Here you'll find a preview of the book I'm currently working on.
It's a microcosm tale incorporating the never ending play of age against youth, how past and historical significance wanes with time, and the challenges of fighting for your place in it all.
Or an excuse to rag on elves for 400 or so pages.
Take your pick.
Life was going pretty well for Cas, goblins tended to stay dead after getting run through with a sword and her partner in crime - Hum, the Giant of whatever place he chose for that week - was still vertical.
But that all changed one day in an inn (because by narrative law your life can never change while enjoying a picnic by the lake or searching for pebbles) when a cowled figure entered her life and bonked it good.
Now she's stuck leading a pack of elves, and one ass, through a maze of forest determined to keep them from their goal; which she'd happily tell you about as soon as she figures it out herself.
Branches yielded begrudgingly to the tracker on the scent of fresh prey — a strange slide of leaves here, a broken blade of grass there told a story anyone literate in the hunting and stalking game could read.
“I’m hungry; it’s been ‘ours. Canna we take a break?”
Or it would have if anyone bothered to crack open the cover.
Cas, just Cas — try and call her Cassandra and look forward to a few years of soup dinners — fielded off a mass of mosquitos with one hand and a giant with low blood sugar on the other. She was what some with stars in their eyes would call an adventurer.
Those that are more grounded in reality and refrain from wearing funny hats in public would merely spit on the ground and grumble about that type being a public nuisance after checking to make sure none were behind them.
It was a job like most others; the hours were lousy (most monsters only seemed to welcome a good killing around dawn or dusk), you were always on the road (though most in the profession considered that a perk) and there was a good chance you could learn what color your insides were. But the pay was good (if you could get it out of a farmer’s grubby mitt), you got to work out your aggressions and occasionally meet some very interesting people before stabbing them in tender areas.
Like the giant sliding down onto the ground next to her. Well not an actual giant, a nickname he picked up at one of the many taverns christened after various beasts heads that the owner purchased from one of those Inn Decor Catalogs. All adventurer’s need a good nickname to carry their heroic deeds through town gossips across the land and spin the tale until it’s unrecognizable to anyone with a few braincells to their name. The fact that Cas managed to shake off whatever people tried to pin to her spoke volumes to her fellow peers and kept the physicians in coin when a foul mouthed drunkard had an alliterative moment with her name and grungy euphemisms that could only be answered in kind with an iron gauntlet.
“We can eat later, back at the inn. This shouldn’t be a long job,” Cas shifted her weight, staring into the eyes of probably the closest friend she ever had. It took about three hours of stumbling into each other on the first job to unanimously declare that Cas was in charge, the fact that he had a good two feet and ten stone on her didn’t matter much. If anything it helped cement the idea of Humphrey the Giant of Ganosha as the big ol’ cuddly bear in town and Cas the kind of customer innkeepers woke shaking and screaming about. They never had the chance to realize that while Cas was glaring at them, raking their soul across the underlair’s coals, the giant’s easy smile managed to swindle them down to a few coins for a room a night with board.
Humphrey smiled lopsidedly at her, trying on his best ‘stupid puppy’ face that tended to get him all the drink he wanted and all the girls he didn’t, but there was no budging Cas the I Can’t Believe She’s Standing Behind Me. The summer heat pressed in hard on the bit of forest left to thrive in between hilled farmland. This was supposed to be a get in and get out fast mission but, as usual, the client chose to leave out the rather pertinent information that would have cost him a few more coins and guaranteed a severely worded warning on his receipt.
“Gods, I hate these little buggers. Next thin’ ya know they’ll be poppin’ up in towns smashing windows and chasing skirts,” one of many expertly stashed flasks appeared in Hum’s hands, a belt to get him through lunch and another for dinner too. Cas narrowed her eyes, it’d been getting worse lately.
“Didn’t you see all those little plots of land in town? They’ve already gotten in,” she sneered a bit, her early days as a grounded farm girl and her hatred of useless flower patches slipping through.
“Oh yeah,” Hum giggled, “with the pointy hats and funny little wossa. You know the pants but with the strappy things to…” He tried to mimic suspenders but at Cas’s stone face stopped and smiled wide again. If it didn’t turn blades or arrows Cas’s knowledge of fashion could fit inside an imp skull. One rescued Baron’s son had attempted to reward her with a trousseau stuffed with silk stockings which made for some of the best handkerchiefs and bandages she’d ever had.
Hum shrugged and picked up his sword, a giant two handed steel he liked to slug around with his humongous right hand just to watch the little pissants turn white. It was near bollocks at any actual fighting as it couldn’t keep an edge and was next to impossible to get a full swing of, especially in cramped ruins, dungeons and various other places evil likes to hang out in. (Evil has an aversion to common sense, always preferring the submerged molding ruin to a sturdy crisp warehouse easily rentable for a few quid a day.)
He wasn’t entirely certain why he brought it with for this job — it seemed a good idea back in the cool respite of the inn. Out under the burning sun Hum deeply regreted the unspoken rule that a Barbarian never learn what a razor was for. He couldn’t help his unruly genes for height and hair production.
Cas sighed, as she was wont to do when on a mission with Hum anymore. He’d been steady as a rock back in their early days, traveling through the countryside answering whatever missions the Court Approved Slayers wouldn’t touch with their ten foot halberds. Lately, though, he seemed to view everything as a joke, slipping off to quaff with the locals at the inn instead of trailing her as she staked out the terrain or, gods help her, sneaking off with one of the locals to a quieter place for some alone time leading to a lot of early morning running generally before they got paid. It was getting on the only nerve Cas had.
“Whatever they keep in town are barely gnomes anymore. It isn’t a gnome if it doesn’t nick off a few sheep when everyone’s asleep.” How quickly they forget in their cozy towns the dangers out on the road; the trolls under the forgotten bridges, the harpies nesting in the trees, the Ogres crunching bones deep in caves, and even the forest gnomes roaming from farm to farm decimating an entire crop in under a week. Now they were cute little rosy cheeked grandfathers in funny clothes that, gods she didn’t know, offered advice or watched over the front door or sang songs about making friends with trees. To Cas, anyone who lived in town had about as much intellect and common sense as a newborn kitten with a penchant for taunting the dog.
