So if I were more proactive, I would have set this post to load Thursday night rather than typing it Saturday afternoon. I was busy celebrating my wife’s birthday yesterday, so that’s why it didn’t go up yesterday, so instead, another low effort (relatively speaking) post. I give you Chapter 3 of A Fistful of Magic. This’ll be the last chapter that I post of it.
Tarhun didn’t remember passing out in the sand of a beach, so it came as a shock to him to be kicked awoken on one. He had half-forgotten his perilous voyage, and kept his eyes closed, certain he would open them to find he was resting on the black sands of the island that sat in the eye of the Maelstrom. He was half tempted to just keep his eyes shut and going back to sleep even with the hot mid-morning sun beating down on him. His muscles ached and he felt as if he could sleep through a hurricane in a hammock. That was when a girl started screaming ‘no’ as if she knew no other words. With a grunt he began to lift himself up from his erstwhile sandy bed. As he opened his eyes, the golden sand that greeted them jarred his memory. He remembered his escape from his island prison and the ensuing two days he had spent rowing to get to the beach. Tarhun cursed himself for having carelessly gone to sleep on the beach.
Now on his feet, he automatically took stock of his surroundings. His mind was slowly giving up its resistance to being awake, and Tarhun knew that even setting foot on the beach had been a risky proposition. The only question he had now was whether his lapse of thought had signed his own death warrant. Andrev’s agents would be everywhere on the island, and while he believed he could handle most of them, he had wanted the element of surprise on his side. He looked at the girl who had blessedly fallen silent. The bronze color of her skin was pleasant, and her black hair hung loose about a round doll-like face. If she hadn’t had just screamed and probably alerted half the island of his presence on the beach he would have been ecstatic to be woken by her. He would probably even try to bed her, should she prove willing. A split-second before her had the slapping of feet on sand, he noticed her eyes were not focused on him, but rather just beyond him. Whirling about he took in the two young men rapidly converging with the little sand dune that had built up on his body during the night. They each wore simple, blue cotton robes that ended just below their knees and were trimmed with red ribbon. About their waists were slung intertwining gold and silver cords. They were students of Andrev. Not fully fledged magi yet, they hadn’t earned their full gold cord yet. Either Andrev’s coterie of magi had broken to infighting, leaving him with these young whelps, or the bastard had sufficiently cowed the people of the islands to the point that he grew lax with his own personal mage army. Either outcome was a good omen for what Tarhun planned to do. Tarhun’s sack was conspicuously absent from the sands of the beach, and for a single instant, a wave of nauseous terror roiled through him.
With Andrev’s magelings closing the remaining feet between him they cautiously slowed. One began quietly murmuring to himself, the words indistinguishable to Tarhun, but obviously an incantation. Tarhun broke from his spot toward his beached dory, praying that his sack had not been lost to the depths of the sea. His time apart from civilization had obviously dampened his thoughts on how to deal with men. Had he planned ahead properly he would have had his creation and his knife safely tucked in his leather waist-belt. The canvas sack that held everything he had brought with him was lying on the floor of boat still. He quickly tore it open and fished out the oilcloth package that held his creation, silently offering up praise to whatever gods might be listening. By his count, that was twice this week. If he wasn’t careful, the gods might start mistaking him for a pious man. A glance at the two magelings informed him that he’d taken them by surprise with his sudden movement. He mentally noted that should the role ever be reversed and he saw someone suddenly dash to retrieve an unknown item, he needed blast them first and be puzzled later. If this was the caliber of mage that Andrev had in his employ, then Tarhun’s work would be much easier than he had anticipated. Both of the magelings seemed to have relaxed a bit now that he was closer to the boat. The suspicion that they didnt’ know who, or what, he was, began to grow in his gut as he tore open the oil cloth package to free his creation.
“Look, Anton, the fisherman has an offering of some sort for us.” said the taller of the two magelings. Tarhun noted that he was more mentally deficient than the other and could be shot second.
