Sunday, May 29, 2011

"Green Goblin" long sample. A true story (my story) of overcoming Wernicke-Korsakoff Disease

It's a terrible illness, harder on the patient's family and friends than it is on the patient, and it's no picnic for the patient.
   This story is available as a paperback, hardcover, epub, or pdf download from, or as a Kindle book from amazon.
   Here is the sample, about the first 1/3 of the short book:

Green Goblin

A Survivor’s Tale
Wernicke’s Encephalopathy

This book is dedicated to anyone who has suffered or suffers from Wernicke-Korsakoff disease, the people who care for them, and those who love them.
Let there be hope.
Werknicke-Korsakoff Syndrome: A disorder of the central nervous system characterized by abnormal eye movements, incoordination, confusion, and impaired memory and learning functions.

Wernicke’s Aphasia: A type of aphasia caused by a lesion in the Wernicke’s Area of the brain and characterized by grammatical but more or less meaningless speech and an apparent inability to comprehend speech.

Part I

Bed Sheets and Brimstone

The journey I was about to take was both long in coming and a surprise. Recently I read description after description of the illness I suffered. I’ll tell you what it is at the end of this story. If I remember. If there is an end to this story.
It began with a dream.
The Klingons were blowing up the Enterprise and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. No one responded to my orders to fire the phasers and I have no idea how to run a starship. The deck shook. I turned to Worf and ordered him, again, to fire. He wasn’t there—no one was.
My pulse hammered in my neck. I was scared but determined to go out fighting. Then I saw her: my wife Sarah, dressed in Deanna Troi’s uniform. She was crying and giving me a strange look. I wanted to hug her and tell her it would be okay. We’d beat the bastards but I needed her to fire the photon torpedoes and do it now.
“Don’t stand there and cry! We’re going to die if you don’t fire the torpedoes!” I hated myself for shouting at her. I don’t shout. It’s not my style. Of course, getting killed by Klingons isn’t my style either.
Then I woke up. I was lying on the floor on her side of the bed, pulling myself up with the quilt. “It’s okay,” I said. “I’m awake now.”
She looked scared. Sarah doesn’t looked scared any more often than I shout. She told me to get dressed. We were going to the hospital.



I stood on the driveway on her side of the garage. Sarah was behind the wheel and we were waiting for the light to turn green. I was in the passenger seat looking at First Baptist Church through the window. I was an executive with the Boy Scouts of America at the time and we had several meetings a month at that church.
“I don’t think I can go to a meeting tonight,” I said. “I’m not in uniform.”
Sarah sounded calm. “We’re going to the hospital.”
She had been fighting colitis for more than two years and her symptoms led her to the hospital only a couple of weeks before.
“Why are you driving?” It didn’t make sense for her to drive herself to the hospital.
“You’re drunk.”
She had me there. I was drunk. I drank too much anyway, but for the couple of weeks prior to the Klingon invasion, drinking large amounts of beer was the only way I could find to get rid of the double vision.
I saw double for at least two weeks before I went nuts. I should have gone to the doctor in early June, but it was a busy time of year for us. I felt fine physically so I didn’t see double vision as a high priority symptom. Instead of going to the doctor like I knew I should, I got new glasses. I still saw double, but I saw double clearly. I kept an empty foam cup in my car for the random bits of puking I experienced. There was a lot of random puking, but it was okay. There wasn’t much to throw up. It’s hard to eat when you see double and puke every now and again.
But I didn’t need to go to a hospital. I was fine. She was the sick one.



I was in a hospital trauma center waiting room very late at night. I didn’t know how I got there. Sarah was filling out paperwork at the counter. I wanted a cigarette. I reached in the left pocket of my jeans, but for some reason I didn’t have my cigarettes.
I started to walk to the car. It was the first of July and a nice night—warm but not hot. The parking lot was almost empty. They usually are at 2:00 in the morning. I turned around and went back thorough the emergency room entrance. I thought Sarah would be admitted soon and didn’t want to bother her for her keys. My plan was to walk home, get my cigarettes and drive our other car back.
On my way back from the lobby I saw three or four wheelchairs and decided to take one home instead of walking. I heard Sarah shout and try to catch up with me, and thought, she doesn’t have to worry about me. They’ll help her soon.
“Wait!” she shouted.
I waved over my shoulder. “See you at home dear!”
So there I was, rolling my wheelchair toward Mayfield Road at two o’clock in the morning, going home to get my cigarettes and my car. I stopped before I turned left on Mayfield. Even at that hour, there were cars on the road. Safety first!
I’m a good driver and try to be polite. I intended to use my turn signal, but couldn’t find it on the wheelchair. It seemed like a bad idea to get killed in the center lane while driving a wheelchair. It didn’t take long to figure out wheelchairs don’t have turn signals. I started to roll out in the road anyway when I heard someone running behind me.
I turned. Two men were gaining on me. One was bearded and big. He was in front of a short, stocky guy. They grabbed the wheelchair just as I threw caution to the winds and went for the road. I struggled, but one held the wheelchair while the other grabbed me.
I told myself not to hurt them. They weren’t hurting me; they were restraining me. It sounds funny, I know. I’m a little guy—five foot six and a hundred twenty pounds—but size doesn’t make any difference in some situations. What matters is who walks away and who doesn’t.
I stopped struggling when I realized I couldn’t get away without hurting them. Better to wait and see what happens.
They rolled me back through the doors. Sarah hugged me just before they took me into the patient storage area—you know, where they put patients until they get around to fixing them. She was crying, I was confused.
So ended July 1, or so I thought. It was actually the wee hours of July 4th—I’d been unconscious at home for at least thirty-six hours since leaving work for vacation on the first.



I opened my eyes and found myself looking at a woman’s face. She was a blond gal, neither ugly nor pretty. She was talking to me, but I didn’t understand what she was trying to say. It’s funny, but I was more curious about why I was sleeping sitting up in bed than why I was there.
“You have to sign this.” She put a clipboard on my lap.
I looked at the piece of paper on the clipboard. It was broken in block paragraphs. There were a couple of lines at the bottom for signatures. I tried to read the document. I don’t sign anything without knowing what it is I’m signing.
I tried to read it. I couldn’t.
“Don’t you have one of these in English?” I laughed but I wasn’t kidding. Not one word made sense.
“It’s in English.” She looked worried.
I looked at it again. I’m pretty good with languages. I can read some French and Spanish. I recognize German, Russian, and Hebrew when I hear them. I didn’t recognize the language on the paper in my lap.
She didn’t know what was holding me back. She sounded desperate when she said, “You have to sign it! Your wife has been calling me every day! She’s very worried about you. She loves you very, very much.”
I looked at the form, then at the nurse. I wanted to sign the document…but I didn’t know how.
“We can’t tell her you’re here if you don’t sign it. It breaks my heart to hear her cry. Please sign it so we can tell her you’re here.”
I looked at the document again. It was hard to think, but I found the words I was looking for. “How do I sign it?”
She looked surprised, then more worried. For the first time I noticed a man standing behind her. I didn’t see his face. I remembered Sarah took me to a hospital. If these people couldn’t or wouldn’t tell her where I was, that meant I’d been taken from the hospital. That meant I was a hostage.
Kidnapped? Me? If they wanted a big ransom for little old me, they could forget it. We didn’t have money to pay a ransom. I decided to get out of there, but first I had to sign the form. Play along and watch for an opportunity to escape. “I don’t know how to sign it.”
She talked me through it. I formed the letters as she said them. By the time I wrote “Robert Townsend” in childish cursive letters, I remembered how to write. I tried to hand the clipboard back to her, but she pushed it toward me. “Please date it.”
I nodded and stared at the blank. “What’s the date?” What she said didn’t make sense to me, but I wrote it anyway.
“Seventh floor,” she said.
“It’s a four-story building.”
She looked at me an enunciated every syllable. “Sev…en. …Four.”
That made less sense than seventh floor. So I wrote seventh floor hoping she would accept it and let me go back to sleep. I had an escape to plot and needed to rest before I executed whatever I came up with.
I heard her say to the man behind her, “I think that’s as good as we’re going to get.”



