The Price of Magic – Chapter 9 Excerpt

Senta looked at the fortress at the top of the hill.  Set against the shadows of the mountain, one could almost be forgiven for thinking it was part of the rocks.  Ringing it for almost a mile in every direction was a sea of mud brick and stone buildings. They were homes of lizzies, but up here, where the only trees were scraggly dwarfs, they couldn’t use lumber as their primary building material.  She looked back to see the coral dragon curled up in a ball, floating a foot above the ground.  Zoey had been asleep for five days, relying on her mistress’s magical floating disk to convey her along.

“Wake up, you silly dragon. We’re here.”

“Whoop-tee-doop,” said Zoey, without opening her eyes.

“It’s quite an impressive fortress.  It looks very different than when I was here last.”

“Yes, it’s crawling with lizzies now,” said the dragon, peering up with one eye.  “And there’s a veritable stream of them coming up that road.”

“That’s the road of supplicants,” said Senta.  “They’re coming to worship Bessemer.”

“No wonder he’s so full of himself.”

Senta waved her hands and the magical disk vanished, but like the proverbial cat, Zoey landed on her feet, seemingly with no effort.  Senta continued on and the dragon followed.  As they neared the road, Senta could see that Zoey had been correct. There were literally thousands of lizzies on it, making their way to the fortress and to the god who lived within. They weren’t all walking though. A mile from the great gate, there was an arch over the road.  Upon reaching it, the pilgrims dropped down onto their bellies to crawl the rest of the way, dragging their tales behind them.  As Senta approached, the line of lizzies came to a stop as they all watched her.  She stepped up onto the road and strode through the archway, then stepped over the crawling lizzies.  As she passed each one, he too stopped and stared up at her.

She was still walking up the road, her path weaving around prostrated reptilians when she spied a lizzie rushing down the path toward her.  He was an ornately painted male, wearing a bright red cloth cape.  He was hissing as he hurried.  Senta reached up and plucked one of the glamours from around her head, activating the spell stored within.  Once it was in effect, she could understand the lizzie’s words.

“You should not be on this road, human!  What do you think you are doing?”

Suddenly the red-caped lizzie spotted the small dragon behind her.  He was so startled that he tripped on one of the prostrate lizzies, falling in a heap at the sorceress’s feet.

“Now, what are you going on about?” asked Senta, looking down.

“You’re her?” said the lizzie, looking up from the dirt.  “Yes of course you are.  The Great God said you were coming, but I didn’t recognize your paint and feathers. I thought you were a male human.”

Senta looked down at herself.  She was dressed in what she often still thought of as her Zurfina garb—black leather pants and high black boots, and a black leather bustier in place of a shirt. Of course the entire ensemble carried magic spells to make it her most comfortable set of clothing.  She reached up and cupped her breasts.

“Yes, mammary glands, I see them now,” said the lizzie, rising to his feet, “but you have neither a very large bottom, nor a long tuft of hair.”

Senta ran a hand over her head.  She was still wearing her blond hair in a man’s short style, parted on the side and razor-cut around the ears and neck.  Of course, since she wasn’t wearing a dress, she didn’t have on the bustle that recent dress styles were requiring to be larger than ever.

The lizzie brushed himself off and then bowed.

“I am Khastla, the god’s most trusted.  You should follow me.  We will take the road of guests.

The red-caped male led the human and the dragon up a path paved with shiny river stones.  It wound up the hill, sometimes approaching the main road and sometimes veering farther away.  Finally it led to a small but beautiful gate in the cyclopean fortress wall. It was not as large as the main gate, but was lined with two beautifully carved statues of Bessemer.

The fortress had been completely rebuilt from the ruin it had been when Senta had been there before. Inside the walls were numerous tall buildings, constructed with smooth façades, but featuring many window boxes filled with flowers.  Between the buildings were flowerbeds, walkways of colorful pebbles shaded with fruit trees covered in blossoms, and fountains which sprayed out water that was collected into little gutters that wound in and out to feed the plants.  Hundreds of lizzies were working, cleaning, polishing, and gardening.

“This is all quite lovely,” said Senta.

Zoey gave a dismissive snort, sending a little smoke ring out of her right nostril.

“Pease follow me,” said Khastla.  “The god has chosen the finest accommodations for you.”

He led them to a large three-story structure with a double door of heavily polished wood.  Inside they found a spacious room decorated with mosaics on all four walls.  A large stone hearth sat in the center of the room, with funnel-shaped device reaching down from the ceiling over it, obviously designed to vent the smoke from the fire.  Around it were arranged two plush couches, and three large padded chairs with matching tuffets.  Though the couches looked just like those found in any Brech home, the chairs were just slightly odd, a little too short, a bit too deep, and much too large for a human.

