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Owen Tyme

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This is a work of fiction. Similarities to real people, places, or events are entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2024 Owen Tyme. All rights reserved.
Written by Owen Tyme.
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In this trio of linked tales, learn what happens when the unstoppable force meets the immovable object.

In the first tale, a priestess to the god of empathy never wanted to involve herself in politics, but when her king seeks riches from the kingdom at the expense of the common man, she’s forced to put herself directly in the path of the King’s armies, who are under strict orders to turn her away, even if it means killing her. Unfortunately for them, they didn’t count on the pain they inflict on her reflecting back!

In the second tale, nobles discuss Aaron Kozinski, an amazing guard that never fails in his duty, no matter how bleak the situation, all in exchange for a little money, that he might eat and pay rent. He stands guard in horrendous weather and even repels assassins, preventing them from coming anywhere near his employer, all without complaint.

In the concluding tale, the two are manipulated into conflict by a mysterious man that hopes they’ll destroy each other.

Will the priestess learn enough about Aaron to ease his pain or will she be overwhelmed by his hopelessly broken heart?

Sweet Surrender

Short of Tyme #4

Tale 1

The priestess strode confidently up the hillside, alone. She was dressed in a simple, white, hooded robe that reached to her ankles. The color and simplicity of her robes marked her station as a priestess. Her short, blond hair had been tucked into her hood.


The archers raised their bows. She continued, unperturbed, her face locked in a grim expression of determination.


They took aim. She pressed forward, ignoring them.


Dozens of arrows were loosed, nearly every one of them striking the priestess!

The small hovel, suitable for a family of four, was housing twice that many. Most of the family, consisting of four children and their parents, greeted the priestess at the front door. She gave them a small bag of flour; it was all she could spare for the poor family, with so many of her flock in a similar situation.

She was directed to a back room of the hovel where one of the only two beds in the house was occupied by an elderly couple, the grandparents of the children. They were emaciated from the ravages of hunger and near to death. They’d stopped eating to spare the lives of their grandchildren.

She knelt next to them and clasped their hands, speaking words of comfort. She reached into her heart and drew upon her connection to her god, bringing the pain and suffering of her flock into herself, giving them a few painless hours with which to say goodbye to their family.

She held their hands the entire time, trembling with pain, until their last breaths.

Grunting in pain as the arrows clattered to the ground around her, the priestess fell to her knees. At the same time she dropped each archer that struck his mark fell, bleeding from an unexpected wound, but the priestess was not bleeding!

“Doesn’t even compare.” She muttered, mostly to herself.

The few archers that missed panicked and ran, while one cried out, in terror, “She’s a witch!”

Standing, she made her way to the side of the most grievously wounded archer, tore strips of cloth from her robe and bound his wounds, then did likewise for a few others. The rest were too far gone to save.

She stood once more, faced the remaining soldiers and continued up the hillside. One stood to block her path, his finely-made and daily honed sword pointed in her face, his grip and confidence hinting at his expertise.

“Turn back!” he ordered.

She stepped around his sword, ignoring him. He quickly blocked her way and pointed the blade in her face, again!

Nervously, he called, “I-I’m warning you, I will cut you down!”

“Don’t stand in my way.” She gave him an unimpressed look, “I’m warning you, you’ll only hurt yourself!”

She didn’t resist as the soldier charged, delivering a mighty swing that connected solidly with the side of her neck, full force!

The priestess hurried into the woods, alongside the local doctor, who was little more than an old sawbones. The woodcutters had sent for both her and the doctor.

When they arrived, she saw one of her flock, a poor man that spent more time in the woods than he should have, because he wanted to help his less fortunate neighbors survive the coming winter. They couldn’t afford his services, but he provided them anyway.

The evidence of the terrible incident with the ax was everywhere, staining the fall leaves a deeper shade.

The doctor examined the man, shaking his head; too much time had passed and the woodcutters didn’t known how to save such a badly damaged arm, simply tying a tourniquet to staunch the bleeding.

“I’ll have to amputate.” The expected words were delivered by the doctor, “I’m out of anesthetic, so we’ll have to do this the hard way.”

Everyone but the priestess cringed.

The priestess shook her head and reached out for the woodcutter’s undamaged hand. She concentrated and focused on taking the pain on herself. As she did so, the man’s breathing returned to normal and she nodded to the doctor.

She held the woodcutter’s hand as the surgery was completed, trembling and sweating, but not crying out, stubbornly clenching the woodcutter’s hand the entire time. The surgery went well, aside from the priestess accidentally breaking a bone in the man’s other hand, from squeezing too tight.

The fierceness of the blow caught her off-guard, causing her to lose her balance and roll downhill for roughly ten feet, until she grabbed hold of a tree root.

The soldier’s face bore a look of shock and pain as his head fell free, followed shortly by his body, which began to convulse!

The priestess, covered head to toe in sweat, fallen leaves, dirt and loose grass, stood on her feet, somewhat unsteadily, rubbing her neck. The remainder of her hood dangled loose, revealing her head of short, blond hair.

“That hurt.” She muttered in a somewhat befuddled state as she pulled her hood back on.

After a few moments to gather her wits, she looked around. All of the soldiers had fled, except for one. She continued up the hill.

The last man standing was clearly frightened, but stood his ground, directly in her path. He was older, with a graying mustache and beard. His sword was sheathed and his shield was lying discarded to one side. The insignia on his breastplate marked his rank as captain of the guard.

“Get out of my way!” she commanded.

“I’m duty-bound, ma’am. I can’t let you pass.”

“You will.” She predicted.

She moved to step around him and the man put his hands on her shoulders, leaning forward and shoved with everything he had! The priestess, unprepared for such an indirect use of force, fell back and tumbled down the hill, uncontrolled!

Having carefully positioned himself for it, the force of the reverse shove dropped the soldier on his back and knocked the wind out of him. He expected to feel each impact as the priestess rolled down the hill, but was surprised when he didn’t.

He got back to his feet and brushed himself off, feeling certain he’d found a chink in his opponent’s god-given armor: side effects of simple shoves were all he needed to win.

The priestess stopped her fall, roughly half-way down. She was covered in bruises, cuts and scrapes, her robe now mostly a tattered mess, but she was still able to get to her feet. Clearly, her last opponent was smarter than the rest.

She strode up the hill to stand before him, once more, but stopped short by twenty feet.

“I know how to stop you now!” He threatened.

“No.” She shook her head, “You can knock me down, but I always get up.”

“I salute you.” He nodded, with respect, “Your tolerance for pain is incredible.”

She nodded to him, in turn, “Years of training. Years of enduring the pain of my flock.” She paused for a brief moment before she continued, with emotion in her voice, “The flock your king has wounded.”

The soldier looked ashamed, “I’m bound to obey his commands. You cannot pass.”

“That’s unfortunate. I don’t want to hurt you.”

This time, she charged, running up the hill in a sudden burst of speed! She didn’t aim to move by him, but aimed directly at him! He braced for the impact!

The collision wasn’t anything you’d put in a book on martial arts, except as an example of what not to do. It shouldn’t have worked against a highly-trained soldier.

She left the guard captain lying there, clutching the back of his head and cursing.

She finished her ascent of the steep hill and approached the drawbridge of the castle. It was up.

“Lower the bridge or I’ll do to you want I did to the others!” She bellowed, bluffing!

There was a hurried argument and then the bridge lowered. Two soldiers passed her on either side, nodding respectfully and then ran as fast as they dared down the hill!

As she entered the castle, the captain of the guard stopped pretending to be hurt. He hoped for a moment he was doing the best thing for his king. He thought on the priestess’ behavior and smiled to himself, content he did right. He strode into the castle a few minutes later, heading for his office, to write a letter of resignation.

The king screamed, “Guards! Remove this woman from my throne room!”

She paused for dramatic effect and looked around, waiting for anyone to show up. Some servants stepped into the room, but no guards.

She explained, “I’d be quite willing to guess you have no guards left. Most of your archers have arrow wounds. Unfortunately, a fair number of them were so badly wounded there was nothing I could do. Also, one of your foot soldiers lost his head when he foolishly tried to cut mine off. Your guard captain probably has a concussion, but I doubt he’ll remain in your service after today. The rest deserted.”

“Then I’ll strike you down myself!” The king announced, arrogantly, drawing his sword with his right hand.

“I would think before acting, if I were you.” She warned, “How do you think I got past your guards?”

The king’s eyes widened and his lower lip trembled slightly, but he stepped forward and demanded, “What sorcery did you use on my men, witch?”

She held out her right hand and suggested, “Use that sword to give me a small cut on my hand. I think this will aid understanding.”

Confused, but also curious, the king forcefully jabbed the palm of her hand with the tip of his fine blade and immediately dropped it, his freshly injured sword hand trembling in pain as it bled, looking as though a sword had gone clean through it!

The priestess sighed, tore another strip of cloth from her ragged robe, knelt beside him and started bandaging his hand.

She chided him, “I said a small cut.”

He sat on the floor and allowed her to work, clearly dumbfounded by her actions.

“Do you know why I’m here?” She asked, once she’d finished, still kneeling beside him.

