Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Alchemist's Ledger - Conclusion

    Hi, folks. What could happen if you cross a sorcerer with an accountant? You might get The Alchemist (played in my mind by Alan Rickman). Here's the conclusion of my just-finished short story, The Alchemist's Ledger. I've had a lot of fun writing it, and I hope you've had some enjoyment reading the last few weeks.
   Last week, our sword wielding mercenary, Sing, returned from his quest with a powerful jewel needed to complete a spell to animate a statue of Vale, the local God of Justice. Sing received only half his promised fee, and he left the Alchemist with a pile of receipts and the task of balancing them into a strange ledger. Today he's back to see if he can collect the remainder of his fee.

Sing returned to the offices of the Alchemist late the next morning, nursing a hangover and debating with himself whether he should just take what he’d already been paid, leave town, and count his blessings. This time, he wasn’t surprised when the dwarf opened the door before he could knock, but he wasn’t prepared for the urgency in its voice.
“Where have you… been?” wheezed the dwarf. “The master is… wheeze… waiting… wheeze… go!” He pointed down the hallway, now alight with torches in sconces every ten feet or so along the way. Sing was grateful for the light, but the fact that the same walls had been smooth stone the night before made him uneasy.
“Cursed sorcery,” he muttered as he made his way towards the door at the hallway’s end. When it opened at his approach, he strode through without hesitation. But he kept a firm grip on his sword as he scanned the interior of the room.
It was brighter in the room than the previous night, the curtained windows unable to block completely the brightness of the day. The statue of Vale remained uncovered and now dominated the room with its presence. A brief vibration ran through the floor. Sing swallowed nervously. Did it seem more… alive than before?
As if he’d heard Sing’s unvoiced question, the Alchemist answered, “Yes, the spell is almost complete.”
Sing cast an uneasy glance over his shoulder at the statue as he followed the voice to the same work table he’d left the sorcerer at the night before. The Alchemist, although now seated, was still hunched over the ledger. A quill stained with dark red ink lay amongst the neatly arranged receipts at his side. “But, I wanted to check with you before I finished it.”
The Alchemist ran his finger down a column of the ledger. “After you procured the jewel, you slept one night at a stable before returning from your quest. Then, you decided to… celebrate your success, I presume, by spending each night of the return journey at a different brothel.”
“I…,” began Sing, but the sorcerer raised a hand to cut him off.
“Again,” said the Alchemist, “I do not question your… needs. All I require is a receipt for each… service rendered, and those you have provided, except…” His finger stopped at a blank line on the page. “… on the fourteenth night of Frostmoon.” He straightened and turned.
Sing flinched when he saw the man’s face. It was drawn and lined as if he’d aged forty years in a single night. He swayed momentarily when he stood, clutching the edge of the table to steady himself. His eyes lost focus for an instant, and he shook his head. Sing took a step forward, intending to offer assistance, but the Alchemist waved him away.
“What happened on the fourteenth, Sing? Did you decide to give your cock a much deserved rest?”
Sing frowned. “The fourteenth? Let’s see, today’s the…”
“…eighteenth,” the Alchemist reminded him.
Sing screwed his eyes up and counted off silently on his fingers. “Four nights ago?”
The Alchemist pursed his lips. “Yes. Thank the gods you needed but one hand to figure that out.”
“Ah,” sighed Sing. “That would have been Brienne.”
“I’m not familiar with the place.”
“That was her name, Brienne… I think.” The mercenary smiled.
Sing hadn’t thought the sorcerer’s face could fall any further, but it did. “And you bedded her, obviously. Please tell me you got a receipt.”
Sing shook his head. “I didn’t pay for it.”
“She gave herself to you… freely?”
“Is that so hard to believe? But, no, not exactly. It was sort of a… barter arrangement.” An ominous thrum vibrated the floor, and the Alchemist glanced nervously at the statue of Vale. Sing’s hand moved unconsciously to the hilt of his sword. “Gods, what is that?”
“It’s nothing to worry about,” said the Alchemist. His voice was unconvincing. “What sort of barter?”
“I did her a favor.”
“What favor?”
“I thought you didn’t want to know any of the details?”
“I changed my mind.”
“I killed her husband.”
The Alchemist’s eyes widened. “At her request?”
“I see,” mused the Alchemist, rubbing speculatively at the stubble on his chin.
“The man was a drunken brute,” Sing elaborated, “who regularly abused her. He…”
