Here is another excerpt from Not the Purest of Heart or Soul, which is one of my current writing projects. If you enjoy this story, please let me know in the comments section below or by reaching out to me on my contact page.
For the second time in one day, I awoke to someone standing over me, but this time, it actually was a guard. They weren’t wearing the kinds of stuff you would expect one of the guards assigned to the remote towns and villages. No, this person was wearing a full suit of heavy armor, but something about the armor itself seemed to be alive. I thought I could see it breathing and I couldn’t even see their eyes through the eye slits. I was definitely in trouble.
“Can I help you?” I asked with my most charming smile.
One of their gauntleted hands reached down for my arm and closed around it like a vice. They jerked me to my feet and started tugging me towards a large tree. It’s the biggest tree I’ve ever seen in my life, seriously!
“H-hey! Hey, this amulet that I stole. I didn’t realize it was so important and valuable, so what do you say I give you the amulet to take back to that girl and we call it square?”
The guard jerked me forward and shoved me ahead of them. I would have appreciated a grunt or even a “shut up, thief!” Anything would be better than silence.
“So, uh. You got a name?”
I tried to appeal to them by making them actually think of me as a person. We can bond! It’s gotten me out of worse scrapes in the past- and I’m still buddies with the guard back in Nell. Maybe this person knows him? As I was promptly ignored by my ungracious captor, I had a moment to consider the fact that I had never seen this kind of armor before, not even in the capital.
“Where are we?” I asked as I was shoved toward a very large tree- and come to think of it, I had never seen that kind of tree before, either. As we passed it, I got to really appreciate its beauty.
The leaves were golden- as in they glimmered and shined and they looked like they were made of thin golden flakes. I would be set for life if I could even just have one of its seeds! I could wait for it to grow! I’m a very patient woman!
But I wouldn’t get the chance to admire this miracle of nature any longer. I was shoved unceremoniously towards a small, unassuming looking shack. It was anticlimactic, to say the least. But on closer inspection, I realized it appeared to have been made with something shiny. It wasn’t gold or silver, but I could tell it had value and it shimmered with a color somewhere between gold and silver. Where had this person taken me? Why would someone waste such valuable metals on a rickety old shack?
The door to the ramshackle cabin opened and I was ushered inside. It was dark in there and my host closed the door behind us. I was absolutely not impressed; whatever this was, I needed it to be over and done with so I could get home and pawn my goods so I could get some coin.
“So, is there a poi-ahh!” I didn’t scream when I was shoved to the ground; I’m not that kind of woman. I yelped and I yelped softly, thank you very much. Yelping aside, I wasn’t prepared for what happened next and, I nearly did scream as it happened.
It was a chill in the air first. The hairs on my arms and neck were standing on end. Then, there was a rustling, shuffling sound, but it was so soft and unassuming that I ignored it. Big mistake. Something cold and wet touched my cheek. It was slimy and gross and it didn’t feel like a hand!
Finally, there was a whisper. It sounded like dry leaves bouncing along a cobblestone path as the wind blew them before it developed into words I could understand. “You aren’t the princess.” The voice rustled. “How came you by this amulet?”
It talked weird, too! “I- uh. I stole it.” I admitted, too off balance to try to lie my way out of this.
Something about its tone set me on edge and insulted me at the same time. I kept my mouth shut, knowing it was probably a bad idea to mouth off to the slimy tentacle-leaf rustle monster. I tried to keep my breaths even and steady. Showing them I was afraid wouldn’t help my cause.
“You’ve wandered rather far off the path, Thief. Perhaps you will regret it or perhaps you can make a wiser choice.”
I wasn’t following him; obviously, I had gotten lost, but what was all of this about regret and wise choices? I just wanted to sell the amulet and use the proceeds to buy food and maybe a cow or a pretty bauble! Is that so much to ask?
“Give me the amulet.” The rustle monster commanded.
“What do I get in return?” My inner haggler leaped to the forefront despite knowing it was maybe not the best time to insist on payment for my stolen goods.
“You live.” A new voice behind me snarled and I wondered if maybe it was my captor from before.
“Give me the amulet and in return, I will reward you handsomely.” The shuffling and soft clinking of armor behind me told me that my armored host disapproved of Rustle Monster’s deal.
