The box turned in his hands, flipping and twisting in frustration.
“Clotilde, this box will be the death of me!”
“Will you set it down for a bit? You’ve been obsessed with it since the battle, since the last phase of the moon. It’s evil. I am sure that is what the man in black is looking for.”
“There is no man in black. We have searched enough, there is no man.”
“There is. I told the guards that I saw him again earlier today.”
Ignoring her. “I know it. There is something with it. Look here…”
“No, Clovis, I will not. I have seen you throw that box across the room too many times. I will not let its cursed aura take a part of me as well.”
“These runes carved in the face have no beginning or end. They seem to, but everytime one stops it crosses another and continues.” Again he spun the box to follow the carved pattern and it moved over one edge along the length of the bottom and back up another side.
“Put it down on the stand and come to bed.”
“Ugh. There is something in this box, and it is haunting me. The rattling of it from the inside drives me insane. Someone put something in there. There is no opening. No way to open it. No slide lock, no seam, no hinge; but someone put it in there.”
“Please, the box will be there in the morning.”
As if she hadn’t even spoken, he continued, “Look at it, the different shades of wood are crafted to match with no ridges. It is smooth on all sides.
”There is a power to this box, and whatever is contained within.”
And then she grinned in the corners of her mouth. ”Ask your new God to care for it while you sleep.”
“Woman, your humor is lost on me. I have been baptised. All of my men have been baptised. We have pledged ourselves to him. The least He can do is care for my box.” He slammed the box down on the table across the large bedroom, slowly walked toward his wife while grumbling the entire time, and slumped into bed next to her. He wrapped an arm over her stomach and looked at her with a longing look in his eye.
“No. You’re obsession with the damned box has become the focus of your desire. I suggest you figure out a way for it to grant you the pleasure that your attention deserves.” She flipped his arm from off her stomach and turned to face away from him.
Clotilde lay in her bed, listening to Clovis’ breathing deepen into the relaxed rhythm that meant snoring was not far behind.
Even though she hadn’t touched the box, she could feel it as it lay on the table on the other side of the room.
The man it black had visited her twice before, privately, but she hadn’t told her husband. She knew that if Clovis was aware that a man had approached her, his obsession would be unbearable.
One morning just past dawn, as Clotilde had moved through the courtyard enjoying the peacefulness of the early morning, the man dressed in all black had whispered to her from behind a column at the edge.
He had warned her that the ‘nostomonia’ that drew the box back to its creator would make it unbearable to ignore.
And then a second time, he approached her in the market behind tapestries hanging to dry after cleaning. He had asked if Clovis had opened the box. She didn’t understand why, but his intensity to find the box seemed beyond the interest of random curiosity.
Now as she drifted to sleep, her last sensation was of restlessness that seemed to emanate from the box. It led her to dreams of a short, strange looking man that yelled in frustration at a crowd of creatures. In the dream, the box was his, and he wanted it back.
As soon as Clotilde drifted into slumber, Clovis stopped pretending to snore. Nights were rarely a peaceful experience for Clovis. He never completely relaxed. After years of fighting the Gauls to the north, the barbarians in the mountains, and his cousins against the coast, he couldn’t afford to doze deeply. Now, with the box as a preoccupation, any relaxing was pointless.
Clotilde’s breathing was deep and relaxed.
In the stillness of the night, Clovis heard a soft scraping moving across the wooden slatted floors.
He didn’t move, but began to think through his actions. Mace and sword are out of reach beyond the box. The box lies beyond me and the creepers. Whoever it is must have stealth beyond human, I will have to be quick.
Clovis waited one moment more, to identify the sound and make sure he could place its location.
Another shuffling sound came from just beyond the edge of the bed.
Clovis shifted his head gradually enough to peer between the slits in his eyelids and chance a glimpse in the direction of the movement.
There was nothing to be seen, but the sound continued. A slow dragging sound moving slowly across the wooden floors.
Then there was a shimmer in the air. Just the slightest movement, all but transparent in the glow of the moonlight passing through the open window.
The open window! He had closed that window when first entering the bedroom earlier this evening.
