The Chosen, Chapter 1F

Wolf felt the nobleman pounce on her, his knees pressing down on the back of her shoulders, his hands taking her daggers. He then looked back, calling to his companions – “I’ve got this one down.”

Twisting her head, right cheek scraping the dirt, Wolf saw Viper battling with the Islander. Both men were wounded and tired; neither seemed to have an advantage. She was about to yell at her companion, order him to leave, when the priestly woman, who had been tending to the boy’s knife wound, stood and advanced towards the two men, then announced in a calm and patient voice, “This battle needs to end.”

A scent then came to Wolf, one she had only rarely come across, yet was still instantly recognizable. “Cinnamon?” At the same moment, Viper yelled, and dropped his sword. He then stared at his hand, confusion on his face.

With everyone’s attention focused away from her, Wolf attempted her escape. Flexing her right leg backward and up, she kicked the nobleman in the back of the head, startling him enough to allow her to flex both legs back and lock her feet around his throat. She then pulled him off her body, but before she could rise to her feet, she heard horses approaching, and looked up to see the banner of the Philos Safety Committee coming up the road.

She was immediately surrounded by officers. One of the officers dismounted, and addressed the nobleman – “Are any of you hurt?” The nobleman waved toward the boy, now being attended by the priestly woman again. The Islander was approaching as well, his face dusty and weary. In the distance, she also saw Viper and their bowman, attempting to flee, and soon to be cut down.

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The Chosen, Chapter 1E

Wolf hurled the dagger in her left hand at the nobleman, who swept his right arm across his body to deflect the missile, then brought the arm down and back across to draw the sword from his hip scabbard. A beam of sunlight glistened off the sword’s blade as he walked forward, holding the grip of his weapon with both hands.

Drawing another dagger from a back holster, Wolf recognized the make of the sword being brought against her. “That’s an Imperial blade.”

“Indeed.” The nobleman stopped his advance. “I feel it’s my duty to inform you, that surrender is an option.”

Wolf drew her lips back in a snarl, as she twirled the daggers in her hands. “I’m gonna carve the word ‘prick’ backwards on your face, so that you remember me every time you look in the mirror.” And with a yell from her gut, she charged.

Her right dagger jabbed at the nobleman’s chest, but he easily deflected the attack – as well as the slash of her other dagger towards his belly. His parries were economical, using only as much force required to protect him, and he continued using both hands on the grip. Seeing the nobleman step back, Wolf spun and slashed with both daggers, the first catching against the sword’s blade, but the second deflecting and slashing the nobleman’s right sleeve and forearm.

Wolf continued attacking, the nobleman retreating at each blow. The priestly woman and boy had backed up along with their companion, and were now almost back to back with the Islander, locked in battle with Viper.

The nobleman’s strategy was now evident – maintain a safe distance, stay defensive, and let his opponent tire herself and weaken before initiating his own attack. Blood oozed from the slash on his forearm, but that was his only wound. Wolf knew his plan was working, and she needed an effective counter to avoid defeat.

“You – ” holding both daggers high, she took several steps back, and exaggerated the exhaustion in her voice – “are more – than you seem.” She sat into a low crouch, and let the dagger in her right hand fall to the ground.”

The nobleman remained wary, his sword held close to his body with both hands, blade pointing up. “We really don’t want to hurt you.”

She wiped her brow with the back of her right hand. “How kind – of you.” Then her right hand flew down to her boot, retrieved a stiletto, and hurled it forward.

The small knife was too low to the ground for the nobleman to deflect it with his sword, and was well wide of his legs, so he let it pass. Almost immediately, the boy behind him screamed; the nobleman glanced back, and saw the boy falling to the ground, the stiletto lodged in his right calf.

Wolf fell upon the nobleman again, her left dagger slashing across his other forearm before he caught her blade. His parry this time was more forceful, knocking her backward, and with anger in his face he advanced, holding his sword forward with his right hand only. She took a step back, and finally realized another reason for his constant retreating – he had moved them back to level ground.

