The Curse of the Ebon Maw Chapter Seven by A.S. Raithe

By the time breakfast was over, neither zephyrni was confident they’d ever fly again. Cheesy eggs and sausage, bacon with fried potatoes, and pancakes stacked high and dripping in a sweet, thick, amber syrup. Mira couldn’t speak for Echo, but she knew her clothes felt a bit snugger.

They worked together to load Brother Luke’s cart. Even little Satina and the petite duchess did their part… for better or worse. Where Charlotte managed to scrape together enough provisions to last the trip there and back twice over was a mystery none of them wanted to tackle.

Mira stopped to adjust her armor. The sun beating down cooked away the last of the morning dew. Were it not for needing an early start, it was shaping up to be a lovely day.

“That can’t possibly be comfortable.”

The knight jumped. Turning, she found Charlotte’s impossibly blue eyes looking her up and down.

“I-I’m sorry?” Mira stammered in surprise.

“This.” Charlotte knocked on her breastplate. “You don’t intend to wear it the whole way to the marsh do you?”

Mira shrugged. “You get used to it.”

Charlotte’s lips screwed up. “I’m sure you do buuuut…”

Laying a soft hand delicately on the armor, the beautiful woman took in a deep breath and slowly let it out. The stench of brimstone filled the air. Her eyes flashed yellow, and for the briefest moment, Mira swore she turned red. 

The constant static of Charlotte’s presence became the heart of a lightning strike on Mira’s senses. Cold fire clawed at her very soul. Her vision went in and out of focus. She couldn’t help but sway dangerously as it became too much.

“There,” Charlotte said simply. “All done.”

It took a moment for Mira’s vision to clear, and when it did, panic choked her throat. A simple green tunic dress hung softly upon her, a rose broach featuring a collection of geometric lines, hearts, and stars set into its petals pinned to it. Her armor was gone.

“I hope you don’t mind,” Charlotte continued. “I had to take some liberties with the dress. I’m sure you didn’t want to give anyone a,” she winked, “show.”

But Mira barely heard her. She was too busy twirling in place, searching for her armor.

A soft chuckle shook the strange woman. “Relax. It’s right,” she tapped the broach, “here.”

“What? How!?”

“A little spell.” Charlotte shrugged. “When you need it, just give it a twist while you say, ‘Bloom,’ and…”

Without warning, Charlotte twisted the broach. Rushing wind and the clink of metal sounded off Mira. Mail coat and metal plates erupted across her. She felt the impractical—though, admittedly, pretty —dress slide up inside the armor, replaced by her comfy gambeson. In an instant, her armor was back like she’d never taken it off.

She checked herself over. Every piece was just as she knew it. Only now, the emblem on the broach was set into the top of her breastplate.

“Only you can take it off,” Charlotte explained. “Press your fingers into the crest and say, ‘Wilt’ three times and it’ll turn back into the broach. Go ahead. Try it.”

Mira followed Charlotte’s instruction. The same sound of wind and metal called out. Except it was… backwards. Instead of rushing wind it was a disgusting, sucking sound. The sharp tinking of metal plate and chainmail was a dull thunk like a xylophone with wads of wool stuck between the keys as the armor folded back into the broach, and as the last plate vanished, the green dress fell back into place.

“The armor will swap places with whatever clothes you’re wearing,” said Charlotte as she conjured a mirror for her. “Just pin it to a different outfit and there you go.”

Mira stepped back to look herself over. It had been fourteen years since Captain Theris took her from the eyrie, and just about as long since she’d worn a dress. Growing up in the barracks had impressed upon the young zephyra the need for practicality. But as she studied the way it flattered her toned figure, her cheeks warmed as the corners of her lips turned up.

Not everything has to be practical, she mentally purred. Turning back to Charlotte, she inclined her head. “Thank you, ma’am.”

***

It wasn’t much longer before the cart was ready to go. With Brother Luke sitting at the reins, Mira and the others climbed in, but as Norm went to join them there was a shrill cry.

“No, Daddy! Don’t go! Please don’t go!” Satina wailed.

Tears streamed down the child’s reddening face. Her little arms wrapped tight around her father’s leg, clutching hold for all she was worth.

“Say-Say,” Charlotte began soothingly. “Daddy will be okay. He has his friends with him. Everything will be alright.”

“But… But.” The child descended into a bawling mess.

Charlotte gently took hold of her daughter’s shoulder. “How about we go visit Grandpa while Daddy’s gone? Would you like that?”

Satina sniffled. “Grampa Sam?”

Charlotte nodded, and the girl’s demeanor instantly changed.

