Tuesday, January 29, 2013

King Under the Hill

King Under the Hill


Mary Ringwald opened her door with a full hand but kept it open with a foot. She had worn long pants in defiance of tradition, an act induced by her laundry schedule. Her auburn hair had been like fire once, and years ago she had been beautiful. She still got looks. Her arms were full of bread and eggs, and a briefcase with folders full of dark, over-printed pages. She stepped over the threshold and her door slid shut behind her with a mind of its own. Startled, she looked up and saw Roger in the darkness.

He was wearing a black suit, sitting on a ottoman with his elbows propped on his knees. Windows over his shoulder lit the room, but left him in a single patch of deep shadow. When she'd come in he had been staring at his hands, but now looked up without straightening. He had to stare at her through his thick black brows.

“Roger,” Mary whispered.


“You're here.”


“Is this social?”


The monosyllabic answers and the tone were enough. The door was shut fast behind her, and even if she dropped everything, she wouldn't make it out.

“Is this professional?”


He glanced back down at his hands.

“So I've warranted a personal call?”


He look back at his hands and his huge knuckles. His hands alone were big, but his knuckles were freakishly large. When he didn't flex his fists, the skin still went white across them. Mary had a sudden violent hatred for his soft, short answers.

“So why are you here professionally for me?”

Roger shrugged.

“Are you here to kill me?”

Roger shrugged again.

“Roger, don't be quiet.”

The big, dark man looked up again, then down, then back up as if it took effort to do so. Then he nodded slowly. He spoke very clearly and very succinctly. “Yes, Mary. I'm going to kill you.”

She felt like she won something when he started speaking in complete sentences. “Can I put away my groceries first?”

“Yeah,” he acquiesced and looked down again.

“You're heart isn't in it, Roger.”

“Being heartless is good some times.”

The eggs went into the refrigerator. There were slots for a dozen, which she half filled. The milk went in the door.

“Who invited you in?” she asked as she began unpacking her paper bags. Little things went into cabinets and shelves.

“Your land lady. I told her I was your cousin. She didn't believe me at first, but I lied for a while, told her stories. Eventually she relented. Better that way. She's an old little thing. I asked her softly. She's fine.”

He looked up. She had a knife in her hands. It was a big one, imported from the east, and the edge of the blade had waves like an angry sea. It cut through sourdough effortlessly.

“It's been a long time coming,” Roger said, unprompted, while he watched the motions of the knife. He was peculiarly fascinated by it. “Edmund's dead. We dropped a safe eleven stories onto him. Someone in Surrey had a cold iron safe that weighed half a ton. It was too perfect not to use. With him out, you're next. I could have come in the night, but then you wouldn't get your last sunrise. Now you won't get a last sunset, but I went around and around over that in an alley until I figured it didn't actually make that much difference. Besides, I was here already.”

Mary finished her knife work. Her hands moved in short, dexterous motions that plunged the blade deep into the loaf and slid it out, gliding the cutting surface through the cut. She worked the kitchen knife like a razor. When the loaf was meticulously divided, she held it negligently. Roger kept looking at it. She plunged it into a wooden block holder swiftly yet gently, and it barely rattled. Her visitor looked disappointed. Auburn haired Mary carefully laid the bread slices in a wooden box.

Her murderer rose and faced the window, eying the setting sun set fire to the clouds. The kitchen rattled with faint sounds. Cabinetry opened and thudded lightly closed, and gravity rang hanging spoons like tinny bells. Then it went still. Roger turned and looked back.

Mary was standing in the center of the room, drying her hands on a dishtowel, waiting.

The big man cocked his head at a slight angle. “You didn't try to run?”

“No. I won't.”

His head pulled back against the mounds of his shoulders, and muscles on the back of his neck bulged forward. When he recovered from his recoil, he asked, “Then do you have last words?”

“How do you intend to do it?”

“My hands.”

“Then no words either.”

“Have you nothing in your life of enough importance to be remembered?”

“Lots, but not that I'll say to you. Had I last words, I wouldn't tell them to you at a time like this. My attempted murderer won't be the recipient of the final letters of my life.”


“I'm intending to fight.”


It wasn't a question. It wasn't even an attempt to be such. It was a flat, derogatory expression of disdain, the first emotional words Roger had spoken to her in years. Earlier he'd had nothing but emptiness. Now he unveiled scorn.

“I'm intending to fight you. I'll kill you if I can.”

“But you can't.”

“We'll see.”

“Yes. We will. I've got at least eight stone on you.”

“We call it fifty kilograms now. Or a hundred and some pounds, if you like only somewhat newer terminology.”

Roger shook that aside with a visible shudder of apathy. “Woman, do you think I'm not going to do my job? You think I'll turn aside?”

“Not ever.”

“Then why didn't you take the knife!?” he demanded, waving a sweeping hand towards the kitchen over her shoulder.

“Please, Roger. You were in my house first. Let's mutually acknowledge neither of us is stupid. I assume you made sure that knife bore no threat to you.”

“Then don't you have a gun on you? A little thing that throws metal? Are you going to throw little iron bullets at me?”

“You've searched my house by now. Did you find anything to indicate I have a gun?”

“So you actually intend to fight me? With bare hands?”


So perplexed was Roger his mouth hung open. He suddenly glanced over Mary professionally. Her feet were ever so slightly outside shoulder width apart. Her weight, less than half his, rested evenly on both toe and heel. Her hands were open and relaxed, by her hips. She'd tied her hair back tightly, a severe bun that made her look younger, and it wouldn't get in her eyes. Nor was her clothing encumbering. She stood barefoot on the stone floor. She didn't look confident, but she did look utterly at ease. Yet she wasn't making a move.

Then Roger began to move. He rolled his shoulders back, then upwards, and rolled them forward until his huge arms took positions beside his head. Unrestrained by a tie, his neck swelled in his shirt and pushed the collar wide down to the second button. His feet slid apart from each other, and he deepened his stance. The slight illusion of loss of height was insignificant compared to the immense size advantage over Mary he already had, and the corresponding illusion of increased width seemed to double his mass. He stepped forward, away from the window, and shouldered aside the sunlight until he loomed in the dark. His shadow filled the kitchen. There was nothing in his face, nor an instant's hesitation in his movements.

He advanced slowly, probingly across the floor. His shoes slid on the rug, and his torso rolled with every movement. His entire body was erratically gliding on a thousand points with nearly infinite mobility and struck like lightning from an astonishingly long distance away.

Initially he threw a short jab, lunging behind it, and when Mary sank aside, the following cross was already following. She couldn't dodge that, but foiled the contact with a braced forearm. It rocked her. Roger kept coming, and stepped even closer, driving in another slamming jab. She was able to dodge this, and counterstruck an elbow to his temple. He let her connect in exchange for a perfect uppercut that threw her into the ceiling. Dangling pots broke their hooks and went flying, scattered like kitchen shrapnel. She bounced back down towards the ground, and he spun kicked her out of the air. Without contact with the ground, she had no way to dodge. His entire body fell behind the shin, and when it hit, she crashed backwards, broke through a plaster wall, and tore a hanging painting from the wall as she went down.

