The Dragon's Dollhouse

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Chapter 3: Ransom and Resentment

Khlarn knew he was a joke compared to the wizards of legend. The Djaltoujimin of antiquity could fold the earth, pop a storming rain cloud like a bubble, spill the blue sky into a sudden night, or extract the darkness of the abyss from the ocean, leaving crystal clear seas. Khlarn was unconcerned that, despite the legends, the earth was still unfolded, and the ocean was awash with dark eddies, as it was his ambition to make the legends true by mastering all the forces of the material universe. While many human wizards would have been delighted with Khlarn’s repertoire, his spells were beneath his ambitions. True, he could fly, breathe water, and transform into a few common animals, such as the dog, the cat, and the horse, but personal enchantments were less a source of power than a cause of discomfort. Though flight was not second nature, but first, for Khlarn, he preferred meditation to motion, because when you flew, gnats stuck in your eyes and mouth; similarly, once you saw a fish foul your breath of water, that spell never tasted the same. Taking unfamiliar shapes made unfamiliar drives and inhuman appetites inordinately powerful, so that Khlarn the dog would want to roll in the grass, lick his own nethers, or worst of all, feel mating urges not for his own kind, but for the next bitch that trotted down the street.


Though Khlarn could beckon light or darkness, summon fully-cooked foods from helper spirits, play any tune he knew from thin air, and deceive the senses with illusions, these tricks paled next to his great ambition to control the tides, summon elementals, call storms, shake the earth, and invoke swarms. Though he had learned the trick of walking through fire or heating his body to walk comfortably in freezing weather, he was still vulnerable to being stabbed, bludgeoned, and shot with arrows, and was easy prey for the bandits.

***

The bandit chief was teaching Khlarn a game when the monks arrived with an unusual entourage of ill-favored guards, poorly armed cityfolk that were little more than children, and, hopefully, the ransom. As Chavoru was the bandit chief’s favorite game, he was in a festive mood, and allowed the bandits to make lime mimosas from the fruit and wine they looted that morning. When he ordered the wizard to enchant the breeze with music, the tunes seemed less delicate and melodious than usual, almost abstract, but he only gave it a moment’s thought before immersing himself in Chavoru.

It was a stroke of luck to find the white stones and the cedar board painted blue among the murdered merchant’s goods. He hadn’t played Chavoru in years, since he burned the last one he had in a fit after losing to another reluctant guest. In his excruciating hangover the next morning, he regretted destroying the game more than strangling the guest, for a well-made Chavoru board was hard to come by. The bandit chief adored Chavoru because it was so layered with rules and exceptions as to seem arbitrary and whimsical to those unfamiliar with its labyrinthine game play. The wizard, who said he would learn it as he played, was losing quite badly.

When the bandit chief noticed the newcomers were in the gathering crowd that shadowed the game, he believed they were admiring his skill and began to comment on every move, not only mocking the wizard’s mistakes but extolling the virtue of his plays. When the onlookers remained silent, the bandit chief wondered if he had made a mistake; where were the oohs and aahs he had come to expect from his gaming audience of henchmen? Had he misjudged his audience, or his opponent, he asked himself, and seeing that the wizard had indeed put him in a dangerous play, exclaimed, “My new friends! Thank you for coming,” then smacked the board to the ground and scattered the pieces. Hopefully this bold move would not only extricate him from the embarrassing loss but intimidate the Sisters of Coruna. “Bring more wine. Hammering out a ransom is thirsty work.”

Eleita’s brow dug deep. “Can’t we cut to the chase?”

“Nonsense! I’ll not have it said I’m a poor host. A man’s reputation suffers from a lack of courage, but it dies from a lack of hospitality. Sit,” he commanded, indicating a wide selection of cushions fleeced from wagons and carriages. There were interior pillows sewn from luxurious fabrics, like velvet or silk, and drivers’ seats stitched from leather or burlap, but all were faded, flattened, and grass-stained.

