The Gibbet Inn

Darza and Aria’s travels takes them to Sentinel Forest and Keor. All seems well for once, but as they prepare to bed down in an inn, they find the Bringer of Morning has generals stationed at the same inn. And one of them has taken an interest in Darza.

The Gibbet InnI

They came upon the first corpse a mile inside Sentinel Forest.

He swung beneath the limb of an oak tree. The crows had been at work on his face, and wolves had taken their share of his lower legs. Only bones and tatters remained below his knees.

“What’s wrong with his veins?” Darza asked. Her hand went to the sword at her hip.

Aria looked up. The hanged man’s veins were thick as hempen rope and darker than soot. His jaw hung by a thread, pecked at by carrion crows. “The Lord of Morning,” Aria said. “This is his work.”

Continue reading “The Gibbet Inn”

The Dark One’s Lady

Men had tried to assault Aria in a back alley. Darza had come in time to see her eyes turn milky white. She’d snapped a man’s neck with a look. The others had spat names at her. “Shepherd of Night,” they called her. “Dark Queen,” and, “The Dark One Reborn.”

Which she was, but Aria never liked being called that.

From there, the minds of Shepherds before her started whispering in her head. From what Aria had said, she gathered that the argument was quite convincing.

Convincing enough to reduce Winespring to rubble.

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The Dark One’s Lady

The Shepherd of Night and her lover entered Aysgarth in search of an inn. “Will we make it out alive?” the Shepherd, Aria, asked.

“I hope so,” Darza said. She squeezed her hand. “We’ll be okay, darling.”

“I’m not sure about that. I think you say that to make me feel safe.”

“I’m sworn to protect you.”

“You’ve taken no vows.”

“Oh, hush.”

Aria drew her hood over her head. “There will be a storm soon.”

“I can smell it.”

“Like metal.”

“Yes.”

Thunder boomed overhead. Aria nestled her head against Darza’s shoulder. “When do you think Mattias will be back?”

“Soon enough, sweetling.”

“Nobody would attack us with Mattias around.”

Nobody will attack you with me around, Darza thought. She thought to the ancient proverb Mattias had taught her. Where the Shepherd of Night goes, her Lions follow.

She caught an elderly passerby eyeing her. She made sure to display the sword at her hip, wordlessly. Her travels had made her all-too familiar with ogling eyes. Most people in the land were white as parchment, and rarely ever got a chance to see a woman with such a dark complexion. They found it exotic.

Darza found it annoying. Men of four decades should not be looking at one who has not seen two.

The two wove through the crowds in an attempt to find shelter before the storm. “Do you have money, princess?”

Aria slapped Darza playfully on the arm. “I told you not to call me that!”

“That doesn’t answer my question.”

“I can buy us a room for the night.”

Darza nodded. She glanced at an inn down the road. Paint chipped off the sign so that whatever picture once adorned it was long gone. She could just descry the words, The Silver Serpent. “Will that do for the night?” She pointed.

Aria nodded.

“Then let me go in alone for a moment.”

“Alone? But what am I to do?”

Darza looked her lover in the eyes and kissed her. When they parted, she was close enough to feel the Aria’s breath on her lips. She smiled, and her lover mirrored it. “I’m sure you’ll think of something. I won’t be long.”

Her entrance into The Silver Serpent was greeted by a smell like mildew and something of the privy.

The only drinkers were three Valuri seamen in a corner, growling at each other in a rough language that was alien to Darza.

The proprietor came as soon as she sat down. She was a woman, round and pale as though she had been sculpted from dough.

Darza bought a cup of wine. “I’m looking for a man called Averon Thorn,” she said.

“Averon Thorn? Comes in most every night.”

“If you would nod when he comes in I’d be thankful.”

The proprietor bit her lip. “How thankful?”

Darza put a Copper Dragon on the table between them. The other woman scooped it up and left.

She tried the wine. It was oily on the tongue and there was a hair floating in it. Darza thought back to Winespring Village, where she and her lover had traveled from not three days ago.

Men had tried to assault Aria in a back alley. Darza had come in time to see her eyes turn milky white. She’d snapped a man’s neck with a look. The others had spat names at her. “Shepherd of Night,” they called her. “Dark Queen,” and, “The Dark One Reborn.”

Which she was, but Aria never liked being called that.

From there, the minds of Shepherds before her started whispering in her head. From what Aria had said, she gathered that the argument was quite convincing.

Convincing enough to reduce Winespring to rubble.

Darza never knew how to tell Aria what she did to Mattias, once it had ended. Aria’s memories tended to blur when her past selves took over. That aside, Darza hoped that if she didn’t tell Aria, somehow it would make her lie true, and they would see him again.

But she had seen the stake fly through his chest.

Before he died, he had scrawled a few words in the sand. Aysgarth. Serpent. Averon Thorn. Rivenrock. She knew they would be safe if they followed those instructions. Mattias always kept them safe.

Just then a ragged, sharp faced man stepped into the Serpent. He gave the Valuri sailors a quick look and Darza a longer one, then approached the proprietor. “Wine,” he said.

The woman gave Darza a look and nodded.

“I’ll buy your wine,” she called out, “for a word.”

The man looked her over, squinting. “A word? I know a lot of words, darling.” He sat down on the stool across from her. “Tell me which one the pretty woman wants to hear, and I will say it.”

Alarei.”

The man’s eyebrow shot up like a taut bowstring. “Careful, girl,” he cautioned. “There aren’t many in these parts who know that word. I don’t know much of that language—the Lord of Morning’s forbidden it, you see—but does it by chance mean Shepherd?”

Darza nodded. “It was taught to me by a man named Mattias. A Lion of Night.”

The ragged man sipped his wine, thinking. “You’re asking me if I know this man? That’s some serious business. I’ll have you know the Lions of Night are proud to serve their Shepherd.. Someone could get in trouble for admitting any affiliation. Who is it that wants to know?”

“A White Dragon,” She put a coin on the barrel between them, white as bleached bone, with a dragon rampant emblazoned on the center.

“Does it now?” The man took the coin and spun it. He smirked. “Might be I know this Mattias of yours.”

“Was there a girl with him?”

“Two girls.”

“Two girls,” the man said, “I never seen the sweet ones. But it seemed important business. Important enough not to warrant a letter for years.”

“Do you know of Rivenrock?”

“Might be I do. I have to be careful what I say. The Lord of Morning has men everywhere. And him being reborn and all gives his followers an excuse to go kill the Lions of Night. I’d rather have my head on my shoulders, thank you very much.”

Darza ignored this. “Do you remember how to get there?”

“I’m not sure.” He snatched the spinning coin off the table as it began to slow, and made it vanish. “That’s the kind of information that could get a man killed. Rivenrock was the home of the Shepherd of Night for generations.” Belatedly, he added, “At least that’s what people say. But the Shepherd has always had help from a one of her followers to get there.”

“What sort of help?”

“The sort that costs more than one White Dragon.”

“Tell me, and you’ll have another.”

“Show me, then.”

She put another coin on the barrel. He spun it, smiled, and scooped it up.

“There’s a place. Up a mountain you have to go. And only the right guide can take you there.”

Goosebumps rose along Darza arms. “And you and Mattias? You’ve been there?”

“Aye, I took him there. Used to be a whole company of us would go there, til the Lord of Morning found us. Only he and I escaped. Might be I could take them two girls in his place.” He chuckled “Only problem is finding them.” He scratched his nose and leaned forward. “You happen to know where they are?”

“I’m sure I can get them to you. They’re in dire need of direction.”

“Are they, now? Poor little things. I wish I could give them such. Rivenrock can’t be found in maps or words. Only shown.”

Where?” Darza slapped another White Dragon down.

He flicked the coin back at her. “Someplace no White Dragon ever found…..though a golden one might.”

Darza raised an eyebrow, unsure of how to answer.

“No? Oh, that’s trouble. Rivenrock is hard to find. You’ll need a guide. What’s wrong? All out of money?”

“Not yet.”

“Interesting. Y’see, a Golden Dragon can get lonely doing such hard work. Ten, now…”

“Ten dragons are a fortune. Do you take me for a fool?”

“No. I take you for out of options.”

“I’ll give you six Gold Dragons if we find the castle.”

“Six will serve.”

“Good. Then let us make haste. We need to go before—”

“Before you’re found, I know. Go to your friend. I saw her outside. Draws more attention to herself than she knows. She’s the Shepherd of Night, isn’t she? Meet me by east gate at first light. I need to see a man about a horse.”

They left the next morning. East of Aysgarth the hills rose wild, and the pines closed in about the three riders like a company of green soldiers.

Averon Thorn had said the coast road was the shortest way, so they were seldom out of sight of the bay. The towns and villages along the shore grew smaller as they went, and less frequent. At nightfall they would seek an inn. Averon would share the common bed with other travelers, whilst Darza took a room for her and Aria.

“Cheaper if we all shared the same bed, my lady,” Thorn would say. “You could lay your sword between us, if it came to it. Mattias trusted me for a reason. Chivalrous as a knight, I am.”

“Mattias trusted you,” Darza responded, “Look what happened to him.”

“I could just curl up on the floor, my lady.”

“Not on my floor.”