Roger ignore the hole in the wall and went to a nearby door. It opened away from him, so he didn't bother trying. He grabbed the knob and yanked, and broke the thin thing in half, throwing the pieces behind him. Mary was back on her feet. He resumed his boxing stance and advanced again.

She hit him with a chair. He shoulder-checked it, and let it shatter about him, but had to close his eyes against splinters. His hands went up to guard his face. Going straight for his throat, she shot through his guard and jammed her thumbnail into his Adam's apple. He gurgled, tried to catch her arm, failed, and she hammered the inside of his knee with a bit of the chair. She was back before his eyes opened, and then she bounded off her dresser to come over top. Her fist fell like stone rain, she followed past to nearly the ground, and rose from beneath his guard, aiming for the crotch. He blocked, ducked even lower until they were on the same level, and struck with open hands.

Roger struck like a snake, Mary retreated like water, and the snake got soaked when she closed. She got inside his guard, matched him, and hammered his head, hands, and knees. He threw elbows, knees, and jabs at too close a range, and then shot in low trying to take her down. Mary played out wide, and his rush shoved her back. Her bare feet barely resisted sliding across the stone floor. She redirected him when he nearly clipped the bed, and redirected him into the wall. Only then did she let go and retreat. Roger grabbed a desk one handed, braced against a wall with his other, and hurled the thing at her backhanded. She ducked and it put a hole in the wall. He followed up with another lunge, connected, and kicked her back into the kitchen. This time she didn't fall.

They circled warily. Suddenly they closed, several hits were exchanged, and they separated. They did it again and again. Someone outside started yelling. Neither of them made any noise beyond breathing and striking. Mary kicked him in the knee. He tried to counter and missed. She kicked him again. He repeated his earlier action. She kicked him again, in the head this time, and put all her weight behind it. He shrugged it off like nothing and tried to punch her out of the air. She had already retreated, and put the kitchen island between them.

Roger threw the island at her. Mary ducked, now scared, for thick beams had anchored the island to the floor. It ruined the sofa, but the effort took him a moment to recover from. She hit him again in the throat, right in the trachea, and he starting gurgling again. She went with an open palm strike to the ear, punch to the throat, kick to the knee, jab to the throat, thumb to eye, punch the throat, inner thigh, throat, throat, eye, throat, eye. Glancing strikes to his head and arms meant nothing, but he started sucking air sloppily, trying hard to breathe. She retreated, made him chase her, and ducked around the broken couch. He almost caught her with another round kick, and when she dodged that her feet got tangled up in a rug. Mary went down. Roger took the countertop from the ruined island and broke the granite over her head. She stood back up in a dust cloud.

“You aren't bleeding,” Roger noted grimly. His voice was high and squeaky. Blood trickled down his neck.

“You took me for stupid.”

“There isn't a spell in this whole house but the ones I put there. I checked.”

The red-head made a face. She closed, and they traded shots in another fast round. Roger ducked low and tried to shoot on her again. She evaded, scoring elbows to his back, kidneys, and ribs. He threw her off, and started jabbing again. She won the trade and connected. They exchanged three more times before she risked a power kick and caught him perfectly in the liver. It should have stopped him. He caught her with a hit she only partially blocked and threw her across the room.

Mary got up. Someone was pounding on the door, trying the handle. The bolt wasn't shot, but the door didn't budge. A short, round silhouette was jumping on the lace curtain, and an old woman was yelling in fear outside. The carriage house was half destroyed inside. Immense, stoic Roger was closing, slowly, across the floor in his usual guard. Mary went for the knives.

She struck, he evaded and with shocking speed smacked the kitchen knife from her hands. She took another, and he ripped off the refrigerator door for a shield. She almost managed to skewer his arm through it, but lost the weapon for her trouble. He threw the rest of the refrigerator at her, connected, and broke another wall with her body. The water heater ruptured and blasted near boiling water everywhere. Mary dashed out of it, her pale skin flushed from exertion. She had a few freckles left. There were no burns, though her wet hair steamed in the hot room.

Waves of debris broke on the floor and made footing treacherous. Roger tried for another take-down, and she made him pay for it. She connected to his knees, throat, and ears. He started fighting sloppy, with his balance so shot standing upright was a chore. Mary retreated, let him command the center of the room, and took refuge by the fireplace. It ran on gas, and she wanted to find out if immolating him would do the trick physical violence seemed incapable of. His brows were bleeding, so he didn't see her well. His nose was broken, so he couldn't smell anything but his own blood. But relentless Roger kept coming, slowly, cautiously, like a rising tide. With a deft twist she opened the valve all the way, and then stood and fought.

He broke the floor, ripping the millstones up to hurl at her. One shattered the fireplace. Next he pulled the ceiling beams down, the better to beat her with. Impact's meant nothing to her. He got his hands on her eventually, and then Mary nearly did panic. Roger's immense, man-killing hands went for her neck, and with slow pressure meant to squeeze the life from her. Broken pipes flooded the room to ankle depth. He drove her to the ground,and put his weight against her. Her maneuverability meant nothing, and water lapped almost over her face as grim faced, he tried to close her airway. Now she began to gurgle.

Mary stopped fighting with one arm, pulled out a lighter she kept in a pocket, and it caught on the first spark. The entire apartment caught a moment later.

She got out about the time the building collapsed. Jets of blue flame gushed upwards around the rubble, and sucked greedily at the pipes for more. She staggered away, wet, bedraggled, and with bits of rubble stuck to her skin. Her landlord was away, yelling into a phone, and must have departed before the carriage houses ended to call emergency services. The blaze itself was going to go on for a while.

While she ran, barefooted through the evening wrapped woods, away from the town, streets, and people, she realized with distinct surprise her throat hurt. Putting her hands to it, she felt what would become deep bruises. Her wet skin didn't bother her, the heated water long since cold, and the flames that had consumed her house had not touched her. Yet Roger's hand prints burned around her neck. He had very nearly gotten through.


Edmund met her at the taxi stand at BWI. After a round of bad communcation with a cabbie, she was getting out of the black and yellow there instead of the departures gate. She had barely paid the fare when she felt a hand on her side. She spun around, recognized Edmund, and embraced him like mad. He held her long enough for the shaking to stop, then put her right back into the taxi, and ordered the driver take them back to Baltimore. She didn't argue, and they began talking quickly in old English.

“Where were you going?” he asked.

“Surrey, looking for you. Roger told me you were dead.”

“Roger? When did you meet Roger?”

“Not a full day ago. He found me in my home.”


“It was a professional visit.”

“I'm so glad you're alive.”

“Barely. He told me they dropped a safe on you.”

“They did, but it was bait. There's only one cold iron safe in the county, possibly the country, and I made sure it was in the town I lived. I couldn't very well put a ward on it, but I made absolutely sure I knew where it was, and a half ton safe isn't a subtle weapon. I was prepared that in such circumstances it could be used against me I was as protected from it as we can be from that much iron. There were arrangements that let them think I was dead. Roger?”

She was wearing a hooded sweater and pulled it open on the side. Her neck was bruised and black. Edmund hissed. She let her hood fall back.

