Show-Down at the Shadow Lake
I started writing this piece on January 18, 2014, and completed it on January 23, 2014. It was written for Chuck Wendig’s terribleminds blog flash fiction challenge for this week. This time we were allowed 2,000 words, instead of the usual 1,000 words, and I found this a more difficult target to meet than the shorter lengths. As with all the word maximums for these contests, I used it as the end word count goal. For this contest, we had to roll on three tables to discover the Who, the Where and the Uh-Oh of our story. I rolled ‘7’ earning an accountant as the story’s protagonistic ‘who’. This was followed by a ‘10’, which meant my account was to be found in a casino, facing down the besiegement of supernatural enemies, resulting from a second roll of ‘10’. The story was due by noon on January 24, 2014, EST US.
Never do the books when you haven’t had enough sleep – no matter how much the client threatens to do you bodily harm. They’ll do much worse to you if you screw up because you didn’t take the zees you needed. So, here I was, sitting in the Shadow Lake Casino and hoping no one found me.
The Shadow Lake was one of the few places I had sworn never to go. And because I had sworn it, I was hoping it would take my enemies longer to find me. I could have gone to the casino in the middle of town, but that was a place for humans… for people like me. And I was human, so I had come to the Shadow Lake, booked into a room, turned my hundred bucks worth of chips into ten thousand and retired to the bar.
I’m an accountant, a reputable accountant, and I never frequent casinos, betting shops or bookies. That kind of behaviour makes clients nervous. And nerves in clients like mine would see me dead.
I stared into my drink, trying to work out where I’d gone wrong. I don’t make mistakes, not dyslexic ones, not fatigue-based ones, not number ones—not ever. For the life of me, I couldn’t work out how one of my client’s tax returns had been submitted with a mistake.
I checked each one before sending them off, going over each receipt, and every figure on the pay sheet. There hadn’t been any mistakes on that return. There had been nothing but a clean, correct set of numbers that should have seen the client with a healthy tax return. Instead, he’d received a visit from the tax squad and been indicted for fraud. Not my doing, but you try to explain that to a fairy prince.
I should have known the foot of a hill—any hill, no matter how large—was a bad place to hide. The fey live in the Otherworld, but do business in this one. They travel between the two via portals set in mountains. Shadow Lake was built on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin, in the shadow of Black Mountain. Who was I kidding? Especially since the nixies knew where I was.
I watched as one of the blue-skinned water maids waited tables, and I picked up my beer. It might be better if I sat this one out in my room. The minute my butt left the seat, I saw him.
Eight-foot tall, green-skinned, be-tusked and beady eyed, the war troll was hard to miss, but I’d been sitting with my back to the door leading to the foyer. Dumb. Here I was, trying to avoid the supernatural, and I’d walked right into one of their strongholds. I hadn’t even checked the ownership.
Like, I said, dumb.
I watched the troll turning his head, scanning the room. There was little hope he was looking for someone else. Teloriel’s insignia was emblazoned across his breastplate. I leaned back, resting an elbow on the bar. As the troll’s gaze found me, I raised my glass, taking a provocatively long sip from my beer.
The war troll strode over, brushing past tables and silencing a waiter’s protest by covering the man’s face with one great hand until he had passed. He didn’t sit, just towered over me.
“Boss wants to see you.”
I peered around him, as though searching for his boss.
“Not here. Outside.”
I took another sip of beer, looked up at him.
“I could drag you out.”
“I claim guesting rights,” I said, loudly enough for my voice to carry to the far edges of the dining room, hoping the right person would hear, hoping my words would have some effect before the troll decided to just pick me up, tuck me under one arm and leave the casino.
“I wish you hadn’t said that.”
I shrugged—he could wish all he liked.
“Beer?” I asked, returning the troll’s glare with a look of bland indifference. In reality, my heart was doing triple time, and sweat prickled my armpits. I was pretty sure the troll could smell my fear, but he sure as hell couldn’t see it. In the end, he nodded, settling his bulk on the stool beside mine. It creaked, protesting as I signalled the bar nixie.
She’d heard my claim of guesting rights, and knew what trolls preferred to drink. I guess you could call it beer. This was going to cost me, but if it stopped the troll from dragging me out to the fate Teloriel had promised, I didn’t care. No doubt, his princeliness was waiting in the foreshore parkland on the other side of the highway.
I sipped my beer. The war troll sipped his brew. We waited.
Footsteps clattered down the stairs leading from the casino’s inner sanctum.
“What is that thing doing in here?” a sharp voice demanded, ringing off the decorative pillars and double-plate glass windows looking out over the lake.
The troll and I glanced up.
“I think he means you,” I said.
“Nope.” The troll’s rumble was too confident to ignore.
The casino owner was marching directly towards us, and his angry glance wasn’t directed at my oversized drinking companion. The troll was right; the fury in the owner’s expression was all for me. I set my beer on the bar.
“You bloody well dare!”
It’s hard not to flinch from the snarling face of an angry hobgoblin-elven crossbreed, but I managed it. I stared into his coal-dark eyes, noting the port-wine touch to their depths. I also noted his creamy yellow fangs, and the leathery finish to his khaki-brown skin. He still looked damn fine in his hand-crafted suit.
