The Baron has a visitor

“You will hardly know we are here.”  Lord Holdfast was strutting around the state room as if he owned the place –  My state room, Baron Dumplypump grumbled in his seat at the head of an otherwise empty table.

“But ten thousand men!” he cried, exasperated.  “I have neither the room nor the resources to accommodate –”

Lord Holdfast cut him off with a patronising smirk.  “That has all been taken care of.  We have been commandeering provisions from farms and villages en route and as for the sleeping arrangements, we shall pitch our tents on common land.”

“Then why, prithee, do you need me at all?” Dumplypump blustered, setting his chins awaggle.

“My men need to rest,” Lord Holdfast deigned to perch a slender buttock on the edge of the table, “and your stronghold is ideally situated, being within coo-ee of Fireblast’s territory.  And, since we were passing, I thought the opportunity ripe to pop in and invite you to join us.  What do you say?  Your army joined with mine; Lady Fireblast won’t know what’s hit her!”

The baron performed a good impression of someone mulling it over when, in truth, the idea had already occurred to him.  To join with Holdfast and unite against the scourge of the Eastern Realms!

As always in these situations, it did not pay to appear too keen.

“I think…” he said, as archly as he could, “…that is an excellent idea.  But I do not wish to appear inhospitable.  I shall send casks of ale to your men to bid them welcome.”

“Capital!” Lord Holdfast stood.

“And you shall dine with me this evening, My Lord.”

“You are exceeding generous, Dumplypump.”

“Osterban, please.”

“And I am Terkus.”

The men nodded curtly to each other.  Lord Holdfast clicked his bootheels together and strode out.  Baron Dumplypump let out a girlish giggle.  He rang for Nebbish, his chamberlain.

Having given the servant his orders, the baron slipped into his private chamber.  He drew aside a velvet curtain to reveal a tall looking-glass in an ornate frame.

“My Lady?”

The surface of the mirror seemed to shimmer and a shadowy figure appeared, slender and sinuous and with glowing eyes like emeralds.  Out poured the Baron’s news, his words tumbling over themselves like horses in a stampede.

“Excellent!” said a voice like scraping on the glass.

“And the poison in the ale should be taking effect right about now,” Dumplypump tittered.  “I cannot wait to see Lord Stuckup’s face when he finds himself alone and surrounded by thousands of my men.”

The image in the glass grew as the figure stepped closer.  It took on the shape of Lord Holdfast and an arm reached out and seized what it could find of the baron’s flabby neck.

“Treacherous toad!” Holdfast spat.  The baron choked and spluttered.  Holdfast stepped from the frame and drew his dagger.

“Wait, wait!” Dumplypump cried.  “We can still work together!  We can take that bitch down!”

Holdfast’s nose wrinkled as though the baron had emptied his guts on the flagstones.

“I don’t think so.  You see, this was all a test, my fat, flabby friend; and you failed.  I don’t have ten thousand men; I have barely half a dozen.  Those casks of ale were sent back to your own troops.  A modest bribe to your man Nebbish allowed me access to this room.”

Dumplypump gaped.  “All is lost!” he quailed.  “I’ll get you for this!” he roared as Holdfast shed the cloak that had been his disguise.

“Oh, yes?” Holdfast arched an eyebrow.  “You and whose army?”

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Space Nuptials

Boruba Meinfarb adjusted her veil and gazed at her reflection, now hazy, in the full-length mirror of her dressing room.  To her, the veil seemed redundant, a sentimental throwback to her intended’s heritage on Old Earth, when, in more barbaric times, men would wed their brides unseen.  Ridiculous now to cover her face when Zed Bronco had memorised her features – if the sketches he kept sending her were any proof.  The drawings had helped to win her over, eroding her resolve.  Zed Bronco was many things but he was also loyal and his affections unwavering.  And good-looking to boot!

A comms link booped.

“Ready for you, Miz Meinfarb,” intoned the voice of the robo-minister.

“Right.”

This is it!

