At Marcher Lord Press, Saturdays are “Speculative Story Saturdays.” And this week we’re beginning our very first collaborative story project.
The Marcher Lord Press authors–those who have been foolish (er, brave) enough to sign on–have embarked upon a quest to write a short Christian fantasy story together, in tag-team relay fashion.
Up first is Steve Rzasa. He took his inspiration from the cover and title (both done by me), and launched us in the right direction.
Steve, take us away!
But Who Would Be Brave/Dumb Enough to Even Try it?
The Rancid Boar was a ramshackle establishment only the, ah, discreet visiting Sohn’s Bend frequented. Two stories of rotted wood and stone covered in soggy moss—hardly picturesque. As such the clientele kept to the booths, dimly lit as they were, to discuss in hushed tones all manner of unsavory dealings.
No one called the owner anything but “Sir.” He was missing an eye, half his teeth, and his entire sense of humor. When he towered over one, he left one with the sense one should kneel or curtsy. He took the coin and asked no questions.
I was rather besotted with the man, because of that.
A thousand pardons. Where are my manners? Let me introduce myself—Barzillai Broadhead, famed archer of the Dank Wood, hero of the Nine Ports, marksman extraordinaire. Surely you’ve heard of me.
No? A shame. Clearly I don’t pay the local scribes enough gold.
Forget that for the moment. Remember instead where you were the fateful day when I—that’s Barzillai, two Ls—convened an assembly in the Rancid Boar’s darkest room farthest from the front door.
The table before me was stained with many a substance. There was beer, blood and boar’s meat—rancid, of course. The stains were all deep dark in the flickering light of the single candle. Its flame, yellow and orange by turns, danced upon the wick.
I set the map down with care. It was my only copy. “The X marks the spot, as it were—the fortress of Landgrave Christoph the Twenty-Eighth.”
“He doesn’t hail from a creative bloodline, apparently.” That sour voice, sharp-edged as the dagger she twirled in her fingers, could belong only to Tekla. Such a beauty with short hair as yellow as the noon sun should have been tending tavern tables with full ruby lips spread in a smile. Instead she scowled, her usual expression. “But it doesn’t prevent him from guarding his property with all the forces the Foul Realm can provide.”
“Well, that may be the case, but no fortress is impregnable. I am living proof of that.”
“Really? Here I thought you were the man who spent almost a year locked in the deepest dungeon of Castle Gantoum.”
“Yes, I am that man.” I grinned. “And when I broke out, I took along enough gold to make it well worth the inconvenience.”
Tekla snorted. “What good will lust for gold be if we’re all dead?”
“We won’t be dead. We can break in to the fortress and seize the crystal without any undue danger.”
“Cludge won’t let no one hurt Tekla.” The man—actually, the rumors to reach my ears told me he was half-giant, or half-troll, or half-something else not human—stood like a watchtower behind Tekla. He was bald, pug-nosed, and had arms thick enough to be mistaken for tree trunks. He looked at Tekla the way a very loyal guard dog might regard its master.
“No, Cludge, I wouldn’t dream of letting any harm befall the fair Tekla.” Apparently my promises of payment were not enough to soothe his worries. Time to rely on words. “I will protect her.”
“Please.” Tekla stabbed the dagger into the map. The blade thudded in the wood. It tore a nice gash in the etching of the landgrave’s fortress, as well.
I cringed. Did I say the map was my only copy? That may not have been accurate. It is the only copy of a certain scribe whom I owe gold. Ah, well.
“Will you two cease debating which one of you will protect the woman who has slain ninety-nine?” She gave me a withering glare that would have made most men quail. I found it rather attractive, heaven help me. “And Cludge, you needn’t worry—I will be cautious, and where I fail, you will support me.” She patted his hand gently, like mother to child.
“That’s a good fellow.” I smiled.
He glowered at me.
Ah, yes. I can choose delightful partners, can’t I?
“Now as I was saying, the crystal…it is well guarded, or so I’ve heard.”
“You’ve heard? You’ve not seen it?”
“Tekla, dear, if I had seen it with mine own eyes, why would I have left it there? It would be auctioned off to the highest bidder.”
“I still say it’s madness to steal the Crystal of Darkness.”
