Wretched dreams of his parents and even his stupid brother Tyler disrupted his sleep all evening. Eventually, however, he’d fallen into a deeper, dreamless sleep… about an hour before he was prodded with his red-haired hostess’s boot.
He stretched. Now that was a woman! Rick had been hunting before, it was a pastime he neither liked nor disliked, but when Gabriella hunted, she easily disgraced every man with whom Rick had ever ventured into the wild, he mused, recalling the events of their surprise hunting lesson yesterday.
And how she laughed at him, and at Derrick and Andrew. It was true – they were veritable wimps in contrast with Gabriella. But Rick didn’t think Derrick relished being the subject of her mirth, nor anyone’s, for that matter. Derrick was your typical overachiever, accustomed to being envied his academic skills and athletic prowess, not being chortled at and dismissed as useless. Yes, Rick knew about Derrick Morgan.
Rick’s school had competed against Derrick’s school often enough for Rick to be familiar with Derrick’s considerable talents, at least in baseball. In baseball, Derrick, being that huge, six-feet-two, muscular, one-eightyish-type, could whale the crap out of the baseball and not worry about running with great speed around the bases. The ball was usually so far out, it was halfway down the street, so all Derrick had to do was jog half-heartedly back to home-plate, usually to the tune of the entire crowd’s applause. His skills as a pitcher were similarly renowned; those fastballs of his were virtually untouchable.
Nevertheless, he still couldn’t touch Rick when it came to running the bases. Rick was only a five-eleven, lanky, one-sixtyish kind of guy, and while he couldn’t propel the baseball into the Good-Year Blimp, he could darn sure run the bases; his average was .310 and that was pretty good, thank you. So it was with great amusement that Rick watched Derrick set his jaw and strive even harder, determined to remove that grin from Gabriella’s face.
Andrew admitted to being a wimp with a rueful humor that suited him well. By no means was Andrew an athletic kind of guy; he couldn’t out-bench you, nor out-run you, nor out-pitch you, mused Rick, and unless his personality was the main attraction, he probably couldn’t out-date you, but he could sure excel over you scholastically, for he was worlds ahead of Rick and Derrick intellectually. Where Derrick was all brawn, Andrew was all brains. Rick liked to think he leveled out somewhere in the middle.
Right now, they all reclined in the grass of one of the rare sunny copses of the forest, awaiting their hostess’s return.
“Maybe she’ll bring back a pair of shorts with her,” yawned Elise. At nearly every opportunity she had expressed her growing distaste for dresses. Rick had suggested on one occasion that she just go nude, though not surprisingly, this was not received with the humor intended. Sitting with her face turned to the sun and her eyes closed, Elise looked relaxed and happy. She had knotted her “abominable” dress up to her thighs to keep cool, revealing surprisingly well-toned legs. It seemed to Rick that, barring her complaints of unsuitable apparel and her continued aloofness to Derrick, she had adjusted much more admirably than the rest of them, himself included. She’d even taken Andrew’s knife yesterday and shown him the correct angle to hold it when slicing these…. What were they? Well, they had reminded Rick of large rabbits, but he couldn’t remember the word for them. Windits, that was it.
“Will you look at that…” muttered Andrew.
Rick twisted around in the grass to observe Gabriella striding smoothly toward their little circle of vagabonds. She was hauling (swords!) over her shoulder what looked like several swords of varying sizes and shapes, he noticed in disbelief. And something wrapped in soft leather.
Gabriella plunked her load of weapons down carefully in the grass. Standing in the middle of the circle, she waited until she commanded everyone’s attention and then slowly picked up one of the larger swords from the pile. It wasn’t exceedingly ornate, he thought, rather disenchanted. In fact, it was downright dull, the hilt was merely serviceable and even the scabbard was old, worn leather, like an ancient baseball glove.
Gabriella offered it around the circle.
“Is there an Arthur among us…” Rick murmured.
Derrick, fittingly, reached out for the sword.
