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A Coin For Bartuba

A COIN FOR BARTUBA

By Sharon Ferguson

Copyright 2009

Registered with the Writers Guild of America, 2008

Published – Whispers of the Muse

*******************************************************

There were no way-stations in the Rameshda Plains, no outposts, no wells. Just an endless undulation of rolling land, covered in shoulder-high grasses, unbroken by any copse or any settlement of some brave soul who cherished the isolation. Routes between the cities that lay upon its edge remained on the edge, maintained by the Kemedre Hirsk, a guild of businesses and councils in trade and barter with each other; and what worked for the Hirsk, worked for the people who traveled on it. Rarely did anyone go in, even when playful monsok peered out from between the blades of tall grass, even when tales of hidden warriors, waiting for the call, ready to fight for any king, passed through the minds of ambitious souls on the road between Kerimoth and Vandel. It was said that no one who had ever braved the Rameshda came out of it with their fates intact, if they ever came out at all.

Alkhin Senaiis had traversed it many times in route to the forests of the deep south, always for his own purposes, but never before with the intent of hunting a traitor who attacked his convoy and took a prized possession. He had been on that edge-road with a caravan of merchants on their way to the autumn market in an eastern city, acting as guard at special request by the Hirsk. He was a mercenary before all else, and while he eschewed participation in the guild, he had relented for this one journey, partly for his own purposes once again, and partly because his ego had been charmed by the offers of the lords of the guild. He knew that he had been offered a temporary position with the guards that served the Kemedre Hirsk, themselves a guild, based on his reputation for swiftness and skill; he also knew that his reputation hung in the balance with the success of this journey.

Well, now he had failed as a guard. This bitter acknowledgement burned like white coals inside as he and his horse rushed headlong through the grass in pursuit of the thief, leaving the dismantled caravan behind to handle their own problems in the night. The attack came in the late noon; now the low mantle of night hung with its first hint of stars, moving swiftly to cover their part of the country.

He’d lost time because he had been dealt a heavy blow to the head and lost consciousness; but not before he saw Gathe, a member of the Hirsk, reach down and pluck away the belt that contained two items, two precious stones he also guarded. It was then that Alkhin realized the Hirsk had another reason to take great interest in him. The rhythm of his horse thundering over the ground became a mantra: should have known, he should have known…

~ He’s not that far ahead ~

Alkhin knew the voice, felt it inside his head as a wave of internal logic. It belonged to a companion creature that formed an attachment to him: a winged snake known as a wadjiti rested in the fold of his mantle. The creature was not much bigger than his hand, a tiny slip of greenish blue that darted about like a dragon-fly when it wasn’t curled up at rest.

“Good,” Alkhin replied. He could feel Tasanthre’s tongue flicker against the skin of his neck as she tried to maintain a hold in the crease of his mantle.

~ it’ll do you no good to keep running into the night. Both of you could end up at opposite ends of the Plains before dawn. ~ she argued.

“He’s got the Sharinoh,” Alkhin said between clenched teeth.

~ and he’ll still have them in the morning. He won’t go too deep into the plains. Already I saw him correcting his path to go more east than south. He intends to head back toward the Hirsk road when he thinks he has lost you. ~

Alkhin reined the horse to a slow trot and then stopped him to dismount, his sense of justice warring with the recognition that the horse needed to at least replenish its lost strength. Tasanthre was right…but distance meant everything in this timeless land.

~ Gathe knew what he was doing ~ the wadjiti observed.

“The Hirsk knew what they were doing. I didn’t,” Alkhin shot back in bitterness. “I let myself believe they didn’t know about the stones and now…” he trailed off. He couldn’t spend time wondering now. “Gathe ignored all that spilled out of those wagons and came straight for me.”

