"It's always about the stories, isn't it?"
Beth McGill raised an eyebrow as she and the hobgoblin standing next to her waited near the entrance to the maze of hallways and rooms that took up the back of the converted warehouse. In front of them was a public square, with actual grass and trees, lit by skylights when the sun was out and overhead lights at night. During the day, it was crowded, but that evening it was deserted except for them and a handful of guards.
“Stories?” Beth asked as she pushed her glasses back up her nose and stuck her hands into the pockets of her green army jacket, which she wore over her faded blue jeans and her Space Cats t-shirt. Beth had been chatting with Glien about their mutual friend, Puck the faerie Emigre, while waiting for him, Michiko and the others to finish their meeting; to Beth's surprise, the hobgoblin was actually better-read and better-spoken than many humans she knew.
Glien had a headful of floppy black hair, a rather large nose, and a plain black outfit with matching sunglasses to go with the red skin and taloned fingers common to all hobgoblins. He had once been in charge of rooftop maintenance in the abandoned warehouse that the hobgoblins had rebuilt and now called home, but an unfortunate incident some weeks back had caused him to ask to be reassigned. He was now an administrative assistant, and thankful for a job that might be more stressful but was absolutely less dangerous.
"Think about it, Beth," Glien said. "Everyone has a story, even if they never tell it, even if nothing really happens in it. Consider those birds."
He pointed towards the rafters, and Beth could see half a dozen birds, flying from beam to beam or resting in their nests. “Magpies?” she said. “They're not that common around here, are they?”
“No, and that's where their stories begin. Why did they settle here? Did an Emigre bring them? Did they have to fight off any pigeons? Why do they keep out of the trees? Who feeds them? And...” Glien stared at one beam. “Is that my hat that one of them used to feather its nest?”
Beth found herself smiling. “Isn't there an old rhyme about magpies?”
“One for sorrow, two for joy. And, apparently, fifteen to steal my favorite hat.”
Beth shook her head, more with wonderment than disbelief. "Promise me," she said, “that when I'm old enough, you'll let me listen in to you and Puck during one of your tavern chats.”
"Commitments. Schedules. Disputes such as the one that Puck is tending to right now. All the things that can keep friends apart." Glien stared into the distance. "Let us hope that this can be resolved," he said. "Then, Puck and I will retire to Wonderland and tell the old stories once more."
"Stories," Gregor grumbled as he stuck his head out of the shoulder bag Beth carried him in. He was a small black and white guinea pig, with an annoyed expression no amount of cuteness or fuzziness could conceal. "Is that all you can talk about?"
"Ah. The guinea pig who was a great sorcerer. Centuries in limbo after the yak incident. Reincarnated to seek redemption, but in a manner he curses every day. Quite a tale."
"Point proven," Gregor said as he ducked back down.
"And the quiet girl," Glien said to Beth. "Never knowing what was around her, what she could do. Now, her eyes are opened, and as she tries to better herself, her story becomes entwined with another's."
"Michiko's?" Beth asked.
"The Monkey Queen. Raised to be a hero, but still all too human underneath. A magnificent fighter with a marshmallow heart. And then she meets you. Two people, brought together by need and happenstance, weaving two stories into one. And that's how epics are made."
"Epic?" Beth said. “More like a comedy sometimes.”
"Life can be a comedy," Glien said. "The trick is knowing what's worth laughing about—"
"Hold that thought. There's something happening by the front door." Beth pointed across the square. Near the entrance, two guards were having a heated discussion with a gang of hobgoblins, five young males wearing brown tunics.
Gregor popped out of his shoulder bag again. "Have we seen them before?" he asked.
"I don't recognize them," Glien said. "Perhaps they've just emigrated."
"Or..." Beth glanced at the gang and looked below the surface. Oh boy, she thought, realizing the guards needed to know what they were really up against. She blinked, and her second sight kicked in.
The seemings that had concealed the true identities of the bullies vanished. The hobgoblins, and Gregor, could see what Beth had seen—five ogres, tall and muscular, with pale skin and pointed teeth, dressed in castoff clothes and carrying clubs. Beth tried to keep calm, but inside she was starting to panic.
The ogres turned to face Beth and Glien. "You!" the biggest ogre roared as he pointed at Beth, lifting his club. "You've ruined everything!" The guards reached for their weapons as the other hobgoblins in the square ran for cover.
"Gregor," Beth said as she set the guinea pig's shoulder bag down, "restrain them until reinforcements get here. Glien—"
"Powerful big rats!" the hobgoblin shouted. He spun away from Beth and ran into the hallway maze. "Powerful! Big! Rats!"
