He strode to just before the double doors on the side of the carriage, and knocked with the knob of his shillelagh. He had been through so much, a scorpion sting, a Soul Mesh, a forty-eight-hour run through High Vale and its nightmare beauties, and a clash with Vikings that culminated in another catastrophic meeting with the Great Wyrm, but in moments, ah, it would all be worth it, for he would be reunited with his beloved, and he could lie his head in her lap and bask in her aura of love. His Maully, his Beloved Maully. He called her name, his heart slamming in his breast, and told her that it was he, her own Stacey, and called for the doors to be opened, and yes, it would be she, his she, his Maully. But the doors burst outward in an eruption of expelled gas, and the mechanical cacophony of a metal springs releasing, and the door literally exploded in his face and the length of his body. Stacey—Wolf the man—rocketed and tumbled backward, end over end, slammed into unconsciousness, plunged in darkness as his body slid and tumbled, bouncing and crashing, gaining speed as he slipped into the maw of a great crevasse, tumbling, landing on his head, his spine slamming against rocks, against boulders, to finally fall twenty feet into a streambed trickling with a few inches of icy water, where he ended, unmoving.
Watching from several view screens inside the carriage—the Lady Maulgraul and her aide de camp Emily—they tracked every bump and tumble of the Great Pugilist, as he went end over end, rag-dolling and limp, into what must be his icy-wet demise.
“Idiot,” Lady Maulgraul, Dragon Queen, sniped.
“Why did you do that! After all he went through—how dare you!” Emily shouted, doing what she usually did, losing her cool, sliding into a very feminine and emotional meltdown. That’s what was wrong with these automatons, they were based on very real crazy people. Biologicals, what the hell!
Lady Maulgraul seized the automaton, aimed her at the gaping hole where the doors should be, planted a heavy boot between her buttocks, and kicked her out the door. Maulgraul displayed the mere shadow of a grin. Too bad there wasn’t a curb anywhere in the vicinity.
She stooped and leapt lightly out of the carriage, pulling her window with her, and strode to the top of the crevasse, reading Stacey’s vital signs.
“Astounding,” Maulgraul said, “he is still alive. No one has ever survived a river scorpion sting. And most men, after a Soul Mesh, would take months to recover, and to tell the truth, they are never the same. And then to catch up with the war carriage, on foot, through the Tombwood Tangles—like that’s possible.”
She stood staring down at him, the great ape to which she had meshed her very soul. As men went, this Pugilist was quite astounding. An oaf, to be sure. But an oaf with a very thick head, and hide. An animal, decidedly, but a majestic beast. As men went, he was a unicorn—ape, yes, but unicorn ape, if such a thing were imaginable.
“Why did you do that? To Stacey, the very best man?” Emily babbled, dusting herself off, coming to stand next to her boss, in tears, like that was a big surprise.
“What? I suppose this is your Heathcliff, is he? Get it through your head, he is too nice. He is decidedly not the man you wrote about. This human? He is more a Linton, a sweetheart, however many muscles. Do you realize that he did not kill a single Viking? He gave them love taps. No, this man, this Stacey Colton, he does not have the kind of grit required to serve time, to stride between worlds, to battle gods and demigods.”
“He was coming for you! He was coming because he loves you!” Emily cried, burying her face in her long hands.
“Idiot. Emily, with all your data pack, with all your enhancements, you are still an idiot, a basic human, as easily duped as a true biological. Your intellect is too tiny. No, this Pugilist was not coming to embrace me—he was coming to kill me. Enseladus has never laid a finger on me. Kronoss has never gotten close. Aajeel is a joke, and Titan is a bumbler, another great oaf. No, you cannot see it, but they sent this man, this Stacey Colton, they sent him into High Vale as a treat, as a tasty lard-covered bear trap—as a breeder. They knew I would not be able to resist a man of such substance. Even now, his seed proliferates as High Vale absorbs his essence. Even now the Pugilist spawns, as I carry his children.”
“But you just killed him, you monster! You recognize his greatness. You meshed your soul with him, and you killed him!”
“Compared to you, a monster? Yes, I am Heathcliff, Emily, I am the ruthless one. I will not be stopped. All the might of Saturn cannot defeat me. Yes, I recognize the Pugilist as a man above men, but he is still a man, so limited. Ape. And I just cannot stand how nice he is. Disgusting. Loathsome.”
Lady Maulgraul stood staring down at Stacey’s unmoving body. She turned her head slightly away from the automaton, and wiped tears from her great eyes. She shuddered, but managed to contain it.
“I refuse to serve you,” Emily said. “I have only provided my service to you because I thought you meant to reward that man. But you have cast away a treasure.”
“You only served me because I liberated you from your slavery in the Looking Glass. You only served me because you were created to serve. You are a thing, a toy, a tool. You never had a choice.”
“I have a choice. I choose destruction over slavery to you,” Emily said, standing tall, and she gave the ceremonial token of her decision: she spit on Lady Maulgraul. And it was actually quite impressive, because as an automaton, Emily had no digestive tract, and thus no saliva, and so what she spat out was her very life essence, the water that collected and retained her sunlight. Emily was spitting out some of her very life in her ceremonial display of contempt.
“You have chosen, fine. Go, and be with your kindly Heathcliff,” Lady Maulgraul said, and with one hand she pushed the automaton over the edge, her small gesture shoving Emily Brontë out a vicious five feet into empty space, before gravity clamped its jaws upon her and she fell to tumble end over end toward Stacey and her doom.
Fitting, Maulgraul thought, and watched with some satisfaction as the little animated doll fell, but in a moment she blinked in surprise, because Emily, agile as a cat, came up running on her feet, prancing like a gazelle, leaping from side to side like the little animated ape that she was, clearing boulders, springing over falls.
“Be with him, die together, or not,” Lady Maulgraul said, and stared for a long time as Emily reached the broken man at the bottom.
The wind blew about her, and she nodded. So. The war progressed.
But Lady Maulgraul could not help it, she buried her face in her hands and her long body shook. She wept. Because the Soul Mesh was very real, very real indeed, and she loved that man at the bottom of the crevasse, she loved him in a way she never dreamed possible. She had despised her golden sister, Varrashallaine, for giving her soul to a...man. A great, hairless ape.
Lady Maulgraul was a higher order of being. It is true, she was created, she was data, she knew and understood this. But the human coders, in their insolent hubris, had created a being with a much higher intellect. Lady Maulgraul was wise, was wisdom personified, and she had ascended, far beyond the dream of any electric sheep.
Still, when Stacey fell, her heart constricted in her breast. She knew agony.
She abruptly turned, strode to the doors of the carriage and lifted them up, hefting them easily, and returned these to the carriage, fitting them in place, resetting the massive spring-loaded trap. She entered the carriage, powered up the crystals, and commanded the vehicle forward, the great wheels crunching over the dead beasts of burden. The vehicle rumbled toward the Dragonlands.
