Paul looked all around him. The Amber Thane was nowhere to be seen.
“Son of a bitch!”
“Hey! Knock it off! No swearing in the Forty Seventh Fusiliers!” snapped the soldier.
“Uh, sorry, sir?” said Paul.
The soldier laughed, “I’m just funnin’ you, swear all you want. One of the few rights we have, that and complaining. Just don’t do either around the Major.”
“Major Veronika?” asked Paul.
“The one and only.”
It turned out, fortunately, for Paul, that the Major insisted on meeting each new recruit personally. The soldier, whose name was Dominic DéMarche, brought Paul to her tent. There was a meeting going on, officers stood around a table, there was a heated discussion going on when they entered, which stopped as soon as they entered.
Dominic saluted sharply, in contrast with his informal demeanor.
“Major! New recruit!”
Paul tried to mirror the salute but it lacked the polish of his new companion.
The officers parted, and revealed the Major. Wearing a burnished breastplate over a red jacket, tight blue breeches with a gold stripe up the side, polished black boots, and a pelt of what looked like a leopard, if leopard spots were bright yellow, blue, green, pink, red, orange and purple on a black background.
She had chestnut hair, skin like honey and dark eyes with copper flecks. There were crinkles at those eyes; she had the worries, the responsibility of command. There was an air about her, it wasn’t just that she was gorgeous(she was) but upon meeting her, Paul had this sudden urge to make her proud. There was a great stillness about her, not that she was inactive but more as if she would always be there, whatever came and that inspired an instant loyalty.
Dominic nudged Paul, who stepped forward.
“What’s your name son?” she rumbled.
“Paul, Ma’am, Major, Major Ma’am,” stammered Paul.
She smiled indulgently, “Welcome to the painting forty seventh. Private, sort him out.”
“Yes Major!” barked Dominic.
“Excuse me Major,” said Paul.
Everyone froze. Paul knew he had made a faux pas, but it was better to get this out.
“Yes?” asked the Major, which was laced with an undercurrent of ‘this better be good’.
“I came here with the Amber Thane.”
All the others were dismissed and exited quickly. Paul explained how he had delivered the letter from Looseleaf and Parsnip, his subsequent squirehood with the Amber Thane, and trip trough the painting.
“Damn his eyes!” said the Major as she pounded the table.
“He was very excited about seeing you,” added Paul.
“Too excited to get spectacles!” she replied.
“I’m sorry?” asked Paul who didn’t understand how those two things were related.
“His eyesight is ghastly! But he’s too vain to get the help he needs! Now, who knows where he ended up!”
Paul, who learned to deal with all sorts of oddness since moving to the Borough, still hated listening to someone rant about their significant other.
There was no right thing to say, so after trial and error, mostly error he had to admit, he found the best course of action was to nod periodically and make small agreeing sounds.
“Of course, he does have such lovely eyes,” said the Major as she smiled.
“Hmmm?” offered Paul.
“You are a fine squire, Paul of the Borough, I thank you for bring me this news,” she said.
It occurred to Paul that he had very little choice in the matter but he saluted anyway, which seemed to please her.
“I need to send out scouts, if I can find him before the enemy, we could-“
The rest of that thought was cut short as Dominic entered.
“Begging you pardon Major, but a messenger has arrived,” the private said.
“Bring him in,” she said.
Two other soldiers, one in arctic cammo, the other, a woman dressed in Greek Hoplite armor escorted the messenger in. It looked like an abstract impression of an avocado colored man, or woman, the gender seemed, like it’s appearance, a matter of perspective. One leg was much longer than the other, it’s arms undulated like silk scarves in the wind and it had two eyes on one side of its head, which seemed to be two dimensional, or at the least, very flat
“Major Veronika, I come with a gift,” it said in a voice that sounded like it was speaking though echoey mesh.
It opened what could have been a sack or a lumpy smudge and produced the helmet of the Amber Thane.
Paul looked at the Major, if she felt any fear or shock; it was simply evidenced by a minute flaring of her nostrils.
