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3rd Trimester 2010


The stories in this magazine are works of fiction. Places, events, and situations in the stories are purely fictional. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is coincidental. No part of this magazine may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means without the written permission of the editor or publisher. Abandoned Towers is published three times a year on March 1, July 1 and Nov. 1, by Cyberwizard Productions ISSN 1945-2861 (print) ISSN 1945-287X (online) Managing Editor — Crystalwizard Senior Editor — Stephen Morgan Copy Editors: Lucille P Robinson Ally Pat Marketing Manager: Michael Griffiths Editorials: Bill Weldon Acquisitions Editor Wolf Althuis Media Specialist Timothy Sayell Editorial Team Ed McKeown, Timothy Ray Jones, Grady Yandell, Carolyn Chang Thom Olausson,Michael Griffiths, Spencer Conrad, Heather Wilkinson Ramon Rozas, Jean Lauzier, Bart Shirley, Leigh Jenkins, David Talbot

Front cover art:: V. Shane Periodicals postage paid at Saginaw, and at additional mailing locations. Postmaster: send address changes to Cyberwizard Productions, 12621 N. Saginaw Blvd, Suite 105, #3069, Fort Worth, Texas, 76179 Abandoned Towers Magazine© 2010 Cyberwizard Productions Individual art and written content © 2010 to the originating author or artist. All Rights Reserved. No portion of this magazine may copied by any method or used for any purpose other than personal reading enjoyment without written permission from the publisher. Permission is hereby granted for the purchaser of this issue to make copies of this issue for personal use only. Such personal use shall be limited to the purchaser and his or her family. (In plain English tha tmeans that if you bought this issue then you can make copies for yourself, your kids, grandkids or other personal relatives, but you can’t make copies for your friends, your kids friends, your students or any other people not related to you. If someone else bought this issue, then you need to buy your own copy of it.


Featured Story

Azieran: Creed of the Desert Kings by Christopher Heath

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Fiction/Poetry/Special Features Yeah, But Will it Play in Peoria? Bill Weldon, Editor The Insurance Salesman by Doug Hilton The Peach Tree by Sandra S. Richardson Elephants, Mongooses and August by Harry Calhoun A Semi-Abridged History of the United States of America by Carol Scott Life’s Waning Season by Richard H. Fay Sunar by Dustin Wier You Softly Sing to Me by Troy D. Young The Ghosts of Memories by Timothy A. Sayell Another Woman for Hopper’s Paintings by Emily Hayes Observations of Bravery by Chad Weiss Dust by Trent Amor Eavesdropper by Tim McDaniel Secrets contained in a shower stall by Christina Getty Percy Picket Succumbs to Infirmities by Allen Kopp The Madness of Joseph Kent by Erik VanBezooijen  Edward IV by Richard H. Fay Holding on for a Hero by Sandy Wardrope The Lady Wants a Bike by Robert Mancebo Texas Stargazin' by Richard H. Fay Goodbye Roswell by Michael D. Turner Farwell by Denny E. Marshall Of Water and Thirst by Rick Coonrod Interview with Colin P. Davies The Hooded Man by David Pilling Went to Bed and Bumped His Head by By S.J. Higbee Thirty Days by Richard Marsden Nessie by Doug Hilton Conjured Food by Robert William Shmigelsky Meadow Munchies from Thorndancer by Recipes created by Jaleta Clegg Coloring Page Wizards and Wanderers: Book 3 of the Sojourn Chronicles

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                         

       

                                                                             

                                                                       

      

                  

      

 

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Yeah, But Will it Play in Peoria? Bill Weldon, Editor When the movers and shakers in New York, Hollywood, or Washington, D.C. want to know if an idea will be welcomed by most of the average American people, they may quote the saying, “Will it play in Peoria?” that is, will the people in Peoria like it? Peoria is a small city in the middle of the state of Illinois, which is roughly in the middle of the United States. Peoria’s people are proverbially taken to be typical of the “average” American. Striving for realism and believability in writing can be daunting even in the genre of science fiction, sword and sorcery, and fantasy. As we guide our characters through a land of monsters, wizards and giants, or navigating a spacecraft through a meteorite storm, at least a modicum of believability should be included. One of a writer’s vital tools is research. The plethora of information available on the internet means a writer need not leave his or her desk to gather what is needed to lend credibility to a story. For example: I wrote a period piece that included crop harvesting in the 1930’s. Ten minutes on the internet and I could accurately describe the make, model and operation of a corn sheller commonly used at that time. With that one added paragraph, the reader gains a sense of authenticity and believability that would not exist otherwise. So don’t neglect your research. You may be surprised what a difference it makes to your story. And remember; It’s important that you write every day. Due to health problems, I am restricted in the time I can sit at a computer keyboard. Therefore, I use my recliner or lay in bed and write with pen and paper. My wife enters my writings in the computer when she has time. It does lend some difficulty to my routine, but I still feel the need to write every day.


Azieran: Creed of the Desert Kings Through the scorching, sandblasted lands of the Arubis desert there walked a hero swathed in white wraps from head to foot, akin to a bandit but undeniably Through the scorching, sandblasted lands of the Arubis desert there walked a hero swathed in white wraps from head to foot, akin to a bandit but undeniably something more. The filigreed shield upon his back gleamed of polished steel, reflecting the sun’s unrelenting kiss as a burning, lidless eye. Several guardsmen within the great walled city Hatarri spied his ghost-like form wavering through the heated air, and choked back their fears at the champion’s approach. The rumors of his coming were true, almost prophetic. ~~~~~~~~~ “Emir Mahtta!” cried a messenger, “The one called Kizil’ky is at the front gates.” The portly but muscular noble choked on a grape, nearly spat it out, before swallowing with instinctive greed. He wiped the juice from his braided beard using the back of a hand, causing minute attached bells to chime in exultation. Mahtta’s cheeks flushed red, showing embarrassment at being unnerved before a score of personal guards, and suddenly his anger flared; he kicked a bowl of fruit from the woven carpet onto the flagstone floor and all shuddered, wondering if his displeasure would soon be directed toward them. The emir stared at the sea of faces blanched by fear, and found comfort. The aristocrat composed himself, leaning back against the many colorful silk pillows which comprised his throne, and tried to relax among the winds of his fanning girls as the plumb-colored incense smoke swirled wildly

about like mercurial gossamer ribbons. Before his third deep breath, the thin-framed vizier, Al Qadif, had crept forward between gold-plated censors and spoke. “Would you have me send him away, my emir? Perhaps tell him that we do not deal with mere couriers; The Grand Mage should request a proper audience and show himself alongside utmost respect.” Mahtta stroked his perfumed beard, again causing the bells to clink, then adjusted the thin crown--no more than braided wires of platinum--upon his head. The Grand Mage had close ties with the right and just Sultan Kassal Sikh’al of Arubis, overlord to the lesser emirs such as Mahtta. Surely, the noble mused, this convocation must pertain to Kassal’s stated forthcoming pilgrimage to the northern lands, and the fear that he, being of royal blood with no love for Kassal, would unite the upper tribes and move against Joppa to stake claim to Arubis in the sultan’s absence. Mahtta had ruthlessly subdued all northern tribes of men, making them fear his shadow while eliminating other races through trickery or lies. The few tribes of desert elves that once walked the surrounding sands had been purged, and the insectoid mantisse that encroached upon the lands had been driven back into the vast dunes to the east. He continued mulling over the question of whether or not to entertain an audience, curiosity and caution at play against each other, and limbered his mind by draining a goblet of wine then demanding more. He had already revealed weakness at the mention of this stranger, and now felt compelled to display a show of strength. “Bring him on,” the emir spoke in a voice filled of bravado. 1

“I will deal with this messenger as I do the ambassadors of Joppa. Everyone thinks they have felt the true heat of the desert . . . until they’ve had an audience with Emir Mahtta.” A burst of kowtowing laughter echoed throughout the great chamber, the cacophony of animated howls and screams rising to the domed ceiling of silver panels far above, none so pleased with the jest than the emir himself. As he stared down into his goblet, into the deep, rich promising wine, his hall grew deathly quiet. The last of Mahtta’s chortles were cut short as his gaze found its way upward to stare at the mystic champion before them, his immediate arrival having been unannounced, nor the grand double doors opened to allow entrance. The guards fingered the hilts of their scimitars in trepidation as the noble’s harem melted into the shadows, leaving the chamber wholly. Mahtta absent-mindedly partook of wine, swallowed hard. The stranger was bandaged in white wraps like mummified royalty, two eyes peering hawkish within the dark, thin slit. The shield on his back gleamed and sparkled in crazed fashion, sometimes seeming to produce an illumination of its own. Though he held no weapon in hand and was light of frame, there was a curiously ancient and powerful aura emanating from his form, eroding the senses of those who allowed their gaze to linger too long. He was steeped in sorcery beyond doubt, and it was this unsettling threat that staved off Mahtta’s fury; miraculously, the emir did not order an immediate execution for such a contemptuous intrusion and brazen show of disrespect. “Greetings, O’ Great Emir Mahtta. I am Kizil’ky, Champion


of the Grand Mage, and have come to request an audience.” The stranger’s voice was hollow, resounding about the wide hall, emanating a nuance which hinted of shrouded power and capability wrought only through the mastery of intricate rituals steeped in the mystic, psychic, and divine arts-his speech inflected with an accent that seemed somewhat familiar to Mahtta, though he could not fully place the cadence. “I have need of a champion myself,” offered the emir. “Do you accept?” “I already serve two masters,” Kizil’ky returned, “and find myself indebted to their kindness.” Mahtta scowled in dismay. Because the enchantment of his crown demanded fealty from all but the most accomplished minds, he ascertained this petitioner to be a dangerous hero of merit. “Very well--what word do you bring from The Grand Mage?” Mahtta inquired with a voice more steady than he had imagined. This opening address was a forearmed concoction, to reduce the hero to mere messenger. The noble immediately took another gulp from a bejeweled goblet to steady his nerves. “If you would allow me, your most excellent emir, I have not come to the halls of mighty Hatarri without bearing a gift in thanks for this convocation.” The words were spoken almost sarcastically, and the noble had to guess at whether this was a natural intonation of the stranger’s voice, or meant as insult. The aristocrat’s eyes lit with the fires of wonder as Kizil’ky procured from beneath his wraps a most magnificent jewel. He held forth an orb of amber caged in electrum, the fistsized sphere radiating delicate warmth, a small image moving within. With a fluid motion, the mystic lofted his gift into the air, even as the electrum cage spun about the surface of the globe, creating a whirring noise while it floated in midair.

Two beams of focused, yet myriad-hued lights burst from the orb, one directed upon the floor, and another, much brighter one, unto the copper paneling which formed the dome ceiling. Upon hitting the surfaces both above and below, the light expanded to form intricate patterns. Strange, archaic symbols spread like a web upon the stone floor. On the ceiling, pictorial images swirled about to transcend from a mere wash of kaleidoscopic light. A moving picture formed on high, and one of the images took on the shape of Emir Mahtta, all eyes became fixed to the dome. The likeness of the warlord was seen racing across the sands on a mighty bay charger, waving a broad scimitar and leading a force of united cities and tribesman of the northern borders, untold thousands against the southern armies. They crossed the Azza Canal by pontoon bridges to overrun Kashim, setting the magnificent city ablaze, then, recouped with the spoils of victory, charged along the canal, razing the walled cities of Tattoon and Tahli Morhiib before crossing the canal again and striking swiftly against mighty Joppa. Flash images of wholesale slaughter erupted, rains of arrows and siege engines firing relentlessly until at last the many fabulous monuments of Joppa crumbled and Mahtta’s army devoured the city in a glut of gore and glory. The final image relayed Mahtta the conqueror with scimitar raised high, standing on a rampart overlooking the Iron Sea, towers behind him ablaze. The image froze. The orb hung, spinning in the air, both rays of light still pinpointing ceiling and floor, spreading outward upon each like a web. “What manner of gift is this?” asked the emir, intrigued by the images. He took a draught of wine, beginning to feel at ease again, his stalwart arrogance returning. “Is this prophecy or flattery?” “The Grand Mage is mysterious in his ways,” Kizil’ky 2

responded. “Perhaps it is mere entertainment, but more I will reveal in time.” The noble huffed and leaned toward the stranger, shifted his shoulder forward to display his bare upper arm, a tattoo of a veiled dancing girl upon it. “This is Arizza.” He flexed his bicep several times to make her dance. “I am an entertainer as well, you see. Send that message back to The Grand Mage.” Several of the guards laughed aloud, but the tension of uncertainty remained. “As you wish,” Kizil’ky returned. “But I have not come to exchange mere pleasantries.” His words suddenly turned acrid, and were spoken in like tone. “The Grand Mage offers a challenge.” Mahtta’s face took on a sour cast, his mouth forming a frown as his lips pursed. “I am insulted by challenges. Do I look like some herdsman who gambles his days away? Choose your next words carefully, messenger, or you may find yourself without a tongue.” “The odds favor you greatly in this venture, Emir Mahtta. It is no meager game of chance.” The lord considered these words. “Very well, explain yourself.” “I will act as The Grand Mage’s champion. If I fail in the proposed task of stealing an object, you will receive the services of The Grand Mage for one-thousand-and-one days. If I succeed, I am entitled to that which I have stolen and you will be my prisoner for one-thousandand-one days.” “Hah! You would dare suggest to hold me as a prisoner under any circumstance? I will have your head on a platter for my next banquet, be assured of that. But before I set my guards upon you . . . just out of curiosity, what is it that you intend to steal?” “Only the most valuable treasure from your palace, and I shall do it before the sun sets.” The noble became further angered by the suggestion. “And


what do you consider to be my most valuable treasure, dune wizard?” Mahtta scoffed, his voice flaring, tempered with anger. “I have several jewels which could be considered as that prize, depending on one’s taste.” “It is not a jewel I seek, most exalted one.” Again, Kizil’ky’s tone caused the aristocrat to wonder if he was being insulted by sarcasm. “It is the crown upon your head.” Several audible gasps and murmurs were heard about the room, and the emir exploded with rage. His hand reached up to touch the crown, the thin platinum braids wreathing his head, as if to ensure it remained safe and secure. “Yours is a death wish, messenger, continually insulting me while I sit on my own throne! You have a camel’s stones, I give you that! We shall send The Grand Mage those now infamous stones in answer to the challenge.” “And then you would not receive his services for one-thousand-and-one days,” Kizil’ky warned. “With his aid, your wildest dreams could come to pass. He is one of the premier wizards of all Azieran; none dispute it. Simply put, if I have not stolen your crown from the palace by sundown, I will gladly offer my neck to the axe and The Grand Mage will serve you faithfully for the allotted time. We issue this challenge with the honor of our art at stake.” Mahtta curbed his anger, euphoric greed now filling his thoughts as he imagined what his future might hold with such a slave in tow. The vizier, Al-Qadif, leaned in and whispered, “My emir, if you accept, then you place yourself in perilous risk. To lose this wager would be to lose by the old creed of the desert kings, even before they were called sultans, when once they were many. Kassal Sikh’al has a hand in this, or he is a pawn to their cunning--sorcerous jackals would not dare to touch you otherwise, or offend all emirs of both Arubis and Rockshoon.”

The warlord brushed his cautions aside. Having already made his decision, Mahtta was intent not only to have this strange hero punished for brash insolence, but his master forced to serve as a court magician. The emir stood, his blood boiling, his fury directing his actions. “Very well! I accept The Grand Mage’s challenge, and he can watch as I feed your headless, stoneless carcass to the vultures.” Kizil’ky laughed a subtle, sly laugh. “Then I already win. I have stolen the crown from your palace.” “I am in no mood for jests,” Mahtta spat, taking the crown from his head and holding it tightly in his grip, eyes glancing down to treasure its simplistic beauty. “It is no jest,” Kizil’ky returned, his manner deadly serious. He extended his arms, as if pushing with an invisible force. The guardsmen and furnishings of the chamber all slid toward the walls, better exposing the floor and the runic light set upon it by means of the still floating and spinning amber globe. Al Qadif gasped, his mind attuned to mystic lexicons and now, with the tableau fully exposed, immediately comprehended what the many sigils might suggest. Still, the vizier could not truly believe; he had never known art powerful enough to accomplish such an alteration. He silently cursed the emir for a fool, and berated himself for allowing this audience with another mystic to continue, culminating in such disastrous results. Kizil’ky’s words were the hiss of cold water on hot coals. “Mahtta, your vizier seems to understand what no other in this chamber has, save for myself. This entire throne room has been transported to another dimension. I have, in fact, stolen the crown from your palace; I have won the challenge.” “In all your pride, you have miscalculated, thief,” Mahtta chided. “I do not consider 3

the crown stolen as long as I wear it.” His anger flooded his form, filled him with murderous desire and rash decision. “You are a fool. Look around. My vizier commands powerful sorcery of his own. And you, with no weapon to speak of, well, I have more than enough guards to see you suffer a swift death, which is more than you deserve.” The emir smiled a wicked smile, as he always did when sentencing a person of note to death. “Kill him!” He screamed, reaching down beneath silk pillows to grasp and then heft a two-handed scimitar. His guards, twenty strong, moved to engage, while the vizier called upon dark powers. “I have an ally of my own,” the champion countered. With a motion of his hand, he commanded unseen forces to fling open the chamber’s entrance portal, exposing a dim, vast and cruel cave network beyond. Like a relentless thrashing titan, the swirling, keening winds of Pandemonium overtook the throne room. Searing blasts and eddying winds raked across the guards, buffeting their eyes with gritty debris and knocking them off-balance. A thousand and more pitiful screams and agonizing wails were carried by the crazed drafts, prompting several guardsmen to drop to the floor and weep as they tore at their hair or clawed their eyes. Kizil’ky reached beneath his robes and extracted a wand, which grew to a rod, which grew to a staff in hand--a scythe blade miraculously expanding at one end. Even before the weapon had completed its transformation, he struck swiftly with strength which belied his stature and cut a man fully in half. Those sand-blinded guards who stumbled forward to attack and perchance gleaned a precise view of the weapon, saw the wickedness of the blade, knew it was not of their world, and recoiled at the infinite horror and madness exuded by the blackened shaft and exotic, alien steel.


The champion parried a scimitar with the haft of his weapon and retaliated with a backstroke which broke the man’s jaw and sent him spinning across the hall. Another blade skidded from Kizil’ky’s weirding armor— the magic current which protected his form. An instant later, that man was dead. In a wide, sweeping arc of the scythe, three guards fell, their midsections now neat gashes of flesh and bone, entrails and organs bursting forth as the men hit hard upon the flagstone floor. Banshee winds swept sprays of blood across the stone, thinning them to innumerable sinuous lines, forming the impression of an insane artisan’s macabre masterpiece. The vizier had culminated his dark arts into the form of mystic energy, his hand beholden of an opaque, frosty white glow, both ghastly and chilling. With a punching motion, the wizard caused the unnatural miasma to radiate, spanning the chamber and encapsulating Kizil’ky, enveloping him in the weird, unholy fog. A rush of necromantic cold overtook Kizil’ky; his skin began to blister from the cold, his bones chilled to the marrow. The champion faltered, nearly fell, leaning on his scythe for support, and the emir was pleased. The guards, wary of the unnatural fog, held their distance. But the cloud did not linger, for it began to spiral inward toward Kizil’ky and collapse. The shield upon the champion’s back siphoned the opposing mana like poison from a wound. The nebula lost volume by the moment and when fully dissipated, formed a white bead, like a marble rolling about the gleaming metallic surface of the shield, as if a moon in orbit. Kizil’ky spun to cut down two attackers, and by force of will commanded the newly formed bead to fire upon Al Qadif, catching him unexpectedly as the orb burst into a haze of the conjurer’s own creation.

The vizier resisted at first, his personal wards offering some protection, but the magic had been augmented by its recent transformations, infused with even more power and necrotic energy; in moments the emir’s magician wilted beneath the horrid blanket of mind-numbing cold, frozen in a position of agony, hand outstretched like a claw, contorted mouth and eyes bulging as outward displays of pain. The champion now stood free and clear of all attackers, the four remaining guards retreating hastily to regroup at the side of their warlord. All five men made a shaky, final stance, holding forth wavering scimitar points. The noble’s great two-handed blade seemed formidable enough, but Mahtta failed to inspire morale, for even he was horrified by the carnage wrought with ease by this stranger from the sands. He knew his men would obey the orders, by might of his crown, however. With a wave of Kizil’ky’s hand, the grand entrance doors closed, sealing the chamber from the crazed winds outside. The defenders glanced about the blood-soaked hall, body parts and organs strewn haphazardly, the pungent scent of fresh slaughter overpowering their senses. A guard vomited, his eyes wide with terror as he whispered prayers to Jihiite. Kizil’ky uttered an incantation, and three of the men fell victim, their bodies suddenly incapable of movement. The champion’s approach was slow, his steps deliberate, menacing. The scythe, situated on high and poised like a great stinger, instilled unadulterated fear by its very sight, a terror which grafted to the spine and turned bowels to water. “What do you want?” screamed Mahtta, eyeing the hypnotic point of the scythe’s shimmering blade, wishing to recoil but finding neither the strength nor presence of mind. The small bells in his beard chimed their barely audible 4

plaintive cries, as if begging for mercy. “I have told you what I want,” the champion shouted, cold and calculating. “The crown!” He eyed his prize with interest. Despite the apparent delicacy of the circlet, its magic was of a most potent sort, for it could inspire obedience in others—causing them to consider the wearer an utmost ally to protect and defend unto death. The crown could make a king of any commoner. It was with this in mind that he viewed the emir’s dire situation as true irony, for even the potent magic of the circlet had no effect upon his arcane-tempered psyche. “Kill him!” the emir commanded of his guards, and with their courage bolstered by the magic of the circlet they charged, and even those paralyzed by the champion’s magic found the will to move, though their movements were hindered as if they were submerged in water. The champion strode forth to greet them, casting the dice of death in a series of twirling sweeps, cutting them down with his viper blade, slicing through feeble defenses. Mahtta made a valiant stand, the overhand swing of the great scimitar raining solidly down, where it met the scythe blade, sending a wave of force through the champion’s body, rattling his bones. Kizil’ky recovered, and with supernatural strength that belied his size, threw back his aggressor’s blade as he twirled the scythe with the same fluid, blurring motion. The haft of the scythe crashed against Mahtta’s wrists, shattering them instantly, and the lord dropped his weapon, screaming in pain. He fell on bended knees, giving himself over to the whim of the shrouded mystic. The emir now bowed in his beggar’s cast, his tormentor ominous in the wicked orange sheen emitted by the glow of the still levitating, spinning amber sphere.


But Kizil’ky did not vent his wrath upon Mahtta’s offered neck, and instead delicately removed the circlet from the emir’s head and placed it upon his own. The languished warlord kissed the champion’s feet and swore fealty in an instant; the crown’s enchantment overwhelming his senses. Kizil’ky stared about the chamber, surveying the destruction wrought with but a fraction of his might. Roughly a score of men lay wasted about the throne room, the walls and floor stained scarlet and brown and putrid green with the splash of blood and viscera. The sand mage turned his attention again to the doors; he opened them by will alone to allow entrance to those cruel, heavy-handed winds, and by arcane command sped their flight and invigorated their strength, demanded that they carry away the carnage, that they sweep away the dead and discolorations, bloodsoaked pillows and weapons--and so they did. He then quenched the Pandemonic winds, crushed their thirsting for speed, subdued them to naught but muttering breezes, and bade them to vacate the lord’s chamber. With a subtle gesture, the champion commanded both doors to close. He eyed the sultan, shattered before him. “You are now my prisoner for one-thousandand-one days, Emir Mahtta,” he began. “Be thankful that you are of royal blood, and Sultan Kassal Sikh’al, the true King of Arubis and lord of all lords in this desert waste adheres to the old code that royal blood should not be spilt by whim of royal blood. You know that it is on his behalf that the Grand Mage has sent me to your hall, and so your life spared.” He retreated several steps, took the spinning globe in hand and secured it beneath his wraps. “What was shown to you by the amber orb was prophecy indeed, the predictions of the greatest oracles in Arubis. It is the most

likely outcome for the future when Kassal Sikh’al follows his destiny writ in the stars and journeys to the Free Lands of Moongoth. We could not have you overthrowing the nation in his absence. “By the old code, you have lost a fair challenge, and as our prisoner will not be causing the king any difficulty for several years, if ever. I know not the ways of your people in this matter, so I could not say what Kassal Sikh’al will do with you after your thousand-and-one days have passed, for then The Grand Mage will transfer you from our custody unto his.” Kizil’ky stepped upon a rune that still lit the floor, preparing to escape the hated dimension by arcane means. “How will I survive?” pleaded the emir, tears of fright streaming down his face. “Food and water will be brought to you,” Kizil’ky answered, then began uttering an archaic tongue. “Wait! You cannot just keep me here! I have sworn fealty to you!” Mahtta threw himself on the ground, groveling for mercy. “Your oaths mean nothing to me!” Kizil’ky spat. The champion stood ominously, held his scythe in one hand, used his other to unwrap swathes of bandages from his head. It was slender face, angular, handsome. Dark skin and pointed ears, myrrh-tinged silver hair revealing Kizil’ky’s true nature. His eyes were dark, hawkish in their piercing stare. Mahtta shuddered at the revelation. Tears of terror wet his face. “You are a desert elf--a Cinderian desert elf. I thought them all to be dead!” “You made a pact with my people long ago, to assist us against the mantisse. And when they attacked, you refused to send aid. My people were slaughtered. But not I. I was the one who came to Hatarri all those years ago to beg for help.” “But I have never met you!” “Quite true. You ignored 5

the pact and ordered your guard to send me away, even stealing my camel. So my people were overwhelmed by our enemy and upon my return I discovered that none had survived. Their blood is on your hands.” Kizil’ky stood tall, triumphant, having at last avenged his people--yet he was hollow inside, just as The Grand Mage once predicted. The old mystic had lamented, “Vengeance sires only justice, not solace.” And now the champion understood. A great fear grew in Mahtta as he pondered his fate. “So you are just going to leave me here . . . alone?” Kizil’ky paused, but for a moment. “There, behind you. Your vizier yet lives, though in a state of suspension. He will be your reminder that the words of a mage are to be revered. You should have listened to his warning and refused my challenge. If you would not heed his words when he spoke, then perhaps in stark silence he will make more sense.” The desert elf uttered an arcane phrase and vanished from the room. Mahtta eventually turned to look at the vizier, was horrified at the figure locked in frozen pain. Al’Qadif’s face contorted in agony, his eyes ablaze with suffering and his mouth agape in absolute misery. As the emir continued staring, he realized that his own face mimicked that which he gazed upon--he now understood that his current situation was a direct result of folly by ignoring the vizier and instead succumbing to the whims of pride. Mahtta lamented all too late, that not only had he been humbled, he had been humbled according to the creed of the desert kings.


The Insurance Salesman Dave slouched, as he did every day during the afternoon pep talk from his boss. “Dave, I really don’t care about your excuses. Get out there and sell some insurance policies. Do you hear me Dave? Your whole month has been lousy. Your whole year is below quota. Now get out there and sell, Dave, sell.” Dave’s boss drove a very nice new Mercedes, while Dave drove a 12-year-old foreign beater with 230,000 miles on the odometer. “Yes sir. I’ll get out there sir. I can make my quota sir.” One day, Dave screwed up his courage and asked the question that he’d wanted to ask for 2 years. “Sir, people don’t really want our travel/accident policy – it’s so, well, ‘dated’, sir, if you know what I mean. How am I supposed to sell my quota when everyone looks at me like I’m selling a corpse to them?” Dave’s boss was “Top Salesman” when he got was chosen to run the Central States division of Intercontinental Insurance. He looked at Dave quietly. “Dave my boy let me tell you a great secret: people buy what you sell them – nothing more, nothing less. Do you understand me, Dave? If you sell them a T/A policy, they’ll buy it. The trouble is that you’re not selling it to them – you’re asking them to buy it from you. Do I make myself clear, Dave? Sell our T/A policy – don’t let the customer decide whether they want to buy it. Got it?” Dave stood there, hands in pockets; his shirt was kinda puckered out of his pants; his left sock drooping; a cowlick that the barber never could quite fix stuck up on the back of his pre-maturely bald pate. He pushed up his black horn rim glasses, and then he wiped his nose on the back of his left sleeve. “But sir...” “Dave. Listen to me, Dave. If you’re going to work for Central States, you have to

Doug Hilton sell our T/A policy. You have to sell it to lots of new customers. You have to make your quota. You have to stop worrying about how not to sell and start selling. Understand?” “Yes sir” was all that Dave said, because an idea was finally forming in the back-left corner of his brain. “There you go Dave. We’ll make an insurance salesman out of you yet. Now go on out there and sell some Central States Travel Accident insurance, son. Don’t come back until you’ve got your quota for the quarter. Okay, Dave?” Dave was definitely perked up. “Yes sir. I surely will” and he turned sharply and rushed out of the office and right into the afternoon rush hour. His idea was about to explode his brain. He had a plan. He stopped his Toy ta pickup truck at the hardware store and purchased some supplies. “Yes sir,” he thought, “I’ll sell some insurance now.” His overloaded truck had problems with the driveway hump and a worse problem driving into the big back yard, where it finally came to rest near a couple of big oak trees. Dave unloaded plywood and nails. He unloaded paint and rollers. He unloaded mosquito net and duct tape. A glue gun and soldering torch and a dozen other things came out of the beat up old pickup truck bed. For the first time in his life, Dave was actually feeling frisky. He looked at the old truck and saw the missing letter in the piece of junk truck and said “Next year, I’ll have a Mercedes, not a Toy ta. He reached over with his dirty finger and drew an “O” as he whistled some tune from an old movie about a bridge on a river named Kwai. The next morning, he slept in. When he got up, he went out back and got to work again. Last night, before he quit, he’d 6

covered the whole thing up with plenty of mosquito net, which he hung from the big trees in his yard. He clapped his hands together and added some of the last pieces to his project, and then went back into the house. “Now, let’s see... I need a LASER, and a very powerful one at that. Where do I get a LASER?” He punched LASER into the Google search engine, and quickly found millions of references to LASERs, but he wasn’t much interested in a research project – he wanted to purchase one. He followed the EBAY link from Google to “the World’s Largest Marketplace,” and scanned hundreds of LASER ads. He picked one from a likely ad that claimed that it was “only used once, and it is dangerous to look at a LASER, expecially right in its business end.” Well, he didn’t think that was the right spelling for ‘especially’, and he wasn’t entirely sure of which end was the ‘business end’ of a LASER, but he mentally agreed not to blind himself, as he pushed the Buy It Now button. When he settled the account, he finally undressed, showered, ate dinner and fell into a deep sleep. When he got home that night, he saw that a large box was unloaded from a freight truck and left on the boulevard in front of his house. “Goody!” He knew what it was. He wrangled it up into the bed of his pickup truck and drove it into the back yard. When he got it unloaded, he looked in awe at the mighty machine that he’d built and smiled. “Just wait till I get this thing hooked up. Mercedes, here I come.” Two days and a lot of problems later, it was done. It looked just like a flying saucer from out of a B-science fiction movie had crash-landed in his back yard. And of course, that’s exactly what he wanted it to look like. Dave waited until late that night and brought his double-


barrel shotgun outside. BOOM! BOOM! He fired it right into the ground next to his feet. Then he lit some kerosene that he had poured into a big circle near the flying saucer. He hit the panic button by his front door and then just waited for the fun to begin. And it didn’t take very long. It looked like a scene from Dante’s Inferno, but played out in Hollywood sci-fi land. The kerosene fires ignited the mosquito netting over the saucer, and it wasn’t long before all the neighbors were rushing out of their houses to find out what the explosions were. Dave wandered around in a daze until the fire department showed up. They called the EMS and police. Soon the news chopper was overhead, looking at a crashed flying saucer, Dave, holding his head, and fire fighters holding back a large fire that belched thick black smoke which was visible for blocks. “This is KKRR news reporter Jason Drum reporting on what appears to be the crash site of a UFO. It narrowly missed a house on Pine Street. We can see an injured man down there. Police and fire fighters are responding to the scene. Wait! The UFO is on fire. Joe, pull up the chopper – let’s get a better picture of the scene.” Just as the chopper ascended to 2,000 feet, the UFO exploded in a blaze of glory. The gasoline cans that Dave had planted did their job and true panic set in. The pre-programmed LASER woke up and started spitting hot red light towards the giant oak trees, igniting a couple of them. Finally, the Incident Commander was forced called the Governor, who wasn’t very happy about waking up in the middle of the night. “What do you mean there’s a UFO crashed in Athens, Alabama, Captain Hanker? Have y’all been drinkin’ a little too much hooch up there in Limestone County? Why are y’all callin’ me at 3 A.M?”

“Governor, a UFO landed here in Athens. Turn on your TV to channel 48.3 and you’ll see it.” “Stand by, Captain” muttered the Governor. He clicked on the HDTV and tuned around. Suddenly, he saw the live images from the KKRR news helicopter. Sure ‘nough – what the Captain said was true – right down to the space craft destroying prime Athens real estate with a red beam of some kind of powerful extraterrestrial weapon. “Captain: set up a perimeter. I’ll call up the National Guard up there in Athens. If we’ve got flyin’ saucers and an attack, then we’ll get y’all all the help ya need, hear? Meanwhile the hot gasoline-driven fire consumed the painted plywood UFO, while the neighbors watched in shock and disbelief. Dave was treated and released. The news chopper landed and reporter Drum and his cameraman lunged at Dave. “Sir. Sir. Jason Drum, KKRR news. What just happened here?” “Well see for yourself. I’m just glad it didn’t land right on my house. I was sleepin’ ya know.” The cameraman panned the house and the dying embers of the crashed space ship, and then back to Jason and the interview. “Can you tell us a little bit about yourself sir? What is your name? What do you do for a living? That kind of stuff.” “My name is Dave Smith. I sell Intercontinental Travel/ Accident insurance, and I’m sure glad that I’ve got a policy. I’m fully covered for UFO crashes because of that policy. It only costs a couple of bucks a week to be covered for almost any kind of accident.” “Ah, gee, Mr. Smith, that’s good to know. The fire fighters are just getting the last of the embers extinguished. I need to go interview them now.” == 2 == “Dave, I knew you could do it, son. You’ve been Top Salesman for 2 years now, and 7

you’re ready to take my place,” said Dave’s boss. “Yes sir. You really got with the program, and sold those T/A policies now, didn’t ya? We’ve never sold so many of those policies in Athens, son. Care ta tell me how ya did it?” “Well, sir I took what you said and changed it around: instead of selling ‘em something, I let ‘em buy. I just gave ‘em a good reason to buy, that’s all. Instead of callin’ it Travel/ Accident insurance, I call it UFO crash insurance, is all. For some reason, people in Athens like to buy UFO crash insurance.” Dave’s boss, for once was silent. He looked out in the parking lot and saw Dave’s new Benz sitting there, exuding red, and decided not to over-analyze the situation. Fortunately for Dave, the rest of the first-responders have remained silent, too. The Limestone County Fire Marshall is silent. The Alabama Department of Public Safety is silent. The Athens Fire Department is silent. The Alabama National Guard Major of Bravo Company is silent. Nobody, absolutely nobody wants to call the Governor and tell him what actually happened. Reporters, who don’t want to appear hostile to the Governor just before the big election, are nowhere to be found. Nosey neighbors already know that they dare not talk about UFO crash insurance, especially in Athens, Alabama, where they would be labeled ‘busy bodies’ for life, and then avoided at the annual PTA meeting for longer than that. Meanwhile, the Incident Commander keeps telling the Governor that the investigation will conclude in 3 weeks, and that he shouldn’t issue any press releases until then. Since it’s now 2 weeks to the election, nobody is going to tell ‘the Boss’ how everyone got flimflammed by an insurance salesman...would you?


The Peach Tree Sandra S. Richardson You never know what might go wrong while making a piece of toast. Or what might go right, for that matter. It is a rather mindless task, allowing for a great deal of mental wandering as you wait for the toaster to do its job then spread the topping of your choice upon the seared surface of the bread. Really, about the only part that needs attention is trying not to burn your fingertips while retrieving the hot toast. This morning while the toast was toasting and later when I took my first bite of crunchy bread smothered with peach preserves, I stared out the window at something that had been one of my reasons for buying this house: the lovely peach tree in the backyard. I love peaches. The preserves were from my first harvest since owning the old farmhouse on its one-acre lot that edged U.S. Highway 11 near Greencastle, Pennsylvania. Come mid-July I’d had more peaches than I knew what to do with, which sent me running to my cookbooks. They were succulent peaches with deep peachy-orange flesh and a wide band of dark red surrounding the pit. I ate some fresh right off the tree and some went into peach pies and cobblers to share with my neighbors. Then came peach compotes, peach Brown Betty, and peach flambé. I made two batches of incredibly rich peach ice cream, froze a dozen bags of peaches all sliced and ready to use, and made up twenty-four jars of preserves. All that and still many ended up on the ground beneath the tree where they were eaten by my golden retriever, Goldie. At first that had seemed all right, her eating the fallen peaches, she never ate the pits so the cyanide in the seeds was no problem. She hadn’t become ill. She was just behaving oddly. In the morning when I’d let her out

she would sit beside the peach tree staring at the road. As time and peach season went on, Goldie sat there longer. She would stare at the road then at the tree, sometimes nudging at the earth or tapping it gently with her paw like she would tap me when she wanted my attention. When I’d call her in she seemed reluctant to come, glancing back at her spot under the tree several times before she came back to the house. And, if I was being honest with myself, it wasn’t just the dog that was behaving strangely. Since the fruit had ripened and as my peach binge progressed, I began hearing creaks and groans while outside the house that I hadn’t heard before. Then I was catching movement out of the corner of my eye only to find nothing was there. Toward the end of the season I was just plain feeling odd whenever I was outside picking peaches. This morning, as I chewed my bite of succulent peachy toast and looked out at the moisture enshrouded yard where fog made everything familiar look unfamiliar, Goldie was at it again. I could barely see the peach tree but I could see her sitting there staring at the road. I went to the back door. Muggy air oozed in through the screen as soon as I opened the inner door. “Goldie! Here girl!” No response from my intent canine. For the first time since her strange behavior began, I grabbed my mug of tea and went out to see what was so fascinating to her. The air was so thick I barely heard the screen door slam behind me as I stepped off the bottom step. Muted sounds like horses pulling creaky old wagons drifted around me. A bank of fog that rose only six or so feet high flowed along the road just beyond the ditch on the other side of the peach tree. Swirls of mist like huge old wagon wheels rolled past 8

carrying the sound of groaning; groaning like my Dad had done when he was dying from cancer. A pillar of grey pulled away from the fog that was moving along the road, heading for the ditch. Then I saw a young man in raggedy clothes stumble down then up the ditch, falling to his knees near where the peach tree should have been, only the fog was so thick I couldn’t see the tree. His head was bandaged, as was his right arm and left thigh. I couldn’t imagine how he had managed to walk through the ditch. Goldie sat beside the young man and nudged his uninjured leg with her nose. He looked up at me. “Ma’am, might you have some . . .” Deep coughing shook his thin body. “Some water?” he finished when his coughs subsided. “I’m right thirsty and I lost my canteen somewheres back at the battle.” Battle? What battle? I thought of the mug of tea in my hand. “I have some tea. Would . . . would you like that?” “Yes ma’am.” I held out the mug. I could see a hint of white fabric, like a long sleeved blouse, draping my arm in mist. Looking down I saw my jeans and sneakers showing through the dark haze of a ghostly full-length skirt. The man reached out and took away a phantom mug of tea, leaving my ceramic one in my hand. He drank, coughed long and hard, and then handed his mug back to me. It vanished as it met my fingers. “Thank you, ma’am. I’m corporal Josiah Frazey, part o’ General Barksdale’s 21st Mississippi Brigade.” He held up his left hand, opening his fingers to show me a wrinkled lump in his palm. “I’ve been holding tight to this peach stone since I was wounded in that there peach


orchard we took away from the Yankees. Lots o’ trees down and fruit everywhere. Not quite ripe but not too bad to eat.” He looked at the pit in his hand. “After all that fighting, we lost. Lost bad from what I hear. This here wagon train’s got most all our wounded on it and it goes on for miles. They’re hoping to get us back ‘cross the Potomac into Virginia. I got me the fidgets real bad and slid off the wagon to walk a bit.” My mind slowly grasped what I was hearing. “Gettysburg! You were in the Battle of Gettysburg?”

