Suspense R .  Mac Wheeler Multi - Genre Author SCI FI
T he   Covenant   ended   generations   of   war   between   the   races (little     people,     humans,     giants,     and     the     majical     kind), separated   the   combatants   to   the   points   of   the   compass,   and set    the    Range    as    a    buffer    between    them    for    two    hundred years.   Now   the   rich   highlands   draw   adventurous   pioneers   to stake   claims,   watch   their   neighbors   with   a   wary   eye,   care   for their    flocks,    and    hope    to    store    away    enough    reserves    to survive   the   brutal   winters.   The   majical   waters   of   Black   Lake evoke   fear,   but   the   gorges   teem   with   game,   which   draws   the dreaded orcs and goblins from the eastern desert. E XPIRING   COVENANT   unfolds   in   slices   of   each   explorer’s life,    chronicle    the    people    setting    down    roots    to    become    a community,    mix    tales    of    shenanigans,    tragedy,    duplicity, tolerance,   friendship,   love,   and   personal   growth.   The   settlers learn   their   neighbors   might   not   be   the   monsters   legends   are told ’round winter hearths.
Urban Fantasy
New Stake ~ T he    night    breeze    thrust    the    smoke    of    the    pyre    into    the    ogre’s    face.    Birs’    eyes watered   and   snout   burned   from   the   acrid   stench.   He   wished   to   escape.   If   he   heard one   more   ogre   or   ogre   hen   say,   “It   was   for   the   best,”   he   might   be   inclined   to   firmly grasp the speaker’s throat and squeeze. Father and mother dying within hours of one another was not for the best . Best would have been both recovering from the black cough. If   they   were   meant   to   die,   why   did   they   have   to   suffer   through   the   entire winter? Reach the promise of spring only to— It wasn’t fair. The   ogre   who   would   replace   his   father   as   clan   leader   stepped   in   front   of   him. At least the ogre gave Birs something to look at, other than the flames and smoke. “Yar   father,   God   rest   ’im,   helped   forge   strong   alliances   for   the   clan.   He   had   a spine   like   no   other   I’ve   ever   met.   He   will   be   missed.   Yar   mother   was   an   angel.   She gave comfort when few could see good on dark days.” The ogre’s hand landed heavily on Birs’ shoulder. My   father   was   a   bully,   my   mother   a   witch   who   could   manipulate   a   snake   to dance. Why do people lie at funerals? “The council will meet at the full moon.” They do every month. “Be there to take yar seat. That is what yar father would want ya to do.” Ya   just   want   me   to   be   yar   lackey   too.   I   served   my   father’s   whims   my   whole   life. I’m   done   with   that.   “I   believe,”   Birs   said   instead,   “I’ll   be   going   a   wandering   for   a   bit. I’ve been tied down all winter. They were ill so long. I need time to calm my mind.” The ogre’s eyes narrowed. “What of yar place? Yar stock?” “I’ll   be   moving   what   I   can   into   the   hills   to   forage   through   the   summer.   Have   a couple   ogrelings   picked   out   from   a   northern   village   relishing   the   task.   I’ll   sell   the chickens and such for coin.” The   elder   opened   his   mouth   to   speak,   but   another   ogre   thrust   his   hand   at   Birs. He   took   the   new   ogre’s   fist   and   gripped   it   solemnly,   listening   to   the   stale   words   of condolence,   wishing   the   new   clan   leader   would   move   away.   The   interloping   ogre’s mate   embraced   Birs.   She   sniffed   in   his   ear   to   prove   her   tears.   Birs   didn’t   believe   it for a moment. When   she   let   go,   the   elder   grabbed   him   by   the   arm,   hissed   his   words   softly   at Birs’   ear   as   he   led   him   away   from   the   others.   “I   know   ya   were   behind   every   move yar father made.” “I— I hardly owned my father’s agenda,” Birs said. “When   he   insulted   those   who   would   have   followed   him,   ya   came   behind   and smoothed   hurt   feelings   and   brought   them   around.   The   clan   needs   ya.   The   clan respects ya like no other.” “The clan will do fine without father or son,” Birs said. “There   is   no   ogre   who   works   as   hard,   or   as   smart   as   ya.   When   ya   were   only fifteen,   I   knew   ya   would   one   day   replace   yar   father   as   clan   leader.   It’s   in   yar   blood. Ya owe it to the clan.” “Where   was   the   clan   when   the   two   of   them   coughed   up   their   lungs?”   Birs   found his   tone   harsher   than   he   intended.   