“Only fools and bards seem to be awake at this bell, Lansing.”
“Your Grace,” Lansing Bartol remarked, “I wasn’t aware you, too, had taken up the song?” He looked to Clifton Dargon expectantly as they walked. The duke did not respond.
The couple traversed the short distance from the heart of Dargon Keep to the armory, flagstones echoing the sounds of their feet off the broad stone walls. The sun’s crown, barely cresting the horizon, shot long rays of soft light through the arched windows. Despite attempts to maintain a jovial profile, inwardly Bartol’s spirits sank. “Perhaps I fit both of the duke’s descriptions,” the bard thought glumly. He began to regret his impulsive decision to drag Clifton with him this morning.
Bartol’s friend of two years, Bren kel Tomis, waited in the armory. The mercenary had escorted Lansing’s niece to her wedding, and since then he and Bartol had struck a deep friendship. They enjoyed regular morning workouts, sparring in the castle’s weapons yard. Kel Tomis had once been a herald in the distant land of Mandraka, trained to dispense justice with the help of his sword. His presence in Dargon had taught Bartol more than one move that could save life and limb.
The previous night, Lansing had found his duke in one of the black fogs that had plagued him since the loss of his left arm, and had thought watching a little friendly swordplay might brighten Clifton’s mood. The aging weapons master, Edlin, had considered it a good plan when the bard had run into him that morning.
“It wouldn’t do for our Grace to be so dismal when blessing the fleet today,” he had agreed, leaning on his cane.
However, since the knock at his chamber door, the duke had only spoken short, grim sentences. Bartol sighed. Perhaps this wasn’t a good idea after all. He hadn’t seen Clifton draw a blade once since his injury in the Beinison war, but the lord had been a superior swordsman, and his fighting arm was still intact. The gods were the only ones who knew why he, if truly disgusted with the idea, had agreed to come.
Lansing descended a few wide steps into the cobbled court that led to the armory’s gate. Sea-blue pennants, in honor of the fleet’s blessing, hung from high timbers outside the massive stone structure. The armory was a fortification unto itself, with an inner bailey for weapons practice and fierce battlements along its perimeter. Lansing led the way through the gates and into the covered section where a young apprentice, Matthew, rubbed sleep from his eyes. Here were tables at which weary combatants could rest after practice, and several barrels contained various sovereign remedies for thirst, depending on the thirst’s taste. In the middle of the far wall was a large double door, thrown open to the inner court, brightening in the morning light.
“Is kel Tomis in the yard, lad?” Lansing’s friendly question came out as a growl. Perhaps Dargon’s mood was catching.
Matthew nodded enthusiastically. “Aye, milord,” he replied, somewhat loudly.
Lansing shot a strange look at the boy and stepped up to the threshold, the duke in tow, when shouting reached their ears.
“Stupid boy! Get up! When the Beinisons took away the use of your leg, did they numb your fingers as well?”
Lansing frowned. It sounded like Bren’s voice.
“What’s going on out there?” Clifton grumbled.
“I don’t know,” the bard answered. He walked out into the yard and stopped dead cold.
The ebon-haired kel Tomis, red-skinned, muscled and visibly angry, stood above the cowering shape of a boy, sparring sword in hand. The boy tried rising to his feet but fell in the attempt. He was obviously injured.
“This is the venerable kel Tomis?” Clifton asked.
Bartol hastily made his way to the sanded practice yard. “Bren, my friend,” he called, a sweating smile on his face, “how are you this morning?”
“I am well, Lansing,” Bren replied, taking a step back from his inferior opponent. “I see you have brought company. Greetings, your Grace,” he said, bowing slightly.
Clifton stopped beside the bard. “And to you, Master kel Tomis,” he replied. “Lansing has told me much about you,” the duke looked down with a raised eyebrow at the boy sprawled on the floor, “albeit with a few exceptions. If I might ask, what exactly are you doing here?”
Bren wiped a sheen of sweat off his brow. “Trying to make a man out of a boy,” he replied.
“By berating him to the point of humiliation?” Clifton countered. “He appears hurt.”
“Not so much in his body than his heart, sire,” kel Tomis poked the boy’s chest with the tip of his sword. “He was apprenticed to the armory until he could win his freedom as journeyman. I am helping him to that end.”
The duke nodded, as if in deep thought. “And you think to help someone through the destruction of their self-worth?” he finally asked.
“A man’s self-worth is not built by hiding behind a cane.” Bren chuckled, lowly. “The boy gave his word to fight until he learned enough to be released. His path has been hindered by an injury, but it does not undo his oath.”
