Targets

This is another of those scenes that wouldn’t let go, that had to be written. Something about how Damien was trained, and how he thinks. He is about age 12 here.

Targets

Bellarmée was there when Damien came back from retrieving his knives from the target. “What happened with those last five?” he asked. “I’ve never seen you that far off your mark.”

“I wasn’t off my mark, m’ser,” Damien replied. “I added those points.”

“You added them? Why?”

Damien laid out the knives, ready to practice again. “They are additional points of vulnerability that are lacking on the target,” he explained. “So I added them.”

“Points… of vulnerability?” Bellarmée frowned. “What do you mean?”

Damien pointed to the target, indicating each as he spoke. “Brachial arteries, femoral arteries, groin.” He looked back at Bellarmée, pointing again. “Shoulder joints, hip joints, to incapacitate. The others, to kill. That was the point of this exercise, wasn’t it?”

“When…” Bellarmée cleared his throat. “When did you realize these were points on the human body?”

“The first time you placed the target, m’ser.” Damien looked back at him, and pointed once again. “The center line isn’t straight, from throat to diaphragm, because the heart is offset somewhat to the left. Nothing else made sense.”

“You never said anything.”

Damien looked up at him, his pale eyes sober and sad. “What was there to say, m’ser?” he said. “I know what you are training me for.”

There was a long silence, and then Bellarmée sighed, his head tipped back as if looking at his stars. “For what it’s worth, boy,” he said quietly, “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Damien answered, his voice equally quiet. “It’s for what she’s worth.”

After a moment, Bellarmée nodded. “Aye.”

* * *

Interlude: B.A.S. Hellebarde

And now, back to writing. Some new players on the board: just a reminder that not all Brekken are bad guys.

* * *

Interlude: the Brekken garrison at Sal’zahar

“Commandant?” The Air Captain of the B.A.S. Hellebarde had waited until the others had left the wardroom, stepping back out of their way as they passed.

“Yes, Captain Wraithfield?” The Commandant barely turned back to look at her.

“Are they to be given a warning, sir?”

Now the Commandant turned back and gazed at her coldly. “You have your orders, Captain.”

“Yes, sir—but there are hundreds of people in those towers, sir! Women, children—”

The Commandant straightened and looked down at her. “Are you questioning your orders, Captain?” There was danger in the soft tone of his voice now, and she realized she had to make a hard choice.

“No, sir,” she answered, her voice thin.

“Dismissed.”

Harouen saluted smoothly, and the Commandant responded with a negligent wave of his hand. She turned and exited the wardroom, heading out to the airfield with her mind in turmoil. She knew what her decision was for herself, but she could not choose for her crew. That had to be for each one to decide.

Once on the Hellebarde, she went straight to the bridge and took up the microphone for the airship’s address. “Attention, Hellebarde. Attention, Hellebarde, this is Captain Wraithfield. All crew report to the central airframe immediately, repeat, immediately. Lift crew: bring all ground crew aboard now and report to the central airframe immediately. This is not a drill. All crew check in with your sector chiefs as you enter the central airframe. Sector chiefs, be ready to log your crews. Wraithfield out.”

Ten minutes later Harouen strode through the hatch and entered the airframe. Fifty-four pairs of eyes watched her as she stood at the top of the steps, and she waited until all the mutters and shuffling stopped. Until there was no other sound but the creak of the airbags and the singing of the wind through the tie-down lines.

Until all she could hear was the beat of her aching heart.

She looked out over her crew, meeting those eyes one by one, and at last she took a deep breath and spoke.

“We have our orders,” she said, and waited until their reaction settled. “You may guess from all this that they are orders I disagree with, and that guess would be right. I’ll tell you those orders now, and why I disagree, and then you each have a choice to make.

“We are to board a payload of explosive ordnance and prepare for lift and engagement.” She paused, and then took a deep, hard breath. “In three hours time we are to lift and proceed to our target, Dorre Arantxa, the seat and residence for clan Arantxa and the surrounding area. There we are to discharge our armed payload and return to base.”

A third time she paused and waited for that return to uneasy silence. “To be absolutely clear: we are to bomb a civilian target with the intent to destroy it utterly.” Her voice went harsh and stark. “And we are to do it with no warning.” She raised her voice over their shocked reaction. “We are to give no warning and no chance to evacuate. We are ordered to bombard a target filled with hundreds of non-combatants. Men, women, and children.”

She waited for silence once more; a long time, this, several minutes, and once more took a deep, shuddering breath. “I cannot comply with these orders. They go against all the rules of engagement of honorable warfare.” This time, the silence held, and she went on. “I am giving you each a choice for your own actions. If I am alone in this, I will walk off Hellebarde and submit myself for court-martial. If enough of you are with me, we will arm and lift last, and once airborne we will turn out to sea with all speed until we are out of range of the flight. What follows then will be a separate decision. In that case, any of you who are willing to support those orders will be detained until just before lift, and will be put ashore peacefully.” She looked out onto fifty-four sober faces, and nodded once. “I would like to see a show of hands, please. Any who will follow those orders, please raise your hands?”

Not a single hand was raised; not a single crewman moved save to look around to see.

Harouen nodded once. “A show of hands for those who oppose those orders?”

Every single hand shot skyward without an instant’s hesitation. After a long moment she cleared her throat and gestured for them to put their hands down. She looked out over her crew, all standing in silence before her, and cleared her throat again. “You do understand that this is mutiny, mutiny and treason.”

The answer came back to her in a rolling growl of “Aye,” falling back into silence.

