Time for “Speculative Story Saturday” here at Marcher Lord Press! Here is the latest installment.
Two rats the size of a small dog slowly rotate above the campfire on a makeshift spit. They smell like dog too, only more smoky. They pop and sizzle, their skin turning a crisp red. Up above, the sky is black as ebony and filled with thousands of tiny stars. A warm, humid wind blows, causing the ancient trees around us to creak.
I sit on a nearby log, careful to keep my white plated boots out of the encroaching swamp waters. The light from the flames leaves my armor a light shade of orange. I rub at a spot of mud until it disappears, then look up.
Tekla sits across from me. She twirls one of her daggers between her long, slender fingers and stares at the cross on my shoulder, her ruby lips pursed. I hide my smile. She’s trying to figure me out. Good luck on that one. Once, a long time ago, a woman like her would have made my blood run hot. That was until…
I turn my gaze to Cludge, her faithful watchdog of a man sitting next to her. He twists a pudgy finger in his ear, then pulls it out and inspects it. He must have found something interesting because he continues to stare at his finger.
Raibert sits on a tree stump to my right. I hear a rustling sound and look over to find him lighting up his pipe. Moments later, the sweet smell of koss leaf fills the air. In other circumstances, I would have enjoyed the homey smell. But mixed with wafting odor of cooked rat, the smell is revolting.
I lean away and hope he doesn’t see my reaction.
Barzillai turns the spit. “I know a fence down in Carmichael who can provide a handful of buyers once we have the Crystal of Darkness. High bidders. Willing to pay loads of gold…”
Tekla makes a strange noise in her throat. Cludge digs in his ear. Raibert lets out a smoke ring.
I stare at the flames. Gold? Bah! You can have all the gold in the world and still not be satisfied. I should know. I had everything. And it still wasn’t enough. I look at Barzillai again and wonder what he did with all that gold he took from Castle Gantoum. When we first met at the cathedral in Brookstone, he still had quite a bit.
I reach for the fourth finger on my right hand. I can feel the indent left from the family ring I wore for years. A reminder of why I’m here, traveling with this band of ruffians. No, not for gold. For her. I owe everything I have to find my sister.
“Rat’s done.” Barzillai looks at me. “Abelard, care to, uh, bless this food?” A crooked grin spreads across his face.
Raibert pulls his pipe out from his mouth and snickers. “Blessings over roasted rat. I like that.”
My lips turn into a lopsided smirk and the dark feelings dissipate. “It would be my pleasure.” I stand and spread out my hands. I close my eyes. “Lord Most High, we thank you for this humble food.” Tekla laughs nearby. I ignore her. “May it give us strength for the journey ahead. Amen.”
Barzillai dumps a rat onto a tin plate and hacks off a piece with a dagger. He hands the first piece to Tekla.
She shrinks back and waves her hands in front of her. “I think I’ll wait.” Yep, had her tagged. Tougher than steel, but likes the finer things in life.
“Cludge eat!” Cludge holds out his hands. I briefly wonder if cleaned his hands after exploring his ear canal. Barzillai gives him the piece and hacks off another. Cludge bites into the crispy flesh with relish.
Barzillai hands me a piece. I glance at Tekla and rip off a chunk of sinewy meat. I chew and swallow, enjoying the horrified look on her face. I hold up the meat. “Not bad. At least it’s better than—”
“Spider!” Tekla’s eyes are as big as two gold coins. She points at me.
I frown and look at the meat in my hand. “Well, yeah. It is better than spider but—”
By now my other companions are scrambling away from me. I suddenly feel as though someone cracked an egg on my head. The slime slides down my neck and back. I slowly turn.
Two fangs dripping with an iridescent slime hang a couple inches from my face. Hot, rancid air blasts my face. Black glittery eyes stare down at me. I go to grab my sword, only to realize I don’t use one anymore, not since I became a priest mage.
Of all the nine rays!
It lunges toward me. I take a step back and trip. Down I fall, landing inches from the campfire. I have no time to figure out where my companions are. The spider scrambles above me. I’m either going to retch or scream, or maybe both.
Did I mention I hate spiders?
I try and draw on the power of light. But I all I can think about are fangs and hairy legs and eyeballs. Bile rises in my throat. The rat meat is coming back up.
The spider places a leg on either side of my body. I close my eyes. Holy One, please help me.
I imagine myself in the middle of a storm. Do not focus on the gale. Find the Light. He is your source…
There. I grab onto the tendril of power just barely surfacing inside my soul. Thank you!
I direct it toward the campfire on my left. The fire bursts upward just as I open my eyes. I steer the flames right at the spider’s head.
The spider coils back. A dagger flies above me. I hear the twang of a bow. I keep a steady stream of fire on the spider. The air now smells of burnt flesh. The spider gives a heavy shudder and falls to the ground.
I stop the flames. I stare up at the night sky and pant. Sweat trickles down the side of my face. The rat meat slowly settles back down inside my gullet.
Everything is silent.
“I can’t believe it.”
I slowly sit up. Barzillai is looking at me. I always feel a little conscious when I use the power invested in me.
“You scream just like a little girl.”
“I do not!” I scramble to my feet. I didn’t scream, did I? I wanted to, but—
“Yes, you do,” Tekla said, grinning. “High pitched, just like one of those women singers from the Isle of Bliss.”
Everyone stares at me.
I shrug. “Well, I hate spiders.” And that’s that. Even the manliest man will scream when faced with dripping fangs.
Laughter breaks out around the campfire.
Raibert picks at the burnt carcass with his dagger. “Anyone want some crisp spider to go with the rat meat?”
A chorus of no’s fill the air.
“Me!” Cludge says. He lumbers toward the spider and breaks off a leg.
I can’t watch.
Tekla sidles up next to me. “It’s nice to know you have a weakness. I hate spiders too.”
I turn and smile. So we have something in common.
She walks away and stabs at the rat that had fallen into the ash. She lifts the dagger and nibbles at the meat on her blade.
Perhaps I have her all wrong. Perhaps I have them all wrong. They’re not such a bad group. Not really, even if they are dumb enough to try and break into the Fortress of Gloom.