Short Story – Magic Beneath the Skin

rhett-wesley-343206 woman with lights Phoebe

The world shifted. Margo Morgan stumbled as a swell of magic lying just beneath the wet cobbles rose to meet her. Light swirled on the surface of a puddle in the gutter. She paused, stared, drew the enchantment in through her eyes. Water soaked the cuffs of her jeans as she stood in the middle of the path. A man in a sharp suit shoved past her, raising a perfect eyebrow. She flashed a bright smile as her fingers spread, pulling steaming strands of power from the water.


His voice floated back over his shoulder. “Freak.”


Magic pushed at the base of her palms and she dug her hands into the pockets of her puffer jacket. No, Margo. No hurting the humans. After a few hundred years it should have been easy to resist the urge to let the power out, but each day it became harder to deny who she was. Impossible to deny the magic thrumming a beat beneath her skin.


She kicked at the puddle as she left, luminous drops splashing on her trainers. The world beyond called to her but she stomped through the gutter and pushed temptation aside. I’ve got better things to do anyway.


The fragrance of fresh lilies wafted from the open window by the back door to her flat. She turned the handle, a small, satisfied smile playing over her lips. Cole. Her keys clanked on the sideboard next to the vase full of flowers. Stroking a finger over pink and white petals, she half closed her eyes and let the gentle green walls of the kitchen mesh with the bright blooms until she almost believed herself to be back in the garden of her youth.


Bubbles of happiness mixed with the residual magic in her bloodstream and she skipped a little down the hallway to the living room.


She flung open the door and swept into the cozy space, spreading her arms and sashaying forward. “Tis Moi! I am home!”


The man in the centre of the room turned to stare and her arms fell. Power pulsed at the base of her neck. This was not Cole. This was a man she hoped never to see again. Black hair swept from his brow, a wide silver streak at odds with his ageless face. Obsidian eyes glinted above a narrow smile. Magic beat a pounding tattoo against her skin, screaming to be let out.


Cole’s voice cut through the thoughts shouting in her head and a warm hand took hers. “Hey Margo. You have a guest.”


She dragged her eyes away from the warlock in the too-pressed jeans and striped shirt, to Cole. Human. Weak and vulnerable despite lean firefighter muscles beneath his woolen jersey. She plastered a smile to her face, as fake and ostensibly cheerful as the cheap prints hanging crookedly on the wall.


“Hey honey, have you been home long?”


His eyes shone clear, no murky enchantment in their depths. He didn’t twitch or blink and no vocal tics escaped his throat so he couldn’t be too worried.


“You know,” she said through teeth aching to snap at their guest, “I totally forgot to get milk for tea. Would you be a love and pop to the store? Mr. Septimus here and I have business to discuss.”


The warlock’s voice oiled through the air. “We won’t be long, Cole. I admit I would kill for some tea.”


Ice flooded her veins at the sound of her beloved’s name on those thin sharp lips. Fool. Never give a warlock your name. She took refuge in the ritual of passing Cole her purse and him waving it away as he patted the wallet in his pocket. But his goodbye kiss on her cheek felt too much like a farewell blessing.


The quiet snick of the living room door closing released some of the tension churning in her gut, but she didn’t breathe until Cole’s quick steady feet clattered down the outside steps.


Her hand stole to her scarf, snaking underneath to the pendant hidden by neon pink folds. “Not offering you tea, sorry Septimus. Just one of my silly rules. No tea for murdering scum in my house.”


Darkness swelled in his eyes, light dimming behind him as he drew on the energy lines beneath the world. Fire sparked on his arms.


“Are you this rude to all your guests, Morgana?”


She shrugged, fingers tightening on the pendant, a genuine smile lifting her cheeks. “Only the ones I want to punch in the face.”


“It doesn’t have to go this way. The offer is still open.”


“No. It does have to go like this I’m afraid. I don’t want any part of your ridiculous politics. Never have. No-one believes me and then thugs like you show up. I’m not joining your boss.”