I felt a sharp pain in my arm and opened my eyes. There were two men holding my left arm. The shorter one, the one at my shoulder said, “He’s awake!”
I yanked my arm free by pulling it toward my chest. They let go. I bent my elbow and thrust for the throat of the man closest to my wrist. His face changed as my hand got closer to his neck. He looked happy, then surprised. I pushed my hand closer. My first thought was to crush his windpipe. Push the hand; push it toward his neck. Squeeze—crush, don’t choke—crumple his esophagus like a beer can.
That scared him. He tried to force my hand back, but I wouldn’t let him. We struggled. He couldn’t push my hand away and I wouldn’t stop reaching for his neck.
I didn’t want to kill him. I only wanted to injure him, severely if I had to, and hoped his partner would care more about saving a coworker than the little prisoner in the bed. I intended to pluck his adams apple from his neck and hold it up for the other guy to see.
It doesn’t take long to recognize a bad plan. I couldn’t get to the man’s neck. I gave up on the idea of ripping his throat apart and switched to escape mode. I lashed out with my right arm to grab the rail on the other side of the bed. Grab the rail, pull hard, and vault out of bed. Then run for the door and get the hell out of Dodge.
My hand slammed on a woman’s wrist resting on the rail. I heard a choked cry and looked up. She was wearing a white coat. I didn’t look at her face; I looked at her hand.
Think! I needed time to think, but didn’t have it. Stalemate. The men had me and I had the woman. I didn’t want to take a woman hostage, and I didn’t want to hurt her, but I hated the idea of getting killed more. Since when did the bastards in the Protectors Guild use women? There were no female guildsmen the last time I was in this world.
I had to do something. It went against the grain for me—hurting a woman. I didn’t want to do it, but I knew she would slide a dagger between my ribs with none of the hesitation I felt toward hurting her. I wanted to tell the men I would let go of her if they let go of me. The words wouldn’t come. I couldn’t say anything…I didn’t know how.
I squeezed her wrist. In my mind’s eye I could see her bones just above my curled fingers, the twin, not quite parallel bones in her forearm. My fingers were clenched. Squeeze. Tighter. Pop the hand off her wrist like the flower from a dandelion! I locked eyes with the man holding my left wrist. I wanted him to look in my eyes and see I would rather kill him ten times than lie in that bed as their prisoner. As I did that, I squeezed the woman’s arm hander. She would tell them to let me go any second. I smiled at the Guildsman to intimidate him.
“Robert! Stop it!” the woman shouted. “Robert! You’re hurting me! Please…stop!”
…That was the last thing I expected her to say. She sounds like my Mom! No one but my mother calls me Robert. Guild bastards. How was I supposed to hurt someone who sounds like my mom?
I couldn’t.
I let go of her arm and waited for them to kill me. The last thing I heard was a man’s voice. “The little fucker smiled at me! Did you see that? He tried to kill me and he fucking smiled!”



I woke up when I heard someone walk in the room. I opened my eyes to a woman standing between the bed I was in and an empty bed next to it.
“You’re awake!” she said. “How do you feel?”
I felt fine and said so. I didn’t know where I was or why I was there, but the bed was comfortable and I just woke up.
“You look terrible,” I said. “You should sit down.
She sat on the other bed and gave me a warm smile. I was looking at a woman in her mid-fifties. Slender, attractive. She had dark hair with a few strands of gray. I liked it when she smiled; it was a nice smile. She looked me over from her perch on the other bed. Her expression held curiosity and surprise. She seemed very relieved about something, but I couldn’t tell what. “You are a nice man. You’re a very nice man.” She smiled again. “I told them you were, but they said you were dangerous. They said you tried to kill them.”
I almost figured out what was going on. Almost. It slipped my mind’s grasp before I could stop it. The person she was talking to, the patient in the bed, was somewhere between Rob Townsend and Tom Benton.
Tom Benton is the protagonist in a novel. I’m the author. Benton is an American who went to a world called Sexton. He was trained to be a killer/cop in a world of swords and sorcery. Rather than serve in a force he grew to recognize as evil—the protectors guild—he became an outlaw. He took the name ‘Viper’ and is merciless in his defense of freedom.
She locked eyes with me. “You are a nice man,” she said again. I’m not sure if she was trying to convince herself or me. “Every time you started to hurt me, all I had to do was tell you to let me go and you let go right away.”
Hurt her? Kill? I was shocked. “I can’t hurt anybody. I’m a little guy.”
She shook her head, lips pressed together. “You’re a strong little guy. Very strong! Don’t play weak little man with me. You’re strong!”
I knew that—I just didn’t want anyone else to know it. Then I saw the brace on her left arm and almost remembered. I didn’t remember what happened, but there was no doubt in my mind I was the one who hurt her arm. I was devastated.
I think I was crying. “I didn’t mean to hurt anyone.”
She tried to calm me. “Of course you didn’t, you’re a nice man. You were scared, that’s all. Absolutely terrified.” She stood up and moved closer. “You are forgetting things. You must remember this, even if you remember nothing else. You can never drink again.”
“I don’t drink.” It’s true—Viper doesn’t. Not much. It would get him killed. She didn’t know who she was talking to. She was talking to Tom Benton, AKA Viper. I was gone. Rob? There’s no Rob here, man.
“Yes you do!” Her anger was genuine. “You were drunk when they brought you in here! You were almost dead. We saved you this time, but you’re not safe yet. We can’t do it again. If you drink again, you will die. Remember this…you can never drink again.”
I didn’t remember that. Not for a long time.



