The practice sword felt good in her hands. Booted feet scuffing the packed earth in the center of the glade, breath huffed from her lungs in small grunts. The air smelled of forest and growing cannabis. And lavender. Ravindra must have been making soap. Jenny’s leather jerkin and under tunic were both soaked and she was grateful she’d tied a scarf around her head to keep the sweat from her eyes. Nothing could keep the jeans from sticking to her thighs, though. That was just the price you had to pay to practice sword work.
Bocan? His blue-tinged pale skin looked dry. Fucker. Not only did he outweigh Jenny by one hundred and fifty pounds, he had the reach of one of the Douglas Firs that ringed the practice space. She parried his practice sword, which may as well have been a tree trunk, and thrust toward his massive armpit. He moved slowly but precisely, clearing her blade by an inch.
She cursed and stumbled.
“You missed that opening again!” Tegan called from the split pole fence.
Jenny waved her arms in the air, grunting out “Halt!” just as Bocan thwapped her right side hard enough to leave a bruise.
“Damn you, troll! You’re just too big for me!”
He smirked. “That’s not what she said last night!”
“Piss off, randy,” Jenny replied, but a grin snuck across her face all the same. Bocan was a good guy.
“Besides,” Tegan said, loping forward with a waxed canvas water bag, “we never know who we’ll fight next, huh? Trolls, elves, stinky humans…”
Jenny grabbed the water with a grateful nod and took three quick gulps before shooting a stream of water at her face, which she was sure must be as red as a tomato in late August.
“I know, I know. ‘We train as we mean to go on’ and all that. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
“You just need more work on your feet,” Tegan said, demonstrating a series of moves, boots barely kicking up dust as they went. Graceful. Tegan was lithe, muscular, and as dark as Jenny and Bocan were pale. Their father was the head of village’s cannabis operation. Even though everything in Go No More worked by committee and sub-groups, every group had some expert at the head. In groups where there were several experts or none, they rotated in and out with frequency, or co-led. but Hakim L’Ouverture was the acknowledged Master Grower in all of Northern Oregon. Smaller grow collectives sent folks to learn at his feet.
Any of this could have made Tegan insufferable––and maybe if they’d wanted to join the grow business it would have––but they just wanted to become the best fighter they could be, and joined the Knights.
Since everyone trained in some combat from ages six and on––even folks like Ravindra who used a ‘chair–– nepotism didn’t go too far in the fighting ring. Good fighting relied on training and diligent practice. Oh, sure, some folks had more natural talent, but enough hard work went a long way toward evening things out.
The sound of soft leather boots running toward them caused all three Knights to whirl toward the gate.
It was Ravindra’s son, Hypatia.
“You have to come! Now! Something terrible has happened!” Tegan tore off toward the village, followed by Jenny and Bocan.
Carmela ran. She knew she’d messed up, but didn’t care. Couldn’t care. Sobs tore out her throat, and her boots smacked hard on the packed earth trail that snaked through stands of Doug fir and hemlock. Blade banging at her hip bone hard enough to bruise, she ran towards him. The only one she thought might understand.
A thought pressed at the back of her mind. Don’t kid yourself, you were just a toy to him. She shoved the thought aside because, if she couldn’t go to Elfland, there was no place she could go at all.
Carmela wasn’t sure why she had done what she did. She was just so angry. Stoking the fire too high was just a way to relieve the roiling churn inside. And then that had, quite literally, backfired. She’d been blowing, as Heater shaped the glass. He took the tube and put the hardening glass back into the fire so he could work it into its final form.
The extra heat must have caused fissures. The glass exploded.
The heavy denim of Jenny’s jeans swished as her thick thighs brushed up against each other. The sweat cooled on her face from the breeze made by her own body. Now that she was in motion, she realized she’d taken off without asking Hypatia what in all the nine worlds was wrong. The sheer look of panic on his face just set her feet in motion before she even had time to think. As she passed the extensive gardens and approached the cluster of small wood houses and larger outbuildings, she saw the source of his panic. Men and women trained hoses at the glassworks. She could taste the acrid smoke in the back of her throat, but couldn’t see any fire. She pulled up next to Ravindra’s steel and hide wheelchair and dropped to one knee next to the dark haired woman.