“These come all the way from Mallontah,” said Khastla proudly pointing first at the couches, and then the chairs, “and these were made by our finest craftsmen.”

“Very nice,” said Senta.

“This is nice,” said the dragon, shooting across the room and curling up in one of the chairs. “Much nicer than we have at home.”

“Szarine! Your guests are here!”

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The Price of Magic – Chapter 18 Excerpt

“Here you go, little one,” said Tokkenoht, setting a handful of forest slugs down on a rock beside the human.

“I can’t.  I know I should, but I just can’t.  If I eat them, I’ll vomit, and then I will lose all the water I drank back at the stream.  You eat them.”

The priestess scooped them back up and tossed them into her mouth.

It had been two days since the small human had helped her escape from the soft-skin warriors. Tokkenoht had managed to find enough food to keep her strength up.  Forest slugs were considered a delicacy among her people.  The human, however, had eaten nothing.  Tokkenoht was beginning to worry about her.

“I’ll eat today,” said Stahwasuwasu Zrant.  “Mark my words, I’ll bring down something I can cook today.”

“I don’t mean to criticize, little one,” said Tokkenoht.  “After all, you arranged my escape, and then managed to remove my chains with that hair wire…”

“Hair pin,” corrected the human, using the soft-skin word.  “My hut elders were correct.  You really cannot do without them.”

“Yes, you have shown great cunning for a having seen so few summers.”  She bobbed her head in annoyance.  “How many summers have you seen, anyway?  Six or seven?”

Tokkenoht hissed when the human let out her strange warbling laugh.  It was such a strange sound; it was unnerving.

“I have actually seen thirteen summers, though that’s not really what you’re asking.  The fourteenth anniversary of my birth was a short time ago.”

“Fourteen,” mused Tokkenoht. “I would not have guessed it, though I have been told that the soft-skins age much slower than we do. Wait.  You mean you were born in winter?”

“Oh yes, my people routinely defy all the laws of nature.”

“Perhaps humans are much more dangerous than we thought.”

“If you are only now figuring that out, then perhaps I have been giving your race too much credit,” said the human.

Tokkenoht grunted in recognition of the insult and perhaps of an unsettling truth as well.

“As I was saying, I don’t mean to criticize, but those spears are too small to throw, even with an atlatl.”

The human female had crafted three small spears with tiny spear points and had trimmed the back ends of them with pieces of a feather she had found on the ground.

“Oh, these are not spears. I have tried throwing spears with an atlatl, but I’ve never been very good at it, and I certainly don’t have time to become good now.  I need a weapon I already know how to use.”

“But you have your thunder weapon.”

“Yes, I do.  I also only have ten more um… uses for it.  I shouldn’t have wasted four scaring the males when one would have sufficed.”  The human peered around into the forest.  “I can use these to bring down something to eat and save the thunder weapon for defense. I don’t intend to end up in the belly of a feathered runner, like poor Warden.”

“This Wharden was a member of your hut?” asked Tokkenoht.

“No, he was just a friend.”

“I am sorry.  I recently lost someone.”

“A member of your hut?”

“Yes, and more.  She was the wife of my husband.”

“The wife of… fascinating! I had no idea that your people were um… that the males married more than one female.”

“Only the most powerful kings.”

“Then… you’re Hsrandtuss’s wife?”

Tokkenoht hissed the affirmative.

“Then it’s doubly important to get you back safely to your city.”

The human stood up and taking a knife from her belt, used it to cut a long segment of a branch from a willow tree.  She carefully trimmed it.

“The warrior Azkhantice is your friend?” said Tokkenoht, after a few minutes of silence.  “You hugged him.”

Stahwasuwasu Zrant stopped carving.  Her face flushed in a way that the lizzie had been unaware was possible.

“Um, yes, Ascan is a friend too.  We should get going.  I can work on this while we travel.”

They started off again through the forest, walking in the direction of the morning sun.  Tokkenoht took the lead and Stahwasuwasu Zrant followed, working her willow switch as she walked.

“What is your human name, Stahwasuwasu Zrant?” asked the priestess.

“It’s Iolana.”

“How strange.  It sounds like a bird call.”

“I suppose,” she allowed. “What is Hsrandtuss like?”

“He is a good king. He is very strong and very brave. He is also wise.”

“Wise enough to get thunder weapons.”

“Yes, we bought them from the human traders from the other human city state—the one called Natine.”

“The Mirsannans?” wondered Iolana.  “Not too much of a surprise, I suppose.  I understand they’re setting up trading bases in the far east.  You might even be better off with them on your side. They’re not looking to export as many settlers I imagine, since Mirsanna is so much larger than Brechalon in terms of land area.”

“You seem to know much about the politics of your people,” said Tokkenoht.

“Oh, no, not really.  Everyone knows those things.”