“You are bold, Thief. Raolf, give us light!”
The room burst into light and blinded me. Once my vision had cleared and my eyes had adjusted to the light, I found myself face to face with a real, live monster. Its eyes glowed like burning coals and its face was wizened with age. Its skin looked more like bark than flesh and its hair was made of twigs that were reaching for the ceiling, but there were no leaves to be found on them. It looked like something that was already dead. Its tentacle hand was more like a slimy vine with a mind of its own and it was wrapping around my arm and squeezing. Its entire body was made of twisted vines and deep in the middle of them was a dark, pulsing light. It seemed to be sucking the very light out of the room.
“Why did you take the amulet?” The rustling voice asked in a tender voice- well, a voice that was as tender as dead leaves could manage to be.
“I need to sell it for as much as possible. A girl’s gotta eat.” I replied.
“Is that so?” The monstrosity sounded intrigued. “If I compensated you accordingly, what would you be willing to do?”
“Would you steal for me, Thief? Whatever I command you to steal?” The vine monster was starting to freak me out, but I was intrigued.
“What kind of stuff do you need me to steal?” I asked with some hesitation. “And how much are you going to pay me for it?”
Its gaping mouth opened wider than I thought was possible and thorns -which I soon realized were its teeth- were revealed as its maw twisted into a terrible grin. Its breath was putrid and rotten. Staring into its maw was like staring into a bottomless pit. If I could have, I’d have taken a step back, but it was as if I was frozen in that spot.
“Will you steal for me, Thief?” I distinctly got the impression that refusing would not end well for me.
“Yeah, yeah, I’ll steal for ya!” I agreed quickly, knowing full well that I was probably going to regret every single word that came out of my mouth.
“Excellent. I’ll take that amulet now.” He pried it out of my hands.
“Ah- my… My payment?” I insisted.
“Hmm… Yes. Your payment for this amulet is me allowing you to live another day and a servant. Your next reward will be more substantial. Do you have any objections?”
I still could not get over the fact that his voice was so silky smooth while still sounding like dry, dead leaves rustling. How was that even possible? He was addressing me, though, so I shook my head. I didn’t object! I liked being alive, thank you very much!
“Good. Thoreau will take care of you. I will be in touch soon.”
The vines receded and released my arms. I wanted to run as fast as I could out of the hut, but I was frozen in place. I just couldn’t talk my legs into moving. The gauntleted hand of my escort grabbed my shoulder and tugged me to my feet. My ankle throbbed as I stumbled backward behind my quiet companion.
“So, uh, Thoreau…” I started to talk to my reticent companion after I got my feet under me and the sun’s rays shone down on my face outside the hut.
“Raolf.” He grunted.
“I’m not Thoreau. Just sit here and wait. Thoreau will be along shortly.” Raolf’s voice was gravelly and sounded as if there were literal rocks inside that suit of living armor grinding away at large stones.
I sat down as I was told. My ankle appreciated that; in all the excitement, I had forgotten that it was hurting. I pondered my options. I could keep my mouth shut and just wait like he wanted me to… Or I could try again to learn something more about this place before Thoreau arrived.
“There’s nothing under that armor, is there?” I asked him just as he started to walk away.
“What armor?” He growled and I understood then that his eyes were the darkness that I thought were holes in his helmet. His helmet was his head.
“Oh.” I breathed. “I just assumed- are you like that guy in there?”
“Must you always make noise?” Raolf growled at me.
How rude of him! I straightened my shoulders and glared at him. “That’s not how you talk to a lady.”
“You’re a lady?”
If I could have gotten my hands on something hard- like a rock!- I would have hit him with it. At least I assumed Raolf was a he. Would it be inappropriate to ask? I wouldn’t want to offend this guy if he was actually a she or not a he or a she at all. I’m a thief, not a monster. Maybe that was insensitive, too, seeing as I was in the company of literal monsters.
“Obviously?!” I snapped at him.
He seemed pleased with himself. I saw a small smile grow on his face, but he turned away quickly, not wanting me to see his amusement. That made my blood boil.
“Whatever. Raolf, where am I? I’m obviously not in Canta or any of the surrounding villages and you aren’t a human and neither is the guy that wants me to steal stuff for him.”
