Razia’s bright pink hair flipped briefly upwards as she jumped from the tree to land lightly on her feet. She paused a moment, crouching, surveying the forest, her keen eye resting briefly on a mochaleaf as it unfurled ostentatiously to her left. No orcs in sight, or annoying spying gremlins either. Satisfied that the way was clear, she stood up to retrieve her pack from a hole in the tree, her hand on the knife at her belt, then moved purposefully off along the path. The sharp needles from the tall trees cracked under her boots. Infernal forest, she thought to herself, as she glanced up at the sinking sun. At this rate she would never make it on time, even if she used her magic. If she missed this chance there might not be another. 

“What do you think she’s up to?” Rachel asked Zeke, as she placed her five hundred and forty second cup of milk under the frother. Her tired eyes rested briefly on the woman in the corner at her usual table. She was typing furiously now, her odd purple mask dangling from one elastic from her ear, her frizzy grey hair wild around her head. She had been there for two hours already, consuming over that time two hazelnut lattes, a large green tea and a cheese and herb muffin. She hadn’t even noticed that the muffin was stale. Rachel’s carefully-timed microwaving must have done the trick.

“She’s a writer,” Zeke said, not looking at her as he was busy deftly popping lids onto the line-up of five cappuccinos on the counter in front of him. “I asked her when I took her the green tea.”

“Ah. That would explain it.” Rachel poured the milk into the waiting half-cup of espresso and reached for the shaker of chocolate powder. “Half the time she’s staring into space and not doing anything on that old laptop at all. I wondered what kind of work she could be doing that requires so much dreaming.”

Zeke grinned, wiping his damp forehead with his sleeve. “Man,” he said. “I must admit I am kinda jealous of our customers today, getting to sit there and drink coffee without masks on. I am so sick of this thing.” Rachel looked up to see him glancing at the clock, contorting his face under his thick mask.

“Only one more hour,” she said, trying to be cheerful for his sake. “Then you can get out of here and go and enjoy your socially distanced martial arts class.” 

“I’ll take any kind,” Zeke said, and she could see he was smiling underneath his mask. “I missed it so bad that I don't even mind staying on my little yellow dot on the gym floor. Life will go back to normal at some point, and when it does I will be ready.”

“Do you wear masks at your gym?” she asked. 

“Yeah, like Zorro,” he grinned. “You going back to gymnastics yet?”

“I don't know,” Rachel said, touched that he remembered. “I’ve got kind of unused to people lately. I don't know if I remember how to have a normal conversation.”

The journey was long. Razia ran most of the way, saving her magic, knowing that if she came across any orcs she would need it. She had become so used to being alone that the thought of finding what she was looking for was a scary one. Scarier even, perhaps, than meeting a dumb orc in this neverending forest. 

“Sure you do. You’re having one now,” Zeke said. “It would be good for you. Or join my Martial Arts class.” Rachel was spared from having to answer by the odd woman signalling to Zeke that she wanted him. He abandoned the cappuccinos, hurried over, got her a lemonade and then returned to Rachel at the counter. 

“You must be very fit,” she said, shyly, walking behind him to the counter where she handed a coffee over to a customer with a smile that showed in around her eyes, even if her mask hid the rest of her face. “I suppose you don't want to lose that.”

“Nope.” Zeke grabbed a cardboard cupholder and popped the five cappucinos into it, one at a time. Rachel watched him, letting herself admire the obvious definition in his arms under his rolled-up uniform sleeves. “I could never forgive myself if Thanos appeared here with his thugs and I wasn't up to saving the world because I sat on the couch for six months of lockdown!”

Rachel laughed, leaning over the counter as he walked away through the mall to deliver the coffee to the office across the parking lot. Zeke was so funny and sweet. He had such twinkly, friendly eyes. If only she wasn't so tired and sad, if only the world wasn’t in such a mess, she might try a little flirting. A girl could do worse than a guy like Zeke. Drinking deeply from her water bottle, Rachel’s gaze wandered from her disappearing coworker to the author lady in her corner. For a moment she imagined that the little black eyes behind her thick-rimmed spectacles were watching her. 

It was two days before Razia arrived at the village. It was early afternoon but she was so exhausted by then, so weary from her vigilant journey and from using her magic to keep out of sight of troublesome bands of orcs that she didn't look further than the first inn to find a place to sleep. Drinking deeply from the pail of cool water in the corner of the room the grumpy dwarf woman showed her, she curled up in her clothes on the narrow cot and fell fast asleep, waking in the pitch dark, hungry as a dragon, she reckoned. Using a weak light spell which was all she could manage in her sleep-fogginess, she made her way downstairs, hoping there would be someone still up to get her some food. But there was no one in the darkness at the bar, no one at all. Even the fire was out. Her heart sank with disappointment. 

