Anna Tambour presents 


The virtuous medlar circle
thoroughly bletted

An Outrider’s Tale

by Michael J. Jasper

After the short, lopsided battle, as the younger warriors hauled the dead bandits out of the old castle, the man known only as Seeker carried a bottle of dark wine over to where the outrider known only as Fist sat, alone.

Though the Code forbade him to ask the history of another outrider, Seeker needed to know the man’s story. Now that the fighting was over, his goal was to loosen the tongue of the big, scarred man. Night had fallen, yet the moon shone brightly through holes in the ruined roof of the tower. Seeker’s eyes had been trained, in his first life, to see perfectly in pitch-black night, but when he stepped up next to where Fist rested, he doubted what his eyes saw.

The big man was cradling in his hands a perfect red rose.

Seeker turned to leave, chiding himself for even approaching the other man. He would drink his bottle of wine by himself and try to forget the way Fist cradled the rose in his hands like an tiny animal.

Seeker was moving away when a voice stopped him: "Wine?"

He looked down at Fist again. The rose had disappeared.

"From the black grapes of Southland." Seeker handed the bottle to Fist. "Enjoy."

Fist stared at Seeker so long with his mismatched eyes, one brown and one blue, that Seeker nearly let the bottle slip from his fingers.

"Will you join me?" Fist said.

Seeker exhaled. "Of course."

Fist took the bottle and removed the cork. After a long drink, he grunted with appreciation.

"So," the big man said. "You want to know about me."

Seeker cast his gaze around the darkened tower, hoping none of the others had overheard. Something shifted high above him, at the top of the ruined tower.

"Of course not," he said, trying to smile. "That’s not our way. ‘One man’s history is nothing to an outrider,’ of course."

"Would you try to stop me if I attempted to tell you anyway?" Fist’s mismatched eyes glittered in the moonlight.

Seeker felt a chill fall over him. Out of the corner of his eye he caught movement above them, inside the castle proper. But when he turned to look closer, the movement was gone.

"Of course not," he said, motioning for the bottle.

"Good," Fist said. "I have need to tell my story. Tonight."

Half of the other outriders had pulled out their sleeping rolls and settled in for the night in the newly-cleaned tower, though three others, like Fist and Seeker, remained sleepless.

Seeker pulled a flask from an inner pocket. Fist had already finished most of the rich Southland cabernet. After a quick mouthful of the sturdy moonshine, he nodded. "So. Tell me."

"I know this castle well," Fist began. "I was once the lord of this keep, years ago. Until, only moments after I was given a new life, I killed my beloved."

Seeker knew he had control enough over the muscles in his face and body to keep from flinching at the man’s words, but it had been a struggle. He nodded slowly at Fist.

"She was named . . . Teresa. In my youth I rode with her father. We were two young men from neighboring fiefdoms, dreaming of the day when we would rule our own land, the adventures we would have before then. We even talked of becoming outriders, leaving responsibility behind and swearing by the Code."

Seeker smiled with sadness. He vaguely remembered what it was like to be a boy.

"Yet I knew we were deluding ourselves. My father and my uncle had both relied on me to carry on the leadership of this valley." Fist waved an arm about him. "As you can see from one glance at this desolate town, I have disappointed the legacy and the memory of both men. I would never leave this valley, I thought as a young buck, wishing for a life of adventure and danger."

As he waited, Seeker watched something flicker off to his left, a snatch of white that could have been a reflection of a distant fire or moonlight. He touched his daggers and kept his eyes on both Fist and the broken walls of the keep around them.

"The summer before my seventeenth year, before my life of responsibility was scheduled to begin, I was exploring the caves west of this valley with Teresa’s father, Timoth. We left our horses hobbled in a grassy field and climbed to the caves with the enthusiasm of our youth, and soon we were deep inside the darkness, searching for the fabled drawings left by the Early People. We found one — a two-headed beast devouring a fawn — when we heard the horses nicker, followed by the sound of hooves.