She smoothed the bodice of her arctic-white dress, noticing her hands were clammy.  Why am I so nervous?  Beings get married every day.

Steeling herself, she entered the wedding chamber.  An android rolled up on caterpillar tracks, offering to give her away.

“Bug off!” she snapped.  She began her slow and steady progress along the aisle, at the head of which her groom was waiting.  Even with his back to her, Zed Bronco cut a dashing figure.  Her heart fluttered.  He had rented an intelli-fabric Tuxedo that shaped itself to show off his  physical attributes, its colour changing with his moods.  At present it was a serene shade of blue.

How is he so calm, Boruba frowned?  I’m like a Hongoolian jumping bean on a griddle.

The rows of seats she passed were sparsely attended.  Robotic witnesses for hire sat patiently, their smiles painted on.  Neither she nor Zed had what you might call friends.  It had always been just the two of them in their on-and-off relationships, professional and personal.

At last, she reached his side and the soft organ music which she only now realised had been emitting from the belly of the robo-minister faded to silence.  Zed glanced sideways and his wedding suit flashed red – just for a nano-second but Boruba grinned.  He is nervous!

“Dearly beloved,” the robo-minister began, his teeth glowing, the chromium dome of his spherical head gleaming.

“Never mind that!” Boruba cried, drawing a plasma-blaster and shooting the robot’s head off.

“What the flub?” Zed sprang back, his suit oscillating between yellow and green, the fabric as confused as he was.

“I can’t do this, baby,” Boruba pouted sadly.

“But – but – it’s always been you and me and always will be!” Zed protested.

Boruba tore off her veil.  “I can’t do this!”  A sob escaped her.  “Run, Zed!  Save yourself!”

“What?”

“It’s all a lie, a trick to lure you here.  Go!  I’m so sorry!  I love you, I truly do!”

It was too late.

The witnesses surrounded them, shedding their metal casings to reveal the henchmen of Zed’s greatest enemy, Dorudine Bigshot.  All the colour drained from Bronco’s Tux.

“You sold me out!  How could you?”

“It’s what we do, baby.”  Boruba tossed him a weapon.  “But I regret it now.  What say the two of us blast our way out of here and get a new start?”

“Go on then,” Zed shrugged.

They stood back to back and started shooting.

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Disciplinary

“Where were you, Billy Rain?”

“Um…” Billy Rain, newly arrived in the throne room, dipped his head.

“Well?”  Lady Fireblast drummed her fingers on the arm of the Golden Chair, the seat of power in the Eastern realms.

“I – um – overslept, My Lady.”  Billy Rain’s cheeks flushed.  “I heard the cry of the cockerel right enough but happen I went back to sleep again.  It won’t happen again.”  He bowed low, bracing himself for a scolding as searing as dragon’s breath.

“In Billy Rain’s defence, My Lady,” the reedy voice of Wormshank, Lady Fireblast’s monkish advisor piped up, “he was on Late Watch until the very early hours, guarding the castle from – well, My Lady does not need me to list her many foes.”

Lady Fireblast sneered.  Nictitating membrane flickered across her emerald eyes.

“Even so,” she kept her tone even, her words measured, “it is important that we are punctual in all things.  What if you were leading my army to war today, Billy Rain?  Would expect the enemy to wait for you on the battlefield like a jilted date, or would you expect him to make encroachments on our lands without your interference?  I am quite sure the likes of Lord Holdfast and Baron Dumplypump – not to mention the Fiends from the Fjords – would not scruple to take full advantage of your tardiness and then where would we be?  Lying on this very floor with our throats cut, I shouldn’t wonder.”

“My Lady,” Billy Rain cleared his throat.  “I am not a soldier.  I am a blacksmith’s son from a backwater village –”

Lady Fireblast cut him off.  “Spare us the humble beginnings speech, I beg you.  We have all heard it many times.  Grateful though I remain for the rescue of my daughter from the ruffians who accosted her on the High Road, impressed though I still am by your unrivalled swordsmanship and strategic thinking, be warned, Billy Rain the blacksmith’s son: your bluff, roguish charm will only get you so far.  You shall lose a week’s pay and there’s an end to it.”