As quickly as the tears began, they were gone. Releasing her father’s leg, she flew back inside to pack so fast, Mira could’ve sworn she saw a tail fly out from beneath her dress.

Chuckling, Charlotte shook her head, but as she looked from her husband to the priest, her features fell. Her eyes hardened on Brother Luke as he shook with silent laughter. A sour look wrinkled her nose as she regarded him with unabashed contempt. Jaw tensing and lips pursing, she turned her head from him and growled throatily before forcing a smile back upon her lips.

“Sorry,” she whispered. “Daddy’s not exactly what you’d call a big fan of priests. Looks like it rubbed off on me.” Clearing her throat, she retrieved a small wooden case from apron. “It’s a long trip, and it’s easy to get lost in the Weremarch.”

Brother Luke opened the case. “Thank you, ma’am, but I already have a compass.”

“Not like that one, you don’t.” She smirked. “It’s enchanted. If you find yourself lost, just tell it where you need to go. The needle will point straight at your destination. Just be careful. I mean straight at it. It doesn’t understand little things like forests, or rivers… cliffs.”

“Such a wonderful gift.” He smiled down at her. “May the light of his holiness shi—.”

Ah tuh-tuh!” Charlotte blurted over him as she clamped her hands over her ears. “That’ll be enough of that.”

It may have been a trick of the morning light, the last dew still cooking off the grass as the sun rose, but as Charlotte turned from him, Mira could’ve sworn she saw smoke wafting off her.

Norm glanced to the house. “We should get moving while she’s still distracted.”

He went to take a seat when Charlotte cleared her throat. “Um, Normie-poo? Aren’t you forgetting something?”

His brow knitted as she waited expectantly. After a long moment of him staring at her, she made a kissy face.

“Oh,” he said flatly. “Yeah. That.”

Norm leaned over the rail. His lips met hers for such a fleeting moment that light scarcely had to divert. But as he went to pull himself back up, she threw her hands around the back of his head, and kissed him so deeply that it was as if she was trying to devour his soul.

When Charlotte released him, he fell backwards into the cart. His face was white, eyes wide in shock. Zhel turned, stifling a laugh into his pauldron.

A superior smirk upon her face, Charlotte nodded to Brother Luke. “Now you can go.”

The friar struggled to contain his laughter as he nodded back to her. With a snap of the reins, he urged the mules into motion. Wesley, the larger one, brayed with annoyance but obeyed.

They managed to go all of twenty feet when a haggard old voice cried out.

“Wait!”

Narsis hurried towards the wagon. The old gnome’s legs churned for all they were worth. He waved his hands in the air to get their attention as he called to them again and again.

Padro, the smaller mule, was not pleased as Brother Luke halted them, and made sure to voice his displeasure the entire time they stood there.

The gnome was breathless when he reached them. He leaned against the step to the driver’s seat to catch his breath. His age was showing. In the short distance he’d ran, he was spent, and the pack on his back couldn’t have made it any easier.

“I feared… you’d… already gone,” he panted. “Here.” He slipped the pack off and handed it up to the monk. “I didn’t have much to work with, but I was up all night brewing healing potions.”

“Thank you, master alchemist,” said Brother Luke as he took them from him. “Though I hope you won’t be offended that I shall pray we not need them.”

A hooping laugh shook Narsis. “You’d be batty if you didn’t.”

He climbed into the cart and tossed a coin purse to Mira. She reached out to snag it from the air, so naturally, it passed by her hand without so much as brushing it.

“Good thing that wasn’t the potions,” he playfully teased her. “It’s your pay for the wolves plus a little extra for the warg. When you get back, stop by. I should be restocked by then, and I’ll have some special products set aside for you lot.”

Mira’s feathers fluffed. “Thank you so much!”

She scooped up the purse and handed it to Echo. It was then she realized that that was all she’d been doing all morning. Just issuing a steady stream of “thank yous.” For breakfast. For the armor. For the coins and potions. She may have had impeccable manners, but as she looked at her newfound friends, she couldn’t help but see the worry etching their faces.

She needed to say something, anything to assure them everything would be okay. Captain Theris would have.

Standing tall in the cart, Mira propped her foot up behind Brother Luke like she’d seen her commander do a hundred times. Her wings flared, catching the sunlight.

“Keep the kettle on.” She nodded firmly to her hostess. “We’ll march down to the marsh, fix whatever’s going on, and be back before you knew we were gone. I swear it on my honor.”

Sun warmed her feathers. It was as if Myria herself smiled on her. The goddess’ blessing readying her for whatever might come.