“What are your terms?” she asked the abstract messenger.
“Leave the Umber Valley or we will be forced to make the Amber Thane a palimpsest,” said the messenger.
“Damn your same sided eyes!” shouted Dominic.
“Calm yourself private,” said the Major evenly.
Walking up to the messenger, the Major regarded it with a quiet contempt.
“We will not surrender one inch of canvas, not one classically rendered tree or bush. We will not rest until this painting has been restored to its former glory, and your ill-rendered rabble has been wiped clean from this classic masterpiece.”
Paul began to clap, her delivery was so moving, but he quickly stopped when it was apparent that no one else was following suit.
The messenger made wheezing, rattling sound, and shook its head.
“The brave and valiant Major Veronika, so dedicated to her cause that she’ll sacrifice her one true love for her ideals. You didn’t even hesitate, we will have to tell the Thane as we scrape the pigment from him and make him one of us. His rage will be unquenchable. Perhaps your death at his hands will silence his scream. For a while.”
“Lock this thing up,” ordered the Major.
Dragged from the tent, it made the same wheezing rattling sound. Paul thought it might be laughter.
“Private, inform my officers that we must prepare to move ASAP. Take the squire here and begin the lantern light maneuver,” said the Major as she moved to the table and rolled out maps.
Dominic grinned and saluted, “Yes Major, right away!”
He clapped Paul on the arm and said, “Lets get you some weapons,” as he lead him to another tent.
Weapons, as it turned out meant a bandoleer of brushes and a belt of paint bottles.
“So no real weapons?” asked Paul.
Dominic laughed, “My friend, theses are better than any gun or knife. With those, all you can do it kill. But with this,” he said, twirling a brush with panache, “you can create anything!”
Paul thought that a philosophical attitude for a solider, which spoke well of Dominic’s mental state, but gave little confidence to the future of whatever the lantern light maneuver was.
“Hmm,” mused Dominic, “We need to get you into a proper uniform.”
“Do you have a spare?”
Holding out his thumb at arm’s length, Dominic regarded Paul, quickly dipped his bush into a jar and started flicking paint at him. Paul felt as though he has been suddenly doused in cold syrup.
“And there!” interrupted Dominic.
Paul was about to give his new friend a good yelling at, or at least let him know that he was not happy about having paint flung at him, when the sensation faded and he felt normal. At least as normal as he got these days.
“You look a proper solider now,” said Dominic with a smile, “Look.”
Dominic pulled a drop cloth off a mirror, and Paul looked at himself. He now wore a uniform like Dominic, ironically minus the paint splatters, but with a tall fur hat, with brass accessories.
“But you just waved the brush around, how…”
“It’s all the mind’s eye. If you can think it, you can make it.”
Paul, whose artistic endeavors were strictly of the stick figure school, had his doubts that he could create anything even close to realistic. But
Dominic assured him that it was easy as he lead him to a wooded area just outside the camp.
A clump of bushes were pushed aside to reveal a tunnel leading downward,
Dominic lit a lantern and they entered. The light was warm and bathed everything in warm light. It made Paul feel as though he was looking through a windowpane made of pale honey. The tunnel was painted in rich dark brown tone, which evoked damp earth, held up with wooden beams rendered in glowing detail, Paul could see the swoops of the grain and the pegs that were fitted with great skill.
“Did you make this?” he asked his companion.
“I did the beams,” said Dominic with a smile.
“They’re very good,” said Paul.
“Thank you, I’ve quite proud of the way they turned out, it’s a pity so few will see them.”
“It is a secret tunnel after all!”
They continued in silence for a while, until Paul asked what he was thinking.
“Uh… Where are we going?”
Dominic stopped and shook his head, Paul was afraid he asked a stupid question.
“My friend, I must apologies, in my haste I forgot that you had only now joined us. You must think me a fool!”