“If it pleases us, fisherman, we may yet spare your life.” the other called out to him. Either this one had aborted whatever spell he had been casting as he approached, or it was some sort of protective shielding. Tarhun wagered it was the latter, most likely a ward against blades and lead. Andrev wouldn’t tolerate any other magical or mystical power in the region, especially not once he thought he was rid of Tarhun, so his coterie wouldn’t be expecting an attack of the like. Tarhun felt a moment of relief as he freed the contents of the parcel. The weight of his pistol filled his hand. To him it felt like an extension of his own being. The shiny obsidian flashed in the sunlight. Momentarily, he wished he had tested it while he was out at sea. He hadn’t wasted a shot on any of the wildlife back on the island he had come from. He had planned to use them all on Andrev and those mages who were closest to him. He had also wanted to get away from the jaguars as quickly as possible. He had poured too much of his own energy into the creation of this weapon. He had nearly tapped himself dry. The thought of such a fate caused him to shudder involuntarily, which elicited laughter from the magelings. Tarhun berated himself for not dealing with them. For getting lost in his own thoughts. The only reason he wasn’t dead yet was because they didn’t view him as a threat, even with his gun. Tarhun leveled it at the shorter mageling. That one was less likely to be stunned when his companion fell to the ground, he judged.
“You’re obviously unacquainted with our little slice of paradise here, fisherman,” his target drawled. “The city behind us. This entire island. The entire archipelago. Even whatever shit-stain island you rowed your shit-stain little boat from. They are all owned and ruled by our master, the Grand Vizier Andrev. He is a powerful mage. And we, as his disciples, are powerful mages as well. So, you have a real opportunity for an object lesson here, fisherman. You can either hand over your gun, and we’ll forget that you threatened us with it, ineffectual as it is, thus ensuring you a quick and painless death. Or, you can take a shot at us. You’ll find out exactly why it’s mages that rule the islands and not fishermen, and we’ll take our time killing you in the slowest, most excruciatingly painful way we possibly can. Personally, I’m hoping you take the shot. It’s been a while since I’ve been able to have a bit of fun.”
What Tarhun tried to say once the little mageling shut up was, “Here’s your fun you insufferable shit.” However, the parched state of his throat along with the lack of use of his voice over his voyage caused it to come out as a squawking croak. For the first time since he’d woken, Tarhun noticed the dry grit of sand that had managed to slip into his mouth as he slept. His failed attempt at speech had thrown the two magelings into a mirthful fit of laughter. They had taken it as his assent to hand over his gun to them, and began closing the few feet that remained between him and them. Tarhun pulled the trigger, using his creation for the first time. He wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from it. It could be as noisy as your standard flintlock or it could be completely silent. It let loose a crack like a whip which rolled out over the surrounding beach like thunder after a lightning strike. He had blinked at the noise and missed whatever projectile it had sent forth. The air was filled with the scorched scent of nearby lightning, an aberrant contrast with the cloudless sky. Tarhun would have questioned whether his weapon had fired at all had he not heard the gun’s report and smelled the odor that still lingered in the air. The air crackled all around and both mages still stood in front of him. Tarhun was appalled that he could have missed his target at such close range and was preparing to pull the trigger a second time when a spot of crimson bloomed, unfolding like a rose greeting the morning sun on the shorter mage’s chest right where his heart would be. Tarhun hastily jerked his arm toward the dead mage’s companion and pulled the trigger again. Expecting the report of the pistol this time, he managed to keep his eyes open and saw the verdant bolt sent forth from the barrel of his pistol. It crackled and deformed as it passed through whatever warding the dead mage had cast earlier and vanished into the robe of the remaining mage. Similarly, after a moment of standing in shock, the blood soaked into the cloth at the point of contact and the body collapsed into the sand.
Screaming behind him and bells ringing in the distance prevented Tarhun from admiring his handiwork for long. He stuffed the gun so that it was secured between his back and his leather belt, and bent over the two dead magelings as he rifled their bodies. He could hear the commotion building in the town. It wouldn’t be long until they sent people to investigate the noise, so he had to act fast. If he was unlucky it would be a more powerful mage he had to deal with rather than a pair of inept magelings. The only items of value he found on the two were their coin purses. He swiftly liberated them and ran back to his boat. He threw the stolen money into his canvas sack a cinched it tight. The girl who had stumbled on him had mercifully stopped screaming in favor of standing in spot, paralyzed with shock. To Tarhun it was an improvement. There was a small group of people making their way down the beach toward them now. Tarhun couldn’t make out what they were holding at this distance, but he was willing to bet they were muskets. They could easily have shot him from where they were, but they must be wanting to get closer to investigate. Probably a safe choice, considering he could be one of Andrev’s mages. Still, he didn’t want to have to be around to explain to them the two dead magelings. He might be good at bluffing, but he doubted that anyone was that convincing of a liar. That and he was missing the gold cord. It would definitely benefit him most to get away and lie low.
