Precipice

by Erin Woods

 

It was dark in the dressing room and Kale was hot despite the cool air circulating from nearby windows. Again his deft fingers caressed the heavy silk robe he carried while sounds of ecstasy drifted from the empress’ chamber. Kale was the only servant with the privilege of being so near on such an occasion. His fellow valets would want to hear details, but he was too deep in his own covetous thoughts to remember the information for which they so hungered.

Most men lusted after the empress for she was the embodiment of beauty, but the emperor… Kale’s twin had already expressed his jealousy in the letters they exchanged. He took a deep breath and tried to think of something else, tried to ignore the tightness of his breeches. Kale was almost startled when his lord came through the doorway for the robe. The emperor was silent, but Kale knew nothing escaped notice; nothing ever did with immortals, especially not this one. His fellow servants said they could often feel their lord’s magic permeate any room. Kale had yet to have that experience in the year he’d been there.

The emperor looked in his thirties, but was one of the oldest and most powerful mages in the world. He was the empress’ match; he was refined, beautifully masculine, strong, with an arrogance about him that Kale found alluring. He was wakeful, volatile, fastidious, but Kale was willing to play the thinking game. He had a knack for predicting what was desired before it was commanded. For the emperor, like the lords before, he was prepared to serve as desired.

The smell of exotic soaps in the marble bathing room filled Kale’s senses as he followed his lord. As the emperor stepped down into the hot water, Kale poured wine from a waiting decanter. He then admired the manicured hand that took the goblet from the tray.

Kale allowed himself a brief distraction while his peers refreshed the bathwater. What it would be like to run his hands through the emperor’s extensive black hair… But so far his lord seemed uninterested in such diversions. It was only fitting that his attention was on the most beautiful, most powerful woman in the world.

“Kale,” his lord rumbled.

Goosebumps spread across Kale’s skin. He hadn’t realized the emperor knew his name. It must have been magic. He went to his lord’s side and bowed. It was rare the emperor spoke to a servant directly. His voice was calm and tantalizing.

“You were formerly employed by Lord Tiernan.”

“Yes, sire.” Kale’s twin, Kalil, still served Tiernan.

The emperor’s smirk lingered on his face. “I can see why he liked you. You are a pretty man, and attentive.”

Kale bowed again. “Thank you, sire.” The compliment made his blood surge.

“Why did you leave him?”

“Sire, I saw a better opportunity.”

The emperor placed the goblet down on the edge of the marble bathing pool. “Perhaps not the opportunity you were hoping for.”

“Sire.” He had to proceed with caution, not let his lust run away with him. Such a relationship would ensure his place; bring him wealth and a life of leisure.

His lord turned his head, just a little, so he could look up at Kale from under a wave of damp black hair. His eyes were cool and deep, his kohl was still pristine. “My regular attendant has disappeared, so it is up to you.” He ran his hand under his mane and fanned it over the stone floor.

Kale tried to remember to breathe as he picked up the comb and returned to his majesty. He hesitated for a moment before beginning the delicate grooming ritual. He was careful not to break a hair or snag any fashionable bejeweled braids. His lord’s bare shoulder was so close; beads of moisture speckled the surface and the heat rising from his newly bathed skin sank into Kale’s core. Kale wanted to touch that shoulder, feel the heat on his fingertips, trace the nape of his neck, smell his hair. He envisioned the emperor turning and embracing him. Touching another’s hair under most circumstances was a signal for imminent lust. Only trained courtesans were bold enough to try such a gesture towards royalty.

“Perhaps you’re better than the regular man,” the emperor said, breaking Kale from his thoughts. “Perhaps it should be your permanent position.”

“I do as you please, sire,” Kale said.

“I hope it would also please you, Kale.” The emperor’s voice was a purr, thick with temptation.

Kale tried to calm down. “I wish to do whatever is your majesty’s pleasure.”

“I don’t know if you know anything about that.”

“I will do my best to learn, sire.”

“I have no doubt, for you are rumored to be most clever. I’m sure you’ve heard word of the benefits of being efficient in my service.”

“Yes, sire.” He looked around to see they were alone. The emperor must have sent the others away with a thought. Kale watched his hands work through the emperor’s pristine hair. He had to prevent himself from fondling the strands. He had to wait…

“But I am nefarious. There will be no such rewards.” His eyes were closed.

It wasn’t true. Kale had seen the proof of the legend, perhaps the emperor was ruthless and malevolent when dealing with treacherous nobles, but had always treated his servants well. He supposed servants were not known to fan the fires of the eternal civil war. “Sire, if I may be so bold.”

“You may. We are alone.” His voice was soft; Kale had to strain to hear him.

“We have known only contentedness in this service, sire.”

“You do not seem content, Kale,” he said. “You will regret your arrival. You should leave as soon as you’re able.”

“Never, sire. My only desire is to be of use to your majesty in any way I’m able.”

The emperor rose and Kale scrambled for a fresh robe. In his state of nerves he touched the emperor’s arm through the rich fabric. He could feel the warmth that radiated from the body he so wished to caress. Kale immediately fell to his knees and pressed his forehead to the ornate stone floor. The cold felt good against his hot skin. He hoped his infraction would not seal his fate; hoped it would give him a sign for his next course of action. “I beg forgiveness for my mistake, sire.” He could feel the robe brush him as the emperor passed.

“Mistakes are entirely subjective,” the emperor said and entered his bed chamber.

The emperor’s words echoed in Kale’s mind as he went into the dressing room to collect clothing he knew the emperor would want. He stole a look at his lord before reentering the lavish chamber. The emperor had lit the room with small spheres of light. Kale was still the only servant.

Kale dressed his lord, and as he stood from adjusting the royal boots found he was being watched. For a moment their eyes held before Kale looked away and could breathe again. Nobles didn’t look at their servants in such a way, or at all, unless… He bowed and retreated to put away the discarded robe.

In the dark once more he paused to try to forget his fantasies, but the fabric in his hands still carried the emperor’s scent. The emperor desired something different than what the empress could give. Kale needed another sign to be sure.

When he returned the emperor was gone, his fellows were tidying the chamber. They begged for torrid images of the empress. “It was dark,” Kale said. “I saw nothing.”

They didn’t hide their disappointment.

The next night the emperor was especially restless. He stared at the night sky through the clearstory windows of his chamber. The war was never far from anyone’s mind and couldn’t be from the emperor’s. It was late into the night when Kale was brought news that needed to be relayed, but it wasn’t about battle. He hoped his fear was well hidden; the servants drew straws to see who would bring the bad news. Kale approached the stargazing emperor, sure that he knew Kale was there. Mages such as he knew where everyone was, certainly the servant right behind him. Kale couldn’t help but feel he was nearing a brooding dragon. “Sire, the masseur is missing.”

The emperor looked over his shoulder at Kale. His response was without hesitation. “You’ll have to do then, won’t you?”

It was barely believable that Kale would find himself in such a position under normal conditions. He was still wary of pursuing his ideas, but for what other reason would he be chosen? Any other servant would do an equally mediocre massage. Again he tried to rein in his imagination, tried to turn his thoughts to something chaste, but it was to no avail. A knot started in his stomach. He kept his hands moving over the emperor’s muscular shoulders.

“You have the hands of a swordsman,” the emperor said.

“I’ve never even held a sword, sire.” He hoped his playing the fool would convince the emperor to give him a solid answer.

The emperor chuckled. “How amusing you are, Kale.” A messenger appeared before them with folded note. Kale dropped his hands to his sides as the emperor read it and rose, started to dress. He gazed at Kale, who held his breath, then left the servant with his thoughts.

* * * * *

Kale walked a circle only a few paces wide in the stuffy, tiny room he shared. Even writing a long letter his brother, Kalil, didn’t help when it usually did. By the time his roommates returned from their nightly festivities he had tried to unsuccessfully end his tension.

“You need attention, man,” his friend and roommate, Itzal said. Each of them shucked off their clothes and climbed into their narrow bunks. They were inebriated and smelled of recent passion. “There were plenty of choices, we must have seen, what? Five young men waiting for work.”

“At least five,” another roommate said. “If not more. And of course there were as many ladies if you wanted something different from your usual.”

Kale shook his head. He didn’t want to risk jealousy. Servants for the emperor were hand picked for very specific reasons. There were no women serving the emperor, nor did he show interest in any other woman than the empress.

For three days their lord only returned to his chambers during the day, when Kale was asleep or elsewhere. Every time the door opened, any time he heard the others talking he held his breath to hear if his lord was returning. His fellows offered to pay for the companion of his choice, but no one else interested him. The emperor had more concerns than the other lords, other factors demanding his time. Kale started to work for longer hours, sleeping as little as possible to catch a glimpse of their elusive emperor.

Kale was elated when the man of his desire appeared once more. Kale could only watch from behind the velvet drapes of the adjoining room while the emperor tried on a new doublet. Several men with mirrors nearly danced around their emperor. “What do you think, Kale?” the emperor asked.

Kale’s breath caught in his throat. The other servants stared at him. “It’s a beautiful piece, sire,” he said as he bowed. Pride grew in his breast as the others were made aware of the emperor’s favor, but only Itzal seemed pleased.

The emperor motioned for everyone to leave, but he held out his hand for Kale to stay. “I would imagine you have a great knowledge of the finer things, considering the fine nobles you’ve served,” the emperor said. He turned to Kale and gave him that impish smile Kale so enjoyed. He had never seen the emperor smile at any other servant before.

“Thank you, sire.” Kale hoped the proof of his arousal was not evident through his clothes. The night was cool and quiet. He was frozen where he stood. It was the first time he was unable to decide what he should do next so he waited. If he was desired, there would be indication.

“For once I have a moment to relax,” the emperor said. He looked into a wall mirror and examined one of his bejeweled braids in the candlelight. After a moment he started to remove the green doublet.

Kale came to his senses and rushed to help. The garment was still warm. The emperor smelled of cloves and forest as he always did. When Kale stepped back his lord gave his hair a toss and stared into Kale’s eyes, he was once more riveted. Looking at a royal so directly could carry a terrible price; others had been tortured for less. The emperor’s eyes were luminous as if he would laugh, yet scornful. Nobles went about things differently than normal folk. There were always these games. Still he held the emperor’s gaze and his blood thundered through his veins. The emperor took a few steps until he was standing directly before Kale, looking down at him almost playfully.

“I am here to serve you, sire,” Kale said almost breathlessly. As the room grew increasingly dimmer the smell of snuffed candles wafted throughout the velvet clad furnishings.

“I have yet to see your best talents,” the emperor said. “It is one of those days where one desires an ease in tension, don’t you think, Kale?”

Kale swallowed and could only watch his mouth as he spoke. “U-use me as you wish. I only wish to please, sire.”

The emperor picked up a lock of Kale’s longish dark hair and drew it to himself, looking at it as if it were a thing of interest. Kale nearly came unhinged. “I suppose a visit with the empress is in order… She is often difficult as I’m sure you’ve heard.”

“I know nothing of such things, sire.” Of course Kale knew how the two of them fought. All the servants knew it.

The emperor chuckled. “You’re so tactful, Kale. She is first to call me malevolent. It could be said she knows me best. The problem with women, Kale, is that one never knows where one stands. But you and I understand each other, don’t we?”

“I wish for nothing else, sire.”

“So perhaps you have something different to suggest. If you’re clever perhaps I could show you the true meaning of sublime torment.”

Kale’s breath was shallow, his heart raced and he felt himself in a cold sweat. He felt his hair fall gently onto his shoulder as the emperor released it. Kale merely waited for the final signal that the time was immediate. He held his breath. The emperor spoke again. “No, I promise I will.”

The door opened. “Sire, a messenger,” a servant said.

The emperor took a step back and sighed. Kale tried to ignore the horrible tension and tried to clear his thoughts. He watched as his lord exited before he hurried to his room and punched the wooden bed frame. He sat on his bunk for a long time with his head in his hands before Itzal entered. “What’s wrong with you?” he asked. “Were you trying to diddle the emperor? Are you mad?”

“I’m not a novice. You weren’t there,” Kale insisted. “He touched my hair, dammit.”

Itzal shook his head, “Propositioning you or not, you’re in over your head.” Itzal had been a friend since childhood, was the one who found the position for Kale. “There will be no turning back from this…”

When Kale ignored Itzal’s advice, Itzal left and Kale sat there until the frenzy became manageable. He couldn’t shirk his duties. Numbly he went about his chores thinking only of his next encounter with the emperor, even thought of how he would perform and impress.

Time was slow to pass and he paused for dinner even though he had no appetite. The feeling in his stomach still hadn’t subsided completely. Other servants gossiped nearby. He managed to turn his thoughts, but it was difficult pulling his mind away from the vision and the words of his lord.

“…well it’s the nobles. What’s-his-name in the east. Turned traitor he has, now it needs to be tidied up. We won’t be on a regular schedule ’til things are sorted out…”

“Who?” Kale asked.

“What? You mean the noble who’s causing the ruckus? Begins with a T. Lives in that garish castle near Lake Luthaine. Can’t remember what his name is…”

Tiernan, Kale thought. Kale’s mind started to work with new clarity. He hurried to his room and fumbled in his drawer for parchment, ink and quill. The letter to Kalil was short and as jovial as he could muster. Once it was sealed he scrambled through the narrow maze of servants’ corridors to find a messenger willing to take the letter to his brother. Next he found the emperor—who was speaking with several courtiers on the other side of the castle. It took him a long time to find a fellow servant who knew where to locate their sovereign.

A day when someone ventured out into a foreign part of the castle was a rare day indeed. It was too easy to become lost in the different ages of construction in the gloriousness that was the royal home. His fellows would complain of his lengthy absence. But when they cooled he would have to tell them about the other opulent locations he’d traveled through.

Kale hid behind a massive pillar, listened to the conversation but only really heard the emperor’s voice echo through the corridor. He wished the emperor would sense him so he could remain unseen. He also hoped he wouldn’t be reprimanded for leaving his post. In time his wish was granted. The emperor waved for Kale to approach as the courtiers left him. They were alone in the corridor for as much as Kale could see anyone else. The emperor looked magnificent, larger than life. He leaned closer, spoke softly, “Yes, Kale?”

“Sire,” Kale said and swallowed. “I have a solution to a problem.” He tried to only look at the tiny jewels embroidered into the emperor’s doublet, not those intense eyes.

The emperor cocked his head. “Which would that be?”

He could barely breathe when the emperor’s eyes were upon him. “Two, if I’m clever, sire.”

The emperor raised an eyebrow.

“Sire, I’ve sent word to my brother and suggested he come here for work. He is privy to all that Tiernan knows—they’re consorts. I can convince him to tell your majesty all he knows. He is a loyal brother. He’ll do as I ask.”

He granted Kale a beaming smile. “Sweet Kale, it would be most helpful. I’m sure we could find useful employment for him.”

Kale bowed and smiled up at the emperor who gave him a small gesture to leave as if telling a child to skedaddle.

* * * * *

Kale watched the rain as he stood just inside one of the many servants’ entrances to the castle. It was the agreed spot to meet Kalil, one of the less-used entrances so they could talk before rushing off to work. He was staring at a puddle when he felt someone near. It was the emperor. His majesty was leaning against a nearby doorway and watching Kale. “Your brother approaches,” he said. “He arrives in haste.”

Never in a hundred years did Kale think their liege would appear in such a corridor. “Sire. Your magic tells your majesty so?”

“Questions are bold,” he said with a languid smile. “I sense many things with magic. Pity you have none. But it’s inevitable I’ll share mine with you.” He tilted his head. “And you barely know what that means for you.”

Kale and the emperor’s eyes locked. Kale felt his body respond. There was no controlling it.

“Here’s your brother. I’ll leave you to your reunion,” the emperor said. He came near, close to Kale, very close. “But don’t avoid your duties,” he said and glanced downward. “I shall see you at your post…” He turned and sauntered away.

Kale greeted Kalil with an embrace. As Kale led him to their quarters they discussed the future. “I could live a comfortable life,” Kale said. “A man of leisure. Wait until you see him…”

“Your vivid letters have told me much,” Kalil said.

“How goes it with Tiernan?”

His brother shook his head. “As always. But I don’t think Tiernan will miss me as much as he misses you.”

Kale smiled and said, “It’s hard work but very rewarding, even without the perk of a tryst.”

“You seem tense, brother.”

“It’s nothing. I’ll be better soon.”

Kale left him to settle in and returned to his work. There would be enough time tomorrow to discuss further. The information Kalil had would make Kale’s days bearable and might grant him a loftier position and security. Kale was starting to feel like quite the conspirator. Tiernan would be undone, and Kale would gain.

When he finally entered the emperor’s chambers he found the attendants had already left. The emperor was reading a book by the fire, wearing only a shirt and breeches; his hair was loose and shimmered in the firelight. Kale approached he could barely breathe. The emperor smiled but didn’t look up. “You’ve returned,” he purred.

“Yes, yes sire.”

“…For something you’ve so yearned for.” He turned a page then closed the book.

Kale nodded and swallowed. The emperor rose and strolled towards Kale, who once more could only stand there in a cold sweat. The emperor was so close to him now, inches away. He resisted the urge to pull off the emperor’s clothes.

“Now for your reward,” he said and leaned in close.

Kale closed his eyes. He felt the emperor’s warm breath on his neck and he arched himself, reached with his arms to touch… “Get out,” the emperor whispered. He withdrew.

Kale choked and watched in horror as the emperor became increasingly distant. “You-you promised…”

“I give you what I promised.”

Kale shook his head.

“The most sublime and personalized torment. The work I had to do for you to arrive at this climatic moment. You should be honored.” He pointed at the door. “Enjoy.”

“No.”

“No? Do you dare defy me? You think I would have any interest in a magicless commoner like yourself? The arrogance.” Another servant, Itzal, appeared with a robe and helped the emperor into it. Their sovereign waved his brocade-draped arm. “How have I been surrounded by servants who think they’re my equal?”

Kale’s breath quickened. “I gave you everything you wanted.” He looked at Itzal for support, but his friend was smirking like a fiend.

The emperor laughed. “I’ve never asked you for anything but to be a good servant.” He smirked at Kale, his eyes narrow. “And that you’ve done.”

“You…” He clenched his fists.

“What do you think you’re going to do, Kale?”

Kale lunged. “You bastard!” He only made it a few steps closer. The emperor’s magic pushed him to the stone floor with a thud, knocked the breath from him.

The guards burst through the doors and seized Kale, pulled him to his feet and waited for a command from their lord. Kale hurt all over from the force of the fall and the grips of the men holding him. Itzal stood behind the emperor, saying nothing but still pleased, vindictive. Kale’s mind raced.

“I was going to let you go, but an assault on my person…” the emperor smiled a little. “Don’t be sad, Kale. You’ll be better off than your brother, for you have been amusing if nothing else.” He cocked his head. “Itzal was right about you. Not a whit smarter, but apparently holds quite the grudge against you. He is blinded by vengeance as you were blinded by lust. Perhaps he’ll see again, as you see now.”

Kale looked again at Itzal, his betrayer. What wrong did Kale do to doom himself and his brother? Then it came to him, a wrong against Itzal’s family when they were young…

The emperor nodded to the guards who then dragged Kale away.

The last thing Kale heard was the voice he used to so enjoy. “Perhaps when you stand on a precipice admiring the view, Kale, take a step backwards instead of forward.”

A Domestic Disturbance

by Bernie Mojzes

 

“We’ve got to tell Dad.”

The response wasn’t a unanimous “No!” but it was a resounding one, echoing off the marble floor, off the polished granite ceiling, filling the Great Hall.

“Oh, come on,” Eris said with a mischievous smile. “Do tell Dad. That should be fun.” She elbowed Dionysus hard in the ribs. “Tell them.”

The handsome, olive-skinned god opened his eyes and rubbed his side. He looked around the room, burped delicately, then lowered his chin to his chest and resumed snoring.

Hephaestus grumbled through his copious beard. “You don’t get a vote.”

Eris batted her eyelashes. Aphrodite rolled her eyes, and kissed her husband softly on the neck.

Hephaestus cleared his throat.

“You don’t get a vote,” he repeated. “You or that drunken sot sitting beside you.”

“Hear, hear,” said a striking, severe woman with a longbow draped over her shoulder. “About time someone put you in your place.”

An older man rose from his aqueous seat in the corner, approaching the woman who had just spoken. “This is your fault.” He poked her with a dripping finger, hard enough that she stepped back. Briny water splashed. “Giving her ideas.”

“Ideas?” Artemis reached for her bow, but checked herself. “Pray, Uncle, what manner of ‘ideas’ do you speak of?”

“Just look at you! Running around dressed like a man. Riding a horse like a man. Running wild in the woods. It’s not proper.”

Artemis dropped her gaze to the seaweed draped strategically around Poseidon’s loins and raised her eyebrows. “And that is?”

“I think,” Eris said before Poseidon could formulate a retort, “what she’s trying to say is showing off works better if you have something to show off.”

Poseidon seized her throat, dangling her from his thick fist. She giggled and clapped her hands, even as her face grew red and mottled.

“We are forgetting why we are here.”

The voice was soft, but commanding. Athena laid a cooling hand on Poseidon’s wrist. Cursing, he released his grip, letting Eris drop, gasping, to the floor.

Athena crouched next to her sister. “This is why you don’t get invited to parties, dear.”

Athena stood. She glowed softly. Elegantly.

“We’re here to solve a problem. Preferably without involving Father. He’ll be angry enough as it is, even if we manage to solve everything without his help. If he has to intervene, heads will roll, and it won’t just be Demeter’s.”

Athena’s twin brother spoke up. “We have to find her. And if she won’t listen to reason, we must force her to take up her duties.”

Athena narrowed her eyes. “You can’t force someone to do something she doesn’t want to.”

Persephone bit her lip, turning her face away.

Apollo banged his fist on the wall. “Well, we can’t just go on without a Goddess of Fertility, now, can we? Who here wants us to be the Gods of the Desert? Leave that for Yahweh, and see where it gets him, a couple thousand years from now. I hate to say this, but we need her.”

“Perhaps someone else could do it?” Athena looked around the room at the assembled Olympians. None would meet her gaze. The room filled with the sound of nervous throat-clearing. “Just for a while, until she comes back.”

Apollo looked at his sister. “Brilliant idea. You should volunteer.”

“Hello? What part of Virgin Goddess don’t you understand?”

“That,” said the quicksilver boy in the shadows, “is a curable malady.” Hermes elbowed the blind boy sitting next to him. “C’mon, back me up here. Maybe your mom can help.”

“No.” Athena’s tone held indisputable finality.

She turned to Apollo. “Brother, who was it that suggested that Demeter would come back to us on her own?”

Apollo looked at his shoes.

“What’s that? I can’t hear you. Who was it that said it was just a phase she was going through? That she didn’t know how lucky she had it, and this was just the thing to teach her to be happy with her lot? That ‘women just get this way sometimes, and you just have to wait it out until they come to their senses’?”

Apollo bit his lip. “I didn’t…”

“You did. No, Brother. You let her go. You take her job.”

Apollo glared. “Harvest? Fertility? Marriage?

Athena nodded, an odd smile on her face.

“You tread on dangerous ground, Sister.”

“Do I?”

“You’d have me do women’s work? I am both god and man, and—”

“That’s also curable.” Hermes grinned and shrugged. “Just sayin’.”

