<![CDATA[Swords and Sorcery Magazine - Archive]]>Sat, 05 Aug 2017 11:04:56 -0700Weebly<![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.’
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.
<![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.”
“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?"
"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."
"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.
<![CDATA["A Sojourn In Crost" by Jeffery Scott Sims]]>Sat, 29 Apr 2017 15:02:26 GMThttp://swordsandsorcerymagazine.com/archive/a-sojourn-in-crost-by-jeffery-scott-simsLord Morca, wizard and warrior of ancient Dyrezan, marched alone this day, he who had led a great army into the unknown east that he might conquer and thereby heighten the glory due to himself and his people.  There in that magical and forbidding eastern realm he had fought and bested the fearsome Rhexellites, creatures of evil, yet those dread foes, brilliant mages like the Dyrezanians, had called up strange allies at the moment of irrevocable defeat, and the legions of their assailants had been in a single unforgettable night overthrown, shattered and scattered.  Morca, helming the rear guard, escaped the all encompassing destruction, but his few remaining companions fell one by one until now, many leagues gone from the field of battle, he marched alone.

Alone, that is, save for his four-footed friend, which one might deem a pet, if one were prone to jest:  the magnificent black tiger Treenya, a prize of his southern campaigns; a graceful animal despite her menacing size, devoted servant to her master, vicious enemy of his enemies.  Many a Rhexellite last felt on this earth the slash of her fangs and claws.  Now she licked the dry hand that caressed her, sat suddenly on her large haunches, growled demandingly.

It was hot, the landscape sere, the horizon barren.  Large black birds circled.  Morca sighed.  He removed his broken helmet--the last of his battle armor--to wipe his steaming brow, revealing his damp, unclipped black hair and hard, unshaven hawk features.  Besides the sword at his belt he carried two pouches, one for water, the other food.  The former sagged, the latter lay limp where tied at his waist.  He said, “Dear girl, I have nought more to give.  Let us count on luck, for in this fell land effort avails not.”

So Morca clapped his helmet back on and wearily trudged onward, the big cat shortly falling in behind, occasionally growling in her throat with peevish dissatisfaction.  They made as they could toward the west, where (should they get so far) they must come of times to the great sea, and should they be able to cross that, they would enter again with delight the fabled provinces of glorious Dyrezan.  Such a fair eventuality seemed unlikely.  This was alien territory, saturated with evil magic spawned by the ill-favored Rhexellites and other unknown forces.  Since fleeing the disaster Morca and his staunch companion had experienced several encounters with dangerous weirdness.  His scrolls and implements of magic were lost to him since the debacle.  The hero of Dyrezan longed now for nothing more than a temporary safe haven, a place of normality where he might replenish and recuperate before his trek required of him still more heroic endeavors.  Such a spot probably did not exist this side of the far off sea, and that, he feared, was simply too far.

As he trudged with dusty step Lord Morca prayed, muttering olden charms of adoration to majestic Xenophor, Master of All, Creator and Destroyer; prayed that salvation should arise before he--even he!--descended into hopeless despair.  The prayers cheered him, fired his soul with fierce joy.  His tired eyes, half blinded by the cruel sun, scanned the low, drab hills ahead.  The scene vouchsafed him but dust, and rocks, and odd spiky shrubs.  His spirits sagged.  Still he peered, and he thought to see more.  Indeed, this was no fever dream.  Tall towers of white, thin spires of silver he saw upraised above those hills.  No more than an hour’s march they lay before him.

Said he, “Treenya, something lies yonder.  Make we for it.  Be on your best ware, though.  Know we too well that habitation in these parts means foe more readily than friend.  We shall seek them, then grant them the boon of proving themselves.”

Treenya agreed, in her fashion.  Morca divided the remaining water, and when that was gone they bent to with a will and increased pace.  The hills rose, the beckoning towers dropped from sight.  A narrow, forsaken pass allowed egress.  Soon the gap through the hills widened, the lifeless mounds fell away, and before them lay their immediate goal.

Morca would not style it a city, but it was very more than a village:  a fair town of stone, mostly gray limestone and pinkish granite, yet decorated with those lovely marble towers and those gleaming spires of precious metal.  It looked a goodly town under the noonday sun, differing vastly from the ugly dark dwelling places of the Rhexellites.  Those Morca counted as other than human, and innately hostile to his kind; these, he hoped, were folk with whom reasonable intercourse could prevail.

Entering the precincts, Lord Morca beheld at small remove examples of the citizenry, and the sight cheered his heart.  They were fair like their town, and his first attempt at accosting one proved fruitful.  He spied an old woman carrying water in an earthen urn clasped in her arms, to whom he boldly advanced to declare himself.  “I am Morca,” he said, “lord of far Dyrezan.  I beseech you to gift me of that water, and to reveal the name of this your home, for it is strange to me.”  She replied, in excellent tongue that he need not decipher, “Noble man, drink your fill.  This be Crost, ever friendly to visitors, seldom though they come.”  Morca quaffed, and it was as if life flowed into him.  Said he, “My cat, too, desires favor, if you will; a little more water.”  The old woman shrank back from his companion, who growled menacingly at her; an unnatural reaction on the beast’s part, he thought, for Treenya normally behaved as trained by her master, save against definite enemies.  Morca warmly chided his feline friend for impoliteness.  At this she crouched submissively, accepted the cooling liquid, though only from his hands.

“I will see Crost,” he announced.  Morca thanked the woman with a bow, pressed on with Treenya warily padding behind.  They passed wholesome cottages of stone and thatch surrounded by expansive plots of tilled ground.  Soon cottages gave way to more impressive structures as they entered the splendid core of Crost.  Now public works of marble loomed on both sides of a wide lane, and the towers and spires shone and glistened overhead.  The grandeur of Crost amazed Morca, given the sad nature of the countryside.  How did the place thrive?  Numerous pedestrians at work or play came his way, along with occasional, unhurried riders on horseback, and to them he plied his questions.  “Who rules here?  Who are your people?  How come you to inhabit this land?  Do the Rhexellites threaten?”  These he asked, and more, yet though his counterparts in conversation were invariably good-natured and brisk to embrace his presence, their responses continually failed to satisfy.  He received no worthwhile answers, and it displeased him that Treenya snarled at each speaker.  He concluded that she was badly out of sorts, the result, mayhap, of longing for fresh meat.  That craving must be sated.

He inquired of lodgings, took directions, repaired with his tiger into a side street past the long facade of a walled manor, came in good time, as shadows stretched long, to a pretty public garden containing a lively, upwelling fountain.  There they drank and washed.  Just beyond this they arrived at the designated inn.  This was a stout, two-story affair of small blocks and sloping wooden roof, with a broad porch scaled by little granite steps that led into an inviting open doorway.  Inviting also was the keeper, a big, jolly man with full beard and his head tightly wrapped in a turban like so many of his fellows.  From the porch he cheerfully bawled, “Approach, esteemed Morca, enter within to seek our delights.  The trail is lengthy, and cares weigh heavy, but here you will be at peace.”  Morca froze at the steps, where Treenya brushed his thighs and gave throaty warning, and he cautiously observed, “Overmuch it puzzles, to be hailed by name where no man knows me.”  Replied the innkeeper with a deferential nod, “So should it, except that you are our visitor, and here the infrequent visitor is loved as a guest, and the presence of such a one is quickly talked about our Crost.  When, in addition, we are informed that our guest boasts of noble birth, be not alarmed when I your eager host tarry outside my humble hostelry in wait on your august appearance.”

“Well said, my man,” conceded Morca.  “My needs are few.  Evening approaches; already a chill breeze stirs.  Bed and board I want, and shelter for my kittenish companion, who I assure is tame to my friends.  A handful of coins clink still in my purse.  Strike we a bargain?”

“Enter, and we will do it.”  So the deed was done.  Within Morca and the innkeeper agreed on easy terms.  A pair of servants were delegated to attend to Treenya, her master being assured that a clean and spacious hutch in the stables--that, plus a store of bloody goat’s flesh--would hold her in content.  The cat went with them, yet only when ordered directly with repeated firmness.

The main hall of the inn was a brightly lighted place of simple tables and benches, with tapestries of colored geometric designs hanging from the walls, torches between the draped ornamental sheets providing the illumination.  A long counter across from the front door gave onto the kitchen entrance and racks holding jugs of wine.  No request was necessary to have one of those jugs conveyed to Morca’s table.  His host said, “Call me Brutan.  I and my slaves live to serve you.  Allow me to fill your goblet.  It is my pleasure, lord.  The fare, prepared by my daughter Beccal, is simple but tasty.  I trust it will please your palate.”

