S. C. Shaffer
Copyright 1995, 2001, 2020 by Shaffer Media Enterprises LLC
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Cover artwork copyright 2020 by Valerie Shaffer and Shaffer Media Enterprises, LLC
It was late at night. The moon was reflecting light through the window and onto the face of a little boy. His mother brushed the tears from his face. “Don’t worry about those booming noises; that’s all happening far away. You don’t have anything to worry about.” She cradled him in her arms and softly sang. “When the Moon is in the seventh house, and Jupiter aligns with Mars, then peace will guide the planet, and love will fill the stars.” She kissed him gently on the forehead and he closed his eyes to sleep.
It was early morning and dense fog had settled over the area. Remnants of a great battle lay all around. Thousands of soldiers were dead, strewn around the field with arrows and swords sticking out of various parts of their bodies. Some, still living, cried out for death to take them. Ellorian soldiers, patrolling in threes, granted the death wishes for those from the opposing forces of Gehata. Medics roamed the area looking for Ellorian survivors.
Gamol, supreme general commander of the Forces of Ellor, surveyed the battlefield with a scowl. His gaunt features and regal bearing stood out among the stout soldiers and the human carnage that surrounded him. He turned his piercing deep blue eyes on his aide and sighed. “This cycle is getting tedious, don’t you think, captain?”
“What cycle is that, sir?”
“The cycle of violence.” Gamol gestured across the battlefield with his hand. “When did we last do this? Thirteen years ago? And what did we call it? ‘The war to end all wars’ – bah! The forces of Gehata defeated us then, and we have been thirsting for blood ever since.”
“And this time we succeeded – now there can be peace.”
“Oh?” said Gamol, fingering his beard into a point on his chin. “Perhaps. I find it unlikely. The Gehataians will like this defeat no better than we liked the last one. In another generation they will rebuild their forces – and we will be right back here again. It is as predictable as the clock on my mantle.”
“You own a clock?” asked the aide, astounded. Gamol began to reply, but they were interrupted by three soldiers coming toward them. The one on the right was dragging a young boy, about seven years old, by the arm. The boy was not resisting, but simply allowing himself to be pulled along.
“Sir! We found this one under a wagon,” said the soldier in the middle. “Should we throw him in the pit with the rest of the vermin?”
“Of course!” said the captain. “You know the law. Why bother the general with such trivialities?”
The middle soldier hesitated. “I’m sorry, sir, but I thought that since he is so young…”
“How much thinking does it take to swing a sword?” spat the captain. “Dismissed!”
“Wait,” commanded Gamol. “Let me talk to this boy.”
The soldier on the right pushed the boy forward and onto his knees.
“What is your name, boy?” asked Gamol. The child remained silent.
The soldier on the left slapped him on the back of his head. “Answer the general when he speaks to you, vermin!”
Gamol waved the soldiers away. “Let me speak to this boy alone.” The soldiers turned to leave. “You, there!” said Gamol, indicating to the soldier in the middle, who spun on his heel to face the general. The other two soldiers stepped back, trying unsuccessfully to hide their smirks.
The middle soldier snapped to attention. “Yes, sir?”
“What is your name?” asked Gamol.
“Mennisc, sir!” Sweat was forming on his brow.
“Well, Mennisc, you have distinguished yourself today,” said Gamol. “Rules can never take the place of our basic humanity. Otherwise, we would be no better than the enemy we defeated.”
Mennisc broke into a large grin, then recovered his soldier’s demeanor. “Yes, sir!” He snapped a salute, spun on his heel, and marched away quite briskly. His two companions followed, less enthusiastically.
Gamol turned to the boy. “Come here, boy, and sit beside me,” said Gamol.
The captain turned slightly and leaned in toward Gamol’s ear. “Sir, he is a Gehataian – the regulations say he must be killed with the rest of them. He is dangerous, even if he is small.”
Gamol looked at the captain, then at the seven year old boy, then back at the captain. “I think I can manage,” he said with a slight roll of his eyes. “Go and check on the replacement horses; we have many wounded who will need to be transported home.” The captain snapped a salute, spun on his heel, and marched off, barking an order at a passing soldier.
Gamol turned to the boy, who had not moved from where he had been placed. “What is your name?”
“I don’t know,” said the boy.
“No tricks now – you could be in very big trouble if you lie to me.” Gamol noticed blood on the boy’s head. The boy remained silent. “How did you come to be here today?”
“I don’t know,” said the boy.
“Really? You don’t seem to know much about anything, do you?”
The boy shrugged. “Who does?”
Gamol laughed. “Does your head hurt?”
“How did that happen?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Well, then,” asked Gamol, “can you tell me why you were here at the battle?”
“You don’t know, or you can’t tell me?”
“I just woke up with that fédelswín dragging me around.”
Gamol was startled. “My, what a mouth you have on you. Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?”
The boy’s eyes grew intense and he looked right at Gamol. “No, but I kissed yours.”
Gamol raised an eyebrow. “Where did you learn to talk like that?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’re kind of a conundrum, you know.”
“I would probably know that, if I knew what it meant.”
“I’m supposed to have you executed. Do you know what that means?” The boy nodded. If I let you live, where will you go?” asked Gamol.
Tears well up in the boy’s eyes. “I don’t know. I don’t even know where I am.”
