After stories exploring fairly conceptual things like a robotic artist’s creative process, or a cyberpunk desert colony’s carefully controlled economic oppression, I found myself wanting to return to a more lighthearted story. I find that an amiably sarcastic narrative voice is one I like to fall back on, critical without being necessarily deconstructive, amusing without intending to belittle a genre or its fans. I quite like the humour of matter-of-factness and bathos.
This story came, as a few of mine do, from a mental image around which I derived a story. I wanted to write a story about a David and Goliath situation that had something of a quirky ending but which was not a dull “gotcha” like the fight involving the Prince of Dorne in Game of Thrones, or the very smug “unexpected” idea of an innocuous character being a cold killer (as Arya’s story skirts). As it happens, I quite enjoy fencing despite not being particularly good at it, so a “safe” duel like a fencing-match or practice fight seemed a perfect place for this kind of narrative. I lose regularly whenever I fight a match, but the joy is in trying to do as well as I can even if I should lose – and the real pleasure is in being able to engage in banter with my opponent and coach about our failings, to try and improve and spot our weaknesses. So all these ideas crystallised together – an inexperienced but enthusiastic fighter takes on an immensely skilled veteran who genuinely wants to have them learn from the inevitable defeat.
All that remained was the aesthetic, and that was a simple derivation from two fantasy styles I dearly love. Firstly the grim, oppressive look of something like Dark Souls or Warhammer Fantasy Battle, of even heroic figures looking menacing and gothic. Thus was Radec, the veteran knight of this piece. Secondly the colourful, cute fantasy style of something like Grandia or Magic Knight Rayearth or Fire Emblem, all about enthusiasm and doing one’s best and facing adversity with adventurousness. Thus was Clare, the bounty hunter and adventurer (in the D&D sense) out of her depth but determined to do her best.
At first a traveller from a distant land, standing before a challenge, not backing down, being the true hero.
Yesterday morning a terrified, tired wanderer dragged sweaty and dusty before a foreign lord, needing to remember the proper words to be allowed to live, let alone stay the night.
Yesterday evening a drunk, overconfident girl sat at high table with her travelling-companions, possibly, slightly, maybe expounding a little too freely about her skill at arms.
Today, dressed in cold armour and boots with soles worn thin from walking, holding a sword, waiting for what goes around to finally come around.
This isn’t really fair. I didn’t lie. I don’t deserve punishing like this.
It’s just… my skills are complicated.
Probably the most terrifying thing one can do is present oneself at the gates of a nobleman’s castle armed only with a piece of paper torn from a sign in the town-square (figuratively, for you have to have your sword otherwise they’ll laugh at you) to declare oneself ready to accept the request for adventurers that one has seen.
You have to present the right image to a guard who has probably seen and sent away any number of chancers, rooks and thieves, which is honestly very difficult if you can’t afford a horse and your feet ache and all you can think of is getting inside to sit down somewhere and perhaps eat something. That was how it was yesterday at the bridge onto this princeling’s land, my throat was so dry all I could do was wave the paper and let the others do the talking. It seemed to work, because we were dragged across his frankly far too big gardens and told to wait in an antechamber that was a bit too small to avoid sitting too close to everyone else, but still felt huge and made your voice echo. I’ve been in a lot of castles, and if there’s one thing that never changes it’s that the sort of people who own castles build their rooms to make guests feel very uncomfortable.
Well, to cut a long story short our first meeting was actually not all that embarrassing, although you never feel more than six inches tall when there’s a guy sitting on a throne in front of you. Except when you’re about to cut his head off, but that doesn’t happen all that often. I let the others do the talking, because by this point all I could think about was washing the dust off and eating a meal and hopefully he gives a fig for guest-right and we won’t be in the stables. It turned out he was actually quite a reasonable man and we were given most luxurious rooms and invited to dinner.
I have a bit of a problem, well I’ve got quite a few really but there are a couple that particularly tend to make social occasions end badly. I get a bit loud. I’m not stupid enough to start lying or throwing accusations, because the last time I tried that I found out what it’s like to lose a bar fight (painful, and your consolation prize is a day in the stocks). But I…
I might have insinuated that the three dragons that the Company of the Rune Sabers have undeniably killed were mostly my handiwork. It’s not wholly untrue. I got the contracts, I helped make the plans, and in at least one case it was my sword that actually struck the killing blow because I spent two hours in a bathtub trying to get clean afterwards. But… I’m not really a dragonslayer. Not in the sense I might have convinced this slightly-stuck-up lord I was. I’m also not, and I’ve got a feeling I might have said I was, a swordmaster in the sense that nobles understand the term. You see, adventurous types like the Rune Sabers work as a team, we all know each others’ strengths and we never start any kind of quest or fight without knowing the enemy.
A lot of the wisdom that adventurers pass on to younger adventurers in inns is bullshit, I’ll put that out there now. There’s a grain of truth to some of it, but honestly the talent is in making something banal seem wise. I’m quite aware of this now. My boots don’t have thin soles because I need to feel the slight variations in the ground, I don’t favour leather over harder armour because it’s lighter, it’s because I’m honestly not very good with money most of the time. You get good at making the most of what you’ve got, and tell other people that you meant it all along.