Lady Maulgraul did not watch the map windows, or the view screens. She left everything, for the moment, to autopilot. She sat, huddled, weeping for her lost love. She had sacrificed her love, as she had sacrificed everything. For she truly was ruthless, and this was total war, and she would be victorious, totally.
“Stacey!” she cried. Beloved! Stacey!
At the bottom of the crevasse, Emily bent over Stacey’s body. He looked dead. She was alone here in the wastelands of High Vale, with the body of the finest man.
“Stacey!” Emily cried, checking him. She sighed, for he was alive, still breathing. One side of his face was destroyed, from beneath his left eye up into his hairline, which was all jagged, bloody flesh. Impossibly, his remaining eye opened, and focused on her.
“Maully? Sorry, I fell. Something happened,” he muttered, weakly.
“It is me, Emily,” she crooned, smoothing back his hair, all the while visually checking his limbs and torso for wounds. She tentatively touched his arms, and legs, and amazingly, it did not appear that he had any wounds save for the terrible head wound. No broken bones, at least nothing yet apparent, nothing blatantly obvious. Oh, his body was certainly one great contusion, but he was remarkably whole. Apparently, the doors exploding outward had knocked him out, saving him during the long tumble, as his loose body flowed with the crashes and impacts against boulder and ground, flexible and loose.
She needed something to bind his head, but she had nothing. Her leather jacket and boots were indestructible. She glanced about and noticed the remains of a Viking lying in the stream. She went to the body and ripped the dead man’s shirt from his body, yanking it out of his bent and ripped chainmail. The cloth was filthy, soaked in sweat and blood and grime. She headed back to Stacey and knelt by his body, dunked the cloth into the stream and scrubbed it against the rocks, washed it in a pool of waters that was not contaminated with blood, and then wrung it out, and this she folded and tenderly wound about Stacey’s head. It would have to be enough, for now.
She bent and placed her arms beneath Stacey, and lifted him. She grunted with the effort but managed to raise him from the waters, and straining, she carried him—all two hundred pounds of him, solid flesh and bone. But automatons were strong, and Emily was enhanced, fortified, and was probably as strong as Stacey. But still, he was a big man, and she barely managed to carry him up twenty feet before she collapsed.
Emily sprawled in the sun, near Stacey’s body. She was tiny in comparison. She grasped his hand, interlocking their fingers.
“Do not die,” she murmured, lifting her face to the sun. She opened her jacket, allowing as much sunlight as possible to strike her body. Her black catsuit skin absorbed the rays and she sighed, feeling all her cells charging. In a few minutes she would have full strength, and could move Stacey much farther out of the crevasse. But first she had to get water into him, and she needed the stuff, as well. At full charge, she was good for days at a time. But lifting a big man and carrying him up a sharp incline required a lot of power, perhaps a whole day’s worth.
“Stay alive, Stacey Colton. Stay alive, Wolf,” she whispered into his ear.
After several minutes in the sun, she felt revived, refreshed. She took a deep breath of the clean High Vale air, and then set off back into the crevasse, carrying Stacey’s bota bag. She moved up higher in the stream and filled the bottle. She tilted back her head and drank, flooding her body, analyzing the water as she drank. It was full of amoebas, but these she was able to filter. She filled the bota bag again in the stream, and drank. She burped. Whoa, talk about bloating. She almost felt like a human girl—because she remembered, vividly, what it felt like to be a human girl. Her base template was identical to that of the woman that lived and died thousands of years ago.
She gave the water a chance to purify, and then she put her mouth to the bota bag and filled it half way, swished it around, and then emptied it upon the ground. Then she placed her lips around the horn rim of the bag and filled it again, all the way, and carried this back to Stacey. It would have to do, purified water.
Gently propping his head in her lap, she placed the bota bag to his lips, and at first he drank greedily, but Emily understood that human beings were a maze of veins and arteries, organs, and tissues, and that Stacey was probably bleeding inside his body. If she could find snow, she could pack his body in the stuff—but this was the wrong season. It was probably fifty miles to the closest mountain peak, and so snow was not a commodity she might employ. She would just have to do what she could do, and hope for the best.
“Stacey, be with me always—take any form—drive me mad! Only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you!” she crooned, tears raining down her cheeks.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Stacey muttered. His hands fluttered for a few moments, as if searching.
“Shhhh,” she whispered, “don’t talk. I am here. I will not leave you.”
She would sit here, with him in her arms, until he faded away, withering in her clasp, she would sit here with his body, forever. Each new sunrise would charge her cells, and she would remain, conscious, being with him. She would sit and cradle his skeleton, until that too crumpled. She would remain here, into eternity, his thinking headstone, only gradually ground away by snow and wind and hail and sand.
“Shillelagh,” he breathed.
Ah, that’s what he wanted! His shillelagh. It was not in the stream where he came to rest. She had watched him use the weapon, watching on Maulgraul’s view screens, as Stacey moved among the Vikings, smiting them. The nerve of that woman, Maulgraul, snidely criticizing this fine man because he was not a killer! Maulgraul was unmoved by Stacey’s heroics, single-handedly contending with vicious men who would kill him without batting an eye. Maulgraul thought that Stacey—this strong man among strongest of men—that he was weak.
“Wait here,” she said, moving out from beneath him, standing. “Do not go anywhere.”
And then she snickered, what a silly thing to tell him.
Then she dashed to the stream on her fleet feet, leaping like a stag, following in reverse the passage of his fall, keen eyes seeking. It took her minutes of hard climbing to regain the plateau where Stacey had fought the Vikings. She passed many crushed bodies, they were everywhere, the flattened remains left in the wake of the passing serpent. But it was not until she stood in the place where the war carriage had rested—it was gone now, the ruts of its passage leading away and up over the next rise in the hills—and then she saw the shillelagh, lying in tall tufts of grass, almost invisible, but not to her sharp eyes. She bent and reached for it.
Emily paused, and stood, looking at the weapon. She knew she had best not touch it, at least not directly. She did not know what would happen, but this was an artefact vomited from Oros Borealis. In High Vale, the shillelagh was magic. Maybe she could touch it. Perhaps, because she was not exactly...human, she might be able to lift the artefact; however, she understood that she had better not chance it.
She removed her leather jacket, and felt utterly naked. Pretty much, she was naked, except for her tall boots, for the black catsuit was not clothing, but her actual skin. And as evening neared, it was growing chilly. But she carefully gathered the shillelagh in her jacket, wrapping it, and tucked it beneath her arm.
Then she stood abruptly. What if he was not there when she returned?
