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Showing posts with label The Devoted. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Devoted. Show all posts

Thursday 26 August 2021

The Devoted Trilogy - Character Art Portrait Compliation

Character portraits of The Devoted trilogy, 2021.

Support me on Patreon to get early access to all art, as well as short stories,
snippets, deleted scenes, beta-reading opportunities and artist collaborations!

Rathen Koraaz

Salus, Keliceran

Aria Koraaz

Inquisitor Garon Brack

Petra Dalin

Anthis Karth

Eyila, of the Ikaheka


Thursday 15 July 2021

Patreon-Exclusive Character Origin Stories

   Over the next month, I'm sharing the origin stories for the lead characters of The Devoted trilogy on my Patreon, exclusively for all tiers. These are short stories that I wrote before starting any work on The Zi'veyn, and were written for several reasons: first, to pick my skills back up; second, to get to know the world and the characters so they'd all be consistent, and third, to develop some of the backstories.

   None of them are spoilers, I'd decided way back in 2014 to be careful about that in case I decided to share them (I was of the mentality back then that everything I wrote had to be shared; today I know that's not true, but I do want to share these).

   All seven stories have been edited to bring them up to my current skill rather than how they were seven years ago, and I'm really excited to share them!

   My Patreon has two tiers - the Library Moth ($1/mo) and Archivist ($3/mo), but these short stories are special exceptions and will be available to both  tiers as soon as they're available. I won't be sharing them here, however, as I think it's about time my patrons got some truly exclusive content.

   If you're interested, all pledges are collected on the first of every month (with exception to your first pledge, which is taken immediately), and you immediately gain access to all past content, including exclusive snippets from Veysuul pre-release. Pledges can be made in Euros, GBP or USD, and by card or PayPal. I receive 95% of all pledges, with the rest going to keep Patreon running. The pledges help to buy reference and research books for future works, as well as advertising for my books and proof copies!

Thursday 1 July 2021

Veysuul Now Open For Pre-Orders!

   Veysuul is now open for Kindle pre-orders! Paperbacks will follow on release date - August 1st.
   The pre-order is a promotional price and will increase on release day, so be sure to purchase your copy through July!

Here are the most common pre-order links - or you can search 'Veysuul' on your preferred Amazon.

US   UK   DE   NL   AU

Friday 4 June 2021

Veysuul - Book Cover Reveal

It's cover reveal day!

     I'm so excited about this cover. I'm always excited about them, but this was ambitious, and suits the final installment of a trilogy that I've poured the vast majority of my time into over the past seven years. I've had help and guidance from the wonderful Frenone on readability, and have come out with something I'm genuinely proud of, and I hope does the trilogy justice.

     The gold and embroidery were some of my favourite things to paint, and the hands easily the worst. But I learned a lot through the project - and through writing it, too - and that in itself is always a win. I really hope you all like it!


Veysuul will be available for Kindle pre-order on July 1st
and will be released with paperback on August 1st 2021.

Thursday 19 November 2020


Estimated reading time: 12 minutes
    The full moon shone lordly over the mountains. Silver capped the distant peaks, flowed like molten light through the valleys, and bathed with a billion diamonds in the lakes far below. All between those glittering stars was black but for two great, dusty streaks smudging the sky beneath the moon, and a third hanging over the distant horizon, each flecked with so many more silver pinpoints that it seemed the stars themselves had gathered to witness the passing of Lun'ul.
    But, of course, the idea was lost on the five tribal children, sitting in a ring upon one mountain ledge, giggling and throwing the dust they'd been told to grind from all kinds of dried insects and herbs. Chores were, after all, a thing grown ups gave them to make sure they became as boring as they were. There was no other reason for it. So they had to work harder to ensure that they didn't.
    Their bronze skin was soon stained such deep shades of red, green and blue by those efforts that it would take a week of sand scrubbing to get it back out. A fact pointed out by one dreadlocked young man as he stopped in his own errands to frown down over them.
    Ice-blue eyes widened and turned up to him sheepishly - all the eyes of all the children, bar one.
    "Deeeehaaaaa," the fifth whined, flopping backwards against the warrior's legs, then onto the rocky ground itself when he shuffled one step backwards. She scowled up at him, upside down, but didn't call her older brother out on it. "Can't you get us out of this?"
    "No," Deha grunted. "And I wouldn't if I could. Breaking stuff is about all you lot are good at, so you can grind the dust for tomorrow's ceremony."
    "But whyyyyy?"
    "Yeah," a boy piped up while she flopped somehow deeper into the ground. "Can't we just go with you? We wanna do more battle traini--" His hands clamped over his mouth at Deha's sharp hush.
    "Mention it again," he whispered, glancing around at the other villagers busying themselves with preparations nearby, "and I'll teach you how to clean weapons rather than swing them."
    "But why do we have to do this?" His sister whined again. "The moon's already up!"
    "Yes," he sighed witheringly, "but the Winds aren't. This dust needs to be ready to purify it, and the priests can't do that if it's not been ground up."
    "Why do they need to? We don't do it every other time the wind blows..."
    Deha rolled his eyes and nudged his petulant sister roughly with his foot. She sighed dramatically and pushed herself back up. He dreaded her getting older. She was already too dramatic for a six year old - what about when she was his age? "Those winds," he sighed, crouching down beside them all, "aren't the same. This Wind is the wind of the spirits. The gust that carries the souls of our ancestors, who protect us and watch over us while they make their way to the Frozen Gates in the south."
    "Why does it matter so much tonight?" Another girl asked. Deha squinted uncomfortably. One of her eyeballs had gone blue.
    "It doesn't," he replied, deciding it wasn't his problem to fix. "Lun'ul is tomorrow night. When the waxing moon aligns with the constellation of Akiirit."
    "The one that looks like a rolling badger."
    "Oh!" All five children squinted up into the sky.
    He was about to rise and resume his task, joining a few others in carving bone charms, when the blue-eyeballed girl spoke up again.
    "But why does it actually matter?"
    He stifled his frustrations and wished, vehemently, that he hadn't gotten involved at all. But, if he didn't answer them now, they would just follow him and pester him until he did. Being Hara's brother meant he was more desirable for her and her friends to harass than anyone else, especially any of the very busy priestesses who could have done a much better job of explaining it than him.
    So, wearily, he shifted the hammered sword from the sling at his side and sat down on the ground, where he was quickly surrounded. A distinct pressure settled on him with the wideness of those patient eyes. "It matters," he began carefully, "because tomorrow night the Winds will drop low enough to pick up our wishes and carry them away. It's the one night when--"
    "It won't pick us up and carry us off with them, will it?"
    His eyes narrowed back at his sister. "I'll make sure it does if you keep interrupting. It carries our wishes - our messages, our love. It's the one night we can speak to the spirits, to our ancestors, and tell them all we wish to tell them."
    "Like what?"
    He shrugged. "Anything."
    One of the other boys gasped brightly. "I can tell them I'm getting really good at hatchet throwing!"
    "Sure," Deha nodded, "if you want to lie to them, that's fine too."
    The boy's expression flattened.
    "What is the Wind?" Another asked. "Why do our ancestors ride it?"
    "Yeah," piped another, "why don't they just walk? Or stay here? Why do they even have to go at all?"
    He sighed as he found himself sinking under a cascade of increasingly heated questions. It took three hushes and a threat from his sword to quiet them. "All right. I'll start at the beginning - assuming I can recall enough of the details. The story of the Wind... Well, Aya'u - you know who She is, don't you? I don't have to start right at the beginning, do I?"
    Each of the children guffawed. "We're not stupid," his sister drawled. "She's the Goddess of the Wind."
    "Thank the sands for that," he muttered. "Well then, I'll begin:
    "Aya'u, Shiya, Degon, Uq'ua, were each loved by the elements. Fire would hug and kiss Shiya, the earth would shelter and warm Degon, water would lap at Uq'oa's toes, and the winds would kiss and caress Aya'u's skin. The rampaging elements tamed in the presence of the gods, and the gods adored them in turn. But, time passed, and the elements weren't company enough - they sang, but they didn't sing the same songs as the gods; they laughed, but they didn't laugh the same way; they loved, but their passion was different. The gods weren't lonely, but...They were missing something...ehh, vital," he finished vaguely.
    "What was so vital?"
    He waved the question away. "You'll understand when you're older. Don't ask your parents."
    "Why not?"
    "Because you'll go blind. Anyway, they--friends." Deha grinned and nodded with satisfaction. "They wanted friends. Yes. So the gods came together with Their elements and made us to be Their friends. Figures were shaped from earth, hardened in fire, filled with water, and blown into motion, and then we were all taken away and put where our gods could find them easiest. Aya'u placed our tribe out here, on the path of the Gende'ah winds.
    "But, when the first of us died, when their bodies couldn't go on any longer, their spirits continued to blow forwards, and with nothing to tether them, they were flung out into the world - every one of them. The children of Aya'u, and the children of the rest.
    "But the gods, though different in Their natures, had never been quarrelsome or jealous. It was Aya'u's breath that gave us life, and it was Her breath that created the Winds to the Frozen Gates, where the elements themselves collapse. It's a place where water turns solid, where plants cannot grow, where the winds roar out of control and fire cannot burn."
    "That sounds...scary..."
    Deha watched their open expressions crease in concern, and he scratched hesitantly at his chin. "It does a bit, doesn't it? ...Well, it isn't. The spirits can't feel it, they're not touched by it, and they're carried by Aya'u's breath through the gates to the gods Themselves."
    "Then what happens?"
    "Then they live with them among the stars, and new spirits are born with the new winds, which are blown into new bodies."
    "Babies!" A girl beamed.
    "" A creeping terror moved slowly into the boy's eyes, then jumped quickly into the rest. "I already have a spirit - what will happen if--"
    "Will I be pushed out of me and someone else takes over?!"
    "What if it happens to my mother?!"
    "What if I become a boy?!"
    He winced in a panic as they began to cry. "Wait, wait, wait, wait! Babies! Unborn babies!" He looked quickly about at the rest of the tribe, and found a few of them frowning his way in disapproval. This wasn't a night for sadness or fear.
    Then his heart jumped suddenly into his throat as a musical voice rose behind him.
    He froze, wide-eyed, for a long moment. Only when his cheeks had flushed completely red did he find the drive to rise clumsily to his feet.
    The young woman was beautiful in her pale, ceremonial hides, hides that darkened her beautiful bronze skin by contrast, which in turn brightened her beautiful blue eyes, and her beautiful lips were set into a beautiful smile despite one beautiful white eyebrow cocked impatiently his way.
    She was...well, beautiful.
    He wished he was capable of thinking of something else every time he saw her.
    "Aya'u knows what She's doing, kids," the training priestess said, turning a more heartfelt smile their way and giving him the opportunity to breathe again. "She knows each and every one of you, and loves you. There's no possible way She would ever let someone else's spirit take over your bodies! She wants to make new friends, not replace old ones!"
    "B-bu-b-but what if she makes a mistake?!" One of the boys blubbed.
    "Good job, Deha," the priestess muttered drily, then knelt and spoke up as his head dropped over rounded shoulders. "She has never made a mistake. Ever. Every single thing She's done has been deliberate. Everything all the gods have done has been deliberate. That's how the elements work together so smoothly. But," she raised a slender finger, "when we begin to doubt in Them, that balance begins to change. We all must trust."
    "But what if we can't?"
    Her smile broadened, and her tone grew almost crisp. "Then leave."
    Deha started at that.
    "Leave here, and travel to the Red Mountain. Speak with the Fa'hari fire tribe and the Traahak earth tribe on the volcano's slopes. See how their elements work in tandem, and the good that their volcano brings the world when the wind scatters its ash.
    "Then visit the Rashan Hills and speak to the Gyuils water tribe; watch the geysers erupt five hundred spans into the air, see the wealth of the land around its pools and far beyond when the wind carries that rich steam away." She smiled at each individual in turn, and Deha watched their eyes glaze with the imaginings of those distant places. "See it all working together, and then decide for yourself."
    Little Hara frowned, and turned her brother a long look. He couldn't quite read the question in her eyes, but he gave her a nod anyway. If she needed some kind of reassurance, Yia was the best person to give it.
    Her big ice-blue eyes turned back towards the waiting priestess. "What if we decide wrong?"
    She chuckled lightly, a sound like rolling water. "You can't decide wrong. It's not possible."
    "What if it is and I'm the first person to do it?"
    "Then," she said simply, "the world will stop turning. Which it cannot do while the Winds continue to blow, and nothing in the world can stop a force like the Winds. That," she smiled, "is how impossible it is. What you decide will be right for you, and you will do with it what you will."
    Their eyes glazed again, and quiet little frowns of thought descended over each of their faces. Some with more difficulty than others.
    But, before long, the soft trill of pipes rose up from further along the mountain shelf and drew them back out of their ponderings. Yai rose back to her feet and straightened out her hides. "The Night Before is beginning," she announced as they followed her up, driven more by curiosity than anything else. "Go. Enjoy yourselves and leave heavy thoughts behind." She looked over the half-empty bowls and their stained skin, and smiled. It was a more jagged one this time - amusement, not piety. "Your work is done."
    "But," Hara looked back to the bowls herself with suddenly profound reluctance, "we didn't finish..."
    "I'm sure Aya'u will believe this is plenty."
    Each face lit up with relief, and the five scrambled over each other to race off to the dance that was kicking up by the pipers.
    Yai sighed and watched them go while Deha reslung his sword. "You really shouldn't talk to children."
    "I know."

