Never the Hero
Is this a place to promote my book? I have to be honest, I need your help. Now ranked 10771 on the Epic Fantasy list, sold on Kindle for $1.87 (and free to those with subscription) it may be too pricey for many. It was for family and friends.
About as prominent in Amazon as a single bee in a hive, please search under its title "Never the Hero" or you've no way to find it.
For a teaser, here's my blurb. If that works, try Chapter 27. If that works, who knows...
Harold's no hero, so leave him alone. All he's done is adopt some dog, not knowing Raj has magical powers, or that he's expected to rescue a kingdom. Good for Raj but what's that to Harold, not that Angela cares.
Dumped in some alternate universe, the time before was just him and Raj, but now he's got Lilith to help.
Bullied and swindled and out of control, Harold blunders through mishaps and crises, never believing he'll ever get home. Last time he'd confronted an evil queen, and that had been scary enough. Now he must steal from a dangerous warlock, and all on behalf of Angela, the sweet but conniving old lady he's grown to detest.
Charming but ruthless, however he struggles, he can't seem to stop her from running his life. How can she do that? She isn't his mother, and why would she want a hero who's passive aggressive?
In a lunatic tale of magic and evil, can Harold survive on denial alone?
“And did she?
“Did Angela talk her way out of paying you compensation?”
“What do you mean?”
“I thought she signed over the house.”
“Well, yeah. I guess. Sort of.”
“So you got everything you asked for.” Lilith was looking at Harold with barely disguised contempt.
“You survived the mission, didn't you? And you got paid for it. Very well, in fact. I get that you don't like being here, but I've heard enough about Angela, so is your diatribe finally over or can we expect an epilogue?”
“No. I've said all I wanted to say.” Harold's feelings were hurt, unhappy at how she'd dismissed his concerns.
Lilith didn't let up. “I don't get your problem,” she told him. “You got your money, just as you wanted. It's sitting there waiting for when you get back.”
“And that is my problem,” he answered. “Why do I have to be here at all? She trapped me into doing this mission just so I could get paid for the first. I already had that money, so why can't I get to use it whenever I want? If she hadn't jammed me up, I wouldn't need to be here. That's not fair. Anyone can see that.”
“Can they now?” said Lilith with a shrug. “You got the house, didn't you. Why didn't you live in it? Selling was your decision. Nobody held a bow to your head.”
This time Harold was really offended. “It's alright for you,” he shouted. “You weren't drowning in debt, or stuck with those horrible neighbours. You walk a mile in my shoes before you're so eager to judge.”
“So tell me this,” she said. “Why are you even here at all? We didn't actually need you. We only needed Raj.”
“I'm not just handing over Raj. Forget that. Raj is my dog. He stays with me.”
“Stop acting like you're a victim.”
Harold's bottom lip quivered. “I am a victim,” he answered, “and so is Raj. I don't remember us asking you to shove us into that painting? You did that all by yourself.”
He stopped speaking to Lilith. Thinking he'd won the argument, he settled for grumbling under his breath, telling himself that Lilith had been disrespectful.
His problem was he found his argument losing ground. Another voice inside his head was saying he could have stayed in the house, borrowed against the property, found himself a better job, maybe gone on some dating sites, and tried to get on with his neighbours. If he'd have chosen to go that route, he wouldn't be here on this mission.
Instead, he'd taken the easy way out, running away from a bad situation and in the process, painting himself in a corner. Sure, Angela held the brush but he'd invented the corner.
Grudgingly, the earlier voice conceded the larger point, but it still drew the line at Angela. By Lilith pointing her finger at him, she was also excusing Angela, and that wasn't right. Angela had treated him badly. Twice in fact, and any sane person could understand that. Lilith was wrong to take her side. Harold got ready to have the last word, but Lilith spoke first.
“Harold,” she said, “you're a whiner. You're here now so get over it. I got hijacked too, you know, but are you hearing me complain? The money's waiting for when you get back, so stop with this bitching.”
Harold didn't agree, and wasn't inclined to stop. He needed closure and would have said more except that Lilith leaned over her horse, and slapped the back of his head. His ears ringing, he gave up talking. Harold could take a hint.
