Here is the Prologue and first 3 Chapters:
The Fortunes of Courles Manor
A Smuthunter Novella
“Oh fuck me!”
Rusty arrowheads and jagged obsidian axes clacked and clanked along the weather broken cobblestones and the low wall that once separated the street from the old botanical garden.
Nathanial ran even harder, his soft-soled boots slapped loud and flat on the ground, “Fuck me, fuck me, fuck me.”
A sling stone whipped through the air, whipped by the side of his face, and tore an eye socket sized chunk of moldering plaster from the wall.
Goblins couldn’t aim for shit, but with enough of them all aiming in roughly the same direction, it didn’t matter.
For a brief, intoxicatingly stupefied moment, Nathanial thought about dropping the dry goods sack that was tucked under his arm. It was thick, double layered burlap, and filled with the lost pittances of the murdered and desperate.
There’d be no gold or silver inside it, and certainly no gems or jewels, but goblins fed on petty bandits, and petty bandits fed on anyone they could until they were ‘copper rich’, then they’d cross over out of the Ruins and into Copper Town to spend their fortunes.
That was when the goblins would get them. They’d watch the bandits, and the incompetent adventurers who did their best to work and live in the Ruins, treasure hunting, or robbing, and they’d strike those poor souls when they were on their way out.
This heavy, ungainly parcel of coins and cheap trinkets was enough to make any bandit ‘copper rich’ two to three times over. It had been hard earned by Nathanial, and it would barely…
His world exploded into a bouquet of jagged, sharp pain, sharp pain that had followed after a white-hot splotch of blinding pain that erupted from the center of his forehead.
Nathanial’s ears were ringing and he felt a wave of nausea curdle in his stomach. Sweat and blood were one crawling drape of liquid trickling down his face, and by some small fortune the ground hadn’t done him any harm when he hit it.
“Gods, Eels, stealing from Goblins now? Good thing me and mine were near by, I’d hate to see you end up cooked in one of those giant brass pots of theirs.”
Goblins cooked the people they killed, then they ate them and fed them to their giant rat dogs.
Through bleary eyes, Nathanial looked up at his assailant and saw a long polished piece of dark wood pointed down at his face. It was smooth and lacquered, twice as thick as a broom handle, and stamped with a crimson butterfly of Nathanial’s own blood.
He’d already recognized the voice.
Tobin was smiling down at him, his long, dirty, lank, white blonde hair plastered to his face, a mouth half full of crooked, snarling teeth displayed in a leer so lecherous one would think the gang leader took sexual pleasure from what he’d just done.
Nathanial tasted the sour tinge of bile and the promise of vomit, but it was much less concerning than Tobin’s spidery fingers clasping around the bag and pulling the pitiful fortune away from him.
“Tough luck, you not being up on your dues huh Eels? Coulda stopped all of this unfortunate business from happening at all.” He whistled, and the sound of callous violence that Nathanial didn’t realize he’d been hearing came to a stop.
The ringing in his head kept on going though.
“Well, I’d say I’ll see you in town, but you know, gotta keep your head down, some folk aren’t as merciful as me.”
And, that was it.
All the planning, mapping the route out, all the sneaking, and then all the running, and being so close to the edge of the township proper, all of it beaten at the end of a stick.
Tobin and his gang were gone, but Nathanial couldn’t find his legs to stand.
He was still bleeding, still on the verge of throwing up, and his head was humming with pain. If what that lanky shit said was true, Copper Town was off limits to him now, but it’d been off limits to him for months already. The question was if it was even more “off-limits” than it had been.
With a slowness brought on by the sickening pain of his head wound, Nathanial finally found himself upright, and with half closed eyes he made his way to the fresh pile of goblin corpses that Tobin’s gang had made in their passing.
There wasn’t much there to loot, a handful of mismatched coins, a few pieces of jewelry, some bangles and piercings he had to cut free, and a couple of daggers that were in surprisingly good shape.
He could sell or trade most of it…
For a bad meal and a bottle of even worse wine, but that was life when you owed the Thieves Guild your dues. That was life when you had to live on the outskirts of the poorest section of Four Towns.
Long ago the towns had been separate villages, gathered around the river valley that spilled down to the coast and rubbed up against the forest. For a time these villages provided foodstuffs and supplies like stone and timber to the fortress city of Mourn, but when the city fell into ruin after the Catastrophe of Fates, many of its survivors flocked to these smaller settlements.
