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Rated: E · Chapter · Action/Adventure · #2190495
The Hero with a Thousand Faces

The Hero with a Thousand Faces

“I fear your spirit has become another victim of your bow.”

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Ezru Plains
Beyond Westwood Forest
Diamond (April) 26, 2013

Malcolm was two paces from the tent when he heard a sudden click—

His nostrils flared, suddenly filled with the scent of rain. He was all too aware of the absence where his bow should be, as useless to him now as it would be with an assassin’s blade between his shoulders. He planted one foot, pivoting backwards and dropping into a defensive stance.

The flap before him rustled, leaving him face to face with a somber-looking gentleman.

Click went the man’s ebony cane as it found the hard earth outside the tent.

The man had a long face, dark hair shot with gray at the temples, and a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. The sight of a Veil’driel sharpshooter, tensed to strike, didn’t rattle him one iota – and it was this, more than anything, that told Malcolm what he needed to know.

This man was no enemy.

If he were, he’d be scared to death.

The gentleman shifted, sliding his cane so he could lean against it with both arms. Malcolm only realized, much later, that he couldn’t have thought up a less threatening posture if he tried. The stranger’s eyes barely moved, but his eyebrows were as expressive as semaphore flags.

“Your hand-to-hand stance is good, bowman. Ramsel, isn’t it? A subtle art for subtle men.”

“Yes, sir,” said Malcolm. “An archer must have a means of defense in close quarters.”

The man straightened the downturned collar of his hood as he thought. The garment was edged with a bit of ermine fur, even in this heat, and the little touch made Malcolm think suddenly of home. At length, the gentleman’s smile grew a touch wider and warmer.

“Your instincts serve you well. If I might demonstrate—”

He waited an instant for Malcolm, who gave his leave by the slightest nod. Sure enough, the stranger tapped his cane on the ground three times more, and Malcolm became ever more certain there was a steely something sounding off within the rich wood.

“It’s unlawful to carry a weapon in the general’s presence,” Malcolm said. The fellow gave a meaningful look, a small twitch of one august eyebrow. “For civilians.”

“And if I were to say it was the weapon that was carrying me?”

“I’d answer: It’s obvious you don’t need it. Not the way you stopped short when you saw me.”

“On that point, you are correct – though I think you’ll find it’s not unlawful, merely a breach of etiquette.” The visitor’s eyebrows rose in tandem. “With protectors like you, I’m sure the general has nothing to worry about.” Glancing up, his head flicked one way and another as if considering imaginary alternatives. “Besides, if he thinks me a pest, he could simply wring my neck.”

Malcolm hadn’t meant to smile, but he did.

“That he could do, sir.” At last, Malcolm stepped aside. “Good day to you.”

“And to you, bowman,” said the stranger. “I’m sure we’ll be meeting again.”

As the man continued on behind him, Malcolm caught sight of something in the grass and bent to retrieve it. Each movement was slow and deliberate, conserving his strength like a panther – and hiding, perhaps, that it was all a ruse. He plucked up the clover from the ground—

Then irritably dismantled it with a few flicks of his fingers, watching the petals fall.

He didn’t move on until he could no longer hear the tapping of the stranger’s cane.

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Malcolm was familiar with Creed’s tent. All too familiar.

He had been here many times; morning, noon, and night, with warning and without, alone or under the heat of Thean’s adamant gaze – though that was less frequent these days.

The furniture was sparse, only a fine linen screen guarding the general’s private things from inquisitive minds.

Sometimes there was an acrid smell of sweat, others the sweet scent of fine bourbon. Sometimes there was a senator and his gangly scribe; others, just the senator. Often, now, Creed stood alone.

Today, there was a cat.

It was a rangy, grayish thing, practically a kitten, and it pushed itself at Malcolm’s ankle with single-minded determination as he entered. The bowman stood at rapt attention, his gaze directed firmly across the room to where Creed sat, absorbed in writing.