Raolf ignored me with a derisive snort. Jerk. I huffed at him as he milled about waiting for Thoreau, whoever that was, to arrive to be my servant. I wasn’t especially eager to have a servant, even though it might be nice to have someone cook my meals and prepare a pot of tea on a cold evening. My mother had been a servant and my father was a baker like his brother, my uncle. I didn’t especially want to force someone to live the life my mother did.
A pair of armor people like Raolf approached us and I wondered which one of them was this Thoreau. As they got closer, though, I saw that they were tugging someone who looked very human along behind them.
He was wearing fine clothes and fancy jewels- was he some sort of prince? I thought back to the woman before. She was an odd one, now that I had the time to really think about her. It was as if she morphed from woman to child and to something in-between. Was she something like these armor people?
The armor people shoved him towards me. This one looked very much like a human child. Maybe he was some unlucky kid that wound up here somehow like me? Except I doubt they’d be asking this little schoolboy to rob someone. His hair was pulled back into a ponytail. His bangs somewhat hung into his eyes. He was a very pretty boy. I don’t think I looked half that pretty when I was his age. Heck, I don’t look as pretty as he does at my age! Beneath his bangs, I could see the rims of glasses and a hint of glassy blue… Except they weren’t blue. They were, but they weren’t. His eyes seemed to shine and shimmer in shades of blue and light green. It was like staring into the ocean at sunset.
The kid looked terrified and appeared to be on the verge of tears. I so wasn’t prepared to deal with some frightened child! I was brought here against my will, too! Why was this kid here and why did they bring him right up to me? Was I supposed to do something? They didn’t want me to rob this poor sap when they could take whatever they wanted from him?
“Thoreau will be your servant.” One of the newcomers explained to me, nudging the boy closer to me. “The Master will be watching. Once you have rested, you will be given your first job. Thoreau will help you find your way to the jewels we need.
“I will not!” The boy declared with an air of defiance that I hadn’t expected from this trembling child. “I am no servant! You may kill me if you wish, but I will not do as you sa-”
One of the necklaces- a rose brooch with decorative thorns tightened around his throat of its own volition. Witchcraft! I watched in stunned silence as the golden thorns pricked and pierced the boy’s vulnerable throat.
Thoreau dropped to his knees. One of the guards knelt down next to him and whispered something in his ear. They spoke briefly, but I couldn’t hear much of it and none of what I heard was in a language that I could understand. My mind started to wander and I just wanted to go home and take what jewels I had earn-
My haversack was gone.
All of the jewels and coins and small family heirlooms that I had pilfered from different households in Canta village were gone! I had a bounty on my head because I stole all of that stuff, but my haversack is gone! What was I going to do now?! My fence was waiting for me to bring him all sorts of treasure to trade off for good, clean coin. Of course, I landed myself in this boat because I just couldn’t resist the charm of that amulet. I can’t believe I was so stupid! I got greedy and that was the one rule that a thief should never break if she wanted to get away and live to steal another day. How long would they lock me up if I just turned myself in-
“Do you realize what you have done!” The boy interrupted my train of thought.
“I haven’t done anything!” I lied. I only robbed some kid-not-kid in the woods and agreed to be a thief for a tree vine monster. That’s nothing, right?
“Liar! Serafine needed that amulet and you took it! They told me what you did!”
“So, um.” I began, glossing over everything the boy just said. “Thoreau, was it? My name is Alcina.” It was apparently going to be a nice enough gig and I would be well-compensated for petty thievery- which just so happens to be my specialty- or so the tree vine monster said. “So, what does being my servant entail? What can I ask of you and what can I not?”
“I’m your slave, stupid, I must do whatever you tell me. You own me, for now.” I was uncomfortable with the idea of owning a person and something about his tone made me fear what would happen when he was freed. Would he kill me? It’s not like I wanted a slave.
“You don’t even know me; will you stop with the insults and name calling?” One would think that I ate his last apple slice without permission with the look he gave me then. “Now, let’s try this again. My name is Alcina and I need you to answer some questions for me, Thoreau.”
At that, the armor-man snorted again. Apparently, I am hilarious. I cast him a dark glare, but he was sharpening his sword with a whetstone, so he didn’t see it. Probably. He was some sort of monster or a fairy or something, so maybe he could see through the back of his head. Scary.
