Free Stuff

An astute reader noticed that I haven’t been posting Free Fiction Thursday stories in quite some time, and I miss doing that.  While my current writing schedule doesn’t allow me to post a new story every week (too many longer projects in the works!), I’m going to start posting a free story once a month.

I decided to start out with “The Magic of Home,” the first story I wrote for the Uncollected Anthology’s Magical Motorcycles issue, and the first story to feature Twig, my street-smart elf, and her friend Jocko, the over-sized dwarf.

If you’d like to read more about Twig and Jocko, check out the link at the end of the story.

The motorcycle whispered to Twig as they zoomed past the shipyards at the south end of Moretown Bay.

Home.

Tucked safely inside her helmet, the tips of Twig’s long ears quivered in response to the motorcycle’s rumbling voice. She felt its yearning not only in the subtle change in its magic, but in the throaty roar of the engine as they increased speed, racing north on I-5 toward the city that shared its name with the bay.

Twig leaned forward. “Almost there,” she said. “Almost there.”

Her words tore apart on the damp night air rushing past her, but she knew their meaning would still reach the heart of the machine that had been her friend for a decade. Not all magical beings needed ears to hear or words to understand.

As much as she wanted to get them both home, they couldn’t afford to draw the attention of any police—or wizards—who might be patrolling the freeway.

I-5 passed through the center of the city as the freeway wound its way north into Canada, a wide ribbon of asphalt and concrete hemmed in by high-rise office buildings, luxury hotels, and apartment buildings too rich for Twig’s blood. This part of the freeway had always been heavily patrolled. Twig doubted that had changed in the years she’d been gone, so she throttled back on the engine to bring their speed closer to the surrounding traffic.

The motorcycle fought her, so Twig whispered soothing words to it until it accepted her decision. She hoped it was the right one.

Under other circumstances, just seeing the city itself might have taken her breath away. Tonight the sky was clear. No fog had rolled in off the water to obscure the view, and the tall buildings in the city center gleamed like jewels against the starry sky. She could make out the spires of the Justice Center, gleaming white and silver like a monument to law and order for all, human and magic folk alike. Spotlights had turned the modern glass and steel Trexler Towers blue and green, the colors for a local sports team.

Twig wasn’t surprised that the city was still celebrating the team’s world championship, even though that particular sport wasn’t truly played on a global scale. Everyone, magic folk and humans alike, needed something outside themselves to believe in.

Hurry, the motorcycle whispered. Gillfoil approaches.

Twig tensed. As sensitive as her ears were to the currents of magic in the world around her, the motorcycle’s senses far exceeded hers. If the motorcycle felt the presence of the gang’s enforcer, that meant he was near.

“Where?” she asked.

Behind. Less than a mile.

“Can we make it?”

The motorcycle hesitated. Twig could imagine her friend calculating speed and distance, and the effect of mass and magic on both.

No.

Her heart sank. So close. They were so damn close.

The damp air carried a trace of the tantalizing scent of tall pines and loamy earth even over prevailing mustiness of the bay. She could almost feel the warm embrace of her grandmother’s arms, the strong magic of her grandfather and his father and the wizard they protected.

It had been years since Twig had been to the enclave on Marlette Island, but it was still her home. They were still her people. Even someone like Gillfoil wouldn’t dare set foot on sacred elven soil.

The freeway had widened to five lanes. The two on the left led through the heart of the city; the three on the right branched into a maze of off-ramps and interchanges.

One of those interchanges would take them to another freeway that would eventually lead to the island, but that route would add another hour to the journey. Twig had hoped to take a ferry to the island instead, but the exit for the ferries was still five miles away.

Gillfoil operated outside the law, and things like speed limits and the police were minor annoyances at most. He’d have more than enough time to overtake them no matter what route they tried to take to the island.

Twig had no hope of fighting him on the open road. Gillfoil was ruthless, and she didn’t have enough magic to go up against him on her own.

She had no time for second thoughts.

She leaned into a quick turn, cutting across two lanes of traffic, thankful for the quick reflexes of the drivers who braked and swerved to avoid hitting them. She pointed the motorcycle toward an exit on the left they had nearly missed.