But   he   continued,   pelting   the   surprised   elder with   his   words.   “I   saw   no   one   tending   to   my   parents,   visiting,   helping   with   naught. Ya   appeared   only   when   ya   needed   an   approval   for   one   thing   or   another,   and   ya were promptly off on yar way. “I   had   to   leave   my   folks   alone   in   the   middle   of   the   night   to   search   out   the healer time and again, ’cause no one was ever there to console them in their pain. “My   mother   was   not   a   kind   ogre   hen,   but   she   stepped   forward   any   time   there was    a    sick    member    of    the    clan.    She    washed    soiled    linens,    mopped    fevered foreheads, stoked the fire, and cooked. “Don’t   speak   to   me   about   what   I   owe   the   clan,   or   I   may   throw   ya   on   the remains of that fire.” Birs pointed a muscled arm at the flickering embers. The   soon-to-be   leader   cleared   his   throat,   looked   at   the   ground   a   moment, before slipping away into the gloom. ~ N o   urgency   pressed   Birs   to   reach   the   highlands.   There   would   still   be   snow   on   the peaks   and   shadowed   crevasses.   His   heart   remained   heavy,   despite   the   beauty   of   the weather.    The    weight    of    his    pack,    with    half    his    belongings    tied    to    it,    far    from encouraged   him   to   rush.   Besides,   his   favorite   goats   Bert   and   Twitty   strolled   behind in   no   hurry   either.   As   the   day   progressed,   they   showed   more   interest   in   trying   out the local grasses than keeping up. So the young ogre took frequent breaks. “I’ll   be   there   when   I’m   there,”   he   mumbled,   again   dropping   his   pack   to   the ground. Bert   and   Twitty   rushed   forward   to   see   if   he   had   found   something   especially delectable   to   stop   for.   When   they   saw   he   hadn’t,   they   ambled   away   from   the   trees, where the sun better encouraged the grass. Birs   sat   on   his   sleeping   furs   and   plucked   a   sweet   stalk   of   grass   of   his   own   to chew,   his   mind   wandering   as   freely   as   his   goats.   He   breathed   in   the   aroma   of   the forest,   the   pine   needles,   crisp   air   strangely   different   from   the   lowlands.   He   thought of   the   elder’s   words   two   days   earlier,   the   friends   he   would   miss,   the   home   he abandoned, his position in the clan. His   plan   to   live   on   the   bank   of   the   majical    Black   Lake   made   him   shiver.   Was this   an   unwise   endeavor?   Many   feared   the   waters   of   that   lake.   Spoke   of   the   spirits that lived within, the danger of her depths. His   mind   returned   to   what   it   usually   focused   on,   the   ogre   hen   who   owned   his heart.    She    would    no    doubt    accept    his    proposal,    sooner    if    he    remained    in    his parent’s   home.   The   place   was   established,   able   to   support   a   brood   of   a   dozen.   Why then   did   he   traipse   off   where   hardly   a   soul   ever   tread,   consider   striking   a   new   stake, far from any settled clan? “I’m probably a fool,” he said. Thirty paces away, Bert belched. “Ya didn’t have to agree with me so readily,” he called after the goat. Billy    and    nanny    glared    his    way    as    though    he    intruded    upon    their    dining pleasure. Birs wrenched his face at them. They remained unimpressed. ~ B irs   skirted   the   shore   of   the   lake   for   a   full   day   before   settling   upon   a   place   to   camp. Bert   and   Twitty   made   the   progress   painfully   slow.   They   were   in   heaven   with   the lush,   spring   growth   near   the   water.   The   valley   he   chose   to   end   his   trek   was   a   mile wide,   sloped   gently   toward   the   water   a   hundred   yards   from   the   tree   line,   the   grass so rich it held a purple hue in the afternoon light. The   wind   would   sweep   across   the   shorefront   harshly   in   the   winter,   but   it   was   a magnificently   beautiful   place,   with   miles   of   the   meandering   lake   in   view,   the   stark crags   of   peaks   stretching   across   the   entire   breadth   of   the   south   shore.   To   the   north, a   single   massive   snow-capped   pinnacle   pointed   up   at   the   sky   like   God’s   raised   hand demanding Birs go no farther. He    watched    the    two    goats    greedily    gorge    themselves.    “Yar    gonna    make yarselves so stinking sick.” Movement   at   the   tree   line   caught   his   eye.   A   gang   of   elk   a   dozen   strong   peered back.   