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Escort Duty – Part 4

The small group rode at a steady pace along the forest track. Simon led the way, while Soren brought up the rear. The two women looked about as they went, and occasionally spoke to each other or to Soren. Simon attempted to chat with his wards, but none of them made more than perfunctory answers to his questions or comments. Neither did they engage him in conversation as they moved deeper into the forest.

At mid-day, they stopped in a small clearing and ate the bread and cheese Greta prepared for them. Erika sat upon a cloth her maid had laid out for her, and looked around as she nibbled upon her bread, still fresh and soft.

“Isn’t this rustic?” she said to Soren, “Papa would be so proud to know I’m finally breaking away from camp and living rough for once.”

“Aye, my lady,” Soren replied, “But such conditions are only temporary.”

Simon studiously examined the hunk of cheese rind Greta had given him.

“Yes, this is pleasant, isn’t it?” he said with a smile in his voice.

“Did someone talk to you?” Soren growled.

“No, nobody talked to me, so I decided to talk to someone,” Simon said, taking a nibble of the cheese.

“Then hold your tongue,” Soren retorted.

“Soren, you and I need to come to some sort of accord,” Simon said, shaking his head, “You seem to have a dislike for me, but we have a job to do.”

“Half-elf, your job is to get us to Prince Jorgen’s lands. My job is to protect the princess from harm,” Soren replied, “including harm to her honor from smiling thieves.”

Simon nodded at that thoughtfully. Standing up in a smooth motion, he walked to the side of the little glen.

“All right, so you don’t trust me. But, I’ll give you three reasons why the princess is safe from me and why we can at least be cordial with each other,” he said.

“And what are those?”

“First, I gave my word to your lord and liege that I wouldn’t lay a finger on either of these beautiful ladies.”

“And your word is worth, what?”

“Oh, just about every drop of blood in my body. Or yours, as the case may be.”

Soren narrowed his eyes at that.

“And the second?”

“Second, we’re going to be going through some rough terrain and dangerous land. I can’t lead you down a dark trail if I have to worry about a knife in my back. The same goes for you.”

“You have nothing to fear from me unless you try to harm the princess.”

“Good, then I have nothing to fear. You have nothing to fear unless you try to harm me.”

Soren considered that for a moment, chewing on the inside of his cheek for a moment as he thought.

“Don’t ponder too hard, Soren. Your hair will catch afire,” Simon said with a smile.

Greta quietly snorted, but covered her face with her hand after her mistress looked at her sharply. Soren fumed for a moment, then heaved himself up and faced Simon.

“And what’s your third reason?”

“Tor Dveglammar will skin me and dance around a fire wearing only my hide if something were to happen to you or the ladies because of me.”

“So you’re afraid?”

“Of him, yes. Of you? Not really,” Simon said with a grin.

“I suppose you think you could beat me in a fair fight?”

Simon sighed.  “Soren, if I admit you’re bigger and stronger than me,” he said, “can we dispense with this tiresome display of virility and come to an agreement to not snarl at each other until after we have deposited the ladies with the good Prince?”

“I could beat you.”

Simon sighed, saying, “Soren, I’ve killed better men than you, in fights both fair and otherwise. And you’re forgetting something.”

“What’s that?”

“I won’t be alone,” Simon said, bringing his hand up and scratching at his ear.

The whistle of an arrow broke the quiet, followed by the thunk it made when it buried itself in the ground between Soren’s feet. The soldier and both women stared at it in silent shock as the echoes of its impact moved across the glade and into the woods. Soren took a step back and pulled his sword from its scabbard. The ladies continued to gape at the arrow as it quivered in the dirt.

“My lady, allow me to introduce my companion,” Simon said with a bow toward the princess.

A tall, slender man, dressed all in black leather and fur, walked into the glen. In his left hand, he carried a bow, with his right holding an arrow nocked to its string and ready to pull back. An amulet of black stone on a silver chain hung from his neck, catching glints of sunlight as it swayed with his every step. His feet made no sound as he walked into the light.

“My lady, this is Hollo, a dear friend of mine,” Simon said. The tall man bowed his head slowly to the princess, but did not take his eyes off of Soren.

“Put it away, my lord,” he said in a deep, croaking voice, “You’ve nothing to fear from me.”

“Soren, please, you’re being rude,” Simon said, taking a step between the two men.

Soren looked to the princess, who nodded, then put his sword away.

“Hollo is a native of Booda, and knows the country better than I do,” Simon continued, “If we get into a scrape, he’ll know the secret paths and passes to get around trouble.”

Hollo put his arrow back into the leather quiver he wore over his shoulder, then lowered his bow. Turning to the princess, he bowed low.

“Whatever vows of loyalty my friend has made, my lady, I also offer to you,” he said with a rolling accent. He lifted his head, his dark eyes glinting in the sunshine, and offered a warm smile.

Erika rose from her blanket and motioned for Hollo to stand. She raised her hand for quiet and stepped between the three men.

“Gentlemen,” she said in a formal tone, “you are all bound to take me to my betrothed. Such displays of mistrust, as well as goading each other into discord, will hinder us in our travels.”

“Master Soren, you shall be civil to our companions and guides,” she continued, her voice firm, “Masters Simon and Hollo, you shall also keep a civil tongue in your mouth.”

She paused for a moment, then concluded, “Do all of you understand?”

Together, the three men bowed and murmured, “Yes, my lady.”


Other episodes can be found here.  The entire anthology can be purchased at Amazon.

