Past Imperfect Tense
Ever have something in life completely flipped on you? I mean, something that you're positive was a sure thing, that was stable and worked only a certain way just up and trades rules on you?
That's been my whole week!
Or more accurately, my whole life. It just seems like everything up until now was just a warm up for what had happened this week. Now I was playing in the bigs, and losing my grip it seems.
Okay, so I'm a lot into the drama just now. I'm a kid, I'm allowed to flip my lid from time to time. I mean, so far I think I've dealt with the pressures pretty well. I haven't backed down from any challenge, I've rode the wave of important revelations fairly well and still kept my balance, I've even been in desperate battles and come through it mostly unscathed (just the wounds on my soul, mind you).
So how come the whole world has to one-up me every couple of seconds? I know I'm not the kind that can just back down from anything, be it a simple argument or any other kind of confrontation (it's a family thing), but even I need a rest in between shocks. And in my weakened condition, that rest needed to be longer than normal. But was that gonna happen? Not this week!
For those of you keeping score at home, let me back it up a little and paraphrase the last few chapters, bring everyone up to speed, as it were. Earlier this week, my long lost and time weary betrothed from another aspect of reality/world returned to my life, stabbed me in the chest with raw magic (henceforth to be referred to as Glamour), brought me to an understanding that I am a mystical alien from another dimension that has to share soul space with a mortal in order to survive, not only that, but I'm not alone in that status, that I'm actually a noble from said lost home world, from which all of us are exiled (for what true reason, I still don't know), that I'm a gifted fencer and that I wear a mystical treasure capable of turning raw Glamour into reality. Also, my mortal parents have been keeping from me the fact that they are mages, I've had confrontations with other changelings (that's what we mystic aliens call ourselves), had to fight one, was nearly assassinated by apparently mortal kids who were armed with the one weapon that could kill me permanently (oh, did I forget to mention that I'm kinda immortal as well?) and I've been mostly healed by a werewolf who owns a beach house you can only get to by going through the mirror of a public bathroom stall.
Um, okay, so all that isn't telling the whole story, but at this point there's somewhere just over a hundred pages of what went on to this point. You want details, go back and read it as it happened. But to give you an idea of how wicked twisted all of this is, it all happened in the last four days. This is all of Thursday, and this coming weekend I have to go to court and try to save the life of a new friend who tried to murder me a few days back and was disowned by his own family because he failed.
Think you could deal with all of that? At least Kenny loves me, body and soul. That's been my one solace through all of this. Hey, I'm a Satyr. We need sex like some of you need water. And hopefully most of you bathe in water, because sex for me and Kenny is very immersive (just trying to keep the water analogy going).
Anyways, enough with me ranting on. Mitch drove us back to the campgrounds. He had a few private words with Kenny while me and the folks walked into the RV. A few moments later Kenny and Mitch came inside as well. Kenny gave me a nervous smile, which was totally unlike him. He normally only smiles big. The fact that he was being cautious was a huge heads-up to me.
"Boys, I wonder if you might let the French's and I talk alone for a while," Mitch said.
"But Pop?" Kenny started to protest.
"Kenneth!" Mitch said back, raising his voice. Kenny's eyes snapped open in shock. I'd never heard Mitch raise his voice to his son. The dark timbre of his voice was enough to make my hair stand on end, and I pretty much decided I never wanted Mitch mad at me. "This is a matter between myself and Robby's parents. We'll all talk about it later. For now, I want the both of you to leave us to discuss things in private."
"I could pull rank here, Caspian," I said, stepping so that I put at least my wounded shoulder between Kenny and his father. I felt Kenny touch the small of my back as I partially blocked Mitch's view.
"Yes, you very well could, my lord. I would ask that in this situation you bow to my experience and judgment. You trust me as reeve. Trust me in this matter as well."
Now see, that's how a lot of changeling conversations go. When you're split between two worlds, you learn to switch gears between them quickly. But Mitch was right. Whatever he had to tell my parents without Kenny and me present was something he had considered long and with much difficulty. Trolls aren't renown for their brilliance in thinking in most regards, save anything to do with fighting or organization. But Mitch/Caspian was someone I trusted implicitly. He was a thane in my service (a thane is a commoner warrior) and my reeve (someone who looks after the commoners under my banner, more or less the general of my army, as it were). I'd just have to go on faith and trust him again.
I nodded my acquiescence to his request. Which isn't an easy thing for me to do. Normally, given any kind of challenge to my honor, my will or just some dumb schmuck who gets up in my face, whether I can physically back the challenge or not, I don't back down. Which is kinda odd, since I still have (mostly) the build of your common computer geek. Without a sword in my hand, I'm pretty much dog meat in a fight.
Then again, with a blade at my fingertips I'm a god of war. No boast, just the way it is.
Kenny and I stepped outside the RV and went to our bikes. We put our lightsabers across the handlebars and rode out along the outer road of the RV campsites. We ended up over by the seawall, towards the river and climbed over. But even though we brought our blades, neither of us felt like sparing just then. A lot of secrets were out, at least to our families right now. It was a matter of adjusting.
"You're thinking again," Kenny said, and I could almost hear the smile. We were sitting side by side, unconsciously letting our outer thighs touch, relishing the heat.
"Was it the smoke that gave it away, or the sound of gears grinding to a halt?" I asked, getting a slight chuckle from him. "I'm worried, Kay. This is a lot of stuff riding on my shoulders now. Especially with what Mom and Dad are really doing here. I mean, now I'm a would be savior two ways. It's too much!"
"I know." There wasn't really a whole lot he could say to that. Just having him near me, able to touch me, even if in such an obviously accidental way, was a comfort. We still were hiding in plain sight on our relationship. Mom and Dad knew that Kenny and I were best friends, which considering I didn't have any aside from Kenny wasn't much of a stretch. They just didn't know about our other activities. And for the moment, I was content to let it stay that way.
