Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Let's Game, Part 2

On July 18, 2018, P.T. Wyant posted at a Wednesday Words prompt involving demons, a pizza party, and a missing key.

Let's Game, a monster freebie story for my Work In Progress, The Players Are the Thing was the result. I posted Part 1 last Wednesday. Here is Part 2...

“What?” Amber drew her blade, ready to attack her invisible enemy, only this enemy was inside a friend. “I can’t leave you here!” 

“You must!” Isolde barred her teeth, thrusting her hands forward. Her fingers elongated, becoming talons. “I can’t hold her back!”

“No, you can’t!” the demon hissed with Isolde’s voice. “If you wish your friend returned to you, you’ll find this key of mine.” It turned sly and mocking. “Or do you intend to abandon her, Knight of the Eternal Summer?”

Amber gritted her teeth at the sound of a title which felt like it fitted her less and less as time passed. She couldn’t make the summer eternal any more than she could stop the seasons from changing. “We’ve looked. It’s not here.” 

“Perhaps you’re not looking hard enough, eh?” The demon tilted Isolde’s head in a gesture her friend never made. “Perhaps I need to motivate you by snapping this one’s neck?”

“Do that and I’ll never give you your key.” Amberwyne felt the rage stirring within. 

“I’m going to roll to activate Amberwyne’s power.” Rhane shuffled her dice over each over as if they were tiles. “As Knight of the Eternal Summer, she has the power to banish creatures of winter. If this demon resides in this crypt, she should be vulnerable to this.”

The smile vanished from Beatrix’s face, pulling the corners of her lips down. “Go ahead and try.”

Rhane grabbed a handful of dice, breathed on them, and tossed them, praying for success.

Amberwyne opened herself up to the light, burning within her, capable of driving out the force within her friend…

…Rhane gazed down at her dice with dismay. 

Beatrix grinned in her sadistic element as the one overseeing the game. “Well, the good news is you succeeded in freeing your friend. In doing so, you opened yourself up to an old friend of yours.”

“Oh, no.” Rhane gulped, raising a hand to cover her throat.

Isolde shook her head, able to speak and move, no longer controlled by the presence in her head. “Amber, thank you,” she began…

…only to see Amber clinging to her head. 

“Hello, my lovely.” Fidessa whispered within her mind. “So kind of you to have banished the pesky guardian of this place. Have you found my key yet?”

“Your key?” Amberwyne swallowed along with her player. “It belonged to you?”

“Make a perception roll.” Beatrix abandoned the table to go get another piece of pizza. 

Rhane abandoned the dice she’d been using, since they didn’t seem to like her this evening. At all. 

She dug into her gargoyle shaped container to remove seven pale lavender ten sided beauties along with two deep purple ones. 

“Treat me better,” she murmured before shaking them. 

Monday, November 26, 2018

Secondary Characters Speak Out: Quartz and...Christopher?!

Quartz: What in the flaming devils are you doing here?! This blog is for secondary characters only!

Christopher: Remember your role in Fairest?

Quartz: Bah! Stupid scribbler reduced me to a secondary character. A deceased secondary character no less! I decided to start this monthly article and stand up for other secondary characters…which you’ve never been, oh, lead in weekly preludes at the Cauldron. Hmph! 

Christoper: Only now you’re the main character in Of Cuckoo Clocks and Crystal Coffins. 

Quartz: If she ever finishes it, let alone convinces Nine Star Press to publish it. I wasn’t about to allow that scribbler to end things like that for me or Briar. Hmmph! 

Christopher: Things changed for me as well. I went from being the main character in Stealing Myself From Shadows and its preludes to a secondary character in The Hand and the Eye of the Tower, A Godling for Your Thoughts? Not to mention she’s shown just how ruthless she can be toward me in My Tool, My Treasure.

Quartz: She didn’t kill you off, did she?

Christopher: That is the question. I’m not sure if I ever was truly alive as you were…are. Not this particular version of me, who’s speaking to you now?

Quartz: What?

Christopher: Damian visualized me and wished me into being. He drew this form from the shadows. He offered me his life in return for the Shadow Forest. Now that I’ve abandoned that life to chase Damian beyond the Door, I may have lost whatever existence in Damian’s world which I possessed.

