The tavern, such as it was, had been fairly quiet after the dinner rush. In the before times, the building would have been a decent diner, but things had fallen to disrepair after the long war. With the state and federal governments too busy trying to rebuild themselves, folk were left to their own devices. The restaurant's owners decided to stay open, feeding those in the community who couldn't feed themselves. They were fortunate to be near farm land, having a fairly sure supply of foods to cook and serve. But the rural area also meant they were among the first to lose power.
Most of the people left were gathered near the hearth that had been built on the north wall, the adults chatting in the dim light while the children did the same, a bit farther from the fire. The children weren't talking to commiserate, or set up trades. They were killing time with excited chatter about which stories he might tell, and how many. They knew he would be there tonight, he just had to be! The air had that crisp bite to it that meant Fall was turning to Winter and he always came before the snow fell.
They waited for the Bard of Subterra, passing through town on his way around what used to be the state. Borders held little meaning anymore.
They didn't have to wait long.
With a gust of the night air, the doors opened and the unmistakable figure stepped in. His long coat flapped gently in the light breeze. Behind the bard was a woman in powered combat armor, colloquially called a Mecha Knight, holding a small girl in her arms.
The children surrounded the bard and clamored for a story, and the bard's face lit up. “I thought maybe we'd been too late tonight and you would all be in bed!”
The children shouted all at once. He laughed and chided them “One at a time!”
“Tell the one about how Novaman destroyed the scout ship!” one boy exclaimed as the bard made his way to a table near the fire.
“We heard that one four times last time he was here, and it wasn't just Novaman...” a young girl countered. The bard took off his coat and draped it on the back of his chosen chair. The mecha knight sat at a nearby table, leaving the mob of children between her and the bard.
“Yeah, Jhad and Tempo were there too,” a second boy chimed in. The Bard of Subterra let them continue as he caught the eye of a waitress and motioned his food order to her. One advantage of the rural tows was the simple meals, generally shepherd's pie and a pint of bitter ale.
“Oooh! How about the Tyrathi Invasion?” the first boy offered.
“No, papa told that one last night,” a second girl countered.
The storyteller settled in his chair and spoke. “Okay kids, settle down. It sounds like you want a story from the World of Heroes. Is that right?” He made a slight gesture at the table. A few children noticed it and drew coins from their pockets.
A child replied for the group, “Yeah, but not one we've heard before!” The children that had them put their coins in a small pile on the table.
“But not one you've heard before, yes. Hmm...” the storyteller considered the library of stories in his head. “That's a tall order to fill. Let me see... Have I told you about how Sundog lost his wife?”
The children groaned collectively. “Only about a hundred times...”
The storyteller chuckles, “Alright then. How about Cathy Travis and the Jabberwock?”
“You made that up!”
The storyteller laughed again. “No so. But I think I'll save that for another time since it's not truly a story of the World of Heroes. No, tonight you'll hear how Ten Kelvin and Bearman managed to subdue the Manic Multiplier. You kids know about Ten Kelvin and Bearman, don't you?”
The children muttered in mild confusion, some positive answers, some negative, none very vocal.
“Alright, a quick over view then. Ten Kelvin is a young boy, still in high school. He has a brilliant mind and a clever imagination. His grandfather left him a suit of armor that's able to keep him warm in the coldest temperatures, with boots that allow him to leap great distances. Ten Kelvin himself has invented a pair of gloves that let him spray forth waves of ice at his enemies, or chill the air around him to terribly low temperatures.
“Bearman has incredible strength, endurance and resilience. He may not be fast, but he hits hard and can take it as good as he can dish it out. When Ten Kelvin had to stop him, it took all of his cleverness and a couple of well placed police cars, but that's a story for another time. Bearman usually lets Ten Kelvin take charge when they're together.”
“Now, this happened several years before any of you were born. Back when I was a wee lad. Ten Kelvin and Bearman were in the Bearcave, their hide out somewhere in the hills outside of Los Alamos, New Mexico. Bearma--”
The children interrupted with a dozen questions at once.
“Where's New Mexico?”
“What were they doing there?”
“Why is it called the Bearcave if Ten Kelvin is in charge?”