“Yes’m.” His coughing took hold of him again, knocking him from his knees flat to the ground. “Gonna carve this here peach stone into a heart shaped fob for my Sally Ann. Just soon as . . . soon as it . . . dries. Let her know I . . . was thinkin’ . . . ‘bout her.” Josiah’s chest rose no more. His hand relaxed. The peach pit slipped onto the grass. Two shadowy figures approached, took up the body and disappeared into the ribbon of mist on the road, one of them tread upon the

pit forcing it deeper into the earth. My peach tree grew before my eyes as the sun broke through and the fog evaporated away. Goldie barked once then nuzzled my hand. The next July found me in a graveyard in Mississippi. Emails to history buffs, a long search of Confederate Army records, and time spent learning how to carve brought me to this moment. I draped a slender chain bearing a heart carved from the pit of one of my peaches over the upright of the stone cross marking the grave of Sally Ann Frazey.


Elephants, Mongooses and August Harry Calhoun First of August announces the beginning of the end of summer, my gardens still growing bright if I water and as drought subsides, but August is the nettle piercing the browning side of September. And all grows browner, deader and downhill from there. August, you are beyond that season I love from late May to mid-July. But I saw on Animal Planet that elephants and mongooses and humans   protect their weak while other species let them die. So August, I embrace you, cuddle your warmth like a late-born blind mongoose that I am fiercely bound in my blood to protect   August, I hold to your warmth, accept your eleventh hour heat appreciate, understand, move on to an even weaker season but not without   a wistful look back over my shoulder

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A Semi-Abridged History of the United States of America Carol Scott In the beginning, some people moved from Asia to Alaska, though that is pretty stupid when you consider that all of the jobs are currently in Asia. They liked the white, not-soonto-be-state, but eventually spread out all across the two big funny shaped continents. They would later be called a variety of names, including, but not limited to, Native Americans, First Nations, and Indians. Many civilizations developed near Texas, such as the war-monger Aztecs, the did-not-mysteriously-vanish Mayan civilization, and the didmysteriously-vanish Pueblo civilization of Arizona, New Mexico, and other states around there. Eventually, a man named Christopher Columbus found Puerto Rico and did much what a more primitive Hitler would’ve done, and then got his own holiday. On his second voyage, he took a bunch of Spanish people to Puerto Rico with him. The first person other than the Native Americans to be in the US was a Spaniard who landed in “La Florida,” now known as Florida. In time, the Spanish were the first to cross the Appalachians, the Mississippi River, and journeyed as far as Kansas. The first permanent European settlement in the US was St. Augustine, Florida, found by, surprise, the Spanish. The Dutch founded what is now one of the most well-known cities in America, New York, also known as the Land of Crazy People, though it was originally called New Amsterdam, at least before the British got their slimeylimey hands on it. The French also cashed in on the new thing, owning a territory divided into five sections - Canada, Hudson Bay, Louisiana, Acadia, and Newfoundland. They did nothing of great importance except start (and lose) the French and Indian War, and now they

can only be found in Quebec, where even the French from France hate them. They are also found in Louisiana, but nobody really cares because the only cool thing about the Hurricane State is Bobby Jindal. The oh-so-much-moreimportant-screen-hoggers known as the British had a more lasting effect. Their first settlement, Roanoke, is one of the coolest things to ever happen. They also settled a bunch of other colonies, but none are nearly as cool as Roanoke. They also participated in the French and Indian War. This obviously drove them to near insanity, as they conceived the not-so-great idea to tax the colonists. The settlers didn’t like that, so they declared war. The French participated in the war and like to say they won, when it was all the Americans. The French just need to cling to some hope that someday they can win a war. After winning the war, a bunch of guys wearing funny powdered wigs wrote their Constitution, which is now housed in a very big building and has an incredible long line to see it. You can, unfortunately, not touch it. It is much easier to copy and paste it off the internet onto a brown sheet of paper, crinkle it up, then tell your friends you stole the Constitution. Eventually, lots of Yankees grew brains and realized slavery was wrong and started advocating to end it. However, the then Democratic Texans, part of the newly formed Republic of Texas, said ‘Heck no!” Many Democratic southern states agreed. When Honest Abraham Lincoln, the founder of the antislavery Republican Party, was elected president, seven states - South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas - seceded to form the Confederate States of America. Four other states 11

Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina - followed after the Confederate attack of Fort Sumter. Kentucky and Missouri declared neutrality, though the former had problems with Confederates in lower counties, much like the not-yetformed West Virginia. Union authorities declared martial law in Maryland, which bordered the capital Washington DC. Border state Delaware never considered succession, though citizens in the state exhibited mixed loyalties. Eventually, after countless battles, Robert E. Lee of the Confederacy surrendered. Abraham Lincoln was shot four days later by John Wilkes Booth in Ford’s Theatre. Wilkes was shot twelve days later. His bestest buddies were hanged later. You can now buy fake Confederate money at the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace Memorial in Kentucky. Perhaps the most important event post-Civil War and preWorld War I involved President Chester Arthur. After President James Garfield was assassinated in 1881, Vice-President Arthur moved up in rank, but refused to move into the White House, which was showing its age, with rotting pipes and crumbling walls. Congress decided to give into Arthur’s demands and funded a renovation. Part of this project was having the new president go through every room in the house and throw out things that former occupants had left behind. Being the 21st president of the US, there was a fair amount of stuff for Arthur to deal with. Along with items of little value, carpets, chandeliers, furniture used by James Monroe and Andrew Jackson, one of John Quincy Adam’s hats, a pair of Abraham Lincoln’s pants, and a sideboard given to First Lady Lucy Hayes were all carted away on twenty-four wagons and sold in a public auction.


Years later, President Woodrow Wilson’s patience with Germany shrank when one of their U-boats sank the British liner Lusitania, with 128 Americans aboard. Wilson asked them politely to stop attacking passenger ships, which Germany complied to, although Wilson still tried to mediate an agreement, saying that America would not tolerate submarine warfare. Former president Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, the namesake of the Teddy Bear, condemned the acts as “piracy.” The Germans continued unrestricted warfare, while the British intercepted a proposal from Berlin to Mexico saying that if the United States joined the war then Mexico should declare war and use Japan as an ally, so that the US would be too busy to deal with Europe. The telegram proposed that, in return, the Germans would help Mexico reclaim Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. Due to this being leaked (and exacerbated by seven sunken US merchant ships), the US soon declared war. Because of their then-small-in-size army, the US quickly drafted millions of men and Puerto Ricans (in exchange for American citizenships, of course.) Eventually, with the help of the United States, Germany and the other Axis powers were defeated, some even forming new countries, such as the Ottoman Empire, now known as Turkey. The League of Nations, a failed attempt at what the United Nations currently is (although it is currently on a down streak, with several countries, such as Israel, completely ignoring them), failed due to several key countries, including the US, not joining. The US, practically dependent on money, was sent on a spiral downwards when the stock market crashed in the late 1920’s, probably due to all the jazz fever going around. This created the Great Depression, but luckily, the US had Franklin D. Roosevelt, not to be confused with his bearhugging distant relative by the name of Theodore. The recovery

was rather fast in all areas except unemployment, which remained high until the 1940’s. In the 1930’s, a man by the name of Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany, advocating “change” for the country. He was an advocator for Nazism, a member of the National Socialist German Workers Party, and one of the names most closely associated with World War II, Nazism, and anti-Semitism. He successfully suckered Britain and some other European countries into giving him free stuff (perhaps he started singing Kumbaya and they wanted him to shut up?) However it, he eventually got his free stuff, and then ripped-off the Europeans by attacking Poland, subsequently having various countries, such as France and Britain, declare war on him. The US did not immediately enter the war. Their first contribution to the war was cutting off oil and raw materials needed by Japan to combat China. On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and the US declared war the next day. Four days after the attack, Nazi Germany also declared war on the US. The first focus of the US was to defeat Hitler. They set up a large air force in Britain. The first land action during the war was alongside British, Australian, and New Zealand armies in North Africa, and by May 1943, Germany was expelled from North Africa. The US also participated in D-Day as part of the largest war armada ever assembled. The US won the Battles of Ardennes and the Battle of the Bulge for the Allies. Later, with Russian forces in Berlin and his country in tatters, Adolf Hitler did everybody a favor and killed himself (although some claim that he is frozen in ice, which is absurd if you consider the fact that his house was bombed soon after.) With the War on Germany over, the US set its sight on Japan. Up until then, it had been a defensive battle with the United States Navy attempting to prevent 12

Japanese dominance over the Pacific region. On April 12, 1945, President Roosevelt died, and vice-president Harry S. Truman was sworn into office. The use of atomic weapons on Japan was subsequently authorized. Up to that point, the war had been largely naval, with the Japanese navy being stretched to the breaking point. The first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6th, with the second bomb blowing up Nagasaki three days later. The Japanese wisely surrendered. Following the war, relations between the two major superpowers - the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the US - came to a standstill, leading to the so-called Cold War, with both countries tried to outdo each other, mainly by use of nukes. The result was conflicts such as the Korean War and the Cuban Missile Crisis. The US became increasingly worried about communistic influence, leading to government efforts to focus on mathematics and science, especially the space race. President John Kennedy, known for his charisma and being the only Roman Catholic president, was president during this time and strongly advocated the space race, which the US, by definition won. Unfortunately, Kennedy was assassinated before his dream became reality. The US landed on the moon during the Nixon administration in 1969. Around this time, women and blacks began advocating for equal rights. These were eventually received, though many women’s groups still advocate for more, especially in the abortion field. There are also some black power groups around, though, unfortunately, the forefront is the domestic terrorist group the New Black Panthers. During the Cold War, the US entered the Vietnam War under President Lyndon B. Johnson who was already facing popularity issues. Johnson was succeeded by President Richard Nixon, who


initially escalated the war, but later sought a peace treaty. His administration was brought to a close by the Watergate scandal. When Nixon resigned, vicepresident Gerald Ford became president. President Ford had a famous history of tripping, and that was often a news story of the day. Some speculate that this could be a reason why Ford lost the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter, who noted that he was not part of the Washington political establishment. However, during the Carter administration the US was inflicted with a recession, high unemployment, an energy crisis, slow economic growth, high interest rates, and, on top of all that, the Iran hostage crisis, where fifty-two Americans were held hostage. President Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980. The hostages were returned on his inauguration day. During Reagan’s presidency, Reaganomics, a nickname for Reagan’s economic policies, was implemented, as well as the Economy Recovery Tax Act of 1981, and lowered income taxes from 70% to 28% over the course of seven years. Reagan was especially hard on the Soviet Union, whom he called an Evil Empire. He ordered a massive buildup of the US army and a missile defense system known as the Strategic Defense Imitative (and nicknamed Star Wars), which could, in theory, shoot down missiles headed for the United States. Reagan met with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev four times during his presidency. After these meeting, he retracted his Evil Empire statement. The Soviet Union eventually collapsed in 1991 under the first Bush administration. During the 1990’s, the United States and various other allied nations came under attack by Islamic terrorists, particularly al-Qaeda. The first attack by al-Qaeda was the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, when a car bomb was detonated in the garage of the North Tower of the

World Trade Center. The men behind the plan, who shall not be named due to the complexity of their names compared to the standard English I’m using, did what they did because they didn’t like the help the US was giving their arch-enemy Israel, which is pretty much an oxymoron considering the terrorists and many people in Middle East refuse to acknowledge that Israel exists. You can’t provide help to a country that doesn’t exists, am I right? This attack was only the first of many, many, many terrorist attacks to come, including the 1998 United States embassy bombings, the Khobar Tower bombing, and the domestic (rather than Islamic) terrorist attack on Oklahoma City. In 1998, President Bill “Wet Willie” Clinton was impeached for charges of perjury and obstruction of justice that arose from a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern, and a sexual harassment lawsuit by Paula Jones. Later, the Senate voted to drop the charges. It is still the thing most remembered about the Clinton administration and the butt of many jokes. The 2000 election is considered the closet presidential election in history. The issue began when Florida disputed several Democratic votes in certain counties. The Supreme Court case, Bush v. Gore, decided that Bush was president in a 5-4

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vote.

In the current century, Islamic terrorism is on the rise, the largest and most wellknown being the September 11 attacks where four planes were hijacked by terrorists. Two were flown into the two World Trade Center buildings, one into the Pentagon, and the other, which was headed for Washington DC, was driven off-course by the passengers, crashing into a field in Pennsylvania. The US found evidence that terrorist group alQaeda, lead by Osama bin Laden, was responsible for the attacks. However, certain people are under the impression that it was either an inside job or that al-Qaeda didn’t commit the crime. It’s pretty sad when al-Qaeda hates you for stealing their thunder and not just because you’re American. Due to the fact that this is semi-abridged, I’ll just say that Saddam Hussein is no longer with us, ‘Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?’ got a 36% rating on Rotten Tomatoes in 2008, and al-Qaeda is now hiring illegal immigrants off the streets of Houston, Texas with the promise of the demise of the Aggies. As of current writing, popular debates in the US include abortion, same-sex marriage, illegal immigration, the IsraeliPalestine conflict, gun control, the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the economy, North Korea, and whether or not Elvis is still alive. It also faces increased racial tensions.


Life’s Waning Season Richard H. Fay Vibrant fall gives way to drear winter While I watch you drifting away Bit, by bit, by precious bit. Gone forever is spring’s vivid bloom, That promise of resplendent youth Plucked by time’s ravaging hand. Where summer’s radiance once shone bright, Obfuscating mist now darkens Beclouded spirit and mind. Lucent memories of sunny years Fade in the encroaching murk, Unremembered in the void. These final days grow bitter and dim When ebbing warmth abandons heart And a lifetime’s dreams wither. I mourn what was lost, dread what’s to come As lengthening shadows draw near, Heralding this season’s end.

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Sunar Dustin Wier Master Ikathan knelt in the small gazebo atop the Four Peaks Temple and watched the sun set over the plains. The distant whine of a turbine made its way to his ears and tried to disturb his meditation. He ignored it, continuing to contemplate the play of light and shadow as the Sun’s final rays caressed the mountain. Before and behind him lay the western saddle of the four peaks. To his right the many terraces of the temple cascaded down the side of the saddle to end in the entry courtyard below. Beyond that courtyard, the valley lay nestled in a box made by four mountains and four saddles between them. All to his right rested in darkness, the lights of the small town in the valley glittering like stars, though the lights were few during these summer months for the village served as a winter resort town to the wealthy, and its many lodges stood empty. That world, his world, had accepted the night and settled in to await the dawn, while the world below to his left, the world outside, held on to the fading scraps of daylight. His gaze stretched across the plains and their fields of ripening grain glowing gold in the dusk, green patches of wild grass, and a river winding through it all. He sat at the border between these two worlds, seeking clarity of thought in the space between. This, the highest point in the temple, had long been a favorite place of meditation for him. Many of the younger humans of the temple, and even some of the elves, would have been driven away by the biting winds, but he had long since gained mastery of his body and chose not to notice the cold. A new sound reached his ears. A female in one of the upper courtyards, performing vigorous katas. Katja, by the cadence. She had her own adaptation of

the hummingbird katas, done to exhaust the body and mind when peace could not be found. He looked down at the Dusk Courtyard, so named because it was the last courtyard to see sunlight each day, and confirmed the guess. To his practiced eyes, each person’s movements were as a fingerprint, and Katja’s movements he knew well. Seeing her brought his mind back to the reason he had sought the study of light and dark. Katja and Tanu, his dear half-elven friends and able monks, still found themselves childless. All exploration of their chi failed to find a reason. Even Soren, the Temple’s doctor, was unable to find an explanation. Ikthan knew that they were beginning to feel it might be time to call in a doctorcleric, have themselves examined by more extensive facilities, but did not wish to shame him, Soren, nor the Monastery by voicing their feelings. Master Ikathan ‘s emotions were still and thoughts clear as the balance of the world, the balance of light and darkness, played out before him. All things in their place, for everything a purpose. Even medical science. After all, had the monks not learned a great deal about themselves when they began to learn those things discovered from the perspective of modern medicine? He nodded inwardly. The subject would be broached with them tomorrow. Sometimes one had to seek answers in places one wished not to go. A few cleansing breaths cleared the weight of the decision from his mind as he stood slowly, moving only the right leg, and prepared for his evening katas. As he lowered his left leg to the ground, an uneasy feeling settled into his consciousness, a realization that something felt out of place. Ikthan concentrated. The 15

whine of that turbine still droned on. It should have begun to fade by now, but had grown louder. He closed his eyes and pinpointed the sound as it cut off briefly, surged, then came to an abrupt halt. He opened his eyes and focused on the temple’s front gate. A hoverbike had come to rest just outside the gate, the bike’s permanent levitation spell keeping it off the ground as its rider dismounted. The rider wore a closed helmet and loose clothing, but Ikthan judged it to be female, and probably elven. She removed a package almost as large as her torso from the back of the bike, taking great care to make sure it did not tilt or tip. Alone on the top of the temple, Ikathan permitted himself a small frown, now certain of the package’s contents. He watched the woman gingerly place her burden on the ground outside the gate, mount the bike, and turn it around to coast quietly into the night. Ikthan permitted himself a small sigh, then exited the gazebo, walked to the edge of the cliff, and stepped off. One hand and one foot went out to the rock, and he rode it two-hundred sheer feet down to the Dawn Courtyard, landing as light as a feather. From there, he walked to the edge of that courtyard, leapt over its wall, riding down a hundred foot cliff to another courtyard. It took under a minute for him to flow down the outside of the temple, like a drop of water trickling down a fountain. A flicked wrist opened the gate’s night door, and he bent to examine the ‘package’. In a scene which had been repeated countless times throughout the Dragon Empire, Ikthan gave a start -which, for him, consisted of raised eyebrows and a slight cocking of the head as he looked into the child carrier to see an infant half-dragon. As he reached down to pick up the baby, he noticed the satin sheets and


high gloss finish of the carrier. Child of a noble woman, then. No surprise there. The village in the valley was an exclusive resort, reachable only by aircraft, which catered to the top of society. The temple found packages like this on its doorstep a few times a year from noble women who did not wish to bring shame upon their houses with an illegitimate child. It was unusual, however, for the child to be a half-dragon. The dalliances of dragons were taken for granted throughout the Empire, and many considered it a singular honor to be so chosen. Indeed, the prestige of raising draconic blood usually outweighed the shame of bastardy, but not always. The mother could be... stop. Ikthan closed his eyes a moment and cleared his mind of speculation. Taking a careful look at the baby, he got his second surprise. The child’s face was flat, and hominid. Nose, a slight ridge for eyebrows, high cheeks, forward lips, and a definitive chin. Most half-dragons had elongated, draconic skulls with nostrils, a snout, and lips running along the snout. His skin seemed to be a deep black, until the light played from behind his fingers. Then he appeared to be a nearlyblack purple instead. A near fount of questions erupted in Ikthan’s mind. Not the least of which being, what to do with the baby. He checked the carrier in search of supplies to help him take care of the baby for the evening. In the morning he would have someone call the orphanage in nearby Lasur, and then send someone in the temple’s aircraft to deliver the child. One corner of his mouth lifted imperceptibly in a slight grin-grimace as he continued to search the carrier for a bottle or instructions. Matters involving children were always so delicate; he would have to tread as on rice paper. The baby seemed amused by his rummaging. Ikthan froze. Quiet. Too quiet. Katja no longer occupied the courtyard.

A review of the last moments told him she had stopped just before he reached the gate. If she had taken the stairs he probably had time to get the child out of sight. He stood, carrier in hand, turned… and allowed a moment of teacher’s pride at the silence of Katja’s approach to mingle with his misgivings. Katja took one look at the child in the carrier and moved, clearing the twenty feet between them almost instantly, yet without seeming to hurry. The master allowed himself another moment to relish her flawless and unthought execution of a rabbit-step as she picked up the baby to cradle him in her arms. The child had a definite tail. It also sported a set of wings, which splayed out as it relaxed against Katja’s shoulder and cooed. Katja held her eyes closed, her cheek pressed against the baby’s head. “Did the woman give my son a name?” In that moment all of the decisions Ikthan had been meditating on dispersed like vapor in the morning sun. This brought an odd mix of relief and feelings of futility, but he pushed both away to consider later. He worried for a moment that Tanu would not respond as well to the child as his wife, but Tanu loved his wife fully, and would accept anything she loved. So he hoped, at least. Well, what would be would be. Ikthan kept this lingering doubt from his voice as he replied. “I do not know, Katja Surefoot. She sped off before I made the gate, and I have found no note as yet.” A fierce look came upon Katja’s face, but she banished it quickly, “She left without even making sure we had seen him? She did not even sound her horn! She has lost even the right of his Naming! He is my Sunar. My beautiful, dark, lovely Sunar.” Her eyes clouded with worry for a moment, then, as one of her own words registered in her ears. 16

“My” She had made the decision to accept the child without consulting her husband. Ikthan could read her thoughts through the small motions of her body as she realized that there was no going back from where she stood, that she had irrevocably accepted the child as hers, and worry over her husband brought her lip between her teeth. Another voice spoke from the gate, “Sunar is a good name. He shall be our Sunar Duskhope, for he came to us at the dusk of the day, and at the dusk of our hope. He has also given us a new hope, and a family of our own.” Katja turned to meet her husband’s embrace and, together, they stared down at their new baby, the same light of parental love shining from both pairs of eyes. “I am glad that you accept him, my dear love. I had a moment of worry in that I made the decision to bring this child to us without considering you.” Tanu let out a single gentle chuckle, “Light of my heart, you were no more consulted in that decision than was I. I saw you set eyes on our son, and watched your heart decide for us both. As your heart brought us together, so has it brought us our son.” “Yes, OUR son. Here we have found him, here we will raise him. He is ours.” With that Katja’s eyes raised to Ikthan’s, the shining softness in them replaced with something harder than steel, her eyes daring him to challenge her. Tanu turned a similar hard look on the master. Ikthan inclined his head almost imperceptibly, not even enough to disturb his beard. The couple’s eyes softened and both opened an arm to him, to include him in their embrace. Tanu’s voice carried love, joy and pride. “Come, Master Ikthan. Behold our son Sunar, and rejoice with us. Today our family has been made whole and our temple greater. The Powers truly work in mysterious ways. Just as we despaired of having children, they have given us a son!”


Ikthan returned their embrace then led them back inside the gates. He clapped twice sharply, and soon a youth came running, her eyes wide at the sight of the child. “Close the gates, Erika, then sound the courtyard bell. We have a Right of Naming to perform, and a new child to introduce to our family.” Erika’s childish face split with a smile as she bowed to Ikthan, then she quickly closed the gates, jumped onto the inner wall, spider-climbed thirty feet to the bell, and rang it thrice in careful rhythm - the signal for a happy gathering in the forecourt. She prepared to jump down from the wall, then caught sight of Ikthan staring at her. Her shoulders collapsed and she moved for the stairs. As Ikthan and the happy couple made their way to the raised dais at one end of the court, Erika caught up to them. “Master Ikthan, I mean no disrespect, sir, but I could have ridden the wall safely down. You know that I could” Ikthan replied softly but emphatically, “I know no such thing! You likely could have made that jump, but it is also possible you could have injured yourself.” Erika walked mutely, her head down. “Other times I would have let you chance it, but not now. Tonight is a night of rejoicing, and yet you are disappointed that I would not allow you to risk placing a pall on this joy by injury to yourself?” “I am sorry, Ikthan-San. It was selfish of me; I will tell my father and submit myself for discipline.” Ikthan dismissed the comment with a wave of his hand, “You were excited by what you saw and let that overcome you. Take the lesson of that with you tonight, and that will be sufficient discipline. Now, go and join your family, child.” As Erika bowed and hurried away, Ikthan allowed himself to feel the joy of a lesson well taught. He walked serenely to the raised dais, found a box,

took his place above and behind the young family, and waited for everyone to arrive. The boy would likely be a source of trouble in the years to come. The possibility of noble women wishing to court a halfdragon was not to be ignored. Young hot-headed nobles who thought they had a grievance against dragons could become an

issue, and if the child’s dragon parent ever decided to lay claim to him it could bring a great deal of unwanted attention to the temple. Still, with all children came unexpected hurdles and the presentation of a child to the temple should be an occasion of joy, not worry. As everyone began to gather, the Master even allowed himself a small smile.

You Softly Sing to Me Troy D. Young In memory of my wife, my soul mate, my best friend. We lived, we loved, we laughed, we cried As we walked arm in arm Along life’s many winding paths Through sunshine and through storm And in the times when I was sad And worries troubled me, You’d take my hand and cheer my heart And softly sing to me. Then I stood beside a stone And shed so many tears, I knew my life, my love, my joy Was no longer here. But you reached out angelic hands And stirred a gentle breeze, That wove amongst the limbs and leaves And softly sang to me. Now I face my days alone My journey almost done, But knowing I will join you soon Beyond that shining Sun. Where there’s no pain, no winter chill, I’ll spend eternity Holding to your loving hands As you softly sing to me.

17


The Ghosts of Memories Timothy A. Sayell The Instinct led her out here. She tried to convince herself that she was scrounging for the glowing toadstools, but in her heart, she knew the truth. It didn’t stop her from telling herself the comfortable lie. Visha drew her beetle to a halt and dismounted beside a colony of toadstools growing from the cavern floor. They were almost as tall as she, and the skins on their caps were smooth. “Weird, unnatural urgings,” she muttered in sulking tones as she stepped towards the glowing fungi. “Compelling me to journey into the wilderness! Home! Civilization! Two whole days behind me!” She reached for her skinning knife, and the darkness came alive with a spinechilling shriek. A hairy shadow as large as her beetle sprang at her. Its eight spindly legs hit the rocky cavern floor; its hideous body knocked her off of her feet. Her dark face turned upward and she saw shiny, black fangs clicking in the dim light. The monstrous head lunged toward her. She rolled to one side, and then sprang to her feet, drew the katana from its sheath on her back, and leapt at the spider. The spider drew away and Visha landed beside the glowing toadstools. She swung her blade back and forth with all her strength, grunting with the exertion of each pass, and drove the monster back. A loose rock stole her foot from under her and she collapsed to one knee with a pained and panicky, “Oh!” With a nightmarish hiss, the spider struck her with one of its forelegs. The impact plucked her from the ground and flung her several feet away, knocking the air from her lungs, and the katana from her hand. Her weapon slid across the cave-bottom and came to rest near the feet of her beetle. Visha’s expression twisted

with horror. Sword, she thought. Get the sword. She scrabbled for her feet, but the monster shouldered her back to the ground, its stiff, quill-like hairs digging into her naked arms like darts. The black beast lunged at her with its clicking fangs, and she rolled to one side. It lunged again. She rolled the other way, swung her foot and slammed her heel into one of its eyes. It shrieked in pain and Visha scrambled to her feet, snatched her sword from the floor and plastered her back against her riding beetle. The spider rounded on her, a malevolent gleam in its remaining eyes. Gasping for breath, she stood stone-still in a ready battle stance. The spider swatted the blade aside and raised its bulbous body high into the air. Visha could see something protruding from the spider’s rearend. Stingers? As straight and sharp as dagger blades! She dove aside as the monster thrust at her, and the stingers drove into her steed. The beetle screamed as its carapace shattered, staggered under the blow, and sank to the cavern floor. “No!” A strange feeling invaded her. Grim resolve set her fair features with a snarl, and she advanced on the hissing, hairy menace. She swung her katana and severed two of the spider’s legs. It skittered away, shrieking to accompany the beetle’s whine. Her teeth flashed in a predatory grin, and with a scream of rage, she thrust the shiny black blade up into the spider’s belly as it drew itself up for a second strike. A thick, foul-smelling ichor slid down the black blade. She twisted the sword. The spider shuddered, and collapsed. She yanked her sword free and jumped away, then stood panting and watched as it fell to the cavern floor. It twitched and trembled for a few seconds then lay 18

completely still. She tightened her grip on the sword, and advanced on the spider. It didn’t move. She prodded the great body with the tip of her sword. Nothing happened. “Are we finished now, you nasty wretch?” It offered no reply, but she stabbed it again, then wiped the blade on its body and returned the katana to the scabbard on her back. A moan from her beetle captured her attention and she turned toward it. It lay collapsed on the cavern floor. Its antennae drooped weakly and plaintive little whimpers escaped from its jaws. A thick green gel oozed from the wound. Visha rushed to its side and held a trembling hand above the wound. “Poison!” She paused and stared at the oozing gel. How in the name of the Dragon do I know that? But it is. She pressed her cheek against the beetle’s face, tears welling in her bright eyes. “It was a poisonous thing, Tenchar, I fear you are dying… because of me… because of this wicked Instinct! It’s drawn us so far from home, and inspires my sword arm to greater skill than I know myself to possess! If only I’d succumbed to it sooner, I might have saved you!” She looked at the poor beetle through tears, and stroked its head lovingly. “You have been a good and faithful steed, and deserve a swifter… and less painful… passing.” So saying, Visha stood and drew the katana once more. With trembling hands, she held the sword upside-down, the blade pointing at the cavern floor, shut her eyes and performed the last kindness for her friend. Having done the necessary deed, she collapsed on a rock by the glowing toadstools, and gave in to weeping. ~~~~~~~~~


After a long time, her tears slowed, and then stopped. “What am I doing here?” Visha wiped away the tears and gazed around the cavern at the toadstools. They grow tall, out here in the wild. She slid her hand across one smooth cap and muttered, “A fine leather. They should be easy enough to make into cloaks, jerkins. They’ll fetch me a fine price if… when… I get back to Riffiasu.” With a sad sigh, she drew her long knife, and set to work skinning the largest, smoothest caps the colony offered. When the chore was done, she removed the most important gear from the beetle’s harness, examined the spider’s body and plucked a few handfuls of its quills in the hopes that they could be used as sewing needles. With her supplies stowed about her person, she gave one last look to the two giant bugs. “I’m sorry Tenchar, rest well.” She forced herself to turn her back on the dead beetle, and trudged away. I must be going mad, she thought, then gave a little shrug and strode into the darkness with nothing more than her piercing elf-eyes to see through the surrounding darkness, and her Instinct to guide her. ~~~~~~~~~ Visha wandered through caverns unmarked on any map she’d ever seen. They branched away, twisted, turned, doubledback on themselves, yet she navigated them as easily as the halls of her home. “And now I know I must be mad, to have walked those tunnels with such certainty,” she said as she emerged from the maze to find the shore of an underground lake. Pleased, she set up her camp near the dark water’s edge by spreading her spongy bread, casket of wine, and bedroll out on a convenient blanket of moss. She unbuckled her Grandmother’s thick leather breastplate and black katana, stripped down to her black skin, took the ribbons from her long, ivory tresses and her jewelry from her arms, and slipped into the cold

water with a sigh of grateful relief. “Thank the Great Dragon.” She was bathing in the cavern pool, when her keen, pointed ears heard the sounds of guttural voices somewhere in the distant cavern. With alert eyes and a worried expression, she glided back to the bank, making only the slightest of ripples, and slid from the water, crawling onto the land like a crab as the voices grew closer. Sounds like goblin-speak, she thought as her slim fingers reached first for her shift. As she pulled the thin garment over her head, she heard a cry of alarm. “Darkness protect me!” she gasped and pulled the chemise rudely in place, then fumbled for her Grandmother’s katana. She drew the black blade and waited for the telltale lightheadedness that meant the Instinct was taking over. They were goblins, with broad faces covered in green, warty skin. They were built like elves, if perhaps a bit shorter, with coarse, wiry hair. They were dressed in worn clothes of linen or fur which Visha, without thinking, appraised as “Inferior rags,” and sneered. There were six of them, each with a hooked spear in hand, and well-used short swords at their hips. With a gulp, Visha trembled as they approached her. The Instinct still failed to overtake her, and panic came in its place. With wide eyes, she ran back towards the maze of tunnels. After only a few steps, a spearhook found her ankle. She fell forward, rolled onto her back and raised the black katana. A goblin knocked it from her hand. No use, she thought as she clamped her eyes and gritted her teeth. I can only hope for a quick and honorable death. Her attackers exchanged a few garbled words, but she could not understand enough of them to know what was said. Finally, one goblin smacked her arm with the flat of his spear point, and said, “Get you up. We take you to the Raajak; he will decide your fate.” 19

Another goblin stepped forward and snatched the katana from the stony shore. A third one took up her breastplate. Then they herded her along the shore of the black lake by prodding her with their spears as though she were some animal. They followed the water’s edge through the vast cavern until they came to a small camp comprised of simple tents made of lizard skins. A cooking fire spewed smoke and the smell of food, which assaulted the dark elf at once, reminding her of her empty belly. It has been nearly three days since my last proper meal. Looking around, she saw nets, crude traps, picks, shovels and other tools of hunters and miners. The goblins stopped her in the center of their camp, and the one with her katana entered the largest of the tents. She heard its voice for a few seconds, then another voice, rough like uncut sapphires, bellowed, “Zienka!” Visha looked up sharply at the sound of her Grandmother’s name. A cloaked and hooded figure burst from the tent, the sheathed katana in hand. Visha’s escorts sank to one knee, and bowed their heads. The cloaked one ignored them and regarded Visha with a cold and steady gaze. “Zienka Dumondu!” he exclaimed again, in an evil tone of voice that made her skin crawl. Visha looked up at him, trembling with fear. “N-no, I am not!” she managed at last to say. “My name is Vishalaru…” The cloaked one cut her off. “I know this to be the sword of Zienka Dumondu!” He leapt towards her, and shoved the katana before her face. “How came you by it, if you are not the woman herself?” “I am her Granddaughter!” The cloaked one straightened up as best he could, and squinted at her from behind his hood. “Ah, so I now see. My eyes are not what they once were. You truly are not Zienka.


