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#FlashFictionFriday: The Author’s Dilemma—Milking the Dragon

Milking the Dragon was first published in its proto form here in May of 2012. It was one of the first flash fictions I posted here, and with a little polishing and reshaping, it has become one of my favorites.


Writing fantasy has its drawbacks. For one thing, your creativity must never flag, which is my current dilemma. My work-in-progress is stalled. I keep repeating the same old crisis with slight variations. Readers notice when you milk an idea over and over, no matter how you change the scenery around it. Unfortunately, my head is stuck on dragons, and I’m not sure what to do at this point. It’s a medieval fantasy, and dragons are the medieval thing, right?

I could probably do better without all the interruptions, though.

“Ahem. You there.” Sir Belvedere stands at my elbow, looking over my shoulder. “Are you the person plotting this book?”

Surprised, I nod, wondering where this is going. Usually, my heroes just leave me to the task of writing and don’t feel compelled to harass me.

“Well, the dragon is dead. Did you notice?”

Again, I nod my head. “Yes. I wrote that scene, and if I do say so myself, you were magnificent.” Heroes require obscene amounts of praise, or they become sulky, and Sir Belvedere is no exception.

“Thank you,” he replies, attempting to appear modest and failing. “Well, the thing is, Lady Penelope has thrown herself into wedding preparations.”

“Yes, I did know that,” I reply. “I’m designing the dress.”

“Well, I’ve been booted outside. Apparently, no one needs the groom until the big day so, heh-heh, here I am… bored… looking for something to do.”

I never noticed it before, but my hero is rather unhandsome when he scowls. Note to self: give Sir Belvedere a charming pout to disguise his serious lack of a chin.

Sir Belvedere taps his foot. “Well, really, what sort of author are you? Here we are 32,527 words into your novel, and you’ve already shot the big guns! You wasted the big scene! I mean really, unless this romantic comedy is a novella, you just blew it big time.” Apparently, he also whines.

I’m shocked that this man who owes his very existence to my creative genius should speak to me thusly. “What are you talking about? I have lots of adventures and deeds of daring-do just waiting to leap off the page, and occupy your idle hands.” See? I can give a dirty look too, and I don’t whine about it.

“We-e-ell?”

I despise sarcastic heros.

“You have 70,000 or so words left, and I hope to heck you don’t intend to spend them on wedding preparations.” He looks at me expectantly. “I have nothing to do! Find me a Quest! With a capital ‘Q.’”

By golly the man is right. I have timed my big finale rather poorly, and now I must come up with something new for him to do. Hmm… maybe trolls. No, too reminiscent of Tolkien… I know! A magic ring! Nope, still to Tolkienesque.

I need to reflect on this for a while. I gaze at Sir Belvedere, wondering what I was thinking when I designed this air-headed piece of eye candy in a tin suit. “I can’t work with you staring over my shoulder, so find something to do for a few minutes.” Good Lord, I should have made him less impatient and given him a few more social graces. “Look, why don’t you sit here, and play a little ‘Dragon Age’ for a while?” I park him in front of the TV and give him the game controller.

“What the hell is this?” he looks first at me and then at the object in his hand. “I’m sure you find this odd-looking thing quite entertaining, but what is it?”

Sighing, I show him how to turn it on, and help him set up a character file. For some reason, the palladin wants to play as a dwarf-mage. That takes an hour.

Go figure.

Finally, I can sit down and invent a few more terrifying plot twists to keep this bad boy busy. The trouble is, all I can think of is dragons, but he’s already fought one, and killed it. Reviewers turn vicious when you milk plot twists. Of course, that means he has acquired a certain amount of skill in dragon molesting… heh-heh… but what good is that sort of expertise?

“Ahem.”

I look up, only to see Lady Penelope’s stepmother, Duchess Letitia, standing at my elbow. “Yes?”

