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Sword of the Bright Lady
World of Prime Boone One
By M.C. Planck
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2014 M. C. Planck
All rights reserved.
WOODEN STICKS AND IRON MEN
He woke in front of a comfortable fire crackling in a stone hearth, in a narrow and uncomfortable bed, and not alone. Sleeping, the girl looked no more than sixteen. Black hair, and he knew it was not his wife. With relief he saw she was still dressed.
But he was naked except for underwear, and that was quite awkward. A dream, of course; any minute now would come the part where he was late for a math test.
Startlingly realistic for a dream, with the pungent smell of wood-smoke and dirt, and, yes, body odor. The girl needed a bath. Not terribly pretty, and no one he recognized. That struck him as quite unsatisfying for a dream. Indeed, the entire room had an unbearably rustic feel, a primitive cabin with the cluttered look of constant occupation. One wall was stone; the others rough-hewn wood, like the bench in front of the fire.
Odd bits of a household lay about, and something about them disturbed him. In the firelight it was hard to tell, but though he saw clothes and wicker baskets, firewood and stoneware, something was missing.
Telephones. TVs. A stereo. A light, or even a lamp. These were the things that were absent. He could see nothing in the room that lived on electricity.
A remarkably subtle observation for a dream, he thought. He rubbed his face where the rough blanket had made it itch and waited for the dream to do something.
Then he remembered. He had been cold and lost. He remembered an impossible night sky reflecting off a blanket of untouched snow. He also remembered putting the dogs in the truck, driving out to the hot, dry riverbed for a walk. But the memories didn't connect. There was no bridge between them.
With some unease, he noted that the dream hadn't gone anywhere. The girl stirred in her sleep, the fire crackled, but nothing changed.
All in all, he didn't like this dream. Time to wake up.
He'd had nightmares before, the terror of sleep paralysis and the sensation of losing control. Voice was the one thing you kept; you could still scream, though it was always a struggle, and the sound would awaken you. He drew in a breath, and barely had time to wonder how easy it was before the bellowing shout flew out of him, unrestrained.
The girl shrieked and fell out of bed, and he almost went with her, tangled up in blankets and confusion. Why were his ears ringing? He should have produced no more than a choking cry and then the sensation of falling forward into wakefulness.
Instead, the girl on the floor burst into tears and the door across the room flew open, revealing an old white-haired man in a nightgown, fear and anger on his disheveled face.
Christopher was as surprised as any of them. He lay there trying to understand why he wasn't waking up.
"Helga," the old man said, and his face began to clear, a smile settling into the creases like it belonged there. "Stanser skriking, du er skremmende gutten."
The girl sat up, sniffling. Looking at Christopher seemed to calm her. He knew he was nothing threatening to see, half naked and clutching the blankets to himself, trying to shake the sleep from his head.
Except there was no sleep there. In the welling of a strange and terrible fear, he reached out and slapped the coarse wooden paneling with the back of his hand. Hard, so hard the pain made him wince, and a spot of blood appeared where the skin had split. Instinctively he put his hand to his mouth, and the metallic tang of blood spread truth through him like a poison.
The old man offered the girl a hand, and she climbed to her feet. They exchanged words in their incomprehensible language. She went to the fireplace, lifting an upturned wicker basket and setting it aside to let flickering light flood the room. Christopher's brain registered that she was wearing a nightshirt as she pulled a tattered dress over it; that she was older than she first appeared, perhaps eighteen; that she turned now to preparing breakfast with a clanking of pots and pans. His brain processed this automatically while the old man came to the bed, adjusted the blankets and made soothing noises. Christopher took it all in but could not make sense of it, could not progress past the brute fact that lay before him.
He was not dreaming.
"Kan du forstå meg?" asked the old man, gentle and concerned.
"Where am I?" Christopher demanded. "How long have I been here?" With no answer forthcoming, Christopher put his hand to his chin and found a hint of stubble. A day's worth, at most.
The recognition that he had been in his own bed twenty-four hours ago did not turn out to be comforting. How could he have gone from sand to snow without memory?
"Where are my pants?" he asked, searching for something concrete from his past, his semi-nakedness now terrifying.
The old man guessed his concern, and a laughing comment to the girl sent her to the rack that stood near the fireplace. From it she extracted his jeans and T-shirt. She gave them to him, failing to hide her curiosity over the copper rivets in the denim pockets.
Turning back to her fireplace was all the privacy she was going to give him. Under the blankets he slid into the clothes, grateful for the armor, however thin. Dressed, he felt like a man again.
"Do you speak English?" he demanded.
"Tålmodighet, min herre," the old man said with a grin. "Piken arbeider så fort som hun kan."
That was clearly a "no," although a friendly one. With another smile, the old man ducked back into his room, returning dressed in a dingy white robe belted with rope. The girl handed the man a steaming cup, and he sat on one end of the bench near the fireplace, sipping his drink. The girl offered Christopher a cup, too.
The sheer normalcy of it all required Christopher to accept the cup. The girl poured herself one and returned to overseeing a pot hung over the fire. The tea was tart and musty, a flavor he had never encountered before. The hot drink made him realize how hungry he was, and he stared at the pot. The girl noticed and blushed. She filled a wooden bowl and handed it to him.
