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Escort Duty – Part 11

They rode down the trail until they came to a dry stream bed, which ran to the north. Simon turned there, taking them out of the hills and onto the valley floor just as the sun touched the mountains to the west. Soon, they rode in darkness, their way lit only by the stars.

Every so often, Simon would reach down to touch Soren’s breast and count his breaths. The soldier continued to breathe, but made few sounds and no movement. When Simon touched the bandages around his head, he could feel the wet of his blood seeping through them.

Simon looked up at the stars and whispered a prayer to his family’s gods for Soren.

“He can be a hard man,” he said, “but he’s loyal and a good warrior. Watch over him for me.”

The stars blinked down at him coldly, and no message of hope or comfort repaid him for his prayer.

Their horses stumbled through several fields left to fallow, but when they came upon a narrow lane of packed earth, they found their footing. After that, their progress was slow, but steady, and soon the forms of houses and barns loomed out of the darkness as they passed.

“Can’t we have a torch?” Greta asked plaintively after a tree, which she hadn’t seen, smacked her in the face with the end of a branch.

“Hush,” Erika ordered, “Simon’s trying to secret us across to the village, and that’ll give us away!”

The path turned to the west as they crossed a bridge over a small river, its water babbling through the bridges pilings as it went. The road on the other side was of stone and seemed well maintained compared to the dirt track they had been following.

“We should see the village soon,” Simon said quietly, “Hollo said it sits on that water, and it’s tucked right up against the hills.”

They rode on as a sliver of moon rose over the horizon. It was not bright enough to see details, but now they could make out farms as they came upon them. No dogs barked as they passed, nor did they see any lights or other evidence of people.

“It’s all abandoned,” Erika said.

“The bard at the tavern told me about this,” Simon replied, “He said that entire swaths of the countryside were deserted from the plague.”

“I thought that was up by the capitol?”

“Branka must have been wrong. There ought to at least have been a watchman on that bridge, and I’ve never come this close to farms at night without some cur waking up the entire household. There’s nobody here.”

The road turned to follow the river and rose to meet the hills in the distance. The only sound they heard was the water as it moved over stones in its bed and the clop of their horses’ hooves on the paving stones.

Finally, just as the moon set, Simon caught sight of a light ahead. He hissed to the women and pointed. The women started to speed their mounts toward the village ahead, but Simon raised a hand to stop them.

“Patience, ladies,” he said, “The captain needs us to be steady.”

After another half hour of riding, they came to the outskirts of the village. The buildings were dark, and by the light of the stars and the fire in the village’s central marketplace, which was what they had spied as they approached, Simon could make out doors and windows hanging open. Further in, the foundations of buildings remained where they had been pulled or burned down, leaving holes like open graves on either side of the road.

Simon gently halted his horse as they came to the center of the village, a plaza covered with the ashes of what must have been a huge fire. A smaller pyre blazed atop the ashes now. Erika could see the legs of chairs and other furniture fueling it, and the princess’ breath caught in shock when she saw the tiny body, wrapped in bedsheets, burning atop it.

The still form of an old woman kneeled next to the fire, her head bowed as if in prayer. Her face was streaked with soot, as was the plain brown and green dress she wore. A golden brooch, decorated with red and white stones to take the shape of a flying dragon, lay on her breast. Next to her, a staff of polished and engraved wood and several torches lay in a neat stack. Simon dismounted and approached her.

“Is this Taszar?” he said as he stepped closer.

“It was,” the old woman croaked, “once upon a time.”

“What happened here?” Erika called from atop her horse.

“Everyone died. Everyone,” the woman replied, standing up. Simon could almost hear her bones groan at the effort. She was stooped with old age, and she used the staff to support herself as she lifted her head and examined the strangers.

“Two weeks,” she said, “two weeks ago things were just fine here. Now, I’m all that’s left.”

“We were looking for the healer,” Simon said.

“No healer here, not anymore,” the woman said, “Old Katta is all that’s left.”

“The plague?”

“Everyone got sick, even the animals. Whole families would lay down at sunset and not rise with the sun. Now, they’re all gone.”

“Did nobody escape?” Greta asked. She clutched at the throat of her dress, looking around at the empty houses.

“Some tried. The Count’s men stopped them on the other side of the mountains and wouldn’t let them pass, so they came back here to die.”

The crone was wracked with a spasm of coughing, which doubled her over as she tried to catch her breath. Finally, the fit ceased, and she spit a gobbet of red-tinged phlegm onto the ashes at her feet.

“Won’t be long for me, either,” she said, leaning on her cane.

“When did the healer die?” Simon asked.

“Oh, I didn’t die,” Katta replied, trying to crack a smile, but failing, “I just gave out. So much death, and nothing I could do. My power faded as I watched them die.”

“We have a hurt man here,” Erika said, “Can you not help him?”

“Nay, it’s best I don’t try,” Katta said, turning toward the princess, “I’ve no power left to heal him, and I’d just spread the contagion to all of you.”

Simon nodded sadly. “Is there anything we can do for you?” he asked gently.

“There’s nothing to be done. By the time the sun rises, I will be with my children and their children in the next world. You’ll only join our fate if you come much closer.”

Simon turned and remounted his horse. He solemnly raised a hand to the old woman, who returned the gesture before falling into another coughing fit. He reined his horse back onto the road and led the women away from the pyre.