This story is not to be copied or reproduced without my written permission.
Copyright © 2020 Kim Wedlock

Tuesday 27 October 2020

The Devoted Trilogy - Book 3, Working Draft, Finished!

       Three and a half weeks ago, I finally finished writing the third and final instalment of The Devoted trilogy. It's a big moment, and while I'd expected some kind of hole in my life after writing 'the end', I dove too quickly back into re-reading The Zi'veyn and The Sah'niir to feel it. And for the last three and a half weeks, that's where I've been rooted. I've read fiercely, made notes, made sure everything has been answered, everything has been rounded off, and raised them to a closer standard to match this third book.

     The next job is to revise, edit, revise, and revise again. But I'm going to leave it to simmer for a few months, first. I have other work to do on the run-up to Christmas which will consume all of my time, so I will instead simply poke away at some short stories in the mean time, and let the third book ferment. And, perhaps, give a little more thought to the story I'm going to work on when the trilogy is all finished off.

     Otherwise, you can keep up to date with my progress on twitter and Instagram, and pledge on Patreon to receive raw snippets from book 3 (Library Moth - $1/mo) and early access to my short stories (Archivist - $3/mo).

Saturday 22 August 2020

It's Just Business

Estimated reading time: 26 minutes

   "An escort job? Who?"
   "Not 'who'. 'What'."
   A crease formed between Taria's eyebrows as she looked from the contract to the humourless man behind the desk. "All right, what then?"
   "No idea."
   "That's not really good enough..."
   "It'll have to be," the man replied, then squinted through his apparently disinterested demeanour to regard once again her sun-kissed skin and almost inhumanly angular features. She didn't flinch from the stare. "Where did you say you were from?"
   "I didn't. Nor," she handed the contract back with a deliberate smile, "do I take on illegal jobs."
   The man's eyebrows rose. "A mercenary with a moral code, how about that. Well, there's nothing here to knot up your precious sensibilities. It's a historical thing of one kind or another - acquired and sold by above-board means."
   "'Historical thing'? A relic? Books? A statue?"
   But he only shrugged. "Couldn't tell you. It's going to Jarl Marland in Kora." He moved out from behind the desk and walked towards a map pinned up to the wall, covered in so many old pin holes that some of the settlements had been completely eradicated.
   She studied where his finger struck it, a city to the north east, then traced her own finger along potential routes from Reyviin. "Three days," she deduced.
   "Two and a half, at most."
   He shook his head. "Landscape. So?"
   She pursed her lips while an errant summer breeze slipped through the window and brushed her short, red hair over her eyes. "Fine," she said eventually. "I'll take it. For a hundred and twenty krona." She didn't need to look to know the man had turned red.
   "A hundred and twenty?! This says--"
   "Ninety. I know. I can read."
   "B-but i-it's a small job--"
   "And 'historical things' are valuable." She turned him another deliberate look. "And when the clients are so tight-lipped, that tends to mean they're even more so. Which means the road may not be quite as smooth as it could be."
   His already squinted eyes narrowed further, and he opened his mouth to speak.
   "And I can't help but notice," she continued before he could, "the date on the request, and the fact that the request is still here. If you fail to get it to him in the next four days, the contract will expire and you won't see a penny of it. Am I right or am I right?"
   Words she didn't catch were grumbled under his breath. "Fine. Hundred and twenty." He shoved the contract back into her hands and stormed off behind his desk. "Get out."
   Taria grinned and left.

   "Hold here, Ten," Taria told her horse, and peered up at the fine house standing regal near the more manicured of the public gardens. A frown creased her brow. Historical research paid this well?
   She shrugged it off and dismounted at the gate. No one was around to guard or greet her, so she went ahead and wandered up the path and knocked at the door. The man that opened it was old and humourless, and didn't say anything beyond "courier?" before closing it again and marching off. Apparently, she wasn't permitted inside.
   Muttering his lack of manners, she satisfied herself instead by peering in through the window beside it at the array of trinkets and valuables on open display. She whistled in astonishment. It was just as well she was above thievery. This place was just begging to be looted.
   Taria darted back when she spotted movement inside, and the door was quickly snatched back open. The stiff old man gave her what she assumed to be a disapproving look, then stepped aside and let a younger man out instead. Again, no words were exchanged when he closed the door.
   Taria sneered after him, then turned her attention onto the new fellow who she found staring back at her, wide-eyed. He couldn't have been more than twenty, but it was as if he had never seen a woman before. He flinched when she smiled, and offered her hand. "Taria."
   "E-Edred. Edred. Lord Ingar's apprentice." He shook her hand nervously. Then stood there, staring at her again.
   She nodded slowly, then looked to the package in his arm. It was large, probably about two and a half feet long, but it didn't seem particularly heavy. "Is that it? What we're delivering?"
   "Wha--oh, yes, yes it is." And then he stared again.
   She smiled uncomfortably, then turned on her heel and led him away. "You have a horse?"
   "In the stables," he hurried along behind her, "yes."
   "Good." She took Tenebris's reins and gestured for Edred to lead the way, which he did with a strange, hurried shuffle, as though he wasn't moving at all from the knees up.
   Far from her surprise, they barely spoke at all along the way, and once they'd mounted up outside the city walls, the silence quickly began to prickle. Taria wasn't inclined to endure it. But then, she never had been. It was only out of courtesy for his clear discomfort that she'd restrained herself for the last fifteen minutes, but it was rapidly becoming more than she could bear.
   "So you're an apprentice," she said before she could stop the words from tumbling out, and gave him as friendly a smile as she could while he looked back at her with wide, startled eyes. "What does that mean?"
   "O-oh, uh, yes, well, uh, you see, every few years, Lord Ingar takes on one aspiring historian and teaches them his methods. Then, when they've advanced far enough, he'll write a referral to the Fellowship of the Hiso--"
   "No," she chuckled, "no, I know what an apprentice is. I mean what do you do? For him?"
   "Oh!" He managed a meagre chuckle, himself. "Well, I organise his work..."
   She continued to smile patiently. "...And?"
   "...And learn the processes he works by..."
   "...And you do your own research in between?"
   "Uh, no, I-I help him with his - organise his files, check for errors, corroborate his connections, strengthen them where they need to be, collect what he needs from libraries..."
   She couldn't keep the frown at bay for much longer. "You do none of your own work? At all? It's all his?"
   "Mhm!" And he sounded proud of that.
   "I...see... Oh!" Her smile returned in triumph. "I see! So your name will be on it beside his when he publishes it!"
   But his sudden chuckle erased it again. "Gods, no! No, of course not! It's not my work!"
   "Mm. Seems to me that it kind of is... Well, how long have you been in his tutelage?"
   "About three years."
   Her eyebrows flickered. "And how much longer?"
   "The same again."
   "Half way?! You're half way, and you're still only doing clerical work?!" She shook her head as his wide eyes blinked. "How will you possibly know you've advanced 'far enough' if you're not given any chances to prove it?! When I was an apprentice, I might've had to gather sword oil and wrappings, but at least I was still able to hone my own skills in between..." She cast him another furrowed look. "You seriously don't do any of your own research?"
   But his expression had stiffened, and he held himself with a sudden pompousness that certainly didn't suit him. "Miss," his tone had risen foolishly, too, "it's a manner of work you don't understand. Master Ingar is a fair and highly-sought master. I'm fortunate to be chosen."
   "And I daresay he's fortunate to have someone so...obliging..." She sighed and drew out her map at a fork in the road. "Well, what drove you to history, anyway?" She glanced up when he didn't answer, and found him frowning at her peculiarly.
   "You're not much like I thought a mercenary would be..."

