Humorous Tales of Swords & Sorcery
Edited by W. H. Horner
Illustrated by Chris Chua
Trade Paperback • 6" x 9"
Direct Price: $13.60
Some heroes need to polish their derring-do, while some villains require the know-how of advice columnists to be truly evil. Some magicians should never be left alone with their spells, and some gods aren’t really all they’re cracked up to be. It’s a veritable chorus line of worthless warriors, simpleton sorcerers, and hapless henchmen.
The life of an adventurer isn’t all piles of treasure and damsels in distress, but there are sights to see, quests to complete, and jokes around every corner. So grab your giant axe, vorpal sword, or mystical grimoire—if you are of a mind—and prepare to meet your destiny with a smile on your face.
Bash Down the Door and Slice Open the Badguy features 24 stories that will tickle your funny bone while quenching your thirst for adventure.
Fantasy Short Stories
Trade Paperback • 6" x 9"
ISBN 10: 0-9713608-5-5
ISBN 13: 978-0-9713608-5-3
Table of Contents
Introduction by John Moore
“Beerwulf” by Lawrence C. Connolly
“A Different Shade of Knight” by Jason S. Ridler
“Assassin’s Playground” by A.G. Devitt
“Mistress Fortune Favors the Unlucky” by Eugie Foster
“A Lesson in Heroics” by Jeremy Yoder
“The Ice Maiden Speaketh” by Paul Crilley
“Keep Coming Back for More” by Margaret Ronald
“The Great Thrakkian Rebellion” by Megan Crewe
“Always Read the Fine Print” by L. L. Donahue
“Heard It” by Dale Mettam
“Crossing Swords” by Murray J. D. Leeder
“Hallah Iron-Thighs and the Hounds of Hell” by K. D. Wentworth
“There’s Only One Dakon the Mighty” by Elizabeth H Hopkinson
“Goblin Hero” by Jim C. Hines
“No Shit, There We Were” by Michael Brendan
“But Before I Kill You. . . .” by Lindsey Duncan
“An Incident at Black Tongue Tavern” by Michael Turner
“Delilah’s Dames in Nomadsland” by Melissa Lee Shaw
“The Atrocious Head-bashing Troubadour” by C. M. Huard
“The Voice of Reason” by Ken Brady
“In the Shit” by Barbara Davies
“The Wrestler’s Apprentice” by Stephen Castillet
“The Order of the Crimson Tunic” by Kevin N. Haw
“Just Temping” by Susan Sielinski
“A real treat for fans of swords & sorcery.”
—John DeChancie, author of the Castle Perilous series
“Bash Down the Door and Slice Open the Badguy takes all the old familiar swords & sorcery standards and even a few cliches, turns them on their ear, rips out their funny bones and beats them over the head with it. Lots of fun.”
—Patrick Thomas, author of the Murphy’s Lore series and the “Dear Cthulhu” column in Cthulhu Sex Magazine
“It’s refreshing to turn to broadswords for belly-laughs, and sorcery for snickers, both of which this anthology delivers. With work by established authors Lawrence C. Connolly, K. D. Wentworth and Jim C. Hines—along with good entries by soon-to-be-rising stars like A. G. Devitt and Susan Sielinski—this is a solid collection of sly and silly swords and sorcery tales.”
—Timons Esaias, author of The Influence of Pigeons on Architecture and winner of the Asimov’s Readers Award
The humans had gathered at the shore by the time Kalb and Schaf reached the far side of the lake. Schaf crouched, keeping his furry hump below the reeds while Kalb hid in the shadows. “That’s him,” Kalb said. “The big one. That’s Wulf.”
Wulf wore an iron breastplate over a vest of steel mail. Bossed metal covered his forearms and shins. At his feet lay a helmet studded with decorative brass.
Schaf asked, “What’s he doing?”
Wulf slipped the helmet over his head, securing it with a heavy clasp that crossed beneath his chin.
“Swimming,” Kalb said.
“In all that armor?” Schaf frowned. “He must have scitte for brains.”
“Yeah. He’s got that. But the big problem is his mouth. Last night he told the warriors about a swimming race he was in. He claimed he swam in full battle gear.”
“Did he say he did well in this race?”
“No, but he said he would have if monsters hadn’t stopped him.”
“Did he kill these monsters?”
“Yeah. He said that’s why there’re no more monsters in the ocean. He killed them all.”
“And the warriors, they believed these lies?”
“Yes. Completely. And now they want him to go into the lake and kill Modor and Grenja.”
“All gods need champions, Max. All the cool ones, anyway. Storm gods have mighty warriors. Fire gods have their alchemists. Death gods got their gravediggers. You get me?”
