A Novel by Bob Beers
Book one of the Milwardian Chronicles
The shouted words drew onlookers to the clearing just off the southeastern edge of the town. They joined with the crowd of children and a few adults clustered around two boys, both covered with the dust and leaves from the clearing floor. The heavier of the two sported a mouse under his left eye, the smaller, a bloody nose.
“Punch him again, Darzin!” One of the boys in the crowd called out. The heavier boy smirked in answer.
The two antagonists circled each other, fists balled.
“You’re for it now, Adam,” Darzin muttered. “I’m gonna bloody the other one.”
“What, I’ve got more than one nose, pig-face?” Adam retorted.
Darzin’s face darkened and he rushed Adam, bull-like with his head down. Adam slid to the side and stuck out a foot. Darzin tripped and went sprawling. Some of the children in the crowd called out, “Cheat!”
“What’s the matter, Darzin,” Adam asked as he danced out of the way of another charge, “All those big meals slowing you down?”
“Stand still ragpicker!” Darzin charged again, swinging his fists. One of the swings caught Adam a glancing blow on his right temple, sending him to the ground.
Darzin yelled out in triumph and fell upon Adam, fists flying.
A girl flew out of the crowd and plowed into Darzin. The crowd froze for a second and then several of the on-looking children joined in.
The Town Watch, perfectly willing to allow young boys to settle their differences, was not about to allow an odds-off scrum. The two men stepped into the fray and bodies scattered. Most of the children ran off, not wanting their parents to hear of what they had been doing.
“Come on you lot, break it up. I said, break it up!” Sergeant Garran, the older of the two Watchmen grabbed each of the boys by the scruff of the neck and lifted them off the ground.
“Darzin and Adam, why am I not surprised?” Segren, the younger Watchman, chuckled, shaking his head.
“Put me down!” Darzin struggled to free himself. “My father’ll take your jobs for this!”
“We don’t work for your father, brat, we work for the Baron, and the last I heard a Mayor doesn’t tell a Baron what to do.” Garran lowered the boys to the ground. “All right, what’s this about, as if I didn’t know already?”
“The usual,” Adam muttered. Segren reached out and placed a hand on Adam’s shoulder. The older took hold of Darzin’s arm.
“You shut your mouth, ragpicker,” Darzin said angrily. “I’ll teach you to keep your place.” He struggled against the hold the Watchman had on his arm.
Adam surged forward, nearly tearing loose from the Segren’s grasp. The sound of ripping homespun followed his lunge.
“You leave my brother alone. That pig Darzin started it!”
The Watchmen turned to see a young girl, her fists on her hips, long blonde hair full of leaves and twigs, glaring at them.
The older shook his head. “Young Charity, if I didn’t know better, I’d swear you was in on the fighting.”
She blushed, dropping her eyes and then raising them. “Well, it wasn’t fair! Darzin and his friends,” she twisted the word, “ambushed us just because Adam won the fencing contest and I won the archery. We had every right to win. Just because they have more than us, and his father’s the Mayor, He thinks he has to win at everything.” Her eyes shot daggers at Darzin.
Garran glanced at Segren. “That’s right; they had the spring faire trials last week. I had to be down in Meyer then. Did you make it?”
“No, the Baron had me patrolling up north, near the borders of the Dwarflands. There’s been a sighting of Garlocs the past couple of months.”
“That’s not good,” the older shook his head. “Tell you what, how about we take these two scufflers up north and use ‘em as bait?”
“Don’t you dare!” Charity took a step forward as Adam and Darzin both cringed.
“Ease off, missy,” the older held up a hand, releasing Darzin who took off as if Hel’s pit itself was after him.
“Look what you did!” Charity accused, “You let him go!”
“Yes, I did,” The Watchman dropped to one knee so he could look Charity in the eye, “and I’m also going to let the two of you go. There is no law against children getting into a dust-up now and then as long as it doesn’t get out of hand. This one looked like it might, so we stepped in.”
“I could have taken him,” Adam muttered, “even if he is bigger than me.”
“You’ll have your chance during the faire,” Segren said, approvingly. “I’ve no doubt you’ll do well. Who knows maybe some day the two of you’ll become friends.”
Garran grunted at the expressions of disgust that crossed the twins’ faces, “Run along home now. Fun’s over.”
Adam looked at Charity. “I could have taken him,” he repeated.
Charity smiled back, “We both could.”
♦ ♦ ♦
Beri was a bustling town located on one of the ‘Fingers”, a series of fertile peninsulas jutting into the northwestern sea. The peninsulas were filled with low rolling pasturelands and forests thick with trees. To the north of Beri, lay the Dwarflands, and to the southeast, the circle sea. Beyond that, most of the folk living there had little desire to explore.
