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Labor of Love

Ruarin, Lady of Eyre, heard her husband’s boots on the stairs leading to her kitchen.  She placed her hand upon the bundle of food the cook had prepared for the master of the house. Her hounds, Water of Fire and Bounder, sat on the floor next to DaddyBear’s baggage.  Their noses twitched as they tried, in vain, to convince her that they should give their master’s victuals a final taste, just to be sure that it was safe.

Beyond the shuttered windows, a winter storm roared as it swept in from the mountains to the west.  Normally their home would be frosted with snow at this time of year, but unusually warm, wet weather had turned her gardens into sodden mires.  Ruarin’s heart and mood matched them. Her eyes flashed just as the sky did when great bolts of lightning arced to the hills at the edge of their valley.

DaddyBear the Minivandian strode into his kitchen and glanced about as if expecting assassins to leap from the shadows.   The dogs thumped their tails against the flagstones at his approach, earning them each a pat on the head. Their disappointment at the lack of a treat was evident in their eyes.

The Northerner turned to his wife.  Their gaze met for a long moment, then the Lady of Eyre turned away.

“Your things are ready, my lord,” she said in an even, formal tone.  “Is there anything else you need before you depart?”

“My love,” he started to reply, but was cut off when his wife lifted her head and fixed him with a glare.

“Love?” she spat.  “Is it love that sends you off to some forsaken place today?”

“Ruarin, it’s by order of the High King himself.”

“And what of it?  I seem to remember an oath to me that you would stay home for a long while.  Do you remember that?”

“Yes, but…”

“And your oath to our son that you would attend to his training this winter?  The boy needs someone to show him how to use that sword he got at mid-winter, and now his father is traipsing off on another adventure.”

“The master at arms can work with the Young Prince.”

Ruarin’s eyes flashed at that.

“He is your son.  You should be teaching him.”

“I wouldn’t go if I didn’t have to.”

“That is what you said when you missed his birthday last spring, and when you were gone during the harvest feast.  You’ve just barely finished healing from that little jaunt, and now you’re off again.”

“Ruarin, my love,….”

“And what of me?  Am I only the lady of your house now?  Am I to just stay here to keep hearth and home together while my lord is out and about?”

The Miniviandian closed his eyes and took a long, slow breath.  He opened his eyes and let it as he replied to his wife.

“Woman, I am bound by my word to our King.”

“And what of your oath to me?  Have you forgotten that after all these years?”

DaddyBear’s rocked back as if he’d been slapped.  “Of course, I haven’t. Do you think I choose these things freely?”

“I could write to the King.  We’re kin, after all. You should be….”

“No,” DaddyBear said firmly, his voice dropping to a growl.  “I forbid you to do that. I will do my duty.”

The pair glared at each other while another peal of thunder shook the foundations of their manor.  The dogs looked from one to the other, then made the wise choice to slink away.

The Northerner bent down and picked up his bag.  Hefting it over his shoulder, he turned to the door.

“I’ll be back on the full moon,” he said over his shoulder as he stepped out into the storm.  The wind grabbed the door from his grasp, slamming it back into its frame hard enough to make the shutters rattle.

Ruarin stood in her empty kitchen, listening in vain for the sound of DaddyBear’s return for a parting embrace.  After a long wait, she felt hot tears roll down her cheeks, then sobs filled the kitchen.  

In the morning, the cook would find her mistress asleep at the table, the master’s bundle of food cradled in her arms.

 

DaddyBear the Minivandian trudged through the mud as the storm raged around him.  He had tied the pack behind his saddle before leaving home, but chose to lead his horse through the storm rather than ride him.  The big roan walked with his head down, but otherwise did not seem to notice the pellets of ice that had replaced the rain as they walked through the manor’s gate.  

The pre-dawn gloom slowly gave way to a dim, crimson dawn as the Northerner turned to follow a forest path into the hills.  After only a few miles of walking in the rain and mist, his cloak and anything not covered by it was sodden and splattered with frozen mud.  His beard and hair were frosted with ice, but he did not seem to notice as he trudged along. His eyes were fixed forward and he mumbled to himself as he went along.  

Several forest creatures heard his footfalls and voice long before he passed their lairs.   Some, hungry from a hard winter, might have chanced attacking a lone traveller, but none dared face the wrath of the big Northman that day.  Even though his great axe was strapped to his saddle and his sword was sheathed beneath several layers of wool and leather, none wished to face death at his bare hands.

Only when DaddyBear’s belly started to rumble with hunger did his attention come back to what he was doing.  With a grunt, he guided his horse into a stand of cedars. The few rays of dawn’s light that escaped beneath the leaden sky shone through the ice encrusting them.  They gave the cedars a red hue that matched the Minivandian’s bloody mood.

When he discovered that he had forgotten his food, DaddyBear cursed himself to any gods that might have been listening.

“Fool,” he said, “do you think you can survive on pine needles and snow?”

After considering that for a moment, DaddyBear snorted.  “I mean, can you survive on pine tea and whatever else you can find, again?”  Images of a frozen forest and a pretty girl flitted across his eyes for a moment.

He stopped to think, but then shook his head.  “No, I’m not going back. I’m already late, and I’m in no mood to cross swords with her once more,” he muttered as he put his foot in the stirrup.  Once he was settled into the saddle, he poked the roan in the ribs and started down the trail again.

“I know where I can get provisions, and the company might be a bit friendlier.”

 

The Minivandian’s cloak hissed and steamed next to the crackling fire as Jedediah the Dwarf filled a mug with dark, rich beer and passed it to DaddyBear.  The short, barrel-chested man looked as if he had been crafted from tooled leather. His skin was deeply tanned, even in the darkest winter. It was either due to his continual work at his forge, or perhaps from decades of grinding grease and soot into it.  His bright eyes twinkled in the firelight above an unruly beard of dark curls. Now, at rest, he wore a woolen robe dyed the color of spring grass. DaddyBear was more accustomed to seeing him in a pair of leather breeches and a thick apron.

His home was small, almost cramped to the Northerner’s eyes, but was spotlessly clean and comfortably furnished.  The aroma of fresh bread, fragrant woodsmoke, and hot metal permeated the house. The walls and ceiling were intricately carved with rosettes and scenes of ancient battles.  Rugs fashioned from the skins of animals both wild and tame carpeted the floor. They, along with a roaring fire, kept Jedediah and his guest cozy. 

“So, you’re off again?” the dwarf drawled as he settled into his favorite chair.  DaddyBear nodded as he stared into the fire.

“Yes,” he took a long pull from his mug, “again.”

“Where to this time?”

“Havheim, to deliver a message to the merfolk.”

Jedediah winced at that.  “I can see why Ruarin’s about as happy as a wet cat.”

The Minivandian nodded. 

“Will she be there?”

DaddyBear replied,  “That’s who the message is for.”

Jedediah winced again.  “Ruarin knows?”

“I hide nothing from my wife.”

“And you’ve told her about your… history with the Lady Cichlidia?”

The Northman sighed and put his mug down.  “I hide nothing from my wife,” he repeated, “although sometimes….”

“You’d rather chance being turned into a toad when she finds out anyhow?”

Both men snorted.  A knot in the fire popped as they laughed at the thought.

“I would make a particularly ugly toad,” the Minivandian said with a chuckle.  “Better to be truthful.”

Jedediah nodded in agreement.  “Well, I’ve got some vittles ya can take.  Y’all’re partial to boar, right?

“Smoked or dried?”

“Brined with dragon spice, then smoked fer a week.”

DaddyBear worked his jaw as if he were already trying to chew the tough, spicy strips of meat.  It wouldn’t be as good as what he’d expected to have on the trip, but it would be better than an empty belly.

“Thank you, Jedediah.  That’ll be fine.”

“In this weather, it’ll take ya weeks to get to Havheim and back.  Ain’t there a quicker way?”

“The King asked that I do this without drawing attention.  A winged beast descending on the home of the merfolk isn’t exactly covert.”

“True, true,” the dwarf said as he got up.  “It’s a long ride in good weather. In this,” he swept his arm toward the window, now crusted in ice, “you’ll be lucky to be home by spring.”

“I’ll make up time once the weather breaks.”

Jedediah snorted.  “I’ll fetch that hawg meat fer ya.  I’ll see if I’ve got any of those dried apples from last summer left.”

“Thank you.”

“Whatcha gonna do about the missus?  This is a bad time to be away from home.”

The Northman sighed and stared at the fire.  “I don’t know. Perhaps I’ll find a gift along the way.”

“Ya know, I’ve still got some of that silver y’all brought home from Illium a couple of years ago.  Might make somethin’ nice.”

DaddyBear stroked his beard and nodded thoughtfully.  “That might help. I’ll see if I can find anything you can use along the way.”

Jedediah cracked a smile as he stood and headed toward his larder.  “Nothing too big, mind you. Just some stones I can set in the silver.”

 

“Dozhevir, my love, I’m afraid you’ve come all this way for nothing,” Cichlidia said in a rich, sweet voice.  She was submerged in a pool of azure water up to her neck, sparing the Minivandian from having to avert his gaze. Merfolk rarely wore much clothing while in their own realm.

“All my king asks is that you answer his question, my lady,” he replied.  He kept his gaze centered on her forehead, which was ringed by flaxen hair that flowed down either side of her exquisitely beautiful face.  Meeting her gaze for too long might have sent the wrong message to the mermaid.