“Bring it on, at once,” Morca commanded.  Brutan clapped; a young, dark-eyed girl, elegantly dressed and most tempting to the eye, appeared from the kitchen flanked by helpers bearing steaming platters.  With a winsome smile she laid utensils for his use, and then the servants deposited his feast before him.  He savored the sight and aroma of fowl roasted with herbs and exotic vegetables, brown bread, and luscious fruit.  Morca dived in without another word.  They of the inn continued to hover near while he ate.  When he had rapidly progressed to sopping gravy with a handful of bread crumbs Brutan spoke.  “Beccal, our guest hungers still.  Have you more for him?”

“Truly I do, Father,” replied the girl.  I go swiftly to fetch it.”

“You have a lovely daughter,” Morca noted when she had gone.

“She is a sweet lass, charming and thoughtful to excess,” Brutan said proudly.  “The meal suits?”

“I anticipate more, my host, with another jug to wash it down.  Tell me, have you lived in Crost all your life?”


“It was a great boon to me, albeit a chancy one, to find your town.  So much less did I expect on my present course.”  Morca frowned.  The repast had cleared his head, a welcome condition not yet influenced by wine.  “I have ventured the wide world, without finding a place quite like it.  I am intrigued.  This is a large town, almost a city, yet it seems curiously isolated, surrounded by a realm which is practically desert.  I see no evidence of trade; you speak of uncommon visitors; somehow you thrive.  Does your oasis draw caravans in season?”

Brutan replied, “Lo these ages have passed away since I served a strange face.  We are terribly out of the way nowadays, not like it was in the old days.  We live simply and quietly now.  We sleep a lot between labors.  We have more time for rest than formerly.”

Second helpings of all were whisked onto the table, Beccal withdrawing with a bow afterward.  Morca ate slowly, ruminating as he chewed.  “My man,” he said, “this will not do.  Your statements perplex.  I wonder that your people are allowed to exist.  I thought this land within the compass of the Rhexellites.  Surely their borders lie close.  Do not they vex you with demands and torment you with cruelties?”

Brutan pondered, bemused.  “I know not of these Rhexellites,” he said at last.  “Do you hunger for another course?”

“No,” Morca stated with a grunt.  “It astounds that my mention of the Rhexellites should mystify.  Until lately they were the scourge of all the lands this side of the sea.  Possibly the arid barrier defied their powers (though I gave them more credit for the greedy, adventuresome fiends that they were), but you must have heard of them.  Perhaps, then, you find commerce with the Peoki fisher tribes of the coast?”

“I dare say, although these terms of yours still mean nought.”  Brutan commenced removing the detritus of the meal.  Amidst the clatter of his efforts he said, “There is much latent magic hereabouts, which perhaps protects us from common evils.  No one wishes us harm here, nor are we feared in foreign parts.  Crost is a land of peace.  Crost is very old; it has always been what it is, and always will be.  Here one may rest without end, as within a comforting dream.  Think on it, my guest, my Lord Morca, whose life is strenuous and wearying.  A man must tire of always carrying the sword.  Much might a man give for the peace which resides here.”

“I will take your word for that.”  Indeed, weariness fell on him now like a toppling wall.  He said, “I fear that Crost is too peaceful to contain me.  Ever do I break out of the confines of the calm.”  Then:  “However, I choose the rest you offer.  Give me a soft bed.”

“As you command.”  Brutan clapped once more.  Beccal practically raced into the hall, stood demurely in waiting attitude at her father’s side.  “Daughter, escort our guest to his room.  We must make him comfortable.”

“Does he stay with us, Father?”

“For the night,” Morca clarified.

“Sleep well, Lord Morca,” said Brutan, “and I beseech you, sir, to heed my words.  Crost spreads wide its arms in eternal invitation to strangers.  Think on this offer of mine, which is for no less than a lifetime of hospitality.  Perhaps by morning you will believe what I say, and accept Crost as your home.”

Morca answered with a grin, not caring to dispute the point, which he supposed was intended well.  He followed Beccal up the narrow stairs to the upper floor, along the wood-paneled corridor to the room at the end.  She held the door for him.  It was a fine room for an inn, not too cramped, airy with a large open window closed only by drapes.  Furnishings were typically meager yet wholly serviceable.  The bed, especially, invited immediate attention.  Morca thought to throw himself into it at the first opportunity.

He said to the girl, “My tiger, Treenya, will miss me.  She may not relish alien surroundings.  After whiles, my dear, you must honor me by accompanying me to her.  Would you that?”

“With pleasure,” she replied.  She smiled.  Beccal was truly a lovely girl.  Morca speculated as to the limits of her geniality.  He considered pressing the matter.

“Maybe,” he said, “Crost harbors attractions I have overlooked.  Someone should point them out to me.”

“I can show you,” sad she, “after you have rested.”

He was desperately tired and, he realized bitterly, too much wine had taken its toll.  He was good for nothing now.  Thinking fond notions of later, he saw Beccal out, closed his door, prepared to sleep.

Twin stands flanked the headboards of the bed.  One, toward the window, bore a single oil lamp, his only illumination.  On the other, nearest the empty, ajar closet, he placed his helmet, his sword, his pitiful baggage.  Briefly he paced to the window, pulled aside the curtain, absorbed the view.  A pale thin moon hung in the darkening east over the pretty town.  No one was about now, and the place was very dark.  The people of Crost, he mused, were lapsing back into their dreams.

The thought reminded Morca of the nightly ritual he accepted as duty.  Though his magical supplies were gone, he yet possessed his studied esoteric skills, and he charmed himself to admit only true dreams, that no lies or similar connivance should intrude on his slumber.  This done, he took to bed, covered himself with thick blankets, was lost to the world.

A dream did come.  He dreamed of Crost, as he knew it, and more.  He saw Crost bustling with activity, thronging with people of all races, traders wealthy and mages wise and grandees glorious.  He heard chanting from the towers and singing in the streets.  He saw it by night, with a thousand points of light gleaming from the windows, and above the stars, organized into constellations unknown or oddly distorted.  With the curious ability of dreams to see what no fleshy eye could see he beheld the venue of Crost, saw its place in a world he did not recognize.  Surely there were no Rhexellites in the land; there came to him images of folk like those of Crost, towns and, yes, great cities rising from the green hills and fertile plains, and busy ports by the sea where big ships sailed.  Through it all he wandered, dazed, asking ever, “What is this?  Where is this?”  And the people smiled and bowed, yet never said they a word.

The scene changed.  Fires in the sky, portents in heaven--the Gods angered or bored, he surmised--and the green land was blasted and blighted, and the crops withered, and the dry scrub and the jackal crept in where civilization had reigned.  The abandoned centers of dwelling dropped to pieces as he watched, a year flashing by in an instant, centuries in the span of a sigh.  Again Crost uprose before him, and to his amazement he observed it decaying like the others.  The cruel ages scoured and plucked at the facings of its stones.  He saw this happening to Crost only by night.  In a momentary glimpse of dazzling radiance he beheld no explicit detail, but felt with all his dream senses a strange pulsation of power, a miasma of the arcane enshrouding and concealing what lay behind or within.  He strove to peer through the magical shield...

Morca started awake.  Deep inside his mind a tiny voice shrieked of danger.  Cheek pressed to pillow, he stared through the dim light vouchsafed by the dying lamp.  There his helmet and sword and meager things on the stand, beyond them the closet door, open a thin black gap.  That was as it should be.  About to turn, he noticed blemishes on the wall by that door, gray stains, vague discolorations, unrecollected encrustations of what seemed dirt.  He had rejoiced in a tidy room.  His eyes scanned up the wall.  It was filthy, reeking of squalor and decay.  As he watched a greenish, dampish spot spread, exuded a yellow burst of swirling particles.  A fat spider watched him from the paneling with its many hateful eyes.

He launched himself out of bed, saw by the sputtering lamp that the entire room was overlaid with grime, with fungus, that the structure about him was collapsing in on itself.  The bedding, that had seconds before contacted every portion of his body, was soiled and rotten.  Chitinous things scuttled on webs in the corners.

Morca cried out, seized his sword and his bags from the crumbing stand, toppling it with his forgotten helmet, fled into the corridor.  The door fell at his touch.  He stomped down the black passageway, risking life to walk on the disintegrating surface.  He rushed down the nighted stairs, almost hurtling headlong when he stepped where a step was not, then into the main hall, cavernous, cold, littered with fallen stones, stars mocking him through great holes in the sporadic roof.  He bellowed for Brutan, got echo for answer.  He raced into the lane.  He stood, astounded, in a street of Crost.

It was a dead habitation:  a thousand, ten thousand years dead.  Before him stretched a wilderness of ruins, heaps of stony debris, broken walls, weathered foundations barely protruding from rubble.  Beyond, amidst a tangle of weeds and dense, ugly shrubs he spied the glint by starlight of pooled water, a pathetic spring where he had seen a fountain play.  Farther still the jagged stumps of forgotten spires and fallen towers disgraced a dismal skyline.  Close by nasty things slithered in the dirt.