“Carmela,” she replied. “Sounds like she was in a temper, and stoked the fires too hot. The glass shattered, like it does. No real damage done, except Heater got dinged,” she tilted her head toward a large, red-faced man with a series of gauze bandages up and down his arm right arm.
“Burns or cuts?”
Ravindra shrugged. “A bit of both. By the time I got here with my salves, my apprentice Seamus had already tended to him.
Jenny watched as Scathach raised an arm. Scathach was head of the volunteer fire brigade. Blond haired to Jenny’s red, she was dressed much as Jenny was in jeans and a dyed hemp tunic, though without the leather jerkin over top. At the signal, all the firefighters cut off the spray using the nozzle stopcocks. Then the burly woman turned, and waved a two armed signal to the people up the hill at the mains. Those four quickly turned the small wheels that would stop the flow of water from the reservoirs. The hoses hissed to silence.
“Carmela?” Jenny asked, eyes returning to Ravindra.
““She ran, though no one is certain why. That’s why I sent Hypatia to fetch you. Heater was worried she might hurt herself.” Ravindra looked at her with serious dark eyes, the eyes that arrested Jenny every time they were trained her way. Impatient, she shoved that thought aside. Ravindra had showed little interest in her, or in anyone, to be honest, after Hypatia’s baby daddy had run off and left her with a young son and a handful of apprentices to deal with. Besides, Jenny had plenty of other women within a three village radius from Go No More ready to scratch any number of itches she might have.
Ravindra grimaced and gestured toward the northwest, well past the vegetable gardens and the Steel Clan’s vast cannabis fields, up the slope of mountain where the tangled forest grew.
Toward faery, she meant. Elfland. Alfheim. All the different names humans used to talk about the realm that humans should never, upon pain of death or madness, to enter.
She paused to sip water from the leather skin slung across her chest. And while she was at it she adjusted her belt knife, moving it so it would smacked the muscle of her ass and not the bone of her hip.
“Shit. What do I do if I can’t get in?”
She would get to that when she came do it, wouldn’t she?
Shoving through some bushes, she left the deer trail and pushed on.
Jenny grabbed Tegan, Bocon, two of their apprentices, and some gear. Litha was turning into a decent tracker, and Berto was handy with both sword and ax. The only thing they were lacking was a witch. Oh, Jenny’s squad were all Pagans and did their pagany things. They made their prayers and offerings, maybe cast the occasional spell for health or love, but none of them had actual magic. There was only one person in Go No More who did. And MoonSeeker was off on a journey, visiting their sister who was about to give birth and wanted the witch by her side.
They entered the deep woods on foot, having decided that there were too many slender passageways where motorcycles and horses would both just slow them down. The Knights were proficient riders of anything, but sometimes you had to slither your way through some tight spaces in this particular patch of woods. Douglas firs stretched their ragged branches high above while the bright green spruce hemlocks and snakeberry trees filled in the gaps.
“I don’t like this,” Bocan grumbled.
Jenny couldn’t help but agree. The whole situation sucked. Oh, teens often dared each other to get as close to the Elfland gates as possible. And Carmela? The teen was convinced she was in love with one of the elves who had visited at the last big fire feast. Beltane, it was. He was an emissary who came through a few times a year to check on things. And rumor said his tongue was quick at more than just speaking words and negotiating deals.
“I’m going to kill that stupid fool,” Tegan growled. “She’s been acting out for months.”
“You would, too, if your hormones were slamming about beneath your flesh like darting wasps,” Bocan replied.
“You’re both right, but the one I want to kill is Ambassador Silverpants. He should know better than to take up with a sixteen year old! Who knows how old he even is?”
Bocan snorted. “Silverpants?”
Tegan sighed. “All humans may as well be children to them in age. They don’t understand the difference between sixteen and thirty five. We all seem about the same to them.”
“Girl probably lied,” Bocan said, scratching at his elbow.
Carmela paused, seeking outward with her newfound senses, the true source of her anguish and discomfort. The senses that had come crashing into her that night. After she’d had sex for the first time in her life. With him.
Maybe these powers were actually useful instead of just making her want to jump out of her damn skin. She paused, waited. Breathed. Turning her head to the left, the fine hairs rose on the back of her neck and on her arms.
That was the way to go then.
Jenny scanned the forest, looking for broken branches and disturbed fir needles on the ground beneath her feet.
“Do you see anything?” she asked Litha.