Katta watched them go, then kneeled in the ashes again. The words of a prayer returned to her lips as she lifted her head to watch the flames lick up toward the stars. After a long while, the fire burned down to a bed of coals shimmering in the dark. The old woman picked up one of the torches, lit it, and then hobbled toward one of the buildings near the plaza.

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


  • Cleaning the basement was easier the last time I did it.  Of course, I had a big dumpster the last time.
  • Kicking up all that dust in the basement seems to have set my sinuses on fire, causing me to rumble when I speak, cough when I breathe, and growl when approached by other human beings.
  • Boo’s new bed has a large section of built-in bookshelves.  He was thrilled to see them, and has spent the past week filling them.
    • That, of course, opens up some space on my bookshelves, which means that I can bring a few things out of storage.
  • Boo has started taking voice lessons in conjunction with his piano lessons.  Sweet Cthulhu, where is thy sting?
  • You’d think that writing a historical fiction where someone wrote the basic outline for you centuries ago would be easy to flesh out into a novel, wouldn’t you?
    • One thing that history teaches us is that as bad as things are these days, our ancestors were right bastards.

100 Years On – First Flu Victims

On March 11, 1918, Private Albert Gitchell, a cook at Fort Riley, Kansas, was diagnosed with what later became known as the “Spanish Flu“, the first of hundreds to fall ill at the isolated post, and the first of millions to suffer in the United States.  In both training camps on the plains of North America and the trenches of Flanders and France, cramped quarters, bad sanitation, and poor nutrition conspired to create a perfect environment for a pandemic.  Some believe that the flu may have even helped to tip World War I toward the Allies in its last months, as German and Austrian soldiers and civilians were hit with the epidemic earlier than their opponents.

Whether the disease, which would impact billions of people worldwide as sick soldiers returned home from World War I, originated in the United States or in Europe is a matter of controversy.   What is not controversial is the number of people that the flu sickened and killed.  Scientists estimate that between 50 and 100 million people worldwide perished due to influenza or secondary infections like pneumonia in 1918 and 1919.

The first wave, which hit in the spring of 1918, was mild compared to what would come later.  How different societies reacted to having thousands of people, especially the young and strong, die, is an interesting study for those who realize that such things will happen again.

Review – Normalcy Bias

Holly Chism’s new collection of short stories, Normalcy Bias:  Look closer… things aren’t always what they seem to be, is a delightful selection of tales that try to show the reader that they can’t always trust their eyes.


Look closer. The things that you’re assuming you’re seeing? May not be what you think. Is that really a mouse, or is it a Brownie? Is that really an owl? Is that polished gemstone a stone…or an egg?

We take so many things for granted. Some of them may be harmless, but many are a lot less so. I wonder how many people ignore red flags every day, because they only see what they expect to see?

This collection takes what’s “normal” and asks “What if it’s something more?”

From the wee folk to the children of the night, and everything in between, Chism shows us that sometimes reality is twisted just a few degrees from what we expect.  Sometimes, the world shows us a mask and sometimes it just shows us what we expect to see, but the reader is shown worlds where paying attention to the little details can make big differences.

Chism works hard to bring her characters and settings to life, but does not drag out her stories to do it.  This is a quick read, but the stories give the reader a lot to ponder.  I was left hoping that she will come back to each of the worlds she creates in these stories and expand on them, because they all came to life very easily as I went through them.

Normalcy Bias is an excellent book for an evening in front of the fire or a day at the beach, and it is definitely appropriate for anyone from teenagers to senior citizens.  It’s definitely going on my “read again” pile.

Book Review – Detritus

Holly Chism has published a new tale of redemption, perseverance, and family, Detritus.

Nick Bryant was a junkie. Lived on the streets, and everything. And then, he saved a baby girl from drowning, and fell into the role of protector. As he, the baby, and her older brother get to know one another, he decides that maybe, there’s more left to him than the drugs, and decides to try to live again. And maybe build a family.

Chism’s main character, Nick, is on the ragged edge of a slide into oblivion, but then he commits a selfless act that changes his life and those of the people around him.  The smile of a little girl and the trust of her older brother bring him back from the brink and help all of them heal and grow to be a family.  Joined by an adopted grandmother, Nick takes the children in search of a better life.  Along the way, they are helped by good people who shine a little light into their dark world.  In the end, Nick learns that love and forgiveness, of yourself and of everyone else, is the greatest gift of all.

Chism shows the power of her storytelling in Detritus, and I’m not ashamed to say that it moved me to tears on at least one occasion.  She develops her characters quickly, but in a way that you don’t notice until they step off the page in front of you.  Her story moves fast, and you will find yourself unable to put this one down. It’s not an action story, but it definitely grabs hold of you and makes you want to know what happens on the next page.

I recommend Detritus for anyone who needs a story of growth and redemption, or who enjoys tales of folks making their way back from the shadows.

Escort Duty – Part 10

Hollo and Simon gently placed Soren on the tarp they had strung between his horse and Simon’s. The soldier’s head was swathed in bandages, and his breathing was shallow, but regular as a clock.

Hollo looked at Simon, saying, “I’ll meet you on the other side of the village after I fetch my pony. She’s been tied to that tree for hours, and if I don’t hurry, something’s going to eat her.”

Simon nodded, and Hollo trotted back up the trail. Erika, already mounted, watched him go. She paid no mind to the bandage around her wounded hand as she took up her reins.

“Can you find this village without him?”

“I’ve never been there, but I saw it from the hills this morning. If we can get to the valley floor before sunset, I’ll be able to get us there.”

