Ch 7 Stand and Deliver

When she woke a second time, with the red light of dawn spilling through the windows, it took Clarice several moments to realise where she was and who she was. The sun was rising over another universe, and her body was not her own.

"Hope you slept well." Celeste was nearby, rummaging in a cupboard, fully dressed. "This could be a long and tiring day. I'm afraid we haven't time for breakfast now. The coach leaves in half an hour. We'll take some food to eat on the way."

Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, Clarice said, "I slept well enough. Though I'm sure I had a peculiar dream, some kind of nightmare, I just can't remember what it was about."

Celeste smiled. "This house creates strange dreams; there are memories that linger, the ghosts of things past."

Clarice shook her head slightly as though to clear it. "I think there was something, something monstrous ..."

Celeste gave a low chuckle. "Monstrous, eh? I'm guessing it wasn't that husband of yours you were dreaming about." She held up a hand for silence, while Clarice gaped and tried to think of an appropriate response. "No time now for idle chat; we've got a coach to catch. Get your gear together and let's go."

Major bounded to the door, barking enthusiastically, then whined as Celeste ordered him back to his basket. "Coach travel makes him sick," she said.

Celeste marched them at such speed through the early morning hush of the town's streets, that Clarice was discouraged from broaching the burning questions in her head. She wondered if this was a deliberate ploy on Celeste's part, rather than a fear of being late. Considering the manner in which the few citizens up and about scurried out of their way, she doubted the coach would be leaving without them.

They crossed the bridge to the redbrick coach house near the town gate, and found the driver in full dispute with a trio of would-be passengers. Prominent amongst them was a portly, middle-aged woman with the full wig and heavily powdered countenance typical of Albion's nobility. In her expansive gown of cream silk, she loomed above the spindly coach driver, like a galleon over a lowly tug.

"And I tell you that we must all be at Oakfield before noon. My donation to the Temple of Light cannot wait past the proper hour."

"I'm so sorry, Your Grace, but this coach has been reserved, and there's no room for your whole entourage. You are welcome to travel with a single companion however."

"Unacceptable! How can I be expected to go on such an important trip without my manservant, my maidservant and, of course, my hairdresser!"

"B … but ..." the coachman stammered. "Your Grace is in possession of a very fine wig, so surely …"

"Damn your impudence! Who are these people that dare take precedence over the Countess of Fairfax?"

The coachman swallowed hard, but his reddened, embarrassed face changed to a relieved one as he noticed the new arrivals.

"They're here, My Lady."

The Countess whirled, on the point of making another imperious put-down. Her mouth opened, and remained so.

"I'm afraid you must modify your travel plans, Countess." Celeste spoke in a quiet, good-humoured tone, but one that admitted of no contradiction. "Mine are unalterable."

Clarice couldn't help enjoying the spectacle of the arrogant noblewoman struggling to regain her dignity.

"The Hero of Bowerstone!" she finally managed. "Well, I suppose in such emergencies I can leave Lucille and Barclay behind. I ..."

"Regrettably I requested a private compartment. I fear you will have to catch the next coach, Your Grace."

The noblewoman's lips quivered, "Oh, but I ...

Clarice could tell that Celeste was relishing making the Countess squirm, and began to feel a little sorry for her. She spoke up firmly.

"Perhaps in order to better protect the carriage, and allow the Countess to travel in the style she's accustomed, we could use the seating on the roof."

The Countess seized on the opportunity. "Could you? Oh, I would be eternally in your debt for such consideration! And we would all feel so much safer, to be sure!"

Celeste gave a slight frown in Clarice's direction, but maintained her smooth tone. "My cousin is correct. To serve and protect should be our watchword. Please, accept our place in the carriage. To travel on the roof is no hardship for us."

"Oh, bless you and thank you!" The Countess bustled forward with a rustle of silk, followed a little uncertainly by her servants.

Celeste gave a slight shake of the head, and regarded Clarice with folded arms. Clarice gave an embarrassed shrug, and set one foot on the side of the coach to haul herself up.


"In future ..." Celeste gave Clarice a cold look across the swaying carriage top, "Let me deal with the toffs in my own way. I can't have you undermining my authority like this."

The four black horses kept up a brisk pace, as the coach rattled along a lane beside the Bower River. Clarice had to raise her voice above the clatter of hooves, and the vibration of the carriage frame and wheels.

