By Tom Foster
June 21st, 2501
Year 78 of the New Era
No one here was any good. They weren’t bad, but they weren’t good either. It was a failing that had come from years upon years of living with the aftereffects of something that none of them understood any longer. During the dark years, when the town had almost disappeared, it was by simple misfortune that someone had come to finally call this place home. In truth it had been all but deserted by anyone except the damned crows and wild animals that had roosted in the empty remains of a once civilized population. Nowadays they were just barely civilized and were more likely to turn on each other for some half-imagined slight.
One thing did keep them together though. It’s just too bad it happened so often.
* * *
Doug spat a phlegm wad onto the faded and cracked sidewalk, wiping his chin as a thin ribbon of spit drooled down his lip. The stuff he’d taken to chewing tasted awful, but seeing as it was a trophy from one of the last raids he didn’t dare throw it away. Not only would his father knock him upside the head for throwing away good spoils, he knew that anyone who grabbed it would be crowing up and down that they’d taken it from him. That was almost the same as admitting to weakness, and people in Clatskanie didn’t last long if they were marked as weak or feeble. Even their old folks didn’t like being told they were weak. Likely as not such an insult would entail being beaten over the head with their gnarled old canes or having something flung at you when your attention was elsewhere.
It just wasn’t wise to screw with the old folks. They did what they could, and too often it could hurt despite their lack of strength.
Heaving a large sigh he looked to the east, where the old road that led up into the trees wound up and away into the shadows. Long ago, as the histories said, that road had been a major highway between here and Shadow’s End, one of the longest-lived cities that still stood. He’d never known anywhere besides here, the small little piece of thing on the side of the road that was Westport just a few miles away, and the surrounding forest that lay to all sides. This had been his world for a long, long time, and he didn’t see that ever changing. He was comfortable here, and he was needed.
Only cowards went and left this place. They were the ones that couldn’t hack it, couldn’t
stand the lifestyle. They were the ones that didn’t have what it took to live through the fighting. He’d been through nearly twelve major raids in his time, all of them against such forces as the Longblades, the DarkSongs, and a few minor ones against the ridiculous group called the Holy Ghosts. That bunch were little more than saps in robes that didn’t know how to fight their way out of a wet sack.
Of course, such views were his fathers. The fact that he was comfortable here was really only born out of habit. Truth be told, he was curious to know what went on outside his little world, and why the clans that raided them seemed so adamant to have Clatskanie as one of their posts. He’d found out from one raid, after taking prisoners, that Clatskanie was desired as an outpost for the clans, a place where they could station their people, expand their reach, and even, and this had made his father laugh, convert the lot of them over to their way of living.
It was cleaner, they said.
It was safer, they said.
Hell they even said it was more honorable, which had made his father laugh even harder before he’d planted the sole of his boot directly into the face of the speaker. The fact that it had been a woman he’d stomped didn’t make one bit of difference to Doug, but the fact that his father had kept stomping until the woman fell still did. There’d been no need to kill anyone. They’d always sent the survivors of any raid packing, hurting and in need of medical assistance, but still alive. The rest of their captives had been free to go, but only after they’d been sufficiently roughed up as well. The half dozen souls that had made their way out of Clatskanie had never come back so far as he knew, but their clans had. Even the deplorable act of setting their companion on a stake and displaying her just outside of the trees hadn’t changed that.
Nothing stopped them from coming, and it was safe to say that their efforts wouldn’t be able to keep them safe forever. To date they couldn’t use several of their methods any longer since the opposing clans had figured out how to counter them. They were still able to use their geographic defenses to their best advantage, but overall they were getting to the point that stopping anything larger than a full, standing army was going to next to impossible.
They had traps that were continually checked and set according to their needs, they all carried weapons of some sort, be they bladed, blunt, or the rare incendiary device. The latter tended to come from those who fell during the raids, and were by and large extremely hard to come by. Those devices were from the old world, and it was safe to say that every one out of three devices would work. The rest just fizzled and popped with a depressing, almost mournful sound.
Their greatest weapons however weren’t due to geography, or their ingenuity, or even their blind, stupid luck. They had warriors unlike anyone had ever seen that would protect them from time to time, and who had taught them to fight years before. Those individuals had not been through Clatskanie in some time, but he could still remember their last visit, and it was with a smile that he remembered it fondly. It had been three years ago as a matter of fact…
* * *
June 2nd, 24998
Year 75 of the New Era
The thud of his body hitting the hard-packed earth hurt just as much as the actual impact. He could feel his damned teeth rattle as he tried to quickly gain his footing, expecting to feel at any moment a heavy boot colliding with his shoulder, or his face. When it didn’t come he stood to his feet, looking at the disapproving frown that the woman across the way wore.
“We don’t train for mercy here,” he grunted, shifting his shoulders around slightly as he adjusted himself. He was knocked to the ground in the next moment as he raised his eyes, his body hitting the dirt hard as he wheezed in response.
“Be glad you’re not an enemy then,” said the blonde warrior that stood above him now, blade poised just above his heart as she looked down with that same disapproving frown. “I don’t want you dead young man, I want you trained.”
He rolled quickly to his feet, shame staining his cheeks a bright scarlet as he heard the few snickers and saw the pointed looks from his companions and fellow initiates. In that moment he wanted to hurt the woman who was supposed to be training them, he wanted to knock her pretty ass in the dirt and make her see how it felt. But he was in this training group at the behest of his father, and would suffer greatly if he showed his anger.
“You look like someone who wants to do something,” the blonde woman said with a grin, spreading her arms wide. “So come and do it.”
The part of his budding manhood that would indeed like to do something with her was thankfully dormant, though the other part, the more feral part that seemed to be the natural way of life in this place, wanted something entirely different. It wanted to hurt her, to take the sword she held and ram it hard into her body, to see the blood come spilling out and her eyes widen as the life began to drain out of her. It was brutal and it was wrong as he’d been taught, but it was what he wanted, and what he might try to take if he could.
But then things went as he’d expected.
His own blade, a dulled-down piece of metal that each of the trainees was given upon their first lessons, felt heavy and unbalanced in his grip, far unlike his father’s blade. That weapon felt like it could slice a small tree down with one chop if he so desired. His father had laughed and told him that such a thing was not possible when he’d voiced his opinion, but it could in fact cut a human being in two. This clunky piece of trash in his hand couldn’t have done much more than raise a welt if he managed to strike anyone. But unfortunately, he was one of the weakest in the class at this time, and had no chance of striking anyone.