Now one of the more nefarious bands of roaming forest gnomes got a bit too close to the local Baron’s fields for comfort and suddenly they were a “bIg PrOBlEm” and needed to be “eRdicATed” as soon as possible. Tacked to one of the big sanctorium boards flapped a call to rid the town of Clump of a few gnomes ignored by the Emperor’s men in polished armor who only lifted their weapon for nothing less than an Ogre, or six goblins and a talking goat. Falling into town the pair made for the shrine and after ripping off the sheet off Cas and Hum rode, visions of an easy breakfast in their heads.
That was six hours, a missed meal, and about four gallons of sweat ago. Now the two were seriously considering abandoning the few bits they’d come out ahead with and leaving the little camouflaged twerps for some other hapless soul trying to break into the business. Cas unsheathed her small dagger and rolled it in her fingers as she settled next to Hum, for the first time letting on to the fatigue the quickly rising temps gouged from her. The giant laughed to himself watching her wilt, she always had to maintain total control especially when no one was watching or cared. He passed her the flask, and while she’d usually demure for fear of what that rotgut would leave her with in the morning the temptation of any bit of moisture overrode her common sense.
The silver flask glinted in the elevening sun, catching the eye of a small creature hiding carefully in the leaves below. Anything shiny spoke to one of the three compartments in its brain (Eat, Mate, Steal) and, despite the large possible threats above, unearthed itself from the fallen foliage. The two humans paused, the rustling catching them both (even exhausted from a long ride and longer time wasted wandering in a forest some instincts couldn’t be ignored), sharp bits got ready.
A forest gnome, contrary to all adorable folk songs started by people pushing ceramic men for gardens, looked more like a small fox without all the fur. The skin was a mottled mix of greens and browns, the better to vanish into the underbrush with and while they would, on occasion, steal clothing, no gnome ever thought once to slide on a pair of oversized trousers and belt a tunic. When faced with a garden gnome, a roaming forest gnome wouldn’t think it stumbled across a long lost cousin, it would probably test it cautiously to see if it was alive and then nick it when no one was looking.
Hum smiled at the lone little guy, “Come for a bit of what ails have ya?” he asked, tipping the flask towards the gnome that crept closer on all fours, its sharp nails digging deep into the ground. Cas watched it curiously, she’d never observed one in their wild habitat. Anyone worth their salt would either attack the horde as they were in the middle of their raids or, more smartly, leave a few poisoned sheep out for them and let the problem take care of itself while waiting it out somewhere cool. Then why in the hell are we out here?
The gnome, still watching the two humans with its gigantic eyes, carefully balanced up onto its back legs. It looked almost comical, like a dog doing a trick for a treat. How quickly humans forget that wild creatures remain alive by relying upon a tricky balance of cute and terror. Hum leaned forward again, the gnome stood his ground, its eyes on that shiny object. “Whatcha think?” he asked it.
In the blink of an eye the gnome told him exactly what he thought of it, slicing Hum’s finger and snatching up the flask that fell from the giant’s fist before diving back towards the leaves. “HEY!” the giant yelled, all entertainment burned up by pure rage, “THAT’S MINE!”
Gnomes are notorious for being quicker than the human eye but there was no animal, bird or quantum particle faster than a Berserker who just had his flask stolen. He flopped forward, catching the back legs of the gnome, its nails slicing up his fist but there was no way the giant was letting go. “GIVE IT BACK!”
Cas had just enough time to draw her sword when the gnome, realizing its predicament, relied upon the only other defense it had and opened its mouth to an eardrum shattering squeal — it called the horde. The ground erupted in a mass, flashes of leaves and dirt as gnomes hidden in their underground lairs burst through and, not needing long to asses the situation, jumped on the only non-gnome thing in the vicinity. Teeth and nail met leather, steel, and flesh and the two found themselves in an unexpected fight for their lives.
The daily take was abysmal for a goblin free town out in bums all nowhere. Max shifted his poorly worded “Well Werk Think aBout Werk 4 Booze” wooden sign off his lap as he tossed the last crumbs of his lunch to his feared griffin that was losing most of its feathers due to a bad case of mange and water soluble glue.
He sweated through the required ten layers of rags he’d swiped from Good Ganoshans over the years and contemplated tossing in the leper’s rags today in favor of a cold pint in a dark pub/inn/egg farm. This whole begging thing was best left to the birds.
Shading his eyes, he squinted across the undulating (or was it unguent? ungallant?) hills dotted with cow shit and spied a pair of shadows limping across the horizon, actually heading toward this blight of a town.
Grinning, he whistled for his dog, er griffin, and dug himself deeper into his staked out prime hole spot. His sign was a shining beacon to any easy marks who wandered loose out of their homes. As he rubbed some dirt and leftover sandwich bits onto his face, a pair of voices — far more animated than the typical drab pilgrim — echoed through the hills.
“We got by just fine, see.”
The silence from the other shadow a few steps in front was palpable even from this distance. Max shifted a bit.
“Nun died or got aten or anythin’ like that. Yep. Is all good.”
The griffin whined and hid its nose in the convenient piles of rags that could become a tent if the homeless gig wasn’t working so well.
“So we jus’ collect the coin and whoop shoop off to the bar to get so knock kneed we forget about the day.” Whoop shoop? This could be easier than he’d thought.
The front shadow paused, rigid as those corsets the women at spring salons wear until one of them passes out — it was a popular betting game for the young men to see which Anne’s would hit the dirt first. “I never want to see you again,” the cold voice rang crystal clear throughout the hills. The timbre surprised the beggar, a woman took the lead. It was the kind of voice that cut to every man’s quick, a reminder that your life is in the hands of the supposed weaker-sex who could, with a single flick of her finger, rip it right out from beneath you. The fact that so many don’t has always unnerved him.
She continued on with long hard strides, her form growing more visible in this blinding sun. Max tipped his hat down, afraid that making eye contact with this boiling woman could shrivel some parts he was rather attached to.
“Ha, ’s what you always say. Hum, I ne’er wanna see you ‘gain. Hum, what’d I tell yas about that drinkin’? If’n I see you ass o’er end with the entire Baron’s accounting staff again I’ll run my sword right through ye.”