Clovis rolled out of the bed into a fighting crouch to confront the wraith moving through the room.
Still, there was nothing but the gentle shift of breeze and the overwhelming feeling of being watched. The briefest of change in the air and the outline of a thin figure stopped fast.
A breeze drifted gently through the open windows, curtains shifting slightly back and forth.
Clovis remained in his place of defense, hunkered by the side of the bed, knees bent, ready to strike – at nothing.
After a shadow of brief movement, the sound of dragging across the oak planks became more distinct as it continued toward the box.
“Clovis, get to the box!” A resounding voice demanded from the flowing curtains. Then toward the moving sound across the floor, “Beast, you have no place here!”
With an instantaneous movement, the shimmering figure propelled itself across the room and through the window in a dash. The shuffling sound disappeared.
The bearer of the voice moved swiftly from the bedroom door to throw himself through the open window in pursuit of the specter.
Clovis grabbed the box and then sprinted past the bed to look through the window. There was no movement in the dark, and no sign of the man in the black robes that had spoken.
Longinus stood shoulder to shoulder with the dark shadow of the legendary warrior, Hrodman, and watched Clovis sparring with several other men.
Hrodman shivered and pulled the hood of his cowl farther over his eyes until nothing but his nose and chin could be seen beneath it. The setting sun was leaving a chill in the air.
The continuous clang of metal striking metal carried over the walls surrounding a large courtyard and echoed through the streets of the city of Paris.
“Now they have switched from swords to battle axes and war hammers,” Longinus mumbled, “we will be waiting for hours.”
Hrodman let out a huge sigh, the breath turning to cold steam the moment it left the warmth of the cloak.
Longinus looked up at Hrodman. “Something wrong?”
“Yes, this is a waste of time. I don’t know Bashi cannot care for the box himself.”
“Seems to be of great import, for them to ask for our assistance.”
“Bah, what is important to others does not always demand the aid of Hrodman.”
“You realize that I am here also. That Bashi requested that I assist you.”
“Yes, a fact that he avoided to tell me when we last talked.”
“It must be critical. Besides, I think you and he share a kindred spirit.”
The hood shifted just enough for Hrodman to glance at Longinus, dark eyes blinking twice before looking away again.
The posture of both men never shifted. Their identical large muscular frames stood ready for action. Knees slightly bent, hands on concealed weapons.
“Hrodman does not need assistance. He allows you to remain simply because he respects Longinus the Spear Bearer.”
“Why did you not take the box when you were in the room?”
“Clovis should not be under estimated. As well, my concern at that time was the creature from Midian that was seeking the box, not Clovis.”
“What of this ‘box’?”
Hrodman looked up into the grey sky and then over at Longinus. “I don’t know much. All of the previous owners of the box have been inhabitants of the shadow realm. Built by a creature known as the Tinker, the box has the ability to change people, to bend them to the will of the holder. It is small, barely longer than your feet and as wide as your hands. There are intricate carvings that are used to open it, and there are only a few that have been able to decipher its puzzle. In Midian, Tinker had used the power of the box to increase the loyalty of others toward him, thereby increasing his followers.
“Tinker is also the creator the Lamina. The coins, of which one is inside the box, are of particular importance.
“The beings on the other side can only see us as a fata morgana -.”
“An illusion.” Longinus confirmed.
“Yes. It is difficult for the watchers from the others side to become present in Reality. It requires an incredible amount of strength. Most creatures could not cross. The Tinker forged small round disks of metal from the middle realm that resemble coins. They have a certain ability to grant easier passage into our world.
“How did Clovis come in possession of The Box and a Lamina?”
Hrodman sighed again. “In the Battle of Tolbaic, west of here, Clovis was being attacked by the Alamenni. The attack seemed strange, really seemed a useless waste of men and energy. Hyoi found that a Conculos from Cocytus named Fargoth was using the coin to talk to the Alamenni, to influence them to attack the area around Rhine-Westphalia. No one is yet sure what value this area had for Fargoth. It seems even his superiors still don’t know.