“A man might think you don’t trust me.” His smile was thin enough to cut glass.

“A man would be right.”

“As you say, my lady,” said Thorn, “but up north the road is going to give out, and if I wanted to take your gold at swordpoint, who’s to stop me?”

“Need I remind you who I’m traveling with?” She shut the door between them and stood there listening until she was certain he had moved away. “Aria,” she said, “there will come a time when there are no more inns to shelter us. I don’t trust our guide. When we make camp, will you watch over me as I sleep?”

Aria started forward and hugged her from behind. “You know I will,” she muttered, and kissed Darza’s neck.

Darza was dimly aware that she had tilted her head back. “Mmm. You’ll keep me safe?”

Aria guided Darza to the bed, and climbed on top of her. “I’ll stay awake—all night—if I have to,” each phrase was punctuated by a kiss. “All night—” she continued, “And if—he tries to hurt you—I’ll kill him.”

Darza pulled away. “Kill him?”

Aria frowned. “What would you have me do?”

“You can’t kill him,” Darza protested.

“I will keep you safe,” Aria said. “To whatever end.”

“No,” she said sternly. “You are not to fight him. All I ask is that you watch him. If he does anything suspicious, wake me quickly.” She grabbed either side of her face. “Do you think you can do that?”

The hard lines along Aria’s face softened. “Like I said, I can stay up all night.”

“Thank you,” Darza said, and she pulled Aria’s face towards hers.

The next morning, they breakfasted quickly and were on the road by sunrise. Thorn would often sing as they rode along together; though never a whole song. He jumped from verse to verse from what few he knew, going in a circle of phrases.

The inns diminished as they went further east, until at last there were none. That night, they took shelter in a fishing village. A few Copper Dragons allowed them to bed down in a hay barn. She claimed the loft for Aria and herself, and pulled the ladder up after them.

But Averon would not let them have an advantage without protest.

“It’s going to rain tonight,” he said. “You and the Shepherd will sleep all snug and warm, and poor old Averon will be shivering down here by himself. I never knew such a mistrustful maid as you.”

She was dimly aware that the arm she had draped around her lover had tightened. A maid has to be mistrustful, else she will not be a maid for long.

She fell asleep to the sound of rain on the rooftop.

It was still raining the next morning. As they broke their fast on bread and cheese they had pilfered from The Silver Serpent, Averon suggested that they wait for it to stop before continuing on.

“When will that be?” Aria asked. “Tomorrow? A fortnight? No. We have cloaks, and leagues to ride.”

It rained all day. The path they followed soon turned to mud beneath them and squelched beneath their horses’ hooves. It turned their fallen leaves into a sodden brown mat. Their cloaks were soaked through. And in time, all were shivering.

Darza watched Thorn, noting how he bent his back, as if huddling low in the saddle would keep him dry.

There was no village close at hand when night came upon them. Nor trees to give them shelter. They were forced to camp amongst sparse mud and rocks a few yards from the tideline. The rocks at least would keep the wind off.

The wood was too damp to light, no matter how many sparks Darza struck off her flint and steel. She managed to make more smoke than fire. With a scowl, she settled down with her back to a rock, pulled her cloak over herself, and resigned herself to a cold, wet night. Aria laid her head on her chest, which gave her some comfort. Her lover’s hair was splayed in her face. It was wet and smelled like the sea.

For days they journeyed on, sleeping amidst rocks and mud. Their only sound was Averon’s half-remembered songs.

Presently, the road had dwindled to a pebbled thread. Within hours it came to an abrupt end at the foot of a wind carved cliff. Trees leered at them from above.

“What do we do?” Aria asked.

Averon’s smile was thin as a blade. “Climb.”

The way up proved to be a steep stony path hidden within a cleft in the rock. When they were halfway up the cliff, Aria spoke. Anxiety tinged her voice. “Darza. There’s a rider.”

“Where?”

“On the road below. He’s following us.” She pointed.

Darza twisted in her saddle. They had climbed high enough to see for leagues along the shore. The horse was coming up the same road they had taken, two or three miles behind them. She glanced at Thorn.

“Don’t squint at me,” Thorn said. “He’s nothing to do with my poor soul, whoever he is. Nobody’s fool enough to ride a horse in these parts. They’re too easily spotted.”

“No,” Darza agreed. Reluctantly, she dismissed it. They were over the cliff before they saw him diverge from the path.

As they crested it, pines rose up about them. He raised a hand to call for a halt, and then leaned forward in hi saddle, studying the suggestion of a path ahead. “We’re nearing Pine Forest. But my ladies need not fear. Your guide knows these parts.”

That was what Darza was afraid of. The wind was gusting along the top of the cliff, but all she could smell was a trap. “What about that rider?” He would soon be coming up the cliff.

“What about him? If he’s some fool from Aysgarth, he might not even find the path. And if he does, we’ll lose him in the woods. He won’t have no road to follow there.”

This, too, Darza feared.

Pines rose up about them. Towering, green clad spears thrusting toward the sky. The forest floor was a bed of fallen needles as thick as a castle wall and littered with pinecones. The hooves of their horses seemed to make no sound, and left deep impressions in the earth. Deep tracks. Easy to follow. The smell in the air was sharp.

The going was much slower in the woods. Darza prodded her mare through the green gloom, weaving in and out amongst the trees. It would be very easy to get lost here, she realized. Every way she looked appeared the same. Even the air itself seemed gray and still. Pines scratched against her arms and legs. The stillness grated on her more with every passing hour.

It was obviously bothering Averon Thorn as well. Late that day, as dusk was coming on, he tried to sing, but his voice was as scratchy as the bark of the trees.

“This is a bad place,” Aria muttered. “I can sense it.”

“What better a place for the Shepherd of Night?” Thorn japed. A look from Darza silenced him.

Darza felt the same, but it would not let herself admit it. “A pine wood is a gloomy place, but a wood’s a wood. There’s nothing here that we need fear.”

The hills went up, the hills went down. Darza found herself praying that Averon Thorn was honest, and knew where he was taking them. By herself, she was not certain she could find her way back. Day or night, the sky was solid grey and overcast, with neither sun nor stars to help her find her way.

“We’re close now,” Thorn said one night. “See, the woods are thinning out. We’re near the sea.”

The revelation made Darza realize just how weary she truly was. She felt heavier, and the ground seemed to tug at her. If Averon Thorn meant to murder them, she was convinced it could happen here, on ground that he knew well.

It may be that I will need to kill him, she told herself one night as she paced about the makeshift camp. The notion made her stomach turn. Mattias had always questioned whether or not she was hard enough for battle. “It is one thing to train with a blunted sword in hand, and another to drive a foot of sharpened steel into a man and see the light go out of his eyes.” Mattias had said. “To be a warrior your heart needs training most of all.”  Mattias had set her to work killing piglets all day. By the time the butchering was done Darza’s clothed clung to her as if she’d bathed in blood. But Mattias had clung to his doubts.

“A pig is a pig. It is different with a man. I once saw a soldier disarm and drive his foe to his knees, but he flinched on the killing stroke. His foe slipped out a dirk and found a chink in his armor. His strength, speed and valor, was worth less than a man’s seed on his bed, because he flinched. Remember that, girl.”

I will, she promised her mentor’s spirit. I will remember, and I pray I will not flinch.

The sky was gone when they resumed their ride, blanketed by gray clouds.

The castle came upon them without warning. One moment they were in the depths of the forest, with nothing but pines all about them. Then they rode around a boulder, and a gap appeared ahead. Fifty yards onward the forest ended abruptly. Beyond was sky and sea and an ancient, tumbledown castle, abandoned and overgrown on the edge of a cliff.

“Rivenrock,” said Thorn. “Have a listen. You can hear Shepherds come and gone.”

“No,” Aria said. “No you can’t. I can. They’re in my head all the time and they never leave. You’re hearing the sea. Nothing more.”

Averon took a sudden interest in his boots, afraid to lock eyes with Aria.

Moss grew thick in clefts between the rocks, and trees were growing up from the foundations. By the look of it, the castle held little else.

Darza walked her mare to the cliff’s edge and tied it to a tree. She edged as close to the precipice as she dared. Fifty feet below, the waves were swirling in and over the remnants of a shattered tower

“That’s the old beacon tower,” said Averon Thorn as he came up behind her. “It fell long before Mattias and I first came here. Most mistake it for mere rocks. See?” He put one hand on her back, and pointed with the other.

One shove, and I’ll be down there with the tower. She stepped back. “Keep your hands off me!”

Thorn’s eyes went wide. He groped empty air in search of words “I was only—”

I don’t care what you were only! Where’s the gate?

“Around the other side!” He said, hurriedly.

They made a circuit of the walls and Darza saw more trees inside where the forest had breached the castle.

They found the postern gate on the north side of the castle, amidst half hidden thick foliage. The berries had all been picked, and half the bush had been hacked down to cut a path to the door. “Someone’s been through here.” Darza said.

But she had to have a look. It could be the Lions of Night. Or the Bringers of Morning.  “I’m going in,” she said. “Thorn, you’re with me. Aria, stay with the horses.” You’ll be safe there.

“I want to come too. I can fight.”

