Once upon a time, I told people I’d post fiction up here on Sundays. I even said I’d look into doing a serial.
Well, this is Sunday (very unfortunately, I’m back to work after two weeks of holiday tomorrow). And this is what might have been the start of a serial, except I stopped liking the idea. But maybe I will like it again? Who knows. In any case, I present to your for your entertainment the first and maybe only episode of The Man With The Bronze Sword, three thousand words of fantasy. Let me know what you think.
Argyros had resolved that the next time he faced certain death, he wanted it to be at the hands of an utter bastard.
“You mightn’t die, you know,” said cousin Glabas. “No need to give up hope yet.”
He hadn’t realised he’d spoken out loud, or that Glabas was right by him. Most of the family were keeping their distance. Argyros massaged his jaw as he considered the many, many retorts he could offer to that and Glabas stared at him like a sheep that didn’t understand why the dog kept barking at it or where the other sheep had gone.
“You have to believe. You’re the hope of the family, after all,” Glabas persisted.
Argyros took his boots away from his idiot cousin before he polished a hole in them, crouched behind the poor lad, and pointed across the town square.
“You see that man?” said Argyros.
“Yes. He’s not even practicing.”
That was true. His foe was busy helping a small crowd of children coax a cat out of an olive tree. It would be a good scene to paint; a tall handsome man surrounded by adorable infants, the cat peering anxiously at them, all lit by the sun (of course Argyros was on the shady side of the square) with a backdrop of grand limestone buildings and cheerful looking family members. The only discordant note was his clothes – white shirt, black waistcoat, red sash, the ritual uniform of a duelist in Trabios – and the saber propped up by a nearby wall. That and the frequent looks across the square, as foolishly anxious as Glabas’. He wouldn’t paint that bit though, of course.
He’d paint none of it.
“That is Rendakis and he’s going to kill me due to five things.” He held up his fingers to aid comprehension. “One, he is stronger than me. Two, he is faster than me. Three, he’s fought nine duels and four battles. You see where I’m going?” Best not to make rude gestures. Glabas was taking this hard enough as was. “Four, he has a sword enchanted to cause death with a single scratch. Five, steel cannot cut him at all.”
“That’s why you’ve got a bronze sword today! That’s a good idea,” said Glabas.
No, it wasn’t. Bronze swords hadn’t been a good idea for centuries. But the council forbade cudgels and he had to try something. Getting slaughtered was bad enough without just letting it happen.
“Well, maybe Apion will fix this. Sort it out so nothing happens.”
Doubt was finally creeping into Glabas’ voice and with good reason. Apion might be talking with the head of the Notaras family, eyes bulging from his cadaverous face, but only to spray them with spittle and venom. It was Apion’s insults that had caused the whole wretched thing and he wasn’t going to apologize while he gained even a shred of power from abusing the Notaras. The old man had plenty of grandsons, after all, and only a finite amount of power. A shame that Trabion custom dictated the duel was between champions from each family, rather than those who actually gave and received offence. He’d considered running away – or maybe asking for adoption into the Notaras – but custom was very firm and draconian on what happened to his family if he did that. Where as fighting it at least meant an end to the whole quarrel. Officially at least.
Apion’s rant seemed to be running to a close, which suggested the time to die was coming soon.
“An enchanted sword. I can’t believe I hadn’t heard about that,” said Glabas. “Well, when you put it like that, this all seems very unfair.”
Agyros searched desperately for any sign of sarcasm or irony on his cousin’s face. There was nothing but earnest confused sadness. He really hoped there was no afterlife where Glabas would come to thank him for dying.
The town mediator stepped away from the two family heads as they walked back to their own sides, beckoning to the two champions. Rendakis had lured the cat down and had to be alerted by one of the children that he’d have to take a brief break from making a new friend. He picked up his sabre and strolled over, making sure to join him in the shadow.
“Your families have failed to come to agreement,” the mediator rasped. “May the gods honour your courage. Now, if you will turn back to back, and walk at my count.”
The mediator limped away slowly – evidence of having survived his own time in the square, no doubt – as Argyros debated stabbing Rendakis in the back once he turned.
“Sorry about this,” whispered Rendakis. “Look, I’ll make a few dangerous passes, hope your man changes his mind before it goes too far. Just watch yourself – this sword really does make a mess of people. Painful business. I’ll try to make it quick if it gets that far.”
Then why not use an ordinary sword then? Maybe he was a bastard. “Thank you.”
“Least I can do.” He pulled a face. “Most too. Once again, I’m really sorry about this.”
“I’d be too,” said Argyros.
No I wouldn’t be, he thought. I’d just be grateful I didn’t have to die. And I’d use the sword too. No, he couldn’t blame the man for anything. Rendakis’ lips quirked and he turned around.
Well, this was his chance. He’d seen how fast Rendakis was, but he wasn’t fast enough that Argyros couldn’t have him skewered like a feast roast before he could even swing. Then, of course, the whole Notaras clan would come and kill him, and then they’d kill his family after anyway. Instead of being dead and stupid, he’d be dead, stupid, and guilty.
