Saint Jake – Hippies

Jake leaned back from the table with a sigh of contentment. He used the cloth napkin they had given him to make sure his beard was tidy. It was beginning to show some gray, now, though his hair remained dark.

“I cannot tell you, ma’am, when I’ve last eaten so well,” he said.

All four sets of eyes were fixed on him. Pride gleamed in the farmer’s wife’s eyes at his compliment. Her husband’s eyes were narrowed, and her children’s were wide.

“Don’t normally invite travelers into our home,” the farmer said.

“Jonathan!” his wife scolded. “This is Jake.”

Says he’s Jake,” the farmer said. His wife’s cheeks flared bright red, and she glared at her husband.

“Jake is my name, sir,” Jake said.

“Aye, but are ye the Jake my wife seems to think you are? The one that battled two Dragonlords in the Forest of Garnacha?”

Jake paused. He didn’t often tell that story. It was one of the darker tales with a sad ending, and it usually left his listeners distressed.

“The Forest of Garnacha is a depressing place,” Jake said. “It’s an old forest, ancient, and full of spiders and death beetles and deadfall. You can’t see where you’re putting your feet, and sometimes you step on things that… squish.”

The children — a boy and a girl — both squealed.

Halfway through the story, the farmer leaned back and lit his pipe. He offered Jake a pinch of weed, and Jake gratefully accepted. He finished the story, which put tears in the farmwife’s eyes, and then told the story about tricking the Dragonlord Opus out of his entire treasure, which had them all laughing out loud.

As his wife took the children to put them to bed, and the farmer clapped Jake on the shoulder with a smile.

“I can’t say I believe a word you said, young man,” he said, “but that was the best storytelling I’ve heard. If you ain’t the Jake, you might as well be. You’re welcome in this house any time.”

“Thank you, sir,” Jake replied.

“Then I’ll bid you good night. You’ll be comfortable in the barn?”

“Yes, sir. Been on the road most of my life. I don’t think I’d be comfortable sleeping in a house. The barn will be a luxury.”

“Breakfast is sharp at sunrise. And maybe you can help me with the windmill, afore ye go out on the road again. It’s two more weeks until the harvest workers come through, and I need someone on the ground who can lift.”

“Be happy to help, sir.”

“Aye. Well, then, good night.”

After a hearty farm breakfast at dawn, Jake went out with the farmer to fix the windmill that pulled up water from the well for the animals.

When the farmer climbed down from the windmill tower, Jake pointed to a row of metal posts with solar panels on top.

“How come you don’t use those?” he asked.

The farmer glanced at the row of panels and snorted.

“Them things? I ain’t had time to pull ‘em down. They’re useless.”

“Busted?”

“Among other things. Hailstorm a few years back broke three of ‘em. Ijits that built ‘em left no way to get up there to fix ‘em. Installed with a cherry-picker. Gasoline-powered. Ain’t seen one in years, now. Can’t afford the parts to fix ‘em, even if I built a big enough ladder to get up there. Plus, batteries is all fried. Lightning storm.”

“Who put them up?”

The farmer laughed. “Bunch o’ hippies, come out of the city. Set up some kind of homestead out here, hopin’ to ride out the end of the world. Have to admit, they had some nice ideas. Got more food out of an acre than I can get out of four, and they claimed it didn’t wear out the soil.”

Jake scratched his beard. “So what happened to them?”

The farmer spat, to ward off ill luck.

“City used to end about a mile from here. Supermarkets shut down one summer — some kind of gasoline crisis, they said — and word got out that the hippies had food. Thousands of people came out, raided the place, stripped it bare. Would’a taken the solar panels, if they could’a got to ‘em. Would’a raided my land, too, if it wasn’t off-season and the fields fallow. Don’t think any of them hippie kids got hurt, but they left and didn’t come back. I took over the land a couple years later.”

“Aren’t you worried they’ll do that again? To you?”

The farmer stared in the direction of the city for a while.

“Nah,” he said at last. “Things is different, now. Hippies were into some kind of ‘self-sufficiency’ deal. Raisin’ food and then keepin’ it for themselves so’s they could survive the troubles. I’m part of this community — I got no use for most of what I raise, and it goes to market every few days in harvest season. Just like all the other farmers around here. Ain’t no point in comin’ all the way out here to steal stuff I already sent into town. Plus, sheriff’s a lot more sensitive to our needs than he used to be. Town raids our farm, or our market wagons, lots of people go hungry. Sheriff won’t stand for that.”

Jake nodded slowly.

“No interest in stayin’ on as a farmhand?” the farmer asked. “Couldn’t offer you no pay, but you’d not go hungry a day in your life.”

Jake stared at the solar panels and thought of his old X-box Infinity. He thought about always having a full stomach, and a place to stay every night. He thought about maybe taking a wife, and raising children.

“Nope,” he said cheerfully. “Your offer’s much appreciated, sir. But it’s not in my nature to stay put.”

“Well, you’re honest if nothing else, Jake. Makes me want to believe your wild stories.”

“I’ve seen these things with my own eyes, sir,” Jake said.

On a video game console, some part of his mind offered up. But those memories were fading, and the first-person tales he told had taken on the color of life. Sometimes, it was almost as if he had been there.

The farmer stared at him in silence.

“Well, good luck to you,” he said at last.

Jake nodded, then turned and walked away.

Copyright © 2017, Joseph C. Nemeth, all rights reserved

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Saint Jake – Survivalist

The razor-wire fence was mostly rust. A sign advised that trespassers would be shot without warning. Jake was inclined to respect such warnings, but he needed water pretty desperately, and he hadn’t seen any other habitation for miles. So he stepped through the gap where the fence had long ago rusted through and “sprung,” put both hands in the air, and shouted “Just visiting,” every few steps.

He spotted an old, rusty pump-handle in the middle of a small dip in the ground. He’d have missed the bunker entirely, camouflaged and dug into the hill, had the door not been ajar. A desiccated hand clutched the ground outside through the slit-like opening, picked clean by birds of all but a few leathery scraps of skin.

Jake carefully pulled the door wide. The owner of the hand lay just inside, face-down, dressed in Army camo fatigues. There was no smell — the man had been dead for a long time, and the dry air had sucked all the moisture out of the remains. This part of the West had become a dry, barren land, and any scavengers big enough to scatter the bones were long-gone.

Tatters of a dark-stained bandage around the extended hand told the story: he’d likely died of blood poisoning, from a cut. Dragged himself out of bed in a fever to catch a final glimpse of sky before he died. Hadn’t quite made it.

Jake returned to the pump and worked the handle until he was rewarded by resistance. After a few more strokes, clear water cascaded from the spout, and after tasting it, he drank his fill and then filled his water bag.

He left the body and the bunker alone. No point in disturbing the spirits of the dead. Besides, there was likely nothing in the bunker that he wanted. Guns and explosives, for sure — not something he wanted to be caught on the road with. Canned food, but after all these years, it was anyone’s guess if it was fit to eat.

But the real issue was booby-traps. Guys who’d built these sorts of places were usually not quite right in the head: like this fellow, building his razor-wire fence right out to the road, advertising there was something worth protecting to any passersby. Jake had heard of survivalists who’d blown themselves up because they’d booby-trapped the food, then forgotten to disarm it one morning before breakfast. There were people who knew how to get stuff out of these places, and made good trade selling it. Good luck to them.

He turned and walked back toward the road, whistling.

Copyright © 2017, Joseph C. Nemeth, all rights reserved

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Saint Jake – Romance

Miranda stared at Jake in perplexity.

“Florida?” she said. “Where’s that?”

“Far to the East, and to the South,” Jake replied. “All the way to the other ocean.”

“Why on earth do you want to go there?”

Jake thought about the question as they walked the empty freeway. The idea of walking to Florida hadn’t crossed his mind until the moment he’d said it. He turned the idea over in his mind a few times as they walked.

He’d filled out in the decade since his twenty-first birthday. Towns were on a more substantial footing these days, and had discovered that travelers were a valuable source of news, and a dangerous source of plagues if you let them die of hunger on your doorstep. Most communities had returned to a staple diet, which could be produced cheaply enough to give away food to wanderers, so long as they were inclined to move on after a night or two.

“I want to see the Blue Lady,” Jake said at last.

Miranda, today’s walking companion along with Brood and Scowl — those were the names he’d given them, since they’d not spoken a word since he’d joined them — looked up at him with wide eyes.

“The Blue Lady? Do you think she’s real?”

“I don’t know,” Jake said. “That’s what I want to find out.”

Miranda shuddered. “If she’s real, then so is Bloody Mary. I sure wouldn’t want to meet her.”

“Maybe so. But if the Blue Lady is real, I think she’s worth the risk.”

“You want to join her army of angels?”

“If she’ll have me.”

Miranda’s eyes glowed. “Tell me the story about the Dungeons of Thoom. Where you met your first Dragonlord.”

Jake smiled. He’d been telling tales about his battles with the Dragonlords to pass the long hours walking with various road-companions, and his stories had been racing in all directions up and down the road, all by themselves. His meeting with Dragonlord Eris in the Dungeons of Thoom was one of the most popular. He spoke in a well-practiced voice, with broad gestures, and he could see that even Brood and Scowl were listening closely.

“I want to come with you to meet the Blue Lady!” Miranda squealed when he had finished. Brood and Scowl grew suddenly more surly.

Brothers. Cousins. Lovers. Trouble, whoever they were.

Jake stopped and looked Miranda straight in the eye. She gazed back, and a light was in her eyes. She was maybe eighteen, and pretty, and he was just over thirty. He’d been with other women, a few times, but in these days of irregular birth control and frequent maternity deaths, sex was complicated and more often than not ended with a lot of angry screaming. In his experience, the pleasure wasn’t worth the painful aftermath. After a decade on the road, he had no desire to settle down anywhere and raise a family. And the road was no place for a child, intended or otherwise.

He put a hand on her shoulder, to keep her from moving in and kissing him.

“Miranda, I wouldn’t dream of stopping you from searching for the Blue Lady. Maybe we’ll meet someday in her Garden. But you can’t come with me. This is a journey I have to make on my own.”

“But why? Why do you have to go alone?” Tears quivered in Miranda’s eyes.

“I have many… amends to make, before I meet the Blue Lady,” Jake said. It sounded pretty good, once he’d said it aloud.

“Oh, Jake!” The tears spilled over, but she was smiling. She shrugged off his hand, threw her arms around him, and held him tight. Brood began to scowl, and Scowl took a step toward him. Jake shook his head slightly, meeting Scowl’s eyes. Scowl stopped.

“Now,” Jake announced, gently disengaging from Miranda’s embrace, “I need to meditate, alone. Please, the three of you continue without me. Be mellow.” He gazed straight at Scowl as he said this, and Scowl nodded almost imperceptibly.

He sat on the hot concrete of the highway, and watched the three of them walk away until they vanished in the distant heat-haze.

No choice now. You don’t want to run into them again, not even by accident. Scowl will slip a knife between your ribs.

He thought about it. Why not give Florida a try? It would be something different.

Copyright © 2017, Joseph C. Nemeth, all rights reserved

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Saint Jake – The Road

Jake approached the fire warily. Food wasn’t regular, nor always healthy, and he seemed more bone than meat. He’d been drawn to the fire by the light and the smell of something cooking, and sat carefully, hands in view, across from the person heating a can of Dinty Moore stew over the fire.

“Hungry?” the other man asked. Like Jake, he was painfully gaunt. There were patches of gray in his rough beard.

“Powerful,” Jake answered.

“Aught to trade?”

“A little weed.”

“You mean ditchweed,” the other man answered, with a grimace of disgust.

“No, good stuff,” Jake answered. “Purple haze.”

The man’s eyebrows went up.

“No shit? Lots better company than I had last night.” He gestured to the empty stretch of fallen log beside him.

Jake rose and walked around the fire to sit beside the older man.

Wariness on the road was habitual, but of necessity had resolved into a kind of courtesy. Robbery was rare — people on the road these days had little to nothing, and it wasn’t worth taking a scratch or a bite over nothing. Food was shared regardless, which blunted the main reason for theft. But trade was expected, if the other person had anything to trade. Jake had been robbed only once when he’d just started walking the road, three years ago, and the fellow had sat him down afterward and taught him the rules. So it wasn’t even a proper robbery, more an object lesson.

Jake slowly pulled his pouch of purple haze from his pocket, and offered it to the older man, who raised it to his nose and sniffed. A softer expression crossed the man’s face.

“That’s good,” he said, and handed the bag back. “Dessert, then.”

“Jake.”

The older man nodded, once. “Robert.”

When the stew started to bubble, Robert set it on a rock to cool, and they both watched stars appear in the cerulean evening sky. When the can was cool enough to hold, Robert took a spoon from his pocket and took the first bite, then handed the can to Jake. Jake had his own spoon ready, and took a bite, then handed back the can. They passed it back and forth until the can was empty and scraped clean.

Jake took the pouch back out of his pocket, and put a generous pinch into the tiny pipe Robert had pulled from a different pocket on his vest, then placed a pinch in his own pipe. Jake heated a twig to a coal in the fire, and lit his pipe: the sweet stench of burning marijuana filled the air. He inhaled deeply, and passed the coal to Robert, who lit his own pinch and drew until the glow in the pipe flickered out. He held his breath for nearly thirty seconds before he slowly exhaled.

Monosyllables melted into easy conversation. Life histories had been polished by the road into smooth, elegant gems as terse as an old-world resume.

Robert, once married with two children, software designer and good at his job. Laid off, turned to drink, wife left him and took the kids. Stayed in shelters for two years, then got restless and hit the open road. Wouldn’t think of going back.

Jake, teen-age slacker and video gamer, mother died in a fracking quake that destroyed his house and almost got him. Hitched to the Pacific coast and then found himself on the road. Sometimes missed his mother, and desperately wanted to finish the last video game he’d played, the Dragonlords of Sym.

“You played Dragonlords?” Robert asked, one eyebrow raised.

“Almost finished it,” Jake replied.

“I worked on that game,” Robert said. “Just a bit, at the beginning, before they laid me off. Looked good.”

“It was awesome. Best AI on the market, and you could actually talk to the characters in the game.”

“You almost finished it? I thought it wasn’t supposed to end?”

“Yeah, that’s what they said. But someone on-line said you could force an ending if you backed all of the Dragonlords into a corner at once. Kinda like a checkmate in chess. I was that close.”

