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Books by Quantum Muse contributors and friends.
Assisted

by
Harris Tobias
Alien Fruit

by
Harris Tobias
Louisville's Silent Guardians

by
Michele Dutcher
THE MUTED SHOUT OF THE GRAY TOWER

by
James Gardner

The Quack

by

Ross Kitson



They say that all the best stories begin in taverns, whether with a gang of dwarves about to embark on a hunt for some dragon’s loot or a powerful wizard disguised as a pedlar. Well this tale of mine, which was remarkably dwarf and wizard free, began in a theatre. I’d taken to loitering in the dilapidated stalls of the Regency Theatre earlier that summer. The Regency was off the old main drag, down a side road littered with dreamers and drunks. I can remember the twist in my gut the day I found it, clattering down the fractured cobbles with three rather pissed off grocers after me. I swear it called to me, a rich orator’s voice echoing in my head.

I curled up in the foyer, panting like a dog in the sun, whilst my three pursuers thundered past, faces as red as their tomatoes. When I was certain they’d gone I naturally elected to have a good nose around.

It was love at first sight. You see, I could see past the mouldy plaster, the rubble strewn seats and the rotted drapes. To me it was like finding an old tramp who turned out to be a fantastic storyman. The boards of the place were soaked with fables.

So on this blazing day in Sunstide I was reclining in my favourite spot--stage left--watching Varsali enunciating the third act of Deradov’s epic. He was astonishingly sober for the hour; either that or the heat had made me so dopey that I couldn’t notice. I could see the sweat pooling in his pits as he bellowed like an impaled walrus.

“Forsake thy valiant proclamation lest I be coerced into striking thine fetid visage thrice times more and...ach, it’s no good...no bloody good,” he cried.

I sprang up and took him a mug of tepid water. “It’s a steamer today, Varsali, why don’t you give yourself a break and I’ll come watch you tomorrow?”

Versali glugged down the water and shook his head. “You are a good lad, Coldin, though not saintly enough to be engaged in work of productive value for your father. Nay, lad, ‘tis neither the heat nor the intricate sonnets of Deradov that irks me this day.”

I wondered perhaps if some of the Cloisters’ lads had been pushing him around whilst he was slaughtered on the spirits again--he certainly seemed troubled.
“A pain of exquisite precision lancinates like a critic’s tongue into my left man-breast. I am certain it portents an imminent end to my artistic persuasion.”

I couldn’t avoid a grin at this. Last week Versali had been convinced he had a tapeworm of such proportion that he could utilise it as bunting for the impending royal wedding. To my mind it would have to have been the most inadequate worm ever hatched to allow his gut to continue to achieve such awesome girth.

“Shall I slip down to the apothecary then?” I asked.

Versali tottered to a ripped seat, his jowls rippling as he slumped in exhaustion. He dug deep in the folds of his robe and produced a silver guilder, wet with the sweat from his corpulent flesh.

“Swiftly, lest you return to find me deceased and home to a cavorting party of blow flies.”

I dried the coin on my tunic and scampered off into the summer’s glare.

#

They used to call Kokis the Shining City on account of some king a thousand years ago that capped all the fine buildings with bronze and copper. Versali says you can’t have shine without shade and I suppose it’s true--darkness can’t exist if there’s no light. Well where I lived in Kokis was definitely the shade. Next time you stride down the broad avenues, admiring the soaring architecture and soaking up the colourful thespians that mill on each corner, take a second to peer through the cracks. Those buildings, those strutting peacocks that preen before you, are like a set on the stage. And behind the scenes is where the poor and the downtrodden live.

I’d be fibbing to say I was majorly hard up. My old dad is a milliner--a hat maker--and a good one at that. Trouble is that every bugger wants to wear wigs now so we’ve hit hard times. We’re definitely back-stage now. My three elder brothers are learning the trade, though any occupation that sends you gibbering into your porridge by your fifth decade hardly appeals. My younger sister kind of fills the gap that mum left when she died. As for me--well I was branching out that summer, searching for my calling.

