Monthly Archives: July 2016
Name: Lynn Steward
Book Title: What Might Have Been
Genre: Literary Fiction
Publisher: Lynn Steward Publishing
As a fashion buyer at one of New York’s most glamorous department stores, Dana McGarry is a tastemaker, her keen instinct for fashion trends and innovative ideas coupled with a razor sharp business sense. But like the elegant and conservative store that employs her, Dana is caught between two eras—between being liked and standing her ground, between playing by the rules and being a maverick. Dana is sensitive and beautiful, but what you see is not what you get.Behind the cool and attractive facade, Dana is both driven by her need to control yet impeded by her expectation of perfectionism. As she competes to replace women at the top of their game, she is challenged by jealous colleagues. And when a wealthy love interest wants to open doors and support her ambition, she embraces Coco Chanel’s mantra of “never wanting to weigh more heavily on a man than a bird.” As the women’s movement paves the way, Dana finds a path to the career she wants at the expense of happiness that was not meant to be.
Steward captures the nuances of 70s life in New York City and provides the perfect backdrop for an independent woman determined to make her mark. What Might Have Been is a story that transcends any period.
What Might Have Been
By Lynn Steward
Dana McGarry, on vacation for the first time as a single woman, arrived at the Lansdowne Club at 9 Fitzmaurice Place, just steps from Berkeley Square, in London’s fashionable Mayfair on the morning of April 8, 1975. Her lawyer had filed papers for a legal separation from her husband Brett in January, and after four months of being under the watchful eyes of well-meaning family and friends, Dana was savoring every moment of her solo trip across the pond. She and Brett had always stayed at the nearby Chesterfield Hotel, but her beloved Colony Club in New York City enjoyed reciprocity with the Lansdowne Club, where she’d previously attended lunches and lectures while her husband met with clients for his Wall Street law firm. Undeterred by the steady English rain and dark clouds hanging over the slick gray streets, she stepped from one of London’s fabled black taxis with renewed spirit, excited to think that the distinguished house in Berkeley Square would be her home for the next five days. After Dana checked in, the hall porter asked her if she would like tea brought to her room and then discreetly disappeared with her luggage, a small, welcoming gesture that stood in contrast to an impersonal hotel. Rather than immediately taking the lift to her room on the fifth floor, Dana stepped into the entrance hall and surveyed the club’s interior, intending to explore Scottish architect Robert Adam’s stately masterpiece commissioned in 1761 for King George III’s prime minister, the Earl of Bute. Previously, she had limited herself to the dining room, never taking time to appreciate the club’s historic beauty. Although rich with finely-crafted embellishments and Neoclassical splendor, the house was clearly showing signs of fatigue, and its understated elegance made the environment that much more comfortable. Dana knew she’d made the right choice. The club was an oasis of tradition and tranquility affording her the peace and privacy she needed.
When Dana arrived in her junior suite, she noticed a bouquet of flowers sitting on a table in the sitting area. Thinking they were compliments of the club, Dana opened the attached note and laughed out loud. The flowers had been sent by her childhood friend, Johnny Cirone. The message read, “Take Phoebe shopping and buy up the town. Whatever you do, enjoy yourself. Love, Johnny.”
Dr. Phoebe Cirone, who was in London attending a cardiology convention, was Johnny’s sister. Their father, John Cirone, known affectionately to Dana and her brother Matthew as Uncle John, was the head of the House of Cirone, a manufacturer of ladies eveningwear. Having a passion for medicine from an early age, Phoebe had never expressed interest in clothes or haute couture, leaving Johnny to reluctantly carry on family tradition by working for his father. Dana’s parents, Phil and Virginia Martignetti, had been friends with the Cirones since before her birth.
Dana, pleased to see a porcelain tea service had already arrived, took her cup to the window and sipped the Darjeeling as she observed the new plantings in the courtyard garden. The peace she’d felt a few minutes ago was gone, however. Something about Johnny’s note, as thoughtful as it was, unnerved her. Johnny and her mother called daily to see how she was doing. Dana sensed their concern, although she felt it was unwarranted. What did they think—that she was going to kill herself because the divorce would soon be final? They obviously didn’t recognize her personal strength and resolve. Dana worked at New York City’s B. Altman, and the previousDecember she’d formed the department store’s first Teen Advisory Board. She had also succeeded in getting Ira Neimark, the store’s executive vice president, to sign off on installing a teen makeup counter on the main selling floor over the objections of Helen Kavanagh, junior buyer, who thought youth-oriented strategies like those at London’s Biba, were a waste of time and money. Despite these personal triumphs, she’d taken aggressive steps to further advance her career, leaving her comfortable job in the marketing department for the position of junior accessories buyer. She had requested time off for this visit to London immediately after settling into the new assignment, and that alone was proof that she knew how to take care of herself.
Dana had been equally aggressive in terminating her marriage to Brett. Papers for a legal separation had been filed in January by Dana’s lawyer when she discovered that Brett was having an affair with fellow litigator Janice Conlon, a saucy and impertinent young woman from California. Negotiations for a final settlement were proceeding smoothly, with no protests originating from either Brett or his lawyer lest the firm be apprised of his misconduct with the audacious Conlon. In the four months since their separation, Dana had realized that Brett’s dalliance with the abrasive Conlon had merely been a catalyst for the end of their relationship since there had been something far deeper and more troubling in their marriage: Brett’s growing neglect of Dana as he vigorously pursued partnership with the firm. His work always served as a convenient excuse to pick and choose his time with Dana and in the long run, that grim reality had proven intolerable. Within days of learning of Brett’s infidelity, Dana contacted an attorney and moved from her Murray Hill apartment to a carriage house a few blocks away in Sniffen Court.
Given the decisive actions in her personal and professional life, Dana therefore felt smothered at times by the daily concerns of others. As for her traveling abroad alone, she felt more than competent to take care of herself. When Brett had been with her in London, they were rarely together. He usually spent days working, and evenings meeting with clients, joining Dana for late dinners, if at all. He was up and out by 7:00 a.m. She’d always hoped that the next trip would be better, but this was never the case. Traveling alone? It was all she knew.
Yes, it had all happened just four months ago, illustrating how the course of a life can change so radically and quickly. But was she ecstatically happy now that a new phase of her life and career had begun, with Brett being almost surgically excised from the picture? No, she wasn’t jubilant about anything at present, but she was content, at peace with the decisions she had made to take care of herself and her future. In the words of her father, she had discovered that she had “a very good life” despite longstanding marital woes and formidable professional challenges. Many of her friends had urged her to re-enter the dating scene since she was almost thirty and the clock was ticking, but Dana didn’t miss married life in the least and had no interest whatsoever in dating, especially guys described as the perfect match: upwardly mobile professionals, or “Brett clones,” the apt description provided by Andrew Ricci, Dana’s good friend and display director at the store. Besides, marriage was not the only path to a fulfilled life. In Dana’s estimation, happiness also resulted from pursuing a creative dream, enjoying good friendships and the myriad interests that gave her immense pleasure, such as travel, literature, films, and lectures on a wide variety of topics. Being suddenly single was not a condition to be cured but rather an opportunity to be savored.
A line from Dickens came to mind as she thought of events that had altered her life: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Dana had survived the tumultuous weeks of the previous December, when she realized her marriage was over, but surely this was now the best of times, was it not? She smiled as she contemplated her walk tomorrow morning to Piccadilly for breakfast at Fortnum & Mason, followed by a long and leisurely visit to Hatchards, London’s oldest bookshop. The thought of Dickens reminded her of the delight she took in finding rare editions of the classics, or even first editions of lesser-known authors. Today, however, she was going to enjoy Richoux’s delicious risotto when she lunched with Phoebe, who was staying within walking distanceat the Grosvenor House on Park Lane. Filled with a new surge of energy, the blue-eyed Dana freshened up, brushed her short blond hair, and grabbed a shawl and a pair of unlined leather gloves. The clouds were beginning to part, and the steady English drizzle had let up, but it was still a nippy fifty-four degrees—a perfect spring day in London.
Rays of sunshine were reflected by leaded windows in the rows of eighteenth century townhomes Dana passed as she strolled leisurely through Berkeley Square. It was only eleven thirty and she had an hour before meeting Phoebe at her hotel, enough time for a short detour across Hill Street and Hays Mews to the Farm Street Church, also known as the Jesuit Church of the Immaculate Conception. Years earlier, she’d been sitting on a bench in Mount Street Gardens when she looked up and beheld one of the church’s open gothic portals that seemed so inviting, beckoning her to enter and pray. Then as now, it had been a glorious April day, the kind celebrated by Chaucer in the opening lines of the Canterbury Tales, when spring rains provide rich “liquor” for flowers suffering winter’s drought.
Dana arrived at the church and chose to enter from Mount Street Gardens rather than Farm Street, as she’d done on her original visit. In the transept to the right of Our Lady of Farm Street statue was the Sacred Heart Chapel, and this is where Dana chose to pray in deference to the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, who’d taught her for twelve years in her youth. She knelt in the third pew, said a decade of the rosary, and then sat, looking up to admire, as she always did, the glorious painting of the Sacred Heart flanked by four saints above an inlaid marble altar with three brass reliefs. But instead of finding peace in this pious setting, the silence suddenly became deafening, and the alabaster walls of the chapel began to feel close, confining. A wave of emotion engulfed her, and she cried uncontrollably, questioning her impulsive decision to end her eight-year marriage—and without considering her vows taken before God, family, and friends. What a hypocrite she felt herself to be—a selfish hypocrite who had turned her back on the faith that was such an integral part of her life.
Glancing at her watch, Dana saw that it was almost noon. She needed to pull herself together and be on her way to meet Phoebe. She took a deep breath, wiped away her tears, and walked outside to a bench in Mount Street Gardens, where she would spend a few moments composing herself.
In the sacristy, a priest was marking the readings for the twelve-thirty mass in the gilt-edged lectionary when he heard anguished sobs emanating from the Sacred Heart Chapel. Curious, he stepped into the sanctuary in time to see a young woman exiting the side door leading to the gardens. He followed her and observed her sitting on a bench fifteen yards away. He folded his arms, closed his eyes, and said a brief prayer.
* * *
Looking in her compact mirror, Dana wiped away the mascara beneath her eyes and reapplied a bit of powder to her cheeks. She didn’t want Phoebe to see that she’d been crying. What could she possibly say in answer to any questions her friend might have? That she was upset over the abrupt manner in which she’d dissolved an eight-year marriage to an inattentive man who’d cheated on her? No, the emotions that had spilled forth in the chapel had taken Dana by surprise, and they needed to be processed in private moments of reflection.
Dana had been resting her eyes when she looked up and saw a priest approaching the bench. The Jesuit, a tall man in his early fifties, walked with a confident gait, and the smile on his face was evident when he was still several feet away.
“Good morning,” he said. “Lovely day.” He could tell the young woman was upset and, in point of fact, she wasn’t the only one he’d encountered on the grounds who needed consolation or, at the very least, a friendly smile.
“Yes, Father, it is,” Dana replied. “A splendid day.”
“Are you on holiday, or are we blessed to have you as a new parishioner?” he asked.
Dana examined the priest’s face more carefully. He wore rimless glasses, and pale blue eyes regarded her kindly beneath close-cut salt and pepper hair. He was dressed in a black clerical suit and looked to be strong and vigorous despite his gentle manner.
“On holiday, Father,” Dana replied. “I come here whenever I’m in London and wanted to stop in and . . . visit. I was taught by the Sacred Heart sisters back in New York.”
“A New Yorker!” Father Macaulay said. “And a member of the family, so to speak. May I sit?” he asked, motioning to the bench.
A member of the family, Dana thought, again fighting back tears. Not anymore.
“I’m sorry, Father,” Dana mumbled, rising to leave. “I’m meeting someone and I’m late.”
Father Macaulay nodded. “I hope you’ll visit again. I’m here in the church or the gardens every morning from nine until I say mass. If you can’t find me, just tell the sacristan that you’re looking for Father Charles Macaulay.”
“Thank you, Father. Have a good day.”
Biting her lip to fight back fresh tears, Dana and Macaulay shook hands. The priest watched Dana walk out of the gardens, sensing that she was in distress. He was a good judge of people, and he thought that Dana would surely return to the church before she boarded a plane for New York City. Somewhere in her soul, he thought, there was unfinished business.
* * *
Wearing sunglasses, Dana walked for five minutes along Mount Street until she reached the Grosvenor House. Phoebe was waiting in the lounge, and after they exchanged warm greetings, they left the hotel for Richoux, which was two blocks away on South Audley Street.
The two women were shown to a small table in the dimly-lit restaurant owing to the dark wood paneling in the main dining room. When Dana removed her sunglasses, Phoebe immediately saw that Dana was upset. Her eyes were puffy and her smile was forced. Phoebe cocked her head and raised her eyebrows, as if to say, Do you feel like talking about it?
“I’m fine,” Dana said, brushing aside the concern. “Nothing worth discussing. Now tell me about you, how’s the convention?”
The two women chatted over lunch, Phoebe speaking of the lectures she’d attended on anticoagulation therapy, angioplasty, and catheterization for the diagnosis of coronary artery disease. In turn, Dana described her new duties at B. Altman. They laughed at Johnny Cirone’s daily calls and continued concern for Dana since her separation, although Dana was reminded yet again of the excessive attention she was receiving.
“We have to get him married off,” Phoebe said, “or at least find him a serious girlfriend. He’s becoming a mother hen.” She paused, knowing that Dana was holding back something painful, but decided not to press the matter. “By the way, my dad has an offer on his house, and he’s in contract to purchase the estate sale on East 79thStreet. It’s a big renovation, so he’s hoping to get approved by the co-op board quickly and start the demo. Johnny is already interviewing contractors.”
John Cirone was moving to Manhattan since his Long Island home seemed far too large since the death of his wife two years earlier. He’d accepted a seat on the board of the Metropolitan Opera, and Johnny was helping his dad make the long-overdue transition to the city—and to the present, away from thoughts of his deceased wife, Lena.
“It sounds like the convention is keeping you pretty busy,” Dana said. “Would you like me to pick up Uncle John’s cigars at Sautter’s? It’s a few blocks from the Lansdowne.”
