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 8

            Lord Aidan's holdings were small, but he had expanded his influence by taking a favorable stance toward merchants and artisans.  Free men, they clamored to live behind the protection of his walls and guards, and he taxed them for the privilege.  The system served him well, and many of the more traditional nobles were openly appalled at how quickly money had flowed into his coffers over the last few years, especially after word began to spread that he could afford to keep a small but well-trained force of professional soldiers on his land, soldiers capable of making mincemeat of ten times their number in peasant levies.  Sir Reuben held his head high as he rode Karl through the gates of Corngold's largest town, nodding curtly when they admitted him.

            "What's the matter?" Daniel asked.

            "Fighting for money," Reuben snorted.  "What's to be next, then?  Murder done openly in the streets?  Baseborn churls taking up arms without leave?"

            "Hey!" Daniel shouted.  The sword sounded a frustrated jangling of strings.

            "Present company most happily excepted, good page, of course," Reuben replied.

            "It doesn't look like 'murder in the streets' to me, anyhow," Rebekah broke in.

            Daniel looked around and was forced to agree.  He had never been in a real town before, hundreds upon hundreds of people all living one atop another, but crowded though it was, and bustling with people running errands and hauling goods, it was a well-ordered bustle.  If Lord Aidan paid his soldiers to enforce the law, it was money well-spent, at least as far as first impressions could show.

            "What do we do now?" Daniel asked.

            "Now I shall go and present myself to the guards at Lord Aidan's hall and request an audience for this evening.  Meanwhile, Page Daniel, you must guard our fair charge and conduct her to lodgings that will be suitable for the three of us."  Sir Reuben handed Daniel a small pouch of coins.  "Guard that as well, and keep that sword of yours out of sight.  I didn't spare you that cloak so you could leave it flap open in the wind."

            Daniel did his best to comply, adjusting the rough-spun cloak Reuben had given him before they'd been close enough to be spotted by any of the caravans heading into the town.  Reuben maneuvered Karl into one of the streams of traffic, leaving Daniel alone.  Suddenly a hand gripped his shoulder from behind and dragged him backward.  He started to reach for the blade but heard no trumpets or drums, only the curious crooning he'd been hearing since they entered the crowd.  Still, he pulled away and twisted to face his attacker, embarrassed to see it was only Rebekah.

            "You've got to get out of the street or you're going to get trampled, Daniel," she chuckled.

            Daniel blushed, unsure of ether it was at her rebuke or her smile.  "Sorry," he mumbled.

            "You haven't spent much time in towns, have you?"

            Daniel took a deep breath and faced the shame of the truth.  "None at all, actually."

            "Well, that's alright.  Mostly people just go where life takes them, and now it's taken you to a town.  Nothing wrong with not knowing what you've never had chance to learn, right?"

            Daniel looked back into her eyes, brown and gentle.  "Right."

            "Well, now you'll learn.  I happen to make quite a guide, even if I say so myself."

            "You've been here before?" Daniel asked.

            "Not that I remember, but a town is a town is a town.  I'll follow my nose, and we'll find a decent common house in no time."

 

            After hefting the coin pouch that Sir Reuben had left them, Rebekah led Daniel off the major streets to areas she thought would be more affordable.  Daniel had just started acclimating to the twisting, claustrophobic streets when the sword went suddenly silent.  For a moment he panicked, only then realizing how constant its song had become.  In another heartbeat, though, its music resumed, a hushed and ominous sound.  "Something's wrong," Daniel whispered.

            Rebekah glanced casually back the way they had come, then turned to the right down a side street, waited a moment, and looked again.  "I think we're being followed."  She started to turn left, heading back to the busier streets, but a junk peddler with a cart blocked their way, barking out the virtues of his wares.  Rebekah ignored him and hurried on.  "Correction," she continued, "we're being followed and run to ground.  Be ready."

            "For what?"

            "Something violent."

            Two more turns were denied to them, and suddenly they were blocked by a wall of old barrels and cheap clapboard at the end of a narrow alley.  Heavy footfalls sounded from behind.

            The sword blared once again in his mind, almost muffling Rebekah's shouted "Now!" that came a moment later.  The sound of steel rang as Daniel drew the blade and whipped around to face half a dozen leering, dirty men.  The closest one's mouth was twisted into a sneer and started to open, probably with some threat or demand.  Daniel charged, his rough cloak flapping behind him, and the thug's words died on his lips as the sword sliced through his throat.

            This time Daniel was fully prepared for the way the sword would flood his senses, filling him with the clarity of purpose and thought he so sorely lacked.  He didn't resist, didn't even try to think his own thoughts.  Somehow he knew to turn right and raise the blade, and he did.  A club shattered against it; its wielder was dead before the last fragment hit the ground.  He stepped forward and spun around to face behind, catching a thrust knife in the whipping folds of his cloak as he did, then cleaved off the hand that held it.  The enemy fell screaming and clutching the stump of his arm.  Another assailant was charging from the right; Daniel turned and stepped to the side, and the man ran right up his sword, the hilt finally stopping him as it slammed into his ribcage.  He crumpled like a broken scarecrow when Daniel tore the sword free.  The last two enemies turned and ran, and the sword's tune mocked their cowardice.  A bolt of lightning flashed down from a sky suddenly filled with clouds, knocking the men to the ground.  They crawled away on their bellies, mad to babbling with fear.

            Daniel turned, chest heaving, to Rebekah.  The girl stood with a broken barrel stave in each hand as if ready to leap into the fray, but the fray was over.  Her eyes were wide and staring, and Daniel realized he was sprayed with blood.  The unnatural storm cut loose then, drenching them both, widening the red pools dotting the alley.  The dismembered brute's screams were getting weaker as shock set in, and the man run-through was kicking and wheezing through shredded lungs.  The sound of Rebekah's staves clattering to the ground and her heavy retching touched Daniel's ears over the hiss of rain and the contented melody of the blade.  Daniel sagged to the wet dirt, his mind whirling.  At last he threw the sword down and wept.