Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Are You Going To Ulverrun Fair?--Part 19

The whole Festival was in an uproar as Elaine made her way through the crowd. Apparently someone had attacked a Cthonique. It also apparently hadn’t gone well for the attacker, except for the fact that he was still supposedly alive, though whether this good luck would last was anybody’s guess. Elaine looked around for someone she knew, hoping for some clarification. Eventually, she found that someone, though not quite the someone she wanted. Mansemat Cthonique was deep in discussion with Roland Miller when she reached him.

“I--hope this--unpleasantness hasn’t--spoiled the Festival for you,” muttered Roland Miller nervously.

“Of course not,” replied Mansemat calmly. “On the whole we’ve had a lovely time here.” He shrugged. “And the attack was clearly not your fault. A pair of foolish youngsters from across the river, with more daring then sense.”

Roland nodded eagerly. “Of course. Of course. It’s good you can see that.” He looked sheepishly down at his shoes. “Some of the aldermen were worried about--reprisals.”

A slight smile toughed Mansemat’s face. “I consider life a precious commodity, Mayor Miller, and I abhor its senseless waste. We are all of us the Mother’s children.”

This produced another eager nod from Roland. “A noble sentiment. Noble indeed.” He bowed deeply. “Truly, Lord Cthonique you are a most…”

“Noble man,” said Mansemat gently. “Yes, I get your drift.”

“Sorry,” said Roland mildly. “I’m just very, very happy about the whole… ‘not killing us’ matter. It’s a very good policy, and it has really made my day.”

Manesmat nodded. “I do try to keep those around me happy.” He glanced to his side. “Oh, hello Elaine. Didn’t notice you were there.”

Elaine glanced away. “Yeah. Well, I am.”

Mansemat bit his lip. “Yes. You most certainly are.”

Roland coughed. “I--believe I have to go elsewhere. I’m having a clock delivered at the moment…” He smiled and nodded before turning to leave. “It’s mahogany!”

The pair watched him go, then stared at each other in awkward silence. Finally, Elaine broke it. “So. Where’s… Mom?”

“She and Malina are watching a Harlequin and Punch play,” replied Mansemat. “Malina seemed a bit tired, so it’s mostly to give her a chance to catch her breath…”

Elaine nodded. “Ahh. And--how did the ninepins game go?”

Mansemat gave a cheerful chuckle. “Oh, I don’t let trivial things like that concern me. I can barely re…”

“That bad, eh?” noted Elaine calmly.

“I came in third place against my six year old daughter,” said Mansemat grimly. “I think the ground was uneven.”

“If you say so,” noted Elaine. “Ummm--so, what’s this about an… attack?”

“A river trader and a Milesian tried to kill Nisrioch,” said Mansemat calmly. He turned and began to walk away. Elaine quickly fell into step beside him.

“Is he okay?” asked Elaine, a slight tremble in her voice.

“That’s why my choice of words included ‘tried’.” Mansemat smiled. “Honestly, from what I hear it might just edge out my ex-wife’s attempt to kill me with a dancing bear for overall ineptitude. Though not strangeness.”

Elaine blinked. “She… with a bear?”

“Falerina is… not the most stable of women,” noted Mansemat.

“Ahh.” Elaine gave a slight nod. “Well--I’m glad Nisrioch is… okay. He’s… a real nice guy. Essentially.”

“He’s finest fellow I know,” said Mansemat with a fond smile. “Now don’t ever tell him I said that. Nissy’s ego is already larger than some mountains. If it gets any bigger, the resulting earthquake could turn the Plains of Dread into an ocean.” Elaine looked at him, clearly somewhat startled. He smiled at her. “Yes, I do have sense of humor. It’s not much, but it’s mine.”

Elaine turned away. “I’m happy you weren’t attacked either.”

“Thank you,” said Mansemat. “So am I.”

Elaine looked around. “So--where are we going?”

“We are looking for Morgaine…” noted Mansemat, edging his way through a large cluster of people.

Elaine nodded. “Oh. Well, that--WHOA!” She fell to the ground, and then looked at what had tripped her. “I… think I found her.”

Manesmat looked at the curled-up form of Morgaine. She was stirring fitfully and occasionally muttering things under her breath. “Ahh, yes,” he noted. “I should have seen this one coming.”

Elaine sniffed. “She smells… sort of like a brewery…”

“Probably because she just emptied one,” said Mansemat with just a touch of bitterness. “I swear, this is the Fangs’ Peace Talks all over again.”

Morgaine’s amber-colored eyes opened, bleary with drink. She gave a nod. “Hey, Manny. Elaine. I won a cup!” She raised a hand, revealing a large beer stein.

Mansemat nodded. “Very nice.”

“Ain’t it?” she said cheerfully. “Why are you spinning?”

“Just to torment you,” replied Mansemat.

Morgaine shut her eyes. “Okay, then.”

Elaine looked at her stepfather worriedly. “This is… not good, right?”

“Oh, not really,” he said forbearingly. “At least she hasn’t undressed. Yet.”

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Are You Going To Ulverrun Fair?--Part 18

Justinian Sigma stared at the body of Lord Cthonique.

A body that had somehow managed to not be remotely touched by his sword.

“A query,” declared the Dark Lord. “When you said ‘prepare to die’--was that a philosophical instruction, or a literal order?” Justinian swung again. The Erl side-stepped his blow with preternatural ease. “That is to say--are you telling that I must prepare myself for the inevitability of my own demise, as we all must, or are you telling to perish as you desire me to?”

“DIE!” shouted Justinian, slashing at his head with the blade.

Lord Cthonique managed to very swiftly and very neatly duck under the sword, a remarkable feat for a man as tall as he was. “Ahh, so it was the latter!” He smiled and shook his head. “Really, that is a very foolish thing to tell someone to do. They’re very seldom willing to do what you request.” He smiled broadly. “Tell you what, young man--let’s forget this foolishness and both go on with our respective business as if nothing had happened! Sound good?”

Justinian snarled. While he would freely admit he wasn’t a great swordsman, he was a good one. And yet the Dark Lord dodged his blows with a contemptuous ease. This was not how he’d pictured their great conflict. He’d known he could fail. But he expected to be at least acknowledged as a threat. He charged forward and stabbed at Cthonique.

Cthonique sighed as he leapt to the side. “Very well then.” His hand darted out, striking Justinian’s sword arm. Justinian screamed as the pain shot up to his shoulder. As it faded, his arm was left feeling heavy as lead. He struggled to raise his sword. Gritting his teeth, he took another swing at the Dark Lord, who easily dodged his clumsy blow. Lord Cthonique nodded. “I have to admire your determination,” he noted, and then darted forward.

What happened next was a rather agonizing blur to Justinian. Mulling it over later, he decided that Cthonique had kicked him very swiftly in the stomach, then elbowed him in the back when he keeled over, and finally swept his feet out from under him while he was dazed. But at the time the only thing Justinian knew was he hurt a great deal, and had somehow wound up on the ground. With the Dark Lord standing on top of him, pressing his foot against his chest, and his sword quite a few feet away. “Now then, young man,” Lord Cthonique said cheerfully, a bright smile on his face, “care to explain this silliness to me?”

“Step the hell away from him, BASTARD!” came a loud voice. Justinian’s dazed eyes drifted towards its source, finding Jean Crow standing there, leveling Sigma’s crossbow at the Dark Lord. She took a deep breath. “You said earlier--you were willing to forget this. I think you should--revisit that idea.”

“Sorry--no. Not going to.“ Lord Cthonique gave a cheerful shrug. “I’m afraid my interest has been piqued. I fully intend to have a nice chat with this young man.”

Jean nodded. “Okay, then.” Her finger went to the crossbow’s trigger.

“J-just run, Ms. Crow,” rasped Justinian. “I’ll be fine.”

“Shut the hell up, Sigma,” she said calmly, firing the crossbow.

Nothing happened. Jean stared at it in shock. “The first time you tried to escape--when you knocked me in the water.” Justinian groaned mildly. “Warped the string. It’s useless now”

Jean’s eyes widened. “What the…? You stupid asshole! You could have damned well told me!”

“Oh, that would have been brilliant,” snarled Justinian. “What was I supposed to say? ‘Don’t get too alarmed about the crossbow I’m pointing at you, miss--it doesn’t work, so there’s no actual chance that I’ll shoot you with it’.”

Jean stamped her foot. “Well, damn it, I’ve been worrying about getting shot for the last few DAYS!”

“That was the idea!” screamed Justinian.

It was at that moment Hoppedance lighted on Jean’s shoulder and began cawing “Bugger the bastards! Bugger the bastards!”