Eris shook Dionysus. “Wake up, you’re missing all the fun!”

“I’ll not do women’s work, and I’ll not be made a mockery of by the likes of you!”

“Bit too late for that.” Eris’ eyes glittered.

Apollo’s fists clenched. “The answer is no. If one of us has to do it, it should be Persephone. After all, it’s her mother that caused this mess.”

“Oh, right. Pick on the girl who won’t defend herself.” Hermes leaned back in his chair, tipping it back on two legs. “C’mon, Athena, be my fertility goddess.”

Athena rolled her eyes.

“You don’t know what you’re missing, babe. My rod has wings.”

“I think Persephone is the perfect choice.” Poseidon’s words crashed like the surf against rocks. “Let Demeter’s daughter suffer for her crimes.”

“Oh, brilliant,” Artemis said, but before she could continue, Hades stood.

“I will not allow this.”

“But think about it,” Apollo said. “She’s already got the fertility goddess genes, and she’s already married, at least half the time. It’s a perfectly logical choice.”

“I find myself in reluctant agreement with my brother,” Athena said. “She is a good choice. With her consent, of course.” Athena turned to Persephone. “You do see how this is really for the best, don’t you, dear?”

“Absolutely not.”

“It’s not your choice, Hades,” Athena said.

“I think you’re outvoted.” Ares’ mocking sneer reflected in his voice.

“There is no vote.” Hades took a step toward the God of War. “She’s my wife, and that’s it.”

“Only for half the year.” Ares leered. “The other half…”

Hades’ fist connected squarely with Ares’ jaw, knocking him backward. Ares came back with sword drawn. Eris leaned against the wall, smiling contentedly. At least, until Ares’ sword vanished mid-swing.

“Looking for this?” Hermes dangled the great blade between two fingers.

With a roar, Ares launched himself at the God of Thieves. Had he reached where Hermes stood, he would have found himself clutching empty air, but he never made it that far. Hades and Hephaestus tackled the God of War to the ground. Coming to Ares’ rescue, Poseidon grabbed the two gods by the scruff of their necks, but his hands were slick with algae, and they slid free.

Scrambling, Hephaestus lost his footing in the puddle that accompanied Poseidon wherever he went. He grasped Hades and Ares for support, and all three tumbled against Poseidon’s legs, spilling him to the slippery-when-wet marble floor. Poseidon’s flailing arms caught Apollo and Athena, who went down with an offended shriek.

Artemis, reliving her tomboy youth, waded into the fray, punching anything that moved.

Eris grinned and clapped. This was more fun than Troy.

Aphrodite frowned as she watched the melee, then jumped when she realized someone stood uncomfortably close behind her.

“Hey, babe,” Hermes said softly in her ear. “Let’s blow this joint. If you ask nicely, I’ll even let you play with my sword.”

Aphrodite pursed her lips. “That’s not your sword. It’s Ares’, and it’s the one he uses for sticking boys. I’m sure you’ve noticed that I’m not a boy.”

She ran soft, electric fingers up Hermes’ spine, and knotted them in his curly brown hair. Hermes’ breath caught. The wings on his feet curled with pleasure.

“You’ll have to get your hands on his other sword,” she whispered in his ear. Her breath upon his ear brought goosebumps to his flesh. “It’s in there somewhere.”

With her fingers still twined in Hermes’ hair, Aphrodite pulled sharply and pitched him into the middle of the scuffle, where gods wrestled and slipped and beat each other bloody.

Aphrodite smiled and leaned back against a wall, safely out of harm’s way.

“Oh, Aphrodite,” Eris called sweetly from off to the side where Dionysus still snored.

“What now?” Aphrodite turned to face Eris, and found herself blinking through a thick, creamy foam. She wiped sticky meringue from her eyes.

“Oh look!” cried Eris with delight. “An anachronism! Eep!”

Hades hath no fury like a goddess pied; Aphrodite tackled Eris like a born wrestler. They rolled over Eros, who groped blindly at anything he could reach, and broke Dionysus’ chair, nearly spilling his wine. Bits of lemon meringue flew everywhere. Dionysus found another chair, pulled it away from the bulk of the fighting to the corner where Persephone sat biting her nails, and promptly fell back asleep.

Only to be woken abruptly by a fierce thunderclap. Spots floated in front of his eyes. “I was in Sparta!” he cried. “I’ve got witnesses who’ll back me up!”

Eris sat up, wiping blood and pie from her lips. “Hi, Pops,” she said with a gap-toothed grin.

Zeus towered over the Olympians. “What is the meaning of this?” Each word was tinged with lightning.

Everyone answered at once.

“SILENCE!”

Eris rubbed her thumb and forefinger together, making cricket chirping sounds until Aphrodite slapped her hands. Zeus scowled at the assembly. “Athena? What’s going on?”

“It’s all Demeter’s fault. You see, she…”

“Demeter isn’t here.”

“Exactly. That’s why it’s her fault. You see…”

“If she’s not here, it can’t possibly be her fault.”

“But…”

“No. You’re the oldest. You should know better. You’re responsible. Whatever the problem is, you take care of it.”

Athena’s spine stiffened. “There’s nothing in my job description…”

“YOUR JOB DESCRIPTION IS ANYTHING I SAY IT IS!”

“But…”

“And that’s the last I want to hear about it. If you say another word, you’re going to be so sorry you’ll wish you were back in my head.”

Athena opened her mouth, then shut it.

Zeus nodded his head in dismissal. He turned away, grumbling into his beard. “Why did I ever let Edith talk me into writing job descriptions? Nothing good can ever come from job descriptions.” He took a deep breath, and turned to face the older Gods. “Hades. Poseidon. My dear brothers… If you are ever involved in anything like this again, we will have a brief lesson about why I’m in charge, and you’re… well, we won’t go there in front of the children. Let’s just say that a very hungry eagle has hatched some very hungry chicks.”

And then Zeus was gone in a haze of ozone, leaving the assembled gods and goddesses in stunned silence.

Athena straightened her helm and adjusted her clothing.

“Don’t worry,” Hermes said, the quicksilver boy sidling a little closer to Athena. “It’s a quick and easy fix, and I’m really good at quick. Yes, it’s a sacrifice, I know, but we all must do our parts for the greater good, and I’m here for you in your time of need.”

“You’re right,” Athena said, after a moment’s concentration. She stepped back to assess the quicksilver girl, Goddess of Thieves and Messengers, and now of a few other things. “That was quick and easy.”

Hermes’ hands moved in hesitant self-discovery, tracing unexpected curves. “Oh. Well. I suppose this could work, too.”

 

The Case of the Tiny Man

by Richard Wolkomir

 

So I’m hearing two-ton feet clomp up the stairs to my office, and I’m smelling landfill, and I’m thinking: “Uh-oh.” I pull the .45 out of my drawer and lay it on the desk, my way of saying, “Howdy.”

Sure enough, the door opens—no knock, thank you—and it’s a troll. Big buster, too. He’s got to duck through the doorway. He’s wearing blue sunglasses. He’s also toting a jumbo rolled-up white parasol, which you can bet he carried opened outside, because if sunshine hits him, you’ve got a troll statue. He lowers himself into my client chair, and I’m thinking, you break it, you buy it. But it just creaks, and he sits glaring at me and reeking.

I’d open a window, except my office doesn’t have one.

To kill the aroma, I finger a smoke out of the pack on my desk and stick it in my kisser and butane it with my .45. Then I lean back, blow a smoke ring, give him the raised-eyebrows look.

“Need a shamus,” he grunts.

“Get an elf shamus,” I tell him.

“No,” he says. “You.”

He’s glaring at me with those cape-buffalo eyes, and I’m thinking, maybe—in demonstrating that my .45 merely ignites coffin nails—I erred. A real pea shooter would be helpful. But just now I’m short the kale.

“I don’t do magicals,” I tell him.

“Need a human,” he says. “You.”

“I don’t work over in Magictown,” I tell him.

“She says, this young man, he could sniff out a lost pickle in a pickle factory,” Big Stinky tells me.

“Who says?” I say, cracking wise. “My mother?”

“Yes,” he says. “Your mother.”

I’m thinking, Damn it, Mom!

She’s got this shop over where our half of the city nudges Magictown, and she sells everything organic and herby in there, from dried St. John’s wort to genuine fairy dust, flown in fresh every Friday from wee factories in Europe. She’s got human customers, from right here in Folkcity, plus all sorts creeping in from Magictown, a regular little shop of horrors.

“She says you need money,” says the troll. “Boss will pay $50,000.”

He had me at “need money.” At “$50,000” I felt faint.

But I play it cool—lean back, blow smoke rings at the tin ceiling. Big Stinky doesn’t need to know I’m three months into the shamus business, and so far my only case was a granny a-twitter because her heirloom earrings got heisted, and it turned out she’d absent-mindedly stashed them in the drawer with her undies. Twenty-five bucks for that. And the office rent due.

Big Stinky doesn’t say anything. Just watches me blow smoke rings. No expression except ugly.

“What’s the job?” I finally ask, faking a yawn, to indicate I sometimes do lower myself to accept a $50,000 case, but only if it offers both edification and spiritual development.

“You find the homunculus,” he says.

Okay, it’s edifying.

“Bring homunculus back,” he says.

Spiritual? You betcha!

“I’ll need a third up front, for expenses,” I say, like that’s my policy with these minor cases. “Also, I need facts, like what’s up?”

You can see he’s struggling to marshal his mosquito brain’s three neurons. But his strong suit is muscle. I figure he’s bodyguard for some Mr. Big, which is a bull’s-eye.

“I work in the Magictown Mayoral Personal Protection Division,” Big Stinky divulges. And then he whispers, as if invoking the deity: “Mayor Duskowl.”

“Ah,” I say, and blow another ring at the ceiling. “Wulf Duskowl won two gold medals in the Sorcery Olympics, then got elected Magictown’s mayor, slogan being ‘Let’s Have a Spell of Progress,’ and he gets kudos in the Magictown Monitorfor providing benefits to aging gnomes and boggarts, and orphaned pixies, and going after Saturday-night-special wands.”

I’m showing Big Stinky I’m up on his bailiwick’s news. I’m keeping it to myself that his ilk—Magictown’s citizenry—gives me the creeps.

“Election coming,” he says. “And the ogres…”

Turns out Mayor Duskowl’s up against the Ogre-Goblin Alliance in the next go-round, and they’re running on the platform, “Is It Dark Enough For You?” Wulf Duskowl and his Go-To-The-Light Party should be a shoo-in, but the ogres and goblins play dirty, zinging in well-placed spells, a hex where it hurts…

“Mayor needed a homunculus,” Big Stinky confides.

Duskowl, he says, contracted with Amalgamated Alchemical Laboratories, Inc., to brew a homunculus, which Big Stinky says is “a little guy, grows in a flask.”

I glean that a homunculus will magnify the mayor’s sorcery, double his whammy. And that will offset the ogre-goblin mud-balls.

But now the homunculus has gone missing. And a homunculus in bad hands…

“Went up in smoke?” I ask.

And I think Big Stinky’s going to cry.

“Long day—meetings and meetings,” he says. “Then a speech, then a soiree, and I’ve got to be watching because, well, you know how goblins are, and then it’s night, and I’m in the mayor’s office guarding the homunculus and…”

He looks, believe it or not, pathetic. The big lug.

“Hey, spill it,” I say. “I’m feeling your pain.”

“I fell asleep,” he moans. “On the mayor’s sofa.”

When he woke up, the next morning, no homunculus. He tells me nobody can get into the office but trusted aids, like him. Big Stinky’s convinced the homunculus went AWOL.

“Bugger!” he says.

He holds up his thumb, which is the size of my head: at the tip, it’s got a nasty bite mark.

“Homunculus, he’s a lemon,” Big Stinky says.

He tells me that Amalgamated Alchemical cut corners. For one thing, homunculus brewing’s main ingredient is a mandrake root dug up under a gallows. But the Magictown Fair-Trade Commission investigated—turns out Amalgamated got their mandrake root from a low-bid supplier, who claimed it was gallows certified, when it actually came from his backyard. Also, the Alchemical Regulatory Act stipulates a black dog must dig up the root before dawn on a Friday. But the supplier deployed his aged golden retriever, who slept in Friday, finally dug up the root on Saturday afternoon, then went back to sleep exhausted.

Net result: a malfunctioning homunculus.

“Why hire me?” I ask. “You’ve got plenty of elf shamuses over there.”

“Homunculus only talks to humans, the bugger,” says Big Stinky. “And he’s probably hiding over here in Folkcity, so we need a human shamus.”

“Okay,” I say. “I’m on it, just send my check—I’ll keep you informed.”

He picks up his parasol. He shambles to the door, taking his reek with him. Just as he’s about to duck out, I say, “Hey, one more question.”

He turns, stooped over, half in, half out.

“Who cleans the mayor’s office?” I ask.

“That would be Folkcity Superior Janitorial Services,” he says.

“Maybe I’ll give them a try,” I tell him. “Dust in here inflames my sinuses.”

I hear those two-ton footsteps clomping down the stairs and I’m feeling queasy. I’d vowed, no cases involving magicals. That their whole tribe has negative appeal, like a wart on your nose, that much I know. Otherwise, it’s all don’t knows.

I pocket my trusty .45—who knows?—and head for the obvious place.

Except, when I exit my edifice, across the street a twosome eyes me, a butterball of a guy and a woman with carrot-colored hair sticking up in that chic stuck-my-finger-in-a-light-socket look. He’s got a cast on one leg and a crutch and she’s got her arm in a sling, and they’re both peppered all over with Band-Aids. They pretend to check out omelet pans in the window of a used kitchenware store over there, but I’m not buying it. On the other hand, I don’t know what to do about it, either.

So off I go on my mission.

* * * * *

“Hey, Mom?” I say.

It’s a busy day at Piffin’s Naturals. Mom’s handing over a biodegradable corn-based plastic baggie, tied with a twisty and filled with yellow stuff, to a guy with pimples and a pallor who could probably benefit from just about anything. Meanwhile, a young woman is waiting to pay for three sticks of cinnamon, and behind her stands a gray-faced gnome with a bottle of Nature’s Glue.

I join the lineup, behind the gnome, and shout, “Mom—you know a big troll, wears blue sunglasses, smells like garbage?”

“Arlo,” Mom mouths at me. “Be polite.”

Now she’s ringing up the cinnamon sticks.

“That’s my son, Arlo,” she tells the young woman. “He wasted his childhood reading thousands of private-eye novels, and now he’s a shamus, when he could be helping the planet, like being an organic farmer, and that will be $6.57 for the cinnamon sticks, with tax, Janie—they’re particularly efficacious for your affliction if you brew them with jasmine tea.”

Janie stares at her purchase.

“You don’t think with rain-forest-friendly organic cocoa, Mrs. Piffin?” she asks.

“It’s your itch, not mine, dear, but I do think jasmine tea…”

Janie goes off to fetch jasmine tea. Now the gnome’s forking over a fiver for his Nature’s Glue.

“Mom,” I say. “About the troll…”

Mom sighs.

Addressing the gnome, she says: “I thought, since he’s a genius, he might get an exchange-student scholarship to Thaumaturgy U. in Magictown—he couldn’t be a clinical wizard, of course, but I thought maybe on the theoretical side…”

“Theoreticians are important, certainly,” says the gnome, pocketing his change. “Where else would the new spells come from?”

Mom sighs again, displaying her sad, disappointed look. Me, I’ve got my own disappointments. Like, since Dad took off for Nepal with a Starbuck’s barista, when I was three, Mom’s worn only black Victorian-era widow’s gowns, with little black bonnets, and who wants to bring fellow students home from the Folkcity Institute of Criminal Investigation to see that?

“Remember, don’t use too much glue, Edlok,” she tells the gnome. “And press the two pieces of bat’s wing together for at least five minutes, so it seals nicely.”

Exeunt gnome.

“Mom,” I say. “About the troll…”

“It was Grunlie,” she tells me. “He needed a human shamus, and guess who I said? Grunlie stops in for persimmon juice, for his digestion, and… Arlo, are you getting enough to eat?”

Now some guy in a gray suit comes over to pay for a broccoli-sprouts-and-organic-portabella-mushroom sandwich, with soy cheese, on organic spelt bread, in a biodegradable container made from compressed organically grown peanut shells. He’s looking at me, critical.

“This boy’s too skinny for a shamus,” he tells Mom.

He hands over his money, still eyeing me.

“Awfully young for a shamus, too—what, just out of college?” he tells Mom. “And he ought to lose that skimpy little mustache because it gives the impression he’s trying to look more mature.”

Mom, ringing up the transaction, sighs.

“Mr. Bridges,” she says. “You have no idea how many times I’ve told him to strengthen his chakras…”

She sighs again. Mr. Bridges shakes his head in sympathy with my mother’s burdens.

Exeunt Mr. Bridges.

By now Janie’s back with jasmine tea, which works well with cinnamon sticks versus the itch.

“Mom,” I say, “I’m on a big case here, and I’m wondering if any of your customers mentioned seeing a little guy around, small enough to take a nap in an orange-juice carton?”

Mom rings up Janie’s cinnamon sticks and jasmine tea.

“Well, somebody mentioned a human-headed pigeon perched up over the subway entrance at…”

But now Janie turns around and gives me a look.

“Funny you should mention that,” she says.

It turns out her boyfriend, just an hour ago, stopped for a brew at Sneaky Pete’s Tavern, three blocks from Piffin’s Naturals, and sitting in there on a bar-stool is a one-foot midget, wearing a Roman toga, totally skunked, buying beers all around, and regaling everyone in the establishment with a stream of invective targeting Magictown’s mayor, his assistants, and all the various races of magicals in general. So, like a slug from a revolver, I shoot out of there.

Then I shoot back.

“One question, Mom,” I say. “Ever hear of Folkcity Superior Janitorial Services?”

“No,” she says. “Have you tried the phone book?”

I give her look. And then I do shoot off to that tavern.

* * * * *

He’s there all right.

If he stood up real tall he’d be halfway to your knee. But, in fact, he’s lying on the bar on his back, snoring. His toga’s got a beer stain on it, but he’s got the face of a cherub. To me, though, he looks like $50,000. I just need to whisk him off to his rightful home.

Sneaky Pete, a bald beefalo with a seen-it-all look in his squinty eyes, is standing behind the bar wiping just-washed steins with a towel and clinking them onto a shelf. I give him a friendly wink.

“If you’re done with my Uncle Maynard here,” I say, nodding at the supine homunculus, “I believe Auntie Bridgett wants him home to help polish the silver.”

He gives me an “oh, yeah” look.

“Haul him out of here,” he says. “But not until—as his beloved nephew—you pay the thirty-two-bucks he owes, buying rounds.”

“Let me start a tab,” I say.

“Cash,” he says.

I’m thinking of snatching the little fellow and running like hell. But then I hear a woman’s voice behind me.

“Such a dear, cute teeny man, and that toga’s to die for,” she says. “Oscar, let’s pay his bill, as a charity.”

I turn, and it’s the woman I saw across the street from my office, with electrified red hair. Standing beside her is Mr. Butterball, and they’ve both still got their assorted casts, crutches, slings, and Band-Aids.

“We insist,” she says, snapping open her purse.

She extracts a Jackson, a Hamilton, and two Washingtons and slaps them onto the bar.

“Accept our family’s gratitude,” I say, scooping up the $50,000 homunculus before she gets her blue-enameled talons into him. “When Uncle Maynard wakes up, I know he’ll love you for it.”

“Our pleasure,” she says. “We’ll say our goodbyes outside, won’t we, Oscar.”

Her partner gives her a wink. I’m not liking this. But I’ve got the homunculus in my mitts, and I’m headed for the door, and I don’t see what these two bandaged-up semi- cripples can do about it.

Outside the bar, I feel something hard pushed into my back.

“That’s a .45,” says Oscar. “Hand over our little friend.”

“What you’ve got there,” I say, wry, “is a butane lighter shaped like a .45, examples of which I’ve seen.”

I feel the pistol withdrawn from my back. I turn, and Oscar’s holding the thing, looking at it.

“Why would you say that?” he says. “I paid a lot for this weapon in a gun shop this morning, and I’ve already test fired it in the alley in back of our apartment, and if you’re implying that I’m no good as a shopper…”

Clearly he’s got the nervous twitchies. Which bodes ill in a fellow waving a loaded Smith and Wesson. Especially since I notice we’ve got the street to ourselves.

“Look,” I tell him. “What I’m saying is, murder somebody for a midget, you sit on Old Sparky.”

“I’ll just shoot off your kneecap,” he says.

“Gimme,” says Carrot Top.

And she takes.

So now she’s holding the little darling, who’s still snoring. And I’m standing there with Oscar shakily pointing his popper at me. And I’m thinking, so what’s wrong with being an organic farmer?

“Turn around,” Oscar says.

When I do that, my head explodes, from getting hammered with Oscar’s pistol’s hilt. Next, I’m sitting on the sidewalk watching shooting stars. And when the fireworks end, I’m sitting there all alone, sans the $50,000 homunculus, but with a headache.

Which gets my gumption up. So I moan my way to a telephone booth and check the book.

* * * * *

I find the place squeezed between a plumbing equipment wholesaler and a glass-repair shop. Its faded window sign says: “Folkcity Superior Janitorial Services—We’ll Come Clean.” Smaller letters spell out “Oscar and Nadine Slocum, Proprietors.” It’s closed-up tight, nobody home.

At the glass shop next door, I check their phone book for Slocum. Then I’m on my way. But, en route, I duck into a pet store and purchase a kitty carrier, using the last of my fortune. So I’m toting that when I walk up the front steps of their grimy brick tenement, where a muscle-bound bearded guy in a black suit and a black fedora leans against the balustrade, smoking something black and acrid. He gives me a yellow-eyed look.

I check the foyer mailboxes, then slog up three flights, smelling various residents’ cuisine, mostly hotdogs. I fetch up at 3C, from which emanate thumps and thuds.

I’d guess the Slocums are practicing their free-style dance routine, except I also hear an “Ouch!” I can’t see anything through the keyhole. But I have in my pocket a wire for jimmying locks, which is illegal. But $50,000 trumps scruples.

I get the door open an inch, peep inside, and see Oscar on his keister beside an overturned lamp. He’s rolled up one trouser leg to examine a gash in his shin, and Nadine’s brandishing a kitchen chair, lion-tamer style, to ward off the homunculus, who’s waving a fork at her, yelling in a high squeak: “Fraternizes with the enemy!” Off to one side I see a chicken-wire cage, where I suppose they were keeping him, with the door busted open. I’m betting Oscar doesn’t have his automatic handy.

So I step right on in with my kitty carrier.

All three stop their mayhem and look at me. I pull out my own .45 and wave it at Oscar, then at Nadine, and forget to mention it’s only a smokes lighter. Then I turn my attention to the little fellow in the toga, still holding his fork and eyeing me, undecided.

“Hey there, Mr. Homunculus,” I say. “I’m with the Folkcity Anti-Kidnapping Squad—have you been abducted?”

“Hah,” he says, in that squeaker of a voice.

He peers at me, looking like an infant. Except that he’s a perfectly formed man the size of a squirrel.

“Don’t listen to him,” says Nadine. “He’s a shamus working for Wulf Duskowl and…”

I show her my .45, wordlessly threatening her with the wrath of butane. So she zips it and I give the homunculus a warm smile.