I crossed over the Sighing Bridge and then nipped through the Apostle’s Garden and down to the Cloisters. Some of the upper town girls were out, fanning themselves in the heat, and I winked at a few, mainly to see who gave me the look of most disgust. Bloody clothes horses they are, not honest girls like the Riverside Tarts.

The lanes of the Cloisters were dense with folk and the traders were out in force. I was doing fine until I saw the braziers. A spherical Pyrian merchant was demonstrating how impressively they burnt and one flared five feet away from me.

I’ll be honest--I totally lost it. All I could see was searing fire, its golden fingers of death grasping for my eternal soul. Smoke was constricting my air pipe like a hangman’s noose and my ears were ringing to screams--my mother’s screams.

When I stopped running I was three lanes short of the apothecary. Sweat ran in torrents down me. Then I heard him. His voice carried like pollen on the breeze, swirling around me, tempting me in with its honeyed timbre.

“And you, madam, crippled as you are with the dropsy, ankles as bloated as the Duke’s purse, what in the Gods’ names can be done for you? No... no... sob not, madam, for the cure of all ailments water-related is within your grasp.”

I joined a flow of grubby street-folk, drawn towards his patter like bees to the summer bloom. He was parading before a small wagon, its colours bright and gaudy, his moustache and beard greased to points so sharp I could have hung my cap on them. His attire was superficially resplendent in the shine of the sun but on closer viewing I could see it to be as cheap and tarnished as the curtains at the Regency.

A woman waddled before him, her swollen limbs straining her clothes beyond endurance. She punched her gaunt husband until he begrudgingly parted with a silver coin and she took a small vial from the moustached man.

Versali’s coin sprang to my hand by its own volition. “What about gripes and pain within the chest, sir?”

He smoothed his moustache and then shot me a dazzling smile--he had the finest teeth I’d seen in this neighbourhood. “Grype, rheumatism, catarrh, tormina and podagra--all bow in deference to the miraculous formulation of Deradin’s Tincture, a remedy so effective that already the Guild of Healers seeks its censorship, lest their choking hold on the market be relieved.”

I couldn’t help but grin back. “Well, that’s perfect,” I said. “Surely that would be too much for an urchin like me to procure?”

“That may be true were it not for my angelic countenance and the fact we have a sale on. To you... two silver.”

I evidently looked forlorn as he swiftly said, “Alright, lad, you can have it for one. I am not called generous Deradin for nought.”

I slid the milky vial in my pocket. Deradin smelled of fragrant soap, a refreshing change to the hum of stale spirits that floated around Versali. The punters were ambling away as Deradin began busily tidying his bottles into his covered wagon. His horse was munching on some straw from a trough at the street edge.

He glanced at me. “You still here, boy?”

“Clearly,” I replied, with a trace of cheek. “Is this the best stuff you’ve got for consumption?”

“The best within your means. You’re a curious one, aren’t you? You spying for the Guild?”

I laughed at this, mainly because it was a good idea. “Nah, they couldn’t afford me. D’you need a hand or anything? I’m told I can charm the purse from a pauper.”

To my credit Deradin hesitated before chortling. I took that as a ‘no’.

“Piss off, kid,” a gravelly voice said in my ear.

Either side of me were two men that could best be described as mountains. Both had bald heads and tattooed necks that denoted them as cronies of one of the thief-lords. I slipped back to the fringes of the throng that milled up and down the street but not so far that I couldn’t ear wig.

“Amazed you had the balls to come back to the Cloisters, Deradin,” one said. He had a scar running from chin to scalp, like he’d been sewn together from two halves of a thug.

“I-I’m certain that debt was paid, Gaarn. Not that I’m calling Mr Escar a liar or any such thing.”

“Too bloody right,” Gaarn said. “Well he said he’d settle for your nuts, your tongue or both. Any preference?”