Gamol blew out a puff of air that made his mustache hairs wiggle. “Would you like to come home with me?”
The boy paused for a long time, then said “I would like to have somewhere to go.”
Gamol sighed. “I don’t suppose you remember your name, do you? No? Well, I certainly can’t go around calling you boy, can I? From now on, I’ll call you Anstapa.”
The boy furrowed his brow. “What kind of a name is that?”
Gamol paused. “A unique one.”
The village of Ceastarwic was bustling with mid-day activity; horse-drawn carts filled with produce and lumber crisscrossed the town square. Dirt and dust wafted everywhere, kicked up by the activity.
Anstapa, now a lean and muscled young man nearing adulthood, surveyed the town scene while loading items into a cart.
A young woman weaved between the carts and people, carrying an armful of rough-hewn lumber that was much more than she could handle. A small group of rough-looking young men approached her through the crowd, led by a large, slovenly, ruffian with a pug nose. His mouth seemed perpetually slacked open, and when he came up to her flashing a grin it made him look even more dimwitted.
“Go away, Micga,” said the young woman, trying to turn away.
“Come on, Cyrten,” replied the hooligan. “If you go with me to the dance tonight, I’ll help you carry that wood.”
“Thanks, but I’d rather drag the wood across town one piece at a time,” said Cyrten.
“Oh, come on…”
“… on my hands and knees.”
The other hoodlums laughed, some doubling over. Micga’s face turned bright red, and he started to walk off, pushing one member of the gang as he passed him.
Anstapa had been watching the entire encounter with amusement. Cyrten let out a loud huff, then continued her way across the town square toward him. The street traffic had increased, and she was jostled. She quickly side-stepped an elderly man who almost walked right into her heedlessly, then she was knocked first by a horse, then by a cart. She stumbled, dropping her load, which landed right on Anstapa’s foot.
“Ow!” said Anstapa. “Hey, watch it!”
“Oh! I’m sorry!” said Cyrten. “Here, let me help you…”
“It’s alright,” he said. “Stop fussing.”
Cyrten started brushing him off. Anstapa, annoyed, tried to move away. “I said stop fussing!”
From across the street, Micga noticed Anstapa. Specifically, he noticed Cyrten paying attention to Anstapa. “Hey! Who the hell are you?”
Anstapa looked at Micga coolly. “My name’s Anstapa.”
“Antipasta? What the hell kind of name is Antipasta?”
One of the gang turned away from Anstapa and spoke quietly to Micga. “Wait a second, Micga. Don’t mess with this guy. I’ve seen him around here before.”
“What? So? Look how small he is.” Then turning back, he said loudly, “Hey! I asked what the hell kind of name ‘Antipasta’ is?”
Anstapa turned his back to Micga and began to help Cyrten pick up her firewood. Micga approached them.
Cyrten locked eyes with Anstapa. “Just ignore him.”
Anstapa replied with a wry smile, “Sorry, who?”
Micga rushed forward, infuriated at being ignored. “Hey, little guy! Answer me!” Micga reached for Anstapa, grabbing his sleeve.
Anstapa stood up. “You should let go.” Anstapa looked up at the taller thug, tightening his eyes and slowly repositioning his hand.
“Oh?” asks Micga. “And what are you gonna..?”
Anstapa moved his hand only two inches, covering the distance to Micga’s stomach. Micga let out an oof sound, moaned, and dropped to the ground, gasping for air.
Without further comment, Anstapa returned to helping Cyrten. With his back to Micga, he stacked several long boards into the crook of his arm. As Micga started to get up, Anstapa nonchalantly turned, hitting him in the head with a board. Micga fell forward, face first, into the dirt. Cyrten winced, but couldn’t help smiling.
“Here’s your lumber.” Anstapa handed her the lumber, noticeably not offering to carry it for her. She took it, straining under the weight. “Say, that’s a lot of lumber for someone your size to be carrying.”
Cyrten strained with the weight of the lumber. “Yes, I suppose it is.”
“I guess you have a lot of spunk or something, eh?”
“Yes, I suppose I do.”
“Well, it was nice bumping into you. See ya.” Anstapa turned his attention back to his cart and provisions. Micga’s gang, not succeeding at being nonchalant, moved to surround Anstapa and the cart. Several of them move in to attack.
“Boy, I can’t take you anywhere, can I?” chided Gamol, loudly. Gamol, now in his sixties, approached from the door of a shop. The hoodlums looked at one another and turned away; one walked away whistling.
“A guy could get old waiting for you to come out of a book shop,” Anstapa said, good-naturedly. “While I was standing here, I thought, ‘before I die, I really would like to get my foot crushed by a pretty girl.’ Just sort of a fantasy of mine.”
“Well, everyone needs a dream,” Gamol replied, also with a smile. “Here, take this. I’m too old to be hefting these books around.” He handed Anstapa a stack of tattered old books, bound together with a light rope.
“Nice of you to get a little light reading for the cook,” said Anstapa. “You find anything interesting for yourself?”
“No, same old thing,” said Gamol. “The true meaning of life, the mysteries of the universe revealed…stuff like that. Nothing you’d be interested in.”