He watched her riding ahead of him, her body fused to the saddle, those massive thighs locked to the horse's flanks. She seemed so much in command of her mount, and he envied her that. The horse he was riding had taken control, stomping along in a merciless bone-crunching trot. His legs were aching from having to stand in the saddle, but he couldn't sit down, his butt hurt so badly. He wanted to stop if only to rest but didn't dare say that to Lilith. It wasn't male ego. She terrified him.
Truth was, he couldn't find words to say how he felt about Lilith. She wasn't remotely attractive, but her power held his attention. He even found he'd be stealing a glance at those thighs, wondering what they would do to a man.
He'd felt the same when she'd started that brawl. All by herself, she'd punched out four soldiers and trashed a tavern. What woman does that? He struggled even to see her as female except when he watched her on horseback, he'd get this ripple run through his body. He didn't know why and he didn't enjoy it, but he found he didn't rush to suppress it.
When next they rested the horses, he tried changing the mood. “Lilith,” he said. “I guess I do complain too much about Angela. And you're also right, I could have said no to this mission. But I'm here now so I'll do my best not to let you down.”
Watching her face, he'd hoped for some sign of approval. Since none was forthcoming, he spoke again.
“I'm thinking, as long as we're here together, I'd like to know more about you. How come you're here, and what's your deal with Angela?'
“Angela found me in the Great Forest, badly injured and close to death. She brought me to safety and nursed me to health. She saved my life and I owe her for that.”
“Wasn't a simple thank you enough?”
“I'm an Amazon warrior. I live by a code and I owe her my life. I must pay off that debt before I'm free.”
“So you don't want to be here anymore than I do?”
“Of course not, but I don't have a choice. I'm bound by my duty. You think I relish being in Angela's debt. I'm even more trapped than you are. I've just got a better attitude.”
Insulted, Harold gave up with the small talk. He rode beside her in silence, but since he didn't do silence well, he tried talking again.
“How come you were in the Great Forest, and how did you get yourself wounded?”
“Why you asking?”
“As I said, I'd like to get to know you better. You know a lot about me.”
“I know too much about you.”
With that came more silence, at least until Raj would shatter the mood. “Stop being a jerk,” he told her, “and tell us how you got hurt.” Lilith agreed to tell her story.
“Me and some buddies had gone on a peacekeeping tour of Drogeba. After six months we got relieved, but on the way home, we stopped by the Marcen taverns to blow off some steam. That's when we got conned by these two peons. They hung around till we was too wasted to notice, then told some sad story about their pathetic village, how the local bandits robbed it blind, and how their kids were all starving and no one would help.
By that time, already well into the booze, our sergeant, who should have known better, gets maudlin drunk and turns sentimental. Next we know, she's volunteered all nine of us to run off these bandits, and just for the price of three bottles of rum.”
“Like the Magnificent Seven,” said Harold.
“No. There were nine of us.”
Harold breathed out. “Why don't you finish your story?”
“Well, we get to this village and clean out the bandits, but it was hard fighting and four of us didn't make it. After that, we just wanted to get away home. We hitched a ride on some crappy old freighter, but then it got caught in a storm. The ship ran on rocks, and just when we're starting to hear the surf, the crew jumps into the lifeboat and leaves us to drown. All five of us clambered on broken timbers and tried to paddle to shore, but two of us didn't make it.
“Now down to just three, we still believed we'd be rescued in time. We'd camp on the beach, and hunt and fish, and light a fire to signal a passing ship.
“But then these trolls found us. They ran us along the beach as far as the edge of the forest, except we had to turn back. A dragon was flying above our heads, so we didn't dare risk open country.
“We ran back into the forest for cover, but couldn't outdistance the trolls. Two more days of skirmishing and they'd picked off both of my buddies. I knew I was next but then this dragon calls off the trolls, I guess to attack Angela's convoy. That's when she teleported into the forest, and pretty much landed on top of me. The rest you know.”
“You're all that's left of your platoon. That's terrible. I'm very sorry.”
“It wasn't your fault.”
Harold knew she'd misunderstood but didn't bother correcting her. This wasn't a time for feedback. What was she, maybe twenty at most? She'd seen too much bloodshed for someone that young. She'd also been robbed of her closest friends, the ones who'd have given some purpose to her young life.