The storyteller chuckled again and answered as the waitress brought his drink. She left with a few coins from the modest pile. “It's called the Bearcave because it was Bearman's hideout first. They were practicing crime fighting moves, keeping in peak physical condition while waiting for the city to call them to action. And New Mexico is South of here, and a little East in what's now called The Unbroken Lands. May I go on now?” The children nodded their agreement.
“Thank you. Now, as I was saying, Bearman heard the sound first, and got to the console before Ten Kelvin. Someone was calling them on the emergency line. Rex Summers, Chief of Police, needed their help immediately. Three banks had been robbed by the same man all at the same time!”
A child objected, “That's impossible! One man can't be in three places at once!”
“That's exactly what Bearman said to Chief Summers. The Chief couldn't explain it, but they need the duo's help to stop this new menace.
“The Chief said they got a good look at the guy's face on one of the security cameras, but couldn't find a match in their database. When he showed the pictures of the guy to Bearman and Ten Kelvin, Bearman recognized the guy as one of the technicians that worked at with his father at Tyren Industries named Stan Norec.
“There was just one problem with ol' Stan being the guy that did it. Stan had an accident at work a few days before the crimes, and when the Chief, Bearman and Ten Kelvin went to talk with him, he was laying in bed with two broken arms and a broken leg. Hardly the sort of person that could have robbed a bank, much less four at once.
“Once they were outside Stan's apartment, Ten Kelvin told the chief something very important: his gauntlets sensed three men hiding in the closet. The Chief suggested they call for backup, but Ten Kelvin didn't want to wait. Bearman pondered the implications of this and decided Stan Norec was two sets of twin bothers!
Ten Kelvin said it was possible, but the more likely explanation was that he worked in the cloning lab at Globex and had cloned himself. But Stan hadn't counted on the heroic team of Ten Kelvin and Bearman!
“They knocked again but there was no answer, so Bearman kicked the door in and Ten Kelvin leveled his ice beam into the room, but there was no one there. They quickly searched and found the rest of the apartment as deserted and the living room, but there were plans on the kitchen table for another bank heist! Apparently the heroes had forced Stan in to putting his plans in to action sooner than he wanted.
“Quick like lightning, the heroes dashed off to the bank. This time Ten Kelvin chose to use his ice skates and jumping boots, knowing it would give him a more direct route over the city's roof tops than Bearman could take in the car. Ten Kelvin got to the bank first, and saw Stan Norec, all four of him, already inside. Ten Kelvin decided to go in alone, knowing Bearman would be there soon.
“He shouted to the clones, telling them to give it up. He had the plan all figured out, and their jail time would be less if the gave up now and came along quietly. The clones were having none of that, and before the hero could react, each of them split in two. Now Ten Kelvin was alone against 8 Stan Nories! As the clones ran at him, Ten Kelvin knelt down and shouted.
“Was he calling the name of the ice?” one of the children interrupted, his tiny voice filled with awe.
The storyteller chuckled and tousled the boy's hair. “Something like that. Ice spread out along the floor all around where Ten Kelvin knelt. Before the clones got closer than five steps, most of them fell and slid past the hero. And right in to Bearman, who was waiting at the door with a net. They were too feisty for the net, so Bearman started hitting them on the back of the head with his meaty hands, knocking them out as Ten Kelvin jumped and ducked, letting the clones slide past him.
“No matter how many were knocked out, it seemed there were always more coming. After ten minutes, Ten Kelvin got bored and started freezing the clones where they stood, looking for the one with the broken leg, the original Stan Norec.
“He found him in the vault, counting stacks of bills into a bag. Ten Kelvin called the ice again and Stan stopped counting, literally frozen in place.
“And that's the story of how Ten Kelvin and Bearman defeated The Manic Multiplier.”
The storyteller took a long drink as the children cheered and applauded.
One of the children spoke up, “But ... where did they put them? If there were so many multiples, where did they put them all?”
