Fantasy Fiction

By Any Other Name
The Towers of Zolyniak
A Diamond Is A Girl’s Worst Enemy
Marion the Unmagical
The Road to Udupi
The Thief of Cardinal Falls (Part 1)
The Treasure of Totowa Hills (Part 2)
Seeress (Part 3)

The Road to Udupi

©Melissa Katherine Michael
4600 words

The Road to Udupi
by Melissa Michael

"Ho m'girl! Where have you been all my life?"
Sweet Goddess, here we go again. Would they never stop? Do they really think that just because I've got large breasts I want to be leered at like a trollop?
I ignored the large swarthy man's gambit and proceeded to the bar, tapping it twice to let the skinny young barkeep know I was thirsty. He nodded and drew me a stein.
"I paid you a compliment, missy!" the boor announced to the rest of his herd and staggered my way.
I waited until he was close behind me, wanting to keep it just between the two of us. I was tired from a long week in the saddle and just wanted to make my delivery, collect my fee, and sleep in a bed. I heard him reach for my arm but before he touched me I whirled and pricked his protruding gut with my dagger.
"No, you haven't paid me a compliment, sir," I whispered. "Leave me be or I'll gut you."
His shocked eyes held mine for a moment. Then he backed away with a laugh. I didn't hold him, indeed, I wanted him gone quickly. He turned to his table and I turned to my drink.
He reached for me. They always do. I don't know why. I do wear blousy tunics, but riding breeches must be tight otherwise they rub. In any case, I had a cloak on and my hair in a braid. I don't know what it is. My mother always took in stray cats. I guess I attract stray men.
He lay gutted on the floor. Silence. All eyes on me. I bent and wiped my blade on the unstained portion of his shirt.
"Help! Someone help me for God's sake!" he cried.
No one approached. I turned away and, finally, got that first pull from my stein. "Got a Healer in these parts?"
The barkeep shook his head, noticeably paled.
I took another pull. Good, dark, bitter brew. My favorite. "How much gold have you got on you?" I asked the man lying in a pool of his own blood at my feet.
He looked up at me with incomprehension.
"I happen to be a Healer," I said before another pull on my stein.
"I've a half-purse. Take it! Just don't let me die!"
He pulled feebly at the bloodied string around his ample waist. His lips were purple. Soon he'd pass out. Too late to do me any good.
I cut the purse string. "Has he got a wife?" I looked around. "Children?" There were a few quick nods. "Who can I trust to deliver this to them?" Startled looks.
He'd grabbed me. They all saw it. They all knew how he was, were even urging him on. Then, when I'd defended myself as any man would and been perfectly within his rights, they'd been ready to hang me. But now, now they were forced to see their own shame. I wanted no money but what I earned from my trade: guide and delivery. A likely looking lad came and took the purse.
"Tell her exactly how it happened," I said then bent and stuck my left hand in his bloody gut. He screamed in pain. That's my favorite part. You're at my mercy, Stoolbag!
I hadn't done all that much damage. He had a great cushion of fat. I closed the bowel and seamed the fat, muscle, and skin. He was resting peacefully as I washed my hands. By then the Innkeeper had heard and come to receive his package.
"So, have you brought me aught but trouble?" he demanded.
"Shall I display it here?" I threatened in a low voice.
He only scowled and led the way to a back room. The barkeep handed me a full stein. I'd certainly tip that boy. I heartily approve of the practice of keeping young male barkeeps.