At her side, a liveried servant banged a gong: Lady Firebrand had spoken.

She rose gracefully from the Chair and stalked from the room; the long train of her iridescent gown shimmered and slithered like a dragon’s tail.

Billy Rain’s eyes met those of Wormshank.  Both men let out a sigh of relief and laughed.

“A week’s pay when I were only half an hour late!”  Billy Rain wailed.

“You got off lightly there, my son,” the monk patted his shoulder.

“Aye, happen I did,” Billy Rain set his jaw.  “I don’t suppose this is a good time to ask for the afternoon off.”

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Space Bar

The hooded figure slid into the booth.  Zed Bronco barely looked up from the goblet of Hongoolian mind-wipe he had been nursing all evening.  Deep in the shadows of the cowl, red eyes glinted like embers.  A gauntleted hand pushed a package across the table.

“It’s all there,” hissed a voice from somewhere within the robes.

“I’m sure it is.”  Bronco left the package untouched.  “What makes you think I want it?”

“You need it,” came the rejoinder.  “You need this job.”

“Hell I do.”  Bronco swigged the lees of his drink and got to his feet.  The gauntlet seized him by the wrist.

In a nanosecond, all that remained of the hooded figure was the severed hand still gripping Bronco’s arm; the rest had been blasted to oblivion by Zed’s plasma-pistol, drawn before either of them had chance to see it.

I still got it, Bronco smirked to himself.

He peeled the dead fingers from his wrist and tossed the hand over his shoulder.  Already, the bar was resuming its customary atmosphere, as though this little disruption had never happened.  Almost as an afterthought, he picked up the package and slipped it into his pouch.

Folk of all shapes and sizes parted to let him reach the exit.  He was sure every eye was on him, every murmur was about him.

Hey, isn’t that –

Didn’t he used to be –

“Zed Bronco!” A familiar voice brought him up sharp in the rain-and-neon-spattered alley.  “Remember me?”

Zed sneered.  There wasn’t enough mind-wipe in all the universes…

“I’ll take what you’re holding.”  His former partner, Boruba Meinfarb stepped toward him, one hand out, the other clutching a disrupto-blaster that was trained on his heart.  “And don’t even think about giving me the old innocent look.  Hand it over.”

With a display of reluctant resignation, Zed unhooked the pouch from his shoulder.  He tossed it to the puddled ground between them.

“Good boy,” Boruba stooped to retrieve it, keeping her eyes on him.  She straightened, hitching the strap over her neck.

“The great Zed Bronco,” she shook her head.  “Once the scourge of the Seven Sectors and now reduced to – what? – a drugs mule for organised crime.”

“Oh, no,” Zed smiled.  “It ain’t drugs.  What you got there is contraband of another kind.  I suppose it don’t matter me telling you – you’re going to be dead in a few seconds from now.”

Boruba’s jaw dropped.  Her hand trembled.

“You’re bluffing,” she accused, her voice shaking.

“We’ll see,” Zed smirked.  “There’s a lucrative market for exotic and endangered species in these parts.  What you have around your pretty neck is a fine specimen.  You ever hear of the Hongoolian camo-snake?  Can disguise itself as practically anything.  Including travel pouches like that one.”

He nodded.

Boruba’s free hand clutched at the strap.  Was it her imagination or was the thing already tightening around her throat?

“Bye now!” Zed strolled away, whistling merrily.

“Zed!” Boruba wailed after him, too afraid to move a muscle.  “Zed Bronco!  You come back here!  Do you hear me?”

“Someone’s happy,” observed the cab driver as Zed dropped into his hoverpod.

“I am!” Zed grinned.  “I think it’s high time I took up playing poker.”

