A test of honor, p.3
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       A Test of Honor, p.3

           Justin Hebert
 
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  Chapter 3

  "There is more than one way to win. There is also more than one way to lose."

  - Troy Franklin, 29 Joolie, 1787 AC

  Aidan marched through the woods with his head held high in spite of the ropes that bound his hands. The real insult had come when Rodrig removed his mace from its hip sling and his dagger from its mount on his other hip. What do you call an unarmed Knight? A peasant.

  "We're nearly there," Rodrig muttered, as if trying to conceal their talk from the others, "so just follow my lead and act the part. I've got a way out of this."

  "You used to be a man of honor."

  Rodrig looked at the elaborate metalwork Crest adorning Aidan's breastplate, as if reminiscing. "Sometimes a man must choose between honor and eating."

  Aidan turned one of his hands, pretending to scratch but really testing the bonds. After a few tugs and a closer look, he slumped his shoulders. They were freshly woven ropes of aged sequoiavine, stronger than the steel manacles used by the Royal Guard.

  "We're here," Rodrig said, "and it's time you met my new Liege."

  People sat in circles, some with cookfires preparing their afternoon meal. Aidan estimated there were about a hundred, some on simple backless hinged chairs, others on the ground. They were deep in the forest by this point, and any posse who came for them would be heard from miles away. A few sentries with quarterstaffs circled the perimeter.

  As they approached the centermost circle, Rodrig and his band stood a little straighter, sucking in their bellies and throwing their shoulders back, proud hunters showing off their trophy. The circle was large, perhaps twenty men and women. Some dipped bread into earthen bowls of cloudy stew, others sharpened tools and weapons, one lumpy fellow mouthed words he squinted into a book that looked minuscule in his bulky hands.

  "My Lady," Rodrig announced when they entered a smaller, sturdier wooden structure big enough for twenty, "I present to you, Sir Aidan of the House Franklin, Former Keeper and Protector of Barrowdown."

  The woman Rodrig addressed was whittling what looked like a small figurine, perhaps a Kahess piece, slouched forward on a camp stool and working her knife point with obsessive tenacity. She was younger than he was expecting, with ropey braids of dark-brown hair, skin the red-brown shade of cedar, and dark thin lips pouting with concentration. Aidan tried not to think about Kahess and blinked away the eerie dream that still haunted him. She put the figurine in a cloak pocket and sat up straight, looking him up and down.

  "Former Protector?" An intrigued smile spread across her face.

  "My land was stolen," Aidan spoke, getting his words in quick before Rodrig could answer. "I mean to win it back."

  Rodrig sighed and shook his head, but said nothing. The Queen arched her eyebrows, looking impressed at his boast.

  "Do you now?" She looked amused, as if he were a plaything who was giving her special amusement. "Then what brings you to the deep parts of Graydon? Looking to recruit Soldiers?"

  More than a few bandits around the circle laughed. Some put away their work, rubbing their hands at the prospect of a show. Aidan smiled at the jest, seeing their makeshift armor and weapons. A group like this would crumble like thin paper at a charge of heavy-horsed knights or a disciplined blast of a proper Musketeer line.

  "Actually," Rodrig spoke just as Aidan opened his mouth, "he's come to prove himself and attract fighting men to his cause."

  Aidan raised an eyebrow at his old friend, who gave him a glare that warned, Don't give us away. Aidan disliked intrigues, but he looked back at the Bandit Queen and nodded.

  "He'd like to challenge our finest man, M'Lady." Rodrig clapped a hand on Aidan's shoulder, and he couldn't help but smile. The Queen stood and wrapped her cloak around her form. She looked back and forth between them, clearly suspicious. Let me help you make this decision, Your Majesty.

  "I have heard your band fights like girls," Aidan said, looking around the circle as the onlookers glowered at his insult, "but fame is fame."

  "As a girl who has beaten her share of men," the Queen smiled as some of her circle snickered, "I take that as a great compliment."

  "Will you serve as champion, then?" The laughter suddenly ceased, and Aidan worried for a moment that perhaps he had gone too far.

  "I doubt you'll gain much fame fighting a woman," she said, idly leaning on her staff, which Aidan noticed was topped with a curved crescent shape, "but I have someone in mind."

  "Forgive me, M'Lady," Yanprit spoke up, pointing a wiry arm with a bony finger at Aidan and Rodrig, "but something's not right here. This man gave us nothing but murderous glances ever since we tied him up."

  "And what, oh Yanprit the Wise, do you think he is planning?" The lad blushed at her sarcastic tone, but answered nonetheless.