He shook his head, thoroughly confused.

“You’ve caused the death of many of my flock, mostly through heavy taxes, but also through heavy-handed laws. I feel the pain of each of them, that I may know their needs and work to care for them.”

She slapped him, as hard as she could, leaving a red imprint of her hand on his face! He didn’t resist.

“You sit here, on your throne, handing down orders that hurt my flock, that kill my flock as surely as a sword through the heart!”

She slapped him on the other cheek, just as hard!

Her second slap brought a memory to mind, from three years before. She wasn’t sure if it was her god’s doing or simply the memory being stirred up by seeing the king again.

The priestess ran to the castle and the first servant she met wordlessly took her straight to the queen’s private chambers.

The queen was lying in her bed, dying. Childbirth had gone wrong in many ways and the midwife had called in the doctors, for it was that bad. The little baby princess was already dead, having never taken a breath.

The king was there, at her side, holding her hand.

The priestess took the tiny woman’s other hand and held it, willing the pain from the dying body into herself.

The king and queen had a precious, heartfelt goodbye with the queen’s pain out of the way.

The priestess shed a tear, stepped back, bowed and commanded, “Mend your ways, my king, while you still can.”

He stared at her in disbelief and shock.

Her facial expression softened and became compassionate, “You are also a member of my flock. I know your pain. Filling the castle treasury won’t make up for the loss of your wife and daughter. Get to know your people and serve them, as a good king should. Charity will mend your heart better than greed.”

With that, she turned and quietly left, leaving the king with his suddenly swirling thoughts and a jumble of conflicted feelings.

Tale 2

Chapter 1
Noble Inquiry

“Your letters of recommendation are impressive.” Lord Scaplin remarked as he skimmed through the job applicant’s papers.

“I suppose.”

The applicant was plainly dressed, appearing much like a typical peasant, except for the fact he was quite muscular and very fit. According to the papers he’d brought, he was actually a minor noble. He was staring at a point a few inches above the nobleman’s head and hadn’t blinked for the entire duration of the meeting.

“By everything in here, you’re clearly qualified to be my guard captain. You could easily do that job for the king!”

“Didn’t want the job.” The fellow admitted.

The nobleman flipped through the letters again, finding one signed by the king.

“Oh. He offered you the position, I see that now.”

The nobleman looked very confused. He stared at the applicant for some time, working through the inconsistencies.

He couldn’t puzzle it out, so he asked, “Why in the world are you applying for a position as a common gate guard? You’re clearly overqualified.”

The man sighed, speaking as though he hardly cared about the result of the meeting, “Do you want me for the job or not? I’ve got three other interviews scheduled for today. You’re just the first.”

The nobleman looked exasperated, having never dealt with such a reversal in an interview, so he looked through the papers some more, “I see your last employer was Lord Braden. Wasn’t he killed by a robber in the night, just last week?”


“Where were you when this happened?”

“Wasn’t my shift.”

The noble found the most recent letter, written by Lord Braden’s guard captain, praising the man’s capability, wishing he’d been on duty during the incident in question.

“Oh. I see. His guard captain wrote a letter, as well.” Lord Scaplin muttered, after flipping though the papers, again.


The noble sighed and asked again, “Why do you want to be a gate guard?”

“Need a job.” The applicant spoke without emotion, “Have to eat and pay rent.”

Lord Scaplin stared at the man for several long moments, who still hadn’t blinked. It was starting to make the noble’s eyes water in sympathy.

I’d be insane not to hire him, with these recommendations! He took a few moments to weigh his options, He even comes at a bargain price, but why does he want such a lowly job?

The noble made up his mind, “Consider yourself hired. When can you begin?”

He handed back the letters of recommendation, keeping just the resume.

The man folded them carefully into his jacket pocket, “I’m not busy at the moment.”

Lord Scaplin sputtered at the proclamation and reverted to a childhood stuttering habit briefly, before getting a hold of himself, “T-Then report to my guard captain for your assignment.”

The man stood like a soldier and saluted, making the movements with classic, textbook perfection as he stood to attention, speaking his response in a fashion that would make the most insane drill sergeant tearfully proud, “Yes, my lord!”

Having finished his salute, he marched out of the room.

Lord Scaplin watched the new guard with unusual interest over the next few weeks.

He did his duty to perfection, standing next to the front gate through each day. He stood so motionless that the children in the village thought the owner of the mansion awfully cheap for having bought a statue of a guard, instead of hiring one!

Over the course of these weeks, it started to bother the nobleman, like a nagging itch he couldn’t reach.

He approached his guard one afternoon and asked, “Are you satisfied in your work?”

The man saluted, “It feeds me and pays my rent, sir.”

“And that’s enough for you?”

“Yes, sir.”

This did not answer the noble’s questions. It only brought more to mind.

He decided on a new approach, “Are you happy?”

“No, sir.”

“Please elaborate on that.”

The man gave him a perplexed look and asked, “Is anyone, sir?”

“Very well, then tell me why you’re here?”

“The pay, sir.” The guard spoke patiently, “It feeds me and pays my rent.”

Lord Scaplin stared at the man for several minutes and then walked inside, feeling frustrated.

Lord Scaplin was in the home of an old friend, a minor noble by the name of Jerome Attcombe. They were sharing drinks and talking about old times at a school they’d attended together. It was just small talk, however, and not the reason for the visit.

Eventually, Jerome asked, “So, now that we’ve gotten the polite conversation out of the way, why are you here? You don’t normally come unless the king has an assignment for me.”

Lord Scaplin sighed in frustration, “It’s my newest guard. He used to work for you.”

“I think I know who you’re talking about.” Jerome laughed out loud, “Collects recommendation letters from nobles like flies on a corpse, right?”


“Fellow does his job perfectly in every detail, right?”


“And you can’t stand it, because he’s qualified enough to be your guard captain, but just wants to be a gate guard?”

“Yes!” Lord Scaplin nearly shouted.

Jerome laughed again, “Don’t worry about him. Just be glad you’ve got him. He’s the best guard you’ll ever have.”

Lord Scaplin fell back in his chair, frustrated, “Don’t you know anything about him?”

Jerome nodded, “You must have skipped reading his military service record.”

“What was in it?”

Jerome looked out the window, a sad expression on his face, “You remember that little skirmish we had just five years ago?”

“Our neighbor to the north invaded and the king sent his personal regiment.”

“Your new guard was the leader of that regiment.”

“What happened to him out there?”

“Nothing in particular. It’s what happened while he was away…”

Chapter 2
Fires of Hearth and Home

Royal Regiment Commander, Aaron Kozinski, was happy to be home. He’d missed his wife and daughter while he’d been away. He was proud to have served his king so well in the past few weeks, but it was good to be going home. He and his men were marching into the royal city, having successfully repelled the invaders.

He looked across the city at the setting sun, seeing too much smoke! Despite how tired they were from a long day’s march, he ordered an increase to their pace and directed his into the city, toward the closest fire! They soon had the fire out and then he split his men into multiple groups, each with a task of organizing and supporting fire brigades.

He looked at the plumes of smoke again, trying to determine which was the biggest. That’s when he noticed one of the smallest, coming from his own neighborhood!

He organized the last of his men, ordering them toward the biggest fires. Then, quite unusually for him, he left them to work, running as hard as he could for his own home, praying he was wrong!

He got there and found the smoke rising from the area of his home! He ran on, accelerating down his own street, seeing the distant, grand home his king had given him, smoke rising from one side!

He found the peasants of the area running a bucket brigade through his front door.

One of them recognized him and removed his hat, solemnly, “Sorry. We did our best.”

He demanded, not as a noble, not as the Royal Regiment Commander, but as a husband and father, every inch of him filled with trepidation, “Is my family safe?”

Several more peasants removed their hats, looking down. Some of the women began to cry.

“We’re sorry. We…didn’t get here in time.”

Not wanting to believe it, Aaron rushed into his home, pushing aside peasants carrying buckets! He ran for the wing of the house with the family bedrooms, the same side that burned. He pushed people out of the way until he found his wife, now barely recognizable. He cradled her in his arms, begging her to wake.

Jerome finished the sad story, “According to the investigation, an arsonist set fire to the homes of several nobles. His home happened to be one of them.

“The man resigned the next day, unwilling to explain his reasons. Out of respect and a sense of responsibility, the king gave him a glowing letter of recommendation.

“From what I’m told, the incident still weighs heavily on the king’s mind. He blames himself for diverting his personal regiment away from their normal duty of patrolling the city.”

Lord Scaplin nodded, “If the man had been home, his family would have been safe. I can understand why he resigned.”

“Having read all of this, I thought him a broken shell of a man.” Jerome finished, “I initially gave him the job out of pity, to help him get back on his feet. I was as wrong as I could be. He does his job to absolute perfection, then goes home to a rented room, just to sleep. Most of his pay goes to widows and orphans of his old regiment, aside from what he spends on food and rent.”

“How do you know that?”

“I hired an investigator to follow him for a few weeks, because it started to bother me, just like you.”

Lord Scaplin was silent for a long while, finished his drink and asked, “You trust the man?”


