The Demons of Khemas, free sample, 2. chapter

4 May

I will put up the first five chapters, every second day from today. It’s possible I will remove some after I have the novel out. I did consider putting out the whole novel, then removing it when I publish it on Kindle, but I think I’ll try this now, then the whole novel approach with a shorter work I may be able to finish sometime next fall.

Chapter Two

Two days after the Northerners had left the tavern staff was still cleaning up and repairing damages. Jick had hired a couple of outsiders to help, and a carpenter had been putting together a couple of new tables and benches on the yard since the day before, after repairing the ones which could be repaired, but most of the work had been done by the regulars.

During her midday break Tikka sneaked into the hayloft to be alone for a few moments. Being alone was a habit Tikka had picked up when she had been a girl, and was something most people she knew found odd. But she just had to get away from people sometimes.

Of course the ghost could always be there, but she was used to that by now.

“Hello, woodpecker.”

“Hello to yourself. Where have you been the last couple of days?”

“What, have you been missing me?”

“Just wondering.”

“Oh, here and there. Followed your man for a bit.”

“Grath? And he is not my man.”

The voice laughed. “Now really? Then why did you immediately assume I was talking about him?”

“Really. Because you always call him ‘my man’. Or ‘your man’… never mind. But he’s not my man, whatever you call him. What do you mean with followed? I didn’t know you could leave the tavern.”

“Oh yes,” the voice said, smug. “Can leave. I can go to the city, and about two days travel from it, to most directions. I just can’t stay. I always have to return here after a few days.”

Tikka leaned on the wall and frowned. There was the sound of the carpenter’s saw from the yard, then a laughter which Tikka thought sounded like that of Anya. Flirting with the carpenter, probably. “So, if you followed Grath…”

“Would you like to know what he’s doing?”

Tikka stayed quiet for a moment, trying to decide what to say.

“Well… I am sort of curious. I think.”

“He hasn’t been doing that much. Assessing the terrain, I’d say.”

“Come on. Don’t tease.”

“I did hear something of what they talked in the back room. Not all, a few of those men do know magic, and they had a spell there. But I am, in a sense anyway, the familiar spirit of this place, so you can’t keep me from knowing at least something. Especially since they didn’t know about me. Well, Grath does, but he doesn’t talk, and the others, the spellcasters, didn’t.”

“You certainly act familiar. So are you going to tell me or not?”

“All right, all right. I think they hired Grath and his friends to steal something, from one of the rival sects. Something which has some sort of magical worth.”

Tikka frowned again. She didn’t like the sound of that. “Know anything more? Do you think it’s dangerous?”

“So you do worry about him? I don’t know much more. Maybe I can find out. If you want I can try. But no guarantees. I’m just an ordinary ghost.”

“Well… I have to admit I do sort of like him, so… I don’t know what good it would do if you did, though. I don’t think he’d listen if I tried to warn him.”

“I will see what I can see. And hear.”

“Thank you. Anyway.”

The voice sounded like the speaker was smiling. “No sweat. Especially since I don’t sweat. And you can call me Para.”

Tikka, who had been in the process of getting up, halted. “Hey. You have never given me your name before. And we have known each other for years.”

“It’s not really my name, or even a name, in the sense of a personal name. But it will do. Means something like ‘a familiar spirit’. I don’t know how I know that, or what language it is,” it then said, “just one of those things I just know.”

Tikka smiled. “Well, that fits you. And no peeking under my skirts when I climb down that ladder.”

She was answered by the sound of laughter, fading into the distance.

A rat jumped out of the hay, perhaps scared by the ghost, then another, both ran towards the wall and then got momentarily confused about which direction to take.

There was still some time left before Tikka needed to go back to work, so she took the sling and a few stones she had the habit of carrying with her on her breaks, just in case of occasions like this, and aimed a stone at the larger one of the rats, missed, then threw a second stone right after and this time scored, killing the rat.

The other one had managed to get away by then.

One of the barn cats ran to the carcass and snatched it into its mouth, tossed it a couple of times and started to eat.

