by Ian Kitley
Set within the world of The Four Pillars, an upcoming novel by LA Harper
Ian Kitley and LA Harper formed a close-knit writing and editing team in the early days of the pandemic. Since then, they have been working together to push each other in their endeavours to craft tales and eventually reach the vaunted heights of publication.
Together with several others, they form the Inkwell writing collective (https://disboard.org/server/790367306189373440), publishing monthly short story anthologies, available through Amazon for the low price of nothing, and generally having a good time doing what they love. They can both be found and followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/IanKitley and https://twitter.com/LAHarper10.
“Day Off” is a collaboration between the two authors. The world is the creation of Harper and features the main character, Cerylia, of her upcoming dark fantasy novel ‘The Four Pillars’. Kitley turned his skill with words towards crafting a prequel to that epic tale, and showing that our fae protagonist is not all hard shell. If you liked this, pick up the third Inkwell anthology, ‘Early for Eternity’ (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09418Y52P), for an excerpt from the novel and a glimpse at another side of Cerylia’s world.
A cool breeze rustled the branches high above, causing the patterns of light that dappled the leaves to dance in intricate and interweaving designs. The heat of late summer hung over the woods, a blanket that draped itself across the meadows and glades, crushing the flora to permeate the air with a heady perfume. All around, the sounds of a world indulging in a mid-afternoon nap drift to the ear, peaceful and surreal.
Of course, Cerylia was only paying peripheral attention to any of this. Her focus was entirely on the hive high above her, the buzzing of the bees a chaotic rhythm that took all her attention to track and evaluate. If she could just figure out how many there were up there, she could estimate the difficulty in achieving her goal.
And she would achieve her goal. That wasn’t even a question. She’d been craving some wild honey ever since the steward had offered it up for dessert the last time she was forced to dine with Marzanna. She’d indulged then, but she would not allow herself to just waltz into the kitchens and ask for some more. She was a trainee in the guard, not Marzanna’s ward, and she should act like it. Plus, if she brought some back for her fellow trainees, it would smooth some ruffled wings. Something she was all too good at causing.
So here Cerylia was, earning that honey for herself, waiting on an opening. The breeze continued to blow, ruffling her long, thick brown hair and carrying the sound of her enemies to her. Five minutes, ten minutes, she waited and watched. Then, she spotted it, a break in the patrols by the sentries. Bees may coordinate their efforts in a way Cerylia all but envied, but even they had their lazy and exhausted drones. Mistakes were bound to be made, and she had found one she could capitalise on.
Two more repetitions, twenty more minutes of patient waiting, and the fairy was confident she was prepared for this. Drawing the sword that rarely left her side, Cerylia crouched, extended her wings, and narrowed eyes. The world collapsed around her, filtering down to just her, the hive, and the buzzing of the colony. The sentries past the point she’d identified. She tensed. The gap appeared. She launched into the air, wings a blur of motion.
The guard-in-training excelled in many of the exercises the trainers put her class through. One in which few could compete with her was flight, and the speed that she was so well known for was on full display. Darting up, quicker than most eyes could follow, Cerylia flashed in through one of the hive’s entrances, surging towards a shard of honeycomb. A worker, unaware of the attacking force, nearly clipped her on its way past, but she dodged it effortlessly, performing a deft pirouette in the process.
With a flick of her wrist, the blade swept through the upper reaches of a comb, detaching it from the rest of the hive. The gorgeous gooey expanse dropped towards the opening in the bottom of the structure, and Cerylia swung towards the next target. To be confronted with a swarm of sentries barrelling towards her. Contemplating her options, she came to an abrupt decision. Sure, she could increase her size, demolishing the hive in the process, and trouncing the bees, but that wasn’t her or her people’s way. She was here for one thing and one thing only.
Rolling into a pike turn, Cerylia dove after the falling sweetness, executing a strategic retreat to retrieve her prize. Like a bolt of lightning, her armour gleaming in the sunlight, she plummeted through the air, waiting just long enough to clear the hive before she forced the tiniest amount of her will into her shards. The shift in mass and size as she grew large enough to grab the comb would typically have thrown off her flight, but seeing as she was just falling, it made no difference.
