Dinner Talk

By the time Stan Ellis was finished mucking out the stalls, he was exhausted even though he’d been doing it for the past nine years. As an eight-year-old, when he first came to live with his grandparents, he hated the smell of the horses’ droppings, the texture of the straw, and working in the shadowy barn. Because he’d been born in the city, he knew nothing about ranch life and hadn’t planned on every living on one. But when his parents died, he’d had no choice.

His school day was followed by a hour and a half of band practice, something he’d recently added after Grandpa Ellis convinced him he needed an elective for college admissions. He’d picked up his grandpa’s old saxophone, and after watching a few YouTube videos, was soon playing elementary songs.

Band wasn’t too hard. It was marching and playing that exhausted him mentally and physically.

It was after four by the time he got home, then cleaning stalls for an hour before he could tackle homework. All of it added up to a lot of work.

Stan thoroughly washed his hands then made himself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He pulled out his homework and began studying for a Physics test the next day. Just as he finished reviewing the assigned chapter his seventy-year old grandpa came in. He brought the outside in with him which Stan now found endearing.

“We’re having spaghetti tonight. Is that okay?” Grandpa asked as he pulled a pot and lid out of the cabinet.

“Sounds great. Can we have a salad too?”

“If you make it.”

Stan pulled lettuce, radishes, and cheese out of the refrigerator. He took a tomato off the counter and fetched bacon bits from the pantry. “So, are you going to give me the money or not?”

“Can you explain it to me again?”  Grandpa dumped a handful of noodles into a pan of boiling water and then wiped his hands on his jeans.

“The money’s due tomorrow or I can’t go to Disneyland.”

“Why’re you going there?”

“I’ve explained it several times.” Stan finished assembling the salad, set it on the table, and then flopped into a hand-hewn chair. “I’ve missed every deadline so far. I’m surprised my teacher’s still letting me go.”

Grandpa stirred the noodles with a wooden spoon. “Let’s see. What extra jobs have you done to earn money?”

Stan sighed and ran his hands over his lanky brown hair. “I dug the weeds out of the pony pens and I trimmed the bushes along the drive.”

“That’s part of your job,” Grandpa said.

“According to that line of reasoning, then anything I do around here is my job,” Stan said. “Look, Grandpa, I really want to go. I’ve got to pay the full amount tomorrow or I’m out.”

Grandpa slipped a loaf of French bread out of its wrapper and laid it on the cutting board. He picked up a knife and sliced off four hefty pieces. “Explain again the reason for the trip.”

“The band’s marching in the Main Street Parade and performing on the stage in Tomorrowland.” Stan leaned his chin on his hands and looked at his grandfather with sparkling eyes. “I want to go.”

After popping open a jar of sauce and pouring it into a pan, Grandpa sat at the table.  “How much are we talking about?”

“We’re flying, so that’s about $300. No hotel costs because we’re staying in a high school gym. They’re feeding us breakfast and dinner. Admission to the park is about $100. The only other cost is for my lunch.”

“So about $500?”

Stan shrugged. “Yeah.”

“I don’t have that kind of money.” Grandpa walked over to the stove, poured a little oil into the water with the noodles and then stirred the now simmering sauce.

“You sold a foal last week to Mr. Newton for a thousand dollars.”

“I paid bills with that money.  We owe Smith’s Hay and Feed over two thousand and Bill’s been asking for his money since he fixed the truck.”

“But everyone else is going.” Stan flopped his head down on his crossed arms.

“Set the table.  We’ll be eating in about five minutes.”

Stan shuffled to the cabinet, and with exaggerated effort got down two plates and glasses.  With an audible sigh, he set them on the canvas placemats that were always on the table.

Grandpa strained the water from the noodles and then dropped in a slice of butter.  He tossed the noodles, poured in the sauce, and carried the pan over to the table.  “Let’s talk.”

Stan scooped a mound of spaghetti onto his plate and sprinkled on a heavy layer of Parmesan cheese.  “It’s during Spring Break so I won’t miss any school. You filled out the permission form that had all the details. I even left a copy for you to keep  My plane ticket’s been bought.  I can’t back out now.”

“I can’t recall filling out any form.”

“Well, you did.”

“What was I doing when you handed it to me?”

“Washing dishes.  You told me to put the form on the table.  You filled it out and handed it to me.”

“I’d never have signed if I knew how much money was involved.  You can’t go.  I’m sorry.”

Leaving behind his dirty dishes, Stan took the stirs two steps at a time up to his room.  When he slammed the door he knew it would shake the whole house, a violation of the rules, but he didn’t care.

After using a napkin to wipe off his mouth, then refolding it and placing it next to his placement, Grandpa cleaned the kitchen. Like always, he then went into the front room to sit and smoke his pipe, but before lighting up, he unlocked the small safe embedded in the wall behind his desk and pulled out a rubber-banded wad of money.  He carefully counted out the bills.  He locked the safe and went upstairs.

