|A SWEET SONG FOR MISS TIA by Matt Spencer|
Tia sat in the front parlour of the little roadside shop with her feet propped up on the table, next to her naked Ghestru blade, which she left out in plain view. She glanced at the window. The sun still hadn’t gone down. She glared. Still four more hours ‘til she could lock up for the night. Not for the first time, she glanced over into the kitchen, saw the stove, and thought about how easy it would be to “accidentally” start a fire and burn this place down.
The boy who lived a mile down the road walked out of the dining room, into the parlour. “I’m done unloadin’ the grain and greens, Tia,” he said.
“Oh, right,” she said, “you’re still here.”
“Yeah. Right, right, right. So... the usual rates? I wouldn’t be so pushy, but you know how the folks are. And with you as the new management and all, they get nervous, like—”
“Your coins are in a bag in there at the end of the counter, Nort. You already know that.”
“Right, right.” He went back into the dining room, collected the payment, and came back through the parlour. He paused at the front door to gawk at her some more. “So. Tia. I’ll be back tomorrow, with the fresh oil and soap.”
“I know, Nort. Couldn’t forget it if I tried.”
“So... you’ve still got a few hours before you get to close up here, right? If you don’t wanna sit around all alone, I could hang around a while and...”
She resisted the urge to grab her sword and brandish it at the dumb little bastard. No, she reminded herself. That would get back to Lehirn. It wouldn’t go over well. As a penalty, she might get assigned to an extra month or two at this post. Instead, she just said, “I’ll see you tomorrow, Nort.” She watched him amble crestfallen out the door, then called out, “One more thing.”
He stuck his head back in, all bright-eyed. “Yeah?”
“Tell your folks to send a runner up into the hills, with a message for my brother Ketz. Tell him to get his ass down this way to see me. And forfucksake, tell him to bring along some sap-wine.”
“I thought I saw it fully stocked back there. If you’re low, I can tell my folks—”
“I mean good sap-wine. Look, just get the word out his way, will you?”
“Yeah, yeah, of course! I’ll see the word’s sent to your brother, never fear. Bye, Tia.”
Once Nort was gone, Tia thought of the sap-wine back in the kitchen. Was it too far from closing time for her to start getting drunk? She looked at the sky through the window and supposed it was. Sonofabitch. She sat with her feet propped up for a while longer.
At least the weather was nice. Maybe she should go out onto the big front porch and sit there. She wore a thinly woven sundress that had once belonged to the girl who used to live here, white with red flower patterns embroidered all over it. Part of her assignment was to look pretty—to look civilized—for the travellers who passed through, along the Northwest Trade Pass, a couple miles east of the River Road. The shop mostly sold and traded dry goods and a few other supplies. There was a little kitchen, where the former owners used to cook a big dish that lasted all week from whatever was seasonal. They also served a few local sap-wine and ale brews. There was a small dining room and a little parlour in the front with the walls lined in the goods. That’s how the former owners had done their part for these hills, putting on the friendly face for whoever rode through, no matter which side. The place let out a few rooms upstairs, for travellers who paid by the night. The former family had run it for three generations. Now here sat Tia, keeping it up.
At least these old clothes fit comfortably enough. Now she glanced down over herself and noticed that her nipples showed through the fabric. Sonofabitch, was that why the googly-eyed supply-boy had been gawking at her, even more than usual? Normally, she wouldn’t give two shits, but here she was, stuck doing civilized work, interacting daily with more or less civilized people—when she saw anyone at all over the course of a day—on civilized terms. So the dumbass kid had a crush on her. At least someone around here liked her. His family preferred to avoid dealing with her directly. They’d been friends with the ones who used to run this place. They all knew what she’d done.
Along the road outside, there approached the clicking gallop of sleashkill hooves. Tia got up and walked towards the front door. Something about the rhythm of the approaching gallop made her think of danger, of pursuit and flight. That was probably just her. Still, she picked up her blade along the way. She leaned it against the inside of the door frame, within easy reach.
Outside, she put her hand to her brow and peered out at the winding dirt road, towards the sound. A lone rider galloped his sleashkill into view, then reigned the long-legged, half-mammalian, half-insectile beast to a sharp halt, right in front of the porch. He was tall and rangy, some kind of Schomite like herself, with skin of a curious green and blue swirl she couldn’t place. He wore a wide-brimmed slouch hat. As he swung himself out of the saddle, the tails of his waist-length coat flapped back, so she glimpsed the crude, curved long knife on one hip, a bolt-caster on the other. A brace of bolts hung above his midsection, over his belt. A heavy-looking sack hung across his back, by a strap around his shoulder. Tia frowned and glanced back through the doorway, in the direction of her sword.
The young man caught his breath as he climbed the porch. He spotted her and tugged the front of his hat politely. “Ma’am. It’s Dena, right? Wanna run in, fetch your brother or your daddy, have ‘em help me stable up my beast here?”
Tia stepped forward. “I ain’t Dena. Dena’s dead, honey. So are her brother and her pa.”
“Oh.” He looked at her with some alarm. “Well. That’s sorrowful to hear. No, I can see you ain’t Dena. Mistook you for her at a distance. My apologies, ma’am.” He tugged the front of his hat again.
“No need to apologize,” she said, “unless you call me ma’am again.”
“Right. Sure. So who’s running this place these days, then?”
“I am. I can help you get your sleashkill to the stable, if you’ve got the coin for it. Were you hopin’ to buy one of the rooms upstairs for the night?”
“Yes ma—sorry—yes, lady, I believe I am. Is it okay if I call you a lady?”
“I ain’t no lady, neither, but I don’t mind if you call me that. Or better yet, call me Tia, ‘cause that’s my name.” She stuck out her hand. “What’s your name, stranger?”
He shook her hand. He had a good, firm handshake. He neither treated her hand like a delicate little flower, nor did he squeeze overly hard like he was trying to turn the meeting into some kind of wrestle for dominance. She liked that. “My name’s Malick,” he said.
He was still catching his breath, like he’d been riding hard and fast all day. His sleashkill looked winded too, but it was already a lot more relaxed than he was. They went around back and got the beast stowed in the stable. Tia gave it some food and water. Before leaving the creature, Malick turned back to reach into the paddock and rub its long, exoskeletal snout, muttering camaraderic nothings. The creature stretched out its long neck, nuzzling at Malick’s face, sad to see him go.
Tia didn’t like sleashkills. They were big, ungainly, smelly, oily, unwieldy beasts. Still, she’d come to recognize, she granted them, they were good judges of humanoid disposition. She personally disagreed with the whole idea of domesticating creatures for labour, a practice her people had picked up from the Spirelights. Still, riders who treated their beasts kindly were typically more trustworthy than most. She led Malick out of the stable and back around to the front of the building.
As they climbed the porch, she said, “I’ll show you up to your room. You look tired from carryin’ that heavy sack. You must be eager to unburden yourself.”
“I’d appreciate that, thanks. This place still let out the first room to the left upstairs?”
“It does. Got a preference, do you?”
“I remember it from time spent here in my younger years. Sentimental memories. You mind?”
“Not at all, but that place goes for two chips more than the others. You got the coin for that?”
When they walked inside, he glanced around and noticed her blade resting against the doorframe. He didn’t mention it, but gave her an understanding, possibly nervous look. She fetched the key to the first room at the top of the stairs and led him up to it. When she showed him the room, he slung off his bag, then placed it by the bed, with a strange thoughtfulness, almost a reverence maybe. He then took off his coat and hat, lay them across the foot of the bed, but didn’t remove his knife or bolt-caster.
“Would you like a hot meal down in the dining room, mister?” she said.