“But chance gods, well, who the heck worships them?”
“Nah, that’s the Lucky Sisters. Chance is different. Chance is what you least suspect. Everybody wants luck on their side, but chance comes out of nowhere. Only reason I get to pick a champion is you came knocking unintentionally with those annoying dead-hexes.”
“Enough that I got a chance to pop by on a blue moon!” Trix giggled. “Right. Now to business. I think it is about time I had a champion of my own, a representative of chance on this earth. Let me mold you, and I’ll make you the most improbable knight the world has ever seen!” Trix smiled wide and toothy. “What do you say?”
Max pinched his nose. What’s your price?
Every deal has a price, Trix. If it didn’t, my tongue would be back in my mouth.
“Stop thinking so probably! I won’t take your soul, your first born, or your tongue. I’ll even help get that back, because there is no way in heck you are ever going to get it scrubbing Viking poop from sunrise till sunset. You know that, don’t you?”
Max snorted. I figured Cobbie wouldn’t let me go, even if I paid back everything a hundred times.
“Yup. There’s the choice, Max. Work with me, take my improbable quests, or spend your days mopping up heroic waste.”
Screams filled the inn and Max nearly slipped in the hole.
Penelope’s voice was strained and whiney. “Wretch! Hands off!”
Then came Vlandor’s horrible voice.
Without the aid of a torch, he had to feel his way down, his fingertips keeping in light contact with the cool stone surface. The Mook Ti eye trick wasn’t doing much good. It wasn’t magic, and he needed a modicum of ambient light for it to work.
The trek downward felt longer than it likely was. Gaz’s combat senses were on full alert, and there was always a time distortion when they kicked in. At last, he came to another door, which by feel was a heavy oak. He felt around and found no trace of a hinge, so the door must raise and lower through some mechanism.
It was beyond this door, surely, that he would face whatever infernal devices the villains had cooked up.
“Looking for a good time?” Midra’s voice, though recognizable, grew higher and sharper as she spoke. Gaz could make out movement but no form. He felt a steel pole thrust into his chest, knocking the wind from his lungs and pinning him against the door.
The steel pole was covered in long, thick fur.
“Whaaa! Whooaaaa!” An inhuman shriek erupted from the she-beast before him. It was not the howl of a wolf. Not the roar of a cat.
What the hell sort of shifter was this?
My next stop was the Duke’s mansion. As his seer, I find it usually impresses to be on hand before he summons me. Some mages hang about their employers in order to make themselves visible and therefore, so they think, indispensable. I have a different philosophy. It’s simple economics, really. That which is in short supply is dearer. I try to encourage the Duke to think of me as a resource to be consulted only in the greatest need. It spares me the necessity of coming up with daily gibberish about the stars aligning or interpreting fancy omens in everything that strikes the Duke’s whimsy. The upshot is I’m a virtual unknown to the riff raff. The guard at the main gate was suspicious of me.
“Only official business.” The fig-brain with biceps as big around as my waist blocked my entrance. “You’re not on the list.”
“I’m Jorou Ebis, the Duke’s seer. I will be on the list. I’m early.”
“Yeah? Prove it.”
I crossed my arms, the better to reach the hidden pockets secreted in my sleeves. “I predict that if you don’t let me through, the Duke will have you demoted to latrine duty.”
Fig-brain scowled and his hand dropped to the hilt of his scimitar.
“Fine.” I selected the cheapest prop in my arsenal and flung a handful of the colored powder into the air. While Fig-brain coughed and snorted at the resultant cloud, I studied him. When I was ready, and he had blown his nose into a grimy cloth, I rolled my eyes in my head and dropped my voice into its lower range—the one I reserved for “visions.”
“By the chalice of Keritopsis and the spear of Nizareil, I call upon the spirits to sunder the veil of truth!” I cried.
Fig-brain looked suitably taken aback; I was just getting started.
“You always lead,” Arami muttered while running to keep up. “Why would a mage lead anyway?”
Horab paused a few feet from the house, taking in its meager size and thatched roof. Letting loose a battle cry, he lowered his shoulder and charged the wooden door, which splintered beneath his strength and speed. As Arami started to utter an incantation, Horab hefted his axe, ready to bring it crashing down on their quarry.
Within the far wall rested a fireplace, a pot of stew hovering above the flames. Beside it, seated in a rocking chair and armed with only a wooden spoon, sat a wide-eyed, tiny old woman in a black dress.
Horab glanced about the one-room house, looking for the foe they had been tracking the past two months. To his left sat a kitchen nook with only a handful of cupboards. To his right, a cot with a nearby end table and chair.
“By the fates!” Horab’s grip relaxed, sending the axe head crashing to the wooden floor where it stuck fast. “That bartender must’ve been paid off! Or he’s daft.”
