Bayo, Sixth of the Pack

Standard

24th of Entekra, 922AP

A chill night’s wind carried bits of sand from the black place. A place Bayo would not go. The dark sand was hot under paw by day, and by night it was like a reflection of the stars above. The glowing insects dug themselves out of their sandy holes, the ones that got into fur, the ones that bit and itched. No, the black place wasn’t a place for Bayo. It wasn’t a place for the pack.

Bayo shook the sand from his fur, and continued among the grass, which grew in patches here, so near to the black place. The rabbit’s scent was lost in the wind. Romu, fifth of the pack, strode by Bayo’s side, sniffing the dirt before his paws. He whimpered his annoyance. They were hungry. And Alpa, first of the pack, would not be pleased at their returning without kill.

The two padded along, conscious of the lights above. They moved slowly, watching the sky shift. Big White came into focus, the first moon, this night. It lit the plains, making their journey easier. Romu preferred to lead, being fifth of the pack, so he did, back to the pack.

There was a rustling in the bushes, just paces ahead of them. Bayo and Romu crouched low, feeling the grass brush their fur lined bellies. They waited. It moved again, ever so slightly. The bush was large and thorny, so they did not wish to pounce on it. They waited more.

The second moon, Small Red, crested over the horizon and into the night sky. A howl in the distance resounded. Alpa praised the night. And so howled others in the pack. Seven in total sent their cries to Small Red. Bayo wished to join his voice to the night, but feared scaring off his prey. Romu had no such reservations, and he raised his head to the sky, howling for his pack to hear him. So lost in revelry was he that Romu did not notice Bayo’s hesitation; did not notice the lurch of the bushes. Several rabbits bounded off.

Bayo would not lose them again. He growled as he joined the hunt once more, invigorated by the baying of his brothers and sisters. He closed the distance between the rabbits until they broke into three different directions. The largest, fattest rabbit went left. He chased it down, jerking to and fro as it bounced left and right between trees and bushes. It led him into a clearing without bushes or trees, and Bayo leapt for the kill. But a blinding blue glow disarmed him at the very last moment.

Romu, noticing too late his brothers hunt, chased after him. He didn’t see when the rabbits broke off. He followed the deep gashes in the dirt where Bayo had kicked off in pursuit of the rabbit. When he came into a clearing, he came to a quick halt, kicking up grass under his paws as he slid. There was Bayo, walking head low, with his tail between his legs. He crept over to a large ball of light that rested upon the dirt. A great sphere of blue, churning itself inside out. Romu didn’t like it. It hurt to behold.

He growled at Bayo, telling him to follow. Bayo looked at Romu, over his shoulder, but merely turned around again to stare at the blue thing. Bayo sat on his haunches, head still bowed low, but his tail no longer sat between his legs. Romu whimpered, stepping over to him, placing his head upon Bayo’s. Sixth of the pack paid him no heed. Romu barked at the blue thing, fearful of its power, but it too paid him no mind. It didn’t stir any more or less than its already wave-like form had.

Romu paced back and forth around the circular clearing, waiting for Bayo to respond. He didn’t. After a time, Romu fell into a restless sleep.

Morning’s light shined before long. Romu awoke and found Bayo still in the same position. The great blue orb still worked its power over him. Romu walked toward Bayo, cautiously. He gave a bark. Bayo turned to face him, eyes red. He howled into the sky, and fire leapt from the earth at his paws, licking up his arms. Bayo did not fear it though, nor did it burn, or even hurt him. Romu took a submissive stance at Bayo’s fiery approach. Their roles reversed, Romu realized he was now sixth of the pack, and that Bayo was five.

“Brother,” Romu heard within his mind. “Come, we have much to discuss with the pack.”

Rage of the Rattlehulk

Standard

19th of Triabra, 1212AP

The events happened so quickly that May barely had enough time to process the information, let alone assess what her next move would be. She had run out of the level clearing and jumped back down the mountainside, into the trees, jerking her weight in midair to twist fully around and let loose the arrow in her grip. She watched it fly, wobbling from the various forces pushing and pulling against its minuscule, aerodynamic form. The bow string whipped the palm of her hand, breaking skin, but she payed it no mind. She watched the arrow arc in its flight, curving from the strange manner in which she released it. Finally it steadied towards its target’s thick brown coat.

