Jonas pulled his dagger from the ogre’s eye.
It smelled like vanilla.
Blood the color of clotted cream jetted across his chest and brow, leaving a shiny residue as it clumped and slid down his face. The giant creature bellowed, petroglyph-fingers tightening. Jonas’ neck popped as the ogre flung him through the air — blind and smelling like a feast-day cupcake.
He landed hard against an old stone wall. A gray stone shaped like a bull’s head, dislodged by the impact, rolled languorously from the top of the wall and plunked into his lap. Jonas scooped white eye-blood off his face with one hand, while idly patting his new stone-friend with the other. Distantly, he could hear the shouts of encouragement from the drunken townsfolk and the
terrible chest-bellow of the ogre. He was a squire lost from his knight, and this was not his first evening in the mud.
“Hey, Rock,.” the squire said, friendly and drunk.
The squire started to sit up, then groaned with pain. He leaned his head back against the wall. It was a beautiful night. The three moons hung stately overhead, and the stars winked at him kindly. Wasn’t he supposed to be doing something?
The red-leather boot of the ogre detonated the stone wall, showering Jonas with chipped granite and bits of mortar. He turned his head slightly to the right to get a detailed look at the fine stitching of the footwear. The squire pulled himself up and hefted the cow-stone, the only weapon at hand. Grunting, he brought the stone down sharply on the vast creature’s veined knee. All he managed to do was dislodge a few flakes of cracked, dry skin.
“Come on, Rock!” Jonas scolded. “You can do better than that, can’t you?”
Jonas scrambled away back into the center of the town’s square, tottering slightly. A goat-faced man yelled some crude advice, spewing yellow spittle down into his scraggly gray beard. The ramshackle group of barfolk raised their tankards to the sky and laughed.
Jonas considered joining them. Even though the pain in his back was sharp, everything else was blunted and alcohol-gleam amusing.
The ogre pulled his boot free of the wall and turned. The white eye-blood poured down his pomegranate face, the ruined socket still pulsing. The remaining eye focused on the squire, standing in the center of the village square. Jonas tossed his unreliable stone-friend aside and reached for his dagger.
His hand closed on an empty belt.
Oh yeah, Jonas thought. Lost that a minute ago.
He ran towards the ogre, hoping to close the distance. The creature was three times his height and many, many times his strength. His only chance lay in somehow taking advantage of the one wound he’d managed to inflict. Wish I had my sword, I’d tear this monster apart. As easy as—
A red-leather boot crunched into the squire’s chest, sending him flying again. Jonas landed on his back, breathless. He feebly tried to beat down the ringing in his ears, hoping to at least hear the ogre’s approach. A fistful of heartbeats limped past, and he raised his head from the cobblestones to look around.
The ogre was turned slightly away from Jonas, speaking with a blonde man dressed in the brown cloak of a town guard. The red-faced ogre leaned over the man, speaking determinedly and pointing several times in Jonas’ direction. A few drops of creamy white rained down as the ogre’s face shook in agitation. The guardsman kept his hand on his truncheon and took a step back to avoid the spray. Several drunken locals stood close by, offering assistance and clarification in a subdued and helpful manner.
The ringing in Jonas’ ears slowly subsided, and he pulled himself up to a sitting position, palms flat on the cobblestones. His stomach turned, slopping over with ale. Now that the excitement of the battle was wearing off, he felt sick.
The ogre stood frowning, one massive hand clapped over its ravaged eye. The other men from the inn stood close by, patting the massive creature with hands of solemn commiseration. The brown-cloaked guard swept away from them and made his way toward the battered squire.
“You’ll be coming with me, boy,.” the guardsman said. “You’re under arrest for attacking a citizen without provocation.”
Jonas nodded. “Make sure you arrest Rock. He attacked too.”
Then the squire vomited up several glasses of poorly fermented ale onto the guardsman’s boots.
