Written by Matthew Lenger
The old, blind man sat on a simple stool at the long officers’ table, surrounded by the sounds of a busy, tense mercenary camp. Despite the camp being only a stone’s throw from their current enemy, the sounds comforted him. The Broken Swords were well-trained and disciplined; there was urgency in the sounds- and even a little fear- but no panic. Long, long years among the Swords taught the old man what to listen for, and what he heard pleased him.
Satisfied, he turned his attention to his more immediate surroundings. The command tent was large, but empty, except for the table, which was more than twenty feet long and dominated one side of tent. The old man ran his hands along the rough wood while absently sorting the pile of maps, papers, and letters that lay on it; it occurred to him that he had more memories with this table than any of the men or women currently in the company. The table was made to look solid, sturdy; if you were invited to stand before it, it was supposed to give the impression that no matter what inhospitable, inaccessible shithole you were in, the Broken Swords had somehow managed to lug a twenty-foot table with them just so their commander could sneer at you across it. It was a subtle display of power, but an illusion. In reality, the entire table could be broken down into a box no more than four foot on a side. The old man knew that all too well- he remembered vividly the dozens of times he’d been in charge of making sure the damn thing made it to the next campsite. Now, in his dotage, it made him smile.
To his left was the large, comfortable Captain’s chair. The old man hated it. He much preferred the common foldable camp stool he was on. No other chairs circled the table; this was an audience with a representative of the enemy, not a strategy meeting or formal dinner for the ranking officers. Not that they had many of the latter. Ten feet in front of the table, across from the Captain’s chair, was a square of dirt that had been cleared and topped with a reasonably clean rug. The rug, too, was older than most of the people in the company, and had traveled across three oceans and countless roads to get here. It was just threadbare enough to be noticeable- another subtle slight to those astute enough to notice it. The old man doubted the Nosck waiting outside was that smart, but you could never be sure.
A rustle in the tent canvas signaled the entrance of the Nosck, flanked by two battered and battle-worn members of the Swords. The Nosck’s boots stamped the dirt, striding impatiently at being kept waiting. The old man mused. He could tell from the stride that the Nosck was young, which meant that the enemy’s leader was smart enough not come himself. He had instead sent a representative; a member of his family to be sure. Honor would demand that. But not a son or daughter- too much risk. So, mostly likely an up and coming nephew. Fair enough. The old man adjusted his plan accordingly. Peg and Willow, the two Swords, herded the young Nosck onto the carpet in front of the table, nodded at the old man, and left.
The ensuing silence was deafening, but it didn’t last long. Not surprisingly, after only a few moments, the Nosck exploded, “This is an insult! I am a representative of the leader of The Red Fangs, the dreaded Morak’dum! I should not have been kept waiting in the rain and I should not be kept waiting now! Where is your Captain?”
The old man involuntarily glanced at the large, heavy chair next to him. He hadn’t always been blind, and while he had long ago gotten used to it, his head still betrayed him and he frequently turned to look at things he could not actually see. Ruefully, he faced the Nosck’s voice and replied quietly, “I can help you.”
The Nosck sneered and took a step forward. His foot hit the dirt between the rug and the table, but he stopped short of advancing on the old man. Nothing happened, but he had heard stories of the Broken Swords. The corners of the large tent lay in shadows and he knew the Swords counted expert Samada archers and assassins among their numbers. Sensing that he would fail some kind of test if he just throttled the old man, the young Nosck pulled his foot back onto the rug and continued in a slightly more controlled tone, “I expected to speak to the Captain of your company, not…” He let that sentence trail off, but continued, “My uncle will be displeased with this insult to his honor, both by making me wait, and by not treating his representative with the respect he deserves.”
The old man considered. This young warrior showed potential, which is probably why Morak’dum sent him. He had more control of his emotions than expected, but like most young Nosck, the fire was still raging just below the surface. Well, the old man was never one to shy away from poking a fire. He shrugged casually and replied, “Well, your dreaded leader, Morak’dum, did not choose to come himself. I’m sure if he had, he would have been accorded the respect he’s earned by his many glorious campaigns. I’m sure you agree that respect and honor is earned by one’s deeds, yes?”
