About 7180 words
A Lesson in Texas
boys hunkered around a pinball machine, giving me the evil eye. Long and tall with that timeless Fey look, their forest green jeans, ruby leather jackets,
and high-tops told me they were young. Elf
maidens clustered among them oohing and aahing as the biggest, his slender hands splayed over the
flipper buttons, worked that machine into a ding-dong frenzy.
bumper lights reflected in Big Boy's eyes.
He wasn't watching me, but the others, fingering long rapiers, kept
glancing my way and whispering. He'd nod
and laugh, showing canine teeth, and rack up another free ball.
pretended to stare at the red, stained tablecloth and waited for the Mab's Drive-In special, a dragon burger with cheese. The Elf kids kept glancing at the broad sword
on my right hip, and the empty, dangling right sleeve of my brick-dust stained
Finally, Big Boy made that pinball machine
break down. Coins rattled over the tiles.
He looked me over and curled his lip.
I smiled back polite as you please--I'd come for more than a burger.
little Elf girls squealed, getting down on their nylon
covered knees, black skirts hiked to their butts as they scooped up the
change. Big Boy and his buddies
sauntered over to my table. Strutting
like a tomcat in a guinea pig farm, he was cock of the walk. He stroked his rapier's pommel with a lover's
touch. He's the one all right--the one I
come looking for.
"Hey, old timer."
His long, lean leg arced over the chair and he sat down.
"Afternoon, little lordling." I smiled into his ball-bearing eyes. "Looks like you beat the tar out of that
nothing I can't beat." He grinned with glacial white teeth. "Be it Man or machine." His friends dug their elbows into each
other's ribs and snickered. The elf
girls crowded over to watch the fun.
My eyes widened.
He sat up straight, then leaned way over and studied my sword. "But machines are too easy. When you beat 'em
they just break down. Don't cry and beg
like a Man."
amigos made a fuss over that, slapping each other's backs and egging him on
with, "Go, elf, go." And,
"You tell him, Elroy."
thing got any steel to it?" Elroy
poked a long finger at my sword.
"Or is it just a stick of rust?"
"Burger coming through!" Mab's hoarse voice
carried over the hubbub. The kids parted
as her in-line skates clacked across the tiles.
Mab sidled up to the table, dappled centaur
body forming a half circle, a tray with my burger, tofu fries, and a longneck
held high overhead. Her eyes grew black
as eight balls. She gazed down at the
boy. "Some kind of trouble here? Elroy, you behaving yourself?"
He wouldn't look at
her but kept his eyes on me.
don't you put that burger on hold?" I smiled.
"My new friends and I are having a talk."
"Mmmmph." She looked at
me thoughtful like and finally shook her head.
"Don't be surprised if it gets tough to swallow." Off she rolled, round the table and back to
the kitchen. Just as she moved out of
earshot, I looked Elroy square in the eye.
know, Mab's got the finest looking figure a Man
with exaggerated equestrian tastes could want."
green-tinted skin turned livid white.
Them ball-bearing eyes heated cherry red and his hand clenched the
he could draw, I grew me an arm. I'd
learned that trick from a pixie shaman after repairing his hacienda down near
Nuevo Laredo. It spurted out through my
tunic sleeve like a long white root, swelled up, and browned. Even grew back that old tattoo, a wild-eyed
barbarian waving his sword and peeling out in a hot rod Lincoln. Nobody noticed my right leg curl up and
sat back and his eyes cooled. Some of
the sneer crawled from his lip. Sweat beads
sprung up on his brow, just beneath a little blond curl. His good time buddies hushed. I used the moment wisely.
play a little game." I pulled out
two cheap stogies, laid them on the table, and rolled up my tunic sleeves. "I can see you're pretty near growed up and about to set out into the world."
"Going into the army next month." He reached into his jacket and pulled out a
tiny chrome-plated skull. He flicked its
jaws and the cranium popped open with a butane-blue flame. His hand trembled
just the tiniest bit; only another swordsman would have noticed. "Looks like war in the West. Gonna kick some Troll butt."
I picked up the stogies, stuck them both between my lips and waited
until he'd lit them. Sighing
a swirling smoky cloud, I held them out.
"Take off your jacket and roll up your sleeves."
"What?" He fought not to cough.
on now." I tapped the ash on the floor
and sneered at him. "You're full growed, ain't yah? We both know why you came over here. Be an Elf about it."
right...." He looked like a
confused owl blinking through the smoke.
Then his temper got the better of him. I knew it would. "Yeah. You're on, man."
He jumped up and
shucked his jacket, arms bare in a sleeveless black T-shirt. His hand moved again to the rapier.
down," I said. He gave me the
strangest look, but sat. I reached over
and folded his arms with my new hand, until his left arm lay atop the right,
palms and elbows touching.
what're you doing?"
learned this game in Texas, back before the Bob Wills Jihad." I poked a stogie in between his arms, just
deep enough that it stayed put, the lit end a merry cherry red staring back at
me. Then I turned to the nearest little
elf girl and offered her the other one.
"Do the honors for me, honey."
I folded my arms too and glanced down at them.
"Sure." Such a sly little thing. Her doe eyes gauged the length of Elroy's
stogie and she made mine shorter. She'll
go far in this world.
name of the game is Pain." I
grinned wickedly. "Whoever can keep
their stogie in place the longest, wins."
gonna take a while." Elroy looked
down, obviously studying the situation.
Chairs scraped and folding money rustled as his buddies hunkered around
us, chattering like magpies and laying bets.
"Which is the worst kind of pain--the waiting part." When he looked up at me, I commenced a story.
wasn't always a crumpled up sword-slinger.
I was born full of piss and vinegar, way back in the days of the Polky Dot Wind, when the world got its second breath of magic
and the Fey started coming.
folks didn't pay it much mind. But I was
young and impressionable and discovered early I had a fair hand with a blade.
or small, sharp or dull, steel or iron, didn't matter. I could core an apple with a scimitar, pick
the barbecue out of my teeth with a saber, and even cut the grass one day with
a paring knife just to mess with Pa.
loved how it came easy and figured everything else would too. I took to ignoring school, hanging out in the
fencing halls. Didn't listen to nobody
and only came around my folks to give them gray hairs.
Bob Wills Jihad broke out when different cultures and musical traditions
clashed. Didn't wait for no draft card, I
enlisted with the other young hotheads.
where I met Leonard Scrawl, the thinnest, chicken-necked kid you ever saw. Leonard had all the grace and natural
athletic ability of a headless hen. Some
called him a geek or a nerd; we ended up calling him Chicken.
found him down in the Savoy Bar in Austin, the night of our first liberty. The place was hotter than a griddle, and
jumping; even the sawdust on the floor couldn't keep still. Cold brews and stogies, Texas Swing blared on
Well, there he was, pinned up against a dartboard,
this big sand-faced desert troll laughing and talking about Chicken's Ma. The boy didn't back down. When I saw that country stubbornness in his blue
eyes, I moved in.
know," I called out, "I hear the only difference between a jackass
and a desert troll is that a jackass is smarter."
you say?" The troll turned,
dropping Chicken who fell to the floor in a scrawny heap.
I'm sorry." I moved in close and
pretended to dust off this big raggedy mother.
"Didn't mean to insult the jackasses, and obviously your family's
got a few."
troll didn't have a comeback, just a battle-ax.
weren't allowed to carry swords off base, but I had a butterfly knife, and
carved him up like the turkey he was, "Don't Mess with Texas" cut right onto
ran down a few alleys to escape the consequences. Chicken looked up at me with big eyes
reflecting more than just Texas stars.
"That's the coolest thing I ever saw. Could you teach me to use a
blade like that?"
I don't know. It just comes sort of
a few knife tricks?"
I said. He grinned like a kid at Christmas.
"Stick with me and I'll teach you what I can."
that moment on, I had a partner. He wasn't
very good with a blade, but I never saw anyone work harder. He'd stand out in the hot Texas dust for
hours, hacking away at practice dummies--even cut off his little toe.
was no match for me but I taught him what I could. You got to respect someone who'll bust butt
over and over again. Always plenty of
practice with him around, any time we went into a bar. That suited me too. I liked to fight.
the war heated up, we shipped out together.
Some Fey sided with the U.S. of course and some against, same with
humans. The Fey were used to swords and
sometimes their magic could take out conventional weapons. A good swordsman turned out to be worth as
much as a tank.
war only lasted six weeks. Chicken and I both came out with commissions. Things looked good and I thought of opening a
fencing school. Chicken had graduated
from Stephen F. in Nacogdoches, Accounting, so we were a good match for
the boundaries between our world and the Fey had become permanently and
magically confused. Everything
overlapped in both directions. About
that time, the Fey migrated to the Lone Star State in mass. Some good and some bad, as Fey and Man
naturally are. The meanest of both
rallied round a half armadillo, half basilisk who'd set himself up on a tall
the U.S. of A. on our side, and the Kingdom of Greenforest
on the magical side, got jittery. King Diller operated between worlds, in a kind of surreal
prairie called Dillerland. He'd gotten hold of some old Panzer tanks and
worked a powerful Hoo Doo,
endowing them with life and wings. He had
air force and artillery rolled into one.
on both sides worried as King Diller's empire expanded
throughout West Texas and the Misery Mountains.
Neither side could field anything approaching the power of those flying
Panzers. Next thing you know me and
Chicken was infiltrating Dillerland with orders to assassinate
King Diller and put an end to the whole shebang.
Dillerland was hot and dusty. Heat shimmers two-stepped with dust devils as
we worked our way along a parched riverbed.
Chicken crawled up one side and peeked out.
looked back at me. "Old
King Diller's place."
I clambered up
beside him and stared at the biggest sand castle ever was. Brown and sparkly, turrets poking up at the
bleached blue sky so high a roaming cloud got stuck. Now and again, a Panzer would take the air,
flying slow, lazy recon circles.
down." I poked Chicken's head in
forget your big hairy butt." He
grabbed me by my ear and pulled me down too.
Night came slowly, as if the day was just too durned
stubborn to let go. The entire Panzer
division took wing then, flapping a cool breeze through the darkness, cooing
and belching like giant beer drinking pigeons.
By that time, Chicken and me had snuck our way
close to the castle as the riverbed allowed.
go." I grinned at the stars in his eyes.
"Swords out, my man." Chicken eased his saber from its camouflaged
scabbard. He almost tripped over
Sand hissed under
our boots. We stayed low and kept moving
until we reached the castle walls. The smells
of barbecue and mead floated down and made my mouth water.
the enchanted jaw-harp?" I asked.
"Nope, taped it instead." Chicken held up a tiny cassette player. I uncoiled a magic rope. Worked like one of them snake charmers. We just shinnied up the rope and over the
wall. The wind had picked up and you
couldn't hear nothing from up top.
must be his digs." Chicken pointed
to a bright red tent perched on a raised platform centered squarely between the
like a party." I nodded. "You
work round to the other side. I'll take
these stairs and come up from this end."
come I got to go so far?" Chicken
scratched his thin hair.
"Cause I'm gonna do all the work. Just set off a few grenades. Shoot up one of them flares. When the guards go after you, I'll take care
of King Diller."
am I supposed to do with all the guards?"
they hear old Diller squalling, they'll come back
towards me. Drop a few more grenades on
got you." He grinned, winked, and
slunk off into the darkness.
kept to the shadows and started down.
The flagstones of the plaza surrounding Diller's
platform radiated heat like a big stove and fairly burned through my
boots. A charred rubber scent ate into
Got nearly to the platform, listening to a bunch of lutes, harps,
and recorders playing old Johnny Cash, when I heard some heavy breathing. Dark as it was down there, it got darker
still. Something big had blotted out the
stars. About that time, Chicken set off the
flare. I looked up into the beady eyes
of a horned toad that could have had its way with a Mack truck.
"Sheeiiit!" My sword flashed, just as Old Horny opened
your Diller butt!" Chicken started raining down
grenades, firing off an Uzi at the tent.
Old Horny clawed at
me. My blade bit into its scales. I swung for the neck but missed. It lunged forward, knocking me against the
platform wall. Down on my belly and
crawling, its scales scraped the shirt from my back as Horny tried to
turn. I got under it and slashed with my
"Blaah!" Lordy, what a mistake; all sorts of hot steamy stuff come spilling
out. Rolled away and gave it another cut, rolled and cut, rolled and
finally got clear. Slipping and sliding,
I skittered up the platform steps.
Grenades thundered and Horny bellowed.
"Hey Diller! You old piece a coyote crap!" Chicken's Uzi rattled off again. Trolls yelled and cursed. Crossbows and small arms fire sounded through
tatters of King Diller's red tent floated on the dusty
breeze as I eased up the last few steps.
A few troll bodies lay scattered like cow turds. Another flare arced through the air, lighting
up the tent in a fiery red glow.
"Been waiting for you, boy." King Diller faced
me with folded arms. His long armadillo
nose and basilisk ears and eyes made him look as if he'd been beat with an Ugly
Stick. The eyes were the worst; I froze
in their mean, piggish glare. Literally. My fingers
and toes tingled. Magic worked like a
slow electric shock up my arms and legs.