Rick didn’t know what he had expected to transpire, but when Derrick solemnly drew the sword from its scabbard, certainly no blinding white light encompassed them, nor did thunder roar nor lightning spring dramatically forth from the blade. In fact, all that happened was that a cricket began to sing somewhere in the sunlit grass behind him. Rick was almost violently disappointed when he discerned upon closer examination that the blade issued forth from the worn scabbard was just – metal.
“Behold, the mighty Excalibur,” Rick breathed contemptuously.
Andrew chuckled and the girls giggled.
“Get up,” Gabriella snapped.
Uh-oh. She was addressing him. He felt like he had been caught talking in class, or cheating on an exam.
“Get up,” she repeated emphatically. Painfully, Rick rose to his blistered feet – Armani dress shoes were absolutely the last selection he would have chosen for a prolonged excursion into another world. Gabriella tossed him one of the other swords. He caught it awkwardly by the scabbard and immediately marveled at its weight. He discovered he could not draw it ringing from its scabbard with ease, like in all the movies. Instead he found that he had to work it out, an embarrassed flush burning his cheeks. An Arthur he was not.
His red-haired benefactor fluidly drew forth her own sword, which proved far more impressive than either of the two she’d proffered him or Derrick. Her blade, though as long, appeared lighter and was not as wide as his. Like Derrick’s, Rick’s was heavy until the point of the blade, where it curved dully to a point.
She’s going to kill me, he thought mildly as he obliged her.
“I will fear no evil,” Rick couldn’t resist muttering before the CLANG (ow) that made him drop his sword made his whole arm vibrate with pain.
“Sit down,” Gabriella dismissed him, her eyes flashing him a stern reprimand as he retrieved the sword and scabbard he’d dropped unceremoniously in the grass. Certainly he was deserving of her disdain… but there were times when his tongue took over possession of his faculties.
“I don’t think she likes me,” whispered Rick to Fiona as he sat down, massaging his wrist.
“Probably you should just shut up and pay attention,” Fiona told him reproachfully, her brown eyes serious.
Point taken, Rick mused, still rubbing his wrist, which was already throbbing.
Now Derrick was on his feet emulating Gabriella’s ready position. Slowly Gabriella swung her sword. Derrick met it with his experimentally, producing a clank that was a little exciting. She in turn drew her sword up the length of Derrick’s with a much less pleasant scrape of metal on metal, and swooped it around from the other direction to meet his sword again.
“Parry,” Gabriella said, and repeated the move. When they had finished, she offered him with a brief smile and nodded at him to sit down again, though she did not reclaim the sword from him. Rick snorted and muttered under his breath to Derrick, “Suck-up.” Derrick flashed a grin in return as he leaned back in the grass on his palms.
But Gabriella now held up another of the swords from the pile and drew it. Light and long and thin, it was very sharp-looking and just as completely unimpressive as Derrick’s sword. Not even the hilt was fancy, Rick noted with disappointment.
“This is for devrasta only,” she informed them as she demonstrated. This stupid language! What did that word mean? Rick flicked a surreptitious glance about him, trying to decide if everyone knew what she was talking about but him.
But then a rough, grimy man in ragged leather armor of sorts appeared suddenly in the glen, which induced a squeak of surprise from Fiona and a few gasps of startlement, one of which he recognized as his own. The man never moved, however, which along with his slightly opaque appearance, indicated that he was merely another teaching aid, an illusion. Gabriella commenced an attack upon the man, jabbing and thrusting, but not swinging at him as she had with Derrick and Rick. Her illusion promptly began to show wear, blood seeping through his clothing as she jabbed and pierced him in several places, his shoulders, neck, chest, stomach. Finally the illusion “died,” collapsing to the ground and vanishing. Why, wondered Rick idly, would anyone use that kind of sword when, with the kind he and Derrick had used, in one swing, one could hack the man’s head off?
“When do you think you would employ this sort of sword?” Rick was able to divulge the meaning of her sentence this time, though he had no ready answer.
