RICK JOHNSON

RETURN OF LYSSANDRA
Ver 2


by: Rick Johnson
PO Box 40451
Tucson, Az.
85717
RikJohnson@juno.com

Return to the Home Page.


I

Magda was a gypsy. Diane and Jason had met her years ago and she owed them a favor so when she arrived on Haven begging asylum, Jason had given her a house and protected her from the men who came looking for her. She probably did cheat them like they claimed but Jason had a choice, kill them and wait for their relatives to take revenge or send them away and wait for their return with reinforcements or… He had bought the men off. They left happy, his home was safe and it only cost him a few silver coins that he wouldn’t miss considering that his storeroom was build of gold bullion from Ophir, plastered and painted to hide their true material. He did, however, tell Magda that while on Haven, she had to be honest or else. Since Jason had a habit of sticking the heads of his enemies on pikes on the beach or tieing those who angered him to a pole in the surf for the sharks, she readily agreed and even meant it, probably. It was his island and he ruled with an iron fist. Anyone who disliked his rules or ways was free to leave and Jason would gladly buy them out and pay for their passage back to their original home. But here, Haven, was exactly what the name implied. A place for him and his family to live in safety and peace and he ensured that safety by killing anyone we saw as a threat.

Haven was a mix of cultures. Unlike Drakonis where everyone was required to conform to local language and customs, here people mixed freely and the Haven culture and language was a mixture of whomever arrived and asked to stay plus the occasional Adventurer looking for a job or a safe place to spend their loot. Amazons who wanted a life with men or just a better selection that they got in Russia, Don from Pal-ul-Don who got tired of the jungle, Adventurers who had given up the sword or needed a vacation, refugees from war-torn or dictatorial regimes, today there were maybe a few hundred in town and half again that many on the tenant farms. All races and even a few aliens like the Minotaur, Kaz, who came her looking for a place to get away from the constant fighting for position of his native people. But there were also a half dozen heads on pikes now. All trouble-makers who thought that Haven was ripe for picking. Jason’s justice may not be liked but no one who was piked caused any more trouble. And with people like Magda who were very psychic on his payroll, no crime went long without an arrest and confession and even less time for sentencing and execution. Lawyers were unknown on Haven and Jason liked it that way.

Cassie wore shorts and shirt with a big floppy hat and lots of sun-screen, her sister, Donna, wore a loose dress and sandals because the humidity made a cool breeze up her skirt feel nice. The rest of the locals wore almost whatever they wanted. With no dress-code at all, you could see everything from total nudity to a formal outfit worn by someone 500 years ago. Even his ex-wife, Diane, had to admit that about Jason. He liked to refer to himself as an ‘evil overlord’ but so long as you lived in peace with your neighbors, avoided harming the environment and did nothing to threaten his family, Jason gave people the freedom to do anything they wished and the freedom to live any way they wanted, freedom that no longer existed on any Earthly nation, if it ever did. Here, Jason had only one rule, “Harm None!” And that meant physical harm, not some imagined harm to god or church or society. Although straight himself, Jason didn’t care if you were gay and wanted to marry a half dozen of your closest boy-friends, he would only ask “Are you all consenting and adults?” if the answer was yes, you could marry and live in peace. And the one Priest who ranted about ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ when the marriage was performed soon found himself tied to a pole, flogged until his back was a bloody mess, and then tossed off Haven with any followers who felt their Priest had been given a raw deal. The message was clear. Jason may be a dictator, but he was a benevolent dictator and the people who moved here liked the freedom and got along with each other… or else.

Since Magda made her living selling fortunes and spells, she dressed like what people wanted a gypsy to look like. Once the two entered her office, they sat and waited. All businesses on Haven were essentially the same. You either had a stall in the market or you worked out of your home. The shop was on the ground floor facing the street then behind or above, the living spaces. Life here was simple and required long hours and hard work for little pay but although everyone was poor by most modern countries standards, no one went hungry or homeless. Everyone was fed, housed, healthy and employed. Jason made certain of that believing that poverty bred crime and no poverty meant no crime. And almost no one wore weapons. There were no laws about this and new immigrants often carried anything they wished and owned from a knife to a bazooka but they soon learned that the place was safe and even in the poorest area, a woman could walk naked down an alley at midnight carrying a handful of cash and be safe. The last woman who reported a rape found herself brought before Jason an hour after the attack to face her attacker. The man confessed, under duress the people said, but his guilt was proven and he was castrated in public then tied to a shark pole while his property was given to his victim and the attacker’s family exiled from Haven for neglect. Here, Jason felt that a family was as responsible as the criminal. That was years ago and the story got better with each re-telling. Jason believed that killing one person and bragging about it, making it sound worse than it was, made his reputation the stronger than if he murdered a million in secret. So life here was good and far more people asked to immigrate than he accepted.

Magda made her grand entrance then when she saw who it was, relaxed and removed her scarf and hoop earrings. “Tea, my dears?” With no real customers she could relax.

Cassie jumped in as the tea was poured. “Magda, we are here on a mission. And you get paid this time but confidentiality is vital.” Silver coins were placed before her. “Dad is a pain right now. He’s underfoot and driving us crazy. We need to get rid of him for a few weeks. Nothing really dangerous, just a casual adventure that he can’t turn down and will relax him and let us have some time to ourselves.”

“Father needs to learn that we are safe if he leaves us alone.” Donna, the eldest added as she began to sip her tea. “He is so scared that we will die like Kore that he never leaves us alone. We can’t breathe.” Jason had given up Adventuring when he started to have children. After loosing Kore and his first two in Ireland, thanks to the British police who believed that killing his family would be a good warning (they were wrong), he chose to settle down with a nine-to-five job he hated until the kids were grown.

Cass jumped in, “Our father needs to return to his former life. Not forever, just to go away occasionally, do what he does best, adventure, then return with big presents and stories to tell. We are not like Diane and Fiona. We don’t adventure with him but we want him to be the man he once was. So we are happy to be his daughters, to send him off with a kiss and lunch, then run the place, wait and worry until he returns home.”

Donna added, “I was thinking of an old friend dropping by with a job he cannot refuse. Nothing too dangerous from our viewpoint but interesting and exciting and something that proves that we will be safe alone occasionally. Men need a life outside their homes and we need time away from our father.”

Magda looked at the money then at the women, both adults, one barely so. They weren’t friends, more like business associates who respected each other’s abilities and trusted each other’s integrity, so long as none of them pushed too far. The money was good and even if Jason found out, he’d not be angry, unless the girls were hurt while he was away. Then she’d wish Hell had broken free. “How do you plan to ensure your own safety while he is gone?”

“I’m sending a message to Tears and Stars to visit with some friends. We can finally meet our Amazon sister, play with Tear’s kids and she can relax and the Amazons she brings with her are the best possible bodyguards.”

“Then I will do what I can. I cannot promise what will happen other than what you have asked. But what people get from me is rarely what they want.”

“That, Magda, is all we can ask. And if it works out well, a nice big bonus for you.” Donna added another silver coin. They then finished their tea said their goodbyes and left.


II

The next couple days were a mixture of emotions. They were mildly concerned with the absence of their father who had gone exploring up the nearby river, alone. They weren’t much afraid of him being killed, he was probably the best in the universe at staying alive. But he was clumsy at times and did stupid things. Like he was terrified at heights and yet insisted on climbing cliffs without ropes to prove that he could overcome his fears. He could swim and never wore a life-jacket on his boats no matter what the weather despite his insistence that his daughters do exactly what he refused to do. Cassie and Donna lived in Haven only because they needed a vacation from their home in America. Here life was easy, the air smelled of salt, the water was pure even in the river that flowed through town and no one had locks on their doors. Life here was safe, and dull. Too dull for Donna who liked night-clubbing though Cassie could be happy anywhere with a good book.

They were also relieved that they could go swimming without him worrying that they’d drown, climb the extinct volcano without him fearing they’d fall. The two girls even stayed up late, shared a bottle of wine and did girl things that they’d normally have to avoid or hide because of their father always hanging around.

The third day a runner arrived from town. Why they used runners the girls never understood. The town was less than a half-mile away across the river. You could see the thing from the house. All she had to do was ring the bell and the townspeople would hear and come running. But Jason liked runners and until he was willing to put in something better like radios or telephones or the internet, this is what they lived with.

The man knelt and bowed to the two, failure to show proper respect to Jason’s daughters was dangerous, and when they insisted that he rise for neither had been royalty back in America despite their father’s Irish Titles and this made them uncomfortable, he said, “Ladies, there is a woman in town seeking for His Grace. She is an older woman from through the Stargate but still handsome and refuses to tell her business other than it is important and personal and concerns Jason Obrien. She also dresses as a man, carries a sword and looks like she can use it.”

The two looked at each other then asked where she was. Then they whispered among themselves, “I really hope that this isn’t that danger father fears but the adventure we are paying for. Let’s go there where we will be surrounded by friends.” Then looking up Cassie told him, “Go find Diane and tell her the same message and ask her to meet us for we need her advice. Then tell that woman that we will meet with her to discuss the matter. We will be over shortly.” The runner left and making certain that they both looked decent, they walked to the bridge and into town, taking their time. They discussed the identity of this woman but Jason had known so many in his 200 years of life that it could be anyone he knew or didn’t know. Realizing that your father was centuries old and had a life that no one in the US could dream about was something they were still getting used to. For all they knew, it may even be a messenger from another Amazon tribe seeking a place to live and Amazons were infamous for not caring if the men they chose to father their children were married or not which caused troubles at times.

They met Diane in the street and spent a few minutes trying to decide what was happening. Diane was armed and had a couple men with bows ready just in case. Then they went inside and found the tavern-keep who pointed out the stranger at a table sitting alone. It wasn’t difficult to locate her even without the aid for strangers here were not common enough to hide. The woman was easily in her forties, attractive with those high cheekbones that Jason liked. Her body was athletic but smaller in the chest than he preferred though she wore the blouse and vest common with women from the older centuries of Europe. And her hair was brown with some gray. She looked around constantly as if she expected trouble so Diane had her men move to convenient positions, positions the strange woman noted as she loosened her sword.

Diane then led her friends to the table and said, “I understand you are looking for Jason Obrien. Why?”

She replied in Latin, “I don’t understand you. I speak Latin, Slavic, Serbian, Arabic and Turkish. Can you speak any of these?” She looked the women over carefully then put her sword away and placed her hands on the table top and began to shake.

Diane and the others sat and Diane explained to her friends, “I think she is one of Jason’s former lovers. She has that look about her. See how she stares at us like she’s a wife about to learn her husband has another life?” Then to the woman in Arabic, “I am Diane, this is Cassie and Donna. We are… close to Jason. Now who are you!”

The woman looked into her drink then whispered, “My name is Lyssandra Kosovonova. I was .. also close to Jason in Kosovo. We had a falling out and I’ve been looking for him since.”

“You aren’t that old. Lyssandra left Jason more than a hundred years ago his time. And that was the 15th century over 500 years ago.”

She snapped up and said, “A hundred years? He can live that long? How old must he be now? For me it has been less than a year.” She sighed again, then continued, “Did he tell you about Felix? Yes, he would. He complains a lot about his past women. I’ve been hunting Felix and finally found him after he killed the rest of our Company. I need Jason to help me kill him. To stop him before…” She looked at the three again. “Yes, you are his type, blonde hair, large breasts. How long have you been with him? And these other two?’

Diane spoke to the girls in English to keep the conversation private. “This is Lyssandra, the whore from Kosovo. But I think Jason got the story wrong. Maybe Jason was bitter and you know how he sees things his way but look at her. She doesn’t look like a woman who hates him and wants him dead. She looks like she really cares and just got a lot of bad news suddenly.”

Diane motioned for the Keep to bring more drink then, ignoring the question, she asked, “I’ve heard Jason’s side of the story almost ten years ago but he had almost a century to run things through his head and turn them his way. Tell us your side, but slowly so I can translate it for his daughter’s.”

She finished her drink then took another and started. “I first saw Jason in Kosovo. My coven had been captured by the catholics who were taking us back to Arabel to be burned. Jason saved us. When we learned he was asking around for us, I was told to watch him. Why me? Because when I was being beaten to death by a soldier, he saved me and nursed me back to health. I wasn’t what you would call a good woman back then. Maybe I’m still not one. But I tried to rob him and when he caught me instead of killing me, he laughed and told me that if I was going to knife a man, I should learn how to hold a knife. He took the knife away from me and showed me how to hold it and then he threw me out without punishment.

“I thought about that then returned and offered to pay him to teach me how to defend myself. He didn’t want money or sex but let me work for him as I learned. I guess I fell in love with him then because I gave up my… profession and tried to find an honest job but couldn’t. When he learned I was living in an alley because I couldn’t pay rent, he let me stay in his room and got my belongings back then a job and a room of my own. But I never left and we became… lovers and more than lovers. We were married by the laws of my Coven.”

She opened her locket and showed them the miniature paintings of the two of them and continued. “I tried, I really tried to love him but I didn’t know how. No man had ever been good to me. They took from me then cast me out so I kept waiting for Jason to do the same. And he never did. He loved me and was faithful to me and I fought by his side and… I cheated on him. I don’t know why. Part of it was that I like women and needed a woman’s soft touch sometimes. Part of it was that somehow I was afraid that he’d hurt me emotionally and if I did it first, it wouldn’t hurt me so bad. I knew it was wrong. But I couldn’t stop. I was so afraid. Then we were sent to find Merrick. He was a rebel Serbian general who was trying to take over the country. Jason and Felix were the two captains sent to stop him and we did but we lost a lot of good men and women. Then Felix turned traitor. In the night he freed Merrick and together they captured us. They nailed Jason and his men to a wall so they’d have to watch. Me, and the other women they tied to stakes and they raped us to death. Jason had to watch dozens of men rape me over and over.”

She was crying then and finally, “I lived only because of my past. The other women died and still they raped the bodies. Then they left. Later our men who escaped came back and freed us. Jason and I were the only ones still alive and then barely. We returned and killed them all in their sleep but Felix escaped. We cut Merrick into ten pieces and each of us took two pieces to bury in a different country.