May Aresha didn’t know if she hit her mark or not. Upon her aimless descent back into the forest’s thick brush, her back met bark. Hard. It pushed the wind out of her, twisting her fall around the trunk and throwing her into the leaves below, face first. Her momentum kept her plowing down the mountainside, the leaves beneath her making her slide ever more frictionless. She grabbed hold of her senses, and dug her boots and hands into the soil.

Finally she halted, kicking a tree and a boulder, and she let her momentum bring herself back to a standing position. A great rattling roar leapt from where she had been just moments before, like bones scraping and clattering against one another, fighting for freedom from the confines of such a terrible beast. The Rattlehulk had been hit.

May had no time to celebrate the incredible shot. She couldn’t breathe. The impact of the trunk had knocked her breathless. She struggled for air, groaning as pain shot through her torso. She leaned forward to grab her bow, but abandoned the idea as a new set of pangs began to surface. The strange pang of bones poking about where they weren’t supposed to. My ribs! The shock allowed her a brief relapse of air, and she choked in all she could manage.

The Rattlehulk only allowed her enough time for a few precious, painful gulps of air, before it blundered after her. As it hit the tree line, the great mass of fur and bone stopped its insane rattling roar, and began a purr-like hiss. It pushed itself furiously between the trees with its two mighty limbs, it’s long, girthy tail, wrapping and wriggling around the forest floor, kicking up leaves and dirt in its wake.

Oh hyll no.

May reached to grab another arrow, but the tumble had cost her nearly all of her quiver’s contents. Only one remained. The others must have been scattered about the mountainside. No time. Fire! FIRE! She dropped to her knees to pick up the bow, and pulling the string back fast (despite the searing pain in her back and chest) let the arrow free. The monster stumbled right into it.

The arrow glanced off the Rattlehulk’s face, which was without fur or skin. Black secretions oozed from the hulk’s fleshless eye-sockets and maw. It barreled forward, squeezing its way through the ranks of most of the trees, shattering the rest with its taloned fingers. The dual horns on its head removed branches and pockets of canopy that dared stand in its way. It needed May.

Just as May had needed to find her father, Burelik, just moments earlier. Her father, a trained hidehunter, had been gone for far too long from their hometown in Furmount. May had followed Burelik’s trail, only to find that they led straight to the Rattlehulk. The same Rattlehulk which was now dangerously close to trampling her, like the trees it chose not to maneuver around.

May slammed back to the present. She leapt and ran to her right, then up, and about, climbed up a tree, and swung off a branch. Instead of evading it, like the Rattlehulk had assumed she would try, May jumped onto the creatures back, cracking the wooden bow onto the flat of the monster’s neck (which thankfully wasn’t just bone). The wood splintered on contact, leaving behind two halves connected by rawhide string. May quickly stabbed one of the sharp splinters into the Rattlehulk’s shoulder, but before she could drive in the next stake she was thrown up by the tail, and swatted into a tree. The Rattlehulk wriggled and writhed in pain, pushing its back against tree branches to dislodge the object. All the while it gargled with bones and hatred.

May’s body throbbed all over. The tail had swatted her hip, and her leg hit the tree. Not to mention the bones she already suspected were broken. She rolled away from an incoming swipe from the Rattlehulk’s talons, which ripped a sleeve from her shirt.

She got to her feet and started moving down the mountainside, favoring her left. Am I sweating or am I crying? She thought about this only briefly, realizing there were more pressing questions to face, such as: how the hyll am I getting out of this alive? She hopped down a rock ridge, and found a small hole covered by rock she could easily hide in, before the monster could see her do so. And she waited.

May could hear the Rattlehulk’s labored breathing, even though it was still a ways off. She could feel the ground shake with every tree it snapped and step it stomped. And that horrible rattling. It drove her to tears, if nothing else, and she covered her mouth. She closed her eyes too, hoping to never see such a thing again. She also hoped the small, hidden shelter would be enough. Can it smell me? Unlikely, as the black goop also fell from its slitted nostrils. The creature slowed, clicked about a bit, and searched around other trees. And then it went silent.