Grabbing the sticky treat, she rolled to the right and allowed her wings to snap out, catching the air and allowing the fairy to glide into a new flight path. The sentry drones were utterly outmatched, already far behind her, and, with only a few swift beats of the glimmering extensions of her freedom, she left them with little to chase but the musical chimes of triumphant laughter.
Sitting by the edge of the lake, Cerylia stared out at the far off mountain peaks. More than half the comb lay in the grass beside her, wrapped in a broad leaf she had scavenged during her flight. As much as she had craved the honey a short time ago, it wasn’t what she’d really been after. What she’d wanted was some excitement, the thrill of battle, to feel like she was being tested by someone or something that could push her to excel. She wanted to be the best, needed to be the best, which meant never missing an opportunity to get better.
Except, she couldn’t do that today. Or, rather, she had to find ways to do it by herself. Guard Captain Khors had ordered her to take the day off and forbade anyone in the palace or part of the guard to assist her in training. And what was worse was that Marzanna had backed him up on it. So, now she sat, with nothing but time on her hands. Hands that strangled the stalks of the reeds in frustration. They wouldn’t even let her into the training rooms to work on her own.
So, when Toberon found her half a span later, it was to discover her hacking away at the offending lake foliage, attempting to work up a sweat at the very least.
“Hail, Cerylia’aeva. I believe those reeds have suffered enough for their insult to your person.”
Cerylia shifted her stance and leapt into the air, fluttering her wings for just a second before shooting forward to slash as broad a swathe as possible within the patch she’d chosen. Sliding to a halt on the far side, she considered her work, wiping the faint trail of sweat from her brow. It could have been better, but it wasn’t as bad as the previous three attempts, so she could accept it. Finally taking the time to acknowledge her fellow trainee, she realised he was kitted out much like she, ready for battle. Maybe she would have a worthy opponent after all.
“Toberon’finim, I see you and you are welcome, especially if you are willing to replace my erstwhile opponent. I believe they are no more willing to put up much of a defence.” She bared her teeth in a grin, unaware of just how frightening she looked when she did so, her eyes sparking in anticipation.
Toberon immediately put his hands up, the bulky fairy well aware that though he might be a challenge for her most days, in the mood she was in he’d be a fool to battle without practice weapons. Even with them, he’d have had to be careful not to leave the fight on a stretcher, rather than on his feet. “No, no, aeva, nothing of the sort. I’d just come to see if you wanted company on your day off, that is all. Please, put your blade down and let us talk.”
Cerylia growled in frustration, the noise sounding strange in the high notes of the fairy. She didn’t want to talk; she wanted to train. Maybe she could coax him into it. “If you won’t choose to spar with me, how about I make it interesting. There is most of a honeycomb on that leaf by the water. You spar with me, and beat me, and it’s yours. You lose, you help me retrieve more, and we return to the barracks to share with the rest of the squad.” There, that should do it. And when she won, she’d get the best of all worlds. A fight, a raid, and a sweet treat.
She watched Toberon’s gaze linger on the comb, knowing just how much he valued such a prize. The battle that played out upon his features was almost comical. She knew he would cave to her will, seeing it as a win for everyone, no matter what happened. /You might want to rethink that price/, she thought to herself, the predatory thought causing her lips to curl. Suddenly his expression changed, and he seemed almost gleeful at a thought.
“What if I could provide you with what you’re looking for, without fighting you? Would that be enough to win the comb?” She wasn’t sure if he was asking or pleading for her to agree.
“It depends. I’m willing to listen to your proposal at least.” Sheathing her sword, she motioned him to join her by the water, the two taking the time to walk the short distance instead of flying. Their commander had taught them the value of conserving energy when they could, and they’d taken it to heart.
Toberon clattered down to the ground, his armour not made for him to sit like this. Cerylia was lithe in comparison, having perfected the art, as she’d done with all movements. When he looked up, it was to meet her gaze, which held his expectantly. He waited for her to ask the question, but instead she left it hanging in the silence.