She looked down for a few moments before raising her eyes again. “You must know that if we do this, we can never go home again.”

“Beggin’ yer pardon, Captain,” one of the senior ground crew shouldered forward, “but is it still home when they can do the likes o’ that?”

Harouen met the older man’s troubled eyes for a long moment, and nodded. “Aye. And speaking of home—another thing to consider. If we do this, our families back home may pay a price as well.” She shook her head and went on. “A last thought. Once the flight is finished with Dorre Arantxa—we will be  the next target. They will hunt us down like rabid wolves. There will be no quarter, just blood and fire and wreckage.”

Beside her, her first officer stirred. “Better that than roll over like a whipped cur or do their bidding like a savage dog.” She looked over at him for a moment, and then nodded soberly, and once again cleared her throat.

“So be it, then.” She clapped her hands once and gestured to the sector chiefs. “We go on as ordered until lift. Load the ordnance and take on any ammunition we need to top up our stores. Ground and lift crews, to your stations. Bridge and department crews, same. Let’s to it like the top crew we are. Dismissed.”

But instead of leaving, each and every crew member snapped to attention as if ordered and gave her a brisk salute, holding it until she gave the answer of a full, formal salute in return.

* * *

Back in the (writing) saddle again

My last post was in January of this year. The last post when I still had a brain. Not long after that post I came down with shingles. NOT FUN. Before I go any further, let me just say this: if you have had chicken pox and are now of an age where you are possibly susceptible to shingles, GET THE SHOT.

Seriously, get the shot. Get The Shot. GET THE SHOT

I can NOT stress this enough! The rash and lesions are gross, and the pain is astounding. It will take your breath away. It will take away your concentration, because you can’t think about anything other than wanting it to stop. It will take away your energy, and you will sleep half your life away just to escape the pain.

GET. THE. FREAKING. GODS-DAMNED. SHOT.

That said, now this:

I love writing, and I love that I am writing again now that most of the shingles and attendant medication are gone. I love that my brain seems to be back online!

I love my cats beyond words, and that the young tuxedo boy I rescued that bolted out the door yesterday morning came back and cried to come in last night.

I love that I have friends who supported me in the worst years of my life, and I love that I am now in a position to help my friends when they need it.

I love music, and I love having found sources such as the HALO soundtracks and Two Steps From Hell to be the soundtracks for my writing.

Did I mention I love that I am writing again?

Fireside Chat

Some definitions, since I’m dropping you in the middle here: 

a zhaun is the head of a clan in the Mendei, the mountain range in the south of Martagne.

a jaraun is the person designated as official heir to a zhaun.

a zhaun-jaraun is the acclaimed but unconfirmed heir to a zhaun. Ysaut-Gilliane would be considered the Queen-jaraun.

a talde is the group of close followers of a leader of some sort.

the Service, more formally the Information Service, is a branch of Martagne’s government that gathers information in many forms and for many uses and reasons. It is also responsible for gathering information to help protect Martagne against those who may be enemies of the Realm, such as the Brekken. As “Spymaster,” Damien Ring is the official head of the Information Service.

The Brekken are the invaders, and under orders from their governing body, the Directors, have twice broken all laws of honorable combat, attacking non-combatant targets without warning, slaughtering innocents in a heinous war crime. Her mother, Queen Gloriane, having been killed in the first attack, the new young Queen Ysaut-Gilliane has fled to the Mendei for shelter, only to narrowly escape a second cowardly attack on another non-combatant target. She and her talde are now sheltering in a new location.

* * *

Over time, Damien found himself in several conversations with the zhaun of Peyre, often late at night, over brandy and firelight. It seemed as if the man was deliberately seeking him out, and at first he wondered why. Then he realized that the conversation often turned in some way to Ysaut—but not in a way as if seeking information from Damien about her; but more as Isarn giving him information about himself. Almost as if… as if assuring Damien that his intentions were honorable…

In one conversation, Isarn told him, “My clan has served the Queens of Martagne for more than two hundred years. Queen Aurélie’s father was a Jenico of Peyre, as Gloriane’s was of Argider. It was through the Mendi that the Crowns of Martagne came to count their heritance through the female line. Gilliane’s father, Olivier d’Alvers, is the first in generations not of the Mendei.” He waved that away with a quirk of his sardonic smile. “No matter,” he said, the smile broadening, “by our laws she is Mendi. A Piedmontése father is no bar.” But the joke, once made, lost its humor as Isarn shook his head. “There was a loss,” he said ruefully. “He was a good man, and he loved Gloriane well.” He stared down into his drink, then abruptly tossed it back and set the glass aside.

“We spoke of spies, before,” he said, changing the subject. “Much of the information your Service receives from the Mendei comes from us. You’ve likely seen some of my folk in the offices of your Service. So we knew who you were—a smallish man with black hair and eyes pale as water, and a reputation for as deadly a hand with a blade as any have known.

“There were many Mendi in the Palais du Monde on that day. That is why we know what happened was no accident. The zhaun of Sal’zahar and his jaraun never came home. Others did.” He shook his head and looked at Damien under his brows. “You were seen with the young Queen, and then you disappeared. We found where you’d been, but not where you’d gone. We would have aided you in your flight had we known, given you shelter and protection.