Tarhun scooped up some seawater and rinsed the sand from his mouth, nearly gagging from how salty it was before spitting it back out into the surf. He turned inland, away from the approaching sortie. The safest option he could see was the sugar cane fields directly in front of him. He was confident he could elude any pursuers there. Just as he was starting to decide whether he should bring the girl along or just leave her to explain to the villagers what had happened, the boom of a musket exploded out onto the beach and a musket ball lodged itself into the solitary palm tree behind the girl. He couldn’t blame them for shooting first, given the circumstances. He surged forward, grabbing the girl’s arm and towing her along in his wake as he sprinted for the cover of the sugar cane. More musket shots rang out and he could hear at least one bullet whistle by into the field ahead. Fortunately they would all need to stop to reload. It was something he’d taken into account when he had designed his gun. He had made sure it would have a least six shots at a time using a rotating cylinder to cycle his cartridges. There were downsides to his weapon. Such as the fact that he’d only been able to make six of the cartridges that fired, and he would need to recharge two he’d expended on the magelings. But he was certain that his gun in conjunction with his magic would give him the edge when he finally confronted Andrev.
Just as he had expected, his pursuers had to stop to reload their muskets, giving him the time he needed to escape into the tall rows of sugar cane with his inadvertent attendee behind him. He led her straight on before diverting left suddenly going through several rows, the drooping leaves slapping against their heads and upper bodies. Navigating through the lines of the plants slowed the run to a mere trot, and after changing direction randomly several more times Tarhun slowed the pace to a slow, but steady walk. The girl was breathing hard, her face flush. He strained to hear any sign of the men from the beach. It was for a full minute of cautious listening and slow walking before Tarhun finally stopped to rest and catch his breath. Opening his canvas sack he fished out his waterskin and shook it next to his ear. By the sloshing he heard, he thought there may be one and a half, maybe two, mouthfuls left in it. He would need to find a stream or pond to refill it. He estimated he would need to hike nearly half the day, maybe more avoiding the well worn paths that Andrev would surely have patrolled after the excitement on the beach, in order to get to a town to rest. He took in a mouthful of the warm wine-water and offered the skin to the girl, who drained the rest. While she did he examined her more closely than he had that morning. She was plump, but not grotesquely large and laden down with several bags that bulged with a variety of goods. She had on a faded blue skirt and blouse, the skirt trimmed with red ribbon along the hem. Red trim must have been in fashion thanks to Andrev, he mused. She handed him the waterskin back, and once it was safely returned to his canvas sack, he began the long trek inland to find a village to lay low in. Whether or not the girl followed him was her own business.
She mutely followed him. He reflected that it was nice to have company that wasn’t plotting to kill him for a change, even if it was a silent, traumatized young woman. The girl had probably never seen anyone killed before. Depending on if her parents were still breathing, she’d never even seen a dead body before. In all honesty, Tarhun reckoned it was a miracle that she hadn’t expelled her breakfast. The magelings he killed had; they just didn’t do it through their mouths. He would try to help her deal with what she saw once he was farther away from the coast, he decided. A perfect time would be as soon as he found a nice cool stream. Away from the beach, in the thicker air that hung over the island he was beginning to catch whiffs of himself. He knew he could stand a dip in the water to wash away the filth and stench of his travel thus far. A good scrubbing would have to wait until he could procure a bar of soap. He absently scratched at the large beard that had enveloped his face. He made a mental note to get a razor to shave with when he found a village as well.
The sun was already hanging lower in the sky by the time they came across a small stream. After sniffing the water, Tarhun lowered his face directly to the current and slurped greedily to slake his thirst. The girl stood nearby, her face vacant of expression. Tarhun splashed water on his face and under his arms, reveling in the feel of the fresh, cold water against his sun baked skin. It had not helped the stench, but he felt more refreshed for having attempted to clean himself. The only thing that stopped him from stripping naked and soaking in the water was the presence of the girl. He refilled the water skin and tossed it to her. It flopped against her and fell to the ground, some of its contents leaking out into the dirt. Tarhun sat on a rock by the stream and looked at her, scratching his cheek.