You can destroy. Darza thought, but she said, “I know you can. That’s why I want you to stay here. There may be outlaws in these woods. We dare not leave the horses unprotected.”

Aria scuffed at a rock with her boot. “If it’s for the best.”

Darza shouldered through the foliage and pulled at a rusted iron ring. The postern door resisted for a moment, then jerked it open. Its hinges let out a bloody wail.

“Go on, my lady,” urged Thorn, behind her. “What are you waiting for?”

What was she waiting for? Darza told herself that she was being foolish. But she was sure she heard voices. She listened, and swore she could hear Shepherds long passed muttering to each other.

“He should have brought his bow,” one of them was saying. “You heard what happened in Winespring. His morningstar will be as useful as my little finger.”

Another voice protested. “What could the fool have done with the bow?”

“Shoot them from a distance, most like. Then collect their heads. Imagine how much the Lord of Morning would pay for the Shepherd’s head.”

Darza went back to the portcullis, and whispered to Aria. “Sweetling, There’s a sword and scabbard wrapped up in my bedroll. Bring them here to me.”

“Why? What are you—?”

“Sweetling. Please?”

“I’ll be back.”

“A sword?” Thorn scratched his head. “You got a sword in your hand. What do you need another for?”

“This one’s for you.” Darza offered him the hilt.

“You mean this? No jest?” Thorn hesitated, expecting a trick. “The mistrustful maid’s giving old Thorn a sword?”

“You do know how to use one, don’t you?”

“I am a member of the Lions of Night,” He snatched the longsword from her hand. “I got the same blood as Mattias—or you. Figuratively speaking, of course.” He slashed the air and grinned.

When Aria returned, she held Darza’s sword as gingerly as if it were a child. She presented it to her, and Thorn whistled at the sight of it. But even he grew quiet when she drew the blade and tried a cut.

“With me,” she told Thorn. She slipped sideways through the postern with Thorn on her tail.

The bailey opened up before her. To her left was the main gate, and the collapsed shell of what smelled like a stable.

Saplings were poking out of half the stalls and growing up through the dry brown thatch of its roof. To her right she saw rotted wooden steps descending into the darkness of a dungeon. The yard was all weeds and pine needles. Dark red leaves sprouted from an oak’s reaching branches. Beyond was the emptiness of sky and sea where the wall had collapsed—

—and the remnants of a fire.

Darza knelt to examine it. She picked up a blackened stick, sniffed at it and then used it to stir the ashes. Someone was here more recently than I thought.

Helloooooo,” called Thorn. “Anyone here?”

“Be quiet!” Darza snapped.

“Why? Someone might be hiding. Wanting to get a look at us before they show themselves. Best let them know we know they’re here.” He walked toward the dungeon steps, and peered down into the darkness. “Hellooooo,” he called again. “Anyone down there?”

Darza saw a branch sway. A fat man slid through the bushes holding a broken longsword in a sweaty fist.

Everything seemed to happen in a heartbeat. A rider came down a hall perpendicular to the one she led Thorn through. The one who followed us…. She thought.

He swung down from the saddle, braying laughter. He was garbed in motley that was so weatherworn that it looked both dark and darker shades of brown. In place of a jester’s flail he had a triple morningstar, three spiked balls chained to a wooden haft. The bells on his jester’s hat jingled with every step.

A third man slipped over the lip of the well, making no more noise than a snake slithering across a pile of wet leaves. He held a short spear in hand.

“Averon Thorn!” Every word the jester spoke came through laughter. “It’s been a long time. How’s Mattias?”

He means to kill me, Darza thought. She leveled her sword at Thorn. “You know this man?”

“He knew all of us,” said the jester. The group crowded about them. She was not sure where to point her sword. Thorn backed into a tree, his sword at his side, forgotten.

“Mattias and I escaped the Lord of Morning,” he muttered, “We thought he killed the rest of our company. Ninth Hell, what did he do to you?”

“Fixed me right up! Drove those bad, bad thoughts far from my head. Ha ha!”

From behind Darza came a rustling, and a head poked down through the red leaves of an oak that Thorn was presently standing underneath. He looked up and saw the face.

“Thorn,” she called, “to me.”

The slender man dropped from the oak, a rusty dagger in hand. He advanced upon Thorn, drawing the man’s attention towards him so that he did not notice the jester behind him.

The jester swung his morningstar hard and low, and one of Thorn knees exploded in a spray of blood and bone.

That’s funny,” the jester crowed as Thorn fell. The sword she’d given him went flying from his hand and vanished in the weeds. He writhed on the ground, wailing and clutching at the ruin of his knee. “Do you still belong to the Lions, Thorn? Down on your luck, looking to rebel against the rightful authority?” He laughed so hard he turned red in the face. “I don’t think I can let you live, Thorn. The Lord of Morning would be awfully upset with me.”  The jester pointed to a patchwork sigil on his breast—that of the White Hand of the Lord of Morning.

All about her were White Hands, well-worn and threadbare. Looted off corpses, by the look of it.

“The Lord of Morning pays a high price for the heads of traitors,” the jester said.

“Please,” Thorn whimpered, “please don’t, my leg—”

The jester puckered his lips. “Awww. Does it hurt? I can make it stop. You got any Golden Dragons on you?”

“Forget the coins!” said the man with the broken sword. He was picking through a thorn bush for Thorn’s sword. He didn’t seem to notice his own bloody fingers. “Loot them when they’re dead.”

DON’T!” shrieked Thorn, lifting bloody hands to shield his head. The jester whirled the spiked ball once around his head and brought it down in the middle of Thorn’s face. There was a sickening crunch.

“Idiot,” said the man who’d come creeping from the well. The jester danced from foot to foot and spun his flail. “Ohhh look! We’ve got ourselves one of those exotic girls from across the sea!” He squealed. “I’ll bet she came here for me. I’ll bet dreams of me. Dreams of me every night, when she sticks her fingers up her—”

The faded embers of the fire roared to life, and the flames licked the air. The outlaws darted back from the sudden funnel of flame, but a hand of fire reached out and consumed the slender man who had dropped from the oak. His dagger fell from his hand, and Darza retrieved it as he went screaming off the cliff’s edge.

She turned to see Aria in the entrance, eyes glazed over with a milky haze. “I will kill you if you touch her!” She stood stone still, then, as she fought the minds that were not hers from seizing her power.

Darza hoped Aria would hold out long enough.

The man with the broken sword had retrieved the one she gave Thorn. He was circling around, forcing her back toward the ragged edge of the cliff. He sent the sword down upon her in wild arcs. She parried blow after blow.

She evaded the man’s swipe and leveled her blade at his neck. “Stay away,” she warned him.

“Drop that pretty sword and we might go gentle on you, woman,” he said. “What’s your choice?”

“This.” She threw herself toward the man.

He jerked his blade up to protect his face, but she had feinted the blow, and went low. Her sword bit through leather, wool, skin, and muscle, into the man’s thigh. The man cut back wildly as his leg went out from under him. His sword scraped against her chainmail before he landed on his back. Darza stabbed him through the throat, gave the blade a hard turn, and slid it out, whirling just as a spear came flashing across her cheek. I did not flinch, she thought, wiping away the rivulet of blood. Did you see that, Mattias?

“Your turn,” she told the spearman, as he readied a second spear. “Throw it.”

“So you can dance away from it and charge me? I’d end up as dead as my friend here.” He kicked the corpse at his feet. “Do you take me for a fool?” He advanced on her.

The jester was behind her, the spearman in front. No matter how she turned, one was at her back.

“Kill her,” urged the spearman. “And you can do what you will with the corpse.”

“You know what I’ll do.” The morningstar was whirling.

That could mean many things, and Darza did not want to think about a one of them. She glanced at Aria, whose eyes were still white. It was plain that she was presently occupied with not tearing the castle down upon all of them.

Choose one, Darza told herself. Choose one and kill him quickly.

Aria shrieked. Or was it the wind? An arrowhead flew from the ground and hit the jester, drawing a thin streak of red up the length of his forehead.

Darza didn’t hesitate. She flew at the spearman.

He was better than the other man, but he had only a short throwing spear, and her blade danced in her hands. It came at the outlaw in a gray blur. He caught her in the shoulder as she came at him, and in return she slashed off half his cheek and then hacked the head off his spear.

He stared mutely at his useless weapon, and she put a foot of steel into his belly. He was still trying to fight as she pulled her blade from him, its fullers running red with blood. He clawed at his belt and came up with a dagger.

So Darza cut his hand off. A pig is a pig.

“Ninth Hell, have mercy,” the spearman gasped, blood bubbling from his mouth and spurting from his wrist. “Finish it, you bloody bitch.”

She did.

The jester looked dazed as he fumbled for his weapon, and then stopped when he saw the arrowhead inching across the grass toward his eye. “No…please. Please don’t.”

“Aria, I can do this.”

The arrowhead inched further.

Please don’t!

“Aria, you’ve done enough, let me finish him!”

There were tears running down his face now. “Mercy! Please! I yield! I yield!

The arrowhead stopped a needle’s width from his eye. The jester stared at it, frozen in fear.

Darza turned back to Aria, whose eyes were still white. “Darza…help.”