But the resemblance is there. Her granddaughter, you say?” “Yes.” “Where is she now?” “She is dead, sir.” Visha replied, watching the goblin guards with wary eyes. “I see,” the cloaked one hissed as he handed the black sword to a goblin. “Why are you so far from your safe, little home? Do you find some perverse amusement in challenging the dangers of the wilderness?” “No!” Visha exclaimed, raising her hands in protest. The goblins, startled by her sudden movement, turned their spears toward her. She froze, then forced herself to calm down, and lowered her hands. “No. I am but a seamstress.” The cloaked one chuckled, sending ice down Visha’s spine. “And what should bring a seamstress so far from the borders of Mal’Aziru?” She was too frightened to smile, but tried to anyway. “Just toadstool skins. For material.” He regarded her for a moment as he stroked his chin. “Good, then you may be of a use to me.” He turned to the goblins. “To my tent with her, post a guard at all times. Send someone back after her things. She’ll be needing them.” “Yes, O Raajak,” The cloaked figure watched as the goblins forced the reluctant elf-woman into the tent, and sneered beneath his hood. ~~~~~~~~~ The tent, while the largest in camp, was still small by Visha’s standards. The bedroll was almost a nest, made of blankets and cushions. A plain rug lay on the floor by a small table. A pair of chests sat on the floor by the back wall. She found the lack of a mirror especially vexing, and pawed at her dripping, pale locks without thinking. Cold, wet, and frightened, she tried to comfort herself with an embrace and became aware of her state of dress. The short,

sleeveless chemise — little more than a long shirt —didn’t bother her much. But she felt terribly naked without her jewelry. Her eyes widened with worry. “What will become of my rings?” she wondered aloud. “My necklaces? Bracelets? The headpiece?” she gasped as she raised one hand to her temple, “Mother’s last gift to me!” Her thoughts were interrupted when the cloaked one appeared at the entrance. He scrutinized her with unseen eyes as she tried to shrink away. “Did you know Zienka well?” Visha frowned at the unexpected question. “No. She died not long after my birth. I know only vague feelings of her. Impressions. The ghosts of memories.” The cloaked one sighed. “Mores the pity. Then you did not hear her speak of her adventures as a soldier, or a mercenary, or a meddler for her own amusement.” Visha shook her head in reply. “Then you will not have heard of me. I am Korpu Kiani, once a dark elf from Mal’Aziru, not unlike you. But that was before the interference of Zienka.” Korpu stepped towards the rug by the table, and Visha took a nervous pace away from him. He grinned beneath his hood and sat on the rug. “What do you want of…?” “Do you know any magic, girl?” Korpu interrupted as he tapped the tabletop with one finger. “Not really,” she replied with a shrug and a shake of her head. “I’m not interested. I’m a poet.” Korpu’s hood nodded. “Your Grandmother could have told you a fair few things about magic, I expect.” he said, now clenching his fist on the table. “I suppose you think she was heroic? That she ought to be admired. Celebrated. An aspiration?” “I’ve been told so, yes.” She watched him for a moment 20

before asking again, “What do you want of me?” The hood turned towards her. He struggled back to his feet, the fingers of one hand fumbled with the ties at his neck and the cloak fell to the stony ground. Visha gasped in horror. Once he had been a dark elf, but his torso was now dented like kneaded clay. His limbs were curled in sickening spirals. The skin was stretched over the muscles of one hand, which were braided in an unnatural way; while the other was not a hand at all, but a crab-like claw comprised of only two digits. Scabs and patches of scaly skin riddled his body. Visha blanched. She slapped her hands over her mouth and forced herself not to scream. Bubbled mounds covered Korpu’s face. One of his eyes was almost forced shut by a growth on his brow, while the other had been replaced with a large faceted orb. Curved, twisted horns grew from his forehead, and either side of his mouth, reaching forward like mandibles. “Behold what your meddlesome grandmother has done to me! My body grows more deformed as time passes,” he announced, trembling with rage. “But there is still hope for me! These wretched goblins think me the mortal son of their infernal deity. I am to reclaim for them their long-missing shrine. Once done, their deity shall be indebted to me, and reverse the foul affects of magic gone wrong. And as for you…” Here, he took a menacing step towards her. She backed away, stumbled on the cushions of his bed, and fell to the floor with a shriek. He glared down at her. “You will take your toadstool material and fashion for me a suit of clothes for the ceremonies at the shrine. The miners expect to have the entry tunnel cleared within the week.” A chill ran down Visha’s spine. Unbidden thoughts raced to her mind: snippets of stories she’d


heard about the consecration of evil altars and fell temples. Her mouth went dry. What more might they want of me? In her heart, she cursed the mysterious Instinct that had lured her beyond the safe borders of Mal’Aziru. ~~~~~~~~~ A goblin soon returned with the rest of Visha’s gear. She was allowed the collection of toadstool skins, and her small supply of spider quills. She was given a length of rope to unbraid for thread, a pot of thin ink with which to draw a pattern on the material, and a small, dull knife to cut with. She worked to exhaustion, and longed for her well-equipped workshop back home. Five days slipped away down dark tunnels before the goblins uncovered the lost shrine to their deity. The day after the great chamber was reached; Korpu came to Visha, and demanded his suit of clothes. She had them prepared. The white toadstool-skins had been transformed into a tunic and breeches, and bore stripes of a complicated scribble design, over which Visha had labored long with her quills and thin ink. With her assistance, he tried them on, and she showed him threads at the collar and waist. “Should your body change back to normal, a tug on these threads should adjust the garments accordingly.” “Fine work, girl. Fine work.” Korpu barked a goblin word. Two guards rushed into the tent and seized her by the arms. “What are you doing?” Visha cried, squirming in goblin hands. Korpu plucked his cloak from the floor and glared at her as the goblins tied her up. “You would make a most fitting sacrifice,” he sneered, as he wrapped the cloak around his misshapen body, “for more reasons than you know. But alas, you’ve not been cleansing your body and soul these past months by consuming the sacred roots. Fear not, you have made

your contribution. You will remain here until I return.” He turned to go. “Korpu, wait!” Visha cried, and he paused. “Please, explain something to me. If you knew my Grandmother, then you were alive to know if the tales are true.” The cloaked one ordered the goblins to leave, then motioned for her to continue. “It’s widely known that the goblins used to attack us, to enslave and murder us. They say it stopped because their demon-god abandoned them.” The cloaked one nodded and said in a solemn tone, “That is true.” “If you reunite the two, won’t it begin again?” “Yes, I expect it will.” Visha gasped, eyes wide with terror. “How can you do that to your own people?” “My own people?” he repeated in a hollow voice. “My own people!” he growled as he lunged at her, his claw finding her throat. “I will tell you about my people! My people failed to protect me from the goblin raiders! During a rescue attempt, I was abandoned by my people to the slave lords, to expedite the escape of an overburdened wagon. I escaped and sought to avenge myself, when who should happen by but one of my people: Zienka Dumondu.” The claw was pressed against Visha’s neck, forcing her to stand on tiptoe to breath at all. “She ruined my incantations and made me this thing. I sought a cure from my people, but was reviled as an abomination and herded away to die in the wild!” As though exiting a trance, Korpu’s body slumped and his claw fell away from Visha’s throat. He took a calming breath as she gasped for precious air. “I care no more for my people than I do for these goblin scum. In the end, they all shall know my wrath. But you,” he rasped, caressing her cheek, “Zienka’s blood flows through you, so you shall inherit her debt to me and suffer in her stead!” His open hand struck her cheek and 21

she spun away from him to fall to the floor in a whimpering heap. Wallowing in fear and despair, she surrendered to tears and sobbed so hard that she did not notice her jailor’s departure. She was too distraught to think, even of her own fate, or that of her people. Unable to bury her face in her hands, which were tied at her back, she instead turned her face against the cave-floor. Escape. The thought, not one of her own, sprang to her mind, unbidden. She looked up, sniffling. “What?” Escape. A familiar lightheadedness crept up on her, and her head swam with dizziness. She recognized it as the Instinct, but this time bigger, stronger than she’d ever felt it before. Now it was like an alien presence invading her brain, and it eased itself into the back of her mind, and offered her inspiration. Visha wriggled across the floor like a worm to the opening and peered through the flaps. A single goblin was sitting on the ground not far away, playing a game with colored stones. His sword lay on the ground beside him. She bit her lip and struggled to remain calm then turned and inched her way to a seam on one of the tent’s walls where two lizard skins were laced together with a long rawhide strap. Visha rolled her back to the wall and fumbled at the knot at the end of the strap with her fingers. “I can’t untie it!” she gasped and her heart sank. She fought against a wave of panic, and remembered the dull knife they had given her to work with. She crawled across the floor at a snail’s pace, and retrieved it, then crawled back.She started sawing at the strap and was soon rewarded when the rawhide snapped. A mad hope fueled her smile as she pulled the lacing loose. Soon, she had managed to unravel enough of the seam


to create a small opening. With a fortifying breath, Visha pushed her head through and gazed out at a brief alley between two tents. She saw no goblins and heard only the one guarding the tent’s entrance, as he hummed thoughtfully and tapped his stones on the rocky ground. She did see two storage racks, one standing beside each tent. One was loaded with picks and hammers of varying size. The other held a half-dozen hooked spears, each one stored bladedown. Visha grinned in relief and wriggled out of the tent. She sat up with her back to the rack and groped for the nearest spearhead. She found it by slicing open two fingers on its razor edge, and pulled away with a start, biting her lip to stifle a scream, then slowly reached back until she felt the pressure of the spearhead against her bonds. Watching the mouth of the alley with concerned eyes, she slid her roped wrists up and down along the razor edge until the ropes split apart, and the blade sliced neatly along her wrists. She almost screamed, but stopped herself as she pulled her hands out to examine the wounds. The cuts stung, but were not deep. With a frown, she spun on her bottom and held her feet out to the spear, cutting the ropes from her ankles. In seconds, she was free. From the rack of tools, Visha grabbed a mallet that was no more than an iron block on a wooden shaft as long as her forearm. Holding her breath, she mustered every ounce of her courage and padded along the tent wall. The goblin continued with his game as she crept up behind him. She bit her lip, and trembled as she raised the hammer above her head and brought it crashing down. With a dull grunt, the goblin fell to the cavern floor. Visha let out a sigh of relief, and smiled as she tapped the hammer’s head into her open palm. The mallet was slick in her hand, and when she looked she saw blood.

With a gasp, she dropped it, and her muscles tightened. “I’ve killed him!” she announced, her voice hollow. “I crept up behind him like a coward… He was not armed... unaware… I have done him a dishonorable death.” She frowned, collected her breath, and steeled herself for the final realization. “I have dishonored myself.” Must gather my things. As though in a trance, she nodded and hurried through the camp. Her Grandmother’s katana was easily found, scabbard and all, resting on a rack with other swords. The thick leather breastplate had been disrespectfully dropped on the ground beside it. She rushed through the tents searching franticly for her clothes and other belongings. “Hurry! Must hurry!” she muttered to herself over and over again. “Must get back to Mal’Aziru… I will tell the Untarae, they can stop this madness!” There is no time for that. The uninvited thought came to her as she spied her clothes piled by the wall of the latest tent. The joy of her discovery was overpowered by a wave of despair. She grabbed a nearby blanket and threw her clothes onto it, then slipped on her shoes as the dislikeable thoughts continued. And why should the Untarae listen to me? Me, dishonored, and driven from my own House? To live without Honor is to be dead... Visha fell to her knees, and dropped the corners of the blanket. “Then we are doomed. There is no one to stop him.” There is only me. “No, no, no!” she cried as she clutched at her ivory tresses as though she could pluck the unwanted thoughts from her head. “I am only a seamstress! The Untarae can correct this situation; I need only get to them! They will listen! I must find my jewelry, then I shall quit this place!” Unhindered by the rogue 22

thoughts, she rummaged further through the tent. She grunted with disapproval when she found all of her jewelry carelessly dumped in a bag where the pieces would grate and scratch on one another. She reached in with one hand and sorted through them, a concerned frown creasing her brow. “Mother’s headdress!” she exclaimed with a gasp, “It’s missing!” Could that be what he meant by “my contribution to the ritual”? Does it now adorn the sacrifice? Perhaps I could retrieve it, and stop the ritual all at once. Perhaps even regain some of my Honor... She listened to herself, and tried to laugh. “That’s ridiculous! I’m no soldier, no warrior! How could I hope to stop the ritual? Kill Korpu Kiani? I have no desire to be a murderess.” Visha slipped through the tent flap and saw the goblin lying still. She felt ill at the sight of him, her knees threatening to buckle beneath her. She felt woozy, light-headed, and raised one slender hand to her brow, where her Mother’s headdress should have been. Perhaps if I can but interrupt the ceremony long enough, it shall be ruined... ~~~~~~~~~ Visha, strapped into the breastplate, the katana slung to her back, crept up to the tunnel that lead to the shrine. She peered in cautiously. It was a short tunnel, with a vast chamber beyond. It seemed as though all the camp’s goblins were within. Beyond them, on a short plateau of rock, was the altar: a stone table and a rack decorated with skins, bones, and torches. Korpu Kiani stood by it, reciting unrecognizable words. Behind him a pair of goblins painted profane symbols on a third, who wore only a modest loincloth, a pair of bracers, a collar, and Visha’s kidnapped headdress. Air rushed through the tunnel into the altar chamber like water racing for a drain. Visha’s pointed ears made out the faint call


of otherworldly voices muttering through the wind. One stood out from the others, moaning her name, “…Vishalaru-u-u… you must finish my deed…” “There can be no doubt, now,” Visha told herself as she shook her head, “I have gone mad!” Then she drew a deep breath and slid down the tunnel. She was amazed to see how large the shrine chamber was. Even littered with rocks and small boulders, it was easily as wide as the town square back in Riffiasu. The rocks and boulders had been pushed back against the cavern walls, which were riddled with nooks and crannies of their own. Visha slid behind the nearest boulder and looked over the cavern and the crowd of goblins. I could turn around now and leave, she told herself. Then she looked at the goblin sacrifice, saw the metal curves that hung from the leather headband to frame his face, and remembered how her Mother proudly presented it to her the day before she died. Knowing she couldn’t leave it behind, Visha sighed in resignation and crawled between the wall and the boulders, slowly progressing around the great chamber. Visha stalked around the edge of the cave, and saw the two goblins on the plateau had finished with their designs and exchanged their brushes for wands tipped with animal skulls. Korpu still shouted goblin words over the rushing wind as he pulled a curved dagger from his cloak. Then he let the cloak fall to the floor and moved to stand before the stone table as he addressed his congregation, and his two acolytes chanted as they gestured at the sacrifice with their wands. As Visha approached the raised plateau, still unnoticed, Korpu gestured with his dagger and every member of his congregation went to their knees and bowed before the shrine. Astounded, she heeded the chance and climbed swiftly onto the plateau, well behind the shrine. She crawled along close to

the floor, stood swiftly, and drew her katana. She tiptoed up to the rack, concealed now by the skins and bones, and prepared to strike, but before she could… Korpu convulsed with a choked cry, the dagger slipped from his fingers and clattered on the floor. A murmur rippled through the goblin audience and narrowed eyes looked up at the shrine with unveiled suspicion. The goblin beside him pointed with his wand, a suspicious frown on his face. “That is the third such mistake you have made today. I begin to think the shaman was wrong about you. The Raajak is not meant to offend the great deity, but appease Him!” Korpu turned a hateful gaze to the goblin and muttered something about his curse, but Visha’s attention was elsewhere. “…Vishalaru-u-u…” the ghostly voice whispered again, and an instinct overcame her. The black blade emerged from the curtain of skins, its bearer right behind it. Visha stepped up to the goblin sacrifice, reached around him and brought the sword to his throat. Startled, the acolytes and Korpu jumped back, the goblins in the audience leapt to their feet. Korpu narrowed his good eye and his arm twitched again. “What do you hope to accomplish here?” “I want only that which is mine,” Visha growled as she watched them all warily. “My freedom I have already claimed and I have come for my property.” Then she reached up and plucked the headpiece from her prisoner. “Now I shall leave, and if any of you try to stop me, I shall kill your precious offering.” Korpu shrugged, or perhaps he only twitched again. “Kill him, then.” “You think I won’t, don’t you?” Before Korpu could answer, the goblin sacrifice stomped upon her foot. As she cried out, the sacrifice pushed the sword away. He bent, snatched 23

the curved dagger and drove it into his own chest. Visha watched in horror, mouth agape. Do not allow his blood to fall upon the altar! She dropped the headdress, grabbed the goblin’s collar and pulled him back. He fell to the floor choking on his own blood. By then, the goblins from the audience charged the plateau. They climbed the short natural stair; some climbed directly up the sides just as she had. Even as she looked up from the dead body, a goblin thrust its short sword into her shoulder. With a cry of pain, she dropped the sword, and a pair of goblins seized her by the arms. Korpu stalked over, his good hand grabbed her chin and his hateful eyes bore into hers as he muttered, “The daring is strong in Zienka’s bloodline.” Then he slapped her, causing blood to trickle from her lip. “You are a very foolish girl if you think I will believe you came for that worthless trinket. But I know the truth: you have come to stop the rite. To save your people. Did you imagine the goblin-king would send us here with only one suitable candidate? I have a dozen more who will beg for the honor.” Then he bent over the sacrifice, swore, and pulled out the dagger. “He was meant to die on the table.” He barked orders at the goblins, which scurried to obey. Two of them carried out the body. Her captors dragged her to the rear of the plateau, as another took up her sword and followed them. “We must finish what we’ve begun. Already the barriers between the planes are thinned. You can hear the voices of demons and the dead. Summonings may even be possible. But we have not reached the deity.” He glared at her, clicked his claw, and promised, “You will feel my wrath once I am done here.” Upon hearing those words her Instinct began anew. Suddenly, she was sure what the Instinct was, and she surrendered to it fully. With a strength greater


than her own, she pulled her arms together and slammed the two goblins into one another. They released her as they bounced apart. Before the third could react, she reclaimed her Grandmother’s katana, and swung. With one scream and two quick passes, the goblin fell to the ground, dead. Without hesitation, she rounded on the next one, and thrust the katana through its heart. She leapt like a dancer. She spun like a whirlpool. She swirled like a vortex. Visha was a lethal storm, roaring like thunder, her sword like lightning. A few steps, the scream of a madwoman, and another goblin fell from her flashing sword. Visha paused, exhilarated, and overlooked the death and devastation that surrounded her. The goblins lay sprawled around the shrine-cavern and she grinned with an impish glee she could not explain. She turned on the only other living thing in the cavern with her. “I curse you, Zienka!” “No! I am Vishalaru Dumondu, Granddaughter of Zienka!” “Grandmother or Granddaughter, Dumondu blood shall spill this day!” “You cannot kill me, Korpu Kiani!” Visha let out a scornful laugh and gestured with her blade. “Not while you wear my poetry upon your person.” Korpu looked down at the tunic he wore. “Eh? Poetry?” “I see your eyes fail you once more,” Visha said, smiling at him. “It is hidden in the pattern, and took me two days to complete. Let me recite it for you: “Misshapen Creatures Unable to wield Steel or Spell Are Useless Here. “I must confess I wasn’t so sure it would work, written on the clothing instead of your skin.” Korpu stared down at her incredulously. “That is not real magic! Folklore! Superstition!++” Enraged, he pulled out the curved

dagger and lunged at her. Visha side-stepped it easily, and pulled back the katana to strike. Then a muscle spasmed in Korpu’s thigh, his knee locked in mid-step. He fell forward, onto her blade. Korpu looked up at her and opened his mouth, but no words came out, only a dull grunt. Then he fell to the cavern floor. Visha scanned the cavern, and smiled at her success. “…Vishalaru-u-u…” the spectral voice cried through the still-blowing wind, “…you must finish my unfinished deed…: “But I have, Grandmother!” Visha declared, waving one arm to indicate the carnage that filled the cavern. “See? Your old enemy and his goblins lay dead! Is that not why you have guided me here?” “…the shrine, Vishalaruu-u…” wailed the otherworldly voice. “…the shrine must be defaced…destroyed…else some other may come to reclaim it… only you can finish where I once failed, Vishalaru-u-u…” Visha turned toward the altar, scratching her white tresses. “My own Grandmother tried to destroy this shrine!” she told herself in an awestruck voice. “Now I understand why he thought I was such a fitting sacrifice.” She climbed up the stairs,

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regarding the decorated rack and the stone table. The rack was easily destroyed. Visha hacked at it with the katana, and set the skins and frame aflame. But the stone table proved to be a puzzle. She thought for long minutes, her eyes scanning the cave for inspiration. She pulled Korpu’s body up the stairs, and laid his corpse beside the stone table. Grimacing, she dipped her fingers in his belly wound, and then smeared the blood upon the top and sides of the sacrificial table until both the wind and the voices grew still. When she was finished, she admired her composition: Be it Plainly Said That Demons and DevilGods Are Unwelcome Here Then she picked up her headdress, cleaned herself up by the lake, and scoured the goblin camp for the supplies she would need to return home. As she did, Visha hoped and prayed that her Grandmother’s spirit would not lead her off to finish any more of her unfinished deeds. But in some deep corner of her heart, she secretly hoped that it would. She had the unnerving feeling that other adventures waited for her somewhere out in the great, wide world. But Visha just smiled, and shrugged it off as Instinct.


Another Woman for Hopper’s Paintings Emily Hayes After B.H. Fairchild From a blue bed in the hunting lodge, as dawn dusted over splintered hardwoods, I dreamed Edward Hopper painted a picture of her, lonely, cross-legged on the front porch with The Art of the Lathe, the brown light of Kansas sky and dirt, land and barn, his backdrop. Dry, Midwestern summer, sunflowers lined Kiowa Creek and leaned towards Oklahoma, while Stephanie Woolfolk soaked up B.H. Fairchild like the pages from the Comanche County history book I devoured days before. We traded copies of land grants and abstracts, an article from Coldwater’s Western Star for volumes of poetry, and she read them aloud, into the thick air, while the men took in hay from the fields and tagged yearlings for another farm. Poetry or painting, awake or in dreams, the next time we met, her eyes were full of Medicine Lodge, Liberal, Cimarron, Garden City, Meade, Calvary, the places, the waters, a home I wished I knew.

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Observations of Bravery To better understand cattle, I’m going to relate several background stories. Normally, our cows calve on their own in a field around April, unless a spring snow storm strikes. But over the last few years I have been building a purebred herd by buying a couple bred heifers each year. And being purebreds, they’re bred to calve in January, thus the calf will grow enough to be sold as a yearling bull the following year. Typically these animals are gentle, but last year it was a cold January evening when I was going out to chase the heifer in the barn, and found a wet, slimy calf floundering on the straw. Back to the house I went for reenforcements; me and my parents returned to get the calf into the barn. Normally a heifer won’t chase, so with a blanket to keep most of the embryonic fluid off of me, I grabbed the calf. It was near dark and cows can’t see well at night. The heifer had calved and was half-scared of her own calf as she rooted it around, licking and bellowing at it. When I appeared and with a bed sheet flapping, grabbed her calf. Even under all these circumstances a heifer typically won’t chase, but she did. Her first bunt caught me on the right hip as I carried the eighty pound calf. I flew into the air, landed on my feet and desperately tried to run, but she caught me again. I skidded and flew across the pen with her rooting me while I held her calf. If I’d dropped the new born, she would have charged overtop it while rooting on me. Finally, my mother yelled at dad to do something. He ran in and spooked the heifer past me, letting me run through the gate and to safety. This aggressive maternal instinct isn’t always a bad thing. When our cows are on their own, they need to protect their calf from predators such as coyotes, and take care of their baby.

Chad Weiss Unfortunately, this one didn’t recognize the difference between me and a coyote! Another day, during calving season, we had a cow lose her calf, and few days later ended up with a twin. There are several methods of drafting a calf onto a surrogate mother, one of them being to skin the dead calf and tie the hide onto the other calf, tricking the mother cow into thinking it’s hers. Another is to hobble the cow and slowly, day by day, get the calf sucking on her until the cow forms a bond with the calf. There are hundreds of variations of this. But wanting to avoid a bunch of work, we hauled the calf out to the mother cow that was busy grazing in the field. Dropping it off, he stumbled around, searching for an udder to nurse on, and the cow paid zero attention to it. So, wide-eyed, legs braced, and totally against his own will, we pushed the dog out of the truck. To a cow, a dog is the same thing as a coyote. That was everything the old cow needed. She chased our poor dog, Buster, back into the truck, then stood protectively over the calf, glaring at us as the calf stumbled around her side and started sucking. The most gentle cow or horse, as a lingering mark from a horse bite on my ribs will attest, can become ferocious animals when their calf or foal is endangered. Once a calf or foal is several months old, the mother’s protectiveness fades, but until then it’s at your risk. Armed with this new understanding of cattle, I’ll start relating the bravery of a horse. ~~~~~~~~~ Normally I start and completely train our ranch horses, but a number of years ago we were at a horse sale when a started two year old bay mare came into the 26

ring. She had about thirty rides on her and was kind of broncy. Whites of her eyes showing, and a swollen knee from being kicked by another horse scared everyone from making an opening bid. Dad kind of liked the way she moved, so he bid, figuring it would start other people bidding. We took her home that day. The first time I got on she went to bucking. Not until my sunglasses were askew and my hat on sideways, did I get her pulled around with Dad laughing on the outside of the round pen. A few weeks later I was sorting pairs during calving season, when an old mother cow snorted and lunged at me. I kind of figured she was bluffing, and being a two year old, my mare could only trust me as she had no idea what was happening. I spurred her forward and we charged into the cow, chasing her off. I figured right! ~~~~~~~~~ Two years later and on a three year old paint, I was moving pairs from one field to another when a cow, we have a choice name for her; no it’s not what you’d think, it’s the name of a woman that reminded us of the cow, when that cow spun back from the group and charged me and my paint. A quarter mile later, I turned him in a circle, the cow long turned back for the herd after putting the run on us. By the time I returned, the herd was filing through some elm trees, and I started helping the calves through as they got hung up on branches and paused to smell their new surroundings. Through the bush, branches snapping, the same cow charged us. This time we ran about six hundred yards before I turned the horse around and headed back. By now, if I packed a pistol, I’d have shot that cow! I didn’t even make it through the elm trees and


the cow ran at us again. My poor horse’s brain was so frazzled, he spun and crashed through the trees with me desperately hanging on against snagging branches. A year later, I rode through a group of cows selected for their quality. They were my AI cows, or the cows I would attempt to artificially inseminate. From checking the night before I knew which cows had cycled and searched for them. Spotting one of them, I angled the same paint horse for her. As a calf in the feedlot we could pet this cow. As me and paint ride towards her, she lifts her head while chewing on a mouthful of green grass, her brown eyes docile and my paint spooks sideways. I rein him around and stick my spur in his side to stop his sideways run. He halts, his legs splayed ready to bolt at any moment. Speaking dryly, I said, “Doc, if there was ever a time that you weren’t gonna get chased— this was it.” ~~~~~~~~~ The next day, I rode my big gangly, black, three year old gelding when a cow I’m sorting off to AI, slides to a stop. My horse doesn’t hit the brakes fast enough and she ducks behind us. Typically, a cow will test a person and if you beat them immediately, they may test you

again, but often they’ll go where you want once they realize they can’t win. This cow won just once and the battle was on. We charged at a dead lope in the wrong direction. I got in front of her, and she slid to a stop, with me following suit. She spun and we charged the other way. Crashing through a slough of water several times in our mad dashes back and forth, I chased her across that field, losing ground the entire way. Desperate for a solution, I grouped her with another cow and that cow’s calf. I took them as group which worked great until about halfway to the pen, the calf ran off and the others split, leaving me with the AI cow. I took after her, and once again we are doing the back and forth at a dead lope. By this point I’m not even swearing any more, my teeth are clenched in a grimace. It had come down to a contest of stubbornness and that’s one I don’t lose easily. Suddenly the cow turned. She gave up and trotted straight to the corral with me behind. She’d realized she’d been beat and knew exactly where to go that whole time. I think we each learned something that day. My horse: a quick stop will save a whole lot of running. The cow: Who knows if she remembers? Me: Don’t bother AI’ing a cow that just ran a marathon, the embryo that once

was in her, is long gone. ~~~~~~~~~ This past fall I rounded bulls up. In the morning, I took the same bay mare that is now eight years old. Finding the bull with the group of cows, I started trying to sort him off when he turned and lunged at me. My mare lifted her head up and stood her ground as the bull slid to a stop about an inch from her chest. He shook his head, backed up and lunged again as I started shouting, shocked at the abrupt turn in behaviour. His bluff called, the bull turned and trotted away in the direction I wished. After lunch, I switched horses to my big black horse, who is now five and over sixteen hands high, and unless your comparing jumping horses, he’s a big horse, often called the circle horse because he can make the big loop around a field. After the summer alone with a group of cows, this bull felt he was somebody not to be trifled with as he trots towards us, snorting and shaking his head. As we near, he stops and looks up at my big black horse. I almost swore he gulped before spinning away. My horse just looked too big. I’m not sure what the moral would be to these stories, but they are my observations. Take them as you will.

Dust Trent Amor Dust consumed the horizon, leaving nothing more than a brown smear across the vista. The pregnant moon hung loosely, high in the sky, caressed by a velvet purple blanket. He looked down at his feet, immediately before him lay nothing but dirt, an endless rippled sea of dry earth. Life had left this land long ago. Jasper turned back to his homestead; a

guttered, dying skeleton clasping to the last vestiges of life amongst the infinite ruined surroundings. The nearest neighbor was a three days walk west from here, the Jenkins estate. Twenty years ago this neighborhood was alive with shining cars, sprinklers, Sunday barbecues and the free laughter of leisure. The dust had arrived slowly at first, creeping through window sills, encroaching on the 27

lush green yards, insinuating itself into normal life, until eventually, inevitably, it swallowed the world like an insatiable beast. Dust had erased the past, and dust would define the future. Jasper glanced again at the moon lying languid in the afternoon light. It was full, time again to return to The Water. It had been six months since he had made that trip. Had it been six months


already? Six months since he had left his home, six months since he had been a part of society, or spoken a word to another human being. He went inside the house to grab his back pack and two empty drums. As he stood in the doorway he glanced around the empty room and quickly checked to make sure his gun was loaded and the knife was securely hidden away. The word friend was now a meaningless concept. Suddenly a rushing wave of circumstance crashed into him like a mallet to a drum, reverberating within. Was it not four years ago today that I left for The Water, and returned to find my life, my family, and my home destroyed? I have nothing to return to this time, nothing to leave behind. He wrapped a scarf around his face and stepped out onto the dirt and began the long dry journey to The Water. The fourth day had always seemed the worst. Exhaustion seeped into the bones. Every step, every breath, was marked by sharp twists of bitter pain. He had been lucky. The dust storms had been mild and forgiving. Only during the second day had he stopped to curl up in a ball and let the winds prevail. Now he was only two days away. The two empty drums, bound by an old branch across his back, moaned in the wind. The sound brought back aged memories he longed to be relinquished. On his knees, his son in his arms, crusted blood and sweat, screaming up to the sky. He must persist, he must move forward. He could smell The Water. But would The Water receive him? A trail of dust painted the horizon. The plume faded in the distance, merging with the smear that covered everything, as the brushstroke of defined dust moved closer and closer. Somebody, or something, was approaching. Surely it wasn’t a Corp vehicle. Why would they bother with this part of the world? Only people from the Corp had fuel anymore. If only they had listened, the corporations, the governments,

his neighbors. He used to be an executive scientific officer with Monsanto, the company that controlled the world’s agricultural industry, but even that was not enough to convince his friends and neighbors to heed his warnings. When Monsanto was bought out by the UN inc. he knew it was time to take action on his own. The first thing he did was to stockpile canned goods. Then he built an elaborate underground system of agriculture. The evidence was obvious, the science irrefutable. But no-one listened. And one by one his neighbors and countrymen succumbed to the dust, and eventually the marauders and pillagers. The only people now with any access to life and liberty were those entrenched in the Corp. The government had failed and the overwhelming shadow of industry had stepped up to take its place as the architect and administer of social development and control. The future was lost. But not to Jasper, he was prepared. Not until that day four years ago when human kind took away his life. But this dust trail was not automotive, it was not industry, it was different. Eventually in the distance he could discern a donkey. He stood still, waiting. Something or someone was on the donkey. He couldn’t tell what. As it came closer his heart skipped a beat, he held his breath, and turned away. On the back of the donkey was a boy, obviously no older than twelve or so, about the same age as his son had been, slumped across the saddle. He had been dead for a week, his body burnt and tarnished by the incessant sun. The donkey was nothing but a skeleton, like a mirage in the desert, and the words written in paint on the donkey’s hind made Jasper tremble, ‘to dust we all return.’ He had obviously come from The Water. But for this poor boy something had gone wrong. What had happened? What lay before him? With trepidation he took one more step towards his goal. The afternoon bloomed 28

in unrepentant sunlight, as Jasper waded relentless through the oppressive waves of heat, eventually cresting a brown dead hill to finally look down upon the vast spread of dark vile inhumanity that compiled The Water. He walked slowly through the throng. People cried. People wailed. Dust was everywhere; in the eyelids, in the folds of skin, in the sweat and in the tears. Next to him a man yelled incoherent as he was stuck with a knife for some transgression unperceived or unnoticed. Jasper kept walking without turning or blinking. To The Water. To The Water he went. This sad conglomeration of humanity had congealed around one last vestige of hope, a pool of water. For years it has sustained all life in the surrounding vicinity. The Corp could not control it. Or they didn’t bother. They didn’t need to. As he approached the market jasper began to feel nervous. Something was wrong. Something was different. The smell of desperation was in the air. It was strong and alive, sentient, like a being manifest of its own accord, thriving on the pain of the human soul. The people all around were clawing for the last remnants of life. Jasper made his way slowly, resolutely, to the edge of the lake, to the market that fed life. Jamieson was one of the last stalwarts of the free market. He had been selling water here for fifteen years now. The true showman, tall and intimidating, he knew how to market business and draw in the customers. After all he had access to the most desirable product in the world. Jasper finally approached him directly and spoke his first words in six months, “James, I need two drums of water. I have potatoes, tomatoes and wheat.” Jamieson turned his attention from the throng in disgust, “Water? Water! There’s no more water farm boy. The lake


is dry. The dust is omnipresent. Only distilled urine, the best produce can buy. You’re living in the past boy, urine is the future. You want to survive then try Jamieson’s own Special Blend. Quality assured!” Jasper stood still for a moment, wordless, utterly drained, then turned away from the masses. He forced his way through the pushing and desperate crowd. He walked past the empty stalls, past the crying children, past the dirt and grime, out beyond the life and lost hope, into the desert of dirt. Four years ago he had made this very same journey. Four

years ago he returned to find his wife and son, his life, pillaged and destroyed by faceless marauders. He should never have left them alone. Why had he be so stupid and self righteous? They could have survived. They could have made it through this apocalypse. But he was arrogant. Thought he was too smart and had everything under control. What control he did have was taken from him; his son at the front door, his wife no-where to be seen, and his main sustenance all gone, all taken away from him. They never found the hidden vault. What good was that, but to leave him to live through this nightmare

alone? And why would he want to live through this? Humanity was as unforgiving and lifeless as the Dust. Life and dignity had left this place long ago. With subdued resolution he sat on the earth. He laid back, head on the ground, and looked up into the faded drawl of afternoon light. Purples and pink played like mad soft children above the lifeless dusty bowl. Stars were emerging to mock eternal. The moon showed signs of being eaten away, and as he lay on his back, thinking of his wife and son, he made dirt angels in the dust.

Eavesdropper Tim McDaniel Gerardo sat on the warm bench and listened. Claude was on his right, thumping away at some game on his laptop, rocking the park bench, occasionally taking bites out of his wrap. On Gerardo’s left sat an immense old man, eating fistfuls of something that Gerardo couldn’t identify from a bag, chewing with a vacant expression. And seated on the other side of the bench, her back to him, was a young woman with piercings in unlikely places and hair down to here. She was on her phone. “She did? Well, I really thought she’d go for his type,” she said. “He certainly had all the equipment... yes, well, with three of them, you’d think even she’d be satisfied! ...No, from what I understand, they have to be used one after the other, not at the same time. I guess that would kill him or something... Yes, exactly!” The wind tickled the leaves of the tree that overhung the bench, making the splotches of sunlight dance. Gerardo pictured the woman under discussion, and an exotic life filled with unusual people, all doing outlandish and pleasant things to one another. He’d been married to the same

person for twenty-one years, and if their romance wasn’t dead, it had certainly been in a persistent vegetative state for some time. How did one meet such women? Where did they come from, where did they go? Where were they when they weren’t in the park at lunchtime? An older man strode by, brow furrowed as he barked into his phone. “Yeah, well, the Navy is going to be on our necks if the new planetbuster isn’t up to specs, and if I can’t find some way to negate the blowback, more than just the planet could go. In fact, entire globular clusters might--.” What a job he must have. Pushing back the frontiers of human understanding, with consequences stretching out into the far future. No one leaning over him, micro-managing every little decision and bathroom break. That guy probably met women like the one with hair down to here and brought them home to his place for frantic lovemaking, and then he would probably collapse onto the bed in exhaustion, only to wake up in the clear blue morning with some kind of scientific breakthrough 29

blossoming in his mind. Gerardo finished his sandwich, drank off his juice. As he got up from the bench to throw his trash away, a bald man, half his face burned and creased, walked by, talking to a trailing gaggle of young children. “So there I was, clinging to the hull – outside, and with no air at all left! Suddenly I noticed that one of the pirate ships was no more than half a kilometer behind me. I pushed off—” The breeze rippled the grass, and the turf was springy under his feet. Gerardo tossed the garbage into the bin, and on the way back to the bench he passed some kid, couldn’t be more than nineteen, talking too loudly to another boy, with an enormous nose and the first hints of a beard. “The radiation’s going to die down, it won’t take that long,” the first kid said. “But in the meantime it makes the whole place glow, just glow, and they got this thing that you can take, in this place right next to the shooting range. They’ll make it all illegal as soon as they figure out what’s going on! If we get the morning shuttle, we can have at least three or four days on the beach, and the


radiation does things to the girls that you just wouldn’t believe! They just want to…” Claude had rolled up his laptop. “Joren just sent an urgent message – we’ve got some cleaning up to take care of, right away. Ready to get back to work?” He stood up. Gerardo shook his head. “Huh?” Claude asked. “I want it,” Gerardo said softly. “I want it all.” “Want what?” There was a buzzing in his head. “All of it. The exotic women in strange places, the sexy job and vacations of mindless animal fun. I want it all, Claude! I’m sick of my life!” Claude put a hand on Gerardo’s shoulder. “It’s only natural,” he said. “The common fate of humanity, and all that.” The energy drained out of Gerardo, flowing down, out of his shoes into the grass. He sighed. “I

guess so.” “Now come on,” Claude said. “We got to get back to the office.” They began making their way through the park. “As usual, they ignored our warnings,” he sighed, “and now look what we have. Joren gives the planetary population no more than four, five hours. The mutation rate of the surviving experimental jaguarape hybrids is over sixty-seven percent, and some of them are viable! More than viable – they’re reproducing like rabbits, and they’re mean as hell!” Claude paused and looked at Gerardo. “Buddy, you’ve got to work your magic again, find an answer. We gotta move, and fast – maybe you can call in a favor from the old general, or from that ex-pirate shapeshifter friend of yours – if you think they can be of any help at all. “I suppose to a guy like you, married to a Xylarian Sex

Priestess, the adrenalin rush is negligible, but speaking for myself, I just don’t need this kind of excitement!” Claude said. They began walking again. “I’m getting too old for this kind of crap.” “I think if we bombard the local sun with Dimension 12 sub-particles,” Gerardo said, “the resulting change in the stellar wind might reverse the mutations, at least buy us some time. And that means we’ll have to break the Slixoid Behemoth out of jail first—“ Suddenly Claude stopped. He gestured with his laptop. “Tomorrow, we got to have lunch over on that side of the park, the other side of the lake. The grass there looks so… So – I don’t know.” “That’s not grass,” Gerardo said. “It’s a holo, put up while the lawn is being replanted. I overheard some guy talking about it.”

Secrets contained in a shower stall: Christina Getty

Locked away in the tiled corner hugging my knees against my breasts and resting my head in my arms desperately trying to wash away my pain I try to let the warmth rain down and soak into my soul Tell me why then do I feel so cold? Water journeys down my body dripping slowly to the drain I wish my sorrows could follow those tiny drops It’s here I feel safe The waterfall will surely muffle my cries and massage my body as it gently caresses my face Why can’t my agony dissipate with the steam? Often I’ve reached out as I pleaded and sobbed for help But the only thing that has ever answered me Is the water slowly gathering puddles in my upraised hands And slowly seeping through my fingers and down the drain.

