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The Long Dark Road to Wizardry

by Richard K. Lyon

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Book Two: What Was Found in the Cellar

Episode 2: Mounted Combat on a Wooden Horse

PREVIOUSLY: A young boy, Breen, has been challenged to mounted combat in full armor with lances by an experienced and powerful warrior, Sir Grisnor. The code of honor in Zadok is inflexible. The challenge may not be refused, and the fight must be to the death...

“Your Majesty,” an outraged Sir Vorund protested, “the laws of chivalry give the challenged party the choice of time, place, and weapons. What Sir Grisnor proposes is impossible. The boy has neither horse, nor arms, nor armor.”

“Yes,” Thilloden answered judiciously, running his fingers through his golden beard, “all you say is true. But this is a complex case and the boy should have considered these problems before he claimed to be a Duke. Since I am the sole judge of the laws of chivalry, it is my duty to be fair to both sides. Accordingly I grant the boy the loan of one of the mules.”

“But Majesty!” protested Sir Vorund, “at least allow someone to act as the boy’s champion.”

“And who,” Thilloden asked with treacherous mildness, “might that be? You, Good Vorund, have met Our Grisnor in mock battle six times and lost six times. Also remember the law: a losing champion is burned at the stake.”

“I’ll fight my own battle!” Breen shouted hastily. “If Sir Vorund wants to act as my second, that would be fine.”

“Good! Then the matter is settled and combat shall begin as soon as both parties are ready.”

* * *

While Grisnor’s squires dressed him in his armor, Vorund and other knights busied themselves with Breen. Even though the loser’s arms and armor were forfeit to the victor, they wanted to lend him theirs. But Breen was several sizes smaller than the smallest of them; it was a lost cause.

Worse, when they gave him a lance, he found he couldn’t raise it to a level position. They were able to give him a sword that was light enough for him to swing, but they warned him that it was too light to be of any use against Grisnor’s armor. While all these confused failures were happening, several knights all tried to give Breen helpful advice, drowning him in suggestions.

Before his would-be helpers had anything settled or done, the trumpet sounded and the time of preparation was over. Breen found himself seated on a lame mule at one end of a field of ice-covered rocks.

Grisnor, at the other end, was dressed in black armor and looked like a monster out of legend. Huge he was, and the warhorse he rode was in proportion to its master. What Breen saw with greatest fear, however, was the long, shining lance, a fearful weapon made of extremely strong arizon wood and one with which Grisnor had great skill. Breen’s only hope against such a foe was to avoid him and stretch out the combat.

Though both he and Grisnor were dressed for the weather, the wind was still roaring and the rain was still frigid. If Breen could somehow make this a slow fight, one in which the victor would be whoever had the greater stamina... But that was impossible. Thilloden had archers spread around the field. Leaving the field of honor was declared to be a dishonor, punishable by instant death.

If only he could think, if his stomach would just stop threatening rebellion and let his brain cease being a swarm of angry confused thoughts. There had to be a way... somehow...

The Marshall raised his hand. The trumpeter raised his instrument. Breen couldn’t think and —


The shout came from the field’s far northern corner. To Breen’s astonishment, it was his grandfather.

“Your Majesty,” the oldster called again in ringing tones, “I claim the right to act as my grandson’s champion.”

“NO!” roared Grisnor. “I remember the great warrior you once were, Uster, and in honor of that memory I wish no quarrel with you. My fight is with this whoreson who properly has no ancestors.”

“Are you,” Uster asked mildly, “afraid to fight me?”

“That’s absurd!” Grisnor snapped. “I can’t fight you because this is mounted combat. I don’t know what that thing you’re sitting on is, but it’s not a horse.”

“Oh, but it is,” Uster replied. “It’s the wooden horse I used when I taught you and dozens of others how to use a lance. For all your size and strength you were a very poor pupil: all muscle, no talent, no courage. Always a bully, eager to fight those you could easily beat, never willing to take on anyone who could give you a real fight.

“Even today, old and feeble as I am, I know I can beat you... unless, of course, you’re still the same sniveling coward, still the bully who sleeps with a lamp burning in his room because you’re afraid of the dark.”

That last insult was too much for Grisnor, whose temper was short at best. Spurring his horse, he charged across the field at full gallop. Breen watched in horror as the gleaming lance dipped down to point directly at his Grandsire. Uster moved not a muscle. He just sat there, wrapped in warm clothes but without any armor, his lance pointed toward the sky.