Quartz: Lad, that isn’t just utter madness, that’s messed up madness. 

Christopher: I sometimes think I’m all about messed up madness.

Quartz: So you’re not sure if you’re real because you walked through a Door? Flimsy existence you’ve got if that’s true.

Christopher: My existence may well have been flimsy. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t precious to me.

Quartz: Well, if it wasn’t precious to you, you shouldn’t just let it go.

Christopher: If letting go brings Damian back, I’ll do it. Not to mention I’m responsible for other lives as well. Half lives, visualized from dreams as I was, yet no less precious. If I went back to my old existence, would Danyel and Tayel lose theirs? This is something else to worry about. 

Quartz: Danyel, Tayel, and their family…you can’t go back to your life without destoying theirs?Sounds like quite the conflict of existence. 

Christopher: Not just for me. (sighs)

Quartz: Right. Damian gave up his existence for you. I doubt he’s happy that you walked through this Door, and threw it all away. Not to mention less than pleased with these twins of yours for taking part of the life he sacrificed for you.

Christopher: I…it wasn’t like that. It wasn’t…I didn’t think-

Quartz: No, you didn’t! Not that your irresponsible mageling has any right to judge. I doubt Damian Ashelocke thinks about what he’s doing either…or how anyone is going to react to what he does .

Christopher: I can’t really argue with any of that. (sad smile) I fear we’ll only begin to understand when it’s too late. Both of us.

Quartz: The two of you may have a lot to answer for in the end.

Christopher: Oh, we’ll answer for a lot long before the end. We are what we are, after all.

Quartz: Just what are you, Christopher? You’ve referred to yourself as a shadow in posts past, but what does that mean?

Christopher: I was born fully formed from the darkness. I feed on the emotions, sentiments, and memories of others. I’m hoping I don’t have to be a predator, who only steals these things. I’d like to give and share them if possible. 

Quartz: What does that mean?

Christopher: I’m only just beginning to figure that out myself. There’s so much more to learn.

Quartz: Right. All this time, talking to you, bonding over our mutual frustration with the scribbler, and you’re still a bloody enigma. 

Christopher: It bothers me, too. Believe me. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

#QueerBlogWed: Let's Game, Part 1

Back on July 10, 2018, P.T. Wyant posted at as her Wednesday Words prompt demons, a pizza party, and a missing key. 

This monster of a freebie story for my Work in Progress, The Players Are the Thing was born, only it took me forever to finish. Due to its large side, I'm going to break it into three fragments. This is Part 1...

Smoke poured through the keyhole, threatening to choke the two adventurers. Amberwyne and Isolde covered their faces and tried not to cough. 

“We must find the key.” Amber squinted her watery eyes, trying to make out her surroundings in the crypt.

“Make a perception roll.” The Storyteller showed no mercy, especially when she was hungry. She eyed the nearby box of pizza and got up to get herself an especially large slice. 

Rhane breathed in the scent of pepperoni and clutched her dice in a sweaty palm. She opened her fist and let the D10s fall.

Amberwyne squinted, searching every alcove Rhiannon had made oblique hints about the key being hidden within. There was no sign of it. Not that she trusted the two faced minion of the Dark Goddess…Rhiannon always had an agenda. Seldom was it of benefit to Amber and Isolde, although the silver tongued manipulator had a way of convincing the other two women it did. 

“Isolde will search, too.” Mona grabbed a handful of dice and rolled for her character. 

Isolde examined the chamber, opening a chest. Piles of pearls and tiny skulls grinned up at her in almost lifelike fashion. She shut it in a hurry.

“It should be here.” She reached up to touch the blue tattoo on her neck rising into her blonde hairline. Some of the symbols on the chests were very similar to the runes which adorned, binding her to Amberwyne. Not that she was unwillingly bound. “I can feel it.”

Amber shivered. She could feel something, too, the chill of a familar presence, the scent of a perfume like decaying roses. 

No. She couldn’t be here. Not her!

“Is she?” Rhane spoke for her character, glancing across the table at Beatrix. 
“Make another perception roll.” Beatrix sat down in front of the table covered with their maps, character sheets, and dice. She took a bite of pizza, trailing strings of mozzarella as she did. 

Her own stomach growling, Rhane picked up her uncooperative dice, which refused to roll right. She took a deep breath, shook them in her hand, and rolled.

