Friday, July 3, 2009

"Broken Steel" -- Act IV

Here is the fourth and final act of "Broken Steel". I'll be taking next week off from writing this latest The Children of Gods novel, but an all new story will be started right here on my blog on July 17th.

Enjoy this week's installment.

~ Charles

"Broken Steel" copyright 2009 by Charles Shaver. All rights reserved.


OLD WINDS BLOW HARSHLY: Wherein Aowe Makes a Kite; Sharif Hunts Faryad; Comet Fox Faces the Imperial Soldiers; Stavros Emerges from Yuki Once More


Long before Comet Fox came into the lands, when the Misty Hands of the Cosmos made the world, as Momoki the Marmoset yet sat as ruler and caretaker for Taleisin, there lived a small boy named Aowe. Aowe was a gentle child. He did not like to roughhouse as other boys his age did, but was not a fearful child, either. He was the son of two textile makers and learned a love for cloth.

Once, when Aowe was helping his mother hang her newly dyed cloth, he feel in love with the way the wind was caught beneath the cloth and lifted into the air. He desired to fly, to soar above the plains his family lived upon, to capture the wind like a gull and float gently upon its currents above his home, above the world, to visit Taleisin.

But he was a mere mortal child.

Then came a time when Aowe's mother had done a particularly poor job of dyeing her fabrics. She was using a dye she had not yet ever used before and was not proficient with it enough. She practiced with a new dye on a small bit of cloth and when it came out poor, she threw the cloth aside.

"What is this, mother?" asked Aowe of the discarded cloth.

"That cloth? It is trash to be buried or used to wrap fish. I am not yet used to this new dye and it turned out poorly."

"May I have it?" Aowe asked.

His mother thought nothing of the cloth and saw no reason the boy should not have it. "Take it if you wish," she said.

So Aowe found himself the possessor of a new bit of cloth. Though unwanted, he thought it was beautiful. He would spend hours with his cloth, running through the open plains of his homeland, lifting the cloth above his head like wings and listening to the cloth flap, flowing behind him. He smiled and laughed and giggled and played with the cloth.

At one particular moment, Aowe nearly lost his cloth when a strong wind plucked it from his hands and blew it away from him so that he had to chase it down. Aowe ran frantically. Luckily, a tender sapling Aowe often sat under while resting from a day's work helping his parents or after a day filled with playing with his cloth reached out with its thin branches and grasped the cloth. Aowe was very thankful for this and he began thinking on the matter. He decided to tether the cloth to himself with a think bit of string.

He went to his father and asked, "Father, have you any bits of string I can have?"

As the father was masterful at making strings and attaching them to cloth as ties for clothing, he had much string he had made himself. "How long of a string would you like?" Aowe's father asked of him.

Aowe said, "Long enough to reach into the Heavens!"

His father smiled. "Do we plan on capturing a god?"

"No," replied Aowe. "Merely the wind."

SO Aowe was granted a long, strong bit of string. Aowe tied it to his cloth and wrapped the other end round his hand. Soon he was running across the plains again, dragging his cloth on string behind him. But it wasn't the same as holding the cloth fast in his hands.

"The cloth flaps like a wing when i stretch it out," said Aowe. "I must stretch out this cloth."

So Aowe set about figuring a way to stretch out the cloth as a wing. He soon found himself approaching the young sapling he so loved and asking, "Dear friend, may I take a few of your thin branches from you? I need them to stretch out my cloth."

The sapling simply bowed, offering its branches.

Aowe smiled and took two long branches. He cut these two in two so that he had four pieces in all. He fastened the cloth to them securely and tied the string to the wooden frame he had made.

Soon Aowe was running across the plains once again. Behind him, towed by him, the first kite the world had ever seen lifted into the air and flew gracefully, chasing playfully after him.

Once more Aowe smiled and laughed and giggled and played. Aowe had finally figured a way to fly.