An   enormous   bull   snorted   a   challenge,   before   leisurely   leading   his   harem away. “A   good   sign,”   Birs   said,   looking   back   at   Bert   and   Twitty.   “Maybe   not   too   many big   cats,   or   wolf   packs   who   might   think   two   fat,   lazy   goats   might   be   a   tasty   snack. I’ll still need to keep a close eye on ya two though.” ~ T hat   night   he   saw   the   lights   across   the   water,   illuminated   cabin   windows.   He’d heard   rumors   a   mean   warlock   dwarf   lived   on   Black   Lake’s   shore   somewhere.   Birs never   thought   much   about   it.   He   shivered.   Not   from   the   cold,   but   he   threw   another stick   on   the   fire.   He   looked   at   the   eyes   of   Bert   reflecting   the   glow   of   the   flickering flames. “Stay close, ya two.” ~ B ert   woke   him   with   a   worried   whinny.   The   sky   in   the   east   held   a   tinge   of   a   glow.   A herd of deer twenty strong traipsed between them and the edge of the water. I’ve never in my life seen a herd that size in the lowlands. Birs   eased   from   his   fur   and   reached   for   his   bow.   Before   he   fixed   the   string,   his motion set them leaping away. He sat watching the beauty of their aerobatics. “Hunting’s   gonna   be   better   here   than   even   the   stories   boasted.   Won’t   even need stock up here.” Bert belched. “No offense. I’ll need ya for milk and cheese.” Bert belched again. “Well   maybe   ya   don’t   provide   that,   boy,   but   ya   help   Twitty   keep   happy,   so   she can.” The   billy   rose   stiffly   and   walked   into   the   gloom,   his   tail   high   in   the   air,   sharing what he thought of his ogre friend that moment. ~ T hat   first   day    Birs   found   his   busy   mind   wouldn’t   allow   him   to   idle   about,   to   rest from    his    recent    turmoil    as    he    planned.    He    intended    to    explore    more    of    the lakeshore,   but   decided   he’d   find   no   better   site   than   where   he   first   camped.   Besides, he   would   have   to   cross   the   path   of   the   warlock   dwarf.   Just   the   thought   of   that   made him   shudder.   Any   hiking   must   include   Bert   and   Twitty.   He   couldn’t   leave   them alone. Besides, in their new grass haven, they were far from motivated to budge. Birs   knuckled   into   first-light-to-dusk   endeavors.   He   found   a   rockslide   nearby, the   perfect   source   for   the   thirty-odd   boundary   markers   he   would   set   out   to   mark his stake. There was forest and shoreline to claim as his. By   the   second   day   of   effort   he   had   grown   tired   of   eating   jerked   meat   and honeyed   oats,   but   didn’t   dare   yet   leave   his   pets   alone   to   hunt.   It   was   time   to   try   the Black   Lake   fishing   of   lore.   He   cut   two,   good-length   ash   poles,   carefully   unwound his   precious   seine,   attached   it   to   the   two   shafts,   and   sank   one   firmly   into   the ground at the edge of the water. “First for some bait.” He   walked   into   the   lake   with   a   smile   on   his   face,   but   lost   it   with   a   shriek.   “How can it be this cold?” He   struggled   to   hold   onto   the   end   of   the   seine   as   a   wicked   shiver   wracked   his body.   He   stepped   deeper   to   avoid   a   clump   of   stones.   In   the   slick   muck   he   found himself   sliding   farther   from   the   shore.   He   lowered   the   netting   and   groaned   as   the water crept higher up his thigh. “Cold!” Gets deep fast, too. Cramps   gripped   him,   and   he   doubled   over   in   pain.   He   lost   his   balance   and toppled   forward,   his   face   plunging   into   blackness.   The   icy   water   penetrated   his flesh   like   daggers,   stole   his   breath.   A   force   pressed   upon   him.   He   slipped   deeper and deeper, his limbs useless weights. The   realization   his   predicament   wasn’t   an   inconvenience   but   life   threatening helped   him   propel   his   arms   to   thrash,   his   legs   to   search   for   the   silt-covered   earth. The cold was absolute, robbed him of his energy. He thought of his parents. It wasn’t time to greet them. He   broke   the   plane   of   the   water,   but   the   lake   pulled   him   back   down.   He   thrust hard   with   all   his   might   only   to   be   yanked   farther   from   the   shore   it   seemed   by   an invisible   hand.   He   stretched   to   catch   a   breath,   but   drew   in   more   water   than   air,   and choked.   His   thrashing   turned   as   painful   as   the   cramps   gripping   his   muscles.   He sank, the sky above darkened. His lungs burned for air. The water turned black as pitch. A    new    pain    jabbed    him    in    the    shoulder.    