Legendarily #2

Previously

Nobody bothered to tell Casreyn just how much of her time with the Warward would be spent marching.

They had marched through marshes and bogs; ruddy roads and rain; through freezing cold and baking heat. Her boots had worn thin as parchment. She was long past footsore. But after her confrontation with the Mountain and the Mouser, she decided she had a reason to march. She had her Father to protect, sure enough, but he was leagues away, and her last memories with him left her bitter.

But the Mountain and the Mouser…she had to keep marching with them. She had to protect them.

One day, as they were marching through a rainstorm, the Mouser told her, “We need to reach Silverhill before the Orcs. We don’t want an uphill battle.” He had to shout to make himself heard over the din as thunder rolled across the sky.

“Mayhaps your Garth the Great has returned!” the Mountain shouted, a smile playing across what was left of his lips. “Mayhaps this isn’t thunder at all, but some final battle, eh?”

A Marshal came riding through later that day, instructing anyone with a cart to abandon it so that they could hasten their travels.

And so the squealing carts were replaced with squealing pigs and goats, when a few warrioresses freed the livestock. Casreyn wondered if she should protest. She looked to the Mountain and the Mouser for a clue.

“Why leave behind food that walks itself?” the Mountain shrugged.

But the thought of looming battle overtook any thoughts of food, and much of the livestock was allowed to abandon the road with impunity. Few saw much use in wasting their energy trying to herd them onto the path.

The Mouser gave the Mountain no shortage of torment for the prediction of battle he’d given him the day before. As the day went on, his response, “Today’s not over” soon became, “Didn’t I tell you I’m not a fucking seer?”

Casreyn had hoped that his prediction was true. The prolonged march before battle only served to increase the new fears that came to her every day. What if she was just another corpse? How would her father know if she died? Would that I decided to follow them sooner, she thought. It was the unknown that made Casreyn’s chest tighten; made it difficult to breathe.

And resting was nearly worse than marching. She rarely slept, if ever at all. The ground was as comfortable as a bed of knuckles, and in the dark she suspected every noise might belong to an Orc. Every flash of lightning sent her bolting upright, expecting to see an Orc axe glowing pale-blue in the flash.

She found herself retreating into her mind and into her father’s stories. She would compare her experience what he’d told her of Great Conflict and the legends of Garth the Great.

If Orcs were coming down from the north, then the Great Enemy must have returned, she surmised. Which would mean that Garth the Great had to return to, at the Nailed Gods’ discretion.

And the Nailed God would send him. She was sure of it. So sure, in fact, that when they passed through a small town, she went looking for an artisan who could paint Sacred Hammer onto her shield that had driven the Bloody Nails through her cross into her shield.

They had come to the town a few hours beyond a fork in the road.  One path through the wild, tangled brush and the other through an orderly pass. A section of the army split off through the wild with orders to round Silverhill. Cut the enemy off, if possible. If not, they could always envelope them.

Casreyn and the rest were led on a trudge head-on for Silverhill. The Mountain and the Mouser were squabbling over this, as usual. She smiled as the Mountain tried to find ways to justify his incorrect prediction as she busied herself helping an artisan paint her shield.

They were conducting this business when boy wandered into the town.

The Orc-summoned fog filtered around him, making him look half a wraith. Not a wraith, Casreyn thought as he lurched closer. A skeleton.

He’d only a shadow of skin, and a face that pocketed deep-sunken eyes that couldn’t remember to blink. His tunic was torn and he was caked with dirt and dust. One side of his yellow hair had been matted down and crusted with dried blood. Whether it belonged to him or someone else, Casreyn couldn’t say. He had only one leg and a makeshift wooden crutch that he used to hobble over to Casreyn, who had been eating honeyed porridge as she painted. “Food?” he asked. “Food? Food?”

She handed the boy her bowl and he grinned, tucking it under his arm and spooning its contents into his mouth with two fingers as he hopped away.

They all stared in silence for a time before the Mouser cursed. “Red Nails,” he said, “that’s a boy with one leg. Some poor fucker must have miswung.”

* * *

That night, the town gave them a feast. There was little cheer. The warriors and warrioresses filled their time with talk of the Nailed God or the Lightning Lord. Their speech was littered with curses. Casreyn wasn’t sure what good it did to curse masters and creators of storms and stones.

She wondered if they would be saying the same things during a thunderstorm.

The Mountain tossed her scraps of meat thick as bark. They were dribbling with pink juice and seared with patches of crisp burn. “Eat well,” he told her. “You earned it.”

“I can’t—”

“You can and you will,” he growled. “Don’t make me threaten you into eating a decent meal. You already gave up your lunch for that boy. You’ve got to get something in you if you want to keep up your strength.”

She took it, looked it over and saw pink patches beneath the burn. She wolfed it down and asked for more. The Mountain gave her his plate.

The town had no bedding to spare beyond what was saved for the Marshals, so the army littered themselves in and around the town’s timbered walls. Casreyn, the Mountain and the Mouser all sat by a tree. Silence lay as thick as the fog that blanketed them. Then Casreyn spoke again. “When do you think Garth the Great will return?” she asked them.

“Fuck Garth,” the Mountain spat. “He was as much a malice as he Enemy he slew.”

“Does that mean Orcs called Garth the Great Enemy?” asked the Mouser.

“What do you imagine Garth the Great was short for?” he chuckled.

Casreyn chewed her lip, pondering. “Do you think, then, that we might’ve picked the wrong side?”