Darza came upon Aria, and held her close. “Sweetling, come back to me. Please. Follow my voice.”

“They’re in my head.” Aria sounded distant. “The minds that aren’t mine.”

“Don’t listen to them. Listen to me.”

“They say I should rend this tower.”

“They’re filthy liars. Please, don’t do this!”

Aria screamed, and collapsed to the ground. “Aria?” she choked. “Please…follow my voice. Stay with me, Aria. You can do this. Come back to me. Come back to me.

Slowly the whiteness faded, and Aria breathed deep.

“Better?” Darza asked.

Aria grabbed Darza cheeks and kissed her. It was enough to take her breath away. When they parted, Aria whispered, “Better.”

And then lines on her face hardened. Aria stood, not as the timid girl that Darza knew. She was the Shepherd of Night, and she marched over to the jester. “I am tethered to all things. I know you yet live. You will dig a grave. There, beneath the oak tree.”

“I…I have no spade.” The jester protested

“You have two hands.”

“But why bother? Leave them for the crows!”

“Your friends may feed the crows. But Averon Thorn will have a grave. He was of the Lions of Night. This is his place.”

It took the jester the rest of the day to dig down deep enough. Night was falling by the time he was done, and his hands were bloody and blistered. Darza had sheathed her blade, gathered up Averon Thorn, and carried him to the hole. His face was hard to look on. I’m sorry that I never trusted you. I don’t know how to do that anymore.

She laid the body in the grave, and turned to see that the jester had picked up a jagged rock. “Aria, look out!” She called.

In half a heartbeat he was upon her, the rock held tight in his hand.

Darza was surprised by the assurance with which she dealt with the jester, for as he came upon her, she summoned a wisp of smoke and it turned into a dagger in her hand.

Aria knocked his arm aside and punched the steel into his bowels. “Laugh,” she snarled at him.

He moaned instead.

“Laugh,” she repeated, grabbing his throat with one hand and stabbing at his belly with the other. “Laugh!” She kept saying it, over and over, until her hand was red up to the wrist and the jester’s death stink was like to choke her.

He never laughed. The sobs that Aria heard were all her own. When she realized that, she let the knife dissipate into smoke and she shuddered. Darza laid a hand on her shoulder.

She helped Aria to her feet and grimaced at the sight. “Come on. Help me cover Thorn up.”

Aria helped lower Averon Thorn into his hole. By the time they were done the moon was rising. Together, they shoved the dirt on top of their guide as the moon rose higher in the sky, and when they finished they departed the ground filled with Lions of Night and whispering Lords.

 

 

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Don’t Forget to Buy Milk

The Cure (3)

The girl noticed the man in the Lexus following her three blocks ago. She didn’t mind (Though it did make her wish her mother hadn’t bought her those sparkly, light-up-when-you-step shoes for her eleventh birthday). It was nice to have company.

She came to a pile of bricks that towered high enough to blanket her in shade. She climbed it on all fours.

When she reached the other side, she looked back to see the Lexus cautiously maneuvering around the abandoned, rusted cars, shrapnel, other such obstructions. She guessed that they’d been left there when the war started a year ago. Her mother never told her many details about what happened before, but from what she understood, somebody dropped a bomb somewhere. Then we bombed them back. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Her mother had sent her out to buy groceries when the media reported that the White House had been hit.

That’s when the riots started. Countries blew each other up until it seemed to the girl that they’d run out of explosives.

Or something like that. She never got all the details.

She passed a record store and spotted a man inside, asleep. A veiny arm clasped his coat to his chest, while another lay slumped over a boom-box.

She inched forward. The singer had a voice like melted chocolate dribbled over your favorite dessert.

I like New York in June. How about you?

She glanced back. The car had stopped, and it flicked its high beams on and off twice, then stared her down in the noonday sun.

The CD skipped. I like—like—like New York in—in—innnnn—June. How about you?

The girl shouldered her grocery bag and wrinkled her nose at the smell. She then proceeded away from the store and positioned herself on the sidewalk so she could see the driver.

When she did, she doubted the driver was the real owner of the Lexus. There was clearly a man behind the wheel she didn’t think a man would buy a vanity plate that read DADDYSGRL.

The car slipped between a red Cadillac and a pile of rubble, and stayed there for a minute, as if waiting for her approach, but she stood her ground.

The window hissed down to reveal a black man—the kind of man her grandmother said she should cross the street to avoid.

He stared expectantly. “Well…? Aren’t you going to get in?”

She crossed her arms. “No.”

The man eyed the sleeping mass in the record store. “I guarantee you if that guy wakes up and you’re around, he’s not going to play nice with you.”

New York—York—York—York in Junnnnnne….how about you?

“I won’t be here.”

“If I honk this horn he’ll wake up. I can drive away. Then you’ve got a problem on your hands.”

The girl’s mouth twisted into a grin. She’d been fending for herself for almost a year. Did he expect his threats would scare her? “You can’t drive very fast,” she said, gesturing at the rubbish cluttering the street. “And wouldn’t he be madder at the guy who woke him up?”

The man thought about that for a moment, and then muttered a curse the girl couldn’t make out.  

“Why do you want me in the car so bad?”

“If I tell you, you’ll run off.”

“I’ll run off anyway, so you might as well tell me.”

The man shook his head. He punched the dashboard. “I rolled even, dammit,” he muttered.

“Rolled even?” She took a step back. “Is that some sex thing I don’t know about?”

“No! Dammit, No! I rolled the dice! They came up even, and now I have to help you out.”

The girl arched an eyebrow. “You’re crazy.”

The man laughed at that. “Welcome to the real world, kid. Everybody’s crazy, nowadays.” As an afterthought, he added, “I guess that makes everyone sane.”

He popped the lock on the car door and pushed it open to reveal faded gray leather seats. Beer and soda cans cluttered the floor. “Get in.”

She looked back at the record store. In JJJJJu-u-ne. How about—out—out—out you?

She slid into the car.

They sat in silence, since the girl didn’t want to be the first to speak, and she guessed her companion shared that feeling.

She stared out the window, the singer’s rich voice now muffled by the car door.

“So you’re not going to molest me?”

“No!” The man shouted, “Why would I do that?”

“Mom said all strangers do that.”

“Your Mom’s trying to scare you.”

“Is not!”

“Is t—” the man bit his lip and sighed. He sniffed the air. “What the hell is that smell?”

The girl slipped a carton of eggs out of her bag. Only two were still intact. “They went bad.” she said.

“Of course they went bad. Why wouldn’t they?”

“Dunno,” the girl said. “But Mom sent me out to get groceries. I’ve been looking for some of the stuff on her list for months. I’ve got all the non-perishables,” she interrupted herself. “Well, all but a few. Mom made a long list, but most of the stuff has gone bad everywhere–”

“How long ago did your Mom give you this list?” the man asked.

The girl scrunched up her face. “Dunno.” She said. “I sort of lost track of the days.” She stared off into space. “It was the same day the White House blew up.”

The man put the car in gear. “Let’s get you home. Where’s your mother?”

“Dunno.”

“Is that all you can say? What do you mean you don’t know? You’re what? Twelve? And you don’t know your own address?”

“I do too!” the girl said. Her nostrils flared. “I just don’t know where my Mom is.”

The man’s expression softened. “So why are you still going through this grocery list?”

“The last thing my Mom told me was don’t forget to buy milk. And I don’t want to forget.” She muttered a strangled repetition, “I don’t want to forget.” Her voice trailed off. She looked out the window.

Her attention turned back to the man when she heard a crunch out the driver’s side window. When she reached for her grocery bag, her eggs were gone.

The man challenged her with a look. “I don’t want my car smelling like shi—bad. Smelling bad. I don’t want my car smelling bad.” He took a deep breath. “So you want to get eggs?”

“And milk. And a few other things.”

Without a word, the man pulled two die from his pocket. They were red and shiny. Not a speck of dirt on them.

“How often do you polish those?” she asked.

“I don’t. Nail polish remover and two new coats does the trick. It keeps ’em fresh.” He tossed the dice on the dashboard. They came up three and two.

The girl did the math in her head. “Five!” She exclaimed. “Three and two make five!” Her heart sank after she said it. This man, this Dice Master had picked her up because he rolled even.

“Odd numbers,” the man muttered. He pressed down on the gas. “Follow the odd girl’s request.”

“You don’t make your decisions on odds and evens?” she asked.

“What kind of idiot do you take me for? What am I, a Batman villain? The dice read however I want them to read.”

“Then what’s the point of them?”

The Dice Master raised a finger to retort, but words fell silent on his tongue. “Listen, you got your grocery list, I got my dice.” He winced as they squeezed past a pickup truck and half an airplane. “We’ve all got to keep our eyes on something.”

“What’s your name?” the girl asked.

The Dice Master shook his head. “Nuh-uh. No names. I’ve been through that once. I’m not doing it again.”

“Then I’ll call you the Dice Master.”

“First a Batman villain, now I’m a B-movie superhero,” the Dice Master muttered. “What are you gonna call me next? Goldfinger?”

“I don’t get it.”

“Never mind. What am I calling you?”

“The Newt,” she said.

The Dice Master arched an eyebrow. “Why the Newt?”

