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A blog about golf, weight loss, and other extraordinarily boring topics. 

 

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jbishop15

I

    Bannar had a manservant waiting for her when she had knocked on the front door. He was tall, and thin, and clean-shaven; he smiled when he saw her.

    “Sarah, I presume? I apologize for the familiarity; Ser Bannar did not give me your family name,” the man said.

    “Aden, ser,” Sarah said.

    “Madra Aden, my name is William. Bannar said you might be coming by this morning. Would you like something to eat?”

    “That is far too much trouble, William. I’ll just wait for Bannar, if that’s alright.”

    “It is no trouble at all, madra. The food is already on the table. You can eat while you wait, if you so choose.”

    William bowed, and led her from the front room. Bannar’s home wasn’t the opulent palace that Sarah had believed it to be. He was the one of the richest merchants in town, and he lived in a house not much nicer than Ian. The trappings were nicer, sure; the table was polished wood, infused with gold and silver, and the plates were not cheap wood or heavy stone, but of bone, and some silver.

She wondered, too, about the stone he had taken from them. She had touched it, and that mattered to him, and it made her nervous. She had been too busy helping Alex and getting through the night to really focus on it at the time, but since she woke up that morning it had been weighing on her. She would have to ask Bannar about it, if only for her peace of mind.     

    “Do you like roast?” William said.

    “I do,” Sarah said.

    William cut a piece off a giant slab of meat, and put it on a plate, and handed it to her. The food on the table was fresh; steam still rose from it, and the smell of baked bread and cooked meats made her mouth water.

    “I hate to trouble you, William,–” she began, but William poured her a goblet of water.

    “Ser Bannar does not drink wine or beer or ale anymore, I’m afraid. Just water,” he said.

    “Perfect. Thank you.”

    “You are welcome, Madra Aden. He will be with you shortly.”

    William bowed again, and left the room. Sarah took a fork and knife from the table, and cut up her roast; the first taste was almost more than she could handle, and she was reminded that she had not eaten in almost a full day. Merchant Turo had been murdered, skull smashed into small bits, and Sarah had spent much of that day reconstructing his head for the funeral. She was close to finished when Harry had carried Alex in, near death, and broken-bodied. She wondered what would happen to Merchant Turo now; they had moved him when Alex came in, used that room for Alex’s recovery.

    “Good morning,” said Bannar, sitting down at the table with her.

    “Good morning, Ser Bannar,” Sarah said.

    “I see you’ve been speaking with William. Only he and the guards call me ser anymore.”

    “I think more people call you ser than you realize. Ser.”

    “An unnecessary title, but I would be lying that it doesn’t puff an old man’s chest at the sound of it. Do you like the food?”

    “It’s delicious, ser,” she said.

    “No more ser, please,” he said, cutting off a piece of roast, and a few vegetables. William came in and poured him more water, and did the same for Sarah. They ate for a moment, and the quiet in the room was filled by clinking forks and spoons, and the raising of goblets.

    “Do you have an update for me?” Bannar said.

    “Oh gods, I’m sorry, Merchant Bannar. He asked for you,” Sarah said, embarrassed. She had begun eating, and had forgotten the purpose of her visit, and to ask about the stone. It reminded her of her first night in Toha, after Ian had pulled her from that caravan; she had ate, and ate, and ate, and for a while couldn’t remember where she was, or where she came from, or even her name. That had been a good night.

    “It is fine. Do you mind if I call you Sarah?” he said.

    “Sarah is fine,” she said.

    “Well, Sarah, if you have eaten your fill, I would like to see Alex.”

    Sarah looked wistfully at the food on the table, but stood anyway. Bannar came over to her, and they linked arms, and they walked out of the house and into the sunlight. Ian’s house wasn’t far from Bannar’s; they lived only a few streets over from one another, bracketing the edges of the nicer homes in Toha.

    “How long have you been here, Sarah?” Bannar said.

    “Twelve years, kind of,” Sarah said.

    “Longer than even I and Alex.”

    “Only a few, I believe.”

    “I don’t believe you and I have ever met before, which I find strange, in all this time of overlap.”

    “When I was twelve, Ian– Ser Hansa sent me to study as a healer in the Four Corners. I spent five years there,” she said.

    “And then came back here?” he said.

    “No, I went to Boros. Or, was supposed to go to Boros, but my group came across members of the Royal Army, bogged down after battle. We were a group of healers, some of us even trained in battlefield medicine, and they conscripted us then and there. I spent three years, until the end of the war, working for them.”

    “You’ve lived quite the life so far, Sarah Aden.”

    “Enough of one, Ser Bannar.”

    They walked in silence for a moment, arm and arm. People were out and about on this day, this perfect, cool morning. They were all the genty; all the genteel upper class of Toha, or what passed for genteel this far from the capitol. They came to the end of Bannar’s street, and made a left, walking down the main road of Toha, the only cobblestone road in the entire city. Bannar had some trouble picking up his feet, and they moved slower than they had on the firm dirt. A few times, Sarah thought she caught him stealing glances, but she was not sure.

    “The war did not reach us here,” he said.

    “I am not surprised,” she said.

    “I expected it to, to tell you the truth. I expected that we would have to fight, whether in large or small numbers. But, no; the barbarians were driven backwards, about ten leagues from here.”

    “Not so close.”

    “Close enough to see Spahn go up in flames. The loggers brought back burned, warped wood from the edge of the Grenwood; it was a novelty for a while, a thing to say that you had a souvenir from the Burning of Spahn. A disgusting practice,” he said.

    “Did you take any?” she said.

    “Oh, of course. I sold it at a high price at my shop. Let no one say that I am adverse to making money.”

    Another merchant, a young man in silk robes, bowed as he passed Bannar, who bowed in return.

    “I’ve never see him before,” Sarah said.

    “He sells weapons. Took over from his father. Danne Wallen, I believe,” Bannar said.

    “He bowed to you.”

    “And I bowed in return. We are acquaintances.”

    “And competition.”

    Bannar laughed.

    “Oh no, Madra Aden. I sell clothes and pots and pans and boots to the good folk of this town. I do not sell weapons. He is very much not my competition, and he won’t ever be, if he knows what he’s doing.”

    They came to the end of the cobble road, and took a right. There were not far from Ian’s house; she could see the front door from where they were.

    “May I ask you a personal question?” Bannar said.

    “You’ve asked me several personal questions,” Sarah said.

    “One more, then.”

    “Okay.”

    Bannar looked at her. His gaze was intense, and Sarah felt uncomfortable underneath it.

    “Did you have any family in Boros? An aunt, or a grandmother, or anything of that sort?”

    “My family is from Northmount. I was the first, and as far as I know, last person to leave the town. If I have family there, I do not know of them. Why?”

    He looked at her again, and smiled sadly.

    “You remind me of someone I knew. A spitting image of her, almost uncomfortably so. I was wondering if the two of you were related. Hopes of an old man, it seems.”

    Sarah put her hand on the door, but stopped before opening it. She turned to Bannar, who looked at her with hope, as if she had remembered something. He looked younger, more vibrant; whoever this woman had been made a difference to Bannar. But she hadn’t remembered anything; she just had a question.

    “May I ask you about the stone, Ser Bannar?” she said.

    The hope fell from his face, and it became old, and gray, and tired.

    “You are not in danger, Madra Aden, if that is what you were wondering,” he said.

    “You asked who touched it.”

    “And you did, and nothing happened. That means one of two things, both of which are inconsequential at the time being.”

    “Inconsequential?”

    Bannar’s lips tightened, and his jaw flexed. He put his own wrinkled hand on the door handle, and pushed it open.

    “If I felt it necessary, I would tell you,” he said, a different man than the one who stumbled along the cobblestone. He pushed past her, and went into Ian’s house.

II

    Harry downed his last beer; an early morning jog of the mind. Helena had cleaned him up, and the beer grounded him back in the work. Or, at least, that’s what he liked to think. Harry just liked to have a little hit in his neck when he went on early morning checks; it made him feel like he was ready to fight.

    Outside of the bar, he passed by three beggars. One of them, with long red-brown hair, had a cap in front of him. Harry bent down and put a coin in it, and the young man peered up with his dirty face.

    “Thank you,” said the beggar, and looked back down. The beggar next to him made a face. Harry nodded, and kept going.

    Nobody had come storming into his house that night; a victory, all things considered, though Harry thought it possible that they had all been covertly murdered. But it was a happier outcome; he saw Thomas at his post, arms heavy with sleep. He clapped the glass-eyed boy on the arm, jolting him awake.

    “Captain,” said Thomas, a second slow, with three blinks too many.

    “Have you been out here all night, Thomas?” Harry said.

    “Yes, Captain.”

    “Thank you. Find Wotom, tell him to take your post. Then go home, and don’t report till tomorrow morning.”

    “Yes, Captain. Thank you, Captain.”

    Thomas slapped his right arm over his chest, grabbing his left bicep; a formal salute, created and implemented by a commander long-dead on the battlefield. Harry had outlawed it long ago, but he just smiled at Thomas, and let him walk away.

    Harry went next to the Greased Pig. It wasn’t open for business, not yet; but this did not stop some of the regulars, like Water Dick and Swamp from lounging around outside. They had beers in old wooden cups, and had already drank their fill, if the sway of their legs as they tried to stand still was any indication.

    “Where’d you get the beer?” Harry said to Water Dick, who pointed inside.

    “Gita serving, but not inside,” Water Dick said. Harry went past them, and opened the door.

    Gita was in there, in breeches and a sleeveless shirt, scrubbing the blood off of the floor. She had bruises on her arms, to go along with the ones on her face; her right arm was pinned to her chest by a piece of cloth, and a knife hung from her waist. At Harry’s entrance, she stopped, and looked up at him. He thought for a moment that she would attack him, but she relaxed, and went back to cleaning.

    “Thought you might be someone looking to have a go at this place,” she said. “Was preparing to gut you.”

    “Just coming to check on you,” Harry said.

    “My arm is broken, but otherwise, I’m alright.”

    “Did you see the Healer?”

    “Saw you dragging bodies inside, figured it was best to leave it be for now.”

    “He probably has some time now. A lull in the action, as it were.”

    “More coming, then?” she said.

    Harry leaned against the bar. The blood where the young guard had been impaled was mostly clean, but the outline of his corpse was forever there, at least in Harry’s mind.

    “Yeah, more coming, I think,” he said. He stood up straight, went over, and stuck out his hand.

    “I’ll go later,” she said.

    “I’ll get someone to take care of this. Go get patched up, take some time. If action comes, everyone is going to need you at full strength,” he said.

    Gita looked up at him. She was not a woman who liked pity; none did, really, but she especially. Harry had never asked, finding that he liked his jaw and nose intact and clear of bloodstains, but he suspected Gita had come from somewhere foul, and wasn’t anxious to go back. A lot of those here in Toha, he thought.

    “Alright. But I’d like this place to actually be cleaner when I return, not just look it,” she said.

    “It will be. I promise,” he said.

    Gita stood, and brushed herself off. She and Harry went outside.

    “You’re not coming with, are you?” she said.

    “Until you make it safely to the Healer’s, yes,” he said.

    “What about Water Dick and Swamp? They’ll break into anywhere for a beer.”

    “Hey!” said Water Dick.

    “That’s not true!” said Swamp.

    Harry turned to them both. Short, stocky, fat bastards; they drank more than anybody in Toha, or at least acted as if they did. He pointed at Water Dick.

    “If you go in there, I will hang you from a tree by your balls,” Harry said. He pointed to Swamp. “And you, I’ll gut with a cheese knife. Understand?”

    They both nodded quickly, and sat down in front of the Pig, straight down into the soft dirt. Harry rolled his eyes, and he and Gita set off.

    “****ing drunks,” he said.

    “Those drunks pay me more coin than ten other customers combined. Try not to scare them off,” she said.

    “Well, if the smell is any indication, I believe I emptied both of their bladders. They’ll be dying for a drink by the time you get back.”

    She was in more distress than she let on; she moved slower and slower the closer they go to the Healer’s. He saw her bite back a yell more than once, as her foot caught on the ground, and her arm jostled against her chest. She was pale, and tired, and Harry wanted to carry her, but suspected he’d find his balls on the ground shortly thereafter.

    At the Healer’s, she didn’t speak a goodbye, or a thank you; she just went into the open door.

    “Can you help her?” Harry said.

    “I’ll do my best,” the Healer said.

    “Thank you.”

    The Healer nodded, and led Gita deeper into the house. Harry closed the door, and let them be. He had a few more things to do before he checked on Alex, as much as he wanted to go now. Those seven men that had come in the night before would need to find somewhere to bed down, and were almost surely being watched; Toha had a strange relationship to foreigners, keeping a tight eye on anyone out of place, and seven men armed to the hilt looking for a warm place to sleep would send murmurs through the less reputable channels. Harry passed by a group of merchants in fancy silks, tittering amongst themselves. Harry had never seen them before, but they struck him as strange.

    The closest inn was the Frogs and Fingers, a converted mansion that once belonged to the head of Toha. He and his wife were thought to be Channellers, the kind that kidnapped little children and frogs for their spells and potions; they were drug out into the street, and sodomized, and burned alive. It turned out they were spies for the Korodan, so, there’s that.

