Excerpt: A Good Deed – Conclusion

*** Author’s Note: This excerpt wraps up the ‘Good Deed’ portion of my little tale. The next trio will be posted soon, beginning this coming Sunday. I hope that you’re enjoying these little bits of my creative output!

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A small, tidy courtyard of neatly-laid cobblestones and flagstones can be seen from her vantage-point. The path angles sharply from where the gate-door is located, stopping at the wooden steps of a wide porch. Gently curving stones lead to a flat, bare area which invites crafting or training décor. Lush, local foliage of multiple types and species grow here and there along the wall: ferns, deciduous trees, and even an exotic plant with dark leaves glowing with a soft purplish light. The porch is roomy and sturdy, offering space for crates, barrels, and other storage items. The door of the house is sheltered by a high, peaked roof, and the structure looks as if it was carved out of the stone and boulders surrounding it. The thick roots of a tall tree add to the wild, rustic appearance. Thunder peals in the distance, announcing an approaching storm.

Sepultur’a bows her head in gratitude, leaning her forehead against the lattice-work and closing her eyes which are stinging with sudden, unexpected tears of joy. A place of her own, at last. A home to rest and recuperate in while reclaiming her good name and establishing herself in the world. Fumbling through her cloak for the key which surely opens the door, she moves back to it and inserts the key in the door’s keyhole. It fits snugly; when she turns it, she hears the tumblers disengage with a solid thunk. She pushes the door open and steps through, stopping only to close and lock the door behind her. She wants no interruptions or distractions as she takes in the magnitude of the gift.

The courtyard is more spacious than it had appeared from the outside, and she is overjoyed to see the covered structure of a well nestled next to the house. She goes to it and draws up a bucketful of cold, fresh water from the underground aquifer which feeds the outpost. The water smells pure and clean, and she takes out her hip-flask and fills it, drinks deeply and refills it again, then caps it and stows it away for the errands she will have to run later on. Her panther prowls about, sniffing here and there as he examines the corners, nooks and crannies of the courtyard before stretching out on the cobblestones and relaxing.

Sepultur’a mounts the steps and opens the door of the house. The interior is quite uniform on the inside, with a bit more room than the outside suggested. A nicely-sized hearth is centered on the left-side wall of the sole room, . Two cunningly-styled windows provide a bit of natural light during the day. She looks around the cozy quarters, beaming happily. It may not be the luxurious manor in which she grew up, but it is perfect. She walks around, taking notes in her journal, making of list of basic home items that she will need immediately. Other furnishings can be acquired later on. Privacy and security at last! She can rest easy for a good amount of time, now. She has a fair amount of letters home to catch up on…

Excerpt: A Good Deed (Pt. III)

*** Author’s Note: Part I of this excerpt can be found here; Part II can be found here.

Sepultur’a stands in the darkness, letting her eyes adjust to the dimly-lit tomb. She had made it to the ziggurat as the sun was setting and had to fight her way through a small patrol of lamia. The snake-women were thick in this little-traveled area of the lizard-folk swamps, as were all other forms of reptile and amphibian life. From tiny, brilliantly-hued and highly-toxic frogs, to the massive lightning-spewers, to the snakes of all sizes resting in trees or slithering through the muck.

Water trickles down the walls as she descends the mossy stone steps. Vines hang from the ceiling and trail along the walls, and luminescent fungi glow softly in the darkest corners of the tunnel. She sniffs the air with her highly sensitive nose. The dank, damp air is slightly musty, but there is enough of a draw of air from some unseen, long-unused ventilation system to keep it from being completely toxic. Down below, a flickering light indicates a fire of some sort. The scent of smoke is strong, but not chokingly so. Sepultur’a descends the steps and follows the tunnel until she comes to a bend. Using her sword would be difficult in these close quarters and drawing it would cause unnecessary noise, so she readies her staff before peeking around the bend.

The tunnel appears to widen about twenty feet ahead. Off to the right side of this area a small fire is burning in a sloppily-made pit, and a lone form is sprawled on a pile of furs and straw nearby. Sepultur’a crouches low and moves forward slowly, eyes on the still form. She sees that it is an Orc female: most likely Baghzragh, the one who had stolen from Canthiorn and betrayed Grushtakh. As she gets closer to the area, she hears a soft murmur of voices coming from the left and she stops to listen. Her hearing is now as keen as her nose and she gleans an important, and unexpected, bit of information. A smile crosses her lips and she stands, glad to have worn the subtle badge which fastens her cloak. She has taken to following her instincts more than she used to, after her experience with the Withered Hand and her subsequent rescue and healing. She had put the badge on after leaving Grushtakh and felt far enough away from the city to bear the particular mark safely; wearing it, now, she knew there would be no need for subterfuge or bloodshed.

“Yuh t’ink the wench’ll wake soon? If she be wantin’ more o’ the sweet, she’ll be havin’ to pay up, first!” Coarse, loud laughter follows this statement. The speaker, a tall man with a scarred face and bald head who currently goes by the name of Rokkagan, stands from where he and two others have been drinking and playing cards. He walks over to the unconscious figure on the fur-and-straw bedding, nudging her with the toe of his boot, then folds his arms and shakes his head in mock disappointment. “She’s a mite surly, but sure knows how to cut loose and have a bit o’ fun when…persuaded!” He laughs again, turning back to his mates, and stops short when he sees an unknown figure standing in the entryway to the space. His drinking-companions, a lizard-man named Gore-Scales and a Breton named William Sterone, are kneeling in submission with the fists of their right hands firmly pressed on their chests in a salute, while their left hands are raised with palms out. Their heads are bowed as low as possible in deference to the one who outranks them all; her silent appearance, combined with the badge and sign she flashed at them, had kept them from warning their erstwhile employer.