“May?” A voice broke out from the woods. A strangely familiar voice. “May, is that you?” Now she was truly crying – a hushed sob, which hurt more than all her broken body did combined.

“May. Don’t be afraid.” It was the voice of her father… but it was muffled. Distorted. The voice crept closer. “May, come back out. The Rattlehulk. It won’t hurt you. I promise.” The last two words came out dark and satirical. A rattling chuckle permeated the forest then, seeming to echo about from all areas at once.

May stepped out of hiding, staring the thing in its face. It happened to be standing just outside her shelter, waiting. It’s thick brown pelt smelled like death and fecal matter. On the underside of its immensity, was a large patch of beige skin. May was terrified of the thing. But she forgot her fears entirely when it spoke with her father’s voice. Now she was just angry.

“How dare you use my father’s voice, foul beast!”

“I could use another, if it please you,” this time speaking with a little girl’s childlike innocence, which in some ways was more disconcerting. It just wagged its tail, left and right, rustling the leaves on grass.

“And what? You want my voice to add to the collection?” May pulled the knife slowly out of a hidden sheath on her thigh, without the Rattlehulk knowing.

“No dear. I only want your bones.” She recognized this voice as one of the other missing hidehunters from town, but her chance to put a name to the voice was cut to an abrupt halt as it opened its jaws wide and dove into her.

Before the Rattlehulk could sink any of its terrible teeth into May, she stabbed the hidden knife directly into its left eye-socket, producing a fresh spray of the black substance. Some got onto May’s wrist and immediately began to burn. The Rattlehulk forgot it’s human voices and whimpered like a wounded carabrin dog, recoiling and staggering back. It wailed anew a terrible cry.

May tried to wipe off the black ooze from her wrist as she ran, but she couldn’t remove it entirely. She limped up until she reached the red-tinged grass. Walking the last few steps, she turned around, stopping just before the large pit below. The trees here were different – tall and young, and old and small. The bark had warped into an unnatural curve. The air itself was thick and felt unsafe to breathe, but May didn’t see how she had any other choice. She waited, wiping the remainder of the black substance on her leggings.

The Rattlehulk charged forward, not parting for any tree in its path. It shoved through them, tackling them head on. It was going to rip May apart. The ooze in its eye bounced up and out, splattering across the entire left side of the bone-faced monster. It wasn’t slowing its speed; it would plow right into her, perhaps goring her with the horns on its head.

She dropped down the hole, catching herself on the ledge. The Rattlehulk fell for the trap, jumping forward, directly into the pit. Directly into the paradox.

It screamed with a sound she didn’t think it previously capable of. A sound of purest agony. Pulling herself back up, she turned to take in what was transpiring. The gyrating, shapeless, orb of pulsing red, spewing streams of light and darkness in equal measure, was pulling the Rattlehulk into its grasp. The beast used its limbs and talons to attempt to crawl to safety, while simultaneously swatting its large tail to disentangle, or to swim, or to fight the anomaly.

“May!” It screamed with her father’s voice. “May, come with me! Please! I’m so hungry. May. May. MAY!”

The paradox was folding in on itself, a shape enveloping another shape, while simultaneously also being both shapes. And the Rattlehulk continued to writhe and wail and… rattle. Until both the paradox and the hulk were gone in a puff of static and electricity, which too was soon gone. Forgotten.

May sat there for a bit, slack-jawed.

She had won.

But it certainly didn’t feel that way.

– – – – –

Writing prompt taken from Writing Excuses, episode 10.6.

Writing Prompt: Think about the last time you lost at a game. What was the process of thought that led to your loss? Now, replicate that moment in the dramatic structure of the story, except the story isn’t about games.

Furmount

Standard

19th of Triabra, 1212AP

Furmount is, perhaps unsurprisingly, best known for its high traffic of fur trade. Situated 300 kiloters northeast of Etrikaf and 250 kiloters west of Kersol, the small town’s only visitors were traders passing through and selling their wares, pirates masquerading as traders, hidehunters, or other more reclusive vagabond types. Big game hidehunters had long recognized Furmount as the premier location for the Chase.