“How did you-”

“Burned my house down on him.”

“Is he-”


“How do you know?”

“He's tougher than he used to be. Faster, stronger, and quicker. This,” she brushed her hood, suggestively. “-was after all my spells. I had everything I could on me, and years and years in the making. He broke them one by one with his hands and feet.”

“With the help of his own, I'm sure.”

“No. They were all confining. His magic is subtler than before. I walked into his trap without realizing it, and once in, I had to burn the house down to get out.”

“That would do it,” Edmund admitted. “If you could survive the house fire, it would clear anything he put on the house.”

“If I could survive being trapped in a house fire with him,” she corrected. “Big if.”

“Very big.”

In agreement they stopped talking and stared out their windows.

Edmund was as fair skinned as her, and they had the same set of face and shape of jaw. His red hair was brighter, but hers was already lighter than it had been. She was strawberry blond again. For being centimeters taller, he wasn't much heavier. They looked like siblings.

“How was he?” Edmund suddenly asked, breaking the silence.

Mary drummed her fingers on the bench. She thought carefully about the question, because whichever way she described him was going to define things.

“Heartless,” she chose. “Pain, futility, or fire. Nothing slowed him down.”

“His magic is subtler. He's also stronger, faster, and tougher?”


“Please, do not take offense, but could you be forgetting how fast, subtle, and strong he used to be?”

“No. I have forgotten nothing of Roger, ever.”

She threw the words at him, and the old Indian cab driver looked up in the rear view mirror. He was an eon too young to understand the words, but he heard the venom.

Edmund said nothing, and then turned back to his window.

“He fell for your ruse,” she said suddenly, facing the pacing countryside.

“It was not a simple ruse,” Edmund said quietly. “Half a ton of cold iron.”


They were silent.

“What do you think?” she asked.

“I think we'll either find a way to deal with Roger, or we'll die.”

Mary's green eyes swept over to him, and met the reflection of his. They were browner and not as deep, flecked with green instead of pure emerald. Outside the cab the world was dark, and the countryside passed in flashing light posts on the highway. They alternated, and when the light came from her side, his window was a mirror. In racing reflections she held his gaze.

“Why now? Why after so long?”

“The thousand years since Arthur's fall is long past. Maybe Armen wants to come out from under the hill. Throw off the facade. Bring magic back to the world. You know that's always been his desire.”

“The world's more full of metal and fire than it ever has been before.”

“Well, maybe he's given up on waiting out humanity to wipe itself out.” Edmund turned from his window, when get sick of staring at himself or a yellow blur in alternation. He turned around entirely to address her. “We thought knights would do it, when they burned the fields and everyone would starve. Then it was long bows. Then guns. Then atomic bombs. Maybe it was atom bombs. By then there was no reason to keep waiting, because if men were going to wipe each other out, they would have done it. How much deadlier a weapon do they need? They even played with it. Mutually assured destruction? It's like a game of chicken standing in a fire. Yet people are still here. Maybe the disappointment of even after all that, they didn't fall from the world was finally too much for him.”

“Maybe he thinks men finally will do the deed, but with enough permanence to take out those under the hill as well.”


“You don't think so?”

“How many times have you known Armen to pay enough heed to the actions of men to openly fear them? Maybe long years have tempered him, but if they'd tempered him enough he worries about humanity, I doubt he'd send the Black Hound after us both. That doesn't sound like temperance.”

“Maybe Roger acted on his own?”

Edmund held her gaze until she stared out her window. Then the reflections betrayed her, and the dark glass held her gaze directly into his eyes. “Do you believe that? You remember him better than I.”

“I don't know what to believe. I wasn't as ready for that as I thought I was.”

“You sounded like you were.”

“Oh, I laid my traps and wove my spells, but-” Her words stalled. Finally they started again, like the sputtering of a broken motor. “Roger tried to kill me. I felt his hands on me again, and they tried to kill me. I had expected it always, but lied to myself when I thought I was ready for it.” They shared a long silence. Like the others, it was respectful, not awkward, but not comfortable either. Edmund knew she had something else to say, and Mary knew he knew, and eventually his patience won out over her aversion to saying it. “Do you blame me for that?”

“No. But we can't afford you to get weak over it. It's only going to get worse from here on out.”

“Do you want to take my heart, so I'm as relentless as Roger?”

“No. I want an ally, not a tool. We can't afford giving you that small kindness either.”

She nodded. “What did you do in Surrey?”

“I sold plants in little glass bottles,” he answered, an innocent tone for an innocent question. It seemed it was time for the more traditional exchange of information between people who hadn't seen each other in a very long time. “The metaphor amused me. What did you do in America?”

“Taught French.”

He shot her a look of disdain. “French?”

“It's a beautiful language.”

“Yes, but the people who speak it are French!”

“You've been above the hill too long. You're taking their prejudices as your own.”

“And you've been in America too long.”

“It's a beautiful language!”

“It's French!”

Monday, October 8, 2012

Prelude to Savant White

When Timothy was very young he met the monsters under his bed and learned their names. They were Daren and Helen, and they looked as much alike as their names sounded. Both appeared from the shadows, climbing up from underneath him while he slept. Daren would perch on his desk, hunched forward with his chin on his knees and long, thin fingers gleaming white in the moonlight. Helen was accustomed to sit in the chair. Her raven-dark hair tumbled like a still waterfall over her shoulders, molding in the shadows with her black gown. Their eyes shimmered in the dark.

For months he was too terrified of them to make a noise. Timothy would lay, perfectly still, under his covers and hope they thought him asleep. So silently did he remain that he succeeded. They said no words and slunk back to whence they came by dawn. But on his seventh birthday he spoke to them and learned their names. The two monsters offered to teach him all that they knew, and he agreed. For Helen the subject was sorcery, while Daren's primary concern was murder.

For all their strange and sinister powers, neither knew the first thing of talking to children. Thus they approached his lessons in a way they did know, which was the telling of stories. These lasted many days, and Timothy sat in his bed, listening with rapt attention, while Helen told him of the wars between mages, and Daren of the strife that lead to the seizing of crowns. His were always bleaker and fraught with violence, while Helen told the same tale, making it of enchantment and black magic. They were stories suitable for telling by monsters to a small boy in the stillness of the night.

"In the world we are from," Helen began the very first night. "Magic is a science. The study of why the sun rises is an examination of the spells that compel it up. This was not always the case. Once we dwelt in a land Carcosa of dreams, but doom came with the King in Yellow and Carcosa is no more. Thus we came to Wilno, and I learned magic.

"In Wilno there are a number of different powers. Spell magic and the lore of lands are commonly known, while the power of blood and heritage are widely respected though mysterious. The greatest of all, though the hardest to master, is rune magic. It can only be learned through the mastery of many runes. Some of these may be discovered through deep understanding of many spells. They must be compared until the underlying pins can be discerned. Others do not exist in any impure form and can only be obtained from a master. Of these there is only one, me."

"How did you learn them?" the boy Timothy asked. If he did not ask questions, some of these points were never addressed.

"I learned them when I first came to Wilno, before the secrets of that place were hidden. It was very long ago, before the fall of Carcosa."

