The following comes from Then A Penguin Walked In and Other Tall Tales, currently on sale digitally and in paperback.


A STIR OF EMOTIONS rippled through the assembled crowd. It started as a whispered buzz, moved to a nervous chatter, climbed a level to a steady babble, and then finally rose in crescendo to the bombastic roar of contrary howling.

The dark woman with the sword ignored it all. She only had eyes for Dominick, and not in the way that romantics spend most of their waking moment dreaming about. The eyes that took him in held anger, suspicion, mistrust, a bit more anger, contempt, and another dash of anger.

Dominick took an involuntary step back.

Queen Genivene stood and the howling of the crowd died down to an annoyed murmur.

“Captain Ovati,” the Queen addressed the angry woman. “You doubt this man’s claim?”

“I do, my Queen,” the woman, Captain Ovati, said.

“He bears the Mark,” the Queen said. “He wields the sword. Yet still, you doubt?”

“I do, my Queen.” The Captain never took her eyes off of Dominick.

“What’s happening?” Dominick said.

“That’s Captain Ovati,” Vivian said quietly into his ear, her voice that of one filled with deep disgust. “She’s in charge of Queen Genivene’s Royal Guard.”

“I have spoken for this man,” the Queen said. “Do you doubt my word?”

“No, my Queen,” the Captain said. “I do not doubt your word. But it is my job to ensure your safety, and in turn, the safety of Haven.”

“Only the One can wield Arakis,” Vivian glided toward Captain Ovati. The look on the little pixie’s face like that of someone forced to smell something unpleasant. “To any other it is just a sword. But in the hands of the One, well... Such power is indescribable.” Vivian smiled.

“You may speak true, fae,” the Captain said, finally turning from Dominick to face Vivian. “But there is little doubt to me, and to those present, that this man has proven nothing more than he can lift Arakis above his head. I see no proof that he can harness the power of the black sword. I have the right to challenge. If this Dominick Hanrahan is truly the One, then he will be more than up to it.”

“What’s happening?” Dominick repeated.

“The Captain has challenged your claim,” Vivian said. “She demands more proof that you are, in fact, the One.”

“Proof? Okay, what do I need to do?”

Captain Ovati had gone back to staring at Dominick with a critical eye. She had an old scar that drew a white line from above her right eye, down to the middle of her cheek.

“You must fight her,” Vivian said.

“What?” Dominick looked from the Captain to the pixie, then back to the Captain.

He tried not to focus on her battle-scarred armor or the way the grip of her sword looked to be worn with continuous use. He tried not to notice the way she continued to study him, like a bug she was about to step on. He even tried to screw up his courage in anticipation of the inevitable fight between the two. But after all that he’d been through today, he decided just to give himself over to instinct and fall apart.

He threw his hands into the air.

“Okay, I’m done,” Dominick said to everyone, his voice reaching even those on the other side of the hall. “This was fun and all, what with the monsters that tried to kill me and stuff. Oh, and the impending threat of single-handedly standing against a person that each of you fear down to your toes. But I have come to the official end of my rope.”

The members of the Triumvirate frowned and Queen Genivene sat down.

“I want to thank everyone for the lovely bath, the sword, the ring, and the wonderful new clothes, but I think it’s time for me to take my ball and go home. I’m done. I’ve had enough. I’m ending this farce here and now. You’ve all been great company, but I’m going to go.”

He began to back out of the hall.

“If you need me for anything further, you can of course give me a call. I’ll leave my number with the secretary out front. But keep in mind that I like to screen my calls.”

He bowed, then turned and waved to the crowd.

“Hanrahan out, people,” Dominick said, then turned to leave.

“See,” Captain Ovati’s voice sounded from behind him. “He is not the One. He’s just another scared little man.”

Dominick spun to face her, heat rising in his face.

“Darn tootin’ I’m scared,” he said. “I’m a fry cook from Kansas. I’m no soldier.” He moved toward her. “I’ve never even been in a fist fight, much less one involving swords and magic and junk. I prefer to avoid confrontation. And you want me to what, cross swords with you? It’s pretty obvious that you’ve been in a few scrapes yourself. Does that sound fair? Oh, and if that’s not enough, I have to fight the Boogie Man as well? No thanks, Lady. Not this guy.”

“Dominick,” Vivian said, gliding toward him. “We are depending on you.”

“I’m sorry, Vivian,” he said. “I’m not your guy. I’m just not.” He kept his eyes locked on Captain Ovati.

“You’re a fool for putting your hope in this sorry excuse for a man, fae,” Ovati said, spitting the words out like spoiled meat.

“Yeah,” Dominick said. “I am at that. I make no excuse for it. As a wise spinach-eating sailor once said: ‘I am what I am and that’s all that I am.’”

“Dominick,” Vivian said.

“I’m going to go now,” he cut her off.

“Coward!” Ovati yelled. Then in one smooth motion, before Dominick could react, she drew her sword and swung it at his head.

He flinched, closed his eyes, and waited for the inevitable. There came a clanging sound near his head, which made him jump, but there was no accompanying pain.

This is what death must feel like, he thought. Painless.

The idea of a painless death, of just ending things here and now in such an easy way made him smile. That was when he heard a collective gasp all around him.

He opened an eye and found something so surprising that he had no choice but to open his other eye and stare in slack jawed amazement.

First, he wasn’t dead. That was astounding enough. But what was even more amazing was the reason behind his miraculous survival:

There, in his hand, was Arakis, the blade drawn up before him and blocking the Captain’s sword, preventing it from taking off the top half of his head. He was rather fond of his head, most especially the top half, so the relief he felt—regardless of how it was able to come to pass—was quite profound.

Captain Ovati, however, did not look impressed. If anything his unexpected escape from death only enraged her further.

She thrust the point of her sword at his heart. Arakis was there to deflect the blow. She swung down in a chopping motion. Dominick stepped back and Arakis glided swiftly into place, knocking her blade aside.

Yet still she continued, pushing him back with the cold viciousness of her attack. Regardless, for every trust of her sword, his was there to block. He moved without thought, as if on some instinctual level he knew exactly what he was doing, like he’d been training for this moment all his life.

It was like a dance, each one moving in concert with the other, flowing through forms meant to kill or defend. Dominick couldn’t explain it. He seemed to know, to anticipate, where the Captain’s blade was going to be and was therefore able to have his own in place to slap aside every thrust, swing, and slice.

And yet, despite his miraculous defensive techniques, Dominick continued to retreat.

“We don’t have to do this, Captain,” he said, knocking aside another thrust. “People where I come from like to sit down and talk through their problems.” He wasn’t even breathing heavily. “That, or shoot at each other.”

The Captain didn’t respond, she only pressed harder, her face a mask of determination.

Then it happened. As Dominick stepped backwards, away from her onslaught of violent hatred, he tripped. Suddenly he was falling. As if in slow motion he could see the toothy smile that split the Captain’s face and before he landed with a thud on his bottom, she was on him.

A collective gasp sounded from all around him.

She took her sword in both hands and swung it down with such force that Dominick could almost hear the whistle it made as it split the air. And so, as he tumbled from his bottom to his back, he flung Arakis up before him and prepared himself for death.

Yet, as Captain Ovati’s steel blade met the black blade of Arakis, there came an explosion as the steel of her sword gave way and shattered, throwing the Captain back to land in a heap a few feet away. The sound of thunder roared through the hall and a bolt of lightning, coming as if from nowhere, struck the tip of Arakis, causing the blade to glow white hot before the room fell into silence.

No one moved as the dust settled around them. Dominick sat up and looked from the sword to the Captain, his eyes wide with shock.

“Holy sh—” but he was cut off as the sound of a blaring horn echoed through the hall.

“Oh no,” Vivian said as Ovati pulled herself to her feet.

“What?” Dominick said.

“It’s the alarm,” Ovati said.

“The alarm? For what?” Dominick said.

Ovati brushed herself off. “It means that Lord Hob and his armies have arrived to kill us all.”

To be continued...


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