Giant magical snails aren’t exactly at the top of the list of heroic quests. But the village of Dun Nas needs help, and Aric needs money: being a legendary swordsman might be nice, but so is getting paid. Anyway, snails -- even giant ones -- aren’t anything he can’t handle, especially with his half-fairy partner Emrys. Together, the Storm-Wielder and the Shadow can fight anything, or so the stories say.
But this job’s more complicated than it seems. The lake holds a dangerous magical mystery. Aric trusts Emrys with his life -- but he’d also love to offer his heart, and he doesn’t know whether Em feels the same. Em isn’t human, after all ... and has a few secrets of their own.
Awash in pale grey twilight, the fields of Dun Nas were utterly desolate: wilted, depressed patches that had once been productive, now limp and brown and pathetic. The crops were clearly dead; Aric was in no respect a farmer, but he could tell devastation when he saw it.
Emrys looked at it all, made a face, and wandered in what seemed like a distracted fashion across ruined ground. Aric watched for a moment, partly to see if Em would beckon him and partly because Emrys from the back, in whatever the shape of the day might be -- at the moment male, sometimes female, sometimes someplace in between, enchantment in motion and glitteringly luscious -- was worth watching, focused and capable and graceful as fairy-mounds at dusk.
Em didn’t wave him over, though, so whatever’d captured that intent attention, it hadn’t been urgent. That being the case, Aric went back to gloomily contemplating smudges and smears and gastropod grease. Glistening trails stretched back behind the village, toward the lake, which also happened to be the direction Em had gone.
Aric scuffed one of the shining patches experimentally with a boot. They were indeed large. And sticky. “They come out at night?”
“In the early morning.” The young councilor eyed Aric’s boot, and then eyed Aric’s sword, and then blurted out, “Is that the Stormblade?” in the manner of someone who’d been trying very hard not to ask ever since first setting eyes on the hilt.
Aric lifted both eyebrows at him. “What do you think?” The answer was, like most things, complicated. And probably not what the young man wanted.
“You’ve been listening to bards, haven’t you?”
“Reading chronicles?” The boy -- he wasn’t, but his voice sounded like one, just then -- had evidently decided that asking questions outweighed any trepidation about actually speaking to two legendary mercenaries. “And all the stories talk about you and the Stormblade and how you defeated the ogre of Sant-Micheline and the way the lightning came down and how your witch took it and --”
“Sorry!” The young man bit his lip. “Was that wrong? I know in some places it’s --”
“Not as polite? It’s not. But Em’s not a witch.”
“Oh. Then what ... a mage, or an alchemist, or ... something else?”
“Let’s go with ... something else.” Aric glanced at Emrys, and the lake, again. He had learned long ago that it was best not to try to explain. “Have you seen where your snails come from? Or where they go? By the way, what was your name?”
“Er ... Gildas? And ... er ... we don’t entirely know? But we’ve had guards posted.” Gildas looked over at the lake, too. “They come up out of the water. And go back into it, when they’re done. But if anyone tries to follow, they’re just gone.”
“So you haven’t been able to find a source.”
“No. And that land is treacherous, on the far side. Bogs. Sinkholes.” Gildas paused. “Places where both my younger brothers managed to break their ankles, daring each other to explore.”
Aric, whose own younger brother had gone down to Ambrosium to work -- profitably, given Berd’s artist’s hands and painter’s eye for color, and a bit of starting-out money from Aric’s own earnings -- as one of the new capital’s architects and mappers-out of city streets, said, “Mine once tried to pierce his own ears with a sewing needle, because he’d seen a bard with earrings and liked them.”
Gildas laughed, a bit wistfully. “Family. But that’s why we need you, you see. It’s all our families, here. Oh -- should we warn your ... your partner? ... that that ground’s unstable?”
“Emrys will be fine.” Aric poked a clump of slime again, with caution. “I take it you’ve tried salt and sage?”
And Gildas now looked very surprised. But he chose to answer as if he’d expected a mercenary fresh from the Highland feuds to know something about little country magics and herb-lore. “Yes. Some of the snails died, but more just kept coming. As if they didn’t even notice.”
“Or like something’s driving them.”
Gildas’s face became a portrait of utter tragic despair. “There’s something else?”
“It’s a theory.” In the distance, Emrys turned and began heading back, steps as soundless and precise as ever. He’d found something, Aric guessed, from the angle of his head, the light tension in thin shoulders. Wind tugged his hair upward briefly, a few short black strands standing up in spikes.
Aric appreciated that for a moment. His own hands knew the way that shining halo of hair felt, gathered up; his skin knew the brush of it against his shoulder, stomach, thighs.
He made himself stop thinking about that. Not the time. Or the place.
Even if it would fit in well with the whole virile mercenary reputation. Or at least the stories about devotion between the Storm-Wielder and the Shadow, which’d been the names bestowed on them by a grateful bard the year before. They’d heard that ballad for the first time in a tavern in Caer Moranth, a few weeks after that rescue.
Em had, with complete delight, paid the minstrel to sing it three more times that night, and then had asked gleefully, up in their room, whether Aric could in fact shake their world with thunder.
He’d done his best, naturally.
He said, “Do you have someplace we can stay, for the night? Your inn, maybe, preferably with food?” He also hoped no one in Dun Nas took enough exception to uncouth hired mercenaries to declare that there’d be no rooms available.
He and Em could sleep on the ground; they’d done it before, and would again, most likely. He’d been looking forward to a bed, though.
Gildas’s whole face lit up, a beacon. “Of course you can stay! And thank you!”
“We haven’t done anything yet.”
“But you’re willing to try!”
“It’s more than we had before you arrived.”
“We might still decide to leave.”
“We won’t,” Emrys said, arriving. He -- and it was he, at the moment; that was generally the case when venturing into a new town -- ran a hand through his hair, making it stand up more; he’d rolled up both sleeves, and mud splashed his boots. Just now he looked more human than not, and entirely adorable, if the word could be said to apply to someone carrying that many knives.
Gildas looked at Aric, with much the same expression as a puppy begging for a scratch behind the ears.
“Oh, well, in that case,” Aric said. “Fine, yes, we’ll see what we can do.”