“How is the captain?”

“He’s still breathing, my lady, and every so often he makes a noise or tries to mumble, so there’s hope.”

Erika nodded sadly. “Such a good man,” she said quietly. Greta’s breath hitched, as if she were going to start crying again, but she only stared forward from her saddle.

“That he is,” Simon replied, “Let’s get going. There’s not much time before dark.”


They rode in silence for a time. The path opened up as they followed it around a large hill, and Erika brought her horse up to ride next to Simon.

“I never thanked you,” she said.

“No need, princess,” Simon replied, “I’m sorry you were wounded.”

“Better this than to be dragged to Pesht or worse.”

“Yes,” Simon said with a knowing nod, “it can always get worse.”

“True,” Erika said, looking down at her hands, “I just don’t understand”

“Understand what, my lady?”

“He… he hit me,” she said as she looked over to Simon, “He struck me with a bare hand.”

“That happens in a fight,” he replied drily.

“But, that’s not how it’s supposed to work. It’s not fair.”

“Princess, in a fight, there is no ‘fair.’ He wanted to hurt you, you didn’t want to get hurt. Whatever either of you did to disappoint the other is what’s fair. Blades, axes, spears, teeth, fists, whatever’s handy, you use them all to win.”

“But my teachers, my father…”

“They taught you how to fence, my lady, how to spar, but not how to fight. I pray there isn’t a next time, but if there is, remember the difference. It almost cost you your life today.”

Erika said nothing, but rode on in stony silence. In her mind, she replayed the fight over and over, and compared it to her lessons.

“You’re alive, my lady, and he’s not going to hurt anyone again,” Simon said, guessing her thoughts. “Nothing else matters.”

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


  • Fact – The glass door to an Oster extra-large convection/toaster oven is made of high-quality tempered glass.
    • Unfortunately, I found this out when the one I bought Irish Woman to use during our kitchen remodel landed on the concrete basement floor.
  • Fact – The behavior of millions of little glass pebbles on a basement floor is proof of the movement of matter after the Big Bang.
  • Fact – The easiest way to find the glass you missed while sweeping up the basement is to walk down to the laundry room in bare feet.
  • Fact – When the toaster oven hits the basement floor, it automatically gains 1250% of its value in the life of a wife.
  • A new stray cat seems to have adopted us.
    • I call him ‘Tigger’ because he’s a rather large, affectionate tiger striped gray tabby.
    • For a while, we thought he was a she, and were worried that she might be pregnant.
    • I am happy to report that he’s not pregnant, just fat.
    • Luckily, Tigger seems to get along with the other cats.  He has to have been someone’s pet, because he likes scritches from anyone who will take the time and doesn’t run away when we approach.  We’ve inquired with the neighbors, but can find nobody who will claim him.
    • What is it with critters and our house?
  • The old Work in Progress is still with alpha readers, and I’ve begun work on the next idea to make its way to the top of my mind.  Making slow progress on this one, but it’s still moving.
  •   I’m thinking it might be a good idea to start putting naptime into my long-range project plans.

Escort Duty – Part 9

Soren lifted his hand to halt the little group as they came to a flat spot with a spring bubbling out of some rocks. Two days of hard riding had put them deeper into the mountains and across the border with Pesht. The mid-day sun was warm as Greta and Hollo laid out bread and cheese, while Simon filled their water skins from the spring.

“How much further until we come to another village?” Erika asked as she sat down to eat.

Hollo gestured to the valley below them. It was a patchwork of fields and pastures, with buildings sprinkled sparingly across it.  Several silver ribbons of water ran down from the hills, joining in the middle of the valley into a wider river, which flowed out between two low peaks.  Directly across from them, nestled up against the hills, was a village.  As far away as they were, their eyes could only make it out as a blob of darker color against the green and gold of the valley floor.

“There are a few settlements and freeholds down there, my lady, and the village, but we’ll need to avoid all of them,” he answered.

“I’d kill for a night in a warm bed.”

“I’m sure you would, princess,” Simon said, returning from the spring, “But with villages come the eyes and ears of your enemies. We’re too close to the capitol for there to not be garrisons, and it’s best we don’t chance it.”

Erika sighed as she nibbled on a slice of cheese. Greta sat next to her, eating the last of the dense bread Branka had packed for them. The men soaked  hunks of way bread in water, then slurped down the resulting mash.

“We’ll need to do some hunting if there’s to be much to eat tonight,” Soren said.

Hollo nodded. “I’ll see what I can do,” he replied, “Maybe I’ll get lucky and get a wild goat or a deer.”

Erika made a face, but said nothing as she took the cup of cold water Greta offered to her.

Simon pointed to a draw on the other side of the wide valley, saying, “We’ll try to make it there to camp by nightfall. It’s far enough from the village and those farms for our purposes. We’ll be able to have a fire after dark without the farmers down there seeing it. We just have to follow this track through the hills to the other side.”

“I’ll meet you there an hour or so after sundown,” Hollo said, lifting himself up and walking to his pony.

“Why didn’t you get something better at the tavern?” Erika asked curiously, “You always look like you’re about to catch your foot on that nag.”

“Oh, she’s a good girl, and as surefooted as I’ve ever seen, highness,” Hollo said. The black amulet hanging from his neck caught the sunshine as he turned and mounted the little horse. The others watched him ride back into the pines before they turned back to their meal.


