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BARBARIAN TOY BOY
The sword once belonged to Kovat the Slayer, and though both his ancestors and his son Tarvik used it, it's the shadow of Kovat's deeds that darken the blade. I know that because Kovat was called The Slayer. Nice guys don't get called The Slayer.
I mean, he wasn't slaying vampires or anything like that. Not that I asked for details, but I'd heard enough to know that he hacked his way past anyone who got in his way and didn't stop to ask, “Are you a good person or a bad person?”
I had opened Tar's closet to spread a handful of lavender sprays on the shelf before putting away the pile of his folded wool sweaters to be stored until next winter. My fashion-plate boyfriend adores sweaters, has a half-dozen pricey ones. A handy obsession, really, because when his birthday rolls around in August, gift shopping will be easy.
I'd forgotten about the sword. It leaned against the back wall, a wide, heavy, double-edged blade with an ornamental hilt that is etched and trimmed with gold. Yah, well, beauty is as beauty does, my grandmother used to say, and the sword might look great, but it had done terrible things.
My thoughts were turning morbid, and who needs morbid on an April afternoon? Hey, when the sun shines in Seattle, that's reason enough to take a break. Another hour, and it would be suppertime.
I closed the closet door and hoped that the lavender would sweeten the sword while protecting the woolens. While I brushed lint from my tee shirt and jeans, I hopped around and balanced first on one foot then the other, sliding into sandals. Hurrying out into the sunshine, my purse strap slung over my shoulder, I headed down the sidewalk toward the Mudflat Neighborhood Center, my second place of employment.
I had the afternoon off, but I figured I'd look in and see if my guy was ready to walk home. He works there as a painter and also as a sub wherever he's needed, from kitchen to day nursery. By now, he was probably out back on the soccer field, kicking his way past the other guys.
Gloom met me halfway down the street in the form of my least-favorite Mudflat council member.
“Hiya, Calus,” I said and tried to hurry past him.
He could have nodded or even pretended pleasantness and said hello. Instead, the jerk blocked the way, his expression grim, his eyebrows a straight line above his scowl. He is large and dark-haired, gray around the edges, body getting thick in the midsection, all acceptable, but he is also mean-tempered. And who needs that?
“Is that outsider still at your house?”
“My cat? An outsider? You may be right. It's a failure as a house cat.”
“You know who I mean, Carmody.”
Of course I knew, but why make it easy for him? I have a couple of newcomers living with me. In Mudflat, anyone who isn't actually born into one of the old families is considered an outsider.
“If you are referring to my friend, Nance, I'd guess she's at the grocery store burning holes in my credit card. If you mean her cousin, I can tell you absolutely that he is not at home painting my living room, even though that is where he should be.” I should have stopped there, but when people annoy me, I talk too much. I added, “Maybe he's out slaying more beasts and saving more of our neighbors. Ya think?”
“I know the story,” Calus said. “Why does anyone believe it?”
He had to be joking. Everyone knew that last winter neighbors had disappeared. When we found them, they were all in a kind of trance state. Their captor was a magic beast that nobody could identify, but it had killed a couple of them and was ready to start on the rest. So we did what we had to do, and how hard is that to figure out?
“They believe it because they saw it.”
“The kidnap victims were drugged or tricked or ill. They say that themselves. And when they regained consciousness, they saw some sort of dead animal lying on the ground. The outsider was standing by it, holding his sword, covered in cuts and bruises and blood, injuries that might result from a bad fall down a hillside overgrown with brambles. And you and your friends claimed this animal was magic, and that the outsider killed it and saved those people.”
I annoy kind of easily. Shouldn't have egged him on. “And your point is?”
“Very clever, but no one doubts that you are clever, Carmody. You thought up quite a trick to insure that your outsider friend is now considered some sort of hero.”
“How smart of me.” I smiled pleasantly at Calus. “I put a whole bunch of victims to sleep, clouded their minds, and made them imagine that a dead sheep was a winged beast twice as tall as a man. Wow, I must have more magic than I thought.”
In Mudflat, nobody ever has too much magic. Inherited magic is actually in short supply. It's genetic and shows up here and there the way other traits do, occasionally skipping generations. Lord knows it skipped Calus.