The teen––a much more level headed teen than Carmela––nodded and pointed to three spots. A drop of water on an otherwise dry cluster of pink lupine, a tangle of small branches where someone or something had broken through the bush, and lastly, two tiny blue threads. Carmela’s tunic, snagged on the bark of a massive Doug fir.
“She must have stopped for water,” Litha said.
And that meant she had at least a skin with her, which meant she could go further without veering stream-ward than Jenny had hoped.
Jenny paused and turned to her comrades.
“If she went that direction, what’s the easiest way for us to catch up?” Berto shifted on his feet, studying Bocan’s face. The boy was a bit starstruck by the troll. Mentor crushes were encouraged by some. People said it facilitated learning. Jenny thought it just facilitated heartbreak and drama once the mentee figured out there was no romance to be had. Bocan didn’t seem to notice, his large face, which looked even paler and bluer under the shaded tree canopy, just looked thoughtful. Tegan shaded her eyes and looked right and then left.
“The way I always went was the trail to the left there,” Tegan replied. “It’s the easiest way, and though Carmela’s route is more direct, there are a lot more obstacles in the way.”
Bocan nodded, silent.
“Left it is then, Litha, continue on ahead. Bocan? Can you take up the rear?”
She had banged and banged on the ethereal gates with all of the energy she had. Elfland wasn’t answering. Carmela hadn’t thought it out, she just knew she had to get away from go no more. What had she thought? That with her newfound powers, the realm of Elfland would just open with a whoosh?
As they move through the forest, following Tegan’s lead, Jenny got a bad taste in her mouth. She wasn’t a witch, but she still knew when things felt off. Her instincts were part of what made her a good fighter, and––if she ever decided to believe her old mentor––a good leader.
“I don’t like this,” she said to Bocan.
He stepped over a huge log without even breaking stride. Jenny envied that ability. She was big for human woman, but not when compared to a troll.
Bocan grunted, then cleared his throat. “What is it?”
Jenny tried to still her mind, and open her attention to the forest around her. That didn’t help. No more information. The sense of uneasiness just grew.
She brushed past a stand of stinging nettle, and shrugged. There was a fiery itch between her shoulder blades. And it wasn’t from the pressure of the broadsword strapped to her back.
“Can’t place it. Just feels like something’s off.”
Tegan and Litha circled back.
“Storm coming,” Tegan said. A deep V creased between their eyebrows.
Jenny looked up and sniffed the air. Sure enough, high above the tree canopy, the sky darkened. A wind and picked up, shifting through the towering, ragged edged firs who lifted their branches like a woman might lift her skirts.
“What the …?”
There had been no sign of a storm earlier, not even a shift in barometric pressure that Jenny was sensitive to. Her sense of uneasiness increased.
“Does the route seem clear?” Both Litha and Tegan nodded.
“Then let’s go. But it looks like we better hurry.”
No. She thought he would feel her out there somehow. Stupid, stupid, stupid. And now she was well and truly fucked. Oh, she could go back, tail tucked between her legs, but she just could not bear to. Not anymore.
Carmela sent down on the ground at the edge of the glade and wept.
She didn’t notice the fir needles, lifting and swirling at her feet.
“I hear something” Berto said, voice soft. “To my left.”
Jenny stopped in her tracks. Bocan swore under his breath and pulled up short just before smacking into her. Jenny listened, and sure enough, there was a faint moaning and whimpering that sounded human.
She turned to Berto. “Go get Tegan and Litha. And show them where we turned off here.”
“You’re not going to wait?” His voice was fearful. Jenny grimaced. If he was going to stick with the apprenticeship, he’d have to get used to action. Fear was a constant, you just had to learn how to not shit yourself with it.
She and Bocan shouldered past some hemlock and small maples then pushed their way through more snakeberry. There was a lot of that here, which seemed strange, but Jenny was no herbalist or plant person, so what did she know?
They came upon a small clearing in front of a cave and there was Carmela, hunched over on the ground, clutching her knees. She was the one making the sounds.
Jenny felt the faint ripple that signaled a gate was near. It must’ve moved since last time she had escorted someone up here. They did that. Security required it.
Bocan stopped at the edge of the clearing as Jenny moved carefully forward.
“Carmela?” She kept her voice pitched low.