Off to the side, Micga had come to and struggled to his feet. Half stumbling, he moved toward Anstapa from behind. Gamol’s eyes darted to Anstapa’s right, and he tipped his head slightly, signaling to Anstapa. Anstapa began swinging the stack of books in a leisurely way as Gamol climbed into the cart. “Well, I’d like to hang around, but I guess we’d better be going if we’re to get back before dark.” He increases the arc of the swing, slowly, easily.
Micga was just behind Anstapa when Gamol said, “Yes, let’s go!”
On cue, Anstapa let the books fly back behind him, landing at the feet of the approaching Micga, tripping him. Anstapa turned to see Micga with his face in the dirt. “Oh, sorry.” He hefted the books into the back of the wagon with a deft movement and climbed into the cart. Looking down at Micga, he said “You’d better watch out; you’ll get run over lying around the street like that.”
Anstapa flicked the reigns of the cart. As they pulled away, Gamol turned to Anstapa. “They need to do something about the public drunkenness in town, don’t you think?”
“Yes,” replied Anstapa. “People lying around in the streets. It’s disgusting if you ask me.”
The pair drove out of town, as Micga lifted himself from the mud, cursing and muttering to himself.
Anstapa stepped through a doorway into the early morning sunlight carrying a burlap sack, breathed in the morning air, and sat on a nearby bench. He opened the sack and removed four large iron bracelets, which he strapped to his ankles and wrists. Exhaling in determination, he stood up and started jogging, slowly working into a full run. He looked up toward a mountain in the distance and headed in that direction.
An hour later, Anstapa looked back down at Gamol’s estate from halfway up the mountainside. He had lived here for over a decade, and it was the only place that he could remember calling home. A small wave of sadness enveloped him as he pondered the black hole that was the memory of his childhood. He was running full stride uphill now, intent on reaching the training ground at the top.
It was almost noon when he reached the training area. He slowed his run to a jog and wiped his brow with his shirt. A building made from rough-hewn logs stood in the middle of the clearing. He walked around, stretching his arms and legs, cooling down.
Gamol was sitting on the porch, drinking a cup of tea. “What took you so long?”
“I came the long way. Oh, and I was wearing these!” Anstapa playfully threw one of the iron bracelets at Gamol. It fell with a clunk next to the older man.
“You have an interesting taste in jewelry,” joked Gamol. “By the way, I have a special treat for you. I’ve invited a fellow martial artist to join us today. Biorn? Can you come out?”
Biorn stepped out of the building. He had to duck and twist slightly to come through the door. His black hair stood straight up off of his head in a ridiculous tuft, but one couldn’t think for a moment to laugh as he stood there, a giant chiseled mass of muscle.
“You’ve got to be kidding!” said Anstapa in shock.
Gamol touched his hand to his heart, feigning innocence. “What? What’s wrong?”
Anstapa now caught sight of a tattoo of a bull on the back of Biorn’s hand. “He’s Gehataian!”
“So?” Gamol responded seriously.
“These guys are killers!”
“So?” Gamol said again. “You expect only to go up against easy opponents? Like that fool in town?”
“How’d you find one, anyway?” asked Anstapa. “It’s illegal for him to be in this country.”
“I have my sources,” Gamol said with a smile. “And stop speaking about Biorn here like he’s a pet…Anstapa, this is Biorn. Biorn, this is Anstapa.”
They shook hands. “What kind of a name is Anstapa?” the giant asked, looking down at him.
Anstapa turned to Gamol. “Do you think you might have told me about this before I ran up here wearing these shackles? The long way?”
“I don’t get your point,” said Gamol. “What difference would that make? Do you expect to find trouble only when it’s convenient? Get into your equipment.”
Anstapa opened the screened door and stepped into the cabin. He had many fond memories of this place, for almost as far back as he could remember. “Too bad I’m going to die here,” he muttered ruefully. He took his protective equipment off of the wall and started putting on, thinking how unlikely it was that it would make any difference if Biorn actually hit him.
The screened door made a slight bang as Anstapa stepped out and back into the sunlight. Biorn and Gamol were already waiting for him at the fighting circle. He let out a sigh and walked the twenty yards, without the usual spring in his step. Anstapa took his place opposite Biorn in the ring of loose dirt.
Gamol sat on a log off to the side. “Both of you, watch your control,” he warned. “This is a training exercise, not a death match. Begin when you are ready.”
The men nodded to each other and assumed a fighting stance; Biorn stood tall and rigid while Anstapa stood loose, and seemingly nonchalant. Biorn turned away and knelt. “By the will of the Prince, may I prevail,” he prayed.
With a yell, Biorn rose and charged at Anstapa with a flurry of spinning kicks and haymaker punches. Anstapa backed up, defending, ducking, and blocking the attacks. Each time he blocked a strike, he hurt his arms; each block became weaker. One spinning kick was only partially blocked and knocked Anstapa off balance; he couldn’t recover in time to block the punch that followed. Biorn connected hard and knocked Anstapa off of his feet and into the dirt.
“Nice control, Biorn,” comp-limented Gamol.
Anstapa was still lying in the dirt. “Nice control? He nearly put a hole through my chest!”
Gamol laughed, “Oh, stop being such a baby and get up.”
Anstapa slowly started getting up. “How ‘bout showing me how it’s done?”
“Well, I could of course, but you’d never really learn that way.” Gamol chuckled. “You’re the kind who needs to figure things out on his own. Remember your geometry, that’s all.”