In recent years, the Chase had become less a feat of strength and more a rite of passage. Most everyone in Furmount engaged in it at some point or another, for food, for pelts, or just for the fun of the hunt. Although the term originated with the yearly pelt collecting tournament, the Chase is now widely used in reference to any form of hunting, in season or other. In Furmount, however, there was no such thing as hunting season.

Perhaps there should have been.

May clambered over the ridge ascending the mountain, her brown leather boots worn and sturdily gripping the mossy rock below her. She’d been no stranger to the Chase growing up. From a young age, her father had trained her in trapping, tracking, and in archery. Being small had aided her in learning to conceal herself in the brush, or to hide her own tracks. And as she had grown into her skin as an adult, her craft only became more impressive.

She brought home some of the town’s best hides: mountain cub, black bear, and even the occasional carabrin dog. But this was expected of her, and rarely ever did she get the praise she rightly deserved. Anything less would be disappointing, coming from the daughter of Burelik Aresha.

Her father Burelik was, indisputably, the greatest hidehunter in the past century. The amount of fur and hides he’d collected for trade in the annual Chase was staggering. In years past he would return to town early for sheer convenience. On his trip back into Furmount after the week’s endeavor, his colleagues would genuinely gape and comment at the state of his overladen mule. The poor thing collapsed so often under the weight of the Chase, her father had eventually just opted to set up camp with a few mules.

Burelik’s greatest claim to his skill was that he had felled Skalthog, Last of the White Elk. A legendary beast, made even more infamous for the fight it gave Burelik. All knew the tale. Skalthog’s immense spider-like antlers now rested above the doorpost to his home. Her home. May lived forever under the shadow of her father Burelik and the great Skalthog. And every time she left her house she felt the weight of their unrivaled legend.

But when she left her house this time, she barely noticed. Her father had been away for weeks, in search of several hidehunters that had gone missing. They had not been seen since last month’s Chase. It was a dangerous sport, no doubt, and many made mistakes. Many lost their lives even. But it was unlikely this group of hidehunters would all go missing however. Four of the town’s best. And now her father was missing too.

He has never gone missing before. It can’t be possible. She played these words over and over in her head, as silly and useless as they were. May pulled herself up the steep incline, using the outstretched roots and tree trunks to her advantage. She had found that the best way to climb was to distribute her weight (minimal as it was) between her lower and upper body. The implied inconvenience of the innumerable small trees that littered the mountainside, each located less than a yard from the next, was a personal convenience for May. She lifted herself up and through the tangled mess as much with the tree limbs as she did with the ground itself, making her tracks nigh indistinguishable. But years of traversing the thick brush as deliberately as she did made her climb swift and agile. A relentless shifting of body and leather and hair.

She didn’t bother stopping for the deer she passed, or the rabbits, or the treerags – she barely noticed. May could think of nothing other than the task at hand. She followed the familiar tracks of her father’s boots as they ascended. She had found the prints only yesterday, after she had almost given up the last of her hope. There was no mistaking the curve of the boot’s edge, or the way her father favored the balls of his feet. Other, older trails also rode up the path parallel to her father’s footprints, but they had mostly been worn away. Most likely the path he had been following himself.

She thought back to what the merchant traders in town had told her earlier in the week. “I’m sorry to tell you, dear. If your father hasn’t brought them back by now, no one will. No one can. And if he hasn’t come back himself… Well. It doesn’t bode well.” She knew they implied that they believed he’d befallen the same fate as those that had gone before him. Traders? Traitors more like. The lot of them. She kept on.

She knew they would avoid the paradox hole just ahead, by the tip of the eastern rock ridge, and they had – the prints in the mossy soil diverged from that path. The unnatural place. Even the game knew better than to go near it. The grass grew red-tinged and long, and the growth cycles of the trees was sped up and warped. No. Her father, the other hidehunters, they wouldn’t have lost their way there.

