Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Murder of Crows

Barely dodging the blade, Coco leaned back, far beyond her equilibrium. Falling backwards, she spun in midair, lifting a leg and slapping out hands to catch herself as Brom's sword flickered out again, barely missing her neck. Pushing off furiously as her boot made contact with the stones, Coco shot away, soaked tail flailing. The tall, thin crow cawed in frustrated rage.

“Damn the slippery bitch!” he rasped, and stalked after her, saber swinging, snipping moments in time from the young feline's life. “Bloody cats always land on their feet. We'll see how well she does with them hacked away at the ankles!”
His claws slipped on the wet cobbles and he staggered, knocking into others with his wide wings. An older horse looked to argue this rudeness until he looked on Brom's face, cold and deathly pale in murderous hate. Shaking his head, the horse brushed his sleeve dismissively and hurried away, ears flat.

Two alleys down the street, Coco fumbled with her belt pouch, cursing the rain. The leather had swollen in the buckle and she couldn't get a purchase. There! The blasted thing came free and she rammed a hand into the bag, hand closing around a cool handle.

“Now, Monsieur! We shall see who dies this evening!” she hissed, drawing back on the hammer of her invention. Immediately an eye-watering glow started as sparks of aether began to gather around the combination of silver and copper. She would have to remember to wear goggles next time she used it. If there was a next time. Ears cocked, she leaned out to peek around the corner, looking for her pursuer.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Hello, I Love You, Won't You Tell Me Your Name

Ajax straightened his cravat for the fourth time in ten minutes in the hall mirror. It was hopelessly wilted, and he shot a quick glance at his father before muttering a brief spell to freshen the limp folds. The crumpled cloth ruffled softly on his chest as it laid itself out neatly.

“Son, relax.” his father’s hand clamped down on his shoulder, making Ajax’s hooves skitter across the parquet as he started. Horatio Nonesuch couldn’t resist a laugh at his son’s nerves. “Son, please. This is merely an introductory visit. A simple tea-What in the name-?” Horatio and Ajax turned at the clatter of a set of hooves from the back of the house, followed by raised voices.

“Maeve! Maeve Aithne Chalcedony!” riding on the cry of her own name, a young unicorn stalked into the front hall. After the briefest curtsy to Horatio, she stepped up to Ajax and laid into him, teeth and tongue.

“I don’t know your name, nor do I care, sir! I shall not be anyone’s broodmare, so I would please that you take such an idea immediately from your thoughts!”

“I, I thought no such thing!” gasped Ajax, completely embarrassed. He could feel his blush rising and hated it, as it made his cheeks nearly glow plum-purple with the blood beneath. Ajax could see his father would be no help, a hand across his mouth to keep him from roaring at his son’s discomfiture. Maeve eyed him up and down as her parents elbowed one another in the hallway to be first to lay into their raging daughter. Horatio stepped between them and the little virago to raise calming hands.

“What say we let the children talk between themselves for a moment.”

“I’m NOT a CHILD!” both Ajax and Maeve protested as featly as though they’d practiced together all afternoon.

“See? Already they share thoughts. Such synchronicity is felicitous.” Horatio chuckled again as he steered the protesting parents back into the parlor. Ajax groaned at his father’s everlasting brass neck and rubbed at the base of his horn before daring to meet Maeve’s eyes.

She stared him down, arms crossed, nostrils wide, eyes unblinking with her anger. Ajax slowly spread his hands.

“I make no claim to know what the females of our kind go through, mademoiselle.” he spoke slowly, picking his careful way through the minefield of Maeve’s temper. “Please know, I am opposed to being cornered into a loveless marriage with nearly the same strength….” Ajax sighed and flung his hands upwards, letting the rest of his plea loose in the aether.

