Category: Stories


Jann howled with pain when the Dove Watcher gave that final push into the stockade. He crumpled to his hands and knees on the packed dirt floor and tried to settle the short, sharp breaths that wracked his ribcage. The dark night swirled about him as Jann eased his weight off the knee that blazed in agony.

In his fifteen years of life, Jann had never felt such confusion. The adrenaline that had carried him into action this evening was gone and Jann felt empty, his muscles shaking with fatigue. He had acted for justice and now his reward was this red haze of pain overlaying the night air.

A slight noise brought Jann’s head up and he stared into the inky depths under the stockade’s high walls. Little more than dark blurs, two men emerged from the black shadows, their silhouettes marked them as Fallen like Jann. They drew close and loomed over Jann, who sat back on his heels, but could not find the strength to stand. One man was slender and silent, but fidgeted with pent up energies. The other was a big, broad-shouldered man, on a level with Jann, who himself carried all the height and breadth of Troupial Eagle.

Then the man with the big shoulders smiled, his teeth flashing whitely in the dark. He crouched down and laid a cool, steady hand on Jann’s arm.

“Marked by the city’s Watchers, all right,” the man said to his companion, who paced quietly around Jann. “Come see what you can do. Go slow, the boy is shocky.”

The slender man spiraled in and began quickly, efficiently kneading Jann’s injuries. The pair of them moved Jann over to the stockade’s rough log wall, where the silent one sacrificed his shirt to bind and support Jann’s inflamed knee.

“He’ll survive,” the quiet man assessed at last, before he returned to his pacing.
A heavy silence settled in the night. Whatever the slender man had done, Jann’s red haze was gone. Sitting on the packed earth, Jann turned his face up and could clearly see the night sky open above them.

“So tell me, my battered friend, what puts you in the Watchers’ stockade?” The man with the big shoulders stood over Jann, leaning lightly on against the wall.

Jann hesitated, wondering about prison etiquette, how much should he reveal and what to ask in return. “Well,” Jann hedged, “there was this girl.”

“Ah,” the big man responded lightly, but his smile quirked oddly, “isn’t there always a girl?” Then he stepped away.

“No,” Jann said hurriedly, anxious to clear the misconception, “a little girl. A little Rat girl. She ran into some noble.” This stopped the big man, who turned back to Jann, his easy smile returning. “I mean really ran into,” Jann continued, “a skinny old Hawk. He was Blessed, but so scraggly he didn’t fill his robes properly and the hem dragged.

“The sun was dimming and this girl was hurrying down the walkway and she stepped right on his hem. They both tripped and then the noble jumps up and starts screaming at her. Called her a thief and an animal, all kinds of things.”

Jann’s voice dwindled down and he wondered why he would care about the big man’s initial disappointment.

“Mark that,” the big man asserted, “the Blessed are dangerous. Always tasting the power, but never wielding it makes them a little . . . unbalanced.” He crouched down close to where Jann sat against the stockade wall. “Tell me, then, how such an event was your concern?”

Jann fidgeted for a moment, then said with stubborn resolve, “My mother taught me a duty to protect those weaker than ourselves. It’s part of our heritage as Eagles.”

“Your mother is a smart woman, son. But it’s not just proud Eagles who carry that responsibility. Any person of strength, whether physical or moral, must champion for the less fortunate.” The man smiled in the dark and added, “Your heart is in the right. Tell me the rest.”

So Jann talked about his Fallen friends, those with no troupial, who constantly harassed him about his heritage. How those friends had stood behind him and urged him forward to confront the raving Hawk. The poor little Rat girl had tripped herself up, same as the noble, why should she suffer this unbalanced rage? Jann stepped forward, young blood quickening, his fists clenched in frustration. He said something, said it again louder to get the Hawk’s attention. The skinny noble turned and his face twisted from anger to incredulity. Jann’s friends whooped loudly and the girl fled. Jann saw panic rise in the Hawk, whose scraggly wings unfolded and began to beat the evening air.

Then the Hawk settled back to rest and smiled cruelly. The cries of Jann’s cohorts died suddenly as they scattered off and Jann sensed some one very close behind him. Adrenaline coursing, he turned to face two of the city’s Watchers.