Raven black hair floated around his head in a rippling aura of shining power, the whites of his eyes disappearing under a flood of red. “Wrong answer, Morgana.”


She ripped off the pendant and thrust it out to meet a flaming wave of magic pulsing from his hands. Her lips formed words she last spoke centuries ago. The jewel in her fingers flared and sucked in the power, leaving silence broken by fizzling sparks on the wooden floor.


His eyes widened. “We thought the amulet was lost.”


Red mist filtered over her vision and she shuddered as burning magic filled her, pushing through her skin. “Never lost. Merlin gave this to me and I’ve always rather liked it.”


Septimus stumbled back. She raised a finger and he froze, his feet glued to the ground. Floorboards smouldered as she stalked towards him, darkness spreading from her like a cloak. “You came into my home. You threatened my beloved. I don’t think I like you much.”


Power rippled through her and she licked her lip. Control was overrated.


“They won’t stop, Morgana. If you kill me more will come.”


“True. But you’ll be dead.”A luminous arc shot from the amulet into his chest. She wiped a spatter of blood off her cheek. “And that makes me happy.”


His body crashed into the side table, knocking over the photo frames and thudding to the ground. The crimson spray on the wall filtered through the haze in her eyes and she caught her breath. Cole. Crap.


She lunged towards the dead assassin, grabbing him under the arms and dragging him from the living room. Magic danced in the air and she growled. More trouble than it was worth.


Fumbling with the door handle she pushed her back against the door and tugged the body down the hall and into the kitchen. She heaved him upright and his arm swung loosely, knocking over the vase with the flowers that made her so happy.


“Bastard,” she muttered as glass and petals ground under her feet. She maneuvered him into the small laundry. Lavender scented sheets were an odd shroud but she propped him up in the linen cupboard and latched the door.


Back in the kitchen she stood by the shards of her favourite vase, ripped petals and water spreading over the linoleum. Magic swirled around her, coating her tongue and prickling her scalp. She closed her eyes on the red mist and leaned back into the power, letting her feet leave the floor and her legs float up to the ceiling. No point in fighting.


The kitchen clock ticked and her heartbeat slowed to match the rhythm. Magic seeped back under the earth where the power belonged but her feet stayed on the ceiling.


Crisp air hit her skin and she opened her eyes to see Cole standing by the open door, his upside down face a blank page of shock.


“Oh. Hi.” Her hair waved in the breeze. “This is awkward.”


Cole stumbled backwards. She gestured and a chair lurched across the floor towards him. He jumped away and fell on his arse. Huffing out a sigh, she concentrated and rotated back the right way to float to the ground. Tangled hair fell over her eyes and she brushed it off, glaring at him. A tightening vise gripped her heart and she tried to ignore the sensation. “I was trying to help.”


He pushed himself up, his brows lowering and blinking tics taking over his eyes.  “By throwing a chair at me?”


She eyed the way his hands trembled as they dusted off his jeans, the flicking of his fingers another tic she hadn’t seen in a while. “I thought you needed to sit down.”


“And I think you’ve got explaining to do. What, are you some kind of Fairy or something?”


Her face screwed up. “Ew, no. Witch, thank you very much.”


His face set like concrete, expressionless except for twitching blinks. “Witch. You know, I’m pretty sure that’s worse than fairy.”


She hunched her shoulders over the ache in her chest. “Whatever, I don’t have to deal with ridiculous wings.”


“Apparently you don’t need wings to float on the ceiling. Filing that under things I learned today.”


“Well what’s a day without learning, right?”


He scanned the room, lingering on the smashed vase and the papers on the floor. “Is any of this to do with the guy who turned up earlier?” His fingers flicked as he spoke and she caught the sound he trapped behind his lips.


“You can let the tics out, Cole. It’s only me.”


He pressed his lips tighter, eyes burning like copper in the dim green light. She tried to smile but it didn’t get very far. He jerked away and paced the room, vocal tics escalating in tone and volume as he let out the adrenaline. The bench dug into her hip as she leaned back and stared at the floor. He hated losing control. She understood that. She hated it as well. At least he didn’t end up on the ceiling.