“Quiet, you,” muttered Jean.

“Oh, you two are simply too much fun,” chuckled the Dark Lord. “I’m going to have to chat with you both for the amusement alone.”

Jean nodded. “Right. Sure. That’ll be…” She turned quickly, and tried to make a break for it. Unfortunately, the two black-coated guards that had been sneaking up on her made short work of that.

“You all right, Your Excellency?” said a third guard, a Goblin who smelled strangely of rosewater, as he tied Jean’s wrists.

“I’m fine, Serjeant. Thanks for asking.” The Dark Lord smiled. “If you could find me a secluded place to chat with our… guests, it would be appreciated.”

“You can do what you want,” said Justinian quietly, “but I will not reveal anything to you, Dark Lord, save that I came to your lands to end you and the threat you pose to the Lands of Light.”

Lord Cthonique stared at him, a twinkle in his rainbow-colored eyes. “My lands?” He threw his head back and laughed. “Young man, you have the wrong Lord Cthonique. You’re thinking of my younger brother, Mansemat, head of the House, the Cthonique of Castle Terribel. I’m Nisrioch Cthonique, Dark Lord of the Howling Waste. I’m the wacky Cthonique with a penchant for kooky, zany hijinks!” He glanced at the Goblin. “Oh, and Grizzel, if you could be a dear and heat up some water for me to use during the chat, that would be super.”

Jean whimpered. “Shit-for-brains!” cawed Hoppedance.

“Quiet you,” she muttered, as the crow flew away.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Are You Going to Ulverrun Fair?--Part 17

“--Not really what I expected,” noted Sacripant. “I mean--when they tell you about the Guard, they go on about ‘adventure’, ‘excitement’, and all that.” He rubbed his chin. “And mentioning that the pay is good on top of that.” He glanced at Quiet. “Sorry. I’m boring you aren’t I?”

The Ghoul shook his head, and motioned for Sacripant to continue. “Thank you for your patience.” Sacripant shrugged. “Thing is--I’m mostly bored out of my skull. Except when I’m annoyed.” He turned towards Quiet. “Naturally, Grizzel doesn’t hear a word of this.”

Quiet touched his fingers to his veiled lips, and turned them, as if locking a door with a key. “Thanks. I have to say--your surprisingly good at conversation for a mute. Best talk I’ve had in ages.” He glanced over at the drinking contest. “Sure is something, isn’t it?”

Quiet nodded. Morgaine was not merely dominating the game--she had become the game, as every other competitor had stopped, simply to watch this short, small Erl woman put away her liquor. Presently she was drinking straight from the barrel, a steady stream of beer pouring directly into her mouth. As it finally slowed to a trickle, she tossed the barrel away. “ ’Nother barrel!” she shouted, wiping her lips with her arm.

The mayor approached Morgaine warily. “Ahh, yes, your Ladyship.” He coughed. “I was just talking to the brewers, and they agree that your… sterling performance so completely outstrips your rivals that… well, you win.” He brought out a large mug. “You are awarded this lovely beer stein, filled to the brim with silver marks.”

Morgaine stared at it for a moment, then reached her hand in and pulled out a handful of coins. She stared at them in bafflement, then tossed them away into the crowd. She watched as people scrambled to pick them up, and tossed another handful, then turned the mug over and dumped the marks out. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I’ve got plenty of marks. I love the cup, though. Could I get more beer in it?” She raised her hand and made a pinching gesture. “Just to top off me a bit…” She smiled blandly, and suppressed a hiccup.

The mayor blinked. “But the… prize money…”

Morgaine gave a dismissive wave of her hand. “Ehh, give it to someone who needs it. Consider it a charitable… thingy on my part.” She smiled and blew a kiss to the crowd. “I love you ALL. You’re such nice people!” She glanced around anxiously. “Has anyone seen my hat?”

“It’s on your head,” said the mayor gently.

Morgaine patted her head, and nodded as her hand felt her crown. “Ahh. Very good.”

“I see she’s been getting comfortable,” said a familiar voice right behind Sacripant.

The Marsh Erl turned and regarded Grizzel. “She certainly has.” He blinked. “You look--different.”

Grizzel frowned. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Quiet tapped the top of his head, and then mimicked a pair of scissors. Sacripant looked closer and nodded. “Damn it, you’re right! He’s had a haircut.” He sniffed the air. “And… is that rosewater?” He chuckled and shook his head. “When you doll yourself up, you don’t stint.”

Grizzel huffed and turned away. “Well, you two have certainly become chummy.”

Sacripant’s planned reply was cut short by the sound of a woman screaming. “They’re trying to kill Lord Cthonique!” She rushed into view, waving her arms frantically. “He was… just walking, and he was attacked!”

A worried murmur rushed through the crowd--only to be stopped by a loud cough by Morgaine, rising majestically from her seat. “Fear not, good citizens. Our loyal Guard shall take care of these malefactors! And I personally shall lead them into battle!” She took one step forward, wobbled unsteadily, and then fell on her face. “On further examination of the situation--I will leave the Guard to its own devices, and lie here, on the ground. At least until things stop spinning.”

Grizzel nodded. “Let’s go then, lads, A Cthonique’s in danger it seems.” He lifted the battered, old war hammer that hung on his belt, and sprinted away. Sacripant and Quiet quickly followed, weapons ready. As they ran, it occurred to Sacripant that they were moving in unison, just as they‘d been trained to do. It seemed that all those drills were accomplishing something besides making him ache in places he hadn't been aware could ache.

“Well,” declared Morgaine some time after they left, “the ‘lying on the ground’ part of the plan is going beautifully.” She curled into a fetal position. “Oh, lovely ground, embrace me with your solid groundy goodness.” She let out a small whimper, and shut her eyes.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Are You Going To Ulverrun Fair?--Part 16

“Have you given up yet?” Jean asked. “Whatever you thought was going to happen--isn’t going to.”

Justinian was watching the crowd intently. “Unlike you, Ms. Crow, I have faith,” he said softly. “The Holy Light has brought me to this place. And it will let me serve my purpose here.”

Jean stared at him, sadly. “You’ve said that shit so often I’m starting to think you need to sell it to yourself. Which is damned sad.” She took a deep breath. “Look--you’re not going to get your chance to play a blasted hero. But is that really so bad?” She placed a hand on his shoulder. “I mean--who cares what the bastards who sent you out on this fool’s errand want? Screw ‘em. You can--work with me.” Justinian turned and looked at her. “I--I need a partner. This is a--two-person business. I’ve been getting by all on my own, since my fa…” She shut her eyes. “I’d like… your help. Underneath all the self-righteous bullshit--you’re smart and you’re decent. Those are rare qualities where I’m concerned. I’d like someone who has them to stick around.”

“Bugger yourself! Bugger yourself!” cawed Hoppedance.

Jean turned towards the crow in a rage. “Don’t you have any idea when to keep your damned beak SHUT!”

“Shit-for-brains! Shit-for-brains!” Hoppedance replied.

“That’s it.” Jean crossed her arms, and leaned diffidently against her stall. “As soon as this is over, I’m getting a new crow. You hear that, Hoppedance? You’re going to be obsolete.”

It occurred to Jean that Justinian had been rather ominously silent during all this. She turned and noticed he had gone back to looking at the crowd. In fact, he seemed to have narrowed his eyes on someone in the crowd. She followed his gaze. “So… It’s that girl from earlier.” She gulped. “Standing next to a tall… sinister looking… Erl.” Jean coughed. “That’s… odd.” She felt a sinking in her stomach as she stared at that robed figure, a man with a shock of white hair, taller than he had any right to be.

Justinian stepped out of the stall. Jean grabbed his arm. “You don’t have to do this.”

“Yes, I do,” he said quietly, gently brushing her hand away. He walked into the crowd. The tall man and the blonde girl seemed to be talking together--Justinian saw the girl smile slightly, as the man seemed to laugh. She turned towards the man, and gave a shy nod, saying something Justinian couldn’t hear. The man said something in reply, then smiled and waved as she moved away. Justinian nodded. That was good. Somehow, the idea of killing a man in front of somebody they both knew seemed--unpleasant.

The man watched the girl--Elaine, that was her name--move away, then turned his attention towards some of the stalls. He strolled by them, looking over their wares, before stopping in front of a toymaker’s stall. The tall man leaned forward to examine the toys. Justinian approached. The man’s eyes were quite remarkable, with multihued irises that seemed to slightly refract the light. He smiled at the toymaker, a slightly plump woman. “This is very fine work.”