Jann knew Watcher Calendine, but the other one, the stout Dove who leaned up into Jann’s face, was new to the neighborhood. The officer jabbed Jann in the chest.

“What’s this?” The Watcher sneered, “About to assault a noble were we, little Eagle?” The Dove jabbed again and as Jann tried to block the motion, he discovered his fists were still clenched.

The rest was a foggy blur to Jann, who could only remember trying to defend himself against the blows of some blunt weapon. He eventually curled into a ball on the walkway, too shocked to even cry out. Watcher Calendine’s familiar voice finally cut through the agony and stopped the rain of blows.

The story trailed off and Jann found himself shivering in the warm night. The man with the broad shoulders sat down next him, back against the rough wall. He was silent for a long moment, then chuckled. “A tale like that deserves a toast, son. When we’re out of here, meet me at the Green Loon and we’ll share it with an audience. And I guarantee you a hero’s drunk!”

Jann could only smile in response. This man had just called him a hero and invited him to a tavern. The pain that haunted his body didn’t lesson, but somehow Jann could carry it a little easier. If only his mother knew he was here, a hero amongst men. The thought comforted him as he slipped into slumber.

************

Despite the manacles that shackled his wrists, Jann was glad to be out of the stockade. Above him, the sun burned at full intensity, the cool of early morning evaporating into a clear sky. Glancing back at his prison, Jann could see it was really nothing more than an animal pen with a latrine pit. Bars on the window, guards at the door, and wicked spikes that curved inwards at the top of the walls, but the stockade had no roof.

“Who do you think this pen is intended to hold?” The big-shouldered man had asked when he pointed it out to Jann last night. Then he left Jann to conclude on his own that no one with wings would ever be beaten and thrown into this hole.

Jann hurt in so many places he couldn’t inventory all his pain. The separate blows that had landed on his ribs melded into one large ache that flared each time he took a breath. He dared not touch the swelling on his cheek and he had been shocked to discover dried blood in his hair. By far the worst of it came with every other step; Jann’s swollen right knee spat pain each time it took his weight despite the makeshift binding.

The quiet man who had bandaged the knee stood to Jann’s left, his hands held out as a guard locked crystal manacles around his wrists. Four other men, all gliders drawn from the city’s Watcher force, guarded the activity with long staffs held ready. The staffs bore only blunt points, but were effective herding weapons and each Watcher also carried a sword slung around the hips. Some distance away, a Watcher bowman split his attention between the prisoners and the sky above. Next to the archer, a strange little Raven woman with glossy black wings wove patterns in the air. Energies crackled around her hands and one of the white tattoos on her cheek glowed brightly. A Wird caster at work, Jann suddenly realized.

Jann wondered who his fellow prisoners were, that they warranted such attention. Both men were Fallen, the big one a mongrel mix that labeled him Hyena. The slender man had a Raven-Dove mixed lineage that gave his skin a strange grey pallor. Both men wore a band of dark berry stain across their eyes. Jann struggled to remember if the mark signified membership of Jackal or Wayfarer. He did not know their names; that information had never been offered and hadn’t seemed necessary there in the dark oppression of the stockade.

The big-shouldered man was roughly pulled from the stockade and the guards came at him with more crystal manacles. The Watchers’ staffs drove him to his knees before he allowed them to apply the shackles. As the cuffs clicked shut with a flare of Wird, the man caught Jann’s eye and winked.

Jann looked down at his own bonds. They had put manacles of hardened resin on Jann. While certainly strong enough to keep him bound, their material was far from the distinction of Wird-crafted crystal. Even now, all attention had drifted from Jann as if he posed no threat at all. Which, Jann knew, he did not.

Temporarily alone in the swirl of activity, Jann looked about. The last morning breezes off the Crysarius Sea whispered against his golden skin. Across the prison yard and down the street, Jann could see the district Court of the Council. Citizens of Cry-Star gathered together outside the doors and entered as groups. Jann had been in the one-room building before, but never up front where the accused made their arguments. Certainly never with his wrists manacled together like some criminal.

One of the prison guards stepped in front of Jann, blocking his view. The Watcher grabbed the chain that hung between Jann’s wrists and yanked him forward. The three prisoners were marched forward down the street. Other groups funneled toward the back of the justice building, but Jann’s large escort kept them well away.