He walked. Five paces, all to the sound of some dried up bastard who’d been just like him once, only luckier. Turned again. Shivered. It hadn’t been so cold a moment ago. Forwards. Touched blades, right at the killing points, hoping for some kind of tremble. Rendakis’ sabre gently pushed his outside, slipping under casually when he tried to correct position.
He’d seen Rendakis fight before. He really wished he hadn’t now.
He attacked high. He wouldn’t have if he hadn’t been planning this for days, but he had. He did. Feint cut, thrust without extension. Don’t get too close, he’ll kill you. Don’t cut too much, your blade won’t stand it. Hope for a mistake.
Rendakis parried, once, twice, beat and cut so fast Argyros had to jump back.
He fought awkwardly, like he’d never held a blade before. Thrust, thrust, feint, retreat. Too scared to think, too mindful of his weak sword to let trained instincts take over. Feint, thrust, retreat. Much as he didn’t want to, he had to parry now. Rendakis was as good as his word and not fully extending, but he was making damn sure he controlled this fight. The bronze sword must have scared him. Stupid idea really.
Argyros stumbled a little as he next retreated. Rendakis didn’t follow. Too careful. He’d hoped if he kept attacking high, the other man would take the bait and extend and he could bring his blade down on the man’s wrist. Hoped Rendakis would stumble. Hope for anything.
He lunged, quick as he could, just to buy himself a little time. They circled. He could see his sword point trembling. Rendakis’ rueful smile. He didn’t look at Apion or any of his family. At least his mother hadn’t come.
“Should that fat fool relent, you should watch the extension of your lead leg,” said Rendakis conversationally. “It’s a tempting target.”
“I wish I had some advice for you.”
The handsome face creased in sympathy. “As I said, I am-”
“Save it for someone who’ll remember!”
The man nodded like he understood. Maybe the bastard did. Understand that it was bad enough dying without being put out your misery like an old dog. But he wasn’t enough of a bastard to just kill him already.
The next little skirmish, he sidestepped and cut instead of jumping back. Rendakis’ saber scored his shirt, but he made the great man flinch and jump himself. Kill or be killed, Rendakis. He was ready. So, judging by the intent advance, was Rendakis, until he fell.
The earth shook, the air shook. Everything shook. He was on his knees and try as he might, he couldn’t get up. Neither could Rendakis. If he was just a little closer, he’d try to steal the sword.
He rolled to see a dragon hovering over the temple with powerful sweeps of it wings. A huge dragon, a steam from the nostrils and fangs like sabers dragon, a swinging head with baleful eyes dragon. Right in front of him. People were screaming, but somehow, he wasn’t one of them. He forced himself up and held a hand out to Rendakis.
“Will your sword kill that?” he screamed.
“I don’t know!”
“I’ll distract it and you find out.”
He squared up to the dragon, sword advanced in a high guard, trying not to laugh. He would die fighting a dragon. Or wake up. Yes, he would wake up.
“Come on,” he shouted at at the waiting dragon. “Come on! I’ll fillet you!”
“We’ll gut you!” Rendakis was at his side. “Leave. Now.”
The beast stayed there, hovering, waiting. Something launched off its back in a great blur. Onto the roof, then down with easy elegance, a great gray-black wild cat that leaped at him astonishingly fast. Argyros brought his bronze sword down but a naked muscle-bound man hit him like a runaway horse. Where had he come from? A large hand with hairy knuckles – why did he notice that – hauled him up even as he realized he was on the ground. He tried to punch with saber’s handguard but the man paid no attention.
The dragon was flying now, soaring low. Rendakis stood, legs wide and off-balance, unsure of which threat to move against. Argyros tried to struggle but the man was freakishly strong. His head hurt. There was blood on his left arm. The man jumped, forcing them both into the air, and caught hold of a rope. Then they soared upwards.
“Stop struggling,” said the man. “Or you’ll splat like a melon.”
Argyros looked down and nausea rippled through him. They were higher than the town’s tallest spires now, higher than any spear throw could go.
He stopped struggling.
“Good. Now, grab hold of the rope yourself.”
Argyros stared at the rope, then at his sword. He stuck it in his sash, barely avoiding cutting himself. It wasn’t much of a weapon, but it was still the only one he had. He grabbed the rope with both hands, firm as he could.
The man shot up the rope, no sign of fatigue or fear as he climbed up to the dragon. He’d never been so enthralled by a naked man in his entire life. The heroes of Trabios were witch-blessed, famed wherever warriors drank and songsters sought their fortune, and he’d never seen anyone this tirelessly strong.
The man scrambled on. The sky was very blue. His grip was starting to tense. The rope jerked up and Argyros screamed as he nearly let go.
“I said, hang on!”
He did. The man kept lifting him – towards the dragon, away from the land, from Trabios. The sky was very blue, freakishly brilliantly so, like the sea reflecting light. He looked down – he hadn’t dared do so before – to see he could no longer even see the earth, or anything but a void of blue. Hands pulled him into the dragon.
“We’ve got him.”
Got me? But why. Why did anyone wish to kidnap him on dragon back?