“Let’s get you out of here,” I tell him.

He narrows his eyes, expressing distrust.

“What’s Duskowl paying you?” Oscar says, from the floor.

“Our people will double it,” says Nadine.

“Trust ogres and goblins?” I say.

Now the homunculus puts down his fork and applauds.

“Ogres and goblins are slime,” he squeaks. “Wizards and sorcerers are puke, and elves, kobolds, pixies, kelpies, and imps are goat spit, and…”

Such thoughts have occurred to me. But squeaked out loud, they sound bigoted.

“Just because a few bad apples,” I start to say, “act in ways we might disapprove…”

But the homunculus sticks out his tongue at me and utters a Bronx cheer.

So I grab the little bugger by his toga and toss him into my kitty carrier and lock its door. He’s screaming curses at me and kicking the wires with his perfectly formed tiny foot.

“Toodle-oo,” I tell Oscar and Nadine, on my way out the door.

But then I back into the room again, because charging down the hall is the yellow-eyed creep in black who was hanging around the apartment house’s front stoop. And as he comes he’s transforming into a gangster-clothes-wearing wolf. I have a really bad feeling about this.

In his kitty carrier, where he is now sitting cross-armed and cross-legged, like a pipsqueak yogi, the homunculus proclaims: “Werewolves eat donkey dung!”

I’ve got my .45 out, pointed at the wolf’s drooling snout.

“Hold it right there, Rin-Tin-Tin,” I say.

I mean it to sound tough, but it comes out a shriek. Upon which the werewolf sits down on his hairy butt and starts silently laughing, shoulders shaking. He wolfishly grins, showing off his fangs.

“You took your time getting up here,” Nadine tells the werewolf. “And you people never told us the homunculus is a little jerk who bites and kicks and scratches and that he might bust free and go on a toot, and…”

A growl shuts her up. Wolfie gives them a yellow-eyed glare, then turns those yellow eyes on me. He crouches for a spring, planning a dinner of shamus tartare.

I’m thinking, maybe I can butane him, and then he’ll stop to hold his burnt nose. So I’m aiming my .45, except I’ve got my eyes closed, yearning for magical powers of my own, like the ability to change a werewolf into a werecanary, waiting for that hairy body to hit me, and the teeth…

But nothing happens.

I open my eyes and there on the floor at my feet stands a confused-looking canary.

So I hoist up the kitty carrier and evacuate the joint, drunk-lurching on rubber legs. I wobble down the stairs, and only after I’ve put a couple of blocks between me and Chez Slocum do I realize the homunculus shot out a little magic on my behalf.

I peer into the kitty carrier.

He’s sitting in his yogi position, arms and legs folded, scowling.

“Thanks,” I say.

He looks away, making it clear we’re not on speaking terms.

“Hey,” I say. “You’re the magical, not me!”

He won’t look at me.

But I’m looking at $50,000. It’ll almost make up for losing his friendship. Now I need to get him to Magictown’s City Hall without getting hexed. I figure they’ll be watching my office.

So I go to the obvious place.

* * * * *

“Hey, Mom,” I say. “My cell phone’s getting zero bars—can I use your landline?”

We’re sitting in her office cubicle, just off the shop, and she’s counting the day’s take. She looks up at me over her octagonal rimless reading specs.

“But I always get lots of bars here,” she says.

“Uh-oh,” I say.

I try the landline phone. It’s dead.

So I won’t be calling Big Stinky at the Magictown Mayor’s office, saying come collect the merchandise. I inch back the window curtain to peep at the street. Two goblins lean against separate telephone poles. Two more skulk in a doorway, smoking. They’re all wearing black fedoras. One wears a Miley Cyrus backpack. And they’ve all got their beady reds fixed on Piffin’s Naturals’ front door, which is its only door.

“They’ve blanked the phones,” I tell the homunculus, who’s sulking in his kitty carrier. “So you choose—Mayor Duskowl? Or those goblins out there?”

He gives me a raspberry.

“Look, give me some support here,” I say. “Pop some more magic—do it for the Gipper.”

He turns his back.

“Arlo, homunculi don’t do magic on their own,” Mom tells me.

“He just turned a werewolf into a werecanary,” I say.

“Oh, dear,” Mom says, giving me a wide-eyed look.

A bang on the door.

We’re disinclined to open it. So now the door gets the full running four-shoulder whamo. That busts its puny lock. It careens open, and I’m looking at four sets of red eyes.

“Arlo,” my mother says. “We have to talk.”

“Not a good time,” I say, pulling out my .45 and showing it to the goblins.

One of them lazily points a finger and the gun sears my hand. I drop it, trying to shake away the burn, which gives the goblins the giggles. Now they spot the homunculus in his kitty carrier, and my question is, do we get out of this still breathing?

I see my mother take a deep breath and sigh.

“Arlo, you should know your dad’s mother was an undine,” she tells me. “His father—your grandpa—met her at an inter-university mixer.”

Now the goblins start toward the kitty carrier, on a collision course with me. Because in this little cubicle I’ve got nowhere to duck.

“I thought you should know,” Mom says.

I get whammed onto the floor. I see goblin hiking boots pass over my prostrate form. I see a hairy goblin hand, claws badly needing a clipping, reach for the kitty carrier. I see the homunculus looking from me to the goblins.

I find myself longing—a deep, aching yen—for Big Stinky’s companionship.

The goblin holds up the kitty carrier, peering at the homunculus inside. The homunculus glares back.

“Goblins,” the homunculus declares, “are bat guano.”

Which causes the goblin to shriek and shake the cage, proving goblins are so sensitive it’s a wonder they get through their days. And do they always stash rope in their backpacks?

Because now Mom and I are sitting on the floor, each with our ankles tied together, and our wrists tied behind our backs. And the goblins are holding a meeting, of which I hear snatches.

“…witnesses…”

“…yeah, and the Elections Commission would…”

“Burn the place down, with them in it?”

Goblin giggling.

Out of the backpack comes a can of lighter fluid. A goblin pours the stuff around on the floor, whistling while he works. Meanwhile, another goblin digs in his pocket for matches.

“So, because of your paternal grandmother being an undine, Arlo, you’re one-quarter magical,” Mom whispers. “Which opens up the possibility…”

“Magicals disgust me,” I moan. “I’ve always despised them.”

“Arlo, that’s because of a suppressed childhood memory,” Mom says.

I’m watching the goblin finally strike a match. He stares at the flame, giggling.

“It’s my fault,” Mom whispers. “Because your father didn’t actually run off to Nepal with a Starbucks barista, which I told you because I was so mad at the hussy.”

She sighs.

“Actually, he ran off to Nepal with a succubus, whom I thought was sort of my friend and… I think you knew the truth, though, and it left you with this sad prejudice, as if one depraved, sex-addicted, toxic-waste-super-site of a succubus means the whole race of magicals is…”

I glumly watch the goblin lean down to ignite the puddle of lighter fluid on the floor.

“I’m only a quarter magical,” I tell Mom. “It’s not enough.”

“This homunculus is a magic magnifier,” Mom says.

I squint my eyes shut and think: snuff the match!

I open my eyes and the goblin is staring with irritated red eyes at a snuffed match. He reaches for another.

How big can I go with this, I wonder. Fill the room with pink fog that puts goblins—and only goblins—into a deep snooze? Probably beyond me. Also, I see the homunculus glaring at me from the kitty carrier. He hates goblins, he hates me. If he’s not a willing magic magnifier, does the enterprise fizzle? Now the goblin has match number two lit. I’m about to snuff it, when I notice that all four goblins hold lit matches. Which they throw onto the lighter fluid on the floor before I can say presto, and giggle around the resulting campfires, pretending to warm their hands.

One of them gives me an ironic salute, clawed forefinger to his forehead, and they start out the door with the homunculus in his carrier. And I’m thinking, there goes the magic.

“Arlo, do something,” Mom says.

And I’m really, really wanting to. But all I can think of is “rabid canary,” remembering my werewolf triumph.

Next, all four goblins back into the cubicle again, where the fire is crackling and it’s getting smoky—a werecanary is flying at them and pecking, while they try to swat it away. I squint my eyes again and wish real hard and when I open them the fires on the floor are snuffed.

But now, while two goblins swat at the attacking canary, which is executing barrel rolls and nosedives, the other two gaze at the homunculus, then at me, with wild surmise. They start toward me with a red glare in their eyes.

I squint my eyes shut and wish away my ropes. Which works. I stand, retrieve my .45 from the floor, squint again, wish again, and voila! I am now holding a genuine automatic, which I point at the goblins, figuring that if they point at my hand to give me the burns, the trigger gets pulled.

So we’re all glaring at each other when something big and smelly, wearing blue sunglasses, shoulders through the doorway.

“Hey, what took you so long?” I say.

“Your message comes, all funny and hard to understand,” he says, one-handedly grabbing two goblins by their shirt fronts and with his other paw grabbing two more, and holding them up like chickens he just bought at the Chinese market.

Coming in behind him is a skinny guy, not much older than me, wearing a wizard’s robe.

“I’m Wulf Duskowl,” he says, taking in the scene.

“I’m Arlo Piffin,” I say. “And in that kitty carrier is your homunculus, and you’re welcome to him.”

“Did you know we’re distant cousins?” Duskowl says.

Turns out my paternal grandmother, the undine, was his maternal grandfather’s sister. Are we all family, or what?

“How do you feel about nepotism?” he asks.

* * * * *

So that’s how I come to be sitting in my new office, over here in Magictown. Sign on the door says: “Mayoral Bureau of Special Investigations, Arlo Piffin, Director.”

Salary? Substantial.

Benefits? Cool.

Satisfaction? Not bad, except for the reek—Big Stinky’s got the office next door. And the homunculus has his tiny desk beside mine, and we don’t get along.

 

Old Soldiers Never Die

Old Soldiers Never Die

Illustration by Alan F. Beck

by Robert E. Waters

 

Rina peeled off a juicy wedge of orange and fed it to the head she was sitting on. She heard Captain Petre’s quick inhalations as he sniffed the fruit. He didn’t need to eat, she knew, but it kept him happy and his mouth moist. After two hundred years buried up to his rusty gorget, it was the least she could do. If she had enough oranges, she’d feed all of the heads lined up around her, row after row, as far as the eye could see.

Dried lips and yellow teeth snapped the wedge from her gentle fingers. No matter how often she fed the captain fruit, his quickness startled her. Though trapped in dirt and rock, he was still a warrior, strong and proud, and she tried to respect that. Rina felt herself lift as he chewed the fruit, his muscular jaw working the pulp. He was a big man; his head made a good stool, if not a little bumpy.

She got up and tossed aside the spent orange peel. She dusted off her dress and wiped her mouth clean. She then took a small kerchief from the tassel at her waist, bent down, and wiped the spittle and juice from Captain Petre’s face. It was a strong face, one cupped in a forest of red stubble. A face that never changed.

“Thank you, my dear,” Captain Petre said. His voice was gravelly and hampered by a tuft of grass in hard clay beneath his chin. “You are the sweetest little girl.”

Rina smiled. She liked the captain. She liked many of the soldiers she had met in this field. Many of them were her friends. But Captain Petre was special. He told good stories.

A commotion erupted to her right. She turned and saw her brother’s cur, Grey Jack, lifting his leg over the head of an old halberdier. The poor man tossed frantically back and forth to try and shoo away the mutt, but it did little good. A thin stream of piddle splashed across the russet helm, and a great voice filled the air. “For the love of heaven and earth, will someone kill this dog!”

Cries and whistles, and more than a few chuckles erupted across the field as the Chorus of the Sundered began. That’s what it was called. When the heads wailed in unison, their collective voices were heard for miles around. When the wind was up, or when a rain or snow covered the land, the moaning would go on for days, sometimes weeks. The song could chill the bone and ruin the flesh, some mystics said. But sometimes, when a pleasant eastern breeze wound through the valley, and the warm light of a generous sun brought daisies and wildflowers in bright beds between the columns of heads, their song was melodic and comforting. It lifted the spirit.

Rina shook the thought from her mind and chased the dog away. She stepped carefully between the heads, cautious not to catch a toe on an iron visor or catch her laces on a discarded sword. Many villagers and thrill-seekers had caught their death by the simple prick of the tainted steel that lay afoot. It was forbidden to be in The Field of Heads, and Mama had been most stern about the rule, giving Rina and her brother Kristof an oak switch across their backsides when she had caught them in the past. But Rina didn’t care. Playing among the heads was her favorite thing to do in all the world.

Rina removed the wet, brittle helmet. She recognized the soldier immediately. “I’m sorry, Binus. He’s just an old, dumb mutt. He doesn’t know any better.”

A foot came down on the soldier’s head. Rina jumped back. The crooked frown of her brother met her gaze. “Grey is not a mutt,” he said. “Take it back.”

Rina pushed against his leg, though she wasn’t strong enough to move the big bully. “He peed on Binus. That makes him a mutt to me.”

Kristof snickered, but knelt down and snatched the helm from her hands. He placed it back on Binus’s weathered, pale head. He rapped his knuckles across it as if he were knocking on a door. “He doesn’t mind… do you, old man? Why, it’s the first bath you’ve had in a hundred years.”

“Say you’re sorry!” Rina balled up her little fist and popped her brother on the shoulder. It didn’t hurt, but it threw him back and away. He stood up quickly to the roars of laughter from the heads nearby. Rina braced for a push, but her brother did nothing. Perhaps he was surprised by the soldiers barking at him; perhaps he was growing up a little.

“Don’t be so upset. By the gods, I was just having a little fun.”

A little fun is not what her friends needed nor wanted. Enough people had come to The Field to have “fun” with the heads. Kicking them, jumping from one to the next, leading their livestock through the maze of helms and pikes, letting their animals poop everywhere. And even more sinister and evil sorts would come and take knives to faces or bare throats. Clubs and shovels. Cleavers and axes. All in the name of fun. All in the knowledge that pain could be inflicted, but no permanent damage. So what was the harm? They deserved it, right? Isn’t that what the stories told?

Kristof tugged at her shoulder. “Come on. I want to show you something,” he said.

Rina hesitated. “What is it?”

But he had already trotted away towards the cobbled road. “Come on. Don’t be such a baby.”

Rina stamped her foot. She wasn’t a baby. She just didn’t like the heads on the other side of the road. They were the enemy, Captain Petre had declared. They were thinner and almost always bald with tattoos and other dark markings. And what helms had survived the years of torturous weather were sharp and many sealed to black iron mail. They were disgusting. She didn’t like them. But she was no baby. She stepped over the road and followed her brother through the sea of heads.

They were active this morning, barking obscenities and other foul things across the way, in an attempt to anger the other side, to get them to bark back. It was a game they played, and sometimes the shouting became so awful that Rina was driven from the field.

“Where are you going? Wait for me!” Rina yelled to her brother.

He waved her on, almost stumbling over a thick patch of helms, spears and barding.

There were a lot of horse bones on this side of the field. It was scary but Rina did her best. The horses had not been cursed, but they had been driven into the ground like their riders. Soon they all had died, their flesh and muscle rotting with the seasons, leaving bleached rib cages and leg bones and skulls in shifting heaps. A lot of it had been removed by smugglers and thieves, but enough remained to give off a blinding white glow when the sun was at its zenith. Rina shielded her eyes and kept moving.

Her brother disappeared into a patch of wood. Here, the line of ancient infantry was its thickest. It was difficult to step without kicking a head, and more than a few choice words escaped the mouths of the soldiers around her.

“Watch your step!”

“Do you mind?”

“If I were free and had a sword, I’d lop off your head!”

Rina was used to their nastiness. She couldn’t blame them. If she were stuck forever in the hard ground, she’d be nasty too. She ignored them, gave a few dirty looks, stuck out her tongue at one of them, kicked a little dirt into another’s eyes, and plunged into the woods. Near a cropping of rock, she saw her brother and his yappy dog. Grey Jack was barking and nipping at something, but this time, her brother held him back, keeping the dog from biting and scratching the sharp, dirty helm covering a head.

“What is it?” Rina asked, out of breath.

Kristof smiled and motioned her closer. “Are you ready for a look?”

Rina waited, her hands on her waist. Kristof pointed downward. He grabbed the pointy top, turned it slowly, then lifted it off.

Rina looked into the face of the head revealed. She gasped and fell down.

* * * * *

“Why didn’t you tell me you had a twin brother?”

Captain Petre turned his head from Rina’s inquiring eyes. She moved into his view. “Don’t turn away. Please tell me.”

“Tell her the story, Captain,” a head nearby said. It was Kellin, Captain Petre’s aide-de-camp.

“Yes, tell her!” A chorus of voices spoke up. Rina could feel their vibrations through the ground. It tickled her feet.

The cries became too great. “All right! Just shut up, the lot of you!” Petre screamed. “I will tell her the story, if you’ll just pipe down. Your yapping is making me ill.”

Captain Petre cleared his throat and looked up. “Sit down, child, and I will tell you about my brother Regan. He is dead to me, but I will tell you, if only to keep these bastards around me quiet.”

Foul curses erupted again. Captain Petre waited until it stopped. Then he began…

* * * * *

…the writhing mass of the grand army of Saint Fydorov excited him. He had seen them march before, when he was just a boy. But now, as a man, Petre Gorov looked upon the columns with renewed pride. His heart raced. Pike and halberdier, knights and swordsmen, as far as the eye could see. Their martial music marked tempo with the constant shift of boots upon the ground. Their colorful banners waved proudly in the misty air. If there was a time that he should join them, it was now. They were moving south. They were going to face Lord Hrudiz and his grand force of the Liebstag. They had met him many times before on bloody fields. They were going south, and they would return victorious… or not return at all.

“I must go,” Petre told his father that night. “There will never be a better time.”

His twin brother Regan stood nearby, listening intently, waiting to hear their father’s answer.

Father shook his head. “No. You are the eldest of the house, born before Regan. I am too ill to work the fields, and therefore The Saint can make no claim on you. You are needed here to serve me, your mother, your brother, and your sister. That is my decision.”

But that night, as the moon fell behind the clouds, Petre and Regan ran away. They followed the army south, and when they found it, they volunteered on the spot. Petre was made a swordsman, Regan a pikeman.

For years they campaigned against Lord Hrudiz, from the Shokolov Steppes to the massive pinewood of the Tandorov Valley. Tens of thousands of soldiers died, and a thousand score innocents who stood in the way. Both Petre and Regan rose through the ranks, gaining prestige and glory in battle after battle. But neither side could capitalize on the fortunes of their victories, and things grew desperate.

Then Saint Fydorov decided that the long-standing policy of officer exchange no longer applied. Lord Hrudiz countered. Then no quarter was allowed at all, as each side tried to out-murder the other. It was a time of terrible, bloody strife.

In this time, Regan Gorov was captured, and his brother Petre presumed him dead. Then one day, as Captain Petre’s men advanced onto a grassy ridge in the center of the Bitikov fields, he saw a familiar man atop a grey dun, wearing the red-and-black-stained mail of the enemy. The enemy charged, and Petre’s swordsmen stood their ground. The cavalry struck and a great battle ensued. Then in the midst of the slaughter, Petre saw the man again, thrown from his horse. His sharp helm fell away and what was laid bare to all enraged and saddened him. It was Regan, fighting and killing for the enemy.

Petre, feeling the tears well in his eyes, raised his sword and charged. The traitor counter-charged, and they fought.

“You were captured,” Petre said through ringing sword blows. “You were killed.”

“It isn’t so,” Regan said, parrying a thrust. “I live.”

“You are a traitor,” Petre said.

“No, that isn’t true,” Regan said. “I have seen the light, my brother. Saint Fydorov’s crusade is a perfect evil. He means to destroy the world.”

Petre jabbed with his sword again. “You lie.”

“It is true. Look around you. He was the one who first declared no quarter. He is the one who orders the slaughter of every innocent woman and child. He is the one dragging this war out infinitely. A peace has been proffered, and The Saint refuses to accept.” Regan held out his hand. “Come with me, brother, and help me end this war.”

Petre answered with a sword swing, but before further discussion could be made, reinforcement cavalry raced up the hill, and Captain Petre ordered his men into a fighting retreat. As they fell back, he could not take his wounded eyes off his brother, his younger by mere minutes. The traitor to his people, to his mother and father, to his own brother. And through the chaos and smoke of war, Regan’s face faded away…

* * * * *

“…and that was the last time I saw him,” Petre said, then closing his thin lips.

Were those tears in his eyes? Rina wondered. She had never seen the captain cry before. She didn’t know it was possible. “That’s so sad.”

“Yes. Regan’s treachery was profound.”

Rina shook her head. “No, I mean, it’s sad that you haven’t talked to your brother, or seen him, for so long. You never saw him again?”

Petre gave his head a little shake. “Jeshok, the God of All, hammered us into the ground before our armies could meet.”

“Do you miss him?”

Petre hesitated, then said, “Despite my better judgment, I do. I’m surprised of it, actually. I’ve spent so many years thinking about his deceit, his dishonor. But now… now that I know he lives, and just over the ridge, I—”

The captain could not continue. Another tear escaped his eye. It ran down his face, leaving a mark through a crust of dust and dirt.

The sun was setting. Soon, Rina’s mother would wonder where they were. Kristof had already gone home and so had Grey Jack, much to the joy of Binus. Clouds were forming in the east. The rains would come soon.

“It’s time for you to go, little one,” Captain Petre said. “Get on home to a warm meal and a good bed. You can come back tomorrow if you like.”

Rina stood. She waited for a moment, looking down at her friend, down at the uncountable rows of heads.

She wanted to cry too.

* * * * *

Kristof ’s eyes were fixed on Rina as they walked up the mystic’s path. “You’ve lost your head,” he said. “Mama will beat you silly when she finds out.”

Rina ignored him. She had already explained her plan twice. She was not about to explain it again. He had promised to come with her so she didn’t have to face the old shrew alone. He agreed. That was that.

She tapped on the door. It was dark inside. Rina could feel her heart race. Visiting mystics was definitely not allowed. They were creatures of magic and arcane lore. Some in the village used them for medical purposes and for divining the future. But there was never any account that Rina could remember of a mystic doing anyone any good. But she had no choice. What she wanted needed the power and experience of someone like Madam Plotka.

A withered crone opened the door. She was small and bent at the knee. Her black shawl covered a crooked frame of pale skin. The wrinkles on her face at first seemed sharp and angry, but as she waved Rina and Kristof in, they smoothed as a smile crept across the leathery landscape of her cheeks like the cracks of an earthquake. Rina liked her immediately.

“Come in, come in,” Madam Plotka said, waving them forward. “It isn’t often I have children visit me.”

The old lady moved past them slowly, her cane knocking around in front of her. It was clear that her eyesight was not the best. Rina hoped that she could see well enough to help them.

She ushered them onto stools, then took a chair herself. Her knees creaked and she gave a small yelp as her bony rump met the wood. Rina tried to keep from laughing. Madam Plotka caught the little girl’s smile. “There is no humor in getting old, child. Even your friends in the Field of Heads can attest to that.”

Rina’s mouth popped open. “You know?”

Madam Plotka laughed, a high-pitched squeal that tingled the ears. “Everyone knows about Jeshok’s Curse, girlie. And I’m a mystic. I can read minds.”

“Then you know why I’m—, why we’re here?” Rina looked at her brother for support.

“I know everything, child.”