~ its hard to ignore a legend when it shows up ~

“Don’t give me platitudes,” Alkhin muttered as he opened the flap of the pack that had remained on the horse. It was not his horse – this creature was one that had shied away from the chaos and stood aside as if uncertain of its own fate. His own horse had been shot down from under him. Alkhin did not know its name but it showed a toughness not common in the overfed pets of the Hirsk. “He knew about the Sharinoh and thinks he can do something with them, just like all the rest,” he added, brooding. “But there’s more to it than lucky happenstance.”

~ do you know, you’ve never fully explained that to me? ~

Alkhin paused as he cleared as small space to lie down in, using his rapier to cut away clumps of grass and lay them in a pile. Over this, he spread a blanket. He would have to eat the dried meat in the pack. There was no time to make a campfire. The moment the dawn cast its rays into the sky, he would be back on the horse in pursuit.

“No. I haven’t.” He’d given a broad explanation to Tasanthre before, incomplete in so many details, but enough to gain her trust. Was there really time to go into it now?

~ Ive taken what you’ve shared with me on faith. Why should I care so much about a couple of magical rocks? You have me. ~

“Come,” Alkhin gestured to the folds of his mantle where Tasanthre usually nested when they traveled. The wadjiti did as he said and Alkhin sat down on his makeshift palette, one knee drawn up to his chest, voice low enough to mingle with the grasses and not be carried on high by the air above them.

“You know of the feumindra of the Devarenph Forest?” he asked after collecting his thoughts.

~ that great monstrosity of a wilderness south of the Rameshda? Yes. ~

“The Sharinoh are theirs. I…fell into their possession by…well, it’s a long story.”

~ I think you mean they fell into your possession. ~ Tasanthre knowingly corrected.

“No. See, that’s the nature of the stones. I fell into their possession. I was made to hold them, to be their keeper…” Alkhin wiped his face with his hands, feeling fatigue set in. “I was bound by the One that made the stones…Menholu, the Phoenix.”

Tasanthre’s tongue flickered. She definitely knew about that creature.

“The feumindra are Menholu’s guardians, mysterious sprites of the Devarenph. Because I was there…because I stepped in when I should have left, I became their ambassador.” Alkin smiled ruefully. “You see, Menholu does not waste a thing in this world. When he returns to the forest…”

~ where did he go? ~

“You’re interrupting.”

~ yet another thing to explain to me ~

“Yes, but not now,” Alkhin went on. “When Menholu returns to the Forest, he consumes himself and rises again as a new phoenix. What is left behind is the essence of his life before, in a new stone. When I came to the Devarenph, there were five.”

~ you have only two ~

“The Sharinoh and three others. But I’m not going to tell you about those,” Alkhin cut off that topic sharply. He was supposed to watch over those as well, but so much had happened, so much he had failed to do… “I am responsible for those stones. If I lose them, then they’ll….” He shuddered at images of the ghastly forest folk, grey stick figures with sharp teeth and unpredictable temperaments. Alkhin knew all too well the gut-wrenching they could exact.

~ so, why you? ~

Alkhin gave a short laugh.

“Because I made myself…convenient…to them, at a time when Menholu was seeking to prevent the stones from destroying his people. He gave me those two, to use as monitors for the others. I am bound to them.”

~ I think I understand now ~

Alkhin lay silent for a several moments, staring up at the dark sky, picking out patterns in the stars that spread across it.

“Its not easy to explain,” he murmured.

~ but if you’re the only one who has the ability to use them, why worry what Gathe will do…or any other? They’ll find out soon enough… ~

“Tasanthre, know this,” Alkhin interrupted with as much patience as he could muster while sleep was seeping through him, “they must be kept separate! The five stones must never be brought together. That’s why I have to stop Gathe. What will he do with them if he decides not to keep them? Where will they end up? If I don’t get them now, I will spend many years trying to chase them down. And someone somewhere will put the fragments of tales together.”