“Well, Cerylia, you see, I heard from some guards at the entrance to the city that a bear cub has been spotted in the woods, wandering around as if lost. No-one has seen its mother, so the assumption is that it is orphaned. Normally, no-one would worry about the cub, but it has been getting closer to the outlying settlements, and there are fears it will damage property or even kill the unwitting. A force is being put together to drive it away, but …”
“But, you were thinking that the two of us, with our shard magic, could do the job just as well.” Cerylia put on a contemplative tone in an attempt to hide her glee. A true test of her skill, against a creature that could swallow her whole. Killing it would be difficult, but it was innocent, so they would need to drive it off instead. Preferably in such a way as to ensure it didn’t return. And that was the real challenge here.
Toberon was saying something, but Cerylia was barely listening, consciously only picking up enough to nod her head in the right places. Reaching behind her, she tore off a large chunk of the comb. Toberon’s voice trailed off. Returning her focus to him, she offered the treat. “I find your terms largely acceptable, finim, but here is my counter offer. You get this piece now, and the rest when I’m sure this threat is what you say it is. Deal?”
The bigger trainee stared at the hunk hungrily and nodded, now the one barely focusing on words. Cerylia chuckled as she handed over the chunk. She knew how to play the crowd better than Marzanna thought. Give them what they want, and they’ll do almost anything for you.
“I take it that’s a ‘yes’?”
“So, where is it then?” They were nearing the outskirts of the woods and had yet to see any sign of this mythical bear cub. Cerylia was starting to think that Toberon had misled her, but she quickly waved away that idea as foolish. This was Toberon; he didn’t play cards because he was morally against it; he didn’t play because he had a poker face a baby could read.
“It must be here somewhere. The guards said it was on the southern edge of the woods, I’m sure,” Was that sweat Cerylia could see speckling Toberon’s brow. They’d been moving quietly, so it was possible but unlikely. She stopped beside a thicket of berry bushes, taking the opportunity to pick a large and juicy looking one as she waited for her fellow trainee to realise he was all alone. She was surprised it only took him half a minute.
“You have no idea where it’s supposed to be. Or, you aren’t lying about being told the cub was spotted here, but don’t know the first thing about how to track it.” She hung there in the air, hip cocked and savouring the tang of the berry as she took a big bite out of it.
“No, I swear it, it’s supposed to be here. It was here yesterday. They …” Toberon darted from side to side, craning his neck in search of the cub. Swinging to face Cerylia, he suddenly stopped, jaw slack and eyes staring.
Cerylia gave him a baleful glare. She’d suspected he was interested in her, but of all the times and all the poses for him to be googly-eyed about her, this really wasn’t…
Hot air washed over the fairy, the scent of carrion and the berries she was eating saturating her senses. Her small form drifted forward in response and, when she moved to slip her sword from its sheathe, Toberon shook his head vigorously.
For once, Cerylia chose to follow his advice, hanging there, motionless except for her wings. The rustle of branches accompanied a soft chuff, and a presence intruded on the edge of her senses, slowly growing ever nearer. Just as the tension reached a breaking point, Cerylia’s form was once more shifted forward as something wet prodded the back of her breastplate.
Just as she’d been trained to do, she let the momentum of the push spin her gently on her axis until she was facing her aggressor. Poking out between the bushes was a furry scruff of patchwork brown fur around the muzzle of what she assumed to be the elusive bear cub. From the position of its nose, she was pretty sure of what had prodded her and was now scenting the air as the beast followed the direction of her trajectory. As it cleared the cover of the bushes, she could tell that the cub was almost ready to be out on its own but probably still lacked the skills to forage for itself. The slight emaciation of its form and the dirty, matted fur seemed to be further confirmation of these thoughts.
Fluttering her wings a little faster, Cerylia increased the space between herself and the cub, only for the obscenely large creature to speed up to keep pace. It seemed intent on reaching her and, just as she was wondering why that would be, its long tongue licked out and across its lips, teeth bared. The small amount of terror that had gripped Cerylia at the sight of the beast looming over her instantly vaporised to be replaced by anger. She was no-ones and nothings meal, and this overgrown furball wasn’t going to change that.