She had to be hurting so much inside, however deeply she buried her feelings. And now the conniving Angela had saddled her with this mission. Given what Lilith was going through, Harold knew he owed her some help.
For one thing, he'd stop with his whining. She didn't need to hear his troubles. She'd been screwed over much worse than him. No chance to heal, or time to go home. No comfort from family or friends.
Instead, she was stuck doing Angela's bidding. How did she even stay sane? She must be so strong inside. Sure, she was kind of insensitive, but Harold found he'd a growing respect for Lilith.
He'd suffer five days on that horse before they reached Marty's barracks, and coming on the buildings again, Harold felt disappointment. He'd hoped that once they were done with the queen, things might have got better, but nothing had changed. The city smelled as bad as before. The barracks looked just as tired and neglected.
Two youths were gossiping inside the gatehouse. Harold dismounted and rapped on the sliding window. Both looked up then carried on talking. He rapped again, only louder. This time they ignored him. He rapped a third time, very loudly. Visibly huffing, one youth stalked over, yanked open the window and snapped, “What do you want?”
“I want to speak to Marty.”
“Marty the sergeant.”
“That's not your concern, is it? Just say I've a message from Angela.”
“Marty's not available.”
“How do you know that?”
“You have to come back when the officer's here.”
“When will that be?”
“He didn't say.”
“Why do we need to wait for the officer?”
That question caught the youth off guard. For some strange reason, it wasn't among his list of standard evasions. He thought for a moment then said, “I'm not allowed to leave my post to check on anyone. I can't leave the gatehouse without the officer's permission.”
Lilith reached over and dragged him through the open window, slapped the side of his head and whispered, “That's not true, is it? You've already left without his permission. Now run and fetch Marty.”
Harold watch the youth run off. I wish I could do that, he thought to himself.
It took twenty minutes to find Marty, but when at last the sergeant appeared he was, as always, full of smiles and easy good nature. Seeing him coming, Raj ran over, demanding his ear be scratched. That greeting completed, Marty next pounded on Harold's shoulder.
“Good to see you, man,” he said. “Glad you could finally make it. You've been expected a couple of weeks, ever since I got my letter.” Still smiling he added, “I guess you must be Lilith. You're quite the cutie, aren't you? Now come with me, both of you. You're about to enjoy a near-death experience.”
“What do you mean, near-death experience?” asked Harold suspiciously while Lilith merely scowled, at once both pleased and annoyed at being called cute.
Before she could put a voice to her thoughts, Marty spoke again. “We're off to meet Lord Aubrey, and he's as close to death as you'll find while still leaving mist on a mirror. Let's get going. We don't want to keep him waiting. Harold will tell you we don't want him testy.”
The old man would be as Harold remembered. The bloodless lips that framed the aging yellow teeth. The smile that spread no further than the mouth. The wispy hair. The parchment white skin. The empty calculating eyes. As he came in the room, Raj started to growl, his hackles raised. Lilith's hand covered her sword, but Marty said to relax.
“Good evening, Your Lordship,” he added. “Everyone's here now. We all came as soon as we could.”
Lord Aubrey's gaze absorbed the room. “Harold,” he said, only his mouth moving.
“Lord Aubrey.” Harold's response was equally flat.
The old man spoke again. “And Raj with you. Good, and you must be Lilith, the Amazon warrior. Angela speaks well of you.” The words came out fully formed, the tone as measured as Harold remembered. Lilith nodded but gave no answer.
“You will be tired from your journey. Sergeant, please see they get food and a place to sleep. We will convene tomorrow at noon. I will brief you during luncheon.” And as they were leaving he added, “I wish you all a good evening,” though he managed to make it sound more like a curse.
“I'm sorry to say that Angela is in rather a pickle.” Lord Aubrey's understatement came in the same polished voice that had always rattled Harold's nerves. The old man continued.
“In her devious attempts to dispose of Roy, the magic dog, she has been captured by Arabella, Queen of the Great Forest, and to compound her error, she has bargained carelessly for her release. Arabella's terms will be hard to meet, but I suppose we must try.”
“Why must we try?” asked Harold. “Why can't we leave her to rot in jail?”
“Yes,” said Lord Aubrey slowly. He rested his elbows on the table, steepled his fingers in front of his mouth then checked each person one at a time. Harold receive an extra long stare but sensing everyone ready, His Lordship began.