“You have a good ear for detail, son,” the bard said. “By the end of that fight, there were dozens of Stans. More than the jail could comfortably hold. Fortunately, there was a side effect of Stan's bizarre power. His clones only had a limited life span. While the city was still trying to decide what to do with them all, they kept the clones in a small apartment complex, with guards posted all over the place, while the original Stan was in a jail cell downtown. After a couple of days, everything was quiet in the apartments. Only three clones were left, the rest had vanished in to thin air, so they were moved to a normal jail. When a guard was taking them to the cafeteria for dinner one night, all three vanished at once, with a dozen people watching. That left only the original Stan, locked in his cell. And that is how the story really ends.”
The bard paused to dig in to his meal, then took a long drink to quench his parched throat
As the Storyteller tipped up his glass, the children excitedly chattered about Ten Kelvin, Bearman and the Manic Multiplier. "He was a lame villain anyway. Anybody could have stopped him.”
“Nuh-uh! How would Streetsweeper have stopped hm?”
“Duh. He'd just beat them all up.”
“But there were hundreds!”
“So? He's Streetsweeper! It's what he does.”
They quieted down when the Storyteller cleared his throat and set his empty glass down upside down on the table. He smiled softly as several children came forward to lay more coins on the table. In a moment, a barmaid came by with a full glass. She took the empty and enough coins to cover the cost of the drink. “Who shall we hear about next?”
“Another Ten Kelvin story!”
“No, we've heard enough of him. I want a story about Tempo!”
“You can't have a Tempo story without the Tyrathi, and I'm sick of them.”
The bard interrupted with a small cough. “I do know a few Tempo stories without the Tyrathi in them ... But how would you like to hear a villain's story this time?” Several children responded with excited “ooooh”s and everyone settled in to listen. “This is the story of a villain called Pressure Chief.”
“Simon Foster was always an average guy. Average in all respects save one: he seemed to constantly be getting over a head cold. As long as he could remember, his ears were always stopped up and even slight changes in the air pressure always bothered him. He joked that he was his own barometer, and actually used his sensitivity to predict the day's weather. The rain never caught him by surprise.
“He was so accurate, coworkers would call him in the mornings, asking if they should bring an umbrella with them to work. He worked as a financial analyst at a large firm in downtown Boston. He even had the CEOs, the big important people at the company, calling him. They never wanted to look silly for carrying an umbrella when it wasn't raining, or being caught in the rain without one. Impressing the higher ups could only be a good thing, from Simon's perspective, so he was happy to answer their calls.
“Until that fateful day.
“The day Harbinger made himself known.
“I'm getting ahead of myself. You kids know about Harbinger, don't you?” The Storyteller asked. A few nodded, most shook their heads. “Harbinger usually works with another hero named The American Marvel. They both only have one power, but many many ways to use it. American Marvel's power is Freedom. Unless he wants to, he cannot be bound in chains, locked in a cage, or even tethered to the Earth by gravity as we are. Harbinger can summon the rain at a moment's notice to do his bidding. Anything he wants from a light sprinkle to the heaviest downpour you can imagine. But this takes place before Harbinger teamed up with American Marvel.
“It started out like any other day. Simon told everyone the weather was going to be cloudy, but no rain. Just before lunch, he felt the mounting pressure behind his ears. He put down the sheets of numbers he was looking at and massaged his temples. Suddenly, he heard it. A soft *spak!* against the window of his office. Soon it was followed by hundreds of thousands of others as the rain began to fall heavily. He looked out at the sky and saw the dark clouds. He looked down at the street and saw people scurrying into buildings, anywhere they could go to get out of the downpour. His head felt like it would explode.
“A car skidded as it made the turn on to his street and lost control in the heavy rain. The driver managed to keep the car under control just long enough to make the turn, but over corrected coming out of it and fishtailed badly. He smashed in to a parked taxicab.
“The rain was letting up and the pressure in Simon's head eased as well. While everyone was marveling at the suddenness of the storm, Simon saw a pickup truck barrel around the same corner the car had taken. The truck pulled up behind the wrecked car and its masked drive stepped out. He handcuffed the unconscious driver to the steering wheel, then walked back to his truck. The rain had stopped entirely now and the sun was coming out.
“Simon yawned several times, trying to equalize the pressure inside and outside his ears, eventually getting it to stabilize to a comfortable level. The police arrived soon after and arrested the unconscious man. The next day, the newspapers said he had held up a liquor store several blocks away, and attributed the arrest to a new hero: Harbinger.