The general paid neither one of them the least bit of notice.

His quill scratched on and on.

The cat continued to work its ears into Malcolm’s ankle as though he were made of tuna.

They always know which ones hate cats, don’t they?

With great care, Malcolm slipped his foot under the beast and pushed – gently, but firmly.

It retreated under the desk, slitted eyes watching him.

—ind rest, bowman?

Malcolm’s gaze focused again, and his brow knit in confusion.

“I’m sorry, sir?”

“Did you find rest?” Creed said again. He had finished his writing and was leaning forward on the desk, great forearms splayed over the newly-completed work. “I understand your last mission took longer than expected.”

“Yes, sir,” Malcolm answered. “It did.”

“Have a seat,” said Creed, sitting back as he did. “Relax yourself.”

The commander watched as Malcolm complied, their eyes meeting for a long moment. Blue, Malcolm found himself thinking – a shade he was more used to seeing somewhere else. There was something steadying about the sight of Creed. Reassuring. Like a good weapon.

But not relaxing.

Stretching one great arm to the corner of the tent, Creed unfolded the top of what Malcolm had first taken to be a large, lacquerware chest: New to the room, but nothing remarkable. As Creed gave it a tug, it splayed open into something quite remarkable indeed. A gramophone.

Even Malcolm’s powers of perception could not have spotted it—

Because, quite simply, he had only heard of them – never seen one.

“Are you at all familiar with this type of apparatus, Bowman Hawkins?”

Malcolm’s eyes wheeled idly from the machine back to Creed’s mouth.

“For the most part, I guess. I’ve heard it traps music in wax like the daguerreotype traps light.”

“A fair description. And have you ever had occasion to listen to one?”

“No, sir,” said Malcolm, and couldn’t help but add: “They’re pretty new.”

Creed let out a thoughtful, wordless rumble and pushed the gramophone’s needle forward with a big, callused thumb. The wax disk was already in place, and as soon as the needle settled into its groove, the great brass horn began to vibrate. As the general settled back, music poured from the machine as bright and clear as if the two were seated in front of a chamber orchestra. The lead vocalist was a woman: Her voice, soft as falling snow at first, grew more powerful with every note that rolled over them.

Malcolm let his eyes close for a moment—

It was just like listening to his own mother. Long ago, before he’d gone out on the tundra.

He could appreciate that feeling, exult in it; but even then, he couldn’t ignore Creed’s gaze.

Judging him and measuring—

Yet, Malcolm was moved to let a wistful sigh hum between his teeth as the woman’s voice soared far above the reverent, chanting chorus, adding new resonance to the men’s voices. It was like breathing the air of home, alive with the language that was only spoken there.

And that, surely, was what Creed had intended.

“I take it you have heard this composition,” said Creed, drawing his protégé to the present.

“Yes, general,” Malcolm said, his eyes drifting open a few seconds behind his words. “I have.”

Along with everyone else in Winterwine, he thought, the idea bracing him.

Creed went on: “The rendition by Julia Duchenne is the first ever to be pressed in wax.”

Duchenne! Malcolm thought, his talk with the gentleman returning unbidden to his mind’s eye. His fingers flicked together, almost making a fist, as he chided himself for not recognizing the tribune elected to serve his own birthplace; but then, that man had no accent at all.

Malcolm’s fist tightened, but then he let it fall slack, open-palmed.

Creed was still observing him closely, like some sort of interesting bug.

“It leaves me with one question, though,” Malcolm said.

“And what is that?”

Malcolm cocked an ear, though he needed no reminder of those lyrics.

And he said, “What can a raven eat?”

His gaze flicked up Creed’s face, the unaccustomed eye contact seeming all the more forceful as Lady Duchenne ended her recitation on that very beat. Malcolm could see in Creed’s eyes, if he could see anything there at all, that his commander did not get the joke.

And therefore, did not know the words.

And that was funny.