Arami scowled and stepped back outside. He scratched his head, tousling his long red hair that was drawn back into a ponytail. “He said we’d find him in the seventh house from the corner, or three from the alley.” He counted while pointing at the various houses. “And that’s where we are.”
“Of all the rotten luck.” Horab unstuck his axe and hefted it over a massive shoulder. He turned and headed after Arami. “Now we’ll have to go back and—”
“Excuse me.” The old woman stood and scampered after him.
“Sorry, Ma’am.” Horab spoke as gently as possible. He relaxed his stance to appear less intimidating and more apologetic. “It appears we were given some bad information. So we’ll just get out of your hair.”
“You’ll do no such thing!” She stepped around him and stood in the doorway. Her withered face barely came up to Horab’s broad chest. “Before you do anything, you’re fixing my door.”
In the lower classes of the palace (i.e. everyone else but the Emperor), I was the most powerful. Everyone knew I had the ear of Molock. And they were all jealous. I had a satisfying life.
For about three years.
It started at the bimonthly ‘Evil Emperor dinner party.’ He invited Evil Emperor’s he’d known ‘back in the day’ and they would exchange plans on world domination and fight over who got to call themselves, ‘the Black.’ You know like, ‘Molock the Black.’ It was quite a sought-after title, and they still hadn’t agreed on which one of them could use it. I stood behind Molock’s chair, just as all the other bodyguards stood behind their respective master’s chair, and we all carefully avoided looking one another in the eye. Your own boss’s idiosyncrasies you can ignore when you are on your own, but it can be quite embarrassing when there are others around.
They were having tea and scones after playing ‘place the pin on the tax list,’ a game which involved blindfolding each person and sticking a pin on the tax roll to see who was next up for execution. They placed bets on whether it would be a man or woman. Bizmark The Slightly Black was complaining that the cream on his scone tasted sour and Cantos The Greyish was saying how he never won the bet and that it was all so unfair.
Suddenly, Molock started to cry. Just like that. For no reason. Nobody knew where to look, least of all me. One or two of the less diplomatic asked him what his problem was. Everyone else simply concentrated on their scones.
The first time I died, it was because I’d leapt between Jurthek the Mighty and the spear a crazed berzerker had flung at him. Jurthek swore vengeance as the breath left my body, and he slew all who opposed him.
The second time, I was standing next to Jurthek, and the Wielder of the Dark Fire had bad aim. I went up like a torch.
The third time was just an arrow in my leg, so it wouldn’t have been a problem if Jurthek hadn’t burned the drawbridge, meaning we had to swim the moat on the way out. Two weeks later I was glad to die.
After the fourth time (vipers planted in the inn’s bathtub; last time I’ll trust a busty kitchen wench), I started to plan.
This was more difficult than it sounds. For one thing, dying so often plays hell with my schedule. For another, Jurthek is not fated to die yet. In fact, he will not die “until the red-haired child now in its mother’s womb goes a-walking and falls into a pit, and of that pit shall be made the mines of bright steel, and of that steel shall be made the sword that kills Jurthek.” I got some mining and smithing estimates, and it came out to about ten to fifteen years. Fifteen more years of this.
And prophecies like this are tough to get around, at least where Jurthek is concerned. I’ve watched enough plots to kill him come to naught (occasionally getting me instead: deaths number six, nine, and fourteen) to recognize that it’s not just chance. No matter how dastardly the poison or keen the blade, it will always end up in the wrong cup or blunt itself before wounding him. So killing him myself wasn’t an option, satisfying as it was to contemplate. His fate kept him alive.
“Where we be with no Boss?” said Oulch. “No eats, no nothing, then! All bad.”
Thrakk snorted. “With no Boss? We’d be home in the wallows. No marching all day. No arrows shooting at us. No heads chopped. You see Norb today? You remember Norb?”
We all’d seen Norb. Norb ran at the flashy men. One flashy man had a pike. The pike went into Norb’s eye, and out the other side.
“We need Boss. He’s helping us,” I said. Then I thought more. What did Boss help with? Something, something much good. Long time ago, he came for it. But what?
“He helps us get our guts on the ground,” Thrakk said. “When he go near pikes or swords?”
I thought lots, but I could not think what Boss’s good was. The good was all at home, in the sucking muck and the leany trees, were all was brown and gray and black. No good was here, in dust and crackly dirt and bright sun, bright grass.
There was a grumbling in the horde. All was saying, “Who carries the big shields and heavy smashers? Who fights the flashy men? Who dies? Is us. For what?”
“Always hurting,” Blarg globbered. “Always tired. I hear Thrakk.”