“Then you may tell him that I must decline his offer,” Cichlidia replied with a beaming smile.  The corner of her eyes crinkled as she rose up a few inches in the water. She could sense DaddyBear’s unease.  She giggled when she saw that he was blushing already.

“Well, then, there are other errands I must attend to,” the Northman said, not taking his eyes off of her forehead.  He bowed. “By your leave, my lady?”

“Going so soon, Dozhevir?”  Cichlidia giggled again, and rising just a little more from the water.  “We’ve got so much to catch up on!”

“I, my lady, am a married man in the presence of someone of your beauty.  Lingering here to talk about old times would be….”

“Wonderful?”  Cichlidia stretched her arms over her head and arched her back.  “Oh, this throne is uncomfortable,” she purred.

“I was going to say ‘disastrous’,” DaddyBear replied tersely.  “I really can’t stay.”

“But, my lord, it’s cold outside.” Cichlidia settled back onto her throne.  “Just stay a few days to let the weather pass.”

“No, I promised Ruarin that I would be home before the full moon, and the High King needs to hear your reply.”

“Well, then, if you must go, then let me give you a proper goodbye.”  She surged across the pool with a hard thrust of her tail. She hovered in front of him, wrapping her shapely arms around his neck.  She leaned in for a kiss, but was disappointed when he turned his head and presented her with a bearded cheek.

“Always the honorable barbarian, aren’t you, Dozhevir?” she pouted as she sank back into her pool.  

“Always, Cichlidia.”

“Well, go with my blessing then, if you must.”

“Thank you, my lady.”  DaddyBear turned and hurried from the hall.  Once he was beyond the walls of Cichlidia’s palace, he wiped his hand across his cheek to make sure no mark from her kiss remained.

“Simon,” he whispered as he strode toward the groom holding the his horse, “I should never have let you talk me into visiting that grotto.”

 

A bolt of blue fire burst against the rocks at DaddyBear’s feet, throwing him to the side.  The big man tucked his axe against his chest and rolled in the pebbles of glass that carpeted the plateau.  A huge nest, fashioned from the trunks of trees and interwoven with tendrils of frost, loomed at its center.  Above it, a huge creature, as white as newly fallen snow, rose as it beat its wings against the air.  

The creature’s cry wrent the air, making the Minivandian’s ears ring as he sprang to his feet and rushed at the nest.  The small stones beneath his feet crunched as he raced across the open area before leaping up the side of the nest. The ice phoenix swooped around in a long arc, then dove at him.   Just as DaddyBear reached the edge of the nest, it stuck at him with a set of wickedly sharp talons.  

DaddyBear felt the fabric of his cloak tear as he was lifted off of the nest and thrown down into it.  He managed to keep hold of his axe by some miracle, but otherwise landed like a sack of wet mush next to a clutch of huge eggs.  His head spun as he tried to regain his feet. He felt no broken bones, but could taste blood where he had bitten through his tongue.

The phoenix cried again as it plunged down at him, then screamed as the intruder rose to his feet and pulled his axe back behind his shoulder. She stretched out her talons to strike.

“Hold!” the Minivandian shouted at the humongous bird.  “I mean you no harm!” He dodged as the bird swooped over him.

“Thief! Assassin!” the phoenix cried out, hovering over the mound of mottled eggs. “You’ve come to murder my children!”

“I come only in search of a jewel!” DaddyBear’s words were a bit muddled by his rapidly swelling tongue.

“Jewel?”  The phoenix kept a suspicious eye on the Northerner as she settled back on her nest.  At this stage, her young needed to be kept warm, and the frigid north wind whistling around her eggs worried her.

“Yes, my friend tells me that ice phoenix have beautiful blue jewels.”  

“Oh, those,” the phoenix scoffed.  “Your friend has seen our tears?”

“Tears?”  This time it was DaddyBear’s turn to be puzzled.

“Silly mortals,” the phoenix snorted.  “Of course, tears. When one of us sheds a tear, it freezes immediately.”

“Into a jewel?”

“Well, they are shiny.  I suppose someone might mistake one of them for a jewel.”

“All right then, how do I get a few tears from you?”

“If I cry for you, will you leave and never come back?”  

“Of course.  My home is far from here, and I have no wish to return to your aerie.”

The phoenix sighed and shook her downy head.  “All right, but just this once.”

She dipped her head down so that they were eye to eye.  

“Stretch out your paw.”  

DaddyBear did as instructed.  The phoenix turned her head to the side, then closed her eyes.  A few moments later, azure drops rolled down her beak and into his palm. Searing cold raced up his arm as each crystalline drop fell.

After a few moments, the phoenix raised her head.  One final tear escaped, falling to the ground and shattering in a flash of blue light.

“There, if that’s all you came for…”

“Yes, thank you.”

“Mind that you never return, morsel.  My young will be hungry for red meat in a few weeks.”

“Have no worry, my lady,” DaddyBear said as he tucked the jewels into a pouch.  “I do not wish to disturb you further.” He slowly backed to the edge of the nest, then climbed down to the ground.  The phoenix listened to his footfalls as he crunched through the pebbles and made his way down the narrow path off of her plateau.

“Foolish mammal,” she muttered as she preened her feathers.  “Tears are just pretty. He should have asked for a feather or two.”

 

“So,” the demon said with a sharp-toothed smirk, “your turn!”

DaddyBear scooped the iron dice up from the top of the black stone table.  For the first time in days, he was warm. In fact, he was uncomfortably hot.  Only a suspicion that he might have to race back out into the blizzard howling around the lip of the crater in which he sat kept him from stripping off a few layers of clothing.

“Last try,” the Northerner growled.  He shook the dice thrice, then watched as they clicked and sparked their way across the tabletop.

“Ah, good throw!” the demon cackled.  “But not perfect. Three fives and a four won’t be easy to beat, but we’ll see what I can do.”  

DaddyBear watched as the  imp swept the dice into its claws.  Rather than shake them, it threw them up into the air and let them fall.  Instead of bouncing, the dice landed with a thud. The demon did not look down at the dice.  It merely sneered across the table.

“Four fives!  I win again!”

DaddyBear made a sour face, but slid a gold coin across to his opponent.  It was all that remained of the stack of coins he had entered the game with. The demon laughed as it picked it up and popped the gold into its mouth.

“Oh, that’s a sweet one.”  The creature smiled at his guest.   “Care to throw again?”

“I’m out of money.”  The Minivandian gestured at the empty table in front of him.

“Well, what about that pretty sword you have under your cloak?”

“My sword?”

The demon smiled warmly.  “How about this? If you win, you get everything back and we can start over?”

“And if I lose?”

“That blade will taste really good.”

The Minivandian pursed his lips as he thought about the imp’s offer, then he reached under his cloak and drew his sword.  The polished steel gleamed in the torchlight as he lay it down on the table.

“Are those real Channani runes?  Those will add spice to the meal!”  

DaddyBear’s eye twitched as he scooped up the dice.  Never letting his eyes leave the demon, he shook them, then let them roll off of his fingers.  Just as the demon had done before, he didn’t look down at his dice before saying, “Four sixes.”

“But you only got three….” The demon stopped when the glowing edge of DaddyBear’s sword slid up against its neck.  It tried to pull away, but DaddyBear’s other hand snaked out and grabbed its scaly arm.

“It’s four sixes, you cheating hellspawn,” the Minivandian said in a quiet, calm voice.  “Pay up.”

“But…”

“Give me what I want, or I’ll carve what I need out of your hide after I split you open and take back my gold.”  The demon locked eyes with the Northman, then blinked.

“All right, all right,” it said.  It’s tail slouched to the ground behind it.  “Ye gods, a guy can’t have a bit of fun?”

“Only a fool cheats a man of the North,” DaddyBear growled.  He put a little more pressure on the sword.

“Cheating?” the demon said, slowly reaching into the pouch laying in front of it on the table. “Me?”

“You think I’ve never seen enchanted dice before?”

“Oh, so you’ve played this game before?” the imp asked as it shook several iridescent stones out of the pouch.

“More times than I can count.  I just wanted to see how greedy you were.”  DaddyBear released the demon’s arm and picked up the gems.  Slowly, he pulled his sword back and lowered it.

The demon rubbed the mark the blade had left on its neck and scowled at the Minivandian.  

“I ought to kill you for that,” it spat.

“If you’re feeling froggy, then jump,” DaddyBear answered menacingly.  He stood, his sword clasped in one hand and the firejewels gripped in the palm of the other.

“Care to try again?” the demon asked slyly.  “We can even use your dice.”

“Not a chance.  You only get to cheat me once, and I know you’ve got more tricks to play.”

“Now you insult me?”

“You’re lucky I let you keep the gold. I just don’t have time to clean my blade today.”

The demon shrank back, stepping away from the table.

“Okay, okay,” it hissed.  “Just go. I’ve got other rubes to play with.”

DaddyBear turned his head and spit on the floor of the crater.  It sizzled and hissed as he walked away. “Demon blood makes for good ink.  Remember that before you try anything.”

Without looking back, the Minivandian climbed up the side of the crater and back down to where he had tied his horse.   The hem of his cloak and the soles of his boots smoked where they touched the stones.

 

Ruarin sat at her kitchen table.  A gentle, but constant, rain pattered against the windows behind her.  She had kept her composure until she could be alone, but now her eyes burned from the tears that had soaked into the arm of her dress. The rest of the house had gone to bed hours before, but she had stayed up to watch the moon rise.  