But of course Author lady wasn't watching her - why would she be? She was busy, head down, typing away like mad as if she was in a race or something. Seeing there were no customers at the counter, Rachel took the chance to go to the back to open up the plastic container she had brought from home with her sandwich in it. No one would be interested in watching her. Maybe she had put the silly pink streaks in her hair to see if anyone would notice her, if anyone would be interested in what she had to say, in what she had to give, but it was a dumb idea and she kind of regretted it. 

No sooner had she taken in the emptiness of the room that Razia realised she was not alone. There was someone in the shadows, someone in a dark cloak, someone who fairly reeked of magic. 

“Zorius?” she whispered, hardly daring to believe it could be him. “Is that you?”

He stood up, his face illuminated briefly in the faint glow of her spell. 

“You know, I like your pink hair,” Zeke said, as they both put on their aprons behind the counter the next morning. “Maybe you should dye it all that colour.”

Rachel stared at him, amazed that he had ventured an opinion on it. “Really?”

“Yeah,” He lifted his mask to grin at her, then dropped it again. “It’s cool. Maybe I should do it too.”

She laughed, imagining his mop of neat dreads bright pink. Nope. Not a good picture. 

“Oops,” he said, putting on his cap. “Careful. Author lady’s here and she was watching us. Do you think she can hear us talking?”

“What?” Rachel looked out into the empty shop and sure enough, there she was, taking out her laptop already. Her hair still stood out around her head like a frumpy silver halo. “I don't see any reason she would want to listen to us, Zeke. Don’t worry about it.”

“You’re a hard girl to find, Razia Vidania.” Zorius lifted his hand, his light spell bathing the room in golden light. He looked her up and down, his eyes resting at last on her face. “Love the hair."

“How was Martial Arts?” Rachel asked, when Author lady had been served her hot chocolate and croissant. 

“Awesome,” Zeke said, stretching his back. “My kicks need some work but I’ve still got it. I was killing it with my nunchucks.”

“That’s what your coach said?” Rachel asked as she sanitized the counter and the cash register, liking that he could say that without making her doubt his humility. 

“My coach says he wants me on his team if there’s ever any trouble around here,” Zeke said, winking at her sideways. “You know – aliens or terrorists or something.”

“I think I would too,” Rachel said, realizing that she must be feeling better if she had just said that the way she had. She was borderline flirting, and she was enjoying it.  Zeke’s eyes crinkled up at the sides above his mask, and Rachel knew he had taken it as she had meant it. 

“Thanks.” Razia looked around. “I’m glad to see you, honestly. I was hoping to find you here.” 

“I was hoping you were hoping to find me.” Zorius scratched at his thick mop of hair. “Word is there’s an orc problem in Cappuchia. They could probably do with a couple of hunters with a little magic up their sleeves.”

“My thoughts exactly.” Razia smiled. “I know I said before that I work alone. But I’ve changed my mind. This world doesn't need any more stubborn loners who think they don't need anyone. We could be a good team, Zorius.”

“I hear they pay in gold and coffee beans.”

Razia took a step closer to him, her hands on her hips. “Perfect,” she said, looking up at him through her eyelashes. “If we succeed we will be both rich and caffeinated.”

“Will I need to magic my hair pink?” Zorius asked, taking a step closer to her too. “Because I’m not sure–”

A loud crash, followed by a series of gurgly grunts interrupted him. Razia and Zorius looked at each other, their eyes sparkling. 

Mid-morning and Author lady was still there. “What is she writing?” Rachel asked Zeke as they leaned on the counter together during a lull. 

“Maybe one of those cowboy romances,” he said, shoving her playfully with his arm. He didn't move it away afterwards. 

“No,” Rachel said, shaking her head. “A detective novel. Or something whacky.”

“Probably just some boring article,” Zeke said. He looked across at her. “What you doing later? Want to go for a walk at the lake? I could show you my kicks.” 

“Okay,” Rachel smiled. “Sure.” She looked up at Author lady, catching her eyes this time. 

“It sounds as if Cappuchia isn't the only place with an orc problem,” Razia said, turning to face the door and drawing her knife. 

Zorius, sighing as he reached beneath his cloak for his nunchucks, faced the doorway too, from where a thumping of heavy feet and the putrid smell of unwashed orc approached. 

“Better cover your face,” he said, using his free hand to lift up a mask. “It will be good to stay incognito and besides, that stink will floor you if I let them get close enough.”