Morca dashed to the rear of the ruinous inn.  He shouted her name, heard Treenya’s furious roar.  It came from behind the remnants of wall of a broken down stone compound.  Morca called again, and Treenya leapt onto the wall, slid on her sleek belly down the sloping wreckage.  She sprang to his side, jumped up and pressed massive paws to his chest.

“Down, girl,” he cried with a harsh laugh.  “Let us frolic when the undead corpse of Crost lies behind us.”  Morca filled his water pouch at the forsaken oasis; they then began threading their way between the stony trash which clogged the lanes, making for the west.  They did not get far before fresh obstacles intervened.

Moving shapes swayed in the darkness.  They looked passably human, until they came too close.  There were two in the van, a large, bearded man horribly lacking at the extremities, with the flesh of his corpulent trunk hanging in wet folds, and a smaller form, obscurely feminine, skeletal to a sickening degree, with far too much bone revealed by the peeled-back flesh of its face.  The former nightmare said, in a voice that was the ghost of Brutan’s, “You woke too soon, Lord Morca.  That is not meet.  Had you rested quietly, you would have joined us.  Rest more, and always.”  And the other whispered sweetly, “I would have come for you, Lord Morca.  Magic awakened me for you; only your feeble arts hold us apart.  Crost calls you to me.  Come, cradle your head in my arms.”  The vile apparition held out bony horrors to him.

Morca’s sword whistled from its sheath.  “To battle, Treenya,” he said grimly.  The huge black cat sprang, claws slicing the cold air.  Morca lunged, chopped at the larger form.  Chunks flew.  Treenya shredded her target with claws and teeth, then recoiled from the sodden refuse, squalling and spitting out filth.  “That is not dessert,” Morca cried.

More horrific shapes closed, hideous arms reaching.  Morca advanced at a trot, his steel blade singing and slashing.  Feline talons flexed and ripped.  Then they were through the press and running, with the last corroded ruins of flesh and stone falling behind.  Hills rose darkly about them.  They emerged onto the farther plain as dawn woke the eastern horizon.

The first rays of the sun peeped over the world to bathe in crimson behind them the tops of fabulous towers.  The needle tips of silver spires glowed as if on fire.  Lord Morca surveyed for a spell the weird vision.  “Does Crost think to lure me again to enchanted doom?” he asked, of Treenya or the wind.  “Whatever antique powers survive here should give me credit for more sense.  This way I shall not pass again, be my guts ever so empty.”

His furry companion rubbed his free hand with her massive head, gutturally purred.  Morca grinned.  “Got we a decent meal from this adventure,” he declared; “under the circumstances, a fair trade for a little peril.”  He sheathed his sword.  A warming wind plucked at the long hair of his helmless head.  The barren lands stretched before.

Lord Morca of Dyrezan said, “We have a long way to go, my friend.  May all our adventures treat us so kindly.”

