Lady Red vs The Great Beyond

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Chapter 6

Chapter VI

I saw Bernard down the street under an awning and he waved at me, calling me over. I dashed through the rain from the Governor’s house to the far side of the street, which had completely cleared of people. I noticed that Harkour’s rider was gone, but a small, reddish puddle disappearing under the downpour, gave away the spot where he had fallen. Prick was gone as well and I wondered if I would see either again. I was happy that I had managed to defeat the rider without killing him, especially since every fibre of my being willed me to pull my gun and fire. Is that why I'd thrown my sword? I thought. The urge to shoot was so strong I did the next nearest thing. What was I becoming? I stopped and Bernard waved at me again, as if he thought I hadn't seen him. I waved back so he would know I was alright. Would I be the same daughter when I finally found my papa? I wished I had never tested my childhood theory of killing, but as is so often the case, the world has a different agenda.

Bernard was his old smiling self and I saw he was standing on the porch of the saloon where we had met. His knuckles were bloody and he shoved his hands into his pockets when he saw me looking.

“Never you mind about those, lass.”

“Alright, then. I wish I could have I stayed for one more of your wife's dinners, but I think it sensible that I depart as quickly as I can.”

“I know. We were not destined to meet for long, but I feel you have changed Gatewater and old Bernard for the better. Harkour already rode off southwest, probably heading to Capitol. If I may suggest to the great Governess of Hudson’s Landing, ritual champion of Gatewater,” he said with a mock bow, “you should head north.”

“You think?" I smiled. "The Governor told me about an asylum where they keep madmen who claim to have been Beyond and back. Which way is the Eastport road?”

Bernard gave me a fatherly grimace and pretended to think about it for a second. I reckoned he was just deciding whether to tell me or not.

“It’s a dangerous path,” he said quietly, “but then again, your whole adventure is insane, so perhaps that’s where you should be!” He laughed loud and long.

“Stop it, Bernard!” I yelped playfully. “If you don’t tell me I shall stay at your house, eating all your ham, until Mrs. Garrett throws me out into the wilderness.”

“It’s also southwest.” He quickly replied. “Less than a day’s ride. You’ll come to a crossroad marked with a sun bleached deer head with a great rack of antlers. Go left at the deer head, up a long and winding pathway. You will probably have to walk that horse of yours. Just bear up the hill and you will find it. I delivered a cask of honey there a few years ago and I never made another delivery. The place nearly made my skin crawl off my bones.”

Bernard paused before continuing. “There is one more danger. If you approach at night you will be fired upon by the custos. They’re the type that shoot first and ask questions second.”

I did not like the sound of any of that, but if one of those crazy bastards could give me a clue about Papa it would be a worthwhile stop. We chatted awhile and Bernard had great fun re-enacting my duel, teasing me about cussing when I threw my sword.

The rain began to let up and we darted to the stables where Master was waiting. My boy was eager to see me and stamped his hoof impatiently while I threw him a forkful of hay.

Bernard pulled a sack out of one my saddlebags and held it out for me. I took it, grinning as I opened it. Inside was a small keg of honey, some smoked ham that would last me a good long time, and some dried apples. A moment later a custos entered and quickly bowed, as if he was embarrassed. Bernard watched him with suspicion as he crept up to us. Without a word the custos gave me a little copper keg with a screw plug. Powder I thought, and lots of it. Before I could say thanks the custos was out the door and into the rain. I looked out the stable door to the Governor’s house. The windows were dark and the door shut. Powder was so hard to come by and this looked like a Governor’s year ration. I wrapped the sack up and shoved it into my saddlebag.

"Oh! I almost forgot," Bernard said as he produced a piece of folded red cloth from his coat. "My wife made this for you." I took it and unfurled a lovely red sash with very neat black stitching along the edge.

"She said if I had bothered to tell her you were leaving sooner, she would have made you something nicer."

"It's lovely, thank you!" I said, and taking off my coat I tugged off my old sash and threw the new one over my shoulder so it formed an x with my gun belt, just across my chest. It had very fine stitching and I admired it greatly. I was about to shake hands with the big man, but instead he scooped me up in a hug that forced the wind from my body. He put me down and before I got emotional, I leapt into the saddle and, with reluctance, I tugged on Master’s reigns and he spun towards the gate while Bernard slapped Master on the rump and he skipped into a trot. I wasn’t expecting it and I nearly lost my hat. I turned and smiled at Bernard. I truly hoped that I would see him and his lovely wife again.

