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Authors: Stuart Jaffe

Tags: #Magic, #xena, #blues, #apocalypse, #tattoos, #katana

The Way of the Sword and Gun (5 page)

BOOK: The Way of the Sword and Gun
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Owl sheathed his sword. "I can see you're tough. You don't even blink at the sight of a sword."

"That's right. I ain't scared of blades."

With a swift motion, Owl pulled out his gun. "How about bullets? You scared of them?" The two thugs stepped away from the woman. Owl went on, "Run away now, little boys, or I'll shoot you both."

They were gone before the woman had a chance to move. As Owl holstered his weapon, she hurried up to him. "Thank you," she said. "Thank you so much. They would've . . ."

"No problem," Owl said and headed back up the alley.

"Wait," the woman said. When Owl turned, she paused, her face a mixture of confusion and relief. Finally, she put out her hand. "I'm Galba."

Owl frowned as he stared at her hand. He tried to focus, but the image kept blurring, then doubling. He wanted to introduce himself, but his mouth felt like it was filled with feathers.

"Are you okay?" Galba asked.

He saw her concerned expression for a moment, but then the edges of his sight clouded over. The clouding closed in, crowding out her face. And bright — the clouding was a bright mash of white and purple and blue and green.

"I'm drunk," he managed to say.

Then he passed out.

 

* * * *

 

From the depths of his sleep, Owl dreamed of his youth. The Korstraprime season had been upon him — cold winds, dry air, and nothing growing in the ground. Owl had been sitting with his back against a building in the town of Retic's Grove. He was just a kid. His parents had abandoned him to an orphanage — or what passed for an orphanage — when he was born. The place forever smelled of rotting fish. And as he grew, as soon as he thought he could survive on his own, he left that awful place.

Except there were plenty of things they did for him that he never thought about. Even with the big things, like food, he had assumed he could fend for himself. But the world slapped down those who thought they could do better than everyone else, and Owl soon found himself crying in an alleyway, desperate with hunger. That's when Brother X walked by, picked him up, and brought him to the Order. If Brother X had not stopped, had not acted, Owl would have starved. Yet as his brain recalled what a wonderful man Brother X had been, it also recalled the horror the man had created.

With a startled snort, Owl awoke.

He sat up in a hardwood bed, and his head spun with his stomach. He had never been much of a drinker. The previous night returned to him in bits — a lot of alcohol, an alley, and sadness. Great, overwhelming sadness. That part hadn't left him.

Before he could dwell on the loss of Chief Master, Owl rubbed his eyes and tried to figure out where he was. A patched, stained blanket that smelled of old cedar covered him. He was in a small room — he could almost touch the opposite wall — that held the bed and a three-drawer dresser. A closed, green-chipped door and a filthy, curtained window blocked out the rest of the world.

Though clothed, his coat, shoes, sword, and gun had been removed and laid on the top of the dresser. He heard muffled voices coming up through the floorboards. Wherever he was, he was on the second floor.

With shaky legs, he rose from the bed and put on his shoes. His mouth tasted of stale vomit, but he couldn't produce enough spit to change that. His body wavered, and he grabbed the dresser to steady himself.

Pathetic. He had been too slow, too weak, to protect Chief Master. He had been worthless fighting against Brother X. He had to play dead like a coward. Walking miles alone until he reached a town only pounded in how worthless he was — the horses didn't even wait for him. And he got pissed-drunk.

Owl put on his weapon belt, sheathed his sword, and picked up his gun. He stared at it a moment. From his pocket, he pulled out a red-painted bullet — the Honor Bullet.

Everyone trained in the Way of the Sword and Gun carried an Honor Bullet. It was a totem, a reminder, and a threat. It was a symbol of one's accomplishments in training and of one's honor. And should one shame the name of the Way, it was to be used on oneself.

Owl loaded the gun with the Honor Bullet. He inhaled sharply and placed the gun at his temple. He closed his eyes.

"Chief Master," he whispered, "forgive me for failing you."

Owl's finger put pressure on the trigger, but before he could set the gun off, someone knocked on the door.

"You awake in there?" a soft voice asked. "Breakfast'll be ready in just a few minutes. Why don't you clean up and join us?"

The savory aroma of cooking meat hit his senses — churning his stomach and sparking a memory from the night before. Somebody had helped him while he had wandered the streets. He was in somebody's home. He would only further his shame by committing an honor suicide here. And though his stomach rebelled, it was enough to lower Owl's hand.

Besides, if he had learned anything growing up, it was never to walk away from a good meal. He wanted to find out who had done this cooking and what she wanted.

He could kill himself later.

Holstering his weapon, Owl opened the door, and headed downstairs. His balance had not fully returned, and he found negotiating the narrow stairs to be a challenge. But when he entered the kitchen, he knew he had done the right thing — this was no place for suicide.

Watching the kitchen activity was like watching a song performed by expert musicians. A young lady moved from a wood stove to a chopping board and back, dashing ingredients and stirring a pot, cutting a vegetable and tasting a sauce — all with a dancer's grace. A wooden table took up the center of the room, and seated there, Owl saw an old couple. They also watched the young lady with expressions of admiration.

When the old lady looked back and saw Owl, her face brightened. She brushed her forefinger across her forehead — a quick prayer — and said, "Praise Kryssta, you're okay."

All eyes turned to Owl. The faces smiled. The old man, far more wrinkled than his wife, took her by the hand. With his free hand, he pushed back a chair. "Please, join us."

Owl gratefully sat. His legs had already grown wobbly. The young lady plated breakfast and served the food — a mound of seasoned blue-roller eggs with a light vegetable sauce on top.

"For my hero," she said. "Don't worry if you can't eat. You were quite unwell last night."

