A Merchant’s Luck
by Michael R. Meyerhofer
By midnight, three-fourths of Nightmare’s men lay dead or dying. Only the heartiest — among them, Nightmare himself — remained on their feet. Nightmare dispatched messengers for Dun Fey Jutt, ordering them to enlist the help of the Guild before it was too late. Then he gathered what was left of his force and dragged Castor from his tent into the cold night air.
Nightmare turned to his remaining men. “Ready your longbows,” he said. “Tie this bastard to a tree. We’ll quill him like a pincushion right now!” As he spoke, Nightmare’s arm spasmed, as though he were fighting the impulse to press one hand against his stomach.
Just a few more minutes, Castor thought. “Lord Nightmare, wait! I’ll tell you how to make the antidote,” he lied.
The Murklord ignored him. “We Elves are expert archers. You should know that. Our arrows will pierce your vital organs last. On that, you have my word!”
The Dusk Elves moved to follow orders, but they were slow, their blemished faces tinged with agony. Some guarded Castor while others fetched the longbows. Then they hauled him to the nearest tree and bound his hands. Castor fought as hard as he could, but the Dusk Elves were still too strong. They shrugged off Castor’s punches and kicks and dropped him with several of their own. Then they tied his limp body with his arms above his head.
This is it, Castor thought, wheezing. I was so close...
Nightmare — seemingly with great difficulty — fetched the polished, dark bow from his own horse, careful as he did so not to touch the Miraculous Mouthbrushes still crammed in the saddlebags. The Murklord returned. He drew an arrow from the quiver at his side and notched it to the bowstring. He tried to fix his eyes on the wriggling merchant before him, but his vision blurred. He blinked until he could see clearly again.
On either side of him, the other Dusk Elves took up position, their own bows in hand.
Suddenly, one Elf stiffened, gasped sharply, and toppled to the earth. The others ignored their fallen comrade and reached for arrows. Despite the famous steadiness of Elfish hands, none could keep from shaking. One Elf accidentally loosed his arrow before Nightmare gave the order. The missile flew wide, clattering in the darkness of the forest.
“Hold!” Nightmare snapped. “Aim!”
His men reacted slowly, as if dazed. Another slumped to the ground, dropping his bow. The man twitched for a moment, then lay still. The others shakily notched arrows, drew bowstrings.
“Wait...” Castor begged weakly. No one listened.
Nightmare sighted down the shaft of his arrow. He fixed his aim for the merchant’s groin. He wanted the man to die slowly. Then he heard a branch snap. He turned towards the sound. Something heavy moved through the undergrowth, in the direction of Dun Fey Jutt.
For one rare moment, Nightmare forgot about vengeance. “The sorcerers! Bring them here!”
Only three men left. Pain tightened their Elfish features, but their eyes filled with fresh hope at the mention of the sorcerers. It was not too late. They lowered their weapons and started toward the sound, expecting to see ominously-robed warlocks riding on the backs of golems, rushing to their aid.
Instead, the heavy thwack of an oversized crossbow rang out in the night.
All three Dusk Elves grunted heavily and toppled to the earth.
A new figure emerged from the shadows. A woman. Tall, skirted in chain mail, with long russet curls that hung past her waist. Moonlight outlined her muscled shoulders, gilded the curve of her horns.
Castor stared. At first, he did not believe his eyes. Then he grinned. “I should have known...”
Aesho Hess threw aside her crossbow and drew her sword instead. Wytchfire coursed along the blade’s length. She gave Castor an angry glance. “I’ll have you know, I clung to a Roc’s tail-feathers for you!”
Castor wept and laughed at the same time.
Aesho Hess turned her attention back to Nightmare. The leader of the Dusk Elves stood alone, livid. He aimed his longbow and fired. Castor screamed a warning, but his bodyguard’s sword swept up in a tight circle, easily catching the arrow mid-air. The wooden shaft burst into flame, burning up even as the tip sailed wild over her shoulder.
With her free hand, Aesho brushed the ash from her cheek. “You’ll have to do better than that, Murklord.”
Nightmare snarled and threw aside his longbow. He drew his sword and charged. Rage overpowered the curse flooding his body, fueling him with new purpose. Swords clattered. Nightmare screamed and toppled to the ground, his body smoldering. Aesho Hess stepped over him.
The Satyr warrior-woman made her way directly to Castor and cut him down with one swipe of her sword. He fell forward. She caught him with her free arm, holding him steady. Castor was speechless. Then he said, “Faun, I love you...”
Aesho snorted. “Save your breath, human. We would make ugly children.” She propped him up. “Can you walk?”