Scuffed shoes entered her vision and she raised her eyes to his fiery ones.


“Right,” he said, “Magic is real and you have some. Any other secrets?”


She kept her gaze fixed on his, willing herself not to glance at the laundry. He crossed his arms and arched a brow. “Margo? No more lies, no more secrets. You tell me everything or I walk out the door.”


She held her breath, then the words spilled from her lips in a torrent. “There’s a body in the laundry. I didn’t mean to do it. He isn’t human so it doesn’t really count does it? It was me or him and I chose me.” Her mouth spread in a grimace and she waited, counting every second he stared at her.


“Jesus, Margo.”


“No, silly, not him. Septimus. He was an assassin.”


He slipped his phone from his pocket and chewed his lip as he stared at the black screen. She reached out and took his wrist.


“We can’t call the police. He doesn’t exist here.”


“Are you asking me to help you hide a body?”


“No. But he’s quite heavy and I keep banging him into things and I’ve already broken the vase with the lilies.”


His lip twitched and relief loosened her shoulders. “I knew you’d see the funny side.”


“I’m not smiling. I’m ticking.”


“No you’re not.”


He stared at her for a moment and then let his smile out. “No. I’m not.”


She bounced up from the bench. “Okay, I guess I better show you Septimus.”


His lips pressed together and his eyes narrowed as he took in the gaping hole in the warlock’s chest. He looked up and she met his eyes across the unwrapped body.


“Will you still help me?”


A sigh escaped him. “Here’s the thing, Margo. I was raised to look after family and family is what you make it. You’re mine.”


Magic still crackled under her skin and he’d never looked more human but as he lifted the body of the one man she’d feared, she felt more at home than she ever had before.




This short story was submitted to the July Blank Page Challenge and used a visual and word prompt posted by the competition. It’s my first attempt at an actual short story, and while it didn’t place, I found the practice really invaluable and I really enjoyed writing it.



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Weekend Story Snippet Share – Escape from Enstam – from Redemption

Redemption Collage Brave Jelena

Daegal saw Jelena hesitate in front of the chest. Her rapid breathing and white knuckles on  the dark wood of their escape tugged at his heart, and at his memory. Anton had told him of a time in their training when some of the younger men, fed up with being beaten by Jelena, had taken her and locked her in a cupboard. Anton freed her, thinking she’d be furious but had opened the door to a white faced and trembling young girl. Something happened in her childhood, Anton had gathered; but he’d never asked.


Her beautiful face set rigid and harsh with self control. What would it feel like for her to turn to him for comfort? A grin sparked and he pushed it away. It would feel like someone other than his Jelena.


“You know”, he said quietly “It’s a very deep chest. Even your long scrawny legs won’t cramp up in there.”


She took a breath and turned to face him. Something that might have been gratitude flickered in those big eyes that he saw when he closed his own.


“Are you sure your big head will fit though, Daegal? I’m quite concerned about you.”


He grinned. ‘I knew you cared, really. Here, let me be the gentleman for once.”


He gently peeled her hand from the edge of the chest and stood ready to hand her in. She froze, tension running down her arm and into his.  Muffled complaints from Malinda that her hair had caught on a splinter floated over to them, as did Alaea’s attempts to convince her brother that he wouldn’t fit in there with her and she would be fine without him.


He pulled Jelena closer to him and, surprisingly, she let him, “We’re all a bit anxious, but it will be alright.” She nodded stiffly and he stroked her wrist, his heart melting. “I’ll have to go in a minute, rescue Malinda from her hair.”


She smiled a bit uncertainly and let him hand her in, her breathing shallow and her legs shaking.


“I have to put the lid on now Jelena.” he said, wincing inside at the panic that darted across her face before her control wiped it away. “I’ll be right back after sorting Malinda out so if you decide you need anything or the lid isn’t sitting right just bellow and let me know.”


She nodded again, her lips tightly pressed together, and he smiled at her.


“That’s my brave girl” he said, and closed the lid on her indignant snort.


