How will Kreesh fare when she looks for love among the dreaded "People of Glass"?
Stone Carving in broken Krolesh (thorga) language, near Urga campsites.
Kreesh admired her green skinned, pig-nosed reflection in the pool. She wondered whether the short little man she met found her exotic or monstrous. After a moment, she corrected her brother. "I did too. Right on the nose. Then, he lowered his weapon, and looked in my eyes instead."
Her brother, also pig faced, but barely larger than her man, grunted and drop-kicked his meal to the side.
Kreesh smiled, sighed, and stared into the distance. "He's the one."
"Cowardice makes thorga brittle." Nalg referred to her boy. Kreesh's people called his people thorga, or 'glassmaker'. The runty shaman curled his lips in disgust and shook his head. "If you win his heart, he ruins yours."
Kreesh pouted at Nalg's use of the word thorga, so full of hate. "I'm going to find him."
"Then you're half-thorgabent already."
Nalg lied. Kreesh had as rough a way as any of her people. She waved his objection away, forcing him to duck or take a slap in the snout. "You shaman, and your superstition. Thorgabent comes born. You don't get it by talking to them."
"Your war-maker way deceives you, sister." Her brother, Nalg, stretched up to tag her with a surprise uppercut, knocking her a few steps back. "He will glaze your heart with lies till fate shatters you."
She pounded him back, to his knees.
"Ha-ha! Not entirely corrupted. Thought you'd snitch for help. Cowardly thorga."
Such lazy taunts barely called for a response.. "You know where I come from."
"If you have your way, you must hide your way." Nalg followed her. "Thorga make no home for war makers. I'll see to it, you'll make none here."
Kreesh slapped Nalg's chest. "If I needed my tribe, I'd already be what you call thorgabent."
"Good words." Nalg sneered, and poked his snout inches away from his sister. "Better urga die in shards of thorga lies. No piglet's whims will make glazed our family."
She turned from him. "Mind your place, Nalg. We keep shamans to remind us that we are better."
Nalg's sneer softened with a laugh. "You war makers would grab the sharp end of the sword if not for the spirits' guidance."
"I should have stomped on you when we were piglets."
The little urgan shaman stuck out his chest, beat at the soft armor he wore. "You did, sister. Many times."
She slapped him aside. "So, you're not as glassy as you look."
Kreesh's head buzzed as she beheld the eerie, little people in the thorga town. Their teeth, like a horse's, hid behind pink lips, not so sharp as the noses on their pretty faces. Their soft fingers had no claws. Their pale skin looked soft as peaches. Tools and things cluttered the place, yet inside the town, she saw no armor, nor even weapons. It made her wonder if Nalg's preaching held any weight. Far from being cowards, they must be insane!
If I were that soft, I'd hide in a burrow. Still, it hurt when they ran from her, like chickens from a fox. She kept her weapons tied, legal-like; the guards had helped her. "Who will talk me?"
A gray-haired man strode from the crowd. His thin leather armor seemed useless, but everything in this town looked fragile; that was why her people called them thorga, after all. Kreesh doubted the man knew how easily she could punch through his breastplate. The tallest man in town, he came a head shorter than Kreesh and weighed perhaps half as much as she. Yet, he reminded her of the wild, red-lion-rampant tabard hanging from his chest—the same one that she had seen on her beautiful boy. "You speak Krolesh, Urgan?"
Kreesh, no! Don't call him thorga. In her best Krolesh, she replied, "No, huma. I no talk yours talk."
"Real funny, orc. What's a pig doing outside her pen?"
The insult made her smile. Before stopping herself, she nearly smacked the man across the chest like a brother. "You talk brave, little man."
"Fight brave, too." He spat at her feet. "You've got your sword tied up like a good pig. If you want, I'll let you swing it before I untie my own."
Huma just like us! Hope swelled in her chest. "I no come to hang, huma."
"Listen here, pig. Name's Colwyn: Lord Colwyn Aldredge." He smiled for a moment.
Kreesh did not know what all that meant, so she nodded and waited.
"I count more pig kills than all the humans you've met. You're walking on thin ice, bound to break our laws sooner or later. Might as well duel me now. Better yet, skip town."