He thrust the sword at her, and she deflected the attack with her right dagger while slashing at him with her left, missing by less than an inch. The nobleman closed the distance between them, then slashed powerfully at her right arm; Wolf caught the strike with both daggers, then watched helplessly as the nobleman’s left fist flew down at her, striking her square across the jaw, and sending her sprawling down onto the dirt road.

The Chosen, Chapter 1D

Wolf swiftly reached the base of the tree, then edged quietly along the ground in order to prevent startling deer or other forest animals, and potentially alerting the pilgrims to her presence. Reaching a cluster of small trees, she crouched down and waited for Viper to join her. The trees were at the summit of an incline in the road, the point chosen by the brigands for their ambush; the pilgrims, should they decide to resist, would literally be fighting an uphill battle.

A moment later, she heard Viper creeping up behind her, and glared back at him, her unspoken question evident in her face – Is everyone ready? He tapped her twice on the shoulder to confirm. Before climbing down from their perch, Viper had risen above the tree line to flash the attack signal to the scouts and another brigand, armed with a bow and positioned closer to the ambush point. Having given the signal, the brigands needed to act without communication until engaging their victims; they could still signal each other through trunk tapping, but that practice was not entirely reliable and also fairly easy to detect.

Wolf and Viper waited silently for several minutes, then finally heard the sound of approaching footfalls. For the first time, Wolf saw the pilgrims Viper had identified through his telescope. In the front was a large man, a nobleman from the continent judging from his clothing and bearing; behind him was a frail woman, with an intelligent yet soft face, wearing priestly robes; walking beside her was a boy, dressed in peasant clothing and looking no older that fifteen, who was leading a mule laden with sacks; bringing up the rear was another man, nearly as powerful looking as the nobleman and dressed as a colonial merchant, but whose dark skin clearly identified him as an Islander.

As the pilgrims approached, Wolf estimated how much wealth they’d be carrying. They would certainly be carrying an offering of a two, maybe three hundred for the temple priests, and somewhere between ten and twenty more for their personal use; their clothing and equipment might garner an additional ten on the black market. They’d let them keep the mule, an animal too easily recognizable. If they were lucky, they could score two-fifty from this raid, not anything close to the raids in the days before the Safety Committee escorts, but still more than they could hope to obtain in a week’s worth of other activities.

The pilgrims finally reached the ambush point, and Wolf sprang out from behind the cluster of trees, and raced out into the road, several yards in front of the nobleman. Drawing a dagger with her right hand and raising it high above her head, she waved her left hand at the pilgrims – “Welcome, travelers, to the city of Philos!”

The nobleman stopped a moment, and examined the figure who had just stepped in their path. He glanced back at his companions; the priestly woman nodded. Then the nobleman faced forward again, and resumed walking.

Snapping her head up and to the left, Wolf whistled sharply. A second later, an arrow hummed down from the forest, striking and sticking in the road no more than a foot in front of the nobleman, who stopped and looked down with a smile on his face, as if he had just come across an interesting plant.

“Three-feather fletching – ” the nobleman grabbed the arrow, pulled it from the road and examined its end closer – “and yes, we have nocking and cocking. “ He waved the arrow and looked up in the direction from where it had been launched. “Nice work.”

Wolf whistled twice, the signal to attack, but the nobleman turned to her slowly, shaking his head. “Oh, that’s not going to work any longer.” Wolf looked up, and from the archer’s position saw a struggle among the leaves; a moment later her archer’s broken bow fell to the ground, followed by his quiver of arrows, and then, with a panicked scream, the archer himself.

Drawing the other dagger from her belt, Wolf crouched down into attack position. Behind the Islander, she saw Viper leap into the road, sword drawn. The brigands were thieves, not warriors; skirmishing was not their strength, but Wolf realized they had no choice. Whoever had taken out their archer knew how to get around in these woods, so running was not an option; they’d have to fight their way out of this situation.

The Chosen, Chapter 1C

“Are they armed?” Wolf’s question that morning was directed at Viper, one of Yungen’s most adept scouts, as he peered into his telescope. The two bandits were lying on a perch constructed near the top of a large oak, high above the road from the Pentapolis, and had been alerted to the coming group of travelers by a signal from Red Trout, the band’s advance lookout.