Then one night came a great fire to the plains. It burned nearly everything on the plains, including the dirt of the plains itself. Homes and many lives were lost. When the fire came swiftly to little Aowe's home, carried by wicked winds, it consumed his home swiftly. His mother and father trapped, dying, Aowe could think of nothing to do but save himself and his kite. He ran from his home, afraid, sorrow filling him for his dying parents. Flames lit the night as the sun in the day. Heat scorched the vegetation of the land, causing Aowe's beloved sapling to curled, dry and die under its weight. Flames jumped in every direction, burning everywhere, cutting off every path of escape for little Aowe.

The child, afraid, in pain from flames and the death of his parents, lay down with his kite and was overrun by the fire. Smoke lifted from his body, from his kite and intermingled as one, forming, shaping, becoming thick. The smoke lifted. So angry was Aowe that even in death his will caused the smoke to float high overhead and cry as he would have cried with tears from his eyes.

Aowe's tears fell from smoke as the world's first rain. So fierce was the crying it put out the hungry fire. And so strong was Aowe's will that the smoke remained, becoming pure white like the cotton his mother sometimes worked with or sometimes black as smoke and filled with tears that fell upon the land, expanding to make new smoke, becoming the clouds of the world.

Aowe was at last able to soar above the world and visit Taleisin. And when sorrow filled the land, people were often heard speaking Aowe's name as expression.



Rains fell harshly upon Comet Fox and his companions as they continued their flight at night.

"Aowe," said Comet Fox as he stopped Gullnir from the day's long, hard ride. lecto was asleep on the horse' back and Eloqua struggling to remain awake.

"Each day we lose ground before the pursuing guards," said Comet Fox.

"Our little one needs her rest," explained Eloqua.

"And food. I fear we may not be able to keep up this pace much longer."

"But we must. What would happen to her if she is caught? I can only guess and my mind is not as foul as her mothers, nor as creative. We cannot let her be captured."

"I know," nodded Comet Fox. "We must allow her capture. But we must find food and supplies. And if we continue losing ground, I fear a fight comes."

"With the guards?"

"Of course."

This sent a shock of nerves through Eloqua that chased away her exhaustion. "I do not know how to fight."

"I didn't say you would fight," replied Comet Fox. "But if I'm to fight, I'll need rest and food, as well."

Eloqua eyed him. "You look well. Were it not for my knowledge of your mutual exhaustion, I would guess you're fit for anything."

Comet Fox yawned. He twisted his long, tail-like mustache with his fingers as he thought.

"Oh, to have the strength of a god," pined Eloqua.

"If I could grant it, you and our Little Empress would have mine. I have decided, we will need to sneak into the next town we come across and find some food."

The four of them rested all night as Aowe cried. By the morning, the rains were gone and the day was bright. Everyone had rested a little and they soon set off once more.

They traveled all day through groves of trees, afraid of being seen. Tension and worry was their way of life an had been for many days. When at last they spied the outline of the town of Gortys nearby it was devised Eloqua would go into the town as a woman on pilgrimage and she would beg for food. Eloqua did so and returned to her companions' side in the early evening with many foods. They ate, regained their strength and despite themselves further rested.

Much to Comet Fox's suspicions, the Empress' guards drew nearer, as did Snow Fox and his companions.

Unbeknownst to Faryad, Sharif had followed him to the mainland, had discovered he had been in the village of Tokerau and was now chasing after him. He then came to Li and discovered Faryad had picked up a companion in a wicked little, evil fox-god -- or so said the prefec t Silver Wind. By chance Sharif happened upon the soldiers of the Empress. Sharif stood in a beaten path he suspected Faryad had taken.

"Out of our way, fool!" cried one of the soldiers clad in golden armor. "We seek a fox-god and will not allow you our hindrance. Stand aside or you will taste our steel!"

"With apologies," said Sharif. "Am I to understand you seek a fox-god?"

"This is what I have already said!"

"I seek his companion, a murderer, ad must bring this foul person to justice."

"A companion, eh? A murderous companion?" smiled the soldier. He thought of Eloqua, wondered what the woman had done and did not understand Sharif was seeking a different fox-god and a different companion. "A murderous companion? Perhaps we can mutually aide one another. We could use a fresh mind."

The soldier turned around to eye his men. He chose the one he thought was most weak from their travels. The soldier drew his sword and cut down the weak man who fell from his horse, dead.

The soldier turned back round. "I'll give you a moment to don the armor and mount the steed. You will now ride with us."