Beatrix glanced at the depressingly low numbers. “No. There’s no sign of her. Something about this place feels familar to Amber, though. Something very like Fidessa.”

Amber rubbed her arms, only to drop a hand to hilt of her blade. “Something is wrong. We should leave.”

“And abandon the key our liege lady commanded us to bring to her?” Isolde didn’t look up from the chest she rummaged through.

“Isolde, you find a sculpture which looks like your old mentor’s work.” Beatrix paused to chew. “Roll for willpower.”

Mona gulped, picking up far few dice than she’d like before tossing them. “Uh oh.” 

Too many ones glared up from many ten sides shades of purple landing upon the table. 

At the mercy of her player’s bad luck, Isolde ran her fingers over the stone, feeling the curves and grooves, the essence of the shape. Faella, her former mentor, had taught Isolde to release whatever lurked within the stone with her chisel. Tracing the edges, revelling in the cool hardness of the statue, the artist turned adventurer was taken completely off guard by the attack. 

A pair of yellow eyes opened with the grooves of the stones to lock onto Isolde’s gray blue ones. 

“You’re mine now.” A husky, feminine voice, sibilant and suggestive wormed through her head. “Let’s not tell little Amberwyne about this just yet, shall we?”

Mona shivered, looking at the note Beatrix had passed to her, in spite of the tomato stain on it. Isolde shivered along with her, feeling the sinister presence spread through her head, seizing her limbs. “Where is the key? We must find it.”

“All right, we’ll keep looking.” Amberwyne swallowed her own misgivings and glanced at the unopened chests. “I don’t think we’re safe here.”

“Everything here was wrought to lure foolish artists into this chamber.” Isolde tried to force the words out between her lips, revealing the enemy within her to Amber. “Much of its owner’s power was channeled and trapped into that key, including my true form.”
“What?” Amber turned to stare at her companion. “What do you mean?”

“I meant the demon’s true form. This demon can be released or controlled with the key.” The creature fumbled for reassurances to the girl accompanying her vessel, struggling against Isolde’s urge to scream warnings at Amber. “We’ve got to make certain it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.”

Isolde’s eye twitched, along with the corner of her mouth into a weird grimace. 

“Wouldn’t Amber notice something is wrong?” Rhane glanced over at Beatrix. 

“Make a perception roll.” Beatrix licked the pizza sauce off her fingers.

Rhane rolled her dice, willing tens or at least sevens to appear. None showed their faces. 

“No way is Amber going to notice.” Beatrix grinned, not bothering to hide her malevolent pleasure in her villain’s plan going so well. “Make another willpower roll for Isolde, Mona.”

Mona grabbed a bunch of dice, shook them, blowing on them for luck, before rolling them in her hand. 

Isolde reached up to press her fingers into her temples, fighting the demon within fro control. “Amber, run! I can’t control my own body!”

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

QueerBlogWed: Shades and Shadows

On October 17, 2018, P.T. Wyant posted at a Wednesday Words prompt involving lost keys, a pillow, and sunlight turned to clouds.

Damian Ashelocke told me this particular Tale of the Navel: The Shadow Forest in response...

Beams of sunshine peeked through the clouds, turning purple streaked with beams of gold, releasing a riot of rose across the sky. 

“The clouds remind me of your eyes.” It was only to easy to imagine Christopher at my side, murmuring this comment while I applied my brush to a canvas. “Your spirit seems to leap there, yet I know it’s right here with me.”

“You can only be sure of these things in the real world.” By replying, by acknowledging this shade of Christopher, I only made it more real. “I might actually be up there, or part of me.”

“Putting yourself in the heavens where you can look down at us all?” It was no longer Christopher, my memories of the wind speaking. 

This sharp, sardonic tone belong to someone solid enough to possess an individual voice. “If you can spare a moment to stomp contemplating your grandeur above and look below? I need help finding my keys.”

“Peter.” I turned to face my scowling rival for Christopher’s affection. A frown didn’t suit his generous lips, rounded cheeks, and colorful attire, but what can I say? I’m special to him. “Weren’t you supposed to return to Omphalos and Gabrielle to wait for Christopher?”