They stopped near a door set at the rear of the courthouse. This was the Door of Judgement, the entrance for those to be judged in the name of the king. Others waited in the midmorning heat, some chained and guarded like Jann, many were not. They were all interested in Jann’s party, glancing sidelong at the men in crystal chains, but none would meet their gaze.

The door banged open and a Watcher stepped out, motioning two Fallen men to follow. Jann noted their hands were free, but they walked with heads bowed and trailed bleakly behind the policeman.
A hush fell over the groupings as a noble Hawk stepped out of the building alone, moving at a smooth pace, his back straight and sharp features set like stone. Gold adorned his hunting knife and one clawed hand, but his fine silk clothing was stained. Water stood in his dark eyes.

Jann’s stomach lurched at the sight of the Hawk’s wings, stripped of their feathers and bandaged heavily. The right wing hung at a strange and painful angle; the left was amputated at the second joint. The primaries and secondaries would grow back in time, but those wings would never again lift a man to soar under the sun.

Jann looked back into the noble’s gaze, but the normally piercing stare of Troupial Hawk was unfocused and still. Something more than pain drove the tears that now flowed freely down the Hawk’s proud face.

“Mark him,” said the big-shouldered man to his slender friend, “local House Tura. He’s just learned what it means to be Redeemed.”

The slender man nodded. “Good hook,” he agreed to some unspoken message.

The big man, the one with the bright smile, turned to Jann. “That’s one of Troupial Hawk’s best hunters there, the pride of House Tura,” he explained. “An accident took his wings. He was arrested for trespassing on the noble platforms and it seems the magistrate’s justice just upheld the charge.

“His crime, son, was trying to go home.”

“Shut up, you!” One of the guards lashed out with his staff and cracked the big man across the back. A large area began to bruise immediately, but the man hardly flinched. He squared his shoulders and glared at the guard, but said nothing more.

A Blessed Dove, the court’s Watcher, stepped out of the dark doorway and squinted in the sunshine. She rustled her wings, then motioned the stockade guards to bring their prisoners forward.

Inside, people crammed the building and all of them were just rising to view the newcomers. Fallen and Fortuned mixed freely in the central area and a few nobles stood in a section roped off for the Pure. Watcher guards, most of them Fortuned, stood in the front and nervously eyed the rabble in the common area. On a dais at the head of the single, great room sat a Dragon of noble birth. The justice wore dark robes over green skin and his large hands were heavy with jewelry. The white braid that poured between his wings was long enough to brush the floor as the man sat on his dark wooden bench.

The crowd surged when Jann and his companions entered and their angry noise swelled. Jann gazed at the mass of faces turned his way, a wall of resentment pressing in on him. Some of these people were angered by the court proceedings, Jann could tell, but most of the bitterness was aimed at the two men with Jann. Before he could turn to his fellow prisoners, one of the guards stepped behind Jann.

“You first, Hyena,” he growled and pushed Jann forward. Jann’s bad knee nearly buckled under him, then he slowly straightened up, expanding his broad chest and glaring at the guard, but he said nothing. He might not have wings, but any fool could clearly see the heritage of Troupial Eagle in Jann’s young frame.

“Watcher,” stated the justice. His gravelly voice cut through the crowd’s mutter and their noise quickly subsided. The court officer, thin for a Dove, stepped forward and peered at a parchment she held.

“Jann, no house, confirmed citizen of Cry-Star,” she proclaimed for all, “Charged with malicious badgering, aggravated with resisting arrest.”

Jann’s golden cheeks flushed under the bruises. To hear the charges read thusly made Jann sound like a delinquent, a dredge of society. What opinions would the Dragon judging him already be forming? Jann looked up, fearing anger or scorn on those noble features.

Instead, he saw boredom. The mighty Dragon, draped in heavy plush robes, slouched back on his bench and ran one green index finger along his jaw as his eyes swept over Jann.

“Statements,” the justice said flatly.

The Dove Watcher who had beaten Jann so thoroughly last night stepped forward, glider membranes tucked neatly into his belt.

“The charges are mine,” the Watcher declared, “and witnessed by Watcher Calendine.” Jann noted that Calendine was not in the room today.