30


Percy Picket Succumbs to Infirmities Allen Kopp, special reporter also survived by a brother, that he launched his second Mr. Percival Raleigh Gunderson Hartselle career, that of a professional “Percy” Francis Harrigan Picket, of Harmony Hill, Picket; a sister, Adelaide circus clown. Leaving behind entered into eternal rest Emmaline Picket Moncrief; family, home, and business, and grandchildren Arundel, he traveled with the Fitch on Thursday, the sixth of Brothers Circus for fifteen September, having attained Woo, Lotus, Astoria, Polly Esther, Brigadier, Judson, years as one of its star the age of eighty-five Lupé, Xerxes, Chandler, Trixie attractions. Mr. Otto Fitch, years, four months, and sixteen days. He was Bell, Enar, Gunnar, Fritzie, owner and founder of the Fitch Brothers Circus, has preceded in death by his Bongo, Hermes, Echo, Pan, Lou parents, Dewey Alonzo Anne, Jade, Opal, Bean, Babby, stated unequivocally that it Belvedere, Zaza, was Mr. Peevish Quackenbush Picket and Alameda Hortense Rockwell, Fredericka (Wicket) Picket; and twins Jag and Dag. Also who saved the circus from surviving are many nieces bankruptcy. “We would have and conjoined twin sons, Alfredo Joshua Torrance and nephews, cousins, business never made it through the hard times without Mr. Peevish Picket and Alphonse associates, and friends, as Quackenbush bringing in new Jerome Tyrone Picket. He well as a special companion with whom he enjoyed white- customers in every town,” was also preceded in death Mr. Fitch stated. “He is what by his beloved wife of water rafting and five-card fifty-eight years, Louisa stud, Dinwiddie Oglethorpe-St. kept us on the rails.” A lifeClair, of Steamboat Springs, size statue of Mr. Peevish Maria Helena (Belladonna) Colorado, and Council Bluffs, Quackenbush can be seen on Picket, with whom he had Iowa. display at the National Clown ten children. Throughout his long Museum and Hall of Fame. Surviving children In keeping with the are Victor Hugo Pierce life, the deceased was known Picket (wife, the former as a caring and philanthropic deceased’s wishes, he will be Beatrice Carlotta Pogue individual. In spite of his interred in the clown car large family and his successful that he made famous in the Hinchcliff); Tammany distinguished career clown section of the Cemetery Hector Guillermo Picket and (wife, the former Magdalena as a mannequin designer, of the Holy Ghost. He will Maybeetle Montclair); he was always ready to don lie in state in full clown Lawson Jervis Wicket his white makeup, glittery regalia at the Seltzer Water Funeral Parlor tomorrow Picket (wife, the former nose, baggy tuxedo and red wig to transform himself evening only from seven p.m. Clara Beedle Champagne); George Emmett Grayson into the beloved clown, Mr. until closing. Tickets may be Picket (wife, the former Peevish Quackenbush. As this purchased at the door. Bring the entire family. Grace Gruber Grudnick); well-known clown character, Georgiana Victoria Regina he was often seen riding on floats in parades and lending Chinn (husband, Chang Win Chinn); Albertina “June a hand at charitable fundBug” Dunleavy (husband, raising events. He often stated to friends and family Dixie Clement Dunleavy); in later years that it was as Alice “Tiny” Wigglesworth Mr. Peevish Quackenbush that (husband, Charles Chandler he felt most alive. He was “Chick” Wigglesworth); Percy Picket Succumbs Infirmities frequently quoted as to saying, and Lucille Lucretia is Faith-Winterhaven (wife “Mr. Peevish AllenQuackenbush Kopp of Montague Sidney Faith- more Percy Picket than Percy Picket is.” Winterhaven III). And it was in mid-life The deceased is

31


The Madness of Joseph Kent Erik VanBezooijen  With tears in my eyes I turned to take a last look at the castle. It was couched among the highland crags, limned by a sepia sunset, and it looked not the least bit sad to see my parting. A bitter curse escaped my lips and I moved my sleeve across my moist eyes. Too long had I suffered among the shadows and cobwebs of my ancestral halls. Too long had I shuddered to the touch of dank, crumbling walls, veiled thinly by moldering tapestries and rusting suits of armor. Inhaling deeply, I swiveled about and allowed my eyes to linger over the black blanket of woodland which stretched into the distant grey of the hills. The twilight air was sweet and pure, untainted by decay. Even now I could feel the wind’s light breath brushing against my skin and stirring the edges of my jacket and black necktie, cleansing them of the dust. Grabbing tight to my walking stick, I made my way toward the serried lines of gnarled, naked trees, savoring the crunch of grass beneath my feet and the sweet sunset which fringed the horizon. A new vista seemed to open before me with every step I took, each one vaster than the last, and it was not hard to forget the rodents and the stones and the cold hands after a few moments of walking. I reached the edge of the forest, and licked my lips. I resisted the urge to place my hand upon the butt of the heavy Howdah pistol dangling at my side. Up close, the trees looked sinister. Their branches, bereft of leaves, seemed to claw at the faded sun like the hands of damned souls grasping for salvation. Incredibly enough, it seemed that each emaciated trunk bore a face frozen into the bark, faces that glared and menaced with blank, soulless eyes.

I shook my head and emptied it of its doubts. I had visited the forest once a week for the past three months, and knew that there was nothing within it to do me any harm. In a few weeks I would be eighteen. Was I a child, to be frightened by some autumn trees? Laughing to myself, I made my way through the narrow paths, obscured by the fragile brown skeletons of fallen leaves, and continued to enjoy the sharp, clean forest smells. With the castle so far behind me, anticipation began to bubble like a cauldron within the pit of my stomach, spreading through my veins and firing my heart and brain with excitement. She had agreed to meet me in the clearing not far from here. We would escape together from this desolate highland, Lucine and I. Whither we would go after our reunion, I could not say, but it would be enough to escape the castle, its crow-haunted parapets and echoing corridors. We had grown up together beneath its high arched vaults, suffered the same loathsome, wet embraces from our pale, eyeless guardians, and so too would we die together in the open wilderness—or survive as lovers. Thin streamers of pink and purple sunlight still lingered in the sky by the time I found the clearing. I dropped my walking stick at once, for there, within the dry radius of dead leaves and twisted roots, was Lucine. She rose from where she sat and stared for a moment, her moon-bright face alight with disbelief, and uttered a cry of joy. She flung herself into my arms. Exultant at the touch of her warm flesh against my own, I nestled my face within the luxuriant curtain of hair which ran down her back and around her cheeks. She lifted her head to petrify me with her wide green 32

eyes. Set within her soft pale face they resembled a pair of miraculous flowers blooming from out of the snow. My heart raced faster until the blood scalded in my veins. I pressed my lips against hers. For a blissful moment our bodies merged together, skin bound to skin by the passion of our blended pulsebeats. “I was afraid that you would not come,” she said. “I’ve been waiting here since dawn.” “I never meant to frighten you,” I replied, held in thrall to the magnetism of her eyes, the seraphim in her smile. “I tried to escape, but couldn’t at first. I woke up and found that our guardians had locked the windows as well as the door.” I felt her shudder, and drew her close enough to feel her heart knocking against my own. “But that’s of no importance. I used the trapdoor—” “The trapdoor?” she shuddered once again. “Yes.” I fought a wince as I remembered the feel of the roaches on my hands and the rats chattering in the gloom. “I don’t know how long I was down there, fighting through the rodents, and the smell...it could have been hours. It felt like an age.” “They didn’t see you, did they?” I felt her heart flutter faster. “No,” I said, moving my fingers through her hair. “No, they did not see me.” She gave a sigh of relief. Her breath felt warm upon my neck. “You brought provisions along, then?” “Yes.” “And your books, too?” I nodded, beaming with pride. I took the knapsack hanging from my side and opened it so that she might see its contents—a half dozen leather-bound volumes, their pages filled with poetry that I myself had penned during our years of imprisonment within the castle.


“Yes. I daresay a poet is a poor judge of his own work, but I’m certain I’ll be able to sell them in whatever town we find ourselves in. They’ll fetch a decent price.” She raised her head from where it rested upon my sternum, and I saw, not for the first time, an arch of her eyebrow, a twist of her mouth. “Enough to get us started, at least,” I corrected myself, unable to repress a sigh. “Assuming there’s a place that we can get started in,” she corrected. “Do you really believe that there’s a town beyond these woods? We’ve never been beyond them. What if the forest never ends? What if there are only more trees beyond these trees?” The fears she gave voice to troubled me as much as they did her, but I forced myself to laugh and run my fingers through her silken black hair with new relish. “This forest cannot go on forever, my love. Even if it does, we’ll be a long time in starving. You’ve seen the water in there— the creeks, the ponds. There’s no shortage of game, either, and I’ve taken a pistol from the armory to hunt with.” I hefted the Howdah up with an unpracticed hand. “I’ve read of them, in the books in the library. They’re used by hunters to slay tigers and lions in India and Africa.” “I’ve seen no game here, my love,” she whispered. “Just crows among the branches.” Something in the tone of her voice, filled with a sudden, inexplicable melancholy, brought a frost settling across my spine. Perhaps it was the truth of her words that unsettled me; I had thus far seen no other sign of life either. All the same, I laughed, though even I heard a timbre of uncertainty creeping into my voice. “Well, game or no game, I’ve brought plenty of food along with us. If we do perish here, it is at least better to die in the open air and return peacefully to the ground than to suffocate in those

foul castle halls. Now come, let’s set off now, before they catch on and decide to search us out!” *** For three days we wandered through the bleak isolation of the woods, huddled within their shadows, living upon the provisions I had scrounged from the castle—for indeed, the forests seemed spurned by all birds and beasts save for the crows, who croaked every now and then from the stiff tree branches or who fluttered against the silhouette of the sun. The sun—I had longed for the warmth and freedom it offered while languishing in the castle. Yet now, I cursed it, for its light splintered through the latticed canopy like the fingers of a mischievous boy prying through the bars of a songbird’s cage. Nonetheless, I was glad to be rid of the interminable shadowed stairways, the frowning grey towers, the claustrophobic confines of the walls whose moistness was loathsome to the touch. I was hungry, and thirsty, and blisters rioted across the soles of my feet, but Lucine was by my side, and the open world was spread before my wandering soul. How infinite seemed the forest! How staggering its immensity, its horrible sameness! The same drear lines of trees! The same loud circles of crows! The same mocking, glistening sunlight playing upon the leaves—and those leaves! Splayed limp and helpless across the ground like angels cast from the heaven of the tree branches to the hell of the skeletal, root-crossed earth. And yet, incredible though it seemed to us, we finally reached the end of the woods, and found ourselves gazing upon a horizon with hills rollicking across it, beautiful despite their drab gray color. Our hands clenched tight together, and we took it all in. We saw spirals of smoke curling upwards, forming darker clouds against the grey backdrop of the Scottish sky. We embraced, laughing 33

like children, before racing toward the horizon. Chests heaving, we stood there, my arm wrapped around her willowy waist, her arm balanced upon my shoulder. A town rose up to greet us—a picturesque square of timber lodgings and huffing chimneys. Wafting on the wind was a dizzying amalgam of scents—baking bread, roasted meat, liquor, flowers, livestock… Whooping with delight we strode down the slanted brow of the hill to find ourselves within the village green. People bustled around us—children chasing after each other, dogs barking, musicians sounding their flutes and strings, men and women chattering and toiling and cursing, lost in their daily lives. We reached the door of a tall building whose sign showed it to be an inn. I threw open the door and we tumbled inside. A cheerful hearth blazed in a common room filled with patrons and their sounds of drinking, laughing, cursing and shouting. I sidled up to the bar, Lucine hanging by my side, and the innkeeper, a beaming, rotund man with shining red cheeks and twinkling eyes, waddled over to welcome us. “Strangers in town, eh?” he said, smiling owlishly. We nodded our heads and smiled back. “I am Joseph Kent,” I said, inkling my head, “And this is Lucine.” The innkeeper nodded, as if this explained everything, and narrowed his eyes. “Husband and wife?” Lucine and I eyed each other awkwardly before answering “yes” in unison. The bartended beamed and nodded. “Well, you look to be honest folk, and you’ll be welcome in my inn and anywhere else in town so long as you don’t stir up trouble. Where is it you came from, Mr. Kent?” “A place…not to our liking,” I said, some of my mirth smothered by the weight of awful memories. “But we plan on


staying here. It seems as good a town as any to make a living.” “Indeed, sir? Well, there’s always room for a few extra workers around town. Have you any idea of where you’ll be living? And what you’ll be doing” I shrugged. “To be honest, sir, we’ve made a rather impulsive decision. We’ve little money, and I am not even certain that there are houses available for use in this town of yours! I am a poet, however, and eager to sell my books. I’ll willingly work for any man who needs my assistance, if I’m up to the task.” “A poet, eh?” the innkeeper’s eyes went wide, and I felt my cheeks color. Many of the other patrons were now eyeing us, some with suspicion, most with curiosity. My blush of pride at the innkeeper recognizing me as a poet turned to a flush of anger when I saw many of the roughhewn men leering at Lucine. “Yes, sir, a poet,” I replied, straightening my body. I would not have these drunkards disgracing my beloved with their impure thoughts and lecherous eyes. To think of escaping the awful embraces of our guardians, only to fall into the company of new monsters, was unbearable. “Well, Mr. Kent, the men of our town are not lettered men, if you get my meaning, sir. They say folks down south are greatly learned in reading, though. Are you from down south, sir?” I nodded. If these people respected men of the south, let them think me a southerner, I thought. “Yes, my good innkeeper, I am from…London!” There was a collective gasp at this, and Lucine and I nearly laughed at the awe which sparkled in the multitude of dumbfounded eyes. “London!” many voices whispered “Aye. London. A city of factories and literature and science,” I said. “Will you read us a poem, sir?” someone said. This request was echoed

loudly by many a drunken voice. Laughing, I nodded in acquiescence. “I would be most honored.” “Table! Someone get ‘im a table!” As soon as the words were spoken I saw the room being cleared, furniture scraping against the planking of the floor. A large, circular table was placed in the center of the room, and the patrons flocked around it. I shared a smile with Lucine. Though I had looked forward to finding a town, I had been somewhat nervous. I had never interacted with any other people before, save for Lucine, and I had been tentative about how any townspeople I met would take to strangers. But they seemed warm and welcoming. It would be easy to live among them, I thought. There was but one man, who I had not noticed before, leaning against one corner of the room, swathed in a heavy, weather-stained cloak, a pipe protruding from his mouth, reeking rings of smoke issuing from the shadows of his hood. I stared at that hood, trying to penetrate the darkness covering the face, and felt my mouth go dry. Cursing my nerves, but still somehow unsettled by the man’s forbidding appearance, I produced a book from my knapsack, hoisted myself upon the table, cleared my throat, and opened to a yellowed page before reading aloud to the enraptured mass: “Hushed are the winds, and still the evening gloom, Not e’en a zephyr wanders through the grove, Whilst I return to view my Margaret’s tomb, And sprinkle flowers on the dust I love.”  I beamed at the horde of gaping faces. I felt, rather than saw, the eyes of the enigmatic man in the corner boring into me, but I disregarded them—and the nervous pinpoints of flesh which rippled coldly down my arms and neck. There was a deafening tide 34

of applause. When the cacophony subsided, a voice ventured from somewhere in the crowd to ask, “You wrote that, sir?” “Course ‘e did, George, ‘e’s from London!” I chuckled and said, “No, no, it was perhaps misleading of me to read that particular poem. That was written by Lord Byron, a personal favorite of mine.” “Lord ‘oo?” several voices said. I stared at them in mock bafflement. “Byron, good sirs? Surely you’ve heard of Byron? Why, he died but thirteen years before our good Queen Victoria took the throne!” “I believe,” said a quiet voice “that the good people were requesting you to read an original poem.” It took me a moment to realize that the words had issued from the mouth of the man in the corner, for his lips hardly twitched when he spoke. He delivered his sentence the way an assassin would thrust a knife between a sleeping prince’s ribs. Again I felt that bizarre, inexplicable shiver of fear course through my body. “M-my apologies, gentlemen,” I stuttered, reaching into my knapsack with trembling hands. “I will read a poem that I myself have written. It is of course amateurish in contrast to the one I have just read, so please, judge me k-kindly…” I fished out a volume filled with my own verses and licked my lips. I flashed a glance toward Lucine, whose eyes were focused upon mine. They were livid with the same anguished sense of fear which twisted within the depths of my own soul. I opened the book, and spoke the first words of the first stanza. “The storm snarled across ashen skies—”  I jumped in a sudden fit of shock, for behind me there sounded a thunderous crash. I whipped my head around, and, in puzzlement, saw that the door had


slammed shut. There were some low, puzzled whispers in the crowd, but nothing more. I shook off my illogical disquietude and continued to read. “While the Bright One glared with bleeding eyes—”  Shouts of irritation. I nearly dropped my book. In an instant all light in the inn had died away. Darkness enveloped everything. The fire in the hearth had disappeared and the candlelight vanished in a ribbon of smoke. “W-what’s going on—” someone said. “They have returned,” the iron voice of the hooded man rumbled like thunder from out of the sudden pitch-blackness. “Who—” “The sacrifices,” I heard the hooded man say. An instant of smoldering silence… And then the door burst into splinters, and a gust of rainladen wind roared through the inn. The patrons all screamed— And I screamed with dread, for the wind which ripped through the curtains and flayed the skin from men’s flesh bore upon it the same humid, wet, sweltering reek and texture that had marked the breath of my guardians… Frantically I sought for Lucine in the sudden pandemonium of flailing patrons and flying streamers of flesh. I could feel the wind scouring bits of skin from my own body, scattering my blood across the inn, but I gritted my teeth together and paid it no heed. Pressing through the sweltering, screaming chaos of writhing bodies, I somehow felt my hand close upon Lucine’s. Y yelled some unintelligible words to her and dragged her out of the wind, out through the opening where the door had been blasted to pieces. Panting I threw myself upon the grass, and cradled Lucine in my arms. The roar of the unholy wind sounded only yards away

from us, while the town outside the inn was filled with rampaging men, women and children, torn to pieces by the infernal storm. “Lucine, did you feel the wind? They—they—” “They are back,” Lucine howled, and my blood congealed within my veins, for the words which came from her mouth were spoken by a multitude of rasping voices, each voice pitched differently. She rose from the ground and I gasped. My stomach felt as if it was tearing itself to shreds. Her beautiful pale flesh was changing, changing—shifting in a most horrible manner, swirling and melting away from her bones. And her eyes—they festered with a deep, dank, dangerous black, the black of dead crows and the ancient shadows that stitched themselves to the oozing stone walls of our castle… “They have returned for me, Joseph,” she whispered again in that ear-shredding rasp of a voice. “And for you as well….” Tears gathered in my eyes and fear crawled across my flesh—and then I let loose a shriek that rattled all the Earth, from the grassy ground to the murderous grey clouds swirling above. That shriek was drowned out by a sudden, thunderous report that rose above the cacophony of the storm. And my beloved Lucine—my tortured Lucine— fell to my side, a gout of blood exploding from the hole blasted through her warped breast. It fell upon me in a hot, hellish shower, and I cradled her in my arms. The blackness of her eyes, the distortions in her flesh, all faded away to leave the woman I had fled with, the angel who had guarded me from total solitude during my dreadful tenure in the castle. Blazing with grief, with rage, with unspeakable loss, I stumbled to my feet in time to see the hooded man, his cloak rent to shreds and his face laid bare, striding from the inn door, a pistol smoking in his hand. 35

“The demons are back,” he said, his gaunt face livid with rage, his coal-black eyes smoldering, “You and the girl, the sacrifices we offered to them… you’ve escaped—and now they have followed you. You…have brought ruin upon us all…” I gaped at Lucine’s corpse, and then stared back to him, snarling with a wolfish rage that I had never before felt, or knew myself capable of feeling. “You killed her,” I said. The words seethed through my clenched teeth. “She has never done you wrong. We are strangers here…what has happened…why these winds?” The hooded man frowned. “It was eighteen years ago when the demons of the castle sent their winds howling through the village. They threatened to destroy us, for destruction is their sole amusement, unless we provide them with heirs to continue their foul lineage. And so we gave them two infants—a brother and a sister…” My mouth trembled, my heart went dead in my chest. Revulsion squirmed, maggotlike, beneath every fiber of my skin. “My…sister?” The man laughed loud and grim. The sound of it grated against my ears like the grinding of two rusty blades. “Aye. We gave them the brother and sister… and they promised not to harm us. But now the twain have returned, just when the memory of the whole incident was fading in the minds of the townspeople…and now it seems as though they have destroyed you as well as us!” again he laughed, high and cold and mocking and maddening. “No,” I said, seething. “No, by God they have not!” In a burst of serpentine speed I drew the Howdah pistol at my side and cut off the hooded man’s laughter with thunder and lightning. He grinned even as he sank to his knees, his heart burst to pieces, blood splashing from the wound gaping across his chest. Lucine. My sister. My


lover. My only hope. Dead. These cowardly, shameful, unclean people, who had squandered our lives away as though they were pieces of coin— who had given us a childhood of rotting and torture at the hands of pale, slavering, gibbering demons. They ran all about me, like chickens with flames in their bellies. They had wrought their own doom. They had brought it upon themselves. They had sentenced me to grief and despair; they had sentenced Lucine to the demons’ cold touch, to the torture

of their winds whistling inside of her, to a premature death. I close my finger upon the trigger of my pistol, and cleanse them all. ~~~~~~~~~ I sit upon the hillside, gazing at the moon, flower petals sliding from my quaking fingers to rest upon the ground. Beneath this earth, underneath the shadow of a lonely grave, my lover reclines in a rosewood bed. My tears muddy the dry earth, and I howl to the

mocking midnight stars. In the flat stretch of grass below, the bodies stretch out, some torn to pieces by demonic winds, many shattered by the bullets which I have now spent. They will receive no burial. They will not pollute the earth now graced with the bones of my Lucine. Scattered like so many dead leaves across the ground, the corpses wither upon the pyre that I have made of the town. I lit the fuse, I watched from afar, and now it burns, it burns, it burns.

Edward IV Richard H. Fay The fifteenth century English civil war that became known as the “Wars of the Roses” arose out of tension between the rival houses of Lancaster and York. Both dynasties could trace their ancestry back to Edward III. Both vied for influence at the court of the Lancastrian King Henry VI. The growing enmity that existed between these two noble lineages eventually led to a pattern of political manoeuvring, backstabbing, and bloodshed that culminated in a contest for the crown and Edward of York’s seizure of the throne to become Edward IV, first Yorkist King of England. Born at Rouen on April 28, 1442, Edward was the eldest son of Richard, Duke of York, and Cecily Neville, “The Rose of Raby”. Dubbed “The Rose of Rouen” due to his fair features and place of birth, Edward sported golden hair and an athletic physique. Growing to over six feet tall, the young Earl of March developed into the conventional medieval image of a military leader, ever ready to enter the fray. Intelligent and literate, Edward could read, write, and speak English, French, and a bit of Latin. He enjoyed certain chivalric romances and histories as well as the more physical

aristocratic pursuits of hunting, hawking, jousting, feasting, and wenching. Edward proved time and again to be a valiant warrior and competent commander, personally brave and at the same time capable of understanding the finer points of strategy and tactics. As king, he displayed a direct straightforwardness and lacked much of the devious cunning exhibited by some of his contemporaries. Young Edward of March became embroiled in the dynastic struggle between the Houses of Lancaster and York while still a teen. The family feud erupted into violence for the first time on May 22, 1455, when Yorkist forces under command of the Duke of York and the Earl of Warwick, and Lancastrian forces under command of the Duke of Somerset and King Henry, came to blows on the streets of St. Albans. After a disastrous debacle at Ludford Bridge on October 12, 1459, the Yorkist leaders fled for Calais and Ireland. Edward, Earl of March, was among those declared guilty of high treason by an Act of Attainder passed by Parliament on November 20. In the summer of 1460, the Earl of March sailed from Calais to Sandwich with the Earls of Salisbury and Warwick 36

and two-thousand men-at-arms. During Edward’s first proper taste of battle at Northampton in July of that year, he and the Duke of Norfolk co-commanded the vanguard that eventually breached the Lancastrian field fortifications, thanks in part to the traitorous actions of the Lancastrian turncoat Lord Grey of Ruthyn. After the Yorkist victory at Northampton, Edward’s father returned to England and made clear his desire to become king, but the assembled lords failed to support his claim. With the contest between Lancaster and York still undecided, Edward was given his first independent command. He was sent to Wales to quell an uprising led by Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke, while his father marched out of London to tackle the northern allies of Henry VI’s Queen Margaret of Anjou. Drawn out of Sandal Castle by the appearance of a Lancastrian army, Richard of York fell in battle outside its walls on December 30, 1460. His severed head, along with those of his younger son Edmund, the Earl of Rutland, and Richard Neville, the Earl of Salisbury, soon adorned spikes atop the city of York’s Micklegate Bar. A paper crown placed on his bloody pate mocked the Duke’s


37


failed bid for the throne. On the site of his father’s death, Edward later erected a simple memorial consisting of a cross enclosed by a picket fence. Now Duke of York, Edward gathered an army in the Welsh marches to avenge the deaths of his father and younger brother. Having spent his boyhood in Sir Richard Croft’s castle near Wigmore, Edward was well known in the region. He made ready to march toward London to support the Earl of Warwick, but then turned north to face an enemy force led by the Earls of Pembroke and Wiltshire. A strange sight greeted the anxious Yorkist troops at Mortimer’s Cross that frosty dawn of February 2, 1461. Three rising suns shone in the morning sky. Quick to declare this meteorological phenomenon a positive omen, Edward announced that the Holy Trinity was watching over his army. After his victory at Mortimer’s Cross, Edward added the sunburst to his banner and badge. To make clear that the conflict had entered a more savage phase, Edward ordered the execution of Owen Tudor and nine other captured Lancastrian nobles. Tudor’s severed head went on display on the market cross at Hereford, where a mad woman combed his hair, washed his bloody face, and lit candles around the grisly memorial. On February 17, the Earl of Warwick suffered his first defeat at the second battle St. Albans, brought about in part by treachery within his ranks. However, London refused to open its gates to Queen Margaret’s looting Lancastrian army, a force the citizens of the capital feared was full of northern savages. Reunited with King Henry, but frustrated by London’s mistrustful citizenry, the queen withdrew her forces toward York. Warwick and what troops he had left then met up with the victorious Edward at either Chipping Norton or Burford on February 22. Greeted by cheers, Edward and the Earl of Warwick,

marched into the capital on February 26. Warwick’s brother, the Chancellor George Neville, asked the people who they wished to be King of England and France. They answered with shouts for Edward. On March 4, 1461, the Duke of York rode from Baynard’s Castle to Westminster, where the Yorkist peers and commons and merchants of London formally proclaimed him King Edward IV. The new Yorkist king’s official coronation was postponed while he prepared to set out in pursuit of Margaret and Henry. After sending Lord Fauconberg northward at the head of the king’s footmen on the 11th, Edward marched out of the capital on the 13th. He issued orders prohibiting his army from committing robbery, sacrilege, and rape upon penalty of death. He followed the trail of pillaged towns and razed homesteads left behind by Margaret’s northern moss-troopers. On March 22, Edward received word that his enemies had taken up position behind the River Aire. On March 28, his vanguard tangled with a Lancastrian force holding the wooden span at Ferrybridge. Outflanking the defenders by sending a part of his army across the Aire at Castleford, Edward managed to push his men across the bridge and up the Towton road. The two armies drew up in battle order on a snowy Palm Sunday, March 29, 1461. At some point during the morning the snow shifted, blowing into the faces of the Lancastrian soldiers. Taking advantage of the favourable wind, Fauconberg ordered his archers forward. The ensuing volley initiated the biggest, bloodiest, and most decisive battle of the Wars of the Roses. Edward displayed steadfast courage as the battle raged. The young king rode up and down the line and joined in the melee whenever the ranks appeared ready to waver. No quarter was given, for both sides 38

wished to settle the issue onceand-for-all, and the dead piled up between the opposing menat-arms. At times, the fighting momentarily ceased while the bodies of the slain were pulled aside to make room for continued bloodshed. After several hours of fierce fighting, the Yorkist line began to give way. However, the arrival of the Duke of Norfolk’s reinforcements tipped the balance in the Yorkist favour, and the exhausted Lancastrian army eventually faltered and broke. Many fleeing soldiers were cut down by Yorkist prickers in an area now known as Bloody Meadow. As was allegedly his habit when victorious, Edward may have given orders to spare the commons but slay the lords. Those Lancastrian nobles that survived the slaughter, along with King Henry, Queen Margaret, and their son Prince Edward, sought sanctuary in Scotland. Victory at Towton established the Yorkist dynasty, but over the next three years Edward’s rule still faced a series of Lancastrian-inspired rebellions. Many of these uprisings against the Yorkist crown centred on Lancastrian strongholds in Northumberland. Most of Queen Margaret’s moves in the years immediately following the battle revolved around control of various castles, with some rather dubious aid from the Scots. In 1463, Margaret was finally forced to flee to France when Warwick and his brother routed her Scottish allies at Norham. Left behind by his queen, Henry VI held state in the gloomy fortress at Bamburgh. Warwick besieged this stronghold during the summer of 1464, and it became the first English castle to succumb to cannon fire. Captured in Clitherwood twelve months later and abandoned by his queen and allies, the Lancastrian king was sent to the Tower of London. Edward’s throne finally seemed secure. However, Edward next faced threat from an unexpected corner as Richard Neville, Earl of


Warwick, turned on the man he helped make king. In 1464, Edward secretly married Elizabeth Woodville, a comparatively lowborn Lancastrian widow. This caused a rift to form between the king and the Earl of Warwick. Edward’s in-laws began to exert a growing influence over his court. Displeased with his own waning influence, in 1469 Warwick orchestrated a rebellion in the north. Edward remained in Nottingham while his Herbert and Woodville allies suffered defeat at Edgecote on July 26, 1469. The king then fell under Warwick’s protection. On March 12, 1470, Edward was able to rout the rebels at the battle of Losecote Field, a moniker that arose from the fact that many men fleeing the battle discarded their livery jackets displaying the incriminating badges of Warwick and Edward’s treacherous brother, the Duke of Clarence. With their treachery made plain, Warwick and Clarence sailed to France and formed an unlikely alliance with Margaret of Anjou. When Warwick returned to England with his new Lancastrian allies, Edward lost the support of the country and fled to the Netherlands. Warwick “The Kingmaker” reinstated the Lancastrian monarch during Henry’s Reademption of 1470-1. Edward IV spent his time in exile assembling an invasion fleet at Flushing and trying to woo his wayward brother back to the Yorkist cause. On March 14, 1471, Edward returned to the realm he claimed as his own, landing at Ravenspur. The Duke of Clarence promptly deserted Warwick and marched to his brother’s aid. Edward headed for London and entered the capital on April 11. Reinforced by Clarence’s troops, Edward took King Henry out of the capital and led a swelling army to face Warwick at Barnet. Edward suffered an early setback as he clashed with his one-time ally on that misty Easter morn of April 14, 1471. The Yorkist left collapsed, and the centre was

slowly pushed back, but confusion caused by the obscuring fog eventually doomed Warwick’s army. Warwick’s soldiers mistook the star with streams livery worn by the men of the Lancastrian Earl of Oxford for Edward’s sun with streams and loosed volleys of arrows into the approaching troops. With cries of “treason”, Oxford’s men left the field. Sensing the unease that rattled the Lancastrian ranks, Edward rallied his men and pressed the attack. Under this renewed pressure, Warwick’s army wavered and broke. The earl tried to flee the battlefield, but Yorkist soldiers pulled him from his saddle and dispatched him with a knife thrust through an eye. Edward arrived on the scene too late to save Warwick from such an ignoble fate. On May 4, Edward once more led his troops into battle, this time against Queen Margaret’s army at Tewkesbury. Margaret and her son, Prince Edward, had landed at Weymouth with a small force the same day of Edward’s victory over Warwick at Barnet. Under the leadership of the Duke of Somerset, the Lancastrian force moved toward Wales to try to join forces with Jasper Tudor. Wishing to bring Margaret’s army to battle before it crossed the Severn, Edward gave chase. He caught up with Somerset and Margaret at Tewkesbury. Though his army was slightly outnumbered, the Yorkist king once again triumphed over the Lancastrians. Margaret’s son, Prince Edward, was captured and slain. Some Lancastrian fugitives, including the Duke of Somerset, tried to seek sanctuary in Tewkesbury Abbey. Dispute surrounds the exact details regarding what happened inside. Edward either granted pardons to those sheltering within the abbey walls, and then reneged on his promise, or he and his men entered the building with swords drawn. Either way, those captives that survived the slaughter were subsequently executed. With the exception of quickly quelled Kentish and 39

northern revolts, Edward’s triumph at Tewkesbury signalled the end of Lancastrian opposition to his reign. Margaret was captured and brought before Edward on May 12. She remained his prisoner until ransomed by King Louis XI of France. After making his formal entry into London on the 21st, Edward arranged the clandestine murder of poor King Henry VI. Edward’s brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, entered the Tower that evening. By the next morning, Henry, the potential focus of future Lancastrian resistance to Yorkist rule, was dead. Following his final victory, Edward IV reigned over a relatively stable, peaceful, and prosperous kingdom. Once the Yorkist usurper secured his throne, he showed a ravenous appetite for the opulence of royalty and eventually became rather overweight. As king, he ordered the construction of several grand churches. He was also known as a patron of the arts. A lover of luxury and keenly aware of the political power of a majestic presence, one of Edward’s first acts a few months after his return to the throne was the expenditure of large sums of money on a magnificent new wardrobe. The other crowned heads of Europe all recognized him as legitimate King of England. His brief war with France in 1475 ended when Louis XI agreed to pay Edward an annual subsidy. By 1478 Edward had paid off the debts amassed by his one-time enemies. Unlike many of England’s medieval kings, he died solvent. He introduced several innovations to the machinery of government that the Tudors later adopted and developed. However, his second reign was not without its troubles. Woodville influence over his court caused tension between Edward and the nobility. In 1478, Edward’s in-laws manipulated him into eliminating his disgruntled brother George, the Duke of Clarence. Edward died on April 9, 1483.


Edward of York had a remarkable military career. He personally commanded and fought in five separate battles, and never lost a single one. As a leader of armed men, he often displayed daring and dash. As leader of the Yorkist cause, he exhibited a contradictory mixture of magnanimity and ruthlessness. As king, Edward IV worked to elevate the crown above the nobility and did much to restore a sound government. Unfortunately, his rash marriage bore bitter fruit, sowing the seeds of disaster for his young sons. Edwards’s death in 1483 left a minor as heir. The Duke of Gloucester was named protector of the princes Edward and Richard. Gloucester eventually had his nephews declared bastards and had himself proclaimed King Richard III. His nephews may have been murdered in the Tower, perhaps under Richard’s direct order. Faced with an invasion force led by Henry Tudor, and betrayed by his barons, Richard fell in battle at Bosworth Field. His death marked the end of the Yorkist dynasty and the ascendancy of the Tudors. The Poleaxe of Edward IV

Being a fierce fighter as well as a skilled commander, Edward was said to be especially proficient with that uniquely knightly pole arm, the poleaxe. A magnificently decorated example currently residing in the Musee de l’Armee in Paris, France, has been ascribed to that most aristocratic of medieval monarchs. The connection to Edward IV is dubious, but this beautiful weapon certainly belonged to some extremely wealthy French, Dutch, or English nobleman of the late fifteenth century. Any consummate warrior and lover of luxury such as Edward of York would certainly have appreciated how weapon’s combination of fine fighting qualities and rich ornamentation. Having more reach than a sword, the poleaxe was often the preferred weapon when men of rank fought on foot. Topped by a spike, the axe head was backed by either a hammer or a quadrilateral beak. Mounted on a haft about six feet long and wielded in both hands, the poleaxe could cut, bludgeon, and stab. Even though the example attributed to Edward’s ownership

sports fine decorative elements, it still exhibits all the qualities of a functional weapon. A pronged hammer backs a slightly curved axe blade. A wickedly sharp, stout spike thrusts out of the hexagonal central socket. A sturdy rondel acts as a hand-guard. The lordly embellishments of the Edward IV poleaxe set it apart from simpler period examples. It is profusely decorated with chiselled gilt bronze. The iron components emerge from the throats of stylized beasts. The socket is further decorated with engraved foliage, a knot of flowers, and a cluster of fiery clouds. The rondel takes the form of a full-blown heraldic rose. The assumption that this weapon once belonged to Edward IV arose from the fact that it exhibits the symbols of rose and flame, but such ornamentation was common in the fifteenth century. Still, this imagery does echo the white rose en soliel device Edward used on his banner and badge, so it may just be a weapon once wielded by that accomplished Yorkist warrior.

Sources Arms and Armour from the 9th to the 17th Century, by Paul Martin Arms and Armour of the Western World, by Bruno Thomas Battle of Tewkesbury 4th May 1471, by P.W. Hammond, H.G. Shearring, and G. Wheeler Battles in Britain and Their Political Background:1066-1746, by William Seymour The Book of the Medieval Knight, by Stephen Turnbull Campaign 66: Bosworth 1485: Last Charge of the Plantagenets, by Christopher Gravett Campaign 120: Towton 1461: England’s Bloodiest Battle, by Christopher Gravett Campaign 131: Tewkesbury 1471: The Last Yorkist Victory, by Christopher Gravett Men-at-Arms 145: The Wars of the Roses, by Terence Wise The Military Campaigns of the Wars of the Roses, by Philip A. Haigh Who’s Who in Late Medieval England, by Michael Hicks 40


Holding on for a Hero Brian groaned and creaked and unstuck his too large a frame from the too small a settee he’d crashed on, again. He rarely made it to his bedroom nowadays. In dismay he dropped to his knees and fumbled on the floor and cursed when he couldn’t find his partner from last night. Then, success when his eyes adjusted to the half-light of his apartment, he found his friend, wedged on the settee behind him. Still kneeling, he rolled the bottle back and forth between his hands and smiled at the small, brown – feathered, game bird that fronted it. “Lovely, “he croaked, “the best.” He exhaled heavily then raised the bottle to his lips and drained the small gold ring from the bottom. He enjoyed the miniscule nip that it offered him, but despite that tiny pleasure his smile morphed into a grimace of self-loathing, “Who am I kidding, even Vodka will do.” He let the bottle fall to the floor and yawned. He stretched his back, “No dreams last night,” he told no one. “Whisky works, every time.” Yawning again Brian stood and lumbered to the kitchen of his once well ordered flat and forced tap water down his throat. After drinking about the same as an elephant takes to wash he strayed automatically to the toilet. At the basin he turned on both taps and let the water run to waste as he scrubbed his teeth vigorously and gagged continually throughout. He tried the mirror, but it wouldn’t work properly, it only ever showed the same picture; a prematurely aged, alcoholic on the verge of burn out. “I’m going to chuck it,” he barked, as the image faded behind a façade of steam. “See if I don’t.” The old man seemed to agree but his sneer said different. Loser burned itself into Brian’s mind as he wiped the glass to argue on. But, he gave up

Sandy Wardrope he knew his words would be like paving slabs on the road to hell. Clarity dawned and jarred him like a bell clanging in the fog. “What time is it?” No answer. He tried his watch, the figures a blur as they danced like charmed snakes. “Half ten, should still make it,” he told the disinterested watcher. Slumped over the sink he slopped a splash of hot then cold water onto his face and fingered some through his hair. It was sticky and matted beyond repair. “It’ll have to do,” he argued with the old boy again. He tucked his shirt into his trousers and made to leave, collecting his tie, his jacket and his briefcase from the floor as he went. A burst of speed waltzed him out the door of his flat, where he took the stairs, three at a time, to the ground floor. At the main exit he left the building with barely a nod to his audience, an elderly couple. He only managed, “Good morning,” to them and ran into the street. “Good morning, Brian,” they echoed back, “we think.” They loved him, all his neighbours did. Everyone thought he was a superstar, a tough - guy type of politician who would make their streets safe to walk again. Outside Brian spied his sporty Insignia, carefully parked with two wheels on and two wheels off the pavement. “How did I get home,” he asked a startled cat, “where was I?” The Vauxhall, brand new had dents and dings and several scratches on it already. It sat all forlorn waiting for him, leaning slightly to one side and looked a bit embarrassed for the both of them. Pointing his key fob he clicked twice, a groan and a flash of orange told him he was in. He tossed his case onto the passenger’s seat, had a quick scan for any sign of a uniform then dove behind the wheel and started the engine. 41

Brian wasn’t drunk. He could handle what he’d swallowed last night with ease and was more than capable to drive, he knew. But, breathalyse him right now and he would be so far over the limit any Judge would throw away the key. Driving away from the kerb Brian did up his tie, using one hand and his teeth, and tried to smooth his grubby, once immaculate shirt at the same time. The expensive Egyptian cotton stuck to his body like a second skin and wouldn’t shift, the cloth grafted uncomfortably in places he wouldn’t care to mention. He clicked open his brief-case. “Where’s my mints?” he muttered as he dragged the contents out on to the seat beside him. His drivers license, some documents and papers he dropped back in, a small dark blue box likewise, a mobile phone he kept handy, a hip-flask the same, a comb pointless. “Ah.” He found the mints and chomped two of the extra – strong sweets into his mouth along with some coloured paper and foil wrapper. He also found a bottle of expensive cologne which he held up to the light then opened with his teeth. He tasted the contents with the tip of his tongue. “Yeugh!” couldn’t gargle with that,” he spat, “probably got alcohol in it anyway.” Instead, he dosed himself, his jacket and the interior of the car until, he nearly lost his vision, then tossed the bottle into the back and drove on. His once neat, conservative hairstyle now had an ultra modern look. Stuck up at various angles at the back and flattened at the front he could pass for David Beckham’s older brother. But, he looked, felt and smelt disgusting. As he sped out of the city Brian glanced down at his suit trousers, “Good grief, look at the state of them.” He winced, “They look as if I’d slept in them.” His once highly polished shoes needed a


buff up, the dubiously coloured droplets that spattered them were just a little too obvious. He motored on. Keeping well within the speed limit Brian tried to collect his thoughts, his plan for the day. First, he had to get there on time. There, being Wishburn the last, safe, Conservative seat in Scotland, but one with the lowest majority in the country. Second, his meeting with the selection committee, which was unavoidable and unwelcome. Brian had been summoned to Constituency Party headquarters to explain his latest outburst, a statement to the press which had been totally at odds with party policy. There, he was due to be interrogated by the biggest bunch of right wingers outside a Nuremburg rally. Brian had been headhunted; a hero was required, someone the voters could look up to, someone who would win the day and Brian, an ex-soldier, was deemed the one. Although no officer, or officer material for that matter, he’d do. His true political leanings were a mixed bag, but he ultimately became, in his own mind at least, his own man. Now, it looked as if he was going to pay for that privilege. “Who cares?” he said to his reflection. It frowned back. He’d been driving for an hour and began to stiffen and feel nauseous and a little nervous, the jitters. “It must have been that Indian restaurant, all that rich food,” he kidded, as the memory of last night returned. Not the bottle of whisky then, a voice inside asked? Brian ignored himself and tried to shrug off his tiredness. He pondered where he had gone astray. Was he wrong? Maybe it was the system, not he. The machinations of politics fascinated Brian and he thought he could make a difference from within. Then, the vacancy turned up. The incumbent who held the once safe seat for a lifetime, died.