He circled the bed and peered out the window, which faced the front of the place and the road beyond. “Not just yet, thanks. I ate earlier, stoppin’ off by the side of the road.” He ambled about the old room, taking in the scant, quaint furnishings. He had a light, graceful step for such a trail-roughened guy. His feet made almost no sound on the floor, except in places where the old boards weren’t in the best repair. His foot paused on one squeaky board, near the centre of the room. He glanced back at her.
“It all like you remember?” she asked.
“Sure is. If you don’t mind, can I go downstairs and keep you company in the parlour for a while? It’s nice to see a sweet, friendly face.” He smiled. He had a nice smile, more relaxed than before.
“I don’t mind at all,” she said. “Sure would appreciate it, actually. It gets mighty lonely around here.” Other than the idiot supply-boy and his idiot family.
They went back downstairs to the parlour. On the way to the table, she plucked up her sword and brought it along. If he was gonna keep his own weapons within quick reach, she decided, she would do the same. She set the sword on the table between them, the grip facing her.
Once they sat across from each other, he peered at her incredulously. “Hey, wait a second. I know you!”
“Not yet you don’t,” she said.
Her attempt at flirting clearly went right over his head. “But I recognize you! Tia, you said your name was? Yeah, I’m from the Schlogmire ranges. You were there last year, weren’t you, you and your brother... what’s his name...?”
“Right, how’s he doin’?”
“He’s fine, I guess. Still Ketz. Yeah, I remember you now. We hung out in that tavern. You sang songs and played that funny-shaped string instrument. I remember you were pretty good.” She smiled.
“Thanks.” He was cute when he blushed. “That funny-shaped string instrument is called a lartre, by the way.”
Tia remembered, the thing was shaped like a lute or a fiddle, except with a rounder hollow base and a neck that curved more elegantly like that of a swan. “Would you sing me one of your songs now? You sing me a sweet song, I might knock a coin or two off your stay.”
“Maybe later,” he said. “Today’s long ride ain’t left me in much of a singin’ mood.”
“Oh well.” She glanced at the dimming sky through the window and stood up. “You want a drink? I want a drink.”
“A drink would be nice, sure.”
“Sap-wine or ale?”
She went into the kitchen and fetched a bottle, along with two tankards. She came back, filled the tankards, set the bottle between them next to her sword, and sat back down. “This place’s stocks tastes like piss, but it’s what we got. Hope you don’t mind. If you do, go fuck yourself.”
“No, really, I appreciate the hospitality.” He lifted the tankard, sipped, and made a face. “You’re right. This does taste like piss.” He shrugged and took a deeper gulp. Their eyes met, and they both burst out laughing.
Finally, Tia said, “So you’ve been here before. How come?”
“Used to travel through here a lot, back and forth with my mamma. She was a rambling bard, from Wallutia. That’s how I learned to sing so pretty, from her. She liked to travel back and forth at least once a year, from the Schlogmire ranges where she found my daddy and had me. Then as I got older, she had less chances to wander off, had to stay and hold down the farm with Daddy as the troubles heated up. Daddy wanted to send her packing home, and me with her, away from all that shit, but she insisted on sticking it out there with him.”
Tia leaned forward and looked him over closer. Ah, a Wallution ma and a Schlogmire pa. That explained his unusual look. The bloodlines mixed well, in her opinion.
He looked her over right back. “So... wow. You, running a place like this. Just from meeting you that other time, this ain’t how I’d have expected to find you.”
“Right. About that. You might say, I’ve been a bad girl and I’m bein’ punished.”
“You might not like me so much if I tell you.”
“One way to find out, I suppose.”
“The folks who used to run this place. I’m the reason they’re dead... the son and the daughter, anyway. Well, it’s their fault their pa’s dead. They were in cahoots with some crazy bandit asshole, had himself some delusions of mystical grandeur, suckered them into it. Had this whole scheme worked out between ‘em, they did, to fuck over their own pa, along with a bunch of other people, includin’ my village. Led my brother and me into a trap, damn near got us both killed. Me and Ketz killed the crazy bandit leader, with a little help from Lehirn, our village chief. Then I killed Dena and Dargby, because I was steamed up, pissed at ‘em for tryin’ to get us killed. Their poor ol’ pa, he died not long after that, from shock and grief. Apparently this ol’ place is an important post, for the information learned from travellers along the trade route, about keepin’ up with the goings on throughout the rest of this continent. The chief was real pissed off at me, for executin’ unarmed prisoners in cold blood like that.
So my penance is that I’m shafted with two months out here, runnin’ this shithole, reportin’ back whatever gossip comes through.”
Malick blinked a few times, processing all that. “Huh. Well, shit.”
“I’ll understand if you don’t wanna sit and keep me company anymore.”
“No, that’s fine. I... reckon you did what you felt you had to do.”
Tia took a drink and sighed. “No. I don’t think I did, honestly. I’ve had a lot of time to myself lately, with nothin’ much to do but sit around and think about shit I’d rather not think about. Especially shit I coulda done different, handled better... kept my own head better, like my pa used to say.” She slammed her tankard on the tabletop, then threw her head back and drank it dry in one go, in Pa’s memory. She wiped her mouth, grabbed the bottle, and refilled the tankard. “Anyhow, I reckon what I did was wrong. I mean, those two kids, yeah, they tried to get me and my brother killed, and I reckon they’d gone bad, and they needed some killin’. Still, it wasn’t right, how I ended ‘em.”
“Probably not. I wasn’t there. Guess I can’t judge. Just... wow, though. Y’know, when I met you before, I did figure you for a more interestin’ line of work than, well, all this.” He splayed his arms at their surroundings.
“You were right.”
“So... I guess... when I met you and your brother out in the Schlogmire territories, and you were askin’ around, tryin’ to find some guy...”
“Yeah. That was our more interestin’ line of work, too. That guy’s also dead now, by the way.”
“No offence, but I suspected as much.”
“None taken. So how’re things out in the ranges these days?”
“Same as ever, I suppose, which is to say, like shit.”
“That have to do with why you’re out here, ridin’ so fast away from ‘em?”
“It does,” he said. “My mamma died of late.”
“Oh,” Tia winced. “Killed by the Spirelight International Police? By the packs?”
“No, but I think, in the end, all that madness around us, day in and day out, just wore her down over the years and finally did her in before her time.”
“That’s rough either way,” Tia said in a softer tone. “What about your pa? He still alive?”
“No. He was killed, some years ago, caught in the middle of some skirmish between the International Police and the packs, I couldn’t even tell you by which side.”
“That’s even rougher,” said Tia. “My own pa was killed just a few years back. Ever since, I just keep on livin’ fast, hopin’ eventually I’ll outrun the sting, but I ain’t yet. These past weeks, stuck out here where it’s so lonely and quiet most of the time, with life so much slower than I’m used to... I’ve been thinkin’ about him a lot. Might say the sting’s had time to catch up, dig its way back in. So that what you’re doin’ out here, lookin’ to outrun the sting?”
“No, it’s way too fresh and raw for me to think that’s gonna happen. No, I’m headed back to Wallutia, to Ma’s people there, to give her side of the family the bad news.”
Tia felt almost ashamed by her surprise. She hadn’t expected anything so sad and innocent. She looked deeper into his eyes. Eyes like that didn’t lie, not about loss like that. She and Malick chatted a little more. When she glanced at the window again, the sky was darker. No one else was coming in tonight. Or if they were, Tia decided, fuck ‘em.
She got up, locked the front door, then went and made sure the back door was locked. She sat back down, took a long gulp of her drink, then leaned forward and looked Malick frankly in the face. “It occurs to me, we should continue this conversation upstairs, in your room.” She batted her eyelashes. “Like I said, handsome, I’ve been a bad little girl. I feel like I need to be punished some more, if’n you know what I mean.”
He looked taken aback at first, then he smiled. “I believe I do, Miss Tia. And yeah, I think I can do that for you.”
“Ah, yes, that was nice!” Tia slumped forward and lay on her stomach.