The woman gave a bow. “Your Lordship honors me.”

He looked at her pointedly. “Your work honors you. I was merely commenting on it.” He picked up a pair of dolls. “I’d like to buy these.”

The woman smiled at him. “Daughters?”

The man gave a sad shake of his head. “Nieces. I… have no children.”

“Oh.” The woman looked the dolls over and nodded. “Well, they should like these.” She regarded him for a second. “Lord… Cthonique?”

The man nodded, his rainbow-colored eyes reflecting the light of a nearby lantern. “That’s right.” Justinian’s hand went to his sword. But he couldn’t kill him right there. Something in him revolted at the idea of killing a man--even a Dark Lord--while his back was turned. And he was buying presents for children.

The woman pressed the dolls into the man’s hands. “Here. Consider these a gift.”

“I couldn’t,” he said with a mild laugh.

“I insist,” she replied cheerfully.

He nodded. “I see.” His hand went to his sleeve and pulled out a handful of coins. He placed them before her. “Then you have these.”

The woman stared at them, amazed. “Your Lordship… I… I couldn’t…”

“I insist,” said the man cheerfully. “Consider it a gift.” He turned away, and walked back in the crowd. Justinian took a deep breath. He had to do this. He couldn’t let evil get away, even if it was pleasant, well-behaved evil that gave generously to shopkeepers, and always tried to be polite. He stepped forward, hand on his sword, quickly falling into the tall man’s steps.

“Lord Cthonique,” he shouted, drawing his sword. “Prepare to die!” He swung the sword.

The crowd went silent.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Are You Going To Ulverrun Fair?--Part 15

Elaine du Lac stood in the doorway of the cottage she’d shared with her mother for eight years. It was amazing how much it’d degraded in such a short amount of time. Already, ivy was growing over the walls, and the whole place gave off a rather musty smell. Still it was home. Her real home.

As she walked through the door, the sounds of the Festival receded into the distance. The cottage was set off from the rest of the Ulverrun, granting the witch a certain measure of privacy. And allowing the rest of the village to keep the dirty Nightlander at a healthy remove, a cynical voice at the back of Elaine’s head noted. She shut her eyes. Now was not the time to think about things like that. Now was not the time to let Rosalind and Celia’s actions ruin this for her. She was here. For a little while. Best to enjoy it.

It wasn’t much. Just two little rooms. But that’s all they’d needed. As she strolled into the tiny bedroom they’d shared, she sat down on the cot that lay at the foot of her mother’s bed. Elaine had slept there for years, tossing and turning on the little thing, and occasionally getting woken up by her mother--Viviane was often an uneasy sleeper. Elaine had been bugging her for a new room. Well, she’d certainly gotten that. With a lot of other crap that she’d never expected to be attached to it.

She leaned back, hoping to just sprawl and relax, and then let out a yelp as her head hit the bedpost. Popping right back up, she massaged the bump, and eyed the cot resentfully. That was impossible. It’d only been three months! She stood up and walked over to the doorway, where various notches had been cut over the years. Lining herself up, she noted the tallest mark was now level with her eyes. “Damn it, is this ever going to stop?”

“Eventually, but you’ll be growing like a weed ‘til it does.” Elaine turned in shock to see Nisrioch Cthonique sitting at the cottage’s dining table. He smiled broadly at her. “Trust me. It’s experience I have in great abundance.”

Elaine managed a bow. “Lord Nisrioch. I’m sorry I…”

“Oh, don’t bother with all that formality,” said Nisrioch. “You’re family. And I hate it anyway. I mean what am I Lord of?” He shrugged. “The largest area of non-arable land in all of the Realms of Night.” He chuckled slightly. “Truly, I have been blessed by the Darksome Lady.”

Elaine fidgeted. “Yeah, but you’re one of the Nine…”

Nisrioch gave a dismissive wave of the hand. “By custom. The title’s practically an honorific. I show up at the Screaming Waste every few months, make sure the governor’s not embezzling too much, nod sympathetically at the hetmans, and then go home.” He took a bag out of his sleeve, and reached a hand into it, then popped the resulting handful into his mouth. He leaned the bag towards Elaine. “Chocolate? They’re scrumptious!”

“I’ll pass,” said Elaine, keeping her distance.

Nisrioch sighed. “Your loss.”

Elaine watched him eat for a moment before speaking. “So--how’d you and Morgaine end that thing with the… popped corn…?”

“Oh, she bought herself a giant pretzel. They’re very happy together.” Nisrioch sighed. “I hope it lasts, but somehow, I don’t think it will…”

Elaine managed a slight nod. “How’d you know I was here?”

“Didn’t, but it seemed like a good guess,” replied Nisrioch quietly. He looked at her, rainbow-colored eyes intent and sympathetic. “You know, Elaine--growth spurts aren’t the only thing I remember from that age. Awkwardness and melancholy are other things I recall.”

“Nisrioch, when you were my age, you were already a great sorcerer,” declared Elaine with a frown. “Don’t pretend you had the same sort of problems.”

Nisrioch’s eyes narrowed slightly. “But I did, Elaine. Magic doesn’t solve these sort of difficulties. It just sets another sort of difficulties on top of them.”

Elaine looked away. “Sorry. I… that was stupid of me. But… this trip… I…”

“You’re finding that your old life doesn’t quite fit anymore, no matter how much you’d like it too,” said Nisrioch, standing up. “Part of growing older I’m afraid.”

She gave a bitter laugh. “You know it’s funny. Coming back here--I’m remembering all the reasons I wanted to leave. All the things I wanted to change.” Elaine shook her head. “Stupid, huh? I’ve been spending three months wishing I was home again, and now I can barely stand the place.”

Nisrioch stepped forward, hunching his shoulders to keep his head from hitting the roof. “It’s a nice little town. I can see why you and your mother enjoyed living here.”

Elaine bit her lip. “Yeah. We had… good times.” She sniffled, and then began to cry. Nisrioch held out a handkerchief. Elaine took it and wiped her eyes. “Umm. Thanks, I…” She choked back a little sob. “Darksome Lady… is there any place for me now?”

“I’d like to think there is, Elaine,” said Nisrioch gently. “I know Castle Terribel can seem--harsh, and off-putting at first, but--when you come to know her, you’ll see she has a warm and very large heart. And that she wants you to be happy living there.”

Elaine found herself trying to suppress a smile. “P-places aren’t… people, Nisrioch.”

Nisrioch stared at her, his many-colored eyes wide. “Yes they are,” he proclaimed innocently. He leaned forward, a lop-sided grin on his face. “Your cottage’s name is ‘Trudy’.”

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Are You Going To Ulverrun Fair?--Part 14

“What do you think?” declared Hagen, spreading the yellow scarf out between his huge hands. “Would Meg like?”

Sacripant sighed. “She’s a prostitute, Hagen. She’ll ‘like’ anything you give her.”

Hagen shook his head. “She is a barmaid. Not ‘prostitute’.”

“And Armida’s is a tavern, not a brothel,” said Sacripant, nodding. “I know, I know.”

Hagen sighed. “You have no head for subtleties, friend. We do not pay Armida for sex with employees. We pay for drinks and sex happens, as side-effect.” The Ogre began to grin broadly. “You should try. Very pleasant.”

“I’ll… pass,” said Sacripant. He was from a small town, and had a rather hard time imagining doing things of that nature. Largely because when he tried, an image of his mother frowning in disapproval would immediately pop into his head, no matter how hard he tried to not think of that. And in fact, Flordelis Fenswater was already in there this very moment, regarding her son with a look that suggested she was gravely disappointed with his choice of companions. “I think I should check on Grizzel.”

Hagen nodded and began to politely inquire into the scarf’s price. Sacripant hurried away, passing a good portion of the Goblin Trade Delegation, who were enjoying the local beer and beginning to sing Goblin drinking songs, which involved a great deal of dissonant harmonies and loud voices. Coll Brainworm was busily displaying several long-case clocks to Ulverrun’s mayor.

“Of course, if the maple seems too light, you can always go for the mahogany,” explained Coll. He tapped the clock lovingly. “Quality work, from the finest materials. The Mechanist motto.”

The mayor nodded. “Mmmm. Might be pricey for me, though…”

Coll gave a mournful sigh. “Then there’s always the walnut. Very nice work--but it’s not mahogany.”

Sacripant saw that Quiet was watching the pair with an amused fascination. “Umm--any idea where Grizzel is?” Quiet gave a laconic shrug. Sacripant sighed. “I see. Great.” As the Ghoul’s fixed stare fell on him, he realized that he might have made a mistake. “Right. So. I’ll--be on my way.”