The tedium of waiting, holed up in a small cramped space, was shot through by constant worry over Jelena and the fear of betrayal.  Despite this, he fell asleep on the wagon trip as the chests bumped and jiggled their way along, waking with a guilty start when they stopped.  He had to fight himself not to just burst out of the chest. When he heard Marius’ voice he heaved a sigh of relief and kicked upwards with his feet until the lid came off. He was greeted with the welcome sight of twilight glinting off soft tendrils of mist winding through dark trees. He heaved himself out and into the forest clearing, wincing as cramp hit his calf, limping in a beeline for the chest he had marked down as Jelena’s.


He hauled the lid off and made sure he stood so he hid her from the others. She sat, still and white and quiet, her hands clenched so tightly he’d be surprised if there weren’t nail marks in her palms. A foul smell rose from a puddle of bile in the far corner. She looked up at him through tight wide eyes and his heart stopped at the shame he saw there. He held out his hand and she looked at it, but didn’t take it. He was sure she was trying not to cry.


“Come on then, sleepy head,” he said, “I know it’s comfy in there but some of us have work to do, towns to flee, can’t hang around for you all day.”


She took a shuddering breath and took his hand, for the second time in a day allowing him to help her. Her legs shook slightly as her feet hit the ground and he held on to her hand, stroking his thumb over her wrist as he made inane comments about the trees and complained a bit about the cramp in his calf while they watched Malinda clamber out, fall onto Tiernan’s neck as he helped her and ask for the privy.


Eventually, the trembling in the hand he held stopped and Jelena gently disengaged. She didn’t meet his eyes as she adjusted her vest and tightened her braid. Settling her hand on the pommel of her sword she took a deep breath. He smiled, seeing her poise return. She took a step towards Marius, who was shaking the hand of a large man who bore a strong resemblance to Finn, and then stopped. She didn’t quite glance over her shoulder at him, but he could see the effort it took her and didn’t mind.


“Thank you, Daegal.”


She walked off, straightening her shoulders and holding her head high and he didn’t think he could have felt this proud or this sad.

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Weekend Story Sharing – magic and pain and loss. Malinda tries to help.

fantasy woman in forest

Malinda ran to the top of the hill overlooking the battlefield, her long stole and the tails of her tunic whipping in the wind. Her foot slipped in the gravel but she pushed herself off and scrambled onwards.


Alex’s face was all she could see. She would do this for him, and for her brother. Her eyes were dry. She had not been able to weep yet, not even when she had told Alaea what Baelmah had said about Anton’s fate and the other woman had seemed to shatter in front of her eyes. She was right to do this. They wouldn’t let her help, they refused to believe that she could be strong. What use was healing when the dead and dying kept rolling in? It was like a wound. Better to cauterise it at the source than keep trying to mop up the blood. She would take care of Arrik. Burn him out.


The hill top gave her a view all around. She could see the armies below, wind carrying the sound of their booted feet and the clash of metal. She fixed her gaze on Arrik’s standard. Malchor she would leave to the others; he was not a good man, but he was not an evil one. She reached inside herself, tapping the energy. She gasped, the power rising in her as it had never done before. It filled her body, her soul, lifting her to a feeling perilously close to omnipotence. She raised her arms to the sky, magic crackling emerald green around them. Casting her eyes back to the soldiers below she narrowed her focus, her jaw clenched. Slowly extending a hand out in front of her she concentrated the flow of energy, feeling it move down towards her fingertips as it did when she used it to heal. But today there would be no healing. Only destruction. The heavens parted with a thunderous clap, shattering the air and reverberating around the cliff tops. Emerald fire erupted from her fingers in a long arc, heading directly towards the centre of Arrik’s massive army.  Not to be outdone, the sky unleashed a raging tempest which swept down on the army, engulfing it in a chaos of storm and wind


She could feel the magic rushing through her, and part of her recognised that it was draining her own life force. She could not stop it. She didn’t want to. This man was evil and would create more evil if he was allowed to succeed. He had taken her brother and her friends. The thought of them lying dead or broken on a field somewhere flashed into her mind, adding fury to the energy spilling out of her fingers. She thought she heard a soft voice cry out but ignored it


The first burst of fire had wreaked havoc on the army below, but she could see now that it was being turned aside as if there was a shield over the soldiers. She pushed harder, her knees shaking and her eyes and face drawing tight as she put everything she could into breaking that dome. Her breath ripped out of her and still she tried.