Indeed their tracks led north, away from the paradox. She was now reaching the top of the mountain. The trees were slowly becoming more and more spread apart, the tips of their green frosted over by the cold damp of the morning. She reached a large clearing eventually, and allowed herself a breather. Inhaling was difficult at this altitude, but living on a mountain herself came with some adaptive perks. The tracks were fading now, as the dew that covered them had flaked into a thin layer of ice in the days since.

A cloud rolled over the mountain, enveloping May in thick fog. And for a moment all was tranquil. And then she heard a branch break. She looked about but could see only the things a few yards around her. What was that? This altitude lent very little opportunity for animals to graze. But here she was, at a place where, clearly, several hidehunters had made their way, for Chase or other.

The rattled breathing of… something could be heard, if she craned her ears a certain way. “Father?” No response. “Papa. Is that you?”

She inched towards the noise, gradually. It made no response other than continuing its rattled breathing. She held her emotions in check, not giving herself the time to process what it could mean. It sounded like a man who’s lungs had collapsed, but she had quickly abandoned the idea as too pessimistic. And still it shook. And it grew louder as she came nearer.

She felt the ground shake ever so slightly as another twig was tripped. May stopped moving abruptly. How could anything make this… this noise? Collapsed lungs or not. The fog dissipated then, slowly as if in a dream. Whatever had made the hoarse sounds silenced, ever so briefly, as it allowed May to visualize itself for the first time.

She felt sick at the sight. Not solely from the disgust she felt at the shape of the figure before her. She felt sick for what had befallen the unprepared hidehunters. And sickness at what the thing had likely done with her father. She took a staggered step backward as the rattling wheeze began again, the thing starting forward. A creature such as this had never been seen near Furmount as far as she was aware, but she knew exactly what it must be.

Turning to run, she bellowed “RATTLEHULK!” May notched an arrow, and while taking a leap into the trees behind her, spun to let it fly.

– – – – –

Writing prompt taken from the Writing Excuses podcast, episode 10.3: Lovecraftian Horror.

Writing Prompt: Take a character, and from that character’s point of view, describe their reaction to something horrific and awful, but do so without describing the thing itself.

A Blueprint and a Storm

Standard

13th of Octobra, 740AP

“The latest insight in modern intellectual understanding is being referred to by members of the Akarian Scholaria as the Lifespan Conundrum. Although it is currently only proposed as a theory, the past half century has seen a widespread increase in naturally occurring deaths under the expected lifespan of 150 years. Scholars and record keepers alike are claiming we may be seeing a sudden drop of nearly 30 years off the average human life cycle, and they have as yet reached no conclusions as to why this would be occurring. On average it appears women live roughly 3-4 years longer than men. One Akar (who has asked to remain anonymous) states that the diminishing lifespan may not be an entirely new concept. Some, including our source, believe it likely that those who experienced the Purge could have lived as long as 200 years or more.”

Ashayr Cannifury Brite shook his head and chuckled as he finally understood. He dropped the satirical tabloid onto his nightstand. The Strand is finally taking potshots at those paradox addled fools of the Scholaria. For such self proclamation of collegiate prowess, Ashayr couldn’t fathom how the Akarianites could still profess their belief in a Purge ever actually happening. Absolutely no proof!

He looked about him, rising. The previous night was an unbelievable success, both as parties go and as a fundraising event. It was dishevelment in the extreme. Ashayr was extremely proud of himself. As only a minor lord, this project would forever stamp his name on the annals of history, (and it would bring water more readily to the people). Lord Sarnichor and his wife had promised a generous loan, and old Lady Marley Crondy is officially recognizing a portion of her will towards the financing of the, tentatively titled, Brite Aqueduct.

He left the room, silently bidding the two youthful beauties unbothered rest under the sheets. The hallways seemed intact, ferns unruffled and paintings leveled. He ascended the stairway, several goblets and a bottle of 20-year aged Marnvalley Red empty and abandoned on the bottom step. They found their way into my cellar, he thought with exasperation.