As Wencia was reluctant to break bread with one culpable in Mank’s death, and there were not enough seats, she found herself standing. “Norrik, bring another seat. Young lady, sit here,” he said, standing, and gesturing to Wencia that she should sit on the pillow so recently warmed by his murderous flesh. At a look from Eleita, she walked over stiffly and sat down.

When the bandit chief asked, “How much did you bring?”, and no one was dumb enough to answer with equal directness, he chuckled. “Pardon me. I meant ‘what did you bring.’ No one brought a gift? To a party? Where are your manners?”

“What’s the occasion,” asked Wencia. “More murder?”

He hooted loud and long at that. “I’d say you have guts, but I’ve known too many monks—both admitted hypocrites, and those that swear they’re sincere—not to recognize courage backed by holy orders and vows. You’re just a little nut in a big nutty tree, woman, so I’ll forgive your bold words. Once. Thanks to your absolved killer, we buried four of our own, and another is wrapped head to toe in herbal bandages. His burns are so horrible that you have only to see them to believe in damnation.”

“That wasn’t Mank’s fault.”

“That’s not good theology,” he said, “is it? The wise say your dead monk’s blameless, and the bodies lay at the feet of the goddess. All the bodies. Everywhere and every when. I’m an amateur compared to her. No—wait. My hands are clean as well, though I’m doing Coruna’s dirtiest work. I’m not a bandit—I’m a holy man.”

“You’re a good speaker,” said Eleita. For a drunk, she thought to herself. “Were you in a holy order or an academy that you learned to make words move like that?”

“The philosophy that moved me into my calling is your own, though I was no worshiper, but an unwilling boy boarded in the monks’ orphanage. I liked living on the streets of Cjantosk, for it was a wide, airy home, and I enjoyed my life as a know-nothing pickpocket; hence, I was unhappy to lose my freedom to the sisters of Coruna, but I can’t complain about their hospitality, as I had no want that was not met, and we had many good things, such as books. In learning not only how to read books and sundials, but also how to write and speak like an educated man, I was delighted to lose my ignorance, and for that I will always be grateful. Not only did it change my perspective on the feral life I had formerly lived, so that I saw that I lived like a rat, but it also fed my condemnation of the monks.”

“So you went on to bite the hand that fed you,” said Wencia. “What a fascinating story. Can we get on with it?”

“A trite but apt comparison, for while in both sets of circumstances, I lacked a true home, the orphanage was the monks’ kennel, into which they threw boys and girls not to provide them with a surrogate family, but as an outlet for the bare minimum of the charity that their goddess demanded. We bonded not as brothers and sisters, but like poorly fed dogs that develop a common desperation and resentment against their masters, and finding no warmth and affection in the monks’ hospitality, we desired to tear out more than a pound of flesh as our birthright. As it played a part in not only my beginnings, but also my calling, I have meditated long on injustice, injury, and ingratitude, and you can consider me as impassive as the goddess. Spare me your appeals and remonstrations. Know that I will be unmoved, and tell me what part of my birthright you brought to me.”

“Before we tender our offer,” said Eleita, “we would see the sword, to be certain you have not already found a buyer.”

“While I could pretend to be wounded by your suspicions, my policy is to sell priceless goods as many times as I can, and your request is wise. I am glad to meet such a good judge of character, young woman.”

“You think me young?” said Eleita. “I’m nearly 40.”

“Liar, liar,” he said. “And fishing for compliments as well. You won’t last long as a monk.”

Norrik returned with a barrel. “This is all I could find.”

“It’s only fair,” said the bandit chief. “Our guests should see me over a barrel once, so the advantage in our negotiation isn’t always mine.” When Norrik gave a very uneasy laugh, and moved to depart, the bandit chief added, “Wait, Norrik. Fetch the magic sword.”

“Anything else?”

“Excuse me?”

“First you want a barrel, then a sword, and who knows what’s next. If I’m to fetch all day, let me do a few together.”

“Shut up, Norrik, and bring the sword. And don’t be all day this time.” After the other man left, the bandit chief said in a low tone, “I don’t hire those that outthink me, because cutthroat competition will ruin any gang of honest to goodness cutthroats. As you’d expect, having an entourage of goons makes these few cultured moments more precious.”