“I knew who you were when we met on the hillside, you and your brown-haired Queen.” He shook his head again. “You came far too close to disaster that day. Leaving you, my talde met a Brekken patrol coming up through the northern pass as you left by the southern. They nearly had to come to blows to keep them from crossing further into Peyre.” Isarn bared his teeth at the memory, and Damien saw for the first time why the man held his clan at such a young age. “They thought us hunters, straying out of our holding. I showed them what it meant to face a clan with its zhaun still in rule.” He bared his teeth again, briefly, and the firelight caught the dark amber of his eyes and turned them lambent gold. “We disarmed them and walked them all the way back to their garrison commander. I told him who I was, and warned him to make sure his men knew how to read maps. The borders of Peyre are clearly marked, and they had strayed nearly half a league past them.” He bared his teeth again, not briefly, and his eyes narrowed. “I reminded him that they had agreed to honor the border, and that if his men encroached on my land again, they would be returned disarmed, barefoot, and naked.

“But if it happened a third time, they would not be returned, and he could seek them at the foot of the Mendei.” He stared into the flames for a few moments, the firelight picking out the lines of his face in sharp planes and angles, and then he looked down and the lines softened. He nodded to Damien and rose. “I’ll leave you to your peace, m’ser,” he said, and left.

Damien gazed into the flames for some time after, thinking of many things. Of the zhaun-jaraun of Sal’zahar, the one they called the Snow Leopard, and thought that here he had met the Wolf of Peyre—and found him far more deadly.

And felt far better about leaving his Queen in the man’s care when he left to take up his proper duties.

* * *

Protégée

No real drama this time, only more of the relationship between Damien and Cécile.

.

That evening, after the conference, Cécile came out onto the balcony where Damian leaned on the parapet looking out over the valley below. The glow of hearth and cooking fires lay scattered across the land, showing a peaceful, close-knit community. She rested her arms on it as well, content to watch with him in companionable silence, but after a while she spoke without turning her head.

“I meant what I said.”

The silence afterward held so long that she thought he might not have heard, but then, “I know,” he said. “So did I.” It was that simple; a settling-in of friendship that picks up on a conversation as if only moments had passed between instead of months, and miles, and pain. Then again, after a while, “Why?”

“I see in her the future of Martagne,” Cécile said quietly. “Kindness. Gentleness. Compassion. Strength.” Again a pause, then, “It won’t be like you.”

Damien laughed once, softly, and said, fervently, “Oh, I hope not.” He shook his head once, and the torchlight slid across the slight smile on his lips.

Cécile laughed once as well, turning her face toward him. “I just don’t see myself riding desperately across the countryside—” She broke off and laughed again in gentle self-mockery, “Yet did we not just do that?” She shook her head and went on. “What I mean is that I don’t see myself crossing borders and spying so much as being her confidante and bodyguard.”

Again his smile flashed in the night. “One needn’t be a spy to be in the Intelligence Service. I’m sure you are aware how much information you can gather just going about your daily duties. People let fall the most amazing things if you just pay attention.” He tilted his head, watching her. “Did you know that just this morning the cook’s second assistant was found fast asleep in the chicken coop, curled around all the eggs like a broody hen? Stark naked.”

Cécile couldn’t help it, she laughed outright in shocked amusement.

“It’s true,” he said, straight-faced, and turned to her, leaning one elbow on the parapet. “The hardest thing to learn is how to appear to not be listening.” His smile faded after a moment. “Bodyguard,” he murmured. “That’s a different set of skills entirely.” He looked straight into her eyes, and his expression was solemn and more than a little sad. “Are you willing to kill to protect her?”

She returned his gaze as directly. “You may recall I have already done so.”

“True enough,” he murmured, gazing down at the ground somewhere between them.

“Teach me,” she said.

He looked up at her from under his brows. “You are sure?”

“I am,” she said.

He nodded once. “So be it.”

* * *

Anno Regni Gloriane Regina Aureae VIII

Sometimes in writing a story scenes come to mind that are part of a character’s history, but not a part of the current story. But sometimes those scenes demand to be written; the character demands to be heard. This is one of those. It may not be part of this story, but it is part of what made the character who he is. I think that merits recognition.

Anno Regni Gloriane Regina Aureae VIII

Their tormentors had left the room for a while; whatever the reason, it was of no matter. Damien went to work.

Bellarmée had taught him many tricks over the years, tricks that became habits and then second nature. Tricks like how to dislocate a finger, a shoulder, to be able to escape his bonds. The blood from the many cuts on his arms only helped, making his hand slick enough to slide out of the ropes more easily. Tricks like how to hide a tiny blade, no longer than his little finger, in the braids at the back of his neck. A tiny blade, razor sharp. Just long enough to cut a rope—or a throat.

“Boy.”

Damien’s eyes snapped to the man bound in the chair in the middle of the room. His mentor, Bellarmée. The man’s voice was hoarse, a rough whisper, made so by screaming in pain from the torture he had been subject to.

“M’ser.” Damien went to him instantly, and used the tiny knife to cut the ropes that bound the man. But when he went to cut the ropes on Bellarmée’s ankles, his mentor put a hand on his shoulder.

“Don’t bother, boy,” Bellarmée said. “You have to get out of here. Get out, and go back to Martagne. Kill them if you can, but go.” He took a sharp, harsh breath, and tried to stifle a bout of coughing. “This mission is over. We’ve failed.” When Damien started to protest, Bellarmée raised a hand and the boy stopped in mid-word. “It happens, boy. Take the loss and learn from it.”