©March, 2017 Jeffery Scott Sims

Jeffery Scott Sims  has recently published a book of weird tales, Eerie Arizona, as well as many short stories in various publications. His work has appeared previously in Swords & Sorcery.]]>
<![CDATA["The Sword Over the River Thar" by Brian Dyke]]>Sat, 29 Apr 2017 14:59:05 GMThttp://swordsandsorcerymagazine.com/archive/the-sword-over-the-river-thar-by-brian-dykeMy father grew up a short walk from the River Thar, in the flood plains below the foothills of the city of Highcrag in the sprawl of ancient barbarian tribes that had been tamed and settled near High Mountain and the lesser ridges in her shadow. At a young age he had been conscripted into the hoplite of the old King Kreel Maug and his wild war against the gleaming towers of Ferin, a common experience for many young men of the Crawl in those days.
Very early, he became known as a killer worth his mettle and a welcome hand on the edge of any spear-charge. As a soldier, his reputation grew fast and he was soon sent to serve as a trusted scout in the service of the Hawktail Rangers of the Red Tribe, a pathfinder along the darkest roads of Kol. This was no small feat.
After the war, and perhaps another after that, my father bought land east of the great River Thar upon the heart of the Crawl and married the blue-eyed and brown haired lass that would become my very own mother. Together they built a home and raised a family. My father hung his sword above the mantle and invested his bloody coin in a plow. I was born not long after my older sister, Kula.
Unfortunately, to sow fields and raise stock was not my father’s fare. While he put his head down and drove the sorrowful blade of peace into the unforgiving ground, the fire in his forgiving eyes flared like blue stars in the night. His mind wandered, and soon enough, he daydreamed of his memories of war and days gone by. Likewise, he struggled to grow much of anything. Often had to sell his sword and leave my mother home alone with both children to fend for ourselves. Between the cold breeze of the southern hills and the icy gusts of the mountains to the north, we had many nights of want and loss. Not far from our home, the river Thar ran wild and dropped unseen into the lonely depths under the sacred embrace of High Mountain. At night, the roar of her flow put me to bed over the rumble in my empty stomach.
I have a very early memory of my loving mother as she wailed and screamed at the meager sight of one fall’s harvest. “We will starve!” she shouted as the woman both hugged my father and beat his chest. My father only rubbed her on the head with love as she gripped his arms tight.
“I am sorry,” he whispered as he eyed the blade above the hearth. Right there, I could see the fire burn in his azure eyes. Even as a boy, I knew those portals longed for brotherhood, for far-flung exotic places, and, especially, for the solace of roaring battle.
Thankfully, we did not starve, though the blade above the hearth was gone one afternoon soon after and back at my father’s side. That day, he left for Stillwater Keep for the Baron Jaeger’s call to arms against the lizard folk of the Pines. He kissed me and my sister on the cheek as he left, a pile of gold and a slaughtered pig lay on the table next to my smiling mother. Needless to say, I was a thin lad but I always felt loved.
Whenever he came back, I used to go down with him by the rocks of the River Thar, near the broken chasm at Norwich Falls. It was a sacred place to most, not far from our hut. Many said the gorge was haunted, but with my father and his sword not far, I never worried of any danger. As the day would wear on, we’d both fish the deeper pools and pull out a nice supply of keepers. It seemed besides ghosts, tasty bluefin trout loved the place and, so too, the fish loved to hide from the larger reaper scat and dragonpout in the shadows by the overhanging cliffs. They were almost always hungry. A fly or a worm often did the trick.
When the fish weren’t biting, we’d sit down on blankets of soggy lichen and watch the water spill into the endless pools down into the lower gorge. We never went down there. One of the biggest pools sent the whole Thar down even deeper to the depths of oblivion, a mighty waterfall that only the eyes of the phantoms at the bottom could possibly envision. The sound was like thunder from the rocks around, and you could hardly shout over the noise so close to the edge. All that was left was to find a nice spot, eat your lunch and just take the deaf splendor of it all.
While I stared at my father’s eyes by the river Thar, I could always see within him something distant and lost. His blue portals always glimmered to me of worries, sword hands left behind, and of unfinished oaths sworn in blood-stained halls. He spoke little of his thoughts, and I never asked him about his troubles.
My dad and I sat there for long stretches and said nothing at all to each other. The roar of the water flooded our empty heads. I can’t say what my dad pondered, but mostly, I thought of fish.
Not far off, the canyon hung wide over-head and changed into a cave bigger than any I have ever seen in all my years. This was the true jewel of Norwich Falls; there were paintings of this place, set high in frescoes and in the stone temples of Highcrag and Stillwater…even the thin-skinned mariners of far-off Ferin heard the legend of this magnificent vista. “The cross roads of heaven and hell” …or so the work of art was called.
If you had the right spot on the rock, you could see down deeper into that cut, over the glass like sheets of dropping water, beyond the unseen waterfall and into the great chasm of what men once called the “Old Road”. To call it a cavern would not do it justice. There was a ruin down there, among a myriad of other wonders undreamed. Upon the edge of the void in-between, I always knew the best place to sit for a panoramic view of the subterranean land along that old black highway. Far off, the ancient tiles of stone were adjoined by glowing mushroom forests that quivered under the pallid light of the maw. The old road was an underground vein of days long gone by, a path beset by deep chthonic lakes and sprawling phosphorescent valleys of odd tubers and stalks. It was nothing like the pines and hardwoods of my simple place above, and thus I thought it was something wonderful.
Whatever those doomed depths were, they were a weird and wicked portal to me, though certainly the vista was beautiful when glimpsed from a safe perch. Of course the Thar too, mighty as she was, fled down under the rock and joined the haunted caves as it plunged forevermore into the depths, to fill the mountain’s strange thirst.
The Old Road was a legend for some, but we of the valley knew it to be something very real. Mostly hidden, in some spots the way to that ancient dungeon road had been upheaved into the world of the red sun. Some would have called it a thing of evil. Neither I nor my kin did. Despite her beauty, few wayfarers sought the pilgrimage to glimpse the place. My father always said it was “a miracle for the eyes of men to behold,” Even in the wild lands of Kol, few treasures were so misunderstood. Norwich Falls was one of those places.
My father pointed to me the barely visible limits of the cobbled path, a twisting road of engineered mastery. Down there a huge arch sprawled into a land bridge over what must have been the Thar.  Fit for a royal caravan or wide enough to accommodate an entire army, the old road was truly impressive. Not far from the rocks of the path, what looked like the side of another chasm was, in fact, the outside of some monolithic wall, a stronghold of some sort, built into the very rock of the deeps.
Once in a great while, you could see the trotting form of some blowhard knight or glossy armored paladin gallop along the path. Who knew what foolish errand such a person was on? My father always laughed at them and threw a stone into the mist below.
We never dared go down and explore.
“The Drake Elves built this road, and all that lay under Kol,” My father told me once. “Why did they build such a place?” I asked.
“They were all slaves to the demons from below. At the wrong end of a whip they cut the mighty highway and lay her bricks through the mountain and the depths of Kol,” he added. ”Even better, with demons to drive them on, their jagged swords and targ shields conquered all the lands above and below the road they forged,”
“Drake Elves?” I asked. “Are those the men we still see riding the path down so deep?”
“No.” My father replied with a snicker. “Those are just men, I’d guess. The Drake Elves are long gone from this Earth…and so are their demon masters,”
“Gone?” I demanded “What happened? Why would they leave?”
“I cannot say little one,” my father sighed. “The Drake Elves broke their bonds one day and were never heard from again,” he added. “There is no tale of their last days…and their name has faded to time….but the road remains,”
“So they left?”
He just looked at me and nodded. He rubbed my head and patted me on the top of my head as he always did. “There is a yoke of freedom that all men must suffer,” he finally said. “It is not easy to understand,”
Again the next winter, my father left once more for war, drafted in the raiding party of King Maug’s son, Kreel Sauger, during the last fued of the Broken Kalladash. I swear, he half fought off a look of ecstasy on his face as the shirtless red-skinned riders came to fetch him with a spare horse. He nearly bowled over my mother on his way for the blade that hung above our hearth. So I learned later, he was once again made a scout for the King, bound to range the bloody hills and woods to our east as it smoothed into the plains of the Kalladash. He was gone for three long years this time.
During that time, my mother cried every night as she waited for him by the window. When she did, I went down to the river and tossed rocks into the dark and deep pools. For those three years, despite thin times, I somehow grew bigger and stronger, but I never dropped a line to fish there, not once.
When my father came back, he didn’t want to fish much anymore either. The lines formed sharper in his gaunt face now. He was sad most of the time, and spent his days staring at the walls and into the sky. By night, he would eye his blade endlessly above our mantle. Some days I would find him cleaning it and oiling the edge without end. He would go for long walks into the wild at times, and sometimes be gone for days. During that time, few crops in our field grew straight, and often my father would curse the soil with blistered hands and bloody paws as he eyed the half-barren ground.
