The following standalone story was published in Sword and Sorcery Magazine and now appears in their August 2018 Archive under my pen name, T.S. Lance. “The Land of Sun” is one of my favorite stories, and to date, the only one I’ve had published.
I hope that I’ll find the chance to publish more stories about Winoc and his crew.
Let me know what you think, enjoy!
The Land of Sun
Timber-framed, wattle and daub apartments crowded the cobblestone streets, leaving scarcely enough room for one carriage to pass another. Charming little shops filled the bottom floor of every building. I pushed my way through the market and around an oxcart driver unloading crates of leeks and shallots. Ordinarily, people would move out of my way, but they didn’t recognize me; I wouldn’t dare walk these streets in my princely attire. My cotton tunic and breeches, belt, and leather-soled hosen served to let me pass unnoticed.
The women still noticed me.
I exchanged smiles with a couple of young ladies waiting on the cathedral steps for the doors to open. Summer dresses. Hair uncovered. Unattached.
Even in this drab clothing, I still had a certain appeal. At least I hoped so. The woman I was on my way to meet wasn’t easily impressed.
I stopped at the doors of the tavern she had written about. Red brick fill and dark wood, with a heavy oaken door and small, shuttered windows. It took some effort to pull the door open. I walked inside. It closed behind me and clicked with the authority of a prison cell.
Dark stained tables and log benches stretched across a stone tile floor, older than the city itself. Candles burned in the wall sconces. I licked my lips. The thick smell of spice and fried potatoes cleared my sinuses.
No one here besides me and the bartender. Strange, given the crowded streets.
I sat down at the table closest to the hearth where the room was warm and bright, nodded to the bartender, and raised a finger for a glass.
He handed me a leather cup of fruity wine. “Your highness,” he said. I sat up straighter and looked him in the eye. He averted his gaze, respectfully. “It is an honor to serve you. Strange omens today. Might be safest if you left. I divined an evil portent and warned off my other customers.”
“I wouldn’t say she’s evil.”
“She?” His eyes widened.
I lifted the cup, breathed in the fruity aroma, and sipped. Better than I expected. I gave him an approving nod and waved him off without a word.
He walked behind the bar, took his coat, and vanished through the kitchen doors, leaving me alone.
Church bells rang, letting me know that more than an hour had passed since I had sat down. I half-finished a second bottle of wine; it was all I could do to relax. I took another sip and tried to convince myself seeing her was a good idea.
The door opened to strangely quiet streets. Emile slipped through like a ghost. She moved with such grace she could be floating.
I walked over to greet her. Reminded myself to breathe.
She was more beautiful than I remembered. Emile was born only days before me but looked ten years younger; she could pass for twenty. The long curls of her raven-black hair fell uncovered around her lean shoulders. Her red velvet gown hung to her ankles. The rapier at her side was warning enough that this was no ordinary woman. But for those of us more educated, the jade talisman that dangled from a silver chain was cause for real worry—its enchantments warded against the end of the world.
She smiled with such warmth, you’d never know I had betrayed her.
“Your highness.” Emile bobbed in the smallest, most elegant curtsy.
I returned a slight bow. “My lady.”
She took my arm as I led her to her seat. Pulled out a chair for her. Poured her a glass of the better wine.
“Always a gentleman,” she said. I couldn’t find the bitterness in her voice, but knew it had to be there.
I smiled my best charming smile and returned to my seat. Topped off my own glass. Her fair complexion, rosy cheeks, and little freckles seemed to pale in the firelight. She didn’t meet my gaze but sipped her wine and stared into her cup. “They use such sweet grapes here,” she said.
“That they do.”
Her hand crept across the table. Delicate fingers half curled pointed limply into the wood. I couldn’t help resting my hand next to hers. Our fingers brushed, and my heart skipped as she took my hand.
Emile looked so vulnerable, even though she was the strongest woman I knew. It was a gift. An opening of her heart.