Jerome poured his friend another glass of brandy and started another tale.

Chapter 3
Attention to Duty

Aaron stood to attention in the pouring rain, staring forward. In deference to the weather, he was wearing a heavy oilskin cloak, which had been issued along with his armor and uniform. The other guards retreated indoors, to warm themselves by the fire of the gatehouse. He’d volunteered to stand guard, because their job required at least one of them to be at the gate, ready to greet visitors or trouble-makers at all hours, regardless of the weather.

The rain poured down the hood of his cloak as he stared straight ahead, into the darkness.

Using instincts he’d honed patrolling the streets of the city, Aaron caught just the smallest reflection of light out of place in the rain as an object flew through the air, targeted at his neck! His sword was up in a flash, blocking a tiny dart, which clattered to the cobblestones!

His eyes quickly scanned the rooftops, looking for the source! Two more darts flew in rapid succession, one deflected by his sword and the other by his shield!

He caught a small movement as two individuals dressed in black stealthily dropped from a roof, into the shadows of an alley.

He’d long known that assassins should know better than to wear pure black. It always made a darker impression in the pit of a shadow, but there were always plenty of talented amateurs that didn’t know better. Black, however, did work against most guards. Still, they should have been wearing dark green or a nearly-black red.

He watched as one of them raised a bow. He examined the angle and stood motionless as an arrow stuck the wall beside him. The other assassin raised a bow and fired, aiming directly at him! Aaron raised his shield, deflecting it expertly.

He called into the pouring rain, “Guards! To attention!”

His voice was nearly lost in the pouring rain, even to him. Leaving his post to warn the others would likely allow them to sneak past him, beyond the wall, so her stayed put.

Aaron twisted his neck a few times, while keeping his eyes on target, limbering up. He followed by stretching his limbs, as well. As he did so, another arrow was fired. He deftly leaned forward and the arrow passed over him!

Wanting to get the conflict over with, Aaron stepped directly in front of the gate and gestured with the middle finger of his sword hand for his assailants to meet him head-on, finishing by leaving it raised and still, taunting them.

One of the dark figures rushed forward, foolishly. This one was clearly young, brash and overconfident, armed with a sword just long enough to not be considered a knife. He was wearing black leather armor and his head was wrapped in black cloth.

Just as the young man was about to attack, Aaron stepped into the assault, parrying with his own sword! The young man was off-balance, having tried to put too much force into the attack. His face was met by Aaron’s shield, ringing fairly loudly, despite the rain! The man fell back, limp, out cold.

Aaron stepped back to his chosen position and stared directly at the other assailant. He started ramming the hilt of his sword into his shield, to make as much noise as possible. It didn’t carry very far in the pouring rain.

He deflected two more arrows with his shield, before the other one stepped out of hiding, calmly starting across the street.

The assassin was dressed similar to his companion, but his eyes were visible through a slit in the cloth. They looked each other in the eye. Clearly, Aaron was looking into the eyes of a killer, one with a great deal of experience. Having taken the assassin’s measure, he was sure it a man, rather than a woman. It made a difference; women lacked a common vulnerability of men.

When they were twenty feet apart, the assassin called, barely heard over the rain, “Leave and I won’t kill you! Stay and your life is forfeit!”

Aaron shrugged and call back, “You’ve got that backwards!”

The assassin threw three knives with each hand as he rushed in, each expertly aimed for a vital organ! Aaron blocked two with his shield, two with deft parries and then moved sideways for the last two!

As he closed the distance, the assassin drew a sword and a long knife! He stood with his legs apart, for good balance.

Aaron deflected or parried all of the assassin’s attacks and launched into a deceptive series of attacks, taking the offensive, but always seeming to come up short. With each attack, the assassin leaned just out of reach. Aaron had him right where he wanted him, expecting only attacks with his sword or shield.

Aaron telegraphed an attack with his sword, making it look like an over-eager strike. The assassin leaned back and Aaron’s armored foot connected with the man’s groin!

There was a groan of agony as the assassin collapsed. Aaron wasted no time and quickly finished his dangerous opponent with a downward sword thrust.

After carefully scanning the area for more opponents, he cleaned and sheathed his sword. He grabbed the unconscious assassin. He carried them to the guard room with one hand, kicked the door open and then roughly dropped his prisoner at the feet of his stunned colleagues!

“Send a runner to the house. Alert all guards. We’ve got trouble.”

He went back to his post.

Jerome finished his story, “There were several more attacks that night. Fortunately, thanks to Aaron, the rest of my guards were very alert and ready for them. The unconscious assassin was handed over to the royal regiment for interrogation. Turns out an old business rival hired a clan of assassins, the Ashen Blades, to kill me. The regiment literally knocked his door down, the next day, with a battering ram. He was executed for his crime not long after.”

“Why did Aaron quit, if you were so satisfied with his work?” Lord Scaplin asked.

“I did what anyone would have, after a night like that: I promoted him! He quit the next day. My advice is to give him a raise instead of promoting him, if you’re ever in that position. He chose the job himself and he must have his reasons, but he might accept higher pay as a reward for good service. I’m honestly not even sure if he would care, though.”

Lord Scaplin thanked his friend for the drinks and the stories, even though they raised even more questions, while providing only precious few answers.

It wasn’t long before Lord Scaplin called on Lady Audrey Bellany, another of Aaron’s previous employers.

After a few pleasantries, she asked, “To what do I owe the pleasure of your company? It can’t be that you’ve come courting, seeing as you’re married.”

“I recently hired a new guard. I’m trying to learn more about him.”

“Mr. Kozinski, I presume.” She smirked at him.

“He’s an enigma, I must admit.”

“You’re lucky to have him. I pity the man for the loss of his family and I admire his dedication to duty.”

Lord Scaplin asked, “Do you know why he insists on taking such lowly jobs?”

“No, but it’s clearly related to the loss of his family. I did ask him once, but he simply said, ‘A man needs to eat.’ I didn’t believe him, but I didn’t want to press the point, either.”

“Can you at least tell me why he left your service?”

“The short version is that he did so for my safety and the safety of everyone around him.”

“And the long version?”

She sighed, “That’s a story in and of itself…”

Chapter 4
Ash-Blood Pass

Aaron stood beside the back gate on a summer afternoon, not moving, staring straight ahead. The guard on the other side was sitting on the ground and smoking, a habit that got him banned from working at the front door and on probation. His shield was leaning against the wall.

“Hey, statue, you want a smoke?” The slovenly guard asked.

Aaron didn’t respond, simply continuing his vigil. After a lengthy silence, he tossed his shield in the path of a projectile, saving his comrade from death by crossbow!

Aaron dove right behind the shield, quickly scooped it up and brought it to the proper position, the blocked bolt sticking out of it!

The slovenly guard screamed, the roll-up falling from his mouth. He scrambled to pick up his shield and get his sword in hand as Aaron blocked two more shots, both aimed at the lazy guard!

“Alert the others!” Aaron commanded.

The man was halfway to the house before he realized he was following the order of someone he out-ranked! Still, it was the right thing to do, both for their lady and his own safety! Another shot barely missed him as he made his way to the house!

Aaron took position at the center of the open gate.

He eyed the assailant, someone dressed in black perched on the balcony of a nearby house, holding a crossbow. They were reloading to make another shot.

Aaron knew the home. It belonged to a noble. The room itself belonged to the man’s young daughter. Clearly, it had been invaded to get a good position to shoot from.

Two more shots in rapid succession revealed he was dealing with a double crossbow, rather than two attackers. He easily blocked them.

Several guards arrived behind him, ready to back him up.

“Stay behind the walls!” He commanded with such absolute authority that all the other guards, including the captain, obeyed without thinking.

His timely words saved them from being hit as two more shots were fired, missing one of them by inches! After a another pause to reload, two more shots flew in, aimed at Aaron’s feet! He leaped backward at just the right moment!

He waited and stared the attacker right in the eye as they reloaded and aimed. Aaron read their intent and blocked the next two with his shield, both targeted at his head!

“You won’t get me that way!” Aaron taunted, “Why don’t you face me like a man?”

The hollow laugh that came in response was unexpected, to say the least. It was the laugh of a young woman.

“Man or woman, you won’t take me down from a distance!”

The black-clad woman leaped down from the balcony, discarding her crossbow in the same fluid movement, landing in the grass of the other house’s yard as lightly as a cat.

Aaron barked, “Two guards, go and check on that house!”

One of the guards behind the wall responded to his order fairly automatically, “Yes, sir!”

There was a bit of arguing and then the guard captain said, “I’ll take that under advisement, Mr. Kozinski!”

After some more muttering, two guards stepped past him and made their way across the street. By this point, the assassin was into the street.

Her attention was fixed on Aaron as she pulled off her mask, revealing short, brown hair. She was attractive, but her expression was of pure hatred, trying to burn holes through Aaron with her eyes alone.

“Why are you here?” Aaron demanded.

“You killed my father! Until you’re dead, the Ashen Blades will target everyone around you, especially your employers!”