“That would be a lifesaver,” Phoebe said. “I have two days of seminars on using something called a stent to open up clogged arteries instead of always resorting to bypass surgery. It would be a non-invasive procedure, but most cardiologists think it’s still years away.” Phoebe suddenly burst out laughing. “And here I am, bringing my father cigars, which is the last thing a cardiologist should do.”
The two women finished lunch, Phoebe heading to the convention for afternoon lectures,
and Dana returning to the Lansdowne Club, where she finished unpacking.
Dana sipped afternoon tea while paging through a book of poems she’d found lying on the end table by the sofa, her thoughts returning to her display of emotion that morning. Brett had indeed been quickly and surgically excised from her life, perhaps too quickly, and yet she had received no judgments about the decision to do so from her parents. She was aware, of course, that Virginia had always been a bit leery of Brett, even at the very beginning of their courtship. As for her father, he was quite unflappable and had reminded Dana that things always work out in the end, which was a part of his lifelong, homespun philosophy that she found so comforting. And yet Dana couldn’t shake the realization that Brett, despite all of his shortcomings, was a man she’d loved for over eight years. Should she have given him another chance? After all, the marriage hadn’t been all bad. The visit to the chapel, she concluded, had reminded her of Catholic dogma regarding marriage: it was indissoluble. Mount Street Gardens, the chapel, the brass panels—they’d brought to mind her many years with the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, causing her to second guess her decision.
Leafing through the slightly-worn pages—she thought that older books had such character—she saw Wordsworth’s “Ode on Intimations of Immortality.” It was one of her favorite poems. She especially liked the lines towards the end.
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.
The sentiment was essentially that of her father, who had a “philosophic mind” when it came to handling disappointment. There had been good times in the marriage, but some things were beyond repair, and Dana had indeed retained strength in what remained behind, which was a full life that included friendships and opportunity. Dana realized how important this trip was—far more than a break from her daily routine or an enjoyable shopping spree. On her own, she could privately mourn her marriage and process her emotions, opening her mind and heart for whatever lay ahead. She was at peace again, ready for the rest of her stay in London. Still, she wondered if Father Macaulay would share her perspective. The priest had emanated kindness and understanding in the brief minutes she’d been in his presence, and now, feeling stronger, she decided to visit him again before she left London. He’d demonstrated genuine concern, and she wanted to hear his soothing voice one more time.
Title: The Last Wife of Attila the Hun
Genre: Literary/Historical Fiction with a Legendary Component
Author: Joan Schweighardt
Publisher: Five Directions Press
Purchase on Amazon
Two threads are woven together in The Last Wife of Attila the Hun. In one, Gudrun, a Burgundian noblewoman, dares to enter the City of Attila to give its ruler what she hopes is a cursed sword; the second thread reveals the unimaginable events that have driven her to this mission. Based in part on the true history of the times and in part on the same Nordic legends that inspired Wagner’s Ring Cycle and other great works of art, The Last Wife of Attila the Hun offers readers a thrilling story of love, betrayal, passion and revenge, all set against an ancient backdrop itself gushing with intrigue.
THE LAST WIFE OF ATTILA THE HUN
by Joan Schweighardt
When I was a young girl living at Worms, there was nothing I delighted in more than song. And of all those who lifted their voices in our great hall, there was none who did so as beautifully as my brother Gunner. Were he beside me now, he would rebuke me for the method that I have chosen to relate my story to you. He would insist, instead, on fashioning a melody for my words and singing them to you from beginning to end. He would begin modestly, singing, as he always did, that he had no talent for melodies, but entreating you, nevertheless, to remember his words. And, friend, as there is no bird, no summer breeze, no sweet stream lapping or soft rain falling that could compete with Gunner for one’s attention, have no doubt that you would have remembered them. He would have looked into your eyes while he sang and touched you in a deeper place than he ever touched a man or a woman when he went without his harp.
Though I can never hope to emulate his elegance, let me begin likewise, telling you first that I have no talent either. This thing, this process of setting down one word after the next on parchment, is new to me, and, as a friend once stated, tedious. And in spite of all the pains that I have taken to learn it, I find that I am apprehensive now because I cannot look into your eyes as my brother would have, because I cannot hope to touch you in that holy place where the hearts of all folk are joined together. Still, I would have you remember my words.
The City of Attila
I fell to my knees at the stream, so eager to drink that I did not think to offer a prayer until afterward, when I was satisfied and my flask was full. I was exhausted. My skin was parched and I was filthy; but according to the map my brothers had given me, I was very near my destination. I continued on foot, pulling my tired horse behind me.
I had not had a full night’s rest since the terrain had changed. The land was flat here. There were no caves or rocky ledges where I could shelter myself. The forests, so sacred to my people, had long since been replaced by endless grasslands. As I trudged through them, I felt that I had left more than my loved ones behind.
When the sky darkened, I used the single live coal I carried from the previous night’s fire to light my torch. I was sure that the light could be seen from some distance. I expected at every moment to hear the thunder of hooves beating on the arid earth. But on and on I walked, seeing no sight other than my own shadow in the gleam of the torch light and hearing no sound but that of my horse plodding along beside me.
When the sun began to rise, I saw that there was a sandy hill ahead, and hoping to see the City of Attila from its summit, I dragged myself on. But the hill was much farther away than it had seemed, and it took most of the day to reach it. And then it was much higher too, the highest ground that I had seen in days. My horse, who was content to graze on grassy clumps and to watch the marmots who dared to peek out of their holes, made it clear that he had no desire to climb. I had to coax him along, and myself as well, for now I was afraid that I would reach the summit and see nothing but more grass stretching out to the far horizon. I imagined myself wandering endlessly, seeing no one, coughing and sneezing in response to the invisible blowing dust, until my food ran out and my horse gave way.
I crawled to the top of the hill and looked down in amazement at the camp of make-shift tents below. In front of one of them a fire burned, and the carcass of an antelope was roasting over it. There were many men about, perhaps two hundred, all on horseback except for the few tending the fire.
It was not until I heard the war cry that I knew for certain that the scene was real and not some trick of my mind. I had been sighted. The entire company was suddenly galloping in my direction, a cloud of dust rising up around them. I forced myself to my feet and spread my arms to show that I carried no weapon. When I saw that the men were making their bows ready, I dropped my head and lifted my arms higher yet, to the heavens, where, I hoped, the gods were watching carefully.
Part of the company surrounded me. The others rode past, over the summit. When they were satisfied that no one was riding behind me, they joined the first group. Upon the command of one of them, they all lowered their bows. I began to breathe again. A murmur went up, and while I waited for it to subside, I studied their horses. Of the two that I could see without moving my head, one looked like the ones the Romans rode—a fine, tall, light-colored steed. The other looked like no animal I had ever seen before. Its legs were short and its head was large and somehow misshapen. Its matted mane hung down over its stout body. Its nose was snubbed and its eyes bulged like a fish’s. Its back was curved, as if by the weight of its rider. Yet its thick neck and large chest suggested great strength.
The murmur abated, and the Hun on the horse I’d been scrutinizing cried out a command in his harsh, foreign tongue. I looked up and noted that he resembled his horse. He was short and stout, large-chested, his head overly large, his neck short and thick, his nose snubbed. The only difference was that while the horse had a long mane and a bushy tail, the Hun’s hair was thin, and his beard, if one could call it that, was thinner yet. He seemed to be waiting for me to speak. I stared at the identical scars that ran down the sides of his face, wide, deep mutations that began beneath his deeply set eyes and ended at his mouth. “I’ve come to seek Attila,” I said.
The Hun, who appeared slightly amused, looked to his companions. A murmur went up again. While they debated, I took the opportunity to scan the other Hun faces, all hideous replicas of the one who had spoken to me. Of course, I had known the Huns were strange to look upon. Although I’d been hidden away during the siege, I’d had a description from those who had seen the Huns and survived to tell about them. In fact, there were some among my people who mutilated their own faces after the siege, believing this would make them as fierce as their attackers. Still, none of this had prepared me sufficiently to look upon them with my own eyes. Some wore tunics and breeches, not unlike the ones my own people wore. Others wore garments made entirely of marmot skins. With some on Roman horses and others on Hunnish ones, some dressed like Thuets and others in skins, they looked like no army I had ever seen before. Their confusion over how to respond to me only heightened the impression of disorder.
“Attila!” I cried. My brothers were sure I was mad, and when I heard my shout I thought they must be right.
The startled Huns stared for a moment, then they took up their debate again, their voices louder and more urgent than before. Finally the leader nodded, and the man whose argument he had come to agree with rode to my side and took my horse’s reins from my hand. While he started down the hill with the horse, another Hun poked me from behind with his riding whip to indicate that I should follow. Half of the men began the descent with me. The other half stayed on the summit, looking off in the direction from which I had come.
I was brought to the fire, where I reiterated my desire to see Attila. One of the Huns pointed beyond the tents. I followed his finger. There were a few dark clouds converging on the eastern horizon. “Can we ride?” I asked, pointing to my horse. The Hun gestured for me to sit. The meat had been removed from the fire and torn into pieces. The horseless Huns were distributing it among the riders. One of them brought a piece to me, and another brought me a flask of what smelled like Roman wine. I ate the meat—which was tough and bland—and kept my eyes fastened on my horse and the sack that hung from his side. I tasted the wine and, to the amusement of the Huns who were watching, quickly spat it out—for this is what I imagined a woman who had grown up alone in the forest would do.
After the meal, I stood and pointed east. “Take me to the City of Attila,” I demanded. Again, my words caused a stir.
Then one of the Huns said something which quieted the others. He gave a series of commands, and one of the listeners slid off his horse and reluctantly offered me the reins.
I hesitated, unsure what to do about the sack. Gathering courage, I led the Hunnish horse past my guards and over to my own horse. I reached for the sack, but a stout Hunnish arm cut me off. “For Attila,” I said. The man who had stopped me looked to his fellows. Again there was discussion, and after a moment, a decision. The arm withdrew. I swallowed and removed the sack from one beast and secured it onto the other. Then I mounted the Hunnish horse and settled myself as best I could on its hard wooden saddle. The Hun who was to be my escort came forward. Someone furnished him with a torch, and, also, what sounded like a lecture.
Riding at his side, I considered how easily it had gone. The Huns might have insisted that I stay the night in their camp. Or, they might have made me leave the sack behind. And there was much worse that I could think of, too. If I had felt bold before, I felt even bolder now, and, indeed, quite mad. I was already imagining the expressions that would appear on my brothers’ faces when I was home again relating the story.
The comical-looking beast beneath me was as fast as he was strong. He galloped along as if riderless, keeping pace with the Hun’s horse and seemingly oblivious to my touch on his reins. I lowered my head onto his thick dirty mane, and keeping my arms tight around his neck, closed my burning eyes. After a while, the horse’s steps became shorter, choppier, so that I knew the terrain had changed. The grasses were higher now, like the ones I had ridden through some days earlier when the trees had first begun to thin. I relaxed and gave way to the muffled sound of the horses’ hooves. When I opened my eyes again, I thought to find myself riding beneath the stars with the moon on the rise to the south. To my astonishment, the sky was pink, and it was the sun that was rising. My arms, which were stiff and badly cramped, had kept their vigil all through the night.
My companion laughed heartily when I lifted my head. And thinking that my riding and sleeping on horseback would make a fine story for Attila’s ears, I laughed as well. I imagined myself explaining that valkyrias did this all the time. I had trained my mind on the powers I would feign to have for so long that my uncanny slumber made me feel I had actually come to possess them.
Soon enough, the City of Attila appeared on the horizon—a vast tract surrounded by a high wooden palisade. My escort stopped to point it out, and I checked myself for panic. When I was satisfied that I felt none, I nodded, and we began to ride again. Before long we reached the city gates and the men who guarded them. My escort stayed at my side only long enough to deliver his message to the guard who rode to meet us. Then he turned and rode off, taking with him the story which I had hoped to hear repeated to Attila. The gates were pulled open. My new escort led me in.
Activity was everywhere. Clusters of men on horseback were engaged in conversations. Women walked among them carrying baskets or vessels on their heads. They were trailed by small children while older children sat in circles on the ground laughing and teasing one another. Most were Huns, but there were others who were clearly Thuets. And there were some, especially among the children, who appeared to be half and half. The Hun women, like their men, were short and stout. Many were quite fat. Only their lack of facial scars distinguished them from their male counterparts.
Mud and straw huts dotted the landscape. Beyond them, in the distance, was a second wooden palisade, its circumference so great that it appeared to take up half the city. As we approached it, the gates opened. We entered a long tunnel from which I could hear the pounding of feet overhead. There were other smaller tunnels leading off to the left and right, but their doors concealed the chambers they led to.
When we came back out into the daylight, I saw yet another palisade—this one set back on a high grassy mound. Like the city walls and the first inner palisade, it was circular, with wooden towers protruding at intervals. From each tower, guards looked down. “Attila’s palace?” I asked my escort, though I knew the answer even before he nodded.
There was as much activity here as there had been within the first palisade, but my gaze fell on the group of men who tarried on their horses nearest Attila’s gate. This group was more richly dressed than others I had seen. Many wore arm rings and finger rings. Some even had precious stones sewn into their shoes. It was the most heavily jeweled among them that my escort seemed to be eyeing as we approached. Thinking this man must be Attila, I took a deep breath and prepared myself to speak the words I had so thoroughly rehearsed. But when he turned toward me, I saw immediately that he could not possibly be Attila. He was not even a Hun. Though his face was as deeply scarred as those of his companions, he was clearly a Thuet. I had felt no emotion seeing the other Thuets in the village, because I took them to be prisoners, men who had been forced into Attila’s service. But the jewels and dress on this one indicated that he was pleased to live among the Huns, that he had earned Attila’s favor. He glanced at me. If he saw the involuntary look of disdain that crossed my face, his expression did not reflect it. He listened to the words of my escort, then jerked his head to indicate that I should come with him.