“I see you’re still unattached,” I said.
She closed her eyes for a moment. “What can I say. No one else could break my heart.”
I met her eyes. Watched her face soften. “I’m sorry about how things turned—”
“The past is the past.” Emile squeezed my hand. “Leave it there, please.” Her lips tightened, and she looked into her cup.
“So, why did you come back?” Why give me a second chance?
“It’s a strange story.”
Emile sat up straight. “I dream walked to the higher realms. Fairies showed me the path to the world between worlds, and to the Land of Sun. It was unimaginably beautiful.” She clasped my hand with both of hers. “The doors are near, but the price is high. I’m afraid that once I go through the first, I won’t be strong enough to keep going.”
“That’s not all, is it?” I took a long drink.
“The Land of Sun changes you. Fills you with light and hope and blesses you with immortality. Not petty regeneration or eternal youth, but the ability to transcend worlds. If I find it, I won’t be the same, and that scares me.” She looked around the empty bar. “I’m already so alone.” Her emerald eyes were startlingly beautiful. “I want us to see it together. To change, together. I don’t want to leave you behind.”
“After everything that happened?”
She nodded. Pressed her lips against my fingers.
I didn’t know what to say, so I stared at her, dumbly.
“Come with me?” she asked.
How could I say no?
The Tower of Insight sat inside the inner walls near the palace. Winding stone pathways hooked through the royal gardens. Bats fluttered between the buildings in the failing light. I admired the ornate trees. The statues. The many-colored flowers, small and large.
A young woman caught my eye. She wore a deep blue gown made of fine silk. Her long blond hair was braided and tied under a golden hood. Even though the sun had slipped below the walls, she carried a small parasol and twirled it gracefully. The Duchess of Celles no doubt. Why was she out alone? I stopped by her side and followed her gaze to the rose bushes.
“My lady, wonderful, aren’t they?”
“Your highness.” She curtsied and smiled with her eyes. “They are.”
Curious to see her out without the Duke. I picked a rose in full bloom with a fine, straight stem and handed it to her. She held it to her nose and smiled shyly.
“I thought I might find you in the garden,” she said. “Do you still love poetry?”
“I do, though I’ve found little time for writing.”
She gestured with a pull of her head to the western tower of the palace. Its red clay shingles still burning in the sun. “My room is more private. Would you like to read some of your favorites?”
Yes. Yes, I would. Though I hated to admit it, the Duchess was a touch more beautiful than Emile, with a softer body and more worldly charm. I looked back to the Tower of Insight, thought of Emile’s green eyes, and knew that I’d never be able to enjoy myself with the Duchess. Maybe when I got back.
“Another time, my lady.” I gave her a short, polite bow. “I have an important meeting with the sages.”
Her face was unreadable. “Your highness.” She curtsied and walked away.
I continued in silence to the tower. Ten stories of silvery stone housed the sages, their alchemical laboratories, and the finest library in Aquitani. The darkly stained door swung open of its own volition. Torches lit the short hallway and spiral staircase. I walked inside. The door closed behind me, trapping me in eerie silence.
“Hello?” My voice echoed. There was no answer.
The Angelic Machines were housed in the uppermost floor where they could be calibrated according to the position of the stars. I climbed the spiral staircase and found the door to the laboratory open. My pack, arms and armor waited for me at the foot of an ancient desk. A huge, clockwork device filled the center of the room and worked its way into the rafters. Alchemical equipment and bookcases filled in the edges, leaving precious little space to walk.
Emile waved from the far side of the machine. “I’m nearly ready, and we have the tower to ourselves. I’m glad to see you.”
“I’m happy to be here, but don’t you want one of the old masters watching out when you open the portal?”
She shook her head. “I don’t want them to accidently get pulled through. The machine isn’t completely predictable.”
“Fair enough.” I strapped on my armor and put on my helmet, unsure of what we would find on the other side. From experience, I didn’t entirely trust the machine.