Rina appreciated Madam Plotka’s confidence, but she doubted the old woman’s honesty.

“You doubt me?”

Rina shrugged. “I don’t know you well enough to say, miss. But I’ve been told that you sometimes… exaggerate.” Rina shrunk a little on her stool, as if she expected to be smacked.

Madam Plotka leaned forward. She ran a thin, dark tongue over cracked lips. She winked. “You are wise beyond your years, girlie.”

Rina wished it were not so. But she had grown up quickly. Her father had died of a stampeding horse when she was four. She had witnessed it. She remembered him looking up from the mud, his face covered in grime and blood. He had smiled. She had reached out to him. He tried to do the same, then went slack. She cried for days. It wasn’t easy, but she had gotten over it, tried to forget it. And living with Mother was difficult. A widowed woman had it tough in the world; she was not respected. Mother refused to marry again, though suitors had called upon her. Rina found it hard to make friends, especially with a brother who constantly teased. The heads in the field were her friends, and they neither judged nor criticized her. It was nice having friends that never died.

“So can you help me?” Rina said.

The old lady rubbed a finger across her hairy chin. “You want me to bring Captain Petre out of the ground, and his brother too, so that they may meet once more. Is that what you’re asking?”

Rina nodded.

“This is stupid!” Kristof said. He tried to get up, but Madam Plotka stared him down with a dark stare.

“Indeed it is,” Madam Plotka said, “but are you always this disrespectful in someone else’s house, young man?”

Kristof stopped, shook his head, then sat down. He crossed his arms and looked away.

“He is right, girlie,” Madam Plotka said. “It is a foolish thing you are asking. Fiddling with Jeshok’s Curse is a quick way to die.”

“But he’s my friend,” Rina said, “and he misses his brother.”

“He should have thought of that before joining that bloody war… and angering the gods.”

Rina had heard the story a million times. Captain Petre’s version was always the best, the most enjoyable, the most exciting, despite its sad ending.

The armies of Lord Hrudiz and Saint Fydorov had clashed for days on the Girtok Plains. It was the greatest battle in a war that had been waged for decades, and while both sides seemed infinitely prepared to continue the slaughter, the gods grew tired of it all, especially Jeshok, Lord of All. He was tired of seeing his creations kill themselves needlessly. Many peace offers had been proposed, but not one of them accepted. Jeshok’s children ignored his pleas for peace.

The armies lined up, row upon row of sword and pike and horse, all regaled in their finest plate and chain. Again, Jeshok warned them to stop, and sent his angels to urge their compliance. Again, Man refused. And just as the two forces moved to engage, dark clouds formed in the sky, as if a mighty flood would come. But what came out of the clouds was even more powerful, more devastating. Men looked up and saw a fist, dark and ethereal, a massive rock of black, angry smoke. Before they could run the fist struck, pounding scores into the bloody ground.

Nothing escaped, not even the squirrels in the trees. Everything on the field that day was hammered into the fold, up to their necks. But only the men were cursed, the soldiers who had shed blood, those who had defied Jeshok’s demands and had put themselves above the gods. Now they would live in a prison, never to grow old, never to die. They would endure the passing of time, the changing of seasons. They would know pain, anger, sorrow, fear, desperation, hopelessness. They would endure every emotion perpetually, year after year, century after century, in payment for those lives they had taken, for those they had killed and had denied the right to feel, to fear, to weep, to despair.

Rina would sit for hours and listen to Captain Petre tell the story. It was very exciting. But sad too. So sad. So many lives lost, and for those poor men out there, locked in the ground. How many of them were just following orders? Were they to blame for the decisions of lords and kings and generals… and captains?

“But you can bring them out, can’t you?” Rina said. “You have a way?”

Madam Plotka nodded. “Of course, girlie. That’s never been the question. There have always been ways to get around Jeshok’s Curse. The question is: Who wants to defy the God of All?”

Rina shook her head. “I don’t care about a silly curse. My captain wants to see his brother. It’s been long enough. They’ve suffered enough.” She broke down in tears, letting them run down her cheeks. “Don’t you have any family? How would you like it if you were never allowed to see your brother or sister or father again?”

If you can read my thoughts, then listen to me now. Rina stared deeply into Madam Plotka’s eyes, letting the old woman see her cry. Please help me, and I will give you something that you can use in your magic. Her eyes drifted to her brother who sat there bored, disinterested, looking up at the bare rafters of the house. Rina formed the image of an object in her mind, and she kept thinking about it until the old woman understood.

Madam Plotka nodded, a faint smile on her face. “Very well. I will help you and your captain.” She leaned forward, pressing her wrinkled hands into the nub of her cane. “You are bold beyond your years, girlie.”

* * * * *

Rina led Madam Plotka over the cobbled road separating the armies. The old woman found the light of the setting sun difficult to handle, and the constant shouts from the heads frightened her. In the comforts of her own hovel, she was master. Here, Rina led the way.

She had already freed Captain Petre’s brother, Regan, and the sky hadn’t fallen. No smoky fist had pounded the little mystic into the ground. Nothing, save for the shouts and screams of the heads at their feet. The heads were just as amazed as Rina was when Regan lifted out of the ground. The heads went mad when their comrade appeared, whole, now nearly naked with the passing of time, bits and pieces of mail and plate and leather covering his legs, back and shoulders. Kristof had agreed to help the old soldier walk, while Rina and the mystic worked on Captain Petre.

Teeth nipped at their heels. Word had spread among the heads that one of their own had been freed. From the noise they were making, Rina could not tell if it was a song of joy or sorrow. Some were crying, some laughing. Some seemed angry. But most were afraid, shooting glances skyward, waiting for the clouds to form and Jeshok’s fist to come and nail them even further into the ground.

“Go away, old woman,” one of the heads said. Rina recognized the face but couldn’t remember the name. “You will ruin us.”

They ignored the snide remarks and kept walking. Rina could already see Captain Petre’s face. She had whispered to him last night what was going to happen. The captain cried again, silently so as not to alert his men.

“You should not do this, little one,” Captain Petre had said. “You are messing with forces you know nothing about. You could get hurt.”

Rina kissed him lightly on the head.

Now they stood in front of him. The soldier’s eyes were pensive. What are you thinking? Rina wondered. She could not read minds like Madam Plotka. The old woman must know his thoughts, but she kept silent, her bent form straining under the warm, setting sun.

“Hello, Captain,” Rina said through a faint smile. “We have come to take you to your brother.”

Rina could feel Captain Petre tense. She knew him well enough to know his expressions, how his jaw muscles flexed when nervous, how his teeth gnashed when excited or afraid. The ground beneath their feet vibrated with the shouting of the heads around her. On any other day, she would not mind. Today…

“Quiet!” Captain Petre shouted. “All of you shut up!”

The rows silenced. Other officers, captains and lieutenants, took up Petre’s call and quieted their men. The entire field fell silent. Rina was amazed. Even after so many years, respect and discipline was given to captains and lieutenants, colonels and generals in this field. Leaders were still leaders, and their men still obeyed orders.

“Get on with it, old woman,” Captain Petre said. “The day is waning.”

Madam Plotka reached into the pocket of her black dress and pulled out a tiny leather bag of powder. Rina led her around the captain’s head in a circle. With each step, the mystic uttered strange words and tossed ground bone and blackpowder onto the ground. Rina had not told the truth to Kristof when he came and asked what had happened to his dog. She feigned ignorance, and he was too stupid to figure it out. It was cruel and hateful what she had done, but this was more important than any old mutt. This mattered.

Madam Plotka finished the circle of blackpowder, then stepped back. With Rina’s help, she raised her cane to the sky, and spoke more gibberish. The heads around them held still and silent, their eyes fixed upon the old woman.

The tip of the cane began to glow white hot. Rina closed her eyes and helped guide the cane down until the burning tip touched the blackpowder.

A flash of smoke and ash flew up from the cane tip, and lightning reached around the blackpowder until Captain Petre’s head was ringed in flame. The captain’s eyes grew large, dark and round. He bared his teeth. A yelp of fear escaped his mouth. Rina wanted to reach out and comfort him, but she didn’t dare. No one entered the circle while the flame burned, Madam Plotka explained. Was she telling the truth? Rina wondered. But she had seen the magic work once already today. To doubt it now would be foolhardy.

With a burst of energy, Madam Plotka raised her cane and shouted into the sky. Rina fell back. Another burst of lightning sprang from her cane and circled the captain’s head. The old soldier cried out as if he were burning to death. Other heads cried as well, begging that it stop. The mystic kept her body rigid, her chant steady, until the fire circle began burning through the soil like a knife cutting out the core of an apple. Deeper it cut, deeper still, until the ground around Captain Petre looked like a shaft of black soil, rumbling and popping and sizzling as the fire seared rock and clay.

Madam Plotka reached out towards the circle and yelled, “Rise!” She lifted her hands again and again, as if she were personally moving the earth. Such a silly gesture coming from such a feeble little creature. At first, Rina had giggled when Regan was released, but she wasn’t laughing now.

The earth moved as Captain Petre rose from the ground, wrapped in a cylinder of dirt. Sharp rocks rubbed together like a millstone grinding grain, breaking roots as they crested the top of the hole. Captain Petre yelled as he ascended. Rina could see the fear and amazement in his eyes. It was really happening. He was being freed. She could only imagine the emotions churning inside him. She felt the roil of emotions inside herself. She would finally see her captain in full, not just his head. He would be a warrior again. He would walk the earth again. The very idea was almost too much for her young heart to bear. Tears flowed.

Rina moved Madame Plotka out of the way as the dirt cylinder fell over like a pile of crates. It rolled and came to rest against a line of heads and broken pikes. Those smashed by the cylinder yelled out their distress, but Captain Petre could do nothing but laugh.

“Help him out, girlie,” Madam Plotka said. Rina helped the mystic to the ground. The stress of the spell had taken its toll on the old woman. She lay there silently, her eyes closed, her mouth open. “I am too weak to do it.”

Rina went to the captain’s side and began to rake away the dirt with her bare hands. It fell away easier than she thought. Like opening a present or peeling an orange. Her glee grew stronger as each rock, each thick chunk of clay, fell away, baring legs, then arms, then chest. Like his brother, most of Captain Petre’s armor had not survived. But bits and pieces remained, along with stiff patches of leather and wool. She couldn’t imagine how heavy and hot such an outfit would be in the midst of battle.

Suddenly, he was free, the years of confinement gone. He just lay there, his bare arms and legs turning pink, then red, then white again as blood flowed once more into them. “I—,” he tried to speak, but the words caught in his throat. For the first time in ages, he tried to raise his head. He shook as old muscles found themselves again. He raised up on his elbows. “Please, help me.”

Rina came to his side. “We must get you up,” she said, and put her hand on his back. He sat up, breathing deeply, showing pain on his face. “It’s difficult,” he said.

“I will help you.” With all her strength, Rina strained to lift the captain to his feet. He struggled, the ground unforgiving and slick with fresh clay.

All around them, the heads exploded in cheers. “Yes, Captain!” “You can do it!” “Do it for us!” Their calls gave him strength, and he pushed himself forward, Rina holding his back for support.

“Come, Captain,” Rina said over the din of voices. “Your brother is waiting.”

She led him across the field. Every few steps, he paused to bend and tap the heads of his men. He smiled incessantly, giggled like a child, his tears flowing freely. Their wails of encouragement led him forward, toward the cobbled road.

He did not have the strength to crest the ridge. He fell to his knees and crawled the rest of the way, Rina holding him firmly by the waist. “You can do it,” she whispered to him. “You can do anything.”

Captain Petre pushed his bare feet into the ground, his old bones straining under the pressure. Rina pushed with all her strength. He let out a yell and fell onto the cobbles. He lay there a moment, breathing heavily.

“Hello, brother.”

Captain Petre stiffened at the sound of his brother’s voice. Rina sat quietly at his side, staring at her brother and Regan beside him, waiting on feeble knees. It was uncanny how much they looked alike. If it weren’t for the different uniforms and the different spread of armor and clothing, she could never have told them apart.

“Hello, brother,” Captain Petre said, waving his arm at Rina to give him aide. She did, and led him forward until he too was kneeling before his brother.

For a long while, the two brothers stared into each other’s eyes. It was like watching mirrors. The shape of their chins, their cheeks, the length of their noses, matched perfectly. Rina smiled.

Finally, Captain Petre spoke. “You look well, brother, for someone over two centuries old.” He cracked a smile.

Regan nodded. “As do you… brother.”

They fell silent again, neither man taking his eyes off the other. This is a good thing I’ve done, Rina said to herself. A good thing.

“Where is your sword, brother?” Captain Petre asked.

Regan looked to his side, where the remnants of a scabbard were held against him by a rotten belt. “I guess I’ve lost it, brother.” He looked up, his smile gone. “Where is your army?”

Captain Petre’s dry lips quivered. “They’re in the same place as yours, traitor.”

Regan leaned forward, a scowl leeching across his face. “You are the only traitor here, dear brother. You followed a murderer.”

“Wait,” Rina tried to say, moving forward. “Stop this—”

“You son of a bitch,” Captain Petre snapped back, his hand shifting to the pommel of his rusty blade. “I’ll kill you—” He pulled his blade and thrust forward, but his movements were slow. Regan fell to the left, avoiding the blow, and Captain Petre fell on his face.

Regan kicked with his right foot, driving his dirty toes into the eyes of his brother. Captain Petre screamed, grabbed his brother’s foot, and bit hard. Regan yelled and tried kicking away, but Petre was on him, pounding his fists into brittle ribs.

The Field of Heads burst into chanting, each side cheering on their warrior. “Fight! Fight! Fight!” The echoes of their rage filled the darkening sky.

Rina screamed, “Stop it! Stop fighting!” She moved towards them, but Kristof held her back. “Don’t be a fool,” he said. “They’ll kill you.”

“Let me go!” she screamed and tore away from his grasp. She threw herself between them, shielding Regan’s body from Captain Petre as he raised his blade and tried to stab down. Just in time, he noticed her and stopped.

“Remove yourself, little one,” Captain Petre said, trying to keep his balance. “This is not your fight.”

Rina shook her head. “No. You will have to kill me too if you kill him.”

“Let them fight!” a voice from the field said. “We want vengeance!”

“No!” Rina screamed, her voice breaking into tearful sobs. “The war is over.”

“It’s never over, girl,” said Regan. “It goes on forever.”

“No,” Rina said, standing up and moving in front of Captain Petre. “I gave you this gift, Captain. I thought you would be happy to see your brother, to talk with him. But you betrayed me. You knew all along that you would attack him, didn’t you? Didn’t you?”

Captain Petre’s eyes filled with tears. He shook, and tried to touch her shoulder. “You don’t understand, little one. You don’t—”

“No, I don’t. I don’t understand how after two hundred years, you think the war is still going on. Well, it’s not. It’s over. It’s over!”

Rina grabbed Captain Petre’s sword. He tried to stop her but she moved too quickly. He reached for her but she pulled away. She raised the sword high above her head. She teetered a little. Even in its decline, the sword was heavy. It had not been made for such small hands.

She stumbled down the ridge and into a small crop of rocks. “It’s over!” She screamed again. She brought the sword down hard. It sparked against the rocks. She hit again and again, each strike resounding across the field and sending sharp pains into her elbows. She brought it down again, and the blade splintered into a dozen pieces. She dropped the hilt and stumbled back. She landed hard, her bottom stinging on the gravel. She closed her eyes, her head swimming with anger and sorrow. I’ve failed. Failed.

You have not, little one.

A voice from the sky. Rina opened her eyes and saw storm clouds gathering. Large, thick and black. Angry clouds like those in Captain Petre’s stories. They blotted out the last of the sunlight. They billowed out over the field. Winds came.

Rina ran up the ridge. Captain Petre, Regan and Kristof lay on the cobbles, curled up like babies, looking into the sky and shaking uncontrollably. He has come, Rina said to herself. Jeshok is going to kill me.

No, Rina.

There was the voice again, ringing soundly in her head. She tried pushing it out, but its echo remained. She went to Captain Petre and hugged him tightly. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s my fault. I’ve cursed us all.”

The clouds formed a hand. Not a fist like she expected, but a hand, smooth and soft. A fatherly hand.

You have not failed, Rina. You have succeeded. Indeed, the war is over. It has been over for many years. It is time to move on…

With that, the hand in the sky dipped down until it grazed the field. It then moved slowly left to right, and as it passed each row of heads, the imprisoned warriors were plucked out. They hovered in the air for a moment, then their bodies dissolved into white smoke and drifted away. Rina covered her face when the hand crossed the road. When it was gone, so too were Captain Petre and Regan. Only Rina and Kristof remained.

Rina stood up and watched her friends disappear. Those rows not yet released sang their song, a joyous sound, one of relief and happiness. Their nightmare was over. They were, finally, at rest.

“Wait!” Rina said as she stumbled down the ridge. A sinking feeling gripped her chest and she began to cry again. This isn’t what she wanted at all. “Don’t go. I don’t want you to go. Come back, Captain Petre. Binus. Regan. Come back to me!”

But there was nothing she could do. The curse was broken. Jeshok was gathering his souls. They were his now, forever.

She stopped running. Come back, Father!

* * * * *

It took several weeks before Rina could walk the field again. While local officials, priests, mystics and other dignitaries came to marvel at the sudden disappearance of the heads, she would not dare show herself. And though they tried desperately to understand why, after so many years, Jeshok’s Curse had ended, Rina would not speak. Even her brother Kristof, still upset at the disappearance of his dog, said not a word. Rina kept quiet about everything.

The field lay barren, nothing more than a sheer block of dark clay of weeds and rock. But it still held life for her, and memories of friends and good times. She would not abandon the field, though it had abandoned her. Jeshok had taken away her friends. She was angry about that, but she kept her anger secret. It was not wise to anger the gods.

She walked out into the field. The places where each head had lain were marked with a discolored patch of earth, and rains had sunken some of them to form tiny puddles of water. But not Captain Petre’s. Despite Madam Plotka’s unearthing, his spot was smooth and solid, as if nothing had ever happened.

She walked over to it and stood on the very spot where her friend’s head had been. She pulled up tight and straight, keeping her feet neatly within the colored patch. She smiled. “I miss you, my captain,” she said.

I miss you too, little one.

The voice was strong in her head. She turned and saw a figure, bright and tall, within a patch of trees. Rina started running toward the shape.

“Captain Petre!”

The shape put up his hand. Rina stopped. It was him. She recognized the forest of red stubble on his face. His armor was new, pristine and shining. His clothing red, green and fine. She smiled. He was a warrior again.

“How are you, sir?” she asked.

I am well.

“And Binus? Regan?”

All is well, child.

He smiled, but there was a sadness in his eyes, one he could not hide from her. Even as a ghost, she knew his expressions. She could not read his thoughts, but she knew what that sadness meant.

“This is it, isn’t it? You’re never coming back, are you?”

He shook his head. No, child.

She fought back the tears. “Goodbye, my captain.”

Goodbye, sweet one. Don’t forget us, he said, then slowly faded away.

She turned and on the place where her friend had laid, was a rock, smooth and head-sized. On top of it lay an orange, freshly peeled and waiting.

Rina went to it. She picked up the orange. She smoothed out her dress, sat down, then ripped a wedge of fruit away and popped it quickly into her mouth.

She sat eating… and remembered.

 

The House of Dreams

by Craig Saunders

 

The essence of dreams, the stark reality that makes the mind doubt what is real and what is not, is the suspension of disbelief. For a time, most often whilst asleep but sometimes while the dreamer sits with a mug of ale, or a glass of fine wine, time is forgotten and a moment can seem drawn long and pulled out of shape. With a smoke wheel burning, a man might hallucinate and see his lost wife, a child he never had, or in a darker moment his own death come to him with a blade in hand and steely teeth bared in a snarl.

Perhaps, you might think, a dream will come true. A daydream, holding the local barmaid’s full breast in one hand while your wife is forgotten. A dream of a young princess, sullied by your attentions in a deserted hallway, hallowed ground of royalty and your body tense with excitement while you imagine your hands drifting over forbidden flesh… even the evil have daydreams.

But daydreams our not our concern for they do not come true.

Daydreams, sweet dreams. These are not our dreams. Our dreams lurk in the night. They haunt the sullen hours when the moon does not shine and we forget that starlight comes from other suns than ours.

Ours are the dreams that another gives us… the sneak illusions of the vampire… the befuddled mind… the glamour that covers the approaching stench of decay.

The nightmare. That is our province tonight.

* * * * *

Shawford Crale knelt on the hard floor and took a fine brush and palette from his manservant. His servant stood ready behind his master holding a lamp for better light while Crale painted. He began with a circle. It was a perfect circle, drawn by hand.

He painted a pattern of intricate design within the circle.

An hour later and dusk had fled.

“Night comes, my lord.”

“I feel it, too. It is time. I must begin the incantations. You know what to do.”

“A courtesan, this time?”

“No, I have a taste for the seedy tonight. A wench, I think. One that nobody will miss.”

“As you will,” said the manservant. He turned without a further word and left the dining hall.

Shawford Crale sprinkled sand on the design to dry the paint. Then he placed a chair within the circle and took a sip from the wine glass that was beside him on the cold stone floor. He took a steadying breath and began to chant. It was not easy, conjuring demons, and they were ever hungry. But he paid the price in blood and they were sated.

The rewards, though… they were considerable. His returning youth and newfound wealth that came with the foreknowledge to play the markets. He was fast becoming an immensely wealthy man. A man to be reckoned with, even though Ulbridge was just a small town… one day it would be bigger. Perhaps he would even take to the wider world.

The price? Blood. As always.

But never his.

* * * * *

A cockerel crowed the evening call over Ulbridge, signalling nightfall, if not bedtime for some. On the King’s Row sots walked wearily from their daytime lives to drown their sorrows in their cups. Wives wiped evening meals from careless children’s mouths. Careless children pulled their covers high, snuggled into their pallets and straw mattresses. Horsehair, for the few.

On Sunday Street in the Pauper’s Green a small child pulled a rare book from under her covers and brought her candle closer to the bed. She had read the story cover to cover since her mother bought her the book. She knew they could ill afford books, but she loved her mother for the expense and the thought. It was the most beautiful story she had ever read.

It was called a “fairytale”, her mother had told her. There was a lord in it, and he took a pauper’s widow for his wife, and her daughter for his own.

It was her favourite story, but this night she felt restless.

The front door closed quietly as her mother left her once again for the night. The little girl wished her mother safe from harm.

Her mother joined her neighbour. Together they walked the streets. They walked from Sunday Street along the canal, hitching their skirts high as they stepped over a puddle on the canal way. They would be hitching their skirts aplenty tonight.

A short walk later, a kiss for good luck, and Ellisindre stood alone under a lamplight. It was early yet, for a courtesan. But she had no illusions. She was no lord’s filly, bought with a ruby and a smile. She would not be spending the night perfumed and drunk on fine wines. She was a common whore. A penny and she would perform, for the fat and toothless, for the rough and shy. For old men angry with their dirks for their rusty steel, young men drunk in their cups thinking of their wives in distant cities or perhaps a lazy walk away on a different street.

A man walked by and she swung her hips to one side and pulled her skirt to show an ankle.

“’Tis early yet, love,” said the man with a kind smile, unusual for most. “Perhaps later, if I have the time.”