Every now and then, however, he would wink at me and take me down to the river Thar, to the wild edge of those waters to fish her swirled current and pull trout by the dozen from her edge. The fires in his eyes cooled for that moment. As always, we would sit on our spot and eat our lunch as we scanned for the steel plated crusaders as they galloped along on heavy horse and quested into the darkness of the Old Road below. He watched me now, as I pointed to the clopping form of a horse and rider as they rode along the endless stretches that led down past the mushroom forest, past the haunted citadel and into the black void of the unknown. True to his form, he chuckled at the pompous figure and tossed a rock into the void.
One time, I asked him there, why he mocked those knights with polished plate and those who dressed so fair on their way down into the pit?
All he did was laugh and say “There are soldiers and there are crusaders,”
Again, we never spoke much on those trips. Our language was much simpler, and it was heaven. Still, back at home the crops languished, the house fell in to rot, and the cupboard grew bare. My mother wailed again, once more for hunger and loss. My father had brittle bones now, and his back split when he worked the plow. His joints and knees gave out as he advanced in age and labored with that great edge in the soil. The plowshare did him no favors. As he stumbled, I could see his eyes, how they still burned with that same fire of lament for untold broken spear-charges and faceless comrades he left behind.
Soon, I became a soldier myself. Without enough food in the stocks one winter, I left the Crawl for nearby Highcrag and, with strangely no protest from him, took my father’s longsword with me. With his good name, I enlisted into the Hawktail Rangers as a scout and was sent to train in the southern hills of the Red Tribes with the same crimson-skinned devils that had made a warrior of my dad. I learned how to range those hills fast and, like my father, grew better and better with both blade and bow.
During my training, I visited home at times and saw him and his half-dead fields of corn and parsnips. He was a bent old man now, and could hardly make the trip down to the Thar. Without the life of a soldier, without the promise that one day men would call him and his blade, he dwindled to nothing even faster. I knew then he would be gone soon, far before his time. No demon masters would come to call for him any longer, save for a drink and a tall tale.
My father would eye the blade and my lacquered breastplate the same way we both used to look at the deep roads down below the River Thar. I could still see the same old thoughts in his eyes as he burned with a loss of things he could never unsee. I understood now. When we did go down to the river, he stayed back like some ancient dog and watched me scale the rocks and slime. He gazed at me from afar as I sat in our spot and peered out over the edge of the waterfall.
For three years I served in the King’s guard, and saw plenty of terrible things of my own. No longer did I think of the strange thoughts that burned in my father’s eyes and wonder “why”. I remember one day, as I sat in a hole during a lull in the charge of nearby heavy horse. Over my head, arrows flew like flocking birds and the war drums sounded. Next to my tired body, another half-dead Ranger of the Red Tribe and I spoke between rushes of the attackers. We sat in the filth of our dead comrades and talked, not of battle or blades, but of fish and rivers. I mentioned him of the great Thar and the runs of fat Bluefin trout in the early summer. I told him of those ebony walls of the time-lost citadels buried under Kol and the power of that unseen waterfall. So too, he told me of the Red Hills. He spoke of riding the forests on horseback into the plains, hunting the Magra herds, and of spear-fishing the lonesome lakes of Ilik-Tharn, the Thar’s noble sister. Our people were not unalike. We laughed together as the war horn sounded to charge again and the spears began to shake.
I never saw him after that, nor did I ever get his name.
Not long after, my service ended and I came home for good. With my newfound status, I had the means to buy my own land not far from my old hut. A cottage much like the one I grew up in with a warm hearth and a solid foundation. My mother was gone now, and my father was little more than a tiny shade waiting for the Priests of Gur to wrap him. But I was as alive as ever. Soon enough, I found a woman and married her. I set my hearth in a new house and plowed fields of my own. As I set my father’s sword above that fireplace, he put his hand on my shoulder and whispered that he was proud of the man I had become. He winked at me with pride when my daughter was born. Then, not long after, a son with golden hair graced our home.
With time, I bought my own plow and, like my father, fought with its cumbersome shape every day. Blood and sweat stained my eyes as I dragged its angled form over the tough ground. Eventually though, I learned its mystery just as sure as the nicked blade above our hearth. In the fall, I stalked game and hunted the nearby forest within the low hills of the north in the shadow of the great High Mountain.
One day, those same red-skinned Rangers from the south came to our new home and offered me an empty horse.
“The drums have sounded in the east,” the crimson warrior said to me as my wife and children stood behind me in the wind. He looked at me and waited for my reply.
I smiled at the rider, pointed to my family and home, my fields and old twisted father, and told them I could not go.
From within the cottage, I saw for a moment the old man’s eyes burn with blue flames of unfinished vengeance. Yet, as he gazed at the tattoos of those red men and the horse with no rider, the fury of those orbs died down and once more and my father looked to be something softer. He smiled at me as the demon-blooded warlords nodded and rode off into the hills. Sure enough, I could hear the sound of the drums not far off. I did not think about it for long and that afternoon, I went to fish down by the river Thar. I had not known what my father would say to me, but he just laughed, spit off into the wind, and grabbed his pole.
My father died that next season. At his funeral, I saw the red-skinned Rangers of the south again and all those left alive who had fought with him. There were few men fit to hold a blade left who recalled his deeds. A wreath of Psag-flowers was sent in his honor with bundled reeds from the great apex of the Karau, the very soul of the Crawl. I, his only son spoke a few words. Then, we all stood silent around his pyre as I lit the flame and burned those same branches. Later, I took his ashes and set them above the mantle of my home… next to his sword wherein they both felt the warmth of our family hearth for days after.
Not long after, I took those ashes and went down to the river with my son and daughter. That day, I fished the wide pools with them both and sat upon the steeped rocks of the great gorge. Just as I had done with my father, we ate lunch in the mist and dangled our feet over the impossible edges. Far below, the old road throbbed in the darkness and the subtle sway of mushroom trees danced behind the steam. For a moment, I thought of my father and the blue bonfire in his eyes. Then, I said goodbye as I tossed the urn of his ashes down below into the wet oblivion.
He fell now to the bottom of the falls at last, to go that final stretch of a descent that neither of us had ever dared. Only now, he would glimpse those magnificent falls from the bottom pools and look upon the water as it was always meant to be watched.
My children looked at me confused. There above the ruins of the old road, I told them of the Drake Elves and their demon masters as we lunched on the rocks. I told them the same story of how they forged so much at the end of a whip but faded away not long after.
“All that is left to tell their tale is this old road that leads underground,” I said with a smile.
“Their broken shields and bones are buried underneath,”
When my daughter asked me “why” I said the same thing my father had, but now I understood more of it.
“The yoke of freedom is not an easy thing to understand,”
They both laughed at me as we watched the distant form of an errant knight charge along the ancient cobblestones deep below. You could not hear the sound of his horse’s hooves as the river roared around us. I did not wonder for long where he was headed. Thinking of my father, I laughed and tossed a small rock into the impossible expanse.  After a few minutes, I cast my line back into the pools and we fished some more.
That night, our house was warm and a bubbling stock of fish roasted on the stove with boiled potatoes and ripe carrots. While the plates were laid before us, I eyed my father’s sword as we sat down to eat. Together, we said thanks for men like my father whose blue eyes once burned for us all. I said thanks for the red-skinned men from the south who rode for my family somewhere far away. I looked at my children and wondered if they too would take that sword from its mantle and one day leave me a wrinkled old bag…left to dream of big fish.
In my bed afterwards, while my children slept sound, I dreamt with my loving wife by my side.
In those dreams, I saw the Old Road and the river Thar. I saw a warrior there, below the edge of the darkness along the distant cobbled path and ruined oblivion. For a moment, I thought he was just another ghost among the rocks. Then the form of a man shaped more clearly in my mind. His sword looked so familiar in the phosphorescent gleam of the depths, as did his blue eyes. He stood upon the old road and looked upward at the falls, he looked right through me, bidden by drums ever distant as he called for his red-skinned comrades who rode with an empty horse saved him. From my normal vantage, I could not see the cascading waters, only his burning azure eyes through the rusted slits of a horse hair helm. Behind him, an army of scaled elves clamored with spears at their side.
As for demons….I saw none.
After I left this place, I slept soundly in my bed.  The rain fell softly outside, and not far off, I could hear the roar of the great waters of the river. I did not dream any longer of old battles, crusaders, yokes of freedom, demons, or any more drake elves. Instead, I thought of my family, fields, the laughter of my children, and perhaps most of all, I dreamt of the deafness that is the great River Thar and the fish that run deep within. 