In Innkeeper's counting room, I laid his tiny package on the table in front of him. He had claimed the room's only chair so I remained standing. He hesitated.
"Verify it's to your satisfaction and pay me two gold pieces or twenty silver and I'll trouble you no more." I said.
"No. No," his voice was much kinder. "You'll stay the night here in addition to your fee. Edvin deserved good as he got. Eat and drink as you will. You've seen it?"
"Aye." It was a beauty I'd been hard put to refrain from opening nightly on the trail.
He slit the bindings and opened the wood box and withdrew a tiny statue of the Goddess. She was full and ripe, like unto my own shape; but dressed in robes where I wore only breeches. She was a hand high and cast of solid gold. They wouldn't burn him for offering his homage to the Goddess, but they'd deride him, mayhap choose another inn where the Gods were kept sacred.
"I've got a sack of incense awaiting her arrival," he smiled and took the statue around behind me where he placed it on a tiny shelf. True to his word, he pulled a stick from a bin and lit it, waving it in the Goddess' face. She smiled in acceptance.
I ate and drank my fill then retired to my room and nailed the door shut. I slept like the dead till noon then ate and drank my fill again before heading out to the stable. Baby whickered at me. She's mine since she was foaled. Brought up right, gentle as a lamb to me, fierce as a thundercat to any would do me harm. I'd've liked to rest her a day more but this village had already gone sour on me and I had a feeling Arandavil was not too far ahead of me, in Udupi. I'd never seen him but I'd heard wondrous stories about his courage and prowess and wanted to meet him, see if there was any truth to the rumors. You see, I was getting to that age where even a wild free woman thinks occasionally of settling down, with the right man of course, settling down in a nice stone cottage with its own spring, a pasture for cows, a few flat acres for food grains and winter squash. Probably never happen, but all my daydreams aren't of killing dragons and hoarding treasure.


Baby was ready, too. She'd had enough of this smelly stable. I had picked the muck out of her hooves when I heard someone enter. The yellow stallion whickered a greeting. Fine horse that, not temperamental, at least for as long as I'd been in the stable. I looked out from Baby's stall. It was the skinny barkeep.
"Good day," he said.
"G'day," I answered, visions of Arandavil dancing in my head. A bold hero astride a black stallion, or perhaps white. Me in a red satin gown, no, make that royal blue, I'm too ruddy to wear red. Sweeping me into his firm embrace with his massive arms. His neatly trimmed dark beard brushing my cheek as he whispers sweet nothings in my ear. Don't ask me what a sweet nothing is, I've never heard one.
"My name's Cyathean. Innkeeper made mention that you are going west. I am also headed in that direction and wonder if I might have your guidance."
There it was. The other eventuality of my wretched existence. If it's not Terrible Testosterone trying to prove he's more than man enough for me, it's 90 Pound Weakling looking for a mother.
"You do guide, don't you?" he became uncertain seeing my face.
"Yes, but I don't think--"
"I'm going to the School of Magery in Udupi. I have a letter of acceptance to apprentice with Mastermage Erian, but one thing after another has kept me from going. That, and I don't know the way, except to follow the western highway."
Now that was a horse of a different color. "You're ready for Apprenticeship? You can make fire and gold and all like that?"
He nodded eagerly then looked around. He snatched up a lump of horse dung and brought it to his mouth, but he only breathed on it and mumbled some of those witch words. He closed his eyes and brought it to his forehead then held it out to me. A horse dung-shaped lump of solid gold.
"I wouldn't want to start a fire in here for fear it'd catch." He waved his free hand around taking in the wood and straw of the stable.
I nodded and swallowed my sudden greedy drool. "I think an equitable arrangement can be made."
"Good," he beamed.
"My name's Copper," I said and we shook on it. I noticed that I had to look up to him. For all his lack of width, he made it up in height. I'm no taller than most men, but my shoulders give me a presence. Been swinging a sword since I could lift one and being left-handed I trained both arms. Usually though, I keep with convention and swing the sword in my right and the dagger in my left. That way, I've always got another if a sword arm is taken out. Right-handed people are simply foolish and lazy for never training their left hand.
"Who else knows you've got that trick?" I asked, thinking of the price of the Innkeeper's golden statue. He could have paid two silvers to a local wood carver and had wonderboy here change it into gold, instead of sending off south to Ascar.
"No one. You think they'd let me leave if they did?"
Smart boy. I regarded him a moment, looking so young and sincere. Wouldn't last a day on the roads alone.
"I'm packing up to leave now. How soon can you be ready?"
"Oh! I'm ready! I'll just grab my bag."
"Don't rush. I'm going to inspect your pack and make sure you've got what you need."
I sent him back for his bedroll, more food, and a heavy cloak. Sleeping outside on the ground is a lot different than inside on a bed, even in summer. I'd've liked a pack horse but I always travel looking poor to discourage dacoits. His stallion was already a problem there. What poor tinker owned a horse like that?
We saddled up and headed for the main western road although it was a late start. Still, after several hours we'd put many miles behind us and the sun began to set.
"What's that?" Cyathean asked at an ominous sound.
"Thundercat," I replied. That being the main reason most of my traveling was east and south between settled lands and cultivated plains, not wildwood and sparsely populated mountains.
"Oh my!"
After a few moments thunder sounded again from elsewhere and I breathed with relief. "Good."
"Good? Two thundercats instead of one is good?"
"Of course! They'll fight each other. One won't share its territory. If you only hear one, that's when you worry, although if it's upwind it won't catch scent of the horses. But you can bet they'll be going for the horses before we make Udupi. There's nothing a thundercat likes better than horsemeat." I didn't tell him that they're silent when stalking a horse.
"And what will we do?" he asked in alarm.
"Do? We'll kill it. As much as a thundercat likes horsemeat, I like thundercat meat." I smiled but he didn't seem reassured.
"Do you suppose they'd run from fire?"
I paused. Fair question. "I don't rightly know, but fire ought to give a cat pause."
"I'll start the fire tonight."
"Speaking of which, let's stop and gather wood before it's full dark."
He mumbled witch words over the pile of wood and a ten foot blaze shot up before it calmed down to normal size. Thank the Goddess I'd faced the horses away while I unloaded them. We hadn't discussed my price yet, so I let him cook dinner. He had a functional triple-pot affair that let him simmer tea in the middle while boiling bean/rice stew on the bottom and melting cheese on bread on top. As we sat back sipping sassafras tea, I asked him how a part-time barkeep could afford such a well-bred, clean-lined stallion without letting on about his talent for gold. It wasn't at all disturbed by my mare, didn't fret or fidget at strange sounds though it was maybe three years old and had the build of a castle warhorse.
Cyathean looked peculiarly glum as he said, "It's me cat."
I raised my eyebrows and inclined my head.
"I-I was trying out a shape-changing spell on a toad when Tom leapt into the magic circle, and the toad leapt out just as I cast the spell."
"You were turning a toad into a stallion?" Impressive!
"No! I was turning a toad into frog! B-but with a cat in the circle while calling for a toad to take the shape of a frog . . . I got a horse!" He shrugged. "That's why I think it's important for me to attend the school."
"I should say."