“Then Jason and I tried to save our relationship. I tried to explain to him my fears and needs. He agreed to allow me to bed an occasional woman and I promised to never be with another man, to never betray him again. We talked for days. Mostly him yelling and me trying to apologize but we tried.

“We were in Immersea and he was drunk. He got drunk a lot while we talked. I guess it made it easier for him to listen to me. I really loved him and wanted him to take me back. I’d, I’ll do anything to get him back. Then… I saw Felix through the window. I knew that as drunk as Jason was, as hurt as we both still were, Felix would easily kill us both but I didn’t care. I got up to chase him, to try to kill him but the Watch came in and took me. Felix had told them that we had robbed him and they were arresting us. I knew that with us in the goal, he’d be able to kill us at his leisure but if I chased Felix, they’d arrest Jason, hold him until he was sober and release him the next day when Felix didn’t return to press charges. So I set them on Jason, told them the woman they sought was using the chamber-pot and before they could think, I left and chased Felix.

“I left a message with the Inn-Keep and followed Felix but Jason never caught up with me. I’ve followed him for a year, always one step behind but I learned his plan. I need Jason to help stop Felix because we are the only ones left. If we fail, then Merrick will return from the dead. So I learned that Jason was here and came here to find him. You say that to him it’s been a century? To me I left only a year ago. Has he forgotten me?” She looked at us and laughed a bitter laugh, “Of course he has. He probably hates me and I’ll understand but Felix has to be stopped.”

Diane talked to Cass and Donna and they agreed to do something, “This is probably the adventure we hired Magda to find. I didn’t expect it to involve a former lover, especially one that still loves him but she did say there would be consequences.”

“We also said that he’d return to us so maybe this is safe.” Cassie added. “Dad is the most forgiving person ever. He’ll forgive her too if she is being honest and makes amends.” Cassie wanted her father to re-marry Diane who she loved more than her own mother and saw this Lyssandra as a threat to her plans.

“Ok, Lyssandra. We’ll take you to Jason but first we want you to talk to someone and hand me that sword and knife. I know how to use it so don’t cause trouble.” The girls led the visitor back to Magda’s, followed by the two guards who were always alert, knowing the consequences if anything happened to any of the three.

At Magda’s, Donna called and explained, “This is the adventure you spelled for us? It’s not exactly what we had in mind. But we need another task. I need to know of she’s telling the truth and if we can trust her with us and with Jason. She claims to speak Slavic, Serbian, Latin, Arabic and Turkish. So if you don’t understand her, how can you be certain that she is telling the truth?”

“Easily. Have her sit. I shall return shortly.” When she did, it was with a tea pot. Magda poured Lyssandra a cup and said, “drink.” When the cup was empty it was refilled and drained. A third cup was poured but Magda stopped her from drinking and said, “Now we wait for it to take effect. You question and listen and I will know if she lies even without knowing her language.” She set a black mirror on a stand before her and ignored the woman then nodded to Diane.

“Lyssandra, tell me your story again. And tell the truth.”

Lys talked, repeated essentially the same story but the facts were the same. When Diane looked at Magda, she nodded ‘yes’ and returned to her speculum. Diane thought for a moment and asked, “Do you mean harm to us or to Jason?”

“No,” her speech was slurring now so Magda had her drink more tea which seemed to wake her up a bit. “I know what this is. We have it in Kosovo. It makes me tell the truth and impossible to lie. Lawyers and the church hate this stuff. You don’t trust me.”

“Why are you here?” Diane ignored her comment.

“I want Felix dead. I want Merrick to remain dead. And I want Jason to take me back like we were.” She looked at the three again. “I don’t know if that’s possible.” She giggled in her trance and continued, “You are very beautiful. Do you like women? I know Jason likes to watch women together.”

“What if he won’t take you back? What if he’s changed?” The tea was making Lyssandra drunk and so volunteer information not asked for.

“Then I hope he is happy with you. Maybe he is. I’ll miss him. I still miss him. I was so horrible, how can I make it up to him? Seven years gone forever. All because I didn’t trust him.”

Diane turned to the girls, “She thinks I am his wife. She loves him and wants him to take her back but mostly she wants him happy and to kill these other men, this Felix and Merrick. I think that if they go off to this adventure, she’ll try to bed him to get him back but she might let him go when it’s over. I’m still not certain we should trust her but I think letting her talk to Jason wouldn’t hurt.”

Donna looked at Lyssandra and said to Diane, “When he goes off with you, you’re lovers again despite your failed marriage. This is not much different. She seems adamant about killing these men and father would want them dead too. I think that we need to let father find out why. We should take her to our home to watch her and send for Dad.”

“I agree. If we kill her and hide the body in the ocean, he’ll find out. Besides, we are getting what we wanted and if he runs off with her, at least we will get some rest.” Cass laughed as she said the last. Both knew that he’d always be there for him even though he wanted to take off with Diane so they were almost certain that nothing would keep him away for long. If they were wrong, they’d make accommodations. Or smother her in her sleep. Neither daughter had ever killed a person but if she threatened their father, they’d learn quickly.

Diane returned to Lys who was nodding off again. “We are going to take you home and call for Jason. If you cause trouble, remember that I was a good fighter long before Jason trained me and we were together for over five years. Also he has told us his side of the story so killing you won’t cause him to loose sleep. Now, are you armed?”

“Yes, a knife in my boot, another behind my back and one in my vest.”

“Lay them on the table slowly. Are you planning any ill to us?”

“No.”

“We will take you now to where you can sleep. You will be watched and if you cause trouble, we will kill you easily. If any of us are harmed, I believe Jason will make you wish we had killed you. Now get up and allow Cassie and Donna to take your arms.” Diane picked up her weapons and paid Magda more silver then with the girls holding Lys’ arms, they left with the guards following behind.

“You are bruising me,” she complained, half asleep and half drunk from the tea which caused her to say her mind.

“They are easily as strong as you are so be a good girl or we’ll tie you.”

Across the bridge and at the house, Diane said, “Lay her on the porch swing for now. She’ll wake up in an hour but watch her anyway. You two, keep watch and be certain that NOTHING happens to Cassie and Donna. I’ll go send a runner for Jason and there is something I want from home.” The archers nodded and promised that they’d die first. Diane knew that they meant that promise. All had seen what Jason did to people who failed to protect his loved ones.

Sending a runner was easy, finding one with a horse he could ride was not. But she got the message out and hoped it wouldn’t be too long before they returned. The man would be moving slow, mapping the river and marking potential hazards while the runner would be moving fast and he’d be on the river and easily found. In the meantime, she wanted that Translator Amulet Jason had bought for her in Syria so many years ago.

Her house was a Rocker. This shell existed in Haven, another different shell in Los Angeles and the inside in both and neither. She could enter the front door here, turn around and walk out the same door and be in Los Angeles. If anyone tried to break in, the inside of the house would vanish and they’d find an empty shell. When danger was over, it’d rock back. The technology was complicated and very expensive but worked perfectly, unlike the StarGates that sometimes messed up. And Rockers and StarGates ensured that any invading army would arrive inside a volcano or far out to sea.

She found her Amulet, packed a bag, collected her weapons and checked her machine for phone messages. Fi was enjoying the shoot, she missed them all and would be back in a month or so. Normal and no hidden codes so Diane called back and left a brief message as to what was going on. When Fi had a break from her movie, she’d call but she was too far from any StarGate to get home easily. Sometimes Diane wished it were possible to tell people about the StarGates but those who needed them and would use them responsibly could find them. Criminals sometimes did as did politicians but these quickly were hunted down and killed. No one wanted to see an army from one time cross over with weapons from another world to conquer the past or future so the StarGates were jealously guarded. StarGate travel was a private enterprise used by a very few individuals and they liked it that way. One person wouldn’t change history, an army could and frankly, Diane liked the idea of Haven being exactly that, a Haven, safe from the pressure of any modern or ancient government.

Over the next two days it took for Jason to return, Lyssandra learned English and told her story. Wearing the Translator Amulet made by a Sufi in Syria, Diane chose English as the best common language. The kids were almost ignorant of any language save English and their father’s Gaelic so they couldn’t speak amongst themselves to discuss their guest in privacy. Her lessons were intensive and never ending but they worked and she was able to communicate to an extent by the time their father had returned. Diane moved in and allowed the woman to think she was still married to Jason, Cassie encouraged that deception.

Both Cassie and Donna were shocked at her story, reading about these things but never knowing anyone who actually had suffered so. Diane had heard many such in her life and travels, and so was better prepared to accept it. And with very few exceptions, it was the same that Jason had told them over the years, only from a different viewpoint.

Lyssandra was the daughter of a prostitute in Kosovo in the late 15th Century. Her father probably a nameless Serb, her mother a Slav, and so she was outcast from the beginning and lived in poverty making her living in any way she could. Raped early in life and laughed at for ‘teasing the man’, she was cast out and beaten and so became what her mother was. When the Ottoman Turks had conquered the city, she had been tossed into the Caliph’s Harem and when the Turks were driven out, the Serbian soldiers took their pleasure with the girls and women in the harem. The Church ignored her, the government hated her and the people scorned her. She had three children, one died of starvation and disease soon after birth because no doctor would help her, a second died in one of the many invasions that tore her nation and the third was taken away by his father, never to know his mother.

Finally she met Jason. Being a Witch, she and her coven had been captured by the local priest who was hunting them. Beaten, dragged back to Arabel to be burned alive, Jason and his Mercenary Company, newly hired to keep the peace, had ordered their release and in his typical manner, told the priest that if he ever tried such an act again, he’d nail the man to his own altar and burn the church down with all the worshippers barred inside. The Boyer and the Church hated Jason from that moment on and Jason was given the worst and most dangerous jobs and battles but he always won and even the Moslems who lived in Kosovo learned to respect his honesty. So he was called in to negotiate an occasional peace between Christian and Moslem because he was Pagan and foreign and so would give neither side any advantage.

Lyssandra gave up her profession for Jason, seeking his love and when he found her a new job with his company, she had a chance to hold her head up for the first time. Eventually he loved her and they were happy but a lifetime of abuse wasn’t easy to put aside. Every man she had known had raped her, bought her, beaten her, robbed her, used her and cast her into the alley and she wondered when Jason would do the same. The fact that he was constantly kind to her, faithful to her only proved that he was waiting and biding her time. No man could be as honest and kind as he.

So, she felt that if he was going to hurt her, she’d do it first so it wouldn’t be as painful. At first her affairs were with women for Lyssandra was bi-sexual. Why, she never questioned, for women were often more cruel than men. But with most women, she didn’t leave the bed sore and bruised and fearing pregnancy or disease. She was afraid to tell her Irish lover of her needs for the Moslems tended to stone lesbians as easily as did the Catholics and she had no idea of the Irish views. Then when she learned how easy it was, she expanded her lovers to men, always waiting for him to hurt her, and yet after seven years of virtual marriage, he was still as kind as in the beginning. So she began to trust him and severed all affairs save the occasional women that she needed.

But it was too late. They were sent after Merrick, a Serbian General who was raising an army to conquer Kosovo then the rest of the country. Felix and Jason had been sent to stop Merrick and they did. But as usual, military intelligence wasn’t the latter and the 100 Serbs the mercenaries were to face turned into 600 and outnumbered 3-to-1, the two companies were almost exterminated before they won. Merrick was in chains, his few surviving men with him and Felix became obsessed with talking to Merrick. That was their undoing. Merrick converted Felix to his side and while they slept, Felix released Merrick and his men and they easily overcame Jason and his men with only a few escaping.

Merrick and Felix had the women tied to the ground and Jason and the men crucified, forced to watch as Felix, Merrick and their men took turns raping the women to death before the eyes of Jason and his men. The worst part was when Felix told Jason how he and so many others had been with Lyssandra over the last seven years and he was too stupid to notice.

Eventually Jason and Lyssandra were rescued, both more dead than alive but revenge kept them going and Jason proved that as a guerilla fighter, he had no peer and soon every Serb was dead, including Merrick. But Felix had escaped.

The five Mercs left alive had dismembered Merrick, each taking two pieces and burying them in a different country to prevent his spirit from reaching heaven and then Lyssandra started the long and painful process of regaining Jason’s love and trust. It took weeks of healing physically and emotionally, weeks of him screaming at her, calling her every name she deserved and her taking it, trying to make amends, to atone for her crimes and to become a better wife.

Then Felix returned.

Both Cassie and Donna fell in love with the woman. It wasn’t sexual but they did sympathize with her story and past. And both had grown up with Jason and knew that he had been betrayed by many women, yet always managed to resist the urge to hate the gender. Lyssandra was attentive, helping care for the girls and speaking of her own lost children yet she tried to give the girls room despite Cassie’s inability to clean up after herself. Her sexual desire for Diane was clear but she never pushed and when she found that Diane was a past wife but now was just an occasional lover she relaxed more and opened up with her own past with the man.

It was obvious that even though Lyssandra had known Jason over a century ago, he was still the same man today. Men never changed it seemed. It was also obvious that Lyssandra wanted to move in and take up her old life though it was also clear that she found Diane attractive and sexually desirable and would like to share. Donna even talked to Cassie when they were alone, “Can you imagine how terrible it was for dad to be forced to watch THAT? He’ll go just to kill the man.”

Cassie brushed a bit of the stubborn hair from her face and mused, “I also wonder what other secrets from his past our father has kept from us.”

“Do you really want to know?” her sister added.


III

It was actually nice to get away from the girls for a change. Of course I worried about them which drove me crazy at first. “Let them go!” I told myself one morning. “They are NOT these frail children I think they are! I have taught them fighting skills that make them more than able to protect themselves. If Diane isn’t worried, then I shouldn’t be either.”

I know it made sense but still. But then I’ve been accused of living in the past and never letting things go so I had to try. So I focused on the trip. Oh, I know I’ve been suffocating them lately. But…

Despite my worries, I enjoyed the trip. The Smiling River was exactly that. A nice gentle stream that ranged from a dozen meters to a half kilometer wide at times but had a gentle current that could be fought with ease and still make headway. When the river narrowed, there were some rapids that needed to be portaged but I marked them for future bypass construction and continued on.