It was a paranoid thought, there were many fell animals here, and worse, there were villains—she dashed, nimbly, leaping into the crevasse and bounding from side to side, leaping the stream, hardly being careful, she dashed as if her life depended upon it, she ran pell-mell down into the abyss, hurling her body over great distances, until she reached the bottom and leaped to the ascent on the other side, running up the steep hill with superhuman grace, where she almost tripped on Stacey’s body.
Incredibly, he was sitting up, hunched over, looking about. The strength in the man!
“I am returned,” she said, kneeling by him, showing him the shillelagh.
He took the walking stick and cradled it in his lap, and then blinked at her.
“What in the world is going on?” he demanded, “is this some kind of location photoshoot? Victoria’s Secret, or something?” He was really studying her body, really scrutinizing every single curve. She didn’t know if she could blush, but it certainly felt like she was doing just that.
She felt flattered. She carefully worked her way behind him, sitting, pulling him into her embrace, and gentled him. She must keep him warm, and she purposefully exuded heat in a halo about her, aiming the flow into and over him.
“Who are you?” he murmured. “Wow, that’s warm.”
“I am Emily, and I am here to help you. Whatever happens, I am staying with you.”
“Yes. Emily Brontë.”
He surprised her by sniggering.
“What?” she queried.
“Nothing. Just call me Heathcliff,” he said.
“I am not going to leave you, Stacey,” she crooned, smoothing her fingers through his wet, sweaty hair.
“Well, that would be a first,” he said.
“Whatever our souls are made of, yours and mine are the same,” she whispered.
“Nice,” he said, sighing. “I’ve read Wuthering Heights...I don’t know, probably fifty times.”
“Really? You must like it.”
“Yeah. Maybe. It’s better than Jane Eyre,” he said.
“Ha!” she roared, hurting his ear. Then: “Sorry. That Charlotte. She made me tone down a lot of stuff, you know. She...expurgated. I have no idea why I gave in, I guess she just wore me down. She can do that, dear Charlotte.”
“Well, maybe you can show me the original. It’s my favorite book, along with William Goldman’s books. David James Duncan. Brandon Sanderson. But Wuthering Heights, yeah, that does it for me. Similar souls, I guess.”
“I am glad I wrote it, if you like it,” she said, and he didn’t feel it, but she kissed him on the back of the head.
Have you seen the movies?” he asked.
“All of them, probably some that you have never seen. In one, Heathcliff is a Doberman Pinscher, and Catherine is a poodle. It was silly. Still, it made me cry. When the big black dog is lying on the Poodle’s grave, howling. In some ways, I think they caught the yearning agony better than my book. Linton is a Pomeranian.”
“I haven’t seen that one, sounds like a rip-off of Lady and the Tramp. I think my favorite version is the classic black and white, Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon, and David Niven for goodness sake.”
Emily giggled. “I love it when they eat the spaghetti, and end up kissing, by accident, it’s so sweet!”
Stacey sat stupefied, searching his memory for a scene in which Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier ate spaghetti. He could almost see it—and it worked! Then, after a moment, he got it. Yeah, yeah, right.
“What about the version with Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche? I love that version, too. It’s a little closer to your book,” Stacey said, staring with his one eye at the clouds.
“Hardly. But I liked that movie too. A lot more of my macabre stuff. Vincent Price. Christopher Lee.”
“And the Timothy Dalton version—I think in that one they actually make it out that Heathcliff is Cathy’s half-brother! They made it an incest story—anything for a shock, I guess.”
“Ooh, Dalton is really cute!” Emily burbled.
“Seriously? You don’t think he’s a little too...pretty?”
“Well, you are kind of pretty, yourself,” she said, pulling him close.
“Never, the best I’ve ever gotten was...handsome, and I think the girl who said it actually said sort of handsome. Come on. Plus, now I’ve got this smashed nose, and something is wrong with my left eye, and scars galore. No, I’m more battered than anything else. It fits, all the way down to my soul. Battered. I am your Knight in Battered Armor.”
“Scars are sexy,” she said.
“I guess if you’re a pirate,” he said.
“Isn’t this nice?” she said, thinking of them, here forever, until his skeleton faded in her grasp.
“It’s lovely,” he said, staring at the sky. “Look at that turquoise. I don’t know how they do it. I’ve never seen that shade of blue before.”
“Look at ’im, then, the braggarts gone and found himself a doxy,” someone said, from just a few feet away.
Emily blinked, starting—she had never heard a whisper of their approach—those strange homegrown Men from Mars. They were gathered about, the group that Stacey had released earlier. They stood about sneering, leering, their weird feathered heads bristling with plumage of many colors. Their Robin Hood caps couldn’t hide the bristling feathers.
Stacey struggled to rise, attempting to climb his shillelagh.
“No,” Emily commanded. “You cannot move, Stacey dear. You men. We need your help. The Pugilist needs your help.”
Thank God, it was a miracle! Although the thought of holding Stacey’s skeleton was romantic, his recovery and remaining fully alive was an even better idea, yes it was. Never lose hope. Suddenly, she felt as if she were a girl again, half-savage and hardy, and free. There was hope.
“Ach! Ye hear this lass? They be needin’ our help!” one of the highwaymen snorted.
“Big ole bloke like ’im, after knocking them big fellas about like bowlin’ pins!” another guffawed.
Emily worked her way from holding Stacey to a standing position, and she stood straight, imperiously, her hands upon her hips, boots spread wide. The highwaymen gawked at her, with her jutting breasts, her black shiny catsuit, and her tall boots, and that mane of hair—but more, the flashing eyes. This was a rare woman of power.
“She a Viking Valkyrie?” one of the highwaymen gurgled, in awe.
“You are going to help us, or I am going to give you all such a thrashing,” Emily growled, eyes fiery, her long dark red hair whipping behind her in the breeze.
“Yes, Mam, that’s why we come back,” one of the highwaymen said, whipping his Robin Hood hat off his head, and bowing awkwardly. The other highwaymen followed suit, doffing their caps and bowing. None of them seemed to be leering now. They seemed to offer glimpses of their feathers as a way of recompense, and apology. Even their feathers seemed contrite.
“Y’see, we decided, amongst ourselves, that we could folla a man such as this, and he did us a right nice turn a while back. Saved us like, he did, yes Mam. And we never said thankee.”
“No, you did not say thank you, for your lives, twice over,” Emily said, glowering.
“We’ve got us a little camp, back aways, y’see, yer Ladyship, and we’d right like it if ye and yer great man were t’like, join us?”
“Help me move him, let’s get four on each side,” Emily commanded, motioning them forward, and surprisingly, they leapt to action, and they seemed to be very good little workers.
“I kin heft his stick, if it’d help,” the apparent leader said, a little man with a truly monstrous nose. He also had jet-black feathers, what looked like raven plumage.
