Writing Challenge: Week 18
Under Earth Emissary
by H. M. Snow
In the luminous fountain chamber, Des stooped to splash water on her face. “So refreshing,” she declared. Then she took the bowl she had brought, swirled water in it, and filled it almost to the brim. Her tread was necessarily measured on her return to the gate that led out into the mist-swirled gray light of the domain under earth. She managed to step over a pair of tussling death hound pups without spilling her cargo, but she nearly came to grief when a colossal shadow loomed up before her in the very gateway. “Lord!” she exclaimed.
Ciar, king under earth, stared down at her with intent black eyes. His stare didn’t shift away from her face until he accepted the bowl from her. Even then, he merely took on a look of slight perplexity.
“You haven’t gone to drink at the fountain for some time,” Des explained, “so I brought water to you, lord, to refresh you.”
He drank silently.
Des waited until he had drained the bowl’s contents. Then she held out her hands to take the bowl from him. “Do you want more? I can go back for more.”
“That was enough.” After a pause, he added, “Thank you.”
“Lord,” replied Des a little reproachfully, “haven’t I said there’s no need to thank me for doing something as small as this? It isn’t as if I’ve done anything much even now.” She carried the bowl back to the niche where the king under earth kept his meager belongings. After a few moments of gratuitous tidying, she turned her attention to his pavilion, trying to rearrange it to better effect. The longer she worked, the deeper her frown grew.
Ciar returned to his foundry to build up the furnace. A crucible half-full of coinage sat to one side until the fire was sufficiently hot for Ciar to transfer the vessel into the flames. Each step of the refining process was punctuated by glances toward his self-proclaimed servant. By the time he unmolded a small, gleaming gold tablet and plunged it into the crystalline stream that flowed past his forge, Ciar radiated uneasiness. He scarcely took the time to set the cooled tablet onto the anvil before he strode across the clearing to where Des knelt with unseeing eyes outside the pavilion. Ciar pressed his hand against her forehead.
Des tipped over backward with a startled exclamation. “Lord?”
He studied her even more closely than before. “It is not possible for a living human to flourish in such an environment as this. I expected as much. You lose track of yourself often. You may be fading.”
It took Des a few seconds to absorb these words. Then she said, “Oh! I see… did you think I wasn’t feeling well?”
“You’ve grown quieter.”
Des shook her head with grave determination. “I’ve been thinking. How long have you had those trousers?”
“One like you shouldn’t wear such worn and shabby garments, lord. That’s what’s been on my mind these days. If you wear them for working at the forge, that’s one thing– but you have nothing else to change into after you bathe! It isn’t right.” Des waved her hands in an overflow of indignation, and her eyes shone. “But I don’t know how to put it right. I’m experienced with sewing and other household skills– bless my aunt Mattie for teaching me– but where am I to get the materials? And your pavilion barely merits the name! It ought to be a place where my lord can rest from his labors, but instead it’s little more than a changing-room. I want to serve, lord, but I’m afraid I’m no use to you at all.”
CIar crouched back on his heels. “Trousers. All this started from trousers?”
“I’m not a fragile creature,” said Des merrily. “Did you expect me to fade away when there’s so much to be done? But I don’t want to be useless to you. I didn’t want to trouble you with something so trivial.”
“The way you speak,” the king under earth replied, “it doesn’t sound trivial to me. If this is your will, I can send you for supplies. I’ve grown used to living simply on my own. You are right: now that you’re here, more is needed than this gray domain supplies. Here, stand up and follow me.” He brought her to the foundry, to the shelves where he stacked his work. “The hounds I can summon and send because they naturally are part of this domain. If you wear my emblem, I can do the same for you.” He girded pieces of light armor onto her as if he were the squire and she the lord. Lastly he belted a sheathed blade at her waist.
Des raised her forearm before her eyes to admire the black flames that adorned her vambrace. Then, stiffly, she bowed. “I’m honored, lord.”
“Take this with you.” From another shelf he took a canvas sack not large but very heavy for its size. “It should be enough for whatever you need to buy.”
One of the death hounds poked its head out through the gate, hearing the unwonted activity. It loped across the ground to lean against Ciar.
“He wants to go out,” said the king under earth. “He’s grown attached to you.”
Des regarded the death hound with a leery half-smile. “I shouldn’t have talked to him when he was chasing me, I suppose. Is it a good idea?”
“He can be a companion for you and protect you.” Ciar snapped his fingers.
The hound left his side and circled around Des instead.
Des gave the hound a reluctant pat. “How does this work?”
“I will send you out; where you end up depends on your own intention. You only need to think about where you wish to go. It will work the same on your return: simply focus on returning here, and the summons will activate.” Ciar rested his large hand on top of Des’ head. Phantom black fire swirled around her.
The gray domain under earth vanished, replaced by blinding sunlight and a brisk breeze. Des found herself on the road outside Aerinya, city of the domain of air. Its towering white walls made her squint after the subdued light of Ciar’s domain, but Des did not hesitate. She knew her way to the currency exchange.
