This is not a novel I’m working on. This was something I wrote for me, just to practice. Enjoy!
A thin layer of dust covered everything. The room no longer stood ready for an occupant at an instant’s notice- it would take several hours, now, to dust all the tables and shelves with their various items. Normally this room was immaculate, but not now. Now dust muted shapes and softened edges, making everything look surreal. Usually a busy room, the center of all activity, the room had an air of hopelessness, as though it had stopped believing that anyone would ever come back.
Even if the room hadn’t seemed to stop believing, the young man in the chair next to the widow certainly had. Ordinarily this much dust would have him sneezing hard enough to blow his spectacles off his face, but he had been sitting there before the first particle of dust had landed. She was not here to tell him to banish the dust. She was not here to remind him that cleaning was his responsibility, or to threaten that she would make him do it the long way if he let it slide for too long. She was not here, and the dust had been gathering for three days.
The young man listened limply to the drizzle of water falling outside the window. Not enough to be a proper rain, the water still pooled and slid across the ground. The dirt had been so saturated in blood that even three days later it could not hold any more liquid. The remains of her flower garden were being washed away. The young man closed his eyes, remembering his surprise that one such as she would have a flower garden, something so pretty and delicate and normal. He imagined the water swirling through the bed of trampled daisies, stripping the few remaining petals, and sweeping the carcasses of flowers down towards the stream and beyond his vision.
His magic was gone; he had used the last of it to banish all the corpses from her lawn. She was gone; stabbed from behind while he watched out a window, commanded to do nothing. He had discovered she’d even shielded him from using magic when he tried to disobey her- he could do nothing but scream at her to watch out. Scream even though he knew she couldn’t hear him. Collapsing, bleeding, dying, she had used her last bit of magic to send a wave of death around the tower to protect him. He’d watched from the window as her life seeped out of her, impotent in anger and grief, shielded even from leaving the room. He watched until her blood stopped flowing from the wound and her skin had turned blue-ish and translucent. He sat in that chair and watched, waiting for her to stand and brush the dirt from her skirts and smile at him so that he would know that it was all right, that his world hadn’t fallen apart and he was still her favorite and only apprentice; and wasn’t it clever of her to play dead and distract the enemy?
The young man sighed, and disturbed a puff of dust. It floated upward and tickled his nose. It wasn’t much: he blew it back out of his nostrils. The expulsion of air raised more dust and he sneezed. This sneeze sent dust back into his eyes, and he gasped as it stung. He coughed. More dust. Out of habit he waved his hands in a simple gesture and spoke two words. Dust flew from his fanning sleeves and up his nose. He sneezed violently, jumping to his feet in an attempt to escape.
Soon clouds of dust filled the room and his spectacles cut through them, hurling through the air as he sneezed and cursed and tried to find something clean to wipe his eyes with. His billowy robe knocked off things from nearby tables as he danced around and shouted explicatives between booming sneezes. Something fell on his foot and smashed his little toe. Howling and hopping up and down, he felt something bend and shatter under his other foot. Rubbing his eyes and peering downward, he could barely make out the remains of his glasses as his sneezes blew shards of his lenses through the room. He inhaled sharply and immediately began to choke on the patch of dust he’d ingested.
“Aarrghh!” he wheezed, and began to cough piercingly. He finally threw the window open and thrust his head into the drizzle.
“May the demons of hell torment her!!” the young man wheezed. The air did not answer, but the drizzle thickened into rain. It slicked his brown hair against his skull and ran down his neck like fingernails of ice. He took two deep breaths of the clean, cold air and sneezed again. He could almost hear her saying he would catch pneumonia doing things like that, sticking his head out into the cold rain in the middle of winter, and she wasn’t going to cure him if he was just going to be silly about it. Maybe being sick would teach him to be careful.
“What about being alone?” he whispered into the rain. “What will that teach me?” The water was bitter and salty in his mouth. It took him a moment to realize that the rain was washing down his tears. He wished crying would help. He wished he could stop crying.
* * * * *
The room proved that the sorceress was exceptionally rich and exceptionally powerful. A clean indoor privy spoke of wealth for master masons to build it and servants to tend it. The thief sniffed experimentally. A privy, and barely a whiff of odor. That was magic- power no amount of money could touch. In rich houses, servants would sprinkle strong-smelling herbs to mask the scent of filth. All the herbs really did was add another, stronger scent to the reek of waste, like an unwashed woman who wears too much perfume. The thief resisted the urge to gag at the thought, and took a deep breath of the sweet smelling air. Nothing to cover here- any unpleasant fragrance just vanished like smoke. It had been three days ago that the wave of magic engulfed the rest of the adventurers, and the thief had crashed through a tower window to avoid being killed. And landed smack into the privy.
“Better smelly than dead,” the thief reflected wryly, “and not even smelly.” Three days ago the room had been spotless and fragrance-free. It was only now that the thief could sense any smell at all, and that was only after using the privy. “Can’t be here for that long and not,” the thief mused ruefully. “Her magic must be fading.” Opening one of the many bags every burglar carried, the thief pulled out and ate the last bit of carefully rationed food. “Time to look around the rest of the tower.” And Mask grant that there be food, as well as valuables. Otherwise the journey back would be harsh.
The burglar’s hand hesitated over the door handle. There were always nasty stories about the spells that wizards left on their towers: vicious magics to protect their libraries and wands. The hand hesitated as fear and self-preservation discussed all of the horrible results of being on the wrong side of a spell. “I certainly don’t want to lose any body parts,” the thief shuddered, then sighed. “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in a privy, either.” The hand firmly grasped the doorknob and turned. The door creaked, and the thief jumped. Other than that, nothing happened.
