The Long Dark Road to Wizardry
by Richard K. Lyon
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Book IV: The Whispering Mirror
Episode 2: A Duel to the Death
Previously: In Zadok the code of honor is inflexible. On suffering a mortal insult a nobleman must challenge the offender. The offender must accept the challenge and name suitable weapons and time and place for the duel. Believing his cousin Druin responsible for the massacre at Castle Paragas, Breen plans to publically insult him. That will give him the choice of weapons.
Though Druin is an accomplished warrior and Breen a boy too young to grow a beard, Breen is very skilled with a crossbow and thinks he has a good chance. Druin, seemingly reluctant to take the boy seriously, tells him to be careful: “If I challenge you, you must name acceptable weapons and time and place for the combat.”“Crossbows,” the boy snapped defiantly, “ at the hour of the dog this afternoon in Queen Delanda’s square!”
“Ahh, no,” the hawk-faced aristocrat replied, his green eyes glittering, “I’m afraid that won’t do. This afternoon I’m already engaged.”
“Nothing takes precedence over a duel!”
“Except another duel. This afternoon — as a matter of fact at dog hour — I’m scheduled to duel General Narash.”
“What!” the boy exclaimed, astonished. “The commander of the Thesian Army? I don’t believe you!”
“Well,” Druin shrugged, “you’re welcome to come and watch. The General and I will meet just outside the city walls and settle our differences with crossbows. Should be quite a good show. If you want a seat you’d best go now.”
“Ahh...” Feeling monstrously awkward, Breen shifted from foot to foot and said lamely, “We could fight tomorrow.”
“Except that,” the nobleman replied with a cat-eating-canary smile, “tomorrow I duel Lord Dictus. He’s the Thesian’s second in command. After him there’s — well, it’s a long list, a full month’s worth — and that, dear cousin, is your problem. If I challenge you, you must, on pain of losing honor, name a practical time for us to duel. Because of my very crowded scheduled you’d find that an impossible task.”
With a hideous sinking feeling Breen realized that he’d stepped into a trap, a situation in which the technical requirements of honor were impossible to meet. Merely by speaking the words of challenge, his cousin could dishonor Breen, doom him to be whipped out of the city!
For a horrible moment Breen felt like a child who has just been victimized by a nasty adult trick. The temptation to shout “NO FAIR” was extreme, but, of course, that would be fatal. He must, at all costs, keep his calm and think his way out of this situation.
Druin was staring at him with amused contempt. Before the boy could decide what to say, Druin remarked, “Of course, dear cousin, if you were to withdraw your remarks — only temporarily — until I have a chance to explain in private, then this whole thing may be smoothed over.
“I assure you I do understand why you’d be suspicious about that dreadful night, but if you’ll just come,” he gestured toward the door to the inn’s back room, “I’ll gladly explain everything.”
A child of the streets, Breen knew from bitter experience the ways an adult cheats a child. First the child is hurt or frightened and then an escape is offered that’s really a trap. The last time Breen had seen his cousin Druin, the man had gone off alone with half a hundred heavily armed Norgemen, and afterwards all that had been left of them was their weapons and their clothes.
“Thank you,” Breen said carefully. “In that case I shall take your advice. I’ll go get a good seat to watch the duel and, yes, I do revise my remarks. Instead of accusing you of anything specific, I do suggest, Cousin Druin, that with thirty some duels pending you do have a problem getting along with people.”
Though it was a poor jest, it provoked enough laughter to cover Breen’s retreat. Fleeing the inn, his heart full of fear and hurt pride, Breen had no intention of going to watch the duel. He’d said that just to have an excuse to leave; but now here he was. Since it was too early for good rat hunting, what else was there for him to do?
It didn’t take him long to find a seat on the city’s northwall with a good view of the grassy meadow lands beneath the wall. Despite the general starvation, the faces of the people around Breen were bright with excitement. A middle-aged man who still retained some of his pot belly grabbed Breen’s arm and demanded, “Boy, who’s fighting? Is it the King’s Champion, Sir Giate?”
