Monday, November 20, 2006

To the Death!

“I’m afraid there’s been some terrible misunderstanding,” Rafe Windham said, “and what exactly did you mean by ‘to the death’?” Then the painted warrior’s wide, flat obsidian blade swung down and neatly cleaved his skull in two.

Well, no. More accurately, it cleaved a small bookshelf about halfway in two, Rafe having had the presence of mind to throw himself sideways toward the entertainment center as the warrior leapt over his coffee table to swing. But the head-cleaving intent was certainly there, and for a brief moment on the carpet, Rafe found himself curiously nostalgic for the days when all of his problems were entirely explicable ones.

“I think we can safely rule out this being a joke,” Rafe said, scrambling to his feet as the warrior yanked his knife out of the ruined bookshelf -- Rafe suddenly felt a great deal better about having rented the place furnished -- and advanced once again upon him, twin blades glinting in the morning sunlight through the glass doors to the balcony. “Do I owe someone money?” he tried. “Well, obviously, yes, but someone creative?

The warrior smiled, showing teeth. “This is about your destiny,” he said in his perfectly honed English accent. “Start fighting back. I’ve come too far for this to be over quickly.”

He lunged again, one blade whipping through the air to bury itself deep in the side of the television. Rafe ducked, only to have the warrior’s leathery foot catch him in the ribs. He stumbled back into the sole remaining bookcase, the shelves slamming painfully into his back, and felt the beginnings of a good head of instinctive rage build up. He reached back to the shelf, grabbed the first thing his hand reached, and threw it at the warrior.

The paperback copy of The Thorn Birds bounced harmlessly off the warrior’s unflinching face and flopped to the floor. The warrior looked down at it on the carpet, a bit sadly. “I hope that’s not yours,” he sighed.

At which point Rafe hit him full in the face with Watley’s Field Guide to the Birds of England, unabridged revised second edition. It was a coffee-table book in the sense that it could double as furniture, and it felled the warrior like a bolt from the blue.

“Much better,” Rafe heard the intruder say from beneath the book, in somewhat flattened syllables, just before Rafe brought the entire bookshelf down on him.

There was a slight settling of paper, and a slowly rising cloud of dust -- Rafe not being the most attentive of housekeepers -- and Rafe sagged against the sofa, legs shaking, and waited for the adrenalin surge to die down.

The bookshelf stirred.

“No,” Rafe said, looking around for something heavy he could put on top of it. “Oh, no, come on--!” And then the bookshelf all but leapt from the ground, propelled by a shove of the warrior’s sturdy legs, and the intruder snaked back of to his feet with a breakdancer’s grace, spun the knives impressively in his hands, and smiled.

“This is more like it!” the warrior exulted, and raised his knives high.

Rafe Windham, in his relatively brief life, had enjoyed considerable experience with a variety of men bearing sharp objects (blunt ones, too) and wishing him harm. It began to dawn upon him that he was, perhaps, now facing an expert in the art. Then the knives fell, and the sofa pillow Rafe had instinctively grabbed to shield himself fell into three pieces and a cloud of polystyrene fluff.

Rafe dropped the remains of the pillow, grabbed each of the warrior’s wrists with this own to force them away and apart, and drove a knee as hard as he could into the intruder’s solar plexus. He’d been aiming for the crotch, but this was hardly the time for precision. As the warrior doubled over in pain, Rafe grabbed him by the shoulders and drive his head entirely into the wall.

The warrior sagged for a moment, and Rafe reached down to grab one of the black stone knives -- only to find the thick, solid butt of it driven into his stomach. He lurched backward just in time to avoid a swipe from the blade’s business end, and felt the anger in him tighten and redouble.

The warrior pulled his head from the wall, his face now ghostly white with plaster dust, and spat out a piece of sheetrock.

“I’d have thought the walls a bit sturdier, in a place like this,” he said.

“Americans,” Rafe managed to gasp, struggling to catch his breath. “You know how it is.” Then he ran for the kitchen.

It was just off the living room, with a wide hole cut in one wall to see through from either side. Rafe wasted no time going around this partition; he just leapt, as he had at the parking garage, and slid himself through feet-first, landing hard on the linoleum. He managed to cross his arms in front of his face just in time to take the blow as momentum smacked him forward into the cabinets. He stood up, drew the biggest carving knife he could find, and turned just in time to completely shatter the blade against that of one of the warrior’s stone knives.

