Aphelion Issue 279, Volume 26
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DarNell the Allure

by Alexander Scott Tullis

The farmers look at me with tired eyes. I know that, for them, the setting orange sun and the first touches of a cool evening breeze only mean more work: when that breeze gets just a little bit stronger they will take their five-pronged winnowing fans and start tossing their mounds of wheat into the air; the useless straw will be carried with the wind, the life-sustaining grain will land safely at their feet. For now though, for just a few moments more, there they sit, in their dirty white woolen tunics resting against the mounds. They nod politely to me, even though their eyes are uneasy. This year has been a dry year for the land, and when there is less wheat, there are more thieves. They know that a lone woman passing by bears little threat, but I might spy on their crop. And their settlement is quite a good one considering the times: they still have something to steal.

I would make quite a peculiar thief. Wearing a clean blue ankle-length tunic, with green embroidered V-neck and a matching shawl over hair and shoulders, I look like one with coin rather than one without. Yet I feel their eyes on my back as I walk the beaten path until I round the large barren hill and head into the valley, out of sight. After they've winnowed out the straw, they'll go through the crop to remove all the darnel grains, and the thought makes me smile.

My mother named me DarNell, after those grains, she says because of my very dark skin: farmers pick the black darnel grains out clearly among the golden wheat. My family is light-brown, yet for some reason I came into the world quite ebony. I suppose my mother thought 'DarNell' would be cute. After twenty-nine years I can certainly confirm that it's original. Yet, I'm sure mother didn't know just how appropriate my name would one day be. See, darnel grains look just like wheat until they ripen, but if the black grains are eaten, they aren't just bitter, they are poisonous, and plenty of people, friends and otherwise, use those adjectives to describe me. I'm sure, too, that the people I'm going to meet now will view me as such, when all is said and done.

I see a large, isolated goat-hair tent in the distance, and with a gust of dusty wind I smell the oak gall and dog manure. Witnesses aren't wanted for this meeting, though I'd say picking a stinking leather-worker's tent in rural Tamaar is over-doing it a bit. The odor is barely tolerable. Irritated, I press on. A fully-clad centurion greets me at the flap entrance, complete with shin guards, breastplate and the red cape of Vord. Through the dark opening of his mask I can see a grimace; but then I guess he's been stood in this stink for a while. "Identity?" he rumbles. I bet he knows already; I can tell from the hungry look he gives me.

"I'm DarNell, former Prime Allure of Mersie. I'm expected."

"Yes, you are. But there's security protocol before you meet the Prince General. Please wait here." And he walks in. Indeed, I'm meeting Prince General Amaan, the firstborn son and heir of the Vord Kingdom: it's no wonder they're cautious. Am I surprised he actually agreed to meet? Maybe, but given the negative effect recent events have had on his military campaign, he really had no choice.

Back stomps the centurion, and someone else behind him. She wears a one-piece linen dress that clings to the body, hiding no curve. I see immediately that she's a royal sorceress: her pale-skin and hazel eyes set in features too flawless for nature. Rumor has it that all sorceresses in the Vordian court must use their powers to gain physical perfection, though whether from law or fad, I'm not sure. But this one here could be a problem.

"Who's this?" I casually ask.

"My name is VoAnna. I'm going to...look you over to make sure you've brought nothing that might put the Prince General's life at risk."

I laugh as I feel something oily run across my body. I'm under an enchanted search. "I didn't bring anything with me."

"Yes, we're aware of that," says the centurion, "I looked at you from afar. But we're aware of your capabilities. VoAnna is just doing something extra."

"The knife that you have on your person will terribly burn you if you even reach for it," says VoAnna, monotone. The oily sensation passes, and then I feel a pressure on my hidden blade, briefly. "You may now follow me."

I really hate magicians. "Why thank you," I say, as coldly as possible.

The centurion stays. I follow VoAnna into the tent. The scattered earthenware saucers, made into lamps, must be burning scented olive oil, for there's a pleasanter smell in here. Across the tent through the dim light I see the Prince, blond and smiling, sitting behind a table topped with wooden chests, and trying to hide his greedy assessing look. He stands up as I approach, armored like his centurion outside. They say that his perfect, handsome looks are natural, not spell-formed. Perhaps, perhaps not: it's hard to believe.

"Yitzay, the leather-worker was happy to let us borrow this place for a little gold. I knew we would need the incense and light; I'm not sure if I brought enough!" And he laughs, a bit too hard. "Please, take a seat here."

The lamps are placed around the piles of cloths and scraped skins with the knives on one side. The room is still dimmer than I would like. There are plenty of lidded containers too, possibly full of sumac leaves, in which hides are soaked. I make my way around the clutter, towards the table. Prince and I bow slightly before we sit on the wooden chairs at opposite ends of the table; Amaan's left, a third chair stands empty. VoAnna stands to his right, looking at me.

"I pray your trip was pleasant?" asks Amaan with eyebrows raised in feigned concern.

"I'm guessing that this is harder for you than me, since you prefer enjoying the upkeep when not on the battlefield," I reply.

"Too true, too true. And I would actually like to be done with this meeting as quickly as possible. The sooner we begin, the sooner I can return to being spoiled by my servants, or risking my life in combat." Large grin. "Spending wasting - free time in a place like this actually causes me pain."

Wow, what a brat. "Then why don't we start?" I look around. "But isn't there supposed to be another...?" It would be a shame to have come all of this way and only meet one of the most powerful people in Vord.

