Tadla donned the silver bracelet and bounced with excitement. The dark braids of her hair flipped back and forth as she turned from the vendor’s booth, smiling sweetly. She raised her wrist, showing off the clouded rubies. “What do you think?”
“It’s okay.” Rezki stepped under the canvas awning next to Emile and his sister. Dozens of people pushed through the crowded market behind him.
“It’s cute,” said Emile. The table had caught her eye before they were halfway down the street. The little old man had waved to them. He sat, smoking his long pipe, letting Tadla and her try on his most beautiful pieces. Emile picked up a small silver dagger and turned it over in her hands. Something was calling to her from his booth, but she couldn’t guess what it was.
The vendor stroked his beard. His turban was the color of blood. “You like the knife?”
Emile put it down. “It’s nice. I’m not sure what I’m looking for.”
“I can tell you’re a woman of exquisite taste. Do you know how valuable your jade necklace is?”
She nodded to him and touched it softly. “I do.”
He picked up a small, wicker box and placed it on the table. “Would you like to see a similar item?”
“Please!” said Emile. Tadla and Rezki leaned in with her.
The vendor lifted the lid, revealing something wrapped in silk. He pulled back the covering. It was a wand made of darkly stained wood. A clear stone was fixed to one end that sparkled like nothing she had ever seen.
She reached out as if letting a stray cat sniff her fingers. “May I?”
The vendor picked it up and waved it gently over the box. “Allow me.”
Rezki tensed. “Let’s keep going.”
“Hold on,” said Emile. The old man was about to show her something special – she knew it.
Swirling light filled the box. Emile’s eyes grew wide as she watched the shifting colors taking form. The energy was still growing when the vender closed the lid. “There are too many unenlightened people here. We have to be careful about who we show the unseen world.”
He made sense. “Is it a portal?” asked Emile, somehow knowing.
“Of course.” He pointed to the south. “I’m staying on my boat. Come find me when the market closes, and I’ll share some of what I know.”
“Come on.” Rezki was insistent. He grabbed Tadla’s arm and pulled her. She jerked away, scowling.
“Get off me,” said Tadla.
“This isn’t right.” Rezki kept his voice low, but even through the noise of the market, it carried. The old man gave him a little smile.
Emile looked at Rezki, and back to the vender. “Sorry for being rude. I do have to go.” She put her arm around Tadla’s shoulders and walked after Rezki. “I’ll find you later.”
The winter night had already thinned the streets. They sat at an outdoor table under the awning of their inn, drinking tea and playing chess. A small fireplace burned next to them. Emile moved her remaining knight for the second turn in a row, barely paying attention to the board. Rezki was good, and she was distracted. What was the portal going to show her? A gong sounded, closing the market.
Finally, she thought. She stood up and pulled her furs tight. “You don’t have to come with me,” said Emile. “I know it’s dangerous, but – I have to see.”
The invisible faerie tickled her ear, letting her know he was there.
“It’s not a good idea,” said Rezki, “but you aren’t going alone.”
“You scared?” mocked Tadla. Rezki frowned at her.
“He’s just a little old man,” said Emile. “I’m not worried.”
“Alright, fine.” Rezki stood up with his hand on the hilt of his scimitar, opened the gate, and walked the road south. The streets were clearing out as merchants returned to their inns and ships. “Let’s go.” Emile and Tadla followed.
He walked quickly and kept his head turning. Nervous, probably. He was always nervous. Emile watched him for a while. His legs were amazing. She liked their thickness and how quickly they tapered at the knee.
Tadla laughed at her stare.
“Do you really think all wizards are evil?” asked Emile, changing the subject.
She shook her head. “I think kings are worse. I’ve never heard of a spell as terrible as a war.”
Tiny footsteps followed them. A little orange dog yipped, drawing Emile’s attention. He was shivering. She stopped and let him smell her hand. “Hello, puppy. Are you coming with us?” The dog licked her fingers and pushed against her leg. She picked him up. His trembling body couldn’t weigh more than twenty pounds. Emile scratched its head and kept walking.
“You’re stuck with it now,” said Tadla.
The dock was busy with people pulling their carts back to their boats. Laon’s professional horsemen patrolled in twos, keeping the peace. Rezki slowed his pace and walked next to Emile. His eyes darted from boat to boat. “So where is this guy?”
Emile scanned the crowded harbor. The old man sat on the gangplank of a two-masted ship with his feet dangling over. Something about him was different. He seemed carefree in the market, but he didn’t move as they approached. Firelight shined through the smoke that wafted from his mouth.
A powerful emotion pushed its way into her mind. The sudden shock was like plunging into freezing water. She stopped and shivered. Fear. I’m scared.
“Shush, it’ll be fine,” whispered Emile. She didn’t know where the faerie’s fear stopped and hers began. All she knew was that she wanted to run. The dog struggled against her arms. Its nails dug in, forcing her to drop it. “Hey!” she called. It ran across the street and disappeared down an ally.
“Something’s wrong,” said Rezki.
“Yeah.” Tadla turned in a circle with her eyes wide. “Where did everyone go?”
Strange. The dock was suddenly empty. Only the three of them and the old man remained. A heavy fog was rolling in. Bells chimed in the distance. The stranger blew more smoke and the darkness grew.
Emile walked ahead of Rezki and waved to the old man. “Hey, we’re here. What’s going on?” Her voice shook, even as curiosity drew her closer.
