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by

Tinveil

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He strode to the center of the arena and waited implacably. His sword held loosely in his hand at his side. Other than that he wore only a small loincloth and a close-fitting helmet with the visor that earned him his name, Tinveil. To him it did not matter who the sent out, he knew. They would die. He only hope that this one fought well and honored his own life. That his life was shit and that he killed for the sordid amusement of others did not escape him. Three thousand times in twenty years he’s stood in this arena, never beaten or tied.

He had tried, he wanted nothing more than to end this life, but his body betrayed him. His reflexes would not surrender to his will and he stood again waiting for another to honor his life through combat in the arena. The dreams only just started, though. Men of glowing steel and blood-soaked white brushing aside the foul power that bound him to his life of ritualistic murder for the masses. His last fight here would not be in this arena, the dreams promised him that, and forced him to live that this dream may come to pass.

The gate opened and his opponents strode forth to meet him. Good, he had a fighter’s nerve then. They traded the traditional salute and laid on with full fury, grappling and punching and cutting and stabbing, seeking the advantage that would bring victory. This one was cautious; he stayed back and tried to win painlessly. A mistake. Unless fully committed to the fight he would never win, would never survive. There was no life despite losing against Tinveil, he was never permitted to leave them alive, he now concentrated on a clean kill, better than butchering men like chickens after the fight.

Small cuts appeared on his arms and legs, but Tinveil ignored them, his opponent was too far back to score a deep hit that would threaten his life. Then Tinveil slipped and his opponent charged and the blade of a grand champion flicked out, sliced deep across the vitals and sprayed blood across him. He drove upward and the blade slid through his chin and deep into the brain. He left the blade there and dropped his quivering opponent to the ground.

He stood covered in the blood of his opponent and wished painful death upon every voice that cheered him. He pictured the glowing white and silver marching through the imperial legions and his own hand pulling down the imperial banner. This was all that he lived for. He would see them fall.

© 2009, Tim Boothby. All rights reserved.

by

Amrick: Bittersweet price of winning

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The sun rose slowly over the tournament grounds of Hesterbur, a faint line along the horizon. He stood silently, facing the brightest spot of the horizon and symbolically perhaps the day before him. He was a very tall man, only a few inches from seven feet in fact, his shoulders seemed impossibly wide and his waist ridiculously narrow. Even his most charitable enemy conceded that he was a handsome man, though modest of the fact, or perhaps he did not even notice it at all, such was his nature. He flipped his head and felt his heavy braid of dark red hair settle down his back. He normally wore his hair long, loose and wild with gentle curls that made the fingers of women twitch as they wished for a comb to pull through its soft wavy length. Only his eyes betrayed him, normally soft green they were now hard agates.

His seconds arrived soon after, knowing his habit of arriving early to the dueling grounds. Lady Miranda Bragg stood equal in height to him, a close friend and confidant the Baroness of Selnendrin valued his advice and counsel and his vast eccentricities alike. He bowed his head politely to her, still a bit upset that she felt obligated to do this even halfway through her pregnancy. Beside her stood Thomas, shorter than either by several inches, his ice-blue eyes were unnaturally bright in the early light. He stood downwind of Miranda reached into his breast pocket and withdrew a lit cigar and puffed upon it, savoring the heat of the smoke in his throat.

“This is a damned silly custom,” Thomas observed, removing his cloak and adjusting his waistcoat, the sword at his waist looked completely natural, though he rarely wore it.

“Yes,” Amrick agreed, uncharacteristically serious. “But necessary on occasion.”

“Necessary?” Miranda wondered. “I thought that this was over a woman.”

“In her behalf,” corrected Amrick. “You cannot fight for the affections of another, even if you win they won’t suddenly turn their back on the man they are with and fly to your arms, and if they do then you deserve the pox that the whore would unlikely give you.” His voice was harsh and out of character this morning. “I challenged him because he is a bastard. “He beat a woman that I consider a friend and I’ll have his hand at the very least.”

“I can’t abide a man that would hit a woman,” Thomas agreed.

“This is still silly,” Miranda protested. “Why doesn’t she attend to it herself?”

“Because she loves him,” Amrick sighed. “And she will until the day he beats her to death.” He looked to her slowly. “Love and need makes us all do stupid things, but it also makes some accept the unacceptable, and tolerate the intolerable. She will stay with him until he beats her one time too many, unless he is dead. She will hate me, and will never forgive me and never speak to me again, but she will be alive to hate me in good health, and I hope she hates me for a very long life.”

Thomas nodded grimly, but Miranda smiled and kissed his cheek gently. They stood impassively as the other party arrived, his opponent in full plate armor looking at him oddly as Amrick wore soft clothes, no more armor than an arming jacket under his long coat, which he dropped from his shoulders, displaying his ling lean physique to fullest advantage.

The Constable stepped forward, Lord Amrick Blade II you stand as the challenging party, do you withdraw your challenge or offer terms for its withdrawal? “I withdraw nothing,” Amrick replied, his voice deep, soft and even. “The gentleman may, as a term for withdrawal have his hands struck from his body, his tongue carved from his mouth and be gelded that he never again cause harm to any woman.

“Lord Chase Dargen,” the constable addressed his opponent, “is there noway to show you the wisdom of peace and ask you to decline this challenge?”

“None,” Dargen snapped. “I’ll see the blood of this man whore.”

“Gentlemen,” the constable persisted, “can there be no peace from this situation?”

“None,” both spoke together.

“And you shall fight till first blood?”

“Yes,” agreed his opponent.

“Until death,” Amrick disagreed.

“First blood,” insisted his opponent.

“I cannot abide living in a world knowing that you will continue to beat women,” Amrick disagreed civilly. “And if you are a man then you cannot abide the though of my being alive after having shared a bed with your wife and your mistress, together.” Amrick smiled faintly. “Apparently I was a welcome change for both.”

“To the death then.”

Amrick nodded and drew the sword at his hip, few noticed the loop that his hand slid through as his fingers wrapped around the hilt. A second long sword rested in a scabbard on his back. His opponent drew a great sword and moved with surprising grace in his armor, Amrick immediately stalked him, and after moments or their blades close enough to touch they tapped and slowly the tested the defenses of the other.

The shorter man was very much the brawler in style and his anger built as Amrick coolly danced clear of his every attempt to close and batter his opponent. After each attempt Amrick slapped his opponent contemptuously with the broad side of his blade. Wide blows were turned or avoided as Amrick drew him father and farther into the fight, his own speed and grace compensating for the armor that he’d foregone for this affair.

“You shouldn’t have told me that you’d bedded my own wife,” his opponent growled. “The little whore must pay for that now.”

Amrick coolly dropped his blade, the edge bit deeply into the flesh behind his opponent’s knee, blood poured freely. “No,” he smiled. “She won’t.”

Dargan lashed out blindly with his sword and slid a dagger from behind his back at the same instant, wounded or not he was still a formidable fighter in his own right. He cast the small blade and it lodged in Amrick’s thigh, very close to his groin in fact.

“Foul!” Miranda protested.

“Agreed,” the constable shouted and within moments the seconds were embroiled in a fierce argument.

Amrick pulled the dagger, wincing as it wrenched loose from the bone. He held the short blade up. “This is how you are described,” he smiled and compared its length to his long sword, then saluted with the blade, “and this is how I am.”

The implication was obvious, and Dargan roared in rage and delivered a two-handed stroke that Amrick slipped beneath, his sword flashed downward savagely and smashed into the intersection of his right shoulder and neck, the plated buckled and Dargan’s sword dropped from numb fingers and as he stooped in panic to retrieve it Amrick’s sword swished in again and struck the same place on the other side. Dargan struggled to stand upright but Amrick savagely hacked both of his legs and dropped him to his knees and his sword drove down through the base of his neck and deep into his body, piercing the heart and lungs, a fatal wound, but not for a few minutes yet.

Amrick walked away, his bloody sword naked and dangerous, he stopped a dozen yards away when he heard Dargan’s helmet fall away, he tried to speak by Amrick turned an his blade flew across the gap between them and through Dargan’s throat. A cord joined him to his blade and at a deft wrench it flew back into his hand. He drew his other blade, they wove an intricate pattern at blinding speed then from a distance he placed a blade into the ground between the feet of the protesting seconds, they jumped back as the swords flew back to Amrick’s hands.

“You’ve walked your dog,” Amrick snapped. “No get the shite off of the lawn.”

“Lord Amrick,” the Constable asked formally. “Are matters resolved to satisfaction?”

“No,” he sighed. “But they are resolved.”

© 2009, Tim Boothby. All rights reserved.

by

A Debt to Fate

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Her life was hard in ways that few could understand. She was a good girl from a good family, their farm was not large, but it afforded them a comfortable lifestyle. Their farm comprised most of the township and her father was a favorite of the Baron, and she was soon to find that she was the favorite of the Baronet, his son.

Taela Caerdan was a beautiful girl of fourteen when he convinced her to walk out from the harvest festival. Her skin was fair and pale, her hair black and glossy and her figure was pleasing though she was still very young. Baronet Tagan Trellbridge was a rake to say the least. He considered all women his natural prey and had no particular scruples about age, marriage or even looks. But he was a handsome man of twenty, with a smooth manner and he convinced Taela that they would walk and talk under the stars and he would sneak her a bit of wine.

Seeing no harm in his offer, he promised that they would stay in sight of the festival. But the wine was very potent and her head soon swam from even the few sips she’s taken and he led her to a quiet place between the rows of mounded hay and took cruel advantage of her as she swooned from the effects of strong drink.

She vaguely recalled his face over hers as he grunted and took his pleasure with her, and she cried out as his hands twisted her breasts cruelly. When he was done he rose and wiped himself off on her dress and threw it in her face and wandered off lacing his trousers. She staggered home and looked at herself in the mirror and wept at the bruises and the blood on her thighs and scrubbed herself with cold water and a coarse cloth until her skin was pink from her shoulders down, but she still did not feel clean.

Then her monthly visitor did not arrive, and then a second and tearfully she went to her mother and confessed all. Her mother flew into a rage and summoned her husband and together they berated their daughter. Her position in society was ruined and she would never attract a suitable husband now. She was spoiled goods.

She was packed off and sent to her uncle’s inn a few hundred miles away. She rode in the wagon of a teamster that took cheese to the large market in Candoural, where her uncle lived. She was nervous of him, but he was a kindly man with a wife and daughters of his own at home and behaved him self as a gentleman should.

She was delivered to the Hog’s Head Inn, and her uncle treated her with no particular kindness, neither did his wife. They did not see her as family, they treated her as the lowliest of employees and worked her from sunrise until late at night. She was a strong lass and her child grew within her, and they grudgingly sent for the midwife and she was delivered of a fine, healthy son.

Her uncle was set on presenting the child to an orphanage, but Taela would have none of it, no matter the events that led to his birth, this was her son. They relented, but it seemed that she would never get out from their clutches. Her wages were tiny and their combined needs kept her in growing debt to her uncle and she worked on wearily, now little more than a slave.

Galwine the teamster made the same trip every year, and he made a point to check upon the pretty young girl that he’d delivered to the Hog’s Head, counting dropping her off this was the third visit. She spoke kindly to him, and her young son was now eighteen months old and walking nicely, he was clean and his clothes though well patched showed that he was well cared for. She was worked to a frazzle, thin and exhausted and looking beyond her sixteen summers and he felt the pangs of guilt for having delivered her to this indebted servitude.

He looked at the name of the yard he was delivering to, Bragg Freight. They were good folk, he allowed, he even knew a Bragg and had done him a good turn once. He remembered his name and went into the receiving office and wrote a note to be delivered to the man that he slipped out of Hesterbur one night with a deep bloody wound in his side, and no questions asked.

Creighton Bragg was a man of bad temper, and many habits that most considered unsavory, but he was loyal and never forgot an obligation. He read the note and packed his bag and left for Candoural. An ironic place to go, he had been there many times. Franchesca, wife to his cousin Cecil had turned this place from an impoverished mud hole to a prosperous country community. He hadn’t been back since Franchesca moved on to wrest Calorem from the Frontier and repeat that feat there as well.

He entered the town on foot and looked it over carefully. It was a good town, holding more than its fair share of idiosyncrasies, but mostly good people. He shared a few pints with those that remembered him, and left a few coins with men with open eyes and ears and a willingness to share what they knew. He walked into the Hog’s Head with open eyes and forewarning of what to expect. He hired a room and requested a laundress to attend to his travel clothes and followed the stairs up to a small, comfortable-sized room.

He laid out a small pile of dirty clothes and stowed the rest of his gear in drawers and the wardrobe, just in time for a knock at the door. The laundress was not too tall, but taller than Creighton’s own short Camden stature. She was thin and her eyes spoke of exhaustion and a life without care or hope.

“You have laundry, Sir?”

“Yes, my dear,” he replied kindly. “The leather needs dusted and rubbed out and the rest needs soap and water.”

“Very good, Sir,” she agreed meekly.

He placed two silver crowns in her hand. “For your efforts,” he said.

“It is too much,” she protested.

“Nonsense,” he smiled. “It is my standard rate. Take it and you will oblige me greatly.”

She curtsied and took his clothes and slipped from the room. She descended the servant’s stairs to be met by her aunt who held out her hand. Taela placed the coins in her hand. “I knew it,” Aunt Dara said triumphantly. “He’s rich, and I’ll wager he fancies you.”

“I doubt it,” Taela shook her head.

“If he’ll give two crowns to get his clothes clean, imagine what he’ll do if you help him muss his covers?”

“I won’t do that,” Taela said quietly. “It would be wrong.”

“You’ll spread your legs for a farm boy, but not for a man with gold,” Dara spat. “You are worthless, and I don’t know why we keep pouring out good money on your behalf. Ungrateful slut.”

Taela walked on and didn’t stop until she reached the laundry shed behind the inn. She started the hard work of scrubbing the clothes clean, her own tears falling into the tub as she worked. A hand touched her shoulder, it held a handkerchief. She took it and dabbed her eyes and looked over her shoulder to see the fierce face of the Camden man who’s clothes she now scrubbed. But there was kindness in his eyes and when his scarred and calloused hand accepted the kerchief from her it was surprisingly gentle.

“You are much wronged in this place,” Creighton said quietly.

“It is my lot in life,” she said. “It would be presumptuous of me to ask for more.”

He walked around the tub and looked into her eyes as he sat. “We all deserve fair treatment and dignity.”

“I ruined my life,” she replied with shame.

“Tell me your story,” Creighton asked softly.

She started reluctantly but he asked many questions as she spoke haltingly, drawing more and more from her until at last her soul was laid bare. She cried many more times through it all, but despite his harsh appearance he was a kindly man, and she found it easier by the word to speak to him. He was a not a man known for compassion, he was shrewd in his dealings, vicious in a fight and remorseless to his enemies, but this child had never committed an evil act in her life. How could fate have dealt her such a hand?

“You have been wronged by many,” he said sadly. “I came to see you,” He admitted. “A friend that I owed a life-debt to asked for me to intercede on your behalf. But I have heard your story and I cannot stand by idle now that I have met you. You are a lady of quality, and for you to have been so cruelly used is an outrage against decency. I will not stand by idly, Taela. I cannot and will not. Trust to me in this.”

She looked to him with uncertainty and doubt, she heard his kind words, but many men had spoken to her kindly and they always expected more from her, and had even beat her when she had not succumbed to their enticements. His words were fair but there was still the look of the man, which should she trust?

Creighton wandered through the taproom and leapt agilely onto a stool. “What can I do for you, Sir?” Tagard Caerdan asked with deference, already hearing of the small man’s generosity.

“Free your niece,” Creighton said quietly. His voice cold and devoid of all emotion.

“My niece?” he asked. “What concern can that bit of a slut be to you?”