This was the third month she had kept this vigil, and every month had been a disappointment.

Bounder, the smaller of her family’s black hounds, leaned her head against the Lady of Eyre’s lap.  Her tail thumped against the flagstone floor as a delicate hand scratched behind her ears. The dog’s attention drew Ruarin’s eyes from the window.

“You miss him too, don’t you, girl?”  The hound looked up at her and let out a long sigh.  “I suppose he’ll be home by the next full moon.”

Suddenly, Bounder reared her head back and turned to face the door.  Her back arched as she unfurled her leathery wings. A low growl rose from her throat, raising the hair on the back of Ruarin’s neck. Her sharp bark filled the kitchen. It was quickly answered by the loud bay of her brother as he scrambled from his bed in Elsked’s room and raced toward the kitchen.

The Lady of Eyre rose from the table and drew the dagger she kept at her belt.  To her shock, she realized that the door was not latched shut. Hearing a heavy footfall on the stone courtyard beyond, she raced to the door just as it started to swing open.

Ruarin raised her blade, the first bit of a curse between her teeth, when a haggard, bedraggled figure stepped through the doorway and into her kitchen.  Bounder beat her wings as she pounced, striking the intruder in the leg with her paws. Her tail whipped back and forth as she greeted him.

Ruarin looked up into the man’s face.  His long, filthy beard dripped from the rain. His eyes were red with exhaustion.  The cloak across his shoulder was torn in several places. His shoulders were stooped and he moved like an old man.

DaddyBear the Minivandian looked down at his wife.  He could see the surprise and shock on her face at the sight of him.  

“Wife, I am home,” he rumbled in a tired voice.  “I regret that I am a bit late.”

He took another step into his home and raised his hand. Nestled in his palm was a long silver chain.  A pendant of firestones and blue phoenix stones caught the light from the candle burning on the table and glowed with a fire of its own.

“I hope that this makes up for my absence.”  He looked down at his wife, searching for some sign from her.

Ruarin examined the necklace for a moment, then knocked his hand away. Before he could react, she leapt at him, wrapping her arms around his neck and pulling him down for a kiss.

“My love,” she said through fresh tears, “I need no jewels.  I only need you.”

The Northman ran the back of his fingers down her cheek, then pulled her close.  They stood there for a long time, holding each other and listening to the rain fall on the courtyard.

A Yuletide Missive

Ruarin, Lady of Eyre and loving wife to DaddyBear the Minivandian, considered the broad sheet of vellum laid out before her.  She absently ran the feathered end of her quill under her chin as she carefully chose her words.  Then, with a sigh, she dipped her pen in a well of irridescent green ink and began writing.

Dearest friends and family,

I pray that this missive finds all of you in good health and better cheer. As the year draws to a close, it is time to reflect on the blessings and adventures we have all encountered over its course.

My younger son, Elsked, continues to grow like a weed.  He will most certainly surpass me in height before this time next year.  He does well in his studies, and has been granted permission by Sister Maeve to read selected tomes from the locked section of her library.

Ruarin paused for a moment to consider the consequences of allowing her son to peruse books with such titles as “Fire Salve in the Care of Drakes and Wyverns” and “Tie a Rope to the Stars:  Astronomy for the Experienced Cyprian Mage”.

Elsked is preparing to ascend from the Corps of Adventurers to the Forest Guides after the New Year.  He and his friends have enjoyed spending time learning the ways of the Adventurers, but all look forward to the true adventure that lies ahead of them.  Their leader, Master Ryoan, is an accomplished fire mage, and has taught them most of the ways to start and control a flame that do not require magical ability.  Elsked has worn me out with his inquiries on how to initiate and use fire with his magic, but for the sake of all of our sanity and shrubberies, I am waiting until he is a bit older before beginning that instruction.

The memory of her son returning from a campout with burned spots from embers on his uniform brought a smile to her face.  The memory of missing spots in his father’s beard made her chuckle even now.

Lytterin continues her studies in Tenochtitlan.  We hope that she will complete her theoretical courses and begin practical instruction in the spring time.  For those of you who have not heard, she has changed her concentration from the healing of wounds to the safeguarding of those in peril.  I understand that her advanced studies will send her to many new places, and I hope to be able to tell you about her quests by this time next year.

Dozhevir and I are both doing well.  He recently returned from a trip to the far North, where he assessed the possibility of repopulating his homeland.  His gift of a fine snowstag pelt and a necklace made from the teeth of an ice drake were wonderful surprises at Christmas.  Elsked and I are considering which enchantments to place in the necklace.  Currently, the most popular choice is a spell which will make the wearer comfortable, no matter how hot or cold the weather gets.

Ruarin ran a hand over the fur blanket across her shoulders and sighed at its warmth.

I continue my work to catalog the healing herbs that grow wild in the hills above our home.  I was shocked to find that several unique, useful examples of kossaki death olive and goldwart grow here, but have not been reported to the community of Healers at large.  The descriptions of the plants and how they are to be prepared and used for different maladies is done, although I continue to work on the illustrations.  It’s just so hard to get gold leaf to lay correctly.

To her right, a bunch of dried goldwart twinkled in the candlelight.

In the coming year, my husband and I plan to take Elsked to Eyre for his first meeting with the High King.  He is excited at this prospect, although I expect he shall be even more so once he learns that the King’s enchanter will be blessing Elsked’s sword while we are there.

Ruarin stopped to dip her quill once more.  She made a mental note to have the master-at -arms work with Elsked on his sword handling.  The blessing would come after the boy had demonstrated that he was ready to wield it, and Elsked seemed to take after his father in favoring the axe.

As the year closes and we look forward to the promise of the new year, please remember that we keep all of you in our prayers and hope to see you all soon.  Take care of one another and please write to let us know how life goes with you.

Love always,

Ruarin, Dozhevir, Lytterin, and Elsked

The Lady of Eyre read through her letter, then nodded as she found it to be acceptable.  After sprinkling a bit of pollen from the goldwart onto the ink to set it,  she raised her hand over the vellum.

Mittere,” she whispered, feeling a touch of magic flow through her fingers and into the paper.  It fluttered is if it were about to take flight, then multiplied into many sheaves of paper.  With a rush of wind, each of the copies flew from the window and out into the night.

“I never get tired of watching you do that,” a deep, gentle voice came from the doorway.  Ruarin turned to see her husband leaning against the portal.  He wore the sweater she and Elsked had made for him as a Christmas gift.  She was pleased to see that it did, indeed, go well with his green eyes.

“Everyone will get it by morning, my love,” she said quietly. “I expect to see a few replies before the next feast day.”

“Good, good,” the Minivandian said as he offered her his arm.  “Now, let us take a rest together. Your son plans to keep us both up very late tonight to welcome the New Year.  Would you honor me with the first dance after the feast?”

The Lady of Eyre smiled and winked at him, then took his arm.

“I would be honored, my lord,” she purred.  “It’s not often that we dance anymore.  We should make a habit of it.”  Her husband patted her hand as they walked down the stairway to the great hall.

“Perhaps, my love, perhaps.”

Escort Duty – Part 25

In the hallway outside, the two servants listened to the noise and exchanged a knowing look.

“He’s found one with some fight in her, hasn’t he?”

“Remember that one from Pesht with the dark hair last fall? The duke spent three days in bed once he was finished with her.”

“Too bad about the woman, though. She’s the prettiest one yet. Hopefully, he’s more gentle this time.”

The pair stood next to the door and listened to the moans, shouts, and rumbles coming from the hall.

~~~

Simon eased his way along the wall. He could hear people talking in what seemed to be a summer kitchen on the far side of the tower as he crept closer to the tall building. The smell of roasting meat overpowered every other scent, but his ears did not pick up the sound of soldier’s boots on the courtyard’s flagstones. When he reached a door at the tower’s base, he silently pulled Gnarlthing from its scabbard and eased the door open a few inches.

Looking through the crack, he saw a hallway lit by torches. Two men wearing silver and black livery stood next to another door. The sound of a man bellowing and furniture moving across the floor came from beyond the door, and the two men chuckled and talked in a low whisper.

Simon slipped through into the hall and approached the pair. Their attention was on what was going on in the banquet hall, and the soft footfalls of Simon’s boots were lost in the ruckus. Simon brought Gnarlthing up, its blade gleaming in the torchlight, and brought its pommel down on back of the larger one’s head. The servant stumbled forward, bumping his head on the heavy wooden door, then dropped as Simon bludgeoned him again.

The second servant opened his mouth to shout. Simon flicked his arm down and rested his blade against the side of the youth’s neck. The servant closed his mouth immediately.

“Where is Princess Erika?” Simon hissed, “Speak!”

The boy, wisps of hair on his chin quivering in the torchlight, pointed to the door behind Simon and stammered, “In there!”

~~~

Erika kicked out at Kyrali’s knee and missed. Her heel impacted on his shin, drawing a howl of pain from him as he stomped down onto her ankle. Erika cried out and scooted away from the larger man. Kyrali heaved himself up onto the table and reached down at her. His fingers entwined in her hair, and he yanked her out from under the table. Erika twisted to get free, but the duke wrenched her around, tightening his grip.

“Bitch!” he growled, “You’ll pay for that!” He lunged forward to slap her again.

Erika let her legs go out from under her, her weight pulling the duke off balance. He fell to the floor beside her, his breath coming out in a whoof as he landed. She leaped onto his chest and struck at his face with her fists. The duke pulled back on her hair again, then struck her on the side of the head.

