The Pact – A Short Story Collaboration (Compiled Post)

This is the first reblog I’ve ever done, and it’s a privilege: the first time I participated in a joint writing project with a group of folks so talented my head was left spinning at their creativity and the craft inherent in their wordsmithery. All credit due to Nillu Stelter for gathering us together and setting us out on the journey. I can’t wait to work on the sequel!

Nillu Nasser Stelter

You’ll find the combined three parts of our short story collaboration ‘The Pact’ below, based on the Surrealist game Exquisite Corpse. Thanks, first and foremost, to all the contributing writers. You’ll find their bios and contact details at the end of the post. Thank you especially to Jess West & Jo Blaikie, who lent a supportive hand on the editing. Jess also pulled together the image you see here. Hope you enjoy it.


Nillu Nasser Stelter

He slept in a room full of colour and familiar objects, but the silence crept under the door and touched his face. A blue-black curtain of darkness still hung in the sky. Unease gripped him. He rolled out of bed to look for his mother.

The door handle spun easily in his hand as he padded out into the hallway. The house was dark and didn’t look much like his house at…

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2014: The Year That Was and Will Never Be Again

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.  Witnesseth henceforth the spoils:

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 18,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 7 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report, if that floats your particular boat.

As many of us seem to live by the credo that an unexamined life is not worth living, December 31st offers us the perfect chance to cast our gazes backward upon feats both accomplished and fallen short.  Insofar as we limit our lens to this blog, it was a year of new roads taken with just as many varying degrees of success.  There are some posts here that I’m very proud of and others that inspire nothing but a shrug.  As always I’m disappointed that I don’t write more.  Sticking to a writing schedule becomes problematic when the priorities of life, work and family have a tendency to push it far down the list.

Still, there was some good work done here this past annum, and I had the honor of receiving the coveted Freshly Pressed award back in February, for a post about Justin Bieber, of all things.  What made it really special for me though was seeing some of the writer friends I’ve made receive the award themselves in due course:  Rachael, Drew, Debbie, Amira and Nillu.  I was incredibly proud of all of them, and one of the things that excites me most about 2015 is getting to continue to read their inspiring and divinely crafted words – along with many others whose Freshly Pressing is undoubtedly a mere matter of time.

I suppose two groups of posts really stand out for me, as concerns my own work.  The first was my participation in April’s A to Z blog challenge, which involved 26 posts in 30 days, and I chose, probably from a bout of temporary madness, to try and find an alphabetical list of songs that had some meaning for me throughout my life upon which I could expound at length.  In some ways it was one of the easiest writing assignments I’ve ever given myself, peeling back the layers to put a little more of my experiences out there for the world to peruse, rather than simply commenting on the course of events affecting others.  And I was delighted to be joined in the challenge by two terrific writers who provided plenty of encouragement along the way, both in their comments on my posts and the imagination showcased in their own:  the amazing Joanne and the irrepressible Gunmetal Geisha.  Thank you for so much.

The second was the little tale that has occupied this blog exclusively for the last four months:  Vintage.  It began with a dream of the image that, ironically, closes the most recent chapter:  a beautiful witch standing over a man she’s frozen in a lake.  From that single still has sprung a sprawling story that has given me a new opportunity to stretch and explore the power of words, and many thanks must go out to you readers who have stuck with me during this radical change of direction.  The new year will see me returning to my usual bailiwick, but Vintage will continue to unfold on a semi-regular basis and once it is finished it will be made available here as a complete PDF you can download and peruse to your heart’s content.

As I write this there are a little over six hours left in 2014, and my observations suggest that few of us will be sad to see it go.  The world really took it in the teeth this year, and the bad guys got away with way too much.  But turning the page on this calendar offers us a chance to regroup and reboot and come at our challenges armed with a fresh infusion of optimism – the world’s most renewable resource.  I’m not sure where I’ll be on December 31, 2015, or what will have transpired between now and then (I’m not very hopeful of the release of hoverboards at this point), but we’re only limited in the realization of dreams by choosing not to go after them at warp speed.  I’ll be turning 40 this coming year, and when you start to accept that there are fewer years ahead than there are behind, your perception shifts.  No one wants to look back on their life with the phrase I should have.

Happy New Year, everyone, and whatever you wish for 2015, may you find the courage to chase it, wisdom to understand it and above all else, joy in the accomplishment.

Vintage, Part Eight


Hope you’ve had/are having a great holiday!  Here is a belated Christmas present for you.  Enjoy.

Hooves blurred into a thumping drone as they battered the ground beneath him, enough to pierce the ringing in his ears.  Etienne stabbed his fingers into his palms as he clutched onto the reins, certain that to loosen his grip by even a hair meant being dismembered, probably in incremental portions, by the pack of would-be wolfhounds trailing behind him.  Surprisingly uncouth of them to have reacted this adversely to watching their munificent leader be stabbed.  Impoliteness aside, they were damned dogged in their pursuit, and it was by only the most bizarre of happenings that Etienne had managed to extricate himself from their custody in the first place.