We were saddling up the horses after a restful night when the thundercat struck. If we'd been mounted, Cyathean might have had a chance to fright the cat with a blast of his wizardfire. The cats just want a bite of horsemeat and usually go for the rump. That's where he was standing and the cat got him first.
It's hard to explain what happened next. All I clearly remember is the thundercat lying in two pieces, one to either side of me. Then I dove to my knees to heal Cyathean. I feel so alive when I fight. My reflexes sing in tune with nature herself. I can make no misstep in the dance of death. The sword was in my hand and I was racing for Cyathean though I don't remember drawing it from the scabbard across my back. I must have pulled the dagger too as I ran for it was in my hand to slice his tunic away from his bloody, gouged back. I must have come between the cat and its meat as surely as it came between me and fallen Cyathean. I remember the ferocious look on its face. It leapt and I swung. I keep my blades very sharp. I felt invigorated beyond belief for a moment, energized, animated far more than my ordinary existence.
On the other hand, healing is so very draining. I was very gentle with the boy, pulling out the poisons and dirt, knitting the tissues, soothing his shock. Then of course, I had to calm his plunging cat-come-stallion and do my best to heal flesh that was no longer there on its rump.
I slumped for a while, wishing for a keg of bitter beer. But no, Cyathean offered to make more tea.
"I thank you, but we must move on. Goddess knows what'll come for the scent of blood," I said, rising. "You'll ride Baby. I'll lead Tom. We'll push on a half day then have a good rest." I grabbed a haunch in one hand, my dagger in the other. "And, I'll introduce you to thundercat steak."
"Whatever possessed you to do this for a living?" he asked in a weakly voice as we continued.
It was a bit cruel of me, pushing him like this. He was after all, born and bred in a village. How to explain it to a village grub?
"When you could be a Healer for God's sake!"
I turned to look at him from where I led Tom, surprised by the vehemence of his tone. His expression changed to one of serious consideration.
"Do you have to use your left hand? I noticed the right is your sword hand."
I nodded then looked ahead. "I'm of the left." I shrugged. What did it matter to me that a Healer of the Left was shunned and called of-the-devil and worse? "But the reason I'm not a settled down Healer is that I seek adventure." Then I laughed. "Although I always seem to arrive just as it departs."
"Well, I hope you saw your fill this morn. Let us seek no more than that."
"That wasn't adventure," I said, letting scorn color my tone. "You know, treasure! Defeating evil sorcerers! Rescuing handsome princes!"
He had to laugh along with me.
"Why, I arrived at Bell Flower the day after the Mastermage's big battle. Nothing but miles of black ash."
"I was there at Bell Tower," he answered.
I laughed. "A wee thing you must have been. Why that's ten years gone. I was just fifteen myself, runaway from my Da's beatings and hot for gold."
"A wee thing?" He asked in a puzzled tone. "I was twenty then. I wanted to leave home--"
"Twenty! You was twenty then?"
"Why, of course. How old do you think I am?"
18? I just shook my head.
"That was where I met Mastermage Erian. You see, my sister and I were out picking berries and were thus saved from the conflagration. I begged Erian to take me with him and showed him my tiny magics. He told me to care for my sister until I could make fire and gold and then to come. But by then my sister had married and had babies and needed help. I mean, she has a nice husband, but with no healers I wanted to be there if anything went awry. She's done well and I'm confident to leave her now.
"Three years ago I sent him a dead lizard I'd found and changed into gold. He sent me my spellbook and the letter of Apprenticeship. You see, he's not interested in students simply looking for the gold spell. He'll teach it to anyone. And most desert their studies once they've achieved it."
"And yet, here you are," I said.
"Yes. And he told me one other thing."
"What's that?"
"To bring as many Healers as I could, by whatever means."
I turned and frowned for a moment.
He remained silent and as we entered a flat clearing I called a halt and helped him down before asking, "Whatever for?"
"Because Erian says that anyone who has any power can be trained to achieve any other. He's teaching Healers wizardry and he's teaching Wizards healing. I myself have always wanted to heal."
"Never heard of such a thing," I grunted pulling the saddle off Baby, then the pack off Tom.
"I'll give you as much gold as you can carry." His voice was low and . . . enticing; not that of the child I'd mistaken him for back at the inn. "I can even teach you the gold spell, or the youth spell, if you just come with me to speak with Erian."
"Hm," I said and went to gather wood.


