Thursday, May 08, 2014

Chapter Two of "Grimoire of Shadow"

IN HIS DREAM MAYAN-TAN BURNED and only the ancient pyramids, built by the first Argylls to reach earth, seemed untouched by the petroleum flames called dragon’s breath. His mother stood in the bed of a pagyn, along with several Argyll actors, comics and magicians from the city, holding him close to her breast and watching the glow of liquid fire spread a dome of jaundiced light over the walled city, while his father was somewhere with the Mexican army, near the flames, commanding the catapult teams that launched the canisters of dragon’s breath that burst against the walls and melted the mortar between the bricks. Eventually, the walls would collapse and a column of Imperial Lancers would gallop forward to engage any survivors trying to escape the inferno and pass the ragged column of camp followers and wounded in the array of wagons, carts and pagyns stalled on the side of the dirt road cut through the jungle during the Mexican’s invasion of Maya. With the road ahead clear, the Mayan-tan clown that drove their pagyn whipped its six oxen into movement and his mother sat before its jolting movement caused her to fall. Rocking him in her arms, she cried for her father and brothers, who fled south toward the Pan-nam with the surviving Jaguar warriors, and said, while caressing his head, “Your future is in La Ciudad with your father and the Black Robes.”
Her message seemed full of portent and numinous to him, the dreamer. Perhaps, he should join the Black Robes, he thought. But, before he could explore that idea, he awoke to such an excruciating pain in his chest and stomach that he screamed.
Within his room and in his bed, surrounded by the power of the wards he had cast, four cadets, wearing masks and black pajamas, plunged daggers into his chest and stomach. Blood splattered and flowed as he screamed. Finally, he passed out from the pain and loss of blood and the cadets fled into the night; their clothes drenched in his blood. Unconscious, he entered the dream again and asked, “Am I now dead?”
The demon answered from far away, “Not dead but dying. The ward will preserve you until the medics arrive.”
With a laugh he said, “Somehow I thought the wards were supposed to warn me and protect me.”
The demon did not answer, as he lost all sense of being.  And then he was on his way back, the pain in his stomach and chest a dull throbbing ache that seemed synchronized with the beat of his heart. Slowly, he opened his eyes, fearing the ghastly sight of his mangled body. But, instead, the room was filled with light and he was no longer in his room but in the hospital. Birds chirped and a dove cooed in the ailanthus bush outside the open window, as a slight breeze rustled the silk curtains. Dressed in a hospital gown of starched cotton he felt the tight bandages around his chest and abdomen. The ward worked and he was alive. ‘But at what price,’ he thought.
His hands outside the stiff white sheets were pale blue and when he tried to sit up he couldn’t. His head pounded and his throat was dry and raw.
He lay still for almost an hour before he fell asleep and dreamed of his mother and him, sitting in the Garden of the Forking Paths.  He could smell the flowers and feel the grass. Her face was so beautiful he began to cry.
“Stern, wake up. You are crying,” he heard from far away.
He opened his eyes and the man the cadets called Croaker stood over him. It was Doctor Emilio Gomez and he was holding his hand and calling his name.
“Croaker, I mean Doctor, how am I?” mumbled Stern, his breath short and weak.
The doctor released his hand and moved to the end of the bed where Stern could see him without moving his head.
“You lost a lot of blood from the attack and then the surgeries were touch and go.” He rubbed his hand over his bald head and looked nervous. “Frankly, I don’t know how you survived. It is a bit of miracle you are still here.”
As he was talking a nurse came in with a tray of hypodermic needles and placed them on an oaken table in the corner of the room.
“Before I administer your shots, I have to tell you that you have been unconscious for almost two months.”
The pronouncement hit Stern hard. His mind whirled with questions but the first one was. “What about graduation?”
The doctor cleared his throat and looked sheepish. “Come and gone, I am afraid.”
‘My class is gone?” he asked, wondering if his attackers graduated and were now on their way to the cavalry. Where is the fairness in that, he asked himself.
The doctor nodded his head and then said, “You are on the mend and the Commandant has assured me that once you on your feet and complete your thesis, you will graduate.”
“But I missed the cut-off for the War College. I will have to have to wait another year before I can even be considered.”
“Yes, that is a shame but you should be grateful to be alive,” said the doctor with a weak smile.
“Could I have some water?” he asked the nurse.
“There is something else,” said the doctor. “A man from the Vatican is here to talk to you. Do you think you are up to meeting someone today?”