She could feel her friend’s disappointment as the tone of its magic slid into a more subdued range even as she gunned the engine at the bottom of the exit ramp and they tore down a darkened city street.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered to the rumble of the motorcycle’s engine echoing off cracked concrete sidewalks and boarded up storefronts. “I don’t know where else to go.”

The motorcycle didn’t answer.

It didn’t know either.

* * *

Twig left her friend in a spot in the alley behind Jocko’s club where the flow of magic was thin. The overflowing trash bin at the mouth of the alley would hide the motorcycle from sight of those passing by on the street, and without a strong flow of magic, Gillfoil wouldn’t be able to sense her friend unless he stumbled on the alley by accident.

At least Twig hoped so. Even with the sensitivity her long ears afforded her, Gillfoil’s sense of magic was greater than her own.

She’d locked her helmet down on the seat. Before she reached the entrance to Jocko’s club she scrubbed her hands through her hair until it was a wild auburn tangle around her thin face.

She’d look more human this way, and with her dark leathers, she’d look more like she belonged in The Shadows with the rest of the hard case humans who called this part of Moretown Bay home.

Unfortunately, there was no hiding her ears, not without a veil, and Twig couldn’t use one. A veil tinged with her magic would be like a homing signal to Gillfoil.

Delicately pointed, the tips of her ears were longer than her index finger, curving up and back along the sides of her head. They marked her as royalty among her people, a position she’d given up when she’d left Marlette Island. Her family may or may not want her back, but her ears would have at least given her entry into the enclave had she been able to get there.

Her ears gave her trouble now even getting through the door into Jocko’s club.

Her ears, and the fact that she looked about fourteen years old to most humans.

The bouncer manning the front door of Jocko’s Club was definitely human. He shook his head when he saw her.

“Come back when you reach puberty, honey.” His gaze slid down the front of her leathers. “And you grow some tits the size of those ears.”

The man towered over her, all beefy muscles and heavy brows. He had a scar that ran along one side of his chin and another on his forehead. Heavy tattoos were clearly visible on his skull through the shaved stubble of his dark hair.

Twig resisted the urge to tell him that she had reached puberty before he’d been born.

As for the rest, she wasn’t surprised.

The outline of a naked woman gyrated overhead, illuminating the name of the club: Snow’s Palace. The finest strip club in The Shadows, or so Jocko had told her on the day he cashed out his pension and bought the place.

The bouncer clearly thought that any woman who came here was looking for work, but Twig didn’t have time to deal with his assumptions.

“I need to speak with Jocko,” she said.

“Last time I checked, dwarves don’t get along so well with elves. Especially underage elves.”

Twig stepped toward the bouncer. She crooked her finger in a come-closer gesture, and he actually bent forward.

Bad move.

Twig grabbed the lobe of his ear with one hand while the other found his crotch and squeezed. Hard.

All the color left his face the same time the air left his lungs. Twig had a strong grip. The years she’d spent riding motorcycles had only enhanced her natural strength.

“This particular dwarf will see me,” she said. “He likes me. Will that be a problem for you?”

The bouncer shook his head. Beads of sweat had popped out on his forehead, but he hadn’t yelled for help. He probably didn’t want anyone to know that he’d let a little elf girl get him by the balls.

“I didn’t think so,” Twig said.

She let go of him, and he sank to his knees, his hands cradling his bruised privates. Twig walked past him into the club without a second glance.

Jocko had made few changes in the years since he’d bought the place. Other than the battered surfboards that hung from the walls at the sides of the club, testaments to Jocko’s favorite pastime, the decor was still the same combination of exploitation and desperation that Twig remembered.

The elevated stage up front still dominated the windowless room. The same battered round tables were scattered on the floor in front of the stage, and Twig could have sworn the same tired drunks sat at those tables sucking down the same overpriced drinks while they watched the dancers perform.

Except for dim candles on the tables and the discrete lights behind the bar in back, the only lights in the place were the spotlights focused on the three women dancing on stage.

The tips of Twig’s ears tingled as she heard the tone of the women’s magic.

Make that three changelings who had shaped their bodies to look like human women.

The sound of oldies rock pounded at Twig’s sensitive ears. Surfing music by the Beach Boys to go with the new wall decorations. Only Jocko would make his strippers dance to something like that.