Padro jerked on the harness and the next thing she knew, she was out of the cart.

Warmth rapidly rose in her face. She hadn’t hit the ground, but considering she’d been caught by a willowy housewife, the earth may’ve been preferred.

Face blazing she looked up at her. “Nice catch,” she said at a loss. “You’re stronger than you look.”

Charlotte shook with silent laughter. “So Normie-kins says.”

Embarrassment hastening her, Mira clambered back into the cart, helping Narsis up with her. It was a long way back to the village and embarrassed or not, it was only polite to give him a lift. After all, it was on the way.

Again, Wesley grunted at being forced to move, and only then did Padro stop protesting. They dropped the old gnome off at his shop, and, at last, were on their way.

***

Days blurred together as they traveled across the sprawling flatlands of the Weremarch. The great plains were the breadbasket of Welmin, consisting of more than two thirds of the kingdom, but the monotony of traveling them often proved a test of sanity. Especially for the rare explorer who ventured out alone.

Wild grasses and farmers’ fields with hardly a scarecrow to be seen. That was all that was the Weremarch. Particularly so far from the capital in the west. After a while, it all looked the same.

But at least it was travel season. Every now and again they encountered a caravan. Rarely more than a passing distraction of shared pleasantries, it was a reprieve from the tedium. They’d almost forgotten their mission as they began their descent into the southeastern lowlands. There’d been not as much as a whisper about a mystery plague the entire way. Within a day, everything changed.

A small detachment of soldiers blocked the road ahead. Their banners flew the bronze and green of Welmin, but their uniforms weren’t those of the knighthoods. They wore the dusky red-brown and tan checked jerkins of regular infantrymen.

“Halt!” came the expected call from the patrol.

Brother Luke slowed his team. Per the norm, Padro began voicing his displeasure.

“A good morning to you,” Brother Luke called back as they ground to a halt. “How fair you this day?”

“Not good, I’m afraid,” one, presumably the leader, replied as he and another man approached. “All roads into the marsh are closed.”

“Oh?” Mira chimed in. “Is it because of the goblins?”

The captain recoiled at the mention. “Gob…? What do you mean goblins?”

“We came across an encampment of them near the toll bridge in Cawold,” said Mira. “Thought we were in for a nasty fight but,” she shook her head, “there was something wrong with them.”

Their faces paled.

“H-How do you mean wrong?”

Echo popped up next to her. “Like all shriveled up like they’d been mummified despite one of them still being able to talk, wrong.”

The soldier grabbed his captain’s shoulder and pressed the sides of their helms together. Something was murmured between them, but all Mira could make out were the words “breach” and “quarantine.”

He nodded at the man’s assessment. Visibly swallowing a lump, he looked back to them.

“Thank you for the report,” he said quickly. “We’ll send word to Sitri. Now please.” He gestured for them to turn around. “I’m afraid I still can’t allow you to pass.”

“I reckon that means we’re right,” Echo murmured.

Norm looked at her from beneath his brow. “Ya think?”

“Gentlemen,” Brother Luke began in his calming way, “can we not help in some way? His holiness Lord Korik has called me to this place. Surely we can be of aid.”

The men exchanged apprehensive looks.

“Back!” cried one of the other soldiers blocking the road. “I said stay back!”

Spears clattered as Mira and the others’ attention was drawn to the blockade. The men trembled on their weapons, but as the knight looked to where their weapons were trained, her feathers fluffed.

It wasn’t goblins, or brigands, or any other dangerous thing. It was a small group. A family of five. But as she studied them, her heart sank. She’d seen this too many times. Dirty. Disheveled. Whatever bits of their lives they could gather thrown in a cart the father and a boy, face barely showing peach fuzz, struggled to push.

Refugees.

Continue to Chapter Eight on March 21, 2024.

About the Author

A. S. Raithe is a fantasy author living near Pittsburgh with his wife and children. Always the creative type, it wasn’t until high school and being introduced to a local bestselling author that he found his passion for writing. He took time away from writing to attend college before being convinced by his wife to pick it up again shortly after their wedding. Outside of writing he enjoys exercise, baking, gardening, folklore, music, and hiking.

Find A. S. Raithe:
 
If you’ve enjoyed my work please consider leaving a tip on my ko-fi: https://ko-fi.com/asraithe Your support is truly appreciated.

Loading

This entry was posted in Fiction, Serials. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Curse of the Ebon Maw Chapter Seven by A.S. Raithe

  1. Pingback: The Curse of the Ebon Maw Chapter Six by A.S. Raithe - Altered Reality MagazineAltered Reality Magazine

Leave a Reply