The Alchemist cut him off with a wave of his hand. “Tell me,” he asked, “did you kill the man before or after you had sex with his wife?”
Sing straightened. “If you mean to judge me, don’t. I would never knowingly bed a married woman. She was a widow by the time we…”
“Yes, yes,” interrupted the Alchemist, “how very… moral of you. But that is not my concern.” He turned back to the ledger. “I believe it’s actually a credit,” he murmured, “not a debit at all.” He turned back to Sing. “I’ll need to make a brief note, and then you can be on your way… with the remainder of your payment.”
“Sounds good,” smiled Sing. He relaxed with a sigh and watched the Alchemist dip the quill into the bottle of ink. The tip came out clean.
“Bugger,” muttered the Alchemist, “the ink has dried. I’ll have to freshen it a bit.” He jabbed the tip of the quill into his finger and squeezed a few drops of blood into the ink bottle.
Sing shuffled forward and peered over the Alchemist’s shoulder. It was true. The entire ledger was written in blood. He swallowed the bile that came into his throat as the Alchemist scribbled something onto the previously blank line. He placed the quill on the table with a satisfied sigh. “It balances,” he said. “And you, my mercenary friend…” He reached for the remaining pouch of gold and tossed it over. “… may be on your way.”
Sing caught the pouch. He nodded. “Thanks.” He teased the top open with a finger and peeked inside.
“Trust me,” said the Alchemist, “it’s all there.” He smiled. “And I begrudge not one krin of it. You exceeded my expectations, my friend.” He shook his head, chuckling. “But I still have to question whether a roll in the hay is worth a man’s life.”
There was a sudden rumbling beneath their feet, accompanied by the sound of grinding stone. Sing swung into a crouch to face its source, his hand on the hilt of his blade. “By the gods,” he exclaimed. The head of the statue had turned to face him, and two of its arms were now folded across its chest.
“Perhaps I shouldn’t have said that,” murmured the Alchemist.
“It moved!” Sing exclaimed.
“It did, didn’t it?” The Alchemist sounded disconcerted.
Sing cut his eyes to the man. “What the…”
“Shush,” cautioned the Alchemist, his finger to his lips. “Choose your words carefully.”
“I wasn’t… What do you mean? What did you do?”
“My bad,” apologized the Alchemist. “I inadvertently questioned whether having sex with that woman was worth killing her husband. I believe you now stand in judgment before Vale.”
Sing’s blade was in his hand instantly. “The hell I do,” he cried. The sound of more stone grinding made his skin crawl. Lightening fast, the statue had unfolded its arms from its chest. It now stood on four legs, looking poised to spring.
“Sheath your sword, you fool,” warned the Alchemist. “It makes you look guilty.”
He replaced the sword. There was more grinding as the statue settled onto its haunches. “What do I do now?” he whispered to the Alchemist.
“You must convince Vale your actions were justified.”
Sing frowned. “Well, I already told you. The man was a brute. He deserved killing.”
“That is not the issue,” said the Alchemist.
“How can that not be the issue?”
“The question was posed as to whether the sex was worth the man’s life,” the Alchemist explained.
Sing threw up his hands. “That’s crazy.”
The Alchemist shrugged.
“How can I convince him of that?” Sing pointed to the statue.
The Alchemist held up a finger. “Leave that to me. I will advocate for you. Just answer my questions.” He rubbed his hands together, looking pleased. “Actually, this will be a perfect test.”
“To see if the spell worked properly.” The Alchemist pulled the chair away from his work table and motioned to Sing. “Here, have a seat.” Then, he adjusted his robes and walked to the middle of the room, clearing his throat. He turned with a flourish and began, “We have established that, on the fourteenth night of Frostmoon, the defendant, Sing, terminated the life of the husband of Brienne in exchange for sexual favors. Is that correct?”
Sing secured the pouch of gold to his belt and sat cautiously in the chair. His eyes cut around the room, assessing possible escape routes. The door he’d come in seemed impossibly far away. He took a deep breath. “Yes,” he said.
“And,” continued the Alchemist, “although we have already established that the victim was of questionable character and, perhaps, deserved to die, can it truly be said that the scales of justice can balance any human life with a single sexual encounter?”
This can’t be helping, thought Sing. “Am I supposed to answer that question?”
The Alchemist looked at him askance. “The question was rhetorical.”
“Huh? Okay, well it wasn’t a single encounter,” blurted Sing. “We did it… twice, I think. Maybe three…” He trailed off when he saw the glare on the Alchemist’s face.
The Alchemist cleared his throat again. “Ahem. Very well, then. I suppose the sex was better than average?”
“Oh, yes.”
“On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate the sex?”
