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The story so far:
Part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10| 11| Part 12
Now that I had “freed fair maiden”—or, more accurately, said maiden had pretty much freed herself—it was time for us to escape the town as quickly as possible, lest Malon and his gang capture us and exact revenge for the death of his malefactress mother. Let me remind you, said Lascaux’s voice in my mind, that this is not the time to relax your guard. Stay diligent! And so I did.

Hand in hand, Usha and I gained the end of the secret passage, but before I opened the secret panel that would let us out into the root cellar and from there, into the street, I put my eye to the peephole that was built into the wall to the right of the door, only to find my view blocked by—I closed my eyes to recall my mental picture of the cellar—a shelf with various large glass jars on it. I then put my ear to the hole and listened, and was surprised to hear the sound of air glugging up through what I imagined was the neck of a bottle, followed by a satisfied smack of the lips.

Whoever was in the cellar, it sure didn’t sound like the kitchen boy Gellerat, who had elected to stay behind after I had found the door to the secret passage. Worse, I had no way of telling if whoever it was, was alone. And now, with the dimming of the daylight that had faintly illuminate the passage through the vertical shaft—the day was drawing to a close—Usha and I were now essentially left in the dark, so turning around to search for another way out of the passage—assuming there was one—was not an option, either.

“I’m the one that sent you in here,” came a familiar voice, though slurred now. “In case yer lis’ning.”

It was Fremd!

I quickly realized that Fremd would not have said what he just did if others of Malon’s gang were in the cellar with him, so I stepped down from the peephole and responded to his call by operating the mechanism to the secret panel. I stepped into the cellar first, with my knife drawn, just in case. Usha followed.

Fremd was alone in the cellar. He sat on a barrel. A candle guttered on a smaller barrel by his knee, and a second candle stood behind us, on the shelf that covered the peephole. He eyed my knife skeptically, but said nothing. When he saw Usha, he struggled to rise, but abandoned the effort after a few seconds. From paces away, it seemed to me I could smell spirits on his breath.

Usha started to say something, but Fremd put up his hand.

“No time for chit-chat,” he said. “This fella killin' the old bag," he motioned in my general direction, "an' rescuin' you—’s like kickin’ the biggest wasp nest in the world... with the world’s biggest wasps! Ugly, too!” Fremd smiled at his own wit and fell silent.

It had taken us less than a quarter hour to negotiate our way from the room where Usha had been kept prisoner, down the shaft, and along the passage to the secret panel. Apparently, my ruse of arranging mother Malon’s body to suggest she was merely asleep had not worked, and the gang knew that Usha was free.

“Yes,” said Usha, as she put her arm in mine and smiled at me. “Feather was quite brave.” I looked back at her in surprise, as it had been her deliberate action that had put an end to the old woman, but she continued to smile and turned to look at Fremd. “How do you suggest we get out of here?” she said.

“Thought you’d never ask,” said Fremd. He reached for the bottle that stood on the floor near his feet. “And was afraid you would, 'cause I really have no idea.” He brought the bottle to his lips. “Ev’rybody’s been ordered to cover the streets—you won’t get past them, an’ even if you did, you won’t get far at night.” Fremd tipped the bottle up and took a long swig.

“I were you,” he said, after wiping his lips with his sleeve, “I’d go back in there,” he continued, and pointed in the general direction of the passage. “Fact is,” and here, he smiled, “I’m not sure but I'm willin' to bet I'm th' only one left around who knows about that setup.” Fremd exhaled sharply through his nose, as if to laugh, and fingers groped for the bottle again.

“If everyone’s out looking for us,” I said, “how come you’re here?”

“Cause I’m a useless old fart,” said Fremd, and paused. “Excuse my language, missy Usha.” Usha nodded her head slightly in acknowledgment.

He looked at me and continued. “See, to Malon, I represents the old ways—the old breed—someone strong enough to move earth and heaven—and break a leg or two, if you get my meaning. But I’ve gotten old. I’m not as fast or as tough as I once was, so th' others, they mostly laugh at me, an' leave me alone.” His head dropped down on his chest, and Fremd looked as if he was about to go to sleep.

Then his head came up sharply, and in a perfectly sober voice, he said “Go, now,” he said. “Back, through the panel. Someone’s coming!”

Usha and I went back across the panel threshold and by the time I had pulled it shut, Usha had her ear to the obstructed peephole. She motioned me to move closer so that both of us could hear what might transpire, and when I did, I became acutely aware of the heat from her her body and the proximity of our lips. Usha reached out and put her arms around me to help make us more stable as we listened. One—or maybe it was both of us—was trembling. It was all I could do to keep my mind on the business at hand.

Through the opening, we heard the cellar doors open and steps descend into the cellar.

“Hey, old man,” came an unfamiliar voice, “what’re you doing here.” It was a young man’s voice.

“Huh?” Fremd responded, as if he had been roused from a sound slumber.

“Are you for real?” said the young voice, and spit out a curse. “Didn’t you hear what happened?”

“Wh’ happen?” said Fremd, his intonation rising with the first syllable, and then falling..

“That guy who escaped broke the girl out, somehow, killed mother Malon, and now, everyone’s s’pozed to be on the lookout to grab them both.”

“Mm-m,” mumbled Fremd.

Another set of footsteps started to descend the stairs, and then stopped, as if whoever it was had only come part of the way down.

“What’s going on?” asked another young voice.