“I’m sorry to bother you, but we’re in desperate need of a certain magical ingredient for my special anti-aging cream.” She looks at me expectantly. “My stepdaughter’s wedding is a big deal. As you’re no doubt aware, I’m being forced into retirement after this, as the plot you originally designed said Belvedere and Penelope will assume the throne upon their marriage. You published it on your website, so it’s canon now. That means I’m done, kicked to the curb in the prime of my life.” She dabs the corners of her squinty eyes with a silken handkerchief. Her voice turns crafty. “Since this wedding is doubling as my retirement party, I simply MUST have my beauty cream.”

“And that ingredient is…?” I hope it’s not a complicated thing because now I have two bored characters nagging the hell out of me.

She beams and says, “Dragon’s milk.”

How odd. Another thing I never realized until this moment—Penelope’s stepmother looks positively evil when she smiles like that.

“I’m sure our dear Sir Belvedere can get me some since he’s just sitting around pretending to be a dwarf.”

Duchess Letitia’s malicious smirk offers me no end of possibilities. I consider this for a moment.

I could rewrite the original battle scene, add a bit here, tweak a bit there, and subtract the dead dragon part… ooh! Sir Belvedere could get singed milking the dragon… Lady Penelope would have to rescue herself and then him… but what the hell, he’s a hero, right? Bad days at the office come with the territory.

I look over at Sir Belvedere, who is now bashing my coffee table with the game controller. Okay, this boy definitely needs to get outside and play in the fresh air. “HEY! Sir Belvedere, I have a task for you! Take this bucket and get some dragon’s milk. It’s a matter of life and death.”

Yes, folks, I have decided to milk the dragon.

He looks up, wild-eyed and sweaty. “I will in a minute. I need to get to a place where I can save. Gah! No, no, no! I only have one health potion left!”

That’s another good plot twist. Note to self: have Duchess Letitia volunteer to supervise the stocking of Sir Belvedere’s kit with “medical supplies.”


Credits and Attributions:

The Author’s Dilemma—Milking the Dragon, by Connie J. Jasperson, © 2012-2017 All Rights Reserved. Milking the Dragon was published in its first incarnation on Life in the Realm of Fantasy in May of 2012

Illustration from The Romance of King Arthur (1917). Abridged from Malory’s Morte d’Arthur by Alfred W. Pollard. Illustrated by Arthur Rackham. This edition was published in 1920 by Macmillan in New York. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fe/324_The_Romance_of_King_Arthur.jpg

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Filed under #FlashFictionFriday, Dragon Age, Dragons

#FridayFiction: The Bolthole, part 2

The next morning, Eddie, Gertie, and Billy packed what few possessions they had and made ready to leave The Powder Keg, meeting Walter and his son Willie on the way downstairs. Severely hungover, the Bastard sputtered and cursed, but finally agreed that he could make a bit more gold if more merchants were able to travel. By mid-morning, they had made their goodbyes and were on the road north to Eddie’s lodge.

A storm was blowing fiercely atop Windy Ridge, which made the narrow, muddy road treacherous, slowing them. It was late afternoon when they arrived home, although the thick forest of tall firs made it seem later.

>>><<<

Just after noon on the fifth day of Eddie’s new venture, five mercenaries he’d ridden with during his tenure with the Wolves rode in, bringing all their possessions, hoping to sign on with Eddie’s new crew. They asked him what he was naming his mercenary band, and he confessed he hadn’t picked a name yet.

To his son’s rather visible joy, one of the new recruits was Dame Bess, a noblewoman who claimed no last name. Another was Alan Le Clerk, a younger merc of Billy’s age. Lady Barbara (Babs) Gentry, Lily Rhys, and George Finch rounded out the crew.

Dame Bess was the coldest woman Eddie had ever met, hard as steel. He wasn’t sure what his son saw in her, but the lad was completely smitten, despite the fact she ignored him the way she did every man, or woman for that matter. Still, she was one of the best sword-swingers in the business, level headed when anything bad went down, and a quick thinker in an ambush. He counted himself lucky to have her on his crew.

After they picked their bunks and settled their things upstairs, they sat down to supper, pleasantly surprised at the meal Eddie’s son, Billy, set before them. Alan said, “I never knew you could cook.”