So where does all this get me? I’m currently standing in a sparring-hall just about to fight this lord’s champion, apparently one of the most feared warriors in all the province. Apparently undefeated. Apparently a knight of such superior skill that his wisdom is passed on to cadets for the king’s own guard. Now we’ve fought some tough guys, for sure. There was a giant, once, a giant clever enough to wear armour. There was a golem, and that was fun. But we fought them after taking a bounty and spending a lot of time thinking about how we were going to do it. My companions have things like magic which makes fighting someone probably tougher than you a lot easier.
I’m really regretting that the only metal armour I could afford to maintain was a breastplate and some bracers, and that I thought a kilt and tabard was a good look. At least they let me keep the diadem I looted from the hoard of the rebel baron we assassinated, it was supposed to be magical but according to His Grace’s ever so helpful wizard it isn’t.
My opponent walks into the hall, and I honestly wasn’t expecting this. It’s the sort of armoured figure that one would immediately associate with “probably a demon” or “henchman of the evil lich”, far taller than anyone I’ve seen, wearing the heaviest suit of armour, holding a sword that I’d say comes up to my chest.
“I presume we are fighting with swords?”
“To whom do I owe the honour?” I’m barely listening to what he’s saying, instead panicking that that sword could probably do unspeakable things to me even if I parry it.
“I am Sir Radec, Master of the Order of the Silver Towers in this province. I have trained the King’s own bodyguard, and served in that role until I believe my successor had surpassed me.”
Now I am genuinely terrified, because Radec the Silver Knight was, for the longest time, the King’s executioner and bodyguard. Even if you never entered this realm, the legends of this man were enough to make you really not want to break the law here.
“And who are you?”
“I am the Emerald Fencer-”
“I told you my name.”
“I was getting to that, I am Clare Meadowgreen.” A gauntlet is extended towards me, and I feel its mailed palm digging into the thin white glove I offer back.
“Let us fight like chivalrous soldiers.” He salutes with his sword, I return the gesture, and we are fighting and I don’t like it one bit. I know well enough from my various experiences with champions of the various wrongdoers we’ve hunted down that larger foes aren’t very often as stupid as you would believe. The belief that you can let them do something like run into a pillar, or get their weapon stuck in soft ground, gets you dead. So when Radec brings his sword round with a two-handed swipe that is set to decapitate me like a traitor I don’t just duck, I fall to the ground and roll to make sure there’s no way in hell he can bring it back on itself. The momentum behind that swing is pretty great, I can tell, but I wouldn’t put it past him to be able to stop it dead in an instant. My blade darts out and hits his greave with a desultory ping. This is very unfair.
In trying to do something clever and stab at his ankle as I leave the roll I’ve made a shambles of it and I tread on my own tabard trying to stand up, launching myself into the flagstones. Mometarily I lose sight of the blade. I’ve got a coin-flip’s chance of rolling the right way now, for sure.
Instead that heavy metal hand reaches out.
“Stand up, and we fight again. That would be no victory, I have not seen your skill yet.”
That’s the problem, he won’t ever see it.
We reset our positions like some stupid fencing match (I might call myself a fencer but I don’t know one end of a rapier from the other, it just sounds a lot more magical and important than mercenary) and this time I run the other way, towards his non-sword arm. I am behind him, I bring my pathetic little sword with the gold leaf flaking off the hilt up, and he simply catches the blade.
This is even more unfair.
“I win two rounds. The usual rules are to five touches, correct?”
“If you wish.”
“This is a foregone conclusion, let us play three.” Looking momentarily up at the assembled onlookers – the lord, some of his courtiers, and my panicked companions – I see that, to my great shock, there is not polite laughter. There is not mockery. They are actually enthralled by this charade.
If he disarms or humiliates me once more my reputation – and this bounty – are lost.
We fight again. I lunge this time, aiming for his elbow as he-
I am going to die.
The sword isn’t where I expect it to be. It is back behind his shoulder coming over and down as if to bisect me.
Instead I feel the flat of the blade pat my hair like a chiding parent.
“Three touches to zero. Victory.” The sword falls to the floor, with a terrible noise. Shortly followed by his helmet. Voice unmuffled now, he extends a hand again – this time unarmoured. “You talk a lot more of a fight than you offer on the battlefield, child. On the other hand, you hide your fear well and you can certainly swing a sword. My lord!”
The noble we have travelled long to visit in pursuit of work, who I have just lost my wager with, stares at his champion.
“This girl is stupid, and coarse, and makes wagers she cannot win.”
“That is true.”
“She is also brave to the point of stupidity, and probably adequately capable with a sword for your needs. Send her off to pursue this wretch you need slain, and should she return, I will reward her.”
“Reward?” I do not like this. We took the paper because it promised a bounty of thousands of coins. Coins you can spend on things like new boots.
“If you can kill the rogue magician my lord wishes dead I will teach you how to actually live up to your grand boasts.” His handshake is fit to crush mine. “And because I can see your expression become more downcast with every moment that passes, I am sure that some coin will head your way.”
Something approaching gratitude fills the cavernous hall as I try and remember how to speak.
“Do not be despondent. The only person to ever beat me in a swordfight is now the King’s personal bodyguard.”