“How many scales?”
“No, no. Not how many scales. A single scale, one to ten. How would you rate the sex?”
“Yes, rate.” The Alchemist looked frustrated. “On a scale of one to ten. One being bad, five being average, ten being the best. How would you rate the sex you had with Brienne?”
“Oh,” said Sing, understanding dawning. “I see. Yes, it was really good. Eleven.” They both winced at the grinding of stone as Vale rose again on four of its legs.
“You can’t say eleven,” warned the Alchemist. “Ten is as high as you can go.”
“Ten, then.” The statue took a step forward. “I don’t think this is working,” Sing complained.
“Just answer the questions,” said the Alchemist. He raised his palms in a calming gesture. “You’re sure she was a ten?”
Sing nodded. “Yes!” He cringed as Vale ground forward another step. “I’m sure. Her beauty was such that poets sing of. Auburn hair the texture of silk that… that… fell nearly to her waist when it was undone. Full, firm breasts, whose nipples were like honey on my tongue. I… ulp.” He swallowed more bile and shuddered at the grinding sound. He could almost feel the stone scraping across his bare flesh.
Vale now stood behind the Alchemist, standing high on four legs so that its head brushed against the ceiling. Its remaining four limbs stretched forward menacingly. “It doesn’t matter what she looked like, you fool,” shouted the Alchemist. “The sex! How was the sex?”
“Right,” Sing continued, “the sex. It… it was amazing. She came to me warm and wet, taking my full length with no complaint, moving against me with such skill and… and… grace as I’d never experienced. She brought me to my peak almost at once and then again… more slowly. And after, she… sang to me… in a voice as lovely and tender as any babe might hear from his mother… a lullaby… until I fell asleep and dreamt the most peaceful of…” Suddenly, he pointed. “Look out!”
The Alchemist glanced up and stepped aside with surprising swiftness as one of the statue’s limbs slammed into the floor. Pulverized stone rose in clouds and a gaping hole remained when Vale pulled the limb free, poised for another strike.
The Alchemist turned and stared in horror at the visage looming above him. “No,” he screamed, pointing at Sing, “Him, not me! I…” He leapt aside as a second arm came crashing down, narrowly missing him again. He scrambled to his feet and held his arm out, palm forward. “You have the wrong man. I command you to stop!”
The statue’s appendage wavered above his outstretched arm, and for a moment it looked like the Alchemist might have gained control. But another stone arm snaked around the sorcerer from behind and coiled about his body, holding him in place.
The Alchemist’s brows knit together, and beads of sweat broke out on his face. He thrust his palm forward, and a deep voice echoed throughout the chamber. “I command you to stop!” Curtains fluttered. Candles flickered. The pages of the ledger rustled as a breeze sprung from nowhere.
Slowly, the arm of the statue descended against the palm of the Alchemist’s outstretched arm. Sing gritted his teeth as he watched the elbow bend the wrong way and the bones snap. His stomach did a flip when the Alchemist’s head popped like a crushed melon, his final scream ending in a gurgle.
As the stone limbs of the God of Justice unraveled from the remains of the Alchemist, Sing found himself backed against the door, his sword drawn, fumbling for the latch with his free hand, and praying that walls made of the same brick he’d just watched the statue pummel into dust would delay the monster long enough for him to reach his horse.
He expected the statue to turn and spring for him at any second. Instead, he watched it settle to the floor. A now familiar thrum vibrated through his boots as the thing’s arms retracted to its sides. After a few seconds of immobility, the jewel in its forehead emitted a single pulse of light and then went dark.
He slipped silently through the door and padded as softly as he could down the hallway. The dwarf met him at the front door with a questioning look. Sing shrugged.
 “On second thought,” he answered to the unvoiced question, “maybe she was only a nine. Or even an eight. Anyway, I’m leaving. Best of luck to you.
The dwarf stared down the hallway, in the direction of the laboratory. Sing opened the front door and stepped into the welcome light of day. Humph. A scale of one to ten. It was a strange way of looking at things. He patted the pouch full of gold at his belt.
I’ll give that a ten, though.
Well, that’s the yin and yang of it. We all strive for some kind of balance in our lives, don’t we? And dealing with the consequences when things weigh a bit heavy on one side of the scales can be tough sometimes. If you liked this story and you think you’d like to see more of this character, please let me know. The comments section is just past the ads for my books.
Until then, Happy Reading!