"It's just… I dunno, that everything seems to be coming at me at once. It's been only four days since I first joined the Jedi class, and all of three since you showed me who I really was. It's a lot to deal with, you know?"
"Do you feel this press as well?"
"Not really. I mean, I feel what you're going through, but I've been awakened to my fae side since I was little. I've been a changeling for a very long time in this incarnation. You're dealing with that and everything else that comes with being Robyn the Blue at the same time as you are dealing with each little crisis. By the way, you're doing better than I would have."
"I just wonder it it's all worth it anymore." He gasped in near terror. "No, I don't mean it like that. You're definitely worth it, my love," I said, stroking his face with the back of my hand, inviting his hand up into mine. "I just wonder if it's worth fighting over a place we can't even get back to. Let Donna Trag have her county, I sure don't want it. I don't even want an army. All I want is to be Robby and Robyn. All I want is me and you. And to hell with going back to Arcadia."
"Do you really mean that?"
"It's lost to us, Kay. We may as well deal with what we can deal with, and not what we can't. We can make this world better, enchanted and mortal. Let's leave Arcadia to history and legend."
"No, I mean, that part about only wanting you and me."
"Kay! I can't believe that you still doubt that I love you. We've been in love since before we were even betrothed."
"I know. It just all seems to be more real to me every time I hear you say it. Like nothing else matters."
"Well, of course other things matter," I said, looking at him, into his awesome gray eyes. "Just nothing matters as much as us."
"You know," he said, looking around, "no one's anywhere near us right now." His eyes were twinkling and I couldn't help but grin.
"Oh, god, do I wish I had the strength," I said. The sun was setting and the waters of the Merrimack River were bathed in reds and golden sparkles before us. The lights of Newburyport, across the river, were starting to flick on, piercing the growing shadows of night.
"Shoulder still bothering you?" He pushed me flat on my back, leaning over me on one elbow.
"Yeah, wicked. We'll have to be gentle if we do anything."
"Do you trust me?"
"Do you even have to ask?"
"Do we always have to ask each other these things?" he asked, giggling.
"No words," I said, stroking his face, tucking his short hair behind his ear. He moved closer to me, both of us licking our lips for the kiss to come when he stopped. Our eyes were virtually locked on to each other, staring soul to soul into each others desire and passion.
His head suddenly snapped to the left, and I noticed his breathing had slowed to almost a stop. Again, an allergy sufferer alone can appreciate that kind of breath stoppage. As close together as we were, physically speaking, it was impossible for me not to notice.
"You know, it's really hard for me to kiss you with your face that far away," I said, hoping to break him out of what was slowly turning into a serious moment instead of a sexual one.
"We aren't alone," he said simply, his head moving side to side, eyes scanning the night. He rolled from being half on me and reached for his saber. Mine wasn't far out of reach either, although my Kay was on my good side. I slowly uncoiled, looking around, straining the dusk light for possible attackers. I risked a quick glance at Kenny as he stood, and his face had a terrified look to it, one that only someone facing certain death can ever have. My eyes followed his gaze… and for the life of me I'd wished I'd just remained ignorant this one time.
Jurassic Park gave us a hint at what really big lizards with long teeth and claws can do. And the first part of Lord of the Rings gave us the terror of the night that is a Baal'rog. Now imagine if those two concepts of hideous supernatural power and terror combined. That's what got Kenny's attention. That's what stole my eyes away from Kenny then.
And that is what will probably haunt my night terrors for a few centuries to come. Erupting out of the water, like some biblical demon coming ashore, was a massive dragon.
Let me redefine massive for you, and give you a sense of what we two half-grown changelings were facing down. Take any six houses on your street and cram them end to end. Now make that double the width and you have roughly the acreage that this beast covered, and from the top of its long serpentine neck to the ground was probably enough open space to build a five story building.
As its body stepped free from the river, its scales caught the rays of the setting sun and seemed to shimmer, as if caught on fire. Copper and green, brilliant in the red of the western sky, and mammoth in size, it came right up on shore, stomping with the power of thunder. As it started moving for shore, it looked at me, craning its neck about to keep me firmly in its gaze. I, for my part, had a very tough time holding my water in. The beast was power personified, arrogance squared. There are not enough adjectives with the strength to convey exactly how terrified I was of this beast.
Truly, this creature was the embodiment of everything I had ever thought of when I think of dragon. And it decided that I was something worthy of its attention. I felt very much like somebody's light snack just then. The thing was covered in horny projections and sharp edged scales and claws. It had six legs, muscular and powerful, as big around as old oak tree trunks, and a baleful stare, practically daring anything or anyone to get in its intended path. Its body heat alone nearly knocked me over and Kenny and I were, at closest, 20 meters from the thing. The smell that came off it also had more then just a heady aroma. If we had been closer, I might have gagged.
And for once, I felt no need to challenge it. In fact, I almost felt a need to run back to the RV and bury my head on my mother's shoulder. It was hideously powerful and I was appreciably afraid.
It passed right by us, walking inland with a supple grace belying its massive size (did I say it was massive). Thing was, it maintained its stare down with me the whole time. I know, it was so big, it probably wasn't focusing on my eyes. I know that's what you're thinking. Uh uh! It knew and it was keeping its eyes zeroed in on mine, at least until it got far enough away from me that it had to watch where it was going.
We stared after it for several minutes, not moving, not saying anything, even when it was out of sight. When we could move, we dropped the sabers at once and simply held each other, both shivering from the close encounter, dropping to our knees. Mitch was suddenly there, leaping over the seawall, with my parents scrambling over a few moments later. The next couple of minutes were somewhat chaotic as various parents examined us, asked us if we were okay and just held us tight. I was brought to silent tears by my fear. Kenny was like a baby, hanging on to Mitch's shoulder tightly.
"Did you see it?" I asked my parents.
"We did," my father said. "When Mitch told us it was only chimerical we relaxed, but then we thought about where you boys might be. It came onshore right here?" All I could do was nod.
