The House of Heavenly Delights
Annan shifted on his blanket, pulling it over his head to keep the cold air out. Should he have spelled his campsite to keep it warmer? But it was early summer! Wiping his dripping nose, he stubbornly kept his eyes shut.
They’d been steadily climbing over the mountains ringing the southern end of the kingdom, and this was the first cold campsite. Annan listened to the quiet night sounds. Wind rustling the trees, branches creaking as they chilled, a squirrel turning over in its tree trunk nest.
He contemplated Sigrid. The giant woman had joined their quest only when Tellhouse told her of the fight they were heading towards and promised her some alone time with the Evil’s gold-filled chests.
She’d certainly made the travel more entertaining, singing the songs of her people and finding someone to fight in every tavern they stopped at. He presumed she’d found someone to fight tonight, as well.
Annan shifted miserably, thoughts of their travels only compounding his discomfort instead of distracting him from it. His companions all stayed in the nearby port town, while he camped a few miles away.
Because it was well-known that Cambetum had pleasure houses.
“Oh, come now!” Alan argued. “Just because the wizard can’t be around the pretty women doesn’t mean the rest of us should have to suffer! Besides, I’d like to get more than a hundred feet from his skinny ass.”
The rogue scratched at the bracelet Annan had placed on his arm, glaring down at the offending piece of jewelry.
“We need to stay together,” Tellhouse said stubbornly. “You don’t know the Evil like I do. If we should happen to be wrong about where it is, or if some of its minions are in advance of its position, we will want to be near the wizard. I tell you now, he is our best hope of defeating it.”
Annan rolled over the memory of Tellhouse’s words. He’d sounded so sure of that. He felt there was a clue in there, somewhere, but his tired mind continued.
“I will sleep in comfort one last night,” Sigrid rumbled. “There will be more than enough of them on the ground.”
“Of course you want a tavern,” Alan muttered. “How many men will we be fighting this time?”
She fixed him with a gimlet stare and Alan rocked on his heels, looking innocently into the distance.
“They’re right, Tellhouse,” Annan said tiredly. “There’s no reason the rest of you should be cold or uncomfortable just because I have…issues.”
“Then I’ll stay with you,” Tellhouse said.
Alan immediately perked up.
“No,” Annan nearly shouted. The rogue drooped. “You should definitely accompany them.”
He looked significantly at Alan and Sigrid. The last thing they needed was to have to pay to replace a building. The two of them combined had all the sense and impulse control of a toddler.
Tellhouse’s shoulders drooped. “Very well. But you must promise to keep your camp well hidden and away from any trails. We do not need the Evil to find you just yet.”
“I promise. Now, Alan.” The rogue faced Annan, gratitude warring with irritation on his lean face. “Give me your hand, I need to…” Closing his fingers over the bracelet, he whispered briefly, then raised it to his mouth and breathed a Word on it. “There. You have the ability to go up to four miles away from me temporarily. It will automatically disappear tomorrow by noon, so you’d better make sure you have me in sight by then.”
The rogue grinned.
A strange scent reached his nose and Annan frowned, pulling back the blanket to test the air. A scuffing footstep alerted him too late and a rag with the strange scent clamped over his face. He flailed about, reaching for…something…anything…but darkness pulled him under.
Tellhouse kept one eye on Alan as the rogue wandered across the pleasure house’s floor, towards the gaming tables. The bard sat on a small dais, idly strumming his guitar, barely heard above the crowds.
People from all nationalities filled the room of this port town, merchants rubbing elbows with mercenaries. There sat a cloth merchant. There, a rogue won at dice—
He swore softly. That rogue was Alan, his long fingers rolling the dice again. A groan rose from the rest of the table when the dice came to rest. Alan raked his winnings closer, tossing out a smile to the dark-haired beauty who stroked his arm.
And there was the reason Annan stayed away. Beautiful women abounded in this town. Though, Tellhouse had to admit, he’d never met a woman he hadn’t thought beautiful in some way. The young wizard would surely have lost his purity—and magic—within minutes of entering Cambetum.
Beathan, wisely, stayed in the rooms they’d rented, ‘praying for their souls.’ Alan and Sigrid would surely need it. A buxom redhead delivered another tankard of ale to Tellhouse, casting him a flirtatious smile as she left.