Creed began to chuckle, and Malcolm followed suit a second later. Then the general pulled the pin away from the wax with a brief, loud shriek. With Malcolm centered in his sights, he spoke slowly, almost casually.

“You know, I’ve been corresponding with your father.” Malcolm did not respond. The silence, stripped of the bard’s voice, was even heavier than it had been. “Seems you’re something of a legend back home. He’s very proud of you, as well he should be.”

The general smiled.

Malcolm returned it, words coming a moment later.

“Thank you, sir.”

Another long silence stood in the air between them before Creed essayed forth into its depths.

“I’m sure he would appreciate it if you found time to return his letters. Your mother likewise.”

“Yes, sir. As you said, the mission took longer than expected.”

Creed sucked in a breath through his teeth and let it out again as a drawn-out sigh.

“It’s not the way of things for a commander to take such a direct interest in one of his men,” Creed said. Slowly, as another silence threatened to stretch from there to the seaside, he smiled. “That is precisely what you’re thinking now, is it not?”

“The idea had occurred to me, general. Yes.”

“And yet I must,” said Creed, “for few others have done as much for the Republic as you have.”

“No more or less than what I was called to do.”

“While you were asleep, reports came in that your latest efforts have changed the enemy’s disposition significantly. In fact, it seems their will to threaten this camp hangs by a thread. What do you make of that news, bowman?”

Malcolm shook his head, letting out a hoarse little chuckle.

“They don’t even show their faces, sir.”

“I’m sorry?”

“The enemy bow corps – they all wear masks.” There was a bitter smile on Malcolm’s face now. “White ones. They aren’t like us.” Malcolm reined himself in, but Creed raised his chin in a silent signal to hear more. “It’s not about honor or duty for them.”

“You saw something that discloses their personal habits?”

“I’ve seen enough,” Malcolm said. “Enough to know.”

The general rose from his chair, and Malcolm moved to jump to his feet before Creed waved for him to stay seated. The big man was holding his elbow with his right hand and resting his chin on a fist now, studying his sharpshooter once more.

It made Malcolm feel like he was pinned under glass.

“They tell me you’ve grown tired, Malcolm. Cynical, even.”

They, sir?”

“Yes. It’s a polite way of saying I’ve been talking about you behind your back.”

The change in Malcolm was immediate. Ice water spilled through his veins, chilling him to the bone and freezing his notions of propriety – as well as any pretense of safety he held.

“Well sir,” he said nonchalantly, “Can’t always believe what you hear. Or so experience has taught me.”

But Creed would not rise to his goading.

“Not twenty years have you been a part of this world, Mr. Hawkins, and I daresay there are few who have had such an impact upon it as you.” Malcolm did not respond. “All in a matter of weeks. I find that remarkable. Right now, however, I am wondering how you feel.”

Malcolm expelled a little breath.

“Honestly, sir?”

The general nodded

“Of course.”

“I never really think about it.”

“So you feel numb.”

“Sir,” he began, then halted. “With all due respect, permission to speak freely?” Creed raised his eyebrows, consenting with a roll of his hand. “Why does this feel like an ambush? Like I’m being tested?”

At last, Creed let the slightest edge into his voice – just enough that Malcolm remembered himself, his attention sharpened. A conversation could be the right place to take a single shot, too, but he knew he’d feel better crouched in any freezing ditch than he did here.

“There is no ambush here, bowman,” Creed said. “We are, as you can see, alone.”

He spread his massive arms, encompassing the room.

Taking the invitation, Malcolm’s gaze probed the shadows:

The great campaign map, sparsely peopled with bronze figures; the linen screen; the shelves behind the desk, capped now by a big bronze thurible of the kind the monks last used many months before. The silent gramophone.

And, indeed, the cat – Malcolm followed its gaze a moment and frowned at the linen screen.

Creed let him look about at length until he was satisfied, giving no indication of impatience.

It was Malcolm who finally spoke next.

“General, am I about to be accused of something?”