She smiled back and shrugged sadly. He moved on and the street fell quiet. It was too early for most gents, but she worked a full night. She was no stranger to hard work. And it was hard work. But she could earn no more working the fields or sweeping the Thane’s manor. Pulling mugs of ale for the drunk? No longer. Perhaps, had her life taken a different turn… but not now. Not now they knew her for what she was.

And what of her, when she grew too old to turn an eye with her ankle and too old to turn a trick?

Another man walked past and ignored her a little too forcibly. Too good for her, he thought, now he was sober. But she was a good judge. He’d be back after he’d sunk a few and was perhaps one or two to the good.

She shivered and pulled her shawl ’round her neck tighter. She could drop it an inch or two when the next gent came a-by, but she felt the chill more than usual tonight. She looked up through the lamplight to gauge the stars, but there was naught to see but a low bank of clouds moving down. Fine luck and an ill night for work. Fog rolling down from the sky and in from the lakes. A dangerous night for a girl on the streets.

And a poor one for working. She could hardly bark her wares out loud on the street. Fog would hide her from her gents and dampen their ardour. No one wanted to be out in the fog. Men were a superstitious lot. Creatures prowled the night in the fog. It bred stories like a man bred children.

It was coming in fast. Coming down the street. A dark, starless night and damp fog a-rolling.

Madal’s horns, an ill night for her kind of work.

The taverns down the street were growing in noise. On a night like tonight she wished she could afford to give a percentage of her takings on a license. Then she could work the back rooms of the taverns. Work in comfort… well, at least the warm. But she could not afford a groat, let alone a penny.

An hour passed slowly, muffled carousing coming from down the street and across the cobblestones. Occasionally she heard a boot heel walking unevenly through the deadening fog, a gent passing by on the other side of the canal, unaware of her and another penny passing her by.

Each time she heard footsteps in the distance she cursed her luck.

Her little girl was sickening. The priest could do little and her daughter shrivelled in the light, becoming a creature of the dark like her. She had tried all that she could think of and it had availed her little. The poor child withered like a dry shrub, like she had at the age of thirty after she had birthed the child and her no-good husband had sold her to the street for a mercenary’s life on the border and, no doubt, a stream of women he could buy for a penny and feel no guilt about.

She turned tricks for a penny and her husband was off paying others a penny for what she had given him for free.

Useless bastard. She could ill afford to lose the business. If he’d paid her a penny for all the times she’d spread her legs for free…

Well. Perhaps her daughter would not have sickened the way she had. Perhaps she had some unheard of pox she’d passed to her daughter. There was more guilt in her head than she knew.

In many ways she was a simple woman. She’d paid the priest with all she had to offer. Every penny she had, and then with every ounce of her flesh. And still her daughter sickened. He came back still, but she was simple, not stupid. He didn’t come back for her daughter but for her.

If he knew the sickness was in her, too, perhaps he would be a little less eager.

She sighed and puffed in the chill air, fog swirling around her breath. Her hair was damp and lank on her cheeks. All that time curling it as was the fashion among the high-class courtesans. Who did she think she was?

A waste of time, she thought, as the sounds of a horse clopping along the cobbled streets came to her. Some lord slumming it tonight, she thought… the horse came nearer, its location unclear in the fog. She could not tell how near or far it was. She chanced to hope… perhaps the lord would pass her way and throw her a silver for a roll along the canal bank.

Fog curled in the murk and a black horse came into view.

Ellisindre forced a smile onto her pale face and pushed her hip out, her hand resting on the swell, her skirt hitched.

The rider came close and looked down at her. His cloak was dark and hung loose over the horse’s flanks. His head was covered by a low hat, the brim pulled down to hide his eyes.

A fine cloak, she calculated. A silver, at least.

“Good evening, my lord. A sad night to be alone, for sure…”

“Save your wiles, my love. My master requires a woman’s company tonight, and you will suffice. A gold piece for the journey, and one for the work.”

Two gold!

“I’m game. To where, my lord?”

“Just a squire, whore. I’ve no time for your games. Get astride the horse and shut your mouth. You can open it later for my master if you like, but I’ll not suffer you to sully me. Come or as not, it makes no difference to me.”

He held out his hand.

She was no stranger to men with ire at her, for what she never knew. Perhaps they hated her for what she was. Mayhap they hated her for what they were.

She did not care. For two gold he could call her all the names under the moon. She took his hand and pulled herself up.

* * * * *

On Sunday Street the little girl wheezed and coughed. She put her book down and listened in the night. In the distance she heard a horse clipping down the street… two streets over, she judged. Riding heavy.

She did not know how she knew these things she did. She was more awake this night than she had ever been when she had known the kiss of the sun.

She worried for her mother. She worried for herself. No longer could she take the sun. Her hands were weak but her eyes were strong. Even in the flickering candlelight she could make out the picture that hung on the wall, hung there by the priest. The priest who had used her mother in the other room while she was supposed to sleep.

She did not know how she felt about that. But she could feel something… something indefinable. A pull. She’d felt it for about a week now. She didn’t know what it was.

Tonight it was strong. The night was calling her.

The horse’s hooves clapped on the stone perhaps two streets over. For some reason she felt she should see what the ruckus was. She’d never seen a horse. Her mother wouldn’t be back until the dawn’s first light… she’d never know.

The little girl pulled open the window and hied herself over the windowsill into the night. Her bare feet slapped on the uneven stone and she walked slowly toward the sound of the trotting horse.

Reveling in the smells of the night and the smooth refreshing feel of the silken fog on her skin, she roamed the night. She walked by a man taking a piss in the canal, the steady splash beside her. She was silent for a moment, then passed on. In the fog, she was invisible.

And free. Finally free of the confines of her room. She was enjoying herself. She marked her route and decided immediately that she would do this every night while her mother worked the streets. Perhaps she would find a purse or a gem… yes! She would search the streets for a gem… just like in her book.

It was her favourite book. In her book a little girl found a gem. Her mother took it from her and gave it to a lord… the lord had lost the gem, of course. By chance they fell in love and the lord took the little girl and the mother and they became his family… they were happy…

It was just a story though, she thought, and her mood nearly dropped. But the night was magical. It was a night for a little girl to dream.

* * * * *

Ellisindre dismounted ungracefully and put her feet on the solid ground. Her rump was sore from the ride.

Not for the first time.

The squire had not spoken a word to her, but now he tossed her a gold coin which she snatched from the air and tucked away in her skirt with a smooth, practiced movement.

He slid from the horse and took her elbow.

“Come, my lord awaits. His ardour is rare and he is impatient when the mood is upon him. Do not keep him waiting.”

She said nothing but allowed herself to be led by the arm toward a grand door. She could see little else of the house but she got the sense that it was a large estate. They had passed the last house a few minutes ago, and headed through iron wrought gates onto a long paved road with carmillion blossoms on either side, their night blooms full and fragrant.

The squire pushed open the door with one hand and guided her through perhaps a little roughly, but some of his rudeness seemed to have left him.

“Through the door to the right. My master waits in the dining room.”

She nodded and walked, brushing her damp hair away from her face. She put a smile on and tried to hide her disquiet. She felt more than out of place. The house was grand and full of artefacts. She was pleased that the squire had trusted her to walk through such riches without trying to plunder the hall and escape before he could find her.

Somehow she had the impression, though, that she would not get far.

She walked into the dining room and a small gasp escaped her lips. It was immense. But she was here to work, not gawp, and her gent was watching.

She pushed her bosom out to its full advantage and walked toward the man seated at the end of a long table who was smiling at her. She watched his eyes. They seemed black at this distance.

“Please, my lady. Take the seat at the end. I presumed you would be hungry at this hour and have taken the liberty of having a small repast prepared for you.”

“My lord, such kindness!” she exclaimed breathlessly, pouting.

“For such a beautiful lady… I would go to the ends of the earth.”

Oh, she thought, at least he made the pretense of charm.

“Might I have the pleasure of a name?” he enquired solicitously.

“Ellisindre, lord.”

“And I am Shawford Crale, my lady. Now we are friends. Please,” he waved a hand.

She sat where he indicated, at the foot of the long table. She watched him over the candlesticks… gold, if she was not mistaken. The table, too, was the finest. It seemed to be made of some stone she did not recognize but it had the solidity of stone, even if it was finely polished and seemed to have flecks of gold within it.

She happened to glance down and saw a strange design drawn below her chair. She pulled the chair in and returned her gaze to the man at the head of the table.

He was watching her like a hawk. His eyes had not left her since she had entered the dining hall. She tried to regain her composure and keep a smile on her face, even though her heart pounded in her chest.

The gent clapped his hands and a bent old man entered bearing a tray of delicacies, which the old man placed before Ellisindre.

“Please, business can wait. You must be hungry…”

She tried to pick but the food was delicious. There were sea oysters and plums, a fine strong cheese and a salty hunk of fish which she tore into. The servant returned and filled a glass with a deep red wine which she sampled and then gulped.

It was a meal like she had never imagined. The flavours exploded in her mouth and she used the napkin to wipe the juices from her lips between mouthfuls, until she forgot all efforts at deportment and set to with a passion.

The man seemed content to watch her eat. She watched him from under the cover of her hair which fell over her eyes, wondering that such a fine man could show one such as her such courtesy, a simple woman who made men happy when she could for a pretty.

He smiled at her and motioned for her to continue eating.

She gladly obliged, until she could eat no more.

“Thank you, my lord. It was a meal like no other. It was the best I have ever had. I have no doubt, you too, will be the best…”

The man laughed and his long salt and pepper hair fell across his eyes.

“My dear lady, you are the sweetest thing. Please, allow me to pour you some more wine… then, perhaps, we can get down to the business of the night.”

She smiled coquettishly at him and put a hand to her breast.

He approached with a bottle of the fine wine in his hand. His other was hidden behind his back. Ordinarily it would have troubled her, but she was utterly disarmed and not a little drunk.

* * * * *

The little girl had taken a while to find the horse. It had fallen silent some time ago, but for some reason her senses seemed more alive than they had ever been. She could smell it in the night, now approaching midnight by her inexperienced reckoning.

She stepped up to the horse and it whinnied at her and sniffed her hand. She stroked its nose and whispered gently to it, calming the beast.

It was a beautiful creature. So large she could barely reach its soft nose even though it craned its head down for her attentions.

Through the fog she heard her mother’s voice, startling her.

What was her mother doing here, in a lord’s manor?

Tonight was turning into some kind of adventure… perhaps her mother had met a lord… and they had fallen in love! Tomorrow they would come for her on this beautiful horse and they would all ride across the downs!

A mystery to be solved. She crept on stealthy feet closer to the voices and peered through a misted window.

* * * * *

“So, my dear. To business? Shall we?”

“Where do you want me, my lord? What do you wish?”

“You look beautiful just where you are… no, no, stay seated,” he said, coming to stand behind her.

She had been mesmerized by his walk. He was a solid man, well built and of middle years. He seemed confident… and more handsome than most of the gents she had known.

His hand touched her shoulder and she sighed. His hands were warm, her shoulder cold. Always cold.

“Such a beautiful neck, my lovely,” he said, and caressed her gently. She felt herself warming to him, a sudden rush of blood. Her mind swam from the wine and his hands were so soft.

She didn’t feel the knife that sliced through her neck. She was only aware of the blood when she felt its warmth flooding down the front of her dress.

She tried to scream at the sight of all the blood but only a drowning gurgle came from her slit throat.

Shawford Crale turned suddenly as a scream of rage rent the night from outside the window, bringing the knife to bear. Then the window shattered and Ellisindre’s daughter flew across the room… it was a leap no mortal could have made.

Ellisindre heard a startled cry escape the lips of her murderer and then the man was thrown across the table. Her daughter jumped on top of him and like a nightmare she was at his throat, tearing it open with her teeth. Tearing his flesh and drinking his blood.

She drank, Ellisindre aware only dimly of the slurping, gurgling noises coming from the table… then she felt flesh held against her lips.

“Drink, Mother. Drink.”

She could do little else. She drank. The blood from his throat mixed with her own and came out through the hole in her throat… then the hole was closed and she was drinking the pumping warmth from the man down into her full belly. But his blood warmed her through like the food had not. Her throat felt better. The stinging pain subsided and her head cleared.

Her daughter dropped Shawford Crale back onto the table, and for a moment Ellisindre marvelled at the strength it must have taken for her little girl to hold the man for her.

But she was no longer the weak little girl who had been wasting in her room this last month. Her cheeks were ruddy again and her flesh full and plump.

“I understand the sickness now, Mother,” said her daughter. “I feel it. I feel the life pulsing through me. Do you?”

Shawford Crale’s blood trickled out from his torn neck, staining the light marble crimson.

Ellisindre nodded and took her daughter in her arms. Tears dripped and mixed with the blood on her breast.

“I understand now, sweetheart, but my god, how I wish I did not.”

“Don’t weep, Mother. I dreamt of this day. That my father would be a lord! That you would be his wife and you would no longer have to haunt the night for a penny.”

“But you killed him.”

“No, Mother. I don’t think so,” said the little girl, new and frightening wisdom in her voice. “I understand. He will be your husband. We have given him life! You will rule him and this house. I read it in a book, Mother. The book you gave to me.”

“This is no fairytale, daughter of my heart.”

“But if we let it, it could be,” her daughter said, her eyes pleading.

Shawford Crale’s blood dried. Ellisindre sat watching, her daughter eager on her lap, as the master of the house’s throat slowly healed.

By morning the hole had closed. A new day dawned with dreams fulfilled and hearts full of hope.

* * * * *

And so, just like in the fairytales, a kiss brought the lord back to life, and they all lived happily ever after.

Dreams do come true.

And so, in the still dark hours of the night, do nightmares.

 

Heart of the Matter: A Nalo Thoran Story

Layout 1

Illustration by S.C. Watson

by Robert E. Waters

 

There is a springtime in the heart of every man… even in the cold, dead heart of a killer.

So it was love that drove the rat into the depths of a small café where the rich and important of Korsham City mingled, dined, and made merry. A simple shape spell placed upon the rodent gave it the visage of a tiny white poodle, with a cute tin bell and a fluffy tail-ball. It dodged food carts, leather-clad feet, and richly embroidered gowns as it weaved through the immaculate tables and chairs, the occasional “ahh!” and “ooh!” and “how cute!” pushing it forward through the cacophony of meaningless conversation. If the patrons only knew that beneath its soft illusion lurked an agent of the assassin Nalo Thoran, the Shadow Walker, the Dark Breath- Stealer, they might have cowered in fear. Instead, they went about their business in blissful ignorance.

On the veranda overlooking the Gold River sat a woman and a friend sipping tea and sharing pleasant words. The rat paused, wiggled its nose, and caught her scent. It knew her scent instinctively, for it had sniffed a piece of cloth lifted from her apartment on Bright Street. It bounced forward, hopping gently on claws sharp, deadly and made for the dangers of the Korsham night. A little boy tried petting it, but the rat rolled away and dived under the young woman’s table.

The rat could not understand their language. It only understood the words of its master, the symbols and tempo of the language of shadows, the one used by assassins and murderers alike. Its master had given it specific instructions, and it could not disobey his dark design. Stark shapes and images roiled in its vacuous head. It squeaked and hopped up into the woman’s lap.

She chirped, jumped and pushed her chair back. But when she saw only a small dog, she smiled. The rat lifted its sharp, whiskered face and sniffed. The woman’s smells were warm, delicious.

“What a cute little dog,” she said, running her hand down its hard spine. It felt like silk. “Whom do you belong to?”

The rat didn’t answer. Instead, it circled in her lap until the small piece of paper tied to its neck was visible. It wiggled, lifted itself onto strong hind legs, chattered and sniffed the air. The woman heard barking.

“Aren’t you sweet,” she said, then noticed the note. “What’s this?”

She pulled carefully and the weak fibers holding the note tightly fell away. She rolled the note open and held it up to the waning light of dusk. She squinted closely, trying to make out the thin chalk scratches. It was an ancient language, one rarely used. But somehow she could read it. “What does it say?” her friend asked. She read it to herself…

My Lady Sharr,
Your husband is dead and for that I apologize.
I can only hope that some day you will forgive me.
I look forward to that day. Until then, know that
you have a friend in the darkness.

The woman turned dead white, dropped the paper, and screamed.

A rat jumped off her lap and slipped away through the stunned crowd.

* * * * *

Wealthy trade merchant Rubico Sharr was found dead five days past in his home on Bright Street. A ruddy red scar around his neck points to a professional hit. The details are sketchy at this time, but authorities believe that the recent trade dispute between Korsham and Toradoram may be at fault. Master Sharr handled exotic rugs and fine pelts, and had recently gained a monopoly on Isydori silk. He is survived by his wife, Monika Sharr.

“What has vexed you, assassin?” the rat asked, his little feet beating the air, making signs that only its master understood. “You aren’t yourself.”

Nalo crumpled the news report in his hand and tossed it into the gutter. “It doesn’t matter, rat. You wouldn’t understand anyway.”

What mattered was the throng of revelers in the streets, the streamers, the floats, the flute and drum players, the scantily clad ladies with bright face- and breast-paint. The noises and smells were almost too much for a night creature like himself to bear. Nalo preferred the quieter places in the city, during the deep silence of night, when only the condemned or those willing to kill (like himself ) lurked. Here at dusk, there was noise and fanfare even on a normal night. And tonight was the annual springtime festival, when all of Korsham welcomed the coming of the sun and the rain. Soon the rains would fall hard and swell the Gold River over its banks, and the sun would reach high in the sky, and then the flowers would bloom, and life would start anew. Nalo watched it all from the shadows and imagined it silently.

“You don’t think I understand the concept of love?” the rat said, hopping in front of the assassin to catch his attention. Its furious movements suggested it had been insulted.

Nalo looked down at his starved companion and huffed. “What do you know about it?”

The rat squeaked to clear its throat, then mimed, “Once, I mounted a plump white down by the Mud Flats and sired her fifteen young. It was early summer and the blue fungus had begun to spread. It spread into the nest, taking her and three of her babies, threatening the others. So you know what I did?”

Nalo shook his head.

“I ate the other twelve. Now tell me that isn’t love.”

Nalo shook his head. “Oh yeah, that’s love all right. You’re a real prince. Now get the hell out of here!” He kicked. The rat jumped, squealed, and ran away.

A long pause, then he spotted the object of his desire coming towards him through a sea of waving peacock feathers. His eyes lit up as he saw her face, marked by the flickering torch light, but still smooth, pristine, showing little sign of age or worry. Despite her recent loss, she seemed calm, collected, enjoying the festive spirit of the street. She was delightful.

By contrast, Nalo was hideous, grotesque. An agent of darkness. Skin pale white, features sharp and dry. He had aged considerably since his return to Korsham City. What right did he have in even looking at this woman? He was leagues below her station. It was an embarrassment to even be on the same street as her. This is a waste of time, he thought to himself as she walked past the alley. She didn’t even look his way, holding no concern for things deadly, repulsive. She walked by and even through air lousy with a thousand smells, he could pick out her light perfume, that delicate scent he knew from her clothing, her bed. Despite his better instincts, Nalo found his legs moving towards her. He could hear Yarian’s stern voice in his mind: “This is foolish, boy. Don’t do it.” But what did a necromancer know about love and matters of the heart? What could he possibly know about the need to be a part of something less… dark?

He stopped when his feet found cobbles. This is madness. He watched her slip further into the crowd. What would I say to her anyway? “Hi, I’m Nalo,” he mouthed silently to himself, “I’m an assassin, in service to the Dark Lord Kalloshin. I killed your husband. Care for a drink?”

He chuckled at the absurdity of it and watched her disappear. It was a nice idea, but foolish. They were from opposite worlds, different sides of the street. His best play was to forget about it. He cracked a smile, shook his head and turned away to continue his evening’s tasks.

Then he heard a scream.

He’d never heard her voice beyond mumbles through closed doors, but Nalo knew it was her. She was screaming, and the revelers all around either did not hear or did not care. But he heard her, and it was like a knife through a vein.

Where was she? There were so many buildings pressed in tightly, so many tiny nooks and spaces where a victim could be taken. He moved through the crowd quickly, his feet barely touching the ground. He ran from one side of the street to the other, looking down deep passages. Years of lurking in the shadows had given him keen sight in the darkness. He used it. He found shapes, but they weren’t her. Drunks, whores, common lazy rabble. His heart sank.

Then he heard a faint whimper, like a cat mewing for a scrap of food. He jumped a pile of rotting sacks and found her, on the cold stones, her silk blouse ripped open, her breasts bare. Above her wavered a knife, cold steel attached to a curved hilt. The hand that held it was stiff, white-knuckled, shaking. The man himself was wrapped in a simple tan homespun. It covered his shoulders and head, his bone white eyes peering through a small slit in the cloth. The man did not seem to notice Nalo, his gaze fixed on his victim’s throbbing chest. The man raised the blade high and with a maddening screech, thrust down.

Nalo caught the man’s arm and pulled it back hard, then drove a boot into his chest. The man screamed again, fell back, but did not waver. He was strong. Small in stature, frail looking, almost ghostlike beneath the loose clothing, but he was strong. And agile. He flipped backwards, regained his footing, and leaped forward.

Nalo ducked and the killer soared through the air, his foot grazing the assassin’s back. Nalo winced as the thin foot scraped his backbone, but he righted himself and braced for an attack.

The man waved his knife before him, slashing empty air. Not fair, Nalo thought as he fell backwards. I don’t have a blade.

But fairness was not a right in the assassin trade. A killer used the tools at hand, be they many or few. There were plenty of things in this alley, Nalo knew, that could be turned into weapons. A rock, a slab of wood, a discarded torch perhaps. The trick was acquiring one when your attention was needed elsewhere. One false move and your foe would cut your throat. But Nalo didn’t need a fancy prop. He had everything necessary to win this scuffle at his waist.

He pulled free a thin thong of leather and waved it in the air. At each end was a wooden knob, smooth but heavy. The man slashed again with his knife, trying to force Nalo back against the damp wall. Nalo shifted to the right, snapped his garrote forward, and caught the man square in the eye. The man reeled backwards, shook his head. Nalo struck again, swinging the garrote and hitting the man’s temple. The strike did little damage as the cloth wrapped around the foreigner’s head cushioned the blow. But he bent at the waist, giving Nalo a chance to move in and wrap the garrote around his brown neck.

He yanked the cord tightly. The leather bit deep into the man’s flesh. He flailed madly. His strength was near impossible for Nalo to handle. This man was young, aggressive, quite capable. If he had taken on a lesser assassin, it’d be that assassin’s head in the grip. But the Shape of Shadow never lost. Nalo leaped onto the man’s back and pulled the garrote tighter.

“Die!” Nalo said, riding the man like a wild boar. “Die!”

And the man did, eventually, after the strength left his arms, then legs, then chest. Nalo tore off the man’s turban, revealing thin black hair, soot-ridden cheeks, eyes bulging from the pressure at his neck. The man’s face turned purple; his tongue bulged between blue swollen lips. He gasped his last, and died.

Nalo released the garrote and fell backwards. His mind was awhirl in the Call of Kalloshin, his master and the patron saint of assassins. Over and over, he mouthed the name of his dark savior and felt that insatiable rush of power that comes with the heat of the kill. Sweat poured from his skin like bile. Gods, but he needed the taste of lemon! The sweet-sour pulp calmed his nerves, settled his raucous stomach. He sat there for several minutes, letting the red flush of his face subside. When his chest settled, he got up and rubbed his face dry, then turned toward the woman.