“Lazy kitty,” Tikka said. “Killing them is your job, not mine.”

Tikka stared at the cat for a moment while playing with the sling, deep in thought, then put it back in the belt pouch where she carried it.

She might as well go back to work. It was not as if she could expect any news from the ghost today, and suddenly she found she was too restless to be able to laze around doing nothing anymore.

Better to find something useful to do. At least that might keep her mind off things.

***

Tikka hated visiting the city. To her the whole place seemed like a giant sore on the surface of the plains. Aster was one of the few people who seemed to have something of the same attitude, but even she didn’t really understand the depth of Tikka’s loathing. To Aster the city was a place of depravation and danger. To Tikka it was a place of danger. But not only, like to Aster, of danger to your health, money and life. It seemed to Tikka that the danger went much deeper.

When she visited the city she feared for her soul.

She still had to do it sometimes. The Burned Oak bought most of its supplies from the city markets, and most times it was the bar wenches’ duty to do the  shopping. Jick would go himself only when he was in the mood, or when he needed to get some of the more expensive stuff, like the stronger liquors. Nobody would trust Mukasji with anything you needed money for. He would sometimes accompany the girls, but not very often anymore. Not after he had learned that he could not intimidate any of them to hand over any of the money Jick had given them for the shopping.

And Jish usually preferred not leave the tavern at all.

This time the ones who were on duty list for the shopping trip were Mambi and Tikka. They had started out early enough that there was no risk of Mukasji leeching on to them, and were already waiting outside the city gates with their pony and wagon when they were opened for the day.

The guards didn’t bother them with any questions. They never did, although they did have the right. Tikka ignored them as she urged their pony through the gateway, but Mambi, true to form, yelled something about ‘cute boys’.

“Hey, they’re potential customers,” Mambi said in answer to Tikka’s sidewise glance and raised eyebrow. “Soldiers make up the majority of customers for us, you know that.”

“Yes. I know.”

“Thinking about Grath?”

Tikka shrugged.

“You know, he can’t spent his life waiting for you to show some interest. If you gave him some indication you might be willing to be his woman I think there’s a good chance he’d stay faithful. I know that matters to you.”

“Now why does everyone have this notion I’m interested in Grath? He’s a friend, that’s all.”

Mambi laughed.

“That does happen, you know. A man and a woman can be just friends.”

“Sure. I believe you.”

Tikka rolled her eyes and groaned.

The beginning day had the promise of a beautiful one. Clear sky, sunshine, but enough wind that the heat would probably not become stifling. Most of the city streets had been cleaned of the refuse left by the last festival, the air was smelling almost fresh, and there were even birds singing. Yet Tikka felt the familiar oppression as they drove deeper into the maze of streets.

The city of Khemas was old. According to legends it had been established by the god kings when most humans had still been members of roving hunting bands, and had stood here, in the same place, ever since. According to legends it had never been conquered. Nowadays it was being ruled by a duke, and was nominally under the rule of the Western Empire, after a willing submission by the city once the Northern threat had seemed to become too much for the city to resist alone, but the only way the Empire exerted its power was by demanding a small tax to be paid each year.

The city’s age was a tangible reality inside its walls. Here and there one could see whole blocks of newer construction, but many of the buildings dated from hundreds, a few of the older temples possibly even thousands of years ago. Most of the hundreds of temples were among the truly old buildings, buildings which had perhaps been touched up here and there, but had walls and foundations which sometimes had been laid down at the time when the first people had settled here.

Tikka avoided visiting the temples. They were the places which scared her in the city. Some more, some less, but all of them to some extent.

Among the worst were those which were dedicated to the Monkey God. There hadn’t been monkeys living wild in this part of the world for as long as anyone could remember, but the story was that once it had been much warmer here, with no true winters, and there had been monkeys living in the city. As it was almost the only place where anyone could see monkeys in this part of the world now, living or carved, apart from a few small ones kept as pets in the Court, were inside the Monkey God’s temples. The living ones were imported from the south, and were kept in cages inside the temples, and brought on display on the wide stairs leading up to the temple doors on the warm days of the summer. Like today. Tikka could hear the noise they made even if they passed the temple of this quarter more than a block away. The sound made her shudder.