~ Most think the stones are just that: legend…or that they disappeared a long time ago, never to be recovered. ~

“Well, someone in the Hirsk found out otherwise and gave Gathe the means to prove it. Get some sleep, wadjiti. Im going to need your help tomorrow.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Bartuba’s flat nostrils narrowed as the scent borne on a wayward gust carried a change, a far off tinge of warning. The winds that cast themselves across the Rameshda Plains were fitful, some breath of it clean, tasting of blanched grass and dust, and then, some breath of it a faint whisp of skin, tainted by a wetter soil. Just a hint, but it was enough to make Bartuba stop digging and turn his head upward, eyes and nose into the stronger flow skimming the roof of blades above him. His long fingers dropped the awl he held and he rose to stand upon his wiry legs, limbs that were made more for crouching and loping than straightening. He had to see, to look around. His vision just rose above the rim of grasses surrounding him; but all he could see was an endless sea of blonde grass, a uniform pattern of mackerel clumps that rose and bent in cascading waves.

He looked down at the two monsoks with him – there was not much to differentiate him from the others, from their brown mottled coats, pear-shaped torsos, or the long folded flaps of skin that lay on either side of their heads. Like them, Bartuba had wide almond- shaped eyes set in a flattened elliptical head, the color filling the sockets with a gray-brown kaleidoscope, and a wide mouth filled with teeth that crushed both vegetation and flesh alike, sharp long canines for sinking into small rodents and fish from a stream. The three of them were deeply engrossed in digging for grubs and had made quite a churned up space in the little alcove under the soaring Rameshda sky.

One of the two, Lilre noticed Bartuba’s hesitation. Hoorrrrh? he trilled, the sound like a soft puff over the end of a long reed. The top edges of his ear-flaps lifted some, revealing a cartilaginous framework of hard ridges and thin membrane in between, hinting of a broader span should he display in full. Should we stay?

Bartuba sniffed deeply, picked up the warning floating by again. His splayed feet, with their seven toes, dug into the earth, as if trying to connect with the sub-surface, for further hints that something approached. He imitated — with his own ear-flaps. Beware!

Whiissst! A forth monsok thrust his head through a bulging tuft, startling the three of them with a hiss, his teeth bared and his ears flicking up and down. Run!

Seconds later, the puff of breeze that followed told Bartuba and the others everything they needed to know: jagunda!

He could sense, rather than see, the others plunging through the grass just to his right, heads thrust forward as their limbs pumped with every muscle they possessed to swim them through the spiky gramma. The smell of jagunda now wafted from behind, and Bartuba heard the rasping call of the nearest one: a low, scraping sound hot on their heels. Jagunda counted on stealth and the silence of their passage through the grasses, but that’s what a monsok’s ears were for, to sense what no other creature in the prairie could hear.

Lilre swerved and turned to the right. Bartuba and the others swerved with him. For a flash, he caught sight of the lead jagunda, a bird-like figure with a serpentine head, eyes bright yellow, mouth open to show rows of scythe-like teeth, ready to latch onto one of them the moment a hair of a monsok was in reach. A long sinuous tail waved as a banner behind it, a balance to suddent shifts. It was no taller than he, but more compact, more muscle, and it ran almost faster than Bartuba.

Spotting the monsok, the lead jagunda barked out another call, ending with a pitch upward – close! Bartuba flattened his posture, propelling himself even harder. There were more behind him – too close. He did not stop to look for the others. He knew where he had to go and his attaining was the difference between rest and lying on his back staring up into the sky while jagunda tore into his belly.

He stumbled over — and in those seconds they were surrounded. The four of them instinctively clasped each other and put their backs to each other. With a collective hiss, the monsoks stood on their feet and their ears flared out in a burst, presenting a wall of radiating spines and membrane almost as wide as they were tall. This never failed to impress the jagunda, but it didn’t stop them from circling, panting with hunger for flesh, a need to rip and feed.

The lead bounced and then charged. Bartuba’s fist was ready and he punched at the lizard, sending it into an inglorious heap on the grass. It leapt to its feet with a terrible hiss of its own. There were three jagunda. At least one of them wasn’t going to make it.