The rivalry between Adam and Charity and the Lord Mayor’s only boy, Darzin had been a fixture of their lives for as long as they could remember. Darzin’s family had money, power and position within Beri’s social fabric, whereas Adam and Charity sat near the lower end because of two primary factors, they were orphans and their aunt and uncle were of the working poor. Instead of shiny new shoes and starched linen, they wore hand-me-downs and sturdy homespun.
The unforgivable sin, Adam thought, as far as Darzin and his friends were concerned was that he and Charity were bright, reasonably good-looking, and very capable at sports and letters, regardless of their lack of coin. His favorite memory of the trials was watching Charity certainly tweak Darzin’s insides because girls were not supposed to be able to beat boys at anything, especially field sports.
Beri’s Spring Faire culminated a weeklong period of preparation consisting of decorating the town square with garlands, buntings and assorted cuttings of early flowers. The fields to the west of town were prepared for the sporting contests, foot races, horsemanship, and archery. Fencing and quarterstaff contests happened on an elevated stage in the town square. Preliminary contests for the town’s children occupied the mornings leading up to the day of the faire. Adam and Charity moved easily through the early stages, winning their events handily.
On the morning before the finals, one of Darzin’s friends approached Adam and Charity separately, suggesting that it would be better for them if they allowed their betters to take the prizes.
“…and then he said if I let Darzin win…” Adam strangled on the last of the sentence, his face reddening with fury.
“I wish they’d let girls box,” Charity growled, “I’d blacken his eyes to where he wouldn’t see for a week.”
“Well, I’m not going to do it,” Adam stated, a stubborn set coming to his jaw.
“Do what, box? You fight Darzin nearly every day.” Charity smiled.
Adam stared at his sister and then grinned, sheepishly. “No, silly, I mean let him win. I’m not going to do it.”
Charity hefted the sling Uncle Bal had made for her the previous summer. She had developed a good eye and usually hit what she aimed for. “I’ll give him a rock to his bottom if he tries cheating,” she declared.
Adam flexed his wrist, “No, let him try. I’ve got an idea…” He twiddled with his lucky rock—a piece of polished agate, flat and disk-shaped that hung from his neck on a length of leather thong.
♦ ♦ ♦
The day of the faire dawned bright and clear, but an early fog that rolled in from the ocean just after sunrise dampened everyone’s spirits. It lay across the town as a thick chill blanket, making even the task of carrying stools to the speakers’ platform a trek fraught with danger. One unlucky villager, his arms full of stools, made a wrong turn in the fog and wound up face down in a pigsty.
As the morning moved on, and the thick, opaque fog showed no sign of dissipating, Colvin, the Lord Mayor, was almost at the point of canceling the day’s festivities when a ray of sun broke through. Soon the thinning of the fog was apparent to everyone, and with a cheer, the faire opened.
After the speeches, the final contests began with the children’s archery being the first. Large circular straw backers sat thirty paces from the firing line, resting on tripod easels. Painted sheets with concentric rings of yellow, red, and black comprised the targets.
Six children, five boys and one girl, Charity, made up the final contestants. Adam, not really interested in archery, had opted not to compete, though he felt he was nearly as good as his twin when it came to placing an arrow. The contestants stood, left toe just behind the firing line, bows in the left hand and their first arrow in their right. Each bow bore a colored ribbon, each color different for each contestant.
Two of the boys, a few years older than the others had excelled during the early rounds like Charity. One of them, Dayne, a red head with a striking crop of freckles had matched her score for score. The others, including Darzin, had done well enough to place in the finals but Adam felt Charity’s only true competition would come from Dayne. Adam stood with Aunt Doreen and Uncle Bal just on the other side of the rope barrier that separated the crowd from the contestants. A number of the crowd held tokens, bundled cloth streamers dyed the color of the archer they supported. Many in the crowd called out his or her favorite’s name, adding a wish for good luck. The hubbub blended with the sound of the band tuning up in the background. Darzin’s parents stood just behind their son, the Mayor’s voice booming out above the rest of the crowd as he urged his boy to shoot straight and to shoot well.
With a fanfare from the band, a Courtier of the Baron stepped onto the grass of the archery range. The man fit into the look of the townsfolk like a rose sprouting from a dung heap. The finery of his clothing made even the Mayor’s attire appear shabby in comparison. He held up a scroll and unrolled it at arms length.
“Good people of thetownshipofBeri. By the authority vested in me by the Lord Baron, I present you the children’s’ archery final contest. The winner of the contest will be presented with a newly minted silver mark from the Baron’s own treasury.”
A grand cheer erupted from the crowd.
“Second place will be awarded a newly minted copper mark from the Baron’s own treasury.”
This received another cheer, muted somewhat from the previous.
“There will be no prize given for third place.”