But he meant to try.
He rushed forward, brandishing his club-like blade as he sought to take her off balance,
to perhaps use ferocity instead of skill to push her on her heels. It was one of the worst mistakes
he could have made. For one blissful instant he believed that she was backing away in fright,
that he had accomplished at least that much. But then he was falling forward, the lights going out
for a short time as a hard rap to the back of his skull took him out of the fight and even out of the
training session as he saw the ground rush up to meet him.
* * *
It was only a short while later when he woke, but his head felt fuzzy and the back of it hurt as though he’d been kicked by a damned mule. Sadly he knew the feeling, as his friend’s irascible old donkey had once managed to clip him in the temple when he’d come too close. He’d been attempting to re-shoe the damned thing when it had decided to buck and almost level him with one kick.
“Eat this,” said a voice from beside him, “You won’t feel better, but the pain might go away a little bit.”
It wasn’t the same woman he saw through bleary eyes, but another face that, despite his obscured vision, was known to him. Of course at this moment he wasn’t wanting to see anyone, at least she wouldn’t be kicking his ass to the ground if he refused. When he saw what she was holding out to him though Doug took the proffered item, chewing it in silence as a spicy burst hit his tongue, warming his throat all the way down as he swallowed. The numbness that came as a result wasn’t all that pleasant, but only a minute later the pain in the back of his skull was at least bearable.
“Why is she so hard on me?” he bothered to ask. It was the question that someone who wasn’t accustomed to pain might ask, not someone from here. Clatskanie had been a place of hard living for several generations now, despite the fact that they were largely self-sufficient. They knew how to grow and sustain crops, they knew enough about livestock to keep them alive and well-bred. They even had a handy supply of fish to draw upon from the meandering river that ran alongside the town. But they were still tough as nails, no good, and very realistic folk. They didn’t trust outsiders, didn’t often trade with others, and had a general disdain of anyone that wasn’t from these parts. Except for those few individuals that had earned their trust, including this woman.
“She’s hard on everyone,” Alexis said, “But on you she goes a little harder I believe because you show the most attitude. As the son of the town’s chief guard it’s likely that you have a great deal more expectation placed on your shoulders.”
He groaned, “Tell me something I don’t know.”
He couldn’t see it, but he could hear the smile in her voice, “Your father was watching.”
Doug almost sat upright in that second, fear and anger stoking his action as Alexis easily kept him from reacting by placing one hand gently upon his shoulder. For such a slight woman she was surprisingly strong. But then, as she and her companions had already shown, they were all just as fit and as strong as anyone in Clatskanie, perhaps even stronger. Summer certainly was.
“Did he see what happened?” Doug asked, the pain in his tone telling her that he really didn’t want to know.
“He did. And to be honest, he said you need some experience yet.”
“He hates me,” Doug said miserably, “I know it. He wishes he’d had someone else as a son.”
“This isn’t the first time we’ve had this conversation,” Alexis said with a sigh, “And I’ve told you more than once that your father doesn’t hate you. He’s a hard man to be sure, but he still has hope that you’ll turn out okay.”
“Then why won’t he ever tell me?” Doug said, “One word of encouragement would be nice. It doesn’t have to be kind or even loving. Just one word that shows he’s proud of me would be nice.”
“That’s funny?” Doug asked, already feeling the fire within his heart burning again as the need to challenge someone, anyone, almost had him leaping from the cot he was laying upon.
“It is, kind of,” Alexis said, “If you knew half of what your father wanted and thought about you I seriously doubt you’d be thinking he hated you. He’s a hard man, there’s no doubt, but he’s far and away better to you than our mentor was to us in the beginning. I assume Summer has told you the story already?”
Doug nodded. She had, in a way.
“Our teacher, the man who became our protector, leader, and in some ways our father figure, almost kicked us forcefully out of our future home. He was fully intent on knocking us into the dirt without remorse until….”
“Until what?” Doug asked. He hated cliff hangers, he always wanted to know what was going on right now.
Instead, Alexis’s features clouded over a bit, as though she’d remembered something that had the power to affect her still. Doug knew little about the collective pasts of Alexis, Summer, and Alexis’s husband Kenyan, but he did know that they had all been involved in the fabled war between the Light and the Dark, the war that had ended the threat of the Dark to this world and given it back to human kind. He also knew, as did the rest of the town, that she and Summer were of immortal blood, perhaps not full members of the immortal race, but half-breeds. They would outlive everyone within this town, including Alexis’s husband.
There was legend of another half-breed that had come from this town, but it had long ago been lost to history, at least until Alexis and her journals had brought it back to light. The half-breed immortal, Marijka Cotrone, wife to one of the fabled Chosen, had been born and raised in this place in the old world, a place that was little more than legend despite the remnants that were still to be found.
“Rest here awhile Doug, then return to the practice arena.” With that Alexis rose to her feet, leaving him behind as he snorted in disdain. He respected the outsiders, but he did not always agree with them. Laying back he couldn’t help but wonder as he always did what they saw in this place, and why they had decided it was worth training its people to defend it.
* * *
“I was really hoping this would come later, after we’d left,” Summer said with a sigh,
“No offense to you and yours Mark.”
The grizzled, middle-aged guard shook his head, “None taken. Like I’ve said since the beginning, we can handle ourselves. It’s always nice to have you here though. So what’s it looking like?”
“It’s looking like the Longblades are sending another scouting group forward, with a combat-ready battalion dogging their heels only a mile back,” Kenyan said, unfolding one of his many maps as he laid it across the large table that stood between them.
“What in the world are they looking for out here?” Mark asked, rubbing his hand over his beard stubble with a faint rasping sound. “We’ve got enough to take care of ourselves, but we don’t have nearly enough to provision an army.”
“They want what they’ve always wanted,” Summer said, “A waypoint closer to the coastal regions. They’ve been unable to push any further than Naselle for so long that they’ve all but abandoned that route, and in truth there’s been talks about them heading towards Origin with a new attempt at creating a fleet.”
Mark snorted, “That’s not likely. There hasn’t been a working fleet of ships since the old world, and I don’t see anyone building one any time soon. At the very least a fleet wouldn’t be reaching this place.”
He looked around at those gathered, receiving at least one nod as he went back to listening.
“At last glance the scouts were about five miles out, but there’s nothing to say that they won’t be making their way forward soon enough.”