A number of townsfolk had come out to watch me leave. I could not tell if it was out of fondness or hatred. I saw the Rat bartender too, at the window of his saloon, his face was a bloody mess and he had a bandage around the top of his head. I aimed my finger at him with my thumb up and mocked dropping the hammer. He just glared. I can only imagine what he had done to deserve Bernard’s anger.

I passed the little guard post and I was waved down by the old sergeant. I was a little nervous about speaking to the custos now that it was clear I had smuggled my gun past them, but I was very relieved to see the sergeant smile as I approached.

“Forgetting something, Miss?” and he handed me my sword, clean and sparkling.

“Thank you!” I cried and instantly sheathed it across my back, feeling whole again.

“Least I could do for ridding our town of that scum.” He said with a nod and a wink. “Come back anytime.” He slapped Master on the rump as well, causing him to skip up to a canter. Master tossed his head at this unusual tradition, but I laughed for I liked it a great deal. It says if you have to go, then get the hell out.

With that, I rode out of the south gate, the same way I had come in nine days ago, but now feeling much older. I would grow older still, with hardship and struggle, before my adventure’s end.

I rode on for a few hours with Master keeping a fine pace. I was careful not to go too fast to risk overtaking Harkour. A man that wealthy would have more than one bodyguard. The trail was all mud, so I should have been able to pick out the fresh hoof prints from the stale, but I was never good for tracking. I can tell hoof prints from paw prints, but after that it gets a little hazy. One more thing Papa tried so hard to teach me on our long trips together. He could pick out a horse with a lame foot just by its tracks in the dust. He said he could also tell the difference between a trained rider and a poor one because the lope would be off.

I left my mind to wander, as it always did on the road. I daydreamed about Papa and Bernard and Charlie and what a merry band we would make together. Papa would be the leader, I would be the pretty, quick-witted gunslinger, Bernard would be the loveable giant, and Charlie would be the crafty scout. We would have adventures and Papa would talk to Charlie about growing a proper moustache; bushy and curly on the ends, just like his, and not the close-cropped lip cover that Charlie liked. Bernard would say that a beard was best, none of this moustache business, and he would laugh long and loud, scaring away all the birds. Papa would ride a buckskin mare named Athena, and Charlie and Bernard would drive the wagon with a pair of drafts; brothers called Odin and Thor.

I wish I could recall more of the adventures I dreamt up on the road, but they are not the sort of thing that sticks in your head longer than the time you spend dreaming them. I remember Charlie was always trying to kiss me at the end and I was always rebuking him with some clever turn of phrase and a wink.

I was always popular with the gentlemen in my daydreams, which is not quite the case in real life. When I left Gatewater I had killed more men than I had kissed. Come to think on it, the only boy I ever kissed was Edgar Smith and that was on a dare. His buck teeth crashed into my lips so hard I thought he was biting me. I’ve been in fights where I was injured less than that awful kiss. Then there was Ginny, of course. Sweet Ginny. I missed her dearly. We would talk about boys for hours and hours and the whole time she just wanted a girl. Me, I guess, but she would surely find another young woman to court.

I snapped back to reality to find I'd daydreamed myself right up to the crossroads marked by the deer's head.

Well, Sam. I thought. For once you didn't get into any trouble. There was no surprises, no bandits, no sneaking through an army camp, just a winding path up sun-drenched hillside marked with ancient trees in full leaf. I hopped off Master and led him up the path, reaching the asylum with daylight to spare. It was actually an old abbey, maybe three hundred years old, with pointy arched windows that once held glass, but since replaced with wire and metal bars. It had little parapets on two corners where two custos archers stood. I immediately felt my hair stand up on the back of my neck for I realized that both bows were taut and aimed at me. I had no doubt that if they let those arrows fly, I`d be stuck.

“Hold it!” One of the custos' screeched. He was clearly nervous and I stood stone still and held my hands out so they could see I was not an enemy. “What are you doing here?”

“My name is…” and I paused, wondering if anonymity was best or if I should try to rank them. “My name is Governess Stanton of Hudson’s Landing! I need to speak to the head man!”

Their bows came down slightly, with the nervous one taking longer; his bow visibly shaking in his hands. I could not tell exactly, being so far below, but both custos looked wounded. There was blood on their yellow tunics and one had a filthy bandage on his head.

