<![CDATA[Swords and Sorcery Magazine - Archive]]>Mon, 23 Oct 2017 01:45:08 -0700Weebly<![CDATA["The Bargain" by Tom Howard]]>Sat, 30 Sep 2017 16:08:02 GMThttp://swordsandsorcerymagazine.com/archive/the-bargain-by-tom-howardBandhurst counted his stacks of coins – copper fens, silver quans, and gold aureus – as he did late every night in the privacy of his study.  The rest of the household had long retired to bed.  The old man didn’t trust his servants, or anyone, when his hard-earned riches were out of the lockbox. 
 
He took the last swig from the goblet at his right hand and made a face.  The foul-tasting potion burned, and he rubbed his chest through his thick robe, cursing his rotten heart and the aches that kept him up nights.  Take more exercise his physician said, don’t work so hard, go on a trip on one of your ships.  As if he’d travel on one of those rotting hulks.  
 
With a crash that made him jump, two young men with swords broke through the back door and entered the room.
 
“Joseph Nathaniel and Deerdunn Griffin!”  He recognized them.  Their families, like everyone in town, owed him money.  “What is the meaning of this?”
 
Joseph, a tall young man with his father’s wide jaw, pointed a rusty sword at Bandhurst.  Griffin, his shorter and rounder friend, held his sword as if it might bite him.
 
“Is this what’s become of my family’s legacy?” asked Joseph, stepping forward and deliberately knocking over the stacks of neatly arranged coins with the tip of his sword.  “My father and his ship are missing and my mother and our family have been thrown off our own land.  You have left me, the eldest son, nothing.” 
 
The frail banker raised his hands.  He couldn’t stand with his heart pounding as if it wanted to burst from his chest.  “Joseph,” he said, “you wouldn’t loan Deerdun a great sum of money without some assurance you’d be repaid.  You’d need something of his of equal value in case they were unable to pay you back.  Your father understood that before he asked me to finance his voyage.” 
 
He managed a weak smile, aware that borrowers frequently complained of his harsh, one-sided contracts.  Quellumtown was a dying seaport, and the few remaining captains borrowed funds from him to buy cargo and pay their crews.  Bandhurst was the only man in town capable of making the loans they desperately needed.  If they forfeited, they were forced to give their lands and holdings to the town’s only remaining banker.  It had made him a very rich man.  
He looked beseechingly at Joseph’s partner, remembering too late that he’d sent Old Man Griffin to a workhouse for not paying what he owed. 
 
Young Griffin’s face reddened.  “Let’s just take his gold, Joseph, and get out of here before the servants wake and summon the constable.  We can be halfway across the southern swamps by dawn.”
 
“He’ll just pay someone to track us down and get it back,” said Joseph.  “We’ve got to kill this poisonous snake.  Do the whole town a favor.”
 
“Wait!” begged the old man, knowing it was unlikely the servants would waken and come to his rescue.  Everyone in the house was older than he was and aware of how he hated being bothered when he counted his money.  Too late he regretted not hiring a personal guard.  “Think about Quellumtown, boys.  Who will the sea captains go to when they need to provision their ships?  Where will the farmers get money for next year’s grain?  Kill me and this town dies.”
 
“It’s already dying,” said Joseph.  “Just like our fathers.  Now, it’s time for you to repay what you owe, Goldgreedy Bandhurst!”  He approached menacingly. 
 
“Uncle?” queried a young woman.  A fresh-faced blonde in a traveling cloak stood in the doorway.  “If these are the kinds of guests you entertain here in the city, perhaps we should have stayed in the mountains.” 
 
She stepped into the room, her blue eyes flashing in the lantern light.  She was dressed in brown homespun, and her green cloak was dusty and patched.  Behind her stood a large man, so tall and wide he filled the entire doorway.  He held a large broadsword, shiny and deadly, and pointed it at Joseph.
 
Bandhurst was speechless.  Was this some kind of trick?  He had no nieces.  The girl and the similarly featured giant must be friends of the robbers. 
 
Griffin lunged toward the old man, his sword raised.  The girl moved quickly, tripping him and snatching his weapon as he fell.
 
The large man took advantage of the distraction to strike Joseph’s puny blade with his mightier one.  Joseph’s blade didn’t break, but he cried out as his old sword fell to the floor.
 
Griffin struggled to gain his feet, but the girl pressed her worn boot against the nape of his neck and kept him pinned to the floor.
 
The old man stood, shaking from fear and outrage.  “Who are you?”  He turned from the man holding Joseph at knifepoint to the girl ignoring Griffin’s ungentlemanly oaths.
 
“Why, Great-uncle Bandhurst,” the girl replied sweetly, “I am Amberlith, and this is my older brother, Tate.  We’re Throckmortons from Two Rivers Bridge.”
 
The old man searched his memory for the familiar sounding name.  “My mother’s mother was a Throckmorton,” he said finally.  “I didn’t realize there were any left.”
 
“We just discovered that you existed, Uncle,” she said.   
 
Tate spoke for the first time, his booming voice appropriate for one of his stature.  “We’ve come a long way, Uncle, and our request is urgent.  We thought to find you abed.  Instead, we find you entertaining guests.”
 
Bandhurst’s housekeeper, Mrs. Block, and his manservant, Mr. Block, appeared, finally woken by the commotion.  They roused the few servants in the rest of the house and dispatched the cook’s husband to fetch the constable.  Bandhurst’s heart didn’t stop its urgent pounding until Joseph and Griffin were led away.  When he testified against them, they’d either be hanged for plotting his murder or spend the rest of their lives in prison for robbery.
 
“I’ll put fresh bedclothes in your rooms,” Mrs. Block, still in her nightdress, told the youngsters.  “It’s so rare we have guests.”  She smiled at them and scurried away.
 
Had he not owed his life to his country cousins’ timely rescue, he’d have offered the stable for them to sleep in.  He wouldn’t have riffraff, even blood relations, taking advantage of him.  One look at the scattered coins and they’d know he wasn’t a poor man.
 
“What is your urgent business?”  He scooped the lose coins from his desk into a bag.
 
To his surprise, the brave girl sagged onto a window seat and started to cry. 
Tate moved to comfort her.  “It’s our little brother, Archer,” he said.  “He was killed by a falling tree while clearing land.”
 
“I’m sorry,” said Bandhurst.  “Are you here to invite me to the funeral?  Do you need to borrow money for the burial monument?  I give good rates to family.”
 
“No,” said Amberlith, wiping her eyes on her sleeve.  “We can’t raise the price for his resurrection.”
 
“Resurrection?” repeated Bandhurst.
 
“Mama remembered that we had a cousin, you, who might be willing to help us revive Archer.  We came as quickly as possible.  Please help us restore our brother!”
 
Bandhurst took his seat and shook his head.  “I don’t understand.  People can’t be resurrected.  Dead is dead.”
 
“Not in Two Rivers Bridge where we live,” said Tate.  “The Phillio Brothers can restore you if you have the price.”
 
“And if it’s soon enough,” added Amberlith.  “They cannot restore anyone who’s been dead over a week.  You must help us.”
 
Bandhurst stared at them.  “This is some sort of trick, isn’t it?  You’re friends of Joseph’s and think I’m an old fool.  No one can be brought back from the dead.”
 
“The Phillio Brothers can do it,” insisted the girl.  “Their mother was Exphoria the Enchantress.”
 
“Exphoria, the…” began the old man, recalling wild stories of a long-dead healer said to bring her deceased patients back to life.  “That’s just an old wives’ tale!  That crazy witch never existed, and the tales don’t mention sons.” 
Tate slowly removed his cloak and tunic to reveal his naked torso.  His wide shoulders and expansive chest were impressive but weren’t what made Bandhurst stare.  The young man’s body was crossed with scars, some of them as wide as the old man’s hand.   One angry gash across one of his biceps looked like a leather band that joined his arm to his body.
 
“What happened to you?”  Bandhurst had never seen someone who’d been so injured and able to walk among the living afterwards.
 
“I tried to save my wife from being swept away in a flash flood,” said Tate, the sadness of the memory evident on his face.  “I managed to grab her, but the bridge collapsed and pinned us to a stone wall.  It took me a long time to die.”  He put his tunic back on.
 
“It took all we had to bring him back,” said Amberlith. 
 
“And your wife?” asked Bandhurst.  “Did they resurrect her, too?”
 
Amberlith answered for her brother.  “There wasn’t enough left of her to be restored.”
 
“It was a long time ago,” said Tate.  “Now the Phillios can do the same for Archer, but we cannot meet the price.”
 
“It can’t have been too long ago,” said Bandhurst, finding their fairy tale fascinating in spite of himself.  “You are yet a young man.”
 
The young people chuckled.
 
“Older than you might think,” said Tate.  “My wife died before Amberlith was born.”
 
“He’s my much older brother,” said Amberlith with a smile.  “When the Phillio Brothers brought him back, Father said he could barely grow a beard.”
 
 
“The brothers can resurrect the dead and make them younger?”  Bandhurst’s chest hurt, making it hard for him to think.
 
Tate nodded.  “When they cut and stitch you back together, they say it’s easy to repair and replace the old parts.  Sort of like clock pieces.”
 
Bandhurst was still questioning their elaborate charade when Mrs. Block returned to usher the visitors to their beds.  Letting them go with a brief goodnight, Bandhurst gathered up the remaining coins and counted them carefully.
His chest hammered with a strange discordant rhythm, but his mind was ablaze with the  fantastic tale.  Robbers.  Enchantresses.  Beggars with incredible stories of people put back together like broken dolls.  It was too much to grasp. 
 
But the possibility of it being true was too attractive for him to ignore.  He should send his newly discovered cousins home without a coin, but he had to meet the Phillio Brothers.  If his gold resurrected Archer, he’d secure a deal for himself when he died.  With any luck, the brothers might even work for him.  His heart fluttered as he pictured a room full of gold coins, garnered from resurrecting the rich.
#
 
The trip to Two Rivers Bridge, a village Bandhurst had never heard of, was difficult and rushed.  The old man loaned Tate one of his horses and provided Amberlith with a pony.  He rode a sure-footed mule and wondered if the animal would be carrying his corpse by the time they arrived at their destination.
 
After a long day of hard travel to reach the base of the northern mountains, they spent most of another day making their way up a little-used path to their village.  Bandhurst brought no servants, afraid they’d carry wild tales about the hamlet where dead people came back to life.  He had left a note with the constable.  In his saddlebags was gold for Archer’s revival, not enough to be killed for by greedy cousins, but enough to show the Phillios he meant business if Archer was resurrected successfully. 
 
They finally reached the valley high in the mountains.  Cottages were far apart, allowing pastureland and crops to grow between them.  As the road followed the larger of the two rivers, Bandhurst spotted a waterwheel-driven mill and a smithy furnace.
 
The Throckmorton homestead was larger than most, resting in a meadow not far from where the bridge crossed both rivers.  Petula Throckmorton, the mother of the clan, came out to welcome him to the rambling home.  Bandhurst, sore and stiff, required help getting down.
 
“Come in, Cousin Bandhurst,” said the gray-haired woman.  “Poor Archer’s body is in the root cellar, ready to be moved to the Phillio cave.”
 
Bandhurst joined them in a family meal while other cousins used his mule to transport Archer’s body to the Phillio Brothers’ cave.  Papa Throckmorton and some of his other sons were out clearing the field where Archer had died, but enough of the noisy family were home to make Bandhurst appreciate he lived alone.
 
An old woman approached him at the end of the meal and handed him a mug of elderberry wine.  “You are a good man, Cousin Bandhurst, for paying Archer’s price.  If I was able, I’d have gladly paid.  He was a good lad with many years ahead of him, unlike you and me.” 
 
Amberlith appeared and gently led the old woman away. 
 
After lunch, Bandhurst insisted Tate and Amberlith introduce him to the Phillio brothers.  He hoped to speak to them about working for him.  If they really were the sons of the legendary enchantress.  No wonder no one had heard of the brothers’ abilities.  Two Rivers was so isolated one had to know where it was to find it.
 
Tate helped him onto the pony as the rest of the family waved farewell.  Bandhurst was exhausted after the long ride and the heavier-than-expected lunch.  He found himself nodding off as his young cousin led him further up the valley.
 
He awoke with the realization that an old acquaintance – his chest pain – was gone.  He raised his head to find he was lying on a stone slab, cold and restrained, but strangely unbothered by it.  His heart beat slowly and, for the first time since he could recall, painlessly.  As his awareness of his surroundings increased, he could make out the roof of the cave over his head and two men working on a slab near him, busy with a young man’s body.  Archer.
 
“Ah,” said the shorter of the two men, moving from Archer to Bandhurst.  His black, curly beard hid half his face.  “I see the benefactor is awake.  We thought you’d sleep through the entire thing.”  Both brothers laughed.  Bandhurst wanted to tell them about his offer of employment and ask them about the terms for his own resurrection, but he couldn’t open his mouth.  He could only lift his head and move his eyes.  Again, his lack of alarm surprised him.
 
“Terribly nice of you, old man,” said the other brother, thinner but with an equally robust beard.  “We were afraid Papa Throckmorton would pay his son’s price, but then Mama remembered there was an old family member in the city.  We’re glad Amberlith and Tate found you in time.”
 
“You’re not much of a talker,” the younger brother addressed Bandhurst.  “They probably gave you something to calm your nerves.  You don’t need to be awake for the transfer, just alive.”
 
His brother placed an outsized needle on a nearby table, the needle coated with clotted blood.  “Archer is ready.  Time for the old man to provide his half of the bargain.  The transfer container is ready.”
 
The man placed his hand over Bandhurst’s nose and mouth and turned to his brother.  “This one’s not going to take long.  We’ll have young Archer back in time for evening chores.”
 
“This would be so much easier,” complained the brother from far away, “if the price didn’t have to be paid by blood kin.”
 
“Yes, lucky they had this one willing to come all the way up here.  Must have a heart of gold, this old guy.”
 
The hand over his mouth clamped down harder, and Bandhurst’s vision blurred as he struggled.  The fading rattle in his chest sounded like stacks of gold coins falling over and rolling across the floor.



©August, 2017 Tom Howard

Tom Howard is a science fiction and fantasy short story writer living in Little Rock, Arkansas.  He thanks his family and friends for their inspiration and the Central Arkansas Speculative Writers' Group for their perspiration.  Find more of his work here.]]>
<![CDATA["Gallows Dance" by Dan DeFazio]]>Sat, 30 Sep 2017 16:01:12 GMThttp://swordsandsorcerymagazine.com/archive/gallows-dance-by-dan-defazioNote: To avoid any associations with a certain on-line retail giant and its products, the character Alexa has been renamed. She is now known as Angelique Malvaux.

The town lay at the edge of the Black Forest, its name unremembered. It was just after sunset, and the town—village, really—smelled of burning wood and rotting leaves. In the center of the muddy square stood the gallows, and from it hung the corpses of two women, one young, one old, their tongues distended, sightless eyes staring at nothing in particular. A cloud of black flies buzzed about, laying eggs in their open mouths. Perched on a gable overhead, an unclean bird squawked and waited for its chance to feed.
 
The festivities having ended, the men of the town had all retired to the tavern for the night. Inside the taproom of The Greased Goat, the hearth fire roared and crackled. A crowd had gathered around a rotund figure, dressed in a black coat and ruffled collar, an oversized holy symbol hanging down to rest on his outsized belly. But despite the somber appearance of his garb, the figure’s voice was loud and boisterous.
 
“No more will these witches deceive us!” roared the witch-hunter, slamming his empty tankard forcefully onto the rough-hewn table. “No longer will your crops wither and your livestock perish! No longer will your babes sicken and shrivel in the womb! The witch and her coven are dead, never to return, or my name isn’t Matthias Krogh!”
 
Men cheered and clanked their tankards together.  Matthias, still thirsty after the hanging, motioned to the tavern girl for a refill. His eyes caught a glimpse of her bosom. Her blouse was immodestly low, he noted. He would have to mention it to the tavern-keep later—impure dress led to impure thoughts, and impure thoughts led to impure deeds. Better still, he would discuss it with the wench later, in his private chambers. He had always found that the young women in these towns were more amenable to correction once a few of their friends had been hung. Matthias looked away, took another swallow of wine and continued.
 
“These particular witches were a cunning lot,” he said. “They refused to confess, even after being put to the question, unwilling to allow their foul crimes to be exposed to the light of justice. But in the end, no one can hide from the light of God—or the Witch-Hunter General!”
 
Another cheer went up, this one louder than the first. Matthias’s dim, ale-soaked brain recalled the two women. The older one had been a midwife. She had broken soon after the thumbscrews had been applied. She said she alone had compacted with the devil. Her granddaughter, she maintained, was innocent of any crime. The grand-daughter was a pretty girl and Matthias had insisted on interrogating her alone. He had offered her a reasonable deal: if she signed a confession, both she and her grandmother would be permitted to live. In exchange, she need only service him on the floor of the filthy cell. The foolish bitch had slapped him instead. The sting brought Matthias to his senses—obviously she had used her black magic to beguile him—and to think he had almost fallen for it! It had taken him hours to extract a confession from her. The girl had proved frustratingly resilient, and he had been forced to use the choke pear and iron spider. But in the end, she broke down and confessed. They all did. Now both grandmother and granddaughter hung from the gallows, together, their dark plans thwarted. Pity about the girl, he thought. Had the witch not been so stubborn, she might have saved herself.   
 
“They begged for their lives of course,” Matthias continued, returning to the moment. His voice took on the quavering tone of a frightened girl. “Please, they begged. Show us mercy! God may show mercy, said I, but in this life the price for witchery is the rope!”
 
The crowd cheered for a third time and Matthias’ deputies slapped him heartily on the back. In the exuberance of the moment, Matthias slapped two silver coins onto the bar and ordered all the glasses refilled.
 
That’s when he noticed a lone figure, ensconced at a small table in the corner of the room, ignoring the celebration altogether.
 
“You there,” Matthias said, walking towards him. “What’s the matter, my sullen friend? You do not give the cheer. May we count you among us or do you feel some dint of pity for these brides of Satan?”
 
The figure turned slowly. He was a landsknecht, a mercenary, dressed in red and black, his wool shirt deliberately torn in the latest fashion. His ostrich-plumed hat lay on the table. His zweihander sword rested on the table’s edge, within arm’s reach. His face was lean and his beard neatly trimmed. His eyes were the same blue-steel color of his sword.
 
“Seems hardly sporting,” he responded. “Torturing women who cannot defend themselves.“
 
“Then you do not approve of my methods?” Matthias asked.
 
“No,” he replied coldly. “I do not.”
 
“Am I to assume then, that you do not believe in witches?”
 
The crowd grew quiet, becoming aware of the drama unfolding before them.
 
“Aye,” said the mercenary. “I believe in witches and I’ve met them. But I doubt a witch of any power would waste her time with this backwater shit-hole of a town.”
 
Matthias stepped closer. “And whom do I have the pleasure of addressing that he may question the methods of the Witch-hunter General?”
 
The tavern-keeper, who had remained silent, stepped forward. “That would be the Bastard “D’Uvel,” he said. “The butcher of Karlstadt, terror of Carcosa, mercenary, and killer of witches himself.”
 
Matthias stopped. He had heard the name of the Bastard D’Uvel and knew the two-hander was not for show. He suddenly felt the presence of the collective eyes of the crowd, waiting for him to respond. Before he could, another voice interrupted.
 
“Must those women hang there all night,” said a female voice. “Aren’t they dead enough?”
 
Matthias squinted into the darkness at the source of the voice. Directly across from D’Uvel sat a woman—somehow Matthias had not noticed her before—-but did now. She was young, not quite thirty, with dark hair. She wore it up, revealing a slender throat adorned by a black lace choker. Her dress violated every sumptuary law in the province: leather corset and matching red riding jacket with leather trousers and ankle-high boots. Arcane letters covered the backs of her hands, and she made no effort to hide them. She held the stub of a cigar casually between her fingers; instead of the acrid smell of New World tobacco, the smoke smelled of wintergreen. With her rouged cheeks and lips, she looked as if had walked straight out of a seraglio, yet the look of casual disinterest on her face conveyed the impression of nobility. She stared imperiously at him, as if he were dung on the bottom of her boot.
 
“All witches must hang overnight,” he said with authority.

“To serve as an example to others who would consort with the Dark One. It was necessary, although I apologize if the spectacle disturbed you, Lady…?”

“Angelique Malveaux,” she answered, exhaling smoke at the ceiling. “And how, may I ask, do you know these women were guilty?”
 
“Why, they confessed, of course.”
 
“I’d confess too if you shoved a metal claw between my legs.”
 
Someone in the crowd laughed. Matthias turned and flashed an angry glare. The tittering died away. He turned back to Angelique. “I have executed nearly three hundred witches, my lady. I know my business. To an expert such as myself, the signs of witchery are as clear as day.”
 
“And what are the signs, so that I might recognize them?”
 
“There are clear mannerisms,” he announced with an air of authority. “Impudence. Stubbornness. A shrill voice. A scolding tongue…”
 
“Then almost any married woman can be branded a witch.”
 
There was more chuckling. This time he ignored it.
 
“Then there are the clear physical signs,” he continued. “A hairy lip, split lip, wrinkled brow, or eyebrows that meet in the middle. Somewhere on the body will be found the devil’s mark, where the infernal powers have branded their profane names. And there may be a devil’s teat, where the witch will suckle her familiar demon.”
 
“And where is this extra teat to be found?” she asked.
 
“In the armpit, within the folds of the flesh, any cavity—even the nether regions.”
 
“So you’re an expert on the nether regions, are you?” she asked, smiling. “I bet you’re at it all day.” 
 
“May I remind my lady to whom she is speaking?” he said, squinting. “I am Matthias Krogh, Witch-hunter General, deputed and authorized to hunt and kill witches, and the foremost authority in this town at the moment.”
 
“Witch-Hunter General?” she said, raising a perfectly-plucked eyebrow. “I didn’t realize that was an official position.”
 
“Indeed it is,” Matthias lied. “If I wished, I could have you arrested right now.”
 
“Is that so? Under what charge?”
 
“Violation of sumptuary laws for one. Your dress is too provocative. And second, contempt for an officer of the court. As a matter of fact, I should very much like to speak to your husband regarding this matter. I doubt he’d approve of you shamelessly dining with your retainer in public.” 
 
“My husband is dead and I’ll dine with whomever I wish,” she said, eyes narrowing. “Tell me, Herr Krogh—under whose court do you serve? In what church were you ordained? Do you have a copy of your commission? Because from where I’m sitting, your only authority seems to come from the mob of sheep-fucking yokels behind you.”
 
Matthias felt his face flush red. “That’s enough,” he sputtered and turned to his men. “You’re under arrest. Seize her!”
 
D’Uvel’s hand moved to the pommel of his zweihander. He stood to his full six-feet and brought the double-blade level in front of him. “I’ve been hired to escort the Lady Angelique through the Black Forest, and the Bastard D’Uvel never fails to make good on a contract. Now, if you value your lives, you’ll sit down. If not, I invite the bravest among you to step up and be the first to die.”
 
No one moved. Their eyes lowered to the wide-plank floorboards. A few of them turned to Matthias, whose face was a deep shade of crimson. How dare this trollop and mercenary question the authority of the Witch-hunter General! His hand went to his sword hilt, but there it froze, unable to pull the blade from its sheath.
 
“Anyone?” D’Uvel asked, sneering directly at Matthias. “I thought not. Now be off with you. Find some other defenseless old woman to torment.”
 
Matthias just stood there, seething.
 
“Gentlemen!” said the tavern-keeper, placing his arm on Matthias’ shoulder. “I’m sure that’s just the wine talking. Come, come. We’re all on the same side. No one is a friend of witches here. Don’t let a few hasty words spoil the mirth. A free pint for all, courtesy of the house!”  
 
The crowd turned and resumed their drinking, pretending that nothing had happened. D’Uvel sat back down and returned the zweihander to its former resting place against the table. Angelique whispered something to him. No one said anything to Matthias.
 
Matthias Krogh gritted his teeth and swallowed a mouthful of sour wine. D’Uvel was right; this roomful of farmers stood no chance against a trained landsknecht. And Matthias himself, despite owning a sword, had never actually used one in combat. No, the Bastard D’Uvel had the tactical advantage - that much was certain. 
 
But as much as he hated D’Uvel, Matthias hated the Lady Angelique even more. She was a witch, quite obviously, and a cunning one at that. D’Uvel was a mere retainer; she was the one who had orchestrated his humiliation. He watched her from the shadows. There she sat, sipping her wine, smoking, smiling at the Bastard D’Uvel—-probably flirting with him—apparently unconcerned, as if she were in no danger at all. As if she were any different—-as if she were better than any of the other women he had hung.   
 
