We weave between tables and chairs, thick and rough with cracks and splinters. Ren leans against the counter, nodding at the barkeep—a brawny man with a handlebar mustache—who stops cleaning a mug and looks suspiciously at us.
“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?”
Ren turns and heads for the booth. I follow behind and we both take a seat.
“Wow…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 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 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 gawking head.”
“Right. Sorry.” I look down at the table, embarrassed by my interdimensional tourist moment.
“Good.” He settles back in his seat, arms crossed, chin lowered. With his hood drooping forward, he almost looks like he’s taking a snooze. Despite that, I get the sense that he’s fully alert.
After nearly a minute of awkward silence, I venture, “Your uh…purse.”
“Right—carry. You put things in it, but it never changes size. Outside of a video game, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“It’s bound with a catch-fold charm and a tangle-me-never. The first enchantment boosts its storage. The second keeps it out of the 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 a fair bit 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 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 a ‘video game?’ ”
“You press buttons on a pad 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 lowers his chin and his hood slips forward, hiding his eyes once again. “Seems pointless.”
“Not all of us can swing swords and cast spells,” I retort. “Some of us have to settle for—”
“Sounds like a personal problem.”
Before I can reply, the barkeeper arrives with two plates of food.
“Bread. Meat.” He lays them down.
“Our thanks.” Ren hands him a coin—the barkeep takes it and walks away—then 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 flash of pride. I know a lot of people back on Earth who 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 tell him but decide against it. I’m guessing that overcooked 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 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 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, their boots clacking on the hardwood deck.
“Stay where you are,” one of them orders. “Or I’ll knock your teeth from your cursed mouths.”
They clop slowly across the torch-lit floor, drinking in the tense silence. The leader halts in the middle of the tavern, hooking his gauntleted thumbs into his blood-red belt-sash.
“My name is High Justicer Thane. Address me as such, or I will shatter your fingers and tear them off.” He lets that sink in, then says, “If you haven’t 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 say that I’ve only heard that phrase 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, pooling and gathering in my pits and crotch. I don’t want to die. I thought I was ready, but that was before I knew about parallel dimensions and magical 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. 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 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 dog-warriors have their backs to the wall, slightly hunched like they’re ready to pounce.
Thane swings wildly, 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 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 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 honor the Queen’s wishes, 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 inches higher. “This isn’t necessary.”
Thane looks to either side, meeting the eyes of his Iaetrix Knights. “Cut their throats. Do it quickly.”
Then all hell breaks loose.