But, not before his majority had slumped to single figures. Brian was rolled in to save the day. He did. In the first few years there were some small successes. They were soon followed by bigger achievements which made his name as a hard hitter. Always a good speaker, Brian could debate with anyone, argue black was white and convince you it was. But, it didn’t take long for the distractions of power to set in and Brian, only human took to these temptations with a will. Fame, money, beautiful women and endless partying became almost an everyday constant and Brian wallowed in it. Coincidently, it was then his nightmares returned, the cold sweats and the involuntary screams came back to haunt his sleep. Each night he would return to the darkness and the freezing cold in the hills above Port Stanley. The crack of heavy machine gun fire and the terrifying whistle and crump of enemy shells would bring him almost to his feet, sleep became impossible. He took solace in alcohol and hid from his terrors in a whisky bottle and told no one, how could he, he was a Marine? Brian hugged the outside lane as he headed east along the M8 and made good progress as the powerful car ate up the miles. He’d be there soon and on time. But, the jitters returned, “Need a tightener,” he convinced himself and took up the hip-flask and held it tight. Feeling a little better, confident, he pressed a few buttons and opened a window and at the same time sang along to the radio. Suddenly, the car in front swerved and screeched onto the hard shoulder. Brian automatically swerved as well and barely missed a large section of exhaust lying on the road. He also swung onto the hard shoulder and came to a halt behind the car, a clapped out, heap of junk. When it squealed to a halt, the occupants of the car 42

decanted immediately until one by one they stood by their vehicle. Flabbergasted, Brian counted them out, “…Six, seven, eight…,” he gasped. “How did you manage that?” Obviously distraught the travellers tried to wave down passing motorists. But, when Brian saw that they were all Asian he shook his head, “Fat chance you lot have.” He didn’t want to stop. He would be late for his appointment. It wasn’t his problem. He groaned when a tall, turbaned man pointed at his car walked towards him, and massaged his forehead when he saw the others him wave over. “Don’t thank me yet,” he muttered, and pushed the hipflask under his seat. He then sat up straight, killed the car engine and opened his door. A dark-faced giant, about fifty bowed into his face and smiled, “Please good sir, I was wondering if you could help us,” he waved behind. “My name is Amir and this is my wife Belinda.” Brian flicked a short wave to a heavily pregnant, woman who waved back. “Good day sir,” she bowed. “Are you okay?” Brian asked, keeping his breath in the car. “Is your car damaged? I saw what happened, you were lucky.” Amir clasped his hands, “Thanks to Allah we are okay.” Then added, “I have telephoned the police to report it. They are on their way.” “Good stuff,” said Brian and spun his head round. “I’d better be going then.” No way, he wanted the police near him, not today. “Oh sir,” Amir pleaded, “could you please look at my car it won’t start anymore. I have to get to the hospital, my wife you see…” …“Spotted that.” Brian wanted to leave immediately, but there was something about them and him that wouldn’t allow it. The imminent birth being high on the list. Reluctantly, he got out,


“Okay, let’s have a look.” Instantly he was surrounded by eight eager smiling faces all talking at once, offering advice in English and whatever it was they spoke. Amir pointed to his vehicle, his incredibly green coloured turban bobbing up and down, and shook his head. “Oh, I get the message,” Brian nodded back, “cars a wreck. Fifty quid down the drain.” “My father doesn’t know much about cars,” a young voice interrupted, in a perfect Glasgow accent. “I think he was ripped off.” Brian looked round to see a young boy, about twelve years old, grinning at him. He grinned back, “You think?” Twenty minutes later the Summon family drove off, engine running fitfully. The exhaust sealed with super – glue and tinfoil and held together with a wire coat-hanger and prayers. “Good luck,” Brian waved after them. After a quick inspection for any personal damage he found that; his jacket was ruined and his shirt and hands stained with oil and grime. How could it get any worse? Dejected, he turned to his own car to continue his now pointless journey. Suddenly, he froze. A high pitched siren blipped in his ear the one quick blast enough to immobilize him. He looked round, “Oh no. I’m sunk.” His heart missed several beats as he watched two, white-capped traffic cops exit their car and head straight for him. “Trouble sir?” the younger one asked. Definitely, Brian agreed. ~~~~~~~~~ Brian spoke with the older policeman and gave an account of what had taken place, and tried not to breathe at the same time. Meanwhile the younger cop prowled all over his car. Looking to find some sort of violation Brian thought. Brian resigned himself to his fate when he

spotted the younger cop simulate taking a drink. But, the older man didn’t blink. Have you any ID?” the policeman asked at last. “Driving license or such?” Brian nodded to his car, “Should have, in my case.” The older cop stared at Brian, “Do I know you, sir?” “Possibly,” Brian replied, and bent to collect his brief case. But, as he pulled it towards him the younger cop stopped him. “Just open it, sir. I’ll check it out. Security, you see.” Brian held his case for inspection and stole a glance at the older man. He shook his head, “New. First week,” by way of explanation, “Bear with us, sir.” Brian shrugged and waited. The younger policeman turned to him, “Have you been drinking today, sir?” “No,” Brian replied. “I think you have, sir. So I am going to ask you to give a…” ”Hold on,” the older cop ordered, taking up Brian’s driving license. “You’re Brian Kennedy, the MP. I thought I knew your face…” Brian winced. “Yes…” he began. “No,” continued the policeman, “that’s not it. He studied the photograph on the license again. “There’s something else.” He picked up the little blue box. and gave it a gentle shake then nodded to Brian. Brian nodded back and the man opened the lid. The younger cop interrupted, “Doesn’t matter who he is, if he’s DUI he’ll be arrested anyway.” He fixed Brian with a stare, “It’s all the same,” he sneered. The older cop ignored him and turned to Brian with a small scrap of crimson coloured ribbon in his hand. “Yours?” he whispered. “Yes,” answered Brian. The cop swallowed hard, 43

“Port Stanley; hills outside the town. Freezing cold we were. Fifty of us, surrounded by five hundred Argies about to be overrun. Every one of us badly wounded, couldn’t hold a gun never mind fire one.” He looked at Brian. Brian shivered, then tried a smile, “Glad you made it, trooper.” “Sergeant,” the policeman smiled back. “Wouldn’t have if you hadn’t intervened. No one would. Them Argies were looking for blood.” Brian shrugged, “Glad to help.” The younger policeman looked bemused, “What happened?” The older cop continued, his voice breaking, “This man, Sergeant Brian Kennedy held off the Argentinean attack on our position for six hours, until daybreak. Single handed he must have fired thousands of rounds and used just about every weapon we had to keep them at bay. Turns out he killed or wounded dozens of them. Got badly wounded himself, spent months in hospital. Didn’t you?” “It was a long time ago, in the past. Best forgotten, eh?” “I wont,” argued the policeman, “never.” He stepped forward and shook Brian’s hand, “Don’t let us hold you up any longer,” he added. The younger cop looked at his mate speechless, eventually he asked, “What’s with the bit of cloth then?” The older policeman hesitated. “That piece of cloth is the ribbon from a Victoria Cross,” he beamed at Brian and plucked the medal from the box and held it out for inspection, “This one; the one that he won.” With that he clicked to attention, saluted and turned away. “Come on, let’s capture some real villains.” When they’d gone Brian reached under his seat and lifted out his hip- flask. He unscrewed the top and sniffed the contents, then paused. He held the flask at


arms length until a smile flashed across his face. Then, carefully and deliberately he poured the

whisky onto the ground. “Cheers,� he said finally and tossed the flask onto the grassy bank.

The Lady Wants a Bike Robert Mancebo Porsche Wilson could only stare as the naked woman wandered curiously through the front door of the motorcycle shop. The woman was fully six feet tall and formed in mesmerizing perfection. Her smooth, clear skin was European ivory, un-marred by California tan lines, and her long, blonde hair hung carelessly over her bare shoulders. Her substantial figure had generous curves in all the right places, and she carried herself with the grace of a queen. The young man holding the door for her wore a dazed expression, as though he was afraid to look at her. "Cheeezzz, lady you can't--" Porsche's reproof hung unfinished as the ice-blue eyes looked into hers. She felt a chill. The look showed only curiosity, but those eyes seemed to cut right through her. When Porsche hesitated, the woman sauntered past her to brush caressing fingers across the shining bikes assembled on the display floor. "Who is she?" Porsche whispered to the young man. "Don't know," he replied. "There was a fantastic sunrise over the point this morning. It refracted into one of those perfect rainbows you only see in pictures--" seeing Porsche's growing annoyance he cut off further artistic explanation. "I was watching the sun come up and she was just-- there." "Well she can't just wander around here naked," Porsche whispered to him. "I mean, it would be good for business, but it's against the law. You've got to get her into a swim suit or something." The young man made a helpless gesture.

"What, you mean you haven't talked to her yet?" "I asked her who she was; she said, 'Oz'." "Oz? Like, The Wizard?" He shrugged. Porsche gave a snort of contempt and pushed him aside to follow the woman. "Hello? Hello, lady?" Porsche called. When the woman turned to her, she slowed and took a breath. At twenty-two, Porsche could proudly stroll the streets of Venice Beach in a bikini, but standing next to the woman made her feel like some sort of waif. She covered her feeling of inadequacy by being cross. She waved at the woman's unconcerned nakedness. "You can't walk around like that. This is Venice Beach, not the Riviera." The woman only cocked her head curiously and mimicked, "Rivi-era?" "No. Not Riviera." Porsche corrected. "Do you speak American?" The woman laughed and flipped her head, tossing her shining hair back over one pale shoulder and setting her anatomy to jiggling in a way that made the young man swallow audibly. "Great," Porsche grumbled. "Doesn't speak American. "I'm Porsche," she pointed at herself and said slowly. She pointed at the woman and asked, "Oz?" At that the woman nodded and laughed brushing the tips of her fingers softly down the girl's cheek. Porsche felt a sort of electric tingle run up her spine and had the uncomfortable feeling she was being treated like a confused child. "I don't suppose I could 44

sell you some--" Porsche began, but then sighed and ended with. "Sell you-- you don't even have a credit card, do you." "I'll pay for whatever she wants," the young man offered quickly. "Well, she's got her eye on that custom Valkyrie--" "Clothes, I mean," he amended. "I can't afford a bike!" "Clothes, right." Porsche looked back at the man saucily as she walked after the strange woman. "I was just checking." "Hey," she took the woman by one arm and led her away from the bikes saying, "let me show you what we've got in leathers, Lady Godiva. I don't need the cops rousting me this morning. Old Rolf left me in charge and if there's any trouble he'll chew off my butt." She showed the woman a nice set of leathers in blue but the blonde only shook her head and passed by to choose a set in red. Porsche got her into a sheer, gold tank top that barely covered her, then scarlet leather pants. It was going to be hot so she carried the matching jacket (to make sure it was included in the sale). "Your hair would look better with the blue leathers I showed you," she commented, but the woman only shook her head and openly admired herself in a mirror on the wall. "Card," Porsche distracted the young man's staring by asking. "Oh--uh--yeah," he replied while handing over his credit card. "Don't you work at that ice cream shop down the street?" "Yeah-- uh-- Ben. I'm Ben Webster."


He grimaced before he signed the receipt and said, "Ouch! I'll be paying for this for months." "Fantasies aren't cheap, Ben Webster," Porsche replied without sympathy. While they were talking, the woman had mounted a bike and was feeling around for the key to start it. "Hold on, 'Dorothy'!" Porsche called out. "I don't know how they do things in Oz, but here in California you have to buy a bike before you get to take it!" The blonde woman looked expectantly at Ben but he shrugged and looked at the ground in embarrassment. "No. Ice-cream-boy bought your clothes," Porsche waved the jacket she was holding. "He's tapped out." The woman cocked her head expectantly at Porsche. "No. No way. Don't even look at me like that. I can't just give you one. Forget it. I'll get fired. I have to s-e-l-l them, for money, you know?" The woman got off the bike and walked over to Ben while running a hand down her sleek, scarlet-clad thigh. "It looks great," he said nervously. "Really--" She took the front of his polo shirt in her hand and pulled him to her, kissing him soundly. When she released him he blinked and stood in a mute daze. "What the matter geekboy," Porsche demanded. "Never been kissed before?" "Not--" he cleared his throat so he could talk. "Not like that!" "Whoa! Dude," a voice cut in from the open front door. "How do I sign-up for one of those?" It was a shirtless young man with long hair and a pair of mirrored gargoyles he'd lowered to see more clearly. "He bought her leathers," Porsche told the young man looking in. "Buy her a pair of boots and see what happens." "Motorcycle boots?" the

young man balked. "Those are like, $200!" "I'll get them," Ben began to pull his wallet out again. "I'll do it," the youth cut in when he saw how eager Ben was. As the men looked-on with full attention, Porsche fitted the woman with a tall, high-gloss pair of patrolmen's boots, the best pair in the shop. She almost felt sorry for taking advantage of the young man, but she got over it when she thought about her commission. After all, no one was making him pay for them. The woman was regally delighted with the boots. She stomped her feet in them and admired herself in the wall mirror. "My VISA to heaven," the young man said as he tossed Porsche his card. She ran it and had him sign the receipt. "Well there's your boots, Babe," he told the woman rakishly. "Now what have you got for daddy?" She walked up to him and put a hand on either side of his bare chest. With a quick heft, she boosted him onto the counter top where she placed one hand behind his head and wrapped an arm around his back. She leaned him supine and kissed him for a long moment before stepping back and giving her head a shake to toss back her long, shining hair. "Oh--oh--" Hands twitching in the empty air, the young man flinched like he was having trouble sitting back up. "Did she break something?" Porsche demanded. "No--" he replied in a daze as he rolled off the counter. "I--I think-- I-- think--" "Okay, one per customer, Lover-boy," Porsche pointed him toward the door. For a moment she considered trying to get him to buy the woman something else, but then she decided he was too dazed and gave him a push saying, "Have a nice day." "Everything okay, Porsche?" a burly man came to the door while wiping his hands on his jeans. He had a disheveled 45

mop of salt and pepper hair hanging over his eyes and nodded at Ben adding, "Hey, Ben." "It's nothing, Jeff, just some geek with more money than brains." She waved a hand at the display bikes. "You ready to take the plunge yet?" "Nawww," he declined. "You know my old lady. She thinks they're too big and scary." He suddenly noticed the blonde woman and stopped to gawk. "She's just visiting," Porsche told him. "Oz, this is Jeff, from the board shop next door." "'s happenin'," Jeff greeted her and his hand extended. The woman took the hand in a warm, familiar grip and blessed the man with a dazzling smile. Instead of releasing his hand after shaking it, she pulled him to a Goldwing and had him straddle it. Then she mounted behind him and wrapped her arms around him, snuggling against his back. "Well, yeah," he mumbled. "Jen could ride on the back. I could, um-- I could take this one." Porsche finished the paperwork with only half her mind on the documentation and half on trying to figure out just what the woman had done. She'd sold a bike without saying a word. When Jeff left, Porsche walked to where Ben was enjoying watching the visitor as she went over each polished piece of the gold motorcycle she'd been admiring. "Okay, Oz, you want that bike?" she told the woman. "We work on commission around here. You sell bikes/you get money toward that scoot. You sell a lotta bikes, you can buy it. Understand?" "That's a lot of bikes to sell," Ben interjected. "It's a rough business," Porsche snapped at him. "Oh, crud!" she said suddenly looking at a biker who pulled up in front of the display window. "It's Seldman!" "Seldman?" he asked. "Yeah, he's a wanna-be


tough guy. Bought a nice little Vulcan last month and he's had it back in every week since." "Hey, Porsche," the man's voice bellowed before he even came through the door. "This bike you sold me is a tail-dragging junker!" "There's nothing wrong with that bike--" she hesitated as the blonde woman stepped around her to approach the man. "It's got no guts--" he stopped when he saw the blonde approaching. He was a big, muscular man in faded jeans and an open leather jacket. He had a shaved head, three day's growth of black beard, and a sneer on his face. "What?" he demanded when she blocked his entrance to the shop. "Who is this bi--" Her right hand caught him by the throat and she spun to slam his back against the display window. "Don't break the window!" Porsche screamed. "Don't break the window!" The man was pinned there for several seconds while his face changed color. The woman took the keys from his shaking hand and let him collapse onto the ground. "Who-- the--?" Seldman gasped between coughs. "Oz--?" Porsche called as the woman straddled the bike and kicked it to roaring life. "Oz, what are you--?" The bike screamed and the tire peeled rubber in a billowing cloud of black smoke as she ripped a doughnut in front of the shop. There she hesitated, revving the engine, facing ominously down the street. "Oz, what are you doing?" Porsche demanded. The woman flipped back her long hair with an imperious shake of her head and bellowed a sing-song order to the people in the street in front of her. "Ohhhhhhhh!" Porsche whispered as the milling crowd turned to look at the revving bike. "Get out of the way!" Ben

shouted frantically. "Get out of the way! She's coming through!" A few people moved, but she wasn't waiting. The tires screamed, and she left a burning black cloud as she let loose the dogs. Bikini-clad women shrieked. Skate-boarders cursed. Everyone scrambled to clear the street as the roaring bike leaped forward. At the end of the block, the woman braked and spun the big bike through several smoking doughnuts before thundering back with it kicked up in a wheelie, and laying another doughnut in front of the shop. "No guts, huh?" Porsche sneered at Seldman as the woman tossed him back his keys. The woman patted him on the cheek as she past and Seldman flinched, banging the back of his head against the wall. "A little bit jumpy, aren't you?" Porsche ridiculed. "Hey, she squeezed my throat so hard I thought my head was gonna pop," he said in his own defense. "So, nothing wrong with the bike then, right?" "Yeah, I guess not," he grumbled. "Nice doing business with you, Mister Seldman." By the time she got into the shop an excited crowd was gathering. Everyone wanted to see the dare-devil new sales girl. "Okay, okay! Look," Porsche yelled to be heard over the clatter. "The lady wants a bike. She's on commission. You want to help her out? Buy something." "Can I get a picture with her?" someone called out. "Me too," someone else added. "Yeah, yeah," Porsche yelled. "Just put a donation in the pot-- here." She tossed an upside down bell helmet on the counter next to the register. "You, Ben," she ordered. "You brought her in here. Get the camera from the top drawer there and take pictures." "You have a camera--?" he began but she cut him off. 46

"Someone buys a $20,000 bike, yeah we get 'em a picture. The camera's in the drawer, there's paper in the printer. Get going, we have a crowd and there's bikes to sell!" Dollar signs were sparkling in front of Porsche's eyes. The shop hadn't even gotten this much attention when her boss had hosted a bikini contest. The next few hours were a whirlwind. Curious people stopped in to see the commotion. People bought everything from bikes, to helmets, to merchandising brick-a-brack. Those who didn't buy things made donations. Not just money: rings, bracelets, gold chains, someone even tossed a lottery ticket into the helmet and that added a whole new dimension to the donations. Soon there was a whole pile of lotto tickets spilling onto the counter. When the helmet filled up, Ben simply emptied it into a drawer and put it back out. He passed out pictures as fast as he could. He printed them, she signed them. The woman wrote in an indecipherable scratchwork alphabet of x's, boxes, and arrows. As far as he could tell, she seemed to make it up as she went; no two autographs were alike. "No, not tomorrow," Porsche snapped into her cell phone. "You're the Distributor, right? Well, distribute! If you want to sell those bikes, deliver them here ASAP! Why? Because I'll be cleaned out by lunchtime!" "Porsche," Ben called as he waded through the people in the shop. "You're out of ink cartridges in your photo printer. I'll get some more if you have any petty cash." "Yeah, yeah," she reluctantly turned from closing a sale, apologizing profusely to the customer. "A blonde bounces around in a tank top and every guy in Venice Beach has to have his picture taken," she grumbled. "Porsche," Ben's quiet reproof distracted her from her focus upon counting out money


from the small cash box. "Haven't you been watching?" "What?" for the first time in hours, the girl pulled her mind off what she was doing and looked to the line of people stretching from the front desk and out into the street. There were the usual assortment of Venice Beach skaters, and thrashers, but there were also girls in bikinis, tourists in Aloha shirts, children with melting ice cream cones, old beach combers, and kaki-clad yuppies. Couples, young and old were in line, even parents with infants. "What the--?" she mumbled under her breath. "Who do they think she is, Mrs. Santa Clause?" "I don't know," he told her as he took the forgotten wad of cash out of her hand. "They all just lined up." He eased his way through the crowd. Porshe stood watching the woman walk down the line of people waiting for photos brushing shoulders with her fingertips; sometimes stopping to smile or say a gentle word to someone in a language they certainly didn't understand. No one seemed disappointed though. Stranger still, all eyes weren't upon her. People were laughing and socializing; couples were whispering arm-in-arm. An eerie peace had fallen over the shop. People were excited, but the mob seemed completely under her spell. Porsche took advantage of the momentary lull to hit speed-dial on her cell phone for the twentieth time that day. She waited as the phone rang at the other end, but there was no answer. With a hollow curse, she snapped her phone closed and put it back in her pocket. "Great day for the boss to be gone," she whispered to herself. The short 'blip' of a police siren from the street outside made everyone turn. "Oh, no!" Porsche groaned. Don't tell me they've blocked the street!"

The blonde woman left the waiting line and moved through the crowd to observe the commotion. Porsche elbowed along behind mumbling, "Tell me it's not Knudsen, tell me it's not Knudsen, please tell me it's not Knudsen!" She saw a huge, redhaired officer exit a parked squad car, towering over the people on the street. "Ooooow, crud," she said with a grimace. "Lady, I hope you have some more magic in your bag of tricks. It is Knudsen! We're in trouble now." When the woman looked at her without comprehension, Porsche explained with tone and pantomime. "Big, mean, sonof-a-buck! Grrrrr!" She made a monster face and pointed at the policeman who was pushing his way through the crowd. The blonde woman laughed merrily and walked forward to meet him. Part II "Oh, no--" Porsche followed. "Porsche?" the officer bellowed when he got close enough to recognize her through the mass of people. "What's all this mess in the street? Are you trying to start a riot?" "No. Look, Officer Knudsen, honestly, it just got a little out of hand," The crowd cleared away from them for a few paces leaving the three standing, Porsche cringing, Knudsen glaring, and the blonde woman in red and gold smiling slightly and brazenly admiring the officer. "What got a little out of hand?" he snapped. "This mob has the street choked off for a block--" As the woman started to circle him, looking him up and down, the officer turned his head to watch her. "Who's this?" "She's your riot," Porsche informed him. "I mean, everyone's 47

here to see her." "You know--" he turned as he spoke so as to not let the woman stand behind him. "You know you're responsible for crowd control when you bring in an attraction for publicity." "I didn't bring her in," Porsche told him. "She just showed up." "From where?" Real curiosity edged his voice. "Ummm, out of town?" "From where?" he repeated with a tinge of authority creeping back into his voice. "From-- well, Oz, maybe," Porsche told him grimacing and waiting for the storm of abuse she knew would follow. "From Oz?" he demanded, eyes narrowing. "Jรก," the woman placed a hand upon her chest and nodded. "German?" he asked. "We don't know," Porsche told him immediately. "I don't think she speaks--" "How about you go stand over there," he ordered, pointing back at the shop. "I took German in school. We'll see what she has to-- Hey!" The woman had taken hold of his wrist with one hand and was feeling his big bicep with the other. "She, uh, likes men," Porsche said with a shrug. "She's not a hooker, is she?" he demanded. At that the woman's face went suddenly cold, and the big man went to his knees as she wrenched his wrist. "No-no--I guess not--sorry, Ma'am!" he gasped. She released the wrist and lifted him back to his feet by the front of his uniform. "She's kind of physical too," Porsche added. "Assaulting a police officer is more than 'kind of physical'," he snapped. "So you're going to tell a judge some woman dropped you to your knees with one hand?" Porsche asked with feigned innocence. "You get out of here!" He


waved Porsche off. "And you, come with me." Working his fingers to make sure nothing was broken, he led the woman to his squad car to talk to her. "I got new cartridges and more paper." Porsche turned to find that Ben had pushed through the mob and was behind her. "What are the cops doing here?" "Hold onto the receipts," she said with a disappointed sigh. "We may have just been shut down." "Why?" "Because Knudsen's 'on the job'!" "Knudsen? He's kind of up-tight, but the guy's a hero. A couple years ago he smashed his way into a burning car to pull a trapped girl out after a twelve-car pile-up on the freeway. Man, the news showed the car right behind her going up like a bomb! I think Knudsen was in the hospital longer than she was. Anyway, he's good to have around when the party crowd gets a little too wild and crazy, believe me. He's a biker, you know. Owns a vintage Harley." "How long have you been in Venice Beach, anyway?" she asked, distracted by his wealth of local knowledge. "Oh, I grew up here," he said with a laugh. "I'm a certified beach bum." "Here they come," she pointed. "Get set for the bad news." "Okay," Knudsen said as he approached. "You've got to keep the street clear." He waved at the mob surrounding them. At his demand, the big woman stopped and held up her hands for attention. When the crowd was all looking her way, she motioned and people moved. Moments later the street was clear. Officer Knudsen did a double take at the empty street, the orderly crowd, and the smiling woman before continuing. "Keep the street clear," he repeated, "and no complaints from the other business', right?" "Right!" Porsche agreed

instantly. "All right then." He turned to the blonde woman and took her hand. "Mrs. White, it has been a pleasure." "Mrs. White?" Porsche interrupted eagerly. "Wait a minute. I thought she was Oz." "Frau Hvhite von Oz, as near as I can tell," he told Porsche. "Mrs. White from Oz or something like that. I don't know, it's not German. Anyway, I think I have a date with her later." The woman smiled and kissed him on either cheek before turning and going back to the shop. Knudsen shook his head as though to clear it before returning to his squad car. The afternoon was full. More bikes were delivered and Porsche dragooned the distribution rep into staying to help with paperwork until they were sold. When she finally chased everyone out and closed the doors at seven o'clock, Porsche heaved a sigh of relief. It was only then that she turned off the salesgirl mode and allowed herself to take in what they had accomplished that day. Suddenly her feet hammered out a war dance on the floor and she threw her arms around Ben. "Do you know how much money we've made today? Old man Anderson is going to flip when he gets back!" "How much money you made," Ben told her. "I was supposed to be to work at nine this morning. I expect I lost my job." "I--I'm sorry," she apologized. "I've been so busy thinking about making good here, I never even thought about anyone else. I--" "It's okay," he gave her an affectionate squeeze. "It was a crummy job anyway. Besides, I wouldn't have missed this for the world!" She realized she had her arms draped around him. He was nice guy. He'd given up his job to help her when she needed it. But a beach bum without a job? Not 48

the sort of guy she was normally attracted to. Suddenly, she didn't care. It was very much un-like her, but she didn't care how much money he made. She was just leaning up to kiss him when a loud thump distracted them. It was the sound of the crowd's donations hitting the counter. Porsche reluctantly let loose of Ben and walked over to where 'Mrs. White' was mulling through an entire drawer's worth of cash and baubles. She'd looped numerous gold chains around her neck and slipped on various golden rings and bracelets. She looped a heavy handful of silver chains around Porsche's neck with a smile. "Uh-thanks," the girl told her. The woman picked up a handful of lotto tickets, tore one off and pitched the rest into the garbage. She gave the single ticket to Ben. "Thank you," he said with a laugh. "Two hundred million-toone odds. Great. I'm sure I'll win." Leaving the other assorted jewelry and the mounds of cash, she waved at the single bike left on the bare sales floor. "Yes," Porsche told her with an unbelieving shake of her head. "You've got it covered." She tossed the woman the key. She didn't quite know what to say when the bike went out the door. She and Ben followed, arm-in-arm. They watched as the woman braded her hair with quick fingers, and pulled on her brilliant scarlet jacket over the gold tanktop. As they stood there, a low rumble made the windows of the shops shake and a big man pulled up on a black and chrome Harley. "Hey, Knudsen!" Ben waved. The big man nodded and waved at them. The woman kicked her bike to roaring life and waved at the pair. She flashed them a dazzling smile then gripped Knudsen's broad shoulder and gave it a hearty shake.


People on the street cleared, and she was gone in a roaring cloud of burning tire smoke. Knudsen looked around the street one last time, waved to them, and followed. "Look at that!" Ben said pointing at the sky. "Just like this morning!" A full rainbow arched across the sky off the California coast. "A poetic ending to a very exciting day, but if you start singing, 'Somewhere over the rainbow'," Porsche warned him, "I'm going to smack you in the arm." "Hey," a deep voice bellowed. "What's going on?" "You're late, Boss," Porsche called without looking over her shoulder. "We're done." "What?" Rolf Anderson was a big man with thinning blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail and short-cropped beard on his iron jaw. "Where's all the merchandise?" "Sold." Porsche hung onto Ben as she turned around. "Down to the last-scrap. This is Ben, he's been helping out. Come on across the street to 'Skinny's' and buy us a beer, and we'll tell you a story that'll make you soil your shorts." ~~~~~~~~~ "Hey, Skinny, can't you turn down that TV!" Anderson roared at the bartender. "Sorry, Rolf," the pale, three hundred pound man apologized. "Most people want to hear it." He hit the mute button before bringing another pitcher of beer to their table. "So, go on," Anderson encouraged. "Frau White from Oz walked buck naked into my shop, sold every bike you could scavenge up, left bucketfuls of money, and rode off on a date with Big Dan Knudsen?" "Umm, yeah," Porsche replied carefully. Anderson suddenly exploded in roaring laughter. He laughed so hard tears ran down

his seamed face. "Don't-- don't tell me-- she ran off over a rainbow!" "No, she rode off with Knudsen on that custom Gold Valkyrie we've been trying to sell for--" "On a 'gold hog'?" He fell back laughing uncontrollably once again. "Yeah, hey I know it sounds like a crock," Porsche told him defensively. "She said she was Oz-- or came from Oz. Frau Hvhite, Knudsen said, right?" "That's what he said," Ben agreed. "You guys are killing me! It's--" Anderson wiped his eyes trying to get himself under control. "Not Oz, it's 'Ah-ss'. She was telling you, she was an テ《. Frowa Hvhite-- The White Lady- Viking goddess of love, wealth, magic, and war. Comes down the rainbow-bridge to collect heroes fallen in battle-- Rides on a golden boar-- Jeeze, Grandpa Anderson used to tell us all those old fairytales when we were kids. You never heard--?" He laughed again and chugged another mug of beer. "Man was she yanking your chain!" Ben reached in his pocket and pulled out a folded picture he'd taken of the woman. He showed it to Anderson. "So that's supposed to be the Queen of the Valkyries?" Anderson mused. "Well she is a looker! With a shtick like that she'll go far in Hollywood." The man laughed again and pointed to the writing on the bottom. "She even scribbled Nordic runes across it." He was laughing, taking another drink when he stopped and thrust a finger at the TV. "Turn that up, Skinny!"

49

"You just said to turn it down--" "Turn it up!" Anderson bellowed. Skinny hit the volume on the widescreen TV over the bar and the Newscaster's voice came on in mid-sentence while a picture of a uniformed figure filled the background. "--shot twice with a high powered rifle, Officer Daniel Knudsen still managed to foil the robbery, shooting down his two assailants before succumbing to horrific injuries. "Again, a tragedy for Venice Beach when one of our finest was killed in the line of duty at two O'clock this afternoon." "We just saw Knudsen ride away--" Ben said in confusion. "I mean, it looked like Knudsen riding away--" "With--" Porsche swallowed hard, "Her." "She who gathers up slain heroes from the field of battle to feast in the halls of テ《guard until the end of the world," Anderson whispered. "What was she doing here?" Ben asked dazedly. "I guess," Porsche said with a shrug, "the lady wanted a bike." "It was just an act," Anderson assured them. "Some sort of publicity stunt." "Must've been," Porsche agreed. "There was sure something about her though . . ." Ben interrupted her by suddenly patting and digging in his pockets. "What are you doing?" Porsche demanded. "What do you think I'm doing?" he replied. "I'm looking for that lottery ticket she gave me!"


Farwell

Texas Stargazin'

Denny E. Marshall

Richard H. Fay Saunter out onto the wide open range Amidst prickly pears and lowing longhorns. Gaze up into that great big Texan sky And ponder the wonders of the heavens. Draw cowboys in that glittering cosmos. Spy Pecos Bill cracking his rattler whip And wrangling a gigantic stellar steer. Predict your future in their shining trails. Mark the flaming course of a shooting star Burning so bright across the firmament. Make just one wish before it disappears, But hope it's not the last this awesome night. See lights landing upon the desert sands, Then greet green-skinned visitors to our world. Climb aboard their glimmering silver ship To witness the marvels of outer space Close up.

I have done all I can I walked the cave All the tunnels Tried as hard As I could The stones are diamonds Fastened to the walls All are beautiful None will budge To the exit I go I look back one more time At the beauty Surrounded by darkness Me a small candle That could not stay lit Tired of fighting the wind

Of Water and Thirst Rick Coonrod “Water,” she cried, “Water!” But I had none to give her. So I searched far, But the land was barren, And my quest was long. When I finally found the water, And returned with itIt was too late, She had died of thirst.

Goodbye Roswell Michael D. Turner The saucer men took off today Right out from under my rose bush Left an awful hole in the back yard Big-eyed blue-glowy faces smiled Frail blue-glowy hands waved They wore t-shirts that read "I ::heart:: NY" and "Disneyland" I miss them all ready

But I did not mourn. The next dayI began to dig wells

50


Interview with Colin P. Davies You have several items in print. Tell us what they’re about: I write science fiction, with an occasional foray into fantasy and horror. This allows me a fantastic scope to explore ideas, emotions, and people and I approach this in two distinct ways: serious or humorous. To blur the distinction, the serious stories may contain humor and the funny stories contain a hint of raw truth, but the aim is different. One is intended to grip and move the reader and the other is meant to be fun. That makes the process sound somewhat clinical whereas, in truth, it’s more one of chaos and discovery and a degree of luck. Whatever the genesis, the story will be about personalities (usually people) in difficult, frightening, or downright weird situations. In 2008 my first collection of short stories, Tall Tales on the Iron Horse, was published by Bewildering Press and includes the following tales (amongst others): The Defenders – a watery world of colonists and monsters and the cruel acts necessary to ensure survival. Dolls – a future of automatons and extended childhood and the dangers of confused emotions. The Hay Devils – a cosy fireside tale about creepy creatures in the farmlands of Illinois. The Girl With The FourDimensional Head – intrigue, time-travelling, and mystery on Mars. Clifford and the Bookmole – a pet with the power to lift words off the page and into life is an adolescent’s dream. The Evangelist – aliens are people too (and may be smarter). Tall Tales on the Iron Horse – take the train to Titan and meet God.

