4-Breakfast

I arrived at Curry’s Catch at seven. The long building was a glorified shack sitting right on the dock, and it reeked of bait, fish, and fried food. I could hear voices and the occasional laugh inside. A handful of horses loitered at the hitching rail, and his bay, Brimborren, was among them. I noted a crossbow and sword nestled among the saddlebags. Dismounting, I flipped Hook’s reins over the rail, and gave both horses a scratch as they greeted one another. It’d been awhile.

I touched my knives, scanning the docks as I approached the open door. Ayglos was somewhere nearby, wandering the docks and keeping a weather eye. One could never be too careful when your invitation had come on a wanted poster. Even if—especially if—it was from an old friend.

As I stepped into the dim interior, my nose wrinkled as the scent of fried food and bait became overwhelming. I found him immediately; he was standing at a long counter to the right talking to the large woman behind it. And he was already looking at me, a smile teasing at his lips, as if he’d sensed my approach. Eloi, he looked good. His hair and skin had been burnished by weeks in the southern sun. He wore traveling clothes in mostly worn browns, tall boots coated with road dust, not a few knives tucked here and there. In the cool of the morning he wore a leather jerkin, but it hung open over his open collar shirt. He looked fresh off the road and fresh off success. I hadn’t seen him since he’d left on that job on the southern tip of the continent last fall, and my whole soul warmed to see Quilleran Rhydderick alive and well.

Quill stepped away from the counter carrying a platter. He jerked his chin for me to follow him to a spot removed from the other patrons. There were a goodly number of patrons—all of whom I’d glazed over entirely when I’d seen Quill. Bad form. I scanned the room quickly, they were hairy fishermen mostly, a few cattle hands mixed in, and they didn’t care at all about us. I strolled after Quill, turning my attention back to him, looking him over for injuries or anything out of place. He moved easily, strong and light on his feet.

He picked a spot where we could both keep an eye on the door. “You’re early,” he set the platter down and slid onto the bench.

I dropped onto the bench across from him and slapped the folded paper containing my likeness onto the table between us.

His smile broadened into a roguish grin, his eyes bright, “Did you like my note?”

I frowned at him, but it took an effort. “You’d better hope the servants didn’t see it; some people would turn their mothers in for less.”

“Please. You eat assassins for breakfast.” He picked up the paper and flicked it open, making a show of admiring my likeness. “I thought you’d appreciate seeing the latest price.”

I did, in fact. “Where did you get it?”

“At the border crossing between Magadar and the Empire.”

I smirked. Maybe hitting that caravan this past winter had been a little much, but it had been very satisfying. “Any for Ayglos?”

“No,” his grin quirked, “There was one with a description of a handsome dark-haired companion, but no picture. So vague as to be useless. Almost as if no one spent hours gazing at his face before giving a description.”

My eyes rolled. One mistake. One time. “Really? You, too?”

He folded the paper and slipped into a pocket inside his jerkin. “Have you had breakfast?”

I shook my head, turning my attention to the platter for the first time. Fried fish, biscuits and…some sort of white paste…it smelled good. Once I sorted the smell of the platter from all the other smells in the room. Quill handed me a fork. “Lucky for you, I knew you’d be early. I got enough for two. Though, Ayglos will have to fend for himself out there.”

I took the offered fork and twirled it through my fingers. “Why the note? Why not join us at the inn last night?”

“Ayglos was making a killing, you were reading.” He shrugged. Then, seeing my look, he added, “I felt my visit would make far too great an impression on the other guests. Word travels.”

I thought of the fancy merchants but decided to leave it for now and speared the fish with my fork. Internally, I blessed the food, adding a prayer for Eloi to preserve me from harm. Just in case. Eloi must’ve heard, because the first bite melted in my mouth just the way fish should, and I nearly moaned from pleasure. Inspired, I dipped my fork in the paste and tried it. Holy heaven. Butter and spices and a faint burn sizzled through my mouth. I smeared some paste on the fish and tried them together. Blessed harmony. I caught amusement in Quill’s eyes as I scraped extra paste onto another bite of fish. As if he’d drag me from the second most expensive inn in Tanglewood Springs to a dumpy fish shack for bad food. I arched a shoulder at him. Point.

We ate listening to the hum of fishermen discussing the morning’s catch, and our meal was mostly gone before I asked, “Why are you here, Quill?”

“Because I was told this place,” he waved his fork at the unremarkable shack surrounding us, “was the best breakfast in Tanglewood Springs.”

Very funny. “Why are you in Tanglewood Springs?”

“Looking for you.”

