After weaving between tables and chairs, thick and rough with cracks and splinters, Ren stops at the counter and nods at the barkeep—a brawny man with a handlebar mustache.
“Meat and bread.” Ren dances his hand back and forth, indicating him and me in the same gesture. “A table as well.”
The barkeep jerks his head at a corner-side booth. “There’s your table. Ale?”
“No.” Ren turns and heads for the booth. I follow behind and we both take a seat.
“What are those?” I gape at a dozen or so dog-men (the smallest one has to be at least six and a half feet) clustered around the opposite wall. Some could pass as straight-up werewolves, while others resemble athletic dog breeds. Shepherds, Malinois, boxers…They’re dressed like humans but everything’s bigger—bigger cloaks, bigger weapons, bigger armor.
“Children of Fenrus. They call themselves Wolven. Attend me.” Ren says it so forcefully that I can’t help but flinch. “Do not draw ire with your careless stare. Keep your eyes to yourself, lest someone cut them from your head.”
“Right. Sorry.” I look down at the table, embarrassed by my interdimensional tourist moment.
“Good.” He crosses his arms and lowers his chin. With his hood drooped forward, he almost looks like he’s taking a snooze. Despite that, I get the sense he’s fully alert.
After nearly a minute of awkward silence, I venture, “Your uh…purse.”
“Right—carry. You stuff it with items, but it never changes size. I’ve never seen anything like it. Outside of a video game, that is.”
“It’s bound with a catch-fold charm and a tangle-me-never. The first enchantment boosts its storage. The second ensures it stays out of the way.”
“How much can it hold?”
“Several months of supplies and equipment. No weapons, armor, or heavy apparatus. Other spells allow for such, but they cost a fair bit more than I’m willing to pay.”
“So you could store a house in there. Theoretically speaking.”
“Yes. An entire castle, given the right sorcery.”
“Wow.” I shake my head, at a loss for words.
He shifts under the hood, allowing me a glimpse of his shadowed eyes. “You said you’ve seen something like it in…a virulent game, was it?”
“What is that? A ‘video game?’ ”
“A game where you press buttons to make things happen. Your actions show up on a glowing screen. It’s electronic, though, not magic.”
“What is ‘electronic?’ ”
“It means powered by lightning.”
He lowers his chin. “Seems pointless.”
“Not all of us are wizards or fighters,” I counter.
“Sounds like a personal problem.”
Before I can reply, the barkeeper arrives with two plates of food. “Bread. Meat.”
“Our thanks.” Ren hands him a coin. The barkeep takes it and walks away.
I study my plate with a dubious eye. Some kind of rodent, if I had to guess. Organs glisten from its split-open center.
“Why do you tarry?” Ren cracks a bone and sucks out the marrow.
“I…nothing.” (No use explaining that I usually eat at the Whole Foods hot bar. I doubt this place has chile lime rice.)
So I draw my knife and dig in. The meat’s burnt, the bread’s stale, but hey—better than nothing, right? As I chew the organs, I feel a tiny flash of pride. I know a lot of Earthlings who would lose their minds if they had to eat this.
Ren pauses, holding a chunk of bread by his lips. “Why are you smiling?”
“Well it’s just that…” I almost tell him, then decide against it. I’m guessing that grody meat is a complete nonissue to a guy like Ren. He’s probably eaten a 30th level mindflayer.
So instead I say, “I didn’t realize I was this hungry.”
“Right.” He looks down and continues eating.
(Mental note: keep celebratory grin to idiot self, especially when it’s over something as small as Evermoor cuisine.)
I use the bread to soak up the juice, then jam it all into my mouth. Ren does the same. I feel another flash of pride. I was a step ahead—I guessed the right thing to do without being told. I can’t cast magic or fight with swords, but—
The door bangs open. The room goes silent.
Standing in the entrance is a white-armored knight.
“Eyes down,” Ren whispers.
A dozen knights filter in, boots clacking on the hardwood deck.