He had known, even as he had reached into his vest pocket back in St. Iliane, that he and his men had no chance of escaping that room, let alone the town.  They were surrounded, unarmed, and seated, hardly a prime tactical position.  The best Etienne could have hoped for was a negotiated surrender and exactly what Le Taureau had insisted upon – that they march away half-clothed and humiliated.  Igniting a confrontation under those circumstances was, in a word, idiotic.

But Etienne’s ego had demanded it.  He was already humiliated.  Mortified that men he had dismissed as simpletons had outsmarted him, that his mind was so befuddled by thoughts of Nightingale that he had lost his perception and his ruthlessness.  And, on hearing a crude ruffian like Le Taureau drool over her, inflamed by a sudden and uncontrollable flash of jealousy.  Base emotions that he had long ago learned to master and keep out of his business, driving him once again as if he were a pimply adolescent incensed by the appearance of a rival for a young lady’s affections.

Even now, clinging to this horse’s neck and racing away from St. Iliane and Le Taureau’s men, he had wits enough about him to understand how stupid and shortsighted he’d been, and that he was alive only thanks to chance – thanks to the unique, and frankly, inexplicable properties of the silvered metal from which his dagger had been forged.

Metal made no sound scraping against cotton as Etienne snatched the dagger from its concealed sheath.  But everyone heard the crunch and squish and ensuing scream as he plunged it straight through Le Taureau’s hand.  As the dagger severed the last of the flesh on its downward thrust and cleaved through to embed itself in the wood of the table beneath, a tremendous wave of blunt force had erupted from its tip, expanding instantly in all directions and blasting every nearby soul quite dramatically off his feet.  Le Taureau’s men, encircling the table, had borne the worst of it as they had the misfortune to have walls impeding their trajectory.  They were propelled through the splintering beams and panels of the exploding hall, and left Etienne, Corporal Valnier and the group who’d been sitting a much cleaner path through which to be hurled after them.

He heard nothing; the sound of the world was drowned by the whine in his ears cutting through his skull.  He pushed himself up, looked up at the chunks of debris still raining from the sky through the smoke that hovered just above the ground.  There was a lumpen mass beneath him.  Etienne had come to rest on top of one of Le Taureau’s men, or rather what was left of the man, as this one had gone straight through a particularly thick plank of wood that had, in turn, gone straight through him.  Swallowing retches, Etienne peeled himself off the body and rolled free, arms and legs as flimsy as fabric as he tried to rise.  He could not get a good sense of the scene, of how many of the bodies lying near him were threats, how many were friendly and how many, regardless of allegiance, would simply never move again.  Etienne began to see the other villagers emerge from beyond the smoke, saw stupefied and fearful expressions crest into rage as they spotted him.  To the east, a horse’s cry broke through the fog, and Etienne bolted for it, the angry shouts aimed at him blissfully unheard.  The fence surrounding the horse pen had been blown apart, and Etienne leaped onto the nearest mount, seized the reins and gave it a hard kick in the ribs.  They were clear of the smoke in only a few seconds, and the wreckage of St. Iliane began to fall away.

It had not been long before other survivors had availed themselves of the remaining horses and set out after him.  However, Etienne was not sure where he was leading them, if he could allow himself a spare thought to ponder it.  The pitiless sun was sinking lazily to his right, so he must have been heading south, though the jerking course through the wilderness he and the horse were following could scarcely be called true.  Wherever they turned, ahead seemed only miles and miles of frail, browned scrub and the dry earth from which it sprang.  Direction was not the priority, distance was, and right now he needed much more of it between himself and his pursuers.

Who were those men?  As though, when a man has a blade to your neck, it matters who tailors his clothes.  To Etienne they needed to be nothing more than a faceless monolith, thinking and moving as one giant melding of man and horse, possessed of a single, unchanging, unwavering intent:  him, captured, or dead.  Presented with garnish to Le Taureau and his bleeding, likely gangrenous hand.  Everything else was irrelevant and a distraction, and distractions cost speed.

Etienne risked a glance back over his shoulder, through the curving trail of dust clouds simmering up from where hoofprints had cracked the ground and back toward the receding contours of the hills that concealed St. Iliane on the other side.  He could not see anyone else.  His fingers relaxed their chokehold on the reins as the longed-for sensation of relief dared to trickle its way up from the constant churning in his gut.  He even felt the creeping inklings of a smile at the corners of his lips.  Not a satisfied smile, since that would require a level of delusion about one’s grandeur that even his usual arrogance would not permit, but more the realization that there would indeed be another day for him at the end of this one that had seen him so close to a most final defeat.  The smile was even edging the to threshold of a laugh when the ground quite literally felt out from under him.

Looking aft, Etienne had not noticed the approaching change in terrain, or more precisely the sudden interruption of their path by a downward slope.  The horse handled it well enough, regaining its footing after only one misstep, but Etienne, unprepared, required just that much longer to steady himself, and in that space where time is measured in fractions of breaths, said fractions can mean the difference between remaining seated upon one’s horse and shaking one’s head at the close call, or tumbling sideways out of the saddle and rolling end over end to a bruised stop at the very bottom of the dale.