Musings

  • Between raw water, colorful detergent packets, and modern country music, I really fear for the future of our nation.
  • When you’re researching three different things for writing projects at the same time, it makes for some really interesting dreams.
  • One of those dreams woke me up at 5 AM this morning, so I thought I’d take care of the animals so that they wouldn’t wake everyone else up.  I took the dogs out, fed them and the cats, then quietly went back to bed.
    • Irish Woman let me sleep in until 8:30.  When I went into the kitchen to wish her good morning, I saw Moonshine finishing his second breakfast.
    • Apparently the poor little pup had given her the “I’m starving” eyes.
    • I swear, that dog winked at me as he left the kitchen.
  • Maybe waiting half an hour to go out and see what Irish Woman was doing after I heard her pick up the snow shovel on the porch wasn’t very smart.
    • Of course, neither was saying “Wow, sweetheart, I didn’t know you knew how to shovel snow!”
    • She may or may not have considered seeing how well a snow shovel wrapped around my cranium.
  • The eternal question – Do I take the truck to the carwash or just wait for the weather to warm up so it rains like cats and dogs?

Thought for the Day

|| Federalist No. 10 || 

The Same Subject Continued: The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection
From the New York Packet.
Friday, November 23, 1787.

Author: James Madison

To the People of the State of New York:

AMONG the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction. The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate, as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice. He will not fail, therefore, to set a due value on any plan which, without violating the principles to which he is attached, provides a proper cure for it. The instability, injustice, and confusion introduced into the public councils, have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished; as they continue to be the favorite and fruitful topics from which the adversaries to liberty derive their most specious declamations. The valuable improvements made by the American constitutions on the popular models, both ancient and modern, cannot certainly be too much admired; but it would be an unwarrantable partiality, to contend that they have as effectually obviated the danger on this side, as was wished and expected. Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens, equally the friends of public and private faith, and of public and personal liberty, that our governments are too unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority. However anxiously we may wish that these complaints had no foundation, the evidence, of known facts will not permit us to deny that they are in some degree true. It will be found, indeed, on a candid review of our situation, that some of the distresses under which we labor have been erroneously charged on the operation of our governments; but it will be found, at the same time, that other causes will not alone account for many of our heaviest misfortunes; and, particularly, for that prevailing and increasing distrust of public engagements, and alarm for private rights, which are echoed from one end of the continent to the other. These must be chiefly, if not wholly, effects of the unsteadiness and injustice with which a factious spirit has tainted our public administrations.

By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.

There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.

There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.

It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.

The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.

No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity. With equal, nay with greater reason, a body of men are unfit to be both judges and parties at the same time; yet what are many of the most important acts of legislation, but so many judicial determinations, not indeed concerning the rights of single persons, but concerning the rights of large bodies of citizens? And what are the different classes of legislators but advocates and parties to the causes which they determine? Is a law proposed concerning private debts? It is a question to which the creditors are parties on one side and the debtors on the other. Justice ought to hold the balance between them. Yet the parties are, and must be, themselves the judges; and the most numerous party, or, in other words, the most powerful faction must be expected to prevail. Shall domestic manufactures be encouraged, and in what degree, by restrictions on foreign manufactures? are questions which would be differently decided by the landed and the manufacturing classes, and probably by neither with a sole regard to justice and the public good. The apportionment of taxes on the various descriptions of property is an act which seems to require the most exact impartiality; yet there is, perhaps, no legislative act in which greater opportunity and temptation are given to a predominant party to trample on the rules of justice. Every shilling with which they overburden the inferior number, is a shilling saved to their own pockets.

It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm. Nor, in many cases, can such an adjustment be made at all without taking into view indirect and remote considerations, which will rarely prevail over the immediate interest which one party may find in disregarding the rights of another or the good of the whole.

The inference to which we are brought is, that the CAUSES of faction cannot be removed, and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its EFFECTS.

If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote. It may clog the administration, it may convulse the society; but it will be unable to execute and mask its violence under the forms of the Constitution. When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens. To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed. Let me add that it is the great desideratum by which this form of government can be rescued from the opprobrium under which it has so long labored, and be recommended to the esteem and adoption of mankind.

By what means is this object attainable? Evidently by one of two only. Either the existence of the same passion or interest in a majority at the same time must be prevented, or the majority, having such coexistent passion or interest, must be rendered, by their number and local situation, unable to concert and carry into effect schemes of oppression. If the impulse and the opportunity be suffered to coincide, we well know that neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on as an adequate control. They are not found to be such on the injustice and violence of individuals, and lose their efficacy in proportion to the number combined together, that is, in proportion as their efficacy becomes needful.

From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.

A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. Let us examine the points in which it varies from pure democracy, and we shall comprehend both the nature of the cure and the efficacy which it must derive from the Union.

The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.

The effect of the first difference is, on the one hand, to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose. On the other hand, the effect may be inverted. Men of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means, first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people. The question resulting is, whether small or extensive republics are more favorable to the election of proper guardians of the public weal; and it is clearly decided in favor of the latter by two obvious considerations:

In the first place, it is to be remarked that, however small the republic may be, the representatives must be raised to a certain number, in order to guard against the cabals of a few; and that, however large it may be, they must be limited to a certain number, in order to guard against the confusion of a multitude. Hence, the number of representatives in the two cases not being in proportion to that of the two constituents, and being proportionally greater in the small republic, it follows that, if the proportion of fit characters be not less in the large than in the small republic, the former will present a greater option, and consequently a greater probability of a fit choice.