She took a moment to admire the changelings as they danced to beats that had never been meant for a bump and grind routine. Jocko always did know how to pick quality staff, even if his choice in music left a lot to be desired.

Twig made her way to the bar.

The bartender was human. He was dark and muscular but not as beefy as the bouncer, and he possessed no magic that Twig could hear.

She leaned over the polished wooden surface of the bar so she wouldn’t have to shout over the music. “Jocko? Is he here tonight?”

The bartender raised one eyebrow, probably wondering how a kid made it past the bouncer, but instead of telling her to get the hell out, he merely nodded toward a table at the far corner of the room.

She should have known. Jocko never used to hire bouncers for inside his club, and it didn’t look like that had changed. He’d always preferred to do that kind of work himself.

Jocko, now he had changed. Twig saw that immediately when she got close to his table. It wasn’t that his hair was longer and thicker or that his beard was clean. It wasn’t even the tropical print shirt he wore to hide the massive bulk of his body, or the sandals on his hairy feet.

It was his eyes.

When Twig had seen Jocko last, those deep brown eyes had held a twinkle of excitement. Back then the club had still been a new adventure. He’d renamed the place to deliberately poke fun at an old fairy tale the humans used to tell their children, and he was always surrounded by friends and drinks and laughter.

Twig had been one of those friends right up until the day she decided to leave Moretown Bay.

Now Jocko sat alone at his table, an untouched mug of beer in front of him. He looked at Twig with eyes that appeared to have forgotten laughter existed in the world, and for a moment, she didn’t think he even recognized her.

Then he snorted. “Never thought you’d come back here again,” he said. “I’d tell you to pull up a chair, but you won’t be staying that long.”

“Hello to you, too,” she said.

She turned one of the empty chairs at Jocko’s table around backwards and straddled it, giving herself a moment to listen to the eddies of magic that swirled around one of her oldest friends in Moretown Bay. She sensed no spells at work, no mood dampening hexes or defensive glamours that would account for Jocko’s reaction to her.

He was genuinely annoyed. She’d always heard it said that dwarves had long memories, although among her clan it was more joke than warning. Apparently the saying was true.

Twig wasn’t egotistical enough to believe that Jocko had slipped into a years-long mope just because of her. Something else was going on. Something serious. If Gillfoil hadn’t been on her tail, she could take the time to cajole it out of him, but right now time was a commodity she didn’t have to spend on anybody but the friend who waited patiently for her in the alley.

“Snap out of it,” she said. “I need your help.”

Jocko snorted. “Oh, that’s rich. Waltz in here like it’s yesterday, bring whatever trouble you got into with you. What am I supposed to do about it?” He jerked his head toward the stage. “I’m not in that line of work anymore, in case you haven’t noticed.”

No kidding. “If you were still a cop, I wouldn’t have come to you.”

Jocko had worked Vice until he’d abruptly quit and cashed in his pension. Twig had never seen any of his old cop buddies in the club, and he’d never talked about any of them.

The friends who used to flock to this place had been people like Twig—strays and oddities who called this rough neighborhood home. Once Jocko had made it clear he was no longer in the business of busting their ass for buying a piece of strange on the street or using an unlicensed spell or two, the street people began to trust him. They’d recognized a kindred spirit in the dwarf who stood over six feet tall and never talked about what had to be a singularly unique heritage.

“I need a Merlin,” she said.

His eyes narrowed, the flat emptiness replaced with genuine emotion—anger. “Get the hell out of my club.”

Twig didn’t move.

She was pushing him hard, asking for an introduction to a wizard who worked black market spells, but she didn’t have time for subtle. Jocko knew everyone on the streets. She’d been away for too long to find a Merlin on her own, and she couldn’t afford to have some street snitch remember her face when Gillfoil came around asking about her.

“Please,” she said.

Jocko abruptly turned his head toward the dancers on the stage. Other people might have mistaken the gesture for a dismissal, but Twig knew better.

The oversized dwarf who’d never had his kin’s natural aversion to elves had a soft spot for women in trouble. All sorts of women in trouble, whether they were elves or changelings or goblin gang members tired of being used as a punching bag by their male counterparts. The first dancers he’d hired at the club were former prostitutes, changelings most of them. Jocko gave them a job and kept them on the payroll as long as they kept off the streets.