“Mm,” the warrior noted. “I see what you mean about the craftsmanship.” He swung with the opposite blade, Rafe ducked, and the stone knife sank itself into one of Rafe’s kitchen cabinets -- taking some of the crockery within with it, by the sound of it. Had Rafe ever used the kitchen for anything more than reheating Chinese food, this might have been a more grievous loss.

The warrior let go of the trapped knife, but before Rafe could grab it, the intruder backhanded him viciously across the face. Rafe tasted blood, and then there was a knee in his ribs, and another fist slamming into the side of his neck.

With a grunt of primal fury, Rafe wrapped both arms around the microwave oven, yanked it from the wall, and smashed it full into the intruder’s face.

When the intruder staggered back, Rafe hurled the microwave at his chest, and the painted warrior fell hard against the lower cabinets, bare feet squeaking on the linoleum, struggling under the weight of the appliance.

Rafe reached down, running on pure furious instinct, and opened the dishwasher -- and when the warrior blindly brought his remaining knife up to slash wildly at Rafe, he shut the door again. Hard. Several times.

At last the warrior, howling, dropped the knife. Rafe heard it clatter against the silverware holder. As the warrior scrambled backward on his elbows, shoving the microwave off him, Rafe opened the dishwasher one final time to snatch up the knife the warrior had relinquished. It felt good and heavy and powerful in his hand, and he turned to grasp the handle of the other one, still jutting from the cabinets. With a tug, it came free. Rafe stood for a moment, testing the weight of the blades in his hands. The warrior was up on his feet now, blood streaming from a broken nose, weaving a bit.

Rafe took a step toward him. And another.

The warrior reached up to strike, and the krav maga class Rafe had taken way back in college -- to impress that one young lady with what had been, in retrospect, a disturbingly fervent interest in the Israeli military -- paid off, as Rafe slapped the blow away effortlessly. The warrior dropped, spinning, to whirl a kick at Rafe’s ribs. It connected, but the pain just fed into the anger growing in Rafe. He didn’t mind people trying to hurt him. It was all too commonplace, generally understandable, and frequently justified. But he absolutely hated it when they succeeded.

“I’ve had a very bad morning,” Rafe growled, smashing the handle of one blade hard into the warrior’s face. The intruder staggered, barely staying on his feet, lurching back toward the living room. “I’ve been cheated. I’ve been chased. I’ve been beaten up. I nearly fell off a train.”

The warrior threw a punch, pathetically, and Rafe hit him again. He fell backwards over one arm of the sofa and rolled onto the glass coffee table, knocking the wooden case from which he’d produced the knives to the floor. The table bore the impact with a thrum of vibrating glass.

“I just wanted to sleep,” Rafe said, low, furious. “I’ve filled my quotient of people trying to kill me for the day. And you’ve done a lot of things to me that hurt quite a bit.” He brought one foot up and smashed it hard against the intruder’s chest, and he heard the table crack with the force of the blow.

Rafe flipped one of the knives in his hand -- it came so easily -- and prepared to bring it down into the intruder’s heart.

And stopped.

He saw the man’s face, the red of his blood against the white of the plaster dust, and the wide, calm accepting eyes. He saw resignation, and disappointment. He’d seen it many times before, in the faces of girlfriends, and professors, and especially his parents. Too many times, honestly.

The cloud of anger that bubbled up from his brainstem, from the deep prehistoric part of him, rolled back and disippated. The knives felt suddenly heavy and wrong and alien in his hands, and once again he realized his legs were shaking. He let the knives drop to the carpet, on either side, and held out a hand.

“Are we done?” Rafe sighed.

The warrior smiled through bloodied teeth. “Indeed we are,” he said, “Your Lordship.” He took Rafe’s hand.

“None of that,” Rafe said, grimacing, as he hauled the man up off the broken table. Everything hurt, even more than it had when he’d walked through the door, as if such a thing were possible. And yet somehow, Rafe felt better than he had in ages. “My father’s the lord, officially, and at the rate I’m going, he’ll sell the deed to Windham Hall to some American software tycoon before he ever lets me have it.”

“I wasn’t talking about Windham Hall,” the warrior said, gingerly touching one thumb to his bloodied lip.

Rafe let himself sink against the sofa. “Look, what’s this about? Did my father send you?”