“How soon?” Alexis asked Kenyan, her dark gaze piercing him as he sighed, showing not an ounce of the intimidation that she was able to evoke in others.
“That’s a bit harder to say. Their movements have been a bit, erratic.”
“How so?” Mark said, eyebrows raising as he stood closer, “Have they discovered the traps?”
Kenyan shook his head, “No, there’s no indication that they have yet, but that’s not saying much. Look, Mark, they’ve been changing their tactics ever since you and your people, with our help admittedly,” he added this in response to Mark’s sudden hard look, “started fighting back. Once they realized they couldn’t just roll over you any longer they started taking different paths. They’ve found backroads and trails that we never knew existed.”
“We didn’t miss a damned thing,” Mark shot back, “We know this region like no one else.”
Kenyan nodded in response, “Which is most likely why they’re keeping their movements as hidden and indirect as possible.”
“What do you mean by indirect?” Summer asked, clearly not understanding.
Kenyan sighed, “They could have been here as early as yesterday if they’d kept a straight course. Instead the veered off to the north and south, zigzagging in a manner I’ve only a seen in a few different engagements.”
“They’re stalling,” Summer said, quickly deducing the reason for such a move, “They’re letting the bulk of their forces stay close while they try to ferret out the traps.”
“That would make sense,” Kenyan said, standing straight as he looked at Mark, “Just how fortified are the woods around this place at the moment?”
“About a dozen traps of some type or another per acre,” he said with a shrug, “Some are obvious, others not so much. Others are contingent on the springing of other traps.”
“Redundancies set into mechanical traps,” Summer said with a grin as she shook her head, the blond tail of hair that swept out behind her swaying as she looked at Mark. “You and your people are just mean.”
“Damn proud of it too,” Mark said with a fierce grin, “I’m getting damned tired of these shiny-shelled assholes thinking our town is up for grabs. Didn’t we tell that button-down, limp-wristed little bitch of a commander they’ve got what would happen if they tried this again?”
Alexis cocked a single eyebrow, “You expected a man like Jarred to listen? The guy thinks the sun rises and sets on his ass. He doesn’t acknowledge danger until it’s got a blade up against his smooth cheek and is ready to slice him from chin to nuts.”
A few exclamations earned their attention as the four of them looked outside of the former council chamber where they’d been allowed to hold their meeting. The beating of heavy wings could be heard just before the crunch of heavy talons punching into the ground came along, the light, gentle tapping of lighter claws following soon after. Alexis and Summer smiled while Kenyan went outside, accepting the shoulder nudge as the snowy white creature resembling a blend of lion and eagle almost bowled him over. Scratching idly just behind the crown feathers of the griffon he reached up to retrieve a rolled up missive as the other creature, a fiery-colored bird named Incen, held up one claw with perfect balance.
The bird’s claws were each roughly the size of a short sword and could rend steel as easily as flesh. Had the bird been so inclined she could have brushed Kenyan then and there, but he had earned her respect long ago, when she had still been capable of the mind speech that had made communication easier. These days they still managed to figure out what their animal companions were saying without such niceties, but there were days when he missed the mind to mind speech. Unrolling the sheet of paper that Incen had borne upon a strap on her scaled leg, he sighed as he looked back to Plume, who seemed almost apologetic as she lowered her head towards him.
By this point the other three had caught up and were staring at Kenyan as he gave Plume another hearty scratch behind the tufted “ear” that was in truth just a covered hole beneath her feathers. She let out a screech of delight as he spoke gently to her.
“It’s not your fault, either of you. I didn’t expect much from that poor excuse for a commander.” Incen shook herself, ruffling her feathers as though in agreement. Kenyan couldn’t help but smile despite the news. When Alexis and Summer asked what had been written in response to a request they’d made for the Longblades to stand down Mark joined them, looking over their shoulders as he tried to make out each word. Capable as they were in Clatskanie, education was still a skill that they were attempting to master.
With each word she read Alexis could feel her anger growing, and her disdain for the Longblade commander stationed in Shadow’s End continued to burn.
To The Intruders of Fort Clatskanie,
I have received your continually ridiculous message on this bright morning and have decided, yet again, that you do not know to whom you are speaking. My will is the will of the vaunted grandmaster of our order, and as such is not to be confused with that of a weaker man. Should the grandmaster, in his mercy, decide that you are to be spared and allowed to return home to your rebellious state, then it shall be. Until then, realize that I have spared the lives of your ridiculous, feathered pets only because I require them to send this message back to you in return.
The Longblades will not be denied their due, nor will our proud order be bullied about by the likes of two former commanders who continue to ride the coattails of a legend long since relegated to the overblown myth it should have always been. The world as we know it now exists because of the tenacity of mankind, and it is humanity that will decide the fate of our ascension, not eldritch beings composed of fantasy and myth.
By the order of the grandmaster you will vacate Fort Clatskanie so that it can be properly garrisoned and placed under the command of myself and whomsoever I choose as my second in this endeavor. You will have a day to decide, less if your pets are slow in returning. You will not receive another warning.
As an added bit of caution, should you ever send such filth-ridden beasts to my city again, they will not be returned.
Your Commanding Presence
Jarred Y. Woodall
“He’s a Woodall?” Summer asked incredulously, “As in, Howard Woodall?”
“Does that name mean something?” Mark asked suspiciously as he saw the reaction it had upon the rest of them.
Alexis just nodded, “Whether or not he’s related to the individual we remember doesn’t matter. He still thinks he’s a military genius and is bound to underestimate us at every turn. That works in our advantage. And to answer your question Mark, Howard Woodall was one mean son of a bitch who could do very bad things when he was still alive.”
“He had magic?” Mark said, his eyes widening. It wasn’t a secret that the people of Clatskanie hadn’t ever had any use for stories of how the rest of the world had fared during the war between Light and Dark. The amazing things that had been accomplished and the supernatural feats that had been quite normal in those times had been lost on the citizens of this town. In fact it was safe to say that the touch of the Dark that they’d had to endure and move past had soured them to the war altogether.
“The darkest kind,” Alexis said as she nodded. “But he was vanquished at the tail end of the war. If this man is one of his descendants it’s just coincidence.”
“If he thinks he’s that smart though, we can use that. How close were the scouts?” Summer asked, looking to Kenyan.
The blond man shrugged as he shook his head, “When last we saw them, which was recently, they were only a short way out of town. Anything you want to attempt needs to be done now and without hesitation, or they’ll likely be able to see or hear anything we attempt.”