Distantly she was aware of movement near her, someone calling something. Was it her name? She could no longer hear sounds clearly, the magic filled her mind with a crackling rage. A body hurtled into her side, knocking her hard into the ground. The shock of the impact jarred something inside her and the energy died like a tap had been turned off. The sudden loss of that emerald glow ached like something had been severed and she whimpered


A strong arm lifted her into a sitting position and a hand cradled her head. She sobbed as a gentle voice murmured her name. She turned her face towards his white coat and tried to breathe


“I couldn’t do it, Ger. I couldn’t stop him” She trembled and gripped the lapels of his coat to try and steady herself. ‘I thought if I just stopped him then it would all be over. I thought it was working but then it stopped, I don’t know why!


“Sshh, sweetheart. Just breathe. Be still.


She tried to keep talking but he got his hand in between his coat and her mouth and put his hand over her lips


“You did something extraordinary, Mali. But the power of the gods is not a weapon to be used lightly or for too long


Her gaze fell on his strong hand, pale against her dark skin, calloused against her smoothness. He calmed her. He always did. The pain and the screaming was still there, but it was now deep inside, and she could control it.


She took a shuddering breath. “I just wanted to be strong, to help end this stupidity”.


His face burrowed into her hair and she felt his lips move against her head. “You are incredibly strong Mali, you are just not a killer.”


She let herself soak up the feel of his arms around her. He sat back and regarded her with a little laugh. His hand trembled as it stroked back her hair from her face.


“We should go. I need to get you back to the camp and to safety.”


He stood and pulled her up to him. She smiled wearily up at him but her brows drew together as his grip tightened and his face clenched.


“We need to go now” he said in clipped tones, his eyes like daggers looking over her shoulder down to the soldiers below.


Jerking her head around she saw Arrik riding towards the hilly outcrop on which they stood his helmed gaze fixing her in place.


“It’s like before” she whispered “He is coming to find me”. She should have known, how could she have been so foolish.


Racing down the steep path, hand in hand, feet slipping on the loose gravel, hope bloomed –  they might make it to the other side before Arrik arrived, perhaps throw him off. They turned onto a small plateau and reared back as the sorcerer flew up over the edge, floating with his arms out, riding the wind.  Gerwyn thrust her behind his back and drew his sword. Her heart raced; he was a pretty good swordsman for a churchman and had often trained with Anton, but he was no match for a sorcerer. She could see from the set of his shoulders that he knew it but would die protecting her anyway. Too fast for her to stop him, he ran at their enemy. Hands to her mouth she watched as each man slashed at the other. No fancy spins or footwork, just pure hacking. She could see the strike as it came and reached her hand on a scream.


Gerwyn fell on his knees at her feet, blood pouring from a gash in his abdomen. His hand went to the wound, trying to hold in the blood, even as he tried again to stand, to protect her. Arrik laughed and with a flick of power knocked him onto his back. She rushed forward and collapsed to her knees beside him, reaching out to cover his wound, waiting for the magic to come, to heal him. But nothing came. Panic flared in her eyes and she tried harder, pushing until her skin stretched. She felt nothing, not even a flicker.


“No! Why won’t it work!”


Gerwyn reached out a shaking hand. “It’s alright Mali. It’s alright”


Marius’ words flashed into her head The world has more than enough fighters, what we need more of is healers. Kindness. A gentle hand. Don’t try too hard to join the battle; you might lose more than you gain. Her face crumpled and tears spilled out. Now, when it most counted, she couldn’t heal. She held Gerwyn’s hand tight and pressed a kiss to his palm. His eyes widened as he realised what she was going to do.


“No, Mali, don’t!”.