The morning’s light had crept over the wall and cast Clifton’s features into sharp contrast. The duke looked to Bren and then down at the child. “Boy,” he called out. “Do you wish to remain in this service?”
“No, sire,” the child replied, his face turned aside in shame.
“Then you are free from its bonds.”
“Your Grace!” Bren objected.
“Do you doubt my authority, Master kel Tomis?” Clifton’s voice rang throughout the courtyard, his profile appeared cut from stone. “No one shall be a slave in my duchy.”
Bren lowered his sparring sword, point-first into the sand and leaned on it. “Your pardon of the boy’s oath is admirable and, of course, within your right. But you diminish his honor.”
“You will not fight him,” Clifton said grimly.
“I will not pursue it,” Bren answered, his dark eyes never leaving the duke’s. “I come from a foreign land. I do not yet understand your ways. But, in my land, if you wished to preserve the boy’s reputation, then you would appoint a champion. Someone to fight for his freedom.”
Lansing stepped forward, his fists trembling in rage. What in the world was Bren trying to do, get himself thrown in the dungeon? “Are you disobeying the duke’s directive?” he asked.
Clifton put his hand on Lansing’s chest, a faint look of intrigue on his face. “No, Lansing, Master kel Tomis has a point. The boy gave an oath, and that oath must be fulfilled.” He stepped forward and plucked the sword from under Bren’s hands. “And since I have given the pardon, I will bear the burden of the boy’s champion.”
Bartol very nearly fell over. “Your G-Grace, don’t be mad!” he stuttered. Events had suddenly gotten out of control. A trained mercenary fighting the crippled duke?
Clifton didn’t even turn to look at his friend. “Lansing, help the boy up.”
Bowing first, Bren had turned to retrieve another wooden sword from a stock barrel in the yard’s corner. Bartol opened his mouth to object, but Clifton refused to meet his gaze.
“Don’t forget his cane,” the duke murmured.
Lansing cursed under his breath and helped the crippled boy to his feet. A cane lay on the ground, obviously the lad’s only defense. The bard took that as well, shaking his head at the entire affair. Bren had always come off as headstrong, but never cruel and demeaning. The bard was still muttering as he and the boy took a place on the side of the yard, watching the two combatants.
Kel Tomis had returned to face the duke while movement in the armory ceased. Matthew had come forth from the tavern and on the wall a guard had turned to watch the event. The opponents stood a swordslength apart. The sun, now fully risen, warmed the air; beyond the high walls surrounding them, the muffled sounds of the keep’s daily life could be heard.
“The bard has spoken fondly of you, your Grace,” Bren said quietly. His brown eyes were coal-black in the morning light. “Lansing says you were a fine blade, in your day.”
Lansing winced at the back-handed compliment.
“That was not long ago, Master kel Tomis,” Clifton replied.
A husky rasp was followed by a loud crack, as Dargon’s sword swung in a vicious backhand slash for Bren’s throat, only to be met by the other’s blade.
“Well met,” Dargon breathed.
The duke stepped back, he and the mercenary circling each other. The air in the practice yard went still. Lansing could see the duke gaining control of his emotions, the coolness of his command asserting itself. Bartol let out his breath, unaware that he had been holding it. He was glad to see his duke’s grim determination returning. There hadn’t been this much passion in Dargon’s face for months.
“A fine blade, indeed,” Bren said off-handedly. “But your Grace must surely know that it is a new day.”
“A new day,” Dargon agreed, his sword at the ready. “But a man who recalls yesterday will not make the same mistakes tomorrow.”
The ensuing flurry of motion took Lansing by surprise. Bren lunged forward, intercepting the duke’s attack. For a moment the two combatants stood almost still, blades flashing and clacking through the armory. Then they were moving, using the full length of the yard, attacking and retreating, the space between them a quivering blur.
Bren parried a thrust to push the duke’s blade aside then lifted his sword double-handed; Clifton stepped aside quickly, turning as his opponent’s balance shifted, but his opportunity was thwarted. Kel Tomis swiveled his torso and the two engaged again, back and forth, sand taking flight at their feet.
Suddenly, quiet reigned again. The duke and the ex-herald stood still, both breathing heavily. Clifton’s blade rested on Bren’s chest, directly over his heart. For a long moment, neither man moved nor spoke.
Then, whispered, almost inaudible, Bren’s words: “I yield.”
Lansing relaxed where he stood and watched Bren reach for the duke’s sword, twisting the blade until its flat surface was parallel to the ground.
“However, my lord, I would suggest you keep your blade positioned to slide between the ribs, like this,” Bren thumped the blade against his chest, “else you might have trouble wresting it from my limp, dead, body.” A ghost of a smile crept across his face.