“No,” snapped a haggard old woman, “everyone knows it’s Sir Rappar.”
While they argued, Breen looked about. The layout for the duel was quite interesting. From where he sat Breen could lean out and barely see a little gate just wide enough for men to pass through one at a time. ’Twas a safe wager that Sir Druin would come out of that gate onto the meadowlands. The meadows were, Breen judged, about two bow-shots wide, and in the hills on the far side stood the Thesian army: aristocrats in travel-worn finery and common soldiers in muddy battle gear.
One thing was a bit odd, though. The Thesians had raised a small tent in the middle of the meadow. Though none of them approached the tent, black-robed priests from the city and invaders’ camp were walking over the meadows swinging incense burners and chanting for Theba to defend the right.
Not far from where Breen sat, someone was actually selling watered ale at an exorbitant price, a minor miracle in this starving city. Elsewhere in the throng, men wagered on who the combatants would be and what outcome they would have.
It was all much like a carnival, and well it should be. Both sides needed a brief relief from the deadly boredom of fighting war by siege.
Logically Breen should hope that his evil cousin would lose; but, he reflected, wanting to solve his own problems that way seemed disloyal to his country.
As the priests left the field an expectant hush fell over the crowd: the hour of the dog was approaching. The temple bell sounded the hour and slowly the door of the small gate crept open. Every eye was upon it.
When the suspense was becoming unbearable, Druin strode forth, tall, intensely erect, clad all in black from his polished boots to flowing cape, his bearing as proud as the hawk whose face he bore. “GENERAL NARASH!” he shouted in a voice that rang from one end of the field to the other. “WE HAVE AN APPOINTMENT!”
Seemingly in answer, several soldiers rushed out of the little tent. In a moment they’d struck the tent and pulled it away. What had been inside the tent was now revealed: a man, his curiously thick body completely covered in a crimson cape. He held a crossbow cradled in his arms and he thundered, “I AM HERE, SIR DRUIN!”
“Then shall we have at it?”
“Nay, first I must have my say.” The General’s voice rose and there was not a man on the furthest corner of the wall who did not hear him. “MEN OF ERMONT,” he bellowed, “YOU WHO ARE DOOMED TO EAT YOUR OWN DUNG AND DRINK YOUR OWN URINE BECAUSE YOUR KING IS A FOOL! I AGREED TO THIS DUEL BECAUSE I WANTED TO SPEAK TO YOU.
“BE NOT FOOLS LIKE YOUR KING, FOR THERE IS NONE WHO CAN DELIVER YOU FROM MY HAND. DO NOT LET HIM TELL YOU THAT HIS FRIEND, PRINCE HOWER, IS COMING WITH A GREAT ARMY. BEHOLD, HOWER IS A BROKEN REED, AND ALL WHO TRUSTED HIM HAVE PERISHED.
“DO NOT LET YOUR PRIESTS TELL YOU THAT THEBA WILL SAVE YOU, FOR I HAVE TAKEN MANY CITIES. ALWAYS DID THE PRIESTS SAY SUCH THINGS AND ALWAYS DID I PUT THE PRIESTS TO THE SWORD ALONG WITH THE PEOPLE; AND THEIR TEMPLES ARE PILES OF STONE!”
Gone was the holiday atmosphere. Narash’s words fell on the besieged city dwellers like stones, crushing their spirits.
“IF,” the General continued, “YOU OPEN THE GATES TO ME, I VOW TO SPARE YOU ALL. BUT IF YOU DO NOT, THEN WHEN I DO TAKE THE CITY, EVEN THE TINIEST BABY WILL BE PUT TO THE SWORD. YOUR WOMEN WILL BE RAPED IN THE PUBLIC SQUARE BEFORE THEIR THROATS ARE CUT. YOUR OWN DEATHS—”
“GENERAL NARASH,” Druin interrupted, “aren’t you overlooking the obvious. As you know I’ve managed to insult you and all thirty of the other noblemen in your army. I have one duel every day for the next month. Assuming I win them all, which I’m sure I will, your army will be left without leadership. It will just dissolve.”