Pestworld – the challenge was to create the craziest lifeforms possible and the result was a world of dangerous, ridiculous and hilarious pests. Many of my stories are still available online at Abandoned Towers, Bewildering Stories and Infinity Plus, including: Happy Halloween – metal skeletons and robot rats in a dreamy suburban town. Babel 3000 – what if words became currency? The Monster on Mandrake Street – back to Pestworld for more monster mayhem. Do you have a favourite character or subject that you write about? Yes to both questions and an extra yes for a second subject. The character I’ve written most about is Parvo, the Pestmeister of Pestworld. He aspires to be an anti-hero, but he’s also something of an innocent; ruthless and ambitious, but with untapped emotions. I find I keep returning to two subjects in my stories: the artificial or enhanced human and the human future on Mars. I’ve examined the former in Dolls and Good and Faithful Servant and the latter in A Touch of Earth and The Girl With The Four-Dimensional Head. Finally, as a blatant example of having my cake and eating it, I’ve combined the two in The Certainty Principle. Have you written anything else? I’ve adapted my Pestworld and The Monster on Mandrake Street stories into two separate five-part radio serials and a third serial is in development. These have been produced with sound effects and music and were broadcast on radio station WRFR Rockland on the Beam Me Up show. I’ve also dipped my toes 51

into screenplays, and poetry, and written an (unpublished) young adult novel, but I always come back to short stories. Almost every writer is inspired by someone else. Does anyone inspire you? I’ve been inspired and influenced by Ray Bradbury’s stories for as long as I can remember. The nostalgia and strangeness and beauty in the stories achieve the sort of emotional effect I aspire towards in my own stories. I also love the stories and style of Raymond Chandler, but probably the writer I read most is Jack Vance for the sheer imagination, and fun, of his work. How long writing?

have

you

been

Since the last century – actually the mid 1980s. Writing seriously, that is, with an eye to publication. But even as a child I was scribbling down stories and making my own books and comics. What made you want to start writing? It seems that I’ve always wanted to write, but it was in the mid eighties, after I’d finished my professional exams, that I decided to study writing really seriously. I read everything I could find on how to write. I took stories apart and analysed how authors performed their magic. Finally, I wrote my first attempt at a publishable story – and it sold. There was no going back after that. Do you participate in NaNoWriMo? Why, or why not? I’m a perfectionist, whether I like it or not. I can’t


do speed. I’m not sure I’m even capable of writing without looking back. It’s a matter of knowing your limitations and your strengths. Who writes the story, you or your characters? Last time I looked, it was me. If my characters did the writing there’d be a lot more writing getting done. The idea of your characters taking over is a nice notion, but it’s really all down to hard work and inspiration. Most of my stories develop as they go along – I rarely have a plan - so one idea leads to another; a twist leads to a turn. The characters grow with the story and the story changes, in turn, to suit the characters. The process is fluid. Who proofreads and critiques your work? I’ve been lucky over the years to have a number of writer friends who have been willing to check over my work and offer opinions, editing etc. The assistance is invaluable, but occasionally I will complete a story without any outside help just to prove to myself that I can still do it. Where do you get your ideas? Somewhere at the back of my head. What I mean is that I don’t go searching for inspiration. I don’t read or research specifically for that purpose, but just for pleasure. I’m fascinated by certain subjects, so it’s no surprise that they turn up in my stories. The ideas usually emerge after I’ve started a story; the ‘deep thinking’ that is a necessary part of the process seems to draw out original notions and routes for development. Of more interest to me is how the stories develop: The Defenders – This story started with an image which

had been with me for years: far away from land, a girl in a boat gazes down at the carcass of a giant ribbed creature. The events of the story developed from asking questions about the situation. Dolls – This is a story that grew from an idea. I’d been watching a slightly unsettling report about the children’s beauty pageants that were becoming popular in the USA and the deadly serious approach of some parents. I imagined the lengths parents may go to for success and money. The Hay Devils – I wanted to write a story which conjured up the mood of a nostalgic Bradbury tale. It was partly a wish to be a part of that magical setting and also the desire to write a straight forward plot where atmosphere played a major role in the enjoyment. The Girl With The FourDimensional Head – This is a complex tale that started with an image of Madelaine arriving on Mars and incorporated a number of ideas from different sources. I wanted to write a story in the sharp pulp style with big concepts, witty dialogue and concise description. For me, a difficult but satisfying story. Clifford and the Bookmole – A rare example of the sort of story every author dreams of writing: it just flew from my mind to the page. The whole thing was written in a few days and needed minimal rewriting. I wish all stories came as easily and were as much fun. Subsequently, I have reworked this story into a Young Adult novel which was as much fun to write as the original and I’m sure I will be revisiting the world of the Bookmole again. The Evangelist – I imagined the Harbingers, an alien race which lived by a philosophy of doom: Tomorrow will be bad, so enjoy today to the full! Not so crazy when you think about 52

it. What would happen when a missionary tries to shown them a better way? The story just had to be a comedy. Tall Tales on the Iron Horse – This story grew from years of notebook ideas, quips and quotes, a love of trains, and probably too much food before bedtime. Wherever it came from, it was the story that gave me my ‘breakthrough’. I took it to my first Milford (residential writing conference) and the enthusiastic response spurred me to send it to Spectrum SF where the editor described it as ‘a breath of fresh air’. It became the ideal title for my first collection of short stories. Pestworld – This story, and its sequels, grew from a writing exercise in night school. I wrote the description of an absurd creature: the westlake balancing mallard. This set me to thinking about how it could exist and what other crazy creatures might exist. I imagined their world and their history and I’m still imagining it now as I work on the third instalment. Where do you write? I used to write in longhand on a pad, but now write almost exclusively on my laptop. Other than that, the location just has to be somewhere quiet; usually the bedroom, but also the conservatory in the milder months and often in the car while parked in a quiet or inspirational spot. When do you write – set times or as the mood moves you? I’ve never managed to write to a schedule. I depend on opportunity and the right mood. If I feel inspired I can write for long periods, but this approach may also lead to months of no writing. If you could invite any writer to dinner who would you ask and why?


Living or dead? I’d probably invite Douglas Adams as I’ve never choked on my food and I believe you should try everything once. Do you use the internet to check facts, or the library? Definitely the internet. At the level of detail I generally need, the internet is perfect. I also have a large personal library of books which can be useful for further investigation. If I need yet more information, there are usually people I can ask. When you’re not writing, what do you like to do? Relax as often as possible, because I’m not very good at it. I have a few favorite TV shows and I listen to music a lot. I also like to get out in the fresh air and walk. I know I should read more and one day I will. Who’s your favorite author and why? I tend not to have absolute

favorites. I fluctuate from year to year. But if pushed I’d probably say Jack Vance because his stories have given me so much pleasure over the years. What’s your favorite book and why? That’s hard to say as it’s been a long time since I read some of my favorites. But a couple that made a lasting impression on me are: Hello Summer Goodbye by Michael Coney, because it gripped and involved me and the ending moved me. Star King by Jack Vance because it was the first Vance I read and it knocked my socks off: excitement, pace and wild imagination. What’s the last book that you read and really enjoyed? That would be Tales of the Dying Earth by Jack Vance which is a combination of four of his novels:

The Dying Earth The Eyes of the Overworld Cugel’s Saga Rhialto the Marvellous The stories are engaging, exciting and funny and some of Vance’s best work. Some writers say that they have to write a certain amount of words every day. Do you do this? Why or why not? I’ve never felt the urge to be so disciplined, although if I was writing full time I’m sure that would be a sensible approach. As it is, I write when the mood or inspiration takes me. This means I may not produce a lot of product, but I’m happy with the stories I do write. Is there anything else you’d like to add? Further information, news and links to stories, radio shows etc can be found on my website www.colinpdavies.com

The Hooded Man David Pilling “Eustace of Lowdham to pay William the Vintner and his associates, assigned to seek, take and behead  Robert of Wetherby, outlaw and evil-doer of our land, by writ of the King” Pipe Roll of the Exchequer, 1225 AD South Yorkshire, England, 1225 AD They hunted Wetherby in those summer days of  the  year 1225, dogs and men in pursuit of a single fugitive among the woods and fields of Barnsdale.  For almost a month, he evaded them,

but at last was cornered next to the river at Wentbridge. Wetherby was a strong man of vicious temperament but all the fight had gone out of him. Rotten with fever, short of breath, lean belly cramping for lack of food, he almost welcomed  his capture.    ‘You will kill me now?’  he asked of the Sergeant, William the Vintner, as Vintner’s men pinioned his wrists.    Vintner nodded. ‘What’s left of you will hang in chains at York’ he replied  shortly ‘for the crows to pick’. The Sergeant and his men forced Wetherby’s neck down onto a log, hacked his head 53

off, and stuffed it into a bag. “Eustace of Lowdham claims 2 shillings for a chain to hang Robert of Wetherby” Pipe Roll of the Exchequer, 1225 AD   Beneath the shadow of York’s battlements Wetherby’s  headless corpse swung gently in the breeze, suspended  from a gibbet by a length of chain. His head, impaled on a spike, adorned the city walls. True to Vintner’s prediction, crows pecked and fought over the dead man’s decaying flesh. The citizens of  York, merchants,  beggars,


shopkeepers, priests, craftsmen and the rest, bustled to and fro beneath the gibbet as though indifferent to its contents. Inside York Castle, the High Sheriff of Yorkshire yawned and rubbed his tired eyes. A great heap of parchment lay on the table before him, official correspondence, reports, legal documents and the like, every scrap of which he was obliged to read and digest. The long day was already slipping into evening and he still had much to sift through. The Sheriff’s name was Eustace of Lowdham. He was not a bad man, as men go, but a harassed civil servant saddled with the impossible job of enforcing the law in a lawless time. His narrow pinched features and scowling irritability were testament to a career spent running against the tide. Eustace yawned again, cracked his bony knuckles, and decided to take a breath of fresh air. Wincing as he rose from his hard wooden chair, he padded over to the arrow-slit window of his tower chamber and squinted down at the huddled maze of streets below. From his window he had a splendid view of the gibbet from which dangled the headless remains of Robert of Wetherby. A fine piece of work, Eustace thought to himself. Wetherby had been one of the most dangerous criminals in Yorkshire. He and his gang had robbed and murdered at will for about six months, making parts of the Great North Road leading from Nottingham to York unsafe to travel. Wetherby’s gang was just one of many. In the summer of 1225, the wild places of Yorkshire were thick with outlaws and fugitives. Oldham blamed the King and his council, whose strict enforcement of the brutal forest laws had met with fierce resistance in the North. Landowners, freemen, and serfs alike had taken to felling timber, hunting illegal game and turning stretches of Royal forest into pasture. The

law reacted with violence and hundreds of men were forced into lives of outlawry or exile to avoid the savage penalties of rebellion. Eustace was taking no chances. Wetherby would rob and murder no more, but the rest of his gang remained at large. The Sheriff was determined that his foresters and sergeants-atarms would scour the woods and highways until Wetherby’s followers had joined their chief on the gibbet. ~~~~~~~~~ The Great North highway was a long road and, when it reached the valley of the River Skell in Barnsdale, a perilous one. There the road narrowed and passed through heavily wooded country. At a certain point it passed by a limestone ridge, from the top of which a splendid view could be gained of the road below. The single rider cantering past on a sun-dappled July afternoon was nervously aware of Barnsdale’s reputation and that the ridge was a notorious ambush spot. Many of the outlaws and fugitives abroad in Yorkshire in that chaotic summer had taken refuge in the Skell valley. The rider was a monk on his way to York carrying messages from the Church of St Mary’s in Nottingham. His mission was not of sufficient importance to persuade the Vicar to hire a guard for the journey. Instead, the Vicar had, with all the assurance of a man who wasn’t going himself, advised his servant to trust in God and the speed of his horse. This advice was of small comfort, and even less so when a man stepped out onto the road. He was of gigantic stature, broadshouldered and black-bearded. His clothes were worn and travel-stained and his huge hands grasped a long wood axe. Some loose rocks skittered down onto the road and the terrified monk glanced up to see an archer standing on the ridge above him. This one, no doubt the giant’s companion, was a lean 54

young man with a gaunt rawboned face just visible beneath his hood. He carried a hunting bow with an arrow placed upon the string. ‘Get off your horse’ grunted the giant, hefting his axe threateningly. ‘I am Nicholas Dalton, of the Church of St Mary’s’ said the monk in a quavering but defiant voice ‘let me pass, if you value your soul’ ‘Oh, we’ll let you pass. Just as soon as we’ve relieved you of anything valuable’ The monk was a braver man than his tonsure and habit might suggest, for he drove in his heels and urged his horse into a gallop. ‘Shoot, Hobbe!’ roared the giant as horse and rider came straight at him. The archer on the ridge drew back his bowstring and took careful aim at the monk’s exposed back, but hesitated instead of letting fly. His companion swore and only saved himself from being trampled by diving into the undergrowth. The fleeing horseman galloped past and the clatter of hooves quickly faded as he made his escape. Hobbe cautiously descended from the ridge. He knew what to expect from his belligerent companion and soon enough the giant emerged, brushing dirt and leaves from his person and in the grip of a towering rage. ‘You idiot!’ he bawled ‘why didn’t you shoot?’ ‘Sorry, John’ Hobbe mumbled ‘I couldn’t do it. Shoot a man in the back, I mean’ John rolled his eyes and spat in exasperation. ‘Wet herby was right. You’re too soft for this work’ Hobbe’s quick temper flared. ‘Wetherby’s dead’ he retorted hotly ‘stiff and rotting on the gallows at York. Some leader he was’ ‘He was my cousin’ said John in a soft voice, his little eyes glittering with menace and his hands twitching. Hobbe


recognized the danger signs but went on regardless. ‘He was a bastard, he was, who killed people for no reason after we robbed them. Fucking coward deserved to hang’ The big man came at him suddenly, roaring and brandishing his axe. Hobbe knew he was no match for John in a fight, but he still had his bow. Without thinking, he drew back the string and fired. The arrow flew straight and true into John’s chest, burrowing up to its feathers in his heart. John took a few more steps, carried forward by sheer momentum, but he was already dead. The rage died in his eyes, a single fleck of bloody foam appeared on his lips, and then he fell on his face. Hobbe dropped his bow, horrified. He had killed a man. Outlaw and highway robber he might be, but he had been raised a devout Christian and knew what happened to those who committed the cardinal sins. Nightmarish visions of Hell and damnation filled his mind, most of them derived from the murals he had seen painted on the wall of a church when he was a boy. His fearful imagination conjured up lurid images of grinning dog-headed demons dragging him down to the abyss with their pitchforks and hurling him into the flames. There the shrieking remnant of his soul would writhe and roast for all eternity. Hobbe broke down and wept, babbling prayers for forgiveness and guidance. Suddenly the way to redemption occurred to him. He should journey to York and pray inside the great chapel there. Only by making such a pilgrimage could his sin be forgiven and his soul spared from the torments that otherwise awaited it. ~~~~~~~~~ During the long walk to York Hobbe encountered a family of serfs toiling in the marshy fields. The father was

wearily pushing a plough with his emaciated wife trudging behind him. She was clad in a threadbare coat with a thin sheet wrapped around her against the cold, her feet naked and bleeding, and her face haggard with despair. Twin daughters, both painfully thin, tugged at their mother’s skirts and uttered plaintive cries for food. Hobbe stopped and stared at the family, forgetting his own troubles for a moment. He knew that the parents would not live long, though they were still quite young, and that their children would be lucky to survive to adulthood. Like serfs everywhere, their lot was a short life and a miserable one. It occurred to Hobbe that Christian charity was another definite way to redemption. His guilt over John’s death hadn’t stopped him from stripping the big man’s corpse of anything useful, including his hatchet and shoes. He could live without the shoes, which were too big for him anyway. Hobbe squelched across the soaking field towards the serfs. The wife spotted him first, crying out and moving protectively in front of her daughters. Her husband looked round, saw the sinister hooded figure coming towards them and fumbled for the small iron knife tucked into the length of string round his middle. Realising that he dare not come any closer, Hobbe dug the spare pair of shoes out of his knapsack and tossed them towards the family. Against his better judgment, he threw a few spare stolen pennies after them. The serfs stared down at the unasked-for gifts lying in the mud before them. Hobbe found it difficult to read any emotion on their pinched filthy faces. No fear or gratitude, surprise or suspicion, just dumb incomprehension. He shrugged and turned away without a word. The serfs watched the hooded man trudge away and said nothing until he was safely out of earshot. ‘Well’ exclaimed the 55

father, scratching at a louse in his hair ‘who the fuck was that?’ ~~~~~~~~~ Hobbe had never visited York before and assumed that it would be the size of several villages crammed together. The sight of the great sprawling city, defended on all sides by ditches and a high timber palisade, bustling with traffic moving back and forth through its four main and six postern gates, was almost too much for him to comprehend. York from the outside was nothing compared to the experience of passing through Bootham’s Bar into the streets of the city proper, narrow rubbishstrewn lanes filled with people and noise and an indescribable stench. Hobbe was carried along with the flow, buffeted and cursed at as he stumbled through the crowds, until he arrived before the looming bulk of York Minster. The great church was vast, bigger than any castle Hobbe had ever seen, and worked entirely in stone. Much of it was covered in scaffolding, for the Minster was in the early stages of being transformed from fortresslike Norman church to soaring cathedral. Enough remained visible to overawe Hobbe, who stumbled up the steps with his eyes fixed on the ground, trying to ignore the shadowy mass of stone looming above his head. The great cavern of the nave, with its high ceiling supported by marching rows of thick Norman pillars, made Hobbe cringe as he pushed his way through the milling throng of priests, pilgrims, beggars and worshippers towards the high altar. Once before the altar, he pushed back his hood and knelt, mouthing silent prayers for forgiveness with his eyes fixed on the great silver cross. Hobbe was unwise to remove his hood. A certain monk lately come from Nottingham, busily engaged in distributing meagre alms to crippled beggars, happened to glance up from his


work and spotted him. The monk froze, protuberant eyes bulging from his head as he recognized one of the two men who had tried to waylay him on the road. He thrust his remaining coins into the nearest dirty outstretched hand and hurried out of the church. Hobbe prayed for over an hour until he was sore and stiff from kneeling on the cold stone floor. He knew his sin was great and that pain was all part of earning forgiveness. A great deal more was about to come his way. Rough voices and marching footsteps echoed through the church. Hobbe left off praying to look round and saw the crowds scatter, bleating in protest like a flock of surprised sheep. Through the space that opened up marched a crowd of tough-looking men in steel caps and red cloaks and armed with long staves. Beside them hurried a monk whose hollow-cheeked face looked familiar. The shock of recognition jarred Hobbe into action and he ran, hoping to lose himself in the retreating crowds. Shouts and screams surged up all round him, men pushed him away or tried to catch hold of his clothing, and something cracked against the back of his skull. Hobbe reeled, staggered and reached out to steady himself. His hands flailed at thin air and he fell, at the same time as two more of the Sheriff’s men plied their staves upon his head and shoulders. ‘Take care!’ cried the Sheriff, who had come to witness the arrest ‘we need him alive for trial’ The blows ceased raining down, and instead men seized Hobbe and dragged him, halfinsensible and bleeding from his mouth and nose, out of the church. ~~~~~~~~~ The dungeon was dank and dark and with a low vaulted roof. Piles of straw were scattered over the floor, slimy with refuse and thick with rats, and the only light came from a guttering torch

set in a bracket on the wall outside. Inside and outside were firmly divided by a solid iron lattice. Hobbe was one of those on the inside. The dungeon had been his home since his capture inside York Minster weeks previously. He shared the fetid space with three others, two men and one woman, though he had only managed to strike up a kind of friendship with one of the men. The other man, a condemned child killer, spent his time hunched in a corner staring silently at the wall, while the woman’s conversation was curtailed by a hole bored in her tongue for previous offences. Hobe’s new friend was Allan O’Dale, a raddled Irishman with a dreamy manner who told outrageous lies about his past. He was, so he claimed, a wandering minstrel of considerable fame whose crimes had made him legendary. ‘What sort of crimes?’ Hobbe had eagerly asked when they first met, taken in by the man’s charisma. Allan scratched his stubbly chin. ‘Well, now, let me see now’ he mused ‘provoking jealousy is a crime, I suppose, if you the one you provoke is a powerful man. For instance, I was taken in bed with a nobleman’s wife’ ‘Who was she?’ ‘Ah, just one of many’ Allan said airily ‘how about yourself, boy? What’s your story?’ Hobbe told him, about his outlawry for failing to respond to a court summons, his short career of highway robbery, how he had come to murder one of his companions and journeyed to York to pray for redemption. Allan listened with surprising interest. ‘That’s quite a tale’ he remarked when Hobbe had finished ‘and what was it you were summoned to court for?’ ‘Poaching’ ‘So…’ Allan gently strummed his battered mandolin ‘you were persecuted by the law, just for trying to get a little meat 56

to feed your starving wife and bairns’ Hobbe looked confused. ‘I’m not married’ he said. Allan smiled, picking out a few chords. ‘Never let facts ruin a good story. First rule of being a minstrel…now…yes, you were outlawed and fled to the merry greenwood, where you recruited a band of stout yeomen and preyed on fat bishops and greedy sheriffs’ Hobbe pictured his late companions, the murderous Robert of Wetherby and his equally unpleasant cousin John, and their damp miserable hideout in the valley of the Skell. ‘It wasn’t like that at all’ he said doubtfully ‘there’s nothing merry about being cold and hungry and shit-scared. And we didn’t go near any bishops or sheriffs. Too well guarded’ ‘You have no romance in your soul. The tale is missing something, though…were you generous, at all? Did you give any of your ill-gotten gains to starving lepers?’ ‘I gave John’s shoes to some peasants, if that helps. And some money as well’ Allan slapped the body of his mandolin. ‘Perfect!’ he shouted, earning harsh glares from their cellmates ‘this will make a grand tale, once I tweak it a bit, add a bit here and there…’ Hobbe left the Irishman muttering to himself. He had more serious things to worry about, chiefly his trial. Since Hobbe was accused of the serious crime of highway robbery, he was not to be judged by local officials but by the Royal justice Lexington, one of the greatest men in the kingdom. Lexington was a traveling judge and Yorkshire was next on his itinerary. But he travelled slow, thanks to the dreadful state of the roads and his own leisurely pace, and until he arrived those due to be brought before him had to stay in their gaols and rot.    ~~~~~~~~~ The High Justice finally arrived in early August, almost


two months after Hobbe’s capture. As much a politician as a lawyer, Lexington had risen high in a short time and meant to rise higher. He was a difficult man to impress and the weasel-faced Eustace of Oldham impressed him not at all. From the beginning the two men didn’t get on. Eustace didn’t like fat high court judges who gave themselves airs and smelt faintly of perfume, and Lexington had little time for cold-blooded local officials with long twitching noses and dirty fingernails. ‘I will be frank, Sheriff’ declared Lexington when Eustace came to visit him in his quarters ‘this county, which you are charged with the duty of administering and maintaining, is a wretched shambles. The king is not pleased with the state of Yorkshire, not pleased at all’ ‘Then he should know better than to try and impose impossible laws’ Eustace snarled ‘Northerners are a breed apart, as His Majesty would know if he ever poked his nose north of the Trent. The enforcement of the forest laws were bound to incite rebellion here’ ‘Let me make one thing clear, little man’ said Lexington, dabbing at his perspiring chins with pomade ‘your opinions on His Majesty’s nose, indeed your opinions on anything at all, are of no interest to me unless I specifically ask for them. Do you understand?’ Eustace stiffened. Nobody had dared speak to him with such contempt for years. But this was the Baron Lexington, judge of seven counties and a Royal justice. If he was inclined to offer insults then Eustace knew he had no choice but to swallow them gracefully. For now. ‘Of course, my lord’ he said, forcing himself to smile. ~~~~~~~~~ The day of Hobbe’s trial at last dawned, just in time for he could not have survived in the dungeon much longer. Weeks

of incarceration in cramped and filthy conditions had taken their toll, and the wasted figure dragged blinking into the light of the courtroom bore little resemblance to the fit young man who had come to York seeking redemption in prayer. Allan O’Dale was released several days before Hobbe’s trial. The Irishman’s crimes were not as dramatic as he had made out and amounted to no more than stealing bread and begging on the streets. For these he was sentenced to a public flogging. ‘Rather have stripes on my back than a rope round my neck’ he said when they came for him. ‘Be seeing you, friend. We’ll have a drink together sometime, eh?’ ‘Gladly, though you may have to cut me down from the gallows first’ said Hobbe, managing a wan smile. Allan laughed and cheerfully punched Hobbe on the shoulder. ‘You’ll not hang’ he said with a wink ‘I am sure of it’. The courtroom was a large raftered hall, with Lexington and his fellow justices sitting in judgment at a table upon a raised dais at one end, while the prisoners were brought through the doors at the other. A team of clerks, all dressed in black like so many dusty crows, sat at long tables either side of the dais scratching the record of the day’s events upon rolls of parchment. The atmosphere was dusty, formal and sober, and the scraping of stools, scratching of quills and muttering of court Latin created a strangely intimidating atmosphere that caused the ragged prisoners, most of them poor ignorant men with little knowledge of legal matters, to quake as they awaited judgment.    Hobbe stood trembling before the dais with two of the Sheriff’s bullies armed with staves flanking him. Lexington glowered down at him, just as he had glowered at a dozen men and 57

women already, his broad face pink with sweat and too much breakfast wine. The Sheriff was also  present, seated at a lower table beside the dais. ‘Name?’ Lexington demanded, mopping his forehead with a silk handkerchief. Hobbe cleared his throat. ‘Hobbe, if it please your honour’ he replied nervously. ‘It doesn’t please me at all. Your full name, dolt’ ‘Uh…Hode, your honour, Hobbe Hode’ ‘Thank you. Now let’s see what you are accused of’ One of the clerks crept up to the dais and placed a roll of parchment in front of Lexington. The justice peered at the crabby writing, grunting to himself as he read, like a richly dressed pig. Lexington looked up when he had finished and fixed Hobbe with a hard eye. ‘Hobbe Hode, fugitive’ he said sternly ‘freeman of the village of Linton, West Yorkshire. Summoned to court last year to answer for the crime of poaching, failed to appear and was subsequently outlawed. Accused by Nicholas Dalton, monk of St Mary’s in Nottingham, of attempting to rob him on the Great North Road’ ‘A seasoned criminal’ remarked the Sheriff ‘poaching, fleeing a court summons and highway robbery. Hang him high’ Lexington’s florid face turned an angry shade of puce. ‘I did not ask you to speak’ he growled ‘kindly remain silent until I ask for your opinion’ The Sheriff snarled, livid at being publicly rebuked in his own court, but had to obey. Lexington turned his attention back to Hobbe. ‘I have the record of your court summons before me’ he said ‘and your failure to attend and subsequent outlawry is an established fact. But these are not hanging offences. Where is the evidence of highway robbery? Sheriff?’ ‘Dalton recognized the man’ said Eustace, folding his


arms ‘he swore on the Bible that this Robert Hood and another man tried to rob him’ ‘And where is Dalton? Why is he not in court to substantiate his claim?’ ‘He is indisposed’ ‘Indisposed?’ ‘Yes, with a nasty case of knife in the gut. His body was found in an alleyway last night’ Lexington took a deep breath. ‘So what you are telling me’ he said through gritted teeth ‘is that the only witness has been murdered. Could you not have informed me of this before the trial?’ Eustace smiled. ‘Oh no, my lord’ he sniggered ‘I only speak when spoken to’. ~~~~~~~~~ Allan O’Dale sat on a bench outside a tavern near

Bootham Bar, one foot up on a stool and with a half-empty ale pot at his elbow as he idly strummed his mandolin and whistled the beginnings of a melody. Tucked safely into his belt was the knife that had killed Nicholas Dalton, its blade washed clean of the man’s blood, just as alcohol had washed clean the conscience of its owner. He had killed the monk to prevent him giving evidence against Hobbe. The Irishman was a romantic if savage soul, and it would have done him no good to see the real-life inspiration for his latest ballad end up on the gallows. In Allan’s opinion the ballad was shaping up to be his finest work, a blood and thunder yarn of brave forest outlaws, treacherous monks and villainous sheriffs, with plenty of clanging swords and oceans of blood. Allan whistled the embryonic tune, mulling over

a suitable name for the hero. A familiar figure passed by the tavern, completely failing to notice the drunken minstrel sitting in shadow beside the door. Allan didn’t call out, but grinned and tipped his cap towards Hobbe as the young man strode away, acquitted of all charges and free to return to a life of happy obscurity in his little Yorkshire village. Or he might go back to thieving, though Allan hoped he had the good sense not to. Hobbe Hode. Allan thought the name too rustic, and lacked a certain dash. ‘Hobbe’ was a shortened Northern version for Robert. Allan tried to recall the more fashionable French version. Robyn. That was it. Robyn Hode. Perfect. His mind coursing with inspiration, Allan O’Dale set to work on creating a legend.

Went to Bed and Bumped His Head By S.J. Higbee Under the muzzak, I can still hear it. Through the chatter of people at the other tables. It bounces around the inside of my skull. The slow, steady drumming. I always hear it. Looking around the fake-tanned faces, I wonder if they hear it, too. It’s raining, it’s pouring… I pick up my coffee cup with shaking hands. I breathe in the rich smell of roasted beans… of sun-ripened berries… of fertile, crumbly earthI scald my mouth gulping a large swallow and suck hard, trying to hold on to the pain. To stop the memories. But they come anyway. ~~~~~~~~~ Pa picked his moment to play the Conscription Notification. After supper while we were still sitting around the table. The DC accented voice sounded unreal in our big farmhouse kitchen. In respect of the Articles

of Exemption of Military Service, Section 4, sub-paragraph 10. In that all personnel residing at the address O’Conner’s Ranch, 4891 Rd 167, Oshkosh, Garden County, Nebraska are engaged in the growing of food, they are deemed to be exempt from Military Service, providing that when called upon, some dumb-assed sucker from said family will step up to serve the Offplanet Colonial Service on a useless water-logged hell for three whole, never-ending years. The wording might’ve been different – but that’s how I remember it. And they’d all looked at me. Every single one. Except Callie – who’d sagged against me, gripping my arm with a little moan. Telling me that even though it tore at her, she’d accepted that I’d have to go. Which meant that they’d talked it over and already decided. Double-crossing skunks! So much for family loyalty. 58

Except – gazing around – I noticed Ma’s wild-eyed pleading at Pa. She hadn’t known. Or if she had, she didn’t want to accept it. But Uncle Will, Cousin Nate and my brothers, they’d known. “It’ll only be for three years, Pete.” Pa was leaning forward, fixing me with those pale blue eyes of his. Willing me to agree. “Three years’ll be gone in no time,” Nate added. Nate could shove his preachy Big Bro act where the sun don’t shine. “You’re not tripping over your sorry self to volunteer, I see.” Smirking, Nate gestured to Rene feeding the baby. “I can’t, Pete. Not fair on my family.” “I’m not the only single guy here. Why me?” I winced at the whine in my voice – even though I couldn’t stop it. “Because you’re the nonspecialist, son,” Pa’s voice was even. Not a hint of the smugness


he must’ve felt. He’d nagged me since I’d finished my agri-course to concentrate on either the livestock or the crops. But for me, the essence of permafarming was treating it as an interconnected whole. Raising the trees, underplanting them with the right mix of fruits, berries and vegetables, with pockets of land cleared for grazing. All of it part of the whole. Using the manure from the animals to fertilise the land, feeding the animals with our own plants – including the branches from the trees. Encouraging insects to pollinate the crops and keeping the soil alive. I still can’t understand why is isn’t popular with more farmers. Like Pa. Him and me had butted heads from the go-get about the wheatfields. I wanted to stop ploughing and try seed injection, instead. But Pa’s forefathers had razed the land, tilled it to sterility, pumped it full of artificial fertilizers and grown acre upon acre of wheat. And he still considered it ‘proper’ farming, figuring that our low tech, sustainable methods were just a stop-gap until more water and cheap energy were found from… somewhere. Like many other diehards, he nurtured the hope that one of our star colonies would find some magical substance to replace the oil and fossil fuels we’d mined out, so we could return to the Consumerist Age. His idea of heaven. Not mine, though. He’ll get everything his own way once I’m gone. I remember thinking that. Till I return, anyhow… Less than two hours after Pa played that Conscription Notification, they came for me. ~~~~~~~~~ My coffee is cold, but I drink it anyway. You don’t waste such luxuries out here in the armpit of the galaxy, where so little grows that we’d recognise as food back on Earth. I open my phone, poised to place a Tightbeam Intergalactic Call. Callie’s smile greets me. It

was those big brown eyes that first snagged my heart in school in another life. I clear my throat trying to find the words. I can’t. Blinking, I shut it down, again. I’ve done this at least three times this morning since I slammed out of our quarters. After Jorjia’s news… “I’m pregnant.” Just like that. No – ‘I’ve got something to tell you, love.’ She came out with it without any warning. How did she think I was going to react? She knew about Callie. Knew I had commitments. Knew I was returning to Earth. Or has Hanlon got to her, too? Hanlon. I clench my fists, yearning to smash his fat face in. Everything had been going fine till Hanlon became the new Administrator. Well… not fine. Nothing is fine, here. I hate it. Drives me crazy. The weather, for starters. And it’s no good everyone telling me not to look out’ve the windows – or reprog them to holo-deserts from Earth. Because I still know what’s out there. It’s raining, it’s pouring… And the job sucks. Majorly. Though I have to keep that opinion to myself. Because the first thing everyone does on entering the hydro-halls is to congratulate me on working here. Yeah – right. It’s peachy. Spending my time filling nutria-bins and constantly fixing the useless trash-cans that pass for agricbots. Forcing the poor deformed plants to grow in long green ropes to provide us with the ‘maximum yield per covered acreage.’ It’s a betrayal of everything I believe. People actually spend their breaks in here. Breathe in the humid, chemical stink and talk about the healing power of greenery. That’s how I met Jorjia. She was always coming in, stroking the leaves with her long, thin fingers and chatting. Made no secret of her interest in me – asked me out for a drink. So I told her about Callie. She muttered something about stuff staying in 59

Las Vegas, grinned and repeated the invite. Well, I love Callie, of course I do. But, I’m not made of stone. And she’s real pretty – in a different way to Callie, who’s curvy and cuddly with dark curly hair and freckles across her nose. Jorjia’s tall, skinny and blonde with long legs that go on forever. So I said yes. Next thing I know, we’re moving in together… I can still hear it. The drumming. Never getting louder. Or going away. Jorjia says I obsess over it. Reckons that it’s a soothing sound. What does she call it? Oh yeah. “The natural rhythm of the planet.” She’s full of stuff like that. Which wouldn’t be so bad – cept you’d never catch her outside. Callie would never say such a dumb thing. Callie would realise that someone like me, raised to the outdoor life can’t stay cooped up inside the Dome for three whole years. She’d understand why I go outside for walks. Even though I hate it. If she were here, she’d come with me. Callie likes the rain. She used to hold my hand and run trough puddles, singing that silly old nursery rhyme. It’s raining, it’s pouring. The old man is snoringBlinking to clear my eyes, I consider returning to get my oversuit – but can’t face Jorjia and her news. So I go to Stores and borrow one with the promise that I’ll return it, next time. I key open the inner door to the Wetroom. As ever, dripping suits are stretched on racks, boots are neatly lined up on sheets of blotplas, while blowers wheeze with the effort of drying the moisture-laden air. I curse on finding that some lowlife has been using my boots. Opening the outer door, the rain is a shock. Always. Even thought I know it’s there – I somehow forget how cold and wet it is. Not torrential, never that, it is nevertheless persistently heavy enough to drench everything within minutes.


Crunching along the weather-pruf path, I promise myself that this time, I’ll stick to it. My breath gusts into the grey curtaining downpour as a flock of flying frogs chirrup through slimedraped trees. We call them trees but they’re not related to anything we’d recognise on Earth. Some look like huge clumps of seaweed, with purple and brown fronds that quest into the sodden air. Others more closely resemble huge tufts of orange grass. The orange pigment helps them to absorb the low light levels. Apparently. The boff-heads tried to transplant that pigment into a batch of our plants in an attempt to cut down on our energy consumption. Because of the poor light levels, we need to run sunlamps in the hydrohalls for at least six hours out of every twenty-four hour cycle. But they all rotted into a disgustingsmelling slime within a couple of days, leaving yours truly to clear the mess up. Another sodden waste of time. We should leave this mud-hole and go back where we belong. It’s raining, it’s pouring… I come to a fork in the path and I veer off to the right, away from the Dome and the supply shuttles huddled on the space-strip, like drenched moths. Cos today what I’m not doing, is checking on the outdoor plant trials. Right now, I can’t face examining the latest blue-leaved strain of rice, which is being slowly drowned by the constant rain and poisoned by the alien muck that passes for soil. Looking back at the Dome, it’s nearly swallowed in the murky daylight. A faint golden glow shines through its semi-opaque membrane, giving it a fantastic, otherworldly appearance. When I first arrived, I’d sent home exterior pics of it. Ma was really excited by them. She was always telling us fairy stories and fables when we were little. But there’s nothing fairytale about living on this water-logged ball, that’s for sure. Especially now that

Hanlon is on my case. When he first arrived, four months ago, I really liked the guy. He came by regularly – and unlike everyone else, appreciated that it was a dire job, trying to keep crop yields up in such a hostile environment. Kept telling me what a talent I was – how lucky they were to have me. I s’pose I was flattered. Who wouldn’t be? I spot a coral-hopper grazing on the kelp grass a hundred yards off to the left. About the size of a large dog, they are pitted in appearance – like a lump of coral. Except, their coats are deceptive. You stroke them and they ripple and smooth under your hand. It’s the weirdest feeling… Once, I tried to get Jorjia to come out here and touch one. You’d have thought that I’d asked her to slit her own throat, the fuss she made. Pa had sent a couple of bottles of bourbon via Priority Transport Rate for my birthday. My best present, ever. Not the gift – but the knowledge that Pa must’ve been feeling guiltier than Satan to spend such a wad on me. I was suckered enough by Hanlon and his smooth talk to invite the guy over. He listens well, I’ll give him that. As we downed a bottle between us, I told him all about the permafarming project back home. How ten months into my time here, I was going crazy with no sun… no blue sky… And the endless, constant drumming of the rain on the Dome. He listened alright, the double-crossing snake. Two days later, he sent for me. Grin pasted across his big pink face, he announced that he’d fixed it for me. No need to complete my term here. He could arrange transport off this rainsoaked cesspit by the end of the week. I was overwhelmed. Choking out my gratitude, I struggled not to weep. I continue stroking the coral-hopper, biting my lip at the recollection. The creature nudges closer and honks. I’m glad they taste disgusting. Because if they 60

were even the littlest bit edible, they’d be extinct in this part of the planet, by now. Hanlon hadn’t finished, though, had he? Holding up his hand, he continued to smile. “There’s a condition, Pete. One small snag.” Yeah – that’s what he called it. Like it was nothing. “I can’t get you back to Earth. There’s this new planet we’ve recently colonised. Eden. Amazing fertility – all the boffheads are wetting themselves. Reckon it’s the nearest thing to a perfect wilderness ever found-” I felt that I’d just been shoved off a cliff. “I just want to go home,” I whispered, “please…” Hanlon pretended to look all sad. The slimer. “Don’t think you realise just what a megadeal I’m offering you, Pete. It’s only your unique experience with a low impact, ecologically sympathetic farming system that has allowed me to swing it for you. Prospective colonists are climbing over themselves to get a ticket to Eden. However…” He paused, switching on that grin of his, again. “There’s no easy way back to Earth from there, I’m afraid. But I’ve spoken to people who reckon that if you close your eyes and sniff, you’d think you were back on Earth. And I can arrange for Jorjia to go with you. If you like.” When I told her about Hanlon’s deal, she stared at me. “And you’ve turned it down? A chance for Eden? Are you mad? It’s the talk of the Dome. Everyone here would give their right lung to go.” I was mighty glad I hadn’t told her that Hanlon had offered to take her, too. “Not if they’ve got a nanospec of sense left. It’ll be just the same ol’ same old’ roachdirt the Offplanet Colonial Sadasses always spout.” I was slouching in front of the vidscreen, trying to block out the drumming. “That’s not what I heard.” Jorjia wasn’t letting this one go. She switched off the vidscreen.