The guard cast his eyes to the heavens as he pulled free his wooden baton. The wood was old and cracked, stained dark with too much polish.
“Sorry about your boots?” the squire offered, wiping his mouth with the sleeve of his tunic.
Somehow, the guard’s blow felt harder than the stone wall or the fall onto the cobblestones. Jonas went black.
The cold granite told Jonas that he was awake again.
He was in a cell. Three stone walls and a door made of iron bars. His ribs were full of dirty glass, and red blood had oozed from a cut he hadn’t noticed before at his hairline. Jonas looked down at the floor, where his features had been stamped in drying blood on the granite floor.
A completely average face, with a sharply pointed jaw. A square nose and a flat forehead like the side of an anvil. The face of a baker’s son. Which made sense, because that’s what he was.
If they hadn’t checked my sword at the gates, I could’ve won that fight. His hand scuffed the floor, trying to blot the bloody impression. And probably be in jail for murder.
Jonas chuckled, then winced. One of his teeth was twisted oddly. He prodded it with his finger, but it wiggled only slightly.
He felt around the darkened cell and found the wall. To slide his back up against it required only a little pain and nausea. Voices floated from down the hallway, where he spied a slim yellow crack of light and an open doorway.
“Damn fool kid. Every time a caravan hits town this happens.”
The voice was gray smoke coming from a dying campfire. A younger, brighter voice answered.
“Yeah, but you have to admit he did quite a number on Sundown Jackson. Cut out his freaking eye! The kid’s got some spirit.”
“Pfeh,” the older voice said.
The two voices were coming closer. Jonas tried to decide whether it would be better to pretend to be asleep but couldn’t make up his mind before warm torchlight spilled through the iron bars into his cell.
“Awake, huh?” the first voice said. An older man, thinning white hair kept closely cropped. Jonas recognized the younger man with him as the guard who’d knocked him out.
“I’m Captain Ruck. You have anything to say for yourself?”.
“When do I get fed?” Jonas asked politely.
The younger guard snickered but quickly covered his mouth with a hand. Captain Ruck rolled his eyes and leaned against the bars on one elbow. He looked down at the young man.
“Not your first time in a cell, eh? I think you’ll be needing to swallow a bit more water before you think about putting any food down in your stomach.” He kicked the bottom of the bars with his foot, drawing Jonas’ attention to a small clay jug. The squire pulled himself across the floor towards it.
“Where were you trained, boy?” the captain asked.
Jonas hooked one finger through the handle of the jug and pulled it across the floor. Still belly-down, he tilted the jug forward enough for a few swallows of water to splash across his lips and down his throat. He noticed idly that the excess didn’t quite erase the red stamp his face had made on the floor.
“Oh, I wasn’t trained,” Jonas said. “Just a natural, I guess.”
“Boy. Look at me,” Ruck said.
The squire pulled his eyes from the floor, and looked across the cell. The captain’s eyes were firm.
“Lying doesn’t suit you. Now listen close. You’ve done something very stupid. You are in a strange town, where no one will speak for you. I don’t know where you came from, but in this town a little courtesy isn’t such a bad thing.” The old man grunted, and Jonas felt the first tickles of guilt making their way through the sour ale in his stomach. “I think you’re still fairly drunk. We’ll talk more in the morning. Most likely you’ll be whipped and turned out at the gates, but that’ll take a day or two for the magister to pass sentence. We can make your stay very uncomfortable if needs be. Think on it.”
Jonas let his head drop. The captain seemed like a decent man. He wanted to tell him where he was from, where he’d been trained. But that would only lead to more questions, questions he didn’t have the answer to. Better to keep his mouth shut.
Ruck sighed and turned to leave. The younger guard leaned for a moment against the cell door, waiting for the captain to exit. As the outer door swung shut, Jonas saw the man’s hands go to the front of his leggings. A bright stream of urine hit the floor, mingling with the blood and water– the red stamp of his face.