“Tell me about your favorite battle.” Robert’s gaze was far-away.

“That would be the Arena of Fate,” Jake said, his voice taking on timbre and excitement. “They stripped me of all my weapons, except my fleschette rifle, and all twelve Dragonlords were there….”

Jake’s voice rose and fell, and Robert listened with rapt attention. When Jake finally fell silent, Robert slowly brought his hands together in deliberate applause.

“You are the best entertainment I’ve had in a month of Sundays,” Robert said. “It’s just a damn video game, but you tell it with such passion. I’m in your debt, Jake. Thank you.”

They fell silent after that, individually contemplating the night sky and the vagaries of fate. Then Robert wished Jake a good night and curled up on the ground close to the fire. Jake watched the coals for a few more minutes, then curled up and fell asleep.

Copyright © 2017, Joseph C. Nemeth, all rights reserved

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Saint Jake – In the Beginning

Jake should have felt the rumbling ground, but he had his X-Box Infinity turned up, and the subwoofer always made the ground vibrate. Plus, he was pretty high. He insisted it improved his reflexes. The frantic action on the screen occupied his full attention, until the power went out.

“Aw, SHIT!” Jake shouted into the darkness. “MOMmmm! Power bill! Again?”

Then he remembered that today she had a shift at the clinic. He grumbled, unfolded his lanky frame, and shuffled through the cave-dark room, wincing every time his bare feet clipped a dirty dish or cup. There was an open pizza box, somewhere, and he didn’t want to step in it.

Something crashed above, marking the death of some glass trinket. The house was full of them. Mom’s hobby had once been collecting glass figurines, back when they could afford it, and she was going to blame him and have a fit.

He reached the stairs before he stopped to wonder who had knocked over the figurine. He was supposedly home alone.

He stood, openmouthed, at the bottom of the steps, wondering if he should just stay down here. Then the ground rumbled again, and he heard several more crashes.

Holy cat, an earthquake. Here?

He tried to remember whether it was safe to be in a basement during an earthquake. Or was that just tornados? He decided he’d be better off outside, where the only thing that could fall on him was the sky. He pounded up the stairs, threw open the basement door, and stopped, blinded by the late afternoon sunlight pouring through the back windows.

As his eyes adjusted, he saw broken glass all over the kitchen tile leading to the back door.

Shit. Good thing I didn’t run across that in my bare feet. Be mellow, man.

The rumbling ceased. He made his way across worn carpet in the other direction, grabbed his Crocs from where they lay near the door, and threw the deadbolt on the front door. As he stepped through the door, the ground lurched under his feet, and a rush of dust-laden air pushed him forward onto his face as the roof caved in behind him.

He rolled over onto his back. Nothing above but clear, blue sky. The front wall of the house still stood, just beyond his feet, the top edge roofless and ragged against the sky.

Maybe I should get away from the house.

He decided to roll, rather than walk, and stopped halfway across the yard. Several more rumbles shook the ground, none as bad as the jolt that had knocked him down, but the front wall of the house collapsed inward with stately grace. The door and doorframe remained stubbornly vertical.

A door to nowhere, man. Been that way for a long time.

He lay quietly on the dead stubble of lawn and the few spiky patches of natural xeriscaping where the desert weeds had blown in and Mom had let them grow, because they had pretty blooms in the spring. It was the only beauty left in the yard. The water table had dropped, and most of the trees in the neighborhood were gone. At first, they’d been cut down and hauled out, and people had planted new trees, which had not thrived. Later, as the economy dove into yet another recession, people had cut down the dying trees themselves for firewood, leaving stumps in their yards. Eventually they had just let the dead trees stand as they abandoned their houses. Water restrictions made irrigation too expensive for decorative greens, so the crisp Kentucky Blue lawns died, gradually displaced by hardier, drought-resistant species. They greened up for a couple of weeks in the late Spring, but then went brown, just like the hills that surrounded the town.

Another rumble shook the ground, and he heard the house collapse into the basement.

When Jake finally dared to stand, he walked back to the still-standing door, and looked at the pile of rubble that had been his home.

Jesus. Now what am I going to do?

He scratched his nascent beard, then turned and walked in the direction of the clinic where his mother worked.

Copyright © 2017, Joseph C. Nemeth, all rights reserved

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Saint Jake – Prologue

Rudric gripped the shaft of his hayfork more tightly, and swallowed with a dry mouth. He could see the dust raised by the horsemen ahead, and a few of the lead horses, manes flying in a full gallop. No telling how many more rode behind in the dust, but there would be many. All battle-trained and armed with real weapons.

He glanced to his left and to his right. The village and all the nearby farms had turned out, armed with whatever they could find, mostly farming tools, nearly three hundred strong. His hayfork was one of the better weapons. One of the two Jakes had organized the villagers, and had nodded when he’d seen the hayfork and asked others to bring as many as they could find. There were an even two dozen hayfork wielders, packed tightly in two rows in the center of the line, with the Jakes astride their horses on the slope right behind them. Drop low, plant the butt of the fork in the hillside, and keep the tines high and pointed directly at the horse. Let the horse do all the work.

Not that any of them would likely survive. A thousand pounds of racing muscle and bone was not something you could fend off with a pointed stick. Their job wasn’t to survive. It was to protect the Jakes for the few critical moments they needed.

None of them would survive if they didn’t fight. These weren’t annual raiders, come for food and women. They were part of a terrible army from Washimore, on their way to fight the equally terrible armies of the Linahs, and they slaughtered people and burned the fields as they went; should they lose the battle, their enemies would need to cross a dead zone to strike back.

Rudric’s work-callused hands began to tremble. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and recalled the Prayer of Saint Jake to mind.

Be mellow.

He thought of Saint Jake’s campaign against the Dragonlords, standing alone in the Arena of Fate, the fate of his people riding on his victory against impossible odds, and his hands steadied.

I can do this, he thought. Saint Jake, give me strength of spirit and mellowness of soul, and should I die here today, receive me into your company of the blessed.

He opened his eyes, and watched the lead horsemen race toward him.

Copyright © 2017, Joseph C. Nemeth, all rights reserved

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A Day in the Life

Dawn

I’m still in bed, awakened by the dogs moving about in the other room. It’s quiet this morning: I hear the sound of only one car in ten minutes. It’s been chilly at night, so the windows are closed; otherwise, I’d probably hear birdsong, though not much — with the windows closed, I can hear only the most penetrating of birdcalls.

Hardly anyone is awake: the bakers at the bakery up the street, of course, and a few restaurant and coffee shop owners and employees getting ready for the breakfast crowd; the night shift at the police station and the hospital, wrapping up a long night; a few insomniacs and early-risers taking quiet walks.

I slip back into REM sleep, where I have a strange and vivid dream of a different life, a gloriously self-sufficient life where I am no longer burdened by taxes or government interference with my essential freedoms…

I’ve been up for half an hour, milking my cow. Selling fresh milk is one of my most consistent sources of trade income, since I’ve the only cow in the area, owing to the good fortune of the grazing on this piece of land, and a running stream. She’s getting old, and I worry about her production. I give her a sad look, with a hint of calculation in it. I can see steak in the next year or two, but I’m not sure I’ll make enough off the meat to afford a new calf, much less a new cow. Not sure what I’ll do at that point.

My hands are nice and warm, the early morning ache from the cold worked out. My heavy quilted jacket is warm, but my feet are still cold; I’d traded for a poor batch of wood a year back, and the night fire had once again gone out early and left me shivering. I’d had words with Jim, the woodsman, for selling me crap wood, but he’d just shrugged. He knew he was the only game in town. He didn’t overcharge, at least not too much, but his prices were high. There’d been another young fellow a couple of years back who had tried to compete with Jim, but he’d up and vanished after a year. Some said Jim had cut his throat and burned the body. Could be — Jim was a mean son of a bitch — but with nary a trace of evidence, there wasn’t much to be done about it, and no one was going to pay for an investigation. I’m sure as Hell too old to be taking down trees: it’s trade with Jim, or do without.

I hear a shriek in the woods, and experience a brief moment of grim satisfaction. A new group of squatters moved into the area a week ago, and they haven’t yet learned that my fences mean business. I keep on milking as the screams grow hoarse and then subside to a bubbling howl. My son issues a soft birdcall as he slips through the trees around the perimeter, to let me know where he is, just in case I decide to explore. Wouldn’t want to shoot him by accident. No point to my going out there yet, though — I’m not going to waste shot on the poor bastard, he’ll die quick enough. My son will raise the alarm if there are more coming.

I sigh, thinking about the work involved in digging another grave, but it was that, or let the body rot in the open, and that would attract scavengers. It’s putting wear on the shovel, too, and new steel will cost me dearly. But I’m too damn old to work with a wooden shovel in this soil. Wish the squatters would just read the signs I post, or at least have the sense to pay attention to the scalps I’ve mounted on poles. Of course, who’d pay to teach any of them to read? This squatter was probably hungry enough to try to eat the scalps — I should check on those later today, too.

6:00 am

I wake a second time. The dogs are restless, and my wife has just fed them, so they’re yipping to go out and play. I throw back the covers, and put my bare feet on a cool hardwood floor.

The dream is still with me, and I think about the temperature in the house — not a usual early-morning thought. I can still feel the dawn chill of the dream and the warm udders against my palms. I hear the hum of the forced-air furnace as it kicks on, fed by natural gas and electricity from a public utility with government-regulated prices, quality-of-service, and safety practices.

I remember the gas leak up the street last spring, when the neighbors had gone digging with a backhoe to plant a new tree, and hadn’t bothered to call the utility company first for a free service visit to mark the underground gas line. We lost our gas in the neighborhood for two days while the crews repaired it, and I heard the neighbors got hit with a huge bill, which their insurance paid. Everyone complained that insurance costs were going to go up, but they didn’t.

I think about Jim, selling shoddy fuel for high prices, and how his only competitor just vanished one night, in a world where no one is interested in paying for justice.

Brrr. I shake off the dream and become preoccupied with my daily morning routine.

After breakfast, I pour milk into my coffee, and with the sight of pouring milk, the dream returns unbidden…

I dig with a steady rhythm, and when I tire, my son relieves me. He digs longer and faster than I do. I don’t want to sit too long, though, lest I stiffen up. The soil isn’t too hard, and we don’t hit any big rocks; we’re deep enough in less than an hour. We drag the two bodies to the grave and roll them in. The man had been caught by the trap. The woman had put a sharp stick through her own neck and died with her arms around the man. It was probably just the two of them. She lands on her back, and her eyes pop open — they seem to stare at me, though I know she’s dead and isn’t staring at anything in this world. She and the man are both emaciated scarecrows, doubtless starving for weeks. I cover her with dirt quickly, and then sit and let my son work. I tell myself it’s age.

Dammit, why should I care? If they starve, it’s their own damn fault. It’s not like they can’t work just as hard as the rest of us. These squatters are like all those people on welfare back when I was a kid, when we had the big nanny state fed by taxes taken at the point of a gun, no freedoms, a world full of welfare bums living off the hard work of other people, no respect for private property, no self-respect. Parasites.

I think again of the other woodsman. What was his name? I don’t remember. I wonder if Jim really did kill him. Maybe Jim just drove him away. Maybe took his axe, and broke his arm, and frightened him off. Couldn’t very well work as a woodsman with a broken arm and no axe. Takes a month to starve, longer than that for a bone to knit. Assuming it knits straight, which there’s no guarantee if you can’t pay a bonesetter. I try to remember if the man we’re burying maybe had a bad leg, or a bad arm. I didn’t notice. Doesn’t matter. Squatters are squatters.

“You’re falling behind, Old Man,” my son says. He’s grinning, but there’s a sadness in his eyes, and a hint of calculation that I don’t like the look of. I suppress a grunt as I rise to take my shift with the shovel. I sat too long, and my back hurts.

8:00 am

Seated at my desk, I reply to e-mails from work. I sit in an ergonomically-designed chair that allows me to put in a solid eight hours without back or leg pain, at a desk designed to minimize wrist strain. The company I work for paid for both of them, which was less expensive than dealing with an OSHA grievance filed against them with the government. Without the threat of OSHA, there probably wouldn’t be any profit in making such chairs and desks, since they are too expensive for most people to buy on their own.

The VPN secure network software I use was developed by a private company, using algorithms developed by researchers at a public university. The Internet I use for high-speed data transfer is an outgrowth of the fiber-optic backbone laid in at government expense back in the late 1990’s. Performance is good, and relatively cheap. The government prevents the service providers from tiering their prices, the so-called “net neutrality” issue that keeps floating in Congress: providers can’t force their customers to bid against each other for better bandwidth, which removes incentives for scalpers and speculators to move in.

I finish reading all my new e-mails, and sit back for a moment before digging into the project I’m working on. I sip my second cup of coffee, close my eyes to savor the taste, and the dream intrudes again…

I’m late to market, and have to set up on the periphery instead of my usual spot. My customers give me a hard time about my “new location,” and I grunt and say, “Had to bury some bodies.” They laugh. They don’t ask questions. There’s some hard bargaining this morning, but I hold firm on prices, and sell out quickly. It’s a good take. The baker is preparing a cake for a wedding, and buys a whole pint with the cream. That leaves me short for the other customers, and they get into a bidding war over what’s left.

There’s a brief scuffle down by the baker’s table. Some drifter is accused of passing counterfeit coins. They’ve already got the rope around his neck when one of the other vendors looks at the fake coin and declares it to be Canadian quarter, rare these days, worth more than twice an old US quarter. The baker is embarrassed enough to throw in an extra bread roll for free. The drifter’s face is pale, but he gathers up his order and the extra roll with shaking hands and leaves quickly. We won’t see him again. Good riddance.

I buy a loaf of bread, and some eggs. No meat: I’m saving my money to try to buy a lamb at the big market in the Fall. I’ll be able to spin wool, then, and maybe get a second lamb and start breeding them. That might provide enough extra income to buy a new cow.

When I get back to my property, I walk the perimeter and check the traps. All of the scalps are still there. I always salt them before I put them up. Not even birds are stupid enough to peck at them. Only starving humans would try. Those two squatters didn’t get close enough to try. My son has reset the traps. All good.

10:00 am

I dial into the team meeting. Six of us in the group, a fairly large development team, but it’s a complicated project. The remote conference software is not too flaky this morning; developed by a pure for-profit company, one of many competing products in the marketplace, the software is constantly being revised, patched, and its user-interface redesigned. We rarely have a month go by without some major glitch. It’s the cheapest and most widely-used software out there. I swear, most of their money must go into marketing.