The princess recoiled from the blow, falling hard on the stone floor next to the duke. For a moment, both lay there, stunned and breathing hard.

Kyrali heaved himself up and used the table to regain his feet. Looking down at Erika, he kicked her in the ribs with his uninjured leg. The blow rolled Erika onto her side, her arms flailing away from the duke.

He reached behind his back and tugged at the knife. His eyes rolled into his head for a moment as he did, and his knees buckled. Catching himself on the edge of the table, the duke kept himself from swooning from the pain.

“We’ll just see how much fight you have left in you after a few months in the cellar,” he wheezed, turning toward the door, “You’ll beg me to put you up in that nice, dry tower.”

As Erika returned to her senses, she felt something cold and hard under her hand. She wrapped her fingers around it and wobbled to her feet.

~~~

Simon looked around the hall, but saw nowhere to stash the two servants. For a moment, he considered slitting the young man’s throat and moving on, but thought better of it.

“Kneel,” he hissed, his eyes ablaze in the torchlight. The young servant gulped hard, but obeyed.

Simon pointed to the prostrate form of the other servant.

“Take his belt off and wrap it around your wrists,” he ordered.

With shaking hands, the servant reached over and pulled the leather strap from around his friend. He wrapped it loosely around his wrists. Simon took a hand from his sword’s hilt and pulled the belt tight.

Cinching it down, he said, “Now, don’t make a sound, or I’ll come back and finish the job.”

“But the duke…” the servant replied, flinching as the leather strap bit into his wrists.

“Sounds like he has his hands full,” Simon said, lifting his blade from the young man’s neck.

Just then, the door swung open, striking the half-elf in the back and shoving him forward. His blade skimmed along the servant’s cheek, laying it open before falling from his grip. Simon stumbled to his knees, then twisted toward the new threat.

Duke Kyrali stood in the doorway, his fists raised. He roared incoherently at Simon and pounced upon him. Simon was quick, but Kyrali was upon him before he could bring his sword around or dodge out of the way. The big man clubbed the half-elf with his fist, sending him to the floor in a heap.

Kyrali snatched up Gnarlthing from where it had clattered to the floor and swung it up to stab at Simon. He stopped, though, as he raised the sword, a look of shock on his face. Then, with a gasp, the duke slumped, face first, to the floor. He lay there, his breath coming in short, gurgling gasps.

Simon looked at him in shock, then saw the carving knife sticking out of his ribs. As the half-elf watched, a pink foam came from his mouth and dripped to the stones. The duke took another shuddering breath, then stilled. His lifeless eyes stared at Simon in disbelief.

Erika stood over him, her hair tangled and her dress ripped and smeared with blood. Her lower lip was swollen, and the skin under one of her eyes was already beginning to bruise.

The young servant took all of this in, opening his mouth to scream, both from the pain of the wound on his cheek and at the sight of his dead master sprawled on the floor.

Erika pointed to him, snarling, “If you make a sound, I will cut your throat and send your liver to your mother!” Her teeth gleamed sharp and white in the torchlight as she spoke.

The servant closed his mouth.

~~~

Hollo squatted in the bracken, looking down the chalk bluff at the city below. His purse was much lighter than it had been before he had entered Booda, but he had been able to get through the gate and across the bridge without anyone raising an alarm. Now, he gnawed on a crust of bread while he waited for Simon.

Where is he? Hollo thought as he looked at the dimly-lit road which led up from the river, We’ll need to get far away before sunrise.

He waited some more, each minute making him more impatient. Finally, he heard footsteps on the cobblestones.

He pursed his lips and whistled in a low tone. After a moment, a whistle from down the hill responded.

Hollo stood and stepped out onto the road. In the dim moonlight, he saw Simon and Erika walking up the road. Hollo’s smile at seeing his friend melted when he saw that the princess’ dress was stained with blood as Simon helped her hobble up the steep incline.

Erika saw his concern and said quietly, “It’s not mine,” before following Simon off the road and toward the tree where Hollo had tied their horses.

Simon collapsed next to the tree, his hand on his bruised ribs.

“You didn’t happen to steal a skin of wine, did you?” he asked bleakly.

“Nope, but we’ve enough money left to buy some if we can get into those hills without getting caught. My cousin has an inn on one of the side roads.”

“Thanks be to the gods,” Erika said, holding up the gold chain around her neck, “I hope this will be enough to buy me some decent clothes, too.”

“How did you get across the river?”

“A woman saw a phantom drenched in blood looking through her window. Her screams drew the guards away from the bridge,” Simon replied.

Hollo mounted his pony, and his companions followed suit.

“If we get moving, we can be there by mid-day.” he said, “How far back is the pursuit?”

“Well, unless someone discovers the duke’s body or his servants know how to get out of my knots, we’ve probably got a few hours before they even know to come looking for us,” Simon replied.

“Apparently, it’s not unusual for his lordship to spend the night…. entertaining his lady guests in that hall. The servants know to not disturb him. Those two will lay there, trussed up like Yuletide gooses all night, and I doubt their master will stir to raise the alarm,” Erika said through her fat lip.

The three rode away from Booda in silence. The only sound that split the gloom was that of their horse’s steps across the field of soft bracken and fern as they left the road behind them. Soon, the lights of Booda’s watch fires faded from view as they crested the hills above the city. They rode through the night, putting more distance between them and anyone who tried to track them.

As they rode into the foothills of the mountains, the eastern horizon turned a rich pink and gold. Erika turned to look at it, then looked around at the ground around them.

“I’m starving,” she said to Simon, “Do you think you could find us a couple of squonks for breakfast?”


I hope you’ve enjoyed Escort Duty.  There will be more stories of Simon and his adventures in time.

Other episodes can be found here.  The entire anthology can be purchased at Amazon.

Escort Duty – Part 24

Erika watched in distaste as the duke picked up his fish and ate it in two large, rapid bites. She took a dainty bit of trout from her plate and chewed it thoroughly before swallowing.

“You need to eat more, my dear,” the duke said, grease from the fish glistening on his lips and beard.

“I’m enjoying the meal,” Erika replied in a soothing tone, “but what I’m craving is a good bit of meat.”

“Ah, then you’re in luck,” the duke said, raising his hand and snapping his fingers. Two servants came in bearing a large haunch of meat, steam rising from it in the hall’s muggy air.

“This is my kitchen’s specialty,” he said, watching the servants as they set the food down. One of them picked up a large carving knife from the tray and sliced into the pale flesh.

“Boar?” Erika asked.

“Oh, no, this is hand-raised sow, just finished weaning her first litter of piglets. The meat is so tender and mild that it will melt in your mouth!”

Erika nodded in thanks to the servant as he laid a slab of meat on her plate, then poked at it with her fork.

“It certainly looks good, my lord,” she said, “but why have I no knife? Am I to pick it up and eat it like an animal?”

The duke looked at her in shock, his serving of the meat already halfway to his mouth.

“Of course not, my lady,” he said after setting it back on his plate, “You, fetch us a pair of knives for our meat!”

The servants bowed and scurried off. One of them returned a few moments later with a pair of knives from the kitchen. Erika noted that, while they were rather plain compared to the rest of their cutlery, they looked to have a fine edge on them.

The princess picked up her knife and drew it across the pork. The blade cut through the meat as if it were warm butter.

“Oh, much better,” she said in a pleasant tone, “Nothing like good meat when you’re hungry.”

~~~

Simon crept through the shadows between the market stalls and the castle wall. Behind him, he could hear the guards talking to one another.

“If you ask me, that new subaltern is going to be a good officer,” one was saying quietly to his comrade, “Stays out of our way, and doesn’t poke his nose in the wrong places.”

“Sounds better than Captain Torok. I swear, you could measure your entire watch by how many times he’s come by to check up on us.”

“Speaking of which, he should be along soon.”

Simon crouched next to the wall about fifty feet from them. Its stones, their rough exteriors facing out from the compound, towered ten feet over him. After listening to the guards complain a bit more, he heard them take a step away from the guardhouse and begin trooping in front of the gate.

“Halt!” one of them called out in a loud voice.

“It’s Torok, soldier,” a deeper voice responded. Simon heard the guards brace to attention and started climbing up the wall.

“Anything happening?” the officer asked.

“Nothing, sir.”

“Quiet as the grave, captain.”

“Good. The duke has a guest tonight, and he doesn’t want to be disturbed.”

“Someone important, sir?”

“Don’t know. Just got told to make sure nothing interrupted his lordship or there’d be hell to pay.”

Simon pushed up with his legs and felt his hand go over the top of the wall. He clasped the iron spike projecting between the stone blocks and pulled himself up. He lay on top of the wall, waiting for a chance to descend.

“We’ll keep a good watch, sir.”

“Good. I’ll see you two in a bit.”

Simon listened as the officer passed below him. The guards also listened, and when his footfalls faded, went back to their spots next to the guardhouse.

“Three more trips around the perimeter, and we can go to bed,” one said in a low tone.

“Did you bring your bottle again? I’d kill for a nip.”

Simon silently crept down the wall. There was just enough space between the stones for his fingertips and toes. Crumbling mortar occasionally slipped out of the crevices, and once, an entire chunk pivoted out, threatening to fall and alert the guards. Simon carefully pushed the sandy mortar back into its space, then dropped the remaining few feet to the ground.

Flagstones met his feet as he landed, bending his knees and leaning against the wall to blend into its shadow. Simon listened tensely for a few moments, but the guards gave no hint that they had heard anything. Standing up, he slowly walked along the wall toward the long, low building at the foot of the tower.