"Timoth, as was his nature, bolted from the caves, sword in hand. There had been word of horse thieves in the area, and Timoth would never be shames by losing his horse to them.

"I entered the clearing ten steps behind him, just in time to see both of our horses disappear. Timoth gave chase, and he caught up to them, easily. He leapt into the midst of the three thieves, knocking the first rider from his own horse and breaking the man’s neck when they both landed on the rocks below. I often wonder how Timoth’s and my lives would have turned out if there had only been the three thieves that day. But of course, there were more thieves — there are always more thieves — and Timoth’s shouting brought them upon us. Half a dozen more rushed up from the other side of the pass to help their allies.

"I killed two of them myself before they ran off, but Timoth was badly wounded by the thieves’ daggers. The thieves rode off, leaving our horses, and Timoth survived, but barely."

Seeker saw the flash of white again, this time off to his right, at the top of a ruined stairwell. He nearly got up, but Fist’s hand flashed out and grabbed him by the shoulder.

"Calm yourself," Fist rumbled. "I see it too."

Fighting a surge of anger, Seeker sat down again.

"When he was well, Timoth offered me half of his family’s land as reward. He claimed I had saved his life, and I couldn’t refuse: it was a Life Vow. While you may not have heard of such a thing, in my time a Life Vow was not something to be taken lightly. On top of that, the land was also in the midst of what would turn out to be the first season of the Dry Spell."

Seeker looked up sharply at the other man. The Dry Spell had taken place long before Seeker was born.

"I refused to take such a gift, for doing so would have ruined them. Yet, as a result of my refusal, Timoth changed, from that day on. He grew distant and watched me with a burning look in his eye. In the meantime, the Dry Spell continued, and people began leaving our land and the neighboring lands. Almost two decades it would last, no rain for nineteen growing seasons.

"One night, a year after my refusal, Timoth challenged me to a night of gambling with his brothers. I thought nothing of it at the time, and left my sword at home, taking only a handful of coins and three bottles of wine. You can probably guess what happened next. We played cards — mad sixes, five-hand draw, witch’s cat, queens, and dead jacks, all the old, forgotten games — for most of the night and into the next morning. The entire time I could not stop winning Timoth’s money.

"When I realized what he was doing, I folded up my hand, drank the last of my wine, and gathered up only the coins I had brought with me from the piles of gold in front of me.

"‘Good night,’ I called to Timoth, right before he dove onto me, screaming that I would not insult him again by not accepting his Life Vow. We scrambled through the castle, into the kitchens, where the morning cooking had already begun. It was there that Timoth drew his sword on me, outside the hot furnaces of the kitchen.

"He drew his sword on me. Even now I can barely believe it.

"His crazed swinging backed me further into the kitchen, my eyes never leaving his sword. I didn’t see the pot of hot cooking oil until I lost my balance and fell backwards, my head striking the hard metal. The pot overturned onto me.

"The oil burned off most of my face, but I thank the gods that I only lost one eye. I was healed as best as their herbs-and-alchemy man could heal me, and the seeping wound that was my face was covered in skin taken from a newly-dead man. Despite their valiant efforts, the pain has never fully left me.

"Timoth was devastated by what happened. He rode off to the clearing outside the caves where he was convinced I saved his life, and fell on his sword. This need not have been so. Timoth had always been one to live by his emotions, to explode into action before stopping to think. He was a good man — don’t even begin to think otherwise — but he was also consumed by helplessness as his own land died and not even his wife and newborn child could divert his thoughts. In his last days, I am sure that when he saw my face, he was reminded of his failures.

"This need not have been so, for I healed quickly, though the scars, as you can plainly see, will remain until my death."

Seeker could feel the numbness from the wine and his moonshine filling his extremities. As Fist spoke, Seeker had three more times caught glimpses of white inside the castle, and he was convinced it was a person. He saw the figure only in the corner of his eye before it melted back into the darkness.

"So that is your story," he whispered, exhaling, careful not to speak too loudly. His gaze kept returning to the uneven, grayish flesh on Fist’s face, the flesh of a newly-dead man. Willing his hand not to shake, he raised his flask. "I toast your strength in healing and enduring, and I thank you for your tale."

