Heroes, p.32
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       Heroes, p.32

           Leigh Barker
Ramiel was Deputy Supreme Commander to the Archangel Gabriel and had seen it all, done it, got the T-shirt, but the surprise arrival of twins had left him dumbfounded. A rare event. Neither he nor his wife, Angiola, realised she was pregnant. And twins! It was the best day of his life.

  The happy parents named their baby girl Anella, meaning Lion of God, and the boy? Let’s not go there. It’s not important, really. Let’s just move on, shall we? Oh, okay. They named him Woe, after an unfortunate mix-up at the christening when the priest almost dropped the baby just as he was in the middle of saying, “I name this child—”

  “Whoa, don’t drop the baby, you drunken idiot!” Ramiel shouted, and thus the child who was to have been named Englebert became Whoa!

  The naming ceremony is a sacred, final, no-money-back act. And so it was in this case. The only compromise allowed was to shorten the boy’s name to Woe—which turned out to be quite apt.

  Angiola was not chuffed with her dear husband, and words would be had later, after the drinking, back-slapping, more drinking, well done-ing, more drinking… Many words. Loud. And long. Not the best day of Ramiel’s life, then.

  The babies grew into toddlers and then children, which is one of those annoying things babies do. Anella was the Brainy One, while Woe had a tendency to be a bit clumsy and the possessor of more bad luck than he had a rightful claim to.

  On his seventh birthday, Woe was enrolled in the Knight Training School, as was required of the son of a Guardian. Anella was enrolled too, at the insistence of her mother, on the basis that what is good for the boy is good for the girl.

  Ramiel protested, explained, cited the risks and the hardships, but capitulated when Angiola drew the We’ll have none of that male-chauvinist nonsense here card. Anyway, what could it hurt? She was smart, and quick, and… a girl.

  It was going to be a disaster.

  School began in September. It was a disaster.

  Day one, lesson one: How to hold a sword. Woe poked his sword in Malak’s eye. Luckily it was wooden—the sword, not the poor boy’s eye, although had the jab been a little harder, who knows?

  Malak hit Anella with his sword, because he couldn’t catch Woe, who’d legged it for the toilets. Anella hit her assailant on the shins with her sword, causing his friends to rally to his side, so she hit them too. Woe saw them ganging up on his sister and ran back to defend her, and before the aged instructor could blink, there was a full-scale sword battle going on in the yard.

  Anella and Woe’s first day had an early finish. Day one, lesson one, in fact.

  And so the pattern was set for the next five years. Woe would do something stupid, unlucky, or both, and Anella would charge in to save him, then have to be saved by Woe in turn.

  Ramiel often watched his offspring from the parapet, and every time walked slowly away, his head hanging in despair. They weren’t warriors. They would never be Guardians, those elite of Michael’s army who protected Trinity and the Other Places from the omnipresent evils of the universe. They wouldn’t be knights, Michael’s vanguard and first to engage the foe. They would be lucky if they were allowed to follow and pick up the… leavings from the saddled carriers of Michael’s army. It was all very depressing.

  Despite the fact that neither child looked like either of their parents, or each other, for that matter, there was never the slightest doubt that they were the children of the Deputy Supreme Commander and his beautiful wife, the daughter of the Speaker of the Senate. But they weren’t; the stork’s bad day had seen to that.

  And the other recipients of the stork’s bad day? Mavis Diken lived in a small and ramshackle shack next to the dark woods. She was a witch, and she was a spinster, which caused tongues to tackle faster than a message-clacker when she emerged with a baby boy.

  Mavis was not happy. She had cast a spell for help, not a baby. Oh, the boy was cute enough, for a boy, but if the gods were going to send her a baby, then it should have been a girl. How was she supposed to teach him to be a witch? He was a boy; boys couldn’t do witchery, everybody knew that. And worse, he was a fighter. From the very first day at school he’d been in trouble, and had lasted almost a week before being expelled. He had to do something; she couldn’t have him hanging around the house all day, under her feet. She’d enrolled him in Knight School. With the help of a little decision-bending spell. Done. Dusted. On with life.