"Oh, come on! You'd already humiliated her enough. If you'd taken her down another peg, she'd have been grovelling on the floor!" Rolling her eyes, she added, "Don't give me that look! It's a lovely morning, and you're spoiling it." Breathing in deeply, "Can't you smell the spring flowers?"

Celeste tried to maintain her stern look, failed, then broke into a smile. "I'm sure I've smelt them as many times as you have. I'd mention them too if I wanted a convenient distraction. Just try not to forget whose world you're in, okay?"

She isn't really that cross with me. Acting stiff doesn't come naturally to her. Or to me; at least, it used not to. And the air does smell sweet. The scent of purple foxgloves and brown rushes beside the water. I remember …

Nudging Celeste, Clarice said, "Remember the time when we jumped onto the coach to get a free ride. We were clinging to the back for dear life all the way to Rookridge Road!"

Celeste laughed. "Then Old Nobby spotted us! We managed to sweet talk him into letting us ride beside him in the driver's seat to Oakfield and back. I remember how you told him what a fine gentleman..." Her voice faltered. The din of the coach's passage filled the interval in speech for a full minute.

"It wasn't me that said that," Clarice said eventually. "It was Rose."

"I know."

"I'm not a replacement for her."

"I know that too."

"Do you? What gave you the idea to search for other universes in the first place? Was it because ..."

"Let's not go there now, Clarice." Celeste's countenance had darkened again. "Whatever the reason, you're here. And I think there were some other things you wanted to get off your chest. Well, be my guest and spit them out."

Lovely morning or not, I knew we couldn't avoid this conversation. No point stalling.

Thick woods marked the beginning of Rookridge Road, the main highway leading north from Bowerstone. As they passed under the shroud of the trees, the driver called to the horses to quicken their pace. A touch of apprehension in his voice hinted at the possibility of an ambuscade.

Keeping an alert watch on the woods to either side, Clarice asked, "You're sure this area's clear …?"

"As I can be. I came through myself less than a week ago. Any survivors should still be cowering at the least sound of someone passing." The grim satisfaction in Celeste's voice sent a chill through Clarice.

She said, "All right then, let's talk. I don't want to make a judgement on your life style, or your private affairs ..."

Celeste began to giggle. "Oh, Clarice, you make me laugh, you're so predictable! My life style indeed!"

"... but when it impacts on such things as the bloodline, well, it concerns me, and it should concern you. Its our duty as heroes to take care of the future of our ..."

"I've had the same lecture from Therese. I don't need to hear it again."

"Clearly you do!"

"No." Celeste spoke with unexpected seriousness. "As it happens, I do appreciate that I'm part of a unique family tree which has existed since the dawn of time. And I've done my part to help continue it."

Clarice ducked a low-hanging branch, and stared at Celeste. "You have?"

"Yes."

"There's a child?"

"Two. Twins. A boy and a girl."

"But …" Clarice shook her head in confusion. "Valery …?"

"Obviously she knows nothing. I gave birth before I even met her. The twins are with their father, which is the best, the safest place for them."

"So … you divorced him?"

"Why are you assuming that I did?"

"Because ..." Clarice struggled to find the words. "Because … otherwise that would be b, b ..."

"Bigamy?"

"Yes … that!"

Celeste gave Clarice a humorous glance. "And that would really shock you, wouldn't it? But as a matter of fact, I never married him in the first place. Why should I, when I've no interest in men, other than for the purpose of reproduction?"

"You make it sound so … clinical."

"Don't mistake me. I love my children more than anything. I would even have Valery adopt them if I thought they'd be safer and happier that way. But with fiends like Lucien likely to take an interest in my affairs, I can't risk it. Its best that she knows nothing of their existence, so she can't tell anyone else."

"You're prepared to leave her vulnerable then?"

"I care for her a lot." Celeste spoke dryly as though to contradict the sentiment. "My children, however, I couldn't live without. They have to come first, and their home has always been with their father."

She obviously loves her children very much. Poor Valery doesn't even come close. She would sacrifice her in a moment if it came to that. On the other hand ...

Clarice said anxiously: "I've often feared my family wouldn't be safe, even in the heart of Bowerstone, should Lucien become aware that I'm a threat to him. I've thought of sending them to Bower Lake to hide with the gypsies. But if you know of somewhere better ..."