The Mountain rolled over so that his gigantic back was facing her. “No.”

The trio did not share another word until Casreyn and the Mouser were certain the Mountain was snoring.

It was the Mouser who spoke first, as he used a dagger to trim his nails. “My Mother was one of Garth’s personal warrioresses, you know.”

Casreyn had been planning on mentioning her Father’s service to impress him, but knowing this about the Mouser’s mother, she decided against it. Instead, she asked, “Did she have any stories?”

“No.” One word. A flat denial. No room for discussion. “She preferred to tell me stories of what I would do. She always said that I was destined to join the Warward.” He wrapped his hand around his bicep, thumb and pointer finger touching. “Clearly, this is the life I was built for. She told me the Nailed God would make a song of my war-glory and put my likeness in the stars. And you know what I want more than anything in the world?”

“What?”

“That song—that promised song.” He finished shaving the nail off of a fingernail and turned to the next. “Because I’m sure that would be the most boring song in all of Creation. But at least Mother dearest would be satisfied.” A smile bled onto his face.

“What’d be so boring about it?”

“It’ll be short,” he said. “Mercifully so.” He sawed off another fingernail.

“Should you be doing that?” Casreyn asked.“The fog’s getting thicker.”

She could discern the Mouser’s shrug, just so.“Would you like to know why the song of my war-glory will be so boring? It’s because one day my hand is going to slip with this dagger and I’ll lose a finger. Won’t be able to hold a sword proper after that. Won’t be able to fight.”

“Why not do it now?” she asked. “Get it over and don’t with?”

The Mouser finally looked up, scowling. “What do I look like to you? A coward?”

Legendarily #1

 

They were on the march to die.

The fog blustered around them like dancing specters. Some wondered if they would join the fog after the battle. It blanketed the army that stretched down the ruddy road where warriors and warrioresses pushed carts that squealed like dying hogs.

One woman walked through the ranks wearing the ghost of a smile. She’d heard tell that there would be a battle soon. She would have her chance to fight. She cradled the thought like a precious bauble. She had grown up on stories of her father’s various battles against the monstrous Orcs long ago in the Great Conflict.

When she was little, she liked to imagine herself in his place. She had found lately that her imagination was a glorious place to be.

It was a place where her mail was not speckled with rust like old man’s liver spots; her halfhelm was free of dents; and her cloak had not yet been weathered to gray. She would put her enemies to the sword the same way her father told her he had. And, she imagined, Garth the Great beside her. He would lead his Warward against the Orcs and into the far north; leading an assault on the Great Enemy himself and meeting him in single combat.

When it had come time for her to leave, her father had not shared her enthusiasm. He had been watching his flocks graze, and did not part to look at her when she told him of her ambitions. But she had played this moment out in her head, and his rebuke left her cold. “Will you not see me off?” she had asked.

He’d coiled at the suggestion. “No,” he said, and then: I never should have told you those stories, Casreyn.”

“I would follow in your footsteps, Father. Orcs are swarming down from the north, unchecked and unchallenged.”

“If the Nailed God wills you to follow in my footsteps, then I suspect you will. Wanted or not.” Silence and knowing passed between them. “You’re all I have left, Casreyn. Those stories—they were half-truths. If that. I only meant to entertain—”

“You’ve done more than that—”

“Would you like to know the life you’ve chosen? Truly? You have chosen a life of lost limbs, and hordes of gray husks—and in this I speak of more than mere Orcs.” It was his final tale he’d left to tell. But it wasn’t like the others. Her father had grown old since he first returned from the Great Conflict. He’d become a man taken to embellishments, she had decided.

He had left his sword and mail out for her, elsewise.

Casreyn was pulled from her own thoughts when a mountain of a man shouldered past her, followed by a smaller man who moved with catlike grace and a wary eye; like a mouser looking for its mouse.

“I’m not telling you to believe me,” the Mountain said. “All I’m telling you is that I saw the Orcs’ fires last night. We’ll be upon them by nightfall.”

“Do you think you’re suddenly a seer?” asked the Mouser. “Someone else would have spotted them by now. The Warward is not without scouts.”

The Mountain turned to face the Mouser, and Casreyn saw the horror of his face. Burned, melted fleshed had sealed left eye shut, and she could see the eye moving beneath the lid, just so. Part of his left cheek had sloughed off, revealing yellow teeth and dry pink gums with spiderwebbing cracks.

“I’ve seen many things, boy,” he told the Mouser. “I don’t predict a battle lightly. You don’t need to be a seer to smell blood on the horizon.” The Mountain marched off, and the Mouser turned to Casreyn and frowned apologetically. “He can be a touch dramatic.” He shrugged.

“I want to talk to him.

“That’s really not a good idea, warioress.”

“I know what I’m doing!” Casreyn snapped, and the Mouser raised his hands in surrender.

“If you insist…” he muttered.

Casreyn started after the Mountain of a man, hailing: “You think there’s a battle dawning, warrior?” She had to take long strides to match his pace.

“Didn’t you hear me back there?”

“Yes.”

“Then what do you think?”

“I think there’s more to what you say. How big will the battle be?”

The Mountain exhaled through his teeth. “The Orcs want more than a skirmish, elsewise they wouldn’t be calling down this fog.”

Casreyn reached out to touch the mist. “This is Orc work?”

“You see any clouds in the sky these past few days?”

“No.”

“There you go.” He quickened his pace, but Casreyn jogged up to match him.