Kreesh remembered her quest, and shook her head. "No can leave."
He slapped her on the shoulder of her armor. "Great news. Been looking to exercise my sword arm."
Still holding a doorknob she had accidentally ripped from the front door of the tavern, Kreesh sat in back, keeping her sobs as quiet as she could. Tears come easily to an urga, but thorga never cry. They call it weak. Thorgabent? No, that makes no sense. She didn't understand these people, humble enough to beg for help, yet too proud to carry weapons or cry. She didn't want her beautiful boy to see her doing something piggish and weak.
"Hello, there. Are you looking for me?" Her beautiful boy stood in front of her.
As she recognized his voice, her heart twinged. She wanted to run. She nodded, and stared at his chest, the red-lion-rampant. She wiped her eyes with a scarf, then hid her snout.
He pulled the scarf down, and sat beside her. "You look all right to me." He offered her a ball of bread.
She took it, and bit at it gingerly. That's what you do, right? She stared, thorga rules squirming in her head as she tried to read his strange, blue eyes.
His nose isn't broken! They're stronger than they look! "Thwack you."
"You're welcome, I think." He laughed. "Heard you met my dad, Colwyn. You should stay away from him. He's bad news."
She glared, confused. "Bad and new?"
"Name's Corwin." He reached out his hand. "In the forest, you punched me, instead of trying to kill me. Why?"
"You be cute."
"Not so bad yourself." He reached out his hand again.
"Why you poke the air?"
"It's a greeting."
"Oh." Kreesh slapped him in the chest, forcing him to yelp. He had no armor at all, though he carried a dagger and sword. "Like that?"
He massaged his chest. "Yeah, only don't hit. Put your hand out, into—in the air, like a tree branch."
When she did, he took it gently in his, and brushed his lips against her knuckles.
She didn't understand, but she liked the gesture. "I no stab, you no bite. I be cute?"
He showed a bit of teeth. "That's for me to know, and you to find out."
A voice Kreesh didn't understand called in the distance.
Corwin put his finger on her lips. "I'm late. Stay out of trouble, and meet me tomorrow night."
The melody of Corwin's voice roused her. "Wake up."
The stench of roses and stale blood filled her nostrils. She opened her eyes to see her sword sticking in an Aldredge tabard. To her horror, Corwin's murdered face stared at her. "I killed him!"
"You didn't kill anybody, but if you don't get up, that's not going to make any difference."
She looked up at the man standing over her. He sounded like Corwin, but looked different.
The stranger knelt, took her hand and kissed her. The mask melted. Steam covered Corwin's head, but he looked right again.
"I told you, Colwyn is bad news. Let's go—this way." He took her hand and led her. As one bellman's alarm followed another, they ran into the night. He led her to a small well, then climbed in.
Holding himself by the wall, waist high, he said, "Follow me," then let himself drop.
She looked, and he splashed to a side door and disappeared. "Come, before anybody sees you."
She jumped, and landed with a thud that left a satisfying ache in her knees. She smiled, for she had passed another test.
Once she looked up, he beckoned her into the tunnel. "Father doesn't know about this place. It's from the old days, when we practiced our art in secret. Funny, Aldredge sorcerers were good people—before we took control of the county."
As Corwin led, tiny lightning crackled on the candles in the wall, lighting the way. A small table waited at the end of the hall, with three chairs and a shelf. Corwin pointed to the largest chair, and rummaged through the bits of crinkly cloth that lay on the shelf. "I know the spell Colwyn used. If we're lucky, I might just have the—yes, here it is." He spread it out on the table like a map.
If she touched it, it would tear. Some of the rumors held weight, unlike things thorga built, like chairs and tables. They hate when things crack under the test. The innkeeper blamed Kreesh for the flimsy door. Afraid to test her new friend's toys, she chose to stand. "No understand. You not dead. How Kreesh kill you?" She glared. Her Krolesh made her seem dumber and more piggish.
"That body isn't real. It is..." Corwin trailed off. "... magic."
Kreesh scratched her head. "Make rule-change, like shaman Nalg?"
His eyes and mouth opened wide. "Yes, exactly right. Excellent term. And don't mind your speech. I'm even worse in urgan tongue—I get my point across as long as it's 'ta mek medkek.'"