He smiled broadly and gave her a wink. Her hips swayed a little more as she headed back to the bar, and he watched the curve of her hips and the way her skirts swished around her legs.
Perhaps it was good that Beathan prayed for his soul, too.
Shouting broke out at the gaming tables and, pulled from his pleasant contemplation, Tellhouse played louder, striking up a bawdy tune to catch people’s attention and draw them to him.
Time to earn his keep.
Tellhouse ducked a roundhouse punch, delivering a short jab into the man’s ribs before moving on. The brawl raged around him. Across the room, he heard Sigrid mowing through opponent, bellowing gleefully.
Perhaps a bawdy tune wasn’t the best decision when a fight was brewing.
A merchant leaped off a table, flying directly at him. Dodging him neatly, Tellhouse stepped around the new fight. Spinning to avoid another brawler, protecting the guitar on his back, he caught a glimpse of the pretty redhead picking up a tray and laying into the men around her.
Ah! There was a direction worth going.
He laid about him as he made his way over, ducking, kicking, and punching his way through the crowd. He took a blow to the belly, bending slightly, then snapped upright, slamming his head into the other man’s face, grinning when he fell like a downed tree.
The barmaid brought the tray down on a man’s head so hard it dented the heavy metal and she flung it into the men around her. Snatching a tankard off the bar, she brought it down on a man’s head.
“What a waste of good ale,” Tellhouse mourned upon reaching her side.
She smiled up at him. “There’s always more of that. Come to rescue this damsel in distress?” Turning, brought her knee up in a vicious groin strike. Tellhouse winced in sympathy for the unfortunate man, who collapsed bonelessly, clutching his mauled balls and moaning.
“It seems you need no assistance from me.”
“No, but any help is surely welcome.” The redhead smiled up at him.
They put their backs together, his beloved guitar safely between them. Tellhouse with his fists up, while the barmaid wielded another tray she’d snatched from the stack behind the bar.
“Is it always so, ah, lively here?” he asked. A red face popped up in front of him. He punched it without hesitation, and it disappeared, quickly replaced by another.
“Oh, aye. People come as much for the entertainment like this as for the gambling and drinking. Tis why people choose The Rambunctious. If they wanted a quiet night, they’d have gone to the Owl, or the House of Heavenly Delights.”
Tellhouse batted a flung tankard away from his head. “Madam, I cannot help but be amazed that you’re discussing the sites of this town and acting the guide in the middle of…this.”
She laughed, bumping him when she swung the tray at a fresh face. “If you want a quiet work environment, those are the places you go to. When you enjoy a bit of fun…” She bit her lip and gave him a seductive glance, braining a man with the tray without even looking.
“Indeed.” His pulse jumped. Yes, it was a very good thing the cleric prayed for his soul this night. “What, pray tell, is your name, m’áilleacht?”
“Brigid. And I already know your name, good sir. Stories of Tellhouse and his ability to ensnare an audience have reached even our humble town.”
“You flatter me, mo bhean. Perhaps we should discuss this further in a more…private location?”
Her laughter rang out over the sounds of fighting, the grunts, shouts, and curses fading in the face of her gaiety. “Indeed, good bard. Let us away from this and find a different form of…exertion.”
Annan lay in darkness, his senses slowly returning. He moaned, his mouth stuffed with a cloth gag. Half awake, he pawed it from his mouth, but his fingers encountered more cloth. He frowned, the motion almost too much effort, his thoughts thick and heavy.
Lying still for a moment, he let the world trickle back. Camping outside the town. Cold. A strange smell, then…nothing.
Now…Softness beneath, a gag in his mouth, a bag over his head, but his hands were free…
Annan shot upright, then slumped, groaning and clutching his head. Finally pulling off the bag, he freed his mouth, squinting in the sudden light. His hands automatically fumbled over his chest and his heart stopped.
His satchel was gone.
As his eyes cleared, he saw colorful fabrics drifting in a warm breeze, creating a mosaic of colors on the walls and across his skin. He sat on a bed – or, he presumed it was a bed, for he’d never seen anything so fine. A thick mattress that didn’t rustle from straw stuffing, and pillows—fluffy, light pillows—were thrown everywhere. And the bed was huge.