“Mind your manners,” Creighton said with a chill in his voice. “She has been here for two years, slaving for you, and yet every day she seems to owe you more and more. Fine he said. We shall travel the high road on this. You tell me what she owes, I pay it and I walk out of here with her and her son and everyone is happy. And that saves us the trouble of the low road.”

“And what is the low road?” Tagard asked carefully?

“I break your arms and legs, your fingers and toes, and let you watch as I burn this place to the ground,” Creighton said in a pleasant voice. “Then I tell my family to insure that you never find employment anywhere again, and you live with that shrew of a wife on the streets, dependant on handouts or day labor clearing the cesspits.” Creighton lit his pipe and puffed it thoughtfully. “I have a large family, and it is full of idealistic people that would find justice in your fate and would do all that they could to insure that you are broken.”

“Who are you to make such bluster in my own place?”

“My name is Creighton Bragg,” he said in a near whisper. “I am a killer and a thief and I have no hesitation to break those that garner my enmity, and this you have done. Know that I can and will do all of these things and more for the wretched acts of your life, for as low as many find me you are less that a cockroach. I can step on a cockroach and feel it crush and stop short of killing it and watch as it drags its broken carcass back into the shadows, and I will gladly do this to you as well. Now, name your price, or pay it, I am done speaking.”

He stared at the man for a short time, his eyes never wavered but bored into his head with a cold fury. “Twenty sovereigns,” Tagard said at last, unable to meet those eyes any longer.

Creighton let coins fall from his fingers onto the bar. “I want a receipt and a full release from debt written in her name when I return.”

He left the taproom and returned to the laundry. “Taela,” he said quietly. “You are free, I am taking you from this place.”

“Why?” She asked carefully.

“Because you do not deserve this,” he said. “And if I can at least remove you from this then I shall at least have done what little I may to amend the harm done to you by fate.”

“I am nothing to you, but you do this? What do you expect of me?”

“I expect that you shall build a better life for yourself, and your son,” Creighton replied.

“So I am then in your debt,” she thought allowed. “How am I to repay that?”

“You feel that you must?”

“I must,” she asserted.

“Then pay as you can after your own needs are met,” he replied, surprised by the strength of her character.

“I must find work,” she said with irony. “Your kindness has left us homeless.”

“You have work,” he said. “You shall work in the house of my cousin’s eldest daughter. She is a much more kindly employer, and you shall be dealt with fairly for your labors. You have skill as a maid and laundress and under her roof you may learn any skill that you wish.”

“I have your word that you shall not attempt to take any advantage?”

Many would have been insulted by the question, but Creighton was impressed by her bravery. “I shall ask nothing of you,” he said. “But your new employer shall ask a fair day’s work for your wages, is that acceptable?”

She nodded.

“Gather your son then, and your goods and we shall leave this place,” he said.

The receipt was written and her aunt and uncle looked coldly at them as Creighton placed it in her hand. He fixed a cold stare upon them both and they faded away as he triggered the magic of a ring to teleport them to the gates of Miranda’s home.

The gates opened before them and they walked down the lane to the vast palace that Miranda called home, Taela’s eyes were wide at the sight of the manicured lawns and formal gardens and then the huge oak and steel door of the house as it opened. A very tall man fixed them with a cold stare that warmed and a smile came to his face. “Welcome, Creighton.”

“Thank-you, Brock,” he led Taela and her son Taron into the vast foyer. “Taela will be working here as a maid and laundress,” Creighton informed him.

“Very good,” Brock tugged a bell pull and a maid appeared. “Show Taela and her son to a room and explain the rules of the house,” he told her. “And I’m sure that this sturdy lad will approve of the nursery while you show her about, we have many children in this house.”

Taela turned once at the top of the stairs and looked back with uncertainty at the small man before being led to a large room. “You will both stay here,” the maid, Jerrica informed her. “But while you work your little man will play with the other children and when he’s a bit older we have a school here in the house as well.” She showed her features of the room before both were taken to the seamstress for new clothes.

“Charity, Creighton?” Miranda asked as the young woman slipped from view.

“No,” Creighton replied gruffly. “I was repaying a debt.”

“To her?”

“To fate, Manda,” he said quietly. “To fate.”

© 2009, Tim Boothby. All rights reserved.

by

The Charge

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Pale fog swirled around the hooves of the horses as they fell into line along the base of the reversed slope, the side of the long rolling hill opposite of the enemy. They assembled in standard interval, one trooper and one horse accounted for five feet of line apiece, spaced nearly stirrup to stirrup. Twenty feet behind them the next row formed, five feet per man and mount. Five rows deep, each two thousand men wide or two miles of battle front to contend with their enemy.

Older mounts stood steady and rested while they could, while younger horses rolled their eyes and chewed their bits as their hooves danced nervously in place. Older men sat grimly still, wasting no unnecessary energy in worry while the younger men sweat in their armor despite the chill of the day. All knew what was expected of them, they would lead the assault, theirs would be the first strike that would be the beginning of the end, today one side or the other would break.

These were men out of place in a cavalry camp, they were tall and heavy and muscular where normal troopers were short and light to conserve their horses. These men simply found larger horses. These were the Highland Guard, the Third Talmarii Cavalry, theirs was a legacy of battle honors that extended back twenty centuries. Thousands had served and thousands had died and their colors had flown in every major battle in known history. Now they again would be the hammer that broke their enemy, as had their fathers and grandfathers for more than forty centuries back.

The officers rode into position now, battle flags to the fore, the bearers slipping off the covers as they uncased the colors and shook them out to snap and blow in the wind. Veteran man and mount tensed as they awaited the inevitable command. The colors rose and stepped off, and the lances angled forward as they started up the long slope of the hill. Then they could see as they crested, the infantry stirring lazily before them, the camp barely stirring as they sat complacently on conquered land, expecting no opposition.

The colors raised and lowered again and the steel shod hooves of ten thousand mounts sounded heavily on the damp grass. Their pace raised to a canter as they descended toward their enemy, two miles distant. The camp began to stir now and the colors raised again and they broke into a gallop, the lines slightly jagged as they tried to keep their speed, dress and interval at once as they bore relentlessly down upon their enemy, and then the commander rose tall in her stirrups and raised her sword high for all to see, and it descended slowly to point at the enemy, and the bugles sounded brazen upon the still morning air.

They assembled as quickly as they may, but the cavalry bore down upon them with savage efficiency, and only a few thousand formed before the resounding crash of men and mounts and shields and steel echoed for miles about. The force of the impact was a wall of sound that drove the air from the ranks that followed behind. Lances shattered shields, drove men for a dozen yards or more to land in bloody heaps, or simply skewered their targets outright. Swords and axes then raised and they rode through the encampment, tents and men and equipment were savagely hacked apart as they passed through miles of their enemy.

The infantry followed from the trees, taking more than their allotted half of an hour to reach the outskirts of the carnage, they looked at the landscape in awe and horror, miles of ground stripped bare of grass and brush by the fury of the hooves. Then they saw the remains of the infantry that confronted them, bloody paste and bone ground into the scarred soil. They occupied the ground, for that was all that was left, bloody smears, shredded gear and torn and savaged soil.

© 2009, Tim Boothby. All rights reserved.

by

Cecil Bragg at the Gates of Herch-Quald

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War waged bloody, and the Realm had been invaded from the south and north alike. The Armies of the Realm were but a fraction of the size of their invaders at the onset, but the fury of their defense, and the strength of their leadership broke them like waves upon the rock. In the end they cornered the Emperor in his southern redoubt, he felt himself safe in his mountain lair, but he had not reckoned the strength of his foe, and the dwarves stood at the van of the army, ready to begin the final battle. Before them stands General Cecil Bragg, Lord Defender of the Palatine Order, Commander of the Dwarven Mountain Infantry, and now addresses the most elite of his corps.

The officers quickly scattered to carry the summons and within the half-hour he was surrounded by the cadre of officers and his entire spearhead company. He scanned the faces of the assembled fighters and officers alike, ten thousand and more. All were tense; many faces were pale at the thought of the tasks before them. “Why so many long faces?” Cecil’s mood was light and happy. “Look at the glorious opportunity that has fallen into our laps. I suppose that I am being presumptuous, aren’t I? After all where do generals fight?”

“In the rear,” several old sergeants laughed at the familiar barb.

Cecil shared their laugh. “And where do generals die?”

“In bed!”

“Not this day,” Cecil countered. “I will personally lead the first wave over the wall. Count Telbrantil has asked me, ‘can the dwarves take the gates?’ I laughed and guaranteed them to him. I will now lead those of that you that will follow me to prove my faith. The dwarves can take the gates, we must. History calls for us, the lives of many millions of men, elves, camden and the voices of the dwarves, our ancestors call to us. They died to preserve the Realm and freedom. I ask that you stand forward with me, our blood shall not only guarantee the safety of our nation and people, our blood shall avenge the wrongs of countless millennia. Our people have been murdered, enslaved, raped, burned alive and suffered pains and indignities that so few of us can understand. There lies the gate, they lie anchored to the deepest stone of the mountain. We are the heart of a larger and stronger mountain, what has Basdred to stop the dwarves?”

“Nothing!” They roared.

“Nothing!” he roared his agreement. “Across this very field our enemy has ensconced himself in halls of stone beneath a fell mountain. I call this hubris and folly, let him lie shivering beneath his mountain, for what can he know of stone and what can he know of the children of the mountains? We are dwarves, some say hewn from our own mountains. I stand here now clan in dwarven steel, steel from the very marrow of the mountains. The red of our blood, the strength of our arms, the hardness of our bone all from the stone of our own mountains of home. Let him cringe, let his walls and gates stand in our way, let his slaves hold arms before us. We are dwarves of the mountains. We are the iron and stone of the deep places of the earth, and we shall fight and prevail where no others could abide. Behind us stands the might of a nation, but look to them now, and feel their eyes upon us.”

He pointed to the mountain before them. “That’s where the bloody war ends. That is where the Bastard of Quarletz hides, and that is where we must make our greatest push ever. We will punch straight through whatever stands before us, living, hewn or forged, we will cut a path for the others to follow. Be it obstacles, men or ogres we must overcome any defense and break those bloody gates. We’ll swarm the sides of the mountain and take the upper battlements, we shall crush the defenders of the gates under the bodies of their own comrades. This is the warfare that we were born for, we are called engineers, but first and foremost, we are Dwarven Mountain Infantry. The mountain is our ally, our blood, our kin, we are born and bread to battle upon the slopes above and in the caverns below. If we cannot take these gates, then who can?”

“None!” The dwarves bellowed in return.

“No pain can stop us, no army can stop us, nothing can stop us.” Cecil’s voice carried across the field. “If we march the evening through we will be in battle before moonrise. I will make that march, I will fight that battle, who will go with me?”

Thousands of voices raised. “I will,” They affirmed.

“The Twenty-First Company will be the cutting edge of the axe of the dwarves, are you ready?”

“Ready,” The responded in fierce voices.

“What will stop you?”

“Nothing,” They swore.

“Lets go kick over that anthill, lets see what crawls out from underneath it.” He roared. “Forth children of the mountains, to blood and glory!”

© 2009, Tim Boothby. All rights reserved.

by

Traveler’s Harvest: Martina

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She watched him carefully as he bucked the straps of his helmet and closed the visor. He appeared distant and passionless, quite obviously focused. He donned his heavy gauntlets and accepted his practice sword. Several minutes of weapon exercises left her warm and loose, ready for the bout.

“Be careful, Martina,” her companion warned her. “He is incredibly good.”

“Good,” she smiled. “I need a good bout before next months tournaments.”

“Don’t blink,” Gunther laughed. “You don’t want to miss this.”

Martina shook her head angrily and stepped forward, her opponent stepped into the square and saluted her with his weapon, she replied gravely. “This will be fought to the best of three,” Gunther announced, “approach and touch blades.”

They closed to the center and touched, then dropped into ready positions. Her opponent seemed content to wait, she lunged, careful not to overextend; he slapped her blade aside with his own and drove the blunt tip of his sword into her breastplate. It was not a brutal blow but applied with enough force to prove that it was intentional.

“First touch to the gentleman,” Gunther announced. “Carry on.”

Martina waited for his approach, his attacks were not probing nor were they cautious. He pressed her hard but did not take advantage of several openings that would have carried the touch and the bout. She countered furiously, more from anger than desperation, but she did not seem to affect him in the slightest. Lunge, parry, cut or thrust, every move anticipated and countered. Her eyes narrowed, disappearing between the grillwork of her helmet. She attacked again, a fast series of strikes and he turned every one without apparent effort. Damn him! He was toying with her and she did not care for it at all.

“Quit playing,” she hissed.

He laughed easily. “I thought that was what we were doing.”

“Show me what you’ve got,” she countered.

“As you wish,” his padded sword lashed out in an odd pattern of strikes, she felt the blows at each shoulder as she tried block them, and then the sword was struck from her hands. She stood, breathing heavily and contemplating the blunt end of the weapon resting lightly at her breastbone. She nodded her defeat and stepped back to unbuckle her helmet.

“Touch and bout to the gentleman,” Gunther Amundsen called. He smiled as he crossed the square to his coworker. “I told you that he was good, Martina,” Gunther goaded her slightly as he returned her sword.

“Damn, he’s a terror,” she smiled ruefully as she shook her long red hair loose from the bun. She was drenched in sweat from the effort and the hot tournament armor. Her opponent set his weapon on the bleachers nearby, removed his gauntlets, and fumbled with the chinstrap of his helmet.

“His armor is beautiful,” she commented. “I don’t recognize the style but the detail is exquisite.”

“I asked him about that, he just said that it was made by a friend.”

“Contemporary then, but I haven’t seen any like it in tournaments or at the faires.”

He walked across the floor toward her, hand extended. She reached for his hand but he reached past it and they clasped forearms. “Well fought,” he complimented her. She noticed immediately that he had not broken a sweat, for that matter he had not even mussed his hair. His pale blue eyes met hers, there was something strange and compelling in their depths, she broke eye contact with his and blushed slightly.

“Nice of you to say, but I’m not in your league.”

He studied her deep green eyes for a moment and smiled slightly. “Nonsense, I just have more practice than you do.”

“Well, I have ten years and you made me look like an amateur.”

He smiled sheepishly at her; his teeth white and even. “I have much more time than that, and my lessons were normally painful for far longer than the first ten years.”

“Which kingdom do you serve?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Aren’t you SCA?”

“Oh, kingdom,” He smiled again. “I Serve a realm by the sea.”

“I’ve never heard of it.”

“You may in time, but we don’t tend to travel in this direction too much, Doctor Kingston.”

She wiped her face with a towel, and then remembered her manners. “Martina,” she extended her hand again, he clasped her hand this time and shook it firmly, but without crushing her fingers. “Thomas,” he introduced himself.

“Tommy Lee,” his beautiful young companion called from the door to the gymnasium. “Do you need some help getting out of that can?”

“Yeah,” he called back, “do you know where Erv left the chests for this?”

“Of course,” she replied, “they’re in the locker room.”

“Okay, thanks, Sis, I’ll be right there.”

”You’d better hurry, you always stink after you wear that stuff.”

“You’re too kind,” he shook his head and waved her away.

“Your sister?” she asked.

“My baby sister,” he corrected with a smile. “I need a shower. We’re going to lunch afterwards, want to join us? I have reservations at the Space Needle.”

“Who would ‘us’ be?” She asked carefully.

“Marie and Gunther,” he answered.

“Alright, I’ll hit the showers and meet you out here.”

Thomas nodded and retrieved his helmet and practice sword on his way to the locker room. Marie was waiting for him with his armor chests open. “Good fight,” She commented.

“She’s talented,” he commented.

“You whupped her good though,” she observed.

“Centuries of painful practice,” he smiled cryptically. They quickly shucked him out of his armor and packed it away in the chests.

“Aren’t you going to clean it or anything first?”

“I’ll have Erv do it,” he glanced at the clock on the wall. “You’d better get out of here, I need to shower.”