Summer’s eyes were alight with an idea that Alexis could already see might mean trouble. Whether it was for their enemies or for them however, that remained to be seen.
* * *
“I said no, and that’s final.”
“But I can fight!” Doug protested, “I know how to swing a damned sword and I can take my place with the others!”
Mark towered over his son as he glowered, his warning growl not seeming to faze Doug as the younger man stared up at his father, his gaze never wavering as the two glared at each other. He knew how he felt about his son, and he knew that in time he might make a great warrior, but as of now he was still too unskilled and unprepared for what might come. He knew that others in the village felt that Doug was a lost cause, that he did not have the killer instincts that the other young men his age possessed, but Mark knew there was something there. His son was like him in many ways, but his martial skill had yet to surface.
“When you can complete a session without being knocked on your ass you can be considered for the guard, but there are no promises,” Mark said as calmly as he could, “Until then you remain under cover, and out of sight.”
“With the children and the elderly?” Doug asked bitterly, “I’m supposed to be grateful that I’m seen as a weakling and a coward?”
“You are my son,” Mark growled, “Never have I doubted your bravery.”
“But you doubt my skill,” Doug accused.
“You are not ready!” Mark roared, wishing that he could be anywhere else at this moment. He wished that Doug’s mother were here, that she had not perished in a raid by a roving clan, and that he had been able to better understand the needs of his son long ago. He was trying, by all the watching fates he was trying. But he was failing.
“If I have to wait on your word, I’ll never be ready,” Doug said, moving away as he went to sit near his bunk, where he proceeded to stare at his practice blade, not even acknowledging that his father was still in the room. Mark did not know what to say, nor did he think it would have come out correctly if he said anything at all. Instead of making it worse though he quickly gathered up his gear, grumbling under his breath as he then made his way out of their shared domicile. He had to meet Summer and Alexis soon to coordinate their part of the plan, and he didn’t mean to miss them. At this moment he needed action, a means to vent.
As it turned out they were already waiting for him as he came striding from his home, each one of them girded for warfare and looking at him carefully, as though weighing what they should say next.
“You heard?” he asked, almost feeling ashamed despite not knowing why.
“You two have kids,” he said brusquely, “How do you manage?”
“Well, being a single mother is just as hard as being a widower in many regards,” Summer said as they began to walk, “Brooke and Melody keep me on my toes continually when we’re back home, and Belle seems content enough to accept the fact that her mother and father are important enough to be needed far from home this often.”
“Do they ever challenge you like mine does?”
Summer grinned at Mark as she raised a single eyebrow, “I’d be worried if they didn’t.”
The three of them continued to walk along the main road through town as they observed the quiet, battened down doors and windows of the buildings that remained more or less intact after years of raids and full-on attacks from clans that had been eradicated or slowly absorbed into bigger, more vicious groups such as the Longblades. Summer took note that many doorways featured marks and signs that spoke of the independence of Clatskanie, the proud markings of a town that owed no allegiance to anyone but their own. She could honestly respect that, especially considering that she’d seen what the Longblades could do when one swore fealty to them.
It wasn’t fair to condemn the entire order for the actions of a few, but when the entire order operated under the fallacy that those few were without fault, then it became easier to defend those who stood in their path. At one point and time, long before she and Alexis had been born, the order had stood for justice and the defense of those who could not defend themselves. The Longblades might have sought to protect and ally with those of Clatskanie, and would have perhaps left them to their own devices rather than force their will upon them. The stories that she’d heard of Belle Roninsay, she of the cursed name, and Aeris Peders, wife of a Chosen, were such that they had been saints and warriors alike.
They had created an order that was based on freedom and the survival of humanity, not the oppression of one’s fellow human. The Longblades that existed now were a twisted mirror image of what had come before, and they were anything but honorable in her mind. Unfortunately, the order had drawn many thousands of followers from one coast to another, uniting them under a supposed banner of order and justice that, she knew in her heart, was simply another lie told to excuse the injustice and chaos they’d sown in their conquest towards power. The justifications they used to explain away their forays into the wilds had long ago ceased to be anything but virulent lies that were told to the common folk in order to appease their faded sense of honor. After all, principles didn’t mean much to those who knew so little.
The three of them reached the edge of town in short order, where Kenyan and another
member of the town’s militia stood with Plume and Incen. It had been decided that Mark’s
second in command, a strapping young man of nearly twenty-five years, would join them. His
name was Ferdinand, but most people called him Freddy to spare the time it took to speak his name. He was brown of skin and almost as tall as Summer, and would have been quite attractive if not for the horrendous scar that began at the left side of his chin and etched its way up along the corner of his left eye before disappearing into his dark, black hair. Where the scar entered his closely shorn locks it had left a well-defined line of scar tissue where hair would no longer grow, giving him a rather dangerous look that he had claimed to prefer.
Freddy was a good man in their estimation, always aiming to please and always ready to throw down when necessary. For what they were about to do it would be wise to have another experienced hand on board.
“Are we really doing this?” Kenyan asked, turning away from Freddy, who was gently stroking Incen’s wing as the bird almost shuddered in pleasure. Shaking her head Summer stepped close, addressing them both as Freddy turned to pay attention. Incen ruffled her feathers, as though insulted that he’d stopped.
“We need to stop this thing before it goes any further. The town is battened down and the traps are all set. If the Longblades make that final push they’ll find out quickly that they’re walking right into the jaws of a very pissed off populace, and whether they fall back or not it will be too late. The traps that will be set off behind them will cut off any easy means of retreat and will help to keep separation between the line of command and their troops.
“Getting to Jarred won’t be a walk in the park, as he’s likely to have the most skilled and capable fighters he has surrounding him. If he even came this far I’ll be slightly amazed.”
“What?” Freddy asked suddenly, “What do you mean he might not have come this far?”
“Think about it Freddy,” Mark said, “When was the last time you saw that noodle-loving princess out this far? He’d rather let his soldiers do the work and not get his pretty boots dirty than come out this way.”
Freddy muttered something in his own language that only Alexis understood, which made her smile as she responded.
“He might not agree with that description, but I would agree that it’s very likely.”
The others ignored this, as Freddy had often spoken in his native Spanish but never bothered to interpret. If Alexis did it would be later, when they weren’t so pressed for time.