   Mercifully, by the dawn of the next morning, Edred had relaxed considerably. Her constant pestering of questions she just couldn't for the life of her hold back had sufficiently worn him down, and he laughed at her story over a breakfast of fruit and cheese.
   "He slipped on the wine," she grinned uncontrollably, "the mug flew from his hand, hit the lamp, the last flame burst in a sputter and fizzled out, then he's on the floor, wailing like a cat. Two more come at me, but I could see them just about clearly enough with the window behind them, but all they could see of me was the light reflecting in my eyes - so I closed them, crouched, scurried forwards and tripped them as they ran. Then, while they're rolling about on the floor, cursing and wheezing and the rest, the cobbler flips his pancake, even in the stiff darkness, and says 'I had more onions in the back'!"
   "You're making that up!" He guffawed.
   "Not a word of a lie!" Well, mostly.
   While he continued to grin and partially collapse as he repeated his favourite bits to himself, Taria noticed someone approaching from the road. She rose and positioned herself smoothly between him and Edred. She could see even from that distance that the tawny-skinned, well-muscled man was another mercenary.
   Her hand loosened, ready to reach for her blade even as she relaxed her tone and smiled. "Morning," she called once it was clear he was definitely heading their way, and he replied in kind.
   "Morning - are you Ingar's couriers?"
   Her hand flicked closer, but her smile widened amicably. "Certainly. And you are?"
   "Yaruun." There was little friendliness in his voice. "He sent me to join you."
   "Oh? Why would he do that?"
   But the man's eyes immediately slipped onto the apprentice. Edred duly paled. "Why?" He managed not to stammer, looking back to her in confusion. "He didn't say anything to me about it."
   "Why would he send you if I've already been hired?" She asked as he came to a stop a polite few paces away.
   "You were hired on Jarl Marland's behalf. I'm working on Ingar's. It's as simple as that."
   Her hand twitched again as he reached towards his hip, then withdrew a folded sheet of parchment from his belt. He extended it warily, and the pair stared back at the seal.
   Somehow, Edred paled further. "He doesn't trust me..."
   "I can't attest to that," Yaruun replied, tucking it away again. "I'm just here to make sure you don't feign theft so your jarl gets both it and a refund. It was an after-thought, though, so I'm being paid well whether I end up being necessary or not. All the same," he turned pointedly to Taria, "if you are up to no good, I advise you to leave now. You can't stand against me. I will be able to stop you."
   Her eyebrow twitched, but she smiled all the same. "I appreciate the warning. But I took a contract, so I'm sticking around. I need the money."
   "Well, I'm paid either way, so it makes little difference to me. And if you're lying, at least I warned you." He turned and marched back to the road where his grey horse waited. "I'm ready when you are."
   Taria gathered up her tidied bedroll and clicked Tenebris over, strapping them back to his saddle. She noticed Edred's nervousness as he tidied away his own. "Not one for people, are you?"
   "I admit," he cast another uneasy glance down towards the man, "I prefer seclusion. Just being out here is several great leaps from my comfort zone. But...he makes sense..."
   "Yes, unfortunately, he does. So it's just as well we're not up to no good. Right?"
   He smiled nervously. "Right."

   Edred had stiffened back up in the company of this man, but Taria was unconcerned. If anything, she found herself even more interested in breaking down the mercenary's walls than she had been the apprentice's. She trotted Tenebris up beside him, and heard Edred draw his closer for safety.
   "Do you have any idea what we're actually transporting?" She asked him. "Edred won't tell me."
   "It's not my business to know," he replied flatly despite his lilting accent, his eyes unmoving from the road. "It's my business to escort it."
   "Even so, you're not curious?"
   "Why should I be? It's intellectual business, and I don't have the head for it, no matter how much my mother might wish otherwise."
   "She disapproves of your profession?"
   "Yours doesn't?"
   Taria's eyes pulled back to the trees, and she shoved away the small crease from the middle of her brow. "I wouldn't honestly know..." Her gaze drew back to him easily enough, and she smiled once again. "You're not from here."
   "No. Ivaea."
   "That's it?" She asked, picturing the deserts, mountains and grass plains to the north. "Just 'Ivaea'?"
   "You need more?"
   "I suppose not..." She looked again at the serpent crest on his scabbard, and the matching image on his shoulder. "Are you part of a guild?"
   "Yes. The Dralagsi."
   "But you're working alone?"
   "Not all of us are cut out for working in groups, and not all jobs need multiple hands. Surely you realise that. You're out here without your guildmates, too."
   "I don't have any. I always work alone."
   "No guild?" Despite the vaguest hint of surprise in his voice, he still didn't look away from the road.
   Taria smirked to herself. "'Not all of us are cut out for working in groups'. But I did train with one."
   Yaruun grunted, but that was all.
   "What do you usually work on?" She asked after barely a moment. "What's your speciality?"
   Finally, he looked her way, and his eyes were brimming with suspicion. "You ask a lot of questions."
   "As far as I'm aware, it's not a crime."
   He looked indignantly back to the road. "It's considered rude among my people."
   "Oh...well...we're not among your people. Really, though: what's your speciality? And why did you start? If your mother doesn't approve, it can't be a family business."
   "It isn't."
   "...So why did you?"
   His answers became only more tight and closed off with every question she asked, and before long, he stopped answering altogether, leaving them to ride on in what silence Taria would let sit. But they wound up making good time - mostly because the mercenary seemed to be pushing his horse in an effort to get away from her, but she supposed she couldn't blame him. And anyway, she was being paid by the job, not the day, so the sooner it was done, the better. And it looked to be an easy matter, too. With two mercenaries, thieves were less likely to try anything - though his unwillingness to talk made it difficult to gauge his likely reaction if they did. All she could really guess was that he would probably either try to take charge, or try to do it all himself. Either way, it looked like her part would be defensive. But giving in to that position early on was easier than trying to break down someone's stubborn pride...

   It was only when Taria peered at the map and tried to work out if the forest ahead was Tuskroot or not that she realised just how dark it had gotten. Kora was surely only two hours away by now - but Edred was tired, the horses were tired, and there was every chance that the jarl would not appreciate being woken in the middle of the night to deal with the arrival of an old relic. And the last thing she needed was to upset a client and have him pay the middleman less. That would mean less for her.
   So they made camp just hours from midnight at the edge of the birchwoods that sheltered the old city, ate their dried meat and tough bread - a meal that didn't seem to sit too well with the apprentice, as it hadn't the night before - and turned in, leaving Yaruun to keep watch.
   It took some time for Taria to find any sleep. Her mind kept knotting and twisting and racing. It wasn't often that that happened, but Yaruun - a man who didn't belong here in Turunda any more than she did, and who followed the path his profession laid out just the same - had made her think on her own home. Or, what little of one she had. Bouncing between orphanages hadn't exactly instilled a sense of 'belonging' anywhere. But she'd made the best of it, and she couldn't say she didn't enjoy where her life had taken her - especially seeing what passed for an apprenticeship in this place. But...she just couldn't shake the question as she lay there in the restless, smothering summer warmth: would her mother have been proud of her, if she'd had one? Or would she be disappointed? Or would she just be scared for her, risking her life and sleeping rough as she so often did?
   She lost herself in the matter for a long while before the sheer power of the knot in her jaw reminded her that the answers weren't for her to know. And that, honestly, they didn't really matter. She was happy with her choices.
   Taria closed her eyes and breathed, and sleep settled in easily once she let it.

   The world was black when she jolted awake, and only one sound touched the air. It wasn't an owl. It wasn't a cricket. It wasn't the wind. It was one sound she'd heard more times in her life than should probably have been healthy if it invoked an immediate sense of purpose rather than fear. Did that make her survival instinct broken, she wondered absently as she reached for her sword, or heightened?
   Well, she wasn't dead yet.
   She pushed herself up as the sword withdrew from Edred's body, and watched him hit the ground with a heavy thud and a gasp while Yaruun lifted the package from among the apprentice's belongings.
   Yaruun met Taria's burning stare. "He wouldn't hand it over." His eyes, in the half-clouded moonlight, were neither regretful, nor cold. It was just business.
   Edred's, when her gaze flicked back to him, were wide with shock. But the wound in his shoulder wouldn't be fatal - assuming she could get him help in time. Which meant dealing with Yaruun quickly.
   She'd already shoved herself to her feet, and her blade waited ready in her hand. All the numbness of sleep had fled with the sound of it ringing across her scabbard's locket.
   Yaruun was on her before she could ask a single question. And she realised too late that she was at an immediate disadvantage. His longsword had far greater reach than her shortsword. There was little use even trying to compete.
   Daggers, however, required an entirely different fighting style.
   She barely sidestepped his thrust as she lunged aside for the smaller blades, and danced her way around a second. He must have expected her to take a moment or three to adjust to the difference, and that incorrect assumption gave her room to get in an easy shot at his unprotected side.
   Or so she'd thought. He turned just fast enough to knock her dagger away with his sword.
   "I've warned you," he told her coolly.
   "I know," she replied much the same.
   "Stand aside, Taria. I have a contract."
   "So do I. But more than that," she made for another quick strike, which he didn't deflect in time, "you drew innocent blood."
   He pushed off, disregarding already the shallow cut in his side, while she leapt back, found distance, and exploded into a quick attack towards his legs. Her blades moved in a flurry, and she hit him a handful of times before his boot fired her backwards and sent pain flaring white across her face.
   She cursed and shook it off as fast as she could, and barely managed to sidestep and duck beneath his next rapid strike. He kicked at her again before she could react, but she saw this one coming and slashed a blade across his calf. He grunted, but that was all. His sword still flashed upwards into a skyward arc.
   But Taria didn't steal distance this time. She twitched back and let his momentum continue, leaving his torso open. Then she shot around his exposed side, moved up to his sword arm, and feinted just as he engaged his next attack. Her foot hit the side of his knee with all her strength.
   He crumpled with a curse, and she kicked him forwards as he fought for balance before stamping hard on the back of his other.
   Despite the crunch and howl, Taria's attention turned immediately onto Edred.
   "You okay?" She asked while he stared past her, pale, at the man trying to push himself back up, grunting through gritted teeth.
   His wide eyes soon crashed up onto her "You won't finish him?" He somehow managed both to whisper and shriek. "He'll come after us!"
   "Not with his ligaments in that shape, he won't. And anyway," she smiled, turning her attention quickly to the extent of his bloodied shoulder, "I don't take lives if I don't have to. He was only doing his job. Now come on: to your feet." She dragged him up and clicked the horses over, helped him up onto his own, gathered their things and left Yaruun there. The Ivaean mercenary didn't ask for help once.