Etienne wheezed and sat up to watch his deliverance gallop onwards without him.  Despite himself, he let loose with a flurry of oaths casting aspersions upon its parentage, and turned himself to the question of locating a decent place to hide, given that the option of escape had now, well, escaped.

Thirst filled his throat with sandpaper and squeezed blood from blistered lips.  Hunger had long since evolved from a nuisance easily dismissed to a persistent, scraping gnaw.  Exhaustion crept up on him and tied weights to his eyelids, but Etienne willed himself awake and vigilant, secreted behind a wall of rocks, waiting for the veil of night to slip over the landscape.  His ears probed the desolate terrain for the merest squeak of movement, finding only the whistle of hot desert wind.  It had been hours now, but he refused to move until he could be certain of his safety, certain that anyone from St. Iliane and Le Taureau had at the last given up the hunt.

Etienne propped himself up against a cracked boulder and winced as it needled at his back.  Pain was such an unfamiliar sensation to him, the absence of comfort a theft of his sense of himself.  His life was casino tables and gorgeous women and fine wine, not clinging to survival by threads in a forsaken wilderness.  But once he knew that he was safe, what then?  He was alone, without a mount or supplies – or allies for that matter – miles from anywhere resembling the civilization he deserved.  He was beginning to resign himself to the notion that this fate was of his own making.  That he had been foolish to accept this task from the Bureau, regardless of their inducements.  It would not impact them a single iota if he was to fail.  They could write him and his men off with a few flourishes of a quill and simply assign someone else to the pursuit of Nightingale.  Perhaps they had selected him deliberately for a mission of futility for fear of his ambition and status, his unparalleled record of success.  Perhaps the paranoid Directeur Ste-Selin had viewed the Nightingale situation as the perfect opportunity to rid himself of a skilled competitor.  Would it not amuse the man, then, to learn of Etienne’s plight now.  Abandoned, lost, likely dying, all for the obsessive love of a witch whose real name he did not even know.  And for Etienne, the worst part of it still was the notion that he might never see her again.

Her beauty sang across the divide of perception as sleep tried to claim him.  She would be there waiting in his dreams as she always was, every night, every sliver of a nap even.  He only needed to let go, to succumb to the weariness, to her siren call.  He knew, though, that this time he would not wake, and any chance of encountering the real Nightingale would be lost forever.  That kept his eyes open, his mind focused.  He needed to endure, for her.  He dared not depart a world in which she existed.  Pas encore.

The cry of crows shattered the silence.  Etienne shook himself from his haze and peered out from the outcropping of stone, across the valley floor.  Shadows grew long and the sun turned the rouge of an old harlot’s lips as it drifted beyond the hills to the west, but the angry heat continued to sap every last drop of moisture out of the ground and out of Etienne’s body.  Strength in his limbs had become but a memory now.

Dust stirred beneath the dwindling rose petal sky and shot a lingering jolt of alertness through his veins.  Etienne’s vision had grown glassy, but within the panorama of blur he could see shifting blobs of dark, their movements too orderly to be the randomness of nature.  There was a sound to it, too, a crescendo and fade of indistinguishable bursts, their duration shifting from short to long.  Etienne fell back behind the stones, shut his eyes and diverted his attention to his ears.  Perhaps it was nothing?  The world was not inclined to be kind to him this day, however, and the longer he listened, the more those blurred sounds sharpened themselves into the recognizable patois of voices.

Bite du diable.  They had found him.

It would not be much of a last stand.  Etienne could no longer move his legs.  He groped at the ground for something he could use to defend himself:  a rock, a stick, anything with a pointed end, but blistered fingers came away only with mounds of gravel that slipped between them.

The voices were getting closer, and they were shouting, calling out.  The words were still a muddle, buried beneath the din of hooves against earth.  Perhaps now, Etienne wondered, it might be time to let go, to answer Nightingale’s call, to give himself fully to the visions of her.  He saw the beautiful face beaming at him, the slender fingers draped in the violet light of her magic beckoning him to surrender to her, the perfect lips forming the shape of his name.  Etienne.  And it occurred to him that he had no idea what her voice sounded like, that perhaps it sabotaged her willowy, ethereal presence by being an oddly-accented, raspy, tone-deaf squeak.  That amused him, and he laughed as consciousness finally slipped away.

Etienne.  “Etienne.  Etienne!”

Someone was shaking his shoulders, hard.  Etienne clawed at the darkness, desperate to remain its prisoner.  Waking offered him nothing; in slumber he was carefree in the company of his fantasies.  But he was pulled up and away from the abyss, hauled by the legs like a rabbit to market, and flailing fingers could not keep him anchored.  Light pried apart his eyelids and wedged the real world back in, and he was greeted not by some anonymous thug but by the welcome visage of Corporal Valnier.  “Monsieur,” he said once Etienne was aware of him, reverting to their custom.  “You’re safe.”