“If he has come this far, which is unlikely, he’ll be in plain sight. He won’t want to risk moving out into the woods where he knows there are traps everywhere. And since the roads aren’t trapped every few dozen yards…”
“He’ll stay to the main path,” Mark reasoned, “But he’ll have archers because he knows about these two.” He motioned towards Plume and Incen, who were obviously chomping at the bit to be airborne, as their constant shifting would indicate.
Summer nodded, “He’ll have archers and spears around him to insure that we won’t just come swooping in to take him out. That’s why we’ll stay high enough to be out of range, and if we see him, then we dive.”
“I’m not sure I like that plan,” Mark said with a grunt, “I don’t much care to be feathered by a damned Longblade arrow.”
“Neither do we,” Summer said, “That’s why we won’t be diving where he can see us.”
The confused look that Mark gave them in that moment almost made Alexis laugh, but she held it in.
* * *
He hated just standing here, doing nothing, relegated to being protected. He should have been out there with his father, or at least with the others protecting the town. Standing in the doorway Doug could see a great deal of Clatksanie, and could see that it was battened down as always in anticipation of an attack. Only twice before had he been allowed to help out, but that had always been because they needed an extra person manning the traps or someone to help out with any injured townsfolk. He’d always wanted to be in the middle of combat, where he could prove that he was worth something.
But his father had told him no.
Doug was tempted to pick up his practice blade and go out anyway, but he knew the penalty if he did this. His father would not only enforce town law on him, but he would inflict the punishment, three days in the hot box, on his own. Doug knew that his father cared for him, but sometimes it was that same quality that irritated him to no end. It wasn’t fair, and more than that, it wasn’t right that as the son of one of the most influential people in town that he would be allowed to be held back when others his age were fighting. It almost made him ashamed to be his father’s son, but he had to remind himself again and again that there was a reason why his father would do such a thing.
Doug didn’t feel like being groomed to be the next chief guard of the town, especially considering that he was still a ways behind his fellow trainees in matters of combat training. He had other skills, but he…
His self-ruminating was cut short as he looked out towards the river that ran east to west through the town, dividing the town proper from the wilderness beyond. Had he seen something? Or was he imagining the telltale gleam? Doug watched carefully as he cast one glance back towards where he’d seen his father departing town on the back of one of the large birds. They were already airborne, winging away and well out of shouting range, but as he looked back to the river he saw nothing but gently flowing water, trickling around reeds and lapping gently against the embankment.
Considering the placement of the home his father and he had been given at the top of the hill, Doug had no trouble seeing for at least a mile or more in every direction. Now, as he continued to look, he saw the gleam that had attracted his attention again, his eyes widening as he took in the sight of not one, not even two, but eight different forms, all armored, and all floating along the river’s edge, keeping close to the embankment as they submerged again.
Panic attempted to set in quickly as he realized that a small contingent of the enemy had
somehow pushed through their many traps and sentries, utilizing the one pathway they had not
thought to guard. As he watched for just another second Doug was already formulating a plan,
his mind working overtime to deduce just what he should do, and how he should go about it.
Without realizing it he was about to prove his worth as he went towards his father’s room, grabbing one weapon after another before dashing out of his home, fully intent on warning the others.
As of now he had the element of surprise, and he didn’t intend to waste it.
* * *
They lifted off without an issue and proceeded to gain altitude as each rider clung tightly to their mount. As instructed, Incen and Plume did not fly high enough to look down upon the world from a noticeable vantage point, but remained just above the treetops, away from the main road where they might be easily seen. This was not their intended method of attack, as they would be setting down wherever they could after affirming whether or not Jarred had indeed made the trip.
It only took a short amount of time to discover that the commander had indeed decided to follow his troops this time, albeit from a safe distance of nearly a mile or more behind the front lines. He was protected by no less than a full contingent of men and women bedecked in full armor and bristling with weapons. He had spearmen, archers, and even fire-slingers, a specialized regiment among the Longblades that had been included only a few years back.
Fire-slingers were more or less just how they sounded. They would arm themselves with several flasks of volatile liquid and, armed with a variety of ways to create fire, would on command begin to launch volley after volley of incendiary attacks at an enemy. It was a deadly method of attack, but an uncertain one as well, as most fire-slingers were not known to survive more than one engagement thanks to the fact that they often carried their entire arsenal on their person. Even those who were smart and carried their liquid in packs or on carts or other contraptions did not last long, as they were in effect the only regiment in the Longblades known to willingly sacrifice themselves for their beliefs.
“He would bring the craziest bastards he could find,” Summer muttered as they touched down in a small, unnoticed glen some distance away. “What do you think the chances are of taking the fire-slingers out first? He doesn’t dare keep them close and they’re not well-protected.”
“With good reason,” Mark replied as he dismounted from Plume’s back, “They’ll torch whoever’s in the way to get their enemy, even if it’s their allies.”
“All the more reason to press them back,” Alexis said with a grin. She looked up at Incen and then to Plume, “You two feel like trimming the hedges?”
Incen looked to Plume, who cocked her head quizzically before blinking a few times. It would seem they were in agreement. It would be dangerous, but it might just work to their favor.
“Just a little off the top,” Summer said as she nodded at Alexis, “We’ll take care of the rest.”
Mark just looked at them, obviously confused but willing to go with whatever they were planning. It was usually better that way.
* * *
Tap-tap tap tap-tap. Doug wasted no time as he went from one boarded-up door to another, hitting every home and shack he knew to house those who were inside, ready to fight. He knew very well that traps had been set and were waiting to be sprung around and outside of town, but those would do no good for those who were in town and needed protection. His father’s weapons were hanging heavily on his person as he made his way quickly through the town, keeping an eye out for any armored forms that might come around the corner at any moment.
He knew the signal to warn those inside of an invasion, as it had been devised by the town council and finalized by several of those in charge, including his father. Doug had learned a great deal from his father, despite being left out of the specialized lessons he so badly wanted to learn. At least he could do this much.
Even as he was passing he could hear people stirring, weapons being drawn, and doors creaking open as those townsfolk who’d been left behind to defend the young, elderly, and infirm came forth to protect the town. The plan was simple once they were roused, to move slowly and cautiously towards the main strip, as this was where the bulk of the raids that had ever come against Clatskanie had been focused. Invaders knew very well that taking their homes would be a devastating blow, but taking the strip would be the end of Clatskanie.