Mitch walked to our circle and brought Kenny down to his feet. Almost immediately he reached out and clung to me, Mom coming over to hold him as well. "I must inform the Countess that a dragon is loose in her territory," Mitch said, speaking for Caspian. "This may threaten many changelings and she will want to mobilize her defenses." He looked to my folks. "I leave Kenny and Robby in your care until I can return. Don't let them chase this creature. Two young wilders alone will not stand a chance against such a beast."
"Don't worry about that, Caspian. I don't think either of us wants to see that thing that close ever again!"
Kenny shivered against me, and I knew we were both still in the grips of dragon-fear. It's a weird sensation. Intellectually, you can figure that it is a severe adrenaline response, mixed with a more rational belief that staying away from such a creature is not only wise but urgent. But down in the dark, hard and cold places in your heart, you know it's just raw fear on a serious Glamour trip, maxed out.
And knowing that, it still scares the everlovin' piss out of you!
Mitch drove us back to the camper in his SUV, kissed his son and then me on the foreheads and shook my parents hands as he took off for Canterbury and Donna Trag's court. I wished him luck. Something that large and powerful goes wherever the hell it wants to. Chimerical or not, it was a force to recon with.
"Boys, would you prefer to sleep in the RV tonight?" my mother asked. It took us a few minutes to realize we were still clinging to each other like escapees from the Titanic. Even the pressure of his embrace over my shoulder scar didn't seem as much of a bother compared with our mutual terror.
"I think we'll be fine outside, Mom," I said, trying to get my wits back about me. "We're just a little shook up, that's all."
"Robyn, it was staring at us the whole time. Staring at you."
"I know, Kay, I know."
"Boys," my father said, closing the door to the RV and locking it. "Sit down."
"Dennis, not now. They're terrified."
"We need to have this talk at some time, Anne. No time like the present to let them both know where we stand."
My mother seemed to think about it for a moment, getting that calculating look she reserves for when she's talking to telemarketers. After several tense seconds of bearing that gaze, she nodded and sat down beside my father at the kitchen table. Kenny and I slid into the other side of the booth and secretly held hands under the table, both of us still with white knuckles.
"Boys, we know, now anyways, that changelings, well…" he sighed loudly. "Boy, this is difficult." My mind raced back to the time before I understood the true nature of fear and dragons. Mitch wanted to talk to my folks without Kenny and me being present. What exactly had he said? Now I knew a different kind of fear. Did Mitch tell my parents that Kenny and I were lovers?
"We know that you boys aren't like other boys at all," My mother said. Kenny and I swapped glances quickly, him biting his lips back, my mouth opening slightly. We were communicating again, on levels even my parents couldn't even dream of. And both of us were caught at the edge of fear of being outed and the possible hope that such a thing wasn't a big deal to them. Still, I wanted to play this cagey. They were talking to us. I wanted to hear exactly what they had in mind before blurting anything out. Kenny's grip on my hand lessened, but his thumb rubbed over the back of mine, which was pretty much a signal from him to me. I trust you. I'll follow your lead.
"Right," Dad said, picking up the thread from Mom. "As changelings you are naturally different, and have different needs." Okay, I couldn't see where he was taking this.
"And we both wanted you to know that we will support you and help you in any way we can."
"Er, right," Dad said.
"Uhm," was all I could manage to say.
"We understand that you both will have to go off into the Dreaming from time to time. That you may behave in ways we can't easily understand."
"And that's okay with us," Mom finished. "If we can use our magic to help you on things, we will."
"We also understand that a lot of it you have to do yourselves." Wait, they were talking about…
Kenny and I simultaneously let out a huge sigh and relaxed. Kenny wiped at his face with his free hand.
"And we wont interfere. We just… well, we want you both to be safe. And we want to be kept updated on what's going on, so we can help where we can."
"Okay, Mom." I felt such a surge of relief. "Some of it we can't tell you about. I mean, no offense or anything, but…"
"Some things are just private between changelings," Kenny said, picking up my thread. "Just like some things between Mages must be kept that way, too." Ever the diplomat, my Kenny.
"I think we're gonna turn in early tonight. I wanna rest up for class tomorrow."
"Okay, honey," Mom said. Kenny and I got up to leave, but we had to pass the gauntlet first. Mom kissed both of us on the forehead, making certain to place her kiss between my horns. Dad gave us both solid hugs as we left.
Once outside and in the privacy of the tent, Kenny and I quietly stripped, clicked on my CD player and snuggled down in the sleeping bag. We were thoroughly exhausted and on the drop-off edge of the adrenaline rush from crossing paths with that dragon and nearly letting Mom and Dad in on the one big secret we had left. Just holding each other close, lying on our sides, we drifted off to sleep.
Much later that night, I awoke to the sound of gentle sobbing on the other side of the tent. My arms were empty and I looked over towards the sound. In the scant illumination of the campground lights, which wasn't much, I could make out Kenny's shadow, leaning over while sitting Indian style. I crawled out of the sack and moved to sit behind him, pressing my belly against his back, enfolding him in my arms.
"Hey, you!" I whispered into his ear. "What's wrong?"
"A memory," he said. He put his hand on top of mine, near his collarbone, just at that sensitive spot he likes me to touch when we're alone.
"If only it were that easy."
"The dragon?" I asked, trying to sense why he'd be so upset. He nodded, his head rubbing against mine. "Tell me."
"It was a previous life for us. We were living in Atlantis, then. You were a few years younger than me, both of us boys again. We faced off against a dragon, together with half a hundred changelings to aid us." He drew a shuddering breath. "It was horrible. Only three of us survived. Me, Caspian, and… and one other who later died from his wounds in that battle. We had slain the dragon, or so we thought. Just as you landed the telling blow, though, it landed a final shot against you. I don't think you saw it coming. You were hacked into five parts before you even knew you were dead."