Ashayr stopped when he hit the next floor, staring at the open door in front of him. Exasperation drained from him, anxiety filling the gaps. No, no no… No, the room was locked. Locked? Surely, I locked it. He moved forward, entering his workspace. It was remarkably clean opposed to the rest of the manor’s appearance. No party entered through here. The papers on his table sat untouched. Precious heirlooms, weapons, and other valuables remained where they had been positioned. Maps of Atelinor draped magnificently on the wall, each town marked, and landmark pinned.

And then he realized, looking back to his work table. “Where is it,” he asked in a low fury. “Where is the blueprint!?” He had shown nobody the most updated layout. If this gets into the wrong hands… He collapsed into the chair, hands shaking. The document contained more than a few confidential details he hoped would remain a secret, including how much he would personally pocket from the project’s proceeds. If this gets into the wrong hands, I’m finished.

– – –

Aelin kept the rolled up blueprint hidden beneath the folds of her cloak, anger and determination warming her from the inside out. From Brite’s boastful speech last night she had realized the location of the water duct system to be dubious. It was worse than that though. Oh, how papa needs to see this.

It had begun snowing on her way back home. It was so sudden. No snow all season long and now it falls in buckets! She furiously blew the snowy hair out of her eyes, unwilling to tuck it back inside her hood for fear of numbing her fingertips. Her walk was endless and lonely. All had shuffled their way indoors at the onset of the snowfall, and she walked the streets by herself. The sky was ominously dark; relentless.

The overwhelming silence would have been considered soothing. The white flakes falling slow and deliberate could have been inspiration for song. The soft crunch under her boots should have reminded Aelin of her youth. But she was upset and her mind was elsewhere. The sketched plans under her cloak foretold the doom of her father’s house.

Wind picked up, buffeting more snow against her course. The layers of snow under her feet piled higher, each inch making it harder and harder to budge forward. What I’d give for a horse right now, she thought grudgingly. She hugged to the walls at her left, where the snow fell less feverishly. It was becoming increasingly dangerous. I’ll have to stop at Duree’s Harper, until I warm.

She turned under a wooden archway, accented by a hanging plank with an embossed harp, and pulled open the heavy door. It was a breath of fresh air, entering the building. Not quite the breath she hoped for though. Duree’s Harper Tavern was an old establishment, and Aelin had been coming here for some time. Her father’s line of work wasn’t something she could follow in the footsteps of exactly; that’s what her brother was for. She had been training under a minstrel, coming here twice a week generally. Her tutor, a reclusive master, would be absent today, she was aware.

Since she set out to earn her minstrel certificates Aelin found that only one thing truly peeved her – being mistaken for a bard or a mere singer. Master Davad’s first lesson stuck with her after all these long months. “The road to becoming a celebrated minstrel is elusive. If you ever find it, let me know. And make no mistake, being celebrated and being successful are two very different things. There are many celebrated bards with more poems to their name than coin. There are many successful singers or musicians with more coin to their name than talent. As a minstrel, you must blend deft fingers, a trained voice, and a honed wit if you ever plan on attaining success. Once you attain that, celebrate.”

The warmth of the room was jolting. Fire licked up from the large rectangular pit in the center of the room. Aelin allowed her hands to heat up, feeling the ache in her bones slowly return as she thawed. The room smelled of roasted pork and ale, and it’s scattered attendants joined the crackling fire with idle chatter and mirth.

She needed to look at it again. She sat at the nearest empty table, fumbling the flattened roll out of her cloak. A key dropped out of the cloak with it. Despite it all, it rolled out easily. The parchment was likely a fine goatskin, not coiling back up as most scrolls would.

She traced where the water system led, a gigantic snake across the page. She did not question that the people would need the water, or doubt that this would make it easier for them. It was a brilliant plan. But there. Just there. Her finger traced where her home would be. Several piers and walls would need to come down directly on the people of her neighborhood. If Lord Brite gets the funding to go through with this… Her home. Her father’s shop. Neighbors she had known all her life. All would need be uprooted for this… Brite Aqueduct. The words were stained across the top of the magnificent parchment.

At the time she stole the plans from Brite she knew she had to stop him any way she could, but just now she had no idea how to go about such a daunting task. What would her father think, being sacrificed to the wellbeing of the future? What was she thinking, even attempting to interfere in the games of lords?