And the more he thought of her, the more aroused Matthias became. e Her He found himself thinking of her rouged lips and painted nails. Her leather trousers. Her immodestly tight corset. Her lascivious smile. His mind began to race, imagining all the tortures he would like to subject her to. He imagined her naked, on the rack, gagged, her taught limbs stretched by the ropes. He imagined whipping her, the leather leaving beautiful crimson lashes across her perfect, pale flesh. He imagined himself wrapping his hands around her slender neck as he forced himself upon her, her eyes pleading for mercy as he squeezed the life out of her.
 
Matthias felt a tingle on his neck, as if he were being watched. He risked a backwards glance at Angelique and discovered she was watching him. Their eyes met and she raised her wineglass toward him, drank, and returned to her conversation with the mercenary.  
 
Witchery, he thought. She could read his mind—-certain proof she was a witch—-and a dangerous one at that. In the dim light of the fire, an evil smile curled on Matthias’ fat lips. Angelique Malveaux must die, he decidedAnd she must die tonight.
 
***********************************************************
 
It was past two in the morning when the tavern door opened. Three large men entered and lowered their hoods to reveal the bright colors and torn shirts of the landsknechts underneath. Two carried long swords on their shoulders. The largest carried a blunderbuss. They joined Matthias Krogh and another half-dozen men with clubs in the center of the room.
 
“Money,” Hans Hurtzman breathed in a low voice, clutching the shaft of the blunderbuss with one huge hand and opening the other. The mercenary was a frightful sight. A long scar ran down the left side of his face, and the eye on that side was dead. In the shadows cast by the dying fire he looked like a demon.
 
Matthias pressed a leather purse into the mercenary’s open palm. “You took your time getting here,” he growled.
 
“Where’s the Bastard D’Uvel?”
 
“Upstairs.”
 
“You were wise to wait,” Hurtzman said, counting the gold coins. “The Bastard D’Uvel is more dangerous than a starving wolf.”
 
“Then you know him.”
 
Hurtzman grinned and the other two landsknechts smiled back, revealing brown and broken teeth. “Aye. We know him. Even fought alongside him at Karlstadt.”
 
“Then you can kill him?”
 
“Aye. Any man can be killed. Even the Bastard D’Uvel. Between the three of us he doesn’t stand a chance. Where’s the witch?”  
 
“They’re asleep in the two adjoining rooms at the top of the stairs,” said the innkeeper, dangling the keys on a large iron ring. His face was pale and sweaty and his jowls quivered as he spoke. ”He’s in the first chamber; she’s in the second.”
 
Matthias had secured the tavern-keeper’s cooperation with two gold coins and the promise to kill Angelique publicly, in the town square. A good hanging was always good for business.
 
“Gather closer lads, and listen carefully,” Hurtzman said softly. “This is how it’s going to work. Manfred, Heinrich, and me will take the Bastard D’Uvel. The tavern-keeper will open the door. As soon as we’re in position, the rest of you will storm the witch’s room and take her by surprise. Bind her hands and gag her as fast as you can, lads. ‘Tis common knowledge that witches can’t cast spells if their hands are bound. Any questions? Good. Let’s move. Well, Witch-hunter General—what are you waiting for? Lead the way.”
 
Matthias summoned the courage to mount the wooden stairs, acolytes and farmers close behind. The tavern-keeper came next, holding a dripping candelabra in his shaking hand, and the landsknechts after him. Matthias’ heart was pounding, a combination of hate and fear. At last, the bitch would pay for her crimes. Here he was, creeping outside her door and she fast asleep, not suspecting that death was lurking just outside her door.
 
The door! Even in the dim light of the candelabra, Matthias could see some sort of drawing in charcoal on the door—-some sort of sigil, not unlike the paintings that had adorned the witch’s hand—-undoubtedly some sort of spell designed to warn her of their approach. No matter. She and her bodyguard were hopelessly outnumbered. There was no escape for her now.
 
The tavern-keeper inserted the large iron key into the lock and turned it, cautiously. Hurtzman pushed it open and the landsknechts rushed in and took up positions on either side of the bed. D’Uvel lay asleep under the blankets, his zweihander sword resting against the wall. Hurtzman lowered his blunderbuss toward the bed. The other two mercenaries raised their swords to strike. Clearly they were taking no chances.
 
Hurtzman nodded and the landsknechts reigned blows down upon the bed.
 
Matthias signaled to the tavern-keeper, who turned the key to Angelique’s room. The tumblers clicked. The local men raised their clubs. The tavern-keeper pushed the door and it opened inward with a loud creak. Matthias smiled and motioned for the men to enter.
 
Then, without warning, the tavern-keeper exploded.
 
All of them were splattered with gore. The hallway looked like an abattoir, the walls red, ribbons of sinew and chunks of meat clinging to the door and ceiling. The tavern-keeper —or what was left him— looked like he had been turned inside out, a shank of raw flesh and exposed ribs.
 
For a moment, they stood, eyes wide in shock, frozen to the spot. Then the screaming began. Every man dropped his weapon and fled. 
 
Matthias wiped tattered pulp from his eyes and turned toward Hurtzman. Inside D’Uvel’s room, straw and feathers were everywhere. The landsknechts had pulled back the tattered blankets to reveal the remains of another blanket, arranged in the form of a body. Suddenly the adjoining door opened and D’Uvel rushed in, plunging a dagger into the back of the first mercenary. Hurtzman spun and pulled the trigger of his blunderbuss. In the split second it took for the powder to ignite, D’Uvel grabbed the barrel of the blunderbuss and pointed it away from him. The other mercenary took the blast full in the chest and was flung backwards against the wall. D’Uvel smashed Hurtzman in the teeth with the shaft of the blunderbuss, sending him crashing to the floor.
 
Matthias didn’t wait to see how the fight ended. He
launched himself along the stairs, deciding the witch could wait. Downstairs the tap-room was empty, the townsfolk having fled screaming into the night. Matthias had almost reached the door when a wind arose and slammed the door shut. The air smelled curiously of wintergreen.
 
“Going somewhere?” asked a female voice from behind. The hairs on Matthias Krogh’s neck pricked up. He turned. Angelique Malveaux sat cross-legged in a high-backed chair in front of the hearth. In one hand she held a wine goblet, in the other the stub of her cigar. The fireplace roared behind her, the flames a demonic blue. Matthias could have sworn he saw phantom shadows dancing out the corner of his eyes. The witch herself was beautiful and terrible, her eyes glowing with malice.         
 
“You have a debt to pay, Matthias Krogh,” she said in a low voice, dropping the end of her cigar and crushing it under her leather boot.
 
Matthias did not wait for her to finish. He bolted for the staircase…
 
…and slammed head first into the Bastard D’Uvel. D’Uvel’s chest was like concrete. Matthias staggered backwards into a post. When his eyesight cleared he could see D’Uvel holding his two-handed sword in one hand and the head of Hans Hurtzman in the other. The dead mercenary’s eyes were rolled upwards and his mouth was agape, thick tongue lolling out of his mouth.
 
Matthias felt a creeping chill, starting at his neck and branching out to all his extremities. His legs refused to move, as if rooted to the floorboards. A ghostly wind arose as Angelique’s spiked heels clicked across the wooden planks, her fingertips crackling with sorcerous energy. Matthias dropped to his knees in front of her. Angelique’s laugh echoed unnaturally through the tavern.
 
“What’s the matter, Witch-hunter General?” she, said her lips curling into a lascivious smile. “After all these years, you’ve finally found a real one…“
 
There was a sickening crunch as Angelique drove her boot heel into the back of Matthias’ hand. For the first time that night—but certainly not the last—Matthias Krough screamed.

 
The town lay at the edge of the Black Forest, its name unremembered. It was just after sunset, and the town—-a village, really—smelled of burning wood and rotting leaves. In the center of the muddy square stood the gallows, and from it hung a single corpse. It was that of a man clad in black, holy symbol still dangling from his neck, tongue distended, sightless eyes staring at nothing in particular…



©August 2017 Dan DeFazio

Dan J. DeFazio has published two previous Bastard D'Uvel stories in Swords & Sorcery. He has also been published in ​Dragon Magazine.]]>
<![CDATA["The High Throne" by James Van Pelt]]>Wed, 30 Aug 2017 20:31:52 GMThttp://swordsandsorcerymagazine.com/archive/the-high-throne-by-james-van-peltRudd sat uneasily on the high throne.  A line of supplicants with a scroll or basket or bag in hand and an earnest look about them stretched from the dais’s base to the towering oak doors.
 
Terryn, the Lord High Steward, put his hand on Rudd’s shoulder, then bent to whisper in his ear, “Your next case concerns Master Craftsman Kelvin who believes the shipwrights guild has not paid him for his labors.”
 
The long-jowled man standing before them wore a work-scarred cloak and carried an intricately carved ship under his arm.  “Your majesty, I have been grievously injured while doing the kingdom’s bidding.  Five times I have submitted bills for work I have delivered, and five times no payment has followed.  My men cannot continue to labor if we are not paid.”  Kelvin bowed low, placed the ship at Rudd’s feet, and then backed away.
 
Clearly, whoever built the model had spent numerous hours on it.  Tiny lines ran to the masts.  An iron anchor dangled from a silver chain like a delicate pendant.
 
Rudd whispered back to Lord Terryn.  “I am not wise in these matters.  I have seen only seventeen summers.  Can I command the shipwrights to pay Master Kelvin?” 
 
“It’s a complicated issue, sire.  Your chancellors will handle this business.”
 
Rudd sighed.  Terryn answered all his questions with “It’s complicated, sire.”
 
“Being king is different than you expected, I’m sure,” said Terryn.
“Is this what his majesty does every day?  It seems . . .” Rudd could see hours of listening to the people’s complaints before him.  “ . . . tedious.”
 
“The subjects hold their sovereign in the highest regard.  When they bring concerns to the throne, they trust wisdom and fairness will fall in their favor, but the child king does not hold court.  He is, after all, only ten years old.  He will learn these duties in time.”
 
“I’m not doing anything.”  Rudd had been so excited when he’d won the lottery to become king for a day, a once every five years event that elevated one commoner to the high seat.  The king’s tailor came to Rudd’s farm and fitted him for a proper gown, while a chamberlain outlined Rudd’s schedule.  Rudd’s parents celebrated his luck with a party for locals, including Faylinn, the small-holder’s daughter from Asheby beyond the mill.  She held his hand between one of the dances and let him fetch her drink from the feasting table.
 
She’d said to him during the last dance, “When you are king, will your wish become my command?” and then she had whirled away with a wink and a laugh.  Rudd had difficulty sleeping in the nights since, wondering what she meant.
 
The next petitioner was an elderly woman who left a basket of bread.  She complained that her daughters were harassed by the king’s guard when they came to her tavern. 
 
A minor duke (which is what Lord Terryn called him) pleaded for the king to find a good marriage for his son, and he left an intricate pewter mug as a token.
 
A carpenter asked that he be appointed to the royal court, for, as he said, “The king deserves the best cabinets in the kingdom.”  He added a polished jewelry box lined with purple velvet to the pile of offerings.
 
“They know that I can not actually help them, don’t they?” 
 
“They are lucky that anyone sits in the throne at all.  They could make their cases to a court recorder.  Their pleas are to the position, not the man, and you truly are king for the day.  Your pronouncements will be obeyed.”
 
“So, if I told the carpenter he had a job in the castle, he would be hired?”
 
Terryn smiled, a greasy and alarming expression on the old official’s face.  “Technically, yes, but when the king returned tomorrow, he could and probably would remove him.  I don’t advise you make policy announcements except what we give you for ceremony.  I believe you will be christening a ship this afternoon.  Won’t that be memorable?”
 
The next plea came from a woman dressed in farmer’s clothes.  Her best outfit, surely, but dowdy compared to the fine lady’s dresses and elegant formal wear of the court.  She reminded Rudd of his mother, the same work-hardened hands and sun-darkened face.  “My village sent me, sire.  Our crops were poor last year and will be poor again.  The land is bad.  But we are taxed the same as our fortunate neighbors whose fields overflowed last fall, and whose crops are healthy this summer.  We ask for relief.”  The basket she carried beneath her arm held a large and heavy jug.  She balanced the load on her hip.  Rudd suspected it might be filled with mead, a true luxury where he came from.
 
“Thank you,” said Terryn. “We will take your gift and consider your request.”
 
The woman’s face sagged, her shoulders drooped and she turned to go.
 
“Wait,” said Rudd.  “Have you sowed the same crop every year?”
 
Serverin paused in his hand-waving invitation for the next person to step forward.  “Sire?” he said.  “We have many people to receive before our noon meal.”
 
“We have grown barley for as long as I can remember,” said the woman.  “Our barley was once famous in the kingdom.”
 
Rudd pulled his shoulder out from under Terryn’s grip.
 
“In my village, we raised only wheat, and the crops grew thin, but we switched to rye and the fields rewarded us richly.  Maybe you should let the barley rest for a season or two.”
 
The court noblemen and ladies, sensing a change in the routine, ceased their quiet conversation and turned toward Rudd, while the line of supplicants waited expectantly.  The farmer’s voice sounded clearly throughout.
 
“Some in the village have argued as such, sire, and I will take them your advice, but that does not help us for this winter where we will have neither crops in storage nor money to purchase goods since, as I said, we will owe the tax.”
 
Rudd caught Terryn’s eye.  The old man shook his head almost imperceptibly. 
 
“Lord Terryn, see that this woman’s village is not taxed this year.”  The young man swallowed hard.  “And give her enough gold so that she may purchase stores for the village for the coming winter.”
 
“Your majesty,” said Terryn, nearly choking on indignation.
 
“I am king for the day, am I not?”  Rudd said, hoping he sounded braver than he felt.
 
Terryn started to speak, but then noticed the audience, the fine ladies and gentlemen of the court, the waiting line of subjects, even the king’s guard standing at the door.  Gritting his teeth, the official said, “Of course you are . . . sire.”
 
The sturdy farm woman, tears on her cheeks, said, “Oh, thank you your majesty.  You are truly among the blessed.”
 
All color had left Terryn’s face.  Rudd wondered what the king would do if his lord high steward dropped dead from apoplexy right in front of him.
 
“I believe we should retire for a meal, sire.  The court recorder will hear the rest of the cases.”
 
When they were beyond the closed doors and into the hall behind the throne, Terryn turned on Rudd.  His voice echoed ominously from the stone walls.  “This king-for-the-day position is a façade the kingdom perpetrates one day every five years.  You do not grant favors.  You do not change laws.  You do not give away pieces of the treasury or limit taxes.  You are a peasant in a fancy gown who entertains the subjects by sharing with them a tiny dream that they too could be king.  It’s a fantasy, a performance.  If you open your mouth like that another time today, I will see to it that your farm is leveled, your fields salted, and everyone in your village conscripted for castle service.”
 
Rudd followed, head low.  They’d probably confiscate the woman’s money tomorrow and reinstate the tax.  He truly could not make a difference.
 
The banquet room featured three long tables, weighted with platters and plates.  Cup-bearers, dapifers, and serving women lined the walls.  Rudd reeled at the scent of spiced meats, roasted vegetables and honeyed drink.  He hadn’t thought so much food in such variety was even possible.  Terryn showed him to his seat at the king’s table.  Three nobles he had not met nodded as the king’s chamberman pushed Rudd’s chair in for him. When Rudd was properly seated, they joined him at the table.  Their chains of office clinked and glittered in the sunlight streaming through the upper windows.  At their feet, the court jester sat cross-legged on an orange pillow with gold tassels.  His belled hat jingled when he moved.  Rudd thought the man’s painted face made him look disturbing and threatening, then the jester pushed himself up, leaving his legs crossed, and rotated into a flip that left him sitting on the pillow, surprising a laugh from Rudd.
 
The banquet room doors at the other end opened, letting in a stream of court officials, nobleman, important merchants, and ladies in waiting.  Following them, Rudd’s mother and father and two younger brothers, looking awed and out of place.  Then a handful of Rudd’s neighbors, including Faylinn from Asheby beyond the mill and her family.  On a balcony, musicians struck up a tune, and soon voices filled the hall.  Silverware clinked against pewter plates.  Servants wove between tables, bringing in new courses and taking away the scraps.  Huge mastiffs lay beneath the tables, waiting for bones.
 
Being king suddenly seemed as wonderful as Rudd had hoped.  A platter with a baked pheasant paused before him. The servant cut a thin slice to put on Rudd’s plate.  Soon, a tureen with gravy wafted by.  Wine filled his mug.  Then a serving maid curtseyed in front of him prettily, revealing a distracting glimpse of more skin than he was used to seeing.  Terryn leaned toward him and leered.  “The king can take what he wants.  Shall I remember her for you later?”
 
Before he could answer, jugglers took a position before his table, tossing balls and flaming torches and knives in the air between them.  Another course came, boiled pig, and more wine.  Rudd only sipped, not being used to strong drink.  Still, when he finished and excused himself, he felt the liquor’s warmth.
 
Terryn accompanied him to the king’s chambers.  “I have state duties to attend to at the northern border.  I will leave you with Sir Llewellyn, the king’s second servant and return tomorrow with the king.  Llewellyn will answer your questions and accompany you to the christening ceremony at the harbor this afternoon.”
 
Rudd sat on the bed’s edge, relieved the Lord High Steward was leaving.  Llewellyn stood by the door with his hands behind his back, looking straight ahead, a man of Rudd’s age with straight black hair that dropped to his shoulders.  “Can I get you anything, your highness?”
 
The room was not as large as Rudd thought the king’s chambers might be, but the largest bed Rudd had ever seen filled one end.  Normally, after a meal that big, Rudd would want to take a nap, like he had after the Saturnalia celebration last winter, but he’d made a list of what he wanted to do on his day as king.
 
“Why is a knight assigned to taking care of the king?  I thought your sort just practiced for jousts.”
 
The young man stiffened.  “A knight does as he is commanded.  It is an honor to serve the king.”
 
Rudd felt suddenly embarrassed.  He had no reason to mock the man.  Besides, he was a positive relief after the High Lord Steward Terryn.  “Take me on a castle tour, would you, Sir Llewellyn?”
 
“Of course.”
 
They walked through solars and bedchambers and kitchens and gatehouses and pantries, an ice house, dovecoat, chapel and storerooms.  Along the way, servants and nobles alike stood aside and bowed.  Llewellyn took him to the parapets where Rudd stood in the wind and saw the entire valley for the first time.  Behind them, Castle Bay opened into the ocean.  In the distance, long down the king’s road where it disappeared into Oakmont Forest, Rudd imagined his village tucked beyond the trees, the quiet fields where he worked every day.  Once he hiked the road until he saw the pennants waving atop the castle.  It was hard to comprehend that now he stood on those distantly glimpsed heights. 
 
“Show me the secret passages, Sir Llewellyn.  Castles are filled with secret passages, I hear.”
 
The young knight paused in his stride.  “They wouldn’t be properly secret if I showed them to you.”
 
“I’m the king.  You have to do what I ask.”  They walked in silence.  Finally, Rudd said, “You don’t know where they are, do you?”
 
“There is one I can show you.”
 
Back in the king’s chambers, Llewellyn tugged aside an arras, a heavy tapestry with a hunting scene woven into the fabric hanging from the ceiling.
 
Rudd held onto the edge.  “I don’t see anything.”
 
“It is a low opening.”
 
Rudd stooped, pushing the tapestry back with one hand while feeling along the wall with the other until he came to the hip-high passageway.  Llewellyn followed, a candle in hand.
 
“Where does it go?”
 
The young knight handed Rudd the candle.  “Follow it and find out.”
 
Thirty feet of crawling took him to the inside of a cabinet.  A line of light showed where two wooden doors met.  Rudd pushed them open until he saw the underside of a rough table.  Pots clattered and someone said, “It’s one feast after another.  Why the royals can’t just have a nice bowl of soup is beyond me.”
 
Sir Llewellyn pulled Rudd back, closing the door.  “Don’t let them see you.  The king only uses this when he gets hungry in the middle of the night.”
 
“Doesn’t everyone know about it?  If you open this cupboard, you’re looking right at it.”
 
“Well, it’s not a well-kept secret passage.  The High Lord Steward Terryn doesn’t know about it though.  The king will hide here sometimes when he doesn’t want to talk to him.”
 
“I don’t blame him.  Show me the dungeons.”
 
They turned around in the tunnel.  Rudd followed Llewellyn’s backside to the king’s chambers. 
 
“They’re not . . . pleasant,” said Llewellyn.
 
“We should go anyway.”
 
“As you command.”
 
Rudd imagined the dungeons from his mother’s stories, a place where cutthroats and pirates and ravagers of all sorts gnashed their teeth in the dark.  There might be a hint of a dragon even deeper, if mother was to be believed, but after descending flight after flight of black stone stairs, Llewellyn paused before an iron gate.  He flourished a long key from a pouch hanging at his belt.  Here, the walls seeped and the oil lamp Rudd carried revealed long green and grey streaks of mold that started in the junctures of the stone and flowed to the floor.
 
The gate creaked as it opened.  Below, in the dark, a moan arose.  Rudd shivered.  Chains hung from bolts secured in the walls, their manacles dangling.  At the end of one, a pile of clothes stirred, and face emerged from a filthy layer of cloth to squint against the lamplight.  Rudd held his breath, afraid to breathe the odors that permeated the low-ceilinged, circular chamber.  Other men leaned against the wall, one or both arms attached to a chain.  Some cried out to them.  Most looked out dully, their eyes reflecting but not seeing.
 
“Why are they here, Sir Llewellyn?”  The misery floated off them like a fog.
 
“Some are thieves.  A couple murdered, but most failed to pay taxes.  Lord Severerin lacks patience.  If a man falls short on the tax, Terryn orders their goods confiscated and the criminal jailed.”
 
Rudd remembered the farmer woman who would not be able to pay her tax.  Would she join the other prisoners he’d seen, chained to the wall with the rest, to be blinded occasionally by a lamp’s light like he carried now.  “How many people are down here?”
 
“There are many chambers, sire.  I’ve never seen them all.  Scores and scores I would suspect.”
 
They passed through a room filled with whips and mallets and devices that could tear skin from flesh.  A blood stained table stood in the room’s middle beside a wide well.  Rudd held his lamp above it, but he couldn’t see the bottom.  A dropped rock disappeared into it.  Seconds later, much longer than Rudd thought possible, it clattered faintly.  “Where is the jailer?” said Rudd.  What kind of man would spend all his time in a place like this, committing unspeakable acts for the kingdom?
 
“The Master of Locks only comes down to place a prisoner or to serve the king’s bidding here.”  Llewellyn swept his hand around the room, at the rack, the ropes, the saws, the thumbscrews and stocks; the limb crushers, the iron maiden and spiked masks.  Rudd shuddered.
 
“The king, our king, orders people to the dungeons?”  Rudd had never seen his majesty, but he imagined him as an uplifted personage, noble in all ways, touched by god to rule his people.  A “king” could not sanction this.  The idea sickened him.
 
“No, not him personally, but justice is doled out in his name.  Most are here under Lord Terryn’s seal.”  Llewellyn kept his face composed and neutral, but even by the undependable lamplight, Rudd could see his disdain.
 
“Come,” said Rudd.  “We must leave here.  Take me to the captain of the king’s guard.”
 
Llewellyn looked relieved.
 
They found the captain in the stables, inspecting the horses.  The reek of the stables reminded Rudd of the farm, and it was a relief after the dungeons.  Hay clung to the captain’s boots. A large man of military bearing, the lines of many campaigns in his face, he bowed low before Rudd.  So many had done so already that Rudd thought he should be used to it by now, but the veteran soldier, strong with years and experience, humbling himself this way seemed ridiculous to Rudd.  “Please, Captain.  No formalities.  How many of the king’s guard are in the castle?”
 
The Captain stood.  “The full compliment, sire.  Over one-hundred men, then fourteen knights, counting Sir Llewellyn, of course, and their pages and groomsmen.  Would you have me muster them for inspection.”
 
Rudd shook his head.  “No, I want you to find the Master of Locks, and have him release the prisoners.  Clear the dungeons.  Every prisoner should be brought out so he can see the sun.  They should be fed and their injuries or illnesses treated.  I do not know which are dangerous, so they will need to be well-guarded.”
 
The Captain raised his eyebrows and smiled.  “Some of my men are in the dungeon.  Lord Terryn ordered them there.  I will be happy to let them out, even if it is just for a few hours.”
 
Llewellyn touched Rudd’s shoulder.  “You know that you are only king for a day.  Terryn will make good his threats.  He does not suffer disagreement.”
 
Rudd turned to him.  “If we summon the Chancellor, he can look at each case.  The criminals who are a menace will be returned to their chains, but I can pardon the others.  They will have until the King returns to the throne tomorrow morning to leave the castle.  Terryn will be hard pressed to round them up again once they have fled, and justice will return.”
 
The Captain said, “Lord Terryn will not wait until tomorrow.  As soon as he hears what you have done, he will stop it.  You’ll earn a spot in the darkest, dankest part of the dungeon yourself.”
 
