Story (c) 2000 by Hikaru Katayamma/Keith Dickinson. All rights reserved. The character Sheila Vixen (c) Eric W Schwartz. All other characters are (c) Hikaru Katayamma.  This story contains adult situations and language. By reading it the viewer agrees not to hold this or any other person responsible for any content they may find objectionable. If you don't like it, don't read it. Special thanks go out to Jim Lane and Coyotyee for their help in editing this project!

Identity Crisis
Act II
Chapter 20

Judge, Jury and Executioner.

  Thomas had performed his job wonderfully. The two packs of supplies and associated saddlebags were well thought out and had just about everything we'd need for the trip with some room to spare for clothes and other miscellaneous items.

  Lady Ann had also seen fit to drop by at dawn with the armor and clothing she had promised. She had brought several items that resembled the Roman skirts, their armored tabs hanging half way down to my knees. There were also several Scottish-style kilts of varying weight that would work better in more social contexts. She had also thoughtfully provided several pair of riding pants that had been modified for my tail.

  To top it all off, she had provided me with a wonderful shirt of chain mail that had also been slightly modified. You could tell from the gloss of the welds where new rings had been added to the armor. The chain combined with a leather undercoat and a good war kilt would have me gussied up for battle. Although the chain shirt only weighed about 30 pounds, it was enough that I'd have to train to get used to it. I'd also have to be careful of some martial arts maneuvers, as I would be horribly off balance until the added weight was second nature.

  Despite both our best efforts, we couldn't get her to accept any payment for the goods. It had been her honor to provision the woman who had helped to save the Duchess' life. I didn't press the point that it was my fault the Duchess had been near death to begin with.

  Another wave of nausea forced me to pause in my packing. There must have been some tainted meat on my tray last night. Such things would have to be common in a world without proper refrigeration.

  I was packing away the armor along with the few remaining dresses when I was interrupted by a knock at the door . I quickly donned a housecoat before opening the door to see Captain Moore and two other guards.

  "Good morning, Captain. Can I do something for you?" I asked, curious as to why there were two other guards with him.

  "Yes, my lady. I have orders from the Duke to bring you to him," he replied uncomfortably. I had been dreading the possibility that he would send for me.

  "All right then," I replied nodding. "Let me get dressed then and I'll be right with you." I started to close the door, but was blocked by his hand.

  "I'm sorry, my lady. But you need to come with us now," he said, emphasizing the word 'now.'

  I let out a sigh of frustration. "Let's get something straight, Captain. Unless you and your boys want to fight me about this, and I do mean with blades, I'm not coming out of this room until I'm presentable. Have I made myself clear?" I asked, cocking an ear towards him.

  Captain Moore's face got hard for a second as he considered the challenge before nodding. "Please hurry, my lady. The Duke is not a man to be kept waiting," he said, removing his hand from the door.

  I flashed him a pleasant smile. "Come now," I said with a gleam in my eyes. "What man isn't used to waiting on a woman at one time or another?" A smile from the two guards behind him proved that I had struck a chord, though Captain Moore had better control. After closing the door I bolted it. No sense in him getting any ideas that my time was up.

  Now, what to wear, what to wear... I thought about the gown that Gwen had given me, but discarded that idea along with the dresses immediately. Instead, I strapped on a dark tan heavy war kilt and laced up the leather shirt. I considered putting the chain on, but I knew that without help I'd probably rip half my hair out in the process. Instead, I settled for tying the cloth band that I used for a sword belt around my waist, slipping the two swords into position.

  Quickly checking my appearance in the mirror, I took a soft strip of leather and tied my hair in a ponytail, letting it fall behind me. With my hair like this I no longer bore any resemblance to Gwen or Leo's daughter. Satisfied with the look, I got up, unbolted the door and opened it.

  As expected, the guards were still there, though they were standing around casually as they waited. One look at the way I was dressed gave Captain Moore a sour look.

  "I'm sorry, my lady, but you'll have to hand over those weapons," he said, pointing to my swords.

  Instinctively my hand went to the hilt, startling the other guards who thought I might draw. "No," I replied flatly. "The last time these swords were taken from me I was hauled to the mews. I won't give them up."

  Moore gestured to his men not to interfere. "I'm sorry, my lady. But you are not to be allowed weapons during your visit to the Duke. I have my orders," he said politely yet with a tone that indicated it might as well be written in stone.

  I could tell by the way he stood that he had no intention of attacking. In fact, he was doing his best to calm the situation down. "I'll tell you what. How about if I turn the swords over to my lord first, then you can escort me to see the Duke," I offered as a compromise.

  He smiled, relieved that there wouldn't be trouble. "I have no problem with that. Lord Sheen is in with the Duke and Duchess as we speak, my lady. If you would care to come this way," he offered, turning to lead the procession, assuming I would follow.