"Why did you leave?"

"I was exiled," she explained. "For some unpleasantness that followed the death of my father."

At this Daren smiled with deep personal satisfaction.

"After I left Wilno," she continued, "I came her to Earth and dwelt here for many years. In time someone of Wilno sought me out, even here, for my unique talents. He was named James, and he worked for my brother Duncton."

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

August 2012

"Good morning, Evans. Please take a seat."

"Thank you, sir."

"Would you like something to drink? Coffee or water, perhaps?"

"No thank you, sir."

"Are you sure? I would rather this be as informal as it can be, under the circumstances. Can I get you coffee at least?"

"No thank you, sir. I'm fine."

"Very well. You've always been an upstanding guy, and I've never had any complaints with your work. Your code has always been top notch. But these accusations are pretty serious. He went over my head when he filed them, and I'm going to talk to my boss about everything tomorrow. This is your chance to give me your side of the affair."

"I have nothing to say about this affair, sir. Cotder's lying. There's no truth to anything he said, and I'm not interested in saying anything else. You can look at any of my code from the last three years, and then look at his and compare them to the Wrysus source code and there's no question. He and I don't document in the same fashion, we don't name our variables the same way, we do basically nothing alike. He doesn't even operate across his array indexes in a reasonably optimized fashion and now he's claiming I stole two thousand lines of code from him? Two thousand lines that run like a wild fire, integrate perfectly with a project I'm working on separately, and don't resemble anything he's ever done? Sir, it's a bold faced lie. He's an idiot and a thief."

"I see."

"Yes, sir."

"So..... I actually have a printout of the code in question here, and I've got some your earlier stuff. Could you walk me through a couple of divergences between the Wrysus project and your typical stuff?"

"Like what, sir?"

"Well, the way you pass the variables between classes for one. It's odd. You've never done that before. See, here and here-"

"It's faster, sir! It cuts four milliseconds per operation off the transfer time, and a minimal run is ten thousand operations."

"Yes, Evans, it is. But you've never done that before, even in speed optimized code."

"So what? I need to do it wrong just because I didn't do it right before?

"No, certainly not. It's just unusual. Why did you make the change this time?"

"I just told you! It's faster! Sir."

"Yes, it is. All right, would you lead me through your chain of logic on something. Now, when you set up the architecture-"

"Why? What did he say!?"

"Evans, Evans. Relax. This isn't a trick. There isn't a 'gotcha' moment here. I'm just trying to get your side of the story. Now, you set up a main class-"

"Of course I did! You can't do it without a main class. What? Did Cotder patent main classes now? Perhaps he patented typing also? What does he want me to do, shout my code at the computer in French or something?"

"-that you named WrysusMainClass-"

"Because it's supposed to be transparent!"

"Evans, seriously, calm down."

"But this is bullshit, sir. It's a damn witch-hunt. You want to see where my code's from? Fine. See this chunk? Yeah, I stole it. I stole it from the Ark project I wrote! Look at them side by side. Even the white space is the same. You want to see where I took the WritePass function? Right here. Look at it. It's highlighted! All I did was switch around some of the names and use a new order, but it's the exact same block. I copy and pasted wholesale. From my own code!"

"Evans. Evans. Evans."


"I know. See? That's why I highlighted it. Look. I even noted this is where that came from."


"Right here. Look. I noted it."


"Yes. I agree with you. We're agreeing here."

"All right, then. Yes. Sir."

"Are you okay?"

"Yes, sir. I'm fine."

"Sure you don't want a water or something?"

"No, sir."

"All right. So this and that are pretty much the same. You named things like normal. With me?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good. You know what? I'm going to have some water. Good. So you named things like normal. Then you- Evans, why are you standing up?"



"Nothing! Sir. I'm just standing. Can I stand?"

"Ah, yes, you can. But why?"

"Nothing. I just want to stand."

"Are you going to be okay for this?"

"I'm fine, sir."

"If you're sure...."

"Very sure, sir."

"Right. So, in WrysusMainClass you open the class and then start commenting on-"

"I don't have to listen to this! He's a liar!"

"What- Evans!"


There was a long silence.

"I swear I'm switching this entire department to decaf."

Monday, June 25, 2012

GWJ 25 June

My cousin was angry at me when he walked in. The profanity gave it away. Soaked to the bone was a tip, and the malicious gleam in his eyes certainly tipped the scales towards open hostility, but no one swears like my cousin. It's legitimately impressive. On more than one occasion he's sent grown men to the dictionary to learn what nature of obscenity he just called them.

"You seem upset."

This, it developed, was a mild understatement.

Beginning with my hobbies and parentage, he lapsed poetic for several minutes as he removed his dripping rain jacket and pegged it. Removal of his hat was scored to disparaging observations regarding my personal hygiene. Boots and sexual proclivities went together like hand and glove, though to be literal, those went with a critique of my appearance now. Proceeding from cigarette to cigarette, my attention wandered as he went on until his conclusion, something about goats and enemas. This wasn't one of his better ones.

"Yes, absolutely." Smoke left my mouth, entered my nose, and was breathed out again. Showing off always irritated him, especially given his opinion of tobacco in general. "And thank you for the kind words regarding my flexibility. Too long now have-"

"Oh, shut up!" he snapped. "Why in God's name did you tell Teresa to ask me out?"

Not a single non-sarcastic answer to that question came to mind.

"To be certain she doesn't come down with lock-jaw. Too long a period of silence and bam! Tetanus."

"Oh, stop being a bitch." This from a man who'd just shared such flattery with me. "Besides, it's a bacterium. Silence has nothing to do with it."

"Well if we're being scientific, she's also probably vaccinated against it. It's something you can ask her on your date if the conversations begins to drag." A worrisome idea occurred suddenly, so worrisome it had to be asked immediately without waiting for a normal exhale first. Smoke and words tumbled from my lips like an old testament prophecy. "You did say yes, right?"

"Of course!" he snapped, throwing himself into a chair before me and glowering in my direction. "Teresa is the most beautiful woman on earth. God, if she asks you to carry her car a dozen miles on your back because she didn't want to change a flat, you say yes. It may have taken an second to remember how to speak after she sprang it on me, but god yes. Not pouncing on to start humping her leg was-"

"An impressive display of taste. We ladies do like the little things. Now why exactly are you so angry?"

He shot me a pensive look and bit back several immediate responses. This implied we were beyond family sparring and onto the heart of the matter. Tyson, that's his name if you didn't know already, has a wonderfully complex worldview and deeply complicated though incredibly consistent motivations. It's one of the reasons we get along so well. He likes talking about why he does things, and it provides me with no end of interesting thought material. Were we not related and therefore he in my dating pool, it might be enough to change my team, but freak coincidence had protected me from that even as it gave me a continuously evolving riddle of logic and characterization.

"It's that she asked me. Since Teresa is the perfect woman- Would you mind blowing that out a window or something?"

"The logical connection between those two escapes me." This admission came with both sarcasm and cigarette smoke, my two natural excretions.

"Do you want an answer or to made snide remarks?"