“Can I come in?” he said after knocking on Stan’s door.

“Sure.”

Grandpa extended his right hand. “Here’s the money.”

“Really?”  Stan’s face glowed with surprise.

“Yeah.  I was hoping you’d changed your mind and didn’t want to go all the way to California.  You’ve never been that far from the ranch in all these years. But just in case, I put the money aside.  I’m selling this weekend Misty to Steve Carlson.  I’ll use that money to pay off bills.”

“Grandpa you’re the best!”  Stan, even though he was a little too old for hugs, jumped up off his bed and wrapped his arms around his grandfather.

“One thing, though,” Grandpa said as he stepped away.

“Anything. I’ll do whatever you want.” Stan’s eyes gleamed.

“Have fun. Play well. Be careful.”

Stan nodded. “I will. I’ll even find a way to call if you want.”

Grandpa smiled. “That’d be nice. It would make me feel better knowing that you were safe.”

Stan hugged Grandpa again. “There’s supposed to be a pay phone at the school. I’ll call when we get there the first night, call when we get back from Disneyland, then call right before we leave for the airport.”

“Come downstairs. I bought strawberries and shortcake.”

Stan enjoyed his dessert, even though he understood that his grandpa had intended to give him the money all along. All-in-all, it was an excellent dinner.

Into the Medina

Mary had no trouble following the tour guide as the group wound through the busy city streets of Fes. Even though her hat covered her eyes, just a bit, she could still see the red folder Stan held over his head. She lingered near the rear of the group, which was not a surprise. Every single time the group walked about, even if just for a rest stop, Mary was the first one off, the last one on.

In fact, several times poor Stan had had to go searching for her. She’d still be in her room, or meandering about a market or finishing up a meal. Last one to get off the bus, last one to cross the street, last one to see anything. It made her sad. She was an old woman; the oldest on the tour, but no one pushed her to the front or helped her when she was confused.

By now, after seven days of traveling with her, the group had had it with Mary. Whenever she was missing, comments surfaced about how she was slowing them down, or suggesting that she should be sent back home or that she should be spoken to by someone higher up the chain of command than Stan. But nothing changed her behavior. In fact, the more people that called her name, the more Mary shined.

So here in Fes, after being told it was imperative that the group stay together as it could be dangerous to get lost, Mary hung out at the rear.

The stalls were colorful, filled with food and jewelry and clothing that called tourists to come shop. And even though Mary had been told to keep her eyes on the red folder, all those wonderful things hanging in doorway after doorway beckoned her to enter. Over and over again she stopped, for just a minute…but then a member of the group rounded her up and insisted that she keep moving forward.

Mary stumbled along on the cobblestone sidewalk, her footing challenged by the bumps and cracks. Sometimes she stepped into the street because the way was blocked by a parked car, truck or motorcycle. More motorcycles than anything. They were a nuisance. Not only did you have to get past the angled front wheel, but more treacherous were the kickstands that poked out, creating hazards for seniors like her.

It was hard to keep up. Mary had knee problems and her back ached. The more she had walked on the seven days so far, the slower she had gotten despite doing her best to hurry along. Even when by some strange bit of luck when Mary was near the front, she still fell further and further behind until once again she was at the end of the twisting line of fellow travelers.

After a brief stop to glance into a shop selling nuts and buying a small bag, Mary breathed a sigh of relief when she caught up with Stan who had halted the group before a large stone archway. He told everyone to turn on their “whispers”, cleverly designed amplification boxes that allowed the entire group to hear whatever was being said. Mary loved that link to Stan because it told her which way to turn, what to see, when to step carefully. But it didn’t make her legs go faster.

“It’s going to be crowded in here,” Stan said, “so we have to stick together. No stopping to shop. Keep your eyes pointed ahead. The crowds will jostle you. There are pickpockets that prey on tourists, so keep your hands on purses and wallets. Any questions?”

Mary put her purse strap over her head so that it crossed her body and clutched it firmly to her chest. She never carried all her money, leaving a good chunk behind in the safe in her hotel room, but she didn’t want to lose her ID and other important things zipped into pouches and pockets.

It was noisy and seemingly chaotic where they stood. Thousands of people milled about, coming and going and standing still. In groups of two or three or four. Sometimes alone, leaning against a wall or pillar. Children scampered about, taking off across the nearby square or dashing up the narrow winding streets visible from where she stood.

Hundreds of voices filled the air. High-pitched women’s voices blended with the bass calls of store workers, all vying for her attention. And hordes of souvenir-totters were descending upon the group. Women in burqas holding out sparkling scarves. Men with browned teeth displaying colorful necklaces and silver bracelets.