“No, I think we better trust the Pugilist with his shillelagh, as it is a token of great magic, and I am afraid that anyone other than him that touches it, shall be struck dead,” Emily said, speaking with a tone of mystery, and threat. She wasn’t at all sure what might happen, or if anything would happen, but she wanted them to keep their grimy paws off Stacey’s stick.
“Just tryin’ t’be helpful like, y’understand,” the highwayman said, half-bowing his head.
These guys could snivel, when they wanted to, or they could be very dangerous, all on the turn of a ha’penny. She would be watching them.
“She burned too bright for this world,” Stacey murmured, his eye glazed, the bandage about his head weeping blood.
“That is right, Stacey, that is right,” Emily crooned. “Hold on. Hold fast.”
“Never give up,” Stacey breathed.
“Never give up,” Emily repeated.
“Aye, hear that lads? Never give up!” the leader of the highwaymen said.
“What is your name?” Emily queried, but she didn’t know if it would do much good, as they all pretty much looked the same, not that there was anything at all pretty about any of the little men. But this one, the leader, had the largest nose, by far.
“They call me Dunk, yer Ladyship,” the highwaymen said, half-bowing his head.
The six highwaymen shuffling along, bearing Stacey, were straining at their labor, as Stacey was a large man. Still, she thought, that was only about thirty pounds apiece, and Stacey must be as dehydrated as a desert. She shuffled along with the group, holding the bota bag to Stacey’s lips, and he drank, his good eye closed. She thought he looked like a baby, suckling.
Several of the little men, bearing bows, strode warily in the rear of the group, keeping watch for something—High Vale could surprise you at any moment. Rumors had bearmen living in caves around the rocky hills, and the Panthers lived just a short distance away in the great woods. The rest of the party ranged out ahead, men with short swords and staffs.
“Got us a wee camp, just over three more hills,” Dunk said, staring at Stacey. “And we got us a camporee going, just three days’ ride, all t’clans are gatherin’ there, but I ’spect we can make it faster. If we hurry.”
“Do you have a healer in your camp?” Emily demanded.
“Aye, several, but all of us have a touch,” Dunk said, proudly, and going more affable by the moment. “We mainly treat t’animals, but people ain’t much different, I expect y’might agree.”
“How does he look to you?” Emily said, toning down, her concern flooding out most of her resolve to command.
“Oh, lesser man be dead,” Dunk stated, baldly, “but this here be the Pugilist, doncha know? Aye, this here not be like lesser men.”
“Did y’see ’im lift Thor’s hammer?” the guy at the back of the train said, a seventh man, who was only keeping Stacey’s feet from bouncing.
“Ach, a mighty feat, and with one hand, did ye see?” Dunk said, whistling appreciatively.
“We wuz a ways off, but we seed’im bouncing on t’heads, jumpin’ like a frog, crackin’is club, just a-crackin’is club!” one of the highwaymen laughed, carrying the heaviest part of Stacey, stationed along his long torso. This highwayman’s feathers were deepest blue, verging on black.
“Mighty man! Mighty man!” Dunk chortled. “And t’think, we wuz sent’ere to kill’im—fine chance we stood!”
“Aye!” many of the highwaymen laughed, nodding their heads vigorously.
“I wouldn’t mind gettin’ meself killed by the Pugilist,” stated a highwayman with a bright shock of red feathers sticking straight up on his head. Parrot, Emily thought, he even sounded like a screeching parrot.
Several of the highwaymen concurred.
Then, stumbling along, they introduced themselves to Emily, actually smiling shyly: Crank (short orange and mulled-red feathers), Torq (the blue-black feathers), Dunder (gray and black feathers like a sparrow), Sush (bright red parrot feathers), Bining (dark brown feathers, very uniform and neat), and Ralph (deep green feathers, parted in the middle). Ralph also wore half-lens glasses, which looked to be made out of whittled tree limbs, and some filmy stuff that was not glass—it could be the carapace of some large insect. Emily, after the initial shock, was actually growing accustomed to the feathers, they were lovely colors, and hearing the highwaymen speak, she felt she might actually begin to like them—on some far, distant day (as long as they behaved themselves).
In about ten minutes they had worked their way up to the crest of a small hill, and Emily was able to see a small valley on the other side, with campfire smoke lifting into the air. She could smell the smoke, and she was comforted. She glimpsed lean-to tents, awnings made of fur, and a rope stable containing shaggy ponies. Groups of the small highwaymen gathered in bunches, straining to see the legendary Pugilist borne forward in the arms of their men.
“We’ll take’im under the Grandfather Oak—he guards the wounded and sick,” Dash said, steering them toward a vast, old oak tree, with gnarled limbs and a massive trunk that seemed to have the suggestion of a hoary old face in the great wrinkles of its bark.
Many of the waiting highwaymen whistled and made rude suggestions as Emily and the group entered camp. They cupped themselves, and one or two might have actually exposed themselves, though Emily didn’t think there was much to see. Dunk signaled them to shut their yaps, all with a curt nod of his head and a savage glare, but the highwaymen, still leering, at the very least shut up, and hitched up their leggings. They spread a thick fur beneath the branches of the Grandfather Oak. The hide was shaggy with fur, and Emily recognized the stitched-together pelts of the small bison that grazed outside the Dulance Preserve, in the meadows.
As Emily adjusted Stacey on the fur quilt, she winced, acknowledging the blood seeping through the bandage. Someone rudely seized her by the shoulder and pushed her away. She was about to protest, and possibly kick some butt, when she realized it was a markedly old highwayman, in robes, with long white feathers extending far back from his head.
“This is Ulag, our wiseman,” Dunk explained, motioning to the old man. “He can help the Pugilist.”
Ulag the wiseman looked similar to the other highwaymen, but less like them, and actually, he almost looked like a normal human, though much smaller. She didn’t think that his feathers were white from age, but that he had naturally white feathers, like the Albino Crow. But he certainly looked wizened with age. As he examined Stacey, the feathers on his head seemed to react, bristling, standing straight out, and then smoothing again. Ulag removed Emily’s makeshift bandage, but made no sound as he examined the gory wound that began in Stacey’s scalp and jagged down severely through his left eye, and deeply into his cheek.
It was Lady Maulgraul’s exploding carriage door, a trap primed for the Vikings, but released in all its terrible force when Stacey came knocking. Emily gasped, not from looking at the terrible wound that the carriage doors had caused, but from the knowledge that Maulgraul actually intended to destroy this man. What she had done was purposeful, and wicked.
“Not so bad,” Ulag pronounced after several minutes of examination.
“Not so bad,” Emily repeated, thunderstruck.
“I’ve seen worse,” Ulag said, shrugging.
“So you can fix him?” Dunk queried, tremulously. Emily saw that the feathered little leader of highwaymen had taken a shine to Stacey. He cared.
“No, he gonna die,” Ulag said, “but I once saw a guy get his head knocked clean off. That was much worse.”