But I trusted her.
Emile anointed a black candle with oil, lit it, and placed it in a tall holder before the control panel. Beside it, a purple crystal sat glowing in a silver bowl. “Is that a phylactery?” I asked. Sorcerers would put their souls in stones to gain faux immortality. I had no idea Emile dabbled in that kind of necromancy.
“Yes.” She didn’t look up from the hundred nobs and levers on the brass table. “And more. My magic is in there too.”
“Your magic?” My brow furrowed.
“The machine isn’t easy to power, but have faith, it will be worth it.”
I swallowed hard and rested heavily on the windowsill. Couldn’t let her see my face. She was giving up her magic to take us through. Emile didn’t seem bothered at all. Just one more spell. I couldn’t help but feel a profound sense of loss. There must have been another way. What’s a soul’s worth in gold?
“I know what you’re thinking,” she said. I turned and found her standing right in front of me. She smiled sweetly and took my hands. “Please, trust me when I tell you it will be worth it. What we get back will be so much more.”
She leaned in and rested her hands on my chest. Looked up with those emerald eyes. I touched her chin, tilted her mouth towards mine, and kissed her softly. Her scent was intoxicating. I’d forgotten that about her. Magical herbs and scented oils. I took a deep breath and kissed her again. She pressed herself against me. Ran her fingers across my chest plate and let them linger on my hips.
Emile stepped back to the machine and opened a door on what looked like a little furnace. Made of brass, its piping spiderwebbed through the gears of the machine. She picked up the phylactery and placed it inside. I wanted to stop her; maybe I should have.
She took the black candle, set it at the base of the machine, and stepped back. I followed her example and made some room. Emile pressed her palms together as if praying, closed her eyes, and kicked a small lever with her foot. The little furnace glowed with a purple light as the gears turned. She chanted the ancient words, her voice low and smoky.
The flame of the candle turned blue and rose into the rafters, though I didn’t feel any heat. It spread, wider and brighter until the candle vanished, leaving behind a hole in the air. Fascinating. I stepped closer. The portal was like a window, fogged on an overcast day.
Emile donned a dark hooded cloak embroidered with silvery runes, took an ivory scepter from the table, and offered me her hand. “Follow me.”
Together, we walked through the rift. Sheets of grey washed over me as if I were caught in a storm. My hand slipped through hers but found it again when the world appeared.
We stood on tended grass, surrounded by gardens of inhuman beauty. A field of flowers blanketed distant hills—a thousand colors I couldn’t begin to describe. Ornate, flowering trees with many-colored buds formed straight rows under the purple sky.
Incredible that this wasn’t even our destination. She had called this the “space between worlds.” How much more glorious was the next? I’d never be able to look at the palace gardens in the same way again. I turned to Emile with a huge smile stretching across my face.
“Amazing,” she whispered. Her knees buckled, and she staggered forward holding her head. I caught her and lowered her to the ground.
“Whoa, are you all right?” I asked.
“Crossing over was harder than I thought. I have to sleep.” She touched the talisman. A dome of silvery light surrounded us. “Just for a few hours. Wait with me, please?”
“Of course, my lady.”
“Stay close,” she said. “The threshold guardians will try to stop us. Trust the amulet to keep us safe.”
“I promise.” I ran my fingers through her hair and scratched the back of her neck until her breathing became soft and rhythmic.
Her eyes opened halfway. “I can’t wait to see your face when heaven opens to us.” Emile smiled dreamily, brushed my cheek with her fingers, and fell asleep. I rested her head on a tuft of grass.
Fireflies danced while I sat and watched her sleep. The twilight of the unchanging purple sky made telling time impossible. I yawned once, stood, and walked around the inside of the shimmering barrier.
A woman screamed beyond a short, wooded hill. “Help!” In an instant, I had my sword in hand and ran after her.