Food was easy for I was a decent hunter even here where the game was far scarcer than in other countries. And there was fish and crayfish to catch and plenty of fruits and tubers around so I was never hungry. And so the days drifted with evenings around the campfires. When I found an overhang, I’d modify it a bit for a rest-stop and carve my name into the wall as a sort of hotel registry. If not, I’d make a lean-to and roof and fire-pit for the next travelers. So with my explorations and mapping, the trip was relaxing though I missed Diane and my kids, probably more than they missed me.

I was in the river, a rope tied to me in case I was swept away and checking some gentle rapids for depth when someone rode up calling for me. So with the horse pulling the rope, I reached the shore easily and demanded, “What’s wrong?” I had images of the house being attacked or Cassie breaking a leg or hip while climbing a tree. With an open StarGate nearby, invasion or assassination was always possible.

“Diane sent me to tell you that you have a visitor, a woman from your past. She says all is well but please cut your trip short and return home.”

“Are you certain that everything is fine?” Images of a trap flooded my mind.

“Yes, My Lord! I saw her myself. An older woman in pants and vest but carrying a sword. She was alone and gave her weapons to Diane who was accompanied by two archers. They went to see Magda, the Gypsy then to your home. It was obvious that Diane was in charge and no one had any fear at all. When I left the woman was asleep on your porch and there were archers nearby but Diane left and seemed to be safe and concerned but not in fear or danger.”

This was interesting. I didn’t have many women in my past but why would any come here? If there was any possible danger, Diane would have remained with the girls and not left them no matter how many guards she set. The sword didn’t bother me for she could be an Amazon or one of those rare female Adventurers or even a woman I trained as I did Diane and Fiona. And the fact that she disarmed herself probably meant a peaceful visit though Magda would have been used to seek the truth. Since Diane had left her alone, that meant that she was satisfied with the interview under one of Magda’s truth potions or spells. The guards were simply a precaution to make me feel better.

I decided instantly to return to the house to see this visitor. If Diane thinks she’s important enough to see, then I should.

Since my gear was already packed, return was simply a matter of mounting the horses and returning at a decent but not exhausting clip, leaving my canoe behind. A day, maybe two to get back though if I killed the horses, I could return in a few hours.

It was dark when I reached the crater of an extinct volcano. I had chosen that as a safe place and had a secret entrance dug and supplies and weapons hidden away. There was no evidence of entry so none of the girls had felt the need to run and hide and this was a good sign. I camped in the shadow of the crater and I wondered if it would be possible to climb that thing here. It had taken a week of searching to find a climbable area and only the Don’s climbing abilities had made it to the summit. Well, I enjoyed climbing but another time.

We reached the house around noon and I forced myself to arrive at a walk. I carried no swords but my hunting bow and knife were ready just in case. Cassie saw me and came to meet me, calling for her sister.

“Father, you have a lot of explaining to do. So be nice to our guest. Here, dismount and give me your weapons, I know how excitable you are.”

It was hard to tell but I couldn’t see any signs of stress to indicate danger so did as she bade though I wasn’t happy about that. The sight froze me for a moment. Lyssandra! She was sitting there drinking lemonade with Donna and Diane and chatting in English as if this were a normal day in Arabel. She looked up, saw me and froze. I was about to charge her, to beat the shit out of her but Cas grabbed me and I forced myself to calm down then turned and strode to the beach. She let me go.

I just stood in the water, fighting the waves, struggling to stand as the adrenaline slowly drained. Then I heard Diane next to me. She didn’t fight the water, she rose and fell with it as she said, “I know you and she have issues. Hell Jason, you have issues with every woman you ever knew, me included. But as you always said, ‘_Rashomon_ proves that for every issue there are three sides, yours, hers and the truth.’ I’ve heard yours often enough and these last few days I heard hers. So now we need to find the truth. Aside from her past and her obvious sexual desire for me she is a really nice woman. And she still loves you and even Cass and Donna are thinking of allowing her to move in. These kids of yours are so damn accommodating at times. But Magda says that she isn’t dangerous and she does have a story that you need to hear. So stop being a baby, come out of the water and listen to her without yelling.”

“I yelled enough at her in Immersea. All I can do now is to repeat my anger. Don’t let me do that please. Where’s Felix?” I was crushed. A century ago we were lovers and I loved her enough to forget her past. Then…

“For her it has only been a year. She never ran off with Felix, she ran after him, chased him for a year to kill him, always expecting you to catch up with her. When you never came, she thought you had abandoned her. Magda says that this is the truth. You wronged her, Jason. But then, you always were stupid enough around women to totally misconstrue us. That’s why we fought so much, you never understood me and why we divorced. But Lyssandra needs your help now to kill Felix and stop a war. It took a lot for her to swallow what pride she had and come here to beg you for help. I understand because it took me just as much courage to come back to you to ask you to help me save Fi and Tears.”

When I turned, I saw Cassie standing with her. I didn’t know if it was to keep us apart or to give her support. I never knew with her. She was jealous of Diane and our past but loved the woman anyway, always wishing we would re-marry. She knew we still loved each other and knew that we forced ourselves to be only friends.

“Di, I never had closure with her. We never really resolved our problems. I had that with you so we could move on and be friends but I don’t have that with her. I am back in that tavern in Immersea watching her run away with Felix. I had to track Chrysiese down to her home planet and it took me years to find her to get closure from her. This is not going to be pleasant.” She took my hand and pulled me from the ocean. “You aren’t as weak as you think you are. Think of it, your experiences with women may be rare but if I can love you and Fi and Tears and I can be friends, then you can do this.”


IV

Lyssandra thought that this place was nice. Much nicer than Arabel which Jason loved. They had started the morning on the beach, collecting shells and watching the crabs and birds and tasting the sea. The Sea! Larger than any lake in Kosovo and this was only a bay and filled with salt! Back in Arabel salt was so expensive many people were paid a part of their wages in salt.

And the people too. So few yet so different. In Kosovo when you asked what race a person was, you meant were they Serb, Slav, Greek or Turk. Here you meant black or white or brown, human or Don or Minotaur or Amazon. And somehow Jason kept them all living together in peace. He was always like that. Even being Boyer, a Noble himself, he insisted that men and women, Christian and Mohammadan and Witch all be treated the same, which to him meant respect their differences and be nice to each other. Here she saw no poverty, no crime and no one needed to wear weapons. Some did so out of habit but no one sat against a wall or hid in alleys or treated a lone woman as a whore. Back home both Cassie and Donna would have been chained in the village square to be laughed at and pelted with rotten fruit but here, they were treated as Nobles themselves.

People were so open and accepting. She had always had to hide her bi-sexuality but she saw Amazons walking and kissing in public and no one cared. Jason even had a Stone Circle and woe be to the people who sought to harm a Witch here. Those heads on the beach showed how adamant Jason was about keeping the peace. In Kosovo, he had even hanged one of his own men for raping a Mohammadan girl after they captured the town. He said that he’d done it to keep the peace and he did. Both sides, Christian and Mohammadan, Serb and Turk feared him but they all respected his integrity and the Mohammadans would often negotiate only through Jason.

It was obvious that Diane still loved Jason and Lyssandra wondered if… Diane ignored her flirtations, Cassie and Donna found them curious and interesting and teased Diane about her though Cassie, the youngest was jealous of Lyssandra. Jason did enjoy watching two women together so she had a chance there though she had to force herself to remember that Diane was an ex-wife, much like herself.

When it got hot, they moved to the porch, poured iced lemonade and scattered seeds for the birds to eat as they talked about everything, including Jason. They all had stories. Diane had been married to him for years as an adventurer and caravan guard and even a gladiator but not really a soldier. Lyssandra had spent her seven years with Jason as a soldier fighting Turks, bandits and Greeks and even vampires but they had never left Southeast Europe. Diane and he had gone everywhere it seemed looking for excitement. Cassie and Donna were content to listen to stories that their father had never told.

Lyssandra had only two questions that mattered, would Jason help her find and kill Felix and keep Merrick dead and would Jason take her back and if so, how would they manage with this family?

***

Diane found herself liking Lyssandra. She had known too many prostitutes in her day in Chicago and the Middle-East and almost every one was acting to get a bigger tip from their johns. But after a few days, she realized that Lyssandra wasn’t acting. She did love Jason. She did hate Felix. She was sorry for her past indiscretions and wanted to make it up and she did want Jason to take her back.

It was Lyssandra’s life that interested her more. It wasn’t strange that Jason would allow women into his Mercenary Company or that he took in Moslems and anyone else who wanted to join and could fight. He always was on the forefront of equal rights for anyone regardless of sex, race, religion, sexual orientation or even species despite his occasional sexist and racist remarks. It never occurred to him that one sex or race or religion was somehow lesser and the idea of women or Indians or blacks in America being forced to fight for the right to vote was totally incomprehensible to him. So here was a woman who was a soldier under him for almost seven years. Yet, they never adventured. Lyssandra’s life with Jason was so similar but so different from his life with Diane. And looking at her growing up a repressed minority, used and abused by everyone it was no wonder she distrusted him. Even now, Fi sometime mistrusted Jason and they’d been companions and lovers too. There was a lot of baggage for them to work out. And a lot of potential danger, emotional danger, for Jason and his ex-wives. And despite her liking Lyssandra, Cassie and Donna were family! Hell, she was once married to Jason and Cassie treated her like the mother she wanted and never had.

Though if Jason had trained her, and she was still alive, then she would be good with that sword and knife and even unarmed and Diane wasn’t looking forward to having to face her with a blade.

***

Cassie saw in this new woman a danger. She had been married to her father for seven years. They shared war together and that made a tie that was almost impossible to break. Even now, her father and Fiona and Diane had that war-buddy bond and the jokes that no one understood but them. At least he never had children by this Lyssandra.

But this woman wanted her father back. And a woman with that on her mind was the most dangerous animal ever. Also dad loved sex and here was a woman whose experiences would give her father everything he wanted in bed and companionship in the battlefield and more. True, she was much older than Diane’s age and her body wasn’t as firm as her father preferred, but men were men.

Her past saddened the girl. She had never really known love before Jason. She had hundreds, thousands of lovers which was totally unimaginable, even in the time Cassie grew up, but only one real love who loved her back. If Cassie had suffered that life, she’d have tossed herself off a tall building. Three children lost, two dead and one taken. It made Cassie glad that she had decided to never have children.

Damn! It would be easier to hate her if she weren’t so lovable. She knew how to make people like her and although Diane cautioned them that it was a learned act, still it worked. What if dad forgave her? He would because he was that kind of man, a man who would forgive the worst crimes if there was even a spark of love between them. He had proven that when he married their mother who had cheated on him often. He had proven that when her mother admitted that Jason wasn’t Cassie’s father (though to be honest, no one believed that and dad said that a father was who raised you, not who donated the DNA) and he could easily prove that with this woman. But, could she allow this woman into her hone? It was easy with Diane for they had been friends for years before so this was just another aspect of friendship. As a good daughter, though, if her father told her that Lyssandra would be moving in, she and Donna would either accept it or move out.

But, she had to admit, having another mother would make things easier. She was so tired with her father always complaining about Cassie’s messiness and the household. Another woman to take over those duties would be a nice change and Donna could use more help cleaning. And her father never liked having servant’s underfoot so the maids only arrived when they were needed, not when they were wanted.

This was definitely going to be difficult but then, fortunately, Jason came from a nation where men ruled the family but women the house so he would accept whatever decision the women made regarding Lyssandra. It would be hard to give up being the woman of the house but she had better start to pretend it was a good idea so if it happened, she’d be prepared. The thought of moving out never occurred to her.

***

Donnna found the new woman to be tragic but fascinating. But then, she had seen so much in her life even though she had never really left her own country. Jason had trained Lyssandra to be a warrior in the same way he trained Diane and Fiona to be adventurers. But with that skill, came horror. The horrors of seeing your children die, of being raped over and over, of always being armed for fear of robbery or rape or kidnapping, of wondering if you will eat that day.

The woman made it clear that she wanted to be married to Jason again and she also made it plain that she wished to bed Diane as well. Donna had gay friends but it was different when your father and ‘step-mom’ were doing the deed.

Donna knew that her father and Lysssandra would go off to adventure and kill this Felix and once away, she’d try very hard to bed her father and Jason, no matter how much he loved Diane, was still a male which meant he’d rut with anything with a hole. She loved her father desperately but had no illusions about him.

The question was then, would he return to them or run away with her? Or would he bring her back and expect the two to accept her? He wouldn’t insist or even ask but he’d be insufferable until his daughters suggested what he had already decided he wanted.

Maybe it would be better if Felix killed Lyssandra during the adventure. No, Jason never let anything happen to any of his family or friends and he wouldn’t let Lyssandra die either. So she and Cassie had better start getting used to another woman under their roof. At least there were advantages. Lyssandra was too old to have any more babies so Cass wouldn’t have to feel neglected if she got pregnant. Or pack her things and move back to the States.


V

Ok, time to get down to business. What is really going on here? I didn’t trust Lys. Despite what Diane said, she does have a history of deceit and Felix may be hiding in the trees so I needed to be careful and observant.

When we reached the porch, Lys stood but had that look so I waved her down, “Wait!” and entered the house. I wasn’t ready yet. I grabbed my broadsword, the one I had inherited with my title in Ireland, the one I had carried across Europe including those seven years in Kosovo, the one that had killed so many men I had lost count. I also grabbed a bottle of wine, then a second. I figured I’d need it.

When I returned I placed my chair against the wall and sat with my sword in my lap and after talking a long drink, probably too much too fast, I looked at her and said, “Begin.”

“Just that, Jason?” she asked. “No, I’m glad to see you. Or, Drop dead. Just report! As if we were on a campaign?”

“I am on a campaign right now. Me against Felix and I don’t know which side you are on. Last I saw, the Watch was dragging me to the goal while you were running off with Felix.” I had to bite my tongue to not say what I really wanted to tell her.

“I suppose I deserve that. I can only apologize so many times and make the same promise again and again. I wish you could believe me.”