“What does it matter? You’re convinced to hate me no matter my defense.” he bowed, left leg coming forward, hoof curving out as he’d practiced with his father since he was a colt barely able to stand. “I cry pardon for any suffering that this incident has caused you, and hope sincerely that you can regard me with forgiveness for the presumption of our parents.” Ajax turned to leave with another sigh that hovered on a sob. Why the devil-? he thought before a small hand plucked at the back of his jacket.

“Wait.” Maeve was blushing easily as deep as himself, Ajax noted, as he turned back. She curtsied deeply, eyes down. As she rose she finally met his look, and wiped angrily at her betraying tears.

Ajax’s foolish heart leapt in his chest.

“You, you speak so very genuinely.” Maeve’s soft accent charmed him and he couldn’t help his ears lofting to listen to her near-whisper. “I have no right to accuse someone I don’t even know of such things. I am very sorry.”

“You have every right to be in control of your own life.” Ajax stepped closer, enchanted by Maeve’s cloud of coppery gold hair.

“Well that should include control of my emotions, especially over something like this.” Maeve blushed even darker and dropped her eyes again, her voice barely stirring the air. “And I don’t hate you.”

“You don’t?” Ajax could feel his thundering heart fighting for escape from the cage of his chest. Leaning close to Maeve so he wouldn’t miss her reply, he dared to let a finger trace the glow of her blush. “What do you think of me?”

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Wolf That Cried Boy

This is a short story of a character that will show up in The Nonesuch Papers. I tried to include translations in the story for most of the German, but here's the English of the Dire Wolves war chant excerpt:

We go forth singing our determination.
Fear us greatly for we are terror.
But pity us even more for we are the last.
Will you love us if we give you the hearts of your enemies?

Dire Wolves are a bit more direct than their little cousins. A skull for a drinking cup is traditionally considered a lovely courting gift, especially when the male carves the female's name above the brow....

Rolf woke to the smell of his mother's honey cakes, hot and rich. Snuggling down in his thick down comforter, the young wolf nosed his pillow sleepily, thinking of the day ahead of him. A good breakfast of eidechsespeck and honigkuchen, the lizard-bacon from the family's own beasts, the honey from their own hives. This made Rolf feel proud, though nervous about the future. He enjoyed herding die Eidamen, the 'Egg Ladies' as the food-lizards were called in this valley. He had lots of time to think or to sing and the 'damen would feed and chirp and spar throughout the day, their clonking bells echoing over the foothills. They were trained from their hatching to wear the collars and harness that held the egg-creels, and were noisily proud whenever they'd laid a clutch. Rolf only then had to amble over to the squawking hen, congratulate her on her latest triumph and pack the eggs for bringing home.

But if he had to do it for the rest of his life, he might very well go mad. It wasn't that he didn't love his family, but Arilda was older than he and was as much the hearth maiden as her name implied. She and Hieronymus were to be handfasted come Midsummer and they could take over the family farm. And he could go into the wide world and sing. Sing for everyone and anyone instead of just the herd and the town fairs.Casting off his worry with his blankets he leaped out of bed and grabbed yesterday's trousers. Hopping around, he snagged his shirt and rammed his off leg into the britches, barely saving his nose from a painful bump against the wall. Shrugging into his shirt he began spinning in place trying to get the second arm in.

“Rolf! Up with you, bursch!” His mother's high voice carried up the stairs as he tied his boots.

Kommen!” he called back, taking a minute to splash his face and finger comb his shock of hair. His pelt, pale grey from his mother's northern clan shaded to a charcoal black at the ends and he was inordinately proud of his thick ruff of hair and side-chops. Looking in the mirror to straighten the part, he had a moment's regret for last week's drunken haircut as it was shorter in the back and the long bit left in front kept flopping over his blue-white eyes. Mama had offered to try and fix it, but he'd just left it alone and it was starting to grow on him.

He thundered down the stairs, ducking the lintel at the bottom. His growth spurt over the winter had made him tower over even his father, who grumbled at his racket over his coffee. Sweeping his mother into a hug that turned into a waltz, Rolf twirled her over to the table and snatched two 'kuchen off her platter before she could get it on the pale sand-scoured pine.

