The Old Men


#1

When Old Man Ruger climbed up the hill that led to the castle at Grand Casar’s center, he felt his age. It left him winded and tired; he felt old, making that walk, in a way that he rarely did. Coming to Avalon let him leave behind some of the ghosts of his past. Walking up to a castle built in the Carrionese style opened up old memories and brought some of those ghosts back. It wasn’t just the exertion that made him feel old. He found something peculiar and a little funny that he of all people would go treat with a representative of the old Kingdom of Carrion, before Carrion became the Federal Kingdom and before West was a republic.

Times changed and worlds changed, though. Thirty years ago, Darbur and Ruger had been enemies, even if they never met. Now, they were the two old men in town, who remembered the Web as it was. Their old allegiances be damned, they had a city to protect and a great deal in common.

Ruger didn’t have any official title in the town, but the guards at the castle parted when he approached nonetheless. He looked around the castle for a moment, as he reached the entryway, and took it in. The decorations, the stonework, and the older technology all took him back to another time. The faded blue and silver banners did, too, though the intricate shapes on them had become lost with time. He waited there, making eye contact with the chamberlain’s manservant. He said nothing but departed. It wasn’t long before he returned.

“With me, sir.”

Ruger nodded and followed him through the twisting hallways of the castle, until he came to the chamberlain’s solar. Darbur left his desk cluttered, papers and pens and books scattered all over it. The chamberlain stood, looking out the window. The wreck of the Reinhardt was visible, there, where it crashed to the ground. Smoke still rose off it – and from the other, smaller crash sites. Ruger cleared his throat.

“Ruger,” Darbur said. “It seems that Avalon has company now.”

“Word is that it’s a starship,” Ruger said. He knew the chamberlain already knew. “I’m not sure what, but somehow they got through the nebula.”

The bearded old man turned around, giving Ruger a long look. “We’re not ready.”

“No.”

“Technological development’s frozen. That ship is larger than the ones that we came in on. It probably has all manner of things that we Avalonians can scarcely imagine,” the chamberlain said. He hesitated a moment. “Who do you suppose our refugees might be?”

The chamberlain knew, of course. He knew where Ruger was from and how Ruger came here. His one good eye narrowed, but there was no suspicion. They could maintain the fiction, as Ruger engaged in idle speculation that was anything but. “Ship that big?” he asked. “Someone big. Guardians and Esperians could make ships that big, but not many. None too likely to be in Carrionspace, either. No.”

He walked up next to Darbur and looked out the window. “It ain’t them. Something that big in Carrionspace could only be one thing.” His voice fell into a hoarse whisper. “Grand Army.”

“Then what took down a Grand Army ship?” Darbur replied, softly.

“Nothing we want any part of.”

They were both quiet for a time after that, reflecting on the dangers that came to the world and the threats their homes now faced. Ruger worried for them, in a way that he never had before. They didn’t know what was coming. The people here didn’t understand what was coming. The thought of what it could be left a chill on his spine. Old instincts began to return to life, but he fought them back down. He couldn’t be the man that he used to be. This world didn’t need that from him.

“The people will panic,” Darbur said. “We need to keep them focused.”

“Recovery’s good for that.” He frowned at the window. “There’s damage to the city. More in the outlying areas and farms. Parts of that ship broke up. And there’s the question of relief.”

“We should.” The chamberlain’s reply was immediate. “And not only because the nations who founded Avalon supported the Grand Army. That’s irrelevant, at this point.”

The bluntness surprised Ruger. He looked at Darbur, surprised.

“We need them in our debt,” the chamberlain replied. “It’s not something that I relish, but they have the power to destroy us. We don’t need – can’t survive – a war with even a fraction of the Grand Army. If we save them, we can make damn certain they remember who died.”

“Sensible enough to me.” Ruger reflected on why he never liked the Carrionese as a young man: too calculating, too careful. But, he had learned to be calculating too. Old men had to be rational. If they did anything else, they couldn’t muddle through this mess. “I’ll get the boys in town stirred up. Get them out to that ship and helping. You can take care of their superiors, the diplomatic things? Ain’t no good at that.”

The chamberlain nodded. “Of course.”

“Then I best get on with it,” Ruger said. “There’s a lot of people to rile up. Lot of work to get done.”

He turned, starting towards the door. He stopped when the chamberlain cleared his throat, though, and looked back over the shoulder at him. When he saw the look in Darbur’s eyes, the quiet determination and the steel resolve, he knew that the people who thought he was a senile, antiquated royalist were direly mistaken. He was one of the most dangerous men on the planet.

“Ruger,” he said. “If the people who brought that ship down come for us. If they bring us war and death…”

His remaining eye hardened. “Then I’ll show them who I am, Darbur.”