“The CEOs who were caught in the rain on their way to lunch blamed Simon for not having umbrellas and the general dampness of their new suits, as well as the bits of mud on their shoes and the cuffs of their pants. He was fired two days later, after another sudden rainstorm.
“Simon tracked this new hero for weeks. He used the rain to stay ahead of the hero's antics. He even want so far as to make a costume. It was mostly a rain slicker, umbrellas, and hip-waders over a wet suit and scuba mask.
“He confronted the Hero during another chase by stepping in front of Harbinger's truck. The hero swerved and the truck rolled.
“Harbinger shouted at him, asking what he was doing walking out in front of the truck like that.
“Simon's response was simple: 'I'm stopping you.'
“'But why?' Harbinger begged. 'Can't you see I'm stopping that criminal?'
“The question went unanswered as Simon shouted back at the hero. 'You ruined my life!' He raised his right arm, pointing a pistol at the hero. His left arm held a tattered umbrella futilely trying to keep the rain away.
“Harbinger asked how he ruined the man's life. While Simon explained what had happened, Harbinger weighed his options. Fortunately, Simon told him about his pressure sensitivity, and Harbinger, in a moment of desperation, called down the fiercest storm he could; so much water fell so quickly that small children were in danger of being washed away down the street!
“Simon fell to his knees, dropping both the gun and the umbrella as his hands clutched his ears. He screamed in pain and fell over, unconscious, before the rain let up.
“Simon woke up a few hours later in a jail cell, unable to hear anything but his own thoughts.
“And that is the origin of the villain that came to be known as Pressure Chief.” The Storyteller once again upended his glass as the children began chattering.
The waitress came by again and the coin pile grew smaller. Two voices rose above the general din and caught the bard's ear; two children were arguing.
“Tempo could take out King Stryss with no problem.”
“No way! Stryss would stomp Tempo into the ground. What's one hero going to do against an army of Strysiavanyan robots?”
“Take them apart, that's what. He can stop time! How do robots beat that?”
“By being crazy fast and getting him before he can stop time!”
The Storyteller chuckled. “You two have been fans of the World of Heroes for a while, I see.”
The argument subsided as the children nodded. “Our momma bought some of the comic books and taught us to read with 'em,” the boy defending Stryss said.
“We didn't have very many, so we read the same ones a lot. We had the entire Tyrathi Invasion story though!” the girl added excitedly.
“It is a shame Cathy can't make the books any more...” the bard lamented. “But, that's why I'm here, after all. Cathy Travis herself told me this story, and asked me spread it far and wide. You kids might not know this, but King Strys really does live in Strysiavanya, which is a real place. It's waaaay to the East of us, across the ocean, but that doesn't make the King any less dangerous. In the World of Heroes, Strys tried to gain a foothold on one of the derelict Tyrathi cruisers, but Ten Kelvin and Protanya put a stop to that, as you two know. But what you don't know is, he also sent a squad of elite robots to a place called Oregon to take over Tempo's secret lab. You might know Oregon better as part of what is now the North-West Frontier.
“First, they had to find the lab. They had several different kinds of robots, from small scouts the size of a fly, to great hulking soldiers,” the bard buffed up his chest and sat up straight in an effort to demonstrate the size of the robots, “whose only purpose was combat. They sent a hulk to wreck up some buildings in a coastal town. Tempo showed up, stopped the Brute with a Time-Stopper grenade, and went to work with a welding torch, a wrench and a screw driver. The squad had lost some of its offensive capability, but two Flies were able to follow Tempo back to his lair.”
“Why didn't he use his super-speed to get back without being followed?”
“Well, he's super quick to you and me, but to him, he still has to walk all that way. So he flew in his jet plane”
“Time's Arrow!” the girl shouted.
“Exactly. He didn't notice the two Flies following him though, and they led the rest of the squad there. Now, Tempo's no dummy, so his Time Cave is protected by--”
“What's with all the caves?”
“What?” the Storyteller's train of thought had been derailed at this interruption.