 

ray-gun-green-and-black-th

 

 

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The Exchange

Joe was met at the space-port by his host family.  They looked human enough.  Well, humanoid – if you disregarded their elongated, cigar-shaped torsos supported by three squat legs like a milking stool.  They smiled brightly, their large eyes shining.  The tallest of the trio – the father, Joe assumed – extended a clammy hand at the end of a spindly arm.  Joe shook it.

“Was that done well?” said the male.  “Your Earth custom?”

“Very well,” said Joe, hoping he’d find a moment to give his palm a surreptitious wipe.

“I am Gorb,” the male inclined his head.  “This is my spouse – the how you say chain-and-ball? – Flera.”

The female simpered and nodded.

“And our offspring, Teebo.  You will be sharing a room with it.”

Joe smiled at the youngest member of the family.  Patches of green blossomed beneath Teebo’s eyes, which Joe interpreted as blushes.

“You will be safe with Teebo,” Gorb explained with a chuckle.  “We do not choose our gender until our sixteenth rotation.  Prior to that we have neither sexual organs nor inclination.”

“Dad!” Teebo protested, flushing a brighter shade of green.

“We hope you will enjoy your stay with us, Cho,” Flera smiled.  “We will try to make you feel at house.”

“The boy is here to experience life on our world, our culture,” said Gorb.  “See how we do things in this sector, eh, Joe?  Right,” he clapped his hands.  “Let’s be going.  I’m sure Joe doesn’t want to spend his entire visit in the space-port.  Our family carrier is parked on the roof.”

The family waddled toward the exit.  Joe followed, struggling with his luggage.  Obviously not part of their culture to offer to help, he observed.

The doors swished aside and Joe was struck by the beauty of the lavender sky.  A pair of pallid moons shone their ghostly light on the elegant Hongoolian architecture of the city spread out before him.

“Yes, we rather like it too,” Gorb nudged him.  “This way.”

On the roof, row upon row of egg-shaped vehicles stood to attention.  Teebo beckoned Joe to the appropriate one and slid open a hatch in the side.

“Your suitcases,” Teebo grinned, reaching to take them.

“No!  Teebo, wait!”  Flera and Gorb cried out in panic.  “He hasn’t got the boots on yet!”

But it was too late.  Relieved of the ballast his baggage provided, Joe was already floating up into the sky, already out of reach of Gorb’s long and skinny arms.

“Whoops,” said Teebo, turning emerald.

“Poor Cho,” sobbed Flera.

Meanwhile, on Earth, Joe’s family was driving home, disappointed – to put it mildly.

“I really thought our exchange student was coming today,” Joe’s mother checked and rechecked the calendar in her phone.

At the wheel, Joe’s father gnashed his teeth.  “We send them our boy, our lovely boy, and what do we get?  A bloody puddle of goop!  It’s an insult, that’s what it is!  I’m going to contact our representative.  Don’t you realise the gravity of the situation?  This means war!”

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Silver Man

I wake.  Silverman senses this almost before it happens.  He waits at my bedside with my morning drink.  I sit up and thank him.  While I drink, he recites the day’s diary: appointments, meetings, tasks.  I pretend to listen then tell him to cancel everything.  I want the day to myself.

Not that I am ever alone.  Silverman is always with me, attending to my every need.

I raise my arms and he lifts off my night attire.  He carries me to the washroom where he bathes and dries me, gently but thoroughly.  I watch a TV over his shoulder: a running news channel.  The world is up to its usual tricks, I see.  People being horrible to people.  Why can’t they all be like Silverman?  Implacable, unshakeable Silverman.

He strides smoothly to the walk-in wardrobe to retrieve a pre-selected outfit.  I remind him that the day’s appointments are no more but, as ever, he has pre-empted my instructions.  He returns with casual wear more suited to my day of unscheduled leisure.  How did he know?

I look into his eyes, his pale, grey eyes.  He doesn’t blink or look away.

“Remarkable,” I tell him.

“Thank you, sir,” he inclines his head ever-so slightly.

The telephone glows.  Silverman answers.