“Well, well, well…fancy meeting you here,” the unknown person says in a sultry and undeniably feminine voice. She walks over to where Gore-Scales and William still kneel, lightly touching the fingertips on their raised hands with hers and bidding them to their feet. They both stand and then flank her, facing their Rokkagan with crossed arms. He stands stock-still, frozen with an apprehension that he hasn’t felt since leaving his burning home in the dead of night many moons ago. The woman walks towards him, then past him, kneeling near Baghzragh’s lightly snoring form. “I have no dealings with you at the moment, Rokkagan,” the woman says as she rummages through a backpack that has been tossed into the corner and forgotten about by the spelunkers during their drug-fueled debauchery. “This one has some items which don’t belong to her, and I’m returning those items to their proper owners.” She locates a secreted sheaf of papers in a cleverly-sewn pocket of the backpack, skims them quickly and then tucks them into a secure pouch in the folds of her cloak. Standing, she turns to face Rokkagan. Gore-Scale and William are right behind him, waiting for any type of signal from her. “You have nothing to fear from me, unless you don’t pay these fine folk their due,” she continues, staring intently into Rokkagan’s eyes. “Times are hard, indeed, if my good acquaintances need to sell their talents to the likes of you!” she exclaims, looking him up and down, disgust evident in her voice. Rokkagan merely nods stupidly, not daring to say or do anything that might provoke the woman.

She steps closer, hands laced casually behind her back, raising her still-concealed face to his. Her voice drops to a near-whisper. “If I hear that you have shortened them even one penny of coin, I will hunt you down and take the remainder out on your worthless hide.” She smirks with satisfaction at the acrid smell of his bladder letting go. Stepping back, she signals to Gore-Scale and William that they can stand at ease. She shoulders past Rokkagan, exiting with a parting shot: “Oh…you might want to change your breeches before re-entering civilized society. Even the worst ogre-dens I’ve had to crawl through smelled better than your arse does now!” Her derisive laughter echoes down the tunnel. Rokkagan squeezes his eyes shut, trying not to let the humiliation of soiling himself overcome him. William goes to tend the fire while Gore-Scale eyes Rokkagan, appraising him anew. He thinks that a re-negotiation of their contract might be in order, and a small memory-gem secreted on one of his horn-rings would assist with that.

Grushtakh is being violently shaken awake from a sound sleep. “Hey…hey, wake up! Damn your drunken hide…wake up, I say!” Canthiorn’s beaming face comes into view as Grushtak’s vision clears. “Uh…wha’?” he grunts, his head swimming as he tries to sit up, weaving slightly as he props himself up on one elbow. “Wash goin’ on?” he mumbles, wiping bleary eyes and smacking his lips. His mouth tastes as if he’d fallen asleep with it open behind a mammoth with a serious bowel problem. What the hell sort of drink had that Wood-elf conned him into swallowing? Canthiorn shoves some papers in Grushtakh’s face, cackling gleefully. “We’re in business! Gods and goddesses above and below, she did it…we’re in business!” he exclaims, doing the stomp-and-clap dance steps native to his people, waving the papers about. Grushtakh rubs his head and blinks stupidly. “Huh?” he asks again, sitting up in the bed a bit more. The last thing he remembers involved a drinking game between himself, Canthiorn, and a cat-man with pale, striped fur. He grunts softly as his head throbs. “Talk slower…what’re you going on about?” Canthiorn capers around the room, still waving the papers. “Your friend, you thick fool! The one you told me about, remember?” Canthiorn rolls his eyes. “Never mind that, for now…all I can say is, things are turning around for the better – we’re back in business!”

A week later, late in the afternoon, a falcon drops out of the sky over Sepultur’a as she stands on the upper balcony of a lone tavern on the edge of the battle-torn central province. It lands on a rail and settles itself with a fluffing of feathers, panting with exertion. It has flown fast and far with its precious cargo. She feeds it some meat that she had been snacking on and carefully removes the tubular parchment-case from its back. Opening it, she finds a rolled piece of paper and a large key. She unrolls the parchment and reads:

Greetings – I hope this note finds you well and in good health. I don’t know if there is any way to fully and adequately compensate you for the work that you did. You gave me back my livelihood and my reputation, and that is no small feat. Please accept this as a token of my thanks, and know that if there is ever any service that I can provide, you have only to name it. Enclosed are a map and a key. The key will unlock the treasure which this map leads to. It is the least that I can do for your kind gesture. May the gods and goddesses ever watch over your steps, milady.

Cordially and Respectfully,
Canthiorn

Sepultur’a looks at the map on the reverse side of the letter. She is somewhat familiar with the area indicated on it, and sees that the ‘X’ marking the spot isn’t far from a trading outpost deep in the territory of the cat-folk. She notes that one of the crudely-sketched landmarks on the map, as she peers a bit closer with the help of a magnifying crystal, indicates a shrine of transit. Very convenient! She tucks the key and the letter / map in the folds of her cloak to keep them safe for this quick jaunt.

The falcon looks at her expectantly, letting out a high-pitched scree. She chuckles and tosses it the last scrap of meat, re-attaches the scroll-case, then stretches and jumps lightly down from the balcony. The bird takes to the air and settles in a tall tree near the outpost’s main gate. She puts her fingers in her mouth and whistles sharply. Her newest mount, a sleek black panther, stretches languorously from his nap in the shade of the stilted building and pads over to his mistress, emitting a purring, grumbling growl. “I know, pet, I know…I promised that you would get a good, long rest, but we need to head out one more time.” She scratches him lightly under his chin, adjusts the riding-straps and thin, flexible saddle and then climbs on his back. He launches into a loping run with Sepultur’a guiding him with even more subtle body movements than needed on a horse. Within an hour they have reached an out-of-the-way transit shrine and use it to travel to the one she is certain is marked on the map.