  We walked down the stairs to the first floor, turning into a small maze of corridors that I had never been down before yet were oddly familiar. Our trip eventually terminated at a large wooden door reinforced with steel bindings. Using his mailed fist, Captain Moore banged on the door. Rewarded by the command to enter, he opened the door and led me inside, keeping a restraining hand on my shoulder.

  The room appeared to be a private office of sorts for the Duke. It had several other exits, presumably to the court and other parts of the castle. Plush didn't even begin to describe the furniture and decorations in the room. I guess opulent would have to do, as I couldn't think of any other way to describe it. There was more gold, silver and fancy woodwork in this one room than I'd seen in a museum.

  "What is she doing armed?" the Duke demanded angrily.

  "I'm sorry, my lord. She will only surrender her weapons to Lord Sheen," he said, nodding to Sheila who had stood at the Duke's outburst. Behind him, I saw the Duchess standing next to a window that she had been gazing through.

  Reluctantly I withdrew the scabbards from my belt and held them out for Sheila while not approaching any closer to the Duke. Captain Moore's hand on my shoulder gave me a gentle squeeze. I'm not sure if it was to be supporting or a warning, but I took it as a positive thing.

  Sheila had a concerned look on his face as he walked over and took the swords from me. "What's going on?" he whispered to me.

  Unable to answer him, I shook my head and walked forwards towards the desk where Duke Leopold sat. Stopping about six feet from the front, I lowered my head, bowed and spoke, "You summoned me, my lord?"

  "Yes. Sit down," he directed.

  Without looking up, I sat in the right-hand chair.

  "Would someone please tell me what is going on around here?" I heard Sheila ask as he walked over to stand behind me, placing his hands on my shoulders.

  "We will get to that in a minute, Lord Sheen," the Duke replied. "If you will take a seat, there is some business we must attend to before the two of you shall be permitted to take leave."

  I looked up at Sheila, watching his reaction to the Duke's words. He looked like he was going to argue so I gave his hand a squeeze to get his attention. A gentle shake of my head implored him not to argue as he glanced down at me. He didn't want to let it go, but eventually gave in and reluctantly sat down.

  "Now... Where to begin?" the Duke said, drawing out my agony. "We suppose we should start with your saving of our wife's life." He picked something up from his desk and walked around to stand in front of it.

  "Look at me when I speak to you, Lady Arden," he directed.

  Unwillingly I lifted my gaze to his face, noting the rigid, neutral expression that he wore. "Yes, my lord," I replied meekly.

  He studied me briefly before opening a scroll he held in one hand. "This scroll is from the Magus Sanctum Arcanum at the Imperial Capitol City. It is an official invitation for you to accept a position within their ranks as a member of the Spirit Warrior Elite."

  The Spirit Warrior Elite? I had never heard of them, but it sounded like it would be quite an honor. The Duke was smiling slightly at my expression of confusion as I thought about what he had said.

  The Duke, seeing that I hadn't a clue as to what was going on, decided to elaborate. "The Spirit Warriors are a very select group of Magi who are trained in the arts of war. There are very few in this world that have both the talent for magic as well as the martial arts. The Spirit Warrior Elite are even more special as they have shown the ability to travel onto the astral plane, carrying battle to creatures that may seek to flee justice within. To be offered status in their ranks is quite an honor." Rolling up the scroll, he held it and a small emblem out to me.

  "I don't understand," I said, totally lost for the moment. I had expected to have my head chewed off. "Why would they do something like that?"

  The Duke sighed and lowered his hands. Apparently he wasn't used to people questioning him when he gave out 'a great honor.' It was something he'd just have to learn to live with, I suppose.

  "The Healer Reskin contacted the Magus with one of his toys and informed them of your accomplishment yesterday. They were most impressed with the news that you had not only been able to find our wife's sprit, but to bind it to her body again." Again he held the scroll and emblem out to me, waiting patiently for me to accept it.

  With trembling paws, I reached forth and accepted the objects, staring at them as I held them in my lap. The emblem was a silver sword piercing three gold circlets each interlinked with the next on a rectangular polished steel badge.

  The Duke stood and walked around behind his desk, sitting down noisily in the leather chair. "Now, there is a matter of a crime that has been committed," he commented, causing my head to snap up.

  No! He wouldn't! I couldn't believe that he would give me this and then do that to me!

  "Captain, bring in the prisoner," he directed in a loud voice to Captain Moore behind me. All heads turned as he opened the door and gave an order.

  A minute later I saw Marduke hobble in. He was clothed only in a rag that gave him some semblance of privacy, though not by much. His skin was streaked with dirt and filth, and I could see where he had been kicked or beaten. He wore the same wrist and ankle binding that I had been forced to endure causing him to haunch over almost parallel to the ground, shuffling as he hurried into the room. A guard with a whip directed him over near the desk where he was forced to kneel on the floor only a few feet from me.