The justice turned his gaze on the lawman. “Officer Bergaus. This district is new to you. Are you familiar with this youth’s parents?”

Bergaus nodded and the bright patches on his neck glittered. “I am, your lordship. Fallen Eagles both, they run a shop in the trade district. They’re good citizens who know their place in the caste.”

The Dragon turned back to Jann.

Jann’s heart hammered in his chest and his empty stomach twisted cruelly. The justice’s gaze seemed to freeze Jann’s mind, he could think of no defense. What simple statement could he make that would clarify last night’s events and emotions so the Dragon noble would understand Jann’s position?

He was never given the chance. The justice’s thick tail slipped across the paving stones as the Dragon leaned forward.

“Given the exuberance of youth and Officer Bergaus’ high commendation, we shall endeavor to teach you, boy, not to make a lesson of you.

“Jann of Cry-Star is condemned, through the next month of Thulock, to hard labor in the elevator shafts.”

The justice made a sudden closing gesture with his hand and his attention shifted beyond Jann. The court officer noted something on her papers and one of the stockade guards stepped towards Jann, glider membranes billowing out, and brandished the butt of his staff.

Jann’s own pulse was singing in his ears and the pain in his knee lanced up through his heart. He never heard the crowd’s mutter of anticipation nor the Watcher reading off the names of the two men who had shared his prison. Jann’s head and stomach swam loosely as the guard pushed him out into the harsh daylight.

The elevator shafts! Only broken men ever came out of the shafts, with gnarled old hands and coughing up black phlegm. How would he contact his parents? Jann felt the sun on his bronze skin and soaked it in, because once he went into the shaft, he might never see the light of day again. After a year of labor, his skin would be creased with ash and his face scarred from the blistering heat; his own mother wouldn’t recognize her son. His mother would never know. His mother…

Then Jann, Fallen son of Troupial Eagle, bent his head under the sun’s glare and his shoulders began to shake.

Deep Woods Blues

from the Car Wars game universe:

Assigned to do the Chris “Powersaw” McCarthy interview, I visited his old family homestead. When I arrived, however, I found instead an individual who gave to me a unique view of the Saw’s autoduelling history. The Powersaw McCarthy interview can be found elsewhere in numerous television replays. What follows is the time spent with his father, Scats McCarthy, while we waited for the Saw.

As soon as the chopper settled, I stumbled out, leaving Fletcher to power down the bird. The day was overcast and turbulent, my stomach clamored threateningly for solid ground. Up in the hills, the clouds hung low, shredding themselves on the treetops. Mist sifted through the sparse undergrowth and a palpable gloom seemed to peer from the deep woods. The air sat in my lungs, sweet and damp.

In the three cleared acres around us sat two large houses and numerous barns, sheds, and garages. On the porch of the older house, a grizzled man leaned against a pillar and watched me slog across the front yard. Dressed in flannel and denim, he sucked a pipe and fingered his ragged beard. I placed him at about fifty years, and hoped he wasn’t senile.

“You’re early,” he said suddenly, by way of greeting, “ain’t no one else here.”

I hadn’t yet warmed up the journalistic charm, and all I managed was an “Oh.”

The oldster peered at me, then reached into his hip pocket. “Don’t matter,” he said, “come sit and we’ll wait. Want a chew?” He held out a plug of tobacco, and when I declined, he bit off a chunk for himself and put the pipe back in his mouth.

I wandered up and sat on the damp stairs. From the back of the porch, an immense dog growled at me, but refused to leave her suckling pups.

“You’re here to see little Christian, ya?”

I nodded. Chris McCarthy is 6 foot 4 and weighs 250.

The old guy puffed his pipe, then paused to spit. “Well, I’m his pa. Name of Scats. Christian’s out with the family, sorta welcome home thing.” He waved his pipe towards the woods. The deep woods.

I looked the man over again. He still looked weathered and senile. Behind the house, chickens clucked. “You’re his father?”

Scats grinned, exposing brown teeth. “That’s what his ma says, anyhow. And the other five all look like him, so’s I’m inclined to believe her.”

“Powersaw has brothers?” I asked, thinking of a possible up-and-coming scoop.