Rudd could already see the angry face about the Lord High Stewards chains of office.  “I will handle the Lord Terryn.  Now, you have a mission, Captain.”
 
The soldier bowed.  “My sovereign.”
 
Rudd turned to Llewellyn.  “I believe we won’t have time for that christening, Sir Knight.”
 
The Chief Chancellor might have been a handsome man once, but he’d long ago lost his shape.  Rudd guessed he never missed a feast.  He sat on a stool that was invisible beneath his bulk and voluminous robes at a table set up in the open courtyard in the middle of the castle.  Rudd sat beside him.  Most of the prisoners lay on blankets.  Some were too weak to sit up, but many rested, their arms propping them as they leaned back, their faces to the sun. 
 
Squires, many of them no more than twelve or thirteen years, distributed food and water.  The court physician, the surgeon, the apothecary, and two women who were renowned for their knowledge of herbs and natural remedies tended to the sickest. 
 
A boy scurried by, stopped and faced Rudd.  He stumbled over his words and his face was flushed.  “Thank you, sire.  You are indeed benevolent.”
 
Rudd didn’t know how to reply.
 
The Chancellor worked methodically, calling names from a book his attendant held open beside him.  A scribe busily recorded the proceedings.
 
Rudd had already instructed the Chancellor to release prisoners whose only crime appeared to be upsetting the Lord High Steward: mostly merchants who’d refused to pay an extra fee to protect their shops from Terryn’s collectors, men who defended their wives or daughters from Terryn’s attention, and tradesmen who came to town with wagons of merchandise who were arrested for minor charges but whose auction of confiscated goods could not pay the “judicial fee” Terryn imposed.
 
Llewellyn rushed across the courtyard.  He knelt in front of Rudd.  “Your highness, one of the High Lord Steward’s servants has left the castle surely to tell his master of what you are doing here.  Terryn will not wait until the morning to return with the King.  He could be back before nightfall.”
 
The sun almost touched the western courtyard wall.  If Terryn returned early, Rudd only had a couple hours to finish with the prisoners.
 
“We will have to work harder,” said Rudd, but there were not enough squires to tend to all the prisoners in time.  It had taken too long to find the Master of the Locks and to bring the prisoners outdoors.  Many were too weak to walk on their own and were carried.
 
“If I might, my liege,” said Llewellyn, “some members of the court have asked if they could offer their aid.  Not everyone approves of how the Lord High Steward conducts himself.  They say that he abuses his position as King’s regent.”
 
“Well, yes.  If they would like to help, certainly.”
 
Soon, a dozen lords and ladies joined the squires, mostly directing their attendants in the work, but a couple actually carried water, food or fresh clothing to the prisoners.  A richly dressed lady brought Rudd a pitcher of wine and a pewter mug.  “My King, if I might serve you, it would be an honor.”  She carried herself as the highest of the aristocracy.  If Rudd would have met her on the road or at an inn, he would not have dared to speak to her.
 
Rudd wondered if someone she knew was among the prisoners.  More than one were minor court officials or low nobles.
 
Heads appeared at the windows that overlooked the courtyard.  Rudd recognized scullery maids and pages, footmen and stable boys.  Some smiled shyly when he caught their eyes, but many bowed their heads.
 
Soon, the sun shadow crossed the courtyard.  A majority of the prisoners were gone, new clothes on their backs, food in their bellies, and silver coin in their pockets.  The Lord Chancellor had grown hoarse from discussing cases with the prisoners and their advocates.  Broken quills lay scattered on the floor beneath the scribe, and his fingers were ink blackened.
 
Trumpets at the gates announced the arrival of Lord High Steward Terryn.  Rudd stiffened.  He could flee, but no place would be safe.  If ever there was a candidate for the instruments of torture in the dungeon, he knew he was it. 
 
First, the High Steward’s private guards entered the courtyard, swords swinging from their hips.  Then the Lord High Steward himself.  The length of the courtyard was not enough to hide the King’s Regent’s rage.  He started shouting at twenty paces. “What vandalism have you committed here? I commanded you not to make policy, you peasant!  Only the king can pardon prisoners, the real king, and until he assumes the entirety of his duties, those decisions come from me.”  He spat the last words.  Terryn spotted the Captain of the Guard, who was carrying an armful of filthy clothes to be burned.  “Imprison this usurper immediately, and send men on the road to find the prisoners he has released.”
 
The Captain put his hand on his sword.  Rudd closed his eyes.  If he was going to die now, this seemed to be an honorable way to go.  Still, the day had been a good one.  Prisoners came to him before they left, some crying, all grateful.  They swore their allegiance.  They praised his mercifulness.  God would smile on him and his family for all of his days, they said. 
 
Rudd would remember those words.  He only hoped that Terryn’s vengeance would not extend to his family.
 
Silence stretched.  Rudd opened his eyes.  The Captain of the Guard had not moved.  Terryn looked to him and then to Rudd, his mouth quivering in fury.  Terryn snarled, “I will do it then!”  He took a step forward.  Quicker than Rudd would have believed possible, the Captain of the Guard’s sword point rested on the Lord High Steward’s chest.  Terryn’s guards started forward, but a hundred knights stepped from the shadows all around.
 
The Captain of the Guard said, “What would you have me do, my King?”
 
Rudd cleared his throat.  The Captain of the Guard held the sword steady, but he looked to the young man.  “What would you suggest?”
 
The Captain said, “Threatening the King is high treason.  He should be put into the dungeon to await trial.”
 
Terryn’s face paled.  “He is not King.  The King will return in the morning, and I am his Regent.  I am . . .”
 
“Not the King?” said the Captain.  “Of course he is.”
 
Rudd took a deep breath.  “Even if he is released tomorrow, he should get a taste of lower rooms.  Don’t mistreat him.”
 
Two knights stepped forward to take the sputtering official away.  Between them, Terryn seemed much smaller, not nearly as frightening. 
 
Sir Llewellyn took his place beside Rudd.  “Well done, Sire.  If the Chancellor can work uninterrupted, I believe he can finish the last of the cases before we lose the light altogether.”
 
Rudd slept well in the King’s bed, although he missed the sounds of his family around him.  No snoring from his brothers.  No squealing from the pigs in the pen behind his house.  As he drifted to sleep, he imagined Terryn chained to a wall like so many others he’d condemned.
 
Sir Llewellyn woke Rudd.  “The King is arriving, Sire.  He wishes your presence in the throne room.”
 
Like yesterday, a butler tried to dress him, but Rudd sent him from the room.  There were only so many indignities he was willing to suffer.
 
In the throne room, the child king stood on the dais beside the high seat.  The Chancellor and Captain of the Guard waited to the side.  Knights lined the walls.  No lords or ladies were present, though, and Rudd’s boots clicked heavily as he advanced.
 
Up close, the King looked his ten years, but he wore the crown and robe comfortably.  He studied Rudd as he advanced.
 
Rudd knelt.
 
The King moved down a step on the dais to be more on Rudd’s level. 
 
“You may look up,” said the King.
 
All in all, thought Rudd, his life had not been poorly spent.  He loved the smell of fresh cut hay in the fall.  When apples fell from the boughs and cider bubbled in the pots, he sighed with contentment.  Faylinn, from Ashbey beyond the mill had held his hand.  They’d danced. And he’d been King for a day.  Rudd wondered how many people had stood on the parapets, the ocean to their backs, high above the valley, and knew that it was all for them to command, even if the time was short.
 
The young sovereign met Rudd’s gaze.  He might be a child, thought Rudd, but a child like none he’d ever known.
 
Finally the King spoke.  “You released prisoners from the dungeon, and arrested the Lord High Steward?  You placed the Lord High Steward in chains?”
 
Rudd nodded.
 
The King sat on the step.  “I wished I’d thought of that.”
 
“What?” said Rudd.
 
“Brilliant,” said the King.  “Just brilliant.  He scared the hell out of me.”



©July, 2017 James Van Pelt

James Van Pelt is a former teacher turned professional writer. His work has appeared in many places, including Realms of FantasyAdventures in Sword & SorceryAsimov’s, Daily Science Fiction, and previously in Swords & Sorcery Magazine . His most recent novel, Pandora's Gun, came out in 2015. 
​​]]>
<![CDATA["Fish Out of Water!" by Anna Cates]]>Wed, 30 Aug 2017 20:27:34 GMThttp://swordsandsorcerymagazine.com/archive/fish-out-of-water-by-anna-cates“You’re the sleaziest bucket of fish guts I’ve ever seen.”
 
“Gee, thanks.” Inchel laughed. “I didn’t realize I looked that good.”
 
The elf boy’s ashy skin peeped through holes in fishnet stockings cladding his bony thighs beneath leather shorts. He ambled awkwardly in his chunky-heeled girly boots. A red silk scarf draped his neck, dangling across his naked chest. Stringy brown hair reached his shoulder blades. Together, they paced south beneath the wind-tossed canopy, leaving a patchwork of light and shadow on the path dividing woods and grassland.    

 “I’ll go with you as far as the crossroads. But that’s it.”

“I can’t believe you’re going to go fuck a bird when you could have me.” Inchel touched his chest.

“I don’t have the gold for you.” Breena grinned at her own sarcasm.

Inchel shook his head. “Alas, alas. An old king of crows it shall be.”

“Thunderbirds are not crows.”

“Am I one of your clan that I should reverence them?”

“What would your father say if he knew what you were up to?”

“He can’t judge. That’s how he met my mother.”

“Your mother!” Breena gasped.

“I knew him before he became a saint.”

As the heat of the day approached, they arrived at the crossroads, falcons soaring in the sky above. Inchel blotted the perspiration from his chest with the red scarf, eying the heavens. “Spies.” He shook his head. “Never trust a bird.” His dark eyes met hers. “Are you sure you won’t accompany me to Bordertown? Check out the new brothel? Make a bit of gold? Forget your idle errand with that filthy buzzard?
 
Breena huffed, her hands fisted. “A brothel? You are the only soul from the Crystal Lake bent on prostituting yourself, and you’re not going to drag the whole world into the gutter with you, least of all, not me.” She paused, her heartbeat thudding in her ears. “Good luck with the folly you’ve chosen. In time I expect you’ll regret you decided not to be a humble fisherman like your father.”
 
Breena marched off the road into the prairie, heading toward the cliffs. Why did rebellious boys always force her to sound so prim? What a pain.
 
“Witch!” Inchel called after her, but she ignored him, her senses full of the ominous black rock leering ahead. How would she ever manage to climb it?
 
Breena reached the shadow of the cliff, her soft leather boots passing from wild grasses onto pebbled ground, littered with fallen rock from the heights above. There, in between two small boulders, she left her sword and canteen, after drinking a generous swig. She didn’t need any extra weight for the long climb upward, as difficult and dangerous as it would be. She doubted she could fly were she to lose her grip and fall halfway up. She’d need more time to transition.
 
Breena forced her fingers into two large cracks in the cold stone then found a protruding slab for her first step. Finally, up she went. If she couldn’t make it to the thunderbirds for summer mating, none in her clan could. Of her generation, she alone retained the gift of shape-shifting. She alone could mate with King Kronos, birth his long pink eggs, and replenish her clan’s declining bird blood to preserve their magic powers. If she failed, they’d become like any other lake-dwelling elven guild. Simple, irreverent fishers like Inchel and his folk. A people dwindling into obscurity, plundered and ravished by displaced Ystacrashian barbarian hoards.
 
Fissure after fissure, chock after chock, Breena ascended the black cliffs, ferreting out wedge after wedge with aching fingers. Half way up the climb, she peered down. Big mistake! She swooned, pressing her body against the stone, half in sunshine, half in shadow. Don’t look down. Just keep going. Climb. Climb . . .
 
She lifted her boot, feeling for the next foothold then using her burning thigh muscles to force her trembling body skyward. She passed patches of weeds. Trickling water. Bird droppings. In places, her grip faltered at crumbling rock and dust spills.
 
Finally, she came to a small crevice just big enough for her to crouch inside and rest. She knelt on the meager floor, catching her breath, her wiry muscles tremulous. She peered down at the impossible distance. Then she lifted her gaze to the countryside. Beyond wind-tossed fields of wildflowers, vivid with yellow butterflies, the forest loomed. A diversity of tree tops, broadleaf to evergreen, caught the sunshine and the attention of birds. Orioles and coots, red-shouldered hawk and white ibis, cat-owls and qua-birds fanned their wings and sang. From somewhere in the canopy, campfire smoke trailed up then dispersed into breezes. The Big River glinted with sunlight, spilling across endless miles. To the north, jagged snow-capped mountain peaks stretched into cloud. To the south, Border Town’s yellow brick castle glimmered in the sun.
 
Rested at last, Breena crept from the crevice and resumed her climb, feeding her feet and fingers every advantage she could find. Wind played with her black hair, whipping it into her eyes and caking it against her lips. Why didn’t I braid my hair? She wondered. 
 
She’d nearly reached the top when a strong gust of wind swept over her, nearly knocking her from her post. Goddess! Breena huddled against the rock with numb fingertips.
 
Finally, she reached the crest: miles of flat rock before the Forbidden Forest. She hoisted herself over the cliff till she lay on her belly on the sun-warmed stone.
 
Soon she was on her feet again. She tossed her hair over her shoulders then paced forward, hunting for matted grasses woven into depressions in the rock.
 
The shaman’s warning reverberated in her mind: Avoid nests with eggs or shells. The bird king’s consorts built those. Don’t expect them to like you. You’re their rival and a threat to their chicks. Look for a clean nest without shell bits or baby bird feather fluff. . .
 
The shaman’s withered face and puffy eyes appeared in her mind. Shun the big brown thunderbirds, the king’s consorts. They will attack you. Look for the smaller giant with red feathers . . . the shaman had smiled . . . Let him seduce you.
 
Screech!
 
The shadow swooped down with a twinkle of sunlight. Breena ducked, narrowly missing being knocked off her feet. A small tear at the shoulder of her leather shirt testified to the shadow’s talons. She touched the trickle of blood. A minor wound, but the assailant wasn’t finished yet.
 
The matriarch fowl glided into the heavens, circled, then swung back. Breena removed the sling from her belt and a rock from her pocket. As the brown behemoth veered toward her, she drew back her arm and aimed. The rock was unlikely to kill the magic bird but would allow Breena to assert her prerogative.
 
Ping! The rock whizzed into the air, meeting its target with a splash of feathers.
 
Screech! The bird retreated skyward.
 
Breena stumbled back, nearly tripping over an empty nest hidden behind blue elderberry bushes, a healthy staple for chicks.
 
Breena ran over the rock, passing nests filled with bits of broken shells and downy feathers. Where would the king bird reside?
 
Her gaze rose to a ledge of rock on a precipice. An ideal spot for a grand roost. Testing her hunch, Breena hastened forward.
 
She arrived at the nest just as the sun was setting. A single flaming feather betrayed the owner of the perch.
 
Breena sighed with relief, heart thudding. She’d made it. A stream of water near the nest trickled down the mountain. She washed her hands and scratched shoulder then drank her fill before eating a light supper of elderberries. Finally, darkness falling, she curled into the nest and fell asleep.
 
The king bird arrived early in the night in a whorl of warm wind. Beneath a full moon and stars, he loomed over her, fanning his feathers. His golden eyes gleamed.
 
Goddess! Breena gasped. The king bird’s beauty and grace stirred something deep within her. Her body tingled. It seemed everything in her life had been leading up to that moment. She discreetly pried off her boots. She unfastened the ties of her leather shirt and slipped out of the garment. Finally, she removed her pants till she lay before him naked.
 
He moved closer, wings fanning. She closed her eyes, breathing deeply, feeding her senses the bird king’s animal musk. He lowered himself over her. The beak nipped lightly at her skin, but she didn’t turn aside. She took him in. She joined with him, becoming one with his flesh, merging with his ilk.
 
Breena’s mind soared into stars and clouds, thunder and rain. She rasped, moving fluidly with his rhythms. She felt her own wings forming as his body waxed manlike. Feathers became chest hair, wings muscular arms. Fingers. Phallus.
 
“You are mine,” he spoke in her mind.
 
A thunderclap ripped through the sky, but the showers moved quickly over them, heading across the forest and river. The giant wings wrapped around her, shielding her, loving her. . .
 
She awoke late the next morning, still warm, curled on her side in a nook of the nest, her clothing draped over her like a blanket, her boots placed neatly together on the other side of the nest as if a housekeeper had been keeping the roost tidy. Breena smiled, lifting her arms to stretch. She placed her palm on her belly. Soon long pink eggs would bud within her.
 
She dressed then drank more water and ate more berries. Then she braided her hair and set off in the direction from whence she’d come, this time avoiding the brown birds’ nests.
 
Early afternoon, Breena arrived at the spot on the cliffs where she’d first ascended. She peered over the precipice. Did she dare?
 
Breena grinned. She removed all her clothing then tossed it in a bundle over the edge of the crags. Then she rose to her feet and dived into the air like a swimmer plunging into water.
 
Screech!
 
Her body burst into feathers and wings. She soared through the air, the wind against her, then glided down to the pebbly ground below.
 
She dressed again in the shadow of the mountain, retrieved her sword and canteen from behind the boulders, then made her way back to the field, heading for the road beyond.
 
Breena stepped onto the empty highway then turned north, walking briskly toward the Crystal Lake and her people. Yet she hadn’t trod far when she spotted another traveler ahead on the road. Something in the gait seemed familiar.
 
“Hey Inchel, that you? Wait up!”
 
The elf boy stopped, peering back over his shoulder.
 
Breena jogged forward, reaching his side. “Funny we should run into each other again,” she said, catching her breath.
 
Inchel didn’t reply, his face somber, but only resumed his slow march north. In fact, he limped a little. A chunky heel on his girly boots was loose and about to fall off. His fishnet stockings were in shreds, an eye blackened, the red silk scarf missing.
 
“How was the brothel?”
 
Inchel paused momentarily. “I figure, all it takes to be a fisherman is baiting a hook and then just sitting there.”
 
Breena laughed. “That bad, huh?” 


© July 2017 Anna Cates

Anna Cates  lives in Ohio with her two beautiful kitties and is unafraid of lightning.  She has been published in Abyss & ApexVisual AdjectivesLong Short Story, the Internet Review of Science Fiction, and other journals and anthologies.  She holds an M.F.A. in creative writing and teaches English and education online. Her full-length collections of poems and speculative fiction are available at Cyberwit.net:  http://www.cyberwit.net/authors/anna-cates.]]>
<![CDATA["Every Midnight" by Sandra Unerman]]>Mon, 31 Jul 2017 16:08:25 GMThttp://swordsandsorcerymagazine.com/archive/every-midnight-by-sandra-unermanThe scream frightened everyone in the Duke’s Grand Chamber, even though we expected it. Just before midnight, the musicians began to play at their fastest, so that the circles of dancers spun wildly about. The rattle of dice and the knock of glasses at the side tables grew hastier and louder. But the scream cut through all the noise. It made dancers falter and stumble, broke lute strings and cracked glasses. Gamblers clutched their hearts, dowagers blinked away tears and small children broke into sobs of panic.
 
I was not the only student mage in the room. The New Year Feast given by the Duke of the Low Barlands has been a part of the court calendar since before the death of the old king. The great aristocratic families come every year, with plenty of master mages as well as students among them. I am only a second cousin of the Earl of the West March and no longer a part of his household. But I had been unable to resist when I had been invited to join them tonight by Crispin, the Earl’s youngest son. Crispin is my friend, not my lover, no matter what anybody says. He keeps me up to date with court gossip and I was as curious as the rest of the city about the trouble here.
 
The scream had first been heard three months ago. Every night, at midnight, it reached into all the rooms of Barland House. It soured the milk and cracked the eggs in the kitchen; it drove dogs to howl and cats to flee. The Duke himself had led the searches for its origin, out into the grounds for traces of some unknown terror bird, indoors from the attics to the cellars. He had sent men onto the roofs and down into the sewers. When nothing had been found, he sought help from the King’s Mage and other masters. Between them, they should have been able to trace any kind of magical attack but they discovered nothing.
 
Duke Tancred and Duchess Roswitha  refused to be driven from their home. They maintained their usual life as best they could, though Crispin said they and their household appeared to age another ten years every month. Tonight, at least, their friends and enemies and court were all here to support them.
 
Not the King’s Mage, though. On New Year’s Eve, by tradition, he is shut in his tower with the King, to study signs and portents for the coming year and to take thought for the welfare of the realm. I have no wish to come to the attention of the King’s Mage, so maybe my tongue ran more freely in his absence. Or maybe I would have spoken up anyhow, in my surprise.
 
‘That’s not an attack. It’s a cry for help.’ My voice rang out in the small silence of relief that the scream had ended.  Heads turned towards me and Duke Tancred himself stood up in his place at the High Table.
 
‘How can you tell?’
 
‘I recognise that anger,’ was all I could say. ‘When you are forced to beg for help and you despair of an answer.’
 
He frowned as he walked towards me. Likewise, I could feel Crispin’s frown at my side and no doubt his parents wore the same expression, away at their own table. When did you feel such anger, they wanted to ask and why didn’t you tell us about it? Luckily, the Duke cared more about a different question.
 
‘Could you find out where the noise comes from?’
 
‘I don’t know,’ I said. My powers of magic are no match for those of the Master Mages. On the other hand, what if they had been searching for the wrong thing?
           
Duke Tancred was so close now I could not avoid his gaze.
 
‘Maid Linnet, isn’t it?’ he said, to my surprise. I’d never spoken to him before and I could not think how I had come to his attention. He is close in age to Crispin’s father and they are rivals at court. Maybe the Duke keeps an eye on the Earl’s children in consequence but I would not have expected that to include me.
 
‘You’ve noticed something nobody else has,’ he said, after my bow of acknowledgement. He is a strong man, not tall but burly, and not used to refusals. ‘Let’s see what more you can achieve.’
 
‘I should not have spoken,’ I said. I wished I had turned down Crispin’s invitation.
 
The Duke looked away and spoke more gently. ‘If you had to live here, you would understand how desperate we are. Try what you can do. Even if you accomplish nothing, I will be grateful and so will the Duchess.’
 
Duchess Roswitha stood halfway down the room, in mid-circuit among her guests.‘Tancred, you’re frightening the child,’ she said and smiled at me. I felt Crispin bristle at my side but he had the sense to say nothing. And Duke Tancred just stared at me, his face heavy and sad. I thought of the ordeal his people endured every might and my reluctance seemed like vanity.
 
‘Very well,’ I said. ‘I’ll see what I can do.’
.
 

I stood halfway up the grand staircase and listened. The crowd had tried to come with me but the Duke understood my need to work alone. He had herded his guests back to the dance and was now on watch in the hall below me. The Duchess had stayed inside to preside over the banquet. Nobody else was out here except Crispin, down on the bottom stair, just in case, he said and I had not argued.
 
The mages would have searched for hostile magic of all kinds. I could not match them in spells of power. But because my magery is weak, I have learned to look for what might be overlooked and to ask for help when I need it. As I opened up my mage senses, I heard more and more in my mind from all through the house. The servants in the kitchens talked to each other about sugar subtleties and horse races tomorrow, while they thought about their aching backs and leftovers for super. The ladies’ maids drowsed as they waited upstairs and dreamed of jewelled hats or brave lovers. And I could sense other dreams too small for me to decipher, dreams of warmth and hunger from mice, maybe, or even spiders.
 
Somewhere hidden away was a knot of darkness, a clench of pain so intense I could not recognise its nature.
 
‘What’s wrong?’ I said aloud, in the language mages learn, the language understood by everything except humans. ‘Who are you that cries so loud for help?’
 
The pain tightened and twisted but did not show me an answer.
 
‘Are you trapped?’ I did not know where to search. ‘Can you help me find you?’
 
I felt the struggle as something tried to break through a net of spells. The spells gripped tighter than ever but the struggle brought them into the open, where my mage sight could see them. Black ropes coated with fear ran along the stairs, across the floor and up to the ceiling, radiating out like a spider’s web. I needed to find what was in the centre of the trap before I tried to break it.
 
‘Wait here.’ I glanced back at Crispin and the Duke.
 
I took hold of the nearest rope. It stung my hand but I did not let go. I could not push my way inside but so long as I kept hold, I could feel which way to move. I sang, not to the spell ropes, which would not hear me but to my own blood and skin.
 
‘Stay cold, stay quiet,’ I sang. ‘Remember the touch of snow on the way here, the ice in the wash basin this morning, the rime on the stone pillars outside.
 
A window cracked on the stair landing and a gust of snow swept in to cling round my face and arm. I had not intended that but it comforted my grip on the spell rope. I headed upwards as fast as I could.
 
I ran up too many stairs to count, along passages and through doors, into chambers I had not time to observe. Nothing stopped me until I reached a small room, hardly more than a cupboard, where the tangle of spell ropes was so thick I could not enter. I could not see much inside as they writhed and thrashed around, more like a nest of snakes now than a spider’s web. But I caught glimpses of something like a human face, its eyes wide with despair.
 