“Just Fremd, goofing off, like he always does,” said the first young voice. “And now, look at him—the dumbass fell asleep.”

“To blazes with him,” said the second voice. “He’s of less use than weathered horse manure. C’mon, I’m gonna lock him up here so he don’t get into even more trouble than he’s gonna be in when Malon hears of this.” A few seconds later, I heard steps, followed by the sound of the cellar doors closing and hardware being manipulated.

“Why’d he lock you in here with m…?” I heard Fremd say, his last word cut off by an abrupt sound. I felt Usha’s arms tighten around me.

I was sure Fremd had meant his words for us, another call, this time to warn us that one of the men was still in the cellar, but it wasn’t clear to me why. Was Fremd wrong? Did others in Malon’s gang know of this passage as well? As if in answer to my question, a tapping began on the cellar side of the panel door. Perhaps nobody knew, but maybe they now suspected the existence of a secret way into and out of the inn, and were looking for it.

I gently disentangled myself from Usha’s arms, put my finger to my lips, drew Malon’s dagger, and gave it to her. Then I stepped away from her, assumed a ready crouch facing the panel, and drew my knife.

It was time for me to respond now, by spilling blood.


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The story so far:

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5| Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8

I was careless as I turned the corner and so I ran almost directly into Finch and Ellmore, who were coming my way. My heart stopped for several moments, for I fully expected Malon's goons to recognize me. Ellmore, after all, had kept me immobile for several minutes while Finch gave Lascaux the beating that killed him, after which Finch turned and knocked me unconscious.

After a moment, though, it became clear to me that the pair was sharing a private joke of some kind, because aside from shoving me out of their path, they paid no attention to me and continued past, in the general direction of the jail. Had I been armed, I would have been sorely tempted to get some payback for my Master, but I wasn't, and that was that.

I turned and resumed walking, as innocuously as I could, in the direction of where the inn was supposed to be. After a couple of hundred yards, I spied the inn on the other side of the street, recognizing it by its distinctive roof line. From my vantage point, I was looking at the back side of the inn, and there, not far from a wide wooden door that was doubtless used for supplies, stood the cart in which Usha and I had been brought into town. I continued down the street, past the inn, and then crossed the thoroughfare. Once across, I changed direction, returned to the inn, and climbed into the back of the cart.

The leather bag was still there, under the driver's seat, half covered by the rope that passed through the pulley blocks. I moved the rope aside, opened the bag quietly, retrieved the dagger than I had stolen from Malon, and set about examining the other items in the bag.

Most of the contents consisted of leather-working tools, the kind that come in handy for repairing tack. These were in a poor condition, caked with rust, and useless to me.

Beneath those tools was a sheathed hunting knife that was well-oiled, well-balanced (even in my small hands) and wickedly sharp. I appropriated it. I also took a small leather purse of coins, deciding to wait until later to loosen the knot that held the pouch closed. Coin was coin, and even a purse of coppers increased my working capital.

A pair of sharp taps on the side of the cart startled me very nearly to the point of immobility. As I slowly reached for my newly acquired knife, Fremd's face came into view over the side of the cart, and his attention seemed fully fixed on the pipe he had just emptied against the side board.

“I would not waste too much time in there, young man,” said Fremd. His voice was quiet, and he kept looking at his pipe. “A couple of the boys were sent to the jail a little while back. To kill you, you know.”

“Where's Usha?” I asked.

“She's safe, for now,” said Fremd. “But did you hear what I said? Malon wants you dead.” He glanced up and back the way I had come. Then he turned away. “You'll pardon me, but I don't want to be anywhere near you when Finch and his cousin come tearing around that corner with the news you've escaped. I got in Dutch enough with Malon last time, with him thinking I helped Usha escape that search party he sent me on.”

“Which you did,” I said. Fremd stopped for a moment, then said, "I don't owe you nothing," and continued walking.

“Wait!” I said. “At least tell me where I can hide?”

“Keep yer voice down,” said Fremd. “Go around the side, go down in the root cellar. Stay until night. Leave town.”

“But what about...?” I said, but Fremd had passed through the wide wooden door and closed it behind him.

I climbed down from the cart and followed Fremd's instructions. No sooner had I closed the cellar door behind me and dug in among several sacks of potatoes, but I began to hear shouts that got louder and eventually turned into a general tumult in the building above me.

Through the ceiling of the root cellar, I heard muffled exclamations, which I took to be orders being issued in response to my escape. I took stock of my situation.

My escape had been discovered, but at least I was now armed with a knife. I had learned nothing about Usha's whereabouts, but I was at least in a position to buy things, including information—assuming I could stay alive long enough to do so. I was free for the moment, but effectively trapped in a cramped cellar underneath a building filled with hoodlums out for my blood.

You've got them right where you want 'em, whispered Lascaux's ghostly voice in my ear. Buck up... you're still alive... it said. And that sure beats the alternative...

How typically like my Master, I thought, and gave a little involuntary grin.

Then I snapped to alertness.

Voices passing just outside the door to the root cellar went silent, and now the cellar door was rattling, as if it was about to be opened.

I burrowed as far more as I could into the sacks of potatoes, with my back to them, as I drew my new knife from its sheath and held it out and down.

Then I waited for whoever—in whatever number—to come down the stairs.

[To Part 10]
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The story so far:

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5| Part 6 | Part 7


“There are two simple things that have to happen before you can escape from a jail cell,” Lascaux used to say. “First, you need to unlock the door, and second, you have to remove anybody that gets between you and freedom.”