In the next place, as each representative will be chosen by a greater number of citizens in the large than in the small republic, it will be more difficult for unworthy candidates to practice with success the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried; and the suffrages of the people being more free, will be more likely to centre in men who possess the most attractive merit and the most diffusive and established characters.

It must be confessed that in this, as in most other cases, there is a mean, on both sides of which inconveniences will be found to lie. By enlarging too much the number of electors, you render the representatives too little acquainted with all their local circumstances and lesser interests; as by reducing it too much, you render him unduly attached to these, and too little fit to comprehend and pursue great and national objects. The federal Constitution forms a happy combination in this respect; the great and aggregate interests being referred to the national, the local and particular to the State legislatures.

The other point of difference is, the greater number of citizens and extent of territory which may be brought within the compass of republican than of democratic government; and it is this circumstance principally which renders factious combinations less to be dreaded in the former than in the latter. The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other. Besides other impediments, it may be remarked that, where there is a consciousness of unjust or dishonorable purposes, communication is always checked by distrust in proportion to the number whose concurrence is necessary.

Hence, it clearly appears, that the same advantage which a republic has over a democracy, in controlling the effects of faction, is enjoyed by a large over a small republic,–is enjoyed by the Union over the States composing it. Does the advantage consist in the substitution of representatives whose enlightened views and virtuous sentiments render them superior to local prejudices and schemes of injustice? It will not be denied that the representation of the Union will be most likely to possess these requisite endowments. Does it consist in the greater security afforded by a greater variety of parties, against the event of any one party being able to outnumber and oppress the rest? In an equal degree does the increased variety of parties comprised within the Union, increase this security. Does it, in fine, consist in the greater obstacles opposed to the concert and accomplishment of the secret wishes of an unjust and interested majority? Here, again, the extent of the Union gives it the most palpable advantage.

The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States. A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source. A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire State.

In the extent and proper structure of the Union, therefore, we behold a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government. And according to the degree of pleasure and pride we feel in being republicans, ought to be our zeal in cherishing the spirit and supporting the character of Federalists.

Escort Duty – Part 3

Princess Erika sat on her horse, impatiently strumming her fingers on the pommel of her saddle in the early morning gloom. She wore a deep violet riding gown and cloak, with a plumed hat to match. Her saddle and tack were as fine as her dress, with the former’s ox-blood dyed leather buffed to a high gloss, and the latter made from polished silver, which rang like a bell whenever it moved. The horse was a beautifully dappled mare, with violet ribbons in its mane and tail, matching her gown.

Her maid sat astride a smaller gray horse, her plain dress matching the tawny leather of the saddle she sat upon. She kept stealing nervous glances toward the camp, where men could be heard at some work or another, or toward the woods, where the sound of the wind in the trees mixed with the noises of animals either going to their beds or rising for the day.

“Greta, why are you twitching about?” the princess demanded after a few minutes.

“My lady, it’s not safe to be out of the camp unattended,” her maid answered, “There could be brigands or rebels in those woods.”

Patting the leather sheath on her saddle, Erika smiled.

“We’re perfectly safe,” she said, “I’ll skewer anyone who trifles with us.”

Greta looked at her mistress dubiously, then glanced back at the camp.

“They’re coming, my lady,” she said as a group of men rode out to join them.

Dveglammar reined his horse to a stop a few feet away from the women and nodded to the princess. Behind him, Soren, wearing plain clothing and a long, brown cloak, rode a dappled pony. The only indications that he was a soldier were the shiny black cavalryman’s boots on his feet and the long sword he wore on his belt. A pack mule, bearing several bundles, followed along on a tether.

Simon, clad in a dark gray tunic and leggings, rode between the two guards who had escorted him to Tor’s tent the day before. His horse, a black pony with a white spot between her eyes, pawed at the ground after he reined her to a halt, impatient to be moving again after a long rest.

Simon looked out at the woods around them and gave a low whistle, its tone warbling across the grass and into the trees. His guards scowled at him, but Simon only smiled back, winking at the one who bore a war hammer. After a moment, a bird answered the call with a harsh caw. Simon’s smile brightened to a grin.

“My lady, I hope you know vat you are doing,” Tor said gravely.

“My lord, I am sure that I do,” she replied, “In a month, I shall be home, and you shall be finishing your campaign. I’m also certain that these gentlemen can keep us safe until we cross into Prince Jorgen’s lands.”

“A messenger left out last night to warn the Prince of your coming,” Soren said.

“Ve asked dat he have vatchers at his borders,” Devglammar added in a grave tone, “He vill be expecting to see you in a few veeks.”

“Excellent. I’m sure my betrothed will greet us with open arms.”

Simon looked around, then interrupted, “My lords and lady, might I ask a question?”

The trio turned to him, while the guards smoldered at their prisoner’s impertinence.

“Yes, you may,” Tor replied icily.

“Am I to go about unarmed on this little jaunt?”

“You vill be given your veapons before you go.”

“We’re about to go, aren’t we? Or are we going to waste daylight chatting?”

Soren rounded on the half-elf, his face reddening.

“We will go when the princess and the commander are done speaking, half-breed. Now sit on your nag and do not speak unless told to!” he retorted.  A trace of his northern accent, which he normally suppressed, crept into his voice as he spoke.

Simon’s grin brightened at that, and he bowed dramatically in the saddle.

“Of course, my lord,” he said with his best courtly tone, “I shall be sure to do so.”

Soren turned back to Tor and said, “Is he really necessary? I know the roads well enough.”

