Thursday was out to get me.
I could have written off the last crumbs of breakfast cereal as poor planning ahead. Spilling coffee on my coat, that happens. Traffic being bad is more a rule than an exception. A pile of paperwork on my desk so close to the end of the week is an irritant, but usually nothing I can’t get around or push through.
When the office doors burst open and armed men walk in, it’s a different story.
We all dove under our desks. Most of us had been around guns or the military in some way, so we knew better than to run around or scream in panic. From the small space under my cubicle, I could see Anastasia’s desk. She, too, was holding up the particle board as if it was about to fall on her. She was listening to the banter back and forth from the invaders, looked my way, and mouthed a word.
That didn’t quite fit with what I knew. Sure, many national agencies were curious about what we were working on at the behest of a virtual alphabet soup of government interests, but the Russians had been nothing but cordial with our contacts. I often traded e-mails with one of Anastasia’s cousins who still lived in the Ukraine, so I could not conclude that these goons were government-issue.
I peeked around the side of my cubicle. These guys were wearing heavy-duty work boots, probably steel-toed, but they weren’t polished and showed quite a bit of wear and tear from places other than an urban environment. They were evidence of men and women who trotted the globe as expediently as possible, of contractors chasing paychecks. Mercenaries, then. I ducked back before I could see any faces. No sense in taking any chances.
“We do not want to hurt anyone!” The leader had some bark in his voice. Probably a disenfranchised vet of some kind or another. “We want most senior analyst to speak with us!”
Well, piss. I looked at Anastasia again and shrugged. Her green eyes went a bit wider, as if to warn me of what I was in for. In spite of what I saw in that gaze, I crawled out from under my desk, raised my hands, and slowly stood.
“Then it’s me you want. I’m Arthur Digby. I’ve got the most experience of anybody in here.”
The leader was a tall man of solid build with white hair done with a #2 clippers and the steely gaze of someone who’s seen more than their share of battlefield horrors. He regarded me for a long moment as two of his guys trained their AKs on my chest.
“You are brave man, speaking up so quickly.”
“You say you don’t want to hurt anyone. I’ll hold you to that. Ask me what you want, I’ll answer what I can, and maybe we all go home happy tonight.”
“You tell co-workers not to call for help. Let us keep this private, yes?”
I nodded. “Everybody turn off your cell phones. These men are going to collect them, and when this is over, we’ll get them back. I’ll go first.” Slowly, I reached into my pocket, produced my government phone, and turned it off. The leader took it and handed it to a subordinate.
“Let us talk in conference room.”
I nodded, following him into the glass-walled room. I finally got a count: seven-member team, five men and two women. The leader and two of the men lead the way into the conference room while one of the women kept a rifle on the back of my head. That left two men and a woman holding down an office of almost twenty analysts and consultants. I glanced at Anastasia as I was pushed into the room.
“Have seat, Mister Digby. Let us talk about Project Ajax.”
I blinked. “Maybe you mean Operation Ajax, the CIA operation that deposed the prime minister of Iran in 1953?”
The woman smacked me in the back of the head with the butt of her rifle. I saw stars.
“That was rude. Now I need to recover from serious head trauma to answer your leader’s questions.”
“Please, Mister Digby. Project Ajax.”
“Okay.” I took a deep breath. I could see Anastasia was slowly moving towards the other three in the office. Sam, who had apparently recovered from the six-pack we’d split Wednesday night, was coming op on their other side. “Project Ajax is a government initiative to develop a short-range remote-controlled device to deliver intelligence on, and possible detonate within, enemy cave formations.”
“For your Afghan campaign, yes?”
I rubbed the bridge of my nose. All three of the leader’s cronies tracked the movement. Which meant they didn’t see Sam and Anastasia working over the others in the office. “No, for the frat parties the crackpot militias in Colorado keep throwing. Yes, for the Afghan campaign, numb-nuts.”
If Thursday was going to beat me, it’d be now. The woman behind me wound up for another hit. Sam and Anastasia, now with AKs of their own, converged on the conference room. I kicked out from the chair, going to my knees as the wheeled executive leather hit the woman behind me. I reached up, finding her AK right where it should have been, and pulled.
She had a strong grip. I pushed up with my legs, putting her on the table flat on her back. Sam and Anastasia subdued the other two men as I knocked the woman out. The leader had his hand on his sidearm, but with three rifles on him, he wisely raised his hands.
“Sam, call it in. You, on your knees.”
Glaring at me, the leader of the mercs sank down.
“This will not go unanswered.”
“Yeah? By whom? Who are you working for?”
I tried to ignore the way Anastasia was watching me – damn, she’s got pretty eyes. The leader said nothing, so I smacked him with the rifle.
“Yeah. Sucks, doesn’t it?”
He’d fought his way through her fortress, her brainwashed goons slapped aside as gently as possible.
They were innocent, blameless. The silent plague they’d caught had done this.
He entered the throne room at last, finding her on the wide dias, sampling ripe grapes.
“You did this.” The Bishop narrowed his eyes. “It was your enzyme.”
“Perhaps.” Ivy stretched across her throne, indifferent to the holy man’s indignation. “What, exactly, will you do about it?”
He gripped his staff and called on his inner righteousness. The sword caught fire immediately.
“May God have mercy on your soul. Because I certainly won’t.”
Terribleminds made me do it.
The news was the same as they walked into the restaurant as it had been all day: rumors of some sort of natural disaster followed by talking heads alternately saying everything was under control and everybody was doomed. Linus shook his head as he removed his wife’s fur coat.
“I wish they would make up their minds. Either it’s under control or it isn’t.”
“Well, if it were under control, someone in charge would say so, if anybody in charge was worth a damn.”
Linus pursed his lips, saying nothing. He didn’t want to get dragged into another political argument with her. They’d been looking forward to this for too long. She looked damn good in her slinky black dress, her hair done up in a coy pile of ringlets on top of her head.
Linus pulled out a chair for her as he looked around the room. The wait staff looked as good as ever, the men in tuxedos and the ladies closely resembling cigarette girls, despite the fact smoking was prohibited. The band was playing something smooth and atmospheric, as if time had left the club untouched since the 20s. He sat across from her, straightening his cufflinks and adjusting his jacket. The club insisted on the black-tie dress code, which was probably part of the appeal for her. He never thought he’d miss humping fifty or more pounds of gear through harsh conditions.
“You’re not here.”
His wife’s words forced a smile as he waved for a waiter.
“Sorry. Guess I’m still not sure about these cufflinks.”
“Please. They look fine. Try to relax, would you? I’d rather not have you wound up for our evening out.”
She loved this look, this period, the way women dressed and acted in books and films. It was an escape for her. She got away from her tiresome reports and the condescension of her superiors and the wandering eyes of coworkers. Linus understood that.
What he never understood and never asked about was how she treated him at times like this. It was like she didn’t stop being a boss. He knew she meant well, telling him to relax and all, but her tone just put him more on edge. He was already edgy after a day of taking engines apart. She picked up on this, smiled, and touched his hand as the waiter approached. She was ordering their appetizers – the most expensive one, of course – when the TV volume picked up.
“This just in, government officials now saying that rumors of quake damage to Progenitus Labs facilities are overstated. Nevertheless, citizens are advised to stay in their homes…”
Linus didn’t hear the rest. He was already on alert. There was commotion at the front; someone was banging on the door. The staff was locking it. The last time Linus felt this way, he’d stopped a Hummer five feet short of an IED.
“Wait here. I need to use the men’s room.”
“At a time like this? The crab bruchetta…”
“It’ll keep.” He stood. “Stay here.”
She furrowed her brows at him. “Where do you think I mean to go?”
“Just do it.”
She crossed her arms and frowned. He headed for the restrooms but walked past them to the back door near the kitchens. It was unlocked and not alarmed. He made his way through the rows of cars to the sedan. He was rummaging through the trunk to find his stowaway case when he saw them.
They shambled rather than walked. Men and women in lab coats, hazmat suits, uniforms and street clothes. They seemed to be skirting around the lights, keeping mostly to the darkness. Their eyes stared, bleeding from the corners. Arms twitched and legs spasmed. They drooled pinkish bubbles and moaned one to another.
They were the ones banging on the front door.
A few peeled off to head towards the parking lot. One of them reached the junction box on the outside. Fingers curved like claws reached for the metal and began to yank. It only took a few tugs to pull the box free of its moorings and wires. That’s when the screaming began inside.
Linus stuffed his pocket with double-ought shells. The Colt went under his belt at the small of his back, and he ditched the suit coat and cuff links. Rolling up his sleeves, he grabbed the boomstick and a couple of road flares. He wished he had sturdier shoes on as he broke into a run towards the darkened back door of the club.
One of them lunged for him. He whirled and let it have a barrel of buckshot. The fire put it on the ground ten feet away with a gaping hole in its chest. They smelled awful. He got inside, slammed the door and popped a flare. The kitchen staff gaped at him.
“Barricade this door. Nobody gets in.”
They scurried to obey. He walked back through the kitchen to the dining hall, getting up on stage near the stunned band. He turned to the crowd. Every face looked up at him, illuminated by the glimmering torch in his hand. His eyes moved from person to person, and then he found her. She was, like every other person there, terrified. All of the bluster and haughtiness that kept corporate dogs at bay fell away by the light of the torch, and in that moment, they were the only two people in the room.
The woman he loved had been strong for him when he’d been at war, and had clung to that strength. Now it was his turn. What he’d done for his country, he’d now do for the woman he loved.
“All right, people, listen up.” Linus made his voice heard over the banging at the front door. “You’re going to pay attention and follow my lead, and maybe, just maybe, we’ll get out of this mess alive.”
This week: 100 words on the subject of revenge.
The knife was his world. With every move against the stone, his memory also sharpened.
Town hall meetings, talks with police, phone calls with councilmen, all aimed at making the streets safe.
Arguments from talking heads and neighbors, saying they were products of their environment, that it’d be safer if he left them alone.
The lack of fear in his eyes as he leaned towards the car, knife in its sheath. “Wait here, son.”
Watching the coroners carry him out in a black bag.
He put down the knife, picked up his father’s rifle.
“They’re going to need more bags.”
Courtesy Jim Stanes
Please note: All characters, locations and events are copyright George RR Martin and the events that take place during this game can and will deviate from series canon.
The Story So Far: It is Year 296 since Aegon’s Landing. Word of the lost swords of high Westrosi houses by up-and-coming House Luxon has crossed the Narrow Sea…
He looked up from the meal in front of him to the bearer of the news. Under the wide-brimmed hat providing shadows for half of his face, there were not many in Pentos who would easily recognize the traveler. Still, Viserys could not shake a feeling of doubt. Were they being watched? Who else knew of this, of them?
“You saw this thing?”
“With my own eyes.” The voice of the traveler was low, subtle, all but lost in the tavern’s ruckus. “The blades of the Baratheons were laid at the feet of the king himself.”
“The king sitting on my throne.” Scowling, Viserys snatched up a goblet of wine and drained it. “I can’t wait to see the look on his fat face when I split him open.”
“In time, in time.” The traveler spoke calmly, unruffled by the notion of waking the dragon. That didn’t sit well. He should fear the dragon. All men should fear the dragon. “What was interesting to me, however, was not only what this man of the north carried, but what he did not.”
“The blades of my family. Where are they?”
“I suspect they are locked away in Moat Cailin. Little birds tell me the new maester has taken residence in a tower built atop a vault. That would be the most likely place.”
Viserys took a bite of stew, trying to think. The spices in the Pentoshi food distracted him, equal parts curiosity and revulsion interfering with his ability to strategize.
“My ancestors would storm the castle with their armies to take back what is theirs. I have no army. Aemon would have flown over the walls with his dragons. I have no dragons.”
“Astute, my prince.”
“I wasn’t asking for your opinion.” He waved his goblet in the air until it was refilled. “I need inspiration, not sycophancy.”
“Not all wars are won with armies and dragons. Some are won with deception and stealth, before they even begin.”
Viserys considered this. What glory would he win stealing into a castle like a thief? He wasn’t stealing anything, he was reclaiming it. But what price would he pay to get those weapons? There were blades of Valyrian steel among them, perhaps even the sword of Aemon the Dragonknight, or that of his elder brother Rhaegar. He envisioned himself riding towards the Red Keep, a loyal army at his back, the smokey steel in hand and raised high as he returned to the place he truly belonged…
“How do we begin?”
“Well, for one thing, we cannot have you and your sister staying in places where you could be stumbled upon. It is no small miracle that you have remained relatively undiscovered until now. Fortunately for you, I have just the place for you to stay while plans are made. A trusted friend.”
“Inasmuch as I trust anyone.” Viserys finished his wine and laid some coins on the table. He moved to stand, then paused. “Wait. You said a man from the North came to deliver the fat king’s swords. But when you first told me of this, you spoke of two men.”
“Indeed I did.”
“The other was not from the North?”
“No. He is not, but as our time is somewhat short before I am missed, I think that is a tale I shall have to tell another time.”
Viserys narrowed his eyes. “You’re hiding something from me, eunuch.”
“I hide things from all men, my prince. It is how I stay alive.”
“That, too, is no small miracle.”
The traveler only smiled. He stood, gesturing for Viserys to lead the way. As it should be. I’ve been here long enough to know this city like the back of my hand. They wound their way through the streets until they came to the merchant ship owner’s pavilion. The traveler tipped his hat down slightly.
“I will wait here.”
“Is the place we’re going better than this?”
“Slightly larger, and infinitely more hospitable, I suspect.”
Viserys grunted. He walked through the gate and found his host sitting by one of the windows that faced the harbor. Half of the man’s hair, both on his head and in his forked beard, was painted blue, the other half green. A girl from a pillowhouse knelt at his feet and was massaging his ankles while he enjoyed a pipe.
“Ah! My guest returns. Did you have an enjoyable lunch?”
“I did, but I’m afraid I must depart. My sister and I thank you for your hospitality.” He dropped a few coins on the table and walked back towards the guest rooms.
“I find it unfortunate that you still will not consider my offer.” The merchant was standing. “Your sister would be well taken care of and greatly desired. Is that not what all women want?”
Viserys looked over his shoulder, first at the man then at the girl who remained on the floor, barely clothed in the silk gown that fell from her shoulders. Shaking his head, the prince walked into the guest bedroom he shared with his sister. If anyone is going to whore out Daenerys, it’s going to be me, not that old pirate, and not for any pittance of gold, but for my crown.
“Daenerys. It’s time to wake up.”
She murmured as she rolled over on the bed. Viserys crossed to it, reached around her and took hold of her breast, pinching her nipple until her eyes opened.
“We have to leave. Now. If you delay, you will wake the dragon.”
Nodding as she looked at him, Daenerys quickly found her clothes and packed up her few meager belongings. Viserys was already packed. The message had made it clear that they would not linger here long, and so had prepared himself before dawn. They walked out to find the merchant with an old blade in his hand.
“I think I’ll be keeping your sister. She’s worth far more than you are, boy.”
Viserys was armed only with a dagger. But the merchant was in his cups, despite the hour, a fact evident in the empty glass bottles near his chair and the stink on his breath. The young king gestured for his sister to stay behind him as he drew his short blade.
“I’m sure you’d like a virgin to sell to whomever you got that whore on the floor from, but my sister stays with me. And we’re leaving.”
The old pirate scowled, slamming the pommel of his blade on the table, causing bottles to fly. “Wretch! I keep you under my roof for months, feed you and clothe you in keeping with this station you claim, and this is how I’m repaid?”
“No. That gold on the table is how you are repaid. More will come if you let us pass. You will have the thanks of a king.”
“I’d rather have the girl. And your head!”
He roared and charged towards Viserys. The prince ducked to one side, still between his opponent and his sister but out of direct harm. The merchant slammed into the corner where his main room met the hall back to the bedrooms. Viserys smiled.
“Has age slowed your pirate reflexes, old man?”
“I’ll show you how pirates fight!” The merchant reoriented himself with Viserys and charged again. Another sidestep put the man squarely into one of his cabinets. In spite of the deadly nature of the situation, Viserys laughed.
“You should stop now while you still have a house to live in!”
The pirate’s reply was wordless, a restored grip on his sword and yet another charge. This time, when Viserys stepped aside, the man went through the large open doors and across his pavilion. It was easily seen on the streets when he launched into space and landed face down on the inside of his low garden wall. His dogs trotted over to see what had happened, and when he lifted his face, the passers-by laughed, as he now wore one of those dog’s droppings in his beard.
Viserys, sheathing his dagger, took hold of Daenerys’ hand and walked out the door to where the traveler waited. Beside him was an extremely obese Pentoshi gentleman who bowed as they emerged.
“Your Grace. My lady. I’m quite pleased to finally meet you both.”
The pirate staggered towards them, but at the sight of the large man he stopped short.
“Ah. Numeris.” There was something in the fat man’s gaze that reminded Viserys of himself. Of waking the dragon. “I do hope your altercation with this young man will not keep you from seeing my shipment safely to Lys. I’d hate for you to lose your contract.”
“Um. Yes.” The merchant took a step back. “I will see to it personally.” He ran back into his house. Both the fat man and the traveler laughed.
“Spineless as always,” the traveler observed, then tipped his hat to the Targaryen siblings. “I must take my leave, my friends, but let me introduce you to Illyrio Mopatis, Magister of Pentos.”
“And your humble host, Your Grace.” He bowed to Viserys again, and kissed Daenerys’ hand. “My lady.”
“At last, some manners!” Viserys bowed in return. “We are in your debt, Magister. I look forward to seeing your home.”
Get caught up by visiting the Westeros page.
“Thank you for coming, Mister Franklin.”
“It’s nothing.” The printing mogul and statesman leaned on his walking stick as he looked around the room. Like so many Parisian homes, it was as ostentatious as taste and budget allowed. A black cat looked up at him from the fainting couch as the gentleman who’d summoned him settled in an armchair near the window. It was nearly dusk, and soon the sun would disappear behind the horizon entirely.
“I am simply hoping to sleep well tonight.” The gentleman wrung his hands as he watched Franklin move around the sitting room. “The noises and broken glassware in the middle of the night are not helping my work ethic and mental well-being.”
Franklin nodded, narrowing his eyes. He set his satchel down on the side table and opened the clasp, extending his senses. “The request was somewhat unorthodox. Normally, members of the church undertake tasks such as this.” There was definitely dissonance in the house, a cold feeling that lingered at the edges of his perception. He tipped his spectacles down and looked around the room without their interference.
“I had heard you were an inventor and a man of letters, but not…”
“A wizard?” Franklin had to smile. “That’s the proper term. But I will thank you not to spread the fact around. His Majesty has enough headaches from our precocious colonies without witchcraft and wizardry becoming involved.” He withdrew a small jar of salt from his satchel, along with a small clay pot. “Now, Monsieur LeBeouf, I must ask you to remain still.”