This statement elicited no cheer. A few murmurs and a grumble ran through the crowd. All the previous years there had been prizes for the first three places in every contest and second place had been a half silver mark, not a mere copper.
The Courtier seemed unruffled by the grumbling. “The contest will be carried out in three stages. Stage 1 will consist of a flight of three arrows for each contestant. The top four scorers will advance to the second stage. Stage 2 will also consist of a flight of three arrows. The top two contestants will advance to the final stage which will consist of a flight of…”
The Courtier sniffed at the crowds’ interruption, cleared his throat and stepped backwards until he was to the far right hand side of the firing line. “You may begin.”
Charity placed all three of her arrows into the yellow and so did the two older boys. Charity’s grouping was slightly less tight that that of the redheaded boy. Darzin’s last arrow missed the yellow by a fingers width, but it was good enough to put him into the second round.
Adam cheered along with his Aunt and Uncle after the stage was over. He yelled out, “Great shooting Charity, well done!”
He noticed Darzin scowl at Charity and then motion to one of his friends. The two boys held a brief huddled conversation and then the friend, a beetle-browed youth with heavy shoulders made his way through the crowd until he stood behind the redheaded boy. He called out to the boy and then made a motion with his thumb toward Darzin. The redhead looked toward Darzin and then nodded. Darzin’s friend took on a smug expression and then stepped back into the crowd. Adam called out to Charity and motioned her over.
“What is it? They’re almost done moving the targets back for the next stage.” Charity pointed with the bow, a scaled down version of a northern longbow. The men helping with the contest were busy moving the targets another ten paces down range.
Adam indicated the redhead with a nod of his chin, “Dayne over there was told something by Guss. I think he’s going to lose this stage on purpose so Darzin can win.”
“That’s not fair, and he shouldn’t do that. Dayne could win this if he tried,” Charity exclaimed.
“He’s afraid, that’s why. His father works for one of the Mayor’s businesses. I overheard Uncle Bal talking about him with one of the other workers at the carpenter shop.” Adam fingered his rock; “The Mayor doesn’t like it when someone beats Darzin.”
Charity sniffed, “Too bad, ‘cause I’m going to do the best I can and Darzin couldn’t beat me on my worst day.”
“Uh oh,” Adam cautioned, “Here comes Guss. Better get back to the line.”
Guss came around the small knot of adults that included Bal and Doreen as Charity retook her place at the firing line. He stood about a half head taller than Adam and Charity and outweighed Adam by a good stone. “Darzin has a message for your sis, ragpicker.”
“Are you sure you remember it, rocks-for-brains?” Adam said lightly. Inwardly his stomach began to knot and he could feel the beginning tremble as his body prepared for a fight.
Guss scowled, “Don’t call me that.”
“You started the name-calling, my name is Adam and you know it.”
Guss scowled again. Adam could see he was getting confused. Guss did not like things complicated. “Anyway, Darzin has a message. Your sis has to let him win.”
Adam smiled, deciding to play with the larger boy “Why?”
“Uh…”Guss’ brow wrinkled, “Because.”
A fanfare interrupted their byplay.
Adam yelled out over the trumpets, “Too late, they’ve started.” He turned away, not caring if Guss was offended or not. Thinking obviously made Guss’ head hurt.
The Courtier called out, “Stage two—begin!”
All three of Charity’s arrows found the yellow again, and this time her grouping was even tighter than that of the first stage. Darzin had one in the yellow and two in the red. Dayne’s first arrow hit the yellow dead center. His next slid into place right next to the first and then his third missed the target entirely as he sneezed during his release.
Dayne’s father charged out of the crowd waving his hands and calling for a re-shoot of that arrow. Many in the crowd agreed but the courtier remained unmoved.
“I am sorry,” he said, unconvincingly, “but the rule is clear—three arrows and three arrows only will be loosed in each stage by each contestant. A sneeze, however unfortunate, is not a reason to override that rule. We have one archer left to finish this stage.”
He motioned Dayne’s father back to the other side of the barrier with a wave of his hand and signaled to the remaining contestant, the other boy Dayne’s age. Two of his arrows were in the red. If he hit the yellow, he would tie Darzin and force an additional flight to see who advanced to the final stage.
The watching crowd hushed as he drew back his bow. He released and the arrow flew down the range. It dropped into the red just outside the yellow.
Darzin let out a yell of triumph, pumping his bow into the air even as the crowd expressed its disappointment.
Guss paid one more visit to Adam and Charity as the targets moved down range to the final distance. He waited, chewing his lip as Bal, Doreen comma and Adam congratulated Charity on her shooting. When the adults moved back into the crowd, he approached Adam. “Darzin says you have to let him win.”
“Darzin can go jump in the creek.”