Sharif, not wanting to become a soldier with this league of men yet afraid to refuse, did as he was instructed. He donned the armor and mounted the horse.

"Follow me in every respect or I will cut you in half," warned the soldier.

They rode off together, Sharif and the soldiers seeking two different fox-gods, two different companions.



A cloud made of dust lifted into the air in the east. Comet Fox stood as the day ended, straining to see the cloud at dusk.

Eloqua came to his side. She looked where he was looking and asked, "What is it?"

"Dust kicked up by horses," he turned to her and said, "They've come for us."

Alecto drew near. She was dirty and tired, looking nothing like a young inheritor to a throne. "What shall we do?" she asked.

"We can run no longer, I fear," said Comet Fox. "We must find shelter and hide you in the town."

"What of you? Will you also hide with us?" asked Alecto.

"I will hide. They know of me and will hunt for me, as well. But I will hide elsewhere in the town, separate from you in case they find me. I can then fight them off."

From the east, Comet Fox and his companions entered the town of Gortys. They left Gullnir tied to a tree in a grove of trees, fearing such a fine horse would be too recognizable and too difficult to hide.

From the south, Snow Fox and his companions entered the town of Gortys, unaware of Comet Fox's proximity.

On the horizon came a roiling cloud of dust. With it came a band of soldiers.

The gold-clad warriors entered the town in a fury, kicking up dust and startling livestock and children. They grabbed at a nearby townsman and lifted him from the ground by his arm, asking, "Where is the fox-god? Have you seen him?"

"I'm right here," came a voice. But it was not Comet Fox's. Standing center of the main road in the town was little Snow Fox, his fur ruddy and browning. His hands worked knives. Behind him stood Faryad, his guitar strapped to his back and his fists clenching, and Yele Prin Prin, her violin tied at her waist and her talons ticking against one another nervously.

"Who seeks me?" asked Snow Fox.

The lead soldier approached on horseback. He leaned out, eying Snow Fox. "Are you the one known as Comet Fox?"

"No," answered Snow Fox. He craned his neck to look up at the soldier. He feared telling him Comet Fox was his brother.

He said nothing further.

"Then there are two fox-gods?" the soldier asked, shocked.

Comet Fox had stowed Alecto and Eloqua away with a family in their underground cellar. He was seeking a hiding place of his own when he bore witness to the exchange occurring in the middle of town.

"Who are you?" demanded the soldier.

"I am Snow Fox, son of Nyavatalii the Frost Giantess and Coyote!"

Comet Fox pricked up his ears at this.

"Bah! This is not the one we seek!" said the soldier to the others.

Sharif drew near, removed his helmet and pointed at Faryad, "Perhaps not, but he is the one I seek!"

"Sharif!" Faryad gasped.

"It would seem we are companions without reason," said the lead soldier.

"Or, perhaps with reason," Sharif then quoted a common curse, "'How wicked the ways of the Cosmos.'"

"How wicked, indeed," came Comet Fox. He stepped out into the center of town to stand before the soldiers.

"Brother!" cried Snow Fox.

"Are you truly my brother?"

"My father is Coyote. I have heard of you often and came to find you, to meet you!"

"You are a fox as am I, therefore your claim makes sense. If you be my brother: well met, young one."

"A family reunion!" the lead soldier mocked. "How adorable!"

"Shut you mouth, foul one!" demanded Comet Fox. "I know why you're here and I'll not hand her over!"

The soldiers, including Sharif, dismounted. They each gathered up their weapon of choice. The lead soldier carried an am arbir. Sharif had been outfitted with a machete with a long, curved blade looking like a fat belly.

"Do not run, Faryad," Sharif warned. "Come with me. Return to Ayiti and you will have a fair trial."

"I killed Bleddyn! You let us go once before, why have you come for me now?"

"I know of Bleddyn's ways, of his tyranny and treachery. I could not abide by it. But I still have a job and I have been tasked by our warlord to find you. If I did not come for you, I would have lost my head. I did not wish to find you, truly, but knew I must try nonetheless. If nothing more, I have granted you a few more days of living. Be grateful for that and, I beg of you, come with me."