Merciful Gods! I’m stronger than Grandfather and I couldn’t hold a lance properly. He’s holding the thing pointed at the sky because that’s the only way he has the strength to hold it at all!

For a moment it seemed to Breen as if it were all happening in some ghastly slow motion. As he watched, helpless, the dire point of that deadly lance drew ever closer to its defenseless target. ’Twas all the more horrible because it was so stupid. His poor senile grandfather was out there on a piece of absolutely flat ground that didn’t have the slightest hiding place or—

Wait! The ground there isn’t all flat. I remember that there’s one rock outcropping, a thing a little smaller than a horse. I can’t see it now.... BECAUSE GRANDFATHER HAS HIS WOODEN HORSE ON IT!

At the last possible instant, as Grisnor’s lance closed on its target, Uster’s lance dropped, striking it with a little force, just enough to deflect it downward a few inches, just enough so that the lance stabbed the wooden horse.


Passing through the wood, the lance had struck the living rock, an outcropping that was one solid piece with the entire mountain. Though Grisnor had often boasted that he charged with an irresistible force, the mountain was not disposed to move.

A normal lance would have broken instantly, but arizon wood was immensely strong. It battled Grisnor’s iron muscles. As he struggled to keep his seat and his horse fought for its footing, the wood moaned, bent and finally snapped. Snarling in triumph, Grisnor righted himself as his horse galloped past Sir Uster.

Now all he had to do was turn his horse around, get another lance, and....

Abruptly Grisnor realized that Sir Uster had been on the edge of the flat ground. The terrain on which Grisnor was now riding sloped downward and was covered with ice. Ahead the slope increased and beyond that — Drood! The cliff was a hundred-yard drop onto sharp rocks and the raging sea. His horse had already recognized the danger. It was no longer running but just struggling to remain upright.

It fell. Grisnor and his horse were sliding across the ground, faster and faster. His hands grabbed desperately for anything, but there was nothing to grab. Suddenly his right hand clutched a root, a good strong root. His powerful fingers closed about it with great force, but he was a huge man clad in heavy armor. His weight and speed were far too much. The root snapped.

The cliff loomed ahead and over he went.

While the crowd, survivors, soldiers, and knights all in unison cheered Sir Uster’s startling victory, Thilloden looked at Breen. “Young man,” he said in mild tone, “while I rejoice that Theba has vindicated your cause, there are certain political matters which We must discuss with you at a later date.”

“Let me assure Your Majesty,” Breen replied hastily, “that I am your loyal subject and would never dream of opposing you in any manner. Indeed Grandfather and I plan to stay here for the immediate future.”

“Good.” Thilloden nodded. “That will do... for the time being.”

* * *

That night, after everyone else had left, Breen and Sir Uster had a quiet supper. Breen had spent the day exploring what remained of Castle Paragas. Much he had found, things he urgently needed to discuss with his grandfather; but he could not, for after the fight with Sir Grisnor, the old man had begun having another of his bad spells. Now, with the meal finished, and glasses of wine poured, the oldster’s eyes seemed to focus clearly.

“Grandfather,” Breen began tentatively, “we have a serious problem we need to discuss.”

“Yes,” the old man replied, “though it’s not as bad as you may imagine. Our good King Thilloden will not love us for what I did to his pet monster, but the King has many enemies, many rivals. If we do nothing to attract his attention, he’s not apt to disturb us.”

“What I’m worried about,” Breen replied, “is our cousin Druin and the Norgemen. Remember that Druin made a nonsense excuse to leave his own wedding shortly before the Norgemen attacked. Now his body is not to be found.

“As for the Norgemen, all three of their longships are still on the beach. While all three have provision for a small boat, only two actually have boats. Seventy-four of them came, and they left behind twenty-four bodies. That’s fifty bodies unaccounted for; I found their clothes and weapons in the wine cellar.”

Frowning deeply, Sir Uster sipped his wine. Slowly, with great reluctance, he said, “I had always believed our cousin Druin to be an honorable man, but the facts you tell me have only one interpretation. Druin knew the raiders were coming because he invited them. After using them to kill his relatives and come into a great inheritance, he killed them by unholy means and sailed away in one of their small boats.”

Breen nodded agreement, waiting for Grandfather to finish his train of thought. Slowly and unhappily, the old man continued, “Since he did all these horrors to gain an inheritance, he will be back.”

After another long pause, his voice faltering with great distress, Uster concluded, “Breen, son of my son, you’re going to have to be ready to meet Druin on the field of honor.”

Next episode: The Undead Book

Copyright © 2009 by Richard K. Lyon

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