“This is good. Better than Marien’s.” Bess took a few more bites of fish-stew, then said,”There’ll be one or two more Wolves coming along in the next day or so. They’re taking their time, wanting to see how the Bastard changes things up, so they’re working without a contract until they make up their minds. They have until the day after tomorrow before they have to make a commitment.”

George Finch, the younger son of a baron, spoke up, his clipped, northern nobleman’s accent sharp with indignation. “You got your son out there just in time, Walter. Guess who turned up, right after you left? Good old Bloody Bryan. He showed up as soon as he knew Marien was safely in the ground.”

Lily nodded. Her thick Eynierish accent was hard to follow, and an angry look marred her darkly attractive features. “Sure enough, the Bastard took him back, claiming he was shorthanded because you had taken half the crew and started your own ‘band of thieves and rowdies.’”

George’s scorn could have peeled the bark from a woodwraith. “After what that degenerate did, ruining our good name—”

Eddie snorted. “The Bastard always did have the worst taste in friends, but taking Bloody Bryan back…I don’t understand it.” He shrugged. “Anyway, I hope you’re aware that I have no jobs yet. We might be doing a lot of fishing here if we can’t find work.”

Lily’s grin lit up the room. “I love to fish—I’d rather do that than anything else. Besides, I wouldn’t spend another night in the Powder Keg, now Bryan is there no matter how hard things get here.”

Bess smiled, and when she forgot to be hard, she was pretty. “Just so you know, the Bastard is already referring to us as a bunch of highwaymen and rowdies whenever anyone asks and telling folks our shack is naught but a bolthole in the woods.”

The whole group laughed, Eddie most of all. “A bolthole–I like that. Coming from him it’s a compliment. You have to admit, it’s a pretty solid shack.”

“This place is a lot sturdier than the Powder Keg,” Walter said. “I hated living upstairs there during a high-wind storm. The top floors shake so bad, it’s like the whole place will blow down.”

“You have that right, Walter.” George leaned back against the wall, taking in his surroundings. “This is a damned log palace, compared the Powder Keg. Plus, the Keg get’s flooded every year when the river rises. This place is dry, with no moldy smell. I don’t care if I do have to share quarters—I can live without the mold.”

The next morning, just after midday, a knock sounded at the door. Eddie answered it. A merchant he recognized, John Caskman, stood there. “Hello, Eddie. I was just in Somber Flats and heard the news about Marien. The Bastard tells me you’re leading a new band of mercs called the Rowdies? If so, I have a job, for you, leaving Monday next. It’s a small wagon train for you to escort to Galwye, from Dervy. Three wagons, so I’ll need six guards for six days.”

Eddie shook his hand, and a smile split his face. “Yes, I think we can fit you into our schedule.” That evening he hung a shingle over the front steps:

the bolthole sign

With that, the names were established, and the Rowdies settled into a routine.

>>><<<

Five weeks had passed since Mad Marien’s funeral. The court papers had arrived at the end of the second week, and Eddie MacNess was officially granted a patent to form a mercenary outfit, the Rowdies. Things had gone far better than Eddie had dreamed they would, and even the Bastard had been forced to admit business was better than ever with the Rowdies funneling paying customers his way. Eddie now had sixteen Rowdies, including a trained provisioner,  a runaway sailor from Lanqueshire named Romy. Business was good and the Rowdies were working all the time.

It was a clear day, with blue skies and birds singing. Eddie, George, Allan, and Billy had just arrived back at the Bolthole. Eddie dismounted, handing his horse’s reins to young Willie. He’d just realized the birds had stopped singing, when the sounds of horses galloping caught his attention, and he looked up, seeing five knights in royal colors riding as hard as they could, heading for the safety of the barn.

The knight leading the group shouted, “Dragon! Get your livestock under shelter.”

Eddie caught the bridle as the man leaped from his horse. “Where was it last?”