To my disappointment, he led me away from Attila’s gates, off to the southwest of his palisade, past a good many more huts and through a large open field and very nearly to the far wall of the inner palisade. There were only a few huts ahead of us now, and unlike the others that I had seen, they were spread apart and faced west rather than east. The one the Thuet took me to was the most isolated of all. But it was built up on a small knoll, and I could see the vast stretches of grassland beyond the tops of the inner palisade and the city walls just behind it—a boon for a woman who had never before found herself enclosed within so many fortifications.
The Thuet motioned for me to dismount. My legs were weak, and I had to hold on to the Hunnish beast to get my balance. When I was able, I made a move toward the sheepskin curtain that covered the doorway of the hut, but I hesitated when I heard voices inside. The Thuet heard them, too, and in what seemed one motion, he jumped from his horse and threw back the curtain, exposing a young couple. In the Hunnish tongue, he admonished them harshly, his riding crop held threateningly over his head. Holding their garments in front of them, the couple backed out of the hut and bolted. The Thuet lowered his whip and laughed as he watched them flee bare-assed across the open field. Then he turned back to me, his expression fierce again. “Get yourself inside now,” he shouted.
I stepped into the hut, and holding the curtain open, watched anxiously as he cut down the sack from the side of my horse. I told myself that I should be pleased to be in the company of one who spoke my language, but my hatred persisted. He threw the sack in carelessly, so that it fell just short of my feet. Then he entered, drawing the sheepskin curtain behind him so that only a little daylight streamed in.
I looked around in the dim light. There was no window, no hearth. A pile of skins were thrown into one corner, and more skins lined the four walls. “I have come to seek an audience with Attila,” I said.
“I must see Attila,” I reiterated. “I’ve come a long way—”
His hand sliced through the air. “You are not to leave your hut,” he said in a voice that was unnecessarily loud in the tiny space. “A guard will be posted at your door day and night. You are not to attempt to speak to him. You are not to speak to anyone. If you try to escape, you will be killed. Do you understand?”
I did not. His declaration was a contradiction to the ease that had brought me this far. I took a step toward him. “What is your connection to Attila?”
He laughed, then sobered abruptly. “I am Edeco, second in command,” he boasted.
“Then let me speak to the man who is first in command,” I hissed.
Edeco drew his lips back, exposing his teeth. His hand came up from his side slowly, and I lifted my head, bracing for the impact. But his hand faltered and hung in the space between us, quivering for a moment. Then it dropped. He turned and went out.
I stood where I was, considering our exchange. At first it seemed to me that things had changed now, that my run of fortune had come to an end. But then I realized how tired I was; my slumber on the racing horse had done little to relieve my fatigue. Perhaps it was best that my audience with Attila be delayed.
I took the sack from the earthen floor and hid it beneath the pile of skins. Then I took a skin from the top and spread it out and lay down. I fell asleep almost immediately—and found myself in the forest behind my brothers’ hall, walking among the birches.
Someone called out my name, and when I turned, Sigurd was coming up behind me, leading his steed. I ran to him. When I was safe in his embrace, I cried, “Oh, Sigurd, I have been so afraid! I am so glad to have found you. Things will go well enough now. You will not let me face Attila alone, will you?”
He smiled. “I will not,” he said. “I’ll be at your side every moment, as I have been all along, whether you knew it or not.”
I clung to him, my heart almost breaking with emotion. “I have the war sword,” I whispered. “I plan to give it to Attila.”
“Let him have the cursed thing,” Sigurd answered. “For all that it shines like the sun, it brought me nothing but trouble.” There was a warm honey-like scent in the air; it seemed to emanate from Sigurd.
“But if the thing is truly cursed,” I asked, “how is it that it had no effect on me in all the days that I carried it at my side?”
Sigurd only smiled. “Have you thought by what name you will call yourself here?” he asked.
“Brunhild,” I answered.
“It will bring you bad luck to call yourself after someone who loved you so little,” Sigurd replied. “Why not call yourself Ildico?”
“Ildico,” I repeated, and I recalled that Ildico had been the name of the valkyria who had befriended my mother many years ago, the same woman who had brought my eldest brother into the world.
“Ildico,” I said again, but this time I spoke aloud as well as in my dream, and the sound of my voice awakened me.
I remained motionless for a long time. I had dreamed of Sigurd many times since I had regained my health, but always he was at some distance, riding among other men. Or, if he was close, he was silent and oblivious to my presence.
I gave up the notion of falling asleep again and sat up. He was with me; he had said so. No matter what dangers lay ahead, I would be satisfied if sleep would sometimes bring me the sight of Sigurd’s face and the feel of his embrace, from which my skin was still tingling. But the dream puzzled me, too. Ildico: I had never thought to call myself that. And why had I told Sigurd that I was afraid when I felt no fear? When my madness lingered and made me bold?
The curtain was drawn aside. A Hun woman entered carrying a bowl of meats and breads, a cup, and a large wooden vessel of wine. She set everything down and left without once looking at me. I got up and rushed to the curtain, but she had already turned the corner of the hut. I saw only the guard who had been posted outside, and the sun, which was low in the western sky. I had slept for some time.
I ate with vigor, in a manner that I would have once scolded my brothers for. I was determined not to touch the wine, but as I had no water left in my flask, I took a sip. It did not taste nearly as bad as it had the last time I had tried it on Burgundian lands. I drank more.
When the curtain opened again not long afterward, it was the Thuet, Edeco. He left the curtain open behind him and sat down across from me. I studied his face and sipped at the wine, which made me feel light-headed and even more impudent. “Have you come to hear me speak?” I asked.
Edeco laughed. “I did not come to clear away your crumbs.”
I ignored his sarcasm. “Then I will tell you what I tried to tell you before. I have come a long way, riding for days, to see the face of Attila. I have eaten, I have drunk, I have rested. I would be pleased to be brought to him now.”
Edeco threw his head back and laughed so heartily that I was forced to think of Gunner, who also threw his head back when he laughed. Then Edeco’s face changed. “Why should he see you?”
“I carry a gift for Attila,” I said.
“Attila receives many gifts, most so large that they must be carried in carts pulled by oxen and guarded over by many men.”
“Mine is greater.”
“Show it to me.”
“I’ve told you about it. I will show it only to Attila.”
Edeco jumped to his feet, his blue eyes flashing. As there was only one place in the tiny hut where a person might hide a thing, he went directly to the skins and cast them aside one by one until he had uncovered the sack. Then he turned it upside down and shook it so that its contents—my cloak, the wooden bowl that Guthorm, my dead brother, had once played with, and the straw concealing the war sword—tumbled out. Edeco fell to his knees and tore at the straw until some part of the blade was revealed. Even in the dimming light it blazed, as if excited by his agitation. He swept the rest of the straw aside hastily. Then, with his eyes swimming in their sockets, he ran his fingers over the hilt, tracing its intricate engravings. He turned to me and saw, no doubt, my self-satisfied smile, and he immediately lifted his hand from the thing. He cocked his head as if considering something. Then he came back to sit in front of me, though his eyes continued to stray toward the sword.
I got up slowly and placed the war sword back in the sack. I gathered up the straw and shoved it in after it. Then I put the sack in the corner and covered it over with some of the skins. As I went to sit again, I found, to my disgust, that Edeco was just replacing my wine cup. His hand was quaking. “A thing of great beauty, is it not?” I asked.
He looked away. In profile, the deep scar across his cheek looked even more hideous. I seemed again to smell the warm honey scent that had come to me earlier in my dream. Sigurd had to be there, invisible but beside me, just as he had said. The notion made me giddy. Edeco turned back so sharply that I wondered if I had unwittingly laughed aloud. “Who are you?” he demanded.
“Ildico.” The power of transformation seemed to lie within the word itself. I was glad Sigurd had suggested it.
“Who are your people?”
I looked aside. “I have none.”
He took my chin and jerked my head toward him. I was pleased to see my composure reflected in his eyes. “I’m a Thuet!” I sneered.
“I can see that for myself.”
“I was separated from my people when I was a child,” I went on. “A band of Romans cut us down while we were traveling. They killed my parents and my brothers and would have killed me, too, had I been older. But I suppose they did not feel it necessary to redden their swords with a small child’s blood when she would likely starve or be killed by some beast anyway. But as you can see, no beast crossed my path. And I did not starve, either.”
Edeco laughed and let go of my chin roughly. “You look half-starved to me.”
“Aye, half. I ate roots and berries. I grew. I learned to steal from the Thuet tribes I came across in my travels. I learned to hunt. There was no excess, but there was enough. And so you see me as I am.”
Edeco searched my eyes. “If there were other Thuets about, why didn’t you show yourself and beg for mercy?”
“When I was younger, I did not because I was afraid. Having seen my people put to death before my eyes, I had no notion of mercy, and I would not have known how to ask for it anyway since I had no language skills then. As I grew older, I did show myself to other Thuets. I stayed with various tribes from time to time. I learned my language and more. But I longed for the way of life I had become accustomed to.”
“How did you come by the sword?”
I sighed and glanced at my wine cup, contaminated now by this Thuet who was a Hun. “It is no ordinary sword. You have seen that. It was fashioned by Wodan himself, back in the days when the gods roamed the Earth as freely as people do now.”
Edeco’s eyes widened. “How can you be certain?”
“The man it once belonged to told me so.”
“And what man is that?”
“He was called Sigurd, a Frankish noble. Perhaps you have heard of—”
“I have not. Tell me how you came by the thing.”
I stared at him. These matters I had planned to save for Attila’s ears. Now I feared that if I told too much to Edeco, Attila would be satisfied to have the story second-hand. But as it was clear that Edeco would not retreat until I answered him, I explained that long ago the gods had lost the sword to a family of dwarves, and that one of these dwarves, wanting the sword for himself, killed his father. To keep his brothers from confronting him, he changed himself into a dragon and took the sword off into the high mountains. Then, years later, one of the dwarf-dragon’s brothers, Regan, promised the sword to Sigurd if Sigurd would accompany him into the high mountains and help him to avenge his father’s death. I made no mention of the rest of the gold. Nor did I mention the curse.
Edeco heard my words with interest, taking his eyes from mine only long enough to raise the wine cup to his lips now and again. Once, when I hesitated in my discourse to catch my breath, he passed the cup to me. I put my hand up to renounce it but then thought better of it and drank, the shared cup being an emblem of camaraderie. Edeco smiled then, and I was satisfied to think that I might easily deceive him into believing that I had come to the City of Attila as a friend. “And how did you come to steal the sword from the Frank?” Edeco asked.
“I did not steal the sword from Sigurd,” I answered. “After he was dead, I stole it from the man who had gotten it from him. Sigurd loved me. He would have wanted me to have it.”
Edeco squinted. I sighed. “You see,” I explained, spurred by his disbelief to give more details than I might have otherwise, “Sigurd returned from the high mountains with only his horse, the sword, and the heart of the dragon. His companion, the dwarf, changed his mind about giving Sigurd the sword when he saw again what a glorious thing it was. And since the dwarf had bought Sigurd’s assistance with the promise of the sword, Sigurd had no choice but to slay Regan.
“I found Sigurd, forlorn because he’d had to kill an old friend, at the foot of the high mountains, not far from the cave where I lived at the time. He was tired, and confused about what he should say to the Franks concerning Regan’s death. Although Regan was not a Frank, he had lived among them for many years, and the Franks loved him. Sigurd was afraid that they would demand the war sword as his man-price when they learned that Regan was dead. Thus he was only too glad to return to my cave with me until he had settled his mind on the matter. He lingered, and I wrote a rune outside the cave to keep the Franks at bay in case they should be looking for him. This rune-wisdom was taught to me by a peasant woman with whom I stayed for a time and made potent by the gods themselves when they determined that I should become a valkyria.”
I hesitated, but Edeco made no comment on my avowed enlightenment. It occurred to me that perhaps being a Thuet who was not a Thuet, he knew nothing of such matters. “We were well matched,” I continued, “me a valkyria with the power to alter events and Sigurd the man who slayed the dragon. And thus it happened that our admiration for each other grew into something more. But before Sigurd and the dwarf set off on their quest, Sigurd had betrothed himself to a Burgundian woman for whom he no longer cared. Still, being a Thuet, he did not like to defile his betrothal vows. And so it was that our intimacy only served to confuse him further. Thus he stayed on with me, vacillating, making himself ill with worry.
“At length, he reached the decision which a man of his word must. He would return to the Burgundian woman, to let her know that he was safe, and then he would ride to the Franks and tell them the truth about the dwarf. But until he had the Franks’ reaction to this news, his desire was to keep the sword hidden. He decided to leave it with the Burgundians, for safe-keeping. Even then I felt that his decision was less than wise, but I was so in love with Sigurd that I mistook my premonition for envy and made no attempt to stop him from doing what he felt he must.
“He’d been safe enough with me, but my powers are mine, and once he was away from me, I had no means to lay them on him. He saw the Burgundian woman, left the sword with her brothers, and then he went home to inform the Franks of Regan’s death. Later he returned, as he felt he had to, to marry the Burgundian. But shortly after their wedding, her brothers began to behave toward him in a manner which was insulting. The elder of the two complained that Sigurd should have offered the war sword to him as part of his sister’s bride-price. Sigurd’s wife likewise became greedy. It was not enough for her to be married to so great a man, a dragon-slayer. She once heard him call out my name in his sleep. And when he reddened the next morning when she asked, ‘Who is Ildico?’ she became enraged. She conspired with her brothers against him. But he grew wise to their conspiracy, and one day he rode out to see me, to tell me all of this and to ask my advice. I looked into the fire that was burning at the mouth of my cave, and I saw that Sigurd’s wife and her brothers were set on killing him, that his life-blood would be spilt as soon as he returned to them. I told him he must never return. But Sigurd’s wife was already heavy with their child, and though he had every right now to break his vows to her, he had no mind to give up the child. He wanted to go back, to offer the sword to his wife’s brothers in return for his life, and then, once his wife had delivered the child, which he hoped would be a son, to steal the child and the sword and return to me. I begged him to see that it was more than the sword these folk wanted. They wanted the glory that Sigurd would have attained, had he lived, in retrieving it. They wanted Sigurd dead so that they could say that they were the ones who had gone off into the high mountains…
“When I told him this, he shook with rage. He could get used to the idea of giving up the war sword, but to know that the brothers would bask in the glory of his acquisition was too much for him. He was set on returning, now to kill the brothers who would do this to him. I begged him not to go. He went. He was killed.”