“Really?” I was surprised. “Why?”

Quill finished his half of the fish before replying. “I’ve got a job for you, if you want it.”

My brows went up. “What kind of job?”

“A job that requires a woman’s touch.”

I stared at him.

Quill set down his fork and stared back, one brow raised.

“What in Serrifis kind of job is that?”

His grin returned, slow and enthralling, “You’ll love it.”

“I’m less sure about that.”

“Three words,” he held up three fingers and ticked them down as he spoke, “Private. Hot. Baths.”

I leaned back. “You do know the way to a girl’s heart.” Also, how to find me in any city anywhere in the world. “How long?”

He considered. “By midsummer we will either be successful…or not.”

“Where?”

“Angareth.”

My brother and I had planned to spend the summer working our way southeast through Villaba toward the coastal city of Cartahayna, a glittering bed of silversmiths and tall ships. Angareth was southwest. Completely the other direction “What’s the job?”

“It involves twenty thousand gold, saving a woman’s life, and hopefully stopping a war before it starts.”

“That’s all?” my scoff was entirely ironic. I tapped the table as I considered. Or, pretended to consider. Fact was that I could never resist when Quill had a job. He had this gift for impossible things which I found utterly thrilling. “I’m interested,” I leaned forward, “Come to my suite and we’ll discuss the details over tea.”

*

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3-Notorious

It had not been easy to hack to head from the monster, but we managed. Only broke two knives in the process. It took long enough that our shirts dried and our nymph stripes, which bloomed blue across our bodies when in water, had faded enough for us to return without giving away our mixed heritage. I’d taken a few teeth from the beast, rinsed them off, and tucked them in a pocket as a memento.

We’d looped rope through the jaws and carried the head between us the long walk back to the main barns. It dripped and was disgusting. But the way the foreman recoiled and gaped was rewarding in its own way. He paid us what he promised and sent some of his hands to go fetch the rest of the carcass while we collected our horses and set off again.

Once we were a few miles down the road, Ayglos grinned at me and patted his saddlebag, “See, Zare? Easy money.”

I snorted. “You’re kidding, right? I nearly died of boredom out there.”

My brother laughed, the sun glinting in his short pale hair. It had been brown, once upon a time, but he bleached the color away. I preferred the brown, myself, but couldn’t deny that the white hair and tan skin were striking. Sometimes people asked him if he was Iltaran—his coloring now so like the nomads who lived where the snows never melted.

“I offered to have Rabanki sit with you.” On cue, the large black bird swooped down from trees lining the road and alighted on Ayglos’ shoulder.

I shook my head, leaning forward to stroke Hook’s neck. “No, thank you.”

Rabanki cocked a bright eye at me critically. Ravens were exceptional birds, so intelligent that they could learn languages, and some could speak with the tongues of men. They tended to be very loyal to their friends, and they loved—loved—anything that glittered. Rabanki had chosen Ayglos as a friend. He’d also taken particular interest in anything of mine that glittered.

My fingers strayed to the fine gold chain around my neck, confirming that the gold pendant hidden under my shirt was, in fact, still there. I continued, “If Rabanki sat with me I would have been robbed blind before that monster showed up.”

The raven tossed his head back and cawed a brassy laugh. The little hoarder.

“Then I would have had to fight the monster with just my bare hands—and that wouldn’t have been fair to the poor monster.”

“Point.” Ayglos laughed again, scratching Rabanki under his chin. After a moment Ayglos said, “I think we’ve earned a night in a proper inn, don’t you?”

“I think so,” my lips tipped up in a smile. A real bed sounded delightful. “Do you think we could find one with plumbing?”

It was Ayglos’ turn to snort. “Don’t get too carried away. This is Wimshell. They barely bother with buildings.”

It was only a slight exaggeration. Wimshell was just a few centuries removed from being nomadic. There weren’t many towns, and only the wealthiest had yet built anything as complex as indoor plumbing.  The sun was riding low in the sky as we rode through the wood stockade of Tanglewood Springs and lost ourselves in the dusty streets that wound between the three and four story wood buildings. There were plenty of people out at the end of the day, horse or oxen drawn wagons, women in long skirts carrying baskets, men in hats carrying bundles.

“Can we go to the inn the outfitter told you about?”

Ayglos groaned. “I knew I shouldn’t have told you about the Lake House. That’s probably the most expensive inn here.”

“So? It’s not like we stay in inns very often.” I tossed him grin.

“You want to spend everything all at once?”

“Yes, definitely.”

My brother rolled his eyes. “Insatiable taste for luxury.”