The Draculata Nest -----------------------------------------------------------------------

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ebook for Kindle                                            in Paperback     
ebook for Nook                                              in Charlotte                    
ebook for Kobo                                              Smashwords

The Dragon of Doughton Park ----------------------------------------------------------

Click on the link to order:
ebook for Kindle                                                                   in Paperback
ebook for Nook                                                                     in Charlotte
ebook for Kobo                                                                     Smashwords



Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Alchemist's Ledger - Part 2

    Hi, folks! What could happen if a sorcerer sent a sword-wielding mercenary on a quest to procure a magic gem, and required the mercenary to bring back receipts for all his expenses? Well, it would certainly kill the adventure for me, but Sing took on the task, endured all the awkward explanations, and has returned to the Alchemist with the jewel and the receipts.
    Let's see what he gets for all his trouble. Presenting part 2 of The Alchemist's Ledger.

On the seventeenth morning of Frostmoon, Sing crested the ridge of the High Pass Road and was afforded the first view of journey’s end. The sun rose over the peaks at his back, reflected off the spires of the King’s Palace rising from the mists over the city of Azurith, and glinted from points along the River Wiste, which ran through the heart of the city and meandered across the far side of the valley. It was a welcome sight.

He spurred Brawn on, eager to make the city before nightfall. The horse responded willingly, possibly remembering the oats and sweetgrass from his previous stay at the King’s Livery. Stopping for rest only twice, they clopped to a stop on a cobbled street as the sinking sun was creating a golden red halo over the palace dominating the highest hill of the central city.
Sing dismounted and led Brawn to a trough and tether post at the bottom of a stone pathway leading upward to the offices of the Alchemist. “I won’t be long, my friend,” he whispered in the horse’s ear. Brawn nickered and lowered his head into the trough to drink.

Sing paused at the bottom of the stone pathway. His hand moved unconsciously to the hilt of his sword as his eyes cut up and down the street. Sorcerers made him nervous, and the Alchemist was no exception to that rule. He took a deep breath, patted the pouch at his side that held the jewel and the receipts, and strode up the walkway.
As he reached for the heavy brass knocker to announce his presence, the door suddenly opened and an ancient dwarf with pale green skin motioned him inside. “The master,” said the dwarf, pausing to wheeze another breath, “is expecting you.”

Sing nodded and stepped through the door, which closed behind him. Once inside, he needed a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. Again, his hand moved to the hilt of his blade.

“Go,” the dwarf waived him down a hallway to his right. “That way.” Sing took a cautious step. “Wait,” wheezed the dwarf. “Here.” He shoved an unlit torch into Sing’s hand. Fire sprung to life at its tip, blinding him again.
“Gods!” he exclaimed. The hand on his sword hilt clenched more tightly. He turned to address the dwarf. “How did…” But the dwarf was gone.

Muttering both prayers and curses, he turned and held the torch away from his body to illuminate the way before him. A dark marble floor stretched for some thirty yards between unadorned stone walls to a single door. His footsteps created a harsh echo as he approached it. Reluctantly, he pulled the hand from his sword to knock, but before his knuckles touched the heavy oak it opened of its own volition.

“Sweet Mother of…,” he began, stepping back from the doorway.

“Careful which gods you invoke here, my friend,” cautioned a voice from within, interrupting his curse.

Sing nodded to himself. Best heed that warning, he thought, as he stepped slowly into the dim light of the room. He flinched when the torch immediately went out, and bit his tongue to stifle another curse.

“You brought the items I asked for,” stated the Alchemist.

Sing followed the sound of the voice and located the back of a black robed figure hunched over a table in a far corner of the room. “Yes,” croaked Sing, patting the pouch at his belt, “I have them.”

The figure straightened slowly and turned. Candlelight illuminated the face of a man of indeterminate age. Dank black hair hung to his shoulders, and his face wore a permanent expression as if he tasted or smelled something unpleasant. He held out his hand. “Give them to me.”
Sing set the torch aside and undid the clasp that held the pouch at his belt. It came free in his hand. The other hand remained on the hilt of his sword. “What of my payment?”

The Alchemist pursed his lips. “Of course,” he said. He picked up one of two pouches sitting next to his work on the table and tossed it to the mercenary.
Sing had to take his hand off his sword to catch the pouch. He weighed it in his hand. It was heavy with gold, but not what he’d expected. “This is all?”

The Alchemist indicated the pouch that remained on the table. “It is but half of the total,” he sneered. “You have earned that much by returning unscathed. To receive the rest, I must verify the… authenticity of the items.” He held his hand out again and beckoned with a finger. The pouch with the jewel and receipts flew from Sing’s hand to his.

Sing shifted the pouch containing the gold to his other hand, reflexively shielding it with his body. His sword hand found the hilt once more. He stifled another curse when the Alchemist held a cautionary finger to his lips.