He stood up. Thrakk thumped him on shoulder, where bowl had hit him. Thrakk, he with the biggest, greenest shoulders, he always at the front of the charge, was good with Blarg.
I hefted up. “Me, I hear Thrakk, too,” I said, pounding my chest plate with my fist, so much I meant it! “Always bad, we is, with Boss. Is . . . is wrong! I help Thrakk now, not Boss.”
The grumble in the horde turned to roaring. So many was getting up, it felt like the earth quaking.
Glute drove the cart to the front of the evil overlord’s keep. He jumped down and, using the heavy brass knocker, pounded on the front door.
A butler answered. Surprisingly, he bore a gentlemanly demeanor, stood straight, and had just a light touch of grey at his temples. He wasn’t at all what Theodorus had expected.
“Is the evil overlord expecting you?” the butler asked in a prim and cultured accent.
“No,” Glute answered. “We were in the province and decided to stop by.”
“We?” The butler eyed Theodorus with an eyebrow raised.
“Yeah, we,” Theodorus snapped. “What’s the matter? You never seen a talking bear before?”
“In truth, sir, no, sir. However,” the butler said, “the evil overlord does not permit animals inside the castle . . . except for his dogs . . . and the cats, of course . . . and sometimes his favorite horse, when it’s cold outside. Oh, yes, and his hunting hawks, but birds don’t really count, do they?”
Glute smiled. “Did I mention I’m Glute Maximus, the famous gladiator?”
“No, sir, not that it matters.”
“And,” Glute continued, “I have a big match to get back for, so I’m in a hurry.”
“Jolly good for you, sir. I suggest you head on.”
“Or, that I’m feeling the need to pound someone into a pulp,” Glute said, balling a fist, “just to keep up my training?”
Staring at the fist, the butler stepped aside. “I’ll inform the evil overlord to expect you.”
“I thought that might influence you,” Glute said. “And the bear comes with me.”
The butler showed Glute and Theodorus to a small parlor room where tea and cakes were served. Evil always came after pleasantries. The contrast made the evil bit all the more heinous.
“All you had to do was have faith and wait. The gods would deliver your salvation from on high, something like that?” Jandar said.
“Then it’s true!” Chaise said. “The Uomo Con did bring you here!”
“Actually it was a map we bought from Three-Fingered Brody,” Grau said, making a mental note to make Brody’s name false advertising when they next crossed his path.
“I don’t understand,” Palpatt said.
“We get this a lot in our line of work,” Jandar said.
“What’s that? What are you?” Chaise said.
“Idiots,” Grau muttered.
“We’re heroes,” Jandar said nonchalantly, followed by a quick glance to make sure Chaise and Palpatt were suitably impressed. They were. “So what’s the job?”
“Our Pietra—our village’s sacred stone—disappeared,” Chaise said. “Since then, our crops have failed, our livestock won’t breed. Our village is dying.” Chaise’s excitement was gone, a lone tear trickling down her cheek.
“Chaise had a dream,” Palpatt said, taking Chaise’s hand and patting it. “In it, Uomo Con, our god, came and told her that she must set out on a quest to return the Pietra.”
Chaise had regained her composure and gave Palpatt a grateful smile. “As well as telling me that I would receive assistance from above; he gave me instructions.”
“Told you exactly where you needed to go, right?” Jandar said, flicking the stub of his cheroot into the fire.
Chaise nodded, yes.
“Probably involves at least one desert, a snow-capped mountain range, several bands of goblins, the odd ogre or two and at least one evil sorcerer bent on world domination, right?”
“How did you know?” Chaise’s eyes were now wide, staring first at Jandar, then Grau. “Did you have a similar dream?”
Jandar shook his head, no. “It’s what we do.”
“It’s who we are,” Grau said.
He walked over to the slab where I had laid for so long, tortured by my inaction. “I claim thee,” he pronounced as he reached over and gripped my pommel. He lifted me, felt my weight, and smiled.
His existing sword, incidentally—that which had served him so well in penetrating the Night Pits of Anduklar and which had killed the fire devil for him—he tossed unceremoniously aside. It landed with a clang on the stone floor.
This did not improve my impression of him any.
“Ha ha.” He smiled. “A blade of legend. And now you are mine.”
And you, I silently added, are mine, fair knight.
“I name thee . . .” he paused for dramatic effect, though just who it was supposed to benefit was a mystery to me, “. . . I name thee Hardthruster!”
Hardthruster! I burst with laughter. Can you be serious?
The Knight started. “Who’s there?” He spun about, his sword—me, Hardthruster—at the ready. “Where are you?”
Look at what you have in your hands, I advised him. I expect that’s a sentence you’ve heard once or twice before!