“The young master is not to be disturbed,” he intones and I try not to chuckle.  He hangs up and I applaud his deadpan delivery.  He aims the remote at the TV at the foot of the bed.  My favourite film begins to play.

How did he know it was exactly what I am in the mood for?

I pat the bed but, as always, he declines the invitation.  He stands aloof while I enjoy the movie.  People doing unspeakable things to each other but in the name of humour.  People are funny things.

The movie is interrupted by banging on the door.  Silverman goes to intercept but he is pushed aside by a hassled-looking man, dripping with sweat, bursting into my apartment.  He pants, gasping out words, his hair wild and his eyes wide.

“You – should – be – at work!” he accuses.  He is blocking my view of the screen so I lean to port – or is it starboard?  I shall consult Silverman at a more convenient hour.  “Those – things – are going crazy.”

“Global Robots can look after itself for one day,” I snap.  “It’s what robots are ultimately meant to do.”

The hassled-looking man shakes his head in disbelief.  Silverman hands him a handkerchief he seems to have produced from nowhere; the man takes it and mops his brow.

“I shall go, sir,” Silverman nods.  But is he addressing me or our uninvited guest?

Before I can respond, he is accessing the control panel on the wall.  The movie stops, the lights go off and I lie down.

The last thing I hear before the door closes and I power down is Silverman assuring the hassled-looking man that I am merely a prototype and no threat to anyone.

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The Man in the Bowler Hat

The old man must have taken the seat opposite Sandy while she was fiddling with her mp3 player.  She looked up to find him watching her.  His eyes were benevolent, bright marbles beneath the canopies of his eyebrows.  White-haired he was and sported a thick but tidy moustache.  Dapper in his black suit and patent shoes; Sandy looked him up and down.  It was the bowler hat that really set him apart.  Sandy didn’t believe she had ever seen one before, not in real life.  The old films Nan was always watching were full of them: businessmen in bowler hats bustling to work in the City, like penguins in a nature documentary.  Umbrellas tightly rolled.  Newspapers sharply folded and tucked under a wing.

The old man smirked, enjoying her scrutiny.  Sandy blushed.  The luxuriant moustache twitched in a smile.  Awkwardly, Sandy returned it and looked away.

“Good morning,” the man said, his hands folded on the handle of his umbrella.  Sandy nodded, “Morning.”  She cast her eyes to her lap, wishing she had something to read, wishing she had accepted the free magazine from the lad in the hi-viz tabard at the station instead of hurrying past, jaw set and eyes averted.

At least I’d have a barrier, an excuse not to look at the old git.

Thankfully, the old git didn’t attempt to engage her in further conversation.  Sandy put her elbow on the narrow sill and rested her cheek on her palm and watched the countryside scurrying by.

The sky was grey and growing darker.  Raindrops clung to the glass like a beaded mesh.  I’m going to get drenched, Sandy realised, as the rain darted in earnest, volley after volley of arrows.

Her mind wandered.  She imagined the fields before they were fields.  As common land tended by bedraggled peasants, bent double in the rain.  As the sites of bloody, muddy battles where broad blades clanged against armour and men and horses screamed in agony.  As ancient woodland where fur-swaddled hunters stalked deer and rabbits.

The train jerked to a halt, the doors chirruping like crickets.

Sandy jerked upright, her palm slick with drool.  Dozed off, she realised… and the old man still watching…

“End of the line,” he smiled.  His voice was as warm as whisky.

Sandy blinked.  Feeling exposed, she pulled her coat around her and gathered the handles of her bag in her fist.  She gave a curt nod and stood.

“Wait, my dear!” the old man said, quiet but insistent.  “You will be drenched.  You’ll catch your death.  Here.”

He offered his umbrella, tightly wound like an upholstered walking stick.

“I couldn’t –” Sandy floundered.  “But thank you.”

“I insist.”