They held these items in front of Mary, and she so longed to touch them all, to buy something, anything but then Stan warned them to ignore the beggars, to not look at them or nod or smile. To put all normal courtesies aside, for anything that seem like interest would encourage the beggars to follow, to harass to the point of misery. After one final look at his travelers, Stan took off into the square, skillfully winding his way this way and that, taking advantage of any opening large enough for the group of forty to pass through.

Mary worked hard to keep up because the hordes intimidated her. Even when she tried to dodge them, she was pushed left and right, banged into from behind and shoved from the front. Each of the unwanted contacts threw her a bit of kilter, making it harder for her to keep her eye on that red folder.

Stan led them down a narrow corridor. On each side were carts of limp-looking vegetables. Underneath and above and from all around was the smell of rot. Maybe it was from the wood or maybe from the produce, but it was nauseating.

In the meat market slabs of raw meat hung from poles overhead or were layered on wooden tables. Flies buzzed and landed on the meat. Mary pictured the eggs deposited and felt her stomach constrict. She stumbled over an uneven stone and looked down to right herself. Blood pooled under her feet, so Mary stepped around it. The worst of all was when she spied a pair of live chickens being held by their necks as they were weighed on a metal scale. The poor things squawked and tried to flap their wings, but the vendor squeezed harder, immobilizing them. Mary knew they were going to be slaughtered. She hoped it was done humanely, but feared, because of what she’d witnessed so far, that they would not. She shivered as her stomach roiled.

Next came the textile vendors. Huge vats of blackish liquid stuck out into the narrow walkway making it difficult to pass through. The workers pulled out dyed fabrics and twisted each to remove as much dye as possible. It ran down the street, along narrow gutters that overflowed into smelly pools. Mary tried to avoid the pools, but it was hard because she had to focus on the group, which moved on steadily, not seeming to care whether or not she kept up.

Mary found much of the displays and behaviors offensive.  Yes, it was their way of life, their culture, the way things had been done for thousands of years, but it was still disturbing. She felt her nose wrinkle, then thinking that this might offend the residents, willed her face to smile.

After a right turn, the goods being sold changed. Colorful, flowing garments which Stan said were called djellabas hung from what resembled a bit of roof. Mary stopped to finger a baby blue one with colorful trim running down the front. In just those few seconds, Stan had moved on, and she no longer saw the red folder.

She stood on her tiptoes and thought she saw a man from her group turn to the right, so she went that way, stepping into a corridor so narrow that she could reach out and touch the walls on both sides at the same time. But she didn’t see Stan’s folder.

What to do? There didn’t seem to be anything of interest here, so she turned around and backtracked to the street of goods. There were vendors displaying kaftans for women. Beautifully decorated gowns with sparkly trim in the center of the front and on the billowing sleeves. Handmade buttons covered in matching fabric. In each stall selling clothing, at least one man sat sewing. Mary had been taught that sewing was women’s work, but here sat virile men, holding tiny needles between thumb and fingers, stitching in and out, in and out.

It was so mesmerizing that she forgot about keeping up. Until she was shoved aside by a burqa-wearing woman holding a tightly wrapped baby to her chest. That’s when reality called Mary back to the here and now. She hustled up the street, searching for a familiar head of hair or sweater or the red folder.

She thought she recognized someone on a street to the left. Ah, ha! She was right! There stood Stan, a worried look creasing his brow. “Where have you been?” he practically screamed. “I told you to stay with the group. It’s not safe to get separated in here.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m at the rear and I can’t keep up.” Tears pooled in her eyes.

Stan moved her to the front of the group which had stopped in front of a vendor selling breads. “Stay close to me,” he said, “no matter what.”

Mary fell into place as the group took off. The street became a steep incline. No longer selling clothes or food, the venders displayed tourist crap that called her name. Oh, the postcards! The porcelain! The jewelry! The figurines! The scarves! Mary wished that Stan would let them shop, but he plowed ahead, an previously unfriendly couple staying behind her, pushing her forward.

Stan turned left and right. He climbed higher and then followed a street that dropped at a steep decline. The vendors now sold sweets. Strange-looking flat cookies and pretzel-shaped pastries covered with flies! Nuts of all kinds. Some glazed with sugar. Some roasted. Some still in shells.

Stan stopped to allow the group to taste the sugar-coated almonds. Mary didn’t like them, but many in her group did. Several bought some to bring home.

Mary wouldn’t buy any of the food she’d seen. For one, there was no one at home for her to give them to. For another, how could she gift someone food that flies had been sitting on right before being scooped up? It just wasn’t right.

They moved on. To the right. Up a series of steps. To the left. Under a wooden archway. Looking up was a confused mass of nailed boards holding everything up. To a Californian like Mary who was used to earthquakes that took down buildings, it didn’t look safe.

