Bathing Betrayal in Blood

The corpse of his bodyguard stood headless across from him.

The blade materialized into the hand of the carcass, and in one fluid motion it lowered its level and darted toward him.

Robert saw the puppet’s strings now, a slight light in the dark.  The light of the moon gleamed off them as he took a quick breath.

Would it be enough?

Robert pulled his sword back and steeled himself.  The body ran nearly parallel to the ground and its feet moved fast.  Impossibly fast.

Blood spurting from the neck stump, the puppet swung up — then straight forward in a fencing thrust.

Fuck.

Robert had already committed to the upswing, bringing his sword over and down at the wrong angle.

Dropping a foot back in a hard pivot threw out his knee and avoided the thrust of the corpse puppet.  Mostly. The sting in his side was nothing compared to whatever the hell happened to his knee, which screamed at him in agony.

Where is he – 

Another person appeared near him, behind him.

To the right..? 

A blade appeared at his throat, to his dismay.  Then, it fell away.  A limp body collapsed behind him.  Slowly, very slowly he turned to look and saw his son.  Much older than when he last saw him.

“Tristan?”

“I have news, m’ Lord”  He tossed a blade with the flick of his wrist into a bush nearby, and the bush screamed and out slumped the puppeteer.

“… Maybe call a healer first.” Robert grunted.  He stared at the dead puppeteer. an elf with a raven emblazoned on his forehead.  Green eyes staring angrily in death.  A strong glow emanated from Tristan’s hands, snapping tendons and miscellaneous sinew back into place, rippling visibly underneath his skin.  Robert grit his teeth and grunted in agony, to the delight of the darkness around them.  The coppery smell of blood lingered in the air.

Invisible hands rubbed together and ancient lips licked, smacking loudly — but Robert couldn’t hear.

“Thank you.”  Robert when did you learn that?”

“That’s what I wanted to tell you.  The news I mean.”  Tristan grinned just like Robert and more often than Robert.  Normally it irritated Robert.  A laugh came naturally from both.

“I do have other news, sir.” Tristan narrowed his eyes.  Even his curly brown hair looked more serious.

“One half of the Ravens is willing to talk terms.”

They’re willing to talk?  And half?” Robert scoffed.

“They’re not monolithic, sir.  Many groups tire of the fighting and are willing to talk.  Probably half of them want to use this as a ruse to kill some of us.  But the other half of that –”

“So, maybe 1/4 of them is willing to talk?”

“But it is that small group that is important.”

“No…Impossible.”

“It’s exactly who you think it is.  They survived…” He stared intensely and paused, gauging Robert’s response.

“…However”.  Robert exhaled forcefully through his nose in a half laugh.

“However… they want a marriage.  And familial rights to the council.  Seats on the Senate.  Votes.”

Now it was Robert’s turn to pause.

“They seriously are willing to consider this?  What proof do I have?”  Robert rubbed his knee and stood.  A paper rustled, a sealed scroll.  Sealed with a dark wax.  Peace?

The scroll bore the ancient seal of Elven blood.  Something that hasn’t been seen for 30 years.  Describing the terms, concession of all Elven territory in exchange for representation.  A self-defense force for Elves.  Additionally, an illustration was rolled up along with the document.  A skillful hand had drawn a most delicate picture of a rare prize.

An Elven princess.  For Robert’s hand.

“But I am already married.”  Tristan stood silent.

“Father… You know she has been dead for nearly ten years now.”

They stared at each other.  The moon stared too.

“What…?” Robert’s head suddenly hurt very badly and he had to sit down from the sudden wave of nausea.  Memories of her long black hair in his hands flooded his mind amidst the tears.

“We need to get you to a proper healer.”  Tristan whispered to him as he put Robert’s arm around his shoulder.  “Let us leave this grim place.  Rally the Halharken.”  Tristan now spoke loudly to the scouts gathered around him.

They stood unresponsive to Tristan’s command.  Tristan steadied himself under the weight of his father and prepared to shout again.  Omar stepped forward from the troops with a face as sullen as Robert felt.  He held a scroll in his hand.

“Tristan, step away from Robert.” Omar’s voice was barely a whisper.  Tristan scoffed.

“What?  Rally your troop and prepare to move to the capital.  We do not have time for this.”

Robert was feeling steadier, and stood on his own now.  Shoulder to shoulder with his blood.  He leaned to Tristan and spoke softer than Omar.

“Something is wrong.”

“BY ORDER OF THE KING, RULER OF ALL MEN AND ELF AND HALFBREED.  STEP AWAY FROM LORD LOWMAN.” Omar had drawn his weapon and stepped closer, in unison with the stomps of the Halharken closing their half circle upon them.