The sky became so brilliant it was nothing but light. He closed his eyes to no avail, then his vision went dark, and he slumped forwards.
He was flying. He didn’t know how he knew that, and he didn’t know why because it was a well accepted fact that humanity was incapable of flight, but he was. He opened his eyes to confirm his madness and saw wooded mountains approaching.
Argyros shut his eyes.
There was a bump and he rolled half a foot before being stopped. He didn’t open his eyes. The world seemed to have stopped moving but he didn’t really feel like trusting that. The world had not proved itself a trustworthy place for him recently. He could hear movement, smell fresh tree-sap, but he also remembered a dragon, so his senses were also not that reliable either.
“Are you sure he’s a hero?” said a resonant deep male voice.
“Why are you asking me?” Female, stretches out her vowels, practices haughty expressions in a mirror. “I am not the one who fetched our valiant champion here. That was you.”
“On your say-so. I grabbed the one you told me to.” The sort of man who’s affable and relaxed because he can kill anyone who challenges that, and likes to wave that confidence around. “Tall dark-haired fellow with a magic sword. And look at this thing! Has to be magic, doesn’t it.”
His skin felt very numb. His senses – his sanity – his everything – had to be playing tricks on him. Had to be.
“I think our hero has something to say about this,” said the woman. “Stop dawdling and get that fire lit. You – you can open your eyes now. You’re not dead and there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Words only ever uttered in that tone by people who reserved the right to add an exception for themselves at any time, but he opened his eyes anyway.
The woman was roughly the same age as his mother and twice as elegant; expensive maroon wool robe, fine hair in an intricate bun, and the superior expression he’d been expecting. She was untying him; he hadn’t realized he’d been tied up.
“Just a practical consideration when traveling on dragonback.”
So there had been a dragon. A dragon he was still on, unless he was sitting on hard scaly grass a shade lighter than the woman’s dress. He could see scrubby brown-yellow grass and hurried down there slightly faster than his dignity would prefer.
“Who are you?” he said.
“I am Relda. Now, tell me about your sword.”
“As you will.” He bowed his head. “I was using a bronze sword because I was fighting a man charmed against steel. Who also had a charmed sword. One touch from it-”
“Is death, yes, yes, I know. Thank you.” She sucked in air and turned away. “Griogair, you worthless piece of wormbait! You have stolen me the wrong man! Come here and let me turn you inside out!”
I wouldn’t come answer that, Aryros thought. I wouldn’t even have to think about it if they’d taken Rendakis instead. To think he’d come so close to that – so close – only to end up here himself – well. At least they’d probably let him go once they realized their mistake.
“Griogair! Where are you are? Answer me, or I’ll turn you into a rat and throw you to your own family!”
There was a movement at the edge of one of the many copses that littered the browned grass. The man sauntered out, waving a handful of sticks.
“Do you want a fire or not?”
Yes, probably for cooking you on it. Argyros was very sure not to voice that. Keep silent, get home, get drunk.
“Only if you want to be roasted on it. Come here and tell me how this happened, Griogair.”
The man that had kidnapped him wasn’t a tall fellow, a shade shorter than him perhaps, but incredibly wide shouldered and sinewy. Even wearing clothes, his muscles rippled. His hair was striped black and gray, his face flecked with scars, and his eyes a shade of pale green he’d never seen on a man. He had on a cat though.
“I’ve already told you, Relda. I went for the one most like what you described. If we got the wrong man as a result, then there’s not a lot to be done about it,” said Griogair. “Look, he was fighting the hero wasn’t he? So he’s probably a hero himself. Works out fine. No need to get so worked up.”
The conversation was taking a nasty turn. “I’m not a hero. Nothing special about me at all. I was only fighting him because my family needed to sacrifice someone to him.”
“See? Insanely courageous and dutiful,” said Griogair.
“I don’t someone to die for me,” snapped Relda. “There’s enough of that going around. I need someone who’ll stay alive.”
“Why not just take me home and bring back Rendakis then?” he said.
The air rumbled and Argyros’ head snapped wildly back and forth as he looked for storm clouds or smoke plumes, until there was a great beastly dragon’s face right in front of him.
“Do you have the first idea of how much energy it takes to fly between worlds?” the great rumbling voice demanded.
“Uhm… no?” That didn’t seem sufficient somehow. “I’m sorry if that was a selfish thing to say.”
“It was. Most selfish. Let me tell you it is no mean feat and, I regret to say, you will not be going home anytime soon.”
“Enough, child,” said Relda. She scratched at a spot on the beast’s jaw. “He has had a long day and he is our guest.” Her attention swung to him, with the same crooning voice. “Tell me, what is your name, Master Not a Hero?”
He clutched his hands behind his back to stop them fidgeting. “Argyros Apizakos.”
“Well, Argyros. You may not be the hero I wanted, but I still need as many swordsmen as I can get. Help me and I’ll help you. You’ll get back home and do well out of it.”
“I see.” He thought about it for a moment. “Do I want to know what happens if I say no?”
She shook her head.
“Well. I’ll help you. Help you with what?”