"We'll not return to Aytit," said Yele, "perhaps ever."

"Come to me, Comet Fox," called the soldiers, their leader stepping slowly closer towards the fox-god. "Do not fight. Let us have the girl and you may go. You've no charge in this, no benefit is to be gained for you. Come to us and tell us where the girl is at."

Snow Fox stepped to Comet Fox's side. "I'll not let you further advance on my brother!"

The lead soldier lunged, his spear biting air, streaking out at Snow Fox.

Snow Fox leaped backward and threw one of his knives in one motion. The knife struck, deflected by the thick golden armor.

The soldier laughed.

Comet Fox drew his ulus from out of the sash at his waist.

The soldier arced the spear wide, bring it round at Comet Fox.

Comet Fox lifted off the ground, flying high over the spear.

Snow Fox threw another another. Once again it was deflected by the heavy armor. He eyed the soldier, searching for weaknesses in his armor.

Comet Fox flew down at the soldier.

Snow Fox saw the soldier's boots were mere black leather. He threw a third knife. The blade dug into the boot and split open the soldier's big toe.

The soldier cried out in pain.

Comet Fox struck, arcing his arm around to bring his fist up under the soldier's chin, an ulu passing under his helmet, the blade cutting deep and wide the throat of the soldier.

Comet Fox landed to one side.

Blood spewed from the soldier's wound, blood raining down on the small Snow Fox until he was more crimson than any other color.

The soldier fell dead to the ground.

Comet Fox eyed his and said, "I know of one other like you, one that enjoys bathing in blood."

"I didn't much enjoy this," admitted Snow Fox. "In fact, it's rather foul."

Sharif approached Faryad.

"You know what I can do with my fists," warned Faryad.

"I also know you're no killer. You won't attack me unless I press you. I won't press you, but urge you once more to come with me."

Three soldiers surrounded Comet Fox and Snow Fox. Three more knives were flung out by the smaller fox-god, three more feet were wounded until the soldiers were sent howling away.

One soldier, a young and ambitious soldier, made a final charge at Comet Fox with a spear of his own. Comet Fox let him slip close in his mad rush, sidestepping the spear. he merely held out his ulu at the right height. The young soldier's own momentum, own weight pressed his neck into the sharp moon-like blade until he was spewing blood as his leader once had until he fell to the ground, writhing until he was dead.

The rest of the soldiers ran in terror, except one. This one had been wounded by one of Snow Fox's blades. Snow Fox wriggled the knife free from the soldier's foot and the soldier cried out in agony.

Snow Fox went about picking up his knives except for the two that remained in the feet of soldiers now running away.

Comet Fox neared the soldier with the wounded foot. He knelt low, put his arms around the soldier and lifted him up onto a horse. He spoke softly to the mounted soldier.

"Ride. Ride fiercely to the east. Ride into the rising day, staring only at Etain's belly. Do not look back here lest you find my chasing after you. Ride until you have returned to your beloved Empress' side and deliver unto her this message: tell her Alecto is now under the care of Comet Fox; tell what you witnessed here today, telling her every detail; tell her if she continues her hunt, I will do to her what I did to her captain. Deliver this message, understand?"

The soldier shook his head nervously.

Comet Fox nipped at the horse, forcing the animal to ride wildly into the east where the soldiers had come from.

Sharif was still slowly advancing on Faryad. Faryad's fists were raised, trembling. Neither had seen the soldiers leave. Both were concentrating only on one another.

"Faryad," whispered little Sarut.

"Not now," said Faryad.

"But you must look! We have the advantage."

Faryad looked about to find only Sharif and the fallen remained. He straightened, lowering his fists.

"I think you'll be wanting to let us go," he told Sharif.

Sharif looked, saw Comet Fox slowly approaching, saw Snow Fox tending to his knives. He, too, straightened and lowered his sword. He looked upon Faryad and Yele. He spoke, "I suppose now would be my demise."

"If you attack us it would be," said Yele.

"Yet if I return to Ayiti, that too would be my demise."

"Then what say you?" asked Faryad. "Have you further words for us? Further hostilities? How would this day end? It is of your choosing."