Simon guided his charges around the perimeter of the valley that afternoon, being careful to not let them be seen from the fields and homesteads on its floor. As they went, he talked with them in low tones.

“I asked about the plague while we were at the tavern. It hasn’t hit this far out, at least, not yet, but closer to the capitol, it’s killing hundreds,” he said, “That’s another reason to keep clear of the people.”

The ladies nodded at that. The little group quietly made their way around to the southern tip of the valley, then started back up the other side toward the notch in the ridgeline Simon had pointed out to Hollo.

The sun was almost halfway toward the horizon when Simon stiffened in his saddle and put up his hand to call a halt.

Soren put his hand to his sword’s hilt and whispered, “What is it?”

“Thought I heard something, like a foot slipping on the ground.”

All four of them sat silent for a moment, straining their ears and looking around for anything amiss. Simon nodded to Soren and pulled Gnarlthing from its scabbard. Soren copied his movements. Seeing the two men draw their weapons, Erika pulled her short sword from the scabbard on her saddle.

“My lady, please, only use that in the direst of emergencies,” Simon whispered without taking his eyes from the woods.

“I can handle myself in a fight,” Erika replied curtly.

Simon did not answer, but nudged his horse forward. Soren waited for the ladies to follow, then took up the rear. The mule, burdened with gear, plodded along behind him.

The forest sounds continued as always, with birds twittering their spring calls and the breeze causing the trees to groan as their limbs moved. The sound of their horses’ hooves echoed dully along the rude track they followed.

All four riders kept looking about as they rode. Soren turned his head to try to release a bit of tension, and his neck cracked like someone snapping a branch across his thigh. Simon looked back sharply at the noise, but turned forward again when Soren shrugged in apology.

They came to an outcropping of stone, its weathered layers variegated between deep gray and soft green as it jutted out from the side of the hill. The path narrowed as it took a sharp turn around it, blocking their view. The trees to the side of it seemed to close in on him as Simon rode around the rock. The two women followed, Greta first, then Erika, their eyes large as they looked to either side of the path. Soren looked behind them as he went, trying to watch both the path and the rock above.

The path opened back up when the rock was behind them, but remained too narrow to ride two abreast. Simon turned in his saddle to watch his charges emerge from behind the rock, then smiled and waved as Soren came into view.

“I was worried there. Perfect place for an ambush,” he called out. Both men returned their swords to their scabbards. Erika followed their example a heartbeat later.

“I still don’t like this,” Soren replied, looking around, “We should have risked the valley floor.”

Simon started to reply, but instead drew his sword as a figure rose from the top of the outcropping and lifted a staff to the heavens. A loose stone rose up and flew at Soren faster than the eye can see. The soldier crumpled as it hit the back of his head, falling to the ground next to his horse. Simon’s shout of warning was drowned out when more attackers emerged shouting from the woods.

Greta screamed as a man grabbed at the reins of her horse, while Princess Erika snatched at the hilt of her sword. Two men rushed at her, one of them appearing from a puff of smoke at the side of the trail. That one, the man who had stood on top of the rock, swung his gnarled staff at the princess’ body. It caught her in the middle just as she pulled her blade free, knocking the wind from her and toppling her from her mount.

Simon shouted as he rode at the attackers. Gnarlthing sung in the air as he brought it down, connecting with the man trying to unhorse Greta. The brigand, bearded and dressed in rough clothes, screamed as the blade bit deep into his shoulder. He released the horse and slumped to the ground, pawing at the gaping wound with his uninjured hand.

Simon brought Gnarlthing back up to swing at the man standing over Erika’s crumpled form, an axe in his hand, but fell backwards from his horse when the attacker with the staff shouted something unintelligible and struck at him. The half-elf struck the ground hard, but rolled away from the staff as came down with a whistle. The ground where it hit charred and smoldered as its bearer lifted it to lash out at Simon again.

Greta, sprayed with her attacker’s blood and seeing Simon unhorsed, screamed again. The maid kicked her mare in the side, and galloped down the trail, leaving the fight behind her.

Erika gasped at the pain in her gut as she desperately tried to take a deep breath. She saw a shadow fall next to her and rolled over. Her attacker, his face twisted with anger and teeth bared, loomed over her, an axe in his hand. Erika brought her short sword up, striking at the axe. Metal rang as she smacked it aside, then the princess thrust her blade into the man’s chest just where her fencing instructor would have pinned a target for a blunted sword.

The raider screamed as he felt the point of Erika’s sword slip into him, then again as she withdrew it, its wickedly sharp blade grating against his bones and cutting a line down the front of his torso. His blood flowed strongly through the wound, and he fell to the earth with a groan. Erika struggled to her feet, her breath coming in short gasps against the spasms in her diaphragm.

The wizard faced Simon, sparks and smoke spewing from the iron-shod ends of his staff. He was gaunt, his face and head hairless. His eyes blazed as he muttered a curse, and the air around him snapped with energy.

The half-elf swung Gnarlthing at the man’s throat, but in a blur, the staff parried the blow. The wizard brought his weapon back around almost as fast as Simon could see, and the half-elf barely ducked in time as it sizzled over his head.

Simon leaped forward as his attacker brought his weapon around again, this time swinging down as if to pound Simon into the dirt. He brought Gnarlthing down as his legs drove him close to his attacker, the metal slicing into the middle of the man’s staff. The wood between the wizard’s hands cracked at the impact, and the staff bent inward toward its bearer. The sparks on either end of the staff ceased as the wood parted under Simon’s blade. The wizard dropped it and sprang backward, narrowly escaping Simon’s blade as he brought it back up.