“Valnier,” Etienne whispered.  Every halting syllable scraped over a razor.  “Still… no more… than two words for me?”

The corporal grinned as he pushed a skin full of blissful water to his master’s lips.  “Drink up.”

They replenished his fluids, gave him enough food to quell his irate stomach and tended to the worst of his wounds, and at Etienne’s insistence got him swiftly onto a horse and their company riding onwards to the south before the first stars began to twinkle in the night.  There were only six of them now.  Valnier was sure that at least four had been lost back in St. Iliane, and there had been no sign of the others.  As the corporal related it, in his economical manner, of course – Etienne had to piece together the missing parts of the tale with observation and deduction – despite the immediate casualties, the company had made a decent fight of it and managed to retrieve a good portion of their gear and weapons in the confusion, before setting out after the posse that had been pursuing Etienne and, eventually, running them all down.  Etienne allowed himself a smile at that, though he was not enamored to hear that Le Taureau was still alive, and that even crippled, the enormous man had taken down two of his men.  There was a score to be settled there, and Etienne imagined for a moment descending upon St. Iliane clad in his Commissionaire’s uniform with a legion of soldiers at his back.

Premières choses premières, however, and a decent night’s sleep would be a good start.

They located a suitable camp adjacent to a small freshwater lake once the last of the daylight had gone, though as usual the departing sun did not take its heat with it.  Valnier supervised the securing of the horses, the distribution of food rations and the construction of a fire, the latter for its visibility and certainly not for its warmth.  Etienne sat back and watched and listened to his men as they set up their sleeprolls and chatted amongst themselves.  They were by turns angry, remorseful, embittered and afraid, and he did not know what he could say to them by way of reassurance.  He had never been one to ingratiate himself with the men under his command; to him they remained anonymous drones useful only for the carrying out of orders, and with the exception of Valnier it was his habit never to keep the same complement for more than one assignment.  He let Valnier tend to the names and the foibles and the quirks while he remained detached and concentrated on the mission.

Ce soir, he found himself examining their faces and thinking about the four who had not made it out of St. Iliane.  Those four men could not have imagined when they saw the sunrise this morning that it would be for the last time.  They could not have imagined that the filthy water Le Taureau saw fit to serve them would be the last drink they would ever taste.  They had entered into this contract expecting that they would do the job, receive their pay, and go home, to wherever and whatever home was.  Somewhere there were people waiting for those four men to return.  Etienne could not even admit that they died for a worthy cause.  If anything, they had died because of his pride, his vanity, his arrogance.  Hardly reasons one could satisfactorily explain to a grieving widow.

After a time the men settled into base conversation and filthy humor, presided over by the silent Valnier, who sat by the fire with arms crossed.  Etienne rose to his feet and wandered off, mumbling an excuse to his corporal about locating some privacy to relieve himself.  The corporal nodded, implying with a look that Monsieur should remain where he could be seen at all times.

Etienne walked a good distance down, to the edge of the shoreline, stopping where the water lapped gently at the toes of his boots, and looked out over the long white V painted by the moonlight upon its still sheen.  Those men, Valnier included, would all be looking to him for what to do next.  For the first time, he had no answer.  He could not go back to Calerre and supplicate himself before the Directeurs now.  The unspoken order had been to return with his quarry or not at all, meaning the alternatives offered by failure were exile, prison, or, a convenient disappearance.  The mission had to continue, but, to where, and to what end?  The damned witch left no trace of herself, no trail for a hunter to follow.  The path before him was as dark and shapeless as the lake before him now.  One might as well have asked an ant to chase this bird.

Etienne unlaced his boots and kicked them off, and stepped into the water.  It curled about his toes and caressed his blisters.  He loosened his shirt collar, and found himself undoing buttons, then slipping his arms out of the sleeves and letting it fall aside.  His belt was next, and he stood naked on the shore and let the hot breeze slide between his legs for a moment before abandoning all further semblance of caution and plunging headfirst into the lake.

It was warm and soupy and clogged with algae, but Etienne did not care.  He swam until the water began to clear and feel cool.  He floated on his back and looked up at the moon, at the canopy of stars splashed across the sky.  They were uncommonly brilliant tonight, and he struggled to recall the last time he had looked at them.  His father had taught him the names of the most prominent ones, but those secrets had long been forgotten.  What good, he had asked in his more callous days, were those tiny dots of light up there?  Certainly nothing worth remembering what the misguided astronomers chose to call them.

Etienne waded further.  The campfire at the shore was an easily located beacon, so he was not concerned about becoming lost in the darkness.  He did not relish returning, though.  He would be content to remain out here as long as he could plausibly extend it.  Going back meant giving an answer to that question they all wanted to ask, and he still had none.  For now he was content to let them have their time, and exchange their jokes, and roast dried meat in the flickering flames in the hopes of lending it some palatable flavor.

Etienne squinted as he looked back.  The flames were not flickering.  They were steady, like those of a candle.  He had never seen a fire that size be that calm.  Odd.  Maybe he was just tired.  But no sound was coming from the campsite either.  The voices had stopped.