    The Fingers always had a guard out front; it was mostly for show, to make those few passing-through travellers think this was a place where they were safe. But in truth the Fingers regularly stole from it’s patrons; caravan merchants resting for a night woke up with lighter wallets, but none of that money was ever found. Anyone with experience (sense, after stepping in the place), would go a few streets over to the Sunshine, and pay extra to not get Fingered.

    “Morning, Sam,” Harry said to the guard outside.

    “Morning, Captain,” said Sam. “You here about those boys that came in last night?”

    Harry smiled.

    “As a matter of fact, I am.”

    “Lady Andrea said you might. She’s out back, tending to the well.”

    “Thanks, Sam. Be safe.”

    “You too, Captain.”

    The Fingers did have one distinct advantage: they had their own well, and no other inn could boast of such a luxury. Most houses shared a well, set on a piece of land in the city shared in ownership by those houses, but a lucky few owned land where houses had been built around or next to a source of groundwater. Those houses often went for twenty times the price, and the owners had to be careful about where they left the deed; should you find a magistrate looking for coin, and have a talented forger at command, one could steal it out from the proper owner. The penalty for such malfeasance used to be a fine, and a two month expulsion from Toha, but Harry had executed one thief and his forger for the crime, and it had become less common in the five years since.

    The well was in a covered portion of the inn; it was not apart of the inn, per se, but built around it and attached to the existing structure. Lady Andrea took care of it herself, not trusting anyone else to maintain the well, which was smart; should some worker poison the water, finally running off the last gullible customer (or putting them in the ground), then Lady Andrea would have to sell; she would find no shortage of buyers.

    “They’re in the second room on the fourth floor,” Lady Andrea said when Harry stepped into the well room. She was fixing the crank on the well, replacing it with a new one. She was a muscular woman, with dark skin, and dark hair, pulled back into a ponytail. A sword sat against the wall, bigger than Harry’s.

    “May I say hello first?” Harry said.

    “Hello, Harry. They’re in the second room on the fourth floor.”

    “Any trouble with them? “

    “None. But I suspect they know we’re watching them.”

    “Why?”

    “I’m an professional thief, allegedly. I can tell when someone is hiding secrets,” she said.

    “Quite a power you have, Lady Andrea,” he said.

    “That,” she said, “or I have ways to listen into their conversations. They know, and do not care that we know that they know.”

    “Any word on what they’re planning?”

    “Nothing. Just keep your eye out. If they were to disappear, and, say, the Grenwood bears got a nice, hearty meal, I wouldn’t be off-kilter.”

    “They just might. Morning, Lady Andrea,” he said.

    “Morning, Captain Reyna.”

    Harry left her to it.

    Something struck him as off about the whole thing. It was a trap, but not; a taunt, but a shrug. He did not know what the point of all of this was; if they wanted to spring an attack on Toha, take whatever it was they came for, there were myriad ways to do it. But to come in, armed, and then not care about being surveilled puzzled Harry. The only people who would even notice them would be those who they would eventually have to answer to, and though he was no tactical genius, he was pretty sure that giving up the element of surprise was a bad idea.

    He went up the stairs, heading to the fourth floor; his stomach rumbled, and that early morning beer came back to his throat. He felt nauseous climbing the stairs; felt something deep underneath; he felt fear has he made his way to that fourth floor. He stopped, and caught his breath. This felt off, and he did not like it, and so he went back down the stairs, and out the front doors.

    Outside, he saw those men in the silks, putting money in the hats of those beggars he had seen before. But something was off there, too; they seemed to be actively hiding themselves now, positioned in a darker corner, partially behind some barrels. The men in silks were also strangely positioned; backs mostly turned to him, all three bending over to put money in the cap. The only part of them he could not see were their faces.

    Around him, the rest of the world took no notice, not of one another. They all freely showed their faces, let their eyes and ears and mouths and noses be lit up by warm sun. But not the beggars, and not the men in the silk robes. And then one of them shifted, one of the beggars, and looked up at him, just for an instant, and he knew: they were watching him.

    His heart turned hot, and his fingers tingled. He walked on, smiling at the passerby, and made his way down the road. They would not follow him again, of that he was sure; they had slipped up, for some reason; they had shown their hand, and he did not know why. But this much was certain: he was a target, and if he was a target, it meant they were here for something larger. That fear from before, that fear as he climbed the stairs, returned, and washed over him. But along with it came a thrill, and Harry thought of the man with the hammer, and the way his head hung half off his neck; he found himself anxious to do it again, to these men; and that, more than anything else, sent a chill down the back of his neck.

III

    They were at Ian’s worn dinner table, Alex and Bannar, and neither of them could find the words, at first. Alex wanted to apologize, but had been struck dumb when he saw Bannar; he wondered if the man who had pulled him from the dirt was mad at him, and he wondered if he would be able to withstand it.

    “Alex,” Bannar said, finally.

    “Yes, Merchant Bannar?” Alex said, fearful.

    “How are you feeling?”

    “Better than yesterday.”

    “I am very glad to hear that, old friend. Very glad indeed.”

    Bannar reached out across the table, and gave Alex’s hand a squeeze; Alex felt hot tears in his eyes, and he blinked them back.

    “I thought you were going to be upset with me,” Alex said.

    “Gods no, Alex. Why would you think that?” Bannar said.

    “I was supposed to protect the store, and your things, and–”

    “It’s okay. I promise.”

    Alex nodded, a weight lifted. He felt stupid, now; of course Bannar wouldn’t be upset. He had pulled him from the ****ing dungeon in the capitol; would he really be phased by a small explosion? Absurd to even consider it.

    “I do need to ask you a few question,” he said. Alex nodded.

    “Okay,” Alex said.

    “Did you touch the stone?”

    “Yes.”

    “Did you blow up the shop.”

    “Yes,” Alex said, reluctantly. Bannar smiled, squeezed his hand again.

    “It’s alright,” he said, “thank you for answering truthfully. Now, Healer Ian told me that you experienced a warmth when he was using his mending spell on you. Is that true?”

    “Yes. Is that bad? Am I okay?”

    “You’re fine, but it does tell us something important.”

    “What?”

    “One more question: have you been having strange dreams since you touched it? Have you seen things that you’ve never seen before?”

    Alex nodded, and Bannar sighed. He sat back in his chair, and rubbed the bridge of his nose. He knocked on the table, and Ian came in.

    “It’s what you thought,” Bannar said.

    “Then we need to get him out of here,” Ian said.

    “What? Why?” Alex said. Ian turned to Alex.

    “There are two kinds of magic users, or Channelers: those with a well of natural magic within, and those who draw it from themselves,” Ian said. “I have no well of magic, no reserve to pull from; each drop I use comes from my own body. Someone like Healer Oros in the Four Corners has a reserve of magic to use; it’s like writing a pen that has ink pot to fill it, versus one that writes with your own blood. You have a magical reserve.”

    “We know,” Bannar said, as Alex opened his mouth, “because you were able to feel the effects of that mending spell. Most do not feel healing spells; they feel a tingling, or something like it, and they’re healed. But those with reserves feel it almost as an emotion; almost as a state of mind. It leaves you open to extra anguish when hit with something evil, or dark, as well.”

    “Did the stone give me this magic?” Alex said.

    “The stone activates magic within those who have it, but in whom it lays dormant. They are rare, indeed, and worth a fortune. They are also dangerous, as you experienced, for anyone who touches it that has no magic within will be badly injured, as the Void Shadows made the stones, and they were unpleasant men. For those who already have magic already, it does nothing at all, ” Bannar said. Alex saw Ian’s eyes widen, and something flash across his face; but just as quickly, it was gone.

    “Excuse me,” Ian said, and left the room. Bannar watched after him, and then looked back at Alex.

    “I can use magic?” Alex said, and Bannar nodded.

    “You’ll require training, lest you hurt yourself and others, but that seems to be the case. But that will have to wait for now. We’re going to get you out of the city, into the Grenwood, until you can recover,” Bannar said.

    “Why would I got into the Grenwood?”

    “That stone just woke magic up in you. Many people have magic reserves that the magic itself did not see fit to activate. It takes a massive amount of power to wake up a Channeller, and people are bound to notice. I do not want anything to happen to you again.”

    Bannar stood, slowly. He looked tired, and worn.

    “Can I help you, Ser Bannar?” Alex said.

    “Don’t call me ser, for one. But thank you, Alex. Just rest. That will be enough for me,” Bannar said. Ian came back into the room. He looked troubled.

    “May I speak with you for a moment, Lucas?” Ian said.

    “Of course,” Bannar said, turning to Alex. “Rest, please. You’ll be moved tonight.”

    Bannar and Ian walked out together. Alex remained at the table. His head was spinning, and he felt nauseous. He felt a laugh bubble up his throat, and it came out as a half-cackle, and that half-cackle made him laugh again, and before he knew it, he had laid his head on the table, laughing so hard that he began to cry. Eventually, he sat up, and contained his laughter to a few chuckles, and gasps. He wiped his eyes.

“Gods above,” he said, sniffling, “what the **** is going on?”

IV

He had peeked. Joseph knew that Ethan had peeked, regardless of protestations to the country. Ethan had peeked, and there was no doubt that the old guard knew that they were following him.

    “I doubt he knows,” Ethan said.

    “You saw his demeanor, Ethan,” Joseph said. They had relocated from the Frogs and Fingers, outside of the city. The four men disguised as rich merchants had changed their disguise, and moved over to the Sunshine; the weapons had left with Joseph, Ethan, and Tenzo. They were in a makeshift cabin, once owned by a family of loggers, now buried in the backyard. Tenzo was outside, packing snow to melt down for water; tomorrow, he would go down to the river and bathe and clean the weapons, and bring water, too; but it was too dangerous for them to move around like that now.

Joseph and Ethan were fixing dinner for that night.

    “He was probably spooked by those fools in the silks. Bloody fools probably tipped him off, which would be why he didn't go up to the bloody room at the inn. Surprised us all,” Ethan said.

    “You looked at him,” Joseph said.

    “So what? You weren’t looking at him? Tenzo wasn’t looking at him? You think Hiseni or Itho or the others weren’t staring?”

    “Not one of them stared so brazenly. You made an error, and have put this operation in danger.”
    Ethan slammed a dish down as he cleaned it, and it broke on the table.

    “You put this operation in danger when you hired mercenaries to find the merchant. They made a ruckus, and put the town on alert!” Ethan said.

    “The town being on alert was an acceptable outcome, as you very well know,” Joseph said.

    “You deny your failure, but accentuate mine? Cowardly, Joseph. Cowardly.”

    Ethan swept the pieces of broken plate off the table. Joseph’s mouth tightened, but he said nothing. Ethan cared not for this house; he had been the one to find it, and the one to gut those who lived in it, but Joseph did care. Blood spilled should be blood earned; that is, a fair fight, with reasonable motive, should be the only reason a knife or sword or bow is drawn. But Ethan trained under Master Gramma, and Ethan killed whatever stood adjacent to him, regardless of the consequences.

    “They will prepare for us now,” Joseph said.

    “Good. I grow tired of waiting. We should just take the town, and execute anyone who will not lead us to the stone and the magic it awakened.”

    “We are seven men. Not enough for a town as large as Toha.”

    “Then we call our brothers, and we take the town then.”

    Ethan placed out more plates, leaving them intact this time. He went outside, and took the pig he was roasting on the spit, and brought it inside. Joseph cleaned up the shards on the floor, and then laid out the cutlery. The family had no silver forks and knives and spoons; just rough wooden utensils, probably cut by the family themselves. Joseph’s father had been a sculptor, and he admired the craft work. He would’ve liked to meet the person who cut the forks and knives and spoons

Tenzo came back with melted snow He set down two large buckets, careful not to slosh them. He came to the table with a smile, enjoying the warmth from the fire, and from the satisfaction that came from completing a task.

“Pour the water,” Ethan said to Tenzo, who did, though Joseph saw anger on his face. He wished, not for the first time, that he had brought a youngling along instead of Ethan. Ethan was a talented swordsmen, one filled with a bloodlust so great that he could take down ten men and feel no fear nor fatigue, but he wore on the nerves; had Hiseni been here, instead of Tenzo, Ethan would’ve long been buried, facing the sun, as were his wishes.

Tenzo poured the water, and they sat down at the table. They each ate slowly, and in silence. Tenzo prayed first, as he always did; he was a devoted follower of the Smiling Gods, while Joseph had been raised as a worshipper of the Bloodied Four. He no longer practiced, not since he joined the Rei, but he still remembered the prayers at the table, and the sacrifices after every meal.

Joseph had never seen Ethan pray, though he knew that he had been in seminary for the Smiling Gods, before joining with them. The Rei attracted all types, all for various reasons, and rare was the man that was turned down. Joseph disagreed with allowing all willing to become members, but he was a good soldier, and he followed orders.

Ethan finished first, and went outside to piss. Tenzo looked at Joseph when he was gone; he was upset.

“He told me to pour the water,” Tenzo said.

“I heard,” Joseph said.

“He does not like me.”

“Nor I.”

“I think I should kill him.”

“Not now,” Joseph said.

“If he touches one of the people who gave coin, I will kill him,” Tenzo said.

“I know. I am not against it.”

“He is too angry for this mission. Too angry, and too proud, to believe in the cause.”

“Perhaps. But his strength in battle is worth the agony he causes. At least for now. I will speak to the Council when I return.”

“Thank you.”