Though cozying to this self-proclaimed cultured cutthroat would only play into his hands, Eleita regretted snapping at the bandit chief the instant she spoke. “We’re sitting on stolen coach cushions, drinking ill-gotten wine, and about to pay a ransom for what I pried out of dragon dung, and what you pried out of our friend’s cold hands. You’re a ghoul, pretending to more culture than you possess.” While the insult was deserved, it was so satisfying to the monk that she felt the need for repentance, and when she heard the guffaws of the oafish guards and felt not only Wencia’s admiring eyes, but Alyana’s, she cooled quickly.

When Norrik returned with Drucona, the bandit chief tore it from his subordinate’s hands. “It took you long enough. Get more wine.” Then he turned to Eleita, giving no indication that he heard her harsh words, and said, “What’s your offer? Bear in mind, if I don’t like it, I’ll hold an auction.”

“Five thousand.”

While Eleita had eleven thousand from the butcher, and another few hundred from the Great Mother for expenses, the bandit chief’s ambitions might easily exceed that. What she said was, “I didn’t hear a counter offer.”

“Fifteen thousand. Not a penny less. And my price goes up if your haggling offends me.”

While Eleita was reluctant for the bandit chief to know the limits of her purse, an offer too small could rub the bandit chief the wrong way. “That seems quite expensive...” she began.

“Just pay him,” said Drocuna, with an exasperated shiver of his steel.

At first, Eleita was stunned into silence that the sword was so stupid as to interrupt his own hostage negotiation. Then she became heated. “Be still, backscratcher.”

“Did you come without the lofty sum necessary to liberate me? I’m a historical object, appearing in no less than thirty poems and songs not of my own authorship, and I’m worth kingdoms, hoards, and armies of heroes. Whatever he’s asking, I’m worth it. Pony up so we can get on with your quest.”

Wencia said, “shut up, or I’ll bury you again in dragon dung.”

“If I had only left it there,” said Eleita, “vow or not, or been unable to distinguish it from the dung. Though I may never balance the scales of our friend Mank’s death, you still have a chance to prove your worth, sword, so be quiet.”

“You can’t talk like that to me! I’ve been the good right hand of heroes and kings, the arrow of destiny and history...”

“Keep talking. I may just leave you here.”

“...”

“Why not listen to the sword’s grievances?” said the bandit chief. “Think of it not as a weapon, but a sideshow that spits out egotistical stupidity for the amusement of all. Assuredly it’s worth fifteen thousand?” Though Drucona kept silent, it flipped over and sparked red and purple to dramatize its indignation.

“No, it’s far too truculent,” said Eleita. “Let’s split the difference and say ten thousand, and I’ll leave the blessing of the goddess on all of your endeavors?”

“Were that a pardon from the Prince, I might be tempted, but your measly blessing is sorely inadequate, unless it adds ten years to my life or ten inches to my member. No? Then you can do better. I can’t let it go for less than fourteen.”

Eleita’s funds were still miles away from the bandit chief’s expectations.

“While we can’t add ten years to your life or augment your...extremities, we can wish for health and well-being for you and your offspring, and this boon of good health may increase your appetite and other passions. We could even ask Coruna that you sire all boys or all girls, or one of each.”

“I lived under monks for fifteen years, remember? Spare me your wistful benedictions. Give me cold coin.”

“Is there nothing else you want?”

“Are you at the end of your rope already? Shameful. My courier will let you know when and where to send your representative for the auction. Not that we will let you know the location, as your representative will be blindfolded and conveyed by locked wagon to the venue.”

“We can go higher.”

“Not much, I think. You’re sweating.”

“Eleven thousand and four hundred. That is as high as we can go.”

The bandit chief nodded, then cocked his head and rubbed his chin exaggeratedly, as if considering. “That isn’t bad. And it is eleven thousand and four hundred that I do not have. I could kill you for it, you know.”