When no one answered, Gabriella pursed her lips contemplatively, her green eyes narrowed in thought.
And then something thunked the tree Rick was reclining against.
“What the –” He turned over his shoulder to investigate and found (an arrow!) still quivering in the bark of the tree. Its authenticity was persuasive. He shot a wild glance over his shoulder.
“Is that… an arrow?” Derrick wanted to know in incredulous tones, but as his heart sped up, Rick’s main concern was that Gabriella was nowhere to be seen. Derrick and Rick stared at each other, puzzled. And then another arrow whizzed directly between them, missing Derrick’s nose by less than an inch. They both scrambled backwards clumsily, and Rick fell into Fiona, whose eyes were bulging at an arrow sticking out of the dirt between her ankles.
Before they had time to contemplate the import of this, a neighing iro fully armored in jangling chain mail galloped up, its hooves thudding on the grass in front of Elise, who clambered back out its way in alarm. Its rider, dressed in chain mail over which a soiled ochre and red tunic was belted, slumped over suddenly, a thick wooden missile protruding crookedly from his back. His heavy shield, emblazoned with two red and yellow stripes across a green leaf, dropped to the ground with a dull metallic thud, alarming his already overwrought iro. And then the battle commenced.
A grim battle scene materialized before them, complete with mounted soldiers atop rearing iros and horses and bloody foot soldiers entangled with each other. As arrows sped past them in all directions, Rick wanted to duck and crawl into a hole. A horse trampled a dead soldier in front of Derrick, who was gaping and slack-jawed the same as he was. Feeling horribly exposed, Rick realized now that none of it was real, but even so, his first impulse was to run or to climb the tree he couldn’t see anymore but still felt against his back. He was sitting in the midst of a battle, inches from a scraggly foot soldier fighting wildly for his life. This was amazing! His incredulity evinced by his open jaw, Rick stared about him and finally reminded himself to breathe, wondering offhand if this was a battle Gabriella was creating or if it was a memory. It was so real!
Suddenly all action around them ceased. Soldiers toppling from horses and iros halted in midair, swords clanged and never moved, screams of agony and rage froze on faces, and in front of Elise and Fiona, a severed hand with a ring on one of its grimy fingers was arrested in its fall to the ground. They studied it wide-eyed as they shrank back from it slowly, as if it were a snake that might strike.
“What this man does is this…” Gabriella suddenly appeared and stepped nimbly away from the man’s mount; suddenly the frozen man and his rearing iro began to move in slowly. Concurrently, a second man, a poorly armored foot soldier, whose big sword was similar to Derrick’s, began to creep around the back of a mounted archer, which brought him unknowingly closer to the first man on iro back. The man on the iro had turned his helmeted head and spotted the lurking foot soldier, who had targeted the archer. As the dirty foot soldier was raising his sword to hit the unsuspecting man on horseback, the man on the iro wheeled his mount around and with one fluid motion, reached down and pierced the foot soldier between the shoulder blades. As Rick watched with a lurid fascination, the foot soldier fell to the ground with a strange, gurgling sort of cry. Another foot soldier ran in slow motion toward the man on iro back. The man merely swung his sword around to the other side, neatly missing his mount’s ears, and jabbed the charging foot soldier in the chest.
Abruptly, the illusion vanished, leaving Gabriella standing alone in a grassy sunbeam, the sword in question still in her hand. The bloody battlefield had returned to being a sunlit copse, complete with crickets and birds. He blinked. Wow. For once, I have nothing to say, thought Rick.
“Now do you all know what this sword is used for?”
They all nodded, though Rick thought the question rather unnecessary. That illusion was something that would stick in their minds for a long time.
“This is a rapier. It is most often used, as is a halberd, to bring foot soldiers down quickly while the user is mounted, or to bring mounted soldiers down for hand to hand combat by first bringing the iro or horse down.” She demonstrated needlessly, though the girls each objected with noises of aversion over the part about bringing the mount down to get to the rider. In all honesty, he didn’t care for the idea himself, but such was life, he supposed. He didn’t expect that wars were fought according to anyone’s personal preferences.
