Authors: Annie Bellet
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Horror, #Ghosts, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Epic, #Sword & Sorcery
A Stone’s Throw
A Gryphonpike Chronicles Novella by Annie Bellet
Copyright 2011, Annie Bellet
All rights reserved. Published by Doomed Muse Press.
This story is a work of fiction. All characters, places, and incidents described in this publication are used fictitiously, or are entirely fictional.
No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted, in any form or by any means, except by an authorized retailer, or with written permission of the publisher. Inquiries may be addressed via email to [email protected]
Cover designed by Greg Jensen with art by Tom Edwards.
Electronic edition, 2011
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We all know this tale. There once was a beautiful elven princess who lived in a crystal forest in a hidden kingdom far beyond the common worlds. Her voice was unparalleled among the World-singers and her power brought her all she desired.
Until Wrath and Pride wound their way around her heart, turning songs of beauty and creation into songs of death and violence. For her crimes, she was cast out and cursed to live among the lesser creatures, among the elves and men who had forgotten those who sang into existence the earth they squabbled over. Her voice was stolen; her words taken like ember-waves melt footprints from the glowing sands.
Her banishment and silence will end when she has purged her crime by doing one thousand good deeds. So she joined with a ragtag band of adventurers who call themselves the Gryphonpike Companions.
I am that foolish Singer. These are the chronicles of my path home.
* * *
A Stone’s Throw
The village of Stonebarrow was just barely large enough to have an Adventuring Guild chapterhouse, which turned out to be a simple two-room stone and wood building with bunks and a cooking hearth. We arrived in town in the afternoon, travel-worn and starving. The caretaker for the Guild house here was a quiet and craggy old man who had married the baker. After checking our medallions against the Guild book, he offered up the keys to the chapterhouse, clean blankets for the bunks, and a large platter of hot venison pasties.
After washing the worst of the swamp grit from my hair, I stuffed a third pastie into my mouth and got out my arrow bag. Drake had noted the village had two taverns and wanted to go out, which meant he was, between bites of food, currently trying to convince someone to go with him. Azyrin’s rule was no one went drinking alone in strange towns, especially not Drake.
“Do not look to me,” Rahiel said as she shook a slim steel wand at Drake. “You can find someone else to watch your back while you drool over your human cows.” The pixie-goblin and her mini-unicorn were curled up on one of the upper bunks, a pile of shimmery fabric in her lap.
“Hey, dipwing, who’re you calling a cow?” Makha paused in her shield cleaning and looked up. Whatever oil she was using to scour the metal had an eye-watering chemical smell to it that made me wish I had dull human senses.
“You are not one of his lightskirts, so it does not apply to you. Relax.”
“Come on, Azy. How about it?” Drake stuck his tongue out at Rahiel and then turned to the half-orc.
The shaman shook his head. “I need to check ingredients. Make sure have what we need before we leave town.”
“Good grief. I’m bathed, fed, and ready to talk to someone who ain’t you people. I’m going with or without someone.” Drake ran a hand through his damp black curls.
“Take Killer,” Azyrin said, turning his pale blue eyes on me.
“Killer?” Drake turned to me.
That’s good. Pick on the person who literally can’t say no
. The best I could have managed with my curse would be to just ignore them all but I had learned that this wasn’t always the most effective tactic.
I rubbed the surprisingly soft woolen fabric of the blanket on my bunk and sighed. I had planned to fletch a few arrows and check over my gear, but that could all wait. Drake and a tavern generally equaled trouble. Trouble might be entertaining. I sighed and stood up, picking up my bow, Thorn.
“You’re taking your bow out drinking? Seriously?”
I raised an eyebrow.
Be glad I’m not putting my hauberk back on
“You’re taking your sword,” Makha pointed out.
“All right.” Drake held up his hands in surrender. “Beggars and choosers. I get it.”
The tavern Drake picked was, predictably, The Duelist’s Daughter. We entered the well-lit establishment and I immediately felt nostalgia for the acrid smell of Makha’s cleaning solution. While the tavern was well-lit with oil lamps, its thick, polished wooden floors retained the abuse of a thousand drunken nights that no amount of sawdust and fresh rushes could erase. Spilled and soured beer, the sharp tang of old wine, and the bite of human sweat assailed my nostrils.
The place wasn’t crowded at least. Three women with sun-reddened faces and leather aprons threw a set of bone dice at one of the tables to the side of a large stone hearth. A fire was laid in the hearth, but not lit. Above the hearth was a sword plaque on which rested an empty rapier sheath. The window shutters were thrown open, letting the cool summer evening air do battle with the tavern smells. A handful of tables were laid out in a rough grid, forcing us to weave through them. To the other side of the hearth was a wide wooden bar with a polished copper top, behind which two women leaned and watched us with interest.
“Whoa, an elf!” An older human male, reeking of sheep, got up from a bench and swerved toward us as we headed for the bar. “Don’ see so many elves around the Barrows.”
Likely because we have keen eyes and always see you first
. Not that there were elves in these parts anyway. My distant descendents lived mostly in the Woodland Reach to the northeast or far to the south in the River Kingdoms.
“Leave off, Occo, or I’ll cut you off, eh?” One of the women behind the long wooden bar leaned out and flicked a rag at the old man.
“Didn’t mean nothing,” the man muttered as he staggered back to his table.
“So, handsome, where are you two from?” said the woman who had rescued us from the drunk. She and the other bartender looked similar, with curling brown hair and toothy smiles on round faces more friendly than comely. Sisters, I guessed.
“Adventuring Guild,” Drake said. He slid his guild medallion out of his shirt more for a chance to flash a little chest muscle at the women than out of any real need to prove his statement. “I’m Drake Bannor.”