LeBeouf nodded, and Franklin walked over to the man’s easychair. He handed his host the pot, unstoppered the jar and began sprinkling salt in a wide circle around the chair.
“Should I be doing anything with this?”
“Just hold on to it, for now.” Franklin was careful to make sure the circle was even in its construction. He did not want it to break prematurely. Once it was complete, he replaced the stopper in the jar and knelt by the chair. He traded the jar for the pot, removed the pot’s lid and spread a bit of its cool, creamy contents under his eyes, then under LeBeouf’s.
“What is this?”
“An ungent based on a composition I discovered thanks to travelers from Mexico and Jamaica. Now, please remain quiet.” Still kneeling, he touched the inner edge of the circle with his fingers, having laid the jar aside. He uttered a soft incantation, and immediately the timbre of the room changed. What had been pre-dusk light, coloring the cream walls and soft carpets with pink hues, darkened to deep, angry reds. The cat hissed and bolted from its spot to leave the room. LaBeouf shuddered, nearly dropping the jar of salt, as Franklin rose to look to the door the cat had not run through.
“You can come out. I mean you no harm.”
Slowly, a flutter of white cloth emerged from around the corner. The figure took silent, shuffling steps, one at at time. Her nightgown seemed to be in tatters, her flesh more pale than the surface of a pearl. She had been beautiful before her eyes had sunken and her lips turned purple. Dark bruises could be seen all over her slender neck. She glared at LaBeouf for a long moment when he came into her vision.
“Why do you linger, spirit?”
She looked at Franklin, and when the men heard her voice, it wasn’t from her mouth. It filled the room, an insistent and omnipresent whisper.
“Ask my husband.”
Franklin glanced at LaBeouf, who has apparently shrunk into his armchair. The ghost bared her teeth at him, but Franklin stepped between them.
“Tell me what happened, child.”
The ghost seemed to compose herself.
“I could not give him children. The doctors said I’d never bear fruit. He was so angry. He waited until we were home and I was exhausted, ready for bed. Then he…”
The voice felt silent. Her hands moved to her neck. Her eyes widened in fear. Franklin nodded slowly.
“I understand. And I will make this right. You will be at peace.”
The ghost’s hands fell to her side, and then she picked up the skirts of her ruined nightgown and curtsied to Fraklin. He bowed, then broke the circle. Immediately, she was gone from their sight and the color of the fading day returned to normal. LaBeouf shot to his feet.
“She lies! It’s slander!”
“She is not capable of lying, Monsieur. Spirits of the departed only lie to themselves from time to time. Spirits of other worlds, now, there you have some skilled liars.”
He began cleaning up the circle with a small brush and pan from his satchel. LaBeouf struggled to find words.
“What… what happens now?”
“Now? Now, you go to the magistrate and confess to your crime. You show him where you disposed of your poor wife’s body and you throw yourself on the mercy of the court.”
“That’s preposterous! I’ll be ruined!”
“The alternative is that you live with this secret… and your wife’s ghost… forever.”
FOREVER wafted through the room, a whisper from the spirit that was breathy sigh and deadly premonition. LaBeouf turned as pale as his wife had appeared. Without another word, he grabbed his hat and headed out the door.
Franklin sighed, shaking his head. It was times like this he missed America. He turned to find the black cat looking at him.
“I’m sorry, dear. Would you like a new home? Fresh cream every day and plenty of bookshelves on which to sit?”
“Meow,” the cat replied.
Please note: All characters, locations and events are copyright George RR Martin and the events that take place during this game can and will deviate from series canon.
The Story So Far: It is Year 296 since Aegon’s Landing. Jon Snow has left Winterfell for Moat Cailin, home of House Luxon. His brothers Robb and Bran have gone with him to wish him well. Lord Goddard invites the sons of his liege lord to stay for a feast and rest before returning home, and while Robb spars with his half-brother one last time, Bran explores the unfamiliar castle and its many towers…
He adored the feeling of the wind cutting through him.
Summer kept pace on the ground, watchful, long ears alert. The direwolf pup could not climb after him, though. The craggy masonry and hidden handholds were Bran’s province alone. Here, in a place he’d never seen, he still navigated walls and towers with speed and precision. In his mind he saw himself assaulting an enemy stronghold, a dagger clenched in his teeth, men at arms struggling to keep up as they moved to overwhelm the guards at the gate, or carry off a damsel in distress.
One tower was different from the others. It was not the tallest one of Moat Cailin’s many, but it was one of the few that seemed unmanned. A gregarious garron was the only creature keeping watch at its base, tied to a post and pawing at the ground. Summer gave it a sniff in introduction as Bran ascended the tower. He immediately caught a scent from above: freshly brewed tea, strong and exotic. Curiosity overwhelmed him as he moved, hand over hand, up the side of the tower. At last he came to the window that was the source of the scent.
A small spiral staircase rose through the middle of the room. Several stout bookshelves were spaced around the room, scrolls and tomes stuffed into their spaces. Tapestries hung from the higher portions of the wall and rugs lay on the floor. A small firepit was near the window, with a kettle hanging over it. Across the way from Bran was a table featuring odd figurines and two men facing one another as they sat in thought.
One was Lord Goddard Luxon. He reminded Bran of his lord father, a man of war tempered with patience and wisdom. The other was an older man, his head curiously devoid of hair, dressed in the robes of a maester. The stranger’s eyes flicked towards Bran, then back to the table.
“A moment while I tend to the tea.” He moved one of the figurines and rose. He picked up a staff that had been leaning against a nearby shelf before hobbling over to the fire pit, slowly, his eyes on Bran. The boy didn’t move. Carefully, the maester removed the pot from the firepit’s rail, set it on a side table, and covered the firepit with a broad metal lid.
“You best come inside, my lad. ‘Twould be a shame to see you fall from this height.”
Nodding, Bran climbed into the room. The maester was pouring tea as Goddard regarded him.
“As you are not one of Lord Goddard’s children, I deduce you’re one of our honored guests.”
“That would be Bran Stark.” Goddard hadn’t moved from the table, his gaze severe on the boy. “And he should know wandering a yard, any yard that is not his own, is inherently dangerous.”
“I’m sorry.” Bran found his voice but did not meet the lord’s eyes. “I like to climb.”
“Well, since you worked so hard in climbing up here, would you mind holding onto this tray for our lord?” The maester was holding a small tray with two steaming cups, and Bran took it. Smiling, the maester moved back to the table with the boy in tow. Goddard’s look had softened for a moment before turning back to the figurines.
“What is this?”
“It is called cyvasse, young master, a game of strategy and cunning. It is a means of keeping the mind sharp and taking the measure of another without the need for swords.”
“And it’s damned annoying at times.” Goddard’s voice was laced with mirth, however, and he rubbed his chin as he regarded the board before him. After a few quiet moments, during which the maester sampled his tea, the lord moved his trebuchet.
“Why is it annoying?”
“A skilled opponent knows not to move all of his powerful pieces to the front.” Goddard took a sip of tea, then nodded to the maester with a raise of the cup. “I jest; facing a skilled opponent is only annoying in that more effort must be exerted in overcoming them.”
The maester smiled, then turned his attention to the board. Bran leaned closer and looked at the different tiles and pieces.
“Why not simply fly your dragons over everything?”
“Two reasons.” The maester moved one of his spearmen to block his opponent’s trebuchet. “One, this is a game of Old Valyria, and the object is to capture the king, which is stronger than a dragon. Two, moving your dragons aggressively can sometimes be effective, but canny players can deal with and extinguish early threats and leave their opponents at a disadvantage for the duration of the game.”
“Not every battle is won with strength alone, Bran.” Goddard moved his heavy horse. “More often than not, you must use your eyes and your mind as much as your sword or fist to win the day.”
Bran nodded, watching as the game unfolded. Eventually, the maester was forced to move his king out of his fortress and after a merry chase, Goddard pinned it in the back corner with his horse and spy. The maester, unflustered, stood and bowed to his lord.
“A well-played match, my lord. The board is yours.”
Goddard stood and offered the maester his hand. “A good game and good tea. We must do this again.”
As they shook, noise came from below. The bulky form of Brock Samson came up the spiral, followed by the quick and quiet Spectre. Bran smiled and walked over to the shadow cat, who rammed Bran’s shoulder with her head to ensure she had the boy’s full attention.
“Some of the locals have arrived, my lord, wishing to speak with you about their crops and trade. I also was told to find Bran to inform him Robb is ready to leave.”
Bran looked up from petting Spectre. “I want to say good-bye to Jon.”
“So you will.” Goddard laid his teacup down on the side table and made for the stairs, with Brock in tow. Spectre moved after her master, but Bran hesitated, looking back at the maester as he put the cyvasse pieces in a box on a shelf near the table.
“Did you go bald when you became a maester?”
The older man smiled. “In a way. I shave every morning. It’s a ritual, a reminder of the commitment I’ve chosen to make to the realm.”
“What about your leg? Doesn’t that remind you?”
“My leg reminds me that I am more than the circumstances that left me with only one of flesh and blood.” The maester leaned on his staff as he regarded the boy. “Men are more than they seem, young master. More than their handicaps, more than their prowess, more than their smiles. Do not be afraid to look deeper into their hearts, as well as your own.”
Bran nodded as Goddard called his name. He hurried down the stairs. Summer bounded after him as they searched for Jon. He wasn’t leaving until he said good-bye.
Get caught up by visiting the Westeros page.
For the Terribleminds flash fiction challenge Sub-Genre Tango Part II, here’s a mix of cyberpunk and sword & sorcery.
“Man, I don’t know about this. We’re static if we get caught.”
Van looked over his shoulder at Anton. The shorter youth’s outburst had been no louder than a hiss, but it sounded a bullhorn at this hour. It was after curfew and the Street Sweepers would be on patrol, ready to stasis-bolt anybody wandering the city. If you were really lucky, you’d awaken in a cozy cell with no lights and a bucket in the corner. Anton had been there before, one of the reasons he was so nervous.
“We won’t.” Van grabbed Anton to yank him close. “Not if you keep your taco-hole shut.”
Anton nodded, nearly dislodging the rig attached to his temples. He’d been locked up before due to his propensity for jacking into civil government relays through innocent public kiosks. He was brilliant, but about as calm as a ferret high on sugar and amphetamines. Van brushed dark hair out of his vision and held a finger to his lips.
Anton obeyed, stepping closer to Van in the shadows of the alley. A Street Sweeper hummed softly as it floated by, held aloft on its hover-fans, the men manning the cannons inscrutable behind their dark helmets. To serve and protect was emblazoned on the vehicle. Van waited until it turned the corner to pull Anton back into the street with him.
“Look. I know those bastards scare you. They give me bad tingles, too. But you want to get Sarah out, right?”
“More than anything. I know I was in a bad place, but hers is even worse.” Anton blinked. “Are you sure this is going to work?”
Van shook his head. “Nope. But we’ve already tried remote unlocks and direct runs on their bulwark servers. We gotta go seriously old-school to get in there.”
Anton and Van resumed their quiet walk down the street, on the lookout for Street Sweepers or night cops on foot. Every time he looked south, Van saw the Grand Citadel. It had started life as just another skyscraper. Now the glass gave way around the 50th floor to bright white marble, reaching up to spires and wind-snapped banners. The whole thing had a glow around it, making it even harder to see the stars. The media pundits loved to talk about its warmth and promise of peace, but Van knew the glow was as cold as the corridors in its sub-basements.
“We gotta get her out of there, man.”
“We will.” Anton managed a smile. Van put an arm around Anton’s shoulders and kept him closer as they walked. Finally, after another couple close calls with Sweepers, they came to the address Van had written down.
Anton wiped his nose on his sleeve. “Don’t look like much.”
The row of brownstones were all run down. The one they’d stopped at had boarded-up windows, the first floor featuring bars on top of the boards. The box next to the front door looked like it hadn’t been touched in about a century. There was only one name on it, barely legible: Crystal.
Van exchanged a look with Anton and pushed the button. A burst of static made both youths cringe.
“It’s after curfew, you fool! What in the Hells do you want?”
The voice sounded shrill, at war with the static. Van cleared his throat.
“We’ve come to see Crystal.”
“Oh! Come to point and laugh at the witch, have you? Piss off. Readings happen during normal business hours. And no, I don’t care that my reading lead you to ruin, you‘re the one who interpreted the cards.”
Anton glanced around the street in wide-eyed terror. Van took a deep breath.
“We’re not here about a reading. We’re here about a rescue.”
“I beg your pardon, young man?”
“My sister is held by the Citadel as one of their workers. We need to get her out.”
“Van…” Anton tugged Van’s jacket. Feeling the pull on the leather, Van looked over his shoulder. A Street Sweeper swung into view.
The door clicked open. Van pushed Anton inside, reaching under his jacket for his gun. It was an old autoloader, a crime in and of itself since all non-Citadel arms were heavily regulated. Van aimed at the door.
“She’s on the third floor. Keep moving.”
Anton scrambled up the steps, Van close behind, as the door came open. The night cops were carrying man-portable stasis rifles, shouting for them to stop. Van fired a couple rounds to keep the cops’ heads down and turned to follow Anton. They made it to the stairs outside the door to the third floor space before the cops opened fire.
Van’s hand went numb and the gun fell from his fingers. It was a glancing shot but it’d deprived them of their defense. Anton was putting his hands up when the third floor door came open.
Standing in it was a woman as tall as Van, but full-bodied where he was gangly. Ringlets of red hair fell around her face and blue eyes blazed with fury. A silver sword was in her hand and she pointed it at the boys.
They did. Lightning snapped through the air over their heads and caught the lead cop in the chest, knocking him and his friends down the stairs. Anton scrambled inside, and the woman grabbed Van to pull him past the threshold. The door closed.
“Van, is it?” Her voice was far less shrill in person, more like dark velvet. She lifted his chin to get a look at his face. “Not bad for growing up hard on the streets. Is it your sister in there?”
“And my girlfriend.”
She lifted an eyebrow at Anton. “Good for you, then.” She straightened, resting her hands on the pommel of the sword as it rested point-down against the floorboards. “We’re safe for now, boys, but if you want to head back out after the girl, we’ll have to make a deal.”
Please note: All characters, locations and events are copyright George RR Martin and the events that take place during this game can and will deviate from series canon.
The Story So Far: It is Year 296 since Aegon’s Landing. After a caustic argument in the wake of House Luxon‘s return of stolen blades and his training of his little sister in swordplay, Jon Snow left Winterfell for the Wall on his own. It was Goddard Luxon and his captain, Brock, who brought him back, but not before Ser Allister Thorne insulted the visitors and fought Brock in the yard. They have returned to Winterfell, and while Brock recovers from his wounds, Jon and his direwolf pup Ghost prowl the godswood…
“Only those worthy of the name of Stark carry these. And you are neither worthy, nor a Stark.”
Ghost could sense his mood. The direwolf pup was only as tall as his shin but he still brushed up against Jon Snow’s boot as he made his way around the godswood. It was a quiet evening, the air cool as it always was in Winterfell, and Jon half-expected to see his little brother hanging from one of the pale white branches above their heads. It would have been a welcome distraction from his thoughts.
The words of his mother rang in his head. Step-mother. He reminded himself of that. Catelyn may have been the only mother he’d ever known, but she’d made it clear on several occasions that she did not see him as her son. No; Robb, Bran and Rickon were her sons, not Jon Snow. He was another woman’s issue. Yet Jon tried to please her, to live up to the name of his father and all the Starks before him. Was it impossible, as she seemed to think it was?
He hadn’t been looking at the swords for himself, in truth. Yes, some of the blades that came back to Winterfell with the Luxons of Moat Cailin were very fine, but none suited for his purposes. He wanted to spar with Arya on even terms, her with Needle and himself with a similar blade, not just with harmless sticks. She needed to know how dangerous it could be. She wouldn’t shrink from it, of course, and he loved her for that. But Catelyn had other ideas.
“Arya will study with her sister to be a proper lady of a noble House. I will not have you putting ideas in her head that she’s suited for anything else. It’s hard enough on Septa Mordane as it is without your interference.”
Jon kicked a small stone. Ghost loped after it. Sighing, the dark-haired young man looked up at the twilight sky. The stars were beginning to emerge through the branches of the weirwood, but they did not seem as clear here as they had at the Wall. He’d talked of joining the Night’s Watch, to remove himself from Cat and the drama of his House rather than cause more strife, but that too had been a disaster. He hadn’t been able to get past the master of arms’ prejudice and scorn, and when Goddard Luxon and Brock Samson arrived it’d been even worse.
I could have chosen to stay. I could have tried harder. But I picked the easy route. I ran away.
Because of his choice, Brock had a broken arm and more than a few bruises and scrapes. It’d taken Lord Goddard and the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch to convince Thorne and Samson to use practice blades. Had they not, Brock might now be dead, only because Jon had leaped at the chance to escape from the Wall.
He was on his third or fourth circuit of the godswood when he heard the soft sound of stone on metal. He turned around the trunk of a tree to see his father sitting beneath the heart tree, a sword in his lap. Jon assumed it was Ice. He moves quietly to get closer, Ghost his inspiration as the pup stayed beside him.
“I know why you’re out here.”
Jon rolled his eyes. Of course his father knew.
“Father… am I a coward?”
The stone stopped. Eddard Stark raised his eyes to look at his son in disbelief.
“I ran away from here. And then I ran from the Wall. I thought I’d have a place there but all I got was more scorn. I have enough of that here.”
Ned sighed. “Jon. Come and sit down.”
“You can’t tolerate being thought of as less than what you are. I know men who’d lash out in anger when their self-image is challenged. And you’ve yet to prove yourself in the eyes of those that need it. The Wall may have been a place to do it, but your uncle sent a raven telling me not to let you stay. He doesn’t want you near that’s happening there. He worries about you.”
“I can take care of myself!”
Ned lay a hand on Jon’s shoulder. “I know you can. That’s why you’re going to Moat Cailin. They are drawing attention from people in the South, and if trouble comes from there, that castle is where it will begin. Benjen’s on one border of our charge, and now you’ll be on the other. I’ll feel better having a Stark both on the Wall and on our gate to the South.”
“I know, and I think I can do better there than on the Wall, but… I’m afraid. I’m afraid I’ll run away again.”
“I’m not. I know you won’t.”
The moon emerged from behind the clouds. Jon’s eye was drawn to the sword in Ned’s lap. It was shorter than it had seemed at first, it’s grip suited for only one hand, the leather embroidered with wolves chasing each other. The pommel was large, like a plumb weight slightly smaller than Jon’s fist, to balance the blade and provide a place for the off-hand in the instances of a two-handed swing. The moonlight played on the smokey waves that seemed to deepen the steel.