“Hey! You THERE!” came a familiar voice. Sacripant took a deep breath and turned. Only one Cthonique used that sort of address on the Guards, though he’d been told once she got your name down she was actually quite pleasant.

“Your Excellency,” said Sacripant, with a bow. Morgaine Cthonique regarded him with her tawny eyes for a moment, a somewhat puzzled look on her face.

“Yeah, which one are you?” she asked, scratching her head.

“Sacripant Fenswater, Your Excellency,” he replied.

“Ahh,” she muttered, with a dull nod. “Seen either of my brothers?”

Quiet shook his head. “Not for some time, Your Excellency,” said Sacripant. “Do you have a message for them, or…?”

“Nah, just a bit bored,” said Morgaine. She brought up a large, half-eaten pretzel she was holding in her left hand and took a bite out of it. “Wanted to see what they were doing. Maybe show off my giant pretzel, which is mine, and which nobody else can have.” She looked at Sacripant pointedly. “Understand? You can’t have it.”

Sacripant shifted nervously. “I… didn’t even… want it.”

Morgaine nodded, though a suspicious look remained on her face. “Good. Because you can’t have it.” She took another bite out of it, and emitted a satisfied little moan. Sacripant tried to figure out a way to respond when a large bell rang. “What’s--that?” Morgaine asked, her mouth still full of pretzel.

The mayor glanced over at her. “Oh, that’s the bell announcing the start of the drinking contest.”

Morgaine’s eyes widened. She swallowed her mouthful of pretzel with a gulp. “Drinking contest, you say? And--what would a--drinking contest entail? If I may be so bold?”

“People drink. Whoever can hold the most--wins.” The mayor looked at Morgaine, clearly unnerved by her intense expression. His uneasiness only grew when she pinched her arm.

“Well, I’m not dreaming, and I’m pretty sure this is not a prank…” She looked at Sacripant and Quiet imperiously. “Fenswater! Il’Mok! I shall be participating in this Milesian ‘drinking contest’, and I would like you two to accompany me!” She clapped. “So--do it. Chop chop!”

Sacripant stared at her in dull amazement. “Are you sure this is a good idea, Your Excellency?”

“No, but I don’t particularly care,” Morgaine calmly replied. “I feel I--owe it to these good people to partake in their--simple customs.” She smacked her lips. “Like drinking massive quantities of alcohol. Yep. It’s my duty.” As she began to march in the direction of the bell, the two members of the Guard fell in behind her.

Sacripant glanced at Quiet uneasily. “So… ‘Il’Mok’…”

“It’s a nickname,” declared Morgaine nonchalantly.

“Oh.” Sacripant coughed. “We just call him… ‘Quiet’.”

Morgaine shrugged. “Whatever floats your boat.” She began to sing to herself. “‘A long time ago, way back in history, when all there was to drink was nothing but cups of tea’…”

Sacripant felt a tap on his arm. Looking over he saw that Quiet was offering him a small flask. “Uhh, thanks, but I’m not sure…” The Ghoul’s hand ducked under his veil, and tipped the bottle to his lips. After a moment, it reemerged, and he offered it to Sacripant again. “Well, okay, if you insist.” Sacripant took a swallow, and found it surprisingly sweet. “Hmmm. Not bad.” He handed the flask back to Quiet. “Thanks.”

Sacripant thought he saw a hint of a smile beneath the veil. But it was hard to be sure.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Are You Going To Ulverun Fair?--Part 13

When Elaine found her mother and Mansemat, they were deep in discussion.

“So why don’t I get the points? I knocked the pins down!”

Viviane sighed. “You didn’t roll the ball. You just tossed it at them.”

Mansemat spread his hands in exasperation. “But I tried that! It wouldn’t work!” He glanced away. “I think the ground’s uneven.”

“Manny,” Viviane said, slowly, “in Ninepins, you have to ROLL the ball towards the pins for it to count. And the ground is fine.” Mansemat arched one very thin eyebrow. “Look, let’s just finish up this game.”

“This is because of our pall mall game last week, isn’t it?” said Mansemat.

Viviane aimed and then threw her ball. “Absolutely not. Why would I care about a humiliating ten-point defeat in a silly game you Plainsfolk play to pass the time?” She grinned as the pins toppled over. “Yes! Strike!”

Mansemat watched the pins being set up again with a look of vague distress--then turned and saw Elaine and Malina. “Oh, hello dears. Didn’t see you there.”

Elaine raised Malina’s hand. “Yep. Found Malina.”

Malina nodded. “What are you and Mommy Viv doing?”

Mansemat gritted his teeth for a second, and then smiled. “Playing a little local game called ‘Ninepins’, Flibbertigibbet. Nothing important…”

Viviane chuckled. “Actually--he’s playing. I’m winning.”

Mansemat turned and gave her a very mild glare. “Just you wait. I’m getting the hang of this. When I do--your doom is nigh.”

“Heard that one before,” declared Viviane, tossing the ball again, then grinning as again, all nine pins went down.

Malina clapped. “Oh wow! That looks like fun! Can I play? Or is it like the tickle game you play with each other?”

Mansemat stiffened slightly, coughed, and then gave Malina a cheerful pat on the head. “Of course you can, Malina. It’s not like the tickle game. Not remotely like the tickle game. At all.” He turned to Elaine, who was quietly shuddering. “How about you Elaine? Care for a game of ninepins?”

Elaine backed away, slightly. “No. Think I’ll go… look around some more. Thought I saw a bookseller back there.” She gestured over her shoulder.

Mansemat nodded. “Ahh. Well.” He looked over at Viviane, who was helping Malina throw her ball, then looked back at Elaine. “You know, the castle library is…”

Elaine turned and rushed away, the sounds of Malina and her mother laughing and Mansemat sighing reaching her ears, before the noise of the Harvest Festival crowd hushed them out. She was doing her best not to think about anything or notice anybody, when she bumped into Rosalind Miller and her sister Celia. Quite literally.

“Oh, hi--Rosie. Celia.” Elaine gulped. “It’s… been a while.”

Rosalind nodded, a severe frown on her face. “Yes, it has.” Celia merely glared.

Elaine managed a nervous chuckle. “Well, I… hope you don’t think I’ve been… avoiding you. It’s just… well…”

Celia scowled. “Don’t bother lying to us, Witch Queen.”

“What? Celia, what are you…?” Elaine stuttered.

“My sister’s being--a little blunt,” said Rosalind sharply. “But she’s got the essence right. For eight years, Elaine--you lied to us. You pretended to be this normal girl, whose mother was just a simple hedge witch--and she’s the Badb. The ruler of the whole Marsh. The most powerful witch in existence.”

Elaine gulped. “Look--I--I couldn’t tell you. There--people were looking for her. House Cthonique had a price out on her head…”

Celia blinked. “Your--father was trying to kill your mother?”

“He’s NOT my father!” screamed Elaine. “This was before they got married! Before they even met! He wasn’t even Dark Lord then. It was his father! Shaddad!”

“Sure,” said Rosalind. “Let’s assume you’re being completely honest with us. That means you and your mother threatened the life of everyone in the town.”

“And YOU’RE the next Witch Queen!” said Celia angrily.

“No, I’m not,” muttered Elaine in a very small voice.

“The Badb’s daughter is the next Badb! Everyone knows that!” shouted Celia.

Elaine shut her eyes tight, and took a deep breath. “I thought we were friends.”

“So did we,” said Rosalind, moving away, and gesturing for Celia to follow her. Celia stared at Elaine a moment, then spat at her, and went to join her sister.

Elaine watched them go for a moment, and then clenched her fists. “Yeah, that’s right! I’m the Nemain! And when I’m the Badb--you’ll be sorry! REAL sorry! I’ll--make you my slaves! You’ll have to--clean my socks! By hand! You hear that, you Milesian bitches! BY HAND!” She looked around at the crowd. “What are YOU looking at?”

Of course, she knew the answer to that. Her, making an idiot of herself. She hurried away, trying to make herself as small as possible, and not to cry. The second part proved very difficult.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Are You Going To Ulverrun Fair?--Part 12

“You should say something,” Maude Miller said to her husband, in a quiet voice.

“Well, what?” hissed Roland, watching the assembled Meisters of the Goblin Trade Emporium delegation walk through the Festival with a rather critical air. They were flanked by four members of the Cthonique Guard, all looking very smart in their black cloaks with gold trim, and all looking as if, while they wouldn’t start a fight, they would very quickly end one.