The thief exhaled noisily, disturbing the dust on a hall table. Quickly stifling a sneeze with a sleeve, the thief’s eyes jumped all around the narrow corridor. There were no signs of life; no footprints in the dust, no lights from any of the visible rooms, no sentient noise. It was so quiet that the faint pitter-patter of rain outside seemed obnoxiously loud. And eerie. If the thief didn’t know that the sorceress has died only three days ago… it felt like no one had lived here for centuries. Maybe not ever. Tentatively, the thief reached out a slightly shaking hand to touch the nearest wall. For reassurance; something real and tangible to shake away this otherworldly feeling. Something real…
CRASH!!!!!! The thief reeled back and smacked bottom to stone floor. A boom followed the crash, and the sound of glass shattering with intermittent cursing. The thief shot up and dashed into the nearest open door- thankfully not the privy again- and dove under the bed. The thief froze, breathing so slowly and shallowly that even the air would barely move. What in all the gods’ insanity was that? Listening fixedly, the thief heard… sneezing? Was someone sneezing in another part of the tower?
Murmuring a quick prayer to Mask, the god of thieves, the burglar settled down to wait. There were two things to do when the job got hot- get out or wait it out. The thief didn’t think that there was food enough in empty bags to make it the four day walk back to the nearest town, and there hadn’t been anything to hunt on the way in, so leaving now seemed premature. Not when there might still be a whole tower to loot.
A window crashed open somewhere above, and someone cursed loudly. Suddenly the thief realized the privy wasn’t such a bad place to be.
* * * * *
The young man who had been an apprentice for most of his life began to shiver. His cheeks were bright red, and each raindrop shocked and stung. He pulled his head in out of the rain and tried to shake the water out of his hair. The damp air coming in through the window had settled the dust enough for him to move around without starting a new sneezing fit. Narrowing his eyes, the young man attempted to locate his glasses somewhere on the floor without tripping over his own robes. Failing in that, he cursed again as he lost his balance. His chin thumped on the floor and rattled his teeth, and he yelped in pain when he bit his tongue mid-curse.
Rubbing his jaw he pushed up off the floor and cut his hand on small glass shards. Small drops of blood fell on the floor and smaller puffs of dust rose. The young man stuck three of his fingers in his mouth, and reached around with the other to follow the glass shards back to his glasses. Nearly all of his fingers were bleeding now. He tore strips of cloth from his robe and started to bind his fingers, then hissed as the ground-in dust on the fabric worked into the cuts.
“I give up,” he muttered to himself despondently. He grasped his glasses and rose unsteadily to his feet. “I give up I give up I give up I give up,” he continued as he shuffled to the door and down the flight of stairs. “Give up,” he mumbled as he went to the kitchen and grabbed a half empty bottle of cooking sherry. “Give up.” And he stumbled towards his bedroom.
* * * * *
The sound of uneven footsteps drew closer. The thief had listened nervously to crashing and shattering, and then shuffling footsteps. With all of that noise upstairs, it seemed possible that five or six people were still in the tower- too many. The thief tried to just breathe and stay calm. The door crashed into the stone wall as someone stumbled into it, and a dirty shoe hopped up and down while the stubbed toe was lifted out of sight. Muffled cursing floated in the air while the thief tried hard not to be there at all.
The apprentice blearily considered whether he should kick the door or take a drink. He decided to do both for good measure. He tilted back the sherry and tried to swallow while his foot swung at the rough wood. The resounding thump that followed was rather his rump impacting stone than his foot on wood. The bottle of sherry rolled under the bed.
Just after someone’s legs and rump came abruptly into view, a glass bottle rolled slowly toward the thief. The burglar’s eyes widened as the sherry came closer, and finally hit right on the nose. Fixed by fear, the thief stopped breathing.
The apprentice flopped back on the floor. He wished he could die. He wished he could forget. He was going to get roaring drunk. The sherry. Where did the sherry go? Under the bed, that’s right. The young man rolled onto his side and reached under the bed, to grab the sherry that was underneath those huge eyes.
Really impressively huge, those staring eyes.
Someone was under his bed.
The apprentice shrieked and scrambled backwards, his arms flailing. The thief dove out toward the door, knocking the sherry towards the apprentice. The red liquid splashed over the stone floor. The thief slipped and fell sideways, landing on something surprisingly soft and a bit squishy.
The young man forgot how to move. There was a girl in his lap. A pretty girl. The apprentice forgot how to think. Incoherent babble and the awareness that she was touching him was as good as he could get. The girl sprang up and tried to run, but her feet got caught in his robes and she fell again, her knee coming down hard on his hand.
“Ow-oww!!” he yelped. The girl bounded sideways, trying desperately to get her feet free, but landed on her hip on the hard stone next to the hand she’d crushed. The thief lay there for a moment, trying to get her breath back. She’d have to talk her way out of this. Fortunately, the male she’d inadvertently tackled looked too shaken up to think clearly. She hoped she wasn’t so herself. She knew she couldn’t be as dirty as he was- she could spend a week under a bed and not get that dirty.
The young man cradled his hand against his chest. The impact had caused his fingers to bleed again. His thumb was bleeding the most, and so he stuck it in his mouth. He was suddenly aware of the girl studying him, and he glared back at her. Her eyes widened slightly as she looked him over, and abruptly he realized what she was looking at.
He was streaked with drying dust and blood spatters, and his robes were in tatters. His glasses were askew and his hair stuck out in all directions. He must look insane with his dirty thumb in his mouth. His face heated with embarrassment, and that made him angry.
“Who are you?” they said together.