The woman rushed forward with a drawn sword, all caution thrown to the wind and no attempt at defense even made. Aaron shook his head slightly, braced himself for the attack and neatly positioned his sword to skewer her as she approached, using her own momentum to drive the blade through her chest. Through the bone-jarring impact, he kept his footing. He withdrew his sword, dropping her to the ground.

She coughed a few times as she died, blood pouring from the wound and her mouth. He wiped his sword clean on her clothes and sheathed it, returning to his post.

The two guards returned and reported, “Everyone in the house is dead!”

Aaron stared straight ahead. Two more attacks were aimed in his direction that day, but neither was particularly effective. Each came from a different house, each turning out to have been invaded, just to get a good position to snipe from.

The next morning Aaron showed up early, just to resign. Within the hour, he paid the town crier to spread word he was leaving the city, headed for Hallyson’s Pass, a notoriously narrow path through the mountains, impassible by cart or horse, but easy enough for a man on foot.

He carried only a pack of provisions and camping supplies, a sword and shield. He wore old regimental armor, a suit of plate mail.

After a day of indecision, Lady Bellany asked her guard captain to organize and send a group of volunteers into the pass, to support Aaron.

The six volunteers, led by Lady Bellany’s captain of the guard, were each wearing their regular work attire: chain mail, sword and shield. The captain had the double crossbow from the recent assassination attempt strapped on his back. It was an evil device, with a cocking mechanism that dramatically increased the strength that could be applied, allowing even a small person to penetrate heavy armor.

The hike into the mountains took the better part of three days. Most of Hallyson’s Pass was little more than a deep, narrow canyon that wound around at strange angles. However, there were wider areas, big enough to use for camp sites. Every once in a while a small side canyon branched off the main path, but most ended in a dead end. They got lost a few times, having to backtrack to the main path.

The walls looked almost like someone painted them with a variety of natural pigments, making horizontal lines at various heights, but that was just layers of natural stone. Most of the canyon was a mixture of reds and browns, with a nearly black line every so often. The lightest colors were almost like cream. As the wind swept through, it brought the smell of water, dirt and sand.

There was a little trickle of water flowing along the path; the canyon had been carved by that stream, which turned into a deadly torrent during storms.

On the third day, they began hearing sounds of fighting, echoing through the canyon. It was impossible to tell how far away it was, but almost as one man, the guards quickened their pace!

By mid-morning, they found the small stream tinged with blood, becoming darker the farther they went.

Throughout the day they heard fighting, off and on. Each time, they increased their pace, hoping to find Aaron around the next corner.

When noon came, they ate on the run, not wanting to stop for lunch.

As they were eating and turning a corner, they came across a man dressed in black, lying dead next to the stream at a natural pinch-point in the canyon. While the dead man was contributing to the blood in the stream, he was clearly not the only source, as the water was already red by the time it reached him.

Within ten minutes they found another body, similarly dressed, with a small section of the canyon wall collapsed on him. The area had clearly been fairly narrow until the collapse.

The next group of bodies was three men, crammed into another choke point, as though they’d died attempting to cross it. These had to be removed before the guards could continue.

This pattern persisted. With each defensible location was a small pile of bodies. They stopped counting after about twenty corpses, but there were dozens more.

By late afternoon, they heard fighting again, so they sped onward, running as fast as safety allowed in the narrow canyon! This time, the fighting sounded much closer!

As the first of them turned a corner, there was a group of six black-clad men, attempting to get into a side canyon! At their feet were several more, dead. Aaron was just beyond the entrance, forcing them to come at him one at a time.

Aaron’s sword thrust through the gut of his current opponent, protruding out the left side of the man’s torso! With a swift kick, he dislodged his blade just in time to be ready for his next opponent!

The captain readied his crossbow, took aim and launched a bolt into one of Aaron’s tormentors, going through his bicep and between his ribs, puncturing a lung! He quickly aimed at another and fired, putting the bolt in the man’s temple, killing him nearly instantly!

As he dropped the bow and drew his sword, he called to his men, “Attack!”

The ensuing battle was short and bloody, but the guards came out on top. Aaron finished two of them himself, while the remaining two gave the guards some serious trouble. The assassins were each skilled fighters, but were soon outflanked and fighting back to back, overwhelmed. With three opponents each, skill just wasn’t enough to save them!

Each of the guards was wounded, but when the captain surveyed his men, he was happy to see none of the wounds were serious.

Limping a bit from a bad bruise to his leg, the captain made his way toward Aaron and was quite surprised to find himself hastily parrying an expertly-aimed attack, going straight for his jugular!

As he stumbled over a corpse, tripping and falling back, he saw the look in Aaron’s eyes. He was long past exhaustion and likely didn’t even know what was going on, running on pure combat instinct and adrenaline!

As Aaron aimed a deadly strike his way, his mind worked like lightning!

He raised his shield and shouted, “Kozinski! Present arms!”

The blade stopped just half an inch from the captain’s eye!

Despite how exhausted he was, Aaron responded to the voice of proper authority. He clearly obeyed without thought, presenting his weapons as though on parade and his posture became perfectly straight. Even now, his form was picture-perfect. The scene was rather spoiled by the fact that the man, his armor and his weapons were all covered in blood, dirt and sand, the reek of death and sweat wafting from him.

One of the men behind the captain commented, “He is human?”

The source of this comment was quickly shushed and smacked.

The captain stood, brushed himself off and ordered, “Stand at ease, Mr. Kozinski!”

Aaron finally snapped out of it, looking around himself as though he’d lost track of where he was and what was going on. He lost his balance and started to fall to one side.

The captain rushed forward, catching him, “I’ve got you. You’re safe.”

Aaron was already unconscious.

Aaron woke to the magnificent sound and smell of sizzling bacon. His stomach rumbled, the most emotional response any of the guards had ever seen from the man.

The sun was directly over the canyon, noon being the only time of day that allowed direct light. They were in the small side canyon in which Aaron had made his stand, but the guards had moved the bodies downwind, to improve the smell of the area.

Without a word, he was quickly fed strip after strip of bacon, then some cheese and finally about half a loaf of bread. This was interspersed with several long pulls from a water skin.

With his hunger satisfied, he asked, “How long was I out?”

“Eighteen hours.” The captain said with some concern, “How long were you fighting before we showed up?”

“They came at me in the dark, hit and run. I fought them at choke points. When I got here, I knew I could hold the line. They kept at it for at least six hours after that, rotating so each could rest. Thanks for the help. Any of them left?”

“Not that we can tell. We’ve been vigilant.”

Aaron looked himself over. His armor had been removed and cleaned. He was bandaged in a few places where the joints of the armor allowed weapons to graze him, but on the whole, he was in better shape than the guards, one of which was dealing with a nasty stab wound in his leg.

Aaron stood, walked over to the man with the stab wound and took a good look. He wouldn’t be walking any time soon, but he knew a few things that would prevent the inevitable infection. He soon found his pack and pulled out some first-aid supplies and a small bottle of brandy.

Thinking it was for him to drink, the guard held out a hand for the bottle.

First cleaning a needle and thread with the alcohol, Aaron said, “This is going to hurt.”

He poured some of it into the wound. The guard cried out in pain as Aaron worked to sew the wound shut. When he was done, he applied a fresh bandage.

He handed the bottle to the man and advised, “Clean it with this, daily. It’s not for drinking.”

The captain wondered aloud, “Where did you learn to do that?”

As Aaron sat down to rest for a bit more, he replied, “Had a really good sawbones in my regiment, once. Said the best way to save a wounded limb was to keep things clean. Said brandy was about the best thing for cleaning a wound with. After I saw him save a few good men from losing a limb, I had him train all my men.”

“What regiment?”

Aaron shook his head, “Just look at my armor.”

The captain examined the armor closely and recognized the marks of a royal guardsman. He felt extremely foolish for not having realized it sooner, but the last time he’d paid attention to the armor, it had been soaked in blood.

Turning back to Aaron, he demanded, “Why in the world were you serving as a gate guard?”

Aaron sighed, “Man’s gotta eat.”

“True, but why aren’t you doing something more important?”

Aaron redirected, “Why aren’t you? You’re good at your job and you care for your men. You could be in my old regiment if you wanted.”

“I didn’t think the king would hire a commoner for his personal regiment.”

Aaron nodded, “Used to be the case, yes, but not in recent years. When we get back, I’ll write you a letter. You can take it to the king’s steward.”

The captain was so dumbfounded, he’d forgot his question, just as Aaron intended.

After another day of rest, the group headed back the way they’d come, with Aaron in the lead. Vultures were all over the canyon as they walked, working overtime to clean up the mess.

Lady Bellany finished, “After that, the Ashen Blades were no more and Hallyson’s Pass was renamed Ash-Blood Pass. Personally, I consider the new name to be remarkably poor taste, but it was quite some time before the bones washed out completely.

“It wasn’t long before my guard captain was invited to join the king’s regiment. Seems Aaron took a liking to the man and recommended him to the king. I wholeheartedly agreed with that assessment, but was sad to lose such a capable captain.”

Lord Scaplin sighed, “The more questions I ask about Aaron Kozinski, the more I learn of his impeccable character, but no one seems to know what motivates him.”