“All the caves. The Bearcave, the Time Cave, even the old heroes had caves. Batman's Bat Cave, Superman's Ice Cave..”
“That was the Fortress of Solitude.”
“Whatever. It was still a cave made of ice.”
Before the children's bickering could go much farther, the story teller interrupted. “Well, the Bat Cave and the Bear Cave are actual, natural caves. Tempo's cave is man made, but it's still a hole in a cliff wall somewhere on the coast. But I can see what you're saying. How 'bout we call it the Time Sanctum? Sound good?” The children nodded agreement. “Okay. I'll talk to Cathy about making it official next time I see her. Now, the Time Sanctum was well defended, so the Flies didn't dare follow the jet in to the hangar. The squad gathered outside, and waited. They found that Tempo often left the hangar door open during the day so he could enjoy the ocean breeze while working, and he would almost always watch the sun set in the evenings. Eventually they tested the defenses of the open door by sending a Fly in. It wasn't supposed to make it. But somehow it did.
“The next day, a Spider robot tried. The spider's body was as large as a baseball, and had four metallic legs and a single red eye. The Spider made it through and found a place to hide. That night it shut down the defenses.
“Many robots repelled down the cliff to enter through the hangar. The smaller ones skittered down the hatchway on the ground above, sliding down the ladder to the back door of the Sanctum. Normally all kinds of alarms would be going off, but because the system had been shut down, everything was quiet.
“Tempo was on his way to bed when he saw a humanoid soldier bot at the other end of the corridor. Quick as a whip, the Quantum Pistol was in his hand and the robot had a dozen new holes. Before the dead bot could hit the floor, Tempo was down the hallways and in the hangar.
“He stopped in his tracks as he saw three hulking Brutes, seven more humanoid soldiers, fully armed and armored combat bots, a dozen spiders and two small tank-bots the size of a dog. He cursed under his breath, dialed the Hand of Time to full throttle and let loose with this quantum pistol. The pistol's shots were slowed down considerably from his perspective, but still moving pretty quick. Before the first shot hit its target, one of the spiders, bullets were on course to hit each and every bot Tempo could see. With the destruction of the lighter bots assured, the hero considered his options. He could take down the Brutes the same way he had in town, but that would take a while and he'd have to be in real time for most of it. He noticed one of the Brutes was still very near the edge of the hangar door.”
“Tempo is your favorite hero, isn't he, lass?” The girl nodded. “You're close. A punch wouldn't be enough to knock the Brute backward, but a bull rush might. He had to get the timing right though. If he dropped to normal speed too early, his momentum would be lost. Too late and it would be like jumping in to a solid wall. Tempo backed up as far as he could, then ran full speed at the Brute. He leaped and kicked and just before his foot made contact, he closed his right hand and dropped back in to normal time, kicking the Brute in its chest. He'd timed it right. He hit with enough force to make the hulking robot stumble. Back in to the accelerated time stream and Tempo jumped from the now-stationary, falling robot to land safely back in the hangar. One down.
“During that brief moment of real time, the bullets had all connected. The spiders were out of commission, two combat bots were damaged, but the rest just had minor scratches. He wondered how to get rid of the tanks and the armored bots. He tossed out a few time grenades and dialed back to normal time as a plan formed in his mind. Tempo spoke to the robots, saying 'Take a message back to Strys for me. Tell him to leave me alone.'”
“Is that really what he said?”
“As far as you know, yes. Yes it is. While the Strysiavanyain robots stood immobile, Tempo climbed in to the cockpit of his jet. He turned the engines up full throttle at the same moment he remotely turned off the grenades, blasting the invaders out the hangar to join the other one, who still hadn't quite hit the rocks far below.
“He climbed out and turned the defenses back on and closed the hangar door, then tracked down the remaining robots and dealt with them the old fashioned way before going to bed.”
“See! I told you Tempo could beat an army of Strys' robots!”
“He couldn't beat them if he weren't on his home turf though! They'd overwhelm him just with sheer numbers!”
“Pfah! Numbers don't mean anything when you can stop time!”
The story teller chuckled and finished his drink. He hadn't solved their argument, but he hadn't really meant to.
"I want to hear one about Ifrai."
