Introducing the Free Fiction Feature: The God’s Eye

So what is the Free Fiction Feature?

Basically, I’ll be posting one of my short stories (fantasy or crime fiction) on this website for free each month and ONLY for that month. (The intended schedule will have a new story going up on the first Thursday of every month when the previous story comes down.)

This is an idea I’ve been toying with for awhile now… I was planning on launching it at the beginning of next year, but with everything that’s going on in the world these days, I decided to pull the trigger now instead. (I know lots of people are stuck at home, and money is tight.)

I actually got this idea from Kristine Kathryn Rusch, who’s been posting a free short story every week on her website for years now. (She has A LOT more short stories than I do, lol.) So I’ll be working my way through posting all my existing shorts (many which are north of 10,000 words, along with a few novellas), and newer stories as time rolls on, until I either run out of content, or decide to drop the project.

In addition, I’m planning to run a regular ‘Behind the Books’ post that includes some additional background or fun insights about each story. These will appear two weeks after the free story is posted. (And they’ll stay up indefinitely, like regular posts.)

So with all those details out of the way, on to the first story…

 

The God's Eye fantasy short story cover

Raena watches the entrance of the Six Crows, waiting for her quarry to arrive.

Tales of her exploits already travel across the land in soft whispers—the finest thief in Midnight Reach.

But no one in the rogues’ tavern recognizes her in her current guise. Not even the hired men who hunt her.

…And Raena needs to tie up some loose ends.

A magic-filled, short story adventure for fans of fast-paced fantasy, “The God’s Eye” by Jacquelyn Smith won first place in the Writers’ Journal Fiction Contest (2011).

Now, you can read it for free on this site for one month only. This short story also comes in ebook and paperback formatboth on its own, and as part of the Rubicon short story collection.

You can find “The God’s Eye” at your preferred online retailer here, or buy it direct from the author. You can find retailer links to Rubicon here, or buy it direct from the author.

 

The God’s Eye: A Fantasy Short Story

Jacquelyn Smith

One crow for ill news,

Two crows for mirth,

Three crows, a wedding,

Four crows, a birth,

Five crows for riches,

Six crows, a thief,

Seven crows, a journey,

Eight crows for grief,

Nine crows, a secret,

Ten crows for sorrow,

Eleven crows for true love,

Twelve crows, a new tomorrow

-Scottish counting rhyme

 

Raena watched the entrance of the Six Crows, waiting for her quarry to arrive. She sat at a table in the far corner of the tavern with her back to the wall. They were looking for her—at least, she hoped they were. She had done everything she could to get their attention. But her current guise of long, honey-blond hair and green eyes would not be familiar to them. She thought the freckles were a nice touch. No, they wouldn’t find her until it was too late.

As she maintained her vigil, she remembered the last time she had visited this particular tavern. She had sat in the same spot, looking idly out the window. Her thoughts drifted back…

* * *

A lone crow perched on the tavern sign, seeming to join its six carved brethren. The establishment had been named for the line in the old rhyme used for omens. Since the owner was a retired thief, it seemed appropriate. A group of crows was also known as a murder, adding another layer to the joke. The Six Crows was a gathering place in the lawless town of Midnight Reach, where mercenaries of all kinds gathered to relax, swap stories, or learn of offers of employment.

Raena was between jobs, living comfortably off the gold from her last heist. Although she was not prone to prolonged idleness, she was particular about the jobs she took.

It wasn’t long after the crow appeared that the wizard entered the tavern. He was medium height with salt and pepper hair and a close-cropped beard. His faded, orange robes flowed over a small paunch. All in all, she thought him an unlikely-looking sorcerer, but his winter-blue eyes gave her a chill as they swept the room.

The wizard walked up to the bar and began speaking with the nearest thief. After a few moments of hushed conversation, the thief shook his head and turned back to his drink. Unperturbed, the wizard continued on to the next scoundrel, who gave him the same response.

Raena watched, intrigued as he worked his way down the bar. Whatever job he was offering, no one was accepting. Some even packed up and left after hearing the wizard’s words. Finally, Brador stepped in. As the owner of the tavern, he had a vested interest in keeping his clients happy. He and the wizard exchanged words for several long moments until Brador indicated Raena’s position at the back of the tavern with a jerk of his chin. The wizard’s eyes betrayed a brief flash of surprise.