"That works too, I guess," Beth said as she dug into a jacket pocket.
* * *
The tension was thicker than molasses in the conference room. "What are you saying?" Councilor Vrech finally asked, breaking the uneasy silence. He was an older hobgoblin, with a full gray beard and piercing black eyes, wearing a black tunic with red trim and matching trousers. He had come from the Hoblands, on Faerie, to help the hobgoblin Emigres with a crisis.
"That some hobgoblins are engaging in criminal activity against other Emigres." Puck pointed to the pile of papers in front of him. He was dressed the same way he always was, black vest over white shirt, jeans, socks and sandals. "We have at least five documented incidents in the last two weeks. One of them led to a witness being assaulted. Her injuries might have been worse had the Monkey Queen not rescued her."
Windsor, dressed in his ornate purple coat with matching hat, leaned forward in his creaky chair. "The faeries in the encampment are concerned for their safety at night,” he said as light reflected off the pommel of his rapier. “I can't blame them."
"And why would a scoundrel like you care what happens to them?" Vrech snapped.
"Things change." Windsor shrugged and smiled.
"But this proposal!" Amitya, the mayor of the hobgoblin warehouse, tapped the paper on the table. Her long hair was done up in a bun, and her red robe rustled as she gestured angrily. "Armed guards! A curfew! This will affect hobgoblins with jobs outside the warehouse!"
"We've already written in provisions to cover that," Puck said. "And we can discuss easing the restrictions once the incidents stop."
"Singling all of us out for the actions of a few is hardly fair." Vrech had anger in his eyes.
"I know." The other four all looked back at the Monkey Queen as she stood. Michiko was wearing her “costume”, as Beth called it, her yellow karate jacket covering a black t-shirt and leggings and her red pillbox hat with the long matching scarf. "I don't like this myself, Councilor. I know it singles an entire community out for the actions of a few. But everyone else is worried. They think they'll be attacked next. And it doesn't help that we haven't been able to catch—"
The door flew open. Glien ran into the room and hid behind a file cabinet. "Powerful big rats!" he shouted, trying to make himself as small as he could.
Windsor raised an eyebrow. "He's not handling your pest control, is he?"
"Hellrats?" Amitya shivered.
Michiko glanced out the door. "No, but there are rats out there," she said. "Come on, Windsor." She pulled her shrunken staff from her pocket; it grew to its normal size as she ran out of the room. Windsor drew his rapier as he followed.
* * *
Gregor gestured. As he did, one of the ogres took two steps towards Beth. His third step was stopped short; Beth could see, with her second sight, the barrier spell Gregor had cast that was invisible to everyone else.
The ogres began to beat against the barrier. "Better get the Monkey Queen, girl," the guinea pig said. “I won't be able to hold them for too long.”
"Michiko should be here in a moment," Beth said. "They won't break through before then."
Beth turned and saw a hobgoblin in a blue robe, with a matching triangular hat and a crazed look, aiming a glowing brass rod at the ogres. "Krexx!" she shouted. "Don't—"
The hobgoblin sorcerer pushed a button on the rod. A bolt of magic force shot from its tip. It struck Gregor's barrier in the spot where one ogre had been relentlessly pounding it. There was a flash of white light.
Beth could see that the barrier spell had collapsed. So has Gregor, she realized as she glanced at his shoulder bag; he had been stunned by the magical backlash when the barrier went down. The ogres pushed the hobgoblin guards aside as they turned towards her.
"Beth, get back." Michiko ran out of the maze that was the hobgoblin living quarters, passing Krexx as she headed towards the ogres, Windsor on her heels.
"Monkey Queen!" Krexx hissed. "You brought the ogres here! You will pay!" He raised his rod.
"Krexx!" The hobgoblin turned towards Beth. Her right arm was stretched out shoulder high, and in her right hand she held her new magic wand. It was made from a branch from a redwood tree, curved slightly in the middle to fit into Beth's hand. There were one large blue crystal and two smaller ones set into the wood near one end and a copper tip at the other, and brass inlays running along the surface, connecting the crystals to the copper and each other.
Beth had been discussing ways to defend herself with Michiko, and Beth admittedly came up with the idea after one too many Harry Potter movie marathons, but Michiko thought it was sound all the same. Mec the gremlin craftsman had started to design and enchant the wand weeks ago, but the process had been delayed when he had taken over running the gadget shop where he worked. He had finished it a few days ago, and Beth hadn't used it yet beyond some quick testing and training, though the scorched walls of Mec's secret laboratory showed that it worked well.
"Put the rod down," Beth said slowly. "We don't want you to hurt anyone."
"You would say that!" Krexx shouted. "You're working with them!"
