This is the free short story offered to all who read my monthly newsletter. If you stumbled on this story through the wilds of the internet, you’re still welcome. Please, read and enjoy this free short story. If you’d like to read more free short stories, sign up for my newsletter and get one every month, along with all my latest publishing news.
If you enjoy the story and want a paper copy or one to read on the device of your choice, click on the cover to buy a copy of your own.
And now, the story…
Not That Kind of Wizard
From the Journal of Harkin, Son of Fiach
Sixth of Remembrance, Forty-fifth Year of King Morann
They did not execute me. Rather, they promoted me, which may be worse.
I had been recalled to the palace in the company of deserters and spies, a three day trip I would not care to repeat under the best of circumstances, much less under guard at a pace that nearly killed four horses. I could think of no crime, save perhaps cowardice in the face of the enemy. But every man is a coward in the face of certain death, whether he acts on his fear or not. Still, His Majesty is not called “the Sword of Fury” for his even temperament.
Yet when I stood before the throne under the hot-poker gaze of His Majesty, awaiting His call for the executioner, He asked me questions. “Why did you lead your hand off of the trail?”
“Sire, I heard enemy troops approaching. I was afraid.”
“Were they your hand to lead?”
“No, Sire. But we were moving to a set position through land we were supposed to control. There should have been no opposition. The enemy outnumbered us. If we met them head on, we would have died and no one would have reported the lapse in our picket before the Quartati brought more troops through.”
“What did your commander think?”
“Our thumb wanted to lead us around the Quartati and make our rendezvous on schedule, report then.”
“Instead you took six men and killed how many Quartati?”
“Fifty, but only because I knew of an ambush point invisible from the Quartat approach. Easy kills for good crossbowmen. We took out the better part of an arm before they got word back that their plan had been compromised.”
The king smiled then, and though I suspected He meant it as a friendly gesture, my guts turned as cold and watery as they had in the face of those Quartati. He gave me the “good” news and clapped my back. Shock reverberated through my body like a death knell.
I’m a thumb now, and tomorrow I meet the rest of my hand for a special assignment that I’m sure brings us back to the front, maybe even behind enemy lines.
I doubt I’ll be sleeping tonight.
Seventh of Remembrance, Forty-fifth Year of King Morann
Already on the road. I’ve got a small hand, three men, and a task that sounds simple: escort a wizard behind enemy lines. Officially I haven’t been told that Skelly is a wizard, but he is a bald little old man in a brown robe, with a walking stick and clean-shaven face. He is either a wizard or a priest, and I doubt there’s much strategic advantage to escorting a priest behind enemy lines.
He has the charm of a priest though. Skelly has this little smile always hovering around his lips and hiding behind his eyes. He speaks gently, he moves gently, he even eats gently. He ate less of our supper than I did, and I can barely keep food down right now.
Cordon ate enough for the three of us though. He wears on his back the biggest sword I’ve ever seen, which sounds fair because Cordon is the biggest man I’ve ever seen. Either that, or the king had someone shave a bear and strap a sword to its back. If the time comes for a ranged fight, I don’t know if Cordon will fire his crossbow or throw it.
Dirk looks like his namesake, slight and quick, with a slender sword and a half-dozen daggers that I can see. He brought down our dinner with a crossbow bolt through the eye of a ptarmigan and cleaned it faster than I can clean my sword. Good thing, too. As much as Cordon eats, I worry about having enough food for the return trip. Assuming there will be a return trip.
Lunn is the oldest of us, apart from Skelly. I think his scabbard is older than I am. Dirk looks at Lunn as though he expects him to fall over any moment, which just means he has yet to hear the stories. They say Lunn stood as champion for three different earls on the same day and won every duel. Lunn once turned a route into a victory by holding a pass against a hundred Yollish regulars. They say a lot more too, but when I asked Lunn how many of the stories were true he only said, “Enough.” I can’t understand why I’m thumb and he’s just a finger.
Anyway, a small hand but a good one. Too bad this is a suicide mission.