“The monkeys?” Mambi asked when she noticed.

“You know, I honestly don’t know why. I have seen the pets some of the Court ladies keep, and I find them kind of cute. The animals there,” she nodded towards the direction the sound came from, “are almost the same, just bigger and with shorter tails and longer snouts. Yet they make me freak out.”

Mambi shrugged. “Who knows. I’m scared of lizards. I know all the varieties we have here are harmless, but I’m still scared of them. And you forgot teeth, by the way. The fangs of the temple monkeys are quite fearsome, to everybody. Maybe it’s just that.”

Tikka shrugged in answer.

The market was already up and going, full of yelling customers and yelling traders. Tikka and Mambi parked the pony and wagon in a long line of similar wagons, then forced their way into the crowd. Tikka left the bargaining to Mambi. She was almost as good as Mambi was for getting good prices, but she didn’t enjoy the process of bargaining itself the way Mambi did. They did one trip together into the market, but after they had dragged their first purchases to the wagon Tikka stayed there to watch them while Mambi went alone to get what they were still missing.

Tikka sat and waited and amused herself by people watching. Khemas was at the crossroads of several trading routes. From the North came mostly fur and wool, dried fish and game meats, from the east and south spices and bolts of silk and linen, and from the plains around the city wool, steers driven to be slaughtered in the cities of the Empire, all kind of grains. From the west came the traders and soldiers of the Empire, but not much else. All the caravans stopped at Khemas during the trading season, and left some of their riches here, as payments for their supplies, or as gifts to the temples, or as the taxes the duke was allowed to gather, in the name of the Empire. They were what kept the city alive. They were what gave the city its wealth.

In the crowd around her were represented almost all the possible combinations of skin colors and hair types, facial features and dressing styles. The natives of the area were mostly fairly light skinned people with dark to mid-brown hair colors and dark eyes, but they didn’t make up more than two thirds of the population of the city even during the winter months. Now it was summer and well over half of the people one saw on the streets were exotic looking in some way.

Tikka supposed she would have liked the city if it hadn’t been for the whatever it was that made her feel like she was walking through a snake pit in full darkness every time she entered its walls, or even came close to it.

The sun had moved noticeably in the sky when Tikka saw a familiar face in the crowd. He was one of the two companions Grath had been with that evening a few days ago. She sat up straighter and waved at the man. He stared at her for a few seconds, looking nonplussed, then wove his way through the crowd to her.

“Do I knew you, girl?”

“No, but I know somebody you know. Have you seen Grath lately? I’d like to see him, so if you meet him tell him that, will you? My name is Tikka.”

The guy grinned, showing several missing teeth. The rest weren’t in good condition either. “Sure will, honey. I remember you now, you’re that wench from that tavern. Should have done so earlier, that color of hair is not common.”

“That’s what they say. So will you give my message to Grath?”

“If I see him. Haven’t for a while. And how will you pay if I’ll be your messenger boy?”

Tikka grinned. “How would you like a kick in the balls?”

“So, a tough one? Not acceptable, honey. I won’t work for free.”

He seemed to mean what he said. Tikka looked at his face for a moment, then sighed. “A kiss? I don’t have money or any other valuables with me. My own ones, that is. Just some that belong to my boss.”

“A kiss will do,” the man said and climbed up, then sat beside Tikka on the driver’s bench. He put his arms around her and drew her close. Tikka was beginning to regret the whole thing. His breath smelled rotten.

Well, a bargain was a bargain. Tikka smacked the man on the mouth, adding a hug for a good measure, rubbing her breasts on his chest, doing the whole thing in way she hoped was teasing but not too provocative.

The man grabbed her behind and squeezed hard. “You have to do better than that, honey.”

Tikka decided that she was not getting good value for her goods. Besides, the guy probably would not tell Grath anything anyway.

She smiled sweetly and pressed closer to the man. His grin spread wider and he didn’t try to stop her questing hands as they wandered towards the front of his trousers.