A harpist and a lutist began to play on the raised platform closest to the window. Aelin recognized it as a private class, the harpist being the less experienced of the two.

– – –

“What the hyll is that?” Stann stood over a young woman’s shoulder looking down upon the parchment on the table.

“Oh,” the girl exclaimed, clearly flustered. She was very pretty. Olive skin. Brown hair. But the parchment was… “I’m sorry, I didn’t see you standing there.” She noticed Stann’s eyes scanning the map of sorts. “It’s nothing. None of your business.”

She attempted to half-heartedly cover up the page before her, outstretching her palms across it. “Doesn’ look like noffin’, love. Wha’s that say then? Briiite Aqueeeduct…” Stann knew his letters. Not well. But he knew them. He took the seat beside her and she recoiled. Whether she drew back because of the intimacy or the smell of alcohol wasn’t certain. He studied the parchment. The map in front of him detailed plans to build a monumental structure. A blueprint. To the right people this would be worth it’s weight. And it didn’t belong to the beauty that sat beside him.

Recognition hit the girl’s face and she quirked her features. “I know you,” she said. “You’re A Journey of Storms, aren’t you?” He hated himself at that moment for not skinmasking before confronting her. Course she knows who I am.

“The name’s Stann. An’ yeah, part of the company.” He pointed over his shoulder at the table near the alley exit. “There’s the rest of em.” Several members raised their mugs at the gesture. “Now. This wouldn’ be little Lordling Brite’s would it?” The color drained from her face. “I thought it might be. He had that big party of his last night. Suppose’ to unveil some big project of his.” She said nothing, but guilt and fear weighed heavy on her features. “Why don’ you hand that over, I slide a little coin your way, and our lord never finds out who took it?”

She stammered her words out. “N-no. It was given to me by Lord Brite himself. A message of sorts to-to the people of my locality.” Her lies were as large as her eyes. “I do not think he would much appreciate a band of thieving troubadours intercepting it for their own gain.” She found her courage and rolled up the blueprint, tucking it under her cloak. She got up and stood by the fire.

“Eh, we’ll see,” Stann mumbled, returning to his table. He recounted what he’d seen to the others present. They were 8 in total.

One of them, a woman named Jaspona piped in. “We need that Parchment, Stann. You know the pale one will pay.”

He shot her a glance. He knew whom they would sell it to. He did not need reminding. “I’ll skinmask and exit out the side door,” he stated, pointing at the alley.

“Well, get on with it then! That one looks ready to leave.” Jaspona pointed at the girl, tapping her boots rhythmically by the fire. “Jus’ be quiet this time!”

Stann glanced about the tavern making sure no eyes were watching, took a deep swig from the mug in front of him, and let all the air in his lungs fall out. The man sitting next to him scooted out of elbow range. Stann opened his mind to impossible things.

– – –

A harp string broke and Jorl swore under his breath. The B string swatted his finger. He shouldn’t have been plucking as hard as he was, but it wasn’t nearly the same as playing the lute. It took his tutor some time to realize that he had stopped playing. Carin frowned and placed her palm over the strings of the lute. “You’re plucking too hard.” Carin was his betrothed, as well as his tutor. Even her rebukes were soft-edged. Even so, it shamed him that she so outstripped him in age and skill.

“I know. I know.” Jorl proffered the harp out to her, letting his disappointment hide the jealousy. “The lute is my instrument, dear. Can not I work with that tonight?”

Carin sighed. “Of course, but you’ll have to learn the harp eventually.” They traded instruments. “Same tune?”

Jorl nodded, and as he settled back into his seat he noticed a women with brown hair exit out the way she had come. But then he noticed a young girl, no older than eleven years of age leave out the alley exit. Odd. I don’t remember seeing any children enter. He shrugged the thought away as his betrothed began to strum on her harp. He too fell back into the rhythm.

– – – – –

Writing prompt/exercise taken from Writing Excuses episode 10.2.

Using last week’s five story ideas (or five new ones):

Take two of them and combine them into one story.
Take one and change the genre underneath it.
Take one and change the ages and genders of everybody you had in mind for it
Take the last one and have a character make the opposite choice.