~~~

The meat was almost tasteless in Erika’s mouth, even after she liberally sprinkled it with salt from the cellar one of the servants offered to her. With skill which would have made her mother proud, she kept a saccharine smile on her face and made small talk with the duke as she ate.

“So, my dear,” the duke said, pushing his chair back from the table and patting his belly once his portion was gone, “have you given my offer any thought?”

Erika looked to the servant with the carving knife. “May I have a bit more, please?” she asked sweetly. The servant, a young man with a wispy beard, blushed at her attention, then cut a large hunk of the pale flesh and placed it on her plate. Erika smiled radiantly at him, which only made the boy blush more deeply.

“Yes, my lord,” she said, turning her attention to the man across the table, “I have.”

“And your answer?”

Erika glanced at the servants, saying, “Might we speak in private?”

Kyrali snapped his fingers at the servants, who turned and hurried from the room. Erika picked up her knife and began to cut her meat into small pieces.

“So, your answer, my lady?”

Erika took a long time eating a bit of meat, but looked up and smiled at the duke as she chewed. The duke smiled back, his eyes twinkling. Erika put her hands on the table, and stood. As she did, she palmed her knife and slipped it into the sleeve of her dress.

She walked around the table, then stood in front of the seated duke. Looking down on him, she said, “My lord, I believe that your idea of joining our kingdoms would be most profitable.”

The duke’s smile warmed, and he stood, putting his arm around Erika’s waist.

“So you’ll agree to marry me?”

“So long as I can come down from that wretched tower, yes.”

“Well, that depends on whether you’ve gotten over your opinion of my plans for Pesht, now doesn’t it?”

“They aren’t my people, my lord. What you do to them is none of my business,” Erika said, putting her arms around the duke’s neck.

Kyrali pulled her close. Erika could smell the wine on his breath as he said, “An outstanding way to look at it, my dear.”

“So, when shall we be wed?” Erika asked, slipping the knife out of her sleeve.

“Oh, as soon as we can get a proper ceremony together,” Kyrali said, slipping his bearded cheek down to lay next to hers, “There’s a summer festival next week. That would be perfect.”

“Sounds wonderful,” Erika said, “I’ve always wanted to be a June bride.”

With that, she drove the knife into the duke’s shoulder, feeling the blade grind against bone. He roared like a skewered boar, and shoved the princess away. The knife stayed embedded in his flesh.

Erika jumped back on him, trying to grasp at the knife’s hilt, but Kyrali struck her across the face, throwing her back against the table. The haunch of pork, its silver tray, and the carving knife the servant had used to cut it, clattered to the floor. Kyrali swung at her again, but Erika ducked below his arm and scooted under the table.


Other episodes can be found here.  The entire anthology can be purchased at Amazon.

Defending His Master’s Keep

This one is for Moonshine, who ended up in the emergency vet’s office last night for stitches after taking on an assault gopher.  That’s what most normal people call a groundhog.

If you like this, and want more, check out “Coming Home“.


 

Water of Fire settled down upon the floor in front of the fireplace. The mistress and her pups had left him inside this day, believing that the ground outside was too wet and sloppy for him to stay in the yard while they were gone to visit neighbors. He did not understand this reasoning, for there were few things in life he enjoyed more than taking a long run at a mud puddle, then slipping and sliding across it. A smile came to his muzzle at the memory of mud dripping from his sides and tail as he lined himself up for another run at the low spot in the corner of the yard.

Other than him, the house was empty. The new dog, whom his humans had christened with the name “Bounder,” was with the Master of Beasts, he of the liver-flavored biscuits and occasional stabs in the rump, for the day. She was a good sort, if a bit too energetic for him, but she was fitting in well with his family. The elder war hound, Turf of Azure, rest her soul, no longer occupied her usual spot in the warmest part of the kitchen, and had gone on to that place where the sunbeams never moved and the bowls never emptied.

The cats, those skulking hunters of mice and filchers of treats, had been banished to the barn so that they could clean out an infestation of mice, which had chewed their way into the grain stores for the coming winter. One of the felines, the tan one with the black face and blue eyes, had cursed in his high, lilting voice the entire time that Water of Fire’s boy had carried him out of the house. That memory caused the hound to chuckle as he lay his head upon his paws.

The warmth of the fireplace and the absolute silence of the house, not even broken by the soft pads of a cat’s paw on the pantry shelves, overwhelmed the hound with bliss. As the sun peeked through the tall windows in the north wall, a broad sunbeam washed over him, infusing his black fur with even more heat and relaxing every muscle in his body. Soon, the silence was broken by his snores and an occasional whimper as he chased a horde of bloodthirsty squonks in his dreams.

Overhead, a flight of geese honked loudly as they cleared the manor’s roof. Their calls to one another caused one of the sleeping dog’s ears to cock up for a moment, swivel as he tried to find the source of the disturbance, then drop as the noise faded. His mahogany eyes never opened, and the incident only intruded momentarily on his dream of small, fuzzy creatures in an open field.

Then, an almost imperceptible breeze swept across the study, which ruffled the fine silver hairs frosting the hound’s black fur and caused some of the papers on his master’s desk to stir. Water of Fire opened his eyes at this, wondering if there was a window open somewhere, when he noticed more movement upon the desk.

Lifting his head, he saw a piece of paper swirl, as if caught in a zephyr, and lift from the desk. He sat up completely and cocked his head to the side, never taking his eyes from the floating piece of vellum. Then, to his surprise, it began to fold inward upon itself, first pulling one side toward the other, then the top to the bottom.

After a few moments, in which the paper fluttered and twisted a few feet in the air above the desk, it took the form of a small paper bat. Flapping its wings, it sailed around the room. Alarmed at such wizardry, Water of Fire stood up and barked at the paper flying mouse, causing it to hover for a moment and turn its face toward him. The hair on the back of the dog’s neck stood up and his ears lay back when he saw that instead of eyes, the apparition had two red, glowing spots, which bored down at him.

A deep growl rose from the hound’s chest, and the war dog leapt at the paper bat, trying to grasp it in his teeth. The bat swooped away, making chattering noises as it flew higher than he could jump. As he watched and snarled at the creature, it flew up to settle on one of the high beams supporting the peaked roof. Water of Fire barked again, filling the study with his high-pitched war cry.

“This is my domain!” he cried out in a way any foe worth having could understand. “I accuse you of being a coward and a fool if you do not come down to face me!”

This caused the bat to squeak loudly in indignation, hurling insults down at the war dog. It launched itself from its perch, pulling its wings back and diving directly at the black hound. Water of Fire jumped up to meet it, barely missing its tail with his teeth. The bat whooped in triumph, and banked hard to avoid crashing into the polished wooden floor.

Water of Fire tracked his foe as it swooped back up toward the rafters, then leapt at it. Two fast strides brought him to his master’s chair, and he reared up on his legs, pushing off from its high back to leap high into the air. Behind him, the chair fell back onto the floor with a thud and a rattle, but he was rewarded with the taste of parchment in his mouth as he caught one of the demon’s wings with his teeth.

The hound landed on his mistress’ writing desk, scattering papers, crystal vials of potions and ink, and a book of poetry, in which she was pressing several flowers from the garden. The bat squealed in pain, tearing at his face with its papery claws, then shrieked as he shook it as if it were a rat. Pieces of paper fell like new snow upon the desk and floor beside it as he tore it to bits. Finally, he chewed up and swallowed the pasty remnants of his foe, triumphant in defending his home.

Water of Fire sniffed the scraps of vellum scattered across the desk, then surveyed the mess around him. Iridescent ink dripped from a vial without a stopper, causing a swirling purple puddle to expand on the floor. Meanwhile, another vial lay in the middle of a sizzling pool of some potion or another, which was slowly eating into the desk’s finish. The vapors from it smelled of rotten eggs and ashes, and made Water of Fire sneeze when he sniffed them.

The book of poetry, most of its pressed flowers scattered across the floor, moved when his paw brushed it as he descended from the desk. The hound pushed at the tome with his nose, curious about the many smells that its contents exuded, then left it behind as he returned to his spot next to the fireplace.

Water of Fire pushed out his front legs, arching his back and tail to stretch after his exertions. As he took the first of his customary three turns before resuming his favorite resting position, he heard something scrape on the floor behind him. He turned in a flash, his ears back and teeth bared, ready to pounce. But instead of another paper bat diving at him, the dog saw the book standing up on its own. As he watched, small arms and legs popped out from the cover, and with the rustle of pages against one another, it sprinted toward the door.

The hound yipped in surprise. His nails skidded on the floor, trying to gain purchase as he pursued the demon in its new form. He skidded into a bookshelf on his way out the door, dislodging a vase of dried flowers, which shattered against the threshold. Bits of glass and flower petals flew in all directions as the war dog righted himself and shot out into the hall.

The book, still running as fast as it could go, vaulted onto the bannister at the top of the stairs. Water of Fire heard its evil laughter echoing from the stairwell’s high ceiling as it slid down, leaving him behind. He sprinted down the stairs, gaining ground by touching only every third step. His teeth crashed together several times as he tried to catch the book, but always missed by not more than the width of a few of the book’s pages.