"Hey. Hey!" I whispered to him as he started sobbing again. "That was the past. I'm not that stupid anymore, I hope."
"I just don't want the past to repeat itself, Robyn. I don't want to lose you."
"You don't think I want to go after that thing do you? I might be a good fighter, but I'm not dumb. Donna Trag will mobilize her knights and send her army after that thing, armed with as much Glamour and as many cantrips as they can muster."
"Robby, you don't understand. That dragon that passed us today, that's in Donna Trag's lands now… that's the same one that killed you then." A bolt of lightning split the sky outside and the rain started. I know my eyes drifted about the tent for a moment, analyzing how I felt about that. My gut felt tight, and I was suddenly confronted with a bad feeling. For some reason, I had the feeling that that creature and I were due for a second meeting over a bit of edged steel. In that instant of revelation, Kay's fears became my own.
"Come back to bed," I whispered into his ear, kissing him there and on his cheek. "Let's comfort each other, my love. Let's celebrate being alive and together, and let's let the fear fade for a while." He turned in my arms and kissed me, hard and with all the longing of someone who knows that life is lived in the moment. He pressed me back to the ground, on my spine, and I let him.
And although I normally glory in telling exactly what wonderful, kinky, sexual and just plain erotic things that Kenny and I do together, well, this time you'll just have to use your imagination. This was healing sex for both of us. Healing for me because we weren't going to the animal extremes of passion since I was still on the mend. Healing for him because he needed to feel that we were both alive still, that we were both safe. And it was for both of us as well, since this was after a major hurdle in our lives. We had just survived my parents finding out about our changeling existence. And we were still together, still in love, and still ourselves. This time, we made delicate love to each other, for hours. When we finally did fall asleep, it was in a state of utter contentment and peace (with a hefty dose of exhaustion). I know I had a smile on as I dreamed. I hoped that I helped drive out his demons for a while as well. We slept so well and felt so loved, that when the morning found us, we were still holding each other, Kenny above me on my chest.
There aren't many better ways to wake up than in the position you had fallen asleep in after an intense orgasm with the one person in the universe you love above all others. I kissed Kenny awake and we decided to go grab a shower before my parents got up. It's generally a good idea to do so anyways at a campground where some three hundred people may want to shower. You have your best chance at the hot water that way.
Once again, we showered in the same stall, but we left any serious extracurricular activities for later. It was Friday now and we only had one night and one day to prepare for court, save Croaker's immortal existence and find a way to get Korbesh the justice he so rightly deserves for not only betraying Croaker but for making the young Redcap carry Iron in the first place, much less order him to use it against me. That, and we had training for the four on four Jedi Melee today at class. Never enough hours in a day.
"You know, the dragon loose in her demesnes may occupy enough of her time that Donna Trag will withhold judgment on Croaker's case until the crisis is over," I said, thinking aloud while Kenny was under the stream, getting his hair wet.
"Not likely. She'd want to show her strength, despite the crisis. She might very well just go ahead and pass a summary judgment and then move on to tackling the beast. It's going to take all the resources she commands to deal with it, you realize that. And she'll have to inform Queen Mab as well."
"This is a tangled mess. If only we could get the other kiths behind us. Redcaps aren't well liked, are they?"
"Most aren't. They live down to their stereotypes, most times."
"Well, we'll just have to use that to our advantage as well."
"I don't see how," Kenny said, swapping places under the shower head with me.
"They expect Croaker to behave like a Redcap because he is one. We let his actions prove that he's innocent of the crime."
"That's just it, Robby. He isn't innocent. He knew he wasn't supposed to have Iron, and that even bringing it to court was a serious offense. Using it in a duel is even more serious, and he did it in front of the Countess, and even threw it, which potentially made it a threat to her life."
I stuck my head back under the stream, not sure how I could possibly undo all of this that had been done. It was a very tangled web of circumstance, fact and intentions, all of which I couldn't get my mind around to something that would help out Croaker. And a sudden burst of inspiration hit me. Something that might actually work, but required information that I didn't even have before I could even dream of using it.
"How did he know?" I said, letting the water course down my back.
"How did who know what?" Kenny said, lathering up his dark hair.
"Korbesh. How did he know I was even coming back? Surely, reputation alone would have necessitated Donna Trag wanting to see me fight, right?"
"Yeah," he prompted.
"So, Korbesh stages a change in dueling partners. He insults my claim of title in such a way that the other knights and Trolls will agree to honorably, insists that I'm not even suitable to fight Croaker. That's how the weapon got into a position to be used, so to speak."
"I'm following you so far. But, Robby, that presupposes that Korbesh not only knew that you'd be there, but that you had no idea that you'd be challenged, so it looks more like Korbesh was just trying to look good in court."
"Exactly! That means that we have to prove that Korbesh knew I'd be there and set the Countess herself up to make the duel happen. Everything that happens after that looks bad for her as well."
"Well, your chrysalis was very powerful."
"But who would know for certain I would be there. Even Donna Trag didn't know until… until she sent that Sidhe herald to send me summons to appear."
"I don't think the herald was in on it. Although, if Korbesh intercepted the herald before she speaks to the Countess…"
"That's where we get him. We nail him on foreknowledge and intent."
"Robby, that's brilliant!"
"Thanks." Oh, I know, I musta been beaming from ear to pointy ear. But that kind of mental gymnastics is what my parents have been training me for since I was little. It's one of the benefits of having an arguing clan like mine. You learn to think fast on your feet and speak just as quickly. Every once in a while, it pays off big time.
The only fly in the ointment was that I had to first find out and then prove that Korbesh knew I was coming in advance and set up Croaker with the Iron knife he had nearly shivved me with. And we were running out of time.
Kenny and I finished showering, dressed quickly, both opting to put on our supporters and cups now instead of later. If something happened on the way, we at least wanted that protection. It's not much, considering, but it was a weakness covered, and, as I said a few chapters back, having your one serious hole plugged makes you feel like one hell of a floating battleship, instead of a sinkable schooner.
