The Perils of False Preconceptions, part three.
When Tomias opened the way-stop and brought them back to the real world, Kelsey had almost drowned in the unquenchable humidity that smacked into her. He, of course, seemed unaffected by the stark difference and only offered her his smug half-smile as he watched her reacquaint herself with reality.
This was their third night of travelling. Tomias had estimated a two nights’ journey but obviously hadn’t taken into account his much slower companion. There hadn’t been any more visits to way-stops, either. Kelsey wasn’t sure if Tomias actively sought out the caves they stayed in so that he could better enjoy what a tavern had to offer, or if there just weren’t that many way-stops in the area.
Regardless, Tomias said that they were nearing the village of Cresthill and should be there within a half hour. Kelsey was grateful for that knowledge; a bite to eat, a wine to drink, and a soft bed to rest upon would be amazing. While she doubted any tavern in this land had the soft beds of her world, anything was better than the cold stone floor of a filthy cave.
Tomias suddenly froze in place and, being that she was at his heel, she barged straight into him and nearly tumbled over as she regained her footing. He put a finger to his lips, signalling silence.
Perking her ears, she couldn’t hear anything out of the ordinary, neither could she see anything out of the ordinary. All looked just as it should from what she could tell. The trees and grasses were glowing and… she listened harder. The insects were not chirping. Maybe it was slightly out of the ordinary.
A growl emanated through the trees, then two fiery eyes glared out of the undergrowth. Instinctively, Kelsey took a step back.
“Stay still,” Tomias hissed.
Stepping back in line with her, he swept one hand horizontally across his chest and formed a semi-transparent shield that encased the both of them, then he raised his other hand into the air. Small tendrils of fire burst into life and danced about his fingertips, crackling loud in the silence.
The beast leapt out of the undergrowth with a feline grace and paced in front of them. Kelsey’s eyes widened. It was a flame-eyed scalekit, just like in the books! Its eyes glowed as that which flickered from Tomias’ fingertips and snake-like masses writhed across its flesh, ready to spit a paralysing venom at its prey. It circled them, but Tomias stayed alert and faced it, not once taking his eyes from the creature’s.
All of a sudden the writhing mass across its body rose up and spat simultaneous green gobs that ricocheted off Tomias’ barrier and instead splattered back across the creature. It growled a low rumble that sounded angrier than before and stalked closer to them, gnashing its teeth.
Tomias stared it down without an outward flinch then raised his hand higher. The fiery tendrils that danced about his fingers transformed into a ball of fire that hovered an inch off his palm. Despite the danger of the moment, a burst of excitement flooded Kelsey — it was Tomias and he was going to throw a fireball! At last, something about this man would make sense.
The creature stared at the fireball and growled again, this time uncertainly, then stepped back from them. The fireball grew larger in Tomias’ hand and he raised his arm as though to throw it, and the beast whimpered and spun around, racing back through the trees. The beast ploughed through the undergrowth in its haste to run away, and soon sounded quite distant. As the last traces of the animal could be heard, Tomias flicked his wrist and the fireball and barrier both vanished.
“Oh,” Kelsey muttered, disappointed that she hadn’t seen the famed fireball in action. “That was rather… anticlimactic.”
“It would be a waste to kill it.”
“What?” Kelsey raised a questioning eyebrow. “Won’t it just attack someone else now you’ve let it live?”
“Unlikely.” Tomias shook his head. “All you saw was a dangerous beast; there is much more for you to notice if you slow down and take stock of your surroundings. Did you see its stomach? Judging by its size, it is full with young. It only sought a final meal before it perishes from birth. I’d wager its young will kill it within the day, perhaps two, and then they can be harvested for the magi. Scalekit cubs have potent blood perfect for those who practice certain rituals and their flesh is not yet toxic and can be cooked into a delicacy. I would not have that wasted.”
“Oh.” Kelsey shuffled from one foot to the other, feeling completely dumb and out of place. “That makes sense, I guess. I didn’t know.”
