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RATS IN THE ROOT CELLAR

 By J.C. Luxton

 

 

In the candlelit common room of the ruined inn that was their hideout, the remainder of the Nappers Knot found Auntie Owl at the board. She’d claimed the only chair, which had been Smithy Coret’s until now. Over the years, they’d sometimes glimpsed, hanging from a chain beneath her bodice, a little wooden skull to signify a bargain with the pain god—her soul for unknown powers. Today, she wore it openly. But what brought them up short was her long gray hair spilling down across her kirtle—none of them had ever seen her hair, not even Urnus Arranger who dived between her legs at her say-so. The sight of screaming skull and naked hair was the same as if she’d said, Sit down, my coves, for everything's different now.

Sit they did—Urnus Arranger, Roaring Nefyr, and Battie Thel gentling their twitchy arses onto benches as if a breath away from bloody mayhem. But Rummy Ismidus, with his piratical smirk, assumed his usual stool; there was way too much of him to sit on something so small, but his stool was next best to the one and only chair. Auntie Owl noticed him worrying his smirking lip, trying to size up what she could do if he made his move now. She knew she’d have to murder him, the only question was tonight or some other day.

The others all sat gawking at her hair. She’d only let it out to repair the slash in her hooded mantle, but she decided to make them sweat until she darned the hole. The gloves that she called Auntie’s Talons, a sharpened bone needle for every finger, dangled on her wrists, clacking inside her broad sleeves as she worked. They all knew she had but to slip hands into the opposing sleeves to arm herself with white-bone claws; and they’d all known, from one glance at Smithy Coret, how the deed had been done and who’d done it.

The souls of those who died by her Talons belonged to Old Wicked; in return, the Pain Lord would grant a supernatural hush with his symbol at its center, perfect silence for skulduggery. She’d picked the lock without a click, loomed over fast-asleep Smithy, punched her Talons into his jugular, and when he’d wakened screaming—silently, of course—she’d silently laughed as she signed to him Can't hear you? What...? But he’d slept with a dagger, it turned out, and jabbed it at her face. She flinched aside as the blade tore her hood. So she pulled her Talons from his throat and drove them into his eyes. That did him.

“There now,” she said, knotting the stitch, and slipped the needle up her sleeve.

“So you done for Smithy Coret then,” remarked Rummy as if greeting a neighbor.

“That what you want?” she said. “To wheed the once-upon-a-time? Not to lamp the up-and-coming? You sure?”

“Reason you snabbled him or...no reason?”

“Maybe you like being bilked, being diddled, being topped and bubbled and flung,” she said. “Must be you all desire it, down there, hugger-mugger.”

The changing weather of Rummy’s face could’ve filled up an almanac; but it was porknell Nefyr, devoid of tunic and self-respect, who blubbered out what they were all thinking, “I don’t abide it—if I know it! Who did? Who bilked me?”

“Twice you been bilked, Nefyr,” she told him.

“Twice?” Roaring Nefyr roared.

“All of us been.” She raised one sharpened bone-white finger so they could all see she wore her Talons now. “Bilk the First: That pretty little piece rotting by the privy—didn’t we all nap her together? As I recall. Didn’t each of us deserve a share of her? Let’s pluck a reasonable figure from our arse and say, when we’d have sold her, two-hundred-fifty silver spires. That’s probably low, dainty young darling ideal for inlaid academies and rakehell debauches, she’d have brought back her price in a long moon. So when she sniveled into despair and sliced her jug with that glass shard, it wasn’t blood was lost, my coves, it was our jink. Our jink we earned! Fifty silver spires each she bilked us of. We call ourselves the Nappers Knot and our own cully heaves our pockets! Fifty silver spires, Thel, what would you’ve had with that?”

“Fifty...” Thel licked her lips like the whore she was. “Silks...and—a jewel for my chive.” In a blink, her throwing blade was out, balanced on her finger. “And—a houseboy.” She leered at Rummy, who ignored her. “Do what I want to him for a change,” she snickered.

Earnest young Urnus cleared his throat. He was half-standing, tapping his finger on the air the way he did figures. “Strictly, with Smithy Coret among the living, equal shares would be two-thirds and forty-one. All that assuming unprecedented generosity on Smithy’s part, who’d typically claim a double or triple lay. Especially given how himself was using her.”

“Fifty. Silver. Spires.” She stared her threat until he sat. “A reasonable round sum heaved out of each our pockets and why? Why? Bilk the Second, my coves,” she raised another needled finger, “as my arranging companion has alluded, and as we all heard with ears upon interminable occasions, Smithy visited upon our crying captive his deepest debaucheries. Until, one day, despairing, our slavegirl-manqué fordid herself before her sale. Now think on this. We took her as a team. We owned her, together. Who here got your moiety when Smithy worked her? Oh—was it no one and none of us? So, truly, lecherous Smithy it was bilked us each those fifty silver spires. He owed us fifty and she owed us fifty—each! Two fifties is one hundred silver spires each we had coming, my coves, and who here’s even seen one? What would you have had, Nefyr, with one hundred silver spires?”

"The world!" Nefyr bellowed to the roof, his fat face fury-red.

“For interest on what I was owed, I claimed Smithy’s life.” She spread out all her Talons, his blood on the bone-needles not even dry. “Pain is power, as I’m sure Old Wicked is instructing him now. But what about my principle? My hundred silver spires? For that, I’ll take this Nappers Knot, why don’t I, and be your Upright Lady. Follow my set and recover all your losses. Fonkins blather on about luck but there ain’t any luck, not really; what Old Wicked gives the whip and rammish are opportunities, and what are we, my coves, but the rammest and whippest?”

They didn’t need to know she had no scheme at all, at present, they only needed to follow until she found one. But Rummy’s eyes and lips were slits, and she knew that he knew that she had nothing.

“Opportunities? Where are these opportunities?” He let the question hang. “All I see’s a lucky lena, all I hear’s some wheedling patter. Maybe this is my opportunity—” he stretched out his arms and gathered Thel and Nefyr to him “—for some peace and quiet, for some new direction. After all, I was Smithy’s second.”

“Now you’re mine,” she said. “Old Wicked and I cut the queue.” Her Talons were out. Rummy surely only looked unarmed. She thought he might try to smash the whole board between them up into her face. In fraught, hateful silence, they stared into each other’s eyes.

And the door flew open and into their hideout strolled four dandy elves in the richest silks, all smiling pointy ear-to-ear.