Eighth of Remembrance, Forty-fifth Year of King Morann
We’re already behind schedule.
Baron Carmigen, who detailed the route we are to follow, made clear to me that we were to cut directly across the chaparral to where it meets the river, then down to the woods. The first few hundred yards off of the road went up a steep slope, but hardened soldiers know that means having the afternoon sun on our backs instead of in our eyes. Simple enough path for a competent hand.
Apparently not so simple for an old “wizard.” Skelly’s pace may not disturb the ground, but I could have rolled up that slope faster than he hiked it. We had to stop every fifty yards to keep the old fool from falling too far behind. Cordon started snapping twigs off of limbs, tossing them into the underbrush. Dirk leaned against a pine tree, one foot on the bark, and alternated between drumming his fingers and checking and rechecking his daggers. Eight in all, unless there were a few he didn’t check. Lunn stood still as a rock while we waited. I’m not sure he even blinked.
The second time Skelly caught up to us, his lips relaxed into a smile and he said, “At my age, hills don’t flatten out as quickly as they used to.” Then he chuckled, as though he meant that to amuse us.
“Can’t you just fly to the top?” said Dirk.
“I’m not that kind of wizard.”
“Could you become a bird?” I tried to take control before Cordon picked the old man up and carried him. The Baron had insisted that we treat Skelly with respect, and I had no intention of managing to survive this mission only to get a worse one on a charge of insolence. “Perhaps a cougar?”
Skelly shook his head and kept walking. I made my hand slow their pace to match his.
If I read the sunset right, we finished the day’s hike a good three hours short of where we were supposed to be.
At least the old bastard can come down a slope faster than he can ascend one.
Ninth of Remembrance, Forty-fifth Year of King Morann
Made it into the woods today. I don’t think we’ve fallen any further behind.
Ate well tonight. Lunn brought down a huge turkey. Cordon and Dirk had no end of sport with the accomplishment, since Lunn had stepped into the trees to relieve himself.
The roast turkey seems to have improved the mood of the hand after yesterday’s impatience. The prospect of leftovers encourages watch rotation, so long as Cordon takes last watch.
Skelly sits oblivious, perpetually one moment away from a broad smile. I’m not even sure he sleeps. He just sits there all night by the fire, legs folded, back straight. Perhaps he isn’t a wizard at all. Perhaps he’s the simple uncle of a Quartat commander, and we’re his escort to the prisoner exchange.
Tenth of Remembrance, Forty-fifth Year of King Morann
I’m worried about how well we control these lands. I’ve seen no sign of Quartati, and I haven’t asked my men yet because I don’t want to set them on edge. Skelly does that well enough without my adding to the mess. I wonder though, whether the peasantry might grow tired of His Highness, or perhaps of this war, which has endured past the decade mark.
According to the Baron’s timetable, by noon we should have found a footbridge across Hermione’s River of Tears. Even accounting for our lost time, we should have found it by mid-afternoon. About an hour before dusk we had to give up the search and accept that someone had sunk it.
Fast and wide as the tears of that old queen were said to be after the loss of her husband and eldest son in the same battle, that river was too rough for us to swim across. Well, perhaps Lunn would have made it, but the rest of us could not have, and certainly not Skelly.
We needed to fell a tree tall enough to get us across. I asked Skelly if he could accomplish this with his “magic.”
Skelly smiled, shook his head, and said, “I’m not that kind of wizard.” He then stood, waiting, confident that we would get him across that river.
Fortunately Lunn and Cordon carried hatchets in their packs. The sun was well down by the time we got across that river, Dirk half-carrying Skelly under the pretense of guiding the old fool’s steps.
No time to hunt. Cold camp and rations tonight. I can tell from the mutters of Cordon and Dirk that their impatience with Skelly grows faster even than mine. Only Lunn guards his temper within himself. If Skelly hears the grumbling, it does not appear to dull his humor. More the fool he.
That sunken bridge worries me. I had thought of the watch rotation as a formality, a means of keeping discipline in a new hand and ensuring that the men had work. Now I fear that we might need one ready blade at all times.
