This story contains scenes depicting gay characters and gay sexual situations. If you find that offensive, if you are under the legal age of consent to view/read such material, or it is forbidden in your particular jurisdiction altogether, it is suggested you move on. You have been warned.
All characters are fictitous. Any similarities by name or description to actual persons whether living or dead are purely coincidental. No, really, I mean that... mostly.
© is 2003 by Keith Morrisette, all rights reserved. No part of this story may be copied or reproduced without the express consent of the author, and not one word may be changed.
Comments to Keith_Hackwriter@Lycos.com.
More of my work is available at Archerland.net .

Here, There Be Dragons


Keith Morrisette

Part the Second

I'd gotten the idea that the river and the army wasn't all that far away - but then, Cérosk could fly and I had to walk so it's just how you look at it, I suppose. It was long and tedious picking my way across that burnt out plain, stumbling over rocks and stumps of what might have been trees once, not to mention skirting dried out dragon shit. Dragons are a lot like seagulls; the first thing they do when they take to the air is take a dump. My host may have had hang ups about sex but he had no problems about his toilet training.

Dried out isn't bad - the fresh stuff is a different. It's not only corrosive it'll turn your stomach inside out. Still, I'd found on my first time around on this world that the locals `harvested' the dry stuff whenever they could; apparently it burnt better, longer and hotter than wood in the winter months. And it lost most of its, uh, natural effervescence when it lay out in the sun for a few weeks. Not all of it, though. When you came to villages, on top of the stench of humans (bathing was a vague notion on a lot of these worlds), livestock, and the privies not quite as far from the houses as one might wish, it combined to create an interesting essence to the tapestry of the simple, pastoral life. Think of sewage and sulfur.

Well that wasn't much on my mind as I trudged across the plain, wearing a pair of boots that were great for riding but not so good for walking. And I wasn't really that much into walking. That's what horses are for. Or at least, something like horses. The sun burning down on my head didn't help much either... Magicians are a fair skinned lot, and I hadn't thought to grab a hat before bolting my last residence. My black hair was stuck to my head in sweat, and it didn't help that I'd taken to wearing it long these days. And robes are clumsy things for hiking. Very stylish and comfortable around the castle, mind you, but not too practical on the long road.

Once I cleared the empty plain and got into the woods I hacked at it with my knife and trimmed it back to more of a kilt. I slit some of the extra fabric into strips to tie back my hair in a ponytail and make a sweatband for myself and used the scabbard to cinch the waist. Kilts had their plusses, although in the back of my mind I had the nagging idea that my ensemble looked less like a kilt and more like a girls-school uniform from Andrew's world.


If I blinked, I could see his face flicker; if I closed my eyes, I could see his body; if I stood still, I could feel his hands on my body, caressing.

I shook off the memory of him, and inspected my new garment and I felt foolish all over again. Favoring bright colors in my lounging wear didn't help. If I'd stuck to brown or green I'd have a safe stroll through the woods, but somehow I thought magenta would stand out. Then again, I wasn't really trying to hide from anyone for a change. Even outlaw bands weren't likely to work their trade too close to a dragon's lair.

On a hunch I tried a few mild magic things, and was satisfied. Distance between the dragon and me was helping, but I was by no means powerful. I managed to set a feeble fire. Parlor trick stuff. If I met a band of merry men in this place, I'd have to depend on my sword. I was still stronger than anyone else I was likely to encounter, and I'm good at hacking with a blade. If something did happen I'd at least have a chance, but there'd always been a certain comfort in knowing that when a fight went bad all I had to do was use my mind to search out the elements to use what was around me for protection.

Like in the last world, where I'd sensed the making of gunpowder in a mountainside when I met Maddràs the first time, and manipulated nature enough to combine them so they'd explode. I can't create things; just use the forces around me to make them work. Fire and light - well, they're both a part of my being. Just a matter of channeling the static electricity in my body.