“You vent troo dose lands as part of da army, on da main roads, and dat vas only because ve put da strong arm on der rulers,” Dveglammar said, “Simon vill get you troo dem vitout being seen. You know dat Lords Herceg and Kiraly vould like notting better dan to have da prinzess for ransom, or vorse. Just keep a lid on him and for da love of da gods, keep him avay from da prinzess!”

Soren nodded, then bowed to the Princess. “Highness,” he said, “Shall we go?”

Erika smiled and said, “Yes, let us get moving.”

Tor urged his horse forward, saying “I vill accompany you to da river, my lady. After dat, you vill have to rely on your escorts and yourself.”

Erika nodded and rode beside him. The pair was followed by Greta and Sorren, with the mule following docilely. Last came Simon, flanked by his guards.

“I assume that the view will get better with time,” he quipped as he glanced at the back end of the mule. The guards ignored him, keeping their horses a few feet from his.

The small group made their way through the woods without a word. The sound of their horses’ hooves was muffled by the damp remains of the last fall’s leaves on the ground and the heavy canopy of green on the branches above. Even the pleasant sounds of Tor, Soren, and Erika chatting seemed muted and distant. The quiet was occasionally broken by the sound of a squirrel running through the canopy, or the sound of some bird or another calling to its mate.

Simon tried on several occasions to engage his guards in conversation, but was only answered once with a grunt.

“Well, if you fellows aren’t going to participate, I’m just going to ride in silence,” Simon finally said.

Occasional beams of bright early morning sunshine broke up the shade, but their eyes adjusted to the forest’s gloom well enough. The undergrowth of brambles and bushes on either side of their trail might have seemed claustrophobic had it not been for the bursts of spring blossoms and their perfume infusing the air around them.

Presently, the forest opened up to reveal the banks of a wide stream, its flow still swift from the spring melt in the mountains to the north, but only a few feet deep.

“My lady, dis is vere I leave you,” Dveglammar said, halting his horse at the edge of the water.

“My lord, thank you for your help and companionship,” Erika replied, “I hope that the rest of the journey is just as pleasant.”

“Vell, ve can only hope,” he replied, turning to Soren, “Take care of her. Once ve are finished here, I vill send for you.”

Soren nodded and offered Tor his hand. “Good luck, my lord. I hope to see you before the snow falls.”

The two men shook hands briskly, then Soren splashed his horse and the mule out into the frigid water. Once he had gained the other side, the two women rode across to join him. Tor watched them go, his hands tense on the reins until they had ridden out of the water. Soren raised a hand once the women were safely at his side.

Dveglammar turned to Simon, a stern look upon his face. He reached out and put his hand on the blond-haired man’s arm.

“If you survive and dey don’t, I vill find you and feed you to my horse,” he said darkly.

“Then I will have to make sure they survive, won’t I?” Simon replied.

“And Simon, von odder ting,” Tor continued, dropping his hand, “Keep your hands off of both vomen.”

“Tor, I’m shocked! I’ll be a gentleman, of course.”

“I mean it, Simon. Da prinzess is off limits, and so is her maid. Da last ting I need is for Prince Yorgen to vant to know if da child of his vedding night is really his, or vhy his new vife’s maid is no longer a maiden.”

“Tor, I won’t lay a finger on either of them, I promise.”

“Good, den, be off vit you.”

“There’s the matter of my belongings?”

Tor considered Simon for a moment, then said simply, “Give him his veapons.”

The guard carrying the war hammer reached behind his saddle and produced two daggers and a sword, all sheathed in black leather. The guard weighed them in the palm of his hand for a moment before passing them over to Simon.

“Nice toys,” he sneered, “Don’t weigh enough to be of any use in battle.”

Simon smiled as he took his blades from the guard.

“Well, I’m no blade master, and we can’t all carry war hammers,” he replied quietly.

“Be careful, now,” the guard snorted derisively, “Don’t cut yourself.”

Simon’s smile broadened as his wrist and elbow moved as one, removing his sword, Gnarlthing, from its scabbard and swinging it below the guard’s chin faster than the brute’s eye could blink in surprise. The blade, flashing in the mid-morning sun, sliced through the guard’s beard, sending the whiskers fluttering down as Simon brought the sword’s blade to a halt a hair’s breadth from his own thigh. For a moment, the only sound was the play of the stream on the rocks and the sword blade singing after being freed from its scabbard.

The guard squawked as his free hand flew to his bare chin. The other guard just gawked at the sight of Simon casually putting his sword away. Tor reached for his sword hilt, but stopped when he saw no blood on either his guard or Simon’s blade.

The guard, his beard shorn away, bellowed as he raised his war hammer. Simon’s grin never wavered as his sword flicked out again, this time halting as it rested against the guard’s jugular.

“Stop!” Tor cried, his own sword halfway out of its scabbard. The other guard, his eyes as big as saucers, stopped with his spear halfway down from its carry position.

“Nice moustache,” Simon said evenly, his blue eyes locking with those of the guard, “It would be a shame to dye it blood red.”

“Simon, put dat avay!” Dveglammar ordered angrily, “You two, put your veapons down!”

Simon pulled his sword back and smoothly snicked it down into its scabbard. The guards relaxed, with the war hammer carrier slowly putting his weapon down across his pommel.

“Now, get going, you scoundrel,” Tor said once his breathing had returned to normal, “You’ve made your point.”

Simon raised his hand in salute to Tor, then nudged his horse in the flanks with his heels and splashed across the stream.

Soren waited for him near the other side, his hand on the handle of his sword and his horse a few feet out into the water. “What happened?” he demanded as Simon urged his black horse up the bank.

“Oh, that big bastard needed a shave. I just did it dry,” the half-elf said with a smile.