 

2

The whole crew froze—except Auntie Owl. The door to the road was behind her, and at the sound she’d half-turned, glimpsed the situation, and was already turning back, slipping her Talons into her sleeves, returning Old Wicked’s skull into her bodice, and dipping her head to gather up all her hair into hood and mantle. Her crew was staring at the intruders, poised to charge or flee, but she flashed her arms up and out in the Follow me sign, which looked, to one ignorant of the cant, just like she were stretching out a kink in the back.

“Oh, Host!” cried a feminine voice. “Oh, Innkeep! Weary travelers have arrived!”

What Auntie Owl had guessed was true, and she’d known it because the Nappers Knot had made the same mistake. Twenty miles of trackless forest from the nearest anywhere, and when they’d stumbled upon this place, the canopy of the Crooked Wood enshrouded even moonlight, so they’d assumed the hamlet to be sleeping, not abandoned. The largest building obviously an inn, they’d entered posing as weary, traveling tinkers and quickly realized they were the only people in town. Smithy Coret had hammered shackles to the root cellar wall to hold their captive, and they’d settled down to stay.

Auntie Owl got up and curtseyed to the elves. They were well-armed, a sheathed blade at each one’s hip, but not a weapon was out except a spear so long the owner had managed to wedge it between ceiling and floor. That was the elf who’d spoken, and he or she gave a wincing grin and squeaked out in that feminine voice, “Pardon my weapon....”

They were different elves, daintier, fancier, than the rugged wode elves of the deep forest. Like all elves, they looked young, and whether they were boy-elves or girl-elves, how could you tell? without beards or tits or hips to speak of? They were about as tall as apprentices, the tallest her own height, and all their hair blonde, all their eyes green, all four thin and wan and beautiful, the only difference their equipage: Spear for the first; Armor and Shield for the next; Longbow for the third;—but, for the last, an open Book. That book was all Auntie Owl needed to know which one was most dangerous.

“No-no-no, pardon me, mil—” she feigned a cough, unsure of the gender, “—my dear-departed Coret was host here. And since he passed, I’ve filled his shoes—or I’ve tried. You see how it is for a poor widow...” She gestured apologetically to a smashed bench.

“Widow,” Spear whispered and, dropping the weapon with a bang, snatched Auntie Owl’s hands into a comforting squeeze. “I’m only sixteen decades, but I know too well what it is to lose someone you love.  Speak to me of your Coret and let us weep.”

Armor, in a feminine voice, hissed an exasperated word in Elvish that sounded like mar-sess-ah. In a more masculine voice, Longbow tossed in some Elvish comment. Auntie Owl decided Spear and Armor must be girl-elves, and Longbow a boy-elf, and she was sure Longbow, still in the doorway, pinching his nose while pretending to scratch an itch, was urging the others to leave.

“Oh, thank you, milady, thank you,” she smiled to Spear, “but your ladyship honors me too much.” She gently extricated her hands, her Talons clacking inside her sleeves. “You honor us by your patronage here—Oh, do come in, come in, and close that door, sir!” she called to Longbow. “Close out the cool night and be warm and cozy at our hearth. Let us serve you.”

Longbow reluctantly obeyed, still pretending to scratch his face. Book stepped up then and turned said-book around to show Auntie Owl a map of the Crooked Wood, inquiring in another feminine voice if this were Shadow Falls. Auntie Owl informed her they were a couple days shy of Shadow Falls, and, when asked to show on the map where they were, she picked a random spot and put her finger down.

Book frowned. “There’s nothing on the map.”

“How recent is that guide?” Spear asked.

“Quite recent. Seven decades.—Good hostess, by what name is your settlement known?”

Auntie Owl had no idea. She eyed the songbird embroidery of Spear’s cloak, and breathed in the flowery elf smell, and said the first word that popped into her head: “Hummingbird.”

“Hummingbird!” Spear clasped her hands. “So beautiful! Oh, let me guess, let me guess the name of your goodly establishment! Could this be . . . Hummingbird’s Rest?”

“Why, yes,” said Auntie Owl. “Why, yes it is. Welcome to Hummingbird’s Rest.”

“I knew it!” cried Spear.

Auntie Owl thought she heard nickering. Sure enough, the open shutters framed four tethered silhouettes. “Are those horses?”

“That’s Cobweb, Symphony, and Smoke,” Spear said, pointing, “and there’s mine, Fancyflowers. We four hail from beyond the hills, from the Kingdom of the Moon, and this is our first excursion into your mysterious human lands. Dare I reveal to you we come seeking adventure? To right wrongs unknown! by dint of sword and spear and bow and spell! The world knoweth not what deeds we may achieve, nor what new friends we shall press forever to our bosoms...”

Armor growled the same word again, mar-sess-ah. Longbow was edging toward the door, but Auntie Owl knew the trick of mountebank patter to keep every eye on her.

“My stars, how far you’ve traveled!” she exclaimed. “The Moon Kingdom! Why, that’s beyond the fields we know! Oh, please let us please you. We’re simple folk here but our hearts and hospitality are large, and all of us would be honored, as I said, to serve all of your needs; in fact, we’d consider it the opportunity of a lifetime, wouldn’t we?” she said to Rummy. “Now rest yourselves, weary travelers, upon our best benches while we ready room and supper.” She signed to the crew, Clear out, and they all stood—Rummy last, and slowly. “Urnus here’s our scullion and he’ll be heading back to tidy up your accommodations, and Nefyr here, our stablehand, will give Urnus a hand ha-ha at lugging away any heavy old things need removing, and then Nefyr will run out and help Ostler Rummy here with your horses. And they’ll feed and water and brush them down and show them every equine amenity!”

“Oh, equine amenity,” sighed Spear.

“That is good,” nodded Book. “Good phrase. ‘Equine amenity’ is good.”

Urnus and Nefyr went off to Smithy’s room, but Rummy lingered, his strong arms crossed. She signed, Do it. “Opportunity of a lifetime,” she said again. He twisted his lips, but went out to the horses. “Now Thel’s our cook,” she told the elves. “Thel, you have the seasonings for your specialty? Known far as Goshawk, she is, for her special pottage.”

“Everything I need, auntie madam!” cried Thel, who knew exactly how to cook it so you couldn’t taste the sleeping nightshade.

“In the pottage,” Spear called after Thel, “are there animals? I don’t eat animals.”

“Not even squirrel?” Thel blurted and then remembered to curtsey.