Perhaps I was mistaken. Perhaps I never was promoted, and this assignment is my form of execution.
Eleventh of Remembrance, Forty-fifth Year of King Morann
This assignment has me jumping at shadows. I kept myself on high alert all day, but saw no signs of pursuit, no traps from peasant hunters out to open the borders to Quartat invaders. Perhaps the winter’s rain was greater than most and washed the bridge out. The Baron had warned me it was never more than a simple footbridge, rough wood and minimal effort rather than fancy masonry. Perhaps local hunters sink the bridge from time to time to guard their chosen territories.
In any event, the day’s travel went well. I roused the men early, and since I knew I had no hope of pushing Skelly’s pace, I skipped the first rest period to see how he handled it.
Skelly didn’t notice!
The old fool kept walking as though he could continue all day without rest, so that’s what I made him do. That the men had to march without a break was made easier by Skelly’s temperament – if he could handle this pace without complaint, then how could fit young men like them do any less?
We lunched on the march, and by the time I called the halt, we must have made up a quarter day’s time. If we can do that again tomorrow we should be back on schedule.
Dinner was another ptarmigan, this time with apples we came by during the march. The smell of roasting apples still reminds me of hunting with Parlan. I hope he’s treating Clarissa well and raising my nephews right.
Tomorrow will be our last day in friendly territory. Soon the border and the battle lines, and getting the old fool wherever exactly it is he’s supposed to go. I’m still irritated that the Baron only said, “Once you get into Quartat territory, Skelly will guide you the rest of the way.”
May Janna the Merciful grant that I dream tonight of roasting apples with my brother, not of battles and war.
Twelfth of Remembrance, Forty-fifth Year of King Morann
Dirk is dead.
It was just after noon. I’d started the day’s march early again and pressed us through breaks to make up time. I pushed too hard. Our attention must have flagged. Anyway, Cordon and Dirk were arguing about the best way to prepare rabbit when Skelly said, “Duck.”
Lunn and I hit the ground as fast as the old man, but a quarrel struck Dirk in the side of the throat, spraying Cordon with blood. I tracked the quarrel’s flight with my eyes and saw a group of farmhands playing soldier. Six of them with light crossbows. No swords, no armor, and none of them old enough to have a man’s voice or strength. But they had their hair cut to a soldier’s length, and they wore red rags tied at their left shoulders, one with a black mark, as though they considered themselves a hand with a thumb.
One of those crossbows was empty, and the boy who held it looked sick.
I shouted orders in our battle tongue. “Cordon, retreat with objective. Lunn, cover fire.”
Cordon grabbed the old man and carried him out of the field of fire. Lunn shot Dirk’s killer. I shot the would-be thumb. The others broke and ran, yelling, “Soldiers! Soldiers!”
Lunn was on his feet before I could blink, pulling me to mine. We found Cordon and ran off route for twenty minutes, then turned parallel and maintained a quick hike. Lunn guided, Cordon carried Skelly, and I provided cover. I kept us at that for half our remaining sun before I called a rest break.
As far as I could tell, Skelly never noticed that Cordon was carrying him. His face held that same absent humor, though he did shake his head from time to time. Now I wish I’d just had Cordon carry him up that damned slope. We could have been on schedule and Dirk might still be alive.
During the break, Cordon asked the question that was on my mind, “Why did a bunch of farmhands try to kill us?”
“Sons of Quartat,” said Lunn, like it was a title and not a fact of birth. So I repeated it like a question. He elaborated. “Border’s been close to here for a long time. Bastards grow up on both sides. Some feel loyalty to absent fathers, act like they live in occupied territory.” He shrugged. “Some take up arms.”
“Will they pursue?” I asked.
“Probably not. Some lay ambushes, but most like the idea of battle better than the reality.” He shook his head. “None of them would risk a straight fight.”
“Think they have contact with the Quartati proper?”
“Safer to assume they do.”
I called an early night, though long watch rotations meant less sleep for everyone except Skelly. Can’t risk returning to our designated route until we’ve crossed into enemy territory so we’ll have to push harder to stay on schedule.