“That isn’t Ice.” But it could be Ice’s little brother.
Ned followed his gaze and smiled. “No, it’s not. This is Snowfang. My father gave it to Brandon the same day he gave me Ice. That was before they left for King’s Landing.” Ned paused, the smile fading. “It was the last day I saw either of them alive.”
Jon swallowed. He didn’t like seeing his father dwell on the past. Yet his next question would have him doing exactly that.
“Was that before you met my mother?”
Ned said nothing. Instead, he got to his feet. He seemed to tower over Jon in the darkness, a giant come down from beyond the Wall. For a moment, he loomed there in silence. Then, he picked up the scabbard for Snowfang, sheathed the blade, and handed it to Jon.
“I give you this sword, Jon Snow, so that you may carry the honor and courage of the House of Stark with you everywhere you go.”
Jon blinked, taking the sword with numb, disbelieving fingers. “Mother will…”
“She’ll disapprove. I know. You let me deal with that. You have other tasks ahead of you.” Eddard knelt in front of his bastard son, looking him in the eye. “Listen to Lord Goddard and follow his example. Be ever at his side as much as possible. Observe. Learn. Have their maester send ravens to me when you can. You are my eyes in Moat Cailin and aimed at the South. I will not be blind to what comes from there no matter how dire things become at the Wall. You remember our words.”
“Winter Is Coming.”
“And it comes from more directions that just the land beyond the Wall. Things are changing, Jon. I can feel it in my bones. If we do not change with them, this House will fall.”
Jon’s grip tightened on Snowfang.
“I won’t let that happen, Father. I give you my word.”
Get caught up by visiting the Westeros page.
For the TerribleMinds flash fiction challenge, Must Love Guns.
His fingers, stained with soot and grease, ached to their bones. He removed the visor he’d worn during the process and reached for the nearby cloth. He couldn’t take his eyes from his work as he pulled the towel over one hand, then the other. By the light of the forge and candles, the effect was nearly hypnotic.
The pistol had started life as a standard Colt Peacemaker. A couple of dollars at a general store would have picked one up. But the order had been for something special. The case had been made for the weapon to become one of a kind. Bittersweetness slid through the smith’s synapses as his cleaned hands gently picked up the gun.
He’d laid gold filligree into the handle, like vines climbing up the ivory. Ivy leaves here and there caught the light, their leaves made from tiny shards of emerald. The result was a grip less likely to slip from a gunman’s fingers, singular in vision and still clear of purpose. The metal of the pistol’s body and barrel were engraved with scenes of nature, the heads of wolves, eagles and moutain loins appearing here and there. Lovely but dangerous, that had been the motif.
He checked the cylinder slowly, one click at a time. Boring the chambers out of a fresh block had been a painstaking task. He’d only been able to make room for five cartridges, but the stopping power of the .50 calibre shells used in the old Remingtons was still quite decent, and she’d be guranteed to make one hell of a racket. Satisfied that he’d cleared the block and barrel of all obstructions, he turned from the workbench to the counter and laid the weapon for the customer to see.
“Do you know why I stopped making guns?”
He paused, removing his spectacles and reaching for his pipe. His customer waited patiently while he lit up his cavendish and took a long pull.
“I’d heard of a shoot-out near Barstow. Outlaw ran afoul of a couple Marshalls. Crowd was followin’ the lawmen, as they do sometimes, and the outlaw just started shootin’. Marshalls took him down quick as you please, but before they could the bastard had shot a little boy.”
He turned the revolver on the counter so his audience could see his initials on the butt of the gun.
“Every gun I make has my stamp. So when they took the gun from the dead man they brought it to me, told me what’d happened. Turned out the outlaw’d been seventeen, and I’d sold this to his father a few years back. The boy stole it when he turned to robbin’, and now it’d put a bullet through a little boy’s spine.”
The customer said nothing. The gunsmith studied the other for a moment, puffing on his pipe.
“Been makin’ horseshoes an’ farm equipment ever since. Until you walked in.”
He laid his hand on the gun, feeling the engraving and fillagree under his fingertips.
“This is without a doubt the finest gun I’ve ever made. It’s beautiful, powerful an’ compact. The Devil himself is gonna come t’ fear it, provided you ain’t usin’ it for any purpose o’ his.”
“Let me tell you what I’m going to do with it.”
The gunsmith waited. He put the pipe back in his mouth.
“I’m going to pay you what I promised for this gun. And then I’m going to find the men who took my little girl. If they return her safe and sound there will be no cause for me to even fire this weapon.”
The customer reached out for the gun. The gloved hand took a hold of the ivory, gold and emeralds. The pistol spun on one finger for a moment. The other hand pressed the rod to eject the cylinder. Blue eyes looked through the bores, then the gun was shut again. The customer tipped her hat up to regard the gunsmith evenly.
“If they’ve harmed a hair on her golden head, I swear by God and His archangels I’ll put every single one of them in the ground with this gun.”
He studied her for a moment, this haunted and driven woman who’d come to him for a gun. She’d told him of the night her girl had been taken. Her eyes no longer had the redness of tears, and by all measure of such things she’d be beautiful, and when she first arrived in town she seemed no different than other pretty girls looking to make money on the frontier. But standing there, in a man’s riding clothes and holding the finest gun he’d ever made, the gunsmith considered for a moment that maybe she could swear by God and His archangels with such resolve because she knew them on a rather personal level.
He pulled a box of Remington .50s out and dropped it on the counter.
“You’re gonna need these, and I ain’t gonna charge you extra for ‘em.”
The Story So Far: It is Year 296 since Aegon’s Landing. House Luxon is in the process of returning a trove of stolen blades to their rightful Houses. Victor Luxon has now crossed the sands of Dorne to return the final blades to House Martell. Accompanying him from Sunspear to the Water Gardens is Maester Chrysander, newly appointed to service at Moat Cailin. Cadmon Hightower, however, is nowhere to be found…
They were two, now, while three had entered the Water Gardens.
Areo Hotah was in step behind them, silent, his poleaxe leaned against the crook of his shoulder and his hand resting on its shaft. They walked at a reasonable pace, both for his Prince and for one of their visitors. They said they’d come from House Luxon, far to the north in a castle once ruined. Yet only one of them appeared to be of Northerly stock. He was broad of shoulder and long of gait, even if Hotah was slightly taller. His eyes betrayed neither mirth nor treachery, and his mouth seemed to speak only blunt truths. Hotah admitted he was taking a liking to him.
“I still don’t see why we’re here, while I do appreciate Your Highness’ hospitality.” Victor Luxon pushed Doran Martell across the pink marble floor slowly. The wheels on the chair had been freshly oiled, and made no noise. There was occasionally a metal rattle from Hotah’s armor or a scuff from Victor’s boots, but the sound permeating the hall was the rhythmic clack of the maester’s staff against the floor. The sun glistened on the bald pate of the older man, who had no hair whatsoever on his skull. Even his eyebrows were missing.
“I wanted to show you all that Dorne offers.” The Prince’s voice was set at its most magnanimous. “I can only imagine what you might have heard from the smallfolk in Highgarden on your way here.”
“I had begun to acquire a taste for your Dornish wine in Oldtown.” Victor smiled. “You can tell a lot about a people by their wine.”
“Oh? And what does our wine tell you about us, young Luxon?”
“The wine has a sweet taste, many textures and a warm finish that may burn if you aren’t prepared for it.”
“We had the pleasure of drinking it without it being watered down,” Maester Chrysander observed. “I shudder to think what becomes of it in less civilized parts of the world.”
“I wouldn’t strictly called Oldtown ‘civilzed’.” Victor Luxon was frowning. “It has its share of unruly elements. Mostly in and around the ports.”
“Isn’t your young friend something of a sailor?” Doran turned to look over his shoulder at Victor. “He has that look about him.”
Victor’s hands visibly tightened on the handles of the chair. Hotah noticed this, and the way the maester took a discreet step further away from him.
“He is not what I’d call a friend.”
“Yet you travelled together.”
The maester stepped close again as they walked. “The young master is, ah, of an opposing personality with the heir of Hightower. Born a bastard and raised in the Free Cities, his attitude can be somewhat cavalier at times.”
“He’s a green, vain, arrogant boy, and I trust him about as far as I can throw him.”
Hotah hid a smile. Victor was a capable warrior, it showed in his every movement. It’d be an honor to meet him even in the yard, trading blows. Yet he had all the subtlety of Robert Baratheon’s fabled warhammer.
“You needn’t concern yourself with Cadmon Hightower any longer, young Luxon. He has asked me for the priviledge of staying in Sunspear for the time being, and after hearing his petition I’m of a mind to oblige him.”
Victor Luxon blinked. “Why would he want to do such a thing?”
“Perhaps he fancies one of my daughters. He couldn’t court them anywhere near as well from Moat Cailin, now could he?”
Hotah studied the guests. Luxon simply shook his head, looking disgusted. *He thinks the boy a fool, blinded by lust and power plays.* The maester, on the other hand, seemed locked in his own thoughts. His expression was distant but otherwise inscrutible.
Prince Doran picked up on it. “You seem quiet, Maester Chrysander. Shall I guess your thoughts?”
Chrysander looked to the Prince and smiled. “You might be mistaken, my Prince, at what they are. Perhaps a game of cyvasse instead, with our thoughts as the stakes?”
“That again? Do you play it in your sleep?”
“You’re a fair player, young master. I would not disparage it out of hand. It teaches much about…”
“Boredom? Obscure rules? Treachery and deception?”
“I was going to say, ‘warfare’.” Chrysander’s smile was that of a teacher speaking to an obstinate student. “Your aggressive playstyle would be suited for some opponents, but you must learn to anticipate beyond the next move.”
“I deal with what’s in front of me.”
“Such honesty seems a uniquely Northern trait.”
“I’ve noticed, Prince.” Victor sounded only slightly more bitter than usual. “Too many around the Iron Throne seem to like hiding daggers in their smiles.”
“It’s unfortunate that we can’t always see the threats that ally against us.” Prince Doran steepled his fingers as they approached the courtyard, where the children played as they always did. Chrysander smiled beatifically, and Victor blinked a few times.
“I come here whenever I need a reminder of what we’re fighting for.” Doran’s posture relaxed as he took in the sight. “Ensuring I never lose sight of what is most precious to me.”
Doran turned to look up at Victor. “I’ve no doubt you do. Perhaps one day you’ll have children of your own, and understand more deeply.”
“As long as my sons are strong,” Victor replied. Chrysander leaned on his staff.
“I’ve no doubt they will be, young master.”
“We’ll watch them play for a time, if you’ll indulge me.” Prince Doran was now utterly at ease. Areo Hotah rested the pommel of his axe against the white marble floor. Despite the manner of the Prince’s guests, he remained watchful, as he always did. “Afterwards we shall take a midday meal, and then make arrangements to return to Sunspear where you can take ship to White Harbor. Martell is in your debt for the return of our blades and the justice done in the name of their owners. It is the least we can do to see you safely home.”
Get caught up by visiting the Westeros page.
For the TerribleMinds flash fiction challenge, That Poor, Poor Protagonist.
The water woke him. It was, as always, cold as ice. It poured onto the back of his head, around his naked shoulders, down his naked torso and over his multiple wounds. He could drink it, if he wished. They couldn’t stop him from doing that.
He tried the manacles again. Despite how slick his arms became with water and blood, he still wasn’t able to free himself. The manacles offered scrapes, not freedom. Their chain was fixed to the thick hook fixed to the stone ceiling, near the spout for the water.
Soon they’d come take the chain from the hook. Then they’d heat their chain whips and start again. Cold followed by hot followed by cold… days and days it’d been like this. He’d lost count of how many. His torturers had two rules: don’t kill and don’t mutilate. Their master wanted him whole, the better to break into a willing servant.
He’d welcome death first. But apparently even the Collector of Souls had forgotten this dismal place.
He expected the water to last for a long time, as it usually did first thing in the morning. Instead, it ended soon after it began. He blinked droplets from his eyes as light bloomed outside the archway leading to his cell. The light belonged to an oncoming torch. Were they changing the routine? Usually they let him linger in the pitch darkness before coming to begin their grisly work. Instead, he saw shadows, shapes moving against the stone walls outside his cell door.
Moments later, the beefy cellmaster was unlocking the gate. Before becoming cellmaster, he’d been a town crier, speaking out against the sultan’s rule. After two weeks in the dungeons, he’d begged to have his tongue removed in exchange for an end to the torture and a lifetime of servitude. The dungeons, they said, broke everyone eventually.
The cellmaster stepped out of the way and allowed two of the torturers to enter. They carried the torches, and the figure between them carried nothing. While the torturers wore their leather vests and trousers, weapons and other implements of pain within easy reach on their belts, the other wore a robe of the finest silk, brocaded with precious stones, rings on his fingers and in his ears and nose. He approached with a smile.
“A good morning to you, my gentleman thief. I hear my friends here are having some trouble with you.”
Anger coiled tightly in the thief’s belly. “I give them nothing.”
“No, I suppose you wouldn’t. You came to my palace to take, not to give. You are far more inclined to take than give.”
“We’re alike in that, no?”
The sultan smiled. “Taxation is not thievery, my friend. I am a protector of the people, responsible for their health, their food, their infrastructure.”
“And when you annex the lands of your rivals?”
“Not all of my peers are my peers, or cut out for sultanhood. If their people suffer unnecessarily, I intervene to take that suffering away from them.”
That got a laugh from the thief. “And yet here I am.”
“You were already suffering when you came here.” The sultan eyed him. “You think me cruel, perhaps, but I am not without mercy. I will show you.” He turned to the torturer on his right. “Gag him.”
The torturer did so, shoving the bit deep into the thief’s mouth. A moment later, another torch was visible in the corridor. The thief’s eyes moved to the cell door. He felt a chill worse than any caused by the water flow through him. Escorted into the cell were two women, one his age at thirty and one roughly half that age, both in sensual silk veils the same color as the sultan’s robes, the torchlight accentuating their curves through the semi-transparent fabric. The sultan chuckled.
“Your wife and your daughter. So similar in beauty and form they could almost be sisters. Your daughter’s just beginning to blossom, my friend. Had you not noticed?”
He growled through the bit. The women didn’t look at him. They’d likely been threatened that if they did, the whipping would begin. The cellmaster behind him carried the heated chains, the metal links giving a dull glow in the half-darkness. The sultan touched the thief’s wife’s cheek, then his daughter’s. He favored them for a long moment each, then nodded slowly.
“Yes. They are pleasing. Take them to my chambers. I will be along shortly.”
The cellmaster gestured, and the women left willingly. The sultan clapped his hands once, smiling.
“You see? I have not harmed them. I have welcomed them into my home. No harm shall come to them while they stay here.”
The torturer removed the gag. The thief spat. “As long as they’re your slaves!”
The smile vanished. “They do my bidding. You will have access to them if you confess to your crime and throw yourself on my mercy, which pales in comparison to my wrath. And my wrath is considerable.”
“In that, we’re alike.” The thief glared at the sultan. “If you release me all you’ll get from me is a dagger in the throat.”
The sultan studied him for a long, cold moment. Then, sighing, he shook his head.
“Begin again, my friends. Twice the normal regimen, every day. I will be in my chambers. See I am not disturbed.”
They left, the torturers to sharpen their tools and the sultan to… No. He wouldn’t think on it. He’d endured the whips, the clamps, the stretching and the broken fingers. But the sultan had involved his family. The family for whom he’d stolen bread, fruit, water, gold.
Fury and sorrow warred within him when the torturers returned. He waited for them to unhook his chain. They were two, armed and rested. He was alone, weary and bound.
Crying out in rage and hate, he attacked them anyway.
The Story So Far: It is Year 296 since Aegon’s Landing. House Luxon is in the process of returning a trove of stolen blades to their rightful Houses. Carrying those belonging to the Houses of the Reach and Dorne, Victor Luxon has reached Oldtown. After delivering the treasures of House Hightower, the Citadel offers the growing House of the North something no political force in Westeros should be without: a maester. The Archmaesters have been reviewing candidates for three days…
He began the day he always did. He swung his body into a seated position on the small cot in his cell within the Citadel, in walking distance to one of the lower libraries. He used a cloth soaking in the bowl of water by his cot to clean the stump of his right calf, the flesh smooth inches below his knee where he’d been cut free of the dead horse. He reached under the cot for his leg. It was made of two pieces of ash, one shaped like a foot and the other taking the place of his lost leg tissue, held together with a sturdy pin of iron. He strapped it into place with the specific procedure he’d used countless times since coming to the Citadel as a novice. The leg had been his own design, perhaps the largest step in forging his link for alchemy.
He stood, ensuring the leg held, and half-hobbled to the larger water bowl on the dresser. Even with the faux leg it was difficult to move quickly without assistance. Rapid movement, like dreams of knighthood and vast sums of wealth, had been left crushed under the poor horse. He reached to the side of the bowl for the razor, washed the blade in the water, and took it to his scalp, jawline and lips. He scoured his head of hair, including his eyebrows.
I am a maester of the Citadel, he told himself as he set the razor aside. Would that we had vows like the brothers of the Night’s Watch that the realm might know our quality.
Sighing, he put on his robe and fished his chain out from beneath it. Adjusting it so it hung correctly, he next took up his staff. It was old, an oak shaft just slightly taller than he, carved with Valyrian letters and symbols and topped with a shard of dragonglass. He leaned on the familiar tool, cleared his throat and opened the door.
He had been expecting one of the pages of the Citadel, or perhaps a novice like Pate, ready to help him to the library for the day’s research, filing and answering of questions.
He was instead faced with another maester.
“Maester Chrysander. The Realm has need of you.”
The figure in the hall was shorter than Chrysander, stockier and broad of shoulder, his chain easily double that of the cripple’s. In normal clothes and not the robes of a maester, he could have been mistaken for a deckhand or thug in the employ of a pirate or dock lord. Instead, his imposing frame spoke of power and knowledge. The thing that Chrysander focused on, however, was the Valyrian steel mask the other wore.
“Archmaester. I’m honored you deliver this summons in person.”
“I’ve done it before,” Marwyn sniffed, gesturing for Chrysander to join him in the hall. The junior maester did so, his staff clacking softly against the stone with every other step. “It’s not that rare. Your predecessor in your post, Maester Luwin, was also summoned in such a fashion. Of course, that was some years ago, and to an old and storied House of the North. You are going in the same direction, but to a House much younger.”
“That would be House Luxon, I take it.”
“Your ears work fine, I see, even if your legs do not.”