Tenzo stood. They had stashed their bedrolls against the wall, and Tenzo unrolled his. They had started a fire in the fireplace, and Tenzo laid his bedroll in front of it. He crawled upon it, and closed his eyes, and, within moments, was fast asleep. Joseph envied him. He could not fall asleep so easily.

Ethan came back inside, still stuffing his cock back into his breeches. He sighed upon seeing Tenzo.

    “Little bastard finally fell asleep,” he said, slumping down at the table.

    “You should be nicer to him,” Joseph said.

    “The nicest thing I could do would be cut his throat. A believer in the Smiling Gods. What a moron.”

    “All religions are welcome in the Rei.”

    “For now.”

    Ethan grabbed his bedroll, and placed it in the corner.

    “Tomorrow,” Ethan said, “I am going into town to look for that merchant. Are you coming?”

    Joseph looked at him. The plan they had all agreed upon, when leaving Toha, was to lie low for a few days. But Ethan was impatient, and desired to rule over Joseph and Tenzo, and the rest; he would go regardless of orders, or the like.

    “Tenzo and I are coming, yes,” Joseph said. Ethan nodded, and laid on his bedroll, and rolled onto his side, back facing Joseph. He thought he was shaming Joseph, showing that he was unafraid to face the wall, unafraid to show his vulnerable back; but it was a relief for Joseph, for every time he saw Ethan’s face, he wanted to drive a knife straight through it.

    Joseph went outside, and took a piss.

jbishop15

I

    The Captain carried the men inside, one by one. They were beaten, and hacked, and cut to pieces. First came a blond, matted with blood; second, came a thin man; third, came a stocky one, head nearly removed from his shoulders. The last man was drug in by the Captain, his own personal kill, torn to pieces. Blood covered the Captain’s silver armor, and ran in streaks down his lined face. He looked older, and walked younger, than Sarah had ever seen him.

    “Here,” he said, dumping the last body at her and Ian’s feet. “This is the last one.”

    Ian and Sarah looked at one another, and then at Harry.

    “What the **** is this?” Ian said.

    “They killed a bunch of people over at the Greased Pig,” the Captain said, standing as still as a shadow.

    “Why?” Sarah said.

    “I don’t know.”

    The Captain was still carrying his sword. It made Sarah nervous. She wanted to ask Harry to put it away, so that she didn’t have to stare at the copious amounts of dry and still-wet blood, but there was nobody home in Harry’s head, and she wasn’t sure that she could deal with the Captain.

    “Would you like us to check you out? Ian said, gently. The Captain shook his head.

    “I have other business to attend to,” the Captain said, and turned, and left. They listened to his boots as they crossed the wooden floor, and listened as they hit the porch outside, and as they hit the hard dirt. It was only after they could no longer hear his footsteps did they both realize they had stopped breathing.

    “Have you ever seen these men before?” Ian asked. Sarah shook her head.

    “Never,” she said.

    “Put them next to the other one, and then start the large furnace.”

    Sarah looked over at Ian, whose face was set in stone.

    “I don’t know if that’s a good idea–” she began.

    “It’s possible that these men killing all of those people over at the Pig was coincidental with the explosion over at Bannar’s shop, or that both of occurrences are coincidental with Bannar warning us about giving up Alex to strange men. I do not think it likely,” Ian said. He finally looked at her. This was not an Ian she had met before.

    “I will move these bodies, and get the furnace ready,” she said.

    “Thank you, Sarah,” he said.

    Sarah grabbed the blond by his legs, and pulled him out of the room. He left a trail of blood, like a gigantic snail; Sarah found the imagery strangely, savagely funny, and she had to bite back giggles. She put him on the slab with the thief, and did the same for the stocky one, and the spider-like man, and the one Harry had drug in the door. She drug him, too, and hit his nearly destroyed skull against the door frame. She almost felt bad for humiliating the man, one last time.

    The furnace had given heat to the previous owner, a wealthy jeweler, who had to abandon it when he sold fake diamonds to a warrior clan. Ian had converted to burn the bodies of the unidentified; people didn’t like it, they found it disrespectful in the eyes of the gods, but Ian had saved someone from every family in his time in Toha, and nobody had made a fuss in years. It took coal, and logs, and when it burned hot, she drug the stocky man to the edge, and pushed him in with an old piece of wood. She did the same for the blond and the skinny man, and the Captain’s personal kill. The smell was mostly contained by the metal of the furnace, and she had long since grown used to the sight and smell of cooked man, but this much blood in one night set her teeth on edge.

    She found Ian mopping up the blood, working backwards from the dead slabs to the front parlor. She found a second mop, and cleaned too; they had people for this, had servants that Ian payed to clean up, but the message of the old, tired Healer was: nobody can know. And nobody would; not from them, at least.

    They mopped for hours, using rough rags when the mops did not scour. They used soap, and Ian used magic, and after those hours, the house became a home again. But it was a strange place for Sarah to be; she could still feel the heat from the furnace, could still hear it burning from a few rooms over. Ian left, occasionally, to check on Alex, but always came back, as silent as before.

    The Captain returned, this time with Bannar in tow.

    “Is he okay?” Bannar said to Sarah and Ian.

    “Yes,” Ian said. Bannar breathed a sigh of relief.

    “Did you burn those bodies?” the Captain said.

    “Yes, Captain,” Sarah said. The Captain nodded.

    “Good. I hoped you would,” he said.

    “He’s asked for you,” Sarah said to Bannar, unable to stop herself.

    “Alex asked for me? Gods, why does nobody tell me anything!” Bannar said, and raced past Ian and Sarah, leaving them with the Captain.

    “They killed a merchant,” the Captain said, toeing a spot of blood that Ian had missed.

    “Second one this week,” Ian said.

    “Mhm.”

    Sarah began mopping again. She kept quiet, almost held her breath.

    “I got the impression from that rat **** looking one, right before I killed him, that they were looking for a specific merchant.”

    “Have you told this to Bannar?”

    “He’s more concerned with Alex,” the Captain said, and the mention of Alex’s name softened something in Harry’s gaze.

    “He’ll live, though he will need time to recover,” Ian said.

    “I suspect that he won’t have much time to do so.”

    The two men stared at one another for a moment, communicating without words. Sarah desperately wanted to interject, to break the silence, but she held steady. Eventually, Harry nodded.

    “I saw seven men come in the town earlier tonight, before the Pig,” Harry said, hand unconsciously touching the sword handle.

    “This quickly?” Ian said.

    “If they’re after Alex, they’ll find him soon. There is bound to be loose lips somewhere in Toha who knows what happened tonight.”

    “Who knows about the Pig?”

    “Grita, Oso, Marcus, and four other men, plus the people in this room and Bannar. The rest of Toha is still asleep,” Harry said.

    “They’ll come for them both once they figure out their mercenaries failed,” Ian said.

    “Mercenaries?” Sarah said, her curiosity overwhelming her common sense. They turned to her, and she felt very small.

    “As I told you, this all feels connected, and learning that two merchants have been killed in search of another only serves to further my suspicion,” Ian said. “I suspect that the group in the Pig was sent to find and kill Bannar.”

    “But what about Alex? What do they want with him?” Sarah said.

    “It could have to do with removing the bodyguard, or it could have to do with that stone that Bannar took from us earlier tonight.”

    Bannar came out of the back room. He looked tired, and looked every bit of years.

    “He’s still asleep. I could not rouse him,” he said.

    “He’s going to need time,” Ian said.

    “He doesn’t have it. Can he travel?”

    “No. The wounds are too fresh, and his stitches may not hold under constant stress.”

    “Then we need a place to put him while he recovers,” Harry said.

    “Toha is no longer safe. He needs to be outside the city walls,” Bannar said.

    “We could take him to the Grenwood,” Ian said.

    “A lot of danger in that forest,” Harry said.

    “And a place you would never take a wounded man. That’s exactly where he should go,” Bannar said.

    “Give me one more day with us, and then he’ll be ready,” Ian said. Sarah looked at him, but he did not look at her.

    “One day,” Bannar said. He turned to Harry. “What are you going to do with those men who came in tonight?”

    “I’ll keep an eye on them,” Harry said.

    “Maybe you should take them out now.”

    “They haven’t done anything,” Sarah said. The three men did not look at her.

    “We don’t know if they’re apart of that same group as the Pig,” Harry said.

    “It’s not a risk we can take,” Bannar said.

    “I’m going to need advance warning before you do so. We don’t have the space to keep burning bodies,” Ian said.    

    “You cannot just murder people,” Sarah said, and they ignored her.

    “If those men are half as skilled as they present themselves, it will be a hell of a fight taking them down,” Harry said.

    “Find out what inn they’re staying in and poison their food,” Bannar said.

    “You cannot just kill–” Sarah began, and Bannar turned to her, finally. She felt afraid, under the intensity of his stare. She did not dare speak again, and eventually, Bannar turned back to the other two men.

    “I cannot make you kill them, Harry,” Bannar said, “but if they are who I think they are, they will kill all of us to get to him.”

    “Who are they, Lucas? You haven’t told us the whole truth,” Ian said.

    “No, I haven’t. I have to go. Please find me if Alex wakes up, or if you are approached, “ Bannar said, and left.

“I can’t post a guard outside, but I will send a man over to sit in the parlor,” Harry said.

“Thank you,” Ian said, and Harry nodded, and left. Ian sighed.

“We can’t just kill those men, Ian,” Sarah said.

“If they’re coming after us, then we must,” he said.

“We don’t know that they are.”

“There’s a good chance.”

“Maybe. But they could just be seven mercenaries travelling together.”

“If we kill them now, that’s seven people dead. If we don’t, and they’re whoever Bannar thinks they are, then that’s hundreds of us dead, Sarah,” Ian said.

Sarah opened her mouth to speak, but Ian put up his hand.

“Go check on the patient, and then turn in for the night. You’re going to need the rest.”

Ian walked away. He went to his bedroom door, and opened it, and went inside. Sarah knew that he would be back out, to check on the patient himself long after she had gone to bed. He was obsessive when they had someone in their care; obsessive about checking the stitches, about keeping them clean, about making sure they stayed with full bellies of water and food. There would be no sleep for him tonight.

Sarah went to her room, the spare that Ian kept for her, and laid on her bed. She kept her work clothes on, and her shoes, too. Ian would need something; would need food, or hot water for a bath. There wouldn’t be much sleep for her tonight, either, as much as Ian may wished otherwise.

II

Harry sat in a bath of hot, burning water. Only his head was dry, and his eyes were closed, and he breathed as if he were asleep. It was a way to calm himself; something he had discovered in the First Blades, when he was captured by the Korodan. They would put people in boiling water, slowly lowering them in by their feet, until the pain was so great that they would give up whatever information they possessed. Harry had broken dozens of times before he figured out to use the heat to his advantage.

It served him even better after a bloodlust. He had cut down hundreds of men, and each time he found himself in the scalding, crushing heat. It was punishment for his misdeeds; it was the cleansing of his soul. He preferred to think of it this way, as he once did, as the bards and the poets would; otherwise, he would have to admit himself that now, he just liked to take naps in really warm rooms, and that this stuff didn’t bother him as much as it used to.

“Harry.”

Harry opened his eyes. His wife, Helena, stood there in the doorway, recently awoken, and still sleepy.

“Hello, love,” Harry said.

“Are you alright?” she said.

“Fine. Just cleaning up before I got back out.”

“What happened?”

“Nothing.”

“That’s a lie. You never take a bath during your patrol.”

Harry looked at her. Helena looked at him.

“There was an attack at the Pig, and it got bloody. Everything is fine, now, but I had to draw my sword,” he said. She came over to him, and knelt by the tub.

“Are you hurt?” she said.

“No. They didn’t lay a finger on me.”

A brilliant smile, as bright as Harry’s, and with twice the warmth, spread over Helena’s face.

“That’s my boy,” she said, and pinched his cheek. He rolled his eyes as she stood up.

“Were you actually worried about me?” he said.

“Of course I was. But you’re the best fighter in town, love. I wasn’t that worried,” She said.

“Second-best, to you.”

“You always know exactly what to say.”

Helena pulled her night gown off, and climbed into the bath with him. She sat between his legs, and he wrapped his arms around her. She laid her head in her chest. His hands rested on her stomach, and along the thick diagonal scar, from hip midsection, that she’d had for as long as Harry had know her.

“Does this still hurt?” Harry said, pressing on the scar. She shook her head.

“No. Not for a long time,” she said.

“Do you ever think about it?”

“Not really. Do you think about yours?”

He thought about the knife that a barmaid drove into his back, during the Battle of Boros. He thought about the way he wrapped a chain around her neck, and hung her from the rafters, just millimeters above the ground, and how he’d left her there to suffocate.

“Not really,” he said.

Helena touched a scar on her neck, a small one that was barely noticeable.

“An arrow grazed me here, when I was very young. The first time I was ever shot. It made me very angry,” she said.

“Why did someone shoot an arrow at you?”

“They were a former suitor of my mother, jealous that my father was a better man. They were afraid of him, but not little girls, so he tried to kill me to hurt them. He missed, but I still remember the whistle of the wind, and the pain from the arrow tip. I think about that sometimes.”

She smiled to herself, shook her head.

“What?” Harry said.

“They found him a few months later, nailed to a tree in the woods. He had starved to death.”

“Your father?”

“My mother.”

Harry looked at her, and then burst out laughing. She smiled, and snuggled up against them.