The old man swore he could feel the Nosck vibrate with rage. Through gritted teeth, he growled, “I will ask this one more time. Where is your Captain?”
“Look,” the old man replied calmly, “we haven’t been properly introduced. I’m…”
“I don’t care who you are, you blind, stupid fool!” the Nosck screamed. “You’re an insult,” he continued, “a waste of food and clothing. If you had any honor at all, you would have thrown yourself from a cliff long ago. I will not stand here any longer.”
The Nosck turned on his heel, only to be interrupted by the old man’s deathly chill voice, “If you move, you die.”
The Nosck froze. Despite his youth and his seething anger, he was an accomplished hunter and his instincts were excellent. And his instincts were telling him that the old man was not making an idle threat. Of course, the old man himself was harmless, but still… Glancing at the shadows around the edges of the tent, the Nosck slowly turned back to the table, careful to keep both feet on the rug.
The old man’s voice returned to normal, but retained a hint of steel, “Let’s start again. I’m negotiating for the Broken Swords. If you don’t like it, I don’t care, but you will hear what I have to say and then you will be released unharmed. Understood?”
The Nosck nodded curtly, obviously not liking this sudden turn.
“Good,” the old man replied. “Now,” he continued, “the Red Fangs Mercenary Company has been hired to guard Razorback Pass. The Broken Swords have been hired to clear Razorback Pass. That puts us at odds. We are on a bit of a schedule and killing you would take too much time, so…”
The Nosck interrupted with a snort, “We have the high ground and we outnumber you, old man! You have no leverage, so don’t make threats.”
The old man paused for a moment, then simply said, “Forty percent.”
The Nosck waited, but when the old man just sat there, he finally blurted, “What is that? Your offer? You can’t bribe The Red Fangs!”
“No,” the old man replied, “I’m sorry. You misunderstand. Forty percent is the number of you we have to kill. You are a mercenary company; and frankly, your reputation is middling at best. The Red Fangs are all Nosck, so are formidable in that regard, but are made up of the clanless, nameless, and exiled. We estimate that after you’ve lost two hundred, give or take, especially when our casualties are a third of that, your flanks will break. Once that happens, its all downhill from there.” The old man reached out and picked up a piece of paper, obviously a map of the mountain pass and the surrounding hills. He shook the map at the young Nosck and said, “Literally downhill, and your dreaded leader will die screaming at his own troops as they flee.”
The Nosck was obviously uncomfortable with the stark assessment, but countered gamely, “We are Nosck. Honor is life. We would never flee a battle.”
The old man carefully hid his smile as he deftly switched from leather to lace, “Well, you certainly wouldn’t. I believe that. Your uncle’s reputation is solid, and I can tell that his trust in you is well-founded. But, be honest with yourself. Can you say the same about all your men?”
The Nosck said nothing, so the old man pressed on, “Never mind. Doesn’t matter. As I said, we don’t have time to kill you all and we’d rather not get into a battle at all if there is an alternative.”
The Nosck looked thoughtful. He knew that he had underestimated this old, blind man. Perhaps that was why the Captain had not shown himself. The old man wore a torque, the symbol of the Broken Swords, so he must have been a warrior at one time. Perhaps when he went blind, instead of killing himself as he should have, he wormed his way into a place beside their Captain because of his pretty words. Nonetheless, he knew he should find out what the Swords were offering; his uncle would expect that much. Finally, he replied carefully, “What do you suggest?”
The old man made of show of sifting through the papers in front of him until his fingers finally settled on a thick vellum envelope with a large and important looking wax seal. Holding it up, the old man replied, “Our employers have asked us to make The Red Fangs this generous offer to switch sides. The details are in this letter, but I understand the payment is substantially more than your current employer is offering. If you accept, you give over Razorback Pass to the Broken Swords and march to the staging ground at Wolfrun Fen for payment and further orders.”
