The year 1139, the tumultuous reign of King Stephen

"Almaric! Almaric. Perform another trick for us, Almaric!"

Lord Talon of Ironguard, garbed in his wizardís disguise, harkened to his adoring audience, their thunderous clapping and foot stomping telling him he had fulfilled the first rule of successful entertainment:

Always leave the stage with oneís public wanting more.

Feigning modesty along with everything else, Talon took a humble bow. When the crowd's adulation built to a feverish pitch, he flung the mantle of his black magicianís costume over his shoulders and stretched out his arms, as if he were Moses parting the Red Sea.

As the usual reverent hush fell over the crowd, he simpered, "Enough!" and blew kisses. "I am hardly deserving of all this devotion."

His doting admirers disagreed.

"Almaric! Almaric! We love you, Almaric. Another magic trick, if you please."

Whilst keeping his audience waiting for an encore -- the second rule of successful entertainment was making them positively drool for more -- he happened to glance out onto the awed faces before him.

How irritating. Standing far in the back, a filthy street urchin watched his every move, the same peasant wench who had attended numerous previous productions. Then, as now, her unblinking stare hampered his side talent....

The one that might someday land his pretty skull upon a pike at King Stephen's court.

He cleared the apprehension from his throat. "My next illusion requires a member of the audience. Do I have a volunteer, preferably one who will not swoon at the sight of blood?"

Too many hands to count waved at the sky.

He always closed his routine with this trick, and the mud-splattered irritant at the rear of the crowd had never once raised her grubby hand. The same held true today. Of all the attendees present, she alone remained with her arms down by her scrawny sides.

Her reluctance to come forward surprised him. After all, for weeks now, she had been boldly following him from performance to performance across the countryside. Why else stalk him if not to make his acquaintance?

Her reticence quite put him out. Did she, or did she not, wish to meet him in the flesh?

And, really, who would not? He was beyond thrilling in person.

But nay. She showed no sign of stepping up to the stage. And so, as always, Talon picked the most beauteous and bosomy maiden in the crowd to assist him...

Thereby guaranteeing everyone would pay attention to the volunteer, not himself. Females jealous of her buxom proximity to himself would send her looks to kill; lust-ridden males would leer at her bounty.

Smiling lecherously at her cleavage, Talon asked, "What is your name, my dear?"


"A lovely name for a lovely assistant." With theatrical exaggeration, he flourished a square of linen before her button nose. "Alice, please confirm for our audience that this cloth is ordinary in all respects."

"'Tis, Almaric."

"Thank you, my dear."

Next he whipped out a large pin. After Alice confirmed for one and all ordinariness of the pin as well, he placed the cloth over his raised fist, then wiggled his protruding thumb.

He nodded to his shapely volunteer. "Do you dance, fair maiden?"

"I do, Almaric."

"Would you be kind enough to show us a few steps?"

Alice was indeed kind enough.

The attention of his audience now occupied with Alice's high stepping -- or, more precisely, with the jiggling of her astonishing chest -- he quickly substituted a secreted piece of carrot for his wiggling thumb, now retracted under the cover of the cloth.

How utterly divine! Alice had finished her number just in time. All eyes back on him, he proceeded to viciously stab this carrot-imposter, wincing all the while, as if in pain.

Oh, how he bled for his art.

Not actually. The trick was in convincing his audience he did.

As the horrified spectators looked away from his obvious distress, he returned the carrot to its nesting spot within the hollow of his palm and restored his perfectly fine thumb to its rightful positioning.

He groaned for affect. "Alice, my dear, please remove the square of linen from my hand."

When she had, he pumped his uninjured thumb high for all to see.

As if on cue, Alice squealed, "But, Almaric, where is the blood? With all the stabbing you did, there should be buckets of blood. On your thumb. On the linen. There is not a drop, not anywhere! Blessed Jesu. 'Tis a holy miracle for sure."

Talon tried not to sulk. He did all the work, and who received the accolades?

The deity.

To be fair, he did get some credit, though 'twas never enough or as much as he deserved. To another round of thunderous applause and foot stomping, Talon made his bows and began his retreat, until he could duck out of sight behind the stage curtain.

Normally at this point, he would change into another disguise and mingle anonymously amongst the crowd in the performance of his other talent...

The side one that might someday render him headless.

But with the filthy-faced urchin in back watching his every move again, he dared not tarry. More than a little inconvenient. If this kept up, he would have very little to show for his time spent on the road.

Leading his oxen-drawn covered wagon out of the village, Talon disappeared into the night. As a precaution, en route, he drew his team over to one side and checked behind for anyone who might give his secret away.

And there she was, the filthy-faced irritant from the audience, as tiny as an elf, traipsing after him at a discreet distance.