Mourn was worn down by time and weather, and forces unknown, until it became a sprawling ruin, the Ruins, one that brushed up against the edge of the new-sprawling civilization and the forest. The Ruins itself was the fourth town, with Copper, Silver, and Gold making up the other three; each one’s name indicating its class and cost of living.
What had once been the fortress city’s moat had been dug out and dragged long ago, redirected for irrigation use, and used as a demarcation line between it and Copper Town.
Not wanting to push his luck, Nathaniel found himself slinking into one of the piss hole inns he’d been hopping from. This one, the General’s Trawl, was run by an old military surgeon turned shaky handed drunk, and one of the few people Nathanial actually liked, or was able to trust.
As he walked through the door, nothing more than a piece of old canvas that was hung between two dilapidated columns, the inn’s owner Thaddeus looked up at him then shook his head.
“Plans go wrong there Eels?” The former surgeon had put on the kind of weight that only drunks seemed to manage. His body was paunchy and bloated in discordant ways, his nose was a maze of burst capillaries, and there was a ghost of a shudder in his hands even though he smelled of drink, sweat, and the drink he’d sweated out into his old, battered tunic and apron.
Before Nathanial could say a word, the bald old drunkard forced him down onto a low stool and started examining the wound. “You’ll need stitches if you want this to close quickly. You feeling sick? Bright lights bothering you?”
Nathanial nodded to the man.
“Looks like you got rattled pretty good. You smelling anything funny? Shit yourself? Feel like there’s water in your ears?”
He shook his head.
“Good, good, Probably won’t die in your sleep then. Anyway, put what you got on the counter, we’ll sort out what I can give you for it. Any memory loss?”
Nathanial shook his head again.
“Any memory loss?”
The bleeding Treasure Hunter laughed, “Fuck you Thaddeus.”
“There’s a good lad, I’ve got some clean water in cask in the back room, wash yourself up, wrap your head, then go get me more water.”
The surgeon turned bar keep was manhandling him into the back as some of the drunks in room scowled his way and mumbled to themselves. They were formerly hard men one and all, the kind of battered drunks that Thaddeus had a soft spot for and related to in the most profound of ways.
Nathanial found himself alone in the back room, and despite the instructions he was given, started digging around for more practical supplies. Thaddeus had herbs, and bandages tucked away behind a bag of beans, and strong liquor in a clay jug under a blanket on the top shelf of a closet. All of it mixed together was something like proper medical care.
He wasn’t a hard man, he’d never been and that was why he wasn’t afraid of becoming the refuse in the inn’s hall. He winced and bit his lip as he cleaned his wound. He groaned and muttered obscenities under his breath as he took the chewed up poultice of leaves and rubbed it into his gash, and then coughed and sputtered before taking a long drink of water after taking a swing of the liquor.
Nathanial wasn’t a hard man, but he was touch enough when it counted, quick on his feet, and quick witted when he wasn’t sick with pain. After returning everything he hadn’t supposed to have gotten into back to where it belonged, he wrapped his cloak around him, shut his eyes, and fell asleep inside the closet.
Chapter 1: Desperate Ordeals
They’d been running from the Mercenary Guard, Gold Town’s private army that only served that one-quarter of the Towns, when it had happened. The rest of his crew had broken off here and there along the way, but Nathanial couldn’t shake his tail, worse, they were gaining on him.
He couldn’t bolt into Silver Town, they’d just follow. He could run out into the wilderness, but it was too far away and he was too slow for that. The only thing to do was jump into the canal.
A canal filled with eels, eels being the euphemism everyone used for shit.
When he washed up in Copper Town, where all of Gold Town’s waste tended to go, someone shouted out, “Looks like Nathanial’s been swimming with the eels.”
After that, combined with his run of terrible luck, the name stuck.
Nathanial really had become shit at his job though, he just wished no one else would remind him of that fact. Failure was one thing when it was just yours to live with, but when it became your name, that was something else.
When he woke up, blood had soaked through his bandage, but not a lot, and he didn’t want to change it for fear of disrupting the clot.
The closet door was open and Thaddeus was standing over him, “Where’s my water?”
“It’s in cask, hardly touched.” The nausea had subsided, the pain had dimmed, and the light didn’t hurt his eyes or confuse him anymore. “How long have I been back here?”