Raena knew she didn’t look like much. Although her fine, blue-black hair was shorn in a blunt cut that only reached her chin, no one would mistake her for a man. Her features were angular and her face was dominated by large, dark eyes. Her slight form often caused people to underestimate her, but she had the strength and agility of a trained acrobat.

The wizard nodded his thanks to Brador and made his way to Raena’s corner table.

“You are Raena?”

“And you are?”

“Owaen. May I sit down?”

Raena considered for a moment before shoving the chair across from her out from under the table with her boot. The wizard took the unspoken invitation and sat down. He stared at her for a moment before speaking.

Raena held his gaze without flinching. In her line of work, it was never wise to show any hint of weakness. She waited for him to break the silence, as she knew he would.

“I have a job offer for you.”

“I’m flattered. Why did the boys at the bar turn you down?”

Owaen sighed. “The job is not easy, and it involves a magic talisman. It seems that is a sticking point with some people.”

Raena hid her interest by cleaning her nails with the tip of her dagger. She enjoyed a challenge.

“And what makes you think I’m any different?”

“The fellow behind the bar says you’re good, and willing to take unusual jobs.”

“I’m the best you’ll find in Midnight Reach. My services don’t come cheap.”

“I’m willing to pay five hundred gold crowns if you are successful.”

Raena considered. It was a large sum—more than she had ever earned for a single job. She wasn’t driven by money alone, but it helped to take better-paying jobs so she could continue to be selective. She held herself above those of her kind who would do any dirty job for a bit of coin. The town was also starting to bore her.

“I’m listening.” She gestured for him to continue. “What do you want procured from where?”

“The item is located in Lion’s Port. It’s under close guard.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem. What is the item in question?”

“It’s an uncut emerald the size of a fist.” The wizard’s eyes took on a strange, hungry glow.

Raena felt a creeping suspicion. There were few such stones in existence. “And where is it housed?”

Owaen’s expression became wary. “In the courtyard of the City Council.”

Raena felt as though she had been doused with cold water. “The God’s Eye. You want me to steal the God’s Eye.” Her voice was flat.

“You’ve heard of it, I gather. Now you see why the other fellows turned me down. Will you do the same?”

The wizard’s words challenged her. It would have to be planned very carefully. Once it was discovered that the stone was missing, the entire city would be sealed until the culprit was found. Raena realized she was already planning the details.

She was confident in her abilities, but was this really a good idea? She decided to press the man to measure his commitment.

“A job like that is high risk. I wouldn’t do it for less than one thousand crowns.”

“Done.” Owaen didn’t hesitate.

“I would also want one hundred up front.”

He frowned. “How do I know you won’t just run off once I pay you?”

“I’ll give you my word. Brador will vouch for me. You, on the other hand, are not one of us. I have no way of knowing whether you’re good for the pay. Consider it a token investment for my time.”

“Very well. I suppose that’s fair. I hope you’ll understand if I don’t give it to you right now. Only a fool walks into the Six Crows with that much coin before making arrangements.”

“Leave it with Brador. I’ll collect it from him. I’ll set out as soon as he confirms payment.” Raena fixed the wizard with a steady stare. “Now what else haven’t you told me?”

He sighed. “The stone is more than just a religious artifact. It is very dangerous. You must not touch it with your bare skin.”

“What will happen if I touch it?”

“None have lived to tell.”

Raena didn’t like the evasiveness of his answer. He knew more than he was saying. She suspected any others who had gone after the stone had been killed before obtaining it. If anyone had succeeded at a high-profile heist like that, she would have heard about it.

“You’ve hired others before me,” she said.

“You are not the first. If you do manage to succeed, bring the stone to my tower. It’s in the mountains to the west. There is a dirt path outside of town.”

Despite her misgivings, Raena stuck out her hand. “I will retrieve the stone.”

Owaen clasped her palm, gripping it tightly. “Remember, do not touch it with your bare skin.” His eyes locked with hers, narrowing. “One more thing. Do not think to betray me. I will be watching.”