The knight in charge was Lord Mat St. Coeur. “Just north of Psalter Pass. We were fighting it, but the damned thing flew away. Do you have any livestock?”

“Just a few chickens, which we keep in the barn. We keep the horses in the paddock by the stable because I haven’t had a chance to repair the main stockade yet. Where was it headed? I have a crew of Rowdies who should be coming home this afternoon, and they may already be on the Galwye road.” Gertie, Lily, Bess, and Babs had guarded a small merchant caravan from Dervy to Galwye and back. Eddie looked at the sun, thinking they should have just left the quarry town. They would be about two or three hours away, depending on the weather up in the hills. A ball of lead formed in his stomach as he realized he had no way to warn them, but he stuffed down his panic. “Was it wounded?”

“Yes, but he was still able to fly. He was headed this way, then disappeared. I think he may have landed, but he could still be flying around out there.”

Both men jumped deeper into the shadows of the stable as an immense shadow crossed the stableyard, flying low. Eddie’s bowels turned to water. The roar of flames lit the clearing, and the shadow passed.

The flickering light of a fire, however, did not. Willie grabbed Eddie’s arm. “Look to the house, Captain Eddie! The thatch is alight!”

St. Coeur leaped to action. To Eddie, he said, “Fetch a ladder and rakes.” He turned to Willie. “Boy—get everyone out of the house. Tell them to bring out every bucket and container they can find.” He turned back to Eddie. “I’ll go up on the roof and rake the burning thatch down to the ground. Once I have it on the ground you lads put out the flames.”

Young Willie’s eyes were terrified, but he had himself under control and ran to the house as instructed.

Racing to the tool shed for the ladder and rakes, Eddie called over his shoulder, “St. Coeur, you’re a fool! You’ll be right up there where the dragon can get you.”

Following Eddie, St. Coeur shuddered. “If so, I’ll be his dinner. We need to save your house. It’s the only dry shelter for miles!”

Willie emptied the house of people. Billy joined St. Coeur on the roof, working as fast as they could, raking and dragging every last bit of burning thatch off the roof. Down on the ground Eddie and the others had formed a bucket brigade, passing water up to the men on the roof while Willie and Romy drizzled water  and stamped on what St. Coeur and Billy threw to the ground.

Finally, the fire was out. One whole side of the house had no thatch, bare to the split-rails laid over the rafters, but the smoke had cleared, and the house was saved.

The two men carefully examined the rest of roof, to make sure no embers were hiding, pouring buckets of water over it, just in case.

Eddie stood in the clearing, staring up at the thatchless side of his house. His heart sank at the thought of the work ahead of him in repairing the damage over the next few days, but at least he still had his home.

However, that disaster paled in comparison to his real worry. What if the dragon had passed over Gertie’s crew? There was nothing he could do about her and the other ladies, so he forced himself to keep on working.  “I guess we’d best see if we can find enough canvas to keep the rain out of the attic while we get this fixed.” His jaw was clenched to keep his teeth from chattering. Visions of his lady being snatched up or trying to fight an enraged dragon kept stopping him in his tracks.

At last, he found several good-sized tarpaulins, canvases for covering freight-laden wagons. He sent Billy up on the roof with St. Coeur to help the knight secure the sheets of canvas. The two men bound them tightly to the rafters with stout hemp cords so the wind wouldn’t blow them off during the night. Finally, they were back down on the ground.

Billy grabbed his father’s arm. “Dad—we’ve done what we can here. I want to go look for the ladies.” He was demanding, it, and wouldn’t hear “no” if Eddie said it.

Eddie wanted nothing more, but he was captain. It was his duty to make sure everything was in order before he went looking for his lover.

Billy tried again. “Please? It’s Gertie, Dad…and Bess.”

Caving in to his own fear, Eddie nodded and turned to the knights. “St. Coeur, Romy will feed you and your lads, and get you settled for the night. I have a crew on the Galwye Road I need to go meet.” He turned to the Rowdies. “Alan, Lonnie, and Walter—you’re with Billy and me. Willy, let’s get these horses saddled.”