The main strip that had existed for longer than anyone alive in the town to date had been the gateway between the fabled land of Origin, though Doug had never known just why this was so important. He had heard the stories of Origin, and of course had the privilege of being trained by the two women who’d allied themselves, and supposedly Origin, with this town. But since he’d never seen much more than this, he had no reason to think much of why anyone would want to visit such an isolated place.
Some said Origin was a place of power, others said was simply another holdout that the Longblades wanted. All agreed however that Origin was a prize of some sort, a treasure that many clans would gladly kill to possess. Those of Clatskanie had no such designs, as they simply wanted the right to exist and take care of their own. The Longblades and every other raiding clan that had ever come this way threatened that, and by that they had become the enemy. Those of Origin had only ever tried to help them, as his father had said, and that made them allies.
They didn’t have many of those.
He’d made his way down the hill from his home by the time he saw the first of them. Stopping behind the large building that served as the town’s supply house he stopped cold behind one of the larger trees that created a perimeter around the building, peering hard towards the intruders. They were at the moment making their way towards the buildings nearest the river, weapons out as they kept their movements slow and methodical, peering around corners and into the few shadows that were cast thanks to the overcast day above them.
There was no one within the buildings they were searching as far as he knew. During a
raid most of the townsfolk would head for the hill, sharing their homes with one another while
others took up positions near the areas that were most heavily fortified with traps. He had been
one of those who was there to help before, but this was the first time he had stood in direct
opposition to the enemy, and he could feel his heartbeat as the organ seemed ready to explode out of his chest. A new feeling was washing over him as he sought to master his fear, tingeing his every breath as he looked at the invaders in a new light, his eyes narrowing as he felt his body steadying, his hands ceasing to shake as he realized what needed to happen, and why they were truly here. Maybe it was a sudden revelation of sorts, but he could now understand why Summer and Alexis, and his father, had continually pressed upon him, and all the other initiates, the need to hold this town, to keep the invaders that attacked from pushing any further.
He’d known of the vile practices of the Longblades and their ilk since he’d been a young boy, but never once had he felt this type of responsibility, this vitality that now surged through his limbs. These armored parasites were attempting to secure his home for their own purposes, to serve as an outpost so that they might pillage and conquer their way ever onward towards a goal that most of them likely did not understand. He was filled with a fury that was anything but righteous, but still felt right, for lack of a better word. This was his home they were attempting to take over, and for all its importance, it was just a stepping stone to the Longblades.
The people of Clatskanie did not exist to be stepped on.
“Hey!” The whispered shout caught him unprepared as he swung towards the sound, one of his father’s weapons already out and swinging as a firm grip was laid upon his right elbow, thankfully halting the blow as the unknown assailant grinned back at him. He almost felt his ears go red from embarrassment as Jacqueline Imenara, one of the fiercest and prettiest young women in Clatskanie, pushed his arm away with ease. Her olive-toned skin and dark, raven-black hair shone as always as she came up even with him, standing so close that he could smell the faint whiff of her. She was almost pressed up against him as they huddled behind the tree, though he did his best not to react.
“How many?” she asked, grinning as she noticed his reaction to her nearness.
“Eight that I, counted,” he grunted as she purposefully shifted against him. It was no secret that she favored him, but being the most attractive young woman in the town and his age, it was expected that she would fall for one of the more athletic and handsome warriors, not him. Yet for all that, Jacqueline preferred his company to any other.
“And you were going to take them on all by your lonesome?” she asked with a grin.
“No,” he said defensively, “I gave the signal.”
“I know,” she said in a friendly manner as her impish grin faded just a bit, “And we’ve answered.”
In response to his confused look she pointed to east, further along the road, where he could just barely make out the movements of several forms as they made their way from one shadow to another.
“So are you going to wait this one out or come have some fun with us?” she asked, pressing against him again just because it made him nervous. Her body was that of a grown woman, but her attitude was still that of a young teenager, which he could not deny that he enjoyed. “Your father might give you a good dressing down I would imagine. But wouldn’t it be worth it for this?”
Before he could answer she leaned even closer, kissing him hard on the lips as her tongue danced across his teeth, her hand wrapping the front of his shirt as she moaned softly. He was reaching for her when she pushed him away, nibbling lightly on his lip as she grinned at him.
“Stay alive big boy,” she purred, “and there’ll be a lot more later.”
With that she darted off, keeping to the shadows and the brush as much as she could, leaving Doug staring after her. It was a full minute before he went running after, moving as she did, and trying his best to maintain his silence. At least now he had proper motivation to be defiant.
* * *
The cries and shrieks of the men and women ahead told them that Incen and Plume had already made their first pass. After that, the whirling of hemp cords and the sudden breaking of ceramic jars, followed by the sudden whoosh of flames, told them that the fire-slingers had done their work. This was followed by the sudden twang of several bows as the archers were no doubt attempting to reload in the few seconds it took them to reach for another arrow. That was their cue.
Summer went first, as her armor, a reconditioned set of Longblade plate mail that had been given to her some time ago, would allow her to absorb more punishment if they were not quick enough. Her powerful form was moving so quick however that Alexis and Mark had to hustle to keep up, their own legs churning furiously as Summer reached the first of the soldiers, her heavy blade clanging hard against armor and producing solid, meaty sounds as she used the flat of the blade as they had discussed.
They had no control over what Mark did, but as he drew his own weapon he was at least attempting to utilize the more pacifistic holds and throws that he’d been taught. Alexis had no trouble disarming and throwing down her opponents. She and Summer had been taught by some of the finest warriors that the world had ever created, and they knew how to wade through an unsuspecting band of trained and seasoned warriors as though they were mere novices. In only a handful of seconds several bowstrings had been cut, rendering them inert and all but useless, and many bodies had hit the ground without pause, many of them sporting painful bruises and bloodied lips, noses, and in one case a heavy knot forming upon the brow of a young archer who hadn’t seen Mark’s fist crashing down at him.
Their target was still behind a contracting wall of spears, his face livid and his eyes bulging as he glared at each of them. He looked mad enough to spit fingernails, and in truth Summer couldn’t blame him. Jarred must have thought he’d had quite the failsafe protecting him on his way towards what he might have thought was an easy victory. As the cries and sounds of battle in the distance began to rise however, it was a little too apparent that he’d mistakenly underestimated his opponents yet again.
“You. Dare!” he huffed, holding his hand near his own blade. Despite the usual
qualifications for an initiate to become a knight, let alone a commander, Summer already knew
that Jarred had little knowledge of what to do with his blade other than to stick the pointed end
into another person. How he’d ever risen this far was a question for another day however.
