Shadows of the Keepers: Chapter 8

Passage of Arms

  Selva pulled her horse to a stop, Eric did likewise atop his replacement steed.  
“Who are you?” Rachel asked. “The toll collector?”
 
I, my lady,” he made a theatrical bow, “am Sir Wotoc of the Green Hills, known to friend and foe alike as ‘the Humongous’. You, I presume, are starmen?”
 
“And what do you know of starmen?” Selva asked. Wotoc’s grin faded briefly when she spoke.
 
“Who has not heard the stories, of how they landed their fire-breathing sky-ship not far from Great Arztilla itself? Still others tell of their vessels dropping food from the sky to nourish the needy.” His two companions approached, one just a kid with a dirty round face.
 
“What city is this?” Temerin asked.
 
“Highwater Mountain, throne-seat to the Lords of the North.”
 
“Thank you.” He urged his horse forward.
 
Sir Wotoc did not move. “I’m afraid your entry will come at a price. You see, I have set up a challenge here: all men-of-honor who wish to pass this spot must fight, or suffer the humiliation of a forfeit.” He stepped aside to let a farmer pass with a grain cart. Already, a small crowd was beginning to gather.
 
“And we count as men-of-honor, to you?” Temerin asked.
 
“Who are your lords?”
 
“Say again?”
 
Wotoc stepped forward. “Every man in the Freeholds must name his lord when duly asked. Who are yours?”
 
Selva, Eric, Cobb, Professor Temerin, and Rachel answered in order:
 
“That’s classified.”
 
“President Barclay.”
 
“Governor McAnderson.”
 
“The Risen Christ Jesus.”
 
“Doctor Wendy Liu, my thesis advisor.”
 
“I know not these names,” Wotoc replied. “But they sound important enough. You have a lady among you—”
 
Two ladies,” Selva growled.
 
“—so will you men of the stars fight, or surrender your riding-boots to me in your cowardice?”
 
Eric fumed in Americ, “We don’t have time for this.”
 
“No, let’s play along,” Temerin dismounted.
 
“Agreed,” Selva dropped down from her steed.
 
Sir Wotoc the Humongous smiled as Eric, Rachel, and Cobb dismounted likewise. The crowd grew in numbers, farmers and city-folk forming up to enjoy the budding spectacle. “Now, before we begin, have you any boasts? Any great deeds done to prove your names?”
 
“We saved a town from a Tyrannosaurus rex,” Cobb said.
 
“Pardon?” Wotoc seemed confused.
 
The literal translation of the dinosaur’s name was ‘Tyrant Lizard King,’ the Latin being close enough to the local language Wotoc may have picked up bits of its meaning.
 
“A big dinosaur,” Cobb elaborated. “Lizard-beast with a big head and little arms.”
 
“The one called ‘Death’ and ‘Jaw’ put together?”
 
“Deathjaw?” Rachel said.
 
Murmurs went through the crowd; for a brief moment Wotoc appeared frightened and scanned off into the distance. “Do not say that name! You may summon it here!”
 
Eric pondered the source of the superstition. Perhaps Meridian’s Tyrannosaurus was a pursuer, and a person who escaped and went to warn others would soon find the beast arriving hot on his heels.
 
Wotoc continued, "So you have bested the monster with jaws of death. As have I, when I found myself stumbling upon a nest. Anything else?"
 
“We were hunted by swiftclaws and gryphon-riders, and escaped both,” Selva said.
 
“I too have been hunted by man and beast.” This seemed to be a battle of words, presaging the clash of arms sure to follow. “None have struck me down.”
 
Selva followed up with: “And before all of that, we leapt from our ship flying above the sky, and descended shrouded in armor to land without injury.”
 
“You have me beat there,” Wotoc admitted. “And you have the bearing of a fighter. Are many women of your race warriors?”
 
“Yes. The strength disparity between lupen males and females is not nearly as great as in humans.” It had been engineered that way by the Ancient Americans, Eric knew.
 
“Still, it would be uncouth of me to fight a lady.” Wotoc said. Eric couldn’t tell if Selva was offended or amused. “And your elder is too old. No, I will fight the two of you, in the joust and the Three Blows.”
 
He pointed to Eric and Cobb. In short order, the latter was taken aside by Sir Wotoc’s two squires for fitting into a suit of iron-plate armor while Eric got a few pointers on swordfighting from Temerin and Selva, which amounted to “lose with style”.
 
The three of them helped Cobb atop his horse and handed him a lance, long and painted in barbershop stripes.
 
“Here,” Temerin passed up a pair of goggles, small enough to fit under his helmet. “To protect your eyes from splinters. Aim right for his chest; the lance won’t kill him.”
 
Sir Wotoc the Humongous trotted down the bridge on his steed and made an about-face, then called out: “On your ready, good sir!”
 