“The calendar sent me,” the warrior said, collecting the box from the carpet and setting it on the table. He set the knives back inside it, one at a time, but kept the box lid open. “The Long Calendar of the Children of Silence. Carved from a block of solid stone by hands too distant to remember. It knew the date of my birth, and it knew what I would be asked to do. It said that I would travel to this far place, on this day, in the shadow of a great unraveling. I would find the heir of Harker Windham, and test him in ritual combat. And if he were worthy -- if he could be civilized and savage, a foot in both worlds -- I would have the honor of passing on to him his birthright.”

The warrior handed Rafe the open box. Rafe took it and laughed, closing the lid -- and then stopped, because laughing hurt too much. “What sort of truly excellent drugs are you on?” Rafe said. “And where can I get some?”

The warrior just smiled and shook his head. “You’ll need the blades, the calendar says. Something about how they’ve been blessed -- that, or the atomic structure of the stone has been altered. The translations are inconsistent.”

“This calendar,” Rafe said, lifting the lid again to peer at the stone knives. “What else does it say?”

“It says today I die,” the warrior said, looking out Rafe’s window to the skyline of the city off to the south, gleaming in the first full rays of morning sun. “You’ve a lovely view here. Sorry about the mess.”

“I wasn’t expecting to get the deposit back anyway,” Rafe said. “It really said you were going to die?”

The warrior just nodded, his bone necklace jangling. “But it’s been wrong before. Once or twice. Errors of translation, like I said.”

“Well, that’s a relief,” Rafe said, his limbs feeling very heavy. He stifled a yawn. “Look, now that you’ve destroyed my apartment and beaten me bloody, what’s your name?”

The warrior opened his mouth, and Rafe’s door flew inward off its hinges, banged off one wall of the entryway, and skidded across the carpet to bump against the far wall.

The painted warrior whirled, and before Rafe even knew what his body was doing, he was up off the couch with both of the stone blades ready in his hands. A tall man in a black coat and hat strode into the room, two similarly dressed men behind him. The tall man’s face seemed curiously red and blistered, as if sunburnt, and his gray eyes swept over the room, locked on Rafe, and bored through him.

“So,” the warrior said. “The calendar was right.”

He leapt through the air toward the tall man, and suddenly seemed to stop short in midair. The tall man had him by the throat, and before Rafe could move, the tall man had shaken him like a rag doll, once, with vicious quickness. Rafe heard the painted warrior’s neck snap, and when the tall man tossed him to the carpet, his body simply flopped, still and unbreathing.

Rafe raised the knives with weary, shaking arms. He had no idea what exactly he would do to this tall, strange, inexplicably disturbing man, but took comfort in the notion that he was, at least, a very sizable target.

The tall man and his associates moved toward him, drawing long silver rods -- no, needles, pointed and wicked at the ends -- from their sleeves. Rafe seemed to hear a distant, droning hum behind him as they approached.

The hum grew louder, and louder still. The men stopped. The tallest one seemed to be looking over Rafe’s shoulder, out the window, with a mixture of frustration, admiration, and sheer disbelief.

Rafe turned to look, and something huge and silver blew through the glass with a blast of wind, the force of its passing and the unearthly roar of the turbine at its rear hurling Rafe sideways through the air onto the couch, and smacked into the three black-coated men like they were bowling pins. It screeched and skidded across the floor, chewing up carpet, and leaving a slick of something far redder and wetter than Rafe ever wished to consider in its wake. It smashed into the entry to the front hall, sending cracks up the walls, and completely obliterating any even mildly theoretical hope that Rafe might indeed ever recover his security deposit.

The turbine ran for a few more seconds, whirling papers and stray objects wildly about the room, and then died out with a whine. A single chunk of glass from the splintered remains of the back windows dropped to the concrete of the balcony and shattered. Rafe struggled to his feet, knives at the ready, and wondered what fresh hell this was, exactly. Polish gangsters were beginning to sound downright wholesome.

The rear hatch of the thing, turbine and all, unsealed with a hiss. A young woman climbed out, her thick black hair a frizzy mess, wearing a red t-shirt, jeans, and trainers, and carrying a satchel bag slung over one shoulder.

“Damn,” she said, surveying the mess. “Need more work on the landings. Are you him? Are you Windham?”

Rafe just nodded, slowly.

“I’m, uh... hi. I’m Nora,” the young woman said, suddenly seeming bashful. “Sorry about your window. I think I’m kind of here to save your life.”

Rafe’s brain considered this improbable chain of events, and decided the only sensible thing to do was shut down. So he nodded, and smiled quite charmingly, and fell straight back into the couch, and the welcoming arms of unconsciousness.

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