He rolled onto his back, sighed, and stared at the ceiling with a goofy grin. “You’re tellin’ me! Ah. Damn. I didn’t realize how bad I needed that.” He reached over and stroked her back.
She giggled, cuddled close to him, lay her head on his shoulder and played with his chest hair. “Mmmm, I could tell.”
He cradled her closer. “Hot damn, I’d known the hospitality here had gotten this nice, I’d’a made a point of venturin’ this way a lot more often, a long time ago.”
“It ain’t usually, not for just anyone.” She pushed herself up abruptly, pulled free, and frowned. “What, you think this place is some kinda whorehouse? Did you just call me a fuckin’ whore?”
“What? No! Look, I was just—”
She busted out laughing and slapped him lightly across the face. “I’m fuckin’ with you, man!”
“Oh, that’s what you’re doin’? That’s what you’re doin’, huh? C’mere!” He grabbed her, flexed his muscles, and rolled her onto her back. They wrestled and giggled, then his mouth plunged down onto hers. They kissed slow and sweet. He stroked her breasts, played with her nipples ‘til they stiffened afresh, then stroked her cheeks and neck. “Seriously, though, Tia, I like you, a lot.”
She entwined her fingers with his. “I like you a lot too. Like I said, I ain’t some slut. I don’t fuck chumps.”
“So what do you say you come with me to Wallutia?”
“Hey, wow, whoa there, boy!”
“I’m serious, my love.”
She poked his nose with her index finger. “Careful usin’ that word. You say it too many times, you start to believe it. That’s dangerous.”
“I know,” he said. “I also know you’re a dangerous livin’ kinda gal. There are still wild roads between there and here, and Wallution hospitality’s sweet. So how about it?”
She sighed, smiled, eased him down onto his back, and lay her head on his chest again. “Malick, please. You have your duties to go see to. I have mine, here in the Nagga Mountains. I ain’t gonna be at this post for long, neither. Now look, I decided to take you to bed because I really do like you. And because you’re fuckin’ hot. And yeah, I’m sure I’d still say so, even if I hadn’t been stuck all alone out here for too long, diddlin’ myself.”
He chuckled. “Thanks.”
“I can tell you’re a good man, too, ‘cause I’ve met way too many of the bad ones.”
He caressed her back. His fingers paused on one of her deep, jagged scars. “I believe that. Don’t worry, Tia, you’re safe with me.”
“Oh, ahem, I know that, trust me. Anyway, I always get hit on a lot by dudes who ride through these parts, from one place to another. It’s fuckin’ annoying. By the lands, I can’t wait to be out of this post, back to doin’ what I’m good at.”
“You’re mighty good at what we’ve been doing. Say, when I come back through this way, it be cool if I took off into those hills, hunted you down, and ravaged you some more?”
“Mmmm, that don’t sound half bad. You could do some more of that tonight, y’know.” She reached down between his legs and tugged on him. “I mean, if you’re up to it.” She slid down his body and used her mouth on him ‘til he was. He gripped her shoulders, eased her off, put her on her back, then went down and used his mouth on her for a while. Then he rose up over her, pinned her wrists above her head, and slipped back inside her. As he got going this time, she was really glad there were no other guests, ‘cause she damn near shrieked the roof off the building. That just spurred him on and drove him crazier, so she got an even better ride out of him this time.
Afterwards, he held her gently again. Before long, they dozed off together. She slept sounder than she had in a long time. It was still deep night when she awoke—not drowsy and muddled, but instantly alert and aware, like her upbringing in the hills and on the trail had instilled in her. The sky through the window was black, almost starless. The room around her was blacker still. The whole building around her echoed with utter stillness and silence. Yet something had awoken her. She knew it. She just hadn’t yet figured out what. She also knew that Malick wasn’t in the bed with her anymore. Had he gone to use the privy? No, she’d have heard the door opening and closing, and no one could be that quiet in this old building.
She almost called out for him, but some instinct hushed her. Instead, she sat up very slowly, made not a sound, and stared out into the darkness of the room. Steadily, her eyes adjusted to what little light came through the window. That still didn’t lend much visibility to work with, but it was just enough for her purposes.
She saw the outline of the entire room. In the middle of the floor, there crouched a humanoid shape with its back to her. All at once, she remembered how Malick had asked for this room specifically, how he’d ambled through it with that soft tread of his, looking everything over... how his feet had only really made noise when he’d stepped over one loose board, like he was making sure to remember the exact spot. That’s where he now crouched.
Fuckin’ hell, I should have realized right then that somethin’ was up. What was I thinkin’?
Not with your brain, obviously.
For a moment, she nearly dove from the bed at him, in an explosion of rage and shame and betrayal. Instead, she breathed slowly and stayed quiet. Whatever he was up to, she already knew how stealthy he could be. He didn’t know how stealthy she could be, though, especially in the dark. She moved the covers aside very slowly, then lowered her legs off the side of the bed, rose and moved across the floor towards him. Her Nagga Mountain gal’s night vision grew even sharper as she approached. She also now made out the outline of his bag next to him.
“What the hell are you doin’, Malick?”
He jumped so sharply in surprise that she stepped backwards. As he rose up, she noticed he’d slipped back into his trousers, complete with the long knife on his belt, which now sang from his scabbard and lashed towards her as he turned. Even with her night-vision, the metal didn’t glint much, but she saw the brightness of the blade just well enough to tell where it was headed. She leaned back and sucked in her gut, out of the way of the swipe, then stepped past him and struck with her palm where his elbow ought to be. The strike connected just right, so he cried out. She completed her pivoting step, hauled him backwards off balance, and twisted his arm. In the next instant, his knife was out of his grip, in hers, and pressed against his throat.
“Tia,” he grunted, straining for air against her hold, “please, just take it easy. Don’t do anything crazy now.”
“Don’t do anything crazy? You asshole, you just took a slice at me!”
“You startled me. It was a reflex, is all!”
“That’s some mighty wicked reflexes you got on you.”
“Motherfucker, seriously? You still tryin’ to be cute? Oh no, fun sexy time is over, buddy! I oughta just—”
Her left foot shifted further back. Suddenly the floor wasn’t there beneath it. Her foot plunged between the boards where he’d removed the loose one. One of the sides scraped her lower leg. She toppled backwards at a funny angle. Her ankle turned painfully. She lost her grip on Malick, but not his knife. As they tumbled away from each other, she felt the blade bite deep into his bare flesh.
“Ah! You bitch, you fuckin’ cut me!”
He rebounded back up, partway to his feet. He still spoke well enough, so she guessed she hadn’t cut his throat. She stuck the blade out at him. “I’ll cut you worse if you don’t stay back.”
He backed away, towards the bed. “Fuck, I think I’m cut pretty bad.”
“Aw, poor baby!” She lifted her foot out of the hole in the floor. As soon as it touched the boards, it flared with more stinging pain. She’d twisted it worse than she’d thought! She cried out, clenched her teeth, put as much weight as possible on the uninjured foot, and stood there snarling and sweating.
“How bad did you just hurt yourself?” he said.
Seriously? She answered, “Not so bad that I can’t still slice you to ribbons.”
“Didn’t think so.” His hands dropped to his sides, then rose in front of him. She heard something slide and click—that bolt-caster he carried. She’d forgotten all about it. You just didn’t see many of those in these parts. One hand stayed outstretched, while the other went back to clutching his wound. The caster must be one of those new modified ones she’d heard of, where you could nock the bolt, then leave it there, handling the weapon one-handed, to release the bolt at will by a little lever at the back. It was technology stolen and adapted from Spirelights, not perfected to any great accuracy, but Malick held his steadily, aimed right at her, without room to miss. He was being smart, too, keeping his distance, not compromising the advantage of the projectile.
So why hold her off? Why not just shoot her? ‘Cause he said he doesn’t wanna hurt me, even though he just almost gutted me. What the hell’s happening here?