“You didn’t even break a sweat,” she teased him.

“Beat it!” He growled.

“After Erv packs, that’s too cool to miss,” she laughed.

“Oh all right,” he sighed. He patted a black pouch at the hip of his thickly padded pants. Grab the gear, Erv.”

The top of the bag tucked under his belt and secured with two cords that clasped together. At his command, the hands unclasped and the bag dropped to the floor, the hands dragged it across the floor and the mouth of the bag opened and swallowed the large chests effortlessly. Marie laughed as it climbed back up his leg and secured itself to his belt.

“There, you’ve seen it, now go wait in the gym.” She waved as she left him to clean up.

Martina packed her gear into a large locker and hurried through her shower and preparations. Despite her haste, Thomas was sitting in the bleachers shooting the breeze with Gunther and his sister when she emerged. Thomas was dressed simply, thank goodness; his jeans, cowboy boots, white button-down shirt and brown leather jacket would compliment her green denim dress and white sweater nicely. Not that it mattered in the slightest, of course.

“Where’s your gear?”

“Already packed out,” Thomas answered simply. “Shall we go?”

“Was I that long?” Martina asked Gunther as they filed out of the gym.

“Not that I noticed, but I was distracted.”

The view of Seattle from the needle is legendary, they soaked in the scenery as the restaurant rotated slowly. The conversation was lively, but Thomas seemed more content to remain aloof, only answering a question directly put to him. Otherwise, he seemed content to sip at a large draft and study his lunch companions. He had a disconcerting eye, never maintaining long eye contact with Martina but could actually feel when his attention was upon her.

“Your sister has a very strong southern accent, but yours is strange, almost foreign sounding, where are you from.”

“Texas,” Thomas answered, “but I have spent most of my life out of the country.”

“Business?”

“Military,” Thomas replied.

“What did you do?”

Thomas drank deeply from his beer. “A bit of everything,” he replied enigmatically. “I retired as an engineer.”

“Sounds interesting,” Martina leaned forward.

“Not terribly,” he signaled for another beer. “I understand that you teach history.”

“I specialize in the Roman Empire, but I am fairly well versed from the Empire to the Renaissance.”

“Interesting times,” Thomas commented. “Especially for a Ren Faire gal.”

“Well,” she acknowledged, “they do tie together nicely.”

“Simpler times,” Thomas sighed.

“Not really, a web of political and religious alliances, kings and lords and popes all made life very interesting.”

“From the warrior’s point of view it was much simpler, no gunpowder, chemicals or nuclear weapons, reconnaissance done on foot or the back of the horse. We have the ability to erase millions, while war in those days was limited to the thousands.”

“Unless you factor in the plague.”

“That was more of a random event, it would be difficult, with their technology, to use it as a weapon.”

“It was tried,” she sighed.

“Of course,” Thomas acknowledged, “fortunately science was in its infancy, NBC factors were simply too advanced for their level of technological development.”

“NBC?” Martina asked.

“Nuclear, Biological, Chemical. The three horseman of modern apocalypse.” Thomas set a sugar cube on the handle of a spoon and launched it, all watched as it bounced off the window. “The catapult was the equivalent of aerial bombardment and artillery alike. War has never been a civilized endeavor, but it was limited in its capability to inflict slaughter.”

“I can agree with that, but there were fewer rules in those days. They ransomed captured lords and put the prisoners without rank or title to the sword. We are much more civilized in these days.”

“No, we just make a better show of it now. In this country, we adhere to the Geneva Convention and a warehouse full of treaties, but I’ll bet that the Kurds, Jews, Gypsies, to name a few, would disagree with you. Modern man is not all that civilized, we just have spin control.”

“Why did you leave the military?” Gunther asked.

“I retired,” Thomas answered. “My twenty was up, actually my twenty-five, and I wanted to move along. Explore my horizons, I guess that you could say.”

“What did you do before you were an engineer?”

“I have always been an engineer, that was my first degree. I managed to keep my hand in many areas. I finished my doctorates in mechanical and electronic engineering, and after I retired I accumulated another in history.”

“You don’t look that old,” Martina observed.

“I just turned fifty.”

“You don’t look a day over thirty.”

“Thank-you,” he smiled, “but I guess that is all good genes.”

“And Grecian Formula 10?” Gunther joked.

“Thankfully, no.” Thomas laughed. “You are only as old as you want to be, and I don’t want to be old.”

“Can you teach me the trick?” Martina smiled.

“I’m afraid that it isn’t something that you can teach, you either have it or you don’t.” Thomas smiled. “Rather like your command of a sword, you are excellent by the way. Where did you study?”

“I worked a long time with the S.C.A.”

“You have a natural aptitude,” Thomas approved. “It isn’t easy to learn something that was for all intents and purposes, a lost art.”

“There are a lot of surviving texts,” Martina disagreed. “And even more people that aren’t willing to let some skills just fade away. Where did you learn?”

“I’ve studied with several masters, in several styles. The art of the sword isn’t completely lost, there are still some that follow the ‘lost arts’ quite faithfully. I managed to squeeze in a few months studying with the Royal Armoury. I’ve even been involved in a few of their exhibitions.”

“I’ve never had the money to go see the Royal Armoury, I hope to one day, perhaps I can convince the University to send me.” Martina said wistfully.

“Its worth your time,” Thomas agreed.

“Where did you get the armor, it is the most beautiful that I’ve ever seen, outside of a museum.”

“It was made for me by a master, several years ago.”

“And you wear it in tournaments?” She asked incredulously. “How much did it cost?”

“It was a gift,” Thomas answered. “But I can’t find anyone willing to put a price on it, I would guess more than five hundred thousand dollars for an opening bid.”

“And you wear it like it was nothing?”

“It was made for battle,” Thomas disagreed. “You wouldn’t find its equivalent on any battlefield of history, it’s not a trophy or made for ceremonial or display, so I do the master the honor of using it for what it was intended. I own several shotguns worth ten thousand or more, but I use them for skeet and hunting, what’s the difference?”

“But if it’s damaged, that would be terrible.”

“True enough, but it’ll be hard to find the weapon that would hurt it. I can also say with some modesty that you’d play hell to find the person that could damage it or me.”

Martina laughed. “Modesty becomes you, so little.”

“Aw shucks,” Thomas grinned. “Modesty is for those that have something to be modest about.”

“What are you doing now?” Gunther asked.

“I dabble,” Thomas moved to allow the server to place a very large steak in front of him. “Ranching, inn keeping, investing and consulting even a bit of teaching. Whatever keeps coin in the purse.”

“Odd turn of phrase,” Martina commented as she peppered her fish.

“I’m just an oddly turned kind of guy,” Thomas carved his steak.

They ate quietly; Thomas was obviously not a dinner conversationalist. They finished eating and he was still at it, a huge steak, corn and baked potato gave way to a large slice of cheesecake and finally coffee and ice cream.

“How do you stay so thin?” Gunther marveled.

“High metabolism,” Thomas smiled as he sipped his coffee.

Gunther looked at his watch. “I hate to eat and run, but I have advisory this afternoon.”

“Can you drop me,” Marie asked as she also rose.

“Certainly,” he waved and led her to the elevator.

“What are you doing this afternoon?” Martina asked.

“I was thinking of wandering through that big market and then cleaning my armor.”

“I’ll show you the market if I get to look over your armor.”

“Done,” Thomas agreed.

They walked slowly through Pike Place Market, Thomas paid cursory attention to the vast displays of seafood packed in ice. He seemed somehow preoccupied, even the espresso barely made a dent in his demeanor. He did perk up a bit as he arranged delivery of several cases of microbrew to his hotel.

“Penny for your thoughts,” Martina finally ventured.

“I wish that it was that simple,” Thomas smiled ruefully.

“Well, what is it?”

“I’m never sure how to go about this, not that it has happened too often. I always wind up sounding like a piece of bad fiction, or a Twilight Zone episode. Then I have to go through the inevitable ‘prove it’ process. What a bloody pain that is, I’ll tell you.”

“What is it?”

Thomas reached into his pocket and withdrew a small, clear disc.

“What is this?” She asked.

“Look at it,” he urged her.

It was small and perfectly round. “The engraving is exquisite, but I don’t recognize the language.”

“It is based upon ancient elven,” Thomas answered. “From a Realm far from here.”

“Elves,” she commented. “From yourSCA Kingdom?”

“No, my dear, from a realm not of this worlda.”

“I don’t understand, what is this thing?”

“A coin,” he replied.

“Who would make a coin out of glass?”

“It’s neither glass nor crystal,” He explained. “It is a metal called diamond silver, or diamanta to be precise.”

“There is no such thing,” she protested. “Metal can’t be transparent.”

“Quick silver, mercury, is a liquid metal.”

“But a transparent metal is impossible.”

“No, you hold the proof in your hands. It isn’t impossible, just incredibly difficult. In fact the outer layer of my armor is covered with the same metal.”

“That’s just clear enamel.” She protested.

“Now you see why I hate this part,” he sighed. “First let me assure you that I’ve never been inside of a flying saucer, and I’ve never seen bigfoot, but I have been to this Realm; in fact, I’m going back there soon.”

“I don’t like the sound of that,” she looked around quickly to see how many people were around her. “What does it have to do with me?”

Thomas glanced to the crowd around them; they were attracting too much attention. “Would you like to go somewhere quiet and discuss this?”

“No,” she insisted, “I think that a crowd is a good idea right now.”

“Do you have the time?”

“Two-thirty,” she glanced at her watch.

Thomas fought down his irritation and stared deeply into her eyes for a moment. She fought down a sense of panic but her vision blurred and when it cleared, she was sitting in the bright sunshine. Thomas still looked into her eyes, now wearing mirrored sunglasses.

“Where the hell are we?” She demanded.

“Look around,” He smiled.

“Green Lake?” She ventured.

“Very good,” he complimented her. His hand reached into the inner pocket of his jacket and drew out a lit cigar. He stretched his feet out in front of him and puffed contentedly. “Now, we are still out in the open and there are people about, are you ready to listen?”

“How did I get here? Did you drug me?”

Thomas waved to a lady jogging around the lake. “I beg your pardon, have you the time?”

“Two twenty-five,” the jogger replied.

Martina checked her watch it read the same time, five minutes earlier. “How?”

“Are you ready to listen?”

“Yes,” she conceded after a few moments of silence.

“All of us, humans that is, have various levels of mental ability. Most have so little that it can’t really be measured, some have some limited ability but no idea how to access it, others have the ability to access it, but no idea how to control it. I am at the far end of the scale, I have great ability and I can use and completely control it. I can also quite happily say that I am conscious of the talent, able to control it and have not lost my mind because of it.”

“Where do I fit on this scale?”

“You don’t have enough to measure, you are extremely intelligent, but that is the extent.”

“Gee, thanks!” she snapped sarcastically.

“Don’t blame the messenger,” he shook his head and continued. “I became aware of my abilities and began to experiment with them. At first, the tricks were simple. I can read books in seconds and recall every single word. Then I stumbled across parlor tricks, moving things with thought and all of that hokey crap. Over the years, I found that I could transport myself with a thought, thus our little trip here. If I were a computer you would say that I multi-task, I can concentrate the equivalent of a normal person’s full attention on dozens of problems simultaneously.

“I also began to sense that there was more than the consciousness of this planet. I began to explore these worlds, all from the comfort of my bed as I slept at night. Three years ago, by our calendar, I found a world that fascinated me. It was in complete upheaval but there were good people there, and I felt that I could help. I arrived there centuries ago, actually millennia ago, but I found that as long as I ignored the constraints of time they would ignore me, and so I went there.”

“You live there now?”

“Well, yes and no, if I left now you would find me in Texas. Actually you would find Tommy Lee, the retired GI come home to ranch. He and I are the same person.”

“That’s impossible, it would be a paradox.”

Thomas choked on the smoke of his cigar as he laughed, it took several seconds to compose himself. “You make it sound so complicated.”

“You don’t think that it’s complicated?” She asked.

“No, to me bearing a child sounds terribly complicated, but you as a woman would probably see it as a natural thing. We find difficulty in those things that we are unable to do.”

“You can’t have children?”

“I can reproduce, just like any man, but I can see no reason to defeat the designs of God by creating children without a woman.”

“But could you?”

“Does it matter?”

“If you do these things, how can you believe in God?”

Thomas choked again on the smoke, he finally surrendered and tucked it back into his pocket. “I refuse to accept that someone like me could be the most powerful entity alive. God is out there, I sure of it, I just have no idea what God’s master plan could be.”

Martina shook her head and sat in silence, contemplating the enormity of what he had told her. Unable to believe a word of what she had heard. “This can’t be happening.”

“Oh I assure you, it is.” Thomas smiled, he pulled a loaf of French bread from the inner pocket of his jacket and tore off several pieces. The ducks attacked them as soon as they hit the ground. “Are we still at the proof stage?”

“You’d better believe it, bub!”

Their surroundings faded for a split second before a new scene appeared before her. She was in her own apartment. “You must save a fortune in gas,” she commented.

“Who cares, I like to drive.” Thomas removed the pouch from his belt and tossed it upon the floor. “Erv,” he called aloud, “say something to the pretty lady.”

The bag untied itself and two large hands emerged, dark olive in color with faint streaks of deep brown. They grabbed the outer flaps to allow the occupant of the tiny bag to see out. A long series of guttural sounds emerged, followed closely by what could only be laughter.

“What the hell is that?”

“That is Ervang, he keeps track of things for me,” Thomas smiled. “Erv, give her a kiss, on the cheek.”

Before she could move or protest the bag dashed under the hem of her dress and climbed her leg, Martina scrambled about trying to dislodge the intruder. The bag emerged from the open collar at her throat the hands grasped her head and pulled the bag close to her face; a wet, sticky, slimy sensation covered the side of her face. The bag dropped clear before she could grab it, or worse. Thomas passed her a large handkerchief. “There, you’ve met Erv.”

“You asshole!” she shrieked.

“You’d be surprised how often that I hear that,” Thomas laughed.

“No I wouldn’t,” she disagreed vehemently as she scrubbed the side of her face.

Thomas waited patiently for her composure to return. He mumbled a request into the bag, soon rewarded with two huge tankards. Martina sat in the chair across from him and regarded it contents with suspicion. “Black Ale,” he informed her, before drinking deeply himself. She sampled it and found it potent and rich in flavor.

“Careful, it will sneak up on you.”

“Good,” she retorted, “I could use it right now!” She tilted the tankard and drank deeply. “Why are you here?” She finally asked.

“About time that you asked,” Thomas sighed. “And if you think that I hate the first part, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

“It can’t be that bad,” she coaxed him, “can it?”

“It couldn’t be worse,” he sighed. “Do you have any vodka?”

“No,” she answered, “that bad, huh?”

“Erv, vodka me,” he ordered. The bag, resting on the table opened, Thomas deftly caught the bottle from the air. Glasses followed, he carefully poured two tall shots and offered her the second. She declined; Thomas nodded and drained both off quickly.

“All better?” She smiled carefully.

He shook his head. “Tomorrow, early in the morning, you will go jogging. You will not return from your run, you will disappear, a missing person eventually declared legally dead.”

“How do you know this?”

Thomas stared at her for a moment. “Haven’t you been paying attention?”

“Okay, maybe I deserved that,” she conceded. “Would you believe the story if our places were reversed.”

“Depends,” Thomas sighed, “do you know anyone else that can pop from place to place?”

“Point taken,” She agreed. “But now for the obvious question: why are you here?”

“To take you away from here,” Thomas explained as he poured two more shots, she didn’t refuse this time. “I want to take you to a place where none of this matters.”

“Where?” She asked her voice hoarse from the strong spirits.

“You asked what kingdom that I fought for, and I told you Selnendrin. It is a real place Martina, it is my home now, hell it’s been my home for two millennia.”

