Authors: Peter Kenson
“I... I don't know. I guess I've always had it.”
He pulled the mail shirt over his head and fastened the vambraces to his forearms as Bern hurried over to whisper in his ear.
“If you've got the time, milord, Feynor would like to speak with you before the fight.”
“Not you as well, Bern.”
“Beg pardon, milord.”
“Doesn’t matter. Of course I'll talk to Feynor. Where is he?”
“He's still in his tent, milord. Marta won't let him move.”
“She's a very sensible woman. I'll come at once.”
When he entered the tent, Feynor was stretched out full length on his stomach and Marta was rubbing some more liniment onto his shoulders where the bruising was already starting to come through. She bobbed him a rough curtsey and darted away to hover by the entrance. Held shook his head in wonder. Once an idea takes hold, it can be the very devil to dislodge again.
He knelt by Feynor's pallet. “How's the back?”
“I'll live, milord. Thanks to you. And that liniment's wonderful for bringing the bruising out, so Marta says.”
“I'm pleased I was able to help. Now, Bern said you wanted to speak to me.”
“I did, milord. You're fighting Manny tonight.”
Held nodded. “It had to happen sooner or later. Turns out to be sooner.”
“Okay, now Manny’s good but he's not that good. Oh I know he thrashed me today but I was tired and he was fresh. I got careless and he punished me.
“But if you start pressing him hard and he thinks he's in trouble, he'll produce a little dagger from a sheath behind his back. Whatever you do, don't let him prick you with that blade, milord. I don't know what he puts on it but it'll bring the strongest man to his knees in less than half a minute.”
“Huh! That sounds typical of the man. Thank you for that, my friend. I'll look out for it. Now you get some rest and I'll go do what needs to be done.”
Held paused by the tent flap. “Look after him, Marta. You've got a good man there.”
“I know that, milord. I'll take care of him.”
Outside the fighting square had been prepared. Twenty paces to a side, bounded on one side by the campfire and on the other three by lines of fighters drawn up in full battle gear; bows, swords, spears and every scrap of armour they possessed. One side broke open to let him through and then reformed behind him. There was a word of command, Held could not immediately identify who gave it, and every man present snapped smartly to attention and saluted.
Feeling mildly embarrassed, he returned the salute, right arm crashing against the chain mail on his chest. He stood in the centre of the square and waited. The man on the end of the wall nearest the large tent broke ranks and disappeared inside. A few moments later he reappeared with Manny on his heels. The leader was wearing his chain mail shirt and crested helmet and carried on his left arm, a circular shield that Held had not seen before. Again the square broke open to let him through, but this time there was no word of command and no salute.
Manny strode up to Held and glared at him. “I have led these men for over two years,” he declared. “I have fed them and put coin in their purse. By what right do you challenge my authority over them?”
“The food you took from the tables of the hungry, the coins from the pockets of the poor. Instead of protecting the weak and defenceless, you have preyed on them and you have led these men down paths with no honour. I challenge you by right of arms.”
“Then you will die,” he spat.
Both men moved away to a fighting distance and took guard. The shield, from what Held could see, was mostly toughened leather stretched over a wooden frame but there was a metal boss in the centre from which a wicked spike protruded. His opponent's sword was a gleaming piece of steel, slightly longer than his own katana and utterly devoid of any decoration. It was a
professional's weapon, designed for killing.
They circled each other cautiously, each man feinting his attacks in an attempt to judge the other's speed and reactions. Held had a slight advantage in terms of speed and agility because of his lightweight armour and lack of a shield but it was Manny who launched the first serious attack with a combination of strikes delivered at lightning speed that forced the younger man back towards the fire. At the last second, Held threw himself sideways as his opponent slammed the shield into his body. If it had been a direct hit, the spike would undoubtedly have penetrated even mithril mail but as it was, the power of the glancing blow caused him to wince in pain as he rolled back to his feet.