We all touch base, then two of us stay on for a half-hour longer working out some of the design issues on a virtual whiteboard. There’s an integrated whiteboard in the commercial conference software, but it freezes all the time. We instead use an old piece of code originally developed at a public university, which then moved to the public domain and is now maintained with community support. It does the job, and it’s fast and stable.

The two of us are about three thousand miles apart — she’s just returned from lunch. She says she’ll write up the notes, and we end the call and I wait for them. She’s always quick — it won’t be more than fifteen minutes, and there’s no point in doing anything more until we have a common document. I take a bathroom break, and then come back and open my windows to enjoy the warming breeze. I close my eyes…

I’m splitting some extra wood for the fire tonight — damn that fucker Jim, anyway — when the gate bell clatters. I pick up my shotgun and walk around front, to find the postman, of all people. He’s a rare sight, these days. I remember daily mail as a kid. These days, with no taxes and no government to collect them, there’s precious little in the way of official mail. I can read, but most people can’t, and don’t miss it, so there isn’t much call for mail at all. Postman used to come around once a month, to the middle of town, and a couple of the old-timers and I would make a little trade by reading the mail aloud to the illiterate recipients, then writing down their replies for return post. There hasn’t been much of that kind of work in the last few years. 

Postman has never shown up at my gate. No one pays for that kind of service. Yet here he is.

He isn’t in a talkative mood, just sees me coming and drops a big, fat envelope on the ground and takes off. I imagine he’s pissed to have to come out here, though it’s only about a mile from town — even paid for, it’s extra time added to his day, which I’m sure is as full as anyone else’s. Whoever sent it must have paid pretty well.

I pick up the envelope. It’s heavy, cream-colored paper, elegant stuff I haven’t seen the like of in … well, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything like this. The address is mine, my name and everything, and the writing is like artwork. I stare at it without opening it. Then I go in the house, the house I built with my own hands, and put it on the desk I built with my own hands. It’ll keep. I’ve got real work to do.

12:00 pm

I look up from my work and stretch. It’s already noon, time to take a break for lunch. My wife is meeting with one of her friends, and the dogs are done napping and want to have some fun. I rummage through the refrigerator, and find some left-over caprese salad from dinner last night, all local produce, including the balsamic vinegar. I dice leftover grilled chicken and mix it with mayonnaise, chopped kalamata olives, and a dash of seasoned salt, served on a bed of fresh lettuce. I have just water to drink — I’m trying to watch sugar and starch intake, since I’ve got high blood sugar. It’s just tap water, from another regulated public utility. The State is pretty fierce about enforcing water quality here — none of that nonsense like up in Flint, Michigan.

I take my lunch to the back yard, and sit at the patio table and watch the dogs frolic. Two ravens tick-tock at each other up in the branches of the trees. The heat is rising, and I feel a little sleepy…

My son and I eat our day-meal: fresh bread from this morning, with our own butter, a berry jam from last Fall’s canning, roast garden potatoes from last night, fresh garden greens, and the milk I reserved from this morning, cooled in the stream. We’ll have the eggs tonight, after I start the night-fire. We talk about what to do with our neighbor upstream, Raymond.

The stream smells of pigshit, again. He’s got pigs, and while the bacon is welcome in the Fall, he can’t seem to keep the styes from leaching into the stream, which flows through his land. We’ve had some friendly conversations, but they’ve soured and matters are coming to a head. No one further downstream cares: water flows into a small fen just beyond us, then over a spillway into a fast, shallow run over gravel with lots of sun, and folks past that are happy with their water. The matter’s between Raymond and me.

Once Raymond figured out that it was just the two of us, he stopped even pretending to care. Said he wasn’t about to spend time, effort, or money looking out for my interests, and I had no call to be infringing on his freedoms. I agree with that, in principle, but the stream past my place stinks, and I worry my cow will get sick. Raymond shrugs: says he’s lactose-intolerant, meaning he can’t drink milk anyway, so he doesn’t give a damn about my cow or the milk. The bastard says his water’s fine, and has the cheek to offer to pasture my cow for me, for a fee.

My son and I try to find a point of leverage against Raymond, but we come up empty. I wonder if we need to build a gravel bed upstream, though I don’t know if that will be enough without a fen.

2:00 pm

My computer bleeps at me, and my doctor’s appointment pops up on the screen. I pull on shoes, and drive to her clinic, about a mile away. There’s no traffic to speak of; it takes five minutes. Normally, I’d walk the mile, but I’ve got some work I’d like to finish today.

The doctor and I discuss my last tests, and the high blood sugar seems to be under control. She wants a follow-up in six months. It’s an easy visit — a lot easier than the one fifteen years ago, when they told me I had cancer.

Treatment has come a long way since I was a kid. Back then, a cancer diagnosis was a death sentence. Since then, basic research done in public universities had found new ways to treat different cancers, including some uncommon forms that gave them hints for handling some of the more common ones. Spreading the costs through insurance, combined with various direct and indirect government subsidies, had created a mass market for cancer treatments, which would otherwise have been restricted to the very wealthy. That, in turn, provided a profit motive for pharmaceutical companies to mass-produce some of the drugs, as well as support the education and training of a whole cadre of experienced surgeons and oncologists to serve that market. My treatment had been almost routine.

That whole turn of thought makes me change my mind about going back to work. When I get home, I walk to the nearby public park, where I sit and watch squirrels for a bit…

It’s just a finger cut, but it’s deep — I can see bone — and it was one of those stupid things. I know how to hold a knife to carve wood. Hell, I taught my son how to carve wood. Then I go and break my own rules, and slice my finger open.

Blood poisoning is an ugly thing. I’ve no choice — I need to make the walk back to town, and get the healer to clean, and stitch, and sell me some Pharma. I hope not Big Pharma. I don’t know if I’ve got enough saved to pay for that. Maybe a poultice will be good enough.

Looks like the lamb will have to wait another year.

4:00 pm

I receive a surprise call from the VP of Engineering. It’s six o’clock in his time-zone. He’s worried about the delivery of parts for the new hardware, and wants to discuss how that’s going to affect my part of the project. We talk for nearly an hour. I tell him about the new design we’d knocked out this morning, and he’s enthusiastic. We both hang up feeling good about the project.

It’s quitting time when we finish talking, and I retire to the back yard with a glass of wine. My wife joins me, and we enjoy the lazy afternoon heat together. She tells me about her day, and I smile, and tell her a little about mine. I don’t mention the strange dream, but then we fall into companionable silence…

I scream and weep as the healer cleans the cut. The stitching isn’t as bad as the cleaning, but then the pain settles into a throbbing rhythm that swells and peaks and dies away, only to swell again. She offers some pain-killing tea, but I decline — I’ve already spent enough. The poultice helps with the pain. As I’d feared, I can’t afford the Big Pharma. She sells me her best poultice, and gives me a price break, because she’s one of my milk customers: uses it to make one of her Pharmas, so it contributes to her own income. At least I’ll still be able to afford the lamb in the Fall. If I live.

The healer is my age. She helped deliver my son, and helped my wife recover from the hard birth. That set me back nearly all of my savings, and when my wife caught pneumonia a year later, I couldn’t afford the Pharma, so she died. I dug her a special grave, apart from the squatters. Damn lucky I was already in the milk business, and that my son wasn’t lactose intolerant, or I’d have lost him, too.

I walk out into the main street through the town, and decide to Hell with everything, I’m going to buy myself a shot of something strong. I don’t indulge often — my father turned to the bottle when I was young, a good man broken by changed circumstances, and I’ve seen plenty of fine men ruined by the stuff. But I need something to lift my spirits, or at least mute the pain a little. Healer’s tea would likely have been more effective, but also more expensive. I’ve spent enough today.

There’s something outlandish outside the bar. It’s a vehicle, like nothing I’ve seen. Shiny metal, gloss-painted silver. Tinted one-way glass windows. Sleek, like a fish or a bird, but powerful-looking. A man in a red jacket and white gloves steps out, walks around the vehicle and opens a door on the other side. A short man in a white suit steps out, looks around, sniffs the air. As he turns toward me, I see his face. It’s a mess.

There’s no other way to describe it. It looks like someone has gone at it with a chisel, leaving deep, purple gouges. His nose is the wrong color, as if it isn’t real flesh, and his lower lip droops and hangs open on the left. He carries a delicate handkerchief in his left hand, and dabs at the lip, reflexively, I imagine to keep from drooling.

I make a guess at cancer. They had better surgeons when I was young. When they dismantled the welfare state, the whole medical system broke down. No one could afford it. Well, the rich could afford it. They could afford anything. But they weren’t about to throw money away on the poor, and there weren’t enough of the rich getting sick to keep the medical schools open for training specialists. Besides, there were no students: there was no future in doctoring the old way. You might have one paying customer in a lifetime, and if you did, you were set for life. Most likely, however, you’d starve waiting for that one customer. A kind of patronage system came into use for a while, where the rich would fund their own private, exclusive hospitals, but the hospitals were almost always empty of patients and the doctors took to gambling and drinking to pass the time. Then, when a real case finally came in — like this poor bastard — they simply didn’t have the skills.

A crowd gathers.

“Begging the pardon of all you excellent people,” the man in the white suit says in a high voice like that of a pre-pubescent boy, all his labial consonants mangled by that dead lip. “Could you direct me to the property of the man who owns the cow?”

I step forward. “That would be me.”

“Ah,” he said. “I assume you received my letter.”

I scowl. “Haven’t read it yet.”

He blinks and pats his drooping lip in silence.

“Well,” he says at last. “I wish to purchase your land.”

“It isn’t for sale.”

The right side of his face smiles. I’m learning to ignore the left side. His smile looks condescending to me.

“Everything is for sale, my good man. Just name your price.”

“It isn’t for sale at any price.”

“Hey, mister, what the Hell happened to your face?” That’s the baker, who is an impulsive ass. The man in the suit turns to look at the baker. He says something in a soft voice to his driver, or servant, or whatever the Hell he is, and the servant replies inaudibly.

“Ah,” says the man with the ruined face, and there’s a hard glitter in his eye. “You are the baker. Your livelihood is selling bread to this community, is it not?”

“Aye,” says the baker. He stands a little straighter, and his chest puffs. He’s proud of his independence, his freedom, just like all the rest of us. He’s his own man, and he’s got a right to be proud.

“Take a note,” the man in the white suit says to his servant in a loud voice that carries, still staring at the baker. “I’d like to open a bakery in this village. A proper bakery. Spare no expense. I want greater variety. Higher quality. Lower prices. Much lower prices. Say, half what this fellow charges.”

The baker’s face is red, and his fists clench. “That’ll put me out of business!”

“Indeed,” says the man in the white suit. He turns back to me, dismissing the baker.

“You can’t do that!” the baker wails. “You can’t do that!”

“Take another note,” the suited man says in the same carrying voice, without looking at the baker. “Hire some men to travel with this baker fellow, to make sure he stays completely safe wherever he goes. Have them report regularly, and any place this fellow settles, open a new bakery. Same goods, same prices as here. For as long as he lives.”

The baker collapses to the ground, eyes wide, his jaw slack. The crowd moves away from him, slightly, as if he might be contagious.

The man in the suit speaks to me. “I understand that your livelihood is selling milk to this community, is it not?”

I stare at his misshapen face for a long moment, and a knot of fear rises in my stomach like nothing I have ever felt. I think as quickly as I have ever thought. I lower my eyes to the ground.

“It was,” I say, carefully. “What is your offer for my land … sir?” That last word comes hard. Damn hard.

“Name your price,” says the man in the white suit. His voice is cheery.

6:00

Dinner is pork loin on the grill, asparagus, and new butter-gold potatoes. We eat outside, and then come in as the evening cools and the mosquitoes come out. I wash up the dishes — there aren’t many — while my wife reads the local paper.

There’s an art walk tonight, and we walk to the downtown area. Sidewalks are a little uneven in spots, but the way is well-lighted, courtesy of city government. We have our own “squatters,” more than a few, but they generally have places to stay, and ways to eat. They don’t worry about lethal traps that landowners have set.

All the artists are local, and some of them are very good. We meet neighbors, old friends, familiar acquaintances. It occurs to me that I’m not plotting against any of them for running pig feces into my water; if they were, I’d complain to the cops, and the cops would make them stop, because that sort of thing isn’t allowed.

On the walk home, under a beautiful moon, I’m quiet and reflective…

I’m shit-faced drunk. I pull out the heavy, soft paper and stare at it again. My signature at the bottom, and the illegible scrawl of the man in the white suit. I’d never even learned his name — the letterhead is that of a law firm, representing a corporation named in the document as the new owner of my land.

At the top is a number. The price I’d asked. Enough for me and my son to coast through life like rich men. The man in the suit hadn’t even haggled. He’d just said, “Done.” Next thing I knew, I had two copies of the letter he’d sent by post in front of me, and a pen in my hand. I signed both copies, he signed both copies, then he handed me one, took the other and got back in his vehicle. The window had rolled down.

“I’d like you out by the end of the week,” he said, pleasantly.

After that, I headed straight to the bar.

What will I tell my son? That I’d just scored the biggest deal of my life? Or that I’d just sold both of us into slavery?

What can I do with this much money? How will I even collect it? There’s a bank named on the paper, located in a city. That city is a resort favored by the rich. It’s a month’s journey by foot; we’ll be drifters, until we run out of money. If we survive the trip, the contract will be my passport, if I’m not robbed en route, and if I get a chance to show it.

If they let me into the bank, then what? If I take out the whole amount, where will I put it? How do I keep it safe? If I keep it in the bank, I will be chained to the bank, living among people who can throw away this kind of money without haggling. That is my new career, and my son’s: making daily trips to the well of the rich man’s bank to draw up a bucket of money, to spend on a poor man’s vision of Heaven in a rich man’s city.

Or I could just burn this damn thing, and forget the money. But then what? I have no land, no house, no hand-made desk, no aging milk cow. I have nothing but this fucking piece of paper.

Is my life any less ruined than the baker’s?

The worst of it is that I had no choice. I’ve prided myself on being my own man, beholden to none, pulling my own weight in the world, dignified and free.