“It can be sated. With a big dinner and a big bath, a big bed,” I lifted my hands and ticked items on my fingers, reins dangling, “And a nice room with a big fireplace—”

Ayglos threw up his hands, Rood snorted. “How about we get all those things at the second-best inn?”

“I’ll take it.”

“And then tomorrow we need to find some new knives.”

“You have excellent ideas.”

*

When hiding nymph heritage, bathing in privacy was a high priority. As it turned out, there were only two inns with suitable bathing rooms in Tanglewood Springs, the Lake House and Prosperous Hall. They were the two finest and most expensive inns the little city had to offer. Far more expensive than they should have been, in my opinion. Yet, we were determined, so we booked at the slightly less expensive Prosperous Hall, under the name Fatty Bowbender. Ayglos had winked at the girl at the counter, his smile dazzling, “Boys in the company have a sense of humor. My real name is Heroic.” She’d blushed, laughed, and taken our money without asking which mercenary company we belonged to. Our suite had four rooms and two private baths—one of which was scandalously enormous. Servants had hand pumped the water from a mechanism in the room. It was definitely more convenient than hauling buckets, though rather less impressive than the plumbing in our grandfather’s palace under Daiesen Bay. But dinner had been excellent, and I couldn’t even begin to express how wonderful it was to have a lazy hot bath and be clean and in clean clothes. I had pulled out my one silk shirt and a clean set of supple breeches before sending an entire saddlebag of dirty laundry with the servants for cleaning. I even took some time to preen in front of the mirror while my stripes faded.

We spent the evening in the large parlor on the main floor. Ayglos played cards with a group of fancy merchants from the south while I sat by the fire with a book hiding most of my face while my knives glinted brazenly in the firelight. Ayglos plied the men with stories—most of them true—about our exploits. Even without knowing my true name, a female mercenary was rare and exciting. Especially if she were pretty, which I was. The other patrons were distracted enough by my presence that Ayglos won more hands than he should have, and we retired to our suite a hundred silver richer.

When we unlocked the door to our suite, a worn, folded piece of paper lay on the floor just inside. I bent and picked it up, flicking it open as I walked into the sitting area. The paper bore a sketch of a girl with dark eyes, a medium nose, lips that curved slightly up, and mane of dark curls. My face. Though, I was a few years older now. Beneath the sketch, printed in big, ugly letters, were the words: “WANTED; Dead or Alive, for Treason against the Empire, 5,000g.” I whistled, “That reward is madly huge. You could build a villa with that kind of money.” It was a much larger number than the first time I’d seen one of these three years ago. Instincts finally alarming, my head snapped up and I scanned the room. I didn’t see anyone or feel any eyes on me, but I loosened a dagger anyway.

Ayglos took the paper from my fingers and grunted critically before handing it back to me. “Still the same picture,” he said. I tossed him a sharp glance as he headed toward his bedchamber, waving a lazy hand at the notice in my hand. “So dramatic. I saw Curry’s Catch last time I was in town, it’s down by the lake shore. Though, I had thought he was on the far side of the world or some such.”

“What are you…” I cut myself off and looked at the notice again. Beneath the print, in handwriting I knew almost as well as my own, it read: “You look good notorious. Breakfast tomorrow, Curry’s Catch, eight.”

*

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Share Zare with your friends and we will be a merry company.

2-Teeth

The river was clear where it closed over my head, but just a few feet away the cloud of silt roiled through the water. Dark shapes thrashed in the cloud but judging by the amount of red tainting the river, the cow didn’t have long. I swam toward the fray, my efforts hampered by the current. I reached out to the river, just make room for me, I coaxed, that’s all.

It ignored me.

Fine, then.

Even without help, a few powerful strokes pushed me into the cloud of silt and immediately a long hard shape slammed into me. I tumbled, my free hand scraping against scales. I grabbed ahold of a ridge of spikes and found myself whipped through the water. I bumped over the now limp form of the cow and then slammed into another coil of scaled muscle. Large savage claws were in the bleeding flank of the cow. Eloi, what was this thing?  I hoped it had an obvious head. I let go of the coil and grabbed the claws, thrusting my long knife at the creature’s wrist. The impact jarred through my arm as the knife barely pierced beneath the scales. The claws yanked from the cow, nearly tearing the knife from my grip.

With a swoosh of current I came face to face with the jagged teeth and wide fish eyes of the head. For one heartbeat my whole soul was overcome with conviction that in front of the teeth was the one place I did not want to be. I dove toward the creature, closing the distance between us and striking out with the knife. The monster slipped to the side, easily dodging my blow. I swept past it, turning to attack it from behind. A coil slammed into my back, forcing me down until I hit the river bottom. My ribs protested. For a few seconds I struggled to push off the coil, stirring up silt in blinding clouds. The rocky bottom offered tantalizing leverage, but I couldn’t get my legs under me to push upwards.