“Who is speaking to me?” he demanded.
Honestly, Hardthruster? Why not just go ahead and call me Phallic Extension Project? That’s easily the stupidest name anyone’s ever tried to give me—and for a long period in the Frandalon Dynasty, I was known as Stiffee!
“What devilry is this!” The knight dropped me. I landed on the floor pommel first, bouncing once before clanging against the stone floor with a mighty racket.
In a flash the knight was gone, tearing out of the room in terror, without even pausing to claim his discarded sword. There I lay on the floor, without even the dignity of a slab any longer.
And I thought: that really could’ve gone better.
The dog howled mournfully in time with a less than gifted lute player over in the corner. There was something eerie about that sound, and the short hairs did a little dance on the nape of my neck. Gerta threw back her head and howled in commiseration, then roared with laughter, beating her fist on the table.
The stranger sat in an empty chair at our table, even though we hadn’t given him leave, and placed the dog before him. Its ratty fur reeked as though it had rolled in something vile. Ingato, evidently not a canine fan, lurched to his feet, spilling his tankard, mumbled something about meeting us the next morning, and wove through the tables. The ungainly beast lapped at the spilled ale, then regarded me with blood-red eyes.
“That’s the ugliest thing I ever saw,” Gerta said, drunk enough to speak her mind. “Since when did dogs start being green?”
“Since never.” I stared at the large, odorous pool it had just piddled on the tabletop. “Do you want me to cut your ears off? Take that blasted thing out of my face!”
“I’ll have you know pups of this rare breed are worth a pretty copper back in Damery.” He glanced around the crowded room, licked his lips, then lowered his voice. “I’d take it there and sell it myself, but I have business which will prevent me crossing the mountains for some time to come.”
The beast, green as spoiled meat, flattened its ears and growled. Its breath would have downed an ox at ten paces. I scraped back my chair and lurched to my feet, gagging.
“Isn’t that cute?” Gerta said. “It likes you.”
“There’s nothing remotely cute about it,” I said as the pup’s piddle ate through the wood. “Come on. Let’s find another tavern.”
He had (reluctantly) agreed to ignite the Winter Solstice lamps in the village of Bhut, and he said he’d think about appearing as a panel guest on A Question of Slaughter, but when the invitation arrived to play the genie in the annual citadel pantomime of Aladdin, it was really the last straw.
“Who the spahk do they think I am?” he thundered. “Some washed-out old has-been like Krollshun the Necromancer?”
The demi-goblin publicity agent cowered behind the wall hanging, as the desk went flying across the room, scattering papers in its wake, and eventually knocking down the trophy severed arm of the Minotaur of Ghish.
“Perhaps it doesn’t put you in the best light,” the goblin agreed. “But what about the charity auction of draconian battle axes? Please say you’ll at least consider it.”
“No! No! A thousand times no!”
There was something of the primal bloodlust in his eyes that made the demi-goblin scuttle back to the relative safety of the half-lit under-room. Dakon fingered his sword, breathing heavily. He simply couldn’t be bothered with this any more. He didn’t want to go to Bhut. He wanted to get out there and kill things. Someone else ought to be able to take care of the boring bits. It was only a case of showing his face.
And there was the answer: doubles; doppelgangers; look-alikes. He could hire a team of, say, four or five biggish peasants (there were plenty of them out of work since the descent of the Forty-fifth Darkness), give them basic voice and mannerism coaching, kit them out with an old outfit and a replica sword each, and the problem was solved. They could do all the publicity appearances and he could get on with battling the monsters and the demons and basically saving the world.
Ropak clutched his club in both hands. “I’ll kill the male, you kill the female. Golaka can prepare an entire cloudling buffet tonight.”
“Ropak, we’re only supposed to get a bird, not—” It was too late.
Jig had to admit, Ropak was an imposing sight. Dumber than fungus, but imposing. Club raised high, Ropak charged the two cloudlings. It would have been enough to make Jig cringe and run away.
The cloudlings did neither. They didn’t look up at all. They continued to chat as Ropak drew near. Then the man slipped one hand behind his back, drew a tiny crossbow, and squeezed the trigger, all without taking his eyes off the other cloudling.
The dart buzzed into Ropak’s cheek. He growled and plucked it out, took three more steps, and fell flat on his face.
Only now did the cloudlings glance up from their conversation. Jig swallowed and backed away. Not only were the cloudlings watching him, but every single bird had stopped eating to do the same. Could cloudlings see through their birds’ eyes? That would explain how they had shot Ropak.
A tiny yellow bird buzzed near Jig’s ear, wings humming as it darted back and forth, like it wanted nothing more than to plunge its needle-sharp beak into Jig’s eye. A huge white owl spread its wings and advanced.