“Not to bismirch the dead,” Harry said, “but that makes me less upset that I never met your parents.”

“They would’ve loved you,” Sarah said.

“Perhaps. Or perhaps your mother would’ve strung me up by my cock, and hung me over a great pit of scorpions, or sharks, or bears. I have been known, on occasion, to make a poor impression.”

“Perhaps, love. Perhaps.”

They closed their eyes, and enjoyed the heat.

III

    They let Alex sit up at that next morning, let him walk around. The stitches were tight on his skin, and he could not pull on his breeches, and the Healer and his assistant Sarah had to do it for him.

    “Just a little further, Alex,” Sarah said, walking him down the hallway, the healer on one side, Sarah on the other. They made it to the end of the hall, and then turned, and started back. Alex’s legs moved in a shuffle, and his breathing was labored. Halfway back down the hall, his left leg came out from under him, and he nearly took Ian and Sarah down with him.

    They took him back to the bedroom, and the healer him on the bed. The healer laid his hands on Alex’s leg, and muttered, while Sarah wiped the sweat off his face and chest. Alex’s breathing had slowed, and he no longer had to stop himself from shaking. Green light dripped from the healer’s fingers, and a warmness, like the coziness of bread baking in the oven, spread over him.

    “What is that?” Alex said.

    “A spell,” the healer said.

    “What kind?”

    “It mends cuts, and heals bruises, and many other things.”

    “It feels wonderful.”

    The healer looked at him strangely, and then he and Sarah shared a gaze.

    “It does?” the healer said.

    “Is that bad?” Alex said. The healer shook his head.

    “No. Not at all. It’s just strange to be using this spell on someone who is awake.”

    The healer finished, and stepped away from Alex. The warmth faded, but the leg felt different; it felt like the only true part of him now. The healer wiped his forehead, and put his arm on Sarah’s shoulder for support.

    “I need to rest for a moment, ser. Sarah will tend to you shortly.”

    Sarah escorted the healer out of the room, and shut the door behind them. Alex sat up in bed. That small bit of movement did him no good, and he nearly fell back on the bed. But he stood anyway. He put pressure on his leg, and it held. The other one was not so sturdy, and when he pressed down on that one, his knee gave way, and he went firmly to the ground.

    The door opened, and Sarah came back in. She rushed over to him, and helped him up.

    “Please don’t do that,” she said.

    “I thought I was better,” he said.

    “One leg is mostly healed. The rest of you is still badly damaged, and you’re going to have to move quickly tonight. So, don’t hurt yourself, please.”

    Sarah put his arm around her shoulder, and led him to the door. They went back out into the hallway, and began walking again.

    “Has Merchant Bannar been by?” Alex said.

    “He came by last night,” Sarah said. Alex’s stomach dropped.

    “Did he come see me?”

    “He did. You were asleep. A little faster, please.”

    They began walking faster. Alex cursed himself. Bannar had been by; he had missed his chance. It had been so clear to him last night; so easy to find the words. But this morning, this fresh morning, he had long since forgotten the speech, and lost the courage he’d built alongside it. He would have to do it on the fly.

    “Can you bring him here? I need to talk to him,” Alex said.

    “After we finish walking up and down this hallway, I will fetch Merchant Bannar for you. Now please concentrate.”

    Alex did as he was told. He relied on her too much to walk, still, even with his leg repaired. It wasn’t the pain so much as it was the instability; one leg worked, and the other simply didn’t. It was frustrating.

    “Where is the thief?” Alex said.

    “Dead,” Sarah said.

    “Has he been buried?”

    “No.”

    “Do we know anything about him?”

    “No. More pressure on the leg, please.”

    Alex did as he was told. He flexed his left hand, and then his right; those, at least weren’t damaged beyond repair.

    “The healer can use magic,” he said.

    “Yes,” she said.

    “Can you?”

    “No.”

    “Why not?”

    “I don’t know how.”

    “Couldn’t he teach you?”

    “No.”

    “Why not?” he said.

    “Because he can’t. Stop, put pressure on the leg. Turn. Start walking,” she said.

    “You said you were going to get Bannar if we made it down the hallway.”

    “One more time.”

    They started back down the hallway. A third of way down, his toes caught, and his knee would not raise, and they went down to the floor. Sarah got back up, and stuck her hand out, and pulled him up.

    “You’re doing good,” she said.

    “I’m doing shit,” he said.

    “A building fell on you. You’re doing great. Walk back to the bed with me, and I’ll fetch Bannar.”

    Alex did, putting one foot in front of another. Even in the cell, even when he was being beaten by the guards, and even when they’d burned the mark of a Palace Guard off his shoulder, Alex had never felt helpless like this.

    But they made it back to the bed. She wiped the sweat off of him, and sat him on the bed. She left the room, and brought back a jug of water, and set it by his bedside. She poured some into a cup, and handed it to him.

    “Drink,” she said, and he drank. He drank three cups before she was satisfied.

    “Chamber pot?” she said, and he nodded. She brought one to him, and set it by the bed.

    “I’m going to let you handle this while I get Bannar,” she said, “but if you find that you can’t, find Ian, or wait for me to return. If you get shit and piss in your wounds, it will make it worse.”

    She went to the door.

    “Who is Ian?” Alex said.

    “The healer,” Sarah said, and left the room.

Alex took another drink of water, and then looked at the chamber pot. He tried to pull down his breeches, and winced at the pain. He tried to get up to find Healer Ian, and winced at the pain. He sighed, and laid back down on the bed.

“I better wait,” he said.

IV

    They watched the old man leave his house. His armor was clean this morning, though beaten and battered from the night before. They watched from down the street, dirt caked on their faces and their clothes ripped; they watched him leave his home, and followed him down the street.

    Joseph walked with Ethan and Tenzo; they followed the closest, acted the drunkest, acted the poorest. The other four, Alto, Hiseni, Burnek, and Itho dressed in fine silks, and walked in a group in front, whispering to one another. The old man paid them no notice, and they did not follow when he went into a bar.

    Their armors were back at the inn; stuffed under the bed, while their weapons were hidden inside the straw mattress. They were not hard to find, and not hard to retrieve; all seven knew they were being watched, and all seven did not care. They were disguised now, as good as anyone could be; only someone familiar with the First Blades, someone who had worked as spy themselves, would even begin to suspect.

    When the old man went into the bar, the men in the silks went on. Joseph lead Ethan and Tenzo to a muddy patch of dirt, and they sat down in it. Tenzo put his cap on the ground, revealing dark auburn hair.

    “They have not reported back to us,” Ethan said, softly, to Joseph. “I wish we had not hired them.”

    “They did their job well enough,” Joseph said.

    “I have heard rumors of bloodshed in a local bar. Rumors of two merchants being killed in two days.”

    “We did not hire mercenaries for their quiet nature.”

    “Perhaps we should have,” Ethan said.

    “Perhaps we should have,” Joseph said.

    They watched people pass by. They were mostly ignored, even in this cool, bright early morning. A few kind men and women laid coin in the hat, and Tenzo gave them a grateful smile every time.

    “It will be hard to protect them, Tenzo, should we have to take the town,” Ethan said.

    “Do not tease him, Ethan,” Joseph said.

    “I am being serious.”

    Tenzo looked up at Ethan, and then at Joseph, who nodded. Tenzo looked back to the hat, just as a young child toddled over, and put in paper money. Tenzo smiled at him, and the child smiled back, and went back to his mother, who smiled at them all.

    “Both of them, Tenzo?” Ethan scoffed. “The father? The whole family? If you really think about it, they’re probably connected to everyone in the entire town. We should just spare everyone.”

    Tenzo looked only at Joseph this time.

    “Last warning, Ethan,” Joseph said.

    “I am tired of his game,” Ethan said.

    “It is not a game,” Tenzo said.

    “You protect those who give some coin, like some benevolent god. It is absurd.”

    “It is not absurd.”

    Tenzo looked back down at the hat. Ethan shook his head.

    “Whatever,” he said.. Tenzo looked at Joseph, and Joseph shook his head. Tenzo went back to the hat, and all three settled in to wait for the old guard to leave the bar.

 
jbishop15

CHAPTER TWO

I

    They tended to him while he slept. Pieces of wooden floor and beam had cut him all over, and shards of glass from the store inventory had dug into his arms and legs. He was alive, but unconscious. The man they found beside him was not; his neck was broken, and a wooden support beam had fallen on his legs, nearly ripping him in half. He was on a cold slab, a few rooms over, with a thin blanket over his ruined form.

    Sarah stitched up the last wound on the calf, running the last bit of thread through the skin, and pulled it closed. She poured wine over the wound, and then cleaned it with water. The Toha healer, an old man named Ian, was using what little magic he had to repair the worst of the cuts on Alex’s chest. He closed up a brutal gash from a shard of broken pottery, and nearly fell over Alex’s prone body.

    “Ian, rest. I can handle this while you gather yourself,” Sarah said. Ian shook his head.

    “Some of these wounds are too deep. I have to cleanse them,” Ian said. He took a step back, took a drink of wine, and steadied himself. He leaned back over Alex’s body, and put his hands over a cut on his neck. He muttered under his breath, and green light poured from his fingers. It sunk into the cut, and put it back together, and dissipated into the air. Ian stepped back, sweat pouring. He wiped his face, in distress.

“You might have to finish this, Sarah,” Ian said, sitting down in a nearby chair.

“You’ve closed up the worst of it. Just relax,” Sarah said. Ian nodded, and closed his eyes.

    The use of magic had begun to take a real toll on Ian. He had always been able to put back together most people, repair most wounds; Sarah had seen him reattach a leg, and countless fingers and toes. But he wasn’t the same; that magic wasn’t his to have, not at the magnitude, and his body could no longer handle the stress.

    She had taken over a larger and larger role over the past year, essentially taking care of anyone who wasn’t near death. She had no magic; or, if she did, she did not have someone to train her to access it. Ian had learned at the feet of the greatest healer in the Four Corners, Expara Isa, and learned how to mend and heal, but he had no natural well of magic, and had to draw it all from within. It was painful, and meant for the young.

    Sarah cleaned a slash above Alex’s eye, and cleaned up the blood and gore on and around his body. She took the mess away, and put it a basket out back, and came back inside. Ian still had his eyes closed, but the color had returned to his face.

    “Thank you, Sarah,” he said.

    “You’re very welcome, Ian,” she said.

    “You’re as a good a healer without magic as I am with.”

    “We both know that’s total bullshit.”

    Ian laughed, a belly laugh that shook his whole body. Sarah smiled, and chuckled.

    “You make things easier on an old man,” he said.

    “You’re not that old,” she said.

    “I am 65. I am as old as the dirt below and the stars above. Or, at least, it feels that way when I get up in the morning.”

    “If aches and pains are the sign of old age, then I must be as old as you.”

    “Bah,” Ian said, “your aches at 21 come from fun and games and heavy lifting. Mine come from breathing, and eating hot foods. Help me up.”

    Sarah took his hand, and helped him to his feet. He was up, but not quite steady. He took a deep breath, and let it out.

    “I suspect they’ll want to talk to him,” Ian said.

    “They said they’d be back soon,” Sarah said.

    “It’ll take some time to sort everything out. It’s only been an hour or so since they brought him in.”

    “I thought the old guard was going to strangle you when you didn’t use your magic right away.”

    “The Captain is fond of the boy. I’ve seen them walking late at night, sometimes.”

    “I don’t know much about him,” Sarah said.

    “He came from the capitol, worked as a Palace Guard. Ended up in Merchant Bannar’s employ, though I am not sure how that happened,” Ian said.

    “Who gives up a Palace Guardship to work as a merchant’s bodyguard?”

    “You don’t.”

    The front door swung open, and they both turned. Merchant Bannar was standing in the doorway, flanked by two Village Guard, the old Captain and a young guard named Sterla.

    “I apologize, ser, I thought you would rather wait till morning,” said Sterla.

“My personal ****ing bodyguard is blown up my own ****ing shop, and you thought that could wait till ****ing morning?” Bannar said, incredulous. Sterla wrung his hands.

“Some of the merchants get upset when disturbed, ser. I meant no disrespect. I–”

“Go away.”

Sterla bowed, and left.  Bannar turned to the Captain, and sighed.

“Apologize to the young man for me, please.”

“Of course, ser. May I see Alex before I go back to the investigation?”

“You don’t have to ask me that, Harry. He is as much my friend as he is yours.”

“Not quite, Merchant Bannar, but I appreciate you saying so.”

The old Captain and Bannar came up to Sarah and Ian. The Captain put out his hand, and Ian shook it.

“I am sorry, Ian. I lost myself. It won’t happen again,” the Captain said.

“Of course, Captain Reyna. I understand,” Ian said.

“May we see Alex, please?” Bannar said. Ian nodded, and they followed him into the back room, where Alex lay, asleep. Bannar went over to him, and touched his forehead, almost tenderly.

“Gods above,” Bannar whispered.

“He’s going to make it, ser,” Sarah volunteered. Bannar looked over at her.

“Are you sure?” he said, and Sarah nodded. Bannar looked back at Alex.

“What about the other one,” he said, “the thief.”

“Dead when he got here,” Ian said.

“Take me to him.”

Ian led Bannar off into the other room to see the body. Sarah stayed with the Captain, who stared at Alex from the doorway.

“Has he spoken yet?” the Captain said. Sarah shook her head.

“He hasn’t woken up since they brought him here,” Sarah said.

