Contretemps and Change of Heart

A long piece this time, to make up for the long break between. A little more of each character, as well.

Damien is returning from foraging for food for the travelers, to find the ladies under attack by a Brekken patrol. Cécile has killed one soldier, but Ysaut, the disguised young Queen, lies unconscious on the ground. Damien charges in and kills the other three soldiers in a whirlwind fight, where he himself is injured.

Eadmond, instead of guarding the ladies as ordered, had followed Damien instead, mistrusting him. That mistrust appeared to be justified when another patrol met Damien and spoke in friendly fashion. Damien handed over some papers, which the patrol’s sergeant looks over. Eadmond, distracted, does not see them handed back, and assumes Damien has betrayed them all.


He spent the next quarter hour cleaning up after the fight; first searching the soldiers’ bodies, then dragging them off away from the camp, and finally throwing dirt over the spilled blood. Next he belatedly caught his horse and unloaded the provisions they so sorely needed. By that time, Cécile had led Melina back and settled her between Ysaut and herself. Melina’s storm of emotion had passed, and when Damien had finished, she called to him.

Damien came over and knelt before her, bowing his head in profound respect and abject apology. “M’sera, m’selles, I am so sorry this has happened to you all. I—”

M’ser Damien, no!” Melina’s voice was soft, but steady. “You have nothing for which you should apologize. You could not have known Eadmond would desert us. You were away seeing to our needs before your own.” She reached out and took his hand in hers. “I wanted to thank you. Without your intervention our case would have been so much worse. I am grateful.”

He had no words to reply to this, and in the end simply bowed his head over their joined hands in acknowledgement. And then his head came up sharply as he heard hoofbeats approaching. He was rising and turning, his knife already in his hand when Eadmond thundered into the camp.

“You bastard!” Eadmond shouted as he flung himself off the horse and onto Damien. They hit the ground together, rolling, entangled like two cats fighting in the streets. Eadmond struck at Damien with no finesse, no sense of how to fight; his blows full of rage but with no skill behind them.

Damien, in contrast, knew how and where to place his fists for the most effect. The moment he realized who he was fighting, he flipped the blade in his hand, only using the hilt to give his blows more weight. But when one of Eadmond’s blows caught the wound in his side, something snapped in Damien’s mind like a flash of white-hot lightning. He brought his knee up hard between the younger man’s legs, buried his fingers in Eadmond’s hair and slammed his head against the ground. Eadmond went limp, stunned, as Damien brought his knife up for a killing blow.

Damien!” Gilliane’s shout froze him in place. Gilliane, not Ysaut; the snap of command in her voice the unmistakable twin of her Mother’s. For an eternal moment he held there, still and breathless—and then he breathed, and let Eadmond go. The knife was gone again, the moment’s madness past.

For another long moment Damien knelt straddling Eadmond, chest heaving with hard breaths as he fought for calm, and then he climbed to his feet and stood staring down at the younger man. One more hard breath, and he turned and crossed the clearing to kneel before Ysaut, head bowed. “My apologies, your Majesty,” he said. “I—”

“No, Damien,” Ysaut said, her words cutting across his. “No more apologies. Never apologize for protecting us, even if it is only against misguided young fools.”

Damien dropped his head lower, and then nodded acknowledgement. “Your pardon, m’sera,” he said, “I should see to him.”


Damien rose and crossed the clearing again, stopping to pull rope from his gear. Then he went to Eadmond, who was still lying on the ground, groggy from the blow. Damien wound his hand in the man’s collar and dragged him over to a tree, where he tied Eadmond’s hands behind his back, wound the rest of the rope around his chest and the tree, and then tied it off.

Halfway through, Eadmond began to struggle, and Damien put his hand to the man’s throat. “Be still,” he hissed, “Or I’ll put the rope around your neck! Where did you go?” But he ignored Eadmond’s struggles and finished tying him to the tree, and then simply stood and walked away.

