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Story 3

Anne E. Johnson

 The tragic loss of Lord Zeril to the enemy leaves young warrior Oona masterless. Together with a faithful companion, she sets off on a quest to find a new master to protect, one worthy of her loyalty. That's the premise of Anne E. Johnson's "Oona's Quest".

In general, I was trying to create a sword-and-sorcery tale with a female main character. I took inspiration from the Akira Kurosawa film 'Yojimbo', about a masterless samurai. As for pairing the warrior Oona with the jester Kencho, I had in mind classic partnerships like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
                                                                                                                                 -- Anne E. Johnson

Anne E. Johnson is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, NY. Her published science fiction and fantasy novels include Space Surfers (YA science fiction) and the Webrid Chronicles humorous space opera series. She also writes historical novels for kids, most recently The Progress of Our People, about Black representation at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Over 100 of Anne’s short stories have appeared in magazines, webzines, and anthologies. When she’s not writing fiction, she works as a music journalist for publications such as Stereophile, Classical Voice North America, and PS Audio’s Copper Magazine.

 


OONA’S QUEST

By Anne E. Johnson

 

A wisp of breath-soul escaped Lord Zeril’s lips as he died.

“Farewell, my good Master.” Oona ran her hand over his forehead, the only part of him not covered in blood. She had lost many loved ones in the “War of the Kingdoms,” but this loss hurt the most.

An enemy soldier had sneaked up behind Lord Zeril as he watched a squadron of armed giants thundering down the Eastland Hills. Oona had not moved swiftly enough to stop his arrow. Her sabre had dissected his spleen the moment after her master’s heart was fatally pierced. And now, crouched in the belfry, she held Zeril’s body, too shocked to weep.

The earth-shaking stomp of giants’ feet grew closer, but Oona did not run. It was much lighter footfalls that pulled her from her stupor. “Kencho? Is that you?”

Her slender friend, the Lord’s jester, entered the belfry, nimbly skipping over the dead soldier. “It is I. Shall I fetch healing herbs? Bandages?”

“Too late. Lord Zeril has left us.”

“Ah.” Kencho fell to his knees and touched Oona’s fingers where they rested on Zeril’s forehead. “Sweet friend, we must go. The giants come.”

His gentleness nearly released her tears, but she swallowed defiantly, pulling her chainmail hood forward to hide the pain on her face. “I shall die protecting my master’s corpse.”

“Don’t be daft! Zeril would never want that.” Kencho dragged her to her feet. He looked down at his small but powerful friend. “Honor your master by your actions and by using what he taught you.”

His words calmed her. She followed in sadness as he led her to a cavern away from the fighting. The enterprising jester made a fire and even caught a squirrel for their dinner, which Oona barely touched. Instead, she rose and paced. It was not only her chainmail, breastplate, and two swords that weighed her down. Her limbs felt heavy with a sense not merely of loss, but of being lost.

“You can fight on your own,” Kencho suggested. “I shall be your henchman.”

Sighing, she wiped her hand slowly on her leather trousers. “The merchant fighter’s life is not for me. I need a master to whom I can pledge fealty.”

“I understand.”

They broke camp before the sun rose, hoping to avoid being seen by straggling Eastland troops. A crash in the thick, green brush along the path made them hold their breath. Silently, Oona felt for the straight sword on her right hip but changed her mind and pulled the sabre on her left side an inch out of its scabbard. “Who’s there?” she shouted, ignoring how Kencho pressed his finger to his lips. “Show yourself.” She released the blade another inch.

A balding head broke through the foliage, followed by round shoulders and a belly draped in a bloodstained priest’s robe. When the man offered his open hands in supplication, they glistened with blood. “Please don’t kill me.”

“We won’t, Father,” said Kencho.

Oona stepped closer to the priest. “Prove your loyalty to the Rose Queen, or I shall tailor your fancy vestments with you still in them.”

“No need for that.” He turned his head to reveal a tattoo shaped like a papyrus flower below his ear.

“That symbol means he works for Terma, Lord of Judgment, the top advisor to the Rose Queen,” said Kencho.