Thaddeus tapped the side of the water cask and nodded with the thick plonk his finger made against it, “About three hours, been busy out front. How you feeling.”
“Like shit.” He stood up and stepped out of the closet, “What will you give me for those trinkets?”
“Coins are in a sack, here,” the barkeep threw a small sack to Nathanial, “and I threw in a couple more apiece for the daggers. Those earrings and bangles still have some flesh and blood on them, I can sell those off to the guard, not what I’d get for an ear, but I got a guy. We’ll call it a couple days credit, since I like you so much.”
It was fair.
It was too fair. “Who came looking for me?”
Thaddeus nodded, “No one, but some of the drunks left a bit after you came in, playing that they weren’t leaving for a reason. I got a feeling things are only going to get worse for you unless they get better quick.”
With a wry, resigned sigh Nathanial shook his head, “How the fuck is that supposed to happen with that parasite Tobin and his crew hounding me on everything I do.”
“You know.” The old drunk cum surgeon’s voice had lost its joking timbre.
“Gods no.” Nathanial knew. He knew because Thaddeus had been saying it for the better part of a year, ever since it all fell apart.
“You’re in the hole with some bad folk, and no one’s going to help you but you. I’m not, Chandra’s sure as shit not, and you know where you stand with Tobin now. You got no friends that can help, and the friends you had that could have helped, they’re not your friends anymore.”
That was true.
That was what happened when you blew a score so big your entire crew could retire. Well retire, or enter a respectable trade, or live like a king for a month. That was what happened when your girl left you, not for another man, but to escape the stink of failure on you, and stuck to working with the man who you were certain would one day kill you.
Kill you, probably for no reason other than to watch you die, or because that was the natural conclusion of his debts and Tobin’s taste for violence.
“I’ve watched a lot of healthier men die of infections from wounds less than yours. Only way to cut the rot out is to find your courage, bite down, and face death straight on.”
What Thaddeus was saying would have been more profound if he didn’t say it about almost literally everything, and if he wasn’t talking about a legend… a legend that killed people.
“It’s not real, you know that right.” The Manor in The Woods, Courles Manor, The Witches Abode, the Flower of Death, all names for a legend in the woods, another legend next to a city with enough ruined legends to occupy any child’s or would be hero’s imagination.
“It may not be a house full of witches, but it’s a something, and enough people have died out there in that something that there’s got to be a dragon’s nest full of treasure out there by now.” The warm, drunk, enthusiasm had returned to Thaddeus’s voice.
He was right.
“Damn it, damn the fucking gods, you’re right.” Nathanial was angry, angry and resigned to dying in the woods at the hands of who knows what, instead of being knifed or clubbed to death in the street by a man he used to call friend.
Chapter 2: The Manor Tower
Well, it was a manor after all.
Somewhere under the vines, and the flowers, there was clearly the frame of an old stone manor house, complete with a tower coming up out of the roof, a wide low stable, and an elegant garden around a wide decorative well and fountain.
Or at least something like all of those things, but tumbled down, or cocooned in greenery.
From his perch on the hill, looking down into the valley as the sun started to set, Nathanial saw that the forest’s roots had broken, up turned, and otherwise dismantled what had once been a splendid stone path. A stream that had once been cultivated to run beside it had come into a life of its own, and in so doing, eroded portions of the trail.
To his eyes, it was like a piece of the Ruins had been thrown out into the woods; an island of punished hubris in a sea of sweet and fragrant green.
All around him the forest was dark and heavy, and he’d had to skirt the edges of town, then pay out what little coin he could spare to be guided deeper into the wood and set on the right path. This place was known of by certain folk, not for any great detail, but only as a whisper of caution.
The trees had been like walls, branches woven together into screens and canopies, each one thicker, darker, and larger than the one before, until Nathanial had found himself walking through a tomb of dark loam and stillness. It was peaceful until it became nerve racking. It was quiet until every bird and beast became an echo of unease.
Then, he caught that sweet scent, the soft tendril of something calming, something hopeful. It was the perfume of witchcraft, and he knew it. He knew it, and he didn’t care, because whatever it was to know magic was different than it was to deny it. Besides, like all soft charms, its greatest power was obscurity not consistency.