Sharif sighed. "I'll do nothing more to you at this time. But know this, wherever you may go, I'll be fast on your trail."

Yele thought it over a moment. As Sharif turned to walk away, she called to him. "Sharif! Why not join us?"

Sharif looked back over his shoulder at her. "And become an outlaw? A criminal? There is such a thing as justice and I'll have it until my end days. I will be smart about it, but I'll have it."

"And what of the wars on Ayiti?" called Faryad. "They choke and starve the people. They long for a better life. How is that not injustice?"

"You are correct, there is no justice in our warlords, including the one I currently serve. That is the purpose behind my station as a hand of justice on Ayiti, to make certain justice exists in at least some small way amongst the ugliness of all that war."

"And your hunt for us is just? I was right to kill Bleddyn!" defended Faryad.

"Indeed you were, as I will be in the right to kill you. Bleddyn's death was just. He was a tyrant that needed to be put down, hot steel that needed tempering. You did that, but to the extant of murder. You have become despicable. Now justice must be meted out."

Faryad eyed Sharif. He had never heard the man speak so deeply on the matter of his station.

"Be warned, Faryad, though you are a good man, justice will come for you."

"You mean to say you will continue your chase for me."

"That I will, but whether justice comes for you at my hands, from the tip of my blade or if it comes from another remains for the Cosmos to shape. Until then, I bid you fare well. And I give you fair warning: wherever you roam across this world, the eyes you feel resting upon your back, the eyes that raise the hairs of your neck, shall be my eyes."

Sharif turned back round and left the town of Gortys.

"What now, brother?" asked Snow Fox of Comet Fox.

Comet Fox looked down on him. "I do not know for the likes of you and your friends, but I've an Empress-to-be to protect. I must take my leave. Under other circumstances, I would have spent time with you. But I was happy to have you here for this fight. I thank you."

"You're leaving me behind? But we just met! Please allow me to come with you?" begged Snow Fox.

Comet Fox shook his head. "I know not a thing about you, though I feel I can trust your identity as my little brother. I've an incredible task at hand now and must see it through to the end. When I've delivered the Little Empress to safety, then I will return to you."

"You said yourself just now you trust I am your brother. And you know I can fight. If there's more fighting to be done, perhaps you'll need me? Please, allow me to accompany you!"

Snow Fox knelt to the ground, his arms outstretched and his hands clasped together in pleading.

Faryad watched this all from a short distance. At last he said, "This little fox has been through much and has served as friend to Yele and I. And, truth be told, if I'm to have Sharif after me, though I would not wish to burden you with my woes, your company would ease my mind. Perhaps we can do the same in return?"

Comet Fox considered all things. He knew it foolish to trust so quickly, knew more people would mean slower and less conspicuous travel, knew the benefits of having others for posted watches. And, he quietly admitted, Snow Fox was good with his throwing blades and that could be useful. And, once more he admitted to himself, he wished to know more about this little one claiming to be his brother.

Comet Fox breathed deep. He said at last, "Wait here, then. I'll return in a moment with my charge, then we'll go to the grove to retrieve a horse."

Snow Fox leaped from his knees in joy.

Yele and Faryad smiled.

Sarut grumbled incoherently.

Comet Fox introduced and explained who Alecto was and why they were currently on the run as they retrieve Gullnir.

"And those soldiers were your mothers?" asked Yele.

"Yes, indeed."

"You poor girl."

Alecto immediately loved Yele Prin Prin for her beauty and kindness and, other than her own mother and Eloqua and the occasional child commanded to play with her, Yele was the first woman she had ever met.

"I love your wings. They're so beautiful!"

Yele blushed. "Thank you."

They traveled through the night, gazing at stars and chatting. Comet Fox listened to all the tales his little brother had to tell, laughed when he heard about the little fox stumbling over himself trying to use an axe, how he came into the rest of the world. He enjoyed most knowing someone else shared with him his father.

Comet Fox then in turn told Snow Fox, and indeed all of them, about his escaping the Cottonwood Chamber, the Battle for the Plain of Adoration, about Balori -- Alecto's favorite tales involved Balor -- and Xiao-tep and Wu Chan Chu.

"We should find this Xiao-tep," suggested Snow Fox. "He sounds as though he may help."