He leaned against the back of the chair for a few moments, just breathing. Harsh, painful, wheezing breaths. His eyes drifted closed for a moment, and then he shook his head and looked at Damien. “You have to get out of here,” he said again. “Martagne will need you in the coming years. Boy,” he said, then shook his head and corrected himself. “Damien. You will be leaving me here. No!” he said sharply, shutting Damien down again. “They cut the tendons in my heels. I could never have walked out of here. And you know that I am dying anyway, from the wasting sickness, the cancer.” He put his hand on the boy’s shoulder as Damien knelt in front of him, looking up into his eyes. “You must kill me. I cannot survive this, I can withstand no more. And I cannot be left alive for another group to try their hand. What I know, the Brekken must never have.” He paused a moment, then went on, softly. “It will be a better death than either of those.”

Bellarmée raised a shaking hand and pointed over to the corner of the room. “They put all our things over there. When you are done, take what you need. Take my knife, it is yours now. Take any papers you find, and go home. Maybe there will be something there of use.” Then he pointed to the other side of the room. “There is kerosene there, for the lamps. Use it to destroy what else is here, so others won’t know what might be missing.” He looked down into Damien’s eyes for a long moment. His mouth worked, chewing on words that would never be said, but then he cleared his throat. “I’m proud of you, son. You’ve done well, always. But now there’s no more time, they could come back at any moment.” Then he put his hand on Damien’s shoulder once more, and squeezed. “Your little knife will be enough for this,” he said, and then put a finger on his neck, just below the point of his jaw. “Here. I’ve shown you this before.”

Damien shook his head, looking up into his eyes, his own gone dark, all pupil ringed with palest blue.

Bellarmée shook his head, too. “Do it, boy,” he said gently, “If they come back it will be too late. Do what you have to do, boy. Just do what you have to do.”

For a moment, the muscles in Damien’s face quivered, and then all emotion was wiped away, going to a still calm as Bellarmée had taught him. Damien rose and went behind the chair and stood for a moment, then reached around with one hand and covered Bellarmée’s eyes. His mentor reached up and took his hand away, then folded Damien’s fingers within his own. Another moment, and Damien bent and pressed a kiss on the top of Bellarmée’s head. And at the same time thrust the tiny knife home.

Bellarmée stiffened under his hands, then let himself relax as the blood flowed. Damien thought he heard him say, “Good boy…” on a long breath, and then a few long moments later Bellarmée’s hand let go of his and slid to his lap.

Damien stepped forward and knelt, cutting the last bonds at his mentor’s feet, then lifted him from the chair and laid him on the floor, away from all the blood. He closed Bellarmée’s eyes, and crossed his hands over his bare chest, then found a cloth in one corner and covered his body. He cleaned off the little knife and put it back where it belonged. Then he went to the corner Bellarmée had indicated and found his knife: a slim, double-edged stiletto with a razor-sharp blade as long as his hand and a silver hilt carved with the lilies and crown of Martagne, a gift, he knew, from the old Queen, Aurelie.

And then Damien went and made a space for himself under the stairs, standing utterly motionless, waiting for their tormentors to come back for them.

* * *

The first man came down the stairs, stamping his feet to make sure their captives knew he was coming and were properly cowed. But when he saw the body on the floor, and the pool of blood, he shouted an alarm back up the stairs, calling for the others. He turned back and started to take the steps two at a time—giving Damien the perfect opportunity.

Damien lunged and thrust the knife through the open-backed stairs, slicing across the inside of the man’s thigh, cutting deep and severing the great artery that lay beneath. The man shrieked in pain and terror, falling back down the stairs to bleed and die at their feet.

Damien ducked back into the shadows beneath the stairs, and waited for the next few men. He let the first three pass; one stopped at the bottom to check the one dying below, while the others piled up together behind him, gawking at the blood and the body to the side. When the fourth man started down the steps, Damien reached out and slashed across the tendon above his heel, crippling him. The man tripped and shouted with pain, overbalancing and toppling the others under him.

Then it was a dark dance, there in that little, windowless room, where Damien flitted between partners with that knife flashing silver, save that the partners fell and never rose again and red hung in the air in his wake. Screams and groans sounded in his ears, snarls and curses and gasps.

The sixth man had started down the steps, holding a pistol. He watched in disbelief as the slender, long-haired boy wrought a dance of death, and tried to bring the pistol to bear as the last man fell. But Bellarmée had trained Damien in that dance for seven years, and even as the man fired at him the silver knife bloomed in his throat and he fell like the toppling of a tree.

The bullet passed under Damien’s arm as he threw, cutting the flesh for a few inches, and kissing the rib beneath. Damien hissed as he raised his arm to look, but ignored it after. He would survive.

He stood in the room for several moments, looking around at what he had done. Then he cleaned the silver knife and found its sheath in the pile in the corner. It was all calm now, inside and out, just stillness. There was no anger, no hate. No remorse, only sorrow, and a regret great enough to fill an ocean. Sorrow at the loss of his mentor, the only father he had ever known, and regret at the need to kill.

Then Damien moved. He went around the room and dipped his hand into the blood of each man he had killed, until it was coated to the wrist. Then he went and crouched beside the body of his mentor. With his cleaner hand he pulled back the cloth covering Bellarmée’s body, and laid his other palm in the center of Bellarmée’s bare chest so the blood of his tormentors mingled with that of the wounds they had inflicted, as if to let him know he had been avenged.

Then he found a cloth and wiped all their blood off his hand, and went to the pool of the blood he had shed by killing Bellarmée. Once again he dipped his hand, but this time he laid it on his own bare chest, over his heart. Only then did he wipe off his hand and go to do what Bellarmée had told him to do.