Erika watched this with owlish eyes, not sure if she should interfere in another’s fight. She caught movement from the corner of her eye, and brought her blade up by instinct. The forest rang with the impact of steel on steel.

She turned to face her attacker, finding a squat man in brown leather breeches and jerkin, his head balding. In his hand, he carried a long, curved dagger, its nicked and notched edge shining in the sunlight filtering down through the trees.

The princess drew herself up to the fighting stance she had been taught, and by habit, drew her blade up to her forehead in salute to her opponent. The man looked at her quizzically, then swung at her with his dagger.

Erika easily parried the attack, then followed up with a slash at his face. Her opponent dodged the stroke, then circled to his left. His knife hand flicked out a few times, feinting to see what Erika would do. The princess followed his movement, turning so that he remained to her front. At each feint, she moved as if to block the expected blow.

The wizard bellowed as he raised his hands, and Simon felt something fly past his ear as he whirled to his right. The half-elf completed the revolution, bringing Gnarlthing around in a wide arc. The wizard jumped back, and a smile came to his face as the blade continued past him.

Simon brought his sword back and put his free hand on the hilt. He looked to the wizard and smiled. The man looked puzzled for a moment, then his eyes blazed as he brought his hands to his neck. A long, thin, stream of blood seeped through his fingers as the wound Simon had sliced through the front of his neck opened.

“Good luck chanting spells with that,” Simon wheezed as the wizard fell to his knees, his breath and a scream of rage and pain bubbling out between his fingers.

Erika’s foe feinted once again, and she turned her sword to block the blow. Instead of the thrust she had expected, though, the man lashed out with his free hand, catching her on the cheek with a closed fist. Erika cried out as her head snapped back in shock and pain. The man followed up with a slash of his blade, cutting across the back of the hand Erika brought up to touch her face. She screamed as the knife burned a jagged gash through her skin.

The man’s smile widened as he moved in with a whoop of triumph. The princess brought her short sword up, but he batted it away with his dagger. Her sword rang like a bell as it struck a tree several feet away. Erika screamed again, her eyes fixed on the blood smeared on the dagger’s blade.

The man stopped half a step from the princess, his smile replaced with a look of shock, then he fell forward. Gnarlthing protruded from his back, its point stuck between his shoulder blades. Simon put his foot on the man’s shoulder, gave his sword a twist, and pulled it free. The brigand gave out a sharp cry, then convulsed. After a moment, he stilled.

Behind Simon, the wizard fell onto his back with a long, gobbling cry. Erika stared at him in shock. Simon looked from the princess to the fallen man, then shrugged. He walked over to the wizard, who was writhing in the dust of the forest path. Simon placed the tip of his sword on the man’s breastbone.

“Be still, man, and I’ll stop your suffering!” he shouted.

The wizard’s wild eyes focused on the tall half-elf towering over him, and he stopped his twisting and heaving in the dust. Simon nodded and brought the heel of his free hand down hard against Gnarlthing’s pommel, driving the blade deep into the wizard’s chest. The man’s eyes bulged at the pain, then dulled as life passed from him. Simon wrenched his blade from his carcass

Simon turned toward the man Erika had killed. He lay face down on dirt soaked crimson with his blood. Simon regarded him for a moment, then wiped Gnarlthing’s blade on the wizard’s cloak and put it back in his scabbard.

The princess was shaky as she walked to Simon. Mindful that she was no longer armed, she pulled a small knife from the sheath she kept on her belt. She looked over at the brigand she had stabbed and shuddered.

“I…. I killed him,” she stammered.

“Better him than you, my lady,” Simon answered. He used the toe of his boot to turn the man’s body over onto its back. There was a place on his tunic where the cloth was darker than the rest.

“He’s in the service of someone who doesn’t wish to be known,” Simon said, “Cheap bastard took the badge from his shirt rather than buy a new one.”

A wave of nausea washed over Erika as she surveyed the carnage around her. She put her hand on Simon’s shoulder to steady herself while the world tilted around her. It was only after the feeling passed that she remembered Soren and rushed to his side.

The soldier lay on his back, the moss-covered ground under his head stained with blood. He was breathing, but one eye was half-closed and unfocused, while the lid on the other was completely shut. As Erika took his hand, she felt him tremble spasmodically at her touch.

“Soren!” she cried. The soldier made no response to the sound of her voice.

Simon walked over and lifted Soren’s closed eyelid. Gently, he probed at the soldier’s skull, and his hand was stained crimson when he brought it back. He cursed under his breath as he wiped it off on the moss.

“The back of his head’s dished in,” he said, “There’s not much beyond prayer that I can do here.”

“What about a healer?” Erika said, “Could that help?”

“Maybe, but we won’t find one of those here.”

“There might be one in that village down there.”

Simon nodded at that. “We’d risk being discovered,” he said, “but it’s either that or slit his throat to spare him the suffering.”

Erika put her wounded hand to her mouth in shock. “You won’t kill him!” she cried out.

The wounded attacker, who still held his hand firmly over the wound to his shoulder, screamed at them, “I know a healer! Take me to her and she can take care of both of us!”

Simon’s smile was cruel as he stepped over to the man.

“And what makes you think I won’t just make you tell me about her and leave you here for the wolves?” he hissed.