“Which Omphalos? There are so many.” He turned, full burgundy vest flapping around his red tunic, kicking up pebbles as he twirled around, pointing at the distant hill. 

Sometimes it had one tower with a crown which appeared and disappeared in a cloud of lightning. Sometimes it had two, one of bleached bone white stone and shimmering black rock. Sometimes it had a ring of standing stones, a giant’s jagged teeth. 

I turned away from the hill, not wishing to look closer. My chest constricted every time I saw it. 

“Don’t you like our masterpiece, the culmination of so many versions of Omphalos, reflected in this dreamscape?” Peter flipped his hair, allowing his auburn curls to bounce. “Don’t be sure I’m here. The real me might be lying in my warm bed, crying into my pillow because I abandoned Christopher as you did.”

“I didn’t abandon him.” The words tasted foul in my mouth, making me want to spit them out. “I gave him my life in exchange for the Shadow Forest.”

“Yes, you were upfront about your intentions. You’re such an upstanding individual, you perfect prick.” Peter wagged a finger at me. “Maybe Christopher didn’t want your life. Did you ever stop to consider that?” He raised his hand to push an auburn curl out of a fierce dark eyes. “Perhaps I can’t leave you alone since I’m just another part of you, abandoned in your quest for power. Alone and forgotten, I’m unable to forget you, much as I might wish to.”

I recoiled at this. Impossible. There was nothing familar about this foppish youth with his clean shaven face and russet locks. The velvet vest he wore brought back unpleasant memories of the garden…

…and dressing in such garments myself on the orders of my Aunt Duessa.

“Ah, your vanity is the one thing I can count on.” Peter took a step back, waving a hand in a dismissive fashion over my head, torso, and heads. “You actually believe that might be true. That I’m nothing more than a lost fragment of yourself.” He put his hands on his hips in a fashion which reminded me of my aunt or Van, only Peter had but two arms. “It never crossed your mind that you might be a lost fragment of myself?” A yellow glint glittered in his brown irises, turning them golden. “All the anger, arrogance, and memories I no longer desired I might have pushed into a form I lost all delight in.”

“That’s not possible.” In truth, I wasn’t sure. I had memories as Damian Ashelocke, but who was to say they were truly mine?

Somewhere out there, a boy with green eyes was walking around with some of my lost memories along with the light I’d abandoned. 

“Relax. I’m only teasing you.” Peter dropped to his knees, searching a lump of grass. “I’m just trying to find my lost keys. I can’t return home without them.”

“What lost keys?” I knelt, facing him. I studied the small mound of grass between us, covered with flowers. 

Here in the Shadow Forest, if you wished for something, it came to you. Sure enough, there were tiny petals in the shape of keys, red, purple, blue, and rose. 

“Juno. Hebe. Gryluxx. Those were my keys’s names.” He reached out to touch a pinkish violet petal with a trembling finger. “Christopher.” He met my eyes. “Damian. We came here to find you.”

“Did you?” I glanced at the purple, key-shaped blooms. “Only you and Christopher found me. Everyone else must have wanted something else.”

“Their paths took them in directions different than mine. I guess this means I’m free of them, the bindings they set upon me.” Peter rose to his feet, towering over my crouching form. “Juno was your aunt’s spy. Perhaps you guessed that.”

“I did.” I stood up on unsteady legs, looking him in the eye. “How is Aunt Duessa?” 

Peter had the look of one who’d been kissed by Duessa Ashelocke. It was there in his dreamy expression which spread over his face at her name. I could see it in the way his shoulders slumped, the hint of liquid yearning in his eyes. 

“Dangerous, hungry, and seductive.” Peter brushed his face with his sleeve. “She almost had me as one of her valentines. She would have if Christopher hadn’t saved me.”

“It sounds like she hasn’t changed any more than Christopher has.” I glanced up at the sky, those twisting, multicolored clouds, reflecting lost colors in the pools and ponds of this place. “She’d better watch herself.”

“For you’re coming for her with all of the power of the Shadow Forest?” Peter smirked, not bothering to hide his contempt. “Ooo, you’re so terrifying, Damian Ashelocke.”

“Maybe I’m not, but Dyvian is.” I started walking down my path, a path I’d been careful not leave when I examined the grass. “He’s much more willing than I ever was to work with and sacrifice others to achieve his goals, to create a utopia.” I cocked my head back to offer Peter a smirk of my own. “Much like Duessa herself.”