  The other bundle delivered that day had turned up on the doorstep of Zeffsena, the wizard, which was even more of a surprise, as he didn’t have a wife, and as far as he could remember, one of those was required before you got a baby. He’d cast a spell for some help, but he’d expected an apprentice or a dog. Not a baby. But he had a good heart, so he took in the child and raised it, which took pretty much all of his magic skills. Babies are not easy things to raise.

  And the boy was a fighter. From the first day at Wizard School, he’d been in trouble, and had lasted almost a week before being expelled. He had to do something, the boy was constantly in the way, and there was no wizarding being done. He enrolled the boy in Knight School, with the help of a little magic spell. Best for the boy. What child wants to be around a grumpy old wizard? Done. Dusted. On with life.

  Anella and Woe were hiding behind the big, iron gates barring the way to Knight School when the first boy arrived. Alone and carrying his belongings in a sack slung over his shoulder. They watched him stop and look up at the huge crest above the gates. The poor kid looked terrified.

  Anella stepped forward and put on her best smile. “Hello,” she said; that seemed to be the most appropriate thing to say.

  The boy licked his lips and looked from her to her skinny brother. “Is this the knight school?”

  Anella looked up at the gates and the crest proclaiming Knights of Eden: live in honour; die in glory, and frowned. Not a great first impression, but the boy was clearly nervous, so she forgave him, a bit. “Yes,” she said, still with a smile. “We are squires.”

  The boy frowned. “But you’re a girl.”

  Woe strolled over and made a show of checking out his sister. “You are, you know,” he said with a shrug. “Has anybody told you that?”

  She glared at her brother. “Yes,” she said through clenched teeth, “he did.” She pointed at the boy and was going to say something else, but the words blinked out.

  Suddenly there were two of them. Duplicates.

  “There’s two of them,” said Woe helpfully.

  The two boys looked at each other, and their jaws dropped open. They were dressed differently, one dressed in a brown, slightly moth-eaten robe, and the other in a black robe with a long hood and a moon on the left shoulder. They were both blond, which, being identical, shouldn’t have been a surprise.

  “Who are you?” they said together.

  “I asked first,” they said together.

  “Tell you what,” said Anella quickly, “why don’t you go first?” She pointed at the boy who’d noticed she was a girl.

  “I am FlickertyShadow,” said the boy, without a hint of embarrassment.

  Anella blinked slowly, but said nothing, demonstrating a level of restraint far more mature than her seven years.

  “You’re a what?” Woe said, with a shake of his head. Demonstrating the true level of restraint for a seven-year-old.

  “And you?” Anella asked the other boy, before things turned ugly.

  The boy tore his eyes off his doppelganger. “I am Zeffsena, Son of Zeffsena.”

  “That could get a bit confusing,” said Anella.

  “Why?” asked the boy.

  “Are you twins?” Woe asked, cutting across an answer that wasn’t coming.

  “Never seen him before,” said the twins together.

  “I think you have,” said Anella with a smile. “Every time you look in a mirror.” That was supposed to be funny. It wasn’t.

  Woe saw an old familiar pattern emerging. Anella would expand on her witty comment and continue to embellish it in an attempt to make it work, only to make it
even more offensive, until the recipient took umbrage and the fighting started. He sighed and waited to be pummelled, because looking at the two boys, there was no doubt in his mind that these two would be skilled pummellers.

  “Ah, new boys,” said a senior squire, stepping out through the big gates and saving the day—and the pummelling.

  “That’s FlickertyShadow,” said Anella, pointing him out. “And that’s Zeffsena, Son of—”

  “Get to class! If you know what’s good for you,” said the senior squire, with a serious frown.

  The squire ushered the boys through the gate and pushed it closed with his foot. So now all the parties to the stork’s little sleight of hand were together under one roof. As was always going to be the case, if Fate had anything to do about it. And he hadn’t got much on that week, so it was a racing certainty.

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