Viper grunted. “Men are carrying swords. The woman and boy, no. There’s other weapons packed on the mule, but it won’t be easy to get to them.”

“Just those four, and the mule?” After Viper nodded in response to her question, Wolf rose to her knees, and taking from her vest a small mirror, round and no larger than her fist, she climbed the oak until her head was above the tree line. Raising the mirror high, she twisted her wrist until the sunlight reflected toward Red Trout’s position.

A moment later, she received the all clear signal (two short flashes, followed by a long) from Red Trout. Twisting back toward the uproad scouting position, she soon received the same message from Talon. Viper was collapsing his telescope when Wolf returned to the perch. The bandit leader smiled, exposing her white teeth – “Pity, those pilgrims chose not to pay the escort fee.”

“Probably figure the road’s safe, even without an escort.” Viper picked up his sword from the platform floor, as Wolf gathered two of her daggers. “The road hasn’t seen a successful robbery in two years.”

“Politics.” After loading her two daggers into her belt, one at each hip, she collected two more daggers, shorter than the others, and inserted each into a holster on either boot. “We could’ve taken down any escort, but Yungen didn’t want to risk open confrontation with the Safety Committee. Plus, he knew they’d eventually charge a fee for their service.”

Viper laughed, as he adjusted his tunic. “And people never like paying for what they’ve come to expect for free.”

Wolf had reached the edge of the perch, and stopped herself before beginning her descent. “Pilgrims, most of all. They feel they have the right to make this journey to their precious shrine on Eighth Hill. Paying for protection – they take that as an offense.” She began climbing down the tree.

“Hey.” Wolf stopped, looked up at Viper. “I’ve – it’s good to be raiding again.”

She frowned in response. “Those pilgrims, they need to pay someone. Whether it’s us, the Safety Committee, or this god of theirs. Nobody travels these roads for free.” And raising a finger to her lip, she continued her silent descent.

The Chosen, Chapter 1B

Wolf (the name she had given herself at the age of eleven after joining Yungen’s company) did not struggle against the guards as they led her from the cart. She was bound, unarmed, and outnumbered; escape was hardly possible. The guards led her to a locked iron gate, the entrance to a stone building at the rear of the courthouse; the building had a narrow corridor beyond the gate, with three small cells on either side.

The interior was dark, and reeked of urine and excrement. As the guards led Wolf to the furthest cell on the right, she heard a voice call from the dark.

“Please, tell me this one’s interesting.” The voice was female, and sounded weary. “Not ’nother damn drunk.”

A guard opened the gate to the third cell, as the other pushed Wolf inside; the door clattered close, and the guards commanded her to stand with her back turned against the gate. Not seeing the point of resisting, she obeyed, and a moment later felt her binds being loosened and removed.

“Being careful-like with this un, eh?” The guards exited the building without acknowledging the voice.

Her eyes adjusting to the darkness, Wolf looked around the small cell. High on the wall opposite the gate was a small window, the late morning sky casting a small rectangle of sunlight onto a dirt floor that reflected little light onto the walls. In the far right corner, a small privy hole; along the left wall, a narrow bench. And that was all.

“Won’t get no bread, no water ‘fore tomorry morning.” The voice was coming from the cell next to Wolf’s. “Court’s in session, day after that. Usually in the morning, get it over quick. Probably give me a fine, same as last time I told the constable to piss off.” The voice cackled to itself. “Wha’ever they decide t’do with you, be better than sitting around here.”

“Wouldn’t be sure about that.” Wolf rubbed her wrists. “They hang people for robbery.”

“Ah.” The voice sounded impressed. “Kill anyone?”

Wolf snorted. “You seem to be taking quite an interest in my case.”

“Just passing time, is all.” The woman in the next cell shuffled her feet. “If’n it’s murder, ‘fraid you’ve got yerself a date with the gallows. But if’n it’s just robbery, might send you to work at the penal colony.”

Wolf sat on the bench. “Think I’d rather hang.” She waited a moment for another question, but the tired voice grew silent, leaving Wolf with her thoughts. No longer struggling against her captivity and temporarily resigned to her current condition, she allowed herself to relax, and let her mind recall the events of that morning.