I could kill that Baron for not telling me about the Sons of Quartat in my briefing. I’d ask Skelly if he had any way of detecting them or stopping them or maybe making us invisible, but I’m sure he’s not that kind of wizard.
I’m sorry, Dirk.
Thirteenth of Remembrance, Forty-fifth Year of King Morann
Today was a disaster. I’m no thumb, just a finger who got lucky. Made a decision that worked out, knew a little terrain better than my enemy. Morann was a fool to put men’s lives in my slippery grasp.
We’re down to me and Skelly. Not that I believe Lunn is dead. I won’t believe that until I see his corpse. But I have seen Cordon’s.
I woke everyone early again and had us hiking before dawn. Even Skelly kept a brisker pace. I started to believe that the old fool finally understood that we’re in danger. If he didn’t then, he must now.
I wanted to bring us back to the river, use it to create a break in our tracks, but could not risk the exposure. Instead I brought us further East, off course, hoping to disguise our true route. I led today, with Cordon in the middle to guard Skelly and Lunn covering our rear. By noon Lunn was certain we were not followed. I interpreted that to mean that the farmhands were done playing soldier and started angling my hand back to its designated route.
I should have considered that one need not be a soldier to deliver a message.
We reached the Quartat border by mid-afternoon. That meant we had been in contested territory for an hour or so. If we had crossed the river and traveled another hour or so West, we would have reached the fighting. In the woods where we were, I would not have known that we had reached the border if Lunn had not stopped us to point out a small cairn three hundred paces East. Apparently such cairns are placed every thousand paces to mark the boundary after a treaty is drawn up. In practice they mainly serve to warn hunters when they cross into a different set of laws.
If I survive this mission, I’m either going to kill Baron Carmigen or petition to have a formal training process for thumbs, to eliminate gaping knowledge gaps like mine.
Perhaps I’ll do both.
We had taken perhaps fifty steps past the border when Skelly said, “Don’t step there.”
I looked back and saw Cordon get yanked up into the trees by a rope snare around his ankle. I dove and tackled Skelly to the ground just as the ambush sprung. Arrows filled the air, one piercing my left arm. It felt like someone the size of Cordon had jumped on my forearm in boots and full armor.
Lunn screamed, “The mission,” in battle tongue. Arrow in his shoulder, he charged the ambush with his sword held high. Yet he moved so slowly. I could only marvel at how slow he ran, the loud roar of a waterfall in my ears, the dull awareness of a shaft of wood sticking out of my arm, the three others in the chest of the dangling Cordon, his tongue lolling out.
Skelly touched my face and said, “We must flee.”
Lunn moved fast now, his sword whirling and a thrown dagger preceding his charge. The waterfall roar dimmed to a rapid thump. I pulled Skelly to his feet and we ran.
Damn Skelly. Damn my mission. My last living finger charged our ambush without me. I should have been there with him. Together we might have made it out alive. Not that Skelly would have been any help. So Lunn and I might have made it, but Skelly and the mission would have died.
I know that’s what Lunn was telling me. Get Skelly out of there and finish the mission. I hate it.
I don’t know how long I ran, carrying Skelly, before I collapsed. I don’t know how long I was out before I came to, but we had an hour before sunset. The arrow was gone from my arm, a strip of clean cloth in its place. Skelly sat next to me, legs folded under him the same way he passed every night.
“You know healing magic?”
“I’m not that kind of wizard. This was a simple charm to improve the poultice. The pain will return soon, and the poultice must be replaced at dawn.”
“Well … thank you.”
Skelly nodded. I think he would have been content to sit there until the forest grew over him, but I wanted to put more space between us and those Quartati. We pushed on until darkness made further travel unsafe. Skelly led the way now, certain of the territory and direction. He seemed so comfortable that before I slept that night I had to ask, “Are you from Quartat?”
“If I were it would not help us. My youth was long, long ago.”
After an answer like that, I didn’t see any point in further questions.