Roland shivered slightly. He didn’t like Goblins. It was strange, but even though he was seeing an Ogre and what appeared to be a Ghoul for the first time, they didn’t quite grate on his nerves the way Goblins did. Goblins simply looked--put together wrong, with their hunched backs and dangling arms. They weren’t Erls, who were pretty much people, albeit with funny ears, the wrong number of fingers, and, in some of the more upper-crust families, complexions so pale they arguably had ceased to be complexions at all. No, Goblins reminded you very forcibly they weren’t you.

Still--he had a duty. “Where are the children?”

“They’ve all gone off to enjoy themselves, dear,” said Maude. “As I suggested they do.”

Roland gulped and nodded. It was all on him then. He stepped forward, and went to join the delegation. “Gentlemen,” he declared as he reached them, “I do hope you are enjoying yourselves.”

Elsie Cobweb growled slightly. Coll Brainworm gestured for silence, and with the undeniable air of a man who is in charge partially because no one else wants the job and partially because no one wants to offend him, gave Roland a nod. “Yes, yes. Lovely little village here. Lovely,” he declared.

Roland gave him a nod back. “We pride ourselves on our scenery, Mister…”

“Meister Coll Brainworm, United Mechanist Guilds of Cloven Pine, Twisted Elm, and Sump Water,” said Coll in a surprisingly ringing tone. “You are the… Mayor, I believe?

“Mayor Roland Miller, at your service,” declared Roland, in a tone that was slightly less ringing, but only slightly.

“Hmmm… Miller, eh?” Coll reached into his pocket, pulled out a little silver something, and began to fiddle with it in a distracted manner. “And do you own a mill?”

“I own the mill in Ulverrun,” stated Roland swelling visibly. He glanced at the silver something, intrigued despite himself. “May I enquire… if you wouldn’t mind of course…”

Coll followed Roland’s gaze and saw that it rested on the object in his hands. “Ahh! My pocket watch!” He displayed the thing to Roland. “A beauty is it not?”

Roland fidgeted awkwardly. “What is a… ‘pocket watch’ exactly?”

Coll blinked slightly, and pointed to the face of his possession. “A miniaturized clock, that can be carried around. In one’s pocket. So you always know the time.”

“Ahh. Remarkable,” said Roland looking at it, and marveling at the little tick-tick-tick it gave off. “My goodness. It’s so… small. The Grand Tower is a hundred ells tall…” He glanced up at Coll. “That’s the… clock tower. In Talossa. I saw it when I was a boy.”

Coll smiled. “We are a clever people, Mr. Miller. A clever people who understand the value of ingenuity, determination, and of course, hard work.” He nodded. “So you have a mill, eh? You know, we Mechanists are doing a little… work in that area…” He smiled. “We’ve got a wheel that can run FOUR millstones simultaneously. Among other things.”

“Really?” said Roland, intrigued despite himself.

“As I said--we Goblins know the value of labor,” said Coll with a chuckle. “Won’t find any Goblins calling themselves ‘Dark Lord’. We work for our living.”

One of the other Meisters laughed. “Well, some of us direct others in their working,” he noted.

“Mind your tongue, Mustard,” said Coll sharply. “There’s no free rides in the Guilds. We all EARNED our way to our present status. Just like Mr. Miller here.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” declared Roland bashfully. “Really I was the only one foolish enough to take the job.”

“Don’t sell yourself short, Mr. Miller,” said Coll. “They wouldn’t let you keep the job if you weren’t any good at it.”

It occurred to Roland that Coll really seemed to be a capital fellow, on the whole, despite being a Goblin.

“You seemed quite fond of my watch,” declared Coll, a slight twinkle in his eye. “Perhaps I could interest you in one?”

“Oh, it’s much too grand a thing for me…” said Roland.

“Nonsense,” said Coll, taking several out of his pocket. “A man of your position deserves--nay, needs a watch, both as a handy tool and a sign of status.” He held one out towards Roland. “Look at this one, for instance. Keeps excellent time. Chimes out the hour with a most delightful tune. An exquisite gilded casing, depicting Mother Night upon the Dragon’s back. Four silver marks.”

Roland stared at the watch for a moment and then nervously looked away. “Perhaps--a bit expensive.”

He pulled that one back. “Perhaps this one. Just as accurate as the other. A plain, gilded case. A bargain at half the price-two silver marks…”

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Are You Going To Ulverrun Fair?--Part 11

Viviane du Lac stood looking at the tower in the far distance, well over the river Ulver. Even though it had partially collapsed, it still loomed over the area, so tall it could be seen from miles away. While for others the overall impression it created would have been one of fright, for Viviane, it was one of nostalgia.

After all, it had been home.

She looked at it for a while and sighed. Suddenly, she felt the presence approaching her from behind. A smile touched her lips. Viviane did not, as a rule, appreciate people sneaking up on her. But her husband was an exception.

Mansemat placed a hand on her shoulder. “I was wondering where you’d gone.”

Viviane shrugged. “Just thought I’d get away from the noise for a moment. Take a look at… things.”

Mansemat followed her gaze. “Oh. The Chateau du Lac.” He coughed and looked awkwardly at his feet. “Sorry about that.”

Viviane glanced at her husband. “You didn’t destroy it. That was your father.”

“I know,” said Mansemat with a sigh. “But someone has to apologize for all the--things he did. Bastard never got around to it himself. Not that he ever would have.”

Viviane smiled, and clutched his hand. “Look at this way, dear--we won. You and me--and everybody. We all went through the--hell he unleashed, and came out the other side.” She bit her lip. “And after all that, we--we found each other.”

Mansemat nodded. “I know.” He looked over at the castle’s tower. “I--I never thought I could be like this.”

“Like… what?” asked Viviane, leaning back against him.

Mansemat was quiet for a moment, looking for the right word. “Happy,” he finally said. “Just… happy.”

Viviane squeezed his hand, and gave a nervous little laugh. “I--I know what you mean. Exactly what you mean.” The pair stood there for a moment, silently looking at the ruins. “I’ve always wondered--why didn‘t he just--use it? It was an amazing fortress…”

Mansemat gave a slight, bitter laugh. “Oh, Father was a sending message to everyone. ‘Do what I say, or you’re next’. And they heard it all right. They just didn’t react quite the way he thought they would.” He gazed out at the Chateau du Lac. “It really is quite lovely.” Viviane nodded. Mansemat leaned his head slightly. “Maybe we could fix it up. Use it as a--I don’t know--summer home.”

Viviane giggled. “Why would you do that?”

“Well, it might be--nice,” said Mansemat with a shrug. “Don’t you want to… go back?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “It’s been such a long time…”

“All the more reason to come back,” he said positively. “Think about… A nice pleasant getaway for the summer months. Perhaps we could put a few boats on the water… Maybe… make a little… duck pond…” Viviane glanced at him, a slightly ironic smile on her face. He looked awkwardly away. “The… girls might like it…”

Viviane looked back at her old home. “Elaine’s never been there--you know that? Even when I lived here, I… just couldn’t bring myself to…” She sighed.

Mansemat gave her a shoulder a slight squeeze. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right,” she said.

“I just want you to be happy,” said Mansemat. “And I want Elaine to be happy. I just… Well, she hates me…”

“She doesn’t hate you,” said Viviane with a laugh. “She strongly dislikes a fictional version of you she’s got in her head. She’ll come around.”

Mansemat sighed. “I hope so. I find the glowering somewhat--distressing.”

Viviane turned, and hugged him. “You really are a sweetheart.” A grin stole over her face. “Now, tell me more about the ducks.”

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Are You Going To Ulverrun Fair?--Part 10

“‘Wife fetch me brandy in a spoon, for our sow is in a swoon!’ With a heigh-ho, the carrion crow fol de riddle lol de riddle, riderol!” Jean sang at the top of her lungs, and shook her tambourine, as Hoppedance hopped in perfect time.

“I have to admit,” said Justinian, his feet tapping in time to the tune, “you’ve got a real talent. Both with the singing and the bird training.”

Jean smiled. “Well--that sounds like a compliment. I’m a bit surprised.” She placed a wooden hoop in front of Hoppedance, who nimbly leapt through it. “Almost as surprised as finding an Easterner named ‘Justinian Sigma’.” She shook her head. “I always thought you all had damn weird names like ‘Boris’ or ‘Fyodor‘.”

Justinian glared at her. “My father’s name was ‘Fyodor’.”

Jean looked away. “Oh.”

“It’s a good name. Means ‘Gift of God’ in the Old Tongue.” A slight scowl touched Justinian’s features. “And you’re really in no position to judge these things, Ms. Crow.”