Hard boots crunched on the broken path dried from the hard summer days and churned from passing merchant wagon wheels. It was the kind of footwear those who are not big fans of being bothered tended to wear, Max thought to himself. Still, worth the risk.
Putting on his patented (the guild took these things very seriously) “down on his last leprechaun” face Maxamillion the Fifth, son of the Earl of Del Riata cried out, “Alms for the poor.” He tipped his hat back slowly and looked up at the oddest pair he’d encountered in his short life of robbing from the poor to entertain himself.
A pair of eyes colder than frozen steel greeted his, the woman he would good naturedly compare to a wine barrel maintained an air of eternal insolence despite the fact her leathers were shredded with tiny holes as if someone had gone mad with a stapler. Blonde locks wisped about her face, freed from what looked to be the most lock tight hair plaits this side of Ostro. She walked steady but couldn’t hide the slight limp giving way to a greater injury he could exploit. The Earl’s son tightened his grip on a dagger bejeweled stupidly with emeralds.
Then the man, who apparently spent all his time drinking and hanging out with accountants, bumped into Max’s view and cracked a smile haunted with spirits, “Come on Cassie, just one more before hittin’ the road.”
Glittering snake eyes turned back onto the giant beside her, giving Max the perfect opportunity to create a lucrative hostage situation. He rose rather rapidly for a man who liked to tell people he lost his legs in an Ogre accident and grabbed the woman’s shoulder, his blade slipping dangerously close to her throat. If it all went by the book she’d turn into a quivering lump in his armed hands, the giant would pass over his purse and they’d be off into town to complain to the guards who owed Max’s father a good bull.
But he really shouldn’t have skipped over Intro to Choosing Your Victim 101: Don’t go for the one that’s armed. Without a moment’s pause, Cas’s hand grabbed the wrist of the dagger and, pushing it down, dug her shoulder into Max’s stomach, knocking the wind out of him and in one quick move tossed him ass first onto the ground. The dagger clattered uselessly out of his grasp as her sturdy boot came down on his rather handsome face.
Not once did she bother looking at her assailant, all her fury still burning for her best friend, “I’m packing my things tonight and leaving. I never want to see you again. And I mean it.” Putting her weight down on Max’s face one last time she turned and stomped hard into the town.
The giant called out, still unsteady, “So tha’s it eh? The great hero’s gonna save the worl’ all by her lonesome? Fine! More drinkin’ for me!”
For the first time anyone in the poorly chosen ambush party turned and regarded Max. A foot of bedraggled black beard dipped dangerously close to his nose welling up with blood. “If I was you boy, I’d find summin’ else to take up your time. Pheasant riding or Horse Hunting ‘r whatever takes up you richies time. You dunna got it in you.”
And, much like his former partner, the Giant toddled from one side to the next into the town, stopping only briefly to pet Griffin on the head.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. His wife had dreams, very detailed and color coded dreams, of a cozy place just on the outskirts of town where weary travelers could stop for a bite on their way to the Shrine of Malcolt the Penitent (who was really really penitent about eating the cakes sent one holiday morn from his mortal rival) or young families would spend warm autumn days sampling the famous array of jams and jellies and other things that could be stuck inside a jar and peddled to city folk who wandered into the country to rub elbows with rubes.
Burdened by huge dreams, the young couple bought up the decaying “Dragon’s Breath” pub and with a lot of elbow and farfalle grease, a couple coats of lavender paint and charming window trellises opened up the Inn of the Dancing Unicorn.
But buildings occasionally have a disturbing way of never giving in to the plan. The paint peeled instantly, leaving the rusted black mottle poking from beneath, only thistles, poison ivy and ragweed grew in the quaint garden and the charming wicker furniture spontaneously caught on fire. Despite every attempt to reclaim the Inn, the Dragon’s Breath roared back. Much like people, there are some places that, no matter how much you fancy up the outer draping’s or spruce up the floor boards, are still rotten to the core.
The bartender was starting to come to terms with the decor that looked like a dilapidated house first threw up and then exploded all over the walls along with the dragon symbol etched hastily on the back wall that appeared each night no matter what he covered it with; but given the only clientele he’d have preferred his Inn not have any customers at all.
Instead of adorable families teaching their children good table manners and why you should always tip your hostess well and elderly pilgrims smiling beatifically as they blessed the evening meal the “Dancing Dragon” attracted all manner of scum and villain across Arda. It was close enough to Mageton without being near enough to attract any authorities attention and had easy water access to the Isentic sea in case any unexpected escapes were necessary. The perfect place for any cutthroat, vagrant, layabout, cheating swine and anyone else that refused to pay the full twenty bits for a pint that gave the bartender fits at night.
He didn’t even look up when a cowled individual entered the Dragon and bumped around a few of the chairs carved from the wood of some haunted and most likely deranged tree. Half of the patrons were fully shrouded in black velvet (or linen, for the unprepared scoundrel), hunched over a beer at their own table each trying to keep their back to a wall. It got so bad there was a “Keep a Cloak, Take a Cloak” box near the door.
The newest doomed soul bumped into the back of Klaus the most wanted criminal in Pateo Plains for breaking into the homes of good little girls and boy, eating a few cookies before leaving his trademark calling card of a few lumps of old rocks on the mantle and vanishing into the night. Normally he’d tear anyone that dared touch him limb from limb, humming a few refrains of Joy To Arda, but as the stranger apologized he got a good look at that cloaked face and decided he’d had enough eggnog for one night.
“What’ll it be?” the barkeep tried to spit for decorum’s sake but, unable to behave so uncouthly, coughed into his fist instead.
The cowl paused, looking left and right, which mostly caused his hood to flop even further over his eyes, then reached inside its robes and pulled out a small book bound in what was probably human skin knowing the usual patron. “I am to be wanting a man.” The voice was melodious and high pitched, like those boys that sing in the Sanctorium choir and never get to father any children.
“Sorry, don’t have any in stock,” the bartender chortled, trying his best to polish the fresh glassware that within seconds of crossing the threshold became crusted with impenetrable dirt.
Pages in the book flipped madly as the specter hunted for a response, “You are to be knowing where the sandwich is?”
“If you’re hungry you’ll have to wait ’til morning. Me wife does all the fixins,” the bartender said before realizing he couldn’t remember when he last saw her. Last he heard she was heading down to the basement to scrub off some old drawings on the floor.