“Aren’t we supposed to be the indignant ones?” Summer asked Alexis, not turning around as she had at least three spear points aimed at her just then.
Alexis shrugged, “Takes too much time and effort. I’d rather just find the problem and get rid of it.”
“You’ve no idea what you’ve done!” Jarred said, attempting to sound haughty and in control despite his current situation. Summer might have laughed at him had the situation not been so serious.
“You guys just saw us drop your friends like a bad habit and you still want to stick around?” Summer asked, looking to the spear wielders and ignoring Jarred entirely. “You really think your tent stakes are going to keep you, or him, safe?”
She could see a few of the knights looking as though they’d rather just tuck tail and run. But the rest were resolute, no doubt because they were zealots, or knew what would happen if they were accused of cowardice. Such a thing could brand a knight and eventually get them kicked out of the order. It had taken far less in her case.
“You dare ignore me!” Jarred shouted, sputtering as he attempted to move past the spearmen. They didn’t budge, and he simply looked like a fool.
“Zip it kiddo, adults are speaking. So how about it you guys?” Summer asked, “Are you willing to go down protecting this limp-wristed little punk or are you ready to put them up and leave?”
“Attack!” roared Jarred, his face red all the way to the ears now as he pointed at the three of them, “Attack attack attack!”
Summer almost laughed at the mini-tantrum, but by then the spearmen were on them, and it was time to fight instead. She dodged one spear before rapping her blade against it, forcing it out wide to her left before stepping within its reach, punching out hard with the pommel of her blade as it caught the underside of the soldier’s jaw, dropping him instantly. She might have had a clear line to Jarred then if not for another two spearmen that took the place of the fallen, each of their tips hovering menacingly towards her as Summer actually managed to grab one of them, slicing the tip away easily with her blade before bringing her weapon across for a vicious slap to the first soldier’s face.
That soldier was still falling when she sliced the other spear in half, backhanding the second soldier with the flat of her blade so hard that she could actually feel the woman’s face shift perhaps an inch or so to the left. She might live after this, but the soldier would never be pretty again.
Three were down thus far, and as she watched she could see another eight engaging Alexis and Mark, who were doing their very best to keep them at bay and not get impaled. Incen and Plume had done their job and were even now winging off to help back in town should anyone need it. They were on their own for the moment, and suddenly Summer noticed that she had a clear run towards Jarred. It was too good of an opportunity not to take as she dashed towards the man, baring her teeth in a growl as he saw her coming.
Jarred uttered a feeble squeak that made her blood burn as he attempted to draw his own blade, fumbling with it so badly that he nearly dropped the weapon. Even as it cleared the scabbard she was striking at him, the flat of her blade rapping his knuckles and perhaps breaking a finger as she reached out.
Her left hand grabbed at his collar as her right brought her blade up and over his head, the edge finally coming to rest firmly against his throat, just beneath his Adam’s apple. She felt him gulp and then try to halt the movement as she smiled, yelling loudly enough to be heard as she bellowed into the melee.
“HEY! Look at me! Who is this I’ve got under my blade?!”
“What are you doing?!” Jarred tried to squawk, going still as his actions forced her blade to dig into his skin just enough to break the surface, causing a small trickle of crimson to burst free as he went still once more. The fighting ceased only a moment later, the spearmen surrounding Mark and Alexis, who were both breathing heavily as they’d successfully fended their opponents away, but were in danger of tiring.
“Release him!” one of the spearmen said, making a threatening move towards her. As a means of reminding him what was at stake she gripped the back of Jarred’s head, her bare hand touching his soft, silken hair as she grabbed without any thought. He squealed like a little girl as she yanked his head back, making her grin even wider.
“So soft,” she breathed, “Do you put oil in your hair you little priss? Or are there some hidden stores of the old shampoos and conditioners still left after all this time?”
“Kill, kill her, if she does anything!” Jarred said, being careful not to move too much as the blade still rested upon his skin.
“You never were that smart were you?” she chuckled, “Even if you would have gotten it right, you should have threatened them,” she indicated Mark and Alexis, “instead of me. They threaten me I bleed you like a little piggy. They threaten them, well, I can’t speak to their level of skill, but Mark and ‘Lex would likely use your men’s own poles to skewer them like hunks of meat. Isn’t that right?”
“I might,” Mark said with a sneer.
“Okay, please don’t make me puke,” Alexis said, earning a reproving glance from Summer. “I mean, yeah.”
“You stupid bitches,” Jarred said, “You’ll have nothing left to go back to now.” He continued to speak, but was still being as careful as he could not to move. “My soldiers will have already infiltrated and killed, every, last, one, of your filthy, common asses! What you stopped here is nothing! Even if you kill us, another commander will be stationed here and you’ll be driven out regardless! You stupid, uneducated in-breeders!”
Summer looked at Mark quizzically, “How did that rumor get started?”
He didn’t look at her, staring heatedly at Jarred as he growled, “I’m not certain, but it’s another propagandist lie that they like to spread.”
“Very nice word usage,” Alexis said quietly, to which Mark just grunted in reply. “No
seriously, you’ve been practicing it would seem. Anyway,” she said as she looked about at the
spearmen in that second, “I would advise you gents, and ladies, to drop your oversized toothpicks and let us go, or I’ll let Mark here do what he is no doubt itching to do. Please just make it easy and go. I really don’t want to watch you all become meat skewers.”
“My people will burn your town to the ground! And I will personally shit on the ashes!”
Summer pressed her blade a little closer to Jarred’s throat to shut him up again, looking to Mark and Alexis with a grin as she said, “Should we reveal the big surprise now?”
“Why not?” Alexis shrugged, “It’s not like his people are really going to fare any better than they probably are now. You want to tell him Mark, or should we?”
“I don’t have the right words,” Mark said, grinning wolfishly at Jarred, “So you might as well.”
Jarred was looking at the three of them as though they’d gone crazy, but as realization dawned on his face he once again tried to buck out of Summer’s grip, but was unsuccessful.
“You know what I like about assholes like you, Jarred?” Alexis asked, coming close enough so that she could flick his nose with her fingernails, “It’s that you think you’re smarter than those who’ve come before you. Whether you want to believe it or not, Summer and I are easily old enough to be your great-grandmothers, and we’ve seen pricks like you come and go for a long, long time.
“You might wonder what that means to you, if anything, but I’m getting to that part. Oh put those down already before I go ahead and let Mark have his way with you.”