"Conjurer Thame was due yesterday." The confusion on Amaan's face is the first genuine expression I've seen thus far. He hesitates, then adds, "I have to suppose that he is otherwise disposed by some important matter," but I hear the muttered addition, "What can be more important than this, I do not know."

"Then we go on without him?" How disappointing.

"We go on without him."

I shrug. "Well, alright. If that's the case then...I have no idea how to begin this."

"Neither do I," he says, serious. "How do we go about discussing the greatest Allure in history wanting to defect from Mersie to Vord? Many Allures are born with ability, but not one of them has your gift. Not even close! We could have sent an arch-demon against your people, and you would have put it under your whim. So I'm afraid there's no precedent on which we can draw!" Flattery gets you everywhere. "You have been the main reason our efforts against your republic have failed. You have been responsible for the death and destruction of countless men of mine." That's more genuine, though he is trying to hide the bile. "And countless creatures of our Conjurer." He grins and chuckles, falsely.

"Hmm. That might that be why he isn't here? Sour grapes?"

"I really hope not," I say, "Because thousands of scores of Vordians and Mersians alike have died in our war. Desire for mutual peace should outweigh our personal feelings at this stage. That's why I'm here, and that's why I want to defect. Without me, Vord would have an insurmountable advantage, and Mersie would have to seek talks. I'm here to make the Kingdom of Vord triumphant, - and to make sure that when it is, you treat my people gently."

"Many of my people would see Mersie burned to the ground," says Amaan, with a flash of flame in his eyes. "But you are blessed to be talking to a man with the strength and influence to make sure that that doesn't happen."

"You speak as if you've accepted my defection."

"Ah, you caught me. I can't contain my enthusiasm. The prospect of peace is so attractive I'm afraid that I'm susceptible to believing whatever you say!" Then a new voice interrupts:

"Consider me a harder sell..."

I turn to see a tall man in a single piece robe of blazing red linen. His thick beard and bushy hair are too black for his wrinkled face; his eyes maintain the fire that I glimpsed in Amaan's eyes. He bustles in.

"Conjurer Thame, you're here!" cries the Prince General, standing.

"I was held up," the newcomer says, "But I wouldn't miss meeting the woman that has thwarted me for ten years!" Thame stares at me, very obviously sizing me up. "Did you check to make sure that she is unarmed and alone?"

"Of course I checked! The knife she carries will be untouched as long as she's within my range of influence," says VoAnna, offended. "And she's obviously alone."

"Come, have a seat," says Amaan. "Your ridiculous staring is threatening to put the progress we've already made into jeopardy!"

But the Conjurer neither sits, nor stops staring. "She is not 'obviously' alone, fools! She has turned aside every beast and monstrosity that I have sent against Mersie, and led them all to their deaths. VoAnna, for all your mystic skill, your bestiary knowledge is lacking, and you don't know how to check a devious, crafty woman like DarNell!"

I try, but fail to hold back my smile. Those simple farmers I passed had a better sense of danger than the royal sorceress! These mages get so caught up in complicated witchcraft that they ignore the natural warnings we all have. I haven't ducked Thame's awareness. But still I smile because it's too late: too late for everybody here. I'm so happy that Thame showed up.

VoAnna gasps as she finally sees the spiritual presence that's been with me from the start: he begins to make his presence known to all. He rises above my shoulders and moves in front of me, the figure of a raggedly clothed man with shimmering features that come in and out of sight. Vampires do have souls, whatever people say: when these are freed from the undead bodies they drink the mind, not blood. The room brightens with the new presence. "Suck them all dry," I command.

The wraith's hands become larger than they should be, and develop claws. He slashes at Thame, and the old man falls, though no injury appears. The wraith turns to VoAnna; I'll grant she's quick, she's already preparing something - a dark mass of something nasty rolls around her knuckles. She releases the mass just as she is engulfed by those immaterial hands, and while she falls the wraith screams in pain. Her attack leaves a streaming hole through his body that bursts through the top of the tent.

It's really over now. Amaan is on one knee and sword unsheathed, covering one of his ears from the screeching he hears. He grits his teeth in preparation, but the guard runs in, yelling, and brings his sword down on the wraith's back first. There is no contact, of course: the guard falls through the wraith. It might as well be suicide; in silence, he crumbles to the ground.

I'm guessing that Amaan had a similar attack in mind. He thinks better of it. "Allow me to make an offer," he says, surprisingly calm.

"Hold," I tell my friend. "We will hear what the prince has to say."

"Let me live," says Amaan, teeth clenched in what might be his attempt at smiling "And I'll make sure that I make you my personal rutting wench, while the rest of your boar-tit-sucking brethren---"

The wraith is already upon him, the rest of his final insult cut off with a gesture of my hand.

By the time I pass the same farmers for a second time they are shoveling the wheat grain piles into pots to be weighed. Once again, they give me the wary look, feeling there is something more to me than a well-dressed woman on the road. I nod kindly to them, trying to put a block to their intuition. If my enemies and those of my dear Mersie had the sense of these farmers, I wouldn't be half so good at my job.


© 2008 Alexander Scott Tullis

Bio: "Alexander Scott Tullis is a writer at an odd age where he seems too young for some things, and too old for others. He has written children's comics (Sarah: God Is Love), game software reviews (Castlevania: Lament of Innocence review), and has self-published the fantasy novel The Sky of Peleg (under the pen name "Twelve").

E-mail: Alexander Scott Tullis

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