The cowl sighed loudly and clicked its tongue, “Nage, nage. My hovercraft is full of eels.”
“I see. Sounds like a personal problem there.”
Just then one of the colossal lumps at the bar who arrived mid-afternoon, and hadn’t moved since, rolled over towards the newcomer and slapped him hard on the back. He tried to make a thumbs up at the bartender but, finding coordination hard to grasp, waved instead, “Someone get this guy a lute, he could play the Avar’s. A pint for me and my friend here.”
The bartender sighed, and called over one of the locals he hired to run the taps. “I’m headin’ downstairs to see what’s up with Nora, you guard the still from the Barbarian. And don’ let him anywhere near the stage.”
Hum perked up considerably at the comely newcomer and tried to dig his fingers through the brambles he kept on his face to shape them into some presentable manner. It had been a few hours since Cas deposited him at the stool, stomped upstairs to collect her kit and vanished into the night (or was it day? What day was it again? Oh right, drinking day). But she’d be back, she always came back.
Something approaching a conscious tried to fight through the beer to tug on Hum’s ear warning him that in all the years they’d fought together, all the times he’d pissed her off or all the times she’d caught him completely pissed he’d never seen her this mad. Bah, another drink would quiet that voice down. After that gnome job he had enough coin to keep the good stuff — well the palatable stuff — flowing. And nothing helped one to forget the sight of thousands of tiny teeth ripping into your flesh like a tub full of ale in a happy stomach.
He thumped his new friend hard on the back and waggled his eyebrows at the new tap runner for two more pints. It took a few minutes for the nerves to register that his hand was in quite a bit of pain after slapping the tiny thing hidden beneath the cowl. Eh, must have armor on under that. Hum wasn’t one to go prying into people’s personal lives, unless they really wanted him to.
“So lil thing, wha’ brings ya to the middle of nowhere?”
The cowl slowly slid its hood back, revealing a tiny pink nose shaped like one of those shapes that was like a square that got punched in the head that lead to an even smaller mouth with nearly no lips. Almost no chin would typically guarantee one to a life in government work but the voluminous haunting purple eyes so almond shaped they put some nuts to shame marked the creature for what it was.
“Has anyone ‘er told you you’re the spittin’ image o’ an elf?” Hum slurred passing one pint to the tiny thing before downing his in one long gulp and wagging what he thought were his eyebrows at the new barkeep for another who giggled in return. It was the slow smile, got ‘em every time he thought. Maybe today was looking up.
The cowl shook his head, dropping a finger into the mug and placing a small drop of liquid in his mouth before puckering his lips and returning the pint to the bar. “I am to be looking for someone.”
“Tha’s what I keep hearin.’ Anyone in particular or just lookin’ for a random shag?”
Confused, the cowl flipped through his little book but was unable to come up with any entries under “shag.” He hoped that the large human did not wish to shave him. Searching for another word he settled on a phrase one was to yell in an emergency, “I need an hero.”
Hum snorted mid-belt, sending beer sloshing through his already damp beard. Hazy memories of his last fight bubbled up as Cas, frigid as usual, threw his share of the coins at his abundant head, “Here’s your cut. Try not to get yourself killed with it.”
She turned, ready to storm out in a dramatic huff for her when Hum’s already libated voice croaked out, “Oh yes, Ma’am. You just toddle off and save the world all on yer own while I sit here drinking meself to death. Canna trust that ol’ Hum, he’ll just muck it all up. The great hero everyone.”
Cas paused, even more anger boiling over in her already steaming pot but instead of releasing it in the dank pub surrounded by gods knew what she stormed off into the cooling evening. And good riddance too, thought Hum, like he needed a babysitter to wipe his chin and tell him when to go to bed or who to go to bed with. He was a grown man, looking at him he could be two grown men, and if he wanted to drink himself to death so be it.
Smiling cruelly, he turned to his new best friend and said, “If it’s a hero ya be lookin’ for I ‘appen to know the greatest one of all is stayin’ right here in town.”
Wide eyes grew even larger as the small head bobbed excited at the news, “Where do I be finding this one?”
Hum cackled, something a bit unbecoming in a Barbarian, but he was allowed his moment, “Jus’ look for the ice cold bitch cursing a blue streak that would make a claw pirate blush.”
For the fifth time, Cas checked the saddle on her Rent-A-Horse named unsuitably Daisy. She was going to have to change transportation before getting into a decent adventuring town, any nail chewing wander who chops up monsters for coin would have a field day finding her with a horse named after a flower. And she had enough problems already.
Sighing, she twisted her two foot long braid around her hands. Why did this happen so bloody often? She met the Giant of Ganosha in the middle of a harpies nest, the only two sent on that ill begotten mission who could actually complete it without getting flayed alive and they’d been near inseparable ever since.
Sure, his tendency to default to acting like the biggest kid in the room when faced with anything approaching authority and the fact he could easily be turned by a full mug or a handsome face drove her up the wall and into the attic. And — she hated to admit to herself — the fact she tended to dictate every aspect of Hum’s life up to and including when to take a piss got under his skin. But, despite their hard earned reputation, they still needed each other. Not so much to watch the others back when in the field, no, it was fending off their peers in taverns late at night that proved the greatest fight of all.
The skirt and the bitch, that was what they called them in those early days. A few broken noses, smashed collar bones and one ranger put through the frame for the Elk’s Head had earned them enough of a reprieve for one night but it never lasted. Another town, another bunch of cave dwelling moss lickers who had to out piss each other at every turn lest someone younger and better equipped steal their coin.
And Hum would be there to smash in anyone who got too close to her just as she’d have an escape route planned and already be half dressed before she heard the screams of a local finding her husband entangled with the burly Barbarian.
Lately they were fightin’ worse than a married couple and the fact that he knew she still needed him pissed her off even more. Sighing again, Cas pulled her pack off, shudder, Daisy and started to wipe the horse down. Maybe a night in the barn would help to cool heads or at least keep her from chopping off one she’d regret.