"No, I'm not. We're trying to stop the ogres—"
"You're trying to stop us! Lock us in this warehouse until we starve!"
"We will be free!" Krexx pointed his rod at Beth and pushed the button.
"Zap!" Beth shouted. The trigger word activated her wand, and as the crystals glowed a brilliant blue, a bolt of magical force shot from the tip. I really hope this works, she thought in the split-second afterward.
The bolts from Krexx's rod and Beth's wand smashed into each other and exploded. The light, bright as day, filled the warehouse for a moment. The floor below was scorched, but no one was hurt.
"Earthling!" Krexx yelled at Beth. "Now you will pay!" He pushed the button on his rod again.
That wand trick won't work twice, Beth thought as she slapped at the pocket on the right sleeve on her jacket, touching and holding down the button as she held her breath. A glittery force field sprung up around her, one of the tricks that had been enchanted into the jacket by Gregor and the faerie Emigre Scylla. The bolt struck the force field, with enough strength to knock Beth over, and dissipated.
"What does it take to get rid of—" Krexx started to say. Before he could finish, his rod was knocked from his hands.
"Krexx." The hobgoblin looked up and shuddered as the Monkey Queen stood in front of him. "Remember what I told you the last time you threatened Beth?" She struck the rod with the tip of her staff, shattering it. Krexx fell to the floor and curled into a ball.
"Thanks," Beth said as Michiko helped her up.
Michiko glared at Beth. "Didn't I tell you to get back?" she snapped.
Oh boy, Beth thought. "There wasn't time. And Krexx went crazy when he saw you."
"Gregor could have handled that."
"I could use some help," Windsor said loudly. Three of the ogres were already down, but the faerie was being pressed by the other two, who were driving him back as he dodged and parried their attacks.
Beth pointed her wand past Michiko, at one of the ogres. "Gregor was unconscious! Zap!" The magical bolt hit the ogre just as he was starting to swing at Windsor; he lost his balance and toppled over.
"That's why you should have stepped back!" Michiko said as she threw her staff past Beth, at the other ogre, hitting him on the head.
As the ogre the staff hit fell over, out cold, Windsor slashed the one Beth had zapped in his hand, disarming him, and knocked him out with a hard punch to the jaw. "Perhaps this could wait?" he said. Michiko glared at the faerie and nodded.
Beth bent down and picked up Gregor's shoulder bag. "How is he?" Michiko asked.
"Either he's still unconscious," Beth said, "or he wanted to stay out of our discussion."
"Wise choice on his part either way," Windsor murmured. "Do you think these might be the troublemakers?"
"Their seemings did match the descriptions," Beth said.
"Go get Puck and the others," Michiko said to Windsor. "We may have to do some rewriting."
* * *
By the time that Glien had been coaxed out of his hiding place and brought with Puck, Vrech and Amitya to the square, Gregor had recovered and was able to provide a full description of the ogres' seemings. "So it was them all along," Vrech said, shaking his head. "Making trouble and blaming it on us."
"I'm wondering how they got their seemings," Windsor said as he watched two dozen hobgoblin guards tie up the ogres. "If it's someone local who cast them, it's questionable activity at best."
"All the same...this agreement?" Amitya held up the papers Puck had prepared and tore them in half. "Not needed."
"Absolutely," Puck said as Michiko nodded. "Windsor? Perhaps you could help me escort Glien to Wonderland. He'll need something stronger than milk this time."
"With pleasure." Windsor put an arm around Glien. "I just hope he doesn't get too philosophical until the third ale."
"Powerful big rats," Glien said amiably as he and the fairies left.
Beth looked over at Krexx, who was cradling his broken rod in his hands as two guards stood watch over him. "What about him?" she asked.
"We'll have to talk to him," Amitya said. "Calm him down. Get him to apologize."
"Apologize?" Beth gave the sorcerer a dirty look. "He tried to kill me!"
"I know. But we need him. He's the only one who understands how all the magic he's set up keeps us running and safe and undiscovered. That's why we put up with him."
Michiko nodded. "I feel sorry for him."
"Sorry?" Beth said. "Even with what he tried to do?"
Michiko glared at Beth. "Humans aren't the only ones who suffer from mental illness," she said sharply. "Let's go home." Beth felt her face redden as she and Michiko headed for the warehouse door.
* * *
"Wow," Beth said, glancing at the clock as Michiko closed the apartment door. "I didn't realize it was so late." Michiko nodded silently as Beth put Gregor back in his cage; the guinea pig was already asleep.
"Good thing it's Saturday," Beth added. "For a few more minutes, anyway." She forced a grin. "At least we can sleep in a little tomorrow before breakfast." She glanced over at her partner, who was watching her impassively. "Michiko?" Beth asked.