"I would, but we draw near another dear friend's home. He is well trusted, perhaps my most trusted friend in all the world besides Xiao-tep."

"Who is this that you speak of?" asked Snow Fox, wishing some day Comet Fox would speak of him that same way.

"Stavros the Red."

"How far is he?"

"Not far at all now, I believe. In fact, you could probably rest here while I fly to his village and seek him out."

"Oh, please don't leave!" cried Alecto.

Comet Fox grabbed the young lady's hand. He sighed. "As I've promise, I'll not leave. But what of Snow Fox and Faryad? How would it be if I sent them?"

This was agreed upon.

"How will we know him?" asked Faryad.

"You'll know him," said Comet Fox. "I believe he told me the village is beyond that crest of hills there. Follow due north and I'm certain you'll find it."

Faryad nodded.

Snow Fox checked his knives one last time.

Sarut flew to Faryad and climbed into his pocket.

"Ready for another adventure, Sarut?" asked Faryad.

"Adventure I can handle. I need rest and, well, I trust you to let me sleep in here."

Faryad smiled. "Thank you for trusting me, Sarut."

The three set off for the hills.



It was a joyous night in Yuki village. Several of the younger villagers played musical instruments they had made themselves or, a few, had traded for. A great meal had been prepared all day. Now, at night, food filled bellies, alcohol infected minds and music filled the air.

It was Elsa's twenty-fourth birthday.

Young Petru danced near Stavros and Elsa who lounged together near a blazing bonfire, singing drunkenly at the night sky with the music that played. Stavros was fat now in the belly and a little slower than he once had been.

Stavros smiled at the boy not yet seven years old. He sat up and called to Petru, who came to his side at once.

"Are you enjoying the festivities?" asked Stavros.

Petru nodded frantically, smiling wide. "Oh, do I!"

"Good, good. Would you like to hear more of my tales of battle?"

"Always!" cried Petru.

So Stavros told of his fight against the Brothers Jackyl and soon a small crowd gathered round him to listen in. Elsa listened attentively, too, though she had heard the tale many times before.

The story complete, those gathered clapped happily at Stavros.

Petru looked up at him and asked, "Can I have my own adventures?"

Stavros laughed. "Maybe one day."

"I want to fight with swords like you, Stavros!"

Again Stavros laughed. He said, "Go forth, child, and find me two strong pieces of fallen poplar."

As Petru did this, Stavros asked Elsa to retrieve for him his sword from their hut. Her family was dead now. Only she and Stavros remained in the hut.

Both brought to him the things he had requested.

Stavros quaffed another swallow of tzuika he had taught himself to make. As he did so, he thought briefly on Comet Fox, his old friend, and wished that he was with him this night.

Stavros used his sword to carve and whittle the two pieces of poplar. He then sent Petru forth to find him some twine and when he returned with it, Stavros fastened the two small pieces of wood together with the twine to make a wooden sword big enough for Petru to play with.

"Thanks, Stavros!"

"Now for your first quest, young man: go forth and patrol the perimeter of the village. Make certain no one comes or goes without your seeing them first."

Petru saluted like a soldier and ran off to patrol the outside of the village.

Stavros laughed uproariously at this. Elsa leaned near him and placed a gentle kiss upon his maw. He nuzzled his muzzle into her neck, saying, "I love you, dear Elsa."

"And this whole village loves you, dear Stavros. We are so much happier now that you've returned to us."

On the outskirts of the village, Petru patrolled. The nighttime sky twickled down on him with stars. he had never known a world without stars and for that the villagers were happy and thanked Stavros constantly for his part in returning the stars to the Heavens above.

Petru marched along until he spied movement, two figures drawing nearer. Petru froze. He had not truly expected to find anyone, yet here came two figures -- a man and some creature. He thought about what to do. Stavros had told him not to let anyone pass without speaking to him first, so he determined to do just that.

The little mock soldier stepped forward before Faryad and Snow Fox, thrusting out his small wooden sword menacingly and saying, "Halt! Who wishes passage to Yuki village?"

Stunned, Snow Fox and Faryad stared at the small child a moment. Then Faryad said, "We've come looking for one called Stavros the Red. Is this Yuki village? Would he be here?"