She looks around as her vision clears from the magically-assisted teleportation. She only uses these “way-shrines” when time is of the essence, but doesn’t feel the disorienting effects as strongly as she used to. The shrine is right in the center of the trading outpost, circled by the merchant-wagons and stalls. A tavern and inn are located in one building while the guild-hall of mages shares space with the guild-hall of warriors. It has been just over a year since she had last travelled through this area; she had been with the caravan of entertainers and traders, then.

Dismounting, she leads the panther past some of the stalls, exchanging greetings, hugs, and mild pleasantries with some of the merchants whom she recognizes. As she wanders about, she notices a neatly-paved side-road which seems to have been freshly laid. She pulls out the letter and skims the map again, noting that this side-road appears to lead directly to the ‘X’ marking the mysterious treasure. Odd to bury a treasure at the end of a road, she thinks, but shrugs and follows it. She is formidable enough on her own; her mount ensures that only the incredibly foolish would dare to attack.

The road winds gently upward through some trees and ends at a locked door which is set into a stout, stone wall. The wall has an open space guarded with sturdy metal lattice-work, so Sepultur’a moves to this space and peers through, gasping softly at the sight on the other side…

Excerpt: A Good Deed (Pt. II)

*** Author’s Note: Part I of this excerpt can be found here, in case you missed it. I think I will do a ‘Top 5’ of my personal favourite excerpts or posts, soon!

“I’ll be brief, friend Grush. Do you know, or have you heard talk of, an Orc woman calling herself Baghzragh? The coin here will be yours either way, as you have been honest and true in the past.” Grushtakh’s shoulders slump as he bows his head and looks at the floor dejectedly. “Aye – that I do,” he says, a bit sadly. Sepultur’a cocks an eyebrow questioningly, nodding at him to continue. Grushtakh sighs. “She’s my blood-kin, so I know her all too well – and yet, not well enough – else, I wouldn’t be in this predicament! Being here in this…” he raises his head and looks wearily around, running a hand over his bald, horn-stubbled pate. “…in this den of iniquity was not in my plan.” He meets Sepultur’a’s gaze. “To use the vernacular of you humans, she is both my half-sister and my cousin. My mother is sister to her mother, and both of them are wives of the chieftain in the stronghold of Yol Karzhagum. My mother is the forge-wife; hers is the hearth-wife. I had no hopes of being a chieftain there, as the hunt-wife is mother to the first-born male.” He chuckles ruefully. “Truth be told, I admit that being chieftain wasn’t something that I desired. Part of the reason I ended up here, I’d wager.”

Sepultur’a listens intently, making the coin dance across the backs of her fingers. It’s a small trick she learned during her time with the caravan, which relaxes her. “It sounds as if she played a role in it, as well,” she states, which draws a mirthless chuckle from Grushtakh. “Aye…that she did. She always had a high opinion of herself, solely based on her mother’s place in the stronghold hierarchy, but never availed herself of the tutelage or apprenticeships provided by the others in the clan. You humans pay a fair price to learn valuable skills; we Orcs are born and taught them from the moment we can walk, talk, and pick up a hammer!” He chuckles again, this time with genuine good humour.

“One day, not long after her 19th birthday, she decided to hop aboard a Breton trading-vessel which had been in port for a week. Not a word to anyone! Father said that she’d best not return unless it was on the arm of a respected war-chief, as that would be the only one able to pay a worthy dowry!” He chuckles again, remembering the scene in the dining-hall when Baghzragh’s disappearance was discovered. “At any rate, I was surprised to get a letter from her a couple of months ago, as none of us had heard from her for three years, at least.” He rummages around in a battered satchel at his side, pulling out a folded parchment. Carefully unfolding it and smoothing it out, he hands it to Sepultur’a. She takes it, then presses the coin into his palm and folds his fingers around it. “Wait a moment,” she says and then quickly reads the letter. Once she’s digested the contents, she re-folds it and hands it back. “She promised you a lucrative business deal, using a lot of flowery language which gave no details,” Sepultur’a states, folding her arms and leaning back against the wall. Grushtakh hangs his head again. “Aye,” he sighs miserably. “I was a bit in my cups when I got the letter, and didn’t read it as carefully as I should have. I came here believing a lie, and feel quite the fool at being duped. Bad enough to be deceived at all; even worse to have it done by your own kin.” Sepultur’a nods in agreement. She knows all too well the pain caused by deception, especially when done by one who was trusted.

Grushtakh looks glumly at the coin given him by Sepultur’a, brightening a bit at the way it glints in the light of various candles and torches flickering here and there throughout the refuge. “This, at least, will get me a decent meal and a room at the inn! It will be nice to sleep in a cot, at the very least.” Sepultur’a smiles. “Indeed,” she says, glad to be able to offer payment of some sort. She knows that he is too proud to ask for help or take any charitable offer; it is almost an insult to his race to do so, and she doesn’t want to add to his wounded pride. “I think that you’ll find that coin worth quite a bit. Take it up to the banking-house and see what exchange you get, why don’t you?” She moves away from the wall and pulls her cowl over her face again. “Thanks again for your help, my friend. There might be another reward in this for you if all goes well. Even if it doesn’t, you will be able to return home with your head held high and reputation intact and unsullied. If you choose to return, that is!” She clasps his hand briefly and exits the refuge.

Grushtakh inspects the coin closely. On one side is the diamond-shaped emblem of the imperial army, while the other shows an image of the three alliance banners ablaze from the fires of war. He lets out a soft whistle of admiration. What she gave him was part of her earnings from the battlefield, and a generous one at that. He knows enough about currency to see that she gave him a war-chit worth 5,000 pieces of the universal gold coin exchangeable throughout the different lands and provinces. This would be more than enough to get a fresh start, right here in this city, if he so desired…

To Be Continued…

Excerpt: A Good Deed (Pt. I)

“Here it is, milady – the receipt for the bank deposit, and the sum total of your current balance. Always a pleasure to see you, although it’s been some time!” the lizard-woman moneylender is saying as she stacks the paperwork. “Aye,” Sepultur’a acknowledges. “I appreciate you keeping such orderly and precise records, especially during my long absence!” She thanks the moneylender and tucks the receipt into her journal after jotting down the sizable number indicating her personal bank balance. She is pleased with what she has earned on her own recently, as there is much coin to be earned in many places – both on and off the battlefield. Her savior had taught her a few things that dusty books on shelves could not, and she is grateful for the knowledge imparted.