“How will we fare?” she asked.

He pivoted, turned. Casreyn slammed into him and fell into the mud. The Mountain had not budged. “I already told you I’m not a fucking seer.” He crouched to be at eye level with her. “You ask too many questions, you know that?”

Casreyn nodded. She hardly agreed with him, but his voice was coercive.

“You want to know what my details are?”

She nodded again. Or rather, she hadn’t stopped nodding to begin with.

So the Mountain drilled his finger into the mud. “This is us,” he said. Then he scooped up a handful and, holding it in his fist, walked his fingers three paces north from his original depression and spattered it down there. “This is Silverhill. We want it. It’s works as a good defensive position to spy and repel invasion from the north.” He walked his fingers three paces further north and made another impression with his finger. “These are the Orcs. They want Silverhill. It’s works as a good defensive position to spy and repel invasion from the south. If we keep going north as we are now, we’ll be at Silverhill in a day. That’s why I say we’ll be fighting.”

He stood and offered Casreyn his hand, nearly tearing her arm out of its socket as he hauled her to her feet. She thanked him for the explanation. She extended her hand. “My names Cas—”

“Don’t,” the Mountain growled, spewing spittle onto her face, “tell me your name.”

She lowered her hand an inch. “Why?”

“Because I’d prefer to see you as just another corpse once all this is over.”

Casreyn’s throat tightened.

“It makes things easier,” he explained. “For me, at least.”

 

 

Six Months of Difference – Ash and Cinders, Then and Now

Ash and Cinders
This was the cover to Ash and Cinders which I am challenging myself to rewrite up to the point where its original short story ended. Details below.

On July 29th, 2016, I published In the Caverns of the Rock Lord on The Mythlings. Weeks later, I attempted (and failed) to write a novel expanding on the material (I called it Ash and Cinders) and giving some characters more backstory and more going on before and after the narrative of the short story. I worked on it on and off up to January of 2018. Around November of 2017, I wrote a quick prologue that you’ll see below.

The reason I mention this is because as of April 5th, 2018, I have begun a challenge to rewrite my attempt at a novel–at least up to the point where the original short story, linked above, ends. The contrast between what was written in November of 2017 and April of 2018 is startling, and I believe worth a look.

Special thanks should go to my good friends Amber Richard and Quinn Castine as well as my Mother, my sister Rachel, my friend and mentor Ron Jones, and my girlfriend Kira, all of whom I have spent the past few months inundating with feedback over and over again–especially since November, where I began a concerted effort to improve my prose. Almost half a year later, here are the results so far.

 

ASH AND CINDERS – PROLOGUE – CIRCA NOVEMBER, 2017

 

She had to hurry, or else her Mother would be firewood.

The girl’s feet slapped against the ground, pink soles flashing in and out of sight as she ran. Her Mother’s cry could be heard throughout the forest-town of Tull. Her mother had sent her own whispers through the trees, which echoed cries for help through their leaves.

The advantages of being a Nymph, the girl thought bitterly.

Orym Tar had told her about Forest Spirits. He was the only one in Tull who had ever gone outside the town. He was the only one who knew what the Ever Changing Land was like. He had many tales if you professed to believe him.

The girl started to believe him as the trees cracked and turned like pointing fingers, guiding her in the direction toward her mother.

“Faster, faster,” she told herself. “You have to be faster, Cinder.” She would go home to her younger brother Ricket with her Mother and they’d all be together. One happy family.

Orym had brought her Mother back from the Ever-Changing-Land—a Nymph, beautiful with bark and small branches grafted to her flesh. She fell in love with an innkeeper, her father. But many in Tull misliked Nymphs, so when she went to the physician he had her give birth in a fireplace. “Firewood is all you’re good for,” he’d said.

So her mother had named her Cinder. Once, she told her, “I made mockery into a shield. Wear your name proudly like an iron shield, and their words will never hurt you.”

But swords would still hurt her Mother if she didn’t hurry. She had to hurry. She had to—

Cinder rounded the trail and saw her mother—flesh piled in one heap like bloody blubber, and branches piled in the other. She saw the backs of the two Nymph-haters who had slain her. They had left a tinderbox behind.

“Firewood,” she muttered. “That’s all they thought she was good for.” Tears welled around the corners of her eyes. Her face went hot.

She reached out to touch the pile when she felt something jab her shoulder. The world melted around her. Faces of her father, dying of grief flashed in the sky, and her stepmother—No! She thought. I just wanted one last moment with her. Please—

She darted into a sitting position in her bed. Ricket, her younger brother, nudged her awake like child prodding a snake with a stick.

 

ASH AND CINDERS – PROLOGUE – AS OF APRIL, 2018

 

“The world is ending.”

It is a younger boy who says it. Her brother, she assumes. She lived his fear when she was his age.

He hears the world murmur; feels it shake. He can just barely glimpse the town’s longhouse over the hill, banded with arches of golden-gleaming Arkynian bronze. To the boy, it sounds as if the bands are speaking—even if he doesn’t understand what they are saying. Gurgle they say. Gur-giggle. Then they let out a bloody wail that does not stop. The arches ripple and bend and snap back into position. The longhouse behaves like a rocking chair.  

“Cinder?” The boy addresses the girl behind him. She is on her knees, weeping over a pile of firewood. “Cinder, what’s happening?”

