‘Near the Border’

22:38 Sun 01 Jul 2007. Updated: 13:49 24 May 2009
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The horseman rode slowly along the path, evidently not in any hurry. Two swords stuck out from under his cloak. He wore a plain helm with no visor.

“What brings you, noble sir, to our lady’s lands?”. Pulling to a halt, the rider regarded the small man who had issued the question.

“Are these indeed your lady’s lands? I had thought the border still a mile distant.”

The small man’s demeanor briefly dimmed, no longer as bright as his yellow shirt or his green breeches. Then he smiled. “I do not know you, and yet you seem no stranger to these parts.”

“I note you have not answered my question. I do not wish to trespass. Do I stand now in your lady’s domain?”

This time the small man did not hide a flare of anger in his eyes. “You are not, yet, in our lady’s domain. Nor did I say that you were, merely meaning that your course was bringing you to it.”

“Perhaps. I often change my course at whim.”

“And what whim is responsible for your approaching the realm of the Carnation Queen?”

“‘Carnation Queen’? Is she some flighty young maiden, to take such a fanciful appellation?”

“You tread close to insult, stranger, for one who is merely following some whim!”

“Do I? What is the reason for such a designation, then?”

“I will not discuss my mistress’ business with you, sir, when it is your business we should be discussing!”

“I disclose my business to no commoner.”

“Commoner! I am no commoner, I am Margrave—”

“The colorful titles you grant yourself are of little interest to me.”

“You go too far! I demand satisfaction!”

“Ha! Have you taken leave of your senses? Do you challenge me?”

“I do!”

At this, the rider smiled a chill smile. “Well, Eamon of the Clan of Foxes, Margrave of the Menestian Reach, what shall be our stakes?”

There was a pause. “Stakes? We need no stakes, I shall take enough redress through our struggle.”

“Then your redress shall be my stake… but your stake is required, as you know, in a contest between those like ourselves.”

Another pause. “You may suggest a stake, sir, as is your right.”

“Your stake, then, shall be this: details of how to safely obtain Lasanne’s Tears from their hiding place in the Castle of the Lonely Spire.”

“I now believe you guilty of dishonorable trickery in this encounter, but I have no choice but to agree to this stake.”

“I will let that allegation of dishonor pass in this instance, although I must note that accusations of trickery from such a source possess a certain innate comedy.” With that, the rider dismounted, removed his cloak, and patted his horse, which ambled away behind him to await the outcome. Then he pulled out one of his swords, gripping it two-handed.

After a moment, he nodded, and the small man nodded in response. Neither of them moved, and the Margrave drew no weapon.

There was a shimmer, and the swordsman faced a charging black panther. Moving to anticipate its leap, he found that his right foot was stuck, something tangled around it. Without looking to see what it was, he ducked low and fell forward, the cat soaring over his back. He rolled right, and cut the rope of grass that had grown around his ankle. He managed a low crouch before the cat could begin another run.

He circled, taking small steps to fend off any further grassy entrapment. The cat regarded him coolly, then started a charge forward. As he prepared for another leap, it flickered and the panther became a wild boar. The swordsman jumped wildly to one side to avoid taking a tusk through the thigh, and suffered a ragged gash along his leg instead. But he rose again without complaint.

His hands were tight on the grip of his bastard sword and on a pouch just below it, clenched in the last two fingers of his right hand. Sweat dripped off his face. Blood ran down his left leg. His eyes remained clear.

The boar was gone, and in its place a great brown bear roared. It came forward, but stopped outside of sword range. The swordsman held it off with his greater reach, trying small slashes at it. The bear was too quick for these, but could get no closer. The two circled each other, and after a few more attempts one of the swordsman’s strokes was too long. The bear moved to one side and smacked at the base of the blade. The swordsman let the blade fall easily, and as the bear moved forward thrust the contents of the pouch into its face.

It reared back, and fell, and there choking and gasping on the ground lay the small man, his face red and contorted. The swordsman retrieved his sword and put the blade to his opponent’s throat. “Do you yield?”

Gasping, the small man said, “You’ve slain me, damn you!”

“I think not, painful as it is. But I will, unless you yield now. Do you yield?”

Between coughs, the Margrave said, “I yield.”

“I have some water, to help you wash out the iron filings.”

“If I survive, I’ll survive no thanks to you, so you can keep your filthy water.” The coughing subsided, but his eyes and face remained puffy and red.

“As you wish. Now, our contest decided, surrender your stake.”

“There is a locked chest below the floor underneath the First Concubine’s bed. While neither she nor the Duke know this, nevertheless this is a spot guarded most vigilantly. To gain access to it, you must lure the First Concubine elsewhere. Some of her guards and maids will remain in the antechamber even while she is absent. But there is a ledge beneath her window, a ledge wide enough for traversal, that leads around the outside of the Castle to the window in the stairwell of the southeast tower. Once under her bed, press the black flagstone touching the wall to reveal the chest. Do not open it, but push it onto its front and squeeze its hinges. A comparment at its base will open, and from it you will be able to pull the Tears.”

“Very well. I will take my leave, then, Margrave, and I hope that another meeting between us will turn out more cordially.” With that he turned and went to his horse.

He rode back the way he had come. Eamon of the Clan of Foxes, eyes red and narrow, watched him until he was out of sight.

(1100 words)

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