We had one other obligation to handle before we left Salisbury, though, and Kenny and I decided to handle it now, before we were packing up. Not that I was afraid of letting my parents know I was going to talk to the local werewolf, but I thought they ought to meet under more agreeable circumstances for both parties, like, never perhaps. Yeah, never might be good. I hear that most supernaturals don't like to mix company. Old feuds and bad blood (especially where any vampires are concerned) can make for a messy meeting.
At any rate, Yoseph wasn't at home. I imagine he was wandering the beach, patrolling his caern. I conjured a note pad and pen out of the raw Glamour that seems to just drift in the Umbra and wrote him a quick apology for not appearing the night before, like we'd said we would. We also wrote a warning about the chimerical dragon, not that it might affect him, but he was kind to us. A warning would only be fair. Kenny added that we would try to see him before the next half moon. I guess werewolves think in terms of moons instead of weeks and months, which, if you think about it is not only natural and makes a lot of sense, it's just plain kinda cool. We both signed it and asked one of the spirits floating about to make sure that Yoseph got the message, paying for the spirit's service by literally passing it some Glamour from both of us. It's not like there wasn't just tons of it hanging about in there. I guess that some spirits need help dealing with raw Glamour.
So we scooted back to the campsite on our bikes, confident that Yoseph would understand. We quickly dropped my tent and packed up the rest of the camp, even going so far as to pack things that were really my parents concern and not mine. The folks woke up to the sound of Kenny and I going through some slow motion fencing drills, neither of us using anything approaching full speed. It was mostly foot work training, and Kenny forced me to stay in a straight line, not moving around from side to side like I normally do. In a way, he was preparing me for the regional meets I'd have to win in order to get to the Olympic trials. And even though that goal wasn't as immediate as the next few steps I'd have to take in the coming days, it was important enough to me that I focused all my energy on just doing it right.
And let me tell you, I wanted that gold medal. Fiercely. It wasn't just the chance for glory, or to validate my fencing skills, which weren't as good as my fighting skills, mind you. I wanted that shot at the Olympics because for the first time in my life (well, my mortal life, anyways) I had something that not only was I good at, but I could be the best at. And that is why I wanted that chance. To be the best you have to beat the best, the old saying goes. I was ready to take my shots.
We packed up the rest of the way, uncoupled the RV from camp water and power, stopped by at the RV evacuation station to pump out the toilet tank, and were on the road for Canterbury before 10 AM. Kenny and I were keeping a watchful eye out for large scaly creatures that could devour the RV in bits and pieces. We could still remember the physical sensations of dragon-fear, and we really had no intentions of taking on chimerical creatures of that size on our own. Fortunately, something that big is difficult to hide, so we'd have plenty of warning if we just kept a close watch out.
"Robby, it occurs to me that there's one flaw in your logic." I turned to him and waited. "Why does Korbesh want you dead?"
"Well, people don't go about plotting murder for no reason. What's his motive?"
"Possible, but why didn't he plot to take you someplace less public? Why risk it in full court? If all he wanted was the Tear, he could have done it someplace where his crimes would be less well known."
"Humm. Maybe he needed to see what I could do? That way he knew what to send against me when he decided to really come for the Tear in force."
"It doesn't account for the kids at the beach."
"You're right there. They should have all had Iron if they wanted to kill us properly."
"More to the point, they weren't changelings. They had no idea what Iron would do."
"Is there a cantrip that makes mortals do what changelings want?"
Kenny thought about that for several minutes. It was a period I felt would drag on forever, like waiting for the ice cream truck to stop circling the neighborhood and just pass your house while you waited outside.
"I don't know, Robby. But if there is more going on here than we suspect, deeper, stronger magicks may be at work."
"You know, you're gonna start scaring me if you keep talking like that."
"No, I'm not kidding. We could be facing more than just changeling magic here. Dragons are said to be immensely powerful, with knowledges and powers beyond even the ken of our folk."
"So you're saying the dragon might be behind all of this?"
"Robyn, don't you believe it's a little more than just coincidental that the dragon came ashore not more than a hundred yards from where we fought those kids with the cold Iron bar?"
Now that made me think. The dragon had to be at least a hundred meters long himself. Such a meager distance as a body length wouldn't be significant to him. He might just consider it the same spot. Then again, maybe we were both over-analyzing the whole string of events. Time would tell, and I had to speak to Juan before any of our suppositions could be brought into line.
The remainder of the trip into Canterbury was a contemplative silence for us. We were wary of every place that might hide a scaly fiend, of every shadowed nook along the highway. Not that we were hunting the thing. We just wanted to know which way to run to try and outdistance it
Mom drove us up to the side of the house, and Kenny and I helped unpack the RV. Thankfully, the traffic situation going to Salisbury wasn't the same story leaving it. We made good time and got back home well before noon. I quickly packed an overnight bag for a few days at Kenny's house. Not that I needed to. Kenny and I were almost the same size, he just preferred tighter clothing than I did. I was still trying to live up to the slacker nation rebel without a clue image, I guess. Dad gave us some pocket change (yes, us. It hadn't dawned on me yet, but Mom and Dad and Mitch had pretty much decided to share both Kenny and myself. I guess they figured if you can't beat 'em, at least keep 'em close at hand), and drove us down to the Y in his car.
We said good-bye to Dad on the steps and nearly ran into Juan, who was basically sitting on his gear bag, overstuffed with extra clothes for the weekend. He smiled as he saw us, but the look on his face was one of absolute dread. Resigned, I guess fits better. I imagined this is how the condemned man must feel as his loved ones come to visit for the last time before the execution. Which was a frighteningly accurate depiction of the events scheduled to come. But I'm not telling you that part until we get through what happened at the Y, so hold your water, Bucko, and read on.