“Trust is earned with experience. Earn mine back with deeds and not words. There’s no sense ripping my guts out with our past. Start with Felix and why you left me in Immersea.”

“It wasn’t what you thought. I really was trying. For the last year we were together, I was faithful. I tried to make it up to you so everything Felix told you was in the dead past. I did it but it was over and done.

“Ok,” she sighed, “We were in Immersea and you were drunk and I was apologizing again when I saw Felix looking through the window at us. I knew you were too drunk to take him and he’d kill you if you tried so I decided to do it myself.”

“You?”

“Yes me, dammit! I was angry. I had lost the only thing in my life that cared for me and he was the cause so I wasn’t thinking about my own safety, I just wanted him dead. So I went after him. But the Watch stopped me. They said that Felix had accused us of robbing him and we were under arrest. If I had let them arrest us, we’d both be in a cell, unarmed and helpless for when he came for us. So one of us had to be free and you weren’t in any shape so I told them that the woman they sought was using the chamber-pot and they let me go.

“By the time I got outside Felix was gone and they were dragging you away. I knew that without his testimony, they’d release you in the morning when you were sober so I returned to the tavern and paid the keep and one of the regulars to deliver you a message. I told them I was going to follow Felix and leave you a trail and to follow me as soon as you were able. Then I began to track him. I left messages and trail markings all over the country but you never followed.

“I didn’t know why but over the months I decided that you hated me too much and didn’t care anymore.”

I took another drink then snapped, “I was tossed into that cell and forgotten. I had to drink my own urine and eat rats and bugs to survive. After three weeks someone discovered me and let me go. By then you were gone.”

“I left you messages!”

“Yes, I heard what you said. But the day after I was arrested, the keep and a couple of his customers were killed in a bar fight. The killers escaped.” I didn’t know if this was a convenience that she was using to support her story or if it was a plot and we were being sucked in. “Continue.”

“I followed him for a year. I was always just behind him but when I chased him to Yugoslavia, I found Mislav dead. No he was tortured to death. Months later I tracked him to Germany and found Albrecht. He had been tortured to death a month before. I was seeing a pattern there so I rushed to find Erik our old sergeant and almost caught Felix. Erik was strung up, dying from his wounds but I had interrupted Felix who had escaped. Erik told me the Felix had caught him and tortured him to find where he buried the pieces to Merrick.”

I started at this.

“Felix bragged that he was going to take Merrick to Yugoslavia near Rumania to someplace called Wrath’s Keep or Wraith’s Keep or Rat’s Keep, I didn’t understand, and bring Merrick back to life. We have to stop him, Jason. If you still hate me, at least we have to do this then you can do to me whatever you want.”

I thought for a moment and motioned for Diane to keep closer watch. Even the kids were looking around. “In his entire life, Felix has shown no interest in magick. How does he expect to perform this necromancy?”

“I went to a Lodge and asked. That information cost me a lot of money. They said that a century or so ago, some Yugoslav warlord built a castle to stop the Turks. He was supposed to be a magickian and instead of fighting the Turks, he became obsessed with bringing his dead mother back from the grave. His failures were stuck in the dungeon beneath his keep. Then he died. They didn’t know if it was called Wrath’s Keep because he was crazy with anger or if that was his name. Or maybe they called it Wraith’s Keep because the dead still haunt the place. Or maybe Rat’s Keep because something was feeding all the rats that infested the place. What they could tell me was that even today, a century later, his ghost haunts the Keep. But they also said that the dead he brought back are still wandering the dungeon beneath and Saxons, what you call Orcs, moved into the upper ruins. They also said that a Dragon lives in a cave that connects to the dungeon. I think that Felix plans to somehow rediscover the Lord’s secrets and use them to bring Merrick back. He already has the body, head an arm and leg. All he is missing is my arm and eye and your leg and ear and Merrick can add those later.”

“This almost makes sense.” I mused, “BUT, as I said, Felix has no knowledge of Magick. How does he expect to bring Merrick back? Hope the ghost shows up and does the job? Or did he kidnap or hire a necromancer? Also you scared Felix away from Erik? The guy was good. I can take you down on the Field every time and Felix won more than half our matches so why would he run from you? No, Lys, this is a trap. For me it’s been a century so I’ve had time to calm down and think about this.

“My concerns are simple. Is this entire story made up to get me into a place where Felix can ambush and kill me? If so, are you helping him?” I stopped her protestations of innocence, “You may be actively helping him or he may be using you. I was never able to beat him at chess or outmaneuver him during the war games. So you may be a pawn. Why he wants me dead, I don’t know. I searched for you two for months then gave up. Even I get tired of wasting my time in futile revenge.

“So, the questions are; Is Felix hunting me and why? Are you helping him and why? Is Felix trying to bring Merrick back and how? Are you trying to get me alone for revenge? There are a lot of questions I need to ask. Let me think things over for a few hours and I’ll get back to you. Where are you staying?”

“We are wasting time!” she screamed. “Every minute we wait gives Felix more time. We need to go now!”

“I rarely take off without planning. It’s why I am still alive. Again, I need to think so where are you staying?”

“Here. Your daughters were kind enough to let me stay here. You haven’t changed, Jason. Not inside. I can see you are the same man inside, still kind, still suspicious, still cautious. But time is important here.”

Diane jumped in, “Let him be. He has to convince himself that the idea is his, not yours. He’ll come around soon enough.”

She stood to leave then turned to me again, “I hope she makes you happy because I love you enough to want you happy. Even it it’s with someone else.”

Diane waited until Lys was away before she hit me across the head. “Will you stop doing that! You’re going to take my head off some day!” I cried from the floor.

“How could you treat her like that! You know her life. It was so hard and you were the one person who cared for her and the only person she could trust and now you….” She turned and stomped off inside. Donna just said, “Daddy, sometimes you are as dumb as a rock and sometimes as hurtful as mother. I believe her. So pack your weapons while I make you something to eat on the road.” She then kissed me on the cheek, no mean feat with me on my arse and whispered, “We know what you will do so do what you must and tell us only what we want to know.” Unlike her sister, Donna had no real curiosity about my other life and felt that ignorance would protect her from Interpol.

I sat on the porch rail and called, “Diane, I need some help here. Felix is too good. He’s a better fighter than me with many weapons, he is a better strategist and he is far more charismatic than me so can raise an army easily.”

“Of course I’ll go with you and help you out.”

“No! I can take care of myself while I’m there. It’s the girls I fear for. We are being used and manipulated. Felix wants me at that Keep. But why? To kill me or to get me away and kill my family? It’s the latter I fear most. What I need is for you to remain here and guard the kids. If anything happens to them, I’ll die. But he’s good. Better than me so it will take everything you have to stop him if he comes.”

She placed his arm around my shoulders and said, “I’ll call Fi and Tears. We’ll keep your family safe for you. Nothing will harm them. I swear by my life and soul that all will be well when you return. Just put your attention on staying alive for them if you meet Felix. And be careful, a jealous woman often slips a knife in her lovers back when he is asleep or bedding her.”

Diane thought and added then, “I already have a ship of Amazons coming. They’ll be in armor and on duty while you are away and we’ll keep an eye for strangers passing through the Stargate. Worry only for yourself, NO ONE else and let us care for your family. Then come home to them and us alive.”

“So you’ve decided that I’m going?”

Diane laughed, “Was there any doubt? You need this! You’re underfoot and need some excitement. And you need closure with both Lyssandra and Felix. No matter what happens, well, Cass and Donna are my daughters so if you die and hurt them, Fi and I will bring you back to life and fuck you over so bad there won’t be enough left for Cass to stomp.”

“Your expressions of love just gives me the fuzzy-wuzzies.”

“Jason, would you expect anything less? We are your family. I’ll always be there for you but I love you enough to tell you the truth. I’ve never lied to you, you just didn’t understand what I said. But I do know that while we live, your family will be safe and when I say ‘we’, I mean every person on this island including the Amazons and Kaz. And that Minotaur is worth a half dozen Amazons anytime. Go get your gear ready, I’ll tell Lyssandra.” For an ex-wife with benefits, she was overly accommodating at times. She used to scream at me if I looked at another woman, now she was sending me off alone with an ex-lover for whom I still felt something.

The hardest part about adventuring is choosing your gear. Which sword do I take? Will I need a spear or just a bow? What about armour? Food and water? How much? A knife in the boot and behind my belt are a good idea but how many others do I hide and can I afford the weight? Which should I bring: a mace, morning star, war hammer or axe? Or leave them all behind and rely on one broad-sword? Medical kit is a must but should I pack it for sword wounds or dragon-claw or just a sprained ankle? And when I got it packed, I’d carry it around town to see how long it took me to collapse from the weight and then thin it out some more.

In town there is a tavern that attracts RPG Gamers from Earth. Some come here thinking that it would be neat to meet real adventurers. They quickly loose that romantic idea. But somehow some remained and there is a table in the corner where a D&D game is in constant play. Even some of the vacationing Adventurers play though arguments about “what the hell is a +7 holy sword?” and “No one can stop a dragon like that” often break out. One even showed me a cartoon from a magazine that showed an adventurer and his horse loaded down with all the gear the Dungeon-Master thinks an Adventurer needs. Neither could walk under that weight.

So I spent too much time arming myself, preparing Diane, going over the household defenses and making plans until even the kids got upset. “Dad, the longer you wait, the more entrenched Felix will be so stop him now while he isn’t prepared.” Cass demanded. Then as we two rode away, she yelled, “And bring your kids big presents when you return!”


VI

Lys and I rode to the Stargate at a decent clip. I had asked Kaz to follow under cover and I didn’t want him to be tired in case we needed him. Once through the Stargate, he’d return to the house or hang here, whichever he decided was best and safest. I admit I was scared. I was having flashbacks of returning to my home in Ireland and finding my house burned by the British police, my wife and children still inside, my neighbors hanging from the trees. My only hope was that between Diane and Kaz and the Amazons, they’d be safe for Felix had no experience with a minotaur who was bigger and stronger than any human. I knew I was fussing and I knew I was being paranoid which is a mental illness but some things I simply cannot let go. My advantages here are that neither Lys nor Felix know me as well as they thought they did.

Lys looked at me and said, “When I look at you, I see two people, the man I fell in love with and the man you are now. You treat them like you used to treat me, with kindness and consideration and when they describe your past, I see my Jason in their eyes. But the man outside worries more than the one I knew.”

After a few more yards, she continued, “I know you love them. You have a family here. And what you’ve made this place into is what Arabel should have been. I also know you don’t trust me. You may not even love me anymore. But I never stopped loving you.”

I know she wanted me to talk back but I wasn’t ready yet. Pride or anger or fear, I don’t know. So I let her rattle on like I let Cassie talk, only half-listening.

“Diane is very beautiful and strong in character. I can see why you love her too but I don’t understand why you let her go.”

“It’s complicated,” I finally spoke up. “She was recently widowed and the woman I thought was my lover turned out to be using me so we were both vulnerable. We are great as friends and there isn’t anyone closer to me but when we are together at home, we fight all the time. Yes, we thought of marriage again but it would never work and we’d be divorced and hating each other in a month or two. It’s better this way with a country or a couple spouses between us. It allows us to remain friends but avoid doing something stupid.”

“Sometimes, Jason, when you relax, you can be the most wonderful and insightful person in the world. Too bad you have to fuck it up by thinking.”

“Is this a dig?”

“No, just an observation. You once said to me, ‘sometimes you have to stop thinking, put the worries aside and follow your heart and instincts’. I think you love Diane because you think you do but you are best friends because your heart tells you to.”

I didn’t answer because the truth was, I loved her because I was happy with her and I liked that feeling. I loved Diane because she made me feel happy even when we were apart. Diane and I and the kids had been through this before. They accepted it because they wanted me to remarry the woman Cass called ‘mom’. I accepted it because as an Irish Noble, I knew the difference between a political marriage and a lover on the side. We had a good relationship with each of us trying to make the other happy and if that earth-shaking love that I had with Kore or the heart-felt love I had with Lyssandra wasn’t there, what we did have was a good trade. “Let me see that map you made again.”

I looked it over and decided for the millionth time that Lyssandra may be very good with people but she had been illiterate until she was nearing forty and so her cartographic skills were somewhat lacking as was her spelling. It was sketched on a piece of used parchment and I could almost see the remains of what she had scraped off. Down the center was a mountain range. This was bisected by a horizontal line she labeled rieka or ‘river’ in her native Slavic. Where the river crossed the mountains was the word ‘keep’ and another river down inside the mountains. To the left on the road was a word “Iskandar’ and a road moved from Iskandar to the northeast. I assumed that the Keep was at a junction of two rivers and a mountain range, probably controlling a strategic mountain pass. Iskandar was probably a town at the junction of the river and road. “Where does the Stargate open to?” I asked her.

“About two days west of the village near the river. We can re-supply there then follow the river to the Keep. I’m not worried about the Saxons, they are only a few bandits and we can easily kill them or avoid them. I think Felix will be underground where the undead roam. They scare me. It’s almost like being back in that vampire nest in Dracula’s castle in Romania. Only this time we are alone.”

“What about that dragon?”

“Rumors. I don’t even know if it exists. We heard about dragons in Kosovo but never saw one. It could be a story spread to keep people away. Maybe the Saxons are robbing people and using the dragon story to keep the army from chasing them.”

By then we had reached the Stargate and I waited a few minutes studying the map and asking stupid questions like the population of the town, the number of orcs, if there were any soldiers, Slav or Turk around. I was killing time to give Kaz a chance to catch up and rest and scout in case Felix was waiting.

“Well, no sense wasting time.” I waited and she degaussed the StarGate with what looked like an amulet and as the charge built up, we led the horses through and the climate instantly changed. We left a hot muggy island and were now in a cool dark forest with water running nearby. I opened my Locator, placed it in an open area with a view of the sky, adjusted it to magnetic north and let it do its job as I sketched the location and appearance of the StarGate in my note-book. Good records are always a good idea but only if you write them in a language only you and a very few trusted people can read. I chose Irish-Gaelic for mine because it was a dying language kept alive only by a few artists and historians. “It’s getting dark, we should make camp.”