The other children stopped chiming in with their requests to look back across the room at the little girl who had spoken up. She sat at a table with her mother, the Mecha Knight who had come to this place with the Bard, and was up on her knees looking over the back of her chair with her wide hazel eyes.
"No it's not! Dragons are cool!"
"Dragons are dumb!"
"Children, please!" The storyteller's plea silenced the debate before more could join in. He was only a little surprised that the girl who asked for the story had remained silent. Her mother was a Mecha Knight, after all. "We've heard a lot about the World of Heroes. Maybe we can move to the Mystic Frontier for at least one story. Who would you like to hear about, little one?"
"It doesn't matter to me, as long as there's swordfighting."
"Yeah! Swords are cool!"
"Alright, then, alright." The storyteller swirled his drink in his cup. "How many of you know who Glen Soaringsteel was?"
None of the children knew. The bard smiled. *HE* barely knew who Glen Soaringsteel was. He was an oddity among Ifrayan characters ... so young, so inexperienced, and yet that made him unique among the powerful heroes he shared the list with. All that had really been established before Cathy's printing press had been destroyed was that it was his destiny to be the greatest swordsman in the world.
"Eventually he would become the greatest swordsman in all of Ifrai, but even he, just like all of you, was a child, once. This is a story of his childhood.
"Glenn lived in a fishing village along a river named Fletch Kenning with his aunt, a very talented blacksmith." He took a moment to lament the fact that not a single child questioned why ...
"Why didn't he live with his parents?" asked the girl who had first asked for the story.
The Bard suppressed a tear. "His mother was sick when she gave birth, and unfortunately died soon after. His father was an adventurer who had gone to a far away land, and did not even know Glen had been born. But he was very happy with his aunt, who taught him how to make things like swords and armor. He even made his own sword, all by himself, when he was only twelve years old. Every day, Glen practiced with his sword for an hour after waking up and an hour before going to bed. When he was fourteen he was already very good.
"But before he even had a sword, Glen was called upon to be a swordsman."
"That's silly. How can you be a swordsman with no sword?"
"Listen and you may learn, young one. One day, when he was ten years old, Glen was walking through the woods near his home. He heard some noises up ahead, and when we went forward to see what it was, he found a band of nasty, ugly, smelly orcs!
"The orcs were tormenting a small bobcat for sport! They poked it with sticks, kicked at it, pulled on its tail, and try as it might the poor thing could not get away.
"Glen knew he had to do something, and fast! He thought of what his uncle, Andrenas Sherand, would do."
"He'd jump in there and carve those dumb orcs up!"
"Of course he would. Andrenas Sherand was one of the greatest warriors in all of Ifrai. But Glen was only ten years old, all alone, and didn't even have a sword. Still, he HAD to help the poor little bobcat. He was the only one who could! He remembered what his uncle had taught him about fighting. 'Weapons are only tools. Lose it, and you still have to win. If you can win with no weapon, you are among the greatest of warriors.' And maybe if HE knew what Andrenas would do, the orcs knew it too ...
"The orcs continued with their cruel sport until they grew tired of it, and one hefted his heavy, sharp axe to kill the exhausted creature. Just then, the branches overhead shook. The orcs looked up, but saw nothing. Then some rocks tumbled down from a small rise to their left. They looked to the left, but still they saw nothing. A twig snapped to their right! Again they looked, and again, nothing!
"The orcs became worried. They circled, backs to one another, watching for whoever might be out there. Then they heard a booming voice echoing all around them say, 'I am Andrenas Sherand, defender of the woods and slayer of foul orcs like you! This is your last chance to run before I come down and kill you all!'
"Everyone knew Andrenas Sherand's name. Some of the orcs ran away in fear for their lives, while the others ran off in search of the famous Ranger, thinking to kill him and earn glory and fame for themselves. Whatever the reason, every one of them left the clearing and the tired little bobcat lying in it all alone.
"Glen had shaken the tree branches. He had piled up the rocks on the rise, and knocked them down with the toss of a stone. He had used a heavier stone to snap the stick, and a hollow log to make his voice so loud. Now he hid in some bushes, and when the orcs were all gone, he ran into the clearing, scooped up the bobcat into his coat, and headed home."