Castor said yes, then swooned, but Aesho caught him. Castor clung to her. Then he remembered the Dusk Elves dispatched to fetch help from the sorcerers of Dun Fey Jutt. “Faun, there may be more—”
“There are,” Hess interrupted. Her lip curled. “I can smell their sulfur-stained robes already!” She sheathed her sword and supported Castor with both arms. “Golems and Dusk Elves, I can fight. But I’m not much use against sorcerers. We have to get out of here. On foot, or else they’ll take control of the horses’ minds and bring us back.”
Castor nodded, barely understanding her. He glanced longingly at the Dusk Elves’ saddlebags, still crammed with his Miraculous Mouthbrushes.
“Don’t even think about it!” Hess snapped.
Castor sighed. He bowed his head in defeat. Then, before he could say a word, the Satyr picked him up like a child and sprinted off as fast as her equine legs could carry them.
* * *
“Tell me one thing,” Aesho Hess asked. “Would you really have helped them poison Duke Meddo and his people?”
Castor blushed. “I don’t know. I was hoping it wouldn’t come to that.” He smiled weakly. “Luckily, it didn’t.” He saw at once that his answer did not satisfy her. He decided to change the subject. “Believe it or not, I feel sorry for them.”
Hess frowned. “The Dusk Elves?”
Castor nodded. “Nightmare was right. The gods’ curse was unjust.” He winced, glanced skyward, and realized he might be speaking too loudly.
In a low voice, Hess answered, “They usually are.”
The crisp, afternoon light spilled down the awnings and aqueducts scattered throughout Rayne as Castor sat with Aesho Hess on the gilded steps of the Merchants’ Guildhouse. It was a bright, cool day, but Castor’s face hung. Only a week had passed since his abduction, but much had changed.
The Wytch Guild had taken possession of the Miraculous Mouthbrushes left behind in the Dusk Elves’ camp. This time, after investigating the bodies of the dead Elves, the sorcerers had no trouble deciphering Castor’s formula. As expected, their first reaction was to make sure every Halfrealm knew Castor’s secret: his wondrous invention actually contained bile extracted from the putrid, diseased mouths of dead Goblins!
Now, it seemed that everyone wanted him dead. Duke Meddo of Xozaria denied he’d ever intended to do business with Castor in the first place, and was probably already sending assassins after him. Surely, more than a few outraged nobles were sending assassins of their own. Meanwhile, the Merchants’ Guild had revoked Castor’s trading rights. They might have revoked his life too, were it not for a certain Satyr standing guard.
And to add insult to injury, Castor had learned only this morning that the Wytch Guild had begun peddling a new kind of mouthbrush of their own design, which they swore was free of all distasteful ingredients.
Castor scoffed. No doubt, the sorcerers’ brushes were identical to his own, Goblin bile and all! “They beat me...” He looked down at his fine silk slippers, now torn and mud-stained.
Aesho Hess shoved him gently. “We Satyr have a saying: everyone beats everyone, sooner or later. Especially themselves.”
Castor was not altogether sure what she meant, but he didn’t feel like asking. He heard a sound and looked up. A small, ominous crowd was gathering in the distance. Word had spread throughout Rayne that their once-favorite son, now the most hated merchant in all the Halfrealms, was back in town.
Castor sighed. He figured he still had a few more minutes to ponder his cursed luck before the crowd became a full-blown angry mob. “I guess I’ll just have to start over...”
He’d briefly considered pleading asylum among the Light or Dark Elves, since they were the only races — due to their long-standing hatred of the Dusk Elves — who did not seem to want Castor dead. But he doubted even they thought kindly of him. No, Castor’s only chance was to find a sorcerer — preferably one who did not despise him — and buy a shape-shift. Become someone else, someone who would not be recognized.
Castor winced. Shape-shifts were not only expensive, but notoriously excruciating. Still, I need a new face, he thought. A new life. And... a good bodyguard.
He turned to face the Satyr warrior-woman beside him. “What about you, Faun?”
Hess readjusted her chain mail skirt to hide her equine legs. “I figure that unless I want to fend off assassins for the rest of your natural life, we need to get you a new face.” She trailed off. “To be honest, I’d always hoped the legends about the gods were just that. It would be nice to be more... human.” She smiled awkwardly, tugging at her chain mail skirt again.
Castor touched her knee. “Stay as you are. The gods can’t be wrong all the time!”
Hess looked as if she was about to offer a snide retort but she stopped herself. She turned from Castor to the crowds gathering in the distance. “We should go.” She rose to full height and stretched. Then she drew her Wytchblade and gave it a wide swing, stretching her sword-arm.
The crowds drew back in fear.
Castor watched her with admiration. “I intend to give you a raise.”
Aesho Hess snorted. “Castor, you’re broke! Or you will be, after the shape-shift.” Then a faint smile tugged at her lips. “We’ll talk.” She extended her free hand and hauled him to his feet.
Copyright © 2009 by Michael R. Meyerhofer