Time to go!”
I thought someone shouted that very close to my ear, but when I opened my eyes I was alone. Alone in a bed in a hospital room. I remembered being tired, but I couldn’t remember picking a bed and going to sleep. I had to get out of there before someone found me.
I tried to get out of bed, but my left arm was strapped to the rail. Idiot! Fell asleep in the open and let the guild tie me down. There wasn’t time to wonder why they didn’t kill me. The voice I heard in my head might have been imaginary but it wasn’t wrong. It was time to go.
There must have been a little of myself left. I looked at the table next to the bed to see if there was a note from someone, maybe Sarah, telling me to stay put or run like hell. When I found no note, I almost called for help.
Viper answered that one. If you call for help, who do you think will come? Those friendly people who strapped you to this bed, that’s who!
That was all the answer I needed. I stared at the binding. I rubbed my forehead…and laughed. “Stupid guild bastards! You forgot I have two hands.”
Now that I had an assessment of the problem, all I had to do was untie myself… I lost a few minutes while I tried to decide what to do after I freed myself. Should I wait there and kill my captors, or leave and recruit an army to come back and kill them?
I decided to leave and let the chips fall as they may.
Untying myself proved more difficult than I thought. The restraint didn’t buckle or lace. There were two straps holding it to the bed. I reached over my body and the lower rail with my right hand and followed them down as far as I could reach. The end of the straps was beyond me. I tried another way: tight over my chest, reaching down between the top of the mattress and the bottom rail. I rolled to my left as far as I could.
My hand hit the end of the straps. They were wrapped around the bed frame and looped through a double d-ring. I could picture it—two straps going under both rings, then around and between the curved part of the ‘D’.
I’m left-handed. It was more difficult to untie the straps with my right hand than it would have been with my left, but I could do it. In a strange way it was almost refreshing. I found no ambiguity: I was a prisoner against my will; I had no higher priority than freedom. It didn’t take long to untie the thing, even right-handed. That’s when I noticed the needles in my left arm. They led to IV bags on a stand above my shoulder.
The needles worried me. I hate them. I was afraid I would pass out when I pulled them out, but then I chuckled. I was already in bed. If I was going to pass out, what better place to do it?
I was pleasantly surprised to find it doesn’t hurt to pull the needles out. It only hurts when they stick you. When the first needle dangled over the floor, I thought about the mess it would make when the fluid dripped out. I laughed at myself again—what kind of prisoner cleans up after himself when he escapes? The empty restraint would tell them I was gone whether there was a mess on the floor or not. I pulled the other needles out one at a time, jumped over the bed rail, and headed out the door.
No one seemed to notice me in the hall. It was daylight and there were staff and patients around. As I approached the door to the stairs I realized I was wearing only a hospital gown. That was fine in the hospital, but would look mighty strange on the streets.
Our buddy Tom Benton is a resourceful guy. The plan was to go down the stairs and find someone of similar build, knock him out, drag him to a closet, and steal his clothes. Then walk home taking back streets.
I was foiled at the door to the stairs. It was locked. The lock was old, a combination lock with small buttons and Roman numerals engraved in the brass above them. I stared at it and tried to remember what little I knew about the type. I didn’t think the combinations on them were changed easily, and therefore weren’t changed often. That meant the buttons involved in the combination would be more worn than the buttons not involved. Of the seven buttons on the lock, I could narrow the possibilities to three or four. Good idea, right? It would have been if they gave me time.
I heard a shout from behind. I turned to look over my shoulder at the door I left only a few minutes before. A big redheaded guy came out. He saw me and shouted “You! What are you doing out of bed?”
I wasn’t going to stand there and take his pop quiz. I turned to run in the other direction, but couldn’t. There were patients in wheelchairs by the window. They blocked my way. I thought about jumping over them, but ruled it out as an option. Good guys don’t risk hurting the injured and infirm trying to escape. I had to go through the guy I’ve come to call “Big Red.”
I gave myself up. Before I knew what was going on, there were several people around Big Red. He stood behind a wheelchair, waiting for me. I sat in the chair and wondered if they were going to kill me. The other people gathered around us. The thought of springing from the wheelchair and doing as much damage as I could crossed my mind. I discarded the idea. Live to fight again, I thought. Can’t win if you’re dead.
Much later it occurred to me that the people surrounding the wheelchair—the people who formed a wall between the patients in the hall and the lunatic in the wheelchair—were all women.
They knew I wouldn’t hurt the women.



I woke up in artificial light, not torchlight or candlelight. It was America, not Sexton. Something went wrong with the crossing this time. I was in a straitjacket in a hospital bed. My arms were crossed over my chest under the jacket. A shake of my shoulders told me I wasn’t going to fight my way out. The restraint was tied to the bed at the shoulders. I couldn’t reach anything with my arms bound like that.
I closed my eyes and tried to remember everything I knew about straitjackets. It didn’t take long to figure out I wasn’t in one—not a straitjacket, but something else. There was no buckle or strap under my back. I had seen a straitjacket at some point in my life and hadn’t forgotten the fear I felt when I saw it. I studied it for that reason—I tend to study things that scare me in case I ever need to play to win.
I concentrated on my legs, particularly around the groin. Straitjackets strap between the legs so the patient can’t worm out the bottom. That thing had no such strap. And the guild bastards actually did me a favor by lashing the thing to the bed at the shoulders. If the restraint wasn’t strapped to the bed at the top, there would be nothing holding it in place. Holding in place prevents the prisoner from getting out of bed, but that was a two-edged sword. Holding it to the bed gave me something to pull against on my way out the bottom.
I anchored my feet to he bottom of the mattress and pulled myself out with my legs. When I messed up my air dragging it over the canvas, I wished I had a comb. Not because I worried about what I looked like, but because it would be easy to spot the escapee by his messed-up hair. I shouldn’t have worried. Have you seen the typical haircut in Cleveland?
I made it out of the room and found myself lost in a sea of blue-green curtains. It was a house of mirrors with no mirrors, only curtains.



I was in a wheelchair looking down a set of metal stairs at a machine with a tube-shaped entrance. A woman stood next to me and was explaining something, but I didn’t understand her. My attention was on the tube. It looked like a tight fit even for a little guy like me.
“I’m claustrophobic,” I said. I’m not, really. I just didn’t want to go in the tube.
“It’s okay.” She was trying to reassure me and it worked. I sensed no lie in her face or voice. “If you get scared, just bang on the side. Or say you’re scared. We’ll let you out.”
Sure they would let me out. She was one of those friendly people who strapped my ass to the bed. “You can hear me in there?”
“Yes. We’ll be able to see you and hear you.”



I don’t know what went wrong in the MRI chamber. Something did. It wasn’t the test, I’m sure of that. Magnetic resonance imaging is a great tool. Expensive as hell—I saw the bill later—but a great tool.
Speaking of Hell…that’s where I went next.
I was on my back in the tube. It made me think I was in a Dreamsicle. There were bands of orange and white light, like the vanilla ice cream in those frozen orange treats.
That’s what I remember. They tell me I’m wrong, but that’s what I remember. Orange bands with beams of white light.



I opened my eyes and saw a white ceiling. I was myself at that point and thought I finally got to be the guy in the bed in the bed races. My dad took me to see them when I was a kid and I thought it would be fun to be the guy in the bed, riding right down the middle of the street as we raced to the cheers of the crowd.
The lights in the ceiling were the only clue I had that we were moving. They passed quickly overhead, one every few seconds. Flash, slide-slide, flash, slide-slide, flash, slide. I tried to sit up but a hand pushed me back.
“Lie down,” someone said. “Don’t move.”
The bed race that wasn’t a bed race was a lot more fun than the ride on the train that wasn’t a train.