"Ha mek medkek," she corrected. Despite the ridiculous, cave-urgan accent, the surprise of being threatened by this little man delighted her. She wanted to drag him to bed, to let him try to beat her into retreat! She would never shy away from him. She looked at him, to see if he meant what he had said.
He smiled sly, with a cocky tilt of the head.
An urgan should slap that smile off a suitor's face, but she paused; no sense in a test you know he will fail. Better to taunt. "Little-girl you? And what army."
"I can conjure you any army you want, Piggy; you're not going to pass my tests."
She blinked at the fog around his head, hunting for another layer of rule-change and an urgan snout; this beautiful, thorga boy out-boasted the chieftain.
She slapped his hands away from the peace ties on her sword; she didn't want to be caught looking ready to fight. A town of thorga—huma, rather—forms a mob more eagerly than an urga throws a tantrum. "No can do this! Thorga—sorry, huma—need the tribe. Alone, you die!"
"The Aldredge clan drags me down. Always said I want to leave, take refuge in Westwood maybe." Corwin shrugged. "Better people there. Never had good reason before."
He would abandon his tribe? Nothing had ever honored her so. Her cheeks burned. "But, what if you don't pass the test?"
"We'll survive. Have to believe that." He nudged her chin with his fist, soft like it might break. "Buck up, Piggy. I've got the plan."
She let him pull her sword out, and laid it in the dirt. He began to chant, and a whirlwind gathered around the sword. The smell of stale blood and ale couldn't cover the putrid aroma of roses that the rule-change carried. A blank, urgan corpse formed from the dust around the sword.
She covered her nose. "Who this be, Corwin?"
"It's you. At least, that's what people will think when I tell them you rescued me from this urgan assassin." He grinned.
"I no look like me?"
"That's about the size of it, Piggy." He elbow-slapped her in the chest plate, half as hard as he should. "Reward! I call for the reward."
"I look yours?"
"No, still urgan. Shh!"
People gathered. One of them yelped, "Urgan! That rabid pig, she's been slain!"
Several thorga guards—with real armor—appeared on the scene, followed by Colwyn. He looked straight at his son, and sneered. "I've been bested by you, boy? I wanted my blade in her chest, not ... this."
Corwin's lips mirrored Colwyn's disgust for a second, pointed to the corpse. "Be my guest."
The old man puffed up his chest and smiled for a flash. "Not the same, is it?"
"You'll manage, milord. About the bounty?"
"I'll award no bounty to an urgan. By rights she should lie beside this thing." He leaned in, spoke soft. Only Corwin and Kreesh could hear. "Do I detect the perfume of spellwork?"
Corwin laid the false urga corpse on a cart, waved for it to be taken, sword and all. "If I did, milord, 'tis only prudent. It might be her blade, yet the kill belongs to me. Pay up."
Colwyn looked down upon his son. "I shall remember what you have done this day."
Kreesh fingered the peace tie on her sword, and glanced around. She could weather several stabs, should even survive.
Corwin took the gold, counted it, and looked at Kreesh for a moment. He shook his head at them. "Forget it. If I've my say, we shall never cross paths again."
"Been expecting you to leave us." Colwyn's fingers lingered close to his dagger.
Corwin stepped nose to nose with his father, and lowered his voice. "Think they're going to let you kill me?"
"They'll believe I speak the truth. 'Tis what 'good men' do."
Corwin nodded, rolled his eyes. "No idea you loved your son so much. My condolences."
"Can't let our good name get smeared with urgan filth, can I?"
"It's her name in the dirt." He kicked dust on Colwyn's shoes. "If she'll have me."
He sighed and rolled his eyes. "Go, then. Good riddance."
Corwin turned toward the town gate, beckoning Kreesh to follow.
As they got out of sword range, Colwyn threw his dagger, piercing Corwin's heart. "Murderer! Your beast attacks my son, then you slaughter her for the bounty? Rot in the Mazes Beyond, filthy vermin!"
As Corwin's knees gave out, Kreesh caught and hugged him to her. She choked on the stink of roses as he bled out in her arms. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to test you. I wanted to ... what do the thorga do? Keep you safe?" Tears burned in her eyes.