Chrysander looked over his shoulder. As usual, the black cat with which he shared his cell had stepped out to follow him. Selyne’s tail was straight up, crooked slightly to one side, as she padded along silently behind the maesters. After a moment, her ears pricked up and she darted down a side corridor. Chrysander smiled. She’ll be along. She needs breakfast, too.
Over a meal of bread, cheese, fruit, cooked eggs and fresh water, Chrysander discussed the post with Marwyn. The archmaester hosted his apprentice in his own rooms, where he removed his mask to eat. His red teeth tore into an apple before he spoke of Chrysander’s purpose.
“Other than providing guidance for Lord Goddard and education for his children, I advise you to keep a weather eye towards the Wall. Ravens from the North have been most disconcerting of late. The astronomers are quite nervous.”
“I suspect the Luxons are equally squirelly.”
“Ha!” Marwyn slapped the table hard, sending an orange rolling across the floor. “A good one, but I’d watch those puns if I were you. They may not be welcome in a lord’s hall.”
“I will do so, Archmaester. What else of the North?”
“As I mentioned, Luwin preceded you, as my apprentice and as a maester in the North. You know which House he serves, and their words.”
Chrysander nodded. “Winter is coming.”
“Aye. Look well-armed to receive it when it does, Chrysander. Your charge is nothing more, and nothing less. The Realm may depend upon House Luxon standing its ground when the blizzards come, bringing Seven knows what else with them.”
Chrysander fingered the ring of Valyrian steel on his chain. “It will be done, Archmaester. The Realm has called, and I will answer.”
Satisfied, they left to proceed to the yard. Chrysander made a list of provisions, books and materials he’d need for his service at Moat Cailin, and requested the garron Aloysius, a heavy and somewhat lethargic beast too large for barding and too intractable to serve as a steed. Yet he pulled carts very well and he didn’t seem to mind Chrysander’s presence. As the cart was loaded and Selyne caught up with him, Chrysander caught sight of a man in the yard testing his strength against several squires of House Hightower. Marwyn approached, his mask back in place.
The man in the blue and silver armor roared defiantly at the six men coming at him. His greatsword, blunted for practice, nevertheless floored two before they could come to grips with him. The shield of a third was splintered when he tried to attack, and he fell away, clutching a broken arm. The figure in the armor punched a fourth in the face while parrying the blow of a fifth. Pushing the warhammer away, he glanced between the two squires who still stood and laughed heartily.
“I knew you squirts from the South were made of suet!”
At this, the squires attacked as one. Still laughing, their opponent stepped aside from one blow, parrying another and headbutting the one on his left. As the squire staggered back, blood spewing from his nose, the broad-shouldered warrior grabbed the final one by the throat and forced him to his knees. The others staggered to their feet and called out, one at a time, that they yielded.
“I’ve only seen such ferocity and dedication to victory once before,” Archmaester Marwyn observed.
“When was that?”
The man in the Valyrian steel mask turned to his apprentice, his expression inscrutable.
“Gregor Clegane. The Mountain that Rides.”
Get caught up by visiting the Westeros page.
For the terribleminds flash fiction challenge, The Flea Market
The elderly man was comfortable, resting in the expansive bed that dominated the master bedroom of his suburban home. Under the babble of the talk hosts on the television was the constant, mechanical sound of the respirator. He’d told the doctors he didn’t need it, but they’d insisted. He’d accepted it, grumbling all the while, repeating that he’d taken two bullets for his country and he wasn’t going to let some clump of cells the size of a golf ball take him out now.
Of course, now it was the size of an orange, and getting bigger.
The door opened. The man looked up from the television, past the framed medals on the wall, to the figure walking into his room. He was tall, as tall as the man had been in his youth, with the same short blond hair and green eyes. They were eyes the man had seen before, a long time ago, before he’d gone to war.
The young man said nothing. He closed the door gently behind him. He knew the nurse was downstairs, but she’d be out for groceries in a few minutes. He looked down at the bed, at the war veteran laying there, his once strong cheeks and neck withered by time. The young man reached into his pocket, placing an action figure on the veteran’s rolling tray.
“Do you recognize this?”
The old man looked from the doll to the stranger and shook his head.
“This was my very first G.I. Joe. A Real American Hero. I found this one at a flea market, but I had one just like it when I was little. My mother told me that my father was a man like this. So I watched and read all I could on soldiers. How they were noble, brave, smart and polite. How they sacrificed for their country.”
“Who… who are you?” The veteran’s voice shook like branches in a strong wind. The young man continued.
“So imagine my surprise when my father never comes home. That he was apparently killed in action. Only, he wasn’t. There was a clerical error. He was wounded in action, not killed.” The young man looked over his shoulder at the medals. “Purple heart, right? And next to that? Is that one for the civilians you killed?”
“Get out of my house.”
“No.” The young man seemed to loom over the bed. “When you came back, you didn’t go back to the girl you’d left behind or the boy she’d given birth to while you were gone. You came here. You started over. And do you know why?”
The young man produced an old newspaper and slapped it down on the tray, toppling the action figure. The headline read NEW YORK ALLOWS GAY MARRIAGE.
“Because you didn’t want to live in a New York City that tolerated fags.”
“Marriage is a holy sacrament! They defile it! It’s in the Bible!”
The young man slapped him.
“So you turn your back on the woman who loved you and a son you never met because God told you it was the right thing to do? I thought God was love! What love was there in pretending we never existed, Dad?”
The veteran stammered. The young man seemed to compose himself, producing another paper.
“I know you weren’t sitting idle while this was going on, either.”
The paper now on top of the New York one bore the headline MULTIPLE HIGH SCHOOL YOUTHS FOUND DEAD.
The veteran felt his mouth go dry. “We… we were…”
“Doing God’s work? Hard to justify to parents who won’t see their sons grow up, go to college, fall in love, start lives of their own.” The young man picked up the paper and began to read. “‘All five victims were members of a new student organization aimed at helping kids in the LGBT community survive the bullying and derision they face every day. Apparently they were walking home when an eyewitness reports seeing an unmarked van pull up next to them…'”
The youth glared at him, then continued. “‘… They were found two weeks later in a defunct paper mill’s basement. Their bodies had been dissolved using lye and other chemicals to hide the means of death, but while the case has been ruled a homicide, police admit they are having difficulty finding suspects.'” He put the paper down on top of the other one. “I guess the war never ended for you, did it, Dad?”
“Please… son, I’m sorry…”
“No. You don’t get to say you’re sorry and walk away. You don’t get to lay here in comfort and spend your last few years agreeing with Fox News and shouting at the Democrats. You haven’t earned this. You had a great life, love and a family, and you turned your back on it out of hate. You disgust me.”
The old man’s jaw twitched. “You’re one of them, aren’t you? You’re one of those abominations before the Lord.”
“No. I’m not. I’m just the son you abandoned, here to collect a debt.” He reached over the old man to grab one of the pillows from the bed. “You’re a real American hero, Dad. You should die fighting.”
He pushed down with the pillow onto the old man’s face. The veteran struggled, trying to slap the arms away, but he was too weak. His nails found no purchase on his son’s coat. His cries were muffled by the soft down and expensive cotton cover.
The young man kept the pillow there. He kept it there while the veteran fought him. He kept it here when the slapping stopped. He kept it there until the old man’s bowels were empty and the room stank of death.
He stood up, picked up his flea-market action figure, and tucked it away.
“See? Killed in action after all. The Army was just ahead of its time.”
With that, the young man walked out.
The Story So Far: It is Year 296 since Aegon’s Landing. Two minor Houses have come into contention: House Luxon, sworn to the Starks of Winterfell, and House Mortmund, sworn to the Lannisters of Casterly Rock. A savage turn of events and a tireless pursuit has revealed that Mortmund was, in fact, a Faceless Man, and the assassin had made a quiet career of slaying nobles from all the Houses of Westeros and keeping their blades for himself. Following his death, Cadmon Storm recovered the blades on behalf of House Luxon. Victor Luxon, son of Lord Goddard, went with the bastard and John Nurem, steward of the House, to King’s Landing. At High Court they presented the blades of House Baratheon to Robert, the First of his Name, King of the Andals, the Rhoynar and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm. Following a decree that named Cadmon the trueborn son of Baelor Hightower of Oldtown, the trio proceeded down the Rose Road to Highgarden, continuing to distribute the stolen blades to their rightful owners…
He hated the South. He hated the heat. He hated the moisture. He hated the way the greens and yellows and reds of the feilds assaulted his eyes. He hated the stinging of pollen in his eyes and the way it left dust on his arms and armor. Most of all he hated the false smiles, the courtesies, the bowing and taking of knees and “m’lord” this and “m’lady” that. He missed the North, the biting vibrant cold breezes, the heft of his weapons and the comforting weight of armor on his shoulders.
He pushed John Nurem aside and set about adjusting his clothing himself. The steward bowed and muttered some sort of apology. Spineless toad. Victor appreciated all the merchant-turned-majordomo had done for House Luxon, but more often than not he just got in the way. He looked down at his sleeves, a dark blue fabric slashed to reveal the cloth-of-gold beneath, then tugged at the fine trousers of gray with their silver piping, tucked into polished black boots. The steward swept the ermine half-cloak around his shoulders, the cloth-of-gold lining catching the light from the hearth as Victor fastened the clasp, a golden acorn. Victor reached for his swordbelt and fastened it around his waist as the knock came at the door.
“They’re ready for us.”
“In a moment, Storm,” Victor snapped. He checked the hang and fit of his clothes, thanked the gods that nobody was around to stick him with any more pins, and threw open the door. Cadmon Hightower stood just outside, dressed in his own finery, the hilt of Beaconflame visible behind his left hip as he tugged on the white leather gloves he wore.
Royal decree or no, the stripling’s Storm to me. “Which way’s the solar?”
Cadmon gestured with a smile. “This way, my lord.”
“Yes, your lord, and don’t you forget it, bastard.” Victor had starting itching already. It was going to be a long afternoon. Despite the powerful stride he adopted to move through Highgarden to Mace Tyrell’s solar, Cadmon had no trouble keeping up. “My father did you a great boon by taking you in, considering you showed up at our gates with naught but a bastard’s name and some pretty words.”
“I’ve proven everything that I’ve said, have I not?” The bastard didn’t stop smiling. A Southron through and through. “We destroyed a potential enemy of not only your House, but the Lannisters as well, and Luxon’s growing in respect with every stolen blade it returns.”
“Just remember it’s Luxon doing it. Not you.”
“I doubt I could forget, considering how you constantly remind me.”
“And keep your distance. I won’t have you interrupting me this time.”
Cadmon placed a gloved hand over his slashed doublet. “Why, Victor, you wound me. I thought you of all people would appreciate the need to cut to the quick.”
“Not in front of the bloody king!” The insult still burned him. He’d been telling the story of how they’d come across the blades, in detail, leaving nothing out. He wanted no secrets before the king. He learned afterward that one of the small council, the pointy-beared whisp of a man everybody called Littlefinger, had started yawning. Cadmon had interrupted, kneeled before the king and laid out the Baratheon blades taken from the serial killer that had lived under the guise of a Lannister bannerman. The delivery had won them reknown throughout the Seven Kingdoms, and a letter from Tywin Lannister himself had called upon Robert to decree Cadmon the trueborn son of Baelor Hightower, but Victor wasn’t about to let the slight go unremarked.
“Just let me do the talking this time.”
“As long as you don’t do too much of it.”
Victor growled. “You try my patience, bastard.”
Cadmon shrugged, his only reply as their quick pace had brought them to the solar. He opened the door for Victor and gestured grandly for him to enter. Cadmon fell into step behind him. Sitting in a comfortable chair with the remnants of his breakfast in front of him, Lord Mace Tyrell, Defender of the Marches, High Marshal of the Reach, Lord of Highgarden and Warden of the South, wiped his hands on a napkin and gestured for them to approach. His daughter Margaery sat nearby, hands folded in her lap and smiling at Renly Baratheon, who sat nearby speaking with her quietly. Nearby, Mace’s son Loras looked on, the embroidery in his fine cloak and worked into the leather of his scabbard unsurprisngly showing various types of flowers. A slender woman with long silver hair and a dignified look smiled as they entered, walking past Victor to place a hand on Cadmon’s shoulder.
“Oh, my brother will be jealous. I get to see how handsome his son is before he even reaches Oldtown.”
“You must be my aunt Alerie.” Cadmon took her hand in his. “I’m so pleased to meet you.”
I’m going to be sick. “Lord Mace, I have no wish to overstay my welcome. May I present you with these blades of House Tyrell, taken from…”
Mace held up a meaty hand. “I did hear tell of most of this tale from my son Loras, and from Renly, when they arrived. May I see the blades?”
Victor knelt and laid out the bundle they’d made of the blades of Tyrell. Loras walked over to look down upon them as Mace leaned toward the opened canvas. He reached down and picked up the broadsword from the bunch, the central feature of its hilt being a golden rose. A matching dagger was beside it, which Ser Loras picked up.
“These were my father’s blades,” Mace said. “They said he’d fallen from a cliff, looking up and not minding where he was going. There was always something odd about that story.”
Victor nodded. “Regardless of how they came to be parted from him, they are now yours once again, Lord Mace.”
“And well I thank you for that. You do good service for your house, Luxon, and for that of your liege lord. I shall not forget it.”
Victor stood, adjusting the leather belt around his waist. He was eager to wrap this up and get into more comfortable clothes. Lord Mace invited his guests to dine with him that evening, which Victor accepted before he left the solar, leaving the bastard to speak with the woman from Oldtown.
“Victor, if I might have a word?”
He turned, to find the well-groomed Renly Baratheon following him into the corridor.
“I apologize for my brother’s brusque nature in King’s Landing. He’s so unflatteringly impatient during high court. You understand.”
“I do.” Victor shifted on his feet. “I took no offense.”
“It simply seemed unfair to extend the potential for knighthood to one such as Cadmon Hightower, and not do you the same courtesy.”
“What are you saying, my lord?”
“If you wished to squire for me, or perhaps Ser Loras, all you have to do is ask. You fought alongside us in the Greyjoy Rebellions. Your quality as a warrior is known. Why not add the reknown, respect and rewards of knighthood? What say you?”
Victor stared to Renly for a long moment. Then, taking a deep breath, he answered.
“I appreciate the offer, my lord, and I would be interested in squiring for a knight, but not for you, nor for Ser Loras.”
Renly blinked. “I beg your pardon? Why ever not?”
“You know why.”
The king’s brother narrowed his eyes. “I am attempting to extend you a courtey and opportunity, ser. You’re letting prejudice blind you.”
“The truly blind are those who still profess to love you while being ignorant of what you really are.”
“And what, exactly, am I?” Renly hand drifted to the hilt of his sword. It was one of the swords Cadmon had brought back from Mortmund’s ruin. Victor scowled and said no more, backing up a step and turning away.
Victor strode back to his quarters with haste, fueled by hatred. Was Renly simply trying to expand his collection of admirers? Victor didn’t think he was Renly’s type. He was burly where Ser Loras was slight, direct in speech where Ser Loras was circumspect. He was of the North, and Ser Loras of the South. *Maybe the queer cock doesn’t discriminate,* Victor thought bitterly. He slammed the door of the quarters behind him, which earned him a shriek from the bed chamber.
“Did… did it go well?”
The face of his wife poked out from the other room. Victor glared at her as he pulled the golden acorn open and yanked the ermine cloak from his shoulders.
“Lord Mace has kind things to say about House Luxon, now, giving us one less overt enemy in the South.”
“Oh, that must please you!” She moved to help him undress, her fingers slightly clumsier than those of John the house steward. She might have been on the homely side and not terribly bright, but she as at least a woman, and her hands on him working with his clothes didn’t make him so uncomfortable. “Tell me, was Lord Renly there? Or Ser Loras? Oh, he’s so elegant, with his floral armor and his…”
“Yes,” Victor hissed, exasperated. “He was there.”
Jaine giggled. “Oh, forgive me, my lord, he’s just so…”
“I know what he is. You owe me no apology.”
She responded by giggling more, especially when she was helping him out of his breeches. He sighed. Once again, the ship has left the dock with no one on board.
“Shall I help you relax, before we’re feasted by Lord Mace?”
“We have time, yes.” At least it’ll shut you up. Would that I could silence Renly or Ser Loras or that bloody bastard Storm as easily. He resolved not to think on those men any longer, however, as his wife began. Such thoughts would just be strange in this situation.
Get caught up by visiting the Westeros page.
For Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge: An Uncharted Apocalypse:
He fumbled with the little packet of cheese and crackers in the empty store. The whole place smelled like rotten meat. The few items that hadn’t been cleared out in the final surge of panic had gone bad months ago. Now the only food worth taking were items so processed that they barely qualified as food, but were still edible and had at least some nutritional value.
He tossed a box of Twinkies, a few unopened bottles of water and a couple cans of pork and beans into his backpack. He shouldered the burden as he headed out of the abandoned store, looking over his shoulder at the empty aisles and dead overhead lights. He walked out across the abandoned parking lot to the street he’d been walking since he’d woken up and realized he was all that was left.
He was keeping his eyes open for some form of radio, but even if he found one he wasn’t sure what good it would be. Transmitters needed power, and power wasn’t something most people had anymore. When the oil reserves ran dry, people were told that other means of fuel would keep things going until a solution could be found. The eggheads rolled out better solar-powered cars and hydroelectric plants but it was too little too late.
Folks had started knifing each other over a gallon of gas. Prices at the pump skyrocketed. Those that could took portable generators and a few belongings and headed for the hills. Scientists scrambled to find a solution but bureaucrats whined about government subsidies going to them while people went hungry, and special interests whispered in their ears about there being no profit in philanthropic science. One by one, the sources of power the world depended upon disappeared. Power went out all over the world. The food in the stores went bad, hospitals could no longer treat the sick and wounded, governments shut down and corporate stock was useless.
He opened a bottle of water and drank as he walked. He wasn’t sure why he was the only one left. He wasn’t anyone special, just a contractor that didn’t mind heights. He’d worked on a lot of the tall buildings around him. What would happen to them now that they were empty? The wind howled quietly through the streets and between those buildings, giving no answer.
He figured he’d keep walking until he found someone, one of those families that had taken a camper and portable generator into the woods and hills. But he knew he wasn’t the only one who’d had that idea. People followed the smart ones who’d skipped town at the first whiff of trouble, some with money that no longer had any meaning, some with weapons to simply take what they wanted.
A bit of broken glass shattered under his boot as he passed a storefront. Its front window was smashed, a few of the TVs missing. He smirked. The looting had started when the newsreaders sagely told the public that there simply wasn’t any more oil to be had. The scientists and hippies had been right, they said between the lines, and we’ve gotten ourselves good and screwed. People did what they always did: they panicked. In their panic they started taking what they wanted, things they’d never been able to get when the world made sense, and since it didn’t make sense now, why should they? A Blu-Ray player might have been useless when the power finally died, but there’d have been some good movie marathons until then.