She poured them each another drink. “You look in pretty good shape, considering that you could be Methuselah’s grandfather.”

“I’m in an unusual position, I ignore time and it extends me the same courtesy.”

“That is your sole explanation of how you got to be some kind of superman?”

“How in God’s name could I explain that?” Thomas rose and paced the room. “As far as I know I have the same DNA as you do, I cut and I bleed and I’ve nearly died more times than I can count. I’m as human as you are Martina, I’m not God and I’m not a god. Hell, I haven’t even met or heard from him. I fit into somebody’s plan for the universe and I try to play my part, the same as you or anyone else. Don’t see me for what I am not.”

Martina stared incredulously at him. “For what you are not,” she laughed, “I’ve already seen too much for that.”

“All that I am is a soldier and teacher and an innkeeper. Isn’t that enough?”

“No, it can’t be enough, how do you know what is going to happen to me?”

Thomas sighed and removed his cigar from that odd pocket, he puffed on it furiously, scarcely noticing when she opened a window to vent the acrid smoke. “Isn’t it enough for you to know that I do know what is going to happen?”

“No, how could it be?” She protested. “I need to know how you could know.”

He retreated into puffing his cigar again. “I return often, to visit my family and to touch base with my home. I leave for a year or two at a time, but I always return to this period in time. Give or take a year or so. I often stop in a few months ahead to see what will happen, before I come to this time. It takes the thrill of experiencing history as it happens, but I am nosey and don’t like surprises. Sometimes I find people in your situation and if you possess the skills that I can put into play elsewhere I approach and make the offer.”

“And if they don’t have these skills? You just let them die?”

Thomas bit angrily into his cigar and spoke with it clenched between his teeth. “Do you realize what I go through just to save one of you? Tomorrow morning your neighbors will see you stretch on the steps out front, you’ll wave to a few of them and begin your run. It won’t be you, it will look, feel, act and even taste like you. I will have to create this duplicate, clone, or simulacrum, whatever you chose to call it. I will have control over it until the instant that it dies, and part of me will suffer the pain and anguish that I am sparing you. How often do you think that I could stand that? You will be the thirteenth person that I have done this for, and I dread the experience. Step down from your high horse, missy, until you can understand what will happen to me you have nothing to say in this.”

“Then why do it?”

“Because you have talents and knowledge that will do little for this world, but you have the chance to help another.”

“But why go to all of the trouble,” Martina probed carefully.

“Because the history of this world, past, present and future is set. If you are to die then you must die, you cannot simply disappear, your fate is set and must be met.”

“You can’t change these things?”

“No, if I alter your future then who’s will be affected. You are going to die a horrible death. You will suffer for days at the hands of a butcher and your raped and mutilated body will never be found. If you are not there to meet this fate then who are you condemning to replace you? I have more moral constraints upon me than I have power, despite what you have witnessed and what you may believe. I cannot fail to meet my responsibilities.”

“And if I decide not to go with you?” she asked carefully.

“Then I will leave, and take all knowledge of my visit with me. Tomorrow you will leave this apartment and never return. All that the world will know of you is a lock of hair in a madman’s trophy case. Your DNA will be identified and a madman will be sentenced for your murder and countless others just like it. I will return to Selnendrin and I will do what I may to guide them to their future, and I won’t have your help. I’m done talking about this.” He tossed his cigar, burning tip downward into an empty glass. “Pack it up Erv, its time.”

The odd hand cleared away the bottle, glasses and tankards a few sad noises emerged. “I don’t know, Erv. Are you coming with us, or not?”

The next morning Doctor Martina Kingston, PhD., stood on the steps of her apartment. She stretched and exchanged her morning’s greetings with her neighbor. Across the street a completely normal appearing man waited in a dark van, his eyes took in her features. She was all that he wanted, pale skin, large breasts, red hair, his eyes followed her long legs upward and he licked his lips obscenely as she waved and trotted away, she took her beginning heartbeat and moved quickly down the sidewalk, waving and smiling at another neighbor. He put the van into gear and merged with traffic, just another vehicle beginning the busy workday.

The sun rose gloriously over the mountains. Martina pushed away her blankets and sat up in the comfortable pallet of quilts over pine needles. Thomas stood on the other side of the fire from her; he held a steaming mug against the morning chill staring into a deep valley below. Trees, vast and tall emerged from a deep fog, she marveled again at the beauty of this place. It was the Scottish Highlands, the hills of Ireland and Yosemite all blended in a perfect, unspoiled tapestry.

“Its unbelievable,” she marveled.

“I come to this spot often,” Thomas agreed. “If I ever get used to it I’ve lived too long.”

“Why are we waiting here?”

“Friends of mine will be along this morning. We’ll ride with them to your new home.”

“In a city?” she asked.

“A city, a fort, a great school, and your future,” he answered enigmatically, a habit that she found herself becoming used to in the past few days.

“Then you know what will happen here too?”

“No, not really,” he admitted. “But I do have hunches and I’ve learned to listen to them. I can do very little on earth because I know what will happen there. It’s future is set. I make a point of not knowing the future here, which allows me a freedom of movement because the future is not yet set. You wouldn’t believe it just by looking, but this poor land is nearly bled white. We’re just out of a war, it lasted nearly thirty years, and the wardens of this fair land are desperately rebuilding before their enemies take advantage of their weakness. There are so many good people counting upon their army and their government, and they are faltering. I am here to insure that they succeed.”

“And what am I here to do?”

“To teach,” Thomas answered. “In a few years you will assume duties as a teacher at a very special Academy. You will instill the future officers of the Realm with the discipline and knowledge that they will need to insure the freedom of the noblest people of this world. You will live the life that you wished for every time that you sewed garments from ancient patterns and carried a wooden sword into recreated and regulated battles.”

“Will I be able to wear armor and carry a sword here?”

“You will be able to in thisprovince. It will be you and women like you, which will carry the acceptance of women in arms to the remainder of the Realm. It is legal now, the King decreed so just a few months ago, but you and those that follow will make it proper.”

Martina toyed with her hair, noticing something for the first time. “Is it my imagination, or has my hair darkened?”

“No, it is not your imagination, it is the same color that you were when you were in college.”

“What did you do?”

“I rolled back your clock a bit,” he smiled. “You will still have a finite lifespan, but I did cheat just a bit to get the most that I can from you.”

“You rolled back my clock?”

“Lets just say that I erased a few years of time and gravity from your exterior,” he explained vaguely.

“That makes it sound like you restored an old hag,” she protested.

Thomas ran an appraising eye over her; she was dressed in a light shift despite the coolness of the morning. His examination was thorough and verged on lewd. “You look incredible though,” he smiled wickedly.

She blushed deeply and crossed her arms over her breasts. “I could actually feel you looking at me, just like you were looking though me.”

“Not through you, I stopped well short of that.” He laughed and winked. He returned his attention to the road hidden in the trees below. “You may want to get dressed,” he announced. “You only have an hour or so before our escort arrives.”

“Are you sure?”

Thomas turned and stared at her, and shook his head as he laughed again. “Erv, could you arrange a large kettle of hot water. I’m sure that Lady Martia would like to freshen up for travel.”

“Lady Martia?” Martina asked carefully.

“Martina is too uncommon of a name here, and of course I’ll arrange some form of title for you. A title will make people take you seriously until you establish yourself. I have arranged your adoption into a family, actually into a clan to establish your identity. You will meet your father soon.”

“My father?”

“Your adopted father of course,” he explained unnecessarily.

“Who will I be?”

“Lady Martia Alford, the youngest daughter of Lord Sterling Alford. He is the Count of Alford and chief of Clan Alford. They are a small clan, that live very near the provincial border. Quite near a ford by coincidence.”

“Why would he adopt me, sight unseen?”

“Because his children were killed in the war, you closely resemble his daughters, and I am restoring the wealth of his family. He left himself a pauper supporting refugees of the war, but mainly he is doing this because I have asked him to.” He returned his attention to the road. “You had better hurry, my Lady, our escort is closing.”

She bathed in a large wooden tub screened by blankets strung between saplings. She examined herself quickly, but thoroughly, as she washed. “Thomas,” she called.

“Yes,” he replied.

“How far back did you roll my clock,” she asked, “I mean, how old am I?”

“You have just turned twenty.”

“How thorough were you?” she asked.

“How old were you when you lost your virginity?”

“Twenty-two,” she answered carefully.

“I was that thorough, at least,” Thomas laughed. She felt herself blush again, he could embarrass her so easily. “Hurry along now, there are no blow driers here, and you don’t want to greet our guests with wet hair do you?”

Martina Kingston, Lady Martia Alford, was dressed for travel when the escort arrived. A very tall and handsome young man in full plate led the column. He acknowledged Thomas with a friendly wave, and then froze at the sight of his friend’s companion. Martia rose from a campstool. Her height was not lost on him, neither was her long red hair and green eyes. Thomas had presented her a traveling outfit of deep hunter green that matched her eyes and complexion to perfection.

The young man realized that he had frozen like a statue, arm raised in greeting and his mouth hanging open. In truth he would have sat there for much longer if his sister hadn’t ridden forward and rapped him lightly on the back of his head. She removed her helmet and shook her long braid loose.

“Thomas,” she smiled in greeting.

“Captain Telbrantil,” he greeted her with friendly formality.

“General Chaliese,” she corrected him on both counts. She slipped off her cloak and dismounted.

Thomas met her with and embraced her tightly. “I congratulate you on both counts then.” He stepped back and made a great show of examining her. “You are with child, my Lady,” he commented.

“Just barely,” she acknowledged. “I found out during my accolade.”

“Lord Defender of the Realm, or is it Lady Defender?” He asked with humor.

“Dame Defender,” she replied. “My brothers within the Order are yet coming to grips with a woman in their midst. It will come to them with time.”

“Should you really be riding at a time like this?” Thomas asked.

“You are as bad as the rest of them,” she struck him in the shoulder.

Thomas led her across the camp; the young man was still somewhat awestruck as he nervously studied Martia. “Lady Martia, allow me to present General Elliese Chaliese, and her brother, Drake Telbrantil V, the Lord of Talmaran.”

“Pleased, my lord, I’m sure,” she greeted him as she curtsied. He found no words to reply.

The years stop for no man, despite his feelings to the contrary. Thomas sat in his customary place, watching the patrons of his the Traveler, a vast building with several different inns, taverns, shops and gambling dens. A messenger passed him a note with mute respect. Thomas nodded and slid a silver coin across the table to him. The messenger at first refused, but an insistent tap on the proffered compensation made him reconsider. He nodded his thanks and left, not a word exchanged between them.

He sighed deeply as he opened and read the message. He rose and walked quietly from his great inn. Only his employees of long service saw the haste in his step. He strode into the night, and those few that watched his departure swore that he simply faded from existence. Inside they received a last drink of the night and instructions to go home and sleep it off.

Thomas started a few with his arrival, appearing from thin air. She lay, propped slightly, in a great bed in the center of a vast room in Talmaran. The years had been kind to her, he reflected as he took her hand. Her hair was now completely white, but still thick and slightly curled. She was thinner than he remembered, but he ruefully admitted that he always remembered her as he had first viewed her, and now eighty years and more had passed.

“You came,” her voice was scarcely more than a whisper.

“Of course, my dear,” he sat on the edge of the bed. “I am ever yours to command.”

“Tripe,” she scoffed with a smile, “but gallant tripe none-the-less. No one commands the Traveler.”

Thomas smiled, his pale eyes misty. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he teased her fondly.

“Thomas,” she looked him straight in the eyes. “Thank you for this life.”

“You are quite welcome, my dear, but I am more in your debt for living this life.”

“You talk just like them,” she smiled.

“No, they all talk like me, I claim seniority in this matter.”

“Have I done well?” She asked. “It seems silly to wait until now to ask, I know, but allow an old woman her conceits.”

“Look about you,” Thomas answered, gesturing at the large crowd that lined the walls of the large room. “You are surrounded by children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. There is the King, and the Crown Prince. You lie surrounded by almost all of the nobility of the Realm, the commanders of the armies and navies; there must be a hundred packed into this room alone and more waiting outside. I brought you here to teach, and you have created a revolution. The country rebuilt from ruins, and you have taught them that women have strength and brains. You have brought them forward five centuries military thinking and at least a millennium in equality of the sexes. You will be remembered, and you will be very sadly missed.”

She smiled faintly and continued to study his face. “You are still so young,” she sighed.

“Nonsense,” he smiled, “I’m just too vain to look my age.”

Her eyes twinkled at the joke that she had so often made herself. Thomas studied her intently, she had so little time left, and already he could see her heart begin to flutter. He reached out with a thought and steadied its rhythm. She smiled again at him. “You can’t do that forever.”

“No, but I can give you the time that you will need to make your farewell.”

She nodded her thanks. “How many people get the opportunity to spend so long pondering upon their last words?” she wondered. Thomas motioned to the crowd to move closer, and instantly her bed was lost in a sea of well-wishers.

“My time is close,” she announced, her voice had regained some of its strength. “I love you all,” her gaze met the eyes of all that she could see. “It saddens me that I should have to leave you, but that is the way of things. I leave you knowing that I have done all that I may to increase the glory of the Realm, and I charge you each to do the same. We are an island of hope in a world of despair, retain your vigilance. Do not allow the dark hand of despair to ever touch this golden Realm.” Her heart again faltered, and she could feel her voice fail her. Thomas leaned forward.

“I love you most of all,” she whispered in his ear. “Try to find others to share this world with.”

“I will,” Thomas promised, he kissed her lightly as her final breath escaped. Her eyes closed and a faint smile teased at the corner of her lips. He remained seated, holding her hand. He felt the faint and erratic pulse for a few seconds longer. He actually felt her leave, for a moment he could feel her presence, a palatable sensation of love and joy, and then it too was gone. For the first time in longer than he could remember, the solitary man felt truly alone.

© 2009, Tim Boothby. All rights reserved.

by

Randy

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Her saddlebags felt heavy, perhaps the time to lighten them a bit. She unpacked them on the bed, after checking the mattress for unwelcome guests. She never found them at the Traveler but the habit was now firmly ingrained in her. A tightly rolled oilskin fell out on top, she smiled and carefully unrolled it, exposing a beautifully completed proclamation, Arandielle Kyle, Knight of the Realm. She rarely used her full name, preferring Randy. Her service as a frontier scout caused her to bury her feminine identity. Her clothes normally hid her figure, which was quite good and her hair normally close cropped. Only the lack of whiskers betrayed her, but the dirt of the road could even hide that. Her hair was grown out quite a bit now, a short shoulder length for most women but very long to her.

The contents of a lifetime filled the bed, she couldn’t avoid the fact, her life was reduced to a collection of items that were small and easy to pack. Why bother, she wondered, she owned a Vonda bag, but the practice of living from saddlebags was as deeply ingrained as her other habits. It was past time for a change; burrs in her mule’s tail had a more secure home than she could ever claim. She was a mess and no there was no mistaking it. She sighed and tugged the bell pull. A man answered her bell quickly and soon returned with Inata, one of Thomas’ many assistants.

“You need something, my Lady?”

That damned knighthood. “I would like to girl up a bit,” Randy explained simply.

“Certainly, my Lady, I’ll see to it immediately, you may trust me with the arrangements.”

Billien Feris was something of a shock to her, to say the very least. She was used to men in the profession of arms, soldiers to be blunt, very elemental creatures that thrived upon the masculine aspects of their trade. She herself all too often found herself glorying in the same society, if anyone could soften her, or at least her appearance then this was the man. Billien, or Billie as he corrected after they were introduced, stood with a casual air that suggested a definitely or even defiantly effeminate caste.