“What do you mean?” Peter trotted along the path, catching up to me. The road widened beneath our feet to accomodate both of us. 


“He’s discovered that faith, will, and hope can be the keys to making shadows and dreams a reality. Through Christopher and those pretty twins of yours, he’s learned how to anchor them in a solid form beyond the Door.” Damian glanced at his companion. “Of course you knew that already, Peter. Or should I call you Seraphix?”

“Well, well.” Peter/Seraphix stopped to rumple his auburn curls in a fussy way. “What gave my identity away?”

“Only a creature made of fragments of myself could walk my path through the Shadow Forest at my side.” I glanced down at the pebbles beneath my shoes and his boots. “You weren’t lying when you said I was a part of you.”

“You may be a prick, Damian Ashelocke, but you’re a clever prick.” Peter/Seraphix clapped his hands together with boyish glee. “I can see why you made my Christopher swoon.”

“He’s not your Christopher.” I studied his smiling face, his bright, hungry eyes. “Tell me, was Peter ever a real person? Or was a mask you assumed to get close to Gabrielle and Christopher.”

“Oh, Peter was quite real. Along with his attachment to your ‘Brie and Christopher, which created quite the indignation over the way you abandoned them.” He wagged a finger at me in reproval. “He was right, too. They were splendid individuals. You were a fool not to appreciate them.”

“You, I suppose, don’t intend to make the same mistake.” I clenched my hands into fists. 

“Of course not.” Peter/Seraphix tossed his head. “For me, they’re my ultimate goal, my Happily Ever After. Particularly Christopher.”

“What do you mean?” Damian took a step closer to the creature who wore a human face and played a godling. 

He reached up to finger a coin hanging on a cord around his wrist. Only it wasn’t there. 

Why would it be? Damian had never worn such a thing. “What are you going to do with them?”

“Guess you’ll just have to wait and find out.” Peter stepped off the road. “It may require you leaving your path to do so. Are you brave enough for that, Damian Ashelocke?” The godling made a mocking bow. “Lord Stefan never was, nor your aunt for all their vaunted power within their realms. Only Christopher had the courage to do so.”

With those words, Seraphix vanished from sight. His, no, their voice remained, ringing in the air. “He’s stolen himself from the shadows. Are you bold enough to steal him back?”

Peter laughed, Dyvian joining him, along with a host of other voices. They cackled as one, delighting in a joke I wasn’t part of. 

“This is what is happening.” A quieter voice, like my own, only softer, whispered within his own dreams, floating through the air. “Please, I’m begging you. Save him, Damian.” The dreamer turned in his sleep. I could feel his movement on the other side of the Door, a barrier which disappeared in slumber. He murmured his plea into his pillow, which carried through a crack in reality. “Save my little brothers.”

The voice vanished when Leiwell awoke, severing the connection between us. 

“You’re still part of me, Leiwell, even across worlds.” Something raw and savage stirred within me, twisting my lips into a smile. “It looks like I haven’t abandoned reality after all, even if I’m no longer in it.”

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

#QueerBlogWed: Blanche

On October 10, 2018, P.T. Wyant posted at a Wednesday Words prompt involving a teenager, a clock, and a map.

This Fairest freebie story from Quartz's perspective was the result...

That blasted cuckoo let from behind the wooden door of the clock to let out its usual annoying chirp.

It was loud enough to awaken the girl, even though Garnet and I’d managed to get her settled in the spare bedroom.

I’d often wondered why Nimmie Not had housed my brothers and I in such a large cottage, much larger inside than it appeared from the front door. This wasn’t a time to question the availability of an additional bed, especially one big enough for a wayward human. 

The girl’s eyes fluttered open, revealing dark blue eyes, shadowed by sorrow and regret. 

She was so blasted young, not yet in her twentieth year, I’d wager. This was young even for a human. What had marked someone still barely a child with such regret?

Who had marked her?

“Where am I?” Her voice was low, tremulous, deeper than I’d expected, yet higher than any dwarf’s. 

“Let’s see! I’ll see if I can explain it to you.” Garnet hurried over to his side of her bed, Jasper following closely after him. 