Even with those teeth and claws, I realized this creature preferred drowning its prey. A wry smile touched my lips; we could be here a while. I willed my body to relax. My hands floated up from the coil, limp and moving gently in the river’s current. I could see shadows moving around me in the murky water. The legs of the cow rolled by in a sickening motion before vanishing again. I waited, listening to the water and the beat of my heart. The silt had nearly settled, outlining the long body of the beast moving gently through the water, by the time the hideous head again turned toward me.

Stay still. Stay relaxed, I reminded myself. I hoped it wasn’t smart enough to know the knife I still held wasn’t a part of my anatomy.

The creature nosed my body, moving from my legs toward my head. The urge to strike burned inside me, stoked by every proprietary touch from the monster’s snout. The monster shifted its coil, loosening so it could get better access to my torso. The jaws opened, its teeth tearing at my shirt. I struck. Blood stained the river as I drove my knife into the monster’s eye. The beast jerked back, wrenching the knife from my hand. I let it, putting both hands on the coil and writhing free.

Bubbles exploded everywhere as another body hit the water. Loops of long, scaled body flailed, knocking me back and then going rigid. I caught the river bottom with one hand and pulled another knife with the other. Shudders ran through the scaled body, I saw a clawed foot flex and pull at the riverbed. Swimming through the silty water, I angled the knife carefully ahead of me. The monster’s head appeared in the glittering silt, my knife sticking from its eye still, its jaws slack. Behind it, shadows took form into the familiar shoulders and bleached head of Ayglos. His hands were still wrapped around his own knife hilt where it protruded from the base of the monster’s skull, leeching blood into the water.

Our eyes met, and Ayglos asked, “Are you alright?” using the language of clicks and whines nymphs used under the sea.

“Splendid,” I replied in the same language. I sheathed my knife and caught hold of the monster’s jaw, helping Ayglos tow it to the shore.

The cows were long gone when we broke the surface of the water and hauled the heavy carcass up behind us. It was thirty feet long when we finally got the whole thing out of the water. We stood back, hands on our hips and regarded our catch. Covered in muddy green scales, the back third was nearly flat for powering through the water, four short legs with webbed feet and savage claws in the middle third, a long flat neck crowned with glassy eyes and massive toothy jaws…

“It looks like an eel with legs,” I said.

“Crossed with that…dinrodile monster from Haim.” Ayglos gestured to the head. “Teeth of a dinrodile.”

“What’s it doing up here?”

My brother shrugged. It was a good question, but the answer wasn’t our business. Unless someone wanted to pay us to find out. “The real question is, will Hook and Rood be willing to haul it?”

I wrinkled my nose. Our horses were all the way back at the main barns for the cattle operation, since we hadn’t wanted to risk them getting eaten by whatever took the cows. I didn’t want to walk back for them and didn’t think we could whistle loudly enough to summon them. My lips twisted as I pictured them, ears askance and eyes wide, should they arrive and see the monster. “Let’s just take the head.”

*

Special thank you to my Patrons, I am so grateful for your support! Thanks for coming on this journey with me.

Share Zare with your friends and we will be a merry company.

1-Monsters in the Water

I had spent three days perched in a gnarly oak tree watching for monsters, and I was bored. My branch extended over a little river, commanding clear view of the river and the fields on either side—not that there was anything to see. Cattle lazed peacefully in tall green grass to my left. Plowed earth filled the world to my right. Behind me, if I looked, I would see the distant blue ridge of the Phas Mountains. A pretty view. The river in front of me was wide and lazy and had many places where the banks dipped low, and many other places you could swim in deep, clear pools.

Quiet.

Good fishing.

And no monsters in sight.

I chewed on a stalk of grass, absently watching the tip toss. The thing about hunting was that you couldn’t bring a book.

Spring was bleeding into summer and the days were warm enough that I’d ditched my leather jerkin on the first day out here. The breeze obligingly licked through the linen shirt I wore under my harness of knives, soothing the burn of the late afternoon sun.

A three-note whistle came from upriver. My brother, Ayglos, checking in on his younger sister. I removed the grass long enough to repeat the three-note whistle back.

My brother had gotten us this monster hunting job. We were fresh off a job tracking down a bounty—a murderer we’d caught up with just a few days ride from here. Ayglos had gone into Tanglewood Springs for supplies while I took a nap in a puddle of sunshine. Of the two of us, he was less notable, so he did most of the errands when we were riding together.