“Why does it matter to you so much? Isn’t it enough to know you can trust him?”

“How can I trust a man that refuses to tell me why he works for peanuts at the lowliest job he can find? I need to know!”

The Lady smiled and chuckled a little, “Don’t let it bother you. The king himself vouched for his character, as you well know. Just be grateful you’ve got him.”

He sighed again, “You’re right, of course. You’re absolutely right.”

Chapter 5
Noble Demand

The meeting came to a close and he headed home, resolving to take her advice. As his coach passed through the front gate, with Aaron at his post in his usual motionless pose, the puzzle began to nag him again. He couldn’t just let it lie.

Once the coach was parked, he stepped out and headed straight to the gate.

Aaron saluted.

Lord Scaplin demanded, quite flustered, “Why? Why are you content to work as a gate guard?”

Aaron gave his usual response, “It feeds me and pays my rent, sir.”

“I don’t believe you! You could be doing something important! Why this, in particular?”

Aaron shrugged, “Why not?”

Lord Scaplin stared hard at the man for close to two minutes and a new approach occurred to him, “I order you to tell me the truth about why you’re working as a gate guard!”

Aaron’s normally expressionless face twisted into a wince, as if he’d been slapped. He didn’t respond for a long moment.

Lord Scaplin demanded, “Well? What have you to say for yourself?”

Aaron’s face returned to normal, “I refuse to answer. Sir, I’m afraid that I must inform you of my intention to resign.”

More quietly and calmly, Lord Scaplin asked, “On what grounds?”

“Invasion of my privacy, sir.”

Lord Scaplin’s jaw dropped, but he soon closed it, “I apologize and I understand.”

With a final salute, Aaron left his post and heading for the guard captain’s office, to turn in his uniform and equipment.

Lord Scaplin felt extremely foolish for his actions, but in a strange way, also relieved. The puzzle of Aaron Kozinski was no longer his problem. Before Aaron left, he gave him a letter of recommendation to add to his collection, for he truly had great respect for the man. No previous guard had behaved so well during long hours at their post.

Tale 3

Chapter 1
Gainful Employment

As Aaron walked home that day, he was approached by a small man dressed in fine clothes. He had naturally curled brown hair.

“Good afternoon!” The young man called to him.

Aaron nodded.

“Since you’re walking the street instead of guarding Lord Scaplin’s front gate, would I be right in guessing you’ve quit left his employ?”

Aaron nodded, “Yes.”

“Are you looking for a new gate to guard?”

“I suppose.”

“Why don’t you guard my front door? I’ve heard nothing but good things about you! I’ve been green with envy that Lord Scaplin managed to hire you!”

“I’ll consider it. Your name, please?”

The man bowed, “Marcus Rawlings. I run a very exclusive gentleman’s club and could use a good man for the door.”

Aaron talked it over with him, listening for any downside. The pay was good, he’d be doing some reasonably important work, protecting the club’s clients, mostly nobles, and most important of all, his responsibility was simply to guard the door.

“I’ll take the job.” Aaron informed his new employer, who eagerly led him away, to see the door he would be guarding.

Chapter 2
The Would-Be Kidnapper

The priestess leaned over a man lying on his belly, as she changed a bandage on a his back. The wound was from a particularly nasty scythe accident and had left him unable to work, due to both the injury and the resulting fever. The infection was gone and the wound was finally healing nicely. She was grateful she wouldn’t have to call on the doctor again. There would still be some pretty bad scarring, but he was out of the woods, after months of care.

She stood, straightened her spine and declared, “I’m done for today. You’re healing well, I’m glad to say. Get some more rest.”

He thanked her.

She stepped out of the sick room where she cared for those with no one else to care for them. The main hall of the modest temple was small, with just a few pews for services.

She reflected on the king’s change of heart so many years before, when she’d chastised him for his greed. Within a few years he actually came to her, in person, to thank her. It was incredible to see the growth in the man as he looked to his people’s needs and did his best to care for them, in an almost fatherly fashion, treating his people as though they were the child he’d lost.

Eventually, the king offered to fund the construction of a grand temple. The priestess thanked him, asked for just enough to build a small temple and insisted he use the rest of the money to serve the poor.

It was a happy day for the kingdom when he remarried. The priestess had officiated, in the very temple she was stood in.

She rubbed her aching back. Stooping so long to take care of that man on a daily basis was beginning to give her trouble with her own body. Still, she didn’t want to complain; others had it worse.

She crossed the hall and entered her private quarters. There was a full-size standing mirror there, a gift from the king. She glanced at her reflection briefly. She was getting older, her blonde hair beginning to lose all color. She still wore it short, though. Long hair was a bother when she was working, so she’d always kept it short.

Her plain, white robe was one of the simple, practical ones she always wore while working. It was both something to wear and a source of emergency bandages. She wore an extra-long one just for that reason. She had better robes, but they were for ceremonial occasions and she didn’t like wearing them, anyway.

She mused to herself that she needed an apprentice, to take her place when she died, but she figured there was plenty of time for that to be arranged.

Just as she was about to sit down and read a book on medicinal herbs, the outer doors of the temple opened.

Someone cried out, “Sister! We need you!”

She could hear the fear pouring out of the young woman’s voice.

“What is it?” The priestess shouted as she quickly made her way back into the hall!

“Strangers in the village, stealing children!”

The priestess ran down the hall and accelerated past the upset young woman! The two of them raced to the village as fast as possible!

Unfortunately, the priestess had to stop for a breather, halfway there. In retrospect, she wished she’d accepted the king’s offer of a horse and stable for the temple. At the time, she’d been a bit younger and with no aches in her back. Now, it seemed a reasonable suggestion.

When they arrived, she found a group of masked men beating one of the village men! Behind them was a cart full of children from the village!

She rushed forward, diving in the path of a kick, aiming to take the blow in the crotch! The attacker fell back, clutching his family jewels in pain!

The priestess grimaced, but got to her feet, standing between the man and his attackers.

One of them swung a mace at her and she put her face in its path. The mace-wielder fell back with a badly-bleeding shattered nose!

Next was a short sword, jabbed in her direction! She blocked with her bare hand, leaving the man bleeding from his sword hand!

She stood her ground and shrugged off the momentary pain of their wounds. Having seen three men attack her, only to injure themselves, the others gave her a wide berth.

“Just what in the world is going on here?” She demanded.

One of the men at the back of the cart, not having seen the commotion, raised a crossbow and fired. The priestess was hit in the gut, but the bolt simply bounced off. The crossbow wielder dropped his weapon and screamed in pain!

She dropped to her knees, having failed to notice the man fire. When she recovered, she got back on her feet and slapped her way through the crowd of kidnappers toward the cart! As each of them attacked, they fell back, suffering the wounds they would have inflicted on her! She barely twitched with the pain of each strike.

She pushed several of the masked men aside and shouted to the children, “Get back to your parents! I’ll keep them busy!”

The children leaped from the cart and bolted in all directions as soon as they were safely away! The priestess smiled in grim satisfaction.

She ran into the group of kidnappers, wildly kicking, punching and screaming defiance! The masked men were soon a mass of confusion and chaos! They tried to stop her, but to no avail!

The distraction was complete. Armed villagers began showing up on the edges of the scene, carrying scythes, sickles, pitchforks and other tools that could easily be used as weapons.

When she finally stopped fighting and stepped out of the melee, they were surrounded by angry villagers!

“Thank you, sister.” The mayor said as she stepped beside him.

The kidnappers were soon rounded up and their wounds tended. They were herded, at the point of farm implements, to a barn that would serve as a make-shift prison for the day or two it would take to get some law-men to take them away. The mask was pulled from each as their hands were bound.

However, just before he was disarmed and unmasked, one of the men managed to slip away, running much faster than anyone could follow! As the men of the village tried to tackle him, he stabbed two of them with the pair of matched daggers he wielded!

The priestess watched as he crested a small hill and looked back, straight at her. He removed his mask, giving everyone a good look at his features. He was young, with naturally curly brown hair.

Without taking his eyes off her, he bowed as a taunt and then ran. When the men following him reached the top of the hill, he was long gone. Beyond the hill was a thick forest, where it would be easy to escape. The men searched until late evening, but to no avail.

After everything was over, the priestess held a meeting, where everyone shared what they could remember of what the man looked like. By the end of the day, she had two copies of a good drawing of the man.

Questioning revealed the men were mercenaries and the man that escaped was their employer. None knew why the man wanted a wagon full of children.

When the law men came, one copy of the drawing was given to them, but the priestess knew that would do no good. It was rare for such an incident to result in an arrest, unless they were caught red-handed. There just weren’t enough law men to go around.

Chapter 3
Bar Breaker

It had been years since the priestess entered the royal city. The last visit had been to meet and bless the royal couple’s first-born.

She didn’t like the city. It was too big, but these days there were other priests of her religion to look after the larger flock. She preferred her small, rural flock, where it was still possible to learn and remember everyone’s name.

She knew she’d likely be gone for quite some time, so she left her patient in the hands of the women of the village. With any luck, that would lead to the poor man finding a wife.