“I bloody well do.”
“Guesting rights?” he asked, with a sneer.
“From a hobgoblin fey lord?”
My mouth went dry. I was not an expert in fey law, but I was pretty sure there was an extra layer of meaning wrapped around his question. He was part fey. There was always an extra layer meaning wrapped around their words. I swallowed, not raising my glass.
“If that is who can grant them in this place.”
He smiled, and nerves formed a lump at the back of my throat, an icy stream to my stomach.
“And only I.”
“Then I claim them,” I said, and he gave a short bark of laughter.
“You are altogether too forward,” he said, cupping my cheek in a long-taloned hand.
I waited, wondering who was being too forward, now. The troll gave a derisive snort, and heaved himself off the stool, finishing his beer in one long swallow.
“What should I tell my prince?” he asked, setting down his glass.
“Tell him?” My host withdrew his hand, turning it to trace my cheekline with a single, black talon. “Tell him my latest guest is paying her board.”
The troll bared its fangs in a troll grin.
“Board?” What had I gotten myself into?
“Board. No guest stays for free,” the half-hob said.
From his smile, I could tell what kind of payment he would prefer.
“My room is paid up for a week.”
He shook his head.
“That is not sufficient,” he said. “You claimed guesting rights, and that assumes protection from the host. Nothing in the Shadow Lake is for free.”
I should have known that a hobgoblin cross wouldn’t live by the laws of the elven fey, should have known to check who—and what—owned the casino I wanted to hide out in. Hadn’t had time.
“I have more money.”
“Human money has limited value,” he said. “I have enough of it of my own. You want shelter from a fairy prince, and he isn’t happy.”
“I can do your books.”
A slow, sly smile spread across his features and he looked at me from under thick fringed eye lids.
“I’ve heard about your accounting skills,” he said. “I’m afraid your reputation is a little tarnished.”
His response floored me, and then I knew. I had no proof, apart from that sly little grin, the smirk of self-satisfaction. I knew if I ran, I wasn’t likely to reach the door, and, if I did, I’d be running out into a carpark in full sight of the riders waiting for me in the park. I took a step back from him, noting the movement of suited figures on the stairs and by the doors leading to the foyer.
He watched me from under his lashes, smiling quietly to himself. I returned his gaze, keeping my face carefully bland as I picked up what was left of my beer.
“You did this,” I said, taking a sip.
The smile grew more pronounced.
“You can’t prove that.”
“That sounded like a yes.”
“A host doesn’t lie to his guests.”
“So, you did do this?”
“You have no proof I was involved.”
“I don’t make the kind of mistake found in those books.”
“Apparently, you do.”
“No.” I fought to keep my voice even, heard overtones of my British ancestry as fury roiled within. “Those mistakes were made for me.”
I noticed his eyes dart to a corner of the bar, turned slowly, raising my glass for another sip as I surveyed the room, noting who sat, half-obscured, at a table of her own. Smiling, I turned back to my host and raised my glass. He watched me, half smiling in return.
I wiped the smile from his face when I up-ended my glass over his head.
“That is no way to treat the one who gives you shelter,” he snarled.
But I was already sprinting towards the door.
“I withdraw my request,” I shouted, ducking under the reaching arms of a hobgoblin guard, and shoving the other one so he tumbled backwards over a potted pine. “A guest would never insult her host.”
“Indeed, not!” he snapped, then, “Take her!”
Take me where? I wondered, charging through the foyer and slamming through the glass door that stood to one side of the more genteelly revolving entrance. I heard it bounce back off the wall, with a resounding clatter, heard the crash and tinkle as someone ran full-tilt into it. By the fey gods that had been close—too close for comfort.
I spotted Teloriel and his cohort, waiting patiently in the park and darted between two parked cars and an open stretch of gravel to reach them. I did not stop, did not dare glance at the highway to ensure it was clear, struck it lucky for the first time since I’d received Teloriel’s summons at eleven o’clock that morning. Two cars turned into the Shadow Lakes car park and one rushed past on my heels, tooting its horn in alarm in my wake.
I threw myself up onto the verge and scrambled up surprised to find strong hands on my arm, pulling me forward, surprised, too, by the arcing shield that interposed itself between me and in pursuit. The war troll grinned into my face before drawing me past him and knocking the Shadow Lakes security goblin off the embankment and into the path of an oncoming car.
“Oops,” he said, his voice shaking with laughter.
I focussed on the angry face of the elven prince, said the only words that would stay his hand.
“You were right, my lord,” I said, gasping for breath as I threw myself to my knees. “The Shadow Master sabotaged your accounts.”
“Who?” he asked, knowing full well he had said no such thing.
“Your sister, my lord,” I said, raising my head to add, “I am sorry.”
He smiled, cold and tight.
“Don’t be,” he said. “You get to be my accountant a little longer.”
Thinking on the fury in the half-hob’s voice, I reached up and touched his stirrup.
“I claim right of refuge,” I said.
“Then you’ll do my accounts for free.”
“Agreed,” I answered, and let him pull onto his horse.