
“For when he spoke to her… She surrendered her heart… He promised her kisses… But they were split apart…”
“Isn't that the most beautiful voice you’ve ever heard?” Red Eyes asked.
“Aye, Captain,” Duggan agreed, “and the saddest as well.”
Even the hulking and stoic half orcs paused at their work to stand at the rail, staring across the water with slack faces.
Cascadia’s voice, tremulous with sorrow, mesmerized them all. “Save my kisses, Jed Braddock… Six kisses, my love…”
As they drifted closer, a hunchbacked bundle of rags tottered out of the shack, tapping a twisted cane as the river hag hobbled into the daylight. From the confines of the tattered hood poked a long, skinny pipe, out of which rose serpentine tendrils of pale, roseate smoke.
The singing sheared off abruptly, and Cascadia's pale blue face rose higher, staring toward the boat.
More precisely, toward Braddock.
And in his heart, Braddock knew the nymph had seen him.
The hag turned and spoke sharply to Cascadia.
Braddock had always possessed superior senses, but since bonding with Philia and the other sprites, his senses had grown much sharper. And sharper still after bonding with Shrike.
So even though they were still a good distance away, he could hear every word the old woman said.
“Keep singing, you stupid girl,” the hag sneered. “Lure them in. I want their coin and perhaps a tender young sailor for my dinner.” And she sawed the air with rasping, phlegmy laughter.
Braddock considered shouldering his rifle and firing a bullet right through the river hag’s hood. But he was not a man who killed indiscriminately. Especially a woman. Even a river hag. And from a distance, without warning, no less.
Also, he was not a man who dismissed the warnings of those who had traveled paths before him, and Red Eyes was adamant that trying to outright kill the river hag would be foolish.
“They're not natural,” Red Eyes had assured him. “The harder you try to kill a river hag, the better your chances are getting killed yourself.”
“Or worse than killed,” Duggan had added, a shudder going through his stout frame.
In testament to the river hag’s power, Cascadia obeyed her command at once and started singing again. “Save my kisses, Jed Braddock… Be careful, my love…”
Sounding dazzled, Red Eyes said, “She's changed the lyrics.”
“You’re sure about landing here, sir?” a man called from the other side of the boat, and others muttered fearfully.
Red Eyes glanced at Braddock.
“Yes, I’m sure,” Red Eyes said. “And the next man who questions me goes without his ration of whiskey tonight.”
As they eased toward shore, the river hag raised a misshapen hand in greeting. In a voice that sounded like old branches creaking in a cold wind, she called, “Welcome, travelers, welcome.”
It took all Braddock’s willpower not to glance at Cascadia or show any sign of recognition. But he felt certain that doing either of those things would be a mistake, so he kept his eyes on the river hag and his hands on the Henry.
The rivermen had debated over which of Braddock’s weapons would more likely slay the river hag.
Cleaver was magical and therefore stood a chance of inflicting damage, depending on its exact powers and how they matched up against the hag’s unnatural defenses. If she was as old and powerful as they suspected, the sword might do no harm at all.
The Henry, on the other hand, was not enchanted. But the technology of another world was magic unto itself. Perhaps the river hag’s defenses would not be prepared for this strange new weapon, some of the sailors suggested.
Other rivermen, and Braddock was disappointed to see the more experienced sailors among them, laughed off the notion of either weapon even harming the hag.
Whatever the case, the rivermen had placed bets in case it came to combat.
The rivermen gambled about everything.
If Braddock died here, as many were betting, he trusted Red Eyes to return his wealth—Cleaver, the firearms, ammo, golden goblet, and precious stones, including the fiery orange gem with the little woman frozen inside—to his women at the meadow.
Drawing even with the shack, they paused midstream.
The hag ambled slowly forward, tapping her cane on the planks of the rickety wooden walkway that stretched from the shack to the water's edge.
Focusing, Braddock sharpened his eyesight, another ability he had gained from Shrike. His eyes would never equal the bird woman’s, of course, but his night vision had improved, as had his detection of movement, even subtle movement at a distance, and with effort, he could focus his vision into something paralleling the enhancement of spy glasses.
As his vision sharpened, he drew the hag into view.
Most of her face was mercifully obscured in shadow, thanks to the hood and the angle of the bright morning sunlight. Out of the hood protruded a long, crooked nose, pale as the underside of a mushroom. The nose was bumpy with warts, and a bright red sore shone at the tip, sprouting the obligatory hair.
Within the hood, two sickly green eyes burned in the gloom like a pair of lanterns half-obscured by swamp gas.
The hag’s cane looked to be fashioned of bone, its lower half stained with soot as if she had used it to stir many fires. The hand upon the cane was gnarled, its knuckles huge with arthritis and black with filth.
Her rags were tattered and filthy, and she wore a strange necklace of discordant oddments that included yellowed bones, furry scraps, twists of dried flesh, and a withered bundle of herbs.
Braddock held the Henry where she could see it and did nothing to conceal Cleaver.
The river hag chuckled, radiating confidence.
