On Thursdays I post excerpts from a novel I’m working on. This week I continue with Thick as Ice, as Vorgell and Madd spar with Ibeena when she calls in her favor.
Thick as Ice, Chapter 5a
It took Vorgell and Madd only minutes to leave behind the wide and pleasant boulevards of the Quarter of Nightingales and plunge into the shadowed alleys that made up most of the great city of Gurgh. Whether Gurgh was truly great, or merely large, was a matter upon which the two men disagreed, with Madd being of the opinion that greatness required a larger selection of gods, whereas Vorgell held that by virtue of wealth and size alone, Gurgh had no peers. That the city covered a lot of ground and was densely packed with all manner of humanity and their worldly goods was why they lived there, because their combined skills allowed for easy living.
After weaving through avenues crowded by tinsmiths, brass workers, loom shops and vendors of every manner of food, the two men found themselves on a street heading down a hill toward Gurgh’s wettest neighborhood, near the river. Here the alleys were even narrower and haphazard wooden buildings butted and overlapped each other. Rags hung in colorful profusion from every available surface. The air was heavy and reeked of rot, and hardly any sun at all made it into the maze, but wherever a little sunlight fell there grew pretty patches of pink-flowering moss.
The moss had first appeared in Gurgh nine months past and had spread into every neighborhood, taking up residence under eaves and in neglected corners. Here in the Rag Market district, it was especially thick.
“It lends a cheerful note,” said Vorgell of the moss. On cue, a bit of breeze drifted between two buildings to stir the nearest mass of pink flowers, lifting a single sweet note. That the breeze also awakened other mossy flowers along the alley made for quite a happy song.
“The residents hate it, the moss and the song.” Quite clearly the moss had done nothing to elevate Madd’s mood. “Look at that, buckets everywhere, overflowing with scrapings of your damn moss.”
It was fair to blame the moss on Vorgell. In a sense, he had created it when a frantic bout of masturbation had splatted his semen on a perfectly ordinary patch of moss.
“It can’t help being vigorous. I heard rumor at the Duke’s house of it being good fodder for goats and horses. After eating it, they no longer fart.”
“Seriously? That’s what Duke Abiddes talked about with Gillja? Flatulent goats?”
“Among other things. He also boasted that his farms were rich and about his fleet of fine ships. To make certain of swift voyages, he employs wizards to command the winds.”
“Winds are tricky.” Madd ducked around a corner and underneath a cascade of overhanging rags. Vorgell nimbly followed. He hadn’t lost sight of Madd on Gurgh’s streets for many a moon. “Strong winds belong to storms, and summoning or turning a storm requires a sacrifice, usually human.”
“He didn’t mention that.”
“Of course not. Talk of human sacrifice makes people nervous.” Madd continued down stone steps and into yet another alley, this one so narrow there was no room at all on either side of them. “I don’t suppose you told Gillja to decline taking any sea voyages with the Duke?”
“No,” Vorgell grunted. He had turned his body sideways because of his broad shoulders, which made walking difficult. Petal, feeling the squeeze, now curled around his neck. “She didn’t ask my opinion. If she had, I would have mentioned I thought him oily.”
“Slippery, hard to get a grip on.”
They emerged into a flagstone courtyard with four large pools. The place was in perpetual damp due to dozens of rope lines strung overhead, from which hung yards of dripping fabric. On the other side of the courtyard was another set of steps and a door. On a stool beside the door sat a hulking man who lifted an eyebrow upon seeing them.
They’d been watched the entire way, of course. Witches were wary and adept at spells and wards, but they also posted sentinels. No alarm had been given because Madd was witchkin and Vorgell—well, he was considered useful.
“Aregho,” Madd greeted the door guardian pleasantly.
Vorgell clapped the man on the shoulder. “Much news of late?”
Aregho the Hammer rose. Not quite Vorgell’s height, he was possibly heavier and owned the musculature of an ox. “Herself is waiting for you. I suggest you don’t dally.”
The last was meant for Vorgell. Madd never dallied.
“I was hoping it might be baking day. The last pie I ate here—”
“Will be the last pie you ever ate here if Ibeena has her way. We haven’t seen Scurrian cherries in Gurgh since, and she has mourned that pie as if it were lost treasure. Stay away from the kitchen.”
They passed through the door into a creaking, stone-floored dwelling that had been fine perhaps a century before. “Don’t say anything,” Madd warned, patting the pouch at his side.
Holding on to thoughts of cherry nibbles and fruit-sweet kisses, Vorgell grimly agreed and put a finger to his lips. Ibeena was not above making a grab for their cherries.