But she was gone.

* * * * *

He sucked a lemon wedge and stared into the sallow eyelids of the dead merchant. Did the eyes behind them move? Did they twitch? It was hard for Nalo to tell. “Can you wake him?”

The shriveled little black necromancer nodded. “I can, but remember, it was you who killed him. His injuries are quite savage and deep. His throat will never be the same.”

“He must talk,” Nalo said, “he must.”

Yarian shook his head and pinched some black powder from his bowl. “I don’t know why I let you talk me into these things. Boredom, I guess.”

The necromancer rubbed his thumb and index finger together and the powder trickled onto the dead man’s head. The body twitched.

They were in Yarian’s home, a subterranean one-room dome providing both living quarters and work space. Scores of bottles and feather fetishes lay everywhere, parchments and old dusty spell books. Tortured red and black symbols were painted along the curved walls, with lines of dried blood streaked through them to the floor. The room had an old, dead smell to it, a moldy dampness like the grave. Over the years, Nalo had gotten used to it, but there always seemed to be something new crammed into a corner or spread out on a table. There was always something fresh to look at—and to wonder about—in Yarian’s hovel.

The dead man pitched again, straining against his bindings. His head rolled back, his eyes peeked open slightly. Nalo grew excited and rushed to the man’s side. “Come on, you son of a bitch,” he said, gripping the man’s mortised arm. “Animate!”

“No need to shout,” Yarian said as he finished dousing the man with powder. “He’ll come around. Step back and watch.”

Nalo stepped away. The man continued to twitch, at first violently, then his muscles settled and smoothed against dried bones and taut ligaments. The corpse calmed, sat rigid, opened its eyes. It stared forward several minutes, then turned its head towards them, face blank.

Nalo could see the dark crimson line of his garrote around the man’s neck. It had cut deeply, too deeply. He cursed himself for his lack of care. Sometimes, as had happened in the alley, the thrill of the kill consumed him. He should have anticipated having to bring this man back. He should have been more careful. Nalo hated making mistakes. He hated paying for them later.

He stepped forward. “Rubico Sharr. Do you remember who you are?”

The animated man puzzled in place, the stiff wrinkles on his brow creasing under the strain of working a dead brain. “I…” His voice was weak, raspy, barely audible even in the silence here beneath the alley. “Y-yes. I re-member. Rubico. Rubico Sharr.” He looked up at Nalo. “Who… are you?”

“My name’s of no concern to you,” Nalo said. He knelt down and grabbed the cold, white hand of the man. “Your wife is our concern at the moment.”

“My wife?”

“Yes. Monika Sharr. Remember her?”

Nalo found himself yelling. He hadn’t even realized his voice had risen. Anger filled his mind. He had no time for this. No time for patience. He needed answers now… before it was too late.

The man nodded. “Yes. I remember her.” Then he turned his head fitfully, as if he had suddenly realized where he was and what had happened to him. Terror glazed his eyes. “What, what’s happened to me? Where am I?”

Nalo leaned into the man’s chest and grabbed his wrinkled blue burial gown. He pulled until their faces nearly touched. “No time for that. You just answer my questions, and perhaps we’ll leave you in peace.”

Nalo felt Yarian’s hand on his shoulder. “Calm down, boy. It’s going to take time. He needs to reorient—”

“We don’t have time, Yarian!” Nalo snapped. He glared at the old necromancer. “This is my show. Back off!”

Yarian did as he was told, but Nalo could tell that he had overstepped his bounds. This was Yarian’s home, and no one, not even an infamous assassin, had the right to make demands of a man in his own home.

But he didn’t have time to apologize. Nalo turned back to the corpse, took a deep breath, then said, “Now answer me these questions, Rubico Sharr. Who wanted you dead? Who hired me to kill you? And who sent a Toradoram assassin to kill your wife?”

Horror returned to the man’s face. “Monika is dead?”

“No,” Nalo answered, “but she will be if you don’t give me answers. Torador will keep sending their knives until the job is finished. That is their way. I can hold them off for a time, but eventually, they will kill her.”

“You?” Rubico Sharr pulled his brow down sharply and squinted in confusion. “Why do you care?”

“Yes, Master Nalo,” Yarian said, “tell us all why you care so much.”

Nalo gave Yarian a nasty look, but he let the veiled challenge slide. There would be time later for argument. “Because I don’t like to be trifled with. I like my hits clean and unfettered by complications. It’s clear now that your hit was not over some trade dispute you’ve had with foreign merchants. There’s a deeper, darker matter at hand. Tell me now, dead man, and don’t lie. Tell me why assassins are coming for your wife.”

Rubico struggled to figure it out. His face turned even paler, wracked by some deep guilt. Nalo knew the look. He’d seen it many times on the faces of his victims. At the moment of death, their thoughts went to that which had put them at death’s door in the first place. The last moment of guilt; the last painful cry for forgiveness. Rubico Sharr was hiding something.

“Talk!” Nalo shouted.

“Jade,” Rubico said.

“What? Speak plain.”

“Jade… the jade…”

Rubico’s head lilted backwards, his eyes rolled up into his head. He mumbled something inaudible, over and over. He leaned against his bindings. Nalo propped him up with a swift hand to the throat, and squeezed.

“What do you mean by ‘jade’?” Nalo smacked him across the face. Rubico’s head rocked against the blow. “Tell me!”

Another smack. Then another.

“Nalo!”

Yarian’s voice brought the assassin out of his rage. The room fell silent and cold. Had it been this cold a moment ago? Nalo couldn’t remember. He couldn’t remember anything right now. All he saw in his mind was a Toradoram dagger and a woman’s bare chest.

He felt Yarian’s hand on his shoulder again. “Can I see you outside, please?”

Nalo stood, chest pounding. Cold sweat ran down his face. He followed Yarian up the stairs. They stepped through the broken door into the alley, and fresh air roused him. Nalo breathed deeply, shook his head, blinked. His mind began to clear.

Yarian turned. The nasty look on his face told Nalo that the little man was not to be trifled with. “I’m ending this interview.”

“Why?”

“You’ve gone too far, Nalo. It’s gotten out of hand.”

“It’s my hit, my interview, and you don’t tell me what—”

“Enough!”

Yarian’s rebuke echoed through the alley, rousing a dog, waking a baby. This part of Korsham City was generally quiet at night, a mixture of residence and business—lightly populated, set off from the main streets—Yarian had picked well a century ago when he had come to town. The fact that he would risk being discovered with such a shout told Nalo that nothing, not even the threats of an assassin, would sway the old man. The interview was over.

What has gotten into you, boy?”

Nalo hardly knew where to begin. He turned away, letting the breeze cool his face. He could smell rain in the air. “I love her.”

A pause, then, “Who?”

“Monika Sharr.”

“How did this happen?”

“I don’t know,” Nalo said, turning back to his friend. “I studied them for weeks. You know how I work. She was with him a lot. They seemed very close. He was very protective of her, almost possessive. In time, I understood why. She’s like this perfect jewel, and I realized in a few short days that it wasn’t him I was watching. It was her. Her smooth face. Her black hair. Her radiant smile…

“Hah! Roll your eyes all you wish, death-monger, but when I see her, I feel the same way I did under that waterfall with Tish years ago, right before she ripped away my soul and fed me to the Assassin’s Guild. I can’t stop thinking about her. I know, it’s madness, but I must have her, and I must protect her from whoever is trying to kill her.”

Yarian considered for several minutes, rubbing his black, leathery chin with crinkled fingers. Then he said, “Yes, that’s what’s troubling me the most. There’s something missing in all this, Nalo. Torador does not send blades to kill the wife of a simple silk merchant. If they had such a problem with his business, they could easily block his trade, steal his goods, or ruin his reputation through back channels.”

“Yes, I know,” Nalo said, his impatience growing once more. “That’s why we’re doing the interview, remember? We’ve got to get back in there…” Nalo moved towards the door.

Yarian caught the sleeve of the assassin’s black shirt. He shook his head. “No. I mean it. It’s over.”

Nalo pulled away. “Don’t tell me what to do, old man. I don’t work for you.”

“No. You work for the Guild.”

“And what I do on my own time is not its concern.”

Yarian chuckled and spread his thin lips in a smile. “The Guild has a way of making everything its business, my friend. You know that.”

Nalo stopped, but ignored the comment. He rubbed his face. “He kept saying ‘jade’. Did you notice that?”

“I’m a servant of the dead, Nalo, not an idiot.”

“Well, what does it mean?”

Yarian shrugged. “I don’t know, but I find it interesting that you would refer to your—lady—as a jewel.”

“But jade isn’t a jewel. It’s a stone.”

“Yes,” Yarian said, rubbing a hole in his chin. “Yes, it is.”

“What do you suspect?”

He let the old man stand there for a long while, wrapped in some inner thought. Over the years Nalo had learned not to trouble Yarian when he was thinking. The mind of a necromancer was easily distracted; one didn’t dare to interrupt in these rare moments of deep contemplation. But time was slipping away. Somewhere out there, Monika Sharr—his jewel—was in danger. He had to protect her.

Finally, Yarian roused, shook his head, and said, “Okay, you go and do whatever it is you must do. I’ll take care of Rubico Sharr.”

Nalo’s eyes lit up. “You’ll continue the interview?”

Yarian nodded impatiently. “Yes, yes. Go now. Leave me alone.”

Nalo wanted to give the old man a pat on the shoulder. Instead, he cracked a rare smile and said, “I knew you were a good sort.”

Yarian ignored the feeble attempt at an apology. He turned and headed down the steps.

Nalo disappeared into the darkness.

* * * * *

Their relationship began with a lie.

Having been attacked once by a Toradoram assassin, Monika Sharr could hardly refuse the protection that “Maellor Brock” offered her. That was the name Nalo used on occasion to hide his identity. Many people knew of the famed Nalo Thoran; too many in fact. The name was everywhere. He couldn’t use his real name with the woman he loved. The lie was justified in the service of her safety.

So she accepted his protection after an elaborate explanation that business partners of her late husband wanted to ensure that Rubico’s “estate” would not topple because of the recent attempt on her life. The monopoly on Isydori Silk had to be maintained for the financial interests of all concerned parties. “How did you know of the attack?” she asked him in her soft, perfect voice, as he showed her his official-looking references.

Security guard Maellor Brock smiled. This wasn’t even a lie. “News travels fast on the streets of Korsham City, my lady.”

So it was that both his nights and days were spent protecting her. The psychic dispatchers from the Guild continued sending Nalo assignments; springtime was a wondrous, yet murderous, time in Korsham. He ignored what assignments he could, and reassigned others to lesser assassins and thugs: those hits that didn’t require his personal touch. The Guild grew furious with his lack of focus and dedication to their cause and the needs of their patrons, but few actively tried to make an issue of it. Such a challenge would be suicide. Who would dare face the great Shadow Walker in his prime? The Guild would be patient for now with his inactivity; but for how long? Nalo tried not to think of such things as stoking the ire of his own dark patron saint. All he cared about was Monika.

For two weeks he watched and followed her wherever she went. She was a very busy person, professionally and privately. Over the years, she and her husband had acquired many business contacts which had turned into friendships of a sort, although Nalo could see that a merchant’s idea of a friend shared more with “colleague” status than true friendship. Monika Sharr called on several of the wives of other merchants, giving them tiny gifts, and in exchange, getting gifts of her own or promises of one sort or another. In all his time beating the streets at night, Nalo never knew all the gladhanding and palm-pressing a merchant had to do to make a living, to stay afloat. It was a fascinating lifestyle and it seemed to fit Monika Sharr well.

Everything fit her well. Her clothing especially. Walking behind her, Nalo couldn’t help but revel in her comely shape, the way her hips swayed back and forth perfectly beneath her leather garments, or the way she looked bending over to pick up a box or dust off a low shelf. The way she arched her back and teetered backwards on her heels when a colleague told a funny joke, or when she yawned and stretched early in the morning to prepare for business. There was no move or expression she made that passed his observation. On a few occasions, she caught him staring at her, and Nalo would look away quickly, embarrassed. But she never said anything. She’d just smile briefly and go about her way.

Nalo looked for excuses to touch her. He would point down the street and tell her the route they would take for the day, letting his fingers accidentally graze her shoulder or arm. He would help her with a heavy box, making sure his hand would rest momentarily on hers. He would accidentally bump into her to get in front and secure a fork in the road. Once, at the end of a very tough day, he offered to massage her neck, but she politely refused. That was too bold a move, he realized, but he couldn’t help himself. It was painful watching her and not being able to touch her, to take her hand, to wrap his arms around her. Killing was easy compared to this agony.

And he had to stay sharp. He had to push these uncomfortable feelings from his mind and keep a clear eye. Twice more foreign assassins came, baring their curved daggers, hissing and mumbling their zealotry. Nalo dispatched them easily enough, but he grew weary at the end of each day. Having to ward off psychic dispatchers, keep his feelings for Monika in check, and keep killers at bay—coupled with Yarian’s painstakingly slow search for answers—was enough to drive any man insane. If things didn’t change soon and for the better…

Then the spring rains began to fall. There was never a man, or killer, so thrilled with the torrent of water that fell from the sky. It was a good excuse to get closer to her.

His lady liked to drink tea on lazy afternoons, after the drudgery of her business had ended and all other matters were resolved. Monika liked her time away from it all, to settle her nerves, to clear her mind. Maellor Brock was more than willing to assist.

One such afternoon took them to the café where he had first contacted her. She waltzed in on her marvelous legs, greeted old friends with a marvelous smile, and shared tea and stories until the sun set, the winds howled, and the rains poured. On the way home afterwards, Maellor offered to shield the lady under his broad black overcoat. She was reluctant at first, but the winds were harsh and the rain soaked her to the bone.

Under his coat, her heat made Nalo swoon.

“You’re a very thin man, Mr. Brock,” she said, as they trotted along a dark, vacant street. Nalo kept his eyes peeled on every alley they passed. “Perhaps I should feed you something.”

Tonight is the night! Nalo held her shoulder tightly as they crossed the street, the incessant rain pelting them mercilessly. “That won’t be necessary, my lady,” he said. “I’m not hungry.” Not for food, anyway.

“Well,” she said, “come in to get a warm drink at least. You’ll catch your death out here.”

They entered her apartment and Nalo shrugged off his wet coat and gathered kindling from the brass holder on the large fireplace. When she wasn’t looking, he stoked the dry embers with a small fire spell Yarian had taught him. He stepped away and waited for the flames to grow.

The Sharrs’ apartment was vast and opulent, every corner filled with goods from across the world: Torador, Brenia, Isydor, and far-reaching places like Tybus and Ceneca. Thick wire and hemp rope spanned the room, holding rich carpets and soft comforters of Isydori silk and Torador breech-cloths. They quartered off the room in little cubes, helping to direct the heat from the fire into the main living spaces. While Monika brewed hot tea, Nalo moved through the maze of finery.

Such wealth he was unaccustomed to. Any one of the items in this room could have garnered Nalo half a year’s pay. Murder was brutal, but cheap, work. He’d known that from the beginning, but sometimes the job picks the man. If he’d had a choice, perhaps he would have been a merchant as well. There were certainly plenty of them around when he was young. Then too, there had been plenty of thugs, thieves, and assassins. The assassin trade had not started with Nalo Thoran, though it was a nice idea to imagine. He knew that going in as well. He rubbed his thumb and forefinger over a bolt of fine Isydori silk. He smiled. Soft. Soft like my lady.

“Tea?”

Her voice startled him. She had snuck up behind him, and now held out a delicate cup and saucer. It was rare to startle the ShadowWalker. He took the tea humbly and nodded. Her value increased even more in his eyes. “Thank you, my lady.”

She smiled and sipped her tea. Their eyes searched each other. Suddenly, Nalo felt embarrassed. He looked away and took a sip.

She reached out to his face, her soft fingers penetrating the quiet space between them. Then she pulled back quickly, as if suddenly realizing that her move was inappropriate. She smiled again, averting her eyes playfully. “I’m sorry, Mr. Brock. I didn’t mean to intrude. But your face… it’s so pale. Yet so smooth.”

“Please,” Nalo said, “you may call me Maellor, my lady. In my line of work,” he continued, addressing her observation, “the sun plays a minor role.”

She puzzled about that for a moment, but his soft smile made her laugh. They laughed together, then Nalo said, motioning to the fine items around them, “you have quite a collection, my lady—”

“If I’m to call you Maellor,” she interrupted, “then call me Monika.”

Nalo nodded. “Very well.” He repeated his statement.

“Yes, indeed. My husband loved to collect things. He was always looking for that unique, rare, item.”

“But I thought he was a clothier and silk merchant.”

Monika nodded. “And rugs too. But he dabbled in everything. Whenever we had an extra coin, Rubico spent it on a Brenian ruby incense bowl or a Tybus ivory flute.” They walked past a small shelf of ornately designed drinking glasses, vases, and gold-speckled ceramic fertility dolls. She ran her fingers lightly across them, and Nalo felt his pulse quicken. “He especially liked rare gems and rocks. Rubies, emeralds, opals, turquoise, and jade.”

Jade! Nalo recalled the interview with Rubico. “Jade?” he asked.

“He loved it most of all,” she said, sipping again at her tea. Nalo took a sip as well, letting the hot liquid warm his chest. “He considered it the finest element in all the world.” She giggled, took another sip, then wavered in place.

“My lady?”

Her knees buckled, and Nalo cast aside his cup and saucer and grabbed her. She let out a gasp of air, her head lolled backwards and her eyes rolled into her skull. She dropped her cup and the warm tea splashed her leg. He held her softly and took her to the floor.

“My lady!”

Sweat covered her face. Nalo blew gently on her cheeks, giving her air, keeping her cool in the light of the flames.

She roused, her eyes blinking wildly. Her chest heaved as air raced into her lungs. In the heat of the moment, Nalo didn’t even realize that his hand cupped her left breast.

He tried pulling away, but she reached out and held his arm tight. He kept pulling back but her strength was too great. Too great for him: Nalo Thoran. How was that possible?

Something was wrong.

She pressed his hand against her breast again. Her warm, soft flesh rose to him. He squeezed and felt her hard, dark nipple. She smiled at him as if in a dream, her lips soft, ethereal. “Come to me, sweetness,” she said. Her words swam through his dizzy mind. “Come to me.”

Nalo took her in his arms and hugged tightly. Her lips touched his. Heat spread through his body, but it wasn’t his own. Heat from her, and not the kind one feels when bare skin touches skin. It radiated from her flesh, like the heat from the fireplace behind them. He tried resisting, but the feeling was too powerful, calling to him, giving him a sense of peace and happiness.

Like the way he had felt in the arms of Tish years ago.

A tendril of grey curled out of her mouth, like a line of smoke from a pipe. She touched his face with fingers long and sharp. “Open to me, sweet one,” she said, probing his lips with determined fingers. But the voice was not hers anymore. Not the pleasant cadence he had grown to love. The deep, guttural words from her throat were man-like, ancient, sinister. Nalo tried resisting, but all he saw before him was the face of an angel, bright and pleasing, welcoming him from the shackles of darkness.

“I love you!”

He said the words without thinking. Were they sincere, he wondered, or were they coerced?

A pause, then, “I love you too.” Those were her words, in her voice.

The face before him smiled softly as grey smoke turned green. Jade green. Nalo Thoran smiled and opened his mouth.

The world fell away.

Then the world fell back into place, as fast as it had fled from his mind. A faint buzzing sound, a woman’s scream, and then Nalo’s eyes opened as Monika was blown back from an explosion in her side. For a moment, he didn’t move. His eyes refocused, and he saw her clearly, writhing on the floor, bouncing violently and grabbing at a feather dart in her side. Jade smoke poured from the wound; the room filled with her screams.

“Back!” An old, raspy voice said from the apartment doorway. “Back away, Nalo. I know what she is.”

The assassin gathered himself and rose on weak legs. His throat and chest hurt, his body shook in fever, his stomach nauseous.

“I said stand back!”

Nalo did as Yarian bade. “Wh-why are you here?” Pain ripped through his mind. He leaned over and held his head.

Yarian did not answer. Instead, the old man shuffled through the doorway. In his hand was a small staff of black mahogany, its tip a fat, twisted chunk of coal. Nalo had seen the staff before, but Yarian used it sparingly and only in times of great danger to aide in focusing his necromantic powers. He held it up and moved slowly towards Monika’s shaking form.

An arch of black light burst from the staff as Yarian uttered blasphemies, his face a prune of twisted flesh. The light swarmed around her, wrapping her in a cocoon. Monika screamed and writhed madly to break free, but Yarian’s death magic was too strong.

“What are you doing?” Nalo screamed.

“Trying to keep us alive!”

“You’re killing her!”

Yarian shook his head. “No. She’s already lost.”

But all Nalo could see was a beautiful girl—a woman— writhing in pain on the floor. A woman he had sworn to protect. A woman he loved.

He shook away the pain in his mind and jumped. Though frail and feeble, Yarian moved quickly, trying to lean out of the way, but the assassin’s shoulder grazed his back and they went flying across the floor and into a pile of silk bolts. Yarian held his staff, but the dark light twisted upward and spread across the rafters like a spider web, dissipating against the wood.

Nalo pulled himself out of the silk and looked down. Yarian was a shamble of old cloth, silent and still. He’s dead. For a moment, that thought crossed Nalo’s mind. But no. The old goat couldn’t die that easily. I should help. But Yarian’s welfare didn’t concern him at the moment. He didn’t care about anything except her. She mattered the most.

His feelings weren’t natural anymore. He realized that as he went to her, knelt down, and held her head in his hands. His feelings were deep, but foreign, as if the jade smoke that had penetrated his mouth had awakened in him a singular purpose. He wasn’t just her bodyguard anymore; he was her soul protector. And nothing, not even Yarian, not even the dark gods, not even Kalloshin, would harm her. But it was a feeling as if she were property, like an object of great value. He tried pushing the thought out of his mind, but couldn’t. Instead, he tried to lift her.

“I’m taking you away, my love,” he whispered. Yarian’s black spell had wrinkled her face. She was still beyond beauty, but older, as if her essence had been drained away. “I know a place in the North Mountains. You’ll be safe with me there.”

She struggled against him. His sweaty hands slipped and she fell hard. “No!” she yelped. “No. It is hopeless. Just hold me, my love. Just hold me.”

He held her tightly. She breathed in tiny gasps and reached for him with her last strength. Their lips touched again. Nalo found himself resisting, trying to pull away, but he could not control his body or his feelings. They kissed for a long time, until she pulled away, looked deep into his eyes, and said, “Do you love me?”

He could think of nothing else to say. “Yes.”

“Then kill me.”

His face twisted in confusion. “What?”

“Kill me.” Her grip on his neck grew tighter, vise-like. Nalo could not pull away. With her free hand, she ripped her blouse open, exposing herself in the firelight. Sweat streaked her soft skin. Nalo could not resist the desire welling in his mind. So beautiful, so perfect. If he could touch her just once…

“Rip open my chest, my love, and free me.”

“I… I don’t understand.”

“Open my chest… and take my heart.”

He stared at her in terror. What was this thing she was asking? He could not comprehend it. He could not understand.

Then something raised his arm. A force that he, Nalo Thoran, had never felt before. He no longer controlled his body. He could see what was happening, but could do nothing to stop it.