I could see the sun glinting off a blade as it slid from the second gangster’s sleeve. I had no doubt Deradin was screwed--which was clearly not my problem save that I wanted his cure for consumption.

The gangster moved to stick Deradin at the same instant that I hurled the contents of the bottle from my pocket. It splashed straight in his lumpy face and hissed as it hit his eyes. He screamed and slashed his knife blindly, much to the distress of Gaarn who caught the edge across his arm. Blood arced in a crimson fan as Gaarn staggered back, tripping over a cage of chickens.

I ran full tilt past the flailing gangster, dodging the slashing blade and leapt onto the wagon. Deradin looked stupefied until I screamed at him. He promptly clambered beside me, as the wagon began bouncing down the street.

“Perhaps I should have mentioned to avoid contact with the eyes,” Deradin said to me, his moustache quivering with fear.

#

My sister’s breath rattled in her cadaverous chest like a beggar’s bowl. I was almost scared to hold her bony little hand; the skin was like a dried autumn leaf.


I could hear Dad and Deradin deep in hissing conversation in the shop. Another sound was tickling my ears, like the sound of long grass in the breeze. With a start I realised it was my sister.

“I seen her.”

“Seen who, Anase? Who’ve you seen?” I asked, not really wanting to hear the answer.

“Mother.”

My insides were like snow in spite of the wet heat of the room.

“She said you’ve got a tough path to tread but remember your loyalties.”

I looked at the gaunt face of my sister. Her eyes were protruding like two big eggs; her lips were as blue as a berry.

“Don’t fret about Mum, she’s in a better place. Get some rest, I’ve brought a man who’ll help,” I said to her, trying to tease a smile.

“My finest elixir may resolve the consumption, certainly, but it is the proximity of this...hovel to the river that is the problem. She requires clean air.”

Dad was rubbing his neck raw, one of his nervous habits. “I know...I know...but we can’t move. We lost the last place to the fire. Anase’s chest has been brittle from the smoke ever since. What price is your elixir?”

“It is ten gold, on account of the scarcity of the ingredients.”

My heart plummeted like a rock thrown from a bridge. Dad didn’t have that kind of coin. I gave Anase’s hand a gentle squeeze and entered the shop. “Dad, before you send him on his way, I’ve an idea,” I said. I pulled on one of Dad’s travelling hats--it was a perfect fit. “I’ll go with Deradin. Help him. Work off the debt for as long as it takes to pay back ten gold.”

My brothers burst out laughing at this but Dad wasn’t amused. “Don’t be bloody stupid, Col.”

Deradin was twiddling his moustache in thought, his dark eyes regarding me as if it were the first time he’d seen me. “One favour deserves another,” Deradin said. “I’ll fetch the elixir.”

#

If the punters in Kokis were game for Deradin’s remedies then the country folk were positively gagging for them.

Summer had slid into autumn, the nights drawing in around us like a traveller’s cloak. Twilight seemed to be our best time for business, catching the pickers as they stumbled back from the golden fields. After three months together we had evolved a grand patter; Varsali would have exploded with pride at my acting.


Deradin had explained to me from the outset that most of the time folk are too dumb to know what’s good for them. They get shafted by the Guild and the apothecaries who demand the skin off your back for tinctures and tonics that hardly ever work. Deradin’s stuff was top notch but we needed to convince the punters of that. So that kind of meant it was fine to be liberal with the truth. It was just like acting really.

In the space of three months I had miraculously recovered from imbecility, chin cough, bull neck, scrofula, St Merek’s jig and water on the brain. My personal favourite was falling sickness, which I had down to a tee. I took to chewing animal fat beforehand so I could get a really good froth going. Deradin would push past the crowd and then give me a sip of his tonic, to immediate effect.

At night we’d sit and talk about Deradin’s travels. He had more tales than hairs on his head. For my part I’d act out the scenes I could remember Versali performing and Deradin would always laugh at the right bit.