“What happened to your foot?” he said. “Did it smash through anything in there? Did it?”
“No,” she grunted. “Look, what—”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I’m sure, you crazy fuck! Are you—?”
“Back away from the hole. All the way to the wall.”
She groaned as she did so. The more she moved around on her twisted ankle, the worse it felt. Once she was far enough away, he went down on his knees, scrambled back over to the hole in the floor, and felt around, all while keeping the bolt-caster outstretched and levelled on her. His breathing grew frantic, almost panicked, and not just from the slice she’d given him. His free hand patted around and touched something. He let out a heavy sigh and breathed easier.
Malick rose back up, still aiming at Tia. “Now move along, back over to the bed.”
“To the—You’ve gotta be kiddin’ me!”
“No, not like that! By the lands, don’t you already know I ain’t that kinda guy?”
“I sure thought so, but mister, you’ve gotten all sorts of confusin’.”
“I’m gonna get more confusing before this is over. I hope I can talk sense into you without this having to end bad for one of us.”
She sniffed the air. Listening to his voice, watching his trembling silhouette, she thought, It’s gonna end bad for you, buddy. There’s no question about that. I just gotta keep sharp, not lose it through this pain for a little bit longer, so hopefully it won’t end bad for me too.
“Move over to the bed, and light that little oil lamp on the nightstand,” he said.
That was further than she wanted to walk right now. She still gripped his knife. Her sword was still downstairs on the table in the parlour, she remembered. If she could just take a deep breath and get the pain under control, maybe she could chuck the knife and nail him from here. But no, he’d already lost this standoff. He just didn’t know it yet. With some light in here, she’d stand a better chance of not losing it right along with him. She made her way to the bed, sat down with a sigh of relief, and scooted sideways ‘til she reached the nightstand. There she felt around, found the lamp as well as the little striking stones. She had to set the knife down to get the lamp lit. Light flooded the room. She looked through the fresh yellow glow at Malick. She beheld exactly what she’d expected to see, yet the sight still made her gasp.
Malick stood there, across the room, the bolt-caster still levelled on her at the end of his outstretched arm. The knife had sliced him diagonally, right beneath the collarbone. Beneath the gash, a crimson shimmer painted one whole side of his torso. It seeped down through his trousers, turning one of the legs dark red, all the way to the knee. His eyes glistened and his skin looked paler.
“You really oughta look to that wound,” she said.
“Oh, I will. Just sit there and listen, will you? Don’t bother reachin’ for that knife again.”
“Didn’t plan on it.” She looked him over again. “You’ve got your pants back on, I see. You mind I at least hunt around for my dress, cover myself back up too?”
“What for?” he said. “I mean, all things considered... seriously...”
“Guess you’ve got a point.” She situated herself more comfortably on the bed. By now, she was just stalling, drawing this out. “So go ahead, speak your piece.”
“I didn’t lie to you, Tia,” he pleaded through his teeth. “I just... left out a few things. I thought I could pull it off without you catching wise, without you ever knowin’ better, without any of this ever bein’ your problem.”
“I reckon you thought wrong.”
“I know, and I’m sorry! Look, what we shared, it still means as much to me now as ever.”
She wanted to feel angrier than ever at him, for spouting that hypocritical lizardshit. She didn’t even hate him, not with the pure, bright, instinctive hatred she typically felt whenever she faced off against any opponent in such deadly moments. As they stared at each other, she noticed the soreness between her legs, from how hard he’d fucked her. That now made her feel nasty and soiled, so she almost did hate him. Looking in his eyes, though, she realized she believed him. His eyes trembled. So did his hand that held the bolt-caster. His legs shook and shifted wider. That would be him finally starting to feel all that blood loss.
Tia launched herself up off the bed on her good foot. That first bound brought her halfway to him. He jumped and his thumb pushed down reflexively on the bolt-caster’s lever. Her hand swept down and struck his forearm. The bolt shot free, whistled past her, and slammed into the wall somewhere. Her other fist slung up and cracked him in the corner of the jaw.
He went down, crashed on the boards, and stayed down.
Malick groaned and shifted.
“Hold still! And quit whinin’.” Tia shoved him back down. She slapped him across the face, not so playful this time, then tied up the last of the stitches in his chest with a cruel jerk. “There.”
She’d put some clothes on before tending to him. She cut the little black thread, set the blade aside, then reached over to the nightstand for the little clay bottle she’d brought upstairs, along with the rest of the rudimentary medical supplies that had been delivered here, just in case, courtesy of Silisha the blend-lady. She pried his lips apart and poured a greenish, syrupy liquid into his mouth. He gagged and made a face.
“Don’t you dare spit that out. I ain’t got a limitless supply of the stuff. Go on, choke it down. It’ll help you recover from the blood loss quicker.”
He choked it down then grimaced and smiled weakly. “It tastes worse than that sap-wine swill we were drinking earlier.”
“Yeah. I brought up a bottle of that, too. You can have a few sups, whenever you can sit up. You’ll need it. You got a lot of talkin’ ahead of you.”
His eyes fluttered. Finally, he sighed weakly, “Where...?”
“Oh. Gimme a second.”
She rose and crossed the room with a slight limp. Her ankle wasn’t as bad as she’d first feared. Now that she’d bandaged it up tight and strapped her sandals back on, she could move around okay. It still hurt, but she managed without feeling like she’d collapse screaming at any second. She knelt, rummaged through his bag, then came back over to the bed. She sat back down, lifted that funny string instrument of his—a lartre, he’d called it—and wavered it in front of him. He let out a heavy sigh of relief, as though their lives depended on the thing. The instrument seemed to pulse in her fist. She told herself that was her mind playing tricks.
“No, relax, neither of us stepped on it. It’s fine. I’d known you carried this on you, I’d have been a lot more insistent on you singin’ to me like I asked, while playin’ this, too. Guessin’ we’re gonna have to skip that serenade now, ain’t we?”
“Oh, I don’t know about that.”
“You can lay off the charm, honey. Don’t think for one damn second you’re off the hook, just ‘cause I patched you up.”
“Didn’t think so. Will you at least help me sit up?”
“Oh, fine, you big baby. Go easy, though. You tear them stitches, I ain’t sowin’ you up a second time.” She gripped his shoulders and pulled.
With a wince-inducing heave, he sat up, scooted backwards, and settled against the headboard. “Ah! Thanks. You mentioned a bottle of sap-wine, I believe.”
She cocked her chin. “It’s right over there on the nightstand. Don’t spill it.”
He reached over, grabbed the bottle, and brought it shakily to his lips. Once he lowered it, she snatched it and took a long pull. She eyed him patiently but sternly.
“My stomach feels empty,” he said. “Y’know, I figure I could really go for some of that solid food you offered me earlier.”
“Keep talkin’ honest,” she said. “I might go down and fetch you some.”
“That lartre you’re holding,” he said. “It ain’t the one you saw me play before, back in that tavern in the ranges.”
“Okay. So why were you tryin’ to hide it under the floorboards?”
“‘Cause that’s what Mamma told me to do with it.”
“You heard me.”
“You’re tellin’ me, you came to this place, specifically meanin’ to rent this exact room for the night, all so you could place your ma’s special lartre beneath the floorboards, with whoever you found runnin’ the place none the wiser?”
“So were you thinkin’ of that when you brought me upstairs to fuck me?”
“Hey, you were the one who—” He thought better of it and grimaced shamefully. “I wasn’t. You might say I wasn’t thinkin’ just then. Hey, the only woman I expected to find runnin’ the place was Dena.” He sneered and rolled his eyes, like he’d never exactly been Dena’s biggest fan in the first place. “Not, y’know, the prettiest gal I ever met, let alone who ever took an interest in me.”