Guss seemed taken aback by Adam’s defiance. “…Darzin says…”
Adam moved closer until his nose was just below Guss’s, “You can tell Darzin that Adam says he’ll beat him black and blue in the fencing contest, ok?”
“He won’t like that.”
The idea that Darzin was not going to get his way finally bloomed in Guss’s mind. He scowled and pushed Adam with his right hand. “You’re looking for a fight.”
“Any time, Guss, I can take you any time.” Adam pushed back, but his Aunt saw it.
“Adam! You apologize to him, right now!”
“He started it,” Adam glared at Guss, who glared back. Adam knew Darzin would have taken advantage of Doreen’s misjudgment of the situation. Guss was not that subtle.
Doreen reached down and took hold of Adam’s left ear. “Apologize, Adam, or we go home right now and you can forget about the rest of the faire.”
Adam’s jaw worked and he ground out, “I’m sorry.”
“Good,” Doreen did not push the lesson. She was quite aware of how Darzin and his friends treated her niece and nephew. She looked at Guss, “You go back to where your parents are, young man.”
Cowed, Guss ran back into the crowd. Doreen sniffed and looked down at Adam. “Don’t let those bullies push you into descending to their level, Adam. You are better than that.”
“Yes, Aunt Doreen.”
“The final stage will now be held,” The Courtier’s voice silenced the crowd and drew everyone’s eye to the archery range.
“The final contestants are Master Darzin, son of Lord Mayor Colvin and the Lady Desriele…” A ragged cheer rose up along with scattered applause. “…and Mistress Charity, daughter of Master Bal and the Lady Doreen.”
Adam spoke over the cheers and applause, “He got it wrong, Aunt Doreen.”
“I know Adam. I don’t mind and neither does your uncle,” Doreen smiled down at her nephew.
The Courtier called out again, “Because of the obvious skill of the finalists, it has been asked that the targets be moved to a range of sixty paces. The final stage will consist of three arrows, shot in turn. In the event of a tie, one arrow each shall be fired in turn until that tie is broken.”
Adam looked up at his Aunt. “Sixty paces? That’s too far. Darzin knows Charity can’t shoot as far as he can. He’s behind this, I’m sure of it.”
“Or his father,” Doreen agreed. She smiled, “There’s nothing we can do about it, but your sister is as full of surprises as you are. Perhaps Darzin may learn a lesson.”
Adam scowled blackly at his twin’s opponent. “I’ll teach him a lesson,” he murmured under his breath.
The Courtier held up a lace handkerchief. “The Lady Charity, by decree of chivalry will be the first to shoot.” He bowed as he backed out of the line of fire, “The Lady Charity.”
Adam chuckled, “Lady.”
Doreen tapped his shoulder. “Hush.”
Charity set her arrow and drew it back until her string hand was at her ear. She aimed high because of the extra distance and released. The arrow seemed to take forever in its flight to the target. When it sank into the lower left-hand portion of the yellow, Adam could see his twin had been holding her breath.
The crowd erupted into applause, silencing only after the Courtier raised his hands and called for quiet. He extended his arm and announced, “Master Darzin.”
Darzin scowled at Charity and then, after setting his arrow, began his elaborate warm up, rotating his head, flexing his fingers, pulling the bowstring and then relaxing it, exaggerating each movement absurdly. After about a minute of this, he bent the bow, aimed and released the arrow. It flew down the range and dropped into the yellow, just a bit closer to center than Charity’s had.
Again, applause erupted from the crowd. This was going to be a close contest and the crowd loved it.
Charity ignored Darzin’s smirk and pulled her next arrow from quiver. Because of the possibility of a tiebreaker that could extend for several rounds during the final, each contestant received a full dozen rather than the typical three. She set the arrow and drew back to her anchor point. After a slight adjustment based on the last shot, she released. The arrow slammed into the target dead center.
The crowd went wild. Shouts and hoots filled the range. Uncle Bal’s bellow rose over the crowd’s cheers, bringing a flush to Charity’s cheeks. She turned slightly and gave a small curtsey. Seeing Darzin’s expression, she added a dimpled smile for his benefit.
It took two attempts for the Courtier to quiet the crowd. Once the noise died down, he bowed toward Darzin. “Master Darzin,” he proclaimed, waving a languid hand.
Darzin’s shot hit the yellow, but just barely.
As the crowd noise began to die down, Adam looked up at his Aunt and Uncle, “His arm’s getting tired. I could see it shake.”
Bal nodded, “I know, Adam, so could I.”
Doreen murmured proudly, “Mayor Colvin is going to be in a very bad mood.”
Bal looked at his wife, “Doreen!” He said, in a shocked tone.
Adam noticed a smile play across his Uncle’s face as he turned back to watch the match.
“Mistress Charity, her final arrow.” The Courtier called out, sweeping his arm into a bow that grazed the sward.