“Omar, what is this foolishness?”  Robert spoke as he pulled his sword.  He did not want to hurt his friends, but blood is blood.  He helped raise the man standing next to him.  Now they were back to back as the crowd closed in.

Omar stared, the smell of each others’ sweat could be tasted on the air.  “Robert… I… This scroll came just now by royal courier.  The Kingsguard sent their best hawk to bring this.”  Omar tossed a parchment that had been crumpled up in a ball to Robert’s hand.  Robert read it and paled visibly even in the shadows of the trees.  The shadows tingled with delight.

“Tristan… How can this be?  The King says you are a traitor.  You are collaborating with the Elves in a secret plot?”  Robert turned to face Tristan, who stared at him in confusion.

“NO!  I had just come here on the orders of the Court!  This must be a mistake!”  Everyone’s knuckles tightened on their weapons.

“There is no mistake, child.” Omar grimaced and took his stance.  Robert stared in horror as Tristan began muttering ancient words and his sword glowed with a foreign light.

The light certain Elves could imbue in their blades.

Omar and the Halharken dashed forward together, Robert raised his blade to protect his son against their curved sabers.  Tristan exhaled and the world exploded in ancient light.

Then darkness.  Slight steam rising from the ground around them.  Robert and Tristan stood in a small sea of corpses.  Omar’s face continued to grimace up at them from their feet.

Robert fell to the ground and screamed in a mix of rage and sadness.

Tristan still held his blade up.  “Did you hear that, Father?”

Robert just stared at his dead friend in silence.  His heart now a chunk of dead matter.

“We are still not alone… There was a strange scream just now, not the men here.  What wa–” A large burst of blood sprayed from his mouth onto the back of Robert’s head.

So warm

Tristan fell beside him, his body twitching furiously.  Blood spurted from his ears and nose with each heartbeat.  Steam rose from his body writhing in the dirt, and the steam quickly turned into a thick forceful blast as if a great furnace had opened before him.

 

tales of a travelling salesman final

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Heedful Hospitality

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“Elven…?” Robert repeated groggily.  His memory was still fuzzy, and his head burned as if it had been set out to bake in the sun.  Despite the pain in his body he pushed himself into a sitting position and let his eyes adjust to his surroundings.  It was a modest hut.  A once colorful rug covered the dirt floor with intricate patterns, the walls were the dark color of a local wood.  A small fireplace was across the room, with a black kettle bubbling over the flames.  It smelled pretty good, and his stomach rumbled into the quietness.

“Let me get you some food.  This was my Grandmother’s recipe.  So you can guess that it’s an old one.”  She cackled cheerfully like the elderly tend to do.  She turned and hobbled away, a gnarled wooden cane steadying her gait.  Her silver hair was pulled into a bun and Robert could see that her ears were longer and drawn into a pointed tip.  All at once completely alien and somehow familiar.  Robert rubbed his temples, taking the edge off of his throbbing skull.

Robert James Lowman.  My name.  But who… am I? 

“Here you are.” The old woman smiled and handed him the bowl.  Her hands shook way too much, yet only a small bit spilled out.  A thick brown stew steamed before him, carrots and potatoes and beef urged him to feast.  Raising the first spoonful, he smiled as his mouth filled with saliva.  Closing his eyes as he chewed, he gave a small moan as he turned the only-slightly tough meat between his teeth.  The smell filled the air around him, and suddenly he felt emotional.  He was missing someone.  Someone who used to cook like this.

“Linda!” He burst out with a full mouth.  He gulped down the bite and stared ahead, eyes pulled wide.  He knew he was married to a beautiful woman, one he was blessed to even know at all.  Robert remembered some of who he was.  They lived in a manor house far from here.

Nearly the other side of the world.

His heart beat faster in his chest, and he fought to keep the blood from his face.  Robert was lucky these Elves didn’t recognize him, but that’s about as far as his luck stretched.  His legs felt as if millions of needles were slowly prodding into them.  He must have been thrown from his horse.

Why am I so far from the border?  Why did the Crown send me here?

“Linda?  Who is she?  A lucky woman to have such a handsome man worry for her.”  The woman grinned at him with twinkling eyes, thinking of past times when Elves were forever young.  When she still had her husband there to keep her warm during the long winters.

“I am the lucky one, truly.” Robert replied.

I can’t let her know I am from the Capital.