The old man lowered his pipe and spoke in a low voice. “Do not forget your end of the deal.” His body became smoke. A dark figure stood in the shadows behind him. His broad chest and long hair were unmistakable. Erland. The smoke condensed into a snake and flew to the Northman. He removed the cork on a crystal bottle and sucked it inside.
“I won’t,” he said.
“Oh, no.” Emile froze, terrified.
“Emile,” the Northman growled. He jumped to the dock. The boards shuddered under his weight. “Tell your friends to run.”
Rezki drew his scimitar. “You should take your own advice.”
Erland’s laugh was offensive. White teeth shined behind his beard. Emile felt a cold-blooded rage trickle up her spine. He set the crystal bottle down and took a small one made of clay off his belt. “We’re in a hurry. You’ll excuse me if I don’t play.”
He pointed the throat of the bottle at Rezki and pulled the cork. Fire erupted from it, burning through the fog. Rezki raised his arms to shield his face, but the cone of flame came at him too fast to run.
“No!” Emile screamed.
The fire never touched him. It bent around an invisible shell and fell to the ground in a smoldering circle. Tadla was on her knees, arms held to the sky, praying to whatever god or gods she knew. It was amazing – a miracle.
Erland’s mouth hung open as he flicked the bottle into the sea. Rezki shouted with rage and charged him, sword held high.
The Northman casually drew the arming sword on his hip and raised it to meet Rezki’s blade. Rezki moved beautifully. His sword flashed as he twirled it in dangerous circles.
Erland seemed too calm. He wasn’t looking at Rezki’s sword. His eyes seemed unfocused, as if he were taking everything in at once. Emile was starting to understand more of the fight. Despite all of Rezki’s movement, Erland wasn’t flinching. That worried her.
Rezki lunged, faking a high strike before cutting at his leg. Erland didn’t react to the feint at all. He simply stepped back, letting the swing miss. Emile’s heart jumped as Erland went for his head, but Rezki was too fast. He pulled out of reach. The Northman’s sword drew a shallow cut on the tip of his nose.
Their swords clashed twice more. Erland kicked him in the stomach, knocking him back. Emile reached out to Rezki. She wanted to help, but knew she was no match. Her body was frozen. These were her friends, but there was nothing she could do. She wouldn’t run, couldn’t fight.
“Enough.” Runes on the Northman’s sword shined with red light. He brought the blade down. It wasn’t aimed at her friend, but at his weapon. Rezki raised his sword to block – a mistake. His scimitar shattered the way Winoc’s had. Erland laughed and struck him in the nose with his gloved hand. Blood spattered in the air.
Rezki staggered backwards and collapsed at Emile’s feet. The hilt of his sword clattered on the ground while he held his nose.
Tadla ran to him and knelt at his side. She weaved her arms under his and helped him to his feet. “Come on, get up!” His head lolled. He couldn’t stand on his own. The weight of his body bent her forward as she struggled to pull him away from the Northman.
“Come with me, and I’ll leave your friends alone,” said Erland. “It’s better this way. Don’t make me hurt them.”
Emile whispered under her breath. “Are you still with me?”
The faerie tickled her ear. I am.
“I have to do something. You made me fast before. Can you do it again?”
Yes. Please be careful.
A warm glow enveloped Emile. She looked down at her hands and saw the green light the faerie had blessed her with in her dreams. Erland cocked his head to the side and walked towards her, sword in hand.
“Please,” scoffed Erland. “Sorcery can’t help you.”
The faerie light penetrated her skin and filled her with warmth like the summer sun. She took a deep breath, unafraid, and stepped forward. She looked over her shoulder at Rezki and Tadla. “Don’t worry, I’ll protect you,” she whispered. Rezki eyes were wide with disbelief. Tadla nodded to her, solemnly.
“Come on.” Erland took a quick step and grabbed for her hair.
His hand never reached her. She drew the knife from Erland’s belt and sliced his left arm. “Bitch!” He swung the arming sword at her head in a fit of rage. It seemed slow, like a fencing drill. Only the way his face twisted let her know it was thrown with malice. She dipped under the sword and stabbed the blade into his right bicep, losing it there. The tip glanced off bone but still pushed through the other side. Blood poured from the wound. His sword-arm went limp and he dropped his blade.
Seeing him bleed brought her anger to the surface. She opened her mouth in a silent scream, eyes wide, and grabbed the Northman’s sword from the ground. He was already running. Emile took two running steps and cocked back as if she were going to hurl it at him. Blood drained from his arms as he ran down the dock.
Emile imagined the blade striking him in the back. She couldn’t do it. All the anger ran out of her. She turned and hurled the sword into the sea. The faerie’s magic was still with her. She couldn’t believe how far it flew. It landed in deep water and vanished in the darkness.
Tadla and Rezki stood behind her and put a hand each on her shoulders. The light faded from her body, while a small green orb appeared before them. “Thank you, my friend,” she said. Its light pulsed and faded away.
I’ll still be with you.
“We should go after him,” said Rezki.
“I don’t want to,” said Emile. “Let’s get out of here.”
“We should try to find Dad,” said Tadla.
Emile nodded. “Let’s run. He’s hurt, and his sword is gone. He won’t follow us.”
“You know you were amazing, right?” asked Rezki.
She couldn’t hold back her smile.