“Geometry? I’m having enough problems keeping my head screwed on as it is. That’s all I need – something else to think about.”
“Geometry is the only thing you should be thinking about right now, boy,” said Gamol. “It’ll save your hide.”
Anstapa brushed himself off, and the two squared off. Again, Biorn attacked and Anstapa began backing up, ducking, and blocking. But also thinking. A knowing look came to his face, and he got a new spark of energy in his movements. As Biorn sent a spinning kick to Anstapa’s head, he ducked slightly and stepped directly into Biorn’s path, delivering a simple but punishing straight punch to the larger man’s midsection, doubling him over. As Biorn went down, Anstapa stepped back. Biorn coughed, catching his breath.
Anstapa turned to Gamol. “What was the name of that geometry guy you knew?”
“The guy that said, ‘the shortest distance between two points is a straight line?’”
“You mean, Euclid?”
“Yeah,” Anstapa smiled. “Tell him thanks.”
“Well, he didn’t say exactly that,” said Gamol. “I made it pithy. Smart guy, Euclid, but not a very good writer. If I see him, I’ll thank him for you.”
Biorn slowly stood and faced Anstapa, who tensed up. The giant man stepped forward with his hand outstretched – and broke into a huge grin. Anstapa shook Biorn’s hand, noticing the difference in the size of their hands.
“That was pretty good,” Biorn said, pumping Anstapa’s hand and arm.
“Great stuff, Biorn,” replied Anstapa. “Let’s get a drink and have another go at it.”
The sound of a horse galloping toward them grabbed their attention. All three turned as the horse and rider came to a quick halt, almost running into Anstapa.
“You, there!” bellowed the rider.
“Is Hugh here?” Anstapa asked. “No, sorry.”
“What?” answered the rider.
“Excuse me?” Anstapa answered, feigning confusion.
“I have no time for these games,” the rider said angrily.
“Well, maybe Hugh does,” said Anstapa. “But no one seems to know where he is.”
“Where is General Gamol?” barked the rider.
Anstapa looked the man up and down. “Who should I say is calling?”
“A messenger from the Queen.”
Anstapa cupped his hands around his mouth. “General! Yoo-hoo! Message for General Gamol” he said, as he spun slowly in a circle. Then, giving a start, he added. “Oh, here he is!”
“Insolent brat!” the rider snapped, raising his riding crop.
Anstapa’s smile disappeared.
Gamol tried to interject. “I wouldn’t do that…” but he was too late.
The crop came down toward Anstapa, who, with easy grace, grabbed the rider’s wrist, twisted it, pulling him off of his saddle and into the dirt, face first. Keeping control of the wrist, Anstapa moved around the man and put a knee to his back, hard.
“You should be more careful with these things.” Anstapa grabbed the whip from the rider’s immobilized hand. “Someone could get hurt.” He whipped the rider’s buttocks once, hard. The rider winced. “Now state your business. But be brief, I’m already bored.”
The rider finally stopped squirming. “I have a message from the Queen for General Gamol. It’s in my pouch. No one but the General may see it.” Anstapa reached into the pouch and started to fish it out. The man tried to resist, but to no avail; he could not wriggle out of the hold Anstapa had him in. “No one may see it but the General!” he growled.
Biorn, standing to one side during this exchange, was chuckling to himself.
Anstapa reached into the rider’s pouch, pulled out a scroll, and held it next to the man’s face. “This it?”
“Yes, but only…”
“The General may see it,” said Anstapa. “I know…” He tossed it to Gamol, then stood, releasing the hold he had on the rider. “Anything else?”
The rider stood, pressing on his back and rubbing his arm. He glared at Anstapa, then turned to address Gamol. “General Gamol, the Queen requires an immediate reply.”
Anstapa took a fake step toward the driver, who flinched. “Oh, does she?”
“Hush, Anstapa,” said Gamol with a smile.
Anstapa, still facing the rider, added, “You know, you need to work on your people skills…”
“Anstapa!” snapped Gamol. “Quiet!”
Anstapa was surprised by the seriousness of Gamol’s tone. The ex-General walked away from the trio, opened the scroll, and read it. The others stood in respectful silence. After a moment, Gamol called over his shoulder. “Anstapa, get this rider something to eat and a fresh horse, then meet me back at the house. Come the short way.” Gamol started walking away, lost in thought.
“General?” the rider asks. “The reply?”
Gamol, still speaking over his shoulder as he walked away, said “Tell Her Majesty that this will be handled.”
Anstapa and Biorn jogged up the road to Gamol’s house and entered by the front door. Stepping through the portico they entered the grand foyer. Anstapa had seen it thousands of times, of course, but Biorn just stared with his jaw open. On the wall all along the twin semi-circular staircases were artifacts from all over the known world. Paintings, sculptures, weapons, and stuffed exotic animals made the place look more like a museum than someone’s house. Gamol was coming down one of the staircases, carrying some boxes.
“Here, put these in the cart,” Gamol handed the boxes to Anstapa . “Stack them tightly, we’ll need all the room we can get. Oh, Biorn, of course, you’re still here. We’ll take you as far as Ceastarwic. Will you be able to get home from there?” Biorn nodded. Gamol fished through his pockets, “now where did I put that envelope? Oh, here it is.” He handed the envelope to Biorn. “This should cover your expenses and still give you enough to live on for a year or so,” says Gamol. “Thanks for coming. Now, Anstapa, we need to leave here this afternoon, to get to the village by nightfall. I’ll pack my things and leave the boxes by the door of my study. You get together whatever you want to take along. And pack enough food for us for a week.”
