Between the Rock and a Hard Place (Book Excerpt)

sables-privateers-book-coverSpacefarers everywhere agreed: the Rock of Bral was a wretched den of vice, thievery and betrayal; the midden-pit of the Universe.  But everyone came there eventually.  That’s what Shaundar Sunfall was relying on.  Sooner or later, if his sister yet lived, she would come to this place.

He had been in port three months now, however, and he wasn’t sure he could wait here much longer.  The handful of coins he’d arrived with when he hit the shore had quickly dwindled away.  Shaundar had no idea how expensive everything was here.  The last time he had been on the Rock, he’d still been a member of the Imperial Elven Navy, and they’d seen to his needs at the base.  Now that he was officially a deserter, to return to the Navy would be to court death – or worse.  He shuddered at the memory, and his scarred back twinged painfully.

He was trying to find work along the dockyards.  Tug-jammer, loader, supply clerk, common labourer; he’d tried it all to no avail.  He’d even tried to get on at the Ironworks, no matter how horrible foundry work was to him.  It seemed that nobody but elves wanted to hire elves in the aftermath of the War, and they wanted to know why he wasn’t with the Navy.  And what could he tell them?  He made up a different excuse every time, but either he’d become a poor liar or they really didn’t care and just weren’t interested in hiring elves at all.  He couldn’t blame them, really.

He supposed that it didn’t help that he was drinking again.  But otherwise, he didn’t sleep.  This was already his second boarding house.  The first had dumped his belongings in the street, citing frequent screaming in the middle of the night as the reason for his eviction; and what could he say?  When he did sleep, his dreams were terrible and yes, more often than not he shrieked himself awake.  Better to drink himself into a stupor; at least he would get some rest, and he was a quieter tenant.  But, he hadn’t paid his rent yet this week and he knew eviction couldn’t be far off.  Since the meals were included with the rent, it had also been three days since he’d eaten.  He was trying to avoid it, but he knew if he got no work today, he would have to steal his dinner.

Not that dinner was anything to write home about (not that you have a home to write to, came the thought unbidden from the sludge of his subconscious; he clamped the lid down on that part of his mind as quickly as he could).  Greasy mutton, dried mushrooms, rotten potatoes and some tough, leathery substance that was likely horse-meat, lightly garnished with something that had probably been green once, usually stewed into an unidentifiable greyish slop.  He supposed he could expect no better, in this place where gold was supreme, and Raven Talon had taught him never to turn down a meal.  He was hungry enough now that grey slop would go over pretty well!  He’d certainly eaten worse.

Shaundar slugged along past the cathouses and opium dens, the taverns and the gambling holes, his hand firmly on his purse and his gaze fierce and wary.  He was big enough that most thieves and muggers thought twice about molesting him, and the visible scars and tattoos were a further deterrent.  All to the good.  A few of the whores blew kisses at him, but when they got a good look at his threadbare clothes and hungry eyes they pretended they were waving at someone else.  He chuckled cynically.  The Priestesses of Luthic would have taken his hand and drawn him into their sanctum.  They would have covered him with kisses and caressed him with their healing hands.  What interest could he possibly have in common whores by comparison?

With that thought, he immediately felt guilty.  What right did he have to think of anyone as “common whores?” How were they so different from him?  Actually, when you came right down to it, prostitution was certainly a much more honourable way to make a living than thievery; or soldiering, for that matter.  He just didn’t have what they needed.  He was lonely, that was all.

Realizing that thought stopped him in his tracks and doubled him over as though someone had stabbed him in the bowels.  Yes, crushing, overwhelming, heartbreaking loneliness.  His family, dead.  His betrothed, dead.  His adopted family and his lover forever separated from him by duty.  His whole planet, everything he ever knew from his childhood, gone.  Even the Navy that had given him purpose and a sense of belonging, denied him now due to personal honour, corrupted into something unrecognizable and tyrannous.  Had he spoken three words to anyone since his arrival on Bral, save “Are you looking for workers?”  Had anyone said a word to him, save, “Three silver, please,” or “You there!  Stop loitering!”?

What in the Demonweb was he even doing here?  Why had he chosen to turn his ship from the welcoming, incinerating heat of Tarrak Gar and Gruumsh’s Eye?  The vision of his sister was probably nothing more than desperate, mindless survival instinct, grasping and useless and empty of purpose or reason.