I rolled my eyes the first time I heard the old man say that. Listen to the Master of the Obvious, I thought to myself, but as with so much else Lascaux had taught me, the words expressed an essential truth, though there were usually—no, make that always—subtleties involved. Take my current situation, for example.

It did not take me long to determine that the cell I was in was sturdily built, with no loose stones in the walls, and no trap doors hidden beneath the dirt floor. The blanket was more like a collection of holes kept together by bits of fabric. The bucket was in better shape than its appearance suggested, but it was encrusted with dried waste on the inside. Yuck! I yelled to get the jailer's attention, and though I thought I heard the sounds of movement out in the corridor, nobody responded to my calls.

So it would seem that I was on my own, with the only tools at my disposal being what I had brought with me into the cell—myself, my clothes, and my boots.

Oh, and four gold sovereigns, two secreted in the heel of each boot. To be used only in emergencies, Lescaux had insisted, so he made sure they weren't easily accessible.

So, I sat down on the blanket, removed my boots, and began the process of extracting the coins. As I did so, Lascaux's voice whispered in my ear, reminding me that a weapon was not a club, or a knife, or a sword, or a lance, but any inanimate object wielded with intent to impose one's will—Lascaux did so love his generalizations—and that while any village idiot could walk about with a sword in his hand and give the appearance of being tough and dangerous, the ideal I was to strive for was to walk about empty-handed, but completely capable of 'imposing my will' using anything within reach. Including gold. During my time with Lascaux, I had frequently fallen short of that ideal; here and now, I needed to achieve it.

My initial plan was to offer a sovereign as a bribe to the jailer when he came to feed me, but there was no telling when that would happen. There had been no morning meal, and for all I knew, prisoners might only be fed once a day, in the evening. I needed to figure out how to get the jailer to visit me on my terms.

I dropped one of my coins into the bucket, but it merely thudded against the crud inside. I picked up a few handfuls of dirt, threw them in the bucket, and—holding my breath—used the coin and the blanket to scrape and scrub the inside until most of the hardened waste was loosened. I emptied the bucket and dropped in the coin. It made a sharp, joyful clink! sound as it hit the bottom of the bucket..

One of the most convincing effects a magician can perform goes by many names—Lascaux called it “The Miser's Fantasy”—and the old man had made me practice it for hours. I'll not bore you with the details of how it's done, but I was about to put on the performance of a lifetime.

I put my boots on, stood up with the bucket in my hand, reached into the bucket, removed the coin, and then carefully raised my hand above the bucket and allowed the coin to fall in with another clink! I repeated the process, except now, after removing the coin, I made it disappear and then reappear, and then dropped it into the bucket.

Clink!

Clink!

Clink!

If my cries had not moved the jailer, the repeated sound of something hard and metallic—the unmistakable sound of money—being dropped into a bucket did, because after a few minutes of clinking the coin into the bucket, I heard the lock turn in the door. I removed the coin from the bucket.

Step one complete, I thought to myself, as the cell wall swung open, and I gazed at the jailer, who glanced at me and then looked around the room suspiciously from the other side of the threshold. With a smile and a flourish, I picked a gold coin out of thin air, spun it in my fingers so the jailer could get a good look at the shiny yellow prize, and then dropped it into the bucket.

Clink!

The jailer cautiously stepped into the cell. His face told me he was perplexed, as he had personally made sure I had nothing but my clothing about me when he locked the door earlier in the day, and yet here I was, in possession of gold! I ignored him, glanced at a point between us and a little off to one side, reached out my hand, and picked a second gold coin out of the air. I gave it a little bite and winked at him before dropping it into the bucket.

Clink!

The jailer's mouth was now hanging open.

“If I were to fill this bucket with gold coins, my good man,” I said, picking a third coin out of the air, “would you look the other way and let me walk out of here?” The coin fell.

Clink!

I shook the bucket, and the coins inside jingled.

“Here, let me see that!” said the jailer, forgetting good sense and everything else and reaching for the bucket.

“Ah!” I said, moving the bucket out of the jailer's reach. “First answer my question.”

“If that's real gold...,” said the jailer, with a nod of the head.

I handed him the bucket, and as he focused his attention on the bucket and the coins inside, I made use of a certain technique that Lascaux had made me practice for years, one that allowed a physically small man—such as myself—to turn the size and weight of a much larger opponent to my advantage. When the dust settled, the coins were in my pocket and the jailer was on the floor, unconscious, bound with the manacles that had hung from his belt.

Step two complete, I thought to myself.

I could now make my escape at any time, but first I needed some information. I squatted patiently next to my prisoner. After a short while, he regained conscousness.

“Where did they take Usha?” I asked, but the jailer paid no attention to my question, and spent his energy sputtering about the indignities he would heap upon me once he got free. I touched a certain point on his jaw with a fingertip, and applied pressure. The jailer screamed, and then fainted. When he woke again, I repeated my question.

“And don't make me use my finger to quiet you down again,” I added, pointing my index finger at him as if it was capable of dischrging a bolt of lightning. “I might not be able to control myself next time, and—who knows?—you might not wake up next time.” Between the memory of recent pain and my quietly uttered threat, the jailer's eyes had become wide with fright, and his attitude had changed completely.

“I don't know where the girl is,” he said.

“That's not what I asked, “ I said, casually waving my finger in his direction to see his reaction. “I want to know where they took her.” Lascaux had repeatedly stressed the importance of paying attention to questions and answers, both spoken and unspoken, during such exchanges.