Dust among the grasses rose as the jagunda attacked and the monsoks punched back, until one on Bartuba’s left went down under the weight of a furious jagunda. Then the circle broke and Bartuba did not look back. He ran with every muscle he could use, nose aimed for the one place that could save him.

He nearly overshot it, a sudden opening in the grasses where a small formation that those of two legs would take for granted, a round formation of rocks that revealed no other precedent for appearance in the vast spaces of the Rameshda. But it was key, oh so vital, and Bartuba flung himself into with the last reserve of his heart.

For a few seconds he kept running, for it was the same grass that surrounded him, same limitless sky that canopied him; but the wet-dirt smell of jagunda was no longer on the breeze. Only the horrid cry of the one who fell lingered in his ears, the dry sound of grasses getting violently thrashed. Gasping, Bartuba slowed down until he was yards away from the tiny stone circle he had moved through.

He was through. They were gone. Miles and miles away. He limped back to the circle, sat down next to it. Had any of the others come through? He waited, but none others showed up. His heart slowed, his breath steadied. The sun came closer to the end of its path. He lifted his nose once more and took in a long draught. Empty of jagunda…and his troupe-mates.

Turning at last, he stood up again. The land that always rolled as far as the eye could see dipped down somewhat close by. Now there was a new smell again, but Bartuba was utterly mystified. Some forgotten idea of what it was tingled. It was in danger, but not a source of danger. And it was getting closer. His toes dug in again, to get a pulse…and it got stronger the longer he stood.

Silently, he chose to make his way toward that source. Then, it stopped, and he heard a shout, a voice that so rarely rang out on the Rameshda. Bartuba crouched. Now he knew! Those who walked upright always, the ones whom the monsoks could not resist trailing when they made their way through the grasses, perched on great things unfathomable – two of them stomping through the grasses now, far from where even Bartuba knew they commonly passed. The shouts continued and a sound of hard things clashing. Curiosity warred with lingering fright.

A hard whiff of air above the grasses and Bartuba saw a great four-legged beast wander into view. The sounds were very close now, a struggle with the same smell as the one he had just left. His nostrils twitched and he started as the ground vibrated with a heavy fall. An agonizing cry rang out and made Bartuba flinch. He should run away, find another stone circle.

But the smell of the uprights was too enticing. Uprights meant food and entertainment.

Curiosity won.

& & & &

Gathe spat blood out of his mouth, a line of it smeared from the corner of his mouth to his chin, black curly hair dripping with sweat and falling into his eyes, his dark blue tunic patchworked with a variety of stains. Unwavering sunlight above shone down upon him and his opponent, both ready to ward off each other’s sharp and shining swords. Alkhin stumbled as he circled, his own dark auburn hair feeling thick upon his head, absorbing heat, his brown tunic slashed in several places. A sea of blonde colored grass surrounded them, waving in random directions as if to lead everywhere and nowhere at once.

Both were exhausted from running and swinging violently at each other, from picking at each other with the points of their swords. Alkhin had chased Gathe on horseback for miles, had finally collided with him, causing both horses to rear up and throw them to the ground. While the beasts scampered away, their infuriated riders leapt to their feet and continued the chase until Alkhin landed the first blow. At one point, as if on some kind of silent agreement, they both ran for the scabbards hanging from the horse-saddles and the sound of metal on metal replaced the fists.

Minutes later, Gathe finally marked his opponent in several deadly strokes – he had been chosen by the Hirsk for his remarkable skills as well. Alkhin remained frustratingly steady on his feet, holding his hand and arm where Gathe had ripped open his belly. Blood also drained from a deep fissure in his shoulder. Alkhin was breathing hard, his face growing paler by the minute for loss of blood, and Gathe saw he need only give the rag-tag vagabond a push for it to be all over.