One of Bral’s enormous wharf rats strolled brazenly up to a barrel of waste behind a tavern and began to help itself to supper.

Shaundar considered it.  Rats, yes.  Very meaty.

He palmed his dagger, focused his gaze, made his hand stop shaking, and threw.  His aim was true.

He collected his dagger and the dead rat from the barrel, and he realized that there was a half-eaten bread trencher filled with stew sitting on top of everything.  And it was still steaming.  He ate it without hesitation and the head of a slightly mushy cabbage beneath it as well.  And then he felt better.

“Get out of here, you bum!” a surly voice snarled from the tavern door, as a scowling dwarf in an apron came to toss more garbage in the barrel.  He threw it carelessly and Shaundar had to dodge to avoid being splattered with the bones of some sort of fowl and a half-finished salad.

“Sorry,” Shaundar grunted.  His cheeks flushed with embarrassment.  But he took his dead rat all the same.  The fleas had already marched away from its corpse.  He hoped that they’d found a new home in the dwarf’s beard.

Part of the problem was the barrios.  Everyone kept to their own in the Low City of Bral.  He could see that he’d wandered into the Dwarven District and the spacefaring dwarves didn’t seem to have much use for elves anyway.  And the fact that he didn’t have a job was something that the hardworking people just didn’t understand; there was always work for dwarves with other dwarves, and what were you good for if you weren’t working?  The halflings (Shaundar preferred the term hin which he’d learned from his Torilian ancestors, but no one in space seemed to use that much) rightly didn’t trust anyone who wasn’t a halfling.  He’d tried his luck in Gifftown, figuring that there had to be some way to hook up with a mercenary company or something there, but he found that since he was an elf, no one took him seriously when he said he was a marine and they wouldn’t even let him prove himself.  And he didn’t speak Norse or Shou.

He bought a bottle of rum for the evening and as a light drizzle started he returned to his room, tromping up the three flight walk-up in a narrow alley; only to find that the lock on his door had been changed.

“Ye can have yer stuff back when ye’ve paid the rent,” snarled the landlord behind him, a human male with a thick black beard, a beer belly, and no concept of what soap or water were for.

Shaundar considered it but anger simmered deep in his belly.  “A full suit of armour is worth a lot more than five silver pieces,” he explained.

The landlord folded his thick arms.  “Guess ye’ll come up with it pretty fast then,” he grinned.  His teeth were like ship rails after a broadside.

Shaundar sighed.  “Let me trade you this bottle and some labour in the kitchen or something instead,” he offered.  “I peel potatoes pretty well; I’ve had lots of practice.”

The landlord’s grin widened.  “Five silver or sleep in the rain without yer stuff,” he insisted.

Shaundar studied the lock.  Yes, it was every bit as well made as the last one.

He aimed a well-placed kick at the mechanism with his heavy orcish war boot.  It snapped easily and the door banged open.

“Ye can’t do that!” the landlord roared.

Shaundar heard an inhalation and a grunt.  His brain instantly made the connection; he was about to be hit from behind with something heavy, probably in the head.  His training took over.  He managed to get his skull mostly out of the way as the sap fell.  It skittered off of his occipital bone, rather than caving it in, and as he came down and rolled widdershins it struck his left shoulder.  Something cracked and it went completely numb and dead, along with his entire left arm.  His vision doubled and blurred.  Shit, Shaundar thought irritably as his right arm came up to return the strike.  He saw the elbow heading for the landlord’s greasy throat, almost of its own accord, and when he realized at the last second that he was going to kill the man he diverted it and struck his jaw instead.  The bone shattered and three of his teeth popped out of his mouth as his eyes rolled up to show their whites.  He almost toppled from the landing, but Shaundar grabbed his shirt and eased him to the floor.  He regretted it instantly; the pain shooting up his arm and neck was excruciating.