"Even Bower Lake might not be safe enough. My refuge is, I think, almost impossible to discover, and much more comfortable. Of course, I'll show you – our main reason for going to Oakfield is to visit my family. But its hard to describe without you being there, so let me surprise you, okay?"

Clarice nodded her assent. "I would really appreciate it."

"No problem. And now it's my turn to ask an awkward question. Why in Skorm's name did you marry that loser, Alex?"

Clarice was again left gob-smacked. Finally she managed, "H, how dare you …"

"How dare I … well, where do I begin? Even according to your own heavily-edited story, he betrayed his fiancée in a particularly spineless manner, then turned himself into a drunken wreck. Then I couldn't help observing that, previous to relating this ... fairytale, you've scarcely mentioned his name. Hardly the sign of a devoted wife, is it? And finally and best, I've personal experience of how pathetic he is." Celeste gave a short laugh. "Apart from the aforementioned spinelessness, his other physical attributes are hardly special. One might've hoped he was keeping something sizeable under his breeches, but no such luck."

"You … slept with Alex?" Clarice gasped.

"Are you really so surprised? I was able to see the ghost as well as you. The difference is, unlike you, I kept with the mission brief; you were supposed to pretend you wanted to marry him, not actually do it!"

"But … but you said ..."

"Okay, maybe this was the exception that proves the rule. Skorm's breath, I don't know what it was, curiosity, or a feeling that I ought to grant a doomed man's last request."

"Doomed, you don't mean …?"

"Yes, he killed himself, of course, exactly like she did. Wasn't that the whole point … poetic justice?"

"Why, you heartless …!"

"Oh, please, spare me the moralising tone! As a matter of fact, I was hoping it would all work out somehow … I mean, in the afterlife. And it almost did. She forgave him, you know. I suppose she felt he'd atoned for his sins. Unfortunately he wasn't in the mood to reciprocate. When he found out how she'd plotted his downfall, he ran away in disgust. On certain nights of the year, I still see them chasing each other across the fells."

The carriage had emerged from the cover of the forest, and the horses pulled it along a weathered track following the coast, beneath the overhanging cliff-tops, but not far from another heart-stopping drop to the rocks beneath. The eyes of both of them turned to the far promontory where the life and death drama had played itself out. Clarice shook her head bitterly, but said nothing.

Her silence seemed a provocation to Celeste. "Don't just sit there judging me! And don't pretend you don't understand, that you weren't tempted to do the same! Come on, I asked you why you married him!"

Clarice continued shaking her head. "I … felt sorry for him. Something you obviously don't understand."

"Oh, I'd understand, if that was what you really felt. But I don't believe you. Because I know what it was like sitting across from him in that tavern. An orphaned urchin brought up by the gypsies. And for the first time in your life, you had someone absolutely in your power. Not just their life, their soul. And you loved it, that feeling. You couldn't admit it, but you didn't want it to end. And then, when it came to the moment of truth, you were so racked with guilt, you couldn't go through with it. Guilt, not pity. I know because I felt it too. Unlike you, I'd learnt to deal with it."

Clarice sobbed aloud. "You have the nerve to accuse me, when you're the one that as good as murdered him!"

"I like to think of myself more as the instrument of justice. On the contrary, its you that can't admit to your real feelings. I shouldn't be surprised, because you've been acting like a hypocrite all along."

This wasn't how it was supposed to be; she's turning everything round on its head! "I'm not a hypocrite!"

"Oh, no? Do you love him? Well, do you? Come on answer me! You don't even find him all that attractive, isn't that right? And you know very well why. Yet you had the effrontery to look down your nose at my … lifestyle choices … as you call them. When all the time, Clarice, when all the time ..."

Clarice put her hands over her ears. "I'm not listening to this!"

"That won't do you any good. I'm the one person you can't ignore, because I'm inside you, and wherever you look you'll see me looking right back, like a reflection in the mirror ..."

"La, la, la, not listening ..."

"Behave like a child if you like, it'll remind you that we're the same."

"La, la … wait what's that up ahead? There's someone lying on the ground! Stop the coach!"

"Whoa boys, whoa there!" The coachman pulled sharply on the reins to bring the horses and the carriage to a sudden clattering halt. Even before it had stopped moving, Clarice had leapt to the ground, closely followed by Celeste.