By the time the fire was going and the ground cleared, I knew where we were, had updated my journal and was brushing the horses as Lys cooked a meal. I could and would eat almost anything myself but other people had expectations I couldn’t meet so they always made the meals.

She was staring at me. If she was telling the truth, we hadn’t been intimate since we started to chase Merrick and tied to the ground as she had been, at least a few dozen men had been with her that night so her most recent memories of sex was that gang-rape. For her it may well have been a year since she had sex and longer since she and I had been together and sometimes, people take longer to get over things like that. “When I was a galley slave, I was sixteen, I think.” I don’t know why I said that. She knew my past and my whip scars were still obvious. “Any Arab slaver who wanted a young boy aboard that dhow would throw me over a barrel or the rail, yank my pants down and have at me. If I was lucky, they’d spit on themselves for lubrication. If not, they’d take turns. I know how you felt back then.”

“No you don’t. You never had the person you loved watch your assault. I could endure the pounding. It was knowing they made you watch them do that to me that hurt the most.”

“I’m sorry for you. Really.”

She looked at me again and said, “You always looked twenty-five or thirty. I was embarassed to have been older than you and now I find you were a hundred years old back then. You’re two hundred now?”

“Around there.”

“Your daughters are only twenty and Diane almost thirty. I guess you learned to like younger women.”

“To me, everyone is younger, even you.”

“What happens when they get old and you don’t?”

“I don’t know. No one has ever stuck around that long.”

“I would if you let me.”

“This isn’t really the time or place for that talk. I need to wash off. What do you know about where we are?”

“Nothing. Before you I’d never been more than a couple leagues from Arabel. Then you took me to Romania and Yugoslavia then when I chased Felix I saw Albania, Italy and Germany but I’ve never been here. I know we are in Yugoslavia or maybe Romania so these are my people, Slavs. They feared the Ottoman Empire but the Turks never made it this far so the Keep was never tested. I’ve heard from the Lodge that some people think that Vlad Dracula built it but he was farther south and east. The people here are Catholic, not Greek and Iskandar is in that direction I think. If we follow the river we should reach it in a couple days. We can learn more there.”

The water was cold. European rivers were always cold and they made my skin ache. Living the past few years in Africa and Haven thinned my blood but even Ireland I was always cold. So I dressed quickly and looked at the stars as I ate dinner then visited the bushes and went to bed. Two things I always took along were thick socks and soft toilet paper.

I awoke with the morning light filtering through the trees, and found Lys in my bed, my arm wrapped around her. For a moment I remembered olden days when we would do this all the time then woke her up. She looked, smiled and said, “I was cold. It’s been a year since I was warm like this. Ok, I’ll get up and make breakfast but I’m not sorry. Even if you send me away, I’ll have the memory of your arm around me and your smell in my hair.”

I checked and my sleeping clothes were still intact so all she did was cuddle so with nothing to do about it, I dressed and we ate in silence then saddled and packed the horses and continued. Two days is a long time to be alone with your thoughts. Her life showed in her gray and a few wrinkles but I had scars from a dozen wars so couldn’t complain. She wasn’t telling any lies. I may be a fool but I’m not stupid and every word she spoke was true. It was what she didn’t say that bothered me. And I was beginning to accept that Felix was manipulating her without her knowledge. But Felix wasn’t the vengeful type. He wouldn’t go through all this trouble just to kill me or to take revenge on my family. If he wanted me dead, he’d walk up to me and challenge me. I figured that my family was therefore safe. So what did he want? The only possibility is that he did intend to bring Merrick back from the dead. If he had those intentions, then he’d want the arm, leg, eye and ear Lys and I had buried. He could have tortured her info long ago but he wouldn’t have gotten mine. So he left her free and safe so he could catch us both, use her as a lever to get my parts, use me as a lever to get her parts and decide later if he should kill us or release us. So, we were safe until we fell into a trap.

But then, Felix was a far better chess-master and strategist than I was. I’m a guerilla fighter who takes small groups of men and harasses larger armies until they are worn down. Felix was an open field general who maneuvered companies to win large battles. That’s why Olaf hired us as Captains. We each had skills the other lacked. So, if we were being manipulated, Felix was thinking like a general and I was thinking like a terrorist. And it was easier for me to think like him than he to think like me.

“I saw the heads you piked. Sometimes you let your Irish temper control you. Do you wish I had given you children?” She was rattling again. I suppose she was trying to get me to talk to her or covering her nervousness.

“No. Arabel was too dangerous between the Turks and Serbs and Macedonians and everyone else fighting over that land. Even now I’m terrified that Felix is sneaking back to kill them while we are away. Adventurers like us make terrible parents. I’m trying to avoid thinking of them until I return because worrying will distract me from the job at hand.

“I’m sorry. But I think they will be safe. Magda, that gypsy, said they would and with all the people around to protect them, most of whom you trained, they’ll be there when you return. One last thing though and I’ll drop the subject. They said for you to do what you want to do and what you must do and don’t worry about them. English is such a difficult language, I’m glad we are speaking Slavic again. They are special women, your daughters and girl-friend. I can see why you love them.”

Even I knew that whatever I said would be the wrong thing so kept silent and she didn’t push and shortly after, the stream turned south but we saw a road nearby turn south to the stream then heading east. According to Lyssandra’s map, poor as it was, Iskandar rested on a river where it intersected with a road. Normally that happens at a ford where the river is passable so the next question was, follow the river or the road. No matter which we chose, we’d find something because roads always go from town to town and towns tend to grow around steady water which is both drinking water and sewer. So we stood there for a few minutes looking them both over and neither knowing which to take so I suggested lunch while we searched for a sign. The area here had been cleared for a rest stop and had a couple stumps, some ferns and not much else but it was clear that this area had been cleared for people following the road to rest near fresh water.


VII

We were finishing our meal when a group of men rode up. Obviously adventurers like ourselves, these had the look of men who had not the sense to quit and were struggling to pay for the next campaign. Generally, these groups came in a number of types; military, general-purpose and random-groups. The military were often mercenaries who also did banditry and treasure hunting when the opportunity arose. General-purpose were those composed of an obvious fighter, a thief, scholar and a few other specialists and were composed to handle any situation but none of them well. The random groups were whatever people happened to travel together at that time. Today, I got the feeling that these were former soldiers who saw us as easy pickings.

“Dobro Don,” I called in Slavic hoping I got the pronunciation right. If they were Yugoslavs, they’d speak a different dialect than what I had learned in Kosovo or the hundred of other Slavic peoples in this part of the world. ‘Dobro don’ was Slavic for ‘good afternoon’ and was very close to ‘dobrae deyehn’ of Russia but saying one over the other marked you as a foreigner.

The men looked us over, one man and one woman, both armed, then our horses, four, two for riding and two for pack and decided that they outnumbered us three to one and so could afford to be themselves. “Good afternoon,” they replied back. Accented but easily understandable Slovakian.

“I am Jason Obrien, Lord Innis, Baron Haven, and you are?” It rarely hurt to reveal yourself as a noble. Here, fear and respect for the gentry was inbred and made people more respectful.

“I am Andrija, my companions and I are returning from the wars with the Turks and saw your campsite. We’d like to share your hospitality if we may.”

I noticed that he ignored my title. I figured that they were deserters looking for trouble so I rested my right hand on my pommel and measured them. Easy. Despite their being mounted, they had little armor, no shields and looked hungry which would slow them down. Plus their arrogance would work for us. “The Ottoman border is a long ways from here. You must have come through Romania to get here. What news and can you tell us where Iskandar is?” I glanced and saw Lys preparing to mount. She had her sword ready also but no shield or buckler which was a liability when facing one man who outweighed her by fifty pounds. Six was suicide but I had no intention of making her suffer another gang-rape and her look said the same.

He pointed back the way he came, “Iskandar is about a day’s ride that way, along the road where it crosses the river. There is nothing there save merchants who rob those who seek the supposed wealth of Wrath’s Keep. We sought it ourselves and lost most of our men, we four are all that remains.”

“Four? I see six of you.”

“Mirko and Petar joined us at Iskandar. Now we leave that accursed place.”

I walked to my horse and saw them taking defensive positions. Definitely deserters. Hard fought and probably very good at staying alive. I pulled my bota and tossed it to them with some cheese and jerky. “We are leaving now but you are welcome to this site. Here is wine and food if you are thirsty from your ride.”

The six relaxed immediately but I glanced to Lys to keep her ready. “So you were at the Keep. That place intrigues me, come, sit and tell me what you saw.” And I sat on a log away from Lys and the horses with another bota of water from which I drank. The six laughed and dismounted and sat around, now drinking buddies and sharing the wine, bragged about their experiences. I did keep ready in case I needed to kill them but sometimes it’s easier to buy safety than fight for it. Lys was getting her bow ready as she packed the horses. She could use a bow but wasn’t in the same skill level as Diane or Fiona, both of whom had been considered for the Olympics and both of whom had gotten a hundred times better under the instruction of Tears. But still, she could easily kill two before they got close.

By the time the bag was empty and the meat and cheese eaten, I had learned almost everything they knew. Iskandar was a day’s ride along the road. This stream was not the one that flowed through the town. The Keep was about six or seven leagues east, north-east of the town. There were Saxons in the ruins, zombies in the dungeons and a dragon in the caverns. They never saw it but they heard and smelled its foul breathing. That could easily be wind passing through a guano-littered cave. Most of their men had been killed by the Saxons, the rest by the undead before they broke and ran. No wealth was worth that price. And no, they saw no evidence of wealth. Doubtless, they said, the Saxons had secreted it away. And most importantly, Iskandar seemed to exist mainly to sell gear to fools who sought the Keep.

I thanked them for their information, “But we must go for I am to meet an old friend there and don’t wish to keep him waiting.”

Petar stood, took my arm and slurred through broken teeth and a drunken tongue. “Wait, you shared food and drink, now share your woman!” He thought that was funny until I drew and removed his head, his body being thrown by the impact of my blow. These European broadswords are not designed for such fine work. I stared the rest down, bloody blade in hand and said, “I think not. My hospitality does have its limits.”

The remaining five looked at Petar’s head and body, twitching on the dirt and laughed as if I had told a great joke. One nudged his head with a booted foot and called, “Petar! The man is a Boyer! They don’t share women. Petar, can you hear me? I guess not.” He stood, bowed as best he could and said, “Go with god or satan, my lord for at the Keep you will need both their help.” Then he knelt to rob poor Petar of his limited valuables. Even Mirko helped and we rode off leaving them to fight over what pennies and worn boots their former companion possessed.

“Jason, why didn’t they attack us when you killed him?”

“Petar wasn’t one of their Company. He was simply riding with them. I was lucky it was him and not one of Andrija’s men I had to kill. Otherwise they all would have been over us.”

She nudged her horse closer, touched my arm and said, “Thank you.”

We rode the rest of the day discussing what we had learned. Yes, Orcs and Undead but still no confirmation on the dragon. “I’ve met dragons before. Most were just really big lizards and snakes. A couple were dinosaurs that crossed through a StarGate from the past and those few which were real dragons were either very intelligent or just big stupid animals. Both I avoided for to a Dragon, a human is simply a meal that entertains it before it eats him. So the best you can do is to keep entertaining it until you can get it to eat your horse and maybe escape.”

“What of the heroes who kill dragons like the Saint George of the Christians?”

I laughed then, “Christians tell more lies about their saints than a drunk tells of his sexual prowess and the women he has laid. Look at the pictures and windows of George. He was fully armored and used a lance to kill a lizard smaller than he was. Lord Smaug was over a hundred feet long, breathed fire, played a mean game of chess and the only reason that he didn’t eat the countryside bare was because he slept a lot. No one could kill Lord Smaug. So some genius drove a herd of cattle and sheep into his cave and while the Dragon was sleeping off the meal, the villagers sealed the cave entrances with twenty feet of rock and concrete. Then he hired a bard to write a song about how he met the Dragon on the field in single combat and defeated him after three days of battle. Someday Lord Smaug will awaken, dig himself free and be very hungry and very, very angry.”

Humans like to think of themselves as being on the top of the food pyramid with everything else subject to their will. But more people die from a mosquito bite than from all the wars men fought. Mosquitoes, crocodiles, ticks, leeches, dragons, monitors, a hundred animals, some too small to see, eat people and know that they are higher on the food chain than is man. Only a flea doesn’t delude itself as to its own importance.


VIII

We reached Iskandar shortly after sunset. I wanted to camp but Lys smelled smoke so we continued on to find a clean bed, hot bath and good meal. The town itself was small, only a couple hundred people and we passed both orchards and fields along the road which was unusual as most villages rely on grain and leave the orchards to hamlets. Also small villages are just a part of a vast network of villages that surround a city. Iskandar must be really isolated to be forced to grow most of its own food. We passed two inns and a dozen shops before we found one we liked. In the old days, I’d have stopped at the first one I saw but now, older, wiser and wealthier, I pushed Lys into town where the better and more expensive places were.

“It’s like Arabel. You lived by the wall because you were poor. I lived away from the walls because I was a Captain and could afford a better place. The Boyers lived near the center but spent a lot of time at their villas. There aren’t enough people here to support these businesses so there must be a lot of road travel to pay the bills.”

We found a very nice inn and paid the stable-boy a nice tip to take extra care of our horses, then I paid him more to sleep in the stall to prevent them or their tack from walking away. Then we carried our gear inside and approached the bar which was more than the usual plank on barrels. The inn-keep glanced at us, judged my clothes, Lyssandra’s poorer and worn outfit and decided that I might be able to pay and smiled at me. “Yes, master, what can I do for you tonight?”

“I am the Lord Innis, Lord Haven, Baron Obrien. My companion and I need your best and cleanest room, a hot bath with soap and a good meal. Also after I eat and bathe, I’ll check on my horses to ensure that your boy has taken good care of them.”

He quoted a price that was outrageous but I wasn’t planning to spend more than a day or two so agreed and lay a couple silver drachmas on the counter. I had brought plenty of cash because in Haven, I tended to buy whatever currency the visitors carried just in case I wanted to travel. Most of my coin was foreign so I’d need to find a merchant’s guild to exchange what I carried into local currency but that could wait until the morning.