She almost told him to cut the flattery, except, well, yeah, she’d grant him that one. “But you still figured you could slip over, out of bed with me, and do your secret business quiet like, without wakin’ me. Clearly you thought wrong.” Her frown deepened. “You already had your trousers back on. And your weapons. Don’t bother lookin’ for your bolts, by the way. I took those off you, too. As to this lartre, though. You weren’t just fixin’ to stow it under my nose. You were plannin’ to slip out with me still asleep, without even sayin’ goodbye.”
“I guess I was.”
“I know, and I’m sorry!”
“Then you almost sliced me right open.”
“I told you, that was just a reflex. You startled me.”
“I had better reflexes. I hadn’t, you’d have gotten my guts all over you. I reckon you’d have told me sorry a bunch of times after that, all you liked. I’d still be dead.”
“I guess you’re right. I guess when I woke up with you, I realized what we’d done, how you wasn’t part of the plan. So I had to change the plan in a hurry.”
“So I figure that does just make it all talk,” said Tia, “all that sweet shit you spouted earlier, about comin’ back to see me, us findin’ each other again.”
“Well... not quite. I mean, I figured you’d wake up, find out I’d skipped out, be pissed at me for a while, then... well, maybe by the time we did meet again, you’d be over it. So maybe we could talk things out and start fresh.”
“Well,” said Tia, “if that ain’t some of the dumbest shit I ever heard.” She slapped his stitched-up chest so he winced. “But let’s cut the sweet talk. You ain’t just still alive ‘cause you got a sweet tongue, a pretty face, and a nice cock. I’m still on the job out here, boy. Why in all Deschemb did your ma want you to stow away a nice musical instrument like this in this dump?”
Malick’s eyes suddenly went more lucid. “She wanted to make sure that after her death, my daddy’s brothers would never get hold of it. They always wanted it. My daddy was a good man, you hear me? One of the youngest of the last generation of the great Schlogmire land barons when the baronies fell. Him and his brothers, they grew up toiling in the fields alongside the children of the local indentured servants their parents once lorded over. My mamma wandered through, he fell in love with her song, and she took to him, and they brought out the best in each other. They made what life they could out there. It was dirty hell, but it was good and honest. Daddy taught me how to work hard, to tough out that hell, how to plough and plant, how to ride and hunt... to fight if I had to. How to kill, too... but only as a last resort.” Malick winced. “I... maybe failed him once or twice, on that last one. I can fight and kill, and I have, but I prefer to avoid it when I can. I’d much rather be quiet and sneaky and clever.
Mamma taught me those skills. She also taught me to sing, to see and feel and hear the truth, the beauty of how things could be—how all things will be, one day, even if it’s after you and me and everyone we know are all dust.”
“Right,” said Tia.
“You never heard my mamma play the lartre, not... this lartre. I’m sad you never will, since she’s gone. You had, you wouldn’t roll your eyes when I tell you we’ll all turn out better one day, in ways we can’t imagine, ways that’ll make all this blood and shit we live through now worth it. My uncles, Daddy’s brothers, they heard her sing and play, and they felt the power in it. They recognized it. But they’re just a bunch of degenerates. They’re old enough to remember the corrupt power they were born into, what our family lost, what they never got to grow up and fully enjoy. All they could feel or comprehend in the sound was the power, not the purpose. Anyone who plays this lartre, who sings with it... it gives ‘em power.”
“What kind of power?” said Tia.
“It’s different for everyone. But it’s strong, strong enough that it can’t be allowed to fall into their hands, or anyone they’d sell it to. Soon as Mamma died, they wanted her lartre, to sell its power to the highest bidder, Spirelight Priests or Schomite bandit packs, didn’t matter to them. That’s why Mamma made sure I knew, when she went, I had to get the lartre far away from them, ‘cause they’d come looking for it. I had to store it for safe keeping, in the place she’d chosen.”
“It’s so dangerously powerful, why you trust me enough to tell me all about it?”
“You’re better than them. I can tell.”
“Lizardshit. You just met me tonight.” Tia looked at the sky through the window, which had started to brighten. “Well, last night, rather.”
“I still say you’re better than those assholes.”
“Yeah, ‘cause I’m pretty and you like my cunt.”
“There’s that,” he said. “But you’re holding the lartre right now. Don’t tell me you can’t feel the power, the magic that lives in it. I ain’t lizardshittin’ you about that. So do you feel like stealin’ it or sellin’ it to worse people?”
“No, don’t guess I do,” said Tia. “Fine. I’m better than your asshole uncles. And this is where your ma used to stop in, and on the occasion of her death, told you to stow her musical instrument here. Sounds to me like she left a whole shitload of factors to chance. So maybe she was as amazing as you say, ‘cept she didn’t plan ahead so well. I mean, a loose board in the floor in some room she and her son stayed in a few times? It’s a roadside house like plenty others. How’d she figure the owners wouldn’t find a defect like that, in all the years between then and now, and, y’know, have it repaired?”
“‘Cause she sat in this room while I sat and listened to her, when I was an itty-bitty boy, and I heard her play and sing. It stirred up the spirits within the lands themselves, all around this building, and those spirits sang with her. They promised in their song that this hiding place would still be here waiting, when it was needed.”
Tia sputtered laughter. “You gotta be shittin’ me.”
“It was still here waitin’ for me, wasn’t it?” said Malick. “And so were you. And you ain’t killed me like you ought to have, have you?”
Tia almost responded with further derision, but the words caught in her throat. Finally, she said, “So you say you were on your way home to your ma’s people, back to them with this lartre, to where it belongs. So why not just bring it straight to them?”
“‘Cause that’s what the bad folks would expect me to do—bad folks like my uncles. If I could just get it as far as this place, without them catching up to me, word would eventually get to the right folks up north, about Mamma’s passing, so they’d already know where to find it. Just so long as I stowed it here before the bad folks on my trail traced me this far. If I got away before they caught me here, they’d never think to look in this place. No matter how clever they were, the spirits of the lands here would cloud their minds so they’d ride right past, ‘cause of how Mamma played and sang for the lands so sweetly, in this room. Even if they caught and killed me later along the trail, it wouldn’t matter. It would all work out in the end. That’s why I was in such a hurry to leave. But I made a stupid mistake, so now I’m stuck here. If they show up here before I leave, you’re caught up in things with me.”
Tia sighed and shook her head. “If half of what you say’s true, you’re either one of the sweetest, bravest men I ever met, or the looniest.” Then the further implications of his words sank in. “Wait. What?”
He reached out for her. “Help me out of bed.”
“What? No! You’re still way too weak to stand.”
“I could stand up with your help.”
She bit back on the obvious response, and instead said, “What for? Where you think you’re gonna get, the state you’re in?”
“Back across the room, for starters. To the old spot in the floor. I gotta stash the lartre there.”
“Okay. You sit tight. I’ll put it there for you.”
He shook his head. “It’s gotta be me who puts it there and covers it back up.”
“‘Cause that’s how this works. That’s the deal Mamma sang and played into being, between her, the lartre and these lands. I was the one who was there as a witness. So it’s gotta be me, or it won’t work.”
“Say I help you do that. What about afterwards?”
“Then you gotta help me downstairs, outside, and around to the stable. You’ll have to saddle my sleashkill for me, then help me up into the saddle. Sorry. After that, with the reins in hand, I’ll be able to ride on out of here on my own... far enough from here, anyway. Far enough from you, so you’ll be safe.”
“Fuck that,” she said. “That ain’t how I do shit. Not when someone’s...”
He smiled and stroked her arm. “What, a lover?”
She sighed heavily. “I guess so.”
“Thought you were the one who warned me about that word.”
“If you’re tryin’ to piss me off so I go, fine, to hell with you, you can shove that lizardshit up your ass. I’ll remind you, you’ve already given me a lot bigger reasons to cast you to your death.”
“Tia. Please. I like it this way even less than you. But I have to, one way or another.”