One night we were walking up by the common in this village called Arnsbridge. I’d had niggles in my mind all week.

“How long will it take to work out ten gold coins, Deradin?”

He looked at me all funny, almost disappointed. “Not long now. I thought you were relishing the countryside.”

“I am, I am,” I said. “I just want to get back and see my sister. She should be better by now.”

“Yes...yes she should,” he said, voice a bit thick.

“It’s just, well, I worry that I’m being a bit dishonest,” I said. The four moons were all out tonight and they lit his dapper features in a kaleidoscope of colour.


“We are no less honest than actors in a play, my lad. All of life is a charade--we all tread the boards in our own way. It’s like I told you--folk don’t always know what they need.”

I nodded silently, but those niggles were still at the back of my brain, back where I couldn’t itch them. “And your tonics work, don’t they?” I asked.

Deradin looked so offended that I almost wept. His moustache quivered like a rabbit in a trap.

The villagers chose that moment to light up a bonfire on the common. It fair whooshed into the air; I reckon they’d put a fir tree atop it. I felt the fear strike me like a hurricane. My head burst with phantasms of charring flesh and shrill screams of abject terror. The billowing smoke was like a huge amorphous monster rushing towards me.

I could feel the cool autumn air on my wet face as I hurtled across the village. I sought the welcome succour of the dark cold corners, the recesses where the searing claws of the inferno could not find me. I never even saw the carriage.

The next thing I was aware of was the speckled curtain of the night sky. My back was wet and cold with mud and my leg was a molten rod of pain. A firm hand was behind my head. It was Deradin and he was swearing under his breath. I could see my leg, though it didn’t feel as if it were part of me anymore. The bone was jutting out, like a giant yellow tooth, from a red rose of bloody flesh.

“Let me look,” a young woman’s voice said. I strained to see her and caught a surprising glimpse of a dark red shawl and a shock of white hair.

She crouched over me, the scent of wild flowers rolling like a sea mist from her. She uncorked a bottle and then produced a long silver pin from her hair. The pin jabbed into her pale digit and she squeezed blood into the bottle, shook it and then poured the purple contents on my leg.

I’m ashamed to say I screamed and must have passed out because when I opened my eyes the scene around me had changed. My leg itched like I’d been rolling in poison ivy all afternoon.

Deradin was stood staring down the road, smoothing his moustache. He saw I had come to and hoisted me to my feet.

“My leg...” I began.

“Is a testament to a miracle, my lad.”

I had an uneasy feeling in my belly. “Deradin?” I asked. “What are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking that I need to expand the stock.”

The uneasy feeling had just got stronger.

#

I had to linger until the four moons hid like bashful maidens behind the clouds before I crept into the old lady’s cottage. My nose had been teased for hours by the wild foliage of her small garden. Even in the still of the ebony night they were pungent and rich and I did worry that if I ever returned to the Cloisters smelling like a posy I would get such a kicking from the lads I’d never walk again.

In truth, though, I shouldn’t even have been walking. My shattered limb was a paradox, a mystery and the solution was in a bottle within the silent cottage.


The door was ajar as I scuttled up the wonky path. There was a faint radiance from the interior and a quick glance through the crack told me it was the embers of the fire casting its dying glow.

I could sense the anxiety within my breast once more but I battered it down. There was no fire in here, only its memory in the hearth.

The door was mercifully silent as I slipped past into the kitchen. The woman slept face down on a vast oak table, surrounded by remnants of her day: dirty plates, chipped goblets, food-caked knives, fruit beginning to turn. I could smell the fumes of Verdali and my eyes sought out the uncorked demi-john. The old woman snored as I crept past her. A bundle of dresses were tossed on a chair. They were all bright and skimpy--not the sort of attire a crone such as this should wear, I thought.

Then I spotted the purple bottles. There were four of them--full of the thick liquid that only hours before had been poured over my crippling wound.
Have you ever tried to shift four bottles into a bag without making a sound? One word--don’t. I was certain as I breathlessly eased them from the table that they made enough clamour to wake a corpse who had expired with both ears severed.