“There are eight of us, and your men were so kind as to trust us with our swords.”

“As we weren’t expecting a large group armed for bear, no doubt they feared to do their duty and ask for your weapons. Still, I have thirty men, and though it might be expensive in manpower, your thinning my ranks would save me the hassle of having a word with them about this breach in discipline. There’s no better discipline than a decimation, if you’ll pardon my paraphrase of holy writ.”

“You’re bluffing.”

“If I am, it doesn’t mean I’m considering your offer. You have to do better. Put something else on the table. Like a camp follower. Or two,” he said, ogling both Wencia and Alyana.

Until this suggestion, Khlarn had played the part of an amused spectator. Though less nostalgic for, than contemptuous of, his simple island upbringing, Khlarn inherited a distaste for slavery or any other forced servitude, and had anyone looked away from the tense negotiation they might have seen him look at the bandit chief as one might look at stepped-in horse dung.

“It is one thing to ransom prisoners,” said Khlarn with a deep voice that was unexpected coming from his gaunt frame, “and another to treat these delightful young women as chattel.”

“Does the three time Chavoru loser speak?” The bandit chief chuckled, but his thin smile held an edge like a drawn sword. “If I add one or the other to my collection, will you give me a lecture? Please. It might be diverting. Better yet, reach into your bag of tricks and give us your last laugh.”

When bandits gathered around them, the wizard reddened, and closed his eyes.

“Oh, look! I hurt the witch’s feelings. Fly away, then. The arrows might miss. Or you could throw magic food at me. You might get cinnamon or pepper in my eyes. Take your best shot.” The bandit chief was now playing to his men.

When the wizard bayed a stretched-out scratchy warning, the bandits stepped back, and the bandit chief barked, “Stop that caterwauling. What will you do, turn into a dog and shed on me?”

When Khlarn’s eyes blinked open, they were deep brown set in bloodshot white.

The bandits were about to learn that a wizard’s bag of tricks was never empty. In Khlarn’s case, he was never completely forthcoming about his repertoire of animal shapes, as he liked to conceal his affinity with dangerous beasts, for fear of others thinking him dangerous by association. No one, for instance, would invite a wild boar to a party.

The skinchanged wizard was now five hundred pounds of tusked pig, or roughly the size of a small shed. When Khlarn made a quick, sneeze-like, bob of his boar’s head, the bandit chief’s guts were yanked out by tusk point. As he fell, the bandit chief grabbed futilely and stupidly at his unraveling intestines, but they were too slippery for him, and he was dead when he hit the ground.

To their credit, the gathered bandits stared at their dead chief for only a second. When Norrik yelled, “kill it!”, the bandits cautiously circled the boar with drawn blades. Though odds were high that enchanted bacon would fry that night, Khlarn saw the silver lining—that bandit swords stood between him and the archers. It soon felt like a child’s game: Khlarn would charge at a gap in their ranks, and when they closed the hole and attempted to surround him, he would drive them back with a menacing shake of his tusked head.

If Eleita’s group of monks, butchers, and guards had murderous intent, they could have cut down many before their treachery was noticed. While most were stunned by this turn of events, Alyana said, “should we let them kill our only ally?”

“Now that the chief is dead,” said Eleita, “his second may be tempted by our offer; but if we attack, our only hope is to win.” Eleita was not happy with this judgment, but she had a vow to fulfill.

“I don’t like the odds either,” agreed one of the guards.

“Alyana is right,” Wencia said. “I won’t watch him be murdered.” When she grabbed Norrik from behind and pulled with all her might, the armored man fell backwards on top of her. Then Alyana jumped on top, so that with Wencia still holding his arms, and Alyana inches from his face, his heavy mace had no swinging room, and was useful only as a barrier which he thrust to push the butcher’s daughter off of him.

More bandits joined the fray, widening their circle to encompass the group of priests, town guards, butcher’s children, one exhausted, pig-shaped, wizard, and Norrik, who now found himself the center of the circle. Alyana held her butcher’s knife to the bandit’s throat and yelled, “Stop!”