Before she could draw her weapon, Toberon slipped in front of her, his own blade already free, and pointed at the cub threateningly. In an amused aside, she noted he’d fed a little of his will into his own shards, allowing the guard trainee to literally puff himself up, exactly as she expected the cub to do when threatened. The creature’s eyes crossed as it attempted to focus on the fairy, who was waving his blade around theatrically.
“Stay…stay back, beast! We have come to drive you from these lands and shall not be swayed from our duty. Retreat, and we shall not be forced to hurt you.” By the Mother, what was the fool up to? This wasn’t a duel or some story out of history. Creatures of the forest didn’t care one wit about pretty words or chivalrous actions. They ate, they slept, and they made new life. Everything else was incidental. She drew her own blade and prepared to save the idiot from himself.
The cub appeared to have reached a similar conclusion to hers. Either that or it was just upset something had gotten between it and its prey. Raising up onto its hind legs, it let loose a roar that would have been cute under other circumstances and then fell forward to crush Toberon under its front paws. The fairy stood his ground, either too scared or preparing some stupidly heroic strike that he was sure would end the fight quickly. Cerylia wasn’t waiting to find out.
Barreling into his back, avoiding crushing his wings in the process, she pushed him out of the cub’s path; her sword held out and to her side. She felt the satisfying pressure and smelt the copper notes that filled the air as the blade ran across the beast’s snout as it passed by and the exhilaration that always filled her when battle commenced sang in her heart. This was what the day had been missing, a true challenge to make the blood boil.
“What are you doing, aeva? It is my duty to—“ Cerylia didn’t wait for Toberon to finish that sentence. It didn’t matter that she was his equal, if not his better, among the trainees. None of them seemed to be able to see past the guardianship that had been a part of her life for so many years. Who cared that the queen viewed her like a daughter? She was her own woman, and she planned to prove it every chance she got.
“Are you going to float there like a useless will-o’-the-wisp, or are you going to help me in driving this pest from our lands?” Cerylia called back as she darted across the top of the beast’s neck, letting her blade flash out to elicit another bark of pain. The cub whipped its head back to snap at her tiny form, but she was far too quick, an annoying mosquito that was gone before the injury registered, her laughter the only other sign of her passing. This is how these things went. Quick thrusts, multiple wounds, bleed, and annoy the enemy until they ran, if that was the goal.
As she flipped around and dove to slice at an ear, she saw Toberon charge for the cub’s muzzle, aiming to keep its attention on him, she supposed. For the briefest of moments, worry gripped her throat, but the beast was still distracted after her previous attack, and so it didn’t notice the fairy until he was almost upon it. His attack struck it square in the jaw, and she was sure she saw a tooth knocked loose by the flat of his blade. The creature wobbled from the blow but still stood, barely acknowledging the slash she landed on the way past.
When she turned once more, the grin that was hurting her cheeks froze in place. The bear cub appeared to have shaken off her compatriot’s attack and anger or fear burnt behind its eyes. Toberon, once more foolishly facing it head-on, was focused on its gaze, attempting to cow the creature with his puny size. Which was why he never saw the paw that whipped in to send him plugging into the dirt, creating a divot with the help of his armour.
To Cerylia, this all happened in slow motion, her mind unable to send commands fast enough to respond. When time returned to normal, she was already on the move, aiming to intercept the cub as it made to follow-up on its prone victim. Summoning her will, she threw it into the shards woven into her armour, increasing her size so that it rivalled the cub. Her wings shrunk as she did so, but the momentum she’d accumulated already allowed her growing form to continue barreling through the air until she slammed into the cub’s side.
The impact sent the two of them tumbling through the undergrowth until Cerylia’s slighter form became caught up in berry bushes. The cub continued rolling a dozen feet further until it slid to a stop at the base of a tall oak. It lay still, occasionally whining pitifully, but otherwise still alive.