"Yes?" Michiko said.
"Is...is there something wrong? Something you wanted to talk about?" Beth swallowed. "Did I do anything?"
"Why have you been acting like this?" Beth said, trying not to plead. "Why are you being so critical? So mean?"
Michiko sighed. "Let's not get into this right now. We're both tired."
"But what's wrong, Michiko? What did I do?"
"Later!" Michiko snapped. She turned away from Beth and headed into her bedroom, closing the door behind her.
Beth stared at the door for a moment, feeling her cheeks redden, her breathing shorten, her anger rise. "Fine!" she screamed. "Go right ahead! Treat me like dirt!" She stormed into her bedroom and slammed the door for emphasis.
* * *
Beth fumed as she waited for her computer to warm up. She couldn't understand what was going on with Michiko. They had been best friends almost since the day they'd met, and had been growing closer as time went on. Beth was happy to be Michiko's roommate and partner in adventure. She treasured the early morning coffee and chat, the impulse all-night bingewatching, the pep talks and the silly faces.
That's what made the last few days, since New Year's, hurt even more. Beth could tell that Michiko was trying to push her away. As far as she knew, she hadn't done anything to cause it, but deep down inside, she couldn't help but wonder if it was her fault, agonize over what she might have done wrong. And she wanted to apologize to Michiko, regardless of whose fault it was, just to make things right, just to see her smile and hear her laugh again.
Beth saw that her computer was finally up and running; she opened her browser and logged on to Facebook. More nervously than she expected, she checked her friend requests, and pouted when she didn't see any changes.
She clicked on one name and stared at the page that was brought up. One of the photos there was of a young woman, about Beth's age. She was tall and skinny, almost gangly, with black hair and a wide smile that tweaked her high cheekbones and offset her dark, brooding eyes. Her name was Anneliese.
Beth remembered her from her freshman year in high school. Anneliese had been enrolled there by her parents, who had moved to Beth's suburb after being transferred there by the German conglomerate they worked for. Anneliese had trouble fitting in at school, with her awkwardness and the language barrier, but when she met Beth, who never fit in anywhere anyway, something clicked and the two became friends. They grew more and more inseparable as the school year went on, the clumsy foreigner and the quiet geek girl.
It had ended suddenly, on the last day of class, when Anneliese's parents were recalled to Germany on short notice. Beth had gone to Anneliese's house to say goodbye, and it had ended with a tight, lingering, tearful hug as her parents waited in the car. Anneliese had finally let Beth go, given her one last sad silent look, and gotten in the car for the trip back home and out of Beth's life.
It had made for a long, lonely summer for Beth. Things got better for her over the next few years as she made new friends at school, worse as she left them behind to go to college in California, and better again when she met Michiko. Anneliese had drifted from Beth's mind, but the memories had been stirred again when she noticed that Anneliese had friended some of her old classmates on Facebook. Beth had sent her a friend request, along with an email summarizing the last few years of her life with the Monkey Queen parts left out.
Beth was hurt that Anneliese hadn't responded, but not surprised. After all, she thought as she closed her browser, the way things have gone lately, they should just stamp "reject" on my forehead and be done with it.
She shut her computer down and went to bed. As she pressed her head against her pillow, she found herself thinking, I just wish that I could get used to rejection, that it hurt less the more it happens. Instead, it hurts more. It hurts like Hell.
* * *
As Michiko turned away from her bedroom door, she could hear Beth yelling in the living room. She couldn't quite make out what her roommate was saying, but there was no mistaking the sound of Beth's bedroom door slamming.
Michiko sat on her futon and hid her face in her hands. It's not working, she thought. It's not working, and all I'm doing is hurting her. I was stupid for even thinking it would work.
She squeezed her eyes as tightly shut as she could. I don't know what to do. If I tell her, if she finds out, it'll be over. But if I don't...it could be over anyway.
Michiko lowered her hands and stared blankly at the floor. It's all my fault. I should have never let it go this far. But I did, and now I'm paying for it. And so is Beth, and I never should have let that happen.
I need to say I'm sorry. Before it's too late.
Want more? Read Chapter Two here! http://monkeyqueenbooks.blogspot.com/2015/05/sneak-preview-tiding-of-magpies-chapter_6.html And read "The Author, The Archer And The King Of Magpies", an excerpt from Chapter Four, here! http://monkeyqueenbooks.blogspot.com/2015/03/the-author-archer-and-king-of-magpies.html And thanks for reading!
© 2015 by Robert Dahlen. All rights reserved, except for those protected by local "fair use" laws.