However, the thunder of hooves announced Gertie’s crew returning. The ladies rode hard into the stableyard but pulled up when they saw all was well. Once in the barn, Gertie jumped down, and Eddie grabbed and swung her, relief making him giddy.

Laughing as he set her down, Gertie said, “We saw a dragon flying off to the north. Then we saw a column of smoke rising from here and feared the worst.”

St. Coeur said, “Which way was he headed?”

Gertie shivered. “North along the foothills, below the Western Range. He wasn’t flying too well, and he was far away, but we stayed hidden under the forest.”

“Too right, we hid,” said Babs, winking at St. Coeur. “We had no intention of dancing swords with a dragon. Hello, Mat. Remember me from court? Lady Barbara Gentry.”

“I do remember you, Babs—and how well you got along with the queen regent.” Mat covered his laugh with a cough. “The snake in her dressing table was a lovely parting gift when you left to marry the elderly Earl of Grandon. I never knew you’d taken up the sword, though.”

Babs laughed. “To my noble father’s eternal embarrassment, I’m not really cut out to be a countess, so the night before the wedding I eloped with my sword.”

St. Coeur eyed Babs appreciatively, but said to Eddie. “The dragon’s lair is likely up in those mountains, then. They’re pretty smart. Maybe he won’t come this close to civilization again—we did manage to wound him.”

“What are you lads going to do about him?” Eddie couldn’t get the size of the shadow out of his mind. “We can’t fight something like that. You have those bespelled shields and majik amulets.”

St. Coeur nodded. “And even with those to assist us, we lost two men. We were about six men short to have a proper chance at killing him. But I suppose we’ll be sent on a dragon hunt up in the wilds. We don’t just let those sorts of creatures roam freely.”

Babs linked her arm with St. Coeur’s, smiling up at him through dark lashes. “Mat darling, have you ever considered becoming a mercenary? We have so much more fun than you noble younger sons who must do all the dirty work with so little appreciation from her royal bitchiness.”

Mat replied, “Well, I did receive an offer from the Ravens last week, and I may take them up on it. Outside of the occasional dragon hunt, court life bores the hell out of me.”

“You’ll be an asset to them, and if things don’t work out there, I’m sure Eddie could keep you busy here. We’re never bored.” She drew the knight toward the lodge, their voices dwindling as they left the stable.

>>><<<

Later that night, alone in the privacy of his room Eddie held Gertie, overcome by the thought that he’d nearly lost his home. But more importantly, during the ruckus, once everyone was safely out of the burning house all Eddie had been able to think about think about was that Gertie was on the Galwye Road, and the dragon was heading her way.

“I love you, Gertie Smith,” he said, kissing her forehead.

“I love you too. But I’m not giving up the sword.”

“I know, and I don’t care.” And he didn’t. He had as much of his lover as he ever would. He had his mercenary crew, he still had the Bolthole, partially roofless though it was, and he still had his son. No one had died. He didn’t need anything more than that to make him happy.

Gertie slept in his arms, and he laid there listening to the unfamiliar sound of rain hissing on the canvas that now protected his attic. Eddie had no idea what the next day would bring but at that moment he was filled with contentment. Still smiling, Eddie fell asleep.


To read part one of The Bolthole, click here

“The Bolthole, in two parts” © 2016 Connie J. Jasperson, All Rights Reserved

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#fridayfiction: The Bolthole, part 1

The Coffee HouseEddie MacNess watched as the casket containing the body of his captain was lowered into the ground. Gertie Smith and Dame Bess had fixed Marien’s corpse up so well, you’d never know she’d taken a sword to the gut.

He fought the sense of foreboding that had been growing since the ambush two days before. Mad Marien McAllister had been the consummate mercenary and a good leader. With her as captain, he’d believed he’d stay a Wolf forever, but as Eddie looked around the large group gathered around the grave, he saw the same uncertainty reflected in the faces of fully half of his brothers- and sisters-in-arms.

