Well dear reader, as promised this week I’m resenting a revised version of my story Life, Death, and Mr. Boggs. I won’t claim that the new version is perfect (After NANO, when I’ve worked on my world some more, I’ll probably want to change it again). But I think this version is a lot better.
I’ve said it before. Editing is an important part of the writing process. And being honest with yourself about the story is an important part of editing. With this story, that meant admitting to myself that I had things to fix.
So on with the story. And, just like last time, this is my work (and I hold the copyright).
Life, death, and Mr. Boggs
Maria’s eyes swept the room one more time. Just because I don’t see any of them doesn’t mean they aren’t here. I mean, Elaina found me. And, if my cousin’s here, there are at least two teams from the family.
Whoever ran the place had gone to lengths to make the taproom seem intimate. The tabletop candles provided just enough light to see the others at the table and allow the staff to maneuver between the hushed conversations. The place was a good choice, but only if the uncles weren’t aware of their presence. And that doesn’t seem likely.
Elaina’s part of the family. She’s the one that found me. I can only hope she understands. “I’ll die before I marry him,” Maria said
Across the table, Elaina flinched. The white widow’s peak in her glossy black hair shifted. Is it really there? It didn’t seem to be an illusion. She seemed to wear her actual face. But the widow’s peak was new. So was the scar on her cheek.
“Do you know what they’re asking?” Maria felt her eyes bulge. I know she knows. She has to.
“I do.” Elaina sounded cold, clinical. She held her emotions in check the way they’d been taught. Still, something about her felt different. And the widow’s peak didn’t seem like an illusion. “I also know why they’re asking.”
Even in the near dark, Maria felt eyes on her. She looked around again. She cast a simple detection. No magic sensors, at least none that I can spot.
Elaina shook her head and sipped her drink. She held the glass up and peered through it. “I wouldn’t worry Maria. I’ve taken steps. The family wouldn’t expect either of us in such a low establishment. And the owners are friends. Part of my husband’s team.”
“Your husband’s?” the thought didn’t match reality. At least not the one I understand. Maria surveyed the darkness again. I have to find somewhere safe. But where?
“Really,” Elaina said, “There’s no reason for concern. The owners work for my husband. And some of the staff…” She nodded to a passing barmaid. “… work for me.” With a poise more natural than trained, Elaina shifted her posture just slightly, and leaned in over the table just enough. Even a passing barmaid wouldn’t have overheard her. “I’ve gone through some changes since we last met.”
“You look different,” Maria said. And my detection would have spotted an illusion.
“I’m far more secure than I used to be,” Elaina said, “more comfortable with myself too.” It showed. “I thank my freedom.”
“And my husband.” Elaina played with the golden ring on her finger as she spoke.
Maria leaned in a bit. “I thought your husband was…”
Elaina smiled and licked her lips. “My first husband was a convenience, a pretense for the uncles to have someone in a given place at a given time. Rather like your own engagement, I suspect.”
Maria nodded. Her eyes searched the surrounding darkness.
“You won’t find any agents here,” Elaina said, “I’m the only one here that reports to the uncles.”
Will she send me back? I won’t go.
“And,” Elaina said, “I only report to them when I want to.”
Hope appeared for a single heartbeat. Then the image of the uncles’ enforcers scared it away.
“My first husband was no help to me,” Elaina said, “and could have done less for you.” She smiled a wide and satisfied smile. “My second husband has done so much more.”
Second husband. I won’t let them do it to me twice. I don’t want them to do it once. Maria leaned back, away from the table.
Elaina caught her hand. “My second husband wasn’t an arrangement of their making. It’s an arrangement of our own.”
Of your own? How? “Elaina?”
“The church and the family didn’t,” Elaina said, “Not until we made them. And the way things happened, they didn’t have much to say. After Heber’s untimely death, I’d fulfilled my marital obligation to the family. And the church couldn’t ignore their own precedent.”
Maria nodded. The church couldn’t ignore precedent. “But the family, Elaina? They deal with those who break faith. The assassins-”
Elaina shrugged, pulling Maria tighter against the table then releasing her. “It’s been tried. Repeat performances are not recommended.”
“But… Our assassins are relentless.”
“Fortunately,” Elaina said, “Someone else tried first. And, for once, the uncles learned from someone else’s example.”
“Third party interference,” Elaina said. She leaned back. Her face faded into the darkness “They don’t like the story getting out.” She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Frankly, I’m not too fond of it either. The results, yes. The story, no.”
Elaina glanced quickly at the tables to either side. “Witnesses don’t entirely matter,” she said, “Those who need to know already do. And everyone else, what could they say against my own story? But, I don’t need it spread around either.”
Elaina began the tale:
My father and the uncles, developed an interest in expanding into a little town close to the mountains, somewhere they could further draw the local miners into the family’s coils.
“You understand that part, don’t you?” Elaina asked.
Maria nodded. I heard. And it’s what they wanted from me.
Elana clicked her tongue and continued.
Unfortunately for me, sending a gifted overtly would have drawn unwanted attention. Vimbarge hadn’t quite fallen into chaos yet and they, or one of the other city states, might have taken notice.