The thing that held him took his arm and began to twist it, reshape it. His fingers fused together like candle wax above a flame. His pale skin shifted red like fire, then silver, red again, until what flesh remained tapered into a steel claw, sharp and hooked.

Then the force pushed his hand downward towards her chest. “Yarian!” Nalo screamed, fighting against the force, taking his other hand and pulling with all his strength. “Yarian, help me. Please!”

But the old man did not reply.

The sharp tip of his bladed hand pushed between her breasts. Nalo screamed and fought against it, but it pushed deeper, deeper. Blood poured from the cut around his hand. He heard her ribs crack. Monika screamed, but it wasn’t a scream of pain or of fear. It was a scream of joy and relief. A smile crept across her lips as happy tears streamed down her face.

The ribs now punctured, Nalo’s hand worked up and down, cutting through flesh and bone. Tish, he screamed silently into the floor. Tish! Help me. Please stop this!

No mistress of Kalloshin answered. The slaughter continued.

The force now took his other hand and pushed it into her chest. Nalo could feel Monika’s blood, her lungs, her broken ribs, and though he had killed so many in his life and had seen so much blood, the sight of all this gore soured his stomach. He looked away as his hand reached in and grabbed her heart.

But it was a stone. Not warm, beating muscle like he expected, but hard, smooth stone. He pulled out his hand and held it before him, Monika’s blood streaming down his arm. He raised it up and stared into a glowing chunk of jade.

Nalo dropped it as the green stone seared his hand. Now he pulled away, pumping his legs and falling backwards.

The light from the stone filled the room, every corner lit like a star. Nalo covered his face as a wave of heat rolled over him.

Then it shattered, bursting into a thousand pieces, showering the room in fine green shards. Nalo waited until the shards stopped falling. Then he moved his arms and opened his eyes.

Above him floated a demon.

It was green like the stone. A dark green with swirls of crimson along its misty body. It was like a fog, thick and smoky. The length of its body spun like a waterspout, and at its top, rising high into the rafters, lay a human torso, rippled with muscle and mass. Atop that sat a beastly head, shaped like a man’s, its face flat, its mouth lined with sharp white teeth and two fangs hooked and lying against pleasant cheeks. Golden rings pierced its broad earlobes, and its long hair hung in locks of twisted gold coil.

“I’m free!” The beast’s booming voice rattled the floor and Nalo covered his ears. “Toka al-Shamool Ali is free!”

The beast swirled upwards, twisting through the rafters like a snake, squealing in glee like a child with a new toy. Nalo ignored its play, stood and walked over to Monika’s body. He stood above her and stared into her mangled chest. Then he looked at his hands. They were real again, but covered in her blood. He fell down beside her, bowed his head, and placed his hands upon her ruined chest.

“I’m sorry, my lady,” he said, fighting back the pain. “So sorry.”

“Who are you?”

Nalo looked up and into the face of the beast. It floated mere inches from his own, its glowing red eyes searching Nalo’s unfamiliar face. Nalo stood quickly, rage uncontrollably rising in his throat. “I,” he said, pushing against the beast, “am Nalo Thoran. I am the Shadow Walker, the Dark Breath-Stealer. A servant to Kalloshin, the Seething Dark Eternalness, the Master of Thorns, the Patron Saint of Assassins. And I’m going to kill you.”

The sudden move of the mortal startled the beast, and it fell back as Nalo pushed again. The assassin swung his arms but his fists swiped harmlessly through the green mist. The beast stopped moving, rose up in a burst of cloud, then brushed its hand across the assassin’s shoulder.

Nalo flew across the room.

It followed. “Well, Nalo Thoran,” it said, “I am Toka al- Shamool Ali. I’m the sun and the stars, the earth and the wind. I am the Fog of Al-Halak, and the Mist of Time Immemorial. I’m a king and a god, and I can kill you.”

Nalo tried picking himself off the floor, but the demon held him firm, its mass swirling around him, choking his breath away. He gasped for air, clawed at his throat, tried to shout. Nothing came.

A bolt of dark light crashed through the fog. The beast fell back, screaming, fighting against a wall of black smoke.

Yarian appeared through the haze, holding his little staff aloft. “I,” he said, “am Yarian Domak. Necromancer. Agent of Death. Keeper of the Rotting Brain, and an all-around nasty son of a bitch. I can’t kill you, but you will leave this place.”

The beast swirled back and forth, like a tiger waiting. It tested Yarian’s defenses, pushing, prodding, but it could find no weaknesses. “Begone!” Yarian screamed, and another burst of light roiled forth from the black coal.

The beast screeched in agony, twisted itself into ribbons of bright green, then fled towards the fireplace.

“I will return,” it said, slithering its way up the charred blocks. “Toka al-Shamool Ali will have your deaths.”

Its laughter diminished as it fled up the chimney and escaped into the Korsham night.

* * * * *

“She was a vessel,” Yarian said as they sat in front of the fireplace, watching Monika Sharr’s destroyed body glow in the firelight. “A carrier. A shell.”

Nalo’s eyes stared unblinking at her peaceful face, trying to ignore the gaping hole in her chest. With a soft piece of silk, he wiped her blood from his arm. “I don’t understand.”

Yarian cleared his throat. “Rubico Sharr’s babbling about ‘jade’ piqued my curiosity, so I dug deeper, asked different questions. In ancient times, Torador sorcerers would trap uncontrollable demons in blocks of jade, just as your Guild enslaves souls in amethyst. But with jade comes a price. Over time, it corrupts. Its core corrodes, deteriorates. With enough time, that which is trapped inside begins to sense its freedom and crave it. A demon will do anything for its freedom. But that beast was even worse. That was a Groel.”

“A what?”

“A demon whose powers rival that of the gods. I’m sure it’s been trapped for legions of time, and for good reason. I was trying to keep it contained in her flesh. Its ethereal qualities would have been absorbed by her blood and would have dissipated. If I had been successful, it would have ended this night.”

There was a veiled accusation in that statement, Nalo knew. But he let it pass. He had no strength to fight. “How did it get there?” Nalo asked. “How did it get inside her… body?”

“Don’t know for certain,” Yarian said, “but I suppose that through some dark mischief, Rubico had it implanted to more easily smuggle it out of Toradoram. Human flesh dampens immortal powers, as you well know.”

“What was he going to do with it?”

“The stone alone was worth a small fortune. Toradoram is very protective of its jade, and merchants like the Sharrs— despite all their obvious wealth—could not have afforded such a large piece. And with a Groel trapped inside, the price is unimaginable. In the hands of a skilled sorcerer, a beast like that could be most powerful indeed.”

“What could it do?”

“You don’t want to know.”

Nalo paused, then said, “So he had a buyer.”

Yarian nodded. “Most certainly.”

Who? It was a question without an answer. The Sharrs were dead. Perhaps Yarian could spin his magic and make Rubico’s broken throat utter the name. But in truth, Nalo did not want to know. There was no value in that knowledge. The truth could be dangerous.

“And,” Yarian said, moving slowly to stand closer to the fire, “it’s certain that someone in Toradoram wanted it back.”

“Will it come after us?”

Yarian shook his head, but Nalo could see doubt in the old man’s weathered eyes. “Not likely. Despite its threat, Toka al- Shamool Ali will have enough to do without badgering two worthless killers like us.”

Nalo allowed a smile to creep across his face. No matter the situation, Yarian always cracked a joke. A rare quality indeed for a death merchant.

“Come,” Yarian said, placing his hand on Nalo’s shoulder. “We must leave. Watchmen will arrive soon. We can’t be seen.”

Nalo nodded. “Just a moment.”

He knelt down and grabbed the hem of the thin shift of silk that lay over her legs. He paused to look at her face. Even in death she was radiant. He yearned to kiss her, one last time, but resisted. Despite their hard beauty, those lips were cold, lifeless, belonging now to whatever god she worshiped. Nor did he want to move them, for even the slightest touch would smear their perfection. He wanted to remember them like this always. Always.

Nalo smiled and whispered gently in her ear, “Goodbye, my lady. I’m so very sorry. We deserved more time. We deserved at least one chance together.” He pulled the silk over her face and stood quickly. “Let’s go.”

Together, Nalo and Yarian, assassin and necromancer, disappeared into a dark and blinding spring rain.

 

The first Nalo Thoran story appeared in the pages of Weird Tales, issue #332.

The Godmother

by Judith Glazier

 

Monday morning, Sally’s red Toyota accelerated smoothly from the traffic light. “First thing at work,” she muttered, “I need to call—”

Something orange dropped through the sunroof.

Sally jammed on the brakes, bringing her car to a screeching stop. Her eyes darted right to take in a little woman tidily tucking a pumpkin and brown plaid coat around her in the passenger seat.

“Good morning!” cooed the lady, straightening the purple butterfly button holding the garment closed.

“God damn!” croaked Sally, unable to get a full breath. “Who? What?”

“So glad to meet you.” The woman clicked her seat belt firmly. “Better drive, dear. We’re blocking traffic.”

“Where?” Sally struggled for a coherent thought. “Where should I go?” Her right foot lifted gingerly from the brake pedal. “I mean, do you need a ride?” Best to be polite, she decided.

“Oh, goodie. I love to ride!”

“You do?” Sally blinked, wondering if her passenger was tall enough to see out the window. “Who are you?”

“Ooh, ooh, take a guess!” The gray mop bobbed and shimmered in an engaging rhythm.

“How should I—aw, the Tooth Fairy.” Sally played along.

“So close, so close!” The orange and brown coat wriggled in anticipation. “Not the Tooth Fairy, but your fairy—”

Sally rolled her eyes. “—godmother?”

“You guessed!” The woman clapped miniature orange gloves.

Oh boy.

“What are you doing in my car?” Sally tried to steer the conversation back to the soothing waters of sanity. “Why am I so lucky?”

“You’re not the first! The others couldn’t see me!” giggled the little woman, as if sharing a wonderful joke. “That means I’m here for Sally.”

“Well, Sally’s awfully busy,” said Sally carefully.

The small woman smiled and wrinkles exploded around sparkling blue eyes. “Not too busy to make a wish, are you?”

“Right, the fairy godmother thing.” Sally turned left. “Tell me, why are godmothers always sweet gray-haired ladies?”

The woman morphed into a thick, balding man. “So, bambina,” mumbled Marlon Brando through doughy cheeks, “I should make you an offer you can’t refuse?”

“Whoa!” Sally gulped. “Stereotypical godmother is just fine.”

The Godfather offered his beringed hand for a kiss before reverting to little old lady mode. “Make a wish.”

“Really, my life is fine. But I’m sure there are others who would enjoy a wish,” Sally suggested courteously, wondering how long this could go on.

“Come on. One bitty wish.” Orange gloves fluttered with excitement.

Why not humor the woman? Maybe she’d leave afterwards. Sally dipped a cautious toe into magic wand territory. “Okay. Life is so hectic, I could use some quiet time each morning.”

The godmother stamped her wee purple Mary-Janes on the dashboard. The upcoming traffic light turned red. As the seconds ticked by, Sally tapped her finger impatiently on the wheel. After several minutes, her passenger asked, “Enough time, dear? I can hold it longer if you like.”

“For heaven’s sake,” chided Sally. “Turn it green. I’ll be late for my first appointment.”

“No problem!” Two twists of the butterfly button. “There. Appointment’s gone.”

“But I needed that meeting,” Sally wailed. “Forget the wish!”

“Oh dear, you’d better pull over.” They parked in front of Fredo’s Italian bakery. “Ooh, I smell cinnamon cannoli. My favorite.” The godmother sniffed lustily. “To save time, why don’t you try out my Top Three?”

“Top Three what?”

“Most frequent requests. True Love, Riches, and Beauty. Test one a day, decide which you like best. Can’t do world peace or immortality, so don’t ask.”

“Fine,” agreed Sally, desperate to get away without further damage. “Now, where can I drop you?”

With two shoulder shrugs, one ear pull, and what looked for all the world like flipping the bird, the old lady disappeared in a tiny bolt of lightning that scorched the Toyota’s upholstery.

* * * * *

Greg phoned six times that day, each call keeping Sally on the horn for valuable minutes while he described his enduring love for her and what he would do as soon as they were alone.

“Look, I love you too, honey,” she protested, running a distracted hand through her short black hair. “But I’m late for yet another meeting.” She kissed the receiver. “Keep thinking about tonight, though…”

Her husband arrived home bearing armloads of cut flowers. “I couldn’t wait to see your radiant face,” he murmured in Sally’s ear. “My love.” He had most of her clothes off before she could get the blooms in water, stopping only when she suggested wine.

They drank French champagne in bed, delighted in their passion, and exchanged sweet nothings until nearly dawn. Ah, bliss, thought Sally. True Love. Still, wasn’t this what they’d do every night of the week, if not for death by sleep deprivation?

So aside from the shrubbery and bubbly, what good was her fairy godmother’s first wish?

* * * * *

Tuesday’s Riches sounded more promising. Sally hopped from the king-sized bed and bounded into a palatial marble bathroom. The minutes lost figuring out the eight-headed shower left her little time to fling on her navy Chanel suit, Manolo pumps, and sapphire jewelry. She was due at a symphony board meeting in an hour.

Sally munched a piece of toast and shuffled through the messages stacked up by the housekeeper. Clutching a Saftonella mug filled with rich Colombian coffee, she slid into her black Jaguar and raised the garage door.

“How was True Love last night, dear?” Vibrant in a flowery green pantsuit, yellow tie, and red feathered hat, the godmother climbed in the passenger door.

“Uh, hello.” Sally twitched in surprise. She organized her thoughts, shunting aside the most obvious ones. “Last night was wonderful.”

“And you’re enjoying your Riches today?” The red feather fluttered across Sally’s face.

She pushed the feather aside and considered the question. “Being rich has its benefits, to be sure. But I’m busier than ever. Symphony this morning, hospital fundraiser at twelve, and three charities this afternoon.”

“Well, I love the Jag. And the threads and the bling-bling. Stunning.”

“Still, maybe Greg and I can grab dinner together after the art opening tonight…”

But her passenger was gone, leaving a charred spot on the burgundy leather seat.

* * * * *

Wednesday: Beauty. Zingy with energy, Sally luxuriated in her old, familiar shower. Hey, hey, whose boobs were these babies? She dried long, honey-blonde tresses, then discovered her closet overflowed with someone else’s wardrobe: short clingy dresses and feet-eating strappy heels. A hot magenta outfit and flamboyant makeup yielded miraculous results.

Singing with the Toyota’s radio, Sally wondered where her godmother was. Police lights flashed behind her. Uh oh. She beamed a warm smile at the officer. “Was I speeding?”

He reeled, managed to ask for her license, and waved her on.

At the office, clients signed deals before she explained them. Coworkers supplied coffee, and nary a hangnail marred the day. Gee, not bad. At 3:37, Peter asked her out for drinks. Sally couldn’t believe it. She and Peter had a great working relationship. Why ruin it? At 3:56, Mike made the same offer. By 5:02, Jim, Paul, and Randy had all stopped by.

Sally’s spiked heels clicked angrily in the parking lot. She didn’t need this! She was smart and successful just as she was. A wolf whistle startled her and she jerked open the car door.

Greg insisted on dinner at an expensive steak house and requested a table in the center of the room. Though annoyed, Sally didn’t object.

* * * * *

Anticipating a godmotherly visit on Thursday, Sally placed a folded towel on the Toyota’s passenger seat to prevent further upholstery combustion. Today her godmother would want Sally’s Top Three vote. Presumably she had ways of making the winner permanent.

But Thursday passed with no hint of fairy dust. And honestly, Sally didn’t mind. The Top Three were not all they’d been cracked up to be. After dinner, she made tea and mulled over how to explain to her godmother.

“Glorious evening, dear,” sang a melodious voice.

Sally nearly dropped her mug. Perched on the sofa, her godmother looked spectacular in a royal blue velvet gown with puffy satin sleeves. Teeny jeweled slippers dangled halfway to the floor.

“Don’t burn the furniture!” Sally exclaimed.

An itsy frown rumpled the godmother’s forehead.

Uh oh, thought Sally. “Here. Have some tea.” She thrust out the cup.

“Thank you, dear.” Dainty gloved fingers laden with glittering rings accepted the drink. “So, how did you like the Top Three?”

“Nice,” hedged Sally. “But I really don’t need them. You probably have a long list, so just cross me off.”

“I can’t. Everybody gets one wish.” The godmother sounded peeved. “It’s late and I’m tired, so please pick yours.”

“It must be hard to stay cheerful all the time,” Sally said sympathetically.

“Tell me about it! The selfish clods I deal with.”

“Don’t you ever get a day off? You sound as busy as me.”

The gray head shook mournfully.

Sally brightened. “Okay, here’s my wish. One day a month, you and I will have an adventure. We’ll be pirates, climb the Alps, dance with the Bolshoi Ballet. We can take turns choosing. No limits. And no penalty for taking time off. Whadaya say?”

The tiny frown deepened to a furrow. “It’s not nice to tease your fairy godmother.”

“No, really,” Sally protested. “That’s my wish!” She was relieved to see the silver eyebrows rise. “Just one condition, though—”

The godmother reached for her left earring. Not in the least interested in seeing the result of a tug to the lobe, Sally hurried on. “One condition. We wear matching outfits. Yours.”

The godmother’s eyes open wide. “Oh my!” She bounced off the sofa. “Oh yes!” Twirling like a sunbeam, she danced to the front hall. “Oh, my dear, such a wonderful wish. We’ll have marvelous times!”

Sally scurried behind, wrapping the tiny woman in a hug before opening the door. “Marvelous indeed, dear!”

With a smile and a nod, the godmother gave Sally the bird and zipped away. Only the welcome mat was scorched, and it could be replaced.

 

The Witch’s Cauldron

by Craig Saunders

 

“Father, why are you so afraid of witches?” asked the small boy, his face red from the glow of the evening fire. Sparks crackled and glowing embers blew high on the wind.

“I am not afraid of them, child, I am in awe,” said his father, after quiet deliberation.

“Tell me why,” the child pestered him, with a child’s lack of sensibilities.

“Very well, son, I will tell you, but you shall not sleep this night.”

“Then tell me why,” asked the child.

“Then, if you insist, tell you I will.”

And so, he told him the story his father had told him.

* * * * *

In the darkness within the Pale Forest, there lurked a witch. The town folk from nearby Cadrean called on her with their various ailments, some embarrassing, most not. She wasn’t well loved—it’s difficult to love a witch. She was given to cackling for no reason. Witches don’t laugh like ordinary folk.

You can’t have a man witch either, it has to be a woman. Perhaps the midwifery involved makes it important to be a woman. Men aren’t given to delivering babies. Leastways, not around Kilondor.

Kilondor was the region of sunshine. Vast flat planes that cast no shadow were the perfect breeding grounds for horses, and the Thane of Kilondor was rich from this natural wealth. The region had no gold but everybody, all the other Thanes of course, needed horses. The Thane was a kind man, called Dandred by all who loved him. His wife was well known throughout the region for her alms. A kindly family, they were the most popular rulers in all of Faerdom.

Faerdom itself was a pretty isle, located in the middle of the Grateful Seas. The ships that sailed to and fro were often lost in the storms that plagued the seas around it, making invasion all but impossible. Trade with the other lands was sparse. Peace had reigned for three hundred years.

But the witch, I was telling you about the witch. The witch now, she was a different breed to the other people of Faerdom. The people of Cadrean called her friend though, despite her fey nature. They were not prone to superstition, like the other regions throughout the lands. The flat planes of Kilondor bred plain folk. They had no time for superstition. Birthing foals was taxing enough on the brain without filling it with nonsense and having that to cope with as well.

The witch had no warts. She didn’t wear a funny hat. She did have three nipples but no one ever saw any of them so she could keep that to herself. The people of Kilondor were none too good at counting either, so if any of them noticed the extra finger she bore on each hand they said nothing of it. What business was it of theirs anyway?

The witch had a name. She didn’t use it often. She hadn’t forgotten her name but everyone just called her the witch of Pale Forest. She didn’t have much to her name and wandered mainly, not making a home. If pushed she would have said that the Pale Forest was her home. It welcomed her like it welcomed no other. There was no other person in all of Faerdom who would have been welcome in the Pale Forest. It was a murky, foreboding forest, full of demons and ghosts. Only those truly desperate came to seek out the witch of Pale Forest.

One day the Thane of Dandred rode into the forest. He had a fretful look about him. His horse, at least seventeen hands high (the Thane could count) bore him swiftly past the town of Cadrean, leaving whispers in his wake. What was the Thane doing out here? And alone? He goes into the Pale Forest! He seeks the witch! The people of Cadrean had made gossip a hobby and before long the whole town knew the Thane had ridden into the Pale Forest alone. He could only be seeking the witch. The gossip mongers whispered themselves hoarse mulling the problem over. What could be so wrong for the Thane that he had to seek the witch out? Surely a man like the Thane had everything that he could need.

The Thane was unaware of the stir his passing had caused. He rode on, ever slower as the thickets and brush closed in on him. The deeper into the forest he went the thicker the undergrowth became. Soon he was forced to dismount and lead his ashen horse behind him. Before long he would be forced to draw his sword to hack at the branches that obscured his path, but he was loath to do so. The witch’s wrath would be great indeed were he to cut back any of her beloved forest. He felt a wary misgiving at being in the forest at all. He had heard stories of the witch, a cold hard woman. Were it not for the direst need he wouldn’t be here at all. But his wife was with child and she had been bleeding for a whole day now. None of the physicians of the realm could do anything for her. They had all been called. There was nothing left but to call on the witch.

The witch saw Dandred’s approach. She watched with interest as he drew closer to where she sat by the bole of a tree. She knew what he wanted. But she was loath to leave her forest. She got up.

“Ho,” she called to him. “What brings the Thane to visit an old lady in the woods?”

The relief of finding her almost outweighed the dread the Thane felt. The witch always extracted her price. From those that couldn’t pay it was often just a lamb, or a carrot, or a turnip for her stew. For those that could the price was always higher.

“I come to beg your aid, mistress.”

The Thane bowed low as he said this, holding his sword back against his leg lest it clatter in an ungainly manner.

“Mistress, is it? Your need must be dire indeed.”

The Thane stood up straight and said to the witch, “I come not for me. I come for my wife. She is with child but she has been bleeding. I need you to come and help her. If you will.”

“I will come, Dandred the Kind. But for you there will be a higher tithe. You are by all accounts a rich man.”

“Any sum that I can pay will be yours. I only beg of you come quickly.”

“The price is more than horses, my good man. I will let you know the price when the deed is done.”

“And that sounds fair, mistress.”

“Less of the mistress. I will meet you at your home.”

“But it is urgent.”

“I will meet you there. I can travel with haste if I need to.”

“Very well.” The Thane bowed low and led his horse from the forest. The forest closed in behind him as he walked. The light grew steadily until he emerged by the town of Cadrean. The people had all come out to watch him pass. None spoke to him, out of respect, but all wondered what the price would be.

The Thane galloped as fast as he could back to his home, a large wooden house on the outskirts of Cadrean. His horse was sweating by the time it got him back, and there, on the front step, stood the witch, waiting for him.

“I have been waiting for you,” she called out to him as he approached. She was not out of breath, Dandred noted, even as he wondered why she would be. She had arrived by magic, not by fleetness of foot, or he was a fool. And he considered himself no fool.