Komm, son.” Herbst Winteraugen had a humor that rarely woke before noon. He rapped the table with his knife and pointed his giggling son to his seat as he crammed one of the sticky buns in his wide jaws. “Today's not the day for your fooling.”

“Oh, let the cub play.” his mother sniffed as she poured Herbst another cup of coffee. He northern accent always strengthened with her temper. “Wouldst have him sober as thee before he's had a chance zu sein endstück jagen?”

“Norna, he can chase his tail all he likes after he's done his chores.” Herbst shivered as his tail fluffed. “Today's a weird day and I want him paying attention. The old charcoal burner still hasn't turned up.”

Norna tweaked the end of both her son and husband's tails and ruffled their heads before turning back to the stove. “Du hast recht, liebste,” she said absently, looking out the window as she began scrubbing the dough from her largest mixing bowl. “The wind's been biting 'round corners, but it doesn't smell of storm. And old Lazlo probably fell from a cliff, everyone who knew him knew he lived drunk more than sober, poor old fool hare that he was. Is.” she said firmly and scrubbed harder at a clot of dough. “He's probably just off wandering, with spring in his nose.”

“All right, folks, Ich bin fur die hügel.” Rolf bolted the last of his breakfast and made for the door, looking to avoid the folks getting worked up and him winding up on the wrong side of extra chores.

Norna handed him his backpack and claimed a kiss.“Howl, an thou needst anything. Wilt be up at noon with thy lunch.” she watched her enormous son trot across the front yard to the stables, tail wagging as he began to dance and sing.

Seine Stimme bilden den Sonnetanz mit dem Mond.” she murmured as Herbst came to hug her from behind. Leaning down to gently worry her ear with his teeth, he sighed instead and watched as Rolf disappeared into the barn, bellowing a greeting to the herd.

“Hm. The sun will dance with the moon before he settles down to running this farm, worse luck.” He sighed again and Norna flicked her ear against his huffing.

“What 'luck'? You know Arilda is as of the earth as Rolf is flighty. She's nearly as big as thee, and has Hieronymus in the palm of her hand. Rolf is too big for this quiet little valley and you know it. Both in size and in heart.”

Ein Blitz trifft mehr Bäume als Grashalme. I love our boy, I just don't want to see him struck down by the lightning, the bad in this world. He's huge, in his heart and his frame, but so trusting and there's many people as would use him.”

“Oh, I don't think that will be a problem, nor dost thou.” she gave her mate's hand a pat. “His voice is a gift. Sword and armor in one, if he learns to use it.” Herbst growled and let her go, stalking back into the kitchen. “Why art so crossgrained today?” she followed him in, shaking her head.

Rolf, unaware of the hackles raised in the house was checking over the herd. Lifting feet, looking for molted feathers, running his hands over limbs for warmth or signs of pain. Humming two notes over and over calmed the lizards and was one of the vocal cue for them to gather. Finished, Rolf pushed away the lizard with a laugh as she was trying to groom his hair, pulling the strands through her beak-muzzle.

“Enough, Hilma. All right, ladies, form up!” Rolf grabbed his staff from beside the barn door and flung the doors wide. The lizards pranced out, squeaking and bobbing, pecking at the ground and snapping in the air at any bug that caught their wide eyes. Rolf barked and chivvied, prodded and pleaded until the group were on the road to the high fields and he was finally singing the battle march of the Warg Troops of the war against the Ice Wanderers. A group of mercenaries, the last of the Dire Wolves, they were legend in Garmania. Giants of the wolf line, they were horrible to face in battle.