In those early days Jocko had more wannabe dancers applying for work than he had money to pay them. If he couldn’t hire them, he found a place for them to stay on the cheap and used his street connections to find them other work. He even busted a few abusers’ heads before word got out that trying to get your woman back by crossing the dwarf at Snow’s Palace wasn’t good for your health.

Twig had never worked the stage, never did the bump and grind for dollar bills shoved in a G-string, but she’d been one of the women Jocko had rescued. She’d been grateful, and she’d been his friend, and never once in all the years they’d known each other had she played on his one weakness.

Until now.

He heaved a great sigh that smelled of alcohol and cigarettes. Twig tried not to react. Jocko never used to drink, and he’d never smoked as far as she knew.

“There’s a price,” he said, still not looking at her.

“I’ve got money.” Not a lot, but she hoped it was enough to buy the spell that the wizard on Marlette could have done in his sleep.

“Still haven’t learned, have you?” He gave her a sideways glance. “Not everything’s about money.”

A shiver ran up Twig’s spine.

He was trying to judge how desperate she was. The old-school wizards didn’t take payment in money—they took magic. The Merlin that Jocko had in mind must be old school, which meant he’d want more than her money.

Twig only had one real thing of any value to another magic user—her ears.

She tried to imagine what life would be like without the ability to hear the world of magic around her. To sense its currents and eddies by the tones and harmonies of light and dark magic, and magic that fell somewhere in between. Could she give that up for her friend?

A friend who had been trapped inside a machine for as long as Twig had been alive?

The answer was a no-brainer. She never would have liberated the motorcycle from Gillfoil’s gang if she hadn’t been prepared to do whatever it took to free her friend.

“I know that,” she said. “I’m still asking.”

Jocko sighed again, and Twig waited. She’d said all she could to convince him. He’d either do it for her or not. She couldn’t play on his emotions by telling him the motorcycle’s story. It wouldn’t have mattered, not to Jocko. The being inside the motorcycle wasn’t a woman. Jocko had always said that men could look out for themselves, and he didn’t care if that made him a sexist pig.

The music switched to a different surfer rock song, and the dancers on stage began a new routine that looked like the last routine, only the dancers had switched places. Or the changelings had flowed their bodies to slightly different configurations—bigger breasts, narrower hips—to confuse the drunks. Twig wasn’t sure which. A topless waitress was circling among the patrons, delivering drinks and fending off unwanted caresses.

For the first time Twig saw the club as an outsider must see it—tacky and tawdry and depressing, even with the upbeat music.

She’d never felt depressed here, not back then when this all seemed new and exciting. Had Jocko’s excitement really been that contagious? And was his depression that contagious now?

Jocko stood up, sending his chair skittering backwards across the concrete floor. “Let’s go,” he said.

Let’s?

“All I want is an introduction,” she said.

“And all I wanted was a quiet night so I could sit in my corner and drink myself stupid. Looks like neither of us is going to luck out.”

What the hell had happened to him?

He glared down at her. “I don’t have all night.”

Twig didn’t have to be told twice.

She stood up and turned the chair back around, all in one fluid motion. Jocko headed toward the hallway that led to the offices at the back of the club, and Twig followed like the dutiful child she no doubt appeared.

They were halfway down the back hall when her sensitive ears heard the motorcycle cry out in fear and horror, and she knew they’d run out of time.

Gillfoil had found them.

* * *

Twig slammed out the back door of the club, her feet flying so fast she nearly took to the air. She didn’t know if Jocko was following her, and she didn’t have time to worry about what would happen if he wasn’t.

The door led into a service alley that ran along the back of all the buildings on the block.

Things had died here. Twig could still smell the stench of rot and decay, and she heard the quiet, sorrowful remnants of magic that had belonged to the dead. A Merlin could have called to that magic, used it to augment his own, but Twig wasn’t a Merlin. She was just a headstrong elf who couldn’t admit to herself when she’d been bested.

She’d left her friend at the far end of this alley, tucked behind a trash bin that serviced one of Jocko’s neighboring businesses.

The motorcycle was still there, but it was no longer alone.