“Your princess won’t let you….” the man said, then cut off when the blade of Simon’s dagger rested against his throat.

“Why do you think she’s a princess?” Simon asked, his voice suddenly gentle.

“Lamlok told us we were going to capture a princess,” the man cried out.

“And who is Lamlok?”

“The wizard!” he said, gesturing to the man Simon had killed, “He’s from Count Herceg’s court. He hired us to capture her and bring her to Pesht.”

Simon nodded at this, then said, “And how does Count Herceg know about all this?” He increased the pressure of the blade against the man’s skin.

“I don’t know!” the man squealed, feeling his skin part before the razor-sharp edge, “We were just supposed to snatch her and bring her back to him!”

“And where is this healer?”

“Lamlok said that there’s one down in Taszar! An old woman!”

“Well, then, I guess I don’t need you anymore, now do I?”

The man’s eyes widened at that, and he scooted back, trying to get away from Simon’s blade. He crawled under the branches of a bush, heavy with spring blossoms, then collapsed once the danger from Simon’s dagger was gone.

Simon looked at the man for a moment, a hard look on his face. He put his blade away without taking his eyes off of the brigand at his feet, only turning his head when he heard the pounding of hooves on the trail.

Greta and Hollo shared her saddle as he brought her horse back to the group. Tears flowed down the maid’s face, then a cry of joy escaped her throat when she saw her mistress. As soon as Hollo reined the horse to a halt, she slipped to the ground and ran to the princess, wrapping her arms around her and crying.

“Oh, my lady, I’m sorry!” she sobbed, dropping to her knees, “I was so frightened!”

Erika, who still knelt next to Soren, put her arm around her maid and hugged her close.

“It’s all right, Greta, it’s all right,” she said soothingly, “There’s no shame in it.”

Greta continued to shudder and weep as she released her mistress and looked down at the man next to her.

“The captain, is he…?”

“Not yet, but he soon will be if we don’t get him to a healer.”

Hollo looked about as he dismounted. “Bit of excitement?” he asked.

“You could say that. Someone in Pesht knew we were coming and sent these lads to fetch us,” Simon answered.

“I saw the maid riding through the woods like her hair was on fire, so I stopped her and came to help.”

“Where’s your pony?”

Hollo motioned toward the hills to the south. “I left her tied up over there somewhere. Once we get this straightened out, I’ll go get her.”

He looked over at Soren and lifted his eyebrows questioningly. Simon said nothing, but gave a small, slow shake of his head. Hollo touched the hilt of his dagger, but Simon raised a hand.

“That road apple over there says there’s a healer in Taszar. The princess’ll be wanting to take him there.

“That’s the big village with the mill to the northwest of here. I checked it out after I left you this morning, but didn’t see anyone in the fields.”

“We’ll have to be careful, but she insists.”

Hollo jerked his head toward the wounded attacker, who had slithered further from the trail and was trying to crawl into a thicket of thorn bushes.

“What’s to do about him?”

Simon glanced over at the women, then said quietly, “Once he’s out of sight, take care of him.”

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

Audiobook Review – Galaxy’s Edge

Galaxy’s Edge, co-written by Jason Anspach and Nick Cole, and narrated by R.C. Bray, is a fast moving, action-packed story that will have you sitting in the car to listen until the end of the chapter.  Here’s the blurb:

On the edge of the galaxy, a diplomatic mission to an alien planet takes a turn when the Legionnaires, an elite special fighting force, find themselves ambushed and stranded behind enemy lines. They struggle to survive under siege, waiting on a rescue that might never come.

In the seedy starport of Ackabar, a young girl searches the crime-ridden gutters to avenge her father’s murder; not far away, a double-dealing legionniare-turned-smuggler hunts an epic payday; and somewhere along the outer galaxy, a mysterious bounter hunter lies in wait.

Galaxy’s Edge combines sleek starfighters, exotic aliens, loyal bots, blasters, scoundrels, heroes, and powerful enemies in a thrilling adventure that will take you back to that magic place from a long time ago.

The Galaxy’s Edge audiobook includes the stories from the first two books in the series, “Legionnaire” and “Galactic Outlaws“.  The story grabs you with its first line, and when you hear the last words, you will immediately want more.  Anspach and Cole have plotted out an interesting, engrossing, and exciting yarn that just keeps coming at you.  This is an action story, but also has an excellent thread about the meaning of good and evil, and how men and women have to find their place between the two extremes.  But most of all, this book was fun, from the first word to the last.

Bray’s narration is spot on.  His voice characterizations and pacing is excellent.  He didn’t belabor the more intimate, person to person scenes in the story, and neither did he rush through the action scenes.  It’s not often that I plan on re-listening to a story, but Bray’s work on Galaxy’s Edge puts it on that list.

If you’re a fan of military science fiction or space opera, you’ll enjoy Galaxy’s Edge.  It’s a fun, engrossing story that kept my attention and left me looking forward to seeing what happens next.

Escort Duty – Part 8

The next morning, Simon was enjoying a mug of wine and some bread when Erika and Soren came down the stairs from their room. Soren wore his normal drab tunic and breeches, but Erika had changed into a gown of blue satin with white fur collars and cuffs. A chain of pearls hung from her neck, and at her breast a brooch of silver and pearls glistened in the light.

Simon stood as she alighted from the stairs, bowing dramatically to her as she smiled at him.

“Good morning, my lady,” he said, “You are certainly the most beautiful woman in these parts.”