Her cloak was the colour of violets, and her surcoat forget-me-not blue, as though a spray of blooms had been carelessly tossed aside on the barren roadside. She lay on one side, a wave of raven-black hair falling across her face, obscuring her features. Even without a hero's eyes, the bright hues of her clothing were unmissable. As Clarice approached, she moaned and twisted.

From behind, Celeste commented in an undertone, "Oldest bandit trick in the book."

"I know ... but we can't abandon someone who may need our help because we're afraid of a trap. Watch the cliffs for any movement." Clarice knelt beside the woman, asked gently, "I'm here to help, tell me how you've been injured."

She seemed to flinch, the movement sweeping aside her dark locks like a drawn curtain, revealing grey-blue eyes, narrowed in apparent pain. She spoke between agonised gasps. "I fell ... I can't remember how. I think I've broken my arm."

Despite the note of distress, her speech had a richness and clarity that indicated good education and breeding, perhaps even noble birth. Not the manner of a typical bandit, Clarice thought. And she's barely more than a child, poor thing! If her arm has been broken, then she's bearing the pain extremely well.

She said, "Please allow me to examine it."

Clarice had been taught basic bone setting techniques by Therese, and had come equipped with alchemical potions to speed recovery and soothe pain. As she prepared to examine a potential broken limb, she was already considering how best to immobilize it.

The young woman watched her intently, still grimacing. "I thought no one would be brave enough to stop and help me."

"Don't worry, try to stay calm and … tell me your name."

"River." She had finely drawn brows, a mouth like a ripe strawberry, and a determined, pointed chin.

"Relax, and don't try to move, River. I'll soon have you feeling better. Now let's see if ..."

Clarice reached out to examine River's right arm, the one she supposed might be broken. As she did so, River moved her left arm from beneath her purple cape with sudden, astonishing speed, and like a conjurer performing a well-rehearsed trick, pressed the muzzle of the previously concealed pistol against Clarice's forehead.

"Don't budge, either of you, unless you want to see a lot of spilled brains."

Celeste had already, on the instant, drawn her rifle from its shoulder holster, and was covering River with it.

"Put it down." River's voice had taken on the tone of someone accustomed to being obeyed. "Look up, you'll see you're outnumbered, outgunned and surrounded." The ridge of the hills was lined with bandits bristling with weaponry.

"Maybe." Celeste continued pointing the gun. "But that won't stop me shooting you."

"Try it then." River returned her stare unblinkingly. "Your friend will die, and you'll follow her soon after. Your choice."

"She means it!" Clarice's exclamation was somewhat unbecoming of a hero, yet she didn't want to risk leaving her daughter motherless over something as banal as a holdup.

Celeste locked eyes with River, then reluctantly placed the weapon on the ground.

The Countess peered anxiously out of the coach window. "Why have we stopped? Who is this woman? What's happening?"

River motioned to Clarice to stand, keeping the pistol close to her head. "Ah, a noblewoman, just the kind of traveller we were hoping to entertain! This is highway robbery. Stand and deliver!"


"Well now." River surveyed the captives ranked in front of her. "Following the hold up, we get to the part I really enjoy. There wouldn't be much point if we weren't able to find something worth taking. But I'm sure that, along with these very fine animals ..." she waved to where one of the bandits had begun removing the coach horses from their traces "... you won't disappoint me." She casually pointed her pistol. "You, Countess, set everyone an example: hand over your jewellery."

"Certainly not!" the Countess spluttered. "Some of these ornaments have been in my family for generations!"

"That, I fear, is not our present concern. If you would be so good as to oblige." River cocked her pistol with one hand, and with the other held out her three-cornered highwaymen's hat. Reluctantly the Countess plucked the gem-studded rings from her fingers and ears.

River considered, then waggled the pistol. "You've neglected to remove a particularly costly-looking pendant."

"An heirloom of impeccable heritage!" the Countess husked. "I couldn't possibly ..."

"Ah, Countess, you put me to the trouble of taking it from around your lovely throat!" Before the Countess could object, River had reached around the noblewoman's neck to unclasp the gold filigree necklace. In the process, she made a point of brushing her hands close to the Countess' bosom, making her shudder. "What soft skin you have!"

Celeste, who happened to be next in line, remarked to Clarice, "She's quite an amusing little strumpet, isn't she?"