The Captain walked over to Alex, and checked his wounds. He touched the wound on the calf that Sarah had bandaged.

“Your work?” he said. Sarah nodded.

“I have no magic, not like the Healer,” she said.

“I was an apprentice warrior in the First Blades, years and years ago. This is as good a work as any of their healers.”

Sarah felt her face redden, but kept her cool.

“That is a high compliment, ser,” she said.

“My name is Harry,” Harry said. “You don’t have to call me ser, madra.”

“I’m Sarah. You don’t have to call me madra. I am only 21,” Sarah said.

“I am grateful to you and Ian for the work you’ve done. Alex is a good friend.”

“You are welcome, Harry.”

Ian and Bannar returned. Bannar was rubbing his forehead.

“Did he have anything on him?” Bannar said.

“Not that we found,” Ian said.

“What about Alex?”

“This was in his hand, clutched tight. We nearly had to break his fingers to remove it from his palm.”

Ian picked up a shapeless stone, with a blue circle with a line through burned into the side. Bannar’s eyes widened.

“Did anyone else touch it?” he said, trying to keep calm.

“I did,” Sarah said.

“Did anything happen to you?” Bannar said.

“No.”

Bannar cursed. He took the stone from Ian, and put it in his pocket.

“Do not tell anyone about this stone,” Bannar said, looking at all of them.

“Why?” Harry said.

“Because if word gets out that this stone is in Toha, a lot of people are going to come looking for it. Come with me, Harry.”

They head towards the front door, Sarah and Ian in tow.

“Should we be worried?” Ian said.

“If men come to your door,” Bannar said, “you’ve never seen this stone, and Alex is not here. Understand? They are not here.”

Bannar and Harry walked into the night, Bannar whispering furiously in his ear. Sarah and Ian watched them disappear into the darkness.

“What the hell have we gotten into,” Ian said. Sarah felt her stomach turn.

II

He had never seen this place before. It was cold, and damp, and he could hear the wind whistle through the caves. He did not want to be here. He did not know how he got here. He did not know what made him so afraid.

There was a noise, and he jumped; he stared into the absolute black, and held his breath, and listened, but he was alone. There was a way out of this cave, at the other end of the room; he did not know how he knew this, just that he knew.

He fumbled over rocks and other things; things that crunched and things that ran. He bit his tongue when something climbed up his leg; he cut his arm when he tripped over something soft, and cold. At the end of the cave he found that exit, just like he thought he would. His first foot step over the threshold was made in the pitch dark of nothing at all, and the second step over pushed him into a room of brilliant light.

He covered his eyes. It was so bright, he could not find any air. He tried to run, but only fell again. He curled up into a ball, and tried to scream, and tried to cry, but neither came. His breathed deep in the shallow air, and eventually found his lungs, and eventually found his sight, and eventually found his mind, too.

It was a crawl, first; over the now-smooth stone floor. He made it to a wall, and he climbed it, steadying himself on shaky toes and ankles. The room he was in was lit by torches, hung on the walls and inset into the ceiling. There was nobody else around him; there was no other noise besides him.

He could see a few doors, but when he looked away and back, they disappeared. Another door appeared next to him, and he touched the handle. It was cold, and soft, and it fell apart in his hand. The door disappeared, and somehow he knew that he was not meant to go into this room, not ever again.

He ran his fingers over the wall; they were smooth, and multi-colored. A common rock, for such a floor, he thought. One of his fingers brushed a rough patch, and a door appeared underneath his hand. He touched this handle, too, and it opened for him, this time, and he went into the room it offered.

It was empty, save for a mirror; he made his way over to it. He looked in the mirror, and did not recognize himself.

“You know what you have to do,” said a voice, and he turned. It was an old woman, hair gray, and fingers bent.

“I’m afraid,” he heard himself say.

“I know,” she said.

“I don’t know if I can do it. I don’t think I’m brave enough.”

“You are. You made it this far.”

“We both did.”

The woman reached out, and he took her hand.

“It’s time to end this,” she said.

“I’m afraid,” he said.

“It’ll be alright,” she said, and in her other hand was a shapeless stone, with a black V burned into the side. When she squeezed it, he felt a heat inside his stomach, and it spread to his eyes, and his lips, and his tongue. It burned through him, and then he was gone.

III

Alex woke up on the bed, and he wished he didn’t. Every movement was a stretch of skin, every breathe a reminder of his broken ribs. He sat up, a cry dying on his lips, and sat still as his vision swam back into focus. He did not know who he was.

He was cold; on the bed though he was, he was naked from head to toe. He stood, unsteady, and fell back on the bed. He had been dreaming about something, dreaming about somewhere cold, and damp, and faraway, but he did not remember what. He did not want to go back.

Alex got his feet, again, and this time he stayed upright. He looked for clothes, and only saw the battered remains of his golden armor, and the torn asunder tunic that he wore under the steel. His sword was broken, too, cast away to the side. He did not see the other man, the one whose life he choked out with his bare hands. Heat rose in Alex’s throat, and he vomited all over the floor.

“He’s awake!” said a voice. Alex looked up, and saw the Healer Ian, and his assistant. The assistant came over to him, and when he tried to step towards her, she caught him.

“It’s okay, ser,” she said, barely above a whisper.

“What happened?” Alex said, unfamiliar with the rasp that came from within him.

“You were in an accident. Please lay down.”

Alex did. He realized, again, at the same time, that he was naked in front of two strangers. He tried to cover himself up, but was too weak to even pull the blanket over his legs. The assistant saw what he was doing, and covered him up.

Healer Ian came over to him.

“Can you breathe alright?” Healer Ian said.

“My ribs hurt when I do,” Alex said.

“I can take care of those tomorrow. Anything else hurt?”

“Everything else.”

“To be expected. Stay in bed. Sarah, come with me, please.”

Sarah nodded, and followed Ian out of the door. Alex laid there, alone. He wondered what Bannar thought; he wondered if he would have a job after this. He didn’t know what he would be if Bannar got rid of him.

He hadn’t hurt this badly since Bannar picked him from that jail cell. He was bruised and bloodied then, too, and he would’ve rather never woke up then, either. He still remembered the guilt he felt, the pain and anguish at his actions, and it mirrored the horror that he felt now. He had killed a person, with his bare hands, again. He hadn’t swung a sword or shot a bow or threw a punch outside of training in ten years; he had been naive to think that he would never have to again, but this was much too far. Much too far.

Alex sat up again. He did not want to lay down. He wanted to apologize to Bannar. He would leave if Bannar asked. For all the man had done for him, and this was how Alex repaid him.

“Get back in bed,” Sarah said, walking into the room. Alex shook his head.

“I’m not getting back in bed,” he sad.

“Get back in bed, ser.”

“I need to talk to Bannar. I have to talk to him.”

“He will be by shortly. Please lie down.”

Sarah pushed him gently back on the bed, and Alex was too weak to resist. She covered him up with the blanket again.

“The more you rest, the quicker you will heal,” she said.

“Bannar. Please get Merchant Bannar, madra,” Alex said.

“We will. I promise.”

Sarah left the room. Alex tried to get up again, but he was exhausted this time, too worn by the previous walks and the cuts and bruises, and instead of swinging his feet over the bed he felt his eyes begin to slide clothes. He fought, for a moment, and then fell asleep, hoping for a dark, dreamless sleep.

IV

    Harry watched the men walk through the front gate, just as Bannar warned him they might. They were armored, with swords at their belts. Two of the seven men carried crossbows, hung by a strap from their shoulder to hip. They were cloaks to disguise much of this, but the bulk was obvious to anyone looking. After they had gone, Harry went up to the gate guard. He was a young man named Thomas, a bright boy with no ambition. Harry liked him a lot.

    “Evening, Thomas,” Harry said.

    “Evening, Captain,” Thomas said, standing up a little straighter.

    “You know anything about those boys that just came in?”

    “No, Captain. They asked for quarter for the night, said they were leaving in the morning.”

    “They say where they came from?” Harry said.

    “No, Captain,” Thomas said.

    “If anyone else comes in, please send word.”

    “Yessir.”

    Harry left Thomas to his duties. The boy leapt at the opportunity to do his job, and yet had no designs on command; he was a rare breed, a type of man suited to lead. There are those who wish to lead, who desire to lead, who can lead, but in Harry’s experience most of those who desired to command their fellow man shouldn’t be allowed to hold a sword, let alone direct a group of them.

    Harry found himself drawn towards Healer Ian’s home; he wanted to see Alex again, even though he’d seen him only a few hours prior. He felt responsible for the boy; well, not a boy, but he often seemed like one. Harry didn’t know what had happened to him–everyone heard the rumors, about his time as a Palace Guard–but whatever had happened there made me as meek as a child. He played the part of a guard; Harry had never even seen him draw his weapon, and had never seen his finger on the trigger of his crossbow.

    It was refreshing, to see a man who had no desire for violence. They did not come along often, not in his line of work. Harry felt every scar on his body, every step he took; he could see the face of every person he ever killed. He had never liked it, never been a wild animal, never been a man who screamed and carried on. But he had done his duty, and then he had retired home.

    A woman came up to Harry as he passed the Healer’s house, bruised and battered. When she got close, the moonlight shined on her face: it was Gita.

    “Captain,” she said, gasping at the effort.

    “Gita, what happened? Are you alright?” Harry said.

    “There’s a fight at the bar. I got two of them but the others are still there.”

    “Go to the barracks, find Uso. Tell him to get five men and meet me at the Greased Pig. Then you find Marcus, and stay with him at the barracks until this is over. Go!”

    Gita left, stumbling along, holding her right arm at a bad angle. Harry drew his sword, felt the heft of it in his hand. He made his way to the Pig; he began hearing screams as he drew closer, and when he saw the front door of the Pig, he saw the body of a woman, her dress bled through, splayed on the now-mud ground.

    The door was open, and Harry peeked inside. Four men, all armed, all drunk, sat on the bar top. They were drinking, and laughing, and pouring beer and ale on the bodies of two young women. There were a few other bar patrons, some dead, others badly wounded, on tables and the floor; one of them was a local Merchant, Jayr Goni. A young man, one of the Village Guard, was driven into the wall, hung up like a painting by a sword in his chest. Harry felt hot anger, and real fear, and he stepped inside. The four men saw him, and cheered.

    “Finally, some real sport,” one said, a short one with thick black hair and a loud mouth. “After the bar bitch ran, we had nobody else to play with.”

    “She got two of our own,” said another, a muscular blond, whose boot dangled above the unseeing eyes of one of the young women.

    “She’ll pay for that,” said the loud mouth. All four men hopped off the counter, and strode amongst the dead and dying, until they were no more than ten feet from Harry.

    “Where is he?” said one, a tall, spindly bitch of a man, with teeth like a rat.

    “Shut up,” said the blond, “we’ll find him after we dispose of this one.”

    “Besides,” said the mouthy ****, “if you hadn’t got impatient, we wouldn’t be slowed down by having to deal with this cocksucker.”

    “I was tired of waiting for the right one,” said the rat ****. “I was bored.”

    “You won’t be bored now.”

    Harry tried to speak, but found no words. He shifted the sword in his hand. The four men took notice, especially the last man. He had brown hair, and a bright smile, one that he was giving Harry now; he carried a hammer.

    “Come, guardian,” said the hammer man. “Come protect your village.”

    Harry obliged.

jbishop15

I

    He threw a punch, and it landed, and it hurt.

    He could smell the pig roasting on the spit, and the ale spilled on the bar. He could feel the heat rising, and the adrenaline pumping in everyone’s ears He could hear the screams, outside and inside his head, and for a moment he felt like he was home.

    He threw a punch, and it landed, and it hurt less.

    “Come on,” he screamed, advancing on his stumbling opponent. He threw another punch, and it missed, but the man fell to the ground anyway. Alex drove the point of his boot into the underside of his ribs, and he screamed along with his opponent.

    He felt a hand scratch at his ankle, desperately looking for a hand hold, something to even the odds; Alex pulled his foot away and dug his boot into the man’s fingers, and this time his cry was louder than the wounded’s. Alex was in his element; Alex was burning up with purpose; Alex was home.

     He knelt down, and put his hand on the man’s neck. He could see the man’s eyes, watched them dart, watched them search for some avenue of escape, and he waited. He waited until they slide over to him, and when the unfocused pupils landed on Alex’s face, Alex broke out into a grin.

     “Hello,” Alex said, and pressed down, and down, and down, and down, and down, and down, and–

    Alex woke up in a cold sweat, a scream in his throat, and eyes so wide they threatened to tear apart. He couldn’t get a breathe in his chest, couldn’t get the shakes out of his bones; the man in the dream is a stranger, Alex thought; the man in the dream is a stranger, Alex thought; the man in the dream is a stranger.

    The air came back into his lungs, and his vision cleared. He was in bed, and he was okay; he had left the past, and re-entered the future. Alex swung his legs over the side of his bed, and rubbed his face.

    He stood, and went over to the window, throwing open the wooden slats. It was still night, still hours before he was to post in front of the shop, but Alex knew he wouldn’t sleep again tonight. It had been a long time since he had dreamed of that day, and a long time since he woke up in terror; but he had been through this enough to know that the only thing waiting for him when he closed his eyes was darkness.