“No, you’re not a fool, it’s just that I want to be able to help, so… if I knew what the plan is…”
Dominic clapped him on the shoulder and grinned, “I would expect no less of the squire of the Amber Thane! You’re raring to get right to the action!”
“Right!” said Paul with considerably more enthusiasm than he actually had with regards to action.
“This is of course, is a rescue mission, this tunnel leads directly under the enemy camp. Once we reach the end, all we need do is paint a tunnel up and we rescue your master.”
Paul didn’t think of the Amber Thane as his master, but this was clearly not the time to bring that up. Dominic continued down the tunnel and Paul hustled to catch up.
“Do you have a map of the enemy camp?” asked Paul.
“That would be worthless, it shifts according to their whims, Abstract Dogs!”
“But how do you know we’ll come up in it?”
“The location is fixed, it’s the layout that changes.”
“Right…” said Paul “But there is a plan?”
“Of course! We tunnel up, find the Thane, and escape, while the Major leads the rest of the 47th Pigmenteers in an all out assault!”
Paul didn’t think that was a plan, so much as a hopeful wish, but Dominic seemed quite confident, so he continued onward.
After a period of time, it was difficult to gauge, what with no sun, and his phone saying that time was old, they arrived at the end of the tunnel.
Dominic took out a paintbrush with a flourish and began to create a ladder.
Not a crude sketch, but a solid oaken affair, the joints were joined with cuts in the wood that clearly needed no nails or studs. It was one of the sturdiest things he had ever seen. Paul had once put together a bookcase from Ikea and he felt fairly handy afterwards in spite of the handful of bits that he was left with and was unable to identify.
“That’s very… good,” Paul said quietly.
Dominic smiled a smile that said, ‘I know, right?’, but he managed a slightly humble thank you.
“Now, it’s your turn, when we get to the top of the ladder, you will create something to break through the topsoil,” said the artist warrior.
“Are you sure you don’t want to do it?” Paul asked, “Those stairs are really good.”
“You’ve very kind (I am an excellent artist), but I couldn’t,” insisted Dominic.
“It’s okay, I don’t mind (I’m not really any kind of artist),” Paul said with no trace of false modesty.
“No, I literally can’t, when two soldiers collaborate on a mission, they must both contribute,” explained Dominic.
Dominic clapped him on the shoulder and grinned, “Just think of something that can dig and still be silent.
Paul thought about that conflicting set of requirements. Everything that came to mind that could dig was by definition, loud. Bulldozers, jackhammers, even shovels and picks made noise. A few weeks ago, he had seen something that was called a Geo-Pinnace, a cylindrical tube with a huge drill bit on the front, or the prow, as he had been corrected by the pilot. It had cut through earth and stone like spoon through flan, again as described by the pilot, but it had made a hellishly loud racket and even if he could paint it (doubtful), he had no idea how to start, let alone steer it.
Paul’s mind began to wander as he racked his brain trying to find a solution.
He thought of his Aunt Natalie, who loved two things, baking and puzzles, both physical and mental, mostly mental. When he would visit, she would give him a riddle, which he had to solve before she would give him some of her excellent cookies. This was just the sort of thing she’d test him with, and when she’d eventually told him the solution, which she often did, as she was fond of her nephew and ultimately a bit of a soft touch. But if she took it easy on Paul, she was at war with Josiah, the cat that lived next door, who clearly was born only to drive Aunt Nat to distraction and destroy her small garden.
Josiah, who was gink-toed, could dig up a garden with infernal glee. Nat swore he tunneled in under the fence. Paul had once seen him pop up from under the earth and then leap across the yard pulling a long tomato vine and winking just before he escaped to the safety of his own yard. Paul wasn’t sure if he had imagined the wink or if it was a story that Nat had told but that cat could dig…
“I got it,” Paul said.
The dirt shifted and Paint Josiah emerged into the Abstract camp. Paul and Dominic followed, they were shielded by two large crates but they could as easily been any large…things.
“Very clever, painting that badger in an abstract style, if someone sees it they will won’t know we’re here,” whispered Dominic.
