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 20

Daniel pressed himself against the door of Karl's stall, hoping that somehow the shadowy figure had failed to spot him.  The sword registered no panic, even as he squeezed his hand around the hilt, his other hand inching toward the latch of the stall door in case he needed to quickly release Noble Karl for distraction or escape.  The sword's lack of alarm gave him little comfort; he still had too little understanding of its moods to assume that meant no danger.  Daniel's eyes strained in the darkness for some further sign of the intruder, but the harder he looked the more every shadow seemed to sway and advance.

Daniel nearly leapt from out of his skin when Karl snorted in his ear.

"Who goes there?" came a voice from the darkness.

"Sir Reuben?" Daniel responded in recognition.

"Daniel?" the knight called back, stepping from the shadows and sliding a dagger back into the sheath he held in his off hand.  "What are you doing here?"

"I might ask you the same thing," Daniel answered, looking Reuben's attire up and down.  The knight was barefoot and gowned in a long nightshirt that hung to his knees; he was clearly not in the stable simply to check on his horse or take the predawn air, as Daniel was.

Rueben leaned against a post across from Daniel.  "It is that my wandering self has always found the airs within strange keeps to be most lacking in the vital humours needed for the sustenance of a good night's rest, and the stones of the surrounding walls do suck the very warmth from my bones.  Greater does it suit me to pass a night in an unused corner of the stables, if a clean one does present itself, out where the warm air of a midsummer's eve can serve as proper balm to the digestion and the spirits."

Daniel nodded.  "This is the first night I've spent without the creak of the mill wheel and the snuffling of our neighbors' cow lulling me to sleep.  I was tired enough after the banquet, but once I woke up..." Daniel shrugged.  "I didn't think I could sleep again, so I thought I'd come and check on Karl."

"You needn't worry for Noble Karl of the Fleet Four Feet, Page Daniel.  His stall is very well appointed, and he has been resting most contentedly, though I'm sure he is humbled to have the concern of such an honored personage as yourself.  I'm sure there are others of our party you might have preferred to visit on this fine and soothing night.  Mine eyes could not help but spy our pretty young songstress favoring you with a kiss for your bravery."

Daniel blushed in the dark at the mention of it and started to stammer as the sword trilled with humor.

"Peace, Page Daniel, peace," Reuben said, chuckling.  "This knight stands yet in the prime of manhood, which holds me not so far from youth, you know, certainly not far enough so as to have forgotten the terror and joy of my first attentions from a pretty maid when I was of an age with you.  In that respect, millers' sons and lords' sons are not so different, methinks."

"Maybe not," Daniel said, sitting on the ground and leaning his back against Karl's stall door.  Reuben did likewise, leaning against his post across the aisle.  "I just don't want to presume anything."

"Nor should you," Reuben answered.  "Womenfolk are mysterious creatures, wondrous in their way, and not just a little frightening.  If one so trained in the scholars' ways were to appear here and say they were all descended from the faerie folk of the northern isles, it is not I that would gainsay him.  Many delights and comforts lay down that road, but pain there can be, too, and loss.  It is for each man to decide whether the formers outweigh the latters."

Daniel could not see Reuben's eyes in the dark, but his voice had gone wistful.  "Is it that, achem... I mean, have you been in love?" Daniel asked.

Reuben was silent for a moment. "A tale for another night," he said at last. "For the present moment, there can be no greater purpose than to keep your dazzled eyes set most pointedly at the task ahead of us.  A task grown most prodigiously more difficult now, my noble self might most humbly add."

"How?" Daniel asked.

"It is that last evening's demonstration of the sword was to be a private affair with only the Lord Aidan and his closest of trusted advisors.  Instead, you have displayed its powers to a room most full of merchants whom we know not. Many are fat with wealth, others drunk with power...it is, I fear, that all are flush with ambition.  Some few of them will want your sword for their own, of that I have no doubting."

"Nothing to fear there" Daniel said, running his fingertip in circles around the sword's pommel. "It won't let anyone else touch it."