The teen looked up at her, angry tears streaking her face. Strands of walnut brown hair had come loose from their braid and stuck to the moisture on her face.
“What do you want?”
Her anger sparked Jenny’s own.
“To find out why the fuck you almost set the glassworks on fire, injured Heater, and fucked off to Elfland.”
Jenny had been prepared to be kind, compassionate even, but as usual Carmela rubbed her the wrong way. The girl would learn a hard lesson someday, that people just didn’t much like assholes.
“I hate it.”
“Hate what?” Bocan asked.
“Go No More. The glassworks. There’s no one there for me. There’s nothing there for me.”
“And there’s something for you here?” Jenny arched an eyebrow.
Carmela just shook her head then rose, dusting off the seat of her jeans with her hands. She took a sip of water from the skin slung across her chest. Then she looked at Jenny with defiant eyes. “Just go.”
“That’s not happening. We were sent to fetch you and fetch you we will. Besides, if you don’t like the glassworks, just apprentice somewhere else. And we have apprentice exchanges set up with the other villages if it comes to that. There’s nothing that says you have to stick with a place you hate.”
“Easy for you to stay, all high and mighty. The best sword wielder in the Ten Village Consortium.”
“I offered to train you.”
A hard shrug. “I don’t want that either.”
From behind Jenny, Bocan huffed, sounding disgusted. Then his voice ground out like gravel rolling down a hill. “You just want the glory with no effort.”
The air trembled around them. The trees began to shake. That something wrong Jenny had noticed earlier increased. It sat like a stone in her belly, raising bile up the back of her throat. She heard footsteps and cocked an ear. Familiar. Tegan and Litha, with Berto trailing them, loping toward the glade.
“What’s going on?” Tegan’s voice said.
“Ask Carmela” Jenny replied.
Carmela stood, fists clenched, face tight, as the storm grew around them.
Her hair whipped around her head of its own accord. A wind built inside the cavern of her bones. It made her feel as if she might explode like the glass in Heater’s shop. Torn asunder. Scattered to the four directions. This was a power greater than anything she’d ever felt before.
And she had no idea what to do with it.
Jenny had figured it out in a rush. The thing she noticed when they enter the glade, that she thought was just the effects of Faery? It was magic. Real magic. Human magic.
She took three careful steps toward Carmela, holding out both hands in placating.
“Carmela? Are you a witch?”
The air rocked and tumbled around them, and a sharp ozone scent filled the glade.
“What are you talking about?” Carmela ground out between clenched teeth.
“Carmela…” Tegan said. “You were the one creating the storm.”
Carmela took in a shocked breath and her eyes snapped wide.
Her hands unclenched. The air stilled
“That’s right, breathe more slowly. Deep breaths.” Jenny hoped Carmela didn’t go into another freak out here, on the edge between the worlds.
Carmela took in a ragged sob, and staggered forward. Jenny opened her arms wider. The girl fell upon her broad chest. She was moaning again.
“Shhhh. Shhh. It will be okay. MoonSeeker will be home soon enough, and we can talk to them. But meanwhile, let’s get you back home.”
Carmela scrubbed her face and nodded.
“I’m sorry I’ve been such such a cranky badger. It’s just…”
“You don’t have to explain yourself to me,” Jenny said, “Though you may want to apologize to Heater. But for now? Let’s get home. I’m sure Bocan here is hungry.”
Carmela rewarded Jenny with half a watery smile, just as quickly gone. It was enough. Jenny jerked her head at her comrades.
They pushed back onto the deer path, Tegan in the lead once again.
Well, Carmela might always be a pain in the ass, but maybe figuring out who she really was would settle her. Jenny sure hoped so. It made her wonder, though, how much of the shitty things in life happened because people felt out of place.
Jenny shrugged again, tapped the knife at her hip for luck, and ran after her comrades. She was no philosopher, to ask such things. She was just a warrior, trying to keep her village safe.
But she knew one thing. After today, at least Go No More would have another witch.
For the first time in a year, Carmela felt hope rise inside her breast. There would be a price to pay for running from the glassworks incident, that was certain.
But after that? She could petition MoonSeeker to become the witch’s apprentice. Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad.
And maybe the Elvish ambassador was an asshole, just like everybody said he was.
This story is set in a brand new, post-apocalyptic epic fantasy world series. The plan is to launch the first novel in Summer 2020.
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