For an hour or two, they learned a few basic moves with the sword Derrick had used, which was a broadsword. Gabriella pulled each of them up to practice, sometimes giving different blades to her opponent. Finally, she sat down for a rest herself.
When Gabriella took the hood off of the bow, Rick admitted to being impressed. And excited, for he had excellent vision. Not that vision alone made a marksman, but his father was a collector of firearms, much to his mother’s annoyance, and had taught his son to shoot to a respectable degree of accuracy.
Rick reached for the longbow and examined it. Constructed of a rich, red wood, with intricate designs painted on it in gilt, it was lightweight, though it stood nearly as tall as he was. It must be made for a giant, Rick thought offhandedly as he examined its five or so feet of heighth. The taut string seemed to be made of… of hide? The arrow was also lightweight, the shaft of a smooth wood, with real feathers for the fletching. Gabriella cleared her throat to hearken his attention back to her. She pointed suggestively to a target on a tree several feet ahead.
The draw of the bow was so taut, he discovered, that pulling it back required a fair amount of strength. She had to teach him how to draw back, keep the homemade arrow nocked straight, and still make sure the arrow flew without upsetting its release. After a few trial shots, Rick picked up an arrow and, as he was nocking it, asked lowly,
His arrow hit the tree but was off the exact mark by about six inches. However, Gabriella raised an eyebrow in surprise.
“Good,” she told him, not a word she used often in reference to him. Rick blew on his fingernails and buffed them on his grubby shirt in mock sanctimony.
“Challenge me,” he responded in a bored tone of voice.
“Retrieve your arrows first,” Gabriella replied.
After doing so, Andrew pointed out a target farther away than the last one. “The fork of that first branch and the trunk,” he said.
Rick lost his first arrow to sheer clumsiness, but his second arrow (the homemade arrows intrigued him) skimmed just over the fork of the branch and the tree trunk, landing beyond the tree.
“An example of real talent,” Elise laughed.
“You get up here and we’ll see who has talent and who doesn’t,” Rick challenged her.
Unable to resist a challenge, Elise rose to her feet smugly and dusted off her dress.
Gabriella showed her what to do with the arrow. Unable to draw the string of the longbow back to its capacity, Gabriella brought out a smaller bow for her. Elise struggled through three or four mediocre practice shots. Finally, her arm trembling with the effort of holding the string back, Elise aimed for the target Rick had barely missed, squinting into the distance. I’m going to kill her if she makes it, he thought vaguely.
Her arrow just missed the mark by half an inch, Rick judged with respect.
“Brat,” he told her appreciatively. She smirked superciliously.
Gabriella reclaimed the bow and told her she had done well, allowing her a smile.
Andrew stood up, his hand out expectantly.
Then, as Gabriella turned around, she said, “Andrew, it is your –” Gabriella broke off as she found him already waiting. She peered at him with a peculiar countenance that left Andrew looking surprised.
Rick watched detachedly as Gabriella instructed Andrew in the use of the bow, and then Fiona, as he reflected upon all the things that had distorted his perception of reality. Convictions he had clung to his entire life were now perversely antiquated, for as was quite evident, human beings did exist beyond Earth, and there ostensibly were worlds outside of those in his own galaxy.
Previously, he had deemed one’s arrival to such a planet not only impossible but rendered one quite insane; yet here they were, and he had come to believe that sanity was merely a matter of relevance anyway.
Never had he entertained the notion that magic existed, fairytales notwithstanding. Yet that panther Gabriella had conjured up was no parlor trick, it had even felt real when he had kicked it. And the small illusions she created to expedite their instruction in her language, and the battlefield! These were just short of awesome!
Nor had Rick believed in this – kyor’ristan, and kyor’rashni – mind power, or what he called ESP. But here was this woman projecting images onto his mental movie screen, during lessons or when all other forms of communication failed, images he knew didn’t exist but that manifested right there in front of him, or sometimes simply in his consciousness alone. This alone left his mind reeling.