Cécile was there as Damien rose, staring down at Eadmond, shaking in fury. She flung out her hand, pointing to where Ysaut still held Melina to her side. “Look at them,” she said, her voice hard with anger. “Look at us! This was your doing. We were attacked because you left us unguarded! What if those men hadn’t been here for their own pleasure? What if they had recognized Gilliane and were taking her captive? What then? You are endangering your Queen at every turn with your insistence that Damien is an enemy, when it is you, you, every time!”

Eadmond stared up at her, gaping. “Men?” he said, “What men?”

And then behind her, Damien staggered and went to one knee, at last yielding to the wound in his side and the strain and grief of the past days as the adrenaline and determination that had sustained him this far finally ran out. He lost consciousness to the sound of all three women calling his name.

He came to propped against a tree as Cécile stitched up the wound. It was a long cut, but not deep; fortunately, the soldier’s knife had hit his rib and slid along it instead of going in. But it had bled more badly than he had realized.

“Ah, you’re awake again,” Cécile said, glancing up at him and then looking back at what she was doing. “I’m afraid your shirt may be ruined. I’m a fair hand with needle, thread, and flesh,” she said with a slight smile. “With linen, not as much. Serviceable patches only. But a fine seam? For that you want Melina. She could run her own atelier and make a fine living. There,” she said finally, cutting the thread and cleaning up.

Damien inspected her handiwork as she wrapped a bandage about his ribs. “How did you come to learn all this?” he asked, gesturing at the medical kit and her pack of ‘necessities.’

She laughed softly, putting it all away neatly. “Seven rowdy older brothers,” she said, “and a pressing need to hunt to keep them fed.”

“And the wit to think of it all, and plan for future need?” he asked. “The henna was especially inspired.”

Cécile laughed again, “The wit I got from my Mother, and her training to think ahead. The henna, well, that comes of helping her keep her youthful looks by hiding the silver in her hair. My father loves to play his fingers in it, and has no clue what she does to keep him happy.” A merry laugh bubbled out of her. “I think!” Then she sobered, and met his eyes, holding his gaze steadily. “And now, m’ser, you will rest.” She raised her hand against his protest, and her voice went stern. “M’ser, you will rest! How long did you ride from Brekke? You said yourself, one hour only, to rest your horse. And another three days from the Capitol to here, and kept watch on us through all the nights, and when have you slept? It’s a wonder you’re not hallucinating! You need rest, you cannot function like this.”

“How can I dare rest?” There was such pain in his voice that Cécile wanted to weep. “I rested one hour, and look what happened! Think what would happen if I rested a day!

Now her voice went sharp, to break his thought. “Damien, stop that!” Then she went on quietly, but none the less intent. “That is your exhaustion speaking, you cannot think like that. Had you not rested your horse, you would have killed it under you, and then what? You would have had to walk from Brekke, and then you would not have reached Martagne until everything was over. We would all be dead, because you would not have been there to rescue us.

“Your body is not a horse you can kill under you, and you walk off and find another! If you die of a bullet, or a knife, or exhaustion, you are just as dead, and what if Gilliane dies because you are too exhausted to make good decisions?” She reached out and laid her hands over his. “Damien, you are overwrought, you are grieving. Your judgment is suffering, and those words are the proof of it. Rest. You are not alone anymore! I will keep watch for you. I will keep watch for us all.”

There was a long pause as Damien sat there, his hands knotted together under hers, and then at last the tension went out of him all at once, and he bowed his head. Then, very quietly, he said, “M’sera Cécile, I am very glad you are here to show me my folly. You are wise beyond your years.” He took a great breath and held it long, then let it out slowly. “You are right, of course. I am a man obsessed, and that is no good thing. Obsession, and exhaustion…”

“And care, and perhaps too great a heart.” She gave him a gentle smile, and patted his hands. “Come, give over. Rest. Sleep.” And then she added with a hint of mischief, “Or need I tell Ysaut on you?”

Damien threw his hands up in mock defeat. “Touché, m’selle, I surrender! I shall rest.” But then he took her hand in his, and bowed his head over it, then looked up and met her eyes. “But it is you who have too great a heart, m’selle. And for that, I am profoundly grateful.”