“We’ll be gone a week?” asked Anstapa.
“No, it’ll take us a week to get to the capital,” responded Gamol. “We may be gone for months.”
“No time to explain now,” said Gamol. “Just get packing!” Gamol was already moving up the stairs.
Anstapa turned to Biorn. “I can’t remember ever being anywhere but here and Ceastarwic. I’m not even sure I believe that anywhere else exists.”
“Oh,” replied Biorn, “there are definitely other places…”.
Three hours later, the sun was setting as the trio pulled into town. The streets were mostly quiet, except for the sounds of music and loud voices coming from the Tócirhús Inn. Anstapa noticed one of Micga’s gang in an alleyway, but he ran off when he saw Anstapa looking at him. Anstapa stopped the cart in front of the Inn.
“I’ll arrange for rooms,” said Gamol. “Anstapa, take care of the horses. Biorn, do you want a room for the night?”
“No thanks, General,” said Biorn. “Save your money. I’ll find somewhere to sleep.”
“Suit yourself,” replied Gamol. “Thanks again for coming. Sorry we couldn’t show you more hospitality.”
Biorn nodded and hopped out of the cart, grabbing his duffel bag. He extended a hand to Anstapa. “I wish we could have had more time – for a rematch!” Biorn said with a big grin.
Anstapa rubbed his chest. “I don’t.” He grinned at Biorn and shook the big man’s outstretched hand.
“You fight pretty good for a little guy with a weird name.” Biorn walked off into the darkening streets. Gamol climbed off of the cart, retrieved one bag, and headed into the Inn.
Anstapa walked away, leading the horse and cart. The sun had completely set by the time he turned the corner to the stable. He was quietly singing to himself. “When the Moon is in the seventh house, and Jupiter aligns with Mars, then peace…” As he walked up to the stable, it seemed deserted. “Hello?” he called out. No one answered, and he couldn’t see a lamp anywhere. After a moment, he walked the cart to the stable door, flipped open the latch, and opened the big door to the stable.
Micga and seven of his gang members emerged from the shadows. “Hey! What are you doing?” barked Micga. Anstapa turned and looked at the bunch, then, disdainfully, turned back to what he was doing.
“Boarding my horses,” said Anstapa. “Why? Worried they’ll take your spot?”
“I don’t think you’re boarding horses,” sneered Micga. “I think you’re stealing them.”
Anstapa stopped what he was doing and turned to face the gang; horse stealing was a serious charge.
“And we’re here to stop you,” continued Micga.
“I don’t think so,” replied Anstapa calmly. The gang moved to encircle Anstapa. He turned to put his back to the barn so they couldn’t get behind him. No one moved for a moment; then suddenly one of the gang moved to grab Anstapa’s arm. In a flurry of kicks and punches, three of the ruffians went down quickly, but two others manage to grab Anstapa and pin his arms behind him. As Micga approached, Anstapa delivered a hooking kick to the side of his head, causing him to stagger. Anstapa followed with a kick to Micga’s stomach, doubling him over, and Anstapa finished him off with a downward slicing kick to the back of the neck. This happened too fast for the others to intervene, but then the rest moved in and began beating Anstapa, who fell to the ground, covering his head.
Suddenly one of the ruffians groaned and fell backward. As two others looked up, a pair of large hands grabbed them by their ears and smashed their heads together. They crumpled, unconscious. The remaining thug looked up at Biorn towering over him and fell backwards to the ground; he rolled to his knees, crawled away, then got up and ran.
“You okay?” Biorn said to Anstapa.
“Oh, sure, no problem,” Anstapa groaned. “I was just getting around to doing that myself. Showoff.”
Biorn extended a hand to help Anstapa up. “I was trying to sleep,” said Biorn. “You guys were making too much noise.” Biorn helped Anstapa lead the cart into the stable, and Anstapa began slowly to unhitch the horses. “Well, I’m going back to sleep. See ya.” He began climbing into the hayloft.
“Biorn?” Anstapa said.
Biorn turned, holding himself up with one arm. “Yeah?”
“Thanks. I owe you.”
Biorn grinned, nodded, and climbed the rest of the way into the hayloft.
Anstapa walked into the main room of the Inn, not exactly stumbling, but without his usual saunter. It wasn’t crowded, but there were enough customers that there was a constant din of voices. Gamol was speaking with the owner, but stopped and looked at Anstapa with concern. He scanned his ward from head to toe, squinting; then he nodded to himself, apparently satisfied, and turned back to his conversation. No one else paid him any heed.
Except for Cyrten. She stopped cleaning a table in mid-wipe and came over to him. “Are you alright?”
Anstapa gave her a wry smirk tinged with pain. “Sure, never been better. Why do you ask?”
“Well, maybe because you’re white as a ghost and your arm is bleeding through your shirt.”
“Oh, that,” he said. “Don’t worry. I’ll be right as rain in a few…” He started to take a step, but his legs faltered a bit. Cyrten grabbed his arm and helped him right himself.
“…days,” She said, finishing his sentence. “Come on.”
