Okay, I have been rather busy the last days. First, I’m trying to finish something I promised to do for somebody else. Second, at the same time I’m trying to finish a novel.
Both are going well enough for now.
I think I may be able to publish that novel sometime next month. I need an epilogue – there is a prologue too, and I do know half of the people around skip those, but it didn’t just feel right as a first chapter, it happens several years before the actual story starts, and it’s a rather short scene of how the protagonist first meets one of her friends, a friend who will later play a very significant role in her life.
But, anyway, since I have no drawings or paintings or photograpsh, I thought I might as well give a sample of the novel instead. So, the prologue and first chapter of The Demons of Khemas. Rather slow beginning, but what the hell. I write what I like to read myself, and sometimes I do like the slow introductions rather than jumping right into action.
THE DEMONS OF KHEMAS
Tikka stopped to look. The single lamp outside the tavern struggled feebly against the darkness of the overcast night as the first gusts of the coming storm made it swing in its hook. For a moment the flame inside the partly broken shade sputtered and nearly went out, only to recover at the last moment. The light fell on the mud covering most of the cobblestone yard, revealing the unmistakable shape of a ribcage and some less identifiable things.
Probably the bones were those of animals. Perhaps the remains of old dinners. Tikka doubted the staff would leave corpses of dead customers to rot on their yard. Bad for business, even in a place like this.
She squared her shoulders and walked towards the door. The mud squelched beneath her boots, finding its way to her toes through the broken stitching of the left one. She really needed new ones.
Right before the door she stopped again and smoothed down her skirts, then, after a moment of hesitation, reached up and opened the lower clasps of her cloak. She spread the cloak open, then tugged the shirt’s neckline as far down as she could without revealing her nipples and thrust her chest forward.
That would have to do. Her breasts would have looked alright, at least she liked to think so, if she had been wearing a tight bodice. As it was they were not shown to advantage. Not that they were all that small, but unfortunately they were of the type which sort of just hangs there. Once she got older, or had children, they might end up as something rather unappealing, but for now they were still firm enough to look rather nice. When she was wearing a bodice. Or was naked.
The latter alternative was something she did not intend to get into.
That was the reason why she was outside this tavern, The Burned Oak, instead of some of the others on the roads leading to the city. The rumor had it that while this was in some other ways an unsavory place it was still one where the girls didn’t have to sleep with the customers. Tikka prayed to the gods of her grandmother that it was so, and that they would be needing workers. She was flat out of money. She needed a job and this was her last chance here. If this would not pan out she’d have to go to the city. And that she did not want to do.
Alright. Enough. She’d have to go inside sooner or later.
“You look pretty enough,” a voice said. “He’s a nice guy. Just go in. Has a soft spot for youngsters, too.”
Tikka stumbled and nearly fell down, then managed to gather her balance. She stood absolutely still for a moment, then slowly turned her head to look around.
There was nobody else on the yard with her.
“What did you say? Where are you?”
There was no answer.
She waited a moment more, then asked again: “Where are you? I heard you well enough just now, don’t pretend not to be here now, please.”
“Uh, hi,” the voice said. It was either that of a woman, or that of a man with a somewhat high one.
She could not tell where it came from.
“Where are you? I can’t see you.”
“Here… behind the cart. Yes, behind the cart. But don’t come to look, please.”
There was a cart. One with just one wheel, canting on an angle against the wall of the building, almost out of the circle of light cast by the lone lamp.
“Why are you hiding back there?”
“Uh, I’m sort of ugly. Disfigured, you might say. I don’t like to be seen.”
She peered at the shadows behind the cart. It didn’t seem as if there was enough space between it and the wall for anybody to hide. Even a very small anybody.
“All right…” She drew in a breath and tried again. “You said he’s nice. You mean the tavern keeper?”
“Yes, he’s nice. You are looking for work, maybe?”
“Just go in and ask. He’ll probably let you try. If you work well he’ll probably keep you. They are a couple of people short right now. And he’s a kindhearted man, anyway, as I already said. Can’t resist a damsel in distress.”
By now Tikka was almost certain there was nobody behind the cart. But there was no other place for anybody to be hiding in the yard. Not anywhere as close as the voice seemed to be coming from, anyway.