I sniffed the air and caught the scent of running water, but it was still a good distance away. I couldn't catch the scent of anything else that wasn't ordinary though, and aside from the hum of insects and the occasional small rustling in the bushes I didn't catch much of anything else, either. I cut myself a walking stick - small bushes can hide some pretty nasty if not exactly life threatening things. Having something along to poke the overgrowth couldn't hurt. Plus a good, hard stick can give you a little bit of an edge on something coming at you when you knew how to swing it right.

I pushed into the forest, sniffing my way to the water, figuring it would take me to what I wanted to find sooner or later. There was what amounted to a path cleared through the wood, and since it took me more or less where I wanted to go I took it, following my nose. Easy travel, I told myself. Until I heard something snap that shouldn't, and a fat log swung down at me suspended from ropes and caught me in the middle. Then the world got all dark and fuzzy again.

* * * * *

"What is it, ya think? Can't be a man. He'd be dead." A small voice, squeaky and nasal. Rather la-ti-da, too.

"You and your men. What's it matter?" came in a second squeaky voice contemptuously. Not quite so grand but with a snotty, superior tone. "Once her nibs is done with it, it will be."

I opened an eye and looked around. I was tied this time, leaning against a wall and sitting in a pile of straw. And judging by the itching I was starting to feel, the straw had its own residents that took me for a snack bar. I looked around, hoping for something to take advantage of. I'm good at taking advantage of things.

Not much of a room, I thought. Typical peasant chic -- not much more than saplings and branches tied together, the larger gaps filled with dried mud. Thatched straw overhead and loose straw on the floor, covering the natural earth. There was a pile of stones in the corner that more or less served as a hearth, what could have been two chairs if you used some imagination and a small, more-or-less flat-topped thing that could have been a table.

I tried the ropes but even with my natural extra strength they weren't going to snap. Maybe a little fire would help them but I'd hold back on that just yet; I didn't really like the idea of singed skin. And sitting on a pile of dried straw with burning ropes probably wasn't a good idea either.

"It's awake," I heard the lat-ti-da voice squeak from a dark corner. "Go get the witch."

"Why me?" The arrogant one whined. "Why don't you get her? Since when am I the servant?"

"Ah, for--don't be such a pain in the ass, okay? Just go get her and don't argue for once!"

I heard a grunt and the shadows moved. A one-foot-tall bird-like thing (minus a beak) with spiky black hair dressed in shabby looking brown britches and a shirt scuttled out of the darkness. He (it?) was a skinny little wretch of a thing with cat-like eyes, and his mushed-in mouth seemed cast in a perpetual sneer. He paused long enough to give me a withering look and snorted before snapping his fingers contemptuously in my direction from a safe distance, and flapping small, leathery wings. He headed out what passed for a door to the hovel.

"Snotty bugger," the shadows grumbled, and the other creature came out. A little shorter and as thin at the top and bottom as his fellow but with a sudden pot in the center, and with the same flair for fashion. But the face wasn't all pushed in; he sported a long, wide nose, jowls, and the eyes were green. Unlike his companion with the black spiky hair, he had longish, unnaturally red curls that looked suspiciously like a bad hairpiece.

"Who are you?" he demanded, also from a safe distance. "And what are you?"

Great, I thought. Another pixie with attitude.

I tried to keep it light. "George," I answered blithely, trying to look as stupid as I wanted to sound. Stupidity is usually a safe bet when you're out-flanked; obnoxious creatures like to think they're superior. "And what do I look like? I'm just another man. I'd offer to shake hands, but I seem to be bound. Don't suppose you'd like to untie me?"

It snorted. "Don't suppose I would," he said, getting a little closer but still careful to keep some distance, and trying to get a peek up my kilt. "George, eh? Common enough name for men, but not one I'd brag about this close to a Dragon's lair. And as for you being a man, I've got some doubts. When that log came down it should have caved in your chest. And even if that didn't work, when you flew back and hit the tree, that should have split your skull open and snapped your spine." His eyes raked over my body, sniffed me suspiciously, and there was a glimmer in his eye. He liked what he saw but he also wanted to gloat. "But here you are, all cheery and trying to be a buddy. I'll let the witch deal with you."