He is too young to understand, Cinder knows. He’s three, maybe four? Her thoughts are cluttered. She can’t remember. She’s too busy reminding herself that the tears streaking her face are only from the remnants of smoke wafting up from the dead campfire. But she knows the boy is too young to have witnessed a morph before now. But not her. She knows. She’s only seen it once before, but the old man down the road tells her about morphs every day.

She remembers when her Mother took her to see him. She’d held her Mother’s hand by her two tree-bark middle fingers and followed her to his home in the wake of her first morph. She remembers looking up at her Mother, her flesh speckled with patches of leaves and tree bark. She had thought her beautiful. Others, she knew, did not. Cinder knew the story behind her name. How the midwife made her give birth in an empty hearth.

She pushes the memory down when something in her gut rises.

But she needs to tell the boy. He needs to understand. And there’s no one else to explain it to him. Still kneeling, still crying, never bothering to look, she recites what she remembers.

The land is alive. It is an old, old, woman. Every day the old woman wakes up, groaning and yawning and stretching. She can pucker and spit. Crack joints and bones. She bites her lip when she’s in pain. Gains weight. Loses it. Gains it all back. These are the morphs. That’s what the boy seeing. The old woman is waking up, groaning and stretching. It’s been a few years since she’s exercised this part of her body. Her foot’s fallen asleep, and the only way to bring back feeling is to move it. The trouble comes if they can’t get a Wizard to quell her before the feeling comes back and she starts walking around. “But that’s not for a few weeks,” she tells the boy. “At least a month off. Orym will be back with a Wizard by then.” She tries to keep her voice level. It’s the most she can manage as she kneels over the pile of ashes that had once been a fireplace. That had once been—no. She can’t say that part. She can’t even think it.

The Arkynian bronze stops wailing, but it does not stop rippling. Now it is singing whoop-whoop-whoop.

“How do you know we have that much time?” the boy asks.

Cinder gives herself a once-over. Checks the leaves woven through her arms, legs and hair, the three on the vine poking through her budding breasts. They dance while the old woman stretches. “I can sense it,” she says.

“Why can’t I?” the boy asks.

“You take after Father’s side of the family, Myle,” she snaps. “Don’t you remember?” She knows she shouldn’t have said it like that. Not so mean, at least. She doesn’t need to tear her gaze from the fireplace to know her brother’s ready to cry. “I’m sorry, Myle.” she sighs. “I got angry. I shouldn’t do that. I’m sorry.”

“I didn’t choose not to be half a Nymph,” the boy snaps. He stomps his foot and almost loses his balance.

The girl’s fingers sift through the ash of the fireplace. They dig into her palms. There’s no stopping her tears now, but she tells herself that Myle doesn’t know any better. He doesn’t know what it’s like. He doesn’t know what it’s like. He can hardly conceive what this pile of ash and cinders even means. “I didn’t choose either.” Her voice is hoarser than she expects it to be. She wants to say it again, but she’s afraid she may sound worse if she does.

Instead, Myle asks, “How do you know we’ll be safe until Orym’s back with the Wizard?”

Cinder thinks back to old Orym. He has so many stories. So she tells Myle the legend of Arkynian bronze:

Arkyn was the first Kingdom ever made. They were the ones who brought mankind forth from their savagery. They began as a town much like their own. But in Arkyn they built forges and smelted metals together. At first it was simply for weapons of war—to keep the Shamblemucks and Crackstones at bay. But as their metallurgy advanced, they stumbled upon Arkynian bronze: something to fortify their structures during the morphs. Something to absorb the old woman’s movements and direct it away from their longhouses and homes. Their structures got better. Great towers and spires. And they advanced into more land, collecting knowledge and tools and new ways to battle the old woman that is the world.

“What happened to them?” Myle asks.

“A morph in the capital,” Cinder answers. “Just like any other. But their empire was so big that they couldn’t get a Wizard across the empire to quell it. The capital fell, and the empire broke apart like the rest of the land.” Cinder tries to smile. She has to focus to hammer it into place. “That won’t happen here, though. Tull is much smaller. And Orym knows weird ways of contacting our Wizard.” She shrugs. “He shouldn’t be able to summon Thavian that quickly, but I’m not about to complain.”

A long silence passes. Myle sits down next to Cinder; does not speak. Thoughts creep back into Cinder’s mind slowly, like the small stones before an avalanche.

“Myle?”

“Cinder?”

“Please ask more questions.”

“Why?”

“I can’t bear to be alone with my thoughts.”

“Okay.”

“So what’s your question?”

“Where’s Mother?”

Cinder sucks in a breath between her teeth, and then stops breathing. The exact question she did not want to explain to him, and he asked it. Her fingers are digging so hard into her palm that she draws blood. The ashes sting the cuts. She doesn’t care. She bites down on her lip to stifle the cry before it comes out. She stares at the campfire. At the ash and cinders. “They thought—they—they thought she was making the morphs happen. I mean—at least—I mean I think that’s what happened. I can’t be sure.”

“She left last night to speak with Orym. She’s been doing that a lot since Father died.”

I know!” Softer, now: “I know…”

“When is she coming back?”

Cinder scoops up a handful of ash; watches it sift through her fingers. “She’s not.” She wants to scream, but those words have tightened her throat. So she leaves the shrieking to glittering arches of Arkynian bronze banding the longhouse just over the hill.        

 

 

 

So what do you think? Have I improved in the past six months? Do you have any questions? Compliments of critiques? Feel free to voice them in the comments below!

