A word of explanation for anyone happening upon this out of context. This was posted in response to a dare by writers Elizabeth Bear and John Scalzi to post horribly written early stories. Riddled with stereotypes and adverbial modifiers, I thought this would be appropriate.
Be gentle, good reader...

 

EXPECTATIONS

by

Anne Cutrell (c. 1994)

From the shadows of forest, the campfire was a spot of orange and yellow light that seemed tiny and useless against the oppressive and total darkness around it.

Kyra did not think the campfire was useless. She loved its reassuring light and huddled close to it during the night. Her long, curly hair looked like an inky black mass in the firelight. She stared into the flames and started when her partner unexpectedly spoke to her.

"What are you worried about, Kyra? This is just a routine job," Laen said harshly. The muscular mercenary's hard face looked even fiercer in the sharp shadows.

"Who, me? I'm not worried." Kyra glanced over her shoulder at the night and bit her lower lip in agitation. "There is something to be said for a soft job guarding some paranoid merchant's goods."

Laen watched Kyra's efforts to build up the fire with carefully hidden amusement. When she had been hired to look after this girl, she thought it would be a short but profitable job. Kyra's wealthy father had been certain that his daughter's wish to become a mercenary was just a child's whim, but he had already compromised his situation by allowing her to learn the arts of weaponry. When she declared her intention to strike out on her own, he could do nothing except make her promise that she would accept a mentor of his choice for the first two years. He hoped that by then she would reconsider. He chose Laen from the field of applicants because she was the equal of any man in experience and skill, and above all - the fact that she was female meant she would not seduce or rape his daughter.

Kyra had done very well, despite her upbringing. She had a flair for swordplay and knives, but lacked experience. Laen slid her knife blade rhythmically across the honing stone. This job would help to remedy that, she hoped.

Kyra's apprehension finally succumbed to her talkative nature.

"What is the Elemental Union Church anyway? I know that they've hired us to retrieve a stolen artifact, but who are they? We didn't have them back in Allistra."

"The Church is one of several based on the Four Elements. This one's angle is that each of the elements is just one facet of one supreme being. They're pretty new, which is why they don't have a chapter in Allistra, or much money, for that matter." Laen explained matter-of-factly.

"I'm surprised that all of the monks survived the dragon's attack." Kyra continued, "A fire-breathing one at that.

"I read about dragons a lot when I was young. I think I've figured out the best way to kill one. We have to attack it at one of it's weak spots - an eye or under it's jaw..."

"If the Elemental Union Church had wanted the beast to be killed, they'd have hired a whole company to take it on. As it is, we'll have a hard enough time just stealing the artifact back," Laen interrupted.

"It will be a very hard battle with only the two of us," Kyra continued, "but if we are clever, we can get the artifact and kill the dragon."

Laen sighed, tested the edge of her knife, and returned it to its sheath.

"I hope we can find the place," Kyra said, "We have only the monks' story to lead us to where they were attacked. The stone where they camped, the Giant's Finger, I think they called it, shouldn't be that hard to find. The dragon's lair will probably be close by."

She glanced at Laen, "and I hope your tracking skills are all you say they are."

Laen gave her partner a long look that silenced her for at least half an hour.

"What do you think this wonderful artifact is?" Kyra broke the silence once more as they prepared for bed.

Laen shrugged, "It's supposedly formed from all of the elements working together, that's why it's sacred to this particular church."

"What kind of magical powers do you think it has? I bet it's really amazing. After all, the Church is paying us a lot of money to get it back..."

Laen sighed and turned onto her side. If that girl didn't learn to keep quiet...

*****

Mid-morning the next day, they were walking on opposite sides of the road peering through the underbrush that bordered the cleared path. The forest beyond the brush was fairly clean because little sunlight penetrated the thick canopy of leaves. They had been searching since dawn, with no success.

At noon, Kyra was about to complain about the heat and suggest they stop to eat lunch when Laen called out, "I think I see it!"

"Where?" Kyra hurried over to Laen's side of the road and saw between the tree trunks ahead and to the right of the road a glimmering of sunlight that indicated a clearing and the unmistakable gray of stone.

"Yes! That's it!" Kyra ran ahead and found the footpath that joined the road and the clearing. Laen followed at a slower pace and found her sitting with her back against the cool stone, digging through the pack for her lunch.