Adam watched as Charity drew in a deep breath as she tested her bowstring. Having shot with his sister many times in practice, he knew she could almost feel the target now. The sound of the murmuring crowd behind would have faded into the distant shadow of a whisper, and the bow would feel as light as an apple blossom. As he held his own breath, she drew the string back, the tip of the arrow as steady as a stone.
The scream startled Charity nearly causing her to release the arrow in a startled jerk. Spinning around she shouted, “Who did that?”
“It was them, Guss and the others,” Adam said, pointing at Darzin’s friends. “They ought to be whipped, Darzin too for putting ‘em up to it.”
Darzin scrambled forward, outraged. “I did not!”
The Lord Mayor came to his son’s defense, blustering, “How dare you accuse my son of such duplicity. I’ll have you know…”
“Silence!” The Courtier’s yell, though high-pitched, stilled the tumult. He strode forward onto the range and swept the crowd with a scowl. “There will be no more of this or I will close this faire now and fine the village for the cost of holding it.”
The Mayor’s face blanched.
The Courtier continued, “The act of interrupting a sanctioned contest for the purpose of swaying the outcome is punishable by whipping,” he glanced Adam’s way, “and I doubt a child this age would survive the customary ten lashes.” He pointed to where Guss and his friends cowered in terror.
The parents of the boys cried out in dismay.
“However,” he went on, “such a punishment would in itself violate the spirit of this faire therefore I will absolve them of further complicity in this affair…if,” he interrupted the sighs of relief with a shout, “they promise to keep their little mouths shut!”
Many in the crowd took an involuntary half step back.
The Courtier put both hands on his hips and snorted, “Hmph. Very well, we shall proceed. Mistress Charity?” He offered a bow and left the line of fire.
Scowling blackly at Darzin, Charity reset her arrow and turned to face the target. Blast that Darzin and his friends. She breathed deeply, as Uncle Bal had taught her, twice to settle her nerves. Drawing the arrow back to the anchor point, Charity had that sense of “feeling the target” come over her again. She released the bowstring almost languidly and turned to face the crowd, smiling. The shout that rose in the air told her all she needed to know.
Adam leaned over the barrier, his face almost split with its grin. “You did it, Charity, two of ‘em, smack into the center of the yellow!”
The Courtier stepped back into the line of fire and signaled for silence, which he immediately got. He nodded and held out a hand, “Master Darzin shall loose his final arrow.”
Darzin was in a heated discussion with his father and mother. The word “cheat” came to the listeners, said mostly by Darzin.
“Master Darzin,” The Courtier’s voice could have frozen the shoreline, “Am I to assume that you have decided to default this match?”
The Lord Mayor shooed his son back onto the proper side of the barrier. “My son shall complete the match, my Lord. He merely had something to ask me. It is of no matter.”
“I see,” the Courtier’s voice gave the impression he knew exactly what had been going on. “Master Darzin,” he nodded and stepped back out of the line of fire.
Darzin repeated his warm up routine and drew back. The tip of the arrow danced slightly as he held the string to his ear. Sweat dripped down his forehead and into his eye. He released the arrow.
Adam kept his eyes on the arrow as it flew down the field and sank into the lower left-hand side of the red. The crowd cheered and surged through the rope barrier to gather around Charity. Uncle Bal grabbed her and lifted her into the air. He held Charity out at arms length before placing her on his shoulders. Looking up at her with a broad smile, he said, “Well done, Charity, well done indeed. You have a right to be proud this day.”
♦ ♦ ♦
After congratulating his sister, Adam worked his way through the crowd to look at some of the crafters booths lined along the western road leading out of town. The fencing matches would not begin for another hour and the two coppers Uncle Ball had given him were itching to be spent on a sweet pastry.
Turning off the sward onto the road, he saw Darzin and Guss standing next to the ironmonger’s booth. The clang of a hammer onto an anvil rang out every few seconds. He did not feel like fighting, not just now, so he moved over to the far side of the road, hoping the ebb and flow of folks along the road would shield him.
Luck was not with him. Darzin and Guss stepped into his path between the spinners and woodcarvers booths.
“Going somewhere, ragpicker?”
“Get out of my way Darzin.”
Darzin glanced at Guss and then walked toward Adam. “Your sister cheated. I should have won that match.”
Guss echoed, “Yeah, cheated.”
“She wasn’t the one who almost got whipped,” Adam retorted.
Guss winced and looked to Darzin for support.
Darzin’s voice faltered for a second, “No…she, uh, she had to cheat. It’s the only way she could’ve won. Maybe she’s a witch,” he added triumphantly.
“Yeah, witch,” Guss echoed again.
Adam saw red wash before his eyes. “What did you say?” He balled his fists and lowered his head.