“Because of my face,” she said.

The Dice Master wrinkled his forehead. “Why would you make fun of yourself like that?”

“The bullies called me that,” the Newt explained. “Before all this. But I tricked them. I told my friends to call me Newt, too. Then it didn’t hurt anymore.”

The Dice Master chuckled. “You’re clever, kid. And cleverness will get you far in this brave new world.”

Half consciously, the Dice Master poked the radio on. The man on the other end spoke like every other gray-faced old man her Mom used to watch on the TV. “There are almost none of us left, now. The sick and the weak have already died and gone to the God in Heaven. The pure have followedf Him. The Rapture has begun, my friends. And not in the way that you think. Disease is at an all-time low, humanity has reached its lowest point, for the greatest threat of this new age is boredom.” The man took a moment to cough. And in this new age, the phrase dying of boredom takes on a whole new meaning.”

The Dice Master grimaced at the voice, but he let it play.

“But there is hope, my friends,” the man said, “I have been sent to you from the Almighty, forced to live among sinners to guide you, and I couldn’t be gladder. The pure of heart have gone to Heaven. Only sinners remain, and the only way you—” he made sure to put emphasis on that last word, “—can get into God’s Kingdom, is if you rid the world of your fellow sinners–to prove yourself worthy in God’s eyes.”

The Dice Master poked the radio off. He mouthed a word the Newt was always warned never to say. “Don’t listen to that guy, kid,” the Dice Master said.

“Who is he?”

“David Pact. An ex-evangelical T.V preacher. He’s been preaching the Rapture since I was in diapers. Now’s his chance to say I told you so. I’d wager my dice that he robbed a Men’s Warehouse before a supermarket, when the first bomb hit.”

“How is he on the radio?”

“I don’t know, but I’ve heard people guess. Ron–” he cut himself off. “A friend of mine said that he had this plan in mind when tensions were rising. He paid some people off to keep the radio station running while money still had value. By now he’s probably got people who do it out of the goodness of their little ol’ hearts. Or maybe it’s something to do.”

The Newt nodded along. “What happened to him?”

“Who?”

“Your friend.”

The Dice Master said nothing.

“He has a point,” she said, nodding to the radio.

The Dice Master flexed his fingers on the wheel. “What do you mean?”

“Not about killing people. That’s wrong. But he was right about boredom. Nobody has anything to do. We’re not fighting over food.”

“Yet—”

“We’re just bored. Mom says bullies do bad things ’cause they can’t think of anything better to do.”

“Of course.” Sarcasm dripped from every word. “You’re right. Why didn’t I think of that sooner? You’re what? Twelve? I’m thirty four. What do I know? I’m just an old man.”

The Newt’s anger flared. “Shut up!”

“Hey, I’m admitting you’re right!” the Dice Master said, “After all, a twelve year old knows so much more about the world than a grown up.”

“Shut up! Just shut up!” She did not realize she’d shouted, at first. The Dice Master glared at her. She added a belated, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

The Dice Master swerved out of the way of a tank. “I’m not going to argue with a twelve year old,” the Dice Master said. “You don’t know anything.”

Her mother’s words leapt into her head, though she didn’t know what they meant. “And you’re being petty.”

The Dice Master made a face like she’d poured vinegar on his tongue. “You’re right. I’m sorry. We’re going to have to get along if we’re sticking together.”

The Newt turned to face the road. “Look out!”

The tires shrieked to a halt in front of three men.

Get out of the car!” One of them yelled.

The Dice Master groaned. “Right. Them.”

“Who’s them?” the Newt asked.

“The Pact. Davie’s got his own little messiahs running around. My friend and I ran into them a while back.”

“And?”

“And they’re going to take the car and kill us,” the Dice Master said. “But not necessarily in that order.”

“Hey!” the man shouted again. He was obese man with double chin covered by thick stubble. He raised a pistol that looked like a relic from the Civil War. “I said get out of the fu—

The Dice Master stuck his head out the window. “Watch your mouth, you—” the Newt blocked her ears when he said the C word her mother warned her about. “There are ladies present!”

The fat man drew the hammer back on his gun. The Dice Master didn’t flinch.

The second man looked like a mob reject. He’d popped his collar, and his shirt was half unbuttoned to expose a hairless, acned chest. He wrung a chain around his knuckles.

The last one looked like he’d stepped out of an army recruitment billboard. His arms were huge and veiny.

“Don’t make me use this,” the fat man said. He shook the weapon erratically.

“Yes, I can see your gun.” The Dice Master sighed. “It’s cute, okay? Now move along before I run you over.”

“You’re shitting us,” the second man said. “You wouldn’t.”

The Dice Master drove forward. “Cover your ears,” he whispered to the Newt.

“No.”

“I’m not asking.”

“No!”

“I don’t have time for this.” The Dice Master rolled the Lexus up toward them. The mob reject and the man in camouflage backed up. He kept going until the driver’s side was next to the fat man. He beckoned him closer.

The fat man obeyed.

“Do you know what it looks like when a man gets run over? Have you heard the sound of ribs breaking? Can you imagine the pain of this vehicle slowly going over your torso? Think about that for a second. And then think about the silence that follows. And how little I’ll care. Do you know what that kind of quiet feels like? To go from screaming and crying for your mommy–” his voice dropped with every word. “To…utter….” he mouthed silence.

The man paled. He lowered his flintlock and backed away.

The Newt couldn’t stop picturing it. She cursed herself for listening. She rolled down the window and puked onto the asphalt.

The giant man seized this opportunity and grabbed her under her armpits and pulled.

“Out of the car!” the man screamed, “Or I’ll kill the girl.”

The Newt was halfway out of the car, herself. She locked her heels around the door. Her captor had adjusted his grip to hold her neck, suspending her in the air.

She was dimly aware of the Dice Master unbuckling and inching closer. “Alright,” he said. “Alright just…just let me open this door and get her safely to the ground.”

Before she could process what she’d done, the Newt had pressed her thumbs into the man’s eyes. He squeezed tighter, and for a moment the Newt couldn’t breathe. Primal fury gripped her. She pressed harder. Dug deeper. She dug and dug and she didn’t give him the chance to close his eyes. She pushed at his eyeballs until he relented. Then she was falling.

And a hand caught her shirt.

The Dice Master pulled her back into the car. He took her hands. “Look into my eyes,” she said. “Don’t look away. If you do I swear to God I’m leaving you here.”

The muscle bound man was screaming, but he sounded distant. The Newt never thought a man that scary could scream like that.

She kept her eyes locked on the Dice Master.

“Don’t look at your hands,” he said, “And don’t look at that man.” He rubbed something wet off her hands. “Keep your head down and don’t look at that man.”

The fat man stuck his gun through the car window. “I’m going to kill you, jackass!” He gesticulated wildly.

Dispassion marked the Dice Master’s response. “No. You’re not.” He took out his dice.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m trying to decide whether I want to run over your Mafia friend here,” the Dice Master said. Wannabe Sicilian stood frozen in front of the car, wide eyed.

“What the hell are the dice for?”

“The dice are the decision.”

He dumped them into his lap and covered them before the fat man had a chance to look. “Care to take a guess?” he said.

“Dice don’t make decisions!” The fat man said. Though he did not quite sound sure of that. “Dice don’t make decisions! I’ll kill you!”

“If you were going to kill me, you’d have pulled the trigger when I stopped the car.”

“I mean it!”

“I’d be scared if I thought you had the balls.”

The man shoved the flintlock in the Dice Master’s face.

The Dice Master stared down the barrel. “Shoving it in my face is not how you fire a gun. You’re a big boy. Work it out. But first, we should examine the facts, shouldn’t we? Your army friend over there is still screaming. I’m pretty sure he wet his pants. Then you’ve got the Godfather over there,” he jabbed a finger at Wannabe Sicilian. “He looks pretty eager to leave. And then there’s you. You, with that stupid flintlock. Where’d you get that? An antique shop? It won’t fire, idiot.”

“It will.”

“Then do it!” the Dice Master screamed. “Shoot me!”

The man pulled the trigger. There was a click and nothing else.

The Dice Master raised an eyebrow. “My turn.” He revealed his dice. “Six and three. Nine. Sounds like the nein. No one dies today. I’m almost upset. You’re an embarrassment to what’s left of us.” He floored the gas pedal. Wannabe Sicilian flew out of the way.

“Can I look up?” the Newt asked. G.I Joe’s screaming echoed in her head.

“Yes. Yes you can look up, Newt.”

Neither of them said a word for the next few minutes. The Newt heard a ringing in her ears. The Dice Master put his attention into maneuvering the Lexus between obstructions.

“That was impressive,” he said.

“What was?”

“What you did to that guy who grabbed you.”

“Hm.” The Newt furrowed her brow. “What did he look like after…y’know?”

The Dice Master’s smile vanished. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “Try not to think about it.

The Newt stared out the window. Cars were embedded in window-shops. She tried to look at the object and skip over the bodies. “We could try Market Basket,” she said. “Do you think there are eggs there?”

The Dice Master bit. “No,” he said. He pulled the dice out of his pocket. “I don’t think they have eggs. But I have an idea.”