“Oh darling, you came to me just in time,” his voice was slightly hi pitched but still authoritative… in a rather bitchy way. “Hair, clothes, skin, darling you aren’t a project you are an occupation.” He motioned and ordered with the precision of a Color Sergeant on the drill field. Her clothes were removed and whisked away, fabrics and styles tried and rejected until he finally found the look that he thought best suited her. She was bathed and scrubbed and oiled and treated to a multitude of processes that tried her patience. She was cleansed, scrubbed, styled and groomed from head to toe. Randy had spent time in many camps on occasion her bathing and dressing facilities had left her naked before a few dozen men at a time, but the thoroughness of these ladies was unnerving. She had hair removed in places that she didn’t know that she had, within the space of a few hours she was styled and smooth for the first time in her life.

She was finally dressed in a beautiful dress of the finest brocade, heavy but no to one that routinely wore armor; her short hair was elegantly arranged with an intricately woven net of silk and her face delicately tinted with only the subtlest cosmetics. She could not believe the transition in the mirror. Billie dabbed at his eyes with a fine kerchief. “The butterfly has emerged from her cocoon,” his voice cracked.

“Well,” she conceded, “quite nearly, does this bodice need to be so low?”

“Darling, if I had what you do I’d just let them hang out,” Billie insisted. “Trust me, you look wonderful.”

She looked in the mirror again, she had to admit that the transition was very good. She never suspected that such a woman could share her skin, but the proof was in the mirror. “A fair load of good it will do me though,” she sighed aloud.

“Never fear, my dear,” Billie smiled. “We think of everything.” A knock at the door seemed to prove his point, it opened to reveal a tall man with dark hair and a deep tan. He was young but his face had the slightly leathery appearance of a man that spent most of his life in the sun and wind. His cheeks were lighter in tint, apparently he had quite recently shaved a full beard. He was very tall and dressed simply in the uniform of a captain in the Royal Army; judging from the decorations upon his baldric he was a successful officer, which didn’t necessarily bode well to a retired sergeant. “Lady Arandielle Kyle allow me to present Sir Hawke Amaris,” Billie gestured grandly.

“Lady Arandielle,” the visitor bent at the waist in an uncomfortable bow.

She curtsied slightly, “Sir Hawke,” she returned.

Thomas entered from behind the fidgeting man, “Hawke is attending a military ball at the academy tonight and doesn’t know anyone in the capitol, I believe that you two would enjoy each other’s company.” Thomas too her hand and rested it upon Hawke’s arm. “Off with you, then.” he shooed them out the door.

They walked in silence to a coach that awaited in the street, he held the door, “Lady Arandielle,” he indicated that he would help her in.

“Arandielle, will be fine,” she corrected softly. “But Randy would be better, Lady gets tiring very quickly.”

“Thank mercy,” Hawke sighed as he settled into the padded seat beside her. “I’m not very good at polite niceties.” He looked embarrassed for a moment, “Meaning no offense,” he assured her.

“None is taken,” she assured him. “Your name is familiar, Hawke, where do you serve?”

“Calorem Province, before that I served in the Frontier as a scout.”

“As did I,” Randy admitted a little uncertainly.

“Sergeant Randy Kyle, you tracked the Army of Gamedian just before the Palatine crushed it, that was you?”

“Yes,” she admitted.

“Very nice work!” he congratulated.

“Thank-you,” she blushed.

“You retired?”

“Yes,” she sighed. “The surgeons told me to take a few years to rest and heal. Too many years of wounds treated roughly in the field.”

He nodded with complete understanding. “You have healed beautifully, if I am allowed to observe.”

“Thank-you,” she blushed again.

He knew more, Thomas’ sketch of her was brief but thorough, but he gave no indication of what he might know of her. Their solitude was broken quickly as they swept into Handron Hall, already the dance was in full swing, they had arrived even after the royal couple. Hawke clearly avoided the crowd gathered around them, much to her relief, crowds wore on her nerves. They danced occasionally, spoke occasionally but were each content to sit together and watch the swirl of colors and activity around them. Their reverie was interrupted by his older brother, she met Marshall Titan Amaris in Gamedian and to her surprise he remembered her.

“Your present attire flatters you much more than uniform, Lady Arandielle,” he flattered her as he brushed his lips to her hand.

“Thank-you, my Lord,” she murmured.

“I trust that you will feel free to call upon me or my offices should any need for a small favor arise.”

“If your lordship desires.”

“I am your most obedient servant, my Lady.” He bowed gallantly. “You should visit the capitol more often brother, I’ve missed you.”

“My if you aren’t the picture of gallantry tonight,” Hawke smiled.

“Bloody politics demands it,” Titan sighed, “As does the beauty of your guest.”

“Charm should be applied with a small spoon, brother, not a trowel,” Hawke observed acidly.

Titan laughed warmly, “I must take my leave of you, my Lady. I do not wish to intrude. Come see me Hawke, I need a few tankards with family.” He bowed to Randy and clasped his brother’s hand warmly before leaving them alone.

They sat alone in silence, enjoying the music and solitude. Hawke, almost shyly took her hand, holding it carefully lest she withdraw it from his grasp, she did not. Both noticed the arrival of a small group of men in identical, brightly colored, livery. Hawke stiffened slightly. “Parliamentary fops,” he sneered quietly.

“Order of the scepter?” she asked.

“Yes,” he growled. “Carpet knights, I doubt that any have served.”

They spread through the room, the mood wherever they stopped became coldly formal. One young man, a wastrel by reputation, spied Randy from across the room. She grimaced as he swaggered across the floor toward them. “Brace yourself,” she sighed.

“Dear lady,” he stopped before them, “such beauty cannot be spied without tribute offered,” he bowed grandly, reached for her hand and found that it was not offered. “Will you favor me with a dance?” He pressed gamely.

“Thank-you, but no,” she refused politely.

“Dear lady,” he pressed, “Come down from the wall, little flower, that we may all admire you.”

“I seek no admiration, sir, nor do I desire to be removed from my present company, again I thank you, but I must decline, good evening.”

Irritation replaced his urbane demeanor. “Such demeanor is unbecoming, my dear.”

“Shoo peacock,” Hawke growled, his voice low and menacing.

“How dare you, sir?”

“Quite easily,” he snapped. “The lady has declined, and you display poor manners in your boorish persistence, now be a good boy and take your leave of her as befits a gentleman.”

“Might I have the pleasure of knowing to whom I address myself?” he returned his attention to Randy.

Hawke gently released her hand and rose slowly. “Captain Hawke Ramis, at your service, sir,” he replied coldly.

“I was addressing…”

“You will address yourself to me, sir.” Hawke snapped. “We do not desire your company and you have strained my patience as far as I see fit, you will leave our presence immediately.”

The smaller man turned, but any reply was cut short. “Sir, you are displaying the manners of a goatherd, I believe you were told to leave now do so. I will not have you ruin this gathering with your boyish self-importance.” The voice of King Ramon II was clear and commanding. He placed a hand against the chest of the interloper and pushed him back. Randy rose and curtsied deeply to the Sovereign of the Realm. Ramon smiled and took her hand. It is good to renew our acquaintance, my Lady.”

“Your Majesty is too kind,” she replied with the ritual phrase.

“Not at all,” he smiled. He returned her to her seat and returned his attention to the young wastrel. “Are you still here?”

He raised his head defiantly. “Your Majesty,” he bowed and left quickly. Ramon caught the eye of a young Knight of the Palatine Order, glanced at the retreating noble and cracked his knuckles. The young knight nodded, bowed and followed him quickly into the crowd.

“Pardon my intrusion,” Ramon bowed and left before either could reply.

Hawke returned to his seat. “Sorry,” he said quietly. “He irritated me.”

“It was very nice to let somebody else deal with such things for a change,” Randy smiled, laughed warmly and took his hand again, “I could get used to this.” Hawke sat there his stunned appearance made him look poleaxed. They shared the last dance and slipped out before the crowd. Outside the gates of Handron Hall they found the young Palatine speaking to a sergeant in the city militia and pointing to a heap of unconscious men.

“They fell down the stairs,” he explained.

“All ten of them?”

“Clumsy lot,” he nodded sagely.

“That sounds a bit thin,” the sergeant replied dubiously.

“I’m sure the guards will shed light on this.” They looked at the gate guards standing impassively at the steel gates.

“I’m sure that they will,” the militiaman agreed. “Very well, good evening.”

“And to you as well sergeant,” he agreed pleasantly, he nodded to Randy and Hawke as they entered their coach.

“Energetic young man,” Randy noted.

“Aren’t they all?” he asked laughing.

They rode together in silence, dreading the approaching end of the evening, they finally looked into each other’s eyes, neither would recall who initiated the kiss, it was at first hesitant but quickly became heated. They arrived at the Traveler and stood at the door of her rooms looking at her key in the lock…

© 2009, Tim Boothby. All rights reserved.

by

The Bloody Axe

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It was a miserable time of the year to travel, cold and rainy, the time before the first snowfall covered the land.  Thankfully the roads were good, armies had moved tens of thousands of men and horses, wagons and countless tons of supplies followed them and so fortunately did the engineers to put the roads to right again.  He constantly studied his surroundings as he rode, even riding fast as he did now, a special pass signed by a marshal insured he had a fresh mount waiting every three leagues at the courier stations.  He pulled up and slid from the saddle and stretched stiffly as his saddle and kit were transferred from one mount to another, gratefully accepting a tin mug or steaming tea and a chunk of bread ripped from a fresh loaf.

“Your name Centurion?” the station master asked, his quill poised over his report book.  He was puzzled at the lack of a reply until the husky sergeant at his side threw an elbow into the officer’s ribs.  Newly promoted from the ranks he reckoned.

“Centurion Garvin Reese,” he presented his pass, “First Squadron, Scouts, Fifth Army Staff.”

The entry duly annotated in the book he looked to the shorter man beside the officer.  “Sergeant Bren Vandt, I’m with him.” He replied before shoving the rest of the heel into his mouth.

“Your last change before you reach 5th Army Headquarters,” the hostler sergeant reported.  “Not that they’ve moved since the war started.”

“Good,” Reese fixed a hostile eye upon the surly functionary, “that means they waited for me like I asked.”

He didn’t get where he was by questioning battle-scarred officers of low rank that still spoke like sergeants, and this man didn’t look to have much humor about him this day.  “You’ll find the waiting for you, Sir.”

Reese tossed him the empty mug and mounted up, he checked the dispatch pouches before nudging the horse forward.  “Pissworm,” Reese growled.  “If he knew the Marshal he’d never make wise about him sitting still.”

“He ain’t a patient man for sure,” Vandt agreed as they quickened their pace.  “And that bugger was wrong on one point, the front line ain’t moved maybe, but the rear has, he’s tightening the lines.”

“I hate winter fighting,” Reese grumped.

“Reckon we’ll wait till spring?”

“Better not,” Reese looked grumpier.  “I hate sitting on my arse and freezing all winter even worse.”

“Hard to please,” Vandt laughed as they let the horses have their head.

The camps were close together now, closely congregated around the north and south passes down the vast escarpment that marked the western border of Talmarii Province.  Headquarters for the 5th Army lay between the two, a few days hard march from either and overlooking the occupied lands below, and in the distance the imperial armies that held them.  They reported to the command pavilion to drop off the dispatches and letters and were surprised to find themselves hurried in to see the marshal himself.  Ramon Telbrantil towered over them both as he rose to greet them.  He was half their age but his strength and manner had long since earned their respect.  “Will you take a whiskey?” he offered.  “Dwarven, good stuff to drive out the cold.”  The fiery liquor was accepted and consumed gratefully.  “I’ve need of you,” Ramon said quickly.  “You’re both Palatine now, proven men in a time that I need real soldiers over all.”

“We take the offensive?” Reese asked boldly.

“We drop the bloody hammer,” Ramon assured them as he stepped over to a map table.  “But twenty leagues behind the imperial line is a problem that I think I find the solution for in you.”

“Brescane?” Reese looked down at the map.  “Not much of a place, its mainly earthen stock pens.”

“Exactly, each of those pens holds around a thousand cattle, stone and earth to hold them penned in.”

“No cattle in them now, are there m’lord?” Vandt asked.

Ramon shook his head.  “People, our people.  All prisoners gathered to be sorted.  Captured soldiers and militia to be executed, women and children shipped south as slaves and the remaining men worked to death supporting Basdred’s armies.”

“How many Imps holding the place?” Reese looked down with interest.

“A battalion of heavy infantry,” Ramon replied.  “Two cohorts of Ogres, two of Garesh Zerig, one of Garesh Kirit.”

“Cavalry?” Reese asked as he studied the diagrams of Brascane.

“Two squadrons patrolling a radius of ten miles around,” Ramon replied.  “They are spread thin and mainly meant to carry a warning back if a threat is sighted.”

“Orders?” Reese asked.

“First, sew these on,” Ramon tossed a set of two white stripes on the table before him.  “You’re a tribune now, commander of the Highland Raiders.”

“Never heard of them,” Vandt wondered aloud.

“Its been built for me by Color Sergeant Galandorn, five hundred picked soldiers.  All veterans of combat, tough bastards that’ll fight a forest fire with a tea cup.  You’ll be meeting them soon, they won’t be pretty to see, but they’ll fight.”

“Galandorn, you say,” Reese smiled at that.  “And after I meet these berserks?”

“You’ll take Brescane and hold it until relieved,” Ramon said firmly.  “No quarter to the troops holding it, and you’ll arm all that you can and use them to help in the defense.  You’ll be the opening move, if you keep to my time table you’ll attack Brascane at the same time that I unleash hell along the entire west.”

“Sixty miles behind enemy lines,” Reese said as he studied the map.  “That’s a long way for relief to come, through occupied territory.”

“I’ve picked your relief force carefully,” Ramon winked.  “Do you think that the First and Second Corps of the Palatine order under Baron Tigre and Lord Galen will suffice until the 16th Corps can fight through to you?”

“I do at that,” Reese allowed, “How many are held at Brescane?”

“Ten thousand, give or take, all on short to no rations.”

“And we can’t carry in enough to feed them all either.  So we’ll need to drop the hammer, seize the supplies there, and feed and arm all that we can until relieved.  Three days at least until relieved and longer until we get any real replenishment.”

“If it was easy I wouldn’t need you,” Ramon reminded him.

“I’ll see to it, m’lord,” Reese assured him.  “How long do I have?”

“You have all night to eat and rest from your journey, you’ll take command at dawn and march two days later, I expect you to be in possession of Brescane ten days from now.”

“All the time in the world,” Reese replied, his bravado matching that of his commander.

“Exactly,” Ramon grinned.  “See you don’t bugger things, off with you.”

“Sir,” Bren looked Ramon dead in the eye.  “Are they killing our lads yet?”

“A few thousand so far,” Ramon nodded.  “Axes.”

“Bastards.”

“Your orders are clear?”

“They are,” Reese assured him.  “We kill the pigs and hold till relieved.”

As an officer Garvin was supposed to have a tent separate from Bren but they’d served together too long through the ranks for that to seem natural for him just now, especially with such a daunting assignment before them.  Left to his own devices he’d scout Brescane himself then lead the attack in, but now he had the reports of other scouts that he’d have to act upon.  As many had acted upon his in the past.  With that realization firmly in his thoughts he studied the map carefully.

“They’ve burned off everything for more than a mile in every direction,” Reese pointed out.

“Night fighting,” Bren nodded.  “Main force straight in with a squadron flanking to either side?”

“One squadron rides up to the gates, a patrol coming in for replenishment, and they take the gates and the rest pour in behind,” Reese nodded.  “We’ll take that for the plan for now, we’ll know better when some of our own eyes are in place.”

“And we have our eyes on those picked men,” Vandt reminded him.  “Something doesn’t strike me right about all of this.”

“Agreed,” Reese grumbled.  “Find a runner and call the officers here.”

“Aye, Trib,” Bren saluted jauntily.

“Get stuffed.”