“Do I have to?” he asked between sips of water.
“I am afraid they were quite insistent on talking with you as soon as you awoke,” said the doctor, moving toward the door to call the Vatican’s man.
“They?” asked Stern, as he handed the empty glass to the nurse.
A tall man, over six feet, with thick blond hair, parted on the left, entered the room. Gray jodhpurs, black leather boots extending to the knee, black military-cut jacket, with a skull and bones pen tacked on the lapel, and a gray shirt with a black tie labeled him a Totenkopf, one of the Emperor’s elite. By the look of him, he had probably been promoted into the upper echelon from the Swiss Guard. The man clicked his heels together and bowed his head upon on entering the room. “Antonius Bleak, mein Herr.”
Stern cringed. The Totenkopf were assassins and inquisitors. Their presence never boded well for anyone—the enemy or their own troops.
“Doctor, do you mind if I have some time along with Cadet Stern?” said the man softly. “You may finish your examination after I leave. It will not be long, I assure you.” As he was asking the question, he draped his arm firmly around the doctor’s shoulders, guiding him from the room. The nurse, watching the scene with her mouth open, followed the doctor out the door. It was obvious to Stern she did not want to remain in the room with the Totenkopf and the truth was—neither did he. The man closed the door and then picked up a wooden straight-back chair from the corner of the room and moved it to the end of Stern’s bed. He sat, crossed his legs and removed a silver cigarette case from the inside pocket of his coat. He took several deep drags on the lit cigarette and exhaled slowly toward the ceiling. Stern’s weak and wounded lungs shuddered in his chest.
“It seems there was evidence of black magic in your room the night you were attacked.” He paused to let this statement resonate in the room. Although only eighteen, Stern was no idiot: his father had been a Black Robe and spy; his mother died under unusual circumstances in the slums of La Ciudad underground; and he had spent thirteen years in a cesspool of jealousy and intrigue as a cadet. Lying was almost second nature to him; otherwise, he would not have survived a year in the school. So he listened with nary a blink.
“I am on your side, believe it or not; however, as soon as you are on your feet you will be interrogated by the Black Robe priesthood to determine if you’re possessed by demons. When they are finished, if you survive their ministrations, I will send a man to you; a man I think you will like very much because he is a bit like you. His name is Guillermo Harpo and he is a scholar.”
Forgetting himself for a second because the name Harpo excited him, Stern said, “Is he the man who wrote The Machinicians during the Reign of Elizabeth I?”
Bleak laughed and said, “You may be the only person I have ever met that has read that work. Harpo will be very proud when he hears.” He then took another puff on his cigarette and continued: “The Black Robes are not interested in knowing who attacked you. And to be blunt, neither are we. I suspect the Commandant knows and doesn’t care. He has gotten rid of the little shits by shipping them off to the lancers. The problem left is you. We have to make sure you survive through the summer then we will talk about your future.”
“So no one will be punished for trying to kill me?” he asked, almost on the verge of tears. He always suspected no one cared about him but now he knew for sure. The human officers and teachers of the school were as prejudiced against the Argylls as were the students. An Argyll really had no place in la Ciudad except as a merchant or artisan. They were meant to stay out of the way and serve the human upper-class. In the great societal slurry, the Argylls were no better than indios or Freedmen.
“Survival means not being burned at the stake as a warlock. Do you understand?”
“Not really,” said Stern. “What do you want me to do?”
The man frowned and then leaned forward toward Stern. “I want you to lie your ass off. Even if you set a ward in your room to protect yourself from the idiot cadets out to murder you, say you have no idea what they talking about.”
“But Cardenas knows about the book,” he blurted out.
A slight grimace crossed Bleak’s face. “Cardenas is gone. He was graduated early and sent off to the War College; part of his reward for keeping his mouth shut.”
“What was the other reward?” asked the boy.
“To remain alive,” said the man. “The same offer we are making to you, I might add.”
Stern lifted his right hand slowly to scratch his upper lip.
“So what spell did you cast?” asked the man, as he stood to throw the butt of his cigarette out of the window.
Moments passed as Stern nervously ran all the options over in his mind. Finally, he cleared his throat and said softly, “the ward of the assassins.”
“And how did you learn it?” the man asked as he poured himself a glass of water.
“I found a book in the library.” He decided he would not mention the demon.
“From the Grimoire of Shadows, right?” asked the man, as he stood at the window and sipped his water.
“That’s right,” answered the boy.