   Despite the circumstances, she still gasped at the sight of Kora: the ivy clinging to the outer walls, the high merlons cut into the shape of leaves, clear even in the moonlight - and, above all else, the back of the city, cut straight from the quartz-studded cliffs, glinting and glittering like a sheet of stars.
   Edred was in little state to admire it, nor answer her flurry of questions. He half-slumped over his horse, clutching his shoulder, and looked about with listless eyes.
   Her concern hiked, fascination sharply forgotten, and she urged her horse faster. "Hurry, Ten! Hurry!" He snorted and obeyed, dragging Edred's leashed horse into a canter behind him.
   The guards at the gates gave her directions to the medica, and she kicked forwards without a second to waste, weaving on up through the sleeping hillside city until the old rounded building appeared ahead through the quiet streets.
   Despite few being on hand inside, Edred was seen to immediately, and she was pulled aside to have her nose poked at, too. She was fine, and assured them of it multiple times, but they insisted.
   She sighed and sat back down while a young man began pressing clinically at the bruising across her brow, and stifled her curse. She'd worked it out along the way there. Actually, she'd worked it out the moment she'd heard his blade cut through Edred's flesh. Yaruun had been hired to steal it back. Of course he had. He hadn't tried hard enough to get rid of her, so she hadn't noticed it at the time, but with her dead beside this unlucky apprentice, the jarl would be satisfied that thieves or bandits were to blame rather than any kind of underhand deception - maybe he'd even get his money back and compensation from the contract office, and the seller, evidently protected by some obscure liability clause or rule in the transaction, would keep both the jarl's money and the...whatever it was...
   She frowned down at the package she'd carried in, not daring to leave it outside to be stolen. She still hadn't been able to work out what was inside it, nor why it had made a noise when she'd grabbed it.
   Once the medic had concluded that she was, in fact, fine, and gave her a salve to cool the swelling, she left the poor, pale apprentice in their care, assured that he would make a full recovery, and sought out somewhere to stable Tenebris and find herself some rest - after casting back a cursory note that there was another man out at the edge of the forest that might also like a little bit of help, of course. She wasn't a monster.

   She slept well until she awoke beside her horse to a blinding strip of early dawn light falling across her eyes.
   She cursed and shielded them behind her arm, then found the tiptoeing stablehand apologising profusely for waking her, though he looked bemused at the same time. Why would she sleep down here when there were beds in a tavern literally on the other side of the wall? But, honestly, she couldn't even remember making it to the stables. Something in the salve must have made her drowsy. They really should give warnings about that kind of thing...
   After a quick bite that often consituted a breakfast on the road, Taria went to check on the apprentice, but he'd apparently lost more blood than she'd realised and the medics refused to discharge him. He was given no opportunity to argue, though, because he had yet to actually wake up. So it was left to Taria to take the mysterious bundle to the jarl, who the medics told her she'd find in library in the cliff face itself. She couldn't help a skip of fascination in her step as she hurried along towards it.

   Her eyes adjusted quickly to the dark of the library, and when she turned around to glance back out through the glass doors, the morning light almost blinded her again. She snapped away with a strained murmur and set off further into the building. Or, carving.
   Bookshelves lined the walls and segmented the hall, reaching all the way up to the tall, far-off ceilings. She saw, as she craned her neck, the images cut into it, though she couldn't make them out, and wound up spinning on the spot trying to find the right perspective.
   "You there!"
   She stopped and snapped around at the voice, then spotted two men hurrying towards her, both well-dressed, though the older of the pair held himself with a distinctly prouder bearing than the other. Both of them carried an eager light in their eyes.
   She bowed. It had to be the jarl. He didn't seem to notice the gesture, though.
   "You've brought it!" The jarl beamed. "Marvellous!" He all but snatched it from her, but before she could confirm her latent presumption that a fat purse meant fat fingers, he handled it with at least as much care as Edred did.
   She watched the pair of them stare at the wrapping as if they were suddenly afraid of what might be inside it.
   Then, suddenly, the jarl's head lifted and his eyes crashed back onto her. "Come! You've ferried it all this way, it's only fair that you get a look!"
   She wasn't about to argue, though she did have to hurry to keep up, and followed them into a well-lit back room where the jarl set the package on the table. Taria frowned as he all but leapt back from it, then the younger of the two moved forwards, and she watched him stare at it for another long moment. It was only at the jarl's excited command that he finally began to unlace it.
   Her eyebrows dropped when he drew back the cloth. "A tattered old fiddle? That's what we were bringing here? A fiddle?"
   "A nyckelharpa," the young man corrected in a voice barely above a whisper, his green eyes glittering. "Pre-magic elven, First Era, about one thousand four hundred years old, one of the earliest versions of what became the most iconic instrument, even in our own age!"
   "Really?" She took a more interested step closer. He caught her hand before she could pluck at a string.
   They both looked back to the jarl, his eyes as thick with fret as his voice.
   "Can you restore it?"
   Even she turned a cautious look back towards him as he circled around the table, mindlessly ushering them out of the way to look at it from all angles before daring to finally touch it. Never mind that it had been jostled about and strapped to the back of a horse for the past two days.
   Finally, he nodded. "I can. I think. I know a luthier who should be able to help..." he breathed a sound that was either a gasp or a stifled squeak. "It's so old... How much did you--"
   The jarl's cough and far from subtle nod towards Taria cut him off. He straightened instead and enforced composure over himself. It did little to chase away the glee in his eyes.
   Then the jarl was suddenly in front of her, shaking her hand vigorously and pressing a note of confirmation into her other palm, all while ushering her towards the door. "Thank you for your help, young lady. It trust it wasn't...too much...trouble..."
   She turned her head away while he stared at the bruising across her nose and brow, probably only now noticing it for the first time, and smiled offhandedly, freeing herself from his grip and making towards the door for herself. "No. None at all. And it took me only two days - you might want to let the oaf in Reyviin know that. Otherwise, gentlemen, best of luck with your fiddle." She reached for the handle, but she couldn't help casting back a curious smile. "I should like to hear it, if you get it working."
   Anthis smiled and gave a single nod of his head while the jarl descended back into staring at the thing, then Taria stepped back out into the library.
   Her smile promptly withered, and her eyes dropped down to the note of delivery. "Now to try to get my money out of that weasel..."

Taria and Tenebris belong to Patricia of FairyLiterary. Set in The Devoted's Turunda by request. This story is not to be copied or reproduced without both mine and FairyLiterary's permission.
Words copyright © Kim Wedlock

Saturday 15 August 2020

One Öre

   This month, The Zi'veyn turns 2, and The Sah'niir has its 1st birthday,
so I wrote this month's short story in connection to it.
It takes place on the morning of The Zi'veyn - no prior reading needed!
Estimated reading time: 18 minutes

   Garon frowned at the coins dropped into his palm. 'Two, four, six...' Seven öre and one krona. It was all there. And yet, bouncing them in his hand, it felt just a little too light...
   His grey eyes lifted back to the trader. The man's amiable smile had stiffened, and even as he looked offhandedly across the surrounding market, he seemed to be trying to shuffle off to the side and away from his cart. Garon smoothly caught his wrist.
   "What," he presented the coins, "is this?"
   "Your change, sir," the man replied without a trace of concern for his grip. His smile had even revived. There was no shame in his eyes at all. It was a perfect mask. And, logically speaking, nonsensical.
   Garon sighed to himself. This man knew exactly what he was doing. And he didn't have the time for it.
   Unfortunately, matters like these were his jurisdiction.
   He didn't release his wrist, and turned himself only slightly, but the shift of his cloak was enough to draw the man's eyes to the hilt of his sword, and the White Hammer insignia stamped on the flat of the pommel. At that point, the chipper colour drained from his face.
   The trader's gaze lifted back, his eyes suddenly as wide and innocent as a child's, and he opened his failing smile to speak.
   Then snatched the coins and ran instead.
   Garon cursed and set off after him, darting around the cart while the trader dashed away behind the rest before swinging down into a lane. He called over the startled merchants for the man to stop, but the words, as they always did, fell on deaf ears. They were little more than a formality. Leaping as easily over the crates and debris thrown in his way as he did, the man must have known he could never outrun him. But he would try. They always tried.
   And so Garon wasn't remotely surprised when the man barrelled out from the far end of the lane to the street beyond, and crashed straight into the side of the horse. A surprising number of alley chases ended that way.
   While the cart-horse squealed and stamped its surprise, coins scattering all over the cobbles, Garon strode out to the street, seized him by the wrist, dragged him to his feet, and dutifully intoned: "I am arresting you for possession of and intent to distribute counterfeit coins, suspicion of counterfeiting, and treason." His grip didn't falter while the man tried to struggle his way out of it. Nor when his effort doubled at the timely arrival of two guards.
   Garon all but shoved him into their care. "Detain him, and recover those coins. The Hall of the White Hammer will be in to collect him in due course. I'm following up on something else at the moment."
   They straightened and nodded their agreement, then began calling for the civilians to keep clear while a third guard hurried over to help them.
   With a grunt of satisfaction, Garon turned and strode away. He had another, greater matter to see to.


   One bronze öre rolled its way beneath the wagon and bounced across the cobbles. It wove its way out between boot and hoof, narrowly avoided striking the well, and missed the eye of the local miser.
   It was only when a single misstep sent a foot grazing and stumbling over the uneven stonework that its roll for freedom was broken.