Gillfoil stood waiting for her halfway between where his own malevolent motorcycle stood guard over her friend and the back door of Jocko’s club. Magic flowed around him, a storm of anger and triumph.

“Thought you’d get away with it, little girl?” he said, and he grinned at her. “You should know better.”

The enforcer had been human at one time, but that time was long before even Twig’s parents had been born. The demon he’d allowed to possess his body had long since driven what was left of the man insane—a good quality in an enforcer. Not so much in someone you couldn’t beat in a fair fight, and this fight would be anything but fair.

Gillfoil still had the compact, sturdy body of a man used to heavy armor and the hard work of wielding a sword to defend the honor of his king. In this modern age, the only armor he wore was the black leathers of the gang.

His arms hung loose at his sides as he waited for her, dark energy crackling around his fingertips and illuminating his face. Hunger danced in his charcoal eyes.

Hunger for her soul, and to take back what had never been his to steal in the first place.

He held no weapon. He didn’t need to. Gillfoil commanded enough dark magic to kill her with a flick of his fingers.

Twig’s only weapon was a small iron knife hidden in a concealed pocket of her leathers between her shoulder blades. It wasn’t a throwing knife. She’d never learned that particular skill. She’d have to get close to use it.

She sprinted down the alley straight at Gillfoil.

He brought his hands up, not to ward her off—he would never be frightened of someone like her—but to begin to focus his energy.

That was her cue.

She turned, using the momentum she’d built up to run halfway up the side of a building.

She launched herself off the rough brick wall and flipped her body backwards over Gillfoil’s head.

He’d never seen her fight like this. Her skills at sensing hidden magic had been more valuable to the gang than whatever small assistance she could offer in a fight. She’d made herself indispensable, a shining star among their other old ladies, when in truth the only reason she’d spent so long in their company was to earn the trust of the being held captive in the motorcycle.

She hadn’t been able to tell Jocko when she’d left the real reason she’d joined the gang. She hadn’t told anyone for fear that the gang would destroy the motorcycle rather than allow anyone to release the being inside.

She unsheathed her knife as she flipped over Gillfoil’s head, reaching out to slice at his unprotected neck.

The cut didn’t have to be accurate. The iron in the blade would do most of the work for her.

But she hadn’t fooled him at all.

He swatted her away like an annoying fly before the knife could nick his flesh.

She fell hard. The knife flew out of her hand and landed in a pile of trash surrounding a group of overflowing garbage cans.

Twig channeled the energy from the fall into a roll that brought her to her feet just in time to feel a surge of magical energy strike her in the middle of her back.

Pain shot down her spine, white hot heat that set her nerves on fire and brought her to her knees.

Gillfoil laughed.

Twig didn’t know what hurt most—the physical pain or his gloating laughter.

She struggled back to her feet. She wouldn’t die on her knees, not in front of this creature.

Stop! The motorcycle’s voice shrieked in her head, loud enough that she knew Gillfoil had to hear it. I will go back!

“No, you won’t,” Twig muttered through clenched teeth.

To go back meant punishment followed by a slow death for her friend.

“You heard,” Gillfoil said. “That sure sounded like a voluntary surrender to me.”

“But not to me,” a familiar voice growled.

Even with her sensitive ears, Twig hadn’t known that Jocko followed her into the alley.

Gillfoil hadn’t known either, not if the way he whirled toward Jocko was any indication.

Jocko stood near the back door of his club, and he wasn’t alone. Twig heard the same magic that she’d sensed from the changelings who’d been on stage, only now they’d morphed themselves into trolls.

Huge trolls.

Huge angry trolls who weren’t afraid to use dark magic. The maces they wielded practically crackled with dark energy.

Jocko didn’t have that kind of magic. What he had was an iron axe.

Even with the strength gifted her kind, Twig didn’t think she could have lifted the thing, it was that massive. She had no idea where Jocko kept a weapon like that so it would be in easy reach. She’d never seen him use anything other than a gun or a nightstick, just like every other cop.

Gillfoil didn’t hesitate.

Energy crackled from his outstretched fingers toward the changelings. They swung their maces and intercepted Gillfoil’s magic with magic of their own, and the alley erupted in sparking light so intense it nearly blinded her.