* * *

Damien slept fitfully for a few hours, but then woke again, restless from the pain of his wound. He rose and built up the fire, then set up a meal from the dead soldiers’ packs and the supplies he had bought earlier. Then, when it was ready he served the ladies and himself. Only when they were all finished did he even look over to where Eadmond slept, bound near the horses.

At last he rose and went over to him and reached down, shaking him awake before standing up and backing away. “Are you really a soldier?” he asked, his voice harsh with scorn. “Or merely a dressed-up toy? Whoever trained you should be shot.” He turned away for a moment, holding hard to his temper. “I told you to stay here on guard. You abandoned helpless women for no good reason, you ignored the direct orders of your Queen! What were you thinking? Where did you go?”

Eadmond spat at him, his face twisting with hate. “I take no orders from a spy!”

“Don’t be a fool, Eadmond!” Cécile called out from where she sat across the clearing. “Damien Ring has been the Queen’s man since before you were born! He is no Brekken spy!”

“You call me a spy, then, toy soldier?” Damien spoke at the same time. “Well, so I am! Nor have I ever said otherwise. I was spymaster to Queen Gloriane until her death, and by default now I am spymaster to Queen Gilliane. Unless she releases me, in which case I shall yet be her faithful hound and follow at her heels, and fly at the throats of all her enemies. Even you, d’Almena. Even you.

“But wait—you think I am a spy for the Brekken. What do you think I would do for them? What, exactly, do you imagine a spy is good at? What would you say?” He started ticking them off on his fingers, one by one, in savage mockery. “Lies, treachery, deception. Secrets. Intrigue.” He paused a moment, then, quietly, closing those fingers into a fist. “Murder.”

Damien nodded at that, and took a breath that went down to his toes before letting it out and going on more moderately. “Yes, that, too. I am good at all those things and more. And all of those skills I lay at the foot of my Queen, for her and her alone. I play whatever part I must to do what needs to be done.” He looked down at Eadmond and shook his head and then went on bitterly. “As for what I would do for the Brekken? Had I a fast horse and a thousand knives I would cut the throats of every Brekken ever born for what they did to Gloriane. And I would butcher any man who dares lay a hand on her daughter.”

And then he leaned down toward the man at his feet and spoke in whispered tones so cold and deadly that Eadmond winced away. “And you, little toy soldier? You live at her sufferance only. If ever again you desert your Queen for any reason, I will hunt you down and flay you alive, and stake your bleeding body at the crossroads, and weep not a tear at your demise.”

“Brave little man, threatening someone bound at your feet,” Eadmond snarled back. “You weren’t so brave on the Concours!”

Damien straightened abruptly, and behind him Cécile and Ysaut shot to their feet. “What did you say?

“I said you’re a coward! Your Queen was under attack by the Brekken, and you ran!

I followed orders,” Damien snapped back savagely. “Something you seem utterly unable to do.”

“You just left her there!”

Damien took one step back, white and shaking, barely holding his control. “I saw her die!” he said, his voice in rags. “I saw her cut in two by the Brekken bullets. I saw her b—” He cut himself off before he said it, before the image came up in his eyes again, before he spoke the unspeakable in front of her daughter. “No.” he said, deep and harsh in his throat, then in deadly calm, “No. I need not justify myself to you, m’ser. You have not the right to question my actions. I answer only to the Queen.”

“You, answer to the Queen?” Eadmond shot back angrily. “Then who is Charles Banford?”

Damien lost his breath in shock for a moment. “Where did you hear that name?

“I heard it from your own lips! I saw you when you handed your report to those Brekken soldiers!” Eadmond fought against his bonds, his face filled with anger and hatred. “What did you give him? A letter telling where you were taking the Princess Gilliane?” He spat at Damien in revulsion. “Who better to spy for them than a half-Brekken bastard!”