Shaundar glanced around the shoebox of a room.  No, nothing appeared to be missing.  His spiked, red Bloodfist armour was still hanging on its rack, properly oiled and polished.  As the inevitable headache started to set in he put it on.  Between flashes of red and green accompanied by waves of pain and nausea, he gathered the last of his meagre possessions into his ragged haversack.  By some miracle the rum bottle had survived being dropped and not rolled off the landing, so he gathered it up too.  Briefly he considered leaving his tobacco in return for the back rent, but decided that trying to sap him with what he now could see was a bag of lead shot, spilled out next to the landlord’s hairy fist, voided any right to payment.  With his arm dangling uselessly Shaundar slung the bag over his right shoulder, hooked his helm onto his forearm by the strap, and staggered over the landlord’s beer belly, down the stairs and into the street.

Between the pain and the double vision he could barely see where he was going, and as flashes of red passed over his sight he forgot for brief seconds what he was doing.  Must have been hit pretty hard, he realized dimly in some dark recess of his aching mind.  Waves of nausea rolled in with the red vision, accompanied by a strange sense of unreality.  He remembered this sensation in a vague way from his training at Permafrost and again from his time in the Navy hospital.  He was going to be sick and useless for a while, and it was going to get worse before it got better.  Not to mention that the landlord was likely to be paying for protection and those “protectors” were likely to come looking for him.  And his arm was completely out of commission.  The sap must have broken his scapula or his collarbone.  He needed to find somewhere to hole up.

Shaundar wandered into the narrow alleyways and people gave him a wide berth.  Some of the whores even crossed the street to get away from him.  So be it.  He leaned against a wall at the corner of a tavern while a wave of illness washed through him, and continued when it passed.  Mostly he fled on pure instinct, heading for the dark and the quiet and as far away from the boarding house as possible.

Somewhere nearer to the docks he found a dark alley behind a stone building that was boxed in by enormous wine barrels, forming a protective barrier on three sides.  It was dry, didn’t appear to be well-frequented and there was no sign of cardsharps or beggars.  Perfect.  He crawled in behind the barrels.  He now felt as though he was trying to think through peas porridge, but he realized he had to do something about his arm.  Glad that he had rum to ease the pain, he pulled the cork free with his teeth and slugged back about a third of the bottle.  Then he dug the shabbiest of his three shirts out of his haversack (a process that took almost ten minutes with one hand and the throbbing, splitting headache) and tore it into strips to bind his arm up and against his body.  This required more creativity than Shaundar presently possessed, really, but finally he settled on using his right hand to force the fingers of his left hand to hook over the top of his breastplate, then pressing the arm up with his knees while he used his teeth to tie the sling.  When that was accomplished, he lay back against the soothing cold stone to ease the pounding in his head and the sickness in his belly for a few moments.  When the nausea eased he tipped back a little more of his painkiller, wishing fervently for quesstiasa or maybe even some blueglow moss liqueur, and he waited to see if he would survive the night.

*****

“There’s a drunk in the alley again,” Sally informed the madam, a pretty little gnomish whore with fiery red hair.

Molly looked up from her pipe and her book and sighed.  “Okay, I’ll take care of it,” she promised.  “Can you back me up?”

“Sure,” the leggy brunette agreed, hefting the heavy wrought-iron candelabra they kept by the back door strictly for this purpose.  “It’s raining; you might want your cloak.”

Molly rested her pipe on its gilded stand and stood up to shake out her skirt and pull up her red silk bustier.  She couldn’t blame the drunks for wanting to sleep in the back alley – it was quiet, dark, well-sheltered and relatively clean – but it was bad for business.  Often they muttered to themselves and they usually smelled terrible.  If they looked like they weren’t too dangerous she sometimes brought them in for a bath, and if they weren’t crawling with lice she would sometimes rub their shoulders.  It was amazing what simple touch could do to heal a wounded spirit.  “What do you make of this one?” she asked her companion as she drew her fox-fur cloak over her shoulders.

“Dangerous,” Sally confessed.  “Very dangerous.  Half-orc, maybe.  He’s wearing some spiked armour and he’s muttering and yelling in Orcish.”

Yelling; great.  That usually meant violence.  She pulled out her makeup compact and clutched her symbol of Sune in her hand as she intoned a prayer.  A flash of energy formed around her in a bubble and disappeared, though the lingering magic tickled her nose and the little hairs on her neck and arms.  She then spoke the same prayer again and touched Sally.

“Okay, let’s go,” Molly nodded, and they headed out the back door together.