Spooky. Very spooky. Except that the voice sounded nice. It had talked nice, so far, too.
And she really needed a job.
She thought about it for a moment, and then nodded towards the cart. “Thank you.”
Her grandmother would not have approved if she had ran at a mere disembodied voice. And a nice one, at that.
And besides, she could always run later. After she had gotten paid a couple of times.
She drew in a deep breath, walked to the door, opened it and went in.
Tikka looked up from the onions she was chopping and saw the red face of Mukasji, the tavern keeper’s son. Tall and wide-shouldered, with thick black curly hair and pleasantly regular features. Unfortunately also not the sharpest knife in the drawer, not even close, and with a gut as wide as his shoulders. He seemed to be pissed. As usual. Although she supposed his facial color might have had at least as much to do with the considerable amount of ale he had drank during the day. Which happened most days, too. “What now?” she asked.
“You don’t intend to go and serve dinner to them wearing that outfit, do you?”
Tikka looked down at the long brown skirt, blue shirt and dark brown bodice she had on. “Why not?”
“Long sleeves, no slit on the skirt, and that neckline doesn’t show anything. The customers want sexy. You don’t look interesting like that, not at all.”
“Mukasji, the customers may like sexy, but these particular customers also think that scantily dressed is the same as an open invitation. And if I then refuse to be groped, they will cause trouble. Even worse if I let them grope and then won’t follow anyone to their room. Your pa does not like to throw anyone out, you know that. Better if I do this night dressed like somebody halfway respectable. Then they will probably behave.” She refrained from saying ‘you should know all that, damn it’, but it took some willpower. Mukasji could be so damn irritating.
“I really don’t know why pa puts up with you. Neither Anya nor Mambi minds serving them sex. It’s not as if you were married.”
There were six women serving in The Burned Oak tavern. Two of them, Illia and Aster, were married, Aster to the stable master, Illia to a soldier who served in the city guard and visited his wife only about every second month. Then there was the owner’s second wife, a nice elderly woman called Jish who mostly worked as a cook. Tikka had never asked anybody what had happened to Mukasji’s mother, all she knew was that he was legitimate, nobody would talk about that first wife, and Jish had raised Mukasji from an early age.
Anya and Mambi were the two other unmarried servant wenches besides Tikka, both, like her, in their early twenties. Anya was a voluptuous brunette with all the intelligence of a chicken, Mambi a very sharp, tall and skinny girl with a long, homely face. Both got extra money by working as prostitutes on the side.
Tikka had never been quite sure of Illia. Sometimes she would disappear during the evenings. She had never seen Illia going anywhere with a customer, but she had her suspicions. She felt sorry for her husband. Some men would be fine with wives who got money that way, but she doubted he was among them. He had always seemed like the jealous type to her, if otherwise probably a rather decent sort. And the one thing Tikka had a firm opinion about was that Illia should not be doing that particular type of work behind his back.
Jick, the tavern’s owner, did not mind if the girls did whore for themselves. He didn’t ask for a share of the money, saying that the fact that their trade brought him more customers was enough, although he did use it as an excuse to pay the two openly working girls less than he did pay to the others even if he did ask for equal hours of tavern work from them. And unlike most local tavern keepers he didn’t demand his female staff work as whores, he left the decision to them. So those who, like Tikka and Aster, didn’t want to, didn’t have to. Jick even made sure that nobody else forced them to.
He was a good boss. As the voice, all those years ago, had told her.
“Jick likes me because I never get drunk, I’m always at work at the time I’m supposed to be, and I do what he has told me to do, and what I’m supposed to do. It’s called ‘reliable’, Mukasji. And it’s considered a good quality for a hireling to have.”
Mukasji glared at her, then turned and stomped out of the kitchen. Aster, working on the other side of the table, grinned at Tikka, and she grinned back.
Mukasji was one of the bad points of working at The Burned Oak. At least Jick was healthy enough that, barring accidents, he’d be around for a long time yet. Mukasji would probably drive the tavern insolvent within months when he finally inherited it, a fact of which Jick was fully aware. Sometimes he’d talk about it, on those evenings when they didn’t have too many customers and he’d feel free to get a little bit drunk.