My pulse speeds up when I think about what happened next. It still scares me. I was on a bed in a big room and there were other beds around mine with no curtains separating them. There were three or four men lying on similar beds. The room was big and had a curved white ceiling like an airplane hangar where the roof and walls are one, stretching from the floor in an arc from side to side.
I heard the men talking to each other in low tones. It seemed like we were waiting for something, but I didn’t know what or who. I asked them what we were waiting for. They didn’t know. It felt like a scene in Waiting for Godot.
“Why don’t we get up and look?” I pointed at the curtain separating us from the rest of the room.
“You can get out of bed?” one of them asked. “If you can, you should.”
The next thing I knew, I was standing in front of a row of vending machines. I was hungry so I thought I’d grab a bag of chips while we waited for whatever train we were waiting for. The place looked like a gleaming white version of a subway station.
I reached in my pocket for change and discovered I didn’t have pockets. Hell, I didn’t even have pants! I was wearing a hospital gown and it was chilly in that place. I like pants—they’re one of man’s greatest inventions. Never underestimate the importance of pants.
Not long after that, I found myself underground on a walkway between two sets of railroad tracks. There were two trains and they looked ready to leave the station. The train on my right was white. It was no cleaner than a normal passenger train. Lines of people of all ages waited to get on. They were quiet and didn’t seem to be in a hurry. I didn’t think much of it, but because I had no destination in mind and don’t like to wait in line if I don’t have to, I looked at the train on my left.
It looked older, like something out of the 1950’s. Its sides were orange and beat up. The windows were tinted. I couldn’t see much through them, only vague shapes of people moving around. I heard laughter and the sound of music—good rock ‘n’ roll music—pump through the walls. Party train.
I didn’t get on one train or the other. My Spidey-sense was tingling.
The next thing I knew, I was outside the station between the two trains. Orange-white halogen lights burned the darkness. It was cold. Frigid, wicked, bite-ass cold.


AUTHOR'S NOTE: There's more, of course. We haven't gotten to the good parts yet, the recovery part... 


Friday, May 27, 2011

Sexton Sand (unpublished as of 5/27/11) first 3 chapters

Here are the first three chapters of the much-awaited Sexton Sand (Sexton Chronicles, book 4). Sexton Sand will be published...soon. 

Chapter One 
     Tom had no idea how it was supposed to work. Fighting enemies, whether they were members of Sexton's Protectors Guild, shape-changing druids, or hordes of Crescen soldiers was easy compared to what he was about to do. If he screwed up fighting, the only penalty was death. This time the odds were different, the stakes higher. He was more nervous than he would have been if he was about to go into battle.
     He was on a bench outside the living quarters of Benecala, the Mage of Sexton. If he was in America, he might have a better idea of how to proceed. He would walk in, disregarding the man's position—or the deadly destructive power of his magic, of which there would be none—and talk to him man to man. He would tell him of his love for his daughter and announce they were going to get married. Quaiva was no help, but that was probably his fault. He hadn't asked her how to proceed, and she couldn't or wouldn't read his mind.
     How long had she been in there? He wished he still had his watch. At least then he would know how long he'd been waiting. He was trying not to think about Andy—in captivity somewhere in Crescens. On the other hand, thinking about Andy's troubles made his nervousness seem trivial. Benecala probably wouldn't turn him into anything that slithered or oozed. On the other hand... He cut the thought short. The other hand was that he had no idea what was going to happen when the door behind him finally opened. It had been nine days since Andy was captured. Nine long days and he was no closer to rescuing his friend, and no closer to marrying the woman he loved.
     The door opened and he all but jumped to his feet. Quaiva smiled at him without saying a word, turned her back, and walked back into the room. He walked in and closed the door behind. Benecala was sitting in a chair with a high, padded back. His black and gray beard appeared to have been combed recently, and his long black hair wasn't as greasy as usual. Must've been time for his annual bath, Tom thought. Quaiva was on a padded bench on his right. He couldn't help but smile when he looked at her. This was a rare occasion—seeing her as a daughter—and she looked much younger than she was. Her brown hair was tied back in a long braid with a red ribbon on the end that matched the color of her dress. Her ankles were together on the floor and her back was straight. She smiled back at him, but only with her eyes.
     “Sit next to my daughter,” Benecala said. He steepled his fingers. “I want to see how the two of you look together.”
     Tom's nerves got the best of him. He blurted, “Sir, there's something I have to discuss...”
     Tom did. It didn't lessen his nervousness when he realized he followed the order without thinking about it. To sit, he had to take three steps and turn. The old fart must've used magic, he realized, or I would still be on my feet. His fingers wanted to twitch. To hide the nervousness that would show, he crossed his legs and clasped his hands over his knees. He wanted to speak but knew better. Benecala's tone made it clear who would speak next, and he wasn't going to do that until he was good and ready.
     “My daughter has asked for permission to wed you.”
     Tom's eyebrows went up. He glanced at Quaiva and saw her blush. “Excuse me?”
     Benecala chuckled. “She did not discuss this with you?”
     “Of course! Sir, I'm just...surprised...she asked your permission.”
     “A father has some say in these matters. It is a tradition I do not wish to see broken. Is that not how it is done in your world?”
     Tom laughed. “Where I come from, the man asks permission from the father of the woman he wants to marry. ...Sometimes.”
     “Silliness. The man needs no one's permission save that of the woman.”
     “That was my thought, but I'm willing to bow to tradition.” he wanted to look away from the wizard and look at her, but didn't quite dare. He had the sense she was wildly amused by the whole thing.
     “She,” Benecala continued as if Tom hadn't said a word, “belongs to the father until he decides otherwise.”
     He met Benecala's gaze; he wanted to see every nuance. There was something there, and although he'd known him a long time, he couldn't tell what it was. “What have you decided?”
It seemed like a long time before the reply came. The wizard stood. He turned his back on the couple on the bench and looked at the sun and clear sky through the open window behind him. Somewhere nearby, a bird sang. When he turned to face them again, he was smiling. “I have decided to welcome you as my son-in-law, Thomas. Quaiva, dearest girl, he is an excellent choice.”
     She clasped Tom's hand and squeezed. He didn't look at her. He was afraid he'd join her if she was crying.
     “If you wouldn't mind waiting in the hall again, Thomas, I would like a few words with her.”
     Tom didn't try to hide his surprise. He looked at Quaiva and nodded when she smiled at him and glanced at the door. She wasn't crying. That helped. “Okay. I'll wait outside.”
     Her palms were sweating, but she wouldn't wipe them on her dress like a cook's assistant. This wasn't part of her plan. There should be nothing further for the two of them to discuss on this matter until after he had a chance to become accustomed to the idea and was prepared to plan the ceremony. She knew him better than anyone else living or dead, and she could see there was something on his mind.
     He crossed to her and caressed her cheek. When he released her, he took a step back and looked at her. “How proud your mother would be,” he said in a whisper. “And I am proud as well.”
     “Thank you, father.”
     He looked at the door, then at her with a scrutiny she didn't know how to interpret. “Does he know you carry his child?”
     Her heart all but stopped. She had no spittle in her mouth, and her tongue felt swollen. A hard swallow made it easier. How could he know such a thing, when she wasn't sure herself? How would he feel about it? That he knew was beyond question. She chastised herself for not being forthright about her suspicion.
     He seemed to read her every thought and allowed her to play them through her mind. There was a pitcher of water on a table next to his chair. He poured some for her and handed her the cup. With a laugh he said, “You are not thinking clearly, my dear. If you were, you would have known I would see it in you. These things warm my heart.” He smiled with as much warmth and happiness as she had ever seen from him. “We return to my question. Does he know?”
     She stood. “I only suspected it myself...and apologize for not thinking you would see it as clearly as you see light.” Her apology was waved away. She swallowed and glanced at the door.      “No. He does not know. He must focus his attention on the rescue of Andy from the Crescens. To ask otherwise of him would tear him apart. He will not know about my...”
     “Don't try to stop me! Please.”
     “I was not stopping you.” He chuckled. “I was but finishing your thought.”
     “I was going to say 'pregnancy.'”
     “I am telling you that you will have a daughter.”
     The devilish twinkle in his eyes was much closer to the look they normally carried, but she didn’t like that it was aimed at her. “You were saying...?”
     She aimed a finger at him. “You will tell no one I’m pregnant. And I will not tell him until he comes back safely with Andy. Then and only then, if he will still have me, will we marry. Agreed?”
     He embraced her. “I will do as you ask.”