Immediately one of the local women sided up to me, judged that she was much younger than Lys and offered, “A good time My Lord. The best you had and ‘my’ breasts are still firm and ripe.” She glanced at Lys’ chest as she described her own.

“Meet me in the bath,” I called and handed her a penny as we followed the keep to our rooms. “Silver if I am happy with your service.”

Lys kept quiet until we were alone and setting our gear out. “Jason, are you serious about that drab?” She spat the word.

“Drab? Isn’t that what you were when we met? I should think you would be more understanding for twenty-five years ago, that was you.” She got embarrassed so I explained, “But no, I’m not serious about her sexual services. I want information and hookers hear a lot of talk from every john they approach. Maybe she has information we can use. Do what you do best and draw her out. Learn what you can. Bribe, entice, cajole her or whatever you do to make people like you and talk to you. I’ll try to keep my mouth shut and not ruin your interrogation.”

“How far do you want me to go?” she asked.

“Only as far as is comfortable. Don’t do anything you find distasteful or uncomfortable. And try really hard to avoid hurting her. She’s only a working girl trying to pay rent.”

“And if she likes girls, should I bed her to learn more? Would you like to watch us together, in the bath, washing and touching and kissing each other?” She was teasing me now, I hope.

“I agreed to allow you other women when you needed them. If you need to be with a woman, then do so.” I snapped.

She came to me then, “I’m sorry, Jason, I was only joking. I promised fidelity to you in Immersea and have kept that promise. I don’t need a woman now but if watching us would make you happy, I will for you.”

She was good. That was exactly what she knew I wanted to hear and exactly how I wanted to hear it. First the tease, then back down with an apology then an offer to make it seem like my wish. “That won’t be necessary. I’m after information, not entertainment.”

We headed to the bathing room, another reason why I chose this place for the outer and cheaper Inns never considered the idea that their patrons understood cleanliness. The culture of the time was ‘bathe when you are born, bathe when you die and avoid water in between’ so it was only a rare visitor, usually from the Ottoman Empire or the Far East that used a bath. As we walked she asked, “Jason, with Diane, did she ‘entertain’ you like that?”

“No. Our love life is pretty normal and average. But, Lys, you or Diane excite me. All you have to do is touch me and I’m excited. It’s a guy thing but when we kiss, it immediately makes our brains fall down and get mr happy ready. We can’t help it, we are made that way no matter how much we try.”

“Mister Happy? Did you name your penis now?” she cried in amazement.

“No! I was using a euphamism.”

“I like it. Gregor called his ‘the Tower of Power!’ Other men name theirs ‘Ramrod Randy’ or ‘The Beast that Never Sleeps’ or ‘Pussy Eater’. At least ‘Mister Happy’ makes it seem like fun and not a fight they need to win.” She was laughing now and I always enjoyed her laugh. She had high cheekbones and a wonderful smile. She’d often spend her money on her teeth over her stomach when she was a street-walker and it paid off. “Does Mister Happy want to play tonight after he is nice and clean?” she was staring down now and so I turned away because to tell the truth, I did.

Fortunately, the prostitute from the common room was waiting there to distract me. “My Lord, I didn’t know if I should undress or not. Some men like to watch, others don’t. What will please yourself?” She tried to curtsey but was obviously not trained for that but I’m the kind of guy who uses titles and courtesy as a tool, not a lifestyle so didn’t bother to change her.

“Strip to your shift if you will please. And scrub our backs. It’s been a long trail and I enjoy being clean.” I didn’t want her only dress to be ruined by the bathwater. She did undress then, trying to be as sexy as she could and between my earlier conversation with Lys and her show, I wasn’t ready to strip yet myself. “Problems, Jason?” Lys asked when she noticed my discomfort.

“On Haven, we wear little clothing and sometimes you forget just how attractive a lot of clothes make a woman and you definitely forget how sexual a good stripping can be. But thanks for the comment. I need to focus on the job at hand.”

I thought about the Keep, the Orcs, the undead, even the dragon making plans and counter plans as I slowly undressed. Lys did ask the girl to help her because if she had offered to undress me, I don’t know what I’d do. I wanted to watch but forced myself to think of rotting corpses and how to kill them and soon enough I could finish undressing and get into the tub.

I let Lys handle the conversation as we washed and she scrubbed our backs. The girl thinking we were just getting ready for the sex and she quickly opened up, “A lot of men pass through here both ways. They are always bragging about what they are going to do and what they saw and how they will take me away but they never do.” I just relaxed, cleaned the dust off and listened to Lyssandra flirt with the girl and draw her out. She was old enough to be the girl’s mother, maybe even her grandmother and by the time she was finished, the girl would have given her a freebie and had told us everything we needed to know. Felix wasn’t here. He was but left three days ago for the Keep. And he had a magickian in tow. The sorcerer was old and had to ride a wagon but stank like he had been rolling around in a grave. Felix also bought anything the necromancer wanted, without question or bargaining.

When we were done, I faked a yawn and told the girl, “I’m really tired now. Too tired for your more than adequate services so please take this as payment for wasting your time and perhaps we can try tomorrow?” I then handed her a silver drachma which would buy her room and food and single-bed sleeping for a month. She looked at the coin, more than she had ever seen in one place and threw her dress on and left unlaced before I changed my mind.

“You did a good job, Lys. Now we know that Felix really does intend to bring Merrick back and has the tools to do that. Felix may be a master strategist but he is too cheap to throw money around like that. So he is serious.”

“Now what?” she asked, resisting the urge to add ‘I told you so’.

“We rest up, get a good night’s sleep and a good meal and chase him down tomorrow. He’ll have to rest overnight and that body will attract attention, if only wolves, flies and other vermin which will have to be fought off. I think when Merrick returns and finds himself infested with maggots, he’ll not be happy with Felix.”

So we dressed, had a good meal and some wine and left word to have our horses saddled at dawn. Then we returned to our room where as we undressed and slipped into bed together for warmth, Lys whispered, “Would Mister Happy like to play? It has been over a year for me and I’ve missed you.”

“Lys, I’m not ready for this yet. I’m still hurt and I’m still angry with you. We still have things to work out.”

She stiffened but said, “I understand. When you are ready, if you are ready, please let me know.” Then she rolled over but not before, I noticed, her hand moved across my erection. She then snuggled her ass against me with a sigh and fell asleep.

The truth is that I wanted her. I thought I hated her but the feelings of love were back. And as I lay there, watching the moon approach full through the shutters, I thought about how we fought in Immersea after killing Merrick. How I called her every nasty name I knew and how she took it. If I had really hated her, I would have killed her and left or just left, but I … we tried to solve the problems and you don’t do that unless you were still in love. Diane and I may have fought while together but we worked hard to remain close. From my point, I was jealous and hurt that Lys found other people more desirable than me. I could easily understand her need for women. And I could allow that without being jealous because a woman could give her things I couldn’t. But she’d promised to never turn me down for a woman or allow a woman to come between us so we negotiated her bi-sexuality to both of our satisfactions. She had promised fidelity and to never be with another man and if I could believe that, we had a chance. But then, there was always the feeling that they were bigger or better or more imaginative or in some way better than me and she’d always miss them. That she’d done things with them that she refused to do with me and that was a problem and neither of us had a resolution. She had said ‘I did that so they wouldn’t leave me’ or ‘I did that because they paid me to do it’. And I’d respond, ‘you’d do that with someone you didn’t care for but not for the man you love?’ and we’d fight again, neither understanding the other. The fact is that I didn’t care if she did those acts with me or not, I cared that she’d want to do them to make me happy. I cared that she’d love me enough to give me something that she’d never given anyone else. And that wasn’t going to happen.

At least with Diane and Kore, they tried to be good wives and neither gave me cause to doubt her love. And so with those unresolved problems lying next to me, I finally managed to get some sleep.

Morning arrived far too early and Lys was shaking me, “Wake up! Get dressed, have breakfast and let’s go! The horses are ready, I’ve got enough food and water for the trip ready. You’d almost think you didn’t want to stop him!”

I wasn’t in the army anymore. I didn’t need to get up this early. And I still wasn’t certain I hated Felix enough to chase after him. Yes, those first few months I would have gladly torn him limb from limb but for me it was a century ago and a hundred years dulls the hatred and anger. Time is like that. Love lasts forever but anger and hatred fade eventually. If I killed him now, it would be to stop Merrick, not for revenge. But Lys was still in that hatred mood and was willing to listen about night travel but now the sun was almost up and she saw an end to her pain and a chance to rebuild her life.

I reached for my pants, then washed my face to wake up, dressed and said, “Toss this inside a loaf of bread and I’ll eat it in the saddle. Then I cleaned my teeth and shoved my feet into my boots, buckled my broadsword and allowed her to lead me outside. “I’ve paid the bill already and woke up the map-maker. This is the best map they had. He buys information from everyone who manages to return, updates the maps and sells them to the next bunch.”

I mounted, shoved the sandwich into my lap and looked the map over. This one was far more detailed and showed the main river weaving northeast, the secondary river coming southwest through Iskandar instead of west, the main road northeast bypassing the Keep and an abandoned road through the forest from Iskandar to the Keep. It also showed abandoned villages and another abandoned fort with a scale and notes all over. “How good is this direct road?” I asked as I took a bite.

“I’m told that it’s good enough for a horse but too overgrown for a wagon. Felix will have to take the new road northeast, ford the river there, then the old guard road south to the Keep. If we cut directly east, we can meet him there before he brings Merrick back.” I wanted to tell her that revenge was too costly but then, I spent years returning to Baghdad to hunt down and kill those slavers who abused me when I was a kid so who was I to talk.

Looking over the map, unless we met with trouble along the road, we could be at the Keep long before dark. So we trotted for a few kilometers, then walked then trotted, alternating to make time and rest the horses and in a few hours reached the hills through which passed the main river. The road led through a pass that would be easily defended by a few men and although the hills were too low to be called mountains, they were rough and impassible by horse and would slow a foot army down considerably.

After maybe two kilometers of this pass, parts of which were carved and leveled but now in need of repair, we reached the town. It was small and burned so long ago that even the map didn’t list its name. It was just a group of houses on the river where another stream across moved to the east. The road touched the village then entered the river to exit just north of the Keep which was on a large hill overlooking the river, stream, the pass and the ford. Militarily, that small Keep could control this entire area since it overlooked the river and could control that traffic, it overlooked the only pass through these hills for dozens of kilometers on either side and it overlooked the only ford across the river in dozens of kilometers.

“Let’s explore this village before we cross. I want to be certain that we won’t be cut off or attacked from behind.”


IX

The village was in ruins. It had been burned and leveled a century ago, rebuilt and re-burned a dozen times since and the only reason it wasn’t overgrown by the forest was because the land was too rocky to support that kind of vegetation. There were maybe a hundred houses originally, a large fishing town that grew up in the shadow of the Keep’s protection. Many cities started that way, a castle to subdue or protect the area, civilians moving in to feed the castle and to benefit from its protection, more people moving in and as the land became peaceful, the castle was abandoned and raided for building materials. I could see the ruins of the Keep across the river and some of the houses here looked like they had stolen dressed stone from the Keep itself. Other houses could be identified only by a pile of sticks and stones under a tree or brush as the grain and fruit in the destroyed home took root. Some were stone foundations only and a few looked like they had been repaired over and over again, cannibalizing the less habitable houses for materials.

We found one stone foundation with an overhanging tree at two of the corners and a brush canopy and set our horses within. “Someone decided that these walls would make a good paddock. See how they built a sun-shade from those trees to the corner. It also hides the horses from the Keep. A water trough too and lots of grass. This must be a popular starting point for the keep.”

“Imagine, an entire town like Iskandar making its living off treasure hunting fools. They must advertise the wealth of the keep all over Hungary and Romania.” She replied. “I wonder if there really IS any gold there?”

“Are you getting diverted?”

She snapped back, “No! I still want Felix killed but when it’s over, what then? I’ve spent the last year thinking of nothing but his death and the seven years before that you took care of me. So we kill him. What do I do next? Beg you into taking me back? Do I share you with your other women and be another aging harem-girl awaiting the call of my master? Or do I join another mercenary company and fight the Turks until I’m dead or too old to lift a sword? Or maybe return to my old profession? Do you know the perverts an old whore has to service? I have no money, Jason. I have no prospects. I never gave it much thought but if you won’t take me back or there isn’t any gold in that Keep, I don’t know where my next meal or bed will be.”

She changed the subject then, “I couldn’t sleep so spent the night while you were snoring I was waking up the shopkeepers for gear. Your purse is lighter but we have ropes, candles, torches, oil and more gear than we can carry. I thought that an arrow may work on the Saxons but not on the undead so I brought oil and torch for them. And if we burn Merrick, he won’t come back either.”

I looked over the gear she had plus what I grabbed from Haven and had to admit, “You did a very good job here. I’m really impressed with the thought you put into this and how well you were able to carry it out. If you showed this ability in Arabel, I would have made you my lieutenant.”

She smiled then added, “I’ve always been this way. I just never needed to express it while I was with you because you did it all yourself.”

“Brains, beauty and ability. No wonder I loved you.”

She smiled at me then and curtseyed, “You never did like the buxom brainless blondes that Felix chased. All he wanted was big breasts on a blonde mattress. You liked big breasts, which I don’t have, but you liked to talk to me too. So I learned to use my brains to keep you entertained when we weren’t in bed. Thank you for thinking so well of me. It means more than you can imagine to have a man think I am more than what’s between my spread legs.”

If she was working me like a john, it was working. “Let’s check over the rest of the town and see about fording that river.” We made certain that the horses had food and water but left them saddled in case we needed to leave in a hurry and then went exploring.

Everywhere the town was in ruins. But there were a few houses that had been repaired. Most of these were under trees and hidden from the Keep or anyone overhead or on the ground. But even these looked like camps and not residences. It was as if someone had come here intending to raid the Keep and set up a base camp in secret. Then the next team added on and on. Someone had even spread wheat to grow in the streets. There was a great deal of burning, some old and some newer as if the Orcs had torched the village when they raided. “Or,” added Lys, “If there is a dragon, it would have burned the town before eating the people.”