“Accused? Of course not.” Slowly, Creed circled his desk and sat down again; the faded al fresco blue of his eyes was alight with something electric. “I’ve not lost interest in the doings of this camp over this slight lull, believe you me, Mr. Hawkins. I know well about those in your cohort who took pains to mark Artemus Ward’s birthday just this past month. Know what some say this war might mean for their lost cause, should it all go poorly enough for us from here on out.”

“There’d be—”

Creed simply spoke over him:

“And I certainly know you have nothing to do with all that.”

Malcolm released a shaky breath of his own and clenched his hands tight.

“Thank you, sir,” he said – and both knew that he meant it.

And both, for their own reasons, were surprised.

Accused,” Creed said again, dismissing the thought with a wave of his hand. “Banish that from your thoughts. Now: Tested? Malcolm, you of all people know that there are many kinds of tests. And, alas, not all of them can be announced in advance.”

“So, if this were a test ...” Malcolm paused. “To what end?”

“To learning your state of mind, son. To that end – the most vital.” Malcolm remained still as the general went on. “When you joined us at the onset of this campaign, you were as wet behind the ears as any young soldier I’ve seen.” He stopped a moment, speaking more slowly as he added: “In all my years of service.” With that, he looked away – his fingers steepled contemplatively on the desk.

Malcolm couldn’t help but wonder if the general was picturing how he had been.

It seemed like such a long time ago to him – so long he could not remember what he’d been thinking or how he had felt. If he could look in the mirror and see his younger self, they would be completely different people; a common past unbound by a shared present or future.

But for someone like Creed – well, who knew how deep that man’s memories ran?

“Intimidated, inexperienced … humble.” Creed turned back, meeting Malcolm's eyes again. “That is how it was, I don’t think you’d disagree. And yet, this morning, you sit before me as my most trusted and talented sharpshooter. To say nothing of your growing renown.”

Creed stared at him for what felt like ages.

Malcolm felt a chill run through him. The room had not changed, but he could hear the wind rippling the canvas walls, and smelt the scent of rain where there had been nothing like it before. It was like a mission; crouched, tensed, waiting. Opportunity and danger were converging; they swirled together in ways he had not been aware of, could not have imagined until this moment.

The more he thought about it, the more he could feel the gathering storm.

Who was it who had told him—

The storm is what we call

Finally, the young man could wait no more. “And?”

“That is a very short time to have taken so many lives. Fourteen, isn’t it?”

Malcolm’s eyes widened. But he spoke steadily: “Fifteen now, sir.”

“You look astonished. Is it really so shocking that I know that?”

“No, sir,” Malcolm was quick to reply. “I just ...”

But he simply could not find the next words.

“I would caution you not to think me oblivious to the demands I have set before you these past months. Your deeds have been noticed, and unrecognized though you may have felt, trust that in many ways I have walked with you, watching your every move.”

Malcolm shifted uncomfortably in his chair. Creed's voice shattered the silence before its grip could fasten again, the words suddenly reminding Malcolm of the dry creak of branches in the wind.

“Your promotion to Senior Bowman was written by my own hand.”

“Have I not served honorably?”

“Indeed, you have. However … I fear your spirit has become another victim of your bow.”

Malcolm’s face betrayed nothing.

“I am among those who witnessed this personally, son. I, too, am among the they.” With that, the general abruptly rose and strode for the exit. “Come, Mr. Hawkins. There’s a chance you’ll be leaving us shortly. Should that come to pass, there is at least one thing more I can do for you.”

Malcolm thought, for an instant, of strange men with sword-canes and the duty to protect an officer no matter the circumstance. But when he made to move, he found his legs were rooted to the spot, as cold as his heart had felt only moments before. Creed passed him by—

Malcolm gave the shadows one last glance. Only the cat returned his gaze.

He turned to follow Creed, but the warmth of morning had turned stifling.

As he knew it would.

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 Chapter Four  (E)
Inquiring Minds
#2190496 by Dan Hiestand
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