Darzin took a step back; he only had one helper with him. “You heard me. I’ll get you in the fencing match. You cheat there you get thrown out, ragpicker. C’mon Guss.”
“Bravely done youngster.”
The voice behind him startled Adam and he spun around. “Who?”
The man was old and leaned on a walking staff with what looked like a wolf’s head carved into its top. His wore a short white beard and his long hair tied back into a ponytail by a leather thong. His long faded brown coat fell to below his knees over a thick woolen tunic and his pants, brown like the coat tucked into high dark brown boots that showed miles of wear. He smiled down at Adam and said, “My name is Nought. I am the storyteller, and I say again, bravely done. Not too many would stand up to bullies that outsize, and outnumber them.”
“I can handle Darzin and his friends,” Adam replied. “Did you say…storyteller?”
“That I did, young master. Will you be listening to my tales?”
“I sure will!”
Nought nodded, “Good, good. Then I will look for you in the audience. Till then,” he said, bowing while leaning on the staff.
♦ ♦ ♦
Nought watched Adam as the boy moved on down the line of booths. The old man chuckled, shook his head and then turned, walking toward the town square.
♦ ♦ ♦
Adam met up with Charity just before he reached the baker’s booth. She threw herself at him hugging tightly. “I won, I won!”
“You sure did.” Adam hugged her back. “You should have seen Darzin’s face when your last arrow hit. I thought he was going to sick up and empty his stomach right then and there.”
“The Baron’s man says I’ll get my prize when they hand the others out this afternoon. A whole silver mark! Can you believe it?” Charity squealed with glee.
Adam laughed, “We’ll have two silver marks after I get done thrashing Darzin in the fencing match.”
Charity sobered. “Be careful, Adam. I heard some of the girls talking. Darzin’s been practicing all winter with Dayne’s father, and he’s an ex-guardsman.”
Adam puffed out his chest. “Darzin’s good,” he admitted, “but I’m better.”
“And humbler,” Charity jabbed him the belly with a forefinger.
Oopff! Adam’s breath rushed out of him as he bent double. When he could breathe again, he grunted, “I’m gonna get you for that just as soon as this faire’s over.”
“Only if you can catch me,” Charity laughed, “and the last time you couldn’t.”
“Ooo,” Adam rubbed his stomach. “That hurt,” he complained.
“That’s what you get for acting like Darzin,” Charity said. “That’s what Aunt Doreen would say.”
Adam winced and nodded. “You’re right, that’s exactly what she would say.”
They stopped at the baker’s booth and spent a copper on two fruit pastries. The early spring berries in the filling bubbled up when bitten into, and flakes of crust sprinkled down onto their chests.
“You’re making a mess,” Charity pointed out, tapping a stained fingertip on Adam’s chest.
“So’re you,” he said, mumbling around a mouthful of pastry.
They looked at each other and broke into giggles. Overall, in spite of Darzin and his friends, it was becoming a wonderful faire.
♦ ♦ ♦
The men and women’s archery contests concluded without incident, and after a brief break, all those interested gathered in the town square to watch the children’s’ fencing competition finals. Unlike the archery, there was no mixing of the sexes in the match ups. Chivalrous sensibilities would not allow a boy to face a girl in the lists. Age differences stayed restricted at a range of no more than one year for the younger children and two years for the older. Boys that had begun to sprout fuzz on their chins were adults, regardless of parental protests.
Dayne’s father, due to his military experience, oversaw the contests under the watchful eye of the Baron’s Courtier. The youngest participants competed first in the five upcoming finals.
The first pairing consisted of two tiny girls who held on to their padded wooden swords with both hands. Giggling all the while, they swung at each other with abandon. Neither of them connected once during the entire match.
After the little girls, two young boys a couple years younger than Adam and Charity walked onto the “field of honor”, a large circle of chalk dust emblazoned onto the grass section of the town square. A rope barrier circumscribed the area. Dayne’s father stood over them as they faced each other and after a brief instruction reminding them of the rules, he stepped back and dropped his right hand in a chopping motion, “Begin.”
One of boys, a youngster with a head full of thick black hair, dropped into a crouch and began circling to his left. His opponent, much slighter in build and blonde, stayed in place, turning to keep his face toward the other boy while the black haired one feinted and drew back a couple of times, all the while circling without engaging.
“C’mon, is this a dance or a duel?” Someone in the crowd called out.
“Stop!” The Courtier lifted the entry rope and stalked into the circle. Turning slowly around, he fixed the crowd with a glare capable of curdling milk. “First that business with the archery competition and now this,” he ground out. “The only reason I have not stopped the faire is because whoever committed this offense may not have heard my earlier warning. I will repeat it. If there is another violation of the rules of this contest, and that includes shouted comments toward the contestants…” he replaced his glare with a gimlet eye, leaving the balance of the threat unsaid.
