Burn the Map

...and the atlas and the guide book and the GPS and everything else that thinks it knows where you're going. 'Cause I'll tell you a secret, friend: They don't have a clue.

Welcome, traveler!  Is it a new world you're looking for, or perhaps a very old one?  Either way, your journey begins as soon as you click one of the links to the left (or up above, if you're inclined to the mobile devices).  Think of them as portals to other times and places... I mean, you could think of them as simple navigation buttons, but if you're going to do that, there are zillions of websites you could visit.  But you didn't.  You came here.  So saddle up, suit up, buckle up...  Grab your blaster, your sword, your spellbook...  Basically do whatever it takes to feel ready for adventure and dive into stories where no explorer or mapmaker has dared set foot.  Oh, and I almost forgot...  Where you're going, you might as well burn the map. 

Chapter 9

It might have been a thousand years he sat there, his tears mixing with the rain to soak the dirt below him into bloody mud, mud that, after he died, would welcome his rotting flesh and suck his black bones down into oblivion, into the hell where he was sure they must belong.  And after that thousand years had passed, still the sword would sit unblemished by time, crooning for its master, calling Daniel's dead hand back from the abyss to take it up again as a ghoul or wraith to slay at its bidding for eternity.  Daniel mocked himself absently for the glorious stories he'd imagined when first he desired the blade, for while such wondrous tales were certainly told around the fires of his village, horrors such as he now dreamt were shared as well, accounts of grim specters terrorizing the countryside in cruel mockery of their once-proud intentions, shades spawned by blood and arrogance and a thousand other sins of which Daniel now convicted himself.  Despite his bitterness, the sword lay solid beside him; it had gone silent when its perfect form was first dashed into the mud, but now its song crooned and whimpered like a chastened whelp, and Daniel's heart broke for it even as he hated it.

He gasped when Rebekah's hand came to rest on his shoulder.  "We have to go," she insisted.

"You go," he replied.  "Find Sir Reuben, tell him I can't help any longer.  Go find a protector that doesn't sicken you."

"You've picked a fine time to go morose, haven't you?  On your feet, Miller, unless you want to give a repeat performance."

Even as she said it, he knew it was true.  These men had come for him; they had failed, so there were bound to be others, and as much as he might want to lay down and be killed, he knew he wouldn't let that happen.  He would take up the sword and fight again, ending where he had begun, only with even more blood on his head.  He picked up the blade, and as he lifted it the muck and blood slipped from its surface as though they'd never quite touched it, and by the time he sheathed the weapon, it was dry.

The rain didn't stop, and Daniel and Rebekah huddled together under his cloak against the chill, sheltering the sword from sight.  The storm had driven everyone indoors, and the pair staggered uncontested from the alley to which they'd been so doggedly driven.  At last they reached more affluent quarters near the main streets, and Daniel followed Rebekah toward a storefront.  "Why here?" he asked.

"Like I said before," Rebekah replied, "just following my nose."

Daniel nodded as he took note of the warm, nutty aroma of baking bread and stepped through the door into the small shop, warmed by the heat of the ovens wafting down a narrow, stone passage to the back.

"Ach!" cried a man behind a table displaying his fresh-baked wares.  "Be off, urchins, this be a bakery, not a hostelry for wastrel youth!  And be there a war on?  The boy looks so bloody to be straight off the field o' battle."

"Field of slaughter, actually," Rebekah half-lied.  Daniel winced at the words, and their double meaning continued to ache even after it became clear how she meant them.  "We're not wastrels, good baker, only freed peasants come to Corngold to learn a trade.  My brother Daniel spent the morning slaughtering hogs for the butcher."

"I be a far walk from the stock yards," the baker replied, "and that no accident."

"Apologies," Daniel replied, finding his tongue.  "We tried closer stores, but they all turned us away.  Please, if we could only shelter until the storm lets up, we aren't above paying for your hospitality."  Daniel jingled Reuben's purse of coins.

"Well," the baker mused, "I prob'ly be above chargin' for it.  'Tis an unnatural squall that be blown up out there, and a bad fortune to be sure on any who be throwin' another out into it.  If you can afford a loaf, you can stay here until you've eaten it.  Just stand back from the door; you be scarin' off customers."

Daniel picked out a hearty loaf and paid the baker, then he and Rebekah found the least obtrusive corner and sat on the floor to share the steaming bread.  After the baker had gone back to his ovens, Daniel murmured, "Why were you so insistent to be gone?  Surely nobody else would have troubled us after…after what I did."  Daniel spoke out of timid hope, doubting his words were true.

"Of the people attacking us, probably not, at least not so soon.  But this place isn't exactly 'murder in the streets', remember?  The law?  I certainly didn't want to be standing there when half a dozen guards showed up."

"Then why didn't you just leave me…when I'd frightened you so?"

"You didn't frighten me," Rebekah reassured him.  "I'm a wandering player, not a warrior; I've never seen so much blood."  Daniel looked to the floor, ashamed.  "I didn't mean it that way," she went on.  "Yes, I was frightened, but…  See, in your hand, that weapon did some frightening things, and you're my rescuer and protector, by Sir Reuben's order, right?  So just imagine what it might do in the hand of a man like the ones that attacked us.  I wouldn't want that to happen, would you?"

"I don't think it can.  Since I found it, nobody else has been able to touch it."

"You mean…it chose you, somehow?"

"Maybe," Daniel answered.

"What for?"

Daniel blushed.  "At first I thought it picked me as a hero, so I could win riches and lands on the fields of glory, change my destiny to something more noble than living and dying as a miller's son.  Now…  I shouldn't wonder if it was some devil's blade, meant to test me…and to damn me."

"Why keep it, then?  If that's what you believe, then cast it away."

"I don't know what to believe.  It…sings to me.  I'd think I was mad for hearing if I hadn't seen what I've seen.  But its song tells me what to do, how to fight."

"Well, I don't think it's altogether bad, do you?" Rebekah pressed.  "Has it ever told you to fight when you weren't in danger, you or someone else?"

"No," Daniel admitted, "but it seems to love the killing."

"Birds fly because they were made to.  Fish swim, and snakes crawl around on their bellies.  A sword isn't like a hammer or an ax or a spear.  It isn't for working or hunting sometimes; whoever makes them makes them for war."

"How is that supposed to help me?"

"Because you didn't make it for anything," Rebekah argued.  "And birds and fish and snakes can move on their own, but a sword needs somebody to wield it, and whatever it was made for, only the wielder decides how it's used.  Maybe that's your part in all this."

"Maybe."  The sword was quiet then; not silent, but only singing in soft, soothing strings, and Daniel knew that it was at rest.  The rain had stopped, and the loaf was almost gone.  The spot on the floor around the pair was soaked, but their clothes had stopped dripping.  Together they stood and, after Rebekah shouted their thanks to the baker, stepped outside into the humid sun.

They had gone less than a dozen steps when a pair of massive arms seized Daniel from behind.