“Hyoi and my impetuous friend Bashi chose to stop the interference by ending the battle here eliminating the leader of the Alamenni-“
“No, Gibuild passed and several lesser men attempted to contain and lead the Alamenni. All of them greedy foolish barbarians, seeking power. Fargoth tried to take advantage of it. If I had been aware, the repercussions would have been much more extreme.
“After Bashi put an arrow through the head of the barbarian leader, Clovis saw him and jumped through the opening left by Bashi as he returned to their realm.
“According to Bashi, Fargoth confronted Clovis, which was a mistake. Clovis eliminated a coven of Cocyti warriors and then ripped The Box from Fargoth as he cut his head off.”
“Has Clovis tried to use The Box or coin?”
“No. At least it doesn’t appear so. We are here for two reasons. To find out if he has used either, and to return The Box to Midian. If the coin is still with The Box, I plan to make Tinker eat it myself.
”We go now.”
They walked across the street and through the gates of the courtyard as the soldiers started to dissipate. Clovis was bare chested with no clothing but leather pants, Arma Vita Vivet, the shield breaker, swinging gently from his waist.
Clovis held a wooden sword in one hand behind him, crouched in a fighting stance.
“Lo, he approaches. The miserable monk. Huh, huh, huh.” Clovis let out a laugh as he swung a wooden sword and it cracked against Clotaire’s wooden shield.
“I had told Clotilde that you weren’t real until last night. You will not get what you came for.” He handed the sword to Clotaire and turned to face the approaching men. “And you’ve brought a friend.”
Hrodman turned his hood to face Clovis’ son. “Clotaire, would you leave us please?”
As if he hadn’t been standing upright already, Clovis seemed to grow to twice his size. He walked forward and met Hrodman toe to toe. Face to Face. Although the same height, Clovis’ width and build seemed to dwarf Hrodman in size.
Clovis growled, “Do not…ever…be so arrogant…to assume that you can command an heir to the Merovingian throne.”
Longinus backed away a step and placed a hand on the sword at his hip. Hrodman did not move. He calmly replied “Do not ever be so arrogant, misguided, or foolish to think that you can look Hrodman in the eye, much less inform him of his place.”
Clovis didn’t move, he simply pointed with his right arm to the exit. Clotaire placed his wooden weapons onto a rack at the edge of the practice area, turned and ran through the gate, shutting it behind him.
Clovis pointed with his left hand to the gate that the two visitors had entered through, and a soldier exited the courtyard and shut it behind him.
All three men stood motionless for a moment.
Clovis slid his left hand down along his side and around the handle of Arma Vita Vivet.
Hrodman crossed his arms and reached through folds in his robe. “Quite a barbaric weapon you carry.”
Longinus stepped back, away from the imminent pending explosion of metal on metal. “Clovis, if we can just explain…”
“Words are for the weak. Action speaks where words fail,” Clovis growled.
And then it began.
Arma swung up in a blur.
In one motion, Hrodman bent backward as the mace passed short of his chin, his arms drew two short swords from his robe up and crossed them in a blocking move as Clovis reversed his swing to bring it back down onto Hrodman. The mace met the blades and sent a ringing sound echoing through the courtyard.
The two gazed into each other eyes, weapons locked above their heads. “Impressive speed.” Clovis smiled. “This may be more of a challenge than I thought.”
Hrodman’s arms tensed like steel bands to hold his swords against the mace as Clovis strained to push Arma down. Niether could release pressure, knowing that giving meant allowing the other the freedom to press an attack.
Longinus slowly pulled his sword from its sheath.
Clovis shifted his eyes to Longinus sword and smiled. “Sad monk, it seems your friend is thinking of joining us.”
Longinus finished revealing the blade, extending the tip to point directly at Clovis’ midsection. Light seemed to dance along the length of the blades, swirling through Runes engraved in the steel. “I do not fear you, Clovis, I only fear the loss of a life.”
Clovis yanked Arma back behind him and leaned back as the two swords crossed in front of his face and away to the side. Continuing the motion, he spun in a circle and swung the mace across at waist level.
The broad sword in Longinus’ hands rang with the sound of a large bell and spun from his grip, landing several paces away.