Birs    grabbed    at    whatever    it    was, clasped   onto   it,   a   pole   of   some   sort.   It   pulled   away.   He   didn’t   know   if   drew   from   the shore   or   nearer,   for   good   or   for   bad,   but   he   held   on.   The   glare   of   day   made   its   way through the blackness. Birs   broke   the   surface   of   the   water   and   tried   to   take   in   air,   but   all   he   could   do was   choke,   to   expel   the   water   he’d   already   inhaled.   One   knee   struck   rock,   then   the other.   He   gouged   his   numb   hands   into   gravel   and   slowly   pulled   himself   toward   the shore, hand over hand. He   looked   down   at   the   gentle   creases   of   waves   folding   onto   the   shore.   He   was frozen,   unable   to   move.   A   new   pain.   Something   pulled   at   his   dreadlocks,   propelling him forward. “Don’t give up yet!” a deep rasp commanded. Somehow   his   arms   moved   with   the   motion.   He   edged   forward.   Booted   feet drew   into   focus   in   front   of   him.   No   ogre’s   feet.   Ogres   didn’t   restrict   their   feet   with unnecessary leather bindings. “Move, you beast!” The   yank   of   his   hair   ended   as   he   cleared   the   water.   Birs   collapsed,   curled   up, overwhelmed with a convulsion, a single cramp that encompassed his entire body. I may die yet. Never felt such pain before. Bert   and   Twitty   were   next   to   him,   nudging   him,   but   he   didn’t   want   to   open   his eyes.   He   lay   hugging   himself,   shaking   with   the   cold.   A   noise   farther   up   the   shore made   him   steal   a   peek,   though.   He   struggled   to   tilt   a   stiff   neck   so   he   could   locate what    the    sound    might    be.    A    peculiar    shrimp    of    a    being    bent    over,    stirred    the embers of Birs’ campfire. The hip-tall beast muttered and shook his head. A   little   creature   wearing   boots.   Birs   knew   humans   wore   them.   What   other beings encumbered themselves so? The warlock. Dwarf. A   new   fear   took   him.   The   dwarf   pulled   him   from   certain   death,   he   reasoned. Maybe   it   wasn’t   as   terrible   a   creature   as   the   stories   told.   He   was   going   through   Birs’ things, though. Maybe not all bad, but he’s looking to steal me blind while I’m crippled. The   dwarf   turned   and   walked   toward   him.   Bert   and   Twitty   skittered   ten   feet away, turned and watched with interest. The dwarf held clothes in his hands. “Get out of those wet things,” he screeched in Standish. “Hurry now!” Birs   tried   to   work   a   clasp   of   his   shirt,   but   his   fingers   wouldn’t   do   as   he   wished, just   shook.   The   dwarf   bent   over   him,   yanked   the   shirt   unkindly   over   his   head, unlatched   Birs’   belt   and   dragged   his   pants   off   as   well.   He   barked   something   Birs didn’t   understand,   most   likely   in   his   own   language,   and   Bert   and   Twitty   ran   back   to them. The dwarf picked up the nanny, which was nearly as big as him. “Wrap your arms around your goat, there,” he said. Birs   laid   on   the   hard   stones   with   his   face   pressed   against   Twitty’s   hide,   smelled her ripe scent, felt the dwarf rubbing his legs, drying him, massaging his muscles. “Get up now! Get your blood moving. The fire is what you need.” Birs felt himself being lifted to his hands and knees. “Up! Up!” Every   muscle   ached   as   though   pierced   by   an   arrow.   But   somehow   he   made   it up   to   the   camp.   Out   of   the   breeze,   under   his   furs,   the   agony   worsened.   His   body jerked. ~ “D rink this!” Birs   opened   his   eyes   and   peered   into   a   face   with   a   bulbous   nose   and   gray beard. He hadn’t dreamed it. “Take it!” Birs   rolled   over,   raised   up   on   an   elbow,   and   took   the   brass   cup   as   commanded. He   sniffed   at   the   musty   aroma.   The   dwarf   had   scraped   willow   bark   into   sweetened tea. “Drink it. Tisn’t scalding. Down fast. Warm up your innards.” Birs   did   as   he   was   told.   The   dwarf   refilled   it   from   the   kettle   and   handed   it   back. Birs ached too much to complain. He drank down the second dose. “All   I   can   do   for   you.   Stay   out   of   the   lake,   you   fool.   Next   time   you   could   be   a feast for the water beasties. Drink more as you can.” The   dwarf   turned   and   walked   away.   His   boots   whisked   through   the   tall   grass, rasped against rock. The sweet scent of cut wood slowly diminished. A woodsman. A noble trade. A neighbor not to fear. No warlock.   © R. Mac Wheeler 2017