Stepping out of the banking-house, she stops on the steps, stretching in the light of the setting sun. It has been some time since she last visited the bustling city of the Dark Elves, as she had joined the caravan here not long after leaving home. The cobbled streets are clean, as usual, and townsfolk stroll along the overpasses and walkways. The small inn and tavern are just across the way from the banking-house, and she finds herself walking through the front door without really giving it much thought. She nods to the innkeeper and enters the dining area, taking a spot at the counter where she can watch everyone who comes and goes. A bottle of wine and a glass are slid over to her by the chef, who drops a sly wink as he goes back to basting a haunch of venison. Sepultur’a smiles and toasts his health after filling the glass, and leaves a few coins on the counter as a tip for his generosity. Sipping her wine, she looks around at the other patrons. One in particular gets her notice: a wood-elf wearing the garb of a merchant, sitting alone at a table with his head in his hands and an air of defeat hanging heavily over him. He heaves a sigh and shakes his head in abject misery. Curious. Taking up the bottle and an extra wine glass, she strolls over and sits at his table, pouring a generous amount into the glass and sliding it in front of him. He looks at her incredulously, removes his hands from his face and takes up the glass, smells the bouquet and sips lightly.

“I thank you for your kindness,” he says, “but I cannot pay you for the drink, and drink will not help me with my problem. When the drink is gone, the problem will still remain!” He laughs a bit too loudly, with the edge of hysteria making the laugh mirthless and shrill. Sepultur’a leans back in her chair and sips her wine. “What is your problem?” she asks simply and directly. “Perhaps I can be of assistance.” He looks at her cautiously and a bit more closely. She is young, but her eyes hold much worldly knowledge. She sits in a relaxed and easy manner, but her movements as she seated herself and poured the wine make him think of the great reptiles in the swamps to the south and in his homeland. He shakes his head in negation, stating: “You might be able to assist me, but I hold no hope that anyone other than a magister or the king himself would be able to do so successfully.” He drains his glass and puts his head in his hands again. “I’ve been approached by too many mercenaries already, and they have all demanded a far higher price to ‘solve my problem’ than it requires.” He heaves another deep sigh. “I came to these lands to start my business, but the dishonesty of my partner is ending it before it can begin. I have no money to pay anyone unless I recover some necessary items from that…piece of troll dung, and nobody will help me unless I pay them first!”

Sepultur’a refills his glass, leaning forward and staying his hand before he can pick it up again. This movement causes him to start and look up, forced to meet her gaze squarely. “I can be of assistance,” she states firmly, “and it will cost you nothing. If you choose to reward me, it shall be your choice. My services are free when I make the offer.” She releases his hand and leans back again. “If you had approached me, then I would have asked for recompense. As it is…” she trails off and sips her wine, a secretive smile playing across her lips. “Oh, well – I suppose I have nothing to lose, then!” he bursts out, taking a healthy drink. “I’ll try to be brief – my name is Canthiorn, by the by – and I came here with my business partner last week. Her name is Baghzragh – an Orc wench, obviously – and she was supposedly going to meet with some Breton to buy the building that was to be our storefront. Foolish me, I let her walk off with the coin and didn’t even think to send along a bodyguard to hold it and keep an eye on her, as I was busy with many different negotiations. That was two days ago, and here I am with no money, no partner…and, no business!” He drains the glass again, filling himself up as fast as he empties himself of words. Sepultur’a finishes her drink as she listens to his tale, refills both of their glasses, then sets the empty wine-bottle aside.

She appraises Canthiorn’s appearance. On closer inspection, he does seem to be a bit worse for wear. His clothes, while well-made and of high quality, are slightly dingy and look wrinkled, as if they haven’t been changed for two days. His face seems leaner than usual, for one of his race, and his eyes are tired and full of despair. She would wager that he is just as hungry as he is tired, as the wine has made him quite talkative in short order. The few wood-elves she has met in her travels usually hold their liquor quite well, and the standard brews of humans and the other elven races aren’t known to intoxicate them at all. A serving-girl walks past with a tray of appetizers for patrons drinking in the entry-hall, and Canthiorn’s eyes follow helplessly. Sepultur’a stands. “Wait here a moment,” she says. After a few quiet words with the chef and the inn-keeper, she returns to his table. “You have a place here for the night, as well as a hot meal tonight and a hearty breakfast in the morning.” He stares at the young woman, speechless at her generosity. She smiles, donning a cloak and pulling the cowl low over her face. “I will help you regain what has been stolen from you. Put worry out of your mind, good Canthiorn. Eat and sleep – your mind, body and soul are weary.” She turns to leave as the serving-girl places a heaping plate of wood-elf delicacies in front of Canthiorn. He is so ravenous that he doesn’t even think to ask the name of his mysterious benefactress.

Sepultur’a exits the inn and walks back towards the banking-house, but bypasses the building and enters a small gazebo behind it. There are many of these secluded seating areas and various locations around the town, but this one holds a secret known only to a few. The statue honouring the god of finance is also the doorway to an underground refuge which provides shelter for the indigent and a hiding place for those of ill-repute.