The Newt didn’t see how the dice landed, but next thing she knew, a hard left jerked her against the window. The Lexus rumbled over jagged asphalt between two buildings. She closed her eyes and waited for the crash.

And then nothing. When they emerged, the Newt heard someone playing Spanish music off a stereo.

“We’ll find your chickens here,”

“But I want eggs, not chickens.”

“Beggars can’t be choosers.”

“What does that even mean?”

“It means shut up and let me drive.” The Dice Master grimaced. “Jesus, now you’ve got me talking like you.”

“But how do you know there are chickens here?”

The Dice Master’s knuckles whitened on the steering wheel. “Because I know.”

He drove with a map in his head. Each turn was calculated to bring them to one place.

And that place was a rickety old house.

The paint was chipped and faded. Windows were shattered. The deck floorboards were splintered and uneven. But the Newt beamed when she saw the chicken strutting in the backyard. “Is this your friend’s house?”

“It’s just a house.”

The Newt started to get out. The Dice Master caught her belt buckle. “No. You’re staying here.”

“Mom sent me to get the eggs,” the Newt said.

“And the dice told me to protect you.”

“I’m getting out.”

“You’re not.”

The Newt bit his arm. He reeled back and she made a dash for the house. She skinned her knee on the front step, bounced back up, and reached for the doorknob when a man flung the door wide. His face was obscured by a shotgun barrel.

“Someone had to have been feeding the chickens,” the Dice Master said as he exited the car, “Let me take care of this.”

The gun’s owner had a belly that spilled out from under his torn tanktop. He smelled like hair grease and cigarettes. “You get the fu—”

“Watch your mouth,” the Dice Master cautioned.

“Since when did you care if I curse? Don’t make me use this. Get off my property.

“This ain’t your property, Henr—”

No names!” the man shouted. He switched the shotgun from the Newt to the Dice Master. “That’s what we agreed! No emotional connections. No tethers to the past. That still holds, even after Ron.”

The Dice Master raised his hands. “We’re not here to discuss the past. We just want a chicken. You owe me after what you did to—”

“He had it coming! And you will, too, if you take one more step! Those chickens are mine!”

The Newt wiped her palm-sweat on her jeans. Her heart punched her chest.

“Let the girl go,” the Dice Master said. “And we’ll talk this out like grown men. Okay?”

“There ain’t nothing to talk about!”

“Let her go. You don’t want her death on your conscience, do you?”

The Newt stepped back slowly. She nearly fell off the deck in her retreat. She yelped when the Dice Master grabbed her from behind.

“Stay here,” he said. “Remember Sinatra? The guy singing on the boom-box?”

The Newt tried to speak, but her mouth wouldn’t let her form the words in her mind. She nodded.

“Cover your ears. And listen to me, this time. I don’t want a repeat of earlier. When I close that door, I want you to sing.”

She nodded.

The Dice Master marched up the steps. The man stood there, gun trembling in his hands.

She spotted his dice on the pavement. Six and six.

The man babbled warnings as the Dice Master moved closer. He shoved the man inside and closed the door behind him.

The Newt sang.

I like New York in June…

There was muffled scream reminded her of the man from before.

…How about you? I like New York in June….

Scattered noises and crashes replaced screams.

…How about you? I like New York in June…I-I l-like New York in June.

She tried to think of the rest of the song. She grimaced when she couldn’t remember the words.

I—I—I like New Y—Y—York in June. H—H—H-How about you?

She heard a loud bang which hurt her ears, even though she’d covered them.

I like N—N—N—New York i—i—in J—J—June. How about y—y—you?

Silence followed. She let her hands fall to her sides and heaved a breath.

She sat by the Lexus waiting for the Dice Master amidst the silence.

He came out wearing a fresh set of clothes that were baggy on him. He carried a chicken and a rooster in either arm.

“Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum,” he said. “They’ll give you your eggs. The Dice Master snatched his dice and the two hopped into the car. He didn’t look at the Newt.

Neither of them said a word. The only sound was the squawking of the two chickens in the backseat.

“About that man…” the Newt began.

“Uh huh?”

“Did you…you know? Do it?”

“No.”

“Then why are you so tense?”

“Because I am.”

“Oh.”

The Dice Master offered a smile. “What’s next on your list?”

“Milk. I can’t forget to buy milk.”

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A very heartfelt thank you to my patrons. You make this writing possible. Special thanks to Saija Rantala, Lydia Raya, Abbey Newman, and Temi Olatinwo.

Alias – A Tale of the Sheriff of Nottingham

alias

I dismissed the gaolers below Nottingham Castle. I needed to speak to the little man alone.

It wasn’t a difficult task. As Sheriff of Nottingham I have that kind of power. And if you know the right look to give a man, he’ll piss his jerkin at the thought of disobeying you. Such tricks save both words and time.

The little man was crouched in the corner of his cell. He looked little more than a lump of dough, balled up and in irons. He stirred beneath his rags when he caught my lantern-light. “John,” I said. He didn’t look up. “John Little.”

Continue reading “Alias – A Tale of the Sheriff of Nottingham”

Peter Pendragon and the Jolly Green Giant

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I promise it wasn’t my intention to end the day getting my head cut off.

__ __ __

I rolled out of bed and sifted through pile of clothes that had yet to be folded for something that looked (and smelled) halfway decent.

I came downstairs for breakfast to seem Mom was already up, bright and cheerful as ever.

And by bright and cheerful I mean that she was wearing a bathrobe and her hair was all tousled, like in the cartoons when someone gets a gust of wind to the face. Worst of all, she hadn’t finished her coffee.

She squinted at me as I came down the steps, looking me over like I was a Dragon, come to steal her treasure.

I decided to stay out of her way.

But that doesn’t mean she wanted to do the same. “Peter!” She snapped.

“Mom?” I scanned the fridge for something to eat.

“Answer me this: When Uther Pendragan begot Arthur with Igraine, what did he do?”

I stuck my head in the fridge. It was six in the morning! This was not the time for History lessons!

That’s at 8:30 with Mrs. McFowl.

“Ummmm….He convinced Merlin to change his form or something, right? So that he looked like the Duke of Tintagel and he could get into the castle?”

“Correct. Now, did Uther commit a crime?”

Mom has this thing she likes to do where she springs traps on me. Including, but not limited to, asking for kingly decisions. “There’s more to being King than just hacking stuff up,” she says.

“Of course,” I mumbled. I snatched a glass of milk and some bacon leftover from yesterday.

“Are you sure?” Mom took several gulps of coffee. She slammed it down and locked her gaze on me. “Igraine begot Arthur with the man she considered Gorlois. At the time, she consented.”

“Can we not do this now?”

“We’re doing this now.”

Mom gets this weird gleam in her eye before she finishes her coffee. It’s as if her eyes are telling you nobody will find your body, should you say the wrong thing.

So I played along. “But Uther disguised himself as Gorlois. She can’t consent to having a child if she didn’t know that it was Uther in the Duke’s form.”

“But she saw the Duke.”

“But he wasn’t the Duke.”

“In Igraine’s eyes he was.”

I bit off a chunk of cold bacon. “Igraine’s eyes were deceived. It’s like if Dad wore a mask of Mr. McFowl’s face and told my history teacher he was—”

Mom gave me a smile so thin it could cut glass. And then I realized how ridiculous I sounded.

“Okay, it would have to be a really convincing mask.”

She touched my hand from across the table, “Finish your bacon. The bus will be here, soon.”

“Did I win?”

“Maybe.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, for one thing, I agree, but on the other hand, your argument was sloppy.”

“Was not!”

“You hesitated too much. You didn’t sound sure of yourself. That won’t get you very far in the long run. Now go. It’s time for school.”

So I shoved Excalibur into my backpack and headed to school, where I met up with Dawn. She was digging through her locker.

I only managed to get out a quick, “Hey, Dawn—” when WHAM! 

Dawn closed her locker and turned to me, wide eyed. “Ohmygod! Did you hear what happened?” It sounded like her voice was on fast forward. She dropped to a whisper. “Merlin is back.”

Why doesn’t anybody tell me these things?

“Back? Where is he?”

She sighed and twisted her mouth in an effort to force her words to keep up with her thoughts. “Well, he’s not exactly back back, but…well he paid me a visit the other night. He managed to conjure up his spirit or something. He saw me at three A.M last night.”

“Through his spirit? You mean astral projection?”

“Right, right. He told me dark times are coming.”

“Dark times?” I echoed. “What does that mean?”

“He didn’t say much else. He said he couldn’t interfere—and he couldn’t stay for long. He was still gathering his strength. Oh, but he—he was brilliant, Peter. Ohmygod, he was brilliant.” He eyes widened. “Oh! I almost forgot! He said he had a message for you.”

A message he couldn’t deliver to me himself? “Well, what is it?”

“You need to talk to David Pact.”

Welp. I’m dead. Dead dead dead dead dead.

Y’see, David Pact is, like, this artsy kid who smells like burnt coffee with a hint of cigarettes and is friends with most of the kids who don’t know I exist. A lot of that’s not really my business.

What was my business was that he was going to try to beat me to a bloody pulp with only his words.