She led him into the kitchen and sat him down on a bench. Moving to the fire, she ladled some hot water into a pot. Then, after a short search, she found a clean rag and dropped it into the pot.
Anstapa looked skeptical. “Maybe this isn’t a good idea. Won’t your father be mad at you bringing me back here like this?”
“He won’t be mad and he’s not my father,” said Cyrten. “He’s my uncle.”
“Maybe I should get Gamol to help…”
“You mean your father?”
“He’s not my father,” replied Anstapa. “He’s…well, I can’t say exactly what he is. My teacher, my mentor, mostly my friend. Anyway, no matter what he is, he’s good with dressing wounds and I think…” He started to get up.
Cyrten grabbed him by the shoulders and gently pushed him back down. “Relax, I’m good at this. I used to have to fix up my father’s wounds when my mother was away. Take off your shirt.”
Anstapa complied. “How often did your father get into scuffles?”
“Fairly often.” She started to wash the wound.
Anstapa winced. “How often was your mom away?”
“Hardly ever.” She dabbed at the wound a bit harder than needed, just to make the point.
Anstapa winced. “Great.”
“I never got to apologize for bumping into you the other day,” said Cyrten, dabbing his wounds gently with the cloth. “Sorry about the trouble.”
“Don’t worry about it. Lots of worse things have happened since then.” Cyrten smiled and started bandaging Anstapa’s arm. “So, where are your folks now?” he asked.
“They were killed last spring,” Cyrten answered softly.
“Oh!” He paused. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“I know you didn’t know,” says Cyrten, “that’s why you asked.” She gave him a half-hearted smile.
“They were killed by soldiers from Gehata,” replied Cyrten. “Look, do you want something to eat? Doesn’t Gamol feed you? You’re kind of skinny.”
“Skinny?” Anstapa looked down at his torso. “Do you really think? …sure…thanks.”
Cyrten looked through the cupboards, found some suitable provisions, and started preparing a small meal. She was quiet.
“Hey,” says Anstapa, breaking the silence. “What’s wrong with the stew in the pot? It smells great!”
“So does the Hemlock blossom,” responded Cyrten. “Would you eat that?”
“Well, no,” he answered. “But, what does that have to do with…” Anstapa trailed off, realizing what she was getting at. “Oh.”
Cyrten nodded and started slowly chopping some vegetables. Anstapa watched Cyrten closely, sensing her hidden anger. “Have I done something to upset you?”
Cyrten took in a deep breath, then let it out in a puff. “I’m sorry. It’s just, I haven’t spoken about the death of my family to anyone except my uncle.” Her chopping became more forceful now. “Because I thought it would defile their memory if it became something everyone was talking about. It’s no one’s business but mine, and besides, no one cares what happened, but me.” She ended in a final, very forceful chop.
“That’s not so,” said Anstapa. “I care. I mean, if you want to tell me.”
“I don’t think I could stand it if everyone in the village was whispering about it,” said Cyrten.
“I won’t tell anyone.”
Cyrten stopped slicing and gave him a penetrating look.
“I know you won’t,” said Cyrten. “I don’t know why, but I feel like I’ve known you for a long time. I feel like I can trust you.”
Anstapa, smiling, tried to lighten the moment, “I have that kind of face.”
Cyrten looked at him with a frown.
“Can I help?” asked Anstapa.
“No, really, there’s nothing that can be done,” she responded. “It was last spring, and I should be getting on with my life…”
“I understand,” said Anstapa sympathetically. “But I was asking if I could help prepare the food.”
“Oh. No, you just sit there and rest up. Looks like you had a bit of trouble.”
“Yeah,” he gently rubbed his chest and stomach. “But I got the best of ’em. I think they hurt their hands while they were pummeling me.”
“Just an old score. I think it’s settled now.”
There was an awkward silence. Cyrten was finishing up the preparations, and Anstapa was looking around the room.
Anstapa gave Cyrten a serious look. She stopped chopping. “You know, you were right.” he said.
“You can trust me.”
Cyrten gave him a smile tinged with pain and tragedy.
“There are so few…” Her voice trailed off.
“I think you must believe that because you’re Gehataian. Here in Ellor, I find people, on the whole, pretty trustworthy.”
Cyrten’s eyes grew wide. “What makes you think I’m Gehataian?”
“The tattoo,” said Anstapa, pointing to the back of her hand.
Self-consciously, Cyrten covered her hand. “I’m thinking of having my hand removed. What do you think?”
“Sounds kind of extreme. So, you’re not Gehataian?”
“By their laws I am,” said Cyrten, frankly. “My father was Gehataian, so they consider me to be. My father had me marked when I was seven to avoid any trouble. But my mother was Ellorian, and so, by your laws, I’m Ellorian. We lived on the border, virtually with one foot in each country.”
“Is that why your father was in a lot of scrapes?” asked Anstapa. “It would be hard to avoid annoying people if he lived a split life like that.”
“My father was a merchant; he believed that he was his own country. He didn’t like anyone telling him what to do, so, he would use our circumstances when it suited him. He’d tell the Gehataians what they wanted to hear, and he’d tell those from Ellor what they wanted to hear. Of course, no one ever checked, and, though they would be annoyed and give him a speech about allegiance, they’d leave us more or less alone.”
“So, are you Ellorian or Gehataian?” asked Anstapa.
“Neither,” she replied. “I’m Cyrten. And you?”