Rude little bastard, passed through my mind. But of course it wouldn't do to say it. "Well, maybe I'm a little... different," I said with a smile. "Uh, don't suppose you have a name?"

He looked me over carefully, wondering about me. I can't read minds, but I can read faces pretty good, at least the ones that are made more-or-less like mine. He may have sounded belligerent, but he was scared of me, too.

"You couldn't pronounce it even if you wanted to - Tim will do. And you can call my, uh, associate, Ken -- for short."

He sniggered at his own joke, which was more than I was inclined to do even if I was at his mercy. I tried to take it in stride, and string him for information. "And you are from--?"

"It's only me from across the swamp," he said in a vague way, still eyeing me. "Lovely legs," he added in a forlorn voice, reaching out and running his fingertips over my skin, playing with the hair on my legs. "So very much like someone I knew once... so very long ago..." he trailed wistfully. "Lost, lost and gone," he moaned.

I raised an eyebrow, not caring to encourage any further fondling even if I did want to score some points. "And who's this witch I keep hearing about?"

"That would be me," cut in another voice. I twisted my neck sharply, and wished I hadn't. I'm not usually hung up on appearance; I've been to worlds and met creatures whose faces would crack mirrors in other worlds. There's ugly, but there are defining moments in ugliness. Actually, this witch defined a particular eon of ugliness. >From her filthy dress to her matted hair, and the cakes of just plain dirt and greases imbedded in her skin, she made you want to shudder. I tried to smile, hiding the shudder that swept through me.

She shuffled into the hovel, fixing me with her black eyes for a moment and studied me. I've faced a lot of creatures in many places in my time, but usually I'm the one doing the studying. It was interesting being the one on the other side of things. Not pleasant, but interesting.

She turned to Tim, who rocked on his heels with his nasty little friend Ken beside him. "You two can hop it now," she said in a flat, no-nonsense voice. "I can take care of the man by myself. Just wait outside until I send for you."

"Not home?" Tim whined.

Her nostrils flared. "Does `wait outside' sound like `go home?' "

Ken gave me a dirty, doubtful look but he shrugged and yanked Tim who was still trying for a peak up the kilt and the two of them scampered for the door without another word, Ken stomping and Tim mincing. My hostess chuckled as she watched their retreat.

I shook my head. "What are they, anyway?"

She gave me a gap-toothed smile. "Them? Just a couple of old færies," she cackled. "Outcasts, really. They're such a pair of obnoxious little pains in the ass, even their own don't want them," she said, studying me. "Ran `em out of their own place years ago, and I found them in the woods and gave `em a place to call their own. I let them make a borough across the swamp -- they do favors for me now and then when I need something."

I sniffed the air again. If I could smell the river that wasn't far off, I should have been able to smell a swamp. And given the look of this woman, I should have been able to smell her, too. Nothing. Nothing unnaturally pungent, anyway. I turned my attention back to the crone, who'd dropped to a chair near the table and continued studying me.

I studied back. She may have looked like a peasant, but she didn't act like one. I'd seen that they way she carried herself. I suppose I could have gone on trying to play stupid to get some information, but something in those eyes told me she was a lot smarter than she wanted most folk to think and I wouldn't be able to carry it off. At least, not with her.

"You're not what you seem," I commented dryly, after a silence. I locked my eyes onto her, and my voice lost its casualness. "And there's no swamp. I'd smell it."

Her eyes sparkled, and the corners of her mouth twitched. We'd both made a decision about the other in those few moments, and her voice changed. Not confiding, not commanding - but pitched to the level of equals who both know there's a good deal more to the other than what they wanted people to believe.

"They think there is, and that's the important thing," She said casually. "Thinking there's a swamp between us keeps them away -- they're convinced it's a two mile walk around, and on four inch legs that's a good haul." She narrowed her eyes. "And you're not what you seem, either," she said pointedly. "The, uh outfit you're wearing means you're no peasant - around here clothing comes in two colors -- filth and dirt. That particular shade of pink would cost a tax collector three years of thieving. Plus you're hands are un-calloused though you're fit enough; even merchants and nobles have to do work here. You may look like a man, but you're not." She nodded, still with the slight curve at the edge of sunken lips. "Those two were right -- you should have been dead when you walked into one of my traps. Or at least injured enough so I'd have to nurse you. But all you did was sleep through the night and this morning."