Wir gehen, unsere Ermittlung weiter zu singen.
Fürchten Sie sich, dass wir groß für uns Terror sind
aber bedauern Sie uns sogar für uns sind dauern.
Lieben Sie uns, wenn wir Ihnen die Herzen Ihrer Feinde geben?” Rolf sang loudly, letting the determination and the loneliness of the words ring out. Seeing a cart coming over the rise he broke off to call 'gee' to his herd. Daintily they obeyed as Albrecht Tischler pulled up on his Hammerkopf lizard's head and tipped back his broad rimmed hat. The cat was a fine woodworker, though he was known to be dryly sarcastic. At times people didn't realize he was twitting them and had bent an old carpenter's saying just for him: Listen twice, Laugh once.

Albrecht didn't look to be laughing, though, wiping his eyes on his shirtsleeve.“Verdammt, cub! You're making an old tom weep over something older than my grandpa's granny!” Albrecht resettled his hat, smoothing its long green feather. “Neat how you get them to stand in ranks like that! How come your sire won't let you work the field competitions at the fairs, I wonder?”

“He says I can either sing or herd, but not both. Mama and Arilda can't handle the family booth by themselves all day while Papa is lizard dealing, so I always choose singing.” Rolf shrugged and looked down to kick a boot against his staff. “Wish I could do both though, I do like putting the girls through their paces.”

“Hm. Well, learn how to argue like you sing junges, and he'll come around!” Albrecht slapped the reins against his lizard's broad back and squalled in the unnerving way of all felines. “Verdammt, you rock-headed thing! Get yer head outta that ditch and lets be along! Farmer Grauf will be chewing his fence posts down wondering where we are, the old goat. 'Tag, Rolf!”

Rolf waved and led his charges to the High Fields gate, shooing them through. The lizards stepped along readily, smelling the fresh grass. When the last tail wagged through the gate, he secured it and hiked up behind them, humming the rest of the march.

The rest of the morning came on hot for spring, and soon Rolf was perched on a boulder in the shade, shirt tucked into the back of his britches, threaded through the suspender strap. He chewed absently at a blade of grass and wonder idly what Mama would bring for lunch. He'd smelled the peaches covered in a bowl on the counter, and licked his chops in the hopes of cobbler, still hot from the oven.

Agitated squawks brought him back to earth in surprise.Hilma was shoving again! She was the queen of her clutch and never let any of the others forget it, the bossy thing. It seemed that she was trying to keep the others from going higher in the field near the forest's edge. Nudging and flaring her ear flaps, the young queen reared up and keened.

“Hilma, what is your grex? Everyone is so-” a shriek made Rolf spin to peer into the dark edge of the forest. “No.” he whimpered, tail drooping, ear back. “NO!”

Two huge lizards, mottled dark green on top, cream colored with rusty brown blotches below. Half again the size of the Egg Ladies, they burst from the cover of the trees and rushed the herd. Shrieks from both of them displayed the jagged fangs of their namesake: Blitzreißzähne, the Lightning Fangs. Enormous sickle claws on their hind feet chopped swathes of grass from their murdering path, and the Egg Ladies milled in terror.

Blitzreißzähne! RUN!” Rolf bellowed, snatching up his staff. Baying the call that meant “Stables, danger” to the lizards, the young wolf ran for all he was worth between the predators and his herd. “NO!” he roared, raising his staff, tail bent in aggression, arms wide. Inhaling deep as the larger Blitzreißzähne closed on him, Rolf howled the call 'To Arms', letting it pour from the very roots of his heart. He'd been at this clutch's hatching and he'd not lose them!

With no further time to think, Rolf dodged the living razored hell of the beast's jaws. Hot rot-stinking breath spattered him with sticky drool as he tripped and rolled, catching a glimpse of Hilma guarding the retreat of her sisters. She reared up and spun suddenly, bringing her tail around in a sharp crack against the larger Blitzreißzähne's snout. The end of her tail must have caught its eye, for it screamed and staggered.