It took a moment to adjust to the darkness, even for gnomish vision.  Sure enough, Molly saw steel-toed orcish war boots and bits of spiked armour on the prone figure behind the barrels.  An empty liquor bottle lay on the cobblestone and the aroma of rum and vomit permeated the air.  Strangely, though, the scent of orcish musk was faint.  The drunk was moaning incoherently; and the moans were suddenly interrupted by a roared diatribe in what sounded like the guttural orc tongue.  Sally cast the gnome a knowing look.

Molly met her gaze and nodded, and as Sally readied her improvised club, Molly reached out and gently shook one of the boots.  “Hey there honey,” she said.  He didn’t respond so she shook it harder.  “Hey,” she repeated.

The drunk bolted upright and was on his feet so quickly that Sally, no stranger to trouble, let out a little squeak and nearly dropped the candelabra.  His eyes were so wide and staring that Molly could see their whites.  He dropped immediately into a fighting stance that put his bound-up arm out of the way.  Molly was startled to realize that this was no half-orc; this was an elf!

The elven drunk in the orcish armour saw her face and something – was it recognition? – dawned in those frightened eyes.  “Molly?” he mumbled.  “It is Molly, right?  Where’s Garan and Yathar?”

He knows me, she realized.  Something about him was familiar, but she couldn’t place it.  “What are you talking about, sailor?” she inquired in a deliberately calm tone.  Sally lowered the candlestick ever so slightly.

He blinked, obviously deeply confused.  One eye wasn’t focusing properly.  Oh Hells, he’s had a stroke or something, Molly thought with alarm.  She’d heard of such things happening when a man had too much drink, though she’d never heard of it happening to an elf.  Still .  .  .

“Garan.  Yathar,” he said again.  “How about Tyeletae?  She’s the little ruffian with the crutches and one leg.”  He winced.  “Guess that giff hit me harder than I thought,” he admitted.  His voice was tinged with some guttural accent that she couldn’t place.  “Or was it the mind flayer?”  He blinked in bewilderment again and shook his head, which was immediately followed by a cringe and an inarticulate whimper.  “I need help,” he explained.  “Thoughts aren’t .  .  .  things aren’t .  .  .” His good hand went up to his head.

The connection struck her like a ballista bolt.  “My gods, honey,” she whispered, “what’s happened to you?”

“So you do know him?” asked Sally with a quaver of uncertainty.

“So do you,” Molly pointed out.  She put her hand on the orcish breastplate and the eye that was still properly focusing met hers.  The other made a gallant effort, but to no avail.  Yes, she remembered; it was those unusual eyes that had drawn her.  They were periwinkle blue with platinum sparkles, not silver, gold nor copper like the other elves of Realmspace.  “Come on in, sailor,” she invited.  “Let me take care of you.”

They brought him into the temple and laid him down on some pillows, where they stripped him of his armour and then his shirt so that they could get a look at the injuries.  His arm was purple from the shoulder to the bicep and his hand was swollen up like a giff’s.  There was a silver ring with a simple runic design on the forefinger; Molly didn’t think they’d get it off without wire cutters, and she seriously considered finding some because it was buried in the puffy flesh.  Sally winced.  “Good fight,” she remarked.  “You think that’s broken?”

“Definitely fractured anyway,” Molly agreed.  “Let’s hope it’s the shoulder and not the collarbone.  I’m going to give him some laudanum.”  She was a little afraid to do this; it could be dangerous, considering what he had already drunk, but she couldn’t see any other way to make the pain of her work tolerable.  “Here honey,” she exhorted, “drink some of this.”  She poured the laudanum into his mouth.

He made a face, and when she let him stop drinking it he swore in some language she couldn’t understand.  Sally was right; it sounded goblinoid to her.

Eventually he eased into a stupor, and then she dared to manipulate the shoulder.  It felt like the clavicle was still attached.  “Must be the shoulder-bone,” she nodded.

“Good; the clavicle never heals right,” Sally observed.  “Anything else?”

Molly ran her fingers through his golden hair, now partly sticky with vomit, and along his head and neck.  Sure enough, there was a goose egg rising on the back of his skull.  “Concussion, thank the Lady,” she sighed.  “Not a stroke.”  She examined his sensitive elven ears, and while she sighed at the black pearl on his earring (which explained a lot) and wondered where the whip scar had come from (which didn’t,) nothing else seemed freshly damaged.  It was amazing that he still had all his teeth, being a spacefarer.  Something gold glinted in one of his canines though.  Perhaps it had been damaged and repaired.