Then the two fighters laughed like fools, or more like men who have seen darkness and preferred to contemplate the light.
Lansing ventured to speak, “Clifton, are you well?” He couldn’t recall the last time he had seen the duke smile so broadly.
Clifton pulled himself together and responded, “Of course. Can’t a man take some sword practice around here?” He straightened his attire and looked to his opponent. “The matter is settled?”
Bren nodded, still catching his breath.
The duke bowed and walked to the side of the yard, handing his sparring sword to the apprentice, Matthew. Grabbing Bartol’s elbow, Clifton pulled him into the doorway of the tavern.
“You old flingshell, this was a very clever trick of yours.”
Bartol furrowed his brow in confusion. “Your Grace?” he questioned.
Clifton laughed. “You should inquire for a job in that troupe that came to town a few days ago — the one performing ‘Ol’s Ride.’” He pointed to the boy he had championed. “I’ve seen that apprentice before, and he’s using Edlin’s cane to boot, something the old weapons master would never give away. This was a very clever ruse of yours. And it almost had me.”
Bartol looked at the boy who had been on the ground. Now that Clifton mentioned it, Lansing could swear he had seen the lad just the other day, without the injury he currently bore. And the cane he used to prop himself up — it did bear a resemblance to the one Edlin carried.
“It’s good to know I still have friends who have faith in my skills, even when I began to doubt myself.” The duke touched his shorn arm.
The words stabbed at Bartol’s heart. “Clifton –”
“We have no need to speak of it further,” Dargon interrupted. “Tell me, that Bren kel Tomis, is he actually employed by the weapons master?”
“No, sire. Not at all.”
“Well, speak to Edlin about changing that. He’s obviously skilled in weapons, and has an efficient, if brusque, teaching manner. I’m sure we can make use of his talents.” Clifton turned to the yard and called out: “Master kel Tomis, come, have a drink with us, and tell me more about that high line of attack you almost got me with.”
Bren grinned broadly as he approached. “Certainly, my lord,” he replied, “It starts with a parry of a low thrust …”
It was mid-morning before the duke departed and Lansing sat alone with Bren in the armory’s makeshift tavern. Sunlight beat heavily on the ground outside, throwing the room’s features into stark shadows. Bren’s dark skin looked almost maroon in the light, blending him in with the environment.
Leaning close to the mercenary, Bartol finally broached the topic: “You could have let me in on this little charade of yours, you know.”
Bren stared at him in mock seriousness from across the table. His stiff features then broke into a wide smile followed by a booming laugh. “I wish we could have,” he replied, chuckling. “But it was born this very morning when Edlin ran into you. The look on your face was priceless as I debated honor with his Grace. ‘Are you disobeying the duke’s directive?’ ” he mimicked.
Bartol shook his head in disbelief as his friend continued to laugh. “You could have been thrown in the dungeons for your impudence.”
“Not with you as *my* champion,” Bren replied. His laughter subsided and he stretched two powerful arms behind his head. “It’s been a long road for me from Mandraka, my friend, in leagues … and other things,” he sighed. “A dungeon would not have been the lowest point of my journey. This was an opportunity, Lansing, and I knew through our conversations — and through conversations with Edlin — that the duke was doubting his worth. The weapons master and I knew he simply needed some reminding.”
“As ashamed as I am to say — and don’t you go repeating this to *anyone*–” Bartol shot his friend a serious glance, “I think a few of us started to doubt him as well. But I have to say, it certainly worked to your advantage.”
“How do you mean? I’ve got at least two bruises to bear, one on my reputation and another,” Bren winced, “on my side.”
Bartol smiled. So perhaps the ex-herald didn’t have an ulterior motive. “Well, you may have a few cane-lashings to add to those bruises. You’re in the employ of the weapons master if you so choose.”
Kel Tomis looked shocked. “Lansing, if you’re seeking vengeance for my jest …” He stopped when the bard didn’t respond. “Are you serious?” he asked.
“We’ll have to get Edlin’s blessing, but I don’t see that as a problem.” Lansing reached over and shook Bren’s shoulder, “Maybe now, as a gainfully employed citizen, that healer Raneela will let you back into her bed.” The bard stood to take his leave but Bren stayed him with a hand on his arm.
“Lansing,” he said quietly. “Thank you.”
Those black eyes, the ones Lansing had always seen behind battle and weariness and laughter … now looked moved. He patted Bren’s hand and looked around the room. “Don’t thank me,” he replied. “You’re the one who got yourself into this mess. Now that you’ve got the job, work on keeping it.” With a grin he turned from the table, leaving his friend to put his new domain, and life, in order.