Friends in High Places

Emma Burnett

Story image for Friends in High Places by

Editor’s note: In a first for Mythaxis Magazine, Emma Burnett’s Friends in High Places has been simultaneously released by Upbeat Tales in audio format! Read it here, hear it there!

A priest, a scribe, and a whore walk into a pub, but none of them is in the mood for a joke.

The priest arrives first. She’s not wearing her priestly robes, but between the tree pendant pinned to her shoulder, the limp, atrophied wings tied down at her back, and the perma-judgement scowl on her face, there’s no question about her job. People avoid eye contact. She stalks through the crowd and claims a suddenly vacant booth at the back.

The scribe arrives next, nervously looking around. His yellowed wings quiver uncertainly, matching his skin, and he doesn’t take off the gloves hiding the ink stains that mark his fingers. He thinks this makes him look less conspicuous. He joins the priest at her table, clutching his bag to his chest.

The whore arrives last, but not quite late. His wings are brightly coloured and lively, and the hair at their ridges and on his face are dyed in blues and purples to match. They catch the light from the ceiling sun tunnels that illuminate the place. He stops at the bar and orders drinks, wiggles his fingers at some regulars while he waits, and carries the drinks to the table and puts one each in front of the scribe and priest.

“Well, this is a vibe, hey? Here, babes, have some spiced wine.” He smiles radiantly at them, then sits and sips from his own. “So, you got it?”

The scribe fidgets with his glass, looks nervously around before answering. “Yes. It’s in my bag.” He holds the bag tight against his stomach with his free hand.

“And that’s not obvious at all,” snaps the priest. She tastes the drink in front of her and nods a quick thanks at the whore.

The whore sips his drink again, then asks, “Is it the original?”

The scribe scowls. “It’s not like I could stop to make a copy, is it?”

The priest sniffs. “Theft is a sin against the gods.”

“You want this just as much as I do,” the scribe whines. “Don’t judge me, I did all the work, and I got the thing just like you wanted.”

The whore pats the scribe on the arm. “Never mind her, judging is her calling in life. So, let’s see it, then.”

“What, here?”

“Unless you want to whip it out in the bathroom?” The whore looks around. The after-work crowd has started to get rowdy, absorbed in their office gossip, or watching the dancer on the bar. The whore had slipped her some cash to be distracting, and she is gunning it. “No one’s watching us.”

The scribe looks unconvinced, but pulls out the scroll from his bag, nearly knocking over his glass with an elbow. The whore steadies it casually.

“Give it here.” The priest holds out her hand and snaps her fingers. “You say this is an unredacted bit of troll lore? I want to see it for myself.”

The scribe looks hurt but passes it over. The priest unfurls the paper carefully. “It’s smaller than I would have expected. Not as old, either. Are you sure this is it? Nothing missing?”

The whore leans over to have a look, then nods. “Trust our friend here to have done his job. Nice work, by the way, getting that.”

The scribe takes a small, self-satisfied sip from his wine. Then he crinkles his nose, unimpressed, and puts the glass back down.

“Have you checked this against other evidence?” The priest stares down at the scroll. “It says here…”

“What evidence?” The scribe’s voice is high and needling. “There is no other lore, that’s the point. This was literally the only thing left unredacted after the Protections Purge. I have no idea how it survived, but there it is.”

The whore waves a hand, watching the dancer approvingly. “I’m sure it’s fine,” he says.

“Hmm.” The priest stares down at the gently curling paper, takes another sip of her drink. “And have you cross referenced these landmarks with possible forest routes?”

“Of course I have. I’ve got it all mapped out.” The scribe crosses his arms over his chest, and flicks his wings agitatedly. “What kind of scholar do you think I am?”

“The kind who steals forbidden scrolls from the library and gets twitchy about it,” she snaps back.

“Hey, now,” says the whore. “Play nice.”