I rubbed my sore hand and looked round, magewise, for something that might help me. There were no windows here and everything in the room was woven into the spell. The attack came before I was ready. Loose ends flailed out from the tangle and cut at my face. I flinched but I was afraid this little room would hide itself again if I backed away. I shielded my eyes with my hands and began another song, a lullaby to soothe whatever ingredients were in the spell and weaken its onset.
 
I failed. The loose ropes beat at me harder than ever. One snaked round my waist, so I dropped my hands to push it away. Another reached for my throat but recoiled when a long dagger struck past my ear and cut into it. Crispin was there beside me, his dagger wet, his voice raised in a chant of destruction.
 
Crispin’s often been told he has potential as a mage, if only he would apply himself. This once, he had thought fast enough to follow me and to use his own blood to give his dagger power. Of course, he had not carried a sword to the banquet, I was amazed and thankful to see him, as well as jealous that his downright attack should succeed where my subtle approach had not. But those feelings were swallowed up by alarm as he pushed onwards. He wielded his dagger in great strokes and strode into the heart of the tangle.
 
The spell ropes dropped away from the touch of the dagger and then swept back to cut at Crispin’s belly and at me, when I tried to follow him. I wore no knife with my festival gown but I took a long pin from my headdress and pricked my finger to smear it with blood. As a miniature spear, it gained me a little space but not enough. I joined Crispin’s chant and so did the creature inside the spell, as its wild keening shadowed our voices. But between us, we only roused the spell to greater turbulence.
 
We needed reinforcements. I shut my eyes and tried to remember which mages I had seen at the banquet. A plea for help might be effective at this distance if I could direct it at someone who knew me. But I’m not sure I would have reached anybody in time, if help had not already been on its way. A single word dropped into the hurly burly and the spell broke. The ropes vanished into nothing and silence rang out over us.
 
Duke Tancred and Duchess Roswitha were in the room behind us, together with Crispin’s parents. For a moment, I stared in puzzlement. The Earl and Countess had no magic, I knew, and if the Duke was a mage, why had he kept his practice of the art a secret for so long? Then I saw the Duchess’s face with the look of command fading out of it. She had been the one to destroy the spell. She must be one of those women who gave up the practice of magic, or at least the public profession of it, when she married. Her face showed other feelings too, but I had not time to read them, before I turned back inside.
 
Crispin sat on the floor, with bruises and bloody welts on his body as well as in his spirit. But he did not look badly hurt. Behind him stood a creature in the shape of a woman, so thin she was no more than a bony frame for a most enormous belly. No human would have had her greenish skin or teeth as luminescent and pointed. But the belly meant the same as it would have for a woman. I could see the babe inside her, though its spirit was in a deep stupor. And she had screamed every night for three months.
 
‘What happened to you?’ I whispered, though I knew the answer.
 
‘The child is bound inside me.’ She had the voice of a water spirit, deeper and more various than a human’s and strong, despite her suffering. ‘I should have given birth the night I came here but the child was locked into me before I was locked into this place. Now I can move but not the babe.’
 
‘Another spell to find.’ I was more tired than I could remember but that was nothing compared with what she endured. I glanced behind me. ‘Should we send for a Master Mage?’ I asked. It was meant as a polite way of asking the Duchess for help. But the stranger clutched my arm.
 
‘You must be the mage.’ She sounded desperate enough to drown us all if I did not agree. ‘Nobody but you.’
 
I dared not look at the Duchess. ‘What may we call you?’
 
‘Aifur, river daughter.’
 
‘Sit down, Aifur and help me search.’
 
I sat down on the floor and she folded herself down, joint by joint. She would have lost her balance if Crispin had not reached out to steady her. She was not used to her condition, to the need for deliberate movement, even after all this time. and as she moved, she watched me, her eyes unblinking. She had not much hope but she would be patient with me for a while, because of what I had done so far. She did not offer to tell me who had set the binding spells and I did not want to ask. I would be bound to lose an open battle against such a mage. Even if I survived, Aifur and her child might not.
 
I looked round the room which had been her prison. I expected to find myself in a bare attic or cupboard. But this was richly appointed, with stars painted on the ceiling and fine wood on the floor. The marquetry panels on the walls were pictures of flowers and fruit. A desk and a chair stood to one side and two painted chests on the other.
 
I looked back at Aifur. To hold her so tightly when the other spell had broken, this one must be made of more than magical ropes. I spoke words to bring into the open anything hidden in the room. Nothing happened. I felt the textures of the different woods, the silks and woollens in the chest, the leather of shoes and the cold metals made into buttons. Nothing there had been disturbed by the touch of malice.
 
‘It must be nearby, to hold you so tight,’ I said and reached out to feel her gown.
 
‘Every touch hurts me here, out of my own element,’ she said but she did not move away.
 
The gown was little more than a sleeveless sack, made of a shadowy cloth, paper thin but supple and soft. The edges were ragged. I could sense no harm there.
 
Aifur had no shoes, no belt or rings. But her hair was a wave of darkness kept in place by comb, pins and ribbons.
 
‘May I unbind your hair,’ I asked and her answer was a sigh of despair. All the same, she leaned back to let me work.
 
Her tresses were long and heavy. As they dropped through my hands, pebbles spilled out of them, reed stalks, strands of weed and dead insects. And no harm that I could sense in any of it. Because I did not know what else to do, I ran my fingers through her loose hair, combing out the tangles as gently as I could. And in the nape of her neck, I found a knot I could not untie, a small plait tight to her skin, hard and cold. My mage sight would not reach into it.
 
‘The spell is made of your own hair,’ I said. ‘With something else hidden inside. Here.’
 
Aifur reached back to touch the plait and her fingers tightened as though to tear it from her head.
 
‘Don’t,’ I said. ‘You might do worse damage that way. We need to untie it.’
 
‘How?’
 
I dropped my hand and tried to think. ‘It’s your hair,’ I said again. ‘Help me speak to it.’
 
‘She must have handled me in my sleep.’ Aifur’s voice was cold. ‘Twisted and pulled and tied his hair with mine, when I meant to be free of him.’
 
‘Don’t speak with anger,’ I said. ‘Think of your ease once the knots are unravelled, of the caresses of the wind and the water when you can shake loose every hair.
 
‘Deep in my stream,’ Aifur murmured. She began to sing, in words I could not understand, a wavery, gurgly song, full of danger and longing. I sensed a change in her, like the snap of a key in a lock. When I lifted the bulk of her hair, I saw the small plait swirling like water as it untwisted.
 
Aifur groaned and bent forward over her belly. I stumbled to my feet as I realised what was about to happen.
 
From the doorway, the others stared at us, Crispin and his parents, the Duke and the Duchess. Their faces were as stiff as though they had forgotten how to breathe.
 
‘She needs a midwife,’ I said. ‘I don’t know what to do now.’
 
‘I’ll attend to her.’ Crispin’s mother walked past me.
 
‘But -,’ I said. She has given birth six times but never without a gaggle of helpers, I’m sure.
 
‘Husband, fetch me blankets and hot water,’ she said. ‘Linnet, sit down before you fall down. Guard the door if you won’t go away.’
 
 

I don’t remember much about the rest of that night. I must have stayed awake until the child was born because I heard its yell, robust and angry. Other women had arrived by then, sent by the Duke to offer assistance. One of them guided me to a bed in another room and I fell asleep before she could help me undress.
 
In the morning, I was roused early by a summons from the Duke. I had no time to order my thoughts or understand the dread that clogged my heart, before I was hurried downstairs.
 
In Duke Tancred’s private chamber, I found Aifur with the baby in her arms and the Countess by her side. The Duke stood behind a chair where Duchess Roswitha sat and nobody else was present.
 
‘Crispin?’ I asked, before I could stop myself.
 
‘He went home with his father last night,’ his mother said. ‘I waited here for you.’ I heard the warning in her voice, though I was not sure what it was directed at.
 
‘I would have let you rest for longer,’ the Duke said. ‘But the Lady Aifur was urgent to see you.’
 
Aifur walked towards me. Now that she was free of the spell, she had recovered faster than any mortal woman would have done. Her step was light and her face bright, despite the greeny blue tint. Her gaze was fierce as she looked me up and down.
 
‘You rescued me,’ she said. ‘But you are no great lady and not much of a mage, I’m told. How did you do it?’
 
‘Luck, mostly,’ I said. ‘And patience.’
 
‘I hoped for power and riches.’ She frowned. ‘But you’re the one I trust. You must take my son.’
 
She held out the bundle in her arms and I backed away.
 
‘What do you mean?’
 
‘I have been away from my stream for too long, I must set out for home and I cannot take him with me. He is too human to survive underwater.’
 
‘But his father -?’ I broke off as I understood too much.
 
‘That’s why I came here, to give him to his father,’ Aifur kept her eyes on me but I could not help looking at the Duchess. And I nearly ran from the room to get away from her stare back at me. No wonder the mages found no hostile magic here. The Duchess’s spells must be woven all through the house, spells of protection and safekeeping, which she had only twisted a little to trap Aifur. She had broken the spell ropes when I brought them into the open, because she did not want any of the mages at the feast to be summoned to Aifur’s aid..
 
‘I asked to see the Duke and I was met by the Duchess,’ Aifur said. ‘She offered me a place to rest while she sent for her husband. I did not tell her why I had come but she knew.’
 
The Duke seemed smaller than the day before, not diminished but condensed with determination and anger. His mouth worked but he did not speak.
 
‘I saw.’ Duchess Roswitha was the only one of us fashionably dressed that morning. Crispin’s mother and I wore drab borrowed robes over ruined festival gowns and Aifur was in her sack from the night before. The Duchess’s jacket was of close-fitting black velvet, embroidered with pearls. She had rings on her fingers, lace at her neck and a boat-shaped hat, abristle with garnets. Her face was white and sharp as a jewelled dagger and her voice was sharp to match. ‘He has given me no children. Did you expect me to rejoice?’
 
She is younger than the Duke and they have been married for seven years or so. He walked round to face her. ‘You swore you had abandoned your magery. Even when we found her last night, you would not admit what you had done. You would not let her go.’
 
‘I offered to release her, when she came.’ The Duchess glared at him, not at Aifur. ‘She had only to agree to my terms.’
 
‘You offered nothing last night,’ the Duke said. ‘If she’d spoken your name, if I’d summoned the mages to undo your spells, we’d both have been shamed before the whole court.
 
‘She doesn’t trust you any more than I do.’ Roswitha’s smile was scornful. ‘Without this student’s meddling,’ she glanced at me and I shivered, ‘the rest of my spells would have held fast and I would have had another chance to persuade her.’
 
‘She wanted my child,’ Aifur said. ‘And a promise to leave and never return.’
 
The Duke winced and turned to frown at Aifur. ‘I’ll take care of the child.’ He beat out the words like hammer blows. ‘And of you, if you will let me.’
 
Aifur laughed. ‘You ran away from me before. I should have known better than to come to you now.’
 
‘Then let me take my son.’ He took a step towards her but she shook her head and he stopped.
 
‘He needs someone with more strength and wisdom. You’ll find other ways to punish your wife.’
 
She held out her arms to me and I had to take the bundle before it fell between us. The weight made my arms sag and the child’s squirming almost unbalanced me. His eyes were shut and his white face twisted into a scowl. He looked human enough but not peaceful.
 
‘Not me,’ I said. ‘I don’t have much wisdom or strength.’
 
‘But you know how to learn.’ Aifur was already at the door. ‘Keep him safe and you will have the goodwill of me and all my sisters.’
 
‘No,’ I said. ‘Please!’
 
She did not listen. She was out of sight before I could go after her.
 
‘I’ll take him,’ the Duke said.
 
‘Give him to me.’ The Duchess stood up. ‘All these weeks I’ve struggled against that creature. Only once a day, her screams broke through my spells and I could not silence them. But I held her in her suffering until you came. Do you think I’ll let you walk out now with her child?’
 
‘If you don’t, you’ll have to fight the King’s Mage and all the other masters, once they know what you’ve done.’ Crispin’s mother can sound steady and brisk in all sorts of circumstances and I have never been more grateful. She came to stand beside me. ‘‘And every water spirit in the land would bear a grudge against you. Let’s go home, Linnet. We will find a wet-nurse and take counsel about what you should do next.’
 
We left them staring at one another, the Duke and Duchess, with a hard crust of silence settling over them.
 
 

The child rolled to and fro and gurgled, though his eyes were shut tight. At four weeks’ old, he was never completely still or quiet, even in the deepest sleep. He had pushed away his blankets as usual. His nurse worried that his skin was never warm bit I hoped that was healthy for a water spirit’s offspring. I had not wanted a child but I was beginning to find this one fascinating.
 
‘What’s his name?’ Crispin stood in the doorway.
 
‘I don’t know.’ This had begun to worry me. ‘I haven’t found the right one ye.’
 
‘You didn’t tell me you had given up your lodgings.’
 
‘I’ve hardly seen you.’ I was staying at Bear Hall, his parents’ house but he had scarcely been home. My lodgings were no place for a child and I would have been more vulnerable there to Duchess Roswitha’s enmity. Crispin ought to have been able to work that out for himself.
 
‘It’s not right.’ He sounded angry. ‘How can you continue your studies like this?’
 
‘I’m leaving the city, as soon as the babe is old enough to travel with a nurse.’ The prospect would once have horrified me but now it cheered me up. I had had enough of the city and its mages. Crispin’s mother had promised me funds, which I was not too proud to take. I was ready t see new places and meet new people.
 
‘You can’t,’ Crispin said. ‘The best teaching mages are all here.’
 
‘So they say in the city. Maybe I’ll prove them wrong. A water spirit’s child will have plenty to teach me, even while he is small.’


©June, 2017 Sandra Unerman

Sandra Unerman is a keen writer and reader of fantasy. She has had a number of stories published, including stories in Aurora Wolf and an earlier edition of Swords & Sorcery Magazine. Her fantasy novel, Spellhaven, is due out from Mirror World Publishing later this year.She lives in London, UK and is a member of London Clockhouse Writers.
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<![CDATA["Then Will Die Your Pain" by Tom Crowley]]>Mon, 31 Jul 2017 16:04:59 GMThttp://swordsandsorcerymagazine.com/archive/then-will-die-your-pain-by-tom-crowleySir Garner isn't a proper knight, just as I'm not a proper squire. There are no knights where Garner comes from, but everyone in the company calls him Sir. And of course I’m too old to be a squire. The other mercenaries say to me, "You're gonna die out here, grandpa." They're probably right. I just need to finish my job first, and I'm writing this in case I don't.
    
Sir Garner is properly bandaged now and sound asleep in the tent, so here we go.
    
For my part, I am going to start with when I was passed out in the woods at the west border of Ourqghard. Let’s not get into why I was there.
      
I woke when a boot hit my side. There was the early morning sun filtering through the green and yellow canopy of the woods, and a tall Ourqish man looking down at me. He said, “You live?”
    
It took me a moment to realize what he was asking. I was still bleary from drink, and his accent was thick. After a moment he kicked me again and I said, “I'm alive, yes.” Then I threw up, careful to avoid the Ourq's boots.
    
Many people have never actually seen an Ourq in person, so I'll take a moment to describe this fellow. He was tall, close to seven feet, broad shouldered and muscular. He wore leather armor and had a sword hanging at his side. The distinctive features you always hear about, the green skin and the tusks, were much subtler than you would think. The green was the barest tint, the tusks no more than a broad smile with an under bite.
    
I finished emptying my gut and he helped me to stand. He said, “I am Urmak.”
    
“Konsler.”
    
“You know you are in Ourqghard?”
    
In truth, I knew that I had wandered too close and that, ever shifting as the border is, it was likely that I could end up on the wrong side. I shrugged and said, “I must have lost my way.”
    
He led me then to the Ourq camp that was just beyond the woods. I wondered if it had been there the night before and I had simply failed to notice it, or if this little army had marched up while I was sleeping without waking me. I didn't like the thought of either one, so I didn't ask.
    
I say camp, but as we got to the border of it, I saw that it was more of a mobile city. Hundreds of tents were spread out over the hills, and among the soldiers were a number of unarmored Ourqs, men and women, even children playing. I could smell sweet onions caramelizing over cook fires. Ourqs did not travel with horses or pack animals, and their camp smelled better for it.
    
Urmak said, “Welcome to Gursnuhg.”
    
None of the other Ourqs paid any particular attention to me, and I wondered if they had many prisoners here. That's when I realized that I still had a sword on my back. (Like I said, too much drink the night before.) I said, “Should you take my weapon while I'm here? I don't want your people to feel threatened.”
    
Urmak laughed so hard that he nearly fell over. I kept my sword.
    
He lead me to a tent that was ornamented with feathers of every color. We waited outside it a moment, and I was about to ask what we were waiting for when a voice from inside called, “You may enter.”
    
The old Ourqish woman in the tent introduced herself as Amhyru, and said she was “an elder of Gursnuhg.” She asked me which city I was from and some other things of that nature, and all the while that we spoke I got the impression that she was studying me very carefully. At some point she said, “You have never met an Ourq before today, have you?”
    
I replied, “Not that I know of.” I paused for a moment, trying to decide how much I should tell her. Then I said, “I have been warned about Ourqish magic, but I don't know how much of what I've been told is true. In the border wars, people said that there were Ourqs among us, disguised by sorcery.”
    
Amhyru raised an eyebrow. “Is that what they say? Well, it is not entirely true or false. To take another form is Suman's art, and I do know something about that. But I have never been so good that I could walk among your people and fool them. That would take a great deal of practice, and I doubt that there are many Ourqs capable of such a thing.”
    
There was more conversation that I remember very little of. At the time I thought that it was inconsequential, just chatting about travel and the weather and whatever else. After a time she said, “You undoubtedly want more rest. Urmak will show you to a bed where you can be comfortable.”
    
Urmak and I left Amhyru's tent and he led me to another, smaller one, and said, “This tent will be yours while you are staying with us. Dinner will be at sundown.”
    
I had a number of questions, but didn't know how to ask them, and instead all I said was, “Many thanks.” I went inside, took off my sword and boots, and got comfortable on the cot. I was asleep almost instantly.
 
 

I spent a full month in Gursnuhg, living and traveling with the Ourqs. On days when the camp moved I helped break down and pack the tents. Other days I tried to help with the cooking, but the Ourqs often refused my assistance. I wondered if they were trying to fatten me up to eat me. There were no other prisoners in the camp, and I had no other explanation for why I was so well treated.
    
Beside Urmak and Amyhru, few of the Ourqs spoke anything but their own tongue. But there was one, Tumon, who spoke several languages and was eager to translate things for me. He called himself a "scholar warrior." Whereas his fellow soldiers would loot primarily for weapons, gems, and metals, Tumon always searched first for books. (Sir Garner is the same way; material wealth means very little to him.)
    
When we got together around the campfire at night for dinner, the Ourqs drank and told stories, and Tumon translated for me. I am going to copy out one of the stories here, both because it is one of my favorites and because it will be important later on. When I first heard it, I thought it was simply a folktale.
 
 

Daru was a vain and boastful young Ourq. She insisted that she could do anything better than anyone else, and her parents could not get the idea out of her head, because she was in fact great at many things. She was the fastest in foot races. She grew very tall, and was eventually stronger than all the males in her tribe. She was a skilled fighter with the greataxe, the spear, the javelin, and the blowgun. She was also intelligent, being one of the only members of her tribe to understand both written words and mathematics.
    
When she grew to adulthood, she resolved to challenge the tribe's leader to combat and assume control. Her family and friends pleaded with her not to, but she did not listen to them. She went to the tribe leader, the noble Jaranzu, and challenged him to single combat.
    
Jaranzu said, "I will grant you leadership if you defeat me in a simple game. No blood need be shed." He presented her with a chess board, an ancient strategy game developed by humans.
    
Daru did not know how to play the game. She felt embarrassed and insulted, and she told Jaranzu, "You are simply a weak coward."
    
Jaranzu replied, "And you are a brave warrior. You have your role, and I have mine. I know how to keep our people prosperous and safe. If you wish to know these things, I can teach you."
    
"And if I wish to lead again some day, will you again challenge me to some child's game that I know nothing of? No. I can lead as well as I can fight, and our people have no use for a frail old trickster. Draw your blade." Daru took the heavy axe off her back.
    
Jaranzu shook his head and said, "I will not take up a weapon against you. You only challenge me to combat because you know you will not lose, just like me and my chess board. We are not so different as you think."
    
Daru was briefly overcome by rage. She swung her axe and struck off Jaranzu's head.
    
Daru became the tribe leader after that, as no one wanted to challenge her right to rule.
    
For many months things continued in the tribe as they had been. They traveled with the cycles of the seasons, hunting and foraging, sometimes trading with other Ourq bands. But trading and negotiating did not come easily to Daru, and gradually her once prosperous tribe began to languish. They fought more skirmishes than they had under Jaranzu, and were frequently faced with the threat of war. Daru felt more shame every day. After a year of struggling with leadership, she commanded her people to select a new leader. They did, and Daru disappeared to live the life of a nomad.
    
Daru went to the great desert of the south, and there she sought out the sand dragon Vizoul. When she found him, she bowed before him and told him of all that she had done wrong: of being too prideful, of murdering Jaranzu, and of bringing her people misery. Vizoul listened intently, and then he said, "What do you wish me to do? All these things are in the past, the only place my wings will not take me."
    
Daru said, "I feel that I must be properly punished for all that I have done wrong."
    
"I agree. Jaranzu was a friend of mine, and I am sad to hear that his life was cut short. I could bathe you in flames; it would hurt like nothing you have ever known, and you would die." Vizoul stared into Daru's eyes, considering. "But it would do no good. You are suffering already, but I do not think you have learned your lesson."
    
Daru said, "I think that I am better than I once was, but that I am still not fit to right all my wrongs."
    
"Very well. Do you want me to curse you for penance? I'll warn you only once; this curse will bring you more pain than any dragon fire. It will, however, give you the chance to become the Ourq you wish to be."
    
"I will accept your curse as penance."
    
Vizoul drew himself up to his full height and closed his eyes. Daru could feel the magic shake the ground as he spoke, saying, "First will die your pride. Then will die your pain. Last will die your body. Until then you remain."
    
The dragon lay down then and immediately feel into a deep slumber. Daru wandered out of the dragon's cave and back into the desert.
 
 

There are some slight variations on this story depending on who is telling it, but that is pretty much it. It always ended with the Ourqs arguing over whether or not Daru had completed the first part of her curse yet. I didn’t get the other parts of the story, the parts the elders knew, until much later.
    
Speaking of elders, I eventually brought my concerns about my stay in Ourqghard to Amyhru. I wanted to know what was going on, why I was there, whether I was free to go or not, et cetera. When I confronted her about it, she said, “Do you wish to leave?”
    
I wasn’t sure that I did, but I said yes, because I thought it was my best chance of getting a straight answer.
    
She said, “I might have a job for you. It is still early to tell. Stay with us one more moon, and I will know for certain.”
    
“What sort of job?” I asked.
    
“The kind that must stay secret until I am sure you are the right person for it.”
    
So much for a straight answer. I told her I would stay another month, not knowing for certain whether I had a choice in the matter, and of course not knowing that I would actually be gone from there the next day.
    
I sat at the campfire that night with a number of Ourqs, eating and drinking entirely too much. The others drifted back to their tents as the hours wore on until only Urmak, Tumon, and myself remained, sharing stories and drinking still more. We spent a while then trying to find our tents, getting lost in the camp, tripping over the uneven ground and so forth. Eventually I must have found my bed, because I woke up there the next morning when the war horn sounded.
    
The next part is a disjointed mess in my memory: stumbling out of the tent into the sunlight, the men on horseback charging in, running back for my sword, not finding it, back out into the sunlight that I swear hurt worse than if one of those horses ran me down…
    
A man reached down a hand to me and said, “Climb up!” I knew from the armor that he wore that he was part of the cavalry from Dumard, my home town. I took his arm and he pulled me up onto his horse, and we rode full speed out of Gursnuhg.
    
He said, “Were there other captives?”
    
I said that there were none that I knew of.
    
He responded, “We probably got you out just in time.”
    
I could see then that it was a whole troop of cavalry, all retreating from the Ourq camp together. We regrouped about two miles from Gursnuhg, and they went over their injuries and losses. The men were very proud of having rescued me.
    
I had a short meeting with their commander, a man named Benthor, who asked me about the movements of the Ourq camp. There wasn’t much I could tell him. Ourqghard was an unfamiliar place, and I often didn’t know where we were going when we traveled. He asked me how long I was captive, and seemed surprised when I told him it had been around a month. I should have realized at the time that telling him that would cause trouble for me.
    
Then there was the ride back to Dumard and a little welcome ceremony for the soldiers. There was a feast, at which I had a place of honor, and then finally sleep in my own bed in the little house I had left behind so many weeks ago.
 

 
The battle this morning very nearly ended my life. I am lucky to be here writing, another night with Sir Garner peacefully sleeping just a few feet away.
    