A Practical Guide to Monsters #13

In Sight of Ravens (2)

Previously

Months passed, and Baron Fitzwalter had been laid to rest. His granddaughter, Marian, became fostered in Nottingham Castle as a ward of the crown.

And for his bravery against the wolf of Nottingham, Guy of Gisborn was to be knighted.

“I shall never traffic with traitors,” said Sir Guy as he knelt over the altar, “I will never give ill counsel to a Lady, and whether married or not, treat her with respect and defend her against all.”

Prince John nodded, and then slapped the newly made-knight with the flat of the priest-blessed blade. Gisborn took the blow and breathed deep, shoulders heaving.

Prince John spoke, “Let that be the last harmful blow you take and do not return. Now, as repayment for your felling of the Werewolf of Nottingham, I bid you rise, Sir Guy of Gisborn, newly-made knight to King Richard the Lionheart.

The words tasted bitter on Prince John’s tongue. And somewhere, off in the crowd, an old maid scowled as if she had swallowed vinegar. Yet, as Sir Guy of Gisborn rose, his pride eclipsed the Prince’s anger, and the woman smiled like vinegar had turned to honey on her tongue. She drank in the newly-dubbed knight’s pride, and it was sweet upon her lips. She drank it in so quickly and heavily that soon she did not remember her life as an old lady. Her name, age and life passed through her, forgotten. She could only remember the pride of being a newly-made knight.

And the more she felt like a newly made knight, the more she began to look like one.

As the applause died down, the Visage of Sir Guy of Gisborn exited the Church and walked out into the light.

Into the Sand (Legends of Steel and Straw #1)

 Bodies of Steel and Straw 

The God of Duals and Duels

The God of Law and Chaos

The God of Life and Death

The God is powerless in the middle.

—Ancient Ükardhi proverb

 

The southron from Ükardhi did not mind the white-heats across the planes. He had been molded by it in youth, as the sword is molded by the forge-fires.

He came at length upon a briny smell, and he staggered at the new weight on his cloak. More spirits hereabouts, he guessed. Instinctively, he reached out to steady himself, focused on the distant sound of waves lapping on the shoreline. His hand closed around a wooden pole. The sand gave way to a wooden floor sprawling across a small village. It was slightly soft and overgrown with seaweed. It mushed under the Ükardhian’s feet as he stumbled across the threshold, laughing, and set off to explore the territory.

He found first a bald woman, bare breasted with a floral-patterned dress that reached her ankles. She wore a delicate scrap of linen over her head. A spear rested beside the tavern she leaned on like a comrade beside her. “Welcome, traveler,” she said, “to Plankytown. Have you business hereabout?”

“Not business,” huffed the man, “Just a drink. Please.”

“A drinker with a sword at his hip,” the woman said. The spear was resting beside her, and then in her hand, between blinds. It was pointed at his throat. “You’ll hurt yourself, old man.”

“Wary of strangers, I see.” He raised his hands as he approached. “Call me Albarran.” He extended it toward the woman.

“Khalee,” she said, shaking his hand.

“Is there anyone else here in Plankytown?”

“They’re hiding,” said Khalee. “We don’t chance strangers around here.”

Albarran bit back a smirk. “It’s a good thing, then, that I’ve given you my name. Can’t say we’re strangers, can we? Now, about that drink…”

* * *

The beer was a froth of corn and malt and yeast and water. Albarran savored the drink, his throat working as he finished it without pausing for breath; beads of foam slicking down his gullet.

He set the wooden cup down on the small round table. Khalee was watching him from across the tavern. He inspected the walls and found barnacles clustered onto them, grouped in sizes like white turtle shells, patching the wooden frame like quiltwork.

He looked to Khalee, a question etched onto his face. But before he could noise it, Khalee spoke.

“Two years ago a traveler angered the Restless Dead when he came to Plankytown. Drowned a man on the docks in a drunken scuffle, then tried to flee on a trading galley. The Restless Dead sank it off the coat before they returned to their Never.

Albarran wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “And?” He gestured to the ship’s hulls that now walled them in.

“And one year later a new traveler came, wearing a cloak with a single eye sewn onto the back—much like yours. She claimed to be a patron of Kafmir.”

“God of Duels and Duals,” Albarran finished. “Did he open the third eye?”

“The one on the cloak?”

“That is so.”

She did,” Khalee grinned. “She summoned the Restless Dead to scavenge the sea-floor for sunken vessels, and they built Plankytown as it is known today. I remember the sight of that murderer’s corpse being dragged into the Never the second time.” Khalee sat herself across from Albarran. She’d brought a pitcher of beer with her and refilled Albarran’s cup. “She didn’t stay long…will you?”

Albarran smiled gently. “No,” he said. “We patrons of Kafmir are cursed. Forces of Law and Chaos duel around us.”

“Duels and Duals,” Khalee muttered.

“That is so. I’m not adventurer looking for trouble. I’m a refugee, chased by it. I cannot abide friends or shelter.”

Khalee turned the cup in her hands, and then spat into it, a long, thin line of saliva falling into the froth. She handed the cup to Albarran. “I’ll be your friend,” she said.

“Khalee—”

“I never thanked Kafmir’s last patron for building our town, or avenging the man that was killed. I would amend that.”

Albarran nodded his assent and spit into the drink. He swallowed a mouthful, handed it back to Khalee, and she drank a gulp herself.

“We are kin now, Albarran. Go as you will, and know you will have one friend with you, always. Send my regards to the god Kafmir.