The building opened to an airy, if rather shabby, corridor that ended at a sun-filled courtyard, mercifully not hung with sopping rags. A handful of women wearing scant clothing chattered and gardened in the heat. Vorgell gazed upon them appreciatively. Madd’s distrust of witch females ran deep, but Vorgell was rather fond of them. Even the older witches were pretty and pleasing in all manner of delightful ways, perhaps because they generally found him pleasing as well. But for Ibeena, he would have more reasons to visit the Circle of Stones.
A few of the women called his name as they crossed the courtyard, and two called for him to take off his shirt. He was tempted to do it, but kept in mind Madd’s warning about the dangers of encouraging witch females: witch women created magic and life, and Vorgell’s magical semen could create a human version of the moss plague. Indeed, tufts of pretty green moss crowned the next door with dancing pink flowers.
Silver hair intricately plaited and coiled upon her head, Ibeena bent over a stone table and a golden pot hung on copper chains from the ceiling. As they watched, the old witch added a pinch of something to the pot, which produced a puff of blue smoke. Turning her head, she fixed her little black eyes on the two men, taking a moment to note the basilisk before snorting.
“It’s about time you came.”
“We had work to do,” said Vorgell. “And food to eat.”
Ibeena’s eyelids narrowed, but Madd interceded by fishing inside his tunic and producing a neatly folded grayish packet. “I brought you a basilisk skin.”
“Give it to me.” Ibeena’s fingers curled over it as she took it in hand. While Petal watched with great interest from Vorgell’s shoulder, the old witch teased the molt open and examined it. “It’s all here? You didn’t tear a bit off to give to that cheating landlord of yours?”
Madd did that on occasion. “Not this time. I haven’t quite given up on hoping our little contributions will persuade you to treat us with the respect men of our stature deserve.”
“His stature”—Ibeena thrust a gnarled figure at Vorgell—“I respect. Yours is still lacking.”
Now it was Madd’s turn to narrow his lids and Vorgell’s to intercede. Their infrequent visits to Ibeena had made them a good team.
“We owe you a favor. That was our agreement,” he said with as much amicableness as he could manage. “We’re here because Gillja said you wish to use that favor.”
“Yes, a mission you cannot refuse and are bound to make good.” She covered the golden pot with a spider’s web and closed the lids on her collection of powders. The hollows beneath her high cheekbones and dark bags under her eyes made her look even more terrifying than usual. “There is evil afoot in this land about which fools such as the two of you have no knowledge. Though it pains me, I must seek the assistance of someone more powerful than I. She lives in the Stilted Bogs beyond the Shroud.”
“You’re sending us to the fucking Shroud?”
Vorgell placed a calming hand on Madd’s shoulder. That Madd disliked their destination was ominous, but they would do well to remember that insulting the old witch was ill-advised.
“We will go to the Shroud and find this woman in the Stilted Bogs—if doing so will free us of the favor we owe.” He had agreed to owe the favor to satisfy a debt to Ibeena for a cloak of shadows that had aided him in saving both Gillja and Madd from Baron Flemgu. He would have given it back had wizards not destroyed it.
She nodded, slowly, as though with great reluctance. “Yes, this favor will satisfy my claim on you—but only if you fulfill it to the letter. The right woman, for one thing, and return her here before the next dark moon.”
“How far away are these Stilted Bogs?” he asked Madd.
“Far. We can get to the Shroud using moon oaks, though.”
“Ha!” Ibeena walked across the room to a cupboard and rummaged in a drawer. “Your moon magic is growing stronger if you can do that on an empty stomach.”
“I’ll gorge on live lizards,” Madd snapped.
“I trust you and your overgrown barbarian to do whatever is necessary to bring her safely to me. Use these”—she turned back to them and held out a small netted pouch holding a handful of shimmering pink orbs, each the size of a thumb tip. “I have found a way to distill the magic of the flowering moss overgrowing this city. Very strangely, the magic is unicorn-based and, as with the horn itself, can be trapped in a non-living form. I bound it with sugar and let it harden. It might help you in some way.”
“You never give anything for free.” Madd tied the pouch to his belt.
“Just find Eisska and escort her back here safely.”
By Madd’s tone of voice, Vorgell could tell he found the prospect daunting. Either this Shroud or the Stilted Bogs, or both, must be very dangerous. But if this job would get them out from under the influence of this cranky witch, Vorgell was ready to take it on.
“We will find this woman,” he stated boldly. “Though it might help us if you tell us more. Who is this Eisska?”
Ibeena smirked. “A witch. Very powerful and very old. Eisska is my mother.”
(to be continued...)
I enjoy feedback and am always happy to discuss readers’ thoughts or answer any questions.