No one in the crowd said a word.
The Courtier smiled and nodded to Dayne’s father. “We will proceed,” He murmured.
The ex-guardsman smiled back and repositioned the boys to their original positions. He stepped back and again said, “Begin,” making the same chopping motion.
This time no one called out as the boys moved back into their slow circular dance. After they had turned a couple of complete revolutions with only a single feint, even the Courtier began to fidget. Finally, the blacked-haired boy slapped the blonde’s padded sword and lunged, planting the tip of his sword into the boy’s middle.
“Hit!” Dayn’s father called out, moving to place himself between the fencers.
Adam and Charity watched from the sidelines. Bal and Doreen stood behind them.
“He should have seen that coming,” Adam remarked, pointing at the blonde. “If he doesn’t do more than just stand and turn like the post at the millrace, Gil’s gonna get skewered like that all morning.”
“He’s afraid of Rodal, I think,” Charity mused. “Rodal’s a lot faster and that makes a difference. He didn’t act like this during the other matches.”
Adam snorted, “Then he’s lost already, right Uncle Bal?”
Bal placed a hand on Adam’s shoulder and murmured, “If that’s the case, yes.”
Rodal tagged Gil twice more and the match was over.
“It’s your turn Adam,” Bal said, handing Adam his practice sword. Like those used in the earlier matches, its blade was padded from hilt to tip. “You remember what we practiced?” He asked.
“I remember,” Adam said, watching as Darzin swaggered into the circle. But I’m gonna thump Darzin anyway.
Doreen called out as Adam ducked under the rope and entered the circle, “Be careful, Adam.”
Dayne’s father gestured for each boy to approach him. “Ok, lads,” he said, “this is to be a friendly duel, not a war. Do you understand me?”
Neither Adam nor Darzin replied. The glares they traded promised mayhem.
“I said, do you understand me? I can refuse to let this contest go on if I have a reason, and right now you two are giving me a reason.” Dayne’s father kept his voice low, “It’s your choice. The people out there think I am just giving you the typical instructions. Now, I want an answer or this duel stops before it begins.”
Adam did not want that. “I understand,” he replied.
“Darzin,” the ex-guardsman said, “What about you? Darzin!”
“My father…” Darzin began.
“Your father’s not in charge of this match, I am. What is your answer?”
Darzin muttered something.
“I couldn’t hear you.”
“I said, ok.” Darzin’s face twisted into a sour grimace.
“Right,” Dayne’s father stepped back and slashed down with his hand, “begin.”
To Adam, the world seemed to slow down. He avoided Darzin’s sudden lunge almost as an afterthought, forcing the boy’s blade down and to the outside with his parry. His return stroke slapped Darzin in the side with the padded edge of his sword, hard.
“Aaah!” Darzin grabbed his side with his free hand and looked to his father for support.
The Lord Mayor’s mouth opened and he began to raise his hand. Then, with a slight shake of his head, he chopped down. The threat issued by the Baron’s Courtier was too dire. Darzin was on his own.
Dayne’s father checked Darzin quickly and then stepped back. “Begin.”
Again, Darzin was the first to attack and again Adam’s parry opened Darzin’s ribs for a solid thwack.
“Unggh!” Darzin dropped his sword and grabbed his side with both hands.
“Ok, that’s it; I’m calling this match done.” Dayne’s father bent to pick up Darzin’s sword.
“No!” Darzin gasped out. “I’m not losing to a ragpicker. I won’t quit.”
“Watch your mouth, lad,” the ex-guardsman cautioned. You sure you want to go on?”
“I’m not losing to…him,” Darzin snarled.
“All right, it’s your decision. Take your positions…begin.”
Rather than trying to surprise Adam with yet another lunge, Darzin dropped into a crouch, turned slightly to the side to protect his bruised ribs. Adam, in accordance to Uncle Bal’s instruction, kept his eyes on the tip of Darzin’s sword and the set of the boy’s sword arm and shoulder.
Darzin danced a bit to the left and then circled back to the right. Adam saw his opponent’s shoulder dip slightly and the sword tip pull back a bit. When the slash came, Adam was not there, having darted to the side and counter-stroked.
The miss caused Darzin to over balance and fall forward, putting his nose right in the path of Adam’s blade as it returned.
“Aiiee!” Blood spurted out of Darzin’s nose and he fell to the ground, rolling over and cupping his face in his hands. Red rivulets dribbled from between his fingers.
“I don’t care if you are sorry. That hooligan nephew of yours broke my boy’s nose!” The Lord Mayor’s normally florid face was beet red as he shouted at Bal, “He could have killed him! That boy should be locked away like the wild animal he is. He has been nothing but trouble since the day he could walk. Darzin’s nose has swollen to the point that he can only breathe through his mouth. My wife is beside herself with worry.”