I gave up my land and my livelihood without a fight, without a struggle, without even a bleat of protest. I lowered my eyes and called him “sir” as he robbed me of everything.

The man with the ruined face had not even threatened me. He had been nothing but pleasant. He had destroyed the baker with a handful of words, words that should have been purest philanthropy — a new bakery for the town with better goods at half the price, and then a kind offer of protection for the man he’d just robbed of his livelihood and driven out on the road to become an unwilling evangelist for that benediction. Wherever the baker goes, people will thank him for the blessing he brings with him — while he slowly starves to death. I have no doubt that if the baker figures out a way to exploit the situation, the ruined man will turn it back on him. I have never seen such vicious, cold-blooded cruelty.

Two emaciated faces appear uninvited in my mind’s eye. Faces buried at the bottom of a fresh-dug grave. One had died in agony, by my design, and I’d felt only satisfaction. The other had taken her own life in despair, and I’d felt only disgust.

No, dammit, that was different. They were trespassers, for God’s sake! Squatters. No respect for private prop….

No respect….

I curse aloud and tell the bartender to pour me another. I see myself in the mirror behind the bar, and for a moment, just a moment, I see a reflection of my father.

8:00 pm

I sit and try to read, but I can’t follow the plot, and my legs are restless. My wife watches me for a while, then asks what is wrong. I put down the book, and slowly try to convey the dream that has been haunting me all day.

“That’s a horrible dream!” she says, when I’m done. “What a nightmarish world!”

“I know,” I reply. “We all take so much of our civilization for granted. Streetlights. Electrical power grids. Potable water. A right to live unmolested, enforced by law, paid for by taxes. Courts to sort out who cheated whom in business. Sharing of costs for accidents and disasters. A basic, publicly-funded, free-to-all education in how to read and write. To give all that up for a … a ‘free market’ where even basic justice has a price tag on it…. My God.”

She shakes her head, and tells me she’s going to bed. She usually retires earlier than I do. She kisses me, and I hold her tight.

I give up on the book, and sit down at my computer to write out this dream.

I leave the bar, the last of the cash I’d brought to town spent on whiskey. I run into my son who is coming in the doorway. He stares at me with worry that slowly turns to disgust as he sees the state I’m in. He tells me he’d finished his chores and came to town because I hadn’t come home. The healer was already in bed, and he’d been asking everywhere about me. Says there was some nonsense story about a silver carriage and a man in a white suit, but someone finally mentioned they’d seen me go into the bar.

He wants to know what the Hell?

My son doesn’t cuss like I do. That he would use such language says a lot about his state of mind. I tell him I just want to go home, it’s been a pisser of a day.

Halfway home, I weave to the side of the road and puke my guts out. A long walk on a belly full of whiskey is not a good recipe for digestion. I feel better after that.

I still don’t know what to tell my son. I have to tell him. That we’re rich. And that we’re totally fucked. Tomorrow.

I’ll tell him tomorrow.

Copyright © 2017, Joseph C. Nemeth, all rights reserved

The Kingmakers

The young man sat in front of the hearthfire, the ancient behind him like a tall, thin shadow in the air. Sweat beaded the young man’s face and collected on his lightly stubbled chin, and glistened in the ruddy light of the coals, which provided the only light in the dark room. His wide-set eyes were open wide and white with fear, and his lips trembled uncontrollably.

“It is simple enough, Master Tulane,” the Ancient whispered. “Thrust your finger into the coals.”

“I… I…” The young man swallowed convulsively. The skin of his hand had reddened from the heat, and the tip of his finger was beginning to blister.

“I can’t do it!” he shrieked, and yanked his hand away from the fire. He cradled the burned finger in his lap and rocked back and forth, as sobs racked his shoulders.

“I’ve failed. I’ve failed. I’ve failed,” he chanted in time to his rocking.

A monk approached from near the door and led the young man away, still chanting his failure like a mantra.

The old man turned away from the fire and sat heavily in his own chair. His shadow stretched across the table that lay between him and the deeper shadows where the firelight did not reach. He filled a small glass with wine from a decanter on the table, and swallowed it in one convulsive gulp.

“Pace yourself, Brother Anselm,” said a voice from the darkest corner. “It won’t do to have them smell wine on your breath. Or for you to fall into the fire yourself.”

Anselm spat a curse. “I know, I know, Brother Michael. But I dread this next one. This Tulane fellow was perfectly predictable. Eldest son of a landowner down on his luck. Pressure to succeed, no aptitude or desire. There was no question he would break. The next applicant….” He shuddered, and poured himself another half-glass.

“Equally predictable,” said Brother Michael, invisible in the shadows.

“Then we both agree. Why not turn him away now, and spare him?”

“You know the answer to that, Brother Anselm.”

“Of course I do. My mind has not yet gone to rot.”

“Then let him venture the test. We can’t deny him that opportunity.”

Anselm sighed. “No, we can’t.”

“Do you want me to take this one?”

Anselm hesitated, then shook his head. “Thank you, Brother Michael, but no. You had to deal with the D’Onofrio boy.”

A grunt of assent issued from the shadows. “Aye, that was unpleasant.”

They both sat in silence.

A patterned knock came at the door. Anselm stood and faced the hearth, and composed himself. The door opened, and the monk led in a second young man. This one resembled the first as all healthy young men resemble each other in the eyes of old men. Beyond that, however, they were entirely different. The first had had a soft face; this one’s was hard, even cruel. The first had worn his hair somewhat long, as was the fashion among the wealthy, and his beard stubble was soft and patchy; this one had shaved his head as well as his chin, and the stubble was coarse and black. The first had moved like an aristocrat; this one strode into the room like a warrior.

Anselm gestured to the seat in front of him.

“Sit,” he commanded, all trace of querulousness gone from his voice. His age-hooded eyes looked blind in the dim light.

The young man moved swiftly to the seat, and planted himself in it, claiming it as his own.

“Brother Rupert,” Anselm said, softly. “Attend the fire.”

Rupert stepped to the bellows attached to the hearthfire, and began to pump. Anselm let it reach cold-forge heat, the coals nearly white and hot enough to work copper, before he signaled for Rupert to stop.

“State your name,” Anselm said, his tone formal.

“Marcello Boniface DuBuque, the Third,” the boy said. His tone was proud and unafraid, even a touch arrogant despite the formality of the occasion.

“You wish to be King?”

“Of course,” the young man said, casting aside all pretense of humility.

“You undertake these trials of your own will?”

“I do.”

“You understand that these trials themselves may end in your death?”

“I do.”

“And that passing these trials does not guarantee our endorsement?”

“Yes.”

“Then let us begin. Thrust the index finger of your right hand into the coals.”

The young man hesitated.

“Is this a test of courage? Have I not already demonstrated that on the field of battle?”

Anselm stood silent.

“Bah!” the young man said. “It is but a finger. I have ten, and more courage in each of them than most men have in their entire bodies. I can do this.”

He thrust the tip of his finger into the fire. Yellow flame leaped up. The stink of burning flesh, then of burning bone filled the room. The young man held his finger in place for a moment longer, then screamed once before his eyes rolled back in their sockets and he fell from his chair, pulling his hand free from the fire. His fingertip burned with a greasy yellow flame like a candle. Anselm bent forward swiftly and plunged the boy’s burning hand into a bucket of water that stood near the fire.

Rupert ran to them, and bore up the young man on his shoulders. Anselm opened the door for Rupert and his burden, and then closed the door and leaned his head against it. He stood silently for a long minute. Then he walked unsteadily back to his seat and collapsed into it. He poured himself another glass of wine with shaking hands.

“Perfectly predictable,” Brother Michael said from the shadows.

“Yes.” Brother Anselm’s voice was a whisper.

“Why did you make the fire so hot?” Michael asked. “Did you hope it would discourage him?”

“No,” said Anselm. “There was no discouraging that one. I wanted a clean cautery. You were right. He is entitled to the Questions, now, assuming he survives the shock and the amputation. Who knows, he might surprise us. Perhaps this will have knocked some sense into him. If it does, it would be a shame for him to succumb to infection.”

“Ah,” said Michael.

After a moment of silence, Michael continued, “So what of this third candidate?”

Anselm took a deep breath. “I don’t know. He puzzles me, and I don’t quite trust him. I can’t put my finger on it.”

“He puzzles you? You mean you can’t predict his responses?”

“His answers so far have been unpredictable, yes, but also too … smooth. As if he already knows the questions, and their answers. Is it possible that our protocols have been breached? Are we being manipulated by one of the factions?”

“Which faction backs him?”

“None of them. He is unaffiliated.”

“Which merely means that we don’t know which faction is backing him.”

“Yes.”

Michael mulled this in silence.

“Perhaps,” he said at last. “But if anyone knew, one would think the DuBuque clan would know, in which case the DuBuque boy would not have been so phenomenally stupid.”

“That’s true,” Anselm said. “One of the renegade clans, perhaps?”

“That’s hard to imagine. They have no libraries. They do not value learning. They have sacked only villages and small towns. They would have had to wring the knowledge from one of our members, and all of us who are conversant with the Trial Lore are here right now, and accounted for.”

“Your reasoning is sound, but I am still … unsettled.”

“Perhaps he already knows the questions and answers because he is an avatar of a past King.”

Anselm snorted. “You know I don’t believe in that superstitious rot.”

“Your disbelief does not make it impossible.”

Anselm squirmed in irritation. Then he relaxed. “Now is not the time for our debate, Brother Michael. Much as I enjoy your wit and your twisted logic.”

Michael chuckled drily.

A quick knock sounded on the door, and Brother Rupert stuck his head in.

“Brother Anselm. The physicians say that the boy will likely live. He has survived the shock. He will lose the finger, and most of the dexterity in his right hand, but he will keep the hand and will be able to use it.”

Anselm slumped as the tension in his shoulders released.

“Thank you, Brother Rupert. I’d like to get the third candidate out of the way, and then go to my bed. It has been a trying day. Please show him in.”

Rupert bowed and left, and Anselm resumed his position facing the fire. Rupert returned a moment later with another young man, so like all the other candidates in his youth and health, but as different from the last two as to be a different species. His hair was long and wild, standing up in spots like stiff grass. It was clear he’d tried to tame it with a brush, but the result was to make it look wilder than ever. Even in the dim glow of the coals, his pale eyes seemed unfocused. His limbs were willow-thin, and he walked with a slight limp.

Anselm gestured to the chair in front of the fire. “Sit,” he commanded.

The boy did not obey immediately, but instead turned about several times, surveying the nearly-dark room. He hesitated, then bowed slightly to the shadowed corner where Brother Michael resided. Then he bowed more deeply to Brother Anselm and dropped into the seat before the fire, and unkempt tangle of unruly hair and limbs.

“State your name,” Anselm said.

“John Travers.”

“You wish to be King?”

The boy stared into the red coals, silent. Protocol forbade Anselm from asking that particular question again, and he was about to dismiss the boy, when he began to speak.

“My father… was a master leathersmith. He made shoes, mostly, and purses. Sometimes fancy, beautiful things for people with money. I loved to watch him work. He was so careful. Every mark on the leather, just so. Momma loved him, too. I had two big brothers, and a little sister, and we were … happy.

“Then the Black Clan came, and burned our city. Papa and Mama died, and my brothers, and my sister. I was captured and sold to bandits. I was too small for heavy work, so they made me do little jobs around the camp, like bring food and water to the people they robbed and held for ransom, and those people always said the same thing: they said if there was a King, this sort of thing would not be allowed.

“When I got old enough, I escaped. I traveled a lot, on foot, and I found out that things were bad everywhere. And everyone said the same thing, no matter where I went. If there was a King, things would be better.

“But there was no King. The last King was over a hundred years ago. They said no one could pass the Trials. I asked what it took to pass the Trials, but no one could tell me. They said it was a secret, a mystery. They said either you had the stuff of Kings in you, or you didn’t. They said to go ask the Prophets, and they’d give you the Trials, and then you’d know.”

The boy turned around to look at Anselm.

“I don’t know if I’ve got the stuff of Kings in me, sir, and I really don’t know if I want to be King. But I want there to be a King, and there won’t be one if no one tries. So I’m here to try.”

Anselm cleared his throat. If this answer was genuine, it was the best answer he’d ever heard. It reeked of artifice. Whoever had schooled this boy had done it well.

“You undertake these trials of your own will?”

“Yes.”

“You understand that these trials themselves may end in your death?”

The boy hesitated, and turned back to the coals. He took a deep breath and straightened his shoulders.

“I do,” he said.

“And that passing these trials does not guarantee our endorsement?”

“Yes.”

“Then let us begin. Thrust the index finger of your right hand into the coals.”

The boy flinched, like he’d been struck. He twisted around and looked at Anselm with wide eyes. He held up his index finger.

“This?” he said. “Are you joking?”

Anselm stood impassively.

The boy turned and stared for a long moment at his upraised finger. He slowly reached toward the coals. The ruddy glow painted his hand in crimson and orange. He stopped. His hand inched closer. He stopped again.

Then he withdrew his hand and put it in his lap.

“No,” he said.

Anselm gestured, and Brother Rupert approached and led the boy from the room.

Anselm sat, slowly, with a sigh like steam escaping from a hot sausage. He reached for the wine decanter, but then let his arm rest on the table.

“Well, it is the only sane and sensible response, after all,” said Brother Michael. “I’m always surprised by how many fail the test, one way or the other. But I see what you mean. He didn’t even put up a fight. He just said, ‘No.’ Certainly odd.”

“Perhaps.” Anselm’s tone was pensive.

“What are you thinking now?” Brother Michael asked.

“He almost put his hand in the fire. Every motion said he was thinking about doing it. His arm, his neck, his back. And then he changed his mind, and drew back. If he was schooled in this, Brother Michael, his acting skills are astonishing.”

“Yet his answers are too perfect, I agree. How do you explain that?”

Brother Anselm poured himself a small amount of wine, and swirled it under his nose.

“I’m thinking that perhaps he is an avatar of a former King.”

Brother Michael chuckled. “If you’re considering that, then it seems miracles are truly afoot.”

Anselm laughed, then drank the wine.

“Good night, brother Michael. Sleep well, if you can. I know I won’t.”

-#-

Tulane, the first boy, left the monastery at dawn, still apologizing for his failure. The monks did not encourage him to stay. Brother Anselm wondered sadly how many years it would take for the boy to get past his belief in his inadequacy — if, indeed, he ever did. Between his father’s ambitions and the Trials, the boy had probably been broken beyond repair.