The older and calmer of the two custos’ called to someone below in a language I could not understand. It was a grunting piggish language that made the guard sound angrier than he probably was. Papa once told me that there were hundreds of languages in the world, some very similar with only little word differences from town-to-town, while some languages were so foreign it could take years of study to learn them.

The older guard leaned over the ramparts and called for me to wait and not make any sudden movements. The nervous guard, who had his arrow knocked, looked anxiously from the other guard to me, wondering if he should still cover me. I gave him a smile, my best pretty girl eyes, and hoped he wouldn’t shoot me, but he was clearly panicked and hung on like death to that half drawn bow.

Finally, the abbey door ahead of me opened and a head poked out. It was a man with a youthful face who had salty gray hair and a large, scabby gash across his forehead.

“What do you want?” he asked quickly.

“I’m here to speak to the head man.” I tried to sound calm; clearly they weren’t used to visitors. Master began to tug on me; he sensed something was awry here too.

“You mean Father McLean? He isn’t seeing visitors. Good day.” He began to close the door.

“Wait!” I was losing my patience. “I’m Governess Stanton and I demand to see Father McLean!” The head reappeared out of the crack in the door.

“Wait there.”

So I did. I looked up and saw the custos still watching me, but at least they had lowered their bows. The nervous guard was smiling down at me and I regretted giving him my best pretty girl eyes. After an awkward few minutes, the door opened again and the gray haired guard waved me inside. I pointed at Master and the guard kept waving me in, so I brought him with me. The doors were wide enough for me and my horse and we entered into a dark chamber where a half dozen custos in yellow sat or laid against the walls. All of them were injured and blood was spattered against their tunics. A fat one, sitting in the corner, stared straight ahead with milky eyes, obviously dead, and the smell of blood and gore was so thick that Master began to shy and step back. I had to tug hard on his bridle to smarten him.

“What happened here?”

The gray haired guard looked grim and said, “We’ve had an incident.”

“Tech that! The teching green tags took over the teching abbey! They killed the captain and...”

The gray haired guard cut off a frantic man with a snap of his head and a murderous glare. The frantic man was chubby with a spotty beard and a torn tunic. He had blood spatter on him, but moved unwounded.

“What’s a green tag?” I asked. The frantic man almost answered, but thought better of it and slunk away to a dark corner of the room. He fell heavily onto a pew that was overturned and broken.

“We mark our inmates with metal collars,” the gray haired guard replied patiently. “Tin for the least dangerous, iron for the violent ones, and copper for the real head-cases. The iron rusts and the copper corrodes. They get called by their colours: silver, red, and green. Three days ago two green tags escaped from their cells and freed all of the reds. Now they control the upper floors. We have two men on the tower that can't get down. So far, none of them have escaped, but Lords know they've been trying." He waved a hand toward his comrades. "We were twelve men and now we're seven with only five fit to fight. We sent a man to Apfelstead for help. Did you encounter him? Are you here to assist us?”

The gray haired man looked at me with lamb eyes and a glimmer of something far away. Mayhap I had imagined it, for it was fleeting, but he looked at me and looked at my gun and he thought I was here to save him, to save everyone. I looked over to the now calm fat man and he looked at me with earnestness mixed with doubt. The wounded men stopped coughing long enough to implore me with their eyes. I sighed, for I was no one special and nothing, save my iron, made me any different than these men.

“If you need help, I stand ready to assist you.” I decided to let my mouth volunteer me before my brain could sort it out again. “My horse can carry one of your wounded men to Gatewater. Can anyone ride?”

“I can ride.” A sputtering prostrate man replied. He was clearly the most injured of the group. Another wounded guard picked himself up and hoisted his partner up.

“Help him into the saddle and take him to Gatewater, the Governor will take care of you and will send help. Tell him Sam needs a favour.”

I patted Master and he nodded his head up and down. He was such a good boy and seemed to instantly understand what was required.

“You treat my horse well, understand? If you whip him or stick him with your spurs you won’t have to worry about your wounds festering.” They both nodded and I squinted to bring home the point.

“Yes, m’lady." Spoke the first. "He’s a fine animal and we’ll have him back to you in no time.” They both made a little bow, the more injured of the two was actually doubled over, but I took it to mean that he was saluting.

I patted Master again and then unslung my saddlebag that had my powder keg and some food in it. The two custos' limped out of the door with Master in tow. He didn’t look back and I was proud for his fortitude and determination. It was the smallest things about my adventures that I remember with the most fondness. Watching the sun glisten off his coat and seeing him bear the wounded guard like a horse twice his size filled my heart. I turned away, as even feelings for a horse are only allowable in doses.