There was one more thing he did before he left. He took the tiny knife and its sheath out of its hiding place in his braids. Took the knife and cut off each braid, one by one; cut them short, close to his head, then ran his fingers through his hair to loosen the final knots. He gathered all the braids and tied them together with the thong that held the sheath, and laid the bundle under Bellarmée’s hands. He would not ever use that knife again; it would dishonor the man whose life he had taken. The braids he left as well, as a sign that he left his youth behind.

When he left, the smoke was already rising high and black into the night from the old wooden warehouse. He wore as many layers of clothing as he could find against the cold, and over all the heavy greatcoat Bellarmée always used to wear. And over his shoulder he slung a battered leather scrip stuffed full of papers, his and Bellarmée’s kits, and some food he had found in the rooms upstairs from where they had been held.

He was only fourteen years old.

* * *

Twelve Years Ago

12 years ago

Damien

Damien was headed back to his rented rooms after meeting with his contact. The papers were safe in his scrip, and tomorrow he would head back to Martagne. But for tonight, he was weary and just wanted to rest. It had been a very long ride… He turned down the allée that led to the street where his rooms were, thinking about what he would need to do when he got back home.

Three young men turned into the allée, coming toward him. Always vigilant, he noted what he saw: all three about his age, early to mid twenties or thereabouts, decently dressed but not expensively, lower middle-class. Students, perhaps. Calm, relaxed, confident; speaking among themselves as friends, with no particular attention paid to him. No evident threat.

Until suddenly they spread out across the allée in front of him.

Damien stopped, head up, and took his hands out of his pockets, spread them. “I don’t want trouble, zehrs. I’m tired, I’m just heading home, if you’ll let me pass.”

“Don’t want trouble, ey, my boys?” the middle one said, and flicked out a hand, tapping his neighbor on the arm.

“Won’t be no trouble, then,” said the other, “ye just give us what ye got in that baggage, ey?”

“It’s only papers from the University, zehrs,” Damien said, “valuable only to me for my studies. But I’ll give you my purse if you just let me pass.”

“Give us your purse, ye will, pichon,” said the third, “and the bag as well.” Suddenly all pretense at friendliness was gone. “Give it now,” he growled.

The middle one stepped forward, reaching for the strap across Damien’s chest. But Damien unexpectedly stepped in to meet him, grasping his forearm and pulling him forward off balance into the third man’s way. Damien kicked out and caught the one on his left in the chest, throwing him back off his feet, whooping and gasping for breath. On the rebound, Damien hopped and kicked back with his other foot, squarely into the crotch of the man on his right. The man folded to his knees with an agonized groan.

Too late, Damien realized a fourth man had come up behind him. That one clubbed him across the head with a backfist like a sledgehammer; the blow lifted Damien off his feet and across the allée. He hit the wall from skull to hip and dropped like a stone.

* * *

Marczyn

Marczyn Rettig was headed home from the University library when he heard a scuffle in the allée ahead. He ran forward and peered around the corner, and saw three, no, four thugs all setting on another, smaller man. That one put down two of the thugs and turned on the third, only to be put down himself from behind by the fourth with a punch so hard it tossed him across the allée like a rag. The two still standing laid into the prone man, kicking him in the ribs, the back, the belly, wherever their feet could reach.

Marczyn spun and ran for the Guard call box that stood on nearly every corner, yanking down the pull switch that would send a signal to the nearest Guard Station. Then he ran back to the head of the allée. “HOI! Leave off, you roughies,” he shouted in his deepest, gruffest voice, to sound older and more imposing. “I called the Guard, so clear off if you don’t want to spend your days in gaol!”

The downed thugs growled in response but they climbed to their feet to go, one of them snatching the scrip from the fallen man as he went. But as the fourth ruffian turned to leave he kicked the man viciously, twice more—once in the belly and once in the head. The man only slumped further, limp and unconscious. Enraged, Marczyn stooped and snatched up a rock from the ground, and threw it as hard as he could. It hit square in the back of the big man’s skull, dropping him in his tracks. His fellows picked him up and hurriedly dragged him off as the Guard’s whistles sounded down the street.

Marczyn gave the Guard his report of what had happened in the allée. They were kind enough to call a cab for him, and saw them off to the Hospital. Now he regarded the poor fellow being treated in the hospital wardroom. His face was bruised near as black as his hair, his pale blue irises shining out of sclera red with blood. The doctor had stabilized his broken ribs, and now an attendant was wrapping them with bandages to support them.

“How do they feel?” Marczyn gestured toward his ribs.

“Rather like a badger is trying to claw its way out from inside,” the man replied with a wry smile. His voice was breathy, not wanting to put too much pressure against the broken bits. “Thank you for helping me,” he said after a moment. “I wouldn’t give much for my chances if you had not.”

Marczyn waved it away. “No need,” he answered, “I hope someone would do the like for me.” He put his wallet back in his vest. Marczyn’s family was solid middle-class, able to support him while he studied at the University of Brekke, and he also held a mid-level position as a clerk in one of the ministerial offices when he was not at his lectures, so he was able to pay for the man’s treatment once they realized he had also been robbed. At least the thugs had not had time to steal his travel papers! Marczyn had found them in the inside pocket of the man’s coat; the orderly had handed it to him to hold while they cared for the man.

And then they had learned the extent of this disaster—the blows to his head had knocked the memory quite out of him. He could speak, quite clearly, though his jaw was swollen; he could think, asking good questions of the doctor about his course of treatment. He remembered somewhat of the scuffle, but his name and his home, his self—all those were gone from him.