He could feel his son, seventeen-year-old Billy, standing just behind him and knew the lad was wondering the same things he was. Eddie and Billy stood at the rear of the crowd as they were well over six and a half feet tall, the two tallest men in the Wolves, or perhaps anywhere. Eddie was known among the mercenaries as Easy Eddie, because of his genial nature, while Billy hadn’t earned a merc’s nickname other than “the beanpole” yet. He was the image of Eddie at his age, and there was no man larger than Easy Eddie MacNess.

Despite being rail thin and having the cherubic face of a boy, Billy had been a merc since the day he turned fifteen and was legally old enough to sign a contract. Eddie was fiercely proud of him. His son had good instincts and thought like a mercenary. He was captain material, showing initiative even at his young age. But, thinking as a father, Eddie didn’t want his son working under a weak captain.

Marien had been crazier any woman he’d ever known, but she’d never let her spirited nature affect business. Unfortunately, even though her blade had slowed, Marien had insisted on going out on the occasional short, safe job, and that had been the death of her. The utter stupidity of it made Eddie feel ill, even though he knew it would likely be the end of him too.  It was a rare merc who stayed working long enough to collect a pension. Most left the road as soon as they made enough to start a business or a family, and the stubborn ones died in the saddle.

She’d made a will years before, as all mercs were encouraged to do, and Eddie had witnessed it. Her son, Bastard John McAllister, would inherit all her possessions and the right to lead the Wolves. Eddie couldn’t help regarding the heir to Marien’s empire from the corners of his eyes.

The Wolves had maintained a good reputation under her leadership. How things would change after the Bastard took over, Eddie didn’t know, and that was the source of his foreboding.

John reeked of ale, as usual. His mother had just died; that was true. But he always smelled of too much ale. Drunk or sober, Bastard John had a volatile temper, and it clouded his judgment. Weak captains lost good mercs to bad decisions.

During Eddie’s ruminations, the traveling friar had finished his sermon. Marien was neatly buried, and the tamped soil was sprinkled liberally with holy water to keep her soul safe from Old Grim. With the solemnity and prayers out of the way, the townspeople drifted over to the Powder Keg, followed by the Wolves.

As Eddie and Billy walked back to the inn, they saw that a crowd had gathered to pay their respects. The townsfolk now wandered about inside the public common room gossiping, or outside where a white-haired traveling bard in his colorful robes had set up in the muddy square playing his harp and telling a tale praising Marien’s bravery.

“Listen to his accent—he’s a long way from the Eynier Valley.” Billy kept his voice low. “He’s not just an entertainer. He’s one of the old, important ones. It seems a little coincidental that one so advanced in age would chance along just in time for the funeral. He’s here to see what’s going to happen with the will.”

Eddie agreed. “Likely so. Those Southern bards know more about what goes on here in the north than they admit. Nothing they do is accidental. Any change in who runs things draws their attention, even here in the North.”

Billy laughed. “Songs about the youthful indiscretions of Mad Marien and old, dead, King Hargis will be popping up all up and down the trade road.”

As they made their way through the crowd, townsfolk stopped them, praising Marien’s virtues and making free with the ale and food that the Wolves had pulled together for the wake in the large common room. Occasional snatches of muted conversations drifted to them, indicating how even the townspeople were worried about how things would change with her passing.

The townsfolk seemed pleased that Elma McClain had finally agreed to hang up her sword and marry the Bastard although, for the life of him, Eddie couldn’t understand why she would do such a thing. Still, she brewed good ale and would handle running the Powder Keg, which she had regularly done when Marien was on the road. It was a sure thing the Bastard didn’t know how to be an innkeeper, and the only thing he knew about ale was how to drink it.

But Elma should know better than to tie herself to the Bastard. She knew what he was like, better than anyone, seeing as how she had a seven-year-old daughter by him.

The Wolves had gathered in their private parlor, where they had nearly finished the last of the formalities required by the Mercenary Code. All that was left was the reading of Marien’s will and getting John’s signature on a few documents.