"Aren't we the bold one?" River swaggered along the line of captives to confront Celeste, hand on hip. "Perhaps you would also like to donate some jewels to our common fund?"

"If you want them, take them." Celeste held out her hand, displaying her rings.

River slipped off the sapphire-studded signet rings, holding Celeste's hand delicately, and just a little longer than necessary, like a suitor in reverse. Their eyes met and held.

I can't believe this! Clarice thought. It's exactly as if they're flirting with each other!

After a significant pause, River said, "These gems are even finer than those formerly in the Countess' possession." She folded her arms. "Who are you?"

Clarice could see the Countess was itching to speak, and prayed that she would not. Instead Celeste replied, "I'm someone who'd be very interested to take a closer look at that rather unusual pistol you hold."

River drew out the pistol again, and sighted along the barrel. Clarice noticed it was an advanced turret model, capable of firing six shots in rapid succession, and decorated with an engraving of a dragon breathing fire, with a red augment stone for an eye. "You're a connoisseur of firearms? Yes, its quite unique, isn't it?"

"Not quite." Celeste gave her a mocking look. "They give a pair of them to anyone who wins the first prize at the West Cliff shooting gallery. I have two at home."

"Liar!" River's countenance suddenly darkened with fury. "No one else could have the skill and speed. Except ..."

The Countess could no longer contain herself. "Except the Hero of Bowerstone, who you now face. Tremble before her, you snivelling villain!"

The anger vanished from River's face as swiftly as it had arisen, to be replaced by a thoughtful expression. "Ah!" she said softly. "That explains much."

"What it means, varlet, is that you and your unsavoury rabble might as well surrender. All who face the invincible might of the hero perish." The Countess's voice had regained much of its smugness.

"But still." River spoke in a pondering, dreamy tone. "I have yet to hear that a hero's skin turns aside bullets." In an almost offhand manner, she aimed the pistol in Celeste's direction.

Celeste said quickly, "Whether or not that is true, what glory would there be in putting it to trial? Would you have them recount the tale of how you shot the Hero of Bowerstone unarmed?"

River seem to shake herself from her trance. "No," she said. "Can you suggest an alternative ending?"

"Give me the mate of that pistol, and we will try conclusions at ten paces."

"A duel!" laughed River. "What a deliciously tempting idea! But I've a better one. Why not join our little association? Let us be the wolves amongst these flocks of sheep." She gestured contemptuously towards the Countess.

Clarice held her breath. Celeste's face was still, as though caught by the idea. Surely … surely she wouldn't, she couldn't …

"I will join with you." Celeste spoke quietly. Then in a raised voice, "I will join with you … when you leave behind this pathetic rabble of thieves. When you turn from a life of futile, petty crime to something worthy of your skills, when …"

"Enough!" River waved the pistol. "If you anger me again, you'll regret it."

Celeste smiled. "That won't be so difficult. Your mother shouldn't have allowed you out, when you have such poor self-control."

"I said to be careful how you speak. My father would've hanged you from the yard arm for your insolence. And ... I do as I please."

"Let me hazard a guess. Your mother is dead. Your father, seeing the mirror of his wife in you, raised a spoiled brat, indulging your every whim. In the end, he tired of coddling your intemperate demands, and set you loose to plague others instead."

"You guess nothing. I agreed to part ways with my father, to give each of us liberty to pursue our chosen prey. His lie on the sea, mine are now of the land."

"And what a delightful path you've followed!" Celeste jeered. "A pirate's daughter, turned highway robber. Your mother, I'm sure, was a whore, abandoned callously and left to pine to death in some godforsaken dingy port …"

"I said, enough!" River tore off one of her heavy gloves, and threw it to the ground. "You want a duel, you'll get one. But not with these beauties." She seized a flintlock pistol from the bandit next to her, and tossed it to Celeste. "One bullet, one shot, one chance to kill me. Because if you don't, I will certainly kill you."

"Very well." Celeste caught the gun neatly, examined it. "But just to ensure a fair fight … put those dragons where they can't flame." She indicated a flat piece of granite nearby.

"Granted" River drew a matching pistol from her bosom, and placed the pair on the indicated rock, then took a second ordinary flintlock from the bandit. "Now … shall we?"

"I prefer the old style." Celeste sounded perfectly calm. "Back to back, count out ten paces, turn and fire."

"Whatever … let's do this."