Sure, most artsy kids wouldn’t do that, but David is the kind of I can’t be seen in your general vicinity because it’s bad for my image, kind of artsy kid.

“David Pact?” I said. The words hung there for a moment. “You want me to talk to David Pact. The David Pact?”

“Apparently,” Dawn said. She glanced over at him. She nodded her head to David in a way that made her hair sway.

I approached David, who was with a bunch of people that smelled like they took a shower in AXE deodorant. I spoke in the loudest voice I could muster, which was probably somewhere between a squeak and a whisper.

“Hey, David.”

David narrowed his eyes at me. He brushed a red-streaked highlight of hair out of his eyes and said, “Peter, right?”

I took a sudden interest in my shoes. “Um, yeah.”

“I was actually about to go looking for you.”

I think I can pinpoint the exact moment my heart stopped upon hearing those words. “Wh-what?”

“I’ve got a friend of mine who’s a friend of yours.”

Classes hadn’t even started yet. It was too early to be puzzling out sentences like that.

“I was going to take a few guys out to watch a meteor shower in the woods tonight. He suggested I invite you. Interested?”

I think I said something along the lines of, “Ummmmmmm.”

David indicated with his head to Dawn. “You can bring your boyfriend, too, if you like.”

“I’m not—she’s not a—she—”

“I’m a girl. And we’re not dating,” Dawn finished for me. Phew.

“Interested?” He asked again.

“We’ll be there.” Dawn said.

I turned around and walked away as quickly as I could. I hoped my face wasn’t too red.

“It’s at the park!” David called after me. “Nine P.M!”

 

“Nine P.M?”  Dad said, once I got home. “You want to go out past nine P.M?

Dad was standing over a gigantic pot of something simmering over the stove. I had no idea what it was. The cookbook looked like it once belonged to King Arthur’s personal chef. How did Dad even read that? Then again, half of the books in the house look like that.

“I know it’s a school night,” I said, “But I promise I’ll bring Excalibur. Just in case.”

Dad wrinkled his forehead as his eyes widened. “That’s a question for your mother, sport,” Dad said. “I don’t know jack about Excalibur or Lancelot or what have you.”

“But can I go out at nine?”

“Isn’t that your bedtime?”

“But Da-aa-d,” I moaned. “I get to stay up that late fighting monsters. Why is socializing now forbidden. I promise I’ll be fine in school tomorrow. Just let me go. Please.”

Dad shook his head in a way that meant maybe but alluded to no.  “I don’t know…”

“Dad,” I said, “How often do I get to socialize?”

Dad chewed on that for a moment. His face scrunched up. “Be back before midnight,” he said, “And bring Excalibur.”

As I left the house to go to Dawn’s. Her parents agreed to drive us.

And when I did arrived at Dawn’s house, the first few moments were sort of awkward.

This goes without saying, as the first few minutes at any friend’s house is and weird until you start to settle down.

This meet-up, however, had a totally different reason behind it.

Her house was normal. Sofas? Check. Books written in this century? Check. Awkward family photos where you all have to hold your smile for that one second too long? Check.

I gawked at it for a few minutes before her biker-Santa-grandfather broke my concentration. “PENDRAGON!” he roared, and hugged me so hard I couldn’t breathe. He hoisted me into the air. “Mister Cross,” I wheezed. I was vaguely aware that Dawn was laughing.

He set me down and put a hand up to silence me. “Please,” he said, “Call me Gabriel.”

“Are you sure…?” I muttered.

“Of course I’m sure,” he laughed.

“There’s—you’re not angry at me?”

Mister Cross steepled his fingers. “Why would I be angry at you? Have you done something wrong?”

Dawn bit back a smile. I wrung my hands together. “No—but I’ve heard of something about a blood feud—”

Mister Cross wheezed out a laugh and slapped his medicine ball of a chest. “That’s why I should be angry? A centuries old blood feud?” I nearly flinched at his shouting. “It long, long past, my boy! It was a time before time! What’s past is passed. Are there still Descendants out there who follow that feud?”

“Probably.”

“Do yours?”

I felt a trickle of sweat run down my temple. “Not that I’m aware of.”

“Then let the matter pass. My granddaughter tells me much about you. She wishes your friendship, and as long as you can return that, that is enough for me.”

“Really? Wow, that’s—that’s great!”

“It’s life,” Mister Cross said with a shrug. “My granddaughter tells me she was visited by Merlin last night, and if he needs you for some quest, then I must do what I can to ensure your success.”

“Thank you, Mister—“

“Gabriel.”

“Gabriel. Thank you.”

He left the room to finish up a few chores. I crumpled to the sofa, staring blankly at nothing, my mouth agape.

Dawn sat down next to me. “Peter,” Dawn said, putting a hand on my shoulder. Her palm was callused from what I presumed was weapons practice. “What’s wrong?”

“You’re—you’re normal.”

“What were you expecting?”

“Do you really want to know?”

“Yeah.”

“Weapons. Antiques. Lion crested shields brazenly displayed on the walls.”

“Is that what your home is like?”

I turned to face her. “Yeah. You don’t want know the details.”

After Gabriel Cross finished the chores, we hopped in his minivan and headed for the park.

After more awkward silence, Dawn said, “So who’s this friend you two have in common?”

“Not a clue. If but if Merlin told you to tell me to talk to him and he tells me we have a friend in common, I’m running with the idea.”

“What?”

I thought over what I said and realized I couldn’t make sense of it either. “Never mind. Let’s just focus on getting there. Whatever Merlin has planned, it’s bound to be something important.”

“It is,” a disembodied voice said. It sounded like the Wicked Wizard of the West.

“Holy—” I shouted, jumping in my seat. “What the heck was that?”

Dawn turned her head to say something, but once she started to open her mouth she slowly—like a rusty machine. Her joints slowed and creaked to a halt.

“This is Merlin,” the voice said, and, like a candle, Merlin shimmered into existence, flickering.

He didn’t wear the pointy hat I had always anticipated. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bummed.

He did, however, have the flowing white beard and shock of hair. His nose peeked out of the tangled hairy mess that was his face like a hooked beak. He had to hunch over to fit in the backseat.

I stared at him. What do I say to the one and only Merlin the Magician? What will be my wondrous first words?

“You’re see through,” I said.

Merlin rubbed his temples. “I know, Peter. I’m working on it.”

“Working on it?”

“Nimuë tricked me centuries ago, and bound me underground. I’m still working on getting out. But for now, there are a few ways I can be of assistance.”

“And I assume this is the reason for your ghostly visit?”

Merlin glared at me with bloodshot, see-through eyes. “Danger lies ahead, my young king.”

King? I thought Dad was King. I mean, if he married Mom…“Merlin…” Words crumbled in my brain before I managed to say anything.

Merlin waved a hand at me. His fingers flicked out like a candle. I felt like I walked through a cobweb. “Oh, don’t be so speechless. Young Arthur was never like that, King Peter.”

“What? Why haven’t you shown up before?” I asked.

Merlin’s eyebrow stretched like a taut bowstring. “Would you have listened to my instructions if you had heard them from me? You would have had time to think, boy—and with a mind like yours, such time to think can be deadly. Second guesses can be deadly. And with what’s at stake in this meeting, second guesses are things that can end all hope before it begins.”

A mind like mine? I thought. Surely he didn’t mean—no. He’s centuries old. He wouldn’t know about that. I decided to let that comment pass. “So why now?”

“I come with a warning, King Peter. Your choices here will decide whether your new companion is friend or foe.”

“Who is my companion?”

“You do ask a lot of questions, young one.”

Who is my companion?

“Beware of Sir Bercilak, Peter Pendragon. Do not fall prey to his tricks.”

“Peter!” Dawn snapped her fingers in front of my face. I blinked, rapidly. “You were zoning out for a while there. Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” I tried to just shrug it off, like I didn’t just have a secret meeting with Merlin in a car with both of Lancelot’s Descendants. “Yeah, I’m fine…hey, you wouldn’t happen to know anyone by the name of Sir Bercilak, would you?”

Dawn frowned in thought. “No. Why?”

I stared out the window. “I have a feeling we’re about to.”

We got out of the car and walked in stride. David was at the other end of the park, arms relaxed on the bench’s backrest. He was accompanied one of the guys he was talking to that morning.

Y’know, the intimidating people who use way too much AXE.

Then there was the other guy—the one I think David was talking about when he said a friend of yours. “Dawn,” I said, “Is it just me, or is that guy….green?”

And by green I don’t mean he was wearing a green shirt with green pants and green hair. This guy was completely green. I mean at least the Hulk has the decency to wear purple pants.

“I see it, too,” she said, “Must be a Descendant thing.”

David rose to meet us. He had his hair draped over one eye, the highlighted tip had gone from red to green.

Alarm bells rang in my head, but I didn’t know what to do with the situation yet. I decided the best course of action would be to ride it out.

David flipped his hair out of his face and extended his hand in the same motion. “Glad you could make it. Guys, this is Drew,” he pointed at one of the guys with a crew cut and a backwards Yankees hat.

“And of course, Benny Hack needs no introduction. He’s told me all about you.” 

David wandered back over to the bench. “At first I didn’t know he was talking about you. Peter? The guy who I thought was mute until sixth grade? But hey, according to Benny you’re a pretty cool guy.”