“Why are you doing this?” Gathe rasped, waving his hand in a gesture of general inclusion. “By the time you get back, it’ll be too late.”

“Who says I’m going back?” Alkhin replied in equally harsh tones.

“So you are not the vengeful type, then? Don’t you want to know who paid me to take these?” He reached into the stolen pouch and held up two gemstones the color of fire in his hand.

“The Kemedre Hirsk can be approached from several different levels,” Alkhin said, and wished mightily for a drink of water. The dry earth of the Rameshda seemed to leach life out of him as he stood. “I don’t need to go back. By the time they figure out what happened here, it will be too late for them.”

Gathe began laughing – out of surprise or scorn, Alkhin was not sure.

“Its too late now, Alkhin. It was the moment you agreed to join us. Too late to change what has already been set in motion.”

“We’ll see,” Alkhin replied, drawing breath now for the energy for one final assault. He wanted nothing more than to find out the instigator of the betrayal, but he was in bad shape, and he wanted to get the stones back. He’d made sure Gathe was in difficultly as well, given the man a fair amount of fractured bones in their brawl. Gathe might survive the fight, but not the way out of the Rameshda – this much he knew. It was a long way to the nearest spring and the Rameshda had a way of swallowing up those that did not belong there.

“I know how to control them.” Gathe changed the subject, taunting. “They assured me that all I would need is one word. And that one word belongs to you, my friend.”

Alkhin felt himself go cold at the implication. That the Hirsk had knew his particular secret was apparent – many people in Alkhin’s time had come after the magical stones he possessed – but none of them knew its history. The common supposition was that their possession was one of luck and cunning, when the real story was one of theft and binding.

“I see,” Alkhin, feeling that his strength would soon buckle under the weight of fatigue and blood loss. With a grunt, he threw aside his sword. It disappeared in the vegetation. “Go on then. You’ve been told they will give you power, and now you have them. Use them. I’ve no more words than that.” He held his hands up in surrender. “What good is metal against the Sharinoh?”

“So they are the stones of King Robensoh!” Gathe’s face lit up. “Ha, ha! I have bested the notorious vagabond, Alkhin, only to find he carries the bane of elven kings!”

“No doubt you are now thinking of a way to trick the Hirsk out of them,” Alkhin surmised.

“I am correct?”

“Yes. They are the stones that King Robensoh found, the ones he died trying to steal,” Alkhin gave in. “You now possess that legend. Is that the Hirsk wants?”

“How did you come by them? Murder? I’ve heard many of your exploits, but never one that involved stealing kings’ treasure.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Alkhin said. “You have them now. Use them.”

“The one word, you rag-tag thief,” Gathe demanded, and Alkhin laughed.

“That’s interesting, coming from you. You’ve been lied to. There is no secret word.”

“It was no lie!” Gathe shouted. “You’ve been watched a long time, Alkhin. I did not believe in the legend, yet here they are, in my hand. If this legend is true, then so is the word that will give me full control…and you know that word.”

“You’ve no idea what you’re asking for,” Alkhin sighed with resignation.

Gathe’s replied by barreling into him, and the two fell, pummeling each other, until Gathe had Alkhin upon his back. The struggle was brief and ended with Gathe driving the point of his sword into Alkhin’s stomach, stopping the blade enough so that Alkhin could feel the sharp edge slide if he should move.

“The word!” Gathe demanded, voice rough with fury. “Tell me the word and I might have mercy upon you.”

Alkhin spat blood and dirt at him and let out a sharp cry as Gathe inadvertently moved the blade.

Gathe hovered, positioning himself to drive the blade all the way through Alkhin. “Tell me.”

Alkhin stared at him for several long minutes. He had hoped Tasanthre would show herself…she’d be able to solve this for once and all…where was she? But then, he knew she had flown away the instant he had fled his horse and attacked Gathe.

Maybe this would work after all.

“Mehaniveh seniahs,” he relinquished between clenched teeth.