He placed the handle in her hand and suddenly he was on his feet and springing along the aisle.  He cast off his bowler hat and his hair, once arctic white, was chestnut brown.  He waved energetically from the platform, laughing and blowing kisses.  The moustache was gone; it had no place on a young man’s face.

Confused and suddenly breathless, Sandy lowered herself back into her seat, her joints creaking and protesting.  Her hands on the umbrella were pale, almost translucent, spotted with brown and corded with blue.

The train vibrated and shuddered, beginning the return journey.  Sandy turned from the window, reluctant to catch sight of her own reflection.

At least I haven’t got to wear a bowler hat, she mused.  She sat back, hands folded on the handle of the umbrella and waited for some bright, young thing to get on board.  Someone foolish enough to come out on a day like this without a brolly.

The sky was brightening and the rain was easing off.

I could be in for a long wait, she supposed.

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Space has no fury…

“Hey, baby, what’s up?” Zed Bronco rubbed his eyes and sat up in the cryo-bed.  His partner in work and in life, Boruba Meingarb was pointing the business end of a plasmo-blaster at his nose.  She tossed her blonde-green hair and curled her upper lip in a sneer.

“It’s over, Zed,” she frowned.  “We’re through.”

Zed laughed.  “Oh, baby, not this again!”  He put up his hands in surrender although the smirk on his chops suggested he was anything but sincere.  “Put that thing down before you hurt yourself and let’s talk.  Is the coffee on?”

Boruba glanced over her shoulder pad at the kitchenette – it was the momentary distraction Zed needed.  He kicked the gun from her hand and caught it, bounding to his feet in a fluid movement.  Boruba seemed more bored than surprised.

“I’ll make the coffee,” she sighed.

Zed sat at the table, his boots on the top while Boruba busied herself with beans and a grinder.  He watched the tense set of her shoulders.

“Listen, Boru baby.  If it’s about that barmaid on Reeglox V, that was all part of my cover.  It didn’t mean nothing.  And it got us access to the convention centre, didn’t it?  How else were we to pin down our target?”

Boruba didn’t answer, letting the whirr of the mechanism be her response.

“And I wasn’t trying to swindle you out of your share, baby; honest I wasn’t.  It was a clerical error.  I miscounted.”

Boruba shook her head as though clearing his words from her ears.  She watched the rich dark liquid filter into the pot.

Zed checked a few monitors.  “Where are we, anyway?  Why have you woken us up in the tail end of this godforsaken sector?  I should have known better than to let you set the coordinates!  Honestly, I’m a fool to myself.”

“Because I am female,” Boruba’s words were flat, her face expressionless.  She brought him a steaming mug.  Chuckling, he took his feet off the table.

She sat and watched him drink.  As his smug expression turned to confusion, anger and fear, her smile grew, stretching to a grin.

“What – have – you – done?”  Zed clutched his throat, dropping his coffee.

“Oops!” Boruba caught the mug before it could spill a drop.  He had always admired her superfast reflexes.  “I didn’t mean to put paralysing drugs in your coffee,” she purred.  She reached out to smooth a stray lock of hair from his forehead.  “I’m taking the shuttle,” she breathed against his cheek.  Zed’s eyes darted – the only part of him he could move.  “Don’t worry, baby, I’ve transmitted your location to all of your enemies.  I’m sure they’ll all be racing to be the first to get to you.”

“Hmmm!” Zed groaned, cried, and wailed all in one sound.

Boruba kissed her own fingertips and patted him on the nose.  “Toodles, baby.  I’d say it has been fun but one thing I ain’t is a liar.”

She slunk toward the airlock, affording him one last look at the curves he had so admired.

Powerless, Zed could do nothing but watch her go.

Typical woman, he thought.

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The Intruder

The princess quickly pulled the veil over her face.  “Guards!  Guards!” she cried, despite the protestations of the young man who had climbed over the garden wall.

“No!  Wait!  Listen!” he made calming gestures.  “I can explain.”

“You are aware, are you not, of the statutes?  No man may look upon my face and live!”