Anstapa smiled and extended his hand. “I’m Anstapa. Pleased to meet you.”
She shook his hand ceremoniously. “I’ve known your name since the other day. Sometime you’ll have to tell me how you got such a strange name.”
Anstapa took on a self-deprecating smile. “Yeah. But not right now.”
Cyrten had finished preparing the meal and sat the plates on the table. They began to eat, and there was another awkward silence.
“So, it sounds like your father played both sides pretty well. What happened?” asked Anstapa.
Cyrten set down the spoon she was holding. Looking down at her plate, she spoke quietly. “Some Gehataian soldiers came through, led by General Brego. What they were doing so close to Ellor I’ll never know. Guarding the border, I suppose. But with a General?” She looked at Anstapa, who shrugged. “Anyway, Brego demanded that my father give him my brother to serve in the Gehataian army.” Tears began forming in her eyes. “My father considered himself sovereign and refused. So…” She was interrupted by her own sob. “So, Brego killed my mother. Right in front of him…us…” Her tears were flowing freely now. “Father went into a rage…killed two of them…but there were too many…and they killed him too. My brother grabbed my father’s sword – but before he could do any damage to the soldiers, that pig Brego smashed the hilt of his sword into my brother’s head. They took him away. Brego said if my brother lived, he would serve as a slave to the Gehataian soldiers because he was as much a traitor as my father…” She was crying uncontrollably now. “Then Brego…that fédelswín…He said that I was a traitor’s daughter and that I was no better than a…”
She broke down completely. Anstapa got up and moved to hold her. She melted into his arms and sobbed into his shoulder. “Why didn’t my father just give Brego what he wanted? Why? I don’t understand it! It would have been better for my brother to be a soldier than for everyone to be dead. Why didn’t he just give in?”
Anstapa, comforting, said quietly, “Because, if he did, he wouldn’t have been who he was.”
Cyrten stopped mid-sob and looked up at Anstapa. “You understand that?”
“Yes,” he nodded. “You loved your father for who he was. If he had given in to their demands, he would have been someone else.”
Cyrten melted back into his arms and cried a bit more. Then, collecting herself, she sniffed and lifted her head. “I knew you’d understand.” They locked eyes for a moment, then she snuggled back into his arms.
The morning sun bathed the village in a cheery glow, but Anstapa didn’t look very cheery as he loaded provisions into the cart. Cyrten was standing on the porch out of the way, but watching. Every once in a while Anstapa would glance over at her.
Gamol inspected the contents of the cart. “Okay, looks like that’s everything. Ready?”
“No, not really.”
“No? I thought you had been itching for some adventure.”
“Found some,” said Anstapa with a wry smile. “Right here. I want to stay.”
Gamol looked at Anstapa incredulously; then, following Anstapa’s gaze, he saw Cyrten. Gamol nodded.
Gamol turned toward Anstapa’s ear and spoke quietly. “I understand, Anstapa. But listen to me…” Anstapa nodded but was not listening. Gamol grabbed him by the shoulder and spun him around, face-to-face. “Listen to me!” Gamol said sternly. “If you don’t come with me, there’s a good chance that the girl will be killed.” Anstapa snapped to attention. “As well as everyone else in this town – everyone you know. I need you to help, so stop it.”
“Me?” asked Anstapa. “What do you need me for? To lug your stuff around? Wait, I’ll go get Biorn before he leaves town – he’ll do it for you…” Cyrten, hearing the two arguing over her, blanched and walked into the inn.
“Don’t be a fool, Anstapa!” shouted Gamol. “You know you’re more to me than a porter! You may be in love for the first time, but get a hold of yourself!”
Anstapa looked at Gamol as though just now seeing him there. His expression changed. “I’m sorry, Gamol, I’m half-crazed.”
“Well, women will do that to you,” chuckled Gamol. “But – heed me now – it’s worth it.” Gamol gave him a warm smile which Anstapa, his head down, reluctantly returned. Gamol gave him a pat on the back. “Now, go and say a proper goodbye and we’ll get out of here. Five minutes – that’s all.”
Anstapa nodded and walked up the three stairs and into the Inn. Not seeing her in the main room, he continued on into the kitchen. He found her there chopping vegetables, her back to the door, softly crying. “You’re always chopping things. Is that a metaphor, or what?”
Cyrten sniffed and rubbed her arm across her eyes. “I’m sorry, Anstapa. I didn’t want to cause you any trou..”
Anstapa moved toward her but hesitated. He reached out his hand and used his thumb to brush a tear from her cheek. “Don’t worry about that. It’s all taken care of.”
Cyrten pulled away. “Look…this isn’t the way I am normally; do you understand? I’m usually in control. There’s just something about you that makes me want to turn into a little girl.”
“I think…” he embraced her. “That anyone who underestimates you would be making a big mistake.”
She pulled back a bit, looked up at him, and smiled. Their faces were only inches apart. Anstapa started to kiss her, but he saw fear in her eyes, so he pulled away. “I have to go.”
“I’ll see you soon.”
“I know that too.”
“Pretty sure of yourself, eh?” Anstapa gave her a half-smile.
Cyrten shook her head, “no – pretty sure of you.”
Anstapa smiled and turned away, leaving the room without looking back.