“Because the landgrave’s army is strong enough to rule the entire Atzapar Valley without contest. I doubt he would leave his fortress vulnerable.”
“What matters is that this crystal is priceless. Priceless means gold—far more gold than you have ever seen in one place.”
“I believe that, else I wouldn’t be here.” A sly smile escaped her lips. Perhaps my charms were to some effect. “But is it evil?”
“I presume so.”
“You do not know?”
She could be so thoroughly exasperating. “I never thought to inquire beyond rumor. The name is rather self-explanatory.”
“It is evil. Of that let there be no doubt.” The voice came from the shadows at the back of the room. Fabric rustled as he stepped forward. Smoke wafted over the table—koss leaf. His pipe glowed orange. “I’ve heard enough whisperings from the right people to know it’s true.”
“Raibert, stop skulking about and come in to the light.” I gave Tekla a wink. “You must excuse my old friend. He’s not one to hang about in a crowd.”
“Four is hardly a crowd,” Tekla said.
Raibert Wiley stepped into the glow from the candle. His body was concealed by a cloak the color of ashes, and the hood shrouded his eyes. But you could plainly see his nose, long and sharp as a bird’s beak, and the smirk shaded by whiskers. His left hand held a slender pipe. “She is a charming lass, Barzillai.”
“Yes, but thus far she’s proving quite bothersome.”
“No one said you had to hire me for this job.” Tekla folded her arms. At least she left the dagger embedded in the table—and my map. I’d rather it stay there than between her fingers, at least during this negotiation.
“I knew she’d be perfect when I recommended her,” Raibert said. He took a puff from the pipe.
“Fantastic. Recommended for a theft by a thief.”
“Now, children, let’s not fight in front of Father.” I rapped my knuckles on the table. “The matter at hand is this—can we get in to the fortress, seize the Crystal of Darkness, and escape? I say yes.”
“I agree,” Raibert said. “But we must be cautious.”
“I always am,” Tekla said.
“I wasn’t talking to you. Barzillai, make no mistake—I will follow you wherever you lead, because you always lead me to gold. But this crystal is no trinket. It can summon the fell beasts from the Foul Realms just as certain as I can slip into a treasure vault without leaving a mark.”
“It seems a lot of fairy tale to me,” Tekla said.
“My sources are reliable.”
Tekla snorted. “And how much did you pay for that story?”
Raibert stiffened. “I never pay for information. People give it to me, freely—though not always willingly.”
“I suspect this rumor is spread about to worry the masses,” I said. “Not that I haven’t seen the fell beasts with mine own eye—the wolf-men and the giant spiders and the like. The Dank Woods fairly crawl with them these days.”
Tekla yanked her blade from the table. “Creatures worry me not. They can be killed with a blade.”
“There is another matter,” Raibert said. He set his pipe on the table. “The golem.”
Oh, dear. I was rather hoping he wouldn’t mention that.
Tekla stared at him. “Barzillai made no mention of that.”
“The golem is another rumor, Tekla, dear,” I said. How I longed to slay that rumor with my arrows as swiftly as a man’s blood could be spilled. “The crystal has some connection to it—supposedly.”
“So you want to break into a fortress that houses an evil crystal, which possibly drags monsters into our land, and may or may not be guarded by a golem.”
“It may be giving life to the golem,” Raibert said. He sounded like a teacher admonishing a student. “So says a mage who owes me money.”
“Montocerian? The skin-flint—has he paid yet?” I asked.
Raibert smiled. “So far in secrets, all of which have proven profitable. He still owes me.”
“Count me glad I do not owe you.”
“Cludge will face monsters.” Cludge pounded both fists on the table. Raibert shrank from the sudden display of violent. I merely lunged for the candle so the flame would not set my borrowed—and now slightly torn—map aflame. “Cludge not fear them. Cludge not fear golem. You bring them to Cludge, and Cludge will break them.”
“That’s a good lad.” Raibert chuckled. “You’ve a brave companion, Miss Tekla.”
“Do not call me Miss.”
I cleared my throat. “It is my opinion that five braver individuals have never been selected for such an audacious task.”
All eyes flicked to me. Yes, they all paid attention to the details. I smiled.
“Cludge count four.” His brow furrowed in earnest concentration.
