Witches Vs. Wizards anthology - released Nov 15
The House of the Magus
by Derek Paterson
Appearing in Witches Vs. Wizards: A Fantasy Anthology
from Zombie Pirate Publishing

Available from Amazon

“Here he comes now,” Rolf said, elbowing Sven in the ribs. Sven looked up from his cup and examined the tall figure who filled the tavern’s doorway—and didn’t much like what he saw. The new arrival looked like a bandit who’d fallen on hard times. Or hard times had fallen on him, more like. His jerkin and breeches didn’t seem to fit, leading Sven to suspect he might have taken them from men who no longer needed them. He wore a leather patch over his left eye and his right eye was so bloodshot Sven wondered he could see at all.

Apparently he could, because he pushed his way across the crowded room, provoking an angry chorus of protests, and sat down on the other side of their table, facing them. He nodded to Rolf, who’d arranged this meeting, then scowled at Sven. “Who’s this?”

“This is my cousin, Sven. He’ll be coming with us on our, ah, venture.”

“You must be Fenris Skullsmiter,” Sven said, offering his hand in brotherhood.

The big man ignored the hand and sneered at him, showing broken teeth. “You don’t know me well enough to use my clan name, boy, so you’ll call me Skullsmiter, else you’ll feel the weight of my fist.”

Rolf smiled a brittle smile. “Sven was just trying to make you feel welcome, Skullsmiter. Never fear, you’re among friends.” He glanced around the tavern as if afraid they might be overheard. But no one was paying them any attention, with the exception of a squat fellow who glared angrily as he rubbed at a wet patch on his shirt. Skullsmiter must have nudged him in passing, causing him to spill his drink. Most of the regulars were crowded around the games table, cheering or protesting, depending on however they’d wagered. A flash of light and a plume of green smoke from the table produced equal measures of joy and groaning.

“Never fear?” Muscles twitched under the bloodshot eye. “Skullsmiter fears nothing. I fought in the Iron Wars. I’ve slain orcs and trolls and gargoyles, and ogres, too. I stood alongside Thor Grimhand and Axel Wolfsblood when King Hammerstein led his dwarfen army out of the Iron Mountains, and together we halted their advance at Blood Pass.” The memory of his valiant exploits apparently became too much for Skullsmiter; he snatched up Sven’s cup and emptied it with one mighty swallow, then slammed the cup down upon the table.

Sven didn’t comment. The very idea of calling out this uncouth warrior for quaffing his drink remained but a distant notion at the back of his mind.

The squat fellow made his move. Twin knives appeared in his hands—deadly curved blades that glinted in the yellow light of the oil lamps that hung from the tavern’s blackened ceiling beams. Sven took a breath, intending to shout a warning, but there was no need. Skullsmiter punched the man in the face so hard he somersaulted backward before landing face-down on the floor.

A hushed silence surrounded them. Then the tavern keeper bellowed, “Throw that idiot outside!” Eager hands grabbed the squat fellow and dragged him toward the door. Sven noticed those same hands cutting his purse-string and picking his pockets clean. The curved knives vanished beneath cloaks. As the door swung shut, Sven was sure he saw someone tugging at the man’s boots.

Skullsmiter chuckled darkly. “Saw him coming half a league away.”

Rolf said, “That was well done, Skullsmiter. We can see your reputation is well-earned.”

“Is he dead?” Sven asked.

Skullsmiter stared at him. “What if he is?”

“The Town Wardens don’t mind the occasional brawl, but they draw the line at murder.”

“Is that right? Then why don’t you go and fetch them?” Skullsmiter snarled. “You can watch me kill them all with my bare hands.”

Rolf made calming gestures, as much for Sven as for Skullsmiter. “You worry too much, cousin. We’ll be long gone before they even hear of this.”

This seemed to placate the dangerous, unpredictable mercenary, who sat back and nodded thoughtfully. “Then let’s be about our business. I want to be a rich man tonight.”

Rolf licked his lips, then said, “We’re waiting for the fourth member of our party to arrive.”

Skullsmiter grabbed Rolf’s shirt and pulled him across the table until their noses touched. Sven held his breath and hoped Rolf was doing the same, for his health’s sake.

“You didn’t say anything about a fourth member!”

“Plans can change, Skullsmiter,” Rolf said, his voice very small. “We, we realized we needed a locksmith. Neither of us have the skill, and we didn’t think—”

“That’s right, you didn’t think,” Skullsmiter growled. “How do you know I can’t pick locks, eh? Sounds like you’re just trying to reduce my share.”

“I assure you, that’s not our intention,” Sven said. Skullsmiter continued to hold Rolf in place while his bloodshot eye regarded Sven balefully. “The fact is,” Sven continued calmly, “Magus Xandor hired the best elven artisans coin could buy and had them brought to his house. I doubt whether any human hand could open those locks.” Sven paused for effect, then said, “Ever hear of a thief called the Shadow?”

Skullsmiter’s eye widened, suggesting he knew the name. “That’s who we’re waiting for?”

Sven nodded. “I let it be known we wanted the best. The Shadow responded, saying he’d meet us here tonight.”

Skullsmiter released Rolf, who sat back down and smoothed his rumpled shirt as best he could. “Well now, that’s different. The Shadow could be useful. It’s said he never fails.”

“We heard the same thing,” Sven said.

The door opened again and as beautiful an elven maid as he’d ever seen stepped into the White Swan tavern. She pulled back her hood, causing long silver hair to waterfall past her shoulders. Her gold-flecked eyes seemed to fix upon Sven from across the room. He suddenly found it very difficult to breathe.

“There’s something you don’t see every day,” Skullsmiter muttered. “Wandering around on her own, too. Asking for trouble, that.”

Sven wondered whether he should warn the mercenary about the diplomatic agreement between their King and the Lord of the Forest Folk. That agreement gave elves protection against harm whenever they visited human towns. The Town Wardens were known to enforce any violations with great enthusiasm. Only last month, some drunken fool who’d taunted an elf aristocrat had been thrown into a dungeon cell to contemplate his folly. He was still rotting there, as far as Sven knew.

To his surprise, the elven girl made her way across the room to their table. The tavern keeper, who’d not even looked twice at the interplay between Skullsmiter and Rolf, followed her progress with hungry eyes, as did every other customer. Sven couldn’t blame them. Her robe, made from some magical cloth woven with gold and silver thread, and pulled tight at the waist by a silver leaf chain, emphasized her curves only too well.

Skullsmiter smiled and said, “Sit on my knee, pretty one, and I’ll buy you a drink.”

She ignored him and addressed Sven instead: “You are he who is called Wheatfarmer?”

Sven blushed furiously. His family’s name didn’t suit his current profession, that of rogue and pickpocket. And thief, especially when a house full of treasure was ripe for the plucking.

“I am Sven Wheatfarmer,” he reluctantly admitted.

She sat down beside Skullsmiter, who immediately sidled closer to her. Sven stared at this vision of loveliness, bewildered by her beauty and confused as to why she might ever wish to speak to him, let alone how she could know his name.

“Is there something I can—?”

“I studied Magus Xandor’s house on the way here,” she said, her violet eyes looking into his soul. “If you can take care of the guards, I can get us to the treasure.”

End of sample

The House of the Magus
Appearing in Witches Vs. Wizards: A Fantasy Anthology
from Zombie Pirate Publishing

Available from Amazon

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