We weave between tables and chairs, thick and rough with cracks and splinters. Ren leans on the main 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 bartender jerks his head at a booth in the corner. “There’s your table. Ale?”
“No.” Ren turns and walks toward the booth. I follow behind and we both take a seat.
“Wow…what are those?” I find myself gawking at a dozen or so dog-men—the smallest one is at least six and a half feet tall—sitting against the opposite wall. Some look like straight-up werewolves, but others resemble athletic dog breeds. Shepherds, Malinois, boxers, and the like. They’re dressed like humans but everything’s bigger—bigger cloaks, bigger weapons, bigger armor.
“They call themselves Wolven. Attend me.” Ren says it with such force that I flinch involuntarily. “Do not draw ire with your careless stare,” he hisses. “Keep your eyes to yourself, lest someone free them from your 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 droopy hood, he almost looks like he’s fallen asleep, but I get the sense that he’s fully alert.
“Your uh…purse,” I venture.
“You put stuff in it, but it never changes size. Outside of a video game, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“It’s bound with catch-fold magic and encumbrance negation. The first spell boosts its internal storage. The second keeps it out of the way, in case I have to fight or run. Nothing special.”
Nothing special. Yeah, okay.
“Um…how much stuff can it hold?”
“Several months of supplies and equipment. No weapons, armor, or heavy apparatus. Other enchantments will allow for such, but they’re outlandishly expensive.”
“So you could store a house in there, if it had the right magic.”
“Yes. Even a castle, if the sorcery was correct.”
“Wow.” I shake my head, at a loss for words.
“You said you’ve seen something similar, in a…virulent game, was it?”
“Video game. You press buttons to make things happen, then it shows up on a screen.”
“What is ‘electronic?’ ”
“It means powered by lightning.”
He grunts again. “Seems pointless.”
“Not all of us can fight with swords or sling around magic.”
“Sounds like a personal problem.”
Before I can reply, the barkeep walks over with some dented plates. Both have a serving of burnt meat and coarse bread.
“Bread. Meat.” He lays them down.
“Our thanks.” Ren hands him a couple of coins. The barkeep takes them and walks away.
Ren reaches in his carry and pulls out a pair of wooden cups, then a leathery bladder. He pours us water from its tapered end. He stows the bladder and starts eating with mechanical efficiency, cutting with his knife and shoving food in his mouth.
I study the meat with a dubious eye. Some kind of bird, if I had to guess. It’s still got bones…organs poke out 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 force the organs down, I can’t help but feel a tiny flash of pride. I know people back home 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 an inch from his lips. “What are you smiling at?”
“Well it’s just that…” I almost explain, but decide against it. Gulping down some overcooked meat seems like a complete nonissue to him. He’s probably eaten a 30th level mindflayer.
So 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 and last shreds of meat, 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 completely silent.
Standing in the entrance is a white-armored knight.
“Eyes to yourself,” Ren whispers. “Drink your water and don’t say a word.”
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.”
The threat sends a jolt of panic through my chest. I can’t help but glance at them.
Ren’s voice is quiet and tight. “Eyes. Down.”
Once again, I force my gaze onto the table, keeping track of the lawmen with my peripheral vision. They clop slowly through the hushed room, drinking in the tense silence. After a couple of seconds the leader halts, hooking his gauntleted thumbs into his blood-red belt-sash.
“My name is High Justicer Thane. Address me as such, or I will break your fingers before I cut them off. If you haven’t already heard, Fair Folk goods are now illegal.” He lets that sink in, then says, “This is your one and only chance at amnesty. Declare your contraband, along with its last known source of origin, and we shall pardon you without tarry.”
No one says a word.
“I see.” Thane strides forward, dipping his head like he’s thinking something over. “So everyone here is an honest trader.”
He halts again in the middle of the tavern. “Lies.”
“Search them.” His voice rises with rigid 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 stays stock still, eyes fixed on his empty plate.
“So what do we—”
“Follow my lead.”
I’m about to tell him that I’ve only heard people say that 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 magical 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 then steps behind Ren. I try to relax, but I can feel my teeth 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 his head and calls, “Garn!”
Knight Garn hurries over. His armor clanks in time with his steps.
“Yes, Ordinate Justicer Roke?”
“You completed a course in minor arcanix, aye? Part of your training as a Lesser Justicer?”
“Yes, Ordinate Justicer.”
“Did those frail-bodied mages teach you Elkor’s Eye?”
“Yes, Ordinate Justicer.”
Roke nods at Ren. “This one has a catch-fold enchantment. Search his bag for anything Fair.”
“Aye, Ordinate Justicer.” Garn mutters beneath his breath. From the corner of my vision, I see glowing red runes materialize around his eyes. He opens Ren’s satchel and peers inside.
“Mostly supplies, but…” Garn’s helmeted face furrows in concentration. “I’m not sure, but I think there’s—”
“Get your hands off him!” someone snarls. “You have no right!”
Roke slaps Garn on his armor-plated shoulder. “Draw your steel, watch my flank.” They hurry over to the other side of the tavern.
I turn and look. The Knights are all brandishing swords, standing in a loose semicircle around the Wolven. The giant dog-warriors are standing with their backs to the wall, slightly hunched like they’re ready to pounce.
Justicer Thane swings wildly 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 fall back onto his butt. Three swords flick up, stopping the Wolven in its tracks. The Knights with the swords inch forward, forcing the husky to walk backwards.
“Hold!” Another Wolven raises his hands, swiveling in place so he can address his warriors as well 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 merchandise, eh?”
The Wolven leader—the one who’s 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, law and order would fall by the wayside.”
The Wolven leader lowers his voice. Despite his desperate circumstances, 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.”
All hell breaks loose.