Other episodes can be found here.  The entire anthology can be purchased at Amazon.

Book Review – Appalling Stories: 13 Tales of Social Injustice

David Dubrow, Paul Hair, and Ray Zacek have come out with a collection of short stories dealing with the impact of social justice warfare on normal people, Appalling Stories:  13 Tales of Social Injustice.  Here’s the blurb:

With political correctness gobbling up the culture like a fat kid on his sister’s quinceañera cake, where do you go for quality, old-school entertainment?

Appalling Stories focuses on themes and characters you’re just not supposed to read about anymore, using social issues as the setting, not the plot. Inside, you’ll read about a disturbing erotic resort that caters to an exclusive clientele, a violent Antifa group biting off much more than they can chew, a serial killer with a furious inch, and a lot more.

The authors find message fiction as tedious as you do, and traditional publishing seems intent on shoving favored narratives down readers’ throats. This anthology pushes back against PC moralizing, bringing you story above all else. Are you going to let Social Justice Warriors dictate what you can and can’t read?

Consider this your trigger warning.

Each of these stories deals with a ‘ripped from the headlines’ scenario, including the legal quagmire of a Christian baker faced with a gay couple, transgenderism, and sanctuary cities.  A wide stripe of politics runs through these stories, but, for the most part it, doesn’t get in the way of telling the story.

I read through Appalling Stories twice.  The first time, each scenario seemed to be a worst-case-scenario for each of the subjects the three authors examine.  But during the second reading, I noticed that I was thinking of real-world examples of the things they were showing us.  Yes, these stories are rough, even brutal at times, but they show a ‘what might be’ look at the issues that are slashed across our news feeds and nightly broadcasts.

Like most good anthologies, a lot of these stories beg to be expanded into longer works.  My favorite of the 13 was “Detainer,” by Ray Zacek, in which the protagonist deals with death in a sanctuary city.  It was the one that seemed closest to what you could see happen in the morning news, and it certainly leaves you wanting to know what happens next.

Again, this is not a book for readers who want a comfortable read, and it is definitely not for young readers.  But Appalling Stories is a fast, engrossing collection that will, whether you agree with the authors’ points of view or not, get you thinking.

Musings

  • Poe’s Law – It is impossible to create a parody of extreme views so obviously exaggerated that it cannot be mistaken by some readers or viewers as a sincere expression of the parodied views.
    • Tom’s Corollary to Poe’s Law – It is impossible to tell the Gorilla Channel from Tom’s family home movies.
  • We binge watched the original Johnny Quest while we watched the snow fall yesterday.   There seem to be two categories of episodes in that series:
    • Those darn shifty foreigners are at it again.
    • Those people with bones in their noses want to kill us.
  • Girlie Bear and I had an in-depth conversation about such important subjects as the importance of using dark brown sugar or molasses in chocolate chip cookies, as well as the proper ratio of butter to peanut butter when making peanut butter cookies.
  • Irish Woman and I had a tense moment when I discovered that she had disposed of a bunch of bananas I was letting get rather soft so that I could make banana bread.  Her defense was that they were about to gain sentience and try to rally the rest of the kitchen against us.

Escort Duty – Part 2

Simon, son of Melek, sat in the shade of a supply wagon. His long legs splayed out in the grass in front of him, and he tapped his foot to the tune of the doggerel he was humming to pass the time.  He kept his dark blue eyes fixed on the space between his heels, but occasionally he lifted his head and scanned his surroundings.  He wore a simple gray tunic and breeches, their elbows and knees worn but not ripped.

Every so often, he tugged on the chain which held him close to one of the wheels, but mostly, he just stared at the iron manacles around his ankles and hummed.

Last time this happened, he thought, lifting his manacled hand to run his fingers through his close-cropped blonde hair, I at least had a roof over my head. This is going to get uncomfortable if it rains. Now, how do I get that fool thing off?

A low whistle sounded from the other side of the wagon as something clunked softly against the inside of the wagon wheel next to Simon.

Simon froze, resisting the urge to look toward the noise.

“Hollo?” he whispered.

“Who else?” his friend answered, “Here, see if this works.”

Simon slowly looked to make sure nobody was watching, then reached through the spokes and palmed the object Hollo had thrown. When he opened his hand, he found a small file.

“Perhaps if you piss on the chain, it will rust away,” Hollo whispered hoarsely, “That’ll probably work better than wishful thinking.”

“I was just considering whether to let it rust, melt, or just turn to smoke, but this’ll be more effective.”

“Be careful. I’ll be back at sunset to get you.”

Simon listened to Hollo’s careful footsteps in the soft grass, then waited a few minutes before setting the file’s edge on the cross piece holding the manacles together and slowly sawing across it. He worked at it for an hour before he felt the iron release its tension on his wrists.

He moved his wrists slowly, and felt his fetters start to fall away. With a satisfied smile, Simon held the irons in place and leaned back against the wheel to relax. The file went into the pocket of his tunic as he shifted to lean back against the wagon.

Never know when that will come in handy, he thought as he dozed in the warm noon-day sun.

When he woke up, the sun was beyond its zenith, and a tall blonde man stood in front of him.

“Wake up, thief,” the blonde said as he nudged Simon’s leg with his foot, “Lord Dveglammar wants to talk.”

“Hello, Soren,” Simon replied, carefully standing up without letting the chains fall from his wrist, “You’ll have to get me off this wagon first.”

Two large men wearing the crossed-hammer livery of Tor Dveglammar’s personal bodyguard stood behind Soren. Both guards wore their armor and helmets, their faces obscured by the crosspieces over their noses. One was armed with a long spear, while the other carried a huge war hammer in his hands.