“Yeah, think on it. Think, think, think.” The guard left, whistling a merry tune.
Jonas laid down, as far from the yellow puddle as he could manage. This was his life now, his life on the weary road. He’d been running for months and this was far from the worst day. Nothing to be done about it, just get some sleep and hope that tomorrow there would be a brighter road for him to follow.
Master always said that. The squire drifted to sleep, and thought about the knight he’d left behind.
Captain Ruck sat at his desk and pressed thick fingers to his forehead. His headaches were an old friend, stopping by most days in the late afternoon. Tap, tap they knocked on his head and settled in for a long evening chat.
That’s when the drinking started. He did have a guest, after all.
But lately, his painful visitor had taken to visiting earlier and earlier, sometimes around lunch, sometimes before he’d finished his second cup of coffee. Here it was, a bare two hours after dawn and he could hear his guest’s feet coming up the path.
Keeping the pressure on his forehead with one hand, Ruck groped for the steel bottle in his bottom drawer. The metal was cool on his lips as he drank deep.
Bronberry leaned into the room and smiled a toothy grin.
“Taking lunch a little early, Captain?”
“Shut your mouth, Bronberry. I’m in no mood.” Ruck stoppered the bottle and slammed it back into the drawer.
His lieutenant was a handsome sort. Blonde and lean, nice clean hands. Ruck hated him.
“I think that boy in Cell Three is finally coming around. He hasn’t puked in a couple of hours, I figure. Want me to drag him down for sentencing? Or do you need a few more…minutes?” The young guard smiled and drawled out the last word.
Ruck’s stomach tightened with bile. He took a few short breaths.
“Bring him down, Bronberry. Now,” he replied.
The young guard saluted with a careless hand and slid from view.
Ruck slid his thick fingers through thinning hair and tried to keep from immediately taking another long drink from the bottle. He failed, but managed to have the steel bottle safely back in its place before Bronberry returned with the prisoner.
Bronberry pushed the boy roughly onto the wooden bench and bolted his manacles to the old iron ring. The guard slapped the back of the boy’s head and nodded to the captain.
“He’s all yours, Captain. Have fun!” The door shut briskly.
The boy’s skin was pale, and he looked absurdly hungover. He looked around the room, disheveled mop of curly brown hair matted to his skull. He’s so young, Ruck thought. Can’t be more than fifteen.
“How are you feeling, boy?” Ruck asked.
The prisoner said nothing.
The captain rolled his eyes and rubbed his forehead for a moment. He stood and leaned forward. Ruck grabbed his guard’s baton from the corner of his desk and thumped the young man squarely on his shoulder.
“Ow!” the boy said.
“Paying attention now? Maybe you don’t remember from last night — and with the amount you drank, I wouldn’t be surprised — but it’s time to start cooperating. Answering questions, doing as you’re told, and if you don’t start right now, I’m going to loosen your tongue with this.”
The boy furrowed his brow and stared at the baton for a long moment. He shrugged.
“I feel fine…” The truncheon rose slightly. “…Sir. I feel fine, sir.”
“And what’s your name?”
“Jonas of… Jonas. Jonas is my name.”
Ruck poked the boy’s shoulder again. “Good. I don’t care where you’re from; Jonas will do. Now, do you remember fighting with Sundown Jackson, the ogre?”
“I think my children will remember it.”
“You got very drunk, and then some friendly men asked you if you’d like to make some money. A quick fight for some quick gold. Am I right so far?”
The boy looked at Ruck with surprise, then nodded.
“They led you around the back of the Oak, and they started betting. A copper, two silvers — why not some gold? This boy looks sharp! Hey, friend, you want to bet on yourself? Oh, only a few coppers? Well, I’ll hold it for you, and give you a silver for every copper if you win!” Ruck tapped the baton against his cheek as his voice grew bored. “And, surprise, ogre. Right?”
Jonas rolled his head back and cut his eyes towards the window.