“We couldn’t find any such book in the library but that is the same thing Cardenas told us.” He threw the remaining water in his glass onto the ailanthus bush.
“But I don’t understand. Cardenas let me into the lower level, where I found the book and copied the spell.”
The man approached the bed and stared directly into his eyes, lowered his voice, and asked. “Is there something else you are not telling me? Was there someone there guiding you?
Trying to break away from the man’s intensive gaze, he asked: “What did Cardenas say?”
“The same as you my young friend,” the man said, as he sat. “But I think Cardenas did not know about the other party to your little caper. I think you are possessed young Stern, just as your father was?”
It took a second for him to digest the last statement.
“My father?” he asked suddenly. “What does my father have to do with this?”
The man looked him directly in the eyes and said, “Everything.”
He stood up and straightened his jacket. “We will talk after the Black Robes interview you. Remember they will burn you if they find out about the spell and the demon. So learn some guile.”
He started toward the door and stopped. Turning toward the bed, he said, “By the way I am sending you a guardian angel of sorts. Her name is Birgit and she is a healer. She will be replacing your doctor by order of the Commandant of the Swiss Guards. She speaks French but you are multilingual now, aren’t you?”
Once he had gone and Stern no longer heard the sound of his boots on the parquet floors of the hospital, he wondered out loud: “Am I possessed?” And then he asked: “What the hell does my father have to do with any of this?”
Two days passed and he felt worst: the fever had returned and he slept more than he was awake, dreaming of Mayan-tan, his mother, and the burning of the city.
On the third day after Bleak’s visit, late in the evening, around midnight, the woman, Birgit, arrived, dressed in a field gray uniform of the Mexican infantry.
Rain fell steadily and rushed off the steep roof of the hospital. Awakened by thunder, he opened his eyes from a dream. A woman stood close to the bed and he asked her for water. Ignoring his request, she reached out and caressed his forehead and then gave an order in French to a nurse standing behind him. Another nurse emerged from the shadows of the room and helped him sit up, as the tall, thin woman with the cold blue eyes and close-cropped blonde hair gripped the back of his head and poured the contents of a small glass vial into his mouth. He struggled a little but he had little strength and he soon gave up and swallowed the liquid that smelled like almonds and burned his tongue and throat. “Swallow it all,” she said, holding his head tight. “It will help break your fever.”
He coughed as the liquid drained down his throat. “It burns,” he whispered in French.”
Je sais,” she said softly, as she gently lowered his head back onto the pillow.
He felt warmth spreading through his chest; an unpleasant feeling at first but then a calming effect. ‘Like eating chilies,” he thought. His mind cleared as his fever disappeared and he fell into a profound and untroubled sleep. It was as if a dark void spread through his body, numbing him to all sensations and thought.
When he woke again, day had come and gone. The window was open and a cool night breeze rustled the curtains. A nightingale sounded somewhere in the woods in the surrounding park and he realized he felt good, good enough to stand and relieve himself in the porcelain bowl under the bed.
The hospital was quiet, as he walked to the door, which was ajar, and entered the hall. Gas lights, turned low, flickered, casting a yellowish glow against green walls. “It is like being underwater,” he said out loud. His stomach growled; he was hungry. He could not remember eating and he wondered how he had survived over the weeks he had lain in the hospital bed unconscious and dying. Had someone force fed him, while he was unconscious? A nurse opened a door and light from the room presented her in silhouette. When she saw him, she gasped, not recognizing him for the dying Argyll.
“Don’t be afraid,” he said, intuiting her fear. “I am just hungry.”
When he spoke she seemed to recognize him and moved closer see him.
“My God,” she uttered softly, “you are up.”
He smiled vaguely but did not respond.
“We must get you back to bed before someone sees you,” she said to herself, fearing she would be blamed if something happened to him in the night.
“I am fine,” he said trying to reassure her. “I just need something to eat.” Suddenly, his hunger was almost painful.
“Fine,” she said, taking his arm and turning him toward his room. “I will get you something to eat but first you have to return to your bed.”
Later, he lay in bed, a tray on his lap; a bowl of oatmeal in front of him and another to the side. He had already finished two and was still hungry. He knew his return to health was due to the elixir the woman fed him and his body yearned for more. It was a drug, of course, and obviously addictive. But the feeling of well-being it produced was overwhelming him and he did not really care it was probably dangerous. He wanted more.
When he had finished the last bowl, the nurse asked, ‘Let me check your wounds.” She untied the gown in the back and lowered it to his waist. When she removed the bandages, she gasped. Yesterday, the sores were open and suppurating. Today, they were closed and pink rather than raw and red from the infection. “I must call the doctor,” she said, moving toward the door.
“Could you bring me some more food, when you returned?” he called after her.
After Gomez and several of his colleagues examined him, the analysis was the same: it was a miracle and he was on the mend.
In the afternoon, Gomez entered his room and sat at the end of his bed. “Tomorrow, I want you up walking.”
Stern, sat up in the bed, said, “What is your diagnosis, Doctor?”
The man they called Croaker rubbed his bald pate and sighed. “I have no idea how this has happened. From the beginning I thought you only had a few days to live. If someone had asked me the night they brought you here, I would not have given you a day more to live.”
Stern pursed his lips and said in a whisper, “The Black Robe priests will want to see me now won’t they?”
“They have already been told you are better. They will be here day after tomorrow.”
The announcement unnerved Stern, even though he expected it. “What about Bleak? Have we heard from him?”
The mention of the Totenkopf seemed to disturb the doctor and he crossed his legs and looked away for a second, as if he were preparing a lie. “You must not mention either Bleak or Birgit to the priests. You and I will both be in grave danger if their visit is known.”
Stern nodded and then asked: “Who are they?”
The doctor shrugged and said, “You know about as much as I do. Bleak is Totenkopf and, although she wears a Mexican Army uniform, I am guessing she is, too.”
“How much did you tell them about what happened to me?” asked the Argyll.
The doctor uncrossed his legs and leaned forward, as if he didn’t want anyone to hear what he was about to say. “To tell you the truth I don’t really know what happened to you. I know you were attacked in your bed while sleeping by some fellow cadets and that the Commandant of the school moved heaven and earth to get certain cadets graduated and out of town before an investigation ensued. I figured from that the school was trying to cover up what happened. I also know that four priests visited your room the night after you arrived and conducted some sort of ritual.”
Asa leaned forward, his eyes bright, and said, “A ritual. What kind of ritual?”
The doctor pulled the chair to the side of the bed as near as he could get to Stern. “If I were to guess, I would say they conducted an exorcism.”
The young Argyll’s first thought was that was why he had not heard the demon’s voice: the priests had cast it from his body through prayer. ‘But into what or where,” he asked himself, remembering the story of the healing of the boy with a demon by Jesus.
“Tell me about the exorcism,” he asked; his eyes alight, conscious now he had already fallen into the hands of the priests of the Black Robes and survived.
“They arrived around midnight, four of them, and drove us all out of your room and told us not to come back until they summoned us. Later, we heard them praying in unison and we smelt their incense wafting through the corridors of this floor.”
“Was there anything else?” he asked, sensing he could not have lain unconscious through the priests’ assault. Surely, he made some sound.
“We heard nothing,” he leaned back and wiped his forehead, as if the discussion of exorcism and demons was making him very uncomfortable. “We heard nothing until dawn, when the men came from your room. They looked exhausted and haggard, as if their very spirit had wrestled with some power in the room.” He paused, remembering something. “And they were not happy. They acted like men who been defeated in battle.”
“Could they have engaged Kokabiel in my room?’ he asked himself. ‘And if so, what if he had defeated them? And where did that leave him, if they thought he was possessed by a demon?’
As he stood to leave, the doctor ordered him to try to sleep. “I will have the nurses here early in the morning to get you moving.”
Before he left, he turned out the lights and shut the door behind him.
Moonlight flooded the room and Stern heard the nightingale in the hospital’s park. His mind was on the priests and their exorcism. He kept asking what they found and then he heard the demon’s voice within his mind, so subtle he was not sure if he had imagined it. “Nothing,” he said sharply, somewhat angry in tone.
‘How could that be?’ he thought.
Easy. You are not possessed. There is nothing to exorcise.” The demon said. “I promised your father to look after you and I am. In that vein, you should leave with the woman when she arrives. They are no friends of mine, the Category, as they call themselves but for now they and I have the same goal in mind: to protect you from the priests and those inept assassins that tried to kill you.”
He was wide awake now and his mind was whirring. And then it struck him, what the demon had just said. ‘You mean Mendez will try and kill me again. I thought he was gone.’
Use your head for a change. You know who tried to kill you, even if you were asleep. And they know you know. So what are they going to do? They will come back as soon as they get the chance and finish you off. They can’t leave you walking around, talking to the Black Robes and the police.”
Just as he was about to ask another question, the door opened and the woman entered. He knew her immediately from the shimmer of the moonlight in her white blonde hair. “You are awake, aren’t you?”  She asked in a whisper.
“Of course,” he answered in the same conspiratorial way.
“Get up and undress. I have a uniform for you to put on. We are leaving immediately. Our plans have changed.”
He felt a bit dizzy as he climbed out of bed and pulled the robe off over his head.
She laid a duffel bag on the floor and pulled out the black tunic of a dragoon officer and placed it at the foot of the bed. Then she retrieved a pair of light gray jodhpurs with a red stripe on each leg, an undershirt and underwear, black socks, a gray collarless shirt to wear beneath the tunic, cavalry boots, and finally a black trench cap. When everything was laid out, she said, “Get dressed.”
Although he felt much stronger, the exercise of dressing made him pant from exhaustion. When he was ready, she ran her fingers through his thick blue-back hair and pulled it into a queue. “You look like one those wild Argyll gauchos on the pampas down South. You really are quite attractive in an exotic sort of way.”
He smiled wanly, embarrassed by her remark.
“Now drink this,” she ordered. “We have to leave.”
“It’s the elixir that saved me? He said, as he gulped down the liquid. “What is it?”
“Ah, you already have a taste for it, do you?” She smiled. “It’s dragon skin: a concoction devised by an alchemist in Paris almost seven hundred years ago.”
He didn’t understand a word she said. “What are you talking about?” he asked, licking the slight residue of the elixir from his lips. Already, the liquid was suffusing his body with warmth.
“I will explain it later. Right now we just need to get away,” she said, picking up the bag and moving toward the door. “The men, who tried to kill you, are back in the city and Bleak thinks they are coming here to finish the job.”
Before buttoning the tunic, he pulled on the boots. “I am a fraud wearing this uniform,” he said looking in the mirror.
Birgit approached him and helped him with the uniform. “You are no fraud. I have your graduation papers in the bag.” She buttoned the top button and then kissed him on the cheek. “You were graduated summa cum laude and commissioned a brevet lieutenant in the dragoons.”
He moved away from her and said, “But what about the War College?”
She ignored the question and once again picked up the bag. “Forget about that for now,” she said, opening the door and looking both ways. “You have plenty to do.” As he started down the dark corridor of the hospital ward, she said over her shoulder, “We have more things for you to do than you will be able to achieve in one lifetime.”
He followed her down the hall, as the elixir worked its way through his body. Strength infused his limbs, multiplying as he walked. He sensed his muscles tensing, growing, and expanding, as they exited through a door on the lower level in the back of the hospital onto a narrow cobblestone covered alley. 
Another man, a dragoon sergeant, waited for them at the end of the alley in uniform and armed with a service revolver. ‘Munoz,” she said handing him the bag, “are we ready?” He nodded, took the bag from her, and slung it over his left shoulder, as he blew on a copper whistle hanging from a silver chain around his neck. Two sharp notes and nine men emerged from the shadows carrying short stubby carbines used by the dragoons, as a la diligencia drawn by four black horses turned onto the street running along the south side of the ancient hospital. Two men sat on its box: one driving and the other sporting a sawed-off shotgun. When it stopped near them, she pushed Stern into the coach and then followed him inside as quickly as she could. Munoz stowed the bag away in the rear boot, as four squad members climbed aboard the coach to join Stern and Birgit. The others mounted horses being led by a young trooper from a nearby alley.
With the bag stowed, Munoz called ready and the coach rolled roughly down the cobblestoned street toward the southeast and away from the school and its Gothic buildings.
A young trooper led a black gelding to him and handed him the reins. He mounted in a smooth leap from the ground into the cavalry saddle and then kicked the horse into a gallop to catch up with the coach, while several others joined him and took up positions in front and behind the diligence.
Inside the cramped cab, the dragoons unloosed leather shades to cover the windows, leaving a sole lamp to illuminate their faces. Enclosed and guarded, Birgit sighed in relief that they had escaped the hospital without being detected, while Stern closed his eyes and sunk into the leather seat, exhausted but also relieved to be on the move after both Birgit and the demon had warned him that his attackers were approaching. He felt much stronger but still the modicum of physical activity he had just expended exhausted him.
A church bell chimed one as they left the Zócalo and passed the ancient government buildings with their tezontle facades.  He dozed for a few moments and then half opened his eyes and studied the men guarding him. They were as exhausted as he: their clothes were dirty and sweat stained; and, in the close quarters of the coach, their unwashed bodies and sour breath irritated his nose and upset his sense of decorum. All the years he had spent in the military academy had instilled a strict sense of order and cleanliness. These men looked as if they had been on campaign for weeks and their smell reminded him of something, something that had to do with his father. He closed his eyes and tried to dredge up the memory his sense of smell had triggered in his mind.
Minutes passed and he fell asleep again. Then he woke with a start; the coach had run over something, probably a loose stone, which shook the wagon and threw him against Birgit who was asleep next to him. And he remembered, he could not have been older than four and they were living in a small apartment several levels below the Zócalo. They were forced to live there because of his father’s disgrace and expulsion from the Black Robes. He had stayed with his mother and not abandoned them. This act was a direct violation of his vows and he was cast out but the Black Robes needed his expertise: he was an engineer and a blacksmith and familiar with the land beyond the crumbling great wall of the north. They called upon him to make journeys north to explore for relics and technology buried in the ruins of the great dead cities of the Anglos. He had been gone for a long time once on one of the assignments for the Black Robes and his mother feared he was dead. He returned though in the spring, filthy, bearded, and smelling like these men. Stern remembered his father picking him up and holding him tight against his chest, his long black beard scratching his face. He remembered saying, “Put me down, father. You stink.” And he remembered Moses Stern laughing and handing him to his mother, who held him close and kissed him.
He slept again and awoke to daylight shining around the edges of the leather shades. They were outside the city and he no longer heard the clatter of the metal-rimmed wheels against the cobblestones; instead, he listened carefully to the soft sloughing scrapes of a coach wheels spinning through sand. They traveled now on sandy roads potted and scarred by time and the weather.
When he was fully awake, Birgit handed him another vial of the dragon skin and said, “Drink it.” He drained the vial and no longer did the elixir burn his throat; rather, he had an instant feeling of well-being and he wondered at the magic of the alchemist’s brew.
Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he asked: “Where are we going?”
She leaned back against the red leather seats of the coach and said, “We are on an old through the northern portion of the state of Puebla. We are in the highlands.  Do you feel the change in the air?”
He thought for a moment and said, “It’s much cooler.”
She smiled and lifted her booted feet to the bench across from them where two of the soldiers slept soundly and crossed her legs at the ankle. “We are traveling on back roads to avoid any patrols.”
He admired her long legs encased in the cavalry boots and the jodhpurs before he asked, ‘Why are we going through Puebla?”
She quickly responded, “Not to Puebla to the south but east through the old state of Puebla to Heroica Veracruz.”
He thought of the ancient seaport that almost disappeared with the rising waters of the Gulf. Only the giant seawall built three hundred years ago saved it from inundation. He also remembered the stories about the thousands of Argyll and indio laborers that died building it.
            One of the dragoons on the bench directly behind them awoke and drew up the leather curtain. Stern turned at the sound and saw a snow-capped mountain in the distance and dense forest lining the side of the narrow worn road they now traveled.
            “We should be stopping soon,” the man known as Munoz said. “I am sure the horses are nearly spent.”
            Birgit straightened up and said, while buttoning her tunic, “I’m sure you are correct and I’m starving.”
            “I could do with a piss and smoke myself, “grumbled the man, opening another curtain.
            Thirty minutes later the driver took a fork in the road and followed a narrow trail cut through a dense forest. All the windows were now open and everyone was awake.  Munoz said there was a cantina off the road near a wide mountain stream, where they could eat, water the horses and rest before continuing on.
            Soon Stern could see a stream rushing through the forest. ‘Run off from the snowcapped mountains in the distance,’ he thought.
            The air was crisp and cold and smoke billowed from his mouth; a welcome change from the heat of the city.
            The cantina, a rambling building of adobe and rough logs, rested on a clearing next to the stream. On the far side of the clearing stood a large corral, a stone barn, and a scattering of small adobe bungalows spread throughout the surrounding woods.
As Asa stepped out of the coach he smelled roasting meat, emanating from the brick ovens on the west side of the building. His mouth watered but he walked toward a lean-to marked “latrine.”
‘First things first,’ he thought.
            Exiting the latrine, he saw the dragoons leading the spent, sweat-lathered horses toward the stone barn and understood they would not be leaving soon. He looked over his shoulder and saw people sitting at several long tables under a wooden trellis near the cantina eating. His stomach growled and he set off toward the food; he had forgotten that just a few days ago he was in a coma, dying from the vicious attack of his brother cadets.