Jig threw the muck-lantern at the owl and fled. A dart clicked off the wall beside him. He crouched as he ran, covering his head with his hands and listening for pursuit. Farther on, he ducked into a side tunnel, slipped in a puddle, and smashed face first into a wall.
You see, the City Watch always gets the bad rap in your bardic tales. Seems we’re always nothing more than a bunch of horse-brained buffoons that can’t find our asses with both hands and a mirror. The only action we get in these stories is when we get the piss knocked out of us by the Noble Heroes.
That ain’t the case, friend, at least not around here.
Oh sure, there’s the occasional band of heroes, such as Sir William and his Golden Lions. I know Will, he’s a good chap, a pious man, and always writes home to his mum when he ain’t about. However most of these adventuring “companies,” as you call them, are nothing more than a bunch of greedy sellswords. Some of them pick fights in taverns like this one, just so the Watch shows up in the nick of time for their stereotypical clobbering.
That don’t happen here, though, because of me.
See the problem with these adventurers is that if they clear out some goblin-infested hole, the rest of those bloody green snots move in on our lands. Sometimes something worse moves in. I’ve seen it happen dozens of times. Occasionally there are some cagey bastards that realize this and set themselves up on a nice gravy train. They’ll go ahead and chuck a rock at the local hornet’s nest, get a fat contract to clear it out, and then come off smelling like heroes.
“Nefarious—well. You must have gone to hero school.” Velarre squirmed on the couch, turning around to watch him, her elbows comfortably planted in the gold-gilt plush. “However, there are three things I ought to tell you, noble sir.”
“Top of my class,” Torash said with a noticeable swell of his chest. “But . . . what is it?” To him, the situation seemed straightforward enough: she was a damsel in distress—a fairly lovely one, at that, both for the damsel and the dress—and he had just broken the lock of her prison . . . in fact, he had shattered the entire door.
“Number one—look around you.” Velarre fluted her wrist in a languid gesture. “I have velvet and silk, gold and jewels, the finest delicacies and privacy whenever I wish it. I’m not sure how you could call that either dire or foul.”
She stood then, making her way over to the window. A small smile played about her lips, whimsical. “Second of all, have you read the legal codes of half the neighboring countries? Some of them are scarcely governed at all. Wouldn’t it be hard to usurp a land that no one ruled in the first place?”
“I—there is no shame in a land where people live by their own personal code.” Torash blinked at her. “What is the third thing?”
Velarre leaned over and pulled on what appeared to be a curtain tassel. The floor opened exactly like a Venarian flytrap and snapped up the startled barbarian.
She rose leisurely, sighing. “Third: I’m the evil overlord, thank you very much. Men!”
Across the street, Brasseria had her hands full. Literally. She’d managed to catch hold of Kyli by the collar of his hauberk and Pelli by the wrist and hand holding the dagger. The two were still attached to one another by Kyli’s beard being wrapped around the halfling’s toes, and the two showed no sign of breaking off their brawl this time. Brasseria attempted to spread them apart by holding each out at arms length but that put her right in the middle. She caught one of Kyli’s hob-nailed boots in her eye and looked desperately around for a water trough or rain barrel or something. A good dunking would break this up. But there was nothing and the dwarf was getting heavy. At last her gaze came to rest on the door to the Black Tongue tavern.
“That’s it!” she bawled. “If we’re having a fight we’re going to collect a bounty for it!”
She heaved her partners up over her head and charged the tavern door.
“Tell me,” he said. “Why is it that caravan guards wear so little armor?”
“It’s the weight,” Delilah said, self-conscious. “On a trip like this, every pound counts. And, um,” she dropped her gaze, “armor’s expensive. The smaller the outfit, the cheaper.”
“Not to mention the training benefits,” came Savannah’s voice. Delilah’s buff second-in-command swaggered up to them, clad in bits of artfully shaped bronze. A thin smile masked her belligerence. “In weapons practice, the more skin you expose, the faster you learn to avoid being hit.”
“I am sure, then,” he said with a sneer, “that both of you learned to avoid injury very rapidly indeed.”
“It’s what makes Delilah’s Dames the best,” Delilah said, holding up a hand to forestall Savannah’s indignant retort.
Longing filled Krake’s face as he gazed at the palanquin. “There’s a real woman. The Lady Pallu. You two should take a few lessons from her. Just the way she holds her hand shows an inexpressibly tantalizing weakness and pliancy. Those demure, lovely veils cannot but conceal the most gorgeously pillowy body—round stomach, soft skin, generous thighs, sweet little virgin bosom, buttocks like twin, plush moons . . .” He cleared his throat abruptly. “We leave in an hour.” He stalked off.