A shadow entered the barn, cloaked fully and standing rod straight. Her eyes shifted slowly to where her weapons lay in straw, a few feet out of reach. Grapnar’s Beard! Just what she needed now, more assassins. Couldn’t they try a different color scheme just once? Maybe something bright and cheery. You’d never expect a knife in the back from someone wearing a bright yellow sun dress.
But the shadow stood still, seeming to wait for something as its cloak snapped quickly like a bird near a seed factory. Trying to maintain her composure, Cas slowly brushed the horse, weighing it in her hand, “Well? Are ya gonna kill me or aren’t ya?”
“I am to be sorry. You do not appear to be streaking blue.”
“Excuse me?!” She’d expected a lot — flying daggers, crashing chandeliers, those weird star shaped knives everyone knew didn’t work worth a crap but thought looked cool — but not someone hoping for whatever he had in mind. Turning, she watched as the shadowy figure extricated itself from a far too abundant amount of cloak.
Billowy yards of fabric gave way to a skinny frame, barely thicker than a dagger, the size one would expect to find on someone who was just figuring out what all those fun hormones were for. It was wearing some kind of very complicated night gown covered in intricate scrolling and embroidered in what shimmered like gold in the rolling lamplight. Then it slowly looked up from its hands, finishing the last bit of folding of the cloak.
Cas gasped, “A ‘line?”
The man blinked rapidly, his haunting eyes appearing even more dangerous in the low light. Her hands itched for a blade, something, anything other than the two ounce brush. His tiny mouth thinned even further and turned down as he cocked his head, watching.
There were tales spun, normally when people grew tired of the usual ones about who the Baron or the Baron’s wife was screwing in town, of the old wars with the ‘lines. But it was so ancient, so moss covered, most assumed they were more myth than truth, only a few ruins and, of course, the Stone of Scarra remained as reminders of an era humans were so quick to forget.
Only a few would dare talk of seeing an actual ‘line, saying a band was spotted out at sea or gathering something on the coasts before returning to their exile on Terrafae. Then there were the more touched people who claimed a ‘line or two would come to their bed and well that was a tale told when the kids were supposed to be upstairs asleep.
“I am to be looking for a cold female dog,” he cocked his head again and reached his hands open in either a “see I’m not armed” or “please, stab me” motion.
Funny, the tales never mentioned them being this stupid, “I see you were talking to my partner…ex-partner. Yes, that’s me the…cold dog. What do you want?”
The elf smiled, a strange sight to see as the eyes held all of the warmth while the tiny mouth only shifted a little. “I to be needing a hero. You be this hero.”
“Look, I don’t work on spec. I’m gonna need to see some coin up front before I even entertain this job,” Cas’s brain went straight into negotiation mode. More than a few accounts had run screaming at the sight of the short, blonde woman bearing down upon them, abacus and receipts in hand.
The purple eyes lowered for a moment, “Ah, do do,” he reached into the folds of his nightgown and extracted a handful of coins the size of a quid that glinted gold in the lamplight. “Take, yes,” he held his long, clawed hands out to Cas.
She fought back the urge to tremble at the elf’s touch and picked a coin out of his palm. Before she could pull her hand away the rest of the pile vanished into his folds, quicker than eye could follow. Despite the fact gold dipped lead would be worth more than what she normally gets for a job she still bit down on the coin for show. No one knew what a pure gold coin would actually do when chomped, it was just something you did when given any currency that wasn’t two goats and a wife.
“And what does this job entail, exactly?” Cas asked cautiously. She’d been expecting a pile of berries and twigs, hoping that this was one of those fabled half elves one heard about every now and then wandering through towns in search of work. It was slowly dawning on her that this idiot in front of her could be the real thing.
The elf blinked again slowly, batting at its shaggy umber hair uncertain of how to proceed. It had seemed so simple in the books, give the human one gold coin, promise more and then they would take the contract. There had been no talk of accepting poisoned beverages or talking excessively in noxious farm holds with large animals that released a disturbing amount of methane. With horror, he wondered if humans made the same smells as their beasts of burden.
Cas crossed her arms slowly, gripping the coin tightly and dropping it into one of her vest pockets, “I’m not about to take on any work if you won’t tell me what it is. So, unless you wanna start talking I don’t have any babies you can change or odd jobs you can perform for a saucer of milk so you may as well head back to wherever you came from.” She rocked back slowly on her heels trying to increase her height over the elf. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to spend a night under the same roof as Hum after all. Assuming he hasn’t already found another bed.
Long fingers scratched behind the pointy ears obscuring them momentarily behind tufts of hair. The elf seemed to be debating something. Just wait it out and he’ll go find some other helpless sap and you won’t get your shoulder snapped off, Cas thought to herself.
Looking once more, he shrugged his scrawny shoulder and murmured, “Edifara.”
Cas started to turn back to Daisy, glad that was settled. A blur from the corner of her eye was all the warning her brain got before darkness enveloped her.
Her soft shoes echoed little sound as she padded across the marble halls of her Mistress’ section of the palace. Normally she’d have waited until the sun set, obscuring her approach in the waning lamplight, but the summons couldn’t have been more urgent had it been fitted with large exclamation points in the royal seal.
One of the larger guards decorated with the red sash denoting why he was surgically perfect for his job looked down at her, glaring upon what he knew was hidden beneath the veils. She bit back the urge to recess to her younger days of shielding her head with her small hands whenever roving bands of urchins discovered her hiding amongst some of the forgotten bits of rubble in the street. Reaching deep into her well honed bag of tricks she summoned the persona of a noble annoyed with the fly buzzing under her nose.
Her oversized eyes met his, a daring challenge that only those intimate to the Lady could accomplish without their head rolling across the marble floors staining the holy stones in its wake, and passed to him the message with the seal of the Sultana.
His rough hand snatched the paper away and impenetrable eyes scanned it for any proof he could order this wench hauled off to the prisons for a bit of fun. Ugh, they smelled even worse than usual. She pulled her sleeve closer to her nose inhaling an intoxicating blend of frankincense and dragon’s blood, the only bkhur she found that combated the overpowering scent of men.
Grunting once from a lack of discovering anything to change up his standing-in-one-place-all-day-trying-to-not-fall-asleep the guard moved the curtain aside and let her pass into the heart of Duneclaw. She bobbed, never curtsey to the help her Mistress stressed, and walked under arms thick enough to make some trees feel inadequate.