He shoveled food into his mouth with a crude wooden spoon, downing three mouthfuls before he stopped to see what he was eating.
Boiled oatmeal, flavored with peas. Unbidden, an ancient nursery rhyme sprang to mind.
Peas porridge hot,
peas porridge cold,
peas porridge in the pot
nine days old.
Monks and fireplaces, stoneware and serving girls, a flickering torch on the fireplace mantel. It looked like medieval Europe. Except medieval Europe didn't exist anymore. Even the smallest villages of the old Eastern Bloc countries had electricity now.
Or did they? Maybe he was in some remote Siberian village. Or a Scandinavian hippie commune. A plane crash, amnesia, wandering around in the dark. That was an explanation, or at least a possibility.
"My name is Christopher Sinclair," he told them, wiping the last of the porridge out of the bowl with his fingers.
"Pater Svengusta," replied the old man with a bow of his head, an obvious introduction. "Og dette er vår kjær Helga," he added, pointing at the girl.
"Nice to meet you," Christopher said, although all things considered, it wasn't. "The porridge was very good," he told Helga, although it wasn't either. Lumpy, soggy, and without even a grain of sugar. Still, he smiled when he gave her back the bowl, and her face started to glow.
He thought about the kind of girl that would get into bed with him without even knowing his name but blushed when he complimented her porridge. Maybe it was a French commune.
"Thank you very much for the food and shelter," he said, looking around for his shoes. "But I really ought to be going now."
Helga was already busy with dishes, but Svengusta watched him with keen interest. Christopher found his sneakers next to the fireplace. They weren't completely dry yet. He put them on anyway.
"Where is my wife?" he asked, fingers fumbling with the lacings. If he had been on a plane, Maggie would have been on it with him. What if she were still out there? He had to go and look for her, now. The urgency rose like a fountain, drawing him to the door where he struggled with the wooden bar that held it closed.
Svengusta followed, concern on his face. The old man jabbered in his foreign tongue. Christopher brushed him aside, driven by panic. When the bar finally fell away, he pushed out into the snow and gulped down the open air of freedom.
The air of freedom was cold. Freezing cold, turning his breath to thick fog in the hard light. He ignored it and stumbled on. The snow was shallow, three or four inches, but the cold leached through his wet shoes like lightning.
After twenty feet, his arms wrapped tight, shaking in the chill, he could go no farther. A village lay around him, silent and dismal—peasant huts, hardly better than log cabins, with thatched roofs. Not a single antenna, power line, or satellite dish to be seen. He was closer to the middle of nowhere than he had ever imagined possible.
The old man stood in the doorway, bemused and sad. One wave of the hand, but in a universal language it said, Come inside, you'll catch your death of cold. The bitter truth stung at Christopher, blurring his sight. If Maggie had not already found shelter, it was too late. He had almost died in the night; no one would have survived until morning.
He shouted at the doorway, rebuking the gentle concern. "Were there others? Did you find the crash site? Did you check?" Of course Svengusta could not understand the words. But he understood the message, it seemed. Sadly he shook his head, spread his hands in emptiness and defeat.
Christopher shivered, paralyzed by despair and anger. His heart pounded with the need to run, to search, to find, but his head could not see past failure. The cold would kill him in a few hours, and he did not even know which direction to start in. Fresh snow covered the ground, obscuring everything.
There was only the hope that Maggie had not been with him on the plane. He would have never walked away from her, under any circumstance. Even if he couldn't remember the crash, he knew that.
Not that he remembered being on a plane. And he couldn't imagine walking away from an aviation disaster without a scratch.
What if he had escaped kidnappers and wandered to safety in this obscure town? Maybe he should be lying low, getting a feel for the lay of land. Drugged, kidnapped, escaped. It made more sense than a plane wreck.
None of it made any damn sense at all.
Reluctantly, angrily, he slogged back into the little wooden room and slumped by the fire. Helga gave him another cup of tea, her lips trembling with his contagious grief.
Svengusta did not let him sit for long. Throwing the last log into the fire, the old man pointed at a hallway next to the fireplace.
"Er en god unggutt og henter noen mere for en gammel mann og en pike, vil De?" he asked with wink.
The universal price of enjoying a fire: fetching more wood. At least it was something useful he could do. The door at the end of the short passageway was not barred, so he shuffled through it, expecting a storage closet. Instead he found a chapel.
Wooden pews were scattered throughout a large stone hall, the walls thinly dressed with tapestries where they were not broken by narrow windows. At the far end were double doors, and at the near end a huge, unused fireplace and a half-cord of stacked wood.
The windows were too narrow for a man to crawl through, with thick but ill-fitting shutters. The double doors were made from solid planks and bound with iron fittings. It was as fine a reconstruction of a medieval church as he had ever seen, until he looked up to see where all the light was coming from.
A plain wooden chandelier held a dozen gas flames sprouting from little stone cups, wholly out of character for a Dark Age atmosphere.