That was news. A day? I could go a long time without sleep, but I liked sleeping. Even so, I seldom slept for more than a few hours at a time.

The witch smiled mischievously and her eyes became slits. "And I can see enough of what's in your mind to know I've met your kind before." She rubbed her chin, scratching a hairy wart.

I considered the significance of her comment on having met my kind before. Many of my kind like to travel, and we sort of have a history in a lot of places. Being recognized for a Mirror Walker isn't always good news.

"And what kind would you be?" I asked, no longer playing the fool as I had for the færies.

"Someone who could do that," she said calmly, twitching a finger and my hands and legs were free. Then she blurred for a moment and -- changed. Completely.

The hump was gone. So was the filth, along with the stringy grayed hair. All the other ugly things, too, and she was dressed better. She wasn't a raving beauty mind you, not that it would have made any difference to me. She was a woman in early middle years, a striking if not beautiful face; handsome I've heard it called. The frizzled, matted hair was now a shortish auburn streaked lightly with gray. On a lot of worlds with the right assists she would have been considered a beauty, but she didn't seem interested in the cosmetic. Her clothes weren't the rags I'd thought them, either. She was in a long, lightweight blue gown tied off at a slightly chunky waist. She wasn't a `goddess' but she was hardly a worn out old woman.

A graceful hand pointed to the stool opposite, which now looked more like a comfortable chair with cushions. I dropped into it and studied the room. Cleaner now, smooth-cut stones on the floor and covered not with woven straw but carpets. The walls were rough logs still, but not the rickety lean-to I'd first seen. Instead of clumps of dirt the gaps were filled in with something cleaner and more solid. And it was a whole lot larger.

But my straw matting and its inhabitants hadn't changed, and I stood carefully, brushing the dead grass from me. I rubbed my ankles and wrists which should have been sore but weren't. There were also no marks from the ropes. I noticed the rude pots filled with dirty animal fat were gone and small braziers glowed burning scented oil, their light reflected through the room.

I looked at her and pursed my lips. "Which was real? What I see or what I saw?"

She gave me a thin smile. "I could have cast a spell and made this. Or what you saw," she said mysteriously.

I leaned back and shook my head, stretching out my legs and crossing my ankles.

"This isn't magic," I said quietly, watching her soberly. "I'd know if it were. We're still too close to Cérosk to manage much in the way of magic. And you're not a Magician, either," I said with confidence. "I'd know that, too."

She got up and poured some tea from a brass pot sitting on a grid in the no-longer make shift hearth and passed me a cup before settling down. I sniffed it. Plain herbal, nothing more. She smiled again, without any gaps in her teeth.

"No spells," she said lightly. "I can't do things like that. But I can create illusions - like telling you while you were out your hands and feet were tied." She eased back into her chair and sipped. "I can make you see things, or think you do. I can make you think things, too."

She waved a hand around. "This place is what I built or had built with help from grateful - clients. Except for the carpets -- those are still straw mats, but they're the best I can do here. Everything else you see right now is real, including me. I'd have given you a goddess to behold if I thought it would do any good, but I already sense your not-well, women aren't exactly your thing, are they?" she said coyly, and laughed a pleasant laugh.

"I could have been a prince for you, but one grab in the right spot and you'd have known something was wrong - you might think something was there but your hands would grab air. I can fool you're mind, but the other senses still work if you focus -- like your nose. And besides, I'm not much interested in dining on any Trouser Trout at this point." She chuckled, nodding. "Most people would have never noticed, but your other senses are a lot keener than everyone else's, aren't they?"

I stared down at the carpet intently, admiring the pattern. Then I concentrated on the fiber of the rug itself and bent over to touch it. Stiff, brittle. Finally I could see it for what it was but it took some effort to break the illusion. Woven straw. I concentrated on her next. No trickery that I could find. It took a lot of effort and my head still ached so I took for granted the rest of what was around me was real.