Jocko charged into the battle with a roar that nearly drowned out the bellows from the trolls, ax raised over his head.

Twig couldn’t stand on the sidelines and let Jocko and the changelings fight her war.

She rummaged through the garbage until she found her own knife. She snarled as she launched herself into the fight.

Gillfoil never even turned to face her—she was that unimportant to him—until she slammed her knife into his back, burying the blade to the hilt.

He screamed, pain and surprise warring on his face as he clawed at his back, but he didn’t have the flexibility of an elf. He wouldn’t be able to pull the knife from his body. Twig had made sure to strike him where he couldn’t reach.

The energy crackling from his fingertips turned an ugly, sick green as the iron worked its way into his system.

He just managed to step out of the way of the ax as Jocko brought it down, attempting to cleave the demon in two. The iron blade hit the alley instead, and the ground trembled beneath Twig’s feet as the power of the blow created a fissure in the concrete.

Two of the trolls backed away, but the third, a smoking wound making a charred mess of her shoulder, swung her mace one-handed.

Gillfoil tried to block the blow, but his magic was nearly gone. The mace caught him in the upper arm, and he shrieked as the blow flung him against the rough brick wall that Twig had used to launch herself into the air.

Twig heard the demon flee the enforcer’s body. The stylized skeleton on the back of Gillfoil’s leathers, the image that symbolized the gang, faded into nothingness, and Gillfoil crumpled like a deflated balloon.

Without the demon that gifted him such an extraordinarily long and powerful life, he was no more than a discarded lump of dying flesh.

The fight was over.

Behind her, Twig heard a second shriek from the malevolent beast trapped inside Gillfoil’s motorcycle. Its protector—its master and tormentor—was dying, and it was alone in the world.

She almost felt sorry for it.

Almost.

* * *

They left Gillfoil alone in the alley. The police would eventually show up, and no one wanted to answer any questions about what had happened to the gang’s enforcer.

One of the changelings gave Twig an address where she could find a Merlin capable of doing the spells Twig needed.

She rode on her friend’s back one last time down darkened city streets toward the waterfront, only now they weren’t alone. Jocko rode beside them on the motorcycle that had belonged to Gillfoil.

In the end she couldn’t leave the beast that Gillfoil had imprisoned inside his motorcycle to the same fate that had nearly broken her friend. Twig had explained to the beast what she intended to do, and she had extracted a promise. In return for its freedom, the beast agreed to leave the city without harming Jocko or the changelings for the part they played in killing its former master, nor would it seek retribution from the being that was her friend.

The beast refused to make the same promise where Twig was concerned.

If it ever came back for her, she figured she could handle it, but she doubted it would come back. Without Gillfoil, the beast felt broken, the tones of its magic discordant and scattered.

This particular Merlin turned out to be a woman, which surprised Twig.

Years ago, before she’d gone on this quest to free a gentle spirit enslaved by evil, she wouldn’t have presumed that any Merlin powerful enough to cast the spell would be a man. Perhaps she’d spent too much time in the company of men who believed all women, magic folk or not, were their inferiors. She wondered what they would think if they knew three changeling women and a slip of a female elf had beaten their powerful enforcer.

The three of them—Twig, the Merlin, and Jocko—made their way to the end of a deserted pier with the motorcycles so the Merlin could cast her spells. The sky was still clear overhead, although a hint of the coming day blushed the skyline a deep rose on the eastern horizon.

From where they stood, Twig could see the shadowy outline of Marlette Island across the bay. The musty smell of seawater and the sight of the tall pines of her kin’s enclave silhouetted against the night sky made Twig’s heart ache for home.

Or at least that’s what she told herself.

The first to be freed from its prison was the beast.

It was hideous to look at, its proportions so wrong that it hurt her eyes. The harsh tone of its magic grated on Twig’s nerves. More spirit than flesh, it fled into the darkness in the west, chasing the waning night. It didn’t pause to look back at them or thank them for their efforts.

Jocko snorted. “Good riddance.”

Twig couldn’t agree more.

Before she moved to the second motorcycle, the Merlin gave Twig a long look. “You might want to say your goodbyes now,” she said. “This spirit has been imprisoned too long, its energy is too weak. It may not be able to manifest once I set it free.”