If River experienced even a twinge of fear, Clarice couldn't detect it. She's remarkably level-headed for her age. I hope Celeste knows what she's doing.

But as the duellists approached one another, River paused, seeming to hesitate, looking searchingly into Celeste's face. I've done that, Clarice thought. Looked into the eyes of the enemy I've had to kill or be killed by. What does she hope to see? Just for an instant, it seemed an expression that was almost pleading flickered across the highway woman's countenance. Not in the hope of mercy … she doesn't really want to fight Celeste! Perhaps she admires her or …

Celeste's own features remained like stone. Apparently not finding what she sought in them, River's hardened likewise.

As they turned back to back, Celeste remarked, "At moments like this, don't you feel as though time stands still. She gave Clarice a significant look.

"It will for you," River retorted.

"Well, if you're determined to push your luck, let's begin." This time Celeste's glance flicked to the rock with the two pistols. For the barest moment, she clenched her thumb and small finger, leaving the other three fingers spread.

River nodded to a burly bandit. "Start the count."

"One … two …" Pistols held formally upright, Celeste and River took long, deliberate steps away from each other in time with the counting.

The Stasis will have to follow the Push, or they'll suspect. Hope we can control it at this speed.

"Three …" As the duellists took their third step, Celeste made the slightest flex of her hand towards the rock, with the palm open.

At Clarice's level of mastery, even such an unobtrusive gesture was unnecessary. Hand movements and incantations were merely a means of helping to focus her Will. She was easily able to cast lesser spells with her mind alone. But it would help to attain a finer degree of control in this case.

Nearly simultaneously, both of the dragon pistols rose from the rock and sailed through the air … the first straight into Celeste's waiting free hand. The second flew much more jerkily in the opposite direction. A microsecond later, without a word spoken or a finger lifted, the pistol slowed in its flight, each of its rotations visibly taking more than twice as long, until Clarice plucked it out of the sky.

Sounds had become drawn out and distorted, as though echoing down a long corridor. The alarmed movements of the bandits reaching for their weapons, the mouth of the Countess opening to scream, the thump of heartbeats … each seemed to take an age to complete. As she felt the familiar tug of the slow time spell, Clarice knew she was able to navigate it, to swim while others floundered. Perhaps heroes, linked to the past and standing, as it were, outside time, had a natural ability to operate within a temporal stasis. Whether true or not, she knew she would hardly be effected by her own spell, a protection that should extend to Celeste, as it had to Hammer in past battles.

Celeste was spinning rapidly, the extended roar and flare of the turret pistol mingling with the screech of the closest bandit as the explosive round struck his weapon arm, the second report following in close succession with the duller splatter of exploding brains from a precise head shot. Her movement continued into a natural evasive roll towards her slow falling victim, grabbing hold of his sword.

Clarice needed only the slightest turn and adjustment of her aim to blast the guard standing nearest to her. The slow time made her targets ridiculously easy, seeming to line themselves up in her sights. Another bandit menacing the Countess died from shots to the head and heart. A third stepped out from behind the coach to be downed instantly.

Having dealt with the immediate threat of multiple opponents, Clarice turned her attention back to River, and found to her astonishment that the highway woman, who had been facing away from Celeste at the start of the combat, was already crouching behind a rock, taking deliberate aim with her flintlock. Despite the continuing time stasis, her movements seemed quick, deft and uninhibited.

"Looo-ook out!" Clarice's warning shout slurred, then rapped out, as the slow-motion spell abruptly ended. Celeste slashed open the belly of another bandit, and swung his body around as a human shield. River fired unhesitatingly, causing the corpse to buck as the bullet struck, and Celeste to reel backwards. Clarice emptied the turret pistol's barrel in River's direction, but she had ducked down to reload, and the bullets chipped and pinged off the stone. Celeste took the opportunity to find hard cover before River could fire again. Once amongst the rocks, she calmly began to pick off the remaining bandits at a convenient distance. Several more tried to rush Clarice, but she had regained enough Will to fling a shock spell to halt them. Another barrel of shots from the dragon pistols mopped up the survivors.

Making use of the distraction, River scuttled from the rock to behind the carriage, firing once as she did so. Moments later came the pounding of hooves. A black coach horse raced by, nostrils flaring, with River clinging by one stirrup to the side facing the sea, shielded by the beast's sweating body.