That was a difficult question. Why did he have to limit it to just one? A number of additional smart responses occurred to me, but wrestling with myself revealed the answer was more important. We moved a box fan and opened some windows, and Tyson went back to talking while eddies of white smoke ran outside.

"It's that she asked me, and not the other way around," he finally admitted.

"Oddly enough, that's why she did it. Though tell me, would you have?"

He ignored my question. "Why is that why she did it?"

"She's never asked anyone out before."

He started raising objections but couldn't get a word in edgewise. "Yes, she's been out a lot, but she never asked any of those boys out." There was special emphasis on that part. It had been important when we'd talked. "We were talking about when her brother asked me out, and we discovered neither of us has ever done the asking. She then admitted the idea of it actually scared her quite a bit. It's scarier for girls, but Teresa thinks that's a load of hogwash. She says it shouldn't be. It is. Anyway, she decided that she was going to do it. Knowing you've been basically in love with her since you could walk, and therefore Teresa's risk of rejection was low, someone put your name forward. That's why you'd better have said yes. Ruining your own hopes and dreams with your perfect girl is fine, but you had better not make my taste in these matters look shady."

"You did that for me?"


He was silent for a long time.

"Really?" he suddenly asked again.

Snorting smoke is a great dramatic gesture. It's one of my favorite things to do. It carries scorn so well.

"Sorry," he grumbled. It wasn't very gracious, but it was the best he was going to give.

"So why exactly did it bother you?"

He rolled his eyes and made indefinite gestures before admitting, "It should be the other way around. Me asking her, you know."

"No, it shouldn't, but yes, it usually is." The complex agreement felt forced to me because in spite of everything, in spite of how much it shouldn't matter, it absolutely did, even in my own head.

"Do you think she'll think- Does that make me seem- But because she was the one-" He started the question a few times and probably would have gotten to finishing it eventually.

"It may. But that just means you have to be extra brave next. Where are you two going?"

He looked at me blankly then shrugged in bafflement. "Doesn't she have to decide? That's part of the being the asker."

He got another look of scorn. "You don't know?"

"She didn't say!" he retorted defensively. "Besides, it was right before she had to go to work. She told me to call her when she gets off, but we didn't have time to discuss the details."

"She might have a plan, but you should have a back-up plan, just in case."

"What should we do?" he asked, pleadingly.

Honestly, it was a legitimate question. She asked him and probably hadn't made a plan either. It should have been her job but going off how nervous she had been when we'd talked, she was probably still getting over the idea of asking a boy out and him saying yes. Tyson was completely in the right. There was no way he would get an admission of that out of me.

"Dinner. Twilight."

"No!" he gasped, horrified.

"Your dream girl loves them." It filled my heart with evil glee to say that.

"You're kidding. She doesn't actually-"

"She loves them. Swear to god." That was absolutely true.

"But- Twilight?" he whined plaintively.

Maybe it was the sweet smell of the smoke, or perhaps the faint taste of Tyson's agony as he confronted the idea of two hours of sparkling vampires. Either way it was delightful. But he was still so nervous there was no way he'd ignore my advice. He had vampires in his future. That would appropriately punish him for his rudeness earlier, especially when it wasn't one of his funnier rants. One had to have standards.

"Twilight. Bitch." Victory.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Death of a Swordsman 15


Varad's meditations were becoming peculiar. By now his burned hands and back had healed, as had the mark's left on his wrists and forearms by Fradick. He could breath without difficulty. Even his legs were making good progress. As best he could tell, the bones were healing straight. If he twisted so his feet rested on the floor, he could rest the weight of his legs on them without pain. Even bouncing his lower legs up and down with his ankles merely increased his sense of tenderness.

Yet when he closed his eyes and ran katas in his head, things were different. As he went deeper into himself, his hands and wrists began to burn. Every move practiced to slow perfection became a tedious wade through through some viscous, burning fluid that resisted his movement. Even the relaxation drills that he had used since he was a child came harder.

Varad began those by imagining his bed was adrift on a dark, sunless river. The motion of the waves was very slight, nothing more then the beat of his pulse against his skin. By visualization he left his pain and injuries on the banks of that river while he floated slowly to the center of the river stream. Then the current bore him away, down over rock and dell, until emptying into a vast black tarn between soaring peaks. As a child he had seen such a tarn on a journey over the mountains. Now his memories of it formed a still, black lake between soaring peaks where the water was always frigid. At the center of the lake he would lay, kept warm by the thin bed of his prison, and pushed his mind through his own body. Not so much willing his injuries to heal but rather feeling them do so, his mind had created a point of stillness at the center of the nameless lake of his childhood where he could bend all his mental facilities on encouraging his body to sustain itself. That was before.

Now there was a black, sun-forsaken mass of rock that hovered over him and his lake. It slipped into the images he created for himself, and loomed ominously above his head. Had it remained on the shore before he floated off, he would have thought nothing of it. Then he knew it would have just been a shadow of a painful memory of defeat. Yet it lurked above him, and held within it a potent threat that he could hardly ignore. The lake water he occasionally pictured lapping up against him was becoming warmer then he remembered. Where it touched his skin, his body felt inflamed in his dreams. Every time returned to reality from his dream state, he traced the sensation of heat, and always found it in the places the dragon had licked him with its fire. Now those burns were gone, yet phantom pains skittered across his consciousness when he meditated. Recently they had begun to appear when he awoke from regular sleep. He had no idea how to dispel them.

One afternoon Varad sat on his bed, staring at a wall. His mind was totally blank, though not intentionally. Sensations of the strips splinting the bed legs to his shins entered his head, as did the awareness that the bed still retained two long poles and one short one. Between them they formed the rectangular frame, with the final side comprised of the sod wall, into which the poles were jammed. It rested at an angle, missing legs, that he had ignored at first because he had been exhausted from injury every time he went to sleep. Now he was used to it. The low ceiling and loamy walls filled the room with the smell of dirt in a way that had nothing to do with the scent of filth. Outside it was afternoon, and the shadows wrapped the boulder strewn hillside. Koquo sat on his haunches just inside the doorway, looking lost in his thoughts as well.

The swordsman threw off his lethargy and announced, "I'm going to the cleft."

Koquo shook himself and glanced up. "Whatever," he replied, shrugging. He rose and got out of Varad's way, but did nothing to help as the injured man began his regular crawl towards the split boulder where he relieved himself.

As Varad did his business, a sudden tension ran through the people of the valley. The cattle herds were still out. The consequence had rarely stayed in one place this long, and the herd's tenders were being forced to foray further and further for fresh grazing. Those who remained were already preparing the evening meal. Yet as one they began emerging from hidden places and secreted houses to stare at the western sides of the valley. A lone figure was riding down the hill. He was not of the Consequence of Sudden Conflict, Lrok's people.

Life on the plains did not lend itself to strange visitors, Varad had noted. Even beyond that, the tangible sense of expectation running through the hillside settlement was filled with concern and fear. One by one those who emerged to see the stranger were returning to their homes, and playing children were being quietly summoned into hiding. Koquo had dropped into a crouch and was ignoring Varad to stare at the visitor from behind cover. If Varad had been able to walk, he might have made a run for it.