“I don't know. I guess they took her to the inn,” said my prisoner.

“In what direction is the inn?” I asked. He told me.

I used the blanket to improvise a gag and then locked the jailer in the cell. I searched the small building, but found nothing useful to me, except for a too-large hat, which might change my appearance enough to improve the odds of not being identified before I gained the inn.

I donned the hat as I stepped out through the front door of the jail and onto the street. My appearance attracted no attention, and I turned in the direction of the inn.

I had to find Usha and free her, and as I made my way down the nearly empty street, I said a brief prayer for her safety to gods I really did not believe in, and made myself as inconspicuous as possible.

[To: Part 9: Innocuous...]
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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5| Part 6


I slipped out of my ropes and had started moving toward the cart driver with my knife at the ready and bloody murder on my mind when I heard faint hoofbeats along the road behind us. I barely had the time to slip back into my bonds—thank you, Master Lascaux, for drilling this skill into me as a boy—before the driver turned around to see who was approaching. I already knew, because even at that distance, I had already seen who was behind us. Illuminated by torch light, the face was unmistakable.

It was Malon.

More precisely, Malon and two other riders. They were riding hard, with the riders holding torches to illuminate the road. Appearing to be oblivious to who was approaching, I feigned struggling to my feet and once up, cried, "Help! Help us!," whereupon the driver abruptly set the cart's brake, and despite the fact the cart was moving slowly, I was thrown forward—as I had planned—landing almost directly under the driver's seat, next to a pair of pulley blocks threaded with rope. As the driver rushed to descend from the cart and deal with me, I loosened my ropes enough to deposit the dagger I had stolen from Malon into an old leather bag that sat beneath the board the driver sat on, and then recaptured the slack to make the rope again appear tight.

"See here, you," said the driver, attempting to cuff me on the ear as I scuttled out of his reach, "you keep your tongue still, or there'll be a heavy price to pay!" He then stepped onto something that allowed him to reach in over the sideboard, get a good grip on the rope that held my arms fast, and toss me toward the back of the cart, where Usha lay. By this time, she had awakened and was seeking to understand what was going on. Her eyes went wide as I landed beside her like a person who had fallen to earth from the moon, and she looked as if she wanted to say something, but she pressed her lips together and kept her peace.

Malon and his riders gained the cart just as the goon with the lantern who had been lighting the way joined our merry company.

"Hoping we were honest citizens, were you?" said Malon, as he brought his horse to rest. "You are out of luck, I'm afraid. No chance of escape, now, and even worse is in store for you, since you stole something that belongs to me, and I do not suffer people who steal—at least not those who steal from me." He grinned at his own joke, and for a moment, my knees felt like jelly.

"I didn't steal anything," I protested. "I swear!" The fear in my voice was real.

Malon looked closely at me and, satisfying himself that my arms were immobile under numerous coils of rope, said, "We'll see about that when we get to town. If I were you and I knew any prayers—I'd start saying them."

I began to protest my innocence further, but Malon cut me off with a sharp "Shut up!"—which he expressed as two distinct words—and then turned his attention to his men, instructing the driver and the goon with the lantern to get back on the cart—with the goon sitting backward, facing me and Usha—while he and the riders rode ahead to light the way. "Quickly!" cried Malon, "I want to be off the streets before sunup and people in town start to stir." Indeed, the horizon was now clearly discernable to the east and sunrise itself was not far off.

The cart shook everyone aboard a great deal as the driver struggled to keep up with the riders, though Usha and I probably had the better of it, as we were lying on sacks of grain. In almost no time at all, the cart was nearly to the town. It crested a small rise and began to descend toward the closest buildings, the silhouettes of which made them look pitch black against the brightness of the dawn sky. I felt as though there should be a word to describe the effect, but realized my mind was wandering and refocused my attention on my situation at hand.

The cart stopped behind a stout brick building, where I was unloaded—not unlike a parcel of goods—and taken inside through a heavy door, down a short corridor, and into a room that could only be a cell. The walls were of stone, a small window admitted neither enough air nor light, the door was solid, and the furniture consisted of a blanket and a rusty bucket. There was barely enough room for me, Malon, and a new face, which I assumed belonged to the jailer.

"Remove the lad's rope," instructed Malon, drawing a short sword from a scabbard at his belt. "And take care he doesn't try to injure you as you do so." I started to say something, but the jailer merely sniffed and then struck me—hard enough for me to see stars—but I retained enough control to keep the rope tight until it was safe to give up the slack that had allowed me to slip in and out of the bonds during the trip into town.

The jailer searched me thoroughly, removing and examining my clothes and boots, and poking me here and there, but found nothing. Malon then shoved the jailer aside and examined the clothes himself, tossing them at me as he finished with them. He found nothing as well. As I put my clothes back on, Malon pursed his lips, but remained silent. His eyes looked off to... nowhere in particular. He had been sure I had stolen his dagger—now, he wasn't as certain.

He then turned to jailer and said, "Keep this one here while I see to accommodations for my other guest." The jailer nodded and, as Malon turned toward the door, reached for the heavy key ring that hung on his belt. I finished donning my boots and stood up.

Malon and the jailer exited the cell, the latter pausing to insert a key in the door and lock it behind him. Through the small window I heard the sounds of activity, and then those of horses and a cart starting to move away from the building my cell was in.