Raena gave him a cold smile. “I’m familiar with your kind’s scrying parlor tricks. You will get your prize, so long as you haven’t played me false.”

“Then I bid you good hunting.”

* * *

The stone walls of Lion’s Port loomed over travelers coming and going from the city. The sun was setting as Raena rode through the gate. The guards gave her a cursory glance, but saw nothing to concern them. They allowed her to pass without question.

The journey from Midnight Reach had been uneventful, other than the somewhat predictable attack by bandits. They had proven no match for Raena. She had allowed only one to survive in order to warn any other entrepreneurs in the vicinity against crossing her path.

She rented a room at the Golden Fleece, the legitimate front for the local thieves’ guild, and spent the evening buying drinks for informants. The news was both good and bad. Although anyone was free to visit the relic known as the God’s Eye, it was under constant guard. Not only was the stone valuable, but it was also a symbol of power for the ruling family of they city, who had wrested it from the weakened church. Its origins were shrouded in mystery. Still, Raena had her suspicions about how the church—avidly against wizards and magic—had come into possession of the stone in the first place.

She spent the night in a rented room and set out the next morning to see the stone for herself. Bundled in a shabby cloak, she joined a large group of unwashed commoners who made a daily pilgrimage to see the stone.

There was only one entrance to the courtyard, which was encircled by a high wall of stone. As Raena walked through the arched entrance, she noticed a raised portcullis overhead. Going through the front door at night was out of the question.

The interior housed a modest garden. A stone block rose from the flagstones in the center of the courtyard. She stepped closer with the huddled masses to get a better look.

On a black velvet pillow, beneath a dome of crystal, was the stone. As the wizard had said, it was a flawless emerald the size of a fist. It had not been cut or shaped, only hewn in its raw form from deep within the earth. Even so, it was breathtaking. Its facets gleamed in the morning sunlight.

As she beheld the stone, Raena felt a chill go through her. She shrugged off the inner warning. She knew the item was magic. All she had to do was make sure not to touch it. That’s what gloves were for. Scanning the rest of the courtyard, she noticed five crows perched in a tree. She took it to be a good omen. She would take the stone that night.

* * *

Other than the odd drunk, whore, or patrol, the streets of the city were silent. A cold, gentle rain was falling, persuading most sensible people to stay indoors.

Raena approached the walled courtyard from the south. After taking a moment to listen for any passers-by, she tossed her rope and grapnel in a high arc. After a few heartbeats, she heard it land with a dull thud. Several moments passed without any reaction from inside. Satisfied, she gave the rope a tug to test its grip before climbing.

Once she reached the top of the wall, Raena straddled it and peered down at the courtyard below. She was surprised to find no sentries on duty. Then she noticed a cheery fire shining from the gatehouse window. She counted three shadows within. It seemed the weather was continuing to work in her favor. One of the shadows was probably the gatekeeper, while the other two were sentries for the courtyard interior, driven inside by the rain. Before her climb, she had also noticed two men standing guard outside the lowered portcullis. She didn’t intend on leaving that way, so she didn’t expect them to pose a problem.

Without any guards to disturb her, Raena climbed down into the courtyard. When she reached the ground, she had to push her way through the shrubs that lined the wall in order to get to the main path. She was glad she had worn gloves. Some of the bushes were prickly.

It was easy to remove the crystal dome. There were no pesky locks to bother with. Raena placed the dome gently on the wet flagstones beside her.

Glancing over her shoulder at the gatehouse, she reached for the stone with her left hand. As her fingers closed around the emerald, she felt a tingle against her palm. From the time it took to turn back to face the raised block, her hand had started to burn. Muffling a cry of pain, Raena opened her fingers to release the stone, only to find them empty.

The stone was gone.

On closer inspection, she noticed a gash in the palm of her leather glove. The narrow strip of exposed skin glowed a bright green for several moments before fading into darkness. Her mind reeled in horror. The glove must have torn when she was working her way through the bushes.

All thoughts were driven from her head as the next wave of pain traveled the length of her body. Its suddenness startled her and she stumbled, knocking over the crystal dome. Its tinkling shatter echoed through the courtyard.