Instead he finished what he was doing and crawled back to the plainsman's side. "We can return now," he hissed.

Koquo barely glanced at him but wormed away on his belly. Before crawling after him, Varad took another look at the stranger. He stared hard, for now the rider was closer and could be discerned in better detail.

It was another horned lord. The spurs jutting from his skull were longer and sharper than those of either Lrok or Fradick. As he came closer and details resolved to give a sense of perspective, Varad realized this horned one must be huge. Tall grass barely made it to his knees. That meant the rider was seven, possibly eight feet tall. He looked normal sized on his dark gray steed. Unlike Lrok, he had several spikes jutting out of his skin of his head below the ring about his temple. They stabbed out of his jaw and the back of his head, but none appeared from the center of his face. He wore leather, but his jerkin and pants had been finely tailored around the horns. They stabbed up from his body, through his clothing, like he wore an armor of sharp, blood letting spikes. Only his joints were free of them, though several appeared on the backs of his hands. Several shot forward, past the knuckles, and others swept back above the wrist towards the fore-arm. Varad considered it, and judged this one's natural armor was far superior to either of the horned lords he had met so far. The stranger's growth was either guided or extremely lucky.

It reined in at the base of hill, and dismounted heavily. The ground sank beneath its feet. After removing a single leather wrapped parcel from the beast before turning, and walking powerfully up the hill. The horse began to graze, unhobbled. Only by analyzing the way the stranger moved did Varad realize it was a woman. Then she passed out of sight, and he crawled after Koquo.

Lrok met his visitor near a spring pool. Water bubbled up from between two boulders and filled a shallow, hand carved depression before tumbling away. In the valley it widened, and there the herds drank. There were other streams, and they ran together into a wider creek, almost a small river. That stank of cow manure, though flowers grew bright and dense along its banks. This pool remained exclusive for the consequence.

"Dhrazud," Lrok acknowledged her with a nod.

"Bow, Lrok," she replied flatly.

The smaller horned lord hesitated. He shot searching gazes around the small grotto but saw nothing but grass swarming over the dirt. This depression had also been dug in by hand, and no traces of the colorful plants showed to bear witness that this place was a better settlement spot than any other. Above their heads the rude, unworked stone rose into the air to stab at the sky. No one was watching.

Slowly, Lrok bent and sank all the way to his knees. They stabbed into the ground, and the mud squished under him. He leaned forward until his forehead touched the dirt, and he prostrated himself in supplication.

Dhrazud lifted one foot to stomp down on his head, smashing his face into the muck up to his ears. Lrok could not breath, and the woman ground his head down, working it in. She did that for a while.

"Never make me tell you to bow again," she ordered, pushing her weight forward until his head was immersed into the mire to his neck. With a final grind, she released him. Lrok pulled his face free with a slurpy hiss, and sucked deeply at air. "Did you hear me through the dirt? Never wait until I tell you to bow. Now, you insubordinate little shit, perhaps you would like to tell me why I'm here?"

For a several seconds Lrok just breathed while runny mud dribbled from the ridges of his face, and trickled from his horns. Finally he responded, "It is not for me to tell you anything, Dhrazud. It is for me to listen to anything you choose to say." His forced words sounded unnatural, and the humility barely squeezed through fury.

"True, little rat. True. It was the wind. The lying, deceiving wind brought me here."

Dhrazud looked down and noticed she had sank into the mud up to her ankles. She trudged out of the mire to a rock and wiped most of the grime off. Then she continued, "The lying wind told me you had killed your brother Fradick. That cannot be, of course, because you have not asked my permission, nor send me my tribute. Where is the half his body I am owed? You do remember that, don't you? Anyone who kills one of my sons must give me half?" She turned to look at Lrok and gauge his reaction.

He did not show one. Instead he was wiping the fast drying mud from his face. Already most of it had caked into dirt, and the rest was steaming in the cold air.

She continued, "The whispering wind also tells me that you caught a northman. A redcloak. It tells me you are ransoming him back to his people for his weight in northern steel. Does the wind lie?"

Lrok clawed caking muck from his face with his fingernails, trying to figure out a way to admit one without the other. He decided the sidestep the question. "Do you want half a man's weight in fine, northern steel? I would be happy to give it to you in filial tribute, Dhrazud."

"Of course, little rat, but you've screwed that up already. If you had told me ahead of time, we would have the steel to split it. But the wind told the Kahserac, and he wants the redcloak dead. He wants the mortal dead immediately. Now we won't get a inch of steel, and if I'm losing the steel you should have given me, you'll give me Fradick's entire body."

"What does he care for a human?" Lrok demanded.

Dhrazud's head snapped around to glare at her son over her shoulder. "Are you asking me a question, little rat?"

Lrok could not answer, so said nothing.

"What difference does it make?" she said finally. "He heard through the wind that you sent a messenger north with a sword. He drew out a pattern that might match blade. So it came to me to track this messenger down before he made it to the northlands and see if the sword your messenger was carrying matched the pattern. My best mount almost died getting me to the very borderlands in time to catch your rider, and then when I took the sword he refused to tell me where you lived these days."

"Clearly his will was no match for yours," Lrok replied.

"Of course. I began eating him from the feet. He talked before I got to his waist. But there was no time to finish the rest of him, so I wasted all of his meat and organs beside the brain," she said with disgust.

Lrok said nothing. He stood in the muck that oozed about his sinking feet and listened quietly, staring down.

Dhrazud unrolled the package she had brought and produced a broken sword. The leather wrap had a charcoal drawing on the inside that matched the six pointed star on the Song of Winter's pommel. It also had a sketch of the distinctive snowflake pattern along the blade. They were clearly the same. In disgust, she tossed them to the mud. Lrok's posture changed, which she noticed.

"You have a question," Dhrazud told him.

"Not, of course, without your permission," he replied. Without waiting, he genuflected again and moved to prostrate himself.

"Keep your face out of the muck. What is it?"

"If the human is wanted dead, and not to ransom, may we eat the corpse?"

"No. The Kahserac wants the corpse brought to him as proof." Then, with sudden hunger she asked, "Is the human fat?"

"I have fed him well," Lrok replied. "His legs are broken, but he would be a fine meal."

"A damned waste. You should have killed someone for our meal when you saw I was coming," she decided regretfully.

"I should have," he agreed submissively. "Shall I do that now?"

"No. You may tell me where Fradick's corpse is, and where I can find horses that will carry it back to the deep south with me. Then you may go kill the human. Don't mangle him too badly. He needs to be recognized."

Lrok winced in pain at the thought of giving up his brother's full corpse. He had just begun to work it. Combined with the pain of losing the mortal's body-weight in steel, the kneeling figure felt agonized by loss. "I obey your bidding."

"Where's your brother?" Dhrazud demanded.

"Between the two highest pillars, there is a forge. His body-metal is within. There are horses tether by the stream, and they can bear Fradick's body-metal for you. My own horse is there, if you need it. He is young, and not yet injured from bearing me."

"As little as you are, that is no surprise," she replied. "Very well. Go kill the human. Strangle it or something. I'm going to go get my tribute."