“Whatever. It would be about two days by air—” the scribe coughs ostentatiously into his hand “—but since our zealous friend has decided never to fly, it’ll be eight, maybe nine days walk.”

“Great!” says the whore. “Well, you just show me where to go, and I’ll meet you there.” He downs the rest of his drink.

“No,” says the priest firmly, rolling up the scroll. “You can walk. We do this together, and we leave tomorrow.”

The whore looks annoyed. “I can’t leave tomorrow, I have clients lined up.”

“Tomorrow, or nothing.” She stares at him, calmly. “Don’t forget, I can always go and tell the city guards. I’m sure they’ll believe a priest, you know.”

He scowls, and his wings open and close a few times. He knows the city guard, many of them are clients. But she starts to squeeze the scroll in her hand, so he folds his wings down and smiles widely. His sharp teeth flash in the reflected light from above.

“Okay, fine. Tomorrow it is! But after breakfast.” He reaches across the table and grabs the scribe’s mostly untouched drink and downs it in one. “So, then, faefolk, I’ll love you and leave you. Calls to make, places to be, people to do.”

Orbit-sml ><

T he route the scribe has planned is not difficult for the most part. The whore regrets mussing up a pair of couture boots in the underbrush of the woods, and the scribe – who had never missed a night in his bed – grumbles about sleeping outdoors. But the priest proves handy on their hike, using skills built through years with the guardians of the underbrush. She chooses campsites, lights cooking fires, harvests wild plants, prepares meals. Although she isn’t overly talkative, she is even-tempered.

“So, what’re you going to wish for?” asks the whore on their fourth day. He is tired of the priest’s silence and the scribe’s grumbling. “When we reach the troll?”

They are far enough from town to feel comfortable talking without the need for codewords, no one but the birds to hear them talk about protected species.

The scribe shrugs. “Oh, you know. Life improvements.”

“Your face, huh?” The whore snorts at his own joke. The scribe looks offended.

Money,” says the priest. “You left your job, and you’re trekking through the woods to find a potentially extinct species for… money?”

The scribe flaps a dismissive hand. “You say that like it’s a bad thing. You have no idea. Your order takes care of you. I just have me. And money will totally change my life. I’ll be able to get married. Eat whatever I want. Stop going to kitsch taverns with crap wine. Stop working in that damned archive. You know how cold it gets in there in the winter? Anyway, what do you want?”

The priest sighs. “Salvation. I will ask the wishing troll to assist me in converting the masses.” She gazes dreamily at the branches above. “I am many things, but a convincing orator is not one of them. But is it my calling to bring people to the truth, bring them into contact with the forests, with the peace of the woods. The troll can give me a voice.”

The whore whistles through his teeth, and flits over a fallen branch. “Big ask.”

She nods, and stoops to pick some mushrooms growing on the log. “Here. Dinner.”


“They’ll taste fine once they’re cooked.”

“You shouldn’t have filed down your teeth.” He runs his tongue over the points of his own. “We could have done some hunting instead.”

The priest scowls, ignoring the jibe at her order’s strict rules. She changes the subject back. “So, what will you ask for, then? Endless dead rabbits?”

The whore grins at her, sharp teeth on full show and colourful wings spread wide. He jumps, and performs a graceful pirouette in the sky.

“Obviously, I want to be young and beautiful forever.”

Orbit-sml ><

T he way becomes harder as they climb up into the mountains. The trees thin, and the suns shine boldly down on them.

“You know, this would be easier if you’d just get your wings out,” complains the scribe, who had long ago decided he was built for comfort. “It’s ridiculous what your lot do, pinning them down.”

The priest glares at him over her shoulder. “I can’t,” she says. “And if you threaten to fly ahead without me, then when I get to the troll, I’ll wish you dead.”

“I could wish you dead first.”

“Hey, both of you, get it together,” says the whore. “If we all wish each other dead, then what’s the point of coming out here? You’ll get your salvation, you’ll get your happily ever after, wedding bells, whatever. No one flies ahead. And there’s no point moaning about it, either. Look at her wings. They’ve been bound so long they couldn’t carry a mouse.”

