The Warlock and the Bard
The woman in black peered at the ornate script in the gilded tome — and slammed the book shut.
Is there wealth in my future?
What made rich people so simple, so frivolous, in their requests? What a ridiculous question. The countess spent an exorbitant amount of money hiring the woman in black to answer it.
The woman wanted to respond, Perhaps there would be if you didn’t spend it on things like this. Of all the things one could ask a hired warlock, rich people so frequently inquired about money.
As if the warlock with the books open before her was nothing more than an amateur fortune teller, one who tossed small twigs of oak before her and interpreted the direction of their knots. The warlock was not one for illusions and parlor tricks. She was trained to delve into the secrets of the multiverse, an expert of dark magic, a reader of omens and minds.
Her magic wasn’t frivolous, even if requests of it often were.
She’d made deals with demons for it.
The halfling wound a lock of hair around his wax-covered finger, and pulled it taut. He winced at the sting of his temple, but it ebbed a moment later — he released the lock, and it sprang back with a perfect curl that shone like honey in the candlelight.
He grinned, and dipped his finger once again into the scented wax. He had chosen jasmine for this evening’s performance, and it was floral and heady under his nose. He ran a finger along each end of his mustache, twisting it between his thumb and forefinger until it curved upward.
Hoben Yaro grinned at himself in the mirror. He waggled his eyebrows, each one independently, and wiggled his ears. He cracked his knuckles and stretched his wrists, sang his scales and trilled his tongue.
A knock on the door interrupted his preparation. The countess’s valet, Dmitri, poked his head in, impatient and irritated. “Stop preening, Yaro. The guests are here.”
Hoben gathered his instruments, and followed the gruff man down the winding stairs of the mansion.
The countess’s shrill voice rang through the whole top floor.
The warlock named Amira Metanova grimaced at the countess’s butchering of her name — at least she wasn’t still calling her Amara — and walked as slowly as possible down the hallway to the countess’s chamber.
As expected, Countess Irina Gagarin was irritable by the time the warlock knocked on her chamber door. Irina wrinkled her nose at her.
“Don’t you have something to wear that isn’t black?” Irina snapped her fingers at her lady-in-waiting. “Olga, fetch the red brocade from my closet for Mira.”
It’s Amira, the warlock thought, lips pursed. She watched as the countess pinned a huge ruby brooch to the high collar of her gown. Irina’s grey-streaked copper hair was piled atop her head, the ringlet curls falling around her face. Amira thought it looked rather juvenile, but she was above petty insults. She tugged at the end of her own dark braid.
Olga pressed the brocade vest into her hands. To her surprise, and annoyance, Amira quite liked it; the garment was mostly black, with red roses embroidered throughout. She slipped her arms through it, and Olga helped her lace up the bodice. She pulled her black tunic taut underneath it.
Irina appeared satisfied. “Good enough. I have an assignment for you.”
She waved Olga away, and the girl scurried out of the room.
“Boris Ruskin will be in attendance tonight,” Irina said, looking at herself pleasingly in the vanity. “He has made investments in gemstones — rubies, to be precise. I want to know what the payoff has been. Find out for me, by any means necessary.”
I am not a servant, Amira bristled. What a menial task. She knew what Irina was asking — read his mind, hex him, compel him, whatever it took. It would likely require none of that.
Amira agreed to the task. This is the last chore I do for Irina Gagarin, she pledged to herself. She had exhausted the countess’s library, anyway, and it was time to move on. Working in the mansion had been a comfortable month spent, to be sure, but she wasn’t any closer to what she sought, and she was wasting time. There were many rich people in need of a warlock, and they had many libraries, which meant many old tomes of magic gathering dust, and she had work to do.
Irina released her, and Amira left to join the party.
She descended down the staircase to find a bustling main hall filled with attendees in ornate, colorful garb. Next to the grand marble fireplace was a great feast, an impressive spread even by Irina’s standards. A roast pig with an apple in its mouth was succulent and steaming in the center of the large wooden table. Bowls of glistening roe sat next to rounds of yufka. But what caught Amira’s eye were several tiered cakes perched upon gold platters — dark chocolate, raspberry, vanilla.
