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Stories from the Verse
For Better or Verse
Chapter 83: Slade 76
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Slade and Shella were a bit late for lunch. The prince, however, did not show, and the princess seemed to be of the sort who did not speak to others when her husband was not present and did not speak in the presence of her husband. Shella tried to draw her into conversation, but only got a few brief polite replies, and soon gave up. One of the servants informed them that the prince was delayed on official matters, but expected to be back this afternoon. So after lunch Slade dressed for sparring, and meandered out to the courtyard where he watched the men practicing.
Sir Rapheus saw him there, and approached.
"Is everything satisfactory, Sir Robert?"
The question pulled Slade from some distant thought of his own castle in another world. "What?" he began, then realized what had been said. "Oh. Yes, thanks. It's the best accommodations we've had in quite some time."
"King Morgan treats his guests well. However, I was asking because you appeared lost."
"In thought only, Sir Rapheus. Prince Ruard and I promised each other a bit of exercise this afternoon, but he's been delayed, so I'm just watching your guards keep fit."
"The Prince is an excellent swordsman," Rapheus offered, and then, perhaps with feigned modesty, added, "I would not claim that my skill is his equal, but if you wish a bit of sport, I would enjoy testing myself against you."
Slade considered this offer only briefly. Somewhere in the back of his mind he wondered whether he had been, or was being, set up, offered a chance to fence with one of the king's best knights to give the prince the opportunity to measure his skills and watch his style before appearing to take the field. It didn't matter to Slade. He had no reputation at stake here, that he could see, and was pleased to try his steel against the knight or the prince, as the situation allowed.
"I'd like that," he said. "Every place is different. What are the local rules?"
Rapheus summoned one of the guards from practice, and began explaining a rather complicated point system involving touches and feints and parries. Slade absorbed it as well as he could.
"Is that clear?" Rapheus asked.
"No," Slade replied, "but I think I got the gist of it. I'll trust your referee to keep score." So saying, he stepped out away from the building, faced his opponent, and bowed slightly. Rapheus followed, and brought his sword to a raised ready position.
"Are you not going to get ready?" Rapheus asked.
"I am ready," Slade replied. "Please, begin."
As Rapheus moved toward him, Slade flashed his sword from its scabbard and deflected the blow, simultaneously pulling the dagger to his left hand and bringing it below and inside for the first touch. The referee called the point, but Rapheus recovered well, escaping the sword parry and heading for Slade's midsection. The dagger caught this, and for a moment there was a flourish of three blades, when suddenly two of them flew loose: Slade's dagger, and Rapheus' sword. Slade stepped back. "You fight well, lord."
"Not so well, I think, as you," he replied. "I am glad that you are a man of honor. I would not wish to have to fight you in earnest. I would not have expected such skill in a man so young."
Slade felt he should assuage the man's self-doubt. "I am not so young as I appear," he said; "and I've had many years of training and practice."
"The Prince should certainly enjoy the challenge of your match. For myself, I have learned enough today. I should have known that a man who could raid Acquivar's dungeons and escape with his armies in pursuit was not to be challenged lightly."
"I had considerable help with that," Slade said.
"No offense to them, lord, but how much help could an aging priest and a woman be in such things?"
"Phasius kept us safe more than once when we were in danger; and I have learned not to underrate the skills and talents of my wife. But we were four when we reached the bottom of the mountain. A good friend without whom we could not have gotten that far fell victim to the justice of Prince Acquivar--" he put a bit of bite in the word justice-- "and will not fight again until Ragnorak."
"I am sorry for your loss. I have lost more than one good friend on the field of battle, some of whom traded their lives for mine." Rapheus eyes moved to his left. "But here comes the Prince. I wish you well against his skill."
"Thanks," Slade said. "I hope he finds me a worthy opponent."
As Prince Ruard drew closer, Slade was not certain whether it was required to wait for him to speak first, or acceptable to address him. He decided to risk the latter.
"Good afternoon, your highness. I trust you've managed to settle your morning business adequately."
"Yes, I am sorry about that. In my father's absence, I had to hold court, and since we have both been absent several days there were quite a few matters awaiting attention."
"I know the problems of running a fief, even if mine is considerably smaller than yours. Sir Rapheus and I were just warming up. If your highness would like a moment to limber up a bit, I don't mind waiting."
"Thank you. I think I shall avail myself of your kindness."
As Slade stepped back to give the man room, he watched his new opponent. The man had grace and skill, and indeed was a better swordsman than Rapheus, although this was not so easy to tell from watching patterns and shadowboxing. However, the prince was swift, and controlled, and powerful, and in combination those made for a formidable fighter.
"I'm ready," he said, and Slade stepped forward.
He had taken a chance against Rapheus, starting with sword sheathed. He had counted on his swift reflexes and what he tended to call his quick draw practice to impress his adversary and perhaps intimidate him. He decided that this would not be a good start against Ruard. The man was quicker, and could well score a point before Slade had the opportunity to draw. Further, Ruard was holding his cape on his left arm, and although it had a casual look, Slade recognized that it could easily entangle a weapon and render it useless. His dagger was back in its scabbard now, but he drew his sword as he walked back into the clearing. Rapheus stood ready to score. Slade readied his weapon, and Rapheus gave the signal to begin.
Slade watched Ruard; Ruard meanwhile was watching Slade. Neither blade moved, but that the two began circling slowly, each eyeing the other, each awaiting a strike. His fight with Rapheus, Slade realized, had put him into a defensive response mode. He fought well when he was able to take the attacks of his adversary as opportunities. He had used that last year against the giant snake, and against the other bird people. He often fought that way. This was not the only way to fight, though. He knew how to go on the offensive, and had done so many times when he was a space pirate rebel. Ruard was awaiting his attack, and he was awaiting Ruard's. One of them would have to attack, or this would start to look comical. Slade decided he would oblige.