Tikka finished with the onions and dropped them into the pot. There was not going to be anything fancy tonight, just soup with chopped up vegetables and some leftover meat from the previous evening. She hoped that would be good enough for the customers. They had gotten a bunch of Northerners a couple of hours ago. Most of them worked as mercenaries for the local merchants, and a caravan had come in last evening. As this was the time of the celebrations for the Goddess of Fertility, or one of them, all the places in the city had however already been packed, so this group had gotten the idea of coming here.
Good for Jick, not so good for the bar wenches. First, this was something they had not been prepared for, so they had been forced to improvise, a lot, when it came to scraping up enough for the men to eat. The only thing they had a good supply of right now was beer and ale, as small blessings go. Then, the girls had recognized several of the men as ones who had given the tavern trouble before.
The Northerners were barbarians. They had some not so nice ideas about how to celebrate their pay day. At the very least they would probably trash half of the tavern before they passed out. Now Jick didn’t mind that all that much, at least as long as he got paid for the damages, and the one thing these guys usually did do was pay well. But Tikka and her friends would have to clean up the mess. And in the worst case… Tikka had not been raped here, so far. But a couple of times it had come close. And these men were that kind of types who would, given half a chance. Provoked or not. The only difference was that if there was provocation, even imagined, and then denial, they might very well do something worse. And then act all innocent and the injured party if anybody accused them of anything afterwards.
Even so, Tikka supposed she shouldn’t complain. She had known full well what she was getting into when she asked to work here. She kept telling herself that if something happened it wouldn’t matter, she was no virgin, and with Jick in charge it would be only something that if it happened at all would happen only very rarely. She should be able to handle once or twice more.
But it was still something she would rather not go through again.
Mambi pushed through the doorway, her hands full of empty tankards. “Hey, is that soup about ready? They are hungry. And somebody has to get in there. I’m dead on my feet, I gotta have a break. And Anya went outside with a guy.”
“Again?” Aster said and raised her eyebrows.
“Yeah. Busy night.”
Mambi grinned. “Oh well, you know they prefer her while they are still more or less sober. I’ll wait until they get wasted. Then I start looking real pretty to them.”
“Sounds like a solid strategy to me,” Tikka said. “Hey, do we have more of those tankards? Clean ones, I mean? I know you’d prefer to stay out of there tonight, Aster, I can do this. Mambi, you watch that soup. Give me a yell when it can be served. It’s almost ready.”
Aster nodded her thanks. Mambi put the tankards down on the big table, took one of the short benches and dragged it next to the stove, then sat down heavily and gave a contended sigh. Tikka collected some of the clean tankards from one of the cupboards, drew in a deep breath and nudged the door open with her foot, then walked into the pandemonium on the other side.
The big room was packed. Most of the men were more or less blond, with long hair and longer beards, dressed in a motley collection of leather and linen, their armor now mostly discarded on the floor. Some wore badly used but originally probably quite expensive silks. Most were now half undressed, showing off their muscles and their scars. They were boisterous, they were rowdy, and they were feeling very rich with their full purses.
Tikka smiled and nodded and exchanged banter while she wove her way towards the bar. There might be trouble here tonight. But there was also certainly going to be opportunities to get good tips. To great extent it was up to her which alternative would play out for her.
She had been doing this for long enough now that she should be able to handle these men well enough. She just had to be careful that she didn’t give the impression of suggesting something she didn’t mean to do. Act like their sister or mother or aunt, that was the key. But she’d still better be careful she didn’t end up anywhere alone with one or more of them. Even those who would be manageable in the crowded room might get out of hand in that situation.
Tikka smiled to herself. Sometimes this job made her feel as if she was one of the southern lion tamers who would sometimes come and show their act in the big arena just outside of the South Gate of the city during one or other of the War God’s festivals. One false move and they’d be at your throat…
“Hello, Tikka,” Jick, who was minding the bar, said. “Aster decided to stay in the kitchen?”
“Yes,” Tikka said and handed him the tankards. “Which way should I head first?”