We ambushed the mercenaries from Tierenmard before sunrise. That’s how these wars often go, just mercenary versus mercenary. Before our first volley of arrows launched I could see that they were expecting trouble, and so our surprise attack wasn’t much of a surprise.
    
We had the trees and they had the wide dirt road. Once the arrows were away we wanted to take the fight to them, and Sir Garner was the fastest to charge out. He plunged into their ranks without slowing and I lost sight of him. I charged after, and somehow my horse caught an arrow in the neck. No idea who shot it. I fell, rolled, stood back up, and promptly got knocked over by one of our own men. He said, “Sorry grandpa, didn’t see you there.”
    
After that I managed to keep my feet for a few minutes. Squared off against two opponents who should have been able to take me, but they were impatient to kill me and weren’t using shields, just big two-handed greatswords. I took my time with them and managed to cut them both down. Then there was another one, this time on horseback, who bowled me over before I could get clear of his way.
    
That’s how I remember things going, so I have no idea how I got this big cut across my shoulder and my chest. I didn’t even notice it until we were marching again. Sir Garner was good enough to let me off with light duties for the rest off the day, and he even helped clean and bandage the wound. He said, “No one cleans a wound as well as I do.” I’m inclined to believe him; he has certainly had his fair share of cuts.
    
Garner took down fourteen men. He prefers to behead his opponents like an executioner, as it helps him keep count. He said after, “It is a blessing to die swiftly.”
 
 

Getting back to my story: of course the people of Dumard thought I was an Ourqish shape changer. I couldn’t explain why I had been kept captive so long, and I certainly seemed to be in good condition when I got back. In fact, I came back better than I had left.
    
The people of Dumard didn’t chase me out. Maybe they would have if I had stayed longer. Instead I suffered rumors and whispers, and after that, complete ostracism.
    
There was a bit I left out earlier, about why I had been passed out in the woods at the border of Ourqghard, and I am realizing now that I need to go over it if the rest of this is going to make sense. So here is the part I don’t like to talk about.
    
Before that day that Urmak kicked me awake, I was a younger mercenary, fighting in the skirmishes that were going on between Durmard and Thernton back then. I had a wife, and a son that was just a few months old. The battles brought me out far from my home and family, and I only returned at the end of things, a few weeks after Durmard had been raided.
    
I didn’t recognize my town, and it didn’t recognize me. Many of the buildings were burned hollow. There was wreckage all over, as though a storm had passed through.
    
My wife was gone. No one ever found her body, but there were a lot of bodies that were hard to identify. My son was very ill with a fever. I found him in the care of a local temple, along with countless other children. A priest said to me, “It is a blessing that this child still has you. We didn’t even know his name.” But the fever eventually took him, and I spent a long time trying not to remember his name anyway. So much for blessings.
    
I became something of a drunk after that. I hung around Durmard for a few weeks, and then I started wandering, eventually making my way to Ourqghard, where Urmak found me.
 
 

So I found myself without any friends, and the house I was living in had a fair share of rough memories. There was nothing for me in Durmard. Somewhere out there, someone had a job for me, and my curiosity about it grew until the day I packed up and left town for the final time.
    
You would think that tracking down Gursnuhg wouldn’t be very difficult given its size. But it turns out that there are a number of camps that size moving all over Ourqghard, and I didn’t want to run into the wrong one. Add to that all the raiders and soldiers at odds with the Ourqs.  All told, it took me the better part of two years to find the camp again.
    
Even approaching with a white flag raised, I wasn’t sure I would be able to get in and talk to someone before catching a javelin in my chest, but I made it as far as a group of border guards, and from there it was as simple as telling them that I wanted to speak to Amhyru. 
    
They brought me to the same brightly decorated tent, and Amhyru called for me to enter. The moment she saw me, she said, “There you are. We have some things to go over before you get to work.”
    
From there it was as though I had never left. Mornings were spent traveling, afternoons were spent with Amhyru, and the nights were spent around the campfire Urmak, Tumon, and the others. I did not find out about the job right away. Amhyru insisted on telling me the rest of Daru’s story first, or at least what was known of it. I’ll relate part of it here.
 
 
Daru disappeared for many years. The next time she appears in Ourqish history is when she was rescued from the bog beast. A group of Ourqish warriors stumbled across the monster’s lair, and only after the thing was dead did they realize that the immortal Daru was a captive there.
    
Concerning the bog beast: no one knows exactly what sort of creature this was. It was said to be larger than three Ourqs together, with a slimy brown pelt and two mouths that were always hungry.
    
The bog beast had slain and eaten many Ourqs over the years, but it found a special treat in Daru. The monster would eat her down to bone, but Vizoul’s curse would not let her die, so she would slowly regrow. She was trapped in the cave for years, with the beast devouring her every few days.
    
Daru felt that her pride was diminished, if not gone entirely, but her pain was with her more than ever. It had become unbearable.
    
After being rescued, she sought ought the Ourqish wise man Suman. It took her over a year, but eventually she caught him in a cave in the great northern wood. He was disguised as a badger, being the first of the Ourqs to learn the secret of shape changing, and he stayed in that form, huddled in a corner of the cave.
    
Daru said, "I know it is you, Suman. Face me as an Ourq. I need your help."
    
The badger looked up at her and shook its head from side to side.
    
Daru picked up the badger by its neck and said, "I am not going to beg you, sorcerer."
    
The badger bit and clawed and tore up the flesh of Daru's hand. It drank her blood, coughed it up, and chewed on her more.
    
Daru yawned and said, "Let me know when you have finished, Suman."
    
Eventually the badger slowed, and then it stopped. It looked up at Daru with repentant eyes.
    
"Are you done?"
    
The badger nodded.
    
Daru dropped the creature on the floor, and it grew and warped until an old Ourqish man was lying before her.
    
The old man stood and spit on the ground. He still had blood on his hands and face, and he said, "So you must be the mighty Daru."
    
"Is that what I am called now? Daru the mighty?"
    
"Not truly. You are Daru the foolish and Daru the rash. Daru tribe killer. But then I suppose you'll choke me for that, even if the words are not mine originally."
    
Daru thought it over. "I won't have any more cause to choke you if you share your secret with me."
    
"I do not have any secret."
    
"You can change your form. I want to know how."
    
"There is no secret. You can or you can not, there is nothing to learn."
    
Daru could see that Suman was an accomplished liar, but she had lived the length of three Ourq lives and could see through him. "You are lying to me, and you would be wise not to do so again. You are a wise man, aren't you? I came here to learn the art of shape changing, and I am not going to turn back now."
 

    
Accounts differ as to what exactly happened next, and this brings me to the point of the whole thing. When Amhyru got this far in telling me the story, she said, “Do you know why you are here?”
    
I said, “No. There is something that you want me to do, and I know that it must relate to these stories somehow.”
    
“Let’s think back to when Urmak found you in the woods that day. You wore a sword on your back, and with your manner of dress and your build, I guessed that you had recently been a soldier or mercenary of some sort.”
    
“That’s right.” I thought back to my first conversation with Amhyru. “You didn’t seem interested in that at the time.”
    
“I wasn’t going to bring it up. You had also fallen asleep at the border of Ourqghard. You were alone. It appeared that you had been drinking.”
    
I nodded. “Yes, I was in a pitiful state.”
    
“And not entirely by accident.”
    
I did not like where this was going, but I didn’t say anything.
    
“You came to us from Durmard, a city that has seen much fighting in recent years. My guess was that you had lost someone very close to you, maybe several people. In the time you spent with us, it became clear to me that you were too bright to simply end up in Ourqghard by mistake. Urmak found you there because some part of you wanted to die.”
    
This was all difficult to listen to, and I asked her if she had a point.
    
Amhyru said, “There is something very important that I need done, and it cannot be done by an Ourq. It is a job for someone who can get work as a mercenary in lands where Ourqs are not welcome. I need someone who understands deep suffering. You are here that I may beg for your help.”
    
I said, “You needn’t beg. Certainly not after all the hospitality you and your people have shown me. What would you have me do?”
    
“Daru is still trapped in this life, living now in the form of a man from your lands, going from place to place as a warrior. He is beyond the reach of myself and my people.”
    
“I see. You want me to track Daru down in this new form. And then?”
    
“I believe that he has willfully forgotten the curse, and perhaps all of the past. You realize that the older one gets, the easier it becomes to block out painful memories, to pretend that your failures never happened. Daru has had many years to perfect this art.”
    
I nodded. I could only imagine where I would be were I any better at lying to myself.
    
Amhyru continued, “Find him, please. Look after him. And if he has forgotten, you must remind him of the curse. Otherwise, he lives out the rest of forever in an endless cycle of dying and killing.”
    
As you can see, I took the job. It is hard to tell how much Sir Garner remembers. I must be very careful in how I broach the subject, knowing the weight of the pain he carries. Perhaps someday he will remember everything and choose continue the quest to break Vizoul’s curse, or perhaps he will choose to keep living the life of a mercenary. It’s not for me to say. My job is to ensure that he is making that choice consciously, and not simply as the result of self-deception, and if I die before my work is done I hope that this account can revive the old memories.


© June 2017 Tom Crowley

Tom Crowley  lives in Jeffersonville, Indiana with his very supportive partner and very lazy dog. This is his first published fiction. ​]]>
<![CDATA["Glass Houses" by Melanie Smith]]>Fri, 30 Jun 2017 00:28:22 GMThttp://swordsandsorcerymagazine.com/archive/glass-houses-by-melanie-smithThe sun’s light fell and dripped, yolk-like, onto the glass spires and faceted crystal domes of the Second City, pooling in golden puddles on the polished eaves of the great sprawl.  The city stretched from the shallows of the Night Desert in the east to the Bay of Burning Barrels to the south-west, and its insinuation north was only checked by the choke of mountains that all but sealed shut the peninsula.
 
I hadn’t always lived here.  But I had lived here long enough to have found my feet on the sheer and shining streets of the city.  I know where you can get the fairest price for fish, and where the clerics congregate, like rooks come to roost, as the dusk settles in purple waves. Where the pickpockets lurk in the high days.  I can tell you which physicians will half poison you in their attempts to heal your ailments, and then deliver you your bill while you are still retching and puking in their stained-glass cells.  And the secret place in the Commons’ vaults where you can climb a dark stair up into the innards of its dome and look down on the principals and magisters as they cast their secret ballots.  I know, too, the shadows that are reflected in the glass and crystal faces of the houses and the halls and the lords’ high places; and how, when the killing clouds gather overhead and the heavens fizz and whip, the city becomes a dark mirror, a glassy black void that seems to swallow both the heavy air and the lethal shards that fall from it.
 
Captivated by the morning light, an unseen body nudges past me and I am jolted aware in time to see, a short distance ahead, a surge of the city’s citizens congregating on the plaza outside the Glass Deck.  A small unrest tickles at the atmosphere and I draw towards the growing crowd, curious.  A girl I know from the docks wanders into the throng to stand behind me.
 
“What news, Iris?” I ask.  “Surely we are not to expect another suitor for the prince’s hand?”
 
“Not that, Tab,” she replied.  “It’s these unicorns again.  The people are riled; they’ve heard the stories out of Tythburn.”
 
We had all heard the stories that had made their slow drift south from Tythburn: tales of terrible beasts, hugely muscled and murderous, their horns serrated and venomous, that gored and trampled and terrorized that village last winter, turning its frost scrimmed cobbles red with blood and torn flesh.
 
“But they were driven out, Iris,” I returned.  “Tythburn’s dragons destroyed them.”
 
She looked at me steadily.  “There are those that say they have come again.”
 
“Let them come,” I said, turning as the gates of the Glass Deck swung open and a small company advanced out onto the waiting plaza.  “They will find the Second City closed fast against them, and we shall shoot them down from the walls.  What a diversion it shall be, Iris! You will be able to add unicorn fillet to your fish cart.”
 
“Tythburn was closed against them, also,” Iris said softly at my back, “yet many died.”
 
I realized, as the Captain stepped forward to address the masses, that the plaza had filled almost to capacity, and a prickle of unease tracked across my spine, despite the stoutness of my words.  The Captain said some unheard words to her small retinue.
 
“Citizens of the Second City,” she called, her voice bouncing from the sun-streaming glass of the surrounding buildings.  “I understand that you come here in fear.  I am aware of the rumours from Tythburn.  It is true that a herd of wild animals fell on that village last winter and caused a number of deaths.  But I have it on good authority that those animals have been hunted to near extinction.  The recent appearance of a single beast in the foothills – most probably a lone survivor – should not trouble you.”
 
The crowd rumbled and grumbled.
 
The Captain continued: “Think you this, also:  Tythburn is a small settlement, its fortifications comprised of ditches and wooden walls.  The Second City has not fallen before beast, nor raiders from the sea, nor even the crawling filth that springs from the Night Desert, for five centuries or more.  There is nothing to fear.”
 
“We must awaken Kragool!” came a lone voice, rising shrill into the early morning air.  The momentary silence became thick with the focused attention of the gathered people.
 
“Not at this time,” said the Captain. With a curt nod, she turned and stepped back through the gates of the Deck, her guards close behind.  The gates closed on the small group and, almost instantly, the crowd began to drift and wander, losing its coalescence, unravelling to spill into the streets and avenues that radiated, spoke like, from the plaza.  Chattering groups dissolved into the city’s markets and bath houses; bands of men, shaking their heads and murmuring, disappeared into the docks and piers that flanked the bay; children dispersed into the various schools and apprentice yards within the Second’s walls.  I turned to speak to Iris, but she was gone.
 
I hurried across the plaza, realizing I was going to be late for my shift, padding through the city’s slick byways.  The sun continued to rise, throwing sharp spears of light against the crystal and quartz turrets of the palace, the stained glass heights of the Electric Cathedral, and the fluted outcroppings of the guild halls.  My thoughts wandered, as I walked half the length of the Second, and I found myself picking, again, at the scab of memory.  Picking and feeling the raw flesh beneath: early childhood; the blue sands of a place over the sea and beyond the horizon; my mother and I, taken by raiding strangers and brought to these shores; a caged cart; an altercation; our exchange, at Tythburn, for a handful of gold.  Our covered and fly blown journey to the Second City and presentation as a wedding present to the Old Queen.  My mother’s gift paraded as an entertainment at state dinners and for wealthy patrons of the city.  The two deaths that set me free:  that of the Old Queen, and that of my mother.  I have been ‘patriated’ into the Second.  It is my home.  I can barely remember the one before it.  They have watched closely, these years, and think I have not inherited my mother’s ‘talent.’  I have been given a small suite of rooms below the Commons, a modest income, and a master.  I have been well recompensed by the liberal minded queen that now wears the city’s crown.  I have been a good citizen.
 
Breathless, I reached the sanitarium.  I was pulling my tunic over my head before I’d even reached the staff mess, and was on the wards before, I hoped, the master noticed my late coming.  I hoped in vain.
 
“The under ward please,” a clipped voice came from behind me.  I pulled up short.  “And you may spend your midday rest helping Cassius in the laundry.  While thinking on the joys of proper timekeeping.”
 
I dipped my head and hurried away, through the softly illuminated corridors and down a double set of stairs to the dim rooms below the ground.  The usual moans and whimpers floated out of the half-light:  soft sobbing, a giggle that rose in jagged ascensions to a hoarse scream.  I was still tying my apron at the neck as I approached the Under Master, who looked at me with relief.
 
“Five, brought out of the Night Desert at dawn.”
 
“Where have they come from?”
 
“They are too far gone to tell.”  He laid a hand on my shoulder.  “I will return at noon.  The youngest may not be beyond saving.  For the others…give them what comfort you can, Tab.”
 
The Under Master was the only person in the city who knew the truth of me.  Secrets unspool down here, in the dim, among the insane.  They nose out from the dark places to stretch their waxy wings.  For, after all, who would give credence to the ravings of those that find themselves in the under ward?  Few enough are re-united with the upper world again, and the last faces they see are ours, or, more likely, those of the things that have hunted the humanity out of them.
 
As the steps of the Under Master faded on the stairs, I took stock of my newly arrived charges.  Three women and a man, gently bound, raving and drooling, and a young child, no more than maybe two or three years old, lying motionless in a cot and looking into the darkness above him with hollow eyes.  Although I knew myself to be alone, still I glanced behind me before reaching over to lay a hand on the child’s chest.  The other hand I moved so that it hovered just in front of the child’s blank face.  His eyes did not move to meet mine.
 
They did not move even as a white disc appeared in front of my outspread hand, its fuzzy edges spilling a diffuse light onto the babyish curve of his cheek and chin.  The women and the man, seeing the light, yelped and cowered, thrashing their heads so that their eyes were pressed into their sweat soaked pillows and sheets.  I ignored them, instead focusing my attention on the small pitch and heft of the child’s chest.  Gradually, blurred colours appeared on the disc that floated before the boy’s face; colours that pooled and broke apart, reformed and then sharpened so that, wondrously, an image appeared.  A village: scattered dwellings, small and neat.  The edges of the Night Desert a charcoal smudge on the horizon’s lip.  The image moved so that it appeared we were slowly approaching a hut on the outskirts of the hamlet.  The child’s eyelids flickered, once.  Again.  His pupils contracted and found their focus as they fixed on the moving picture in the thin air before him.  He made a gargling noise in his throat and, tentatively, raised a finger to the light.  The picture rippled at his touch, its hues fracturing like disturbed water.
 
A noise on the stair broke my concentration and the disc of light collapsed down to a single bright point and winked out.  The child’s hand instantly dropped back to the cot, and his eyes became fogged and vacant once more.  Simmons, the Under Master’s cat, hissed at me from the steps before slinking into a corner.
 
I swore at the miserable, prying beast, then turned back to the child and, calming my breathing, called the portal into existence once more.  Again the village, again the Night Desert a dark blemish in the distance. A circular hut.  We passed into its interior, beneath a doorway framed with vines blossoming white flowers.  The fragrance puffed out to us in our fetid corner of the under ward, and the child stirred again; something ignited in his eyes and his hand reached up to the hole I had pulled open in the fabric of reality.  He recognized his home.  The picture tracked to a low patchwork-quilted cot in a corner.  Inside, a furry toy, battered and chewed.  The little boy, his chest rising and falling beneath my palm, made a muffled and wordless noise.  Slowly, I lifted my hand from the child’s body and, bearing down with the full force of my will, reached towards the portal.  Where the boy’s touch had rippled the image into a thousand quivering fragments, my own fingers, hand, wrist, went cleanly through the portal, appearing in the interior of the hut before us.  Reaching further, I snagged the toy from the cot and pulled it back into the under ward.  As my hand withdrew, the disc-doorway span instantly closed, and twilight again reclaimed the cell.
 
The boy let his head slump to the side so that he looked up at me where I stood over his bed.  I held the toy out to him and he reached for it, hugging it desperately to his chest and murmuring words to it that I couldn’t understand.  His eyes met mine, and there was clarity there – clarity and remembrance.  Nearly all of the human flotsam we plucked from the shores of the Night Desert never recalled their previous lives, their names, their most basic human urges, again.  But, sometimes, one could be saved.  The little boy began babbling to me, and stood up in the cot, reaching up his arms in an unmistakable gesture.  I lifted him clear of the low wooden bars and, tucking him tight against my hip, made my way back across the under ward.
 
Passing through the dim, I thought of the portals I had opened in the past.  Of the time, just last winter, that I managed to create two simultaneously: one that gave on to Tythburn, and one that opened on…somewhere else.  A place where the sky writhed and twisted in serpentine strands of blue and gold and the earth was a cracked red crust.  Where horned beasts thundered and raged.
 
The child in my arms squirmed and muttered and mouthed at his toy as we climbed the stairs to the upper wards.  I thought of the man in Tythburn who, long ago, had bought my mother and I for a handful of gold.  I thought of the terrible beasts crashing through the huge doors I had opened from one world to another, and how I had cried as they pounded past me and into that frost cobbled village.
 
I know what will happen to me if my actions are discovered.  I know, too, that the unicorns will one day find the Second City.  Find me. I know that they seek me.  Hunt me.  I will be taken to the pit, then, by the people I have lived amongst for so long.  A lethal silence will descend; from the midst of it, a single stone will be thrown that may strike me, hard, on the chest.  And then a rain of stones will fall, but even as I feel the blood flowing from my head and body the mass will surge forwards, crushing and trampling.  And then Kragool, released to save the city, will be in the sky above me, and I will feel the touch of his molten fire falling on me, melting my flesh to red slag and I will know, in my last moments, cold triumph.



©May, 2017 Melanie Smith

Melanie Smith lives and writes from Gloucestershire, England. Her story "The Locked Door" appeared in The Flash Fiction Press. Her story “Smoke Out” appeared in Swords & Sorcery Magazine in December 2016.
​​]]>
<![CDATA["A Woman of Means" by James Edward O'Brien]]>Fri, 30 Jun 2017 00:23:09 GMThttp://swordsandsorcerymagazine.com/archive/a-woman-of-means-by-james-edward-obrien"No one's broken into the athenaeum and made it out breathing. Nobody. Besides, those days are behind me," he explained. "Bad knees."
 
The woman rolled an amethyst monocle between her fingers. She plugged the incandescent lens in her eye and studied the pictograms adorning Shanley's forearms.
 
"You look like a woman of means," he said. "Why not just waltz up to the registrar and put in for a library card like every other hedge wizard with the scratch to scrape together?"
 
"There's some bad blood between me and the coven," she explained.
 
Her staring made him self-conscious. He pulled the sleeves of his tunic taut.
 
"Why me?" he asked. "Any hack from the dirty tricks brigade could get the job done for a hell of a lot cheaper." He jabbed at the stack of bank notes on the table. "It's not like you're lacking for funds."
 
"You know as well as I do that any organization in this town employing members of your...profession...the reputable ones at least...are under the coven's boot."
 
Shanley nodded. He sipped the tepid tea he'd spiked with rotgut.
 
"Anyway, I don't need you to get inside the library," she clarified. "That'd be suicide. Even for someone half your age and twice your talent. It's the bindery I'm interested in."
 
"The bindery?" Shanley peered out from the dark alcove where he'd squandered the morning waiting for her to arrive. The joint was still empty.
 
"Paranoid?" she asked.
 
"Just careful," he replied.
 
"You see, the athenaeum's high profile," she explained. "The bindery on the other hand––the coven has no need to safeguard a sweatshop that churns out marital manuals and psalm books.
 
He was vexed. "What's your stake in marital manuals?"
 
"It's a front," she explained. His prospective employer was on the wrong side of plain: beady, close-set eyes and an unruly nest of hair that cascaded past her beer belly.
 
"For what?"
 
"Grimoires."
 
"You mean those ledgers conjurors lug around?"
 
"Aye. Books of great power. The bindery's got an exclusive contract with the coven. All below board, of course."
 
Shanley nodded. Took another sip of tea.
 
"The bookbinder's a notorious tightwad. He underpays street urchins to handle all the fastening and binding. The only muscle in his employ is his coachman. They make their deliveries once a fortnight, leaving the place unattended."
 
"Seems straightforward enough," said Shanley. "Anything else I should know?"
 
"Not at the moment."
 
He made for the stack of notes. She clutched his forearm. Her cold talons traced the pictographs adorning them. The ink appeared to recoil at her touch––like some timid animal.
 
"They're quite...unique," she said. "Where did you acquire them?"
 
"Work camp. Ba-a-ad mojo," he drawled.
 
She ignored him as if she already knew the answer.
 
"A botched job up north bought me seven years' time. Not much else to do except sleep, scrap, and fear when you're locked away that long. The ink still itches when I think too hard on it."
 
Shanley was anxious to change the subject anyway. "I still don't get it, though––why me?"
 
"You wear no scabbard, no shiv in your bootstrap––none I detected anyways. A cutpurse without cutlery. I find it...poetic."
 
A chill ran down Shanley's spine. "You should be careful of that," he warned her. "Like the bard said, there isn't any money in poetry."
 
He scooped up her bank notes and headed for the door.
 
 
 
 
Shanley cased the bindery down Tannery Row.
 
He was getting too old for this. There was no shaking the cold from his bones. He was virtually night-blind. Backache. Toothache. He couldn't back out now, though. He'd squandered his advance.
 
He pulled his woolen cowl snug over his head. Stomped his feet to get some feeling back into his toes. There was nobody in sight except the rats and the odd john with a painted lady in tow.
 
He feigned a fall in front of the bindery's wrought iron gates. Tried the latch. Locked.
 
The towering sweatshops on either side of the street stamped out any moonlight. He hid amongst a cover of shadow across the way, beating a moccasin against the curb periodically to frighten off encroaching vermin.
 
He drifted in and out of sleep until a commotion from beyond the bindery gates caught his attention. A crescendo of tired hooves. Wagon wheels groaned against cobble. His tattoos started to itch.
 