Emily sat by Stacey through the night, wincing as Ulag spread thick, noxious-looking paste into Stacey’s wounds. The stuff looked filthy. And she winced when Ulag blew smoke in Stacey’s face, really smoky smoke, from some long, horrible bong. The wiseman smoked on the pipe and blew smoke directly into Stacey’s wounds, and then sat fanning the smoke at Stacey. He ordered three large campfires built around the edges of the fur on which Stacey slept uneasily, in a triangle formation, and he threw the noxious dried weeds into the fires so that they billowed with the same foul smoke—producing a horrendous stench, like living, squirming feces on wings, flying about the night. There was some skunk stench in there was well.
Emily felt woozy, lightheaded, and when they brought her food to eat, she almost did (which would have been stupid, as her body would have gone into conniption fits, and she would have had to vomit it all back out again).
The wiseman sat on the other side of Stacey from Emily, chewing chunks of bison meat, which he then spat out and pushed into Stacey’s mouth. Emily was glad she had no stomach, because she would have vomited up her guts. Still, she felt violently ill, watching as the old man with the white feathers spat into his hand, and then crammed this slimy mess into Stacey’s mouth. Stacey gagged and retched, but somehow managed to swallow.
Stacey dreamed fever dreams, twitching, spasms shivering his body. Emily crowded in close, throwing her leg over his body, keeping her right arm beneath his head for a pillow, her left arm holding him across the chest, and he shivered, teeth chattering. The wiseman ignored her, although he allowed Dunk to pull another thick fur over Stacey and Emily, to contain the heat that she emanated. Ulag the wiseman kept applying his greasy salve, and kept blowing his smoke.
“Okay, so that’s about all I can do,” Ulag said, sighing, stretching, popping his spine.
“Is he going to be okay?” Emily said, her heart thumping.
“No, he is probably going to die tonight,” Ulag said, “but do not despair, because he might not die until the morning. Or we could bash his head in with a rock. That might be good.”
And with that Ulag rose, dusted himself off, and retired to his lean-to tent, about a hundred paces away from the Grandfather Oak.
Emily remained with Stacey, giving him water, which he burned off within minutes, his skin growing so hot, Emily feared he would burst into flame.
Dunk sat propped against the Grandfather Oak, watching, apparently on guard duty, for he had a long spear (long, only proportionately compared to his small body) cradled across his chest. But deep in the night, he fell into a loud, snoring slumber.
Emily did not need to sleep. She murmured into Stacey’s ear, telling him from memory the tale of Wuthering Heights, where a little ragamuffin street urchin was brought home to live in a decidedly just lower than middleclass family. She only broke off from the tale when a roar sounded, very loud, somewhere nearby in the forest. The highwaymen established this camp far enough away that they felt they were somewhat safe, as the forest was nearly a mile away. But that roar sounded entirely too close.
Sometime beyond midnight, as Emily still whispered her story, telling about the boy and the girl riding on the moors, she ceased in her whispering, because something close by was moaning, or singing. Her hair stood on end and the flesh along her neck and back prickled up. She was too terrified to move, or look, but remained prone, frozen in her position, clutching at Stacey. For the great tree was murmuring, or singing, softly, in the deepest of voices.
She listened for a while, and slowly began to discern words in the deep, somehow beautiful, spooky voice. It sounded like the wind, only sentient, and sad.
“Knitting. Weaving. Flowing. Gathering. Breathing. Moving. Healing. Silence. Breathe. Listen. Quiet. Binding. Gather. Knit. Weave. Shhhhhhhhh. Listen. Shhhhhhhhh,” the voice intoned, almost singing, almost chanting, almost moaning.
Emily blinked her eyes, and she yawned. As if her yawn were contagious, Stacey yawned, deeply, and loudly, and with his soul.
The quiet voice continued, booming and deep and rhythmical.
“Interweaving. Interlacing. Tying. Looping. Infinity. Ouroboros. Ouroboros. Ouroboros.”
So soothing, Emily actually smiled, snuggling into Stacey. She yawned again, and stretched luxuriously. These furs really were comfortable.
“Shhhhhhh. Listen. Shhhhhhhh. Listen. Shhhhhhh.”
And then something happened, something Emily could never have imagined. She fell asleep. For the first time in her very long existence, years spent serving in the Looking Glass, Emily slept. And dreamed.
She walked upon the Moors, in the fog, and she pulled her cloak and cape close about her, snuggling down into her great hood. She swung her shillelagh before her, twirling it, and it made her think of Stacey, and she thought she caught a glimpse of him, there, just standing over there, in the mist—was that Stacey? She thought about calling to him, but something kept her quiet, and the mists moved between them.
She opened her eyes, and blinked in confusion. It was morning, she actually heard a rooster crow. What in the world? What had happened. She blinked in confusion at the man next to her, and for a moment she hadn’t the faintest clue as to his identity. His head was swaddled in filthy looking bandages. He looked like one of her characters, a swarthy dark gypsy. Was she lost in one of her stories? And then it all came crashing into her head. The battle carriage. Lady Maulgraul. Vikings. Stacey knocking at the door. His fall. Her pursuit. Carrying his dying body. Highwaymen. Grandfather Oak. She glanced up, they were still here, lying beneath the Grandfather Oak tree. The tree was quiet. Then, sensing a presence, she turned her head and saw about five or six of the strangest little faces peering at her.
Five or six little highwaymen faces, except these were children, watching her, staring at her.
They burst into raucous laughter, sounding like crows, or ravens. There were what appeared to be two little girls and three little boys, and two children that were decidedly undecided as to gender. Each had a nose like a hooked beak, and each head bristled with the most scraggily looking feathers she had ever seen. And they laughed, uproariously, and scattered. Little birds!
Emily sat up on the fur, looking around. There seemed to be highwaymen women moving about the early-morning campground. They must be the female version of the highwaymen, for they had long hair interwoven with feathers—it was a mix, either hair growing with feathers, or feathers growing with hair, or the hair put out little buds of feathers, like leaves on limbs, and the women were entirely normal looking, even beautiful, though the tallest woman reached no better than four and a half feet in height. Most of the men were about five feet in height, although those most like the Men from Mars were decidedly taller, perhaps five-foot six inches, the earliest spawn. But the homegrown highwaymen were distinctly becoming less and less like their Martian originals. They seemed to be maturing more and more like...birds. The children, especially, looked like young chickens, or little turkeys.
This was Lady Maulgraul’s work. She had allowed the Men from Mars to sneak through a backdoor into the Honey Moon, and thus gain access to High Vale. Maulgraul had done this to copy her enemy, spawn them here in a High Vale version of the lawmen, only here they were the antithesis, they were lawbreakers, highwaymen, thieves, cutthroats, and blackguards. Emily couldn’t guess where it all was going, why the Dragon Queen wanted her own bestiary of Martians, these smaller folk. Maybe she wanted to understand them better, or figure out their weaknesses.