  "I dunno. But I don't trust him." He muttered his answer and looked at the ground, hunching his broad shoulders as though trying to disappear.

  "It's clear if you win that you'll get to call yourself brave. But what if you lose? What will I gain when my champion prevails?" Her smile was gone, replaced by an expression of stone seriousness.

  "Six months of service," Rodrig said while Aidan wondered at the question.

  "My own sworn Knight?" The corners of her mouth curled up in an intrigued grin, and Aidan was sure she'd jump at the chance. "Fourteen months."

  "An entire year?" Aidan couldn't help sounding surprised. He looked around the camp and saw men and women living in practical squalor, hunched over their meager lunches. Did they even know whether dinner would be forthcoming? More importantly, could he live in such a way for a year? Do I have a choice? Briefly considering the alternatives, he answered. "I agree."

  "Excellent. I look forward to seeing you fight, Sir Aidan."

  "My Lady," he said, "You know my name, but I simply know you as the Bandit Queen. If you don't mind, what is your name?"

  "Charlene MacGuire." She smiled and pushed one of her thick braids out of her face. Most of them were woven tightly to her skull, but a few stemmed from the front and were draped behind her ears. Her beauty made him curious. She's pretty enough to work in a Keep, how did she end up here? "You probably haven't heard of my House. We are a small but mighty people."

  "Behold, our House Crest!" One of the male toughs in the circle grabbed a fold of his cloak, which had a circular patch, light-green embroidery against a black field. The stitch work formed the shape of three trees, their branches and roots intertwined. Aidan couldn't help but admire it.

  "It's no tulip, but it shows our character," Charlene said, finally returning to her stool and laying down the crescent-topped staff that leaned against it. Aidan looked at his own Crest, proudly embossed in white on his breastplate.

  "It's beautiful," he admitted, noting how the roots appeared clustered but connected, while the branches twined around one another like the neverending knots some Houses liked to put on their Crests. "And what is the name of your band?"

  "The Redtails," she answered, leaning to one of her female Lieutenants and whispering into her ear. "We strike fast, take what we want, and leave just as quick."

  "A good name, to be sure." It reminded Aidan of House Grunwaldt, whose Crest was the fanned red hawk's tail.

  "We'll get everything ready for you." She smiled and looked at him as though examining some exotic animal. "I suggest you prepare yourself - Connel's no dunce with a blade."

  As Charlene gave commands to some of the others in the circle, Rodrig turned took Aidan aside and undid his bindings. Aidan smiled at his old horse master.

  "Father always said you were clever," he said, which inspired a sad smile from Rodrig, "but I still don't understand why you've brought me here."

  "The poison Lord Meadows used to kill your family," Rodrig pulled and yanked a few times where the vines had become tangled, "took around three days to do its work. Before he died, your father extracted an oath from me. My people take dying oaths very seriously, M'Lord."

  "What did you swear?"

/>   Rodrig stopped unravelling and looked Aidan in the eye, more serious than Aidan had ever seen the man before. "I told him that if you returned, if it was within my power, I'd keep you safe."

  Aidan's eyes welled with tears, and he nodded at Rodrig's confession. A few pulls and tugs later, his hands were free of the sequoiavine bonds, and they acquired his helmet from Yanprit, who grudgingly handed it back. Aidan fit it snugly over his head and attached it to his suit's gorget, keeping the faceplate open so that he could still feel the cool of the wet morning air.

  "Truly, Rodrig, I thank you for your loyalty." The camp came alive with news of the fight, and Aidan looked around to see who he might fight. An impossibly tall man stood and slung a huge war hammer over his shoulders, but he was milling about, taking a few last bites of bread and making jokes. He saw a few others who moved like fighters, but no one who was preparing.

  A young boy, Aidan was sure he was no older than thirteen summers, brought him the weapon he was supposed to use in the fight: a blunt longsword about the length of one of his arms. He swung it one handed a few times to feel the balance, which for a sword was poor. Ideally, the pommel and hilt would be heavier so that the weapon could be easily swung and controlled, but this weapon had a heavy tip, no doubt from sloppy work in the blunting process. This pleased Aidan, however, because it would handle similarly to the weapon to which he had grown accustomed: his mace.

  A nearby clearing had apparently been chosen as the fighting ring. It took about an hour to build a six-sided ring about seven strides between opposing corners. Aidan walked the ground as they hammered thick, crude, irregular logs into the ground and fastened ropes among them. The whole camp was abuzz with the impending duel, and already Aidan counted several hundred crowns trading hands in wagers.