From the top of the hill I saw her—a tall, gorgeous woman with impossibly long ears and a torn dress ran for her life. Behind her, an ogre of a man. His blotchy, green skin, and twisted, asymmetrical face were appalling. He stood at least eight feet tall and held a giant, bone cudgel.
“Face me!” I gripped the hilt in both hands and raised it high.
The ogre broke off the chase and stalked my way. Just in time. The elven girl tripped and scrambled on hands and knees behind a tree.
He swung the cudgel in the air, snarling.
I grinned and beckoned the ogre to hurry with my hand. He gnashed his teeth like corn in a mill, raised the cudgel, and roared.
He charged as I backed up with my sword held high. The ogre’s strides were longer than a man is tall. He bounded up the hill as I faded over the other side, giving up the high ground. To look up and see an ogre is truly terrifying.
I dug my rear foot into the soft grass and drew my sword back for a single powerful blow. The ogre didn’t even slow down. The combination of confidence and gravity drove him on. His swing bruised the air over my head as I dodged to the right, letting his legs rake against the edge. My sword bit deeply into the flesh above the knees. His legs gave out and he tumbled down the hill.
The ogre struggled to pull himself up with the lowest branch of an ash tree. I charged down the hill, bounded past him, and dashed my sword across the back of his neck before he stood.
His body slumped to the ground.
Green blood ran from my sword. I circled back and wiped the blade across the tattered rags that hung from his shoulders.
The elven woman walked down the hill as I sheathed my sword.
I looked myself over to be sure nothing got on my clothing. “My lady, are you unhurt?”
She winked, picked a blue flower from a thorny bush, and placed it in my hair. Surprisingly unshaken. “I am safe, my lord, thanks to you.”
I kissed her hand and found it warm to the touch.
“Humans rarely travel this world. What brings you here?” she asked.
“My companion and I are searching for the portal leading to the Land of Sun.” I point back at the ogre’s body. “I don’t suppose that thing was the fabled threshold guardian?”
“No…The threshold guardian is unimaginably terrifying, but so long as you don’t try to go through, it won’t bother you.” She stepped closer. “I know the way. Would you like to see?”
“Let me get my companion. Come with me.”
She shook her head. “I’m needed home soon, and the hill is right there. Your friend is protected, is he not?”
“She, and yes, I suppose so.” Emile wanted me to see the portal with her, but what’s the difference?
The elf wrapped her arm through mine and led me back over the hill, through a wide circle of tiny pink flowers. She guided my hand to her ass and trembled slightly as I felt her curves. Looked back over my shoulder once or twice to make sure Emile wasn’t watching. I didn’t see her, so I kept walking, looking forward to whatever else the elf had in mind.
We came to a cave leading into the ground. Struck me as unnatural. Dwarves built caves like these in antiquity, but I’d never seen one.
“Down through here?” I asked, skeptically.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of. As I said, the threshold guardian protects the abode of the gods, not a hole in the ground.”
I shrugged and rested my hand on the hilt of my sword. “Very well.” We walked into the darkness.
The shaft only descended five meters. For that, I was thankful. We walked, arm in arm, until the path was too dark too see. The elf held out an open palm and summoned a sphere of sparkling prismatic light. It was barely enough to see by, but we kept walking.
The tunnel led to a square chamber that might have been the basement of an ancient building. Odd. The stone tile floor reminded me of that bar back in the lower quarter. Stoas lined the walls of roughly worked stone. She walked to the dais and gently tossed the prismatic light onto its center. “I don’t know why you would want to go to the Land of Sun,” she said. I took a step closer, but she warned me back with a look. “Careful of the guardian. It knows my place is here, but it doesn’t know you.”
I swallowed hard and watched.
The sphere of light expanded until a portal opened in the air. Wind rushed through the doorway, hot and dry. Dark brown sand stretched into the distance under the light of two suns. The heat alone was enough to make me back up, let alone the serpent. It crawled over the dunes, iridescent scales reflected blinding light. I was thankful it was too large to fit through the portal, though I would be face to face with it soon enough.