Soren motioned to one of the guards, who lifted his hammer and brought it down on the pin locking Simon’s chains to the wagon. The pin popped out of its enclosure neatly, the wagon barely rocking on its axles at the impact. The guard gave Simon a smug look as he picked the chain up from the grass.

“Nice work,” Simon said as the guards fell in on either side of him, “You’ll have to teach me how to do that.”

Neither the guards nor Soren said anything more as they trooped through the camp. Simon took quick glances around as they went, but caught no sight of Hollo.

Soren stopped them in front of the commander’s tent with a raised hand.

“Stay here,” he said without looking back as he walked through the gray-green canvas flap. The guards grunted and turned to watch Simon. He, on the other hand, looked down at the ground. Around him, the smells and sounds of an armed camp, bread baking, a blacksmith hammering on a weapon, and wood smoke, filled his senses. There was no hint of why he had been summoned to the army’s commander.

This is a lot of fuss for a thief, he thought, I wonder what’s going on?

As he stood there, he heard a faint low whistle. Hollo was close. Simon considered how to signal him to let him know he had heard, but all he could think of was to scratch his leg with his foot.

As he stood there on one leg, the tent flap opened and Soren motioned them inside. Flanked by his two guards, Simon walked past him and into the tent.

Dveglammar sat in his chair facing the door. His cavalry commander, a young Kossaki nobleman, stood behind him. Both officers looked at Simon gravely as he came to a stop in front of them.

“Hello, Tor,” Simon said cheerfully.

“Simon,” Tor answered with a nod, “Vat da hell vere you tinking?”

“It was only a few bags of coins,” Simon said, “And you wouldn’t have a bit of it if I hadn’t found that path behind their lines.”

“You vere supposed to come to me vit any claims.”

“True, but I would have waited for days to see you, and the party was that night, and my dice were feeling lucky.”

The cavalryman behind Tor snorted at that. Simon had seen his face before, probably at one of the illicit gatherings he had attended in the past few months.

“Now I got to do someting vit you. You took from Baron Lovenherz’ tings, and now dat he’s dead, your life belongs to his family.”

“Life? Tor, at most, we’re talking about me making restitution.”

“Dis is not some village market vere you got caught stealing chickens, Simon. You took gold from vat ve seized from da enemy, and da lords have to get deir share before anyvone else gets his. You know dat.”

Simon sniffed and looked around the tent. Tor kept things sparse, but it was cleaner and better furnished than the lean-to’s and large tents the men slept in.

“So, what are you going to do?” Simon said, locking eyes with the Northman.

“Vell, I may be able to spare you. Dat is, if you are villing to do some service to make up for it.”

“Service?” Simon asked, his eyes narrowing suspiciously.

“You know Lord Bogoyin, don’t you?” Tor said, ignoring Simon’s question.  He motioned to the officer standing behind him.

“We’ve met,” Simon said, nodding to the cavalryman, finally fixing a name to his face.

What do you have up your sleeve? Simon thought, You Northmen don’t normally go in for subtlety.

“Ve need a guide.”

“Guide? Where to?”

“Vell, I believe you’ve been dere before, and dat’s all I’m going to say before you agree to do da job.”

“The alternative is to be kept here in chains until the campaign is over,” Bogoyin said with a faint accent.

“I either accept being tethered to a wagon for a few months or go who knows where? Not much of a bargain.”

“You know, dere is anudder alternative. Ve could alvays take off your hands like any common highway robber.”

Simon gave his best sulking pout at that. “Common highway robber? Me? I’m the best you’ve ever seen at getting in somewhere and getting back out. And my taste in loot is exceptional, thank you.”

He looked up at the tent’s ceiling, striking something of a dramatic pose. “Common! I’m insulted.”

“Dat’s vhy ve are giving you dis opportunity. Ve need somebody who knows da back vays and can get in and out vitout being seen.”

Simon considered it for a moment. He made a show of looking from Tor, to Bogoyin, then back. Finally, he shrugged and said, “All right, I’ll go. What’s the job?”

Tor nodded to Bogoyin, who said, “You’ll be escorting a certain person back to their own lands.”

“And you need a guide who can keep this quiet?”

“Exactly. They’ll be going through some rather unfriendly places. We’d rather not have too many run-ins along the way, if you know what I mean.”

“How many people?”

“Ten of my men, the two people you’ll be escorting, and you.”

Simon snorted. “You want to try to keep half a troop of cavalry quiet? Do you want a guide or a wizard?”

“You’ll do your best, I’m sure.”

Simon laughed out loud at that. “I ought to be honored by your confidence in me, my lord. But I’m only capable of the smallest bits of magic.” With that, he let the shackles on his wrist fall with a clatter. A sly smile and a wink crossed his face as he looked at the shocked faces of the guards.

Tor stood up from his chair and peered down at the shackles. Pulling on his beard, he considered Simon for a moment.

“Vitchcraft!”

“No, merely a little talent I have.”

“Vell, if you can’t hide da cavalry, vat do you suggest?”

“I can slip a few people through, but not a bunch of cavalrymen and their chargers. Two people, me, and one other, and that’s it.”

“And who vould be da other?”

“If we’re going through Booda, I have a friend who can help.”

“So, you’ll leave behind the guards, and add a ‘friend’ to go along?” Bogoyin said suspiciously.

“If we do our job right, we won’t need the guards. And if we have to run, we’ll have a better chance of getting away or hiding four people then we will with thirteen.”