Fist only stared at Seeker. Shuddering, Seeker looked away and saw a flash of white, like a drape or curtain in the wind. He squinted into the darkness inside the castle. At the foot of a broken staircase, a pale face came into view.

Moving his head slowly, he was able to see that the person appeared to be watching the two men and listening, despite the distance between them. He blinked, and the face was gone again.

"But there is more," Fist said. "I haven’t even told you of Timoth’s daughter. I haven’t told you of my sweet Teresa."

"No. There is no sense in reliving it."

"You don’t understand, little man." Fist held the rose in his hand again, though Seeker hadn’t seen the man pull it from the folds of his cloak. "I must tell you this. For I have need of your aid, before I can find my final rest. You must listen."

Seeker settled back onto the hard tower floor, forcing his pulse to slow. For once, he wanted the person he was interrogating to stop talking, but that was no longer an option.

"Continue," he said, his voice a croak. He knew if attempted to leave now, the other man would kill him. "Please."   

Fist glanced at the broken stairway and his eyes closed for a moment. He opened them slowly as he spoke in his gravelly voice.

"After Timoth’s self-inflicted death, I threw myself into saving both my land and Timoth’s, by whatever means necessary. At the same time, my uncle was killed by bandits, and my father grew sickly and frail — hardship seems to always follow hot on the heels of hardship. I knew the responsibility of keeping the crops alive and the people happy would soon fall upon my shoulders. I wanted to have a land worth inheriting, not the dust-filled fields and empty buildings I saw on my rides through my fiefdom.

"I searched for new wells to bring more water to the land, tried to find new methods of irrigation, and even attempted to reroute a river with blasting powder and the help of two-dozen strong-backed criminals from our jails, armed with shovels. None of it brought the water we so needed. Without rain the land baked and burned, and each year my head hung lower, until my back became hunched from attempting to hide my shame and my scarred face.

"My disfigurement, despite the efforts of the herbalists and alchemists of Timoth’s land and my own, was my only companion during much of the years of the Dry Spell. When Father passed on, I felt myself grow as dead as the land around me. Years passed.

"My redemption came in the form of Teresa. Twice a month I would visit her and Katherin, Timoth’s wife. Even when Teresa was a baby, Katherin would let me hold the child. My face never scared Teresa. She would reach up a tiny hand to touch my ragged cheek or uneven chin, and she would smile, and . . ."

Fist stopped for a long moment and turned his head toward the castle. Seeker listened to Fist’s labored breathing and waited. He didn’t dare look.

"But that was then, and neither mother nor daughter knew of the Death Vow Timoth had made with his adviser. More binding and permanent than any other vow, this was Timoth’s third and final attempt to repay me for saving his life all those years ago. He knew I wouldn’t dare deny this vow, as it was made just before he left this world . . .

"I was given his daughter, Teresa.

"At the start of her fifteenth year, she became my property. The young girl with the curly brown hair, the smiling child with her father’s eyes and temper, the always-growing Teresa I’d visited during the long years of the Dry Spell, was now to become my wife. No one could refuse a man’s Death Vow. On her fifteenth birthday, Teresa arrived at this castle, before it fell into its current state of disregard.

"Growing up without a father made Teresa stronger than most would have guessed upon first sight of her. She was a small girl, somewhat pale-skinned, but her eyes were sharp and piercing. She had a short temper, like her father, and was quick to act and speak her mind. Never once did she complain. She simply took the news with a cool smile and began packing her belongings. Her only regrets, she would tell me later, were having to leave her mother behind, not getting the opportunity to select a wedding dress, and not having a proper wedding ceremony.

"I gave her the entire southern wing as her own. I would not allow her into my bedroom as my bride. I put off organizing the wedding ceremony. I could not let such a beautiful, intelligent girl wither away with me in a forced marriage. We would carry out her father’s binding Death Vow in spirit, if not in detail. In my own way I loved her, but not in the manner her father intended.