Sally dipped a cloth in a bowl of water and wiped away the vomit and the dirt from his upper torso.  She recognized the uniquely elven celestial compass tattoo on the peaches-and-cream skin, but there were flak marks, a triangular indent in his ribcage, and a crescent-shaped scar in the center of his muscular chest, still new enough that it was an angry pink.  Her eyes widened.  “The Elven Navy kids!” she exclaimed.  “The ones who got into that brawl with Lars the Dark!  This was the handsome young mage, wasn’t it?”

Molly nodded.  “The one I singled out as most in need of a blow job.”

Sally sighed as she began to go over his torso with exploratory fingers.  “You think that earring explains where his friends are?” she inquired sadly.

Molly nodded.  “His ship went down and he didn’t.  Probably.”

Sally shook her head.  “I hope that brave little gold elf girl didn’t go down with it,” she murmured wistfully.  “Did you see her beat that giff with her crutch?”

They shared a laugh.  “Right in the gonads,” Molly agreed.

Sally shook her head.  “Wow, he has to have put on about eighty pounds.  Filled out nicely for an elf.  What happened, did he lose his wizard abilities or something?”

Molly shook her head, at a loss.

“Nothing here,” the woman reported as her hands finished their assessment.  “Let’s get his trousers off.”

His legs seemed all right too; something they hadn’t been sure of by the way he had staggered into the temple.  There was an old scar that looked like a bad break in his upper thigh, the type where the bones pierce the skin and leave rough muscle.  Nothing wrong below the waist that she could see either, except some bedbug bites, easily enough taken care of with prayer.

“Okay, help me sit him up so that I can check his ribs and his spine,” Molly requested, and Sally helped pull him into a sitting position.  Molly put her hand to her mouth and gasped in horror.  “Oh my gods,” she whispered.

“What is it?” Sally demanded.

“Come see,” Molly urged behind her lacquered nails.  Sally made sure that Molly had him propped up and then she came around to look.

Both of them stared in shock at the mess of scarring.  Molly had seen whip scars before.  Come to think of it, this elf showed some thin white ship discipline marks when she’d met him the first time.  But now his body hadn’t been whipped, it had been flayed.  Most of his back was marred with scar tissue that crawled in thick, raised angry red ridges that tangled and spread like tree roots.  He was lucky he hadn’t died of the gangrene.  She knew they likely still caused a lot of itching and pain.

Sally hitched in her breath.  “Damn!  This poor lad!  Is there anything you can do for him?”

Molly shook her red curls around her like a mane.  “No, they’re basically healed.  It would take a regeneration prayer and I don’t dare risk it now.”  She ran her fingertip lightly over one crawling mark that bisected a tattoo of a gammaroid, a giant turtle-like creature, with silver and golden auras that adorned his right shoulder.  “Golden Shellback,” she breathed.  “How about that?”

The brunette bit her lip.  “He’s obviously been across the Flow to Hell and back.”

The gnome ran her fingers down his spine and along his ribs.  The task was made considerably more difficult by the horrific scarring, but she was able to determine that though some of the joints between his vertebrae were a little swollen (arthritis from old injuries, she wondered?) there were no broken bones.

“Okay, I think it’s safe to cast the healing,” she decided.  “Can I get you to pour him a bath, lovey?”

Sally eased the spacer back down to rest his head on Molly’s lap.  “Sure I can,” she agreed, standing up carefully in her sharp heeled boots.  “We should get him some new clothes if we can too.  I can get Anna to wash them, but they’re basically falling apart.”

“We’ll find him something in the meantime,” Molly promised.  She ran her fingers gently over the side of his face.  He moaned low in his throat and mumbled, “Narissa.”  Molly remembered this was the name of the lovely flaxen-haired elf maid that was his betrothed, the one who’d ended the fight by threatening to blast the smugglers with a lightning bolt.  How in love they’d been!  Such a cute couple!  But she couldn’t help but notice the golden heart charm resting at the hollow of his throat; a filigreed, dainty piece of jewellery much more suited to an elven lady than to this hardened spacefarer; and if she remembered correctly, the last time she’d seen it, his flaxen-haired elf maid had been wearing it.