She slipped her hand inside and then grabbed him by his balls. Hard.

The man’s smile turned into a grimace.

“You know, I think I changed my mind. The original bargain is off. But I do want something for that kiss.” While keeping a firm grip with one hand Tikka used her other to explore the man’s clothing. “Oh, what have we here?”

She felt his hands move, and squeezed harder. “No, no you won’t. No looking for knives or any other nasty stuff like that. Unless you want to become an eunuch.”

She was beginning to think she was acting like an idiot. But it was too late to back down now.

His hands become still, then Tikka felt they were again resting lightly against her back. She drew the shape she had felt beneath his vest out. A pouch with something inside it.

She probably shouldn’t have taken it. But she did anyway. Maybe it was the man. He wasn’t that different from many others she had known, but he was really starting to irritate her.

“Tikka?” Mambi’s voice said from behind her.

“Hi. Could you help me out here a bit? This gentleman is leaving. I want to be sure he’ll do it quietly.”

Mambi’s sigh was loud enough to be heard above the din of the crowd all around them. “Sure.” The tall girl climbed up, then pulled her skirt up and drew two short knives from the sheaths, which had several more, tied to her legs. She brandished one of them in front of the man’s face. “See this? It’s balanced for throwing. I’m good with it.” She demonstrated, by flipping the knife into the air and then catching it easily by its handle again.

“See the goo on the blade,” she then asked. “Guess what it might be?”

The man nodded, looking unhappy and perhaps a little bit angry. Probably not so angry he’d try anything, or at least Tikka hoped so. Nobody around them seemed to be paying any attention to what they were doing. Nobody usually did, not in this city, not as long as the participants were of the lower classes and didn’t do anything that might disturb the rich.

“All right. Off you go then. Good boy.” Mambi’s voice was not at all the way it usually was when she spoke to men. The gap-toothed guy climbed down, then looked up at Mambi who was now again flipping one of the knives in her hand, her movements deft and sure. For a moment he looked like he might have wanted to do something, then he shrugged and turned and disappeared into the crowd.

“So what was that all about,” Mambi asked.

“A mistake.”

“And what would you have done if I hadn’t come back when I did?”

Tikka shrugged. “Tried to knock him out, probably. I have done that a few times.”

“With what?”

Tikka smiled and tapped her forehead.

“Oh yes. Your granny’s training. But this was no horse trader. Sorry specimen for a soldier, maybe, but he might still have been a bit harder to deal with than that trader was.”

Two years ago Tikka had been forced to hurt a man who had tried to molest her when she had gone to clean his room. She had never found out if he had complained to Jick, or to anyone else. Jick had never said anything. But the others would have known something had happened to the customer. The black eye and two broken front teeth would have been hard to miss. Not to mention the other bruises. She had sported one too, on her forehead, for days.

Tikka knew she had been lucky back then. That man had not been one of the professional fighters who were among the tavern’s more common customers, just somebody who had come to sell some horses. She was not sure how well she’d do against any of the mercenaries. In spite of her pretended confidence she was not at all sure she could have gotten out of the situation she had just been in without the other girl’s help. Mambi’s skill with the knives, and the fact that she painted some of the blades with the juice of a  certain plant – not a killing poison, but one that could cause partial paralysis, and cause it fast – was well known by all of the tavern’s staff, and Tikka was afraid she had pretty much counted on that she’d come back to the wagon in time.

Stupid. And this was not quite the first time she had done something not exactly smart. Sometimes she just… the fact was she didn’t know why she had done it, or why she had done something reckless those couple of times before.

Sometimes she just acted before she really thought things through.

Stupid.

Tikka turned the pony back to the street they had used to come here, then urged it to a trot for a few moments. The streets were crowded enough by now that she had to slow down in a matter of moments, though.

She was feeling bad about the incident. She had misjudged, and if they were unlucky her mistake might lead to trouble later on. In the worst case it might lead to trouble for Mambi, or even for one or other of the people of the tavern who had not even been here. She’d have to tell Jick about this.

Perhaps not the completely accurate version though. She knew Mambi would back up anything she’d say, so she would think of something which would not make her look like a total fool.