Tor tugged on his beard again, nodding. “Dat makes sense. Go kvietly and try to not stick out.”

“I’m the best at not sticking out.”

“I vant your vord on your mudder’s soul dat da people you escort vill get dere safely.”

“Of course. You have my word.”

“I’ll have more dan dat, now dat I tink about it. Soren vill be going too. He’s good on a horse, and I trust him.”

Simon looked hurt at that. “How can you say that after all we’ve done together?” he said, bringing his hand to his chest.

“Oh, yeah, all dat ve’ve done togedder. Like you sneaking away to bed dat girl in dat village outside Franzberg? Or maybe you deciding to lighten the haul from da baggage train ve captured last veek? Oh, I know just how much I can trust you, Simon. Soren goes or you go back on da vagon. I can find a vizard to make sure you stay stuck, too.”

Simon put his hands up in surrender. “All right, Soren comes. That makes five.” He put his hand out to Tor.

Dveglammar took it and gave it a hard shake.

“So, who am I escorting, and where are we going?” Simon asked after Tor released his grip.


Other episodes can be found here.  The entire anthology can be purchased at Amazon.

Musings

  • I am officially too damned old for New Year’s Eve.  I was as sober as a judge all night, and went to bed at 9:30.
  • Our garbage men are going to hate us, because we have approximately 13 cubic yards of junk ready to go out to the curb.
  • I braved the nippy Kentucky weather yesterday to make a donut run, before I had coffee.  If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.
  • Girlie Bear knew she had gotten Boo a good book when he immediately ignored her so he could read the first 20 pages.
  • Took Irish Woman and Boo to see Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle this morning.  We figured that most of the annoying people would either be at home sleeping it off or at someone else’s home trying to figure out where their clothes were.
    • I enjoyed this movie more than The Last (Star Wars Movie I’ll Pay Full Price to See) Jedi.  Yeah, it’s not a classic of American cinema, but it was fun.
  • Here are the movies that had trailers at the theater this morning:
    • Maze Runner:  The Death Cure – Pretty young people revolt against the ugly old people who are doing ugly things, and triumph after overcoming great physical and moral obstacles, such as getting their faces artistically dirty, and going through through a pretty outrageous series of pretty dangerous stunts and action scenes, because they’re pretty.
    • Sherlock Gnomes – Gnomeo and Juliet are back to make all kinds of new little-people based puns, along with a certain detective being portrayed in a way that is making the baby Jesus cry.
    • Spider-Man:  Into the Spider-Verse – Apparently there is a plague of radioactive spiders in New York, because every disaffected teen in the city is crawling the walls.
    • Peter Rabbit – Rey and General Hux are back, only this time they’re not in a galaxy far, far away.  Continuing their quest to destroy all of my favorite childhood memories, they’re turning Beatrix Potter into a CGI-plagued romantic comedy.
  • Apparently, I have pinched a nerve in my hip, which does oh, so much for my mid-winter attitude.
    • Getting old sucks.

Escort Duty – Part 1

Tor Dveglammar listened as the captain of his cavalry completed the morning report.

“… over the mountain. We expect them to report back in two days, maybe three. There’s been no sign of the enemy other than isolated groups of stragglers since they ran from their lines near Tanahuk three days ago,” the young officer said, pointing to a map laid out on the table before them, “so their main body must have escaped through one of the passes.”

Tor nodded as he stroked the long braids in his russet beard. His wife had kept him in their tent until she had them perfectly set, but his habit of tugging on them when he was frustrated had already pulled several whiskers loose.

“Dat makes sense,” he said in a low, tense voice, “Report vat da scouts find as soon as dey get back.”

“Yes, my lord,” the captain said, bowing. Tor returned the salute, and the cavalryman turned and left the tent. Tor’s aide, Soren, poked his head in the tent flap.

“Anyting else?” Dveglammar growled. His army had been idle for a week after shattering their foe, and their commander was growing restless. Soren, who also happened to be his wife’s cousin, made good use of his thick skin after the first few days of rest and idleness had worn Tor’s patience thin.

“Two things, my lord. There’s the matter of Princess Erika, and we have to deal with that man we caught stealing from the plunder.”

“Oh, ja, dat. All right, bring in da prinzess. I still don’t know vat to do vit dat damned half-elf.”

Soren nodded and left his commander behind to brood. Tor’s eyes flicked to the steel rings of his armor, which rested on a table in the corner with his war hammers, Ban and Kyk.

Dose tings are gettin’ dusty, he thought bitterly, Need to get dem back in da field.

With a sigh, he rose and paced the ground behind his chair. He was a campaigner, not a general, but when the counter-attack at Tanahuk killed King Henry, the responsibility fell to him. The martial duties, those he had known what to do with. The rest?

“Bah!” he exclaimed to the empty tent.

He considered whether or not it was worth walking outside to enjoy some of the spring sunshine, but the tent flap pulled back and Princess Erika, daughter and only child of King Henry Löwenherz, ruler of the Western Islands, flounced in. She was tall and athletic in build, with hair the color of summer honey and blue eyes like snow with sunshine behind it. She walked with the certainty and grace of a high born lady, and her glare cut around the tent as she surveyed it.

A young woman, small in stature, wearing a shift and wimple, which matched her brown hair, walked behind her, holding the back of the princess’ skirt up from the grass and dirt.