    “Goddamn,” Alex said, staring out into the cold night. The moon was almost full, and the air was mild and cool. It was not quite summer yet, still teetering on the edge of spring, and Alex very much liked that. He had come to Toha in those inbetween spring-summer weeks, years and years ago, and they reminded him of his fresh start, and the promise of making up for past mistakes, and lost time.

     “Are you naked?” said a voice from below. Alex looked down, and shook his head. Harry, the Captain of the Toha Village Guard, was underneath his window.

     “You look naked!” Harry said, yelling up.

    “I am,” Alex said.

    “That’s a crime in Toha, you know. Showing off your parts.”

    “Isn’t much to show off, Captain.”

    Harry let out a loud cackle.

     “Truer words have never been spoken, my friend,” Harry said. A nearby window, owned by a mother and her two children, opened.

    “Captain,” the woman said, firmly. Harry put up his hands.

     “Yes, madra. Of course.”

    The woman closed the window. Alex shook his head. Harry looked up at Alex, and held up a closed fist. Alex rolled his eyes, but nodded, and went back in his room, closing the window behind him. Alex went over to the wardrobe, and pulled a rough shirt over his chest, wincing at the ever-present tightness in his shoulders. He stepped into a pair of rough breeches, and into a pair of boots. They were all clean, and well-maintained, but rarely used; Alex spent much of his time in armor, or in is under-armor clothing, and his casual wear sat mostly quiet. He caught a glimpse of himself in the cracked mirror on the wall; his brown hair was still thick, cut short above the ears, and he still cut an imposing figure.

    Outside, Harry stood, whistling.

    “Good morning, Alex,” Harry said, when Alex walked up.

     “Morning, Harry,” Alex said. They began walking.

    “The Greased Pig, or the Wooden Beam?”

    “Which one has the Fuko ale?”

    “Greased.”

     “Greased it is.”

Harry nodded, and they changed direction, heading down an alleyway. Harry shined in the damp darkness; his silver armor was polished to perfection, and the helm on his head, burnished with gold, looked like the sun when light hit upon it.

That helm came off as they exited the alley, and Harry tucked it under his arm. His hair had once been bright red, and thick, and now it had become patchy, and gray. His skin had become wrinkled, and the beard more heavy; but the smile remained the same. Those white teeth shined out of his browned skin, and belied the warrior that lay behind the armor.

“The **** are you doing up so early?” Harry said.

“Didn’t sleep well,” Alex said.

“Nightmares?”

“Mm. Same one, as always.”

“Been a while, yeah?”

“Yeah.”

The breeze kicked up, and Alex breathed in deep.

“Nothing smells like Toha,” Alex said, and Harry nodded.

“Less horseshit than the cities, I imagine,” Harry said.

“In more ways than one.”

Harry chuckled.

“What are you doing out this early, Harry?” Alex said.

“One of the merchants got mouthy at the Brilliant Sun. Talked down to one of the passing caravan traders. We calmed it, sent the merchant home, but he went back and started trouble again. By the time we got there, his head had been bashed in. Nobody saw a thing.”

“Nobody?”

“Not a thing.”

“Merchant Bannar is going to love that,” Alex said.

“Your master isn’t in much danger with you at his side, I am sure,” Harry said.

“He’s insistent on running that shop by himself. One of the richest men in the town, and he won’t hire a ****ing man to mind the store.”

They stopped at the Greased Pig. They could smell the bacon cooking, and hear laughter from the inside.

“People still there, at this hour,” Alex said.

“We’re here at this hour,” Harry said.

“Good point.”

They opened the door, and went inside. There were a few patrons left, working on the last stages of their ever-permanent all-nighter. One or two of them, seeing the silver armor of the Village Guard, scattered for the back door. But most recognized Harry, and most recognized Alex, and they all drank down the last drops of their drinks, and asked for another.

“Early day, sers,” the barkeep said. Gita was young, too young to own this bar, but she did so anyway. Tucked beneath the sash on her dress was a dagger, and hanging on the wall was a sword, but Alex reckoned that every man in this bar would be cut down by the bow she had laying on a shelf beneath the counter.

“Early indeed, Gita,” Harry said, and they slid in at the bar, sitting on rough wooden stools.

“Is that bacon I smell?” Alex said, and Gita nodded.

“Been frying up bacon early, see if I could bring in a few more customers lately,” Gita said.

“Is it working?” Harry said.

“You two are here, aren’t you?” she said.

She walked away from the bar, and into a backroom. She came out with two full plates of bacon, and sat it in front of the two men.

“I’ve got his,” Harry said, pulling out coin enough for both men, but she only took half.

“You eat free,” she said to Harry.

“I guard valuables too, madra,” Alex said.

“I like Harry. You too, but less so.”

She poured Fuko Ale for Alex, and Toha brew for Harry, and slid them to the men. She smiled at Alex, who pretended to be wounded. The two men knocked their ale together, and began wolfing down their bacon.

II

     The shop was busiest a few hours after it opened. It was the only shop that sold cheap clothing, as most of the others specialized in finer linens and silks; some offered rough burlap and discarded skins, but that was the extent of the selection.

     Alex’s post was just outside the front entrance. He wore his full golden armor, with sword on his hip and a crossbow in his hands. It was mostly for show; mostly to remind children and those with sticky fingers that a swift kick in the ass awaited for anyone taking so much as a shoe. Alex had only had trouble with three or four customers in his ten years working for Merchant Bannar, and those struggles ended with gentle admonitions and a removal from the shop, rather than gutting someone.

     He would walk through the store every now and then, landing each and every bootfall with the authority of an approaching bull. He would scowl, and furrow his brow, and hoist the crossbow, so that it would clank and rattle, and all the wide-eyed boys and girls would put down what they were looking at, and clutch at the hems of their mother and father’s clothing.

    Inside, Merchant Bannar ran the counter. He exchanged every coin himself; every bit of paper money from Beros was converted through his worn fingers. Alex had never seen another soul touch that money; not even Alex had been allowed to work the counter. The only thing that Bannar ever allowed anyone else to do was clean the shop; a few of the poor children came and cleaned the floors and windows late at night, and there wasn’t a footprint or a smudge in or outside the shop.

Merchant Bannar wore common cotton and common shoes when in the shop. Alex asked him once why he didn’t wear the fine silks he wore in his private life, and Bannar told him to shut up and go back outside.

     Alex had been outside the shop for a few hours, and that cool spring air of that early morning had been replaced by a blazing sun. Summer was peeking, and Alex was upset, and as such, it was time for a walk through the store.

    “Good morning, ser,” a woman said, as Alex entered. He nodded, and kept walking. The children scattered, and some adults, too. Bannar was talking to an older man, about Alex’s size, at the counter; they were speaking quietly, but with animation that made Alex uncomfortable. Bannar saw Alex over the man’s shoulders, and cut his eyes toward the man. Alex made his way over.

    “Bannar, please,” the man saying, “you have to believe me.”

    “I cannot help you, ser,” Bannar said.

     “How can you not recognize me? Has it been that long that you cannot recognize me?”

     “Ser, if there is something else I can help you with, I will. Otherwise, you will be removed from the store.”

    Alex landed a heavy boot, and the man turned. He and Alex made eye contact, and his eyes widened. A small, sad smile crossed the man’s lips. He nodded, almost to himself, and ran a hand through his hair.

    “I see,” the man said. “I had forgotten.”

    The man turned back to Bannar, and gave him that same sad smile. He stuck out his hand, and Bannar took it, reluctant, and a little confused.

     “It was good to see you again, old friend,” the man said, and then turned and left the store. Alex and Bannar watched him go.

     “Who is that?” Alex said. Bannar shook his head.

     “No idea,” Bannar said. He rubbed his chin.

     “Are you alright?”

     “Yes, Alex. I’m fine. Just… he asked for something that he shouldn’t have known about. That nobody should know about. It’s not–”

     Bannar looked up Alex, and stopped speaking.

     “Go back outside, please,” Bannar said, and began tending to a customer just down the counter. Alex did as he was told, and went back outside.

     Outside, Alex fidgeted. He was as troubled by the man as Bannar was, but for reasons that he could not quite place. The man felt familiar, but not in a way that he understood; he knew for a fact that he had never seen this man, had never spoken to him, had never passed him in a crowd. Something upset Alex about this tall, broad man.

     But he put it out of his mind. He worked the rest of his time outside the shop, not daring to enter, and endured the grinding heat.

III

     He met with Bannar that night, at his house. Alex wore his armor to dinner, but took it off when he arrived at Bannar’s home. Bannar picked at the knots holding the armor together, and together they set it on the table. It was the first time that Alex had been out of his armor since he began work that morning.

     “You can take it off once you leave the shop, you know,” Bannar said, as they sat down to eat.

     “If I take it off, and something happens, I have to put it back on,” Alex said, forking a piece of pork.

     “Nothing has happened in ten years.”

     “It’s not much of a burden, Merchant. Truly.”

    “It’s a burden that you call me Merchant, as if that is somehow an honorific.”

     “I could call you what I call you in private, but I prefer to remain employed.”

    Bannar rolled his eyes, and took a bite of buttered bread, and washed it down with a goblet of water. Bannar no longer drank wine; he was nearly his sixties, and he felt the wine dulled an already weakened mind. Alex had no such convictions, at thirty-two, and drank as much wine as his stomach could handle, plus a handle more.

    They ate well, the two of them. Once a week, Alex would come over for supper, as an additional thank you from Bannar. Roast chicken, and roast duck, and roast beef; all of the roasts, and most of it given away the next day. Bannar had once been a large, jolly man; once filled two chairs, and ate like two men, but he had long since burned away that fat, and become thin. He didn’t laugh as much as he had before they had come to Toha; but he as a good deal richer than before, too.

    Bannar was more quiet than usual; more reserved, and more inward. Alex took a deep drink of wine, and set the cup down on the table. He turned to Bannar.

    “Can I ask you a question?” Alex said.

    “Not about the man from today,” Bannar said.

    “Whatever he asked you about is clearly still bothering you.”

    “Indeed it is.”

    “Can you tell me why?”

    Bannar sighed. He sat back in his chair, his food mostly uneaten on his plate. He rubbed his chin.

    “I was given something by a friend, years and years ago, “ Bannar said. “He told me to keep it close, and to never let it out of my sight. He said it was dangerous, and he trusted only I to keep ahold of it.”

    “What is it?” Alex said.

    “I cannot say; I told him I would not. But what I can say is that it’s magical in origin, and a vast pain in my ass.”     

    Bannar shook his head. He took a drink of water, and then reached over and grabbed Alex’s wine cup, taking a drink, and making a face. He handed it back to Alex.

    “That is awful,” Bannar said. “Has wine always tasted like that? Like rotten grapes?”

    “That’s what wine is, I believe,” Alex said.

    “What a horrifying discovery.”

    Bannar stood, and Alex followed. They went upstairs, to the second floor balcony, and stared out towards the distant mountains, and the Grenwood, only a few hundred feet from the front gate of Toha. Bannar leaned against the balcony railing.

    “What are you supposed to do with this thing?” Alex said.

    “Hold onto it. Forever,” Bannar said.

    “Why have you not buried it? Or destroyed it? Or hid it somewhere?”

    “He told me to never let it go. That I had to hold it.”

    “Not to be too forward, Merchant Bannar, but that sounds absurd,” Alex said. Bannar looked up at him, and then away.

    “Perhaps,” Bannar said softly, “but this man was the closest thing I’ve had to a brother, and perhaps the closest I’ve had to a father.”

    “Where is this man now?”

    “Dead.”

    Bannar moved off the railings, and began his way back inside. Alex followed.

    “How?” Alex said. Bannar stopped, but did not turn around.

    “I killed him,” Bannar said. And with that, he left Alex behind, and went down the stairs, past the table, and the kitchen, and into his bedroom on the first floor.

IV

    He had the nightmare again that night.

    He woke up the same way, with the same pain, and the same fear. He threw open his window again, hoping for a cool breeze, and hoping that Harry would cross by, but neither came; it was a warm night, and the town was quiet.

    His hands shook, and he squeezed them into fists. He couldn’t deal with the nightmares again. Not again. Not like this. He had left that behind; the man in the dream was a stranger; the man in the dream was a stranger; the man in the dream was a stranger.

    His armor was in the corner, sitting in a heap. It was unlike Alex; he kept it on the armor stand, and polished once or twice a week. It made him feel powerful, and safe; it made him feel like a protector. Without the armor, he felt small, and cornered; he felt like an aggressor, like a stranger from a dream.

    The shop was closed and locked up this time of night, but Alex would not sleep, as he knew he could not, and he needed a reason to be out so late and early. He put on his armor, piece by piece, and armed himself with sword, but left the crossbow against the wall.

    Outside, his feet felt heavy, and his eyes sagged with sleep. He could not keep doing this, he knew; he worked too many hours to rest so little, and it would catch up to him. Once upon a time, Alex drank a concoction from a healer in Toha, and it put himself in such a deep and dreamless sleep that the nightmares did not wake him. But that healer was dead, taken by old age, and Alex had to subsist on other things.

    The shop was closed, and the windows dark, as Alex knew it would be. He drew comfort from the sight of the place; a sense of purpose that he felt nowhere else. He had felt that same purpose as a Palace Guard; that same sense of power, and status. He had been somebody, and he was somebody again.