Shadows in the gatehouse moved toward the door. It was time to leave. Raena didn’t know if touching the stone would kill her, but she wasn’t going to sit around for the guards to take care of that for her. Forcing herself to move through the pain, she darted through the gardens to her dangling rope.

The climb was agony. Every muscle in her body felt as if it were on fire. Her skull pounded. From below she heard curses as her theft was discovered. A sharp-eyed guard spotted her on the wall and his crossbow bolt grazed her cheek just as she flung herself over the top.

She slid down the rope on the other side, abandoning it to flee into the night. She stumbled as her feet hit the ground, her body unnaturally weak. As she turned to make her escape, she came face to face with one of the guards who watched the portcullis, drawn by the noise.

Too late, she realized her hood had fallen back during the climb down. The man’s eyes widened in surprise at the sight of a woman’s features. Cursing, Raena spun and landed a well-placed kick against his jaw. Normally, this would have brought the satisfying crunch of a broken neck. Instead, the man’s eyes rolled back into his head as he slumped to the ground.

The sound of another pair of booted footsteps approaching prevented her from finishing the job with her knife. So much for a clean getaway…

Raena bolted before the other guard could arrive, forcing her legs to obey. It felt as though she were running through sand.

As luck would have it, the approaching guard saw her retreating form and gave chase, calling to his peers, who had joined him on the street.

It was the drunks that saved her. Somehow, she sensed their hazy thoughts up ahead. With a burst of speed, she threw herself around the corner and into their midst, joining her voice with their slurred song. Her stumbling gait wasn’t unfeigned.

The guards ran right past them, splitting up to cover more ground. Raena waited for them to pass before blending into the shadows once more.

The remainder of the night was spent evading the widening sweep of the guards. This was made easier by the murmur of their thoughts. Raena didn’t have time to think about how this was possible. She forced herself to keep going until she reached an alley that ended at the northern wall of the city.

Locating a second rope and grapnel she had hidden earlier in the day, she scrambled over the wall and made her way to freedom.

* * *

The journey back to Midnight Reach was gruelling. Having left her horse to graze near her escape route at the city wall, she was able to ride rather than travel on foot. In the hours after her escape, she rode as far as possible before finding a copse of trees to take shelter in and collapsing in exhaustion.

She woke hours later, alerted by a growing murmur of thoughts approaching from the east. Although she still didn’t know how she was able to sense such things, she didn’t stop to question this new ability. Throwing herself back onto her horse, she fled once more.

The pursuit lasted for days. There was no doubt that the Lord of Lion’s Port was angered by the theft of the God’s Eye. He had sent a large group of men to give chase, along with several spare mounts. They gained on her with each passing mile. Soon she didn’t need to hear their thoughts to know they were coming. She could see them on the road behind her.

Raena rode through the night as well as the day to keep ahead, walking her mount to rest him. Her only thought was to find Owaen to see if he could do anything to take the strange powers of the stone from her with his magic. It was clear they were the secret treasure he craved.

It was on the fifth day of her flight that her pursuers caught up with her. It was late in the day and the Shadow Wood was a dark smudge on the western horizon. Now that their quarry was in sight, the men spurred their mounts onward, eager for capture. Raena pushed her own tired horse, shouting encouragement. If she could only reach the wood with a bit of a lead, she could lose the men behind her.

But the guards’ horses were fresher, while Raena’s mount was flecked with lather and stumbling. The trees drew nearer, but so did the men. One of them pulled up beside her. She barely dodged his grasping gauntlet.

A flock of crows swooped down, seemingly from nowhere, and darted into the forest, startling the horses. Raena counted eight. Although she had come to grief over the last several days, she hoped the omen didn’t reflect the outcome of the chase.

As she drew under the deep shadows of the trees with the men practically on top of her, she desperately wished she could join the crows and fly away.

Somewhere between one moment and the next, Raena felt herself shrinking and her arms lengthening. She looked down at herself and gave a startled cry of panic that emerged as a harsh squawk.

She was a crow!

Unable to believe her good fortune, she flapped her wings and launched into the air to join the rest of the flock, leaving the confused men behind.