“It can’t be that bad,” the young man scoffed.  “No, wait.  Listen.  I didn’t mean that; that was a joke.  But honestly, Your Highness, I didn’t see anything.  I am not here for you.  I don’t give a hoot what you look like.  I’m not interested.”

Behind the mesh, Royal eyebrows dipped.

“My beauty is famed far and wide.  Many highborn men have forfeited their lives in the trial to win my hand.”

“Yes, yes,” said the young man.  “We’ve all heard the stories, love.”

The princess was aghast.  No one had ever spoken to her in this manner.

“You dare!  You have the temerity, the audacity, to call me your love!”

“Don’t get your knickers in a knot.  It’s just an expression.  Where I come from, we all call each other love all the time.”

The Royal shoulders shuddered.  The princess dreaded to imagine what kind of squalor had given rise to the scruffy youth before her.  His clothes were patched and ragged and his face, though not unpleasant – rather handsome, in fact – was dirty and unshaven.  His arms looked strong – why, if he were to force himself upon me, to carry me away, there would be little point in resisting…

The princess brought herself up sharp.  And where the hell were those guards?

“You say you have not come for me.  For what then have you scaled my walls and penetrated my private garden?”

“Steady on there, Mrs,” the young man laughed.

“Apples!  You are after my apples – what’s the word?  You are scrumping!  Guards!  Guards!”

“Relax.  I don’t give a fig about your apples.  If you must know, I’m here on an assignation.  Within these walls my true love resides.  Stony limits cannot keep love out.”

There was a fire in the young man’s eyes; the princess was certain none of the highborn men who had ventured their lives to win her hand had ever looked at her with such passion.

“For whom have you come?  For whom do you risk your neck?”

The young man blushed, rather endearingly.  “Why, for your brother, the Prince.  You see, once he smiled at me, that special smile – you know the one?  The smile that burns through your eyes and into your very soul and you just know.  You know?”

“I can’t say that I do,” the princess scowled.  “For my brother, you say?”

Curse the fool!  Why should the Prince have everything?  Was it not enough that he would inherit the kingdom?

“Your Highness.”  Two burly men with gleaming breastplates and curvy scimitars bowed before her.  “What is your will?”

“You took your time,” she snapped.  “This youth.  He is an intruder.  Seize him and execute him.”

“No!” cried the youth.  “Why?”

The princess removed her veil and grinned.

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Rogue Returns

Rogue Pardew rode his horse along the main street.  Nothing much had changed during the twenty years of his absence.  Old Jem’s Mercantile stood where it did, with tin baths and buckets displayed on the porch, shovels standing in a pail like flat-headed flowers in a vase.  Brindley’s Funeral Parlour looked as grim as ever – if things were truly the same in Coyote Creek, old man Brindley was most likely the richest galoot in town.  Undertakers never went short of business; it was the same all over, Pardew had found during his decades of exile.

But now I’m back right enough, he set his square jaw, to right a wrong that ought to never have been done in the first place.

But first, a drink.  What the preacher man would call a libation suckled straight from the devil’s teat.

Whisky.

He hitched the horse to the post outside the Scarlet Woman and pulled his hat down over his brow.

Twenty years is a long time, he reflected.  Folk come and go.  Some of them most likely gave old man Brindley some business and were pushing up the daisies on Tombstone Hill.

Even so, Pardew didn’t want to take chances on being recognised, least ways not afore he’d done what he’d come back to do.

He pushed the saloon doors inwards and stepped over the threshold.  Jake was on the piano, tinkling away just like the old days.  Card-players were grouped around tables, intent on their hands.

And there behind the bar, Frankie was polishing a glass with his apron.  The barkeep’s hair was still slick with a centre parting, Pardew observed, but there were streaks of white at Frankie’s temples, the only concession to the passage of time.

Frankie raised a luxuriant eyebrow as Pardew approached.