“You’re always slurry-mouthing the OCS – yet they saved us from blowing ourselves apart. And bought us time to heal Earth.” I’d stared at her, wondering where she got this stuff from. “That’s pure drivel, Jorjia. What saved us was the guy in India – whatsisname – the boff that invented faster-thanlightspeed travel.” “Jasraj Nair.” I hate it that she always knows stuff like that. It makes me feel dumb. “Yeah. Him. Only reason the Water Wars stopped was cos everyone realised if we went on fighting, we couldn’t afford to get ourselves into space.” Jorjia grinned, the look in her blue eyes was way too smug. “My point, exactly.” “No!” I took a breath, trying to rein my temper in. “It wasn’t anything the OCS did. It was just that people hoped it would all change once we got out here. It’s a mega-con, Jorjia. That’s all.” I got to my feet. Suddenly fired up, it seemed really important that she understood this. “Name me one planet where the colonists are fully self-sufficient.” She bit her lip and shifted. “Aha! You see? You can’t.” I jabbed a finger at her. “Because there isn’t a single one out there. Only useful thing the OCS has done is ship out all those pointless no-hopers that have given up on Earth, so’s the rest of us can get on with patching it up and getting things straight again.” Jorjia was mad. Only she doesn’t throw things and curse like Callie did. You know where you are when you’re dodging flying plates. “Oh yeah?” Her eyebrows lifted, like some sarky schoolteacher. “And how does that work? You patching up Earth – from halfway across the galaxy? And when it comes down to it, no one is self sufficient – not even your precious Earth. Why d’you think we’re here – on Tumbuka? The boffs are examining why it never stops raining. To see if they can increase the rainfall on

Earth.”

Her face softened into that soppy look she always gets when talking about this stuff. “Don’t you get excited, Pete? To think that we’re living in a time when Mankind is capable of such things? Who knows – if you go to Eden, you might be the one to make the breakthrough.” I don’t care about any of it. I just want to go home… I was horrified to find tears prickling behind my eyes. Turning away, I mumbled about needing to check up on some plants and fled. Hanlon hasn’t given up, though. Keeps dropping by. Offering me this and that ‘extra’. Hah! As if anywhere in the universe could come close to Earth and my spot on it. Jorjia let slip that Hanlon all but promised the High-Ups that he’d gotten an experienced farmer ‘born and bred with the concept of permafarming’ to agree to settle on Eden. Which just goes to show just what all their promises of mega-fertility are worth. If the place was all that wondrous, there’d be plenty of farmers lining up to go. And there isn’t. Jorjia reckons that isn’t the problem. It’s just that successful farmers don’t like uprooting themselves. And that if I stopped moping like a wet rag for a nanosec, I’d know what a stimming opportunity I was letting slide into the mud. It’s a real sore subject between us. After I threatened to move back into the single quarters if she didn’t give over her nagging, she started the Treatment. You know… hurt silences and longsuffering sighs. It got so that I spent most of my evenings in the bar. Till a few weeks ago, she sent me this cute message, saying how much she missed me and if I’d come back that evening, she’d have something hot ready for me. Well, I went. And the food was ok, too. Since then, she’s been a lot friendlier. Not mentioned Eden once. And me? I’ve been so 61

glad for a bit of loving company, I haven’t bothered to wonder why she changed. Just like that. Besides, I’ve been busy trying to avoid Hanlon; getting on with work and gritting my teeth to tough it out for another 791 days, 8 hours and 10 minutes. Swear to God, I reckon I could’ve made it too… The coral hopper bleats one more time and splashes off. Petting it has left me chilled. I slosh through the spongy undergrowth back towards the path, until a colony of viper-crabs appears. I freeze. Though they might only be four inches across, you don’t want to tangle with a bunch of them. But it isn’t me they’re after. As they scurry after him, I realise they must’ve caught the scent of the coral hopper. I hope he gets away. Death by viper-crab is nasty. Just like this planet. It’s raining, it’s pouring… Then this morning, Jorjia turns to me, after puking up her breakfast and says, “I’m pregnant.” Just like that. No apology or explanation of how it happened. Which is a major puzzle. It should be impossible for her to get pregnant while she’s here. She’s s’posed to be Implanted with something. Cos Tumbuka is registered a red planet. No children or babies. Jorjia will have to leave. I close my eyes as the pain in my chest tightens. Becomes unbearable. I stagger in the mud, stupid with misery as Pa’s set speech haunts me. Gave it to all us boys. We used to laugh about it, amongst ourselves. Didn’t stop his words burning into my soul, though. “Don’t you go getting careless where you scatter your seed, boy. You get a girl pregnant, you marry her and raise the child. You come from farming stock, born to look after living things.” His piercing eyes had raked my guilty face, no doubt realising that me and Callie had moved on from just fooling around. He jabbed his


finger at me. “No O’Conner man leaves another to raise his child. You remember that.” Light-years away from that time and place I remember, alright. And finally face what I’d known the nanosec Jorjia blurted out those two words, earlier this morning. It’s raining, it’s pouring.

The old man is snoring. Went to bed and bumped his head… And if I hadn’t gone to bed withI fall to my knees in the squishy undergrowth. Raising my face to the cloud-covered sky as the constant rain spatters my face, I howl like a sick dog.

For my lovely lost Callie… For that beautiful piece of farmland I know better’n the back of my hand… For a small blue ball I call home.. Because I’m going to have to go to Eden. With Jorjia.

Thirty Days Richard Marsden Guy Chabot sprinted through the winding, cobbled streets of Paris, pushing past a gaggle of peasants arguing over the price of a piece of bread. He normally did not venture into the depths of the city and were any of his social peers to take note of his foray into Paris’ less than savory districts they would surely wag their tongues and add kindling to the conflagration that was consuming his reputation. He scanned the various, leaning houses with their slanted roofs and fading paint, darting from one side of the twisting street to the other. At last his eyes alighted upon a squat structure, from which a weather-beaten sign depicted a crudely drawn sword. If his friends had not been lying to him for the sake of sport, the unassuming building would house his only chance at life. Barging through the front door, he didn’t bother with a proper introduction. When his eyes set upon the rigid, old man standing before a rack full of swords, Guy blurted, “I have thirty days to do my duty.” He panted heavily, trying to regain his breath and a measure of composure. The elderly man was dressed in foreign attire, flamboyant and colorful, so that it reminded Guy of the Château d’Amboise, whose gardens were bright, gaudy and incidentally designed by a priest from the old man’s country of birth in the time of King Charles VIII.

The elderly man brought his fingers to his moustache and he spoke French with such a thick Italian accent, that Guy had to strain his ears to make sense of it. “You look like a man possessed. Fearful and,” he ran his eyes over Guy’s frame. “Rich.” “I am all these things, good sir.” Guy removed his broad hat and puffed his chest up. “And I need your help.” “Not interested,” the Italian said, turning to look back over his rack of swords against the wall. Stunned, Guy stammered, “Not interested? I need your help.” He swallowed and stepped close to the foreigner. “I have gold.” The man snorted. “What you have are powerful enemies. Only a man with foes of an insurmountable variety would tramp their noble-self to these squalid parts of Paris.” He waved his hands about, gesturing to the rotted beams and cracked walls of his place of business and continued, slapping his hands to his chest. “And seek out Captain Caizo.” “Sir, I hear you are the best,” Guy said, doing his best to keep his rapidly beating heart still and his breathing measured. “A maestro amongst maestros. A rival to Achille Marozzo, a-” Captain Caizo grinned, revealing that several teeth were missing. “I train common men to fight common fights, good sir. 62

What man sent you here?” Guy lowered his head. He let out a long breath. “I am Guy Chabot, Baron de Jarnac.” Caizo whistled lowly. “I was right, you do have enemies. You, my lord, I know of and a little of your troubles. Tell me, so that when I refuse you, I at least know why I have done so.” He crossed his arms and offered a wan smile. The insolence of the foreigner grated on Guy, but he was without recourse or hope. Captain Caizo had been recommended to him as the only man in Paris that might assist him. There were no options and nothing to do, but swallow pride and explain himself. “You know who François de Vivonne, seigneur de La Châtaigneraye is?” Guy paced through the room. “Ten years my senior, ten years my better! He is favored in the court, a personal friend of the King, has fought at least two duels I know of, each ending with his opponent being wrestled to the ground and stabbed in the face with a dagger!” Guy shouted. He approached Caizo with wide eyes. “He’s in every way a better man than I, sir.” He hung his head. “And he has called me forth to defend my honor.” “This is a somewhat old story. At least, I know that you and the knight are at odds. What has changed to bring you to my home?” Caizo asked, while his eyes drifted to the side.


“A year ago, the Dauphin said that I had done things that are, well, you see-” Caizo’s eyes snapped back onto Guy. Clearing his throat, Guy whispered, “The Dauphin said that I knew my own step-mother in a rather base way. I of course do not! I refuted the claim, as any man of honor should have done.” Caizo grinned. “Dauphin’s do not duel.” “No,” Guy replied. “No, they do not. Châtaigneraye, eager for bloodshed, and good friends with the Dauphin at the time, merrily offered to defend the lie!” Guy placed his hand on his chest. “He called me out; to face him in what he called ‘fair and judicial combat’, where God would see the victor through. Easy for him to say! When he challenged me, he talked to the top of my head.” Guy raised his arm in the air to give Caizo sense of his opponent’s height. “This story is a year old, why do you come darting into my arms now?” Caizo stroked his beard. “What has changed?” Letting out a sigh, Guy said, “The King refused Châtaigneraye the duel. He knew such a fight would be but bloodsport for the court and his wicked son. For weeks after the lie and my denial of it, Châtaigneraye beseeched him for a duel.” The old man burst out laughing. “Oh ho! And but three weeks ago King Francois II died, long live the Dauphin.” He pointed at Guy. “The uncrowned King’s first act is to see you slaughtered?” Caizo shook his head. “An Italian’s temper runs hot, but not for long. The soonto-be King and his pet dog, they are colder creatures with long memories. I see now why you come to me.” “You’re the best,” Guy insisted. The man waved a hand dismissively. “No! Someone told you I am the only. No fine maestro will take you on. No school of fence will accept you in its doors.

Neither should I.” Guy felt his shoulders grow heavy. He dipped his head and slipped his hat back upon his sweating brow. “Then you will not help me.” “I said should.” Caizo grinned. “But I will. If I pull this off, I will no longer dwell in this fine place.” He looked about his small house. “If I can bring you victory, I will earn the wrath of a King. The fury of the court.” His eyes twinkled. “And the fame of a Saint.” Guy leapt forth, clasping Caizo’s firm, leathery hand. “Good sir, thank you. I have little time to master the sword. Tell me what I must do.” “It takes thirty years to master the sword. A lifetime to know of distance, of tempo and velocity. Hours of study to grasp the mathematics behind every step, every pass, every dodge and every cut.” Caizo released Guy’s hands and turned away from him. “You have thirty days.” “Yes.” Guy peered over his shoulder at the racks of swords. “My friends, they are no fine swordsmen, but they showed me some maneuvers. I also looked hard at the pictures of several fencing maestros.” A brushy brow rose. “Did you bother to read any of those fine treatises?” A blush crept up Guy’s cheeks. “I don’t speak or read Italian, maestro Caizo.” A grunt left the old man. Inhaling deeply, he plucked a sword from the rack and handed it to Guy. “My lord, behold the spada. Good for cutting and thrusting. If you please, enter the guardia di faccia.” Guy held the blade awkwardly in his hand. He stepped back, giving himself ample room and smiled nervously at Caizo. “Maestro, I don’t know what that is.” Tilting his head, Caizo said, “Fine, try alicornio, it is a common stance and it comes from Marozzo, whom you so kindly ranked me amongst.” 63

The blade lowered. Guy gave a slight shake of his head. “Passo? Fendente? Squalambrato?” Caizo said sharply. The words meant nothing to Guy. “I’m sorry, maestro.” “Well!” Caizo clapped his hands loudly together. “Forget the words. Show me what you have learned in the year’s time since you knew your life was in danger, my lord.” With a firm nod, Guy swung the sword about as he had seen his friends do, and did his best to mimic their actions. He stepped, lunged, swung and swept his blade about, until his arm and shoulder burned with the effort and his lungs sizzled with every intake of breath. Letting out a gasp, Guy felt the sweat course down his face. “How was that?” “I’ve never seen its like,” Caizo said slowly. He smoothed his white hair back and licked his lips. “You have made final arrangements, so that your estate will be well managed?” The sword dropped to the ground. “Am I so doomed?” Guy leaned against the wall, shuddering with every breath. He blinked a few tears from his eyes. “Is all lost? Might I as well spend my last days on this earth picking out a plot of land and a fine casket to call my eternal home?” The Italian fencing master shrugged. “Probably, but I have a plan. My lord, you are by far the worst man ever to pick up a sword. I could not teach you a tenth of what Châtaigneraye knows in a year of hard study, let alone a month. So, I will not teach you the finer points of the sword, nor make any move at all to put you in the same league as the noble knight Châtaigneraye.” “Then what will you do, maestro?” Guy clenched his fists. “If I am no match for the better man, how will I live past the month of July?” “I will teach you but one thing. And only one thing. Every day you will meet me here and for hours you will do as I say. One


maneuver and no other. In thirty days, my lord, you will be the worst swordsman in France, but the finest cheat in Paris.” ~~~~~~~~~ The day of combat was blazingly hot. Guy tried not to shake as he walked with his companions into the shade of great château of Saint-Germainen-Laye, with its broad walls and glittering windows. A stand for the royal court stood to one side of a roped off field and before it was a banquet table, lined with empty seats and covered in silver, covered platters. The smell of cooked meat wafted over Guy’s nose and he felt his stomach growl slightly. He had been unable to keep down any food at all the night prior and suddenly found himself famished. Well dressed courtiers surrounded the roped off field and chatted amiably with one another. As Guy stepped through the crowd he turned his gaze away from their false smiles and half-hearted wishes of good fortune. Whereas his arrival was met with cloaked disdain, a great cheering from the other end of the field announced the arrival of Châtaigneraye. Nobles of the royal court moved to take their seats amongst the stands, while men of lesser rank had to make do with crowding about the ropes. Châtaigneraye walked with easy steps through the passing crowd, shaking hands and smiling broadly. His eyes caught Guy’s and the smile became predatory, bearing white, perfect teeth. The larger noble gave his opponent a mock salute with his hand. “The combatants will enter the field!” cried the King’s personal herald. The crowd hushed and Guy shook the hands of his companions before ducking under the rope. He winced as he saw Châtaigneraye push the ropes down with his hand and purposefully step over them. The knight gave a chastising shake of his head. A noble did not stoop,

Guy belatedly reminded himself. The noble knight was tall, broad in the shoulders and clean shaven. He had slicked his hair back and had tucked in his belt not one, but two daggers. The herald wore the King’s colors and he stood in the middle of a field, where a table bearing weapons and armor were laid out. The armor had been delivered the day before by the combatants and thoroughly inspected for flaws in the metal or weakened straps. Four swords, each identical in appearance were also spread out upon the table. They were slightly broader than the spada Captain Caizo had taught him with, but similar enough Guy hoped. “Gentlemen, this is a duel of honor,” the herald began. “Sanctioned by the soon-to-be crowned King, his most glorious Francis II. Such matters of honor must be taken with the utmost seriousness.” The herald spread his hands out over the table. “Before you choose your armor and weapons, is there any chance this affair might be settled without the shedding of French blood?” Before Châtaigneraye could answer, Guy snapped out, “Yes! I would beseech the Dauphin himself to call this duel off. It is no way to start his reign.” Châtaigneraye’s face split into a smile. He stepped back and spread his wide arms out. “I do not object, let us both speak to the King.” The herald nodded curtly. He led the pair across the field to the stands, where sitting in the front row, overlooking the banquet table, the yet-to-be crowned monarch sat. He was a slender man, with a thin black moustache and beard. He was in every way the mirror of his father’s image, if not temperament. The two men bowed, awaiting the future King’s pleasure. “Why do you come before me? Is there not a matter of honor to be solved? Something about a step-mother?” The monarch grinned. Guy rose. “My King, I 64

ask that you end this duel before it begins. Your reign starts soon and France should not have its monarch crowned in innocent bloodshed.” The King laughed. “Nor will it. Only a guilty man dies in such cases. God himself will see the truth triumphant. Besides, Baron de Jarnac, this meal is for you!” The King gestured to the resplendent display of food and wine. “Noble Châtaigneraye and I will sit side by side, right there.” He pointed. “And watch as you die, right there.” He pointed further down the field. “I did not summon forth the royal court to be denied this feast. Die well, Baron de Jaranc.” Though he expected to be refused, the blatant nature of it stunned Guy. He murmured a, “Yes, your majesty,” and stepped back three paces before turning to return to the table. “I will ensure you do not die too fast,” Châtaigneraye said smoothly. “The King desires a memorable experience before he is officially crowned. Still, I am not without mercy. Admit to the incest and I will consider the matter over.” Guy reached the table. He steadied himself against it. His eyes rose to meet the gaze of his taller adversary. “Give me back my honor.” “I’ll take that as a no.” The larger man waved his hand. “Herald! Let us be on with this!” The herald dipped his head. “Noble Châtaigneraye has been called a liar, by Baron de Jarnac. It was Châtaigneraye who insisted upon a duel, thus you, my lord de Jarnac have choice of weapons and arms.” Shaking, Guy gave a nod to the herald. He pointed to the table. “Armor, from head to waist. Buckler and sword.” He remembered what his maestro had told him to say next. “I prefer to dance, whereas Châtaigneraye likes to charge and blunder.” He gave the insult with a whisper, not even daring to meet the other man’s eyes.


Châtaigneraye snorted. “Agreed. I will dance with you, Jarnac. And over you as your blood spills from your throat.” The herald clapped his hands and servants rushed forth to coat each man in armor, strapping the cuirass tight, lashing the greaves about the arms and the vambraces over the wrist, while heavy pauldrons were draped over their shoulders. Wooden bucklers, rimmed in metal, were tied tight to each man’s left arm and fully enclosed helms, with stout visors, were slipped upon their heads. The heat within the armor was intense and Guy lifted up his visor to let the stale air rush out. He felt a sword pressed into his hand and stared at the black, armored frame of Châtaigneraye. The knight kept his visor low, ignoring the sweltering conditions and his unarmored legs looked almost small compared to his mail-coated bulk. Servants carted away the table and a great commotion rose from the stands and ropes. More people thronged to see the judicial combat. Men called out, bets were placed, and curses hurled and whooping whistles filled the air. With a solemn ceremony, another band of servants hauled a table into the field of combat. A red, velvet cushion sat upon it, and upon that the Holy Scriptures. “The gentlemen will swear upon these words from God that their cause is just and take ten steps back.. Then commence. To the yield, or,” The herald paused a moment. “To the death.” The herald bowed low and backed away. The knight swore upon the bible before looking up at Guy. “Are you prepared to meet God?” Châtaigneraye asked as he stepped back his ten paces. “I am prepared to take back my honor,” Guy said. He had no sooner made his own vows upon the Holy Scripture stepped back ten paces, when his foe was upon him. Without armor about his legs, Châtaigneraye moved with surprising speed. His buckler

came high and he raised his arm back for a strike. The servants scattered, carrying their tables away while the herald eased back, clearing himself from the impending battle. Fear raced up Guy’s spine. The world seemed to slow as the looming form of Châtaigneraye filled his vision. He saw the blade, poised to crash upon his helmed head and responded as he had been instructed. He raised his left arm and loosened his knees. The blade struck the buckler with a resounding crack. The crowd roared in excitement. Guy felt the force of it painfully ring through his arm, but he let his knees give slightly, absorbing the impact. The moment he felt his enemy’s blade slip free of his small, wooden shield, Guy raised his arm behind his back in a dramatic fashion. Screaming, he swung the weapon towards Châtaigneraye’s head. The knight raised his arm and like the moon eclipsing the sun, the round buckler passed before the man’s armored head. His vision was already limited with the visor down and even Châtaigneraye could not see through wood. Guy ducked and swung his blade low, aiming in the end not for his opponent’s head, but for his unarmored knee. The steel of the blade bit into unarmored flesh and with a violent jerk, Guy drew the edge of the sword along the calf of Châtaigneraye. He danced backwards raising his bloody sword to the sky. The crowd made another sound, not a cheer, but a gasp. The knight stood still a moment, blood spilled from his leg, crimson vitae shined in the sun and stained his form-fitting hose. A cry left Châtaigneraye, echoing within the confines of his helmet and his wounded leg twisted in a grotesque manner. The knight toppled with a crunch of flesh, bone and armor. A breath left Guy he didn’t realize he had been holding. 65

He stared at the prone knight and looked at his own sword in amazement. Blood ran down the fuller, pooling by the hilt. Stepping towards Châtaigneraye, Guy shouted, “Give me back my honor!” The fallen knight growled and placed one hand upon the ground. He tried to rise. “Stay down, or I will kill you,” Guy threatened. “Then kill me!” Roaring in agony, Châtaigneraye forced himself to his feet. He rested all his weight on one leg and brandished his blade. Guy was no murderer. He had never wanted the duel to begin with. He skirted around Châtaigneraye, looking to the King, Guy called out, “Your majesty, the duel need go no further if I can have my honor restored.” The King was pale, his hand rose to his lips and he slowly stood. “Incest! I stand by it and name your deed, Baron de Jarnac! Kill me if you can.” Châtaigneraye slammed the flat of his sword against his buckler. Whirling about, Guy charged the wounded knight. He did as he knew how. His sword reared back, as if to cleave and when Châtaigneraye once more used his buckler to intercept the blow, Guy ducked and snapped his sword out like a striking adder. The edge slid against his opponent’s calf, spattering blood as Guy drew back. Shrieking, Châtaigneraye fell to his knees. He tore off his helmet and his features looked ghostly pale. Maddened eyes fixated upon Guy. “Fight me like a man! Face me! Kill me with honor!” The crowd was murmuring and the King was on his feet. He waved his hands. “I call the matter settled!” He pointed. “Bind the wounds of my friend. Save my dear Châtaigneraye.” Servants, cloth in hand, dashed forward to carry out the King’s will. Châtaigneraye stared


at them in horror and swung his blade at them as they neared. “No!” He stared at Guy, his eyes were almost pleading. “Kill me.” Guy lowered his sword. He stepped away from his enemy and shook his head. “I’m sorry, I don’t know how.” He crept closer to Châtaigneraye, who rolled on his side groaning like an animal. His daggers had fallen out of their scabbards. Carefully, Guy used the tip of his sword to draw each blade away from his enemy and sheathed his sword. He picked up the daggers meant for him and walked over to the herald, pushing the blades into his hands. “For God’s sake, call this over,” Guy shook his head. “I will not kill him.” Châtaigneraye wailed at the mercy. The herald looked to his King, who in turn said nothing and visibly shook. Guy walked towards the uncrowned monarch. Bowing low, Guy waited for the King to see him. When at last the horrified monarch turned his eyes away

from the dying Châtaigneraye to him, Guy said, “My honor?” Diane d’Potier, much older than the uncrowned King, and secure in her status as his chief mistress, moved to the side of her lover. She stared at Guy. A small smile drifted across her lips. “You have done your duty, and your honor is herby restored.” She whispered something in the ear of the King. He nodded and the striking woman, with dark hair and vivid eyes said, “Wait in your personal tent.” She gestured to the servants in the field. “Take Châtaigneraye away. If he is to die, let it be out of public view.” Guy bowed to the King and his mistress. He turned, frowning as he saw Châtaigneraye hoisted up by four men. The man’s features were waxy and he thrashed as they carried him away, leaving behind a dwindling trail of blood. “My lord!” A thickly accented voice called from beyond the ropes. Guy turned and upon seeing Captain Caizo blinked in

surprise. He walked towards him and reached out a hand to take his, stopping himself as he for the moment, forget his place and that of the commoner. He covered his overly-familiar gesture by clasping his hands together. “What brings you here?” The old man beamed. “I came to place many heavy bets upon this duel of honor.” Guy’s brow rose. “And you are wealthier I trust?” The man laughed. “Yes, my lord. I never bet against myself. I wish you well, for I think you and I are both destined for great things, but not in the same company.” A bit of sorrow tugged at Guy. He would genuinely miss the acidic humor of the Italian, as well as his rigorous training to perform the only maneuver in swordplay he knew, or ever would know. “Goodbye, Maestro Caizo.” Guy nodded. “Goodbye, Baron de Jarnac.” The old man stepped back, melting into the crowd.

Nessie Doug Hilton Day 131: The trip here wasn’t easy. The landing was worse. Now we’re in big trouble. This is my diary, but I doubt that anyone will read it. Our commo gear is hosed – too bad I didn’t upload the other 2 volumes when I had a chance – now it’s too late, meaning that bandwidth is too precious to waste on the trivia of a diary. Still, I wish that it would get back home someday. My lovely Maggie died 2 months ago and I still don’t sleep well at nights. There was a small fire while she was sleeping and before the alarm roused her, the toxic chemicals in the air overcame her. The rest of us were able to get our breathing apparatus on, and I tried to get to her, but Maggie was independent and liked to sleep in the escape

pod, away from the noise and bustle of non-stop activity. By time I got to her, she was dead and gone. I can’t get the picture of her bulging eyes and swollen tongue out of my mind. Sue, Don, Glenn and I are going to bury Maggie here if we can get the mech-shovel to work, but that’s taken a lowpriority compared to getting us to the Martian Pole. We have to get there in order to get water. And that’s not going to be a cake walk. We landed 100 klicks south of our planned destination and now we will have to make a forced march, dragging along all the gear we can stand to carry. Captain Don keeps reminding us that our chances are “non-zero,” but we all know that things can be mighty small and still be non-zero. 66

Day 132: We can’t bury Maggie. The mech-shovel has to be preserved for use at the North Pole – if we get there. We have bunches of junk on sleds and travois, and whatever we don’t have, we’re going to miss, that’s for sure. The landing gear is hosed. Last night I looked up at the dark black-orange sky. The Earth is beautiful, but tiny. I try not to look at it; it makes me remember my nights with Maggie. We’re off to see the wizard – 100 klicks to go on an orange brick road. Glenn and Don are struggling under loads that would kill a horse. Don keeps saying “gravity is so much less, we can carry more.” He tries so hard to be cheerful. I think we’re all dead men (and woman) walking.


But no use grumbling – dying on Mars is better than it sounds. Each step is a pain in my left hip. The bone-loss from the long flight tore us all up. I’m towing the mechshovel behind me with 5 meters of carbon-fiber-impregnated nylon rope. This stuff is so strong you could rip a mountain out of the ground with it, yet it weighs nothing. We trained and trained for this and that. We were prepared for everything but failure – how do you train for that? Multiple system failures were always discussed and reckoned up to be within “acceptable limits.” So now, here we are, missing one, and on an impossible journey to an improbable place. Captain Don reminds us that there’s plenty of water up ahead, so we’re not supposed to worry. I remember climbing Mount Wilson when I was a kid. About half-way up I ran out of water in my canteen and asked my dad for some. He wanted to toughen me up so he said that there was a drinking fountain at the top with plenty of cold water. All I had to do was get to the top and I could drink my fill. Of course, at the top was the Observatory and a solar tower and a Park Ranger who didn’t want us walking on his mountain and asked us to leave by the same way we came. My mouth was parched then like it is now – I don’t dare take a sip, and I can’t get it off my mind. I try to whistle, and that doesn’t work. We slog north towards the polar ice cap. One step is as bad as the next. My hip is hosed. Sue is coughing hard and the sound of her hacking makes me thirsty again. Captain Don has us pause until Sue catches her breath. Glenn is next to me and I can see him sweating in his environmental suit. The sweat will be recycled, so that’s good, but the water that is produced tastes tinny, and we all know where it comes from, so that doesn’t make it any better. I want to take a small swig. A dust devil cuts across our path. Sue points at something

that just got blown away by it. When we were kids I remember a tornado that swept through Texas. It sucked up some cows out of the field next door. When we moved to California, my mom kept talking about those cows and said that we’d never have to see that again. “There’s never a tornado in California,” she stated with certainty. I didn’t have the nerve to correct her. The dust devil made me thirstier. Captain Don and Glenn grunted on the radio and we’re off again. The sun seems so far away. Everything’s rusty. Everything’s dusty. And hours to go before the dawn. Day 133: We’re getting closer. Both of my hips are shot. Each step makes me grit my teeth. How can Don and Glenn keep up the pace? I hear Sue on the radio – she sounds like a cartoon character of the Grim Reaper, or no, it’s more like Darth Vader – yeah, that’s it. I perk up, thinking of the ancient movies that we watched on the way up here. Every night-period, we got to watch any stupid movie we wanted to. Glenn and Don watched reruns of sports programs, which I didn’t much care for. Sue watched chic flicks, which I didn’t much care for either. When it was my turn, I liked the classics: Gone With the Wind, Mutiny on the Bounty, The Terminator – stuff like that. They didn’t much care for them, but my Maggie did. She’d relax in my lounger, with her head on my chest, watching and smiling. I look back over my shoulder towards the rocket, but I know that she’s not going to get a proper burial for a long, long time. Captain Don said that the radio was trying to decode the garbled signal from Earth. Maybe the computer back at the ship can do it, but I don’t think so. I take a couple of drops of tinny water. The screamin’ zonker pain never lets up. The stupid rope has just about cut my shoulders off. Another step and another. North 67

to Alaska! Too bad my whistle won’t work. Day 134: Sue’s out of it. She’s babbling. We can’t do anything for her though. If we open the enviro-suit, she will promptly bleed to death through her skin, and then freeze to death, just to top it off. There’s nothing Don or Glenn or I can do but watch her suffer. Captain Don finally decides that the 3 of us have only one very slim chance, and Sue has none. Head ‘em up, move ‘em out. As we trudge, I watch the dust devils scooting across our path more and more frequently. I wonder if there’s a storm ahead. Don radios our tracking data back to the ship, but none of us think that its getting back to Earth. Besides, it would be 2 years before a recovery team would be boots-on Mars, so it’s really up to us, not somebody else. I lick 2 more drops of tinny water. My kidneys are in pain. My hips are beyond screaming. I look back at Sue and say a quiet prayer, then tow, step, tow, step. The wind is definitely picking up and we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. Glenn is coughing pretty bad. The dust is getting through the filters I guess. Nothing tastes right. The feeding tube yields up the same old tasteslike-chicken sludge every day, but it doesn’t taste like Earth chicken anymore. Day 135: The wind is blowing like crazy. Dust makes it impossible to see. Captain Don ties us all together with the magic ribbon and we wander north. There’s no magnetic North Pole on Mars, but the suits are keyed to the satellite overhead and with some differential calculus in some hidden microprocessor, we’re able to stay pointed in the right direction. It’s more like: if we get too far off-track, we find out. So we kind of stumble east and west, on some kind of indirect route. 100 klicks is more like 300 when


you go this way. A wind gust just knocked Glenn to his knees. He’s hurt. I hear him screaming that his space suit is holed. He holds his gloved hand over the small rip. Captain Don goes to a sled and rummages for something. He comes up with a fat tube of glue and walks over to Glenn. Glenn removes his hand and Don squdges some glue onto the rip. That works, but Glenn lost some air. We’ll be there tomorrow if the wind doesn’t pick us up and use us to squash a wicked witch. The wind blew all day and all night. Of course there’s not much of a night because there’s not much of a day. Orange-rust; then blacker rust. Phobos and Deimos flow overhead – one this way, and the other that-a-way. Pretty weird sight if you ask me. The oxygen cylinders are running low. We can make more, but we need water. We need to get to the North Pole, drill a deep hole and get water. The scientists on Earth are positive that there’s water at the North Pole. We were going to prove it. Now we’re going to prove it or die – that’s how life works sometimes. Day 136: Forget about it. Day 137: I’m hungry, sore, thirsty, sore and thirsty. My body has been through a meatgrinder for the last week. I don’t sleep anymore. Eating causes me to get an upset stomach from the Martian dust in the foodstuff. The water tastes worse than ever. Captain Don said “We’re close enough. Drill here.” Finally I get the mechshovel unlimbered and cranked up. It’s got some intense robotics built into it, and it can do some amazing stuff. If there’s one thing that NASA’s got, it’s hightech stuff. My mind wanders to some old James Bond movie. I was next to my Maggie and we watched some techo-wizard give 007 a high-tech toy that would save the world. NASA’s stuff is like that. The shovel started working. My mind is fried. I had a

lot of problems remembering the software program to make it drill straight down, instead of acting like a steam shovel. The bit is turning. The thing’s working like John Henry’s nemesis. Hoorah! 10 meters down and we hit a rock. The bit slowed down a bunch, and Captain Don shouted at me to turn it off. I was supposed to be watching it – imagine if the bit had broken off. Geeze, I can’t concentrate at all. I need to sleep. We pulled the bit up and relocated about 100 meters away. The bit spun right down and encountered no obstacles. A brief dust storm caused us to stop for a while. Suddenly the mech-shovel stopped – we had drilled into something harder or softer than it liked and the computer shut off. Don was hollering at me again, but then we saw water coming up out of the hole, and we highfived. Glenn stumbled towards the mech-shovel and bent down and kissed it through his helmet. “Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink” was in an old poem, wasn’t it? The hydro-cracker is operational. Glenn and Don are scooping precious liquid into the intake and the gauges are indicating something. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner!” I shout. Glenn and Don both agree. We’re going to have air and water soon enough. Day 140: We slept yesterday. The wind died down. The machine worked. The oxygen cylinders refilled, one by one. The water containers filled, one by one. Martian water tastes tinny – wonderfully tinny. I’m going to like it here after all. The foodglue, er, chicken-like substance tastes much better now, thanks to the fresh, tinny water. We all dance like Indians in a circle around the mech-shovel. Day 141: The satellite tells us that Earth is calling. The 25-minute time delay is funny, but not fun. When Don gets done explaining, we wait. Then we 68

wait some more. Then we drink tinny water and wait. NASA wants us to be careful about drinking the water. Did we think to test it for microbes? Did we treat it with the iodine tablets? Yada-yada. Sip, sip. Fools. Day 160: We’ve set up a pretty good shelter here. Don and Glenn went about 10 klicks east and found an outcrop of ice. Every day, we harvest chunks of ice. We built 3 igloos first, and now we’re building a building. We talk to NASA every day and recover from our aches and pains. We got the results of the water tests back. There’s brine shrimp in the water. No wonder it tastes like that. We saw them in the microscope, and uplinked to the satellite. NASA wants us to bring samples home. We all laughed at that. Last night I dreamed of Maggie. We were hugging and watching Rocky 2. The theme song stuck in my brain like a tapeloop. Captain Don and Glenn and I are plotting our course of action. If we bring some of these ice blocks back to the rocket, we can survive here until help arrives. Uuggh. The thought of the trip back there makes my hips quiver. Day 180: We spend our time going back and forth to the ship and the North Pole Headquarters, which we renamed Santa’s Village. We schlep ice cubes south. All we need is gin and tonic to make this a very nice place. We buried Maggie a couple of days ago. That night I watched Phobos rise in the west and just stared until it finally set in the east. Deimos has been in the sky for a day and a half, but it’s tumbling west now. I’ll always miss my Maggie. On our next trip north, we plan to bury Sue. Day 200: Our store of water is good. It’s all good. If we had a campfire, we’d sing Kumbayah. If we had something


other than chicken-paste to eat, we’d be in heaven. NASA wants to know if there’s bigger fish. One of their scientists said if there’s brine shrimp, there’s bigger fish, maybe a whole food-chain. Maybe next Friday, we’ll have a fish-fry. That would be nice.

Day 210: There are fish that are small and translucent. NASA is shocked. They asked us if we could cautiously taste one, just in case we run out of food, or there’s some emergency. We’re just wondering how they taste. If we can get some back to the ship, we’re going to make stew out of

them. We’re all chickened-out. Day 230: The fish taste like fish. We just dip in our net and pull up things that are the size of catfish, and look even uglier. NASA’s last transmission was garbled but it was a warning of some sort. We’re not worried – after all, what harm can a fish do?

Conjured Food: a Herald’s Commercial Robert William Shmigelsky

“Conjured food and drink created with the wave of a wand or the raise of a stick accompanied by a chant then a cast. That which is envisioned appears on the table– meats for a feast, mead and wine, baskets of fruit, delicious desserts.” “Conjured food and drink flavors, textures to savor—like real food. Only cheap, easy to make.” Lowering stone tablet to address the crowd, the herald read the following disclaimer: “Due to the volatile nature of these products, wizards, and any other spell caster, are not liable for any unintended side effects. If problems persist, please consult your nearest cleric immediately.”


Meadow Munchies from Thorndancer Recipes created by Jaleta Clegg Thorndancer written by Gary Petras and published by Toy Box Books

Thorndancer is a white skunk who longs to know the world outside his narrow field. The story is reminiscent of Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, with talking animals and a world that only peripherally intersects the human one. I didn’t expect to like the book, it was a children’s story. But in the gentle strength of the hero, I found pathos, humor, and a genuinely likable story. My nine year-old son adored the book. This brunch menu is based on ideas inspired by the book. -Jaleta Clegg

Calirose Star 2 c. warm water Filling: 1 T. dry yeast OR 1 pkg dry yeast 1/3 c. sugar 1/2 c. brown sugar 2 t. salt 2 t. fresh orange zest 1/4 c. butter 1 t. cinnamon 1/4 c. powdered milk 1 egg 4 - 6 c. flour

1/4 c. melted butter

70


Dissolve yeast and sugar in water. Let sit for 10 minutes. Add salt, butter, powdered milk, egg, and 2 c. flour. Beat smooth. Add enough remaining flour to make a soft dough. Knead for 5 minutes until smooth and elastic. Cover and let rise for about one hour, until doubled in size. Roll out dough into rectangle approximately 10 x 20 inches. Spread with melted butter. Mix brown sugar, orange zest, and cinnamon. Sprinkle over the dough. Roll up from the long side. Cut roll into approximately 15 rounds. Arrange 5 in a circle on a greased baking sheet, leaving about 1 inch between. Arrange remaining ten in a larger circle, forming a flower. Cover and let rise for 30 minutes. Bake at 375° for 20 - 25 minutes, until rolls are golden brown. Let cool on baking sheet for 30 minutes. Mix 2 c. powdered sugar, 1/4 c. melted butter, 1/4 c. orange juice, and 1 t. vanilla. Drizzle over flower. Serve warm.

Berry Coconut Parfait 1 16 oz. can lite coconut milk 1/2 c. sugar 2 c. whipped cream or whipped topping 1/4 c. cornstarch 1/2 t. nutmeg 4 c. assorted berries, washed, hulled, and sliced as appropriate Recommended: 1 c. blueberries, 1 c. raspberries, 2 c. strawberries Mix sugar, cornstarch, and nutmeg in medium saucepan. Stir in coconut milk. Cook and stir over medium heat until mixture thickens and boils. Boil and stir for one minute. Remove from heat and cool, stirring every few minutes. When pudding is at room temperature, fold in whipped cream. Arrange berries in serving bowls. Spoon pudding mixture over each serving. Garnish with fresh mint or toasted coconut if desired.