Nathaniel knew it, and while he wasn’t fighting its enthralling call, just by knowing, he was defending himself from the uncanny dangers that usually lay beyond the threshold of such beguiling allure. Were he to become puzzled by the scent, his mind would become a maze of distraction as his thoughts wandered, until unaware and disoriented, he would find himself precisely where the scent was supposed to leave him.
He felt its pull down into the valley, and his eye followed a passage of bright blooms, all out of season, with each color brighter and richer than the next. If ever he’d seen a trap both more devious and obvious, Nathanial couldn’t recall it.
The front door would not be his ingress, now he just needed to find a way around the edge of the place that would provide the most cover.
It was hard to tell where prying eyes may lie, and he had a concern that the plants may be a trap, or sentient, or some threat of another kind. But as he skulked under the shade and behind the cover he could find, Nathanial reconciled the truth that if the plants were alive then they would have sensed him already.
It was a life or death matter, and that solved his need for brash choices.
The scent grew stronger, more pressing, more intoxicating, and hunched behind a toppled pillar, not ten strides from the tower-side of the manor, Nathanial felt a physical urge tugging at him, pulling at him to follow his nose.
“This is how you die. Sure Nathanial, this is why they call you Eels, follow the smell, do the stupid thing.” He was muttering to himself as he reached a hand out to test the thick latticework of ropelike vines along the side of the tower.
The vines didn’t snap to life and snare him, and almost as good, they didn’t budge under his weight as he started his climb. There was an open window, or at least a cave-like opening in the side of the top of the tower, and if he could sneak inside there maybe he could find something valuable without having to investigate anywhere else.
The higher he climbed, the more the alluring scent started to fade, replaced by something else. It was a freshness in the air, a clear, clean scent, like coming out of a dungeon or a crypt. As he reached the opening, the low summer sun cast its light into the tower.
With no purchase from which to look before he leapt, Nathanial entered into the chamber and landed in a low crouch. If he’d been the kind of treasure hunter to go armed, this was when he would have brandished his sword. But not being that type, instead he mentally committed to turning around and jumping out the window if danger was already waiting for him.
The closest thing he carried to a weapon was a fairly hefty single edged long knife with a small, serrated section used for sawing through rope. His thinking had always been that if he got in a fight he’d lose, so why do or carry anything that would push him in that direction. The blade was sharp, very sharp in fact, and sturdy too, but the only flesh it had ever cut from bone was for meals, and not from the living.
The room at the top of the tower contained neither roasted meat, nor foes, but by its look, it at one time housed a truly deadly enemy: a young woman of considerable means.
While the walls were covered in flowering vines, and the floor was carpeted in dried leaves and wilted petals, the furniture, the full sized mirror, and the remains of the canopied bed were all the trappings of a proper lady’s chamber. The bed, like the room, like the manor, was covered in vines and flowers, so much so that the plants had created new curtains all around it.
Yes, this was once an elegant lady’s chamber, but why it would be in the top of a tower was beyond Nathanial’s understanding.
Still, not being one to overlook a good change of fortune, he set to investigating the chamber in hopes for a quick, profitable, and painless departure.
The wooden drawers of the dressers were warped, and opening them would make too much noise. The two doors in the chamber, one that had to be a closet and one that had to lead into an antechamber, were indistinguishable and it was too risky to open them for fear of what may be lurking on the other side. So, that left trying to dig through leaves, petals, and dust.
With a soft step, and a soft touch, Nathanial made his way around the room. All traces of fabric or cloth were long since ruined, eaten by moths or simply worn down by time and the encroaching elements. Atop the canopy of the bed, just close enough to the edge to be seen, there was even a bird’s nest, and aside from him, that was the only sign of life this room seemed to have seen in centuries.
Using his sense of touch more than his eyes, his fingers ran over the tops of the dressers, chests, and cabinets in the room, and his slow, methodical patience was rewarded. Five golden coins from a time even before the Empire’s rise and fall were his reward.
He slid them into a pouch at his belt and made for the window when he heard something behind him. It sounded like a gasp coming from within the curtain of vines that surrounded the bed.
Nathanial told himself to just head out the window then run back to town, but something stopped him. There was a sudden, irresistible sense of warmth and happiness that seemed to fill the room, something compelling that teased at Nathanial’s mind and reminded him…
Chapter 3: The Bluest Flower
He’d turned around, realizing too late that what had struck him was the same scent that seemed to linger outside the manor, and found a single blue eye, the same rich deep blue as the flower petals that adorned the room.
