Wednesday, October 19, 2011


By Charles Ackerman

It was all but impossible to not feel the joy surging from the earth. The potency of spring was everywhere: flocks of migrating birds overhead, the air ripe with the warm expectant smell of the soil, the boisterous laughter of youthful flirtations drifting up from the street below. Yet Meyis turned pale when she heard the knocking, for she knew answering was not so much opening the door as opening up the abyss of widowhood.

“Will you get that?” her husband said absently, not even opening his eyes.

The knocking came more insistently. Meyis looked across the small table and over at the man lying in bed. If nothing she had already said had moved him, what would more words do? She sighed and leapt from the chair and went down. She flung the door open and crossed her arms, immediately presenting the visitor with an image of pure fury.

The young girl before her was undaunted. “Sorry to bother you, good lady, but mayhap you have a length of ribbon you could spare? We’re preparing for the mummers’ dance. Preferably not Dsainar yellow as we have plenty of that. Though I see that you are Dsainar — honest merchants I’m sure.” Meyis considered scolding the girl for pounding on the door with such enthusiasm for such a whimsical cause, but then she decided that surrendering a length of ribbon was the quickest way to remove her presence.

“Thank you, good lady,” the girl said when she received the object of her search. “It’s going to be a good year. Why, there are even flowers growing in the Void. I saw them myself.”

Meyis felt dizzy. She had been living in dread of news that the Void had dried out. “Goodness, child, what were you doing in the Void?”

“Me and my mother were looking for flowers and it had been so dry that we kept walking and walking. I didn’t even get mud on my ankles.” She pulled up her dress for proof; Meyis was too surprised to instruct on modesty.

A month after her brother-in-law, soaked by a late winter rain, appeared in the doorway, looking like his soul had been stolen, she was still in shock. His words made little sense: Gerkin’s Tavern, a barmaid, a Maxos, a duel challenge. Exchanging tears for muys wine and a longer explanation helped not. The brother-in-law feebly concluded, “He was in the right, you must understand. The Maxos was roughing her up something fierce.”

“What do I care?” Meyis gasped. “He’s never expressed interest in anyone’s honor before, and now I’m going to be a widow over a barmaid? He told me he never as much stepped foot in the taverns when he made his trips for muys. Now you say he was in Gerkin’s? Even I know of its reputation and I do not go to Pouletan but for once a year! Was he lying to me all this time?”

“No,” the brother-in-law said quietly, “he was not. He always insisted on doing business by the wagon.”

“So what were you two doing in Gerkin’s?”

The brother-in-law shrugged his shoulders in defeat.

As Meyis was closing the door on the girl she heard a horrific shriek. The bird-butcher down the street was doing his business. Meyis grabbed some money and quitted the house.

That night her husband said, chewing absently, “This is the plumpest duck we’ve had this early in the year. It must have cost a goodly coin. What’s the occasion?”

“I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to cook this for you again,” she explained. She burst into tears.
He looked at her helplessly.


Ascradt recounted the copper coins that amounted to the shop’s savings and sighed. He had of course agreed to be his brother’s second the instant he returned to Gerkin’s from the outhouse. It proved more costly and time-consuming than he would have ever feared. He almost daily received a letter from the Maxos second discussing negotiations of the rules, the ceremonies, and the inspections.
Ascradt was hapless in the face of the blizzard of minutiae, for it pushed his literacy to the limit. “I need a second,” he bitterly joked to a friend who was helping him with the more exotic words in the Maxos communications. While he had made no progress in getting his brother or the Maxos to back down, he at least had convinced the aristocrat to pay for the coffin.

It was no victory. Duel coffins, Ascradt had been told, were rarely elaborate affairs because injured combatants often yielded, and if they died, it was days later. So the coffin received little thought.
Ascradt was awash in horror when he went to inspect it. The wood was so knotted and warped that the Maxos must have paid extra to have the coffin-maker put aside his pride and craft such a monstrosity. The message was clear: the Maxos would not be the one lying within the slovenly wood tomb. Still hoping to convince the man to agree to call off the duel and in truth quite intimidated by the prospect of a disagreement with a Maxos, Ascradt could only sputter, “It is acceptable.”