Sensing that he had done some damage, Manny began a furious series of attacks that required all Held's skill and experience to keep out. Such a frenetic assault could not be maintained for ever and, as the pace slackened, Held moved smoothly into a series of counter attacks. For several minutes the two were evenly matched, trading blow for blow in the centre of the square. The first opening came as Manny attempted to repeat a combination of moves he had tried earlier culminating in a feint to the head and a vicious slash below the knees. Anticipating the slash to his legs, Held leapt high into the air and brought the katana down with all his strength on the top edge of his opponent's shield. The shield split from rim to rim with half still attached by the straps to Manny’s arm and the other half dangling uselessly below.
With a snarl of rage he hurled the broken shield at Held and reached behind his back for the hidden dagger. Held circled cautiously to his left trying to keep the blade well out of range but this allowed the older man to attack more easily with his sword. He parried a dagger thrust and brought the katana up just in time to block a blow that would have split his skull. He reversed direction, spinning quickly to the right and, as he completed the full circle, brought the katana down on Manny’s dagger wrist. The edge of the blade struck immediately below the leather bracers that Manny was wearing, passing straight through bone and sinew and severing the hand as neatly as any surgeon.
Manny fell back a couple of paces and looked in astonishment at his hand lying on the grass, still clutching the poisoned dagger. The fight slipped away from him quite quickly from that point. Even though his attacks had even greater ferocity, they were driven more by emotion and less by cold logic. As he made one final lunge aimed at Held's face, the younger man dropped his shoulder so that the blade passed harmlessly over and thrust his own sword out with the blade angled up at 45 degrees. Manny’s momentum carried him onto the blade, the point striking at the very top of his mail vest and sliding upwards beneath the chin strap of his helmet to pass straight into the brain. Death was instantaneous although the fighter's muscles held him upright for a few more seconds as Held withdrew his sword.
There was silence as he stood over the ex-leader's body and looked slowly around at the faces of the men and women on the three sides of the square. “I challenged Manfred
for the leadership of this group and I have defeated him in combat. Does any man here dispute my right to lead you?”
A chorus of “No, milord,” rippled round the square,
Held looked down at the ground and shook he head. When he looked up again, he had a half smile on his face.
“I am nobody's lord but I promise you this; if you will follow me and allow me to lead you, I will do so with pride and with honour.”
For a moment nobody moved. Then Bern, with a glance at the other senior men, crashed his forearm across his chest in salute and dropped to one knee with head bowed. “I will follow you, milord.”
The man standing next to Bern, made a salute and dropped to one knee, and then another, and another. “I will follow you, milord,” came from all sides.
Held raised a hand in acknowledgement. “All right, all right, stand up.
“Tomorrow morning, after the burial, we will talk again. There will be some changes to be made and I will ask for an oath of loyalty from every man here present. If any man does not want to change his way of life or give me his oath, he may leave tonight. There will be no recriminations but if we ever meet again on opposite sides of a fight, there will also be no quarter.”
Not a man moved.
“Very well then. Prepare the body for burial and then get some rest. And make sure that bloody dagger gets buried with him.”
Held turned and walked towards the leader's tent, his tent now together with all its contents according to the rules of the company.
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
(Arthur C Clarke)
He was back in the white room. White walls, white ceiling. But no visual clues as to where he might be. The voices were clearer though. Maybe nearer, maybe louder but pushing this time at the edges of his consciousness. He lay very still and concentrated on the voices.
“...pre-industrial society...nothing more advanced than swords and bows...”
“...must be able to help... give him some sort of edge...”
“...toughened steel blade... we could even enhance it...”
“...no power sources... nothing detectable...”
“...based on the old Japanese katana... better than any normal sword but completely undetectable...”
“...need to be a bit creative with his background. Bit more material, few extra memories...”
“What about some armour?”
“...alloys perhaps... ultralight alloys...”
“...how can we explain that?