    Alex suddenly realized that he was staring at wood and glass, brick and mortar; he was aware that he was in full ****ing plate armor, carrying a ****ing sword, during the wee hours of the morning. He felt embarrassed, and slow; he felt as he did in those slums, staring up with dirty face, begging for coin or bread, or a least a warm place to sleep. There was no reason to be here, and no reason that Alex could not sleep. The nightmares were not real; the man in the dream was a stranger.

    Alex sighed, and turned to leave, but stopped. On the front stoop of the shop, right at the stairs, was a muddy footprint; Alex felt his heart in his throat, and he drew his sword, and went up to the shop. The door was unlocked, and it swung open into black darkness.

    Alex knew that his first step would creak, and it did, sending what sounded like the groan of a wounded animal throughout the building. Alex listened for a response; the quick pattering of feet, or the heavy breathing of an exposed thief, but nothing reached his ears. He took another step inside, and this one groaned too, and Alex gave up on stealth and strode, loudly and with great purpose, into the shop.

    He made his way in the inky black, sword at the ready. A little bit of moonlight came in the door and window behind him, but around and ahead of him, the darkness was absolute. Alex made his way deeper into the store, pausing every so often, but still heard nothing.

    There was a door at the very back of the shop, and it led to Merchant Bannar’s rarely used office. But it was ajar, and that was not right; it was locked, almost always, and Alex took a bold step towards and kicked it in.

    Inside, the man from earlier was sitting on Bannar’s rough wooden desk. Alex raised his sword, and the man put up his hand.

    “There’s no need,” the man said. Alex kept the sword raised.

    “You are tresspassing,” Alex said.

    “I know.”

    “I am well within my rights to cut you from neck to cock, friend.”

    “‘Neck to cock’? Really? Shame, ser,” the man said, hopping off the desk. Alex felt his face flush, and grew angry.

    “I’ll do it,” Alex said. The man nodded.

    “I believe you.”

    The man took something out of his pocket; a shapeless black stone, with a blue circle with a line through it burned into the side.

    “He’s had this for years and years, you know,” the man said. “As long as I’ve known him. Longer, I suppose.”

    “Put it back,” Alex said.

    “It came from there,” the man said, pointing to an open box on the back counter.

    “Put it back,” Alex repeated.

    “No.”

The man leaned against the desk. He stared at Alex, whose sword was still at the ready. He shook his head, and laughed.

“The impetus of ****ing youth,” he said, and sighed.

“Put it back.”

“I’m not going to put it back. I need it. I need it to complete my mission.”

“Your mission?” Alex said, curious, despite himself.

“A ****ing awful mission, as it turns out. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do with it, but now I am,” the man said. He rubbed his eyes.

“I can’t let you take that from here.”

“Of course not. But I’m going to, anyway,” the man said, and then smiled, that small, sad smile. Then he laughed again, and put the stone back in his pocket.

“What’s so funny?”Alex said.

“You’ll get it in time,” the man said, and suddenly made for the door. Alex stepped in front, but he underestimated the man’s strength, and the man’s shoulder crashed into Alex’s chest, and they both went stumbling.

Alex grabbed the man’s arm as he went down, and they both went to the ground. The man landed a punch, and it hurt; hurt more than Alex had ever been hurt, and he saw thick red drip from his battered nose to the wooden floor. The second punch was worse, but muted, as if he heard the impact from a long distance. He felt something bubbling up in him, something old and forgotten, something strange, and it was as if he was outside his body looking in. The anger turned his mind black, and Alex drove a boot into the man’s stomach. He climbed upon, and drove the knee deeper, and Alex wrapped his hands around the man’s neck, and screamed. His eyes were wide, and his teeth were gritted, and he squeezed and squeezed, until he felt a crack and he felt the man go limp.

    Alex felt himself fall next to the dull corpse, and he was back in his own eyes, and his own mouth, and he scrambled from the murdered body of an unknown thief, and he vomited, and curled up into a ball. He did not know how long he lay there; how long he pretended that he was somewhere else; but eventually, he came back.

“Oh gods,” Alex said.

He crawled over to the man. He was weaponless; not even a small dagger, and he took on a man in full plate armor. Alex felt bile rising in his throat, and he choked it down. He reached into the man’s pockets, and his fingers brushed against the stone, and–

A burning pain, the most– it was unbearable. Had his armor melted? Was he dying? What had he done? The pain was uncontrollable, it was hot and cold, it was good and bad, it was something that did not exist in him before. He had never felt such pain, and such anger, and such relief, and such joy. He was whole, and incomplete; he was new, and old. The stone stuck to him like goddamn animal, it’s teeth dug into his skin and under his fingernails. Alex wanted to die. Alex wanted to– 

It expelled from him, a massive blast of pain and anger, and it blew everything around him to bits and pieces; and within the wreckage, Alex slept.

jbishop15

Prologue

    It was a strange thing, this fire. It waved across the ceiling, and embraced carpets and furniture, and roared at her, as if it knew it was being watched. It had came out of nowhere; she had woken up on the floor, and the fire had been all around her. The smoke filled up her lungs, and Andrea found it hard to think. 

 

    Andrea rolled over onto her stomach, and crawled, hands and feet and knees, towards the open door. Her vision came and went, and every breath she took she held as deeply as she could, for as long as she could, so that she would not have to breathe the smoke any longer. She reached the door, and crawled through. She grabbed the knob and pulled herself to her feet, and it was only after she felt the skin stick did she realize her hand had been burnt. 

 

    She paid it no mind. 

 

    She walked down the hazy hallway, towards where the stairs were, before they had burned and broken into splinters. She stopped there, at the top of the stairs, and stared dumbly into the screaming flames. There was a whisper, tickling her, then prodding her, then beseeching her: jump, jump, jump. But she wandered on. 

 

    There was a crash, and the ceiling where she had stood had come crashing down. Andrea did not look back, but looked forward; towards a hallway window, towards a twenty foot drop, towards cool air, and freedom. The smoke overcame her, and she put her burnt hand over her mouth. 

 

    There was the window. She was so close. 

 

    She was so tired, and so confused. Her house was on fire, and her brain was mush, and she knew why, but couldn’t keep it in her mind. It was like she was watching water; as if the events were playing out over a lake or pound, but every time she would get a clear view, the water would ripple, and break apart. She had seen something; knew something. Andrea passed her brothers room, where smoke and flames leaked out underneath the closed, melting door. He had been in there, and he was dead, hopefully, mercifully dead, and it was her fault. 

 

    She was at the window. She wiped away the soot, and looked outside. She could see people pointing, and shielding their eyes. But she saw no firefighters; no water hoses, or buckets, or even a Dalmatian. She had hoped for a Dalmatian. She had hoped there would be someone there.

 

    It was a twenty foot drop. She would break her legs, or maybe her back; she might even die. But she would not burn alive, or suffocate. A boy, long ago, had put his hand over her mouth to quiet her; he tried to keep her from talking, from breathing, from getting out from underneath the bleachers. But she had pried his fingers away, and beat him senseless; she did not want to be breathless ever again. 

    

Andrea unlocked the window, and put her hands underneath the sill, and pushed with all her might. But the window did not move. She tried again, but the window did not move. There was a CRACK, and her brothers door collapsed, and the smoke and flames poured out, searching for new kindling. It crept closer to her, slowly, but without obstacle, and she put her hands under the sill, and tried again. But it did not move. 

 

    The smoke was thickening, and she could barely breathe, and barely see. She searched the windowsill, searched the base of the window, and her hand touched metal. Four nails, driven into the window frame, kept the window closed. She could not move those nails. She banged her fists against the glass, but she was too tired; she was too muddled. 

 

    Andrea turned to run, but the heat was too great. She sank to her knees, and fell over sideways. She watched the flames creep closer. She was so tired. She was ready to sleep. She closed her eyes, and the vision across the water danced out in front of her, and she could see it clearly. She watched the man raise his hand, and a woman run. She saw the man turn, and his face grew and grew and grew until it became the only thing she could see.

 

    Who are you, she wondered. Who are you, she wondered.

 

    Who are you?

jbishop15

Michael picked at his food, moving it around with his fork and spoon. Jenna poked him with her chopstick, trying to get him to laugh. 

 

“It’s fine,” Michael said, finally. 

 

“You love Japanese,” Jenna said. 

 

“I did, yeah. It’s been too long, maybe. Doesn’t taste the same.” 

 

“You’ll get your taste for it again.”

 

“I hope so, “ Michael said. 

 

Jenna picked up a piece of chicken, and ate it. She eats quickly, as quickly as she can, and the majority of her food is already long gone. She takes a bite of steak, a drink of sweet tea, a spoonful of fried rice; Michael’s spoon is still in his hand. 

 

* * *

 

They walked to her car, his hand on her shoulder, steadying unsteady, broken legs. Michael stares straight ahead. He carries a to-go cup in his left hand. There is a beep, and the car door unlocks, and they climb into her sedan. It’s hot inside, and the seatbelt buckle burns Michael’s fingers. 

 

“Where do you want to go now?” Jenna said. 

 

“Is Millers’ Books still around?” Michael said. 

 

“Yeah, I think so.” 

 

She turns the key on, and backs out of the space. They pull out of the parking lot, and get on the road, and merge with traffic. It’s heavy, but it’s moving. 

 

“Do you still work over here?” Michael said. 

 

“Not anymore. I’m a teacher over at Henry High,” Jenna said. 

 

“Seriously?” 

 

“Yeah. I got my degree about ten years ago, been there since.” 

 

Michael leans his head against the window.

 

“Jesus,” he said, almost to himself. Jenna doesn’t say anything; her hands shift on the steering wheel. 

 

“How’s it being at moms?” she said. 

 

“Weird. Kind of scary. I wish there was somewhere I else I could go.” 

 

“It’s on the market. We’ll split the money when it’s sold, and you can get your own place.” 

 

Michael plays with the air conditioning vent; shutting it, opening it, blocking it, cooling his palm in front of it. 

 

“She never wrote me. Or called. Or visited.” Michael said. 

 

“I know. She wanted to.” Jenna said.

 

“Nobody did. Visited, I mean. Or call. Or write.” 

 

“It was tough.” 

 

Michael turned on his side, stared out the window.

 

“I know.” 

 

* * *

 

They were inside Millers’ Books, wandering the stacks. Michael had a book in his hand; something thin, from his childhood, but it dangled from his finger tips like he was desperate to get rid of it. 

 

“Are you going to get that?” Jenna said. 

 

“I have a copy at home.” Michael said.

 

“Why are you carrying that one around?”

 

“I like the way it feels.” 

 

There’s a table in the back; tucked away in the corner. It’s scratched, and beaten up, and the chairs around it look the same. For the first time, a smile spread on Michael’s face. He put the book down on the table and sat in the chairs. 

 

“I can’t believe it’s still here,” he said, almost to himself. Jenna sat across from him.

 

“What is it?” Jenna said.

 

“I sat at this table fifteen years ago. It was the last thing I did. I carved my initials into it.” 

 

Michael ran his thumb over an inscription: MJB – 3/2001. Jenna looks at it.

 

“This was where you were?” Jenna said. 

 

“Mhm. I spent my last day here, before I had to turn myself in,” Michael said.

 

“We looked all over for you. Thought you had ran.” 

 

“No. I was here. I didn’t go anywhere else. I had nowhere else to go.” 

 

The smile faded. He grabbed the book and put it over the inscription. He ran a hand through his hair. 

 

“I’m ready to go,” he said. 

 

* * *

 

They were in the car again; on the road, back home. The radio was off, and it was silent. Michael had leaned back the seat, and his eyes were closed, but he wasn’t asleep.

 

“You alright over there?” Jenna said. 

 

“Yeah,” Michael said. 

 

“I figured you’d fallen asleep by now.” 

 

“Can’t. Not yet.” 

 

“Why not??

 

“It’s not lights out yet,” Michael said. Jenna looked at him, and then back at the road. 

 

“What was it like?” she said, finally. Michael opened his eyes.

 

“Uncomfortable,” he said. 

 

“That’s it?” 

 

“No.” 

 

Michael stared up at the ceiling. 

 

“You don’t talk about it,” she said.

 

“There’s nothing to talk about,” he said. 

 

“There’s plenty to talk about.” 

 

“Nothing pretty.” 

 

“It doesn’t have to be pretty.” 

 

Michael didn’t say anything. He fiddled with the vent again. He grabbed the seat handle and pulled it up level. The car slowed; they were at a stoplight. 

 

“Are you ever going to talk to me? About any of it?” Jenna said.

 

“Probably not,” Michael said. 

 

“I’m your sister.” 

 

“Hm.” 

 

Jenna looked at him. He was expressionless; he stared at the road.

 

“I am,” she said.

 

“A sister visits. A sister writes. A sister calls.” he said. 

 

“I didn't know what to say.” 

 

“Just like mom.” 

 

“That’s not fair,” Jenna said. 

 

Michael finally looked at her. 

 

“Did you know that dad still hasn’t called? Neither has Alex. My own father and brother want nothing to do with me. And I get it. I really do.” 

 

Michael turned on his side. He closed his eyes. 

 

“I wish that you would stop pretending to like me. We both know it’s not true,” he said. 

 

* * *

 

Crickets chirped, and as the car passed, a dog barked. Jenna parked the car in Michael’s driveway. They sat in silence. Michael’s eyes were closed; he still hadn’t slept. 

 

“We’re here,” Jenna said, finally. Michael opened his eyes. He unbuckled his seatbelt. 