I hung my head and waited. At length, Edeco spoke, “How did you come to learn of his death?”
I lifted my face so that he could see the tears that had sprung to my eyes. “I knew because I knew. I had foreseen the event in the fire, and I saw it again later, on the walls of my cave as I lay thinking of Sigurd and wishing him back by my side. I knew, but I was numb with sorrow, and for a long time I did nothing. Then, more recently, I came across a tribe of Thuets, Alans, who were traveling to the Western Empire. They spent one night in my cave, and the one who had a harp sang the song of the war sword as he had learned it from the Burgundian brothers.
“I set them right of course, and they promised they would sing the true version thereafter. And when they were gone, I made my plan. I found my way to Burgundian lands, and, at night, when I felt certain that all within were sleeping, I entered the hall of the brothers and found the sword—no difficult task. You saw yourself how the thing catches light in a way which only an enchanted thing may do. The proud brothers had not even thought to hide it. It was there on the wall above the high seat. I took it down noiselessly, and as soon as it was in my hands, I felt how it was thirsty for blood, how it was made to be sated. You know this, too! I saw your face when you touched the thing! It was all I could do to hold myself back from taking it up against the brothers and the woman as well. But I understood also that this sword, Wodan’s war sword, was meant to cut down armies, not a few insignificant Thuets who would suffer a greater loss than life when they learned the thing was gone. I stole a horse. I rode feverishly. You know the rest.”
I sat back on my heels and drained the rest of the wine from my cup. I could feel Edeco’s eyes on me, burning with wonder. I was burning, too, with pride and something more. I had imparted my tale with vigor. It differed from the one that I had rehearsed with my brothers before my departure, yes, but it was no less a marvel. I had not meant to mention the Burgundians by name, and I could not think why I had done so, but I did not see how it would matter one way or another. And most of all, in spite of all my fabrications, I had managed to be true, or nearly so, to Sigurd. His name and his glory were secure, even here, in the City of Attila.
I set down the wine cup and glanced at the doorway, graced now by the lower edge of the descending sun. The light pouring in was golden.
“Why Attila?” Edeco asked softly.
I was prepared for the question. “Have you heard nothing?” I exclaimed, falling forward and planting my palm on Edeco’s knee. “I grew up in the forest alone, living on what I could steal! I stayed here and there, yes, but only for short periods of time, and not one of those I stayed with ever loved me or considered me one of his own. And, in truth, I preferred my aloneness, until I met Sigurd. Only then did I come to learn what it means to walk in the shadow of a great man, to be called friend by someone whose powers are equal to my own!
“Sigurd is dead, and I will never love a man that way again. But I have come here to seek the company of another great man, to lend my powers to a man who is, perhaps, in his own way, even greater than Sigurd. And I have brought with me the thing which only a great man may possess, the likes of which would cause chaos in the hands of a lesser man.”
I jumped to my feet and tossed aside the skins as carelessly as Edeco had earlier. I reached into the sack, and spilling straw everywhere, pulled forth the war sword and held it up by the hilt. When I turned with it, the hot red orb of the sun was lower yet, filling the space now between the top of the doorway and the high palisade beyond it. And thus the sword became a torch in my hand, a wild, flashing thing which put the sun’s light to shame. Edeco, who had bounded to his feet as well, abandoned his pretense of indifference now and let his mouth drop open. He drew back and shielded his eyes from the sword’s fierce glare. Was it an accident, I wondered in my boldness, that the sun had chosen this moment to set? I had seen that it was setting, but I had made nothing of it; I had not planned to retrieve the sword. Again the warm honey scent permeated the little hut, and I fancied that it was Sigurd who had compelled me to take up the sword at just that instant.
My triumph made me giddy. I heard myself laughing wickedly, as the valkyria Brunhild might have done. In response, Edeco’s expression became even more bewildered, his bright blue eyes darting feverishly from me to the sword to the sun and around again. I felt his fear, his awe. I watched, amused, as he struggled to strike an attitude. His eyes still dancing, he brought his hand up from his side and growled, “Give it to me.”
I drew back. “I will give it only to Attila.”
“I will give it to him for you. You have my word,” he said more gently. “Give it to me. I do not want to have to hurt you.”
I laughed in his face, for as I had the sword, the notion was absurd. But the guard, who had halted his horse to learn the cause of the commotion, had seen the thing now, too. I lowered the sword and handed it to Edeco. He took it up as if it were a fragile thing. The guard saw the exchange and began, reluctantly it seemed, to pace again.
“Attila returns tomorrow,” Edeco said, his gaze sweeping along the length of the sword. “I will keep the sword until then. I will tell him all that you have told me. I have no doubt that he will send for you.” He gestured for the sack.
As soon as he was gone, I spread out the skin I had slept on earlier. I was anxious to see Sigurd again, to discuss with him what I had said and done, if only in a dream. His scent was still heavy in the hut; I had no doubt that his phantom would still be available to me. I lay down and closed my eyes, but my mind was racing, and I could not fall asleep. In spite of my efforts to empty my mind, it bustled with my image, with the way I had spoken, the way I had planted my hand on the Thuet-Hun’s knee, the way I had pulled forth the sword and held it up, as if to silence the setting sun.
I saw myself over and over again as I imagined I had looked to Edeco, a small, thin woman laughing sardonically and holding light itself in her grasp. My only regret was that my audience had not been Attila. I marveled at how evil I had become, at how much I had enjoyed my wicked charade.
But the evening progressed, and, gradually, my conceit was shaded by another perspective. I had drunk from the same cup as my enemy. I had laid my hand on him as if he were a brother. I had despised the Huns all my life, and yet I had spent a time conversing with one—for he was a Hun in mind if not in blood—and it had never once entered my thoughts that this Hun, this Thuet who was a Hun, might well have been in Worms when the blood of my people flowed like a river. When I had held the sword up to the sun, I had felt an impulse to strike Edeco with it, but not because he was my enemy. The truth was more that in holding the thing, I had felt myself an extension of it—and thus had been overcome with an urge to experience its power.
The night was slipping by. I could sense the sun yearning to rise again, and still sleep evaded me. The honey scent was gone now, and I wondered whether I had only imagined it earlier. What force had caused me to mention the Burgundians like that? Would it really make no difference? I had taken some pleasure in marking my brothers as villains. How was that possible? I had even taken pleasure in tainting myself.
Perhaps it was not madness after all that had made me feel so emboldened, so oblivious, so giddy—all feelings that eluded me now as cunningly as sleep. Perhaps, I thought, the curse had found a way to reach me. Since the time I had first received the sword from Gunner’s hand, I had amused myself by thinking that I was too good, too much a true Burgundian, to be contaminated. Now I wondered. Now I was ashamed.
I crawled into the corner and trembled with humiliation. I felt alone, afraid, as if I were a marmot without a tunnel on hand, separated from its colony by time and space and allegiance. I was sick with longing for Sigurd, and I tried with all my being to conjure up his presence again, to detect once more his honey scent. But I smelled nothing but my own fear. And soon I came to suspect that the illusion of Sigurd’s presence, like the illusion of my valor, which had been building for days and days, had been yet another trick of the sword. I was sick with fear and self-loathing. I gagged but could not vomit. And when I had spent myself and finally fell asleep, I dreamed of nothing.
Title: Freddy, Hoppie and the Eyeglasses
Genre: Early Reader, ages 6-9
Author: Michelle Nott
Publisher: Guardian Angel Publishing
Purchase link: http://www.guardianangelpublishing.com/freddy-hoppie.htm
Freddy, Hoppie and the Eyeglasses is about a little boy and his imaginary frog named Hoppie. Whenever Freddy struggles, Hoppie helps out. Specifically, Freddy’s having problems at school that he doesn’t realize stem from his poor eyesight. Not sure how to tell Mom about his trouble, he explains that Hoppie is the one with headaches, etc. Of course, Mom understands that Hoppie is the tool that Freddy uses to express himself. So, she takes Freddy (and Hoppie) to see the eye doctor. When Freddy leaves with brand new eyeglasses, Hoppie stays to assist the eye doctor with the other young patients.
Freddy, Hoppie and the Eyeglasses
by Michelle Nott
“Hurry,” Freddy’s Mom called.
Freddy pulled on his favorite green t-shirt and green socks. His frog, Hoppie, jumped deep into his pocket where only Freddy could see her.
“Have you looked at your watch?” his mom asked.
All the numbers were smudged. “It’s broken,” he answered.
Freddy and Hoppy leapt out the door and ran to the bus stop.
Once at school, Freddy skipped into his classroom. Hoppie jumped onto his desk.
“Good morning,” greeted Ms. Fibian. “Please open your Language Arts books to page 8 and read Fair Day.”
When everyone’s heads were up, she asked questions.
Freddy’s head was halfway down, but Ms. Fibian asked him anyway…
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Before becoming an author, Michelle Nott enjoyed being a French teacher (pre-K to university levels) in the U.S., working for a French company in Paris and an art gallery in NYC. She has also edited and written articles for numerous on-line and print magazines in the American and European markets.
In 2004, Michelle moved to Belgium. When she noticed that her daughters’ book collection included more French titles than English ones, she decided to put her creative writing degree to use. Many of these early stories can be found on her blog Good Night, Sleep Tight where she also reflects on raising Third Culture Kids.
In 2015, Michelle and her family returned to the U.S. But with American and French citizenship, they travel to Europe regularly. Their favorite places include the French Alps, the Belgian countryside, and the Cornish coast in the UK. Her family’s life and adventures prove great inspirations for her stories.
Freddy, Hoppie and the Eyeglasses is Michelle’s first book for children. Her future children’s books are represented by Essie White at Storm Literary Agency. She is a member of SCBWI, Children’s Book Insider and Houston Writer’s Guild.
Connect with Michelle Nott on the Net!
Genre: Western / Fantasy
Author: Thomas Rottinghaus
Purchase on Amazon
About the Book:
The Dark Wizard Lynch had lived several ages of men being loyal only to himself. But when he was accidentally rescued from certain death by the Warrior Lorn Graywullf, he found himself in the unfamiliar position of being indebted to another. To repay that debt, Lynch offers to help the Warriors reverse a spell that would wreak havoc on their World. Of course, he neglected to mention that action would serve his own interests as well. In the process, Lynch discovers much to his chagrin that he does still have a soul and a conscience.
He also discovers that the Warriors are fighting a battle they can’t win against a common enemy, a Wizard named Timon Backhelm. Only Lynch knows his complicated history with Timon, and the real reason he has sworn to kill him or be killed trying. But when Lynch realizes the extent of Timon’s power, he knows the only way to win is to initiate the creation of the Dragonspawn, a magical, physical blend of the strengths of a Dragon and an ultimate Warrior. The question is, will the Dragonspawn be loyal to those who created him, or will he simply destroy them all?
“If the powers of Light and Dark do not merge, evil will prevail.”
Alana, Mistress of Aard
Lynch watched the smaller man trailing him from the concealment of a frozen clump of oak brush. His eyes were sunken in the sockets from exhaustion and hunger, and sharp lines cut through the stubble of beard that covered his haggard cheeks. The duster he wore, the pitifully light pack across his thin shoulders, even his shoulders themselves which had been capped with muscle before he started this journey, all bore the evidence of a tremendous ordeal. He was a tall man, normally lean and sinewy, but now he seemed almost cadaverous. The hunt had been abnormally long, and prey and hunter had reversed roles more than once. At the moment, he was once again the prey. Or was he? Indeed, had he ever actually been the prey? It made no difference. His smoky gray eyes betrayed more than a hint of the necessary savage cruelty of a born predator. But for now he merely waited.
The twigs of the brush he hid behind, forged in ice, were curved and hooked like the claws of a Dragon. That image dredged up memories from deep within the sediment accumulated throughout centuries within Lynch’s mind, and for a moment he actually forgot where he was. A branch snagged the threadbare sleeve of his duster and the thin cloth tore with a small, apologetic ripping sound. The sound jerked Lynch back to the present. That tiny whisper of ripping cloth made a statement, bold and clear. End it now. This ruse had gone on for far too long and it was rapidly becoming an exercise in futility for the DarkWizard. How much strength could he gain from the ceremony? Would he even rebuild his power to it’s former levels? But he found he still could not abandon his plan.
He glared at the tear ruefully with a slight shake of his head. Such pitiful garments were not befitting a Wizard of the stature Lynch had attained. Even a Dark Wizard, he thought, should be deserving of more than rags. He turned his attention back down the trail. The churned up snow where he had walked, coupled with the plume of steam from his breath in the frigid air, pointed out his location like a giant flaming beacon. The smaller man who trailed him had stopped four hundred yards away and was staring in his direction. Somehow that pleased him, that his adversary was so utterly competent in his task. This one was better than all the rest. He had been pursued relentlessly over a period of time and space that would only confuse most mortal minds, and still the man in gray followed him. And now he had no choice but to let the hand play out. He lunged out from behind the brush and broke into a purposely awkward run through the calf deep snow.
Some perverse instinct that allowed him to survive despite countless efforts to prematurely end his existence warned him and he jerked his head to one side. He felt the passage of the bullet before he heard the report. It whipped through the hood of his duster, tore a shallow furrow from the bone of his skull and took a chunk from his right ear. It sounded like a cannonball had detonated inside his head. He catapulted forward to his hands and knees and pitched face first into the snow. He lost his vision completely for several seconds, and when he regained it black spots danced across his frozen surroundings. His ears rang as he reached around with agonizing slowness to tentatively explore his wound and he simultaneously raised his face from the stinging iciness of the melting snow where he had fallen. Warm blood ran in rivulets down the side of his head and neck and an alarming amount stained the snow in the indention left by his face. He was hit and he was down. Yet that also pleased him. He had been hunted before, but this one was truly amazing! The smaller man’s breath came in great clouds of escaping steam from the last mad dash up the trail and he still had almost pulled off an impossible shot. But the man who called himself Lynch was also pleased because he knew there would be no more near misses. He had watched that very morning as his pursuer had ruefully tapped the last grains of powder from his horn and then sat studying the last of the round lead balls from his possibles bag. He had no more bullets and no more powder to stoke the long rifle he carried. Now they were on even ground, and as he lay there bleeding in the snow, Lynch grinned his feral grin.
