Turning my palms up to the sun I stare at thin, raised pink scars crossing my wrists, then plant the tips of my toes to the roof's edge. The ground is four floors below. A stiff gust of wind cools my sweaty back and threatens my balance. It's too easy. Maybe that's why, at 18, I'm still alive. I have never taken the easy way. And here in this the last stronghold of medieval disciplines and modern studies, it is never easy.
Students scurry about the school grounds, mindless minions, perpetually at their tasks: unloading hay from the old flatbed truck, with its trailer, grooming horses, or fighting with staves. With the precision of army ants, cars and trucks progress along the asphalt ribbons between bright green forests and motley fields, with the backdrop of the dark green forests of the Blue Ridge Mountains surrounding the valley, the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. The Knight Riding School, my home, is nestled in the land's embrace. A dream, a far cry from the alleyways of Richmond.
If I jump who would notice? No one will say, "Look at what Grace did." It would be, "Did you hear about the Scarecrow?" Some girl called me that on my first day. At five foot eleven, with narrow hips, short hair, and arriving with a badly bruised face, the name stuck. Someday when I find out who she is, I'm going to pound her for it.
A shadow hovers over me. I look up at a large man in his knights uniform, his long black hair braided neatly in back. He steps up to my left, also placing his bare toes at the edge.
"Gathering clouds again, Grace?"
I sweep my arm over the view, "Sir, is this worth it?"
Bear smiles, "If you save one life, even if it's your own, then yes it is all worth it."
"Have you ever saved anyone?"
"I will save you; if you allow me."
Grrr… I hate it when he tries to needle me. I retort, "Sir, there is nothing like killing yourself and failing."
Bear ignores my comment, but asks "How long have you been standing here?"
He knows, or he wouldn't have asked. "About ten minutes. I heard you coming up the stairs."
"It's been an hour. You missed your Self Defense lesson. Run an extra hour for makeup. It's time for your next lesson with me."
My Knight-Master, Bear Two Feathers, steps off the wall and I follow obediently.
He points outward and tosses a coil of anchored rope to hang over the edge. "For missing Self Defense."
I sigh, put on my leather riding gloves, pull the rope between my legs, up over my back and left shoulder, and wrap it around my right wrist. Cringing at the anticipated rope burn, I lean backwards over the edge to start a well practiced emergency rappel to the ground.
My feet touch the ground and Bear, now wearing only his loose black shirt and trousers, punches, and my left wrist deflects the huge fist as it rakes the side of my face. It feels like my ear has been ripped off. I howl and Bear grins at my pain. Spinning, I bend low, slamming my bare heel into his toes. I circle to grab his back, locking my arms around his bull neck squeezing hard, harder. He reaches overhead, grabbing a clump of my cropped hair. I scream into his ear as hard as I can, while a chunk of the Grace Howard crew cut rips out, but I don't let up. My choke hold quickly saps his strength. Sinking to his knees, he falls forward, senseless.
I stand over Bear, waiting for his eyes to again point forward and he regains control of his body. For once I see a way to finish him off, just by stomping on the side of his neck. I clutch the end of his ponytail and place my foot under his ear. This is my first ever win in a fight with the giant. A man's neck is the key, his weak spot.
With bulging biceps Bear pushes himself up, "Well done Grace. You are, but a wisp; you win by using wild street fighting. For you, it is a strength multiplier, but in seconds it saps your moxie. Don't play with your opponent; the longer you fight, as a wisp of smoke evaporates, your chances of winning also vanish. The only good fight is the winning fight."
I bow to the knight. "Thank you, Sir."
"You won't thank me tomorrow, Miss Grace Howard; not when your next lesson begins."
"Grace, I'm taking you to see your father."
The sides of my neck crawl. "He can go to hell; he abandoned me."
"I'm ordering you to go see him."
Sir Bear Two Feathers points a rough finger at me and says, "I'm not giving you a choice."
Before I knew it, we've left the Knight Riding School and take a cross country flight to Los Angeles to see my father, arriving in the morning. Bear rented a car and drove me to the hospice. "Be on your best behavior," he warns me, "He is dying."