My sixth youngest brother stopped, nearly stumbling over his feet to gape at the human. Garnet squatted down on the ground and began to trace a picture in the dust. 

“What are you doing?” I demanded, trying to make sense of lines, squiggles, and curves he traced. 

The girl leaned over the bed to blink in confusion at my youngest brother, playing in the dirt. 

I had to admit, it was dirt. Our floor was filthy. Embarrassing how I hadn’t noticed this until Garnet drew attention to it in front of a visitor. 

“We live, that is us seven brothers, well, you might think of us as seven dwarves.” Garnet looked up at the girl, only to duck his head and point at an uneven square. “Whatever you think of us, ahem, we live right here in the center of the Forest of Tears.”

“The Forest of Tears.” The girl smoothed back a tress of raven hair falling into her face with an unsteady hand. “That seems like an apt name for the wood I passed through.”

“Right, although there’s no need to be afraid of the wood.” Jasper ducked his head over his brother’s, moving closer to the bed. “Many a tear is wept here, yet the only sorrow is what you bring with you.” 

“Or so it’s said.” I didn’t want my brother or this girl for that matter to take my word as unquestionable fact. Yes, I might have said such a thing to reassure Garnet and Jasper once, but this bit of lore came from Nimmie Not. I didn’t think our kobold benefactor would outright lie to me, however, there might be all sorts of holes in his truth which things could slither through. I didn’t want any of those things coming back to bite us, because we were too trusting in the sanctuary of this forest. 

“Just so you know we’re just south of the mountains.” He stuck a finger into the dirt, disturbing a badly drawn triangle. “They can be dangerous, filled with every goblin, gnome, kobold, or dwarf dig up or steal every bit of gold, silver, or diamond they can find.” He drew his thick digit down. “We tend to mine in a little more south, where there’s less trouble and plenty of beautiful, underated stones. Like Quartz.” He raised his head and waved a dirty hand at me. “Our oldest brother has an especial affinity with his name stone.”

“Right, Garnet, Jasper.” I glanced over at our visitor, whose blue eyes glazed over with the information. “You’re confusing our guest.” I gave my brothers a sharp nod. 

“Thank you…Garnet, Jasper.” The girl tried to sit up and smile at my brothers. “Don’t worry, Quartz.” She glanced at me. “At least I know I’m still in the Forest of Tears.” Her smile crumpled at her own word. 

“Don’t take the wicked tales about the Forest of Tears too seriously.” I tried to gentle my tone. “It’s true that most of the evil folks babble about flitting through the trees they brought here in their own hearts.”

“Their own hearts.” The human girl closed her eyes, uttered a choked laugh which was half sob. “I guess it was the Forest which stopped her. Not me.”

“Stopped who?” Garnet asked. 

Jasper leaned closer, eyes wide. 

“Boys, why don’t you get some porridge for our guest?” I raised and lowered my eyebrows several times at my two youngest siblings, hoping they’d take the hint. 

Garnet rose to his feet with some reluctance. He laid a hand on Jasper’s shoulder and nodded to the door. 

The two of them shuffled out of the guest room, leaving footprints in the dust. 

This room truly needed to be cleaned. 

“My apologies.” I cleared my throat with an awkward harrumph. “We don’t mean to pry if you’re not ready to explain.”

“Forgive me for being so mysterious. I’m still a bit addled.” The girl opened her eyes again, fixing those soulful sapphire orbs upon me. “Thank you for giving me shelter and err, clothing, sir.”

She touched the thin robe of purple, red, and yellow, which was a bit too short for her. Happily she was a slender creature or Nimmie Not’s robe would never fit her. 

No, it’s not what you’re thinking. I still turn red every time I think of the time I opened my wardrobe, only to find that garment hanging there. I think that kobold left it there for me as a prank. 

Much as it might make me blush, right now I wasn’t looking a gift robe in the mouth any more than a gift room. 

“No need to call me sir.” I fussed with my beard and ducked my head, hoping she didn’t notice how red my nose was turning. By good fortune, my brothers and I all had ruddy complexions. “I’m naught but a dwarf, m’dear, which is quite spectacular in some circumstances but not here. Quartz is my name and you’re welcome to use it.”

“A pleasure to meet you, Quartz.” The girl started to smile, only to stop, studying the ceiling, the floor, and my face. “I shan’t be a burden to you and your brothers. You have my word.”