“If there were a dragon, you’d think that there would be evidence. Tracks, scat, claws or loosened scales. Unless the attacks are rare and people took them as souvenirs, there should be some proof. I won’t rule out a dragon because when we were chasing those bandits into Dracula’s castle, Erik insisted that vampires didn’t exist, … until they grabbed the priest and ate him in front of us. But I’m inclined to think that are orcs. Saxon bandits who wandered too far from Germany.”

“What about this?”

She had come across the remains of a horse, mostly bones and those broken and crushed. Another lay beyond in the same condition. “It looks like they ran for their lives, were killed on the run then their killer returned to eat them at its leisure. These are old kills though. Maybe a year or more with rats finishing the remains. I wonder why the wolves and dogs didn’t eat the rest?”

She turned a rib, half buried in the road with her dagger and suggested, “Maybe the dragon marked its kill and the wolves couldn’t stand the smell?”

“Do you think there is a dragon?” a new voice asked. Looking up we saw six men, all armed but only half as soldiers, the rest a rag-tag group of thieves and clerics and even a couple of women. They moved to surround us as we stood. “Next time,” I said, “We keep an ear open for visitors. I am Jason Obrien, Lord Innis, Baron Haven. And who are you?”

The leader didn’t answer but looked past us at two more who arrived, “We found their horses, these are the only ones here unless they have foot soldiers too.”

I looked around and saw archers but their stance showed a lack of practice. So we were against five soldiers, three with spears, two with axes and swords. Two carrying bows but obviously more skilled at cutting purses and a monk. Getting past the spears would be the problem.

“Do you have foot soldiers?” their leader asked.

None were mounted and all tired from a hike through the forest and over the hills. Since we didn’t see them, they must not have traveled the old road. Their spears were long and carried heavy blades and cross-pieces. Any of them would easily stop an Irish boar but I thought that they were made for the dragon instead. One was already wavering. You just can’t expect a tired man to hold a fifteen foot length of Ash topped with a heavy blade and cross-arm at arm’s length for long. I moved a step and the spears followed. Good, keep them alert until they drop the points from exhaustion.

“What concern is it of yours!” I demanded. “You have no cause to interfere with my travels. Call your dogs off and be away with you! You will get nothing of value from us.”

I moved again and two spears began to waver. One dropped his butt to his foot but had to lean over to keep the point at me.

“Tell us why you are here or we’ll take what you have for ourselves.”

“I think not.”

“Then kill them!” he shouted. Lys threw the knife she was holding at him but it was a poor throw though it made him dodge. I drew my broadsword, struck aside the two spears facing me and ran forward to kill their holders. As the third turned to follow, Lys drew and charged and before he could recover, she had driven her estoic threw his chest, withdrew and charged the two new arrivals who backed off fast. I hacked at the leader who blocked with his axe then ignored him and chased the archer and monk, killing them both before they could run. Then I turned to the leader who was ready for me. I saw Lys slash one man across the throat and go on guard to block the last. With only one opponent, I had little fear for her and focused on the leader who was much bigger than me. But an axe is a mass weapon and made to damage armor and so is slow to recover. My broadsword was faster and could stab so it was simple to draw him into a blow, step back and rush in before he could recover. He tried and had I not been as fast, he may have been able to do some damage but I was there and my point was through his shoulder. I don’t like punching with a sword for only rapiers and small swords and Lyssandra’s estoic are designed for that but you take what you can get and a quick jab is faster than an overhand blow.

When I turned to aid Lys, she was pulling her blade from her last own opponent who was clutching his belly. Gut wounds are terrible things and if you survived the blow, infection and all those internal juices would kill you slower and nastier. She kicked his sword away and looked at me, “Amateurs! Any real soldiers would have had better tactics and killed us.”

We made certain the rest were dead or unable to do anything then I knelt to their leader, “Why did you try to kill us?” I wanted to hear Felix’s name.

“I didn’t want to share the dragon’s treasure.”

“Then who do you work for?”

“Myself. Why share with some fat nobleman who sends us to die for pennies so he can get rich.”

I said to Lys, “Well, no relation to Felix. Just some guys looking for adventure and wealth.” I looked over his shoulder wound. I had done a lot of damage with my broad blade and I didn’t think he’d live long. The brachial artery was leaking which needed stitching and I wasn’t prepared to open him for that. “Here is some advice from a nobleman who isn’t fat but is rich. In the future when you meet another group, join up with them. That way you can send them in first to trigger traps and get eaten. And if you all survive, you can kill them in their sleep after you are all safe.”

“I’ll remember that. Sorry for trying to kill you. No hard feelings?”

“None at all. We’re just professionals trying to make a living,” I said to him. Then he passed out. “He’ll be dead in an hour. Let’s drag him under cover so he can die in comfort and hide the bodies.”

We got him under a tree and fairly comfortable but I knew he’d probably not awaken and would die in his sleep. It was simple professional courtesy and I had no ill will for him or his men. But, that didn’t stop us from stripping the bodies for anything of value. We left their clothing as too poor quality and looked over their weapons and purses as we snacked under cover.

The spears were too heavy to carry easily. I’d regret that if there really was a dragon but they were too bulky and heavy and awkward for crossing the river and humping up the hill to the Keep. And once inside, they would be useless. I didn’t like axes and Lys wasn’t strong enough for it and our swords and knifes were better than theirs. In fact, the only thing of value was the book the monk carried. It had notes on the Keep and a number of other possible treasure sites. This guy was their researcher, probably the only one who could read and had been collecting information on places to visit and raid. From the post-adventure notes, some had been successful but none earned enough to retire and most barely enough to finance the next trip. These guys were barely average and were lucky to have lived as long as they did.

Money-wise, they had mostly copper and brass pennies, a few silver coins and not much else. Even their jewelry was cheap. Diane and I called these guys ‘fodder’. They were the kind of dreamers who you would send in first to die then you’d move in later to mop up the enemy who was too tired from killing them to mount much of a defense. People that stupid needed to be weeded from the family tree.

Some of the arrows were decent but my shorter Asian bow was better suited for the Keep than their six foot long bows. And we did like their grapple and extra rope was always useful so their deaths weren’t a total loss. We stashed their gear and weapons in a house where they would be found by the next set of fools and hid a few knives in convenient places where we would find them if we were caught and tied up then investigated the ford. The book and anything else of value we stashed in our packs with the horses. When we were done, we could recover and carry this junk into town and sell it to the shops who would sell it to the next group of fools who passed through.

Over the years someone had tried to build a bridge but all that remained was a series of stone pilings and a heavy rope that crossed the water. Here, the river was wide but shallow and slow so we could easily cross. “Ok, let’s rub the horses down, re-saddle them, make certain that they have enough food and water then leave them here in case we need a fast escape. Then we’ll cross in the dark and climb to the Keep and check it out while the Orcs are asleep. We don’t need to ride up that trail and if we try, we’ll be spotted so we walk.”


X

We settled in and watched the Keep from cover until the sun set and as the last rays caused the shadow of the hills to creep up to the Keep, we saw a wagon make the climb to the summit. “Felix!” Lys cried and started to get up. I held her down, “Relax. The spell he is doing takes time and a lot of work. He also has to get past the Orcs, find a way into the dungeon, find a place, lay Merrick out, keep the undead from his necromancer long enough to get Merrick back. And that’s assuming that this is his intention.”

“What do you mean? His intention! Isn’t it clear what he plans?”

“Not necessarily. If he does plan to bring Merrick back, wouldn’t he want our parts? Otherwise who will follow a Serbian general who needs to be carried around the battlefield in a cart? No, this may be an elaborate trap. We’ll go now but carefully and quietly.”

We hooked ourselves and our gear to the rope that crossed the river and waded across, carrying only our weapons and clothing and pulling our gear along. The important thing was to cross silently and quickly to avoid a casual observer from seeing us and having time to respond by cutting the rope, causing our gear to wash downstream and leaving us at the mercy of anyone on the beach.

We reached the far shore with no trouble, gathered our gear, ensured that it was dry and moved up the trail from cover to cover. It was while we were planning our next move when we heard two Saxons strolling down the path. We Irish called them ‘orcs’ which is not a nice thing to call anyone and in return they called us ‘witche’ which is equally not nice. But it didn’t matter for Celt and Saxon had always hated each other. Probably some racial thing based on Patrick robbing Irish graves to hire Saxon mercs to raid Ireland and burn our temples so Patrick could brag about how he ‘drove the snakes from Ireland’. Stupid cac capaill. These were speaking in some German dialect that I could barely understand but it appeared that they were looking for us. For soldiers hunting other soldiers, they were very casual about it. I gathered that this was common to wander down, kill the adventurers as they crossed the ford and rob their bodies. And since they only saw us, they figured that two of them could take one man and one woman. There was also something about allowing a wagon to pass by.

As they passed, I stepped out, drew my broadsword and clove one from shoulder to spine then yanked my blade free as the other turned. I ducked his swing, slammed my blade into his belly and although his mail protected him from being cut, the impact bent him over so I stood and with both hands cut down so hard I near cut his mail coif in twain as I snapped his neck like a twig.

I dragged one to the edge as Lys whispered, “I thought we were sneaking in?”

“I changed my mind,” and dragged the second body as Lys carried their weapons. I’d rob them later but for now, two less enemies behind me seemed a good idea.

When we reached the top of the hill, the Keep was in worse condition than I believed. It was a central tower that was in poor condition, a stone wall that was rubble in many places. There were the remains of two towers in the back and two more flanking the missing gate, both damaged. No one repaired the damage and no one was on watch.

We approached the gate and looked inside past the rubble and saw a wagon, the still-harnessed horse dead with a spear through its chest but no people. We unslung our shields, checked our helmet straps and moved in slowly to the wagon. Inside was Merrick, or parts of him. I found his body, one leg and one arm but no head. And no bag or box to carry any magickal Tools.

“Where’s his head? You can’t bring him back without that,” Lys said.

“Maybe we are not thinking the same way he is.”

On the ground next to the wagon was an orc, a spear driven through the mail and into his chest. “Cheap mail,” I commented. There were two more bodies between the wagon and the main Keep, both sworded. Lys pointed to the wall where we saw two more dead, these with arrows. So Felix had killed five armed and armored men before they could touch him. Damn the man was good. Maybe I should have brought a shotgun or assault rifle instead of a broadsword. Unfortunately, you can’t bring modern substances through the StarGates into a time before they could exist. They simply broke down into primitive materials. A computer would, within minutes, decay into dried tar powder and loose ore and a few base metals, a stainless steel knife would degenerate into normal steel and plastic would break down to the oil from which it was made. Adventurers with dental fillings and breast implants and pins in their hips quickly found themselves in trouble as these parts broke down inside their bodies.

I looked around then headed for the main keep. Lys asked, “Why there?”

“Because Felix went that way. If we want to find him, we follow the bodies.”

Inside we found three more bodies between the door and the stairs that led below. “Eight to my two. I’m going to have to work hard to catch up.”

“Yours don’t count, you took them by surprise.”

We headed down the stairs, carrying a fallen torch to light the way which isn’t as easy as it sounds. A broadsword in my right hand, a shield in my left, not knowing if I should hold the torch high and loose the shield’s protection of carry it in my right and loose the offense of my steel.

The stairs went down the shaft until we began to see evidence of caves being walled up. All were small and a few rocks and mortar did the job but it was plain that this hill was once under water or more likely, a depression above that caught rainwater and allowed it to trickle down and erode the limestone over millions of years. “This hill and range must be honeycombed with caverns.” I mentioned.

At the bottom, we saw a door to the left and a large stone stair passageway to the right. The door was closed and barred and we saw another body on the stairs so we headed down into what was soon revealed as the dungeon. Stalactites still hung from the ceiling and where columns and stalagmites formed, the builder had leveled the floor and added walls to create a maze-work of passages and cells. We didn’t get far when the first undead attacked. Half-rotted but still mobile after a century of imprisonment it shambled forward. I shoved the torch into its face but it was too dry to burn easily. I dropped the torch, slammed it away with my shield then before it could recover, I split its head with a single blow. The thing went down, then started to rise again. One of those spears would have been useful here, stab and hold the thing as Lys cut it apart from behind.

That’s the problem with zombies, they are already dead. I once saw an American Special Forces Team in Bosnia run across a few of these. They opened fire with full-auto and sprayed 9mm rounds by the dozen into the undead. When the creatures stood up and continued forward, instead of thinking that bullets weren’t working so another tactic or retreat may be good, they continued to spray bullets promiscuously into the things even as they were dragged down and torn apart. I was much smarter than they, I used my weapon to shoot their undead knees off, then I ran away faster than the things could crawl.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t run but I could hack the thing into pieces which I did. The hands still clutched but with no brain to direct them, they were little more than an annoyance.

We looked into a few cells and found most inhabited by dead or undead, mostly rat-eaten and harmless. It was the ones walking free that caused us trouble and we spent far too much time chopping limbs, heads and arms. We were resting after one fight when I commented, “At least they aren’t reforming. They may not stay dead but eventually the rats will eat the parts. I wonder how many are left after all these years?”

“And I wonder how many Wrath created a century ago? People like us have been coming here for almost a hundred years and at least some must have destroyed some of the undead. Wrath must have experimented on entire villages.”

I thought about this, opened the map we had bought in Iskandar and saw four nearby villages marked as ‘abandoned’ or ‘destroyed’. “I wonder if these were once thriving villages before Wrath went mad?”

“Either that or the Dragon leveled them, or both.”

We continued until we found a shaft with a rusting ladder that went up and down into the gloom. I shoved the torch into the shaft but saw nothing either way but darkness and dust. Lys then commented, “look, multiple trails as if over the decades people or undead would stagger here in the darkness and fall below. I don’t see any evidence of recent climbing on the ladder. We went the wrong way. Maybe Felix is through that other door.”