Shanley spotted a burly coachman leading an emaciated gelding through the gates. Rumor had it the bookbinder bought his pack animals right off the slaughterhouse floor prior to working them to death and then using their hides for glue and calf binding.
 
A fellow Shanley took for the tight bastard himself sat perched atop the wagon. He wore a scowl that jutted out from below the wide-brimmed hat that hid the rest of his face. The coachman surveyed the desolate street up-and-down before securing the gate. He took his spot beside the boss. He urged the horse onward with a crack of the whip.
 
Shanley held his breath and watched as the two men and their payload of psalm books were swallowed by the night. Shanley brushed himself off and headed toward the gates. He dug through the satchel slung across his chest. He unearthed a moleskin sleeve of picks. Dentistry tools.
 
There were days, beached far off in his memory, when a padlock held as much mystery for him as the secret parts beneath a maiden's pinafore. He felt haunted by the feeling of living in the husk of old passions. The older he got, the more mechanized, drunken, and forced everything became. Like some ill-conceived pantomime.
 
He jabbed the keyhole with a twist of wire, but his fingers were too shaky and frostbitten to coax that satisfying click from the lock. The demonic yowl of a cat in heat sent Shanley darting for the shadows, leaving the pick––and his nerve––abandoned among the cobbles and rubbish of Tannery Row.
 
He blew into his balled-up fists to warm them. He checked, and then double-checked, to ensure the coast was clear before sliding the second pick from its sleeve and returning to the task at hand.
 
He eased the pick into the keyhole, caressing the sliver of tightly coiled steel as if handling an icicle. He shut his eyes tight. He didn't need to see shit; this was about feeling. This was second nature to him. Once upon a time. He could feel the tension of the padlock's internal mechanism through the shaft of the pick. He could feel the accursed thing start to give.
 
He felt the lock jam as the pick caught in the rusty mechanism. He jiggled the pick gently, but the damn thing wouldn't budge.
 
He swore up a storm, and yanked. The pick broke off in the lock. He mopped cold sweat from his brow. Cursed. He assaulted the lock with a barrage of kicks. The outburst only managed to rile up a pack of rats. They swept across the road in a wave of chattering teeth and naked tails.
 
Shanley cased the block once more to ensure he hadn't drawn the attention of any passersby. Once he affirmed that the coast was clear, he hooked his swollen fingers through the intricate welded contours in the gate and hoisted himself upward. Nothing came easy these days.
 
Arms and shoulders burned as he struggled to clear the blasted thing. There was a time when he could scale a fence with the best of them. It was as if the world spoke a different language since he'd gotten out of the pen. A language made alien by the passage of time, one that left his entire body tongue-tied.
 
He was almost to the top when his hands lost hold on the freezing iron bars. He plummeted downward.
 
His forearms felt as if they'd been manacled. He figured his ticker was finally giving out. But then, suddenly, the inscriptions carved across his skin erupted like a nest of snakes. Ink-blue tendrils lashed forth from his wrists, coiling and tightening around the sweat-slickened bars. Bad mojo could sometimes work wonders.
 
His heart was still beating; he could hear it pounding in his head. Shanley flailed around for a moment before he managed to wedge the toes of his moccasins between the gaps in the wrought iron posts, allowing his leg muscles to pick up the slack for his upper body.
 
He swung a leg over the gate, trying his damnedest not to impale himself on the pikes protruding from the top. When he was a younger, slimmer man, such endeavors were effortless. Nowadays he settled for the rare morning when he was able to roll out his hammock without his knees locking up.
 
'All that hard living had to land somewhere eventually,' he reckoned as cold, wrought iron bit into his beer belly.
 
He hadn't taken this job solely for the money––he made enough to scrape by running scams down the docks. Whatever it was that the woman who'd taken him on wanted those grimoires for, he'd caught a glimpse of himself in her reflection.
 
It was evident she'd been bumped around enough that things really mattered to her. A failing eye, a forehead etched with worry lines, wiry shocks of silver sprouting from dusky curls––the day-in, day-out of existing had worn her down masterfully. Polished her like a diamond. Or perhaps it was just whimsy on his part.
 
Until Shanley had served his time in that headshrinkers' pen, the sheer excitement of unrealized potential had had such narcotic allure to him that the brunt of his life had slipped away without him ever actualizing a hell of a lot. Right now, crouched teetering atop that wrought iron gate, he felt like he was on the top of the world.
 
Maybe, just maybe, this job would change things. That's why he bothered getting up in the morning––wasn't it? He flexed his hands to stretch out his forearms. He'd torn a sleeve on one of the pikes. The brands beneath were as they always were: an irksome cargo carried from days he'd rather forget.
 
The man who'd put them there was a hedge wizard interned for participating in some brand of below-board chicanery unsanctioned by the powers that be. There was no denying that the bastard had a few screws loose.
 
After all those hours Shanley spent under the needle, the old coot had never even bothered to learn his name. He'd always just called Shanley courier.
 
Shanley leapt from the gate. Something caught him midair. A short, sharp jerk sent a wave of pins-and-needles through his arm.
 
His satchel had snagged on a fencepost. The cartilage in his shoulder thrummed as he worked the bag from under his armpit. He crumbled to the pavement.
 
It took a minute or two of leapfrogging and flailing around to disentangle the strap from atop the gate, after which Shanley proceeded toward the low-lying building ahead. He crept around back.
 
He bashed in the brittle shutters of a double hung window with his moccasin. The bindery was pitch black. The air was stale. The dryness stung at his sinuses. He fumbled blind, barreling over an entire pallet of ill placed volumes before having the wherewithal to strike a match. Between the pallets and the wide, cross-barred doors, he figured it was some sort of loading dock where bound books were stored prior to being shipped aboard the wagon.
 
He rifled through the mess he'd made. Nothing more than marital manuals transcribed on cheap pasteboard stock bound for the hungry literates among the most devout––and deviant––of the city's population.
 
Beyond the loading dock was an antechamber with barely enough room to fit the rickety desk and stained cot contained within. The floor was strewn with layer upon layer of brittle scrap paper sheaves. The papers created a ruckus underfoot tantamount to trudging through an autumnal forest. Shanley fired the hooded lantern atop the desk. Matches had begun to make him edgy; one stray ember and the joint would become an inferno.
 
 
 
 
Benches stretched the length of the bindery floor. The wavering light illuminated presses for cutting and laying books, racks of brass tools, gluepots, thread spools, clamps and vices––but still nothing to show in the sorcery department. The faint tang of urine awakened his senses; a stack of roughhewn, tanned leather amidst all the clutter.
 
Binding. The cheap stuff wouldn't do for some conjurer's cookbook. Grimoires demanded durability; they needed to travel well and last a lifetime––sometimes several lifetimes. The bookbinder left the cheap stuff for dirty books and church choirs. Shanley figured he might be onto something.
 
He padded the room like a caged beast, upsetting crates as he went, but all he unearthed were psalm books of shoddy pasteboard. He threw open the crossbar on the back door and stormed out.
 
Think, Shanley, think. For all he knew, tonight's shipment might have been bound for the athenaeum. Or his employer's info might have just been flat out wrong. Either way, the harpy wouldn't be too thrilled to have to sit on this for another fortnight.
 
The hooded lantern threw honey brown light across the lot, revealing a modest stable built in the footprint of an old storehouse, long reduced to ash.
 
The smell of the place was stifling. It appeared as though the horse's bedding hadn't been raked or changed, nor had the dung been shoveled, in recent memory. One abandoned stall held troughs of urine in which broad strips of horsehide soaked so as to more easily remove the hair from the skin.
 
'Poor beast,' lamented Shanley. 'To be housed in such a lonely place...assaulted by the stench, the very flavor, of one's own demise. To think that so many fear death's release when life can offer such cold comforts...'
 
Commotion from the rafters: a riffling of bats' wings, maybe barn owls. There was no telling; shadow snuffed out the light as it climbed toward the gables.
 
Curtains––ill cut from thick, cracked hides––divided the rear of the stables from the stalls: a slackened clothesline burdened with blacksmith aprons. Bits and bridles hung from pegs in the tack room beyond. Knives arranged in neat rows atop a blood-lacquered butcher's block––skinning knives, well oiled and whetted. The sole articles untouched by neglect. Tattered leather shackles screwed into the tabletop. And in the corner, a footlocker.
 
 
 
 
Shanley pried the footlocker open with a broad-bladed skinning knife. It unsettled the critters among the rafters. Wings thrashed and stirred the air high up in the eaves.
 
The trunk was stuffed with cheesecloth. Bound manuscripts shrouded in cheesecloth. Shanley undressed the first tome. Gilded leather. Two lidded eyelets marred the elaborate cover, providing a glimpse of the alien calligraphy scrawled across the page beneath.
 
Shanley felt the heat of a gaze upon him. The weight of judgment. He'd sworn off burglary one time too many and his conscience was getting the best of him. He shoved the book into his satchel and proceeded to unwrap the next one.
 
After this job, he'd go straight for sure––with the queen's ransom the harpy was doling out for these funny books it might stick this time, too. If the pen taught him anything, it was that the worst prisons aren't necessarily the ones that keep you shuttered away under lock and key, but the ones that make you think you're free. He'd known shrewd footpads reduced to indentured servitude over a loan on some collapsing country chateau they were too busy working to ever visit, and dandies–– rogues much more dashing than himself––who burned holes in their pockets buying the latest fineries and colognes just to have a stab at a quick hump. Shanley had yet to encounter a beast so fierce as the brand of "freedom" plied by the civilized classes.
 
He'd keep it simple and invest in a woodcutting ax and a crossbow and exit stage left. Maybe find a feral dog to keep him company. Disappear. If all else failed, there was always the cloistered life. That left the conundrum of which god or goddess to choose as his patron: so many to choose from, so few differences between each sect. He reckoned he'd select the order with the prettiest nuns.
 
It was then that he noticed the second grimoire smiling up at him. A macabre crescent carved across the face of the grimoire. The way the lantern light played against the cover made his skin crawl. Fleshy, trembling lips stitched up with fishing wire, longing to sing or scream.
 
He tossed the book in his satchel. There was one last manuscript at the bottom of the trunk. A dog-eared sheaf of papers bound with boot string.
 
He reached for it. As he did, the footlocker slammed down on his arm.
 
Shanley pried and pulled. He managed to flay a good part of his wrist in the process. He felt like a stray lamb caught in a jackal's jaws. The pain was dizzying. He patted down the trunk with his free hand, fingers fumbling for a release––some hidden lever or kill switch––but found nothing.
 
He grabbed a plane off the butcher's block. He tried to wedge the tool between the lid and the trunk to force the chest open. His attempts seemed only to make things worse.
 
Numbness prickled through his trapped appendage. But then, just as Shanley's deadened fingers loosed their grasp on the manuscript, the lid went slack.
 
'Some low-grade ward tied to that half-finished grimoire in there,' he figured.
 
As he pulled his dead arm free, the etchings across his skin bled down through his knuckles. In one fluid gesture, an inky rigor sprouted from his fingertips: spectral talons that crept across the bottom of the locker and snatched the manuscript just as the lid bit back down with a mercurial ferocity that ground the planer into splinters and crooked metal.
 
The phantasmagoric claw––both his, and somehow not his––deposited the sheaf into the satchel. Shanley mopped the cold sweat from his brow and set to massaging the feeling back into the wounded arm. The gangling fingers dissolved into the flickering shadow as color hemorrhaged back into the pictographs adorning Shanley's forearm.
 
He thumbed through the sheaf. It could've cost him an arm. The first page was blank, as was the second, and every damn page that followed. As his fingers brushed against the pages, his forearm pulsed, as if the empty manuscript sought to drink up the ink etched into his skin. He buckled the satchel. It was time to go.
 
 
 
 
Timpani of beating wings rattled the rafters. Shanley seized the lantern.
 
As he parted the hides draped across the backmost stalls, he realized what had evaded him during his single-minded hunt for the grimoires––what his mind had hidden from his eyes. A nightmare had been rubbing elbows with the commonplace, hidden in plain sight. Elbows, hands, and feet hung slack like wet stockings.
 
It wasn't curing calfskin or blacksmiths' aprons that burdened that clothesline. Only two skins. Human skins. Flensed of fat and muscle. Deboned. Faceless.
 
Shrill, simian chatter erupted from the eaves as a parliament of night creatures swept down from the rafters. Fangs snagged his cowl. Hooked thumbs ensnared his satchel. The mad rhythm of their wings stirred the air like some devil's drum.
 
Shanley shielded his face in the crook of his arm, swinging the dying lamp against the descending cloud. The light extinguished within, transforming the stable into a blackened hive of incandescent, amethyst eyes––all seething hatred, all fixed upon him.
 
The lantern exploded in one last blind swing that cut through the murder of winged vermin around him. He spotted phosphorescent fractures where starlight managed to slip through gaps in the stable door. He was almost home free, but the creatures' assault was unrelenting.
 
Shanley dropped to hands and knees, crawling through manure and piss-sodden hay. The odd spots where Shanley's flesh was exposed wept from where he'd been rushed with teeth and talons. The etchings adorning his forearms swelled in ebon waves, enshrouding him in an ink-black canopy that kept the rabid creatures at bay.
 
He inched across the brittle-boned carcass of one of the fallen things. Mottled membrane stretched across a broken wingspan. It made Shanley's spit curdle.
 
He pummeled the double doors. They shuddered open. A torrent of silver starlight bled through the gap, sending the avian bat-things packing for the shadows.
 
The fresh air stung his nostrils. He set the crossbar across the doors. He heard a horse's whicker.
 
 
 
 
The man he presumed to be the coachman stunk of onions and possessed the strength of an ogre. Shanley could feel the man's dank breath against the back of his cowl as he attempted to wriggle free of the bastard's bear hug. Shanley threw back a heel to try to land a shot in the coachman's crotch. His resistance only strengthened his captor's resolve.
 
The bookbinder, on the other hand, was as shrewd with his speech as he reputedly was with his money. He dug the gunk from under his ink-stained nails with an awl, eyeballing the trespasser without a word. His wide-brimmed patchwork hat kept his face veiled in shadow.
 
"Best let me go," wheezed Shanley. "Let bygones be bygones."
 
The binder shook his head, 'No.'
 
Shanley struggled to draw another breath. He thought his ribs might just buckle under the coachman's iron grip.
 
"Call the constabulary, then," rasped Shanley. "They'll be just as interested with what's in your barn as they will with what's in my bag."
 
The bookbinder circled him. Shanley squinted to get a clearer look beneath the brim, but it was just too dark. "You confuse me," hissed the binder, "with your courier's bag and fool's tongue."
 
Shanley spit. It just dribbled down his chin. The bookbinder took the intent of the gesture at face value, though, and gored the top of Shanley's hand with the awl.
 
The binder pushed up the burglar's tunic sleeve with the awl's bloodied edge. "You've a courier's arms, though––and quite a payload to deliver upon the world." He traced the brands across Shanley's forearms with the bloody awl.
 
"Look..." began Shanley, but he had nothing to barter with. He reckoned they'd take back what he'd taken from them and more.
 
Something riled the gelding. A wild-haired woman sauntered out from behind the oxcart. Starlight shone blue off the well-oiled sickle in her hand.
 
"I figured you might need some help."
 
He knew that voice: a woman of means––the one who'd hired him to glom the grimoires in the first place.
 
He'd have to shave a good amount off his fee if she got him out of this fix, but it sure as hell beat whatever these goons had in store for him.
 
The woman approached, each step punctuated by a choreographed swipe of her blade––more showmanship than swordsmanship––but enough to frighten off the bookbinder.
 
The coachman loosened his grip on Shanley. With a sly shirk and an elbow to the coachman's gut, Shanley dropped the brute and slithered free. As he wound back his leg to visit a taste of his size nines upon the crumbled coachman, he felt cold steel at his throat. He froze mid-kick.
 
"Enough," warned the woman.
 
With her sickle poised at his neck, Shanley noticed something aglow in her free hand: mauve, luminous, coin sized.
 
"No need to make this messier than it needs to be." She rolled the violet token between her fingers and cast it at the bookbinder.
 
"We were only going to break him in for you," he apologized. He caught the amethyst eyepiece midair.
 
"He's our courier," she scolded. "Take a proper look at his arms."
 
The bookbinder knocked back the brim of his hat and plugged his eye with the monocle.
 
Shanley's heart sank as the coachman's sinewy arm locked around his neck.
 
 
 
 
Shanley was slumped on a rickety milk crate. His hands had been shackled to the butcher's block at the rear of the stable. A single candle dripped wax upon the blank manuscript that'd been laid out before him. The arms of his tunic had been cut to the elbows.
 
An eerie mewling from the rafters competed with the bickering trio who flanked him. The bookbinder hovered above Shanley, studying the blurred pictograms riddling his arms through the monocle.
 
"You mean to say he's managed to harness their power?" he asked.
 
"Given a pennywhistle, even a deaf man can eek out a tune every so often," the woman explained.
 
The coachman jabbed his finger toward the eaves. "Shut those blasted things up!" he barked at the woman.
 
"They're nocturnal," she snapped. "The light flusters them."
 
"I'll burn this blasted place down with them in it if you don't rein them in," he threatened.
 
The bookbinder shot his henchman a disapproving glare. "The courier awakens," he announced.
 
Both parties ignored him. The woman parted the slack, human canvases draped between the stalls, cast her eyes upward, and cooed. Wings stirred the air. Five pairs of them. Dung-brown and velveteen.
 
Crippled things with embryonic faces: features pruned halfway between hatred and disapproval, their skin the pallor of an old bruise. No bigger than sparrows. Where the woman's wild hair fell at her shoulders, the creatures nested, hissing at the candlelight as if it was some alien intruder.
 
Shanley struggled against his shackles, horrified. He'd never set eyes on such things. "What in the goddess's grimace..."
 
The coachman quieted Shanley with a swift crack to the mouth.
 
"Orphans," he snarled, unable to mask his disdain for the mewling things. "Keepsakes from one of your employer's...forays into...other spheres."
 
The coachman spit at the woman's feet. A hive of angry eyes lit up her witching mane.
 
"Blasted demonologists," he muttered.
 
"Let's get on with this," ordered the bookbinder.
 
The woman rifled through her deep-pocketed caftan. She shoved something in Shanley's hand. A tobacco pouch swollen with coins.
 
"Is this a joke?" croaked the cutpurse.
 
"The balance owed you," she explained. "All debts are paid."
 
He brushed the pouch onto the floor. The woman leaned over the butcher's block. Her orphans shrieked as she drew closer to the candlelight.
 
But one brave orphan bumbled downward. On broken bats' wings, it dragged itself across the tabletop toward the manuscript. It gnawed at the boot string that bound the blank pages, the creature's skin almost translucent this close to the flickering flame.
 
Its amethyst eyes deadened as it finished eating through the twine, as if some unseen force was beckoning the impossibility back to its impossible sphere––as if it had been conjured for a solitary purpose, and when its work was finished, it shriveled and drifted off like parchment tossed on a campfire.
 
Captive and captors watched in amazement. The woman was the first to break the silence. She slid the unbound manuscript across the length of the butcher's block, working the pages beneath Shanley's palms.
 
Paper cuts. The pages of a grimoire cut even deeper. The wards across Shanley's arms sputtered in league with the dying candle. His knuckles blackened as the ink again pooled beneath his skin, traveling downward––and out––through his fingers.
 
The blank pages drank up ink, eliciting silent screams from their host. Blurred pictograms and time-faded alphabets skittered across the parchment beneath Shanley's palms, fighting for space on the page.
 
He could feel his consciousness creep outside the narrow frame of reason. His very self fray around the edges. The blank book drank until it was blank no more.
 
This rite somehow severed the rode to his anchor. Myriad things he'd never fully understood. Things he'd taken for granted. A payload unburdened. It left him light and empty at the same time, like the melancholy that marks the end of a volatile love affair. He felt as if a grater had been taken to his arms and the wounds then steeped in citrus, but his skin bore no signs of anything.
 
The bookbinder hovered behind him, examining the freshly filled pages through the amethyst lens. The pages flitted and turned on their own. He rested a gnarled hand on Shanley's slack shoulder. "That's quite a tale you had to tell. Quite a story indeed."
 
"Please," muttered Shanley, too spent to eek out much of anything else. He rolled his head toward the woman, wild eyes staring straight through her. Sight drawn to the curtains slung from stall to stall, those gruesome drapes of human hide.
 
"Please," he muttered. One last time.
 
There'd been a detail he'd neglected. The human skins. The dead had windows carved into their husks. Edges the candlelight played upon. Rectangular portholes: each one the size of an open book.
 
 
 
 
The orphans' simian chatter––the dissonant madness it invoked––coaxed the bookbinder's hand toward the hilt that stuck out from the drape of the woman's caftan. Shanley wagered the sickle weighed twice as much as the blasted bookbinder.
 
He snatched the woman's weapon. There was a flash of honeyed steel right before he cut down his coachman with one impossible, arcing chop.
 
"We could've just blinded him as we did the others," suggested the woman, too late.
 
"Blinding leaves tongues and tales to be told," he dismissed. "Besides, the next one I hire needn't eat so much. Do you know what it cost me to keep the brute fed?"
 
"Too much, no doubt." She reached for the tobacco pouch Shanley had knocked to the ground.
 
As she knelt down, a quartet of amethyst-eyed orphans sprang from the ropy snarls of her hair. They fluttered across the room to swarm the coachman.
 
The first duo settled on the dying man's chest. They lapped at the crimson font of his cloven shoulder. The other two flitted around his head, mewling like hungry kittens as his chest heaved beneath the strain of breathing.
 
Those two tangled midair, clawing and screeching, until one shied away and the victor burrowed its angry, bald pate between the coachman's blistered lips, just as his lungs loosed their last death rattle. Shanley would've emptied his bowels if he'd plied himself with anything more than rotgut the past two nights.
 
The woman plucked a silver obol from the tobacco pouch and began to explain. "You see? It's not blood they're after...it's not his breath stinking of onions my orphans are so drawn to...it's a moment they so crave...one fading moment, the poor beasts...when the darkness snuffs out life's light, that's what slakes their thirst. Light flusters them, you know."
 
She forced the coin into Shanley's mouth. He was too cotton mouthed to spit the damned thing out. "Fare," she explained. "For the ferryman who taxis you over to the other side. It's an old wives' tale, I know. An old superstition..."
 
The bitter tang of metal assaulted his taste buds. He lolled his tongue but the coin refused to fall. The woman walked over to the coachman and dislodged her sickle from the dead man's shoulder. It took several tries. The jolt sent her orphans scurrying.
 
"But sometimes old habits are hard to break."
 
She raised the curved, bloodied blade. Shanley cinched his eyes tight and held his breath.
 
 
 
 
He came to in a ditch. It wasn't the first time. The last thing Shanley recalled was holding his breath. He'd forgotten to breath, and the rest of him seemed fine with that.
 
He rolled his tongue. His mouth was bone dry. The coin was gone. His skin felt taut, as if he'd lain naked in the sun far too long. But a root cellar chill gnawed deep at his bones. He opened his eyes to a murky, star-pocked sky.
 
He sat up. Every inch of him groaned like an old wooden rocking horse. He jostled something that'd been placed across his chest––that madwoman's tobacco pouch brimming with crumbled bank notes. Her debt to him paid in full.
 
He crooked his neck to look around––nothing but fields and ditches and road. His neck crunched like a celery stalk being split in two. They must have dumped him far outside town. He clawed his way out of the trench for a better perspective. He felt as if he was moving through quicksand; the world in its heaviness strove to wheedle his naked forearms back down into the ground.
 
Lye dusted the shivering grass. They'd tossed him in a plot of upturned earth among countless others that dotted the old potter's field.
 
Images danced in the peripherals of his vision, the sorts of things that time slowly bleeds from a land––the battlefield dead, herds ridden into the brink of extinction, glaciers reimagining the lay of the land. He rubbed his eyes to find empty sockets.
 
He hugged himself tight, first noticing the rust red blossoms that spotted the front of his tunic. He worked the tunic over his head. The skin beneath had been flensed from his ribcage to the hang of his belly. The area had been wrapped in gauze solely to keep his insides from spilling.
 
The wounds themselves would've killed him twice over if he hadn't been dead already. He'd forgotten to breathe because there was no longer any need for it.
 
He'd have mourned his own passing if the crows hadn't picked his eyes clean. It was a peculiar feeling, or lack thereof––one he had grown accustomed to in life. Existing between breaths, existence little more than one giant pause in the conversation.
 
To see the world as it truly was, devoid of the trickeries light plays against the retina, awakened him with the jolt of a glacial bath. He remembered now.
 
The ferryman had refused his fare. Death dealt in absolutes; there was no crossing over when a chunk of what you'd become littered the pages of some hedge wizard's handbook.
 
Shanley felt tethered to that grimoire, drawn by a pull as cruel as nostalgia: both lost in, and indifferent to, space and time. He could hear the rhythm of orphans' wings resounding from another plane, driving him forward like a corps of drums, amethyst eyes burning hotly in judgment.
 