He heard another noise; this time a gasp, and that eye fell backwards grew even wider, and strangely inviting.
“I’m sorry to disturb your slumber, I’ll be on my way now…”
Nathanial had, upon seeing the shock in that one eye, started to back away towards the window.
“No,” a young woman’s voice floated out from the behind the vines, “you mustn’t leave yet.”
“I’m truly sorry, but I’ve taken what I’ve come for and you see…”
The vines parted, and a scared, but beautiful face was staring out at him. It was delicate, smooth, and round. And those impossibly blue eyes stood out against the girl’s deep green skin, as did her long hair and the very large flower petals that rose upwards and covered most of the lower half of her body, all of which were the same shade of blue.
“You don’t want to leave me,” her voice was small, quiet, timid, but her words clung to him as surely as the sweet, intoxicating scent in the air. “You may think you do, but you know you mustn’t, not until you tell me why you’ve come here.”
“I mean you no harm, I promise you. I came for treasure and I’ve taken what I’ve found, all that I needed… more really, and I hate to be a thief, but I didn’t know anyone was living here, and I promise you, you’ll not see me again, now…”
“Wait,” her arms, which had been folded across her chest and covered in white petal-like gloves opened, “if it’s only treasure you seek, I can give you more.”
Nathanial found himself stunned yet again, this time by the sight of her very large, very perky breasts. They swayed as she shifted, and he found himself distracted by her nudity as surly as her mention of more treasure piqued his curiosity.
“I’m certain you would, but I’ve the sense that you’re more dangerous than you’re letting on. I didn’t come here to harm you, and I’m only taking a few coins that look like they’ve been buried under leaves for hundreds of years. I’d love more, but I don’t want it.”
She seemed to shift in that moment, like a weight had been lifted from her shoulders. “You would just leave? With nothing more, nothing less?”
Her hands came back to rest at the tops of her breasts, “But what of the next time, would you come back then? With allies, and fire, and wizards to roust us from… to roust me, I mean, to roust me from my home?”
“I would not do that. I’m far too poor for wizards, and far too much a coward to risk a second moment of good fortune. No, I promise you, whatever you are, I’ve no desire to come back to this place.”
He said these words and meant them, but…
But maybe it was her manner; maybe it was her beauty, or maybe just the intoxicating aroma that was growing stronger with ever passing moment, maybe he would want to return if only to see her.
“Men’s desires are fickle things burglar.” She was looking at him, looking through him, and her words were not kind.
“As w whole, they are, but this one man’s desires are more honest than his trade. And while I’d linger in your beauty longer…”
She blushed as his words came to a stammering end.
“That is to say, you’re a lovely…”
Her eyes, hard etched with worries and fears as they were, softened while Nathanial’s tongue betrayed his desires just as surely as his eyes had begun to.
“If I thought it safe to pay you a proper visit I would, but… But legends and what little good sense I have tells me this is a dangerous place, too dangerous a place for me to have come to in the first place.”
Sweat had soaked into his bandage and stung the still present gash in his forehead. His hands felt uneasy, alive with the nervous need to do something, preferably grasp on to an overgrown vine and climb down it, and staring at this mysterious flower girl, this green skinned plant woman, Nathanial also realized those hands wanted to touch her.
“You have no idea burglar, but heed me well, keep the coins you’ve scrounged in payment for forgetting this place, and forgetting me. But before you go, may I have your gaze just one moment longer?”
Her voice did not sound as timid as it had, nor as doubting. No, if anything, it sounded inviting, soft and sweet as the scent in the air, “If you’re to forget me, I’d have you at least remember me a moment longer.”
Nathanial felt a soft intoxicating heat coming from her, and he watched as her white gloved hands cupped her breasts as he realized he’d started to take deeper and slower breaths.
“Of all the men I’ve met, you’re neither mean, nor crass, and I sense a goodness in you more honest than your trade. Look upon me, and keep this adventure as a pleasant dream.”
Her words had taken on a sing-sing cadence, and for a moment, just a moment, Nathanial felt himself becoming truly and deeply enthralled by the mysterious blue haired, blue eyed, plant girl.
Then, the moment ended. It sounded like more sweet, soothing words were to follow, but she caught her breath before speaking again.
“Be gone, and go quickly.” Her words were sharp now, commanding and anxious, “go as quickly as you can.”
Oh no, what terrible fate lies in store for our hapless hero…