  As I sat there and looked at him I saw the terror in his eyes as he watched me. He knew he was screwed. Beaten and broken, he was a shell of the man who had once controlled the mews. I pitied him even as I loathed him.

  "Marduke Kalliam Dresden," the Duke said, pronouncing the name with military precision. "Do you recognize this sentient creature sitting next to you?"

  Marduke looked at me and nodded. "Yes, my lord."

  "And did you not hold a conversation with this creature prior to abducting her?" Leopold asked, his tone sharp as a knife.

  Again Marduke nodded, "Yes, my lord."

  "And is it not true that you did, intentionally with malice and forethought, take part in her rape as executed by Prince Hiram?" Leo practically spit Hiram's name out.

  Marduke was trembling now with the knowledge that even the Prince wasn't going to save him. He swallowed several times before replying, "Yes, my lord."

  "I won't go through the list of remaining charges against you. Remarking on such filth is beneath our dignity," he said, his voice filled with revulsion. "What is the punishment for the crimes you have committed?"

  Totally defeated, Marduke hung his head and answered quietly, "Death, my lord."

  "That is correct, death. By all accounts we should judge you guilty and condemn you to death; however we will pass that privilege on to another," he said, leaning back in his chair.

  Marduke looked as confused as I felt. What the hell was the Leo doing dragging him in here if he wasn't going to judge him?

  "Lady Arden," the duke said, getting my attention. "As the injured party, we are permitted to pass judgment in a capitol case to you. It is your decision. Do with him as you will."

  Surprised at his actions, I turned to Sheila only to find a similar expression on his face. The Duke was handing me the pig that had been partly responsible for what had happened in the mews. A glance at Gwen showed concern on her face. She had no idea what I was going to do.

  I stood, handing the scroll and emblem to Sheila and walked around Marduke, examining his battered form the same way he had once examined me. Justice. How would I administer justice to someone like this? I looked up at Captain Moore and held my hand out. "Give me your knife," I directed.

  He raised an eyebrow slightly as he looked to the duke for confirmation before handing me the large knife. It was a finely crafted blade that was razor sharp. It reminded me of a Bowie knife from my world only without the curve on the top.

  Bending over, I used the knife to cut the cord that bound his wrists to his ankles and lifted him upright. As I stood there, looking into his eyes, I could smell the fear that emanated from his filthy body.

  "Give me one reason to spare your life," I said, curious at what his answer would be.

  He again swallowed before replying, never taking his eyes from mine. "I have no excuse for my crimes." That surprised me a bit. I had figured he'd at least use the 'I was just following orders' excuse or something.

  I place the tip of the knife under his left nipple, ready to pierce his heart and take the life that was owed me, but couldn't. Something inside me cried out not to do it. Agreed, he had been under Prince Hiram's orders, but that was no excuse. There had also been the question of my scent. Once we were in an enclosed space I could see it having an effect on him, but not before that. Would the taking of his life be justice?

  Could I even take his life? I had told both Gwen and Leo that I wanted no more killing. Did I mean it, or was it all just propaganda to make myself feel better? Was I truly bear? Was I a healer? That was the ultimate question here. If I had the strength, I would give him the memories of what he did to me and serve justice that way. Unfortunately, I doubted that I had the reserves to do it.

  My mind made up, I grabbed his face with my left paw and turned it to the side. Using the tip of the knife I carved a large V deep into the flesh of his face, then backed away as he cried out, pressing his hand to his bloodied cheek.

  "Here's your punishment. You are stripped of all titles and lands within the bounds of the Duke's domain. You are hereby exiled from the Duchy, never to return on pain of death. Before you leave these lands that wound is to be permitted to heal and thus allow the scar to provide you with a visible reminder of your crime," I said in judgment, returning the knife to Captain Moore.

  As I watched them take him away I felt something was missing. "Wait!" I commanded, and approached them. Standing in front of Marduke I let out a low growl before kneeing him in the crotch with all my strength. The surprised look on his face followed quickly by pain satisfied me greatly as he collapsed into a whimpering heap on the floor. "Oh yah, and that's for fucking me in the ass."

  Satisfied that he had paid his dues I turned and walked back towards the Duke, and I saw he had an odd expression on his face. There was a curiously satisfied smile, while his eyes showed mystification at my actions. Without a word I sat back down in the chair.

  "That is hardly what I expected," Leo finally commented.

  "And what did you expect, my lord? That I would gut him on the spot?" I asked angrily, knowing I had been set up.

  The Duke nodded. "Yes, that's exactly what I expected. Why didn't you?"

  I dropped my head for a second "I walk the path of the bear. I can't take a life, not like that. If he were trying to kill me then I could defend myself, but not like that," I explained quietly.