"Your hero?" Owl asked. His stomach surprised him by suddenly craving the food. He dug in, the flavors delightful on his tongue — even if he needed a bit of water to get it down.

"You don't remember? You saved me from those disgusting scum. Scared them off with your gun? I'm Galba. Remember?"

Owl rubbed his head, his finger lingering on the small indent left from his gun. "Thank you for the food."

"It's the least I can do."

To the older couple, Owl said, "You've raised a fine daughter."

They laughed. The old man said, "Galba's not ours. We rent a room upstairs."

"We do have a child, though," the woman said with eagerness in her eyes. And sadness. Both glistened there in a way the worried Owl. "He's a man now, but he's always a child to me."

The old man patted her hand. "Forgive us for imposing, but we couldn't help noticing your weapons. You are one of the Guardians of the Order of Kryssta, yes? The sword and gun?"

Keeping his eyes on his food, Owl forced down a bite of egg and nodded. The old couple both let out a relieved sigh.

"You see," Galba said to them. "I told you he's for real. He'll help. He's a true hero."

Owl cringed inside.

"I've always heard about you men," the old man said. "Lots of stories, but I figured there had to be some truth. I just never had the chance to travel the distance to find you."

"Don't fawn, dear," his wife said.

"Oh, sorry. She's right. I get carried away. But you're really here. Kryssta has helped us greatly today. So, let me get it out then. This is all about our son. He ran off to the Southern countries about a year ago," the man said. "I suppose he was looking for an adventure or was acting like a wild youth. I'm guessing a woman was involved."

The man's wife hit his bicep, glanced at Galba, and dabbed at the tears on her cheeks. "We hear such terrible things about Corlin. That country is crazy. No police, no law, total anarchy. He could be killed and nobody would care."

"Please, help us."

Owl frowned. "What can I do?"

"Only a strong man, a man trained in the Way, could survive down there. Please, go find our boy. Bring him back."

Owl placed the forkful of eggs back on his plate and pushed away from the table. "I'm sorry," he said. "There's a lot that's happened and I don't think I'm the man you want."

Panic filled the old woman's face. "You must. Please. I beg you. Our dear son. Our Fawbry. He's not a warrior. He's not brave like you. Those animals down there will destroy him. We heard that he might've even gone into the Freelands."

"If he can go there, then he's stronger than you think."

"It's that wretched whore he's with," the old woman said.

The old man glanced at Galba, then spoke in a lower tone to Owl as if Galba couldn't hear in such a small room. "A merchant came up from Corlin a few months back and described this group of vigilantes led by some woman called Malja. A man in that group sounded a lot like our Fawbry."

Owl's attention snapped into focus. "Did you say Malja?"

"Supposedly she and Fawbry and some kid have been causing a lot of trouble down there."

The old woman rubbed her red eyes but couldn't stop the tears from falling. "He's a good boy. He wouldn't be doing any of that on his own. She's manipulated him."

"You're sure the name was Malja?"

The couple nodded. They wanted to say more but Owl's sudden intensity stopped them. He could see it on their faces — hope.

Owl had heard about Malja, the great warrior woman of the South. The Order always figured that any serious threat to Penmarvia would come from the South, and she was the name that continually found its way up to them. Part of his training had been in dealing with attacks from primitive warriors like her. The Masters always said that was the real threat. They never had expected to be hurt by their own Queen.

Now they were all gone. All the Masters, all the Guardians, the entire Order. Only he and Brother X remained.

And yet, like a sign from the brother god Kryssta, the name of Malja returns. If he could get her to help him, he could bring to Queen Salia the very attack the Northern countries feared. He could clean off his shame and put away his Honor Bullet. And if he died in this attempt, it would be with honor of its own.

"Yes," he said to the stunned couple. "I'll find your boy."

 

 

 

Malja

 

 

Whoever had attacked Tommy made no effort to hide their tracks. Throughout the night Malja and Fawbry followed the hoof prints in the dirt road, and the trail never once left. When dawn arrived, they were able to ride faster.

"What kind of idiots take a boy and just follow the road?" Fawbry asked.

"They want to be found or they don't fear being found. Either way is not good."

Throughout the night, Malja's focus had been on following the trail. She blotted all else out for fear of losing Tommy in the dark. With the sun up, seeing the trail with ease, her brain had the chance to wander, and though she wished otherwise, she kept seeing that portal, that woman, that world.

Her Uncle Gregor — the man who found her in the wild and raised her as his own — taught her that she had to pay the dead their honor. He said that whenever she killed a man or a beast, she had to spend a little time thinking on this life she took. If not, the dead would haunt her. But the portal haunted her more.

This wasn't a life she took, and no matter how much she thought on it, it wouldn't leave her. It only got worse. This was another world she had denied herself — sacrificed. That she had done so to save Tommy and to hurt the evil magicians Jarik and Callib, only heightened her sense of loss. After all, what choice did she really have?

Except she had been truly tempted.

If she had just stepped through, she would have been free from all this. She would be in a civilized world instead of traipsing through the morning, hoping not to see any more blood. She might even be happy. And, without a doubt, she wouldn't have to kill people or worry about paying them their honor.

"Over here," Fawbry said, pointing to an opening in the trees.

Malja had been so wrapped in her thoughts, she missed when the trail broke off. Fawbry didn't comment but she could tell he knew what she had been thinking about — when she was supposed to be looking for Tommy no less. Scowling, she turned her horse around and followed Fawbry into the forest. Within minutes, they heard voices.

"Dismount," she whispered.

They tied the horses to a tree and headed toward the sounds. Malja pulled Viper from its custom sheath. Fawbry crouched as they moved in, pulling out a skinning knife. When they heard an angry shout, they ducked behind some pines and spied on a small campfire surrounded by two horses, two men, and Tommy.

BOOK: The Way of the Sword and Gun
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