The clearing was not very large, only about twenty feet, and dominating the center was a rough stone column seven or eight feet wide and twenty feet high. The crown did not clear the tops of the trees, so it was virtually invisible until you stepped into the clearing.

Laen sat next to Kyra, who was already munching on an apple and a bit of cheese. As Laen felt around in her pack for the package that contained her meal, Kyra twisted around to stare at the peculiar stone.

"What kind of stone do you think this is," she asked aloud.

Laen shrugged. "I don't know much about stone."

"Neither do I." Kyra turned back to her meal.

After lunch, Kyra paced around the circular clearing. "Well, it's up to you now," she said impatiently.

Laen didn't answer. She was sitting beneath the great stone column deep in thought. After a few moments she sighed and rose to her feet in one smooth movement.

"I think the best way to start is if you do a general search, looking for signs of some large animal in that direction, and I do the same in this direction. At this point, we just have to find the signs - which, for an animal the size of a dragon, shouldn't be difficult. After we've found them, I'll interpret them."

Kyra started off in one direction, following the circle of the clearing. She was nearly halfway through her part when she heard a low whistle. She turned to see her partner signaling for her to come.

She obeyed and looked curiously at the heavy brush as she approached.

"Look," Laen said, almost in a whisper, when she was close enough.

Kyra's eyes widened as she saw the unmistakable damage that a large creature had done to the underbrush it pushed through. "But that's not big enough to be a dragon," she pointed out, also in a whisper.

Laen sighed. "It's better than nothing."

Laen led the way along the blatant trail through the forest, blade drawn, ready for anything.

They followed the trail until it broke off into a fork. Laen took the left, and Kyra, the right. Each promised to call out if they found anything interesting. Laen was pretty sure one of the paths would peter out and the other would be the main one. She was becoming convinced that she was on the main trail when she heard a shrill scream, followed by a series of crashes, ending in dead silence.

Laen ran back to the fork and then up Kyra's trail as fast as she could without making a lot of noise. She slowed when she saw a large patch of disturbed ground on the edge of a small escarpment. She looked over the edge with some trepidation and saw Kyra at the bottom of a steep slope, picking leaves out of her armor, seemingly unharmed.

Kyra saw that her partner had arrived and said abruptly, "I wasn't looking where I was going."

Kyra's trail had almost disappeared, so after Laen helped Kyra up to the main ground, they turned back to follow the other one. The trail of broken branches and down-trodden vegetation lead to another clearing, smaller than the Giant's Finger clearing. In the center stood a quaint cottage with a border of red and yellow tulips surrounding it.

The two warriors stopped in amazement, but it only took Kyra two seconds to pronounce her judgment.

"That is definitely the dwelling of an evil witch," she said, "I've read about them. She's probably an old hag who lures children and unwary travelers to their doom. That's what those camouflaging flowers are for."

Laen wrinkled her brow in thought. "Children? I thought that was a candy house."

Kyra shrugged, "Well, the unwary travelers part is true.

"We had better avoid this place. No telling what kind of evil powers the ugly, old hag has..."

Just then, a matronly figure emerged from the cottage and began to shake a rug out. When she saw Kyra and Laen at the edge of the forest, she waved and called for them to come to the house.

"Great," Kyra muttered. "Watch out for any tricks. I'll handle the talking." Then she strode up to the house, a huge grin on her face.

"Greetings, dear lady," she began, "we did not mean to disturb the tranquillity of your lovely abode..."

"Excuse me ma'm," Laen interrupted, "we're looking for a large silver dragon that attacked a group of monks a week ago. Can you tell us in which direction we can find it?"

The rosy-cheeked woman's eyes twinkled mysteriously. "You're lookin' for a silver dragon, eh? I can tell you exactly where to find it." She turned and pointed to a wide path that opened on the other side of the clearing. "Down that way, by the stream."

"Why did you interrupt me?" Kyra asked indignantly as they followed her direction, "You shouldn't give away information about our mission either."
"I did it that way because your way would have taken all afternoon, and I want to be done by this evening. Unless you don't mind camping in the forest tonight," Laen snapped.

Kyra's eyes widened and she glanced at the forest, dark even during the day. "You're right," she gulped, "Let's get this over with."

"Besides," Laen added, "you usually have to take risks to get the job done. It's the nature of the business."

They followed the path, once again with blades drawn. Not long after they left the cottage clearing, they heard the bubbling gurgle of a stream. They advanced slowly.