New memories were swirling into existence on the canvas of his mind, painted with an eldritch brush held by the skilled, long-fingered hands of ancient shadows.  They enjoyed using this world.  It was more diverse than the traditional universes they sculpted to lure their captives into false memories.  So many opportunities for chaos, so many shadows that could grow and tangle and twist the minds of corporeal beings to their hateful desires.

So many variables.

 “You’re a sweet man for saying that” The woman continuing to smile. “So I know your wife’s name.  Who are you?”

“My name is R…Roger…” He trailed off and stuffed his face quickly with a heaping spoonful of the delicious stew to buy him time to think.  His name was infamous enough that he knew to hide it from even this frail woman.  And she was so pleasant!  The only Elves he had ever met were on the battlefield as a younger man or in the secret laboratories under the Citadel, unknown to even the nobility of the Imperium.

“Roger Theregin.” He said after swallowing his bite.  He could feel it travelling all the way down into his gut.  As if the potato was wrapped in guilt.  Rubbing his head with one hand, he used the other to place the bowl on the table next to him.  He knew he had to get back to safety.  His mission was a failure, but he gleaned some important facts that he had to get back to the Council.

“Ohhh, a name from your East!  You must be a farmer?”

“…Yes.  My wife and I have a small farm right on the border of the Imperium.”

“We both know the Imperiums’ borders reach much farther than the lines on the map.”  She laughed softly and shook her head.  “Ever since that one day all those years ago, we Elves have always lived in fear.  Mortality such as humans know it truly is a burden to us like we have never borne before.” Robert nodded silently, as he slowly began to swing his pained legs over the side of the bed.  He winced as the woman put her hand softly on his shoulder.

“You should rest.  Forgive the ramblings of an old woman.” Robert rubbed his thighs, urging the stinging away as best as he could.  He must have been here for days.  Feeling weak, he pushed himself up to stand.  He placed his hands on his lower back and stretched.

“I am strong enough to relieve myself from your care.  I wish I had some way to pay your hospitality, you were far too gracious to a stranger you scarcely know.”

“Nonsense” She waved her hand and shook her head with a solemn smile. “You are in an Elven home.  We may be poorer than we were before, but these traditions of hospitality will never die.  Even if we do.”  He nodded with silent respect, and stretched his hand out to take hers, she smiled and gave it freely — almost blushing as he kissed it.

“Truly, thank you” He said with real respect. “I will come back one day to thank you for this kindness.  For now I must leave.”  She grabbed his hand with surprising strength as he tried to release hers.  He was startled, and looked into her eyes.  Hazel, but darker.  He felt a small fear grow within him before she smiled and spoke, reminding him of his own grandmother.

“Not before I pack you a bag of bread to keep you going!”

He laughed as he walked to the door, opening  it.  Looking outside as she prepared his bag.  The land was lush, clouds flew along on the breaths of cool wind.  People – Elves – went about their day, some carrying water to their homes.  Some tending their modest shops.  Mountains watched in the distance.  He listened to the far Eastern birds sing their foreign songs.  Unheard to him, the old woman muttered to herself inside.

“Never before have I felt such smooth hands on a farmer.” She scoffed.  “Roger Theregin?  More like Lord something-or-other.”  Placing the last bit of bread into the bag, she tied it shut with a bit of twine.  She flicked her eyes over to Robert, and seeing his back still turned she began to hold a hand over the bag.  The smallest glow emanated from the tips of her fingers as she whispered words that twisted her tongue around in her mouth, and made the space within the hut darker.  Even a skilled mage like her could not sense the devious pleasure of the shadows.  The fire shrank and sputtered, almost going out as she resolved her incantation.

“Foolish human.  To think that I would believe such a poor lie.  And for him to believe my own!” Her lips pulled back in a toothy smile as she unconsciously ground her teeth.  Even if this spell took time from her own life, it was worth it to help her son’s cause.  The last hundred years left Elves mistrustful of humans.  This ‘Roger’ was certainly an Imperial spy, sent to gather information on her family.  The old woman began to shuffle toward Robert’s turned back, the smile transforming from the conniving grin to a pleasant beaming.  Resisting the urge to take the large knife from her left and cleave it into his spine, she reassured herself with thoughts of her talented son.  So gifted with the arts, and with many friends he had spirited away into different parts of the world.  Even the Capital of the Imperium itself.  Reaching to tap Robert on the shoulder, she thought to herself:

“We are everywhere.”

tales of a travelling salesman final

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Just Beneath the Surface

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A darkness so complete.

He felt cold.  Looking all around, there was nothing to see.  He could not even see his hands or his body below him.  He felt as if he were a solitary eye floating in ink.

A darkness that breathed.

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