The Chosen, Chapter 1A

Chapter 1 – Prisoner Three

From the moment he heard the gallop of approaching horses, Constable Richard Gent was certain the Safety Committee had returned from its morning mission. The hooves digging into the dirt were clearly covered with shoes, and few citizens in the town of Philos were sufficiently wealthy to shod their horses year round. The colonial government, however, was still generously funded from the continent, and so long as Gent remained constable he would make certain his town’s Safety Committee would have the equipment it needed.

Gent rose from his chair, and grabbed his short sword as he exited his office in the courthouse. He was nimble and strong, bearded and bald, and experienced from nearly two decades of protecting Philos. He had actually contemplated leading the Safety Committee mission this morning, but saw the wisdom of entrusting the job to Owen Stenson, his youngest deputy, a man eager to lead.

Stepping out from the courthouse, Gent squinted a moment in the bright summer light, then looked to his right at the approaching horses. There were four, as many as Gent had sent out that morning, always a good first sign. From his seat on the lead horse, Deputy Stenson smiled down with satisfaction as he pulled up in front of Gent.

“It appears, Constable, that the gold you used for that bribe was money well spent.”

Gent nodded, then looked beyond the horse on his right, which carried the sole cart on the mission. Gent pointed to a hooded figure, sitting on the cart with its hands tied at the back. “A present, deputy? No really, you shouldn’t.”

Deputy Stenson was already dismounting, as a stable hand arrived to lead his horse away. “Trust me, taking prisoners wasn’t part of the plan. Two of the bandits were fleeing when we arrived – their bodies are in the cart.”

“Well done.” Constable Gent would hang the corpses outside the city gates for a week. “But this other one – did he surrender?”

The twenty-five-year-old deputy with strawberry blonde hair spat on the ground, then began walking towards the cart, Gent following close. “These are Yungen’s men, Constable. They would sooner die than surrender.” As they reached the cart, Gent noticed something distinctive about the figure sitting among the two prostrate corpses, but let his deputy continue. “No, when we arrived, this one here – ” Deputy Stenson paused, shaking his head. “The brigands had accosted a band of pilgrims, on their way to the temple at Eighth Hill. Just four in the company, unguarded, the type of group the brigands were looking for, according to our informant. Indigo, our scout, saw the attack coming and we arrived within minutes. We killed the two that fled, but this one – ” Stenson spat on the ground again – “this one, had been captured by the pilgrims.”

“Captured?” Gent sounded incredulous.

“One of the pilgrims had our prisoner pinned to the ground, while another pilgrim, an Islander, bound the hands. The other two, an elderly woman and a boy, looked on – they seemed pretty harmless, but the two men subduing this poor fool, there’s obviously more to them than what they seem.”

“Indeed.” Gent glanced down at the two bodies, lifeless and bloodied and perforated, then reached for the hood of the sitting figure. “As is the case, I suspect, with our prisoner.”

The constable grabbed the front of hood, then tugged up and back, purposefully allowing his hand to strike the prisoner’s head during the unmasking. The face that now winced in the bright sunlight was that of a young woman with short black hair. She opened her eyes, blinked, and tugged at her bound arms in futility. Grimacing, she then looked down at the two men at the side of the cart.

Constable Gent clicked his tongue. “I believe – I know this one. They call her, some kind of animal, I believe.” He rubbed the top of his bald head. “A dog, perhaps.”

The woman snorted at Gent, as Deputy Stenson hummed. “I’ve heard stories, of a young female lieutenant, in Yungen’s army. Goes by the name of – Wolf.” The woman glared back in response.

“Wolf, eh?” Gent tossed the hood back into the cart. “Is that what they call you?”

The woman struggled against her bounds again, grunting angrily. Then her body slumped in resignation, as her lips curled back in a snarl directed at Gent. “Eat shit.”

The young deputy laughed. “From the little time I’ve spent with our prisoner, that appears to be the extent of her vocabulary.” He had banished amusement from his face by the time he turned back to his constable. “Since she was already subdued, we couldn’t just execute her – “

“Of course not, deputy.” Gent clapped his hands together. “This isn’t the Untamed Lands, Philos is a town of law, and justice will be served when court is in session two days from now.” He smiled back up at the woman. “Until then, we’ll keep this feral lass in a cage – I believe the third cell is currently open.”