* * *

Raena flew until her arms felt like lead. Night had fallen and it became too dangerous for her to continue. Noticing a large campfire, she landed at the outskirts of what appeared to be a rover camp. Brightly-painted wagons were drawn in a circle around the fire where people in gaudy silks ate and danced. She huddled in the grass—still in bird form—unsure what to do next.

An old woman wearing a green kerchief over her iron-gray braids stepped out from the shadows and looked down at her.

“So that be where ye got off to,” she said, her voice rich with amusement. “They be asking for ye, ye know. A dark-haired woman, who stole the God’s Eye and vanished into the woods. It be just as well ye’ve discovered its secrets.”

Raena cocked her bird head to one side, curious as to how this crone could see through her present form.

“Oh, ye cannot fool old Martje. I be the seer of this clan. I’m not knowing why ye’ve taken the stone, but it’s gone now. It’s a part of ye. The only person who can take its power be a wizard, and even then, he’ll be needing to cut out your heart to eat it.”

Raena went cold all over, her hopes of Owaen helping her dashed.

“I’ve given ye fair warning girl, so take care. The omens about ye be thick as thieves.”

The woman vanished into the shadows once more.

* * *

The next day brought Raena to the Dagger Pass, the only route through the Cloudpeak Mountains. Flying high above the dirt road that cut between the peaks, she spotted men below. They appeared to be waiting for someone, since they were huddled around a bend. Their drifting thoughts revealed them to be hired by Owaen.

They were waiting for her.

Raena had hoped the seer woman was wrong, but the presence of these men only confirmed her words. Owaen had said he would be watching. He did not like what he had seen.

In the woods behind her, the men from Lion’s Port still searched. Soon they would find their way to Midnight Reach. She was well known in this area, and her description would make her easy to track down.

Although she could simply fly away and leave all her pursuers behind, Owaen and the Lord of Lion’s Port were powerful men with many resources. She couldn’t evade both of them forever. Did she really want to live the rest of her life on the run?

No. She would take care of this now.

Flying over the men in the pass, she landed among some bushes and willed herself back into her true form. Her clothing and pack—everything was as it had been before.

She drew her knife and crept back down the trail to where Owaen’s men were lying in wait. There were six of them. With a cry, she launched herself at the closest one, cutting him down with a stab to the kidney before moving on to the next.

The startled men turned to face her, their mouths full of curses. She danced among them for several moments, dodging their blows. Once she was certain she had their attention, she kneed the closest one in the gut and used his doubled-over form as a launching pad to get to the nearest horse. She kicked the sides of her new mount and tore off in the direction of Midnight Reach, leaving them to scramble after her.

As soon as she got around the first bend and out of sight, she transformed into a crow once more. It seemed easier this time.

Winging her way toward the town, she made a beeline for the Six Crows, cutting across the winding road below. She realized she was no longer tired or in pain as she had been when she first stole the stone. For good or ill, its powers were a part of her now.

* * *

Raena watched the entrance of the Six Crows, waiting for her quarry to arrive. Once the idea had come to her, altering her human appearance had not been difficult. As she watched the door, she noticed two crows perched on the windowsill.

It wasn’t long before Owaen’s men arrived. They fanned out and walked through the tavern, searching. The leader walked past her table, his thoughts seething. He did not want to do nice things to her. This one was more dangerous than the others. He had a cruel cunning.

Raena rose from her chair to trail her fingers across his chest while looking up at him from under lowered lashes. Too startled to react, he stood still, watching as Raena walked toward the privy with an inviting glance over her shoulder. Ducking through the doorway, she drew her knife and waited. She didn’t have to wait long.

As soon as the man stepped through the doorway she slipped behind him and slashed his throat.

Making sure there was no blood on her, she returned to the common room. When the rest of Owaen’s men turned to look, she gave them a shrug.

“He’s finished already.”

She returned to her corner table to sit. As expected, the remaining four soon joined her, each emphasizing they had more stamina than their leader. One sat next to her, throwing his arm around her shoulders. Raena smiled and slid her knife into his gut from under the table.

It was several moments before he or anyone else realized what had happened. By the time the fatally-wounded man slumped to the floor, Raena was already in a fighter’s crouch, waiting. The other men leaped to their feet, fumbling for their own weapons.