Satisfied, Gathe stood and grasped the handle of his sword, as if he would pull it out, looking at it as if considering its heft; then, in one swift burst of fury, drove the blade all the way through Alkhin’s torso, so that the man was pinned forever to the rolling Rameshda. Then, he recovered the stones that had fallen to the ground and rolled them around in his palm, smiling broadly in triumph. Rounded by many facets and as big as walnuts, the stones caught the sunlight and reflected a spray of red light across his features.

The pain drifted away and Alkhin knew he was dying – having to lie still to avoid the sharp feel of metal through him was not difficult now. He watched as Gathe stepped away, enthralled by the beauty of the stones. He wanted to speak the words again, but the dirt of the plains continued to leach the life out of him.

After long moments, Gathe took a deep breath, held up the stones, and cried out the words he’d been given.

There was a dreadful unsean impact, as if some Other heaviness had filled the air above them. Everything went still, the grass a surreal backdrop to the figure of Gathe as a pressure built around them, dreadful horrible pressure. Alkhin felt himself melt into the Rameshda as if he were sucked in by a gathering of breath, taking him in to echo the words.

When it exhaled, the pressure focused on Gathe and he burst into flames.

He was an instant, consuming fire, roaring into a statue-like torch, a pillar of flame that left no breath at all. Alkhin stared up at him in his final moments, watching the flesh of his enemy flake away in ash and ruin, wondering how long it would take this time for the magic to act upon him. It always did.

The stones fell to the ground as Alkhin closed his eyes.

&&&&

The tall grasses that Bartuba blended with so well sheltered him from the sight of the two uprights. They never knew he was there, but he saw both of them in their struggles, watched as the one was consumed and crept forward to pay vigil over the other as he lay upon the ground. Bartuba sniffed at the unmoving, bloodied figure. Sweat and death dripped off of him into the thirsty dirt. The monsok remained by his side, nervous but invested now. This one was not dead, but he soon would be. Yet, the air around him hummed as if waiting for something more.

The familiar flow of air and quiet so much a part of the Rameshda now settled in around them. The sun set with a brilliant show. Bartuba watched through the night for signs of life from the man whose long burnished hair spilled around his head like a pool of blood, his unconscious features in a pall of unknowing sleep. He was dying, but Bartuba could sense a tinge of resilience. Flaring out the pin-wheel spokes of his huge wide ears, Bartuba huddled and drew them around, preparing for a sleep of his own, becoming as still as the dying one himself, a small lump of statue in the waving sea. The stars wheeled overhead and the sun rose, bringing with it a new day, the same dry winds and draining sun. The grasses around them waved, and still this one did not move, his olive skin turning darker in the full sun.

Only a creature like the monsok could detect the movement in the grass around him, in the air above him, otherwise very few who dwelt in the plains would have noticed the long whip of blue-green gliding toward the dying one in the faintest whisper of a rasp. Parting the sheath of his ears, Bartuba tilted his head to watch the snake raise its pebble-shaped head and Bartuba sensed it was attached to this figure. Bartuba retracted his ears even more. Something about the snake told him things were about to change.

Stand back, the snake told him, and Bartuba shuffled a few feet away, nose twitching. The dying one was dead now – was the snake there to feast? A monsok did not feast on dying flesh themselves, but the jealousy of another taking over the vigil was strong in him. Bartuba bared pointed teeth at the snake, hissing, but the snake ignored him.

When the snake was curled upon the man’s chest, a collar of fast-beating wind flared around it. Wings lifted from the neck of the snake and pulled it into a hover above the body, its long body curling and whipping to and fro. Bartuba backed his way into the cover of the grasses once more, feeling rather than seeing the air around him become painfully tight.