There was no gifted in town to whom I could be wedded, just the ‘celibate’ priests in their overbuilt church. But there was a tavern master in search of a wife.
Heber was a petty and boorish man, and drunk more often than I deserved.
Elana sighed and pushed her glass farther from her. “But even he didn’t truly deserve what happened. It was just fortunate enough for both of us it happened the way it did.”
For both of you? Maria nodded, and bent in so she could hear more clearly.
For two years I played wife to him. For two years I reported to the family. And fended off his advances. Dealt with my husband’s demands.
Maria shivered. I heard rumors about mine too.
Finally, they decided the village of Haystack was ready for occupation. But they also found themselves wrapped up in the ongoing drama of Valle Dios.
Elana made a sour face.
The city of the pass was far more important than Haystack. So, the uncles ordered me to precede, but gave me no assets to work with. I was left to seek resources on my own.
That meant making alliances with certain forces. It meant reaching an agreement with breakaways from both the city folk and the nomadic tribes. I even had a troop of Horde Born and one of the lesser giants dancing to my tune.
And that led to attention, from other elements, both from the city states and from my true husband.
Maria blinked. Two husbands…
Ulbrect was at loose ends already. His first wife was in the Raven folk’s secret home, or so he thought. He and his associates were working to improve Ulbrecht’s new headquarters, and finding it slow going. They agreed with the town elder to face off against my allies directly, in exchange for information and needed supplies and labor.
They won too. Ulbrecht can be unfocused. But he’s no fool. He’s just got multiple interests, which occasionally conflict.
Elaina smiled. “That’s why he needs me here. To take some pressure off.”
Elaina… Maria searched the room again. Two husbands… Uncles would never allow-
“Maria,” Elaina said, “Try not to jump ahead of the story.”
Maria nodded and sipped her drink.
While Ulbrecht and company were putting my ‘allies’ down, some people from Vimbarge got involved. The city state faction wasn’t stupid. They kept their identities quiet, or tried to at least. They sent Mr. Boggs.
“Who?” Maria asked.
Elana Shrugged. “There’s no particular reason for you to know the name. He was just a second-rate necromancer from Vimbarge, before he died that is.”
Mr Boggs was a lesser gifted, a wizard more interested in death than life. Like most of his kind, his interests killed him. Unlike most of the others, he found some measure of power before he died. He made dead men walk. He made them serve him.
He pressed on and found greater secrets before the end. Secrets that weren’t meant to be known; secrets that killed him. But death only made that power stronger. He had well over a dozen zombies with him when he arrived, including the two brutes he brought with him into the tavern.
“Into the tavern…” They attacked you on your own ground?
“That was when I first noticed him,” Elaina said, “When he came into my tavern.”
He was surrounded by a pall of stench and darkness, a side effect of his life’s, and death’s, work. The smell of his two rotting ‘companions’ didn’t help matters any.
Boggs was an intelligent undead, a walking corpse with both mind and purpose. He kept his magic and his desire for power.
His desire for power drove him. He envied those greater than himself. He coveted anything of beauty or value. Even though he knew he would corrupt them.
He spotted me immediately. And I saw desire in his dead eyes.
Desire. The uncles said the man I’m to marry wants me, desires me. They also said… Maria didn’t finish the thought. Her husband to be was a Vimbarge native too.
The two he brought with him had been humanoid, but not human. Their rotting forms were taller and thicker than a man’s. Their heads resembled those of pug dogs as much as those of human folk. Honestly, I think they might have chewed on themselves at some point.
I knew what they were, what they’d been while alive. Ogres aren’t hard to recognize once you’ve seen one. I don’t know if the others recognized them or not. But once the brutes started breaking bones and tearing bodies, it didn’t really matter. Death is death.
Elaina leaned back, melding with the shadows. She sat, for just a moment, with her hands folded on her lap.
Elaina reentered the light and shook her head. “Nothing to worry about. Memories I hope you never have to face.”
Boggs came straight at me. The pawl of darkness around him slackened. The smell did not.
His robes hung in shreds and tatters over his desiccated flesh. The dryness of his meat might have disturbed me, but the maggots seemed to find it pleasant.
He headed right for me.
No one tried to stop him.
I felt him come closer as much as I saw him.
“Have you ever been alone? Really alone?” Elaina asked.
Maria searched her memory and shook her head.
“Family marriages make you feel that way sometimes,” Elaina said, “That’s part of why I’m not turning you in. I don’t want you to feel the way I did.”
Maria let out a long exhale. She felt the tension drain from her body.
“Sometimes people can surprise you,” Elaina said, “sometimes the husbands the family gives us are more tenacious than we think. Even the weak ones.”
I was sure no one would help me. But then it happened. Heber stepped between me and Boggs. I think the poor fool was more afraid of having to explain himself to the family than the dead man. It was a mistake, but I’m grateful for it. I’m grateful poor Heber stepped in to protect his prize possession.
Possession… Maria’s eyes searched the darkness, looking for family assassins, and would-be suiters.