The next few hours were filled with mending wounds and doling out all of the food the Garretts had given me. There was three custos’ holding the first floor of the abbey; Weiss, the fat one; Peters, a stout fellow who was missing three fingers, which he said he'd ‘fed’ to one of the red tags; and the gray haired fellow was, in fact, Father McLean, who had taken a fallen guard's armour when the fighting broke out. He was old, much older than Papa, but moved with an energy that marked him younger than middle age. He was extremely smart, but I liked him less for being a preacher. I’m no fan of the religions. Most people in the Landing subscribed to the Returned Gods, as they were called. Zeus, his brother Jupiter, Apollo, Nike... all commanding some element or another. I could never decide whether people called out to them, believing they would actually come, or whether they were just yelling for something, anything to aid them. I certainly swear a mighty oath when I feel it's warranted, but I suppose it's out of habit. I do not go to the churches, nor did Papa.

After I re-dressed some wounds, we removed the three dead men from the room. When I first came in I thought two of them were sleeping, but that shows my ignorance of such matters. We carried them outside with considerable effort and laid them gently next to one another at the side of the abbey. The whole time Weiss was complaining and carrying on about ways to escape and how they must burn down the abbey; if he put as much effort into fighting as he did into muttering, the abbey would be safely back in the Father’s hands.

Peters rebuked him before Father MacLean could have a crack. “You know, you fat bastard, if we leave then we leave the men in the parapet alone to die of starvation or probably something much worse.”

“There’s no way down from the roof?” I asked.

“There’s a hatch in the floor that leads down, but the tags control that area. They are safe as long as they keep the hatch closed. It’s got a hell of a big lock on it, but that means they can’t come down. If we leave, we abandon them.”

“If you were up there you would tell the others to leave and you know it! Hell, they’ve said it a hundred times already!” yelled Weiss, his jowls flapping in rage.

“That’s precisely why we don’t leave. We don’t let them make that choice. They are our comrades and I’ll not have this conversation again!”

We had placed the last of the men in a row and Father McLean came out, having exchanged his custos' costume for black robes. There was an eye with flames emblazoned in white on the front of his chest. The Order of the Watchful Eye was one of the aggressive Luddite brotherhoods in Angland. Everyone was encouraged to despise Tech, but the Eyes, as they were called, took their zealousness to new heights. They preached against looms, ploughs, stirrups, and anything else that gave man a mechanical advantage. I’ve heard of Eyes who refuse to use cutlery and eat their meat raw, but Father McLean always used a fork so maybe that part wasn’t true. That black robe gave me chills on top of everything else. It was too similar to the one worn by the Inquisitor who had come to the Landing after Papa disappeared. Since I was at a funeral I just put it out of my mind.

Father McLean made the sign of the Watch and then said some words over the bodies that didn't make a whole lot of sense.

“Benedic, Domine, nos et haec tua dona, quae de tua largitate sumus sumpturi. Per Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen.” He looked sad and the other two men bowed their heads, but I thought it was about the strangest thing I had ever heard. I held my tongue; thank goodness, for I’m sure they would not have forgiven me for speaking out at their make-shift funeral. The Father turned to me and looked a little puzzled.

“Do you understand the Oldspeak?” he asked.

“No preacher, sorry.” He bowed his head and turned away. Weiss and Peters took turns whispering short words so just their comrades could hear. I stepped quietly away, not wanting to intrude. I wondered if they would care that their preacher had just offered a dinner blessing for their dead friends, but I decided what they didn't know wouldn't hurt them.

I looked up and saw that the two custos on the roof had their heads bowed as well, and I decided to go inside and leave everyone to their peace.

I felt a little naked without my horse and worse yet, having only met Father McLean and knowing nobody else in the cursed abbey. It was all a little upsetting, really. Just what would I have to do to see Papa again? I'd imagined a tour of the abbey and a brief meeting with some madman, followed by a quick exit. When was the part of the quest where the hero gets to do something fun instead of fight all the time?

Peters came in and I helped him stack anything heavy we could find up against the door leading to the second floor. There wasn't much left of the door, it was more splinters than solid wood. Peters explained that the goal wasn't to kill the tags if they could help it, just to contain them until help arrived.

"Is that a real gun?" he asked, looking at the Professor.

"Yup. It belongs to my papa. I'm taking it to him." I stumbled.