Outside, something rumbled in the distance, drawing nearer. Some woeful instinct churned through Tia’s guts. “Shit.” She reached over and extinguished the lamp.
“Now what the hell...?” he said.
“Quiet,” she hissed. “Listen. You hear that?” He shook his head. “You will soon,” she said.
Ever nearer, out along the road, there rose the clicking chime of sleashkill hooves. Tia rose, circled the bed, and peered out into the early black and silver dawn. Six riders came into view, choking the entire width of the road. The one in the middle—not the biggest, but the leanest, gnarliest hatchet-face among them—drew into the lead. He jerked his reigns and lifted a hand, so the others slowed down behind him. Looking them over, Tia marked them for Schlogmire Schomite outlaws—not so much by their skin or features, but by their ragtag apparel. The leader wore the tangled remains of a Spirelight High Tribunal judge’s wig that fell to his shoulders, and the stained, torn, once fancy suit of an Outer Schlogmire Land Baron, from back when the Schlogmire territories had Schomite Land Barons. He looked old enough to remember those days, too, so he wore it either in mockery or some warped, appropriated sense of vanity. Maybe both. Maybe he just thought it looked imposing and cool. He was wrong. That didn’t changethe deadly, supple musculature with which he easily guided his steed. Even from up here, Tia marked him as a man who was used to getting what he wanted by inflicting pain. The others donned less organized, mismatched apparel, all tattered and bloodstained, plundered half from earlier times, half from whoever had been unlucky enough to run into them, from wherever. They all wore matching long, slim curved blades at their sides in plain view, like Malick’s knife but longer. One of them, a guy with a long, pockmarked face, wore—no shit—a tattered Highborn Spirelight wedding dress over his leather britches.
Malick pulled himself to the edge of the bed and leaned forward so he could see out of the window. “Oh, shit, it’s them.”
Tia looked at the riders milling around in the road outside. Only the leader dismounted. He didn’t yet go to the door, but rather poked around and shuffled his feet in the yard, looking back and forth between the ground and the facade of the building.
Tia glanced at Malick. “All of them?”
“All the dangerous ones, the ones we gotta worry about.”
“You mean there’s more?”
“Man, either your grandfolks really liked to fuck, a lot, or women in the Schlogmire territories grow some really shitty infertility roots to chew on.”
“Both, I suppose.”
The leader looked up along the top windows and smiled. Malick gasped, hunched, and pressed Tia’s head down low.
She twisted out from under his palm. “Cut it out! It’s dark enough up here. He won’t see us.”
“Don’t be so sure.”
Tia kept her head low and peered over the windowsill. She glanced back at Malick. The terror on his face seeped into her, so her blood ran cold. He was no killer by nature like she was, but he was no bitch-boy, neither, even in his current weakened state. And those guys out there petrified him. Tia’s nerves buzzed hot. She reached for her sword, realized it wasn’t there, and remembered how it felt to be a gang-rape victim waiting to happen. She tightened her jaw murderously and thought, Not this time, you pieces of shit.
“We ain’t got much time,” said Malick. “Tia, now, quick, before they get in here, help me over to the hole in the floor. Once the lartre’s stashed, haul me to the back stairs. Get me out through the back, haul me across the backyard to the trees, whatever you gotta do, then just toss me down into that ravine out there. It’s the best shot we got.”
She shoved him down onto the bed and loomed over him. “I’m the best shot we got. Whatever happens, you keep quiet up here, you hear?”
“Tia, wait, please, you don’t know them.”
“Yeah, and they don’t know me. Come to think of it, neither do you, really.”
As she approached the door, he called out, “Wait.” When she turned, he said, “They got bolt-casters, Tia. You know how to use a bolt-caster?”
“A little.” Some unease fluttered through her voice. She bit back on it. “Don’t worry. I’m gonna try to play this so shit don’t get crazy like that. If it does, by then, it’ll be up close where casters don’t really count for shit... as you might recall from recently.”
“Against six?” She didn’t have a snappy answer for that one, so he said, “Take my caster down with you. The bolts, too.”
She nodded, picked up the caster and the brace of bolts, and walked out. As she went downstairs, she peered through the window on the front door. The leader approached the porch. Behind him, his companions dismounted and followed. Before he reached the door, she darted over to the table, grabbed her sword, brought it back over and leaned it against the door frame. She set down Malick’s caster and bolts next to it. Then she unlocked the door and stepped out in front of the asshole in the wig and Land Baron coat. Up close, she saw that he wore a leather armour vest beneath the coat. So did at least two of the others, from what she could see, including Mister Wedding Dress. Great. Tia would have to go with the assumption that they were all armoured under their silly outfits.
She did her best to look still sleepy but also bright-eyed and morning-chipper. It was an act she’d had a lot of time to practice lately.
“Oh hi, boys,” she said. “I’m sorry, but we ain’t ready to open up just yet. If it’s a while’s rest you need, the stable’s around back.” She pointed. “There oughta be room for your beasts back there.” As soon as she said it, she remembered Malick’s beast was already in the stable. Hopefully the extra dread didn’t show on her face in the dim doorway. Oh well, no breaking character now... not yet, anyway. None of them led their beasts off towards the stable. Rather, they hung back, as though awaiting orders. “If you’d like,” she said, “you can relax on the porch while we ready the dinin’ room.”
“I’m afraid we ain’t here for relaxation, ma’am,” said the leader. He spoke politely, with a stately bearing, like he enjoyed playing the respectable official, even though anyone who wasn’t brain damaged could tell otherwise. “See, we’re out here a long way from home. We’ve tracked a fugitive to this area. We asked around and heard about this roadside stop. We picked up our man’s trail not two miles from the Nagga River bridge, and we wanna make sure he ain’t hiding out here.”
“I wish I could help, Magistrate,” said Tia. “I’m afraid no one’s stayed the night here all week.”
He took a step towards her. A bit of open menace swelled up through his body, though he kept smiling pleasantly. “Oh no, ma’am, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to give the impression me and my brothers here are any sort of official police. See, it’s more of a private family matter, get me? We’d like to keep any outside parties from getting caught up in it, you see.”
So far, Tia had tried not to overdo the sweet, dumb little bumpkin act. Now she laid it on a bit thicker. “Ooooooh, wow! That sounds real scary. I sure hope he don’t show up here. I sure hope you boys catch him soon.”
“So do we, ma’am. Either way, just to be on the safe side, we need to come in and have a look around your establishment.” His tone darkened, enough to let her know it wasn’t a request.
Tia kept up the chipper act. “Oh, but won’t you still go see to your poor animals out there first? You can find the stable on your own, just fine.” She stepped close to the leader and looked up at him with big, pleading eyes. “Please?” she whispered. “I’m scared. I’m scared what’ll happen if you all just barge in here at once.”
“Oh yeah? Why’s that?”
She pressed up to him, put her hands on his arms, and whispered, “Can we go inside, real quiet, and talk in the parlour? Just you and me? He’s upstairs. He’s got my little brother and sister held hostage. I don’t know what he’ll do to ‘em if he gets spooked. Please.”
The leader looked her over. He ran his palms up and down her arms, then stroked her cheeks and chin with a big, greasy, spider-fingered hand. “Alright.” He nodded over his shoulder and signalled to the other five. They nodded back, went and led their sleashkills out of the road, then along the right side of the building.
She took him by the hand, tugged, and led him through the front door. As soon as he stepped beneath the archway, she pulled loose, spun and crouched, and came back up with her sword in hand. Before he knew what was happening, the blade slid into his belly, between the waistline of his trousers and the base of the leather vest. Her sweet little mask dissolved into a feral snarl as she jerked the blade from side to side, then twisted. He stumbled backwards across the porch. Blood splashed out of him as he cupped his belly, trying to hold his guts in. Before he could cry out, she lunged out after him. Her blade lashed up in a back-edge swipe across his neck. His head yawned back and sprayed blood all over the porch ceiling. It rained down over both of them. He landed on his back, half on the porch, half sprawled across the steps.