“Perhaps I should give you some background. At over five carats, the Eye of the Dead is a large stone and while having some flaws, it is almost clear in colour, rare in stones of that size. It also boasts a rather fine cut that explodes in the light. A handsome piece in its own right, and not merely because it sits in a demon's forehead.” He paused for effect. He knew he had their attention.
“This demon is, I'm afraid, a rather unpleasant creature. Kept in a glass-fronted cage so the Eye can be viewed, it gibbers and snarls at all who dare to look in. It also seems its one ambition is taking revenge on its captor, and it's only pleasure comes from hurting any creature it can reach.
“As a work of art, I've always considered the Eye overrated, but Erasmo, its current owner, take pride in it, and I think for two solid reasons. One: Merely to own the Eye is a demonstration of power. We should not for one moment forget his considerable skills as a sorcerer. Two: He has found the stone helpful when dealing with disloyal subordinates. The demon excels at killing its victims slowly, a fate that we should attempt to avoid.”
He stopped for a moment to sip on his drink, his wizened hands gripping the side of the glass as if he struggled to lift it.
“To be strictly honest,” he added, “stealing the demon is out of the question. What we should actually do is steal Erasmo.”
“Well, there you are then,” said Harold. “That sounds straightforward. So, if it's all settled, let's go for lunch.”
Marty sighed, his eyes pointing up at the ceiling. “Don't mind him, My Lord. He always gets sarcastic when he's clueless. I've seen him do it before, but no worries. Harold's not here to do any planning. He'll be okay if we just give him orders, though you might want to keep them simple.”
“I'm still here, you know,” said Harold, but no one took any notice.
Lord Aubrey began again. “The castle itself is impregnable. An army would have to cross twenty-five miles of dragon-infested wasteland before a steep narrow access road, then on through a tight gorge to enter a walled citadel embedded in a granite peak.
“After the citadel comes the main tower, and if that could be breached, the throne room itself is defended by four massive serpents, the demon's cage being part of the throne. When you incorporate Erasmo's own considerable powers together with those of his many unpleasant minions, no one would be silly enough to attempt a direct assault.”
Again a pause then, “I think, however, there may be a better way to gain access to the throne room. As you may know, every accredited trouble maker has the ultimate goal of full membership in the Association of Certified Informants. While there are many broader roles to be found in lying and/or betrayal that are well-suited to qualified paraprofessionals, only certified ACI members have full standing as character assassins during civil and criminal proceedings.
“More to the point, since their expertise can be used to discredit most witnesses, however honest or reliable, their testimony is deeply valued, especially by those in fear of the law.
“That fear puts ACI clients at a disadvantage with respect to the Institute, and when one considers the type of clients who seek its services, it also gives ACI members privileged access to the sort of information one really shouldn't know. That is, of course, my way of saying that full ACI status is highly prized.”
Another sip of wine then, “The Association is, of course, the only body certifying full membership, and since no one gets this without first doing the chairman a favour, these are favours worth having. And when you include the fact that the chair comes with unrestricted access to Association files, it is a much sought-after position.” His voice lifted slightly at the end of the sentence.
“It so happens that the chairman, I should say chairperson.” He smiled at Lilith. “Is elected every second year by secret ballot within the Sorcerer's General Council and Erasmo, who currently sits on the Council, has long sought this position for reasons of his own. One doesn't ask why. It's not considered good form.
“He is already somewhat close to having the necessary votes, and to this point, I happen to hold the proxy votes for both Arabella and Angela. When he learns I have these proxies, Erasmo will want to meet me. That eagerness should be enough to get us inside his castle. Are there any questions?” Lord Aubrey checked the room. Since no one dared question anything, he continued speaking.
“There is still more detailed planning needed, but we will have time on board our ship to flesh out any strategy. One task however is needed now.” He turned to Lilith, and with the smile of a gargoyle he said, “You, dear lady, are to be my bodyguard, and not only for my personal safety. Erasmo is a jealous soul. When he sees I am attended by an Amazon, I feel certain he will covet you in one way or another. He is also extremely vain and will think you cannot resist him. When you stand behind me looking magnificent, I feel certain he will take the bait.”