The old lady snuffled like a hungry badger and I froze, acutely aware of the fullness of my bladder. Her snores resumed with the resonance of a mating warthog. I measured my steps out precisely and softly as I traversed the cottage towards the door. Upon achieving the welcome threshold to escape I chanced a glance back.

The old lady was watching me.

My blood congealed to the consistency of a black pudding in my veins. Was she going to start screaming 'thief'?

“Take it, boy--if you desire it.”

I nodded moronically. Then my tongue magically re-learnt its motion. “The dresses--whose are they?”

“Mine.”

A cold dreadful sensation was circulating through my body. Some invisible force dragged me towards her and I stood dumbly looking into her watery eyes. They were wells of deepest sorrow.

“The potion--why don’t you imbibe it...to restore your youth?” I asked.

She chuckled dryly. “As blood will heal, only the tears of a child may take away the burden of the years--and I have none to cry for me.”

I reached into my bag and began to place the potions on the cluttered table. She held up her wizened hand to stop me.

"I must say you have a strange way of expressing your gratitude for my earlier kindness," she said.

A new sickness was in my gut now and it took several seconds to recognise its peculiar flavour--it was shame.

"As I said, take them. But be aware, everything in this life comes at a cost...a price that must be settled," the old lady said. Yet as the words came out they were different, the pitch lighter and terrifyingly familiar.

It was my mother's voice.

I stumbled back, tears worming down my cheek, apologies stuttering from my lips. I felt the cool air of the garden on the back of my neck as I tripped back through the door and, shuddering, I turned and ran for my life. Upon reaching the gate I chanced a look back and saw the old lady hunched over the table, delicately scraping a spoon from where my tears had landed.

She was welcome to them.

#

I’d never seen frost in all its beauty whilst I grew up in Kokis. There was something about the golden city that repulsed the pure white of winter’s caress; at best we managed a wet slushy shower, like the sky had grown irritated of Kokis’s aspirations and now spat its contempt down on the cobbled lanes.

My woollen cloak was double lined and of excellent quality and it battered away the frigid nip of early winter admirably. I sat outside Deradin’s pavilion marvelling at the sun glittering off the silver strands of a spider’s web. A large carriage was approaching down the white dusted road flanked by four soldiers, chainmail shining.

I let out a shrill whistle and Deradin emerged, stretching like a lion that had munched all morning on a rather plump antelope. Deradin was a picture to behold: his doublet was deepest purple with cloth of gold trim, his buckles were shimmering silver and his cloak hung nonchalantly over one shoulder. He had more rings than the oldest oak in the forest.

“Look sharp, Col, big pay up coming along.”

I shrugged sullenly but stood none-the-less. The low winter sun lit Deradin’s creased face and it was then I noticed the streaks of silver in his hair and beard.


“Deradin, your beard it’s...”

“Hush, Col. I just forgot the dye this morning.”

My quizzical look was lost as the carriage came to a halt and a sombre looking man emerged. His eyes had the bored slope of the nobility. “I brought my boy. Know now that if what you claim is fantasy...”

“Cast aside your doubt, Sir Herfen. One does not acquire attire as resplendent as this with mere quackery.”

Two soldiers gently lifted a young lad from the carriage. He was about my age but had the colour of poor quality clay. His breath squeaked from his azure lips like an old bedstead on a wedding night.

“The scrofula has coalesced into a mass that throttles him from within,” Herfen said. “We have tried cupping, leaches, poultices, bleeding and tonics to no avail. The Guild suggested beseeching the King...”

“Let us not trouble his majesty. Lay him flat.”

The boy’s stridor worsened as he came supine but Deradin was looking very assured. He slid a bottle from his cloak, uncorked the top and rested it on the ground. He slipped out his stiletto and ran it down his wrist. The trickle of blood sent a little cloud of fumes from the bottle. Deradin raised it to the boy’s lips and poured it slowly into his dusky mouth. It came as no surprise to see the boy cough his lungs out, a process which turned him a sinister hue of purple.