"Illusions... and you can read minds?"

She tapped a long finger on her jaw, watching me thoughtfully. "Not exactly, at least with you. But I can get a strong sense of what people are thinking, and even when I dropped the illusion around myself you weren't exactly -- interested, shall we say. I'm not a raving beauty, but I'm not half bad, either. Something should have registered and it didn't, so that part was easy to figure out." She glanced around the room again. "And as for what this place looks like... well, that's an on-going thing. When there isn't a damned Royal Army camped a few miles away, these woods are thick with-undesirables, lets say. They can't go into the villages, and so if they see a woman on her own, they get ideas of their appeal to my sex - and in my case, there isn't anything mutual about the appeal. On the other hand, if they see an old bat in a dump with the reputation for being the local witch, I don't have to waste any time on rapist-wannabes. And stealing scraps from a witch isn't too good an idea, either. So, they move on, I don't have to put on a big show, and everyone's happy. Including me."

She poured a clear liquid into her tea from a jug and sipped at it, smiling. My nose told me there was more than a little alcohol in the liquid and I eyed it. She shook her head.

"Not after that whack to the head," she chuckled before getting back to business. "I've an idea what you are, and even your kind can get a concussion. Anyway, my illusions keep the rogues away, and the old hag routine plays pretty well with the locals. They're always out here with offerings trying to snag a love potion or to get a wound healed. I treat the wounds as best I can since the cutting edge in medicine around here seems to be prayer and leaches. And handing some poor, ditzy kid a bit of water laced with berry juice and booze with instructions to mumble some stuff, along with some whacko instructions about dancing naked under the full moon, and everyone's happy. Local legends are satisfied." She shrugged and smiled apologetically. "Hey, it's a living. But the medical treatment is real enough. And it's not like I bleed the poor wretches, either - their lives are tough enough without me making it tougher. The potions are paid for with a cushion or some plain cloth. And the broken bones, well, even men are known to have gratitude from time to time. A little free labor when I need it, and I stay comfortable here."

I smiled. "Regular fairy god-mother, are you? Ah, well. So, what do I call you?"

"Sapphy's good," she said nodding, still studying me but without hesitation, so I took it we were both on good terms. Finally her eyes narrowed and she leaned onto the table. "Okay, cards on the table. What the hell is a Mage doing on a world where magic doesn't work, eh? And don't bother lying," she added flatly. "Because I'll know. I've met your kind before."

I eyed her. No point in denying the magic thing if she could see even part of my mind. "Getting here was-an accident. I had to make a sort of quick exit from where I was and, well..." I shrugged.

She pursed her lips, her eyes still narrowed. "By any chance did your quick exit have anything to do with some no-good son-of-a-bitch named Patrick?"

Now I pursed my lips but my eyes opened wider. Being recognized for something different was one thing. Finding someone who knew Patrick was something else. But I tried to keep it casual, nonchalant - and the gut level of panic out of my voice.

"Uh, you know Patrick?"

Sapphy grimaced, slammed her cup down. "Yeah, I know Patsy," she growled, wrinkling her nose. "He's the worthless wonder who dumped me here. Came to me all smiles and promises when he found me, of course. Flat out, I'm from a world close to your own, and like you guys we've got powers; but just like all reflections, nothing is ever quite the same from one place to the next. We see a Prism, but we can only wander the places reflected from our own world and nothing beyond.

"Well, good ol' Pat said he needed an Illusionist in a world without magic. I should have known better of course -- no one can trust you Magics. Never knew a place where you'd been where they had a kind word for you. But I was getting a bit bored with my own life and a tour beyond my prism worlds sounded like a good adventure. Not that my life was bad or anything -- Patsy showed up when I had this good gig going on an island -- just me and a bunch of, uh, like-minded women. Had the natives scared shitless of us, so they came with food every day and kept their distance. It was a nice life, sitting around catching some rays on a beach, writing poetry all the time." She nodded pleasantly, leaning back in the chair and looking up at the ceiling, smiling. But then she sat up abruptly and her eyes darted back to me. "Usually," she added in a particularly acid voice, "about how much guys suck.