Amira surveyed the guests. How easy it would be to press into their minds! As the night wore on and the wine barrels drained, she’d have her pick. It was almost too easy.
From the corner of her eye, among the sea of rich jewel toned gowns and tunics, she saw a flash of black. A feather, dark as midnight, its smooth barbs glinting in the candlelight, appeared in the crowd before her.
Her heart soared, and she let it. It was rare she awarded herself the chance to hope.
The feather disappeared into the crowd, but she knew it was there, and what it meant.
Hoben made his way through the crowd, trying not to hit the party goers with the handle of his lute hung across his back, but it swatted against silk-clad buttocks all the same as he dodged through and around the guests’ legs. His makeshift stage was a large ornate rug in the corner of hall, surrounded by candles. Hoben’s stages had run the gamut of what a stage could be, from velvet-covered mahogany floors in grand theaters to an ale-soaked table top in a tavern.
He tipped his hat at the guests, who looked down at him in amusement and surprise. He was used to this reception, but it didn’t bother him. For he was made of spirit and song, and his music filled rooms, and it didn’t matter that he himself was just barely tall enough to reach a goblet of wine from the table.
He set down his shawm, and pulled his lute around from his back to his chest, running a long fingernail along the strings. It vibrated in his hands, a subtle hum that only he could feel and hear. The core of his magic was in this lute. The notes rang out warm and clear in the hall, and a crowd formed around the rug, the guests curious to see what the halfling would perform.
A woman pushed to the front of the crowd, and stopped short at the sight of him. She was the palest woman Hoben had ever seen, and he thought, mischievously, that he had seen many very pale women. Women were always paler underneath their clothes, where their skin was soft and creamy and saved for moonlight. Hoben felt a new song coming on, an ode to moonlight skin —
The woman met his eyes, tugging at her long braid draped over her shoulder, her face the very picture of despair. Hoben could have sworn there were tears in her eyes.
I have a poem just for you, he thought.
He cleared his throat, and plucked again on his lute, creating a minor chord both haunting and beautiful.
This is why hoping for anything in this life is worthless, Amira thought, mortified at the pressure of tears behind her eyes.
The black feather had not, in fact, been attached to the wing of a raven, the raven she awoke every morning hoping to see, the one that would perch itself upon her shoulder and nibble at her ear and connect her world to the realm with the magic she longed to touch. The raven that would also be a rat, or a spider, or a frog, and always an imp, and always her constant companion. For years she had been searching for her familiar, and every glimpse of a black feather made her heart race.
The feather was attached instead to a hat that sat upon a halfling’s head, a halfling holding a lute nearly the same size as his entire body, and he was grinning at her from underneath a ridiculous mustache. He introduced himself as Hoben Yaro, and under normal circumstances, his accent would have made the corners of Amira’s mouth twitch in amusement.
She was grateful that he began to perform; her throat was thick with disappointment, and it formed such a pit within her that not even the most luscious piece of cake would fill it.
The pit was always there, a pit the size of a young boy named Simon Metanov — but on some nights, like this night, it yawned into a larger, looming void in her heart.
But then Hoben plucked on the strings, and her heart stirred.
I dream of a night that holds me close,
An embrace that only my heart knows,
Where the rivers cease, the forest quiets,
My heart will know it when I find it
Amira felt the void in her chest stitch itself together, if only just enough for her to regain composure. Hoben kept his eyes on her, knowing the effect of his music.
Amira knew magic when she saw it.
The dark-haired woman wasn’t the only woman affected by Hoben’s music.
Irina Gagarin paid him generously for her performance, and laughed far too loudly at his jokes. For a human woman she was rather small and squat, but she still stood over him by a two feet.
If she didn’t mind the difference, Hoben certainly didn’t. This had been a gig worth taking, and the night wasn’t over yet. If he played his cards right, if he pleased the countess, he could get regular work performing for Irina’s circle.
So what if he was several goblets deep on the tart red wine, sour and delectable. When she beckoned a finger toward him at the base of the staircase, he cracked his neck, took a deep breath, and followed her lead.
Turned out cake did make everything better, Amira thought, as she scraped the last of the chocolate from the gold plate. She felt less desolate now, but still disappointed. Hadn’t she learned by now not to get her hopes up?