“Now, let us see what we have here,” said the Alchemist, turning his back to Sing and dumping the contents onto the table. The jewel fell out with a thud, followed by a splash of slips of paper. The Alchemist scraped his hand through the bottom of the pouch to get the papers that remained and sighed at the pile before him. He glanced over his shoulder at Sing. “I’d hoped for a bit more… organization,” he complained.

Sing shrugged. “Everything’s together in one place,” he said.

The Alchemist turned back to the pile before him. “Indeed,” he murmured. He shuffled through the pile of receipts and chose one at random. He unfolded it and peered at the contents. “At least your script is legible.” He picked up several more, reading each and dropping it with distaste back into the pile. “Did you stay any place that wasn’t a brothel?”

Sing shrugged. “I have my needs. And there were some fine establishments along the way. The other night, I…”
The Alchemist turned and held up a hand to cut him off. “Spare me the details,” he said. “At first glance, I’d say you’ve exceeded my expectations.”
Sing nodded, relaxing slightly at the approval in the sorcerer’s voice.
The Alchemist turned back to the table and sifted through the pile, coming up with the jewel. “Let’s see if this is indeed the one we’re looking for. Come,” he beckoned, “let me show you the purpose of your quest.”

Sing followed the Alchemist to another corner of the room. They stood before a large curtain, which reached from the floor to the vaulted ceiling some thirty feet above them. The Alchemist pulled on a rope, and the curtain slid aside to reveal a huge statue. Sing took a step back, both out of caution and to allow himself to crane his neck to take in the full height of the thing.

“Do you recognize the image?” asked the Alchemist.
“It looks like Vale, your god of justice,” said Sing.
“You are familiar with the local pantheon?”
“Such things are good to know in my line of work.”

“I imagine so,” agreed the Alchemist. He walked over to a tall step ladder which stood in front of the statue, and continued to explain as he climbed. “Vale, the eight-limbed God of Justice. Each limb is of equal length, and can be used as an arm or a leg. His two eyes are blind, so his judgment is not clouded by the perception of ugliness or beauty. He has no ears, so neither the smooth voice of the politician nor the rough voice of the shrew has its influence. He perceives only with his Third Eye, in the middle of his forehead, which can see into a man’s very soul and know the truth.”

“You see,” the Alchemist continued, “our new king distrusts the local judiciary. He perceives them to be less than honest. So to… aid them in their judgments, he has commissioned me to create this… tool, if you will.”
The Alchemist reached the top of the ladder and looked down at Sing. “Yes, a tool. Once I’m finished, judgments made before Vale, here, must be fair, or there will be… consequences.” He held up the jewel, turned it this way and that, and pressed it into an indentation in the forehead of the statue.

For a moment, there was dead silence in the chamber. Then, the jewel began to glow. Sing felt more than heard a heavy thrum, and a vibration passed from the floor through his body. There was no movement in the statue, but it seemed to come to life. Sing’s eyes widened, and he took another few steps back.

“Ah,” sighed the Alchemist, “it is the one.” He descended the ladder slowly. He turned to face the mercenary, frowning. “So far, so good.”
“What do you mean, so far?” Sing questioned. “Whatever you did seems to have worked.”
“The spell is not yet complete,” said the Alchemist. He shuffled past the mercenary and pulled a leather bound volume from a shelf of books. “I must balance the ledger.”

A knot formed in Sing’s belly. He sensed yet another impediment to the remainder of his payment. He took a deep breath to calm himself and watched the Alchemist as he opened the ledger on the table next to the receipts and thumbed through the pages until he found his place. He picked a receipt from the pile, read it, and placed it aside by itself on the table. He repeated the process with another, and another.

Sing swallowed. He walked across the room and peered over the Alchemist’s shoulder. The sorcerer was sorting through the receipts and arranging them in columns across the table. Sing was afraid of the answer, but he had to ask the question. “When can I expect the rest of my payment?”

The Alchemist straightened and sighed. He picked up a fist full of receipts and released them to flutter back onto the top of the pile. “I must enter all of these into the ledger. It could take all night.”
“And you have to get it done before you pay me?”
“Yes.” The Alchemist turned back to his work. “Everything must balance,” he murmured. “It is the most important thing.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
“You’ve done enough,” spat the Alchemist. “Go. Come back tomorrow.”