Harold thought about Lilith being magnificent. He couldn't quite see it himself, but who knew the minds of the vain super-rich? Still, she did have those thighs.
Lilith didn't want to look magnificent. In her opinion, all attempts to repackage her outward appearance denied her essential nature. This view, however, would not be shared by those who were tasked with repackaging. Success with this woman could make a career, and with an eye to their futures, each artisan brought their best game.
Because they couldn't alter her shape, the tailors crafted a smock of oiled black leather, inlaid with polished brass strips for that warrior look. They also went with an Empire cut that fell away from the bust in a cone intended to hide the cone that was the shape of her body inside.
From the shoemakers came a handsome buckle boot with a platform sole that added length to her legs. From the hatters, a brass fedora with an owl feather decor that also served to lengthen her body, and held in place by a broad leather strap that captured both her chins.
The stylists were charged with plucking her moustache as well as parting her eyebrow. They also gave her this glossy black hair as well as concealing her missing teeth. They powdered over the worst of her scars, and for that final feminine touch, filigree lace was stitched to the cuffs of her black leather gloves.
Lilith resented the way she looked. At first, she'd wanted to trash the outfit except the street smart Marty knew best. They went on a date in a bad part of town where she entered this tavern self-consciously. Two minutes later she'd laid out three loudmouths who'd taken cheap shots at the way she was dressed.
This altercation would change the room's dynamics. After the brawl, she owned the place, everyone wanting to be her friend and some of the men, be it ever so shyly, even tried hitting on her.
“There you go,” said Marty. “The outfit's got nothing to do with it. It's only there as camouflage to help with the mission. You're still the same person inside, taking no garbage and winning your fights. That's the Lilith they'll all remember,” and how could she argue with that.
While Lilith was being got ready, Lord Aubrey wrote to Erasmo, saying that he'd be travelling west and bringing two proxies to use at the Council's next meeting. Rather than sailing through Marbury, he might be persuaded to land at Afula if that could be made worth his while. He'd been instructed to test the market, and would that include Erasmo? Since making this side trip affected his plans, he'd need an answer within a few days.
The letter came back requesting he land at Afula, breaking his journey to visit the lodge in Beth Meron. Convenient to the castle, Erasmo would also visit the lodge, and they could at least hold talks about talks. Having the answer he wanted, the old man told the others get ready. The mission was on.
They'd travel by coach as far as the coast, then six weeks at sea to Afula, and four days by stage to Beth Meron, only renting a carriage once they arrived. With Marty as coachman, he'd be in position to hire what he needed. He'd also get chance to gossip with locals, hearing rumours and making connections, a thing he could do like nobody else.
Ahead of the journey, Lord Aubrey changed from his old frock coat, dressing instead with a chain of office hung over a full-length black linen robe. This outfit would come with a matching black skull cap, a look that featured his parchment white skin. Despite his age, he'd be making the trip to act as their negotiator.
When he learned that, Harold was curious. While knowing that he'd excel in the role, Harold still wondered why someone that age would be bothered to come. Just what did Angela have on him that would make him commit to this mission? On one occasion, when they were alone, he found the courage to ask.
Lord Aubrey smiled with just his mouth, “If I told you, Harold,” he said, “you'd have to be killed,” and Harold knew that wasn't a joke.
Time to leave, and Angela had her team. Lord Aubrey would do the planning and take the lead with Erasmo. Lilith would come as his bodyguard, standing behind him and glaring at people while wearing her shiny black leathers. Equally sharp in spiked collar and black leather harness, Raj would act as the seeing-eye guard dog, the old man claiming that age had robbed him of most of his sight. A study in black, when all three stood together, they gave off a vibe that made most rooms go quiet.
Marty's cover would be as their driver, but Harold had no particular role except for his connection with Raj. If just for that reason they felt him worth bringing, pretending that he was Lord Aubrey's aide, required to take notes and run errands.
With being mostly redundant, Harold began to think twice about going. He didn't, however, act on his feelings, not wanting Lilith to think him a coward.
This failure to act would backfire. Already well into the journey and starting to learn of its risks, Harold at last decided he ought not to go, but still concerned with losing face, he hung around for too long. Already on board before he concluded this mission just wasn't for him, he ran to the deck rail, only to see open water.