They continue carving a path up the mountain, while the day gets hotter.

“I’m going to ask for better internal cooling,” the scribe mutters between heavy breaths. “No: endless frozen cocktails. No: a house with a swimming pool.”

“Hey,” the whore prods the priest on the shoulder, tuning out the scribe’s ongoing list of things he wants to combat the heat or the need for exercise. “What’re you thinking about?”

She frowns at him. “The troll. Why?”

He shrugs. “No reason. I just wanted to know. Better than listening to him whinge.”

“Hmm. I was wondering what it will be like. There are very few details in the scroll about its appearance, or habits. If it is a forest dweller, I might learn from it, perhaps. I might even be able to attempt a conversion.” She gestures at the scribe, who is fighting with a branch tangled in his hair. “Probably easier than converting him.”

“No kidding.”

The scribe frees himself from the branch. “I didn’t think this hill would be so… so… so mountainy.” He drops to the ground. “I need a break.”

“My gods, you’re lazy,” says the priest, and pushes on ahead.

“Screw you and your gods,” he says, but he hauls himself back to his feet. “I got the scroll. I planned the route. I’m the only one who could get us there.”

“Horseshit,” says the priest. “I’m in the forest all the time. You wanted to fly.”

“You couldn’t make your way out of the first coppice. You’d get stuck staring at some daisy, and we’d have to wait for a month while it went through some life cycle, and—”

“Oy!” snaps the whore, “Zip it, both of you! We all played our parts. I heard the rumour about the scroll, and paid for your time, fair and square. You found the scroll, figured out where to go. What else do you need to hear? You’re really damn amazing.” The whore waves a hand half-heartedly towards the priest. “And she… well…”

“I overheard you talking, and made sure you didn’t lose your jobs, maybe even your lives. Hunting trolls is illegal, after all,” the priest calls from further ahead.

The scribe is panting trying to keep up. “We’re not hunting! We’re searching. It’s, like, totally different.”

Orbit-sml ><

T he priest, the scribe, and the whore arrive at the wishing troll’s cave entrance, hidden behind a crashing waterfall on the south side of a beautiful nameless mountain, just before sunsdown.

The suns shine through the needles on the trees, reflecting off the water. It is beautiful, but none of the scenery is as beautiful as the troll, golden skinned and massive, who stands to greet them as the three travellers arrive. The troll holds out their arms, a welcoming gesture, and the priest, thus far patient and calm, gasps and rushes towards them.

“Troll,” she calls out over the sound of the waterfall. “On behalf of the Gods of Codruț, I demand—”

The troll lays a hand on her head, momentarily caresses her head with their golden hand in her cropped hair, and the priest freezes, falls silent. Then the troll inhales sharply. There is a popping sound, and the priest disappears. Her clothes and bag fall in a heap to the ground with a thud. In place of her body is a scroll of parchment, the pale grey of her useless wings. The troll bends to collect it.

“Demands,” mutters the troll in a soft voice, like moss underfoot. “Never been a big fan of demands.” They straighten, and turn to the scribe. “I am a big fan of gifts, though.”

The scribe stands rooted to the spot, a few steps in front of the whore, and stares at the scroll in the troll’s hand. His eyes bulge, and he looks like he is about to be sick.

“Oh, well, no time to chat. I don’t want your last memory to be puking on my doorstep.” The troll steps forwards, and gently touches the scribe’s head. There is another pop, and a buttery, yellow-coloured scroll hits the ground.

“He should have gotten out in the sun more, picked up some colour. So waxy.” The troll picks up the parchment and inspects it, then looks towards the whore. “Now, what about you?”

“What about me?” asks the whore. “I brought your gifts. Least you could do is offer me a drink.”