© March 2017 Bryan Dyke

Bryan Dake hails from Vermont. This is his first published story.]]>
<![CDATA["The Ghost Stone" by Debra Young]]>Fri, 31 Mar 2017 00:34:17 GMThttp://swordsandsorcerymagazine.com/archive/the-ghost-stone-by-debra-youngFrom the moment Kamau stepped into the shaman’s cave, carrying Anawe, who burned with fever and lay unconscious in his arms, he felt uneasy. His worry about his sick sister was a part of it. In the firelight’s glow, sweat glistened on her face and chest, rivulets dripped onto the wool blanket spread beneath her on the hard-packed dirt floor. Welts marked her fevered skin as if she’d been lashed with a whip. The other part, Kamau decided, was the shaman’s perfunctory attitude. He acted as if he’d been expecting them.
“Put her there,” he commanded Kamau, pointing to the blanket by the shallow pit where fire burned with unnaturally white flames.
“I am Tausele,” the shaman said. Long scars carved a thin line from beneath each black eye to the corner of his wide mouth, as if his face had been scored with the tip of a knife. A snakeskin loincloth wrapped about his hips, shining slickly in the firelight. Black lacing around his left arm rippled. In the flickering firelight, what appeared to be leather strips were two serpents entwined from the shaman’s wrist to his elbow.
“Well met,” said Kamau. “I am Kamau of the Edanye as are you, I see.” The shaman’s bare chest was scarred with the tiger-claw totem of the Edanye tribe. Kamau bore such a scar as well. “My sister Anawe. Ill for two days now.”
Tausele gave Kamau a measuring gaze. The Edanye warrior met the other man’s stare. He fished a hide pouch from a pocket in his cloak. Opening the pouch, he jiggled a few pearls into his palm. “For you. What can you do for her?” He tilted the pearls back into the pouch, pulled its drawstring tight, and handed it to the shaman.
“What the gods allow, I shall do,” said Tausele.
Squatting, he inspected Anawe the way he might look over a slave in the market. Kamau watched anxiously as the shaman touched her forehead, then her chest. Spreading his long fingers, he pressed upon her, grunted, as if satisfied, and went to shuffle about in the shadows. Kamau unbent himself from crouching by Anawe’s side, rising tall. The fire captured his shadow and pasted it against the walls.
“Abadde,” he said, addressing the shaman formally. “She is too close to the fire.” He knelt and slid his arms around Anawe, gently gathered her. He need only move her so that the pale flames were not too hot on her fever-wracked body.
“Leave her be!” Tausele shook a feathered stick at Kamau. “The fire draws the elili from her.”
Kamau lowered Anawe to the blanket. He wiped her face with his fingers, smoothing moisture from her skin, hoping the elili, the evil spirit making her ill, would be forced out of her by the  fire’s magical power.
Tausele came out of the shadowed corner carrying something in his hands that glowed in a color Kamau had never seen before.
“Ja’a o jua le’le!” Holding his hands over the fire, the shaman’s voice rose and fell rhythmically with the intonation of sorcerous syllables. The flames leapt, drew the glow from Tausele’s hands and subsided, burning green with the strange color trembling in its midst.
“What is that?” Kamau pointed.
“Her soul,” said Tausele, flames flickering in his eyes.
Kamau’s heart dropped and a feeling like the rush of spiders prickled his skin. Shocked at the shaman’s betrayal, he jerked his dagger from its scabbard. Before the shaman could say another word or perform another trickery, the Edanye warrior grasped a fistful of the shaman's braided hair and jerked back his head, baring his throat to the dagger’s keen edge.
“Give it back to her,” he said. “Now!”
Tausele, his head awkwardly canted in Kamau’s grip, gazed at him without fear. “The bones foretold one such as you would come.” Kamau caught the whiff of bitter marro-seed on his breath. “Do as I tell you, she lives. Disobey me,” he lifted his hands, palms open. “She dies.”
He should have sought a Karan healer as Anawe had asked him to do, but he’d heard Karan healers were even stranger than those of a tribal shaman. He’d feared what a bendau, outlander, healer might do to her. He’d thought he could trust an Edanye shaman.
Feeling like a fool, Kamau bridled his anger, released Tausele, and sheathed his dagger. He glared at the shaman, his hands fisted. How gratifying it would be to break a few of his bones. But Anawe’s soul burned at the heart of the fire.
“What do you want?”
Tausele rubbed the spot on his throat where the edge of Kamau’s blade had rested, giving the warrior a narrow-eyed stare.
“Fetch me the dzomba,” he said. “What men call the ghost stone. Her life for stone.”
“Lying fenga!” said Kamau. “Hurt her and I shall kill you.”
Tausele gave him a grim mocking smile. From a brace of hooks on the wall he took a long spear and tossed it. Kamau caught it with the quickness of a striking snake.
“The spearhead is salt,” said Tausele. “Only it can kill the demon that guards the dzomba.”
“Why do you not go yourself, shaman?”
“An abaje marks my soul,” he said. “Were I to cross, I would not be able to return.” He pointed to Anawe.  “Fail me, she dies, her soul becomes mine.”
Kamau stumbled drunkenly, his belly roiled, his senses lost in the sorcerous wind. He found himself at the threshold of a doorway, an arched opening engraved with glyphs that wriggled like worms. Gray radiance shadowed the air. He shivered, his leopard-skin cloak robbed of its warmth in the penetrating cold. Against his chest he felt the icy touch of the charm on its leather cord. The shaman had used it to send him into Odaalei, the vale of damnation.
Hefting the spear, Kamau stepped into an unfathomable darkness. He was grateful to feel ground beneath his feet. A whisper of wind swirled around him. His ears strained for a sound beyond his thumping heart and the rush of his breath. He could be standing on nothing more than a finger of ground, about to step into the yawning throat of a chasm.
A glow stole through the dark, dissolving it to smoke, mist, light. Crouching, ready to fling the spear at whatever came, Kamau looked left and right, expecting to see the demon the shaman had spoken of. He heard the shimmering tintinnabulation of bells.
Before his eyes the air whirled, a gathering of mist. From it spun a girl, dancing; black as obsidian, her braided hair swinging at her waist, bangles and bells around her ankles and wrists sang silver.
“Welcome!” She bowed to him, speaking in a voice as bright as the song of her bells. “Welcome to my abode, mortal.”
Kamau regarded her, glanced beyond her, his gaze sliding along the chamber’s vaporous walls.
“You be not the demon,” he said.
“ I am Njen." She pranced a few steps and shook her tambourine. “You have come for the dzomba.”
Another lie from Tausele. He’d come prepared to fight a monster, and was faced with a dancing girl.
“How do you know that?”
“You are not the first.”
“Where lies the demon?”
“There be no demon here,” she replied. “Only I.”
“Then you must be the demon,” he said.
She laughed. “Then it must be so.” She raised her tambourine and shook it rhythmically. “Demon am I, demon am I,” she sang, dancing around the chamber, bells ringing with mockery. “The dzomba is easily found if you answer my riddle.” She lifted the tambourine, tapped it rhythmically against her palm, gazing at him. “Will you answer my riddle, mortal?”
“Speak it.”
“Shrouded in the living, caged in bone, through blood is the dzomba found. Answer truly and you will know its name,” she said.
“What manner of evil be this stone?”
“The dzomba gives power over the living and allows great command of the dead. Brings them back clothed in flesh as they were when alive. None can tell the difference.”
She clapped her hands. An hourglass appeared, floating in the air, filled not with sand, but with water. As he watched, a single drop dangled and fell, followed by another. Kamau thought of Anawe, beaded with sweat, swaddled in fevered sleep from which she might never awaken, if he failed. Yet it was unlikely the dog of a shaman would set them free once the dzomba was his.
“You must answer before the last drop falls. If you fail, you will be taken.”
“Your soul into Odaalei,” she said. She twirled away from him, and vanished, bells fretting the air.
The mists closed about Kamau, obscuring everything but the patch of ground he stood on and the water-filled hourglass. Curses sprouted and flared in Kamau’s thoughts. He could only return from this place once he had the dzomba in his hand. He avoided looking at the hourglass. He strode forward, his gaze fixed on the ground with each step. Njen’s riddle floated in his thoughts. He considered it but the words were as meaningless as the wind. Yet meaning hid within them, like scent on air. Once he found the dzomba and was back in the world, he’d wring blood from Tausele, he swore. Kamau paused, stared into the roiling mists. After a moment, he looked down and away. Unwholesome images trembled at the edge of his consciousness. If he stared too long at them, he’d start laughing or yelling or moaning. Neither was a welcome.