***

Tikka remembered the pouch she had taken from the man only very late in the evening. She might not have done that then, except she found it in one of the inside pockets on her underskirt when she was taking the skirt off by nearly stepping on it. There was something hard in there.

She took it out and sat on her bed, cross legged, to look at it.

When she opened the pouch she found a small box. She turned it in her hands for quite a long time, trying to figure out how it was opened, to no avail.

“That’s a trick box,” Para’s voice said right beside her left ear, making her start hard enough to drop the box.

“Now look what you did,” Tikka said.

“Sorry,” the voice said, not sounding quite sincere.

Tikka got off the bed and knelt down on the floor. She couldn’t see the box anywhere. “How about some help, ghost?”

“It’s underneath your bed.”

“Fine. You get it.”

“But I have no hands….”

“I know you can move things. You have scared the shit out of the girls enough times by throwing something at them, or by dropping something near them. So what’s so hard about pushing that box where I can see it?”

“All right, all right. Don’t bite my nonexistent head off.”

There was a scraping sound, and Tikka saw something moving. After a heartbeat or two the box slid into the light of the candle.

Her breath caught for a moment. She had seen things moving inside the tavern with nobody touching them a few times before, and she had known for years that the one who moved them was Para. But she had never been this close when it happened.

She had not been afraid of the ghost for years. Not really. Yet, in spite of everything, the sight of that small box sliding on seemingly by itself on the floor, right next to her knees, was unsettling.

“So, are you going to pick it up or not? I could levitate it, but that’s a really tiring act for me, so I’d rather not.”

“Sorry,” Tikka said quietly. “I was just, sort of, startled, I guess. I didn’t really think you’d do it.”

“Or hoped I wouldn’t?”

Tikka picked up the box and sat back on the bed. “Maybe that too.”

“I know I scared you pretty bad when I first approached you, on the yard that night. Even if you didn’t run. But I could hear your heart beating like crazy, and your voice shook when you answered me.”

“You did scare me. I’m mostly used to you now. I do think of you as a friend. But, well, you are still a bit… I don’t quite know how to say this.”

“Scary?”

Tikka smiled and nodded.

“We are not common, spirits who are stuck someplace like me. But neither are we all that uncommon. But you… people like you are rare.”

“What do you mean?”

“People who can hear us. We can make people hear us sometimes, if we want it bad enough, but then it’s something we do. You can hear me without me having to make any effort for you to hear. Do you understand?”

Tikka frowned.

“You have a talent, or a gift. With training you might become a witch, or a priestess. Maybe even a sorceress. Probably not a powerful one, or you would have noticed there was something different about you at an earlier age than you did… what were you when you came here, sixteen?”

Tikka nodded in answer. Para’s voice continued: “That’s late for that talent to show up. But you definitely have it, or we would not be having this conversation right now. I would have been just occasional knocks or footsteps or a thrown spoon to you, like I am to the rest of the people here.”

Tikka sat and played with the box for a while, digesting what the ghost had told her. It remained silent long enough that she began to wonder whether it had gone away. “Para, you still here?”

“Yes.”

“You know, that’s the worst thing about you. Not knowing whether you are there or not. Could we have some sort of an arrangement? I know you love to startle me, and make me wonder whether or not you are around and spying on me, but could you at least give me a warning when you are about to leave? So I won’t be having these one sided conversations with thin air?”

After a moment’s silence the voice answered her. “That sounds reasonable. I can do that. Most times. Sometimes I do just have to leave. I will try to explain, but at some other time, it’s kind of complicated.”

“Thank you.”

“I can give you another promise. I have never actually spied on you all that much, but I promise that from now on I will tell when I’m around, at least if you are alone. I do have this sort of general awareness of what is going on around here and that is something I can’t turn off, but I will tell if my, I guess I could call it focus, is near to you.”

Tikka nodded and said again “Thank you.”

“All right. And now I will have to leave. Leave that box in this room, I can probably figure it out. I will tell you when I have done that.”

“Thank you. And good night.”

“To you too, woodpecker.”

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