“Have you got a name, girl?” he said. Silence loomed between them without even so much as a glance from her to acknowledge she had heard him. “How about tobacco? Do you have any tobacco and rolling papers or some cigarillos in one of those bags?” She snapped. Her eyes darted at him and narrowed into a glare, and at once, she fell upon him her arms rising and falling as she beat at him. She had balled up her fists and was striking him as if he were a door that she desperately wanted open. As he raised his arms up to ward off the brunt of her aggression, a litany of words poured forth from her in a voice strained by stress.
“You killed them, you bastard. You shot them, and I don’t know how you managed to shoot through Harper’s warding, but you did. And they’re dead. They’re dead on the beach. And then you dragged me along with you. The men that chased us are going to tell the masters. They’re going to think that I had something to do with it. They’re going to punish me for it. They might kill me. And it’s all your fault. And you broke Andrev’s new phials. You tripped me and I fell on the bag and all the glassware is smashed and they’re going to punish me for that too. You may as well have shot me on that beach and then you have the audacity to ask me for cigarillos! You bastard! You bastard! You bastard!” As she finished her words became frustrated sobs, and after a few more blows that had lessened drastically in force, she sank to the ground and cried.
Tarhun cautiously lowered his arms and looked at the crying heap in front of him. It slowly dawned on him that the blue cloth with red trim was not a style that had come in fashion, but a uniform that Andrev forced on his students. He hadn’t noticed her cord because of all the bags that hung about her waist looking more closely, he could see the braided length of silver in a gap between some of the bags. It looked fairly new. It stood to reason that she had just recently been promoted. He pulled the pistol from its spot in his belt and leveled it at her. She looked up at his movement.
“Go ahead and do it.,” she said. Slowly she rose up from the ground and brushed the dirt from her garments. “Whether I die here or at Andrev’s mansion, I’m still dead, thanks to you.” She had an air of certainty about her now that had been missing during her earlier rant. There was more fire in the girl than Tarhun had initially believed, and what he had taken for shock at seeing people killed was merely despair on her part at her assumed fate. He held the pistol up just a moment longer before he returned it to its place in his belt. He decided he would need a holster for it before he brought to bear against the coterie.
“What’s your name?” he asked her as she continued glowering at him. He wasn’t certain that she wouldn’t try flinging a fireball at him, but he was confident he had recovered enough of his energy to deflect it should she try.
“Alexa. And yours?” she asked him in return. He ignored the question. Tarhun didn’t want her running off and telling her master that his old captain had escaped the Maelstrom and was coming to kill him with his mighty pistol. It was bad enough that he’d already killed two of Andrev’s students. That loss would put his old shipmate on guard enough as it were.
“How about some food. Did your great master have you grab any food while you were out, or have you just been lugging around a bunch of bags of broken glass ever since we left the beach?” His stomach rumbled even at the suggestion of food. Tarhun didn’t remember the last time he’d actually eaten something other than salty, dried jerky. He should have kept an eye out for food while they were hiking but he’d been preoccupied with putting some distance between him and Pònanlò.
Alexa’s mouth went agape at his suggestion. “Are you crazy? You want to steal Grand Vizier Andrev’s food?” she asked. Tarhun had a hard time accepting her indignation because as soon as she finished talking a low growl came from her own stomach.
“Look, Grand Vizier Andrev was it? Grand Vizier Andrev is a good bit away from the food that you bought for him this morning. Meanwhile, the food is here with us. We’re hungry. I think Andrev is going to kill you any less for sparing his food if he’s already got his mind set on killing you because you smashed his fancy glass cups. We might as well eat, we’ve still got some hiking to do before we get some place we can really rest, and I’d like to get there before nightfall. So why don’t you hand over the bag with the food and we can have a bit. If Andrev is lucky, we’ll leave him some,” he said. He felt like it was a fair argument. She sputtered a bit, trying to come up with a counterpoint to what he had said, but eventually she gave in and tossed the bag of food at him. “Good, now why don’t you pick up the waterskin while you’re at it as well. Don’t want it all leaking out on the ground when I just refilled it,” he added as he began rummaging through the bag. Alexa practically stomped over to where it had fallen and picked it up. For a moment, Tarhun thought she might throw it at him, but instead she drank from it. He grinned to himself. Gods, she was a feisty one.