At the outfitter, he’d struck up a conversation with a Master Hadrake’s foreman. Turns out, Master Hadrake’s cattle were disappearing, and his herdsmen swore up and down that a scaled beast with hideous claws had risen from the river to claim the cows. It had gotten so bad most of the herdsmen refused to come anywhere near the river and the foreman was hitting up all the taverns and outfitters in Wimshell looking for new herdsmen. Ayglos had offered a different service. “Can’t pass up an ‘easy job,’” I muttered, biting down on the grass. Any chance to earn good money. It’s not like we had anywhere else to be for a few months. It was only a small comfort that Ayglos was sitting in a tree at another major watering spot. Just as bored as I was.

If I hadn’t seen massive clawed, webbed, tracks, in the soft river bank I would have assumed Master Hadrake was being robbed. I’d never heard of a river monster this far north. Though, despite being half-nymph, we’d spent rather less time hunting water monsters than one might suppose.

After three days of sitting in a tree by the herd’s favorite watering spot with nothing but insects and my thoughts for company, I was returning to the cattle rustler theory. We had tried to question the river itself when we first arrived, but it had been vague and uncooperative. Maybe the river thought we were crazy.

My stalk of grass snapped, and I nearly fell off the branch as I lunged to snatch it before it fell out of reach.

An uncertain moo sounded below. I looked down to see a cow craning her head to look at me, her large brown eyes set in a wide piebald face, ears flicking attentively. The whole herd was behind her, having picked their way over to the river while I’d been engrossed in my thoughts.

“It’s alright,” I told the cow, “I’m not the monster.” I waved vaguely at the river.

Her ears flicked. Unconvinced.

“I’m not. Go drink, I’m sure you’re thirsty.”

Cows were such skeptical creatures. I supposed they had a right, having lost several of their compatriots to the river in the past few weeks.

I swung my legs over the side of the branch and bowed at the waist, “Word of honor, my good cow, I, Zare Caspian of Galhara, am not the one killing your sistren.”

Eloi help me. Three days alone in a tree, and I, Zare Caspian of Galhara, Daughter of Zam the Great, Ghost of Nelia, Curse of the Empire, was losing my mind.

The cow blinked at me, as if agreeing with my thoughts. Then, with a shake of her head she turned and strolled to the water. Three others followed her down the slope to the water’s edge, and two waded in to drink half submerged. More from the herd started to amble over. I watched them, grass dangling from my fingers as my mind wandered far away to another river, swift and deep, that ran beside a breathtaking stone palace.

One of the cows vanished under the water with a bovine shriek. I cursed. Water churned, the black hooves of the cow breaking the surface in a desperate kick before a scaled ridge arched over them and both disappeared in a cloud of silt…and then blood…bellowing filled the air as the other cows fled. Leaping to my feet I drew a long knife and barely remembered to whistle for Ayglos before diving into the river.

Special thank you to my Patrons, I am so grateful for your support! Thanks for coming on this journey with me.

Share Zare with your friends and we will be a merry company.

Launch Date

Hey everyone!

I have wonderful news, we have a launch date for the new Zare adventure! The story will resume February 4th, stay tuned for the release of the story name and the world map. Oh! And now we have a page devoted to keeping track of places and characters in the story, in case you get lost or turned about at any point. Thanks to keyboard short cuts it’s super easy to find who you are looking for.

If you want to be in the know and get things a bit early, check out Zare’s Patreon page where you can become part of the adventure.

Thank you so much Patrons for your continued support while the story has been in development!

I’m so grateful to have you all on this adventure with me.

 

Legendary Art

Took a break to paint!

Typically, I have The Badlands Job, The River Rebellion, and the new story open all at the same time so I can work on them concurrently. There are so many moving parts, I’m so looking forward to launching this in the new year.

In the works…

Hey Everyone!

I’m so excited to say that I’ve officially put words down in the next adventure! I’ve also got a couple other projects underway–a character list and a map.

I love maps, but they are not easy! You might not believe this but I have, actually, had a map this whole time which I’ve been referencing. But, I’ve never scanned it and frankly it’s huge. But the time has come to bring it to the digital world so you can see what I’m seeing. This also entails some work to make it pretty.

Stay tuned!

**Also, check out this totally cool Zare hoodie, I’m sure I need one**z blue spatter hoodie

Special thanks to my Patrons, who support the rebellion.

(Get first-looks and the inside track on other behind the scenes info by becoming a Patron.)