“What I don’t get,” Ruck continued, “is why didn’t you run? Most travelers do, at that point.”
The boy lolled his head forward for a moment, hair falling across his face.
“Figured I could win, I guess,” The boy said seriously.
Rime watched the man burn.
The left ear held out the longest, oddly pink and vibrant amidst the flames. It melted like candle wax. She concentrated and increased the heat, pouring fire down until the pork-fat-popping corpse shuddered and laid still. The fire coiled back inside her, and she noticed the sudden quiet, absent of screams. The campsite stank of burning.
She was going to need a new butler.
Pushing her hair out of her eyes, Rime stepped back into her wagon to think. The eyes of her driver and the other two caravan guards followed like frightened rabbits. “Mage…” one whispered in shock.
They would leave as soon as dark fell, she knew. Slipping between trees and risking a broken horse leg in the hopes of escaping her. A little bit braver, or further from civilization, they might have risked attacking her, and stealing the tidy chest of gold she kept under her bunk. She had chosen this exact moment to burn Murphy, right where the caravan guards could see. Hopefully it would buy her enough time to recover.
The spell-pain took her as soon as she closed the door to her wagon. A tremendous nausea in her gut and a throbbing in her temples. Blurred vision was inconvenient, so she closed her eyes to focus. Rime made herself move her feet slowly, feeling for the edge of the chair, of the desk, then finally her bunk. The girl slid on top of the blanket as the world spun.
Murphy had deserved it. The wizened old man her father had sent as guide, advisor, and manservant had been solicitous enough, when he wasn’t drinking with the guards or falling off his horse. A little too familiar at times, running his spider hands over her shoulders down to the small of her back. She had tolerated it as a necessary evil.
Then she had found the note.
A scribbled letter from someone, promising gold in return for her route. For making sure the guards were properly drunk on the night of the next Full White. Rime had folded the note precisely four times after reading it.
She had stood over his pack for several moments after that, the drunken butler’s few possessions spilled on the ground as he snored next to the campfire. It was an hour before dark, but he had been drunk since lunch. Her steps were precise as she crossed the distance and laid the paper in his hands. A few prods with her boot had woken him, and the look in his eyes as he pawed the note open was all that she needed.
Rime laid in her bed, the world spun, and she watched the man burn again and again as she fell into darkness.
She awoke, sweat-damp hair sticking to her face.
It was dark outside; a few hours had passed. Rime rose and moved to open her wagon’s door.
They’d taken the horses, as expected. Only the two hitched to her wagon remained. She nodded in satisfaction. Fear had aided her.
The fire cast dying light around the clearing. A steel pot lay in the embers, charring on one side. She could smell burning beans, and a stranger odor. Burning butler.
The pile of wood the driver and caravan guards had gathered remained. Rime tossed a few logs onto the fire and sat down to think. Her driver had always fussed over the fire, making certain that the logs were laid in an exact pattern. She noted that wood burned, regardless of how it was laid. This was the first fire she had ever tended.
The slim girl sat down on a stone and stared into the flames.
Before stealing off into the night, the hired men had the forethought to take Murphy’s charred body with them. It would lend credence to any tale they might tell. She had no range-craft, but she assumed they would make haste back the way they had come, back to their homes in the city of Carroway. They had no business down this road anymore.
I wonder if they read the note? I wonder if they know I saved their lives?
Rime thought back to Murphy’s death. The note had probably burned.
The girl flicked her hand in a gesture of dismissal.
By the extremely accurate map her father had kept on his study wall, she was no more than a day’s travel from Talbot. Beyond that the canyons. Beyond that, what she needed. Gold would buy more men in Talbot, enough to handle whatever forces were waiting when the White Moon was full.
Rime looked at the three moons. The Black Moon was waning, and the Red Moon was a bare sliver on the horizon’s rim. The White Moon hung fat in the sky. Two days. The girl rubbed her lip. That’s how long I have before I need new guards. Rime hated the need.