There was work to be done. A wizard needed haunting. A chapter yearned to be closed.


© May 2017 James Edward O'Brien

James Edward O'Brieen's speculative fiction has appeared in Phantaxis and Hybrid Moments: A Literary Tribute to The Misfits, with stories forthcoming in Tales to Terrify and Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show.]]>
<![CDATA["Witch Hunter" by Dale T. Phillips]]>Wed, 31 May 2017 10:18:31 GMThttp://swordsandsorcerymagazine.com/archive/witch-hunter-by-dale-t-phillipsThe drinking room at the inn was quiet that night, Teeann thought. She noticed the man on the far side of the room, sitting alone at an alcove table. Something about him made her look again. He had a serious expression, unlike most of the other drinkers, who seemed to be out for a typical night of ale.
 
She caught Greta's eye and pointed her chin in the direction of the man. "Who's that?"
 
Greta glanced over. "Good luck with that one. Didn't say much."
 
"I'll try anyway."
 
Teeann wiped her hands on a cloth and took a tankard of ale with her. She took a roundabout route, looking in at other tables, but steadily advancing on the stranger. When she stood before the alcove, she held up the tankard.
 
"Another ale, good sir?"
 
"Not just yet. In a little while, perhaps."
 
She set the ale on the table behind her and turned back to him. "A man of moderation. And yet I see you have a long sword." Her smile was dazzling, inviting.
 
The man glanced to his right, at his sheathed weapon propped against the wall. Then his brows knit together, before a light shone in his eyes. He chuckled, understanding her enticement.  "Are all barmaids so bold here?"
 
Teeann shrugged, somehow still making it a suggestive motion. "A woman has to make a living in these hard times."
 
"Well, lovely as you are, I will not require services of that nature tonight."
 
"As you wish, milord. If you are not here for pleasure, might you be about business this fine evening?"
 
The man stared at her. "I see your boldness continues."
 
"Beg pardon, milord, I meant no offense. I meant only to converse pleasantly. We do not get many strangers in these parts, and it does get wearisome talking to the farmers about the health of their pigs."
 
He chuckled again. Using his foot, he pushed out the extra chair. "I suppose you'd better sit down, then, attract less attention."
 
"Thank you, kind sir. It does get tiring, being on one's feet all day." She liked that he didn't make the usual crude joke about being on one's back all night, the way most men did. No, there was something different and dangerous about this one. Still, he was a man, so she leaned forward, further accentuating her charms, and put her arms on the table, giving him all her attention. This flattered most men, and gave her the advantage.
 
"What is your name, inquisitive one?" His tone was not unfriendly.
 
"Teeann, and it please you, sir. And what might you be called?"
 
"You can call me Malleus."
 
She thought she did an excellent job of hiding her shock, though the blood in her veins chilled like lake water in winter. She even managed to keep her voice level as she spoke. "That's a different sort of name."
 
"More like a title, really."
 
"Are you a great lord, then?"
 
"My title means Hammer, and I am the Hammer of Witches. But you know that, though you cover it quite well. I am but a humble servant of the King, as we all are. I seek to root out evil in our land."
 
"There is evil abroad? Should I be afraid, then?"
 
"That depends."
 
"You know how to frighten a simple barmaid."
 
He took a firm hold of her wrist, but not in a harsh way. His touch was powerful, and she felt a strength course through their connection. "Simple barmaids have naught to fear from me, though you are far from that."
 
"Many women go to their deaths from a mere accusation."
 
He released her wrist and sat back. "I do not punish innocent villagers who stand unjustly indicted of witchcraft because of the spoiling of their neighbors’ milk. Nor do I pursue midwives and potion-makers who provide relief to the townsfolk. I hunt only the ones who work to the genuine harm of others. Yes, there are places where the ignorant accuse women because of superstition and fear, but that is not my office. You and I both know that there are those of your kind who use their powers in evil ways, and that leaves a trace. When I find evidence of that, then I strike."
 
Teeann looked into his eyes and saw that he was telling the truth. He had as good as stated that he knew she was a witch, and yet he sat before her as calmly as if he had ordered another ale. She should have been terrified, but she was strangely trusting of this man, despite the threat he posed. As most men were simple, she could see into their hearts, but this one was unlike any other she had met.
 
She cleared her throat. "I know of no evil here. Have you news?"
 
"I am to meet a man tonight who is to give me proof of evil come to our land. If your sisters are not aware of this, that tells me there is great danger, and I must act fast."
 
She nodded. "Do you want my help?"
 
He thought it over. "It depends on how much you trust me, and how much you are trusted among those of your kind."
 
She narrowed her eyes.
 
He went on. "I would seek an audience with the head of your order."
 
She coughed. "And you called me bold."
 
He laughed. "Yes, who would think it? But you see me, a man alone, willing to meet with one who could have my life, though I could have taken this town with a troop of soldiers, and tortured the truth out of women to find her. That is not my way, for that is as evil as that which I punish. But I fear what may be coming is a greater evil."
 
Teeann had sat back. The man had a haunted look. "I fear our King, out of his hatred for your kind, has done something terrible, perhaps even called upon the Dark Ones. He told me I would soon have a powerful weapon that would destroy all your folk, although he would not say more. If he knew I was even speaking of this to one such as yourself, he would have my head."
 
Teeann considered. "I could convey a message. But I do not think it will come to pass."
 
"Show her this, then, and see if she will meet." Malleus drew forth an object and placed it in her hand. It was a broken piece of iron, with strange symbols upon the surface.
 
"What is it?"
 
"I know not for certain, only of what it portends. She will know more. It is likely worth both of our lives."
 
"I will speak for you, but I am young, and have no voice or power."
 
"You would be doing a great service. It would not be forgotten. Tell her I know what horrible death I would suffer should I betray your trust. I have seen several such."
 
Further discourse was interrupted by the front tavern door suddenly swinging wide, and the cries of a large man. "Murder! Foul murder! Raise the alarm!"
 
Teeann gave a startled glance at the man across from her, who now wore a grim expression. He rose and reached for his sword. "We may already be too late."
 
All who were indoors streamed out into the night. By torchlight, the yard of the inn showed a wagon with a body stretched out in the back. The wagoner addressed the crowd. "I found him on the Konigsberg road, not far from here. I was late returning from market. Had to fix a sprung wheel. There he was, lying in the road. His horse was gone."
 
A voice called from the throng. "How do you know he had a horse, if it was gone?"
 
Malleus strode to the front and examined the body. He answered for the wagoner. "He's wearing riding breeches spattered in mud. He had ridden hard."
 
A man held up a torch to better see the face of Malleus. "And who might you be, stranger?"
 
"I am the Hammer of Witches. I bear the King's seal." The gasp in the crowd was audible, but Malleus spoke over the din. "This crime is under my authority now. Everyone get back. I'll need to see the magister."
 
"That is me," said the man with the torch. The muttering throng, which had been eager to crowd around the mark of a violent death, moved back, afraid of even the mention of witches.
 
Malleus spoke to the magister when they had room. "You see the knife in his back? I am going to remove it and examine it." Malleus took a cloth and tugged the blade free from the body. He eyed the knife in the light of the torch, and quickly looked into the magister's frightened eyes. "Not a word. I forbid you to say it. Do not frighten them further."
 
The magister's mouth was tight, but he nodded. Malleus wrapped the knife and stowed it in his pouch. "Help me turn him over."
 
They rolled the body so that the man now lay face up. Malleus turned to the crowd. "I want each of you to come up one by one and tell me if you know this man."
 
Of the dozen present, none claimed to know the dead man, and Malleus had watched their faces closely for any sign of recognition. Malleus spoke to the magister again and sent them back inside, but Teeann lingered at his nod.
 
"What is it?" She looked at the body. "Was that who you were to meet?"
 
"Yes." He held the cloth with the knife and opened it.
 
Teeann almost cried out.
 
"Do you see what I mean?" Malleus rewrapped the blade and put it away. "A witches' dagger. Someone is trying to point to your folk, to set me upon them. You know the stakes. If yon magister opens his mouth and tells them what this is, we'll have a riot on our hands. Go, and make her believe that I must talk to her. Do you need a horse?"
 
Teeann nodded.
 
"Take mine, then. The black. Can you saddle it yourself? Are you good with a horse? I fear he is somewhat temperamental."
 
She smiled. "One of my many talents. I shall take good care of him."
 
"Go then, and Godspeed. Lives are in your hands, woman."
 
Teeann rushed to the stable, whispering to the stable boy who roused sleepily at her entrance. She found the huge black horse of the Hammer. He whinnied a warning, but she drew closer, and laid a palm on his neck. She spoke calm words, and felt the muscles of the great beast relax. She stroked his side, speaking low, and soon put the blanket on his unprotesting back. In a trice, he was saddled and ready. She had no time to change into riding clothes. A minute later, Teeann was riding the huge black into the night, and the horse responded to her urging for speed.
 
 
 
 
The tiny cottage showed only the faintest glow from within. But it meant the woman inside was awake, and that was good. Teeann knocked and the door opened to show an old woman. She looked at Teeann with shrewd eyes. Teeann made sign with her hand, and the woman nodded, signing back.
 
"Teeann, isn't it? Daughter of Ysolde? Come in, then."
 
Teeann stepped inside, gathering her courage.
 
"You have ridden hard, girl, to see me. Is it about the murder?"
 
Teeann nodded, surprised that the woman had heard already, despite what she knew of the powers of her sisters. She tried to unstick her tongue, she who was so glib with the men of the tavern.
 
"Terrible news. He was stabbed with one of our daggers."
 
"Aah," the old woman said, sitting in a chair. "That is bad."
 
"There is more. Malleus is here."
 
The woman shook her head. "I feared it was so. Dark days indeed."
 
"Old Mother, I met him before we heard of the murder. He knew what I am, and yet he made no threats to me, but talked of his mission, which was not about us. He was to meet the man who was killed, who would bring him proof of a great evil."
 
"What are you saying?"
 
"He saw the dagger and knew it for what it was, yet forbade the magister to spread the news. He knows the panic it would bring, and thinks we are falsely accused of this crime."
 
"Does he now?"
 
"There is more." Teeann drew her breath. "He would meet with you and have words."
 
"Meet with the Hammer of Witches?" The old woman laughed. "Are you mad, girl?"
 
"He seeks to stop this peril, and find the truth, not persecute us. He would meet you alone, without soldiers at his back, and he knows what we could do to him should he lie. Twas his horse I rode here, though I met him this night."
 
The old woman sat silent.
 
"Old Mother, I am not some silly girl asking you to trust my lover. I know the hearts of men, and he does not speak false. I know his office and fear his power, yet I am more afraid of what will happen if this evil is not checked."
 
"Your words have weight, girl. But you ask me to place myself upon the stake, at the hands of the man who is our enemy."
 
"There is more. He bade me give you this, that you would know from whence it came."
 
The old woman cried out and almost dropped the piece. She spoke a spell of protection as Teeann stood in fear.
 
"What does it mean?"
 
"It means we are undone."
 
"What shall I do?"
 
"Return, and I will send news. You have done well this night, Teeann."
 
Teeann went back outside and unhitched the black horse. She swept into the saddle and scratched behind his ear. "No need for speed now, my friend."
 
 
 
 
Two hours later, Teeann was back at the inn, the black combed down, watered, fed, and put to well-deserved rest. She had only stopped to tell Malleus before seeing to the horses' needs. Malleus had come out himself and looked with approval at her care of his mount, not trusting the task to the sleeping boy by the door. They went back inside the inn, where all else had left. A sole low candle burned to shed light. The body lay on a table by the wall. Malleus went behind the bar, dropped a coin on the back counter, and poured a goblet of wine. He returned to hand it to Teeann, who sat at one of the tables. She drank a portion, and set it down.
 
"Different turn, someone serving me." She gave him a wan smile.
 
"Will she meet me?"
 
Teeann shrugged. "It is much to ask. I spoke for you as best I could."
 
"I could ask no more, and have not enough words to thank you. You are brave."
 
"You are willing to go alone to meet our most powerful sister for many leagues. I'd say you were the brave one."
 
He laughed. "True. I might spend the rest of my days as a toad."
 
She laughed as well. "We don't really do that, you know."
 
"I know. It's what you can do that frightens people."
 
Her reply was cut off by a knock at the inn door. She rose to answer as Malleus put his hand on his sword hilt. Teeann opened the door a crack and spoke to whoever was outside. She closed the door, looking pale.
 
"She will meet you."
 
"When?"
 
"Now. Upon the big hill."
 
"Where is that?"
 
"I'll show you."
 
"Good. I want you with me."
 
"To give you courage?"
 
Malleus drained what had been left in her goblet. "That too."
 
He awoke the stable boy, and pressed a coin into his hand, telling him he was borrowing a horse, and pointing to his own mount still there as surety. The boy nodded and saw them out.
 
Teeann rode behind, her arms wrapped around the man. Had she earlier been told she would be embracing the man who hunted her kind, she would have laughed in scorn, but here she was, pressed to his back and enjoying the sensation. He rode well, moving with the strange horse as if in long familiarity.
 
They were soon at the hill, and Malleus tied the horse. He took out a lantern, lit it, and handed it to Teeann. Without a word she took the lead, walking to the top of the hill. There was silence all around, and total blackness, except for the light of the lantern. Then the moon broke through the clouds, and they could see all down the hill and the valley below.
 
Malleus chuckled. "She wanted to make sure I had no soldiers waiting in the shadows."
 
"Indeed I did, Witch Hunter," came the voice of the Old Mother. "It would not be the first time you set a trap."
 
"I set no trap tonight," said Malleus. "But there is one who seeks to ensnare us both, and set us at odds."
 
"How did you know it was not us?"
 
"The murdered man was bringing me proof of what occurred up north, and I knew the murderer was not your kind, the ones that abide the law, at least. It would be rather deadly and stupid of you to stop his mission and leave proof of your guilt. Whatever our differences, I do not think that of you."
 
The crone nodded, and spoke to Teeann. "You have done well, girl. You may go."
 
"I would have her stay," said Malleus. "You and I do not trust each other, but we both trust her. She is a part of this now, and she risked as much as we for this meeting."
 
"So be it. You are not what I expected, Witch Hunter."
 
"And you are not eating the leg of an innocent babe while drinking blood from the skull of a priest," said Malleus.
 
"And yet you have harmed my sisters. Hunted them down, put them in chains, and had them tortured and killed."
 
"I have. At times there is no choice, for the King will have his blood sacrifice. If I were to free all the unjustly accused, they would remove me and put in someone far worse. You know the ones who held my post before me, and you know this is true. Few were innocent when I had them punished. I am ashamed it was any, but my power is not that of a king."
 
"Your fool of a king is the one who has undone us all."
 
"He blames your kind for the death of his beloved mother."
 
The crone spat. "Twas his own ancestor who killed her."
 
Malleus frowned. "I do not understand this riddle."
 
"It was in the time of his grandfather's grandfather's grandfather. A mad fool king, whose wife perished giving birth to a child. One of the king's advisers, fearing us and our power, told him it was we who had caused her death. A lie, but the grieving monarch began your office, to scourge us from the earth and hound us to our graves."
 
"This much I know."
 
"But he did more. He called upon the Dark Ones and made a Blood Pact. All of his line would suffer the loss of their most beloved in this world, if the Dark Ones would grant him one vengeance. A demon named Bastemoth to set forth upon the world, an ancient evil."
 
"A demon?"
 
"To crush us and kill with sly shadows and dark fire. But the fool king did not account for what would happen if our kind fell. For who would stop the demon then? The Dark Ones would return in force, and rule over all."
 
"What happened?"
 
The old woman sighed, seeming to recall a tragic past. "War. We came by the hundreds, and died the same. All for the lies of men. We struck and struck, and gradually, the power of the demon lessened, and we drove it from its lair, to the far north of the White Wastes. The power of the Dark Ones was too strong, and the thing could not be entirely destroyed, but in its weakened state, we bound it under a mountain of ice, with spells and iron seals. And since then we have fought the power of the Dark Ones and kept them from returning. Until now."
 
She handed Malleus the broken iron piece. "This was one of our seals. Your fool of a king dealt with the Dark Ones, like his ancestor before, and released the demon. Already it seeks us out, as evidenced by the murder of your man this night."
 
"That explains why he did not take me into his confidence. All I had were shadows of things I could not bring to hand. Yet I knew he was dealing with evil in some way. It leaves a stain." Malleus regarded the iron shard. "This demon, this Bastemoth. How do I stop it?"
 
"You cannot."
 
"I can have two hundred soldiers here by tomorrow night."
 
"And they would be crushed like ants under your boot heel. They are of no use."
 
"So what then?"
 
"Only my kind stand between that foul thing and your destruction. If we go to war, many of us will die. And for what? So your king can continue to blame us for something sacrificed by the blood and betrayal of his own line?"
 
"He will never be swayed, but he is old. His son, however, might someday listen to reason. I can promise nothing, but I will do what I can."
 
"Precious little," the old woman spat. "While continuing to hunt and persecute us."
 
Malleus said nothing.
 
"Well," said the old woman. "At least you do not lie with honeyed words and promises." She sighed. "You will have your war, then. We strike tomorrow night. Our only hope is that it no longer has the same power as before. We have done much to push back the Dark Ones in the time since." 
 
"If you did not know of it being released, how do you know where it is?"
 
"Deep in the Black Forest is a ruined tower, where once before we fought it. Evil still inhabits the place, and none of our kind venture near. It must be there."
 
"The forest is many leagues hence. We could not get there in time. What can I do?"
 
"Make your peace. For if we fail, all you know will soon be gone."
 
 
 
 
Malleus and Teeann returned to the inn, not speaking. Dawn was breaking, and the just-risen stable boy was scratching himself as he took the borrowed mount and accepted another coin from Malleus.
 
Teeann looked up at the sky. "This might be our last day of life. What do we do?"
 
Malleus gave a grim smile. "Not what I would wish to do. I must take the magister under my watch and scour the countryside for evidence of witches. Get some rest, if you can."
 
But Teeann couldn't rest. She changed and went to work, pretending to smile, and going about her tasks despite the weariness she felt, for there was also something running through her like the current of a river. The face of Malleus was never far from her thoughts. His voice, the confidence and strength of him as they rode together. It kept her going, though the long day seemed like a thousand years.
 
At twilight, a woman came to the back door of the inn and spoke to Teeann. Malleus had taken a room above, and had returned but minutes before. Teeann went up to the door and knocked. He looks weary, she thought. She longed to embrace him, to have him tell her all would be well. She knew she was afraid, but with him by her side, she would face the danger.
 
Instead she passed on the news. "We are summoned. Old Mother wishes you to see what your king has unleashed. We are to join the battle, albeit without any advance of the outcome."
 
He sighed and nodded, reaching for his sword. She shook her head. "They said you had no need of that."
 
He shrugged and followed her behind the stable. As they stood, there came a rush of air, and Teeann saw a woman descend on a crooked branch of willow that made it look like she was riding a broom. She motioned for them to get on. Teeann looked at Malleus and clambered up. Malleus joined her, and this time his hands were around her waist.
 
The branch rose in the air with all three as riders, and Teeann felt a thrill as she never yet had.
 
Malleus spoke into her ear, and the sensation tickled her. "Have you done this before?"
 
"Never," she replied. "It takes half a hundred years for the skill and knowledge to do this."
 
"I confess I am afraid," he said. She thought to herself that few other men would be strong enough to admit their fear to her so, and she liked him the better for it. They flew through the gloom, racing across the countryside swifter than any horse. Teeann held the branch, and Malleus held her. If their mission had not been so fraught with danger, she would have enjoyed this.
One hour passed, and then another. Then they drifted down to the ground, upon a bare hill, and the woman motioned for them to get off. They did so, and she flew away without a word.
 
"There." Malleus pointed across the valley, where the remains of the stone castle rose like black teeth in the moonlight. Teeann looked up, and saw hundreds of women in the sky, in all directions. Even she, of the craft, had no idea there were so many of her sisters.
 
There was no alarm, no roll of drums or call trumpets. All was silent one moment, and then the sky erupted in cracking booms as streaks of blue and green fire rained down on the tower from the ranks of women.
 
A shower of flame erupted from the tower, as arcs of red and orange fire blasted witches from the sky. Some exploded like pine knots in the hearth, some screamed as they fell like guttering torches to the earth. Teeann screamed herself to see so many burn. Malleus held her, and she buried her head in his shoulder, unwilling to watch any more.
 
The sky seemed as if it was day, with streams of flame crossing, meeting, and ending in bursts of light. A giant shadow rose from the tower, of indistinct form, yet in shifting, ghastly outline. The red spurts of fire shot from its black limbs, on and on, as witches poured down their magic on it from above, while they fell like birds to the scattershot of a cannon. Just as it seemed as if it would never stop, the red flames grew weaker, and unearthly bellowing screams could be heard from the castle, terrible roars that shook the valley. The shadow shrank back into the tower. Witches bore down, getting ever closer, casting ball after ball of flame along with the rivers of fire that combined when several worked together. The tower exploded, and Malleus and Teeann recoiled at the sudden burst.
 
The silence that came after was short, for a high keening commenced and filled the sky as witches wailed for their fallen sisters. Teeann bore it, painful as it was, for it was her family, her legacy as well. Malleus bowed his head and wept, and Teeann could not believe it. They held each other tightly, even as the Old Mother came to earth near them.
 
"You have your victory, Witch Hunter," she said, but then she saw his face.
 
"I have been upon the battlefield, and never have I seen such courage," he said, his voice broken.
 
"Yes, well, take that back to your King, and may the deaths of our sisters comfort him on his golden throne. His mad plan is stayed, but he may yet continue our persecution."
 
"I will work for the day when my office is no longer wanted. You have my word."
 
"An oath is taken seriously among our kind," said the old woman. "Have care in your words."
 
Malleus bowed to her. Her face was a mixture of anger and sadness, but Teeann could see that her eyes may have softened just a bit. She addressed Teeann, who still clung tight to the man. "Girl, you may have him, if he is of your choosing. I would not have believed it, but the world is strange. Know, though, that some of our sisters will hate you for your choice, feeling you have betrayed them. Are you strong enough to bear their wrath?"
 
Teeann nodded, and she felt Malleus look at her. She blushed, not daring to meet his gaze.
The old woman gave a final shake of her head and flew away, leaving them alone.
 
Teeann looked across the valley, at the ruin still lit by flames. "What now?"
 
"I have much to do," said Malleus. "I must see that our King has no more dealings with the Dark Ones."
 
"Will you come back?"
 
"I would like that. Though I will not ask you to wait."
 
"My kind live a long time, Witch Hunter. Perhaps you will return when you are no longer on the hunt."
 
How strange a thing, thought Teeann, to fall in love with a man who hunts witches. Perhaps I will understand it in a hundred years or so.


©April, 2017 Dale T. Phillips

Dale T. Phillips has published five novels, over sixty short stories, nine books of story collections, poetry, and non-fiction. He took writing seminars from Stephen King in college, has appeared on stage, television, and in an independent feature film, and competed on Jeopardy. He also co-wrote The Nine, a short political satire film. He has traveled to all 50 states, Mexico, Canada, and through Europe.]]>
<![CDATA["For the Light" by Gustavo Bondoni]]>Wed, 31 May 2017 10:15:15 GMThttp://swordsandsorcerymagazine.com/archive/for-the-light-by-gustavo-bondoniSweat poured out from under her bronze helmet, clearing channels in her dust-streaked face, but she was too preoccupied to worry about irrelevant things like that on the day she was to die. She faced a difficult task – many difficult tasks, as a matter of fact – and there was no room for distraction. Her team of three horses, hand-picked from the stables of her stepfather, pawed nervously at the ground, but she paid them no attention. Her gaze was elsewhere.

Semni Apatru studied the field, but the huge number of participants was effective in hiding the monster in their midst. The other drivers knew it was there, but none betrayed its position with glance or gesture – their honor would never allow it. The horses, on the other hand, were not so circumspect. Even the highly trained animals of her own chariot were breathing heavily, snorting and skittish. Dust raised by the dozens off teams floated all around, turning the noontime sun grey and dreary.

The high priestess of Tinia was finishing her harangue, explaining how the gods would favor the Rasna by showing them the way. The result of this race would give them an answer, tell them how to defeat the upstarts from the south, and heal the rift that threatened to tear the twelve cities of the Etruscans apart.

Semni cheered with the rest, but she was intently trying to identify the man in the black tunic, the man who would never be able to cheer again. He was still hidden, but she would find him – it was the only reason for her presence. She cursed the helmets that hid so many faces, worn to give some semblance of protection from flying stones in the cross-country section of the race. But she was also well aware that she would not have had the opportunity to participate without one.

The cheering ended, and silence reigned as a single priestess, white-robed and pure, led them in the invocation to Tinia, bringing tears to Semni’s eyes. Another, in green, sang a song of Uni and a third, red-clad, chanted for Menrva. The stark priesthood of Mania stood to one side; no public prayers were said for the mistress of the underworld.