Dear God, Marczyn thought, the look in the man’s eyes, the utterly hollow, bereft look as he realized what had been taken from him! A look like a heartbroken child, to have lost all he had known, his family, his friends, his home, everything in one moment. That look tore at him, hurt his heart and lodged in the pit of his stomach…

On impulse, he blurted out, “You will come home with me, friend!” And in response to the near-reflexive headshake, Marczyn said, “I do not take no for an answer. The doctor says that you will regain what you have lost, but until that time, where and how shall you live? You have no place to stay, that you know of, no employment, no funds.” He raised his hands palm up. “Zo,” he said, “It is settled. Your papers have your name, Charles Banford. And now you have a place.” He held out his hand, gesturing, “ Come. Come home with me.”

* * *

Charles

Two weeks before he could move without pain from his ribs. Another two before he could think of lifting anything much heavier than Marczyn’s cat—not that the creature was anything of a lightweight. But by then Charles was able to take a position at the Ministry where Marczyn worked, doing bookkeeping and filing. That at least gave him something to do besides brood over his lost memory. When he was alone it was like worrying at a lost tooth, an insistent presence—or rather, absence—that was a constant pain in the back of his mind. It shadowed everything.

Once they both were finished for the day, though, the two were constantly together, and his mood was so much brighter. Marczyn was a true scholar, avid to learn everything he could, with an infectious enthusiasm for it all that Charles could not help but share. They became like brothers, both of an age, two University students in the best part of their lives. Charles’ different perspective, his shrewd reading of others and ability to put himself in their place, his startlingly wide trove of knowledge, and his facility with languages helped Marczyn with his studies, and the two spent hours at home or in the pubs discussing politics, ideals, ideas, the state of Brekke, the Directors, and how they would run the nation if they were in charge. It was a young man’s dream—except when the nightmares came for Charles.

In the night, it was different; images of horror haunted him. Fights, where he seemed to flit between opponents like changing partners in a dance, save that the partners fell and never rose again and red hung in the air in his wake. Screams and groans sounded in his ears, snarls and curses and gasps. But always it was not anger or malice that filled the dreams, but sorrow; a regret great enough to fill an ocean. And a gruff voice sounding in his brain, “Do what has to be done, boy. Just do what has to be done.”

Then he would wake with tears on his face, and the regret filling his heart, but never enough of a memory to understand why. Was it his hand that held the knife? Or was he just a witness?

* * *

His memory was returning, as the doctor had promised, but far too slow for his wishes. Month after month, waiting, hoping. There was a desperation in him, a fear, as if he knew some disaster awaited if he did not once again take his proper place in the world.

Sometimes there would be a new memory; tantalizing, teasing, but without context they had no meaning. He was greedy for them, like a hoard of bright, shining coins doled out to him one at a time: beautiful to hold, but not enough to buy his freedom, and he would break down and weep again for his loss. At those times, Marczyn would hold onto him, brother to brother, until he could breathe again.

Save for that, those six months living with Marczyn while he recovered from his injuries and after were the happiest of his life, even though he knew that somewhere he had another life, an important one he urgently had to get back to, if only he could remember what it was.

Until one day he turned and tripped over the cat. Crockery flew everywhere, and he sprawled on the floor and hit his head again—and it triggered the flood of memories.

Marczyn came running in at the sound of the crash, in time to see Charles raise his head and scream in agony—scream out a name, one name, as if it meant everything in the world to him: “Gloriane!

And then he dropped his head into his arms and wept.

This time it was different, though. Where before the tears were only of grief and loss, these were also tears of—not joy, never that, but at last, of some kind of relief. Marczyn came and knelt amid the broken crockery, and laid his hand on Charles’ back, and knew the difference. Knew that the memories had returned, though what that would mean he had no idea.

They stayed like that for some time, Marczyn just being there, just a presence, letting Charles know he was not alone, whatever would come next.

After a while Charles raised his head again, his long hair hanging like a veil between them, hiding his face, and he nodded. Then the two rose and silently cleaned up the broken dishes. When they were done, Charles went into the sitting room and sank down on the sofa, arms loose across his knees, staring into the fire.

Marczyn came and sat down next to him. “Gloriane?” he asked quietly, “As in Gloriane, the Queen of Martagne?”

Charles simply nodded—but Marczyn knew it wasn’t Charles, not any longer. This was someone new.

“You’re not Brekken,” Marczyn said.

“Half,” Charles replied. “From over-mountain.” His voice was soft, with some emotion Marczyn couldn’t identify.

Marczyn nodded. “Same,” he said, “Brekke-side.” And then he waited, silent, for whatever Charles would tell him.

The pause was long, while Charles stared into the flames in the fireplace, his hair fallen about his face, hiding his expression. But at last he took a great breath and raised his head. He pushed back his hair with both hands, then let them fall in a helpless gesture as he sat back on the sofa and looked somewhat aside at Marczyn, not meeting his eyes. “I am in your hands,” he said quietly, “if I tell you anything.”

“With that one name, I think I might make a guess,” Marczyn said. “My hands are open, friend. After all this time, I think I know the truth of you. I would not hold you, even if I should.”

Charles looked aside at him again, this time meeting his eyes, and he nodded, then looked away. “My name is Damien Ring, and I am a spy for Queen Gloriane. For Martagne.” Now it was his turn to wait.

Marczyn nodded. Then he asked, simply, “Why?” Not a challenge; just clarification.