She grabbed a stick and pulled the bean pot out of the fire. The stench was growing tiresome. The clean, steel lid was nearby. Rime saw a brown smear down her face reflected as she put the lid back on. Another nosebleed.
Her guards had stolen all the food, but she still had a water cask slung on the back of her wagon. She scrubbed the dried blood off her face and took a swallow of the stale water, forcing it down.
Rime threw some more logs on the fire, until the clearing filled with light. She was in no mood or condition to deal with any wandering creatures. Her magic was ready, but her body was still used up.
She locked the door to her wagon and laid down on the bed. The girl closed her eyes, willing herself to sleep.
At dawn, she would need to teach herself how to drive the wagon.
The Knight of Dust
The light was dim. A single candle flickered over stacks of old scrolls and tomes and one book opened wide on a battered desk. An old man with gray hair leaned over the pages, silver spectacles perched on his nose, breathing in the smell of story. A hard heel of cheese sat forgotten on a brown plate at his elbow, next to a stone cold cup of tea. The man held the tiny cheese knife in his left hand, absently tapping it against his temple while he read. Tiny particles of dried cheese dotted his brow.
Linus leaned forward eagerly as the lances crashed across the pages. The fair damsel tossed a blue rose to her champion, the thunder of hooves, the creak of the armor. The room was dark, but he sat in the sun. He gasped as the Black Knight rode onto the field. Linus pulled the wool blanket closer around his shoulders eagerly. A flash at the window, a rumble of distant thunder. Linus blinked across the dark room, but the weight of the story pulled him right back in.
The crowd was still and silent, too intimidated to jeer the dark champion. A young girl was sobbing a few benches down. The Black Knight’s charger was coal-midnight, his sword an ebony horror. His shield had the only spot of color, a broad white skull with a filthy leer.
Who could stand against this horrid foe? For the good of the kingdom, for the love of Princess Dawn, for the sake of chivalry?
Linus flipped the faded page, upsetting the lone candle in his excitement. “Dunstan,” he whispered. “Good Sir Dunstan!”
The candle flame flickered, then was steady.
The white stallion exploded onto the lists. Sir Dunstan’s burnished armor gleamed like the sun, long blond hair falling down the back. He made a quick circuit of the stands, and the people finally found their voice, shouting in excitement and joy. Linus chuckled, his nose a few inches from the page.
Sir Dunstan ripped his gleaming sword from its scabbard and held it high. The knight locked eyes with the princess and gave the blade a chaste kiss. Princess Dawn’s bosom heaved in terror for her champion.
Linus reached to flip the page, and found a black silk glove holding the page down. He looked up, blinking into the the marble face of a young man. In the candlelight, Linus could make out the rest of his attire; an immaculate black tunic and cloak and a conical cap that sloped forward, surmounted by a single silver bell. Long brown hair framed a serious face.
The old man sighed, and placed the cheese knife in the center of the book to mark his place. His guest removed his hand as the book closed.
“It’s been awhile since I’ve seen you without your mask, Master Song.”
The young man smiled in response. He reached into his cloak and pulled forth a featureless wooden mask with thin slits for eyes and mouth. It clattered slightly as he tossed it onto the desk. White as bone on the dark desk. The black knight’s shield. “It’s been some time since you have seen me at all, Master Linus.”
Linus folded his hands on top of the book and steepled his fingers. He surveyed the mask carefully. “You are not here on Council business.”
Song stood very still. “Why am I here?”
A test. Thunder rumbled, a flash of light.
“Something that you want kept quiet, something that would endanger your position, something dangerous, something… personal?” The young man didn’t twitch. “Oh… something very dangerous, and very embarrassing. I guess lover — though family is also possible.”
“Do you really think I would come to your door to clean up a lover’s tiff? That I would seek out Linus the Blue… Linus the Magekiller… for something any hired thug could handle?” Song seemed disappointed.