She looked at him again. “‘Jean’ is short for ‘Jehannine’. And ‘Crow’…” She pulled a strand of her long black hair. “Well, the damn hair started it.” She tapped her large nose. “The beak continued it, and training Hoppedance here ensured it.” She shrugged. “But hey--we all earn a name somehow on the river.” She turned her attention back to her crow. “So what’s your story?”

Justinian watched Hoppedance for a moment. “It’s a church name. You get one when you join the Order--name of a saint, and a letter. It symbolizes that you’re a new person--one who lives for the Faith.”

Jean paused, and gave Hoppedance an affectionate scratch on the head. “So what was your old name?”

Justinian shifted uneasily in his seat. “It really doesn’t matter.” There was uncomfortable silence for a moment, as Jean played her tambourine and Hoppedance leapt.

“What the hell are you going to do?” asked Jean suddenly. “Do you have a damned idea? Any at all?” She turned, frowning at him. “Because I damn well haven’t heard any.”

“Fight the darkness, when I see it,” declared Justinian calmly.

“That’s not a plan,” noted Jean. “That’s a damned statement. Statements aren’t plans, Sigma.” She looked him steadily in the eye. “Because they don’t involve ‘planning’.”

Justinian smiled. “Sometimes, they’re all you need.”

Jean groaned in frustration and then began to sing again. “The big ship sails on the ally-ally-oh, the ally-ally-oh, the ally-ally-oh! Oh, the big ship sails on the ally-ally-oh on the last day of Fructidor!”

Justinian leaned back and shut his eyes. “You have to understand--the purpose of my life is to fight the darkness. And where I find it--I’ll fight it.”

Jean patently ignored him. “The captain said it will never, never do, never, never do, never, never do! The captain said it will never, never do on the last day of Fructidor!”

A girlish giggle reached Justinian’s ears. “That crow’s dancing! NEAT!” Justinian opened his eyes, and saw that the stall had an audience--a very young, black-haired girl, wearing a blue dress and a black cape. And then he blinked, because this young girl had red eyes, and horns.

“DEMON!” shouted Justinian leaping from his chair, hand going to the small sword strapped to his side.

The girl merely giggle. “No, silly! I’m a Dev!” She straightened and crossed her arms, looking like a professor giving a lecture. “Demons are anchor poor eel--that means they’ve only got pretend bodies! And they live in places of high misty kill resin aunts.” She nodded, looking distinctly proud of herself. “That means there’s tons and tons of magic there.” She giggled at Justinian.

Justinian felt his panic receding, replaced by bafflement. And a sudden desire to give this girl a handful of sweets.

“Us Devs are Lady’s Children like everyone else,” she said cheerfully. “Only we got horns. And wings!” And suddenly her “cape” had unfurled, revealing a pair of batlike wings. “And we can FLY! I’m a good flyer!” And with that she leapt into the air, flapping her wings furiously. She hovered for about a minute, and then fell to the ground. Her red eyes began to water, and her lower lip began to tremble. “I think--I busted--my butt BONE!”

Pity began to fill Justinian’s heart. “It’s all right…” he muttered in a soothing voice.

Jean leapt over her counter with the air of a seasoned professional. “Don’t worry, miss! Miss Jean Crow to the rescue! I shall simply use my magic to assist you!”

The girl stared at Jean in surprise. “You know magic?”

“Most certainly,” declared Jean, leaning over her. “Behold my hand!” She gestured to her left hand. “Empty you will notice! But I simply close it, utter the magic words ‘hocus pocus’, and then--voila!” She opened her hand, revealing a sugar candy. “A magical droplet, that will make the hurt go away!” She popped the treat into the girl’s mouth.

“Oh, wow!” she said, chewing it eagerly. “How’d you--do that? Did you apport it--from close at hand, or summon--it from a distant sphere--or create it from aether?”

Jean stared at her in baffled silence for a moment. “Trade secret,” she stated finally.

The girl gave a satisfied nod. “It’s yummy.”

“Malina!” came a female voice. A young woman in a loose brown shirt and pantaloons, whose hair was a blonde bird’s nest, walked up to the child. “There you are! You really shouldn’t run off like that.”

“Sorry, sis!” said Malina, and then pointed at Jean. “She knows magic! She can make candy!”

The young woman regarded Jean and Justinian with a slightly crooked grin. “Is that so?”

Jean slipped back behind the counter. “I can assure you, Miss, when you taste my wares, you’ll believe I’m a sorceress of the highest power. The finest sugar candy from across the river!”

Hoppedance cocked his head slightly. “Bullshit! Bullshit! Bullshit!”

Jean looked at her pet with mild displeasure. “Quiet, you.” She pulled out a large canvas sack, and set it on the counter. “So--care for a sample? Candy from Monteriano. The finest in the Free Cities!” The young woman looked at the bag with skepticism. She gestured to the crow. “Buy a pound, and I’ll throw in a free consultation with my oracular crow! Provides sage advice from the heavens!”

“The candy’s good, Sis!” chirped Malina in good cheer. “And the crow’s funny.”

The young woman shrugged. “Eh--give me a pound…”

Jean nodded and began to place candy on her scale. She glanced at her crow. “Hoppedance! Fortune for the pretty lady…”

“Go bugger yerself, mother-raper!” cawed Hoppedance, flying off.

Jean winced. “I have GOT to teach something to say in front of children…”

The young woman nodded. “He seems well-trained.”

“It’s a knack,” said Jean, continuing to place candy on the scale. “So--Malina--is your…?”

“Stepsister,” replied the young woman.

Justinian nodded. “Ahh--that explains why you’re a human and she’s a…” The young woman raised her hand, and wiggled her fingers. Justinian winced. “Right. Am I going to have to count everyone’s fingers this side of the Murkenmere?”

“That or stop being an asshole,” said Jean, wrapping the candy up in a tattered bit of cloth. “Tell me which one you think is easier.” She blinked, and then handed a piece of candy to Malina. “That’s for me not my watching my mouth.” Jean looked at the young woman ruefully. “Sorry about that…”

“It‘s not a big deal.” She glanced at Justinian. “Though you might want to be careful about using the ‘h’ word. On this side of the river--it has a slightly broader meaning than you Milesians are used to.” She looked at Jean again. “I’m Elaine,” she said, smiling.

“Jean Crow,” said Jean. She pointed to Justinian. “That’s Justinian Sigma. My bodyguard and lover.” She handed Malina another sugar candy.

“I AM NOT!” he cried. “I mean--I am her bodyguard, but not the other--I would never--that is--I…” He began to massage his temples. “Oh, chastity is blessed by the Light, and blessed are those who keep to it…”

“He had a very strict upbringing,” explained Jean. Hoppedance flew to her shoulder, holding a piece of paper. “Ahh! Here we go! And your fortune is…” She glanced at it, and frowned “Hrmmm.”

Elaine leaned forward, her interest peaked. “What’s it say?”

“It’s one of the weird ones,” Jean replied. She cleared her throat. “‘For I say unto you, does the merchant rightly balance the scales and does the farmer sow and tend his crops with love and care?’”

Elaine blinked and scratched her head. “Huh.”

“It’s from the Porphyriad,” said Justinian. He stiffened slightly, and began to recite from memory. “‘For I say unto you, does the merchant rightly balance the scales and does the farmer sow and tend his crops with love and care? Does the judge uphold the law with justice and mercy? Does the keeper of ways make the roads level, the paths straight?” He paused here and regarded them with surprising intensity. “Then they are with the power of the righteous, and the power of the righteous is with them, standing at their backs, and it will be with them through adversity, yea even if the world be consumed by fire and water. For the power of good is that it endures.” He took a deep breath. “It endures all obstacles, all tribulations, all misfortunes, all evils. It endures them with grace and patience, for it is eternal, and they are transitory.”

Elaine blinked again. “So--what does that mean?”

Justinian smiled. “That like all of us, you are facing trouble. But just keep your head, because it will pass.” He handed her the bag. “Your candy, Miss Elaine.”

Elaine blinked, and nodded. “Umm… thanks.” She took her stepsister by the hand. “Come on, Malina.”

“Buh-bye!” said the young girl, waving at the pair cheerfully.

Jean turned to look at Justinian. “That was pretty good! You’ve actually got a talent for that…”

Justinian chuckled. “The Order asks its members to be both knight and priest. So I’ve received training for both jobs.” He shrugged. “Anyway, I figured somebody had to say something before she started dwelling on the whole ‘merchant rightly balance the scales’ part, and realized that your scale jumped to a pound with the first few candies you put on it.” He smiled. “That might get her talking to people and that would be bad for both of us.”