"Two events during the next year changed those feelings. The first was a visit from a traveling circus to my fiefdom. Those who remained in my land in spite of the Dry Spell were somehow able to find the means to pay the small charge to watch the magicians, the painted-faced men and women, and the horse riders in their battered tents leaning in the town square. Any distraction from the heat and the dryness was worth the expense, and this circus did not disappoint. They even had a thin, bony elephant that would bow for a handful of peanuts. Teresa went without me, and she came back with her cheeks flushed red, straw in her hair, and a book of alchemy.

"I should not have been surprised to see her with the book of alchemy. Teresa was always one for knowledge. She could read even the densest book of science, or the arcane journals of my advisers, or the printed version of the ballads of her favorite tales of dragons and warriors, and the words would remain with her forever. During the circus’s brief stay, she most enjoyed the tent of the so-called Sorcerer. She watched him make iron coins disappear and reappear as gold, observed how he pulled eggs of bronze from the mouths of audience members, and stared in amazement as he turned corn silk into ropes of silver. It was he who convinced her to buy the book of alchemy.

"If I had known the evil that book was to bring into my land, I would have burned it and killed the Sorcerer myself."

Again the man across from Seeker stopped himself and looked away. His big shoulders shook again, but no sound came from the man’s mouth. Seeker looked away.

That is the face of regret, Seeker thought to himself. He had seen such regret in the broken men in the many windowless, underground rooms scattered throughout the land, moments after he had wrung a confession from them. He’d seen it briefly in the pale face of a young man, right before the boy’s eyes clouded over with madness. I know much of regret, Seeker thought.

"But I did none of those things," Fist continued. "Instead, I let Teresa keep the book, and a week later I picked it up, hoping to find something of use for the land, which was still dead after all the years of the Dry Spell.

"What I found, to my shock, was a chapter that dealt with enchantments, written in the Ancient Language. In those few pages written in the nearly-forgotten script, the only chapter in the book that used the Ancient Language, I learned I could give objects power over certain aspects of our lives.

"An enchanted coin could suck the bad luck from a cursed piece of land. A stick filled with enchantment could hold the ability to crack the earth. A perfect rose could remove... But I am getting ahead of myself.

"I sent riders after the Sorcerer, but he eluded them all and was never found. Knowing that Teresa was unable to read the language — Timoth and I were the last of our generation to have to learn the Ancient Language, and it had been an arduous process for us both — I began to learn all I could about enchantments. At first, all I wanted from the book was to learn how to pull rain from the sky.

"Surely it would have ended there, and I would never have become an outrider, if the first rains hadn’t come to my land in almost two decades.

"This rainfall was the second element in our shared downfall. The first rain hadn’t been much, only enough to wet the dust and keep the dead crops from blowing away. But for the entire next week, the rains came. The Ancient enchantments had worked. The parched earth drank deeply, and those remaining in my land began to have hope once again. Plants began to grow again, including the roses in my courtyard.

"Free from my worry over the land for the first time in two decades, I realized there was something I wanted to do with the knowledge I found in the book. I told myself I wanted to do this for Teresa, but I was only deluding myself. I realize now I did it for selfish purposes.

"According the chapter in the book, it would be quite easy. All I needed were the proper words, the proper hand gestures, the proper time of day, and the proper receptacle. One of the roses blooming in my garden would work perfectly for this, I knew.

"I kept myself distant from Teresa during this time, and practiced the words until they were etched into my memory. She was constantly at my door, but I kept the locks thrown and would not see her. Her curiosity was surely getting the best of her, and her words were harsh and suspicious.

"I do this for you, my Teresa, I would think, ignoring the pounding of her fist at my door.

"At midnight during the new moon, I performed the alchemy, the reddest rose from my gardens in my hand, its thorns biting into my palm and fingers. As I spoke the words, the rose turned black as the scales of the scar tissue melted from my face. Blurry vision filled my dead eye, slowly clearing, and within five heartbeats I could see from it again. Just as the book predicted, the perfect rose absorbed my misshapen form.