“Shrouded in the living, caged in bone,” he muttered. He glanced up in irritation and caught sight of the hourglass. Liquid glossed its bottom. “Through blood is the dzomba found,” he said, trying to see meaning in the words.
Carefully he turned around, and retraced his steps. Stopped. It made no difference where in this place he was. Njen had not denied his accusation, he recalled. She’d mocked him. He recalled then the other thing Tausele had told him.
In a chamber swathed in mist Njen sat still as stone, one hand on her knee that rested on the floor and her other arm up, elbow resting on her raised knee. Her eyes were closed, her bells and bangles silenced. She remembered. Her life had not been long as such time was counted. She’d been a court dancer, trained in the sensual arts practically from birth. She’d been as entrancing as the black lilibar-flower and as poisonous as its heartbud. The son of the prince had truly loved her. So much the fool was he. His weakness had made it easy for her to lure him to the ruined temple, to push him into the nest of vipers in an abandoned well. The Consort had promised her freedom and wealth if she rid her of the crown heir.
But she, whose heart knew neither loyalty nor honor, had been betrayed. Bound hands and feet in a sack of wool, she was thrown from the wall of the palace into the sea. She’d awakened in Odaalei, eternity her prison, condemned to spend endless time, guardian of the dzomba. She wished for the peace of death, but no mortal, those shamans and other seekers who disturbed Odaalei with their greedy efforts, had ever answered the riddle correctly. In her endless span of empty time, moments of seeping regret for her evil deeds assaulted her. Ancient words, an echoing cry in her darkness, roused her from her bitter memories.
“Call the demon,” Tausele had said. “Command thrice that it come.”
Kamau set the spear on his shoulder and shouted into the mists, “O’le’le ngahe!” The alien syllables tore from his throat and a knife danced in his mouth. He tasted blood and metal on his tongue. He spat. Twice more he had to call.
“O’le’le ngahe!” His throat burned as the syllables fell into the mists. Nausea coiled in his stomach. He leaned on the spear and cursed the shaman. Drawing breath he shouted the razor-edged command a final time. “O’le’le ngahe!” Kamau spat a gobbet of blood, the last syllable twisting out of him. He fell to his knees, heaving dryly, gripping the spear tightly. Bells sang around him. Getting to his feet, he steadied himself, and raised the spear.
Njen swayed out of the mists. “What is your answer?” She pointed at the hourglass. “Odaalei waits.”
Kamau saw that the bottom half was nearly full.
“Shrouded in the living, caged in bone,” he said. “You are indeed the demon. The dzomba is your heart.”
He glanced at the hourglass and saw with relief that no more drops fell. He looked at Njen, expecting her to transform into a gruesome thing. But she did not.
“You have saved yourself from Odaalei.” She gently shook her bells.
Kamau held the raised spear, felt the weight of it in his hand. Reluctance stayed his arm. Compelled by rough circumstance, he’d sliced the life out of men, but to strike down this dancing girl, who appeared to be no more than sixteen summers old, no older than his youngest cousin. Yet she was a damned soul and if he had failed to answer the riddle, no doubt she would have torn his heart from his chest.
“My sister dies if I return without the stone.” He raised the spear again.
 “You have answered the riddle truly,” she said, gazing at him without fear.
But still Kamau hesitated, caught by her calm wait for true death. She sat down, cross-legged, in a jingling rain of bells, and patted the open ground in front of her, regarding him solemnly.
 “Sit, O Mighty One with the Spear,” she said.
Kamau sat and laid the spear across his thighs.
“Tell me of the one who sent you here.”
He told her about his sister’s illness, about his seeking the shaman Tausele’s help to heal her, about the shaman’s betrayal.
“That one!” said Njen, her laughter high and ringing. “The mists whisper of that one. He is marked, did you say?” At Kamau’s nod, she said, “Long has his soul been forfeit.” The bells at her wrists jangled. “If you would have the dzomba, you must kill me. Then you shall know its true name.”
Kamau stood, leveled the spear at her. On the field of battle, he’d killed; in defense of his life, he’d killed, in defense of someone else’s life, he’d killed. Here he faced a creature of darkness and could not find it in himself to send her into eternal death. His hesitation mingled with his disgust at having to do the wicked shaman’s bidding.
“I long to pass to my next life, should the gods will it, or rest forever.” Njen rose to her knees, a breath away from the sharp tip of the salt crystal. “I would throw myself upon the spear, but I cannot. Were I to do so, I would become a wraith in a far worse place than this. Spare me that, warrior. Free me from this damnation.” She spread her arms, her bells jangled. “Please.”
“If you would have it so,” he said, still hesitating. Then added, “You will be free of Odaalei. No longer damned.”
“Everything I have ever known has long been dust,” she replied.
Kamau thrust his spear into her chest, stepping back as green flames sprang over her. She spoke the name of the dzomba as she burned, her body swirling into ash. Where she’d knelt lay a glistening black stone. Kamau closed his fist about it.
As before, great prickly wings of wind wrapped about him, tore his senses from him, casting him into a black void like that of dreamless sleep. He dropped stumbling into the world he knew, back in the fire-bright cave. He gripped the dzomba tight in his fist, its weighty cold freezing his hand. If the shaman thought Kamau would simply hand it over, he’d soon know better.
“Oai’ ga’hla‘ai’ le’le!” shouted Tausele.
Kamau’s limbs became as stone. One of the serpents freed itself from Tausele's arm and streaked toward him, piercing his chest, its tiny head hard as an arrow. His heart thumped sluggishly, the serpent coiling about it, trailing ice. Anawe lay as he’d left her, locked in the fever’s death-like grip, her soul caged in Tausele’s green fire. Kamau strained against the binding chant, but his effort was futile.
Tausele’s hands inscribed the air with shimmering glyphs. More sorcerous words slithered out of his throat. Kamau felt the dzomba gripped in his fist burn with an icy heat. His thought of holding it back to win Anawe’s freedom was no more than dust now. Though his body was frozen in Tausele’s spell, his hand opened like a flower. Tausele snatched the falling stone.
“Soon all the world will know my name, all will come to know Tausele, Death’s Master.” The shaman smacked his lips. “Even Death will fear me.” He went to the fire, holding the dzomba on his palm. “The fire will reveal its name to me, thus its power will be mine.”
He dropped the dzomba into the flames, knelt and leaned closed, his face limned by firelight. He frowned, drew back, leaned once more toward the fire, peering at the black stone in the flames. He spoke a word, reached and snatched it out. He studied it, turning it over and over in his hand, and lifted his gaze to Kamau.
“Is this not the dzomba?” He got to his feet. With a sharp gesture at Kamau, he said, “Speak!”
Kamau felt his throat soften, the meaning of Njen’s final words coming clear to him. Without hesitation, he intoned the true name of the dzomba in the way Njen had spoken it. Blood welled in his mouth. He spat it out, not minding this time.
Light, black-rimmed and as keen-edged as a sword, lanced from the dzomba, slicing the air with serpentine lines. A rushing wind whirled through the shaman’s cave, the cold gray mists of Odaalei wrapped about Tausele like pythons. He cried out, his terrified shout dying on the edge of the vanishing void. The cold petrifying Kamau melted from him and his limbs lost their heaviness. He felt something leathery crowding the back of his throat and heaved, hawking out Tausele's serpent, dead. Disgust and repulsion shivered through him. The glaucous flames burning near Anawe flickered out, and the white glow at their heart disappeared.
“No!” Kamau searched the ground for the black dzomba. It too was gone, and…he could not remember its name.
He knelt by Anawe, who lay as if dead. He cursed Tausele, hoping the shaman fell into Odaalei’s deepest, darkest, most demon-infested abyss. Grasping Anawe by her shoulders, he shook her as gently as he could, willing her eyes to open.
“Wake, Anawe. Wake!”
But she did not awaken. Kamau sat back on his heels, not believing, grief rising in his heart. The light of dawn touched the moss-mottled walls of the shaman’s cave, and he heard the strident bird-calls of bharies, winging in the day. The glazed blue bead of Anawe’s necklace, nestled in the hollow of her throat, trembled, and she opened her eyes. She pushed up on her elbows, her gaze flitted around the shaman’s cave and arrowed suspiciously back to him.
“Next time I shall do as you say,” he promised.
Kamau grinned, and inhaled deeply the pure green scent of the morning’s first breath.