She started her investigation by visiting a local law man, one of those that came to the village for the mercenaries, gaining a promise to hold the suspect for an inquiry if she brought him in and an apology that he couldn’t do more. After a long discussion of where to begin her search for the ring-leader, she made her way to the seedier section of the city. She showed the drawing to the ruffians on the street, with little success.

Around mid-afternoon on the third day, a huge man, just shy of seven feet tall, carrying a rather large club, approached her and declared, loudly, “You the lady been askin’ ‘bout the boss? He be angry you askin’!”

She grinned, “Maybe I am, maybe I’m not.” She held up the drawing and asked, “Is this the boss?”

The brute squinted at the drawing and stupidly smiled, “Yeah, dat’s him!”

“Thank you.” She laughed in his face, “Where can I find him?”

The brute looked confused for a moment as he took the time to perform, what was for him, the very difficult task of thinking.

He arrived at a shaky conclusion, “Hey! You trick me!”

The brute’s club was swung overhead, in both hands! She calmly reached up and blocked the incredible blow with her right forearm. She felt the pain of the break as she heard the brute’s bones crack!

He roared in pain, his badly-damaged arm dropping to his side, parts of it moving at unnatural angles. He still held the club in the other hand and raised it for another strike!

Not wishing to see the man lose the use of his other arm, she dodged and shouted, “Do you want another broken arm?”

It did no good as the man screamed in blind rage and attacked again. She blocked with the other arm, wincing from the pain as she saw the man’s arm collapse! The club tumbled away, rolling into the gutter.

There were a number of people on the street that took notice of the biggest bully around, seemingly beaten by a small woman. Two dirty street children, a boy and a girl, picked up the club and ran away down an alley. She wasn’t sure of the significance of this, but her attention was focused on the man before her, who wouldn’t even be able to feed himself.

He dropped to the pavement, wailing like an extremely large, injured toddler!

She knelt beside him and put a hand on his shoulder. She willed most of the pain into herself, leaving just enough that the foolish man wouldn’t hurt himself further.

She spoke soothing words and helped him to stand, keeping a hand on him at all times, to take the pain.

From one of the astonished on-lookers, she demanded, “Where’s the nearest doctor?”

At this point, she realized everyone on the street was staring. Several of them pointed just down the street, where there was actually a small, wooden sign of a saw crossed over a bone. She’d never actually seen a doctor advertise themselves as a sawbones. That was usually an insult laid on them by others.

She walked the blubbering man into the clinic.

Someone male screamed, “Bar Breaker, you know you’re not welcome here!”

The priestess moved around to the front of the large man and explained as she maneuvered him to an open bed, “I’m sorry. You just happened to be the nearest doctor and this foolish man just broke both his arms attacking me.”

She finally got a good look at the doctor and the room.

He was middle-aged, his hair starting to gray and wearing a short-sleeved white shirt, a black tie and a black apron. He looked more like a mortician than a doctor.

The room had four sick beds and a small desk at the back. Behind the desk was a small surgical room beyond an archway and a set of stairs that probably led to the doctor’s bedroom. There was a very chemical smell in the room.

He sighed, “Very well. Will someone be paying for his treatment or is this supposed to be free?”

With her other hand, the priestess removed a few gold from her coin-purse and tossed them to the man, “Will that do for a start?”

He grumbled a bit, but got to work, setting and splinting the huge man’s broken forearms; one gold would have been far more than required, but she’d been impatient and wanted the doctor to stop complaining.

As he worked, the doctor volunteered, “Everyone around here calls me Doc, but I’d prefer to be called Dr. Petrov.”

She shrugged, “I’m afraid I gave up my name in the service of my god, long ago. You can call me ‘sister’, but it’s more an honorific than a name.”

With a hint of recognition in his eyes and a glance at the way she was keeping a hand on Bar Breaker, he commented, “You’re one of those empathy priests, aren’t you?”

She nodded, “The fool hit me with a club, twice. That wasn’t a wise thing to do. Could have been worse, though. Someone tried to cut my head off, once.”

The doctor blanched, “Those who don’t learn from their mistakes sometimes don’t get the chance to repeat them.”

As Dr. Petrov completed his work, he injected the large man and then said, “You can let go in a moment. He’ll be out for hours. When he comes to, I’ll give him something for the pain.”

Within a minute, the huge man was snoring quite loudly, sounding something like an industrial accident in progress. The doctor lifted his patient’s head, turned it to one side and tucked a pillow under it, somewhat reducing the volume of the snore.

He headed toward his desk, gestured for her to sit in one of the chairs in front of it and sat down behind it. As she tried to get comfortable on the worn-out seat, he handed back the coins she’d given him.

He answered her quizzical expression by explaining, “I’ve thought it over. Keep your money. It’s more than worth it to see Bar Breaker off the street for a while, since he causes so many injuries.”

She nodded, “Hopefully, he’ll learn something from this.”

“Probably not,” he chuckled, “but at least he won’t be hurting anyone for a few months. So, what brings you to our little slice of heaven?”

She produced the now-battered drawing of the man she was searching for from a pocket and smoothed it out on the desk, “I’m looking for this man. Bar Breaker called him ‘the boss.’ He hired mercenaries to kidnap children from my village.”

The doctor looked the picture over and scratched his stubbly chin, “I know I’ve seen him around, but I can’t quite place where.”

She sighed, “I was hoping to question our large friend, but I’m not sure he would be willing to help. He attacked when I asked where I could find the man.”

The doctor smiled, “People around here aren’t usually helpful to outsiders, even if they could be, but I think everyone on the street knows you just took down Bar Breaker. He’s feared on the streets as a malicious thug for hire. There should be more than enough good-will for you out there. Try asking again.”

She nodded as she rose and shook his hand, “Thank you.”

Unfortunately, she had no luck the rest of that day, but she did notice that most of the people she met smiled at her and now greeted her warmly, while the ruffians on the street shied away, fearfully.

Chapter 4
A Lovely Meeting

As the priestess walked the streets the next day, she saw a pair of dirty children, a boy and a girl. She recognized them as the pair that ran off with Bar Breaker’s club. They were lurking at the edge of an alley.

“Hey! Lady!” The girl called out, smiling.

She made her way over and asked, “Yes?”

The pair were not more than twelve years old and looked about the same age. They shared the same shade of black hair and had more than a passing resemblance, causing her to guess they were twins. They wore rags that barely qualified as clothes.

“You’re looking for somebody, right?” The girl asked.

She nodded, “Yes, I am.”

She showed them the drawing and the girl shrugged, “I don’t know him, but I know someone that should.”


The boy sighed, “Follow me. Our boss seemed pretty happy about what you did to Bar Breaker, so I think he’ll help you find that guy.”

The pair led her down a fairly direct route that passed through various streets, alleys and briefly, the back of a blacksmith’s shop, eventually arriving at a decrepit warehouse that seemed to be a squatter’s camp.

There was a man there, sitting on a wooden crate. His head was shaved and he bore a tattoo of an eagle on his scalp, with the wings coming down the sides of his head, just like sideburns, with the beak coming to a point on his forehead. The eagle’s eyes seemed to meet a person’s gaze, regardless of the angle. If the man grew his hair out, it looked like the whole thing would vanish into it.

As he looked up, he asked, “Would you be the woman that took down Bar Breaker?”

She shrugged, “I suppose I am.”

He grinned wide, revealing a number of gold teeth, “You have my thanks. You still looking for his boss?”

“He tried to kidnap some children from my village. I plan to bring him to justice.” She explained.

He grinned evilly, “Then that makes us friends!”

“How do you figure?”

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend!” He laughed, “He’s been a thorn in my side for the past ten years. I’d love to see him at the gallows!”

“Where can I find him?”

He pulled a small scrap of grubby paper from a pocket, tore off an unused section wrote on it with a piece of charcoal and handed it over, “He frequents a gentleman’s club at that address. Good hunting!”

She bowed, thanked him and headed back to the inn she was staying in, where she had a map of the city, since she didn’t recognize the name of the street.

When the priestess was long gone, the man stopped grinning and said to the children, “Why do you think Marcus wanted us to send her straight to him? We could have sent her somewhere dangerous.”

The boy sighed, “Marcus has a mind like a bag full of angry cats.”

“It’s probably a trap.” The girl sported a wicked-looking grin of mischief.

“He hired Bar Breaker to warn her off,” the man shrugged, “but also hired us to send her straight there. Makes no sense.”

“Is it any of our business?” The boy sighed again, “He paid us to do a job and we’ve done it. Can we get out of these awful clothes, now? They itch.”

“You’re right, of course. Let’s head home. I’ll have the servants draw you a nice, hot bath.”

The priestess approached the club, named Rawlings’, after its owner. It was in one of the better neighborhoods, where all the houses had guards. The building was red brick, with only very small windows on the ground floor, about the same size as arrow slits on a castle. There was a pair of double doors at the front, with a single guard on duty, standing perfectly still, staring into space.

After half an hour of surreptitiously skulking around the building, she discovered it once had a back entrance, but that was now blocked with new bricks.

