by Gary Inbinder
Table of Contents|
Chapter 7, part 1
appear in this issue.
Ludwig returned to his hotel suite the following evening, finding his videophone answering machine crammed with messages, all from reporters. Finn’s press secretary released the announcement of Ludwig and Aurelia’s engagement the previous day, with instructions to refer all questions to her. Ludwig hit the answering machine delete button, poured a scotch, and relaxed in his armchair, reflecting on the current situation.
Opening his wallet, he took out Bambi’s card; he had orders to contact her as soon as he returned to the hotel. Ludwig found the assignment disturbing: he loved Aurelia, and had pledged his loyalty to her father. Nevertheless, the role they required him to play seemed dishonorable.
Posing as a dim-witted, lowborn guardsman unaccustomed to fame, wealth and high status, Ludwig was to begin an affair with Bambi, while displaying a parvenu’s proclivity for pleasure androids, strong drink, drugs and loose talk. Under the guise of weakness and vulnerability, Ludwig would feed bits of disinformation to Bambi, intended to mislead Cato’s network, diverting their attention from Consul Finn’s maneuvers.
Ludwig was accustomed to the dangers of combat; he’d risked his life, on several occasions in situations that were clear and straightforward. He functioned better in a black and white world of good comrades fighting an evil enemy. Consul Finn and Aurelia’s gray, ambiguous world of espionage and political intrigue was an unfamiliar and, to him, distasteful milieu. Troubled by such thoughts, yet resolute in his allegiance to Aurelia and her father, he spoke Bambi’s number into the voice-activated videophone.
Bambi arrived in less than an hour, wearing a short, diaphanous outfit and carrying her small tote bag. Smiling warmly, she greeted Ludwig with a kiss, saying, “I’ve been waiting for you, sir; I’m so happy you called me.”
Holding a scotch and ice in his right hand, Ludwig put his left arm around Bambi, and walked her to the bedroom. “Let’s drop the sir; my friends call me Luddy.”
“Alright, Luddy,” Bambi replied. Looking at his drink, she added, “Are you having another of your headaches?”
“Yes, Bambi, it feels like it’s tearing off the top of my head.”
In the bedroom, she spread a large towel on the mattress. Ludwig placed his scotch on a table, and undressed, lying face down on the bed. Bambi dimmed the lights, adjusted the room temperature and the entertainment system, selecting soft, surround sound music, accompanied by natural sounds of falling water, wind, surf and calling birds. Straddling his lower back, she leaned forward, massaging his scalp, neck and shoulders. Ludwig breathed her familiar fragrance; drifting into a deep sleep, he murmured, “Aurelia.”
Ludwig awoke with a shudder; he was naked, and out of doors. Lying on the soft, dew moistened earth he heard the chirring of insects, and the warbling of birds in the tree branches above. Dawn was breaking, streaming shafts of light through the high, treetops’ cover. A mild wind rustled the leaves, carrying with it a strong, tangy odor of grass and wildflowers.
Ludwig got up and scanned his surroundings; the place seemed familiar. The forest reminded him of the oak, linden and birch woodlands in the far northern country of his birth. After a moment, he perceived a low, melodious female voice calling his name. He walked in the direction of the sound. Soon, he heard swiftly running water; looking through a clearing, he saw a small brook.
Ludwig walked to the water’s edge and knelt beside the stream. A fat, gleaming trout nonchalantly swam downstream; a frog on a rock croaked lustily. Thirsty, he cupped his hands, dipped them into the brook and drank. The water was cold, sweet and refreshing.
Suddenly, he heard the same voice he heard earlier; now, nearby and distinct. “I’m here, Luddy.” Looking up, he saw a small doe. Unafraid, the doe approached him, until its soft muzzle touched his hand. After sniffing and licking him, the doe turned, and began walking along the bank; she said, “Follow me.”
Ludwig continued his journey beside the watercourse, keeping no more than ten paces behind the tiny animal. He noticed gradual changes in the climate, and the landscape: the small, clear brook grew turbid, the azure sky became slate gray. Green leaves turned red, golden orange and then brown, dropping from the trees, and floating in the damp, cold breeze before falling to earth. Harsh wind, hoar-frosted soil and whipping branches lacerated his naked flesh.
Ludwig knew he could not survive much longer without proper clothing, rest, food and shelter, yet somehow his body endured what his mind told him it could not.
The doe led him down a steep decline, beside a precipitous, thundering waterfall. Frigid white water roiled and sprayed over slippery gray-green moss and lichen covered rocks. Purplish shadows obscured his dimming vision. He stumbled, and fell several times: the small deer stopped, waiting for him to regain his footing, before moving on.
Eventually, they reached a snow- and ice-covered depression, sparkling in the moonlight like burnished silver. Ludwig heard the roar of swiftly flowing waters; before them ran a great river, bisecting the valley. He watched, as the little doe jumped into the dark, freezing waterway, swam steadily through the drift ice and then scampered up the opposite bank where she patiently awaited him. Exhausted, and in pain, Ludwig dove into the turbulent stream.
He struggled with all his remaining strength, as the forceful, icy current dragged him down. His muscles cramped, and his lungs nearly burst. It’s finished, he thought. Once he gave himself up for dead, a vital strength took hold: an unseen power pulled him across the ice-clogged river, depositing him on the far shore.