“I don't know how you worked your trick. All I know is that it is a trick. Conveniently, someone removed this dead animal, and so there is nothing to examine.”
“And you think I can make a corpse disappear?”
“Of course not,” he growled. “Someone else did.”
“Ah. And the woman who stabbed me and left me for dead and then fell to her own death from the roof of the Center? Do you have an explanation for that? Was she my imagination, also? Oh right, her corpse disappeared, too.”
He took a step closer, tried to do that glower thing, eyes narrowed, face hard. He wasn't very good at it. I work with teenagers every day at the Center. I've seen every variety of glare.
“There was a dead body, yes. And a cover-up because the Mudflat council doesn't want Seattle law enforcement involved. As for you being stabbed, I don't know. You had an injury. But we have only your word on how you received it.”
I couldn't help it, and I was so sorry, because I knew that my friend and boss at the Center would be disappointed by my behavior. Madeline puts lots of value on self-control. But there I was. Beyond control. Hey, maybe I'd been sniffing too much lavender.
I tried to hide my smile behind my hands, and then I made the mistake of looking at his face, mottled purple with fury.
And it hit me that he was one of those odd people who believes that all the problems of the world are caused by conspiracies. Lord, he probably even believes that every attack on the U.S. is caused by our own government to make voters accept huge military budgets.
My laughter exploded around my hands and filled my lungs and bent me double until I collapsed on the ground and sat in the middle of the sidewalk. Okay, dignity has never been one of my strong qualities.
From somewhere above me, Avery Calus kept shouting. “Claire Carmody, you listen to me! When that poor woman's relatives, wherever they are, learn that you were on the roof with her when she fell, they will demand justice. At that time, I will see to it that we publicly hear a complete explanation, and I do think your lies will be uncovered!”
I looked up at him, my eyes full of tears because that's how hard I was laughing.
Calus looked past me and clamped his mouth shut. To my surprise, he turned abruptly away, leaving me sitting on the sidewalk.
“My Claire, have you been telling lies again?” said the soft voice of my favorite person.
I wiped away tears and gulped back giggles.
I hadn't heard him approach, but there he was, dropping down beside me. He knelt and tilted his head to watch me, his yellow hair falling across his forehead, his blue eyes twinkling. Dressed in his usual jeans and blue tank top, his strong arms bare, his laughing face a bit flushed, he looked like he'd just jogged off the soccer field.
“Let me ask you this,” I said, then burst into hysterical laughter and could not speak.
He stood up, pulled me to my feet, and slid his arms around me. Tarvik is very good at using any excuse at all for hugging. We are the same height, but while I am thin and dark, he is solid muscle and as warm and golden as a sunbeam. He's shorter than most of the men in the neighborhood. From experience, they all know he is also stronger than they are. Plus, he's as sure-footed as a goat and as quick as a cat.
“Ask me anything at all,” he whispered against my ear. “Ask me how much I love you, ask me for a kiss, ask me to marry you today.”
I sniffed and gasped and must have been totally unappealing, with tears running down my face. But that's Tarvik. For some reason, he likes to kiss me no matter how disgusting I am, and around the kissing, he managed to brush back my long hair and wipe my face dry with the palms of his warm hands and still hold me. Sometimes I could swear he has a couple of extra hands.
When he finally held me away so that he could look into my face, he said, “Did I hear Calus call you a liar and do I need to go beat him up?”
“Depends on whether you agree with him. Tell me this, my hero, did you fall down a hillside of thorn bushes and then blame your injuries on some poor dead animal? And did I stab myself with my dinner knife?”
“I might be that clumsy, but not you. Your table manners are better than that.”
“I thought so, too.” I caught his elbow. “Come along, boyfriend.”
“Happy to follow you anywhere, but are you going to tell me why you were laughing at Calus?”
“I'm getting a stitch in my side from laughing. I can't repeat this story more than once. Let's go home and find Jimmy and Nance.”
He slid his arm around my waist, nudged my shoulder with his chin, and said softly, “Or better, maybe they won't be there, and I'll have you to myself?”