Aaron is ready for his mission, especially once he discovers his physical handicaps disappear in his new home, Last Chance, a small frontier town. What he is not ready for is making new friends, learning new loyalties, and discovering courage within himself he never before suspected while dealing with a Talent Master intent on empire, thugs intent on murder, women intent on learning about him, and the militia that wants to shape this world to their own molding.
With all this going on, I had to figure out how he could resolve everything. Sounded like fun, so I started writing, and kept on writing for three more volumes.
And yet he is placed in a position where the lives of people he has learned to love depend on him to be strong.
But it is not that simple. Aaron is often afraid. When physically challenged he backs down. When approached by women he fumbles. When confronted by his militia general, he folds.
Until his moral core is challenged. Aaron Turner might be a fearful man, but he is not one who will see innocent women and children harmed. He will not stand by while a Talent Master threatens his new home. He will not stand by while the militia, his old loyalty, prepares their own invasion. Aaron is driven by three core concepts. Integrity. Honor. Guilt. These insist he always does the right thing for the benefit of others no matter what the personal cost. Yes, when personally challenged he backs away, but when others are at risk and Aaron’s anger unfolds he is not a nice man to see.
Most of all, I loved having a canvas where the main character’s driving force is his inner core, his unwillingness to compromise his beliefs in right and wrong; his inability to ignore integrity and honor and everything he learned about being a decent human before the militia got their hands on him when he was ten.
By all rights, Aaron is exactly the wrong man to resolve the multiple conflict occurring within this book, within the entire series. He is a smaller man in a world of large, robust people. Seriously flawed, he is filled with doubt concerning his worth and courage, and yet he turns out to be the perfect person to save Last Chance, and later, to influence the entire world, but not without a lot of help.
Late on Sunday morning, Aaron left his store to find that Last Chance was a changed town. People headed for church, but they were quiet as they did so. Their usual cheerful gossip and chatter was missing. In fact, an unnatural hush hung over the entire street, except when small groups stopped outside the bank and talked. Watching them, Aaron saw many of these spit contemptuously on the bodies that still hung. Someone had cleaned the blood from the boardwalk, but a red stain remained, and the heavy smell of released feces was strong enough to ride the breeze to Aaron’s store.
Aaron walked carefully because stitches in his back pulled painfully. His eyes burned. He felt wooden, sleep deprived, and conscience driven. People looked at him strangely; only two ventured to say hello. Appearing wary, the rest took one look at his face and hurried by. He crossed the street, feeling like a mechanical puppet pulling on its own strings. Sedate, quiet, Bun peeked out of the kitchen when he opened the inn’s door. She waved at him though her lips held a worried frown. Aaron tried to find the energy, the decency to respond, but he could find nothing inside himself except the need to mechanically follow through on his habitual routine.
Plodding one slow step after another, he passed one table of regular diners and then another table of morning visitors who ceased talking as he passed. He walked until he reached his accustomed table. His chair was gone, but a stool had been set in its place, something Aaron only took note of in a faraway distant sort of way. Perhaps someone trying to be thoughtful of his wounded back? He supposed he should be grateful, but that emotion was far too active for him to draw forth. Quietly, he sat on the stool, careful not to stretch and pull at his stitches. Flo rushed over to him. “How do you feel?”
“Numb,” he answered, looking up at her. “I feel very, very numb. I sat up all night waiting for it to hit me, but there was nothing. I know I’m supposed to cry or throw up again or something, but I can’t do any of it. I’ve no emotions at all, Mistress Halfax. When I saw those two men hanging out there just now I thought, Aaron Turner, one of those men is the one you killed.”
“You did not kill him, Mister Turner. My hand was on the rope that pulled both of them up so I know. They were alive when we started.”
“I killed him,” Aaron insisted, “and maybe the others too. If I hadn’t acted they would have left with Ann, and then Ann would have come back. I don’t even know why I did it. I don’t remember.” He felt haunted.
After quietly pulling out a chair, Flo sat down and held his hand. “We heard you when we were outside. I don’t know what made that loud noise, but we heard you. You screamed, Mister Turner. You yelled something about no child being hurt while you watched. They would have killed Ann, sir. They would have raped her, and then they would have cut her throat, only they didn’t because you were there. Besides, one of those men we killed, he was a murdering savage from over the pass who put on civilized clothes to come spy on us. Them people were more than just bank robbing murderers, Mister Turner. There’s trouble coming soon with the natives. In my opinion, we probably saved a bunch of lives by killing one of their spies.”
Senseless. Her words entered his head, but he could not understand them. They were hollow, empty, meaningless. The only word that made sense was a name.
“How is she? How is Ann?”
“Quiet. She stayed home today,” Flo gently said. “I looked her over, and she wasn’t hurt beyond a few bruises and some scrapes.”
Aaron grunted. A distant part of him was grateful the girl was well. Another part of him saw Ann and Flo and every other person in the entire town as caricatures of real people. They were shadows and ghosts and figments that drifted around him but did not settle into his mind. Characters on a stage, they waited for their director, for General Field to come and tell them how to move. They were victims waiting for Aaron Turner to welcome the devil in to destroy their lives.
Flo tightened her fingers, giving his hand a reassuring squeeze. “I’ve seen it in you, Mister Turner. I’ve seen it, and I love you for it. Children and women, they feel safe near you. You protect them, care for them. Look at how you jumped to Ann’s defense that one day. Like a lion you were, and then when the danger to her was over you backed down because you didn’t care about your own pride. Everyone knows about you. Some of us have tried to look out for you.”
Her words held no meaning. He thanked her when she rose, and he thanked an uncharacteristically somber Missy when she brought his food. Moving mechanically, he built a wall of unassailable silence. After an interminable time he finished eating and sat staring at the wall, lost in thought and memory. A shifting foot rubbed against the wood floor. A voice coughed quietly.
Silent and calm, fifty and graying, Bun stood before him. She held out her hand, and he took it, rising to follow her. He was helpless before her pull, helpless in his will. Her power was a faint luminescent glow around her face and hands. The irresistible strength of that power trapped him, made him prisoner and offered him solace. She led him upstairs to her room, lay him down on her bed and laid herself down beside him. She said nothing. Reaching out, she pulled him to her, placed his head against her ample breasts. His body shivered, then began violently shaking. Throwing his arms around her, he buried his head deep between her breasts, and the dam in his mind answered to her call. Emotion bore its way through the silk thin cracks in his mind, and something inside him broke apart. Cheeks wet, he cried quietly, soaking her blouse beneath his face. His crying gradually increased until sobs and moans racked his body. Murmuring something he could not make out, her hands stroked his head and shoulders.
Aaron gave his grief to the quiet woman. Slowly, one long eternity at a time, his sobs lessened, his mind began working, and his ears caught the sound of crying that matched the echoes of his own. Opening his eyes, slightly turning his head, he saw that tears ran down Bun’s cheek, streaking away her sparse make-up. Her soft breasts heaved against his face while she sucked his grief from him. He stopped crying and raised his head, but she cried as hard as he ever had so he pulled his face from her breasts and raised himself so he could pull her head to him. Gently burying her face into his shoulder, he cradled her for an hour while she sobbed. Eventually, her tears slowed, stopped. She pulled away, wiped her tear-swollen face, gave him a sad, lying smile, and rose to leave.
Feeling cleansed, Aaron followed her. His guilt was gone. His mind was clear, and his thoughts sharp, but he wished to God she had not come to him. Because of her he no longer doubted tales of Talent and Talent Masters. With her strength, her Talent, Bun had cleaned him with the strength of her unaided Talent, but that cleaning had cost her dear. It had cost her very dear. He was not worth the price.
* * *
Later, Sarah and Cathy came to the store. Sarah held out his gun. “It’s used up, or I don’t know how to work it. What is this thing, Aaron?”
“They call it a gun, a pistol, or a revolver.” Opening it with a practiced move, he ejected a cartridge and stared at the empty shell. The bullet the cartridge had held, fired by his hand, was now buried in human flesh.
He shook his head to break the image. “This holds a powder that explodes. The explosion pushes a chunk of lead out the barrel.”
“Are you okay now?” Cathy asked with care.
“Yeah.” Aaron rubbed a hand through his hair. It felt gritty and greasy. Unwashed. Unclean. It needed cutting. He vaguely recalled promising Mister Golard he would be in to get it cut. “Bun helped. I don’t know how she did it, but she helped. I didn’t have any choice when she came to me. I couldn’t do anything but what she wanted.”
“Bun has a very strong Talent,” Cathy told him. “It’s strong and singular so she can use it a little even without a Talent Stone.”
“You don’t understand about Talent, do you?” Sarah asked.
Aaron shook his head no. “I really don’t understand it at all.”
“Of course not. You don’t understand about a lot of things. I used to wonder about that, but I suppose it’s only natural since you don’t come from around here.” Her voice was flat.
Aaron gave up. He did not care anymore. He was tired of living a lie, tired of deception and unsure why he continued to betray people who cared for him. Lies were against his nature, against the precepts instilled in him when he was a child, before the militia, before he became a spy.
He would tell them the truth and to hell with the consequences. They would think him insane, or they would hate him, but he would be clean. With a few simple words he would be clean, and these two would become distant memories of women who might have become something more than idle friends if only he had been honest from the beginning.
Drawing a reluctant breath, Aaron began speaking. Once started, he found that he could not stop.
“So,” Sarah said after a long moment of silence when he finally finished telling his story. “You come from another realm. Truth is, I’ve suspected something of the sort for a little while now. Some of your goods just don’t exist here. This steel? There is no such metal in our earth that I’ve been able to discover, at least not in any real quantity. In fact, I sent some of it back east to N’Ark University about six months ago. Entire departments have been studying it—with Talent Stones. From what I’ve been told, the closest thing we have to it is something called iron, and that is a very rare metal, so rare that I never heard of it before.”
Aaron was shocked. “You believe me!”
“I have no choice but to believe you. You have one strong Talent and one minor one. The major one is so strong it almost radiates off you. Those of us who have the training can feel it. We just never knew what your Talent was.”
“How can I have Talent? I wasn’t born here.”
“You weren’t,” Sarah agreed, “but one of your parents was born here, or maybe one of their parents. Your Talent is rare but it’s not unheard of. About the time I sent the steel to the university, I also sent a letter to a woman who said she read a book that claimed there are other realms. The author died a couple hundred years ago, but she claimed she could travel to three different realms. If she could do it, I see no reason to doubt some other rare Talents can do the same thing. Tell me, is it easier for you to transport over to here than it is for you to go back?”
Aaron felt as if a light had suddenly snapped on. Questions he had not been able to answer suddenly had answers that were clear. “Yes it is,” he said wonderingly. “At least after the first time, when I traveled blind with no idea where I would find myself. That was hard and scary because the chances were very good that I’d arrive in the middle of a rock or a tree, but now that I have locations memorized it’s easy to travel here, only sometimes I’m not sure if I can return there at all.”
She nodded understanding. “That makes sense. Over here Talent is common and natural but the means to use it is rare. Over there, I think the opposite holds true. I think Talent is rare but the means to use it is plentiful.”
“Aaron,” Cathy said, “I’ve suspected there was something different about you for months, and then when I was in the lower cellar while you were sick—”
Resigned, Aaron sighed. “So what are you going to do with me? What did you do with traitors?”
Sarah shook her head slowly. “You are no traitor. You were a boy pulled into something without your say. Aaron, those people are not your family. They cared for you only so they could use you. You owe them nothing, and if what you have told me is true, you have actually given them nothing.”
Emotion welled up in him. His stomach clenched, and his head was about to shatter. “But I betrayed you,” he whispered. “I betrayed you and I betrayed them and I betrayed myself. I told them of you, plotted against you, except in lying that I could have brought people over to harm you. I didn’t let them know I could do that, and so I betrayed the people who gave me back use of my body. After I almost died they spent a fortune putting me back together and now I can’t do anything to repay them.” He slammed his fist down. “GODS DAMN IT! I can’t do anything. All I can do is wait and look and hate myself for not acting.”
Exuding sympathy, Cathy put her hands on his shoulders. “You told them we existed? They knew that from the other man. You plotted against us? How? By caring for us? By helping our poor, carrying their debt when you knew they could not pay? Yes, you could have brought people over and caused us harm, but did you? No. You lied to them about our government. To us you did not lie. To us you said nothing. You did not know us. Now you do. You had no home. Now you do.” Reaching up, she grasped his face between her hands, and she kissed him lightly on the lips. “I claim you as ours.” She released him and stepped back. Sarah moved in.
“Aaron, you were a child when they took you in. Children owe nothing for the care they receive. We owe nothing to the people who raise us, but we do owe a debt when we become adults. We owe a debt to society. We owe the next generation of children. We do not owe people who take us in only because they see a later use for us. Those people are the users, Aaron. They have used you to do something against your nature, and that using is tearing you apart.”
She grasped his face between her hands. “A little while ago Cathy claimed you as one of ours. She did not need to do that because you made yourself one of us a long time ago. You decided what was right, and you acted on that decision even if your acting was to do nothing more than sit still. In this case, doing nothing was the right thing. Aaron, I don’t claim you for us. However, I do claim you for yourself. I also give you the right, again, to use my given name at any time.” Lowering her head, she placed her lips against his for a short kiss.
“As do I,” Cathy added. “We both give you public use of our names without reservation, and Aaron, we ask the same boon of you.”
Aaron nodded numbly. “Of course you can use my given name. You have always had that right. This formality of names doesn’t exist where I come from, so I’m not as touchy about the matter as most of the people are over here.”
Sarah nodded her understanding. “Now I have to ask you a question, Aaron. Were there many women at this place where you were raised?”
“No,” Aaron said. “Not really. No permanent ones anyway. Sometimes a few of the militia members snuck women onto the base, but I seldom saw them. Usually, I only heard the rumors. The only contact I ever had with women or children happened either before I turned eleven, in a hospital, or after I came here.”
Cathy looked knowingly at Sarah. “I told you.”
“You did,” Sarah admitted. “Aaron, another question. Do you know what it means when a man and a woman, or two women, grant one another the full use of their names in public?”
“Friendship and trust?”
“It does. It can also mean a vow of caring one for another. Among women it can state an appreciation for each other, a willingness to share and mutual affection. Between a man and a woman it is often a declaration of affection, a statement of a mutual courtship with marriage as a possible result.”
“It does!” Aaron gulped and felt his face grow hot as the implications sank in.
“Yes. With that understanding Cathy and I still give you public use of our names.” Sarah seemed unnaturally tense. Cathy gripped her arm.
“I—I—I never th—thought a woman could care for me in that way,” Aaron stammered. “I thought you were teasing me.”
“I was.” Sarah smiled slightly. “I was also being honest with my intentions.”
Aaron looked at them, one older by half a decade, the other young enough to be illegal back home even if she was a year past marriageable age here. Sarah, tall, independent, stronger than he in all the ways that mattered and Cathy, brown haired, brown eyed, a waif, but a waif who had held her family together for two years, fighting starvation and cold and winning her battle by the rules she imposed upon herself.
Belatedly, he realized that it did not matter what he wanted or said. Individually, the two of them could out-stubborn him hands down. Together, they were a force to surrender to.
“Yes,” he finally said. “You can use my name. I already care for you both. I trust you both. Might even love you. Only I don’t know for sure because I’ve never loved anyone before, but I think I do. Love you. Gods, this is all new to me.”
“And to us,” Sarah said. “The thing is, Aaron, I always knew I’d share a man if I ever wed, but I never thought I’d share my courtship too. Cathy and I, we have to work a few things out, but that is for later. Right now, I want a gift from you.” She gestured at the revolver with her free hand. “I want you to gift me with this and some lessons in its use.”
“Of course,” Aaron said. “Anything you want.”
“Good. One more thing. During this rather one sided courtship I have kissed you several times. You have never kissed me back, not even once. Cathy?”
“He never kissed me either.” Cathy looked affronted. “And after all the hints I gave him too. He didn’t follow up on any of them.”
“I don’t know how,” Aaron confessed, doubting his face could feel any hotter. “I never had anyone to kiss before.”
“Me neither,” Cathy said. “No men anyway. Why don’t we all learn together?”
The subsequent lesson took over an hour. Aaron practiced enthusiastically, and so did Cathy, but Sarah insisted they were only beginning to get the hang of it by the time the hour was over. Obviously, much more practice was needed. Sighing resignation, Aaron admitted that she was correct. He agreed to regular practice sessions and complained about the horrible things the two of them forced him to do.
They both hit him.
Copyright© Mark Eller. All rights reserved.