“What the fuck?” shrieked one of the guys from off to the side of the porch, the one in the rear. In the same instant, that one’s sleashkill went crazy. It reared up shrieking. At first, he fought over its bridle, then he glanced back and saw Tia standing over his dead brother with her blade dripping dark red to the hilt. He let go of the bridle and reached for the caster at his side. Before he could nock the first bolt, though, the panicked sleashkill’s front feet came down on his head. His skull split like a rotten melon.
Tia had no such luck with the remaining four. Once they realized what was happening, they let their sleashkills go so the beasts ran off. By the time they ran back and got a view of the porch, they already had their casters nocked and lifted. Tia flung herself back through the doorway as they let fly. She landed on her ass with her legs still sticking partway out of the door. She jerked them inside as bolts slammed into the doorframe. The bolts stuck out quivering like stiff, black spine-rat quills. The guys outside ran around to the front of the porch. Tia dropped her sword and grabbed up Malick’s caster. She was still nocking it when three more bolts zipped through the doorway and rattled the staircase behind her. As she flung herself sideways, one of them took a notch out of her right arm. Hot blood streamed down over the back of her hand and pooled stickily between her fingers. She pressed her back to the wall next to the door. Outside, their feet tramped back and forth across the yard. She peeked around, spotted one of them, stuck out the caster, and let fly. It whistled over his shoulder.
“The hell? Aw, shit, she’s shootin’ back!”
Hopefully they’d back off from the porch a little now. When she tried to nock the next bolt, she found her right hand slippery with blood, so she fumbled with it. She still managed to lock it into place, peeked out and loosed it at the nearest one. It missed and flew off into the nearby trees. His bolt whistled in past her ear, barely missing her. Another two bolts crashed into the other side of the door frame, rattling the wood against her back. Her chest thundered so powerfully that her ears throbbed, which made it harder to hear what was going on outside. There wasn’t time to pause and take a few slow, deep breaths, either. She got the next bolt nocked, poked around, and loosed it at the nearest one. This shot landed with a smack in his inner shoulder. He stumbled backwards. Her face lit up, then she frowned because he didn’t go down. Oh shit, that’s right, these bastards were armoured. In the time it took her to nock the next bolt, three more of theirs flew at her. How the hell did they keep re-nocking and loosing so fast? Bolt-casters were clumsy, tedious devices, which was why Tia had never taken to them. Those Schlogmire assholes out there obviously had, working them with such blurring grace that they almost seemed to be shooting little black darts of death out of their fingertips.
In a flash, she remembered Malick upstairs, trying so urgently to warn her about it. She’d thought he was so sweet and silly, figured she had this handled. Shit, shit, shit, shit!
As though reading her mind, someone out there shouted, “Aw, this is lizardshit! That little cunt in there don’t know how to use a caster. C’mon, let’s get on in there and end this. Fuck her shit up good. You hear that, you crazy bitch? We’re gonna make you hurt bad! Aw girl, you got it comin’!”
It raced through her mind, I probably do, now that you mention it. But not today. Not from you cocksuckers. She sprang to her feet and remembered her fucked-up ankle. The bright pain flashed up her leg so she nearly buckled and fell flat on her face. Instead, she clenched her teeth and spread her stance wider so she stayed up. Sweat rolled down her forehead and stung her eyes. She heard the first of them mount the porch. She slammed the door shut, twisted the lock into place, then darted back through the parlour. In one hand, she clutched Malick’s caster and brace of bolts. With the other, she snatched her sword back up. She glanced at the brace. There were three bolts left.
Two things, she was sure, were about to happen in the next few seconds. Someone was gonna start kicking the front door in, while someone else was gonna smash through the window to the left. She ran behind the table in the centre of the room, where she and Malick had sat drinking and flirting last night. She grabbed the rim and heaved, so it spilled forward with a floor-rattling crash. As she crouched behind it, sure enough, shattering glass echoed through the room and tinkled across the floor.
Tia rose up with a freshly nocked bolt. There was Mister Wedding Dress with his first leg already in over the windowsill. From here, she couldn’t miss. She let fly. She didn’t miss. This one nailed him in the neck, right above the collarbone. He jerked backwards, crashed on his ass outside, rose back up, then fell back down and didn’t get up again. Before Tia could savour any of it, the front door split from its hinges, flew inward, and smacked the wall. She ducked behind the overturned table. A bolt whizzed overhead and hit the wall somewhere in the dining room. Tia pressed her back against the table and listened for the man’s footsteps as she nocked the next bolt. The whole table barked and shook against her back as something slammed into the other side of it. A lance of icy pain bit deep into her from behind. She swayed forward, felt it slide out of her, flopped onto her back, and lay there. Staring upward, her eyes blurred in and out of focus. Two inches of bolt stuck out of the table, painted in dark, drooling blood... her blood. A hot pool spread from her upper back, across the floor. She heard the man in the doorway catching his breath, while she struggled to catch hers. The bolt-caster was still in her hand. The bolt still rested on the slide. She lay there perfectly still, mostly.
The man who’d nailed her strode easily through the room. She heard him let out a nervous whistle and mutter to himself, “Shit. Well, there’s that. Whatever the fuck that was.”
He circled the table and gazed down at her. For a moment, he assumed he was looking at a confirmed kill. Then he spotted the caster in her hand, pointed right at him. His face twitched. She loosed the bolt. The caster shook in her hand. The bolt punched through the soft flesh beneath his chin and jutted out the top of his head. He jerked upright rigidly, let out an explosive fart, then fell backwards like a chopped-down tree. The boards echoed beneath her when he hit the floor.
Tia sat up and groaned. Her dress clung to her back, sticky with blood. The table had stopped most of the bolt, and the tip had just pierced flesh, on her upper left side. She worked her left arm and rolled the shoulder. It hurt plenty, but it still moved fine, mostly. It was still pumping blood, and she already felt lightheaded from it. She’d better see to it soon, better not make the same dumbass mistake Malick had made earlier. She shifted into a crouch. Her temples pounded painfully. Everything around her was deathly silent. It had all happened in less than a minute, yet it had felt like hours. As her breathing steadied, it occurred to her: Wait a second. Weren’t there four of them?
That’s when another crash echoed through the building, from someone kicking the back door open. She moved to nock the last bolt. That’s when she realized her left arm wasn’t still working as well as she’d thought. It still moved, just not cooperatively. She dropped the caster and felt around on the floor ‘til her right hand closed around her sword-grip. Panting and snarling, sword in hand, she rose and stalked towards the dining room. Before she thought to seek cover, though, those last two Schlogmire assholes strode through the dining room towards her. They both grinned and pointed casters her way.
“There’s the little troublemaker,” one of them hooted. “Okay, ma’am, seriously, we’re already being generous. Throw down the sword.”
Tia blearily calculated the distance between her and them. If she lunged just right and her bad ankle didn’t trip her up, she might kill one of them before the other feathered her with bolts. Right as she was about to spring, a strange sound touched her ears... a sweet sound, familiar from somewhere. Whatever it was, it tickled every nerve in her body, so she stood still, her mind drifting through it as though awash in some warming balm.
Through the delirium, she thought, That’s it. I’m dead. This is a fuckin’ stupid way to die. Ketz’ll be shattered, but he’ll learn to get on without his sister, hopefully. Maybe, in time, he’ll realize what a stupid death it was, so he’ll get a good laugh out of it.