“Gods watch over you and heal you,” Sally prayed as she invoked the power of her goddess.

*****

“You’re in pretty rough shape, teu’revanthas,” Yathar told Shaundar in a worried voice.

Shaundar looked up at him from the bath that Molly, the pretty gnomish trollop, had poured him into.  “Everything hurts,” he admitted.

“Molly will take care of you,” his blood brother assured him, his gold-speckled green eyes twinkling.

“Hang in there, mate,” said Garan bracingly, flashing his trademark grin.  “It will get better.”

“Where is everyone?” demanded Shaundar, suddenly struck with a premonition of disaster.  He bolted upright and Yathar and Garan disappeared.

For a moment there was a strange doubling of his vision.  He wondered how it was that his shipmates had just suddenly vanished, along with the water in the tubs.  Then he realized that he wasn’t where he’d thought he’d been; though it was similar, things were in slightly different places and the dimensions of the bathroom were different.  He wondered what had happened to Garan and Yathar; and then he remembered.  They were dead.

Everything that had happened came flooding back to him then at once and despair ground his heart into the ground like an orcish war boot.  He put his face in his hands.  Oh teu’revanthas, how I miss you, he mourned in his guilt and his grief.  Tears came unbidden but he covered his face with a wet cloth and smothered them.

He snapped into focus when he heard footfalls approaching, and in that second he felt his mind list to port as he saw the very gnomish harlot he thought was bathing him not long before.  He shook his head and blinked to banish the phantom as his shipmates’ phantoms had been banished, and when he opened his eyes she was still there.  She had some very fluffy and inviting towels loaded in her arms and she was studying him with deep green-black eyes full of concern.  “How’re you doing, sailor?” she asked him with genuine feeling.  It had been so long since he had heard the sound of a voice that cared whether he lived or died that he had to swallow back tears again.

“Molly?” he whispered incredulously.

She placed the towels on one of the high-backed wooden chairs (a memory of Tyeletae seated on one of them with the stump of her leg dangling over the side, as Yathar tenderly helped her undress bobbed unbidden to the surface and his kicked it back below furiously) and came to wrap her tiny hand with its lacquered nails over his bicep, covering part of his Black Arrows tattoo.  He flinched uncontrollably and immediately regretted it.  How long had it been since anyone had touched him with any gentleness?  (Another memory was conjured from the subconscious depths of his mind, this one of jade-green orcish skin and intoxicating musk and jasmine, and he wrestled it immediately back into the dark as well.)  He expected the pretty gnome to jerk back, but she didn’t.  Her rouged lips thinned and her eyes softened and she rubbed at the muscle instead; which he discovered was tense and sore only when some of that went away.  “I’m pleased you remember me well enough to remember my name, honey,” she simpered, “but I don’t think I ever did learn yours.”  Her eyes encouraged him to fill in the blanks.

Upon closer study, he realized that Molly didn’t look quite the way he remembered her.  Those lovely emerald eyes were framed with tiny wrinkles that hadn’t been there before; faint, but present.  When those almost invisible lines crinkled in puzzlement he understood that he was being rude.  He was alarmed when he found that he had to think about the answer.  “Shaundar,” he said at last.  “My name is Shaundar Sunfall.”

“Nice to re-meet you, Shaundar,” she smiled.

“Where in the Hells am I, Molly?” he burst out in his confusion.

She blinked, and then she shook her head.  “I’m sorry!  I didn’t even realize how disorienting this must be for you.  You’re in the Temple of Lady Firehair.  On the Rock of Bral,” she added when she saw he was even more confused.  “We moved here about three years ago because business on Dragon Rock sort of dried up.”

“How did I get here?” he demanded.  He couldn’t remember anything past the point when he had kicked in the door of his room.

She shrugged.  “I’m not sure, sweetie.  Sally found you in the back alley.  We thought you were a drunk,” she explained apologetically.  “You had a demon of a bump on your head and your shoulder was broken.”

Ah, a concussion.  That explained much.  “Did you heal me?”

“Not me, dear,” Molly clarified, “Lady Firehair.  But I asked her to.”

He smiled.  Someone had cared enough to pray for him.  That was a great feeling.  “I’m in your debt,” he confessed.