  A tall, lean young man emerged from the woods on the other side of the ring, wearing dark green Kannitick Plate. He held his helm in one hand and a blunted longsword in the other similar to Aidan's. My challenger makes himself known. He looked to Aidan and nodded slightly. He was Saukasi, which surprised Aidan because most of the other bandits were brown-skinned Mardoni like Charlene and Rodrig or black-skinned Iridonians like himself.

  His armor was older than Aidan's own, bearing hundreds of scratches and pulled dents that indicated battle testing. His gait was similar to young Yanprit's, swaggering and confident. No doubt he could handle himself in a fistfight as well. From the way he practiced swinging his own blunt-bladed, flat-tipped broadsword, it was clear that this young redheaded tough was every bit the competent swordsman that Charlene had boasted.

  The dueling ring, when it was finished, formed a sort of oblong oval, and Charlene propped her stool in the middle of one of the long sides. She held her crescent staff as though it were a mighty battle standard, and raised her empty hand to signal that the match would soon begin. The other bandits ceased their bet making and crowded around the irregular ring, most shouting encouragement to Connel, who had donned his helm and stared at Aidan through a narrow single slit that guarded his eyes and provided him with a targeting display.

  "My friends," the Queen announced, the crowd hushing as soon as she began speaking, "one of our foraging teams returned with some afternoon entertainment!"

  She leaned her staff against the ropes and held up her arms; the crowd of one hundred or so bandits cheered. Most carried pole-arms, and many even had longswords strapped to their waists or backs. One woman, bleach-white skin revealing her as a Saukasi, wore a vest that seemed to be adorned with throwing knives in every possible space, glinting menacingly as her cloak flapped with a slight breeze.

  "Our guest, Sir Aidan of House Franklin, has requested a contest of arms with our own Sir Connel, formerly of Radcliffe."

  Aidan, his helm still sitting on a nearby post, couldn't conceal his surprise at the announcement. Could his opponent really be a Knight, perhaps disinherited like himself? He tried to remember which family held Radcliffe, but he couldn't remember where it was. He took some comfort knowing that Connel had probably had similar training, which he could use to his advantage.

  "The match will be to three hits, dropping a sword is an instant forfeit," she held up three fingers, and Aidan wondered whether it was for emphasis or basic illustration.

  The crowd cheered hard, clearly starved for such entertainment and eager to see their champion in action. Aidan bowed his head in deference to the rules, and placed his helm securely on his head, pulling down the faceplate and latching the chin. Three hits is three hits, he reminded himself. They don't need to be killing blows, or even mortal wounds. Even a tap will count.

  "Let's begin; approach the center of the ring!" The crowd continued to cheer as both men, full arrayed in Knightly plate, touched swords in the center. To his left, a rotund referee with the soot-covered face of a smith held up two flags, red and white. Aidan readied himself in a defensive stance; he needed to gauge his opponent's skill.

  The moment the flag dropped, Connel thrust his blade at Aidan's head, a strong opening maneuver but one he expected. The strike was not meant to land, but to knock him off balance and allow for a second or third strike that would land much lower. Aidan danced on the balls of his feet, parrying the strike and swiping for Connel's middle. The center is the key whether in single combat or full battle.

  Connel threw his hands upward and bent his torso backward like a bow, narrowly avoiding Aidan's strike. He snapped back into place, holding his sword at waist level, its tip pointing at Aidan's head. He pressed his advantage with a strong shoulder jab, and Connel overcommitted with a hasty parry. In a flash, Aidan spun the blade round with a light flick of his wrist. For a heartbeat, the large redheaded Knight's midsection was exposed, his overzealous parry causing his blade to swing too far to block Aidan's slash in time. Aidan did not hesitate. He tapped Connel's torso with his sword, permitting a small inner celebration as the red flag shot straight into the air.

  "Point: Sir Aidan!"

  The crowd reacted as Aidan expected, the air filled with their hisses and jeers. To him, it was the sound of impending victory. He bowed toward the Queen as if dedicating his performance to her, and she held up her hands and clapped politely with sarcastic approval painted into exaggerated smile.

  They met again at the center and tapped swords, then the flag dropped, and this time Connel backed away as if cringing from Aidan's sword. Holding the large club of a blade with both hands, Aidan chased him slowly, holding the tip in front of him and bouncing it up and down with little flicks of his wrist. He made his motions larger as if he were planning on swinging his sword overhead and striking at Connel's helm.