Reese was a veteran, which set him apart from a great deal of the 5th Army these days, he was also a combat veteran, which made him that much rarer.  The Marshal was trying to build an army from the remnants of another.  Seventy thousand men killed outright in the Battle of Kerandor Plains, forty thousand more lost in the rearguard from their fallen ally in Wisnore.  Thirty thousand more that would never take the field after wounds or the abuse of a grinding withdrawal.  Forty thousand veterans and one hundred and sixty thousand troops ranging from seasoned survivors from Wisnore to green boys straight from the farm.

This was the army that held the west, a green and seasoning army that held by virtue of its position more than anything else all approaches from the west into the heart of the Realm.  All pressed for action, but young though he may be Marshal Telbrantil stood firm and relentlessly drilled and trained his troops.  His advantage, soldiers like Color Sergeant Galandorn, a veteran of fifty years or more and a drill sergeant like no other.  If Galandorn trained this Battalion then his curiosity was well-piqued indeed.  Talmaran was not too far to their rear, and its academy had trained nearly every officer of the Realm for the past thousand years, and now they left no stone turned in their efforts to prepare the rebuilding Fifth.

“Sir,” Vandt stepped back inside the tent.  “Centurion Deale Delbant, adjutant commander; Sergeant Jella Kourdale, battalion quarter master; Centurion Wende Galt, Commander of the 1st Squadron; Centurion Yance Tuscorrah, 2ns Squadron; Centurion Carlon Teage, 3rd Squadron; Centurion Arial Chander, 4th Squadron and Centurion Dorek Halder, 5th Squadron.”

Reese nodded to them each in turn, rising from the map stable covered with orders, charts and papers.  “Ladies, gentlemen,” he greeted them.  “I understand that you’ve had several weeks to get to know each other, I won’t have that luxury with you.  Tomorrow morning I assume command, I trust you’ll forgive my presumption in gathering you here tonight to lay the groundwork for a campaign that’s longer on hope than chances of success.”

He waited for any to gainsay his choice of timing then proceeded.  “Tomorrow morning at dawn I will assume command of the Highland Rangers, from that moment you have two days to insure your individual commands are ready in all respects to take the field, because that morning, at dawn we ride.  We will be in battle ten days from then, far behind enemy lines and unsupported until the army can fight through to us.”  He looked them over sternly.  “We’ve been selected above all others to this task, we ride to free thousands of our people and kill every soldier of the Empire that we come across.  We take no prisoners, we stop for nothing, we ride, we kill we free we hold and protect until relieved, am I clear?”

Centurion Delbant, a tall and sober man regarded his commander carefully.  “What is our target?”

“For the ears of those in this room only,” Reese said firmly.  “We go to Brescane, it is held by an imperial battalion in the village and two squadrons of cavalry in the area.  We have to loop around to a gap in the lines, then move with all haste, and take the city on the tenth day of the march.  That is the day that Marshal Telbrantil unleashes the Fifth Army, and that information is not uttered until after it happens, or after we’re dead, whichever comes first.”

He paused to insure that sank in.  “We carry nothing extra, minimum kit.  The uniforms and armor on our backs, one cloak, one blanket, and thirteen days hard rations, all we’ll have to work with is captured stores when we take Brescane.  As far as any will know we’re marching to train with the new commanding officer, we tell them the first night of the march.”

Delbant leaned over the map, his long face looked predatory.  “With your permission, Sir,” he glanced at Reese.  “We hammer it into the sergeants and corporals, no extra weight.  Hard rations are no fun but every ounce we carry is a tax upon the horses as the days pass.  I think this goes without saying that officers will ride under the same restrictions.”

“It does,” Reese agreed.  “With the sole exception of the haversack, I’d hate to think that I’d deprived any of you of the opportunity to keep up on your reports by stripping you of your hip secretary.”  He ignored the gimlet stares and returned their attention to the maps.  “To get sixty miles behind the lines we’ll be riding five times that, we’re going small and discreet to insure that they don’t speed up the pace of the executions.  Rest assured that they are executing soldiers taken behind the lines, fortunately they are doing it at random for now, the moment that they think that action is undertaken to free their prisoners, they slaughter them wantonly from that instant onward.  We’re in the distasteful position of moving with deliberation and caution while knowing that our comrades in arms are paying for the time we take with our lives.”

There was muted fury around the table.  Centurion Arial Chander put their frustration into words.  “Why aren’t we there now?  Why wait ten days to get into the war?”

“We are in the war, Centurion,” Reese replied.  “Or had it escaped your attention that Basdred hasn’t walked down this bit of road toward the midlands or the capitol beyond?  I don’t begrudge you the time you spent training while I bloody walked all the way from here to Basdred’s own tent, stole back one of our own officers and walked all the way back.  Neither do I hear the soldiers on the line fighting every day to hold the lower passes complain when they buy you the weeks and months it took to train you into a cohesive unit.”  He looked at them all, feeling the heat of his frustrations boil up.  “Four of every five soldiers in this army had to learn to be a soldier, to learn in weeks and a few scant months what it took some of us years to learn.  If you want to be worthy of those stripes at your shoulders then think with your bloody heads.  How about I hand you a hundred clodhoppers, a green as the grass stains on their feet, and I’ll send you into a fight against the Imps.  They have all of those blooded legions, a million bloody men down there and we sit here with a fifth of that, and of that fifth only a fifth were fit for action.  Now he’s built the army, and he’s moving his forces carefully to avoid attracting attention, and mustering the last of what he needs to wage a sustained campaign.  He’s done all that it takes to wage war, against an enemy that dwarfs us, so let us concede that anger is no substitution for knowing what you’re talking about, and we’ll further concede that a Marshal in the service of the King might have more to offer than his very junior officers.”

There was silence at that.  Garvin Reese was at least twice their age, a decorated combat veteran and Knight of the Palatine Order.  Moreover he knew Marshal Telbrantil, served on his staff, undertook missions into the belly of the beast for him.  Reese was given command of this mission, and them, because he was too good to fail, he might lose and he might die, but he would never fail.  And that strength poured from him now.

“You have until I take the flag of this Battalion into my hand to remember who you are and why you’re here,” Reese said sternly.  “If I have to lead this men with nothing but sergeants and corporals then I will.  Get out of my sight, you’re dismissed.”

“You landed hard,” Bren observed when they were alone.

“Had to,” Reese sighed as he sat at the camp table; he picked over a plate of bread, cheese and sausage as he thought for a moment.  “Did you notice the uniforms on some of the officers were militia?”

“Baranadell Province,” Bren replied with a nod.

“So some of this hand-picked force is from the very province that we’re going to pull this rescue, that means its personal, and men with personal stakes are liable to take long chances and not hear orders,” Garvin Reese dipped a piece of sausage into a small bowl of mustard sauce.  “Tomorrow I’ll look the rest of them over and I’ll probably land hard again.  We need to work as soldiers, if discipline fails then so do we.  I need to make sure they know that.”

“Good thing you have me watching your back,” Bren sighed, seeing a list of potential problems flash before his eyes.

Reese poured ale from a pitcher into an empty mug and slid it over to his comrade.  “Good indeed.”

[hr:1nra49tp][/hr:1nra49tp]

It was a ride that none had ever even heard of, let alone make themselves.  There was some debate over the more unusual, the circumstances or their commander.  They turned out on parade to receive their colors and commanding officer, long gleaming lines of men in perfect uniform to see Tribune Reese arrive in battle worn field gear.  He accepted the colors and passed them wordlessly to the scarred sergeant behind him and summoned the officers forward and pounced on them for turning out the command in a state unprepared for battle.  Their dress uniforms were packed away and turned in for storage by the quartermaster.

They were never certain when he slept in the time of preparation, he ate with his officers at all meals but there was none of the solemn formality of the mess.  Every meal was planning and long tersely worded lectures about his expectations.  Word filtered through the battalion as they prepared to march, and then when he finally disclosed their mission.

“We are leading the assault in the west, as we attack Brescagne the Fifth Army will attack and drive into Baranadell.  We are the largest force that can be sent with a hope of success, yet remain undiscovered by our enemy.  We’re making the deepest strike of the war, but this is not a vengeance ride.  We are the Scouts Battalion of the Fifth Army or the Royal Army of Selnendrin, we are soldiers and we will act as soldiers.  We will not be discovered, we will evade where we can and fight only where we must until we reach Bresagne, and then we’ll kill every mother’s son of them that we find.  We cannot hold Brescagne and the people held there and guard prisoners at the same time.  We will kill every last enemy we find and hold until relieved.  We only have two options, we win or we die.  If there are any that can’t stand the thought of dying you were a damned fool to volunteer.”

Three hundred miles through the cold and rain, then the cold and sleet.  Scant comfort, no hot food, pushing and babying their mounts because to lose a horse was to lose a man and there was nothing or no one to spare.  And yet there was always Reese, riding along the columns and encouraging them onward through the mud.  Feet were always a worry, let a man’s or mount’s feet be neglected and they were lost.  And at long last their objective was in sight and the plan went into effect.  In the rain men on horses looked like men on horses, their cloaks hid their uniforms, their colors hadn’t been uncased during the entire ride.  Garvin rode with fifty men toward the gate of the hastily erected stockades in the darkness, they rode slowly and looked for all the world like exhausted soldiers returning from patrol for supplies.  He resisted the urge to look around to see if the rest were staying out of sight.  He’d given his orders and an unusual caveat with them.  “If any of you do anything stupid, anything at all, I won’t waste the Crown’s time with courts martial, I’ll personally kill you.  Hack you into bloody steaming meat and piss on what’s left of you.  Am I clear?”  He smiled at the sober nods, they weren’t sure if he was serious, but the strength of his convictions fed their confidence.

They came closer to the gate and two torches were set atop the wall, his scouts had watched Brescagne and learned the signals for night approach.  From his column two torches were lit at the front one in the middle and two at the rear.  The correct countersign, and they fit right into his plan.  The approached the gate at a clip.  “Feed for my horses and whores for my men!” he shouted up to the men on the wall.  His men laughed and cheered his order and the gates creaked open.  The first twenty five men dismounted and ran for the ladders and gates under Vandt’s charge, swarming up to contend with the guard and prevent the gates from being closed.  The torches were thrown outside the gates and the remainder of the battalion rode hard for the gates while Reese and the remaining twenty five mounted rode for the prisoner pens.

His plan relied on speed and confusion, they would secure the gates so the rest could attack the garrison force, and Garvin, with his small detachment would shield the innocent.  The prisoners were held in a series of stock pens surrounded by an earthen wall.  Garvin and his standard bearer rode up to the top of the bank wall and the colors streamed loose in the wind.  “People of Selnen, to me!  To me!” He roared at the top of his lungs as a few of his men hacked at the makeshift gates as the rest unlimber bows and cut down everyone in imperial uniform.

Prisoners, captured soldiers of the Royal Army rose, and though starved and weak they attacked the guards at the gates of their pens with their bare hands, some ran to their death knowing it would come, but shielding with their bodies those behind, arrows in their bodies wouldn’t stop those following them, some grasped spears and held them in their own bodies so their comrades could attack the man at the other end.  As the gates broke Garvin rode back down the slope and through the gates, leading his men to clear the guards, leaving five men to hold the gates.  Reese fought the anger that rose within him, now was the time for cold anger and calculated rage.  There were a hundred men in the pens, twenty on each of the five massive holding areas, and Garvin rode to the one where the fighting was fiercest.  He reared his horse, its hooves crashed a lone guard into the gates, but they did not give, he kicked the bar from the gates and rode through, great sword in hand.

Garvin Reese was proud of many things; high on that list was his ability to fight dirty.  He rode down one man as his blade flashed down and split a man from crown to sternum.  He kicked the man off of his sword as he slammed the edge of his shield into the face of another.  “Selnens to me!” he shouted waved his sword over his head.

Bloody, remorseless, savage fighting.  The Imperials knew that they were dead no matter what, they’d executed hundreds of their enemy, many of them had participated in rape, maiming, murder and theft.  They were invaders in this land, and there was nothing resembling mercy in the faces of their prisoners or the tactics of their enemy.  Sergeant Vandt and a squad had captured the headquarters of the enemy, situated in the home of the mayor, and the command staff with it.  Garvin limped heavily through the village from the pens, his saddle and gear over his shoulder.  Pity, it was a damned fine mount that fell.  He ordered it and all other fallen mounts butchered for the people held in Brescagne.

He met Vandt on the porch of the house.  “What’s the butcher’s bill?” he asked, his voice deep and ragged.

“Seventy dead, nearly twice that wounded.” Bren sighed.  “In a pinch you can field three squadrons, more if any here are fit to serve, but I hold out no hope there.”

“Heaps of the dead,” Garvin said tightly.  “They put hundreds of our men to the axe.  It’s a violation of the laws and courtesies of war.”

“We have the officers,” Bren reported.  “And one hundred and eighty prisoners, most of them wounded.”

“Assemble the prisoners here,” he said after a moment’s thought.

“Even those with the surgeons?”

“The surgeons deal with Selnens,” Garvin looked to his old friend with tired eyes.  “Nothing Imperial will long benefit from the surgeons’ ministrations anyway.  I’m trying them all right here, right now.  Two squadrons will gather everyone that can work and fortify this place, the rest will supervise the prisoners.”

Bren knew what he was saying, they would execute their prisoners.  But, this would be different to what they’d found here.  There would at least be the formality of a trial conducted.  “I’ll round them up.”

Reese was tired, hungry, cold and aching, but duty was a stern taskmaster, one thing more he must accomplish this day he reflected, but even then he couldn’t rest.  Defenses were in work, patrols were out, many of his men were dead and dying, or down and hopeful to mend.  He ignored the gathering of enemy troops before the building that would soon serve as his headquarters, even when the imperial officers inside were dragged out.  A scarred corporal stood silently beside his tribune, and shortly Reese turned his attention to the man.  “Report.”

“This is the axe they used to kill our men,” the grim instrument was handed over.  Double-bladed on a four foot tall haft, capped at the lower end with a blunt cone of steel.  Blood stained the blade and had even soaked into the wood of the haft.  Reese took it from the offering hands and finally looked over his prisoners, and the crown gathered behind the soldiers guarding them.  At his signal those standing were forced to their knees.

“I call you to good order,” Reese said loudly, surprised that his tired voice seemed to carry through to the whole crowd with no effort.  A subtle Palatine ability, but one he appreciated greatly just now.  “I convene the general court of the Fifth Army Scouts Battalion, I, Tribune Sir Garvin Reese, Knight of the Palatine Order shall preside.  You the accused are charged with unlawfully entering the lands of the Realm, this illegal entry was made under arms and with malice, you have waged bloody war upon the people of the Realm, and engaged in theft, banditry, rape and enslavement of the free peoples of the Realm.  Under the laws of the Realm and it’s Articles of Unification I exercise the legal prerogative of the Realm empowering the Palatine Order to render summary justice in cases so grave and far from courts.”

He paused and let these words sink in for a moment as he saw the faces of the prisoners pale, and nods of approval from those who had so recently been prisoners themselves.  He held up the axe they had used to execute without trial or justice his own countrymen.  “As you are charged, so are you found guilty, the proof of your guilt is in the witnesses that stand here against you, both living and dead.  The law and freedom that you stripped from them is restored, and will be confirmed by my sentence.  You are all guilty, and the penalties for these crimes is well known and richly deserved.  Death.”

Reese strode to the enemy commander and kicked him in the chest, sprawling him on the ground, the axe rose and fell, the spike ay the foot of the shaft drove through the man’s chest, pinning him to the muddy ground.  “Execute the sentence,” he ordered, and listened to the sounds of swords drawn from scabbards.  His men struck swiftly and in the space of a few minutes the dead were heaped high.  Reese’s face was flat and expressionless, but inside he felt the full weight and magnitude of his order.  Never should one be forced to give such an order.  But the heaped dead was much smaller than that of their victims.  He stood alone for a short time, but then felt a hand on his leg and looked down into the bright green eyes of a little boy.