Sing hesitated. “You only asked for the receipts. You said nothing about how they should be organized.” When the sorcerer didn’t react, he added, “Getting those was the most difficult part of the task, you know.” 
The Alchemist’s reply dripped with sarcasm. “Yes, I suppose getting an honest accounting from a whore could be difficult.”
Sing grinned. “Each of those receipts required a blood oath that you would be the only one to know the exact fee.”
“And rest assured I will carry the secrets of your cock to the grave,” replied the Alchemist.
Sing nodded. Silence fell between the two and dragged on as the Alchemist continued to sift through the pile of papers. Sing shifted his feet uncertainly.

The Alchemist glanced over his shoulder. “You’re still here.”
“Yes, I…”
“Listen, my friend,” said the Alchemist, turning to face him, “you have performed admirably to this point, but this is a task only I can accomplish and time is of the essence. Please, leave me to do it. Come back tomorrow for the remainder of your payment.”

“That’s the way of it, then?” Sing shrugged. “There is nothing more I can do?”
“Unless there is some expense unaccounted for in this pile of papers?”
“I got a receipt for every expense, just as you specified.”
“Then you know the way.” The Alchemist indicated the door. “Go.”
What do you think will happen when Sing returns in the morning? Scroll past the shameless ads for my books and enter a comment if you want to hazard a guess. But find out for sure next week as the story concludes.
Until then, Happy Reading!


The Draculata Nest -----------------------------------------------------------------------

Click on the link to order:
ebook for Kindle                                            in Paperback     
ebook for Nook                                              in Charlotte                    
ebook for Kobo                                              Smashwords

The Dragon of Doughton Park ----------------------------------------------------------
Click on the link to order:
ebook for Kindle                                                                   in Paperback
ebook for Nook                                                                     in Charlotte
ebook for Kobo                                                                     Smashwords

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Alchemist's Ledger - Part 1

   Hi, folks. What could happen? Well, I have a special offering for you this week and next. I'm presenting a short story in two parts, which is just a bit different from my usual paranormal fare. It's a sword and sorcery tale featuring a character that emerged years ago when my young son and I played an ongoing game involving swords, quests, and secret powers. I was recalling the game some months back, and I was wondering... the days when magic ruled, and sorcerers sent sword-wielding mercenaries on quests to procure various items for their arcane purposes...
    ... did they require the mercenaries to submit expense reports?
   Well, my apologies to Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber, who'll probably turn over in their graves, but here's The Alchemist's Ledger, Part 1...

The tip of the broadsword made a satisfying schwick sound as it passed through the man’s throat. Time seemed to slow, like it always did in the heat of a fight, and the mercenary saw the droplets of blood and bits of the man’s trachea hang in the air as the heavy blade continued through the arc of his swing. The first man was done for… gone and forgotten.

The mercenary had already shifted his feet for his next move, and he deftly passed the well-worn leather grip of the sword’s hilt from his left hand to his right, allowing the weight of the blade to pull his upper body around to face the attack he knew was coming from his rear.

The second attacker halted his charge abruptly as he suddenly found the tip of the mercenary’s blade trained on his breast. He started to back away, but a companion shoved him from behind. His eyes widened in surprise as he found himself impaled. Clever move, thought the mercenary. His weapon was now weighted down with the body of the second man and useless against the attack of the third.

The mercenary swiveled on the ball of his right foot, hooked his left under the rungs of the chair he’d just risen from, and kicked the chair into the legs of the third man. The third attacker’s feet were swept from under him, aborting a vicious overhead swing with a battle axe that had been aimed at the mercenary’s head.

Still spinning, the mercenary used his momentum to jerk his blade from the body of the second man and sever the third man’s arm. The disembodied hand remained gripped around the handle of the axe, now embedded in the wooden floor. The man straightened, stared in horror at his stump of an arm spurting blood, and screamed. His scream was cut short when the mercenary’s next swing took off his head.

The mercenary spun into a defensive posture, his blade ready, facing several others who had drawn their weapons. They glanced at each other nervously, thought better of it, sidled around him, well out of sword’s reach, and left by the front door.

The mercenary stood and looked around to check for any remaining threat. There was none. He shifted the broadsword to his left hand and strode toward the bar, reaching into a small coin purse at his belt. The fat man behind the bar stepped back involuntarily at his approach, bumping into the shelves behind the bar. The stacks of dishes, cups and mugs rattled precariously, but nothing fell.

The mercenary tossed a gold coin onto the bar. “This should cover the damages,” he said.

A pudgy hand darted out to catch the coin before it spun to a stop. The hand went directly to the barkeeper’s mouth. His unshaven jowls and double chins jiggled as he tested the coin’s authenticity with his teeth. Then he nodded in agreement.