“What are your questions, then.” He didn’t even say it in a questioning tone. The least this kid could do is pretend to be interested and not openly aggressive. I didn’t ask for this, either!
“Where are we? What is going on and how old are you?” I could have grown wings in front of his eyes and gotten a less shocked expression from him- although, given our present company, perhaps that wouldn’t be so shocking. “Well?”
“The fairy realm, obviously. The Courts are at war with each other and you have given the bad fairies a weapon they can use to help them kill the good ones!”
“That sounds like an oversimplification. No one is all good or all evil. That has to apply to fairies, too.”
“Who would have thought a petty thief would know as big a word as ‘oversimplification.’” Thoreau sneered.
“You didn’t answer my last question,” I informed him.
“You cannot fathom my age, being human and finite.” He sniffed at me with derision. “Do you have any other questions?”
“Yeah. Uh. How am I gonna know what I’m supposed to steal and when?”
“Presumably the Abyss Tree wants me to tell you where the other amulets are.” He replied reluctantly.
“Is that what that scary tree thing was? An Abyss Tree?”
“Not an. The Abyss Tree. By the way, I would rather die than help you or it.”
I still couldn’t wrap my head around all of this. I just wanted to take a nap and then go home, preferably with some profits or my haversack or both! It was starting to look more and more like that wasn’t going to be an option, though. I would even accept Uncle’s scolding for resorting to thievery- again- and besmirching the family name, again. I had important questions that needed answering, though, so I brought my attention back to Thoreau, who was glaring at me with unbridled hate.
“So, you’re a fairy. Where are your wings?”
“Excuse me?” He sounded pretty insulted. Oops.
“Where are your wings?”
“I don’t have wings, you fool!” He shouted. “Do I look like I have wings?!”
“I don’t know you or what you are, so I wouldn’t know. I thought you looked like one of those little fairy sprites.” I was just being mean and facetious out of spite; I couldn’t help it. It was fun! It was also kind of cute the way he puffed up when he got angry and boy, was he angry. If he was a cat, he’d have been hissing and spitting at me.
Thoreau looked away from me, fuming. I let him take a minute. He had all the mannerisms of someone used to giving orders. His mannerisms were also quite refined, like royalty. The boy’s robes were made of the finest material I had ever seen, but I couldn’t quite identify the fabric. Was it some sort of silk? Either way, it looked extremely valuable. Plus, it was dyed a bright red. It wasn’t the color of red that you would see a peasant like me wearing!
Raolf was still sharpening his sword with his whetstone. Schlick! Schlick! The rhythm was soothing and hypnotic to my ears. I supposed he was our handler to make sure that we did as we were told. I guessed making a break for it later was out of the question as each swipe of the stone against the blade informed me that Raolf was always prepared to use it.
“I am what humans call a “dryad.”” Thoreau grumbled. “My kind do not have wings. I am of the Seelie Court. The Abyss Tree is of the Unseelie Court. Surely you have heard of us in your folklore?” He sounded resigned and spent. I felt bad for giving him a hard time.
“I, um, thought dryads were girls?”
“Gender is a human social construct if the books I have read about it were accurate.” Thoreau huffed. “I am neither female nor male. Is that a problem for you, Thief?”
“Alcina.” I corrected. “And no, that’s not a problem. It’s not like I could do anything about it if it was a problem. You can’t change facts. But, uh, how do you want me to refer to you and about you?”
He gave me a confused look. They gave me a confused look? “I don’t follow you, Alcina.” He paused just before saying my name. I guess it just wasn’t a question that often came up in the fairy realm. Or maybe he hasn’t had to meet anyone new for however long he’s been alive. Or something.
“I mean do you want me to call you a he, a she, or a they?”
“”He” is acceptable,” Thoreau replied. “Thank you.”
“For what?” I asked, making a mental note that my new dryad companion was neither male nor female.
“I did not expect you to care about my comfort. It is not an issue here, but I understand that humanity struggles with grey-area concepts, such as non-binary gender. For a dirty thief, you are not as terrible as I initially believed you to be.” Oh, good! He was warming up to me! That was nice; maybe I haven’t lost my charm after all! Maybe I can charm Raolf, too. And then, maybe, they will help me escape and get back to the human world!
It wouldn’t be easy, but I was ready to try!