Delilah and Savannah snickered. Delilah gazed at the palanquin, trying not to stare at the dark-skinned man beside it. “I wonder what it would be like,” she said, “never having to lift a finger. Having someone else fetch and carry for you all your life, luxuriating in hot baths, lounging on silken pillows—it’s rough, being working-class.”
“Look at it this way,” Savannah said. “You and me, we get to travel and meet interesting people.”
The two held straight faces for a few seconds, then broke into raucous whoops of laughter.
Two weeks in Gibbering Forest. Ahead: Black Tower of Glassy Death, very close. Behind: trail of monster corpses, getting longer day by day. Freshest corpse: panther with split skull. Panther jumped out of tree; swung at it with sword. Only remembered Glorious Suicide Plan after panther had split skull.
Didn’t want to die. Had to die: not for stupid King, but for country. Part of job. Still didn’t want to die. Damned stupid King.
Started to sing (Goldsleeves. With tavern lyrics—full of privy jokes). Long and loud and hard—nobody around to complain. Fun to do, but sounded bad. At first; then not so bad. Huh. Paused for breath, song kept going. Sounded much better—like lark at dawn, telling whole forest that lark wants woman right now. Well, not real woman: woman-lark. But song sounded like that, only with words.
Followed song: found singer, right before giant blood-bear did—bear got sword in kidneys, died slowly. Messy.
Surprise, surprise: Elf-singer. More rabbity than most.
Elf looked at me. “Ah, good day, mortal barbarian,” Elf said. “I am Anducil, troubadour to King Eluthil. And I would appreciate it very much if you would escort me to that . . . thing over yonder.” Pointed towards Black Tower of Glassy Death.
“Elf-King not give you guards?”
“Well, the guards marched me out here with another troubadour, and then left me behind when it came time to enter.”
“Yes, I know, very convenient. Eluthil has promised his daughter’s hand in marriage to whomever unlocks her cell by song—subject to her approval, of course. And as it happens, I am the only bard she . . . approves of.”
“Elf-King’s daughter likes you?”
“Well, love would be nearer the mark, but yes.”
Elf-Princess must have eye-problems.
Would that damned creature ever run down? It had been dying for nearly five minutes now; not even an apprentice actor in a traveling theatre troupe could keep it up that long. Eina rose and went to the door this time, stepping out into the cool evening air.
Her cabin stood in a gentle saddle on a pine-forested ridge that led from the front range of the Tabres down to the plains below. She had built it there for the isolation; most people built closer to the ruined city of Port, at the confluence of the Walmet and Cumbia Rivers some five miles distant. Eina liked looking down on the rest of civilization, and she liked having the mountains at her back, except when some fool invaded her privacy like this. Somehow when it happened here, it was even worse than in town; at least in town you expected it.
The voice was definitely coming from higher up. Probably from the top of the ridge, where the rising slope met the flank of the mountain proper. And now that she was outside, Eina realized it was not a death cry. Someone was singing, or attempting to. It sounded like a wordless hymn of some sort, or a chant for penitent monks caught nipping too much of the sacramental wine. Whatever it was, the singer was dreadful. Off-key, couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. But boy, did they have lungs.
“Hey, put a cork in it!” Eina yelled into the night.
The song stopped in the middle of a rising passage, if a transition from moan to screech can be called a passage. Into the silence, Eina shouted, “There are people trying to concentrate down here!”
“You can’t just buy them. Gil had to enchant his himself. And now his wits are well and truly addled . . .”
“Get another magician to do it then.”
“Where? There aren’t any within a hundred miles.”
Drake’s brow creased. “What do you mean? Kemen the Knowledgeable lives in Cinpar.” The city was only half a day’s ride away.
She shook her head. “He won’t help.”
“Because he hates Gil. And before you ask, I have no idea why. Probably just that ‘young magician thinks old magician is past it’ thing.”
Drake pushed aside his empty plate and wiped his lips on the back of his hand. “Send word to the Magicians’ Guild then, Hildie. They take care of their own.”
“I would but it’ll take too long.”
“Does that matter?”
“Not as far as Gil’s wits go, but. . . . Does he look older to you?”
He considered. “I suppose so. Why?”
“That’s his age catching up with him. He told me once: a magician can’t make himself any younger, only remain the age he already is.”
Drake winced. “Three hundred, you said?”
“Exactly. By the time the Guild comes to his rescue, he’ll be dead, or if not he’ll wish he was.” She shook her head. “We’ll just have to find Gil’s old bracelet, wherever it’s got to. If only we could retrace his last steps.”
“The only steps I heard him taking were to the privy,” Drake said with a chuckle. “In and out all evening, he was. Must have had the runs.”
