THREE MEN bled out into the dirt.
René stared at the hand that held the bloody rapier. His hand. Tremors shuddered through his body and down his arm. Droplets of blood sprayed the air and joined the carmine puddles that seeped into the sun-baked earth. He closed his eyes and commanded the muscles that grasped the rapier to release their tension and allow the sword to drop.
Years of daily practice and pain refused his mind’s order much as they had refused to spare the lives of three men. The heady exultation that filled him during the seconds of the fight drained away and left him empty, a vessel devoid of meaning. He staggered toward an old oak and leaned against its rough bark. Bent over, with one hand braced on the tree, he retched. And again. Still, the sword remained in his hand.
A cloud shuttered the sun. Distant thunder brushed his awareness and then faded. Rain. The mundane thought coasted through his mind. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve and glanced down hoping to see a different tableau. No, death remained death, the only movement, that of flies attracted to a new ocean of sustenance.
The summer heat lifted the acrid blood-rust smell and forced him to turn his head away. Before him stretched a different world from the one in which he had awakened. No compass points. No maps. No tomorrow.
The mere thought of his fencing master filled him with both reassurance and dread. René slid the rapier into the one place his training permitted, its scabbard. He walked over to where the huge black stallion stamped his impatience, and pulled himself into the saddle.
Some impulse caused him to turn his head one last time. The sunlight that surrounded the men flickered like a candle in the wind, and the air was filled with a loud buzzing sound. Although still posed in identical postures of death, three different men now stared sightless.
Their skin was darker than the leather tanned sailors. Each wore a short linen kilt of some kind that left their upper bodies naked. As strange as the men appeared, their weapons were what drew René’s eye. The swords were archaic; sickle shaped and appeared to be forged of bronze. These men wore different faces and yet their eyes—somehow he knew they were the same sailors he had just killed. René blinked and there before him the original three men lay unmoved. Dead.
For an instant his mind balked, darkness encircled the edges of his vision.
Do not anticipate meaning. The Maestro’s voice echoed in his head. Meaning may be ignored, but it cannot be hurried.
The darkness receded, and he reined the stallion’s head toward home.
René approached the linden shaded lane to the château. The stately trees, their clasped hands steepled over the gravel drive, had always welcomed him. Now they were just a faded backdrop that moved past the corners of his eyes. Could it have been only hours ago that the anniversary of his sixteenth year had presented itself like a gaily wrapped gift waiting for his excited appreciation? The day had dawned as grand as any he had yet experienced, and he had awakened early, eager for the morning’s light.
“Henri,” he yelled, as he charged down the marble staircase and into the dining room. Breakfast was set and steaming on the polished mahogany table. Burnished silver platters and cream colored porcelain bowls held a variety of eggs, sausages, fruits, and breads. How Henri always seemed to anticipate his entry amazed René.
“Oui, Master René.” Serene as always, the middle-aged major domo entered the dining room. Henri walked over to the table and poured a cup of tea for René. “ S’il vous plaît, be seated, sir.”
“I cannot. Maybe a roll and a link of sausage. Henri, do you know what today is?”
Henri paused as if deep in thought. “Thursday. Oui, I am quite sure ’tis Thursday.”
René took a still sizzling sausage from a tray and did his best to fold it within a baguette.
“Non, ’tis my birth date,” he managed around a mouthful of sausage and roll.
“Which one is that, sir?”
“How do you not know? You were there.”
“Well, I remember ’twas after the end of the war. Let me see. The war was over in…”
“Very droll, Henri. Your memory works fine, ’tis your humor that leaves room for improvement. Today is… so… I cannot explain, it feels like anything is possible today.”
“Given that there is still plenty of day left, perhaps you might sit down and eat. I expect you will need all your strength for a day so filled with possibility.”
“I cannot be late.” René gulped his tea and shoved the rest of the roll and sausage into his mouth.
“Happy anniversary, Master René.”
“Merci Henri.” René checked his appearance in one of the grand foyer mirrors, and then strode toward the courtyard. The time had come to present himself to the Maestro.
René vibrated with excitement. He paused just inside the entrance to the training area. This was no way to face the Maestro. He sucked in a deep breath, exhaled, and reached for that quiet center. The torrent of chaotic thought stilled and that unique calm of intense focus settled around him. His friends Marc and Anatole sported their weapons in public. René had yet to earn that privilege. Disarming the Maestro was the only way, and since that possibility seemed as remote as the ability to fly, it generated a great deal of frustration.
Today, however, might be the day.