Then, as suddenly as the first upright had burst into flame, the two red stones that lay beside him burst into light and the dying one arched his back, as if violently animated by their energy and brilliance. From the gemstones, a pulsing power radiated, and that power swirled about him until dust and grass and bright redness formed a tornado. The snake rose with him until its slight shape was lost to view. Cowering, Bartuba was unable to tear his gaze away. The pressure of the power grew until something in it snapped and let fall, a curtain of energy spreading out and dissipating, leaving them all in its wake.

The snake rested once more upon the man’s chest, which now heaved with new air, new life. Bartuba hooted in surprise. This one was alive once more.

&&&&&

Alkhin stood by the small circle of white stones half buried in the ground, more intrigued by their anomalous presence in the middle of nowhere than by the two small red gemstones resting in his palm. He had regained his conscience and sat up, wobbled to his feet to retrieve all those things that belonged to him. It was only because his rapier had been resting beside the circle that he discovered the monsok, looking no bigger than a large rabbit until it stood upon its hind feet and flared its ears when he reached out to touch him. Its familiar hoots of warning were like wind across hollow reeds and it backed away, baring a shiny row of sharp teeth. But it did not run and this Alkhin found even more strange. There was something in its expression that said there was more than curiosity compelling it to remain.

He liked the little creatures. Monsoks were intelligent and wild, unbound by the usual fears of the creatures of the plains, but just shy enough to elude even the most determined pursuer. All too often, as Alkhin led caravans across the northern border, he would see and point out to the others the pods of monsok running alongside them, just beyond the reach of any who tried to venture into the chin-high grasses. They were like porpoises that way, he mused, and it bothered him that it was only just this one.

And then there was the circle. It was the first time he’d ever seen something like this, and he’d wandered the Plains many times in his long life. He kicked gently at one of the outcroppings with the toe of his boot, his more practical side arguing that he needed to get back to civilization, to follow the leads Gathe had unwittingly given. If his opponent had been thorough, and Alkhin knew Gathe well enough to realize that fact, he would not have time to explore this new mystery. Gathe had made it clear that he had found out more than he should about the stones’ true origin, that he had help from more subversive connections, and it rankled Alkhin deeply. The Kemedre Hirsk, a trading guild, and quite possibly several other entities had put their stakes on Gathe to track him down. It was no secret that Alkhin held a particular kind of magic, demonstrated most visibly in the two red gemstones he called the Sharinoh, a kind of power that appeared to be limitless, the kind many believed he inwardly possessed, as if it were a talent or inherent ability. Many people, ambitious people, were also envious or greedy of this power; thus, it was all too often the most conniving of them tried to take the stones from Alkhin. They thought that power could be controlled and they wanted that control for themselves, believing they could do so.

Alkhin knew all too well how wrong they were.

~ are you recovered or not? ~

“It’s about time you showed up, Tasanthre” he groused. “Any longer and I’d have given him the words to call the Phoenix himself.”

~ seems you managed quite well without me ~ Tasanthre gave the vocal equivalent of a shrug.

“I had to tell him what to say,” Alkhin told her, anger lacing his voice. Tasanthre was the only other one who knew the words to activate the stones. He relied on her in situations like this one and she’d disappeared.

~ really? I didn’t think it would come to that ~

“I ought to snap your little head off…” Alkhin swore.

~ he was that good, then? ~

“Shut up.”

~ Honestly, I never thought it would come to using the words. ~

“Parn knows I couldn’t say them for myself, wadjiti. That’s supposed to be your job!”

~ this is bad, Alkhin ~

“Yes, it is. What distracted you so long?”

~ oh…a nest of beetles in a gulley. I was hungry! ~

“My life for a nest of beetles,” the elf said with a sigh of exasperation. “Well, make up for it by bringing me the two horses. I can at least sell Gathe’s beast and buy new clothes when we get to Abderone.”

~ Abderone! Why are we going to that barbaric country? And what are you going to do about the monsok? ~

“Do? I’ll do nothing,” Alkhin said, slightly shocked, wondering if Tasanthre was implying a more drastic measure than leaving behind some dried meat. “I’ll give him a treat and be on our way. You will leave him alone. He’s more interested in hiding anyway,” he added, feeling a bit disappointed that the one chance he had to see a monsok up close was stymied by the previous violence.

