Elka: Daughter of the Flames

This is a short story I wrote to accompany my recent Pozible project. It is set in the same world as The Secret of the Sword, but several years earlier, and follows Melina Athavan’s brother Kelliar on an uncannily parallel journey to confront the dragon Syrelius.

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ELKA: DAUGHTER OF THE FLAMES

The road to Ternam was long and crooked, and few traveled it. It was little more than a sandy path that wound its way through the Great Sandy Desert west of the Dark Mountains. Only the Bakhinshi knew it well, nomadic slave traders who scoured the unforgiving desert for vulnerable travelers.  Kelliar Athavan breathed a sigh of relief as the simple wooden structures that made up the village of Ternam came into sight. He had emptied his last waterskin this morning, and the camel he was riding was swarming with fleas. He scratched a bite on the back of his neck and kicked the camel’s mangy sides. It stumbled into a trot for a few paces before slowing back into the lumbering walk Kelliar was coming to hate. He groaned and let the beast set its own pace. He was tired of fighting with the disgruntled creature. He was tired of sand. He was tired of keeping his gaze fixed on the horizon for traces of the Bakhinshi. He was tired of the searing heat that attacked him from both sky and sand. He was just plain tired. Compared to the neat organised villages Kelliar knew in Akalia, Ternam looked messy and unplanned. He walked his camel through the winding streets, searching for the town centre. After passing the same house with the faded red door three times, he began to suspect that there was no town square, but merely a tangle of streets that were impossible for a stranger to navigate. Eventually, after slapping at yet another flea that was biting his leg, he stopped to ask for directions.

“Excuse me, good woman,” he called out to a harried woman juggling a bawling baby and a large basket that weighed her down on one side. “Could you direct me to the nearest tavern?”

The woman, her mousy hair was escaping her hairnet in flyaway strands, eyed him curiously, ignoring the tearful cries of her baby. “Good woman? What are you, some kind o’ lord?” Her voice was raspy and tired, her accent sounding strange and harsh to Kelliar’s ears.

“Uh, yes, sort of,” Kelliar stammered, wondering as he spoke why he didn’t simply tell the truth, that he was Prince Kelliar Athavan, firstborn son of King Cailan of Akalia and next in line to the Akalian throne. “I’m seeking a place to stay. Could you direct me to an inn or tavern?”

The woman jerked her head back the way he had come. “Tavern’s back that way. You can get a bed for the night there, and a wench if yer into that sort of thing. We don’t got no inn.”

The bed appealed to Kelliar much more than the wench at that moment. He was so tired he thought he could sleep for a week. And a bath…

He pushed the thought away and thanked the woman, who harrumphed and jiggled the baby on her hip. It quieted at the sudden attention, but the moment she stopped it began screaming again. Kelliar winced at the grating sound and kicked his camel harder than was necessary. Nonetheless, it lazily stepped forward in a slow walk, for the most part ignoring its master’s directions.\

When the tavern came into sight, he realised that he had passed it earlier without realising what it was. It simply looked like a squat house with a sagging veranda. A faded sign he hadn’t noticed before hung above the veranda that read, “Ta e n.” Kelliar halted the camel and pulled upwards on the reins. The camel’s front knees buckled, throwing his body forward uncomfortably, followed by its back legs. He slid from the sitting camel and, grabbing his pack from the animal’s back, strode towards the front door of the tavern without bothering to tie it up. He would be quite happy if he never saw the thing again. Although he did need to get back across the desert once his task was complete. He turned back to the camel. They eyed each other with equal displeasure. The camel looked away first and hacked up a mouthful of cud.

“Fine,” he muttered, and snatched up the reins, tying them loosely to the partially rotten hitching post that had been erected out the front of the tavern for that purpose. He stepped into the tavern. It was even smaller on the inside than it appeared on the outside. Four round tables circled by rickety chairs cluttered the floor space, and he had to weave around them to reach the tiny bar. The bar appeared to be unoccupied at first glance, but as he approached he could hear a scuffling sound and muted curses coming from behind the bar.

“Uh, hello?” he called.

He was startled by a head popping up from behind the bar. The long thin face wore a crooked nose and bulging eyes that looked in different directions. “Yes?”

“Uh…I was just…that is,” he cleared his throat and tried again. “Do you have a room to rent?”

“Yes, but only one.” The man straightened, revealing himself to be very tall with stooped shoulders. His had quite a long neck, reminding Kelliar of a vulture.

“Well, I only need one.” The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them. The vulture-man stared at Kelliar. At least, he thought he was staring at him. It was difficult to tell with those mismatched eyes.