I heard the soldiers mutter a prayer as the swelling reduced before our eyes. For my part I was watching Deradin as the grey in his hair spread, like the frost had risen from the chill turf beneath our boots.

The toff was all tears and praise and dumped his own body weight in gold in our pavilion. His son was hoisted into the carriage and as they made to go he turned and said, “I heard tell that the Duke’s daughter is sick with consumption. The rewards will be beyond your wildest dreams--I shall tell him of your worth.”

Deradin skipped like a whore on payday--which given my opinion of him at that instant was apt.

“The potion is cursed, Deradin,” I said, following him into the pavilion. “You’ll be the richest corpse in Thetoria at this rate.”

“Don’t be churlish, my lad,” he chuckled. “The Duke’ daughter... consumption... oh, perfect, perfect. This potion is a golden egg for us.”

“Deradin, just listen to me. The old lady...she was once young. I mean...well, why don’t you just use your best tonic instead?”

“My tonic? What are you blithering about? Why would I use that crap on her when I can cure her and be rich?”

His statement lingered in the air like pipe-weed smoke. My insides were twisting and churning.

“Crap? You mean it doesn’t work?”

A veil of realisation descended over Deradin’s wrinkled face. “Well--it works, yes, it works. That is to say it palliates the terrible symptoms of...”

“Palliates? You mean it kills the pain but not the affliction?”

“It cures the excruciating discomfort of impending asphyxia with a dash of poppy and a hint of quicksilver…”

“Quicksilver...you fake! You bloody charlatan. That’s my sister. I believed in you all this time. I trusted you. Now I see the shade of lies around you.” Tears and snot were pasting my face and I was screaming at Deradin, spit flying in his face.

“Enough!” he yelled back at me. His moustache was quivering. “Go now. Your debt is paid. Go back to your wet hovel. I do not require your companionship any longer.”

I slapped him with all my strength, enjoying the split of his lip and the rattle of his jaw. My blood was boiling and my head pounding as I stomped from the pavilion. Deradin came behind me and shoved me in the back and I sprawled onto the cold grass, my face a foot from the small camp-fire he had lit that morning.

A familiar surge of terror came through me as I felt the glare of the heat on my face. Such was my anger at that moment that for once I battered the screams in my head away and calmly got to my feet, striding away down the road without a second glance.


#

Anger carries you so far, pride that little bit further. Once they were spent I plumbed the depths of stubbornness, as I plodded through the relentless scouring of the blizzard.

Numb indifference permeated my body, my luxurious traveling cloak bestowing little protection as it grew steadily more sodden. My thoughts were swirling like the fat flakes of snow around me. I felt raw frustration at my own willingness to be duped. I’d remained with Deradin because I was searching for purpose, yearning to fill a void in my hollow heart. It was as much my fault as his.

And with the fury came the realisation that I may have sacrificed those priceless nuggets of time with my sister. You never get that time again; Mum’s death had taught me that. The impossible sound of her voice at the old woman's house had chilled me far deeper than any frost. To hear that voice come from those pale lips--a voice that had shrouded me in unconditional warmth through the most feverish nights of childhood--extenuated the guilt I felt at both the theft and my departure from my family in Kokis.

In the swirling monochrome I made out a building, its glowing windows like gems of life. I staggered through the snow, grasped the ice-crusted door handle and entered the warmth. I was dimly aware of an innkeeper leading me towards the fire and my non-sensical attempts at gratitude. I shivered by the crackling flames, too dissociated to be afraid. Two men sat by the hearth and I cajoled my inert mouth into a smile at the nearest.

A familiar scar bisected his leering face and what little warmth I’d gained left me in an instant.

#

Water so cold that my teeth ached dragged me back to consciousness. The frigid state of my face contrasted so acutely with the molten pain in my hand that I considered for an instant that I may have been pulled into two parts and subject to the differing regions of the Pale.