“Course, course,” Auntie Owl said, shooing Thel into the kitchen, “if wode elves dine on fruits and roots, well, then, that’s what it’ll be.”

“Not wode elves, actually,” Book said, raising a finger, “we’re faeries, different sort of elf—it doesn’t matter. The rest of us have no such dietary compunctions. Marcissa lets compassion get the best of her.”

“I do!” acknowledged Spear, whose name was apparently Marcissa. She was batting her spear from one hand to another like a broom. “Oh, we should compensate you for your services. No ungrateful churls, we!” She pressed a strange silver coin into Auntie Owl’s hand. “Will a platinum moon suffice?”

Indeed, the coin was too white and bright for silver, with an image of an elven queen in a dance of runes. It occurred to Auntie Owl that in her fifty-one years she’d never held platinum in her hand;—also that not one of the crew was here to see what she’d been given.

“What’s wrong?” asked Marcissa. “Different currency—I didn’t think of that! You’ll need a moneychanger to even spend it. Here, take another one for the trouble.”  She gave another platinum moon to Auntie Owl.

Not only the first platinum but the first faeries she’d ever seen. Faeries rarely ventured beyond their own lands, and of them little was known; people called them the fair folk and whispered that they stole away children and taught them to despise their parents’ ways. The old stories made life easier for the Nappers Knot: A few weeks before abducting children for the brothels, the crew would bruit rumors through the villages of faerie sightings.

With many grateful curtsies, she fussed and bustled the elves into seats. Longbow took the chair, she noticed, which meant it must be, among faeries as among humans, that men led women unless clever women made it otherwise. Book did seem clever, but the same way Urnus was, passive and pedantic; Armor was like Rummy, too scowly and growly to be followed; and Marcissa (who’d perched on the stool as if it were a swamp punt and her spear a steering pole, tipping herself first one way and then the other, giggling) was undeniably a needy idiot, the elves’ own Battie Thel. But with Longbow leading them, Auntie Owl didn’t dare leave them alone or he’d lead them all away, as he obviously wished to do, which meant she had to keep up her patter so they couldn’t talk in Elvish without being rude.

“Oh, forgive the impertinence of this curious old widow,” she was saying, “but do tell me, sir, are these three pretty ladies your sisters?”

The faeries threw up their arms laughing and laughing as loud as cheering, only it sounded like they were singing,Tra-la-la-la-la-la-la . . .

Auntie Owl chuckled along like she’d meant to be witty. “We humans know so little of your land. Old tales, old songs, they all attest the good folk of the Moon Kingdom to be ever free and merry. Oh, tell me then, are these lovely ladies your wives?”

Tra-la-la-la-la-la-la, laughed all the faeries.

“More like,” Longbow said, “we three are Marcissa’s husbands.”

Tra-la-la-la-la-la-la, laughed all the faeries again.

“That would make me husband and wife,” Book said.

Tra-la-la-la-la-la-la, laughed all the faeries.

“I was born a boy,” Book explained to Auntie Owl, “but now I’m a girl.”

“I was there!” Marcissa affirmed. “It was wondrous! I saw everything!”—and pounced on Book, flattening her (him?) to the bench in an open-mouthed lipclap so lascivious Auntie Owl hadn’t seen the like since her doxy days.

“Course, course, milady,” she mumbled, edging toward the kitchen door. She leaned in to find Battie Thel at the stewpot. “Only the best for them, Thel! Don’t you stint on seasoning!”

Thel leered and dumped in her whole pouch of nightshade.

Auntie Owl told Roaring Nefyr, when he passed through, to fetch Rummy to come help her. The moment Rummy returned, his peepers flinty and conniving, she told the faeries, “Now I need to help our scullion prepare your quarters, but I’m certain our ostler would love to hear all about your horses—wouldn’t you?” She signed to Rummy, Keep them talking.

He looked at her like something to be stepped on, but cleared his throat and said to the faeries, “Fine steeds, those...”

Rushing off to Smithy’s room, Auntie Owl reminded herself that Rummy needed murdering—just not quite yet, not until their guests were married to their chains. She flung open the door and there, in between the beds, was Urnus Arranger on all fours, scrubbing where Smithy’s life had slubbered the planks. She was pleased to see the corpse had been removed, but the reason she’d come was to hear—because she couldn’t wait to know—those figures resident within his whip young noggin. She’d lain with him enough to recognize the gleam of his desire, for Urnus adored arithmetical figures the way she adored Old Wicked, as the font of all power. 

“Oh, Urnus,” she breathed, leaning back upon the door until it shut, “your slaver man, your Wild Bay contact, how much, how much for a fair folk, warm without a mark?”

He rose to his knees and whispered, “Five hundred silver spires is what they pay—”

“Now you’ll keep that from the coves,” she snapped, “just you and me know that goodly number five hundred,” she was panting, “and another four for the horses, another couple for the duds, and then armor and weapons, how much—”

“Shh!” he hissed, standing. At one-third her age, he’d never dared such (he was hers because he feared her), but he wasn’t afraid now, his smooth phiz shining like hot candlewax: “Five hundred’s what they pay, I was saying, for one boy elf. But there’s a slaver—magician maybe? for experiments? or who knows why—will have nothing except perfect fair folk girls. And she pays two thousand silver spires.”

“What?” she rasped, choking on her greed.

“Each,” he said.

They stared upon each other like the last man and last woman living. It was too good for the bad world, a dream—four trusting fopdoodles, silked and bejewelled, on four handsome gallopers, riding in just begging to be robbed, stripped, enslaved, and three of them unspoiled girls and all of them elven. Like a dragon’s hoard had fallen from the wide blue sky.

She grabbed Urnus so hard he flinched. Twenty years gone from the stews but muscles never really forget a thing once known: She lipclapped him so hard their teeth banged, and then she danced him, leading, like he was her whore, all around the bloodstained bed, in carnal, capering joy.

 

 

3

Back out in the common room, she found Rummy, cap in hand, in a back-and-forth with Armor. “Heard something, milady, but don’t put much stock in such. Might know more at Shadow Falls.” Shifting as if tired on his feet, he flashed Auntie Owl the sign for Careful.

“Our true quest is to seek her brother,” Armor said, indicating Marcissa, “but should smaller quests present, we shall pursue them. This tinker thought these slavers might be cultists, survivors of the Meadows slaughter.”

“Like said, milady,” Rummy mumbled, “if even true, haven’t bothered us out here.”