“That corner table there” Jick pointed and grinned. “Poor boys are in such a hurry to get rid of all that heavy gold. So be nice and give them all the assistance you can, will you?”
Tikka took the filled tankards back and smiled. “Will do.” She then turned and braved the crowd again.
This was going to be a long night.
A lot later, way after midnight Tikka found herself back in the kitchen, trying to catch a few breaths of fresh air from the open back door. The air in the main room was getting decidedly heavy, with all the spilled beer, vomit and sweaty bodies crammed in all possible places. Several men were already down on the floor, sleeping the heavy sleep of the completely drunk beneath the tables.
“Have they started peeing in there yet,” Aster asked from where she was washing the tankards, one of the never ending duties on nights like this.
“That, vomit, and I think I saw some shit on the floor too. At least by the smell there are more than a few guys who have soiled their pants.”
“Oh great. And half of them will pass out right there in the big room too. I can hardly wait for the morning.”
Tikka grinned at her. “Well, as long as nobody dies. I hate it when that happens. You always find at least one friend or companion of the deceased who thinks we poisoned the poor sod.”
“Yeah, with alcohol. That can kill you. If you drink more than you can take.”
That was the voice of experience talking, they had seen it happen often enough. Tikka nodded. “But try telling them that.”
Aster tittered. Tikka smiled and leaned back on the door-post, staring unseeing into the dark night outside. The smell of the compost heap wafting in didn’t bother her. It didn’t smell any worse than the big room did right now.
The door from the big room banged open and Anya burst into the kitchen. The noise level went momentarily up, then down as the door closed again.
Tikka looked at her, noticing the shining eyes and red cheeks. Anya didn’t seem to do her whoring so much for the money as Mambi did. She thrived on the men’s attention, and, rare enough for somebody in her profession, she seemed to genuinely enjoy the sex. All the sex she could get. From any man. Most of the whores Tikka knew seemed mostly just to tolerate it, even if they rarely actually hated it. But Anya really liked it.
That didn’t mean she didn’t appreciate the money too.
“Hey, give me some help here, you two, will you?”
“What is it?” Tikka asked.
“One of them wanted to pay with a bracelet. Is it worth anything?” Anya was well aware of her own limitations. She could recognize gold, but if it was anything else she preferred to ask somebody with more knowledge and a smarter head.
“Let me see.” Tikka reached her hand and Anya placed a line of smooth black stones with a few sparkling blue ones between them on it. Tikka moved closer to the lamp and peered down.
“Well, these blue ones are nicely cut, but not sapphires. Something semiprecious, I think. And the black ones are just volcanic glass, you find that a lot where I come from. It’s worth something, but probably not all that much. Not around here. I hear it’s considered valuable further in the East, because it can’t be found there and they have to import it, but we are too close to the sources.”
Anya pouted. “Oh, crap, that guy seems like a nice one. I’ll see if he is willing to add some coins to that, but if not I may do it anyway.”
“You’ll never be rich if you go on like that, you know.”
“I know. By the way, some new guys game in a few moments ago. Jick put them in the back room. I think they are the ones we were actually expecting tonight. And your boyfriend’s with them. Jick just asked me to look if they need anything.”
“If you mean Grath he’s not my boyfriend.” Grath was a man who had been visiting The Burned Oak rather regularly for a bit over a year. He seemed to like Tikka. The feeling was to some extent mutual, but Tikka did not harbor any romantic notions about him. At least that was what she kept telling herself. For one thing, he had used the services of both Anya and Mambi from time to time. Not behavior she wanted from a potential suitor, whether serious or not about the ‘suitor’ part. Even if she thought that her thinking that was not necessarily smart – would she really expect a man to remain totally celibate while waiting for her to make up her mind, no matter how long that took? But that was how she felt. Besides, he worked as a mercenary, which made him even less desirable to her. She did not want a warrior.
Somebody with a more secure profession, like a potter, or a stone worker, or maybe even a small time merchant or a smith on the other hand – if she could just meet somebody like that.
Somebody, anybody, with a secure and safe occupation. And secure income.
Grath was nice, at least towards her, and had proven himself trustworthy in most ways. Tikka liked to talk with him, and thought of him as a friend. Maybe, if he had not been a mercenary… only he was. So no point thinking about that.