* * *

Albarran left Plankytown that night. The wind and sand chafed his flesh as he returned to the sand. The Ükardhian stumbled and fell to his knees. He did not get up, at first. Instead he wept. He wept for a long while, tears streaming, and the wind drying them on his cheeks.

Lord of the Greenwood

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We could never agree on where we’d first met, nor when. I thought we were eight—he said we were four. But we both agreed that I’d been older then him.
He’d been an impish, fey little boy in the beginning, safe in the knowledge of his parents’ protection. He knew he could throw rocks at me without reprisal—or did he throw sticks, as he’d insisted years later?
I remembered playing with him every day, every summer, though he insisted it was only on holidays and feast days.
I do remember long periods of time spent trapped in his manor while my parents doted on his. It was my duty to learn to weave and sew and dance and speak horribly-accented French.
But we were friends—that much I remember. And we agreed on that. Our friendship began the day he first to lead me into the greenwood. He dragged me by my hand, painfully pulling through dark, knotted trees. He was resolute, dragging me through as the thorns and brambles scratched at my legs.
The woods was supposed to be a terrible place.
I remembered the stories my parents would tell of witches and werewolves and dark, evil things. They hid in the forest waiting for children like us. They would snatch us up and nobody would find us again.
I wanted someone to find us.
He led me into the woods that day, my clinging desperately to his. If there were truly some evil thing out there waiting to consume us, it would have to take us both.
I wasn’t going to be gobbled up without him.
#
Years passed, and the boy’s parents died when he turned fifteen—or was he nineteen? I can’t quite remember.
But within months of his new Lordship, my own parents died, and I was taken away within the week.
The sheriff, I learned, had offered me a position in his castle. His offer, to me, didn’t seem so bad. Though it was not, strictly speaking, an offer.
Since my parents’ death and my unmarried state, I was a ward to the shire. A ward to him, the sheriff, he had explained.
The sheriff—was a pinch-faced little man with a high-pitched voice and a thick accent. An accent that reeked of a foreigner.
So he took me away from my childhood home, the manor where my parents had worked. He took me away from the friends and the servants. And the one boy I came to know quite well.
Too well, maybe.
Months passed, a year passed, and the boy sent me letters upon letters. The first half-year he wrote boring drabble about the management of his estate. But soon his letters came less and less and his handwriting had changed, the words marred hastily onto parchment as though time was of the essence. He told me that with the King gone off to reclaim the Holy Land, he had lost many powerful allies. I would wait for months to hear what had become of him, and the letters grew shorter and shorter. He had lost his lands and titles, he said. And then: I have met the Lord of the Greenwood of late.
To hear the sheriff tell it, this Lord of the greenwood was a cunning rogue with no love of the prince of the crown
And then, one night, I retired to my chambers to find him standing there with a grin on his face—the same one he’d wore that day he led me into the greenwood.
And I see in his eyes, though his titles were revoked he was truly the a servant to the Lord of the Greenwood; with dust on his face and twigs in his hair. He scoured the forest with the sun on his back.
But in his absence I had become the ward of the shire, with dresses that itch and a dagger hidden beneath them. I walked through halls of cold stone and colder drafts.
I wanted to slap the boy, but instead I was kissing him. We’d been so long away from each other that I couldn’t bring myself to bandy words no matter how badly I wanted to.
Except: “You have to leave. If they find you—” I said.
But he had a plan, same as always. “I came through the window. I’ll leave the same way. It’s no trouble at all, I promise.” He drank in my shock, my fear and my dread as I rushed to the window to see.
I gasped, exclaimed: “You shouldn’t have done this,” and then cursed myself for uttering the obvious.
He was by my side, then, showing me the rope. He gave it a tug, two then three. “Who would follow me down such a climb? Who could even see?”
He had the right of it, so I didn’t argue. But I knew there must have been a reason for his visit, so I asked.
“I’m billeted out in the greenwood,” he said—as if I didn’t already know—“but I’ll need your help in these times to come.”
“What times?” I asked. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of an answer. But he grinned and smiled. He knew what I’d say.
“The King is gone. The Prince has the throne but he cannot enforce with the proper strength. Someone needs to keep order—at least in these parts.”
“And what would be you?” I asked, biting my lip. I shouldn’t have needed to ask. I knew what he’d say.
“The people are starving and thieves run rampant, unchecked.” Under his breath, he added, “Most thieves are the ones who should see the King’s law enforced.”
“If you do this, the sheriff will order more soldiers,” I protested.
“His soldiers are not trained for the greenwood.”
“But they need only torches—”
He clamped his hand clamped around my wrist. “Do you think it so easily burned?”
“It isn’t the greenwood I worry about.”
“I wear a hood, you know. To hide my face.”