“Why thank you, good sir,” she replied, her voice light and sweet. A good meal and a night in a comfortable bed seemed to have done wonders for her mood. Soren looked at Simon suspiciously, but said nothing.

“Why, I’m sure your appearance today will be the talk of these folk for weeks to come,” Simon continued, leaning against the table, “and of everyone who passes through.”

Erika’s smile faded, her brow wrinkling to a scowl.

“You’re mocking me, aren’t you?” she said, her tone changing from the tinkle of a silver bell to a low growl.

“Of course, not, my lady,” Simon replied, “I look forward to the excitement of trying to dodge patrols and pursuers who seek the beautiful lady dressed in rich raiment.”

Erika fumed at that, and opened her mouth to retort, but Soren cut in.

“You think you’re funny, don’t you?” he demanded.

“Actually, I think I’m hilarious.”

“What makes you think you can poke fun at your betters?”

“Well, since my mother is a princess of the Chanani, and her line stretches back to before her people were driven into the Wispmark, and your grandmother was the daughter of a goat-herd, I think we really ought to evaluate the term ‘better,’ shouldn’t we?”

Soren tried to respond to that, but the words caught in his throat. Erika arched an eyebrow and suppressed a smile of her own.

“How did you know that?” he hissed after a few moments.

“Soren, do you really think I hired on with your master without learning everything I could about those he trusts?”

Soren said nothing, but stole a glance at the princess.

She arched an eyebrow and said “A goatherd?”

“She married well, my lady,” Soren explained, his pale face flushing in embarrassment under his beard.

“Scandalous,” Erika replied with a small smile.

“It was, my lady. The court never let her forget it, but my grandfather loved her.”

“I’m sure it doesn’t matter,” Erika said, “Any house that traces its lineage finds such things regularly.”

Soren nodded, then turned back to Simon.

“And what of the princess? Are you her better?”

“Oh, no, not at all. I am but her servant.”

“Then you should act like one,” Erika snapped, “Greta knows her place.” Greta looked up at the mention of her name, but seemed to be trying to shrink out of sight while the others argued.

“My place, lady, is to protect you. You are making that difficult by attempting this trip in such finery,” Simon replied.

“What would you have her do, travel in rags like a beggar?” Soren said, a touch of anger in his voice.

“No, that shouldn’t be necessary. But we must do something so that she does not shine like a diamond in the dust.”

Erika glowered at the half-elf. She again opened her mouth to retort, but stopped and turned when the door opened behind her. Branka came in, a basket of eggs hanging from the crook of her elbow. A younger woman, smaller than the innkeeper and carrying a basket of greens and vegetables from the garden, followed her.

Simon considered the younger woman for a moment. He smiled at Branka and said, “Is this little Annya? Say it isn’t so!”

The young woman blushed and looked at the floor as Branka replied, “Of course, who else would it be?”

“Why, it seems only yesterday she was tottering around and singing like a little angel!”

“Well, she’s all grown up now,” Branka said, setting her basket on the bar, “She’s to be married at the first full moon of summer.”

“Ah, a blushing bride,” Simon said, tipping his head down to level his eyes with Annya’s, “And which of the strapping young men hereabouts is the lucky groom?”

“He’s a groom at the palace in Pesht,” Branka said with a smile. She chuckled at the joke. “She’ll be leaving her dear mother here in the sticks and be a maid for the Count’s wife.”

Simon considered that for a moment, then tilted his head and smiled at the innkeeper’s daughter. She set her basket down on a table and joined her mother at holding the eggs up to the light from the window to find the ones which had been fertilized.

“We met when he came through here with his lord a few months ago,” she said in a soft, piping voice.

“A fine match, and I’m sure he’ll be as good a husband as you will be his wife,” Simon said thoughtfully, “Do you have a wedding gown yet?”

“I have a few things,” the young woman said, looking away from her work, “and Oleg says I can get something nice once I get to Pesht.”

Simon turned and winked to Soren and Erika. The Princess’ eyes bugged out as she understood where he was going.

“You’re in luck, little one,” he said after turning back to the two women candling their eggs, “My companions here deal in ladies finery, and I believe they’re of a mind to make a bargain today.

Both Branka and Annya turned to face their guests. Branka was the first to speak.

“Bargain? How so?”

“My lady Erika is in need of some traveling clothes. Hers seem to have been mislaid, and all she has are such as you see her wearing now.”

“And she’d be willing to part with it if we have something to offer?”

“Yes, she’d like to get something that doesn’t attract the eye so much, if you catch my meaning.”

Erika gave Simon a hard look, then smiled at Branka and her daughter.

“Yes, ladies,” she said sweetly, “This is a wonderful gown, but I’m afraid that it just won’t do for the road.”

Branka stood and walked over to Erika, wiping her hands on her apron. She reached out and pinched a bit of fabric between her calloused thumb and forefinger.

“Very nice,” she said, “but what do you want in trade?”

“Annya, how tall are you?” Erika said sweetly.

“I am seventeen hands at the top of my head, my lady,” Annya said, standing up.

“What a coincidence,” Erika said with a smile, “We’re almost the same height, and if I don’t miss my guess, we’re about the same at the shoulders and hips.”

Soren looked quizzically at the princess, but said nothing.

“Would you be willing to trade a dress or two for the ladies gown?” Simon said, looking more at Branka than at Annya.

The older woman considered it for a moment, then said, “She only got the one dress better than what she’s wearing now. You could have that.”