Where was Malon taking Usha?

There was no time to lose. I had to escape!

To: Part 8. Hedging my bet...
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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5


The sound Malon's knife made as its tip struck the table caused Usha to stir in my arms. The next sound—of Malon's voice—caused her to come awake, and I could feel a sudden great tension develop in her shoulders.

"You!" She flung the word at him. Her eyes had narrowed, her jaw had clenched, and if the vitriol that accompanied the word had been real, Malon would have quickly been rendered into atoms.

Malon said nothing for a while, continuing to simply smile at the two of us, as if admiring an ornament of some kind. He took a bite of the bread he had carved with the knife that was now embedded in the table, swallowed, and then he pursed his lips for a moment. Then he spoke, softly. "Absolutely right, my pretties." Then his expression changed, his face became hard, and he said: "Me!"

He got up, strode to where we lay on the floor against the cabin wall, and lifted Usha by the arm until her feet left the floor. I made objection by wrapping my arms around his legs, but he cuffed me on the side of my head and I fell away from him, onto my stomach. I saw stars, but recovered quickly enough to hide the dagger I had removed from a sheath affixed to his boot before he grabbed me by the nape of my neck. He then planted me against the skirting with my legs splayed in front of me and my back against the wall.

Malon held the struggling Usha at arm's length as he stepped back to the table and wiggled the knife free, and then stepped back toward me, continuing to hold Usha as if she was a wriggling fish. I watched his tongue as it flickered out from between his lips, moistening them in anticipation, and then he reversed the knife in his hand and tapped Usha sharply on the head with its handle, as one would a fish. Usha lost consciousness, and in my mind, I felt certain that he was now going to gut her, as one would a fish.

"Wait!" I cried. "Why?" I asked, articulating the question that attached itself to the end of my train of thought. Malon looked at me, surprised at the question.

"What do you mean?" he asked.

"Why do you want to kill her?" I said.

"Kill her?" he said, and then laughed, after a moment. "Heavens, no, lad. I have no wish to kill her. Quite the opposite, in fact, if I find what I'm looking for." He turned his attention back to the limp form he as holding and, reversing the knife once again, quickly cut away Usha's frock, which collapsed onto the floor leaving her naked to his sight—and mine. I did my best not to stare at Usha's nakedness, but it was hard to keep my eyes averted. It seemed to me she was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, and my eyes were filling with blood in rebellion at the way Malon was treating her.

My temper was near the breaking point when Lascaux's voice intruded. You know, Feather, when you decide you're going to live for someone, you're prepared to die for them... but be very selective of who you live for, because you may, indeed, be called upon to die for them! I ignored the meddlesome voice and prepared to act, come what may and whatever the cost.

Malon must have sensed that I was getting ready to rush at him, for he turned his head to me, pointed the knife in my direction, and said, "No need for anything stupid, boy. I have no desire to defile the girl, either." He turned his head to again look at Usha, and then back at me again. He gave a conspiratorial wink. "At least not now," he added, sotto voce, and barked a laugh. I took hold of my passions.

He stuck the knife in his belt and turned Usha around, inspecting her body as one might inspect the carcass of a prize sheep. As her back came into view, I saw there was some kind of design on her skin, resembling a tattoo of some kind, but much larger. Malon saw it too and grunted, and then bent down, gently laying Usha on the floor, next to her clothes.

"Get her dressed," he said to me, pointing at the pile of fabric, and then he whistled loudly, twice. As I scrabbled over to Usha's unconscious form and picked up her dress, two of his gang came in the door. Malon spoke to them.

"Take them back to town. Make sure you get there by daybreak. Then lock them in separate rooms," he said. "If the lad gives you trouble, slit his throat. If anything happens to the girl, I'll slit your throats. Understood?" The men grunted their assent, stepped outside the cabin, and returned a few moments later with two lengths of stout rope.

They waited until I had finished dressing Usha and then used the rope to tie us up. They then lifted us onto their shoulders and took us outside, where they put us in the back of a horse-drawn cart, on top of some bags of grain. Shortly thereafter, the taller of our two captors climbed onto the cart's seat and took the reins while the other set out ahead of us with a lantern to light the way, and in this manner, we all departed for town.

As we progressed along the road, I mentally thanked Master Lascaux for teaching me how to gain the necessary slack while someone tied me up with rope, because by the time the man with the lantern had taken up his station ahead of the cart, I had freed myself of my bonds and retrieved the dagger I had secreted after, um, purloining it from Malon's boot. I quietly checked on Usha, and though her color was good and her breathing was not labored, she was still unconscious.

I loosely looped the rope back around myself and sat back, in case the driver glanced back to check on us, and considered my options. I could easily use the dagger now to cut the driver's throat, but then how would I deal with the other member of Malon's gang, the one out in front of the cart with the lantern?

I had to decide quickly, as I perceived the first faint traces of dawn in the east. If the cart was to gain the town by daybreak, I had less than an hour in which to act.

I thumbed the edge of the dagger and weighed my alternatives.

To: Part 7. Chiaroscuro...
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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Were we not fleeing for our lives, the progress that Usha and I were making back toward town might have been a nice, if somewhat rushed, afternoon's gambol through the countryside.

We didn't speak at all, saving our breath for the more important task of putting as much distance as possible between us and our pursuers, and I put aside all the questions that had occurred to me—about who Usha was and how I had ended up in this situation, and so on—to concentrate on my surroundings and where I was putting my feet, as Lescaux had taught me.