Rummaging in his pack, he pulled out a Twinkie. He knew he had to pace himself, as this food needed to last him until he reached the next store. Still, the sweet cream in the middle of the sponge cake lifted his spirits a little. Maybe he wasn’t the last man alive. Even if someone was willing to take a shot at him when he found their little cabin or trailer or whatever, at least it would mean he wasn’t alone. The rows of silent, impotent cars and apartments all around holding the dead was beginning to unnerve him.
He spent the night in an abandoned bookstore. He made a fire with some of the conservative periodicals and newspapers and sat by it to read. He read about aliens coming to earth, about mighty earthquakes and meteors smashing cities and giant bugs. He had to laugh. The end of the world hadn’t been anywhere near that dramatic. Humanity had simply not planned far enough ahead. Every time they’d drilled for more oil, they’d cut their own throats just a little more.
Sleep was fitful and short. He was up before dawn, cooking his pork and beans before putting his fire out and walking away. A few hours of hiking later he came to the river. It was small, only a few feet wide, but he still took the time to find a bridge. When he crossed, he noticed something. A few months before, the trees and undergrowth had been ten or so feet from the shore. Now, green growth and vines were spilling down towards the river, like thirsty men groping for water.
Nature was taking back what was hers.
He looked back over his shoulder. Soon the stone and brick buildings would be covered in vines. Trees would spring up in the streets. Birds would nest there and animals would make their homes in used game stores and fitness centers. He smiled and turned back to his path.
A bear was standing in it.
It was a big, black, shaggy thing, rising up on its hind legs and smelling the air. The man swallowed, standing still. He wondered when the bear had last eaten, then thought it’d been stupid not to look for a gun store or at least pick up a knife from the grocery store. The bear came down onto all fours and tensed to charge. The man closed his eyes.
Nature’s such a fucking bitch sometimes.
The goal since I was about 10 has been, to put it simply, getting published.
Back in 80s, when this goal took shape fully in my embryonic little mind, getting published meant traditional print. Robert Heinlein, Tom Clancy, Stephen King, Clive Cussler and Diane Duane got themselves ink in hardcover and paperback books. The Internet was an infant. Reading fiction on a handheld device smaller than one’s Trapper Keeper sounded like something out of Star Trek.
Here we are, in 2011. We’re still waiting for our jetpacks, but electronic word delivery is thriving while many traditional publication schemes are dying on the vine.
It’s still out there, to be sure. I’ll be shelling out for the next Song of Ice and Fire and Dresden Files books. But I’ve gotten caught up (mostly) with Chicago’s professional wizard thanks to the gift of books through the Kindle. And publishers like up-and-comer Angry Robot are on dual tracks of traditional dead tree formats and the shiny hotness of e-publishing.
I think it’s past time I shook myself free of the big-hair coke-sniffing Reaganite idea of only ever making it as an author if I get a book on the shelves in a Barnes & Noble. Sure, Starbucks is going to keep its live-in partner alive for a while but most traditional bookstores are really feeling the pinch. The Internet, on the other hand, isn’t going anywhere.
Neither are authors like Chuck Wendig.
Yeah, he gave me another kick in the ass this morning. I’ve been wondering how exactly I’m going to juggle writing one novel and rewriting another and still have a shot of getting fiction into the hands of readers before I get much older. And then Chuck’s post underscored something that’s been staring me in the face: I’m sitting on a bunch of it.
What’s to say I can’t write one novel, rewrite another AND put together a short story anthology?
I know a few of these stories are available to you currently for free through the link above. Others have appeared before (or have been promised to – I’m looking at you, Polymancer). But the free fiction’s pretty raw. Like a bunch of carrots in the store, you need to wash them off and maybe take a peeler to them before they’re at their best.
In other words, I need an editor.
I’m also going to need a cover artist. Maybe a photographer, maybe a more traditional pen-and-tablet artist, but somebody with visual arts skills far exceeding my capacity to doodle is going to have to help me out. I’m not about to wrap up a couple stories in twine, dump them on Amazon and say “Here you go, suckers, buy buy buy!” I’d like to think I’m a bit more professional than that.
I have no idea how I’m going to pay these intrepid and conjectural helpers, but hopefully something can be worked out. If you’re reading this and want to help, let me know.
Finally, in this anthology-to-be is going to be one story never before seen. Partially because it’s going to be another of those odd hybrids of disparate genres, and partially because I haven’t written it yet. It’s my hope that this, coupled with revised & edited versions of previous tales bundled into an easy-to-read one-stop shop will give folks enough incentive to pick it up.
And in doing so, they might become interested enough in my voice, style or sheer insanity to want to read more, which is where the novels and future shorts will come in.
One can only hope.
ABW, BTFO, etc.
As I head back down from Canada, please enjoy this thematically appropriate short story from Joe McGee. He’s been a busy guy, working on his paranormal Western novel Witchslinger, dabbling in children’s picture books and pursuing his Master’s of Arts in Writing at Rowan University. You can find his web page at here, his blog here or follow him on Twitter – @witchslinger – but in any event, enjoy the story!
(A Story About Giving in Ontario’s Forested Expanse)
by Joseph McGee
Nicholas paused to catch a breath and tighten his suspenders. Damn that Weight Watchers. There was just no point system accounting for the Missis and her constant cookie baking. Sure, it kept the elves working, but dammit, he was not getting any smaller. A few more trays of cookies and Ontario might find its toy allotment replaced with his alLOTment of bulk next year.
Focus, Nick, he thought. Remember why you’re here and not enjoying your box seats where the Maple Leafs were undoubtedly knocking the crap out of Crosby and the Penguins. All you need is one good reindeer.
Teaching it to fly? That was the easy part. Teaching it not to drink and fly? That was the hard part. Thanks, Blitzen. I’ll be sure to choose your replacement’s name with a little more foresight.
He followed the trail he had picked up that morning. There were two of them. When he came upon their droppings around midday, he knew for sure they were reindeer. Nicholas prided himself on knowing more than just who was naughty and who was nice.
He caught up to them with a couple of hours of sunlight remaining. The reindeer had stopped to forage in a small clearing. Nicholas settled into a spot far enough from detection, yet close enough to keep tabs on them. He needed a few moments to unpack the rifle from the cloth case, fix the scope and ready the dart. He was as quiet as quiet could be. He’d had plenty of practice at remaining undetected.
They were still grazing when he took the rifle in his hands.
Nicholas raised it to his shoulder. He pressed his cheek against the steel and stared through the scope. Natural breaths, he thought. Don’t hold it in. His fingertip tensed on the trigger, dancing a fine line between squeezing and laying off. He’d have one shot. One chance to bag his reindeer. If he missed, they’d be off and he would be dragging his ass through this spruce and wolf riddled expanse of forest for another few days. The Easter Bunny doesn’t have these problems, he thought.
He trained the crosshairs on the smaller of the two. Smaller, but not by much. And slender. If he went for bulk over grace, he would never hear the end from Donner (who, incidentally could go without some cookies himself, hmm? He’ll be getting a mirror this year, Nicholas thought). Besides, he would be the one dragging it back to the camp site. With 4 cc tranquilizer darts, the deer would be out for a while.
Nicholas counted down from ten, in his head.
The reindeer looked up, staring toward his cover. Its muscles tensed. Its eyes narrowed and it stopped chewing.
3 … 2 …
It winked at him. Looked right through the undergrowth and log cover and winked.
… 1 …
Nicholas squeezed the trigger on his exhale. Something crashed across the back of his head. The gun fired. His body slumped. The world went dark.
When Nicholas awoke, he found himself chained to a tree. His rifle was gone, his head throbbed and every time he blinked, a zing of pain like a dentist’s drill pierced the back of his skull.
The metal cuff on his wrist was squeezed so tight that it was rending his flesh. He had dirt in his mouth and leaves in his beard. Maple leaves, he chuckled, inwardly, and then groaned. No sudden movements, he thought. But even thinking hurt.
“What the hell happened?” he said. It was a whisper. A whisper was all he could stand. “Hello?”
Silent, grey shapes padded out of the forest. Wolves. Easily a dozen, with ears pinned back and teeth bared. They fanned out, circling him like a toothy wagon train.
“Oh, I get it,” said Nicholas, tugging at the chain and biting down the painful cry that almost gurgled up from his throat. “Send a message to the poacher. Hohoho, good one. You got me.”
The wolves did not make a sound. Drool collected at the corners of their mouths and glistened on the sharp points of their teeth. Their eyes were searing blue points of hunger and intensity.
“Look, I understand,” Nicholas said. “You’re activists. You got me. You have my rifle, you saved the reindeer. I don’t know how these wolves are listening to you, but I won’t do it again. Just…just come out and let me go.”
He tugged harder on the chain gaining only a rattle and fresh blood as the cuff further tore the skin.
“But I’m Santa, dammit. I’m Santa. You can’t harm Santa!”
The two reindeer he’d been tracking appeared at the edge of the wolf ring. Nicholas watched as they strode into the center of the clearing, unmolested by the predators around them. They stopped a few feet from him.
“You … but …”
Words refused to form on his tongue. When the slender deer he’d had in his sights transformed before him, all thoughts froze.
Where two reindeer had stood, there was only one. Its partner was now a pale girl whose nakedness was only partially concealed by her long, auburn hair.
“What, in Jack Frost?” said Nicholas.
She smiled down at him. “It seems Christmas comes early for us.”
Nicholas laid his finger aside of his nose.
“Your magic won’t work here,” she said. “This is our home and native land.” She turned to address the largest of the wolves, the one whose mouth seemed large enough to swallow Nicholas’s own in one gulp. “As agreed, Bearkiller, we give you a gift of tribute. We give you a sacrifice in exchange for your wolves letting our people live unharmed.”
The massive wolf pressed its icy, wet nose up against Nicholas’s own ruddy one. Bearkiller’s breath reeked like putrid meat and soured milk.
“And what better gift to give other than the world’s largest exporter, Nicholas Claus?” said the naked, nubile girl. “A poacher who has built his empire on the backs of lies, slaves and extortion.” She spit in her palm and held out her hand. “Seal the deal, Bearkiller. Santa is yours. My people live without fear for another year.”
Bearkiller licked the spittle from her palm.
Nicholas watched as the girl turned, twisted violently and fell to the ground, writhing. In seconds, her body had transformed, becoming once again the reindeer he’d had in his sights.
It was the last thing he saw before the wolves set upon him.
– Footnotes –
Some fun facts**:
The Migratory Woodland Caribou (or woodland reindeer) have become threatened in their habitats, with the exception of those living in the Northern Canadian forests.
Santa’s reindeer must be female (or castrated males, which makes Santa’s fate even more deserved, heehee) because male reindeer lose their horns during the winter.
Canada’s boreal forest covers about 60% of the country’s land area, ranging from sparsely treed areas to regions with 80-100% forested cover. These forests are home to many species of plant, insect and animal, to include caribou and the Gray Wolf (the most effective natural predator of the adult reindeer).
Tranquilizer dosages vary with the drugs used, but on the average, it takes 2 CC’s to tranq a deer and 5 or 6 CC’s to tranq a grizzly bear.
**Facts researched via Wikipedia
Okay, I’m going to be honest. This isn’t likely to be my best story ever.
I haven’t been editing as thoroughly as I could have over the weekend, which makes this essentially a first draft. And as Hemingway put it, “The first draft of anything is shit.” So it’ll probably be better when it gets bundled with my other retold myths. Anyway, appropriate for Valentine’s Day and based on the Chinese folk tale “The Princess and the Cowherd” (a.k.a. The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl), I give you “Miss Weaver’s Lo Mein.”
To say that Caroline Weaver didn’t get out much would be an understatement.
In terms of creature comforts, she wanted for nothing. She had a spacious apartment within walking distance of her father’s office. Weaver & Weaver had been in the commodites business practically since there *was* a commodities business, and it was a long-standing, solid and above-board company handed down from eldest son to eldest son. When Joe’s sons and wife were killed in a car accident, he turned to Caroline and immediately began grooming her to take his place when he was gone.
The loss of her brothers and mother left Caroline numb, dedicated solely to her work. She knew how important it was. Her dad was counting on her. If someone who wasn’t Weaver took over the company when Joe passed on, it wouldn’t be Weaver & Weaver anymore, would it? It was something that consumed her. She ate organic food, slept near a laptop, never took vacations and no relationship she tried lasted longer than a couple months. Some of her co-workers joked the only guy she could stand on a regular basis outside of her father was “the lo mein guy.”
His cart was always parked across Broadway from the office building. FRESH CHINESE was the declaration on the placards bolted to the hammered metal sides. Paper lanters hung from the opened side doors, a little MP3 player hooked up to speakers piped quiet Chinese toons, and the smell coming from the cart was always something divine to Caroline, never greasy or fatty. It was the man behind the cart, however, that really kept her coming back.
“Morning, Miss Weaver! The usual lo mein?”
He was her age. He kept his dark hair short, and his eyes always had a glint of mischief in them, a laugh just waiting to explode from his mouth. More than once, Caroline reflected that there was a significant lack of laughter in her life.
“Yes, please. How’s the beef?”
“Absolutely delicious.” He grinned as he spooned noodles into her take-away container. “But you know that! You never get chicken or shrimp.”
“It’s just that the beef is so good,” she admitted. “Is it local?”
“Why is that unfortunate?” Caroline was speaking before thinking. That never happened. She’d been visiting this cart for months, why was she suddenly so talkative? She watched him, carefully sprinkling spices on top of the pile of beef and noodles in the paper box. Why couldn’t she look away from his eyes today?
“It’s not as good as the beef back home. My father’s a cowherd, like his father and so on and so forth.”
She blinked. “‘Back home’? You’re a Chinese native?”
“Why is that a surprise?” He let out a short, barking laugh. “Is it because I speak English so well?”
“Well…” She shuffled her feet. The last thing she wanted to do was offend him. If nothing else, she didn’t want her food spiced with spit.
“I get it all the time.” He was still smiling, handing her the lunch. “I was educated at a school upstate. My father was here for years trying to secure an export contract for his beef. It never happened. He couldn’t afford to move us all back home, so I stayed to make enough money on my own to do it.”
She handed him a few bills from her purse. “Here, and keep the change. I hope you make it home someday soon.”
“Me too. Thank you, Miss Weaver.”
His smile was infectious. She turned, face to face with a construction worker who wasn’t as happy with their banter as she was. Blushing, she hurredly crossed the street. She didn’t stop blushing until well after she returned to her desk. She still wasn’t sure what’d possessed her to talk to him like that. She tried not to think about it as she got her chopsticks out and ate her lunch. Hours later as she was plowing through a pile of work it occured to her she’d never asked his name.
That’s exactly what she did the next day.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I didn’t think to ask your name yesterday.” She paused. “I’ve been coming her for months and never once have I asked your name. Wait… how do you know mine?”
“You answered your cell phone once while I was making your lunch. That’s rude, you know.”
His deadly serious face made her crestfallen. “Oh…”
His eyes glimmered and he grinned. “I’m just playing. I didn’t mind. Folks behind you might’ve, but I can’t tell them how to think.”
She returned his smile. “I’m sorry. I’ve just been working a lot lately.”
“Aren’t we all.” He handed her the beef lo mein. “I’m Yuan. Sorry if I didn’t say so before.”
“No, really, it’s my fault for not asking.”
He handed her the lunch he’d made her. “Think nothing of it, Miss Weaver.”
She paid him, along with the tip she usually added. “It’s Caroline.”
His smile lit up his entire face, and the rest of that afternoon flew by for her.
Over the next few months, Caroline and Yuan began to learn more and more about each other. She didn’t know much about baseball, but he hated the Yankees. He hadn’t gotten to do much reading since establishing his business, and she was a huge Harry Potter fan. They shared a taste for older rock’n’roll, with Caroline marking the death of Jimi Hendrix every year and Yuan considering himself a Beatlemaniac. Caroline didn’t go to the movies much, and Yuan promised if they ever did, it wouldn’t be to see a romantic comedy.
“I don’t know if I’d have the time to go see a movie.” The skies above were threatening rain that day. Yuan smiled as he stirred a fresh batch of lo mein noodles, intent on giving her the first portion of it.
“But you’d be open to the idea?”
She smiled. “What makes you think I wouldn’t be?”
“Don’t people in your line of work usually associate with others in the same industry or social circle?”
“I guess, but most of them are entitled self-important arrogant douchebags.”
Yuan snorted in laughter. “Well, I can’t say I’m any different. I mean, these are the best noodles in the city.”
“But I can attest to that. I’ve tasted your noodles. I only have vapid claims to go on from those clowns. I have no interest in seeing their golf swings or art collections, and they think I’ll be eager to find out how good they are in bed when their cologne could knock out a herd of angry rhinos? No, forget it.”
Yuan shook his head, grinning. “I think this is the happiest I’ve heard you. You really enjoy trashing your peers this much?”
“No. I enjoy talking to you this much.”
He looked up at her smile, and for a moment, he was at a loss for words. He handed her the lunch box. She took it, touching his fingers for a moment before handing him the cash.
“Thursday night, the cinema over on 55th. Seven o’clock?”
He nodded. “I’ll be there.”
The movie showing on Thursday night was a little independent production, and it was neither romantic nor a comedy. Still, at times the movie seemed absolutely superfluous, as Caroline was in the company of someone who made no demands of her and had no expectations. It wasn’t an industry event where she was supposed to hobnob with this client or that CEO, it was simple, straightforward, uncomplicated.
She didn’t want it to end.
He walked her to her door afterwards, kissed her good night and took the train back to his self-described “rathole”. She was still walking six feet off the ground when she came into work on Friday.
“You seem to be in excellent spirits.”
She came out of the pleasant memories to look at the man standing at the door of her office. Her father. Tall and thin, with a bald head and bright blond sideburns flowing into his distinctive mustache, he entered the office and closed the door behind him.
“Yeah. I… I was on a date last night.”
“A date? With whom? That nice boy Howards from the exchange?”
“No.” She hesitated. How much did she want to tell him? How much could she? “You wouldn’t know him.”
The lift he’d had in his mustache disappeared. It was the most she’d seen him smile in a while, and now it was gone. “Well, maybe I’d like to. Give it some thought.” He left her to her work, and the morning dragged by for her until she headed downstairs for lunch.
“You look awful,” Yuan commented as he stirred the noodles at his cart. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s my father. I told him about our date, and…”
“…he’d be less than impressed with me.” He nodded slowly. “He’s a high-powered executive. I understand.”
“Yuan, he’s not a bad man, but the company is all he has. I’m important to him because of the part I play in it.”