   Petra cursed and cast the road a spiteful sneer, restraining herself from kicking it. She was about to move on when a bronze glint caught her eye.
   Her gaze narrowed, and a thought puckered her lips. 'Luck,' she wondered, 'or just chance?' Was the question even worth it?
   She bent down and lifted it from the stone, when a voice rose behind her.
   "Are you Petra Dalin?"
   A smile flickered across her face. 'Luck.'
   She turned as she rose, and considered the armed man who waited a wary few steps away. About fifty, almost twice her own age; a strong frame, but lean rather than bulky; a scar running from his cheekbone down through his beard; a confident bearing - trained, not inherent, and probably deserved. A soldier, she surmised, until not that long ago.
   This wouldn't be an easy win.
   Petra straightened and moved her cloak aside, deliberately placing one hand on the sword at her hip. The gesture was made only in part for intimidation. "I am." Her eyebrows rose when he bowed his head.
   "Then I extend a challenge, if I may."
   "You may. And more politely than I'm used to."
   "Don't misunderstand my honour as chauvinism." There was a steadiness in his eye when he looked back up. "I know well of you. I won't hold back."
   "In which case," her eyes similarly hardened, "neither will I. Where?"
   "The square."
   He drew his sword.
   A smirk flickered across her lips, and she drew her own in answer. "Lead the way."
   A number of people followed them from that busy street. She could hear her name, and his, flow throughout the growing crowd, and when they reached the town square, marked by a small and poorly maintained public garden, it had swelled to perhaps three dozen.
   She glanced over them as they came to a stop, removed their cloaks and prepared themselves, but her evaluation of their wealth was cut short by the cold. She fought back a shiver and swung her arms to warm up her shoulders. Spring felt further off than it should have been. Surely the ice floes had moved off by now...
   'I'll have to try my luck north in Kasire one of these days...'
   She shook the useless thoughts away. She was wasting time.
   Her attention returned to her opponent, watching his warm up, looking for injuries and where he was taking more care. There were plenty of small weaknesses, but they appeared mostly healed. But even if some of them were nothing more than left-over ticks from an injury healed a decade ago, they could be exploited.
   Her own most recent had cleared up a few days ago, and she did her best not to show any subtle hints of protection. But she had the distinct feeling that even that level of physical wellness wouldn't last for much longer.
   The soldier ended his warm up. "I am aware of your rules, Miss Dalin. We fight to disarm."
   "Yes, that's...all of them..." She shook her bemusement away. "No amendments?"
   "None. Are we ready?"
   Someone nearby started calling for bets.
   'I am now.' She stepped aside and unlaced her coin purse. It contained only about one quarter of the money she carried; the rest was in a pouch hidden inside her cloak. This was a show of arrogance. She was sure to feign a slight limp as she approached the collector.
   "On me," she said, and was about to drop the pouch into his waiting hand when she remembered the lucky öre. She drew it from its hiding place in her cinch just as a warning rose from the other side.
   Everyone scattered before she could finish her curse.
   She snatched her cloak from the ground and threw up her hood, covering her blood-red hair, and fled along behind them. A few corners later, she breathed a sigh of relief. The guards here were quick to move, but not to pursue. But no rules had actually been broken, so she'd been prepared to protest her innocence. As for the soldier, she would find him again later.
   Tying her purse back to her cinch, she looked down at the lucky coin and smiled. At least she'd made something, if only a penny, and, resolved or not, she'd found a challenger too.
   The mid-morning sun glinted across the bronze as she flicked it up into the air. Then a sudden doubt pulled at her eyebrows as she caught it. She squinted closer, turning it between her fingers. "This isn't..."
   She looked around quickly, spotted a beggar sitting hunched on a low wall, and dropped it onto his book.
   If Petra Dalin was caught with a counterfeit, it would destroy her.


   Anthis blinked at the coin on his page. Glancing up from beneath his tattered hood, he looked about from one passing figure to another, but there was no knowing who'd done it.
   So he shrugged and pocketed it, read on to the end of the page, closed his notebook and tucked it into the satchel beneath his travel cloak. After dusting the moss from his rear, he hoisted the bag, bundled himself up and left. Why was it still so cold?!
   He shook his head to himself as he drew the cloak tighter around his neck. It would be fine once he was moving. Or working. Or just not thinking about it. Which was difficult when it was everywhere.
   'Silverwood, Silverwood, Silverwood...'
   That seemed to do the trick.
   He'd been to the ruins in that old, pear-speckled forest for two days on the trot, comparing notes from that ruined archway to notes on others from over the length of the country. No one else took much of an interest in them, but that was probably just as well - depending on how you looked at it. No one was around, which meant no interruptions, and the rest of the Historical Society didn't seem to give two sniffs about the thing. Too far beneath them, probably.
   Anthis scoffed to himself. That was their attitude on so many things. Armchair historians, the lot of them. The Fellowship was riddled with them, ironically. He was one of only a few who actually went out to investigate his theories.
   But on the other hand, that also meant that there was little he could fall back on. Any discovery would be entirely his own, but it would also be hard-won. And you know what they say: two minds, yadda yadda.
   Not that he could rely on many of them. He wasn't well-liked, and more or less precisely because he didn't attend sherry nights. But that didn't really bother him. Was he lonely? Perhaps a little. But he was also never happier than when he was out in a ruin, following up on his own research. And 'ornamental stones' or not, the archways were fascinating. They always stood alone, all of them, and he was sure they had once been gateways - intangible, yes; metaphorical, symbolic. Had they been made by post-magic elves, they could well have been actual portals, but these all dated - all of them - well back before the elves were gifted their magic, way back in the First Era, and they all seemed dedicated to Nara, the God of Hands - Vastal's face of craft and toil.
   But not all of them. Some were instead dedicated to Doru, the God of Mind, Vastal's face of intellect and compassion. And yet they all looked the same, aside from a few small engravings.
   They had to cross over somewhere, beyond simple aesthetics. There was a reason they all looked the same - same shape, same height, same dimensions, same coiling ornamentation. Weather and ruin not withstanding, of course. There was a link between these two of the Goddess's aspects in elven culture - but he'd been to seven sites in Turunda and several more in Kalokh and Doana, and he couldn't find it! Even just pondering it now, as his feet carried him almost feverishly through Edam's streets, he could feel a frustration clawing at the insides of his throat.
   Which face was dominant? More arches seemed to be dedicated to Nara, but was that just because they were crafted? Were they actually dedicated to Doru instead, and built with a higher, intellectual purpose? Like the communication between themselves and the gods? The 'gateway' to better understanding them? Maybe Nara only came into it at all because they had to be crafted by hand. Or maybe Doru was only relevant because it took planning and co-ordination to get so many so identical.
   He shook his head over the matter for the umpteenth time. Elves and their damned context. It was never simple! And while they left their stories engraved all over the things, so many words had multiple meanings that it was impossible to know for sure without a broad study. Which is exactly what this had been so far. Needlessly so. So broad, in fact, that he was beginning to wonder if they were linked at all - which was something he was hoping would've been answered five sites ago. Give it another day or two and he'd be off, no doubt, to yet another.
   He huffed to himself, loosening his cloak.
   He didn't notice the smile already creeping over his lips half a heartbeat later, nor the haste in his feet as he rushed out through Edam's town gate. Nuisance or not, the mystery, the search for the answers, they were what he lived for.
   Nodding at the guards as he left, he spotted a trader just ahead, and hurried forwards at a thought. "Excuse me," he called, already running in his previous excitement, "excuse me, sir!"
   The trader turned. It seemed a cumbersome movement with the pack on his back trying to overbalance him, but he grinned amicably enough. "Good morning, sir! However can I be of assistance?"
   Anthis returned his friendly smile as he puffed to a stop beside him. "Do you have any pencils?"
   The man blinked. "Pencils? Graphite?"
   "That's them exactly, yes. No one in Edam had any and I think - I hope - I'll need them." He watched the man tap his chin as he mentally noted off his inventory, then smiled in relief as the man snapped his fingers and lowered the pack from his back.
   "So, artist, are you?" He asked, rifling through one of the side pockets, which itself could have rivalled his own over-stuffed satchel.
   "Oh, no - historian. I'm heading out to the arch in Silverwood." He could see the man had already lost interest. Fortunately, he'd also already found the pencils.
   "Ah, here we are. Well, I can't see what good staring at old stones will do for a people as long-gone and as foul as the elves, but each to their own. I'm sure it has meaning to someone." He presented three wooden pencils. "Half an öre each, or all three for one."
   Anthis nodded and pulled the bronze coin out from his pocket. "All three, please."
   "Lovely jubbly."
   Anthis stuffed the pencils into his bag and thanked the man profusely. The trader watched him go with a bemused look on his face. "You're in a rush! The rocks ain't going anywhere!"
   "But the past grows only more distant!" He called as he hurried on away.
   The trader blinked then shook his head. "...Can't argue with that."


   One coin heavier, the trader followed the road from Edam towards the highlands, and the trees began to close in, ash and alder giving way to spruce as the ground climbed. He puffed along that wretched route with such a weight on his back, but he didn't consciously notice the strain. He whistled to himself whenever he had the breath to spare. There were easier routes, but this one was lucrative.
   And, after a few hours of travel and passing a handful of other trundling customers along the way, two figures emerged up ahead from among the trees: a grim-looking man, one who'd surely never smiled a day in his life, and a child.
   The trader narrowed his eyes as he always did, but never voiced his questions.
   "Morning, sir," he hailed the pair, and unstrapped the bundle tied to the side of the pack without taking it off. He paid no mind when the man ushered the child behind him. Hermits would be like that.
   The man handed him the money immediately, and he in turn the package. His burden felt wonderfully lightened, and his purse that beautiful degree heavier as he counted the coins and dropped them in. But he was twenty öre over.
   But the glint of the man's silver took him.
   He drew the strings together.

   "Taxes have gone up again," the trader told him before he'd even turned back to see Rathen's waiting palm. "On account of the war." He shrugged and smiled apologetically enough. "Sorry, friend."
   Rathen growled and dropped his hand, but he didn't pursue it. "Mead?"
   "No change on tax there."
   The usual grim lines in his face deepened in irritation. "Do you have any?"
   The pack came off of his back, and Rathen waited while he opened one of his many compartments. A moment later, he presented a bottle. Rathen managed not to sneer at the flourish. It was only a bottle of Edrich. The man thought he was an idiot. But what could he do about it?
   Plenty, really. But this thief didn't know that.
   And it was better that he didn't.
   Rathen reached out to take the bottle, but the trader immediately moved back. With another grumble, he drew his meagre coin pouch from his sleeve. "How much?" He didn't need to look up to see him eyeing his coins hungrily.
   "Two krona."
   "Two whole krona?! You said the tax didn't change!"
   "No," he smiled in that wretchedly apologetic way again, "but it's in demand at the moment. On account of war."
   "Of course it is." He handed over his last silver coin and took the bottle. A subtle tug came at his side, but he didn't look around at it. "And sugar."
   "Ah." That sounded sincere. "That one's not so easy, on account--"
   "Of war," Rathen finished. "Yes. Well, find some. Or it won't just be my purse strings getting cut." He made sure the look in his eyes was unmistakable, and rather enjoyed watching the man flinch.
   "R-right-o," he stammered. "In that case, I'll scour my storehouses, and raid my competitors'. Now, if that's all--"
   "Yes, thank you. Go." He watched the trader hoist his bag back onto his shoulders and move at surprising speed for his load. He shook his head to himself, but managed not to curse. "Thief."
   He saw the little hands grabbing up beside him in their usual desperation to help. The package was heavy, but the bottle could be smashed. But she was more likely to fall with the package.
   "Be careful," he said quite precisely, handing her the bottle. "If you drop it, don't try to save it."