  The moment felt right, and Aidan raised the unwieldy weapon over his head and made to strike. Connel raised his sword to protect his helm, and Aidan subtly angled his wrists to slash at an angle on his opponent's right side for an easy second hit. With impossible speed, Connel twisted his blade and blocked Aidan's attack. With a swift spinning motion that Aidan had never seen, Connel windmilled his weapon around and smacked him square in his faceplate. The crowd roared so loud he could have sworn they were a thousand.

  Connel held his sword high, his fellow bandits holding their weapons likewise in a sort of salute. Aidan, furious with himself for allowing such a simple hit, forced himself to give Connel a small bow as he'd been trained to do. When anger fails, there is discipline.

  The third round was constant back and forth until Aidan scraped out a meager hit, which he didn't think would connect. More jeering from the crowd, more insults to his mother and manhood. The fourth went to Connel, more cheering from his friends filling the air with tension that Aidan felt in his reconstructed bones.

  He took a few meditative breaths, shoving pride from his heart to accept whichever fate awaited. He could endure the shame of banditry for a year, maybe even serve as a force for good and encouraging them to moderate the savagery that all too often accompanied banditry.

  Again they met in the middle, and Aidan drew in deep, controlled br
eaths. There was no family, there was no self. There was only his blade, and the enemy. As the referee once again thrust his flags nearly to the ground, both warriors stood their ground for the space of a breath, their blades moving in subtle circles to keep their hands and wrists loose for the final round. One way or another, this was coming to an end.

  Aidan made the first move, thrusting hard for Connel's throat. Strike first, or be struck first. Connel parried at the last possible moment, almost without enough power. Aidan's crude practice blade missed his throat by a hair, the lack of a telltale "ting" his only indicator that the weapon hadn't landed. Connel moved to counter, swinging horizontally as if to take off Aidan's head. Aidan ducked just enough to miss the strike, and thrust his shoulder into Connel's chest.

  Connel fell back with an "Oof!" but rolled away like an acrobat. In an instant, he was on his feet again, and their blades clashed between them, striking and countering in a steady rhythm that echoed loud through the dead quiet of Graydon Forest. For what felt like hours, they fenced in this way, neither getting close enough to risk leaving an opening should their own strike miss or get parried.

  Connel, breaking suddenly from their rhythm, squatted and swiped at Aidan's feet. He nearly didn't jump over the swift longsword in time. Aidan countered with an overhead strike, which Connel sidestepped. The soil beneath them was fairly well packed, but Connel's foot slipped just a little on a muddy patch. Aidan had his opening, and nearly took it, but staying true to his chivalric training, held his ground for the heartbeat it took his husky opponent to regain his footing.

  Connel feinted at Aidan's right, but he didn't take the bait. He parried the midsection thrust and tried to tap Connel on the shoulder, only to find the large man once again more graceful than he appeared as he rolled away from the losing stroke. Aidan pointed his sword to the sky, holding its pommel to the right of his helm. Connel assumed a middle defensive stance, keeping his sword at his middle and preparing to counter the wood chop blow he expected from Aidan.

  Aidan took a breath, centered himself and focused his adrenaline. He moved as he thought Connel would expect, bringing his weapon high to smash down on his head. Connel made to block the blow, overcommitting just slightly, and Aidan smiled that his ruse had worked. He pulled the butt of his sword toward the ground, grabbing Connel's wrist right at the joint, locking his sword in place. He thrust his sword as hard as he could right at Connel's breastplate. At the last possible moment, the young man dodged, and Aidan suddenly found himself the victim of his own trick as the big lad's meaty fingers wrapped around his own wrist.

  Aidan held tight, his muscles burning and his mind frantic to end the encounter. The two knights grunted and strained against one another, twisting their blades to find their targets.

  "Why didn't you hit me when you had the chance?" Connel hissed just loud enough for only Aidan to hear.

  "I fight with steel and discipline, not mud," Aidan grunted, worried that his strength was about to give out against this bear of a youth.

  Connel tilted his head as if surprised to hear the words, then squatted and pushed Aidan violently back. Aidan stumbled as he regained his footing, pointing his blade at Connel to keep him at bay. But Connel didn't pursue. The two stood, three strides apart, the raucous crowd now watching in tense, silent reverence. Connel held his sword straight down at his side, and Aidan resisted the impulse to charge in and hit him. This must be a trick.

  While his warrior calculus desperately tried to find some strategy for victory against this worthy opponent, Connel brought his sword to his front, holding its pommel over his left breast in a Knight's salute. He brought his sword down and opened his fingers. His weapon slid from his grasp onto the packed-in soil, its thunk the only sound in the still quiet fog.

  From the corner of his eye, Aidan saw the red flag fly up, announcing his victory.

 
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