Naturally, this was when the men from Lion’s Port walked through the door of the tavern. Their attention was drawn to the cluster of armed men in the corner surrounding her. One of Owaen’s men broke the spell.

“It’s her! She’s the one we’re looking for. The wizard said she might look different. She’s the one who took the stone.”

“Is this the woman who stole the God’s Eye?” the leader from Lion’s Port asked.

Owaen’s men nodded.

“Then I thank you for assisting with her capture. I will take her into custody.”

“I don’t think so,” the observant man from Owaen’s group challenged. “This one is meant for Owaen.”

Before the city guard could react, the thug stabbed him in the side.

After that, all hell broke loose. The two groups battled it out, right there in the tavern. Raena stood alone, forgotten. She fought the urge to laugh at her ridiculous good fortune. Instead, she moved in and out of the fight, dispatching men from both sides while they were distracted.

Only one man from Lion’s Port remained. He was a tired and easy mark, but Raena had other plans. She flashed him an impudent grin as she ran out the door.

Looking back to make certain her remaining pursuer followed, she rode off in the direction of Owaen’s tower to the west of Midnight Reach. Once she spotted the rock-hewn spire, she pulled her mount up sharply, causing him to rear. She tumbled to the ground and rolled to her feet. The man following her leaped from his own horse to face her, sword drawn. She immediately engaged him, pressing hard. But his sword had more reach than her knife out in the open. She was forced to duck and dodge his blows.

With a quick feint that left her open, she struck, burying her blade in his chest. His blood spurted all over her as she pulled her knife free. Even as he died, his sword continued toward her unprotected side.

Raena’s appearance resumed its natural form as she crumpled to the ground, motionless.

* * *

Owaen sprang into action, unable to believe his good fortune. A single crow followed him as he trotted down the path from his tower, mocking his glee.

He had been watching his hired thief since her departure from Midnight Reach. She was every bit as good as she had claimed. If not for those thorns slicing her gloves, she would have made a clean escape. Although it would have been easier to simply retrieve the stone from her, Owaen was willing to do whatever was necessary to gain its power. His thugs had done their work. The woman was dead and so were they. It saved him the trouble of paying them.

Owaen reached the site of the battle within moments. Ten crows flocked around the thief’s body like grieving widows at a funeral. His own crow companion had flown high into the sky, and was only a small, dark spot among the clouds.

He crouched beside the bloody corpse, shooing off the birds. They scattered to watch from a few feet away. The woman’s face was peaceful in death, her wary expression gone smooth. The evening air had gone quiet and still.

Owaen pulled a dagger from his robes. Poising it over the thief’s chest, he closed his eyes, savoring the moment. This was what he had spent years searching and working for. Soon the power would be his.

He plunged the dagger downward, but a stabbing pain in his abdomen brought him up short. Gasping at its suddenness, he looked down to find a knife protruding from his gut. The hand on the hilt twisted.

“Thought my heart would make a nice meal, old man?”

The wretched thief rolled to her feet to stand before him, a cold smile on her face. Owaen swayed on his knees, frowning as he searched for her fatal wound. Did the stone also grant immortality? None of his studies indicated this.

“Oh, I’m not wounded,” she said, reading his thoughts. “None of this blood is mine. I put on that little performance solely for your benefit. Did you enjoy it?”

Owaen’s thoughts seethed as he realized the extent of her betrayal. His lifeblood soaked the ground.

“Tsk, tsk, that’s not nice. Perhaps I’ll leave you alone with those nasty thoughts, seeing as you won’t be having them for much longer.”

The air around the woman shimmered as she blurred into the form of a crow. The bird that had followed Owaen spiraled down from the sky to join her and the other ten of its brethren, completing the murder.

They launched from the ground as one, leaving Owaen behind to watch them fly away. His body grew cold and his breathing slowed.

As the final darkness crept in and the crows were mere pinpricks in the distance, Owaen wished he had never heard of the God’s Eye.

* * *

The God’s Eye: A Fantasy Short Story

Copyright © 2020 by Jacquelyn Smith

Cover design by Jacquelyn Smith

Cover art © Xternium | Dreamstime.com

 

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