And that's how it was that three weeks later I found myself in a Wizard's School speaking with the most renowned Wizard in all the land.
"Healing comes to you easily and naturally, doesn't it?" Mastermage Erian asked.
I nodded.
"You don't even have to think about it. Like I do magic. Or the way Cyathean here, changes a cat into a stallion." He smirked at Cyathean who sat with us in a new sky blue Apprentice robe. "Did you take any training?"
Cyathean looked at me in alarm. One could only be a Healer when named so by another Healer.
"One summer. I trained with our village Healer. She taught me a lot I didn't know about herbs and such. By fall I'd learned all she had to teach me."
"That ease with which you heal . . . that state of concentration . . ."
"The Healer's trance," I supplied.
"Yes," he nodded. "It is the same state from which you can perform magic. Or hear animals, or make crops grow, or enliven all with music. Only, you must take control of your outer self while immersed in that inner self. That is the challenge: to discipline your own mind. Then you can perform magic. Change lead to gold, if you like. Stay ever youthful."
"Sorry," I shook my hard head. "It's enough for me to earn my gold the old-fashioned way. Magic's nice, but I'd rather face an enemy with cold steel in my hand."
"Enough for you, yes," the old Wizard said with sagacious nod. "But what of others? Do you not care, Copper?"
"Of course I heal any who need it!" I replied angrily. A person can't do everything under the sun. I was quite satisfied with my career choice and had a long line of happy customers.
"Yes, but I'm telling you that you can be great, a hero among Wizards and Healers alike if you apply yourself to this training. And what a hero you'd be among the commoners!" He flashed me a dazzling smile, echoed by Cyathean's.
I thanked him, assuring him I'd consider it, and hurriedly left the school--that seemed more like a prison--but not before eating a big meal. What did he know about heroes? Stuck up in his cold stone towers with his moldy books mumbling witch words at toads? A hero was a fierce warrior like Arandavil, boldly facing enemies with naught but steel and skill, daring great quests to bring back treasure.