“Thank you, Cludge.”
Tekla gestured at me with that confounded dagger. She glanced about the dark recesses of the room. “Do you have someone else hiding in here? Like the thief?”
“I don’t hide,” Raibert said. “I do my best work in darkness.”
“No, Tekla, no one hiding in here. Just one moment.” I crossed to the door and open it. “Please, come in, Abelard.”
He could not have looked more out of place. Abelard St. Boniface shed a brown cloak as he strode into the room. You’ve never seen a man carry himself with confidence—not one so young. His head was shaven to stubble, and his face impassive. He had green eyes that seem to pierce your very soul. His raiment was most impressive—white armor with silver and red edging, armor so lightweight it seem to float about him.
A cross was emblazoned in gold on his right shoulder.
“Good evening,” he said. His voice was soft, too young sounding. I didn’t think it would inspire confidence in my gathered associates.
Tekla rolled her eyes. “A priest? You brought a priest? That is wonderful. He will be welcome to say a blessing over our rotted corpses when Landgrave Chrisoph the Twenty-Eighth.”
“Tekla, we have use of him.”
“A priest might bring good fortune,” Raibert whispered. He puffed his pipe. Smoke drifted about the table. “Or he might be a blight upon our venture.”
“He will succeed only in getting the way of our weapons,” Tekla said, her tone icy.
“You will have more respect towards a man of the cloth.” I wasn’t about to let this lovely lady, no matter her skill, malign my guest. “Abelard and I met at the cathedral in my city as he was traveling through.”
Tekla made a face. “Did you find him when you worshipped there?”
Ah, so she’d guessed it. I pulled at the strings binding together the neck of my shirt, and pulled the fabric aside. The tattoo of the cross with four arms glistened black in the candle’s glow.
“That explains much. Come along, Cludge. We’re leaving.” Tekla started for the door.
“No! Don’t leave. We need you.” I grabbed her arm.
“Release your fingers or I’ll separate them from your hand,” she snapped.
I didn’t have the chance. Cludge growled as he hoisted me by my cloak until my boots dangled a good foot and a half off the dirt floor. It suddenly became much harder to breathe.
“Put him down, you oaf.” I never saw Raibert move, but he had a long, slender blade pressed to Cludge’s side.
“S…stop this!” I coughed.
Tekla nodded to Cludge. He dropped me.
I managed to land without falling over or doing something else embarrassing. “Everyone sheath your weapons,” I said. “This is ridiculous.”
“It’s your fault for bringing that priest,” Tekla said. She did not leave, however. “I’ll not be subject to his ranting about ancient folklore—”
“Do not mock the Lord Most High or His servant,” Abelard said. He seemed unruffled by our fuss, or Tekla’s bluster. “He rules all things in this land, be they living or dead.”
“And what good will that do when we run face to face with a man-wolf? Or a golem?” Tekla asked.
“I have taken a solemn vow to serve the Lord—and to protect the people He created.”
“With what? The bread of Eucharist?”
Abelard closed his eyes. He made the sign of the cross.
I prodded Raibert. “Let us step back.”
“Because I’ve seen this before.”
Abelard held out both hands, palms up. The table shuddered, shook violently. I swiped the candle off. The table rose slowly, trickling dust from its legs. It did not stop until it bumped the rafters.
Abelard lifted his chin, eyes still closed. He spread his hands apart.
The table broke in half, like a leaf torn by a child. The map was flung aside, and it fluttered to the floor.
I was going to have one angry scribe with whom to contend.
The table halves drifted slowly to the floor. Abelard opened his eyes, and exhaled.
“Well. That was impressive.” Raibert smiled. He patted Abelard on one armored shoulder.
“And now, dear Tekla, you see what I had in mind.” I grinned.
Tekla was still staring at the broken halves of the table. “This is either a very bad idea, or a very good idea.”
“I am a priest-mage of the Church Itinerant,” Abelard said to her. “God grants His power to whom He will, and I am humbled to wield it in His service.”
“And now you know why I brought you all here.” I set the candle between the broken pieces of the table, and retrieved the map. “We can do this. We can steal the Crystal of Darkness.”
After all, who else would be dumb—er, that is, brave—enough to try?