“Who’s he with? Did Jick tell who those customers are?”
“No. I have no idea. Well dressed, most don’t look like mercenaries. Maybe merchants. Or maybe they work for one or other of the temples in the city. Some of them look a bit too ascetic for merchants. And they didn’t want my other services.”
Tikka frowned. “Those types? You don’t mind if I take your place and go and see what we can serve them?”
“No. I was kind of hoping you would. I want to go back to my guy.”
“All right. I’ll go.”
The back room of The Burned Oak was small, but it had its own entrance, a door into the backyard. Something appreciated by some of the people who visited here. Tikka knocked and waited for a yell before she entered. With some of their visitors it might be very unhealthy if you surprised them. Sometimes because they might be jumpy enough to throw something, like maybe a knife, at you. Sometimes because if they thought you had heard something they didn’t want known they might decide to finish you off just as a precaution. Tikka got curious sometimes. But so far she had never tried to spy. Not in person anyway. She valued her life too much.
She tried not to be too obvious when she assessed the men inside.
“Can I bring you anything, gentlemen? Drink or food? We don’t have much to offer this evening, but the soup is good and there is beer, ale and some brandy.”
Anya, for once, seemed to have guessed right. Or at least the same way as Tikka herself did. The men probably were from one of the temples – or some, some of them looked pretty different from each other in the way they were dressed and what baubles they wore, or how they were groomed, and the staffs of different temples did tend towards somewhat uniform looks. Two of them had shaved heads, their clothing was simple looking but made of expensive fabrics. A few others were dressed less luxuriously. As for the one whose robe really was of sackcloth – he had the marks of self-flagellation on what little there was to see of his skin.
One of the true believers.
They weren’t all that common, those. Most of the temple employees Tikka had met seemed to regard their work as simply that: A work which paid well and was well respected and usually not all that hard, as long as you had some wits.
“No wine?” one of the men asked, the better dressed of the two shaved heads. Tikka assumed he was a priest. With most of the religions practiced in the city the priests shaved their heads. She had always wondered why.
“No sir. No wine. We ran out a few days ago, and at this time of the year it is almost impossible to restock. We probably won’t have any before the end of the Harvest month. But both the beer and the ale are good. And the brandy is drinkable.”
As she was talking she tried to catch the eye of Grath. He was there, in the back of the room, along with two other men who looked like mercenaries. Or soldiers. Or just thugs for hire. Finely dressed thugs, though.
Grath fitted the description of ‘thug’ well enough, at least as long as you were talking about appearances. He might have had a rather pleasant looking face once, but the broken nose and the long scar which completely disfigured the left side had mostly taken care of that.
The tattoos didn’t help much either. Every inch of his skin Tikka had ever seen was covered in a thin tracery of curling blue lines and dots. According to Mambi so was every inch of his skin she had not seen. Tikka had tried several times to get him to talk about them, but his tattoos were one subject on which Grath had always kept mum. Even when drunk.
Otherwise he actually was a rather fine looking man, big and well built, but then that latter part was one thing you could say of most of the mercenaries. Those who let themselves go to seed didn’t last long in the profession.
Tikka hadn’t been able to find where he had originally come from. She presumed north. His hair was very blond and he kept it long in the fashion of the ones they called the Northerners. He also had the bright blue eyes you usually did not see among any other people than them. The only thing he lacked was the beard. Tikka thought it might have something to do with those tattoos.
“We’ll take the ale,” the customer said. “No soup, but if you have any bread, and maybe cheese…”
“Yes, both. For all of you?” This time Tikka did look straight at the three mercenaries, and Grath, finally, acknowledged her with a wink.
“All right sir. This might take a few trips, I’m sorry to say, but we are understaffed for the kind of crowd we have here tonight. Unless one of you gentlemen would help?” Again she gave Grath a straight stare.
The shaved head took the hint. He glanced at Grath and nodded. The tattooed man bent his head and stood up, then followed Tikka as she turned and walked out.
They walked some way towards the kitchen door before Tikka stopped and turned to look at Grath.
“Awfully eager to see me, aren’t you, girl? And in private, too.”