The crowd murmured unhappily. Thirty-one duels. Was their champion mad? He must be, for only the mad seek certain death.
Narash made an impatient gesture. Perhaps it meant he saw no point in arguing with a man he thought a fool. Aloud he said, “Sir Druin, now that we’ve each had our say, just a moment and we may have at it.” He reached around behind his back and produced a steel helmet. After placing this on his head he let the crimson cape drop. General Narash was dressed from head to foot in heavy steel plate armor.
Catcalls and howls of dismayed protest sprang from the crowd and Breen found himself shouting with them. Even if his cousin was a monster, that still was no excuse for cheating in a duel.
“You don’t object?” Narash called to Druin.
“Of course not,” the other replied, a hint of sardonic contempt in his voice. “Under the terms of our agreement you’re well within your rights.”
The first trumpet sounded. The duelists raised their weapons. Absolute silence now held sway. All stared wide-eyed, their hearts beating rapidly. Breen couldn’t help silently praying for his cousin. It was so unfair and he was being so brave and...
The second trumpet blared, and the quarrels flew. General Narash’s bolt passed over Druin’s head to smash harmlessly against the city wall. At first Breen couldn’t see what had happened to Druin’s shot, then he gazed more closely at the General’s helmet. The feathered end of a quarrel projected out between the bars of the helmet’s grill. Narash had dropped his crossbow, and his arms were flapping erratically like the wings of a decapitated chicken. Red was seeping out of the grillwork and down the armor. A few moments more and all movement ceased.
Howls of dismay sprang from the Thesian camp and screams of joy from the city dwellers, but only for a moment. Raising his hand Druin stilled them all.
With every eye watching in puzzlement he held up his crossbow in one hand, inserted a lever mechanism and cocked it, no small feat of strength. After inserting a fresh quarrel, he shouted, “Sir Tarrot, are you there?”
A portly man in mud-smatter red velvet tunic and gray pants called back, “I am and what of it? Our duel, Sir Druin, is not till the end of the month.”
“Yes but I thought you might want to have it now. Tonight I’m going to be celebrating my victory. Surely you wouldn’t want me, my tongue loosened by drink, to spend the evening talking about you and your sister? It’s such a choice story that—”
“DAMN YOU!” In but a moment Tarrot was down on the meadow, a crossbow in his hands. The first trumpet and both weapons were leveled. While Druin stood like a statue, his face an emotionless mask, Tarrot trembled, sweat poured down his bearded jowls. His bow quivered this way and that.
The second trumpet, and the quarrels flew. Tarrot’s shot was wide but still close enough for Druin to hear its angry buzz, like that of a hornet raised to godhood. It is doubtful if Tarrot heard Druin’s shot for it passed through his head, breaking it like an egg.
Reloading his weapon Druin called “Sir Misnor, would you like to be next? There was that business back in Port Thark...”
With scarcely concealed blackmail and accusation of cowardice, Druin lured Misnor and four other Thesian nobles down on the meadow. None kept their nerve well enough to place their shots even close to him.
When at length he had decorated the meadow with seven corpses, all shot through the head, Druin turned to the watching city dwellers and shouted, “Friends, I have good news from the King! So that you may properly celebrate today’s victory, you are all to be given double rations of grain from the Royal Granary!”
* * *
Neither the soldiers who guarded the Royal Granary nor their commander, Captain Garmond, had ever heard of the King’s generous order — for the excellent reason that neither had the King. Garmond did, however, realize that it was better to give away a little grain that have the entire granary destroyed in a riot.
Breen, swept along with the joyous throng, found himself getting grain with the rest, all his pockets would hold. Despite the happiness around him, the boy was morose. What was he to do? The man he had to kill had just become a national hero. That made killing him unthinkable but it was still absolutely necessary. Honor demanded it, and Breen’s grandfather ardently believed in honor. That aside, practicality also required it. With Druin alive, Breen was not heir to three dukedoms — or to anything.
How then could he support Sir Uster? Hunt rats the rest of his life?
Next Episode... The Price of a City
Copyright © 2009 by Richard K. Lyon