On the far side of the stream, resting on a flat rock in a patch of sunlight was a large gray lizard. It was about ten feet long and, in the sunlight, its scales might have been interpreted as silver, but it was most definitely not a dragon.

Laen stopped and stood as though stunned, her sword tip resting on the ground.
Kyra went further, saying, "At least its not a dragon. Now, where would it hide an artifact?"

"Don't be ridiculous," Laen said, exasperated. "Lizards aren't intelligent beasts like dragons. It wouldn't hide anything except maybe its eggs or its food. The artifact is neither."

She turned and started back up the path, her mind whirling. What to do now? They were back to square one. After staring at the disappointing dragon for a moment, Kyra followed.

"Now what do we do?" she asked.

Laen shrugged, deeply depressed by this unexpected turn of events. "I don't know. If there's no silver dragon, then where's the artifact? Maybe it wasn't even stolen. Why did the monks tell that story? Maybe they lost it somewhere else and don't know where to find it. This was a fool's errand in the first place."

Kyra was silent, but as they crossed the cottage clearing she had an inspiration.
"Wait!" she called, "Maybe the woman in the cottage can help us!" She turned and went to the cottage without waiting for Laen's reply, which was to smile and follow her quickly.

The woman opened the door to Kyra's knock and said, "Oh, it's you two again. Find your dragon?"

Laen gave a gruff laugh, "You might say that."

Kyra smiled and said, "We didn't find what we were really looking for though - a sacred artifact that was stolen from the group of monks that we mentioned before. Do you know anything about where we can find it?"

Both women waited in breathless suspense, then the woman opened the door wider and said, "Yes, I do. Come in and sit down while I tell you."

The two fighters entered gingerly over colorful, braided mats and sat down at the table. The inside of the cottage was just as quaint as the outside, with lace-edged linen curtains and delicate embroidered pieces on the walls.

The woman began rummaging through her kitchen closets while speaking to them.

"I don't know what the monks told you about silver dragon thieves. I didn't see anything like that, though I did cross their path that morning. I was gathering herbs when I saw the monks packing up their camp at the stone column. I started towards them to say hello when they saw Leo let himself down from the top of the column."

"What?" Kyra asked, "Who's Leo?"

"We've already met him, I believe," Laen said with a nod to stream-side of the house.

"Yes, you have," the woman continued, "Anyway, Leo likes to sleep up there even during the night because the rock stays warm from the sun, and when travelers camp below, there are always lots of insects. I suppose that he did look kind of silver in the sunlight, but he wasn't a dragon.

"All the monks started screaming and yelling and went haring off towards the road. Luckily, most of them had their packs already strapped to their backs. There were a few packs left behind though, so I went though them, to see if I could find any sign of who to send them to. I figured someone would be back for them, because I found this."

She pulled something out of the cupboard and turned to reveal a blown glass pitcher.

Kyra gasped and reverently touched the smooth, curved side. It was completely clear, with none of the typical impurities she had seen in glass. The flared rim and graceful handle were the work of a master craftsman. In it, the elements blended perfectly. Sand, the product of Earth and Water, had been melted by Fire and shaped by Air to form this bright vessel. The Elemental Union Church would be extremely happy to have their treasure back.

As Kyra and then Laen touched it, for a moment the world seemed to sharpen into clear focus. The embroidery seemed especially bright and fine, the smell of bread permeated the air, and the fire in the stove, seen through a grate, crackled like a whole forest being trampled.

Kyra held the artifact while Laen dug in her pack for her spare cloak. She reluctantly let it go and watched in silence as Laen hid its silvery glow in the voluminous folds of her winter cloak.

"May I carry it?" Kyra's voice sounded harsh as it broke the silence.
Laen nodded and handed the bundle to her. "Thank you so much, ma'm. I doubt we would have found it without you. If you don't mind, we'd better get moving if we want to be out of the forest by dark."

That motivated Kyra to stop daydreaming. She added her thanks to Laen's and they both made their way to the door without knocking anything over.

As they walked through the forest's deepening shadows, Kyra sighed happily. "Well, Leo wasn't a dragon, but at least we found a real artifact."

"That nice lady wasn't a witch either," she added.

Laen turned to look back at the cottage. "Don't be too sure," she said with a low laugh.

Kyra turned to see. The cottage was still visible through the trees - a quaint home, with pink tulips planted along the front.