The air feels heavy as I enter the room to see a shriveled old man sitting on a chair, a blanket over his shoulders. "Hello," he wheezes.
"Hello, Sir. I'm Grace, sorry, I must be in the wrong room." I spin on my heel to head for the door.
"I had a girl named Grace. They took her from me."
I hear a roaring sound in my ears and pitch over into the arms of Bear.
A couple is talking and they have a little girl with them. They are arguing about her, no, not about her, but about where she should go. The woman tells him to find someone to take care of their girl. He said that no one would marry him, not now. The girl looks at me. She has long blond hair and piercing blue eyes. I am looking at myself. The man is my father just as I last saw him, tall, with a chiseled face, strong arms, and big hands.
I wake up on a yellow vinyl couch in the lobby and say to Bear, "I remember it now. It was all a lie and you knew it. He didn't abandon me, they took me away. Aunt Dorothy dragged me away. I had it all wrong."
"No, he didn't leave you, but you had to find out for yourself," Bear says. "You would never have believed me."
We walk back into my father's room where he's propped up in bed. I move to stand next to him, but he asks me to stand in the light of the window. "Yes I can see it now; you are my little Grace. You've grown up tall and your hair, your beautiful hair; you've cut it so short. Please, tell me about yourself, what you do?"
I sit and tell him my story, "I ran away from Aunt Dorothy and joined a street gang called the Kicks. They branded the letter K on the back of my neck, marking me as theirs. Then this drug dealer made me carry messages for him, but I found out I was running drugs, not messages. He made me take the drugs, I tried to kill myself, and when I tried to leave, his men cut my face and they would have finished me off, but a knight saved me and paid to have my face fixed."
"A knight, like on horses, in America?"
"Yeah, it's hard to believe, but his name is Sir Raven. He took me to the Knight Riding School and I been there ever since. I've had lots of adventures, I've even been to the Amazon. I've got friends now; this boy, Wolf, he's the best. I'm studying to become a knight; it's hard, This is Sir Bear my knight master. He's teaches me fighting, survival, and horse riding.
My father looks at Bear, and says, "Please take care of my little girl. I need to talk to her alone." The knight steps out, and my father tells me, "It was just a routine checkup when the doctor found the tuberculosis, the bad kind, drugs couldn't help. The firm forced me out of work as a stockbroker, and nobody else would hire me. Your mother died and Aunt Dorothy took you away. I moved to a small room, and when it got too bad, the health officials put me here".
"I tried to find you; I walked the streets with your picture. No one knew you. I've saved you a little money and haven't touched it. It couldn't help me, but it will help you." He points to the chest of drawers, and in it I find an envelope holding his will, a ring of keys, and his wallet. He tells me to take them all. He tries to smiles, but starts a deep hacking cough. He can't stop, and coughs blood onto his shirt, I go to the bathroom for a towel, but get sick and bend over the sink, gagging. After the dry heaving stops my father stops coughing, so I walk back in. Despite his protests I wipe the blood off his face with shaking hands. He says, "I love you, I always have."
"I know, father."
He reaches to touch my hand, then his arm falls back to the bed, his breathing slows and stops, his eyes still fixed on me. I stare at him and see the same strong, gentle, and kind man I worshiped as a child, and cry.
When the crying stops I go out to the lobby to tell the nurse he's dead, and am informed I have to claim the body. I pull Bear out to the car and ask him to drive to the First Savings Bank. Before we go in, I dump the clothes in my horse's saddlebags, which I use for luggage, into the trunk of the car and carry the empty them into the bank. Bear follows me in to withdraw cash for the cremation, It's a lot, and I don't have near enough.
I go to a desk where the clerk looks up at me and says with a bored voice, "My name is Eric, may I help you?"
I show him the death certificate and demanded to see my father's safety deposit box. He stiffens on seeing the document and demands my driver's license. I show it to him and after he gives me some double talk about how he is doing me a favor for his old friend, the hair raises on my neck. I'm a good poker player, and he lied about my father; he turned his head to the left, lowering his eyes as he said it, a sure sign he's lying, and I am steamed. He leads me to the vault and pulls out a large box. I pull the curtain in a private cubicle and open the box with my father's key. I gasp and my knees weaken, it's not just a few hundred dollars, but bundle after bundle of hundred dollar bills. With shaking hands I stack them on the table. Each bundle holds a hundred bills; I am rich.