“They suspect—”
“Of course they suspect!” He snapped, “But they’ve no proof—they’re powerless.”
“Why have you come, my Lord?” I asked. I meant it to tease but it didn’t. His face darkened with memories of stripped titles and possessions. His ancient house now held by somebody else.
And anything unneeded, burned.
He didn’t answer; he didn’t need to. I knew what he sought and I would give it unasked. For I was a fool in those days.
#
He took me into the forest one day—showed me who to make merry with and who to avoid. He warned me against the friar with meaty hands and the large belly. His singer had fingers that were nimble on more than his lute. These were hard men, I realized. And outlawed for a reason. Yet this was the company he chose to keep.
He was a servant to the Lord of the Greenwood. I didn’t dare to question him.
They built a fire that night to dance around and make merry. I joined them in their jovial songs, watching those who were watching me. By my gaze was only for their greenwood Lord. The others meant little and less.
At length, he pulled me aside and asked, “Do you feel safe here?”
“I do,” I shrugged. “Aside from those who would see me undressed.”
So he put a dagger in my hand, its blade orange against the firelight. He closed my fist around it.
And try as I might, I could not contain my laughter.
The concern dropped from his face and it the fire’s glow emphasized its coloring red. “What is it?” He asked, “What’s so funny?”
And in that moment the greenwood lost its’ Lord—for I remembered how young he was. We were.
I stoop to one knee and retrieve my own dagger from beneath my itchy dress—and then I pressed it to his hand and closed his fist around it.
It was his turn to laugh. And then all the others were looking. Their leader was a grim man—a hard man, not a merrymaker. But his defenses were all but gone and for the moment, he enjoyed that.
He seized my hand and pulled me toward the fire while his singer played his songs.
We danced, made way for his friends, made merry, made love.
And when I awoke I was Lady of the greenwood with dirt on my face and twigs in my hair. But this was far from my home where the cold stone walls called me.
I was careful to dress—I didn’t want to wake him. A servant to the Lord of the greenwood, purring in his sleep.
But he awoke anyway, despite my intentions, and smiled as I cleaned myself up. He said not a word, merely admired me from afar.
He understood I must go. For just as a castle confined him with small spaces and close heavy air, the greenwood was always too vast for me. I was like to lose myself if I tarried too long.
#
The winters were harsh and one season he came wearing wolf-pelts. “To match the wolf’s head the prince has titled me,” he explains.
“Wolf’s head?” I asked.
“That’s how much my life is worth now. I am outside the law, and my head can be sold for the same price as a wolf’s.”
“How warm are you?” I asked, “Out there?”
“Warm enough,” he said, but he his gaze wandered when he said it.
“You little brat!” I shouted, seizing him by the collar. “You have to find someplace safe to stay!” I threw my arms around him and dragged him toward the fire.
“The villagers are all too eager to help,” he protested.
“They can’t hide you forever.”
“Nor would I want them to.” He pulled his wolf-skin cloak close as he sat. I rested my head on his shoulder. “I belong in the greenwood, not some peasant’s home. I’ve enough wolf’s heads to me without others added to my ranks for aiding us.”
“And how many are sworn to you?” I asked, leaning close. “How many wolf’s heads hide out in the greenwood?”
“Seven-score,” he said. He shrugged, jolting my head. “Maybe more, maybe less. I can’t quite say.”
“And why is that?”
“Because I’d need quite the tall tree to count all of them.”
“And how do they keep warm on such nights?”
“They bed down with beautiful ladies in itchy silks,” he grins.
“You jest.”
“I would never!”
“Such things you say! How would you know if my dresses get itchy?”
He turned red, then. Redder than I could’ve imagined. “I’ve needed disguises in the past and without coin to pay, I may have taken one or two out the window.”
“And?”
“And I don’t understand how you wear them so long! Truly you are made of sterner stuff than I, to last so long in such garments.”
“And what of your men who have no ladies to bed?”
“Can we not discuss men? Not right now, not right here.”
“But what of their fate? They’re your subjects, are they not?”
He said nothing. Again, he avoided looking at me. Without warning he stood and went to the window. His cloak was a crescent behind him. “There are no Kings in the Greenwood.”
“But they talk of that man’s title—”
“They jest.”
“You take orders from him—” I began.
“That’s my choice,” he said, “More or less.”
He paused on the sill, turned around and held his hand out to me.
I took it, wanting to pull him back in. Give him a respite from his misery. But when smiled those urges faltered and I found I could not. “You don’t have to go,” I tell him.
“There is much I must do and much to be done. The Prince is arriving on the morrow.”
“And?”
“And he’ll find the Lord of the Greenwood is in Nottingham that day. And watch as he steals all his coffers.” He began his descent, hesitating only once more as he shouted my name.
I came to the sill, shouted “What?”
“I almost came down by the chimney today. I thought you’d like to know.”
“And what stopped you?”
“Last minute change of hearth, I guess,” he said and descended with half-muted chuckles.
It is only a moment, before he returns. “One more thing,” he says, “Put on some britches. You’re coming with me.”