“Why would you?” The half-smile he seemed to summon every time she felt awkward and foolish spread across his face once more. “You’re a stranger to these lands.”
She looked down at her feet. Yes, she was. As ever, that was truer each and every day. Once again it was proved to her that she knew less than nothing of this world.
“Once we’re finished in Cresthill, I’ll return for the cubs. The coin will be welcome.” He paused. “You’ll have to come with me. I’ll need you to stay out of the way while I do my work, so you remain unharmed.”
A sudden thought leapt across her mind and she quickly grabbed Tomias’ arm.
“Can I learn your magical ways? Then I could actually do something and be useful.”
“Learn?” Tomias snorted. “It’s a gift in the blood, not something that can be learned. Unless you’re born with the gift you could never wield magic.”
“Well, that’s disappointing.”
“It’s for the best.” Tomias smiled. “There’d be far too many magi fighting and seeking power from one another if anyone could just pick up the craft.”
Kelsey bit her tongue before her words could involuntarily form. She wanted to ask if magi fighting and seeking power from one another factored in to his decision to leave Zeddicus and the rest of King Zachariah’s court, but ultimately decided it was better not to.
Following behind as he led the way to the village, she wondered just what she could do in this world other than travel from village to village with Tomias. He had seemed surprised that she could read and write and had asked if she were a scholar in her own world; she was not, but perhaps she could actually be one here. But then, he had also expressed that a female scholar was strange… would that really matter, though? She could be a learned woman of the land and no one need know where she actually came from. Perhaps if she became a well-known scholar, no one would dare accost her for her hair. It seemed like a good idea.
It was around midnight when they at last reached Cresthill. The moon was high and illuminated the glowing flora evermore and it was nearly as bright as day when they wandered into the tavern.
This tavern wasn’t quite as busy as the one in the last village, but it seemed that more people frequented these places when they first awoke and before they slept. As well as alcohol and revelry, the taverns served as banquet halls that fed the village their main meals, providing they had the coin, and it wasn’t meal-time at this present moment.
Tomias walked over to the barman and placed some coins on the counter.
“A room for two, a half-dozen tray of the Cresthill special and a bottle of wine for my friend.”
“An entire bottle?” Kelsey asked incredulously. “I can’t drink that much.”
“Pop a cork in it and drink more tomorrow.” Tomias smirked. “You’ll find that there are solutions to most problems.”
He took a tray of six giant ale-filled mugs and she gingerly took the bottle, then they sat by a bench near a window. Tomias sipped his ale and sighed. “Extraordinary. The Cresthill contains hints of blueberry and orange zest. I think even you would enjoy this one.”
“Doubtful.” She wrinkled her nose. “Beer is not my forte.”
“Ale is quite different to beer, actually. There aren’t many villages that procure beer and those who do would likely deliver it straight to the city and not keep it for their own people.”
“It all tastes the same to me. And smells the same, too.”
Taking a swig from her bottle, she mimicked Tomias’ sigh. “Extraordinary.”
That was a lie. It really wasn’t extraordinary at all. This so-called wine tasted of pure vodka. She may as well be drinking moonshine beneath the moon-shine, she grinned at herself. Another quote for her journal. She’d need to write in it soon before she forgot all of these winning quotes.
“A lot seems to go on in that head of yours.” Tomias said from behind his mug. “Your face moves with your thoughts. You could never play cards.” Before she could respond, he slammed the mug down and narrowed his eyes, motioning behind her. “Do you remember what I said about there being eyes upon you? Two men stare at you as we speak, fortunately they see me with you and merely glare in our direction, knowing they’ll be unable to claim you for themselves.”
Slowly turning around, she met the eye of a grizzled man. He raised an ale to his lips, drained the entire mug in one mouthful, then dropped it onto the table before heaving himself out of the chair and out of the tavern.
Swallowing down a sudden rise of saliva, she turned back around and stared at the wine bottle. A light dust coated the glass and she traced a finger through it.
“So, I… I was contemplating something earlier. My intentions…”
“Oh?” Tomias asked, taking a swig from another mug.