“...Mithril... elven armour... magic armour...”
“Would they fall for it?”
“...they'd never be able to tell the difference...”
He woke in the middle of the night to the sounds of somebody moving quietly inside the tent. He threw off the sleeping furs and leapt to his feet, seizing the katana and drawing it from its scabbard in one smooth motion. There were two tiny gasps of shock as Leyla and Mo cowered back away from the blade.
“I... I'm sorry, my lord,” Leyla stammered. “We didn't mean to disturb your sleep.”
“You two. I had forgotten about you two. What are you doing here?”
“This is our tent, my lord. I mean, we used to share it with...” her voice trailed off.
“So now we will share it with you, milord,” Mo added brightly.
“Ah,” said Held. “I see. Let's have some light on the scene, shall we. I think we need to talk.”
Mo busied herself with flint and steel and a couple of oil lamps sprang into life. As she turned back, Leyla elbowed her in the ribs and giggled. “My lord, I'm not sure which sword we should be most afraid of.”
Held suddenly realised that he was standing there stark naked with a sword in his hand. Flushing to the tips of his ears, he flung the sword on the bed and reached for a shirt to cover himself.
“I'm sorry, ladies. You caught me unawares.”
“But not completely unprepared, it would appear, my lord.”
“And willing to spring to our aid at a moment’s notice,” Mo added.
“Stop it you two… and find somewhere to sit down.”
“Yes my lord.” The two girls grabbed an arm each of Manny’s heavy chair and dragged it into the centre of the tent.
“I didn’t mean for me,” he started to say, as the girls arranged themselves more or less decorously on the bed. Sighing he sat down in the chair.
“Look ladies. I’m sorry I startled you just now but there are going to have to be some changes around here.”
“That’s all right milord,” Mo said. “We weren’t really worried.”
“It’s just that it was such a magnificent weapon,” Leyla giggled.
“Cut that out,” he warned. “I know that under the rules of the group I have
uhm… inherited all of Manny’s possessions. But that does not include you two.”
The faces of the two girls fell.
“Don’t look at me like that and let me try to explain. Where I come from, the rules of society are different. Women are not possessions. They are not somebody’s property to be traded or bartered like a sack of beans. Women are people in their own right. They have the same rights as a man.”
There was a little gasp of shock from the girls at this.
“Women can live together with a man... or with another woman if they choose. If they love each other they can marry. But if something happens to that relationship and they no longer want to live together, at the end of the day, the woman can just walk away exactly the same as a man can.”
There was shock in Mo’s voice as she replied. “That seems very strange, milord. It certainly isn’t like that here. We were Manny’s women. We belonged to him.”
“You say that you were Manny’s women, yet you know that he would have traded one or both of you for the Lady Falaise if he had the chance.”
The two girls looked at the floor. “We know my lord,” Leyla whispered. “He was going to give me to that brute Torsten. I would have hated that but it would have been Manny’s right.”
“No it wouldn’t, Leyla. That’s what I’m saying. Manny had no right to even think of treating you that way. Of trading you like a spare sword or a piece of jewellery.”
“But Torsten’s dead anyway,” Mo said. “And you’ve just killed Manny so none of that matters anymore. We belong to you now.”
“No, you don’t, Mo. I cannot own a woman. It makes you no better than a slave and I couldn’t live with myself if I treated you like that. I don’t care how Manny treated you. I don’t care if he thought of you as nothing more than a pair of attractive bracelets to wear on his arms. I cannot do that and I cannot and will not have you as my property.”
At that, Mo burst into tears and the two girls flung their arms round each other. “So you’re throwing us out, milord?”
“What will happen to us?” Leyla sobbed. “Where will we go? What will we do?”
“Women,” he muttered as he stood up. “Always going off at the deep end.” He knelt down by the tearful pair and put his arms round them. “Listen to me. I never said anything about throwing you out. I only said that you are not my property. I don’t own you.”