The witch of the Pale Forest wore a dark cloak about her person that looked too warm for the sun high in the sky. Winter had long since passed and spring was on its way to summer. The Thane didn’t wonder about the cloak. It was too heavy but a witch’s business was her own affair.

“Then come inside with all haste. My wife sickens while we talk.”

The Thane thrust the door open and took the steps two at a time. The witch followed quietly behind.

At the top of the stairs there was a door leading to the bed chambers. The Thane held the door open for the witch and she entered, spreading her cloak wide to reveal a coat holding assorted implements of what looked like torture. There were calipers and scalpels, small vials of disgusting looking preparations, scissors and tongs, and wickedly curved needle of bone. She took off her cloak and the coat underneath fair shimmered with the silvery glint of hideous devices. She laid her cloak on a chair and turned to the Thane.

“Leave me with her.”

“But she is my wife.”

“I work alone. That you must have heard.”

The Thane looked longingly at his wife, where she lay on the bed, bleeding out in quiet misery. For those that have ever seen a child birthed, they will know that until the baby is safely in his mother’s arms there is nothing but misery and a gnawing fear, hope abandoned until the deed is done. Rare is the birth that starts in joy, although to be fair to mother nature the act preceding is often done with a hint of a smile, and perhaps a cheery slap on the behind. But this was childbirth, and it was another matter all together. The love that Dandred’s wife felt for him was all but forgotten in her pain, and by then there was little in her face but forlorn hope, and not a little fear.

“Very well. Do what you must, but save my wife,” implored the Thane.

“I will do what I can, though I promise nothing,” said the witch testily.

She ushered the Thane to the door and closed it behind her.

The Thane paced up and down the hallway outside his bedchambers. His leather boots clacked on the wooden floor and he could hear nothing from inside. He put his ear against the door but could discern not even a groan from the chamber.

An hour passed, and then two, but fear of the witch, and fear for his wife, and their unborn child, unmanned him. He was loath to enter the bedchamber, and whatever horrors were there. He could not face it. He would not.

Then, just as he was beginning to convince himself that his wife must have died inside, he heard the first gasp of a wail, then, the wail that followed it. He burst inside to find his wife sitting up, the blood covering the whole of the bed, and an infant, tiny, held in the witch’s arms.

“Out man! I have not finished yet! Your wife still bleeds from the inside. Out I say!”

Before a smile could reach his lips; a baby son! he worried for his wife. Reluctantly he shut the door on the witch and his pale wife, and thought about his son. It was his first son, and he knew he would love him all the more. But not should he lose his wife. That would be a pain unbearable.

He waited and waited. The only sound from inside the room was the wailing of the child. The child cried incessantly and he wanted to go in to give it a father’s comfort, to hold him in his arms. He wanted to hold them both in his arms but the witch had told him to stay outside so he stayed.

Eventually the witch came out holding his baby in her arms. She smiled sadly at him.

“Is she alright?” the Thane asked, holding his arms out to take his baby son.

“She is sleeping. She has lost much blood but I think she will live. The sheets will need changing when she wakes and I will return in a ten day to remove the stitches I have placed inside her. She will live, I think.”

“Thank you! You have saved both their lives and saved my only son.”

“It was not for nothing. There is the payment.”

“What payment could you ask? All my wealth would not be enough for all you have given me this day,” the Thane said gratefully, an almost childish grin on his face.

“That will not be necessary. I ask only this: that you make me the finest cauldron, with your own hands. That is the price. And I give you this advice. The next time you ask for my assistance, I beg of you do not ask. The price that time would be too high for even you to pay. Remember this. Do not ask again or you will weep tears for a lifetime.”

But the Thane was so happy that day that he paid no heed to the witch’s warning.

After a ten day, the Thane had delivered to the witch a cauldron of the finest making. Together, working with the blacksmith, he had wrought a fine cauldron from the finest iron, and emblazoned upon it his own crest of a dancing horse. The cauldron was delivered and the Thane thought nothing more of it.

* * * * *

Ten years passed as though in a dream. The Thane brought his son up to be a good man. He loved his wife and son all the more for nearly having lost them, and the Thane was a happy man. His people loved him and the Thane became, if anything, even kinder to them. His council was wise and the decisions he made were for the good of the people, never for himself.

One day his wife spoke softly to him in the bed chamber.

“I am with child again,” she said, and the Thane thought his heart would burst with happiness. For all the time he had spent loving his wife and son he had dearly wanted another child.

But for both of them there was a hint of fear. They tried to ignore it, as couples are wont to do, but it festered within, until they could not lay side by side anymore. The Thane took to leaving his wife alone at nights, and often sat reading to his son, even after the boy had fallen asleep. He almost forgot the gift given to him. But by then, he had forgotten much.

Months passed and the Thane watched his wife grow large with child.

Then, on the ninth month, when his wife was about to go into labour, a messenger came riding in.

“My lord, you must come quick. I fear there has been a terrible tragedy. It is your son, Theodric. He has fallen from his horse.”

Loath to leave his wife as she was soon to go into labour, he mounted his own horse. Sick with worry he rode out to the plains, where he found his son, head bandaged and feverish. His horsemen surrounded the young heir on a litter.

“He is unconscious, my lord. He fell while riding this morning. I rode as hard as I could to find you. I cannot make him wake.”

The Thane did not know what to do. He could not leave his wife for long.

“Bring my son back home,” he said, sorrow breaking his once strong voice.

He had an idea then, and perhaps the idea had been there all along. No one but the Thane, and the gods if they are truly wise, will ever know. There is one more person who knew, and she knew from the very beginning, from the day Theodric was born. She was the one who handed the mewling babe back into his mother’s arms.

Dandred understood what he must do. He would find the witch.

Mere hours passed before the horsemen returned home with the boy. Theodric was arranged in his bed, where he shook from fever, and the Thane’s wife entered labour for the second time in her young life. The finest physicians could find no physical malady with his son and told those waiting that his time was short. It looked as though Theodric had been doomed to death, from the day he was born.

The Thane, furious that this should come to pass on that day, which should have been full of love and joy, did the only thing he could think to do. He left his family alone, and with tears of sadness wetting his face, and sorrow clouding his heart, rode out to the Pale Forest.

For hours, he rode, mind blank with grief for his young son, who he had nearly lost so long ago.

His back was sore when he arrived, and unconsciously he knuckled the small area above his rump as he led his stallion deeper into the forbidding forest. The sunlight seemed to fade from up above, and just as he thought he would never find the witch in time, there she was, waiting for him upon a fallen tree, a deer on her right, eating berries from her hand.

The cauldron he had made for her sat beside her feet.

Before he could speak she bade him dismount.

“My Lord. I told you once. I beg of you not to ask me.”

“My son lies dying. I need your skills. You must save him.”

“I cannot. I fear what affects him is beyond even my skills to heal.”

“There must be something you can do.”

“The price is too high.”

“I will pay any price.”

“Truly? There are some prices too high for even a man of your wealth to pay.”

“I will pay any price.”

“Then take this to the side of your wife. I will meet you there.”

The Thane rode on, holding the cauldron to one side.

When he reached his home, as before, the witch was waiting at the doorstep for him.

“The price always comes after the deed. You know this. I beg you one last time, do not ask this of me.”

“I ask and you must save my son. You are born to serve those in need, are you not?”

“I am, my lord.” The witch looked at him with the heaviest sadness he had ever seen in her eyes. “Take me to your son.”

“He is upstairs.”

“Your second son. I must see him first.”

The Thane thought it strange but allowed the witch her whims. “Very well. I will take you to my son.”

He led her upstairs to his bedchamber. His wife was sitting up on the bed. Her belly was large with child and from the bed he could tell that the child would be coming soon.

“You must leave me with your wife. The price, I fear, will be too high for you, but I will save your son, as you have asked.”

He laid his cauldron down beside her.

With the door shut the Thane prowled the hallway as he had ten years before. No sounds came from within. He waited for the sound of his mewling baby—a second son! Joy tempered with fear for his first son. All his love had been invested in his first son. He could not die now. He would not allow it.

The first breath hitched, and then it finally came, a great yowling cry, one that brought happiness to his heart, if only for a moment. This time he knew better than to barge in. The witch would call him when she was ready.

The bawling stopped after too short a time. The silence came as suddenly as the sound.

Dandred was worried that he could hear nothing. He waited outside for an hour and the only sound to come from within was a steady chanting. Darkness settled into the house, and the Thane felt a deep chill following in the gloom.

Eventually, the witch emerged, her face grey with strain.

“It is done. Take me to your son.”

“Where is my son?”

“I will show him to you after I have saved your Theodric.” She held a bubbling cauldron by her side.

He took her down the hall to where his first son was laid up. He was sweating with the fever and mumbling. His bandaged head was soaked through and bloody.

The witch knelt beside him and took a ladle from the bubbling cauldron. She gently placed the ladle to the young boy’s lips and bade him drink. Even in his unconscious state the boy drank heartily. He drank the whole ladleful and then to the Thane’s surprise his eyes opened.

“Theodric!” cried the Thane in joy. “You are awake!”

“Father! I had the most terrible dream.”

“No more dreams now my boy. You must rest.”

The boy smiled and lay back down.

“I cannot thank you enough, witch of the Pale Forest. Your price. Name anything.”

“The price has already been paid.”

The Thane looked confused for a second. Until he looked down into the cauldron. It was still bubbling. There, in the murk, bobbed something small, cherubic. It turned its head toward him, and recognition of his deeds came too late.

Dandred put his head in his hands and howled his anguish to the night.

The witch watched him with tears in her eyes, but her tears had fallen long ago. Some people are sad because they know too much, some are sad because others know too little. Witches know both kinds of sorrow.

* * * * *

“That’s a horrible story! I shan’t sleep tonight,” the boy asserted.

“As it should be son, as it should be. Now you know. That is the reason most people fear witches. One small part of us, which we do not wish to acknowledge, knows the truth. No matter what we do, or what we learn, or how much we are blinded by love, know this, child: witches are wiser than any man.”

“Well, now I know why I should be afraid of witches.”

“Don’t fear them, child. Instead, pity them. That, I think, would be more fitting.”

With that, the boy’s father kissed the child on the cheek, and tucked his cloak around him, proof against the chill growing on the air. But he was a kind man. He built up the fire in the clearing, and left it burning against the night, and all that lived within.

 

The Healing

by Wanda Marie Thibodeaux

 

The old wizard was dying, and with him the preservation of his arts. There had been a time when his kind were revered, but now the magic was nearly lost, hunted almost to the point of extinction. Miclibah’s only hope was the Healer, and the prospect of asking for the young man’s help was anything but promising.

Mativo was stubborn, and had been always so. Like Miclibah, Mativo was the last of his kind, but the use of his powers—those same powers that had brought him eternal youth—permitted him to remain unworried as to his own fate. Forever young, Mativo had risen to be the greatest of all the healers that ever had been, immortal and fearfully respected. Still, Miclibah knew that Mativo had reached a sort of mystical plateau, unable to rise further without the aid of Miclibah himself. It was for this reason that Mativo had responded to the summons of the wizard.

The wizard’s chamber was lit dimly by a single torch positioned upon the wall, yet Mativo was missed not as he entered into the room. Miclibah reached for his staff, and his long, matted beard trembled with exertion as he pulled himself from the bed. Mativo observed the wizard quietly and remained still as Miclibah struggled for breath. When Miclibah was quiet once again, the Healer spoke.

“You have weakened much, old friend,” the Healer said. “Any other would have perished already.”

“I am fortunate, indeed,” Miclibah replied breathlessly, “but without you, I will die before the moon sets. My magic cannot hold back death much longer.”

Mativo came closer to the dying wizard, and his eyes searched those of his companion as he asked, “Why have you sent for me, Miclibah? Your death is too near—I can do nothing for you.”

“Ah, but you can!” the wizard replied. “You can! It is not too late. You know how to rebuke death, and there is life in me yet if only you will help me.”

Mativo smiled, amused. “The great Miclibah, desiring aid from a healer?” he said, laughing once. Miclibah met his gaze, and when Mativo saw that the wizard’s eyes were still clear, he continued with more seriousness. “We were enemies once, you and I,” he said. “You hunted me like any other, and I gave you away many times. What is this now, Miclibah, that you pretend a truce?”

“It is not pretended, Mativo,” Miclibah replied, forced to sit once more upon the bed. “I am old, and I am dying even now. I mean no trick—I’ve no more energy for games. I was once as great as you—some would say even greater—but only you are now immortal. Do you not realize that you alone have the power to manipulate life, to cast out death itself?”

Mativo looked at Miclibah cautiously and tasted the meat of the wizard’s words, then answered, “Why do you resist eternal sleep? You ache for it—I can sense it.”

“I do ache, but I resist for the same reason that you have made yourself forever young,” Miclibah said. “I resist because there is much that yet I might do in this world. We were once enemies, but if you help me, I offer you a way to become as immortal in name as you have become in body.”

Mativo furrowed his brow, intrigued. “How do you mean, Miclibah? What riddle do you hold inside your head?”

Miclibah gathered his breath a moment, then replied, “You are a healer, Mativo, the greatest of your kind. Yet, there will come a time when they will hunt you again, and you will have then no rest. You will wander as I have wandered, alone, condemned for what you are. If you heal me and make me immortal, I will teach you what you need to learn in order to survive. I will show you the rest of my magic, and it will make you greater, great enough to keep you safe. They will speak your name, but you will live in peace.”

“You would teach me your magic?” Mativo smiled, “The same magic you refused to teach for nearly four hundred years? You truly are desperate, aren’t you?”

“What else do I have to offer you that might give me life?” Miclibah asked. “I admit, Mativo, you are very clever. You ignored me until your power ceased to increase. You turned away from me in your first youth and did not return until now. You know I am the only one who is your equal—you would have killed me if you had not respected my arts. I cringe at the thought of teaching those arts to one as venomous as you, but there is no one else left.”

Mativo waved his hand toward a second torch upon the wall, and a flash of bright light momentarily flooded the little chamber as the torch began to burn. “You needn’t make me sound as dreary as this cursed room, Miclibah,” Mativo scolded. “I do remember some of your lessons, after all. I admit I crave more of them. Yet, if I am the only immortal, the only one who can determine life or death, why would I want to share such an honor with you? I could wait until you were dead and learn your magic just the same.”

“There is magic held only within me, Mativo,” the wizard said. “Let me die, and the magic dies with me. When I am gone, there will be no one to whom you can teach your arts. You have not found a pupil yet, have you, even after all these years of searching? You will be immortal, Mativo, but what shall it profit you? It will become nothing to you once you are alone You will wish me alive years from now, if only to have someone who can speak of the centuries and the magic with you.”

Mativo was silent. He hated the truth of the wizard’s words, but Miclibah could tell that the Healer’s mind was whirling as he considered and thought.

“All right, Miclibah,” Mativo said after a long while. “I will let you live—you shall have your immortality. Yet, I warn you, the charm is difficult on the body. If you die before I have finished, the blame will not be mine.”

Miclibah nodded, and Mativo urged him to lay back upon the bed. The moon had just reached its crest when Mativo finished, and Miclibah’s eyes continued to widen as his body lurched with the gasp of new life. This, he knew, was only the beginning.

 

Tea Time in the Halls of Prophecy

by George R. Taylor

 

“Good day, Hapless Adventure-Seeker of Tuesday the Twenty-Third, Number Forty-Three. What brings you to the Halls of Prophecy?” The spindly old man stepped around the cluttered desk, bending on a creaking knee to elegantly kiss her hand. His clear eyes twinkled with joy at the meeting, as if it were a rare delight to welcome a visitor into the halls of which he was the curator. His hair was thin and gray, and in places shed onto his black robes, standing out against the dark backdrop.

“Pray tell, dear, what is your name?”

“My name is Vena Llena. I wish to read the prophecies.” Her lightning green eyes flicked over the man’s thin shoulder, observing the office behind. The sturdy desk was scattered with scraps of parchment and quills, and one corner seemed to be devoted to the manufacture of ink—from what Vena could see, it was a messy science.

“Of course, of course. But that is so boring. I assure you, the Halls offer much better diversions. For instance, the mountain you undoubtedly climbed on your way to this distant, out-of-the-way, unfortunately misplaced building is the roost of a fully grown dragon? Its incredible! She’s a beauty—name of Esmerelda. She’s green, see?”

Vena’s jaw dropped in disbelief. “There is a dragon? Here?”

“Oh yes, my dear. Oh yes. There has to be something to deter the heroes hasn’t there? They can’t just waltz right in. That’d not make a very heroic tale, now would it?”

“Deter the heroes?”

“Heavens, yes. Always coming up here on a grave mission to save the world from some impending doom. Always need to study the ancient prophecies to find a way to defeat their respective dark villain. It’s dreadfully dreary, really. Always the same story, and the same group. There’s Hero—he’s the fighter, the main enemy of the villain, you know. And then there is Helping Wench. She’s the scantily clad one; I’ve always liked her. And last but not least, there’s Wizard. He’s the fool that undoubtedly told Hero he must come here to search for his answers. Never think to search themselves for answers any more, now do they?”

“But doesn’t the dragon get killed whenever someone wins?”

“Oh, no. Esmerelda just pretends. You should see her at it—quite an act. If you wait another hour you’ll probably get to see her show. Things slow down around midday, when all the heroes are eating lunch or sparring or whatnot; but we still see a party every hour or so.”

“We?”

“That’s right. Esmerelda and I.”

Vena shook her head in disbelief. “I need to see the prophecies. It’s important.”

“’Course it is,” he said with a smile. “Right this way.”

He bowed her out of his small office, and into the towering chamber beyond. Sunlight streamed through the stained glass windows, emblazoned with the image of a mighty sword being drawn from its scabbard. Long shelves stretched through the room, which was easily the size of a cathedral, all filled to their entirety—and haphazardly so—with parchment.

“It’s so messy!” she exclaimed.

“Can’t make it too easy on the heroes, can I?” He threw her a look that told her quite plainly he thought her crazy; well, she thought the same of him.

“Now, what is your particular interest? Save the world? Natural disaster? Stopping dark magic? Evil lord?”

“Lost love,” she grunted.

“Ooh, lost love. That’s a favorite of mine, don’t see much of those in here.” He looked her up and down. “Should’ve known, you don’t look the Helper-Wench.” He frowned. “Too plain. But, you’re in luck, there aren’t as many lost love prophecies, so it won’t take as long to find yours—if it’s in here.”

“What do you mean if it’s in here?”

“Fates are busy too, aren’t they? Can’t spend all day writing about people’s love lives, can they? I’d hope it wasn’t in here if I were you. They’re a pessimistic lot, really. Only ever write about something if it’s really sad. For the heroes, at least. They always give the evil ones what they want. Rule of all the lands or unending magic or whatever it is they want.”

“The evil guys always win?”

“Do you see any evil lords around?”

“No… But you just said they always get the good prophecies.”

“Hmm, I suppose I did. Yes, that’s right. Evil ones get the good prophecies—your lost love isn’t evil is he?”

“No…”

“That’s a shame. What did you say your name was again?”

“Vena Llena.”

“Hmm. Now where did I? Ah, yes, here it is.” He cleared his throat. “Vena Llena, born to the sign of Capricorn, in the land of Hyerlon, et cetera, et cetera. Ah, here is the good stuff… hem, hem. The one whom you hold most dear shall leave you forever, and you will be doomed to eternal despair. And furthermore, it is foretold that you will never again cross the doors of the Halls of Prophecy as a living woman.

“You… you can’t be serious? It must be wrong, it must be!”

He placed the parchment in her hands and took her around the shoulder, leading her back to his office. “Serious as stone, my lady. You wouldn’t want a cup of tea, would you? No? Well, you don’t mind if I do? What about a biscuit? Nice and fresh, made them myself. Oh, listen. I think I hear Esmerelda roaring now, I bet someone is here. Care to watch?”

“I… I guess. My life… It’s ruined.”

“Now, now, precious. Don’t say that. No need to cry over spilled ink. Just watch, and I promise you’ll feel better. Quick, hide in my office. There, yes. Crack the door so you can listen.”

“Greetings, worthy adventurers. You have bested the fiercest of dragons left to the world. I am humbly at your service.” The curator bowed.

The Hero—Vena could tell which he was because he had a great big sword and a cape—nodded to the Keeper of the Prophecies. “I have traveled far and with great need to read the words of the foresighted. I must defeat Delekand Han, the scourge of the east, before he closes his grip upon this very world, enslaving us all.”

“Then be of noble heart, worthy one, for the words of the future are both blessing and curse.” His tone became lighter. “Third shelf on the left, second rack. Just leaf through them. You’re number forty-eight, by the way. That’s who it will be addressed to.”

The hero nodded once more and disappeared amongst the tall shelves, the Wizard and the Helper-Wench started forward, but the curator stopped them.

“The words of the forespoken are only for whom they apply. You cannot read the prophecies.”

The Helper-Wench gazed at him for a moment, then asked “Then how will Kent find the prophecy about Delekand Han’s death, if it is not about him?”

The Keeper jumped in delight, clapping his hands. “Oh, you are a rare one. Surprisingly intelligent, yes. Hmm… There is some ancient magic… I don’t remember it exactly… but it said something about Helper-Wenches and Wizards not being able to read the words of the ancients or they will suffer terrible, gut-wrenching deaths. Oh, and ruin the chances of Hero, if I remember correctly.”

“What did you call me?”

“The noble and valiant aid to the hero, without whom he would be doomed to defeat.”

“Oh… I thought you said something else.”

“A trick of the acoustics, I imagine. Tricky building, big, vaulted ceiling, see? Ah, look here comes Hero now. My, he does look ash-faced.”

“Kent! What’s wrong?”

“The prophecy… It… I can’t say. All is lost! Let us leave this cursed place, quickly.”

The curator smiled at him. “Sorry you couldn’t stay. I’m boiling tea in my office. Splendid flavor, all the way from the far east. Out of the dark lands, come to think of it. That’s ironic, eh?” He opened the door, and began shoving them out. “Come back if you need anything! Stay in touch!”

Boom. The oak doors slammed shut, causing the parchment to vibrate on the shelves.

“Now, what were you worried about, Miss Llena?”

“My prophecy… I’ve lost him forever. And I am doomed to die when I leave here. What if I never leave? Can I stay here?”

“Hmm, afraid not. Sorry, dear, but the missus wouldn’t like that. Not a bit. She gets dreadfully jealous.”

“The missus?”

“Esmerelda.”

“Am I doomed to die then?”

“Of course not! Didn’t you just see what happened? The dark lord can’t always win. I’m sure Hero will do a little soul searching and find a way to work around the words of the prophecy so he can still slay the evil one.”

“Wait… the words can be broken?”

“No, no. But you can find a creative solution to work around them.”

“But how will I get out of here alive?”

He strode to the window and pushed it open. “Can I offer you a window? No door-crossing involved.”

“Oh! Thank you! But… why would I have died if I went through the door?”

He stuck his balding head out the window. “I suspect one of the dragon-whelps is out there. Yes, there she is. Fira, dreadful temper. Watch out for her on the way down.” He ushered her out the window.

“Come back if you need anything!”

Once her body had withdrawn from the frame, the curator closed the window, fastening the shutters tightly shut and sliding a latch over them.

“Now, about that tea.”