Orbit-sml ><

A troll and a faerie sit with their legs dangling off the edge of the cliff. The waterfall spray is cool on their skin, and they share a bottle of winterberry wine. The whore tells a few dirty jokes. The troll tells a few mountain jokes.

After a while, the troll asks, “You okay?”

The faerie shrugs, and nods. “It was a long walk. And a long time. I’m just kinda tired.”

“I feel you. Good timing, by the way. I finished reading the last faescroll yesterday.” The troll yawns. “Gods, reading about twelve years of accountancy school was boring. The soldier you brought me was better. Had led an interesting life, at least. Lots of filth, I got really into it.”

“See? I made it back at one hundred and twenty-two years, on the nose.” The faerie smiles and leans against the troll. “It’s nice to be here. I missed you.”

The troll makes a noise in their throat. “The years add up.” They kick against the spray of the water, and it glints off their golden legs. “Are you sure this is what you want? You could have a different wish, you know.”

“You could say you missed me, too. It wouldn’t kill you.”

The troll makes another grunting noise. It might have been an agreement.

The faerie pulls away, sits up straight. “Yes, this is what I want. Youth, beauty, all that. I’m not ready to get old yet. I’m just having some feels.” He looks briefly at the two new scrolls, lying on a table near the entry to the cave. “So, how many years will those two buy me?”

The troll looks at the faerie for a moment, silent and impassive, then stands and walks to the parchment scrolls. They pick each one up, weigh them in a hand, sniff them, unroll the top of each and peer at the dates, then roll them back up reverently and place them on the table. They return and sit down, and hold out a hand for the wine bottle.

“I’m subtracting some time for the whininess of the second one – a clerk, was he?”

“A scribe.”

“Real moaner, that one. Can you imagine what he’d have brought me as a gift, if he’d actually known he should bring one?”

“Bet the priest’s gift would’ve been worse,” the faerie says. “Some sort of fungus, probably.”

“Yeah, maybe.” The troll tilts its head back and forth as it tallies the score. “So, only two scrolls this time, but I only ever read one entry per day. Take off time for infancy, nothing to read there, and, seriously, I’m skipping over every complaint from the scribe, because screw that for entertainment. Between them it comes to, say, seventy-six years.”

The faerie nods. It’s a fair amount of time, enough to get established in a new place, head to a new town where no one knows him. Do something exciting. Carpets, maybe. Or war. Drum up business, maybe start a family. He hasn’t done that in a while.

But… “Hey, listen,” the faerie rests a hand on the troll’s golden, water-flecked knee. “I could stay for a little bit. You know, if you want?”

“What, and waste your time on me?”

“I don’t think it would be a waste. I think it would be nice.” The faerie turned his hand upwards, and little droplets from the cascading waterfall appeared in his palm. “And I can always leave if we’re not happy. Go back down the mountain, do a new career, find you some new stories.”

The troll stares, the way they do, down at the faerie. It is a long stare, and their face is unreadable. The faerie waits it out. If there’s anything he’s learned from his recent career, it is to let people decide if they want you. He lets the troll decide.

“You would stay here, with me,” says the troll. “No strings attached?”

“No strings,” agrees the faerie. “Unless that’s what you’re into.”

“What about your time?”

“I figure it’ll be time well-spent,” says the faerie. “I’ll need to head back into a town at some point, to collect more gifts for you. But there’s no rush on that. Seventy-six years, right? I’ll probably have to head off in sixty-something, seventy at most? That’s a long time from now.”

His hand is still palm-up, and the troll looks down at it. They touch it with a golden finger, then gently wrap their hand around it.

They make a rumbling noise.

“I’ll give you the time for free,” the troll says. “As long as you stay here, tell me stories, are kind to me, the time will be uncounted. After we part ways, if we part, you can have your seventy-six years then.”

“Really?” The faerie’s voice is high, a tone of surprise and happiness.

The troll looks down at the faerie for a moment, then breaks into a rare smile. “Call it a gift.”


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