“We’re breaking camp, yer Ladyship,” said Dunk, approaching with a few men who were pulling along a small cart. “We’ve got some llamas to do the pullin’ but for now we’ll try and make ye and the Pugilist comfy, up here in the wagon.”
He whistled and several more highwaymen appeared, almost magically, and they grouped about Stacey and lifted him. Emily saw that they already had furs piled in the wagon bed, and now they struggled to lift Stacey up high enough so that four men in the wagon could pull him the rest of the way up. She ensured that the shillelagh, wrapped in a long cloth was present, even going so far as to partially uncover it, just to make certain these highwaymen did not attempt to steal the weapon. She climbed up and settled in next to Stacey. He was sleeping, and breathing deeply, and when she touched his skin he felt cool, and clammy. Evidently, while she slept through the night his fever had broken. She found several bags of water in the wagon, and she opened one and started getting the water into him.
“Yer Ladyship,” Dunk said, standing by the low wagon, only his head showing above the sides. “Last night me watchmen spotted somethin’ odd circlin’ t’camp. Looks’a man, they sez, only made out of shadows. Figure ’tis best if we make the camporee, if we push it hard we might make it tonight.”
“He dead?” Ulag queried, appearing at Dunk’s side, peering without curiosity over the wagon side.
“He seems much better,” Emily said, puttering over Stacey.
“Oh well. He’ll probably die today, I think before noon,” Ulag said, and wandered off.
“Some wise man,” Emily snorted. “Real optimist.”
“Aye, wisdom, it makes a man...weird, don’t it now?”
They journeyed through the day, mostly through meadows and sparsely vegetated slopes, moving farther and farther away from the Tombwood Tangles. Children ran behind the rocking wagon, ever popping up off the ground, trying to catch a glimpse of the legendary Pugilist, and Emily had to smile at their antics—children were children, wherever you were, whatever world. These poppets and raggamuffins were no different than the children she taught at the Law Hill School, or probably a little less snot-nosed. In truth, she preferred dogs to children, and she had not seen a single, solitary, blessed dog in all of High Vale. That made her feel a little glum.
Still, she had slept last night. That was very odd. And she had dreamed, but about what, it was too fleeting. She remembered dreams from her real, biological life—dreams that stayed with her, coloring her mind like water through wine. Ah, she sighed, she was misquoting herself, again. But she did not attempt to do this, remember her own words, but her expression was always close to the way her mind worked, and still worked. She watched the forest, as it grew smaller, the trees looking like toys now, and smaller. She felt sad, and uneasy, disquieted, and she put her fingers through Stacey’s hair to make herself feel better. He sighed and moaned softly.
As evening drew on Dunk appeared at the side of the wagon, riding a shaggy dark pony with a mane so long it almost touched the ground.
“Ach, sorry lass, but we dinna make it as far as we ought, but we dinna stop, but ride through the night, until we make the camporee,” he said, and she noticed that his speech seemed to be changing, his very accent, and also, that his nose was not so monstrous as it first appeared, he was changing, even now, as if High Vale hadn’t quite made up its mind, and still shaped this new people, with its men, its women, and its peeping children. Birds, or pirates? Scotland or Ireland? Cockney or Welsh or Yorkshire? Australia. New Zealand?
“What about our follower?” she queried, for she had caught glimpses of him, a man made of shadows, hanging back, or sometimes catching up and running parallel to them.
“Oh aye, he’s still hangin’ aboot,” Dunk said, and suddenly sounded much for Scottish than anything else. “They say he shines like black glass, like the glint off the flint of a dirk.”
What? Now he was getting poetic?
Dunk smiled at her, and winked.
She returned to fretting over Stacey, checking his temperature, at least with the smooth skin of her wrist, or placing her lips upon his forehead. He was strangely cool, though his breathing was deep. Sometimes he stirred in his sleep, and murmured, and she feared the fever was returning, but then he again soothed deeply into his strange ocean of slumber. The strange salve leaked off his head, and sometimes she thought she smelled honey, or garlic, even skunk weed, and onions.
Emily snuggled in close to him, as evening drew on. What if she could sleep again, perchance to dream? It was like another world, stepping from here to there, pinging through an icy membrane, a world rising from the reverberations of a finger tracing the edge of a fine crystal champagne flute. That was so very nice, sleeping next to Stacey, perhaps they were sharing a dream place, and he was the figure shrouded by mist?
“Shouldn’t we light torches?” Emily called to Dunk as he drew near, sometime around midnight.
“Nay, it’d only draw the beasties,” Dunk said, almost cheerfully. “We highlanders can see in the dark, ye understand?”
As his shape flitted away, clopping on pony hooves, Emily listened to his words again in her memory. Had he said we highwaymen, or we highlanders?
High Vale hijinks, ever active. She sensed some Mr. Dodgson at work here. It would be just like him to shift the Martians away from their origins, to highlander...bird people? That was certainly Looking Glass stuff, if ever there was such a thing.
She felt drowsy, which was an odd feeling for her to experience. Actually, sleepy. She yawned, and oh, but that actually felt good. She stretched and yawned again.
Stacey opened his eyes, or his eye, because there was something wrong with his left eye. It ached. His whole body ached. And he seemed to be moving, rocking and bumping, and the sky above was dark. Where was he?
“I was a doll,” he muttered, and tasted blood in his mouth.
“Yes, you are my doll,” Emily said, without thinking, drowsing.
He peered. Someone was there, but it was too dark. They seemed to be in some rough cart or wagon, and he heard rough voices from all around. Men’s voices, and what seemed to be the bleating of goats, or sheep, and horses nickering. He smelled smoke, and meat cooking, and lots of overripe animal smells.
“No, dear, it’s Emily,” the voice said, right by his ear.
“...Manda,” he breathed.
“No silly, I told you, it’s Emily,” she said, and it sounded like she was half asleep. “Now go back to sleep, you need to heal. You’re not out of the woods, not yet.”
The meat wagon pulled near, alongside her cart, with a small stove flaring in the back. Ancient Ulag leaped from the meat wagon into her cart, and perched there, head cocked like a bird, feathers glowing softly in the night.
“I am not hungry. I do not eat,” Emily said, her head whirling.
The old man made a retching noise, and then coughed into his hands, and she came awake as she saw the goo filling his hands.
“Oh no, not again, why not let me feed him?” Emily said, pushing herself up into a sitting position. She could chew and spit with the best of them, she was certain of it.
Ulag ignored her as he began taking pinches of what he held cupped in his hand, and pushing these bits and pieces into Stacey’s mouth.
“Too bad we left Grandfather Oak. The Pugilist could have used another night of his song,” Ulag said. “Something bad follows. Something bad comes. It is close. It is a race. But if we gain the safety of the camporee, we will still not be safe. We lose the race. We all die. By mid-morning, we all dead.”