Chapter Two

     John was waiting at the door when Tom finally got to his room. He was leaning against the wall with his arms folded over his chest and a big grin on his face. There was a sack on the floor next to him. “How did it go?” he asked. “I see you’re not a toad yet.”
     Tom rubbed his chin. It had been a long day, and he was tired. “Not yet anyway.” He glanced at the sack in John’s hand. “Did I lose a bet with you?”
     “No. Why would you ask that?”
     “That looks like a sack of laundry, and you’re waiting outside my door. Is it a welshing if I don’t do your laundry because I don’t remember the bet?”
     “It would be.” John laughed. He picked up the sack and nodded at the door. “Benecala said I had to bunk with you. These are my clothes.”
     Tom was too tired to ask, and too tired to argue with any response asking might have brought. He shrugged and reached for the door handle. “You get the couch. There’s only one bed.”
     “You have a couch? How do you rate?”
     “Academy grad. There aren’t a lot of perks that go with that, but this is one.” he smiled. “Rent is due daily...a silver. I get the bed and the first shower in the morning.” He opened the door.
     “You have a shower?” He wasn’t sure if Tom was kidding or not. The last thing he expected was Tom stopping in the middle of the doorway. He walked right up to him. His eyes bugged when he saw the room was lit. Candles on the table in the middle of the room gave enough light for him to see the bed, the couch, the doors on the balcony, and what made Tom stop in his tracks.
     His royal majesty, King Rolof of Sexton, was sitting in the chair. The candles were burned half down, and there were little puddles of white wax on the table. He’d been there a while. They hadn't seen him since they got back. Not that they expected to see him. Kings had better things to do than wait for a couple of guys to come back from a failed mission. John smiled at him. He liked the king... They liked the king. He looked healthy and vibrant. His red hair shined in the candlelight and his teeth looked white under his beard when he finally smiled.
     “No,” Tom said.
     “No?” Rolof repeated. “I haven’t said a word, and you start with a no?”
     Tom sat on the bed. “I’m very tired, and John probably is too. No offense intended, your highness, but every time we see you, you want us to go on a mission that could get us killed. I figured I’d save some time and just say no.”
     Rolof stood. He crossed to the bed and clapped Tom on the shoulder. His grin was infectious and both men joined him. “I came to ask no favors, nor to send you on a mission. “He shrugged. “I reserve the right for that at a later time, of course.” The smile faded from his face. “Let us not forget that I’m the king.”
     “It’s good to be the king,” John said. He was thinking of a Mel Brooks movie and almost laughed. His brain pictured Rolof telling all the pawns—living people in lawn chess—to jump the queen. It almost made him giggle. Sleep. He needed sleep, and soon.
     Tom yawned. “What brings you to my room in person in the middle of the night?”
     Rolof let go of his shoulder and extended his hand and shook hands with Tom. “Congratulations are in order. I understand you and Quaiva are engaged to be wed!”
     Tom’s eyebrows rose. “How did you know?”
     “Why do I have to keep saying it? I’m the king.”
     John said, “And people tell you everything? The only people that now are the folks that were on the boat, and the sailors on Quarick’s ship, and Quaiva, and me, and Benecala. Who told you?”
     “Know you nothing about rumors?” He glanced at the expression on John’s face and let loose a booming laugh. “Yes, I suppose you do. What you do now know is that my people have a habit of assuming I neither listen nor care to listen to comments not directly addressed to me. If I sit long enough in one place, with a royal and ponderous expression on my face, the people around me assume I’m thinking royal thoughts...governing from the limits of my skull, or some other nonsense.” His next laugh was almost a giggle. “You should hear what the chambermaids prattle about when they give me baths.”
     John shot Tom a look and saw laughter in his eyes. “Do they give you baths too?”
     “Do I look like a king?”
     “A little...around the eyes.”
     Tom shook his head. “You came to congratulate me? Thank you, your majesty.”
     Rolof’s expression turned serious. “I will stay out of your wedding plans, of course. Still, you must know this: I have no wife and no daughter. The closest persons in this castle to royalty other than myself are Benecala and Quaiva. She is not now, nor can she ever be a princess, but when she weds no one by appearances will know the difference.”
     “A royal wedding?” Tom asked. His expression was almost comic. “You’re kidding. Please tell me you’re kidding.”
     “Do I look like I’m kidding?”
     John leaned forward and put his face close to Rolof’s. He turned to Tom and smiled. “He doesn’t look like he’s kidding.”
      “I see that.”
     Rolof turned to leave. He stopped next to the door. “One more thing, gentlemen. I know your friend Andrew was captured. I count him as one of my personal friends. Nothing will stop you from affecting a rescue, I know. You probably plan to leave soon, correct?”
     John looked at Tom. He couldn’t read anything in his face, but he knew his friend would want to leave at first light and ride hard for Crescens. He was all for it if that was the plan. They were already nine days behind him and it would take several more for them to reach Crescens and start looking.
     “Soon,” Tom answered.
     “You need to rest for a couple of days before you go. I can see the exhaustion in both of you and I am—according to most—not an observant man. Three days will not make a difference in your mission. Stay and rest.”
     “We’ll take that under advisement, sir.” Tom smiled. His yawn was real.
     The king nodded. He looked at John and smiled. “Benecala asked me to give you this.” He reached under his belt and pulled out a small pouch. It rested in his palm.
     “What is it?” John asked.
     Rolof closed his hand over the pouch and squeezed. He threw it to the floor. A cloud of orange flew into the air and he backed out the door covered in haze. In the hall, he continued to hold his breath until he could hold it no longer. That damn wizard could pack a lot in a small package, but he didn’t say how fast the dust would work. He felt sleepy himself, but knew he didn’t breathe much of it in. If he had, he would sleep for a long time.
     There was no noise from within the room. John and Tom would sleep for three days. Resting would arm them better for their mission than anything else he could give them. For his part, Rolof decided a hunting trip to his forest in the north would be in order. He would return to the palace in five days...two days after the Americans woke up and left for Crescens.