Hoben Yaro’s poetry had steadied her, although she was reluctant to feed the ego of the boisterous halfling. And anyway, Irina was making eyes at him, so Amira was sure the bard had his hands plenty full.
Come to think of it, all of Irina’s lovers had been, well, men of small stature. There was Igor the dwarf, with his long mane of blond hair, and a long blond beard to match; and Valhik the gnome, a wizard with an intriguing scar that ran across his cheek and a canine companion the size of a wolf.
Amira would have pitied Hoben if she didn’t think he could hold his own against Irina’s, er, prowess.
With Irina distracted, Amira sought out Boris Ruskin. He was easy to find, among one of the tallest in the room, his pointed elf ears distinguishing himself from the other species of attendees. It wasn’t rare to see high elves in attendance at Irina’s parties.
Amira picked up two goblets of wine, and walked toward him with her most winning smile.
He didn’t take the bait. “Ah, Irina’s hired witch,” Boris said as she introduced herself and handed him a goblet.
Amira bristled. “Excuse you. I am a consultant.”
He drained the goblet in one drink. “Did Irina send you to inquire about my investment?”
So much for that plan. Amira followed suit, and gulped down the wine. “And? Anything you can share with me? Irina gave me permission to hex you, if necessary.”
Boris considered her, undeterred by the warning. “How much is Irina paying for your — expertise?”
Amira wished she had another glass of wine. “Enough.”
“Would you consider consulting for me? I have some need for a magical advisor.”
“Depends on what you wanted.” From over Boris’s shoulder, she saw Hoben and Irina go up the stairs, and resisted an eye roll. “And it’s not money I want. It’s access to — resources. Books, to be specific.”
Boris looked genuinely surprised by this. “Arcane books, I assume. I am glad to say that books of that nature are a resource to which I have significant access.”
“I’ll consider it. I’m a free agent after tonight, anyhow.”
The elf leaned toward her, his voice low. “I imagine you’re looking for a very specific tome. Perhaps, one that would allow a magician to summon a creature to their aid.”
Amira’s blood ran cold, but she tried to cover for it. “And what would make you think that?”
“It’s not often I meet a warlock without a familiar.”
“Perhaps mine is completing a task for me,” Amira lied.
“Perhaps mine knows you’re lying,” said Boris. He casually lifted a hand toward his face, and a tarantula crawled out from his sleeve.
The despair that the cake had momentarily placated resurged threefold. Amira watched as the tarantula changed form before her very eyes, its many furry limbs merging and morphing into the tiny arms and legs and pointed ears of an imp. From Boris’s shoulder, it grinned mischievously at her. Jealously bloomed in her chest.
“I will help you find your familiar,” said Boris. “But I need you to do something for me.”
Amira listened for Dmitri to bid farewell to the rest of the guests, and went upstairs to her room. From her satchel she pulled her black cloak, which she draped over her head, shrouding herself.
She blew out the lanterns in her room. The mansion now was quiet and dark; it was well past midnight.
Holding her breath, Amira opened her bedroom door, and released the breath when the door swung open without creaking. She crept down the hallway to the countess’s door, and pressed an ear against it.
She heard only the soft snores of the countess. Amira was grateful she wouldn’t have to go inside; she had no desire to see the countess and the halfling in various states of undress.
Amira clasped her amethyst, and muttered under her breath.
She felt the invisible creature form before her; the amethyst warmed in her palm. She muttered instructions to it — open the door quietly, and bring her the jeweled staff from the far corner of the room.
Amira longed for the day where her temporary servant would be a corporeal companion, but this would be enough for tonight.
She felt the creature’s confirmation. Amira pressed her body against the wall near the door, and waited with bated breath, the amethyst gripped firmly in her palm.
A few minutes later, the creature was gone, and Amira ran quietly back to her room, holding a jeweled staff glinting in the darkness.
Irina Gagarin’s hair bounced in disarray as she screamed at the halfling. The morning light was harsh and unflattering on the countess’s face.
“Where’s my staff, halfling?” she spat, spittle flying from her mouth, and Hoben felt it on his face.
“My lady, I have done no such thing — “ Hoben protested, his stomach rumbling. The wine and the roasted pig suddenly seemed very long ago.