Because of Marien’s relationship with the late King Hargis and her position as the leader of the Wolves, the man who was to take care of the legalities was old Eustace De Portiers, the Lord Dogwalker. He was known familiarly as Old Squash and was the man who served as the king’s secretary. He and his knights had arrived from Castleton just as the Wolves were closing up Marien’s grave, bringing Lady Marien McAllister’s will, along with several other documents transferring Marien’s authority to act as a magistrate for Somber Flats to her son and legal heir.

Eddie watched as the Bastard signed all the paperwork with his customary flair:

Bastard John's signature, transparency, kunstler script copy

That was only right—after all, he was the king’s illegitimate half-uncle, and proud of it. Old Squash had brought a letter of condolence from young King Henri to his uncle, of which the boy king’s mother, and currently regent, was likely unaware.

Eddie was in a quandary. The Bastard was now officially the captain of the Wolves, and that meant dealing with his erratic behavior and bastardly disposition.

“At least Elma can cook.” Chicken Mickey spoke from near Eddie’s elbow. Mick had taken her death hard and was already well into the ale barrel, something Eddie had rarely seen. “God knows that will be a positive change.” Smaller than most women, the bandy-legged old man had been the provisioner for the Wolves since the day Marien had received the patent to form her mercenary company as a gift from old King Hargis.

The Bastard would never be the kind of leader his mother had been, but he was a sharp negotiator and understood how the mercenary business worked. With Dave Watts, his cousin, acting as his lieutenant and smoothing things over, the Wolves should do well enough under his leadership.

The trouble was, John had an uncanny knack for making friends with highwaymen and ne’er-do-wells. There was no telling who he would hire—and Eddie didn’t want to deal with that as well as his drunken misbehavior. At last, he came to the conclusion he should have come to long ago.

He could leave and start a company of his own. He’d inherited an old house when his mother passed on, so he could operate out of there. It was nothing much, just a rambling lodge built forty years before by his grandfather who had held a high office under a long-dead king, a place for an avid fisherman to escape the stress of Castleton and royal commitments.

Eddie had grown up there. The family fortunes had faltered, and his distinctly un-noble, hardworking father had managed to turn it into a self-supporting farm despite the wood-wraiths and firesprites that infested the deep woods.

The house was a good two hours ride from the nearest village, a quarry town called Dervy. In its favor, the lodge was situated on the big bend of the River Limpwater halfway between Somber Flats and the capital city, Castleton. It was only a five-hour ride north from the Powder Keg, so Eddie had made the journey every two or three weeks, whenever he had a few days free, to see his parents, and after their deaths, to check on his home.

Another thing the house had going for it–if he wanted to start a business there, the muddy track listed on maps as the King’s Highway went right past it. The main trade road south from the capital city of Castleton, the rutted trail ran the length of the country all the way down to the southern port of Ludwellyn. Long caravans of merchants and their heavily laden wagons would be passing his gate regularly, two or three times a month.

He could tap into that business if he gave it a bit of thought. Times were hard all over. Highwaymen and beasts borne of majik waited at every blind corner and narrow place along the trade road, hoping for easy pickings. That meant there was more than enough guard-work for everyone. And lately, the stonemasons of Dervy had been complaining that no one was ever available to guard them when they needed to travel, putting them in considerable danger.

He was hesitant, only because he wasn’t sure if anyone other than his son would want to go with him. He didn’t even know if Gertie Smith, the lady merc he was in love with would leave with him. He hoped she might, but Gertie had a mind of her own.

He’d found her working at her father’s smithy in Bekenberg. When he collected his armor and paid the master smith for it, Gertie had walked away from her father’s forge, taking up her sword and leaving Bekenberg with him. Then she convinced Eddie to take his son off his aging mother’s hands.

Gertie had been better than good to Billy, raising him until he came of age as if he was her son, despite the closeness of their ages. But she had refused to marry Eddie, and wouldn’t give up the sword for him. In Eddie’s mind, this meant if he struck out on his own, she might not leave the Wolves .