Lynch cocked his head at the pale yellow sun as it arced across the cloudless sky. The timing was not quite right. Soon, but not just yet. He gathered his strength, struggled to his feet and bowed with a flourish, even though that made his head swim alarmingly and blood cascaded down his neck. He rocked forward and dropped down to one knee again, and as he did his vision went blank once more. The Dark Wizard felt a momentary thrill of fear, then his vision returned. He laughed mirthlessly as he struggled to his feet and resumed his torturous run, giggling maniacally and weaving like a dockside drunk.
“Son of a bitch,” the smaller man blurted in amazed disgust as he watched Lynch escaping yet again. “May the gods damn his black heart!”
He spat into the snow and tried to calm his racing heart. Now it was his turn to ruminate. How in the name of Aard, the Mountain God, did that bastard keep going? But he knew. Oh, yeah. He knew. It was the Dark Magic which fueled his quarry’s body and gave him unnatural endurance. Even so, he felt enormous respect for the Dark Wizard Lynch. He had hunted down more than his share of hardcases but Lynch was by far the hardest of the lot.
He stared at the place where he had spat in the snow, and hated it for the bright red around the edges of the tiny hole where it had melted through the top layer. He had resorted to Dark Magic himself, even though it was strictly forbidden. Just one simple spell, when he realized this was the last leg of a terribly long race. And he’d had the bastard in his sights and let him get away. Now the Dark Magic was showing its price. Was it worth it, he wondered, to give up his own life to end another? His chest ached so badly he could barely sleep even when he allowed himself the time to do so, and he awoke at regular intervals when sleep did overtake him, coughing up bright red splashes into the snow. That one spell was eating away at his guts as surely as a wolverine on a fresh kill. The price of Dark Magic was high, for one who didn’t give themselves entirely to it. Perhaps it was even higher for those who did embrace it and received near immortality, only to lose their soul. Whatever, he thought. It didn’t matter any more. Nothing mattered except this last hunt. He muttered the rune from memory, and felt strength flow back into his muscles like molten metal. Then he resumed the chase.
Lynch glanced back only once, just to make sure the man in gray hadn’t given up. That would not suit his plans at all. Now that the hunter behind him had lost his ability to end the chase at long range, Lynch wanted him to persist. The man in gray had something he wanted. All he needed was the right place and the right time. Two agonizing miles further along, he found it.
The snowy plain came to an abrupt end, interrupted by a massive glacier towering hundreds of feet into the air. It ran several miles in each direction. But what interested Lynch the most were the fissures ranging from six inches to six feet wide that burrowed into the bowels of the glacier. After another glance at the sun, he entered one of the wider ones and ran onward. Sound from the outside was curiously muffled, while sounds from within were amplified. The glacier creaked and groaned like a living thing, and Lynch felt a moment of unease. He had a brief but extremely vivid vision of being digested by some massive creature while he was still alive. He stopped, and peered upward. Far above he saw a sliver of blue sky and a shadow that flickered over the chasm. Fear, usually a foreign emotion to the man called Lynch, wrenched his guts. He paused. His overdeveloped sixth sense was working at a frantic pace now. There were worse things afoot and on wing in the World than he, even though they had given him a wide berth to this point in his career, and Lynch had no desire to meet any of them at the moment. His hands were full with the bounty hunter on his trail.
Shards of ice rained down on him. He lowered his gaze and plunged ahead. After another three hundred yards the chasm took a right turn and Lynch stopped, his lungs working like a bellows. Sweat beaded his brow. His head ached and his ear stung like fire and blood stained his cheek and neck. He fumbled within one cavernous pocket and withdrew a limp bandana, which he tied over his mangled ear. Then he drew his sword with trembling hands and waited.
The ritual he intended to complete had certain requirements, and one of those was that the kill must be fresh, and it had to be completed by the light of the moon. Kill too soon and it would all be wasted. But he had waited for so long for this moment he had to force himself to be patient. A giddy excitement overtook him, and he felt a stirring of physical arousal.
He heard the man in gray long before he could possibly have been that close. The ice canyon played tricks with the sound and Lynch became more agitated by the minute. His eerie gray eyes darted from side to side and his breath came in short, silent gasps. Finally he could take it no more. He darted back around the corner, his sword held at the ready. And he nearly dropped it in surprise. Two small children skipped along the bottom of the chasm, hand in hand, laughing as they came. Their eyes were bright and full of life and their cheeks were rosy from laughter. Lynch was astounded. The children drew even with him, and their eyes turned a fiery red and their rosy cheeks elongated into narrow snouts lined with sharp teeth. They lunged for him as he fell backwards, his legs flailing against their thrashing bodies. He slammed into the wall of the ice chasm and needles of pain shot up from his thighs as they chewed through his breeches. Razor sharp, sparkling white teeth ground into the flesh of his thighs and chewed upwards towards his balls. He threw a desperate punch into the side of the nearest one’s head, and as it fell he slashed his sword across the second one’s throat. Warm blood sprayed up his forearm and, for a moment, the child’s face returned. But these creatures didn’t know who they were dealing with. Lynch drew his blade back and skewered the second without a moment’s hesitation as it, too, turned back into a childlike being. He grunted as he rose to his feet, anger blazing through him as he saw his tattered leggings with his own blood seeping through them. The children’s bodies shimmered against the glaze of ice then began to shrink. In moments two field mice scampered between his legs as Lynch stared. Suddenly, his head was forced back from the sudden pressure of an icy cold blade. Lynch dropped his own sword and coolly regarded the man who held his life in his hands. The man in gray’s mouth was rimmed with red, and a tiny rivulet of blood seeped down the whiskers on his chin to drip silently onto the pristine ice. His eyes burned with single minded intensity, and just a touch of madness.
“Gotcha,” he said hoarsely.
Lynch gave an almost nonexistent nod. He indicated the passage of the field mice with the barest glance and uttered one word. “You?”
The man in gray nodded. “Transfiguration spell. I have to know one thing before I kill you. Who are you?”
Lynch didn’t answer.
The blade slipped under the skin of his throat as the man in gray increased the pressure on it. “I really don’t think I have much time. Who are you?”
A coughing fit wracked the man in gray, but his blade hand was steady. The blood running from his mouth was now a thin steady stream.
Lynch grinned. “You used the Dark Magic to catch me. Bravo! I applaud your determination.”
“Shut up.” The man in gray wheezed. “I ask, you answer. Who are you?”
“Since I am about to die, what can it hurt? I am Lynch, Warlock and Executioner, Dragonrider and Thief.”
“You killed my family,” the man in gray stated in a voice that was already lifeless.
“Perhaps,” Lynch acknowledged. “I kill a lot of people.”
Lynch considered that for a long moment, then shrugged. “It’s just what I do. And,” he added as an afterthought, “I’m good at it.”
“Now you’ll die for it,” the man in gray said coldly. He steadied himself for the final thrust.
“Wait,” Lynch said.
It was more of an order than a request. Despite the hatred which burned in his eyes, the man in gray stayed his hand.
“Since I am about to die, I’d like to know who you are.”
The man in gray snorted, and blood erupted from his nose in a fine spray. Flecks of it stained the worn lapel of Lynch’s duster and peppered his cheeks. He didn’t flinch.
“I just want to know who killed me, that’s all. Before…”
The man in gray nodded in understanding. “Before I die and my name dies with me. You know the Dark Magic will kill me soon enough.”
He hesitated, and Lynch thought he had lost that last gamble. Then the man in gray blinked back tears.
“My family name is Roark. I was hired to hunt you down, but I’d have done it for free. I’m Ned Roark”
“Ned Roark,” Lynch repeated very softly. He slowly raised his left hand and laid it on Ned Roark’s grizzled cheek, and Roark knew he had lost. With his thumb Lynch tenderly wiped away the tears which trickled down through the beard stubble and washed a trail through the grime. “Ned Roark,” he repeated. Roark felt the crushing weight of the spell which Lynch cast using his own name. Lynch casually reached inside his cloak and withdrew a long knife, then plunged it into Ned Roark’s stomach. Ned tried futilely to slide his sword home, but he found he couldn’t move a muscle. A long, sighing moan escaped his trembling lips. Lynch angrily knocked Roark’s blade aside, ignorant of the gash it tore in the side of his neck.
“You’re a fool, Ned Roark. Never tell anyone your true birth name,” he slammed the smaller man backwards into the opposite wall and held him upright. “Tell me, Ned Roark, who hired you?”
“Elander,” Roark groaned. He looked down at the haft of the knife which protruded from his stomach. All his strength ran out with his life’s blood. Tears of frustration welled up in his eyes. “Goddammit. Thirty years I trailed your sorry ass. But it don’t even matter that I failed. They’ll keep comin’ forever. One of ‘em will nail you, you murderin’ son of a bitch.”
A shower of ice rained down on them. Lynch glance upward, irritated. He caught the flash of a shadow as it hurtled over the abyss and disappeared. He grunted an obscenity, then grabbed Roark by the collar and dragged him out of the chasm. To his surprise, the smaller man was still alive and conscious when they reached the snowy plain. A crimson trail marked their passage.
Roark’s words in the chasm cut through the fog in Lynch’s brain. The smaller man had said “they” would keep coming. He released Roark’s cloak and the smaller man dropped to the frozen snow with a lifeless thump. His head lolled to one side. Lynch frantically shook him.
“Who will keep coming forever?”
Roark smiled a sickly smile. He whispered something. Lynch bent down closer to hear
“Who are you? I mean, who are you, really?”
Lynch threw back his head and roared with laughter.
“Tell me who you are,” Roark whispered. “And I’ll tell you…”
Roark sagged onto the carpet of snow, and Lynch bent low over him, cursing under his breath.
“You won’t die on me yet, maggot.” He touched his hand to Roark’s brow and let some of his life force flow into the mortally wounded man, though it weakened him alarmingly. Roark’s eyes flew open in sudden agony.
“You’ll tell me what I want to know,” Lynch said. “Or I’ll keep you just barely alive until you starve to death.”
He slid three of his fingers through the cut into Roark’s stomach.
“Sweet Mother of God!” Roark whimpered.
“Tell me,” Lynch demanded.
“The magii’ri.” he blurted. “Elander called on the magii’ri. I’m magii’ri. The Gray Hunters are comin’ for you. Please god, just let me go.”
Lynch released his hold on the smaller man and suddenly stood. So King Elander the Good had called on the magii’ri, the race of Warriors and Wizards chosen by the gods themselves to uphold their laws. He was in the big time now. The Gray Hunters were the most ruthless mercenaries in the World. His thoughts were interrupted by a sound from Roark.
“Who are you?” the dying man croaked.
Lynch grinned. “You don’t give up, do you?”
“I’m dyin’. What difference would it make?” Roark begged.
Lynch sat behind the smaller man and almost lovingly took his head in his hands.
“Exactly. You’re dying. Why should I tell you?”
As the moon rose, he casually broke Roark’s neck and held the smaller man’s head to his chest much as one would comfort a restless child, until he quit struggling. Lynch sat there until the last vestige of sunlight disappeared and under the full light of the moon he sliced open Roark’s chest and removed his heart. He muttered the necessary words, and
while the pale stars winked at him from the distant heavens, Lynch ate it.
He awoke later beside the burned out ashes of his campfire and sat shivering in his bedroll. The light of the moon reflected off the stark whiteness of the snow covered tundra to give the landscape a surreal glow. Branches extending from fir trees became the
curved claws of Dragons, and distant clumps of oakbrush seemed to shift position like a pack of wolves closing in on their prey. Lynch blinked his weary eyes. The chase had taken much out of him, physically and emotionally. The ritual at the end of it was designed to replenish his strength and make him even more powerful than before, but he didn’t feel it. As a matter of fact, he felt strangely diminished. His mind was fuzzy and he found it difficult to think clearly. Things he had known for a hundred years eluded him now. He wondered for a moment if eating the heart of the fallen magii’ri Warrior had the opposite effect of what was intended, and even now he felt that his power was draining out of him and he had no way to stem the flow. The moonlight paled noticeably, and Lynch cast a curious eye heavenward. The night was still cloudless and nothing obstructed the moon, but the darkness grew more oppressive by the minute.
Lynch grudgingly shrugged out of his blankets and rose to gather fuel. The frigid night air hit him like a solid wall and he cursed through his clenched teeth. The truth was he was tired. He couldn’t argue that. He was tired of running, tired of scheming, and goddamned tired of freezing his ass off on that godforsaken frozen plain. And, he thought, maybe that bullet had scrambled his brains a bit. He laid the wood in a haphazard formation and stirred up the coals under it. As he did, a shadow swept over him, and he froze. His eyes darted from side to side, but he saw nothing. He casually stretched and glanced overhead. A whisper of a shape floated across the face of the moon, and he relaxed.
Smoke rose from the pile of wood while Lynch waited impatiently for it to catch. He huddled back under his bedroll. He needed to make water, but he was loathe to leave the warmth of his blankets again. He wanted to be gone from this place, back to a city, any city, where he could have a hot bath, a hotter woman and a meal he didn’t have to cook himself. A bed would be nice too, he thought, maybe with two or three women to keep him company. Another shadow flickered over him, and Lynch distinctly felt a light whiff of displaced air. The fir branches didn’t stir. He leaned forward and blew on the embers of the fire. He could strike it with magic, but that would drain the strength he was only gradually rebuilding. A guttural croak made him lurch to his feet and unsheathe his long sword.
Just a raven, he thought. But it was still hours until dawn, and whatever made that noise had sounded bigger. A whole lot bigger. He turned a slow circle and scanned the sky. Just as he had begun to chide himself for behaving like a schoolgirl his survival instinct kicked in once again. He dropped on the hard packed snow and rolled, then thrust his sword upward as the moon was blotted out by a triangular shape at least a dozen feet across. The shocked Wizard slashed at the black shape and felt the jar of steel against bone and sinew, and warm black blood rained down upon him. The creature above him bellowed in pain as it swooped skyward, then faltered and dropped a hundred yards out in the clearing. Lynch didn’t bother lunging to his feet. He simply rolled through the snow and frantically hurled a spell at his smoldering fire. It burst into flames as more than a dozen of the hovering creatures squawked in alarm and rose, wings flapping, into the night sky.