They chose to wait until the DuBuque boy had recovered enough to face the Questions. After two days, the physicians said he was ready, so long as no physical stress was required. They assured him that there would be no physical stress.

They met at midday, in one of the libraries, well-lit through large louvers in the ceiling, designed to admit daylight but no moisture. Brother Rupert led Marcello DuBuque into the room. Brother Anselm and Brother Michael both sat comfortably in deeply-upholstered chairs, and Anselm gestured to a third chair that faced the other two, forming an intimate triangle.

“Please sit, Marcello Boniface DuBuque the Third,” Anselm said.

Marcello’s face was pale, and his eyes shadowed. His right hand was heavily bandaged, and held high against his chest in a cloth sling. The physicians had given him some medication for the pain during the first day, but had weaned him off it the second day, so that he could continue the Trials with a clear head.

“Do you wish to delay the Trials, in light of your injury?” Anselm asked.

Marcello shook his head sharply, with a scowl, though he did not meet the eyes of either monk.

“Do you still wish to be King?” Brother Michael asked.

“Yes,” Marcello snarled.

“Then let us continue the Trials,” said Brother Anselm. “We will begin by asking you to explain why you put your hand in the fire.”

Hot anger swept across Marcello’s face. “You know damn well why I put my hand in the fire! Because you—“ Marcello suddenly pinched his lips together, and his face went pale.

“Because you made me do it,” Anselm thought. Or perhaps, “Because you told me to.” At least he had the sense to not finish that sentence.

Anselm and Michael waited quietly for Marcello to continue.

“Because it was a test of courage,” he said, striking a pose, though still seated. “A test of raw, physical courage. Which I passed, as befits a future King.”

“Mmmm,” said Brother Michael. “And what would you say you learned from this test of courage, Marcello Boniface the Third?”

“Learned?” said Marcello, his eyebrows rising, along with his voice. “Learned? I learned that it hurts to put your finger in the damned fire! What was I supposed to learn from your stupid test?” He started to rise from his seat.

Brother Anselm clapped his hands twice, and two large monks quickly flanked Marcello on either side. Marcello looked like he wanted to fight them right then and there, but thought better of it, given the condition of his hand.

“We will speak again tomorrow,” said Brother Anselm. And the day after that, and the day after that, until you grow tired of hearing the same two questions over and over, and go home.

This one would never be King.

Rupert approached and gestured for Marcello to precede him back to the infirmary. The two large monks followed close behind.

Brother Michael leaned toward Anselm. He was almost as old as Anselm, but portly and soft, and a wicked humor gleamed in his eyes.

“A week,” he said.

“Three days,” Anselm responded, with no change in his dour expression, though his eyes also twinkled behind his heavy lids.

“He has too much ambition. He’ll hold out for a week out of pure stubbornness.”

“Too impatient and reckless. Three days.”

Brother Michael chuckled. “We’ll see.”

After a few minutes, Rupert returned with John Travers. They invited him to sit with them.

“Thank you,” he said.

“Do you still wish to be King?” Brother Anselm asked.

“Yes, I’m still willing to be King,” John answered.

“Then let us continue the Trials,” said Brother Michael. “We will begin by asking you why you did not place your hand in the fire.”

John nodded slowly.

“At first it was fear. The bandits branded me when I was sold. I’ve felt the pain of burning, and I was afraid of it. But then, I thought this must be some kind of test of bravery, and if I didn’t do it, I’d fail the test. So I decided to do it, come what may.

“But then my hand got closer to the fire and it started to hurt, and I lost my nerve. That’s when I realized something. You never gave me any reason to put my hand in the fire. You just told me to do it. And I thought, ‘What kind of King just drops his trousers and starts dancing on his hands any time one of his advisors tells him to do it?’ That’s when I knew that the right answer to the test was to refuse. That’s what a real King would do.”

Michael and Anselm glanced at each other.

“And what,” said Brother Michael, “would you say that you learned from this test?”

John scowled. “Obviously, that a King needs to know the reason for his actions.”

“What else?” Anselm said.

John’s scowl deepened.

At last he said, “I don’t know. I need to think about it more.”

“We will speak again tomorrow,” Michael said. He clapped his hands once, and Brother Rupert approached and led John away.

“What do you think?” said Michael.

Anselm steepled his fingers, brow knitted. “ He didn’t dismiss the question, which is good. He avoided the trap of ‘The King Must Know Everything’, like it had never occurred to him. That was also good.”

“How deeply do you think he’ll answer?”

“I don’t know, Brother Michael. But I’m beginning to hope.”

-#-

When John returned to the library the next day, he wore a faint scowl and an expression of irritation.

“Does every King face the same Trials?” he asked without preamble.

“No,” Anselm answered. “The Trials are intended to allow us to see into the heart of anyone who wishes to become King. If the Trials became rote, people could train for them as they train for battle, or for an examination. They would tell us who had purchased the best trainers, and trained the hardest, but little else.”

John nodded thoughtfully. “That’s why the Trials are a mystery. So that no one can ever prepare for them.”

“Exactly.”

“So you won’t answer my next question. I want to know what Trial the last King faced at this point.”

Anselm smiled, with an apologetic shrug. “You are correct. We won’t answer that.”

“Then can you tell me about the last King himself? Can you tell me what kind of a man he was?”

“We have detailed histories and biographies of all the Kings, back to King Trevor, the first King after the collapse of the Old World.”

John’s face fell. “I can’t read. Only a few words.”

Anselm smiled again. “You should learn, but there is ample time for that. For now, we will assign a novice to read to you, if you wish.”

John’s expression cleared. “Yes, that would be wonderful.”

“So you do not wish to answer the question today?”

“No. I have no answer. Yet.”

“Then have your reader notify us when you are ready to answer,” Anselm said. He clapped his hands, and Brother Rupert took John from the room.

“Better and better,” Brother Michael said. “Do you still believe we are being manipulated?”

“That’s harder to believe with every meeting,” Anselm answered. “He doesn’t seem to know any of the answers he could give. But he’s asking all the right questions.”

“So is he an avatar?” Michael asked.

A chill went up Anselm’s spine. “Superstition. Nonsense.”

Michael studied his face, and then smiled. “But you are no longer entirely sure of that, I see.”

Anselm made a face. “You know me too well, Brother.”

Michael chuckled. “By the way, we both underestimated the intelligence of the DuBuque boy. He left this morning, like a bad storm blowing away to the East.”

Anselm smiled. “Intelligence, or pride?”

“Intelligence. Had he stayed the three days you predicted, or the seven I predicted, it would have been pride. To leave this morning meant he had already worked out that he’d failed the Trials, and there was no point in continuing.”

“He will be trouble for the new King.”

“Or his most loyal and valued subject,” Michael said.

-#-

A week passed. Word reached Brothers Anselm and Michael that John spent long hours with his reader, learning about past Kings, and his remaining time walking through the gardens and the forest that adjoined the monastery lands, accompanied always at a short distance by a minder who would observe and report any meetings with others. John, however, met with no one — he seemed to walk for the solitude.

He spent a few hours each day tending the gardens with the other monks, and one afternoon high in the coppiced trees of the firewood grove, harvesting wood — he said that heights did not bother him, and he did seem fearless, twenty feet above the ground with only branches and empty air beneath him.

There had been twenty-seven Kings, most of them with very short reigns in the tumultuous years after King Trevor. As the aftershocks of the slow crumbling of the Old World subsided, people began to govern themselves locally and trade, and eventually King Emmett abdicated in favor of the First Constitutional Trade Confederation. There were only four Kings after Emmett, and the last, King Olander, had died a little over a century ago. John had started his studies with Olander, then expanded to the others.

A second week passed, and the reader reported that John had begun to focus almost exclusively on King Olander and the previous King, particularly on the laws they laid down and enforced. Then, one morning, John sent the reader away, and spent the entire day sitting on a rock in the gardens. He sat through an afternoon rainstorm, and though he thanked the monk who brought him a towel and dry clothing afterward, he remained seated on his rock well into the night.

The next morning, he requested a meeting with Brothers Anselm and Michael.

“Do you still wish to be King?” Brother Anselm asked, formally, once they were all seated.

“No,” John answered. “If I had a home to return to, I’d want to go home.”

“Then you do not wish to continue the Trials?” Brother Michael said. Disappointment colored his voice.

“I didn’t say that,” John snapped. “I answered the question you asked.”

Anselm smiled. “So then, are you willing to be King, should we choose to endorse you?”

“Yes. I am willing.”

“Then let us continue the Trials. What lesson have you learned from the test of fire?”

“I learned the purpose of pain.”

“And what is the purpose of pain?”

“The purpose of pain is to warn us against damaging ourselves. It wasn’t until I felt the pain in my fingertips that I realized how hot that fire was, and how much damage I was about to do to myself. It wasn’t until then that I thought about what I was doing, and realized I had no good reason to do it. Without pain, I would have no finger, now, maybe no hand. I might already be dead or dying from poisoning of the blood. That’s the purpose of pain. To warn us against being stupid.”

“Why do you think this test is one of the Trials?”

“Because a King must feel pain. He must feel the pain of his people. Of his kingdom. Of its most remote parts, like the fingers and toes. Pain is what will warn him against damaging his kingdom. A King who doesn’t feel pain will always make bad decisions. He’ll sacrifice an outlying district to bandits, because it’s too far away. He’ll sacrifice his subjects, because their local customs are inconvenient, or because they’re poor and need help. He’ll sell off land and water for a quick profit in gold. He’ll betray allies, and turn them into enemies. He’ll start unnecessary wars. He’ll do all of this because he feels no pain to warn him against being stupid.”

John stared into the space between Anselm and Michael.

“The King will always feel pain. Because your Order doesn’t raise up Kings unless there is pain in the land, does it? You raise up Kings only when there is pain. And the King must feel that pain. What sane person would want that job?”

“Do you feel that pain, John Travers?” Brother Anselm asked, softly.

An expression of deep sadness crossed John’s face, and a single tear escaped from his eye and ran down his cheek.

“Yes,” he whispered.

“Then that is the answer to your question, John. The only sane person who would want the job is someone who already feels that pain. As a commoner, all you can do is suffer. As King, you might — might — be able to do something about it.”

Brother Michael leaned forward in his chair. “So, John, are you still willing to be King?”

John’s unfocused gaze went from Michael, to Anselm, and back.

“I will have advisors?” he asked.

“Who will always give you reasons,” Brother Michael said with a smile.

“Which you may disagree with,” Brother Anselm added.

John nodded, slowly.

“Then yes, I am still willing.”

“Then we will speak again tomorrow,” Brother Anselm said. He clapped once, and Brother Rupert came and took John away.

The two old men sat in silence for a time. Then Brother Michael turned his head to look at Anselm.

“Avatar?” he asked.

Anselm sat quietly without answering.

“I don’t know,” he said at last. “But I think he will be a good King.”

Copyright © 2014, Joseph C. Nemeth, all rights reserved

Coming Home

I pulled into our space with a sense of doom averted. The brakes squealed as we came to a stop in the dusty furnace that was central Texas, and Jasmine jumped out. I glanced at the gas gauge for the millionth time — we’d been riding fumes for the last twenty miles, and I kept expecting the rattling engine to die at any moment. The old GMC diesel didn’t like the fuel we’d been feeding it, which was what we could find and afford, and it had started to make terminal noises. It sounded like it had a couple thousand miles left in it, not much more. 

The good news was that new cars — well, old cars that still ran — were getting almost as cheap as the scrap price for the old ones, if you kept your eyes open and weren’t too picky. This was our third truck in as many years. When it died, I’d salvage some of the best steel and copper for my own use, then sell the rest to a scrap dealer and use the money to buy from someone else trying to unload his old gas-guzzler. It was definitely a buyer’s market. Those who could afford to, were going electric, and everyone else was making do without.

Jasmine had me back up the rig and angle it just a bit, then gave me the ‘cut’ sign. I shut off the engine, and luxuriated in the sudden silence.

“Get yo’ lazy ass outta dat truck,” Jasmine sang out, and I smiled. She had one of the most authentic Jacobean stage-accents I’d heard throughout the Circuit, which always struck me — and audiences — as exotic, given her dark-chocolate-colored skin. She had a dozen or so other accents that were pitch-perfect. Off stage, though, she fell back into her native New Orleans cadences.

“Just enjoyin’ the quiet,” I drawled back. “The brief quiet, I might add.”

“Gon’ be a lot less quiet wit’ yo’ hollerin’ in pain,” she said, and mimed cracking a whip at me. Not an idle gesture. She could split an apple at twenty paces with a horsewhip, eight times out of ten. But it was a friendly threat; she was as kind as a summer day is long, despite her well-honed tongue.

She’d been on the Circuit almost as long as I had, coming up on eight years. We’d only been together for the last five, but I thought — I hoped — we’d be together for the next fifty.

I sighed, loudly, and got out of the truck to help set up house.

HomeSweet, as we called it, was an old quad horse trailer that I’d picked up for a song and a few days’ handyman work in North Carolina a year after I’d met Jasmine. The old man that owned it had just sold the last of his horses — said he was getting too old to take care of them — and wanted me to help make his place presentable so he could sell that, too, and move to town. Jasmine and I had been fixing up the trailer over the years since, and it was very much our home.

Setup was by now a well-practiced dance.

First out were the “outbuildings,” the three canopies we used for distilling, cooking, and entertaining, which the two of us set up with little fuss. Jasmine went straight to work arranging the outdoor kitchen: she’d taken over after my second attempt to make dinner for her, and neither of us had ever looked back. She loved to cook — her grandfather had owned a restaurant in New Orleans, and she’d pretty much grown up in his kitchen. What she made was always worth eating.

While Jasmine set up the kitchen, I wheeled out my pride and joy — and my livelihood on the Circuit — my portable forge.

Old-fashioned iron-smithing was very popular on the Circuit, and a lot of smiths had portable forges, usually run on some traditional mix of charcoal or coal. They’d argue about historical authenticity, and if they got to drinking, they’d sometimes get into fights.

A few of the better-known smiths could afford propane. I’d heard of one fellow who used acetylene.

My baby was entirely different. She ran on pure ethanol. I called her Rosebud.

When I’d first started to talk about the idea, all the other smiths on the Circuit had laughed at me, and told me I was crazy, and stupid. “You can’t get any real heat out of ethanol,” they’d said. “Hell, you won’t be able to do more than fry an egg with an ethanol forge.”