Thanks for that, David.

Benny shook hands with Dawn and me. The awed look in his eyes was odd, considering he was supposed to know so much about me. I shouldered my bag. I had a feeling I’d need Excalibur.

I have to admit, David was a pretty cool guy. We had a nice talk, all four of us. It lasted halfway through the night.

Well, he did most of the talking. I just listened and nodded.

He mostly talked about his art, what classes he wanted to take in High School and things like that.

I soon discovered David Pact has some serious planning problems.

Not that he doesn’t plan at all, it’s that the guy plans too much. He has his entire future mapped out, and if one part of the plan goes wrong, the whole thing crumbles. It’s like he has one block supporting the bottom of a Jenga tower that is his future.

The night wore on. We didn’t have conversations as much as topics that float. Drew brought up the Mets and their season, which reminded Dawn of the fall, presumably from mentioning season. That reminded David of a painting he saw. Et cetera, et cetera.

Then came the meteor shower. Dawn and I camped out on the grass next to each other. Stars glittered across the sky. We watched in silence for a while.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Dawn said.

“Yeah,” I muttered.

“It’s great.”

“Yeah.”

Then I did the stupidest thing I could have done. I took her hand and started to learn over to—

—Actually, I’m not quite sure what I was going to do. Before I could figure that out she slid back.

“What are you doing?” she asked, calmly.

“I thought—I was thinking—didn’t you want to…?” I motioned back and forth between us. There was a wall between me and forming words.

“Oh,” she looked away. “Oh, no. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”

“No,” I said, “No, it’s okay. Total miscommunication. It’s fine. I just was going to because I thought you wanted me to—”

“And I didn’t.”

“And that’s fine.”

“Yeah, it’s fine.”

Then the silence caught up with us. Just to break the tension I motioned to the general park area away from her. “I’m just going to—you know what, I’m gonna…”

“Yeah,” she said, “That’s fine. It’s okay.”

I wandered off.

You know what I said earlier about pinpointing the exact moment my heart stopped? I lied. That was the exact moment my heart stopped.

Now would be a good a time as any to explain the whole a mind like yours thing Merlin had mentioned. Because with what just happened, I was convinced he knew exactly what was wrong with my head.

Merlin knew I have autism.

Asperger Syndrome, to be precise. Though I’d stopped calling it that after one to many crude jokes I will refrain from repeating. The long and the short of it is that I do not pick up on social cues. At all. The only way I can figure out emotion is to look for signs in body language and voice. And now I understood why Merlin went to Dawn.

If he had gone to me about David Pact, I would have overthought everything and screwed it up. Because a lack of social language gives tons of leeway to anxiety.

It was as I thought about this, and wishing I could trade in my brain for a more normal one, that my heart started taking a sledgehammer to my chest as though my ribcage was a prison. I replayed the events of what had happened between Dawn and me, over and over and over again.

I wandered in loops around the park, wondering on a scale of one to ten million how stupid I was.

That’s when I heard Benny’s voice. “Pendragon,” He said in a voice that was far too deep to belong to him. He sounded like a tuba.

I turned around to see the green kid facing me, and staring me down with what was either malicious intent or some weird form of admiration. “Well someone went through puberty a bit early.” I said

“In a way, yes.”

“Since we’re alone, can we talk about your….greenness?”

“You will discover the truth, Pendragon,” Benny said. “In time.”

“You wouldn’t happen to know anybody by the name of Sir Bercilak, would you?”

“Indeed. I have heard it oft.”

So not only was Benny’s voice unnaturally deep, but he also talked like a knight out of a crappy romance novel.

Wait….

“Into the woods, Pendragon,” Benny said, motioning to the forest. Between the park and the lake. “Bring Excalibur.”

Well, this is certainly turning out to be an interesting night…and an interesting knight. I bit back laughter at my own pun.

We entered the woods. I held Excalibur in my hand.

That’s when Benny began to change. His skin grew lumpy and then hardened into muscle that looked like they’d been chiseled from marble. He grew taller and taller until I had to crane my neck to look at him.

“Sir Bercilak?”

“Aye, Pendragon,” he said, “Have you not read the tales about me?”

“I don’t remember you fighting King Arthur in the tales I’ve read…”

“I fought with him,” he said. He was towering over me, now, and his clothes were rippling into armor. “Long ago. But that is not the tale I am famous for. I am known for the challenge I issued to Sir Gawain, when I was known only as the Green Knight. Gawain was most honorable.”

“I don’t remember reading about that.”

He glanced at me. Just before his visor shimmered over his face, he arched an eyebrow that said you’ve got to be kidding me. “…We will come to that in time. We are not yet deep enough in the woods.”

“So you’re centuries old?” I asked. I wish I could say this surprised me, but with all I’ve been through in the past week alone, a centuries old Green Knight was surprisingly unsurprising.

“Yes. I’ve kept myself preoccupied.”

“How have you managed that?”

Have you ever see the green person on the front of the corn cans?”

“Yeah. The Green Giant, right?”

“That was me.”

“No way!”

“Hey!” He shrugged, “It’s a living.”

We came to a clearing, and he turned heel to face me. I took a ready stance and took note of the emerald sword at his hip. Bercilak was twice my size. This would be difficult.

“You may strike a blow,” he said. “And one blow only. I will not defend against this, but if I survive, I shall return it in kind.”

“What if I don’t want to?”

“Something tells me you already know the answer to that.”

He’s testing me, I thought. It’s all a test. If I back out, I fail.

“And if you do survive? What happens then?”

I could feel his grin through his helmet. “You’ll see.”

I remembered what Merlin said about having time to think. “So…like any blow? I can jab you in the shoulder and you’ll do that to me?”

Bercilak looked me up and down, as if comparing our sizes, and I realized how much worse that would be for him than for me. “Do I have to kill you? Are there any rules saying I can do something else? Cause I really want to keep doing that living thing.”

Bercilak remained silent. I had never killed a person before—only people who were out to kill me. But he wasn’t.

Why? I thought. And then another voice in my head answered, He’s testing you, idiot! Strike the first blow you think of. Stick to your gut!

“Don’t second guess.” I whispered. “Strike the blow.” I closed my eyes and gripped Excalibur so tight my knuckles turned white. I swung for his next, and felt Excalibur’s arc slow as its magic, cut-through-anything metal met armor and then flesh. I completed the strike and the Green Knight’s helmeted head fell to the ground.

“I did it,” I muttered, with a surprised chuckle. “I actually did it. I don’t have to die!”

Then the obvious hit me: the Green Knight was still standing.

I stopped breathing altogether when he started moving. I stumbled back and tripped over a tree branch.

He scooped up his head and put it back on his neck. He opened his visor. He stared at me, implacable. “Are you ready, Pendragon?”

That was it. There I was, about to lose my head. I’m going to die. The Pendragon line will be dead. No—that wasn’t what I wanted. I didn’t want to die—I scrambled back on all fours, and then I remembered something Bercilak said earlier.

Gawain was most honorable.

That’s it. That’s why he’s testing me, I thought. Without another word, rose, and marched forward. I felt like a pirate being lead to the gallows.

And then I knelt. “Do it quickly,” I said. “Deliver the blow.”

The Green Knight drew his emerald sword and raised it high above his head.

I’m an idiot, I thought. I made the wrong choice. I’m going to die.

He brought the sword down in a wide arc and stopped it at the hairs of my neck so that I felt a slight tickle. And then he put the sword lightly to my neck and nicked it so that only a droplet of blood peeked out, stinging.

“You may be Arthur Pendragon’s Descendant,” the Green Knight said, “But you have the honor of Sir Gawain. And I shall fight by your side in these dark times to come.”

“About that—I’ve been hearing a lot about this dark-times thingy. You wouldn’t want to elaborate, would you?”

Sir Bercilak nodded, his armor shrieking. “Those who are closest to you plot your demise, Peter Pendragon. They are gathering the knowledge to end you.” He bowed his head. “I can say no more, for there ends my knowledge.”

I heard someone crashing through the foliage. “Peter!” It was Dawn’s voice. “Peter, my parents are here.” She frowned at Bercilak and I, and I realized I was still kneeling.

Her mouth was a thin line across her face. “Am I interrupting something?”

“No,” Bercilak and I said together.

The Green Knight sheathed his sword. “I was just leaving.” He extended a hand to help me up. “Till next we meet, Peter Pendragon.” He wandered off the path and vanished into the foliage.

“Who was that?” Dawn asked.

“That was Benny Hack.” Talking to Dawn again made me feel like Bercilak delivered the blow to my gut instead of the back of my neck. “Look, Dawn, about before, I wanted to apologize.”

“Hey,” Dawn smiled, “It’s alright. It was a mistake, and it’s all right. What’s past is passed.” She gave me a quick kiss on the cheek, then took my hand and dragged me back to the park. “Come on.” She said, and then as an afterthought, added, “Don’t read too much into that.”

I decided against telling her that that was going to happen despite her warning.

We climbed into Gabriel’s car and drove off. The whole way back, all I could think about was Sir Bercilak’s warnings. Dark times are coming.

Whoo, boy. One day at a time, Pendragon.

 

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