Old Wicked must have smiled just then, for Thel burst from the kitchen with the steaming pottage and set it down on the board. The fair folk appeared not to know or like what they were smelling, and so Auntie Owl went to work, murmuring in confidence the moment Thel was gone how much she hoped they’d all eat heartily, for the cook would sink into the mumps if the pottage didn’t please.

“This is the food?” Longbow asked. “We all just eat from that?”

“No, I think these hard breads are like bowls,” Book said, “right?”

“We just pick it up and eat with our hands?” Armor whispered.

“It’s all different,” Marcissa said, “but different doesn’t mean bad. Our onus is to imagine it anew. Truly, my friends, think of this, our first human supper, as an adventure.”

“Your first human supper—my stars!” cried Auntie Owl. “Dear me, we had no idea the reputation of our entire race was on the line! Oh, now I’m as bad as Thel—what if this doesn’t please? What ever will we do?” She tried wringing her hands, but that made her sleeved Talons clack, so she stopped. 

Marcissa assured her they’d find the supper delicious; but as they were about to tuck in, she popped up off her stool and raised her hands. “Forgive us for our ignorance of your ways, but I do actually know one human custom.”

She breathed deeply, and all of a sudden her silly voice resonated with authority: “O Saint of the Holy Isle, we give Thee thanks and praise Thee because Thou hast deigned to give us a portion of Thy nourishment for our bodies. We pray and beseech Thee to give us in like manner heavenly nourishment. Make us fear and reverence Thy dreadful law and Thy terrible and glorious name, and grant that we never disobey Thy precepts. Sanctify our minds, our souls, and our bodies through Thee, O Good Saint of Lindisfarena. To whom belongs Glory, Dominion, Honor, and Adoration for ever and ever. Amen.”

Nobody moved. Nobody spoke. Marcissa stood as if entranced by the ceiling. Armor, leaning forward on her elbow, had her hand across her face. Finally, Longbow and Book applauded like little children, so delicately their hands just pattered. But Auntie Owl’s hands within her sleeves had slipped inside her Talons: With one swipe, she could rip out the throat of this little fool who dared a prayer, in her presence, to Old Wicked’s most ancient and implacable enemy. The only thing that held her back was remembering what Urnus had said: Two thousand silver spires...Two thousand silver spires...Two thousand silver spires...Warm, without a mark.

Marcissa popped up on her stool again, squealing, “Let’s eat!”

Auntie Owl slipped her hands from her Talons and pressed her knotted chest. “Oh, my stars, who knew faeries worship the Holy Saint of the Isle?”

“We don’t,” Marcissa said, “but my human friend Drenta used to say that before she ate.”

“And then Marcissa conned it for an audition,” Longbow said.

“And I got the part!”

The fair folk ate, slower and slower, with smaller and smaller nibbles, and wider and wider eyes, frequently pausing to comment, “So—so—hearty,” or “Quite filling,” or “So much chewing . . .” while Auntie Owl would say, “Oh, I do hope you like it!” and Rummy would say, “Hearty enough?” and Thel would whisper, just loud enough to be overheard, “Oh, if they hate it, I’ll just die!”

Eventually, the pottage bowl was empty. The faeries sat dazed, even a little sweaty.

“That was an adventure,” Longbow said, rubbing his face.

“Yes it was,” Armor said to the tablecloth.

“We have survived our first adventure, friends,” Book declared, trying to smile.

“We loved it,” Marcissa said.

 

4

Once the fair folk retired, the Nappers Knot gathered in the common room, Nefyr with his catchpole, Thel her folded net, Urnus his lariat, and Rummy his one-two of slapjack and slungshot. Auntie Owl needed nothing but Old Wicked.

“The one with the book who said she used to be a boy, she’s most dangerous. Do not forget that, my coves! A thaumaturge, mark it! who could enslave us with a syllable or ensorcell us to slumber. Old Wicked shall silence her invocations, but see to it she’s found by your net,” she warned Battie Thel. “And of them all, everyone, bind her first! How long now?”

“Soon,” murmured Thel. “They goes groggy, then slurry, then snoring, and then’s when I slice them down below.” She tittered, licking her teeth. Auntie Owl found it embarrassing that this needy nimwit had murdered more people than the rest of them combined.

“No slicing!” hissed Auntie Owl. “No marks! Not a bump on their bodies until they’re sold. This one night makes us, my coves, forever and ever. How long now?”

“Now,” nodded Thel.

Auntie Owl told them to wait and crept slipper-mum down the hall to the room. But when she glanced back, there was her crew, chops agape, all smashed together back there eyeballing her, the most obviously nefarious gang of roysters and sad dogs ever gathered. She signed, Smudge yourselves! They cleared. She slipped back her hood and eared the door.

The fair folk were all chattering away in their twink-talk, the sensible three mocking Marcissa, who’d break in with what sounded like giggling protests or wheedling entreaties. Auntie Owl guessed they blamed Marcissa for the meal. Each took turns complaining, although everyone laughed (Tra-la-la-la-la-la-la) at whatever was said, and then Marcissa would come in pleading and pouting. Marcissa would make the best slave, Auntie Owl decided; the rest would need breaking.

She listened a long time. The voices were getting softer. Book wasn’t talking at all now. Nor Longbow. Marcissa’s voice was begging Armor, murmuring as though not to disturb nearby sleepers, and Armor was getting quieter too, lessening her disgruntlement even as she drifted off with long shuddering sighs until, finally, there was silence.

The hall looked empty but she knew her crew was watching. She signed, Ready. While cleaning the room, she’d oiled the hinges and torqued the bolt so it couldn’t be drawn. Carefully, she cracked the silent door until it was wide enough for her head, and then she stole a peek.

Either the business at hand (and tongue) was just about to begin or just now concluded: The sensible three lay entangled all together on one bed, naked as moonbeams except for Armor, who barely wore a short unlaced tunic, and their bodies were hairless except for their heads, and their smooth skins unblemished. But not one was unconscious, although they were preternaturally still: They were all staring at Auntie Owl. She stared back, astounded except for the inane running thought that if Book really had been a boy once, she was certainly a girl right now, and would fetch those two thousand silver spires that Auntie Owl not only believed belonged to her but that she even deserved.

From somewhere underneath the heap of pale naked legs, Marcissa wriggled her head up, smiling. “Hullo!” she called.

“My stars!” Auntie Owl shut the door. Down the hall she went, trying to set up her excuse, and the door opened and closed behind her and there was Marcissa, wearing Armor’s loose tunic now and apparently nothing else. “Good hostess, I hope we didn’t offend! I know I must’ve told my human friend Drenta a hundred times how bodies are natural and sensuality is natural and nothing natural can ever truly be bad, but she was always so worried for my soul...