She shook her head sadly. Picking up his sword, she stood and faced the monster. She would not let him harm this man.


The sorcerer pouted at her then flashed his blade in a gleaming arc.


“So, little bird, you think to be a falcon. I will have to teach you how to appreciate the falconer’s jesses”.


She heard the sound of scoria falling and what sounded like someone scrabbling up the hill face behind her. She bit her lip, sweat beading on her brow. Did she turn to see this new threat or keep her eyes on the bigger one in front of her? Arrik’s frown decided her. If he wasn’t sure what was coming then she would trust it to be better than him. She took advantage of his distraction and lunged clumsily, aiming for his belly. His gaze whipping back to her he easily parried her blow and used her momentum to push her off her feet. She rolled, hoping the long blade wouldn’t cut her, and scrambled to her feet. She shook her hair back, blowing upwards to get the last errant curls out of her eyes. She could see Gerwyn struggling to get to his feet and despair filled her. It was as if history was repeating. She would fall to Arrik and then he would murder her friend. A roar sounded in her ears and a blast of pure white energy shot past her and knocked the sorcerer over. He fell heavily and lay gasping. She turned to see Anton walking from the top of the hill, his black coat flaring behind him and such a fierce glow of power around him that until he smiled at her, demons dancing in his eyes, she wasn’t sure it was her brother. He stopped in front of her and cupped her jaw with his free hand. “I wasn’t too late this time Mali.”


Her arm dropped and her lip trembled. “Gerwyn…” her voice broke and she looked to where she had left him struggling to get up. Her eyes widened. Anton’s hand stroked her face as he left her to stalk his prey. “We are all safe. Go and stand with Reinaldo and when they say to leave, you leave, no coming back for me do you hear?”


She grabbed his hand. “Be safe then my brother or I shall have to”


He gave her a lopsided smile and focused back on his prey, unleashing another bolt of power that flipped Arrik onto his back again. She ran to the little group huddled on the edge. Daegal was wadding what looked like the bandages from Gerwyn’s belt bag onto his wound. His eyes lit as she knelt next to him behind the curtain of Jelena and Reinaldo’s blades.


“Here is our healer! Over to you Malinda”


The light in his face dimmed as her mouth turned down and her head shook. “I am empty Daegal, I cannot heal”.


“Ah.” He frowned. “Then we may have a problem.” Daegal glanced over at where Anton was pounding Arrik with bolt after bolt. Her eyes stayed fixed on Gerwyn’s pale face.


She smoothed the hair from his brow and his warm brown eyes smiled at her even as his teeth clenched down on the pain. She could see the effort it took him to speak.


“Daegal, I won’t have much longer unless I get to a medic tent”


The other man turned and Mali marveled at his ability to keep smiling. “We will have to get you to that tent then my friend. Mali are you strong enough to help me?”.


She nodded emphatically.  “What do you need me to do?”


He was all speed now, tucking in the wadded bandage and holding Ger’s hand down on it tightly. “We’ll take a shoulder each and head down the scree. Should be easier than coming up.”


He paused and looked at Jelena, her back straight and her gaze straight ahead at where Arrik had managed to get to his feet and was flicking invisible bolts at Anton, whose shield was holding but flickering. “Jelena…”


“I heard.” She didn’t turn her eyes away but she moved her head slightly towards them. “I will see you back at the city. Look after them, Daegal”.


Mali’s eyes flicked to Daegal. He seemed like he wanted to say something more, then he shrugged wryly and knelt down to help her hoist Gerwyn up. They staggered slightly but Ger found his feet and managed to take some of the weight. Not for the first time, Mali found herself cursing her short stature. They headed carefully out on a lopsided lean when Jelena’s voice floated after them.


“If you die for real this time Daegal, I will hunt you into the next life and slap you”.


