Categories
Tales

Tinveil

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

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

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

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

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

© 2009 – 2020, Tim Boothby. All rights reserved.

Categories
Tales

Amrick: Bittersweet price of winning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“None,” both spoke together.

“And you shall fight till first blood?”

“Yes,” agreed his opponent.

“Until death,” Amrick disagreed.

“First blood,” insisted his opponent.

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

“To the death then.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Foul!” Miranda protested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2009 – 2020, Tim Boothby. All rights reserved.

Categories
Tales

A Debt to Fate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You have laundry, Sir?”

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

“Very good, Sir,” she agreed meekly.

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

“It is too much,” she protested.

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

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

“I doubt it,” Taela shook her head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tell me your story,” Creighton asked softly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?” She asked carefully.

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

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

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

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

“You feel that you must?”

“I must,” she asserted.

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

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

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

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

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

She nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“To her?”

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

© 2009 – 2020, Tim Boothby. All rights reserved.

Categories
Tales

The Charge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2009 – 2020, Tim Boothby. All rights reserved.

Categories
Tales

Traveler’s Harvest: Martina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Quit playing,” she hissed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Which kingdom do you serve?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Aren’t you SCA?”

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

“I’ve never heard of it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your sister?” she asked.

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

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

“Marie and Gunther,” he answered.

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

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

“She’s talented,” he commented.

“You whupped her good though,” she observed.

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

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

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

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

“Beat it!” He growled.

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

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

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

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

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

“Where’s your gear?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Business?”

“Military,” Thomas replied.

“What did you do?”

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

“Sounds interesting,” Martina leaned forward.

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

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

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

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

“Simpler times,” Thomas sighed.

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

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

“Unless you factor in the plague.”

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

“It was tried,” she sighed.

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

“NBC?” Martina asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I just turned fifty.”

“You don’t look a day over thirty.”

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

“And Grecian Formula 10?” Gunther joked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Its worth your time,” Thomas agreed.

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

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

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

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

“And you wear it like it was nothing?”

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you doing now?” Gunther asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Done,” Thomas agreed.

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

“Penny for your thoughts,” Martina finally ventured.

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

“Well, what is it?”

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

“What is it?”

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

“What is this?” She asked.

“Look at it,” he urged her.

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

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

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

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

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

“A coin,” he replied.

“Who would make a coin out of glass?”

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

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

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

“But a transparent metal is impossible.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you have the time?”

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

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

“Where the hell are we?” She demanded.

“Look around,” He smiled.

“Green Lake?” She ventured.

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

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

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

“Two twenty-five,” the jogger replied.

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

“Are you ready to listen?”

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

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

“Where do I fit on this scale?”

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

“Gee, thanks!” she snapped sarcastically.

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

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

“You live there now?”

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

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

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

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

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

“You can’t have children?”

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

“But could you?”

“Does it matter?”

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

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

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

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

“You’d better believe it, bub!”

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

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

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

“What the hell is that?”

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

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

“You asshole!” she shrieked.

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

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

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

“Careful, it will sneak up on you.”

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

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

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

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

“No,” she answered, “that bad, huh?”

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

“All better?” She smiled carefully.

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

“How do you know this?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then why do it?”

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

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

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

“You can’t change these things?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Its unbelievable,” she marveled.

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

“Why are we waiting here?”

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

“In a city?” she asked.

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

“Then you know what will happen here too?”

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

“And what am I here to do?”

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

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

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

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

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

“What did you do?”

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

“You rolled back my clock?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?”

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

“Lady Martia?” Martina asked carefully.

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

“My father?”

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

“Who will I be?”

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

“Why would he adopt me, sight unseen?”

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

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

“Yes,” he replied.

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

“You have just turned twenty.”

“How thorough were you?” she asked.

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

“Twenty-two,” she answered carefully.

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

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

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

“Thomas,” she smiled in greeting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You talk just like them,” she smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2009 – 2020, Tim Boothby. All rights reserved.

Categories
Tales

Randy

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

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

“You need something, my Lady?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” she admitted.

“Very nice work!” he congratulated.

“Thank-you,” she blushed.

“You retired?”

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

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

“Thank-you,” she blushed again.

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

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

“Thank-you, my Lord,” she murmured.

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

“If your lordship desires.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Order of the scepter?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How dare you, sir?”

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

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

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

“I was addressing…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They fell down the stairs,” he explained.

“All ten of them?”

“Clumsy lot,” he nodded sagely.

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

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

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

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

“Energetic young man,” Randy noted.

“Aren’t they all?” he asked laughing.

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

© 2009 – 2020, Tim Boothby. All rights reserved.