White Valley Salad Dressing: 1/2 c. mayonnaise 1 T. finely minced red onion 1/4 c. milk 1 t. dried parsley 1/2 t. salt 1/2 t. dried thyme 1/2 t. pepper Mix together. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours to let flavors blend. 4 d’Anjou pears, cored, cut into chunks 1 T. lemon juice 1/2 c. blue cheese, crumbled 1/2 c. pecans, toasted 4 c. mixed greens Toss pears, blue cheese, and pecans with lemon juice. Arrange greens on serving platter, add pear mixture on top. Serve with dressing.

71


Wizards and Wanderers

Book Three in the Sojourn Chronicles

by Crystalwizard Chapter One

The sun shone through the translucent leaves of the trees, washing the glade with silver and gold. Faran opened one eye and sat up. Bleh, he thought as he rubbed away sleep. I really hate mornings. He reached over and poked Rik in the ribs, provoking a grunt. “Get up, lazy.” Faran commanded, poking Rik again. “I ain’t lazy,” Rik grumbled, struggling to sit up. “I’m not lazy,” Faran corrected. “Yeah you are,” Rik grinned and ducked out of the way of Faran’s swipe. He stood up and stretched. Faran rolled up his blanket and rose to his feet. “At least the ground’s not quite as hard with these mats Aeri bought.” “How come you complain all the time?” Rik asked as he walked over to the table. Faran tied his bedroll securely, dropped it beside his backpack and joined Rik at the table. “I don’t complain all the time.” He slid onto the bench and reached for a basket of breadsticks. “Yeah you do,” Rik pulled one of the fruit bowls over and started searching through it. “Foods too hot, too cold, wrong kind, ground’s hard, it’s wet, it’s hot, it’s cold... ” He looked at Faran and shook his head. “You ain’t got nuttin’ to gripe about,

you jest think you do.” Faran’s face clouded and he pulled his hand back from the basket. “You spend a couple years,” Rik said as he pulled an apple from the bowl and rubbed it on his shirt. “Eatin’ one meal every couple days an’ sleeping in fits cause yer too scared to sleep at all.” He locked eyes with Faran. “Then you got a reason to gripe.” He bit into the apple and started chewing. Faran picked an orange out of the fruit bowl and looked at it. “I couldn’t do that, I get too hungry.” He peeled a strip of rind from the orange and dropped it on the grass. Rik picked a bit of apple skin from between his teeth and nodded. “I did too, only…” he took another bite out of the apple. “Ya can’t eat if there ain’t no food and yer locked in yer room with no way out.” He looked at Faran for a moment and turned away. “You ain’t got nothin’ to complain about.” Faran stared at Rik, and his thoughts went back to the castle where he’d lived most of his life. “Please your lordship,” a quaking servant begged. “The bath is just as you ordered. The girls worked all day picking the finest petals off of daisies to float on the water. It will be cold if you 73

don’t come now.” Faran flew into a rage. “You imbicile! I said Marigolds! Not Daisies! If I wanted Daisies, I’d have said Daisies!” He backhanded the servant and flung open his chamber door. “Guards!” He whirled around, snatched a heavy vase from a nearby stand and flung it at the servant. The servant ducked and the vase shattered against the wall as the guards dashed into the room. Faran rounded on them and pointed at the servant. “Take this idiot, and the three in the bathroom, to the dungeons! And next time, move faster when I call!” The guards dragged the whimpering servant away and Faran snatched up another vase and sent it crashing through a full length mirror. “I will not be disobeyed! This castle is full of imbeciles and miscreants! I will have every single one of their heads!” Faran stared at the table, his cheeks burning in shame and shook his head. “I don’t know if I can ever face anyone back home again,” he muttered. “How could I have acted like that? No wonder everyone despised me.” “My Lord, please!” A young servant begged, falling to his knees. “I meant no disrespect. Please, Lord; I only brought you the food you commanded!” Faran glared at a tray


laden with fancy delicacies that had been placed before him on the table. Delicacies he had demanded, prepared exactly the way he had ordered. He swept the tray off of the table and sent it crashing to the floor, stood, and slapped the servant across the face. “It’s wrong! You set it on the table upside down!” He snatched a cane from the stand by the door and began pummeling the servant with it while the man cowered before him. Faran dropped his head in his hands as memories played out in his mind. “You’re right,” he said and wiped tears from his face. “I’ve never had anything to complain about. I just did. All the time.” He got up without waiting for Rik’s response and walked away from the table. He strode across the glade and stood looking into Bethraven’s fountain at his reflection. Someone should have slapped me years ago, he thought. Why did they let me act like that? Because, his wiser-self whispered, you’re the Baron’s son and they didn’t have the right to tell you how to act. He stared down into the fountain for a long time, then turned and looked around the glade. Everyone else was up and engaged in various activities. He walked over to where Dale was standing and waited silently to be noticed. Dale ignored Faran for a few seconds, then glanced around at him. “Yes?” Faran dropped to one knee and put his head down, ashamed of himself and unable to voice it. Dale blinked and put his hand on Faran’s shoulder. “Faran? What’s wrong?” “I’m sorry,” Faran’s voice

cracked and he shook his head. He squeezed his eyes shut and fought with the flood of tears that suddenly threatened to break free. Dale looked down at Faran, confused. “What for?” “Everything.” Faran stared at the ground and shook his head. “Everything I’ve ever done. I can’t…I can’t ever go home. I can’t ever make up for what I’ve done to all the people back there.” Dale patted Faran on the shoulder. “Faran, look at me.” Faran looked up, wiping the water from his eyes. “What brought this on?” “Rik. He asked me why I was always complaining about everything this morning. I started thinking. I hate myself!” Dale searched Faran’s expression for a moment then nodded. “Stand up. Let’s take a walk.” Faran rose to his feet and followed Dale through the trees. They walked in silence until the land began to slope downward and the trees came to an end. Below them, they could see a shining lake and beyond it stretching away into the distance, the graygreen vegetation of the swamps. “Everyone,” Dale said as he gazed out over the valley, “does things that they later regret, acts foolishly and misbehaves. Some of us don’t know any better. Some do. In your case you thought you should behave as you did. Now,” Dale turned and looked into Faran’s eyes, “you realize that what you did was wrong. That’s good. That shows you’ve learned and are changing.” He dropped a gentle hand on Faran’s shoulder. “It takes more courage to admit you’ve done wrong, face someone you’ve hurt and work to 74

make things right, than it does to swing your sword and mow down a charging dragon. Especially if you are the one in charge, but a true leader puts his people ahead of himself and if an apology is necessary, he makes it rather than give in to pride.” “But I’m not a leader.” “Yes, you are. Even if you never take your father’s throne, you are a leader. That’s evident in how you handle yourself with Rik. It won’t be easy to go home, but you’re still young and have a lot of growing up to do, first. The fact you feel remorse over your actions shows you’ve taken a large step in that direction. I’m proud of you.” Faran nodded and took a deep breath. “Thank you,” he replied. “That means a lot.” -+Bethraven was waiting by the fountain when they returned and smiled in greeting. “Your journey is still long,” she said, gazing around at the company scattered about the glade, “but mayhap it will be easy for yet a few weeks. From here you must take the road to the lake, then curve north around its banks. Do not follow it all the way to the swamp. Instead, you will come to a second road that leaves the lake and runs toward the distant mountains. Follow that and it will lead you to the ocean in the west, but be warned -- the way is long and fraught with danger. You will be fortunate to see the waves err this year is over many months from now.” “Thank you,” Dale said and gave Bethraven a short bow. “Your hospitality has been most appreciated. Is there anything you would have us do, to repay


you?”

Bethraven shook her head and smiled. “I thank you for your offer,” she said as she faded from view, “but there is nothing that I need. Safe journey and may the moon smile upon your destination.” Dale stood motionless for several seconds after she vanished then went to his horse and opened the saddlebags. He pulled out a small, cloth covered object and walked over to the table with it. “Everyone come here please.” He sat down on the bench, pulled the cloth off of the globe Rommalt had given him, held it up and waited as the others gathered around the table. “What’s that?” Kheri asked. “It’s a globe.” Faran moved to stand behind Dale and peered over his shoulder. “A what?” “A globe. A small version of the world we’re riding across.” Kheri leaned across the

table to get a closer look. “That’s what the world looks like?” “Yes. And this little red spot is where we are now.” Dale pointed to a small glowing dot on the globe. He turned the globe around and pointed at a large, roughly circular area of white bordered by a brown ring, “This is the land where King Yaybar is. To get there,” he rotated the globe and pointed out various features as he talked. “We have to cross this desert, which should be on the other side of the mountains Bethraven just mentioned. Then we have to get past this second set of mountains and sail over this.” “What’s that?” Rik asked, pointing at the large, blue area which covered most of the globe. “Water.” Dale held the globe out so Rik could get a closer look. “That’s the ocean.” “Don’t look wet.” “It’s not. This isn’t the real world, it’s just a map.” “Oh.” Rik sat down on the bench and tried not to look

confused. Dale grinned at him and continued the explanation. “It should take us a couple of weeks or so to travel from here to the first set of mountains. After that, we’ll see. Hopefully it won’t take too long before we reach the ocean, regardless of what Bethraven just said.” He wrapped the globe in the cloth and rose from the table. “If nothing goes wrong, I’m hoping to reach Yaybar’s land in a few months.” “If the Gorg don’t figure out how to sink the ship,” Jarl muttered as he walked over to his horse. “Or something else doesn’t come along.” Dale made a face in Jarl’s direction and swung into the saddle. The company followed suit and set off through the trees, leaving the fountain bubbling softly behind them on the empty lawn.

Chapter Two The company rode out from under the trees and began the descent down a small rise toward a deep blue lake shimmering in the sun. The road curved gently around the edge of the lake past cattails growing in the shallows and lily pads floating on its surface. Fish could be seen every now and again, darting just below the surface or leaping for flies, and the scent of moss hung in the air. The company followed the road for several hours until it forked, turned left onto the western road and left the lake behind, urging the horses to a gallop toward the

distant mountains. The valley plain was pleasant, covered with thick bluegreen grass waving in the soft breezes, splattered with color from patches of pink, blue and yellow wildflowers and dotted with closely packed stands of fir trees. Birds filled the sky during the day and the sound of crickets serenaded the night. The mountains drew steadily closer, looming over the landscape, and Bethraven’s glade became a pale memory from a distant past. The company entered the rocky foothills at the beginning 75

of the fourth week and began to climb toward jagged peaks that jutted into the sky at odd, sharp angles like broken teeth made of obsidian. As the sun set and the shadow of the mountain fell across the road, Rik felt a shiver run down his spine and shuddered. “Summin’ bad’s gonna happen’,” he muttered. “That mountain’s evil.” Dale reined his horse a short time later and led the company off the road into a small hollow. The sun fled from the sky a short while later and stars began to twinkle. Dinner was over, the


pans stowed away and Rik was sitting on a rock not far from the fire, staring up at the deep black shadow the mountain had become. He sat for a while, then got up and walked over to Faran. “I gotta talk to you.” He plopped down on Faran’s blanket and sat picking at a fingernail. Faran put down his whetstone and laid his sword to the side. “What’s wrong?” “That mountain,” Rik pointed up into the darkness. “We go up there an’ someone’s gonna die.” “We don’t have a choice. That’s where the road goes.” Faran picked his whetstone back up. “No one’s gonna die.” “Yeah they are.” Faran paused as he reached for his sword and peered at Rik. Rik look sideways at Faran. “I seen the skull.” “What skull?” Rik turned his head and locked gazes with Faran. “The floatin’ skull. With burnin’ eyes.” Rik’s voice made Faran’s hair stand on end. He put the whetstone back down and stood. “Come on,” he said and picked his sword up. “You need to tell this to Dale.” -+The boys found Dale and Aerline sitting on a boulder not far from camp. Faran walked around in front of them and pointed at Rik. “Dale, can you talk to Rik? Please?” Dale nodded and looked over at Rik. “What’s wrong?” Rik shrugged and scuffed a toe against the ground. He looked around at the mountain, shrugged again and mumbled something. Dale slid off the

boulder and helped Aerline down. She smiled at him and put her hand on Faran’s arm. “Come on Faran, walk back to camp with me.” Faran glanced up at Dale, then reluctantly accompanied Aerline back to camp. Dale waited until they were out of earshot and turned to Rik. “What’s going on?” Rik tossed another look over his shoulder at the darkness. “Can’t we go ‘round the mountain?” “Not really. Why?” “Cause if we go up there, someone’s gonna die.” Dale’s eyebrows rose and he folded his arms. “Explain.” “I seen the skull. I don’t see it ‘cept when someone’s gonna die.” “What skull is this?” “It floats,” Rik said with a shudder, “and its eyes burn. An’ then someone dies.” He hugged his arms across his chest and stared down at the ground. “I seen it when Gramp’s died years back,” he whispered. “Seen it ag’in a couple years ago and Murch took a sword through ‘is gut. Seen it tonight…lookin’ down at me from the top of a tree…” Rik screamed, flung his arms over his head and dropped to the ground, shaking in terror. Dale hit his force field, activated his sensors and scanned the mountain. Strange, arcane energies painted red swirls across the display. A dark red whirlpool swirled directly above Rik. Dale deactivated the sensors, reached his hand into the whirlpool and froze, staring open mouthed at a huge floating skull, with flaming eyes and an open mouth full of pointed teeth, that had materialized in the air above Rik. 76

Flames shot out of its eye-sockets and it snapped its jaw closed and vanished. Dale flinched and jerked his hand back. He shivered, glanced up at the mountain, and reached for Rik’s arm. “Get up, Rik.” “I seen it comin’ right at me!” Rik’s voice shook. He rose to his feet with Dale’s assistance. “I know. I saw it. It’s gone now.” “It ain’t gone!” Rik shook his head. “It’s up there…waitin’.” He turned and stared up at the dreadful mountain. “It’s waitin’ for me…” Faran walked back to camp with Aerline, his face set in a worried frown. She stepped into the firelight, turned to face him and put her hands on her hips. “What exactly is going on?” “Rik thinks that if we go up the mountain someone’s gonna get killed,” Faran said. He looked over his shoulder into the woods toward the boulder. “What in the world makes him think that?” “I don’t know. He told me he saw a floating skull, but I didn’t see anything.” Kas looked up, distracted by the discussion. The fire he was molding flared as his attention slipped and splattered his face. He howled and fell over backward, thrashing about on the ground. Jarl sprang to his feet, grabbed a blanket and ran to Kas. He dropped the blanket over Kas’ head and smothered the fire then pulled the blanket away. “Don’t move!” he commanded and ran to the horses. “Jarl?” Aerline looked around from her conversation with Faran. “What’s wrong?” Jarl ignored her and dug


frantically through the tack. Aerline frowned at Jarl’s back, then noticed Kas curled on the ground. She ran to Kas’ side and dropped to her knees. As she placed her hand on Kas’ arm, Bethraven’s face appeared -her gentle smile filling Aerline’s mind. Softly spoken words drifted through Aerline’s thoughts and she relaxed. Holding her hands out above Kas, she began whispering, repeating the words as Bethraven spoke. Her hands began to sparkle and glow with a soft, silvery radiance. The light spread quickly from her finger tips and the angry red welts covering Kas’ face vanished; Aerline spoke the last word, opened her eyes and smiled gently down at her patient. Kas looked up at her in wonder. “You were glowing,” he whispered. “Like those trees by the fountain.” Aerline sat back on her heels and rested her hands on her knees. “Do you still hurt anywhere?” “No.” Kas shook his head and sat up. “I’m fine. Jarl sighed in relief as Kas sat up, walked over and frowned down at his bondsman. “What happened a few minutes ago?” Kas winced and looked up at Jarl. “I got distracted and the fire exploded.” The frown deepened. “From now on, until you master

that stuff, you don’t even think about messing with it unless I’m watching. Hear me?” Kas nodded quickly. “Yes sir.” -+Kaowin looked down from the top of a nearby tree and watched as Aerline healed Kas, then leaned against the trunk and gazed up at the stars. An owl sailed past and Kaowin sucked in a startled breath, then lost himself in its flight, oblivious to the rest of the world. Dale and Rik rejoined the group a few moments later and Dale walked over to Kaowin’s tree. “Down Kao,” he called, looking up into the branches. “I need to talk to everyone.” “I’m right here,” Kaowin’s voice said from behind Dale. Dale turned his head and peered at a grinning Kaowin. “You weren’t. Where’s Kheri?” Kaowin pointed into the darkness. “In the bushes. Watering the grass.” “Hurry it up Kheri,” Dale called, “I need to talk to you. Now.” “I’m hurrying!” Kheri’s voice responded from somewhere nearby. “Give me a second.” Dale walked over to the campfire and stared into it, thinking. He waited for Kheri, then turned to regard the company. “There is something evil on that mountain, however we cannot go back to Villenspell and try to find

another route, so we will have to traverse the pass. If you see so much as a shadow that looks out of place, tell me, tell Jarl and be ready for an attack.” “Just because Rik thought he saw a floating skull?” Faran exclaimed. “Yes.” Dale held his hand up and turned it around so everyone could see the back. A line of red dots traveled from one side to the other. “A floating skull with sharp, pointed teeth that bit me.” Faran stared at Dale’s hand and shuddered, then turned to Rik. “Sorry Rik, I should’ve believed you. I thought you were seeing things.” “Never had nobody believe me before,” Rik shrugged. “Weren’t surprised you didn’t.” -+The company settled down for the night and fell into an uneasy slumber. The moon rose several hours later and shone down upon the mountain, its light glancing off of the rocks and weather worn crags. Something stirred as the moonlight touched its home. Something so old that it no longer remembered the name men had once whispered in terror. It stepped from a crack and gazed up at the moon, then turned to stare down at the forest below. An evil leer crawled across its face and it cackled, then turned and vanished into the darkness.

Chapter Three Dale watched dawn coloring the sky with delicate pastels and stretched, tired from standing the last watch of the night. What doesn’t kill you, he

thought. And all that rot. What doesn’t kill you, doesn’t always make you stronger, sometimes it leaves you a shivering puddle of goo on the floor. He scowled up at 77

the mountain. Why can’t you just leave us alone? He thought at the world in general. We’re trying to save your sorry self and you keep trying to destroy us! I should just


let the Gorg have you! He closed his eyes and counted to twenty in an attempt to diffuse his anger. I don’t want to explain to Sssversth why I couldn’t stop this invasion, he thought with a shudder, then walked over and shook Jarl awake. “Come on. It’s morning and we need to get underway. Get the others up.” Jarl yawned, threw his blanket off and stood up. “If you’d let me teleport,” he grumbled, “We could go to Yaybar’s castle right now.” “You’d miss and we’d wind up in the sun or something.” “I would not.” Dale crossed his arms and raised an eyebrow. “As I recall, the last time you teleported anywhere a wizard got a hold of you.” “I was random porting on purpose!” “And what about that group of tourists you accidentally dumped into the war room of fleet central?” “Well…” “And the fiasco with the mall. Remember? You ‘ported a charging bull elephant into the middle of the food court?” “Err…” Jarl replied, turning red with embarrassment. “Face it, Jarl. Your teleport is not all that accurate. Have you ever landed where you intended to?” “I usually get close.” “Close in inches or close in galactic standard miles?” “Alright, already,” Jarl growled. “You’ve made your point. I just thought it would save us some time.” “It would, but I don’t want to deal with the extra trouble that it could cause.” “I said alright!” Jarl

turned his back and stalked across the camp to Kas. “Get up!” he snarled, yanking the blanket off his bondsman and kicking him in the leg. Kas started awake and sat up, rubbing his leg. “What’d I do?” “Nothing! Get up and put stuff away so we can get going.” The mountain’s silent threat hung over the company and everyone’s temper was short. Dale put his foot down when Faran backhanded Rik for glaring at him. “Enough!” he barked, his voice cutting sharply through the morning air. “Everyone sit down and close your eyes for sixty seconds, then remember that the enemy is up there,” he pointed at the mountain. “Not down here! Am I clear?” The company settled down reluctantly and finished preparations in silence for the morning’s ride. The mountain grinned at them from high above and a feeling of certain doom filled the air. -+The road climbed above the foothills and entered a series of sharp switch-backs. A feeling of watchfulness grew on the company as they neared the summit and after almost three hours of climbing, the road rounded a large boulder and ran between two onyx cliffs. As they rode into the cut, the quiet plodding of the horses began to echo and a rumbling answered from above. Dale glanced up and reined his horse around. “Back! Fast!” The others turned their horses and urged them to a frantic retreat as rocks thundered down into the pass. They dashed out of the cut accompanied by a 78

deadly spray of granite, reined their horses and turned around. Huge boulders filled the cut and blocked the way completely. Dale dismounted and motioned to Jarl. “Come on, help me clear it.” Jarl grimaced, but swung down from his horse and obeyed. The boulders were packed between the cliff walls and the two men strained for several seconds without result. Dale gave up and bent over, panting. “I swear it’s become part of the mountain again.” Jarl stepped back and drew his blaster, adjusted the beam and fired at one of the boulders. He held the beam steady for a full ten seconds and watched as the rock glowed cherry-red, then lowered the blaster. The red vanished almost instantly. “Nothing! I hit it with enough fire power to blow a scout ship outta the sky!” Dale caught his breath and straightened. “We’re up into the high voltage magic again, or had you forgotten what the tops of these mountains are made of?” Jarl glared up at the rocks. “So now what do we do? We can’t move ‘em and we can’t blow ‘em up.” “We have to find a way around,” Dale said as he turned and walked back to his horse. He reached into the saddle bags and pulled out the globe, turning it around in his hands. “I can’t tell,” he muttered after a few seconds and put the globe back into the saddle bags. “There was a small path that led off this main road before that last curve. We’ll go back there and see where it leads.” He swung up onto his horse and led the company back down the road. -+-


They reached the rocky path a few minutes later and turned up it, winding away from the cut as they climbed higher up the mountain. Ahead of them, two peaks stood like silent sentinels. Dale glanced around and frowned. Jarl, he thought. Did you see anything just now? No, but I feel like something’s watching me. I saw something, Kheri interrupted. Over there, behind that rock. Dale halted the company and sat looking at the rocks. Nothing moved. He activated his sensors and scanned the mountain-side. It flared red and Dale winced and turned it off, then activated his force shield. A second later, the mountainside exploded into activity as a horde of skeletons, armed with rusty swords and bent shields, rose from behind the rocks and advanced from all sides. Dale drew his blaster and fired. Faran swung down, drew his sword and charged at the undead. Rik followed closely behind, snatching up rocks and throwing them as he ran. Jarl vaulted from his horse, shouting for Kheri, and began firing into the undead closing on them from behind. The mountain swirled with movement as the army of skeletons clashed with the company, and the air vibrated with the sounds of battle. -+Kaowin sat on his horse, confused and unsure what to do. As he watched, a skeleton ducked past Jarl and swung its sword toward Kheri’s head. “No!” Kaowin screamed and threw his arms apart. A wave of force whirled out from him in all

directions, flattening everything in its path. Kheri hit the ground as it mowed him over and lay there moaning. Kaowin swung down from his horse and ran to his brother. “Kheri!” he exclaimed, dropping down beside him. “Are you okay?” Kheri pushed himself up on one arm and grimaced. “I think so,” he groaned. “What did you hit me with?” Kaowin stood and helped Kheri to his feet. “I didn’t hit you. I hit the skeleton. It was trying to kill you.” “You hit everything.” Kheri gestured around the mountainside. “Look.” Fragments of bone littered the rocks. Broken swords and crumbled shields lay in disarray, a silent testimony to the power that had washed over them. “I did that?” Kaowin whispered, looking around. “Wow…I was just trying to stop the skeleton that was on top of you.” “You got the skeleton,” Kheri said, rubbing his arm where it had impacted with the ground. “Thanks. I’ll take a sore arm over what could’ve happened.” “That was pretty impressive,” Faran said as he walked up sheathing his sword. “How’d you do that?” “I…” Kaowin wrinkled his nose and shook his head. “I’m not sure. I just didn’t want that thing to exist any more. Ever.” Dale grinned and put his hand on Kaowin’s shoulder. “I think you accomplished that quite well. Let’s get going, before the next round has a chance to materialize.” The path was steep and the horses labored up it, picking their way carefully among the 79

rocks. The day fled past and the sun started its descent into evening with the mountain still looming above them. As twilight fell, the path leveled off and ran across a gentle slope of land. The air was thin and chill, and the tops of the peaks looked more like towers than mountain crags. The company halted and sat looking at what could only be a ruined castle lying directly ahead of them. The walls had fallen in and lay in heaps of rubble, the one remaining tower jutted up out of the middle of the ruin, gesturing impolitely at the sky. Black vines covered with pure white flowers wound in tangles over the wreckage, a foul scent rising from them into the air. Dale closed his eyes and dropped his head in his hands. Why do I get the feeling that I have just made the worst mistake of my life? He turned around in the saddle to look at the others. “We can’t risk riding over this mountain in the dark and it will be hours before the moon rises. We’ll camp here, but no one strays from the fire tonight or goes near those ruins until it is fully light tomorrow morning. Understand me?” The others nodded and swiftly set about making camp. Rik placed his mat right next to Faran’s and slid under his blanket and lay there shivering, staring up at the stars. “You okay?” Faran asked, trying to see Rik’s face in the darkness. Rik shook his head. “No,” he whispered. “I’m scared. I ain’t never been this scared before. Not even when my maw’d bring strangers into my room at night and make ‘em do things to me.” Faran sat up and drew his sword. The runes carved along the


blade glowed with a faint, golden light and he felt protected. He reached over and laid the sword across Rik’s blanket. “There. That’ll keep anything from getting to you tonight. Now go to sleep. The sooner morning gets here, the faster we can get off this hellish mountain.” -+Dale forced himself to pace, fighting the desire to doze. The night air whispered to him of dreams and he leaned against

a rock and gazed at the ruins. The flowers on the vines glowed with an eerie blue light and a mist swirled about the top of the ruined tower. Dale sat down on the rock, closed his eyes and fell asleep. -+Rik lay motionless, staring up at the stars. He could feel the weight of Faran’s sword on top of his blanket but it did nothing to make him feel safe. He was wide awake and fear was growing in him, pushing at him to race screaming down the mountain.

He fought for a while, then threw his blanket back and stood. His gaze fell upon the ruined tower and he stared at the glistening forms floating around it. He stood entranced as the ghostly figures drifted nearer, weaving silently about him in a soundless dance. A pale girl reached out a transparent hand and touched him on the face. His eyes rolled back in his head and he swayed, then followed blindly as the spirits led him to the ancient castle and down into its bowels.

Chapter Four Faran’s dreams were restless. He was running through winding corridors, and ruined tunnels, searching for something. He peeked through dark doorways and peered under rocks that leered at him with evil faces. A nameless fear gripped him and he whirled to see only the darkness. A wall loomed in front of him and he sought down its length for a door. Skeletons popped into existence behind him and chased him through a winding hall as he fled into a dead-end. He threw his arms over his head as the skeletons advanced, their swords glowing with a sickly green light. He backed away and bumped into the wall and it gave way and he fell, tumbling down a slope into thick mud while horrifying laughter echoed in his ears. He struggled to his knees and stared up at a monstrous skeleton reaching down for him, blood dripping off the tips of its claws. He screamed as its hand closed around him and thrashed wildly.

“Faran!” The world shuddered and came apart. The first rays of the sun were streaming over the horizon and Dale was shaking him. Faran opened his eyes and threw his arms around Dale, clutching tightly as the dream faded into the night. He held on for almost a minute, then took a shaky breath and sat up. “I had a horrible dream,” he whispered. “I was trapped and there were skeletons after me.” Dale took Faran gently by the shoulders. “You were screaming. I’ve been trying to wake you for ten minutes.” Faran shuddered and hugged his arms across his chest. “It was so real. I couldn’t get away. I couldn’t get out.” “It’s over now. Are you going to be alright?” “I don’t know,” Faran replied, shaking his head. “I think so.” He looked down at his mat and turned red. “I think I need to wash my blankets.” 80

Dale grinned and stood. “We’ll worry about that later. Wake Rik and let’s get off this mountain as fast as we can.” Faran nodded and stretched, then turned to the pile of blankets on Rik’s mat and shook it. A ghost shot up into the air with an evil cackle, then wailed and vanished as the sun struck it. Faran stared at the empty mat where Rik had gone to sleep. “Dale!” Faran shouted in panic, ripping the blanket off the mat. Dale whirled and ran back to him. “What?” “Rik’s gone,” Faran exclaimed, holding up the empty blanket. “There was a ghost, or something, in his bed! He’s gone!” Dale stared at Rik’s empty mat, spun around and scowled at the ruined castle, a chill running through him. “Up,” he commanded Faran. “We have to go after him. I just hope it’s not too late.” “No,” Jarl said as he


buckled his dagger onto his belt and made ready to enter the ruins. “You are staying here with the horses. Someone has to and we need everyone else for this onslaught.” “I’m not arguing,” Kas protested, “I just don’t know what good I’ll do against a ghost…or skeleton.” “Kas, we need Faran with us. He’s the only one that can use that magical sword of his. We need Aerline, in case Rik’s hurt when we find him. I could leave the horses under Kheri’s guard, but Kao would insist on staying behind and that’s trouble whether the undead show up or not. That leaves me and Dale. Which of us would you rather stayed here?” Kas dropped his eyes and nodded. “Sorry,” he mumbled, “I’ll stay. Just don’t get killed in there.” “I have no intention of getting killed in there,” Jarl promised. “Trust me.” “I trust you…I just don’t trust that.” Kas threw a nervous glance at the ruins, turned the horses and began saddling them. -+The company made their way cautiously toward the castle ruins. Dale growled as his force shield flickered and stopped functioning. Jarl, is your equipment working? Jarl checked his sensors then shook his head. No. Everything’s dead. Dale narrowed his eyes, reattached his blaster to his belt and drew his sword. Jarl followed suit, drawing one his knives. I have a very bad feeling about this. You spend entirely too

much time watching old movies, came Dale’s terse thought. -+Aerline stopped as they neared the outer walls and shook her head. “We can’t go this way. The entrance is over there.” She pointed at the other side of the ruins. “We have to go in there.” She led the way to a large pile of rubble and pointed at it. “The entrance is under there.” Dale looked at her, sheathed his sword and turned to Jarl. “Help me with this.” Jarl sighed, sheathed his dagger, and began moving stones out of the way. They worked silently for several minutes and at last the entrance once more received the light of day. Tightly closed bronze doors, set flush against jet black walls, blocked the entrance to the castle. Aerline stepped forward, grasped the large onyx knocker attached to the right hand door, lifted it up and let it fall. A deep booming sounded as the knocker crashed down, echoing away into the distance and the door swung open on silent hinges. Aerline took a deep breath, turned and faced the rest of the company. “Welcome,” she said, her voice tense, “to the home of Master Necromancer, L’yrthaivich. It appears he is expecting us.” “Any idea what kind of reception this mage has waiting for us?” Jarl asked, looking past Aerline into the darkness of the ruined castle. “All sorts of undead, I’m sure. He, and his castle,” Aerline gestured through the open door, “are legendary. We had an entire semester at college dealing with him. He was the terror of the 81

darkness and he forced everyone within range to pay a terrible tax. Once a year, he demanded a young boy or girl from each village. If the village didn’t comply, he would send his armies of undead and take every person he could capture until everyone fled and the lands were left desolate. It would be wise if someone that could actually mount a defense against magic went first.” “Faran,” Dale said as he stepped to the side. “Take point. And be very careful.” “Yes sir.” Faran tightened his grasp on his sword and moved to the front. “Kao,” Dale continued, turning to face the twins. “You are rear-guard. Kindly do not flatten the rest of us with that magic of yours. Kheri stay with him and watch out for anything that he might overlook. Aeri, Jarl and I will stay center,” Dale finished, tightening his grip on his sword. “Let’s go and everyone please remember; we are here to find Rik not rid the world of a necromancer. Our focus is to get in there, get him and get back out as fast as we possibly can.” The company readied itself, stepped over the threshold and entered the Necromancer’s lair. Darkness became gloom and they moved carefully down the ancient hallway. The castle had survived the ravages of time remarkably well. The outside walls had fallen, but inside everything was mostly intact and the furnishings still stood where they had been placed centuries before, covered by a thick layer of dust. Near the end of the hall, a clear set of footprints leading from a break in the wall to a closed door could be seen.


Faran glanced at the prints, strode to the door and opened it. A shriek echoed through the castle and several ghosts flew out into the hall, magic flashing through the air as they raised their arms. Faran reacted without thought and slashed his sword through the closest ghost. It wailed and dissipated as the blade severed its arcane bindings. Faran reversed the swing, slicing through the second ghost with his backstroke and shoved the point into the third. “We’re going to need light,” Kheri said, peering through the opened doorway. “I can’t see anything in there.” “Torches,” Dale reached for a sconce on the wall. “If they can still burn.” He grasped the torch nearest the door and tugged. With a grinding sound, the floor began to shift. It tilted rapidly to the side, and the company found themselves sliding down a steep incline. The floor become a wall and they were thrown off, falling into the darkness below. -+Jarl’s reflexes took over and he teleported, dragging the company along in his wake. Stone materialized under them and they fell on top of each other in a tumbled heap. I want light! Kaowin thought in panic as he sat up. With a sudden, blinding flare, the area within five feet of him was lit by a small ball of radiance floating a few feet over his head. The others untangled themselves and sat up, rubbing places bruised by the abrupt landing. “Where are we?” Faran asked, looking around. “Not very far from where

we were,” Jarl said as he stood and stared up into the darkness above them. “I don’t have any range and almost no power this close to the mountain’s summit. I just moved us straight down so we didn’t have to fall the full distance.” “Couldn’t you have gone up instead?” “And land on what?” Dale asked as he regained his feet. “The floor wasn’t there.” “Oh yeah. Can you go up now?” Jarl turned around and looked at Faran. “The floor still isn’t there and that took just about everything I had.” Aerline stood and assisted Kheri to his feet. “If everyone’s ok, we should be looking for a way out. I can’t heal starvation.” The others readjusted their equipment and stood looking around at the darkness, which stretched away on all sides from the edge of Kaowin’s light. “Listen!” Jarl hissed, holding up his hand. The faint sounds of something shuffling could clearly be heard. Dale grabbed Aerline by the hand, put her behind him and readied his sword. Faran stepped to the side, dropping into guard stance. Jarl moved to stand on the other side of Aerline, gripping his dagger and trying to see into the darkness. Kheri took a deep breath and looked at Kaowin. His twin looked back at him and frowned. The shuffling got louder and Kaowin found himself turning nervously around, franticly trying to see what was behind him. The darkness seemed like something living, menacing him with its hidden terrors. “Go away!” he 82

yelled, flinging his arms over his head. The darkness vanished as every surface within fifty feet of him erupted into brilliance. The mummies that had slowly been advancing on the company stopped, then began moving erratically. Kheri’s mouth dropped open. “That was effective,” he said, blinking tears from his eyes. “But did you have to make it so bright?” “Yes.” Kaowin crossed his arms and gave a firm nod of his head. “I don’t like it dark.” -+Faran lowered his sword and stood watching the confused mummies. Two of them had bumped into each other and had their hands wrapped tightly around each other’s throat. Three more had run into walls and were walking in place, seemingly unaware that there was a solid surface in their way. The last mummy was wandering about the center of the room, stopping, backing up and turning invisible corners. Faran looked over at Dale who was watching the undead. “Should I go kill ‘em?” Dale chuckled at the mummies and shook his head. “No. Let’s just get out of here.” -+The room was almost fifty feet wide and forty feet long with a single door on one end. The company skirted the mummies and made their way toward the door. Dale motioned everyone to the side and turned Kheri. “See if you can find any reason not to open this.” Kheri squatted down in front of the door and examined it. “There’s a wire. I can’t tell what


it does, but it doesn’t look all that healthy.” “Do you think you can disarm it?” Kheri pulled a small, leather bundle out of his shirt. “I can try. Back up though, in case I miss.” He waited until everyone was out of the way and unwrapped the bundle. This is not going to be fun, he thought forcing himself to ignore the feeling of nervousness gnawing at his stomach. He selected a small tool and cautiously removed a pin near one of the hinges. Working carefully, he extracted several more pins along the other hinges, pulled a different tool out of the bundle and began detaching a fine wire that ran around the outside of the door frame. A click sounded as he pulled the wire loose and he flinched, but nothing happened. He dropped the wire on the floor and stepped back. “It’s disarmed. Still locked though and I don’t have the tools to open it. You’ll have to break it down.” He moved out of the way, leaned against the wall and put his tools away. “Just what we needed,” Jarl grumbled, moving to stand in front of the door. “A nice, loud noise to warn everything that we’re here.” “Everything already knows we’re here,” Dale said as he stepped next to his partner. They exchanged glances and hit the door in unison. The lock gave way with a loud crack, the hinges ripped free of the door frame and the door flew across the hall, smashed into the wall and crashed to the floor. Dale whirled and looked back at the mummies who were still wandering in oblivious confusion, while Jarl leapt into the hall and glanced around. Dale

relaxed and stepped out into the hall beside Jarl. “Anything?” “No, but I can’t tell how long this hall is. There could be something lurking down there.” -+Faran took point once more and led the way down the hall. As he turned a final corner, he found himself looking at a familiar pile of rubble. He stopped and peered into the darkness. “This is my dream,” he whispered and turned around to face Dale. “This is what I was dreaming about when you woke me up this morning. Rik’s lower and there’s a door at the end of this hall that you can’t see till you lean on it. There’s skeletons and stuff waiting down there too, but that’s where we gotta go.” “I’m sure they know we’re here,” Jarl said as he stepped past Faran. “Let’s give ‘em a little surprise.” He picked up a large rock from the rubble and sent it rolling down the hall into the darkness. There was a loud clattering crash then a thud as the rock collided with several unseen objects. He snatched up another large rock and threw it, then followed with several smaller rocks at full strength. There was a huge explosion as the last rock sailed into the darkness and the room shook. “What did you throw?” Dale asked, looking at his partner in surprise. “A rock,” Jarl said and stared at the rubble. “At least, I thought it was.” The company picked their way across the fragments of bone littering the hall, testimony to Jarl’s well placed rocks. The end of the hall was now a gaping hole with shattered stone scattered 83

across the floor and the hidden door hanging partially off its hinges. Faran looked through the opening and nodded. “It goes down, but in my dream it was a slope with mud at the bottom, not steps.” Dale stepped past him and studied the stair case. “It’s narrow and cracked in places. We go down, and we’ll have to do so single file. I can’t tell if there’s anything down there, but expect traps and probably a welcoming committee.” Faran nodded and cautiously set off down the stairs, testing each step with his sword point before he committed himself to it. The others followed him warily, with Kaowin bringing up the rear.

Want to know what happens? Pick up your copy of Wizards and Wanders by Crystalwizard today! Wizards and Wanders, book 3 of the Sojourn Chronicles is available from bookstores everywhere or from Ancient Tomes press at http://www. greatfantasybooks.com/


The Sojourn Chronicles An epic, world-spanning science fiction/fantasy series from Crystalwizard

Now available from Ancient Tomes Press http://www.greatfantasybooks.com/

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Abandoned Towers Magazine #7  

Abandoned Towers Magazine #7

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