“I’m an old man now,” Damn him. He’s right. “Forgive my foggy conclusions, but why seek me at all? Maybe not a hired thug, but you have ample might at your disposal, Master Song… the Ender? Isn’t that the title your acolyte wizards have bestowed upon you?”
The young mage turned away, nearly disappearing in the darkness. Linus was reminded of a much younger boy, standing in much the same way when a knight told him that his mother was dead. Time had changed that weeping boy into a figure of true power, and time had changed the knight into an old man reading alone in the dark.
“My sister… has been a problem since her birth. She is an abomination, a wild mage. A sick joke against the pride and honor of my family. Most of her kind manifest at early puberty — but she showed us what she was when she was three years old.” Song’s voice was thin. “Three years old.”
The old man felt a pang of sorrow, and the clop of the white charger’s hooves grew ever more distant. Sir Dunstan would need to wait.
“We kept her… contained. She was raised by tutors at my father’s instruction, treated like she was a person and pampered on my family’s estate. The old fool even became fond of her, forgetting what she was and how dangerous her kind are. He allowed her liberties: small trips into Valeria, to the library.”
“How old is she?”
“Fourteen. Somehow she convinced my father to allow her free reign, to take a trip. A trip!” Song turned back towards the old man. “She departs from Carroway in two day’s time, with a pair of wagons, a manservant, and a few light guards. And all the power of sun and winter and death held lightly in her hands. I want you to find her and kill her.”
Linus stood up, sliding his chair back. The thick wool blanket started to slide off his shoulders, but he clutched it closely. His hip popped loudly in the quiet room.
“Your father…” he began.
“Is an old man who loves his daughter.” Song walked over to the table and laid two fingers on top of the wooden mask. “This must be done, and it’s past time.”
“An accident. In the wilderness. Very sad.” The old man brushed a morsel of cheese off his cheek.
“There is a chest in the hall. It has more money than you need. Hire whoever you require, pick up the trail in Carroway. She is immensely powerful, so be cautious and be swift.”
“Her name? What does she look like?”
“Small. Short brown hair. She could easily pass for a boy.” The wizard seemed satisfied with the old man’s query. “Her name is Rime. She is also very clever, don’t take her youth for granted. The power she wields…”
“It has been a long time, Song — but I know how to lead a Hunt.”
The old man’s quiet words made the young wizard pause. Song found it hard to meet the other man’s gaze.
“That is why I came to you. That and the weapon you once bore.” Song’s words were quick, then he looked around the room uncertain. “You do still have it… don’t you?”
Linus let the blanket fall to the floor. At his side was a long sword. The hilt was unbroken, featureless white.
“It still has me.” Linus replied sadly.
The white sword slipped free from its scabbard, smooth as glass. Master Song the Ender, one of the Council of Nine, First Necromancer of Valeria, took two steps back in his haste to get away from the featureless blade.
“It will be done, Song. You have my oath on it. I will leave at dawn. Would you care for some tea before you leave?” Linus put the sword tip down and leaned on it like a cane.
The black-cloak wizard shook his head firmly and stepped forward to retrieve his mask. He turned away and left without another word.
Linus held the sword up again and looked at his right hand. The white sword was light, fiendishly light, but his hand still shook with the strain. He sheathed it and pushed his spectacles up on his head. He pinched his nose and began to order his thoughts.Supplies, quick transportation, his old armor would have to be unearthed from the green trunk at the base of his bed.
Then travel and blood.
Linus opened his eyes and peered down at the closed book. It was a very good story, one he’d read several times. Good always won, and the Black Knight was roundly defeated. But could he really be sure, if he left it unfinished this time?
The old man pulled the wool blanket back over his shoulders and settled back in to finish the story.
Thunder rumbled and the candle flickered in the dark room. But Linus stood in the sun and cheered.
[Thank you for reading! If you want to finish the story, then cross my palm with silver here: Spell/Sword]