The smaller one menacing him turned, distracted and Rolf kicked out, hard. His boot swung up into the broad keel of the monster's chest, with the strength of his whole body behind it. Lurching, the beast coughed in rage as Rolf scrambled away and spun to drive his staff into the snout. The oaken stick skidded up the pebbled skin and bounced away from the eyesocket, springing from his numbed hands to pinwheel into the long grass.The beast wailed in impatient hunger and reared back to gut him with its horrible back claws. Rolf stepped back and yelled his terror and anger at this hopeless moment, knowing he would die alone in agony.

“STOP! STOP, DAMN YOU!”And the Blitzreißzähne paused in its killing kick and toppled over, unbalanced. He turned to spare a glance to Hilma and the fallen lizard's flailing tail tip caught him across the nose, sending him reeling. Both Hilma and the other killer had frozen, heads turned to look at him.

As he landed hard, wind beaten from him, he could hear his father's belling cry and the shouts of others.“I'm sorry, Papa.” he murmured thickly into the grass, tasting blood as he blacked out. “I tried.”

“It's all right, child.” his father said softly, hand steadily stroking his shaggy forelock from his face. “You did a grand thing.”“WHAT?” His bedroom ceiling spun overhead. Rolf sat up and regretted it instantly. His face hurt with a hot, bone-deep ache that wrapped his whole head in pulsing nausea. “Oh, no.”

Herbst held up a bowl and turned his face.After Rolf finished dry heaving he thought he would faint from the pain, but hung on. His father eased him back onto the mass of pillows and carefully let Rolf sip from a steaming cup of hot plum mead.

Rolf could taste the bitterness of willow bark underneath the sticky sweetness and sighed as he lay back and looked at Herbst.“Hilma?” he asked, reaching up to test the bandage across his nose. Herbst let out a crack of laughter before shaking his head and finishing up the doctored mead himself. Flapping his tongue comically at the willow bark, he snorted and slapped his son on the arm.

“Do you know, other than a neat gash on her shoulder that silly brave bitch is just fine?!” Herbst shook his head. “The rest of those dumb Ladies came flapping and screaming into the yard just as we heard you over the bend. The whole dozen of them are fine and eating their fool heads off in the stable.”

“I see we'll be feeding thee yet, too.” Norna swept into his bedroom with a bowl of soup that smelled heavenly. She handed Herbst the bowl and hugged Rolf hard.

“Mama, ow!” Rolf protested. She eased him back onto the pillows and shook her fists at him, her long white mane wild and hackled over her shoulders.

“Don't 'Mama' me!” she raged. “Next time thoust'd see a Blitzreißzähne, thou RUN!” she burst into sobs as Herbst stood and gathered her to him.

Kush, liebste,” Herbste soothed. “the boy was so brave today.” Rolf claimed the bowl of soup and sighed happily as hunger overtook the nausea. Roof-lizard broth with peppered bread in it was his favorite comfort food. He spooned and watched warily as Herbst hustled his mother out of the room.

“Go tell everyone we've still got a son, though he'll be ugly for a while.” Herbst turned to his only boy, broad feet poking from under the covers. “And we need to talk, lad.”

“I promise I'll just run next time! It's just, they're my herd, I mean-” he stopped at his father's raised hand.

“I'm not mad at you son, never that. I couldn't be prouder if you'd killed both of those vicious things. Me and the neighbor males did for them, believe me. But I'm scared.”

“Do you think they were part of a bigger pack-”

“NO!” Herbst barked, and Rolf's ears laid back in confused hurt. Herbst patted the air in conciliation. “Just hear me. You called. And we came. All of us that could hear you came, and armed. And when you yelled 'stop' we all did. Stopped dead in the road, a few even fell over.” Herbst sighed and rubbed his work-leathered hands together.

“You have the Voice, son. The Dire Wolves run in our ancestors' tracks” Rolf licked the spoon thoughtfully. Herbst cocked his head as he watched tears start soaking the bandages. “Son?”