Elves were supposed to be immune to the elements, but she shielded her face from the heat with her hand and turned to me. “You must have powerful magic if you plan to survive there.”
Shaken, I smoothed the wrinkles of my sleeves. “I suppose so. Would you like me to escort you home before I get my companion?”
She shook her head. “Don’t worry about me. Without the ogre, I can find my own way.”
We walked back the way we came. The magical portal closed as we exited the room. I bowed to her and jogged back to find Emile.
She was still sleeping, protected by the dome of light. I walked through the barrier, confident it wouldn’t harm me, and sat in the soft grass beside her, wishing for a drink.
The Land of Sun was a joke.
She turned towards me and opened those big emerald eyes. Her expression was stern.
“Sleep well,” I asked?
“My spirit flew. I saw you walking, arm in arm with an elven woman.” She searched my eyes and laughed. “You really are incorrigible.” Thank the gods she isn’t the jealous type.
“Nothing happened between us, I swear.”
Emile sat up, threw a little grass at my chest. “Your loss. I hear there’s nothing like an elf in bed.”
“She isn’t the first woman I’ve turned down since you came back.”
Emile scooted closer. “And I’m glad for that.” She brushed her nose against my cheek, took my hand, and stood. I stood with her.
“How were you able to dream travel? I thought you said you gave up your magic,” I asked.
“Anyone can dream travel. Having magic makes it more likely your spirit will fly on its own, but I’m already used to it.”
My chest felt tight, and I couldn’t say why at first. I couldn’t believe she gave up her magic for… this. The portal was a deathtrap. My brow furrowed. What would I tell her?
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
I walked to the edge of the wall of light. Rubbed the concern from my eyes and cleared my throat as if I were going to address the court. Tried not to look at her. Even without her magic, she was still the wisest woman I’d ever known, educated in all the sciences, both natural and supernatural. Strong. Young. Elegant. In short, perfect.
Now that she had given up her power, maybe she could settle down.
I turned to face her. She cocked her head to the side in confusion.
“What if we don’t go through the portal? We’re perfect the way we are, and we can do anything together. The world is ours,” I said.
“What are you saying?”
Now or never.
I knelt. “Marry me.”
She laughed and looked away to hide her face. “You can’t be serious.”
Blushing, I stood, but didn’t back down.
She sauntered forward and rested her hands on my shoulders. “And we will rule forever and ever in wisdom and prosperity.”
“Until the end.”
First, just a smile, and then her face twisted with laughter and she staggered back. This wasn’t exactly the reaction I had hoped for.
“You’re serious?” she asked.
“More than anything.”
“Leonide…” Suddenly calm, the humor gone from her face. “I have to see this through. Even though we don’t know how things will change, I promise you what’s on the other side is more beautiful and glorious than anything you can imagine.”
“The portal is a lie.”
Her eyes narrowed and darkened as she tilted her head.
“The elf showed me the portal. It’s not far at all. The guardian didn’t appear, though he will if we try to enter. I don’t think we should.” I took a breath. “The other side is a nightmare. It’s nothing but a monster-infested desert, hot enough to kill us in minutes. I’m so sorry.”
Emile folded her arms. Her lip trembled as the dome of light vanished, its power draining back into her talisman and making it glow with pale blue energy. “How could you?”
“What do you mean?”
“I gave up so much, so we could see it together.”
I sighed with frustration. “There’s nothing to see.”
“You really don’t get it, do you.”
She brushed past me towards the cave. I knew she didn’t want me to see her cry.
Especially when there was nothing to cry about.
I followed her uselessly, sword in hand, hoping for another ogre. Emile seemed to know where we were going. She led the way down the tunnel and into the inky darkness, with only the light of the jade talisman to guide us.