"Well how does that make him a swordsman?" asked one of the children in front of the storyteller.
"Yeah," piped in another. "He didn't even use a sword!"
"Strategy," said the Mecha Knight's little girl, proving once again she was her mother's daughter. "A good swordsman needs a strategy."
"That's right," said the bard. "He defeated a whole band of orcs without striking a single blow. Only a great swordsman could accomplish such a thing."
"I don't get it."
The bard sighed. Maybe "swordsman" had been the wrong word to use. "Hero," "warrior," or something else may have been better, but for Glen, and for some reason, for the girl who asked for the story, "swordsman" felt right.
"Let me tell you another story, then. It might clear things up. Some time later, Glen was out practicing with his sword when he noticed someone watching him. It was the innkeeper's daughter, a girl of about seven named Kreanna.
"'What are you doing?' asked Glen. 'Get out of here!' He was still shy about his sword-practice, you see, and didn't want anyone to watch him at it. Kreanna was startled and ran off into the woods.
"Glen was about to go back to his practice when he heard Kreanna calling his name. He sighed, frustrated that the girl would not leave him alone, and shouted back, 'What do you want, you stupid girl?'"
"Girls aren't stupid!"
"You're right, they're not," the bard assured the girl who had spoke up. "Glen was the one being foolish, which you'll see in a moment. Kreanna called back, 'Help me, please!'
"Now concerned, Glen sheathed his sword and ran in the direction of Kreanna's voice. When he found her, she was hanging by a branch in a swiftly moving stream. Realizing how idiotic and cruel he had been, Glen almost dropped his sword.
"But he didn't. He remembered something his Aunt had told him when he had bent the iron while trying to make his first sword: 'Everyone has messed up in the past. That doesn't mean we can't choose to do the right thing now.' Even so, the water was so wide, and crashing over sharp, dangerous rocks. He was just a little boy, and all he had was his sword.
"But again, he was the only one there. Andrenas wasn't there, his Aunt wasn't there, but HE was there, and he was the only one who could make a difference.
"Glen stopped and took a look at what was happening. The low-hanging branch she was holding belonged to a tree on the far bank, so he had to get over there, first. He found a thin old tree, already dead and about to collapse, and pushed it down across the river. Hanging onto it, he waded across. He found out just how strong the current was, and knew that Kreanna couldn't hold on much longer.
"It took all his strength to hang on, but Glen finally made it to the far side. He took his sword in one hand and the branch Kreanna was hanging onto in the other. 'Hang on tight, Kreanna!' he shouted, and cut the branch from the tree. He dropped onto his back and held on with both hands and all his might. Kreanna screamed as the current started to carry her away, but with the branch anchored to the bank by Glen, she swung back towards the bank, where she was able to pull herself out.
"Glen rushed to her, even forgetting his sword where he had dropped it, and took her in his arms. She was soaked and crying, but safe. 'How will we get back across?' she asked.
"Glen was worried. Home was across the river, and night would be coming soon. Wet as they were, they might freeze out there. They had to get home. 'We have to go back across,' he said.
"'I'm scared,' said Kreanna.
"'I know,' said Glen. 'But we have to. We can't stay here or we'll freeze. Hang onto my back and I'll get us across.
"He was already exhausted, and knew Kreanna had to be, too, so Glen had her fasten her belt through his, so even if she lost her grip, she would still be attached to him. Then he stuck his sword in the bank against the tree he had pushed over to keep it from getting swept away by the river."
"Rule number one," the Mecha Knight's daughter recited, "your weapon is your life. Never leave your weapon out of arm's reach."
The bard laughed out loud. "You're right, girl. You're right." His mind raced for a better explanation. "I forgot. I meant to say he used his sword to sharpen some branches, and stuck THEM in the bank to brace the tree." The girl nodded, satisfied, so the bard continued. "Hanging on with all his might, and with Kreanna clutching tightly to his back, Glen started across the river.
"Kreanna was heavy, and the river pushed against the two of them harder than it had just against Glen. The tree held until they were halfway across, and then, even though he had braced it, it gave way and floated away with the current. Glen and Kreanna were left stranded in the middle of the river.