Ascradt encouraged his brother to prepare for the duel. He had helped his sister-in-law strip the main room of the third floor to create a space unhindered by the rains to drill. He had taken the tapestries off his own bedroom walls so the support rods could be used as practice rapiers. When his brother said that they were nothing like real swords, he went to Bakil for a master at arms. He found several, but they were unwilling to instruct a Dsainar for anything less than extortionate prices. To cover the fees, he looked for a buyer for the shop and the apartments above, but even the most generous offers left him well short of what was needed.

Ascradt cursed his brother for proposing rapiers. They left horrific puncture wounds that developed gangrene if the victim lived long enough. Maxos men trained daily with them, and the Dsainar could barely get a hold of one. If only his brother had said staves, he would have escaped with broken fingers or a cracked skull.

“Are you listening to me? These wounds — do they not frighten you? If you will not practice, promise me you will yield at the first opportunity.”

The brother’s eyes turned glassy. “Trust me,” he said in a dreamy voice and patted Ascradt on the shoulder.

“What does that mean? Meyis can bear you another son. We have the strength.”

“This has nothing to do with what happened to my son! How I wish you and Meyis would not fuss so! I want this silliness to stop. Put the tapestries back up before you catch a cold.”

“If you promise to yield.”

“Yes, fine, whatever. Just put the room back the way it was.”


Nen thought nothing of the knock on the door down below until her father, his face twisted into a scowl, came up the steps and said, “It is this afternoon. You have to watch.”

Nen returned the ugly look. “How many times do I have to tell you that I did not ask that man to intervene?”

A Maxos had been particularly drunk and rough that night, taking more liberties than even an aristocrat could expect. His powerful hands had mauled her, but the bruises, running from her arms to her thighs, had been healed for over a week. She just wished the whole thing would go away.

Instead, she had to endure a long, bumpy wagon ride to the Void, a glade on the eastern slope of the valley that was so dead to the world that no duelist’s artifice was believed to work. Nen could not have cared less whether enchantments affected this or any other duel.

And she certainly did not care to receive so much attention. As she stepped off the wagon, worrying that Gerkin would be upset if she arrived late to work, a cheer arose from the half hundred Dsainar who had assembled to watch.

The brother of the man who started the fight approached her, introduced himself as Ascradt and asked her to wear her champion’s corsage, a delicate pink and yellow affair. “No,” she said coldly. “Tell him I had no expectation of him other than to mind his own business.”

The brother gave her a pleading look and whispered, “Please. I can’t take this back there.” He gestured over his shoulder to a small table that was bare save for a sword and a pair of mismatched gloves. The man who was to be her champion stood beside it, shifting his weight from leg to leg. She did not even know his name.

The brother looked hopefully at Nen’s father but his stony look mirrored hers, and the man refused to make eye contact.

Without warning, the brother thrust the corsage against her bosom and violently secured it with a pin. Only the sheer intensity of the pain kept Nen from crying out when the needle plunged into her breast.
“It was such a simple thing, bitch.”


Gran Kestock hand been in eleven duels and had the scars to prove it. But it was an ill omen that he only found out that he had challenged a Dsainar two days after the fact. It was then that his best friend deemed him sufficiently recovered from his hangover to remind him of what had transpired. Once he had his wits about him, Gran inked a letter for his second to give to his Dsainar counterpart. It hinted that he had been hasty to think the incident a matter of honor warranting a duel. There was no satisfaction needed. It was a cautious, evenhanded letter, the kind that could only have been written by someone who could not remember the events about which they wrote.

No sooner had he sent it, people began approaching him in person and through the post. They were so pleased that he was putting the Dsainar in their place. Everyone, it seemed, had a story about trickster merchants, ingratitude, insults, coin-chipping or worse. At dinner parties and balls, women who had never expressed an interest in Gran were most solicitous of the trivial bump on his temple. Several of the greatest duelists in Kanna volunteered to help him train.

A cousin who hand spent the winter in Bakil sent two of the newfangled edgeless rapiers. His second quickly had gotten the Dsainar second to accept them. Gran thought the octagonal blades vicious: reduced to a thrusting tip, the rapiers’ lack of a sharp edge made it difficult to deliver superficial but impressive looking cuts that allowed opponents to yield with grace. It was going to be a challenge to disable the silly Dsainar without running him through.