Fantasy Dystopian
R .  Mac Wheeler Multi - Genre Author
Expiring Covenant New Stake ~ T he   night   breeze   thrust   the   smoke   of   the pyre     into     the     ogre’s     face.     Birs’     eyes watered   and   snout   burned   from   the   acrid stench.   He   wished   to   escape.   If   he   heard one   more   ogre   or   ogre   hen   say,   “It   was   for the   best,”   he   might   be   inclined   to   firmly grasp the speaker’s throat and squeeze. Father   and   mother   dying   within   hours of one another was not for the best . Best   would   have   been   both   recovering from the black cough. If    they    were    meant    to    die,    why    did they    have    to    suffer    through    the    entire winter?   Reach   the   promise   of   spring   only to— It wasn’t fair. The   ogre   who   would   replace   his   father as   clan   leader   stepped   in   front   of   him.   At least   the   ogre   gave   Birs   something   to   look at, other than the flames and smoke. “Yar   father,   God   rest   ’im,   helped   forge strong    alliances    for    the    clan.    He    had    a spine   like   no   other   I’ve   ever   met.   He   will be   missed.   Yar   mother   was   an   angel.   She gave   comfort   when   few   could   see   good   on dark days.” The    ogre’s    hand    landed    heavily    on Birs’ shoulder. My   father   was   a   bully,   my   mother   a witch   who   could   manipulate   a   snake   to dance. Why do people lie at funerals? “The    council    will    meet    at    the    full moon.” They do every month. “Be    there    to    take    yar    seat.    That    is what yar father would want ya to do.” Ya   just   want   me   to   be   yar   lackey   too.   I served   my   father’s   whims   my   whole   life. I’m   done   with   that.   “I   believe,”   Birs   said instead,   “I’ll   be   going   a   wandering   for   a bit.   I’ve   been   tied   down   all   winter.   They were   ill   so   long.   I   need   time   to   calm   my mind.” The    ogre’s    eyes    narrowed.    “What    of yar place? Yar stock?” “I’ll    be    moving    what    I    can    into    the hills   to   forage   through   the   summer.   Have a    couple    ogrelings    picked    out    from    a northern   village   relishing   the   task.   I’ll   sell the chickens and such for coin.” The   elder   opened   his   mouth   to   speak, but   another   ogre   thrust   his   hand   at   Birs. He   took   the   new   ogre’s   fist   and   gripped   it solemnly,   listening   to   the   stale   words   of condolence,   wishing   the   new   clan   leader would   move   away.   The   interloping   ogre’s mate    embraced    Birs.    She    sniffed    in    his ear   to   prove   her   tears.   Birs   didn’t   believe it for a moment. When    she    let    go,    the    elder    grabbed him   by   the   arm,   hissed   his   words   softly   at Birs’    ear    as    he    led    him    away    from    the others.    “I    know    ya    were    behind    every move yar father made.” “I—     I     hardly     owned     my     father’s agenda,” Birs said. “When   he   insulted   those   who   would have   followed   him,   ya   came   behind   and smoothed   hurt   feelings   and   brought   them around.    The    clan    needs    ya.    The    clan respects ya like no other.” “The   clan   will   do   fine   without   father or son,” Birs said. “There   is   no   ogre   who   works   as   hard, or    as    smart    as    ya.    When    ya    were    only fifteen,   I   knew   ya   would   one   day   replace yar   father   as   clan   leader.   It’s   in   yar   blood. Ya owe it to the clan.” “Where   was   the   clan   when   the   two   of them   coughed   up   their   lungs?”   Birs   found his   tone   harsher   than   he   intended.   But   he continued,    pelting    the    surprised    elder with   his   words.   “I   saw   no   one   tending   to my   parents,   visiting,   helping   with   naught. Ya    appeared    only    when    ya    needed    an approval   for   one   thing   or   another,   and   ya were promptly off on yar way. “I   had   to   leave   my   folks   alone   in   the middle    of    the    night    to    search    out    the healer   time   and   again,   ’cause   no   one   was ever there to console them in their pain. “My   mother   was   not   a   kind   ogre   hen, but   she   stepped   forward   any   time   there was    a    sick    member    of    the    clan.    She washed    soiled    linens,    mopped    fevered foreheads, stoked the fire, and cooked. “Don’t   speak   to   me   about   what   I   owe the    clan,    or    I    may    throw    ya    on    the remains     of     that     fire.”     