Then she realized the last two invaders had also frozen where they stood. Their eyes likewise rolled through the delirium, all silly. The more the sound flooded the whole building, the clearer she heard it, both the plucking of strings and the trilling of the voice that blended so flawlessly. Somewhere, in the same rhythm, she heard shaky feet descending the staircase, but those no longer seemed to matter, any more than her own injuries which still wept blood. Someone was singing while strumming and plucking at a lartre. Not just singing or playing... bringing to life everything, everywhere, drawing it all into this room, overwhelming and paralyzing the three fighters with the magnificence of the sound. The voice sang in some language Tia didn’t know, from anywhere... yet in that moment she knew it, knew everything he was telling her, in a way she’d never find words for ‘til the end of her days.
Her eyes rolled to the side as Malick walked up next to her. Their eyes met. For that one instant, it was almost as perfect as the great sex they’d had earlier. Maybe more perfect.
You’re the one who warned me of the dangers of that word.
I think we’re pretty well beyond danger here. Well, I am, anyway. You missed most of the fracas. Whatever, to hell with it. Here I am swimming in it. So are you. This is everything. I love you.
No, not beyond danger. Not quite.
Through all that, Malick didn’t break stride once. The sound he created took physical shape that filled the whole room. Throughout those swirling shapes, she saw her own life flash before her eyes, past and future. His too. All her joys and sorrows, every soul-crushing humiliation, every savagely exalted triumph, they all became one, part of so much more, of something she’d never realized existed. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she witnessed every future, kind and cruel, that they might or might not share, everything she’d someday know, with or without him. It all led her to the same death, in the years to come, at which point she looked back on a thousand different lifetimes, witnessed as many histories of all Deschemb spilling constantly in and out of being. Sometimes she saw herself in old age surrounded by children and grandchildren, before a crackling hearth, other times cold and alone, but it always somehow led her out to some craggy, windy moor where she died with no company but her putrid enemies, sword in hand. She saw it all in Malick’s song, and all she wanted right now was to stay here with him throughout eternity, for them to make their own past, present and future together in the bliss of the music he made.
Through it all, she felt her two opponents hearing and absorbing the sound, experiencing it right along with her in their own way. For a fleeting moment, she felt their inner worlds, everything that had led them to this point, as mad and complex as her own. She almost regretted the knowledge that she’d soon kill them, or they’d kill her. Almost. What it came down to was, she’d much rather live.
Malick kept playing, but Tia’s paralysis broke. She once more saw and felt the hard, factual physical reality around her. Her eyes rolled around and met those of the other two murderers still standing in the room. The one on the left pointed his bolt-caster at Malick.
“Oh no you don’t,” Tia shrieked. She shot forward into a deep lunge. Her sword flashed in an upward cut. The man’s caster thudded at his feet, along with both of his forearms. He gaped at her and extended his pruned limbs. The gleaming bone stuck out at the centre of the dark red stumps, before the blood spurted and showered her. She never stopped moving until it was done. She pivoted towards the other man and saw him aiming his caster at her. She voided past him, so his bolt flew over her shoulder and landed someplace else. Her sword completed its arc in a downward chop. It caught him across both legs and ripped open one of his femoral arteries. He buckled and bled out in less than a minute.
By the time Tia’s head cleared, Malick had stopped playing and singing. She looked around frantically, terrified for a moment that a stray bolt might have caught him or something. He shuffled towards her. His mother’s lartre dangled by the neck from his hand at his side.
Tia dropped her sword, stumbled forward, threw her arms around Malick’s neck, and pulled him close. “Wha... what the hell just happened?”
“I think you just saved me by taking out the last of my asshole uncles.”
“I think you just saved me, too.”
“So... does that make us even or something?”
A delirious chuckle escaped her. “Shut up, you dick. No. Really. What did you just do?”
“I’m not sure. I didn’t know I could do that. Or I never dared let myself.”
“I don’t suppose you dared let yourself bring down the rest of that little bottle of replenishment fluid, did you?”
“I’m afraid not. I don’t think there’s much left. Had to chug most of it, just to get up the energy to pull that there stunt.”
“That’s too bad,” she groaned. “I think I got myself pretty badly fucked up right here.”
Still holding onto each other, they collapsed to the floor and passed out for a while.
Tia rose while Malick was still asleep. She kissed him softly, then went downstairs. She was holding together pretty well, all things considered, just some stiffness in her left arm. A small chest of drawers was shoved up against the front door, holding it shut. To the left, the big table had been flipped up to cover the shattered window, with more heavy furniture pushed up to hold it in place. Tia pushed aside the chest, opened the door, and stepped out into the soothing afternoon sun.
Right as she breathed it in tranquilly, her ears perked up. Around the side of the building, a soft set of feet whispered through the grass, very slowly. Tia cursed under her breath, slipped back inside, and came back out silently with her sword in hand. Around the side of the building stepped her brother Ketz. They both jolted and brandished their blades, then recognized each other and settled.
“Holy shit, sis,” he said. “The hell happened here?”
“A whole lot of fuckall, ‘til last night and this mornin’.”
Ketz sheathed his sword and came up onto the porch. He looked around at the shattered glass and bloodstains. “Followed by a whole lot of somethin’, looks like to me. I’m guessin’ you ain’t got the place open for business today.”
“Nope.” She explained briefly what had happened, without going into much detail about Malick’s situation or what he was like.
Ketz whistled. “Reckon that explains that herd of spooked sleashkills I saw runnin’ through the woods, with saddles and no riders.”
“I reckon it does. That, and the pack of assholes coolin’ their heels at the bottom of the ravine out back. What the hell are you doin’ here, anyway?”
“A runner found his way onto my scouting route, said I should come see you. Plus, hey, I miss my sister. Sorry I wasn’t here sooner.” He hugged her.
“Ow! Easy! I took some punishment.” She hugged him back lightly. “Yeah, so am I, but hey, look, I got through it in one piece.”
“You sure did! Well, I got good news. Overheard the chief sayin’ that he figures your time at this post is up. He’ll be comin’ down with your relief in a day or so.”
Tia frowned. “Meanin’ there’s fresh work elsewhere he needs me for, work I’m better suited for than this shit.”
“Yeah.” Ketz looked again at the debris and chuckled. “Guess this’ll show him to try to stick you with some civilized ladylike work lizardshit.”
“It better. Hey, I held the old place down for him, didn’t I? And man, do I ever have some roadside intelligence to report back to him!”
“You say that guy you helped out, he’s still hangin’ around?”
“He is,” said Tia. “He was still upstairs asleep, last I checked.”
“Uh-huh.” Ketz smirked and nodded.
“Oh, hush! Listen to you, stuck down here alone in this cute, quaint little place, got you talkin’ all pretty an’ shit.”
“Go suck a dick,” she said. “There, happy? Anyway, I think I’m gonna go up and check on him. Mind givin’ me a moment?”
When she reached the room, Malick was up and getting dressed.
“Guess you’ll be healed up and on your way soon, huh,” she said.
He nodded bittersweetly. “I have to.”
“I know. Sure you’re up to it yet already?”
“Yeah, I’ll be fine.” He pulled her close and kissed her long and slow.
When she finally drew back, she glanced at the bed. The lartre lay there next to his bag. “You haven’t hidden it under the boards yet.”
He shook his head. “As you heard this morning, it ain’t just with me for safe keepin’ anymore. It’s mine and I’m its, like my mamma before me. It’s mine to sing and play with in my travels now, to spread its magic like she did... mine to bear its power. Her folks up in Wallutia are in for a surprise.”
“You’ll do her proud, Malick. I know you will. And hey, guess what! My brother Ketz is here, downstairs right now. I’m sure he’d love to meet you.” She smiled brighter. “Oh, and you know what else? He says I should be relieved of this post in a day or so.” She pressed up close to him. “So I was thinkin’, if you ain’t in too big a hurry to get up north, you could maybe follow me up into the hills, stay a while... spend some time with some real Nagga Mountain hospitality?”
He put his arms around her. “Now that sounds like a fine idea.”
“Good, ‘cause you still owe me another sweet song.”