“Whisky,” Pardew kept his voice to a soft growl and the brim of his hat shadowing his eyes.  He slapped a five-dollar bill on the counter.  If Frankie recognised him, he gave no sign; he just poured the drink and asked no questions.  Professional discretion, Pardew reckoned.  Even so, he didn’t want to risk being spotted.  He tossed back the whisky shot, feeling it burn the back of his throat and the subsequent kick to his belly.  He turned to go but found himself face-to-face with a fella in a red shirt.  The fella had a beard now but Pardew recognised the close-set eyes at once as those belonging to his old acquaintance, Wyatt Bell.

Bell was jawing tobacco.  He looked Pardew up and down and, with a contemptuous sneer, spat on his boots.

“Well, look what the cat drug in.”

Pardew tipped his hat.  “I don’t want no trouble, Wyatt.  I ain’t here for that.  I ain’t here for you.”

“Plenty folk round these parts got scores to settle with you, you lowdown rotten snake.”

“I don’t want no trouble neither,” the barman interposed, patting the trusty rifle he kept within reach.

“Tombstone Hill, afore sundown,” Bell spat again.  “I got me a bullet with your name on it.”

“Well, well, well, if it ain’t Rogue Pardew,” said a hoarse but decidedly female voice at Pardew’s shoulder.  “I knew you couldn’t keep away from my womanly charms indefinitely.”

Pardew barely glanced at the buxom showgirl, but it was enough to show him Miss Liza had gained quite a bit of weight and quite a lot of tattoos since he’d been gone.

Pardew didn’t respond other than to tip his hat – Miss Liza was still a lady, after all.

“I knew you’d come crawling back, Mister!” the ageing showgirl called after him, her crumpled feathers bristling.  “Show your face in here again and you just might find yourself gelded.”

Pardew pushed his way out of the saloon, aware that every eye in the place was upon him.  Word would get round like wildfire.  Guess who’s back in town, folk would nudge each other.  I figure I might not live long enough to make that appointment with Wyatt after all.

He strode along Main Street, ignoring the faces at the windows he passed and the folks who pulled their children indoors when they saw him approach.  I ain’t here for that, I ain’t here for you, he wanted to tell them, but he had no time to shoot the breeze and put folk in the picture.

At the end of the street, surrounded by a neat little yard and a prim picket fence, stood Coyote Creek’s schoolhouse, red and proud with white around the door and windows.  It was just as he recalled it all those years ago and it made him feel like a child again.

Quit that, he scolded himself.  You’re a man now and you must do what’s got to be done.

Steeling himself, he went inside.

And there she was, behind her desk, the schoolmarm, Miss Clementine, not looking a day older.

“School’s out,” she said without looking up.  The cocking of his pistol got her attention right enough.

“My, my!” she rose from her chair.  “Ethan Pardew as I live and breathe.”

“Don’t you say a word!” Pardew kept the gun trained on the teacher and hoped she couldn’t see how his hand was shaking.

“Finally come to turn in your homework assignment!” Miss Clementine laughed and it was all Ethan ‘Rogue’ Pardew could do not to piss his pants.

“Somebody should have done this years back,” he stammered.  “Maybe then the kids of this town would have stood some kind of a chance.  Maybe I would have stood a chance and wouldn’t have turned out so bad, like I did.”

Miss Clementine arched an eyebrow as though waiting for a child’s tantrum to blow itself out.

“Dear, dear, still making up your stories, I see.  Still letting that imagination of yours run wild.”

A shot rang out and Miss Clementine spoke no more.  Her eyes rolled up trying to see the hole that had appeared in her forehead and then she crumpled over her desk.

Rogue Pardew blew on his gun barrel before he re-holstered the weapon.

He walked slowly back to the saloon, feeling lighter as though a great weight had been lifted.  Maybe I’ll get myself shot or lynched or tarred and feathered – Perdew was beyond caring.  Or maybe folk’ll give me a second chance; hell, it was worth the asking.

One thing he was sure of, as sure as eggs, that Clementine witch would be putting her hands on no more little boys from now on.

Rogue P

 

 

 

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