Birs     pointed     a muscled arm at the flickering embers. The     soon-to-be     leader     cleared     his throat,   looked   at   the   ground   a   moment, before slipping away into the gloom. ~ N o    urgency    pressed    Birs    to    reach    the highlands.   There   would   still   be   snow   on the    peaks    and    shadowed    crevasses.    His heart   remained   heavy,   despite   the   beauty of   the   weather.   The   weight   of   his   pack, with    half    his    belongings    tied    to    it,    far from    encouraged    him    to    rush.    Besides, his   favorite   goats   Bert   and   Twitty   strolled behind    in    no    hurry    either.    As    the    day progressed,   they   showed   more   interest   in trying   out   the   local   grasses   than   keeping up.    So    the    young    ogre    took    frequent breaks. “I’ll    be    there    when    I’m    there,”    he mumbled,   again   dropping   his   pack   to   the ground. Bert   and   Twitty   rushed   forward   to   see if    he    had    found    something    especially delectable   to   stop   for.   When   they   saw   he hadn’t,   they   ambled   away   from   the   trees, where    the    sun    better    encouraged    the grass. Birs    sat    on    his    sleeping    furs    and plucked   a   sweet   stalk   of   grass   of   his   own to   chew,   his   mind   wandering   as   freely   as his   goats.   He   breathed   in   the   aroma   of the    forest,    the    pine    needles,    crisp    air strangely   different   from   the   lowlands.   He thought    of    the    elder’s    words    two    days earlier,    the    friends    he    would    miss,    the home   he   abandoned,   his   position   in   the clan. His    plan    to    live    on    the    bank    of    the majical    Black   Lake   made   him   shiver.   Was this    an    unwise    endeavor?    Many    feared the    waters    of    that    lake.    Spoke    of    the spirits   that   lived   within,   the   danger   of   her depths. His   mind   returned   to   what   it   usually focused   on,   the   ogre   hen   who   owned   his heart.    She    would    no    doubt    accept    his proposal,    sooner    if    he    remained    in    his parent’s   home.   The   place   was   established, able   to   support   a   brood   of   a   dozen.   Why then    did    he    traipse    off    where    hardly    a soul   ever   tread,   consider   striking   a   new stake, far from any settled clan? “I’m probably a fool,” he said. Thirty paces away, Bert belched. “Ya   didn’t   have   to   agree   with   me   so readily,” he called after the goat. Billy    and    nanny    glared    his    way    as though    he    intruded    upon    their    dining pleasure.   Birs   wrenched   his   face   at   them. They remained unimpressed. ~ B irs   skirted   the   shore   of   the   lake   for   a   full day   before   settling   upon   a   place   to   camp. Bert     and     Twitty     made     the     progress painfully   slow.   They   were   in   heaven   with the   lush,   spring   growth   near   the   water. The   valley   he   chose   to   end   his   trek   was   a mile   wide,   sloped   gently   toward   the   water a   hundred   yards   from   the   tree   line,   the grass   so   rich   it   held   a   purple   hue   in   the afternoon light. The    wind    would    sweep    across    the shorefront    harshly    in    the    winter,    but    it was   a   magnificently   beautiful   place,   with miles   of   the   meandering   lake   in   view,   the stark   crags   of   peaks   stretching   across   the entire   breadth   of   the   south   shore.   To   the north,     a     single     massive     snow-capped pinnacle   pointed   up   at   the   sky   like   God’s raised     hand     demanding     Birs     go     no farther. He    watched    the    two    goats    greedily gorge     themselves.     “Yar     gonna     make yarselves so stinking sick.” Movement   at   the   tree   line   caught   his eye.   A   gang   of   elk   a   dozen   strong   peered back.      An      enormous      bull      snorted      a challenge,     before     leisurely     leading     his harem away. “A   good   sign,”   Birs   said,   looking   back at   Bert   and   Twitty.   “Maybe   not   too   many big   cats,   or   wolf   packs   who   might   think two   fat,   lazy   goats   might   be   a   tasty   snack. I’ll   still   need   to   keep   a   close   eye   on   ya   two though.” ~ T hat   night   he   saw   the   lights   across   the water,    illuminated    cabin    windows.    He’d heard   rumors   a   mean   warlock   dwarf   lived on    Black    Lake’s    shore    somewhere.    Birs never      thought      much      about      it.      He shivered.   Not   from   the   cold,   but   he   threw another   stick   on   the   fire.   