With a cry of glee, the book sailed off the end of the oaken bannister, flying through the air toward the open door to the kitchen. Water of Fire vaulted off the last step, colliding with the book in mid-air and dragging it down. The two combatants slammed into the wall and ripped down a tapestry depicting a scene from the Eyrisch countryside. The book hopped up and tried to make its escape, but was slammed to the floor by a mighty paw. It screamed as Water of Fire sank his teeth into its pages, then shook it back and forth. The book opened and shut itself forcefully, smacking its cover into the dog’s face in its struggles.

Water of Fire shook the book again as he stumbled into the kitchen, then slammed it back down onto the floor again. He held it down with one paw, ripping at its soft paper underbelly. Finally, the book moaned and ceased its struggles, its pages torn and its spine broken.

Water of Fire panted for air as he lifted his head from the demon’s carcass. His mouth was gummy with ink and the remnants of the dried flowers he had consumed during the fight. One eye was sore where a stiff corner of the cover had caught it in the battle, and one of his ears rang from a blow. He gave the book a final swipe with his foot, then limped over to the water bowl to wash the taste of paper from his mouth.

Lapping up the water, Water of Fire pondered what was to be done about the state of the house. While she was an intelligent creature, his mistress could not understand him when he tried to communicate with her, only catching the occasional vague idea of his meaning. Lifting his head to gaze back toward the hall, he knew that there was no way that she would not notice the mess his battle had created. Perhaps if he were to show her the items the demon had possessed, she would sense the residue of its presence and forgive him.

As he pondered what would happen when the family returned, he heard a noise coming from the other side of the kitchen. A sound, similar to that made by a morsel falling from the table to be scooped up, made his ears perk up and his mouth water. He bent down to look along the floor and sniff, and saw an entire loaf of fresh-baked bread lying in front of the oven.

He approached the bread, sniffing the intoxicating aroma of yeast and wheat deep into his nostrils. The loaf remained inert, even when he poked it with an outstretched paw.

No, he thought, better to leave it. He was not that hungry, and he knew that the mistress would not want to bake more bread, even though this piece was on the floor, which was normally his domain when it came to food.

Water of Fire turned away from the oven and took a few steps toward the door. He just wanted to go back upstairs and sleep until the family returned. Perhaps he could think of a way to deal with their displeasure. His reverie was broken, however, when he heard the sound of small, soft feet padding across the tiles.

The war hound spun around, expecting to see a maniacal cutting board or meat mallet racing toward him, but was surprised to see the loaf of bread, now sporting a set of stubby, crusty legs, running toward the open window. It left a trail of golden crumbs in its wake as it raced across the floor. With a growl of frustration, Water of Fire gave chase once again.

This time, the demon chose to fight, rather than run, when it noticed his pursuit. The bread turned, red eyes glowing in the wall’s shadow, and launched itself at the dog. Surprised, Water of Fire skipped to the side with a yelp as the heavy loaf impacted on his hindquarters, knocking him sideways. The bread jumped upon his back, grabbing at his fur with two stubby hands. More crumbs flew about the kitchen.

Water of Fire whirled around in a desperate attempt to rid himself of his attacker. The bread cackled as it hauled back on his fur, then grasped at his tail. The war dog cried out in pain as he felt the end of his tail pull at an odd angle toward his back.

The hound rolled onto his side, extracting a squeal of anger from the yeasty demon as he crushed it with his weight. He swung his head around, again catching his foe between his teeth, but this time he took no chances. Rather than rip the loaf to bits, as he had done with the book and the paper bat, he swallowed it in three large bites. The demon screamed as it went down his gullet, then fell silent.

Water of Fire collapsed to the cold tile floor. His tail ached badly, and he whined in pain every time he tried to move it. His stomach hurt from being overstuffed with paper and bread, and his back was sore where patches of fur had been ripped out by the savage baguette monster. He limped out of the kitchen, his belly gurgling and his ear ringing, and up the stairs to the study. There, he found that the potion, which had pooled on his mistress’ desk, had stopped smoking and sizzling, although it had eaten a hole about a quarter of a paw’s depth into its thick wooden top. The numerous papers and other things he had knocked to the floor were intermingled with the spilled ink, which was coagulating into a pearlescent purple blob. He almost cut his paws on a few sharp pebbles of glass, but made it to his spot next to the fireplace without injuring himself further.

The war dog, the silver highlights in his fur now muted by dust, crumbs, and bits of his enemy, flopped down onto the floor without any of his customary ceremony. With a final sigh, he closed his eyes. Perhaps the mistress would not be too upset about the damage if he met her at the door and tried to explain.

Besides, he thought as he drifted off to sleep, I did it defending my master’s keep.

Escort Duty – Part 23

Erika was pulling the gown over her head when the matron and the rest of the servants came through her door. Behind her, the sun was just touching the horizon.

“My lady, you should have waited for us,” the matron gently scolded.

“Oh, I’m not used to servants anymore,” Erika replied airily, “My apologies.”

The servants closed the dress up around her and pinned it in place. One laid the heavy gold chain around her neck, while another pulled her hair back and braided it for her. Soon, her reflection in the mirror was of a china doll in a yellow dress.

“Oh, my lady, how nice you look,” the matron said, ushering her out the door, “The duke will be so pleased to see you.”

Erika let herself be led down the stone stairs to the ground floor, then through long corridors to a great hall. Its walls were festooned with tapestries and dusty trophies of long-forgotten hunts. A long table, its dark wood polished so that it gleamed in the light of candles and torches, ran down its center.

The duke waited for her there, wearing black silk and suede. A lion, embroidered in gold, lay across his chest, while a gold chain, matching the one around Erika’s neck, hung from his neck. It matched the topaz studs which were affixed to his ears.

“My lady,” he said as he bowed, “you are the most beautiful creature I can imagine.”

Erika said nothing for a moment. Most beautiful creature you could kidnap and imprison, she thought as she gazed down on the thinning hair on the back of his head.

“My lord,” she said primly.

The duke straightened and reached to take her hand. Holding it aloft, he gently guided her to a seat at the end of the table. Gold and crystal wine goblets, along with polished silver plates and flatware, were laid out at two of the chairs.

A servant filled Erika’s glass after she sat down, and the duke walked to his own chair across from her. Kyrali picked his cup up and raised it in salute to the princess.

“To happier days and prosperity for our lands!” he said before tipping his glass back.

Erika brought the cup to her lips and took a sip. Her eyes flitted across her place setting, and she had to fight to not curse when she saw that there was no knife next to her plate.