Etienne paddled closer.  It was more than just a steady flame.  It was frozen still.  Sparks that had snapped free of cracking logs hovered in mid-air, caught and held motionless by an unseen hand.  The five men, too, were suspended in the midst of their own respective movements, robbed of all will.  It was as if he was looking at a painting of the scene in the most realistic style imaginable, rendered by the sixth person abruptly standing with them.

Clad in a hooded cloak.

A chill shot through Etienne’s spine, and the water beading on skin exposed to the air evaporated into dry cold as his breath turned to mist.

Furious arms ploughed water into foam as he swam hard for shore.  The figure in the cloak crouched and extended a hand, reaching a slender, feminine finger out to tap gently against the surface of the water, as though testing its temperature.  A purple flash spread out from her fingertip through the body of the lake, expanding in ever-widening concentric rings of light.  As magic hurtled through each drop of water it solidified instantly.  The wave spread further and washed over Etienne.  It caught him at the waist.  He felt a hard wrench on his midsection as the spell seized him in its grip, and though he could feel himself ordering his legs to kick they did not move.  He was suspended in what had become an enormous transparent block, with him very much the insect in that amber.

Etienne looked up to see the figure in the cloak step out onto the now stony surface of the lake.  He opened his mouth to call to Valnier, but the corporal remained a frozen sculpture, staring blankly into a fire that was just as lifeless as he.

The cloaked figure began walking towards him, striding with purpose.  Etienne shivered, even as the cold air infused itself with a familiar, seductive scent.

It’s her.  Mes dieux, it’s her.

She stood over him, and as she drew back her hood and allowed her long hair to spill out, Etienne fought the impetus to gasp at the revelation once more of the beauty that had arrested his senses and his heart, upon their first encounter.  She was, impossibly, even more than the vivid picture that had haunted every moment of his existence since.  Such feelings she fired in him he could scarcely comprehend, let alone try to control.  Of all the emotions, all the wild thoughts surging within him in her presence, the only one that was clear was that he was hers.

Luscious amaranthine lips parted, and she spoke music to him.

“Hello, Etienne,” Nightingale said.  “You’ve been looking for me.”

*  *  *

And we will leave it there for 2014.  Have a happy New Year and look forward to the resumption of this rapidly sprawling tale far sooner than you’ll see hoverboards on retail shelves.  Thanks always for reading!

Vintage, Part Seven


We humbly present our newest installment.  From the writer’s perspective, it’s fascinating to watch an idea that grew from a single image flesh itself out and bring in new characters and situations that were never part of the initial conception.  This part contains such a creation.  Enjoy…

“Where is Nightingale?”

Etienne had lost count of how many times he had asked that question.  The permutations in which one could use the same three words were limited, the range of tone confined to a scale from mildly inquisitive to angry and accusatory, and it felt as though he had exhausted them all by the conclusion of the first week on the hunt.  The answers, also, were entirely variations on the negative, whether offered with formality across a posh dining table or squeezed from a stubborn neck.  Oh, they had all heard rumors equal in vagueness, but specifics were as elusive as the object of the quest herself.  It became plain to Etienne, though he was hesitant to share his revelation to Valnier or his new crop of recruits, that Nightingale would be found only if she wished to be.

The search took them back into the vast stretches of the province surrounding the wilds where they had first seen her.  Enough miserable and often nameless villages dotted this portion of the country to occupy Etienne’s detachment a good twenty years if they had the means to check through each one.  Though it had gone unsaid at his meeting at the Bureau, Etienne understood that expediency was expected, that the Directeurs demanded a swift victory to repair the damage to the Bureau’s image that Nightingale had caused.  But it had been like sending a captain on a sea voyage without a sextant or a map, or, as it sometimes felt, even a sail or an oar.  Certainty had always guided Etienne’s assignments in the past, and he was not accustomed to fumbling about in the darkness.

This next town was called St. Iliane, and if Montagnes-les-grands had been a dunghill, St. Iliane was home to the flies who would have gleefully swarmed over it.  Befitting its deceptively holy name, it had once been a monastery, and at some point in a forgotten page of history had been overrun by a band of brigands who had slaughtered the peaceful friars and planted their flag in the blood and the ruins.  What remained of the monastery, a few brick walls infested with weeds shriveled and browned from the drought, teetered on a hillside overlooking a distasteful hodgepodge of ramshackle lean-tos cobbled together from whatever rotten wood was available.  It was the last place in the world anyone could expect to find witches hiding – let alone women, for that matter – but Etienne was leaving nothing to chance.  Montagnes-les-grands had also presented itself as a routine assignment.

His new entourage rode into the village with customary bluster, yet the deference and fear Etienne had come to expect was absent from the crusted faces of the ruffians stumbling along the pitted, bending road that divided St. Iliane in two.  Most ignored them.  A couple of tattooed bruisers pointed and snickered.  Of course, neither Etienne nor any of his company bore the usual trappings of representatives of the Bureau.  No uniforms, no insignia, no formal carriage flying the ensign.  In their weathered, nondescript civilian garb, Etienne and his men might as well have been a visiting company of jesters.  Certainly, they did not look like anything for the hard-living men of St. Iliane to concern themselves with.  They did not even look worth robbing.  Pity, for the cache of weapons concealed inside each man’s saddlebag would likely fetch a considerable price.