He   looked   at   the eyes    of    Bert    reflecting    the    glow    of    the flickering flames. “Stay close, ya two.” ~ B ert    woke    him    with    a    worried    whinny. The   sky   in   the   east   held   a   tinge   of   a   glow. A    herd    of    deer    twenty    strong    traipsed between them and the edge of the water. I’ve   never   in   my   life   seen   a   herd   that size in the lowlands. Birs   eased   from   his   fur   and   reached for   his   bow.   Before   he   fixed   the   string,   his motion    set    them    leaping    away.    He    sat watching the beauty of their aerobatics. “Hunting’s   gonna   be   better   here   than even   the   stories   boasted.   Won’t   even   need stock up here.” Bert belched. “No   offense.   I’ll   need   ya   for   milk   and cheese.” Bert belched again. “Well    maybe    ya    don’t    provide    that, boy,   but   ya   help   Twitty   keep   happy,   so she can.” The   billy   rose   stiffly   and   walked   into the   gloom,   his   tail   high   in   the   air,   sharing what   he   thought   of   his   ogre   friend   that moment. ~ T hat   first   day    Birs   found   his   busy   mind wouldn’t   allow   him   to   idle   about,   to   rest from   his   recent   turmoil   as   he   planned.   He intended      to      explore      more      of      the lakeshore,   but   decided   he’d   find   no   better site   than   where   he   first   camped.   Besides, he   would   have   to   cross   the   path   of   the warlock   dwarf.   Just   the   thought   of   that made    him    shudder.    Any    hiking    must include     Bert     and     Twitty.     He     couldn’t leave   them   alone.   Besides,   in   their   new grass      haven,      they      were      far      from motivated to budge. Birs   knuckled   into   first-light-to-dusk endeavors.   He   found   a   rockslide   nearby, the     perfect     source     for     the     thirty-odd boundary    markers    he    would    set    out    to mark    his    stake.    There    was    forest    and shoreline to claim as his. By    the    second    day    of    effort    he    had grown    tired    of    eating    jerked    meat    and honeyed   oats,   but   didn’t   dare   yet   leave   his pets   alone   to   hunt.   It   was   time   to   try   the Black    Lake    fishing    of    lore.    He    cut    two, good-length   ash   poles,   carefully   unwound his   precious   seine,   attached   it   to   the   two shafts,     and     sank     one     firmly     into     the ground   at   the   edge   of   the   water.   “First   for some bait.” He   walked   into   the   lake   with   a   smile on   his   face,   but   lost   it   with   a   shriek.   “How can it be this cold?” He   struggled   to   hold   onto   the   end   of the   seine   as   a   wicked   shiver   wracked   his body.   He   stepped   deeper   to   avoid   a   clump of    stones.    In    the    slick    muck    he    found himself   sliding   farther   from   the   shore.   He lowered   the   netting   and   groaned   as   the water crept higher up his thigh. “Cold!” Gets deep fast, too. Cramps   gripped   him,   and   he   doubled over    in    pain.    He    lost    his    balance    and toppled    forward,    his    face    plunging    into blackness.    The    icy    water    penetrated    his flesh    like    daggers,    stole    his    breath.    A force     pressed     upon     him.     He     slipped deeper     and     deeper,     his     limbs     useless weights. The       realization       his       predicament wasn’t       an       inconvenience       but       life threatening   helped   him   propel   his   arms to   thrash,   his   legs   to   search   for   the   silt- covered    earth.    The    cold    was    absolute, robbed him of his energy. He thought of his parents. It wasn’t time to greet them. He   broke   the   plane   of   the   water,   but the   lake   pulled   him   back   down.   He   thrust hard   with   all   his   might   only   to   be   yanked farther   from   the   shore   it   seemed   by   an invisible    hand.    He    stretched    to    catch    a breath,   but   drew   in   more   water   than   air, and     choked.     His     thrashing     turned     as painful     as     the     cramps     gripping     his muscles.      He      sank,      the      sky      above darkened. His lungs burned for air. The water turned black as pitch. A     new     pain     jabbed     him     in     the shoulder.   Birs   grabbed   at   whatever   it   was, clasped    onto    it,    a    pole    of    some    sort.    It pulled   away.   He   didn’t   know   if   drew   from the   shore   or   nearer,   for   good   or   for   bad, but   he   held   on.   