And now here they were practicing swordplay, which indicated that this wasn’t just some hobby of an idiosyncratic recluse, but a way of life here. Even Gabriella’s way of life – hunting for food, riding a – what was it…. An iro. Irrefutably, her clothing didn’t hail from WalMart or Gucci. Rick sighed. A terrible comparison, Gabriella and Wonder Woman, but in a world where everything was so indescribably diverse from his own, plausible comparisons were hard to come by. So Gabriella garbed herself like an Amazon, looked like a beauty queen, lived like Thoreau, hunted like a lioness, and possessed the steel of an inner city high school teacher.
Drifting out of his reverie, Rick observed that Fiona had set down the bow and was regarding Gabriella thoughtfully.
“You think they know any self-defense here?”
“Why? Do you know karate or something?” asked Derrick.
“Tae-kwon-do, some karate,” Fiona answered matter-of-factly.
Rick leaned forward with interest. “You know tae-kwon-do?” He’d always wanted to learn that. Martial arts was a skill he’d always wanted to acquire.
Gabriella, sensing the shift in the conversation, inquired after the import of the exchange.
Fiona first secured her full-length dress at her side in a knot like a bride at a reception, and then slowly posed her body in a ready position. Gabriella raised an eyebrow and hooded the longbow, giving it to Derrick to hold. Tossing her long braid over her shoulder, she assumed a similar stance.
“She knows it,” observed Elise in surprise.
“Or something like it. It’s not tae-kwon-do, or karate, and it’s not akido, either,” noted Fiona. “I guess I’m wondering if she’s going to flatten me,” she said after a moment.
“How do you know?” Rick asked. “They use swords here, they probably don’t know any martial arts besides street fighting.”
“How well do you know tae-kwon-do?” asked Derrick reasonably. Such a logical question, Rick mused begrudgingly. Why didn’t he have shining moments like that?
“I just got my black belt in tae-kwon-do and I’ve been doing a little karate for about six years now.”
“Go for it, then,” Rick prompted. It’d be kind of encouraging for one of them to transcend Gabriella in a physical activity for once. No offense, Gabby, Rick added mentally, if you’re listening in.
Fiona drew in a deep breath and resumed her stance again. Gabriella gestured at Fiona to take the first move; in bare seconds, Gabriella found herself in the grass beneath Fiona’s knee.
Rick cheered with the others, relishing the rueful expression on Gabriella’s face as she stood up and bowed her head to Fiona in respect.
But then suddenly Fiona was face first against a tree, her arm bent behind her back in Gabriella’s grip, with Gabriella’s knee in the small of Fiona’s back.
Fiona conceded and Gabriella released her with a small grin.
“That was good,” Fiona panted. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a move like that one before.”
“What was good? I don’t think I even saw what happened,” Rick remarked truthfully, as Elise and Andrew concurred.
Gabriella told them, “Wait here. I’ll return,” and strode purposefully through the surrounding trees in the direction of the cabin.
“As if we’d go anywhere,” said Elise, stretching out in a warm patch of green grass.
“Will you bring me a Coke when you come back?” cracked Rick. That was something he missed – soda. And food. Not television as much, absurdity abounded on television, but he missed movies. Cell phones. Refrigerators. Air conditioning. And insect repellent, he thought sourly as he slapped at a persistent bug that had already bitten him in several places.
Ten minutes later, he yawned. “Today would be nice.”
“She’s got a staff,” said Andrew calmly.
Rick and Fiona threw their attention over their shoulders to confirm this observation as Elise and Derrick strained to see Gabriella. Rick, squinting, saw no one.
“Where?” With curiosity, Derrick regarded Andrew, who was looking nonplussed.
“I – don’t know….”
“There she is – see her?” Elise pointed to where Gabriella was just emerging from the dense tree cover.
With a staff.
Rick, his brow furrowed, turned to Andrew, as did the others.
“How did you know that?”