The last time I had passed this way, it was dark, I was going in the opposite direction, and frankly, I was paying more attention to the thugs that were, I thought, merely seeing to it that Lascaux and I were leaving town. It was daylight now, and the area of the uneven and twisty forest track where Lascaux had been beaten to death had given way to much flatter terrain with many fewer trees, and Usha and I were now moving along something that was more of a country road. From time to time, I spied what appeared to be farmsteads to either side of our route.

Usha and I stayed fairly close together as we ran, with her leading the way whenever it occurred to me that it was she who knew where we were headed. Finally, at a point where the forest again came up to the road, Usha came to a halt and raised her hand so I would do the same.

“Come, this way!” she said, and grasping my hand in hers, she led me away from the road into the woods. After a few minutes of picking our way through brush and stepping over fallen tree limbs, we came upon a glade, in which stood what at first glance appeared to be a ramshackle cabin. However, as we approached the structure, I noticed that, despite its appearance, the structure was solidly built, and when Usha opened the front door, it swung open on well-oiled hinges. She motioned me inside, shut the door behind us, and let out a great deep breath.

Then she smiled a smile that I could see was tinged with a great deal of sadness, but still, I could have sworn the interior of the cabin got a bit brighter.

“Please,” she said, pointing at a table with chairs around it, “rest yourself. You must be tired.” I thanked her and dropped into the nearest chair.

“I would offer to brew us a nice cup of hot tea and perhaps even cook some porridge,” she continued, taking a seat on the other side of the table, “but I do not want to risk starting a fire, for the smoke and the smell of burning wood might give us away.”

“That's okay,” I said, smiling, “I think I'm too tired to eat right now, anyway.” Usha smiled that same sad smile. A few moments passed.

“It occurs to me,” she said finally, “that we've not been properly introduced. You already know my name. What's yours?”

“Lescaux—he was my master—he called me...,” and I stopped, as Usha's face had paled and her eyes had opened wide at my words. 'What's the matter?” I asked.

“This—Lescaux,” said Usha, “is he the old man who thwarted Malon's little scheme to steal me from my parents?”

“Yes,” I said.

“You just said he 'was', as if he were no longer among us,” she continued. “What happened to him?”

“He's, uh, dead,” I said.

“So I feared,” said Usha with just a hint of something hard and unyielding in her voice. “How did he die?”

“Three of Malon's gang—well, last night, they took Lascaux and me out to not far from where you and I ran into each other, and then beat him to death and almost me, too,” I said, wincing as I touched the bruise under the hair on the side of my head.” Usha burst into tears.

I quickly found myself kneeling on one knee next to her chair, trying to put a comforting arm around her shoulder, but she rose and stepped away from me, sniffling and breathing hard as she struggled to bring her tears under control. “I'm... sorry for your loss,” she said. “Your master did my family a great kindness and paid a dear price for it.”

“Yeah, well... thank you,” I said, sitting back down on my chair. Usha remained standing. “My master knew a bully when he saw one, and despised them all.” Which was true, but I felt compelled to add, “And he always wanted to do the right thing,” mentally adding for him and me. “Anyway, he called me 'Feather' for as long as I can remember—on account of my size, you see—so that's the name I answer to."

I sought to change the subject. "So anyway, how did you come to be running down that track this morning?” I asked. “And why did that man Fremd—he's one of Malon's men, right?—why did he help us?”

“Many years ago,” began Usha, after a few moments, and then used a handkerchief to wipe her eyes, “Fremd and my father were in service together as conscripts in the king's army. When their service was finished, Fremd accompanied my father back to our town, where he got married and settled down. Fremd and his wife, Veri, had a son, named Branch, who was exactly one year older than me.” Usha's voice softened. “Then the town was struck by a plague. Veri was among the first to fall ill, and she died soon after. Fremd took to drink, heartbroken over the loss of his wife. Then Branch caught the plague just as Fremd fell afoul of the law in a drunken brawl. So, my parents took Branch in and took care of him, but the plague had sunk its talons too deeply into him and, despite everything, he died too. When Fremd got out of prison, he fell in with Malon's gang, but despite that, he was always grateful for what my parents did to try to save his son, and he and my father quietly remained good friends." Usha fell silent again, then said, "Fremd is always welcome at our table, and he treats me as he would have Branch's sister. He would never betray my father, or mother, or me.”

Usha's posture then stiffened. “As far as our meeting this morning is concerned, well—Malon and his ruffians showed up at our farmstead last night, where Malon and my father exchanged heated words. One of his lackeys locked me in my room, but I could hear them yelling. I can't even relate to you what was said, but the exchange was vile, and it ended in a scream that terrified me, so I climbed out the window and ran around to the front of the house. Through the open front door, I saw...” Usha's voice broke and she was on the verge of tears. “Malon... striking down my mother... with a hatchet... as she knelt down the lifeless form of my father! So I ran...” Usha could hold back no longer and began sobbing uncontrollably, collapsing onto the floor as she did so.

I quickly sprang to her side and put my arm around her. She turned and buried her face in my chest and continued to cry, and we stayed that way for a long time, until we fell asleep.

When I next opened my eyes, the sky through the window was dark, Usha was still in my arms, but the cabin interior was illuminated by a lamp. I turned my head and there, at the table, sat Malon, using a long, thin knife to cut a loaf of bread.