   "I won't drop it, Daddy." Aria wrapped her arms around the bottle and held on both as tight and careful as she could, even as she watched the trader go from beneath her thick hood. It was a long moment before she realised her father had already turned and started back up the hill away from the road.
   She gasped and hurried along after him, feeling danger nipping at her bum. She raced at first, then remembered the heavy, sloshy bottle and instead took long but careful strides. Only when she was back and safe at his side in the shadow of the woods did she puff a sigh through her cheeks. Then she turned him a frown. "What did he steal, Daddy?"
   "Anything he can get his grubby hands on, I'm sure..."
   "But," the knot in her forehead tightened, "you gave him the money for all this."
   The smile he gave her was tired, but his ruffling of her curls through her hood was firm enough to rattle away her confusion at least a little. "Yes, little one, I did. Maybe I am an idiot."
   "You're not an idiot, Daddy."
   "Thank you for saying so."
   "'Dim-witted', Kienza says." She hid her smile behind the bottle while he turned a flat look down at her, then lowered it and gave him a careful grin. "Please still make me a cake."
   "Might not be able to. On account of the war."
   "Mmm," she pursed her heart-shaped lips in thought. "I suppose soldiers need cake, too..." Her eyes drifted back up to him, noticing again the same strange line between his eyebrows he'd worn since morning. "What's wrong?"
   "Hm?" He glanced down at her, then seemed to notice it himself. He forced it away, and it didn't come easily. "I don't know, little one. I just have a...feeling..."
   She watched him shake his head, then he stared forwards into the forest. "Like something's about to change..."

Words copyright © Kim Wedlock
No part is to be reproduced without my permission.

Saturday 1 August 2020

Book Birthdays! [free books and short stories]

Today marks the birthday of The Zi'veyn and The Sah'niir! And, because I like to take book birthdays a little too seriously, I've gotten organised for the first time since Corona struck!

     The Zi'veyn and The Sah'niir have been reduced in price
on Kindle for the entirety of August!
Search on your preferred Kindle store
or hit one of the links below for the most common stores:
The Zi'veyn: UK    US    Can    Aus    NL
The Sah'niir: UK    US    Can    Aus    NL

Otherwise, here's my schedule for the month,
including both Patreon and public posts:

1st: 'One Öre' (short story) released on Patreon Archivist tier
1st-5th: The Zi'veyn free on Kindle
8th: 'It's Just Business' (short story) released on Patreon Archivist tier
13th: Artwork compilation on Patreon, all tiers
15th: 'One Öre' made available to everyone else
15th-19th: The Sah'niir free on Kindle
20th: Artwork compilation available to everyone else
22nd: Sneak-peek of Veysuul's cover for Patreon only, all tiers
22nd: 'It's Just Business' made available to everyone else
27th-31st: Hlífrún free on Kindle

Thursday 7 May 2020

Hlífrún Book Release Schedule

   On June 20th, Hlífrún, a short stand-alone supplementary novel to The Devoted trilogy (between The Sah'niir and book 3), will be released - 150 pages of short stories following the wildlings' plight against the Midsummer disaster. I wrote this over Camp NaNoWriMo in April 2019 and it has been through waves of beta reading to ensure it does stand on its own. I'm immensely excited about it, because it's quite different to how I would usually write.

   Below is the hype schedule. Patrons will see most of this a week or two sooner, as well as more posts over the 'art week'. There will also be a Patreon-exclusive hardback book with additional content. Outside of this, it will be available on Kindle on June 20th, as well as in pocket paperback in my Etsy shop, and on Amazon paperback around June 22nd. There will be a giveaway for a Patreon-exclusive hardback happening 2 weeks before release, too.

   Most of this will take place on Twitter and Instagram, with static posts happening here and Facebook, too.

Friday 6 December 2019

Yule, The Arkhamas Way

Estimated reading time: 5 parts at 5 minutes each

Part, The First

   Coarse voices were sharpened by the frozen air while frigid projectiles streaked through the branches, pummelling target and trunk with dull, powerful thuds. Screams deafened tiny ears, while oversized eyes watched the onslaught carelessly from higher in the boughs, chipped teeth crunching through seeds and nuts as the cackles renewed with every strike.
   One of the child-like Arkhamas hung upside down from his branch, numb to the chaos beneath him as he chewed and stared in thought through the snow-smothered forest. Until a stray snowball hit him in the face.
   "So I saw the hoomans gettin' ready for Yule," he said slowly, roused from his daydream as he wiped chunks of ice and hidden stones from his pale forehead. "Draggin' great big logs about, killin' their cattle, bakin', bakin', bakin'..."
   "Ooh!" Seppy chirped below him as she stumbled out of the way of another icy attack, her hair deliberately knotted around sticks and acorn caps each as frosted as the trees. "What was they baking?"
   "Pies, sweetbuns, cider bread..."
   The snowballs stopped as a collective yearning dribbled amongst the ten of them.
   "We should pinch some."
   "That we should," Dag declared from behind a thick tree, winding up another powerful throw and knocking the twig-antlers tied into his hair with each exaggerated pass.
   The upside-down Arkhamas pursed his lips, his huge, silver-green eyes narrowing once again in thought as the snowball hurtled past him. "We should try their Yule."
   "You mean kill their cows?"
   "No - the rest of it."
   "Why are they killing their cows?"
   "To eat 'em, right, so they don't have to feed 'em," replied Angk.
   "Why d'you wanna do what they do, Puck?" Dag challenged him, diving quickly behind his tree to avoid the throws of three others. "They're stupid, they just argue about things, get loud and set fire to things, and they don't even enjoy doing it! Every year I hear 'em whinging about having to talk to people they don't like, too! I don't even get why they 'have' to talk to 'em!"
   "Yeah but," Puck, the first Arkhamas, swung himself back on top of the branch, matted hair falling back into a mess around him and opening the small birds nest tangled into it, "we won't be doin' any o' that! And we haven't done it their way before, either!"
   "We did," replied Seppy, "but they was still sacrificing things back then."
   "Yeah but that wasn't us that tried that, that was...flippin'...more-than-I-can-count-ago!" He looked imploringly across the others as a small bird settled into his hair-nest, until Erra, with a particular yet haphazard arrangement of moss and lichen in her hair and across her skin, finally grunted in agreement.
   "Not a bad idea," she said at last, striking Dag from the rear.
   "I wanna do it," declared Angk.
   "Me too," Seppy chirped.
   A chorus of other voices inside their heads agreed - the opinions of far more than the ten present.
   Puck beamed a chipped grin from his place in the branches and absently reached up to stroke the bird on his head. It tried irritably to peck at his fingers. "That's settled, then."
   "What d'we need?"
   " Lots of food. And a ham - smoke, a smoking ham. A big log we gotta burn, and more wood; a big circle of twigs, that stuff they drink they make from honey, presents, and food."
   "You said food."
   "Yeah, we need a lot of it."
   "I don't wanna do presents," said Dag, wrinkling his nose and adjusting his twig-antlers. "It just makes the hoomans angry."
   "Yeah there's no fun in that."
   "Where d'we get it all?"
   Another chorus of voices clamoured, and the eyes of all ten glazed. A moment later, Puck nodded and jumped down from the tree. "Let's go."
   The snowball fight was promptly abandoned.
   Giant eyes squinted low over a frosted drystack wall. None of the villagers had noticed them, nor the twigs rising a good foot higher than the tops of their heads. The humans carried on with their business, moving things around the open streets to make way for their evening's celebration. The enormous log that would be at the centre of those festivities waited just outside the village beside a number of empty carpentry stools.
   The squinting eyes sank slowly below the top of the wall. The antlers didn't.
   "We can't cut one ourselfs," Dag whispered to the three other Arkhamas, each crouching as low as he in the snow, "but we can hardly lift theirs, neither. We need an alternatiff."
   The four of them looked around in silence, until one of them snapped back and grinned. "Don't worry - I got an idea."
   There was no argument. As he rose and hurried away from the wall at a crouch, the others immediately followed, then broke off into the trees until they had looped around to the far side of the village. There, Dag and the others stopped behind their companion, who pointed back towards the river. Then, when the villagers' attention was stolen away by the cry of either a child or a dying cat, they made a dash for the log.
   "Shove it shove it shove it!"
   They did just that. With the stubborn strength of the four of them, the Arkhamas forced the log off from its stand in the very same moment that another cry of alarm rose from much nearer in the village. None of them looked back.
   Grinning and cackling, they chased the rolling tree trunk down the slope that wasn't really steep enough for it to be any fun, kicking and steering it when they were able towards the water some way below. They could hear the crunch of snow and the shouts as the villagers gave chase behind them, but all that did was stretch their grins even wider and tug whoops of enthusiasm from their chests.
   The river rushed ahead of them; they heard it before they saw it, and the moment the unstoppable log crashed into the water, they leapt, straddling the wood and howling in glee while the fastest of the humans stumbled and swore at the splash thrown back across them.
   "It's ff-freezing!" One of the Arkhamas shivered as they rode along the river on their prize, leaving the hollering, fist-shaking, cursing villagers behind them.
   "What, you esspected it to be like landing in a freshly baked pie?"
   "Lady's branches, I'm so hungry..."
   They howled and hooted as they were carried deeper into the wild tangles of the forest, and jeered at the hiss of a disgruntled näcken they passed in the water beside them. The vengeful water sprite sent a wave along behind them, which promptly caught up and threw both them and their log out of the river to land hard on the frozen bank.
   They stayed there, wide-eyed, dripping and still for a long moment in shock, until they burst out laughing. They picked themselves up, shook themselves off, wrung the water from their matted hair, and rolled their log onwards through the trees.