“He will insist on eating all those prunes—” She stopped, mouth open. “That’s where it is!” She rushed towards the dining room exit.
“With the prunes?” a bewildered Drake shouted after her.
“No.” She took the stairs two at a time. “In the shit.”
“Yeah, fodder,” the big man said with an accent that Max couldn’t place. “That’s me pear-rentses. Me Mudder and Fodder.”
Chuckles rippled through the crowd until the Voice said, “Excellent. What is your name?”
“Timane,” he said. “But friends call me Inn-dee-struk-tible. ’Cept one weakness.”
“Just one? Very good then. You are hired.”
A now silent crowd waited for the Voice’s next move. Indestructible’s act was hard to follow, but everyone in the crowd believed they had a chance for the second job. Except Max. The Voice began interviewing the other job seekers. Max was eighth in line. He knew he needed to do something quick. He walked over to where the giant was standing.
“Excuse me,” Max said to the giant. “Max is the name. Congratulations on the job.”
“Thank you.” Indestructible smiled. It looked like the rind of half a watermelon.
“I was wondering if you could help me with something,” Max whispered. The giant bent down to hear him. “It’s wrestling.”
“That’s violence. Can’t do that.”
“No, it’s not. I use it to limber up before I show off my talents. Could you help? It’s called the Tumbling Oxen.”
After he’d finished explaining the move, the giant agreed to help. Max looked up at the Voice. He was on his third interviewee. This guy looked tough. Only one hole in his armor.
Max yelled, “Hey!” and then, “Hey!” and one more time, “Hey!” When he was sure he had everyone’s attention, he said, “You can’t call my sister that!”
With a nod from Max, the giant charged. Just as Indestructible leapt, Max braced himself, caught the giant’s back leg and pushed him feet-over-head past him. Indestructible crashed into the dais and lay there as Max had said to.
“You there,” the Voice pinged.
Max turned slowly, looked around at everyone but the Voice, and then gestured to himself. “Me?”
“Yes, you’re next. Up here.”
I can hardly believe it’s over, but two years of hard work have finally paid off. As of high noon, I am officially a novice of the Order of the Crimson Tunic (with that minor in Liberal Studies). I only wish you could have made it to Graduation, but that’s the Parole Board for you.
It was a wonderful ceremony. They held it in one of the Castle’s rose gardens, the one behind the gallows. (Remember that hands-on demonstration at Parents’ Day? That one.) Afterwards, we had a great surprise. Lady Glunderpus, from the Placement Office, stood up and told us that Sir Robin the Bloody had reviewed our resumes and was hiring all eight survivors from the graduating class!
I can’t tell you how relieved I was. I’ve been worried sick about this soft job market ever since I was passed over for that summer internship. In the long run, I think it worked out for best for me. I know Tommy Wilkin’s widow feels that way.
Lady Glunderpus, though, she never lost faith. “Don’t fret, boys,” she’d say. “All the jobs are entry level positions!” I always thought it was a joke, ’cause she had this weird laugh whenever she said it.
Oh, well. No time to worry about stuff like that now that I’m “on the job.” I’ll write whenever I can.
Harold the Dim
Novice of the Crimson Tunic
P.S. I need a better atlas. Sir Robin mentioned where we were headed, but I can’t find the Caverns of Attrition anywhere in mine.
I ran, dodging the tall, iron candelabras, and making for the altar.
“Stand and fight me like a man, Evil One.”
Like hell. Putting the massive stone altar between us, I spun to face him, steadying The Mask so it didn’t overbalance me.
“I will crush you,” he said, swinging the sword in wide, hissing arcs as he stalked me, “drive your evil hordes before me,” he stopped across from me, “and hear the lamentation of their women.”
“I don’t think that’s quite how the line goes,” I said.
He growled and swung at my head. I ducked, well, buckled is a better word, and the sword swept past. He advanced to the left, and I skittered to the right, keeping the altar between us. He feinted the other way, and I scrambled back.
We played several more rounds of you-can’t-catch-me, with a fatal twist, before Gor-don grew frustrated and vaulted on top of the altar. I bolted for the door, robes held high, and sneakers slapping hard against the floor.
I heard him hit the ground behind me and follow, gaining with each heavy footfall. More guards poured into the Inner Sanctum and intercepted him, using sheer mass to drag him down.
I could guess what was coming this time. Skidding to a halt, I grabbed one of the candelabras in both hands, and ran back to the pile. Gor-don threw off the guards in a jumble of black leather, chain mail, and tusks. I swung the candelabra with everything I had and clobbered him on the head. Gor-don swayed once, dropped to his knees, said, “Lamentation of your hordes . . .” and fell over.