Lynch expelled a great sigh of relief, but his relief was short lived when the creature he had wounded advanced upon the camp. The Wizard grabbed a pine knot and commanded it to burst into flame, then held his flaming torch aloft. The beast hissed in alarm and backed out of the circle of light thrown by the torch. The beast was careful to stay well out of the light, and all Lynch could see was the gleam of light reflected in its eyes. His fear was rapidly being replaced by a deep, burning, unreasonable anger, and when he was enveloped in the throes of such a mood the Wizard Lynch was a formidable adversary. His lips curled in an answering snarl each time the beast hissed at him.
Lynch thrust the torch at the beast and it hissed loudly and jumped back. As it did, a gout of fresh blood erupted from the wound in its chest, leaving an obscene trail in the virgin snow. The beast was weakening and Lynch’s desire for retribution was strong, but he felt exposed when he gauged the distance to his fire. He retreated, and the beast sank down in the snow. Lynch dragged a good sized log back to his camp site, all the while swiveling his head around to keep watch.
He built up a roaring fire, and watched as the wounded beast dragged itself farther out into the deeper darkness. It was barely visible in the fading moonlight, and Lynch watched it closely. He sat down on his bedroll and raised his shaking hands in front of his face, then laughed and lowered them to his knees. His laughter died on his lips seconds later when more of the beasts began dropping from the night sky. The night was filled with the whistling of wings and the guttural calls of the beasts. But they did not attack. Instead they advanced upon the wounded beast. It heaved to its feet then promptly fell over. The others rushed it, and in seconds the night air was filled with a hideous crunching sound accompanied by growls and shrieks of rage as the hapless wounded beast was devoured by his comrades. Some devilish vagary would occasionally cause the firelight to flicker brighter, and one or the other of the beasts would raise a bloody snout to glare with red eyes in Lynch’s direction before it lowered its head to resume feeding. Lynch gritted his teeth and settled in for a long night.
He held his sword at the ready position with both hands while the beasts enjoyed their grisly meal. After the initial rush of adrenaline subsided, Lynch analyzed his situation. He was utterly alone, thanks to the relentless pursuit of Ned Roark, hundreds of miles from another human being. And even if he had stumbled onto other people, it was highly doubtful they would help him. He actually wasn’t sure he would , or even could ask for help. Not after the way he had lived his life. He also had no idea what kind of adversary he faced. They were nameless, faceless predators that dropped from the sky, but he knew that he should be able to identify them. He wracked his brain and several times felt that he had the answer on the tip of his tongue, only to forget it again.
Lynch chuckled. The sounds of the feeding frenzy stopped briefly, then immediately resumed.
“Out of the frying pan,” Lynch whispered and chuckled again.
What the Hell, he mused. He had no one else to blame for the position he was in. He had gotten sloppy, that was when Ned Roark picked up his trail and he couldn’t give him the slip. He had also become greedy, and that was when he decided to absorb the strength of Roark’s spirit instead of just killing him. It was a mistake he didn’t intend to repeat. The next time he would kill anyone who came hunting him at the first opportunity that presented itself, and if the opportunity was right, he’d perform the ritual. Otherwise he’d just have to be content with killing them. But he had to find a way out of his present situation first.
One of the beasts abruptly wheeled away from his dinner and stalked gracefully around the perimeter of Lynch’s camp. It was careful to stay out of the light, following the edge of light like a physical boundary. In moments it was joined by several others. Lynch lunged to his feet and clutched his sword with whitening knuckles. He turned a slow semicircle in time with the dim shadows that circled his camp, waiting for an attack. It became quite obvious the beasts would not penetrate the circle of light that ringed his camp. At least not just yet.
Lynch grinned, and it was a frightening, inhuman sight. They thought he was helpless. They thought he would cower in fear until they chose to attack. They had no idea what kind of enemy the Dark Wizard Lynch could be.
With an inarticulate battle cry bursting from his lips Lynch shrugged out of his duster and charged across the barren snow. The beasts looked stupidly at the man running across the snow as if they couldn’t comprehend being attacked by such an insignificant creature. Lynch bared his teeth and delivered a vicious backhanded blow with his sword that completely severed the wing of the first beast he encountered. A guttural croak burst from its jaws as it fell sideways, vainly flapping its one remaining wing. Those closest to it dove upon it, driven by mindless bloodlust. Lynch spun and drove his blade upwards into the throat of the next beast. He wrenched the blade free with a loud grunt, then suddenly dove to the ground and rolled to avoid the wide open jaws of one of the recovering beasts. It drove its pointy snout into the snow, milliseconds behind the frantically rolling Wizard. He sensed a slight hesitation in the attack and thrust his sword skyward just in time to drive it into the beast’s open mouth and out the back of its skull. His sword was wrenched from his hands when the beast reared up on its hind legs.
“Oh, shit,” Lynch whispered.
Once again he lunged to his feet and sprinted back towards his fire. One of the enraged beasts lurched after him, then recoiled with a bellow of pain as he neared the fire. The skin on the beast’s face and neck shriveled and blistered from the light of the fire and it fell backwards into the snow. Lynch dropped to the snow next to his fire and rolled onto his back, steam billowing from his open mouth. The blood was singing in his ears and a strange exhilaration filled his being. His insane laughter echoed from the scrubby trees. He rolled to his hands and knees and tried to catch his breath as another paroxysm of laughter shook his body. Lynch slowly regained control of himself as he felt what little strength he had left seeping from his body. He collapsed into his blankets and lay there shivering through the remainder of the night while the surviving creatures devoured their fallen brothers.
The flock of bloodthirsty beasts took to the air and circled once then flew to the west before the first rays of light brightened the east. Lynch sat huddled in his blankets, bleary eyed from fatigue and with a massive headache pounding his temples. He forced his tired brain to function. What were they? Where did they come from? In all his many years, Lynch had never even heard of such a creature. Or had he? He did know what they were, he just couldn’t place it. So why did they surface now? To harass him? Or was he just a target of opportunity? Deep inside he knew that he should know those things, but it felt like pieces of him were missing.
He fashioned a bowl from green bark and scooped up snow to melt for tea. While the snow melted he walked out to examine the remains of the beasts. The hair on the back of his neck stood up and gooseflesh rose on his arms as he neared the kill site. Bits of leather-like skin were scattered about and a few fragments of bone protruded through the snow. The trampled snow was a deep, oily black. The carnage at the kill site was even more complete than he had imagined. The only remains of the beasts were the skulls and the backbones. He paced from one end of a carcass to the other. From head to tail, it had been over ten feet long.
Lynch retrieved his sword and wheeled around to return to his camp, but before he had gone two steps he reversed his course, dropped his breeches and urinated on the remains. Only then did he return to his fire. He hastily gulped his hot tea and squandered more of his magical energy conjuring up a spell for endurance. He wanted to get as far away as possible before nightfall. As he packed up his meager camp, the gleam of his captured long rifle caught his eye. Ned Roark’s rifle, crafted for the Gray Hunters by the most skilled craftsmen in the World. He thoughtfully hefted it then reluctantly wedged it in the crotch of a tree with a scrap of fur concealing it. It was a beautiful weapon, but totally useless without powder and lead. He had neither, and in all his years of searching he had not found the formula to make gunpowder. He was nothing, if not practical. He took only what he had to have to survive and abandoned the rest.
Lynch walked directly towards the south. Early in the morning he fought the urge to break into a run, but by noon he no longer had the strength to either run or fight the crazy urge to do so that still lay within his mind. He slogged along through the snow in a dazed state, shedding layers of clothing as the day grew warmer and sweat beaded his brow. He stopped often to drink from his waterskin and to fish out another piece of dried meat to chew on. An hour before dusk he was thoroughly exhausted.
As he gathered fuel for a long night, he calculated the distance he had walked that day, and figured he had walked roughly fifteen miles. Fifteen miles! Gliding along on the air currents the bloody beasts could travel that distance in less than an hour! Anger flared up within him, and when had unloaded his last armful of firewood he made one more trip into the densest forest to gather ten long, slender poles. He built up his fire and sharpened one end of the poles, then tied a crosspiece on each end to make a picket. He laid the pickets in the snow and tied a long length of rope to each then counter weighted them with a log suspended from a nearby tree. When he tripped it, the pickets would rise to a forty five degree angle. They could harass him and keep him from sleep, but it would cost them!
At midnight Lynch sat morosely brooding in his blankets, adding wood to the fire at regular intervals. His supper of a thin soup made with dried meat sat soddenly in his stomach like a lump of uncooked dough. He longed for a thick juicy steak, piled high with steaming mushrooms and sweet potatoes with a hot apple pie for dessert. A sudden spurt of saliva erupted in his mouth, and he slammed his tin cup down in frustration. How in the Hell had he gotten himself into this mess? He sighed. He had chosen his path five centuries ago. As a youth he had longed for eternal life, to drink in the pleasures of the flesh while his peers withered and faded away. And his wish had been granted, but at a terrible price. The sensations he had experienced, the tastes of life he had indulged in, were all addictive and he longed for more until it consumed him. His life had become a rat chasing its tail. His tastes grew more exotic, his demands more extreme with each passing decade. And no matter how much he indulged, he always wanted more. He laughed bitterly. How ironic was it that he, Lynch, now sat in a goddamned snow bank and yearned for something as mundane as a hot meal?
The next thing he knew he was lying face down in the snow with a ringing in his ears and something warm and sticky running down his neck. His head buzzed and his vision blurred. The bastards were back! Then it hit him. They were losing their fear of fire. Rage flowed through him.
“You sons of bitches! You want some of me? Come on then!” He leaped to his feet and found his counter weight ropes.
“Come on,” he said under his breath. “Come on back for another piece of ol’ Lynch.”
He searched the night sky, and finally saw a few flickering shadows wheeling and darting among the stars. Several of them split off from the group and headed his way.
“That’s it,” he pleaded. “Just keep coming…a little farther. A little more…come on.”
Two were gliding in on a perfect plane. Lynch grinned. This was better than a goddamned steak! He gauged the distance and released the counter weights. His first picket slammed into position and Lynch actually laughed with glee as the beasts flared their wings in a vain attempt to stop. Both impaled themselves as they went down squawking amid the sound of splintering wood and thrashing wings. The points of the pickets penetrated the beasts completely as their struggles destroyed Lynch’s newest weapon and they wheeled away from each other, biting futilely at the main beams which still protruded from their chests. They turned on each other in their agony, and with each graceful dip of their slender necks blood spurted from a newly opened wound. Lynch watched eagerly until neither beast moved any longer. Only then did he allow himself to explore the wound on the back of his head with trembling fingers, and he still kept a wary eye out for more attackers. He found a goose egg the size of his fist and a three inch gash which still oozed blood. No matter, he thought. He’d bagged two more of the bastards. A little blood was a small price to pay.
As before, the remaining creatures circled like vultures, then spiraled down to feast on their comrades. Lynch thought briefly of slipping away while they fed, but as soon as he stepped out of the circle of firelight one of the beasts hopped into the air and circled that side of his camp. He hastily stepped back into the light. So, he thought, they are intelligent, at least to some degree. That revelation did nothing to improve his mood. Lynch spent yet another sleepless night mentally sorting through all the creatures he had heard of in reality and in myth. His thoughts were accompanied by the hideous crunching, tearing sounds as the beasts polished off their fallen comrades. Dragons? No, not dragons. Not gryphons, either. Giant bats? Maybe, but still not quite.
He felt that the answer was right on the tip of his brain, but just out of reach. And even as hardened as he was, Lynch had no desire to delve too deeply into that convoluted mass. What he needed, he finally decided as dawn streaked the eastern sky, was a library. Too bad there was no such thing within a thousand miles. Nearly delirious from lack of sleep, Lynch laughed at that until tears rolled down his cheeks. The beasts glared at him one last time and he thrust his middle finger skyward in a timeless gesture of contempt. The beasts flew back toward the west. He broke camp and staggered off to the south
By midday the snow was noticeably shallower, and the air held a hint of warmth. But Lynch knew his progress was pitifully slow. The melting snow sucked at his booted feet and sapped his energy even faster than before. He had to rest. Rest, or go mad from sleep deprivation. His mind wandered. Once, in a different time, he had seen a man go nearly mad from lack of sleep. The men of that time traveled impossible distances in horseless carriages and guns and ammunition were commonplace. There were Demons there, but most of the people walked with blank faces, unaware of the evil that ran rampant right under their noses. Unaware, or maybe they just didn’t care. Demons of a different sort than those he now faced, and they made his own skill at starting trouble pale by comparison. He chuckled. At least these Demons attacked a man face to face. They didn’t hide behind catchy slogans or false promises. With a start he realized he was sitting on a snow free boulder warmed by the spring sun which had just reached its zenith. He built a fire and banked it with a huge fallen log, so big he could barely roll it into the fire. Then he slept.
He slept hard, so deep in slumber a passerby might have thought him dead. The chill of the evening awoke him, and he huddled deeper into his blankets. Then he bolted upright. Sundown. Dark. The Slayers would be back. His fire still smoldered, and he piled smaller branches on it until it crackled and roared. The sleep had done him good, but he felt logy and a headache settled in at the base of his skull.
Wait just one goddamned second. The Slayers. He knew what they were. He had no idea how he knew, but he did know. He involuntarily thought back to the other time, the time which he didn’t know was coming or had already passed. That man, the one he had watched go crazy from lack of sleep, had told him many things. He wasn’t actually supposed to talk to anyone, but Lynch had never been one to respect another’s rules. The man was already twitchy by that time. The slightest noise would cause him to lurch around and stare with bleary eyes. Finally he had just laid down and couldn’t be roused. Lynch wondered absently if he had died like that. What had amazed Lynch then and now was that the man knew him. He shook himself. What the Hell was he thinking?