She turned and hurled herself out of the grotto. The earth crumbled underneath her feet, meaning she had to climb and claw to drag herself out, gouging great furrows in the earth. When she was gone, the traces of her passage showed a wound in the soil.

Lrok looked sick. For a long moment he stared up after her, thinking about the work he had put into smelting Fradick and the taunts that would now be defunct. Then wearily he rose and trudged through the grasping muck.

"Who was that?" Varad had asked Koquo when the two of them were back in the small cell.

"Don't know. It doesn't matter," Koquo had answered apathetically.

"It was female," Varad added, hoping to eke out more of a response.

"It doesn't matter. They were all men or women once, but they aren't any more. One is no different from the rest. Stop talking. I am not Farus."

Continued questions elicited no clarifications, and shortly Varad stopped asking.

He was certain of only one thing, though, and that was that nothing here happened for the better. No arrival of another, larger horned lord to his captor's settlement would improve his life. It would either leave it unchanged or make it worse. While he came to this conclusion Dhrazud was tersely telling Lrok to kill him. Against either possibility, the injured swordsman decided to disassemble his bed. Koquo watched but said nothing. The plainsman just did not care.

When Lrok suddenly appeared in the doorway, Koquo glanced between the captive, seated amidst a pile of loose wood and leather sheets, and his master. He pulled himself to his feet to stare at his master's shoulder. The horned lord overtopped him by a full head, and Koquo was taller than Varad. "Begone," Lrok ordered, and Koquo fled.

The northerner glanceded at the southern plainslord's posture and carriage for an instant. He had dried mud caked to his face, burned dry. More was splattered on his hands and knees. The lord stood with his weight evenly spread between his feet, leaning slightly forward digressively. His shoulders were bunched towards the slight hump of his neck, and there was tension in the big hands.

"I see I'm not getting ransomed," Varad observed, wondering if Lrok would explain.

Lrok did not, but he did have questions of his own. "Who are you, northman? Why does anyone care?"

For a moment the captive considered the question. In his serene trance, lying was impossible and he would have to fully arise to speak untruth. "I am Al'Varad of the Seven Fingered Palm. My blade is the Song of Winter." Varad replied simply.

Lrok looked baffled, like the words were incoherent. "You are from the Palm? They are the masters of the sword, who stand alone against our kind. You are broken and weak, and I crushed your Song of Winter myself."

"I was injured fighting a dragon." Something inside Varad's head almost clicked. The dragon was a creature who only existed by magic and fire, like the horned lord. There was no way a being with as much metal in its body could move easily like Lrok, and there had been no way the dragon could fly, carrying the corsair. It was like two gears half meshed, but there was a missing piece required for them to complete their interface. "In time, I will be whole again.

"No, you're not," Lrok replied. "You're going to die now."

"Will you eat me, cannibal lord?" Varad asked.

"I am no man. Eating men does not make me a cannibal. The coyote is blameless for eating the sheep."

"As are the sheep for killing the coyote."

Lrok grew tired of this and instead of replying lunged for Varad's neck. From the floor Varad torqued his body to thrust the soft-wood bed pole with shattering force into the horned lord's eye. His thrust was so fast Lrok didn't have the time to blink before the poplar beam crashed into his right eyeball, and straight enough that the pole could not flex in any direction. Instead the force of the strike rebounded onto itself, and exploded in a hail of splinters. Varad rolled sideways with the broken end of the pole clutched tight while Lrok stumbled and crashed into the wall.

When the horned lord turned, the northerner was shocked to realize he hadn't blinded that eye. The ball was lanced with splinters, but it still saw, moving around in its socket. Lrok rose and faced Varad again. Without use of his legs, the swordsman could not drop his hips into a strike. This he seized one of Lrok's ankles and hurled the stubby end of the pole into his eye again.

This throw was slower, and Lrok had time to blink. Unfortunately for him, his eyelids simply caught the splinters that pincushioned his eye and squeezed it, distorting the shape and raising a fluid filled bump directly over the pupil. The ragged end of the poplar pole hit this full on. Being sharper then the blunt end from before, it lanced into the distorted eyeball. By then Lrok's flailing hands caught the pole. It crumpled in before his unnatural strength, and ripped tissue and flesh out with it as he yanked it free.

Lrok wound up staring at his dangling, ruined eyeball as it hung from his hand. The thick, coarse nerves still ran into his head, and they pulsed with heat in the cold air. The wound bled, but it looked like leeching rust instead of blood.

It was too much. Lrok lost his grip on his fury like he had lost Fradick's corpse, a man's weight in steel, and now his eye. He screamed something that was too obscene for mortal profanity and dove at the supine Varad.

His momentum got redirected, and the horned lord smashed entirely through a sod wall. It crumpled on his, burying him with dirt and grass. It took him several seconds to extricate himself, and along the way he lost his grip on the dangling eye. Finally he stood up, throwing dirt and boulders aside, and screaming incoherently. Elsewhere, Dhrazud heard her son's cries and anguish, and could not stop laughing as she collected Fradick's body.

The hut had collapsed, but Varad was outside with the remaining, longer bedpole. He was tumbling erratically down the hillside, flailing his limp legs and posting with his arms to avoid the larger boulders. Lrok threw himself after, crashing into rocks as the hillside gave way under his incautious haste. He started a minor avalanche that swept Varad away before him, likewise bouncing between boulders. Other humans of the consequence scrambled out of their way.

Finally Varad caught himself on the lip of a standing stone that had parted the cascade of dirt. Spinning the bed-pole to an upside down, spear thrower's grip, he swung himself around and jammed it into Lrok's legs. The massive horned lord was charging wildly, out of control, and his center of mass had already passed his feet. Only speed had kept him from rolling forward. Varad's lunge arrested the movement of one of his legs enough that Lrok spun sideways and couldn't get his feet under him in time. His massive, iron-dense body thundered into the erect stone and broke it at the base. Now it, he, and Varad all joined the tumbling fall of dirt that poured between two of the lower boulders and out onto the flat ground before the hill.

Lrok's horned skin provided an easy if painful grip. By the time they stopped rolling, Varad had taken control of his enemy's back and seized the dangling eyeball. He wrapped the tethering nerve around Lrok's neck and yanked, before spearing it on one of the latter's own back spikes. At some level it must have still had feeling, for that gave rise to a earth shattering howl of pain.

Then Lrok rose and searched around. Before Varad could drop away, he figured out the meaning of the strange weight on his back and reached down to grab one of the human's legs, yanking him free in a manner that defied all leverage. Then he lifted the man to wring his neck.

Varad clapped him on both ears, palms flat and wide. On his head Lrok only had the crown, none of the protection on the sides of his face, meaning the strike was unimpeded. It stunned him for a moment, disturbing his already spinning sense of equilibrium. Varad did it again, harder, and then a third time with desperation.

Reflexively the self described predator threw Varad away, and staggered around until he had his bearings. Varad went rummaging through the loose dirt for the bed-pole, and found it when Lrok finally had returned to his senses.