The Nosck shook his head sadly when the old man was finished and replied disgustedly, “Money. For a minute, I thought you were smart, old man. If you believe that I would accept my death on the battlefield rather than run, and my uncle, the dreaded Morak’dum’s reputation is true, what makes you think we would throw our honor away over money? I had heard the Broken Swords did not break a pledge once it was signed, but you expect us to? Maybe you’re the one who’s reputation is not what it seems. Would the Swords accept this offer?”
“Of course we wouldn’t,” the old man said, nodding respectfully, “and I knew you wouldn’t either. But it had to be made. The nobles who make such offers don’t understand the ways of fighting men and women. Our apologies.”
The old man put down the envelope and rested his hands on the table, apparently out of offers. The Nosck stood silently for a moment and then commented, “So, its battle, then.”
“I guess so,” the old man nodded.
The Nosck stared at the old, blind man, then glanced around the tent, waiting. Was that it? Was he supposed to leave now? Just as he shifted his weight to head toward the exit, the old man spoke, “Unless….”
The Nosck paused, wary of some subterfuge from this wily, old man. “Unless what?” he asked.
“Well,” the old man went on thoughtfully, “we have heard that the Nosck mercenary units have a way around these kinds of situations. You know, when they are hired to fight each other by petty human nobles when they’d really rather stomp the nobles to death and rampage through their lands.”
Now it was the Nosck’s turn to be cagey. Of course, he knew exactly what the old man was talking about, but it was not common knowledge outside of a few dozen Nosck mercenary commanders. Through narrowed eyes, he replied, “Perhaps. What have you heard, old man?”
“Just that when this sort of thing happens,” the old man said, “its possible to settle things through an honorable duel. The way I heard it, the party that offers duel has to put up their commanding officer…”
“But the other side can use a champion,” the Nosck interrupted. Grudgingly, he added, “You are well informed.”
The old man shrugged. “Still, though, it doesn’t seem very fair,” he commented.
The Nosck mimicked the old man’s shrug, replying, “That’s why it isn’t used very often. Usually, the commander of the weaker force offers the duel knowing he will not survive, but will die honorably while saving his troops.”
“But still,” the old man offered…
“No. Stop,” the Nosck ordered, holding up his hand. “You are not Nosck. The Broken Swords have no right to offer the Commanders’ Duel and we are not honor bound to accept. What’s in it for us?”
“What isn’t in it for you?” the old man countered. “The arrangement is simple. If your champion wins the duel, you can claim to have killed a Captain of the Broken Swords and forced them to retreat. I’m not honestly sure I can think of anyone else who can say that. If our Captain wins, your uncle, Morak’dum, has an honorable way to switch sides and make a lot more money with less risk.”
The old man trailed off, leaving the offer hanging between them, but the Nosck didn’t say anything. He scowled for a full thirty seconds, obviously deep in thought. Suddenly, he burst into howling laughter, slapping his thigh and supporting himself on the central tent pole. The old man looked bemused, honestly surprised by the young Nosck’s reaction. Finally, as the Nosck’s belly laughter settled into fitful chuckles, the old man interjected, “So… do we have a deal?”
The Nosck completely ignored him. Looking to the shadowy corners of the tent and settling on the one behind and on the far side of the table, he raised his voice and called out, “Well played, Captain! I see now why you insult us with this miserable cur instead of presenting yourself. This was your plan all along; to offer the Commander’s Duel, but hide your stature and armament from us in hopes that it gains you some advantage against our champion. My uncle will be impressed by your knowledge of our people and your audacity, if not your cowardly deception and insults.”