McCarthy pulled at his beard. “Well, one, but Grant, he died the other Fall, careful how you use his name around the others. No, mostly Christian’s got sisters. Four of ‘em.”

“And where are they?” Maybe Fletcher, who doubled as my cameraman, could get some good pictures.

“Why, they’re out their ma and the rest of the family. Damn joyriding.” He looked wistfully to the west and waved his pipe again. Towards the deep woods.

I stared dubiously into the gloomy depths. The trees grew packed together, with underbrush tangled at their bases. “Joyriding? What, on bikes?”

“Ya, sure. Bikes, trikes, trucks. They took nearly everything but little Christian’s Stump Jumper. Me, I bummed my wrist and can’t work the sticks. So they left me behind with the youngest; they’re down for their nap right now. Big night tonight.”

“Why, what’s tonight?”

“Told you, Christian’s welcome home thing. Now that he’s back we’re gonna take some Doland toll.”

Somewhere between the tobacco and the pipe, his words were losing sense. “Some what?” I asked.

“Dolands. Last Fall, some of their boys shot up young Grant. Watch how you use his name around here, see, they jiggered him and now them Dolands are gonna pay. We been waiting for Christian, since he always was real close to young Grant.”

Fletcher was out with his camera, shooting footage. It occurred to me that I should be taking notes. McCarthy spit and puffed, and his fist clenched down on the pipe briefly.

“So this is something of a clan feud?” I pried.

Old McCarthy sighed, then knocked his pipe out. As he blew the stem clear, he pulled out of his mood. “Feud? No, just family business.”

“The whole family?” I was, well, surprised. “His sisters, too?”

McCarthy looked at me, confused. “Sure. Can’t women hate the Dolands? This here’s America.

“Look, kid. When the boys start getting big in their britches and the girls stretching their shirts, well, then we take them out and leave ‘em in the woods with a bike. Everyone does it, so we’re all equal, see?”

“Alone, in the woods?” My voice cracked.

“Oh, it’s mostly show, really. No one never made it. If they survived to that age, they can do it. If you know the woods, they’ll treat you right in return.”

I was blatantly astonished and I suspect my mouth hung open. Scats scratched his beard, then turned to look at me. “Ever been in a road duel, kid?”

“Yeah, sure,” I muttered, thinking back to the time I’d unwittingly become a gunner in the news van.

“Fun, weren’t it?” Scats gazed off into the trees and grinned, apparently recalling some particularly joyous dustup. Then he spat and looked at me coldly. “Out here, it’s different. A man fights for his family and his life, and it’s the terrain that’s your worst enemy. Folks like the Doland boys are just added topping. Yep, them woods will kill you.

“But you learn to live with them, then you learn to love ‘em. Them woods, they get into your system. You always gotta go back in.

“Like now. Little Christian’s out there warming up on Bethany’s bike, but tonight he’s taking the Stump Jumper in, and I’m gonna be his gunner. The woods getcha that way, you can’t quit.” He stared at me from under grey brows, and I realized those clear eyes were far from senile.

For the first time, I looked into the woods, instead of at them. Within the cool dusk and seductive mists, I imagined I could see the young Powersaw McCarthy riding his bike amongst the trees. Riding where trunks loomed and the ground bucked underneath him. To the Saw, road duels were dessert. He’d grown up where opponents were spice to the real challenge. Cream skimmed from the top.

The sound of motors buzzed through the woods. Scats punched my arm and grinned. “There they are. Nice sight, my family, ain’t they?”

A dozen bikes and trikes and a few pickups, all jacked up and riding mud slingers, flickered amongst the trees. The trucks bounced around the trunks, and the bikes, bright flashes of color in the dark woods, jumped and spun. One of the trikes let off a greeting burst of gunfire and Scats waved his arm.

In the lead of the humming, jostling pack road a pair of bikes. In tandem precision, they flew over a log and skidded to a stop in the clearing. On one bike I recognized the hulking frame of Powersaw McCarthy.

Scats stood on the porch, chewing on his empty pipe. His weathered face scrunched into a wide grin. He punched me in the arm again. “That there’s Christian,” he beamed, “and the other one’s my pa.”

Something inside me said I’d be coming back to these deep woods.