Grushtakh gro-Karzhagum starts awake at the feel of a booted toe nudging his nethers, and he scrambles out of his bedroll, ready to shred someone’s face over the indignity. The angry roar that was building in his throat fades to a squealing whisper as he sees who was doing the nudging. “Um…uh, er…I…” he stammers, realizing at the same time that he wears nothing but a thin loincloth. As he turns slightly sideways to hide his dream-excitement from the unexpected visitor, he is certain that he had at least a pair of breeches on when he had gone to sleep. Damn this so-called refuge for outlaws! The other residents would steal the clothes off of your back or arse given the opportunity and the experienced thief or cutpurse could literally do so even if their target was awake. “Uh…” he starts again, and the visitor’s throaty chuckle builds to hearty laughter. “Ah, Grush – you sleep too soundly for your own good!” Sepultur’a turns her back, tossing his breeches over her shoulder for him to catch. “Cover yourself! I have am in need of information, and you have proved to be a good source of it.”

Grushtakh hastily pulls on his breeches and a simple tunic for good measure, returning to his bedroll and sitting comfortably. “So, the Flame-Serpent returns!” He spreads his hands, gesturing for her to sit in the sole chair that he owns. “I’ll do what I can and tell you anything I know – if I’m able to, o’ course,” he finishes as she declines the chair and leans against the damp stone of the underground refuge. She takes a coin from a hidden pocket and begins to flip it idly, casually, as she frames her next question.

To Be Continued…

Excerpt: Festivities

*** Author’s Note: Just a small reminder that my excerpts are not in chronological order. Some chapters are taking longer to revise and edit than others! ***

Dusk. The party is in full swing; family and close friends are attending the small, lavish gathering and the celebrants are all in high spirits. Lord Yazim, her father, had given a brief speech, and her mother, Lady Zaiher, had presented Sepultur’a with a gift: a leather-bound journal to record the events of her journey.

Sepultur’a’s glum mood of earlier has lifted completely, as she is engrossed in conversation with her brother Ad-hir’s mysterious, last-minute guest – he brought a woman along! He introduced her as Sonja, stating only that he met her in some remote area of a battlefield and had recently asked for her hand in marriage. The family is a bit surprised, as they had all thought that the only son of the family would spend a number of years sowing some wild oats before settling down. Ad-hir is engaged in quiet conversation with Yazim, while Ildris and Zaiher sit close with her and Sonja, laughing and chatting. The table is laden with fare both local and exotic; there are familiar dishes which are favourites of the family, and unfamiliar ones which seem to appeal to Sonja’s palate. Sonja has a hearty appetite and seems to eat a bit of everything. Sepultur’a is in awe of her new sister-to-be and hangs on her every word. The woman’s hair is an interesting shade of deep auburn, braided into long rows which hang down the center of her back. Her head is shaved on the sides in a fashion that Sepultur’a has only seen in books. Her skin is dark, like Sepultur’a and Ildris, but her eyes are a pale blue that is unusual to their people. Her face bears patterned scars, but the scars seem to accentuate her beauty, not detract from it. She is also very tall, and more muscular than the other women in the room – but her figure is noticeably feminine. She wears a form-fitting, stitched top and breeches with an attached “tail” – a skirt that is slit up the front to allow a lady to ride comfortably and modestly.

Sepultur’a excuses herself from the table and moves around the room, chatting with the other guests. She is radiantly beautiful in the dress she wears: red, silken material is gathered at the bodice; clever slits in the fabric reveal white gleaming velvet insets. A black leather corset accentuates her slender figure, and the full skirt flares out and down, just brushing the floors with an elegant ruffle. Her shoulders are bare, but short, puffed sleeves cover her upper arms. She will hate to leave the dress behind, but it won’t be practical on a long trip. It will be a while before she has the time or inclination to wear such finery again, after this day. Tomorrow she will be garbed in her own set of armor and choose two weapons to take with her. She will start out with virtually nothing; just what will fit into the saddle-bags.

She gets her glass of wine refilled, then wanders out onto the veranda. The two moons hang high in the sky, one smaller than the other. She stands there, looking up at them, thinking. Sipping her wine, she walks down a small flight of stairs and follows the narrow path down towards the beach. The harbor is quiet and serene, and she removes her slippers to walk barefoot in the sand. Water laps softly at the docks; she wanders to the end of one of the boat-slips and stands quietly, enjoying a bit of solitude. After a moment, she turns and leaves the harbor, heading back towards the manse. Her footsteps take her past the garden-maze; she pauses for a moment, then enters.

The soft light of lanterns guides her along, although she is so familiar with this route that she could navigate it blindfolded. She soon stands at the fountain with the magnificent statue, and stares at it longingly. “Oh, Mother,” she whispers softly. “I hope that I find a great love the way that you and Father have. To have a man look at me with such devotion…I cannot imagine.” She sits on the edge of the fountain and places her slippers on the stone bench where she and Ildris had sat earlier. Her fingers trace patterns on the surface of the water as she finishes her wine. Setting the empty glass near her slippers, she draws her legs up, carefully tucking the long skirt up so that it doesn’t get wet, then resumes trailing her fingers in the water of the fountain. She gets lost in deep thought and doesn’t hear quiet footsteps approaching.

Endymion, the smith’s apprentice, enters the fountain area. He doesn’t see Sepultur’a sitting in the dark shadow thrown by the fountain. He isn’t forbidden from this area; all who work at the manse are allowed access to most of the grounds, but if the family is present, the help gives them leeway. He is certain that he is alone, as he knows that the family is celebrating the youngest daughter’s birthday. He likes sitting here some evenings, especially when the moons are full, but those times are rare due to his work schedule.

Endymion stands for a moment, limned in the moonlight, looking appreciatively at the statue. The merchant-master, powerfully depicted in this carving, spared no expense in this declaration of love for his wife, the mother of his daughters. Endymion can fully understand why this particular pose was chosen, and why it is displayed where it is. To see this sculpture in full daylight, where many could see it, would be scandalous and create undue envy amongst the townspeople.