Part, The Second

   Seppy returned from her scouting to pensive faces. The ham was too heavily guarded. It was as if the butcher knew they were coming! Their plan was foiled.
   She and the others looked towards another Arkhamas - Onnie, who they swore had gotten smarter since she'd lost her eye.
   "Unless we pinch a different ham."
   "The butcher has the biggest," Seppy reminded her, shaking a wad of sawdust from her stick-tangled, acorn cap-woven hair. "We want that 'un."
   "Well yeah, but, that's prolly going to the mayor or whatsit, innit. We'll 'ave a better chance if we pinch it from a house."
   "Or two 'ouses," another supplied.
   Seppy's pale lips pursed in thought, then loosened a moment later as a silent agreement passed through the group.
   They turned as one towards the overgrown, snow-padded juniper bushes and followed them at a running crouch, hopping into any and every nook and hole they could find, moving as quiet and adept as delicious little forest mice. No one in the town noticed them, not even as they stopped and snickered, pulling faces behind the backs of oblivious people, nor slipped and froze their feet through a puddle whose ice had been shattered by some other clumsy sod before them.
   The town was big, but not unfamiliar; Arkhamas made frequent incursions into this and others, and knew where all the best food was - information they shared with the rest of them, in part so they wouldn't always have to be the ones to go and get it all themselves.
   Today, though, they followed their noses. Humans had a tendency to break habits on Yule, Midsummer, Evigskurd - most of their special occasions, actually. It made stealing that much harder, but it also presented new opportunities.
   Onnie was the first to stop. It took Seppy two more steps before she noticed the smell on the numb air. Meat. Salt. Alder.
   The four of them made a beeline right towards it, and stopped just across from an inn.
   Yep. Broken habits. Inns never made anything that smelled that good.
   "Distraction," said Seppy; the others were already nodding. They moved around between crates being unloaded from wagons, unnoticed thanks to musicians playing some racket on their noisy wheel-string-things, and slipped through an alley to a window.
   Seppy climbed onto another's shoulders, and Onnie followed beside her. The pair peered through the frost-clouded glass, sharing the image silently with the other two.
   People. Ale barrels. Fire place. Tables and legs. Lots of noise - a general tavern.
   And a kiln blazing in the back.
   Her giant eyes narrowed, and she turned them back towards the town and the forest looming beyond it. There were raghorns close by.
   Then they drifted towards the rot-crates at the other end of the alley.
   Jobs were assigned, all in eager agreement, and the two clambered back down before the others could carry them away in their enthusiasm. While they dashed off, Seppy and Onnie made for the back door of the inn. It was open despite the cold - clearly an invitation to make up for the butcher's tightness!
   They slipped inside, stifling their grins, and darted between the storage in the back, evading the eyes of the scullion boys. From their spot between a sack of onions and another of weird, white carrots, they noted every person, every hand-hold on the wall, every open crate; anyone and anything they could hide behind.
   And, of course, the most direct and the most covert routes to the kiln.
   But they didn't move yet.
   Almost ten minutes passed, in which time several of the onions had made it into the pockets of their stitched hides and furs - though only Onnie had pinched any of the weird, white and not-very-carroty carrots - before the most distant of their troupe announced his position.
   But it wasn't their turn yet. So they continued to wait for a few more minutes until the closer of the four gave his assurance.
   The smell of burning rot - both vegetables and meat that not even the dogs had scavenged - flooded into the tavern like a wave of foetid farts. The pair covered their noses and held their breath even as they giggled, their eyes watering both at the sour sting and the pressure in their cheeks. But it worked: the tavern emptied as quick as if they'd actually...well, released a wave of foetid farts.
   They moved only when the door swung shut behind the last staggering person, and began wrestling the kiln door open. A waft of smoke barrelled out over them, forcing them to breathe and choke while their eyes stung with tears all over again.
   But too much was at stake to give in, and the mouth-watering smell that followed the smoke out was enough to shut out any hesitation.
   The heat, however, was another matter.
   While Seppy backed away, Onnie was already on the move, and returned a moment later with an empty onion sack. Using some long metal sticks nearby, they hooked and tugged the ham out, a chunk of meat almost the size of Seppy herself, and dragged it into the sack.
   They turned and ran immediately, carrying it between the two of them as best they could. It was burning hot in their hands, but they knew they'd be grateful for it outside.
   But they didn't go out just yet.
   Dropping the sack to their feet, they stopped beside the back door even despite the lingering stink, a stink which mixed with the ham to create a confusing but ultimately sickening smell which Seppy felt was even more likely to empty her stomach.
   Fortunately, it didn't take long for the disgruntled voices outside to rise in alarm, and another to begin shrieking and whooping, punctuated by bestial roars.
   That was their cue.
   With their own excitement stifled down to involuntary splutters, they hoisted the ham between them and dashed out into the alley, down its length, and back along the winding route they'd taken in the first place. There was no time to marvel at the raghorn rampaging through the streets, charging at the panicking people, jutting its crescent antlers, swiping its taloned paws while another Arkhamas stood on its back, shouting and swearing and firing his slingshot, which was a shame, because it was always a good show.
   But they had what they needed, and the others would get away - Arkhamas always got away.

   The last sack tumbled out from the window, caught clumsily in short little arms with an 'oof' muffled beneath it, but Erra didn't follow it down. She lingered in the opening, scratching thoughtfully at the lichen on her cheek. When the boy below dropped the bundle of sweetbreads to the ground, he was already grinning. They all were.
   Within moments they'd clambered back in through the window and stood once again in the middle of the looted bakery.
   "Flour," Erra decided, making immediately for the duly labelled sacks against the far wall, "they always go for that first!"
   Another followed her while the others began climbing the shelves, kicking over utensils and taking small bites out of things as though they were oversized rats.
   "What d'they go for next?" The boy asked beside her, then his giant eyes widened further with his grin. "Eggs! Eggs eggs eggs - put the eggs where the flour ought t'be! In sacks!"
   "And crack 'em," she cackled joyously, "then, when they reach in, they'll get gooey fingers!"
   "And put the broom in the butter churn!"
   "I can't see no butter churn," another said from the shelves.
   "There's gotta be one! They use butter, and thass where butter comes from, right? They have--ppbbpbfff!"
   The others coughed and snickered from somewhere in the thick cloud of flour.
   Erra looked down at her hides as the puff settled, mud-coloured a moment ago, now white as bone.
   White as snow.
   Her huge, silver-green eyes brightened, and the others saw the same thing. Another burst of flour filled the air, then another, and another, until all five of them were completely white, and the bakery a delightful mess that someone else would have to clean up.
   They hurried back out, satisfied, and vanished with their plunder, catching not a single eye even as they ran openly beside snow-laden bushes.

Part, The Third

   The gathered Arkhamas spun from the light of the fungus glowing at the mouth of their setts as the rough, moaning voice cut through the dying light of the evening, and stared with wide eyes for the source of the terrible sound.
   "Weeee are the ghoooosts of Yuuuuule," it called.
   "Yer," another followed, far more coarsely, "we're 'ere to 'aunt you 'cause you're all naughty little theefs, every one o' you!"
   Five white Arkhamas stumbled through the trees, heavy with bags, and dumped them down with the rest while their companions laughed and clapped. A few, however, called names, their fright far too obvious in the shake of their voices.
   "Awwh come on," Erra grinned, plonking herself down next to a boy who had already reached for his spear, "put that cutter away, we was only messin'!" She frowned as her gaze dropped to the small box in the hands of another they had all gathered around. "Wassat?"
   "A tindy box," the boy replied, lowering his spear warily. "Onnie brought it back. Can't get it to work, though."
   "Yeah - been shakin' it, talkin' to it, throwin' it at wood," Puck shook his head vigorously, provoking a chirp of irritation from the bird nesting in his hair. "No good."
   "Tried opening it yet?" Onnie asked from her position as look-out in the tree.
   "There's no lid."
   "Push the side."
   "'Ere," Puck looked up towards the one-eyed sentry. "Why didn't you s'gest that before?"
   "You never said you was stuck."
   "...S'pose we didn't, at that."
   "There's just a rock and a chunk of metal in 'ere!"
   "Whack 'em together."
   "Not working."
   "Keep whackin' 'em together."
   After four more clicks, a flurry of sparks flew out in all directions, sending the group diving backwards for cover.
   Onnie nodded to herself in the tree while giddy laughter rippled below.
   Puck managed to find his feet and flap the snow from his clothes, then chuckled his way over to where six others sat at the huge log Dag and his group had rolled in. He drew a huge talon from his pocket as Seppy came over behind him, and joined the others in cutting into the bark.
   Seppy pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes over his shoulder, even as splinters of wood flicked about haphazardly. "Whatcha carving?"
   "Things. Important things."
   Her lips pursed tighter. "Why? What's the point if we're just gonna set it on fire?"
   Puck shrugged and continued cutting the shape of a pie into the wood. "Who knows, hoomans waste a lot of time on useless things."
   "Like complainin'," a girl said from beside him, rolling her huge eyes. "And worryin'. They don't even get any food outta any o' that!"
   "Hoomans are so stupid."
   The Arkhamas' cackles drowned out the screeching of nearby moon hawks. The clatter and yelp of pain behind them quickly shut them all up.
   Erra looked up from her rifling through the sweetbuns sack to frown at the boy clutching his foot on top of a pile of rocks. "What're you doing?"
   "Well we gotta set the twig-circle-sun-wheel on fire, right?" He winced, lifting the stone he'd just dropped on his toe and muttering an insult at it. "Well, if we roll it through the fire, we ain't gotta faff with that tindy box thing again. And it'll go faster if we roll it down a hill. So we're makin' a hill."
   "Yeah, one problem, right," Angk turned from another group and held up an oval of twigs rather than a circle, "this ain't gonna roll nowhere."
   He shuddered with a stifled yelp as another jumped up suddenly from beside him. "Leave it to me."
   They all blinked after her as she ran off into the night.
   Angk carelessly tossed the oval away. "Why d'we have to set fire to a circle anyway?"
   "Hoomans reckon it'll bring the sun back," Puck replied with another cackle.
   "Idiots," Angk grinned, lying back onto the frozen ground in his thickly-furred cloak. "They'd be better off using the twigs for fires and burning it at home. Or, not bothering at all, right, and just waiting for the sun to come back on its own." He waved his hand towards the dimming sky.
   Erra looked back towards them, the note of disbelief in her eyes caught by the fungus light. "They don't still believe that, do they?"
   "Nah, they just like setting fire to things. Any excuse, right. Even in summer! It's too hot for fire, but they still do it! And throw it around!"
   "Oooh I've always wanted to try that!" Onnie declared from her place in the tree.
   "Well it makes more sense to try it now than Midsummer..."