The Directeurs had promised an arsenal to even the odds, and they had delivered a handsome supply of swords and arrows crafted of the same strange, non-tarnishing silvered metal that formed the collars and manacles so useful in blocking a witch’s access to her magic.  Etienne had never been a swordsman so he could not vouch for the blades, but Corporal Valnier had been dutifully impressed by their light weight and the sharpness of their edge.  “Feels good,” he had offered by way of comprehensive review.  The other men had derived tittering amusement from the blue sparks that burst forth each time the blades touched during sparring practice.  The arrowheads, too, were atypical, long and slender with rounded rather than pointed tips designed to wound, not to kill.  For himself, Etienne had procured a new dagger which sat sheathed inside his vest, though for the moment he could not imagine bringing himself to use it.

He still dreamed of Nightingale, when he could still his mind enough to achieve sleep, that is, and the dreams were growing more intense the longer the search took.  The contour of her perfect face became ever clearer amidst the hurried flotsam of thought and image, even as the moment of their single encounter receded with the passing of weeks.  It was the very opposite of the custom of memory, and it only deepened his fascination.  He craved understanding how she could so imprint herself upon him – but mostly, he craved her, the very shape and idea of her.  A hollow ache that he could not salve gnawed at his soul, and the dreams were torturous reminders of what remained teasingly absent.  He thought he had been overstating the matter when he confessed to himself that he was in love with her, and he could reel off a litany of reasons why:  it had only been one sudden, brief meeting, he was mature enough to know better what love was supposed to feel like, and it could all be very well merely a dark spell she had cast upon him, but he did not care.  He had tasted the greatest vintage imaginable, and the only answer to the madness was more.

Etienne raised a hand and bade his company to a halt.  Pausing first to pat the dagger next to his breast, he tossed his horse’s reins to Valnier, then lifted himself from the saddle and stepped down onto the road.  He took a few cautious steps forward and waited.  No one emerged to greet him.  The people of St. Iliane affected a remarkable indifference to the presence of Etienne and his men.  It was difficult for Etienne to quash a rising of bile.  Common courtesy demanded that attention be paid to arriving strangers, yet these louts could scarcely be bothered to fling a glance in his direction.  For a moment he missed the yoke of a Commissionaire’s formal wear.  The simple pleasure of a loosened collar had brought with it such disrespect as he was unaccustomed to experiencing.

“Excusez-moi,” he said, largely to the air as the St. Ilianeux brushed past him; the hot, dry breeze seemed to be a more receptive audience.  “We wish to speak with whoever is in charge.”

From a window, someone let loose a broad, belly-shaking chortle seething with mockery.  Etienne looked up, scouring the edges of the scene for whomever had found his legitimate question so risible, but said culprit obviously lacked the courage to deliver such a broadside in person.  Etienne had long ago learned that it diminished the value of his time to spend it concerning himself with the actions or opinions of the worthless, so he shrugged off the slight, raised his voice and and repeated his question, embellishing it now with invented details:  “My name is Amaury Léand, I am an agent of La Première Société de l’exploitation minière et le commerce, and if you would prefer not to hear what I and my colleagues have to say, we will gladly take our business elsewhere.”

That would snare their attention.  ‘Amaury Léand’ was meaningless, a portmanteau of the working-class names of a pair of long-forgotten distant cousins, but PremSoc was the largest private mining and trading company in the country, and their appearance in a new town meant jobs and wealth were soon to follow.  Etienne gave blithe ears a moment to digest his words.  Sure enough, two men off to his right ceased what appeared to be drunken meandering and begin whispering to one another in cold sobriety.  They exchanged nods and started in Etienne’s direction, and their pace suggested that either they had realized the fleeting nature of the sumptuous opportunity that was presenting itself, or remembered that PremSoc had once flattened their mother’s house in the course of its mining operations.  Either way, Etienne did not turn to face them.  He kept his feet planted.  They would talk on his terms, not theirs.

The clothes of these two were as patchwork as the homes throughout St. Iliane, stitched together from the remnants of a variety of outfits that might at one point have been considered fashionable in their own right:  two-thirds of a leather vest punctured with rusting studs, one cotton pant leg and one wool, dangling, stringy scraps of a fur scarf wildly unsuitable for a drought but worn apparently for lack of anything else.  Their faces bore the warts and deformities of poverty, malnutrition and general apathy regarding personal hygiene, and Etienne had to saturate his thoughts with the sheen of Nightingale’s perfect skin to stomach a glance even at the less afflicted of the pair.  “You,” one of the rubes barked at him.  “What do you want?”

“Not to have to repeat myself to someone in no position of authority regarding what I have to offer,” Etienne said, turning his head away.