“Drenta?—the follower of the Saint?” asked Auntie Owl. “I didn’t know if you might be sleeping, milady, and was trying so carefully not to disturb you.”

Marcissa laughed. “Elves don’t sleep, silly! We might close our eyes or we might not, but our minds just go away to this place that’s not a place—more a memory, more a vision. We call it the Fugue. Sometimes our friends or family are there and we talk or play or just show each other food we ate. That’s what I’ll do when I go down: ‘Look, everybody, how I just had my first human meal! Huzzah!’”

“Elves don’t sleep?” said Auntie Owl.

“Never. But I know all about it because I used to watch Drenta sleeping.”

“What a good friend you have,” Auntie Owl said, stalling, “who trusts you so much.”

“Did have.” Marcissa’s lip quivered.

“Oh, no, oh, no, milady...” Auntie Owl took Marcissa’s hands just the same way Marcissa had taken hers. “Did her prayers not avail her? Was she killed or murdered?”

“No, she just got so old all of a sudden—and then—and then—she died...”

“There, there,” murmured Auntie Owl. “Death comes to us all.—Oh, ‘tis the sad, sad way of this old, wicked world—‘tis natural, as you say.”

“I know,” Marcissa whimpered, “but she was my friend and I loved her...I shouldn’t cry so much. It’s unbecoming in a brave adventurer, don’t you think?”

That word adventurer told Auntie Owl exactly what to do. “Adventure is why I came to your room, milady—to speak to you of an adventure. Come along with me now, oh, won’t you come along?” She raised her voice as if suddenly vexed: “Oh, and I best not find that lazy staff of mine skulking and lurking and idling when every one of them should be hard at work somewhere else!” The coves all heard and cleared before she brought Marcissa back to the board and sat her down in Smithy Coret’s chair and humbly hunched herself upon a bench. “So have you named your adventuring company after yourself then, milady?”

“My company’s name?” Marcissa blinked. “Is a sworn secret. For now.”

“Of course, milady, but I know you must be the leader for how they all look to you because they know your good strong heart will always care for them. A true leader’s mark. So I speak to you first, alone, for I know if you take up this challenge, they cannot but follow.”

“Please name this challenge,” Marcissa breathed.

“There are rats in the root cellar of Hummingbird’s Rest, eating me out of business—my meats and fruits and roots, they gnaw their way in, they ruin everything! Your supper, I know, was so much less than it should’ve been, but they leave me so little I can serve! Good adventurer, will you help a poor old woman and slay these rats?”

“Slay rats?” Marcissa frowned. “That’s not much of an adventure. Why don’t your strong ostler and your strong groom slay them?”

“Cowards all,” Auntie Owl sighed, “cowards all.”

“But rats...Rats are little playful, laughing animals! Naionne even has a pet rat in her bookstore who’s sassy to her customers and his name is Twiskers. Everyone loves Twiskers! Now what if you negotiated with the rats?”

“Milady, please understand these are no natural rats that plague Hummingbird’s Rest. Urnus has glimpsed them, monstrous things big as dogs, eyes glowing red malevolence. They number five and strike only at midnight, for midnight is when, milady, we hear their awful prayers: vile supplications to a god of pain they name Old Wicked, promising him sacrifices of human blood...We did not know, none of us, if we should live through this night, but your company’s arrival gives us hope. Please, milady, please, I beg of you: Will you rouse your company and save a poor old woman and her loyal staff?”

“I will,” declared Marcissa. “We shall.”

“O thank the good saint of Lindisfarena for bringing you here! Alas, what reward can I offer save your own coin back again?” She pushed the platinum across the tablecloth.

“Nay, nay!” Marcissa cried. “Heroes need no guerdon but the better world they leave behind! You honor us with this charge. I thank you for your trust.” Out of her pouch she pulled a third platinum coin and pushed all three back to Auntie Owl. “I shall rouse my whole company to righteous battle.”

 

 

5

It was taking so long to rouse her company to righteous battle that Marcissa Moonmead feared the monsters would come and go before her friends left the room. They kept making her repeat what the hostess had said, and she kept adding new embellishments to help persuade them. She was kneeling now on the bed in front of her dubious cousin Ferathar, who was sitting back scowling, her arms crossed on her white floral gambeson.

“Down on their knees,” Marcissa said, “the poor humans begged for elven assistance.”

Ferathar sighed. “I want to hear this from the hostess. And I want to say, again, something stinks about this place—not just literally. I don’t trust any of this.”

“Not even me?” said Marcissa, struggling to keep straight her embellishments.

Ferathar heaved her breastplate at Marcissa. “Armor me. Let’s do it, let’s rest, and let’s leave.”

“I might be able to do it myself,” Cáelevar Silverbow said. He was leaning back against the door as if posing for a portrait, dressed again in his green silk tunic open just enough to artfully expose his chest muscles, and leather breeches so fitted they looked like paint on naked skin, and in his mottled white eiderdown boots he liked to hint might be enchanted. No one, including him, denied he was the most beautiful; and there was grace even in how he tightened his bowstring. “If I can shoot them from the top of the stairs, you could all stay in bed.”

Naionne was sitting on the floor, the only one still naked, because the talk of rat-monsters had sent her to her books and now she had two open on her lap and was bent over them like a snail. “The rats of Zhidyn are said to be big as dogs. And rat-men live in the sewers there.”

“Why?” Marcissa said. “Ew.”

“But listen: There are known to be devils who assume the form of rats.”

“Why wouldn’t devils have killed everyone here a long time ago?” Ferathar scoffed.

“Wait, there’s something else!” exclaimed Marcissa. “We need to name our company. When the hostess asked, I put her off, but if we don’t have one, we’ll seem like amateurs.”

“We are amateurs,” Naionne said. “We left home yesterday.”

“But we have to have a name!”

The others all started talking at once:

“The Shields of Justice—” said Ferathar.

“The Moonkissed Company—” said Cáelevar, “or—”

“The Erudition Coalition,” said Naionne.

“—the Grifftail Fletchings.”

“What about the Seekers of Sanseryll?” Naionne suggested to Marcissa with a smile.

“We are not naming ourselves after my brother,” declared Marcissa. “Oh, I must needs think on’t—for from this day will rise—for upon this name will rest—our reputation for decades to come! We must not choose lightly, friends, yet we must choose...And soon!”