“There’s no need to be concerned-“ I began. 

“I’d be happy to earn my keep by doing some sweeping if that’s agreeable.” She glanced down at the ill drawn map my brother had sketched in the dust. “Begging your pardon, but your floor seems in want of a broom.”

I couldn’t argue with that. 

“Once I’m rested I’ll started working on it.” She closed her eyes.

“That’s very decent of you, but you don’t need to concern yourself with our floor.” I patted her hand in an awkward gesture. 

“Of course I do.” A tiny wrinkle appeared in the middle of her smooth forehead. “I’ve just given you my word. I shan’t be a burden.”

“You’re not a burden.” I withdrew my hand to stroke my beard. “This is quite the large cottage, big enough for you as well as the seven of us.” 

I still wondered at a cottage containing nine bedrooms, a living area, a kitchen, a dining hall capable of seating ten people where the cuckoo clock could be heard in every room, yet gave no sign of being so large outside. Inside, this cottage was more like a palace, although you’d never guess it from the front room. You had to wander the halls to see how big it was. 

It still made me uneasy, wondering how Nimmie Not had managed to come by such a ‘cottage’ and whom he’d gotten it from. Our kobold benefactor had intended to give it to my brothers and me as a gift. I’d tricked him into trading it to me as a favor. Even so, I still wondered if I hadn’t played into our tricky sprite’s hands by doing so. 

This was just one more thing to worry among many. Right now, the ‘cottage’ was a sanctuary. For myself, my brothers, and now this girl. 

“I’m still here, taking up one of your rooms, one of your beds, and I’m about to eat your food.” The girl looked at me from under lowered lashes. “You’re very kind to offer these things to me, but I’m still imposing.” A stubborn glint shone within the darkness of her pupil. “The least I can do is help clean your cottage in return for staying here.” 

She could have simply accepted our hospitality. Judging from her manner, she was a gently born maiden used to having her way. Another might have felt it was her due, to take a room or a bed if she needed one for the night. 

Not this one. She was too generous…and to wary to accept such a thing. 

I recalled how I’d first met Nimmie Not. He’d been all flowery speeches about my destiny in his book, only to ready to give me a gift, while turning my brothers into his puppets, marching to his tune. 

I hadn’t trusted him. I still didn’t. I’d tricked him into trading the cottage to me rather than accept it as a gift. I’d refused to put my faith in a kobold, particularly one who turned my family into toys for his amusement. 

I was a dwarf, not a kobold, a much handsomer creature, not that most humans knew the difference. As a race, though, I couldn’t say we dwarves were exceptionally trustworthy. Not more than anyone else. Some of us were downright greedy, ready rob you of your last gold piece or sell you in return for treasure. 

I could see from that glint that this girl had trusted, only to be betrayed. The betrayal was still fresh. It hurt. She wasn’t about to accept charity from a strange dwarf. 

Perhaps she was wise not to. I certainly wouldn’t have. 

“What’s your name?” I asked before catching myself. Yes, she was a human, but names weren’t without power among them. It was a dangerously rude question. “Ah, my apologies, m’dear. What should I call you?”

“My name was Blanche.” The girl wrinkled her nose at “Blanche” as if the word tasted foul. “Please don’t call me that. I’ve always hated the name.” She closed her eyes. “I was only just beginning to find it tolerable when…no, I’m trying to make a fresh start.” The girl lifted an unsteady white hand to her brow. “I’d like to have a new name to go with my new life.”

With skin like hers, the name Blanche seemed to aptly suit her. Still this was her to decide. Not me.

“All right, m’dear.” I leaned back. “You can start sweeping whenever you’re ready. We’ll try to think of a name you’ll find more satisfying while we work, right?”

“Right.” The girl smiled, lips trembling with tentative sweetness. “Thank you.” She released a deep breath and closed her eyes.

“Sleep well, m’dear.” I gave her one more awkward pat before leaving the room, allowing her the privacy of her dreams. 

Only when I was outside did the full impact of letting this strange girl in strike me. What sort of trouble left a maiden with torn clothes and scratched skin, knocking on a stranger’s door? How might this trouble come back to haunt my brothers and myself?

I had a terrible feeling we were all about to find out.