"I did not dare look into a mirror until the sun came up the next day. When I did, I couldn’t contain my joy, and my laughter echoed through my chambers. I was whole again. Even my hunched back straightened with the pride in my appearance. I felt, at last, that I could ask Teresa to be my bride.

"But before I could ask her, she came looking for me after hearing my rare laughter. She stopped at my desk, as if afraid to come closer after she saw my face.

"‘My love,’ she said. She plucked the blackened rose from my desk and gripped it in her hands. ‘You read my book, didn’t you?’

"I couldn’t answer her. All I could see was the delicate, withered flower in her hands. I was whole only as long as the enchanted rose remained whole, and I couldn’t let the rose come to any further harm. At the same time, I couldn’t stop running my hands over my smooth face.

"‘Father taught Mother the Ancient Language,’ she said.

"‘Teresa,’ I said, my voice barely a whisper. I didn’t even think to ask her about the words of the book, and how she knew them. ‘Give me the rose.’

"‘And Mother taught it to me as a way to remember Father.’ Teresa shook her head. ‘Don’t you know, my Samuel, that I love you?’ She held up the rose and looked at my new face with a grimace. ‘That face is not yours. That is not the face I grew up with as a child, the face of the man I love.’

"I thought I understood our relationship, but when I saw her eyes, I saw Timoth’s instead. And they were looking at me with a grim satisfaction as she began crushing the rose in her hand.

"‘I want the true Samuel,’ she said. ‘Not the creature I see in front of me now.’

"I didn’t even have time to scream. The burning pain of the hot oil from years earlier entered my face and boiled away my eye all over again. My flesh bubbled and shriveled up into its old shape. I’d been whole for all of seven hours.

"When I looked into the mirror, feeling the dead skin on my face again, I felt my back hunch over with rage. I saw as last how Timoth had punished me for saving his life, cursing me three times over with his death, my disfigurement, and now with his daughter. His strong-willed, headstrong daughter, holding the crumpled, rose that was blood red once again, free of the ugliness I had forced into it. And Teresa dared to smile at me in my grotesquerie, repeating what her father did to me years earlier.

"For the first time in my life, I let my rage overtake me. I struck her."

Seeker could sense the sun beginning to rise even before the night sky had begun to lighten. During and after his five years’ entrenchment as the Royal Interrogator, when he’d learned how to earn the trust of the guilty and get them to confess their crimes to him, he’d never heard such a story.

"I was to marry her," the big man continued. "I would have been a lord with his lady, and we would have ruled our two rejuvenated lands together. But my rage gave me inhuman strength. Teresa never recovered.

"She was buried in her mother’s wedding dress, a garment she never wore while alive. Wearing that dress, her ghost watches us from the castle tower, in the wing where she can no longer leave. It was not luck, nor was it your tracking skills, nor the whispered gossip of the townspeople, that brought us here today. It was Teresa."

Seeker lifted a heavy hand to rub the back of his neck, where his flesh had turned cold and prickly. Movement flickered in the corner of his eye. It may have been a woman in a white dress, slipping behind a column in the southern wing of the castle. Perhaps she was clad a wedding dress that had never been worn while the wearer was alive.

"Teresa," Seeker said, swallowing hard. "She’s still here?"

Fist nodded. "She waits for me."

The big man stood, and Seeker lifted himself painfully to his own feet, his legs cramped from sitting for so long. Fist reached out and dropped the red rose into Seeker’s hand. Through the stem had been slightly bent, the petals were still soft and almost moist. Fist motioned for Seeker to follow.

The two men walked in silence through the outriders assembled in the tower. Those who slept moved in sudden pain as Fist passed, and those who could not rest felt the traces of a nightmare fill their minds. The moment passed, and they stood inside the southern wing of the dead castle. They were not alone.

"Teresa," Fist said. He held his gaze down, focused on his big, clenched hands. "Forgive me."

Seeker felt his knees waver as soft footsteps approached in the darkness. Despite his night vision, he was unable to see with any sort of clarity who was approaching. All he saw was a woman dressed all in white, wavering in his peripheral vision. He felt her sadness, mixed with a hint of rage and, strangely, relief.