Chapter Three

     Andy opened his eyes. Bright light. Hurts. He closed them again, but stayed awake. Groggy. He was, but could feel himself growing alert. The last thing he remembered was getting the crap kicked out of him by a mob of Crescens in the tunnels under the Fortress Balfour. After that things were a blur: captivity, chains, getting carried—probably drugged, but maybe under that damn druid’s spell—on a land route to somewhere. How long ago was that? He had no idea.
     He opened his eyes to slits and tried to get used to the light. Prisoner of war. The term rattled around in his head for a while. But why? They didn’t hesitate to kill everyone that got in their way. What’s special about me? Other than coming from a world they couldn’t imagine existed, he couldn’t think of anything. It wasn’t like he was a great warrior, or a prince, or a general in the Army of Sexton. As a hostage he wasn’t worth much. He had no rank, so they wouldn’t think he could give them enemy plans.
     He moved his hands, which were untied, over the mattress under him. It was odd they put a mattress in a prison. The place didn’t smell bad either. No stench of sweat, no reek of urine, no odor of moldy straw. What the hell was he lying on? He wriggled his hips and didn’t hear the crunch of straw. If he didn’t know better, he would think he was on a feather bed. His eyebrows went up when he opened his eyes. The light was sunlight filtered through sheer curtains. There was a pillow under his head. A nice, soft pillow. Nice digs. Too nice. He wondered if he should be alarmed. Could he move? His ribs hurt when he sat up, but it was an aching pain rather than the stab of broken bones. His lips felt funny. Swollen? He moved his jaw around with his hand, remembering a few punches to his face while they were in the tunnel. He was dressed in something that looked and felt like silk pajamas. He ran his hands over his thighs, enjoying the feel of the fabric, and grinned when he realized he wasn’t tied up in any way.
     The room was small and clean. Very clean. The floor was some kind of tile: green with flecks of gold. The walls were white, and the window did indeed have sheer curtains over it. A warm dry breeze blew into the room and fluttered the curtains. To his right was a door with a peaked arch at the top. There was no handle on the inside and he figured it was locked. It was a prison of some sort, but what kind of prison? If he was in Crescens, and he had no reason to think he was anywhere else, why was he in a nice place? There was plenty of poverty in the country. He was sure they didn’t have money to treat all prisoners this well.
He looked to the right and saw a table against the wall. On it was a pitcher and a plate with some kind of bread on it. His stomach rumbled at the sight. His legs wobbled when he stood, probably from lack of use. He couldn’t remember the last time he stood up or walked after the beating in the tunnel. Five or six steps took him to the table. He spilled a little of the water when he gulped it. Rather than waste the spilled water, he smeared more on his face. There didn’t’ seem toe any bruising, but there were a few tender spots that were probably pretty banged up for the first few days after the beatings. There was a lot of stubble on his face. Maybe he’d grow it into a beard.
     A knock at the door brought a chill to his spine. He put the cup down and looked at it without saying a word. It opened, and a woman entered. She glanced at the bed, then looked deeper into the room and smiled when she saw him. A word whispered over her shoulder, and the door closed behind her.
     It took him a second to realize who she was. The blond hair and blue eyes, the ready smile over white teeth, and the shape of her hips and breasts under the black dress did the trick. It took another second to get his lungs to work well enough to push breath and words out. “Sarah?”
     Sarah was on of the wives of their friend Raj—an exile from Crescens who became their friend and got them into the spice trade, which was illegal in both countries, and who—Andy remembered with a gulp—went on to become King Rajahd’een of Crescens, the man responsible for starting the war. “Is that you?”
     She smiled. “I am quite happy to see you awake. Are you well?”
     He blinked and grinned. “Am I well? Um...I guess. How long have I been here?” Before she could answer, he held up a hand to stop her. “I mean. Where am I and how long have I been here?”
     She shook her head and looked away. “I came only to see that you are well. I am so sorry, my friend, but I am not authorized to answer any of your questions. Is there anything in the way of food or drink I can get for you? The bread and water are here only to break your fast. Other foods are available to you. Perhaps you would like fruit or wine?”
     She smiled. “What, pray tell, are tacos?”
     “Ground beef heated until brown, served in flat bread with tomatoes, and lettuce, and cheese on top. A little spice added to the meat would be great.” his stomach rumbled loud enough for her to hear and make her giggle. “Four or five of ‘em should do the trick.”
     “Yes, please.” Hot damn! I just invented tacos!”
     “I will see what I can do. In the meantime, you should rest. You have a meeting in a few hours. I will wake you when I bring the tacos.” She knocked once on the door. It opened and she smiled at him as she backed out.
     “Wait! Who is the meeting with?”
     Her head poked back in. “Why...with the king. King Rajahd’een. Who else?”
     The door closed. He heard a bolt click. Feeling tired again, he looked at the bed and sighed. “Tacos on the way, brought by a hot chick in a tight dress, a feather bed, and a king coming to see me. Things could be worse, I suppose...” The bed felt good. He was asleep in minutes.

Storm Clouds Over Sexton (Sexton Chronicles, book 3)--first three chapters

Here are the first three chapters of the third book in the Sexton Chronicles series. Storm Clouds Over Sexton is available in paperback, hardcover, pdf, or epub from by clicking the cover of the book below. It's also available at for Kindle.