She waved a hand impatiently.  “Of course you aren’t.”  They fell silent, unsure of what to say next.  After a moment, Molly picked up a sponge and some black-dyed soap that smelled faintly of licorice.  “Wash your back?” she offered.

He twitched.  And let her see the scars?  “No thank you,” he refused uncomfortably, trying to press his back into the porcelain.

Her eyes softened again.  “Who do you think undressed you, spacer?” she asked directly.  “I promise I’ll be gentle.”

Shaundar’s face flushed with embarrassment.  But obediently he leaned forward so that she could wash his back.

Molly soaped up the sponge and ran it tenderly over the marks and in the spaces between.  She really was very gentle.  The pain was no sharper than pricking his finger with a needle.

“If you want to talk about it, I’m here to listen,” she offered in a quiet, soothing voice.

He closed his eyes.  What was there to say?

“You don’t have to,” she added hastily.  “Just telling you I’m willing.”

“That’s good to know,” he breathed.  As an afterthought he added, “Thank you, Molly.”  Still self-conscious, he swallowed sharply and confessed, “I have no money to pay you for this.  I could probably .  .  .”

“We still operate mostly on donation,” she interrupted him, “but I wasn’t asking.  Seems to me we owe you something more than a bath for that donation you gave us last time anyhow.”

Shaundar smiled.  Yes, that was right.  He’d had prize money burning a hole in his pocket and had given much of it to the Temple-Brothel; which was a damn sight better than what had happened to the rest of it – buying horses from the populace of Leira so that the Navy could repel the Scro Invasion there.  “Thank you,” he said again.  His voice broke.  He cleared his throat.

His back washed, she filled a basin and rinsed him.  Immediately the damaged nerves started itching with the change in temperature.  He tried not to twitch.  “Wash your hair?” Molly offered, and Shaundar, past protesting, leaned back his head and let her pour the water over him.  As she scrubbed soap into his scalp – a joy that made him bite his lip to avoid moaning in delight – she met his gaze from above him and inquired, “You need a place to stay?”

He sighed.  “I’ll manage.”

“Well,” she went on, “it’s no charity I’m offering you.  We’re priestesses but we are in the Universe’s oldest profession.  We could use some protection.  I don’t know what they feed you boys in the Navy,” she ran her hand over his shoulder and arm, giving it an affectionate and appreciative squeeze, “but you look like an elf you might not want to mess with.  And I guess they trained you to fight if someone was stupid enough to start something, didn’t they?”

Well, didn’t that beat all?  She was offering him a job!  He smiled.  “Gul; av, they did.”  When she fluttered her eyelashes at him his grin widened and he added, “It would be my honour to protect the ladies of the Temple, Molly.”

“Glad to hear it,” she beamed.  Then she kissed him.

He kissed her back.  She didn’t protest.  Quite to the contrary; she pressed her face to his and touched his lips with her tongue until they parted and their tongues danced a maypole dance together.  They eventually drew apart, and Molly’s smile was welcoming and her eyes were sparkling like a nebula.  “Let me finish rinsing your hair, sailor,” she murmured, “and then I’ll give you a proper welcome.”

For Molly’s part, she marvelled afterwards that those calloused and scarred hands could be so gentle and diffident.  For Shaundar’s, he fell asleep immediately in the afterglow for fifteen hours without a single dream to trouble him.

– from Sable’s Privateers (Toy Soldier Saga book 3).

Diane MorrisonDiane Morrison (Sable Aradia) is a non-fiction and speculative fiction author.  Her first National Novel Writing Month project was the Spelljammer novel A Few Good Elves (self-published to e-book format 2012).  Her related short story, “Survivor,” was published in the August 2013 issue of Separate Worlds magazine, and her first non-fiction book, The Witch’s Eight Paths of Power will be published by Red Wheel / Weiser in September of this year.  Catch up on her ongoing Spelljammer novel series, the Toy Soldier Saga, at her website.

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3 comments on “Between the Rock and a Hard Place (Book Excerpt)

  1. Pingback: Between the Rock and a Hard Place (Book Excerpt) | Confessions of a Geek Queen

  2. Pingback: Book Excerpt: Between the Rock and a Hard Place | Diane Morrison

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