“It’s a cat actually,” said Paul quietly.
“Right,” replied Dominic with a knowing wink.
Creeping around the ‘crates’, they saw six Abstract soldiers standing in a circle at attention, though their bodies seemed to be fidgety. Arms, legs other parts stretched or shrunk with no real pattern, at least that Paul could see.
“What are they doing?” asked Paul in his softest voice.
Dominic didn’t reply but tapped Paul gently on the shoulder and looked up. Hanging, from an absurdly long chain was an even more absurdly large birdcage. Inside, however, was not an absurdly large bird, but the Amber Thane.
“Blaggard! Let me loose at once!” bellowed the imprisoned knight.
“You’ve been asking that since we put you in there, what makes you think that we’ll change our minds now,” asked one of the guards in a hollow, echoey voice.
“I will never give up! I will fight till my last breath and beyond!”
“Can he do that?” asked the largest guard breathlessly.
“Dunno,” replied the first guard, “but it won’t matter in a bit.”
“Ha! You have a broad yellow stripe running down your back!” sneered the Amber Thane.
It was true, there was a long splash of bright saffron along his back.
“Yeah, so?” asked the guard.
Dominic pulled Paul back behind the undetermined things.
“We must act swiftly, these abstractoes are about do something terrible,” whispered Dominic, “I’ll tackle the guards, you free the Amber Thane.
“What should I-“ said Paul but Dominic painted a large armored tiger with a saddle, leapt upon it and road off to attack the guards. The great cat savaged the guards with claw and tooth, and Dominic unsheathed a saber from the saddle and slashed away. Paint was splattered everywhere.
Paul, who was not at all prepared for this, or any battle if he was being honest, tried to think of how he would open a giant bird cage that was twenty feet or so above the ground. Hook and ladder, cherry picker, giant robot claw? He had little confidence of being to able to paint any of those and unsure if they would work. A cat that resembled a badger was one thing.
“Now my friend!” shouted Dominic, whose tiger had herded what remained of the guards directly under the hanging cage.
Pulling up memories of doodling in elementary school, Paul created his favorite thing to draw.
PEW PEW PEW, went the laser pistol, severing the chain and sending the cage, with the Amber Thane within, to squish the last of the guards.
“Well done!” cried Dominic.
The Amber Thane picked himself up from the floor of his cage and bellowed, “What new impressionistic deviltry is this?”
“It’s me,” said Paul as he moved up to the cage.
Whatever else he had to say was cut off by the grip of a resin gauntlet encircling his neck and lifting him off his feet.
“If you think you can play dice with my sanity, you will die with that as your regret!” said the Thane.
Dominic leapt off his battle tiger, rushed up and said, “Amber Thane, we’re been sent by “Major Veronika!”
“Where is she?”
The sounds of battle could now be heard in the distance with ever increasing volume.
“Hah! Of course, she leads the attack!” said the Amber Thane with a wide grin, “Let us now join the fray!”
Paul, whose vision was fading into a grey haze, croaked, “Let. Me. Go.”
Squinting, the Amber Thane pulled him close and said, “It’s you,” and released him.
Dominic helped Paul to his feet.
“My temper got the best of me, I did not meant to strangle you,” said the Amber Thane with little regret.
“We should join the rest of the regiment,” suggested Dominic.
“Not before I recover my blade and helm!” insisted the Amber Thane as he strode towards the exit.
“Your… Helm is back at the camp, they sent it to show that you had been captured,” said Paul, “Dominic can paint you a sword, right?”
“It would be a honor!” Dominic said.
“Nay, it must be my own blade, it was gifted to me by the Azure Thane upon my ascension to knighthood,” declared the Amber Thane.
“Of course,” deferred Dominic, “you need say no more.”
Paul, however, thought that some explanation was in order, but since he was in the minority, he pushed his concerns down, something he found himself doing more and more since moving to the Borough.
“A frontal assault is the best course of action!” declared the Amber Thane.
“I have an idea,” suggested Paul.