Chapter One

     It was late, the mug of wine on the table was barely touched, and Rolof did not feel much like a king. Or perhaps he felt too much like a king—weighed as he was with too many problems and too few solutions. He snuffed the candle on the table and stood in front of the open doors of his balcony, staring out at the moonlight on the waves over the Bay of Sexton. A breeze caught his copper hair, cooling his scalp. It would be warm again tonight and there were no clouds in sight. As was his habit when he could, he would leave the doors open and let the cool air refresh his body, if not his spirit.
      The problems of the kingdom could wait until the light of day. Perhaps he would be able to see a solution to the growing problems of too much rain in the principal city, too little on the farmlands surrounding it, and the growing—and illegal—spice importation, or smuggling, to use a better term—Crescens. An uneasy peace had lasted for more than three generations…once the two nations decided to ignore each other because they were too far apart in every way to negotiate.
      He removed his robe and draped it over the chair. The moon gave him enough light to move to the bed, which looked quite welcoming to his tired eyes. The blankets were cool, but would warm before sleep took him…
     …It was later, though he could not tell how much time had passed. Something woke him. Without moving, he listened. Moments passed and still he heard nothing. Perhaps one of his guards patrolling the corridor outside his chamber scuffed his boot as he walked by. Perhaps it was a sound from outside that drifted up… No…it could not be that. The balcony was a hundred or more feet above the rocks above the water. Birds flew by on occasion, and did not fly into the darkness of the room. They were never enough to wake him—simply part of the background sounds he loved.
      There were no more sounds, but he did not close his eyes completely. The troubles of the kingdom began to spin in lazy circles through his overtired mind. Moonlight still bathed the furnishings, so it could not be so late.
      His face tightened when movement from the balcony caught his slitted eyes. Other than magic—which was possible, though not probable, given Benecala’s presence in the castle—someone would have had an impossible climb to get there. Additionally, few knew where he slept.
      There was someone there. Rolof saw him climb over the rail in near silence. Like a shadow, the intruder swept into the room. He stood still as stone, taking in the details like a minion of death.
     Rolof could have summoned the guards with a shout. They would arrive in seconds, but probably not before the intruder escaped through the balcony doors or made his attempt at assassination. Besides, Rolof believed a king should be a leader, and the first defense in his own protection. Let the assassin play he game, he thought. I shall play my hand.
    A glint of steel from the blade of a knife flashed in the blue light of the moon. The intruder came closer to the bed, making no sounds. The blade came up over his chest. Rolof grabbed the hand behind hit, driving it down to the mattress with a soft sound and a flurry of feathers. He jabbed the assassin’s face with his fist—not once, but thrice in rapid succession. Blood flew—none of it his.
    The man fell back and Rolof threw the blankets aside. He leapt at his attacker, nearly dodging the blade as it came up in weak self-defense. The King threw his right fist into the surprised attacker’s face and grabbed the back of his head when he raised it instinctively. He drove the face down onto his fist and his knee into the man’s gut. The rush of air mingled with a cry of pain.
    Rolof picked him up: one hand on the man’s throat, the other on his stomach, and hurled him against the headboard of the bed. There was a loud crack as the man’s head met the unyielding wood. The King grabbed him by the throat and hurled him over the end of the bed, spinning on the balls of his bare feet before the other man’s body bounced on the floor.
    The door flew open and torchlight from the corridor flooded the room. Two guards ran in, drawing their short swords. They stopped when they realized it was the King smashing his fist into a face.
    The intruder was barely conscious, with blood covering most of his face. Rolof rammed his fist home one more time, then picked up the unconscious man and threw him on the chair next to the table. He looked at the guards and commanded them to hold him there.
   “Sire…are you unharmed?” the senior of the guards—a major—asked.
    Rolof nodded. He was scarcely out of breath, and untouched. His heart pounded in his chest, and his muscles longed to extend the fight, but he could make that pass with a little thought and a few more breaths.
    The intruder’s eyes were unfocused. Rolof looked at his face: high cheekbones, thin lips, sunken eyes, black hair, and dark skin. “What is your name?” The man had the presence of mind to pinch his lips tight. It seemed he had nothing to say. “Who sent you?”
    “Sire, do you want me to fetch Benecala?”
    Rolof saw the man’s eyes widen at the mention of the name. Not with fear, but with knowledge. So he knew enough to know the wizard, which might or might not mean anything. He looked Crescen, but there were many within the kingdom and the city. “Why did you want to kill me?” he asked mildly.
    The black irises in the man’s eyes were locked on his and there was an absence of fear in his voice when he spoke. “It was my mission. I have failed, and am found unworthy of paradise.”
    “What would happen to you in your country…if you made an attempt on the life of your king and failed?”
    “The same as here. Death.”
    Rolof smiled and shook his head. “You assume too much.” He looked at his guards. “Bind him, gag him, and put him on the next ship to Crescens. I care not if it is one of our ships, or one of those damned boats smuggling spice. Pay enough to guarantee his safe passage.” To the man he said, “Do not set foot on Sexton soil again, or I will have you imprisoned until your teeth fall out, your eyes cannot see, and your tongue dries in your mouth while you shout yourself voiceless asking for death.”
    Once they were gone, it took him quite a while to find sleep. When it came, he was grateful for it. The balcony doors remained open; he would not give up his breeze.
Chapter Two

   The King of Crescens slept on a bed in the middle of a large, airy room at the top of a tower. Light curtains fluttered in the pre-dawn breeze at the pointed-arch doors to the balconies. It was a peaceful sleep, uncluttered by dreams. And a deep sleep, as far as the assassin could tell, for the man did not move.
    He swept to the side of the bed. His feet made no noise crossing the intricately woven rug, its design standing out in the gloom like a message from the heavens he was not ready to understand…nor would he ever. The only sound was that of his knife sliding from the sheath, and it did not disturb the King. Strangely, the assassin was glad. This was a mission of necessity, not of hate or vengeance; he had no desire to bring fear to the old man’s heart before he stopped it.
    It was over in seconds. With neither hesitation, nor error, the assassin drove the point of the blade into the gray hair on the King’s chest and pulled his hand back—leaving the knife—before blood spattered him. Death was almost instant. With a light, respectful touch, he shaped the dead king’s face so it would look peaceful in death. He left the way he came in: by rope, down the sheer wall of the palace.
    In spite of the savagery of his act, the assassin hoped the dead King would be treated well in the paradise promised his people—something about virgins surrounding the eternal soul of righteous dead sounded good to his Sexton heart. He chuckled at the thought as he tossed his black cloak in a gutter and turned a dark corner. It would not matter what versions of heaven were available after he died. There was a notch in the Blue Hells—he was sure—where he would reside for the rest of time.
    Rajahd’een woke to a light tapping on his door. He opened his eyes and stretched. Before he asked who was there, or gave sign he heard the knock, he reached from under the sheet and shook the Sarah’s shoulder, the wife with whom he chose to sleep the previous night. She opened her eyes and smiled at him before wrapping the sheet around her waist—taking it from him with an impish look he found wildly attractive—and slipped out a side door.
    The knock came again, with urgency this time. “Enter,” he said. There was no trace of sleep in his voice.
    The tall doors opened. His father’s vizier of state affairs, and friend since boyhood, was in the hall. He waved off the others with him and walked into the room. The doors closed behind him as Raj sat up in bed. The man had never looked old before, at least not to Raj’s eyes. Now his long frame was stooped at the shoulders. His beardless face was pale, the dark eyes hooded, tired, and sad.
    “Greetings, your highness.” He bowed and winced as he straightened his back. “I beg you, dress quickly and come with me.”
    Raj’s head spun. “What has happened, Ben-Tahek?” Realization struck him and caused his heart to pause. “You greet me with the wrong title. I am but a prince.”
    “I am afraid you no longer have that luxury. Please. Rise, dress, and come with me.”
    He wept when he saw his father, dead. A single tear fell from each eye as he looked at his father’s body, still in the bed. The servants had done well. A fresh sheet covered him from the shoulders down—there was no sign of blood. His face looked peaceful, as if he died in slumber rather than the result of a shocking blow to the heart.
    “How did the assassin gain entrance?”
    Ben-Tahek’s voice was hushed, although they were alone in the room. “We think he came through from without.”
    “He scaled the tower?”
    “That is unlikely. There was magic involved, most probably.”
    “I would have felt magic…of any sort.” He took his eyes away from his father and looked at Tahek. “Show me the murder weapon.”
    “Are you sure you want to see it now? There are things to be done. You must accept the crown immediately—before word gets out of his death. Coronation can come later. For now, we have no king.”
    “I will leave matters of state to you, for the moment.” He raised his eyebrows. “I wish to see the knife that killed my father.”
    “Your will…” He walked to the door and opened it slightly. A moment later he returned, carrying the knife—clean of blood—on a silk pillow.
    Raj picked it up. It was heavy and not well-made. The steel was good: hard, tempered, and honed to a keen edge on both sides. “This blade is of Sexton make.”
    “So it would appear.”
    “You do not believe it?”
    The vizier shrugged. “That is not for me to decide, your majesty.”
    “I do not believe it. I see no reason for them to assassinate my father. Nothing for them to gain.”
    “If I might make so bold to suggest…”
    Raj looked away from the body on the bed and gazed into Tahek’s eyes. In that gaze Tahek saw an enraged son and a dangerous king. “Your job is to give advice, Ben-Tahek. My job, as of recently, is to decide whether or not to follow it. What is your suggestion.”
    “You are not aware, yet, of all your father knew. This afternoon we must change that. In the interim, let us hope the servants who found your father are wise enough to pinch their tongues. Rumor will spread like disease through the palace, and spill onto the streets.” He arched a gray eyebrow. “Faster than you would think.”
Chapter Three

