Thursday, September 10, 2015

WIP Thursday: Thick as Ice, Chapter 5b

On Thursdays I post excerpts from a novel I’m working on. This week I continue with Thick as Ice, wherein Ibeena reveals just why she wants her mother, Vorgell gazes in an enchanted web, and Madd thinks something more than magic’s afoot.


Thick as Ice, Chapter 5b

“You have a mother? A living one?” Though Vorgell had never truly pondered the facts of Ibeena’s existence, the old witch’s age alone would have made having a mother unlikely.

Madd’s elbow jabbed his ribs. “Now’s a good time to stop talking. And all witches have mothers, and I wouldn’t bet on her grandmother being dead, either. Witch women create life—remember?—so that means they live lots longer than witch men… or anyone else.”

“I see,” grumbled Vorgell. He’d been counting on Ibeena being old enough to topple over on her own one day.

Ibeena peered at them both above a smug smile. “I will live longer than both of you put together, especially given your dangerous ways. Thieving and fighting—witches gave up such ways long ago.”

Not all witches had. After all, Tagard was the Thief King of Gurgh. Now was not the time to argue the point. Vorgell pressed his lips and let Madd take the lead. He really needed to remember at all times that Madd was much better than he at negotiating with witches.

“You could give us some coin, for provisions.” Yes, Madd was bargaining already.

Ibeena waved her hand. “Ha! You owe me a favor! The favor is that you go to the Stilted Bogs and fetch my mother, bring her to Gurgh. Deal with your own provisions. Vorgell is a hunter, yes? Let him hunt, or subsist as best you can on frogs and fish.”

“And we can find her in the Stilted Bogs? Any particular village?”

“There are no villages in the Bogs. She lives alone, and likes it that way. I am sending the two of you instead of a message because she will need an escort. Moon oaks do not grow near in the Bogs, and the Shroud is dangerous.”

Madd settled onto a stool perched next to the table. He folded his arms. “There’s more to this. Why fetch an old woman, over such a long distance?”

It was a good question, so Vorgell nodded that he too wanted to hear an answer.

Muttering a complaint—or possibly a curse, that being a possibility—Ibeena pounded her staff and walked to the darkest corner of the room, which had merely looked murky. Now that Vorgell looked more closely at it, he saw it was hung with curtains… no, with spreading, intricate webs, as if generations of spiders had worked upon a masterpiece. Ibeena waved her hand before the web and the threads began to shimmer. Within moments the webs generated a sinister shape, not life-size but clearly immense.

Vorgell stared into the glowing eyes of a giant white wolf. His hand found his sword and his fingers curled around the hilt. Petal crouched on his shoulder, scaly head level with his cheek, hissing at the image.

“Do you recognize this creature, barbarian?”

“A Fell Wolf, in winter coat.” When he had left Scur, he had possessed a coat made of a single wolf’s skin. He had slain it himself to attain his hunter status.

“Packs of these creatures have recently come down from the mountains and are plaguing the hills. They have little interest in the Bogs, but now dwell in the Shroud.”

“They would be red, then, if they have strayed in summer.”

Ibeena bared her flat yellowed teeth. “They are as you see. This image was provided by one of our Circles. Along with this one—”

The image within the web shifted and another took its place. Glittering, dripping, rimming the mouth of a cave like teeth.

“Icicles?” he guessed.

“Again, from our Circle on the edge of the Shroud. They are seeing snow one day… and the next day the sun is hot and it is as if there never was snow. This is not the way the weather should be.” Ibeena straightened and lowered her hands. The image in the web vanished. “There is magic afoot, and I know not what kind. It may be wizards… it may be something else. Whatever it is, I fear any harm it causes will be blamed on witchkin. Fear of magic already has many ready to kill us. Barons and wizards have placed bounties on our kind. But I cannot do it alone. I need the assistance of a witch stronger than I am.” She eyed them grimly. “I need the two of you to fetch that witch.”

“Let me get this: you want us to go through the Shroud, which is infested with these wolves, and snow in the summer, and there’s magic afoot, against which you have nothing to offer? Could you have found a more difficult favor?”

“Perhaps if I tried,” said Ibeena. “Too bad for you this is the one I want you to perform.”

* * * *

They exited by another path through the laundry yards and dripping alleyways of the Rag Market. It was witchkin hiding that made it necessary to be so secretive. Wizards, in particular, made sport of hunting witches, females preferably, and there was enough hostility latent in Gurgh to foster the occasional witch-hunt. Secrecy saved lives, including possibly their own if anyone with a grudge had been following them and decided to lie in wait.

Vorgell found such sneaking around rather pointless. He was easy to pick out in a crowd. At his side, Madd was looking glum, and ready to express his discontent.

“I can’t believe she’s sending us on such a ridiculous errand.”

“I can’t believe she has a mother.”  Vorgell adjusted his cloak and hood, the latter necessary only so Petal could curl within it and so ride easily along. The basilisk had left his shoulder as soon as they’d left Ibeena’s workroom and, apparently concluding she was no longer needed, had gone into the hood to take a nap.

“What are these Fell Wolves? Are they big?”

“Enormous. They hunt in packs. Very dangerous. It is rare for a single man to kill one.”

“Am I supposed to be glad there’re two of us? Because, look at me, I’m not very good against wolves.” Madd’s small size was only part of the reason. Just a year ago he had possessed little skill with weapons, though Vorgell had taught him much since.

“It might be best if we try to avoid the wolves. And don’t forget, we have Petal.” He jerked his thumb toward the laden hood on his back.

“That actually does make me feel a little better.” They’d reached the Tinker’s Square. Sunlight flashed off every manner of pipe, tube, plate, and wire. The denizens of the neighborhood were hardworking, practical, and not given to excessive hawking of their wares. Most of the patrons were male and dusty.

“Do we leave tonight? Or tomorrow?” Vorgell wondered. It was only mid-afternoon.

“Tomorrow.” Madd held up his pouch, heavy with cherries. The sweet scent of them wafted on a breeze to tempt Vorgell’s nose. “I don’t care if Fell Wolves start howling at the walls of Gurgh, I’m eating these cherries—and I think it’s going to take me all night.”

Vorgell’s cock was already at attention, pushing against the restraint of his codpiece. If he thought Madd would not eat all the cherries himself in a fit of pique, he would have picked up his smaller friend and dashed through the streets of Gurgh toward Thieves’ Wart. Instead he just quickened his pace.

As far as he was concerned, they could not reach home fast enough.

(to be continued...)


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Thursday, September 3, 2015

WIP Thursday: Thick as Ice, Chapter 5a

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.”

“Just that.”

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...)


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