Without a pause, she slipped her foot coverings off and walked slowly into the golden light of Ayasofya. Servants — all female — bustled from one marble altar to the other, each dedicated soul and body in service of the frail, ancient divine perched upon the cushioned throne at the far end of the hall.
Marble columns were encircled in banners decorated with green damask patterns would offer a far preferable vantage point for her to historically wait quietly for an all too brief moment alone with her Mistress. This was the first time she’d ever been officially summoned, secret notes and hand signals more her idiom, and the knots were tightening ever harder in her bird-like stomach.
Spilled around the Sultana’s feet on cushions embroidered and color coded to designate their importance reclined some of the more senior of her fellow Kira, each unveiled for the rare moments when they need not worry of reprisal or discovery. Their laughter reverberated across the giant domes, tinkling against the flaring sconces all the way up to the focal fresco of her mother’s adopted Messiah.
She paused again, unused to this much light. Her physical characteristics that set her apart from the others made midnight work more preferable (as well as the lack of people inserting themselves in her way). By the mid-day sun the palace radiated a glaring warmth that burned on her mind. She far preferred accepting assignments at night in the cool shroud of the endless sleep.
The other Kira continued to ignore her, a fact she was used to. But the woman perched at the top of the throne, her round nose buried in a thick book decorated in beautiful scrolling, smiled serenely as if she could peer directly through the thick tome worn from love.
“Step forward, my child,” the soft voice had aged to a grandmotherly timbre in its warmth, a fact the Sultana used to her advantage, “you’re much quieter than the others, I barely heard you enter.”
Shielding off the evil eye from the others, she walked closer to her mistress and dropped down onto her knees, bowing so low some of her curly dark hair freed itself from her veil. It had been a near century and she still had yet to learn how to bend each piece of hair to her will as the others prided themselves upon. “I live only to please you, Mistress.”
The Sultana smiled again, a far sweeter one than her fellow Kira had seen in some time. Her Mistress caressed her head and murmured, “My, Sevda.” The years spent out in the field fell away and old eyes met perpetual young ones, “arise, we have much to discuss.”
Trying to not tear her silk gown overlay on the way up she rose carefully, all eyes on the woman who gave her a reason for living. “I received your summons while I was in the midst of the Serpent’s tongue. I fear that my departure may have alerted them.” For the first time since her heart soared at discovering the letter tucked away in one of the drop off points she wondered if she may have committed a fool’s errand at dropping everything to race to the palace.
But the Sultana waved a hand, “They are but mere flies, buzzing away at the cow’s backside. Soon enough they shall receive a good swat, but it need not come at my hand. No, you are required for a mission tailor made for your…skills.”
“As you command, my Lady,” the servants were vanishing quickly, as they always did whenever she talked privately to her mistress. But it wasn’t private anymore, they were speaking familiarities in the open surrounded by those who could forever change her lot in life. The true power behind the publicly abstruse throne.
“Come,” the Sultana waved her closer, and she perched herself just below her on the cushion symbolically left vacant for the Mother of the Son. Anyone else would have been violently lashed both verbally then physically but the Sultana merely placed a well cultivated hand under her chin and sighed.
The years may have slowly poisoned away her mistress’ vibrance and beauty but underneath the multiplying wrinkles and softening flesh still glowed those same bronze eyes and bright heart that had so easily captivated her as a girl. And there was that heart lifting scent; while most others in the land sent her scurrying for a perfume bottle, the Sultana always smelled of a fresh rose garden in the late summer sun.
“Sevda, what have you heard of the raids?”
She shuddered a bit, she never liked to discuss that curse of her life with anyone, not even her mistress, “Nothing, my Lady. It seems there have been almost no new ships from TerraFae in months.”
The Sultana smiled, as one would when her dog performs a rather complicated trick, “Exactly, this has me concerned.”
“Why? Is it not better that our lands are free of that scourge. Let them spread their poison elsewhere.”
“Oh, my dear,” she patted her head again, her heart wistful for a time when she could meet in secret with her favorite un-Kira whenever she wished. But those years were long behind her, no matter how little her Sevda changed, “when the starving wolves stop clawing at your door you hope it is due to the feathered lady claiming their souls but prepare for brother bear to replace them.”
The Sultana stretched a hand out to one of the other girls seated below and received a letter, this one covered in grime and possible blood, “This is a message that has been relayed across a few of our lesser upright meyhane’s, spoken in secret, a search for a warrior of renowned skill.” She passed the note to her charge, it was written mostly in Elvish, a language she’d fought hard for years to not learn before her mistress taught her that its better to know the lay of an enemies heart than be a stranger when it is time to strike.
“I see. Have they ever searched for a human before?” the word clung to her tongue, she hated using it as it always othered her but there wasn’t a better one.
The Sultana shook her head, her white sand hair, long since parted with the ebony of youth, loosening from her top bun and falling over her veil. It had been ages since she’d last seen her mistresses hair and it pained her to find that in the time she’d been gone all the color was leeched away by Brother Time. “That is what concerns me. Aside from chattel they have no use for gathering humans and prefer the more amenable sort, not one proficient in weapons and battle. I need you to take on this mission.”
She smiled, a plan already forming in her head, “Of course, I shall call in my usual contacts and gather as much information as possible. Within a month I am certain I can lay a trap for the Kedi’s.”
Her never ending exuberance always delighted and surprised the Sultana, how the heavy fall of years never crushed it she’d never know, “My dear Sevda, you shall meet up with their most obvious choice of champion — a rather brutish sort they pulled in from the northern heathen lands — and travel as his servant to the land of the Kedi.”
The smile strained as she tried to hold it fixed in place but screamed in her head; everything her mother taught her — those nights up late crying about the horrors of that cursed island — lapped hard against the warm smile of the only other person to ever love her. How could she travel to that land knowing what fate could await her?
Sensing her distress the Sultana sweetened the pot one last time, “And if you return with knowledge to help us finally stop these Kedi raids once and for all, you shall be given your long deserved reward of a place in my court.”
Despite trying to feign as though they weren’t listening to their Lady’s private conversation the other women gasped at the idea of a dirty half-blood being seen in the streets with them, breaking bread with them or even bathing near them.