Jean nodded sheepishly. “Yeah. Can’t argue with that.”

“Bugger the bastards!” declared Hoppedance.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Are You Going To Ulverrun Fair?--Part 9

Elaine du Lac had initially been delighted when her mother told her that they’d be going to the Harvest Festival in Ulverrun.

And then the words “family outing” were mentioned. And now, Elaine watched as every fear that her mind had conjured up when that dreadful phrase was uttered was made a reality.

There was the embarrassment, of course, of being seen with these people, and seeing as--belonging to them somehow. Malina and Nisrioch were darting around with such eagerness that you could almost forget that there was nearly thirty years between uncle and niece, though you’d have to believe that Nisrioch was even more freakishly tall than he really was to do that. And Morgaine was amusing herself by declaring things like “All goes according to plan!”, “Soon! Soon!” and on one occasion “When the grouse bursts from the forest, the woodcutter shall have his lunch!”, each utterance followed by a peal of sinister laughter. But really none of this was really the worst of it.

The worst of it was Mansemat and her mother. Walking arm in arm. Touching. Her mother--talking to him, telling him little stories about Ulverrun, pointing out the sights. Mansemat listening to them, smiling--laughing. And oh Darksome Lady--they were snuggling again…

She wanted to scream at them. She wanted to tell Mansemat that he shouldn’t be here, that this wasn’t his place. But she knew that’d be petty, stupid and futile. He was making it his place, in that awful, inevitable way he had, tainting every fond memory of Ulverrun with this one. Walking through the Harvest Festival with the Cthoniques, while her mother and Mansemat cuddled.

“Copper for your thoughts,” came the sharp voice of Morgaine.

Elaine glanced over at the undead Cthonique. “I thought you could just read them.”

“That’s tougher than you think,” replied Morgaine, fiddling with the crown of bones she wore. A wry smile touched her face. “Maybe not in this case though…” She glanced over at Mansemat and Viviane. “I know. Bit much, you’re thinking. But hey--they’re making each other happy.”

Elaine grimaced and looked in the opposite direction. “I know.”

Morgaine chuckled and spread her hands. “And really--can you blame them? They’re such a cute couple! How can you hate that? It’s like hating puppies! You can try, but you look at ‘em and it’s like--‘Awwww! Puppies!’” A couple of onlookers turned to watch her in puzzled amazement. Morgaine blinked in surprise, then put on an ominous smile, and clenched her fist. “The sun shall be blotted out! Out! OUT! BwahahahahaHAHA!”

Elaine shook her head. “What is wrong with you?”

Morgaine shrugged. “Too much male humors, my father used to say.” A slight frown appeared on her face. “Then again, Dad specialized in saying crap.”

Nisrioch sidled up to his sister’s side, holding a small bag. “Reminiscing about Pater again, Morgaine? Ahh, the dearly, dearly departed Lord Shaddad Cthonique.” He paused slightly, a smile touching the siblings’ faces.

“Thank the Darksome Lady he’s dead,” they declared together in precise harmony, then shared a chuckle. Morgaine glanced at Nisrioch. “So, what’s in the bag?”

Nisrioch’s good cheer took a turn to the beatific. “Ahh! This is a delightful taste sensation called ‘caramel-covered popped corn’. Half caramel--half popped corn--and all enchantment!”

Morgaine snorted. “Oh, please, Nissy. I know it’s not that good.” She held out her hand. “Come on--let me try.”

Nisrioch lowered the bag towards his sister. “Oh, I’m certain you shall become a believer in it’s caramel-coated magic.”

Morgaine took a small handful, and popped it into her mouth. “Mmmm… well--it’s okay,” she declared, chewing on the snack. “Not great--but okay.” She swallowed, and took another handful. “I mean--it’s not the tastiest stuff in the world.” She gulped down her second handful, and reached for a third, only to find Nisrioch had moved the bag out of her reach. “Hey! What gives?”

“Free sample’s over--go get your own,” hummed Nisrioch, with a cheerful shake of his head.

Morgaine glared at him. “Come on! Just one more handful!” She took a swipe at the bag. “That’ll be it! I promise!”

Nisrioch laughed, and dangled the bag just out of her reach. “I don’t think so!” As Elaine watched them scuffle over a small bag of confections, it occurred to her once again that House Cthonique’s reputation as a force of Darkness was perhaps somewhat exaggerated.

She felt a tugging at her arm. “Sis! Sis! Look! Look!” Elaine turned, and looked in the direction Malina was pointing.

“Oh. The Goblin’s airship’s come in,” she said.

Malina nodded eagerly. “Yeah! Isn’t that neat?” She leapt into a run. “Let’s go see it!”

Elaine watched in amazement as Malina darted away. “Malina--maybe we should…”

“Oh, WOW!” came Malina’s voice as she vanished into the crowd. “NEAT!”

Elaine turned to Mansemat and Viviane. “I’ll go--keep an eye on her.” With that, she went off after her sister.

Viviane looked at her husband, with the faintest hint of amusement. “What are you smiling about?”

“Ohh, Malina and Elaine.” He shrugged. “It sort of brings back memories for me.”

“Really? Of what?” Viviane asked, her interest peaked.

Mansemat looked over at Morgaine and Nisrioch, whose struggle over the caramel popcorn had reached into the epic. “Give it here, you MEANIE!” shouted Morgaine, leaping up and making futile grabs at it.

“Never, short stuff!” declared Nisrioch, holding his arms above his head, and dancing around his sister.

“Most of my life actually,” said Mansemat, with a slight nod.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Are You Going To Ulverrun Fair?--Part 8

When Roland Miller agreed to be Mayor of Ulverrun, he’d thought it would be an easy job. A busy sort of easy, but still--easy. And up until now it was. But then, two weeks ago, the letter had come.

The Dark Lord was coming here. With his family. To attend the Harvest Festival.

Roland had never met the Dark Lord. Oh, he had a nice, quite official-seeming letter with the Dark Lord’s signature declaring his right as the lawful Mayor of Ulverrun to practice the low justice in the name of the town, the Dark Lord and the Badb, but that had been delivered a few months back by a surprisingly pleasant functionary who stated this was part of House Cthonique’s efforts to bring order to their holdings. That was as far as his personal experiences with the Dark Lord went. Everything else he knew of him was rumor. Very unpleasant rumor.

Like most of the inhabitants of Ulverrun, Roland had been born in the Lands of Light, and moved here to escape troubles back there. Or more exactly his father had, and he’d been dragged along. Milo Miller had been good at his trade--which was, of course, milling--when he wasn’t drunk. Unfortunately, he was drunk quite frequently, and his answer to the problems his drinking caused was to drink even more. That had ultimately resulted in his taking out several loans on the family mill, simultaneously, which had resulted in a lot of people who it was not wise to anger getting very angry at Milo, indeed. Milo had responded to this anger by fleeing over the Murkenmere with his family and whatever funds he hadn’t drunk, which was not a very large sum. Thankfully, Milo had finally perished from a lifetime of excessive drinking shortly after the crossing, so that this sum could be used to build a new mill, instead of buying more drink. And so, the remaining members of the family had begun to do well for themselves, and then begun to do quite well for themselves. In time, Roland and the other Millers had become leading citizens of Ulverrun, so that when the town decided it needed a Mayor, he’d been the ultimate choice.

He’d rather enjoyed the job so far, though he was presently wondering if he would have it tomorrow, if he would even be alive tomorrow, and if Ulverrun itself would still exist tomorrow. So far the only way that had occurred to him of making sure the answer to all these was ‘yes’ was to make sure the Dark Lord could find no complaint, and hope he wasn’t in the mood to commit a small massacre for the sheer pleasure of it. And an important part of that first bit was making sure that the Dark Lord dealt with someone impressive enough to be worthy of some respect.

Roland glanced over his dresser. “Has anyone seen my cravat?”

His daughter Rosalind ducked her head into the room. “It’s in the closet, Daddy. Just like it was when you asked five minutes ago.”

Roland nodded at his eldest daughter. “Right, right.” He headed to the closet, and began to root through it, finally producing a rather crumpled bit of cloth that he then began to awkwardly tie around his neck. Rosalind sighed.

“Oh, Dad--you’re making a mess of it.” Rosalind stepped forward, and began to expertly manipulate the neckerchief.

“Thanks, Rosie,” said Roland, smiling. “What’s your mother up to?”

“She’s trying to get Oliver and Jacques into something presentable,” replied Rosalind calmly, her hands keeping at their task.

“And Celia?”

“When I left her, she was complaining about being put in a dress. There.” Rosalind gave a satisfied nod. “Now, you look like you know what you’re doing.”