The spearmen still didn’t move, but neither did they look ready to threaten them again, not with their leader in such dire peril. But was that fear she saw in the eyes of a few of them?
“Anyway, as I was saying, men like you don’t seem to understand that for all your tactics, all your supposed smarts and battle-minded antics, you’re children. The comprehension of abstract thought is well within the realm of believability for people your age, but it’s still incomplete. You don’t think around corners yet, you don’t try to understand your enemy, and judging by the ease with which we took you down, you don’t respect your enemy.
“Now, as for the matter of back in town. Your soldiers are likely dead, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to perform as you wanted them to, and largely because we, unlike you, know how to plan ahead and move people where they need to be. His son for instance,” she indicated Mark, “is a great thinker, but not such a great fighter yet. He’ll come around, I have confidence and so do the rest of us, but at this point and time he’s more of a fledgling leader than anything. He’s also a damned fine sentinel so far as the rest of us are concerned, since he can take a greater view of the world around him and apply it to whatever he needs.
“What this means is that he likely saw at least one or more of your soldiers entering the town and alerted those left behind, which is, fair to say, a veritable host of armed warriors just itching and ready to shell your knights and see what their guts look like. It’s strange after all this time that you still fail to realize that people in Clatskanie aren’t born to be weak. They’re not sissies or limp-wristed wimps that need to hide behind a full contingent of soldiers. People in this region are born and raised tough by necessity, and are each ten times harder than your knights could ever be.
“So yes, we knew you were coming, and I think we’ll find that the traps surrounding the town are rather full or have worked with grim efficiency once we’ve checked. But I also suspect that when we head back into town we’ll see however many shiny-shelled miscreants you sent in either trussed up or laid out, depending on how nice they decided to play.”
“Then there’s whatever Incen and Plume might do to them, don’t forget that.”
“That’s right, and maybe even Kenyan if he got in on the party.”
“It’s always possible.”
“Hey, my man knows how to fight.”
“But he prefers not to,” Summer chided.
“So did I at one point,” Alexis said, affecting a false, wounded tone, “He’ll come around.”
“Do you ladies need a moment or something?” Mark said, still eyeing the spearmen, who had yet to fall back.
“Oh yeah,” Alexis said with a sigh, “Them.”
“Tell you what,” Summer said, directing her words towards the soldiers, “You lot can clear out and take ol’ fuzzy nuts here with you, or you can stay and get your asses kicked with the others. Either way, you’re going to want to turn around and head back to Shadow’s End. This little game is just about over.”
“Then let him go,” said one of the soldiers, a woman by the sound of it.
Summer grinned, “Put the spears down, start walking back home, and I will. I may be a lot of things, but a fool and a liar aren’t among them.”
“That’s debatable,” Alexis said in a low voice.
Summer offered her a cool, calculating look as she said, “Seriously? I told you I didn’t touch that guy the last time, he made a run at me and I did what I had to do.”
“Mm-hm, and I suppose he broke his fingers off at the knuckles when you knocked him down, right? After you said you wouldn’t harm him?”
“He had a knife!”
“Most of them usually do,” Alexis countered.
“Is this really necessary?” Mark said, almost shouting as he was still staring down the pointed end of a spear. The two women looked at him, noting that he was likely just about out of patience and would attack at any moment unless matters were handled soon.
“Make your choice then,” Summer said to the bunch, “My arm is starting to get tired.” As if to make her point she drew her sword arm back and down just a fraction of an inch, creating a longer furrow in Jarred’s neck as he howled as though she was trying to saw his head from his shoulders.
“Help me you imbeciles!” Jarred managed to cry, tears streaking down his cheeks as he stood rigid, still held firmly by Summer. She just shook her head as she raised her eyebrows, not caring one way or another what happened.
“That’s how he talks to you guys?” Alexis asked, “And you expect them to jump with
that kind of attitude?” She directed this to Jarred, who was openly weeping now as the soldiers
looked contemplative. It would be a serious breach of command if they were to walk away without their commanding officer, but it would also be an easy thing to accredit his death or capture with the three people who had accosted him. It was a tough decision to make no doubt, and more likely it was because not many people cared for him.
“Let him go,” the same soldier said, leveling her spear at Mark’s heart. He looked to Summer, who rolled her eyes as she then sighed.
“Fine then, the hard way it is.”
* * *
Doug stood looking over the kneeling prisoners that had been beaten or forced into submission, every one of them stripped of their weapons, and in some cases, their dignity. Those few knights that had manage to make their way past the traps had fallen easily, either because they’d already been overtaxed by the march towards the town or because they’d been furiously attempting to avoid the traps that had snared so many of their companions. Whatever the case, they had been subdued and forced to relinquish their weapons in short order.
He’d been a part of the fighting of course, but had done little to turn the tide of battle. His father’s blades had availed him no special skill or insight on how to incapacitate another, and had worked largely for defense until Jacqueline had found him. She had done her best to finish those few opponents he engaged, smiling at him after it was over. Any other person might have chided his lack of skill, but Jacqueline said nothing other than a heartfelt thanks for joining the fray, and had even stayed with him even up to this point, when they stood facing the prisoners, wondering just what would be done with them.
“Your dad’s probably going to be pissed,” she said with a grin.
“Likely,” he said with a sigh, “But it was worth it.”
“Of course it was,” she said, nudging his elbow, “You saved the town after all. He couldn’t possibly be disappointed in that.”
“This is my dad we’re talking about,” Doug said solemnly.
“Oh I think he might surprise you this time,” she said, pressing close as she rested her head against his shoulder, “Even your old man can’t be too upset that you helped spot the intruders.”
That got Doug to thinking about something that had been troubling him since he’d seen the first few warriors filing into the town proper.
“What were you all doing in town? I’d thought you’d all gone to face the enemy.”
“Does it really matter?” Jacqueline said, casting her eyes down.
“It should,” he almost growled, “But considering that our home is safe for the time being, I guess not.”
This elicited a grin from Jacqueline, who thrust her arm through his, snuggling up against him as she said, “You showed you’re ready today Doug, that’s all that matters.”
Looking up from the prisoners he could see several forms approaching from the east,
each of them appearing whole and well enough. He could almost make out the form of his father,
as well as Summer and Alexis. Doug couldn’t help but inhale sharply, grateful in that moment for Jacqueline as she remained beside him, squeezing his arm in support as they awaited the arrival of his father. He had some explaining to do.