“You said that I appear a learned scholar… so, perhaps I could be a scholar somewhere?”
Tomias was mid-guzzle when she said that and nearly spat his mouthful across the table as he snorted. Clearing his throat, he said, “In the Evergreen there are no women scholars. You’d stand out even further and such a craft does not negate the dangers of… being captured. For now, we’re stuck with one another.”
“Stuck?” She sat a little straighter and bristled. “In that case, surely a man of magic such as yourself would have use for a scholar? Instead of drinking each village dry, you could do magic things and I… I could write… scholarly things? For you?” Tomias laughed louder and her face reddened. “I’m clearly hilarious. Well, what does a scholar do besides write?”
“First and foremost, most are men of the church. Others are men in the King’s court. The former study the world around them, pray to a God that does not exist, then write what they believe to be God’s word. The others study the world around them and write all that they witness so the magi can further utilise the powers hidden in the world, for the King.”
“I could do the latter, couldn’t I?”
“In King Zachariah’s court? Oh, absolutely… if you weren’t a red-haired woman.” He suggestively ran his eyes up and down her body. “As it stands, I think not.”
“What is it about the red hair, anyway?” She wrapped her arms around her chest, annoyed that he had openly ogled her to prove a point. “Can’t I just dye it, and problem solved? Surely that’s a viable solution.”
“Dye it?” He raised a confused eyebrow and shook his head. “King Zachariah has a type. He has a harem devoted to those of your colour and he pays handsomely. As I said, you could feed a family for a half-decade.”
“In my world,” she lowered her voice to a whisper. “One can dye their hair. Change it to a different colour. You’re saying that that’s not a possibility here?” When he shook his head, she winced. “What about your magic? Can’t you just wiggle your fingers, sweep your hand over my head, something?”
“It’s impossible to change one’s appearance. You are what you are. Can you imagine if someone had that power? They could perform nefarious deeds, then change their appearance and never face their crime! It would be madness.”
“What if I ate more? I could be fat and ugly and no one will think the King would want me.” She mumbled through her wine.
“Then you’d have to worry about cannibals.” He calmly said, draining another mug. “You could feed a family for a half-year instead.”
“You’re joking!” She threw her arms up into the air. “This is impossible. Why did I come here?”
“Only you know that.”
Kelsey took another swig from her bottle of moonshine-wine. She had the sudden urge to get drunk, really drunk, but at the same time she was fearful of allowing herself to succumb to that drunkenness. She understood that Tomias would keep her safe, but now that she was aware of her surroundings… more than one person looked at her and stared, then paled as Tomias’ dark glare was returned to them. It was unnerving. Very unnerving.
Was this what she was going to have to deal with for the rest of her life? Maybe she could wear a hat… no one here seemed to wear hats, though. They would wonder what she was hiding underneath the thing and stand out even more. This dilemma was not anything she had imagined when wanting to come here. She took another mouthful from the bottle and winced. This stuff was disgusting. Maybe if she drank more, the overwhelming vodka taste would disappear.
“Tomias! How long has it been?” A cheerful voice boomed at her back and she whipped around to find a large red-cheeked squirrel-faced man approaching them. His eyes fell on her and widened, then a grin spread across his face. “Here with a companion, I see. Very interesting… a gift for Zachariah? I thought you were finished with business of the court.”
“Sebastian.” Tomias raised his empty mug to the man in greeting then banged it back down upon the table. “I am finished with the court. Allow me to introduce Kelsey, my travelling companion.”
“Ho, ho! I never thought I’d see the day. The cunning Tomias ensorcelled by a woman instead of selling her for coin.” He winked and jammed his bulk onto the bench beside Tomias. Kelsey fidgeted uncomfortably beneath his open stare and kept her eyes fixed to the wine bottle, her thoughts swirling. Tomias had sold women? No wonder he had known her worth! If she proved a nuisance, would he just get rid of her? Like that? For a coin or two?