  "Ahhh yes, walking the path of the bear," he said. "That brings us to our next item---what happened in our study."

  Oh no, he wasn't actually going to do this. God, please don't let him do this to me, not in front of Sheila.

  "What are you talking about?" Sheila asked, concerned by the look on my face.

  The Duke held up a hand towards Sheila. "Please, Lord Sheen, in due time," he said turning his attention back to me. "How would you describe your crimes yesterday, Lady Arden?"

  I glanced over at Sheila and back to the Duke. I didn't want to answer, but knew he wouldn't let it go. "You know damn good and well what my crimes are," I shot back, angry that he was doing this to me.

  The bastard had a smug look on his face as he nodded. "Indeed we do. However, we wish for you to state them for us," he explained.

  I glanced over at Sheila and then back to the Duke. "Please, my lord. I beg of you, dismiss Lord Sheen, now, before we go any further," I implored.

  The Duke shook his head firmly. "I don't think so. As your lord, he's partly responsible for your actions. Now, state your crimes," he commanded.

  I let a low growl out as I glared at him. "You want my crimes?" I demanded. "Fine! How about rape, assault and attempted murder!" I felt the firm hand of Captain Moore on my shoulder, holding me firmly in the seat as I shouted at the Duke.

  "What the hell are you talking about?" I heard Sheila demand, shock clearly audible in his voice. As I looked over I saw him out of his seat, backing away slightly.

  I turned back to the Duke, enraged. "Are you happy? Is this what you want? To destroy me before my lord?"

  "Please sit down, Lord Sheen," the Duke said calmly.

  "No! Not until someone tells me what is going on here!" he shouted. "Just what did you do, Arden?"

  I couldn't look at him. I couldn't face either of them.

  "Your lady, in an attempt to show me exactly how poorly we have performed our duties as a father and a husband, got a bit carried away," he explained calmly. "Please sit down so we may resolve this issue."

  I heard the rustle of fabric as Gwen moved over to Sheila. "Please, it will all right," she said, maneuvering Sheila back to his chair. After Sheila had sat, I felt the Captain remove his hand, only to feel it replace by Gwen's.

  "Lady Arden," the Duke began, "has shown us some of our Gwen's memories, and in doing so, shown us how we have been flagrant in the abuse of certain privileges." He paused, steepling his fingers in front of his face as he thought. "Unfortunately, we were a bit stubborn and as a result, caused the Lady Arden to pummel some sense into our head."

  "No," I said forcefully. "What I did was rape. It was no better than what was done to me in the mews."

  "What did you do?" I heard Sheila insist in a horse whisper.

  I crushed the scroll in my hand as I responded. "I forced my memories, from the moment I was captured until I killed myself, onto the Duke," I replied, trembling at the shame I felt.

  "Good god, Arden! What were you thinking?" he asked, comprehending what I had done.

  "She wasn't thinking, and for that we are grateful," the Duke answered for me. "She has opened our eyes to the true crime that has been committed here in my lands for the last thirty years. Lady Arden, stand." He commanded.

  My knees felt weak as I stood, unsure what was about to happen. "When last we talked, I asked you who would be the first to forgive me, and if it would be you. What was your answer?"

  I thought back to our time in the spirit plane. "I told you that I didn't blame you for the crime, my lord," I answered in a horse whisper.

  The Duke stood, and spoke formally, "Then hear me now and know that we do not hold this against you. As the wronged party, we give you your life and tell you that we hold no ill will against you. You are free to go."

  It would have been better if he had just killed me. One look at Sheila's face told me that this wasn't something that he would just shrug off. I gave the Duke a small bow before turning to leave.

  As I walked by, Gwen reached out and grasped my arm, stopping me. There was a concerned look in her eye. She knew that the Duke had handled it wrong with Sheila. "We intend to leave tomorrow. It is our desire that you travel with us and share our company. Will you join us?" she asked.

  I glanced at the Duke and saw him nod. Another look at Sheila showed a hard expression as he stared at me, his eyes still reflecting the horror he felt. "I don't know, my lady. That's up to my lord," I responded and pulled away, nodding to the guard that held the door for me.

  Once out in the hall I collapsed, leaning heavily on the wall for support. My world had just been destroyed. How could Sheila ever stand to look at me again? As I stood there trying to compose myself I heard the door open and saw Sheila exit the room. His eyes locked on mine as he walked angrily over to me.

  "How could you?" he demanded, his voice accusatory and disbelieving at the same time. There was no way for me to answer. I hung my head in shame, unable to look Sheila in the eyes. I was startled by the sound of my swords as they were carelessly dropped to the floor.

  Without a saying another word, Sheila stormed away.

  My god, what have I done?

Chapter 21