Damien shook his head with a wry smile. “Brekke—frightens us. You are—” He shook his head again, and corrected himself. “Your government, the Directors, they are angry, greedy, fearful men. They want. They want more and more. They want what they do not have, they want what others have.” He turned and looked at Marczyn, angling his body to face him more directly. “You and I, we have discussed this. Over and over, how their greed and anger is ruining Brekke, how their fear and distrust of their own people is bringing out the same in all of you. Already some of you have begun to denounce their neighbors, to gain but the smallest advantage. That will only continue, and grow. And if the Directors fear you, their own people, that they know, how much more do they fear and mistrust Martagne? There we are, hiding behind our mountains, what might we be plotting to their detriment?” Again he made that helpless gesture with his hands. “So we seek information, knowledge, to protect ourselves. Knowledge is power.” Again he shook his head. “Martagne is not aggressive. It is not in our nature to seek advantage over others, we are content with what we have and what we do. We make our gains with our own labor. And we want only peaceful relations with our neighbors. Profitable trade for both sides. Mutual assistance at need.

“We have not your technology. No airships. Wireless radio and trains, looms and farm machinery are the extent for our needs. Our weapons are the equal of yours, but for all the size of our kingdom, our army is smaller. Your army stands as much against your own citizens as against any outside enemy—which we are not, though your Directors would have you believe it so.

“Oh, make no mistake—we would fight fiercely against an attacker like you. But it would be a very short war, and we would lose—at first. And then a long, bloody train of skirmishes and sabotage that would last until you broke us or we made it too costly for you to stay.

“But we would far rather defend ourselves passively, by taking measures to protect ourselves before something becomes an issue and tips the balance. Having information in advance helps us to do that.” Again the wry smile. “Forewarned is forearmed.” And then again he waited.

Marczyn gusted a breath, frowning down at his hands. After a few moments he turned them over, and suddenly clenched them into fists, clenched them tight and frowned fiercely at them—and then let them loose and fall to his lap again. He took a breath, then turned to Damien. “I can help you with that,” he said.

Damien’s lips parted in surprise. Then, “How?”

Now it was Marczyn who gave a wry smile. “You know I work in the Ministry offices,” Damien nodded, waiting. “I can seek another position, perhaps even a promotion, to another office. To the Ministry of Defense, perhaps?”

Damien was stunned. “You would do that for Martagne?”

Marczyn laughed, he couldn’t help it. “For Martagne, not so much, I think. But for you, I would.” He shook his head at the look on Damien’s face. “I said it earlier, after all this time I think I know what kind of man you are. And that man would not twist that information to harm others. Nor would you give your loyalty to one who would.” And then his shoulders relaxed as it all fit together in his mind. “And your loyalty tells me a great deal about your Queen as well.” He took a deep breath, frowning. “And you are right. The Directors are bringing Brekke to ruin. How can I watch them bring down Martagne as well, if I can help prevent it?” Then he laughed, and shoved at Damien’s shoulder. “Maybe this is a sign. Maybe all those conversations weren’t just idealistic rhetoric. Maybe there are things we little folk can do after all. Who knows? Nothing will change if we never try.” Then he nodded decisively, and held out his hand. “Pact?”

Damien took his hand in both of his and clasped it hard. “Pact,” he said.

Marczyn sat back in the sofa. “You’ll be leaving in the morning, I suppose?”

Damien nodded. “I’ve been away far too long, they’ll have thought the worst.” He frowned, thinking. “I’ll have to buy a horse.”

“Take mine,” Marczyn said.

* * *

Prelude to Disaster

One week before:

“Brekke is a powder keg, Gloriane, and the fuse is set. Who knows what will spark the flame?” Damien shook his head, frowning down at his hands clasped on the table. “A revolution is brewing. The people are primed and ready, and I doubt it will be long before their rage erupts. We know that the military will be ordered to act against the citizens, and that will be bloody.” He tapped the table with his clasped hands, and looked up at his Queen, his pale blue eyes shadowed with concern. “The Directors care not a whit for any but themselves. They are planning something, but we have no hint of what it is. Whatever, we think it will be soon.” He spread his hands in a gesture of uncertainty. “My man should have something for me by now.”

“Then go,” Gloriane said quietly. “Learn what you can.” She shook her head as he rose, then looked up. “And Damien—”

He had already bowed and turned to go, but now turned back, hearing an odd note in Gloriane’s voice.

“Be careful, Damien,” she said, meeting his eyes intently, “Be careful. I am… uneasy. Something is very far wrong.”

“I will take care, Your Majesty.” His voice was sober, taking her warning seriously. He laid his hand on his heart and bowed again, then turned and left.

* * *

Damien took the handful of papers from his contact and scanned through them. His hands froze on one, and he read it again, his breath caught in his throat. “You’re sure this is genuine, Marczyn?” he asked hoarsely.

The other man nodded. “I copied it myself. Is it important?”

“Desperately…” Damien said in a fading whisper, then took a sharp breath. “I need a horse.”

“Take mine,” the man said, and gestured across the way to where a horse was tethered.

Damien was already crossing the allée, shoving the papers into his scrip. He mounted up and turned the horse, then tossed a purse to his friend. “They are going to start a war, Marczyn! Take your family, go somewhere safe. Don’t go back there.”

“But—”

Damien put heels to the horse, and it leaped away. “Don’t go back!

