Today, I share a sample from one of the stories in SHIFTY: TALES FROM THE WORLD OF SAGE, the companion book to my fantasy trilogy.
In this snippet, a town invites a troupe of traveling players to come by night to negotiate an appearance. The leader of the troupe, the bombastic Florian, sends Silvan to do the negotiating. Silvan arrives, riding Lumpkin, the carthorse who pulls the troupe’s wagon. They enter the town to find, not a negotiator, but a crowd and a frightening figure.
excerpt from “Command Performance”
by Marian Allen
“I return every year, and I challenge them to choose a champion to fight against me. Fair, you see, although they were hardly fair against the poor old beggar they thought I was. I concede even more to them: Instead of my always taking another of their own, the first stranger who enters the town after sunset is invited to be their champion.”
“And they wanted Florian.” Of course they did. Florian was big, and seemed bigger when he talked. Florian filled any space he was in, be it barrel or barn. If Florian had come, as he was supposed to, he would have defeated this Thing by sheer force of personality.
Silvin shuffled back a few futile steps, conscious of his imminent death and hoping it would be quick.
“I’m not a champion,” he said. “I can’t even stage fight very well.”
The weeping, which had subsided, rose again.
“Then you decline, you rabbit! You mouse! You beetle! In that case, a child falls ill tonight.”
Silvin made a wordless sound of protest, a rejection of the choice, but an utter repudiation of the second alternative.
Now the figure showed its teeth, yellow and red in the torchlight. “You accept, then. Good! Be armed, then, and fight!” He raised his hands and transformed himself into a warrior of prodigious size. Red highlights gleamed off his dark armor, which might have been black or might have been the color of blood. He said, “First stranger into this town after sundown, be a man and take arms against me!”
Silvin braced himself to accept the sword he expected to appear in his hand, but no sword or armor came. Did even magic consider him inadequate? Did someone else slip through the gates before he and Lumpkin arrived?
The crowd babbled. The Warrior’s visored face looked over and above Silvin’s shoulder.
Silvin turned. Another warrior stood there, dressed in leather armor as yellow as butter. And Lumpkin was gone.
“Lumpkin?” Silvin stupidly turned to the Warrior and said, “That’s our horse. He was a nose ahead of me through the gate, but…. Did you mean to change the horse?”
The Warrior made a sound Silvin had never heard before: a guttural hiss from the back of his throat. The hiss turned into deep laughter. “So be it, if he’s willing!”
Lumpkin answered with a deep whinny, swishing his sword through the air, as Florian would have to test its weight and balance.
To Silvin’s astonishment, the saffron helmet angled toward him and a rich voice said, “I always wondered what it would be like to walk on two legs. And I need to fight that one.” He lifted his chin toward the Warrior in dark armor and shook his head disdainfully. “I don’t like his smell.”
The dark Warrior shouted, “You accept the challenge, then!”
Lumpkin, who had spent his entire adult life pulling a show wagon, blared back, “Beware my wrath! My sword is for your blood!”
A PROMPT FROM ME TO YOU: Someone invites someone somewhere under false pretenses.