The echoes of the Nosck’s too-loud speech hung in the damp air, but no response came from the shadowy corner he was addressing. After a moment, he glanced at the old, blind man, but he sat stoically, his hands folded in front of him, still resting on the heavy vellum envelope. Flustered, the Nosck left his carpet square and strode over to the table. He leaned across, towering over the old, blind man seated on his rickety camp stool and growled, “Listen, you old fool, the Nosck do not like to be toyed with. Tell your Captain that I will bring his message to my uncle, including the offer of the Commander’s Duel, but I will also tell him how I was treated at this meeting and how the Captain was too much of a coward to show himself. I expect his answer will be a volley of arrows and your swift and bloody deaths. And just to be clear, if I had my way, I would personally slow roast your miserable, fork-tongued carcass over a fire fueled by your own dead companions.”
The old man just smiled and held up the envelope. The Nosck snatched it out of his hand and strode toward the exit, only to be met by Peg and Willow. He didn’t notice, but the two Swords only made way when the old, blind man waved his hand dismissively.
As soon as the tent flap closed behind the angry Nosck, two figures melted out of the shadows, coming from separate corners of the spacious tent.
The first was a Samada woman dressed all in browns and greys. Twitch moved like mountain stream water; cold, smooth, and deceptively fast. She wore no armor and her tunic had an attached wrap that covered her face up to her flinty, grey eyes. In her left hand, she held a short laminate bow, made from hundreds of paper-thin layers of tusk from a northern ocean-dwelling creature the size of a small sailing ship. In her right were three barbed arrows; it was clear that had the Nosck emissary tried anything, he would have found all three arrows in his heart before he felt the first one land.
The second figure striding from the shadows was a towering Nosck, wearing armor made of small, overlapping plates of hardened leather and laden with a dozen or more blades of all shapes and sizes. Stump’s ability to stay hidden was perhaps more impressive because of his massive size, but he had a unique talent. Although he was not particularly known for his stealth, when Stump stood still, he simply didn’t trigger the proximity sense that lets people know when someone is standing close to them. He’d had it as long as he could remember and it had been useful many times growing up; listening to adults talk, spying on enemies, watching the young ladies of his clan bathe in the river. In the Swords, his superiors had settled on the name Stump because they couldn’t very well call him, “Holy fuck, how long have you been standing there!?!”
The old man motioned them over, then directed a sharp whistle to the tent entrance. Twitch and Stump moved toward the table, each collecting a chair along the way, while a young male camp follower hurried in with a tray of wine, bread and hard cheese. The old man thanked the servant, which drew an inquisitive look from Twitch, but she didn’t comment.
After everyone was settled with a goblet of wine in hand, the old man asked casually, “Well….?”
Twitch and Stump exchanged a glance, but didn’t immediately respond. The old man felt along the table until he found a wedge of cheese and took a bite, seemingly content to wait.
Finally, Stump spoke up, “I have questions… Captain.”
“Like why didn’t you let me kill him?” Twitch asked coldly, now that the silence had been breached.
The old man turned his head to Twitch and one corner of his mouth pulled down into a half-frown. “That question,” he replied, “doesn’t deserve an answer and you know it. The young warrior was arrogant, yes. And his preconceptions blinded him, yes. But, that was a test anyway- one I was hoping he would fail. However, he wasn’t wrong; they have numbers and position. And while they might break and run after heavy losses, we could easily lose half our troops, or more, in that kind of fight. I’m looking for a more creative alternative and killing that young buck wouldn’t have helped.”
Twitch nodded; realizing the Captain couldn’t see it, she added a grunt, but it was clear she wasn’t happy with the reprimand. There weren’t many among the Broken Swords who had the rank to question her, but this old, blind man was one of them, so she bit her tongue and waited.
Ignoring Twitch’s displeasure, the Captain turned to Stump and asked, “Question?”
“Yeah,” Stump said, collecting his thoughts. “Why didn’t you tell the sjaka that you were the Broken Sword’s Captain?”
“Well,” the old man replied, “that’s sort of the key to my plan, actually. But, let me ask you a question. If I had, do you think he would believe me?”
“No,” Twitch blurted emphatically, “you are old and blind.”