The thing is, I knew that wasn’t true. You can make common table flour explode. That’s a whole pile of energy released in a fraction of a second, and if you can keep feeding it fuel, you’ll get as much heat as you please.

As an amateur brewer, I knew how easy it was to make ethanol, and sunlight and a fresnel lens or a parabolic mirror was plenty hot enough to distill it. If you didn’t intend to drink the result, the yeast was happy fermenting fruit and vegetable garbage, which was usually free. Making enough ethanol to be useful was a different issue, but again, not caring what it tasted like made everything a lot faster and easier.

The real trick lay in burning the result: it was all about the air to fuel mixture.

I kept tinkering with mixing nozzles that I made on my traditional forge, and a couple years back, I got the flame hot enough to melt pig iron. Last summer, I’d started forging improved steel nozzles using my old Rosebud Version 1.0, and the crowds loved my demonstrations, so I figured I’d reached the point where I could trade away my traditional forge. Which was a good thing, since Jasmine was tired of all the space I was taking up in HomeSweet with two forges, and the stink the charcoal residue gave our bedding during transport.

I checked Rosebud for any road damage, but she was fine. I set up my fermentation tanks and solar still, and brought out my starter batches and the last of my stock of distilled ethanol from our previous gig, just enough to get me through the first week, while the yeasts were doing their thing.

It took about an hour to set up camp to our liking, and then Jasmine made spicy bean quesadillas, New Orleans style. By the time we’d finished eating and washing up, the sun had begun to set: a burning coal casting its last baleful gaze over a baked countryside.

I grabbed a couple of bottles of my best mead — it’s always nice to start things off with good impressions — as well as a bottle of handmade whiskey, and Jasmine and I walked on in to the center of the Faire to meet everyone.

-#-

A bright bonfire marked the meeting-place, and people sat around it — at a distance, in this heat — in a half-circle on the upwind side. The Faire wouldn’t open to the public until this weekend, and it was only Wednesday, so the gathering was small.

You could spot the part-timers. They wore mundy camping clothing, hiking boots, sometimes a stylish hat. There were only two here tonight. There’d be a crowd of them come Friday night, before opening on Saturday morning.

The full-timers, like Jasmine and me, were a bit odder. Our clothing was generally much-repaired stage clothing no longer fit for performances. Most of us had well-worn custom-made boots: they fit better than anything we could find in the mundy world, they could be repaired, and we could barter for them. Where the part-timers wore wigs or fake beards and took them off in the evening, we’d sculpted our natural hair to match our stage roles. Nearly all of us wore broad-brim hats, which adds more protection against cool evenings than a jacket, and shade from sun during the day. We also have a look about the eyes that’s impossible to describe, but easy to recognize.

This was a new group for us. I’d never been on any part of the Texas circuit, but Jasmine had wanted to visit relatives in New Orleans, and we’d gotten off our normal cycle, and money had gotten thin. This was the quickest way back into resupply and our normal cycle. I nodded to everyone who met my eyes, and Jasmine and I sat on a log next to each other.

“Welcome,” called out an older fellow with enormous grey muttonchops — entirely anachronistic to both the modern day and the Renaissance, but he looked good in them. He wore what was once a bright red jacket dotted with buttons, which had faded to a dull maroon, and a tricorn hat. “I go by Prester John.”

My eyebrows went up. I’d heard of Prester John — he was a bit of a legend on the Circuit. There’d been an incident somewhere, Colorado I think, and a confrontation with a bunch of locals that had escalated until the local sheriff had shown up. That usually didn’t end well for our sort; local law considered us drifters at best. Prester John had somehow de-escalated the whole thing. Tales of what he’d done ranged from the incredible to the absurd, but the most plausible was that he had connections in high places from his pre-Circuit days, and simply made a couple of phone calls. In my mind, that was even more impressive than the fantastical tales. 

Jasmine stood and curtseyed, not a full stage curtsey, but the more restrained — and more refined — version that we use amongst ourselves as a gesture of respect.

“Jasmine Droulliard,” Jasmine said, and sat.

“George Swivert,” I said, as I stood and offered a respectful bow.

Prester John nodded. “Jasmine. Mistress of the whip, and the knife-edged tongue, and the healing touch. Your reputation precedes you, my dear, but does not do justice to your beauty. And George. Aren’t you the fellow with the forge that runs on hooch? They say you’ve made your own steel.”

I shook my head. “Maybe next year. I can shape steel, but I can’t make it. Yet.”

“Well, there’s no shortage of steel,” he said. “Not in our lifetimes. So why don’t the rest of you introduce yourselves to Jasmine and George, and make them feel welcome? And George, I see you’ve brought a couple of bottles of something. Why don’t you send them around? We don’t stand on ceremony around here.”

I sent the bottles on their way, my two year raspberry mead. It’s hard to go wrong with a raspberry mead, but this one had turned out to be something exceptional. Introductions went around the circle, while soft comments like, “Oh, my!” and “God’s Eyes!” and “Holy Shit!” followed the bottles.

In due time, I passed the whiskey around. Prester John coughed, and snorted, and asked if this was the stuff I fed the forge. He made a face and handed it to the next person. I laughed, not in the least offended. Distilling anything better than rot-gut is an art, and not one I’d mastered. It was clean whiskey — no methanol in it. But keeping the heavier stuff balanced is very tricky. Too little, and you end up with pure ethanol, which is nearly tasteless. Too much, and it will try to claw its way back out of your stomach, and out through your eyeballs. This wasn’t quite that bad, but it had some very sharp fingernails. “Oh, my!” and “God’s Eyes!” and “Holy Shit!” followed it around, too, with entirely the opposite meaning from before. But it kept circulating, and pretty soon everyone was singing.

I caught Jasmine’s eye, and winked. She smiled back. This Faire was a paid gig, and gave us a market to sell our goods and services to the mundies, but it was also the trade community that sustained us. Hand-crafted boots were only a small part of it; fabrics, buttons, thread, non-perishable foods, books, and know-how were also traded, by barter. I’d long ago learned that it greased the barter wheels to start things off with a gift of some value, like my better meads. After tonight, no one here would hesitate to trade with us. I’d get a goodly share of barter orders for copper, silver, iron, and steel working, and Jasmine would get good trade for her herbals and some of the more potent medicines in her pharmacopeia. We both had long lists of items we needed, including fuel for the truck. We’d make enough cash off the mundies to pay for necessities we couldn’t barter for.

All good.

As the fire died and the party started to break up, Prester John moved around the circle to sit near us. He made small talk for a bit, but it was clear that something troubled him. We both waited for him to work up to it.

“Either of you stay current with news?” he asked, at last.

I looked at Jasmine, who glanced back at me.

“Not really,” Jasmine said.

Prester John’s troubled expression deepened.

“Well, I’ll come straight to the point. Texas is thinking about passing anti-miscegenation laws. The legislature has already put the bill up for debate, and has the votes to pass it. Governor’s on the fence. If he signs it, it’ll surely come to a Supreme Court battle. All of which is neither here nor there. The important thing is that there’s a lot of folk in Texas who support such a dumb-ass thing.”

I was having trouble following the conversation. Anti-miscegenation? What the Hell was that? And why should we care? I glanced at Jasmine, but she’d apparently understood something, because her mouth hung open and her eyes were wide and white.

Prester John could see my confusion.

“What I’m tryin’ to tell you, George, is that there’s a lot of dumb hillbillies in this state who will take offense at a white man bein’ with a black woman. You’re safe here, with us, but best not to make too big a show of affection once the hillbillies show up, and watch yourselves when you leave.”

-#-

This Faire ran for six weeks, and it was a lot bigger than most of the Faires in my regular route. As I’d expected, orders came thick and fast. There were three other smiths who set up shop, but my forge was a novelty and I drew most of the business, while the other smiths walked past and gave me the stink-eye. I sweetened matters by turning down high-profit work I could have done, passing it to the other smiths.

The mundies wanted all kinds of copper, silver, and iron work, and I quickly became a favorite customer of the local scrap dealer; I sweetened relations even more by scoring some good scrap deals, then bartering with the other smiths at a loss. Two of them eventually came to me with orders for ethanol nozzles — they wanted to try them out — and I charged top trade and more than made back my losses.

The Circuit folk mostly wanted steel work done, I think because they didn’t believe I could do it. I had to turn most of them down, because working steel ate through my fuel too fast. As it was, I had to buy extra ethanol from the outside every week, just to keep up. They were gracious, and usually asked for the same item in bronze, instead, which I was more inclined to make for them. That’s one of the little things I’ve noticed about barter versus money trade — the mundies always got royally pissed off if you ever told them, “No.” They always took it personally that you wouldn’t accept their money to do exactly what they wanted. The people who traded things they’d made themselves, understood that one man can only do so much in a day.

Jasmine did brisk trade in her medicinals, all for barter, mostly for fresh ingredients. Her remedies were mainly herbals, not regulated by law, and should have been safe for her to trade. But she still refused to sell them to the mundies; she was worried someone might take a turn for the worse, blame her, and set the authorities on her tail. She also had a few recipes that were more potent, and definitely would not be looked on kindly by the law. She wouldn’t even barter for those, but would administer them herself when they were needed, and then gift the medicine if the person needed more. The person so gifted was invariably grateful, and would find an indirect way to repay her. 

But what she loved was the stage, second only to cooking. She had a genius for improvisational theater, and she could get right into the theme of anyone else’s skit as a bit player. She gave regular demonstrations with the bullwhip for the mundies, and enthralled them with tales of how the whip had been used in the past, at least half of which were true. Partially true, anyway. She also did Tarot and astrology readings, and gave one hell of a show. She’d use a Caribbean accent with a lot of Cajun thrown in, and she was a skilled cold reader who raised hairs on her customer’s necks and sent them on their way thoroughly convinced their money had been well-spent on a true psychic. She’d tell me about the funniest of those readings as we lay in bed at night, and we’d both laugh and laugh.

There were also several trance readings. She never, ever talks about those. They come on her like a fit, and she will accept nothing for them — not money, not trade, not even gift. They leave her exhausted, and since they are the real hoodoo, they’re almost always very disturbing for the recipient. She’d given me one, years ago, and it had scared the crap out of me: she’d told me things about my family that I didn’t even know. I’d had to call relatives, and they were as spooked as I was, and wanted to know how I’d found out. The reading explained a lot about my family, though, and let me make peace with my brother just before he died. That was how a trance reading always worked: it never revealed anything that someone wanted to know, it was something they needed to know.

Though she loved performance, and I loved working the metal, the best times were our potlucks, which we held under our entertainment canopy. By Jasmine’s imperious order, people were not allowed to bring any cooked dishes, only raw ingredients. Jasmine would look over the offerings, then set different people to work at various tasks, chopping, simmering, whipping, dredging. She played the master chef, and within an hour, we’d have a feast unlike anything these people had eaten in a year. We had space for only a dozen people, but we slowly worked our way through the whole crew, mixing them up in different combinations like they themselves were raw ingredients in a savory people-stew, or separate metals alloyed together into something brighter and stronger than any individual.

Best of all, of course, was that Jasmine and I ate for free.

We spent a lot of time mixing with other folk in their camps, trading stories, recipes, and gossip. Every evening the central meeting fire burned. We’d usually stroll through, just to see if anything interesting was going on — sometimes the musicians would improvise, which was always fun to watch, and once two of them got into a friendly insult competition. When they ran out of things to say, Jasmine stepped in and casually critiqued both of their performances, and in the process questioned their manhood, the improbability that their parents had been of the same species, the competence of the doctor that had allowed them to live, and so forth. She held out for five long minutes, never once repeating herself or resorting to a vulgar word, and without so much as a pause for anything but the frequent bursts of laughter from the onlookers. Both musicians groveled at her feet when she was done, and wrote a song on the spot they dedicated to her, called Queen of Jibe.

The air cooled by imperceptible degrees as the days grew shorter, until we finally needed light blankets at night.

It was a blessed six weeks, and the last weeks of the life we knew.

-#-

As Faire closing approached, I tapered off my work, so I could build up a small stock of fuel for the next gig, and Jasmine started to pack away her new pharmaceutical ingredients for travel. This Faire had been a real windfall for her — lots of plants were available in Texas that were hard to find anywhere else, and she’d held out in trade for those rarities. I’d scored nearly a hundred pounds of prickly-pear honey. Honey of any sort was hard to come by any more, but prickly-pear was a real find.

Prester John showed up at our camp one evening, just before sunset. He had a worried look on his face, as usual, and I wondered if he ever stopped worrying. Or maybe it was just the way his face was built.

“‘Lo, Prester John,” I called out.

“‘Lo George,” he said. “You two got a minute?”

Jasmine turned our dinner down to a simmer. I’d adapted her stoves to ethanol with some of my low-power nozzles, and she hadn’t yet stopped thanking me.

“Look,” Prester John said, “I know you two planned to head west, and it’s hardly my place to tell anyone what to do, but….” He hesitated.

“Spit it out, Prester John,” Jasmine said. “You don’ stand on ceremony, we don’ stand on ceremony, neither.”

“You know the Texas legislature passed that anti-miscegenation law. And the governor signed it. A week ago.”

Yeah, we knew. People hadn’t been able to stop talking about it. We both nodded.

“I’m worried there’ll be trouble. For you two.”

“Trouble?” I said. “What kind of trouble?”

“I don’t know, exactly,” Prester John admitted. “But the mood is ugly out there. I’ve been gathering news. There’s been a lot of beatings, and some killings. Cross-burning has come back. Cops are mixed up in it. We’re smack in the middle of Texas, and it’s a long way to the border. Any border. I’d like … well, I’d like you folk to travel with us, leastwise until we’re all out of Texas. After that, you can go your own way. It’d make me feel better, and I’d consider it a personal favor.”

“Thought you was headed fo’ Galveston,” Jasmine said.

“Changed my mind,” he replied. “Leavin’ Texas and goin’ north.”

“North?” I said. “It’s nearly Christmas, Prester John!”

His unhappy face grew unhappier.

“I waited too long,” he said, quietly. “We shoulda gone last summer. But that’s spilt milk, and there aren’t any good options left.”

“What you talkin’ ‘bout?” Jasmine said.

Prester John sighed. “The country is going insane, Jasmine. Texas just legalized racism, and people are starting to die because of it. There’s other stuff going on in other parts of the country. Bad things.”