She looked across at Daegal in surprise and saw him grinning. Meeting Gerwyn’s eyes she saw a tender amusement behind the pain and, on impulse, leaned to kiss his cheek.



from REDEMPTION, old completed first draft, awaiting revisions shortly.

fiction, Story Snippet Sharing

Weekend Story Snippet Share – Anton meets up with the Outlaws


Dripping water in his face woke him up. Turned out that ferns were great conductors of dew. Wiping the fresh wetness out of his eye, Anton rolled to his side and up onto his elbow. Birds sang busily in the trees and in the near distance he could hear the soft rustling of a small animal. Pushing himself to his feet he stretched out the lingering stiffness of sleeping on the ground.


The path was wide and he eyed it thoughtfully. Maybe best to stay off it, walk through the trees next to it as much as possible. He didn’t need any trouble.  The sun was bright in the sky and he shaded his eyes as he glanced up at it through the branches.  If he was moving eastward then, as the wagon driver had said, it would be a long road to Enstam. Perhaps the forest would be a more direct route. He eyed the expanse behind him. No. Something about the dark trees discouraged exploration, and there was likely to be only the one mountain path.


As he trod through the undergrowth he tried to figure out exactly what he was going to do once he reached Enstam. He should warn the magistrate that preparing for war would be a good idea, but he would have to be careful how he did it. Then a boat, and home to Port Adair. His steps quickened at the thought. Home. Seeing his sister again.


Thoughts of the aftermath of Ravens Water wove into his hope like a fog, twisting it. No. There was surely no reason for Malchor to attack his own cities. Surely they’d be safe. He strode on, steps not light now but heavy with a dread that he tried to dismiss. Port Adair was not like the western lands, ready to kill and throw out their elvish citizens. But then again, he had been with the army. He’d seen what men from Devnor would do. Knew what he had done. He ignored the tight feeling in his chest. Right now there was nothing he could do.


Food was something else on his mind. He did not regret giving his rations to the girl, she needed them more than him, but not only had he not seen any rabbits or birds large enough to feed him but the thought of killing any of the creatures in this wood sent shivers down his spine. It felt a bit like being welcomed into someone’s home and then leaving with all their possessions. Oh well, a few days without food would do him no harm. As long as he didn’t run out of water. He smiled ruefully as the first drops of a spring shower splashed down on his coat. Looks that wouldn’t be a problem.


It was getting on for midday when he stopped. He’d been forced back onto the path some time ago when the land on either side became increasingly marshy. So far it had seemed fine but he had no wish to discover a sink hole by falling in it. Something in the air seemed wrong, and he realised that the constant birdsong had fallen silent. His pulse quickened. He knelt down as if to adjust the laces on his boot and scanned the surrounding landscape through his lashes. A couple of small pebbles rolled quietly off to the side of the path up ahead, as if disturbed by a shifting foot. He palmed the dagger from inside his boot and as he stood he loosened his sword.


Moving forward as if lost in thought he listened intently. A second before the man jumped out from his hiding spot Anton heard the slight intake of breath as the bandit had prepared himself. His sword was out in a flash and his dagger held ready. The bandit pulled up but didn’t seem too perturbed. The sounds of shuffling feet behind him told Anton why; the bandit had company.


He shifted, letting his size give them pause. “I don’t want trouble”


The bandit grinned through his wiry reddish beard. “Of course you don’t, but I’m afraid trouble has found you. See, we don’t like soldiers in these woods. These are our woods and you aren’t welcome.”


Anton adjusted his stance to shift slightly to his left, he couldn’t quite see the man behind him but he could smell him; he smelled of cedar smoke and pig grease. A tanner maybe.


“I am not a soldier.” The words felt like ash in his mouth.


The bandit looked at him with disbelief in his narrow eyes. “Well, you look a bit scruffy but that’s a Devnorian army coat you’re wearing even if you’ve managed to rip off the emblem. Now I might be prepared to believe that you stole the coat, but a big man like you that coat looks like its been tailored to fit. No way you just picked that up.”


Anton tried a smile, it didn’t feel very disarming and from the increased tension in the bandit’s shoulders it didn’t look it either. He gave it up.


“What I may have been is beside the point, I am no soldier now. I don’t want trouble. I simply want to get to Enstam before the pass is closed.’


“How did you find the path?”