The open gas flames struck him as an incredible fire hazard. The walls were stone, but the roof was timber, and there was raw wood everywhere. The tapestries were gray and dusty, not fresh and restored. The rough-hewn benches looked suitably handmade, mostly stacked against the walls instead of laid out in display. If this was a museum, it was a very badly run one.
Above the mantel of the fireplace was a wooden frieze, a bas-relief carving. A hard-faced man stared back at him from the wood, a handsome woman standing behind him, etched in astounding detail. He tapped the frieze to make sure it was real wood, not a plastic molding.
The wooden man did not respond, of course, facing outward with serene determination. He stood between the woman and any possible danger, any imaginable threat. His features were solidly European, with a trimmed beard and mustache, but his stance was Oriental, with a katana held in a classic two-hand grip.
The sword had the correct curve, the round suba hand-guard, the distinctively wrapped hilt. Christopher could even see the hamon—the characteristic wavy pattern from the hand-folding process along the blade. But the man was wearing unmistakably Occidental armor: steel plates molded like clothing instead of the knotted cords and bamboo of samurai armor.
On the left, a tapestry displayed four men in a defensive semicircle around the same woman. The costumes and the people were solidly medieval Europe. The woman had a halo and was the center of attention. She looked regal, like a queen, or even revered, like some kind of Catholic Marian icon. She was unarmed, but each of the men around her bore a different weapon. One of them was the katana, wielded by the same man in the wooden carving. The others bore a staff, a sickle and a mace, and wore varying kinds of armor, all variations on Western plate or chain.
The tapestry on the right had only the swordsman and the lady. They stood in a delicate embrace, but their status as lovers was unequivocal. So much for Catholicism.
Spurred by the cold, he picked out an armload of wood to replenish the stock in the kitchen. Being productive made him feel better, and the firewood was comfortingly familiar. Not very well cut, however. Most of it still needed splitting.
When he got back to the kitchen, he made chopping motions with his hands. Svengusta produced an ax from the closet at the foot of the bed. Suitably armed, Christopher went back into the chapel to earn his keep.
The ax was ancient, the haft hand-carved and untreated. But the edge was sharp, and it occurred to him that it would make a formidable weapon. Not really his style, however. His university had had a PE requirement, and on a whim he had fulfilled it with kendo, the art of the Japanese sword. The whim had grown into a passion, a love of the pure simplicity, the comradeship of men and women who studied a useless art for the effect it had on their own inner selves. The kata were dances, half stylized and half practical, a silk painting of death and destruction.
Swinging the ax at inert logs was not the same, although it was exercise. As warmth and blood flowed through his limbs, he began to come alive again. Wherever he was, he was safe for now. If it was a plane crash, then sooner or later someone would come looking for him. If he'd escaped from kidnappers, then the later they found him, the better, and besides, he had an ax.
His mind drifting, the next swing missed the log and almost took off his leg. Maybe the unwieldy ax wasn't such a good idea.
But then he saw a branch, three feet long and gently curved. Plucking it out of the woodpile, he handled it experimentally. A little trimming, and it would make a fine bokken, which was what he used in most of his training and practice anyway. Besides, hadn't Musashi, the greatest duelist in all history, won half his duels with a wooden sword?
Scraping at the stick with the ax blade, he whittled away the hours until Helga called him in to lunch.
Again the food was plain: more porridge, with a yellowish bread that was spongy and slightly stale. But the ambiance was friendly, the old man keeping up a steady stream of wisecracks that had the girl giggling and blushing. Despite the language barrier, he included Christopher in the conversation, holding up both ends by himself and apparently doing a fine job of it.
After lunch, Svengusta prepared to go out, indicating with large hand motions that Christopher should stay inside. Christopher was happy enough to comply, since he was working on the laying-low theory and his impromptu weapon. The bokken was as polished as he could make it; now it needed practice.
In the empty, cold hall of the chapel, he found it easy to escape into the kata. Doing the traditional forms took his mind to familiar, comfortable places.
Excerpted from Sword of the Bright Lady by M.C. Planck. Copyright © 2014 M. C. Planck. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Contents1. Wooden Sticks and Iron Men, 9,
2. Interview with a Priest, 24,
3. Visions, 35,
4. A Trying Experience, 51,
5. Duel, 61,
6. Aftermath, 77,
7. Public Relations, 89,
8. Window Shopping, 102,
9. A Flock of Gulls, 115,
10. Old-Time Revival, 130,
11. Fire in the Sky, 142,
12. Door-to-Door Salesman, 156,
13. Road Trip, 169,
14. Enter the Troubadour, 184,
15. Recruiting Drive, 195,
16. Friday Night Lights, 205,
17. Fight Club, 216,
18. The Show Must Go On, 226,
19. Thick as Thieves, 241,
20. On the Road, Again, 253,
21. Showdown at Old Bog, 270,
22. Fight of the Living Dead, 289,
23. As the Crow Flies, 304,
24. A Bit of Poetry, 316,
25. Bottled Water, 325,
26. Bull by the Rifle, 338,
27. Boot Camp, 347,
28. Into the Wild, 368,
29. The Price of Victory, 387,
30. Death by Politics, 410,
31. Revival, 423,
32. Return, 424,
About the Author, 429,