Part, The Thir--no, no wait, Fourth

   The forest had become black. Stars peeked through the bare branches, but they offered little light, and the moon didn't track through the sky as the sun did. But the Arkhamas, dozens of them, stared up at it anyway, waiting, until finally a trill pierced through the night from a short distance away.
   "How does that thing know when it's midnight?" Onnie muttered quietly.
   "Prob'ly hears the worms stop movin' and go to sleep. So..." Puck stepped forwards, rock and steel in his hands, and began striking them above the enormous carven log. It caught light easily enough.
   And died just as quickly.
   He blinked at it, then tried again. The flame was pitiful, but it survived. He stood watching it for a time, waiting for it to spread, and the others peered around quietly from behind him.
   He muttered a curse, then clashed the pieces together again. More sparks fell upon the log and another little flame soon flickered into life, but it sputtered where it was, just like the first.
   Puck turned and looked towards the others. "...Help."
   Four leapt forwards eagerly, fire rocks already in their hands, and began frantically clapping them together, starting countless little blazes until the log and all its carvings were alight, a few others standing to the side and using their cloaks to fan the flames.
   Soon, the rest were whooping and cheering behind them.
   The snow was already receding from the clearing when Puck clambered up onto the pile of rocks beside it. "Sun!" He bellowed, throwing his head back and arms open, silencing them all. "Oh sun! We light this tree so you'll come back to us, in a couple of moons when you usually would, but we're hoomans and are too stupid to compr'end the 'nevitable, and think you'll forget about us if we don't ask!" Then he raised his chin and howled into the night like a wolf, and while the dozens of Arkhamas around the fire howled in their own tradition, he turned and shoved the sunwheel - a huge, stolen wagon wheel - down the rickety slope and into the flames.
   Cheers erupted again, and louder as the wheel loosed a sputter of burning bark, then louder still as it crashed back out of the fire, fully alight, and barrelled through them all. One didn't dive out of the way quick enough, and they laughed as she leapt back to her feet, her furs and twiggy antlers catching quickly, and ran off after it in the direction of the river.
   "She got on fire faster than the logs," Puck cackled.
   He turned back to the others and beamed. "Let's eat!"
   They dug into the pilfered pies and snatched sweetbuns before he'd finished speaking, and he was only a second behind them.
   "Where's the ham?" He asked once he'd stuffed three rolls into his mouth at once.
   Seppy wiped the crumbs from her face and leapt to her feet, grabbed her spear, then turned and dashed towards a large bundle wrapped in two sacks on the ground. "It has to be smoking."
   "Oh, yeah! Smokin' ham."
   She pulled the burlap aside and stabbed her spear into the meat, hoisting it with some effort, and spun around to hold it directly in the fire.
   Puck grinned and dashed off to find something to fan the smoke with, while the rest began roasting things on the smaller fires left in the wheel's path.
   One of them soon rolled out a wooden barrel while Erra clattered behind with wooden cups. The food was abandoned by curiosity alone.
   They sniffed cautiously at their cups of golden liquid and passed each other uncertain glances. Puck raised his above his head and declared a count. They drank as one, and spat as one.
   "It tastes burny," Onnie rasped while the others coughed, wretched and dribbled. "On the dangly bit at the back!"
   "Why do hoomans drink this?!"
   "It's what they have to do," Puck said around his tongue, hanging it out of his mouth and wringing the last of the mead back off of it, "before they can start singin' and hittin' each other."
   "Why do they hit each other?"
   "Prob'ly 'cause they made each other drink this!" Puck turned and tossed his cup on the fire, the flames bursting briefly on contact. The rest of them blinked at it, then the rest of the cups followed.
   Again, the charred Arkhamas's furs caught alight, and she turned and rushed back to the river ahead of a chorus of laughter.

   The snow had melted from the clearing by the end of the hour. The fire was roaring, many Arkhamas had abandoned their thickest layers, especially for the evident fire hazard, and though a handful had eaten so much that they'd been sick, they continued to do so while others braved the mead again. A couple even found a liking for it.
   Erra picked herself up from the floor, wiping her mouth from vomit - neither from mead nor food, but for spinning around with two flaming sticks like a fire whirlwind - and saw the black stains on her hands in the fire light. Her giant eyes narrowed.
   She screamed in fright as Dag leapt up from the ground in front of her.
   "Wassat? Mud?"
   "Ash," she giggled as her heart settled, cleaning her hands off on his clothes. "Hoomans keep it after the log's burnt, I think."
   "They do, I think. Why?"
   "'Cause," she picked up a charred fragment of wood from close to the fire, then dropped it immediately with a clumsy curse, "they dust stuff when they clean their houses."
   "What do they dust?"
   "Shelfs and stuff. Puts some of the healthy dirt back, I think."
   Now Dag's eyes narrowed, and she grinned up at him. "Good idea!"
   The pair sat on the ground and Erra dragged over some more charcoal, hissing and peeping at the heat. Then she bashed them up on the ground in front of her and poked at it tentatively with a finger. Once it was sufficiently blackened, she grinned at him again. "Brace yourself."
   "I am ready."
   Dag fell as still as stone while she drew her finger over his face. Frozen in suppressed pain, he stayed perfectly still as she worked.
   "Guys, look!"
   Dag gritted his teeth while Erra's burning finger remained on his forehead, and turned his eyes in their sockets along everyone else's attention. Onnie threw five burning sticks in the air and started to juggle them. Cheers rose again, and a few threw their remaining mead at her. The sticks popped and flared, but she didn't stop juggling. Nor beaming - even as one stick got away from her when it was clipped by a flying cup and struck the twice-charred Arkhamas, setting her alight again.
   She groaned and ran back to the river.
   "You might be better off staying by the river tonight, Maz!" Angk hiccuped helpfully after her.

Part, The Last

   "'He fell off the box, and down came his socks, and he tumbled head over--'"
   "What's them bobbing lights?" Puck asked, squinting through the fire light to the far side of the forest where six small, orange smudges drifted through the trees.
   But he shook his head and strained his giant eyes even further. "Wrong time o' year..."
   "Wait, wassat? Listen!"
   They all fell silent at Onnie's warning, and discovered a voice slurring through the darkness. "--want fire, we'll give you fire!"
   Panic blazed through the Arkhamas. "Hoomans!"
   All thirty eight scattered from the fire. Several climbed up into trees as easily as squirrels, others dove into their setts, and more still started howling and finding protection behind tree trunks, seizing handfuls of nuts as they went.
   As those who had run to their holes returned with long bone spears, those clambering through the boughs above were advancing on the approaching humans.
   "They got arrows!" One of them shouted back to the rest. "Flippin' flamin' arrows!"
   "They want fire, eh?" Dag, face painted in a ferocious mask of ash, hissed viciously as he danced his huge weapon between his hands. "We'll give 'em fire, too!"
   Puck pulled his slingshot free from his broken pocket and loaded another with his own nuts, a chipped-tooth grin spreading across his own face. "And give it, we will!"
   The Arkhamas in the trees began whooping and bellowing around the humans as they drew back to release their fire arrows, startling them for a ridiculously long moment. It was enough for those with spears on the ground to charge forwards while others threw a volley of javelins from behind, set alight by the Yule fire. But the slingshots were even faster. The humans' bows lowered in surprise while nuts struck their faces, the Arkhamas's aim near perfect even in the darkness.
   Then the speared warband was upon them, stabbing and waving their bone blades around, cutting skin and fabric while the humans stupidly lifted their arms to protect themselves rather than take distance. A few arrows were clumsily loosed in the confusion, grazing tree trunks with hopeless thunks. One slicked past Onnie's ear in the boughs, nicking the top of it off. She bellowed in anger, then a new cry rose from her throat - a roaring, salivating, bleating cry.
   The others continued their onslaught below, pushing the six humans back with jabbing spears, shrill howling and strikes from all sides with iron-hard nuts. Arrows were knocked from bows to fizzle out on the snowy ground, and though the humans resorted in their shock to whatever other weapons they had on them, including a hammer for one fellow, their ideas of attack were broken for good when two raghorn burst in through the trees. Answering Onnie's call, the tawny beasts pounced in on silent paws, their crescent antlers lowered in attack, and it was nothing short of sheer luck that the humans stumbled out of the way in time to avoid being skewered.
   The six of them turned and bolted, two breaking their bows in an attempt to ward off those antlers in the process.
   The Arkhamas cheered and whooped behind them, throwing clumsy curses after their shadows.
   "They stank!" Dag observed once they were safe enough to turn their backs.
   "Like the drink, yeah," Seppy agreed. She popped her lips. "Poor guys. How'd they find us, anyways?"
   Dag scratched at the ties of his twiggy antlers as he and the others wandered back towards their festivities. "Followed us with the log, I reckon. We were chased to the river. Wouldn't've taken much to find us; follow the river and look for fire."
   Seppy nodded to herself, then shrugged. "We'll move off if we have to. But we won tonight. Come on - I wanna sing some more stupid songs! I know one about a bucket!"

   The sky was brightening. It was obvious while the fire died.
   The night had fallen quiet; only a few Arkhamas were still awake, and most of the noise came from their snoring.
   Puck smiled sleepily and handed another scrap of no-longer-smoking ham to the raghorns and ermines that had gathered. Erra pulled open a sack of sweetbuns and let the foxes at it, while birds and snow squirrels worked their way through a bag of nuts.
   Another poured the last of the mead on the dying fire.
   Puck watched it flare and frowned to himself. "Why would they ruin honey?"
   Erra settled down against the log beside him, resting her head on his shoulder. "This was fun."
   "It was. We should do it again next year!"
   She laughed and shook her head. "No. You always say that, and you're always disappointed. It won't be the same."
   "Oh." He slumped, disappointed anyway while his lip hung in a pout. "I guess."
   "Well it never is, is it? Just clutchin' at memories. Why don't we leave it and see what happens when Yule comes next year? I bet you get another great idea."
   He straightened at that. "Yeah. Maybe I will... It's more fun that way, ain't it? Less can go wrong when it ain't planned!"
   "You know what they say about the plans of mice and men."
   "...That hoomans should do things more quietly?"
   Erra grinned. "Ezzacly."
   She raised her chin, and Puck followed. The pair howled like weary wolves, tired, happy and full.
Words and illustration copyright © Kim Wedlock
No part of this is to be reproduced without my permission.