Juan greeted us with a formal bow and an informal street shake and hug. You've probably seen it a thousand times on TV. You kinda clasp hands at the thumb and then move in so only the upper part of your chests touch for an instant. It's a street cred thing.
"You ready for tonight?" Kenny asked.
"Yeah, I'm all set. You hear the news about the dragon?"
"Hear it! We were there when it entered the county! Caspian brought the Countess the news."
"No, man," Juan said, looking very worried. "The latest news. Thing was spotted over by the skate rink. It gobbled up two Pookas and a Knocker before he took off."
"Which direction did it fly away to?" Kenny asked.
"Towards Lake Barstow."
"Then the Countess should have no trouble finding it. It came out of the water, it probably lives in the lake."
"No," I said, shaking my head. "There's six or seven lakes that way. I fished in most of them with my Dad. They're all plenty deep, and tied in to the reservoir system. It could have gone to any number of them."
"But Barstow has the castle," Juan pointed out. And he was right. Barstow Castle had been moved over from Scotland, brick by brick, nearly three hundred years ago, before the Revolutionary War. Once the summer home of a rich Boston shipping magnate, the castle was owned by the city now, and rented out as a reception hall. I had heard rumors and stories about it being haunted, but hadn't paid much attention to those rumors. Come to think of it, though, if I were a dragon, a castle might be a place I'd go. It was at the top of a steep, thickly wooded hill as well, which would give the dragon ample places to hide.
"I'm sure Donna Trag is checking it out. She's not the kind to make mistakes in defending her territory."
"I hope you're right, Kenny," Juan said. We were a little early for Friday class, so we went down to the changing room to begin gearing up. With all of the excitement and events of our so called vacation, I hadn't really had a chance to plan anything for the four on four competition. I breathed slowly as I took off my shirt to pad up and put the regulation YMCA shirt on over my chest protector.
"Jeeze, Robby! What did that?" Juan said, pointing to my shoulder. The wound was mostly healed now, but the scab was still large and had the bubbly look of peeling skin after a severe sun burn.
"Cold Iron," Kenny answered for me and then described the ambush at the beach. Juan looked on in horror at the size and ugliness of the wound. I must admit now that the healing process makes it look worse than it probably did after Kenny washed the iron filings out below the tide line. The wound just had that puckery look to it that angry hurt flesh gets before completely knitting closed and looking almost perfectly smooth again. I would probably always bear some sort of mark there, but the wound was healing nicely, thanks to Yoseph's healing magic.
"Christ, I never knew the wounds Iron caused looked like that." Juan looked at me and his eyes teared up. "What… what was it like, milord?"
"It was the worst pain I've ever felt in my life. I was burning and freezing at the same time, and the wound smoked and hissed like acid eating through steel. It stung like a paper cut and crushed like a lead weight. My whole body went numb and all pins and needles at once, like electric shock. I could barely use my arm and I lost Glamour like blood through the wound. That was the worst of it. The mere touch of the Iron sucked Glamour out of me like leech."
"I thought he'd die from that one touch," Kenny said, pulling my shirt over my head to cover the scar. "None must know he has this wound, Croaker. No one."
"I will take that knowledge with me into the next life and none here that do not know of it shall hear of it from my lips, least I die as well." Off in the distance, a peel of angry thunder rattled windows up and down the river valley. Croaker's oath had reached the Dreaming itself, and the Dreaming was going to hold him to it.
It took me several minutes while we were suiting up to realize why Juan was tearful and so curious about the kiss of the black metal. He was likely staring it in the face in two night's time. His anxiety and the anticipation of the final oblivion were growing, eating at him. Can you honestly say that given the same situation you wouldn't be sweating bullets too?
We went out into the lower gym, and already a crowd of kids waiting for other activities to start had formed. A few I recognized from school. Some I could place a name to as well as just recognizing their face. Even some grown ups were in attendance, setting up camp in the lower stands, newspapers and laptops in plain sight. Something was going on here, although I couldn't quite make the connection. And to be honest, while a part of me was screaming to figure out what it all meant, too much of me was concerned in just what we had to do soon enough, both two nights hence and during class.
That's when they walked in, a group of four kids, all wearing YMCA summer class tee's, all of them marching together, as though with a purpose. All my instincts focused on the way they watched the corners of the room, scanning, observant. My body said "prepare to fight," and cued from my body language alone, I saw Kenny roll his shoulders back, loosening. Juan noticed a second after Kenny did (after all, I was sleeping with Kenny), and similarly focused his attention on the advancing quartet, flanking my other side.
"You're Robby French?" the apparent leader of the group said. She was tall and had dark hair, dark eyes and a dark disposition. Everything about her hinted at a Greek heritage, which, considering the hodge-podge of people that call Canterbury home, isn't all that odd. Behind her were three kids I didn't know, all of them older than me, which she also was, by the way.
"And what do you want with him, Sylvia?" Kenny said to my right. I was about to jump all over him for speaking for me when I remembered that it was his job as my herald to do just that. It also gave me her name, well, her first name anyways. Later on I was to realize that Kenny has a good habit of reading my moods and being able to adjust for them as necessary. Believe it or not, I do the same for him, too. Weird? Yeah, a little, but it works, so I don't question it too much.
Sylvia wasn't too interested in talking to Kenny much. She gave him a dirty look for a minute and then focused her eyes back on me. "I hear you're the captain of this class. That you're some kind of fencing genius." Well, chances are she had heard. I mean, fencing usually doesn't draw a crowd. Unfortunately, it's just not as much a spectator sport as say basketball or soccer. But there is a standing policy at this Y, and others, I'm sure, to post standings for the classes, so that parents and other evil creatures can see how poorly you are doing and ridicule you into torpor. I hadn't checked my standings, although I know where they're posted. Can't miss them, right on the notice boards by the main entrance.
Apparently Sylvia hadn't missed them either. There were three other Jedi classes, ours being the fourth and last. The four on four tournament would be the first time most of us in separate classes would get to meet and compete.