“It’s still America, Prester John,” I said. “We’re not Texas residents, we’re just passing through. They can’t—“

“It ain’t America no more, George,” Jasmine interrupted. “That’s what Prester John is tellin’ us.”

I stared at Jasmine in surprise. She never interrupted people. And I’d never heard that tone in her voice. Not once in five years.

“Yeah, George,” she said, answering my unspoken question. “I’m scared. I’m a black woman in a racist Texas, an’ I’m scared.”

And that made me feel like a damned fool, because I realized I was blustering.

I was blustering because I was just as scared as Jasmine.

-#-

We passed the patrol car somewhere just past Beaumont, headed east back into Louisiana.

I still had a hard time believing I’d agreed to head north at this time of year, and with every mile that clocked by under our wheels, I felt more foolish for letting Prester John talk me into it. We’d had no trouble at all, and I wondered if John had gone a little tin-foil-hat loopy. It happens quite a bit on the Circuit — the community has a lot of eccentrics, and we are, after all, on the fringes of polite society, so it doesn’t take much to slip over the edge and start worrying about the Illuminati, or the Communists, or the Tea Party, or some other fictional conspiracy from the past.

Our original plan, Jasmine’s and mine, had been to head more or less straight west into New Mexico, then through Arizona and into Southern California. Southern New Mexico had become Old Mexico in all but name, due to the exiled Mexican Army that had moved north shortly after the marijuana trade broke down, so I’d always gone north through Roswell and up to Albuquerque. John’s information was that the Army had moved further north, and that Albuquerque was now under their control. I wasn’t sure I believed it, but I sure didn’t want to find out the hard way.

That left north, through Oklahoma, or east, into Louisiana.

Oklahoma was out. Bunch of religious nut-cases, even by Texas standards, and they’d gotten their panties in a twist about Islam at some point and passed laws deporting all the Muslims from their Christian state. Supreme Court had struck down every last one of them, but not before they’d put up entry-point guards at all the major roads into the state. Called it a highway tax, now, but it was straightforward robbery, and they were mean bastards, too: they’d turn your trailer inside out, and steal stuff while you weren’t looking. Plus, that route would take us into Kansas. Everyone knew about the gunfight they’d had in their State Congress some years back over teaching the theory of evolution in the schools. Since the heat had started to ruin the crops, and then the Ogallala aquifer got poisoned, Kansas had sunk the bottom of the dumb-shit states. It was a huge stretch of nothing, punctuated with dangerous lawlessness. No one went through Kansas if they could help it.

So that left east. Back the way we’d come. Then all the way north to Omaha before we could bend west again.

We were all flush with cash after the Faire, so fuel shouldn’t be a problem. It hadn’t gone up much in the last six weeks. Whether the vehicles would handle the miles was a bit more worrisome.

So we were caravanning, about forty of us in six vehicles including a big yellow school bus, and passed a patrol car parked to the side of the road. I glanced at my speedometer — ten under the limit, since we weren’t in a hurry, and wanted to save fuel. The old highway was almost deserted this time of day: the trucks traveled at night to cut down on fuel evaporation, and there was very little electric car traffic on this stretch. These guys had pulled a crap shift — must have been caught raiding the donut jar in the break room.

About a minute later, I saw the flashing lights in my rear-view mirror.

We were second from the end, so the truck behind us pulled over, and then we did. The patrol car pulled in front of us and stopped. The vehicle in front of us saw the lights and pulled over a long way ahead, but the rest of the group vanished over a small hill. Jasmine got our papers out of the glove box, and I held them in one hand, both hands visible on the wheel. 

Two officers got out of the patrol car. They walked past our vehicle, and stopped at the window of the truck behind us. There was some kind of argument, and a few sharp gestures. Then the truck behind us pulled back into the road and drove past us. One of the officers walked back to my window, which was already down. I didn’t see the other officer.

“Please step out of the car, sir,” the officer on my side said. He was white, stocky, and wore mirrored sunglasses, though the day was muggy and overcast. My heart started to pound.

I carefully placed my papers on the dashboard, and got out of the car. The officer made me put my hands on the hood of the truck, and frisked me. I heard voices on the other side of the truck, and then heard the door open. Jasmine put her hands on the other side of the truck. Her eyes were wide and white. I saw the other officer bend and begin to frisk her. Her eyes closed and she shuddered. A single tear ran down her cheek.

“What is in the trailer, sir?” my officer said.

“We live in it,” I said. “Just personal effects.”

“The two of you cohabit?” the officer asked.

“Is that your business?” I asked.

“As of last week, yes, sir, it is.”

“And you are just doing your duty.”

There was a pause.

“Please answer my question, sir.”

A choice reply came to mind, but the words froze in my throat as the other officer calmly drew his gun and pointed it at the back of Jasmine’s head. She must have seen it in my face. Her eyes grew wide in terror.

“Please answer my question, sir.” The face of the officer holding the gun was as blank as a stone carving. I tried to wake up from the nightmare, but the sour taste in my throat, the pounding of my heart, seemed so completely real.

I heard the soft squeal of brakes behind me, then the sound of a car door opening.

“Get back in your car!” I heard the officer behind me shout. I heard more soft squeals and the crunch of gravel.

“I’m sorry, officer, but I cannot do that.” Prester John’s voice was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard in my life. “I am his legal counsel. And there are at least twenty witnesses in that bus behind me, and more in the other vehicles. If you intend to do murder, you will be long into the night burying the bodies.”

The officer behind Jasmine lowered his gun a few inches, indecisively. I could not see his eyes, but I thought I saw fear in the set of his mouth.

“You are interfering with my duty as an officer of the laws of Texas,” the officer behind me said.

“I certainly hope so,” Prester John said. “Precisely what duty are you performing?”

“I am questioning this man.”

“And what is the question?”

“Whether he is cohabiting with this black woman.”

“I see,” said Prester John. “And you believe this to be against the law?”

“It is,” the officer said.

“It is not. The law specifically prohibits miscegenation, which involves the creation of a child as the offspring of mixed-race parents. The woman is not pregnant, and there is no child. You are in error, officer. No law has been broken.”

“You get back in your goddamn car!” The officer shouted. I heard a rustle, and a metallic click. I risked a glance over my shoulder. The officer had drawn his gun, and it was pointed directly at Prester John’s chest. John had both hands raised casually to shoulder level with his fingers spread.

“Are you going to shoot me, officer?” Prester John asked. “Then do so. With both my hands raised and empty, in front of witnesses. Even in this shithole of a state, you will never again walk as a free man.”

There was a long silence.

“Let me sweeten this for you, officer,” Prester John said. “We are leaving the state. We do not intend to come back. No laws have been broken, no shots have been fired, no paperwork needs to be filed. A routine traffic stop. Nothing more.”

Another long silence followed. Then the officer holstered his gun.

“That road,” he said, pointing east. “Don’t stop, and don’t come back. Get your nigger-lovin’ asses and that black cunt out of my state.”

He turned and walked back to his vehicle, and I saw his partner get in on the passenger side. They pulled a tight U-turn on the road, and the tires squealed as they pulled away.

I ran to Jasmine, and wrapped her tight in my arms. She was trembling like a child sick with fever. I held her and stroked her hair and cried without shame until she stopped shivering.

“You okay?” I asked, when she looked up at me.

“No,” she said. “Just hold me.”

Prester John stood near us, staring back down the road where the officers’ vehicle had vanished. We both followed his gaze down the empty road.

“Those men were evil,” Jasmine said. Her voice held astonishment and hatred.

“Yes,” Prester John said quietly. “They are evil.”

He was silent for a long moment, then looked at Jasmine.

“Do you hate them?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said.

Prester John sighed. “Then you take the first steps down the same road they walk.”

Jasmine’s eyes grew wide, and angry. “You tellin’ me you don’ hate ‘em?”

Something terrible and sad entered Prester John’s expression.

“Oh, no,” he said. “I hate them. I hate them with all my soul. That is why I know where that road leads.”

-#-

Something changed in me after that. It took a while to identify it; when I finally found the words, it was that I’d lost my homeland. Before that ugly incident in Texas, I lived on the fringes, but it was the fringes of my country. My land. My people, every last, lovable idiot in the lot. After that, I lived in the shadows of a foreign land, full of hostile and evil people who were anywhere from mildly to totally insane.

The landscape grew larger, and more frightening. I’d broken down plenty in my years on the road, but I’d always just hitched a ride to the nearest tow truck, paid with good stories or companionable silence, and marveled at the kindness of strangers. Now, I looked out the windows and wondered how far I’d get before someone took a shot at me, or worse, at Jasmine. My black cunt. The ugliness of those words swam in my head.

Jasmine had been right. This was no longer America. My homeland was gone.

We drove through to Omaha in one long drive, nearly twenty hours straight, in shifts, with five stops for fuel. Omaha lies at the confluence of the Missouri and Platte Rivers, and had not been completely destroyed by the poisoning of the Ogallala, the way the rest of Nebraska and Kansas had. We found a farmer who would let us rest up in his field for a day or two in exchange for some work. It was important to have permission in these parts, what with all the people passing through, trying to find a new place to live. A lot of farmers shot trespassers on sight, and the city cops were worse.

The thought of going back to the Circuit no longer appealed to me. I tried to picture the cosplay, the festival atmosphere, the easy camaraderie, but it seemed like a story read long ago and almost forgotten. All those well-to-do mundies, spending easy money on hand-crafted trinkets and baubles, unaware of their homeland bleeding out under their feet, the corpse despoiled by thugs and thieves. I tried to remember the last thing I’d made on my forge for cash. I couldn’t.

I dreamed several times a night of dinner around the fire with my friends, and then faceless men in mirrored glasses would march in and steal away Jasmine, and all my friends, and all the food, and I’d wake up shouting and sweating.

It was worse for Jasmine. I’d wake in the night to hear her sobbing on her pillow. I’d seen her face, the way she’d closed her eyes and shuddered. The single tear. She would not talk about it, and I felt as helpless as I’ve ever felt. I started to understand what Prester John had meant. I hated that cop, hated him with all my soul, and my hate was dragging me down into the darkness.

Our third night in Omaha, Prester John called a meeting.

“We’re at a crossroads,” he said, “in more than one way. Omaha is in about the center of the country. It’s as good a place as any, and better than most, for figurin’ out where we go next. We’re also between past and future, and the world is changin’ mighty fast. So I’m gonna share my vision, and then you folk can maybe share your own visions, and discuss matters. But we can’t just squat here on Mr. Prescott’s land. We need to make decisions.

“So here’s my vision. I think we need to drop out of sight. For good. World out here is fallin’ apart, and it isn’t gonna get any better in our lifetimes. Everything people depend on — trucks, electronics, governments, money — it’s all goin’ away. That isn’t so bad for us. We’re already livin’ mostly on our own. We just need to make one more step, though it’s a hard one. Worst part of that is we’ll have to figure out how to get our own food. We buy it from others, we need money, and that means we need paid work, and that means we settle down as ordinary citizens. I think I’d rather die. But that’s me. You each might figure different.

“So here’s my plan, such as it is. We head for the Pacific Northwest, walk into the forest, and never come back out.”

Silence greeted this proposal.

“Why the Pacific Northwest?” one of the younger men asked.

Prester John shrugged. “Anywhere we go’s a gamble. But we’ve got another fifty years of warming, and the south is gonna get really bad — not just the heat, but the drought, except where there’s swamps, and I’d bet on malaria and yellow fever comin’ back. Further north will be cooler. Inland gets polar conditions pretty regularly, so places like the Great Lakes or Canada we’ve got to survive bitter cold winters. East and central will have good places, but there’s already people there, and we’d need to settle down and be farmers, and fight for our land. We know that the native Americans lived on the Pacific Coast, and lived pretty well. Bottom line is, it just feels right to me. Any of you have a better suggestion, I’m listenin’.”

The discussion went on for hours, and then Prester John told us to all sleep on it.

That night, I had a strange dream of an angel. It was telling me something important, but I could not understand the language.

I woke up, and found Jasmine sitting up in bed. She was speaking softly, though there was no one else in the room. I tried to understand what she was saying, but the words made no sense. They rose and fell like one side of a conversation. I realized she was having a trance reading for herself, and lay still, so as to not interrupt. The conversation wound to some kind of conclusion, then Jasmine suddenly turned and looked directly at me. She was smiling.

“George,” she said, and her voice sounded like an old friend, delighted to see me again after a long time apart. “Your homeland is not lost. It is simply not yet found. All will be well. All shall be well. All manner of things shall be well.”

And then Jasmine lay down and closed her eyes, with a faint smile on her face.

-#-

When I woke the next morning, I realized I’d decided to follow Prester John to the coast. I told Jasmine, and she smiled and said, “Of course,” like I’d announced I’d decided to eat today. She was easy and playful all day, and when we went to bed, she pulled me close and we made love for the first time since Texas. The hate let go of me, just a little.

About ten of our group said they wanted to head east and try to find a place to settle down. The rest of us decided to make a go of the forest with Prester John. We thanked farmer Prescott for the use of his land, and Mrs. Prescott sent us all on our way with four pies gifted in exchange for the promise that we’d do some good in our lives.

We gave up the school bus to the other group, and thirty of us crowded into five vehicles. We did no more marathon drives, but took the trip in easy stages of four to six hours, through Sioux Falls to Rapid City, then to Bozeman, and then Spokane. Good weather stayed with us: it had been a warm fall, and not a trace of snow on the ground all the way through mid-December. We all knew that we were going wilderness camping for the rest of our lives, and winter snows were just around the corner. We should have been worried sick about what we were going to eat all winter, but somehow, we weren’t.

As we drove west from Spokane, Jasmine started to move her head around like she was casting for a scent. We came to an intersection with a small forest road, and she suddenly said, “Turn. Here.” I glanced at her. I couldn’t tell if she was in trance, but I turned the wheel, and the others followed.

At each turning, she’d look around, then indicate which direction we should go. The road grew narrower, then turned to dirt, then to ruts. We came to a small clearing, and the ruts ended. There was nowhere else to go.

“Are we there yet?” someone quipped.

“We’ll be there when we get there,” I growled, and everyone laughed.

“We’re here,” Jasmine said, “but they’re not.”

“Who’s ‘they’?” I asked, but she ignored me. For the first time, and the last, the thought occurred to me that Jasmine’s mind had snapped, and that she and Prester John had led us out into the wilderness to die. I shrugged it off.