His eyes brightened when he saw me looking at him, whereupon he flicked his wrist to reverse the knife in his hand and brought his arm down to bury the knife tip in the tabletop.

“Rise and shine, kiddoes,” he said. “It's play time!”

[To: Part 6. When you live for someone...]



alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
[Part 1. Unfinished business.]

[Part 2. Second thoughts.]

[Part 3. Fremdschämen.]

I took a good look at the big man, Fremd, that our pursuers had left behind. He had seated himself in such a place that we could not move without being seen, although after a bit, I concluded that he was so big and ungainly that I could probably rise to my feet, walk up to just out of his arm's reach, and recite the first canto of Belle-a-wee An'doo before he could gain his feet.

Advantage to me, there, I thought, but then what? If I got close enough for his massive hands to get hold of me... I shuddered at the thought and tried to again focus on the problem at hand: how could I disable him so that I and the girl lying next to me could make our escape?

And then the voice of my late master Lascaux voice boomed its way to the forefront of my consciousness—What horse do you have in this race, boy? Walk away... while you still can!—and I recollected briefly to the many times in the past, in other places, that he and I had done exactly that. Lascaux was not a man who stuck his neck out casually.

But something—a feeling I had never felt before, as if a void in my life was on the verge of being filled—told me the girl lying on the forest floor next to me was worth sticking my neck out for, and as I tried to again refocus my mind on the problem at hand, the girl stirred and gathered her arms beneath her, preparing to get up. I took hold of her shoulders and brought my lips close to her ears in an attempt to warn her of our peril, but she easily slipped free of my grasp and stood up straight, in full view of her pursuer. I myself was on my knees next to her, my eyes wide with horror as I watched what happened next.

“Hallo-o! Fremd!” said the girl, waving her arm, in which she held the doublet I had used to cover her red hair as we hid from pursuit.

“Not so loud, young mistress Usha,” said Fremd, without turning his head in our direction. “There are places where sound carries quite well in this forest, particularly along this track. In any event, you must leave, and quickly.”

The girl took a step in Fremd's direction, and then turned to me and handed my doublet back to me.

“Thank you, sir, for the use of your doublet,” said the girl. “Will you come with me to a place of safety? I should like to repay you for your aid and your quick thinking.”

“No such payment is necessary, young mistress... Usha,” I said. I liked the way the name came off my tongue.

“You lovebirds can flirt later,” said Fremd's voice, and Usha's cheeks started to redden. “You need to flee now, while I do what I can to misdirect the hounds.”

I took Usha's hand and turned away from the track, prepared to flee into the woods.

“Not that way,” snapped Fremd, who seemed not to have moved a muscle since sitting down. He raised an arm with difficulty and pointed. “That way,” he said, pointing back toward the town. “And without delay!”

Whereupon Usha took my hand and led me past Fremd, over the tree roots that crossed the track, whereupon we hurried as quickly as we could along the track back toward the town.

As we did so, my mind was busy asking one question after another about my comely red-haired companion: Who was she? Why was Malon after her? And how did she and her pursuer Fremd know each other? Suddenly, my train of questions was derailed by Lascaux's strident voice, booming—More to the point, Feather, has Fremd just sent you into a trap?

With that question in my mind, I picked up the pace, passing Usha, whereupon the two of us started almost running toward the town.

[To: Part 5. I can't even...]




alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
[Part 1. Unfinished business.]

[Part 2. Second thoughts.]


The red-headed girl and I had taken not more than two steps away from the track and into the brush when we both became aware of the sound of approaching voices, whooping and mouthing curses, doubtless with the intent of panicking the girl. She had not been jesting about how close they were.

I glanced back toward the track, and realized that although the vegetation between it and where we stood was thick, it wasn't thick enough to keep from being seen by our pursuers, and it was doubly not thick enough for my companion and her red hair, who was reacting to the voices, giving every indication of wanting to bolt into the scrub, even though doing so would serve no purpose other than to make sure we'd be seen and captured soon after.

As I grabbed the girl to keep her from running, I additionally became aware of the steady tattoo of approaching footfalls, followed a few seconds later by the nearing mixture of wheezing and heavy breathing. I judged there to be three pursuers from the sounds I heard, and they would be passing the tree in mere seconds, so I put my hand over the girl's mouth, hissed “Not a sound!” in her ear, and unceremoniously swept her to the ground, where the undergrowth was thickest. I then stripped off my doublet the way Master Lascaux had taught me when we entertained townfolk with quick costume changes, and I managed to conceal the girl's red hair under it as I, too, lay down on the forest floor and became motionless, with one arm around the girl and one eye half open and looking toward where the track went by the big tree..

I was not a moment too soon, for within three heartbeats of becoming still, I saw the girl's pursuers noisily come into view from past the tree, moving at a pace that was faster than a walk but not as fast as a run.

The first man to pass was the thug who had beaten Lascaux to death in front of my eyes the night before, although he had apparently not brought his club with him this time. He ran easily, at an even pace.

The second man stopped in his tracks a dozen or so paces past the tree, whereupon he bent over, wheezing heavily, and gripped his legs with his hands just above the knees. Although in obvious distress, he had a broad chest, sizeable upper arms, oversized hands, and probably weighed about twice what the girl and I weighed together.

A third man—one of the two that had held my arms the night before, while the first man killed Lascaux—came into view and halted a few yards behind the second man. Although he was breathing heavily, he appeared to be in better shape than the second man, and he started walking in little circles with his arms akimbo.