A servant brought out a steaming tureen and ladled green broth into her bowl. Erika smiled emptily at the duke as she picked up her spoon and tasted it.

~~~

Simon and Hollo stood in the alley’s shadows, watching the guards standing watch at the tower’s gate. Every so often, an officer would come by on his rounds. The guards seemed to know his routine, because a moment before he arrived, they would stop their idle conversation and push themselves off the wall to walk their post. A moment after his departure, they had their backs to the wall and discussions of women or work resumed.

“There’s about half an hour between visits,” Hollo said, “Might be enough time to do away with the guards, grab the princess, and get out.”

“I think I’ll try something a bit more subtle,” Simon replied, “Think you can fly up to that tower and see which room she’s in?”

Hollo nodded, and reached for his amulet. A moment later, a large crow flew through the courtyard and over the gate. The guards watched it go, then shrugged and returned to their discussion of the merits of blondes versus those of brunettes.

Simon waited patiently as the officer made another round, then heard a rustle in the alley behind him. Hollo kneeled next to the wall beside him. He panted with fatigue, and his brow was wet with sweat.

“Barely had enough to get back without falling from a house’s height,” he said tiredly.

“Did you have a look up there?” Simon asked.

“Yeah, she’s not in any of the rooms with windows.”

“Damn it. She has to be in there somewhere. See anything else?” Simon asked curtly.

“See that long building at the base of the tower? Something’s going on in there. Heard voices and smelled food.”

“Have to start there.”

“How’re we getting in?”

“You’re getting back to the horses and meeting me at the top of those bluffs over there. Bribe your way across the river if you have to, but don’t raise an alarm,” Simon said, rising from his crouch, “Wait for us until an hour after sunrise, then head for the border.  Find some of the Prince’s troops and tell him what’s happened.”

“And you?”

“I’m going to get in there, fetch our fair lady, and get out, hopefully without being seen.”

Hollo snorted and shook his head.

“Good luck,” he said, stepping back up the alley and heading toward the city gate.


Other episodes can be found here.  The entire anthology can be purchased at Amazon.

Escort Duty – Part 22

Olo, the sergeant of the gate, watched as the brightly painted wagon rattled to a halt on the paving stones in front of him. He waved his oaken rod at the flies humming around his head, which bothered him almost as much as the rivulets of sweat which ran down through his beard.

“Where’re you going with that rolling calamity?” he called sarcastically to the driver.

“We’re the entertainment for the festival next weekend!” the rotund man with a pointed beard replied, “His lordship wants to hear the finest music in the world when he celebrates the first day of summer!”

“Entertainers?” said the sergeant, motioning to his men, who moved to surround the wagon.

“Yes,” the man said nervously, “Singers, jugglers, you know, entertainers.”

“And what’s in the wagon?”

“Just our costumes and instruments. The rest of the troop will be here tomorrow. We’re just here to get things set up.”

“We’ll see what that means when you pull it all out, now won’t we?”

The driver clambered down from his perch behind the horses.

“Please, sir, it’s all packed in there good and tight! It’ll take hours to put it all back without breaking something!”

“Well, that’s too bad, because I didn’t see you on any list to be exempt from searches, now did I?”

The driver considered the soldier for a moment, then said quietly, “And what would it take to be put on such a list, my good sir?”

The sergeant’s face broke into a knowing grin. “Why, a little donation to his lordship’s budget might suffice to make that happen,” he replied.

The driver reached into his pouch and pulled out two silver coins. The sergeant flushed at that, and pointed to the guards.

“Haul all of that junk out so I can inspect it, and be quick about it! Two silvers! I’ve never been so insulted!”

The driver took three more coins from his purse and held them up. The sergeant cocked his head and thought for a moment, then smiled again as he took all five coins.

“Nice to meet someone in the service of the duke, sir,” he said, “Enjoy your stay in Booda.”

The driver said nothing as he remounted the wagon and snapped the reins at his mules. The wagon started with a rattle and made its way through the gates. After they crossed the plaza beyond the gates, he turned into a side street, reining his horses to a stop. He handed the reins to his wife, and climbed down, looking about for soldiers and anyone curious about the strange wagon on their street.

Walking to the back of the cart, he pulled up the canvas cover and hissed, “We’re inside!”

Simon and Hollo slipped out from under the cover and onto the cobblestoned street. Hollo immediately started looking around for danger, while Simon reached back into the cart and removed a couple of items.

Handing the driver a sack that jingled with coins, Simon said, “Thank you, good sir. You’ve done us a great service today.”

“Just mind that you forget how you got in here and where you got those things, and I’ll call it even,” the driver said, snatching the purse from Simon and climbing back onto the wagon. While it clattered down the street, Simon and Hollo hurried down a narrow side street toward the first tower.

“So, what’s the plan?” Hollo asked.

“First we have to figure out which tower the princess is in.”

The two men approached the first tower. The courtyard in front of its gates was deserted, and only a pair of bored guards stood watch.

“Probably not here,” Simon said, “but it never hurts to check.”

He pulled the cloak he had taken from the cart on over his armor, then put a large, floppy straw hat on his head. He strode out into the courtyard and sat down near the gate.

Leaning his head back, he began to sing.

In Nottingham there lives a jolly tanner,

With a hey down down a down down

His name is Arthur a Bland;

There is nere a squire in Nottinghamshire

Dare bid bold Arthur stand.

 

He continued with the ballad as the guards watched him, but neither made any move to stop him. After he had finished, he began it again. The larger of the two guards looked to the other, shrugged, and stuck his arm through the gates. He pitched a bronze coin at Simon’s feet.

“Here, now, take that and be off with you,” he said gruffly.

Simon stood and bowed, saying “Thank ye, sir, thank ye” in his best country accent.

The guard watched him walk back to the alley, then resumed his post.

“She’s not there,” Simon said as he rejoined Hollo, “Let’s go to the next one.”

They approached the second tower, which had a courtyard bustling with merchants and people buying their wares. All of this was watched by black-garbed guards, both at the gate and from within.

“More guards here,” Hollo said, “this must be the place.”

“Your turn,” Simon said, taking the hat off and handing it to his companion.

“Me?” Hollo replied, “I can’t sing.”

“Someone might notice if the same man sat in the courtyard of all three towers and sang the same song.”

“But I don’t know that song!”

“Nonsense, you listened to it for a month while you perched on top of that hut. Now go on. I’ll watch the tower while you sing.”

Hollo sighed and put on the hat. He kept his head down as he walked to the gate, then sat down with his back to the guards and began to sing.

In Nottingham there lives a, uh, holly fanner,

With a hey down down a down, uh, down

His name is Walter, uh, Brand;

There is nere a flyer in Nottinghamshire

Dare bid old Walter stand.

 

Simon winced as he listened to his friend stumble through the verse, his voice a loud croak which seemed to carry and fill the entire courtyard. All of the merchants and their customers stopped to gawk at him, and after a moment, a clod from inside the gates landed next to Hollo.

“Get out of here, ya idiot!” one of the guards boomed, “Before I have my men come out there and kick your ass between your ears!”

Hollo quickly stood up and scurried back to the alley. Every eye followed him, and the noise of the market did not resume until after he disappeared into the shadows. Simon met him a few yards back from the plaza, trying to suppress a smile.

“Yeah, laugh,” Hollo hissed sarcastically, pulling the hat from his head, “I told you I can’t sing.”

“It was good enough,” Simon said, “Only one tower left.”

The last tower’s courtyard had but a few people in it, most of them either buying vegetables from one of the carts and stalls ringing its perimeter or drawing water from the well at its center.

Simon put on the hat as he walked casually to take a seat next to one of the stalls. After a moment, he began to sing.

In Nottingham there lives a jolly tanner,

With a hey down down a down down

His name is Arthur a Bland;

There is nere a squire in Nottinghamshire

Dare bid bold Arthur stand.

 

~~~

Erika sat on the windowsill, looking down on the gates and the courtyard beyond. She was not dressed in the fine gown and jewelry the duke had sent for her, but it was a constant reminder that eventually she would be taken into his odious presence once again.

As she sat in the light of the setting sun, the sounds of someone singing down in the courtyard came to her. She began to hum along to the familiar tune as she idly ran a silver comb through her hair.

Soon, she realized that she recognized the song and the voice singing it, and her heart skipped a beat. She opened her mouth and began to sing along, her voice ringing down into the courtyard below.

“Marry gep with a wenion!” quoth Arthur a Bland,
“Art thou such a goodly man?
I care not a fig for thy looking so big;
Mend thou thyself where thou can.”

Then Robin Hood he unbuckled his belt,
He laid down his bow so long;
He took up a staff of another oke graff,
That was both stiff and strong.

~~~

Simon heard the sweet sound of Erika’s voice, and a smile came to his face. He continued to sing, finishing the song with a bow to the crowd that gathered to hear him. The guard on the other side of the gate tossed a couple of copper coins to him, as did several of the onlookers.

“Thank you, good people, thank you,” he said as he backed into the alley. Hollo waited there for him.

“This is the place. I knew she’d hear me and answer if she was in any of the towers,” Simon said, taking the hat off, but leaving on the cloak.

“Where is she?” Hollo said.

“Somewhere up in that tower, near the top, I think. Not sure how we’re going to get up there, but at least we know where she is.”


Other episodes can be found here.  The entire anthology can be purchased at Amazon.

Escort Duty – Part 21

Simon and Hollo looked down at the capitol. Booda was a large city at the bottom of a large valley, with a river port, which drew in both barges and cartloads of goods on their way to the sea. The bluffs beyond the city were of white chalk, and several paths and narrow roads led up their sides.

Their horses stood in a clearing behind them, eating and resting after a hard night of travel. Their saddles lay to the side, and the men had given them all a good rub down with their saddle blankets before collapsing to gaze across the valley.

“Haven’t been here in a while,” Hollo said quietly, “They’ve cleaned the place up.”

“Where does the duke live?” Simon asked, “The princess won’t be far from there.”

“His father had three places around the city. See those towers?”

Simon nodded as he peered down. This far out, the figures of soldiers on the city wall or atop the towers were dark dots against the gray stone.

“Think you can fly down there and have a look?”

“We’ll have to get closer. I’m exhausted. Won’t be able to hold the spell together for long.”

“We’ll go in this afternoon and see what we can find out,” Simon said, “I need to find a way to figure out which tower the princess is in.”

~~~

Erika watched as the maids laid out an elegant gown and jewelry. The dress was of fine, saffron-dyed silk, and it was accompanied by a heavy gold chain and pins for the dress.

“My lord asks that you be ready to have dinner with him this evening, my lady,” the matron said as she smoothed the silk out on the dressing table.

“Tell your lord that I will not be eating with him tonight, or ever again.”

“My lady, there is no choice in the matter. You will either walk to the table, or be carried. I’ve seen it happen before.”

Erika closed her eyes and shook her head slowly, her breath coming out in a huff.

“All right, tell that toad I will be ready for dinner, but I do not wish to be disturbed until then,” Erika said, her lips curled back on her teeth in disgust.

“Yes, my lady,” the matron replied, bowing as she closed the door behind her.

Erika walked to the window and looked down. Far below, several soldiers stood in the stone courtyard. The gate to the compound, made from wood and iron, lay at its far end. The plaza in front of it held a communal well and several merchants’ stalls.

One of the guards saw her poke her head out of the window and raised his hand in greeting. Erika quickly pulled her head back into the room.

Not that way, she fumed, drumming her fingers on the sill, unless I learn to fly.

She crossed to the door, and was surprised to find it unlocked. She opened it an inch or so, and startled at the smiling face of a guard looking at her through the opening.

“You desire something, lady?” he asked.

“Uh, no, thank you,” she said, closing the door.