She watched the entrance for some time. Male nobles entered and exited, as well as some servants, both male and female. It looked like the only way a woman was allowed in was as a servant.

She decided to try the direct approach. She walked straight up to the door, using the confidence that comes of being practically untouchable.

As she came near the door, the guard, Aaron Kozinski, stepped neatly in her path, blocking the way.

“Excuse me, young man, but I need to go in there.” She spoke boldly.

Aaron finally looked her in the eye, “You don’t work here and you’re not a gentleman, so you’re definitely not a member.”

She backed away, out of his personal space, and pulled out the drawing of the man she was looking for, “I need to find this man. I’m told he frequents this club. Is he inside?”

Without even looking at the drawing, Aaron shrugged, “Couldn’t tell you.”

“Can’t or won’t?” She demanded.


“Why not?”

“I protect the club’s clients. That includes their privacy.”

The priestess took a better look at the man. He was wearing chain mail and a black and white striped tabard with the club’s symbol on it, a pair of crossed, black daggers. He also wore plate gauntlets and a pair of heavy, plate boots. His helmet covered the top of his head and had a nose guard, but left most of his face and neck exposed. He held a round shield with the club’s symbol and wore a sheathed sword on his belt.

With a brief flick of his eyes, Aaron assessed the threat the priestess posed. She carried no weapons, but he recognized her robes. She was an empath-priest. That would make it tricky to stop her, but not impossible.

She tried a new approach, not wanting to fight, “The man I’m looking for tried to kidnap children from my village. I want to bring him to justice.”

“Have you any proof?”

“My own word and the word of many of my village, as eye-witnesses.”

“I’m just supposed to take your word for it?” The guard spoke without a hint of emotion.

She tried several more arguments, but each was defeated by Aaron, who was using impeccable, cold logic. She argued more heatedly. It was then that a window on an upper floor was opened, making a loud squeak as the old hinge was forced to work for the first time in years.

She looked up as a head poked out the window to look down at the both of them. It was the man she was looking for! He even winked at her! She was so shocked that she didn’t say or do anything.

With a smug grin on his face, he called out, “Aaron, you having trouble with her? Do you need some backup?”

Aaron called back, “No trouble, sir.”

“Carry on, then!”

The man disappeared back inside, accompanied by distant laughter, and the squeaky hinge was forced to work in reverse.

The priestess finally recovered from the shock of seeing the man, pointed at the window and shouted, “That was him!”

Aaron remained silent. She still hadn’t given him any proof.

She backed away, getting ready to charge. Seeing this, he drew his sword. He didn’t want to hurt her, but it was better to be ready for anything.

She ran straight at him! Aaron braced for the impact and made no hostile move. He brought his shield up at the last moment, putting it right in the path of her face! He angled his sword in the same instant to cut into her leg, careful to be certain the force of her impact was what damaged her. If she was going to attack, then he was going to make it hurt. The crunch of her nose breaking and the clang of her skull on his shield echoed around the street! Blood poured from her leg around a fresh hole in her robe, staining it!

Her momentum pushed her upward, over the shield, as her feet came off the pavement! Aaron shoved her away, leaving her sprawled on the ground. With his back already against the doors, the reverse force wasn’t enough to knock him down.

She groaned for a moment and slowly got into a sitting position. She looked confused and probably had a concussion. She tore a bit of cloth from the hem of her robe and bandaged her leg. She tore another strip free to press to her nose.

Aaron assumed his usual stance, staring straight ahead. He didn’t move to his usual position at the side of the door, though. He cleaned his sword with a cloth from his pocket and then sheathed it. He also wiped the blood off his shield.

After half an hour, the bleeding from the priestess’ nose finally stopped and she got to her feet. She eyed her opponent. He was a smart one and if she was to get past him, she needed to learn more about him.

She limped forward, got right in his face and demanded, “Why are you protecting him?”

“Why not? I’ve no proof he did anything.”

She flailed at the man with no force, simply trying to make skin-to-skin contact. It wasn’t an easy thing to do, since only his face and neck were available. He blocked most of her strikes, but she managed to touch his cheek with a single finger!

Chapter 5
The Price of Empathy

Aaron held his dead wife. Hours passed and it was well into the night. The last vestiges of the fire were out.

The peasants tried to get him to let her go several times, but he snarled at them like an animal! Eventually, one of his lieutenants came to see him, but had no success in reaching him. Finally, at nearly dawn, the king arrived.

The king spoke firmly, as though giving a command, “Aaron, put her down!” More calmly, he continued, “Let her go. She’s already gone.”

Aaron trembled, clearly in conflict. He stopped trembling and put down his wife. He looked at the king, a mixture of impotent rage and duty on his face.

The king, quite unexpected, moved to the man and embraced him, “I’m sorry. You should have been here. You should have been home.”

Aaron went limp in his king’s arms, sobbing like a child.

The mixture of conflicted grief, anger and duty hit the priestess like an exploding mountain! The force of it was the single worst thing she’d experienced in all her years as a priestess. The power of it knocked her flat on her back!

Riding on the tail of it was a powerful wave of mind-numbing apathy.

Beyond that was duty, filling the man’s mind from one mental horizon to the other. As the duty filled every nook and cranny, a fresh wave of apathy washed over it and the two layered together, almost as one, single emotion. His duty was, miraculously, being fed by his apathy. His apathy was, in turn, feeding on his duty.

There were no vulnerabilities in that armor, no chinks. The man would never budge, would never falter, would never give up. Never again would he love. Neither would he hate. All he cared for was duty. All he lived for was duty. He would die before he surrendered, but he would never break.

The priestess was paralyzed by the emotions rushing through her mind! Never before had she touched such feelings. It was a long moment before she realized the man’s feelings were so powerful, she’d lost herself in them!

As she applied her training and focused her mind, the intensity of the experience reduced, slowly. She got to her feet, very unsteadily. She eyed the man in fear; she’d rather feel the pain of another severed head, than ever touch the man again! He was living in what others would consider the worst kind of torture, a personal, living hell, and he preferred it that way!

Aaron looked down at the stricken woman and said, “Ma’am, please don’t touch me.”

Trembling with shock, she limped away, having decided to cut her losses, for the time being. She needed medical attention, time to consider and a much better plan of attack.

Aaron returned to his post.

Mr. Orlov, more commonly known as Eagle, the man with the tattooed scalp, watched the scene with interest. He also eyed Marcus the same way. The other members of the club, all gathered around the windows, simply thought the spectacle a sort of rare entertainment.

When the woman was gone, he asked, “Why bring her here?”

Marcus grinned, “I owe a debt to someone.”

“Who?” Eagle asked.

“My guard, down there.”

Eagle’s only response was a quizzical expression.

Marcus elaborated, “Ever hear of the Ashen Blades?”

“Assassin clan that got wiped out by some gate guard, right?” Eagle nodded.

“He’s the guard.”

“And your stake in this?”

“I’m the last of the Ashen Blades.” Marcus whispered, all mirth gone from his face, “I want him to suffer.”

“You think that priestess can manage that?”

Marcus grinned evilly, “I’m counting on it.”

The priestess limped into the clinic a few hours later. Bar Breaker was sitting on his sick bed, trying to find a way to hold a spoon without pain, with both arms in a splint. There was a bowl of soup in front of him on a rolling tray.

Dr. Petrov rushed to her side and helped her to one of the beds.

After examined her leg, he asked, “What happened to you? Looks like someone stabbed you, but I can’t believe that’s possible.”

She grunted as he poured a stinging liquid on the wound that smelled of brandy and began stitching.

Her voice sounded a bit odd, due to the broken nose, “Indirect force. I charged. Blocked me. Sword, shield.”

“I guess that explains your nose, too. Sounds like the man knows your limits.”

She nodded.

He finished stitching her up and then instructed, “Let me see that nose.”

He spent a few minutes examining her and then brought her a cold, wet cloth to hold to it.

As she sat and held the cloth to her swollen nose, he asked, “Who did this to you?”

She muttered, “Guard. Rawlings’.”

“Ah! That’s why I knew the face of the man in your picture. He’s Marcus Rawlings. He owns a gentleman’s club.”

“Who’s the guard?” She asked.

“Aaron Kozinski. I know him from my days in the king’s regiment, as their medic. Taught his men how to keep their limbs after serious injuries.”

“More, please.” She grunted.

He sighed and shook his head, “Aaron’s story is quite tragic. I don’t know the details, though. The king or one of his men could tell you, if you happen to know one of them well.”

The priestess smiled, nodded and then let someone take care of her for once, instead of the other way around.

Chapter 6
The Undelivered Letter

Three days later, the priestess paid a visit to the king, who was overjoyed to see her.

“Sister! It’s so good to see you!”

The throne room was different. There were fewer expensive decorations about and, based on the long table, the room was now a sort of meeting hall. There was a group of nobles working with city planners at the table, a set of maps spread out and being argued over.

The king gestured her toward a side chamber and followed her in. It was a small sitting room, for smaller meetings. The queen was already in the room, examining some papers with an irritated expression on her face. When she looked up and saw the priestess, she smiled broadly and greeted her warmly.