On the top of the sack of food Tarhun found a loaf of bread and some smoked sausage. He pulled these out and set them down, then removed a large bottle of sweet dessert wine that had been shoved in the sack as well. The only things that remained where several rectangular shapes wrapped in palm leaves and two conical shaped palm leaf packages. A quick look in one of the square packages showed it to be a pastry. He left them in the bag, and cursed himself for thinking Andrev would have more sensible foods than sweets. Bread, sausage and wine were better than nothing however, and he ravenously fell on the food. Alexa joined him and soon all that remained were crumbs and the bottle of wine. Tarhun returned it to the sack of desserts, and began rummaging through the bags Alexa had set aside.
“Why pledge your services to such a small man?” he asked tossing aside a bag full of broken glass.
“It was my only option. I wanted to be a mage,” She replied. “And seeing as how Andrev has either scared off, killed, or enlisted every magical practitioner in the Nueskan region, I chose to pledge myself to him.” She paused for a moment eyeing Tarhun. “Anyway, he pays us better than most servants in Ponanlo.”
Tarhun stroked his beard. He needed to keep the girl, Alexa he reminded himself, from going back to Andrev and reporting his presence. Andrev may already be on alert because of the death of his magelings, but how could Andrev know that Tarhun was responsible. If he strung Alexa along with the promise of a different teacher than Andrev, her fear of her masters retribution and the hope of learning from someone else would allow him to follow through with his plans more easily.
“You could always just find a new teacher,” he said, rummaging around in another bag.
“You weren’t listening. I already told you that Andrev has all the magi in the islands under his thumb. I can’t even head north to find a teacher. All the mages up there are little more than hedge witches and bush wizards. If I want an herbal cure for warts I can seek one out and ask them to teach me. But real magic? My only option is Andrev,” she said. “Was Andrev, that is.” She corrected herself with a sigh.
Tarhun found what he was looking for in the bags. With a grin he lifted out a box of fine cut tobacco cigarillos. Even if Andrev had been a backstabber and a second-rate first mate, he still had fine taste in tobacco. He pried open the box and plucked out one of the cigarillos, running its length under his nose and inhaling deeply.
“If you honestly wanted to learn magic, you’d have found someone other than a second tier sorceror. This Grand Vizier of yours may have rounded up all the magi you know of, but there has to be at least one that’s not under his oppressive thumb. In hiding perhaps. Or exile.” He tried to say it nonchalantly and avoided making eye contact with Alexa.
“Right. I’ll just happen to stumble across a powerful mage while walking down the beach, just as I stumbled across you,” she said and began to chuckle. “He’ll teach me all about magic. At no charge, mind you. Then I will be the second most powerful mage in Nueska. No. Andrev was my chance at learning magic.”
Tarhun stuck the end of his cigarillo into his mouth. He made a great show of patting himself down for matches, and when he could produce none, gave a theatrical shrug. He then placed his right hand up to the protuding end of the cigarillo and snapped his fingers a couple of times, producing blue sparks. Sighing, he removed the cigarillo from his mouth, blew on his forefinger and thumb, before returning the cigarillo to place and trying again. This time a small flame popped up and he puffed on the cigarillo until he was sure it was lit. He exhaled the blue-gray smoke of the tobacco out with pleasure and watched it curl up into the air. The sparks had merely been for show. Despite the exertion of creating the pistol and his days at sea, his magical strength was recovering. A few full days of rest and leisure and he would be as powerful as he ever was.
Alexa had watched him closely as he put on his show, and now she was staring at him, her brow wrinkled and her eyes narrowed. “Who are you? Really?” she finally asked.
Tarhun puffed away happily on his cigarillo and began rummaging through yet another bag, this time full of various metal works. He wanted to let her question sit for a moment. Showmanship was always part of revealing who he was. His reflection on a particularly shiny pot in the bag caught his attention, and he let the question sit longer than he meant to as he stared at his own reflection. He had become lean and wiry during his exile. His eyes had sunk deep into his face and his hair, which he normally kept shaved except for a neat goatee had grown out thick and wiry in all directions. Tarhun wouldn’t have known himself from this image.
“Alexa, although my appearance does not bear it, you should know that I am Tarhun. The Pirate King has returned after ten long years of exile.” He said, meeting her wide-eyed gaze.