"We'll meet again, hero … and finish that duel!"

Clarice reloaded the turret weapon, made a half-hearted attempt to aim at the fleeing horse and its precarious rider, then lowered it as Celeste emerged from behind the rocks. She was holding her left side, dark spots dripping into the dust behind her. The black horse galloped wildly to where the path turned past the ghost statue, then disappeared behind the curve of the cliffs.

"You're wounded!" Clarice gasped. She pulled aside Celeste's clothing to examine her left abdomen. Blood continued to seep onto the ground.

Celeste gave a smile that was half a grimace. "She didn't miss. Luckily her late associate turned the bullet enough. Don't worry, give me a potion, and I'll be fine." She swigged hard on the glass bulb that Clarice produced. "Ah, that feels better already!"

"Keep pressure on the wound until the bleeding ends," Clarice said fussily. "Later I'll check for bullet fragments. Doesn't look too bad … but no sense in taking chances. Injuries from firearms can be deceptive and ..."

"Yes, I had Therese' lecture too. Just keep these idiots away from me."

Unlike their mistress, the three servants had taken cover at the start of the combat. They were now cautiously coming back into the open, looking pale and shaken. If the Countess shared their state of discomposure, it was partly hidden by her white powdered complexion.

"I knew," she began. "I knew you would triumph over these abominable scum. Because you are ..."

"Please, your Ladyship," Clarice remonstrated. "I need to attend to my cousin's injuries, so if you would be so good as to give us a little time and space."

"Yes, yes, of course," the Countess muttered, and withdrew.

"Thank Skorm, for that," Celeste sighed with relief. "It was probably worth taking a wound to shut her up. First time since the Howling Halls I've received more than a scratch though." She pointed to a whitening scar on her belly.

"You may get another to match that."

"Good. It'll remind me to keep my focus on the most dangerous enemy."

Clarice shook her head. "She had her back to you when the fight started."

"Then I'll remember not to be so chivalrous."

"It wasn't only a matter of chivalry, was it?"

"What else would you call it?" Celeste spoke dryly. "Professional courtesy?"

"If you like. And it would have taken more than one bullet, I think."

"Unless that bullet was to the head."

"Yes. Though that might not have been enough either."

"You noticed then?"

"Of course. How could I not? The stasis … it hardly slowed her at all."

Celeste nodded. "I guessed almost as soon as we met her. She drew her weapon so fast … not even I could match that. And these pistols are proof she won the first prize at the West Cliff shooting range."

"It's certain then. She has the true blood of heroes."


*Stand and Deliver: A song by another eighties band, Adam and the Ants, provides the chapter title (though of course its the classic highwayman's cry). I originally thought I could work some of the lyrics into the story, but more or less abandoned that idea as too artificial.

A lane beside the Bower River: trying to figure out how a carriage might get from the main coach station (near Bowerstone Market's gate) to Rookridge, I looked up the official map of Albion (which would've been nice to have with the game!) From that it appears the only route is through Bowerstone's narrow, crowded streets. Possibly a case of the developers not thinking it through, and providing a convenient bypass.

You divorced him? The game engine makes it impossible for players to have children without first getting married. That might seem like a bid for the moral high ground, except there's an xbox achievement for bigamy! The achievement blurb even suggests marriage is so beneficial, you might as well do it twice ... or more! Divorce and remarriage is possible in-game, but probably more trouble than its worth. Having multiple marriages, on the other hand, brings all kinds of benefits, if carefully managed. I hesitate to say how many families my current character has, and I'm sure I'm not alone here.

River: if you still haven't guessed who her father is, then here's another clue. If he was in the fic, perhaps a lot more of you would be reading this!

Push: Although there seems no reason why Force Push shouldn't be reversible, I decided to stick strictly to the game, and assume it operates in one direction. So Celeste and Clarice pushed the pistols towards each other, the only difference being that Clarice had better control. Not as useful as the ability of a different kind of Force adept to draw an object (such as a light sabre or blaster) into their hands.

Stasis Level Two Time Control, lasting a few seconds longer. How it works (not effecting heroes or allies) is just my take on it. To be honest, I'm not entirely sure if that's what happens in the game! I'm usually too busy killing the enemy!

Theoretically the completion of this chapter (even if it gets few hits) may cheer the rest of my readers who are hoping for me to finish the other story at last. Theoretically ...