   Clio was beaming. His friends were at the table in the big room set aside for eating—where he and Aemilia would feed their large family as soon as they made one—and he had the pleasure of lighting the little candles they made special for the top of the cake. It was a strange custom the Americans told them about—blowing out candles to celebrate the passing, or survival, of another year. And yet it was great fun.
    Aemilia was with child. The glow in her face was unmistakable. Andy, Tom, and John had a betting pool going…not that they dared share that fact with her. Clio wanted to join the pool but knew he was a dead man if he did, whether he won or not. If he won, she would find out about the money and demand to know where it came from, and if he lost she would want to know where it went. The bet was over the gender of the baby. Tom bet heavily that it was a girl. His theory was based on his—and his alone—belief that she was uglier pregnant than she was before…which meant her body was jealous of the beautiful little girl in the womb. It was boorish—and potentially life-threatening if they were caught—but they were having a great time with it.
    “Who’s birthday is it?” she asked.
    Tom and John pointed at Andy, who was pointing at Tom. “His!” Their voices came out as one, and Aemilia giggled.
    “We can’t have a party for all of you!”
    “Why not?” Andy asked. “None of us have any idea what it is…by our calendar. And we don’t really care.”
    “Then, happy birthday!” Tom raised his cup in salute to Andy and the others joined him.
    They sang the happy birthday song—which sounded awkward in Sextonese, at least to John’s ears—as Clio brought in the cake. The thing looked like something out of a Dr. Seuss book: three questionable layers, covered with questionable frosting of an unquestionably ugly hue of muddy brown, of questionable origin, and topped with candle stubs that should have been melted down—if resting on the cake didn’t do it—into one.
    “Yep,” Tom said with a smile. “Definitely Andy’s birthday.” He looked at Aemilia. “Did I mention that in America only the birthday celebrant eats the cake? To do otherwise risks bringing tragedy on the family.”
    Andy wasn’t going down alone. “He’s lying. Everyone eats the cake except the man having the birthday. It’s all part of the spirit of giving.” He looked at Tom as if to say, The first liar never stands a chance. “You guys give me presents because it’s my birthday…and I return the favor by giving all of you all of my cake.” He might have gotten away with the lie, but couldn’t resist the urge to stick his tongue out at Tom and John.
    Aemilia put her hands flat on the table and pressed her belly against it. She leaned in and glared at all three of them. “You will all eat the cake…or else.”
    “Cake, please!” Andy shouted. He blew out the candles so at least something in the room was shown at least a little mercy.
    Clio cleared his throat. “Do not let her condition fool you, gentlemen. In spite of my urging, perhaps even because of my urging, she was outside plowing the field an hour before you arrived.”
    “Someone had to convince that ass it wanted to pull.”
    “I’m trying very hard not to picture it,” Tom said. He cut the cake—pressing down on the knife with both hands when he got to the bottom layer, which was more like a crust—and put a piece on a plate. It was dense enough to make a fruitcake look fluffy. Wincing, he pushed the plate to Andy. “Birthday boy goes first.”
    In an obvious attempt to stall, Andy asked Aemilia: “What did you use to sweeten the dough?”
    “Lemmings’ tails,” she said with a straight face.
    “Lemmings’ tails?”
    John smiled. “Lemmings don’t have tails.”
    “They do in this world,” Tom replied. He didn’t know if they did or not, but the lie was worth it just to see the look of apprehension on Andy’s face change to something resembling terror.
    “Eat up,” Aemilia growled, “and tell me you like it!”
    “Wish I had a dollar for every time a woman ordered me to do that,” Andy moaned.
    The sound of horse’s hoofs beating on the road in the distance spared him from eating the cake. Tom and John went to the window and looked out. A single rider was headed their way. He wore a rd cloak—a soldier’s dress cloak, and had a white plume atop his shined brass helmet. Whatever he wanted, he wasn’t looking for a fight.
    “Why would a soldier come here?” John was the one asking, but the question was on everyone’s mind.
    “Not to attack us,” Clio ventured.
    “He’s looking for us.” Tom answered.
    “Then he doesn’t know who we are,” Andy said, thinking out loud. “Not if he’s coming alone.”
    “I have a sneaking suspicion…” Tom began.
    John rolled his eyes. “I hate your sneaking suspicions.”
    Tom ignored him. “I have a sneaking suspicion he’s going to bang on the door and tell us Benecala wants to see us.”
    With no one watching him, Andy seized the opportunity and hurled his piece of cake out the window on the other side of the room. “Betcha a gold Tom’s right.”
    “You’re on,” John said. He was never one to miss a chance to win a bet even though he never seemed to win. Ever the optimist, he was waiting for the happy day he would win money from Andy.
    Clio put his arm around Aemilia’s shoulders. In spite of the fierce look on her face, she was trembling. He tried to reassure her and whispered in her ear, “Do not be afraid, Love. Remember who we are with.”
    The soldier banged on the door. At a nod from Tom, John opened it. “Good afternoon, sir. What brings you?”
    “I am looking for…” His eyes widened. His tan face broke into a grin. “By the gods! I was told the three of you would be here, but… Well, frankly, I thought I was the butt of a joke. Which of you is Tom Benton?”
    No one moved until Tom stepped forward. “I am. What brings you here, Captain?”
    “Orders from his lordship, Benecala. He wishes to see you in the city immediately. The matter is most urgent.”
    “What matter is that?”
    The Captain’s jaw tightened and the smile left his face. “I was not given that information. I was told to give you the word, and to lead you to him.”
    “How do we know he’s for real?” Andy asked.
    The Captain nodded. “I was told to give you this.” He pulled a piece of parchment from under his belt and handed it to Tom.
    Tom looked at it and grinned. “It’s from Benecala, alright. Anyone trying to fake this would put a lot more in it to give it credibility.”
    “What’s it say?” Andy asked.
    He didn’t have to look at it to repeat it. “It says… ‘Say yes, damnit.”