Ignoring the outburst below, her eyes welled with tears at the prospect of an acceptance she’d never dreamed possible, “My Lady, I thank you.”
The Sultana turned her mouth up but it never quite became a smile, she knew that this would be the last she’d see of her favorite. The crows were already circling in her dreams, “All of the information you need is in the scroll. May the Son travel with you, my Sevda.”
Bowing deeply and pressing her nose to the marble floor she kissed her Lady’s hand once more and walked silently out of the chamber.
The Sultana counted to ten nehirs before calling out, “And don’t forget your shoes.”
I’m gonna kill the elf.
The thought reverberated around her skull as consciousness fought against oblivion, rocking back and forth against rough wooden planks. Her hands pushed hard into a poorly finished floor, rough wood scraping back, as she raised her body up. Cas tried to steady her head but the floor rocked away from her and she fought back the little bit of breakfast she’d managed to keep in her stomach.
Dim light tossed from a single small lantern was all that she had to go off in this prison furnished only with a small bed built into the side and a table bolted to the floor. As another spell of whatever the elf used on her struck, she stumbled a bit and knocked her boot into a chest. Having not much else to go on she fumbled her fingers across it and was surprised to find the thing unlocked and barely bolted closed.
Slightly numb hands brushed across all too familiar metal and wood, scabbards and bolts of cloth. Did that elf really lock her up with her bloody kit? A small part of her feared a trap but unless they would go to all the trouble of locking up someone only to have her kill herself upon a poisoned belt buckle it seemed unlikely. What in Farfer’s Big Toenail was going on?
Well, the best way to find out was well armed. Setting the lamp down carefully she effortlessly slipped into her well worn leathers and buckled on her scabbard. Her backup shield seemed to be missing, but that wasn’t a big loss. She never liked the thing anyway, it was always splitting at the most inopportune “being bared down upon by a rather unhappy, recently awoken Troll with an arrow wedged in its foot” times. Never short change your blacksmith, they never forget it.
Standing up carefully in the tight space, Cas checked herself. Hum would have been half bent over and grumbling the whole time if he’d been here. A twinge of both relief and guilt struck her. Would he even know she’d been taken? Would he even care? She shook those thoughts off, he wasn’t her warrior prince come to rescue her from a tall tower, and she could certainly save herself with the right number of sharp, pointy things.
Now, extricating a lock-pick set out of her bag, she picked up the lamp and got to work on her jail cell. She focused the lantern at the door knob three times but still couldn’t believe her luck. There was no lock, not even a place for a keyhole. It was just the knob. These elves sure made for horrible jailers.
Onward and upward, maybe her luck would continue and they wouldn’t think to post guards either. Cautiously turning the handle wrapped in her tunic to muffle the creak, she opened the door a crack and tried to look down either side of an almost nonexistent hallway. So far so good. Taking a deep breath she blew out the lantern and, ducking down, rolled out of her cell into the uninhabited emptiness of eventual freedom.
She flattened against the wall, waiting for someone to come running at the sound of a prisoner calmly walking out of an unlocked room, but still nothing. Where for the god’s sake was everyone? Despite the lack of an unfriendly reception Cas was uneasy (as if anyone breaking out of prison ever felt at ease) and drew her dagger, there was know way she could get a proper swing with her longsword down here.
Inching towards the light, she made her way towards what looked like a small staircase, having to stop every time her head rolled from that cursed poison that lurched her stomach along for company. The only natural light seemed to be filtering down through a hatch at the top of the stairs. Keeping their dungeon in the basement was the first bit of sense these kidnapping elves seemed to employ. Not too many people hold their prisoners on the ground floor anymore. It’s so inconsiderate for those trying to escape.
Slipping the dagger into her teeth and slicing up her lip, she worked the flimsy latch on the hatch as a bit of her blood pooled around the blade, and carefully popped the hatch open only an inch. Holding her breath, waiting for a scream of “Over there!” she counted to ten and inched the hatch ever higher until she could peer out. Old splinters dug into her fingers but she chose to file it under a later problem as she focused on an old pile of crates and, for some reason, netting draped across it. Did elves do a lot of land fishing?
Well, in for a penny in for a pint, taking the dagger out of her mouth she balanced the hatch on her shoulders and, with one final breath, burst through, dashing up the stairs with her only blade raised in defiance.
She slammed to a halt as a hard wind full of salty air hit her square in the face. Where was the ground? In every direction all she saw was blue: blue up, blue down, blue to the sides. The blue invaded her mind like a color coordinated army, it was all she saw even when she closed her eyes.
Gasping as only a life long landlubber could, she half fell to the deck, that’s what it was, not a floor but a deck, on a ship, out in the middle of fuck all nowhere. Oh, shit. She finally lost that long fought fight and hurled her breakfast from the tavern behind the crates of cargo.
There’s nothing like vomiting all over someone else’s property to make one suddenly very self conscious and for the first time since stumbling across all that blue she felt the multitude of cat eyes glaring at her from various positions around the deck. They were all dressed not in uniforms but their clothes were still strangely alike, a mix of dark blues and greens, the better to blend into a forest Cas thought. Strange for sailors to want to camouflage themselves.
“What do you want?” she shouted out, suddenly remembering she was armed and Balor knew how far from steady, unsalted land. A ship couldn’t be that hard to pilot all on her own, right?
The eyes continued to glare, very unhappy with this outburst but none made a move to correct it. Instead, they slowly got back to their work rigging mainsails and scrubbing planks and the like, the edge of their eyes never leaving the armed human like how one watches a hamster that’s gotten ahold of your nail clippers.
A familiar voice lilted behind her, “Ah! You are to being awake. That is good.” She turned slowly, afraid any sudden movements could invite the blue army and her remaining stomach contents back and stared eye to eye with her captor. The cloak and dagger stuff was gone, though he was still in that weird nightgown now a light shade of purple that glowed eerily beneath the scrollwork.
The ‘line’s eyes pleaded as he held his hands up in a calming gesture he’d seen the humans attempt around skittery horses (he didn’t hang around long enough to watch the human get eviscerated by the horses hooves), “I am to be meaning you no harm. Did not I suspect the chwsg sillafa to work as half as well as it did.”