"Glen's feet were just barely steadied on the slick rocks below, and Kreanna was crying again. His plan hadn't worked, but he still had to get across. For himself and for the little girl he had put in danger with his own cruelty, he had to persevere.
"Carefully putting one foot in front of the other, he pressed on. He used a wide stance, like the one Andrenas had taught him for when he needed to be stable and hard to knock down. Bit by bit, he fought to move through the frigid water that was trying to push him over. He thought he might freeze, or catch a fever and die later, but he was determined he would save the girl, even if the effort killed him.
"Finally he got close enough to grab hold of some roots. He pulled up and got his hands on the bank. His arms were tired and out of strength, but there was still one last step - one last thing they had to do. He forced them to move, to pull him and Kreanna up onto the bank. They had made it. They were safe.
"And Glen never spoke harshly to Kreanna again. He let her watch him practice and even taught her a little, himself. When he finally left Fletch Kenning for a life of adventure, she stayed behind to mind her father's inn, but Glen never forgot what he learned that day.
"Even when you make a mistake, even when plans fail, and even when you face your own death, you have to keep going. Once you have made up your mind to fight, you can never give up, no matter how much you doubt yourself or how hopeless things seem, because of those who are counting on you to succeed.
"No one can be a good swordsman without knowing these things."
By this time, the evening had worn on. After the last story, many mothers took their children home to bed.
The bard and the mecha knight shared news of the world, as they knew it, with anyone who was left. After their meals had been paid for, the bard split the pile of coins still left on the table, keeping only one of every three coins for himself. The rest he gave to the parents who remained, explaining that the children had been too generous and asking that at least a few coins found their way under children's pillows to be magical surprises in the morning.
The fire dwindled to embers, and the mecha knight, cradling her sleeping daughter, suggested the bard make his way to their room for the night.
Everyone knew the bard and the knight would be on their way again in the morning, but none really wanted to admit it. Their brief visits always brought so much excitement, and important news.
As he stood, gathering his coat and assorted belongings that had found their way out of his pockets, the bard took a look around the room. The knight stood by the door, her daughter wrapped in a blanket against the evening's chill. Two men sat in a corner, finishing their drinks and watching the bard. A waitress scurried from table to table cleaning up. The barman stood behind the counter, cleaning glasses. Three more men, scattered around the room, finished their drinks in silence.
“A small audience and short time. Perfect,” the bard thought to himself with a grin.
He spoke suddenly, breaking the silence. “They say every man has a story to tell.
“This is one.
“It was told to me by a man I met recently in my travels. Before The Collapse he was a powerful man, a captain of industry. He was the head of a multinational company, he said, trading and dealing with organizations ranging from small five person companies, to governments and other large companies with employees numbering in the hundreds of thousands, spread across the globe.
“He wasn't just successful in the business world, either. After a courting for three years, he had won the heart of the most beautiful woman he had known. Their family grew in stride with his business, giving him three wonderful, loving children. Every night they would greet him as he came home, and no matter how tiresome the day had been, his face would light up and his energy would be restored.
“When the Tyrathi came, he rallied a defense, but when the dust settled found he had won freedom at the cost of his empire.
“And his family,” the bard added solemnly, bracing himself against the back of a chair.
“Now, he could have wallowed in self pity, mourning the loss of everything he had known. But he chose to pick himself up, dust off his trousers, and set off for a new life.
“He walked far and wide, finding other survivors and bringing them together, forming a small, but close knit, community before he himself moved on again.
“He had chosen for himself a new destiny, a greater purpose. He made it his personal mission to reunite the people of his broken nation, bringing news from the other communities to each group he visited. Once in a great while, he would even reunite a family that had been sundered by the chaos.
“It was less than two months ago that I met this man. I was on my way to one of his communities, and he was just departing. We met on the road and he invited me along on his journey, detouring my own. Having no reason not to, I agreed and walked a spell with him.”
With a flourish, the bard put his coat on, threading his arms through both sleeves in one smooth motion. “That, my friends, is another story.”
He bid good night to the remaining patrons and walked in to the night, with the mecha knight following close behind.