How am I going to get out of here?

~~~

Simon and Hollo watched as farmers and traders made their way through the city gate. The guards either leaned against the stone walls or stood to search some random cart. Simon pressed his lips together and blew his breath out through his nose.

“Not going to get through there too easily with a sword,” he said, putting his hand on Gnarlthing’s pommel.

“Have to sneak in,” Hollo said flatly, “And I can’t carry you over the walls.”

The men knelt in tall grass at the edge of the woods. The wheels of carts and wagons creaked on the nearby road as they passed. Most were piled high with produce from the spring crops, while some carried trade goods. One, brightly painted and festooned with banners, caught Simon’s eye.

Its driver sat next to a woman, whose silver hair blew freely in the breeze as she sang to the rhythm of the horses’ steps down the road.

“If thou be Robin Hood,” bold Arthur reply’d,

“As I think well thou art,

Then here’s my hand, my name’s Arthur a Bland,

We two will never depart.

 

“But tell me, O tell me, where is Little John?

Of him fain would I hear;

For we are alide by the mothers side,

And he is my kinsman near.”

 

Simon listened to her for a moment, then began to tap out the familiar tune on the ground in front of him. Hollo scrunched his face up in a questioning look. Simon’s face, on the other hand, broke out in a wide smile.

“Wait here,” he said as he rose and jogged to catch the wagon. “I’ve got an idea.”


Other episodes can be found here.  The entire anthology can be purchased at Amazon.

Escort Duty – Part 20

Erika sat on a stool before a bronze mirror as a girl brushed her hair out. The soldiers had handed her over to the Duke’s guards late the night before, and the marks on her wrist showed how she had struggled against her bonds as she rode. She felt some satisfaction in knowing that her resistance had slowed her captors’ return to the city. The captain of the guards, a man with one eye who introduced himself as Gabor, had instructed several servants to assist her.

Now, she was thoroughly scrubbed, dressed in a silk gown the color of dragon’s fire, and sat having her hair and jewelry gone over by two servants. She looked about in disbelief, half expecting to see Greta’s smile reflected in the mirror as she fussed with the princess’ hair.

“Now, lady, you are beautiful,” the matronly woman who managed the servant girls said in a thick accent, “The Duke will be happy to see you in such a state.”

Erika looked at her sharply, but said nothing.

The servants finished their work, then helped Erika to her feet. The shoes they had put on her were too tight, and they pinched as Erika walked to the door of her chamber. Two guards, their clothing black with a bronze dragon embroidered on the chest of their tunics, escorted her down the stairs. Late-morning sun streamed through windows as she was led to a large meeting hall below.

A man, tall, stout, with grizzled gray hair clipped close to his scalp, sat in a chair at the end of the hall. Next to him stood an older man, wearing a woolen cloak dyed the color of ripe wheat. He held a wax tablet in one hand and a stylus in the other.  He scribbled rapidly as the seated man talked.

“Tell him that payment for his curse will come when I have taken Pesht. Butter him up a bit and tell him the plague is working better than expected, and there will be plenty of open lands to reward him with once the campaign is….” the man said, looking up and smiling as he saw Erika walk into the hall.

“Ah, my lady, so good to meet you at last,” he said as he rose with a dismissive gesture to his servant. The scribe bowed as she approached, then turned and left the hall, his scroll and stylus in hand.

The man stood and walked toward the princess. He was half a head taller than Erika, and wore a tunic of soft, heather-gray velvet across his broad shoulders and protruding belly. The silk slippers on his feet made no sound as he took a step closer to the women, and amethysts twinkled from his ears.

“Duke Kyrali, I presume,” Erika said, affecting her most imperious tone.

The duke bowed dramatically, “At your service, my lady.”

“If you are at my service, then why did your men kill my servant and drag me here against my will?”

“Ah, but that was just a misunderstanding. I’m sure they meant no harm.”

“No harm? Greta was a loyal maid whom I have known most of my life! And to bring me here as a prisoner, to force me to appear before you, that is outrageous!” Erika said as she raised her wrists up to show the bruises and marks from her bonds.

Kyrali acted as if he did not notice, instead taking Erika by the hand and leading her to a small table laid out with food and drink. A servant poured yellow wine into a silver cup for Erika, while the duke offered her a plate of cheese and grapes.

“Come, my lady, accept my hospitality,” he said in a silken tone, “It isn’t often that such a beautiful and noble woman graces us with her presence.”

Erika glared at him over the top of her wine, but took a piece of cheese from the plate. She nibbled on it for a moment, then looked at Kyrali with a shrewd expression.

“And what exactly do you want with me?” she demanded.

“Why, only to be of service to you and to offer you a rest from your long journey, fair lady,” he replied.

“If you wish to be of service to me, speed me to the borders of your lands so that I may return home!”

“Now, there’s no need to rush. I know of your father’s death, my lady. Such a pity, for such a beautiful woman to be without a protector and lord.”

This woman has no need of a protector or a lord, and how dare you speak of my father, you cur!”

“Ah, but I know that you are unwed, my lady,” he said, clucking his tongue, “How shameful that your father did not take care of that before his untimely demise.”

“What business is that of yours?” she retorted through clenched teeth.

“Why, since I plan on joining our kingdoms through marriage, it’s surely my business, Erika. May I call you Erika?”

“No, you may not, and if you think I’m going to….”

“Oh, I know of your betrothal, too. Really, your father was terrible about ensuring that his people stayed loyal to his house. But don’t worry your pretty little head about that, my dear. I’ll deal with Prince Jorgen as soon as I have united Booda and Pesht once again, and the resources of the Western Islands are mine.”

“My people will never…”

“Never let a gossamer hair on your head come to harm, my lady,” the duke interrupted with an oily smile, “even if that means providing me with ships and soldiers and whatever else your new husband requires. No, I think that we shall make a fine pair, and you shall give me good sons to rule both kingdoms.”

“You are no king, and I will not be your brood mare,” Erika said defiantly.

“Ah, but you see, I soon shall be. The little country of Pesht is being ravaged by a horrific plague, as I’m sure you saw on your way through that poor land.”

“I saw empty villages and farms turning to wasteland, if that’s what you mean,” she replied in an icy tone.

The duke shook his head sadly. “Yes, horrible, isn’t it? I’m sorry to say I’ve had to close my border with our neighbors to keep the contagion from spreading here. More wine?”

“I heard what you were saying when I came in. How can you kill all those people?”

“Ah, you are a sharp young lady, aren’t you? No matter. You see, a land depopulated by sickness can’t stop my army from crossing the border to… assist our neighbors. Of course, after we’ve garrisoned troops there to bring comfort to them, they’ll be happy to be ruled by such a benevolent master as me. And once I rule both lands, why, what else can I call myself but ‘King’?”  His smile widened as he took a sip from his cup.

“Benevolent?” Erika snorted, “You evil little snake, you’re murdering children so that you can steal from your neighbor!”

“Well, I guess it just depends on how one looks at it, doesn’t it, my dear?”

The duke took another drink from his wine, then smirked at Erika as he put his chalice down on the table.

“And since you had the bad manners to eavesdrop while I spoke to my advisor, I’ll just have to make sure you never have an opportunity to spread such things around. You’ll make a fine lady in the high tower, won’t you?”

His teeth showed white against his beard as he grinned at her and lifted his cup to drain it.


Other episodes can be found here.  The entire anthology can be purchased at Amazon.

Escort Duty – Part 19

The sun had been up for an hour when Simon and Hollo approached the village.

“I don’t know about you,” Simon said, “but I need a bath, some food, and a few hours of sleep.”

Hollo merely grunted as he looked at the village on the horizon. He stiffened as he saw several men on horses milling around near the tavern. He put his hand up, and Simon reined his horse to a halt.

“What is it?”

“Not sure. Was there a troop of cavalry in the village last night?”

“Not that I saw,” Simon replied, rising in the stirrups to get a better view of the village.

“Well, they’re at the tavern now.”

They rode their horses off the road and into a copse of trees. After dismounting, they tethered the horses to a willow next to a small stream and crept as near as they could to the village without being seen.

Closer inspection did nothing to assuage their fears. Even from this distance, they could see soldiers, both mounted and on foot, searching the buildings. Villagers stood around, clutching children close and bowing their heads to officers when they issued gruff orders and demands.

“Well, that’s the end of this trip,” Hollo said, turning to go back to the horses, “No way they weren’t captured.”

“We need to find out where the princess is,” Simon said, putting his hand up to stop his friend.

Hollo regarded him for a moment, then sighed.

“You and your damned sense of honor. Seriously, it’s going to get you killed someday.”

“Have to die for something,” Simon replied, “Think you can get in there without raising suspicion?”

Hollo said nothing, but reached his hand up to his amulet without asking Simon to turn around. His features blurred for a moment, then were replaced with those of a large crow.

“Never seen how you do that before,” Simon said, “Try to find out if they’ve been captured, and where they’ve been taken.”

The crow blinked twice, then took off in a rustle of black wings. Simon watched as it landed on the roof of the tavern, turning this way and that from its perch. After a moment, it flew down into the village and out of his sight.

Simon stole back to the horses and waited for Hollo. He was getting anxious when he heard wings beating on the wind, and then Hollo walked out from behind a tree.

“I’m doing that too often,” the thin man said, “Going to have to rest a bit.”

“What did you learn?” Simon demanded.

“They took the lady last night. She’s in Booda by now, probably.”

“And Greta?”

“Dead. I heard the innkeeper’s wife complaining to someone about having to clean up the blood.”

Simon shook his head at that. “We should never have left them,” he said angrily, slapping his fist into his palm.

“They’re searching the village for us,” Hollo continued, “The innkeeper told the soldiers that the last he saw of us, we were leaving the tavern last night.”

“How far is it to Booda?”

“If we take the main road, we can be there tonight, but we can’t go that way.”

“And if we go the way that doesn’t end up with us locked in a crow’s cage?”

Hollo looked up at Simon’s choice of words, then said, “We can be there by dawn tomorrow.”

“Good,” Simon said, turning to the horses, “let’s get going.”

Hollo shook his head and muttered as he mounted his horse. “Going to get both of us killed.”


Other episodes can be found here.  The entire anthology can be purchased at Amazon.

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