“How about,” Cáelevar said, “there’s five rats and four of us, so whoever get the most rats names our company?”

“Done,” Ferathar said.

“Done,” Naionne said.

“Done,” sighed Marcissa, “yet we must not choose lightly.”

Equipped again, they interviewed the hostess and her staff in the common room. The scrawny scullion who’d actually seen the monsters described the shaggy grey fur, the squinting intelligence, the little hands almost human. At Naionne’s request, the hostess rose from her stool to recite the prayers she’d overheard from the cellar: “O pain is power! O power is pain! Thy will is my opportunity, and the weak are my prey! Old Wicked, stand over me as I sate me upon trusting innocence!”

The recital, even in the voice of the goodly hostess, was disturbing enough that the faeries met it with silence. But then the hostess made a gesture in the air for the Saint of the Holy Isle and begged them to never make her repeat those words again.

“Old Wicked! Who would call himself Old Wicked?” Marcissa was chattering. “What if I called myself Young Lusty and I didn’t happen to be feeling lusty that day? And what kind of ignoramus would worship a pain god? Every time you got hurt, you’d be getting what you prayed for—Oh! What if the rats are the slavers we heard about?”

But no one was listening because the trembling hostess was leading them through the kitchen to the cellar door, barricaded by overturned benches. “Now—now—even now,” she was murmuring, pulling her shawl tight, “comes the time when they skulk forth, when they intone their dread prayers. We dare not linger here while you heroes undertake this, but oh! go forth with our thanks and the good saint’s blessings!”

“Bless you, bless you,” muttered the staff of Hummingbird’s Rest as they departed.

The four young faeries cleared the benches away from the door. At the last moment, Marcissa turned back to her friends, so excited she was trembling. “Our first dungeon!”

“It’s a root cellar,” Naionne said. “Dungeons are for prisoners.”

“But what...” Marcissa squeaked, “...will happen?

“Open the door, Marces,” Ferathar said.

Slender wooden steps vanished into gloom. Marcissa and Naionne fetched candles, which showed the stairs descended the length of the cellar, most of the room behind them.

Cáelevar shouldered his bow. “Bad angle, low ceiling, means swords, not spears or bows, Marces.”

Marcissa loved spearfighting, although her many battles had only occurred in theatres. With a pout, she left her spear behind and drew her sword and led the way.

Halfway down, she caught her breath, stopping so fast her candle tumbled from her hand to land sideways on the dirt floor, still burning: By its flickering glow, the hairlike antennae of the horrid thing crouching at the foot of the steps twitched and waved as if it had sensed her as well. The mad delicate legs of the creature, past counting, seemed exploded out of a body like a flattened worm, all poised for pellmell motion any way whatsoever.

Marcissa was panting, on guard with her sword pointed down the stairs, while the other faeries talked over each other: “What—?” “What is it?” “What do you see?”

“Behold!” cried Marcissa, pointing with her candleless hand.

“Oh,” said Ferathar, right behind her, “it’s a centipede. Normal centipede. Half as long as my hand. Come on, Marces, go.”

Still panting, Marcissa stepped down, and the thing scrambled under the stairs—Marcissa already bolting up past her friends into the kitchen where she danced out her revulsion in shudders and squeals: “I can’t, I can’t, they’re not natural, they’re abominations of chaos!”

Marcissa’s centipede terror was well-known to her friends; obvious to her was their pitying disappointment, and she felt tears welling from her own helpless self-hatred at proving so much less than her aspirations. “Someone has to guard the exit, in case of retreat,” Naionne told her, gently smiling. “That’s you, Marces. Don’t let us down.”

Her friends descended to their first adventure, without her. She sat at the top of the steps, hugging her legs. The candlelight moved here and there, but they were underneath the stairs now, so all she could hear were voices.

Cáelevar: “It’s just one room with no way out.”

Ferathar: “Bins, bags, barrels, bottles, casks . . . what’s in the boxes?”

Cáelevar: “Tinder . . . Not much food here for an inn.”

Naionne: “How would the rats come and go?”

Cáelevar: “Smells like rat leavings, but I see no rat leavings.”

Ferathar: “That’s human smell, that’s all I’ve been smelling.”

“Fera!” Marcissa called down. “Is the centipede on the back of the steps?”

Ferathar’s armor clanked. “The back of the steps is free of centipedes, Marces.”

“But do you see it?”

Cáelevar: “Hullo! What’s back here?”

Naionne: “Is that a door?”

Cáelevar: “Yes, and not quite shut. Fera, help me with these barrels.”

Ferathar: “Another whole room back there. Open window and—are those shackles?”

Cáelevar: “Let’s go see.”

“Did you see the centipede?” Marcissa called, but no one replied. “Fera?” she called. “Cáel? Naionne?”

No one answered.

In a voice of steel, she began to chant to herself, “The back of the steps is free of centipedes, Marces.” She sheathed her sword and snatched up her spear for its reach. She stood looking down, intoning, “The back of the steps is free of centipedes, Marces,” and then descended as far as the first time. She made herself breathe slowly before turning to kneel on the step. With her spear poised, she ducked down and leaned out over her fallen candle.

A wooden post supported the ceiling, and the stone walls were crowded by boxes and crates, except where a stack of barrels had been taken down to reveal a doorway into another room, from which candlelight flickered.

But on the floor below the stairs crouched the centipede, rubbing its squat body on the dirt in a twitching dance vile and macabre. “O Lady Rosegold, guide my hand,” Marcissa prayed and thrust her spear.

She struck true. She heaved back for a second strike, but even by candlelight it was obvious her mortal enemy had been obliterated. She went down the rest of the way, warily, lest there were more, and then, pride mastering revulsion, approached her first kill.

Only then, from the corner of her eye, did she notice how much was happening in the other little room—altogether silently. Behind a little table stood the hostess, her hood down and her long gray hair wild as her eyes, her mouth agape in triumphant ecstasy. Over her head she held, in gloved hands extruding bone-white claws, a rotten wooden symbol of a skull.

Beside her stood Nefyr the groom, his silent mouth stretched for shouting as he struggled to hold some kind of polearm. On the other side of her stood Rummy the ostler, sweat-soaked, a rope around his waist ending in a fist-sized knot he wielded right-handed, in his left hand a black leather bludgeon. The body sprawled at his feet wore Cáelever’s possibly-enchanted boots.