“Can’t you be important to him because you’re his daughter?”
“I was, once. Now he’s pinned all his hopes and future on me.”
He touched her hand, gently. “That’s a lot to ask of someone.”
She looked in his eyes. “Yuan, I’m sorry. I don’t want to stop seeing you. I… you make me so happy sometimes I can barely contain it.”
He smiled, and gently handed her her lunch. “I’m glad we agree on that. Look, you’ll see me here every day. When you’re ready, we’ll talk about how to handle this ‘dad’ situation of yours. It’ll be fine. I promise.”
Nodding, she gave her usual generous tip, taking a moment to kiss the bills before putting them in his jar. The grin splitting his face was priceless. She returned to work in better spirits and made it through the rest of the day.
The next day, however, it was Yuan’s turn to be followed by a dark cloud. He showed Caroline a form that’d been delivered to him in person.
“It’s a deportation notice,” he told her. “My visa’s been revoked.”
“How is that possible?” She studied the form. It made no sense.
“After my student visa expired, I applied for residence. Despite the fact my work permit from my previous visa hadn’t expired, they’re saying this-” He gestured a his cart and its delicious-smelling food. “- is illegal, and they’re deporting me for it.”
“That is bullshit!” She slammed the form back onto the cart. “What was this officer’s name? I’ll find him and sort it out.”
He shook his head. “I’ve already found a buyer for the cart. I’m going to go home, help dad with the farm. The money I’ve made here isn’t much, but…”
She took his hand, ignoring the people behind her. “Yuan, they don’t have to run you out like this. It isn’t right. We should fight this, together.”
“Even if we do, I’ll either be doing it from China or from jail. I’d like to hold on to my freedom, even if it means leaving a country supposedly founded on it, and you.”
Caroline felt tears coming to her eyes and tried to blink them away. He touched her face and smiled faintly.
“It’s a smaller world than you might think. I don’t think it can keep us apart for too long.”
She leaned into his touch, kissed his hand. “I’m going to miss you.”
“I’ll miss you too, Miss Weaver. Here’s your lo mein.”
She didn’t remember the trip back upstairs, nor leaving her lunch on her desk. The next thing she knew she was in her father’s office.
“This was your doing.”
“I don’t know what you mean.” He didn’t look at her. Six financial reports were on his wall of televisions at once. He said it kept his mind sharp.
“Yuan’s deportation. You had something to do with it.”
“People shouldn’t be here on expired permits and visas. If they can’t be bothered to renew their paperwork properly, they’ve got no place here.”
“His work permit’s fine, you just don’t like the fact that I’m interested in someone in a lower tax bracket from you!”
“I don’t like your tone, Caroline.”
“And I don’t like the way you try to control my life like it’s a game of chess or something! I’m your daughter, not a slave or a pawn!”
“You’re also the best employee I’ve got, and this is our busiest time of year. I need you completely on your game with no distractions. You can have all the girlish flings you want third quarter, just as long as I don’t have to see it by looking out my window.”
Caroline felt her hands curling into fists. She stared at her father as her nails bit into her palms. Finally, when she couldn’t think of anything constructive to say, she turned and walked out, returning to her office. She managed to make it through the rest of the work day and get herself home before she broke down into tears.
It was a dismal month that followed. The corner across the street from the office was soon occupied by a hot dog vendor, a large gentleman with hairy shoulders who tended to undercook the dogs. She tried to focus on her work, and as her productivity didn’t dip too far, her father either didn’t notice the way she dragged herself through her days, or simply didn’t care. Caroline suspected the latter.
Finally, after returning home from work, she found an envelope with internation postage on it waiting for her. She got into her apartment, tore off her coat, sat at her tiny kitchen table and clawed the envelope open.
I’ve never been all that good at writing things out. I try to deal with what’s in front of me and not live inside my head, in words and pictures. I’m sorry if that meant I came across as cold the last time I saw you. Leaving you tore me apart. I loved that little cart and I miss it, almost as much as I miss you.
We don’t have the Internet out here on the farm, as my father thinks it’s a superfluous expense. So I’ve taken to riding the train to the nearest library. Still, I have the credit card I got while I was in the States, and I used it to buy you a copy of this software that teaches you Chinese. The code for downloading it’s enclosed with this letter. I’ve also sent you a voucher for an airline ticket, which should bring you out here around our New Year’s celebration.
You’ve got six months to learn enough Chinese to not piss off my dad.
I’m kidding. I’m sure you’ll get along fine. Still, a few key Mandarin phrases won’t hurt. I’m sure your dad won’t be too happy with you skipping town on him, and I know your work is important to you. I’m not going to ask you to run away or anything like that. Just come see me, or at least write back.
I miss you more than words can say.
Sure enough, the envelope had a print-out with a download code and another with information on a cross-Pacific flight. She read and re-read the letter several times, and a plan began to take shape.
The exchange of letters between her and Yuan quickly became preoccupied with the particulars, as she practiced her writing of Chinese characters and he gently corrected her sentence structure. She saved all of her excitement and anticipation for after hours, ensuring her productivity remained at its usual high level. With her father pleased, he left her relatively alone. She worked her vacation request through the HR department like any other employee, knowing that her father tended to ignore the scheduling calendars of other people in his company as long as nothing they did interfered with his meetings. The Friday before she left, however, he knocked on her office door.
“A two-week vacation, and I’m only just now hearing about it?”
She didn’t look up from her paperwork. “I’m the top earner in the company three months running. I’ve earned some time off.”
“The HR calendar doesn’t say where you’re going.”
“I didn’t see how it was anybody’s business.”
“What if you’re going someplace dangerous?”
“You mean like five blocks from here? I’m not going to stay shut up in this office or my apartment because of a minority of ultra-violent whackjobs.”
“I see your point.” He lingered at the door, watching her work, before he disappeared. When he came back, he closed the door behind him and placed an envelope in front of her.
“I moved you up to first class.” He stood before her desk, his face inscrutable. “I won’t have you on a cross-ocean flight for hours on end cramped in a coach seat. My daughter deserves better.”
She looked at the envelope, then up at her father. “You know where I’m going, then?”
“Yes. And I know why.” He paused. “You’re right. You deserve your vacation, and the reason you’re taking it there is my fault. I was… I was scared.”
She blinked, breath caught in her throat. He tapped the envelope, not looking her in the eye.
“I know this won’t make up for what I did. But I had no right to take away something that made you happy just because I feared it getting in the way of business. I’m your boss, but I’m also your father. I can’t let one overwhelm the other.” The muscles in his jaw danced. “I know people say this company’s all I’ve got. But, really, Caroline… it’s you. You’re all I’ve got. And I’m scared of losing you.”
She took his hand. “You’ll never lose me, Dad. Not really. But I can’t always be here. Not when my heart is somewhere far away. I miss that little Chinese cart and the sweet guy behind it more than anything, and I’m sorry it took you this long to understand that.” She smiled at him. “Don’t be scared. I’m going to come back. But I need to see him. You understand that, don’t you?”
He nodded. “Take the time you need, be safe and come home. We’ll be waiting for you.”
She got up from her desk and hugged him. It was the first time they’d hugged in years. Phones rang elsewhere in the building. Emails poured into inboxes. The Weavers ignored them. For that moment, they weren’t co-workers anymore. They weren’t commodities traders. They were a family.
Two weeks later she was in China. Fireworks exploded in the streets. Paper dragons chased parades and lanters swung as people went hither and yon during the festivities. Yuan and Caroline walked hand in hand.
“I’m sorry my dad’s not in better health.” Yuan smiled a bit in spite of his mood. “It turns out I came home at just the right time. Getting into the groove of running the farm took longer than I thought it would, but we’re seeing better business than ever.”
“I’m glad something good came out of that. I was worried for you.”
“I know.” He squeezed her hand. “And your Mandarin sounds good. I know you’ll keep practicing when you go home.”
She leaned her head on his shoulder. “Let’s not talk about that yet. I know I have to, that it’ll be a long time before we make this work. If we ever do. For now… for now, I just want this.”
He nodded, and smiled. “Let me take you home, then, and make you some lo mein.”
Firecrackers popped nearby. Miss Weaver smiled at her cowherd. “I can’t wait.”
Continuing experiments in cross-pollination between old myths and newer storytelling genres. They didn’t have spaceships and ray guns in ancient Greece, after all.
As always, you can download the PDF or read the text after the spoiler tags. However you enjoy your fiction, this is how to do it.
Tranquility Base was a misleading name for the installation, at least on the date in question. After a great deal of communication between the Terran government and the Jovian military, a single vessel was authorized to cross the interplanetary void. It docked at Tranquility Base under the watchful remote visual links of the installation’s massive MAC batteries. The turrets turned back towards the infinite emptiness as the docking collar was secured and the ships’ passengers walked to their destination.
Rear Admiral Cyprus knew what to expect. He sat behind the carved mahogany desk, his hands resting on the blotter as he monitored the progress of his guests through the polished metal corridors. He reminded himself, as he often did, that this heirloom had required as much fuel to move from Terra to his office as a lightly-armed infiltration squad. He didn’t want to forget that some sacrifices were necessary while others were frivolous.
Next to him stood his adjutant, who kept an ear out for the trod of incoming boots which were somewhat muffled by the carpeted walkways. Their guest had a presence, however, and both men felt it when the doors parted to admit him and his handful of armed escorts.
“Welcome to Luna, General Minos,” Cyprus said cordially. “I trust your journey was a pleasant one?”
“Space travel is a tedious and uncomfortable experience.” Minos of Io was flanked by four of his personal guard, veteran soldiers, killers to a man. “Not to mention I have very little patience for Terrans in general and Terran Command in particular. The politicians and peaceniks may be interested in peace between us, but as far as I’m concerned the Jovian Colonies deserve to be treated as separate, sovereign worlds. But I’m not here to debate our independence. I’m looking for a scientist.”
“You’ve come to the right place. Tranquility Base is one of the Terran Confederacy’s premiere research stations. We have quite a few scientists here.”
“I’m looking for one in particular. Rather than dance around verbally, however, I have a means of discovering if he is here.” The general handed a small data card to the admiral. “Transmit the contents of this data card to your research staff. It contains an algorithm that, I am told, is unsolvable. It was being developed on Callisto before the abduction of the scientist in question, and we believe he might be able to solve it.”
Cyprus nodded, doing as the general asked. The admiral’s adjutant looked on as Cyprus sent the data to the terminals throughout Tranquility Base. Once the transmission was complete, the admiral leaned back to regard his Jovian counterpart.
“Why don’t you take a seat, General? This might take a while.”
“I suspect it won’t.” Minos stroked his mustache. Cyprus made a non-committal noise. Terran tracking stations had been observing Minos’ spacecraft as it made its way through the asteroid belt and stopped on the Martian moons. Both stops had seen the general storming into the commanding officer’s presence, make this same demand and leaving after all of the scientists and mathematicians at both installations had given up. Minos, however, was undeterred. Cyprus knew the Jovian would scour the surface of Terra if he had to.
A soft ping was heard from Cyprus’ terminal. He looked it over for a moment, and then turned the screen to face Minos. The equation staring back at the Jovian general made no sense to him, but the fact that it was a solution caused him to lean across Cyprus’ desk with a snarl.
“I want Professor Daedalus returned to Jovian custody at once.”
“Professor Daedalus is not a prisoner.” Cyprus’ fingers interlaced under his chin as his elbows rested on his blotter. “He is our guest, and if it is his wish to return to Callisto…”
“He was abducted!” Minos roared, pounding the desk with his fist. “An infiltration squad of Terran soldiers came to Callisto, using the storms and gravitational shadow of Jupiter to mask their presence. They navigated our corridors, kidnapped Professor Daedalus, stole or destroyed his research, and killed several of my men, including my base security chief, Colonel Talos. His presence here is all the proof I need. You will release him to my custody, and if you wish to prevent a full-scale interplanetary war, you will hand over the terrorists responsible for this cowardly act!”
Cyprus remained unmoved in expression. After a moment, he addressed his adjutant without looking away from the enraged Jovian.
“Lieutenant Commander Theseus, here, will take you to Daedalus. Commander, if you would.”
“Aye, sir,” Theseus replied, moving to the door. “This way, gentlemen.”
Minos was surprised, but hid his emotions behind his mustache. The Terrans were capitulating too easily. Something was going on that he didn’t like. Was he being deceived? Had they moved Daedalus to another location, or were they perhaps in the process of doing that now?
“You commanded the Taurus division,” Theseus observed as they walked, “which was involved in more exchanges during the war than any other unit on either side.”
“That’s true.” Minos tried to put his frustration and suspicion behind him. “They served with courage and honored us with their sacrifices.”
“I have no doubts about that,” said the younger man, guiding them through the brushed steel corridors, “but I have to wonder why the Martian colonies were so brutally handled. Most of the population there were civilians, and I hear the noxious weapons used on the crop domes fed into the air processors in a way that will take decades to clear up before new colonists can settle there.”
“Much of that is hyperbole and propaganda,” Minos said dismissively. “There were reports of Terran troops hiding among the civilian population. There were civilian casualties on Mars, yes, but the damage done to the fragile and fledgling eco-system was as much the fault of the cretins designing the processing plants as it was any Jovian action.”
Theseus nodded and changed the subject. “I can understand why you want Professor Daedalus returned. He’s been a real asset since his arrival, and has made several key changes to the installation.”
“You’ve been forcing him to work?”
“No, we haven’t. We don’t force people to do anything when they come to us willingly.”
The commander’s words made Minos stop in his tracks. Theseus turned. The Jovians were standing in an intersection of corridors, and when Theseus reached out and touched a spot on the wall, four heavy doors slammed down around them. Each door had a small, thick porthole in it, and Theseus was visible through one of them. There was the hissing sound of a pressure seal, and Minos’ men raised their weapons.
“Put those down!” Minos snapped. “You want to kill us with ricochets, you idiots? Burn us out!” One of his men fumbled with a backpack looking for his torch when a speaker snapped on.
“As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted,” Theseus said coldly into the handset he now held, “Daedalus has made some changes to our installation, such as these heavy blast doors that resist hard vacuum. He prepared them specifically for your arrival. He told us you’d be coming.”
“I’d save your breath, General. You haven’t got much time left. Do you have a message for your family? You see, I was never given the opportunity to send one to mine. They were colonists on Mars, who were slaughtered on your orders.”
Minos raised his chin. “How does this make you any better than me, Commander?”
Theseus stalked to the porthole, scowling at Minos. The general was taken aback. The man who had appeared as nothing more than a glorified secretary suddenly had a countenance appropriate to the blackest pages of human history, an absolute terror to behold.
“When I kill, Minos, I kill soldiers. I kill those fighting to kill me. I killed Talos because he was about to send me to my family by way of a poisoned dagger at my throat. As for the civilians on Callisto, not a single one was harmed and I doubt most were even aware of our presence. War is an ugly and brutal thing to behold, let alone participate in, and yet you brought it into people’s homes when you had no right. Children and pregnant mothers died choking on their own vomit because of you. Seven thousand souls, and you snuffed out every single one without having the courage to show your face.”
Minos tried to muster a defiant response, to salvage some sort of moral or pyrrhic victory from this. The guard trying to get his torch working finally lit the white hot flame.
“Take a good look at my face, Minos,” Theseus was saying. “This is the face of a murderer who looks his victim in the eye. It’s the last thing Talos saw. Now you two have that in common. Daedalus would tell you to give his regards to his son, but we both know you’re not going the same place he went.”
And with that, Theseus activated the chamber’s upper door. It opened to the blackness of space above Luna. Minos maintained eye contact with the younger man before he was pulled upwards into the void. Without pressure suits, all seven men were dead within minutes. Theseus turned away and adjusted the channel on his handset.
“Get a cleanup crew to junction DA-12, exterior. Have the bodies put back on the Jovian ship per Professor Daedalus’ instructions.”
He walked through the installation and down a flight of stairs, into the very bowels of Luna. He found his quarry sitting at a terminal in the corner of one of the workrooms, indistinguishable from the other desks. The man’s hair had grown along with his beard, but when he looked up his eyes shone with the intelligence and resolve Theseus had seen from the moment he’d found the physicist in the darkness of Minos’ base.
“It’s done,” Theseus said quietly. Daedalus sighed a bit, passing a hand over his eyes.
“My son can rest in peace. Are their bodies being put back on their ship?”
“Just as you asked. It happened just as you said, right down to him using that equation to determine you were here. How did you know he’d do that, by the way?”
“You can’t determine one human biorhythm from another unless you get very close. Using a negrav ship for our escape masked our trail, and he had little else to go on after I deleted my files & backups and you trashed the servers.”
“So why this equation in particular? What is it, exactly?”
“It’s a small program I put into long equation form. A bit of a cypher, really. It expresses the intent and procedure of the program mathematically, like using an encryption key to make a simple text message appear as random characters. I never did get to finish the equation version of the program, however, and without my files…”
“You brought some with you, didn’t you? I mean you’ve been working on a new negrav design…”
“Yes, my boy, but I didn’t save any information on this program. I couldn’t. I didn’t want Minos to have any idea what was in store for him. But now that the equation is complete, I can tease it out into a programming format and use it for its intended purpose. Instead of him going to war to get me back, he used the equation to track me down, when all the while I’ve been here waiting for him. The program he unwittingly helped complete will cause his ship to have an accident on the way back to Callisto. The accident will occur after he reports, in his own voice, that I have been retrieved without incident.”
“I’m sure the Jovians will cry sabotage.”
“They might, they might indeed. But I hope you and I will be far enough from this place that it won’t matter. You mentioned my new design, Theseus, and I’m curious as to your input.”
The physicist called up a schematic of his design, and it sprang to life above the desk, floating in midair, rotating slowly to allow Theseus to take in every angle. He was speechless, and Daedalus smiled for the first time since before his son left Callisto for the last time.
“I’m glad you like it, Commander. I call it the Argo.”
Sean Bean as Ned Stark. Do Want.
I totally forgot to write up a formal review of A Game of Thrones when I finished it. Olympic-league slacking on my part. I’m now two books into George R.R. Martin’s excellent doorstopper series A Song of Ice and Fire. I’m frothing at the mouth for the third. Let me tell you why.
Lots and Lots of Great, Deep Characters
From every corner of this well-constructed well-researched world come characters of all shapes and sizes. From kings to servants, knights to whores, advisors to savages, GRRM brings them all to life. Even characters mentioned merely in passing are given enough weight to feel real to the reader. When a character with a particular name or carrying a certain banner appears, we have a basic idea on who this person is, who they represent and how they go about their business. For the most part, that is…
Clever PoV Shifts
GRRM not only gives us a diverse and nuanced cast, but shifts the point of view with every chapter. Every shift brings not only a fresh perspective on events unfolding in the narrative, but insight into the characters. It’s particularly interesting when the shift comes from an established protagonist to someone considered to be a minor character or even an antagonist. The more time we spend with a character, the more we observe changes happening both around them and within them. Characters we liked can turn sour, characters we loathe earn our respect and loyalty, and the occasional “jump-cut” change in perspective can leave us howling for more.