They entered a low doorway. Even five-foot Mary had to bend over. Inside were bathrooms that they were told to use and then to sit on benches that lined the walls. Hanging everywhere were carpets of intricate designs and beautiful, rich colors. Shortly after the group was settled, the sales pitch began. Carpet after carpet was unrolled on the floor. Each was uniquely beautiful. The salesmen promised that they could be washed. That they wouldn’t fade or shrink or bleed, but Mary wondered how that could be possible. Supposedly each was made by a woman working alone for months or years.

It was tiresome sitting there because the pitch didn’t end until several in her group began buying things. Each was taken into a side room and then emerged bearing wrapped packages, each tied with twine. Then they were allowed to leave.

Back into the winding streets. The crowd had thickened. Within a few blocks Stan and his red folder were out of sight. Mary stood on her tiptoes, but not only couldn’t she see it, she couldn’t see a familiar face or jacket. She was alone. In a maze of narrow streets. Being jostled on all sides.

Before they had gotten off the bus, Stan had cautioned the group that it would be easy to get lost. That the streets wound this way and that. That there was no logic that would allow a lost person to find their way out. He had cautioned them with the necessity of staying together. Mary hadn’t believed him. Until she entered the Medina. It was being in a war zone with sights and sounds assaulting her, confusing her.

Mary now understood that she could never find her way out on her own. At first she had tried to memorize the directions they had followed, how many rights and lefts and straight aheads, but in time, there were so many turns, so many streets, that she was totally confused. And possibly lost.

She was sure she was close to the carpet store. Maybe just a block away. She believed they could help her, so she went back the way she had just come. But at the first intersection she came to, Mary paused. Had she come from the right? The left? Straight ahead? Mary didn’t know. Tears began to drip down her cheeks. She pulled a tissue out of her coat pocket.

Mary peered about hoping to find something familiar. To the right were carpets leaning against a wall. That must be it! So she hurried that way. But no, there was no low door. Just a stall like many she’d seen.

Thinking that this must be the right street because so far, many carpets were being sold here, Mary continued that way. Vendors to the left and right, but no low doorway. She went on.

Carpets changed to shoes and leather bags. A stench filled the air. She thought it was from the leather being processed but she didn’t stop to ask. Mary knew her group had not passed this way, so she searched for a friendly face. Someone who might help her.

The men scared her even though she couldn’t justify those feelings. There was something about the determined way the vendors stared at her, as if she were a sandwich to be devoured. The women weren’t an option because they were all in too much of a hurry. She tried stopping one, but the woman shouted at her and slapped Mary’s hand away.

Mary stumbled forward, staring beseechingly at one face after another. She knew time had passed since she had become separated from her group, but how much time? She didn’t know. A fear surfaced that she was so incredibly lost in the Medina that she’d never get out. That her group would board the bus and leave without her.

They almost left her once. In Madrid they had toured an amazingly beautiful monastery. Mary had been intrigued by the tapestries and stained glass windows. The gold figurines behind the altar. She knelt to pray. She closed her eyes and thought of her kids at home, hoping that her grandkids were doing okay. That her cat was well.

When she opened her eyes, her group was gone. Mary hustled down the center aisle and out the huge double doors. Followed the sidewalk to where they had disembarked from the bus. Just as she arrived, the doors closed. Mary screamed and walked as fast as she could. Someone must have heard her or seen her because the doors opened!

What if the bus had driven off? She didn’t know the name of the hotel. Didn’t speak Spanish. Didn’t know how to hail a taxi. Thank goodness she was saved.

But now she was in Morocco, a totally unfamiliar country, language, culture. She wasn’t in a big city where there might be police officers who could help. There wasn’t a store that beckoned lost travelers. Plus she was lost in a maze so confusing, so terrifying that even if she had a phone, she couldn’t tell anyone where she was.

Mary stumbled along, tears streaming down her face. Her arms and legs felt rubbery. Just as she was about to give up, a boy wearing a soccer jersey appeared before her. He had a huge smile on his face. His eyes sparkled. Mary smiled back.

“Do you speak English?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said. “I study English in school.”

Mary sighed. She understood him perfectly! “I am lost. Can you help me?”

The boy nodded. Her took her hand and led her in and out, down and up, left and right. Ahead appeared the huge square and the stone gate! “Thank you,” she said. “You saved me.”

“Let me walk you to where your bus will stop,” he said. “I will wait there with you until your group appears.”

He led Mary to a low wall and indicated that she should sit. It felt good to be in the sun, out of the dark maze. Here the crowds were further away, giving her a chance to breathe, to relax.

The boy stayed with her, as he said he would, until Stan appeared, the blessed red folder over his head. Mary cried out, held her hands in front, beseechingly. “You left me behind,” she cried. “I was scared.”