The mercenary swept his eyes around the inn once more before sheathing his sword and walking over to kneel beside the body of the first man. He reached inside the man’s vest and smiled as his hand closed around a jewel hanging from the dead man’s neck. A quick jerk snapped the thin leather strap and the jewel came free. The faceted gem gleamed red in the dim light of the inn, and the weight of it in his hand confirmed it was not the mere glass bauble the dead man had tried to imply.

The mercenary stood with a grim smile on his lips. Thank the gods, he told himself. This crazy quest is coming to an end. He wrapped the thin leather strap around the jewel and stuffed it into a pouch hanging on the left side of his belt, among the hundreds of small bits of paper within. As his fingers rustled through the papers, his smile faded. His shoulders sagged in resignation. He turned and slumped back towards the bar.

This was the part he hated.

The barkeeper saw him coming and hurriedly slipped the gold coin into a pocket under his apron, out of sight. He spread his lips into a tentative smile. “Is there something else I can get you, sir?” he mewed.

The mercenary looked down at the man, a strangely apologetic expression on his face. “Uh, yeah,” he muttered. “I need a receipt.”
“A what?”
“A receipt.

The barkeeper stared blankly. The mercenary took a deep breath. He closed his eyes and threw up a silent prayer to the gods for patience. He launched into the explanation that never sufficed, although he’d rehearsed it a thousand times.

Twenty minutes later, he closed the door of the inn behind him and stepped out into the chill of an early winter’s evening. The wind carried bits of sleet that stung his cheek in places the week’s growth of beard didn’t cover. The cold instantly penetrated the thin material of his cloak, but it helped to clear his head.

He was exhausted. Not from the deadly sword fight, nor from the last few months of hunting down his quarry, but from the endless negotiations and explanations of why he needed those precious bits of paper stuffed in the pouch at his belt. Never again would he take on such a job, no matter how generous the payment.

And I won’t have to for quite a while, he thought to himself as he leaned into the wind and strode down the packed earthen street towards the livery where he’d left his mount. Tonight he would bed down next to his horse and get an early start in the morning before word spread too far that he had the jewel. The end of this quest was less than a fortnight away if he rode hard and didn’t stop too often. He wanted to deliver the jewel to the alchemist and get the rest of his payment as quickly as possible.

He shouldered open the stable door and closed it quickly behind him to keep out the cold and storm. Despite his effort, the wind blew bits of dust and straw about and stirred the blankets and tack hanging nearby. His horse turned its head and nickered in recognition and Frederick, the livery master who was in the midst of grooming the animal, turned and regarded him.

“Whew,” said Frederick, with a shiver. “Feels like the storm’s brewing up pretty good out there. Did you find who you wuz lookin’ for, sir?”

The mercenary nodded, but didn’t elaborate. The less the man knew, the better. And after dealing with the barkeeper, he didn’t feel like doing any more talking. He gave a weak smile and walked around to the other side of his horse. He stroked the animal’s neck and reached into a pocket for the core of an apple he’d saved from his meal.

Frederick shrugged and resumed his grooming. “This is a fine horse you got here, sir. And I can see you’ve took good care of ‘im, too. Says something about a man that takes care of his horse, it does.”

The mercenary smiled. Brawn was a good horse. He offered the apple core and Brawn took it appreciatively. “Yeah,” he agreed, patting the horse’s neck, “he’s worth the effort, aren’t you boy?”

“So, where’d you two come from?”
“How far south?”
“A ways.”
“By the way, my name’s Frederick.”
“I know.”

Frederick peeked around Brawn’s front quarters and looked the mercenary in the eye, his brows raised.

The mercenary sighed. The man was just trying to be friendly. “Sorry,” he said. “I’ve been on the road by myself for a long time. I’m not much used to conversation. My name is Sing.”

“Well now, Sir Sing…”
“No ‘sir’, just Sing.”

Frederick lifted his head and raised his voice in a rich, throaty baritone, “There was a young maid from the south, whose fist fairly fit in her…” He trailed off and grinned sheepishly. “Sorry, I reckon you get that a lot.”

When Sing gave no reaction to the joke, Frederick cleared his throat and continued, “Well, then, it’s me should apologize for bein’ so nosy. Your business is your own and don’t need to be shared.”

Sing smiled. “You’ve done my horse well,” he said, continuing to stroke Brawn’s neck. “Listen, I’d like to bed down here tonight if it’s okay. My business is done, and I want to be away by first light. I’d hate to disturb you that early, so can we settle up now? What do I owe you?”