Yet there were no demons in the barn with me--just two men and that was torment enough.

The memory was like the shards of a shattered window and I desperately endeavoured to reconstruct events in the stupor of my brain. Gaarn, the gangster from the Cloisters, and his apish crony had taken me from the inn. But where was I now and why did my hand burn so?

With two glances I had the answers. To the former query: I was in a barn, tied to a rusted plough, surrounded by bundles of straw and covered in the filth of the farmyard. In the corner, lit by the amber pool of a lantern, lay a body smeared in blood. For an instant I thought it Deradin but the corpse’s attire inferred a more rural origin--probably the poor farmer.

And the latter question? My second glance took in the vision of my left hand minus a ring finger. The stump was seared flesh and clot. I vomited in huge heaves on the straw matted floor. Gaarn watched unimpressed.

“You’d better pray Deradin turns up, you little bastard,” Gaarn hissed at me. “I owe you serious pain for the forearm you cost me.”

Gaarn jammed his stump in my face, the puckered end like a club. His huge companion wore an eye patch and looked similarly aggrieved with me.

Fear clutched at my throat but I wouldn’t let these idiots see it. “You’ll be waiting until there’s a sunny day in the Pale. Deradin cares more for gold than me.”

“Oh really?” Graan said with a sneer. “The buffoon is like a chestnut--the hard shell of a scam artist, but soft and needy on the interior. He’ll come--the message was wrapped around your finger after all.”

The melancholia came upon me then, sneaking into the core of my young soul like a necessary stranger. In several glorious months I had come to care for Deradin and at that point, despite my anger towards him, I prayed to the Gods that he would not come to this place and to his death.

It was dark when Deradin arrived. He stepped into the dusty expanse of the barn, the tinge of the golden lantern light on his resplendent clothes. He dumped a sack of coins ignobly on the floor.

Gaarn scratched his stump and snorted. “You look like a bloody peacock, you moron. How in the gods you came by this potion and this gold I’ll never know.”

“The deal is the boy for the gold and the potion, Graan. Can’t say fairer than that. Escar should be content.”

“Oh Escar won’t be troubled with this. We’ve told him you’re dead anyway. No--this is compensation for our... injuries. And you’re in no position to make deals. Now piss off--the boy is ours to play with.”

Deradin sighed and slowly removed two bottles of purple potion. Graan’s hulking companion moved to grab the bottles when Deradin abruptly lunged. His stiletto flashed and struck the ruffian in the neck. He fell back, blood cascading from his flapping throat and careened into the table. I saw the lantern spin into the air, its gilded pool flitting across the gloomy barn.

Gaarn let out a roar and charged towards Deradin. I couldn’t see a blasted thing but I could feel the rusted edge of the plough behind my back so I set about furiously sawing my bonds.

The pair wrestled with Deradin’s knife and despite his one arm Gaarn was putting in a good effort. The oil from the lantern had splashed over the bundles of straw and with a crumping noise the whole bloody lot went up. The barn was lit with an infernal luminescence as I split the rope. Bile was bitter in my mouth as I stumbled past the twitching body of Graan’s companion, the crimson flow from his slit neck ebbing to a trickle.

I could hear my mother’s screams tearing at my soul as I dashed through the choking smoke. Blind bestial panic propelled me towards the barn door, the black air dragging at my limbs like an enormous evil spirit.

The night air tasted like the freshest mountain stream as I burst out and scrabbled in the snow. I curled in a simpering ball, the wet white powder infiltrating the seams of my garb. The thick smoke was pouring from the barn now and I could see the roof beginning to catch.

Deradin was still inside--but I couldn’t return to help him. I just couldn’t. Perhaps he would emerge any minute, moustache bristling, a witty riposte on his sooty lips.