Erika wore what could charitably be called armor and a helmet over her satin gown. The silvered iron wings adorning her head covering, polished to a mirror finish, glinted in the beam of sunlight which followed her through the door. The braids, which her maid, Greta, had made in her hair, dipped below her helm on either side of her head.  Her bodice of silver ringlets, sewn onto dark blue leather, accentuated the pale undergarment that lay between it and her creamy white skin. Overall, when combined with her sharp features and ice blue eyes, she looked every inch of a shield-maiden.

Tor tried hard to not snort when she strutted up to him and stood at attention. He’d seen her fence with her father’s guard, and she had talent. But she had taken to wearing the getup around camp ever since her father had summoned her in the fall.

How did she keep varm in dat ting all tru da vinter? Tor wondered as he smiled at the princess, Dat costume vould be as practical in combat as a vooden sword.

“Prinzess, how are you dis morning?” he asked, bowing deeply and rolling his r’s the way his speech master had taught him.

“Not well, my lord,” she replied angrily, “Your man there tells me that I am to leave for home tomorrow.”

“Ja, your father told me dat you vas to return to da Islands so dat you could get married in Yune.”

“But I swore to avenge my father’s death!” she exclaimed, “How can I do that when I’m being sent home to be a blushing bride?”

“Oh, now, your father vould not like to hear such talk. Prince Yorgen is a nice boy, and he vill make you a good husband!”

“But my oath?” she protested.

“Ach, da Tanahuk rebels are finished. A few more little battles and ve’ll all be on our vay home. Don’t you vorry about dat.”

Erika considered that for a moment. She inclined her head toward the chair, and Tor nodded with a smile.

Taking a seat, she said, “I don’t like it, but if that’s what father wanted, I’ll do it.”

“Gut, gut. I’ll get someone to escort you to da ship, and you’ll be on your vay,” Tor replied, a look of relief coming to his face.

“How long is it to Thameshaven by ship, a month?” Erika asked.

“Oh, no, vit the spring vinds, you’ll be getting dere in tree months.”

“Three months?” Erika exclaimed in surprise, “But I’m supposed to get married in three months!”

Tor shook his head.

“Prinzess, dere’s notting to be done about it,” he said, shaking his head again and spreading his hands, “Da sea is da only safe vay home from here. Overland takes you troo da lands of our enemies. Dey’re da ones dat vere paying Tanahuk to rebel, and dey’d love to get der hands on a prinzess. No, no, you take da ship, and if your vedding is late, den at least it’s not your funeral.”

Erika glared at Tor, narrowing her eyes as her lips grew thinner. Tor wondered if there might be some magic in the royal bloodline, because he could swear he felt a small dot of blazing heat growing between his eyes.

“How much quicker is it to go by land?” she demanded.

“It’s a month’s yourney if you don’t dawdle, but it’s too dangerous.”

“I could be there in a month, or I can be there in three months?” Erika replied icily.

“Prinzess, you’d have to bring an army vit you if you went through Pesht, and a bigger army to get through Booda. Ve only got da one army, and it’s busy right now.”

Erika looked at the map on the table for a moment.  Tor could almost hear the wheels turning in her head.

She is her vater’s dotter after all, he thought, She von’t go vitout trying to get her vay. I vonder vat’s going on in dere?

“Prince Jorgen’s lands lay on the other side of Booda, don’t they?” Erika asked, looking up from the chart and and arching an eyebrow.

“Yes, but vat does dat have to do…”

“If I can sneak through to the border, then he can join me in my journey to my father’s lands. It’s quite simple, really,” the princess said, gesturing toward the map.

“Simple? Prinzess, you vould have to get past tree borders, cross I don’t know how many rivers, and not let anyvone figure out who you are.”

“But it could be done,” she replied, tilting her head, “I’d just need someone who knows those lands and how to be a good sneak.”

Tor looked down at his hands for a moment, then looked up at the young woman seated in front of him.

“Ja, it could be done, and your father’s ghost could come back and beat me about da head and shoulders for letting you do it,” Tor said sternly, “No, it’s too dangerous. You’ll take da ship.”

Erika regarded the tall Northman again, then shrugged.

“Have it your way,” she said haughtily, “I imagine that you will be busy trying to make up the loss of my troops.”

“Loss of your troops?”

“If I am forced to take a ship home, then I shall take the archers and soldiers my father provided back with me,” Erika said sweetly, “A princess needs a proper escort, after all.”

“You vould deprive me of all of da archers and half da foot?” Tor said, a look of understanding dawning on his face.

“Since you only have a few little battles left before our foes are crushed, my people can escort me home.”

“But I, ve….”

“That is, of course, unless you can provide a small guard to escort me overland,” Erica said, her white teeth showing in what some might have called a smile. Tor recognized the expression from when he had seen her father dictate terms to a defeated foe.

Tor huffed through his mustache, fluffing it out. His forehead wrinkled as he considered his options.

“All right,” he said after a moment, “You’ll get sumvun to escort you to da border vit Prince Yorgen’s lands, and your soldiers stay vit da army.”

“Deal. We leave tomorrow?”

“Fine.”

Erika gave Tor a wide smile as she stood.

“So nice when we can reach a compromise, my lord,” she said sweetly as she turned to the door. Her maid followed, averting her eyes from the deadly glare Tor cast into her mistress’ back.

“Soren,” he roared after the tent flap closed again and he counted to thirty slowly, “get in here!”


Other episodes can be found here.  The entire anthology can be purchased at Amazon.

Escort Duty

Over the next few weeks, I am going to serialize my longish short story “Escort Duty“, which is available in the anthology of the same name on Amazon.

The story is set in the Minivandians world, and tells us about one of Simon’s adventures before he met Ruarin and DaddyBear.

I hope you all enjoy it.  Happy New Year!

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