This is from the first chapter of my new fantasy romance Bag of Tricks, already available for pre-order on Kindle and releasing in paperback as well on September 22. This scene describes how Aveline meets Zarek, who becomes her companion on the road and an ally in her goal to rescue Princess Inessa.
Aveline inched through the trees, staying parallel to the road. The aroma of roasting rabbit nearly drove her wild, but caution made her move slowly. She ducked down to peer through a scraggly whortleberry bush.
A lone man sat beside a campfire, the leaping flames making an island of color in the growing sea of blackness. For just one second, Aveline thought he had a magician’s aura, but then she realized it was a trick of the firelight. At the man’s back stood a two-wheeled cart, a modest vehicle with slatted sides and an open back end.
Tied to a nearby tree, a dusty, dun-colored donkey flicked its tail as it grazed on a stand of bastard balm. Beside the man, a large gray dog lay with his muzzle on the man’s thigh. His eyes followed the man’s hand as it turned a spit on which a rabbit carcass sizzled.
“Almost ready now, boy.” The man scratched the animal’s head, then took a scrap of something from a pack that leaned against the cart and tossed it to the dog.
Aveline looked the two of them over. The man looked well past his youth as his black hair was streaked with white. His teeth showed white under the black mustache that matched his short beard and thick, short eyebrows. His eyes were deep-set in his scarred and sun-weathered face. A bend in his nose suggested he had been in a fight.
Beside him, the huge dog looked muscular and shaggy, both his long muzzle and his pricked-up ears made him appear more like a wolf than a dog.
Aveline inhaled a deep breath, trying to use her gift to assess the man. What manner of man was this who spoke to his dog as a friend? She scented none of the sour smell of evil, the rank odor of violence. Weariness, bitterness even, but no venom.
She glanced around, still anxious about the possibility that the Duke’s men could issue forth from the woods. How should she appear? A transformation spell would weary her quickly and kill her if she kept it up it for long. But a trust spell could impose goodwill without harming this stranger. Aveline would offer the heart-shaped trust charm as a gift and mutter the spell while he held it. He would believe anything she said after that.
The dog lifted his head and stared right at Aveline. He knew she was there.
The man’s short, bushy eyebrows shot up. “What is it, Burden?”
Forced to act, Aveline pushed her way through the bushes, conscious of the tattered blue taffeta of her skirt, and the grubby brocade of her bodice. “Good evening to you, good sir. Might I share your fire?”
The man had jumped to his feet as soon as she moved, one hand reaching under the cart. When he came upright, his right hand held a sword. The weapon had a long, slightly curved blade and a plain but serviceable steel guard. He held the weapon out as he looked her up and down, surprise and wariness written on his face.
Aveline realized she had judged his age wrongly. His face might have been scarred and deeply tanned, but it was unlined. He couldn’t have been much more than twenty-five, thirty at the most. His hair had a single wide streak of white over one ear, but the rest of it was as black as jet.
Aveline tried to think as she patted her own brown hair where it had escaped the silver hairpins Inessa had given her. What story could account for a lone woman wearing a tattered court dress in the deep woods?
The sword point wavered as the man looked her over. “Who are you?”
Aveline sank into her best curtsy. “My name is Lady Aveline of Helg, and I’m quite lost.”
His eyes opened wide as he took in her black wool cloak, ragged, but lined in red silk, and her once dainty satin slippers, now filthy and shredded. “I should think so.” He lowered the sword and peered into the darkness behind her. “Are you alone, madam?”
Her heart lurched at having to admit the truth, but she had no choice. “Yes. Quite alone.”
He suddenly glanced down at the dog. The animal had risen when his master stood but had made no offensive move or even any sound. Instead, he held his head cocked as he studied Aveline. His tail moved in a tentative wag.
“Burden seems to trust you, at any rate.” The stranger picked up the scabbard and slid the sword into it. Aveline noted the thick curved ridge of a scar on his left cheek, and a longer rope-like scar that started below his right ear and disappeared into his collar. “Sit down and welcome, Lady Aveline of Helg.”