The voice behind him sounded very unlike the burly image of a tanner he had constructed in his head. He risked turning his head slightly but did not want to take his eyes off the man in front of him.


“I don’t like speaking to people behind me. Why don’t you come around where I can see you”


A soft laugh came in reply. “You answer the question and perhaps I might”


“A friend showed me the way.”


“A friend in a wagon?”


He debated whether to tell them. He wasn’t sure if they knew the wagon driver or not and he did not want to get him into trouble.


“A friend who didn’t ask as many questions as you” he said.


The man in front of him seemed to be looking over his shoulder at the one behind him. Anton tensed. He was ready either way but he hoped they backed down; his soul was worn with killing. The bandit shrugged his shoulders and put down his sword.


“Fine, on your head be it boy. You can put down your weapons, soldier, the master thinks you are vouched for.”


Anton kept hold of his sword and shrugged, a grim smile flickering across his face, “I think I prefer to keep them out until I have seen all your merry crew, Redbeard.”


A soft laugh came from right over his shoulder and he had to exert a lot of control not to jump. A slight figure in a dull green tunic walked around to face him. Golden hair curled roughly, looking rather as if it had been hacked off by an amateur. The boy had to be no more than 15, and his pale face had the fine bones of one more suited to a great hall than to rough living. Anton’s arms dropped. He stared at the boy and his mind whirled.


“Sir Daffyd?”


“Lord Daffyd now.” The boy replied in the same light voice “My uncle was killed in the coup.”


Anton looked at the boy’s face, the sombre eyes under delicate brows. “I am sorry for your loss”


Daffyd smiled tightly. “Are you? My uncle was not a very nice man. My cousin, however, was a very nice man and for that alone I could hate you. But then that wouldn’t get us very far would it?”


Anton stood for a moment, then compromised by sheathing his sword but keeping the dagger close in his left palm.


“I did not kill your cousin.” Visions of the chaos after the coup, the killings and the blood, pushed against his memories of two golden haired boys, scampering through the palace grounds.  “I was against the executions, although at the time I admit I believed a change in regime was needed. But I would not have condoned the killing of a boy like Sir Alwyn. He was harmless. And a gifted musician.”


Lord Daffyd jutted out his chin, blinking away a wetness in his eyes.


He bent on one knee at the boy’s feet, eyes on the young lord’s face.  “But I was responsible in part, for the support I gave Malchor. For that I ask your forgiveness.” Redbeard moved slightly closer, hand on his knife. The boy had a good protector.


Daffyd looked down at Anton, his eyes unreadable.


“Stand up. I am Lord of Nothing now and I will see no man kneel to me. I know who you are, Anton Baruch. I remember watching you on the training ground.” He smiled amid the bitterness twisting his face.  “I wanted to be a soldier you see. Wouldn’t that have been something?”


Daffyd glanced at Redbeard who grimaced, but stood down, and stretched out his hand to Anton.


“You were once a good man, and if you have truly deserted then you might be a good man again. Our friend the wagon driver clearly thought so”


Anton hesitated a moment, his mind swimming.  Pushing to his feet he put out his own hand; it trembled only slightly. The boys’ words rang in his head. You were once a good man. Be a good man again


Dafydd stepped back, the look on his face belonging to a much older man.  “Come, Anton, you will be in need of food. We have a pig roasting at the camp.” a glint of a smile lurked in his eyes.  “I prepared it myself even if Bowman here thinks I burn water”.


Anton would have followed the boy as he turned and walked into the forest but his way was barred by Bowman. Despite the fact that the red bearded protector only came up to Anton’s chin, he held himself as if he was looking at someone far below him.


“You take one step out of line, you even look like you might hurt that boy and you won’t see the blade coming.”


He nodded. No need to say he could gut them all before they’d even had time to think about reaching for a weapon. The man in front of him cared for the boy and would die to protect him. Anton respected that and he had no intention of harming either of them. He put his dagger back in his boot and followed Daffyd into the trees, Bowman warily bringing up the rear.



From Redemption, first draft WIP waiting for revisions.