We got out of the vehicles. The air was chilly, but the sun was bright.

“I think we should have a fire,” Prester John said.

“Yes,” said Jasmine. “A fire would be appropriate.”

The others gathered firewood while I dug a safety pit for the fire. Within minutes, we had a fire going.

They came out of the forest as we sat around the fire, almost shyly, though they carried hunting bows and moved as silently as cats.

“We wondered when you would come,” said their leader, a tall, wiry young woman with red hair cut short. “I am Mirabelle.”

And so we met the people of the woods, who took us in, and taught us to hunt, and trap, and fish, and survive in the forested wilderness, and made us family. How they had come to be there is another story, for another time.

And so that is how I found my true homeland, the homeland I had never lost.

Copyright © 2014, Joseph C. Nemeth, all rights reserved

Ragnar, Guardian of the Innocents

WARNING: this is NOT a happy story with a happy ending.

Long ago lived a man named Ragnar, tall as a standing bear and twice as strong. Though he was mighty, he was short of temper, and a brute entirely without honor. The reputation of his strength and brutality spread, and attracted other low men of like temperament. They grew strong, and hunted the forest without thought for the wintering of their prey, and took from the villages and Free Clans whatsoever they pleased.

One day, they came upon a Clan of Artisans. Within the Clan lived and worked a man named Parnassus, the greatest of the Artisans, who had the art of making the resonant stones that form the heart of the radio. Parnassus would freely craft a radio for any Clan that came to him, but asked in return a gift price for his own Clan. Those who accepted the radios were happy to pay this price, for the radio was like magic, allowing people to talk to each other as though they stood in the same tent, yet they were separated by many miles.

Now Ragnar had heard of Parnassus and his radios, and in his raids, had tried to take them for his own use. But he did not understand the speech of the radio operators, nor how to operate the radio himself, and thought it was some kind of magic that bound the radio to its owner. So when they found Parnassus, he hid his brutal nature and pretended to be of a distant Clan, and asked Parnassus for a radio of his own. Parnassus gifted him one, and instructed him in how to use it, and named the gift price. Ragnar laughed, and promised to return with the price.

But Ragnar had not listened well to Parnassus’ instructions, and still could not make the radio work. So he returned with his men to demand that Parnassus fix the radio….

-#-

“Where is he?” Ragnar roared. “Where is the old man?”

Parnassus emerged from his tent near the forge. He was a slight man, stooped from his work, with a bald head and a long, white beard. He was the last person in the village whom anyone would guess was a master smith, but his trade did not shape iron, but more delicate things.

“What can I do for you?” he asked.

“This!” Ragnar bellowed, and held up a tangle of wires and bits of metal, from which hung a splintered wooden box. “Fix it!”

Parnassus held out his hand, and Ragnar dropped the tangle into it.

“What happened to it?” Parnassus asked.

“It offended me,” Ragnar growled. “And so I silenced it.”

“Offended you?”

“Yes. I was speaking into it, and it suddenly spoke and told me to … to …” He scowled and looked to his lieutenant.

“It instructed our Lordship to ‘Get his ass off this channel.’”

“Right,” Ragnar shouted. “‘Get my ass off this channel.’ Whatever that means. I did not like his tone.”

Parnassus sighed.

“You have delivered the gift price?” he asked.

Ragnar’s men became very still. Ragnar bent until he was eye-to-eye with the smith.

“What did you say?”

“I asked if you had delivered the gift price, which I set when I gave you the radio.”

“Why should I offer you anything for a piece of garbage that does not WORK?” Ragnar’s voice rose to a howl on the last word.

“It does not work because you destroyed it,” Parnassus said. “By your own account, it worked perfectly, right up until that moment.”

Ragnar rolled his shoulders, and sharpened steel was suddenly at Parnassus’ throat.

“Fix it,” Ragnar whispered, “or I will open your neck.”

Parnassus returned Ragnar’s glare evenly.

“Kill me, and you will have no radio. No one else can make them.”

Ragnar’s grip on the blade tightened.

Ragnar’s lieutenant bent carefully and murmured to Ragnar, “My master, we do need the radio. For the … campaign. I suggest you let him live.”

Ragnar glared at Parnassus for a few more moments. Then with a roar of rage, he drove the knife blade into the ground, missing Parnassus’ foot by a fraction of an inch. He stood, panting. His face was red, and a vein throbbed on his forehead. He turned to walk away.

“The gift price?” Parnassus said.

Ragnar froze. He turned slowly, disbelief on his face, and stared at Parnassus, who stared back impassively.

Something evil appeared in Ragnar’s eyes, and he smiled.

“You have a girl,” Ragnar said, his voice suddenly mild and conversational. “I remember her from when we came before. She works here, does she not?” He gestured and snapped his fingers, and two of his men strode toward Parnassus’ tent. Parnassus’ stare wavered. Ragnar’s grin widened.

The two men returned with a struggling girl of about twelve. She had long blond hair, bound in a pair of braids. She beat ineffectually at her captors’ leathers.

“Our gift, old man, will be a little girl. Will that suffice?”

Parnassus held Ragnar’s gaze for a moment longer, then he lowered his eyes.

“Yes,” he said. “Release the girl, and I will fix your radio.”

“No,” Ragnar said. “You will fix the radio, and then we will release the girl.”

A crowd had by now gathered around the dispute, and stood silent, watching. Anguish twisted Parnassus’ face.

“My brothers and sisters!” Parnassus cried out. “Will you stand and watch and do nothing?”

One of Ragnar’s men casually unholstered a shotgun slung across his back, and pumped a shell into the chamber. The others put their hands on knife hilts, but did not draw them. The crowd grew more silent still. And then, slowly, it began to disperse, until no one remained but Parnassus, Ragnar and his men, and the blond girl, who wept silently.

“Work quickly, old man,” Ragnar said with a wolfish grin. Then he and his men strode away with the girl.

-#-

Parnassus worked as swiftly as he could, using what parts he could salvage from the ruined radio to complete the radio he had in progress, but it was hours later that he sent a boy to run and tell Ragnar that the work was done. 

Ragnar returned a half hour after that, with his men. Parnassus gestured to the finished radio. Ragnar picked it up and turned to leave.

“The girl?” Parnassus said.

Ragnar stopped and turned back. He was grinning.

“Oh, that’s right, I’d almost forgotten. Your gift.”

He gestured, and one of his men dropped a limp form on the ground. Without another word, Ragnar and his men strode away.

Parnassus ran to the girl, and gently turned her. She still breathed, but she did not react when he touched her. Bruises covered her face and arms. Blood ran from one ear, and the pupil of one eye had swallowed up all the color. He cradled the girl in his arms, and the crowd slowly gathered again. Two healers stepped forward, and gently took the girl from Parnassus. He bent forward until his forehead touched the ground, and his shoulders began to shake.

-#-

The girl died that night.

Parnassus did not sleep that night, or the next. He sat at the entrance to his tent, and ate nothing, and drank nothing. On the dawn of the third day, he entered the tent, and emerged with a large blacksmith’s hammer. It looked enormous next to his fragile frame, and he dragged it to his forge, where he stood, staring into the heat-stained steel bowl where he blended the materials that gave life to his radios.

He lifted the hammer to chest height, still gazing into the bowl. A crowd again began to gather. One of the elders stepped forward.

“Parnassus…?” she said, gently, but Parnassus raised the hammer above his head, with with one swift motion, brought it down on the delicate nozzle that mixed the acetylene gas and air. The nozzle shattered.

“Parnassus!” the elder cried. Parnassus raised the hammer again, and brought it down on the shaped reflectors, deforming them, destroying their ability to focus heat.

“Parnassus, NO!” the elder shrieked, as Parnassus swung the hammer in a circle and smashed the valves that regulated the flow of gasses. A spark from the grinding metals ignited a residual burst of acetylene that escaped from the tank, and a gout of yellow flame shot upward and then went out.

“What have you done?” the elder said, aghast.

“What have I done?” Parnassus asked. “What have I done? She was my granddaughter, and my apprentice, and the last thing I loved in all the world, and you all stood by and watched and did nothing. Nothing. You are not worthy of my craft, my knowledge, or my friendship.”

He glared at each member of the Clan with his bloodshot eyes, and one by one, they dropped their gaze. He glared last at the elder.

“You are right, Parnassus,” she said, closing her eyes. “We failed you. We failed each other. We have lost our honor. Tell us, is there anything, anything that we can do to repay this debt of shame?”

“Yes,” said Parnassus. “You must bring Ragnar to me here, bound and helpless and alive. You must do this to regain your honor.”

“But how can we do such a thing?” the elder asked. “We do not practice the arts of war.”

“You hunt,” Parnassus said, “and Ragnar is but a clever animal. I have built many radios over the years, and gifted them to the Clans: use them to gather the Clans, and coordinate your hunt. Together, you are many, and his men are few. Kill his men, and bring him to me alive, and then I will rebuild the forge, and take a new apprentice.”

“It shall be done,” the elder said, and the crowd murmured its assent.

-#-

“Otter, one o’ clock, no visual yet.”

“Wolf, six o’clock, we’ve got visual.”

“Lynx, nine o’ clock, no visual, but I can smell ‘em.”

Ragnar scowled at the squawking radio. It crackled and went silent. He smacked his underling on the back of the head, who responded by spinning the crank on the side of the box. The faint crackling returned.

Ragnar looked to his lieutenant, who scanned the forest around them with a worried expression on his face. 

“What is this infernal box babbling about?” Ragnar growled.

His lieutenant continued to watch the woods. “My lord, I think they are hunting. They are closing in on their prey.”

“So what is this nonsense about time? It’s barely after noon!”

“They are using the radio to coordinate their hunt, my lord. They are closing in from different directions.”

“That’s clever!” said Ragnar. His eyes gleamed at the thought of the advantage this would give them in their raids. “We need more radios. It’s too bad we don’t know where these are hunting. We could take theirs. You — keep turning that crank.” He aimed another swat at the radio tender.

“Otter, visual.”

“Lynx, visual.”

“Count off.”

In rapid succession, different voices called off numbers from one to six, punctuated by sharp pops and crackles. Ragnar leaned forward, a wolfish grin on his face. He liked this radio — it was exciting.

His lieutenant was pale, and licked his dry lips. “My lord, I think—“

The radio crackled. “Hey, Ragnar!” it said. “You listening in?”

Ragnar sat up straight.

“We’re half-brothers, you know that? My pa, he was a cheap bastard. Used to tell me your ma was the cheapest whore in town. Said she couldn’t charge much ‘cause she was so ugly.”

Ragnar’s eyes went wide in shock. His face reddened, and a vein began to throb in his forehead.

“Said she was stupid, too. Dumb as a cow. Looks like you took after her on both counts.”

My Lord!” his lieutenant shouted, but Ragnar wasn’t listening. He rose to his feet with a roar and reached out with both hands to grab the radio and crush the life from it.

To arms!” his lieutenant shouted. “To a—“

The scarlet point of an arrow bloomed from his chest. He choked in mid-shout, and fell to one knee. The other men had risen in a panic at his shout, but they started to fall like rotten trees in a windstorm. Several dove for cover. A single shotgun blast rang out, then the shooter fell with three arrows sprouting from his body.

Ragnar stood motionless, his face red, lips flecked with spittle. Then he came to his senses, and tried to run.

Six short arrows tipped with blunt stones flew at him from three different directions. Each pair whispered past harmlessly to either side, then snapped to a sudden stop and whirled around him upon the cord strung between them. He stumbled and fell heavily to his knees.

Shadows moved swiftly in the darkness under the trees. One of Ragnar’s men had found a bow as he dove for cover, and loosed one shot, which brought a cry of pain from the tree shadows. A dozen feathers bloomed from him as he reached for a second arrow.

The shadows emerged from the trees, and there were brief cries as the rest of Ragnar’s men were found and killed. The hunters formed a circle around Ragnar, who struggled to free his arms from the cords wrapped around him. One of the hunters stepped forward, a long wooden pole in his hand. He smiled, but his eyes were cold as a winter night.

“Hello, half-brother,” the hunter said.

Ragnar glared and bellowed curses. The hunter waited silently until Ragnar ran down.

“She was like a daughter to us,” the hunter said, quietly. Then he swung his pole, hard.

-#-

The hunters marched Ragnar to the forge, and forced him to his knees. His elbows were bound behind his back, and his hands in front. His face was bloodied, and one eye was swollen shut, but the other glared naked hate at Parnassus. He strained against his bonds.

Parnassus watched him impassively. Then his gaze encompassed the crowd, which was many times larger than before.

“You have taken the first step toward regaining your honor,” he cried out, so that all could hear. “Now, you must complete the journey. For myself, I care nothing for what you do with this piece of meat in the shape of a man. Kill him or let him go free.

“But I tell you this. If you wish to live as Free Clans, you must now set an example, and you must make it widely known. You must ensure that every beast like this Ragnar, for generations to come, will piss on himself in terror at the very thought of offending one of the Clans. If you fail in this, you will be forever at the mercy of these beasts, and they have no mercy in them.

“Think on this, and pronounce your judgement in the morning.”

Parnassus returned his gaze to Ragnar. His eyes held pity, and seeing this, Ragnar’s rage slowly gave way to uncertainty, and then fear as the meaning of Parnassus’ words penetrated. He began to scream as they dragged him away.

-#-

And so it is said that the most skilled Artisans from each of the Clans took Ragnar, and tanned his skin upon him while he yet lived, beginning with his feet, and would not let him die. When they reached his face, it was etched with such agony and horror that it made strong men weep to look upon it. They preserved his face with this visage, and still, they would not let him die. For a fortnight, they forced Ragnar to stagger through villages, and when he could no longer walk, they mounted him on a pole in a wheeled cart, and still, they would not let him die.

And then, on the first day of the Hallows, they took him to the grave of Parnassus’ apprentice, and set his pole in the ground and left him to watch over the grave as her guardian. Such was the skill of the Artisans that he did not die for another three days. It is said that his great suffering purified his soul and made his spirit the fierce enemy of any who would molest the young.

Thus, every year on the first day of the Hallows, we erect the effigy of Ragnar, Guardian of the Innocents, and scatter flowers at his feet in memory of Parnassus’ lost apprentice.

Copyright © 2014, Joseph C. Nemeth, all rights reserved