It also hits me, this money might be stolen. The clerk gave me the box without making me fill out paperwork, and without talking to a manager. I don't like it, but I don't have time to find out. I shove the money into my saddlebags. In the bottom of the box I find my parents wedding rings and a diamond engagement ring. At the very bottom is an envelope with just my name on it. I stuff it into the inner pocket of my uniform and walk out.
When I reenter the bank lobby, the clerk glares at the now heavy saddlebags. Without taking his eyes off of me he makes a phone call, and with dread I see he knows what I'm carrying. Leaving the bank with Bear, I throw the bags on the back seat of the car and as he drives me to a funeral home. On the way there I tell him what I have, and what the clerk said and did. I make arrangements with the funeral home to have my father's ashes sent to the Knight Riding School.
We leave Los Angeles on the next flight to Las Vegas, and there Bear hires a cab to take us to the western edge of town. At a rundown gas station Bear buys a rusty pickup truck, bottles of water, and cans of extra gasoline. We head west on the highway which soon turns into a narrow strip of road not worthy of the name. After many boring hours he turns off the road onto a gravel path heading and we are in the real wasteland. We ride another hour to arrive at a wooden shack, and in the shade of the small porch, a thin weathered man sits, a rifle resting on his lap.
The Bear greets him in sign language. He smiles and says, "Welcome Little Girl, I am the Keeper; please come in and refresh yourself."
Out of the sun, it's even hotter, and I sit at the rough table. The old man pours water into tin cups, and sets out a plate with slivers of dried meat. He and Bear nibble on the meat, washing it down with sips of water. I take a piece and chew; it's salty.
I asked, "What is this?"
"Rattler," answers the old man with a big grin.
Lying, I say, "It's good."
The two men start to laugh.
"What's so funny?" I ask.
"Most people spit it out when they hear what it is. It's a delicacy among the Mojave," answers Bear
"It's okay." The cup of water is bitter, but I drink it anyway. Seeing my expression, they laugh again.
The two men talk in Mojave, and I can't follow along, I just make out the words for trouble, horse, and big. They reach an agreement and clasp hands to forearms.
Before the sun sets, Bear and I bury the water and gasoline we brought, into the sand, and walk to a shed, where several horses huddle in the shade. The Keeper picks out two, neither of which looks well fed. Bear tells me they are mustang's and will do just fine. We mount up using blankets instead of saddles, and use hackamores to guide them.
The horses prove willing, and run at an easy cantor in the light of the full moon. The ground is well packed gravel and doesn't show our passing. After about an hour of riding and walking the horses, Bear stops at a group of small bushes, and digs with his hands into a patch of sand. I help him and we are rewarded when we reach moist sand. He pushes a wooden tube into the sand and sucks on the end and spits out wet sand. After a few mouthfuls he pulls up clear water and spits it into his upturned hat.
"We'll water the horses first and then we can drink." He says.
He finishes and I take my turn drawing from the tube to water my horse. The water is sweet, not bitter, and I drink my fill. The Bear fills in the hole, wiping the sand clean, and covering our presence. During the night we stop several more times for water.
Curiosity gets the best of me and I ask, "How do you find those wells?"
"Remember the small bushes? They have short roots and have to be near groundwater. There is always water under the sand; you just have to find it. Look for the bushes in low areas."
"Where are we going?" I ask.
"To my tribe."
"How far is it?"
He grins and answers, "All night long and a hundred years ago."
Grrr… I hate it when he riddles me like that. The sun starts to rise and the steam puffing from the horse's nostrils disappears as the freezing night turns into roasting heat. It doesn't take long before we round a hill to arrive at a small adobe hut, next to a pond. Small goats, guarded by an alert dog, graze on the grass surrounding the pond.
Dismounting, we turn the horses loose to drink, and then enter the hut through a low doorway, guarded by a hanging curtain. The weathered woman shelling beans by the hearth glances at me, but says to Bear, "Welcome son, it is good to see you."