Stan glowered at her. “Mary, this is not the first time you’ve fallen behind. Why didn’t you stay near me?”

“When you left the carpet store I was the last one out. You left me,” she said. “This nice young man helped me. If not for him, I’d still be inside, lost.”

Stan smiled at the boy. “Thanks for your help,” he said as he handed the boy a coin. “Mary, follow me. Don’t look inside stores. Stare at the folder. Only the folder. Understand?”

Mary nodded and did as she was told.

Back in the hotel she reflected on her narrow escape. Who was at fault? Herself? Surely not. She had tried to keep up. She had told Stan at the beginning of the tour that she was slow. It must be his fault, right?

Whoever was to blame, Mary swore to herself that from now on, she’d stay with Stan. The scare of being left behind scared her terribly.

 

 

Kraznir Complications: A Resolution

We rode into the forest, far enough to avoid capture by either army. We dropped to the ground and lay amongst leaves and needles. We didn’t worry about our horse making noise, for they were trained to be still.

Little John pointed and waggled his fingers as Nix had done.

“Bae von ox nae,” I whispered while thinking of Kraznir’s army, “bae von ox nae.” And then we waited. And waited.

Both armies remained frozen. Because there was no movement, no blink of an eye, no leaning one direction or another, there was no way to determine if the spellbind had worked.

Time passed and we became hungry. “I’m going hunting,” Little John whispered. “I think I saw rabbit tracks.”

Doughty fell asleep. My eyes grew tired, but I kept them focused on the armies, looking for change. My head fell to my chest, then I forced it upright. Over and over I battled my body.

“I caught one” Little John said as he held up a good-sized brown rabbit. “Can you get a fire going while I skin it?’

I scooped together leaves, then sticks, then searched for larger branches. When I felt there was enough, I held my hands over the leaves, closed my eyes and thought “fire” for I didn’t know the actual spell. Imagine my surprise when a flame burst forth from the heart of the leaves!

I placed several sticks on top, then when they began to smolder, even more.

“Looks great,” Doughty said. “Add the bigger branches. That should work.”

Just when flames rose to shoulder height, Little John appeared with the rabbit on a spit. He held it over the flames, just out of reach so it wouldn‘t char. Soon the smell of cooking meat tickled our noses. My mouth filled with saliva in anticipation.

“There,” Doughty said, “it’s done.” He tore off a leg, bit into it, and smacked his lips with pleasure. “Wonderful.”

We enjoyed our meal. It was not the best one we’d ever had, but since we’d not had meat for the days of our journey, it was exactly what we needed.

“Can I have some?” an unfamiliar voice asked.

Doughty jumped up, pulling his dagger out of his belt. “Who are you?”

“Mastix, sir.” The man wore Kraznir’s army’s uniform. “I’m hungry. If there’s even a tiny bite left, I’d love to eat it.”

I tore off a piece, gave it to him, then watched him slowly chew with his head held back and his eyes closed. “Um, that’s delicious.”

“So, is there something else you want?” Doughty asked.

“A bath, clean clothes and a soft bed.”

“Okay,” I said. “But why did you approach us? Shouldn’t you be afraid of being seen with us?”

The man laughed. “You’re my friends, right? Can I go home with you?’

Little John laughed as movement surrounded us. In front of us stood Kraznir’s entire army, officers and lowly men-in-arms, all with wistful looks on their faces. “Your spell worked,” he said to me with a wink and a grin. “The war is over.”

“For now,” Doughty said. “Only for now.”

“We have no more food,” I said, “but if you ride with us back to Siln and swear allegiance to King Taden, you can live in peace in Siln.”

An officer stepped forward and bowed. “Yes. My men and I will gladly follow you. We have yearned for the freedom and prosperity of Siln, but had no way of getting there. You have offered us everything we’ve dreamt of. Freedom instead of torture, instead of forever being indebted to Kraznir. For that we are grateful.”

Doughty stood and held out his hand. The officer extended his. Once grasped, Doughty pulled the man to his chest in what was considered a bond of trust.

“We’d better leave now,” Little John said. “if we ride hard, we’ll be home by tomorrow night.”

My heart felt light. My spells had worked. No lives had been lost. No injuries incurred. Not a single soldier from Siln had deserted, but the entire army Kraznir had sent was now happily singing their way to Siln.

I knew that from now on I would no longer be a magician-in-training for I had saved Siln’s men from harm. Kraznir, for now, was no longer a complication.

Kraznir Complications: Into Danger

Nix called a halt sunder some low-hanging trees o that we could dry our mounts as well as ourselves. I removed Ruthie’s gear then walked her to an unoccupied patch of grass. She immediately got to her knees and then rolled onto her back. I laughed at her antics. I so wanted to roll about as well, but I felt that Nix would disapprove.

We ate a bit of biscuit and refilled our skins with fresh water. Doughty, Little John and I found a quiet spot away from the others.

“I’m worried,” Little John said. “Nothing has challenged us. Nothing has slowed us, not human or beast.”

Doughty nodded. “By now something would have heard us coming. It’s impossible to move a group this size without attracting attention, so it’s logical to assume that there will be battle soon.”

“What should I do? I’m useless with sword and spear.”

Little John snickered. “You and me both. The one advantage I have is size. I can slink under the bellies of their horses and cut cinches. Then we’ll laugh when Kraznir’s entire army slides off their mounts!”

I rested my chin in my hands. “I’ve been learning some new wards. There’s an invincibility one, but I haven’t mastered it yet. Maybe I’ll set that one up before we enter the forest.”

That’s when the call came to mount, so I saddled Ruthie and as I rubbed her muzzle, I said, “Arq ve naw. Arq se baw.” I repeated it three times, a powerful magical number, hoping that by following the norms, the ward would work.

Was I invincible? Probably not, but it didn’t hurt to think that a few magical words could protect myself, my friends and our entire force.

Nix did not lead the way which told me that he expected trouble. What captain would hide amidst soldiers rather than inspire them by his daring? One who feared death, that’s who.

I pushed my way forward until I was within talking distance of Nix. When Nix and I entered the forest, a loud, piercing scream rattled me so much that I pulled back on the reins, terrifying Ruthie into bucking. I hung on to the horn and gripped her sides with my legs so tightly that my knees ached. I leaned forward until my nose was buried in her mane and spoke reassuring words until her front hooves touched sand once again.

Our ranks were in disarray. Instead of an orderly procession of two horsemen riding  side-by-side, many of us stood alone. I, thanks to being near Nix, was engulfed by armed soldiers brandishing spears and longswords. No word was spoken, no orders given. All acted in unison, however, which must be due to years of rigorous training.

I pulled my sword from its scabbard and tried to hold it steadily aloft, but I was no trained warrior. In seconds my arm tired and the sword fell at my side. Instead I did what little I could do: I chanted wards over and over hoping that at least one would keep us safe.

Karznir’s army surrounded us. We couldn’t move in any direction. Only the outer soldiers could inflict damage, but the enemy was as well-trained as we were. They formed a line about ten feet away: far enough that no sword, no spear could harm them.

Nix glowered at me as he waggled his fingers at the enemy. I understood what he wanted: I was to employ a magic spell that would numb the minds of Kraznir’s men. I was to freeze their bodies into living statues. I was supposed to spellbind them to yearn to be free of Kraznir’s leagues and to skip to our side.

I raised my hands, palms down, closed my eyes and screamed so that my voice would carry over those still harbored in the forest, “Tre at na lee.” I repeated it three times, as all wards were meant to. Were their minds numb? Well, it seemed as if they were as all about me all I saw were blank eyes. Good for the enemy, but not for us! I hadn’t learned how to target spells at some leaving out others!

That left Doughty, Little John and I. The wards couldn’t touch us thanks to a reflection ward my mentor had employed before we left. We were the survivors. We could do whatever we wanted.

Doughty rode up next to me and whispered, “What do we do now?”

I shrugged and turned to Little John. He said, “We could sneak off into the forest, across rivers and mountains to another kingdom. But eventually King Taden’s forces would find us, tie us up, and throw us into the dungeon of Siln.”

“Or,” Doughty said, “we could ride among both sides and steal their weapons. If Touchfire can keep the ward alive, we should be able to disarm all soldiers and hide their weapons deep in the forest.”

They looked at me with hope in their eyes. I nodded, raised my hands, and chanted again. Doughty worked on our soldiers while Little John stole Kraznir’s mens’ weapons.

It took hours. Whenever I lowered my hands, within fifteen minutes a man would stir here or there. Eyes might blink. Coughs might rattle lungs. Then I’d raise my hands and chant, “Tre ot na lee,” and “Linx fa bay,” which was supposed to turn them into living statues.

I was greatly relieved when my companions were by my side once again.

“I have an idea,” Doughty said. “Follow me.”

The three of us wove in and out of Taden’s horsemen until we were alongside Kraznir’s. “Did you learn the spellbinding ward? The one the allows minds to change?”

“I was just starting to work on that one.”

He smiled a devilish smile and said,” Well, give it a try. If we can convince Kraznir’s men to join with us, this battle will be over once and for all.”

I closed my eyes and pictured the words in my spell book. I sept my arm across the enemy ranks and softly chanted, “Bae von oz nae.”

“Do it again,” Little John said.

When I was finished, he asked me to send out a suggestion that they come to Siln of their own free will.

I nodded, closed my eyes, relaxed my breathing, and imagined words traveling into minds. Words changing minds. Words changing allegiance.

We rode into the forest, far enough to avoid capture by either army. We dropped to the ground and lay amongst leaves and needles. We didn’t worry about our horse making noise, for they were trained to be still.

Little John pointed and waggled his fingers as Nix had done.

“Bae von ox nae,” I whispered.

Kraznir Complications: We Ride Off

I didn’t want to get near an active battleground, but I had to follow orders. I mounted Ruthie and set off, trying to stay as near the middle of the pack as possible, thinking that if arrows should fall, I would be somewhat protected.

We rode in as complete silence as one hundred could go. The jingle of harness had been reduced by padding and the iron shoes wrapped in cloth. Even so there are human sounds of coughing and sneezing and mumbling and whispering. Horse breathing, snorting, farting, pooping and peeing. But we were quiet enough not to attract any unwanted attention, for no orcs or wargs or soldiers rushed us.

When night fell Captain Nix commanded an invisibility ward over all, human and horse alike. I had never tried to cloak so many, but I gave it a try. I closed my eyes and pictured our group, than whispered, “Ing spe do nably.” I felt a tingle, but not a rush of magic, so I was unsure whether or not it had worked.

Nix nodded, then turned away. I guess just chanting the ward made him happy. At least he was away from me, which lessoned my anxiety.

The night was long and cold. None of us had warm enough cloaks and since we were traveling, none had blankets either. I rolled up in my cloak, like all the others, and rested my head in a pile of leaves, but no matter how long I lay there, I never slept.

In the morning we rode on. When we came to the river I looked about for the blue dragon, but Pineki was nowhere to be seen.  Doughty thought maybe she was afraid of the large group, for after all, she was only a little dragon.

Before I rode into the water, I watched for sign of crocodiles. I knew that they were upstream, and we had not seen any when we crossed her before, I was cautious. After fifty riders made it safely, I urged Ruthie in and across as quickly as she could manage. In fact, all of us made I without me employing any kind of ward, which was good as I knew none that kept away crocs.

Nix called a halt so that we could dry our mounts as well as ourselves. I removed Ruthie’s gear then walked her to an unoccupied patch of grass. She immediately got to her knees, then rolled onto her back. I laughed at her antics. I so wanted to roll about as well, but I felt that nix would disapprove.

We ate a bit of biscuit and refilled our skins with fresh water. Doughty, Little John and I found a quiet spot away from the others.

“I’m worried,” Little John said. “Nothing has challenged us. Nothing has slowed us, not human or beast.”

Doughty nodded. “By now something would have heard us coming. It’s impossible to move a group this size without attracting attention, so it’s logical to assume that there will be battle soon.”

“What should I do? I’m useless with sword and spear.”

Little John snickered. “You and me both. The one advantage I have is size. I can slink under the bellies of their horses and cut cinches. Then we’ll laugh when Kraznir’s entire army slides off their mounts!”

I rested my chin in my hands. “I’ve been learning some new wards. There’s an invincibility one, but I haven’t mastered it yet. Maybe I’ll set that one up when we get ready to move.”

That’s when  the call came to mount, so I saddled Ruthie and as I rubbed her muzzle, I said, “Arq ve naw. Arq se baw.” I repeated it three times, a powerful magical number, hoping that by following the norms, the ward would work.

Kraznir Complications: Preparations Begin

Doughty shook his head then wiped his mouth from which stew oozed down his chin. “Magic is important, yes. But you also need to know how to fight so as to support the army in battle.”

He was right even though I didn’t want to admit it. So I didn’t complain when after lunch I learned how to ride with a spear. It was hard to balance while bouncing up and down, at the same time trying to keep the point of the shaft aimed at the heart of a dummy on the other side of the corral. I rode again and again, stopping only when permitted, but despite hard work and countless attempts, my skills never improved.

Feeling quite useless, I returned to the barracks for a bath and change of clothes, then sat in the common area waiting for my companions. None of them showed up, so when fatigue took over, I went to bed.

 

Rumors spread that a force was being sent to counter Kraznir’s army which was thought to be assembling just outside Hagg Forest, too close to Siln to be ignored. Archers, crow bow wielders, horsemen and all varieties of wizards were to travel, forthwith.

Since I had no fighting skills and limited magic, I figured I would remain inside the castle grounds, but oh, no, that was not to be. An emissary from King Taden appeared in the barracks where I lived with a dozen other females late one evening. “Touchfire?” he called.

I rose and stood at attention, as dictated by protocol. The King commands you to prepare to join the battle force. Pack your bags and head to the stables.”

“But I’m useless! I’m just a trainee and a poor one at that!”

“Do as commanded or I have been instructed to remove you to the dungeons.” He waved his right hand and two heavily humungous soldiers entered.

I knew by their armor that they belonged to the King’s Guard, the mostly highly skilled soldiers in the kingdom. There was no way I could fight them and live, so I bowed my compliance. Once they were gone, I pulled my stuff-bag out from under my bed and shoved in clothes appropriate for travel: a heavy cape, a split-skirt, winter boots and two tops, one long-sleeved and one Sherpa-lined sweater.

The weather had turned while I was training. The days were chilly and the nights downright cold. I would need whatever protection my garments would provide.

I slung my bag over my shoulder and trundled to the stables.  Ruthie was brushed, fed and saddled. I lashed my bag in place, then stood by her muzzle until instructed to mount.

We were all agitated, riders and mounts alike. None of us knew what to expect. Would there be a battle in which we died? Or would someone negotiate a treaty to stop a useless war? I prayed for the treaty. I didn’t want any more of my friends lost and I certainly didn’t want to die either.

The pounding of boots approached the doors. When I heard them coming, I thrust my shoulders back and stood at attention. Captain Nix, wearing his best blue uniform, strode in with a sneer signaling what he thought of his so-called army. “Well, well,” he snickered. “How can a bunch of misfits defeat Kraznir’s well-trained armies?” He stopped in front of a short, stubby scout named Will.

“I don’t know, sir,” he croaked.

Nix sauntered down the line of us, flicking dust of the shoulder of one, slapping the back of another, harassing each person he passed. Until he stood before me. Then he laughed. No, guffawed. A loud, deep, gaggle of sounds erupting from the bottom of his chest. “What good are you?”

I cast my eyes downward to show deference.

“Answer me.”

“I can do a little magic.”

Nix turned to a soldier standing behind him. “Check with the quartermaster. I don’t recall asking for someone who can do ‘a little magic’. I wanted a master magician.”

The soldier bowed so low that his chin would have touched his knees were it not for his armor strapped tightly to his chest. He turned without saluting and left.

We stood at attention while Nix paced in front of us. He fiddled with a harness on Athor’s horse, the saddle on Will’s and had just reached toward Ruthie, my trusted mount, when the soldier returned. I let out the breath I’d been holding. If Nix’s fingers had gotten any closer, Ruthie would have snapped them off. I would then have been executed as a traitor.

The soldier bowed. “She’s coming with us,” he said.

“By whose orders?”

“Taden’s, sir.”

“But she’s useless!”

“Taden says no other magicians are available. They’ve been dispersed to the outer villages for weeks now. All except for Old Oscar whose blind and this one. Taden says Oscar remains and this one goes.”

Kraznir Complications: Busy at Home

After a hearty breakfast of eggs, sausage and fruits, we were called to the training rooms which had occupied our days before we were sent to see what Kraznir was up to. I worked on my sword skills which were sorely lacking while the others went off to study whatever they were learning on before our adventure began.

I assumed Little John was learning to lure bigger prey, things such as orcs and wargs, so to control them to follow his commands. If he could do that, it would weaken Kraznir’s armies.

Doughty was a warrior and hunter, already skilled. So what was he doing? I saw him head off with a master horseman, so perhaps he would use to combat with spears. That would be fun to watch, but my mentor allowed learning only one skill at a time.

I was given a wooden sword which felt childish after wielding a real one on our excursion, but I did as told. I worked on defensive moves, which I knew nothing about, until my arm ached and the nerves in my back sent waves of pain radiating up my spine.

The three of us met for lunch, a hearty stew accompanied by freshly baked bread. Little John was ginning hugely. “I can control those orcs and wargs now!”

“How?” I asked. “Can you teach us?”

He shook his head. “I pick up languages fairly quickly. So now I speak enough orc and warg to tell them what to do! It’s amazing!”

“How do you know it will work?” Doughty asked between bites of stew.

“I practiced in the dungeons with live ones! It was amazing. I told them to sit and they did. To stand, to turn, to stab. This afternoon they will be in the practice ring, heavily guarded of course, and I will learn commands for battle.”

“I worked with a sword,” I said. “I hate it. I’d rather learn more magic.”

Doughty shook his head then wiped his mouth from which stew oozed down his chin. “Magic is important, yes. But you also need to know how to fight so as to support the army in battle.”

He was right even though I didn’t want to admit it. So I didn’t complain when after lunch I learned how to ride with a spear. It was hard to balance while bouncing up and down, at the same time trying to keep the point of the shaft aimed at the heart of a dummy on the other side of the corral. I rode again and again, stopping only when permitted, but despite hard work and countless attempts, my skills never improved.

Feeling quite useless, I returned to the barracks for a bath and change of clothes, then sat in the common area waiting for my companions. None of them showed up, so when fatigue took over, I went to bed.