"And what if he is?" Juan said, stepping forward to challenge her gaze. She had to switch tactics again, and her trio of followers spread out a little, to give each other more room. So far I hadn't said a word to her and already we had them taking posturing measures. Just goes to show how loyal my friends really are. Sylvia obviously came here to try and give me personal grief, and showing up with three in tow was just her way of demonstrating her power. Here we were, outnumbered and apparently outclassed by older kids, and we weren't backing down. I guess my influence was rubbing off.
And to think, just the Monday before, I wanted to hide in my room all summer behind my computer. I don't think I've turned it on since starting this class.
"If he is, I've come to give him notice. My class is the best Master Mitch has ever taught. We aren't just four swords in a Melee. We're a well oiled machine that will hack your little team to bits."
"Come to watch us at practice, eh?" I said, tossing my head back a bit to give her a more sideways glance. I wasn't about to show this would-be Xena any kind of respect at all. She came here to mock me and my classmates, and likely to watch us fight so she could pick out our strengths and weaknesses.
"It's fair. Besides, I hear you put on quite the show."
"Then keep a close watch," I said, turning my back to her and speaking over my shoulder. "You'll never see the same moves twice. You might learn something."
"Hold it, Punk!" she said, getting my attention. I know my eyes are blue, but just then I felt them turn cold. I turned around, slowly and matched her gaze. "Why don't we do this the old fashioned way?" she said smiling. And she reached back her hand to slap me across the face. "I challenge you, one on one." Even as she did so, bringing her hand forward, I smiled.
Her hand never touched me. Even as she started to move the slap, another hand, thick and strong snaked out and seized Sylvia's by the wrist. I'd never seen Jessy's arm move so fast as when he intercepted Sylvia's slap. He and the Berube twins had come in just as Sylvia and her team were making their advance on Kenny, Juan and me.
"It's considered bad form to act like a bitch in public Sylvie," Jessy said. "And no one goes after my captain without making it past me first."
"Or us," Becka inserted, a firm nod from Bert. What had started out as four on three was now six on four, and we had them surrounded.
"And I'll meet you any time, any place," I said, moving to look her in the eye again.
"How about right now, Robby?"
"My pleasure," I positively growled. See, that not backing down thing was gonna get me into a world of trouble sooner or later. I walked up to the mats, rolling my saber through a few wrist curls, just to loosen up when Kenny screamed out "Behind you!"
And that was it. She had already grabbed up a saber and was coming for my head. I dropped my helmet and spun through my left side, sword moving up in a diagonal blocking slash designed to make her first attack a total dud. But she was good, and her leaping lunge was just with enough distance that my counter slash was just the resistance she needed to change blade direction and come in from my left side. I ducked and spun under her arm, rolling on my good shoulder to gain a little distance. And a little distance was all I got. I no sooner had my feet under me than she was at it again, coming in with an impressive six slash combination that had me back pedaling and searching for a moment to thrust through her assault. No two ways about it, she was good.
I jumped back and then to the right as she came in again, changing directions on her. She was ready for it, though and spun with her first, missed stroke, coming around to parry my first three swings in strong, classic parry positions. You could have taken pictures and printed a book on proper form and technique based on her moves alone. I gave ground, but she took it warily, moving in with off timed strikes so I wouldn't marry her footsteps to blade motions.
Okay, so she was more than good. She was damned good. Bordering on mad good.
Sylvia stepped up the pressure and the tempo, coming in with three very fast moves, a vertical thrust, mostly to get my attention, and then two lethal coupés to opposite hips. She was trying to get her point more in position to test my cup's protective qualities. Fine! I thought angrily. That's how she wants to play it, then that's how she'll get it!
After parrying her second coupé, I riposted hard, bringing the blade up in a position where it would mostly hit her around my inner third. It's not usually a position one fencer wants to catch another fencer in, and I was counting on her lack of actual combat experience to give me an edge. She caught me in a bind with her middle third and performed a well trained-in flying parry back out to normal distance. She wasn't about to get caught in my range on my terms. I stood back a second and smiled slightly, bringing my lightsaber up to the salute position and then back down. She wasn't in the mood for pleasantries, I guess, because she didn't salute back. Bad form, but she had more ego at stake, suddenly, than the kid who just started fencing four days ago. What at first she thought would turn out to be nothing but beginner's luck, or a fluke was now an uncomfortable realization that she was in against a talented natural. She obviously felt she could still win, because she wasn't backing down either.
Cagily, we separated and circled, blades held out low, pointing at our opponent's throat. Her en garde position was flawless, completely covering her wrist with the length of her saber, balanced, poised, graceful. Her free hand was level with her shoulder, balancing her inside line. I only hoped mine looked so polished. Her eyes took on the aspect of a furious lioness, contemplating the inevitable end of some troublesome gazelle. She took a cautious step forwards, which I answered with a crossing step back.
Now, normally one does not cross one's own legs so closely when one is fighting with the sword. It disturbs one's balance and places one in a precarious position from which one might trip over oneself.
And I was doing it on purpose. I wanted her to see mistakes. I wanted her to think she had me dumbfounded and outclassed. She wanted to see a show, she was about to be one. A one act dog and pony routine with her as the prize bitch.
She danced in, whirling after a feint strike in time and coming around with a whipping slash at head height. I let her feint engage my blade, if only for a second, and then stepped into her spin move. Bringing my blade into a firm, double handed low guard, I brought my sword into direct opposition to her swing. At the point of contact, I whirled around in place, very fast and brought the blade up and around for a smashing blow, all the strength and speed of the vertical spin concentrated into the swing. She was in a bad position and could only answer with a vain attempt at what fencers call parry nine. Her blade slid up over her sword hand shoulder and prepared to block my blow, which, to her credit, she was quick enough to do. Her saber intercepted mine exactly how parry nine is supposed to work, when it does work.