But she didn’t know that he had brought more weapons than his rifle and sword.
Man, shall Shrike kill the hag now or later?
Hold on there, darlin. Let's see how this goes. Everybody seems to think that trying to kill her is a bad idea.
But Shrike wants so badly to taste her meat.
I reckon you might be disappointed. I can’t imagine river hag is exactly tender.
There is no meat so sweet as the flesh of Man's enemies.
"Let us know when you are ready, husband," Philia said from where she and the other sprites perched atop the boat, hidden away alongside Shrike.
“Stay ready and stay hidden,” Braddock said. You don't have to be a river hag to keep a few tricks up your sleeve.
The half orcs dipped long poles into the river and pulled the boat slowly toward shore. Duggan tossed a looped line onto the deck and perched on the rail.
The river hag wobbled closer, tapping her cane with every step.
Cascadia sang on in her clear, lovely voice. “I want those kisses, man… But first please understand… That you are in danger… Come no closer, my love.”
“Hush, I’ll have your tongue!” the hag scolded.
Cascadia fell silent.
Braddock forced himself not to look in her direction.
Because he could sense the river hag staring at him now. Within the hood, the eerie green eyes brightened. And for just a second, Braddock's nostrils filled with the awful smell of rotting fish.
“This is a bad place,” one of the men said, and several others mumbled in agreement. But perhaps because of Red Eyes’ warning about whiskey, no one suggested shoving back into the middle of the river.
"Yes, that's it," the river hag said, beckoning with her soot-stained bone. "Come onto shore, travelers. Let old Hattie make you a fine meal."
“Save your sweet talk, woman,” Red Eyes said. “We know who you are, and more to the point, we know what you are.”
Within the river hag’s hood, the half-visible smile straightened into a grimace. “Very well, Red Eyes.” The grin returned. “Now we know each other. And what's more, I know what you have with you.”
The river hag shifted her green eyes onto Braddock. “Disembark, off-worlder. Come and let old Hattie get a closer look at you. It is such a rare treat to stare upon the splendor of a true man.”
Braddock took the Henry in one hand and seized the rail, but Red Eyes laid a hand on his arm and shook his head.
“I have to go,” Braddock whispered. “Head on downriver if you must, but I won’t leave here without the nymph.”
After a brief hesitation, Red Eyes nodded and called out to his men. “Crew, everyone at the ready.”
“Aye, Captain!” the sailors chorused, and suddenly, the side of The Icebreaker was bristling spears and arrows and crossbows.
To Braddock’s right, Vidras the elf drew his bow, and his arrowhead burst into enchanted flame.
Without so much as a tap of her cane, the river hag took a doddering step backward.
The men had told Braddock that river hags feared flame.
“Stay where we can see you, Braddock,” Red Eyes said. Then he raised his voice to speak with the hag. “If anything happens to my friend, we will burn everything.”
The river hag narrowed her green eyes at the riverboat captain. “And in turn I will see that you and your boats never travel this river again. Or any river, for that matter.”
“Unless we burn you with your shack.”
The laughter that came out of the river hag was high-pitched and horrible, a jerky squeaking like a rusty nail being pried with difficulty from a wet plank. “Kill me? Oh my, but you're a bold one, rat captain. But surely you've been up and down the river enough times to know it's impossible to kill my kind?”
Braddock spoke up, his voice deep and calm. “Let's stow all this talk of killing. I'm not here to kill you, and I don't believe you wish to kill me.”
“Oh no, my beautiful man,” the river hag said. “Killing you would be a waste.” A knife-like smile flashed within her hood.
“I've come to barter,” he told her.
“Well then, you have come to the right place, off-worlder. You will find no fairer trading post anywhere up and down the Big Pate River.”
Braddock swung over the rail and dropped down to the dock. His boots clocked loudly against the warped boards, and the sound echoed under the dock and across the nearby ice.
“That's good to hear,” he said. “It should save us both a lot of trouble. I want the singer.”
The river hag said nothing then hobbled forward. Thump, clack, thump, clack, thump, clack.
Shall I kill her, Man? Braddock liked the pleading note of bloodlust throbbing in his bird wife’s voice.
No. Not unless she attacks me or appears to place me under some type of spell.
I am ready, Man.
I know you are, darlin, and remember: our children will rule the wilderness. He had taken to telling Shrike this often because he had learned that it both soothed and excited her.
"That's close enough," he said when the river hag drew to within five feet.
The river hag wobbled to a stop, steadied herself on her gruesome cane, reached up slowly with one withered claw, and peeled back the tattered hood.
Braddock managed not to puke.
The river hag's face was a withered apple of sagging, moon-pale flesh seamed and scarred with age. Greenish-yellow pus drained from weeping sores that covered her leprous visage. Within deep wrinkles that split her flesh like canyons flowed crimson rivers of blood busy with wriggling maggots.
It was a face meant to stay hooded.
Now it cracked a terrible smile full of stumpy, rotten teeth. “What’s the matter, off-worlder? Don’t you find me beautiful?”
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