Tikka snorted. “In your dreams. I just wanted to know what the hell are you up to this time. Dealing with those guys is never a good idea.”
“Come on, you know I have worked for the temples before. And there never was any trouble.”
“Maybe not, but at least all those times you have told me about it was normal soldier work. This doesn’t seem like a deal to work guard duty on their treasury or with one of their caravans. They don’t come here to make that kind of deals. This has to be something else.”
It was very dark. Tikka barely could see the shape of the man standing right in front of her. There was no way to tell what kind of expression Grath had on his face. But his tone of voice was light. “Well, it’s a bit unusual, but nothing to worry about. Just trust me. I know what I am doing.”
“Do you?” Tikka said.
“Just trust me.”
“And you probably won’t tell me anything about what you have been talking about in there?”
“No,” Grath said, his voice even.
“I could ask the ghost,” she said.
Somebody opened the back door of the kitchen and this time she saw his grin. “I doubt that would work, not with this crowd. Good spellcraft. Too good for your friend.”
Tikka knew she’d get nothing more out of him. Well, she had tried. He was a grown man. Presumably he did know what he was doing.
“Oh hell. Let’s go and get that ale.”
It was almost morning when Tikka finally could climb the stairs to the tiny room she had for herself in the loft, behind the broken furniture and some other currently unused things. It had been a storage cabinet, a large and almost empty one when she had found it, but after she had realized that with the combination of one of its walls being the wall of one of the chimneys, the one going down to the big room fireplace, and a small window, one closed with a wooden shutter on the other wall, it actually was completely livable during both the summer and the winter, and big enough to hold a bed and a tiny table, both which she had salvaged from the pile before its door (and there was even a door), she had managed to talk Jick into giving it for her use. So now she was the only one of the whole staff with a room of her own. Even if a room was, admittedly, a bit grandiose word for it.
Even Mukasji had to share his with one of the stable hands.
On the other hand she was probably the only one in the staff who actually valued some privacy. All the others seemed to prefer being in the company of other people most of the time. She knew they thought her a bit weird because she liked to sleep alone, and occasionally even spend some of her awake free time alone.
Not that she really ever was alone, not in this place. Even if her company was not visible, and only very rarely tangible.
For a brief moment she considered undressing, then flopped down on the bed and only removed her boots and the bodice. She’d have to get back up in a few hours anyway.
“What, don’t I get my show tonight?”
Tikka had never been able to decide whether the voice of the ghost was that of a man or a woman. She wasn’t sure if it was a ghost or some other type of spirit, either, although it thought itself that it had once been alive, as a human, or at least that was what it said. But it claimed to remember almost nothing of that time, including which sex it had been. There were times when Tikka thought it acted more like a woman, and then it would say something like it just had, which sounded more like what a man might say. She usually pretended it was a man. Or had been a man. Or whatever – more than half of the faiths she knew about thought that souls reincarnated, and that the sex of the reborn soul would not necessarily be the same it had been in its previous incarnation, so whether a ghost could have a sex was perhaps somewhat debatable, but since she did have some problems imagining something which wasn’t one sex or another she preferred to assign a sex to her ghost. So, to her it was male, most of the time anyway.
She fell down on her back, grabbed the pillow and pulled it over her face. “Can’t I have any privacy?”
“No. It’s really not my choice, you know. I can’t help it that I know of everything here.”
“Then can’t you at least keep quiet about it? Now go and haunt someone else. Please.”
“I have told you they can’t hear me. I can only knock on walls or floor or throw things at them. That’s not half as much fun as having a conversation with you, dear woodpecker.”
“And don’t call me that,” Tikka mumbled from beneath the pillow.
“But it suits you so well. Especially with that red hair of yours. Such a rare color. Can’t remember when I last saw hair that bright a red.”
“Fine. Great. And you have told me that before too. Along with the fact that you really don’t remember all that much about anything anyway, so that you don’t remember anybody with my hair color is a moot point, really. Now let me sleep. Pleease. And go and scare that guy who slapped my ass. That hurt.”
“Well… if you insist.”
The voice went silent. Tikka put the pillow back where it belonged, muttered “Thank you”, pulled about half of the blanket over herself and fell asleep.