“Stay where you are,” one of them orders. “Or we’ll knock the teeth from your cursed mouths.”
The leader halts in the middle of the tavern, hooking his gauntleted thumbs in his blood-red belt-sash.
“My name is High Justicer Thane. Address me correctly, or I will shatter your fingers and rip them off.” He lets that sink in, then continues speaking. “If you haven’t already heard, Fair Folk goods are now illegal. This is your one and only chance at amnesty. Declare your contraband and you shall be pardoned.”
No one says a word.
“I see.” Thane strides forward, lowering his head like he’s deep in thought. “So everyone here is an honest trader.”
He halts again.
“Search them.” His voice rises with frigid authority. “If they have anything Fair—anything so much as a residual spell—take them outside and slit their throats.” He sweeps the room with a hard stare. “On your feet. All of you.”
“Ren,” I whisper. “Are you carrying any Fair Fo—”
“So what do we—”
“Follow my lead.”
I’m about to tell him I’ve only heard that in eighties adventure movies, when a shadow falls across our table.
We rise from the booth and face the Knight. Sweat springs out across my body, gathering and pooling in my pits and crotch. I don’t want to die. I thought I was ready, but that was before I discovered parallel dimensions and magic ninjas.
We both turn around.
“Hands on the wall.”
We do as he says.
Gauntleted fingers pat me down. He finishes with me and steps behind Ren. I try to relax, but I can’t stop my teeth from grinding together. Follow my lead. In my mind, I feel out the motion of drawing my knife. Could I actually stab another huma—
“Catch-fold enchantment, eh?” The Knight turns and calls, “Garn!”
Knight Garn hurries over. His armor clanks in time with his steps.
“Yes, Justicer Roke?”
“You’ve taken a course in minor arcanix, aye?”
“Yes, Justicer Roke.”
“Did those frail-bodied mages teach you Elkor’s Eye?”
“Yes, Justicer Roke.”
Roke nods at Ren. “This one has a catch-fold enchantment. Search his bag for anything Fair.”
“Aye, Justicer Roke.” Garn mutters beneath his breath. Red-glowing runes appear around his eyes. He opens Ren’s carry and peers inside.
“A lot of supplies, but…” Garn’s helmeted face furrows in concentration. “I’m not sure, but I think there’s a—”
“Don’t you touch him!” someone snarls. “You have no RIGHT!”
Roke slaps Garn on his plated shoulder. “Draw steel and watch my flank. Quickly, quickly!” They hurry over to the other end of the tavern.
Ren and I turn and look. The Knights are all brandishing swords, standing in a loose semicircle around the Wolven. The giant warriors have their backs to the wall, slightly hunched like they’re ready to pounce.
Thane swivels from side to side, pointing his sword at anyone and everyone. “Stay where you are!” he screams. “Or I’ll mount your heads atop the gate!”
One of the Wolven shoves a Knight, making him stumble onto his butt. Blades flick up, stopping the Wolven in its tracks. The Knights with the swords inch forward, forcing the were-husky to step backward.
“Hold!” Another Wolven raises his hands, swiveling in place so he can address his warriors along with the Knights. “We have no quarrel! Hear me, all of you—we have no quarrel!”
The Knight who was shoved gets to his feet. “They’re trafficking contraband, High Justicer. I found a loaf of Elven bread.”
Thane gives the dog-men a malicious smile. “Fair Folk wares, eh?”
The Wolven leader—the one who’s been trying to keep the peace—says, “Just a few crumbs of leftover food, caught in the folds of my aide’s carry. There’s no need to punish my folk.”
“On the contrary,” Thane sneers. “There is every need. If we didn’t honor the Queen’s edicts, madness and chaos would swamp these lands.”
The Wolven leader lowers his voice—despite his predicament, he manages to sound earnest and dignified. “Please.” He raises his hands a couple of inches. “This isn’t necessary.”
Thane looks to either side, meeting the eyes of his Iaetrix Knights. “Cut their throats. Do it quickly.”
And then all hell breaks loose.