"Yes, he would be here," said Petru. "And who might want to know?"

The weight of the dense poplar made the boy's sword falter.

"I am called Faryad the Exploding Sword. My companion is Snow Fox."

Petru stood in silence a moment. Stavros hadn't told him what to do beyond finding out who came or wen from the village. He thought it over and decided he should escort them to Stavros as prisoners.

"Come with me!" he commanded. "And I'll not tolerate any foul play!"

Faryad shook his head and put his hands up in a gesture to signify he meant no harm.

"Of course not," smiled Faryad.

Petru lead them towards the village. He continued to think matters over and slowed his pace when he came to a realization.

"You've come to take Stavros away, haven't you?"

"We don't want to take him away so much as we'd like him to accompany us," explained Snow Fox.

"Will it be dangerous?"

Snow Fox nodded.

Petru frowned. "Stavros told us of how he left the village once before. The people were so unhappy then. But when he returned he taught the people to sing and play music and make wines and enjoy their lives. They say if he's taken away again, he may never come back."

Petru stopped. "I don't want him to go."

Snow Fox cocked his head, pricked his ears. "I understand. If it were not a most dire situation, I would turn back now and let you keep him."

Petru sighed. "I suppose all I can do is lead you to him."

"Thank you,: said Snow Fox.

Petru lead the two through the celebrating village. As they went, people stopped to stare at Snow Fox. Many whispered of horrible things, of Stavros leaving them once more. Others spoke of gods and men, of Blessed one and demons and the Brothers Jackyl.

"Sir!" said Petru as he came before Stavros. "I've brought these two before you, sir! They came to our village looking for you."

Stavros stood, his crooked back making him small next to Faryad, yet still far larger than Snow Fox.

Petru looked up at Stavros with wide, sad eyes and said, "Please don't go, Stavros."

Stavros eyed both the newcomers, especially Snow Fox. He told Petru, "Go retrieve some tzuika for me and our guests."

Petru ran off.

Stavros invited the two into him hut. Elsa watched them go. When Petru had come with the tzuika and left again, they sat at a table while Stavros poured them cups of the wine and asked, "What brings you here?"

"My brother Comet Fox sent me here," said Snow Fox.

"Brother?" Stavros said, then nodded. "You share a father, then?"

"Indeed. I am Snow Fox. This is Faryad the Exploding Sword."

Stavros smiled. "What trouble has that drunkard gotten himself into?"

Faryad and Snow Fox looked to one another. Snow Fox said, "He lends aid to a young empress-to-be whose mother hunts her. He would like your help in delivering her to a safe place."

"And what safe place would that be?"

"She seems to want to go to Ife," said Faryad. "But he desires to reason out a way to get her to Taleisin."

Stavros nodded. "Balori or Xiao-tep. It's a difficult decision. I would think Comet Fox could fly to Xiao-tep quicker, but then I'm not one for flight. But, how does he need my help?"

"He asks you come see him. He awaits some ways outside the village."

"Comet Fox is here?" this excited Stavros. "Why does he not merely come here?"

"We have fought off several soldiers this night," said Snow Fox, "but he fears more will be on the way. He did not want to lead them into your village."

"It's a kind gesture."

"Come with us. Speak with him," urged Snow Fox. "He speaks of you as a brother."

Stavros considered matters. He looked out the door of his hut and watched the now quieted village. He looked back at Snow Fox and said, "No. I cannot. I have given up fighting and the skills he calls upon me to use. I am fat now, I can lift my sword, but cannot swing it with any ferocity."

Snow Fox and Faryad were shocked to hear Stavros turn them away.

"But he needs your help," said Faryad. "He desperately needs your help."

"And I am truly sorry I cannot give it to him," said Stavros. "Please, leave. If you would like I'll have a few supplies packed and sent with you."

Snow Fox spat. "We need nothing from you."

Snow Fox and Faryad left the hut. Stavros stood in the doorway, watching them leave. Elsa came to his side.

"What did they want?" she asked.

"Nothing," he lied.

"Tell me, Stavros. Tell me the truth."