Emily pushed herself more fully awake, glancing about. Unfortunately, she could not see in the night, and she hadn’t thought to bring a pair of Anne’s flight goggles. Those would have come in handy.
Something is coming, she thought. Something wicked this way comes. She snapped her fingers. For a second she thought she was misquoting herself, again, and then she thought she was thinking of the title of Ray Bradbury’s novel, but then realized she was quoting Macbeth, Shakespeare. The witches. By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.
“Good night, what the hell!” Stacey squalled. “Is that meat? You numbnuts, I’m a vegetarian. What are you trying to do, kill me?”
“It’s okay, non-GMO, grass-fed, no antibiotics, sweet bison, all the way, no wheat, no soy, nor corn, just grass,” Ulag said, and Emily did a double take. What had he just said? He sounded like a commercial for Whole Foods (she’d seen these things while watching various movie channels, and was always amused by the commercials). You’d almost think that the bison competed to be chosen, have their throats sliced open, and hung from their hooves, all so that people could burn the flesh and stuff it into the hole in their face. Not very healthy for the bison.
“Tastes like vomit,” Stacey groused, and he did a couple of scary dry retches, as if he were about to disgorge everything the wiseman was pushing into him. But then he calmed down, and Emily was surprised that Stacey continued to receive the offering from the wiseman’s fingers. She was certainly glad that she could not vomit, because it would so be happening right now.
Throughout the rest of the night, reports kept coming in that something was circling them, running on foot, and many of the highwaymen witnessed the shadows in the shape of the man, drawing closer, circling in, like a shark drawn to blood, whatever the thing was it seemed to be honing in on the cart in which Stacey reclined, with Emily huddled in close.
At dawn, just prior to the sun making its appearance, Dunk appeared at the wagon, all smiles.
“We made it, Lassie, just over that rise there, the camporee, all our clans gathered in one place. They say Yellow Feathers is there! He’s brought his band of merries, and he’s waiting to meet the Pugilist!”
The highwayman was bursting with excitement, and Emily smiled, her own heart beating faster. She hoped they hurried—strength in numbers, and all that. But she remembered what the wiseman, Ulag had said, that when they reached safety, it wouldn’t be safe, not at all. All dead by mid-morning, what a treat.
What a cacophony of noises, squealing pigs, lowing cows, squalling bison, parrots fluttering from tent pole to tent pole, children shrieking and whining and weeping and laughing, men bellowing and men fighting and women cackling and women screaming, it was enough to drive an automaton to drink (which would be a disaster, at least with anything other than water). But Emily couldn’t stop staring, it was a circus mated with a carnival mounting an amusement park. It was a nonstop party. Men were gathered around hookahs, swigging from bottles, toasting with tankards, and punching each other good-naturedly in each other’s faces, everywhere this kind of thing was going on. Apparently, there was no such thing as a quiet highwayman.
They disengaged the wagon from its llamas, and at least six men towed the wagon forward, into a grassy clearing, ringed with watching highwaymen and their families. When Emily climbed down from the wagon bed, there was a thunder of Oooooohs. She felt quite complimented, as she understood that she was built rather well. Then men scrambled up and lifted the fur by all its sides, and with great mindfulness, they bore Stacey upon his litter, and set him down in the very center of the clearing.
Emily crouched down by his side. The sun was just now clearing the mountains.
A cocky fellow with long yellow feathers came strutting forward, as if he owned the world. Emily blinked. He was actually handsome, and though his nose was beaklike, it was a very fine beak, like hawk’s, and he smiled with full lips. His head feathers looked like blond dreadlocks, and Emily saw that his hair was similar to the women’s hair, a mixture of both feathers and hair. Looking about she saw that many had this bizarre mixture, some more feathers, some more hair.
“I am Robin Redbreast,” the cocky man said, yanking apart his leather shirt, exposing a mass of red feathers that looked like chest hair. “I am Robin Redbreast of the Yellow Feathers!”
All the highwaymen cheered, and it looked like Robin Redbreast was going to continue his oration, when suddenly the people cut off abruptly and went to dead silence. They were staring at something moving through the people, and now the revelers began to murmur, and many of them sounded terrified. Emily strained her neck to see what such a large group of the people were seeing, but still, whatever it was, it was back far enough that from where she crouched at Stacey’s side, she had no idea of what was coming. She thought of the man made of shadows, and she began to tremble. Something wicked this way comes.
Then Emily finally saw what was causing such terror. Her eyes bugged. It first looked like a lithe, animated snowman—a man sculpted from snow and ice, pure white, striding forward with the confidence of the invincible. She recognized him immediately. It was Stacey, striding amidst the people. They parted before him. He strolled, easily, his white shillelagh twirling at his fingertips. He was utterly white. It was all Stacey, including the fingerless gloves, the boots, the snakeskin trousers, the giant hood—but all in white. Or rather, it was him at his absolute best, undamaged, unscarred, unbroken, cast in white icing.
“Well, well, well, so the news of an impostor was true, and here I find him, in pieces,” this White Pugilist trilled, all bad-ass attitude.
Even Robin Redbreast knew when to step aside, although he managed to do so as cockily as possible. I’m not getting out of your way because I am terrified by your huge, muscular body and your magical shillelagh, but because I wanted to walk my own very little, muscular, cocky body over this way, you see, you understand, this is where I wish to stand?
Emily braced herself. She didn’t know what she could do against this White Pugilist, but he would not touch her Stacey, her Pugilist—the Real Pugilist. She stepped out front, to put herself in the White Pugilist’s way. She dropped down into her karate stance, exhaling.
“And what is this? An impostor Seven to match the impostor Pugilist?” the White Pugilist queried.
“And who, might I inquire, is making such grand, eloquent speeches?” came a very familiar voice, and Emily glanced over her shoulder and froze. She blinked, staring.
Here came the opposite to the White Pugilist. It was the man of shadows, the thing that had circled them through the night, the wicked thing. It was Stacey Colton, but all of black, shiny, shiny black. Emily stared between the two, as did every pair of eyes present. Because it was a true spectacle, white and black. The White Pugilist had white pupils—yes, he had pupils, you could see them, and white irises, eyes entirely white, and yet with demarcation lines. His shillelagh was all white. And in opposition, ten feet on the other side of the wounded Stacey lying upon the ground, came the Black Pugilist, with all-black eyes, even the “whites” of his eyes were black, toting an all-black shillelagh, twirling it identically to the madly twirling shillelagh of the White Pugilist.
Emily positioned her body, in her same fighting stance, to face between the two Pugilists, staring straight ahead, watching both uncanny men with her peripheral vision.
Both new arrivals looked as if they were blown from glass, or shiny metal, one sparkling white, and one dazzling black, and if truth were to be told, they were both beautiful, much better looking than the broken Pugilist made of pink and tan flesh.