 

“Thanks for dinner,” Michael said. 

 

He got out of the car. He took the house keys from his pocket and didn’t look back. He heard the car pull away, and he didn’t look. He unlocked the front door, and walked in, and closed it. The house was cold, and dark, and his first step creaked. 

 

Michael stared into the dark.

jbishop15

Don't go into the Trump thread

Don't go into the Trump thread

DO NOT GO INTO THE TIGER/JACK THREAD

Don't go into the Trump thread

Don't go into the Trump thread

DO NOT GO INTO THE TIGER/JACK THREAD

Don't go into the Trump thread

Don't go into the Trump thread

DO NOT GO INTO THE TIGER/JACK THREAD

 

This site is dope, but holy hell does it make me exercise self restraint. :-D

 

jbishop15

Moe Norman

Norman goes crazy about how the golfing world is only teaching "mechanics" when he was the dude who hit a minimum of five hundred balls a day and talked about his swing was the best one on the planet. He also didn't pick up this psychological stuff until he was well into his career, maybe even after it was over. It just reinforces the idea of Tour players as Stupid Monkeys. 

jbishop15

Jake was on top of a wall, sitting in a chair, watching the snow fall in front of the sunset. He was at the edge of his seat and his elbows were dug into his thighs just above the knees and his head rested in his hands. He had been here for hours.

He was watching for something. They had taken over this outpost in the initial push and held it through the conflict. They had been besieged many times. Some soldiers jokingly called it the Alamo but less and less each day; it wasn't as funny as it was when they had a full regiment of men and fuller stomachs.

In Jake's hands was a rifle. He didn't know the name, or the make, or the model; it was gun that had been in the fort when they took it. It was an enemy gun, made by enemy hands, and whatever they called it was written on the side in a language that was not his own. He'd tried to figure it out, to translate the text, but couldn't. Once, they had a combatant restrained in a room below, and they were interrogating the combatant, and Jake had asked the combatant what he meant. The combatant had looked at him, and said nothing, and then spit on his feet. Jake hit him with this enemy gun and then shot him with it. 

Lookout duty was supposed to be volunteer work; that way, everyone who was involved really wanted to to do it. But it wasn't volunteer, not really, and it didn't need to be even if it actually was, because everyone here wanted to do it, because here everyone was afraid to die. They all sat upon the ramparts and squinted their eyes and stared out at the landscape, to make sure that nobody attacked them and if they did attack somebody would know about it. A watched pot never boils. 

Jake had found a pen and pencil, some notebook paper too, down in one of the old officer's rooms. He didn't write much anymore, and nobody ever sent physical letters anymore, but he wanted to write something down. He tried to remember his favorite Bible story, but couldn't think of one. He tried to remember his favorite short story, and couldn't remember enough of it to write down. He wrote down quotes, and then he wrote down ideas, and then he wrote down dreams. He had stacks of paper in his quarters, and the man he shared it with was kind and didn't make him throw them away, like most everyone would've. One night, Jake had a nightmare, and he saw himself laying in the snow, unable to write, and his papers were scattered around him in the wind. 

Jake had volunteered for lookout duty the last five nights in a row. 

"You want a break?" Damian said, holding up a cup of hot coffee. Jake hadn't heard him come up the ladder, and didn't look at him, but held out his hand and took the coffee from him. 

"Thanks," Jake said, his voice cracking, unused for so long. 

"You want a break?" Damian said, less asking now, more telling. Jake shook his head. 

"I want to stay." 

"Other people want to be up here, too." 

"Tell them they can have tomorrow." 

Damian looked at Jake, who was gripping tightly on the rifle, unaware of his own white knuckles. Jake looked up at him, finally, but said nothing, and Damian shrugged, and went down the ladder and left Jake alone. Jake looked back across the snow, and there was nobody. He made sure of that. He was sure of that. He had been up here for five nights, and he kept everyone safe. He would come down the next day and write again. Or maybe the next. 

He took a sip of coffee. He shifted in the approaching darkness. He watched over the snow.

jbishop15

It has been a really hectic last few weeks. I've been getting steady work, and haven't had much time to do anything. Most days I'm up by eight and don't go t bed till two. I missed one full week of the gym because I had work-related issues, and as I was preparing to go back this past week, I injured my knee. There's no damage, but it's been sore and a little finicky, so I haven't pushed it. 

Here's a tip: when it's raining outside, and you are barefooted, don't run back into the garage to get out of the rain, because you will slip and your leg will get caught behind you and also you will fall flat on your ass and it will hurt a lot. Learn from me, friends. Learn from me. 

Today I decided to try and play golf, to see how it felt, and it feels fine. It's a little sore right now, but it help up well. I also scored well, marking down a +6 41 that included an incredible quadruple bogey on the second hole. The driver did not come out of my bag for the rest of the round, and I was much better for it.

The driver has been a mess lately. Whatever I was doing to hit up on it in Phoenix has totally disappeared. I'm trying too hard now, and I can't even make contact with the damn thing anymore. Every other club has been really good, except the driver. If it would stop raining here, I would get out on the range and get some practice in but where I live in Georgia has been essentially underwater for two weeks. 

Tomorrow I have to cover a high school football game at 730 pm, so weather depending I'll try and get some practice in tomorrow morning and afternoon. 

jbishop15

THE POSITIVES

DISTANCE: 9/10

This club can really, really mash. I was ten yards on average longer than I was with my R1, which is great. 

LOOKS: 8/10

This is a hell of a good-looking golf club. Looks pretty awesome at address. 

 

THE NEGATIVES

FEEL: 3/10

This club feels like total garbage. Off the face, it feels like hardpan, whereas the Aeroburner felt like grass. It's also weirdly heavy, which I guess comes from the little weights on the club, but compared to the Aeroburner or my R1, it feels like I'm swinging a tree. 

SOUND: 1/10

I'm usually a fan of a clicky, hard sound, but this is so, so sharp. I'm the one person in the whole world who likes the sound of the new Nike Covert, and I hated the way this sounded. It was awful, and so upsetting, that on this category alone I decided not to buy it. 

 

I do not like this club. I will not be buying this club. I haven't tested out any other drivers, but I might just get the Aeroburner. It's funny, too, because I hated it at first, but having hit the M1, I've started to really appreciate it. I hit thirty balls with this M1, and that is enough for me. 

jbishop15

Week 3 - Stuff

I graduated college back in May with a Creative Writing degree from Georgia State, and it's been a struggle to find work. I had high hopes, too; I was working with (and continue on a more limited basis) a website to write television reviews, and had been for nearly a year and a half by the time I graduated. Essentially, I was guaranteed a certain amount of money (not much, but enough for me to actually work as a freelance writer and not have to take other work), as long as I wrote a certain number of articles for them. I wrote one piece for them, they paid me; I pitched them another article, they said they'd get back to me, and I've heard nothing since. I also had a really good opportunity to edit sports articles for a site, which would've been a full-time big-boy job, and that also fell through. 

So, I've been working odd jobs mostly. My father owns a small construction company, and I'll work for him as a helper on occasion. I worked as a bartender for a wedding once, a job a friend got me (I worked 16 hours and got tipped a grand total of $35. I almost committed a homicide). But it's been long patches of financial stress. I'm living at home still, which doesn't embarrass me or anything, but it's been difficult. 

But last week, in desperation, I emailed the sports editor of my local paper. I had emailed the head honcho of this paper before, and got zero response, and that spooked me. But I got a response back this time, and now I'm working freelance for them. I got a response from Uproxx to create content for them, as well, and there is a chance I could get hired on as a staff writer down the road. 

Anyways, the point is that things are looking up. I feel as if I'm finally making progress in my career. I've been incredibly fortunate to have a great support system (something that many people aren't lucky enough to have) to allow me to pursue my career dreams. 

I'm in a good place, and that feels good, and I just wanted to share that. 

 

Also, I missed the gym on Friday, and I'm embarrassed, BUT IT WAS FOR MY NEW JOBS SO IT'S OKAY, RIGHT?! 

On a serious note, I've made really good progress. I feel so much stronger even after just two weeks; my energy level is higher, I'm motivated to do things, and I don't feel like such an useless idiot anymore. I did one rep maxes for bench press and incline press (225 and 185, respectively), and I'm actually excited to go to the gym now. 

Where I am struggling is with counting calories. It's far too easy to get busy and convince yourself to get fast food. I'm getting better about it, each day, but it's still really, really hard. 

 

Golfwise, I am struggling a bit. Finding practice time hasn't been as easy as I expected. I broke my driver today, too; cracked the top of the face of my beloved R1. I'm going to get fitted for an M1 now, I think.

jbishop15

Week 2 Update

I missed the gym yesterday for really embarrassing reasons (mostly laundry related; my linen closet, I found out, can hold over 100 DIRTY TOWELS), but miss it I did. I went today, and I'll be going tomorrow. 

The reason I am writing this is because I forgot last week to put my starting weights for what I'm lifting; so, I'm going to do it now. I've already done the first day, and my weights are already going up significantly. I'll post how much they've gone up Friday, so that I don't repeat myself. 

 

WEEK 1 (10/5 - 10/9)

 

[10/5]

- Barbell Deadlifts

1: 185; 6 reps

2: 185; 7 reps

- Chin Ups (Assisted)

1: 125; 6 reps

2: 125: 7 reps

3: 125: 8 reps

- Dumbbell Rows

1: 35; 8 reps

2: 35; 9 reps

- EZ Bar Failure Curls

1: 45; 15 reps

 

[10/7]

- Bench Press

1: 185; 6 reps

2: 155; 9 reps

3: 135; 10 reps

- Incline Bench Press

1: 95; 12 reps

2: 95; 10 reps

- Overhead Two-Hand Tricep Press

1: 40; 20 reps

 

[10/9]

- Barbell Squats

1: 185; 6 reps

2: 165; 7 reps

3: 135; 20 reps

- Stiff-Legged Deadlifts

1: 185; 12 reps 

2: 185; 10 reps

- Cable Crunches (To Failure)

1: 145; 17 reps

jbishop15

Yeesh. I just finished Week 1 of my gym adventures.

I haven't been to the gym consistently in a long time, and naturally, all the gains I made from then have mostly dissipated. Not really a big deal; I understand that, especially early on, the weight I'm lifting is going to be much, much less.

But damn, son; when I stopped going, I could dumbbell bench press 70 lbs per hand. I could regular bench 235. And now?

I struggled to get 200 lbs on my one rep match. I couldn't do more than 40 lbs per hand when I tested that. My legs are struggling with 185 lb squats!

I know within a few weeks my muscles'll have adjusted and I'll be seeing big gains. But it still sucks. It really sucks.

On a positive note: I got to eat breakfast this morning! Hooray for not being lazy! Hooray!

jbishop15

This blog is partially inspired by @saevel25. I've restarted a diet and exercise regimen (again), and I've found that I've keep myself accountable when I have to do a food journal or an exercise journal or whatever. So, thanks to Matt for doing his, because it reminded me of that success that I had previously. 

Another thing that I respond well to is the idea of specifically training for a specific goal. Sounds obvious, I know, but too many times I find myself going to the gym and lifting weights without any idea where I'm going. In order to counteract that, I'm going to train as though I'm trying to become a professional golfer. I like the process of doing things; I like learning how to practice properly and things like that, so having this goal in mind lays out a clear process for me to follow. 

I also have a limited number of time; work has started to really ramp up, as well as my own personal life/hobbies/career getting in the way. I'm going to follow this workout plan listed below; it's called MVF Fitness. It's set up so that you can get fitter more quickly under a limited amount of time:

 

Mondays - BACK 

- Barbell Deadlifts

1: 4-6 reps

2: -10% of previous weight; 5-7 reps

- Chin Ups

1: 6-8 reps

2: -10%; 7-9 reps

3: -10% again; 8-10 reps

- Barbell Rows

1: 8-12 reps

2: -10%; 9-13 reps

- Standing Barbell (ez-bar) Curls

Do as many as possible, count to 20. Repeat until in 15-20 rep range

 

Wednesdays - CHEST 

- Bench Press

1: 6-10 reps

2: -10%; 7-11 reps

3: -10%; 8-12 reps

- Incline Bench Press

1: 8-12 reps

2: -10%; 9-12 reps

- Overhand Two-Hand Tricep Press

As many reps as possible, count to 20. Repeat until in 15-20 rep range.

 

Fridays - LEGS

- Barbell Squats

1: 6-8 reps 

2: -10%; 7-9 reps

3: -40%; 20 reps 

- Barbell Stiff-Legged Deadlifts

1: 12-15 reps 

2: 10-15 reps 

Cable Crunches 

1: Until failure (15+ reps) 

 

I'm also going onto a calorie count; 2500 is the number I am trying to hit. Currently, I weight 308 pounds, and I burn nearly 3000 a day just being awake. If I cut back just a little bit on my intake, I should easily start losing weight and getting in better shape. 

My goal weight: 230 pounds in two years or less. I think it's doable; they say the safest weight loss is 2.2 pounds per week, which equals 114.4 pounds a year. I'm giving myself two years because I imagine that I won't be losing 2.2 pounds per week at a consistent rate. So, a little wiggle room there.

Combine this with twice weekly golf practice, and hopefully I'll see some improvement soon. 

Also, be prepared for a fair amount of updates here, plus some short stories; I am a writer by trade, and I can't help but post my flash fiction everywhere that I have a personal blog. 

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