“I have no intention of letting that happen again,” Elaina said, “Not to you, me, or any of our daughters.”
Daughters… That would be a whole new level of the problem.
Elaina shook her head. “Not if I can stop it.”
Heber valued me as a possession. And I valued him as a tool, an expendable one. Still, in that moment…
I saw every detail of Boggs’s hand, every shred of desiccated flesh and every bit of unwashed bone, as he wrapped his hand around Heber’s throat and drained him.
I saw my husband’s eyes glaze. I watched the last spark of life drain from him.
Then Boggs came for me.
For some reason, I still couldn’t bring myself to move. I’m usually quite level-headed. You have to be to survive in our family. But in that moment, I couldn’t move at all. All I could do was watch Boggs come closer.
I heard him come closer too. At first, I thought it was creaking leather and the click of hobnailed boots against the floor. I realized it was the creak of long dead flesh, and the clack of his foot bones against the floor.
I couldn’t move. I wanted to, but I couldn’t. Boggs put his hand out. The same hand he killed Heber with. He kept coming.
I couldn’t pull away. Boggs wrapped his hand around my throat. And his touch was cold.
Maria’s hand slipped to her own throat.
I felt my life draining out of me and into Boggs. And that was when it happened.
That was the moment I died.
“Elana, you’re joking.” It couldn’t be.
Elana shook her head. “No Maria, I’m not. In that moment, I was dead.”
“You couldn’t have been,” Maria said. You’re right here.
“I was.” Elana shrugged. “I didn’t learn the rest till after.”
The next thing I knew I was upstairs in my former bedroom, in my former bed. Ulbrecht was looking down at me. He was standing over me and wearing an expression as confused as my own.
“I’m sorry I had to do that,” he said, “But if Boggs had killed you, you’d have risen as one of his minions. I had to kill you first. The rest of it, well, that’s a bit harder to explain.”
“Elana, you said he killed you.” Maria shook her head. “I mean, he couldn’t have killed you.” Not if I’m talking to you.
“No,” Elaina said. She took a long breath. “I’m not. Ulbrecht killed me and then raised me from the dead.”
“That can’t be.”
“It is.” Elana picked up her glass and held it up to the light. “It’s not really as simple as it sounds. The specifics of how, the complications after, those are stories for another day.”
“Complications?” Maria asked. She backed away from the table.
Elana set her glass down and laughed. “Nothing like that. I won’t bite you. I’m not some member of the undead. But Ulbrecht’s wife, his first wife, had just been through an ordeal of her own. She was in an odd spot and had some odd ideas.”
“She was the one who decided Ulbrecht and I should marry,” Elana said.
“She decided?” She decided? What…
Elana nodded. “Her ordeal made bearing children… Complicated. At the same time, she was rather fixated on growing her little family. And she thought I owed her husband, you know, for preventing my unwilling induction to the ranks of the undead.”
“Owed him,” Maria said, “But…”
Elana shrugged. “We both know polygamy isn’t unheard of among the gifted. At least one of the major churches actively supports it. And it just so happened that the arrangement solved problems, for all three of us.”
Elana smiled. “Four if you count yourself.”
“Me?” Maria gasped. “I can’t… I couldn’t.”
Elana’s eyes narrowed. “No, you couldn’t.” She shook her head and smiled. “That’s not what I’m asking. Neither Ulbrecht nor I would consider it. Esperanza, the first wife, wouldn’t consider it. In fact, I wouldn’t even think it around her if I were you.”
“Ulbrecht is building his fortress in the mountains,” Elana said.
“You mentioned that.”
“He also has an estate here in the city,” Elana said, “having no one to look after the place bothered my husband, and our marriage gave him a solution. It gave me a private domain much more to my liking.”
Maria nodded. You always preferred the city. And if your husband isn’t here…
“Ulbrect has someone to watch the house” Elana said, “Esperanza has someone to raise the children. And I have my private domain. Ulbrect and Esperanza are willing to let me run my own operation so long as I keep marital and fiduciary fidelity. And the situation keeps the uncles, or anyone else, from trying to marry me into some less satisfactory situation.”
Maria nodded. A marriage of your own. A marriage you chose. But…
“As it is,” Elana said, “I’m free to hire servants, and others, as I see fit. But our happy little city is decidedly lacking on one key aspect.”
One aspect? What do you…?
“I need a second,” Elana said, “officially a maid servant or lady-in-waiting. Someone who understands me, my thoughts and desires, and the way Ulbrecht and I run things.”
Father always said one stands or falls on the strength of those around you.
“It also helps,” Elaina said, “that you understand how the family does business.”
“Me?” Maria asked.
“You.” Elana said. She smiled. “You’ve run off already. You abandoned your arranged engagement. No one knows you’re here, and we can keep things that way.”
A second? In our own operation…?
Elana drew Maria’s hand across the table. “You’re the perfect choice,” she said, “Unless you’d rather I drag you back to your arraigned marriage.”
Maria smiled and interlaced her fingers with her cousin’s. “For you, cousin? Anything.”
“For me,” Elaina said, “And for your freedom.”