Ysaut had moved up behind Damien throughout this, and now she stepped up and past him to stare coldly down at Eadmond, every inch the Queen she would need to become. “Charles Banford is the name m’ser Damien uses on his missions to Brekke. Missions undertaken solely on my Mother’s orders these past seventeen years, to seek intelligence to protect Martagne. And like my Mother, I have full faith and confidence in Damien—as I have not yet in you. Will you remain the willful, foolish boy-child you have been acting until now? Or will you rise and become the Queen’s Guardsman whose uniform you wore?” She lifted a hand when he made to speak. “Think very hard on this tonight, Eadmond d’Almena. I will have your answer in the morning.” She turned on her heel and stalked off , pausing a moment to touch Damien’s sleeve. “Attend me, m’ser,” she said. Damien turned on the instant and followed her away.

Behind them, Melina stood breathless in shock, while Cécile gazed after Ysaut and nodded thoughtfully.

* * *

Change Of Heart

In the morning Gilliane sent Damien to let Eadmond out of his bonds and bring him to her. Once freed, Eadmond went and knelt before Gilliane, head bowed. He spoke in a low voice, quite different from the haughty tones he had used before. “Your Majesty, I have no right to ask, but I beg you to hear me.”

Gilliane considered him for a moment. “Go on,” she murmured.

“I am sorry for the trouble I caused for you, and for everyone. I, I am,” He shook his head and began again, still not daring to look up at her. “I am Piedmontése, from the south provinces. This was my first time in the Capitol. I was just promoted, and I was so, so proud to be assigned to be your escort for the celebration. I was, I was full of myself, and it made me foolish. And then things—happened, things went so horribly wrong. And that man, Damien, came, a nameless wretch covered in sweat and road dust, and you turned to him for protection instead of to me. I was angry, and I was, I was—”

“You were jealous.”

Eadmond nodded. “Jealous, aye. That. And then he started giving orders, and you all obeyed without question, and who was this man that could command a royal Princess? And his orders made no sense, I didn’t understand.” Finally Eadmond raised his head, and gestured helplessly. “And then he killed that man, for no reason, just because he was in the hallway—”

Gilliane answered the implied question. “That man was a known Brekken spy. One whom we tolerated, because he could be used in return. But in that place, at that time? He was there looking for me. To kill me.”

Eadmond looked up, shocked, seeing the absolute knowledge in her eyes. Behind her Damien and the others moved in closer.

“The papers he had on his person were orders from his Brekken masters.” Damien’s voice was quiet and precise. “Orders to make sure that Gilliane was on the dais with her parents for the airship review. Or failing that, to find her and kill her himself. Proof of the Brekken’s treachery, detailing the date and time of the attack, and how it would be accomplished.” Damien’s slender knife appeared, spun once, glittering, and disappeared again, all in the flicker of a moment. Then his voice went cold and deadly, “I regret that his death had to be quick.

“Damien,” Gilliane chided softly, and Damien bowed his head and stepped back.

Eadmond nodded, acknowledging the new information, then shook his head. “You should have been able to rely on me. But I was ignorant of so much. My pride and my ignorance made me foolish, and my folly endangered you, the one person I was honor bound to protect.” He looked up at Gilliane again. “I accused Baron Damien of treason, but it was I who betrayed you.” He took a deep breath, then met her eyes steadily. “I will abide whatever punishment you decide.”

“Punishment…” Gilliane said quietly, gazing back just as steadily. “So be it, Eadmond d’Almena. Hear, then, your doom.” Then she took a deep breath and raised her head. “Do better. Watch those around you. Listen to those who know. Learn what they can teach you. Carry your weight, and be the Guardsman you should be. Let there be no more of this foolishness and mistrust. We must have one goal only—to take back Martagne from the invaders. Nothing else matters. Are we agreed?”

Eadmond stared up at her, his eyes almost glazed over in shock. And then he bowed his head and whispered, “I agree.”

Behind her, Damien’s eyes were locked on her as a drowning man locks his hands on a floating branch. His breath came harsh in his chest as if from a hard run as he thought, ‘This, this is the Queen Martagne needs now!’ And never realized that in that moment his loyalty left his doomed Golden Queen, Gloriane, and settled forever on her daughter.

* * *

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.


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 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 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.”

* * *


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.

* * *

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.”