I perched on a stool and leaned my bow against the bar. I gave him two, maybe three, minutes before he would have free drinks and their life story out of those women. Drake was handsome enough for a human, with smooth brown skin, black curly hair, and heavy-lidded hazel eyes that always crinkled with a knowing smile, as though your secrets were written on your skin in a language only he could read.
That part was an act, of course. Drake had decent people reading skills, I supposed, but he wasn’t magical about it or anything. He was best with women. They melted under his attention like butter forgotten in the sun. He never seemed to care if they were ugly or too skinny, old or young. Not that the ample chests and cheery plumpness of the two barmaids didn’t factor in, of course, but if the sisters had been thin faced and flat-chested, Drake would still have cajoled a drink or six out of them while making them both feel as though they had his special attention.
“We do,” said Myrie, the younger of the sisters. “Our granmama built this place. Her father was an adventurer like you. That’s his old rapier sheath there.” She pointed to the empty scabbard over the hearth. Above it was a sign carved into the wood plaque stating that attempts could be made for one silver bit. I wondered what that was supposed to mean. Curious, I moved to examine the sheath. It was lovely work, the metal appearing to be silver but it had too much luster to it, hints of blue such as the very finest of steel can take on. My eyes widened as I picked out a word among the scrolling designs.
Hidden or secret.
“Brought it back from his travels. Said the words were Elvish. Can you read it?” Myrie asked me, coming around the end of the bar.
“She can’t speak,” Drake said as he followed Myrie over. “Lost her voice dueling a wizard,” he added with a wink when the plump tavernkeep shot him a surprised glance.
I curled my fingers into my palms and swallowed the urge to break Drake’s aquiline nose. This was his latest theory, one in a string of many and none of the others were here to tell him to shut up. Myrie’s great granddad had lied or never known the truth. The writing on the sheath wasn’t Elvish at all, but Dwarven. The Fire-kin never left their strongholds deep beneath the volcanic archipelago known as the Flamespine. Yet here was dwarfwork.
Drake reached past me for the sheath and then hesitated. “May I?” he asked over his shoulder. At Myrie’s nod he took the sheath down and turned it over in his hands with a wistful sigh. “I bet the sword that goes with it is impressive.”
“I don’t know. It was lost in my great grandad’s final duel.”
“What’s the sign all about?” Drake asked.
“Cost you a silver bit to find out, or mayhap something else,” Myrie said, moving up beside him with a coy look on her face.
“Myrie,” clucked her sister. “The rules are the rules. Anyone wanting to attempt the challenge has to pay.”
“Fine,” Myrie muttered. “The challenge is that anyone with a rapier can try to fit his sword into great granddad’s sheath there. If it fits, the sheath is yours.”
“I wouldn’t mind giving it a go,” Drake said, testing the length of the scabbard against his own. “I’m pretty good at fitting my sword into things.” He smiled down at Myrie’s plump face and her cheeks turned red.
I put my head in my hands and sighed. He hadn’t even started drinking yet.
“There some magic here or something?” Drake asked, fishing a silver coin from his belt. He looked at me and made a tiny motion at the door with his head, but I gave him a flat look. I wasn’t going to go get Rahiel just so he could make sure he wasn’t being cheated out of a coin. Of course there was some magic, or any dolt with a rapier of about the right length and thickness could have taken the sheath already.
Not that these women should have been betting the thing anyway. If it truly was dwarfwork, the sheath was priceless or at least exorbitantly expensive to the right buyer, even without the sword. It could have bought them a hundred beer-stained taverns.
Myrie took the coin from his hand with another blush. “Go on then,” she said.
Drake unsheathed his blade with an extra flourish. All eyes were on him now; even the women in the corner had stopped their dice game and turned to look. I picked up Thorn and then backed away until my back was against the smoke-blackened hearthstones. None of the seven or so locals or the two tavern owners looked worried, so I guessed that nothing would explode or anything, but still felt it prudent to keep some distance.
Drake gripped the sheath in his right hand and, with a big dramatic sweep of his arms, sheathed his rapier. Or tried to. The tip stuck in empty air just in front of the scabbard’s mouthpiece as though lodged in an invisible surface. Drake grunted, his eyebrows knitting together, and shifted to put his weight behind his blade.
It didn’t move. He huffed out a breath and dropped his arms in defeat. “What manner of magic is this?”
“Only my great grandad’s sword would ever fit, or so granmama told us. When she built the tavern, she put it up with a bet. Helps pay the Duke’s taxes, so thank you.” Myrie smiled and tucked the silver bit into a pocket in her apron.
“Where’s the sword?” Drake set the scabbard back on its stand with only a small hesitation, rubbing his thumb over the scrollwork.
The women went back to their dice and Occo and his shepherd buddies resumed their low-voiced conversation speculating on the mating habits of elves. I returned to the bar also and set a few copper bits on its surface, hoping that one of the sisters would notice and bring me something to drink.
“She likes wine,” Drake said as he glanced my way.
“Our great granddad was a duelist, a great one, even after he retired from your Guild. He’d meet challengers from all over,” Myrie said, going back around the bar and uncorking a jug of wine for me. “He always dueled up on Widdershin hill, in these old ruins. One summer eve a man came to challenge him. All the way from Dro Bal he was, in the south.”
“Aye. I’ve seen that vast city,” Drake interrupted, struggling to regain his mystique and worldliness. “I’m southern, myself.”
“From how granmama tells it, his skin was darker than yours, black as night it was, and his cloak all crimson. My great granmama didn’t like his look, said he stank of magics, but Rucao, my great granddad, never turned down a challenge. So they met on the hill just before sunset. Rucao handed my granmama his scabbard, you see, it was her job to hold it til he won, even though she was only maybe six or seven years then.”