He faded away again, and when his senses returned it was dark. His befuddled brain took that in and processed it. He forced himself to concentrate. He needed sleep, which he would never get at night. The solution, therefore, was to travel at night with the protection of a torch, as long as that lasted, and sleep during the day. He would regain his strength, and with his strength he would regain his power. And when he had regained his full power, nothing could stand in his way.
He clambered to his feet and found a couple of solid pine knots. He lit one from the fire and resolutely started out again, leaving the fire burning. Perhaps, he thought hopefully, the Slayers would be attracted to the firelight like moths. But that hope was dashed when he heard the telltale whistling of wings in the air above him. Panic rose within him, but he choked it down and forced himself to hold his course towards the south. But he had only gone perhaps a mile when he heard the rushing of wings and a light breeze ruffled his hair. He involuntarily ducked his head, and the bulk of the beast whooshed over him. He quickened his pace, and another beast dived on him, so close he could feel the heat of its body and smell the fetid odor of decay that clung to its leathery hide.
Lynch broke into a trot, holding his torch high like one of the champions he had heard of from yet another time. His breath came in gasps and sweat plastered his clothes to his body. It was an impossible pace to maintain, yet the beasts easily kept up. Another one dived for him and clipped the torch with its talons. It squawked in pain and rose again, but Lynch could sense that it was not seriously cowed by the flames. His legs were filled with molten lead and his lungs burned with each labored breath. The words sprang to his lips without conscious thought, and Lynch muttered them, even if it be the death of him. The power of the Dark Magic exploded within him as another tiny part of him died with it.
Strength radiated out to his extremities, and the burning in his chest was quenched. His legs pumped like twin pistons, spraying mud and snow behind him. Conscious thought deserted him. He was a machine, fueled by Dark Magic. His eyes noted when the scrub brush turned into dwarf trees and his brain processed the information, but it meant nothing. He heard the beasts crashing through the uppermost branches and sensed their anger, but still his legs beat their staccato rhythm. The whistling of their wings became fainter as they gained altitude to clear the trees, and still Lynch ran on. He ran on long after a mortal man would have crashed to the ground, vomiting blood, with his muscles twitching in death throes. Exposed roots clawed at him, rocks sliced his boots to shreds and low lying branches whipped across his face. He ran on all through that hellish night and was totally unaware when the dwarf trees slowly gave way to the towering pines and firs of a black timber forest. Finally, as morning approached, Lynch became slightly aware again. The next thing he knew, he was falling.
He awoke with a ringing in his ears and the brassy taste of blood in his mouth, lying face down on a bed of springy moss that smelled faintly of mold. He tested each of his extremities with a groan of pain and found that he could still move, but his muscles ached with a frightening intensity. Lynch groaned loudly and rolled over. Far above him there was a small square shaft of light. Where the Hell was he? He closed his eyes and tried to remember.
He remembered running like he had never run before, farther and faster than any mortal. And he remembered falling. He sat up and looked around him. He had been running from something totally unnatural, something so fierce it defied description and even now dread ran fingers of ice along his backbone. Then it came back to him. He remembered falling, and thinking at the last second that he was about to die a disgraceful death in some accident that wouldn’t even be discovered for a thousand years. Then he had struck something which yielded to his weight. There had been the shrieking of a rusty pulley, his descent had slowed, then he had crashed to the ground and everything went black. He stared at the shattered remnants of a hand elevator scattered around him. One beam was still securely tied to a tattered hemp rope. He looked upward again. Impossible. It was at least three hundred feet down. A pebble struck his shoulder, and dust wafted down the shaft.
Lynch felt his breath catch in his throat. They were there, and they knew where he was. A faintly familiar, guttural croaking sound echoed down the shaft accompanied by an eager whine. The scrabbling, grating sounds of steel hard claws on solid rock supported his sudden fear. They were trying to dig into the shaft.
He had once considered himself nearly fearless and superior to anything he might encounter. But now his self confidence was shattered and his amazing ego lay in tatters. He had never encountered anything like the beasts that trailed him. They were totally unrelenting, nearly without fear, and savagely skilled at destruction. Lynch grinned. They were kind of like him. He groaned loudly and stood up. He had one thing in his favor. They had no idea who they were messing with.
Lynch studied the opening in the shaft and gauged it against the outlines of the writhing bodies of the beasts as they tried to dig in. He estimated they would have to double the size of the shaft before they could resume their hunt. Claws and teeth against solid rock. He had some time, now he needed distance.
The first few steps were exquisite agony, and Lynch made a mental note of it to apply that principle to his own keen interest in torture. He found one of his torches where it had landed after the flight down the shaft and cast an illumination spell. Even that effort left him winded, and Lynch once again felt the thrill of fear. His power was nearly exhausted.
“This may be the end of the road, old boy,” he muttered half aloud. “What a waste. What a colossal fucking waste!” He clenched his fists in impotent rage.
He was close, so tantalizingly close, to the crowning glory of centuries of destruction. All of his plans were coming together, his allies were firmly in place and growing in power. He had spent hundreds of years honing his own skills just for the moment nearly at hand, and it was going to be spoiled by a handful of brainless creatures driven solely by instinct and bloodlust. Kind of like some people he had known. Lynch giggled. Dammit, I’m going loopy, he thought.
A larger fragment of rock struck the floor of the cavern with a dull thump. Lynch stared dully at the dark shapes of the beasts as they busily enlarged the opening into his hole. Why had his plans unraveled? It was so hard to think! A name kept floating about just out of reach. Then he had it. It was because of…Roark. Ned Roark. Before that, everything had been fine.
“Well, Mr. Ned Roark,” he exclaimed into the gloom. “You are going to pay for this. Or did you already? No matter. I’m going to hunt down your entire family, no, I’m going to hunt down every single person you ever associated with and wipe them off the face of the World. That, Mr. Ned Roark, is a promise!”
Lynch smoothed down his hair, straightened his disheveled clothes, and resolutely walked into the overpowering darkness. As he stumbled along, he focused on one thing. Roark. He had no way of knowing that, far above him, the light of the moon was steadily growing dimmer.
Title: THE CRIMSON CALLING
Author: Patrick C Greene
Find out more on Amazon
Centuries after the eradication of vampires and the death of their Queen in the Great Fire of London in 1666, the vampire population now numbers in only the hundreds. A few of the remaining survivors have regrouped and formed a High Council to unite their numbers. Now a new threat has arrived: modern day military is not only tracking members of the council, they are attempting to create their own vampire soldiers. Enter Olivia Irons. Ex Black Ops, doing her best to live a normal civilian life, but it never feels right. No family, no friends, trouble always close. When the Sanguinarian Council offers her the chance of a lifetime, the biggest risk of all seems like the only path left to choose. How will she answer The Crimson Calling?
The Italian Job
Sergio Toscatti wiped down the pristine MP5, the last of the guns that had arrived earlier that day. His crew, having inventoried this latest shipment from their American source, was already lighting cigarettes, rolling blunts, and pouring wine.
Sergio looked down the long, scarred work table and discreetly scanned the faces of his crew as he always did, looking for any signs of chicanery, potential betrayal, or worse, growing conscience. He had eliminated more than one of his employees in the past, and was sure he would have to do so again; all part of the black market gun trade. It was the last of the evening’s immediate business matters.
He tapped the old school long barrel .38 holstered at his side, the piece that had earned him the nickname “Blue Eyes” despite his irises being so brown they were almost black. The title was based on The Man with No Name character played by Clint Eastwood in the trilogy of westerns produced by Sergio’s countrymen in the mid-sixties.
The big gun was both an insurance policy and a flashy fashion accessory. If Sergio had run the statistics, he would have found nearly all of his “transactions” had gone much more smoothly since he had begun wearing the rig. As an added bonus, he also got laid more consistently.
Melina, exhaling smoke through lips parted and shaped perfectly to suggest a blowjob, returned Sergio’s gaze with eyes very much the blue of Eastwood’s iconic character. “Seeing what you want to?” she purred.
Sergio only smiled, noting both Carlo and Pierre deliberately avoiding his gaze. “You’re just such a sexy band of rogues. I can’t get my eyes off from you,” he answered in his charmingly slaughtered English.
Carlo ventured a nervous glance at Sergio, receiving a wink in return.
Melina nodded, crossing her arms and leaning back against the edge of the table. Ballsy little bitch she is, thought Sergio.
“All right. Listen up,” he shouted.
The others lined up along the front of the table, passing along a roll of sanitary wipes for the gun oil on their hands. Starting with Pierre on the end, Sergio inspected each of the four with the scrutiny of a drill sergeant. The Frenchman’s gaze darted around the sparsely lit warehouse like he was watching a pinball game, never landing anywhere for more than a split second, never meeting Sergio’s at all.
The American headbanger Muffin, who looked like a satanic Chris Cornell and knew it, smacked his chewing gum and brushed dust from his Iced Earth shirt, clearly bored.
Carlo, slight of build and far from confrontational, relied on a dazzling smile in any instance which did not absolutely require violence, and he flashed it now as he raised his wine glass, ever the charming bastard. Sergio imagined quick-drawing his six-shooter, shattering the glass with a precisely placed bullet and a pinging ricochet sound effect.
Her eyes never leaving Sergio’s, Melina wagged her head slightly, as if implying she was contemplating a renewal of the sexual element of their efficient, but often stormy working relationship.
“Congratulations to everyone, and thanks for all your hard works.” Unlike his marksmanship, Sergio’s English was hit and miss at best, but it was the only language they all knew. “By far, this is our biggest shipment yet. Already in this afternoon, I have buyers for roughly sixty percentage of all these guns.”
The crew responded with celebratory claps, whistles, and the raising of glasses.
“We will be very rich peoples in a matter of weeks.”
High fives, fist bumps.
Sergio narrowed his gaze, as he deliberately zeroed his keen stare on Pierre. “Hey, Pierre. Tell me something. What will you do with your cut of the monies?”
Pierre pointed at himself comically, his eyes suddenly as wide as silver dollars. “Me?” A nervous laugh escaped him. “Oh I dunno. Maybe, go to America? Vegas?”
Beside him, Muffin laughed cynically. “America sucks. And Vegas blows.”
Sergio suddenly drew his gun, spun it on his finger like Eastwood, dropped it smoothly back into the holster, and returned his gaze to his crew, never missing a beat. “You, Carlo. What will you do when you get paid?”
Carlo was speechless, startled by the furious quick-draw display. Sergio slowly stepped closer to him, letting the clacking sound of his hand-tooled cowboy boots echo through the gloomy warehouse.
“Something is wrong with Carlo. Don’t you think something is wrong with Carlo, Pierre? What could it be?”
Pierre pointed at himself again. “You want to know what I … what I … think is wrong?”
Muffin issued a quiet, fake cough, pushing away from the table and stepping past Sergio, careful to remain in his periphery.
Pierre glanced forlornly to his side, toward the guns lined along the table, none of which were loaded.
Sergio continued to stare a hole through Carlo.
Carlo smiled his dazzling smile, laughed his disarming laugh. “Hey, hey, Sergio. I feel like you are not trusting me right now. What can I do to prove I’m with you? Eh?” When Sergio didn’t answer, Carlo held his arms out wide, as if expecting an embrace. “Come on, my brother. I would never want to ruin what we have here!”
Sergio tapped the six-shooter. “Carlo, my friend. I swear if I was a faggot, I would fuck you so hard.”
All of a sudden, Sergio drew the gun, pushing it against the hollow of Carlo’s throat, drawing a startled gasp.
Pierre glanced at Muffin, Sergio’s ever-loyal enforcer, and knew Muffin would give chase if Pierre ran.
Melina uncrossed her arms and slowly walked backward to stay clear of any flying grue.
“No no no no no, come on, old friend!” Carlo sputtered.
“A few crates from our last shipment have gone missing … old friend,” Sergio said. “And you, Mister Charming, smart business dude, you have been acting strangely.”
“Wait! What … what about Pierre?”
“Pierre? Oh, Pierre knew, didn’t you, Pierre?” Sergio said, arching his dark eyebrows. “He just wasn’t sure how to tell me. Isn’t that right, Pierre?”
“Oh yes!” Pierre pointed at himself again. “I was waiting for the right time!”
Sergio sharply turned the gun to Pierre, taking a long step back from Carlo, who gasped, before deflating with relief.
“The only right times are the nows, Pierre,” Sergio intoned. Melina tried to stifle it, but snickered at the clumsy sentence structure. Sergio spun the gun toward her, infuriated by her disrespect. She merely rolled her eyes, every inch the jaded sexpot.
Sergio had almost decided to gun them all down and start fresh—when the lights went out.
“Shit! What the fuck?” Carlo cried.
Remaining cool, Sergio drew his Maglite from its little nylon sheath as deftly as he had the six shooter. He had it clicked on and was scanning the crew before any of them could react to the sudden darkness. “We’re all here, no?”
“We’re all here, boss. Relax.” Pierre, who Sergio would have expected to be the first to bolt, drew closer.
Sergio pointed the Maglite into Carlo’s eyes, the six shooter at his chest. “Are you doing this, Carlo?”
“No no no, boss. Never!” Carlo’s denial was as emphatic as a liar’s. But Sergio saw a fearful sincerity in his eyes.
“Muffin. Check the breakers box.”
Cursing under his breath, Muffin stalked away.
A flickering, dim beam suddenly emerged from Melina’s position, followed by a pair of smacks, the girl trying to coax more juice into the bulb. She raised it to inspect, casting herself in eerie, campfire-tale light. “Fucking piece of shit …”
There was a restrained rustling in the air above them, crossing Melina’s beam. She had only a millisecond to look up before a large pale spider leapt onto her face. With a yelp she was suddenly lifted into the high darkness. Her light clattered to the floor and fell black.
Pierre and Carlo gasped, and Sergio realized it wasn’t a spider that grabbed her, but a hand.
He shushed his men, shining his Maglite into the air where he’d seen Melina take off like a rocket. Crates of various goods were stacked twelve feet or higher, above which there was only whirling dust and space and rafters.
Keeping the thin beam trained on the edge of the top crate, Sergio stepped back carefully, now cursing the loud boot-steps he had relished just moments ago. Carlo was in cuddling range, preferring the man who was planning to murder him over the unfathomable darkness. His breath danced unnervingly across the little hairs of Sergio’s neck.