His face was gaunt and cold, his clothing soaked.  Reese reached behind his back and slipped the regulation cape from the straps holding it to his belt and knelt as he wrapped it around the boy.  “Do you have anyone?” he asked quietly.

The boy gravely shook his head and pulled the warm wool closer about himself.

“We’ll see to you,” he promised.  “We’ll see you all.”

Tribune Reese studied the fortifications carefully, noting the cloud he exhaled with every breath.  It was cold and getting colder.  Thousands of freed prisoners and less than three hundred fit men to protect them.  Fit soldiers,” he corrected himself as he noticed a woman with corporal’s stripes walk past in a Talmarii Militia uniform.  That’d take getting used to.  The dead horses of his command and the oxen of the Imperial supply depot were butchered and now roasted as his cooks, supplemented by their charges prepared the first meal many had seen in days, supplemented by supplies of the Imperial Army.  A third of his command was out scouting for the enemy, good news traveled fast, but bad news flew, and soon he’d be hip deep in a counterattack that his tired soldiers men and starved and exhausted people scrambled to put in order.

Trenches widened and deepened, picks sometimes making only scratches in ground that was freezing even as they worked.  Others were piling stakes to present a sharpened hedge toward the enemy.  One encouraging report told him that he had nearly two hundred engineers among the released prisoners; they were directing the construction and moving engines into place, catapults and ballistae would help balance his numbers.  It took fewer to defend a fortified position than to take it, but he’d succeeded on luck and feeble fortifications designed only to contain prisoners.  He’d have to make do with trenches, stakes and banked dirt.

The supply depot was another source of relief.  He took down the tents and moved them to cover the pens, the people would be safer there, and the canvass shelter was better than open sky above them, they tended to this themselves as the soldiers were all gainfully employed elsewhere.  Huge bundles of arrows, crates of swords and shields, bales of imperial uniforms, barrels of food and even wine and beer.  There was also enough brigantine to outfit enough men to at least allow them the chance of standing to duty, many women were already stripping imperial insignia from the clothes to prevent confusion later.

Fate gave the 5th Army Scouts four days of harsh labor to prepare, then reports returned that a legion of heavy cavalry was on its way from the north, another of infantry from the west, and two legions of siege engineers from the south.  He had three hundred fully fit soldiers and twice that of sick and weakened to stand against four thousand, and his command was light cavalry, facing heavy assault troops.  It was a race, and the survival of Brescagne relied upon the Palatine winning that race.

It was a bold and decisive series of moves, days before Reese had led the scouts out General Cecil Bragg led thousands of dwarves down the face of the Talmar Escarpment, a few hundred feet straight down on a dark and moonless night.  By the next night fifty thousand occupied recaptured lands in the very center of the eastern border of Imperial occupied lands.  Mainly Dwarven mountain infantry and engineers.  Adding to the fear, each of the dwarves had two massive dwarven mastiffs, war dogs of fearful reputation.  This had forced the shift in enemy lines that allowed Reese and his battalion to slip through the lines and take Brescagne.

News of the capture of Brescagne was of secondary importance when it arrived at the Emperor’s headquarters, his problems were many-fold.  Bragg was attacking out from the center, thousands of dwarves and twice than many dogs moved boldly, even recklessly, in another night assault that started the war and crushed everything set before them.  Routed Imperial forces, many times the number of their foes fell back trying to rebuild their broken lines, but the dwarves fought all night, through the next day and into the night again before they too paused to consolidate their lines.  Bragg, a military historian, had created a strategy that would be studied by many that followed him.

In the north twenty thousand cavalry led the breakthrough, the infantry followed and relieved the long-besieged fortifications holding the approaches to Blood Canyon.  The Cavalry continued to exploit the breakthrough, spreading through the enemy’s rear and capturing or destroying thousands of supply wagons as the infantry began a slower relentless advance, forcing the northern Imperial flank toward the center, adding to the confusion and panic.

In the South the Palatine Order as a whole led the assault, twenty five thousand strong, all the finest and most decorated soldiers of the Realm, they obliterated a force twice their size and barely paused as they raced off to relieve Brescagne as thirty thousand more cavalry continued the assault against the shattered and demoralized southern flank.  Fifty thousand infantry followed them, a brutal hammer than pressed the flailing and uncoordinated enemy.

Two of the greatest men in Selnen history led the Palatine in their lightening assault.  Lord Denschlep Tigre VI, Baron of Selnendrin and commander of the Palatine Order led the First Corps while Galen Chaliese, himself over a thousand years old and the First of the Palatine of Selnendrin led the Second Corps in a blocking action to keep the enemy from the First Corps as they rode hard to Brescagne.

Tigre was an indomitable spirit, he would not falter or fail in any task.  Imperial formations, upon seeing the flags of the Palatine and his standard retreated without making contact, trying to move north to join with the center to consolidate the lines, they retreated right into the Second Corps, and the banner of Lord Galen Chaliese, and while they feared the Tigre, Galen’s name filled them with horror and ounce again retreat turned to rout.

While The Palatine made what was turning into a ride to glory, Lord Ramon Telbrantil, freshly promoted to Marshall of the Royal Armies of Selnhendrin, took command of the drive on the center, fresh forces pushed past the exhausted dwarves.  Marshall Messiese Chadnore, now Commander of the Fifth Army commanded the action in the North, and General Marcus Corrandon, second in command of the Fifth, exploited the breakthrough in the south to link with the Second Army.

Commanders on both sides strove to pull order from the mayhem of battle, but the task was easier for the attacking Fifth Army, though they faced five to one odds they held the initiative on every front, they pushed onward despite weather, exhaustion and losses to keep their enemy off-balance and flailing to recover.  In one stroke Ramon Telbrantil had shifted the course of an entire war.  But in Brescagne they didn’t know this, they were waiting grimly to face an enemy, determined to hold, this would be a stand to the last drop of their blood

It was nearly dawn, and no one slept in Brescagne, the defenders manned the earth and wood “walls” though they were spread thin.  By Reese’s order every man, woman or child capable of bearing  arms did so now, even those in the walled enclosures that once served as their prisons.  Messengers, the craftiest and most devious troopers Sergeant Vandt could find were sent back along the route the Palatine would likely take to relieve them.  They’d better come soon, Reese thought the words he would never utter aloud.  He had his orders, and more importantly he had his responsibilities, thousands of them.

He stood atop the mayor’s house, his captured headquarters, and watched the advancing lines.  As he expected the they were concentrating toward the bridge that crossed the trench to the gate, they knew the layout of Brescagne, but they didn’t know he’d doubled the depth and width of the trench, and the size of the wall as well.  They also didn’t know that the bridge had been withdrawn inside the defenses.

“The idiots are sending up the cavalry,” Vandt scoffed.  “What good will that do?”

“They’ll scout us out and test the range of our defenses,” Reese said thoughtfully then sipped his steaming tea.  “Pass the word, we do not engage the cavalry.  They can’t jump the trench, and they can’t ride through it, we’ll let them have their look and wait to gut the infantry when they come forward.  We wait until the infantry is at half range, we’ll try and draw their engines in close enough to bleed them dry.”

As expected the cavalry ringed the city, raining down arrows which the defenders grudgingly weathered, they knew the reason why but there wasn’t a single line in the King’s Regulations and General Orders that said they had to like it.  One advantage they had was the preponderance of cavalry in the enemies order of battle.  They’d come forward with only half of their infantry and engineers rather than waiting to consolidate their strength.  Cavalry was the bane of infantry on open ground, but barring trickery such as they had used, it was useless against deep trenches and sharpened stakes.  It would take infantry and engineers to cross the trenches and break the defenses.

There was a pause as the cavalry made its report, then they resumed their advance.  “They still want the gate,” Reese observed.  “I think it’s time to taunt them a little.  Show them a little contempt.” He grinned, and the order went out and the captured flags were waved defiantly over the makeshift battlements as the men screamed and gestured defiantly and profanely.  Then the captured shields of the dead officers were hung over.  Soldiers have a surplus of pride, which worked for and against them, in this case the defiance served to goad them, needle their sensitive pride as here stood a challenge to their conquest, a mark against their pride and honor, a mark they would either remove or pay a grim price to an Emperor unforgiving of weakness or mistakes.

The order came and the archers advanced before the infantry, the engines rolled up behind the lines of foot.  They’d sweep the walls clear and then rush and swarm them.  As the arrows fell the defenders hunkered down and rode it out, relying on their officers and spotters to finally let them retaliate.  The Imperials advanced with caution but grew bolder as the barrage squelched all signs of life from the embankment.  The officers began to push them forward, they had to remove this threat to their rear, the Emperor himself had demanded it be done with all haste as this little spot could soon be a focal point in reconstituting their lines as the Selnens had them in full rout all along the western theater.  Those were orders that had life and death implications for the commanders.  The lines were closely packed, they could swallow this place up with numbers alone, so long as the men didn’t falter.

“They are ringed in, my Lord,” the scout reported.  It’s an archer’s battle now, they tried sending in the infantry but they left a line of dead fifty paces from their outer works, our lads are in a tight spot.”

Tigre nodded and absently rubbed his horses neck as he walked beside, they were resting their horses for the ride into Brescagne.  “Reese is a good man, he’ll hold them together.  He won’t need to for long.  How long until the Imperial’s reinforcements are up?”

“Their vanguard’ll be there before us, but not in time to deploy and join in the attack,” he reported.  “But the engineers’ll be pounding Brescagne before either side gets there.”

“You said the line of dead was at fifty paces?”

“Yes, my Lord.”

“Clever,” Tigre nodded.  “He’s drawing in their engines.  What has Reese for engines.”

“We couldn’t see,” he replied.  “He has high walls of embanked earth and timbers.”

Tigre nodded and ordered the scout to make the same report to Galen and the Second Corps.  He refined his strategy as he walked, he planned for everything but enemy survivors.


“Barricade the gate,” Reese ordered as a stone landed just short of it.  “Build up a rampart and if they rush the gate put pikes in place to hold them back.”  He studied the placement of the engines.  “They’re moving them up again, the archers will be back at it soon.”

“Garv,” Vandt pointed.  “Center left, bridging.”

Reese lifted his glass and studied the enemy and swore foul sulfurous oaths, with great enthusiasm.  “They’re coming,” he said tightly and glassed all points of the compass.  “We’re in the shite boyo, they’re getting desperate.”  He passed the glass to Vandt and turned to his signal corporal.  “Signal general action, all points.”

At the sound of the trumpets the archers rained death down upon the walls from all sides, under the shelter of the arrows hundreds moved forward.  “Signal the engineers to stand to, oil and arrow.”  He waited for them to close to one hundred paces and gave the order to “loose the wolf.”  Flaming casks and large bundles of arrows and javelins arched high into the air, they each had their ranges set for certain aim points, insuring a wide swath at different ranges.  The ballistae were shifted by winch and pulley up wooden ramps to the top of the wall, their javelins tore through the first and second ranks, the crews warded in the front and above by large shields held by nervous bearers, as the engineers cranked frantically to cock and reload.  Archers scrambled up to provide more cover, they aimed specifically at their opposing counterparts.  The catapults rained down fire and barb over the ranged archers and the engines moving forward, ugly gouts of flame burst along the lines, spraying over the packed ranks.

“Garv, they’re charging!”  Vandt shouted as on all sides the engineers rushed under long wooden bridges toward the trenches.

“Worse,” Reese said tightly.  “Their reinforcements are here, they’ll be in place in under an hour.”

Vandt looked around and laughed.  “More of them to feed the crows.”

Reese smiled and turned to the signalman.  “An extra rum ration for each crew that takes out an engine, or the bridges.”

The men at the gates slumped to sit on the makeshift rampart, the third attack turned in under an hour and already they formed for another.  Reese leapt up to the rampart and looked over the battlement.  Ogres and Kirit-Zereg.  He stared grimly and contemplated his options.  The Zereg were the dwarves of the enemy, well in the greater part at least.  The Garesh were a mix of all races, the Zerig’s blood being more dwarven than the other strains.  They would be a problem, much as the dwarves on his side were to the Imperials, but Ogres were altogether another problem.  Nine feet tall and more than a thousand pounds each, clad head-to-toe in steel and armed with heavy hammers they would be directed at the gates itself.

Through judicious use of the healthier soldier freed from the pens he had one troop, fifty good, tough soldiers he’d held back for this, ready to jump in where they were pressed the hardest.  He’d put two squads here and hold the remaining thirty for emergencies, and didn’t doubt it would come.  He watched the men here at the gate down a ration of rum before washing it down with a pint of water each.  He grinned as a few urinated over the wall, that was the sort of spirit that raised his own.

“They’re coming,” one of the men observed.

Reese nodded and signaled two squads forward.  Rest as you can,” he told the rest, “fresh men will greet them this time, the rest of you freshen up quickly.”

He saw the furtive grins and hopped down lightly and watched the archers form up a dozen yards behind the gates, they’d shoot blind, directed by a sergeant on the walls.  Reese mounted the wall further down to watch, Vandt beside him and his Colors nearby.  The enemy advanced with long plank bridging to cross the trench.  They closed fast, trying to reduce their time under the arrows of the defenders.  First they had to brave the engines and the great gouts of flame that swiped away whole squads at a time.  The Imperial engineers were bringing up more engines to replace those destroyed and Reese looked down to see a few hundred dead, half-frozen meat in the mud.

Then began the archers, sheets of angry shafts darkened the skies above their enemy as the fell among them.  Reese ducked behind his own shield and felt an errant shaft from the enemy struck the boss of his own shield.  “They’re not stopping,” he said quietly.

“Stupid lumbering sods,” Vandt replied.  “Look at their cavalry.”

He looked over and saw that all the cavalry they could muster were deployed to the east and all of the infantry was approaching the trenches now.  “The Palatine are close,” Reese said thoughtfully.  “They’re trying to break through and use Brescagne as an anchor for their own defences.”

“They have less than a fifth the number of the Palatine and are trapped in the open,” Vandt added.  “We just need to hold.”

Reese looked to the planking dropped over the trench, less than a quarter of the bridging had made it this far.  He drew his sword and moved along the wall toward the fighting as his enemy swarmed over to meet him.  Easily a thousand this time, and he had scarcely a hundred to meet them.

The deep thud of massive mauls battering the gate throbbed in Reese’s head; he hadn’t two consecutive hours of sleep in days and felt it dragging him down.  His hands checked over buckles as his orderly fussed over his armor; if he was going to die it would be in his best battle gear.  At least he’d force somebody to the trouble of cleaning his blood from it rather than capturing it useless from his packs.  The engineers were fighting a losing battle to reinforce the failing planks of the gates, even the hinges were bending out of shape now.

“They’re coming at all four sides now,” Vandt reported.  “Color Sergeant Tagan was killed at the rear wall, we’re almost out of officers and warrants now.”

Reese nodded and held out his hand.  “Your duty book.”

Bren looked at him oddly and took the small leather book from inside his arming jack.  Reese made a short annotation in it.  “You’re color sergeant now, hold the rear for me, I’m about to be balls deep in bastards in the front and I’d rather not be bled from the front and buggered in the rear.”

Vandt dropped his hand heavily on his old friend’s shoulder.  “At least when you die you join the order,” he sighed.  “Where I’ll not see you again.”

Reese sighed heavily.  “I’ll find you, they’ll need good scouts,” he assured him with dark humor.  “They’re almost far beyond too late.  We stand to the last man, at least while we fight we by time for the rest.  To the last man and the last drop of blood Color Sergeant.”

“To the last of everything, Tribune,” he assured him, then turned and sprinted toward the back side of town and the staggered defenses there.