“What if you threw in a few odds and ends to seal the deal?” Simon replied.

“I can make sure you leave here with enough food to get you through Pesht, if that’s what you’re after.”

Annya blushed, saying, “It’s a beautiful dress, but I’m not sure I could wear it.”

Erika waved her hand at her dismissively. Smiling warmly, she said, “Pish, don’t worry about that. Come with me and we’ll see how it fits.”

The princess extended her hand to the innkeeper’s daughter and gently led her up the stairs to her room. Greta followed, her eyes shifting from her mistress to Simon and back.

“If she likes it, is it a deal?” Simon said.

Branka looked at him through slitted eyes, then spit on her hand and extended it to the half-elf. Simon returned the gesture, and they shook on it.

“Annya’s good dress and some provisions for one ladies gown,” the innkeeper said before picking up the eggs and walking into the kitchen.

“Call me when she’s done,” she called over her shoulder, “I want to see my baby girl in a fine dress.”

Soren waited until he heard her working in the kitchen before he turned to Simon and glared.

“Did you just trade away a fine gown for some bread and a set of plain clothes?” he demanded.

Simon sat back down to his breakfast and took up his cup. Gesturing to the stool across from him, he answered, “Here, have a seat and eat something.”

Soren’s lips tightened to a white line, but he took the offered seat. As he sat there, he crossed his arms and looked at Simon expectantly.

Simon took another bit of the bread, and after swallowing it, said, “Soren, this way we will be able to go through most villages or even a city or two without sticking out. If she’d gone about dressed like that, we’d have had to stick to the wild lands and this trip would take three times as long.”

Soren considered that, then nodded.

“All right,” he said, “But you’re just lucky she cooperated.”

“If I didn’t think she’d cooperate, I wouldn’t have tried to do it,” Simon replied, “She’s just like her father. Bit of a hothead, but practical when it’s needed.”

“I suppose you knew her father when he was that age?” Soren said, taking a piece of the bread.

Simon snorted. “What tales you all believe about the elves,” he said, “I’m younger than you are, and if I’m lucky to die in my sleep as an old man, I won’t be any older than you will be when you meet such an end.”

“But I thought you all lived forever.”

“Old wives tales. I’m as mortal as you are. I’m just better looking.”

Soren looked at him darkly, then saw the smile on Simon’s face. Shaking his head, he returned to chewing his bread.

“I spoke with someone last night,” Simon said after washing a mouthful down.


“Pesht.  You heard what Branka said about a plague?”

“We heard that there’s some epidemic going through the capitol, but we’re not going that way, are we?”

“Not if we can help it,” Simon replied, “But my friend said it’s spreading along the main roads.”

“Should we go back?”

“Do you think we could convince her highness to go back to your master and admit defeat?”

Soren thought about that as he chewed a mouthful of bread, then shook his head.

“Not a chance,” he said, “Can we go around to the coast and get a ship?”

“That would double our journey, and I didn’t exactly bring along a treasury to hire a boat and crew.”

“What about the mountains in the north?”

“That’s twice as far as going straight through to Booda, and it would force us to go through their capitol.  All roads lead to Pesht in Pesht.”

“So what choice do we have?” Soren asked, putting his mug down.

“Hollo says that he knows ways through the hills which will keep us off the roads,” Simon replied, “That’ll only cost us a few days.  It’s either that or we turn back now and have Dveglammar hire a ship to take the princess home.”

Soren considered Simon’s words for a moment, then picked up his mug.  He drained the last of his wine before saying, “We’ll follow Hollo, but we won’t take any chances with the princess.  If we come upon a place the sickness has reached, we’ll turn back.”

Simon nodded and lifted his own drink in acknowledgement of the soldier’s decision.

Both men turned when they heard footsteps on the stairs behind them. Greta came down first, followed by Erika. The princess had changed into a simple long-sleeved shift of green wool, with a few embroidered accents at the throat and hems. The only hint of the finery she normally wore were the leather riding boots peeking out from under her skirt as she walked down the stairs.

But both men’s attention was drawn to Annya, who came last. Her tawny brown hair had been let down from the braid she normally kept it in, and now her tresses fell in curls down either side of her face. Her eyes sparkled as she carefully walked down the stairs in the blue satin and white fur gown. She had been pretty, if a little plain, before, but she seemed to almost glow in the sunshine from the windows now.

Simon and Soren gaped for a moment, then bowed to her as one when she alighted from the stairs. Behind them, Branka came out of the kitchen, stopping with one hand to her mouth.

“Oh, but that’s a beautiful lady there, that is!” was all she could squeak out before rushing forward to take her daughter’s hand and turning her around.

“Do you like it, mama?” Annya asked in a hushed tone, “Is it too much?”

“Darling, it’s wonderful,” Branka said with tears in her eyes.

“Your Oleg will be the envy of the court, Annya,” Simon said, “He’ll certainly be the luckiest man there.”

Branka turned and engulfed Erika in a tight hug. The princess gasped as she felt the older woman’s arms crushing in on her, but returned the embrace as best she could.

After setting Erika down again, Branka dabbed at her eyes with the corner of her apron, saying “I’ll make sure you eat well on your trip, my lady. Thank you for this.”

Erika smiled warmly at the woman’s happiness, saying “Think nothing of it. She looks better in it than I do.”

“Come,” Branka said, clearing the emotion from her throat, “Let me make you a proper breakfast.”

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

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