The seconds slipped past and the dark clouds kept billowing. The cries echoed in my mind still. Yet I realised, as I sat shivering in the snow, that they were no longer screams but pleas. My mother’s voice was pleading, imploring me... to act.

I feared my heart would give out such was my terror as I charged back into the barn. The interior was opaque with smoke and incandescent with heat. I dropped instinctively to the floor and crawled through the choking half-light.

I found Deradin slumped on the floor, soaked in blood. Gaarn was at his side, the stiletto in his chest to the hilt. I could feel the slow undulation of Deradin’s breathing.

Deradin was a heavy man and the absence of useful air didn’t help matters. Yet I had strength within me bordering on the divine and with a grunt I stood and dragged him by his fine cloak. The straw on the floor made it simpler as I spluttered towards the door. He coughed and began to try stand as we neared the sanctuary of the door.

The weight of the collapsing wall crashed down towards us and in panic I shoved Deradin with all my power. We flailed through to the exterior, the heat of the fire still on my back. Deradin landed gracelessly in the snow. Intense pain poured like lava across my back and with a sudden horror I realised I was ablaze.

It took three heartbeats for the flames to engulf me, undoubtedly assisted by my terrified pirouetting. I was dimly aware of Deradin pulling me into the snow and the sound of a hundred snakes in my ears. My body felt paradoxically insensate, like I had been transformed into stone.

“Oh, by the Gods Col...look at you,” Deradin’s voice drifted into my head. “Why did you come back in for me?”

I could vaguely hear Deradin’s sobs. They were so distant. “Don’t... cry,” my voice croaked. “Went back... because... you’re my friend.”

“I’m a fake, a rogue, a quack.”

From some trace of moisture still within my desiccated body tears began to well.

“Shut... up,” I gasped. “I believe... in you. Always did. Always will.”

A strange sense of peace was pervading me and Deradin’s cries were drowned out by the angelic mantra of my mother.

A hot bitter taste teased my lips as tranquillity engulfed me.

#


My father’s new house was positively arid in comparison to the old place. Relocation up towards Apostle’s Garden had been facilitated by a mysterious order for three dozen hats to be delivered to a patron in Thetoria City.

I had come around in the airy expanse of the Regency and for one insane moment I considered that the whole escapade had been some convoluted dream. However the inebriated status of Verdali, facilitated by only a tiny portion of the purse of gold that had been found at my slumbering side, attested to the reality of my journey.

My skin itched as if ten thousand ants burrowed beneath the surface. I had a horrendous discomfort in my side which transpired to be a half full bottle of the purple potion.

So I sat by my sister’s frugal bed, rolling the bottle in my hands. My finger had grown back, though it felt foreign and misplaced somehow. My eldest brother had fetched me from the Regency and lead me dazed through the slushy streets of Kokis. That my sister still breathed astounded me--according to my brother Deradin’s elixir had eased her convoluted respiration greatly over the last six months and despite all clucking predictions from the local crones she had lingered on in her near-life.

The purple bottle caught the light sneaking in through the narrow window. It was the last of the draught--Deradin’s shot at the big time. What had made him come for me? The same thing that had made me stare the terror of the past in the eye and scream my defiance. For a man ruled by the past is like a ghost in the present.

Gods willing my tears would have given him some more time as the grey permeated his beard and his body.

I slowly drew the edge of a knife across my arm and watched the drips fall into the bottle.


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2011-05-14 04:22:45
Hi Sidewinder4: I left Deradin's fate open to the imagination. The inference of the story is the aging changes are amenable to a child's tears so perhaps Col's tears helped him. Or maybe he'd made enough cash out of the whole shenanigan to live happily ever after? Glad u liked it :) ross

2011-05-12 20:30:33
Sidewinder4 - The movie Midnight Cowboy is somewhat like this tale. Earned respect and love-friendship shine even from a world of despair. And shared magic-that-heals, the unanswered prayer of too many, is here too. It's a good tale. What happened to Deradin?

2011-05-01 05:43:40
A well told tale. Great stuff!




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