We entered the large chamber. Emile clapped her hands, and the talisman’s blue light filled the room. The elven woman stood before the dais, blocking our path.
“I told you not to come back,” said the elf.
Emile shot me a wicked glance. “This is her?”
The jade talisman’s light grew brighter and brighter. She took it in her left hand and held it towards the elf. “Cast off these illusions and show us your true form.”
A smile cut wide across the elf’s face. She bared her teeth and wagged her finger. Her body faded, and as if a curtain were pulled away, I found myself standing face to face with a dragon.
The dragon unfolded its great wings and hovered in the air, floating effortlessly on a slender, snake-like body. Its scales were an armored coat of layered sapphires. Its eyes, diamonds. “Leave the way you came.” Unnerving that it still used the elven woman’s voice. “You are not worthy.”
“I won’t be denied,” said Emile.
She backed away from the dragon, letting me ahead of her. I pointed the tip of my sword its way, hoping that it was of the tooth-and-claw variety, rather than the spell-and-fire kind.
Something scraped across the stone tiles, approaching us from either side. A nervous energy crept up my arms and back, making my skin hurt. I gritted my teeth and waited. The scraping stopped, and a pair of great swords lifted off the floor and floated before the dragon as if it were holding them in invisible hands.
“Come then,” said Emile.
The dragon flapped its wings once and darted at us like an arrow. Its floating blades led the way. “Stay behind me!” I slapped its swords aside with a stroke of my own and ducked its bite. Heard the dragon’s teeth snap overhead, breath like molten iron.
I looked over my shoulder for Emile, hoping she was safe. Tears streaked her makeup. She mouthed the words silently.
How could you.
Her dark cloak fluttered. Its embroidered runes glowed, and she dissolved into the floor.
“Emile!” I parried the dragon’s enchanted swords with a flourish. Punched the pommel of my blade into its snout. Knocked a sapphire loose. “Emile!”
She rose from the floor behind the dragon and held the jade talisman towards the dais. “Open.” Her voice quivered.
The dragon flapped its wings and rose to the ceiling, knowing not to turn its back on me. “No,” it screamed, but it was too late. The portal opened to the blistering desert.
“Cast off these illusions and show us your true form.” Emile stepped towards the portal, and the scene changed. Rolling hills and yellow flowers. Thick trees climbed towards distant cliffs, split by raging waterfalls. A cool breeze blew through. In the sky, a thousand dragons and gods, ageless and beautiful. They beckoned to her to join them.
Paradise eternal. I couldn’t believe it.
The dragon hung its head reverently and hid its swords behind its wings.
Emile turned to me, still sobbing.
“Wait!” I said. “Please, I’m sorry.”
“I don’t know why I thought you’d understand.” Our eyes stayed locked for what felt like an eternity. I took the smallest step towards her, and she stepped though the portal. Warm sunlight surrounded her, lifting her into the sky.
“Wait!” I lunged after her, but the dragon flew in my way. It hurled me back with a flap of its wings.
And the portal closed, leaving me in the dark with the dragon.
I heard it snort, and a blue flame appeared on the braziers in the four corners of the room. The dragon stalked towards me, eyes like stars, teeth gleaming. I adjusted my grip and readied myself for certain death.
And it stopped, stepped to the side, and bowed its head. The portal opened again, this time showing me the palace gardens. “Go.”
I was numb. My arms hung limply at my sides. I had betrayed Emile a second time and didn’t even realize it. Did she know the dragon would let me live?
I’d like to think so. “Thank you, but why?”
Why anything… I sheathed my sword and walked towards the portal. Turned to look at the dragon one last time, holding my breath that it didn’t strike me down.
The dragon returned to its elven form and shook her head ruefully. “What I would give for someone who loved me the way she loves you.” She turned her back and walked away. My face burned. Who was she to judge me?
I stepped through the portal and found myself alone in the gardens of my home.
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