“And the fact that this was a sanctioned match bears no weight at all?” Bal tried to keep his voice level in spite of the Mayors rage. “Darzin did attack first. It was his slip that caused his injury.”
“You leave my boy out of this! He is the victim here. If your little witch of a niece hadn’t won the archery contest…”
Bal’s voice grew deceptively quiet, “What did you just call Charity?”
The Mayor backpedaled rapidly, “N…now Bal. You know my temper sometimes gets the best of me. I d…did not mean to be insulting. You may be poor, but I know you’re a man of letters and far too intelligent to resort to violence where reason can prevail.”
“Then you had better start reasoning with me soon, Lord Mayor. I feel my letters slipping a bit.” Bal’s fists began to clench.
“I…see,” The Mayor swallowed and looked at Bal once more. “Uh…well…boys will be boys I suppose. Just the results of high jinks getting a little out of hand, shall we say? I mean, no one was really permanently injured, were they?” He made his laugh a plea.
“Not as far as I can tell,” Bal concurred, inwardly breathing a sigh of relief. Maybe the faire would end on a high note after all. “Why don’t we just leave it at that?”
“Yes, yes, for the best, really, for the best. Well, I must be moving on to other matters.” The mayor checked his vest watch, “The village won’t wait on my inattention long you know, the faire is still going on, and a Mayor’s work is never done.” The Lord Mayor’s tone became more jovial as he felt himself edging back from the precipice.
Bal smiled dryly, “I’m sure. Good day to you Mayor.”
“Good day. Good day.”
♦ ♦ ♦
The drubbing Adam gave to Darzin elevated his position within the town’s children to heights never before realized. He reveled in his newfound celebrity. Even the fuss the Lord Mayor made at the end of his match with Darzin, including all the shouting and finger pointing could not spoil the day. He held court beneath the large oak in theTown Square. The tree sat in the middle of a roundabout at the far eastern end of the square. Sometime in the past, the townspeople put up a bench encircling the tree, making it a favorite place to sit and talk.
“I’ll never forget the sight of all of that blood pouring down Darzin’s face,” Latie, a plump little girl with long auburn ringlets framing a round face, gushed at Adam.
“Yeah,” agreed Nanel, a shortish brunette who looked at him with open admiration.
“When you gonna get your silver mark Adam?” asked Arvad, a boy with a slight build and a long nose. He had been on the receiving end of some of Darzin’s bullying and had found a new hero in Adam.
Adam watched as a deep gray pillbug crawled up onto his finger and then used it as a bridge to the trunk of the tree. “Sometime this afternoon before the storytelling starts.”
At the mention of the storytelling the conversation and questions shifted to which story was each child’s favorite and whether or not it would be included this year. This went on at a good pace until the call came for the medals ceremony.
As with each of the faire’s contests, the agenda for the ceremony placed the awards for the children’s’ contests first; Charity and Darzin were called to the podium by name. Only Charity responded. The Baron’s Courtier was about to send someone to fetch the boy when a clerk from the Mayor’s office stepped up and whispered into his ear.
The Courtier reared back and exclaimed, “What, from a simple whack on the nose?”
The clerk shook his head and whispered again.
“I see, I see,” The Courtier said, nodding his head. “Very well, let us proceed.”
He turned to Charity and bowed, clicking his heels, “An excellent exhibition of archery, Mistress Charity, reminiscent of Lady Chanelle.”
“A woman of the east,” The Courtier replied. “It was said she could place an arrow wherever she wished, whether the target could be seen or not. I am proud to present you with this silver mark from the Baron’s treasury.”
Adam was the third child called up for the fencing awards. He, like Charity stood on the podium alone.
The Courtier saluted Adam, slapping his right fist against his chest. He winked and said, “Bravely fought, Master Adam. Perhaps the Baron will have a Captaincy for you when you come into you maturity. I am proud to present you with this silver mark from the Baron’s own treasury.”
The awards ceremonies continued for a good while. The Courtier had a word for each of the champions and their runners up, and with the last mark and copper presented, the faire was nearly over except for the storytelling.
Adam and Charity showed each other their awards. The silver marks glistened with the sheen of newly minted coins; clear of any scratch or wear. Roughly, an inch and a half across, on each was a likeness of Labad, the ancient Emperor who once bound the entire continent together under his rule. On the coin’s reverse side was the likeness of an oak tree, said to be a representation of the tree beneath which Labad signed the parchment establishing his throne.
The children gathered around Adam and Charity, oooing and ahing as the coins passed around. Even Guss got a chance to see, though neither Adam nor Charity would allow him to touch.
When the call came for the storytelling, they all ran off en masse, laughing with excitement.
♦ ♦ ♦