“I knew that,” Oona snapped, still wary. “Whose blood is that, Father?” When his lower lip quivered, she regretted her harsh tone. “A friend?”

“A pupil,” he said. “Wise and good beyond his years. Bowit of Rechts died in my arms.”

Oona’s face went cold. “He was the greatest fighter in the province.”

The priest nodded sadly. “Indeed, he was.”

Palms pressed together, Kencho spoke the traditional acknowledgment of mourning: “May the days be a salve to your aching spirit.”

He and the priest looked at Oona, but she only shouted, “Lord Terma needs a new warrior!” With those words, she grabbed her helm off the ground and plunged into the brush, running in the direction from which the priest had come. Neither the scratching thorns nor the tripping ivy could slow her frantic pace.

“Oona, come back!” cried Kencho.

“Lord Terma will not take you on as his warrior,” called the priest.

Undaunted, she sped up and soon reached the granite wall surrounding a great castle. A guard with no helmet, sweating and hobbled as if he had just left the battlefield, lifted his sword slightly in both hands. “State your name and business.”

“I am Oona of Shiban, sworn protector of Lord Zeril, plighted to serve the Rose Queen.”

“And how fares your Lord? Is he with you?”

Oona had some trouble getting the words out: “He is dead.”

The guard grimaced. “Lately the dead seem to outnumber the living. And your business with my master?”

Trying to stand straight, Oona spoke with a stronger voice. “Bowit has been slain. I offer my protection to Lord Terma.” At first Oona assumed the guard’s smirk meant he doubted her abilities. After putting on her helmet with her right hand, she drew her straight sword with her left. “Let me prove my mettle forthwith!”

With an exhausted groan, the guard gestured through the gates. “I doubt neither your skill nor your fortitude. Enter the castle, and you will find a master transformed by the death of his protector. I wish with all my heart that you might convince him to take you as Bowit’s replacement.”

Puzzled, Oona took a few steps toward the gate. The guard nodded her onward. With determination driving her, she trotted toward the castle. Although the dead bodies strewn around the keep and the stench of char and bile made her gag a few times, she kept her steps even.

At last she entered the great hall. A slender man draped in gold silk knelt at the central hearth with his back to her.

Assuming this to be Terma, Lord of Judgment, Oona announced herself. “Allow me, Oona of Shiban, the honor of protecting you.”

The figure stood quickly, as if strings pulled him up, and spun with unnatural speed. The man’s face seemed to be made of brown agate; there were no pupils in his eyes.

Oona drew her sword again. “What have you done with Lord Terma?”

The stone-faced man said nothing, only drew his own sword and stepped toward her with panther-swift paces. She kept her feet planted. “No closer, wraith.”

The none-too-human man did stop, but when Oona let out her breath, a voice rang from the rafters above her. “I have four more of those, Oona of Shiban.”

She jerked her head up to see the deranged, toothy smile of an old man. This one, at least, seemed mortal. He waved an arthritic hand, and four more tall, expressionless men, all dressed in identical golden robes, emerged from behind pillars about the great hall. They lined up next to the first one and drew their swords, so the five tips met and formed an arrow pointing at Oona.

“What kind of spectres are these, my Lord?”

“The kind that can protect me without weakness. And if they die, I can replace them.”

Oona swallowed hard, not daring to take her eyes from the five stacked blade points. “Did you enchant these poor men, my Lord?”

“Not at all.” His lopsided laugh echoed against the stone walls. “I built them. A sorceress sold me the spell.”

“But why?”

The madly happy Lord turned somber. “My protectors were killed, one after the other. Wendell of West Straits, Dania of Liber, and now Bowit. Great and loyal warriors all.”

“Then let me serve you, my Lord.” Oona dropped to one knee. “I pledge that you will never find a more devoted and courageous —-”

She stopped when the judge covered his face with one hand. “No, goodly Oona. I cannot stand the pain of more loss. I shall depend on my magical protectors. Go in peace.”

In a single, silent motion, the enchanted knights withdrew their swords and slid like ghosts into the shadows. Lord Terma disappeared, too.

Oona tore from the castle, knowing the eyes of magic could see through walls and never stopped watching. But she resolved to plead her case again to the Lord of Judgment.