The bandits hesitated. Norrik said, “do as she says.” For a few long moments, there was quiet. Then Norrik said, “don’t we have business to conduct? We’ll take the eleven thousand; and you can have the prattling sword with our thanks.”

“That doesn’t sound grateful,” said Alyana. “That’s only four hundred coins less. You can do better,” she added, mocking the bandit chief’s tone, “unless your life is worth only four hundred coins.”

When the guards, the butchers, and even Wencia looked then not to Eleita, but to Alyana, Eleita was concerned. not only for her loss of leadership, but for the loss of life that would follow if the butcher’s daughter made this decision for them.

“We almost have an accord,” Eleita said, “How about a life for a life, Alyana, since you’re concerned for the outlander wizard? Norrik, the wizard did you a favor by removing what stood between you and the chiefdom. Let him go with us.”

“Though the one you killed was never a friend, being chief is a job for those that are dumb as stones. Not only did the wizard add to my troubles in making me chief, but after losing so many to the dead monk and the fire, we’ve lost two more hands.”

“So you won’t let the wizard go?”

“No, he dies!”

“Then you leave me no choice. You’ll be familiar with what comes next. What will your men pay to ransom you? I doubt they want to be chief either. Unless they do have plans, in which case they won’t negotiate in good faith.”

Norrik considered this, then said “I’ll take the deal. Get them off of me.”

“No. I’ve been enlightened to bandit virtue. You’re coming with us. Once we’re satisfied your men aren’t in pursuit, we’ll let you go.”

“How do I know you’ll deal in good faith?”

“Have we ever negotiated in bad faith?”

“Fine,” he said in his most surly manner, then said to his men, “Don’t stand in our way, and don’t follow. I’ll be back before nightfall.”

When Alyana and Wencia pulled Norrik to his feet. the butcher’s sons flanked Eleita, one of the city guards seized Drucona, and the other two guards, walking backward with cocked crossbows, brought up the rear as they made their way to the horses. The beasts were not only fed and watered, but provisions were packed in the saddlebags for their return trip. Eleita was surprised to see this, and supposed that the bandit chief was at least sincere in putting on a good show of hospitality.

Alyana asked, “who will he ride with?”

In answer, a guard aimed his crossbow at Norrik. “Move. Quickly.”

Their escape was grueling for Norrik, who struggled on foot to match their pace, and after they walked the horses briskly for twenty minutes, his panting became violent hacking, and then he fell to his knees.

“Get up!” shouted one of the guards. The anxious tenor of their escape seemed to have even infected the horses, who skittishly paced as their riders looked for signs of pursuit. Though Eleita suspected the coughing was exaggerated, it appeared that the bandits had honored the deal, as the only movements were branches, swaying in a gentle wind, and the trees’ shadows, lengthening in the sunset, and the only sounds were the chirping of crickets.

Eleita said, “Since we don’t know if we’re in the clear or if the bandits are stealthy, all of us must ride.”

“Mount behind me,” the guard ordered their prisoner. Norrik had one foot in the stirrup when Wencia twisted her reins so that her horse took a step, thenshe slashed, and the bandit fell, blood welling from a gash in his neck.

“That’s my knife!” said Alyana.

Wencia held the bloody butcher’s blade and smiled like one smelling the most savory of foods. The bandit clutched his throat, and his eyes rolled back, as he tossed limply like one in a nightmare; where his head touched, blood smeared the grass, for he had cracked his skull on an ancient flagstone.

“He’s done for,” said the eldest butcher’s son. “If they are following, they heard him. Let’s go.”

“No,” said Wencia, “I want to watch.”

As they were astride horses, Eleita did not have the reach to smack Wencia’s face, so she punched the younger monk in the thigh, and Wencia dropped the knife. “This was vengeance, not a just offering to our mistress. Spilled blood cries out, and must be answered.”

When Wencia dropped her eyes, flicked the reins of her horse, and cantered toward Cjantosk, the others clapped their heels to their mounts, and rode as fast as they could behind her.

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