He stretches out on one of the benches and clasps his hands behind his head, looking up at the moons and appreciating how their light plays over the statue. His eyes close as he relaxes, letting the stress of the day’s work ebb from his body. The forge-master had been stern with him after he’d muffed the repair of a sword, and he despaired of mastering working with metal. His uncle had been certain that the family talent of blacksmithing would run in his veins, but after a year of apprenticeship, he could barely craft a decent dagger. He isn’t sure how he can tell his uncle that working a forge isn’t his natural talent. A soft gasp interrupts his train of thought and his eyes open, startled out of his reverie.

The youngest daughter is standing there, staring at him, eyes wide in the darkness. He tries to think of her name as he sits up, resting his arms on his knees as he regards her. She looks beautiful under the moonlight, he thinks, eyeing her bare shoulders and trim form.

She, in turn, is captivated by his stature now that she sees him up close. She has seen him from a distance in the marketplace, or when she has accompanied Yazim or Ad-hir to the forge to get fitted for her own pieces or armor, but seeing him up close has her seeing him as if for the first time. His face is intriguing: intense blue eyes, a sensuous mouth, a fine, straight nose, and strong chin. His head is shaved on the sides; the remaining hair is neatly combed and pulled back in a tight queue. He rises from his supine position, stands, and moves towards her. It takes her a moment to realize that he is speaking to her, and shakes her head to clear it and focus on his words.

“I’m sorry,” he is saying, “I didn’t think that anyone would be here. I can leave if you wish to be alone; I don’t want to intrude.” He bows respectfully, and moves as if to leave, but she shakes her head. “No, please…don’t go,” she says softly. “You may stay. I didn’t know that anyone was here. It was crowded inside, and I just wanted to come out, look at the moons, and catch a breath of air.” She looks up at them, a soft smile curving her lips. “They are full and bright tonight, aren’t they?” He looks up as well, nodding in agreement. “Indeed,” he replies, looking back at her. “I’m not the best with names,” he continues, feeling a bit bold. “If you please, I had a question. What is your name? I don’t know that I could pronounce it.” She laughs lightly “Sepultur’a,” she says, sounding it out slowly and carefully. “…and, you are Endymion, the apprentice to the smith,” she finishes, smiling at his surprise. “You know my name and who I am?” he asks, somewhat flattered. “Why, of course,” she says. “You are hard to miss,” she says, then stops before she says too much. She lowers her gaze, turning to face the fountain again. He cocks an eyebrow at her words. “Hard to miss? How do you mean?” he asks. She turns to face him. “Well, I just meant that…you aren’t from these lands, originally, so you do stand out from the crowds. Not in a bad way, of course…I just happen to notice you when you’re at the forge, when I’m at the market running errands.” Her voice drops to a near-whisper. “I…like watching you work,” she finishes, nervously playing with her hair.

He is silent with surprise. “Oh, I’ve offended you now, I just know it!” she bursts out. “I always talk too much and say the wrong thing at the wrong time…” she trails off, sounding near tears. “Wait – what? No, no, no…no offense taken at all,” he says, standing and stepping closer to her. “I didn’t think that either of the daughters of the wealthiest man in town would take notice of a lowly blacksmith’s apprentice,” he says. “I always figured that you and your sister had been betrothed to some merchant’s son from birth, or something…” he stops speaking, unsure of what to say next. She looks up at him. He is tall and broad-shouldered, with well-muscled arms and large, strong hands from daily work at the forge. He wears a simple, rough tunic and breeches that smell of smoke. He is standing so close…her mind whirls. Perhaps it is the full moons, or the scent of the flowers in the garden that cause her to act so boldly. She reaches out impulsively and touches his face, caressing his cheek for a moment. She starts to pull her hand away, but he reaches up and presses his hand over hers, closing his eyes and savoring her touch…

Excerpt: Seclusion

She jolts awake. The nightmare, again. It haunts her, as it has every night for…how long has it been? Time has gotten away from her.

She rolls over on her back, staring at the root-canopy that forms this sizeable, yet well-concealed, den. It had been inhabited by a troll until recently; she had seen to its unceremonious eviction. Its pelt makes up the rough bed in which she was sleeping, while its decaying head rests on a boulder about five feet from the front entryway to the den. The presence and stench of it keeps away all intruders, including the nearby band of giants. They are only eight in number, so tending to their small herd of mammoths is of more importance than a dead troll. It is one less troll that will attempt to prey on the calves, and the smoke from their massive communal fire eliminates the stink of decaying flesh on days when the wind changes.

The nightmare is fading, but she can recall every detail. The dream is a memory of a real event, the details of which hammer at her brain like the siege machines hammer the walls of a fortress. She fully understands, now, why her father would sometimes wander the manor halls at night, long after the family had taken to bed. Two major events of his life still haunt him, many years later, although far less than they used to. She idly wonders how long the scene she witnessed would remain in her memory. She gags helplessly as those memories rush back, and claws her way out of the troll-skin bedroll towards the back of the den and the entryway to a short, rear tunnel. This tunnel is too small for the troll to have used; it had probably been created by the original resident of the den, as it leads to a small cave which opens on a ledge in a hillside. She staggers to a corner of the cave and doubles over, retching, but nothing comes up. Her stomach is empty. She hasn’t had any substantial meal for some time. The food-basket, tumbling from numb fingers…sweet cakes crumbling in the dirt…a carafe of wine shattering on stone…

She can’t stand her own cooking now, as the smell of food makes her nauseous beyond reason. Raw flesh is all that she can eat and hold down. What she craves and wants to consume sickens her. Stabling Sylph had become a necessity; even her own faithful steed was in danger from her appetites. She had to get away from the town and the people in it, for their protection as well as hers. Skulking through the woods…a campfire glinting between the trees…a young couple with their child, taking shelter for the night as they travel…their friendly invitation to join them for a meal…her maddening hunger at the scent of their vitality…the wife screaming as her husband was pinned to the ground, slavering teeth inches from his throat…rushing headlong through the forest, blinded by tears and tree-branches, frightened at the near-massacre…