“Sell yourself dearly,” Reese shouted, then smiled and laughed as he clapped the visor less helmet over his head.  “Smile you bastards, you’re going to make history today.  The last stand of the 5th Scouts.”  He turned to the color guard that stood around the colors.  “Build a fire, we’ll not leave a drum or a flag for the enemy to taunt our memories with.  “Bugler!  Sound last blood!  Let the bastards know we know what’s coming and we meet it with honor!  Burn the colors, and all men stand to duty, behind me lads, when I start swinging I don’t want to cut a friend in my wrath.”  There were grim smiles at that.  “We hold them here as long as we can, if we are broken withdraw to protect the people, form again at the inner bastion and hold to the last man.  Last blood!”

“Last blood!” The shouted as the flag of the Realm was again raised, now in flames to taunt the enemy, to let them know they had nothing left to fear in this world.

“Trumpeter, last blood, play it loud and as long as you may!”  The gates cracked hard and buckled inward, Reese drew his sword and swept off his muddy, bloodstained cloak, he wore the deep blue surcoat of a Knight of the Palatine Order over his blue enameled armor.  He kissed the hilt of his sword and raised it high as the gates swept aside and the ogres barreled through, still wielding the huge mauls.  He swept his sword down and the last of the archers mowed them down.  “I hope you’re watching lads,” he murmured to the Palatine that fell through the centuries.  “I’m coming with a damned fine story and I don’t want you to think I embellished.”

He reached deep within himself, to the place within him touched by the Star of Selnendrin when it created him Palatine, he called upon the Wrath, the rage against injustice, the fury for deaths unavenged, the contempt for those that trod on the soil of his nation, that shed its blood.  “I am Palatine,” he said through clenched teeth.  “Come to me and taste death!”

His first cut sheared the edge of a shield and smashed in the helmet behind it.  He twisted the blade free as he turned his body, twisting low as his bloody blade sheared the legs of another through the knees.  He rose up, chest to shield with another as his blade came up behind it, the point driving through the chin and twisting, he swept the standing body aside and drove a mailed fist into the visor of the man behind him.  He felt a sharp pain and glanced to the side and saw the legless man on the ground twisting a needle sharp poniard in a seam in his armor.  His fury was beyond pain, he raised his sword but small hands drove a hatchet into the upturned face.  Reese stepped forward to protect the boy he’d given his cloak when they’d freed Brascagne.  “Get back,” he said quickly and cut down another, the hilt of the knife still sticking from his side.

A low ridge hid the First Corps of the Palatine Order from Brescagne, they were arrayed a mile wide and at Baron Tigre’s order they rode over the ridge, he could see the burning flag rise up the flagstaff and heard the haunting bugle calls.  “Last blood,” he said tightly, gauging the distance to the city through his glass before tucking it back into his saddle pouch.  Then he felt the tug at his heart, something… “Who commands in Brescagne?”

“Tribune Sir Garvin Reese, Knight of the Palatine Order,” one of his staff replied.

“He’s called the wrath,” Tigre’s face hardened.  “He expects to die with his entire command.”  He rose in his stirrups.  “Forward at the canter,” he ordered, and ten thousand horses increased their pace.  “Sound the Wrath,” He bellowed in a voice that was heard even in Brescagne, two miles away, then the drums rolled and the trumpets played ominously.  “Palatine, forward to Brescagne, we ride to free our people!  Charge lances!”  At his order a forest of fourteen foot lances rose up, then descended toward the enemy.

There is more than a title to the Knight Commander of the Palatine Order, the Baron of Selnendrin carried with him the might of the order, its strength, its skill and its fury.  As he raised the wrath with himself and it rose in every Palatine for miles in every direction.  Reese felt it within the city, it flowed from the person of Denschlep Tigre into his entire command, the horses drawing strength from their masters and the pace picked up as they crossed the desolate field.  “Vengeance!” Tigre roared and every voice rose with his and again the trumpets blared and the pace increased yet again, and at a half mile from the line forming to meet him came the order to charge, the colors of the Realm and the Order pointed toward the enemy and the thunder of their hooves shook the ground.


The ground at his feet was slippery with blood but his feet never lost their hold, his steel never stopped moving, bright beneath the crimson rivulets that flicked from the sword on every swing.  He felt the strength rise within him, the Palatine had come, he stood a chance after all.  His concern wasn’t for his own life, but the thousands of lives that he shielded with flesh, blood and steel on this grim ground.  Fewer were around him now, but he noticed a few fresh faces, fleeting glances as he moved from fallen opponents to those still coming forward.  They were the wounded consigned to the surgeons, even they answered the call to duty.

Behind him the surgeons worked furiously, crouched behind shields held for them by small boys as their older brothers joined soldiers from the pens that could scarcely walk advancing as a line of spears into the arrows of their enemies.  All of Brescagne would fight that day.


Color Sergeant Bren Vandt stood at the top of the wall, sword in one hand mace in the other, fighting to hold as hundred climbed each other to get to him.  There was pain everywhere in him, the knowledge of his death was upon him but he died in good company that day, there was a breakthrough somewhere and he and a few others were all that remained, surrounded and attacked from every side.  They fought in twos, guarding the backs of their battle partners.  So few now.  He’d started with thirty and six remained.

“To the rear Sergeant!”

Bren looked back quickly and saw the black armor trimmed in silver and the glossy silver shield emblazoned with the dragon and skull of the Imperial Knights Invincible.  If he was to die then no better way to spend his life than to take one of Basdred’s elite with him.  “He’s my meat,” Vandt growled and strode out from the protection of the group to meet him.  The Invincible swung a hard blow toward his head, devious Bren caught the blade on his own and twisted his wrist hard, catching the blade in the cross guard and holding it immobile, the six-flanged mace crashing with a resounding din upon the shield as it moved, the Invincible brought the edge down hard and snapped Vandt’s sword off just above the hilt, the shield then swept and drove Bren back a few stumbling steps.

The Imperial forces found themselves between hammer and anvil, their attack upon Brescagne had trapped them to that attack and little was left to place before the Palatine, not that General Gasharan felt he had any hope of stopping the bloody Palatine, a few of them was a disaster, a whole corps was devastation.  Then the trumpets brayed to the north and a second corps appeared, this time under the colors of Galen Chaliese, and he knew all was lost, as his men lifted him up to the walls he knew the battle was over, his only hope was to make their victory empty, if there was no one left to rescue he still won, after a fashion.  Now he looked over his shield at a lone sergeant, not even an officer, but it was a start.


Chaliese led his men in fast to the north wall, the main fighting was along the east and the gates and the western wall, a full dismounted legion now climbed the walls, aided by ropes tossed down by women and children, their terrified faces pale as they urged them to come faster, they were being slaughtered.


Tigre cared nothing for subtlety, he hadn’t the time for it, they pushed back the enemy with sword and lance, the bodies of the dead ground under the sharp hooves of their mounts as the hammer crushed them against the anvil.  The Baron himself led a dismounted legion through the gates, hacking down all they saw.  He saw the commander he’d come to save, the dead a grisly pile about him as he drove his sword into the guts of what would be his last opponent, the blood sprayed down the blade as he twisted it hard, the point emerged from the dead man’s back in a gout of blood and ground bone.

Reese had no voice left when Tigre reached him.  “Save them,” he pointed toward the pens where the people hid from the enemy, he turned and shambled toward the back wall, his sword dragging beside him as those few left followed as best they could.

Tigre pointed and ordered half to go to the relief of the pens as he and the rest followed Reese, Tigre hurried to catch him and two of his men moved to help Reese walk.  “You need a surgeon,” one said to him.

“Back wall, he croaked, “They broke through the south and flanked them.”

Tigre nodded and left at a trot, leading a relief force, they stopped short when they saw Bren toss aside his broken sword and charge his enemy, brandishing a mace.


“Don’t grin on my account you bastard,” Vandt’s own smile was wild with fury and bloodlust.  He charged forward his mace battering at his enemy as he cursed him with every blow.  “You… sheep… shagging… baby… killing… ghoul!”  His fury forced Gasharan to fall back, his shield absorbed the blows but it kept him from putting his sword into play.  The blows and curses continued, he was fighting a maniac!  No sane man could muster such fury.  He’d been in the Imperial Army for forty years and never heard swearing so eloquent, he could almost admire it if it wasn’t directed at him.

Six pounds of steel will hurt anything it comes in contact with, after a while, the shield buckled with the force of the blows, but then, after his opponent had begun to anticipate the pattern of his blows Bren changed up and reversed direction in mid stroke, leaving him open.  Vandt kicked with all that he was worth, the steel cap of his cavalry boot connecting solidly with Gasharan’s armored codpiece.  Steel or not when anyone takes a blow that solid in that area it has a pronounced effect.  Bren ignored the sword that pierced his thigh, the point struck bone then slid off and cut through the back of his thigh as Bren’s mace crashed down on Gasharan’s helmet.  One blow led to many and Bren didn’t stop even when the general fell, blood pouting from beneath the helmet.

Bren ripped the shield from his dead opponent and raised it high, his victory cry was a guttural sound of rage and triumph, he heard hundreds join him and staggered as he looked down to see friendly uniforms.  He lowered the shield to his side and went to take a step and then noticed his leg wasn’t responding.  “What a bloody nuisance,” he gasped between hard breaths.  “Bugger skewered me.”

“Serves you right,” Reese said hoarsely from the base of the wall.  “If your Mum heard all of that she’d do the other leg.”

Vandt smiled as the strength left him and he dropped on his good side to lay on top of the wall.  “Tribune,” he reached down and took his friend’s hand and squeezed it hard.  “I beg to report that we held the wall.”

End

© 2009, Tim Boothby. All rights reserved.

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Pruning a Seedling

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What fantasies the mind may conjure when one is alone in the dark, surrounded by nothing but musty old cloth and dust.  Only the faintest glimmer of light shone through a crack high in the ceiling above and played over his fingers, so palatable in the dark that he fancied he could feel it flow like water through his fingers.  He looked down to cracked wood, faded paint once brought out the highlights of the intricate carvings, too dark to read he now struggled to read the wretched runes by touch alone.  The words were ancient but in time he puzzled through them.  “Kill one and you are a murderer, kill a thousand and you are a king.”

A maxim of Duke Garabald of Vaeschelle, usurper of the throne of Amaron.  He would see Garabald’s thousand and raise him a thousand times that, he had no use for the crown and robes of a king he was reaching for the throne of the world, he would collect the crowns of kings and take at last his birthright, the Imperial throne itself.  His father held it overlong now, five centuries at least, and his grandfather before him for thousands more.  Derak was dead, Basdred was dead and Basdred II would be, and the Heron Empire would pass to its rightful prince, Damashan.

He raised his hand, drawing light from the liquid darkness, the walls themselves slowly glowing, russet to rust to ocher, the odd tint casting everything in warm golden hues as he drew the dust impregnated cloths from all in the room about him.  Garabald was mad to be certain, one didn’t dabble in the arts into which the ancient wizard dabbled without some effect, and it had wrecked the powerful mind and shed the blood of the people here with the frantic devotion and precision of madness.  Damashan strode to the door and looked to the men outside, his men, and then closed the door.  He would know the secrets of this place, all of them, and he would use them to take the world, to succeed where all of his line had failed.

He’d killed his thousand to reach this place, and many more besides.  A few his own brothers, but what cared he for them, sons or whores bred to so the bloody work of the charnel houses.  Witless fools with no future and no use that required thought or industry.  He smiled at the thought and let his fingers brush again over the cracking wood that bound the leaves of a great book and as his fingers brushed over the latch he felt the chill dread of doubt wash over him.  Something was wrong, but what could it be?  He’d planned to perfection, none knew, even his father trudged away in oblivious devotion to causes far flung from his own.

Who could have found him?  None would dare!  He was Damashan; Son of Basdred, Extrache of Heron.  Who would willingly court the disaster of trying his will.  He had his thousand here, a thousand of the Imperial Knights Immortal, they were an army and more.  Soldiers sworn to his cause, sorcerers bound to his life, nothing could confront them, but something did.  He could feel it advancing with implacable patience, the wrath, the righteous rage filled this place and the light of the stones grew warmer and lighter, gold then yellows paling at last unto a silvery sheen of white.  The Palatine, white was their color, the pure hue of the Lords Defender, greatest of that Order.

Screams, terrible screams the sounds of battle and yet he knew that his enemy approached in silence.  They fought and triumphed and even died in silence.  Their wills joined in purpose pure and perilous, and he knew in a moment of crystalline clarity that he himself was the focus of this wrath that washed over this place.  Fire, they came with fire to purge all that they could find here.  Fell fearsome furious flame that consumed the power of this place, drawing it away from him and casting it away to be lost forever.  They can’t, it was his!  His power, the key to his glory!

The doors fell away and through them stepped one in full garb, how could one so short, so small of stature contain such will?  Such wrath?  His silvery armor and glowing surcoat was streaked in the blood of his followers and it ran in thick congealing gobbets down the polished steel of his curved blade.  Such a strange blade, curved forward, the edge on the opposite side of what he would expect, and in his other hand an axe, steel from grip to haft to head, forged with runes of strength and power.  At his left breast the golden boar rampant of the Bragg family, he flipped his head back negligently, the face now exposed, fierce eyes of golden brown, the beard yet dark despite the wrinkles around his eyes.

“Cecil Bragg, I presume?”

“Which son of a Basdred are you?” the half-dwarf asked quietly, his voice calm and grim.  “Just so I can keep the history books straight.”

“We, the blood of the Extrache, write the history.”

“Actually old boy,” Cecil grinned.  “I do.  You should see what I wrote about taking the Gates of Herch-Quald.  I was there after all.  And I cut the heart out of your daddy’s dragon.”  Bragg rolled his neck slowly, making a loud pop.  “I didn’t get to finish your father, but you are mine.  Do you die fighting?”

Damashan drew his sword and prepared himself to face the smaller man.  He just started to raise his sword when the visor of his enemy clapped shut and the axe swung low then pulled straight back, ripping through the muscle and tendons at the back of his knee.  The oddly curved sword flashed and cut through the bicep and triceps and Damashan’s sword fell from lifeless fingers.  The son of emperors fumbled for a blade at his hip but the axe smote without remorse, and Damashan’s eyes crossed as he studied it for the last instant of his life.

Cecil pulled the axe free from his enemy’s forehead with a sharp tug and looked at the book that the princeling had studied with such fascination.  It and a few other items found their way into his haversack.  “Frannie, I have a few surprises for you,” he said quietly as he stepped outside the door.  “In here too, burn it all.”

© 2009, Tim Boothby. All rights reserved.

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Writing Experiment: Tears of the Long-Mothers

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This is an experiment of sorts, I was trying to get a better feel for Norse mythology, I guess you could say from the inside.

The skeins of our lives are woven by the fates, but the threads of our being are spun by the long-mothers, our mothers and grandmothers back through eternity. They place their full love and hope into each strand for the joy and happiness of each that shall follow them, and prayerfully the tears of the Long-Mothers flow.

Loki is the trickster and his minions spin threads of their own and the fates are blind to the colors that they add to the skeins of life they spin and back from the skeins the colors seep to stain the brightest. Some to be washed away and others hopelessly set, and in love and lament the tears of the Long-Mothers flow.

All begin golden but in the fullness of time colors and hues find their way into their threads, black bitterness, crimson rage and blue despair tarnish the gold, and many lament the gold that they spin is wound with strife and travail, and to wash away the tints and hues of Loki the tears of the Long-Mothers flow.

Smooth strands of woven gold, dark angry threads, dull hazy threads of doubt, black threads of despair wound together by hands unguided by sight and perhaps they too lament as they blindly mix the threads of lives and joys and despair. And in hope the tears of the Long-Mothers flow.

But the fates are oft guided by loving hands that push aside Loki’s lots, and gold be mixed with gold and friends and loves are bound together by the hands of sightless fate, for gold to gold fuses eternal, and in deepest joy for those that stand in the light of the sun do the tears of the Long-Mothers flow.

© 2009, Tim Boothby. All rights reserved.

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