A small hand appeared at the edge of the crate, gripping it with shivering fingers. Carlo tensed, drawing even closer to Sergio.
Then Melina’s terrified face was there, shock visible in her eyes even through the long, curly strands of auburn hair falling before them. She brought her other hand around and made a “come on” gesture. She spoke with great effort. Sergio could not hear her, only read her lips: “Shoot … me …”
Obscenely long fingers clapped across her face and wrenched her head back, her muffled gasp echoing through the rafters. Her body was dragged out of sight in an instant.
Sergio realized Carlo was clutching his left arm like a woman. Whatever this did for Carlo, it offered Sergio no comfort. “Get your ass off me!” he stage-whispered. “My left boot, another gun.”
Carlo relinquished his death grip to grapple with the cuff of Sergio’s tight jeans, finding the little .25 after sending chills up Sergio’s spine with his scrabbling, corpse-cold fingers. Sergio shook his leg impatiently, sending the little gun sliding into the blackness.
“Dammit!” Carlo exclaimed, his voice shaking, as he searched on hands and knees. “Shine the light, Sergio!”
But Sergio ignored him, keeping the beam pointed at the swirling dust motes where Melina and her spider-fingered assailant had just been. “Muffiiiinnn!” he called, not liking the thin, high tone in his voice.
“Here!” Muffin called back. “What the fuck is going on?”
“Just get your ass over to here!” Sergio answered. He suddenly remembered Pierre. “Pierre! Where are you?”
Pierre had no intention of sticking around. From what he knew of the sellers with whom they had just done business, it was a simple leap of logic to realize they’d been set up. After seeing that bone-white killing hand, Pierre knew he was better off on his own.
Pierre felt his way along the crates, knowing when he reached the end it was only a few meters to the door, and the industrial sector beyond, where a rat or a coward, or even a shady gunrunner with a future, could hide-and-seek his way right into the heart of the city.
He found the door handle and pushed it, relieved it opened onto moonlit fog and wasn’t barricaded. His foot never touched the outside ground though. Something grabbed his collar, yanking him back inside with impossible speed.
Slamming back first into the crate, Pierre saw something like the finale to Star Wars in his mind’s eye; all starlight and explosions. Bouncing off the crate and hitting the floor, he scrambled to a stand. Pierre cried out, feeling his shattered ribs crunch and flex so painfully he could barely move. But move he would, if only so he could die outside.
He stumbled right into the chest of a man. A man who seemed rooted to the floor, for he did not move a fraction of an inch when Pierre ran into him. The impact left Pierre crying out as the shockwave registered in his ruined ribcage. He fell to his butt, holding his sides, trying not to breathe.
Then, eyes blazing with the cold white light of damnation were drilling into his, breath like grave dirt blasting his nostrils. Pierre tried to scream but had no air in his lungs. Icicle fingers grabbed his chin and wrenched Pierre’s head to the side. In his last seconds, Pierre remembered something from history class that had always terrified him.
Something about vampires.
Fangs pierced his neck like a giant staple, but did not stop there. The vampire clamped its jaws together, taking a huge bite of the muscle and tendon in Pierre’s neck, growling like a jungle cat as it wrenched its head sideways. Pierre died contemplating the strange feeling of blood pumping from his neck.
Sergio hadn’t responded when he asked what was happening, but Muffin could still hear the cowboy boots scraping and clopping about, and it sounded like a small firearm had clattered to the floor as well. That meant either Carlo or Sergio had had it hidden and now it had come into play. There had been no gunfire, so either they were struggling over it, or something else had come up. Judging by the power outage, the latter seemed more likely.
Sparking his Zippo, Muffin found his Glock where he’d hidden it between the wall and a supporting brace. He let the lighter go out and checked the magazine, happy to feel the weight of a full load, the smooth cylinder of the topmost bullet. He slapped the mag back in and skimmed the Zippo across his jeans to re-light it, holding it out to the side with his left hand while pointing the Glock straight ahead with his right.
The breaker box was about twelve to fifteen paces dead-ahead, well outside the light output of his lighter’s flame. He thought he heard an exit door open at the other end of the warehouse; likely Pierre making an escape. Good. Muffin never liked turning his back to the Frenchman, much less being with him in pitch black darkness.
Something shuffled between the rows of crates he was passing. The Zippo’s sphere of illumination extended eight feet or less, and the shuffling sound seemed to have come from a bit farther.
Muffin cursed the confining crates, wishing Sergio had made a deal with somebody else for their business headquarters. Warehouses were so fucking cliché anyway.
The boot clatter stopped. “Sergio!” he bellowed.
Muffin didn’t like this feeling, his heart pounding, something softly shuffling inches from his range of vision. It was nothing like the adrenaline rush of a well-lit gun battle. “SERGIO!” he called.
His heart sank as the darkness and silence grew heavier. Then: “TURN ON THE FUCKING BREAKERS, DUMBFACE ASS!” Sergio yelled. Muffin had never been so relieved to hear such obnoxious butchery of the English language.
Turning back to the aisle between the crates, Muffin almost jumped out of his skin. A squat, bald man dressed in dark military fatigues stood there. Muffin might not have seen him except his exposed face and hands were pale as white satin, and his eyes were like glowing ice.
Muffin raised the Glock. “Bad plan, crashing our party, fireplug,” Muffin quipped, then fired twice.
In the second that it took for his eyes to adjust from the muzzle flashes, the figure had disappeared.
“Muffin! What are you shooting?” Sergio demanded.
“Fuck this,” Muffin said to himself, turning to make a bee line for the exit—only to find the squat man standing in front of him, grinning with jackal’s teeth. Muffin tried to take a deep step back to make room for shooting, but the pale assassin grabbed his lighter and snatched it away, along with any hope of escape.
“NO!” Refusing to accept the inevitability and ease of his demise, Muffin discharged another two rounds, seeing in the muzzle flash that the demon was not in front of him but at his side, opening its toothy mouth wide.
Muffin’s long hair was a convenient handle, used to pull his head back so violently it broke his back. Muffin had the sudden idea of blowing his own brains out, but no longer had the necessary motor control. He didn’t even scream as the jagged teeth sliced and crushed his esophagus.
When the metalhead did not answer, Sergio realized his chances of survival had dropped dramatically, for there would be no light to expose their attacker. He finally relented and brought the Maglite beam down to help Carlo find the .25.
He instantly regretted it, for the expression of sheer terror on his countryman’s face nearly destroyed Sergio’s already decaying fighting spirit.
The erratic beam finally danced briefly across the handgun, and quickly returned to it.
“There! Go get it,” Sergio commanded.
Desperate, Carlo looked like a hideous man-monkey hybrid shuffling on all fours toward the prize. But once he had it, he rose to the height of a man. “Now we get this bastard, Blue Eyes.” Carlo ran to Sergio and the two came back-to-back, pointing their weapons into the threatening blackness.
“Now you see my loyalty,” Carlo said, and Sergio allowed himself a moment of regret for nearly killing the slender Sicilian. Then he realized he might need Carlo as a distraction.
“Okay, Carlo. We walk together to the corner where we can see everything, and we wait. You walk in front, and I shine the way. We see something, we both shoot.”
“You sure about this, Sergio?” Carlo asked, sensing Sergio’s motives. “We fight together, right?”
“Just go,” Sergio ordered, turning and pushing Carlo in front of him with the barrel of his pistol.
Carlo managed only a single furtive step before the side of his neck exploded, sending a hissing spray of steaming blood into Sergio’s beam. Carlo spun, looking to Sergio for help.
“Mi Maria, Mother of God …” Sergio whispered.
The tall, beefy vampire who had just slashed through Carlo’s jugular stepped into Sergio’s beam, smiling a bloody grin as he caught his victim mid-collapse.
“We share the last one,” the vampire said.
It took Sergio a moment to realize the nightmare with the crew cut had been speaking not to Sergio, but about him.
His skin crawling, he spun and found the bald one standing there, wiping his mouth with Muffin’s blood-soaked Iced Earth shirt. Sergio raised his gun, shooting the musclebound monster directly in the eye, and was comforted to hear a cry of pain.
Sergio wasted no time waiting to see how much damage he’d done. Keeping the Maglite beam as steady as he could, he plunged forward, in the general direction of the same exit door where Pierre had met his demise.
The taller vampire landed in front of him from an impossible leap, only three or four meters away. Sergio raised his pistol, squeezing off round after round in the general direction of his assailant, switching courses to head between a row of crates, and immediately cursing himself for it. The tight row left him trapped. If the pale killers decided to cover both ends-assuming the one he’d shot in the eye could still function-he was S.O.L. He wasn’t about to underestimate the fuckers.
But it wasn’t the vampires he found waiting at the other end of the row. It was a trio of … aliens? No. U.S. military operatives wearing night vision gear.
Sergio grew hopeful at first; assuming the soldiers were the proverbial cavalry, come to kill the monsters. Then the leader of the trio, a lustfully fit female, removed her headgear, exposing her face in Sergio’s Maglite beam.
It was the woman Devereaux, who hours ago sold him the very gun shipment he and his crew just processed. Only now she was in military tactical garb.
“What are you d—” Sergio’s question died when Devereaux essayed a perfect left crescent kick, breaking his wrist and sending the pistol clattering along the aisle to bounce off the crates like a hockey puck. She continued her momentum into a full spin, her right boot crashing into Sergio’s gut with wrecking ball force.
The gun runner fell to his back, smacking his head on the concrete floor. Now hurting fiercely in three places, Sergio simply lay there groaning.
Then the lights came on, and his eyes hurt too.
“What the fuck went wrong?” Devereaux impatiently asked one of her troops, Belfort, as he removed his night vision goggles.
“This one’s starting to … dissolve,” came the response.
Devereaux started down the aisle, pointing to Sergio and speaking to the soldier on her right. “Porter. Stay with him.”
The soldier grinned as he stepped close, nodding at Sergio. Sergio, trying to catch his breath and holding his broken hand gingerly, didn’t have it in him to stare Porter down, even if he could focus. Instead, he looked down the aisle to see what Devereaux was doing.
“Oh, you wanna watch?” the black soldier asked in a cocky, almost whimsical tone. “Come here.” Porter dragged Sergio by the collar. Seeing what was transpiring, Sergio almost felt sympathy for the predator who had nearly slaughtered him.
The squat bloodsucker was on his knees, shaking so violently he was a blur, blood and brain matter spewing from his eye socket. Six more soldiers, two of them wearing some kind of tanks on their backs, stood a few paces back, watching. Except for the stone-faced Devereaux, they seemed not only shocked, but dismayed. The taller vampire was leaning against the crates wheezing, a strange look of pained terror on his face.
As the bald vampire’s convulsions became more intense, the soldiers began to back away, warily looking toward the end of the aisle in case they needed to retreat. Blood and other fluids sloshed around the doomed vampire, hitting the floor with a sickening splatter.
A moment later, his entire body simply collapsed upon itself like an inflatable Halloween decoration just unplugged, putrescence oozing like molasses from his sleeves and pant cuffs.
The soldiers stared at the mess with grim expressions.
“This doesn’t look good for you, my friend,” Devereaux said to the other vamp standing nearby.
One of the soldiers picked up Sergio’s six-shooter and handed it to Devereaux. She opened the cylinder and dumped the remaining bullets and empty shells into her hand. She inspected them, rolled them around a bit, and turned toward Sergio. “Standard .38s?”
Sergio didn’t give an answer, but Devereaux didn’t need one. She handed the shiny pistol back to the soldier and stepped toward the still wheezing vampire. “Can you describe what’s happening, Frakes?”
The tall vampire, his icy eyes watering and his chest heaving, struggled to speak. “… You have to … help me …”
“Frakes, you knew the risks. You agreed to continually provide us with information on your condition, even if things went wrong,” Devereaux said coldly.
Frakes’ legs and hands shook. And in his eyes: good old-fashioned fear for his own imminent demise. “… No … help me, now … and I’ll … I’ll tell you whatever you need to know.”
Devereaux shook her head impatiently. “You’re obsolete now anyway.” She turned to the two soldiers with tanks on their backs. “Hose him.”
Frakes, feral in his desperation, tried to push away from the crate, hissing at the approaching executioners. They aimed what amounted to large-gauge pesticide spray nozzles at the shaking bloodsucker and blasted him. Frakes lunged at the nearest one, but dissipated into a roiling, hissing cloud of steam in the time it took Sergio to gasp.
Devereaux was already on her cell phone. “Devereaux here. Phase one successful. Phase two? Not so much. The stress of combat seems to overload their systems. Both subjects crapped out, one from a fucking bullet wound. Full report by 1200 tomorrow. Weapons recovered, test control subjects eliminated.”
Looking to Sergio’s babysitter, she made a thumbs-down motion. Sergio screamed his pleas to be spared—but Porter quieted him via a sharp blow with the butt of his assault rifle, before turning the gun around to make use of the other end.
Liv huffed her exasperation, blowing a longish strand of red hair from her field of vision. She expected something like this to come along. But she had hoped to at least be settled into her new town and job before dealing with any drama.
The trio’s leader was hardly scruffy at all. In fact, Liv wagered he was clean cut, even handsome underneath his day-glo orange ski mask, except for the bad teeth. His weapon of choice: a shiny snub-nosed .38; great for waving around and directing traffic.
The sweaty, swarthy one that came next had chosen a ski-mask as well, his being lime-green, and wielded a scratched and scarred sawed-off ten gauge. The third member of the hold-up gang sported a hunting rifle; unwieldy at best, in this circumstance, with what appeared to be a dirty, ragged piece of a sky-blue windbreaker wrapped around all but his eyes.
“Everybody get your fuckin’ hands in the air so we don’t have to give you no lead poison!”
The twenty-ish leader, “Orangey” Liv internally dubbed him, spoke loudly but didn’t shout. Clearly this was not his first rodeo. Behind him, “Limey” was wildly glancing to-and-fro, crouched wide, his weapon held like a hose in the hands of a firefighter.
“Windy” stayed near the door, pointing the rifle at Rex, the cook and only male on staff during the twenty-four hour diner’s graveyard shift. Windy’s sexist attitude would give Liv an advantage to add to the many she already had.