©February, 2017 Debra Y0oung

Debra Young has published an anthology of dark fantasy, Grave ShadowsHer work has also been seen in The Horror Zine and Dark Fire Fiction.  This is her first appearance in Swords & Sorcery.]]>
<![CDATA["Trouble at the Viscount Tavern" by Tom Lavin]]>Fri, 31 Mar 2017 00:31:10 GMThttp://swordsandsorcerymagazine.com/archive/trouble-at-the-viscount-tavern-by-tom-lavin“I expect you fellows will want to have a look at this!
Deon slammed the book down on the table, hoping to attract the attention of his friends with a satisfying thump, but in the merry bustle of the tavern the sound was rather feebler than he had hoped. The book’s cover read: Giselder Farnbrak’s Herbs and Homely Cooking.
Ruald glanced down at the book, then back up at Deon, the drooping lids of his eyes suggesting nothing but boredom. “You’ve taken up cooking,” he said blandly. Tenny and Guimer chuckled.
“I can see why you might think so,” Deon said, failing to repress a grin, “but as of yet I have not taken up cooking—I think I’ll leave that to Tenny, since he’s been at it for ten years already. No—actually, it’s a fake cover.” He opened the little book up and pointed at the inside edges of the cover, which had been shoddily stitched together. He flashed each of his friends a glance under his wave of fair brown hair, a smirk still on his lips. He was certain he had them curious now.
“I see,” Tenny said, scratching at his wispy beard. “So what is it then?”
“I’m glad you asked, Ten. A wise question. What it actually is”—here Deon leaned in close and lowered his voice, as if someone in the crowded tavern might hear anything he was saying—“is a book of spells.
Tenny half-chuckled, a broad grin creeping across his pudgy red cheeks. He waited for Deon to confess he was joking and tell him what he really meant. Deon held his gaze expectantly. That was what he really meant.
“A book of spells,” Ruald intoned, “this is very serious. We can’t have you messing around with spells, Deon—you’ve only had one ale and you’re already slurring your words.”
“Well, let us have a look at it then,” Guimer said, his rough voice rising above the din. He snatched the book from the table and opened it; it looked preposterous in his huge hands. “Where’d you find this eh?”
“Someone left it in one of the rooms at the Fairview—was lucky I found it before my brother got his hands on it.”
Guimer brought the little book right up to his face, so close it was touching his great red beard, and he said in a booming voice: “Devil come forth into this world! Into this very tav—”
“No, no, don’t read it!” Tenny shouted, frantically waving his hands. Guimer looked up from the book and laughed.
“I was making it up! I can barely even read the damn handwriting, you fool!” he said, showing Tenny a page of black scrawls. “Besides, you don’t really believe this nonsense, do you?”
“Well, not really,” Tenny said, smiling sheepishly. “But just in case . . .”
“Give it back here,” Deon said, “my eyes are still young, I can read it. I’ll only read a little so we don’t end up turning into boars, or something else horrible. You must hear some of this stuff—it’s all very strange.”
He opened the book and started leafing through, his features screwed up in concentration. With his fair hair and thin, pointed features he looked like a squirrel intent on opening a nut.
“Here--Bestow Misfortune, apparently. Seems rather tame really, when you think about setting people alight, or turning them to ice, or whatnot, the sort of things you hear from people who travel too much—anyway, so it says: Devil bestow misfortune upon thee, that your life may be long, yet bitter and sorrowful, and full of pain, and so on. Rather odd, isn’t it?”
Deon looked up and met Ruald’s gaze. The man’s face was blank—it was merely his cold blue eyes and upturned mouth that made him appear filled with distaste for everything around him. “And so on?” he said, “Finish it. Don’t say this stuff scares you. We already have one frightened pup at the table.” He motioned lazily at Tenny without looking at him.
Deon smiled and raised his eyebrows, the equivalent of a shrug, and said: “Just in case.” He took a swig from his tankard to avoid Ruald’s eyes.
“To hell with that,” Ruald said, “find something tame if you must, and read that. Then when we see that nothing happens we can read the rest, and laugh at you two for being so pathetic.”
“Alright, alright, alright. I’ll find something,” Deon said. “Gods you can be grumpy sometimes. I’d hate to see what you’re like when you don’t have an ale in front of you.” He leafed furiously through the book, muttering to everyone and no one.
It was an early Friday evening at the tail-end of summer, and The Viscount was filled with bodies. Still more were piling in through door just behind Deon, and as they passed him on their way to the bar they glanced down at the table. They had heard nothing, they merely knew from Deon’s lively mutterings and the intense interest the others seemed to be paying him that he was up to something strange.
Summon gold—that sounds like a good idea. I’ll be almost out after another ale. Here we go--Devil summon gold coins within your purse, as lustrous as any in the land. Diyaban talan s’baa. Diyaban talan s’baa. Diyaban talan s’baa.
Deon had spoken the words as solemnly as he could—he had always pictured wizards as old grey men intoning their spells with an air of melancholy—and despite themselves Tenny and Guimer glanced around, as if gold was about to fall from the ceilings of the tavern. Nothing happened. Ruald snorted contemptuously. “Check your purses!” Deon hissed, fumbling in his overcoat.
“Nope. Nothing,” Tenny said.
“Same here,” said Guimer.
Deon sighed, looked down at the table and shook his head. “Shame. I almost believed it would work for a moment.”
“How old are you, Deon?” said Ruald, his voice tired. He picked up the book from the table and began leafing through it, looking mildly amused.
“I’m thirty years the month next,” Deon said, “and don’t try and mock me for it, I know you’d give your left arm to be thirty again. You’re on your way to becoming a grumpy old man, Ruald—there, I’ve said it.”
Ruald couldn’t help but smile, as was often the case when he listened to Deon’s rambling. He passed the book back to the young man, open. “Try this one—I’ll buy you an ale if you read it, which I’m sure you won’t, you coward.”
“Well, that’s hardly fair. If you’re so brave and mighty, you read one, and we’ll see what happens.”
Ruald held Deon’s gaze for a moment, a sardonic smile crossing his face. “Alright then,” he said, and took the book back again. He flipped through the pages for a moment, looking no more excited than if he had actually been reading Giselder Farnbrak’s Herbs and Homely Cooking. The eyes around the table watched him silently. Tenny gulped his beer. Finally, Ruald began:
Debilan d’bansaa karan jan’kaa ekato abart—”
Don’t!” Tenny shrieked.
Guimer and Deon fell about laughing. Ruald shot a tired look at Tenny, whose face had blushed red.
“Come on, you coward, let the man finish,” Guimer said. “Let’s see some spells flying about the tavern, eh? It hasn’t had much excitement in a long time, has it?”
“I don’t like it,” Tenny said, shaking his head, “what does it say this—spell—even does?”
“Nothing,” Ruald said. “It says nothing, and it does nothing, because it’s nonsense.”
A scruffy looking man standing behind Ruald leaned over the table, looking at Tenny. “I didn’t think anyone still believed those old wives’ tales,” he said, a thin smile spreading across his face. “I agree with this gentleman here”—he motioned at Guimer—“let’s scare some of the locals.”
“Well, there’s believing and there’s taking precautions,” Deon said. “I don’t believe in it, but what if I’m wrong? What if we’re about blast the tavern back to the stone age? I’ve never seen any magic, but I’ve never set eyes on the source of the Winterwind—or the sea for that matter—yet I’m sure they exist.”
The scruffy man held Deon’s gaze for a moment, his face severe. His skin was the color of leather, cracked and broken with age and covered with thick black stubble. A great mane of greasy black hair hung down his shoulders. “And I’m sure you’ve never seen a woman in the flesh, naked in a bedchamber neither,” he said, “but I assure you, they do exist.”
Guimer and Tenny roared with laughter, and even Ruald manager a slight chuckle. “He’s got you there lad!” Guimer shouted. Deon held up his hands and smiled, but his face turned pink.
“I have, actually, despite nature’s gifts in many areas, seen—that which you just mentioned. Regardless, it seems rather beside the point. If anything it supports my argument.”
The scruffy man glanced down at Ruald. “Come on then—read the damn thing in full. Nice and loud. Or shall I do it?”
“That’s alright,” Ruald said bluntly, and started reading again: “Debilan d’bansaa karan jan’kaa ekato abart talan bisaa. Debilan d’bansaa karan jan’kaa ekato abart talan bisaa. Debilan d’bansaa karan jan’kaa ekato abart talan bisaa.” The men held their breath. People standing around them peered down at the group, frowns crossing their faces. Glances were shared between friends. The volume of conversations dropped, the sound of the strange words Ruald had spoken troubling people’s minds. The colorful cheeriness of the tavern seemed to have darkened slightly, as when the face of a foreigner appeared at the door. Deon, Ruald, Guimer and Tenny looked around. Nothing happened.
“Well, I guess I’m a coward,” Deon said, “but it does pay to be one on occasions, so let’s not dwell on it. I’ll try another one.” He snatched the book from Ruald and started reading once more:
Diyaban bamapan godaa d’bansaa karan ekato bibat jantu talan. Diyaban—”
“I would much rather you didn’t,” said a voice.
The voice had come from a man standing behind Deon. The eyes of the table looked him over: he was a gentleman, and he wore a fine grey coat with ruffled white plumes at the end of the arms. His skin and hair were almost exactly the same shade of grey, which was only a shade lighter than the grey of his coat. He looked as prim and cold as a corpse dressed for a funeral, and his eyes rested on the men at the table with unhidden disdain.
“And why’s that?” Guimer growled. “Don’t tell me you believe in this stuff. I don’t, and I don’t care if you do.”
“Whether I believe in it or not isn’t relevant,” the gentleman said, his voice imperious, “what matters is that you are using a vulgar language—the tongue of the barbarians from the south—which I happen to understand some of, and it is most unpleasant to have to listen to. I would rather you refrain from speaking in such a manner—after all, as you say, nothing will happen, so you might as well talk amongst yourselves properly.”
A quiet as close to silence as was possible had fallen over the tavern. Deon felt as if every eye in the room was turned in his direction, the sockets of the animal heads on the walls included. Guimer’s face flushed a deeper red than his hair, and his lips quivered. Suddenly he leapt to his feet.
“I’ll be damned!” he roared, “I’ll be damned! This is our tavern! We’ve been coming here, sitting on this table for going on fifteen years, you pompous bastard! And you come in and tell us what to say, what to do, acting like the lord of a damned manor! Your manor’s that way, matey! You don’t like hearing us—clear out!”
A number of cheers went up around the tavern. The gentleman’s face had remained as calm as a lake throughout Guimer’s outburst, his great forehead and crooked nose giving him a look of noble severity. He seemed completely oblivious to how out of place he was amongst the merry red faces of the tavern. For some reason Deon felt suddenly afraid.
“There is but one table available,” the gentleman began, his voice icy, “it is next to yours. That is where I wish to sit and drink my ale. I hoped not for a confrontation, but if you continue speaking in this vulgar language I shall speak with the barman, whom I trust is more respectable than the likes of you.”
Read the damn spell,” the scruffy man growled.
He was staring darkly at the gentleman. The gentleman turned to him and held his gaze, and it looked to the men at the table like a demon facing a ghost: one man dark and wild, his black eyes shining, the other cold, white and reserved. For a moment there was silence—then Guimer leant forward, snatched the book from Deon and slammed it down before him.
Debilan d’bansaa karan jan’kaa ekato abart talan bisaa!” he yelled, his face pressed down to the book’s pages, “Debilan d’bansaa karan jan’kaa ekato abart talan bisaa! Debilan d’bansaa karan jan’kaa ekato abart talan bisaa!
The gentleman sighed in disgust, turned sharply and strode over to the bar. Deon watched as he spoke with the barman, who looked him up and down, glanced over at his regulars around the table, and laughed.
“They pay me well, they can do what the hell they like!” he shouted, laughing. All the while Guimer continued chanting, his voice rising louder and louder:
Debilan d’bansaa karan jan’kaa ekato abart talan bisaa! Debilan d’bansaa karan jan’kaa ekato abart talan bisaa!
The table rocked with laughter. The dark haired man behind Ruald was smiling broadly, and he turned to Guimer and shouted: “louder! Louder!”
The gentleman grimaced, buttoned his coat vigorously, shot a dark look at the scruffy man, a darker one at Guimer, and then turned to go. Deon felt a slight pang of guilt, but he was enjoying himself too much to care. As the gentleman turned to the door Guimer’s shouting reached its peak, becoming a roar of exultant victory and a last insult towards his adversary. Every face in the tavern was turned towards the commotion, and most were laughing and smiling at the sight of the gentleman’s back.
Debilan d’bansaa karan jan’kaa ekato abart talan bisaa—”
An ear-rending scream split the sounds of the tavern, silencing the mouths and chilling the hearts of everyone in the room. It was not the voice of one man, or even one entity: it was a chorus of horror, pure, breathless, never-ending. It was like the wind’s whispering had risen to a deafening shriek, and there wasn’t a mind in the tavern conscious of anything but a fear as pure and black as onyx. In the same instant a darkness such as could not be found in the deepest cavern descended, as quickly as the snuffing of a candle. Deon could make out nothing. It was not a mere absence of light: it was as if something physical had eclipsed his sight, erased his memory, emptied his mind, and left nothing but the terrifying screaming.
A point of light formed in the darkness. It began to grow, the colors twisting and changing from a searing yellow to a sickly purple. It pulled at the men in the tavern, drawing their sight and their bodies steadily towards it. They did not try and fight it, as they had all but ceased to exist: they had been reduced to nothing but the unholy screaming in their ears, the impossible blackness, and now the light that swirled before them, blinding and terrifying. The light continued to grow, until it had filled everyone’s minds.
Then they heard underneath the screaming a low, sonorous voice chanting. It was in the same language as the spell, yet somehow its meaning rang clear and true in their minds.
Alor bisaa sen hayan,” they heard, and they knew that their world was ending.
Apan ashaa yantan ekaa bisaa asak,” they heard, and they knew that all that awaited them was pain.
Anantaa jan’kaa an taa bedanaa,” they heard, and they knew that it was to be eternal.
Suddenly a clear, booming voice rang out, and it sounded as if it was from another world—the world they had almost lost.
Debilan tamat apanaa samabet!” The voice shouted, loud and defiant. “Debilan tamat apanaa samabet! Debilan tamat apanaa samabet!
The screaming and chattering was twisted off and sucked away into the light. The light itself swirled inwards, shrinking, like blood running down a drain. Slowly the blackness resided, and dull light crept back into the tavern with all the caution of a panicked animal. The room stood aghast and silent. The candles had been snuffed out. The food and drink on the tables had been cast about at random. People found themselves lying on the floor, or across tables, or clutching the walls with their fingernails. The only man standing was the scruffy man with the greasy black hair. He held the book of spells in his hand and a sinister smile across his lips.
He turned and glanced down at Deon, his eyes twinkling. “I’ve been looking for this for a while,” he said, flashing a mischievous grin. Deon, sprawled on his back with his toppled chair still between his legs, couldn’t make a sound. The man stepped over him, then over the gentleman, and the eyes of the room watched him with silent horror. He opened the door and walked out into the evening air, the book safely back in his pocket.

© February 2017 Tom Lavin

Tom Lavin is from the United Kingdom and currently teaches English in Asia. Lavin is a newcomer to Swords & Sorcery.]]>