Clovis immediately reversed his swing back and around toward the two blades being thrust toward his midsection.
With a yell and every bit of energy he could muster, he followed through with his swing.
Hrodman realized his timing was late, and his attempt to catch Clovis when his back was turned would fail. He pulled back from his stab to find Arma moving full speed to intersect them.
Hrodman tightened his grip on both swords and twisted in time to save them. The strength of the swing of the mace would have broken them as well as his hands and wrists. Both swords jerked his wrists to the side and forced him to release the swords to fall with a clang on the grass.
Clovis finished his swing and paused in a crouch, facing Hrodman, but looking at Longinus to make sure that he was still far enough away not to pose a threat.
Hrodman bent at his knees, dark eyes piercing straight into Clovis’ stare. Clovis stepped back from Hrodman and stood up straight. “By all that is holy, your eyes are not the eyes of a mere mortal. They carry the pain and anger of generations. What has sent you here?”
Hrodman offered no response. Clovis shifted his gaze to look at Longinus. “You, as well, bear a sadness and determination unknown to man.
“Although I fear you both, and the eternity that wells within your stare, I cannot allow you to pass from this place. You have challenged me, and thereby the entire Merovingian Dynasty.”
“Attempt what you must, but I came for the box that you took from the unholy creature. I cannot leave it alone, for it bears a dark strength that you do not comprehend. I will banter no longer.”
A sadness passed between the three men, with understanding that a resolution seemed impossible
The crowd that watched from the top of the fortress wall would never be able to describe the flurry of action that erupted below them in the courtyard.
Longinus backed away and knelt on one knee. Clovis flinched his arm forward, sending the full power of his massive arm and chest into the mace. Hrodman bent backwards and sideways into a roll that placed him directly above the two discarded swords. Completing his role, he rose back to his feet, slightly crouched, ready for the next attack.
Recognition began to dawn on Hrodman. His swords would never be a match for Clovis’ mace and the speed and strength that wielded it. He stepped forward watching Clovis begin the swing of Arma, and thrust both short swords at Clovis hoping that Clovis would be caught off balance by the straight forward attack.
The mace shifted direction to deflect the swords, exposing the back of his wrist to Hrodman.
Hrodman released the swords and reached forward with his left hand to grabbed the wrist. He reached forward with his right hand and peeled back at the fingers that held the mace. He poured every bit of strength into his arms and hands. The mace fell to the ground.
Clovis reversed his now empty grip and latched onto Hrodman’s arm, then swung his arm with all of the force that he could collect, spinning Hrodman into the air and through the racks that held the sparring weapons.
Hrodman stood slowly, holding two short staffs in his hands, and began to move them in a consistent pattern in front of him, creeping toward Clovis.
Clovis began to bend to reach for the mace at his feet, and Hrodman sprang forward, slamming each of the sticks into Clovis’ empty hands.
Clovis yelled and jumped backwards, opening and closing his fists to test that they weren’t broken.
Hrodman advanced forward, keeping the sticks moving in a rhythmic pattern.
Clovis began bouncing backwards and forwards to the movement of the sticks, and at once shot both hands forward, intersecting the swinging pieces of wood with his palms.
Shifting the pattern without hesitation, Hrodman avoided the grasping hands and brought both rods the smash into Clovis’ massive upper arms.
Clovis let out a scream.
The beating didn’t stop. Without ever losing momentum, the rods struck Clovis’ body with a consistent rhythm. After a few seconds, every muscle in his body ached and begged not to move.
The sticks dropped down. One hooked under his left knee. The other pressed up against his throat. Hrodman slowly applied pressure, taking Clovis off balance, cutting off his breath, pinning him against the ground. Clovis twisted and used his arms to apply pressure, but the more force he used, the more pressure the weapons applied to his throat and legs.
As his vision began to blur at the edges, and breath coming with strained gasps, Clovis grabbed onto the sticks and began to slowly twist.
Hrodman’s face twisted in determination as his arms and wrists could not resist the force applied.
Clolvis pulled and twisted slowly, releasing the wooden weapons from their points of leverage.
Throwing his weight behind him, Clovis fell down backwards, pulling on the weapons and kicking up into Hrodman.