“I know you stole it!” she shrieked. Dmitri had been sent for guards, and he returned now, ambling into the room, his old face twisted into annoyance. “Imprison him,” she instructed the village guards, who looked positively bored as they scooped up Hoben with ease.
Hoben squirmed in their arms as they carried him to the town center, the villagers’ curious eyes on him all the while, and tossed him into an empty cell.
Sometimes being a halfling felt completely undignified.
Afternoon light emanated from the high window. Hoben thought only of his lute, Esteban. He held up his fingers and wiggled them, mimicking their placement on the fretboard.
Next time, the lute stays on, he thought wryly. The very thought of wearing his lute while engaging in intimate activities made him want to giggle, but he sobered, feeling very far away from his beloved instrument.
He needed it to get out of here. A bard was helpless without his instruments. Hoben glanced around the sparse room, furnished only with a chamber pot. He went to the bars and reached out a hand, but his arms were too small to touch anything beyond the cell.
Maybe he could try persuading the guard. He called to the guard, and tried telling the half-elf a joke, but he wanted none of it.
“Hush it, Yaro,” the guard snapped.
Hoben sank to knees, discouraged.
A moment later, Hoben heard the half-elf shriek — and erupt into guffaws. His joke hadn’t been that funny, but perhaps the half-elf was just slow to understand it.
Hoben peeked through the bars, and a dark shadow stood in the doorway next to the guard, now doubled over in laughter, struggling to catch his breath.
The shadowy, hooded figure appeared behind the bars. “Ready to get out of here?” asked a low voice.
The hood fell back, and the pale woman with the dark braid cocked an eyebrow at him, dangling a ring of keys in one hand. In the other, she held up the handle of his lute. His shawm was mounted across her back, along with his feathered cap.
“I’m Amira,” the woman said. Hoben smiled.
They rushed out past the guard, still on his side in fits of crippling laughter.
In the late afternoon light, Amira and Hoben ran through the village, hiding behind bushes and trees, dodging the eyes of the village guards. Irina would be searching for them both by now, seeking revenge for her pride, her jeweled staff, and a few choice volumes Amira had swiped from the countess’s library.
They slowed once they reached the outskirts of the forest.
“What did you do with the staff?” Hoben asked.
“Exchanged it for something I needed,” said Amira, grinning, Boris’s notes tucked safely into her satchel.
The sun was beginning its descent behind the mountains, and the forest darkened around them.
Amira stopped suddenly, sensing a watchful eye. She rifled through her satchel, looking for a tinderbox.
“If you’re looking for a party, you’re heading in the wrong direction,” a voice said behind them. Hoben jumped. She turned, and a bearded ranger sat on a nearby log, nonchalantly whittling a block of wood. He held it up and inspected it. Amira couldn’t make out what it was; a small moon, perhaps?
“What if we’re just strolling through the forest?” Amira replied.
“Your halfling companion looks dead on his feet,” the ranger said, pocketing his creation. He held out a hand, and Amira reluctantly shook it. “Phaedrus Wolfsbane.”
Hoben bowed at the ranger with a flourish. “We would be grateful for your service.”
Amira didn’t protest. Truthfully, she couldn’t tell which way was which, and it was growing colder, and she was starving.
She gripped her amulet, just in case. The ranger spoke of a fire pit in a clearing, where they could camp for the night.
But the man named Phaedrus seemed just as surprised as them to find it was already occupied.
A dwarf bounded to his feet and greeted them. Behind him stood the tallest woman Amira had ever seen, her face and body half covered in icy scales. Next to her stood a stern-looking warrior, his face wary upon seeing hers. A paladin, perhaps? He nodded at her, guarded.
It wasn’t long before they all somehow found themselves sitting around the same fire, listening to Hoben’s embellished tale of their recent experience. She couldn’t find it in her heart to correct him.
Amira looked around at the assortment of creatures she was now in company with, and her heart stirred. Perhaps this would be a welcome change from consulting for rich nobles. Perhaps this was where she needed to be for her raven to find her: out in the wild dark forest, not hidden away among dusty volumes in yet another forgotten library.
After all, you could only learn so much from a book.