“You are really from PremSoc?” asked the second man, a rather stupid expression warping further an already damaged face.

“I would show you credentials,” Etienne said, “though it would do little good as I suspect neither of you gentlemen are the reading sort.”  Baiting them probably wasn’t the sharpest approach, but Etienne doubted they comprehended half the words he was using.  “Do you have a leader here, or do I turn my company around?”

“You want Le Taureau,” said the first man.

“Le Taureau,” Etienne said.  “You gentlemen are his executive appointment secretaries, then?”  He thought he heard Corporal Valnier stifle a snicker.

“They’re my brothers,” announced a fresh voice, belonging to an imposing man who appeared from one of the huts, flanked by a quartet of sycophants.  Truthfully, imposing was understating it; he was imposing in the way a waterfall would be considered imposing by a minnow.  He had the broadest shoulders Etienne had ever seen – that or he was sporting a curtain rod beneath the tanned deer hide draped around his neck – and a ridiculously barrelled chest that preceded the arrival of the rest of him.  There was a robust, peaty odor of whisky about him, probably from those very barrels on his chest, and his skin was rosy with untreated sunburn and untempered drink.  A full but unkempt beard dangled from his chin, matched in unruliness by dark eyebrows the size of most men’s mustaches.  Valnier was the best fighter Etienne had ever known, but this new player looked as though he could dice the good corporal into mirepoix with his left hand, providing he could stop that hand from shaking with sot’s tremors.  Yet his eyes were so dark as to be almost without color, and Etienne could see no light behind them.  It was like being stared at by a corpse.

At least, the nickname made immediate sense.

“Monsieur Le Taureau,” said Etienne.  He affected a slight bow of acknowledgement.

“Same question, tête de cul, asked by the gentleman it concerns,” Le Taureau said back.  “What do you want?”

Etienne offered up a salesman’s smile.  “A cool drink, perhaps, and a more shaded venue in which to discuss my company’s proposition?  I think you will find it to your liking.”

Le Taureau looked over the faces of Etienne’s men.  He and Corporal Valnier locked eyes for a longer moment than the others, as if the two were sizing each other up.  It was plain from the sneer curling Le Taureau’s scarred lip that he did not think much of the good corporal.  “Inside,” he grumbled.  “We will take charge of your horses.  Leave weapons behind.”

“Monsieur,” said Valnier, registering his objection.

“It’s all right,” Etienne said.  “We’re here to do business.  These are reasonable men.”  He had no intention of surrendering his dagger.  It remained concealed inside his vest as the rest of his entourage dutifully handed over their swords.  Valnier’s face was that of a man being asked to sever his own arm with a rusted spoon, and the slight villager who accepted his blade noted the corporal’s displeasure and scampered away before Valnier could change his mind.  Fortunately every curse Valnier knew was fewer than two words, and Etienne detected more than a handful of them muttered beneath each breath.

Once inside Le Taureau’s preferred meeting hall, or meeting hovel, as it were, it became apparent that the amenities offered by this place were as lacking as the appearance and the manner of its inhabitants.  The cool drink Etienne had requested was lukewarm brown water he was certain would infect him with nine kinds of intestinal ailments, so he left it untouched on the pitted table in front of him.  Le Taureau had no cup for himself.  He explained, brusquely, that he did not drink with men from the city, and would break his custom only if they concluded a deal.  He sat, said nothing further, and attended on Etienne making his pitch.

The challenge for Etienne, then, was to get to the business at hand.  He took a swift survey of the room:  Valnier and the dozen-odd, silent men of his company gathered on his side of the long, narrow table, Le Taureau and a handful of scruffy, chattering Ilianeux on the other.  Etienne felt his confidence swell at the meager opposition, and he launched with verve and volume into what he considered to be a finely crafted speech of complete and utter gibberish.

It was symphonic in its flow, with themes based on key notes introduced boldly and repeated for emphasis, varied with each iteration but adhering always to his main point:  the (entirely fictional, naturally) notion that PremSoc wished to build a new major trade route to the northern border that would pass conveniently through St. Iliane, and wouldn’t there be such bountiful opportunities for the locals to establish inns and other merchant ventures to ensnare the heaps of cash flowing over the coffers of those passing through.  Etienne was careful to hold this specific nugget back until he had first laid out the basic details and built upon each layer like a confectioner perfecting each layer of cake before frosting it.  The men listening could draw the desired conclusion and congratulate themselves for being clever, and only then would Etienne affirm what floated unsaid.  The best way to sell anyone anything was to lead him to convince himself it was his idea to buy it in the first place.  Etienne wondered, as Le Taureau’s goons fell quiet in turn, enraptured by his presentation, if he had not misspent what could have been a lucrative career in mercantilism, or the practice of law.

Le Taureau himself, however, remained the immovable object.  When Etienne concluded the concerto, he sat motionless behind his beard and his enormous chest for a long moment, hurling an enforced silence into the air.  Finally he leaned forward, and the table creaked and sagged beneath the weight of gauntleted arms.  “What do you need us for then?” Le Taureau asked.