Hrodman flew once again into the air.
Longinus watched as the flight path of Hrodman carried him in slow motion through the air. Hrodman, now disarmed again, twisted to land perfectly on both feet, facing Clovis.
Clovis stepped forward, casting aside the pieces of wood. Both men taking heavy breaths, struck out continuously in hopes of making contact. Neither one did.
It continued while both men failed to make contact.
Clovis took a deep breath, almost stumbling forward, and swung his arm in a great arc.
Hrodman ducked and then kicked out with his right leg.
Clovis jumped over the sweep and landed with one leg, the other stomping down on where Hrodman had been crouched.
Hrodman saw the jump and knew the next move would be the crushing foot. He rolled on the ground, catching Clovis’ supporting leg between both of his and continued to roll, forcing Clovis to fall in the direction of the roll.
Clovis landed with a thud that knocked the air out of his lungs. Laying on the ground, he scanned the area for Hrodman, preparing for the next attack. From the corner of his eye, he saw Hrodman laying just out of reach, panting for air.
“Huh, huh, huh.” Clovis began to laugh. “You are the toughest bastard I have ever known.”
Laying on his back, gasping for air like a fish yanked from the ocean, Hrodman replied, “Likewise, Hrodman does not allow a battle to continue long enough to lose his wind.”
“Is that it, then?” and Clovis began to roll to his knees.
Longinus stepped forward between the two men and placed the tip of his sword gently against Clovis’ chest, pressing gently as Clovis lay back on his back. Then he looked down at them, face full of disgust. “Do the pair of you even know what you are fighting for? You cannot, because there is no reason.”
“Oh, there is. He’s meaning to take my box and the rattle inside it.”
“You mean you haven’t opened it, the box?” Longinus continued.
“No. It scares me. The box bears with it a dark that I do not know. I brought it back from the dream, but the feeling of that dream remains with the box.”
Hrodman sat up and looked at Clovis. “You massive, thick headed, gargoyle, grinning oaf. Why do you fight for something that you know not of?”
“Do not make me kill you when I finally catch my breath again, black monk. I still do not take kindly to insults, even if you are a fine warrior. Respect for your king is still demanded.”
“Oh, you are NOT my king, il mio coscia pugno, spesso ingegn, buone intenzioni maschio bestia.”
Clovis looked up at Longinus. “What did he just call me?”
“Uh, it’s in the speech of the Romans. Something to do with ham fisted and thick brained, but well meaning.”
Hrodman laid back down, still breathing through deep gasps.
Longinus sat next to Hrodman.
“Do you recognize this?” Clovis reached into the pouch as his waist and produced a round wooden disk half the size of his palm. There was a rough “G” carved on one side. He turned the wooden marker and showed an “I” scratched in the other side.
Hrodman tucked his hand into his belt and produced a similar round disk carved with the same letters. “Aye, it seems we have a common admirer. The little bastard. And it seems we are brothers in the same fight.”
Clovis, staring up into the sky, said, “You’re not taking The Box.”
Hrodman replied, “No, I don’t think that will be necessary. We are warriors fighting the same enemy. You are a man worthy to be reckoned with. But you should know, just as what happened this past evening, others will come looking for the objects. When they do, you and your family will be in danger.”
“You were the intruder last evening. Do not take me for a fool.”
“You are no fool. It was I that spoke to you in the night, but there was another in your room last night, seeking the box. You saw him, you were stalking him.”
“Tell me more, dark monk.”
“There are others, like the one from whom you acquired the box. They will find a way to retrieve what they believe belongs to them. I know nothing more. I have nothing more that can be shared.
“But I know one who does. Longinus, we have to find Bashi.”
“Bashi!” Clovis yelled, “He is one of the pixie warriors from my dream, I heard the other speak his name.”
“Yes, he is the very same, and it was no dream, dear king.”
With a grunt, Hrodman and Longinus stood and walked across the courtyard and to the gate.
Hrodman stopped and turned before leaving. “Guard yourself, Clovis, the battle has yet to be fought.”
The two warriors continued into the streets of Paris.