“What’s happened to me?” she whispers to herself, doubled up in agony on the cave floor. The nausea passes. She gets to her feet, stumbles a bit, then steadies herself, swaying slightly. She needs to feed. The urge isn’t as strong this night as it has been, but it is always there, along with the distant siren song. It is very faint out here, making it easy to resist. She knows that her very being depends on resisting that call. If she succumbs to it…she shakes her head, negating the thought. That can’t happen. I won’t let it. I refuse! I shall resist…

She reels to the cave entrance and looks out, blinking in the bright moonlight. The giants are slumbering a fair distance away, with one standing watch, guarding the clan and the mammoth herd. She picks her way down from the ledge, making her way to the tree-line. The scent of a nearby herd of antelope makes her stomach knot with sudden hunger. She is torn by the desire to feed; the desire to answer that distant, deadly call, and the need to get a message to her family. Confusion roils in her mind…why is it so hard to think? The wild scent of the herd fills her nostrils. She surrenders to her hunger and crouches in the shadows, creeping as close as she dares.

A large buck, standing sentinel, whips his head around, startled by the distant howl of a wolf. The night had been almost eerily quiet, but now an answering howl, and then a third, floats on the air. The nervous herd mills about, then moves off towards the giant-camp. They have learned that relative shelter can be found amidst the mammoths; only the boldest and hungriest predators dare to attack the shaggy beasts.

She freezes amongst the shadows, not daring to follow the antelope herd. The giants will have heard the wolves as well, and might be more than ready to defend their camp. Her stomach knots with another sharp pang of hunger; her fevered brain reaches for a solution, and then it hits her: follow the pack. She had been successful with a past hunt when she had tracked a foraging band of goblins, following the wild boars for a full day after the goblins had captured three and returned to their rough camp. Following wolves would be fairly easy. Turning in the direction of their howling, she slips off into the night. She must feed…

ESO Fan Fiction: Scenes From the Battle, Part III

The enemy forces are swarming like angry bees…chaos abounds. The battle is at a fevered pitch and the noise is deafening: the thunder of arcane explosions. The clash and crunch of blades and mauls on armour. Screams of pain; shouts of rage, battle-cries vocalized in many different tongues. The thunk of the catapults; the splattering sound of rotten bags of meat exploding on masonry, the shattering of pottery. One intrepid assistant to the quartermaster has assembled a oil-throwing catapult near the banner at the inner rear of the fortress. This, combined with the meatbag catapult, is holding the enemy forces at bay in the main courtyard. The majority of their cloaked assassins, though, and more than a few mages, have evaded detection and made their way deeper into the fortress. They will be able to wreak havoc on any unwary defenders, and Tur’a knows that the more patient ones can spend hours in hiding, biding their time to make an escape under cover of darkness.

Watch out! her mind screams. She rolls to her left, bringing her sword up to block a vicious overhand stroke from a burly Orc’s war-hammer. The scarred, tusked face looks surprised at the swift motion, pausing just long enough for Tur’a to sweep his legs out from under him. Lotharr’s own sword removes the Orc’s head with one strike, the body twitching as the head bounces down the stone steps and rolls into a corner. Baragon draws his bow-string back, loosing a hail of ice-tipped arrows. There – another mage revealed! Tur’a leaps at him, lashing out with a pyro-kinetic whip. The mage screams as he burns from within, consumed by flames…a pile of ashes is all that is left as Tur’a moves on.

The sounds of the battle seem to fade as she advances. Her mind is focused on one word: BURN. Everything is wreathed in flames…it’s beautiful. She smiles serenely and walks forward, sword held loosely. She looks down at it. It seems useless and unnecessary at the moment, so she sheathes it and keeps on walking. Everything seems slow…she drags her eyes to the right, seeing a cat-man exploding from the shadows as he unleashes a volley of knives in a spinning cyclone of death. She sees the trajectory of each blade and throws herself flat – they whiz harmlessly overhead as she extends a burning, psionic chain. Get over here, she idly thinks, and the cat-man is suddenly…right there, in front of her. She grasps his shoulders and inhales deeply – his life essence drains as she sucks it in. She releases him…he turns to run, staggering weakly. She focuses momentarily – GRRRAAAWWWWR!!!
Flames blast outward in a corona; the cat-man crumples in a blazing fetal position. Tur’a advances, oblivious to the destruction – she is in the eye of a firestorm of her own creation, and feels more alive than she can recall. She burns…

ESO Fan Fiction: Scenes From the Battle, Part II

*CRASH*

The battering ram smashes the inner gate – and two of its wheels fall off. The warriors using it move it aside and in a matter of moments, the machine is disassembled. The parts will be used to repair the two ballistae which are making quick, short work of the inner gate. Inside the assaulted fortress, the quartermaster bawls instructions to his assistants as they rush to outfit and defend the battlemages and sentries. The now-useless transit shrine has been abandoned as these stalwart few stand at the ready. Tur’a and Baragon remain crouched and ready at their positions, not bothering with the oil-pots any longer. Tur’a eyes the enemy troops swarming in and hopes that Lotharr and his small crew have managed to evade detection. They are quite skilled, but the sheer numbers they face are daunting…any stealth attack they may have planned would have to be swift and enormous in scale.

Tur’a glances over at Baragon, who gazes intently down at the enemy numbers. She has seen him on the battlefield more and more lately, and his fighting is impressive. Such skill! No wild flailing about with his broadsword, as she has seen many others do. No, he wields his blade similarly to the way she was taught; the art of sword-play that was nearly lost to her people when they were driven from their homeland, so long ago.