"You're brave for staying, even with that piece of iron. I'd take you over that fat coward Weiss any day. A pure stranger, and governess to boot, throwing in her lot with a few custos against an army of teching savages." He sighed and then added quickly, "Beggin' your pardon for the language."

"I don't mind." I sat down and took a drink from my water skin, handing it to Peters afterwards; he drank but a little, even though he must have been thirsty.

"I have a daughter just about your age. I can't imagine her in a place like this. Your papa must be worried sick about you." Before I could mention that Papa didn't exactly know I was out there, the preacher came into the hall from outside with Weiss, who looked pale and sick. Weiss collapsed into a corner with a heavy groan and Peters gave me a look of frustration. The preacher wiped his brow with his sleeve and shrugged his shoulders at us before disappearing into an adjoining room.

"That sash there suits you." Peters said and I looked down at it. I forgot I had it on and I now saw that I had dirtied it by hoisting rubble at the door. I tried to brush some of the dirt off, but I was only making it worse. "A little dirt," he continued, "you'll be lucky if that's all you have on it by day's end. Well then, my Lady Red, can you go see Father McLean and ask if he has any wine for us?"

I laughed at the name and replied, "My mama used to call me that."

I found the preacher in an anteroom off the main chamber. It had a little desk where an inkpot and a stack of yellow paper sat. It was a writing desk and I recognized it instantly despite the vast inattention I gave to school. Papa had a similar desk back at the house. He used to write letters to the other Governors and Lords, and occasionally Mama wrote to her family because they rarely visited due to the great distance between us.

Father McLean was changing, but I barged in any way to look at his desk and his writings. His writings were arrayed in a neat stack and adorned with the most gorgeous letters; all that were perfectly set on some invisible line. Even now, as I write and compare my own script to his, mine looks as though I was holding a pencil between my teeth.

“I copy books for the Lords,” he said.

“What kind of books?” I reached out to pick up a half-finished sheet.

He hurried over and smacked my hand away. “Don’t touch those, child!”

He was mighty sore for someone who was supposed to be holy. Well, I guess he did just come from a funeral, so maybe I should have been more sensitive. “I copy mostly Stalwart’s works. I’ve done three copies of his History in the last year. Before that, I did Rise of the Copperheads and Oral Tradition.”

“Oh,” I said, like I had read any of those. I had heard of Stalwart and Papa had a collection of the man’s books at home, but I couldn’t get into it. I leaned over and, without touching, I started to read from the top of the page but the script, while lovely and artful, was no good for me as I couldn’t form the letters in my head. I must have scrunched my face up trying to understand for Father McLean picked up the top page and read for me with no small amount of flourish.

“In being together we form a society incapable of breach by the Immortales. They have borne many names since The Bright: telohumans, robots, copperheads, altmen, androids. Their agenda remains the destruction of the living human race. For generations they lived among us, sowing deception, doubt, panic, and violence among the good people of the New World. By and large they were rooted out, but their progeny remain. A single Immortalis is capable of building new units from the parts of old, and in this way he repopulates and rebuilds his numbers. Therefore, anti-technology is the answer to this threat of ancient Technology.” He neatly put the page down on the stack. “He goes on like that for several pages.”

I did not understand much about Immortales and their ilk, and I did not know if they even existed for I had never seen one.

“Are they real, Father?” I asked.

“The Immortales? Yes. Well, I suppose they are. I mean, I have never seen one, but Stalwart says they exist and he speaks of them in great detail. Some of the men swear that we have several broken ones upstairs. At least one of our guests claims to be a copperhead who no longer wishes to serve ‘the Great Power’ as he calls it.”

“Papa was a doubter, to say the least.”

“Your father did not believe?” He asked and I realized I hadn’t mentioned why I was truly at the abbey. I took a breath and considered telling the preacher about Papa and my adventure. After all, when I had told all to Bernard everything had worked out and I had made a friend. Perhaps I could do it this time without the bloodshed.

“You say you have men prisoned here who claim they have been Beyond; men who have returned. I wish to speak with them.” I said. I had probably struck gold with Bernard. I thought it better not to reveal all to this man, especially one in black robes.

"Well, as you can see child, visiting our captivi is not possible." He used the Oldspeak term for prisoner, I guess because he believed that prisoner did not fit the insane.

I began to think then, which rarely ends well, when there was a mighty commotion from the hallway and the fat guard, Weiss, burst into the anteroom.

"They come!" he shrieked and the preacher and I followed him out to confront the rebellious prisoners of that cursed abbey.
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