~ actually, I think he’s more interested in things you dropped ~

Alkhin looked down to find that the monsok had crept out of its hiding place and sat a foot or so away from him, holding in one seven-digit hand a round piece, a coin that must have fallen in the scuffle, a copper from the elven city of Evinhost to the west. The monsok was sniffing it, turning it in its clever fingers, licking it even. Slowly, Alkhin sank into a crouch, until he was almost eye level with the monsok, who was so caught up in examining the coin he nearly forgot to react as he realized what Alkhin was doing. Tasanthre dropped down in height herself, still fluttering, and the monsok shrank back, holding the coin to its chest. Not take! it seemed to say. Even more slowly, Alkhin stretched out a hand, letting his own long fingers uncurl in a gesture of request. He could see the monsok better this way: the creature was almost elf-like in expression, its large brown eyes rimmed with white hair, and its ears, its glorious voluminous ears twitching with nervousness.

“Can he understand you?” Alkhin asked the snake.

~ I believe so. His name is Bartuba. ~

“Don’t scare him,” Alkhin warned.

~ give it back. ~ Tasanthre told the monsok.

For several disbelieving moments, it remained frozen, but Alkhin locked gazes with him. Trying not to feel foolish, Alkhin tried to vocalize, to imitate the sound he had heard from the monsok, a hoot or two. Not quite the quality of one, but it seemed to spark something in the face of the creature. Its tight defensiveness relaxed and it leaned forward. Alkhin hooted again.

~ no harm ~ Tasanthre was telling it. ~ give it back. He needs it. ~

Suddenly, as if deciding all could be trusted, the monsok gently placed the coin in Alkhin’s outstretched palm.

“Go tend the horses,” Alkhin told Tasanthre and held up the coin for the monsok to see. “Bartuba,” he repeated. The monsok looked back at him, curiosity now shining in his eyes.

There was magic that was inherent to an elf, one that did not need powerful stones to enact, although for Alkhin, it was hardly a talent, try as he might to perfect it. With a touch and a small breath, Alkhin could punch holes in metal, a trick that came in handy when he wanted to break a lock, but it was nothing a gifted thief could not utilize, and one that was easily blocked by more determined spells. Its why Tasanthre was such a boon – she gave him the boost he needed when all other thieving ploys failed. He rubbed a part of the coin between his finger and thumb and then blew upon it. With a slight ping, a hole appeared near the rim. He held it up again for Bartuba to observe and the monsok scooted closer. Tugging on part of the braided strap that held the frog for his rapier, Alkhin broke free a long leather cord and looped it through the hole.

“Before I give you this,” he said, feeling a bit foolish again, certain that he would not be understood, “I must do something else.” Where he was going, the human kingdom of Abderone, monsoks were prized catches, despite their wild nature and unwillingness to adapt to cages. The creatures had their own defenses to prevent easy capture, but every once in a while, it would happen, and this infuriated Alkhin. He had one more spell to give: a blessing that would speak to those that would listen, one saying that this monsok belonged to no one. And for those that wouldn’t, an inability to hold onto him.

When that was done, Alkhin demonstrated fastening the new necklace around his neck then motioned that he wanted to do the same to Bartuba. To his amazement, the monsok nodded in agreement and bent his head. Just as Alkhin tied the final sealing knot, the horses tramped into view and the monsok scuttled back into the grasses. Laughing quietly to himself, Alkhin stood for a moment, contemplating. More than likely, he’d never see that monsok again. Maybe in a new pack and when he was in caravan again, but never up close again. Still, this business was done and he must go east. Tasanthre curled up in the collar of his mantle where she always rested and he mounted his own horse while leading Gathe’s. It was going to be a long, hot ride to Abderone.

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