Dirk, and now Cordon, and maybe even Lunn. I hope this old man is worth their deaths.
Cordon carried the extra food, so Skelly and I will have to share rations until we cross the border again. Assuming we do.
And he was right about the pain coming back. I hope I can sleep at least a little tonight.
Fourteenth of Remembrance, Forty-fifth Year of King Morann
I now believe every story I’ve ever heard about Lunn. Even the one about the six barmaids, because I cannot bring myself to doubt the man’s stamina.
Lunn caught up with us while we broke for lunch. Alone, wounded, in enemy territory. Despite our lead and that Skelly alone knew our destination. Lunn caught up with us.
I didn’t hear him approach. Skelly looked up from a bite of dried beef and smiled. I followed his gaze and there was Lunn. He dropped Cordon’s sack of extra food between us, sat, and tore into his own rations.
“I can’t believe you escaped,” I said.
“Not escaped. Won. There were only six, and that was a poor excuse for an ambush. Must have been rushed.”
That was all Lunn had to say about it. Despite Skelly’s poultices, I think the wound in my forearm bothers me more than the arrow I saw pierce Lunn’s shoulder. If he took any other wounds in that ambush, I can’t tell.
I worry about our direction. We travel almost due East, with occasional corrections North and South. Lunn suspects that we’re avoiding patrols, but how could Skelly know current patrol routes? Even Lunn had to admit that he has not seen nor heard any sign of the enemy.
We sleep tonight huddled in a small grove of trees on the side of a hill. Skelly says that tomorrow he will show us why we brought him here.
Soon it will be over one way or the other.
Fifteenth of Remembrance, Forty-fifth Year of King Morann
I wish His Majesty had executed me. What I saw today…
We rose at dawn, and Skelly changed my poultice. His gentle smile and touch. I wish he’d been a healer.
We spent the day ascending. One hill, a second, and finally to a plateau. Skelly kept a better pace now, his step almost eager. Could he have been looking forward to this?
We did not stop for rest, ate rations as we hiked. By mid-afternoon we stood high on that plateau, and from there we could see the main body of the Quartat forces, tens of thousands strong, arrayed in the valley below. Command flags and tents, not only soldiers, the cream of Quartat nobility arrayed before us.
Skelly raised his hands, and my stomach began to sour. He chanted words that grated against my ears, stilled the air around us. No birds, not even a gopher stirred as his chant continued. The sun above us flared hotter, brighter, blinding, burning…
I cringed behind my arm, could barely see between squeezing eyelids as the sun fell from the sky. The sun itself dropped into that valley and consumed it in a flash.
And then it was gone. Back up in the sky as though nothing had happened. Except that no life stirred in the valley below. Birds, horses, sheep, cattle, grass, trees, rocks, and countless Quartati reduced to ash, burned too fine for even the smell to escape.
I fell to my knees and retched, tears hot on my cheeks, unburned despite my expectations.
Skelly laughed. Cruel and triumphant the sound twisted in my ears, turned my head to look at him. He stood, arms outstretched, glorying in his work. I fell into my own puddle of sick, legs pumping, desperate to push me away from his mad eyes, uncaring that I risked going over the edge.
With a single movement, Lunn drew his sword and beheaded Skelly. Blood flew higher than I expected from such a little man. Skelly’s head bounced over the ledge and plummeted to land among his handiwork. With an impatient sigh, a blood-spattered Lunn reached down and grabbed one of my still-pumping legs, pulled me to safety.
“We better clean up,” said Lunn.
I couldn’t speak. Just stared at him.
“Seen it before,” he said. “Spell changes a wizard. Have to kill them during the afterglow or else.” He looked at the body. “Shame. Liked the old bastard.”
I threw down my sword and ran. I didn’t care where at first, just away from that valley, from the war, from all of it. I ran until I had to walk, walked until I had to crawl, then I climbed the nearest tree. Tonight I’ll sleep strapped to a branch. If I get the memory of that spell out of my head long enough to sleep.
Better Morann had executed me.
If you’d like to buy a copy of your own, you can…