“Taken your head out of your cups to hear the news?” Sebastian spoke to Tomias yet kept his eyes fixed to her. “The sky shook a few weeks past. Zeddicus has the entire court investigating.”
“I assume that’s why you’re here instead of back at court, feasting on swine.” Tomias retrieved another ale off his tray and blew at the froth. “I received the message but, of course working for Zeddicus doesn’t interest me. We have other business.” He sent her an apologetic glance, then drained the entire mug in one mouthful. “If you’ll excuse—“
“Of course it interests you.” Sebastian interrupted. “Why are you here, Tomias? If you’re trying to find the source before our Magister does, to claim it for your own—”
“I wouldn’t dream of imposing upon our wonderful Magister.” Tomias snapped. “As I said: we’re travelling. Far from here. There’ll be no disruptions from me…” He offered Sebastian a thin smile. “This time, at least. I can’t promise I’ll ignore the next chance. Now, if you’ll excuse us, we’ll be retiring for the night.”
“Okay, okay.” Sebastian raised his arms and waved them about. “No need to get so feisty.” His eyes fell upon one of the tavern girls and he grinned. “I, too, will be… retiring for the night. Stay for a chat on the morrow?”
“Of course. Enjoy yourself.”
Climbing up from the bench, Tomias took her arm and pulled her upstairs and into the room they had bought for the night. Once the door was closed, she ripped her arm away.
“What the hell was that?” She held her satchel against her chest, grasping it so tight her knuckles whitened. If she didn’t, it was likely she’d throw the damned thing at him. “That explains why you know my apparent worth. You sold girls to the King?”
“I don’t do that any more.” He stated firmly. “That was over a year ago… I have taken leave of that business.”
“Are those women your mistakes? Is that why you’re using me to… atone?”
He raised a confused eyebrow.
“My mistakes?” Understanding dawned upon him as he realised she referred to his snappish remarks in the way-stop. “Hardly. Selling flesh to the King is not a crime.” He stalked over the window and looked outside, appearing to think for a few moments. “We have just under two hours til daybreak. We are leaving before Sebastian has the mind to inform anyone of my — our — presence.” He looked at her and focused on her satchel. “You’ve got your journal? Good. I daren’t think of what would happen if you left that behind and one of the court found it.”
He pried open the window and before she could protest, question what was happening, or even expel a breath, he grabbed her arm and pulled her to the window.
“I-I… I can’t really climb.” She said, her eyes bulging as she saw how far the ground was in the alleyway below.
Instead of encouraging her, he grabbed her by the waist, flung her over his shoulder, and climbed down to street-level.
“I guess you’ve had practice at that,” she snapped. “This how you capture people before you sell them?”
“No, they’re usually held bound by rope and ethereal binds,” he retorted, letting her find her own footing on the ground. “They’re also incapable of this incessant complaining. Come.”
“Why? So you can tire of my presence and sell me off in a week or two?”
Tomias closed his eyes for a long moment, evidently gathering the strength to deal with her and her accusations, then finally said, “You don’t trust me. That’s fine. I understand. But the fact remains that the court is here and instead of leading you to them, I am taking you away from them. No good will come of Zeddicus’ knowledge of you.”
Kelsey buried her face in her hands and rubbed at her eyes and forehead. This was intolerable. It wasn’t like she had a choice. Grudgingly, she strapped her satchel across her shoulder and followed Tomias through the alleyways and out of the village using the farmlands as cover. Both of them unaware of the shrewd eyes that stared down at them from another of the tavern’s windows just as they passed from view.
Welcome to an act of pantsing. 🤣 I was minding my own business, playing through the Dragon Age saga, when suddenly the urge to write came upon me.
This is the last part of this random writing that I'll be sharing — not because I've run out of inspiration, but because now I feel like actually plotting this thing with the information I've gathered and coming up with a proper story out of it all. Which will involve backtracking over these last 10,000 words and sorting it all out. Hooray. xD With any luck, I'll be able to create an interesting short novel out of this.
Thanks for reading! I hope the little I shared was interesting to others and not just to myself. 😊
Until next time! ❤️📚📝