Cerylia’s heart raced, adrenaline forcing all her senses into hyper-focus and the world to sparkle with crystal clarity. Her body ached, and the gash in her arm, from where a branch had gotten under her bracers, dripped blood, but she was otherwise unharmed. The battle had changed from running the cub off to protecting Toberon. That needed to be her first priority. Pulling herself from the bushes, she limped to stand between her fellow trainee and the cub. It would need to get through her to get to him.
“Are you alright, finim?” She never took her eyes off her opponent as she asked, hoping Toberon would give some sign of his predicament. She got a sign, though a groan was not much to go on. So she repeated the question as the cub began to get back to its feet, shaking its head in an attempt to regain its wits.
This time she heard cursing and a muttered, “I’m fine,” in a slurred but awake voice. She relaxed a little, only to tense again as the cub turned towards her, sniffing at the air. Whatever attack it was preparing to launch, she would be ready for. To meet it with all the ferocity she could muster.
Instead of attacking, the cub began to circle back along the path of destruction they had wrought moments ago. It continued to sniff at the air, no longer focused on the fairies. Cerylia’s brow knitted as she watched the creature’s strange behaviour, letting her eyes drift along the route it would take. What she saw made her lower her sword an inch in confusion before realisation overtook her. When it did, she began to laugh, dropping back onto her arse and allowing her will to flow away from the shards as she returned to her normal, smaller size.
“Cerylia?” Toberon’s tone was filled with concern at her state, and the fairy doubled up with laughter at the sound of it. She lifted a trembling arm to point in the direction the cub was headed, unable to articulate her mirth. She was having trouble controlling herself at the look of confusion her fellow trainee was displaying.
“H…H…Honey…” she eventually managed to sputter out in-between more bouts of laughter. Toberon peered closer in the direction she was pointing before finally seeing what she had. During the fight, the rest of the comb she had gathered earlier had spilt out of the pouch she had been keeping it in. She’d completely forgotten about it earlier, but now she realised that it had been packed so badly, due to its size, that it had been exposed to the air during their trip. The cub had probably smelt it and come to find the tasty treat.
All of this was because the beast simply wanted some of the honey, not because it wanted to attack them. Cerylia saw when the realisation hit Toberon and the look that passed across his face, one of consternation and embarrassment at his actions, sent her into another laughing fit. By the time she was able to calm down, the cub had vanished with its prize, and they were alone in the woods once more.
Toberon was still seated where he had fallen, looking mournful, battered and still rather embarrassed. Taking pity on him, Cerylia stood, dusting herself off, and offered him a hand so she could pull him up. “Come on, finim, let’s head back to the barracks to get cleaned up. I think we should leave this critter for someone else to chase off. Besides, it’s getting late, and I have somewhere I need to be.”
As graciously as he could, Toberon accepted her help and staggered upright. Testing his wings, he found that they were thankfully undamaged, but when he rose into the air, his shoulder twinged and he realised the trip back would need to be taken slowly. He turned to apologise to Cerylia, but he realised that she’d noticed and indicated she understood. She was obviously in no rush. “I’m sorry, aeva. I really thought this would be something simple and a way for you to enjoy today. I know it isn’t one you generally tend to.”
Waving his words away, Cerylia preceded him into the air, absentmindedly calculating the best route back. “You weren’t to know. And besides, there is little I or anyone can do about it. Marzanna, sorry, the Queen enjoys making a big thing out of it, even though I tell her I don’t want her to.” The fairy’s lips twisted in displeasure. It was just another day, the same as any other. She much preferred doing something with it then wasting it.
Toberon stayed silent as they wove slowly through the trees until the edge of the woods came into sight. Then, with just a little extra effort, he came up alongside Cerylia, eyes fixed on the lands of their people and the palace watching over all of it. In a quiet voice, being careful not to make a big thing of it, he spoke the words he’d meant to say since he’d woken that morning.
“Happy Birthday, Cerylia. May the Mother’s gaze always find you in your time of need.”
The recipient of the blessing merely dipped her head in acknowledgement, and the two continued on in silence, the evening a battle yet to be fought, the future an unknown journey before them.