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Stories from the Verse
For Better or Verse
Chapter 116: Slade 87
Table of Contents
Previous chapter: Chapter 115: Hastings 131
It was late; most of the castle was asleep as Slade ascended the steps to the bedroom level. Shella would be waiting for him, already in her night clothes; he was going to have to wash up a bit before retiring for the night. Hopefully the staff had put out the hot water he had requested, and hopefully it would still be warm, as the cold wash water that dominated this age was not to his liking.
He had been practicing in the yard, and had let the day slip away into darkness while he worked. It was odd, but he'd just been in a war and hadn't actually fought anyone that he could recall. It was easy to get complacent; it was easy to get rusty. After dinner, and a suitable rest in which to digest, he'd determined to take a few hours to keep himself in shape. Now he wanted to wash the sweat away and curl up with his gorgeous wife.
He stopped at a window in the hall and looked out at the night sky. He'd not been here long enough for the stars to be familiar; on the other hand, he'd never paid much attention to stars, so as long as they were pinpricks of light against a midnight blue sky, they were as familiar as any he had ever known. He wondered whether any of these were planets, or whether they were even stars in the sense in which he had been taught to understand them, as huge fusion engines scattered by distances measured in light years through a vast emptiness, or whether they were merely pinpricks in a dark canvas, or angels dancing in the night, or some other completely different reality. It was so easy to assume that you understood all worlds merely because you had some limited understanding of one. The multiverse was much more complicated than that. Stars were all stars only in the sense that one used the word to describe what was seen. Those points of light could be anything, and he would be none the wiser.
A sound pulled him from his wanderings. He turned to stare down the darkened hall, but saw nothing. Still, that noise had put him on the alert. He did not yet know what it was, but it was a sound his mind associated with danger. He moved away from the window, into the middle of the hall where he would have room, and placed his hand on the hilt of his sword.
"Is someone there?" he said. Silence was the only response.
Almost he turned away; almost he went on to his room, now not far at all. Again, something held him. Perhaps it was a change in the wind carrying a familiar odor on the air. Perhaps it was a shadow against a shadow, different depths of darkness shifting against each other. Something was there.
"Shella," he called a bit louder, "if you're awake, I think I might need your help."
Somewhere behind him a door opened, and a dim light came out into the hall.
"Did you call, my lord?" Shella said.
"Indeed I did," Slade answered. The glow was just enough. In the shadows beyond, just coming up the stairs and hiding against the wall, was a group of soldiers attempting to remain hidden in the darkness. "We've got company. You'd better wake our host while I greet our guests." With these words, he drew his sword. One stepped from the shadows to face him. It was a familiar face. It was Prince Acquivar.
"I shall be happy to dispatch you, troublemaker," the Prince said.
"Let me guess," Slade answered. "Sir Rapheus gave you the courtesy due a gentlemen, and you proved yourself unworthy of it, fleeing from custody, gathering a few men you knew would be either loyal or easily bought, and entering the castle through some hidden gate I didn't find. Did you kill Rapheus for his kindness, or merely embarrass him?"
Acquivar was not one for conversation, apparently. He lunged at Slade in what was intended to be a killing stroke. Without blinking, Slade flashed the dagger into his left hand and directed the blow past him to his right, then sliced open Acquivar's sleeve with the tip of his own sword.
"You're going to have to be much better than that, your highness, if you intend to defeat a warrior of Odin. I suggest you surrender, before I'm forced to hurt you."
The prince drew back and gathered his composure, falling into a much more trained stance. Clearly he did know how to fight; he just hadn't expected to need the skill facing this stranger.
Slade could hear Shella in the distance, as her banging on doors and shouting in the halls echoed through the castle. Reinforcements would come. Acquivar wouldn't wait for this. Again the Prince moved forward to attack. Slade's blades countered with lightning speed and precision, blocking and parrying each move.
"I worked up more of a sweat an hour ago fighting my own shadow," he taunted. "What will it take to convince you that this is not a well-chosen fight for you?"
As the next barrage came, Slade relied on the dagger to parry, and swept in with the sword to attack. Acquivar was armored, chain under black cloth, and Slade was blocked here by a legging, there by a vest, again by a sleeve. Meanwhile, the Prince managed to land a blow against Slade's leathers, which fended it off adequately. They weren't getting anywhere, but that wasn't so important. After all, all Slade had to do was delay Acquivar until the guard arrived to take him.
Then an attack landed, slicing through one of the gaps in the leathers. It was a deep cut which would require attention, and probably leave a scar. It also was a reminder that this game was for real, and Slade had to stop playing and get serious.
"First blood to you, then," he said. "As I recall from the movie, that was a mistake. Last blood will be to me." So motivated, he easily brushed aside the prince's next lunge, gashed the man's hand with his dagger, removed an ear, and then drove his blade through the unprotected throat, and drew it out again. "That's the last order you'll give," he said, dropping his sword to his side.
Spewing blood from his mouth, the Prince suddenly lifted his blade and drove it hard against Slade's chest. It passed through the joint in the front of his leathers and penetrated. At the same time, several arrows flew through the darkness from hidden soldiers, and two connected. He felt himself blacking out, dying, starting to disintegrate into the scriff. He was falling.
He caught himself. He was not dead; in fact, the pain had passed already. He opened his eyes. This was not Acquivar's castle. He was not at all sure what it was, but it was better lit, considerably more modern, and, much to his pleasure, was hosting its own war. Perhaps a dozen men were pushing into a room. A window had been smashed and blinds ruined, giving a decent view of the interior. The men were physically assaulting two women and a boy, who were fighting back for all they were worth, and doing a decent job of it. Slade didn't have to think about which side of this battle needed his sword. He would have thought to defend women and children against the attacks of men in any event, but in this case he knew one of them. Only one person in a thousand worlds could possibly be dressed like that and swinging those things around. It had to be Lauren Hastings.
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 #205: Verser Reunion. 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: