A Myth World Novel
(Yes, the ENTIRE chapter!)
“I’m tired of sleeping outside.”
“You’re an animal, and animals sleep outside.”
Roccotári purposely gave a little hop and that ended in a stiff legged, bone-jarring stop in the middle of the road. Her mental voice was as indignant as only she could muster. “I am a nine hundred- and forty-two-year-old elven mount with intelligence and wisdom greater than that of half this Moder-forsaken country! I…am…not…an…animal!”
Ellys sighed. There was no arguing with Rocc when she was in this kind of mood. She tried one last tactic. “We’re low on coin right now, cara. You know that.”
Roccotári snorted and began walking again. “And just whose fault is that? I believe you used the words ‘she promises to show me Aphora, and all the stars in the sky’ right before you went off with that tavern wench. Then shortly after that she went off with your money pouch. And it wasn’t the first time this has happened! I sure hope you fight better than you fuck, because falling asleep like that was pure disgrace.”
“If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a dozen times, I’m certain she used sleep magic on me.”
The towering horse snorted and blew out a good bit of steam in the cool air. “The only magic she used on you was her magical mouth—”
“Enough! We’re nearly to Longoria. We have enough coin to book you a stable and a hot rub down, and if Toroc wills it, I’ll pick up some work.”
As usual, Rocc got the last dig in. “As long as it’s only work you’re picking up.”
They traveled in silence for over an hour, heading east around the bay. The road got a lot busier as they traversed the surrounding region outside the capital. Eventually Roccotári plodded along surrounded by a throng of people and Ellys grew progressively more agitated as they approached the wall surrounding the city of the Carthunian King.
“Why is it so mage-blasted busy? For that matter, why are people coming into the city so late in the day instead of heading out into the countryside to their homes?”
Lucky for both of them, Rocc was larger than average and most people gave them a wide berth on the bustling main road leading into the capital of Carthune. The sun was rapidly falling, casting an orange glow around the spires of the castle in the distance. Ellys took note of the brightly-colored, woven banners that flapped from the buildings and poles beyond the gate ahead of them.
“You could try asking someone.”
Ellys sighed. “Fine.” She raised her voice and called to the soldier on duty at the gatehouse. “Ho there, what’s with all the people and what are the banners about?”
The woman motioned for her compatriot to watch the throngs of people. For what, Ellys wasn’t sure. Then she moved closer to be heard over the sound of horses and wagons going by. “It’s the Springrise Festival. We’ve got five days of tournaments starting tomorrow. But many people come into the city each night to see the performers that are paid for by the crown.” She paused to eye the swords on Ellys’s back. “You should enter the tourney if you’re any good with those. There’s a coin purse in it for the winner of each event.”
“Tomorrow, you say?” The soldier nodded. “Is that all events? And where do I sign up?”
“Just sword tomorrow. The other four days will be,” The guard ticked off the rest on her fingers. “Jousting, unarmed combat, archery, and mage craft. Signup tomorrow morning in the field across the river. Take the bridge closest to the castle and you can’t miss it.”
“I think that sounds like our best bet to score some coin until you find a contract.”
Ellys muttered, “Says the one who won’t be risking their furry ass against a score of sword fighters.”
Ellys gave an embarrassed cough. “Sorry, was talking to my horse.”
“I’m not a horse!”
“Anyway, is there an inn you recommend for a night or two?”
The soldier frowned and shook her head. “If you wanted a room in the city, you’d have had to arrive days ago. The only bed you’re likely to find will either be full of bugs or rented by the hour. Possibly both if you know what I mean.”
Ellys slapped her thigh. “Fenwith’s balls!” She blew out a frustrated breath then gave a nod to the other woman. “What about a stable?”
The soldier gave her a confused look. “You’d rent a place for your beast and not yourself?” She got laughter and an indignant whinny for her words.
“I owe her one.”
“Very well. There’s a livery called The Noble Steed. It’s across from Gul’s Tavern and The Sleepy Sheep. Tell Berg that Moli sent you. He’s my mate’s cousin and may let you sleep in the stall with your horse if you slip him an extra copper.”
“Still not a horse.”
Ellys gave a nod to the soldier. “Thank you kindly for the information, friend. I hope Toroc’s balance flows through your blade with every swing.”
Moli’s mouth dropped open at the mention of the mysterious Goz of War but she didn’t get a chance to say anything else because Rocc had already moved the pair back into the teaming crowd of people pushing through the gates.
Ellys and Rocc passed a handful of others as they made their way toward the center of Longoria but Ellys learned to trust the people manning the gates, they usually knew what was what. The Noble Steed appeared well-kept from the outside. Luckily, there was enough silver to cover the cost of Rocc’s stabling for two nights, and Berg did indeed let Ellys bed down in the stall for an extra copper. Unfortunately, that took the remainder of their coin and she was forced to eat travel rations for her evening meal. She wasn’t looking forward to sleeping in the cold. Even if the stall was inside and sheltered from the elements, it was still early spring and Ellys hated to spend the night with a chill to her bones.
The next morning Ellys woke early and stiff. As she expected, her sleep suffered the night before but it couldn’t be helped. There was a courtyard behind the livery and since there were no others up in the twilight hour, she used the space to perform secaeli. Ellys drew both blades and began the complicated warming exercise learned with the Swords of Toroc. She moved fluidly, touching on the five fundamental stances with each blade moving independently.
By the time Ellys was finished with the sword dance, sunrise had passed and her muscles were sufficiently warm. She re-entered the stable and quickly made her way back to Rocc’s stall. The large elven steed leaned over the gate to lip at Ellys’s hair and the swordswoman rubbed her companion’s velvety muzzle. “I’m off to enter the day’s tournament. Any requests for me?”
Ellys sighed. “I may not, you know. This is no backwoods city. Longoria is the largest in Carthune, they’re sure to have swords from all around competing. And if we don’t win that coin purse…” She grimaced. Their wealth had always been a fleeting thing as each new day challenged her sense of balance, but she tried to take care of Roccotári before herself when a choice needed to be made.
Rocc gave her a nudge. “I have faith in you, caritas. I trust your blades to be true and balanced.”
“Thanks, old friend.” She spun on her heel and started for the livery door but stopped when Rocc called out to her.
“Bring me an apple after you win.”
Ellys laughed. “Once a horse, always a—”
“If you finish that statement I’ll leave the biggest shit pile in my stall right where you plan to sleep.”
The swordswoman continued laughing all the way out the door. Rocc did what she always did and brought her out of her sour mood.
It wasn’t hard to find the bridge or the field described by Moli the day before. Ellys signed up for the tournament sword event and moved off to the side to take in her fellow competitors. She had a large pouch slung across her chest that rested at her hip, in it was a whetstone, bandages, and rations for the day. Ellys was sick of dried meat and hard travel bread but it would have to do until she could buy herself a hot meal. She also had a water skin slung over her shoulder, knowing that despite the cold start, she would get quite warm while fighting.
The day was exactly as long as she feared as the fighters grew fewer and fewer with each round of advance. At first Ellys worried that the tournament would be melee style with everyone fighting at once, but that proved not to be the case. It wasn’t because she questioned her own skill, but rather melee fighting was significantly more chaotic and prone to serious injury. It didn’t encourage balance, which was important to a follower of Toroc.
The sun was fast heading for the horizon as Ellys stood on the edge of the large fighting circle where the last round would begin in mere minutes. She did a few deep breathing exercises and purposely didn’t look at the sword-wielding behemoth on the opposite side from her. She’d seen him fighting earlier and knew he’d be a difficult challenge. It wasn’t only due to his size and the fact that he carried a massive broadsword that was nearly as long as she was tall. Her half elven heritage gave her strength and stamina beyond most humans, or “gaugins” as elves called them. Her height was also enough to eliminate some of the brute’s size advantage. Ellys’s worry was that the man most likely wasn’t a man at all, but another half-breed like her. In all the fights she’d seen him in, he never appeared to tire. Ellys knew her speed to be faster but it had been a long day and she’d quickly slow the longer they fought.
Ellys glanced off to the center of the observation stand where the King and his retinue sat watching the festivities. She’d heard rumors of his failing health and even from a distance could see the pallor of the slumped figure on the makeshift throne. She’d also heard whispers all that his illness wasn’t so natural. There was much talk amongst the sword fighters that someone high up in the King’s council was making a play for power. Fortunately, it was none of her concern. Most situations of similar nature eventually balanced themselves, though the southern aggression against Muniers and the magical barrier between the two countries was disconcerting. It could potentially affect any contract she received while in the city.
Ellys shook the thoughts away when she realized her mind was wandering. Camen Dru would have taken her to task years ago if they’d seen her lack of focus. She pushed down all speculation of war and regicide to focus on the coming sword match. Ellys narrowed her thoughts to just two things: winning the prize purse, and the hope that she wouldn’t have to spend another cold night in the stable.
A cacophony of horns cut through the noise of the murmuring crowd of spectators, and the loud speech of the tournament announcer followed in their wake. He had a deep, bellowing voice that easily carried across the gathering. “With the King’s blessing, we will get this last battle underway!” The King raised one shaky hand and gave a nod, and the announcer continued. “We are down to the last round of the tournament. Guznir the Great has come to Longoria from the vast expanse of the Northern Reach just to participate in this year’s Springrise tournament. He is a devout follower of Bron.” The crowd cheered and Ellys thought that perhaps some local folks had heard of the man, or they were devout followers of the brutal God.
They quieted again when the announcer raised his hands. “And on the opposite side of the circle we find a follower of Toroc, Ellys DeEnsis. Which one of these war god elites will prevail in the final round?”
Ellys sneered at the hulking man across from her and spat on the ground. Followers of Bron were not known to respect the balance. After all, the primitive God of war was called Bron the Brutal for a reason. Unfortunately, Bron was the better known of the two. Toroc, the Binary Goz of War, was a mysterious deity of indeterminate gender who encouraged balance. Followers were masters in warring arts but didn’t encourage battle unless it promoted equity or resulted in eventual harmony. Hot-headed fighters didn’t always appreciate such a view.
Her rumination was interrupted by a roar from Guznir. “Everybody knows that Toroc isn’t a real God! Only Bron the Brutal is worthy of the mantle of war!” The crowd cheered with his words and Ellys let it wash over her. She didn’t follow Toroc for their popularity, she followed the Binary Goz for their truth.
Ellys gave the big man a disarming smile and raised her voice. “War is not a state of being. War is the means to an end and if that end does not promote balance then truth is lost.”
The announcer quickly stepped back from the circle when he realized his words had only served to stoke the fires of animosity between the last two participants. Not wanting the final round to start without his say, he quickly yelled, “Fighters, you may now raise your blades!” As soon as the last word echoed off the wooden spectator section, Guznir roared again and charged.
Ellys was allowed to use both swords, just as Guznir could use his massive blade. She shed his first swing without taking any real force from the hit, then quickly spun out of the way. Ellys did this three times and each one further provoked the big man’s anger. He finally snapped. “Are you a fighter or a fairy? Engage me, you fucking elf trash!”
“Hey, some of my closest friends are fae so watch that bog hole you call a mouth!” She was hoping his fury would make him sloppy and imprecise but unfortunately it proved not to be the case. He yelled again and came at her in a flurry of hard-hitting strokes which she just barely parried with both her blades. Ellys scored first blood with her speed, but one of his heavy downward strokes was so hard it numbed her hand and one of her swords spun away. She quickly threw herself sideways into a tumble, careful to avoid cutting off one of her own limbs on the remaining sword.
“Ha! Not so confident without one of your little pointed toys, are you? Perhaps I should lop off both ears instead of just one so you’ll be proper balanced when I send you off to your binary God, hmm?”
She drew herself up and took a deep breath then rapidly moved through her five forms in an abbreviated version of the sword dance. Despite having only one blade it was an impressive show and the crowd ate it up. Even Guznir seemed mesmerized by the spinning metal, or perhaps he was awaiting his opportunity to strike. When she came to a stop again, finishing on the fifth and final form, she gestured with her free hand to come to her.
Guznir scowled and lowered his voice for her to hear alone. “What are you playing at, elf?” Then he laughed and spoke louder for the crowd. “You look like a first-year fighter trying to intimidate someone who is their obvious superior.”
Ellys smiled back at him. “You look like your mother fucked a tree and you were naught more than an infected splinter that fell from her getch moons later.” She knew immediately her words had their intended effect.
Enraged, Guznir attacked again.
With only one sword, Ellys was conscious of the fact that that she couldn’t take the full force of one of his swings. But she had other plans. Guznir had the reach of her but he was overconfident. His furious blows hammered down upon her remaining blade and she was forced to use both her hands to receive and shed them away. What Guznir and many other fighters didn’t know, was that followers of Toroc weren’t simply taught the use of weapons and naught else. Ellys spent decades learning every weak part, every susceptible joint, on hundreds of different species’ bodies. Truthfully, she was a master of more than sword discipline. As a dual student of both, the Order of Swords and the Order of Fist, she was taught to analyze any situation and come up with a counter many steps in advance.
Ellys was prepared for his next sword swipe from his right side. It left Guznir slightly tilted with his right shoulder dropped and his left side open. Using just one hand to hold his blade with her own, she focused all her energy on a forward punch to his ribs, and listened with satisfaction as at least one snapped beneath the half-elven strength of her blow. He howled and spun away, grasping his side. Ellys decided it was the perfect opportunity for a teaching moment and raised her voice to address Guznir and the crowd. “War is about more than steel.”
He charged again, clearly in pain. His downward blow would have surely cost her the second blade had she been there to take it. But she collapsed beneath his swing and dove between Guznir’s legs. When she came up behind him, she gave a kick to his off-balance leg and Guznir fell hard to one knee. Her voice remained loud enough for all to hear. “War is about more than strength.”
Guznir flipped onto his back to avoid having her behind him, then gave a kick with his massive leg, hoping to score a hit. Ellys avoided the leg, and parried the swipe from the big blade. His prone position on the ground made it difficult to bring the broadsword around to bear from the opposite direction while one-handed. Seeing the events unfold and making instant calculations about possible actions, Ellys used his body as a springboard while his sword was unable to strike, specifically stepping on the area near his broken ribs. She flipped to the spot just beyond his head and spun to face his body.
Ellys took notice of the drop of sweat that trickled down from the center of Guznir’s forehead and the look of resignation on the giant man’s face. She brought her sword straight down to his throat, stopping as the magical blade drew the smallest drop of blood. Ellys could have killed him, it was within her right as dictated by the rules of the tournament. She chose not to.
Even the crowd grew quiet at the speed and precision of her actions. In the silence that followed, she called out one last time. “War is about more than speed. The true art of war is about skill, about knowing what to do and when to do it.” Seeing the announcer signal her win, she removed her sword and quickly stepped away in case Guznir had ideas of furthering their match beyond its intended end. She expected to see a look of rage on his face after her opponent used his sword to pull himself back to his feet. Instead, he narrowed his eyes while tilting his head and gave her a look of contemplation.
When she spoke again, it was while meeting his serious gaze. Ellys repeated her earlier statement before the match began. “War is not a state of being. War is the means to an end and if that end does not promote balance then truth is lost. I’ve shown you my truth today, Guznir. Do you accept it?” She wiped and sheathed her sword, then held out a hand.
Guznir the Great moved his gaze from her face down to the offered hand. Then with slow movements that couldn’t be misconstrued as an attack, he sheathed his own massive weapon upon his back and clasped her forearm. He raised his voice as well, but with admiration instead of ire. “I will respect your truth if you respect my honor.”
Ellys smiled. “Your honor was never in question. It was a privilege to fight against another student of war. Good day to you, Guznir.” Ellys bowed to him. She was satisfied that she’d brought him back to the balance.
The brawny man smiled back and gave a nod before turning away.
Ellys was rewarded with a jingling pouch and a small golden idol. She could have done without the latter, which was most likely painted smelt metal, but looked forward to getting a room with the coins. She tucked the idol into her satchel and opened the coin purse to count her winnings. Ellys was unable to hold her tongue once she’d seen what a full day of fighting and a sore body had earned her. “Five copper?”
The announcer was the one who handed over the winning prize. He smiled and jutted out his chest at her exclamation, mistaking it for one of happy surprise. “Yes, one for each day of the tournament. And of course you have the idol to display in your dwelling to remind you of the day’s momentous win. Congratulations again, noble fighter.”
She merely growled and stalked away from him. Ellys was more than a bit dejected as she made her way back to the Noble Steed. She tried to ignore her rumbling belly as the smells of roast meats wafted out of various taverns. Instead, she paused at a fruit vender and used one of the coppers to purchase a few apples for Rocc. Everything was more expensive in the city. Back in the livery, she quickly made her way to Rocc’s stall.
Roccotári gave a little whinny of pleasure when she scented the apples. “You won.”
Ellys sighed and held an apple in the palm of her hand so her companion could take a bite. The fruit made a delightful crunch and Ellys listened to the wet chewing for a minute before answering. “I did.”
“But you’re disappointed.”
“I am. The prize for a day of sword fighting was five coppers and some cheap trinket. You’re eating one of the coppers now.”
Rocc momentarily stopped chewing and nuzzled Elly’s cheek with her soft muzzle. “I’m sorry, cara. If it makes you feel any better, I didn’t spoil your sleeping spot.”
“By Toroc, you’re so considerate!”
The steed gave a bray of laughter. “I know. If it helps, I heard the people in the livery talking about the tavern across the street. You should be able to pick up a contract over there. Use the rest of your coppers to get a good meal. You’ve certainly earned it.”
Ellys felt a wash of healing energy and welcomed the sudden disappearance of her various aches and pains. She rubbed Rocc’s muzzle and set another apple on the post of the stall, within easy reach should her friend want it. “Thanks. You didn’t happen to hear anything about a certain King’s illness, did you?”
“I heard a lot about a lot actually. It seems that Berg is quite the gossip-monger and many stop in to hear what he has to say. He gets a lot of out-of-town customers and as such has the coin of information to sell to those working up at the palace.”
“Sounds like Chancellor Temet has got his sights set on a higher station than the one he currently holds. He’s been speaking out against the King’s failing health in many side councils, pushing for the old man to be replaced by a temporary regent.”
Ellys snorted. “Let me guess, next in line for power is the chancellor?”
Rocc pawed the ground. “Actually, it’s the King’s daughter, Princess Ameela. Rumor has it that she’s very intelligent and is known to be as fair and just as her father.”
“And why hasn’t she gotten wind of the King’s illness or the Chancellor’s intentions?”
“She’s gone off to study at the mage university of Indenes, over in Saccerid. The King wanted her to have supplemental training to prepare her for the day she is to take over rule here in Carthune.”
“Yes, well if she doesn’t return soon there will likely be no ruling at all in her future.”
Ellys shook her head. “Speculation is all well and good but the balance of Carthune isn’t part of my path and none of this talk fills an empty belly. I’m going to head to the trough around back and get cleaned up, then I’ll check out Gul’s Tavern. I’ll do my best to score a contract. After all, I promised before we arrived at Longoria and I won’t let you down.”
Rocc nuzzled her again. “You’ve never let me down, caritas.”