For an instant, Marcissa and the hostess stared at one another, the human’s eyes squeezing in mocking malevolence. But Rummy the ostler hadn’t noticed Marcissa at all, and he spun at the hostess, swinging his bludgeon up under her chin. Silently, it snapped her head back, the wooden symbol flying from her hands even as he smashed his weighted knot into her neck, beneath her ear. Without a sound, she crumpled to the floor.

In her theatre company back home in East-of-Evening Town, Marcissa had been renowned for her immersion in roles, for her concentration and dedication even when cues were missed, lines flubbed, stage weapons broken, entrances forgotten; at no other time but when it absolutely mattered, Marcissa became a creature of precision and intensity. The hostess hadn’t hit the ground before Marcissa sprang through the doorway, her longspear at guard, and now Rummy noticed her, and her weapon, and smirked.

All sound ceased, even her own breathing, her own heartbeat. She tipped her head to avoid a wild slash: Ferathar!—right beside her, scarlet-faced with suffocation, swinging her sword wild and uselessly because the end of Nefyr the groom’s polearm was a mechanical claw, clamped tight around Ferathar’s throat.

And on Marcissa’s other side was Naionne struggling inside a weighted net, the drawrope of which was taut in the grip of Thel the cook. The human stood in one of six shadowy niches along the perimeter of the room. In another, directly behind Rummy, stood Urnus the scullion, holding another taut drawrope for a lariat entangling Cáelever where he lay. Now the scullion let that rope drop, unsheathed a smallsword, and tried to stab Rummy in the back.

Rummy, sensing the thrust, dodged with a sidestep to keep from turning his back on Marcissa, and then, with a thresher’s flurry, brought his slungshot up and slapjack down upon the cornered scullion, again and again, hitting every time.

Even with that distraction, Marcissa knew she’d brought the wrong weapon to this fight—the quarters too close, the ceiling too low—but here she was with her longspear and she had to do something. Nefyr’s struggle with his polearm kept his guard low, so she feinted for his throat and, when he flung his head back, turned her point into the fat of his arm. His face wrenched and one of his hands let go of his weapon; Ferathar, dropping her shield, grabbed the shaft and drove him straight back into a niche, although the mechanical claw still held her throat.

The beaten scullion fell, and Rummy turned to Marcissa, choking down on his grip of the slungshot, and closed by ducking under the reach of her spear. The ceiling, the table, her friends, were all in her way—and then she knew what she had to do, and she knew how much it was going to hurt:—but Marcissa hadn’t taken eight decades of ballet lessons to be scared of pain now, when it mattered. Rummy closed in and she feigned a quick retreat from the room, her boots and breathing thunderous as she backed out of the supernatural silence just far enough for a running start:—and then sprang forward again to leap atop the tiny table, swinging her spear sideways and tilting back as she landed to keep the table from overturning. Rummy, right beside her now, struck at once: the slapjack knocked out her wind, the slungshot crunched her chin.

She tasted blood. She’d bit her tongue. She couldn’t breathe. But she was where she needed to be. She whirled around in an illusion turn, dragging her spear point along the ceiling and bringing it slashing down, not at Nefyr or Rummy or Thel but on the drawrope of Thel’s net—severing it. Naionne, still entangled, rolled along the wall and around the corner and out of the room.

Marcissa saw Rummy aiming for her knees and tried to avoid with a firebird leap but the table tipped and dropped her face-down on the floor beside Cáelever, her spear wrenched from her grip. She rolled into a ball, covering her head as the slapjack and slungshot slammed down like falling stones. She kicked out both legs between Rummy’s and then brought them back hard to trip him and he smashed down on top of her.

His slungshot lost in the fall, he punched her in the eye; she cried out soundlessly, shoulder-rolling up onto her knees, but trapped by the back of the tipped-over table. Ferathar’s sword slashed Rummy’s cheek and drew blood, but then dropped to the dirt—her cousin’s face sunset-red now as, forced up on tiptoe, she was clawing with both hands at the metal clamp around her throat. Marcissa and Rummy both saw the falling sword, both reached, both grabbed the pommel together—even as Thel the cook stood over them, one hand on her cocked hip and the other holding a naked knife at Marcissa’s throat. Rummy snatched up Ferathar’s sword.

Marcissa’s eye was swelling shut, but one eye was enough to see her only hope was to hold their attention. She pretended to panic, wriggling and kicking at Rummy, but Thel, licking her lips, forced Marcissa’s chin back with her blade. Now Rummy had her at sword point, too.

Neither Rummy nor Thel noticed what was happening behind them, just outside the doorway of the silenced room: Naionne standing there free from the net, her lips rapidly articulating, her fingers intricately gesturing and dropping golden petals that the gathering magic disintegrated into sand. And then every human in the room—but not one faerie—fell asleep.

 

6

All day long the Nappers Knot lay in their own dungeon, Rummy in the shackles, the rest hog-tied in complex faerie bindings, and every one of them gagged. To Auntie Owl, each tiny noise, especially high-pitched ones, elbowed the inside of her head so hard she couldn’t think. Rummy’s slungshot was to blame; from her own victims over the years, she’d observed how one good knock on the head could induce terrible headaches, endlessly. She passed the time, grinning behind her gag, imagining how she’d torture him once she was free.

One discovery was that, down here in the root cellar, their dead slavegirl had been able to hear everything they’d said, anywhere in the inn. The faeries up there never stopped chirping out their twink-talk, and Longbow and Marcissa seemed to be competing who could whine and moan the most and loudest. Their high twittering voices intensified Auntie Owl’s agony.

Near dusk, there was shouting and coming and going; she guessed they’d found the corpses of Smithy Coret and the girl. That evening, three faeries came down to feed them. Book looked skittish but unhurt, and carried a soup pot, while Longbow and Marcissa were limping and bruised, Marcissa with a swollen black eye. Auntie Owl knew she wasn’t thinking straight, but the sight of their contusions made her furious:—Hadn’t she told the Knot to leave no marks? Did any of them have any idea how much money every bruise was costing them?

The faeries fed them each in turn, patiently, with a spoon. Nefyr, Thel, and Urnus acted grateful, but Rummy slit his eyes in fleering refusal. When it was Auntie Owl’s turn, Longbow put his sword to her heart and warned her any magic tricks would cost her life. Book ungagged her then and brought the spoon to her lips, but she spat the soup into the faerie’s face, laughing, “Do you think you’re strong? You’re pathetic. Do you think you won’t suffer? You’ll scream—” and then they gagged her again.