He lay unconscious, slowly awakening as the doe pressed her soft, warm muzzle to his face while licking his closed, sleeping eyelids. Rising to his feet, fresh and reinvigorated, he followed her up the steeply sloping bank. Reaching the crest, he saw, less than a mile distant, a great, white towered fortress surrounded by a moat, glimmering in the black night with a mysterious, green-gold luminescence. The doe walked on: the castle’s drawbridge lowered, and she crossed the moat, Ludwig following her.
Ludwig stood at the entrance to a great hall: before him, seated around a huge, oak table, was a body of knights wearing the robes of an ancient equestrian order. Above them, a high, vaulted stone ceiling seemed to reach into the heavens. Red and gold banners hung from metal poles in the thick, buttressed walls: there were no window openings, or any apparent system of illumination. The brilliant green-gold light filling the hall emanated from an unseen source.
The doe walked to a white-haired man at the far end of the table. She remained at his side as he gently stroked her head. A young knight arose from his seat; carrying a white robe, he approached Ludwig respectfully, bowed and offered him the garment. Ludwig accepted, covered himself, and followed the young knight, who silently beckoned him forward. The knight escorted Ludwig to his white haired master, bowed and then returned to his chair.
The old man smiled. Slowly, and painfully rising, he greeted Ludwig with a bow, saying, “Welcome, my lord, we’ve been expecting you for some time.” The white-haired master pointed to an empty chair on his right, adding, “Please sit here, next to me.”
Several knights muttered among themselves, and a few senior men, with hands on sword hilts, angrily rose to their feet.
The old man looked around the table, demanding, “If anyone doubts this is his rightful place, speak now, or remain silent.” The murmuring ceased, and the scowling knights returned to their seats.
Ludwig sat down. Staring in bewilderment, he stammered, “You, sir... you’re Consul Cato?”
“Yes, Lord Ludwig, I am. And you, I believe, are the expected one: the savior of our Republic.”
Ludwig remained silent, and perplexed. Looking around the table, he saw the knights staring at him curiously: some of the older men glowered, but almost all the young ones smiled. Finally, Ludwig said, “I’m sorry sir, I’m very confused.”
“Of course, you are.” Cato replied. “You must be tired, and hungry. Share some of our bread, and wine. Afterward, I’ll explain.”
Following their supper, the knights and the doe left the great hall. Cato and Ludwig sat at the table, alone. Drinking wine from a golden goblet, Cato suddenly winced; dropping his cup, he grabbed his side.
“Are you alright, sir?” Ludwig asked.
“It’s an old wound; it will pass.” Pointing to a lectern, Cato added, “Please bring me the book; we haven’t much time.”
Ludwig got up, went to the lectern, and fetched a large, ancient leather-bound volume. Returning to Cato, he placed the book before him, on the table, and sat by the old man’s side.
Opening the book, Cato turned to an engraving of what appeared to be the two sides of an antique coin. The obverse contained a portrait of a young man crowned with oak leaves and laurel, and some obscure wording in old Latin. The reverse had a strange device identical to that on the red and gold banners decorating the hall: a cup above the axis of crossed spears, beneath a hovering bird. An oak wreath surrounded the emblem. “My lord, I will tell you about the legend. But first, I must say something about your parents.”
Ludwig frowned. “I’m indebted to you for your hospitality; however, I’ve seen convincing evidence of my parents’ treason, and your treachery, as well. In truth, I’m honor bound to challenge you and your knights. Before I do, could you respond to the charge of treason, and also tell me where I am, and why I’m here?”
Cato shook his head, and answered, “Your parents were not traitors, and neither am I. You and I are meeting in a place transcending space-time. Have they taught you about such things at the Academy?”
“I know a little about hyperspace jumps, and time warps, if that’s what you mean. Don’t ask me to explain how they work; I’m a soldier. I know how to fire, field-strip, and clean a blaster; the geeks make them, I use them.”
“We’ll agree, my lord, that you are not a scientist. Do you know anything of our ancient myths and legends?”
“Not much,” Ludwig admitted. “Our instructors told us the old ways were superstitious nonsense; we learned about the Civic Cult, worshipping in the Temple of Reason.”
“Ah, yes,” Cato sighed, “Reason: the goddess of our modern Republic.” Without warning, Cato doubled over in agony, falling from his chair. Ludwig knelt beside him, holding the old man in his arms, while blood oozed from the wound.
“I’m sorry, sir; should I call your knights?”
Gasping for breath, Cato groaned, “There’s no time, you must leave soon. Beware Consul Finn and his ‘noble lies’. Years ago, he wounded me in a duel, fought according to the custom of our ancestors. Finn misused sacred power to defeat me. He seeks to rule, and his ambition knows no limits.
“As for my treason, I knew your parents well. We wanted to save the Republic from Finn, and we believed in the legend.
“Thousands of years ago, a brave young warrior from the northern tribes relied upon the power of an unseen god to defeat a cruel king. The warrior established a golden age that lasted for centuries; his name was Ludovicus.
“Following his death, the seers prophesied that, in five thousand years, during an era of decadence, violence, unbelief, and corruption Ludovicus would return. However, the seers did not foretell whether Ludovicus would defeat or join forces with the evil one. You must make that choice.”
Cato reached into his robe, withdrew and handed Ludwig a shining, metallic object. “Take this sacred memento, and learn its meaning. Once you understand, you will act of your own free will.”
Ludwig studied the object; it was the coin in the ancient engraving. When Ludwig looked up, Cato, and the hall vanished. For a moment, Ludwig stared into the void, and then he drifted into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Copyright © 2007 by Gary Inbinder