As he moved his sword forward, he saw the flash of the cape headed for it. He knew what was coming; the cape would be difficult to dodge, and with his sword entangled he would be at a loss to parry the blow. Rather than give that opening, he let the cape find his sword while he seized the dagger in his left hand. With this he parried the incoming sword. He also flourished his own sword so as to secure the cape around it and around the prince's arm. He blocked the other's sword, sending its blade up away from them, and with a step and a pull got himself inside the blade's reach and brought his dagger down toward the man's throat. He could have ended it there, he realized, but instead went for the touch on the shoulder. The point was his; he stepped back and untangled his sword, as the stunned prince stared at him, almost to ask how he did it.
"Well played, your highness," Slade said. "For a moment, I thought you had me. Shall we?" He again readied his sword, and his dagger.
This time Ruard did not wait for the strike. He lunged forward, sweeping the cape upward to obscure Slade's view. It took Slade only an instant to decide that the blow had to come from his left, as the man could not easily pass the sword around or over his cape arm to bring it in from the right. He parried low with the dagger and middle with the sword, ducking and drawing back in case somehow the blow came in high. It didn't, and the dagger stopped it. The flourish of the cape certainly blocked his view more so than Ruard's, but he thought it unlikely that the Prince could clearly see what he was doing. He rolled left, around the incoming attack, so that he was behind the sword arm. As the cape passed, he was on the swordsman's flank, and took another touch with his sword to the man's side, and with the dagger to his back. The points were called; but this time neither fighter hesitated. Ruard turned, but not as Slade expected, not toward but away. That meant the blade of his sword would be coming again from the left, probably with significant force. Slade watched for the height of the blow.
The blow was coming high. Slade thought that the prince must be a superior swordsman if he believed he could make such an attack and keep it to a touch rather than a blow; on the other hand, the prince probably would not be faulted for maiming or even killing an opponent in such a match. Slade never knew whether the man would have been able to pull that blow. He blocked it, sweeping the blade down, then seeing an opportunity, brought the dagger in over the locked swords to touch the man's chest. He then pushed solidly away with his sword, and the prince, off balance from his spin, fell backward to the ground. Several points were called.
"I am so sorry, your highness," Slade said, doing his best to sound sincere, and offered a hand to help the man rise.
"Please, don't apologize," Ruard said. "You fight well. Shall we continue?"
It suddenly occurred to him that one of the things which made Ruard so formidable a fighter in the eyes of his men is that he would not quit. With each advance in the combat, Ruard had raised the stakes. Slade had been concerned that he might embarrass the Prince in front of his men, but there was little risk of that. He would either lose, or he would have to injure the man severely enough that the fight could not continue. He was not willing to do this. On the other hand, the Prince was not going to allow the fight to end until he had established his superiority in the eyes of his men. Slade needed a way to get out of this.
It occurred to him that Rapheus had to know the situation. The man was too good a swordsman not to have recognized what was happening. On the other hand, he would not stop the fight if his Prince intended to continue. Perhaps some men had been saved by the intervention of the King; that intervention would not come today.
Without waiting for Slade to be ready, Ruard charged in with a very aggressive string of attacks. Slade found himself parrying repeatedly, blocking blows from all directions, and using both of his weapons to do so. Ruard scored his first touch, a minor tap on the leg, and parried Slade's first effort to put a blow inside. When the man was frantic, he still kept his control, and fought extremely well. It struck Slade that he could outfight this man, but not on these terms. That is, more than once he could have penetrated the weakened defenses and landed a fatal blow which would have ended the attacks; but if the blow were only a touch, he would be leaving himself open for an attack that would finish him.
Still the blows came, and still Slade blocked them. Steel flashed and clashed like the light show at a rock concert. It was not going to end.
Then there was a motion which, Slade realized, he could use. The blow was intended to sweep his chest, just below his shoulders. This was risky, and he'd never tried anything quite like it before, but it was his chance to lose without losing, to win without winning. He guided the blow upward with his dagger, downward with his sword, and dropped both weapons as if they had been knocked from his hands. He then clamped those gloved hands on the approaching blade, and brought it to touch the side of his neck just above the collar of his leathers--a nearly impossible spot to hit. "I yield," he said, as he held the sword absolutely still there.
Ruard knew. Rapheus knew. Slade had lost nothing that mattered here. Yet the soldiers standing about cheered for their Prince. He could not refuse the victory without conceding defeat; he would not concede defeat, certainly not in front of his men, probably, Slade thought, not ever.
Slade held the blade steady for a moment, until he saw the wielder's face relax. The sword drew back. "I accept your surrender," the Prince said. Rapheus smiled. No one who mattered to Slade was fooled.
"You fight well, highness. No wonder your people are so proud of you."
"You, sir, are a worthy adversary. Your allies have chosen well."
"If you will excuse me," Slade said, "I've had a good workout, and will want to wash and change for dinner as well as spend some time with my wife."
"Of course, sir. We look forward to having you join us at table again tonight."
There is a behind-the-writings look at the thoughts, influences, and ideas of this chapter, along with ten other sequential chapters of this novel, in mark Joseph "young" web log entry #191: Versers Travel. Given a moment, this link should take you directly to the section relevant to this chapter. It may contain spoilers of upcoming chapters.
As to the old stories that have long been here: