A/n : This is one of the "Gwethil Christmas Gifts 2010". It is from myself to The Wordsmith – the rest of the gifts are available in my profile (and perhaps from the rest of the Gwethil's profiles).

When it came to writing a gift to The Wordsmith from me, there was really only one subject and genre – our shared universe of MechKnight, the sci-fi story of gigantic walkers in a retro-future Catholic empire. And, there was really only one possible character it could be about – Lady Jane Grey, her identifier in the universe (much as Vladimir Hunyadi is mine). We had already established key points in the narrative of how Vlad and Jane met (during the Balkan Crusades) but when I came to work this into a coherent narrative it became clear there were difficulties with harmonizing this – if they met during the crusade, why did they both walk in the procession which began it? And Vlad and Jane met eight years after Vladimir started fighting – but Vlad went to the crusade as his first combat mission? It was all a little complex, and it was settled by having the conflict be a long-running, continuous war which the pope DECLARED a crusade long after the fighting had started. I even managed to work in the reference to the defense of Saint Stephen's Basilica mentioned in "The Lady's Guardian", and the shattering of Vladimir's hand.

There isn't much more to say about this story – other than the character of Jane is similar to many of The Wordsmith's other characters and reflects discussions she's had on her blog. This character was very different to the depiction of Jane in "This Blessed Plot", and so this story explores how the change might have occurred.

Is this canon? Well, as odd as it may seem, maybe not; this is a shared universe and I wouldn't want to have anything be canonical without consulting my fellow author. So, YMMV!

Merry Christmas!

Confirmation

It was the Balkan conflict, a messy, bloody, inconclusive, perpetual war on the churned fringes of Christendom. I was young then – maybe I still am, but I was even younger then. So was he, but he was never as young as I was – of course, he was born four years before I was, but I don't think he was ever so young. I think Vladimir Hunyadi was born with gray in his hair and lines in his face.

Vladimir Hunyadi. He'd already made a fierce name for himself when I met him, riding on his father's fame and the nostalgia for Maugrim to get himself accepted as a friend of Knights twice his age and more. They remembered their old comrade in arms Vladimir senior, and smiled at the fresh-faced boy with the machina repainted and re-equipped by Dominik Kristatos wanting to follow in his father's footsteps.

Never tell Vladimir, but his father was no great machina pilot. I never knew him, of course, but there are Knights of the Table and elsewhere who did and the combat reports are not hard to read. His eldest son, a man who knew him better than Vladimir ever did – but for some reason (perhaps a prompting of the Holy Spirit?) was never given the machina pilot's name – will tell you as much. The elder Vladimir was a good man, a great man, a noble and decent man who played the electro violin flawlessly and whose tunes would make you weep (I have some of his recordings – I cannot listen to them without sobbing) and who loved his God and his Church and his wife and family with a passion as hot as a melting reactor.

But he was, at best, a mediocre machina pilot. He knew it, and he stayed on the fringes of the engagements, never leaping into conflict, moving slowly and carefully, almost uncertain as the massive blue-gray wolf slunk around the edge of battlefields. His friends knew it too, but there were plenty like him – competent, good enough to protect their villages and families and serfs, brave and willing, and fitted to fight in the ranks.

And so when my Vladimir – oh, how Monica would laugh and pretend to be affronted by that! - came to the Balkans his father's friends were generous with him, praising his father and welcoming the boy there. He was sixteen, for God's sake. He is tall and heavy now, muscular even if not terrifically strong, but he was gangly and gawky then. I have seen the holographs – they are poor quality, flat images for identification purposes or poorly-composited mementos for scrapbooks. He was pale and thin-lipped, dreadfully serious in a blastsuit a little too big for him.

This was before the Ninth Balkan Crusade began – before the pope called for Knights to take the Cross and journey to the far-flung outpost of Europe fought over for so long. Many Knights answered that call, but – of course – the mere fact the land had been fought over proved the fighting didn't start when the pope approved it. There were people who lived in the Balkans, who had called them home for generations, and there were warriors sworn to protect them or who'd made promises to come to the aid of those who were.

One of those men was Vladimir Hunyadi, the Black Wolf of Romania, the foremost scout-machina commander this side of the Caucus (and it's only because to claim all of Eurasia for him sounds excessive). Of course, when he first went to the Balkan preamble, he was none of those things. He was a boy desperately trying to live up to the father he'd never known.

That awkward stage did not last long.

Vlad is a natural behind the control board of a machina – there are few like him in Europe. We are told there were more when the Empire was formed and Pope Michael led Christendom out of the ashes of the Modernist period into the Imperial era. I don't know if that is true – it's probably a pious legend, but the men who fought there (including some of Vlad's forebears) have the reputation of being perfect heroes who could do no wrong. More than one is a saint.

If there are any men alive today who live up to those legends, one of them is Vladimir Hunyadi. He fought like Lancelot – not the preening peacocks of spoiled families who inherit and jockey for that machina in England, and not like the original character in Malory's work, but rather like the noble legend which has grown up around him. His father's friends were stunned, dumbfounded by his skill and guile and determination. Maugrim was – is – a deadly engine of war, a unique machina whose origins are shrouded in mystery and packed with enough technology to outfit an entire lance of engines in England.

He used every ounce of that technology but never relied on it – he's the best unassisted shot I have known, and it is only a slight exaggeration to say he can listen to the echoes from an avalanche and then draw you a tri-D map of the valley floor, working the angles as well as any sonar. There was no way he could have been taught what he knew – his father died when he was six, and his sister (who toyed with the idea of taking Maugrim for her own before she gave her birthright up after barely any training) gave him his first lessons – and there are some things which cannot be taught.

He is a natural. It is an overused term, but for him it is applicable.

Of course, in case you think I am eulogizing him, canonizing him, I'll say this – the man can't sing, can be prudish, has a short temper which does not play well with others, knows nothing about fighting with a blade (but he throws a mean knife! I lost quite a few Euros to that before I realized just how mean!) and – ironically enough – doesn't know the Bible as well as he might.

I say ironically, because it was he who taught me to love it – and to really love the Church.

It was ten years ago, a month before the pope formally declared the Ninth Balkan Crusade and everyone starting paying attention to the fighting there, that I arrived in the Balkans. Prior to that my father – not a sexist Knight who thought women should not take up arms but not brave enough to gainsay those who were – had given me the basics of training and sent me off to Asia, to learn on the machinae there. There, in the less-ruined and still-standing conurbations, the emphasis is on close-quarter fighting, even close-combat sometimes, and my skill with a blade stood me in good stead. I did not fight much – there is little political advantage to an English Knight fighting for the Jade Empire – and I spent most of my time training and learning Oriental etiquette and culture.

The East changed me; it made me into something my father did not want. I studied the beliefs and origins of the Orient, and began to question my own certainties. There was a superficial gentleness to their views and arguments, and the oft-repeated refrain that beliefs did not matter because we do not know seemed so appealing to me; my confident certainty seemed so impolite and dogmatic when set against the courteous uncertainty of the Japanese Court. By the time I returned to England, I was a young woman unwilling to state my own religion was most definitely right. And I was certainly no asset in the knock-down, drag-out, brutal war of the ruined fields of Europe.

My father – despairing, perhaps, of what had come of his daughter and heir – decided to send me to Europe's toughest warzone with a Prometheus-class and little encouragement, hoping a baptism of fire would chew me up and spit me out into something more suitable to the family's needs. The machina was too large for me, built for a hulking male pilot and with controls that ached my shoulders and which I had to wrench my arms to move. I was the slowest in the formations, and my commanders called me a "stupid harlot" and worse.

I felt pretty low at that point in my life, to be honest. I don't suppose I need to tell you that.

My final battle in the Prometheus was the lowest point. I got the fire-hurling engine shot from under me after taking one hand off the yoke to control the starboard flamethrower because I just couldn't reach the thumb-joystick. I managed to eject, but not fast enough to avoid getting caught in the expanding fireball as the fuel detonated. Plus the shots from the infidel machinae broke the armor and cracked the reactor shielding; my radiation shield flashed exposed and I was hospitalized not only with extensive first-degree burns but also suspected mild radiation poisoning.

They carried me off the field on a stretcher, and I didn't even have the strength of will to get off it to walk into the field hospital; the pain was too much. As I was removed from the ambulance a wonderful machina stomped to a hissing halt beside me – its camouflage was beaten down to bare ceramic and its armor was cracked, beaten and dented but it looked utterly undefeated. As I watched, the hatch in the cranial compartment popped and a tall man clambered gingerly out of the cockpit, descending the ladder single-handed.

I barely glanced at the pilot – I knew who he was by reputation and the machina. The engine was a gigantic mechanical wolf with jaws that could crush a Krall class to scrap or bite a chunk from a Fatima and chew it to shrapnel. It – she – was Maugrim, and the pilot was Boyar Vladimir Hunyadi. He walked beside my stretcher as I was being carried in, and so I found myself looking up at him. I suppose I've never stopped.

He cast dark eyes over the charred outer layers of my blastsuit. "Lady," he said politely – he was obviously worldly enough to recognize the quartered red-and-blue as English. "I am Boyar Vladimir Hunyadi – what ails you?"

I struggled to lift my right hand. My nerves screamed at me, but I would be damned if I didn't at least offer him my hand to shake. "Lady Jane Grey," I winced. "My machina got shot from under me."

"Amazed it didn't happen sooner," snorted one of the medics. Vladimir smiled thinly and did not even look up.

"If you weren't carrying her, or I thought I could carry your half of the stretcher myself," he said good-naturedly, "I would kill you where you stand." He smiled at me as the medic blanched. He glanced at my raised hand and shook his head. "Forgive me," he said apologetically, "but I am wounded."

He lifted his right arm and I paled and shivered with sympathetic pain. His blastsuit was raggedly cut off at the elbow and emergency field dressings of adhesive bandages and epoxy spraycast applied. From the wrist to his fingers, the hand was a misshapen mitten of broken bone wrapped in solidified foam. What bits of skin I could see were paper-white and there was a lot of clotted blood amid the bandages. "How?" I whispered.

He shrugged. "Concussion missile – knocked a support strut loose, trapped my hand against the console." He grinned. "That's what kills you – ignore anyone who says the danger is from lasers and penetration. Concussion kills." His smile softened and he crossed himself – with his wounded hand.

"Where?" I asked. We'd been carried into the hospital by then and I'd been set down on a cot. He hooked a chair next to me and sat on it, gingerly resting his hand on the high cupboard beside him.

"Saint Stephen's Basilica, Bucharest – I was defending it. Handed it over to the relief force five hours ago."

I narrowed my eyes. "The order to pull out came twelve hours ago – we were abandoning Bucharest."

He chuckled. "You don't know the Dragons."

The doctor busied around me, carefully cutting my blastsuit off me and asking me where it hurt. Another was looking at Vladimir's hand. I pushed myself up on my elbows, ignoring the pain, both to give the doctor access and to look Vladimir in the eye. "You disobeyed an order?"

"I defended the relics of Saint Elizabet." The doctor attracted his attention as mine drew blood form my arm. I tried not to wince.

"We will have to cut the ring off," his surgeon was explaining. He fumbled for a pair of bolt cutters, but Vlad's other hand caught his.

"I'd rather loose the hand," he explained.

"I can't allow that, Boyar," said the doctor.

"Good," said Vladimir cheerfully, "because that means you'll save the ring." The doctor looked at him for a moment, saw something in his eyes, and then sighed and nodded. He set down the bolt cutters and reached for the epoxy solvent.

My doctor had stripped me all-but-naked – there is no privacy in a field hospital, but Vladimir had his eyes closed. "You didn't answer my question," I said firmly.

"Oh, but I did," he said dreamily. The epoxy was off his hand now, a blood-clotted golden ring visible on the third finger. The surgeon gently teased it off his mangled digit – seen without the bandages, his hand was simply grotesque. I knew it was repairable – in a matter of hours, probably, with microsurgery and titanium pins and spars – but even with painkillers that had to be agonizing. He set his jaw and his face screwed up, snatches of prayers in a language which sounded a little like Italian but wasn't hissing through his teeth. The surgeon dropped it – a heavy signet ring with gleaming LED jewels – into a kidney bowl and handed it to a nun in a dark green habit. She squirted alcohol and distilled water onto it, wiping it clean with a cotton ball.

"So, you disobeyed an order." My doctor, helped by a couple of nurses, was covering my burns in cryopatches and healing salve. I suddenly felt completely ridiculous – children probably got worse standing too close to bonfires. Vladimir shrugged with a single shoulder.

"Of course. Were you obeying orders when you got your machina shot from under you?"

I colored and turned away. "I was trying to." The nun had cleaned his ring – I recognized the habit, the Order of Our Lady of Bucharest, the Order of the Dragon's patron and intimately related to the Order – and put it gently in his hand. I was decent now – covered in bandages and with a clean sheet drawn over me. I said as much.

He opened his eyes and examined his ring, only when he was satisfied looking at me. He smiled, but did not offer some meaningless platitude or false assertion. "Good," he said. "Orders should always be followed."

I grinned. "That would be a pun in English," I said.

The doctor tapped him on the shoulder, telling him he needed to move to the surgery. He stood up and smiled. "What makes you think I didn't know that?" he asked. He gave a graceful bow. "A pleasure to meet you, Lady Gray – I will pray for your swift recovery and return to the field. His sword with you."

I stammered – I did not know the proper response. "And . . . also with you?" I managed. He grinned and made to move away. "Boyar!" I called. He turned around and raised an eyebrow. "Who stayed? To defend the Basilica?"

"Myself and Maugrim, three other Dragons." He smiled and chuckled to himself. "And a Templar – not for the reasons we did, of course, but because he promised my father he'd look after me." He shook his head.

"Why?" I asked.

He looked at me askance and then flipped the ring to me. I barely caught it. "Mediate on that, Lady Jane Gray," he said, and then left for surgery.

I looked at the ring in my hand – it was heavy, a sizable chunk of gold. It would have bought the services of a skilled mercenary for a battle or more merely by weight alone. It was an Order signet ring, packed with electronics, tracking software, data storage and more. But it was it represented rather than what it did I was supposed to consider, I knew. I looked at the design – a dragon with its tail coiled around its neck, the symbol of the Order of the Dragon. The image of the dragon meant a lot of things to me – my tired and (now) drugged mind was flooded with myths and legends of dragons from all over the world. The tales in Genesis and Revelation were among the last ones I thought of.

That wasn't the point, I realized. The dragon meant something to Vladimir, and the ring meant something to him. But it was not why or what it represented that was important, but rather why that was important to him. It was so important to him the destruction of the mere symbol was worse than losing a hand – but the ring itself held no value to him, or why else would he throw it at a girl he had only just met?

As a lesson, perhaps? "Mediate on that," he had said.

I felt its heavy solidity in my fist as I drifted off to sleep. It felt like an anchor, dragging me down – but as I dreamed I saw it was trying to hold me in place, to give me a rock to cling to. I slept fitfully, coming around only when my commander shook me awake.

I won't tell you what his orders were, because I told Vladimir some hours later when he came to see how I was. His hand was a mass of fine stitching, his flesh swollen but his bones pinned in place. He accepted his ring with a nod and thanks and forced it over his engorged knuckle while I told him our commander's orders.

I was to take command of a scout machina and charge the emplaced enemy around Bucharest, a folorn hope, a suicide charge. Of course, my commander called it being thrown into trust of the Angels of War. Vladimir smiled and shook his head. "So, they don't think highly of you, Lady Jane?"

I shrugged and began to get out of bed. "I suppose not."

"Well, I don't think highly of our commander – life is not to be so cavalierly wasted."

I pulled a plain gray blastsuit – no-one was giving a liveried coat to the walking dead – over my bandages. "I have my orders," I said bitterly. "I guess I'll find out what happens soon enough."

He looked at me. "In the battle, or after?" he asked.

"Both," I said flatly. He shook his head.

"You have to get rid of that," he cautioned, "or else you'll find out what happens after all the battles sooner than you think. Do you think we'll win here because we're skilled and have the best technology?"

"No," I said wearily, "we'll win because God is with us. And they say just the same. Every man who wages war does so convinced God is on His side. I wonder, Boyar – does God ever have anyone on His?"

Vladimir shook his head. "It's not just that – although that is, of course, the final arbiter. The Empire will win if it is God's will – and you will live or die according to the vagaries of fate or your skill in an unfamiliar machina. But, you'll die – either in seven hours or seventy years. You'll die, Lady Jane, and you'll go back to dust."

"And then I'll know what happens," I said defiantly.

He shook his head. "I'll tell you what'll happen – and not just what I think will happen, but I what I know. You'll burn, and here's why. Right now, you are hedging your bets, not entirely willing to commit. It's a personal belief – but you wouldn't force it on anyone. Other people aren't wrong – and you're pretty sure you're kind of right – they just look at it differently. You'll tie yourself in logical knots to avoid facing the simple, stark truth that you have to stand for something or you'll fall for anything. Those Muslims out there believe. They believe in their child-abusing 'Prophet' and the seventy-two virgins and all that garbage. And they are prepared to live and die and kill and give everything they are to that belief."

I waved him off dismissively. "You make it so black and white. It's not that simple, Boyar – if you knew anything about other cultures . . ."

"If you know so much," he said easily, "then you'll know the beliefs are incompatible. You can't say you're right without saying they're wrong. And even if you are unwilling to say which one is right, you have to admit at least all but one are wrong. No matter who is right, if you don't put your chips on something you're going to loose them all."

I'd had enough – who did he think he was, coming to me and voicing my intimate concerns? I rounded on him. "We fight for peace!" I yelled in his face.

"Which is like whoring for chastity, according to your definition of 'peace'," he said, quick as a laser blast. "We fight for Christ, who is real peace. The peace which comes through victory. There can be coexistence – only in the Empire, under the mantle of Jesus and Our Lady is there any true religious freedom – but there can never be agreement, or even agreeing to disagree." He chuckled. "That's just another example of whoring for chastity."

"I'm prepared to die here," I said quietly. "For the Crusade. Doesn't the pope say . . . ?"

"Not yet," he answered, seeing where I was going. "Soon, perhaps – my brother has sources in Rome. A month or two, maybe less. It will be the Ninth Balkan Crusade then." He looked around the field hospital. "We Dragons won't notice the difference, but it's always nice to get some attention from the rest of the Empire." He sighed. "I'm sorry, Lady Jane, but I don't think you set your life at a pin's fee. I think you're willing to die simply to spite your father and family, to load guilt onto your commander, to no longer have to face your questions." He looked at me with burning compassion. "Jesus wants you with Him more than you can possibly know," he said. "He died so you could be with Him, but your part of that is to live for Him."

The words were simple, trite – probably theologically inaccurate in some respects, certainly an oversimplification of the complexities of salvation. But they were powerful to me, statements of raw truth my complex uncertainties were no defense against. I lowered my proud head, tears in my eyes. "I think . . ." I said, "that's the first time I've been shown real love in a very long time."

He lifted my chin with his wounded hand – it was hot, obviously still painful, but he showed no sign. "Why do we fight, Lady Jane?" he asked. "We fight for Christ – to build an Empire not where people can leave in peace, but where people can find and love Jesus without questions and difficulties. We choose to fight these wars not just so people never have to face what lies on the battlefield, but also the horrible things that lie in," he tapped his chest and then mine, "here. Most people are not strong enough to do this, but we are."

I snorted. "How do you know?" I asked scornfully. His answer was so simply profound it silenced me.

"Because God wouldn't have chosen you otherwise – He never gives His children a burden they cannot bear."

I swallowed down my tears. My uncertainties had vanished. "I need a priest," I told him.

And that's how I met his brother.

What is the Gwethil Christmas Exchange?

The Gwethil is an internet community of writers I am a member of. We usually exchange gifts for Christmas but, what with the poor economy etc., we decided a series of story exchanges would be a better bet. Accordingly, various members of the group wrote stories for various other members – you just read one of them!

More information on the Gwethil can be found in my profile.