Frederick gave a last long stroke of the brush down Brawn’s flank. “That oughta do it, big guy,” he cooed at the horse. He stood straight and stretched his back. “Sure, you can sleep here if ya like, but I ain’t got any special accommodations.” He waved his hand around the stable. “What you see is what you get.”

“It’s fine,” said Sing. “I can throw my bedroll right here in the straw. Nice and warm in here. Better than we’re used to.”

“Well, then, I can’t see any reason to charge you extra. Rate’s posted on the door outside. I reckon you’ll owe me 12 krin for the stall, feed and grooming.”

Sing pulled some coins from his purse and handed them to Frederick. “Here’s two extra krin for your trouble.”

“Oh, it weren’t no trouble, Sing.”
“Well, uh, it might be. I need a receipt.”
“A what?”
“A receipt. I need you to write down on a piece of paper how much you charged me, so I’ll know.”
“But I just told ya.”
Here we go again, thought Sing. “I know, Frederick, but…”
“An’ it’s posted on the sign outside. If ya don’t think 12 is fair, how come ya gave me 14?”
“No, no, it’s fair. That’s not the point. I just need to know how much I spent here.”
Frederick held out his open palm with the coins spread out across it. “It’s 14 krin. See? There’s a 10-krin gold piece an’ four coppers.”
“I know, but I need to remember it for later, so I can show my employer how much I have left.”
“Ya can’t tell how much ya have left by… how much ya have left?”

Sing gave a long sigh. “Friend, I wish I could explain so you’d understand. I wish I could explain so I’d understand. But, the man who sent me on this… trip… required that I have every bit of coin I spent recorded on paper. Look.” Angrily, he reached into the pouch where the jewel lay and pulled out a fist full of papers, including the one he’d just obtained from the barkeeper down the street. He waved them in front of Frederick’s face.

“These papers have recorded every cursed expense I’ve incurred since I started. My employer won’t pay me for my services unless I show him proof of how much it cost me to do the job.” He jammed the papers back into the pouch. “I know it’s a pain in the ass, but I need a receipt.”

Frederick took a half-step back and raised his hands defensively. “Didn’t mean no offense, Sing. It just seems a little…”
“Strange? It is a little strange, but I have to ask.”
“An’ I’m glad to oblige, but… well, I never learned writin’. I mean, I had to get Tom Thornwood down the street to paint th’ sign outside.”

Sing waved a hand dismissively. “Not a problem. I have paper, quill and ink. I’ll write it myself and you can sign your ‘X’.” He bent to pull a scroll from his pack, tore a piece from it, and rummaged for the ink and quill. He straightened with the items in hand and looked around for something to use as a writing surface. His gaze settled on an anvil near a small forge, where coals from a fire provided the heat that warmed the stable. “There,” he said, and he strode over to Frederick’s work area.

Frederick followed tentatively and watched as Sing spread the paper across the flat iron surface, removed the top from a small bottle of ink, and dipped the quill. Sing chewed on his lip in concentration as he covered the paper with precise lettering. After a minute or so, he straightened and stepped back, handing the quill to Frederick. “There. Just sign on that line at the bottom.”

Frederick took the quill in an uncertain grip and regarded the paper. “What does it say?”

Sing ran his forefinger along the lines as he read, “Fourth Day of Frostmoon, Frederick’s Stable, Fourteen krin for lodging, feed and grooming.”

Frederick bent close and peered at the markings, nodding in affirmation as if he suddenly could decipher the writing. He marked an awkward “X” relatively close to the line Sing had indicated. “Like that?”

Sing lifted the paper from the anvil and blew on the ink to dry it. “Like that. Thank you for your trouble.”

Frederick snorted. “More trouble for you than me, I reckon.”

Sing nodded. “True enough. But thanks, nonetheless.” Satisfied the ink was sufficiently dry, he folded the paper and stuffed it into the pouch with the other receipts. “I’ll trouble you no further,” he said.

Frederick scratched at his beard as he watched Sing begin to lay out his bedroll and make himself comfortable in the straw near his horse. “Fine, then,” he murmured. He dropped the 14 krin into a purse secured to his belt and shuffled to the other end of the stable where he ducked through a curtained doorway leading to the modest room he called home. When he woke the next morning, Sing was gone.


Next week we’ll find out what happens when Sing delivers the jewel, and his expense reports, to the Alchemist. There may be a surprise in store for both of them.

Are there any other Sword and Sorcery fans out there? Whether you are or aren’t let me know. Scroll past the shameless ads for my books and leave a comment.

Until next time, Happy Reading!

The Draculata Nest -----------------------------------------------------------------------

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The Dragon of Doughton Park ----------------------------------------------------------
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