“Finch!” said the second main, and took another breath. “Wait a second!' he continued. The first man came to a halt and looked back along the track. “How 'bout a little breather?” said the second man.

“What's your problem, Fremd?” said the first man. “Can't hack the pace?”

“Can too!” said Fremd. The words came as an outburst. “'s not the point... It just don't...,” he continued, “make sense to... get all tired out... chasing that girl.” The young man walking in circles stopped, facing the first two men, and his arms dropped to his sides. He cracked a little smile upon hearing Fremd's lame explanation, and gave his head a small shake. “We'll still get her,” said Fremd, who tried to stand up straight as he struggled to bring his breathing under control.

“Fremd, shame on you!” said Finch, as if admonishing a small boy, which Fremd certainly was not. “What you just said is such a pile of fresh, steaming horse manure that I feel ashamed for you,” said Finch, taking a few steps back along the track, toward Fremd and the third man. “And so's Ellmore,” he continued. “See that smile on his face? It says he's embarrassed for you, too—ain't that right, Ellmore?” said Finch, his voice rising as he addressed the third man. Ellmore kept his peace.

“I should probably give you a good drubbing for being such a non-hacker,” said Finch, “but we have a girl to capture and return to the boss, and since I want to get back to town before nightfall, this is what we're going to do.”

Finch pointed the tree out to Fremd. “You sit your fat rear end right over there, next to the tree, and wait for me and Ellmore to come back with the girl. In your shape, you'll only keep slowing us down, anyway.” Then he motioned for Ellmore to join him, and the pair set off at a quick pace, down along the path they had been following until Fremd caused an unscheduled delay in their pace.

As I heard Finch's and Ellmore's footfalls fade as they made their way down the path, my eye remained fixed on Fremd, who slowly gained the base of the tree and, as instructed, dropped down onto his ample rear, a mere two dozen or so paces from where the girl and I lay and facing more or less in our direction. Staying where we were was not an option, for as soon as the two pursuers figured out the girl could not be in front of them, they'd be back and eventually find us, unless we moved, which was not an option, either, since Fremd would surely see us if we tried to do so.

Our only chance at escape lay in overpowering Fremd.

But how?

[To: Part 4. Void.]
alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
I was sound asleep when the phone rang. I picked up the handset.

"Uhh.. yeah?" I began, and remembered to say "Hello?"

I was rewarded by a scratching sound that ended in a hiss, followed by the subtle, short rustling sound a cigarette makes when it's lit. I was well acquainted with that sound, but I was still half asleep.

"Hello?" I repeated. "Sam? Is that you?"

"The one and only, at your service," came Sam Spade's voice over the line, followed by the sound of a deep drag. "How's tricks?"

"You caught me asleep, Sam," I said, and then I realized something.

"You're calling me?" I said. The realization pushed me completely awake. "What's going on?"

"Don't get your panties in a bunch," said Spade. "I simply figured turnaround is fair play, what with all the times you've called me in the past," he said. "As it turns out,..."—and here there was a pause while my interlocutor did something that made the sound of fingernails being brushed over a five-o'clock shadow—"... I need your help."

"Well, to the extent I can help a fictional character from a book released in 1930," I said, "I'm all ears."

Spade gave a short chuckle and lit another cigarette.

"It's like this," he said. "I have a case coming up that will probably require me to work in a team with some other shamuses, and I figure the right thing to do is introduce myself to them."

"And...?" I said.

"And that's where you come in, old man," said Spade. "Between you and me, I have no problem trading barbs with cops like Dundy or Polhaus or telling the D.A. where to get off, but ever since the O'Shaughnessy broad bumped Miles,... well, I haven't been much of a social animal among the private gumshoes in this burg, if you get my drift."

"Usually it's me who beats around the bush," I said. "Get to the point. What do you want me to do?"

"I don't want to go in there with a spiel that sounds like I cribbed it from a high school yearbook," said Spade. "I want to let people know what they're getting into if they work with me."

After a moment, I said: "I don't really know where to start, Sam. As far as your background is concerned, all I have to work with is that book about the bird and the Bogart film that came out of it."

"Fair enough," said Spade, after a brief pause. "So why don't you tell me how you'd introduce yourself to a bunch of people so as to give them an idea of what it'd be like to work with you?"

I gave the question some thought as another match was struck at the other end of the line, and then said: "Well, in my case, I'd let them know that at the beginning of the year, I had to drop out of a writing competition because I had to get an operation. And then just a couple of months ago, I had another operation that also sidelined me for a while."

I heard Sam give a whistle. "No kidding?" he asked. "You okay now?"

"It is what it is. I have to scare up a bunch of work to pay bills, so that'll be a priority. If I were rash enough to sign up for, say, another round of competitive writing, I might have to drop out at a moment's notice. I'll take it day by day. After all, in the end, we are—all of us—merely souls propping up a corpse."

"Hmmm—Marcus Aurelius quoting Epictetus," said Spade. "I didn't realize you read the Stoics."

"We're even, Sam," I said. "I didn't realize you did, either."

Another chuckle came over the line. "So, you're basically telling me I should let the other gents in the group know—what's that nutty expression you taught me?—'where I'm coming from', eh?"

"Yeah, pretty much," I said.

"Well, I'll give it some thought. Thanks for your time," said Spade. "Call me any time you need advice—and stay healthy."

"Sure thing, Sam. Will do," I said, and then we said our goodbyes and the connection was broken.

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