Cobb raised the lance, closed his helmet, and with a kick to his horse’s sides, charged. Wotoc did likewise, thundering forward like a locomotive. Cobb’s lance reached out, ahead and to the side; Wotoc’s reached further.
 
They hit, amid a crash and shower of splinters that shattered both lances and sent Cobb somersaulting backwards off his horse.
 
“Did you see that?” Selva exclaimed as they ran to his aid. “He turned into it, Wotoc wanted to get hit!”
 
“That’ll hurt in the morning,” Cobb grunted, sitting up.
 
“Having fallen from your horse,” Wotoc dismounted. “You forfeit it to me, as tradition states.”
 
“Not like I was planning on going anywhere.” He shrugged and stood.
 
Eric was next. He took the same set of armor, now with a fresh dent in the chest, and got strapped in. It felt like a low-tech spacesuit, with a black-dome helmet sporting neck guards. Meanwhile, Wotoc’s younger squire had been drawing a line in the dirt behind him with a stick, counting out paces to form a square.
 
“Know the rules for the Three Blows?” Wotoc asked. Eric shook his head. “It is simple: remaining within the boundary, the first man to take three strong blows from the other wins.”
 
Eric took the corner across from Wotoc and raised his sword, a curved katana-like blade which he held in both hands. The older squire shouted and snapped a flag down. Eric charged forward, Wotoc became a blur and caught him with a sharp blow to his left side. He hit the ground, grass poking in through his visor’s slits.
 
“You call that a fight, lad?” Wotoc said. “I refuse to let that one count! On your feet! Remdel, tie my left hand behind my back!” The older squire obliged. This time, Eric managed to hit Wotoc’s sword with a metallic clang. He parried it aside and struck him on the shoulder. They repeated a third time, Eric with a slice that left him wide open for another blow to the side. The fourth and final exchange went just as bad. Still, Wotoc seemed amused. “Do all starmen fight as bad?”
 
“About as bad as you’d fight with our weapons,” Selva retorted.
 
Wotoc pondered this for a moment, then continued, “Still, a valiant effort nonetheless. What is your business, here in Highwater Mountain?”
 
“We want to speak with whoever’s in charge here, the local ruler,” replied Temerin.
 
“That would be Lord Leon. And Lord Granat as well, but Leon has the pledges of far more landsmen. I can take you to him, seeing as you’ve indulged me in my challenge.”
 
“We’d much appreciate it, yes.”
 
Inside, the streets and buildings called to mind a hypothesized ancient Roman or Greek city, stone-brick buildings with peaked roofs and cobbled streets embedded along the sides of which Eric saw pipes. The only waste Eric saw was animal, apparently these people hadn’t forgotten germ theory. Wotoc led them up a series of inclines and through the citadel’s walls, in the courtyard of which was the pillared portico of a palace.
 
Several men stood outside a pair of open double-doors plated in copper, one of them looked to Wotoc and called out:
 
“Wotoc the Wanderer! Get tired of waiting around for a challenge?”
 
“Sir Gerend!” Wotoc replied. “I just fought one, in fact! These good people wish an audience with Lord Leon, can you fetch him for me?”
 
The other man-of-honor looked over the expedition and, evidently drawing the same conclusion Wotoc did, hurried off inside.
 
They waited on the steps, admiring a series of mosaics laid into the walls beside the doors. The artwork was primitive enough, but what it depicted... Eric saw one scene of mountains on fire and a craft falling from the sky, an airship with sail-like protrusions from its sides.
 
Temerin noticed it too, and asked Wotoc, “What do you know about the Founders?”
 
“Eh?”
 
“The first people who settled this world; how your ancestors came to live here.”
 
“Not as much as perhaps I should. I found the old tales rather boring, when my father told them. But we were ruled by the Keepers then, in the times before the first Freehold settlers reached Far Shore.”
 
“You call the Founders the ‘Keepers’?” Selva asked. “Why is that?”
 
“Because they kept their arts from us.”
 
A man in fancy robes stepped from the doorway. “His Lordship will see you now!”
 
Inside was Lord Leon’s great hall, with a long table placed transverse to the entryway and people sitting along the far side. In the center was the lord himself, a pudgy man with long black hair and a beard full of crumbs.
 
He set down a half-eaten roll. “I hear you are starmen. Certainly, you look the part.” His eyes fell on Selva. “What are you, some kind of wolf-person?”
 
“A lupen, created from humans long ago.”
 
“Other starmen also speak of talking animals, men with wings, and men with hands for feet.”
 
“That is true, yes. How many starmen have you met?”
 
“You are the first. What little I know are whispers, brought in from travelers and those who have seen your workings directly. But since you are here now, what brings you into my court?”
 
Selva paused a moment, then said:
 
“We seek to defeat Dulaine the Conqueror.”
 

Cover image: by Vertixico

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