The Merlin had a kind heart, but Twig shook her head. “Don’t make it wait any longer,” she said.

Goodbyes were for sentimental fools. Twig would take whatever comfort she might need in knowing that her friend was free.

This time when the Merlin worked her spell, a gentle breeze seemed to emanate from the motorcycle. The breeze brushed Twig’s face with the scent of a salt water spray kissed by the sun. The magic that touched her heart was filled with the kind of joy Twig had only known as a child when she’d been rocked, safe and sound, in her grandmother’s arms.

She choked back a sob as her friend’s magic enveloped her, its tones soft and melodious.

Home, said the familiar voice she’d heard in her heart all these months, and then, thank you, my friend.

The water spirit held her for a moment longer, and then it left, diving deep into the bay it called home.

Twig swiped at her cheeks, annoyed with her tears, until she glanced at Jocko and noticed that his face was wet as well. She decided not to mention it.

The blush to the east was turning into a rosy glow. Twig needed to pay the Merlin so she could leave before the fishermen and dockside vendors arrived to start their day.

“I don’t have much,” Twig said, “but whatever I have is yours.”

The Merlin shook her head. “Not necessary.”

Twig wasn’t sure she’d heard right. Merlins who dabbled in unlicensed magic tended to be an unethical, greedy bunch.

She glanced at Jocko. The Merlin was the changeling’s contact, which meant Jocko might have a better idea what was expected. He’d wiped away his own tears, and while he wasn’t exactly scowling, he didn’t look happy either.

“There’s always a price,” he said.

“Yes, there is,” the Merlin agreed. “You’re not the ones to pay it. You’re the ones who put things right.”

Twig got it.

There was a price, all right. Since Gillfoil wasn’t around to pay, the Merlin would be seeking her due from the rest of the gang. Twig wondered if the water spirit had told the Merlin where to find them.

After they parted company with the Merlin, Twig and Jocko rolled the motorcycles down the pier toward the street. The motorcycles were innocent machines, used by Gillfoil as prisons, yet Twig felt uneasy climbing on the back of the motorcycle she’d ridden to Moretown Bay. The metal felt stiff and unyielding without her friend to give it heart.

Jocko didn’t appear to have the same misgivings. He sat astride his motorcycle—and it was clearly his now—and gunned the engine, smiling at the deep, throaty, vibrating roar.

Wait a minute.

He was smiling.

“That looks good on you,” Twig said, shouting to make herself heard.

His smile got wider, but he let the engine idle. “Where are you headed?”

It was a good question.

Twig didn’t think she could withstand the emotional upheaval of returning to her kin’s enclave on the island, not just yet. She certainly couldn’t go back to the gang, not that she wanted to.

She shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m kind of without a home at the moment.”

Jocko gave her a long look. The smile on his face was reflected in his eyes. He always did like a good fight.

“You’ve got a home,” he said at last. “You always did.”

That wonderful ache settled in her heart again.

Somewhere along the line, Jocko had figured it out. He’d guessed why she’d left Moretown Bay to join the gang and why she couldn’t tell him the reason, and he’d forgiven her.

She smiled back.

“Then let’s get a move on,” she said. “It’s been a hell of night.”

~~~~

The Magic of Home

Copyright © 2014 by Annie Reed

Now, about that tease I posted above. I’ve got a brand new Twig and Jocko book out!

UNBROKEN FAMILIAR won’t officially be published until October 1, 2017, but if you’d like to read it now, it’s part of The Universe Between Bundle over at StoryBundle!

But what’s the book about?  Here’s the back cover copy:

Nothing can break the bond between a familiar and a wizard.

Except death.

Nothing can break the spirit of a bonded familiar.

Except the murder of her wizard.

Someone—or some thing—murdered an elderly wizard who practiced black-market magic, leaving a young familiar trapped between her human and animal forms. Twig, a street-wise elf, becomes embroiled in an elaborate game of murder and revenge when she joins forces with the familiar to track down the wizard’s killer.

Sounds cool, right?

So go check out The Universe Between Bundle to pick up your copy of UNBROKEN FAMILIAR and nine other great fantasy books today!  But you’d better hurry.  This bundle’s only available for a short time.

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