The   glare   of   day   made   its way through the blackness. Birs    broke    the    surface    of    the    water and   tried   to   take   in   air,   but   all   he   could   do was   choke,   to   expel   the   water   he’d   already inhaled.   One   knee   struck   rock,   then   the other.    He    gouged    his    numb    hands    into gravel   and   slowly   pulled   himself   toward the shore, hand over hand. He   looked   down   at   the   gentle   creases of   waves   folding   onto   the   shore.   He   was frozen,    unable    to    move.    A    new    pain. Something     pulled     at     his     dreadlocks, propelling him forward. “Don’t     give     up     yet!”     a     deep     rasp commanded. Somehow    his    arms    moved    with    the motion.    He    edged    forward.    Booted    feet drew   into   focus   in   front   of   him.   No   ogre’s feet.   Ogres   didn’t   restrict   their   feet   with unnecessary leather bindings. “Move, you beast!” The    yank    of    his    hair    ended    as    he cleared   the   water.   Birs   collapsed,   curled up,    overwhelmed    with    a    convulsion,    a single   cramp   that   encompassed   his   entire body. I    may    die    yet.    Never    felt    such    pain before. Bert    and    Twitty    were    next    to    him, nudging   him,   but   he   didn’t   want   to   open his   eyes.   He   lay   hugging   himself,   shaking with    the    cold.    A    noise    farther    up    the shore   made   him   steal   a   peek,   though.   He struggled   to   tilt   a   stiff   neck   so   he   could locate     what     the     sound     might     be.     A peculiar    shrimp    of    a    being    bent    over, stirred   the   embers   of   Birs’   campfire.   The hip-tall    beast    muttered    and    shook    his head. A    little    creature    wearing    boots.    Birs knew    humans    wore    them.    What    other beings encumbered themselves so? The warlock. Dwarf. A   new   fear   took   him.   The   dwarf   pulled him    from    certain    death,    he    reasoned. Maybe   it   wasn’t   as   terrible   a   creature   as the    stories    told.    He    was    going    through Birs’ things, though. Maybe   not   all   bad,   but   he’s   looking   to steal me blind while I’m crippled. The   dwarf   turned   and   walked   toward him.    Bert    and    Twitty    skittered    ten    feet away,   turned   and   watched   with   interest. The dwarf held clothes in his hands. “Get    out    of    those    wet    things,”    he screeched in Standish. “Hurry now!” Birs   tried   to   work   a   clasp   of   his   shirt, but   his   fingers   wouldn’t   do   as   he   wished, just    shook.    The    dwarf    bent    over    him, yanked   the   shirt   unkindly   over   his   head, unlatched     Birs’     belt     and     dragged     his pants   off   as   well.   He   barked   something Birs   didn’t   understand,   most   likely   in   his own   language,   and   Bert   and   Twitty   ran back   to   them.   The   dwarf   picked   up   the nanny, which was nearly as big as him. “Wrap    your    arms    around    your    goat, there,” he said. Birs   laid   on   the   hard   stones   with   his face      pressed      against      Twitty’s      hide, smelled    her    ripe    scent,    felt    the    dwarf rubbing   his   legs,   drying   him,   massaging his muscles. “Get   up   now!   Get   your   blood   moving. The fire is what you need.” Birs    felt    himself    being    lifted    to    his hands and knees. “Up! Up!” Every   muscle   ached   as   though   pierced by   an   arrow.   But   somehow   he   made   it   up to   the   camp.   Out   of   the   breeze,   under   his furs,     the     agony     worsened.     His     body jerked. ~ “D rink this!” Birs   opened   his   eyes   and   peered   into   a face   with   a   bulbous   nose   and   gray   beard. He hadn’t dreamed it. “Take it!” Birs    rolled    over,    raised    up    on    an elbow,     and     took     the     brass     cup     as commanded.    He    sniffed    at    the    musty aroma.    The    dwarf    had    scraped    willow bark into sweetened tea. “Drink   it.   Tisn’t   scalding.   Down   fast. Warm up your innards.” Birs    did    as    he    was    told.    The    dwarf refilled   it   from   the   kettle   and   handed   it back.   Birs   ached   too   much   to   complain. He drank down the second dose. “All   I   can   do   for   you.   Stay   out   of   the lake,   you   fool.   Next   time   you   could   be   a feast   for   the   water   beasties.   Drink   more as you can.” The   dwarf   turned   and   walked   away. His   boots   whisked   through   the   tall   grass, rasped   against   rock.   The   sweet   scent   of cut wood slowly diminished. A     woodsman.     A     noble     trade.     A neighbor not to fear. No warlock. © R. Mac Wheeler 2017