Subtle Magic and Sublime Majesty
The world of A Song of Ice and Fire is not devoid of magic. However, it’s not a prevalent thing. A bit like the magic in Middle-Earth, you won’t see lightning bolts flying around or dragons clogging the skies. Even moreso than Tolkien’s world, the magic is subtle, and there’s not even a magical evil kingdom to speak of. The difference between Mordor and the lands north of the Wall are night and day. Everybody in Middle-Earth knows that Mordor is place drenched in black magic. Most people don’t know what exactly waits beyond the Wall. There are stories, nothing more.
Written For Adults
Creating fiction for ‘mature’ audiences means, to some, lots of cursing, sex and violence. While GRRM doesn’t shy away from profanity, he reserves a great deal of his more vulgar language for precise moments. His sex scenes are, for the most part, presented with the correct atmosphere – intimate love scenes feel intimate, more jarring scenes come out of nowhere, etc. And the violence, while visceral and detailed, never feels like a spectacle. The characters involved in the fighting, by virtue of being so deeply and completely drawn, are people we care about and we want to see them prevail, or at least survive. On the other hand there are characters we can’t wait to see split open like ripe melons by someone’s over-eager sword.
No hyperbole or anything here – just the first chapter of a manuscript, for your reading pleasure, free of charge. Download the PDF here.
Asherian rifled through his satchel for what seemed like the hundredth time. The tonics and salves stuffed therein were still in order. They were his own creations, carefully prepared for the widely and highly-anticipated class trip. He sorted through his belongings as he approached the Conveyance. Most of the other apprentices had already found their seats among the various cushions. Alchemists didn’t often begin working with Conveyances until their twentieth year, and Asherian had just celebrated his eighteenth. This was a chance for him to see one in action up close, and he wasn’t about to miss it.
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“If you’ve forgotten anything,” Tahri said, “it’s too late to go back now.”
“A good alchemist always knows what’s in his satchel,” Asherian replied, still rummaging through the jars. “Even if he’s just taking a stroll around a corner.”
“I thought we necromancers were supposed to be the paranoid ones.” Brynn brushed the dark hair out of his eyes. He smiled at Asherian’s rummaging. “Alchemists are seen as useful to the Cities, with their transmutations and concoctions. On the other hand, we make people angry when we poke around old crypts and open up dead bodies. We’re tragically misunderstood.”
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“Maybe if your Elder associated more freely with the others, you wouldn’t have such a shady reputation.” Tahri shrugged.
“My father sees Jekel on a regular basis.” Asherian sighed and closed his satchel. “It’s not like he does nothing but sit brooding in the shadows, probing the bones of long-dead Citizens for their secrets.” He didn’t add that seeing Jekel, the gaunt Elder of Tel-Uzgul, had made Asherian’s skin crawl every time they’d met. Some nights, Jekel’s grinning-skull smile crept into his dreams.
Brynn smirked. “Not every night. Just on the weekends.”
Tahri rolled her eyes. “And you wonder why we consider you necros creeps. Asherian’s father makes it a point to be seen every day, in the streets or shops. Like a good Elder should.”
“I prefer the shops in Tel-Enaris.” Vineera didn’t look up from her nails. She had been showing Tahri how show she could create a small illusion that changed their color based on her mood. As she studied them, they slowly faded from light blue to green. “They’re closer to the surface, so their goods are much more fresh than what’s available up here. The food is practically straight out of the soil. Up here it’s all finished products, but in Tel-Enaris, you get the raw ingredients, the real thing.”
“That’s not all you’ll get in Tel-Enaris.” Brynn leered at the women.
Vineera glared at him, her nails quickly turning red. Asherian shook his head and pulled his journal out of his satchel. Soon enough, Instructor Yilid would arrive to get them moving on the field trip, and he wanted to glance over his notes on Gravity Wards before they were in the air. He wouldn’t be able to read and watch the Instructor or Wards in action at the same time, after all.
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Eyomic approached, having risen from where he’d sat by himself. Asherian rolled his eyes and tried to lose himself in his notes before Eyomic could pull him and every apprentice in earshot into an unwanted discussion on rules and behavior.
“Oh, great, the Guardian’s here.” Brynn scowled and spread his arms wide in the manner of a crier, bellowing as if reciting an epic tale of old. “Fear his mighty sword, especially ye necromancers, who violate the Codex just by breathing!”
“He’s not a Guardian yet. We’re all just apprentices.” As soon as he spoke, Asherian silently cursed himself. The last thing he wanted to do when Brynn and Eyomic got into it was draw attention to himself.
“Apprentice or no, each of us should already do our utmost to uphold the Codex.” Eyomic looked from one face to another amongst his classmates. “And one thing the Codex calls upon us to do is respect one anothers areas of study as well as our privacy.”
“Tell that to the seers.” Brynns characteristic grin didnt waver. “They might be peering into your dreams, after all. Or watching you while you bathe!”
“The seers that do are punished.” Vineera looked up at the apprentice Guardian. In spite of her defensive tone, her nails had shifted to a dark green. “Didn’t a few of them get exiled just last week?”
“Indeed.” Eyomic seemed quite pleased to discuss the dispensation of the Cities justice. “The seers had been looking into the dreams of some Counselors, trying to gain information on the latest debate on non-Citizen rights. They were interested in influencing the upcoming vote on an amendment to the Codex that would allow non-Citizens more reign within the Cities. For this indiscretion, they were tried and exiled. The vote is expected to take place today, and in light of this, I doubt non-Citizens will have their expanded rights any time soon.”
Tahri shuddered at the mention of exile. Brynn was undeterred.
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“That’s propaganda. They probably just lost control of themselves when they were in Tel-Enaris being… intimate.” He waggled his eyebrows at Vineera, whose nails again turned crimson.
“I suggest you mind your tone, Brynn.” Eyomic crossed his arms. He might have known the Codex better than anyone and handled abjuration well, but neither of those facts excused his behavior as the pinnacle of the class’s behavior.
“It’s Yilid’s job to discipline him, not yours.” Asherian still wasnt sure why he was bothering with getting involved. These two were like oil and water, and no alchemy he knew would get them to mix properly, let alone see eye to eye or even share in a joke.
“You’re the son of an Elder Councilor,” Eyomic said. “Doesn’t even the implied insult towards a fellow Citizen, and a lady at that, bother you in the slightest?”
“So Brynn’s a jerk,” Tahri said. “Ash is right, it isn’t your place to lay down the law.”
“The children of the Elders are on my side!” Brynn crowed.
“That doesn’t make you any less of a jerk,” Vineera replied. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with my City. We have our fun, to be certain, but it’s for the good of all Citizens, not just for our own pleasures.”
“That’s true. Ash’s sister is often seen at Doran ven Tel-Enaris’ grand balls.” Tahri sat back against her cushion with a smile, likely recalling such a ball.
“My Elder does throw fantastic parties,” Vineera agreed. “And Elienah’s a delight.”
“That she is.” Asherian paused. “You can’t ever tell when she’s going to have one of her visions, though. Then again, maybe that’s what makes her such an attraction at parties.”
“You sure it’s not the way she looks?” Brynn leered. “Those long honey locks, bright blue eyes, nice big-”
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“I’ll thank you to stop right there,” Asherian stated.
“And here I thought it was the Instructor’s place to lay down the law,” Brynn persisted.
“That was before you started talking about my twin.” Asherian didn’t look away from Brynn, trying to hide his anxiety. Next time, Ash, keep your nose in your damn books.
“Let’s not come to blows, you two.” Eyomic looked from Brynn to Asherian and back again. “I don’t want Yilid to hold up the trip because you decide to have a scuffle on or near the Conveyance.”
“Who do you think would win?” Vineera tapped her chin. “My money’s on Brynn. I bet he fights dirty.”
Tahri looked them both over. “Asherian’s the more capable apprentice, and I’ve seen his staff forms. He isn’t bad. He’d have reach over Brynn, who just has his rod.”
“I’ll have you know I practice with my rod every night.” Brynn realized hed walked into a trap as Vineera gave a light chuckle.
“Oh, I’m sure you do.” Tahri grinned and looked to Vineera. The girls dissolved into giggles as Brynn’s face turned red. Asherian gratefully returned his attention to his journal. He flipped past his notes from the last several months of study, and the diagrams and circles related to the project on which he’d been working with Tahri’s elder brother, finding an open page to begin sketching the Conveyance. Tahri looked over his shoulder at his sketch.
“It’s actually shaped more like a teardrop, not quite that round.”
“I’m more concerned about the Gravity Wards than the actual hull configuration.”
“I’ve seen you sketch Gravity Wards before, though. In miniature,” Tahri added after a moment. “Are they really going to be so different on a Conveyance?”
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Asherian looked up from his sketch. Apprentices milled around the courtyard, some unwilling to step onto the Conveyance and claim a cushion. The long alabaster spires of Tel-Urad stretched into the morning sky around them, sunlight playing on the stained glass windows. A small Conveyance floated by, an alchemist standing in its center with two non-Citizens on either side carrying large crates. Asherian pointed with his pen towards the passing platform.
“The sigils along the outer rim of the circle are more numerous” He flipped back in his journal to show her an earlier sketch, showing several small Gravity Wards lined up. “In a miniaturized form, there doesn’t need to be that much detail. A Gravity Ward of this size isn’t going to be moving people or cargo, but something rather small instead.”
“Like what?” Tahri asked, her hands still on Asherian’s shoulders as she watched his face.
Asherian paused, looking back at her. In his zeal to explain the intensity of his study, he’d forgotten how sensitive some of his material was. There was also the fact that Tahri’s eyes had an intensity to them, a glimmer he didn’t see unless she was looking at him.
“Messages, maybe.” Asherian decided to let her in at least a bit. “It’s something your brother and I have been working on.”
“He’s mentioned that, in the few moments I’ve seen him. To be honest, I don’t think any of us were expecting him to become an Elder so soon after our father’s death.”
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“He was a good man,” Asherian said, resting his hand on hers. “My father misses him.”
“Thank you.” Tahri smiled at him. There was a moment of loaded silence between them, and Tahri seemed about to say or do something when the bellowing voice of their instructor broke the moment as he approached the class.
“Onto the Conveyance, pupils. Today I am taking you into the Wilds.”
A slight ring of white hair framed the balding pate of the instructor, who continued giving commands as he shepherded his charges onto the Conveyance. Finally, once the apprentices were aboard and situated on the lush cushions strewn about the platform, Yilid raised his staff. The Gravity Wards on the bottom of the Conveyance came to life in response, emitting a blue glow as they lifted the vehicle and its passengers into the air. In short order, they flew out from the Cities of Light. Asherian turned to see his home and those of his classmates from a new perspective.
The Celestial Spire formed the focal point of the Cities’ slow orbits, a staggeringly tall obelisk of Magistone raised by Justinian at the conclusion of the Exodus five generations prior. The Cities, their Gravity Wards even more intricate and wide than those on Conveyances, looked strikingly similar from below, like six nearly identical circular platforms rather than six distinct and proud bastions of arcane might.
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The lowest City, Tel-Yzgoth, remained visible in the late morning sun rather than disappearing from sight or appearing as a cloud. Asherian knew that the City’s Elder, Zareena, liked to make her City disappear from time to time so that the City of the Dead, Tel-Uzgul, would appear to be the lowest of them. From what his father had told him, she thought it was hilarious.
The Conveyance moved swiftly over the fields below the Cities of Light, coming closer to the surface. Ponderous beasts of burden worked the fields at the direction of their non-Citizen masters, who waved at the Conveyance as it flew by. The class was guided over the shimmering blue water of the reservoir, which provided clean water for all behind the Magistone Wall, which was the final barrier between the territory claimed by Justinian and the savagery of the Wilds.
There was no hesitation or warning from Yilid as he piloted the Conveyance with his will, sailing them over the Wall. There were few Guardians walking its ramparts, but they too waved to the Conveyance. Eyomic waved back vigorously while Brynn sat against his cushion shaking his head.
“You won’t get into the Guardians any faster by kissing their asses.”
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“I was being polite.” Eyomic sat back and crossed his arms. “They waved, so I waved back.”
“They waved,” Vineera agreed, “but you were making a fool of yourself.”
“Don’t women from Tel-Enaris make fools of themselves on a regular basis?” Eyomic bit back.
“We have our fun, as I said,” Vineera replied smoothly, “and if you made a fool of yourself with us on occasion you might not be so uptight. Besides, I thought making disparaging remarks against a fellow Apprentice was offensive.”
“That was not-”
“Pupils, your attention please,” Yilid said, ending the argument. “Coming into the Wilds, as we are, it would behoove each and every one of us to be on our guard. This is an untamed land, anathema to our kind. Everything beyond the Wall is dangerous to us and should be feared.”
“Is it true that we have no means to control the spell-eaters?”
“In a sense, Tahri, that is correct. The necromancers of Tel-Uzgul and abjurers of Tel-Oron collaborated to create an autonomous force in the Wilds to seek those who might grow too powerful or vengeful against the cities that cast them out. After all, some might consider exile as a punishment for some of the less severe violations of the Codex a bit too exacting. However, those are the laws that were established by Justinian. Break the law, face exile.”
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“And consider yourself lucky if your magic and soul stay intact.”
“True enough, Eyomic. Excision can be used as a supplement to exile, or sometimes as a replacement should mitigating circumstances prevail.” Yilid regarded his pupils. “But the question was not about those exiled from the Cities, but rather the means of controlling them. The spell-eaters, since their creation, have been a subject of much debate. The Guardians claim the creatures are too vicious, and the necromancers say they arent effective enough since they are incapable of breeding, so they cant increase their own numbers. That, Tahri, is the one method of control we have over them the denial of procreation.”
Tahri nodded. Asherian looked up from his notes and sketches, pausing in his recording of Yilids movements and whispered arcane commands. Tahri was as attentive as she always was in class, a trait Asherian had admired in her since Cahrn, her brother and his colleague, had introduced them during one of Asherians many visits to Tel-Arae in pursuit of his work.
“Instructor, is it true that other sapient beings used to live in and around the Wilds?” Vineeras nails were a deep blue as she hugged her knees close to her body, her full attention on Yilid.
“Those are the myths. Stories tell of the old races, elves and dwarves. Given the nature of the Wilds and how much it has grown since the Exodus, it is doubtful such creatures still exist. If they did, however, it would fall to us as Citizens to ensure our Cities are protected and the will of the Council of Elders is allowed to govern. We have been gifted with magic, after all, a blessing denied to others. It is our duty to weild such power in the interest of our freedom and maintain the peace in Acradea.”
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Asherian returned to sketching and taking notes in his journal. He jotted down observations on the movements Yilid made and the way the Conveyance responded. The instructor fielded more questions about the Wilds, the possibility of exiles finding ways to survive and how the Cities would respond if the exiles were to rise up. Yilid was flatly denying any such possibility when the Conveyance bucked violently, the instructor taking his staff in both hands to maintain control of the craft.
Large simian creatures, visible in the lush canopy of the Wilds, were howling and throwing boulders at the Conveyance. Each had two sets of arms, and most clung to trees with their lower set of appendages while hurling rocks or beating their chests with the others. They had white fur on most of their bodies, and their open yowling mouths revealed long and sharp incisors that could pierce the tough skin of a captured citrus fruit as easily as they could a human jugular vein.
Asherian got to his feet, looking back towards the Cities of Light. He could barely make them out, the Celetial Spire a white line against the light blue of the sky. He turned back to his instructor as he studied the creatures hurling boulders at them.
“I take it those are not spell-eaters.”
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“Not even close, Asherian. These are called gondrills. They are no serious threat to us, but pay attention, pupils!” He turned his attention to the gondrills wih a sneer. “Poor pathetic wretches.” He raised his staff, uttered an incantation and pointed with his free hand. One of the circles on his staff began to glow, and a mirror image came to life on the surface of the tree. Its bark burst into flame as the alchemy transmuted it violently, causing the gondrills to shriek in surprise and release the tree, some trying to beat out the fires that spread across their furry arms, while others plummeted to their deaths in the darkness of the forest below.
The fire consuming the foliage of the tree began to spread to others, but Yilid seemed in no hurry to douse the flames. Other apprentices got to their feet, rattling off evocations or conjurations to attack the simians. In short order the gondrills had either fallen or swung out of sight, the last one looked pleadingly towards the Conveyance before the branch in its grip turned to air with a popping sound. The class broke out in cheers, applauding their Instructor, who turned and bowed grandly as if he’d just put on a show for their amusement.
“You will see, young apprentices,” he declared triumphantly, “that nothing that dwells in the Wilds, be it creature, criminal or even spell-eater, is a match for-”
His declaration was cut short and the staff slid away from his hands. Turning, he looked to Asherian, who felt his heart drop into his gullet as he saw the fletching of an arrow protruding from Yilid’s throat, the metal tip having missed his spine but dripping with pinkish blood. Gurgling in wet futility, Yilid dropped to the smooth floor of the Conveyance, which began to plummet.
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The other apprentices screamed and grabbed for handholds, which were hard to come by in the open-air vessel. Asherian kept hold of his staff, reaching out with his will to regain control of the craft. The sketches he’d been making came to his mind, and he focused on the lines and sigils of the Wards, which responded to his need. The Conveyance righted itself and, for a moment, Asherian felt a surge of hope.
Feeling the eyes of the other apprentices on him, Asherian pointed the Conveyance south, towards Tel-Urad, towards home. The sound of a gondrill crying out caused the hope to drain from Asherian, as the few remaining and wounded simians re-emerged to renew their assault. Some of the apprentices responded in kind, throwing bolts of lightning and conjured lances at the creatures.
Asherian saw a boulder hurtling towards him out of the corner of his eye, but refused to break his concentration until the last moment. He ducked, the hard surface of the stone making contact with the back of his skull in a glancing blow instead of braining him. The impact caused him to swoon, tipping him over the side of the Conveyance. The last sensation he had before the blackness closed over him was the renewed screaming of his doomed classmates.
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Pain is what roused Asherian. Pain and the taste of blood in his mouth. Slowly, he opened his eyes, finding himself looking up at the verdant canopy of the Wilds. He was surrounded by birdsong. Asherian was used to hearing birds singing; many people in the Cities kept them for their voices. But never before had he heard them in such great number. It was unnerving.