For his part, the horned lord realized he had been fighting stupid. Varad could not run, or even walk, but with a weapon in his hand he was a threat. In fact, the only threat he posed was with his arms. Eschewing getting in close enough to be grappled, Lrok trudged over to the broken stone that had stood like a plinth. It was as tall as him, several feet around, and massed easily several hundred pounds. He heaved it upright, and then threw it.

There was no way to parry it, but it was not moving fast. Varad pushed himself sideways, letting the stone crash into the dirt before him. It threw up a wide splash of loose soil but barely rolled. Meanwhile Lrok had grabbed another great stone and hurled that after the first. This one missed.

"Loosing an eye threw your aim off!" Varad yelled.

"I'll get lucky," Lrok replied evenly. His rage had cooled to a seething, murderous fury that would drive him to sadistic lengths. He searched around for another boulder, and found one a couple yards up the hillside.

It was more than three times a man's weight, and he took two motions to heave it over his antlered head. From the short distance away Varad peppered his face with small, egg shaped rocks, but Lrok ignored them. He advanced carefully, picking his footing and thinking about range.

Varad was fighting to stay calm. His hands burned, His chest was covered in blood from the dozen horn wounds, and his legs had buckled when he tried to put weight on them. He knew if he tried again the fractures would rebreak, leaving him worse then before. He had a chance while Lrok fought stupid, but now that was fading. The crippled Swordman watched Lrok advance slowly with ponderous care.

Then he fled. Varad forsook even crawling and rolled away. Still outside of throwing range, Lrok lurched into faster motion and took two running steps. One the third his foot sank into the loose dirt to his knee, and thrown off balance he dropped the stone. It plowed into the earth, with its highest point several inches below the surface. He had to fight to get back on the surface of the ground before he picked it up again, and then Varad's shameful but effective retreat had taken him out of sight around one of the standing monoliths. Lrok set off after him.

Around the hillside, people were beginning to watch the engagement. Soon now the herds would return, driven by the watchers. The shadows were reaching east from the hillsides, and to the north the mountains were already lost in gloom. The horned lord trudged after his prey, but circled wide around the rock so he couldn't be ambushed.

He found Varad, crawling away up a hillside where it would be difficult to follow carrying the huge boulder. Lrok discarded it, intending to find another when he caught up with the human. As he did so he noticed Farus, dashing around the hillside on horseback and waving his arms wildly for attention. The horned one shot a glance uphill, then at the approaching human, before asking, "What?"

"Master, she's trying to kill you. Do not trust her!" gasped Farus but very quietly as he approached. Immediately he threw himself face down onto the dirt. He turned his head sideways just enough that he could speak. "Her orders, master. They are full of lies."

"What?" Lrok repeated himself in a flatter, far more hostile tone.

"Master, I beg you think. Dhrazud came alone from the deep south, riding one of the few horses which can carry her great weight. She rides it almost to death to catch your messenger, and then does not even finish killing him slowly after finding out where you are. What haste must she have been in, master?

Without waiting for an answer, he continued. "But on arriving she does not kill the mortal herself. She bids you do it. Why would she go to such lengths, but not take the kill herself? And what happens? A man who cannot walk and armed with a stick from his bed fights you off. You said yourself there is something unnatural about a man who sets his own broken legs. On those splints, look at what he has done!"

"I am looking at what he has done," Lrok replied, staring up the hill. "He is getting away."

"How far away can he get? He can barely only crawl!" Farus pleaded.

"I have noticed this. That is why I am listening to you now. I also noticed you listened in on business that had no bearing on you," the horned one said. His rage was still throbbing at the base of his skull, but it was quiet. Farus's words intrigued him.

"I did, master," Farus agreed, knowing denial was pointless. "And I shadowed you to the mortal's cell, where I saw the conflict. Lord of the Sudden Conflict, I asked myself, why would she do this thing? The more I thought, the more troubled I became. Why would the Kahserac send Dhrazud to handle this matter personally, and in justification the prisoner said he intended to kill Morryin. Master, no one can kill Morryin. Yet the man Varad aims to do just that, and the Kahserac does not want him alive. The only meaning can be that the Kahserac fears him. Dhrazud must fear him too.

"If you kill the mortal, she will gain the full weight of Fradick's metal. But if the mortal kills you, then he will be weak and he will be easier for her to kill. Yet you gain nothing. The only outcomes for Lrok, Master of the Sudden Conflict, are death or loss of all Fradick's body metal."

Lrok turned again to watch the struggling human make his way up the hill. They were speaking in low tones, and he doubted Varad would be able to overhear.

"You tell me you think he could win?" Lrok asked with contempt and menace.

"He took your eye with a stick!" Farus implored, still face in the dirt. "He is no redcloak but knows they prize him highly. Master, the redcloaks must fear this man's sword arm and value it above a hundred swords. He has a chance, and either way, you gain nothing by this fight."

That Lrok had admitted to himself, and the ugly injury at the heart of his fury bristled with the truth of it. Absently he removed his impaled eyeball from his back. It looked deflated, and most of the occular fluid had drained out. He popped it into his mouth and bit through the nerve before stuffing the rusty red fibers into his eye socket. Now his missing eye looked like it cancerously bulged from a gaping hole in his head. Lrok chewed the eyeball absently and swallowed.

"So what?" Lrok asked. "But speak quickly.

"Let him go."

"Stand up, idiot. I cannot hear you with your face in the muck."

Farus threw himself to his feet. "Let him go. I will go to him, put him on a fast horse, and send him away. Dhrazud dare not let him escape, but she cannot chase a lone man running for her life if she is leading a team of horses, each bearing a piece of Fradick's corpse. She will have to run at once to her own steed and give chase. They will be gone, you will keep Fradick's corpse, and with luck, Varad will end Dhrazud's life for you."

The man was talking fast. The words tumbled out of his lips in his haste to get them out. "You will already be chasing the man on your own horse. Just don't catch him. But Dhrazud has her own steed, a god-horse of the deep south. She will overtake you, and then have to pass on to catch the man. Follow them both. If he kills her, take her body-metal for your own, and you will have both her great corpse and Fradick's. If she kills Varad, then maybe you will let her go. But maybe she will be very injured, and then, the outcome will be the same. Only then you have Varad's corpse as well, to send to the Kahserac. He may reward you greatly in the south."

"I see you say nothing of what will happen in the Consequence when I am gone," Lrok noted.

Farus stared stared at him. "My lord, make me one of you. Exalt me, bring the horns from my body. I will rule the consequence while you are gone. If you go south to greater things, you won't need the Sudden Conflict, and I will keep them. I can only gain if you do, and as my sire, you will be protected from me."

"The sheep wants to be a coyote?" Lrok asked, mimicking his earlier conversation.

"All sheep want to be coyotes," Farus told him. "Above all things, I desire power. I will get it for you, if you reward me in kind. Two coyotes can kill a wolf."

Lrok thought about this as Varad finally made it over a bump in the hill above them. Seeing his target get out of sight made the freezing fury recede, and his mind seemed to defrost. The horned lord ran calculations in an instant, and with each thought his wits swelled. "Very well, Farus. Go. Set the northman free," he ordered. With that he turned and ignored the man as he went back for his horse. He found it easily, and then set to making it ready. That took a long time, and Lrok acted with no haste.