"Anyway," she continued, sipping the tea again, "Like I said, I was getting a little bored and thinking of walking the Prism when out pops Pat. Feeds me a line of bull about how he's recruiting from the Reflections near him for some joint ventures. Well, what the hell? I like a little adventure. Long and short of it -- he doesn't find the rogue mage he's looking for and he can't get me off this place he claimed. So I got dumped quicker 'n a used chamber pot the morning after a chili-and-salad buffet. This rat-hole is outside my Prism so I'm stuck since I can't walk the mirrors. Two hundred years I've been marooned - not much to you guys, but for us it's different. We don't kick as fast as the humans but we die sooner or later, and I haven't found a decent girl friend here yet that wasn't gone in a blink. And you have to spend years fighting with them to bathe on a regular basis."

Sapphy poured a little more of the hard stuff into her cup but didn't bother to add any more tea. "So, you had to leave your last place in a hurry... and I already know good ol' Patsy was here looking for you, so I guess he found you." She leaned in confidentially. "Any way, you're stuck here, so it seems to me we can work a little deal on the side. I can help you -- for a favor. I can help you in this place, and all I want in return is for you to get me out of here and back into one of my Prism worlds so I can find my girls back on the island. I'm not picky about which one -- if I can see it, I'll know it's one of mine."

Well, everything's a gamble, and since there was no point in any pretense that I was anything other than what she already knew, I filled her in on Cérosk. I held back about Andrew, though. Too much information here might not be a good idea.

Sapphy sat there, laughing at me. "That's so sweet - Saint George himself comes back to his people - but this time he's the champion for the poor, oppressed dragon! You know, if there are any gods, they've got a sick sense of humor!"

I eyed the jug again; I could have used a drink about then. And as for being worried about a blow to my head -- hey, remember what I said about half a parapet landing on me? I drank most of a wine cellar that week and a half of recovery out of sheer boredom, but Sapphy wouldn't budge. Instead she decided I should eat and filled a plate with a strange looking, orangey meat. I ate.

"This is good, what is it?"

Sapphy giggled. "What's it taste like?" she asked.

I thought about it. "Kinda like chicken."

More chuckles, which put me on edge. "In that case, lets just say it's - chicken." She paused while I gorged. Maybe it wasn't chicken, and I probably didn't want to know what it was, but right then it was good.

"So, about stooging for the dragon," she began.

I shook my head. "I have no intention of fighting for a dragon or anything else if I can manage it," I said in a huff. "I'm far enough away from Cérosk where I can do a few things. A little razzle-dazzle, and I'll have the King eating out of my hand, along with this arch-bishop of his."

She raised an eyebrow. "You've been away, boyo. Things have changed here, and the locals ain't so easily impressed."

I snorted this time. "I know humans," I said feeling smug. "Shake some beads and rattles at `em and they head for the hills or fall on their knees. I tell them I'm a saint, flash a few parlor tricks and that's it. They settle with Cérosk and I get-well, I get what I need back from him."

She peered at me, and I felt some nudging in my head but I pushed it back. She frowned.

"You can't hide it all. Besides, Patsy liked my home-brew jug too -- maybe a little too much." She leaned in closer. "I know you've got a mortal with you, and just a boy, too. My guess is our friend in the cave has him, which is the only reason I can think why you might want to help a dragon. I just can't see what's the big deal about a human, though - they're mean tempered and stupid enough to kill anything they don't understand. And when they run out of other creatures, they kill each other. So, what's in it for you? Just a little rough trade?"

I shrugged, began to get up. "Well, thanks for the tea," I said smiling. "I'll be moving on now. I'll just have to remember to watch out for swinging logs in the trees."

"George, we could cut a deal here," she began earnestly. "I really can help, just like I helped Patrick before he cut out on me - and all I want is a ticket out of here. You could use me."