“Think you’s a bit smart, does you? Well, if you got gold, doesn’t matter who you are. Gold is gold, and a bed is a bed. You show me the one and I’s show you the other.” Kelliar fumbled in his saddlebag, finally withdrawing a small leather pouch. The bartender eyed the pouch shrewdly, a leer spreading across his face as the clink of coins reached his ears. Kelliar pulled out three silver coins and placed them in the bartender’s waiting palm. The bulging eyes studied the coins for a moment. Then, apparently satisfied, his hand closed tightly over the coins and snaked down to his pocket. “Follow me.”

A short time later, Kelliar, bathed and fed, sat on a rough wooden bench on the verandah of the tavern. He swatted flies away with one hand, and raised a mug of beer to his lips. His brooding green eyes followed the path of a group of young women walking to the well in the middle of the town square, buckets swinging from their hands. His mind drifted to the idea of a wench that the townswoman had mentioned to him earlier. Now that he’d had some more pressing needs taken care of, he entertained the idea. Oh, his father, a noble and righteous man, would be appalled that he was even thinking of it, but he didn’t care. He washed all thought of his father away with another long draught of beer. He’d been through many trials to get to this point in his journey, and in that time he’d hardly even had the chance to look at a woman. It was a situation he was unused to, unlike back home where maidens would swoon at his feet, offering smiles and kisses – and they were the more demure ones. He was rather handsome after all, and he knew it. He’d stolen more than a kiss from girls back home. He turned his attention back to the girls walking down the street. One of them was laughing at something another had said. She was petite, her ivory skin glowing in the summer sunlight. She wore a pale blue gown in a light material that danced as it was tugged by the light breeze. She tossed her waist-length thick golden hair as she walked, and for some reason her head turned his way. Her crystal blue eyes locked onto his green ones. His breath caught in his chest. Time seemed to freeze. A beam of light placed a sparkle in the azure pupils, giving them the depth of a thousand years. In the next instant, time resumed, seeming incredibly fast after that eon – or was it only a millisecond – in which they had gazed at each other. She tossed her head again, and walked on with her friends. A donkey-drawn cart crossed the square, obscuring his vision of the girls. By the time it had moved on, they were no longer in sight. Kelliar nursed his beer mug, staring at the spot he had last seen them and wondering – before she had turned away, had he seen her wink?

He was still sitting on the verandah, his mug long since empty, when a shadow fell over him. He glanced up. A man in a loose silk shirt and breeches stood before him. His knee high boots shone with polish and he wore a red silk cape around his neck

“Prince Kelliar, I presume?” the man said delicately, his raised brow and sour expression suggesting he doubted it.

“And you are-” Kelliar replied cautiously, eyeing the foppish man with equal distaste.

The man swept his cape over his shoulder and bowed low. “Lord Vishta at your service, Your Highness.” Even the title held contempt. “Second in command to Sevian Brem, Lord Mayor of Ternam.”

Kelliar almost laughed out loud. Ternam, little more than a village, had a lord mayor? And a ridiculously pompous second in command? At the last moment he managed to school his features. “The pleasure is mine, milord,” he replied coolly.

“Indeed.” Lord Vishta rose from his bow, managing another regal swish of his cape in the process. “His Honor the Lord Mayor of Ternam wishes to invite Your Highness to dine with him this evening and to stay in his mansion for the duration of your visit in our humble town. A filthy pub is no place for a prince.” He examined the building behind Kelliar with a sneer.

“The good publican has been very kind to me,” Kelliar protested mildly, but inwardly he agreed. The room he had been given was small, dirty, and had a strange smell. The mayor’s dwelling would be a vast improvement. “However, I would be pleased to accept the mayor’s generous offer. By your leave, I will go and get my things.”

Without waiting for Lord Vishta’s leave, Kelliar rose and went inside, taking his mug with him. He placed the mug on the bar. The bartender popped up from under the bar. Kelliar started. What in Vitae’s good name did the man do down there?

“Hello,” said the bartender, one bulging eye watching Kelliar and the other aiming somewhere to his left.

“Uh, hello. Thank you for the room, but I won’t be needing it anymore.”

“Got a better offer, eh? Well, there’s no surprise. Most people’d rather sleep in the streets than in the sorry excuse for rooms I’s got.” The bartender’s voice was matter of fact. Kelliar couldn’t tell if he was being serious or was poking fun at him. He held out his hand expectantly, waiting for his silver coins to be returned. “No refunds.”

“What? But I paid you enough for a week’s board!”

“Holding fee, on account of I had the room reserved for you.”

“For about two hours.”

“Holding is holding.”

Kelliar frowned, but it was clear that the bartender would not budge. “Fine,” he said in a level tone. “I’ll collect my things.”

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You can read the rest of this story here.

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