I wasn’t looking forward to fighting my way back through the dungeon again but we had a choice, do that or trust a centuries old iron ladder that went somewhere we didn’t know. I checked my sword edge in the light for nicks and dents but found none worth worrying about. Good steel! I had some guy who played too many RPGs ask me to take him Adventuring. He claimed to be a 12th level fighter, whatever that was, with a +8 holy sword, again, whatever that was. I told him to draw his fancy sword and cut at me with the intent to kill. I blocked with my edge and his beloved blade with its fancy hilt was cut ¾ through wheras my plainer and far older blade wasn’t scratched. Put your money into the steel, not the furniture that decorates the blade.

So we turned and returned to the stairs, chopping four more undead into rat-feed before we climbed the stairs to face the barred door. Neither of us could hear anything through the thick oak so with Lys watching for visitors, Alive and undead, I slid my dagger through a crack and managed to lift the inside bar. The crack appeared to have been widened by a previous visitor for this purpose and we were able to open the door enough to shove a sword blade through and support the bar. Then a flick up freed the bar and we were inside.

Two more Orcs littered the inside, “I’ll never catch up,” and we were on a mezzanine that overlooked a lower level that was obviously a magickal room. There was an altar in the center of a large pentagram, book shelves and tables around the walls and our prey below.

Felix was by the side, another body at his feet and the necromancer was standing over the altar which contained not Merrick but a Saxon, still alive and chained with Merrick’s rotting head next to the Saxon. I whispered to Lyssandra as I readied my bow, “He isn’t bringing Merrick to life, he’s transferring the mind and soul of Merrick into that Orc. That’s whey he doesn’t need our parts or came for us, he quit searching when he got the head from Erik.” Then I put an arrow into the sorcerers back. All he needed was the head but didn’t know who had it. When Erik revealed that item, Felix quit hunting us down.

The necromancer screamed, fell forward and I put an arrow into the Saxon just to be safe and a third into the necromancer to be certain. By then Felix was halfway up the stairs, cursing all the way. I dropped my bow, took up my shield and prepared to meet Felix as I called, “Take the other stairs, make certain that they are all dead, and destroy and burn everything!” By then Felix had attacked and I was hard put to keep him on the stairs below me. I had the high level ground and he was lower on narrow stairs and I wanted it that way.

Oh the fight we did. I wished a hundred times that it had been fought in an arena to the admiration of those enamoured of the art of swordplay. We used every skill and trick we both knew, each accustomed to the other’s style and I survived only because I had a century of training and experience on Felix. But the man was good. He took to swordplay as a duck takes to water and was a natural fighter.

Did the fight last minutes or hours? I don’t know. I was tired from hacking the undead and Felix was tired from killing Saxons and we eventually rested, me still on the high. “You’ve gotten better since we last met,” Felix called.

“Hopefully better enough to send you to join Merrick.”

He glanced down and screamed as she saw Lys toss oil over the altar and burn Merrick, the Saxon and the necromancer. The remainder of the room was already in ruins and books were burning with the incenses filling the room with noxious fumes. I would miss those books but rather they burn than fall into Felix’s hands. Felix, however changed his tactics and ran down the stairs.

“Lys, run!” I yelled following Felix. At the base, Felix turned to give one blow that knocked me back, unbalanced as I was on the stairs, then he ran for the Altar to save what he could of Merrick.

Lys was trapped and pulling tapestries from the walls to feed the fire. She intended to burn Felix and didn’t much care if she died too. I had an urge to leave them all but an arrow struck my shield from behind and looking up, saw the remaining Saxons enter the room. The cavalry had arrived but in this case, they wanted us all dead. So I ran, jumped the fire to Lys, all those years of jumping Beltane Fires came into use here, and yelled, “He’s already dead! There are too many of them. He can’t kill them all so let’s get out of here!”

She saw Felix take an arrow as he frantically covered Merrick’s head to beat out the flames so she spit, screamed “Dabogda te jebao nekrofil. Metrovy kokot do tvojej riti. Kurcoglavac! D'anam don diabhal” at him and then I dragged her through an opening that had been revealed when she tore a tapestry from the wall. She continued to swear at him in Solvak, Bosnian, Turkish and even the Gaelic she had heard me use as I dragged her down the stairs.

The well led down and air, by no means fresh, flew up the well to feed the fire as we ran down the stairs. Eventually the well led to a series of stairs cut into the limestone cave and soon we were in a large cavern which began as the stairs ended. The cavern was wet and a large pool filled the far side. We felt air rushing from an opening which must have led to the outside but it was far too small for either of us to enter.

Imigh sa diabhal” I cursed in Gaelic! “This must be the opening. But only a child can use it. We’re trapped.”

Lys struck a light and with her torch looked around. “Look” she pointed. Over the pool was another opening, far larger than any other and the light from the torch bouncing from the crystals in the walls, we saw gold. “There’s the treasure of Baron Wrath! Not in the dungeon but down here. How do we get it?” Then she began to pull rope from her pack.

“What are you doing?” I demanded.

“Getting the treasure.”

“And how do you intend to get it out of here?”

“You’ll find a way. You always have an escape planned. Besides,” she touched my cheek, “We promised your daughters a big present.”

It took three throws but she finally got the grapnel over a broken stalagmite and pulled to lock it into place. Then I heard a clatter on the stairs and grabbed Lys and pulled her to cover as Felix, burned and bloody, arrived. “You Irish bastard! You Slavic whore!” he yelled. “Where are you! You’ve ruined everything. I’ll kill you for this!” He had a bundle in one hand that probably was Merrick’s head and his heavily notched sword in the other. His shield he left behind and his armor was rented in a number of places, only some of which I remembered creating. Apparently, he had removed more orcs.

I was about to step out and finish the job, neither knowing not careing who would win when Lys pulled me down and hissed, “Be quiet, don’t move!”

I froze, then saw a long snake-like creature crawl from the treasure trove. Its tongue tested the rope then it looked over and saw Felix who never saw it leave its nest until it was over him. Then he heard the hiss, looked up, said, “shit!”

Then the dragon snapped down to engulf both him and Merrick in one bite. As it lifted its head to swallow, I grabbed Lys and pulled her into the water and we waded to the far side where I noticed air bubbles being sucked from an underwater opening. The dragon finished swallowing its meal and turned to us but by that time we had cut our mail free, sheathed our swords and dove, both encumbered by the bows and quivers Lys had carried down the stairs.

The opening was large, too large and we saw it easily as the dragon flamed the cavern where we once stood. We both swam as fast as we could, more pulling ourselves along the stalactites and stalagmites that lined the passage then Lys burst ahead of me, fighting for distance. If she was that scared, I wasn’t going to argue and rushed fast too. Finally, we reached a chamber, pulled ourselves onto a shelf and Lys crawled back into the ledge in the darkness, pushing bones aside in her haste. “It followed us into the tunnel! Ow! Jason, here’s the ladder, quick, up!” and her voice faded into the distance.

I found the ladder and climbed after it and that climb was a nightmare. The ladder was rusty and we made it only because of our thick leather gloves that swordsmen wore and our boots. “How did it get through that tunnel?” Lys called. “It was barely large enough for us!”

I panted back, “In Africa I saw a crocodile big enough to eat me squeeze through a hole too small for my head to enter. Those things can dislocate their bones. Climb faster!”

Then a burst of flame followed us up. The flames didn’t reach us but the methane stink did. Some natural napalm maybe as I looked down and saw it stick to the ladder and walls as it burned. Below was the dragon slowly gaining on us, avoiding the burning patches. Lys stopped climbing and kicked at the wall until a door opened. Had the dragon not flamed when it did, we would have passed it by. “Inside, fast!” and she pushed through with me on her tail. We slammed the door shut then followed the tunnel to a blank wall. We both began to search for the hidden door when the dragon smashed the shaft door open and looked in. We barely made through and slammed the next door as it flamed again.

“This tunnel and door is way too small for it. Maybe it can get its head and neck in but those arms and wings will stop it. I hope. Where are we?” I asked.

I could hear Lys moving about in the dark and I did so too. It was a small cavern, large enough for the dragon to move around in if it didn’t mind curling like a snake but the air was rank and we were trapped.

“Jason! There’s a tunnel going down and I smell water. This must lead to the pool and this tunnel is large enough for the dragon. Damn! What now?”

I felt the door and it was warm, too warm. “He flamed the tunnel and heated up the door. He isn’t coming through here, even Dragons can’t survive their own flames. I think he did it to trap us here so he could continue the climb and return to his cave by another exit. Then he’ll enter the pool follow the underwater tunnel to this one and come up to eat us. We have time. He has to continue up through the dungeon or wherever the shaft leads, then outside and back inside. Let’s go!” and I opened the door to see the tunnel filled with chemical burnings.

I scraped as much as I could off the walls and ceiling with my sword and patted them out the moved back to the shaft. From there, covered with dragon stink and fearing a light, we continued up.

“Why won’t it turn around in the shaft and save time?”

“Because it is flexible but there isn’t enough room here for even it to turn around. It needs a room to turn in and its scales won’t let it back down. So right now we are behind it. We’re safe until it gets outside.”

“What’s to stop it from entering the dungeon and turning around in there then coming down at us?”

I stopped then. Looking up I whispered, “I forgot about that.” Down or up? It could be waiting for us up there or … “I’m guessing that it thinks we are as greedy as it is. Dragons hoard and they are jealous of anything stealing its gold. It found us there in its treasure nest so it hopefully thinks we took the tunnel back to its cave to rob it. It’ll go faster outside than fighting these tunnels again.”

“I hope you’re right, keep climbing. I just want out now. Did you see Felix’s face when he saw those teeth close over him! I am going to remember that forever. Too bad I can’t be here when that overgrown snake shits him out.”

We reached the dungeon but without armor I wasn’t willing to meet with whatever was still alive, undead or Orc, so continued up. Not too far above we entered a storeroom that showed signs of the dragon’s hasty progress. An Orc lay against the wall, pretending very hard to not see us. He had a friend with him and even the friend wasn’t ready for another conflict after being tossed aside by the dragon. So we ran across the storeroom, seeing nothing of value even if we wanted to take the time, and ran up the stairs and into the ruins of an outer building. We looked around, saw a scale scraped off as the dragon exited this place and seeing nothing we left and ran for the gatehouse. Still nothing. “Lys, we need to be away from here before it discovers that we tricked it. They may be greedy bastards but they are also full of pride and hate being made a fool of.”

We both looked for sign and then ran down the road to the river, always keeping close to cover. Going down a road wearing nothing but clothes an unstrung bow and closed quiver and a sword is a lot easier than climbing that road uphill wearing armour and a pack so we made excellent time. Once at the river, we hid and searched, then searched again but saw nothing and even the horses were quiet. “Now is the dangerous part. If he shows while we are crossing, we are dead. If we duck underwater and even drift downstream, he’ll see us from the air and pluck us like an eagle takes a fish. I’ll go first. Then give me a chance to find that longbow and make ready. I won’t be able to kill it but I may divert its attention long enough for you to get across to safety.”

She grabbed me, kissed me hard and said, “Don’t die on me.” Then she pushed me to the river. I didn’t even tie on but grabbed the rope and near ran across the river in waist deep water using the rope to prevent me from being swept away.

Once across, I ran for the place where we hid the bows and by the time I had strung the longbow (both our strings being soaked and stretched as we swam underground), nocked an arrow and returned to the river, Lys was almost across. The fool! I scanned the skies and hills but she made it across safe and we ran for the horses, knocked down the poles blocking the doorway, mounted and rode for the woods as fast as we could and damn the safety.

We barely made it to the tree-line when we heard a hissing and looking back, saw the dragon dive for the river. While it was burning the deserted town that we had vacated, we rode, terror giving strength to the horses. When we heard it call again, we left the road and hid under trees as it passed overhead, searching.

“We need a christian knight to slay the beast,” Lys laughed as she calmed her terror-stricken steed.

“That beast must be at least 100 feet long. It’ll take an army of knights to stop it and even then, most will die. No, I’m willing to let it go, unharmed. See that smoke back there? It burned the river town. For all we know it may go back and clean out the Orcs and undead before it calms down. Had we taken even a coin from its hoard, it’d never let us go.” We walked the horses, blindfolded through the deep forest, they starting every time it roared in the sky but blinded as they were, unwilling to run. So we made slow time and headed far south to throw it off for it was probably watching the roads and shortly after leaving the road, we heard it running east on the road we had vacated hoping to meet us head-on. Dragons are sight hunters. Unless we made a lot of noise or it stopped to taste the road, it wouldn’t know where we left the road so we were safe for a while.

We traveled slow in the deep forest, avoiding underbrush and moving from thick tree to thick tree so by nightfall we probably hadn’t made more than a league if that. We also ate our meal cold, fearing that even a small fire would bring the dragon so remained as quiet as possible until Lys sat next to me and asked, “When do you think it’ll give up?”

“Depends on how badly we pricked its ego. Dragon’s don’t think that they are the peak of creation, they KNOW it! So to have two petty humans outwit it hurt its sense of omnipotence. Maybe a day or two. It may take revenge on Iskandar but probably not destroy the town though then give up since we didn’t steal anything.”

“I can see it attacking Iskandar but why won’t it burn it to the ground?”

“That dragon has been feeding off the cattle and sheep of the village for decades, plus the occasional adventurer. Iskandar feeds it the occasional adventurer so it’s a steady source of food and whatever wealth they carry. It probably sees the town as slave labor and so too valuable to eliminate or face going back to hunting for its dinner. It may, however, burn a house or two and eat some stock and people out of anger.”

She leaned against me in the cold and I placed my arm around her and we looked into the darkness until she asked, “Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why did you leap the flames to save me? To drag me to safety? You could have easily left and with me and Felix dead, your problems would be solved.”

I looked at the stars peeking through the canopy and calculated. Another day or two to Iskandar because of the weaving path we had to walk. If the town was untouched, a day to rest then two to the StarGate. If the dragon hit the town, we’d avoid it and live off the land so make that four days to the StarGate. So… five to eight days before I got home and had to face Diane and my kids.

“Because, sometimes you have to stop thinking and follow your heart.”

END



To contact me or to request topics to be covered, send to RikJohnson@juno.com
by: Rick Johnson
PO Box 40451
Tucson, Az.
85717


Return to the Home Page.

1