“Eddie MacNess?” The Lord Dogwalker’s quavering voice got his attention. “If you’re witnessing, I need your signature here and here on these and then you can all get on with enjoying the wake.” Feeling guilty for even thinking about leaving, Eddie did as requested, putting his signature as witness to all the paperwork, as did Dirty Dave Watts and Cob John McNally. Once the Bastard and Old Squash had finished all the required signings and witnessings, the elderly knight began rolling his copies into his case, preparing to leave.

Eddie looked up, seeing Walter Besom, known as Iron-fist, gesturing with slight jerks of his head toward the door. Once outside, Walter drew him off even further. His slightly more pronounced Lanque accent indicated he also had been drinking more heavily than usual. “I ain’t signing on with the Bastard. I have my boy, Willie, to think about. Who knows what sort of degenerates the Bastard will sign on here? But I don’t want to drag my son all the way down to Bekenberg to the Ravens or up in the mountains to Wister and the Badgers. We need to do something on our own, maybe out of Galwye. You should be leading us.”

A wave of relief swept through him, and the stress seemed to leave Eddie’s shoulders. “I’ve been thinking that way too. But how about we do this out of my dad’s old place? It’s plenty big enough to hold a small company if we set it up the way the Badgers did their lodge up in Wister.”

Walter’s face broke into a smile, and he clasped Eddie’s shoulder. “I like that. We’ll get our customers from Dervy, and a fair amount from Castleton, so we won’t cut into the Bastard’s business at all. But you’d better grab the Lord Dogwalker while he’s here, and have him get the paperwork started.”

Gertie Smith stepped out of the shadows, stopping in front of them. “I’m going with you. Cob John can handle all the smithing that needs to be done here in Somber Flats. I’m not giving up the sword for you, but I go wherever you do. As long you don’t tie me down.”

“You know I’d never do that.” Eddie’s arms went around her, and he felt dizzy with relief. Gertie was the best part of his life, outside of his son, but he couldn’t have forced her to come with him. “I’ve enough saved to buy you a small anvil. I can set you up with a little forge behind the house so you can pound hot metal all you want.”

“I’d like that. Someday I’ll leave the road and take up my hammer for real, but not yet.” She kissed him soundly.

The three walked back toward the front door. Walter said, “The Bastard’s offering contracts all next week, now that the funeral is over and the paperwork is done. It might get a bit difficult when we don’t sign on with him.”

“He’ll get over it,” Gertie said. “He’ll whine, but he’ll be fine once he sees how he can benefit from it.”

Eddie cornered Old Squash just as he and his knights were mounting up to head back to Castleton. When Eddie explained that he wanted to break away and form his own mercenary company, the old man nodded. “That’s a good idea. The area around Dervy needs a band of mercenaries, and it would give my lads and me a dry spot to sleep when we’re on missions like this one. We’ll have to camp out tonight, which, at my age, I don’t enjoy.”

He sighed heavily, the weight of his myriad duties clearly written on his somber features. “The road through there is so dangerous that even highwaymen avoid it. If you clean out the nuisance-beasts, I’ll make sure you get your patent from the queen regent. She’s not that fond of the Wolves, what with the Bastard being a royal bastard and all, so she’ll agree with no argument.”

Eddie agreed, on one condition. “We don’t have bespelled shields, so we can’t fight firedrakes or dragons. Those sorts of beasts are for your lads to take care of. But we’ll eliminate anything else.”

“I haven’t heard of anything like that along there. It’s too rural, with no livestock to attract the big beasts, so it’s mostly the usual. You know, wood-wraiths, bears, wildcats, or the occasional nest of firesprites suddenly popping up in the middle of the trail, delaying the caravans.” Old Squash shrugged. “The merchants don’t like that, so the queen regent’s guards get sent out looking for things of that nature. But the road is long, and they can’t be everywhere.”

They shook hands, and the Lord Dogwalker and his men departed.

To be continued

Part 2 will post on Friday, July 29, 2016


“The Bolthole, in two parts” © 2016 Connie J. Jasperson, All Rights Reserved

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