Outside the gates, she found Kencho waiting, his breaths deep and fast after running to catch up. “I shall protect his Lordship,” she told him, “whether he wants me to or not.”

Concern creased Kencho’s brow. “He may well need protection if he’s making magical people. Surely that falls under the black arts.” His eyebrows rose. “Perhaps you can use this to your advantage. Go back and fight these unnatural soldiers. Prove your worth to Lord Terma.”

“Excellent idea.” She tightened her weaponry belt and breastplate. “Wait here. Caw like a buzzard if reinforcements enter the castle.”

“Like this?” Kencho let loose a bird call that might fool a real buzzard.

“Perfect.” She pulled her chainmail hood over her black hair and added tersely, “If I have not emerged by sundown, come in and claim my body.” Without pausing to see the worry on Kencho’s face, she marched back into the castle.

As she ran to the great hall, her sword clanked against her greaves. “I, Oona of Shiban, mean to kill Terma, Lord of Judgment. Defend your master, magic-born men!”

Smooth as fog, five identical warriors in golden robes lined up between Oona and the central hearth. Their square chests side by side formed a fortress wall.

“I am not afraid,” Oona told them as she approached. Her head reached only to the middle of the soldiers’ breastplates, but she had fought and conquered even larger foes. “Learn the superiority of a human combatant. Draw!”

The soldiers did not draw. The curved blade of Oona’s sabre in her right hand touched the neck of the nearer faux-protector on that side. The other four soldiers merely turned their helmeted heads to watch with dead eyes. Their weapons stayed sheathed. Even the soldier whose neck was threatened kept his hands at his sides.

“Fight me, strange ones.” Oona spun, repositioning her sabre blade against the neck of the next soldier in line. Drawing her straight sword in her left hand, she rested its tip just below the first soldier’s rib cage. Yet the soldiers’ stony visage stared beyond her; their muscles did not flinch.

“No fear of death?” Oona called up to the rafters, “Lord Terma, this is why you need a human protector — one who knows life’s value.”

“On the contrary,” said the aged Lord, leaning over a balcony. “They know not only the value of life, but the truth of intention.”

“Speak plain, my Lord, while I have my blades poised at killing points. Surely it is no small thing to make new men to replace these.”

“Indeed, it is not easy.”

“Then why let them die?”

“Do I let them die, truly?”

Oona was frustrated by the mind game. “My blades are ready to—.”

“But you will not kill them for no reason, and my magical men sense that.”

“They drew their swords when first I came.”

“You yourself were unsure what you meant to do then.”

Flummoxed, Oona lowered her weapons. “They can read my mind?”

“Only your intentions.” Terma started down the wide staircase. “And you intend no harm, either to them or to me, unless you are provoked.”

Oona realized a demoralizing truth: “They are better protectors than I.” Bowing, she added, “Farewell, Lord Terma. If anyone in this kingdom is safe during our time of war, it is you.”

Terma approached. From his sleeve he drew a thin, golden disc and offered it to her. “The author of this extraordinary magic is Sorceress Lantaha. Perhaps she could teach you.”

“Teach me what?”

The Lord shrugged. “To be more like these fellows, I suppose.”

Snorting, Oona made to toss the disc into the hearth. But gold was precious, so she stormed out with the sorceress’ calling card cutting into her furious fist.

###

“Well, what happened?” Kencho asked when he met her at the castle gate. “Are you the new protector of…?” He must have noticed the rage in her eyes. “Tell your Kencho everything, dear friend.”

And she did. By the time she had finished, Kencho was holding the sorceress’ disc and gazing at it. “You must go to her.”

“Why? What use have I for a sorceress who makes unconquerable warriors out of thin air?”

A weird smile twisted across Kencho’s face. “We shall ask the sorceress to create an immortal master for you.”

“Kencho! That’s brilliant!” Her elation did not last; just as suddenly, her spirits fell. “We don’t know where she is.”

“Yes we do. We’ve got this.” Kencho held the gold disc at eye level. “Every good jester knows how to work a calling disc.”

He pressed the disc’s center. A spray of light shot from its edge. Words appeared, as if they were emblazoned in the dusky air: “Sorceress Lantaha. West of Finto Stream at Elephant Boulder.”

Oona tried not to squeal as she said, “Elephant Boulder is just a mile from here!” Without waiting, she trotted off westward.

“So, what kind of master will you order from the sorceress?” Kencho asked when he finally caught up. “Man or woman? Tall or short? Silly or serious? Journeyman or settler?”

Oona slowed, staring at a rock protuberance shaped like an elephant’s trunk. “I don’t care,” she said. “Any master will do.”

They walked in silence for a while. Eventually she noticed Kencho taking frequent, furtive glances at her. “What is it?” she demanded.

He shrugged. “I just wondered why it’s so important to you to find a master right away? You have a little money from your family. Why not take some time off from the hard life of battle? You could even go back to your village. Most likely at least one of your relatives still lives.”

Oona started to hurl out an impulsive snarl and insult, but the kindness on Kencho’s face made her realize that he meant no harm. So she gave his question some serious thought. When she answered, her voice was as quiet as the linnet call from the woods they were passing. “My parents loved me. Even as a child, I knew how rare that was. Most of my friends were either ignored or routinely beaten at home, whereas my mother and father often told me they believed in me and encouraged me to fulfill my dream of being a warrior.”

She paused before telling the next part of her tale, the part that made her heart ache. “My father secured me my first position as an apprentice fighter for the daughter of our village’s liege lord. When the girl was sent away to school, I was assigned to accompany her there. My father had fallen ill just before I left. He made me promise--.” Oona’s voice caught in her throat.

“What did you promise?” Kencho asked gently.

“I promised always to serve my master well. My father said it was the sign of a true warrior. And those were the last words he ever said to me. When I came back home from my journey, he was dead. Ever since then, I can’t imagine life without someone to serve, in his honor.”

“Oh, dearest Oona,” Kencho said. “You are a great warrior and a great daughter. Your father would be very proud.”

“Thank you,” she replied. “And you are a great friend.”

Slowing his step, Kencho pointed across a small field. “I think we’ve arrived.”

Oona had imagined they would a castle with a mighty wizard in a jeweled cape ensconced within its walls. Perhaps the grounds would be guarded by a hundred magical stone-faced warriors.

They found quite a different scene.

“Could she truly live in this broken-down hut?” Kencho asked. “My parents were sharecroppers, and they had a grander home.”

The condition of the place did not concern Oona. Gentle ripples of magic emanated from the thatched roof and wattle-and-daub walls. They seemed to sing just to her. “It’s beautiful,” she murmured. This is perfect. I know this sorceress will craft the ideal master for me.”

Wanting to appear as warrior-like as possible, Oona secured her helmet on her head, but lifted the visor. She bounded to the door. Before she could knock, it flew open. A short, muscular woman in a plain brown dress stood before her. Oona noticed her eyes, onyx wells of patient wisdom in weathered brown skin. “Are you the sorceress Lantaha?” Oona prayed that she was. Not since her mother died had she trusted anyone so instinctively.

“I am she.” Even the sorceress’ smile seemed wise, texturing her cheeks with fine wrinkles. “And you are Oona of Shiban. Lord Zeril was a good man. May the days be a salve to your aching spirit.”

The mention of her old master loosened Oona’s tongue. “Now I have no master. And I need a master. Please, won’t you please, venerated one, make me a—-?”

“I agree, you need a master.”

Oona threw her arms around the sorceress and sobbed. “Thank you!”

Lantaha untangled her coiling gray hair from Oona’s visor hinge. “And I thank you, Oona. Your coming here was destiny.”

“She’s incredible,” Kencho whispered under his breath.

Oona prepared to enter the hut, but was surprised when Lantaha strode outside instead. “You’ll start working immediately. I’m going out now. Come along.”

“But…”

The sorceress paused, hands on hips. “You need a master. I need a protector.” Smiling, she pointed at Kencho. “I’m sure I can find work for this strong lad as well. Is this not what you wanted, Oona?”

A profound sense of calm brought a smile to Oona’s face. “Yes,” she said. For she realized destiny had brought her to exactly the right place.

 

[End]

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