Roland nodded, determined to act as if that was a compliment. “Well, go get the others. Let’s--get ready to greet our guests.”

The process of getting the others wound up taking just under an hour, but eventually Roland stood at the Festival grounds with his family gathered around him, forming what he hoped was a perfect tableau that said, ‘Please don’t kill us, Mr. Dark Lord. Pretty please.’

Well, perfect, aside from the fact that Oliver kept kicking his brother very quickly in the shins.

Roland was about to tell Oliver that if he did it again, Roland would give him to the Dark Lord, when Alderman Industriousness-Pleases-The-Holy-Light Smith shouted, “Look! Up there!” and a great sound of wings filled the air. Two large winged beasts hovered over the Festival grounds, while a smaller--blur circled around them.

One of the beasts touched down, and a tall Erl with long black hair leapt off. He was dressed rather handsomely in black and gold, with a sizable sword strapped to his side. He looked around at the crowd with an air of mild surprise. “Ummm… hello there,” he began, as the other winged beast landed nearby. Two more Erls slid off--a man with a shock of white hair who was even taller than the first, and a rather short, young-looking woman wearing an extraordinary outfit that appeared to be partially covered in spider webs.

The woman threw back her head and laughed in the most sinister fashion imaginable. “Greetings, Milesian FOOLS! Tremble, for Morgaine Sans Coeur is here to--” The first Erl (to whom Morgaine bore a rather extraordinary resemblance when you looked closely) shot her a sharp glance. Morgaine winced. “To enjoy your lovely Harvest Festival.” She attempted another bout of sinister laughter, but found herself unable to complete it, then glared at her apparent superior. “You are ruining this for me, bro.”

Roland decided that stepping forward might not result in his immediate painful demise after all. “Greetings… Dark Lord Cthonique… I presume?”

The first Erl managed a polite bow. “Mansemat Cthonique, Dark Lord of the Dread Plains and Dagda of the Accursed Marsh, at your service.” He gestured to the taller Erl. “My elder brother, Nisrioch Cthonique, Dark Lord of the Screaming Waste.”

Nisrioch gave a deep bow. “Salutations!”

Mansemat gestured to Morgaine. “--and my sister Morgaine, Dark Lord of the Blasted Heath, who has already made herself known to you in her own… inimitable fashion.”

Morgaine gave her brother another glare. “I’m reanimating a dead ferret and setting it loose in your wardrobe next week. Got that, bro?”

Mansemat seemed about to respond to that when the blur finally touched ground revealing it to be a woman with strawberry blonde hair riding a giant mortar that she was steering with an oversized pestle. As it touched down, a pair of passengers--young girls--got out, one calmly, the other energetically. As the woman turned to regard them, Roland realized he knew her.

“Mistress Viv?” he said, with a nervous cough. “What--what are you…?”

Mansemat took her familiarly by the arm, smiling slightly. “May I present my wife, Viviane du Lac, the Badb and Dark Lord of the Accursed Marsh.”

Viviane made a slight bow, her arm entwining even more with her husband’s. “Hello, Roland. I guess it has been awhile…”

Roland nodded dully. “A pleasure to see you again.” Mistress Viv--or Viviane du Lac, apparently--had lived in Ulverrun for the last eight years, the local witch, until vanishing three months ago almost as abruptly as she’d come in the first place. Glancing at the two girls who’d been riding with her, he recognized Viviane’s daughter Elaine, looking even moodier than was her wont. He blinked. He’d known these women for years--Viv had served as midwife for the birth of both his sons, and Elaine had been friends with his daughters. And now they stood revealed not only as allies of the Dark Lord of the Cthoniques, but as members of a line that rivaled that house in evil, with Viviane a Dark Lord in her own right.

Fear filled Roland then as he turned the situation over in his head--fear, and several other confusing emotions. It was moments like this that the paranoia that always lurked in him bubbled to the surface, that the little voice which whispered you never quite knew where you stood here in the Nightlands became a shout. He did his best not to show it, forcing a grin to his face. “I hope you all enjoy yourselves here, Great Lords, at our humble Harvest Festival.”

Mansemat smiled back, with a look of such sincere pleasure Roland almost felt guilty for his misgivings. “I’ve no doubt we will, Your Honor.” He gave an awkward cough. “Now--if you could direct me to a rather sturdy tree to which I could tie my gryphons… and perhaps I could have some--raw meat for them? Though they can be satisfied with organs, if that’d be--easier to get.” The smile came back, though with a rather forced edge to it. “Also, I’m afraid a delegation of Goblin Trade Emporium members will be arriving here shortly… I--they rather insisted on coming when it was mentioned. Sorry if it’s any inconvenience…” The Dark Lord coughed again.

Roland coughed back. “I’m sure it will be fine. Lord Cthonique.” He forced another smile on his face. This visit did not resemble any of the scenarios that he’d envisioned for it.

He still wasn’t sure whether that was a good or bad thing.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Are You Going To Ulverun Fair?--Part 7

“Do you need all this… stuff?” declared Justinian angrily, as he carried another box to Jean‘s stall.

Jean glanced at him. “Well, I sell things for a living,” she noted. “So--yeah, I kinda do.”

“Interesting way of putting it.” Justinian set down his box. “I’d say, you smuggle things from our lands, and sell them to criminals and traitors living in the Lands of Night. But then, that‘s just me.”

Jean turned, placing a hand on her hip. “Damn it, Sigma! Most people here are just poachers and debtors. With quite a few Mikhelites as well.”

“Ahh, so it’s just petty lawbreakers and baby-eating heretics then. Comforting to know.” Justinian knelt to pick the box up again, only to notice he was getting dirty looks from a trio of black-clad women, who quickly turned away as he looked at them, making mild sounds of indignation.

Jean nestled her forehead in her right hand. “Those are my customers you’re calling baby-eaters. These are the Lands of Night, Sigma. Things are slightly different here.”

Justinian watched the women’s vanishing forms with a feeling strangely akin to guilt. “S-sorry! I was--just being--general. I’m sure you don’t PERSONALLY eat babies!”

Immediately after saying this, it occurred to him that it wasn’t a very bright thing to say.

Jean sighed. “You know, Justinian--try to see it from their viewpoint. They think the Synod are the blasted heretics, who deny the divine nature of the Holy Light, and worship the Seven in place of it.”

Justinian rolled his eyes. “The Seven ARE the Holy Light. It’s a symbolic term FOR them, acting as a group, not some kind of independent…” He blinked. “Wait--you’re a Mikhelite, aren’t you?”

Jean winced and sighed once again. “No, Justinian. I’m not.”

Justinian picked up the box he’d set down. “Then how do you know so much of the doctrine?”

“They explain it to any damned fool who asks,” Jean noted in a quiet monotone. “At great and onerous length.”

Justinian was staring at her with unabashed interest now. “And why would you ask?”

“Because I like to know things about the people I do business with,” replied Jean. “Besides, you can never have too many gods, as my father used to say.” Hoppedance flew onto the counter, clutching what looked like a rather decayed rodent. Jean smiled at her pet. “Oh there you are, you damned nuisance. And you got yourself a snack. Well, make it quick. We have folk to entertain.”

“Bugger yerself,” cawed the crow, before digging into the corpse.

“Look, Jean,” said Justinian, watching Hoppedance with disgusted fascination, “what it comes down to is--we’re right, and they’re wrong. And you can tell that because when push comes to shove, they flee into the Lands of Night, letting themselves get tainted by this awful place…”

Jean shook her head. “Boy, you sure know how to hit a girl where it stings, Sigma. You do realize I’ve got a touch of Erl in me, don’t you?”

“Wha--? You--? But…” Justinian crossed his arms. “Oh, this is just another one of your little jokes…” Jean raised her hand and spread out her fingers. Justinian, despite himself, counted them out, then gulped.

“Umm, right. I--really didn’t notice. You--really--can’t tell…”

Jean smiled. “I know. Everyone concentrates on the damn ears.” She shrugged. “Truth is, there are a lot of mixed-bloods here on the border. Aside from a few differences, men and Erls are built about the same.” She grinned and raised an eyebrow. “A fact I can verify from personal experience.”

Justinian turned a deep shade of red. “I--there are--I’ll go get another box.” He turned, stumbled, then stood and went on his way, stumbling several more times.

“Shit-for-brains!” cawed Hoppedance, as he finished his meal.

“Mmm, in a lot of ways, yes,” noted Jean watching Justinian leave, with a faint smile on her face. “Kind of handsome though. In a pathetic sort of way.”