The birds and some small mammals moved between the trees, unaware or perhaps uncaring of his presence beneath them. Something was missing from the jungle’s symphony. As Asherian tried to take stock of his situation, he tried to figure out what. He winced as he sat up, feeling his left ankle throbbing in pain in tandem with the back of his head. It occurred to him, then, in the wake of that small vocal sound he made: nobody else was making sounds. There were no other human sounds around him. No moans, no cries for help, no other coughs or wheezes, nothing.
His staff lay nearby, miraculously unbroken. He picked it up and got slowly to his feet, leaning heavily on the staff since his left ankle wouldn’t bear his weight. Thinking through the fog of pain in his head, Asherian looked around, taking stock of the situation. The Conveyance lay snapped in twain, half tangled in the trees far above his head and half buried in the ground. His classmates were strewn like broken dolls amid their scattered belongings, eyes blank. Yilid dangled not far from Asherian, his robes caught on a branch; the arrow that had slain him was clearly visible where it had split his neck.
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Asherian looked into his satchel and groaned softly, as he saw that most of the contents of it had been spilled in his fall. All of his preparation had been for naught. The totality of his failure consumed him. He looked around at his feet, seeking unbroken containers. He had to focus on the goal of gathering up anything that could help him, rather than things beyond his control. His journal was the only thing that had stayed in his satchel. He finally saw a small unbroken container, a fine item of cut glass his sister had given him that morning. It wasn’t much and the water that had been inside it was long gone, but it was a start.
While most of the herbs and raw ingredients hed used had come from market stalls and not the plants or other sources from which theyd been harvested in the tracts of land below the Cities, he knew enough to spot leaves, flowers and other indications of where he could find what hed need. But the tools required to refine raw materials into alchemical tonics and poultices, as well as the means to contain them, were less likely to be scavenged from places untouched by man. After a few minutes of searching the satchels of his dead classmates, Asherian came across a mortar and pestle which somehow had fared better in the crash than their owner. Relieved at this fortunate turn of events, he continued searching until he found a few containers that were unbroken and emptied them of their contents when he found them to be full of cologne or spirits.
He was bending to pick up one such container when he froze, a low growl coming from the trees behind him. It didn’t sound like a gondrill or any of the smaller animals; it sounded far too large. He spotted a large rock nearby and was about to hobble to it when the apprentice at his feet touched his wrist. Startled, Asherian fell, finding himself looking down at the blood-stained face of Tahri. She struggled to reach for him, her breath a very quiet and very wet sound. She opened her mouth to speak but no sound came from her lips, only blood.
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Asherian covered his mouth in horror. Tahri still moved, trying to touch him. The growl was louder, now, and the underbrush at the far side of the clearing rustled. The girl spat out a mouthful of blood, but she had so little strength that it merely rolled down her chin. Asherian scrambled to get away, and a sound more terrifying than the growl came to him as he hobbled for the rock.
“No…” Tahri whispered. “Please… don’t leave me.”
Asherian threw himself behind the rock, clutching his staff and satchel of scavenged goods to his chest. He dreaded breathing too loudly, and had to clamp his mouth shut once again. The underbrush that had rustled now snapped under the weight of something pushing through it. Ash took a deep breath and dared to turn his head to glance around the side of his hiding place, and rapidly ducked back, regretting his daring and having to hold down a new surge of terror.
The long, serpentine horror slithered into the clearing, drawn by the scent of dead Citizens. Its four blood-red eyes scanned the bounty, falling on Tahri. Its arms reached from under the scaly hood for her. With a hiss of pleasure, it sank its razor-sharp teeth into her body, the girl unable to make a sound above an agonized whimper as it began its gluttonous feast. Asherian closed his eyes tight, stifling his sobs as in the midst of the sounds of the spell-eater devouring her, he could have sworn he heard her whispering his name.
cc Joshua Loomis 2010-2011. Some rights reserved.
It’s been a long, long year.
I’ve maintained a schedule for most of that year, with posts every day and Netflix every Friday. I want to move the thing forward to its next logical step, but that requires time and energy. Most of the last couple weeks, I haven’t had the time. Today? I just don’t have the energy.
I’m taking a break here, guys. Not a long one, not more than a couple days. Just stepping away from pushing myself to hit these deadlines as much as I have. I’m not quitting, and I still have big plans for the new year, I just need to throttle back a bit for the next, say, 48 hours or so.
So, no ICFN this week. New fiction tomorrow will be available in the post at first, and I’ll update the Free Fiction page when my moritorium on blogging ends.
I hope everybody has a safe & happy New Year celebration, and I’ll see you on the other side.
I was admittedly a little surprised when I saw how well Greek myth and tragedy translated into non-Greek settings like science fiction. I wanted to try and experiment with other mixes, taking classic stories and putting them in different genres.
Norse myth and Westerns felt like the next logical attempt.
The Eddas are full of manliness, with epic tales of heroes facing down monsters and often paying a dear price for being who and what they are. And many Old West tales bring us images of stalwart, stoic men standing in dusty roads, eyes narrowed at an opponent, unwilling to back down even if it means a bullet for their trouble.
It felt, to me, like a match made in Asgard, and the result is The Drifter’s Hand.
You can read the text below, or download the PDF here. Either way, read, comment & enjoy.
For a good portion of the late 1800s, the Arizona boom-town Midgard was every bit as prosperous and populous as her sisters. She never quite grew to the proportions of Tombstone, though, and as the new century approached she began to shrink. There was talk of the railroad going through or near the town, but local lawlessness kept the Santa Fe people from really committing to any sort of construction.
The stranger approached Midgard on a strong but tired horse, his hat half-tipped over his eyes, his beard disheveled and lips cracked from the road. His boots were caked with mud and his duster had more than a couple holes in it, some natural wear and tear while others clearly indicated the paths of past bullets. He seemed heedless of the looks he was getting from Midgard’s locals as he rode into town, his horse unerringly heading for the nearest trough of fresh water.
As soon as his steed was positioned to wash away some of the dust from the road, the stranger swung down from the saddle, tying the horse to the nearby hitch. Removing one of his gloves, the man bent to the trough and drank some of the water himself. Flicking some droplets away from his beard, he turned and headed in the direction of the saloon.
His spurs tapped against the wooden floor. The mid-afternoon crowd in the saloon barely numbered a dozen, roughly half of them at or near the Faro table in the corner. The man behind the cards, a well-groomed gent with a dark waistcoat and thin mustache, glanced up at the stranger before declaring the player to his right the winner. The stranger removed his hat and approached the barkeep.
“I’d like a room, if one’s available.”
“Ain’t seen you ’round here before,” the barman observed as he placed a shot glass on the bar and produced a bottle whiskey. Seeing it, the stranger nodded. “You just passin’ through?”
“I’ve been on the road quite a while. Not sure if my last stop’ll be Tombstone or further west.”
The barman nodded, pouring the drink. “Well, there’s a room available for the night, if you want it. Ten dollars to occupy it, and that entitles you to breakfast in the mornin’.”
“Sounds like a good deal.” The stranger was rummaging under his duster for his money when the saloon doors swung open again, permitting a stocky man in a widebrimmed hat to enter. The sash around his waist, the band at his arm and the kerchief tied around his neck were all the same color, the red of blood pumping from a gaping wound.
“Oh, horseshit.” The color drained from the barman’s face.
“It’s Tuesday, Dwight,” the newcomer bellowed. “Fenris wants their money.”
“I don’t have it all.” The man behind the bar, his hand shaking, produced a modest iron box with a handle. He opened it and pulled out a small wad of bills. “The rooms ain’t been full all week and not many people been stoppin’ by…”
“Stuff it.” The newcomer snatched the money from the shaking hand offered to him, and quickly counted it. “This is all? What about that city slicker in the corner?”
At mention of the corner, the crowd around the Faro table scattered. The man who’d been dealing raised his eyebrows at them.
“Looks like he just lost most of his profit,” he observed, not looking at the newcomer. “I already paid Dwight for this week.”
The newcomer slammed a fist into the table in frustration and grabbed Dwight by the lapels. “I oughta break your face. You holdin’ out on Fenris? You know that ain’t smart.”
“I’m sorry! I’ll have it tomorrow!”
“Tomorrow is when Fenris comes through here and burns this stinkin’ waterin’ hole to the ground!”
The sound of a gun being cocked echoed through the saloon. The newcomer’s eyes slid to his right, towards the barrel pressed to his temple. The stranger set down the shot glass with his right hand, the left occupied with gripping the Colt Peacemaker.
“I think now’s a good time to leave,” he told the newcomer.
“You lost your marbles, stranger? This ain’t your concern.”
“I plan on sleeping here. If you and whomever this Fenris guy is plan on burning the place down while I’m sleeping in it, I’d say that damn well makes it my concern.”
“Fenris ain’t one guy. Fenris is a force of nature! It’ll sweep through this town like a plague outta the Bible!”
“Well, you can tell Lucifer all about it when I send you to meet him. Which’ll be in 5 seconds if you don’t haul ass.”
The newcomer’s face slackened, his eyes flicking between the hard countenance of the stranger and Dwight’s disbelieving expression. At the fourth second, he swallowed. “This ain’t over.” He backed away from the gun, and then shook a fist at Dwight. “This ain’t over!”
“It is for now,” the stranger said. “Disappear.”
He did. Dwight poured the stranger another whiskey.
“Nobody’s stood up to a Fenris man for months. You must really not be from around here.”
The stranger knocked back the shot. “Mind telling me who or what Fenris is?”
“Wolves of Arizona.” The voice came from the man behind the Faro table, who stood and walked over to join the stranger at the bar. “Thieves, bank robbers, kidnappers and murders. Just the worst sort of cowboy. Most of ‘em just wear the red sashes. Fenris folk go the extra mile with those red kerchiefs and armbands of theirs.”
“Heard most of the cowboys were down near Tombstone.”
“So they are, stranger, so they are. One for me too, Dwight.”
“Right away, Mr. Frey.” Dwight produced a second glass, cleaning it quickly to pour the dealer his whiskey.
“Needless to say,” Frey went on, “you’ve made yourself an enemy, and one that won’t easily be placated, Mister…”
“Tyr. Jim Tyr.”
“Pleased, Mr. Tyr. Arthur Frey, at your service.”
“You can just call me Jim. Mr. Tyr’s my father.”
“In that case, Jim, why don’t you call me Art?”
“So why are we playing poker now, instead of Faro?”
Art shrugged. “I like changing the game. I call.”
Jim rubbed his trimmed beard and considered his hand. Three threes wasn’t a strong one but it wasn’t bad, either. He didn’t fold. The locals at the table did. Art turned his cards over, showing a straight. Jim leaned back and gestured to the pot.
Art smiled a bit and raked in the winnings as Jim turned back to his supper. Dwight had waived the fee for his room earlier, and after coming back from a bath and shave, Jim had found a plate of warm food waiting for him, also courtesy of the barkeep.
“I hear you ran off one of the Fenris boys.”
Jim stopped in the middle of slicing a bit of chicken with a dull knife.
“He was hassling Dwight and threatening to burn the place down. I’m sleeping here tonight. Didn’t want to wake up on fire.”
“An understandable concern, stranger, but most folk around here don’t want to piss off the Wolf.”
Jim looked up. The man standing over him wore a dark patch over his left eye and the star of a United States Marshall.
“They aren’t afraid of you, I take it?”
“They know I can’t be everywhere at once. And when I’m gone they think it’s fun to shoot my deputies. Always have plenty of witnesses to say it was self-defense or some such, though. Everybody’s afraid of ‘em. They, on the other hand, don’t seem to be afraid of anything.”
“They should be. Every man’s got the same blood, same skin, same tendency to die when shot or stabbed.”
“Now there’s a pitch-black observation.” The Marshall leaned on the bar. “Where are you from anyhow, Mr. Tyr?”
Jim bristled. “Back East. Grew up around Arlington.”
“You fight in the war?”
He looked at the Marshall. “Yeah. Did you?”
Before the Marshall could answer, the doors of the saloon burst open. Three men walked in, all wearing the red of Fenris. Dwight ducked behind the bar and the music stopped.
“Odin! Where is he?”
The Marshall turned. “Right here next to me, Luke Hundr. And you ain’t taking him tonight.”
Luke stalked towards the table, his two cronies in tow. Art made a move to stand, but Jim shook his head. He stepped away from the others and hooked his thumbs in his gun belt.
“You looking for me?”
Luke scowled. “Hear you pulled a gun on my man Butch.”
“Butch was shaking down Dwight for money he didn’t have. He threatened to burn the place down. Since I’m sleeping here, I asked him not to.”
“You’ve got it wrong, stranger. Butch wasn’t going to do a thing on his own. WE will burn this place down. We put up the money for Dwight to open this little establishment, and if we want to burn it down since he can’t pay us, we’ll do just that.”
“Not in city limits,” Odin said. “You got a permit for this land, Luke? if so, you’ll want to evict Dwight and foreclose.”
Luke waved a hand dismissively. “That takes too long. I want my money or my land. If I can’t have one I’ll take the other.” He smirked at Odin. “And I know you got a hangin’ to be at tomorrow, Marshall. Got that nasty murderer Surtur locked up an’ ready to swing. Wouldn’t want to miss that, would you? Been chasing him, what, ten years?”
Odin’s eye narrowed and his mustache curled around his face in a frown. Luke looked past the Marshall at Jim.
“Tomorrow, you meet me out in the street or I burn this place down with you in it. Got it?”
Jim crossed his arms. “So you and all of your boys can shoot me at once? I didn’t fall off the stage yesterday.”
“It’ll just be you an’ me. We’ll settle this.” Luke smiled unpleasantly and tipped his hat to Odin. “Have a nice trip, Marshall.”
The Fenris men left in short order. Jim rubbed the bridge of his nose.
“Regretting pulling that gun on Butch?”
“I don’t do regret, Marshall. I take it he’s met men in the street before?”
“Many a time. Like I said, always plenty of witnesses saying the deputy or other poor sod drew down first. They say Luke’s got a sense for traps. Any time more than a couple of my men have been waiting for him to show, he doesn’t.”
“And I gather Luke won’t be showing up alone.”
“Probably not.” Odin patted him on the arm. “Nobody’ll think the less of you if you’re gone before dawn.”
“And leave them to burn Dwight’s place down? No way, Marshall. I’m not letting a mongrel like that run me out of town, and Dwight’s place is better standing and unscorched.”
“I have to agree.” Art Frey had resumed shuffling the cards, but wasn’t paying much attention to them. His eyes were on the men discussing the showdown. Music was playing again and people were going about their business. “This is our town, Marshall. It doesn’t belong to Fenris.”
“Art Frey, you ought to be ashamed of yourself.” Odin looked the gambler over with his good eye. “Siting here behind your cards for months not doing a damn thing about these hooligans. Why now?”
“They never threatened Dwight like this before. It’s be a very lean time. He hasn’t had lodgers, nor I many punters. Dwight and I got a good partnership going. I don’t want to see it end in flames.”
“Do you even own a gun?”
“Matter of fact, I do. Damn peculiar Henry rifle. Most people find it’s too heavy in the barrel or the stock, but if you know her balance and how to use it, the damn thing very nearly aims itself.”
Odin looked back to Tyr, who shrugged. The marshall then ordered three whiskeys, drank with the men and replaced his hat.
“I need to see to Surtur’s transportation. We’ll be gone before dawn. I wish I could delay but the judge is eager to put this on in the books. Good luck, gentlemen. You’re gonna need it.”
Odin left the saloon. Art turned to Jim.
“I hear you served in the war?”
“51st Virginia. You?”
“I’m a Massachusetts man, myself.”
They drank their next shot of whiskey in silence.
The horse at the hitching post turned to Jim, as if to ask a question. The drifter saw the look, knowing what it meant.
“I don’t know what I’m doin’ out here, either.”
The dawn broke over Midgard, painting the town and the surrounding parched lands in pinkish reds. The stagecoach with Marshall Odin, his prisoner and deputies had already rattled out of town. The sound of hooves brought Jim’s attention back to the street ahead of him. Around him, the signs of the shops swung in the morning breeze. The large sign for the livery stayed in place, dominating the second floor of the barn on the north end of town and sheltered from the wind.
Jim stepped away from his horse, hands held at shoulder height. He didn’t want to get shot before Luke Hundr had a chance to get off his ride. Eight men on horses came around the corner and down the street. Jim frowned.
“I’m here like we agreed, Luke Hundr.” He waved his right hand. “My gun hand’s empty. I thought you said it’d be just you and me.”
Luke smirked as he swung down from his horse. The other Fenris men stayed mounted, and Jim saw one of them was Butch, the beefy face under the wide-brimmed hat leering at him. Nobody else was out in the street or even near windows Jim could see. That was probably a safe bet on their part.
Without a word, Luke drew his pistol and shot Jim. The impact of the bullet half-spun the drifter to his right and sent him to the dirt. Jim had been shot before, which didn’t make it sting any less, but helped him fight down the sense of panic that always came with it. He saw his right hand, ruined, pumping blood into the dust.
“I told my first lie when I was six years old,” Luke told Jim as the hooting from his men died down. “I ain’t quit since then.”
“Yeah, well. I may not have the experience you do, but I ain’t always a hundred percent truthful either.”
Luke cocked his head to one side, leveling his pistol. “Really? Do tell.”
“For one, I ain’t alone either.”
From behind the livery sign came a loud crack. Butch was taken right off the back of his horse, a hole opened up in his chest. The others’ mouths opened in shock and Luke turned to see what’d happened. That was his mistake. In a flash, Tyr grabbed the pearl handle of his Colt with his left hand, drew the gun and fired. His shot caught Luke in the shoulder, spinning him fully towards his men. Jim rose behind him, the wide eyes of the mounted Fenris men on every move he made.
“For another, I’m a southpaw.”
The second bullet shoved Luke to the ground, his skull shattered from the impact. Tyr, his right hand at his side and streaming blood down his leg, aimed his gun at the next Fenris man. When another tried to draw down on him, the Henry rifle made itself heard again, dropping the offender. The remaining Fenris wheeled their horses, and two more were shot down as they rode for their lives.
Jim sank to his knees. He holstered his gun and raised his right arm with his left hand, trying to slow the bleeding by elevating the wound. Art Frey appeared beside him minutes later, the Henry rifle slung over his shoulder. His clothing was still somehow immaculate, despite having to climb into the trestle of a stable in the dark.
“Here, Jim.” Art handed him a flask, which Art discovered was full of single malt scotch. He nearly coughed when it hit the back of his throat. The gambler helped him to his feet. “Let’s get that hand looked at.”
“Whatever hand I’m holding next, Frey, it’s going to beat yours. I’m feeling pretty damn lucky today.”
Art chuckled. “I’ll take that bet, Tyr. Now, let’s make sure you don’t bleed to death before I take the rest of your money, too.”