“So people only like my singing because of this magic voice? I don't want that! I want people to like my singing because it's from me, that it's from my heart and my enjoyment! I don't want people scared of me!” Rolf whispered brokenly, before covering his face.

“Son, son! They do like you.” Herbst gently shook him by the shoulder to make him look up. “No one in this village knows about this.” here he looked grim. “Though some suspect, damn that two-tongued Tischler for telling everyone that would hold still about you and the Ladies this morning! See if I buy so much as kindling from him ever again.” he sighed deeply and leaned back in his chair, crossing his thick arms over his barrel chest. “But there's nothing for it. People talk and some would rather hate and fear than understand and accept. You have a great gift and it needs training. Keeping you here, that gift would wither at the least. If you resented us for keeping you on the farm, who knows?” Herbst was crying now.

“I would never-” gasped Rolf, dizzy from emotion. Norna bustled into the room with another cup of mead and snarled in frustration as she slapped the brew onto the nightstand, soaking the doily.

“Men! Worse than jilted girls for crying, the lot of you!” she plumped down on the edge of the bed and clapped her hands. “Enough! We will figure this out.” she pointed at her shocked husband.“You, go and check on the ladies. You,” she aimed her sharp little claw at her son. “You need rest. And I,” she stood and used her apron to pick up the doily and hand Rolf the remains of the heated wine. “Will get on the aether glass and make some discreet calls back home. And start crocheting another doily.”

She paused to kiss Herbst on the cheek and winked at her stunned son as she flounced out of the room once again.“Didst know, some of those Dire Wolves stayed in the North after the Ice War? The females of my clan do so love a male with a sweet Voice.”

Friday, October 9, 2009

Testing, Testing 1-2-3

Sun's Warmth gathered his robes neatly as he sat before his aetherglass. Shaking back wide olive and moss colored sleeves, he took a moment to scratch at the base of his horns.

"Now. Let's see if I can't get this familiarized to me." he leaned forward to spread long fingers over the tilted glass. The size of a serving platter, encased in copper for better reception, it lay inert and black. The dragon's claws sounded soft clicks as they made contact with the dark glass.

Ripples spread from the contact points, as the copper frame started a humming like sleepy bees. The glass began to lighten and reveal a face. A hedgehog, with ribbons, beads and feathers bedecking her headspikes swam into view, her fingers barely visible around the rim of the glass.

"Atlantis Aetherweb Center-Oh!" She gasped as she recognized the face of the current Archancellor of Chaos College. "Lord Sun's Warmth! How may I direct your aethercall today?"

"Acacia Burdock, isn't it?" The hedgehog lass blushed and nodded readily. Sun's Warmth smiled at her, remembering. "You always had good questions in class, miss. I'm proud to see you helping with our communications. Never let anyone tell you it's an easy job. Every part helps the whole." chuckling at her renewed blushing, he clicked a long thumb against the glass.

"If I could have you post a transdimensional link, please. I need to transfer information to a dear friend of mine, a Miss Sandra Gordon."

"Of course, sir. Please hold while I connect you." Acacia closed her eyes and took a breath. Slowly the ribbons and feathers in her prickles began to stand on end. Sun's Warmth chewed his lip, as to not laugh at the sight and break her concentration. When she opened her eyes, her pupils were huge, her face calm.

"The line is open. Please don't hesitate to ask for further assistance, and enjoy the rest of your day." Acacia smiled warmly and raised her hands from the glass. Her face was replaced by two rectangular pictures, the top aswarm with words and pictures, the bottom frame with letters, numbers and punctuation marks set in an odd layout.

Nodding with satisfaction Sun's Warmth began to type, talons scratching slowly over the unfamiliar configuration.

"Dear Sandy;

I hope this missive finds you well. The weather continues fine. Atlantis currently holds steady over Albion and has since yesterday noon. I am doing well, as is everyone else here. Please find files attatched detailing their adventures...."