But we weren't fencing, we were fighting. As soon as I had her in that position, sword across her own back, one handed, I moved in, kept pressure across her blade with my sword hand and used my free hand to simply take the blade out of her grip. In that position, you have almost no arm strength to the hand, it was a really easy take-away.
After taking her blade, I did something else that amazed me. I turned a fast single arm cartwheel with her sword in my left hand and crossed the blades right in front of her throat as she turned to face me, I on one knee.
"Damn! Did you see that move! How the hell did he do that?" I said, mocking her. "I mean, he totally, like, disarmed her and now has her forked with her own weapon. That's mad awesome!"
A loudly uttered throat clearing brought everyone up short, and I brought the blades away from Sylvia's neck. Mitch walked into the room, looking like he'd just caught all of us with our hands in the cookie jar. Kenny couldn't keep his smile from breaking out all over his face, so he just covered his smile to keep from laughing at the look of rage, anger and embarrassment that flooded Sylvia's countenance.
"I assume that you came to watch our class perform today, Sylvia."
"Yes, Master," she said, bowing to him.
"Then perhaps you will see better from the seats?"
"And take your class mates with you."
The four of them took seats on the lower deck of bleachers, about half way up and in the middle, where they could watch everything.
"Class, half of you aren't in your gear yet. Please hurry, we have a lot of ground to cover today."
Jessy and the Berube's hurried to get into their gear and back to us, while Mitch had us help each other with warm-ups and stretching. Juan was smiling at me like I'd just won some huge trophy or something, still kinda sad at thinking about what might just happen to him in less than 48 hours, but with the amused look of someone enjoying gallows humor. My boyfriend was a different matter, however. Kenny was giving me perhaps the most unamused look I'd seen on him yet.
"What?" I asked, not thinking I'd put a whole lot of angry backspin into it, even though I had. Remember a couple of chapters back, when I said I was gifted with being an asshole? Add to that fact that I was now running over with adrenaline and endorphins and just plain Glamour happy at having defeated a mortal rival, and I guess I did kind of sound like I was really sore at him.
"You surely don't like doing things the easy way, do you, Robby?" he said, leaning over and stretching out his calves against a wall. I was momentarily distracted by how well his gym shorts were showing off his lower anatomy this morning, but I had enough presence of mind to realize he was dressing me down, even as I was mentally undressing him.
"What? That little move with Sylvia? Don't tell me you're angry with how I handled that. She practically was begging for someone to put her in her place!"
"You know, sometimes I think you don't realize how dumb you can be," he said, but without any heat on his words. The autopilot, however, interpreted it as an attack, having much experience with how subtle my parents could be in verbal disagreements. And unfortunately, I hadn't fired the stupid thing yet, so he took over and let fly.
"Just what the hell does that mean?!"
He stopped his stretching and looked up at me, square in the eye. "You were showing off."
"Of course I was showing off! She came her to demoralize us, but I turned it around. I took the offensive and made her eat crow, in front of Master Mitch, no less."
"No, Robby. You saw another opportunity to be a self absorbed, thick headed, stupid, pain in the ass Satyr with glory on his mind. You didn't do that little cartwheel performance for our benefit. You did it for yours."
"Just what in the hell are you talkin' about!?" Anger was now coming out in my voice. Here I thought Kenny was on my side in everything and he was calling me on the carpet for taking matters in my own hands? I didn't get it and I was really getting ticked.
"Forget it," Kenny said, turning from me, his eyes sad and downcast. "I'd have thought by now you'd know better than to trust what's on the surface."
The autopilot was stringing together several nasty phrases to shoot at Kenny just then. My ire was fully up and looking for some payback. I mean, aside from being my lover and my adviser, Kenny was my best friend. For him to turn on me, especially in such a cold, almost mechanical way… I didn't know what to think. I just reacted. Fully on autopilot.
But something he said penetrated the verbal battle fog in my head. Trust what's on the surface. See, looking below what the banal world presented was at the core of living in both worlds, I had come to learn. You don't see the Glamour in something unless you look beneath its skin. Something I should have seen or caught onto had escaped me and I had acted more like a self centered Satyr than a normal human boy. I had the feeling, though, that Kenny wasn't referring to my behavior, even though that was probably a side comment to it. No, he meant something in the environment.
I'm not sure how long I stood there with my jaw hanging open, angry enough to start back in at Kenny, before I realized that the moment had passed and I had not only lost the argument, but the chance to apologize for snapping at him. I made like I was returning to stretching out and decided to take his cold-angry advice. I let Robyn's senses engage, and looked around the gym with changeling eyes.
And almost immediately I saw several things that clicked right away. First off, there were several other changelings in the room, mostly seated observers, watching things from the bleachers, although a few of the kids in the rock climbing club also had fae souls. Most were not awakened to that fact, as I had been just last Monday, but there they were just the same.
Three Redcaps sat in the upper deck, making snide comments at Juan, pointing and laughing. I had the feeling that given the chance, Croaker would have felt an urgent, burning need to go up there and give over a minor beat down, just to prove he was still Redcap enough to kick their asses. But he held back, ignoring them. Such a change in his base nature spoke to how worried he was about Saturday night.
The big shocker, however, was looking over at the section of bleachers nearest where I had fought Sylvia just moments ago. Sitting farther up the row, past Sylvia and her clutch of friends, was Grahame, watching me with all the intent of a hunting bird of prey from its favorite perch. But that wasn't entirely to be unexpected. Grahame might respect me, but I hadn't earned his trust yet. And a Troll is nothing if not loyal to his oaths and his lord. Knowing he was keeping his peepers on me was just Donna Trag's way of making sure I was on notice and that I was being watched.
That wasn't it though. The real shocker was when I laid eyes on Sylvia again, with my fae sight engaged. I immediately recognized why Kenny was so upset at me, at why I had made such a serious mistake in defeating Sylvia that way, humiliating her so publicly and with obvious skill beyond what any normal kid had any right for.
Sylvia was the Countess.