*CRASH*

She snaps back to attention, surprised at being distracted, and sees Baragon smirking at her as shouts and the clashing of steel resound from below. They turn their attention to the stone stairway, standing to join two archers and a mage. Lotharr and his team barrel back in the door they had crept out of moments before, tabards ablaze. They move to various positions around the stairway and hold fast while the quartermaster replaces the oil-pots near them. Working swiftly, his assistants have managed to erect a catapult near the empty scroll-bier. The stench of rotting meat mingles with the smell of smoke, hot oil, burning cloth and leather, and charred flesh. The real battle will soon begin. Tur’a welcomes it…her heart is racing. She feels the wrath of her fellow knights of the dragon, their combined quiet rage feeding hers. Blazing runes dance at the edge of her vision as she grasps her sword tightly and raises it high. Flames lick the edges of the brutal blade as it takes on the appearance of molten lava. Beside her, Baragon draws his bow. Elves and their bows, Tur’a chuckles to herself. They come in handy, there’s no denying it…

*WHUMP*

She’s hurled backwards by a massive explosion! Dazed, flat on her back, helpless…GET UP! her mind screams – she rolls to the side, narrowly evading the mighty swing of an enemy’s maul. Her vision clears in time to see a flash of blades as Ildris opens the throat of the warrior with brutal precision. She re-cloaks and vanishes, but not before wreathing her younger sister in some healing magicks to cleanse the effects of the concussion. Tur’a smiles in relief and turns her attention back to the stairwell. Her sister is here! Ildris always brings heavy reinforcements. The battle is far from over…it can now begin in earnest. Baragon moves back to her side, closer than before. His face is a mixture of anger and…is that concern that she sees? No, that’s not possible. Just a trick of the eyes, she figures, as he draws on his own inner fire. His face becomes a blank obsidian mask with one blazing eye – he reminds her of a statue she saw as a child.

Tur’a shakes her head again, slightly, thinking that she must still be feeling the effects of the spell. These distracting thoughts aren’t helping! She feels foolish and disconcerted as she returns her attention to the fight. It needs to end swiftly…time to get serious.

ESO Fan Fiction: Scenes from the Battle, Part I

*BOOM*

The muffled sounds of heavy impact on the outer walls of the fortress jolt Tur’a from sleep. A pity – the dream had been a nice one. Tangled in bedclothes with…someone, while a storm raged outside. The heavy balls of ice launched from the magically-infused trebuchets had mingled with the noise of surf crashing on the rocks of the small island…

*BOOM*

Tur’a is fully awake, now – this is no small distraction. The timing between the sounds of impact is too close together… she knows that there are multiple siege machines outside the walls. She hopes that reinforcements arrive soon…if the walls take enough damage, the mages will be forced to direct their energies to defense mode, which will render the shrine of transit useless. She grabs up her heavy helm and claps it firmly on her head, then affixes her staff in its special sheath on her back. Taking some provisions from her satchel, she eats quickly and fastens her gauntlets as she runs upstairs to take a look into the outer courtyard.

*BOOM*

She crouches low to avoid detection, creeping close to the small balcony that overlooks the inner and outer gates. There – she sees the outer gate shudder as a battering-ram is wielded from the outside. A massive ball of ice hurtles over the wall, striking the inner gate as she gets closer. She feels the impact through her feet as the fortress shakes. Those clever bastards…they’re weakening the inner gate with trebuchets, which will make it much easier to breach the fortress with the battering ram. Instead of wasting time and firepower on the outer walls, they are going after the doors!

*BOOM*

Backing away from the balcony, she edges back downstairs and hurries to the quartermaster, shouting orders. He runs up to the balcony, directing his assistants to set up hot oil-pots above the inner gate. It will be a vain attempt at thwarting the enemy, but might buy just enough precious time to keep the inner of the fortress sealed. The transit shrine blazes brightly – reinforcements are on their way; people will emerge as quickly as they can, for as long as the outer gate holds…which won’t be for much longer!

*CRASH*

The shrine goes dark as the outer gate is breached…a score of fighters made it through beforehand. Tur’a is relieved to see Lotharr, Baragon, and a number of high-ranking, seasoned veterans – they will know what to do. Not a word is spoken; everyone knows their battle-rankings and defensive positions and move to their assigned locations without hesitation. Holding the inner fortress secure is of primary importance while they wait for their respective secondary squads to arrive, whether they are mounted or on foot.

Lotharr motions to five in the crowd, and they quietly exit through a side door to scout the courtyard, get a better count of the enemy, and possibly pick off a few of their stragglers. Baragon mans one of the oil-pots; Tur’a takes position at one to the right of him, while an Orc stands ready at one to Bargon’s left. All three watch quietly as the battering ram slowly rumbles into the courtyard, surrounded by mages casting protective spells over it – they are even prepared for the hot oil! Tur’a watches them through narrowed eyes, glaring at the hated golden banner waving high. Two ballistae are set up by the enemy as their cloaked assassins make quick work of the guards at the inner gate. Massive bolts crash into the weakened inner gate as those wielding the ram pick up speed…the oil-pots won’t slow them down one bit.

Tur’a grins under her helm. She likes the odds of this battle…they have survived worse. Let the fun begin.

The Power of Body Language

This is something that many people forget – great information, here!

M.C. Tuggle, Writer

Yojimbo2

Are you frustrated with your characters? Are they slowing down what should be a gripping, page-turning story? Maybe it’s time you got them off their rear ends and put them to work.

In my re-writes, I search the text for characters who THINK rather than ACT. When I spot a cerebral, lackluster character, I start re-staging the scene like a director, deciding how the characters should approach and look at one another. When I’ve done my job, every character will be in motion. His tone of voice, eye movements, expressions, and stance will reflect and amplify his emotions and attitudes. THEN each character can tell a compelling story.

Body language is one of the most powerful tools a writer can use. When we express our characters’ emotions and thoughts in concrete, physical terms, we pull the reader deeper into the story.

In my sci-fi short story Aquarius, the protag…

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