Etienne was impressed by the question.  “I’m not sure what you mean.”

“The mighty Première Société doesn’t need our permission to build this grand road.”

“That’s true.  No, we could probably build it right through your kitchen and there would be little you could do to stop us.”

Le Taureau narrowed lifeless eyes at him.  “Then why are you wasting my time?”

“Safety,” Etienne said.

A smirk.  “Safety.  Ours?”

“Ours.”  Etienne leaned forward himself, close enough to be greeted by a fetid waft of Le Taureau’s stale breath.  “My superiors are concerned about, well, it seems strange to say, but they are worried about the unusual happenings in this part of the province, if you take my meaning.”  He lowered his voice.  “You must know about her.”  Le Taureau’s face went blank.  “What is it they call her…”  Etienne feigned a foggy memory and threw a look to Corporal Valnier to sustain the ruse.  “Ah, yes.  Nightingale.”

“You’re worried about a bird?” Le Taureau said.  “Tête de cul indeed.”  His men exploded into fits of laughter.  A murderous frown twisted Valnier’s lips.  Etienne might have fretted that they had wasted their time here, but for one miniscule detail that only he managed to notice:  Le Taureau curling his meaty fingers into a tight fist to stop them trembling.

The instant he had spoken her name.

Etienne smiled.  “Yes, a bird.  A rather rare bird, with an unusual, unique call.  And terribly lovely feathers.”

“And if I’ve seen this bird of yours,” Le Taureau said, “what can I expect in return for the favor of helping you cage it?”

“I think you’d find there would be few requests we could not accommodate.  Certainly enough to reverse the fortunes of every man in St. Iliane.  Dramatically.”

Le Taureau shrugged.  “A dramatic offer deserves a dramatic response.”

Metal against leather has a distinct sound, like a shriek, as if the sharpness of the blade can yet wound what is already dead, and send a warning to those nearby.  As Le Taureau’s men leaped to their feet and drew swords from their scabbards to point at Etienne and his company, that same damnable shriek cut into Etienne’s ears and transformed itself into a dizzying wave of fear that plunged straight to the pit of his gut.  The doors burst open and twenty more men brandishing weapons poured in to surround the table.  Etienne did not move.  It was the best action he could take under the circumstances, but it had the happenstance to be born of a moment of pure indecision.  His men had surrendered their swords and bows.  They were better trained that these ragtags, professional soldiers to the last man, but training was of limited use with the tip of someone else’s blade aimed between your shoulders.  Instead, Etienne stared ahead at Le Taureau’s satisfied grin, and fear evolved quickly into loathing.  Le Taureau’s eyes suggested that the sentiment was mutual.

“What say you now, Monsieur le Commissionaire?” said the large man, gesturing to his mustered forces.  “Still want to build me a road?”

At this juncture it did not matter how the man had deduced his identity.  That could be puzzled out later, if they managed to escape this room.  Etienne spoke slowly.  “You have no idea what you are risking here.”

Le Taureau sneered at him.  “Oh please.  You Bureau types.  You come into our homes in the middle of the night, you take our sisters, our wives and our daughters from us, and you expect us to thank you and sucer vos bites for our trouble.  What am I risking?  Look around.  Because of you, we have nothing more to lose.”  He leaned closer.  “And if you think I am going to help you lay a murderous hand on a beautiful goddess, your Bureau has reached a new plateau of insanity.”

Etienne saw it then in Le Taureau’s eyes:  a flicker of life.  A sudden infusion of youth and vigor and blood running hot inside the veins.  And he knew exactly what it was.

The man was in love with Nightingale as well.

Le Taureau stood back and addressed the rest of Etienne’s company.  “Here is what is going to happen now,” Le Taureau said.  “Your men will surrender the last of your valuables to us, and then you will strip down to your breeches and march in single file back to your Bureau.  You will tell those cowards of Directeurs that they can put the men of St. Iliane to the most dreaded of their many infamous tortures and we will still never, ever betray her.”  He planted his fists on the table and fixed his stare on Etienne again.  “You cannot stop what she has begun.  She is the wind and the ocean, and your Bureau is a castle of sand.  And you know it.”  Le Taureau smiled, the smile of the condemned man recognizing another who shares his fate.

His knees became water as a moving veil of sparkling purple mist enveloped him and permeated deep into his skin…

“Well,” Etienne said.  “I for one won’t mind being rid of these clothes.  It is so frightfully hot today, don’t you agree?”  Valnier raised an eyebrow at him.  Deliberately, Etienne pushed his chair back from the table and rose.  Le Taureau’s compatriots followed him with their swordpoints.  He reached a hand inside his vest.  “Though I’m not sure this will fit the way you like.”

Metal made no sound scraping against cotton as Etienne snatched the dagger from its concealed sheath.  But everyone heard the crunch and squish and ensuing scream as he plunged it straight through Le Taureau’s hand.

* * *

Like the Energizer bunny, this just keeps going.  Unlike batteries, however – and hopefully – the energy won’t run out.  Part Eight is on its way.