So caught up in all the finery around him, it took him long moments to realize he was not alone in the room. And once he realized that, he wondered how it took him so long to notice them.
Beautiful women, lounging all around the room like cats sunning themselves. The ones closest to him smiled in delight upon being noticed, the boldest crawling closer. Her loose, lightweight clothing shifted, showing him more skin than he’d ever seen in his life—including his own bathing times.
“Aren’t you a pretty one?” she purred. “So fine boned, yet strong and lean…”
She reached out to touch him. Squeaking, Annan shot off the bed and saw that none of the women—nearly twenty—wore much more than a sheer shift. They all moved towards him, little cries of joy and delight filling the room.
Clapping his hands over his eyes, he wailed, “Please, stay away! I can’t…I must remain pure!”
Soft, silky hands ran over his hair, down his arms. One pair dove for his trousers.
Squeaking, his eyes squinched shut, he struggled to stop the unknown woman from undoing his trouser buttons.
A commotion somewhere behind him caught his attention, and fresh cries of delight rose up from the women. Some hands left his body, then…
“Annan!” At Tellhouse’s astonished shout, the wizard whipped around, his eyes popping open. “What are you doing here, man? Do you want to…”
Women surrounded the tall bard, cooing. And much nearer to himself, a courtesan slipped a strap off her shoulder—Annan hastily shut his eyes again.
“I- I don’t know how I got here,” he cried, unable to keep a tremble from his voice.
“Ladies, ladies.” Tellhouse slowly approached. He grasped the wizard’s shoulders and turned him around, brushing away the soft hands still plucking Annan’s clothing and stroking his body. “Come, ladies, this lad is sadly off limits.”
Cries of distress surrounded him. A cloth dropped around Annan’s eyes and he winced when a few strands of hair were caught in the knot tied at the back of his head.
“How the hell did you get here, lad?” the bard hissed.
“I already told you I don’t know! I don’t even know where here is.”
A pause. “Right, right. Well, no harm done, I suppose…”
Thunderous pounding on the great doors downstairs interrupted him. “Open for the king’s men! We are authorized by King Brieuc himself to search this premises. Open!”
Several of the women looked around the room, their coquettish behavior gone in an instant while others—the younger ones—screamed, huddling together against the far wall.
“Fuck!” Tellhouse snarled. Spinning, he caught Brigid’s hand. “Is there another way out?”
“Wait.” Annan dug in his heels. “I don’t have my satchel. Is it here? I must have it.”
The sounds of the great entry doors creaking open silenced anything Tellhouse might say. Broken fragments drifted up the stairs.
“…harboring a wizard…against the King’s law…execution…”
“What is going on?” One of the older women, a brunette somewhere in her twenties, hissed, seizing Annan by the arm and preventing Tellhouse from towing him away.
Tellhouse glanced at the stairs. So far, the soldiers still searched the ground floor, but it was only a matter of time. “The boy is a wizard—”
“Those don’t even exist!” A lovely black woman exclaimed.
“Some would say your people don’t exist, beauteous one,” Tellhouse smiled roguishly. “That doesn’t change the fact that he can perform magic, he is not allowed near women, and his being found here will certainly result in his death, mine, and very likely yours.”
Her black eyes narrowed. “So, they only have to not find him, correct?”
He nodded, still holding one of Annan’s arms while the brunette held the other. The wizard himself stood still, fearful of moving and dislodging his blindfold.
“Can we do something now?” he asked plaintively.
Tellhouse followed the woman towards the rear of the room. Shouting at the stairs heralded the coming arrival of the soldiers.
“My name is Elakeche,” the black woman said to Tellhouse. “Here.”
Annan found himself bundled under heavy blankets and a thick feather mattress. “Cover your ears, lad,” Tellhouse advised him. “Just to make sure you don’t…you know.”
“My satchel!” he cried.
“No hope for it now, wizard. We’ll have to find it after the soldiers leave. If we don’t get caught,” he muttered under his breath.
“At least tell me where I am.”
At that, Tellhouse paused. “I thought you knew. You’re in the House of Heavenly Delights.”