Book went upstairs wiping her face. Longbow stalked in a fidgety circle, stretching and puckering his lips and wiggling his fingers and making fists. Marcissa sat down on the floor in front of them. “I’m guessing you must be those slavers,” she said, “and I’m guessing this isn’t an inn called Hummingbird’s Rest but your secret slaver hideout. I don’t understand why slavers would’ve murdered those people up there instead of selling them. Or why you all fought each other. And I don’t understand what would drive you to lives of iniquity, but I do believe that you could have chosen differently. And—maybe—you still can!

“When we reach Shadow Falls, we’ll tell the human authorities what happened here, and it’ll be up to them what they’ll do.—Cáel, do you know how human justice works? How do they punish villains?” Longbow shrugged. “Well,” Marcissa said, “I’m sure there’ll be some kind of teaching prison where you’ll grow into better people as you reflect upon your misdeeds. Cáelever now is going to perform for you the most extraordinary solo ever written for flute. It’s about a nymph who becomes Music Incarnate and it’s called ‘Syrinx’ and I hope it will change your hearts and inspire you to achieve nobler and better deeds in the days to come.”

Longbow, indeed, was bringing a flute to his lips. The first high note, reverberating through the little room, felt to Auntie Owl like her own needles puncturing her own eyes, and the galloping runs and sustained tones penetrated exquisitely specific regions of her skull:— Behind the gag, against her will, despite her self-respect, Auntie Owl moaned and begged for it to end.

Marcissa kept nodding to her, eyes gleaming, as if they were sharing something. When the music finally ceased, in a breaking voice she whispered to Auntie Owl, “I know...I know...so beautiful...” She sprang up to embrace Longbow, and the Nappers Knot, shackled and hog-tied and gagged, watched the faeries kiss. And then Longbow stepped forward and bowed to them, and the faeries went away and left them in the dungeon.

 

7

Come morning, with aching wounds and uneasy hearts, the faeries rode off through the woods. Ferathar started in again with what she’d been saying: “Why leave them alive? It’s lunacy.”

She was trying to argue with Marcissa, but she was lost in a brown study, so Naionne argued in her stead. “Are you really suggesting, that while they were helplessly spellbound by Naionne's Narcoleptic Enabler, that we should’ve—what? cut their throats?”

“That’s not sporting,” Cáelever said.

“It’s common sense, it’s survival,” Ferathar said in a voice still gravel from her throttling, her whole neck a fuchsia bruise. “If this were a play, Marces, you know they’d come back seeking revenge.”

“But it’s not!” Naionne protested. “And sometimes life is better than art.”

At that, Marcissa, her face streaming tears, turned to Naionne and sobbed out, “We have to go back.” They knew without asking this had nothing to do with the prisoners.

Back at the ruined inn, they found shovels in the stables; it was afternoon before they’d finished digging the graves. Marcissa said that human remains must needs be washed and dressed. They found a clean smock to replace the blood-stained one the young woman wore, and they tied a green ribbon around the wound in her neck. They dressed the bearded man in a rakish outfit that fit him perfectly, with an ascot and a fashionably-slouching hat. Marcissa recalled then that human mourning required hats, and among the many disguises of the slavers, the faeries found and donned a fillet, a chaperon, a liripipe, and an escoffion. The bodies, swaddled in hempen sheets, were lowered into the graves. Marcissa said everyone must offer a flower, and she herself tossed in rosemary, while Ferathar found a white iris, and Naionne and Cáelever returned with pansies and columbine. Standing by the graves, the others all looked to Marcissa, who’d only ever attended one human funeral, but that was one more than the rest of them.

Gazing down at the man’s body, she took a thoughtful breath and spoke:

 

“Too late to avert your cruel slaughter,

    Onlookers of the bloody scene,

    We wonder who you might have been:—

Father to this beloved daughter?

 

“For whom you fought, as father must!

Laying your life down in this wood

For one you loved, as father should!

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

At a gesture from Marcissa, the other faeries muttered, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” She was gazing down at the young woman now and spoke again:

“Drenta lived her short human life,

But hers was long if we compare

Your brief hours.—Oh, it isn’t fair!

    Did you know love? Were you a wife?

 

“Did beauty shiver you to tears?

        Who were you? Did you adore that saint

        Who’d preach unending self-restraint

    Until you’d have to plug your ears?

 

“Hilarious Drenta! She would say,

‘Marces, you cannot wear that bodice!

Please can’t you at least pretend you’re modest?’

And I miss her every single day...

 

“But if you miss this world, or when

High heaven gets monotonous,

Look down here; love and live through us.

Oh! human funerals end—Amen.”

“Amen,” echoed the faeries.

Again they rode away, but now through twilight, which of all times faeries love best, and the deepening woodland greens delighted them, and they called back and forth to a hidden bird, Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you? Even Ferathar seemed more sportive than irascible. “We have unfinished business,” she announced. “The matter of our company’s name.”

“Well, well,” laughed Cáelever, “it was quite close: The pummeling lout defeated two of his fellow rats, but Naionne here got the other three. Let’s hear it for the nominator of our so-far anonymous company—Naionne Oakenheel!”

“Huzzah! Huzzah! Huzzah!” cried Cáelever and Ferathar and Marcissa.

“But—” Naionne said, “—I could not have been availed of my magic, and we three would now be slaves, except Marcissa rescued us. I hereby delegate the nomination of our company to Marcissa Moonmead.”

Marcissa covered her mouth, whispering, “The awful weight of responsibility...”

“Unless you don’t have an idea, and then we can be the Seekers of Sanseryll...”

“—or the Grifftail Fletchings,” Cáelever said.

“Or the Erudition Coalition—”

“—or the Moonkissed Company—”

“The Swords of Justice,” muttered Ferathar.

Wide-eyed Marcissa was desperately thinking, thinking. Her merry companions surrounded her now: Even as much as they loved her, they loved teasing her when she was ridiculous.

“No, let her think, everyone,” Naionne said, “for from this day will rise—”

“—for upon this name will rest—” Cáelever declared.

“—our reputation for decades to come!” rasped Ferathar.

“You must not choose lightly, Marcissa—” began Naionne.

“—yet you must choose—” finished Cáelever, “—and choose right now!”

“The Adventurers!” cried Marcissa from the depths of her heart. “We...are...the Adventurers!”

Tra-la-la-la-la-la-la, laughed the Adventurers.

 

#

 

J.C. Luxton graduated with an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa's Writer's Workshop. His work has appeared previously in The Notre Dame Review.