Corwin smiled through clenched teeth. "Careful! You keep crying, people will think you're human." He caressed her cheek, his bright blue eyes squinting.
For all she could read on his face, it might have been a nick, like a marriage stab. She admired the perfect spirit that proved true, even as his body failed the test. Her fingers ran along his hair, pulled his face toward her breastplate. "Let them think. Stay with me, beautiful boy."
Their weapons drawn, the guards circled. Kreesh growled, intending to chew apart anybody who came too close.
Colwyn waved them off. "Let her do what she wants. He is kin of ours, no longer." He stalked off with a flourish of his cape.
She guarded Corwin's corpse until late in the night, when the warning of the shattered-light— what thorga call the moons—drove her to deep despair. Fate left no option but to fail its test. Her sword lay in the wagon with the false Kreesh. No self-respecting urga carries a backup weapon. A true warrior smites with empty fists, leaves the glass blades for thorga and shamans. So, she inspected Colwyn's rule-change dagger, still blessed with the blood of her beautiful, thorga boy.
"If I cannot possess you in life, I can wed you in death, as our blood mingles. Is that how you marry, also?" Wild tears dripped from her eyes as she moved her breastplate, to expose the tattered undershirt.
Her hand trembled as she brought the blade to her heart. "Do not trouble yourself. I failed the test, like no urga. Celebrate my death: another fraud shattered!" She drove the dagger into herself. The pain disappointed, like the caress of a thorn. Stale blood rushed from her wound and mouth. Rose stench gagged her. Her eyes drooped. At last, she crumpled over her fallen love.
She awoke on a bed, staring at a sky of stone like the cave urga. Stripped of her armor, for the first time in life, she rolled over, she grabbed her knees to her chest.
Next to her slept Corwin, stripped of all but tattered undergarments.
Colwyn sneered. "Your cuirass lies over there. Imagine you'll be wanting it."
Kreesh ran to strap it on.
"I wanted to murder you before you woke. The count would have none of it." Colwyn shrugged. "So I've arranged to sell you into slavery."
"Nonsense." Corwin sat up. "If you wanted us dead, you'd never use the Morpheus Dagger."
"My sadism got the better of me."
"How you alive? How I alive?" Kreesh noticed a strip of copper around her left middle finger, and tried to pull it off.
"It's a trick blade." Corwin shook his head, and showed a matching ring on his hand. "Keep the ring. Please! They'll separate us."
She crinkled her nose, not understanding.
In urgan, he whispered, "You used the dagger, my blood to yours. Doesn't that make us married?"
A warrior's marriage. She nodded.
Colwyn took them to a crate on a wagon, and demanded they get in, at the point of a sword. Once they huddled inside, he personally hammered the crate closed.
Corwin raised an eyebrow. "Isn't it a bit cruel to send us away in a box, Father?"
"Wouldn't want anybody asking questions. Besides, you're getting off good, sold to Raphael here." Colwyn chuckled. "Bet he'll only beat you once, maybe thrice a day."
"Thanks for that, Dad." He sounded calm, but she didn't know him that well. Perhaps thorga had their own warrior pride.
Colwyn's hungry grin grew as he put the last board in place. "At least, you'll be with your precious pet."
After they left the town behind them, Raphael stopped to pull a few of the boards from the crate, not enough that they could get free.
"Thank you, stranger."
"Don't thank me. I still own you, at least till we get where we're going."
"And where is that?"
"Relax. You're going to Westwood."
Corwin said, "But, Westwood doesn't allow slaves."
"My duke does, however, buy their freedom. You'll fetch a heavy purse there. Otherwise, you'll be going somewhere nasty." Raphael gagged on a laugh, and drank from a flask. "At least, his grace thinks so. I abhor slavery."
Kreesh didn't understand these rantings, but she noticed Corwin's relieved sigh.
Raphael hit the crate with his blood-spattered crowbar, and his whispery voice tightened. "Keep your head down, Aldredge. I don't do slavery, but I excel in murder." He brandished a blue-burning dagger, and climbed into his seat.
Corwin scowled, looked out the peephole, and grinned.
He slapped her knee and squeezed. "A sign. 'Westwood,' ahead."