Sick of hearing increasingly fantastical accounts of how he had fought off five Dsainar barehanded in Gerkin’s, he retreated to one of the Kestock keephouses. He considered writing a more explicit letter to the Dsainar, suggesting the duel be called off, but he procrastinated on rewriting it until it was too late. Instead, he distracted himself by overseeing the sharpening of plows and the fixing of harnesses.
Gran almost persuaded his fiancé to demand that he withdraw. She hazarded that some might think it unseemly to challenge a Dsainar. Gran waited for one more sentence, a simple prohibition. An uncomfortable silence descended upon them, and the fiancé filled it by saying that he should do what he must. The engagement was the only time when Gran would have obeyed an order from her, but she stopped short. She stopped short, took a deep breath, and again looked for reassurances about why he had been in Gerkin’s.

“Let’s get this over with,” he muttered after glancing at the pathetic coffin in the back of the wagon parked at the edge of the Void. He wasn’t pleased with the insult the misshapen wooden box represented. His cousin had been an exemplary second for his last five duels. His newfound zealotry, however, was most untoward.

Gran studied the growing crowd with unease. None of the Maxos who had puffed him up were there, leaving him and his second vastly outnumbered. The Dsainar, who obviously had never attended a duel before, were forcing themselves to be noisy. Gran was sympathetic in the abstract — the sound-swallowing glade was unnerving the first time it was experienced — but the snippets of conversation he caught made it clear that the Maxos were not the only ones who saw in a bar fight an epic battle between good and evil.

Gran strode across the glade and pulled the Dsainar second aside. “All he has to do is apologize for...” Gran let the sentence linger. Punching him? Throwing a flagon at him? Pushing him into a wall? He had heard so many versions of the night at Gerkin’s he was uncertain which he had heard first.

The second shrugged and then looked nervously at the crowd. “Believe me, I tried. Can’t you stab him in the foot?”

“And take my point that far off line?”

The tone of his response was ambiguous, but the second apparently read into it an alliance of civility. “Can you tell me,” he asked Gran in a whisper, “why the left-hand glove is maile but the right is leather?”

An inexplicable rage suddenly filled the Maxos. “You really have no idea, do you?” he snapped. He had been told that the man had asked the same question at an inspection ceremony and had been thoroughly answered.

Gran spun around and walked back to his own table and second. He pulled on the gloves, made an annoyed comment about their poor fit, grabbed his rapier, and walked to the center of the glade. The air felt warm, a perfect day for planting, he thought. His opponent struggled with his own gloves and then met him.

To indicate he was ready, Gran wordlessly raised his hilt to his forehead in a salute. His opponent, who appeared scrawny under the midday sun, looked at him blankly, caught the meaning of the gesture, and then awkwardly replicated it.

Raising his left hand to swat aside thrusts, Gran crouched down and began circling. He feinted a thrust to the Dsainar’s left side. The man just stood there and was lightly jabbed in the forearm. Gran was so shocked by the man’s utter lack of skill that he dropped his guard. He was thinking about the best way to disarm the Dsainar when the man charged at him, swinging wildly.

Gran fell back under the clumsy but spirited onslaught. It was a crude attack, fatal to try twice, but Gran had never seen anything like it and he found his point repeatedly knocked aside as he retreated. If the audience had contained any Maxos other than Gran’s second, undoubtedly they would have had difficulty stifling a laugh at his bad handling of the attack. Instead, the gathered Dsainar, in an egregious violation of decorum, let out a loud cheer, which grew into a sustained cacophony of shouts and whistles when Gran was hit in the face.

The Dsainar stopped and pulled back, visibly impressed that he had scored a hit. Gran instinctively raised his hand to check for blood. When the crowd hissed unsympathetically, Gran blushed and dropped his hand. He would lose blood quickly if the wound went untreated.

The Dsainar’s brief triumphant look vanished when Gran seized the man’s blade with his maile glove. Gran had hoped to simply yank the sword out of his opponent’s hand and press the rapier tip to his chest — a clear cut and bloodless victory — or to disable him by stabbing him in the forearm. But the man unexpectedly clung to his blade and fell forward, impaling himself on what was meant to be superficial thrust. That, at least, is how Gran later justified how he so swiftly grabbed the Dsainar’s weapon and in the same motion ran his tip through the man’s heart.

The crowd fell quiet when two hand length’s of Gran’s blade appeared out the back of his opponent.
The duel lasted less than ten strokes of an axe.

- - -
This story has its origins in my own experience with sword martial arts (in the Japanese and German traditions). Unfortunately, the hectic nature of life keeps me from continuing, but I still draw inspiration from those days.


- - -

Help keep Yesteryear Fiction alive! Visit our sponsors! :)

- - -

Blog Archive