It was past noon as Anstapa and Gamol crested a hill. Anstapa was driving the team of horses and Gamol was sitting beside him, lost in thought. The noise of the cart on the dirt road made conversation useless anyway. Gamol tapped Anstapa on the shoulder and motioned toward a glen up ahead. Anstapa maneuvered the cart to the side of the road and pulled the brake into place. He hopped down from the cart and stretched; Gamol got down more slowly.
“I’d forgotten what a pain in the ass travelling is,” Gamol said, rubbing his rear end.
“You’ll get no argument from me,” agreed Anstapa. “Want to go back?” He flashes a grin at his mentor.
“Just get something for us to eat,” Gamol said with a smirk. “Come on, hop to it! What am I paying you for?”
“Oh, that reminds me, I’ve been meaning to bill you for services rendered – for ten years!”
“Be sure to subtract room and board and schooling and martial arts training – and I don’t come cheap! In fact, I think you owe me another, say, sixty years of service!”
Anstapa’s expression grew serious. “Listen, I wanted to say something to you.”
Gamol studied Anstapa, noticing his change of mood. “Yes?”
Anstapa looked directly at his mentor, locking eyes with him. “I wanted to say – thank you. For taking me in, for treating me, first like a son, and lately like an equal. Not many people are as lucky as me. I could have been killed, or ended up a slave somewhere. And if you want me to work for you for the rest of your life, then so be it. I’ll have no complaints.”
Gamol walked to Anstapa, paused, and looked him up and down. He thrusted out his hand, and Anstapa clasped it. “I’ve gotten as much as I’ve given, my boy,” Gamol said, more emotional than Anstapa had ever seen him. “You’ve been a delight to have around.”
After a moment, Gamol said. “We don’t have much time, Anstapa, and there is so much left to teach you. Let’s get lunch out of the wagon and I’ll explain something of what is going on.”
They took some salted meat and fruit from the cart and ate it in silence under the shade of one of the trees. There was a cool light breeze, and Anstapa mused that it seemed that nothing could possibly be wrong with the world. Gamol lit his pipe.
“You know, I heard somewhere that smoking isn’t good for you,” Anstapa chuckled.
“One hears all kinds of things, Anstapa,” responded Gamol with a smile. “The difficult part is differentiating truth from conjecture.”
“How can you tell the difference?”
“The only things that you can truly know are what’s in your heart,” began Gamol. “You can have theories, but they are never proven. No matter how many times your theory seems to hold true, a single instance of something not holding to the rule proves the whole thing invalid. But no one can ever tell you that you aren’t feeling something. Only you can know that, and no one can ever prove you wrong. True knowledge is knowledge of yourself.”
“So, what’s the point of studying?” asked Anstapa. “Why’d you make me learn all that stuff if it’s not right?”
“Because we – the human race – are on a quest,” explained Gamol. “Although we can never be certain of anything, we can get nearer and nearer to the truth. We can know what things aren’t so, and if we eliminate all of those, what we have left is the truth – at least, as far as we can know it.”
“So, we never find any answers?” asked Anstapa.
Gamol looked at him. “Answers? Most of the time, we’re lucky to find the right questions.”
“I have lots of questions,” said Anstapa. “What makes a question the right one?”
“Usually, when faced with a problem, if we ask the right question, in the right way, the answer is obvious,” replied Gamol. “If the answer isn’t obvious, then you’re probably not asking the right question.”
“When I ask you questions, you usually answer with other questions. It gets me nowhere.”
“Nowhere?” Gamol barked. “What do you mean by that? Where is it you would expect to be going?”
Anstapa reddened. “I…umm…I don’t know,” he stammered.
Gamol chuckled, “You’re so easy.” Turning serious again, he added “My questions push you to formulate your question correctly. Once you do that, you’ll get your answer.”
“But if all of my questions lead to other questions, where does it end?”
“Well, obviously, you end up at the Ultimate Question,” said Gamol.
“And what is that?” asked Anstapa.
“Haven’t you been listening?” asked Gamol. “I swear, sometimes you are so thick-headed!”
“What do you mean?”
“The Ultimate Question is the first – and last – question that you need to ask. You need to ask that question first before you can find the answer to any of your other questions.”
“So, what is it?”
“What is what?” asked Gamol.
“The Ultimate Question?” asked Anstapa.
“Haven’t I just told you?”
“No!” exclaimed Anstapa. “You told me what it is – but what is it?”
Gamol looked at him quizzically, and Anstapa realized that what he said didn’t make any sense. They sat in silence, Gamol puffing on his pipe.
After a time, Gamol said “When you finally discover the Ultimate Question, you will truly understand all of the other questions. You will achieve peace.”
“Do you know this question?” asked Anstapa.
“Then why won’t you tell me? Why the riddles?” asked Anstapa.
“Because the question is useless to you unless you discover it for yourself.”
“And how do I do that?”
“Look, Anstapa. You’re not going to understand this right now, but I want you to pay attention. Sometime, maybe sometime soon, you will find yourself without my help. If that happens, I want you to go to the sea, find a nice spot, and sit there.”
“Until when?” asked Anstapa.
“Until you discover the Ultimate Question,” replied Gamol. “Or, perhaps, until it discovers you.”
“Wait a minute, now what….”
Gamol held up his hand.
“No more questions right now. We’ve got to get going. Just remember what I’ve told you.”