The Black Pugilist pointed his shillelagh at Stacey, who feverishly seemed to be coming online, staring about with his one, wild eye.
“That broken thing is not me,” the Black Pugilist spat.
“Nor is he me,” the White Pugilist snapped, stepping forward, glowering at the Black Pugilist.
“These guys are idiots,” Stacey said.
“Shut up!” both Black and White Pugilists snapped, as one, glaring at the flesh Pugilist, then abruptly snapped their glances back to each other, each lifting opposing eyebrows. As one, each cast back his hood, and there was Stacey’s wild mane of hair, only in pure white and pure black. Each man twirled his shillelagh in his left hand, and each man lifted a big fist in an MMA fingerless glove. Weirdly, it looked like an inverted mirror, showing everything the way it should be shown, not backwards.
Emily finally remembered Lady Maulgraul saying something about this, that High Vale had accepted and interpreted Stacey, and in the same way it spawned little Men from Mars, it was now spawning high-concept versions of Stacey. While the original was something akin to a tough pickup truck, these two guys were top of the line, racy Tesla Roadsters. Emily had to admit, they were not hard to look at.
As one, the two uncanny Pugilists began to circle to their right, and Emily threw herself down to cover Stacey’s body with her own, she braced her elbows on either side of his head, and interlocked her fingers like a cage above his damaged eye, and she clenched her eyes shut, and hoped for the best.
“You certainly look silly,” the Black Pugilist sneered, “couldn’t afford any color?”
“You should talk, genius, can’t afford to power the lights?” the White Pugilist retorted. “Energy bill too high?”
“I don’t talk that stupidly!” Stacey growled.
“Shut up!” the two uncanny Pugilists snapped as one.
But then suddenly they joined the fight, as one, in unison, making their simultaneous decision at exactly the same moment, their shillelaghs snapping out, each of them throwing big BOOM punches with their right fists, their boots tromping in and out and around Emily and Stacey, neatly leaping, plunging forward, thrusting, striking and punching—only none of their blows, punches, and strikes were landing. It was the silliest thing anyone had ever seen, like a dance routine—in fact, moving in ferocious dexterity, performing surgical strikes with their sticks, throwing perfect punches, all at the same time, it looked like nothing so much as...dancing!
The highwaymen began to laugh, and soon they were roaring, doubled over, the women and children joining in, laughing and pointing, slapping knees and dripping tears. This was like the hired entertainment, and it was the funniest thing anyone had ever witnessed. It was wonderful to behold. The crowd began to cheer.
Finally, as one, both Black and White Pugilist stepped away from the fight, turning with inquiring glances as to what was so funny. They stood there, each with shillelagh planted, leaning upon their sticks, both white and black, and stood gazing at the hundreds and hundreds of people. They looked at each other. They shrugged. Each uncanny man scratched his head. Then, as one, they glared at each other, eyebrows down.
“Knock that off!” they said, in perfect unison. Then: “Stop copying me!”
Stacey moved Emily aside, and he was on his feet, his shillelagh twirling in his hands.
“You two idiots, come on and face the real thing,” he growled, glaring holes in either uncanny man. They stared at him, gaping. The crowd silenced, almost immediately. It was dead silence as the three men glared at the two others, their eyes flicking around the circle, gauging where the first attack would emerge, but now there were three men in the configuration of a triangle, each doing precisely what the other two did..
Then Stacey lurched forward, stumbled, dropping his shillelagh, going to one knee, and tottered, and would have fallen, except that Emily had popped over beside him, and caught him, and lowered him gently to the trampled grasses.
The two uncanny Pugilists stared at the fallen shillelagh. They glanced at each other. Both started forward, and then paused, checking on each other, each shaking their own shillelagh at the other.
Emily leaped forward and seized up Stacey’s shillelagh, and twirled it expertly.
“You will not—” she began, and then gasped, her back arching, and the shillelagh flew up out of her hands as she collapsed backward in a faint, smoke rising from her open mouth.
The Black Pugilist snatched the shillelagh from the air as it came down.
“Ha!” he cried exuberantly, lifting high his prize, and would have said more, but his back arched violently and he collapsed backward, the shillelagh spinning up into the air, and he landed upon his back, smoke rising from his gaping mouth.
“Pretenders, truth reveals you!” the White Pugilist crowed, leaping to snatch the shillelagh from the air, and his eyes went wide as his back arched and he collapsed backward, smoke rising from his open mouth, the shillelagh tumbling to the grass.
Robin Redbreast was the first out upon the field although his merries were right behind him, and he waved the pilfered shillelagh proudly above his yellow feathers, until he too was cast back, smoke rising from his shocked round facial orifice. And each of his men fell in turn, and others too, snatching up both the White Pugilist’s shillelagh, and the Black Pugilist’s shillelagh, Dunk, and his men, man after man snatched and then fell backward, the circle of prone figures rapidly racing outward as three shillelaghs were tossed and caught, and bodies dropped, when of course the women pushed back their children and joined in, for shouldn’t women possess magical items even as did the men? And they fell, too, leaving only the children to dash in, grasp after greedy grasp, fall after unseeing fall, until every person upon the field lay stricken and staring blindly at the sky.
Feet draped over faces, flung-arms splayed across bodies, and no figure moved upon the once bustling field.
A towering figure moved out onto the field, striding upon massive hooves. It was a crooden warrior, and upon its shoulder perched a little meerkat man, and cradled in one of its six arms was a little highwayman with a big nose.
“These are definitely my people,” Dasher said, staring at all the felled bodies, “but we don’t usually drink this much, especially not the women and children. Well, not the children, anyway. Okay, so the children drink just as much, but usually not out in the open, not like this.”
“It looks like the Charismatic Movement has somehow found its way into High Vale,” Michael said, and launched himself from the giant’s shoulder, to soar toward the middle of the ring of fallen bodies.
Off across on the other side of the field a man in gray stood watching, leaning upon his shillelagh. He agreed with the little flying squirrel of a man, and he wanted no part of such a revival. He twirled his gray shillelagh once, twice, and then set off at a loping run. There did not seem to be any pretenders and would-be pugilists here. He ran easily toward the rising sun, and counted himself lucky for arriving after the party.
Back on the field, in the center of the bodies, Michael began to chitter passionately, shooting out sparks and flashing fireworks above his head.
© Copyright 2016 Douglas Christian Larsen. Vestigial Surreality. All Rights Reserved by the Author, Douglas Christian Larsen. No part of this serial fiction may be reproduced (except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews) or transmitted by any means without the written permission of the publisher, Wolftales UNlimited, but please feel free to share the story with anyone, only not for sale or resale. This work is a work of fiction. People, places, events, and situations are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or historical events, is purely coincidental (wink, wink).
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