* * *

He drove the horse hard, all that day and through the night, his fears riding him just as brutally. He tried to be moderate, tried to keep a sane pace to spare the horse, but the date on that paper pounded in his heart and brain as the horse’s hooves pounded the road. Too late, too late, too late…

It was a gallant beast, and gave all he had and more at Damien’s asking, but nothing could survive the brutal pace he demanded. Damien screamed out his anguish and rage as he felt the horse falter and sink beneath him; he kicked his feet out of the stirrups and jumped free as the horse fell.

He sprawled in the dirt for a moment, stunned, then crawled to the horse that lay dying in the road. “Rest, great heart,” he said, and stroked the horse’s cheek. He took out his knife and severed the great blood vessel in its neck, soothing it and waiting until the harsh breaths stilled and the blood ceased to flow. “I am sorry…”

Then he settled his scrip securely over his shoulder and began to run.

* * *

Within the hour he saw a man riding toward him. When they were close enough, Damien sprang in front of the horse, making it rear. He caught the reins and hauled the man off the horse and down into the dirt. He vaulted up into the saddle, and with two slashes of his knife cut the man’s belongings from behind it, then booted the horse into a dead run.

* * *

He Watches

I thought I’d give you a perspective on Gilliane’s relationship with Damien. This is back when she is about ten years old.

* * *

“I don’t like that man, Maman,” Gilliane said. Gloriane left off brushing her daughter’s golden hair, so like her own, and leaned aside to see her daughter’s face.

“Who, Baron Damien?”

Gilliane nodded, frowning. “He frightens me, Maman.”

Gloriane took her daughter’s shoulders and turned the girl in her lap, the better to see her face. “What is it that frightens you, my dove?”

“He—he watches.”

“He watches?”

Again Gilliane nodded. “He watches. Everything. Everyone. It frightens me. Maman, why does he always watch so hard?”

“That is because he wants to protect me, and everyone I hold dear. Which means your Papa. And you, my little dove. He is the guardian of all I treasure.” She settled Gilliane better in her lap, enfolding her in her arms.

“Baron Damien is the kindest, gentlest, wisest, bravest, most ruthless and savage man I have ever known. I trust him above all others, and you should, too. He is the man who will save you and protect you from all harm, to his last drop of blood. He will do for you whatever needs to be done, no matter the cost to him. Do not let him stain his soul—someday that will be in your charge. He may frighten you, my dove, but he will never fail you.”

The Spymaster

Damien turned the cup around and around in his hands, looking down at nothing, and took a long, quiet breath. “I was born on the Martagne side of the mountains. My mother was raped by a Brekken soldier during one of the final border skirmishes of the war, and I was the result. After that, they called her ‘whore,’ and used her so. Myself, I had no father, and no name. None, at least, until the young Queen rode through our village with her consort on her Progress through the kingdom after her coronation. I must have been about seven, then.

“I hid in the shadows where she would pass, just to see her. I thought myself well hidden, but she saw me anyway. She called me forward, and I came, even though I was afraid that the soldiers would beat me. I came, because I had never seen anyone like her, and I wanted to see—I wanted to see how anyone could be all made of gold and yet be so warm. Her hair a cloud of gold, like early sun through the mist on the mill-pond, all dressed in gold like an angel wrapped in sunlight…” His voice was soft with memory. “She asked my name, but I had none, so I said nothing, She leaned low from her horse, to see me better, and asked again. ‘What do they call you, boy?’ Well, they did call me something, so I told her. ‘Damn-ye,’ I said. For years, I thought she misunderstood, but then I knew she simply meant to be kind. ‘Damien,’ she said, and smiled. ‘A good, strong name for a sturdy lad.’ And then she took a ring from her finger, and handed it down to me.” He tilted his hand, and the firelight glinted on the fine gold ring on the smallest joint of his little finger.

“I took my name from that,” he said. “Damien, from the name she spoke, and Ring for the gift she gave me.” He smiled briefly, but the smile faded, and he took a sip from the cup in his hands. When he spoke again, his voice was stronger and lighter, more matter-of-fact. “Of course, I followed her. How could I not? I followed after, running as hard and as long as I could. And on the third day, I was taken by one of the soldiers. Taken—and taken in. That was Bellarmée,” he said, and his eyes gleamed in the firelight as he looked up at them.

“Mother’s first Spymaster,” Gilliane murmured, and he nodded.

“He took me in, and taught me, and trained me to be a spy for the Golden Queen.”

“And you’ve served her ever since.”

Again he nodded, but he turned his eyes downward again. “Her and only her,” he said, and sighed. “For seventeen years I served her faithfully and well, and never failed her once—until now.” There was a depth of bitter rage in those two words; rage, and a hatred turned in on himself.

“You could not have known!” Gilliane said, but he cut her off, and the firelight glittered against the ice in his pale blue eyes.

“I did know!” he said, the sound raw as a knife in the dark. “I knew, and was riding back with that news to warn her. I knew, but I stopped to rest. An hour only, I thought. To rest the horse, I thought. That hour could have given Martagne the time to prepare. That hour meant the difference between life and—” With a savage heave Damien flung the cup into the fire, the brandy flashing into flame in an instant. He surged to his feet, only to stand staring blindly into the fire. When he spoke again, his voice was hollow of hope. “My fault. My failure murdered my Queen.”

Gilliane shook her head sadly. “You loved her,” she murmured.

“I adored her,” he answered on a sigh. “But she is gone, and you are here, and now I will follow her last command I can never disobey. To find you, and serve you, and protect you. To my last breath and beyond. My oath, I will not fail her again.” He glanced at her once, at the firelight glowing in her golden hair, so like her Mother’s, and closed his eyes against the pain of memory. Then he turned and walked out into the waning light.