Cas kept the dagger out more for comfort’s sake than any plans to bury it deep into innards, dreams of escaping away from these pointed eared freaks wafted away in the salty breeze, “You kidnapped me, you bastard.”
His head tilting a bit, the ‘line asked, “I do not be knowing this ‘Bastard?’”
Not one to be leading any diplomatic missions anytime soon, Cas took the more proactive approach, “It’s what you are, you jackhole.”
Choosing to skip over what could be a never ending circle of indecipherable insults, the elf placed one hand slowly on Cas’s arm, “Please to be returning to your room. It is safer there,” he pointed to the bright blue sky, “storm is coming.”
She may not be much of a sailor, but Cas could sense cloud convergence before any of the herd animals would bother to tilt an eye skyward. It was said that if you wanted to avoid natural disaster always stay one step ahead of her, though that could also be a reflection on the amount of destruction she herself seemed to cause. “The sky’s as clear as a mountain stream,” the ‘line pulled on her arm again, motioning towards the hold. “Fine,” she slotted her dagger back in its place, “but you’d better put down the swirly language and tell me what in the name of the underlord is going on. And get me something to eat.”
Munching on a light citrus fruit the name of which she spent five minutes trying to pronounce before settling on slightly reddish thing, Cas tried to connect with the first elf her generation had ever seen. “So, what’s your name ‘line?”
“‘Line? What is this line you keep using? I cannot find explanation of it,” the elf curled up happily on the floor next to Cas, who was uncertain how to sit intimidatingly on a surface that refused to remain in the same angle. She kept shifting her legs under her, then standing and pacing like a caged animal.
Oh boy, now you done and stuck your boot in. Might as well hammer it all the way, “Line, well feline, it’s what we call you elves. Your eyes, they remind us of cats.”
“Small fuzzy creatures, they shed hair all over our beds, believe they’re better than us and for some reason we always feed and shelter them.”
The elf laughed at that description and nodded, “Do, that sounds correct. More than one knows. We have names for you humans as well.”
“Oh? Let me guess, ‘Large pink thing that dies easily?’”
Not understanding a word the elf shook his head, “We call you ephemeros, phem when needing to be short. Named for a small insect that lives but one day in our world.”
“I suppose some introductions are in order. My name’s Cas, just that. Cas.”
“Cllals, Coaes,” the elf struggled with the foreign tongue, always finding human names the hardest to pronounce, “Cafs?”
“Close enough. And what do they call you?”
The elf touched his breast solemnly, “I am Glwvyddieon, Prentisio to the Assembly of Swynwr.”
“That was a whole lot of consonants there,” Cas chewed on her fruit a bit more, amazed it was staying down, “So you’re Gl-wyd-dayon?”
“Glwvyddieon,” he repeated calmly.
“Gwylddon . . . Grwyden . . . Oh I got it, Gwydion.”
The elf smiled, “Close enough.”
Chuckling herself, Cas shifted a bit, “All right, Gwydion,” in one quick move she wadded his nightgown in her fist and brought her blade up to his throat, “Now tell me what in the gods’ names I’m doing here. And it better be an answer I like.”
Surprisingly, the elf didn’t falter. He’d read a lot about the barbaric ways of humans and was expecting something like this. Truthfully he was expecting a lot more head butting and breast thumping based upon some of the more popular tales. “I am to being sorry you are upset.”
“You are to not be knowing me when I am upset. You’ll know I’m upset when your guts are all over the floor,” Cas tightened her grip, pulling the excessive purple eyes closer to her.
“There was no other choices,” Gwydion sighed, a strangely human gesture on such an alien face.
“Oh, so every human you meet you bonk over the head and drag a couple miles to set sail for gods know where?”
“I did not be bonking you on the head. I used a…A swyn on you,” at Cas’s face he tried again, “a magic, yes that is word. I put you under a magic.”
The dagger clattered to the ship’s hull, sticking rather poetically in the middle of a knot. “You’re a mage?!” She still kept one tight fist on the elf’s clothes. It was hard to throw fireballs inches from your target without getting hit yourself. Or so she thought (most fire mages either learned adequate protection wards or wore as much unflammable material as possible and regularly vaselined their skin).
Gods, she’d managed to avoid all of those mustachioed, cackling he-devils all of her thirty years and now she was trapped in a room with one who looked like he was about as experienced as a toddler. A toddler that could call all manner of horrors from beyond wherever and do whatever to her.
Magic was a mystery to Cas, and she preferred to keep it that way.
Gwydion nodded again, “All elves contain small of swyn but only those born with true gifts are accepted to the Assembly. But I promise I will not use my “magic” on you again.”
Still unnerved, but trying her best to hide it under a mask of seasickness, Cas stuck out her hand, “Swear on it.”
Leaning over, the elf picked up her palm and let loose the most fascinating string of cursing she’d ever heard, “May your Llamander of the Grockling Suckle upon Lava from your Tavoin’s teat!” He looked up at her, proud to have made his first human deal.
“Er, right. You aren’t one of them dark mages?”
“Dark mages?” the ‘line looked down upon his near translucent skin.
“You know, with all the blood and demons and forbidden magics.” All the tales of mages were very specific, there was always a good side and a bad side. Though for Cas it all fell under bad with a side of “run as fast away as you can.”
“There to be no forbidden magics, aside from no longer placing suds into the lavatory. The head enchanter was very explicit in that.”
“But there must be evil stuff good mages fight against, spells that cause death or dismemberment or whatever,” it sounded even stupider aloud. Good Mages? As if there were such a thing.
“Death spells? Like your sharpened metal fragment?” he gestured to the dagger still vibrating a bit in the floor.
She refused to let his good point turn her and shrugged, maybe he was acting like an idiot to hide all the evil stuff. Something tickled on the back of her ears, like a singer hitting the dog notes and Gwydion looked up, almost guilty.
“I must to be going now. It is still many days until we reach aelwyd. You shall be safest here,” and before she could stand to block his way he flew through the door, snapping her side of the knob off as he went.
How quickly she forgot just how easily even the weakest of these ‘lines could easily out maneuver and overpower her on her best day. Turning back to her bed of splinters she pulled her journal out of the chest and began to write (a rare trait in her line of work that she clutched onto with straining fingernails somedays).
I’m gonna kill the elf.