"My Samuel," the woman said in a rough, whispering voice. "You came back for me, at last."

Fist’s eyes were locked onto something just behind Seeker.  The big man held a dagger to his own neck. The hand holding the dagger never shook.

"As soon as this is done," the big man said, his emotionless voice raising on Seeker’s arms. "I want you to burn my body and this accursed rose. Neither of us will be free until this rose is destroyed and its enchantment is removed."

Fist looked away from Seeker at the shimmering young woman in white a few feet away. "I also ask that you remember my story. Remember our story."

Seeker nodded, and Fist’s dagger moved. No matter how man times Seeker heard it, his ears could never grow accustomed to the sound of metal upon flesh.

The perfect red rose in his hand began to wither and darken, and the small, pale girl in the white wedding dress made a sighing sound. And then she faded away, taking a chill breeze with her as she passed. The ruined castle was again heavy with silence.

As dawn broke, the man known only as Seeker — who in a previous life had been a King’s operative until the day he interrogated a suspected criminal too long and made the boy lose his mind — began retelling the story of Fist and his beauty to himself.

He sat whispering to himself in the darkness, eyes closed, until flames began to turn his eyelids orange. He opened his eyes and looked off into the distance. Somewhere in the kingdom a young man was locked in a jacket with his arms tied tightly to his side, and Seeker owed that boy, the last suspect he ever interrogated, this story. There had to be a middle ground between hard truth and a happy ending, he thought. For the disfigured man lying on the pyre in front to him, for a headstrong young girl and her father, and even for an outrider like Seeker, seeking justice on the winding roads of the King’s lands.

The color of the rose had faded to a dark red that was almost black. The story fresh in his mind, Seeker threw the rose onto the fire, and yellow-orange flame swallowed it.

I will keep this vow, he thought. This Death Vow.

Seeker told the story over and over to himself as his fellow outriders rose and prepared their horses for their next campaign. This version of the story, the one he would tell others, would end with the hero’s return to the arms of his beloved, followed by a reunion with a wayward friend. They would walk together in their shared lands and rejoice in the green grass and healthy croplands. As far as stories went, it would not be far from either truth or happiness. Or so Seeker hoped.

An Outrider's Tale is one of fifteen stories in
Gunning for the Buddha,
Michael Jasper's new wide-ranging and "refreshingly different" debut fiction collection, published by
Prime Books.
Jasper's stories run the gamut from urban fantasy to horror, from humor to drama, from science fiction to alternate history, touching on many of the points in between.
He has been published in Asimov's, Interzone, StrangeHorizons, Writers of the Future, and The Raleigh News &Observer, among other venues.
Gunning for the Buddha, with an Introduction by John Kessel
published by Prime Books
"In his first collection, Gunning for the Buddha, the 1996 Clarion graduate shows more than youthful promise as he (re)imagines America in the past, present and future, with detours into a few even stranger places . . . While this world may seem darker and more dystopian by the day, avid, talented newcomers like Jasper help us keep the faith." — Locus
Buy it here

Michael Jasper grew up in the small town of Dyersville, Iowa (home of "The Field of Dreams"), but he now lives with his wondrous wife Elizabeth in Raleigh, North Carolina, in the US, where they are expecting their first child any minute now.

His current novel-in-progress is about a mixed-race baseball team in the years before World War I, including one player who may or may not be from another planet. He's also working on a "novel blog" — a novel he's writing a bit at a time, almost every day, as "blog" entries — at

You can learn more about Michael's writing misadventures at

The virtuous medlar circle

is part of
Anna Tambour and Others

"An Outrider's Tale" copyright © 2004 by Michael Jasper
This short story appears here with thanks to Michael Jasper, whose payment was less than a brass razoo.
This story is part of a series of invited pieces by people I find deliciously inspiring, always a hoot, and who write like a bletted medlar tastes. A.T.
The Virtuous Medlar Circle © 2004