“Very well.” Deputy Stenson waved two Safety Committee officers over to the cart. “Gentlemen, please escort Prisoner Three to her cell.”

The Chosen

As promised, later today I will start a new fiction project. This one’s different than anything I’ve attempted before on this blog — medieval high fantasy, a tale of sword and sorcery that also explores political and religious themes. The story is called The Chosen, and it’s been kicking around my imagination for over three decades, well before I’d heard of George R.R. Martin.

I had originally conceived this project as a comic book series — yeah, I’ve written some disparaging words lately about serialized fiction, but a taste hypocrisy keeps one’s soul hungry for authenticity — and I’ve decided to no longer wait for an artist collaborator. The time has come to begin my tale, and see where it leads.

Rest Ye

This day has many potential meanings, and I’m gonna try to touch on most of them.

For those who choose this day to celebrate the birth of their religion’s savior king, may you touch the divine spirit and discover a peace that surpasses all understanding. And for those who prefer celebrating the pagan traditions that lie at the root of this holiday, may this be a day of comfort and joy.

For those who revel in the consumerism of this day, please relish in today’s excess. And for those who find the day a little too much to handle, may you find some quiet time and the rest you deserve.

For those whose families you are visiting or being visited by, may you set aside your differences and abide in the l0ve you share. And for those without families, may you create your own family through friendships that create bonds stronger than anything forged through biology.

If you’re working today, may your schedule open later in the week for rest. And if you’re not working today, please tip generously.

L’Chaim

This evening marks the beginning of Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the second century B.C. In a somewhat rare confluence of the Hebrew and Gregorian calendars, the first night of the eight-day Jewish holiday occurs on Christmas Eve this year. Mine is one of those fortunate families that celebrates both holidays, and while neither my wife nor I pretend to be experts on the matter, I thought that since both holidays will be celebrated within 24 hours of each other this year, it would be appropriate to share some thoughts on how we’re able to make these holidays work for us.

  • Don’t try to meld the two holidays. While both Hanukkah and Christmas in the modern era celebrate events that have only a nominal relationship to history, they have distinctly different messages. And yes, we can argue about that message for each holiday, but attempts to conflate the two celebrations have always seemed shallow and unsatisfying, to my wife as well as myself. On the eight nights of Hannukah, we light the candles and say the blessings; on Christmas, we play music celebrating the birth of Jesus. We both take immense satisfaction with each.
  • You can be religious without being exclusionary. You don’t have to be Jewish in order to appreciate the story of Judah Maccabeh’s rebellion against religious oppression, or Christian to admire the aspirations for peace on earth and goodwill towards humanity. Never be afraid to express what the holiday mean to you, or be so stubborn to believe that your partner, your children, or other family members or friends could possibly derive another meaning.
  • It’s all about family. The holidays are a time for families to come together. Those gatherings can be bittersweet and even hostile at times — but even at their worst, the holidays serve as a bond for keeping the family together. For some, the holidays serve as nothing more than an excuse for mass consumption and consumerism, but if that’s what keeps the family together, well then, guess there’s nothing wrong with that. When it comes to celebrating any holiday, do what works best for your family.

These are the thoughts that have allowed my wife and I to enjoy both holidays for over two decades. We see both as occassions to celebrate life, to raise a toast of l’chaim. We’ve never valued one over the other, never made sacrifices or accommodations for either holiday. And this year, we look forward to being able to celebrate both holidays at the same time.

    Going Places

    Finally made it to this land of abundant warmth and sunshine, and all that beautifully soft sand. Today is a time for taking in some deep breaths and allowing my body to sigh with relaxation. After a couple posts on the upcoming holidays, I’ll be starting a new fiction project on Monday, one very different than anything I’ve attempted before on this blog. When that project starts, I have no idea how long it will last; like just about all of my experiments, it may lead me to a place I hadn’t anticipated on visiting, and upon getting there I just may decide I like the view. The journey isn’t always better than the destination (travelling to this wonderful land yesterday was a giant bowl of suck), but some of the best trips end in places that aren’t on the map.