Once they were all seated and pleasantries out of the way, the king asked, “What brings you to us?”

She told them the complete story of how she’d met the guard now serving the gentleman’s club as a bouncer, including his name.

The king’s face clouded with grief, “The man I failed.”

The queen held her husband’s arm, to comfort him, as he told the man’s story from start to finish, even including some details of his life since leaving the king’s regiment.

When he got to the story of the man losing his family, the priestess muttered, “That explains the grief, duty and apathy, all at once.”

The king expressed his own grief, “I should have left my regiment in place. I shouldn’t have sent him away from the city. It’s my fault his family is gone!”

The priestess shook her head, “No, my king. It isn’t. You made the best decision you could have. The other regiments were too far away. Yes, it cost a man his family, but you saved many more families. The blame lies on the shoulders of the arsonist.”

The queen smiled and silently mouthed, “Thank you.”

After a long pause to digest her words, the king asked, “Would you like royal assistance? I’d be happy to loan you a few of my best men.”

She considered, “No. Our friendship is too well known and this is likely to get messy in the end. I don’t want to drag you into it.”

He nodded, “Very well.”

“Do you know the man’s heart?”

“No.” The king’s eyes became watery as he admitted, “He wouldn’t explain why he resigned. I think he felt he couldn’t explain without offending me. My guess is he blames me for the loss of his wife.”

She nodded, “You may be right about that. His heart was in conflict, at the time. His grief and his duty couldn’t be reconciled. Now, his heart dwells in a place filled with a mixture of apathy and duty. To him, they’re now one and the same. He feels nothing else. I’ve never touched such feelings before.” She shuddered, “I hope never to do so again.”

“What can I do to help?”

“I need to reach him, to find or make a crack in his emotional armor. Please, tell me about his wife and daughter.”

With a sniff to force back some tears, the queen spoke, “His wife’s name was Kassandra. She had a warm and gentle nature. Very loving and devoted to her husband. It was wonderful to see the way his eyes lit up every time he saw her. She was a good friend and I dearly miss her.”

The king smiled at the memory and cried at the loss, “Their daughter’s name was Sasha. She was a toddler at the time, always happy, like I remember her mother. She loved her father and was always excited to see him when he came home.”

The priestess asked, “Do you think his wife would approve of the way he’s living his life?”

“No.” The queen shook her head, “I know that for a fact.”

“How do you know?”

“She once gave me a letter to give to him, in the case of her death, but I haven’t seen him since. I planned to give it to him the next time he came to the castle. At the time, I thought he was simply taking time to grieve. It was several weeks before I asked and was told he’d resigned. He felt so strongly about resigning that I didn’t want to cause him more pain, by reminding him of his loss. I think that was an error in judgment, now.”

The priestess asked, “May I have the letter?”

“Yes, of course.” The queen nodded and excused herself, to retrieve it.

The king spoke, “I just want Aaron to be happy. I think you may have a good chance of moving him in the right direction. You’re the first to know his feelings since the loss of his wife. Please, try to help him.

“I don’t know if it will do you any good or not, but I’ll write a letter for you to take to Aaron, to vouch for your character.”

The king took a few minutes to write the letter and sealed it with wax and his signet ring.

Within a few minutes, the queen was back, with the letter from Aaron’s wife.

The priestess thanked them and departed.

After another three days to heal, she approached the club, still limping slightly. Aaron was at his post, beside the door.

She stepped in front of him, “I’ve spoken with the king and queen about you.”

She handed him the letter from the king, which he opened and read. With that complete, he stuffed it into his tunic, under his chain mail, showing no sign of emotion.

“The queen gave me a letter Kassandra wrote for you before she died.”

Aaron flinched, ever so slightly, at the sound of his wife’s name. She pulled it out.

“I’m going to read it to you.” She said and then began.

To my dearest husband, Aaron,

If you’re reading this, then I’ve died, probably unexpectedly.

Initially, I thought the idea of this letter morbid and disturbing, but as I’ve watched you go out each day, to patrol the city, I’ve worried you would never return, as you often come home injured after fighting with criminals in the street. After some time with these thoughts, I began instead, to worry what would happen if I died.

I know how much you love me and I love you for that! You care for me so deeply, I cry happy tears, daily. I miss you each day as you work.

I know you, husband. I know your heart and I know that each of us is the foundation for the other. I worry what may become of you, in my absence.

You must go on without me. I don’t like to think of sharing you in the hereafter, but I know that you’ll never be happy without a woman at your side. When you’ve mourned me, in your own due time, please go out and find someone new. Find someone that makes you happy, someone that knows your heart.

Know, my husband, that this will make me happy, to know that you’re being taken care of by someone that loves you.

Our daughter and I are nearly always together. If by some chance we both died, I say this is even more important. You must do as I say in this.

As your wife, I beg you to obey me, without question, just this once.

Aaron was trembling. He held out his hand for the letter. He took it and read it for himself, quietly. He examined the signature. He knew the delicate loops on the letter ‘a’ and the sharp corners on the ‘K’. It was real.

Tears streaked down his cheeks. He slipped the letter into his tunic, alongside the one from the king.

He looked the priestess in the eye, “Thank you.”

Steeling herself for the worst, she took his unresisting hand in her own. Gratitude washed through her, mixed with both fresh and old grief. Beyond this was remorse and a great sense of lost time. The apathy was gone, but the duty remained. He was suffering, for now, but hopeful for the future.

The priestess returned his steady gaze and for the first time since she was a child, spoke her name aloud, “My name is Alena. I know your need and I will forsake my calling to fill it. I can’t ignore your pain, because to do so would also mean forsaking my calling.”

Alena felt her empathic ability leave her, knowing full well she would never feel it again.

She heard the voice of her god, in her mind, for the first and last time: Congratulations on a good choice. She’d always suspected her god was female, but hadn’t known it until she heard the voice.

Aaron smiled, dropped his shield and hugged her, crying on her shoulder for quite a long time, letting out every last trapped emotion, for the first time in years.

When the sobbing stopped, she whispered, softly, “Aaron, what is your duty?”

He straightened up and stared into space. He pulled out the letter from the king and re-read it.

“The king vouches for you and says that if you’re on this quest, then it is just. There is no higher compliment in this kingdom. By the king’s word and your own, Marcus Rawlings will face justice. My duty is to see that done.”

Picking up his shield, he opened the door and marched inside.

Eagle watched with great amusement as the guard marched up the stairs.

Marcus screamed, “What are you doing, Aaron? You should be on duty, by the door!”

Aaron paused at the threshold of the room and declared, “The king has personally vouched for the woman waiting outside. By that, alone, I am compelled to believe her words. I’m taking you into custody, so justice can be done.”

Marcus drew a pair of daggers from hidden sheaths on each arm, cursing at Aaron.

The men in the club moved away from Marcus. Aaron stepped away from the stairs and allowed them to exit, leaving only the three of them.

Eagle noisily bit into an apple, grinning like the cat that ate the canary.

Marcus turned his head to the man and demanded, “Do something, man! I’ll pay you whatever you want!”

Eagle smiled, “What, and ruin the best entertainment I’ve had all year?”

He nodded to Aaron and bit into the apple again.

Aaron approached Marcus, ready for anything.

Marcus stepped forward and thrust with both daggers at different angles! Aaron caught the one on the left with his shield, forcing it out too wide to do any harm, while angling his sword for a skilled parry and attack combination that brought the edge of his sword sliding around the dagger’s guard and into Marcus’ hand!

Marcus dropped the dagger, bleeding.

He tried again, aiming his remaining weapon for one of Aaron’s eyes. Aaron parried with his sword and swung his shield at high speed, slamming it into the man’s head. There was a resounding clang that echoed through the building and the man dropped to the floor, unconscious!

Aaron cleaned his sword on Marcus’ clothes and sheathed it. He easily hefted the man over one shoulder and carried him outside.

Alena led the way, taking them to the law man’s office. When Marcus was safely behind bars, a comparison was made to the drawing and everyone agreed, he was the man. Alena sent for Dr. Petrov; it wouldn’t do to let the prisoner die before he could face judgment, after all.

Chapter 7
Sweet Surrender

The next year brought a fresh, new spring with it. Alena was wearing a beautiful, lace-covered wedding gown, something she thought she’d never wear. It had been lovingly sewn by the women of the village. She was in the main hall of the temple that had once been her home. The room was packed and overflowing; everyone wanted to be there! The queen was seated in the front row, crying and blowing her nose, a smile on her face.

The king marched down the aisle with Alena on his arm, since her own father was long dead. It was an odd image, since the king was younger than her.

Aaron was standing there, at the front, next to the new priest, a content smile on his face. He wore his gleaming regimental armor, having spent the last week carefully polishing each piece to a mirror-shine. Alena was so happy he’d gotten his old job back.

She was also ecstatic she was getting married! Aaron was such a loving man and they were happy together.

They knelt before the priest. They exchanged vows, then rings and were pronounced husband and wife.

They didn’t live happily ever after, but they argued less than average and grew old together. What more could any couple ask for?