There were few spectators, minor members of important families who’d been sent to the staging area to show support for one of the temples or another. Semni knew that the finish, beneath the western arch of the marketplace at Tarchna, would be packed with men and women competing to scream loudest for the favor of the god which spoke to them.

The high priestess moved off to the side, with a final booming admonition. “Let the gods speak.”

The race had begun.

***

Semni’s entire life had been led under the shadow from the south, which grew ever larger as the winds of war swept through Etruria. No child of the Rasna had been immune, but she’d been hit particularly hard.

Her father had been lost to the Romans in a border skirmish, dying heroically to warn a column of Rasna soldiers of a Roman ambush. He’d brought great honor to the family, allowing her two brothers to take his place in the official ranks. Her mother, as head of the household, had been visited by the woman in black, and the woman had told how his soul would strengthen the ranks of Etruscan dead. The family had been told what a great honor it was to have an illustrious ancestor but Semni had only wanted her father back.

Leinth, high priestess of Mania, had seemed young then, barely older than the tearful girl who’d lost the man who taught her to ride.

***

The mad dash away from the ceremonial starting rostrum was straight for a league, and Semni was tempted to give the horses their head and try to catch the leading group. But caution stayed her hand. These horses had been bred for endurance, and taxing them early would only limit her chances of completing her mission.

Besides, logic told her that there was no reason the monster she hunted had to be among the leaders. It was perfectly possible that he was biding his time among the backmarkers. After all, there was no reason for him to press early. He would not suffer any ill effects from a long race – he was beyond that now.

So she reined the team in, balancing her weight on the balls of her feet, and let the stragglers pass her. There was one team far behind, which had lost a horse – lame horses could be released from harness with minimal fuss – but if that was the monster there was no risk. That team wouldn’t win, and as long as the abomination didn’t win, she could count it as a success.

She reached the back of the field, and began methodically to pull her way back through the ranks, studying each of the competitors she passed. There was no hurry, as even the fastest team could never reach Tarchna, and the finishing arch, before sunset.

The first competitor she caught was, strangely, a fat man with a team of scrawny horses that seemed more suited to fieldwork than warfare. Even his tunic – white like hers, denoting the fact that they raced under the banner of Tinia, the god of Bright Skies and overlord of the Rasna – was a bit faded. She guessed he represented a small town temple, possibly in the untamed north, and that he’d been selected to run because he was the local merchant prince or the youngest son of a city family or something of the sort. It saddened her to think that, by divine decision, this poor excuse for a charioteer had more right to be there than she did. Semni left him behind easily, giving him the ritual salute of servants of the light as she did.

The next two chariots were both driven by red-clad representatives of Menrva, holding formation and seemingly biding their time before charging towards the front. Like all of the war goddess’ servants, these two were soldiers, fit and tall and lean, racing without helms. They didn’t acknowledge her presence as she passed.

She shuddered to think of what would happen to the Rasna if one of the servants of Menrva won that day. Etruria would sink deeper into a war against a power that had already proven stronger than the Rasna; a single city whose armies, though Etruscan in organization and armament, had already shown themselves to be more effective than anything the Twelve Cities or any of their allies could put on the field. Military defeat would only be a matter of time, the consequences unthinkable. The ascendancy of Menrva was a path to madness.

But it didn’t represent the ultimate madness, and Semni was perfectly aware that if the situation called for it, she would allow a driver wearing a red tunic to pass under the arch in first place. It would be a desperate last resort, but the monster would be foiled.

If she completed her task, it needn’t come to that.

***

The second time the priestess of the underworld visited Semni’s home, she looked different: older, wiser, indifferent to all things that still held running blood in their bodies. She’d barely glanced at the young pre-pubescent daughter, and addressed the matriarch.

“The younger son of this family has been called to the house of Manus,” she announced without preamble, no kind words softening the blow.

Semni would always remember her mother’s face in that moment, for it was then that the young girl finally understood what it meant to be a woman of noble birth in Etruria, with the responsibilities of leading one of the great families. Men could show their passions, fight, bleed and rut, but women were born to lead; they had to be stone.

Her mother didn’t even blink. “Have you come because he has brought more honor to the Apatru name?”

The priestess was equally cold. “No. He was killed in a fight against an inferior force. His courage is not in question, and he held his position, but did no honor to himself.”

Only then did the Matriarch’s eyes tighten. “Then why have you come?”

“The boy had certain qualities which could make him… useful to my mistress. His lineage and the date of his birth are both well-augured, and there are certain services to the Rasna that he will still be able to perform.”

“Our family wants nothing to do with the foul arts of the underworld,” Semni’s mother said.

“It would bring both the family and the son the honor he couldn’t bring in life. Let me explain further.”

The leader of the Apatru family sat in stony silence that dragged almost beyond Semni’s endurance before turning to her only daughter. “Semni,” she said, almost gently, “Please leave us.”

As Semni made her exit, she heard her mother say, “Explain yourself.”

She never heard Leinth’s words, and it would be many years before Semni found out what had become of her brother. But that must have been the work of Tinia, because if she’d learned earlier, time might have healed her wounds, and never have had the determination to enter the race and put a halt to the insanity.

***

The afternoon was wearing on. She’d passed teams that were slower than hers and men standing beside chariots with broken wheels. She’d seen one chariot that had overturned, panicked horses dragging the driver, caught in its traces, along for the ride. The sharp rocks along the road had made short work of the hapless man, and his entrails trailed behind.

Semni didn’t slow. She wouldn’t have halted even if the man had been alive and screaming for assistance. All she did was glance over and note, with disappointment, that his tunic was not black before turning her eyes back to the road.

The sun was two hands above the sea to her left, and her progress through the field had been swift. There couldn’t be more than six or seven teams ahead of her, but these would take the remaining distance to run down. She gave her horses free rein, slapping their flanks and letting them run.

The helmet bent her neck like a collar of stones and the nose guard had long since worn through her skin. The cool afternoon air seemed to be begging her to remove it and let her tresses fly out into the wind, but she dared not do it. She could not be recognized as a woman, or the first racer she encountered would put her to the sword in order to erase the blasphemy of her participation in this holy rite. She could bear a little discomfort, but she couldn’t afford to be sidetracked from her duty.

Semni ripped her thoughts away from the agony in her face and neck and studied her horses. She’d been running them hard, allowing them only short periods of rest, but they seemed to be holding up well enough, sweating profusely, but not in a dangerous lather, and nowhere near collapse. The fact that she weighed about half of what most of her competitors did was probably helping her team in no small way. She loved these horses, had raised each from a foal, but would not hesitate to kill them all if it meant she would reach the thing she was pursuing.

Green countryside flew by. This close to Tarchna, the most important of the Twelve Cities of the Rasna, the trail had been widened and packed hard by the passage of feet and wagons. Occasionally, it was possible to see a farmer or a shepherd standing by the side of the road with a confused expression on his face, wondering what all the chariots meant. She speculated on what it would be like to live the life of a farmer, unaware of what was brewing to the south, unaware of what the temples were fighting for. It must have been a simple life, she thought.

Of course, living without complications had its price. It meant that your sons could be taken from you at any moment and pressed into service as spearmen if they were pubescent, water-boys if they weren’t. It meant that a third of your crops could be taken by any army unit that happened along. And ignorance meant that you could never bask in the knowledge that the sacrifices were made for the greater glory of Etruria.

Semni left the farmer in the dust of her wake, her eyes straining to see the next driver ahead of her. She’d been riding in the choking wake from his passage since the last ford and knew she was getting closer – even though the man was obviously moving quickly.

She whipped the horses again and again, willing them to redouble their pace, hoping against hope that they wouldn’t falter, and soon, inevitably, a dark speck appeared on the road ahead.

It took an eternity to catch him, but her heart sank half-way to the man. His green tunic meant that it wasn’t her target. She whipped the horses again, bringing the reins down on their backs as hard as she could. Perhaps, when she caught the monster in black, a man in green would win the contest and seal the course of the Etruscan people. Uni was goddess of reason, the councilor of the state. Perhaps words and commerce could convince the Romans to abandon the path of conquest.

Far in the distance, another dust plume beckoned. She spurred her horses on, trying to make her voice sound deep and masculine.

***

Semni had seen Leinth alive on one other occasion. On that night, the woman had looked tired, overwrought and old, lines running every which way across that face that had been so young just a few years earlier. The decay of her flesh, however, had done nothing to dampen the effect of her presence. Semni stood taller, trying to avoid eye contact, and felt her one remaining brother do the same beside her.

The priestess looked straight into her eyes, giving Semni the full impact of her gaze. “You are too young to lead the family.”

“I am. The Matuna family has agreed to foster me until my twentieth year.”

The black-robed priestess nodded slowly. “Horse people,” she said.

“People like my own.”

Leinth nodded. “I am here to see your mother.”

Semni started. She knew the priestess of Mania, mistress of the underworld could have come there for no other reason, but the request still came as a shock. “The healers say that the fever might spread, that no one is to see her.”

Leinth chuckled, a low, dry sound. “Spare me the inanities, child. I come on orders of both Mania and her husband Manus. I will be called to their realm when they wish it, not when a fever does. Now will you show me the way?”

Semni bowed her head and led the way. Both women knew that her resistance had been token – a ritual piece of subversion meant to establish the girl’s place as the mistress of the house which had been both acknowledged and rebuffed by a woman whose power was more relevant outside her walls. The death-room was in the back of the house, a guest-chamber lit by a flickering oil lamp.

As Semni and her brother huddled just beyond the threshold, Leinth knelt beside the stiff grey features of the woman who’d taught them what it meant to be Rasna. The priestess remained in that posture for a long time. Semni didn’t dare interrupt, but she didn’t dare leave the woman’s presence, either.

An eternity passed before the servant of Mania got back to her feet with a sigh. “It is as I thought. She was not killed by any earthly fever. The Romans are behind this, just as they were behind the death of general Pumpli, and others too numerous to count.”

“The healers said it was a fever. They showed me the bite mark where the fever had entered her body.”

“They know nothing,” Leinth spat. “The servants of Menrva are as blind as they are foolish, clinging to the illusion that the Romans are merely a military threat, to be defeated by the use of ingenuity and the combined might of the Twelve Cities. And you are foolish to listen.”

“I will not be called a fool in my own house,” Semni replied, trying to imitate the icy tone she’d heard her mother employ so many times before, and hearing her failure in every single crack of her voice.

“The death-room is not your domain, girl. And if you do not wish to be addressed as a fool, then you should refrain from acting the part. Do you wish to hear truth, for once?”

Semni nodded, cowed, feeling the presence of the woman’s dark gods in the air around her.

“Good,” Leinth said. “I do not tell you idly that the Romans are behind your mother’s death. I can feel the action of their gods in my bones. They are young gods, not yet at their full power, and some are the mere shades of our own, but their might is more than enough to deal death to any mortal they might choose. Your mother was one.”

“Why would the gods of Rome choose my mother?”

“Your mother supported our cause. She was wise enough to see that the good of the Rasna must always come before one’s own feelings. The first of Mania’s children was of your house and lineage.”

“My brother,” Semni whispered. “What did you do to him?”

“He continued the fight, even after he’d fallen. He fought well and struck fear into the heart of even the sturdiest Romans. Eventually, he was given his hard-earned rest.”

And Semni felt the bile rise in her throat. She’d dreaded this ever since she’d first heard the rumors of wights reanimated by the power of the lords of the underworld, flesh of Etruscan soldiers given new life in service of the Twelve Cities. But at a terrible price. Tears welled in her eyes. “How can something like that ever have peace?”

“Perhaps peace is too strong a word. He has rest, he is no longer struggling on the line. The damage to his body is too great for him to bear a sword.”

“But he is alive.”

Leinth’s gaze was almost compassionate. “He has been dead since the second time I came here.” The priestess gave Semni a moment to collect herself. “But that is not what I have come to speak to you about. The Rasna are at a crossroad. Rome is growing ever stronger, and there is no longer any way to contain them with the army. We must take stronger measures.”

“Stronger measures.”

“A different kind of army. An army of fearless soldiers that don’t know the meaning of fear, or of the concept of retreat. And army that the Romans would never willingly come up against.”

“An army of the dead.” It was disgusting even to say it.

“An army that might be Etruria’s only hope,” Leinth replied calmly. “But the council isn’t yet convinced. They stall and deliberate while Roman power grows. Soon, it will be too late.”

“I will not help you.” Semni said. The strength of her resolve came as a surprise. “You’ll need to find other pawns in the council.”

“I’ll do it,” said a voice from an unexpected quarter. A male voice, that of her remaining brother, who turned to look at her. “Do not attempt to stop me, sister. Until your majority, I am equal to you in this house, and I wish to do this. You haven’t seen what it’s like out there. Leinth is telling us the truth: the Romans grow more powerful, more organized each day. Every time we take the field against them, their troops are better trained than the time before. There is only one way this can end.”

Semni glared at him, remembering the boyish face of her other brother, the one that had been closest to her age, the one who’d been the merest slip of a boy when he went off on his first campaign, never to return. She tried to imagine that smiling face on a grey corpse, walking stiffly through the night. The image made her shudder. “I will have no part of it,” she said. Semni walked from that room without looking back.

***

It was past dusk and she could barely keep her head upright. The blisters on her hands were bleeding profusely, making her grip on the reins treacherous, something she couldn’t allow to distract her. There was still one more team on the trail ahead of her, and she’d been closing in on the dust plume for over an hour. It had to be her quarry.

The chase had been much more difficult than she’d predicted. The man must have better horses than she’d thought possible, and more skill at driving them than most, to have stayed ahead of her for so long. It wasn’t an easy thing to run with her; she was the scion of two separate cavalry families, one by blood, another by adoption.

Finally she saw him, off in the distance, moving through the gloom towards a brighter spot on the horizon: the lights of Tarchna. She suspected that her foaming horses would be beyond salvation, but it was a price she was prepared to pay. She had to catch that creature before it reached the city. Once inside the city it was only a short run to the marketplace archway, and besides, it would be preferable to do her duty where no one could see her.

***

The very last time Semni had laid eyes on Leinth, the priestess had been dead. Not lying in state or decently interred, but dead all the same.

The light of the torches flickered weakly against her skin, like moonlight reflecting from a scum-covered pond. Her eyes were duller still, but the movement of her arms as she kept the townspeople at bay was anything but sluggish.

“Away, foul creature!” one man shouted, pushing a burning torch toward her face.

Leinth ignored the flame and reached out almost casually to grasp the man’s forearm. An instant passed as she looked him in the eye, and then a loud crack rang through the night.

“You are wasting my time,” Leinth said. Her voice was a rasping whisper like wind passing between the bones of an impaled criminal. It should have been inaudible, but cut straight to the quick. Leinth gestured to the man with the broken arm, “And you have forced me to maim a strong man, weakening the Rasna even further.”

The crowd was silent. It was difficult to speak when one had heard the voice of the underworld, a sound that the living were not meant to experience.

Semni was beyond caring. She pushed her way to the front of the multitude and faced the wight. “Where is my brother?” she demanded. The last she’d seen of her one remaining family member, he’d been heading a delegation of young nobles towards Leinth’s temple of Mania, on a mission to help her prove that the solution lay in all-powerful undead warriors. Months had passed and no word had reached her of his fate.

The unseeing eyes turned towards her, fixing themselves somewhere within her soul. “Which brother, my dear?”

“The living one.”

The wight paused, and looked away, giving Semni a clear view of the gash that slit the priestess’ throat from ear to ear. “You have no living brothers.”

Again, Leinth had confirmed the worst of Semni’s fears. She forgot where she was, who she was and how she was expected to act.. She screamed and charged the ghastly, unholy woman in the tattered black robes, hands stretched before her like misshapen claws.

The wight didn’t even bother to duck. A hand reached out and impacted with Semni’s temple, knocking her to the ground.

The voice from the netherhells continued. “As I was saying, we do not have time to argue amongst ourselves. I will not be here to guide you, so you must support the temple in the coming days.”

“Why should we believe you? You’re a creature from the underworld!”

“That I am. But I no longer belong to Manus or even to my mistress. I was revived by Roman necromancy. Only the fact that their gods are still weak allowed me to escape them, to bring my message to you. That and my love for the Rasna. My existence is agony as I am resisting my new masters, but if even one of you is swayed, I shall not have died in vain.”

“It is not only your death that is in vain,” Semni said as she picked herself off the ground, “but also your life.” She strode to the nearest torch-bearer and relieved him of the flame before turning back to the hell-spawned monstrosity. “Will you leave here forever?”

“No, this is my true home, and I will stay here even though the Roman gods tear my soul to shreds.”

“Then let me help you,” Semni said. She placed the blaze against the torn cloth of the woman’s garment and watched as the material immediately caught fire. Even the woman’s flesh burned like dry tinder.

The shade’s screams contained agony that seemed beyond that of human pain, but Semni thought she heard a measure of relief therein as well.

She turned her back on Leinth for the final time.

***

She hadn’t managed it. As the gates of Tarchna flashed past, the man in black was still a chariot-length ahead of her. The dream of putting a halt to the madness in some dark forest with no witnesses had died.

It should never have come to this, this last-ditch attempt at changing the course of Etruscan history. The council had only agreed to it because the war was going badly – and because the surviving representatives of the temple of Mania had insisted that an appeal to the gods was their right under Rasna custom. After much negotiation, a fitting agreement as to the nature of the consultation had been reached: they would – as fit Rasna custom – hold a sporting event. Men selected by each of the temples would compete in a city-to-city chariot race for the honor of the gods. Divine will would select the winner, and the winner would, by his very nature, represent their wishes: the future path of Rasna resistance. A single entry in the field would be allowed to represent the temple of Mania, and if the gods chose it to win, the gates of hell would be opened in defense of the Twelve Cities.

The main problem was that no one had asked the temple what kind of man they would send to do their bidding. But, despite the shock and cries of blasphemy, was it really such a surprise that they’d chosen a dead man? Of course, if the temple had its way, everyone in the twelve cities would be dead – it was the logical consequence of handing the policy-making to the rulers of the underworld, two deities who really didn’t care where the souls were coming from as long as the numbers gave satisfaction.

None of the leaders she’d tried to convince had listened. All they said was that the will of the gods would be done. Her desperate efforts had gone unheeded, and with the eve of the race upon them, she’d taken drastic measures. It had been the work of a moment to steal a tunic and three horses, but the helm and chariot had been purchased at the cost of her honor and that of the family. It was a price she would have paid willingly a hundred times over – but only of she succeeded in stopping the wight.

The dead man was just ahead, and Semni finally understood how he’d been able to stay ahead of her for so long. His horses, though just as overworked and lathered as hers, were magnificent beasts. She’d have chosen them for this race in a heartbeat, strong, muscular examples obviously built for endurance instead of all-out speed. Aside from this, the undead driver himself had been selected wisely. He was short and slight, and before he died he must have been more boy than man.

Semni began to shake. It couldn’t be. She spurred her team on, hoping the three horses would be able to take the added strain just a few moments more. They responded and she pulled alongside, looking over at the other driver’s unhelmeted visage.

Her heart seemed to stop, and she was aware of nothing around her. The people lining the street disappeared, and the final turn, at the other end of the city ceased to be relevant. It was as if the years hadn’t passed, and she was racing the boy, her younger brother through a meadow. The face on the chariot beside her was the same one that she’d seen so many times, flushed with the excitement of the chase.

But this face wasn’t flushed. It was grey and pale, and the eyes were covered with a dull film, like the eyes of a week-dead fish. A flap of skin hung from one cheek, just beside the closed mouth. It was impossible to tell whether the cut was recent, but it wasn’t bleeding. One of its arms flopped uselessly at one side – the reason, no doubt, that he’d been given his ‘well-deserved rest’.

Tears blurred her vision and darkness threatened to overcome her as exhaustion and emotion mixed. The emptiness in her chest felt like a gaping wound from which her very spirit flowed to dash itself on the uncaring earth. The reins slipped within her nerveless grip.

Suddenly, the curve was upon them, and only the fact that her horses slowed to take it saved her life. Chariot wheels screeching on the muddy cobbles, she took the bend just ahead of the abomination beside her. The sudden movement, however, brought her out of her reverie.

They’d reached the final stretch. Half a league of straight running, with flagstones covering the last third of the distance once they entered the market. Of course, there was no way to see the flagstones, because the entire population of the city had emerged to watch the finish of the race – the most important social and religious event since the summer sacrifices. The noise of the cheering was stupendous, tearing through her like a sharp scythe through wheat. She tried to ignore it, knowing the crowd meant her death.

The charioteers plunged into the sea of humanity, which parted miraculously ahead of them just as it seemed it would be too late. Semni thought of slowing, attempting to lower the human cost of slamming into them, but her choice was made when the thing that had been her brother pulled up alongside and began to inch ahead.

She acted without thinking. It was the work of a moment to pull a short wooden spar – normally used to stake horses on grassland – out of the leather pouch by her feet. Watching the cobbles race by, well aware that a fall would break every bone in her body, she stretched out, bridging the gap between the chariots. Her plan, desperate, unlikely to succeed, was to try to jam the spar between her brother’s spokes.

The monster driving the chariot acknowledged her presence for the first time. He absently released the reins and delivered a backhanded blow with his good arm. The strike connected with inhuman strength on her cheek, and only the helmet saved her from broken bones. But the blow knocked the helmet from her head and the shock caused her to release the spar. Both clattered onto the stone behind them.

She knew it was over. The only course that remained was to steer her team straight into the other chariot, creating a tangle of traces and horses and people and wheels. It would be certain death for her – and probably some more damage to the wight – but it would get the job done.

Just as Semni was about to turn the reins, the gods smiled upon her. The wight’s middle horse stumbled, recovered and came up lame. The chariot itself slammed into its rump, and the other two horses slowed to avoid injury, ignoring the corpse’s desperate whipping. Her own team, though exhausted, pulled ahead.

She was going to win. It would be invalidated immediately, of course – for a woman to take part in a sacred sporting event was sacrilege. Only men were deemed to be empty vessels that could be filled by the gods – but that would not matter. Her success would throw a shadow over any claims made by the temple of Mania.

The arch was just ahead. Sanctuary, rest, and most probably death at the hands of the crowd awaited, but so did success. She would die satisfied.

All that remained was to pass a large knot of spectators just ahead of the finishing arch. They would move just as the rest had.

Except that the first of their number didn’t. A man in blue stood his ground as the team bore down on him. He was red-faced and screaming, but other than a small bump as her right wheel as it went over his body, Semni felt nothing as the trained warhorses and sturdy chariot ran him down.

The episode made her realize that the noise from the crowd had changed. It had been a gradual thing, but clearly the chants and roars of support for one temple or the other had mutated to become shouts of rage.

For one split second, she focused on a woman to one side who mouthed the word ‘blasphemy’, and realized what had happened: the loss of her helmet had allowed her long raven hair to spill out into the wind. That hair was a telltale sign of noble womanhood everywhere in the Twelve Cities.

There was no choice. She gritted her teeth and plowed strait into the knot of people ahead of her. It seemed that the last effort was enough; people folded like grass before her team, furiously clawing at her traces, her tunic, anything they could get their hands on before succumbing to the inevitable. She was going to make it.

But suddenly, with the finish so close that it seemed she could reach out and touch the columns of the arch, her rightmost horse succumbed to the onslaught. The chariot skidded as the team came to a halt, and she was thrown, still clutching the reins, into the air. A fat man afforded her a soft landing, but the crowd was there in an instant, pummeling her with fists, suffocating her with the weight of their bodies, deafening her with their rage.

She hoped it had been enough, that the lame horse would put the black temple out of contention, but even that prayer was in vain. She felt agony from her leg and looked up to see a wheel going over her foot, the chariot driven at a walk by something unspeakable in a black tunic. Her brother’s eyes didn’t even look her way as he went by. He concentrated on reaching the finish, just beyond her.

Semni never got to see him cross the line. She was not even given time to despair. A foot moved into her view, coming straight towards her. She was awake long enough to feel her nose sink into her face with a loud crack, and blackness overcame her.




© April 2017 Gustavo Bondoni

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer with over a hundred stories published in fourteen countries, in seven languages.  He is a winner in the National Space Society’s “Return to Luna” Contest, the SF Reader short fiction contest (2014) and the Marooned Award for Flash Fiction (2008).  His short fiction has appeared in Pearson’s Texas STAAR English Test cycle, The Rose & ThornAlbedo OneThe Best of Every Day Fiction and many others. His work has appeared previously in Swords & Sorcery Magazine.
 
Bondoni's latest book, Siege, is a science fiction novel published in December 2016.  In addition to this, his ebook novella entitled Branch was published in 2014.  He has also published two reprint collections, Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places (2010) and Virtuoso and Other Stories (2011, Dark Quest Books). The Curse of El Bastardo  (2010) is a short fantasy novel.  His website is at www.gustavobondoni.com.
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