A Practical Guide to Monsters #9

In Sight of Ravens (2)

Previously

When he awoke, Robyn was slumped against a large Blackwood. His heart throbbed in his temples and as he came to he saw that the large man was crouched across from him. His clothes were wet and clinging to him tight as a lover. His makeshift quarterstaff rested between them. “You’re him, aren’t you?” the man said. “Robyn Hood, I mean.”

Robyn’s attempted to speak, but only managed to muster a sound like steel scraping an anvil. He nodded in affirmation. His lips moved, but not a sound escaped them. How did you know?

“How’d I know?” the man said, “They tell tales of you all over Nottingham—you’re a legend in the making, and your fighting is something to be rivaled.”

Robyn managed a terse reply. “I should be saying that of you.” He sputtered out coughs.

“You’d beat me on level ground, I’m sure of it. One battle does not a victor decide.”

“Wise words.” Robyn grunted to his feet and held out a calloused hand. “Shall we try again?”

The man swatted his hand away. “Save your strength, Robyn Hood. I have a feeling you’ll need it. The Sheriff’s men are not done looking for me.”

“So that’s why you saved me.” Robyn’s voice was coming back.

“What?”

“You want refuge from the Sheriff and his men.”

The giant shook his head. Droplets of water scattered through the air. “I’ll not deny it,” he said. “But think on this—why would I save you after you accused me of lycanthropy?”

Robyn opened his mouth to speak, but no words came to him. “You want to join me?”

“Indeed.”

“Then kneel. Don’t stand there gawking. I won’t be taking your head off your shoulders.”

Hesitantly, the man knelt. Robyn grasped a branch and hauled himself to his feet and over to a patch of grass where his swordbelt lay. The leathers were of no use anymore. But this bandit had taken his sword from the sheath. He’s smart, Robyn thought. He smiled, despite himself.

Robyn grasped his sword and stalked over to where the man knelt. He leveled the sword, and said, “State your name and title.”

“John Little of…of…I have no title, sir.”

“It matters not,” Robyn said. “I Christen you Little John of Sherwood Forest, and of Robyn Hood’s Merry Men.” He grinned. “The tales usually omit this next part from the knighting ceremony.” He smacked John across the face with the flat of his blade. “Let that be the last blow you take and do not return in kind. You may rise.

“Little John?” the man echoed, “Is that what you’ll call me?  It seems a jest.”

“It is,” Robyn laughed. “Take it in good faith. Come, I will bring you to my hideaway. There are many you have not met.”

Little John raised an eyebrow. “You don’t think me a werewolf?”

“Aye.”

“You trust me?”

“Aye,” Robyn said. “I trust you.”

* * *

Night fell over Sherwood Forest, leaving only moonlight to glitter through the treetops. Robyn crept to his feet. The men in his camp did not stir—and the outlaw was cautious not to wake John Little.

He stole away through the dead of night. He was surefooted, moving like a carefully chosen word. He trained his eye on a Birchwood on the horizon. With every step, his movements grew slower as if walking through tar. The world blurred around him like wet paint. His stomach somersaulted.

He wished he could say it was his first time the sensation came over him.

It was the price he paid to visit his mentor.

The world crumbled around him. His heart pounded like in his chest. He fell to his knees.

Everything slowed and came back into focus when he saw the familiar fire. The old one sat with his back to him, shrouded in his fur cloak. His face obscured by the wolf’s-head hood. He had copper skin—stretched so thin it looked like mere sleeves for his bones. He rocked front to back so much so that Robyn often wondered if he would one day fall into the fire and set himself ablaze. Though the place and the fire were warm, the old one never seemed to find comfort.

“This place is always cold.” he would say “but it is still my place”

“Christian?” the old one asked as Robyn approached. He hacked a gob of saliva into his fire.

“I told you to call me Robyn,” the outlaw said.

The old one clicked his tongue. He took up a stick and prodded the fire. “Ah, but I cannot do that. Names are powerful things, and there are beings who may yet hear us even here, where time and place are nothing.”

Robyn sat across from the old one. “Do you know why I’m here?”

“Have you been practicing your spells?” the old one asked as if he did not hear Robyn. “You must learn incantations. It can save your life.”

“That is not why I came.”

“I know.”

“You haven’t answered my question.”

“And you, mine.” The old one smirked.

Robyn pressed his lips together. “I have,” he muttered. “But nothing works. There’s not enough power behind the incantations.”

“Then you have not the willpower to master your command.”

“Why do you ask this of me?” Robyn cried, extending his arm towards the old one. “There are more pressing matters all throughout Nottingham, and you would have me go off in secret practicing spells and enchantments—”

Anger flared in the old one and his fire roared skyward. “Robyn of Locksley!” he bellowed, “I did not save you from Shai’da to hear your petty complaints. Men and more have died without knowing the words to an enchantment that could save their life! I chose you to fight off darkness while your race fights its holy war—and it is not a decision I have taken lightly.”

The fire dwindled to its normal proportions and the old one smiled, not unkindly. “I expect better of you.”

Robyn stared unblinking, chest heaving with each breath. Sweat dampened his forehead and soot littered his raiment. “I will learn your spells,” Robyn swore. “On my honor.”

“The honor of an outlaw,” the old one mocked.

“The honor of a Christian,” Robyn countered.

“Very well,” the old one croaked, “Then I will have to be sure you are truly doing so. If you succeed, I will grant you a gift.”

“Succeed?” asked the outlaw. “Succeed at what?”

“Freeing Nottingham of its infestation.” the old one said.

Robyn raised an eyebrow. “Infestation?”

The old one spat another gob into the fire. “What else do you call a werewolf? Do not get too close to it, or you’ll catch it yourself.”

“Catch it?”

The old one sighed. He closed his eyes, ready to bequeath his knowledge to the outlaw. “Lycanthropy,” he said, “Is a disease found in Shai’da. To them, it is nothing more than what you might call a cold. But if a human shares too much physical contact with a creature with the virus, it will infect them quite differently. They become half man, half monster.”

“And how do you cure it?”

“You don’t. It will work its way out of the system in time. In a week, a month, years, decades—it varies. Find the werewolf, Christian, and keep him from all others.”

“And if I cure Nottingham of this threat? What then? You’ve promised me a reward.”

The old one smirked. “I promise no one shall find your encampment who you do not desire to set foot there.”

Robyn chuckled. “I see now why you tell me to practice enchantments.” Robyn stood, and made to leave.

“It would be wise to follow my instructions,” the old one said. His realm crumbled around Robyn and he was on his knees again in Sherwood Forest, moonlight glittering through the trees.

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