Cyathean rewarded me well for my guidance. I dallied in the market pretending to buy gewgaws though I had no home to decorate. I did find a silver thundercat chasing its tail for my first finger and a royal blue tunic embroidered with red flowers on green vines. It might keep, packed in a saddle bag, and I wore it down to the common room in the finest inn in Udupi.
My eyes met a man's across the smoky din. He had dark, wavy hair and a huge, frowzy beard shot with white streaks. I sat and took my meal at the bar and quizzed the fellow on my left about Udupi. Finally I worked around to mentioning that I'd heard Arandavil might be around. The fellow laughed and pointed back to the man I'd noted earlier.
"That's him?" I was a trifle incredulous. He was slumped in his chair laughing raucously along with a motley-looking lot. Not quite the dashing warrior of my imaginings. "Well, I'm lucky to catch him before his next quest."
"Hmph!" the man snorted. "He spends his winters here in the keg. Waits for spring to rape and pillage," I heard him mutter. Just envious.
I hopped from the bar stool and made my way to Arandavil's table. He looked me up and down coolly, no doubt noting the dagger at my waist and my warrior's stance, weight balanced forward on the balls of my feet.
"I wonder if you might have a moment to spare for discussion," I said, "perhaps later?"
"Why not now?" He smiled his regrets to his friends and led me out of the noisome, crowded common room.
"I'm a fair guide and tracker, a Healer, and an expert swordswoman. I wonder if you might care for a partner on your next adventure."
He smiled brightly although his eyes were a might bloodshot. "I'd love a partner on my next adventure. Let's begin now, shall we?" He took my hand. I shook it in agreement.
"So, are we going for treasure? To kill a dragon?" I began to feel uneasy and had to forcibly drop his hand.
"We've treasure enough right here," he said and touched my breasts.
I shrugged away and took a step back. "No. I mean seriously, Arandavil. I'm after adventure, quests, heroic journeys. I'm sure there are floozies enough for the other."
"But you are here with me now," he said with a leer. He was quick as he grabbed me again and very strong. But this wasn't the caring, gentle strength of my daydreams. This was that same animalistic lust with which a billy mounts a nanny.
"And such treasure." His tone was appreciative and suddenly his arms were gone. I thought he'd come to his senses, but no, he'd only reached for the neck of my new tunic so that he could rip it open down to my waist.
I didn't stop to see if I'd killed him. I knew I'd broken his nose and most likely simply helped him toward the oblivion he'd sought so heartily in the bottom of a stein.
How could I have been so stupid and naive? I held my tunic together and ran up the stairs to my room to have a good cry. How could I have thought he would be different? Why did I think he'd want to wine and dine me, get to know me as a friend, as a person before . . . any of that?
I dressed and packed then collected Baby from the stable. We started out the nearest gate before I realized I'd headed east. Did I really want to return from whence I'd come? Did I at all know what I wanted? Where was my life to go from this standstill?
I wanted that aliveness I felt while fighting, while dancing on the knife-thin edge between life and death. I wanted that sense of endless power to truly be endless, to last past the few seconds of combat.
I wanted to control it, rather than be controlled by it, as I had always been.
I rode a few miles till I calmed down enough to feel weary, then built a fire just for company. It wasn't yet cold and I wasn't yet hungry. I recalled how Cyathean had wined and dined me with his stew and tea, how he'd come to be a good friend. He was too good a person for the likes of me, wanting to help as many people as possible, concerned for the welfare of others in all his acts. I missed him. The road would ever be lonely after such an amiable traveling partner.
My hands had picked up a leaf and were twiddling it. I said the witch words Erian had insisted I memorize. Nothing happened. Of course I wasn't in the Healer's trance. But I had never forced myself into it. It just happened, when there was healing to be done. I looked at the leaf. Imagined it broken, in need of healing. I felt the calm energy come over me.
"Mitlifentuliatvey," I whispered, holding it close to my mouth with my eyes closed. I touched it to my head and thought, Gold, gold, gold.
I tried to hold on to the energy, but it slipped from my grasp and was gone, draining me as always. I opened my eyes and saw the leaf glittering gold in the yellow firelight. I blinked. Why the old man knew what he was talking about after all. Visions of silk gowns, a real copper bath tub, and my own castle swung through my head swift as a swordstroke. But what about the ill, injured, and destitute who needed gold more than I who had health and strength and a sound mind? And if I could do this, what more might old Mastermage Erian have to teach me?
I swung onto Baby's back despite her grumbles of protest and started back to Udupi. And that's how a renegade Healer, Master Trailguide, and aspiring Warrior became an Apprentice Wizard.

The End

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