I smiled. "And what would I do with a woman?"

I expected a lot more argument, and I should have been suspicious when she gave in so easily after being marooned for so long. It wasn't likely any other mage might come back to this world any time soon. But Sapphy gave a thin-lipped smile and pointed to the door.

"We'll see," she said, smiling grimly and cocking her head to the door. Sapphy pointed with her chin. "Hang to the left when you go out, Magician -- that'll take you to the river. Head downstream, and you should come to the army's camp by evening. And Good luck -- I've dealt with ol' Sequiosa before." She giggled, but her face wasn't pleasant. "And, uh, King Daffyd's a trip, too."

I hung in the door for a few seconds, watching her. Down deep, I knew she couldn't be trusted to give up this easy. But I decided to press my luck. "I don't imagine I could bargain with you for some different clothes, could I? I mean, a pink kilt might not go over too big in an army camp."

Sapphy eyed me malevolently. "Probably not, since you've got nothing to bargain with. And pretty much you're leaving me here to rot, so it's not like I'd much give a damn about you, would I?"

She used her chin to point to the door. " Your stuff's outside. Mind the door when it slams behind you, Magician. Oh, and one more thing," she added with a small smile and an evil squint. "In case you see these hand-sized, furry, eight-legged things crawling after you, don't be fooled by all the fuzz and antennae. They're a sort of local delicacy around here -- they taste a lot like chicken, even if they do feed on dung and insects. The meat's sort of orangey once you boil it too."

My stomach was thrilled with that information and I stepped out of the cabin. Interesting. I couldn't smell the swamp a few yards away, but I could sure as hell see it. These Illusionists were pretty good at what they did. But what I didn't see were a pair of nasty little færies standing by as instructed, although I could smell them. I retied my scabbard around my magenta kilt and headed off into the bush, following my nose to the river.

Along the way I picked up on sounds, just a little bit of rustling behind me, and I suppose most times I wouldn't have paid much attention. But they were too consistent -- always just the same distance behind me. I would casually turn my head now and again and catch a little movement. It didn't take long to figure out I was being shadowed, most likely by Ken and Tim. I wondered how they kept up with those tiny legs of theirs, then remembered the leathery little wings.

It didn't surprise me much. Sapphy didn't strike me as a very trusting soul, and I'd have done the same thing myself, and the two of them were harmless enough now that I was loose. Most likely they'd been sent to spy, and that didn't matter. But that didn't mean I couldn't have some fun, so I quickened my pace once I came to the edge of the river and I could hear the two of them stumbling along trying to keep up. I could hear the low rumble of Ken's complaining and the nasal tones of Tim's whining.

Well what can I say? Pissing them off gave me something to do.

The sun was sliding down in the western sky, signaling the mid-afternoon, when I came to the first sign of habitation outside of dragons, witches and færies. I saw the remains of a small village near a bend in the river. No people - and like I said, just the remains of a town.

It had been burnt.

At first I thought it might have been a place that could have pissed off Cérosk, but the closer I got I saw other signs. This was a systematic burning. Every structure had been torched, and judging by the condition of the ruins, the thatched roofs were what flamed first. There were items strewn into the streets too, and that was evidence of looting. This wasn't the work of Cérosk on a fly-by stopping for some fun and maybe the catch of the day. He'd have exhaled on a few of the big structures, snaffed up a peasant or two on the run, and then been on his way. There would still be survivors lurking around, putting out some of the fires.

I explored the town a little, still conscious of my escort scuttling behind me. Likely for this place it was a large settlement, capable of housing perhaps four hundred people. Well, when I came to the center of the town, I found some of them. Or at least what remained of them.

Charred bodies were piled up. And by what I could see, they'd been pretty well hacked up before they were set afire. They'd been armed as well as a peasant could be armed I suppose - scythes and heavy, blunt instruments were strewn about. Here and there was the occasional long bow and a sword or knife. There might have been some women in the mess, but it was hard to tell and the remains had been here too long for me to start digging through. I didn't see any signs of children, though.