As soon as the hound squeezed through the door of the exchange at her side, the money changers went into a panic. Those not near enough a window to bail out of the long chamber scrambled up onto their tables, kicking coinage to the floor in their haste. Des herself caused an additional stir by emptying the sack of small gold tablets onto one money changer’s table. “Hurry and get down here to your business,” she said. “I won’t keep my lord waiting.” She banged the flat of her hand on the tabletop and leaned.
The changer made no effort to hide his fear of the hound beside Des, but he was too old and shrewd a businessman to turn away such a rich commission. He weighed the gold pieces and quoted a price, marked up by a small percentage for fees. With Des and the death hound staring at him, he reduced the percentage without protest and measured out the local currency into the bag Des had brought. Not a breath sounded in the exchange chamber until Des and the hound departed.
A similar greeting awaited Des on the way to the drygoods store. Streets emptied of all but the echoes of shrieks ahead of the death hound, although the hound stuck close to Des’ side and paid no heed to any of the people fleeing before it. Only the storekeeper showed no such reaction, being elderly and nearly blind. She leaned heavily on her knobbed stick and peered at the death hound. “If you bring your animal in here,” she snapped, “you take responsibility for any damages, understood?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Des began listing off her requirements.
It was fairly amazing to watch the little shopkeeper scoot along the aisles by memory rather than sight, pulling bolts of cloth from shelves and counting out buttons and buckles by touch. In the meanwhile, the death hound sank onto its haunches and leaned its head against Des’ side, utterly relaxed. Its scanty brush of a tail made lazy sweeps along the wooden floor, flipping out of the way whenever the shopkeeper threatened to tread on it.
Des was only two-thirds through her list when the shop door burst open to admit half a dozen armed men. “You, rogue! Stand down at once–!”
Des turned and held a hand before her own mouth to shush them. Even the death hound turned its massive head to gaze at them in reproach. Its tongue lolled between the black spikes that were its teeth as it panted in contentment.
“I couldn’t hear you,” the shopkeeper said, “on account of those shouting fools. How much gold braid?”
“Four yards, please.”
The armed men stood awkwardly, shifting from foot to foot just inside the doorway, until the shopkeeper started wrapping Des’ purchases into brown paper parcels. At that point, another armed man joined them. The death hound’s ears twitched forward, because this newcomer brandished the sword of the domain of air.
When Des took all this in, she spoke hastily. “Outside,” she ordered the newcomer, “now!” just before the death hound launched itself at the man. She set the bag of coins on the counter and told the shopkeeper, “I have a little business outside. Settle the bill and I’ll be back in for my things.” Then she chased the commotion out into the street, only to find the hound playfully charging at the new swordbearer. The hound was quicker and more nimble than the man, so Des approached from behind. With swift, strong hands she wrenched the sword from the bearer’s hand. “Fetch!” she yelled as she threw the blade like a spear.
The death hound was ecstatic as it seized the sword between its jaws, did a little roundabout dance and vanished in a curl of black smoke.
“What have you–?” The new swordbearer’s verbal explosion halted when Des held up her hand to shush him. He tried again: “Who do you–!” But Des made the same gesture more emphatically. She watched the spot where the hound had disappeared.
Within moments, the hound reappeared, tail tucked low and head bowed, bringing the sword back to lay it at Des’ feet. Des took it, wiped it clean, and returned it to its new bearer. “Cast aside the sword, escape the hound: that was my lord’s first lesson to me.”
The bearer gaped at Des. “Who are you?”
Des gave him a wry smile. “My name’s Des. I was the swordbearer before you. I failed.” That made her laugh softly. “I broke the sword– no, to be honest I shattered it beyond common repair. Now I serve the king under earth. The hound and the sword alike are part of his domain. This one,” here she patted the hound’s lowered head, “is under orders to accompany me. He’s been scolded by my lord for playing around too much… haven’t you?” she addressed the death hound.
It lowered its head still farther, until it lay almost flat on its belly.
“All right. You did well to bring it straight back to us.” Des petted the hound until some of the light returned to its eyes. Then she turned her attention back to the gawking swordbearer. “My lord forged that sword. If ever you need to repair it, my lord is the only one who can. I mustn’t keep him waiting much longer, though.” She hurried back inside the shop.
The little shopkeeper handed back the coin bag, much lightened, but Des refused it. “I have no need of this in my lord’s domain. Keep it on account for me. I’ll come again.” She gave the shopkeeper her name and signed the account receipt. Some of the parcels fit in the duffle bag Des had purchased. The rest she piled high in her arms. Returning to the street, she whistled for the hound to join her. “I’ll go,” she said to the lingering swordbearer. “This one has caused enough of a commotion for one day. If you see another of these hounds, keep in mind the lesson I taught you. It may turn out to be your salvation. I wish you well.” She closed her eyes, and vanished, leaving just a curl of black smoke in her place.