“Don’t worry about me,” Razia said, lifting her own mask and smiling sideways at him. “I can take care of myself.”

“Maybe.” The orcs plunged into the room, lifting tables and hurling chairs as their beady eyes looked for the bar and the beer. Zorius leapt out, flooring two of them with one flick of his weapon and another with a kick. “But you don’t always have to now. I’ve got your back, partner!”

Razia leapt up to the rafters, then swung her legs down to knock two unsuspecting orcs into each other and then onto the floor. She swung herself up again, then watched with pleasure as Zorius either knocked the orcs over or stunned them with his flying nunchucks. She didn't have to be alone anymore. It was definitely time, she told herself, as her new partner smashed a keg of beer over an orc’s stupid face, to get through the days with a little companionship. 

“Anything else, Ma’am?” Rachel smiled at Author lady as she approached the counter.

“Oh no, sweetie,” smiled the woman, her eyes bright, betraying excitement even under her polka-dot mask. “Just popping this in your tip jar.”

“Can I ask what you were writing?” Rachel blushed, feeling as if it was a rather personal question to ask a customer. 

“Oh nothing,” said Author lady, waving her hand. “Just a little story. But it went well today.”

Rachel watched as she walked away, then looked at the tip jar. Inside the folded bill was a note. “Zeke, come and see this!” she called, pulling it out and opening it up. 

He came over and leaned next to her. “To Razia and Zorius,” he read aloud. “Thanks for the inspiration.

“Who?” Rachel wanted to laugh at the odd names. 

“Beats me,” Zeke said, shrugging. “You haven't changed your mind about the walk, have you?”

“Nope,” Rachel said, crumpling up the note and throwing it into the bin. “Can’t wait!” 

August 21, 2020 23:20

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Black Raven
12:33 Dec 09, 2020

Oh, God. I loved it! You have amazing skills. A story within a story. At first, I was kind of confused 'cause it all caught me by surprise but as I continued reading I saw it. It's really realistic, seeing how authors do get inspiration from the people around them. Also, the way you write is so neat and beautiful. Perfect!


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16:48 Dec 08, 2020

Strange, but beautiful. You never fail to write something amazing! I love how it goes from the fantasy characters to the real-life characters seamlessly. :)


Kate Le Roux
11:32 Dec 09, 2020

Thanks! It was a challenge :)


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Tessa Takzikab
14:20 Sep 23, 2020

I love this! It took me a minute to notice that Razia was Rachel, but I have a habit of naming my characters with all the same initials and then going back and changing it, so I noticed that they start the same, and then I figured out how the two were connected (by the second or third piece of Author Lady's story) and I spent the rest of the story laughing at the similarities. I totally get the perspective of the Author Lady, I may or may not be guilty of things like that... Anyway, she was really brave to thank them. Plus, I'm ve...


Kate Le Roux
16:02 Sep 23, 2020

What an encouraging comment! Thank you :)


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Christina Ziroli
18:52 Sep 07, 2020

I loved how you interweaved the story that Author lady was writing into the present-day lives of Rachel and Zeke. I really enjoyed reading this!


Kate Le Roux
13:31 Sep 10, 2020

Thanks! It's hard to know what the reader picks - I could probably work on adding more clues earlier on.


Christina Ziroli
18:42 Sep 10, 2020

I understood pretty early on what was going on!


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Kate Shepherd
21:23 Aug 26, 2020

I am a sucker for any kind of romantic connection so I enjoyed the flirtation behind the masks. I love that you included the relevancy of the pandemic in your story. I could "see" the expressions around the masks. I like the frame story; however, it did take me some time to figure out what was going on so maybe work on clarifying that. I enjoyed it!


Kate Le Roux
11:37 Aug 28, 2020

Thanks! Yes it's hard to know when readers will realize what's happening!


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Sayani Sarkar
18:36 Aug 25, 2020

It's a brilliant concept story. I really like how you've portrayed it. Kind of different,must say :)


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Kevin Leonard
00:59 Aug 22, 2020

I'm always a fan of a "story within a story," so I really enjoyed this. I liked that the overlap between the coffeeshop story and the fantasy story was not too rushed (I picked up on the connection around when Zorius showed up, if you're interested). The budding romance between the two characters was playful and realistic, and with the inclusion of pandemic protocols definitely felt like a very modern take on this kind of flirtation. One piece of advice that I have received recently on my own writing, that I might suggest here, is to mak...


Kate Le Roux
08:47 Aug 22, 2020

Thanks Kevin! Appreciate all the detail!


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