"True enough that does surely seem to be, but none of last night's unintentional witnesses, alas, know this fact, and I fear the great harm they might do in the attempt.  And we must be wary that if those selfsame villains have rightly sussed your newfound capacities in securing your own person, it may be that they turn their eyes to companions they may assume to be more vulnerable..." Reuben allowed his voice to trail off, and Daniel found such pointed silence from one who usually used so many words to be most ominous.

"Do you think we're safe here," the lad asked, "or should we move on?"

"I believe Lord Aidan will do all he can for us.  I trust him with more than my life, and not the least because he does value a life more highly than his own pride.  We cannot stay overlong, though.  There are other lords we must rally, and Count Rickard will find himself most sorely pressed if we do not make haste."

The stable had begun to lighten with the coming dawn, so Daniel thought Reuben could probably see him look down and bite his lip as he continued to run his thumb across the sword's pommel.

"You think Lord Aidan a good man?  And a good leader?"

"More than that by many times, Page Daniel.  My own self, I find him among the best of both."

"Why then...  I mean, if the sword is to show the way, why do we only consider the Count?  Is Lord Aidan not just as fit for the crown?"

Reuben scoffed.  "You haven't committed enough treason in the last passage of the sun, that now you must hint at another?  Aidan hasn't the power, nor the land, nor especially the blood, and that's an end to that."

"Why!?" Daniel demanded, suddenly defiant.  "In a time of civil wars and sonless kings and magic swords, why is blood all that matters.  I saw more than enough blood yesterday for a lifetime, and I'd bet the mill that a noble's doesn't look any different, nor a royal's, even..."

"Have a care, Daniel," Reuben cautioned, but the young man wouldn't be silenced.

"Lord Aidan practices humility and charity and compassion and wisdom.  Aren't those virtues, then?  Isn't that what the Church tells us?"  Daniel jumped to his feet and grasped the sword firmly, though he did not draw it.  "Did I slay so many, not the last, I'm sure, just to keep things the same as they've always been?  Is the blood on my hands all for nothing?  Roland's prophecy, that you spoke yourself, it talked about tests of mettle, not just noble blood.  Well, if Count Rickard's mettle is so strong, then why does he need help from a poor knight and a miller's son with a sword that sings too much?  Tell me that, Sir Reuben."

Reuben's scowl was clear in the growing light.  "Of a sudden you think too much, Miller," he grunted.  "It is said a knight's duty is to act, not to think, and if that's true of me, then how much the more true of a peasant boy with a stolen sword!"

Suddenly the blade was alive in Daniel's hand.  He didn't remember drawing it, but it was there, the point twitching in the air before Reuben's throat like an adder's tongue.

Reuben's voice was cold.  "What is the meaning of this, Page Daniel? Answer quickly, but with care.  Answer as if your life depended on it.  Do you challenge me?"

"I'm not a thief," Daniel spat. "I never thought to hear the word 'peasant' sound so hateful from you, either, though I should have expected no better from a knight, even an errant one with no lands or wealth of his own.  I could forgive that insult or at least credit it to ignorance...but I am not a thief.  After a day of building up my spirit, telling me that this sword came to me for a purpose, that I was chosen, how dare you say I stole it the minute I speak my own mind!"  Daniel was silent as he drew an angry, ragged breath, and in that moment he couldn't help but consider how perilous and mad his position had become.  True enough that he had known Reuben only a day, but he was a noble, and more than that he'd saved Daniel's life at least once, and yet now Daniel held the knight at the point of a sword in defense of his own honor, small as that had seemed only the morning before.  The very thought of it knotted his stomach, but there it was.  To turn back from it now would be cowardice, and peasant though he may be, he was no more a craven than a thief.  He swallowed the lump in his throat and pressed on.  "Call it a challenge or not, that's a word of your station, and yours to decide.  Regardless, you own me an apology, knight, and I mean to hear it...one way or the other."