We weave between tables and chairs, thick and rough with cracks and splinters. Ren leans against the counter and nods at the barkeep—a brawny man with a handlebar mustache—who glances suspiciously at us while he cleans a mug with a dirty cloth.
“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 booth in the corner. “There’s your table. Ale?”
“No.” Ren turns and heads for the booth. I follow behind and we both take a seat.
“Wow…what are those?” I gawk at a dozen or so dog-men—the smallest one has to be at least six and a half feet tall—clustered around the opposite wall. Some could pass as straight-up werewolves, but 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 with such force that I flinch involuntarily. “Do not draw ire with your careless stare. Keep your eyes to yourself, lest someone cut them from your slack-jawed head.”
“Right. Sorry.” I look down at the table, embarrassed by my interdimensional tourist moment.
“Good.” He settles back in his seat, crossing his arms and lowering his chin. With his hood drooped forward, he almost looks like he’s fallen asleep, but I get the sense that he’s fully alert.
“Your uh…purse,” I venture.
“Yeah—carry. You put stuff in it, but it never changes size. I’ve never seen anything like it except in video games.”
“It’s bound with a catch-fold charm and a tangle-me-never. The first enchantment boosts its storage. The second keeps it out my way, in case I have to fight or run.”
“How much stuff can it hold?”
“Several months of supplies and equipment. No weapons, armor, or heavy apparatus. Other spells will allow for such, but they cost more than I’m willing to pay.”
“So you could store a house in there, if it had the right magic.”
“Yes. An entire castle, given the correct sorcery.”
“Wow.” I shake my head, at a loss for words.
Ren shifts beneath his hood, allowing me a glimpse of his wary eyes. “You said you’ve seen something like it in…a virulent game, was it?”
“Video game. You press buttons to make things happen, then your actions show up on a glowing screen. It’s electronic, though, not magic.”
“What is ‘electronic?’ ”
“It means powered by lightning.”
He grunts again. “Seems pointless.”
“Not all of us can swing swords and cast spells.”
“Sounds like a personal problem.”
Before I can reply, the barkeep arrives with two plates of food.
“Bread. Meat.” He lays them down.
“Our thanks.” Ren gives him a couple of coins. The barkeep takes them and walks away.
Ren reaches in his carry and pulls out two wooden cups and a leathery bladder. He pours us water from its tapered end, then stows the bladder and starts eating, cutting with his knife and shoving meat in his mouth.
I study my plate with a dubious eye. It’s 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 is stale, but hey—better than nothing, right? As I chew the organs, I can’t help but feel a little flash of pride. People back home would lose their minds if they had to eat this—I’m pretty sure it’s the opposite of paleo-keto-free-trade-whatever.
Ren pauses, holding a chunk of bread up by his lips. “Why are you smiling?”
“Well it’s just that…” I almost explain, but decide against it. I’m guessing that overcooked meat is a complete nonissue to a guy like him. He’s probably eaten a 30th level mindflayer.
I decide to go with, “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 some bread to soak up the juices, then I 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. Maybe I can’t cast magic or fight with swords, but—
The door to the tavern bangs open. The entire room goes pin-drop silent.
Standing in the entrance is a white-armored knight.
“Eyes down,” Ren whispers.
A dozen knights filter in, boots clacking on the hardwood floor.
“Stay where you are,” the leader orders. “Or I’ll knock your teeth from your cursed mouths.”
They clop slowly through the quiet room, drinking in the tense silence. The leader halts, hooking gauntleted thumbs into his blood-red belt-sash.
“My name is High Justicer Thane. Address me as such, or I will break your fingers and tear them off. 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, dipping his head like he’s deep in thought. “So everyone here is an honest trader.” He halts again in the middle of the tavern.
“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—”
“Yes.” He remains stock still.
“So what do we—”
“Follow my lead.”
I’m about to inform him that I’ve only heard that phrase in eighties adventure movies, when a shadow falls across our table.
“Up,” a Knight orders.
We rise from the booth and face the Knight. Sweat springs out across my body. I don’t want to die. I thought I was ready, but that was before I knew about parallel dimensions and magic ninjas.
We both turn around.
“Hands on the wall.”
We put our hands on the wall.
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. Can 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 just took a course in minor arcanix, aye? Part of your training as a Lesser Justicer?”
“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. From the corner of my vision, I see glowing red runes materialize 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—”
“Get your hands off him!” someone snarls. “You have no right!”
Roke slaps Garn on his armor-plated shoulder. “Draw steel. Watch my flank.” 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 dog-warriors have their backs to the wall, slightly hunched like they’re ready to pounce.
Thane swings around, pointing his sword at anyone and everyone. “Back!” he screams. “Or I’ll mount your heads atop the gate!”
One of the Wolven shoves a Knight, making him stumble onto his butt. Three blades flick up, stopping the Wolven in its tracks. The Knights with the swords inch forward, forcing the were-husky to walk backwards.
“Hold!” Another Wolven raises his hands, swiveling in place so he can address his warriors along with the Knights. “We have no quarrel!”
The Knight who was shoved gets to his feet. “They’re trafficking with Fair Folk, High Justicer. I found a loaf of Elven bread.”
Thane gives the dog-men a malicious smile. “Fair Folk goods, 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 acquiesce to the White Veiled Queen, madness and chaos would swamp these lands.”
The Wolven leader lowers his voice. Despite his desperate predicament, he manages to sound earnest and dignified. “Please.” He raises his hands a couple inches higher. “This isn’t necessary.”
Thane looks to either side, meeting the eyes of the Iaetrix Knights. “Cut their throats. Do it quickly.”
And then all hell breaks loose.