Stavros sighed. He did not desire to lie to his beloved. He said, "Have I ever told you of Comet Fox?"

Elsa Smiled. "Yes, many times. Is he coming?"

Stavros shook his head. "No. He wanted me to come to him."

Stavros turned and entered the hut.

Elsa followed after him. She asked, "Is he near?"

Stavros nodded. He took his sword she had retrieved for him and put it away under a pile of linens.

"Why didn't he come here? I thought you extended an invitation to him. You did invite him, didn't you?"

Yes, but he needs my help now. I would have to leave Yuki. And I refuse to leave Yuki anymore."

Elsa sighed. She sat on the edge of their bed. She asked, "Why do you refuse?"

He eyed her with confusion. "This is my home now, my life. I've grown older and softer. What he needs me for is my sword, but I'll not aband-" Stavros caught himself in a moment of passionate fury. He calmed himself and said, "I'll not leave Yuki ever again."

A long silence hung between them. It was shared by those gathered outside that waited to hear news from Stavros about the visitors.

"You want to go, though," Elsa said at last.

"Of course I do. Comet Fox is like a brother to me. I can truly say I love that fox-god."

Elsa stood. She walked to Stavros' side and said, "Then go."

"What? I cannot go! I won't go!"

Stavros walked out of the hut and demanded, "Play music! Celebrate! It's Elsa's birthday!"

The people of Yuki simply stared at him.

Elsa stepped out of the hut. She said softly, "Stavros, this is who you are. This is what you are. When the world needs you, it calls upon you and you must leave our little village. It is how it must be."

"Lies! It doesn't have to be that way!"

Stavros' rage scared a few of the villagers.

"Tell me, what will you do then? As I age and die, what will you do? Remain in Yuki and watch me slip from you? Everyone here but you will come and go."

Stavros hung his head. "That's why I must stay. I want as much time with you as the Cosmos will allow, Elsa."

Elsa stepped to him and embraced him. "And I thank you for that. But now the Cosmos will not have you here. You are needed elsewhere. Live your life, live the destiny that has been chosen for you."

Stavros, tears in his eyes, looked at Elsa. "And what destiny might that be?"

"I cannot say," she shook her head. "Only you can find it."

Stavros sighed. He hung his head. He stood in silence a long time.

Quietly, Elsa said, "Would you have me get your sword?"

Stavros did not look up, did not speak. He merely nodded.

Elsa retrieved his sword once more.

A few of the villages began to pack a bag of supplies for Stavros. His accordion was brought to him as were his gourds freshly filled with tzuika. When he was prepared, the villagers gathered round him and prayed for him.

Elsa gave him a final kiss and said, "Yuki is proud to have you as their son. Return as swiftly as you can."

"I will," Stavros nodded.

He turned and ran from the village, calling out for Snow Fox and Faryad who heard him and stopped to wait for him.

As the three walked together, Stavros spied a fourth member of their group. He spied Sarut peeking from Faryad's pocket at him.

"A ruby bug?" asked Stavros.

"I wish he were ruby! He is Sarut, a friend."

"Hello, little Sarut."

"Well met," called Sarut.

Then Stavros spied a fifth member of the group. He stopped, stared into teh shadows of a tree and called out, "Petru?"

Petru stepped from the shadows and said, "I'm coming with you."

Stavros smiled. He knelt to Petru. "I cannot have you come along."

"Why not? I have a weapon! You made it yourself so it must be in good order."

"I know, but the villagers need you while I'm gone. If we're both gone, who's to protect Yuki?"

Petru gasped. "I almost fouled up Yuki's chances for survival!"

Stavros chuckled. "Indeed you did. Here are your orders: Every night I want you patrol the village as you did this night. And every night I want you to keep a small fire kindled for me so I can find my way home. Understood, little soldier?"

"Understood, sir!" Petru saluted.

Stavros kissed the boy's forehead and sent him off, back towards the village.

Stavros eyed his new companions. He looked to Snow Fox, "You're Comet Fox's little brother, eh? You poor bastard!"

"What's that supposed to mean?" asked Snow Fox.

Stavros laughed.

The three left Yuki village far behind.


That's it for "Broken Steel"!!! Thanks for reading!!!

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