I turned quickly, quickly enough to see some movement in the shadow of a doorway.

"You two," I snapped. "What happened here?"

No answer, naturally. I picked up a rock and flung it at a particular bit of shadow, and heard a satisfying cry of pain. Ken, I suspected. The two of them scuttled into the street, Ken leaning on Tim and rubbing a bony knee, muttering.

"Next time I ask you something, you'll answer me, okay?" I snapped. "Now, what happened here?"

Tim's voice quivered as he looked at the pile of corpses. "Men," he said simply. "This is all man business. Not ours."

"Why?" I asked softly, knowing the answer.

Tim shrugged. "When did a man ever need a reason to kill?"

I considered the answer. He was right. Of all the places I've been and with all the creatures I'd seen, only men killed like this - wholesale, for the sake and pure pleasure of killing itself rather than for food or safety the way a beast will. It's one of the reasons I've never had much of a problem manipulating the many races of men for my own comfort. If nothing else, in return I usually managed to keep them from butchering their own kind for sport.

"Do you know what happened to the rest?"

Ken stopped rubbing his leg and pointed up into the hills, and my eyes followed. I swallowed hard when I saw them... row after row of poles stuck into the earth, crowning the surrounding hills. And I could see things on the poles. Things that may have been human once. My sharp eyes told me some were small, so I knew what happened to the children. Whatever crime committed in this village must have been severe. Usually the children and the women are simply raped and taken prisoner, then enslaved one way or another once the armed rebels were put down and executed.

The survivors of the rout had been impaled. Poles shoved into their rectums, then the poles set upright, allowing the struggling prisoner to die slowly as their weight pulled them lower and lower on the wood stakes. If they were lucky, the pole was sharp and the prisoner would sink quickly at an angle and pierce the neck, ripping out the throat so they'd die quickly. The not-so-lucky ones would have the stick slowly crush up into their brain.

Those truly enjoying the curse of the gods would only slide down so far and get stuck, slowly bleeding to death on the insides. They might last for days that way, crying out in agony and begging to die while the carrion swooped down on them. It's a myth that such birds only wait until death. They're content with their prey being helpless, and the prisoners' arms and legs would have been bound.

Then it occurred to me that children didn't weigh much, so were less likely to sink all the way down. I shook my head at the thought and felt my stomach roil. I hoped they were smart enough to struggle, so they'd die quicker.

"Why?" I said, incredulous. "Rebels--" I said, gesturing at the bodies. "Well, that's part of the gamble. Why wipe out an entire town?"

"Heresy," Ken said fearfully, for once speaking without an edge of bitterness in his voice, his eyes straying over the body pile. "They refused the Archbishop's new levy to restore his cathedral, and drove out his collectors. Claimed it was unjust. The Archbishop said they was all heretics and had to die, or the whole country would rebel. But it were done in their god's name, and by King's Men. After all, a priest may not kill."

When did it ever change? A religious leader commanding men to do the dirty work for him, and men doing it in order to save their own souls. Assuming the men needed an excuse to murder.

I looked up to the hills, wondered for a moment if I should check for survivors and see if I could do anything. Then I considered the state of the bodies around me. This had all happened weeks ago. There couldn't be any survivors.

"How far before we reach this army?"

Tim peered into the sky. "We could reach it not long after sunset," he answered, still wary of me.

I looked down on the two of them, who were still eying the piles of bodies stacked up in the middle of the square.

"Stay close, the two of you. I know you're spying for Sapphy, but there's no point in your scuttling through the brush anymore -- I've known you were there since we left."

I set off down along the river bank again, flanked by a couple of unlovely, weasely old creatures who did a hop-fly sort of thing with their leathery little wings, but preferring their company more than any other kind for the moment.

to be continued...

Copyright 2003 by Keith Morrisette. All rights reserved.
Email comments to Keith_Hackwriter@Lycos.Com.
Check out my other stories at Archerland.net.,
The Boyfriend and Little Secrets, Little Lies
(Formerly And The Other Friends).
Thanks to JFinn for helping me get this
ready for posting