The Captain chuckled, “And I thought Nosck were blunt. Anyway, that’s the point. Even if I sat in the big chair, surrounded by warriors calling me ‘Captain’, he still would have gone back to his people with the story of how we were trying to deceive them. Correct?”“Yes,” Stump replied slowly. “I wish it were not so, but he was raised in a Nosck clan and probably doesn’t know much of the ways of the other races. He can’t fathom a leader who is not the biggest and the strongest.”
Twitch grunted at that, but didn’t say anything.
The old man cocked his head toward Twitch, but replied to Stump, “Well, it takes an open mind, I’ll give you that. So, any more questions?”
Stump looked at Twitch and their eyes met. As the Thegn of this yurl, the five hundred men and women surrounding them were his responsibility, including the commander of his scouts. If Twitch couldn’t keep her disrespect in check, he would have to do something about it. The Captain was known to have a sense of humor about his blindness and his position unless he felt his authority was seriously being questioned. At that point, the hammer would fall. And Stump would be sure to pass any fallout along to Twitch and her scouts. Stump didn’t need to say any of that, of course. His look was clear and although Twitch was pigheaded, she wasn’t stupid. She broke eye contact with a nod of acknowledgement. Stump mused that if only she could see in the Captain what he did. Maybe someday.
Turning back to the conversation, Stump asked, “Yes. I have another question. Who is going to play the Captain?”
The old man raised an eyebrow, “What do you mean?”
“Well,” Stump went on thoughtfully, “you have set up this Commander’s Challenge…”
“They won’t accept it,” Twitch interrupted, “the kid said so himself.”
“They will,” the old man replied. “Only the young and soon-to-be-dead are easily offended. Leaders don’t have the luxury. Morak’dum won’t give a fig how I treated his nephew and the bait is too good to pass up. Run off the Broken Swords or honorably (at least in his mind) make a lot more money for the cost of one overgrown warrior? He’ll accept.”
“Right,” said Stump, “so if they accept, they get to throw out some huge, axe-wielding bull Nosck and we are supposed to send out our Captain. They already think the Captain was hiding, so we can send out anyone. I could go. I am the Thegn of this yurl; it wouldn’t even be lying to say I am the commander of these troops.”
The old man sat silently for a moment, then replied quietly, “But you are not the Captain.”
It finally hit Stump what the old man was actually planning. Standing, he blurted, “Marko, you can’t!”
The old man smiled sadly, “I can.”
Both Twitch and Stump were silent, stunned by the implications. “Listen,” the Captain continued, “if you go out, it meets their expectations, right? That means we have a win/lose situation on our hands.”
Stump carefully sat back down, rearranging his thoughts as he went. He did not rise to Thegn simply because of his size. Not as intuitive as some, he did have a flexible mind that could adapt quickly. However, he was having trouble piecing this together and said so, “I don’t see it, Captain. Explain.”
The Captain steepled his fingers and leaned forward on the table. “Right,” he started, “ask yourself what happens. They are expecting some warrior in full armor, bulging muscles, flashing blades. You fit that note perfectly. So, if you win…”
“If?” Stump asked, smiling.
The Captain shook his head. Grimacing, he replied, “I appreciate your enthusiasm, but always plan for ‘If’.” Continuing, he said, “Soooo, if you win, all’s good. They will accept that their champion was defeated by a superior foe and convince themselves to accept the money and change sides.”
Twitch interjected, “And that would be good?”
Stump gave her a warning look and replied, “Yes. That would be the best outcome. Now’s not the time to be bloodthirsty. Even if we avoid this battle, there will be another hot on its heels.”
“Always is,” the Captain added. “But,” he continued, “that’s not the problem. What do you think happens if you lose?”
“Besides being dead?” Stump asked. “Well, I guess they would expect the Swords to…” he trailed off.
“What?” Twitch asked.
“To leave,” the Captain replied. “If Stump, or any other large, well-armored warrior goes out to fight, the Nosck will see it as an honorable duel and expect us to abide by the outcome.” He paused, letting his words sink in. He could tell that Stump was coming around to it, so he continued, “Which we can’t do, of course. We have signed a contract to clear Razorback Pass, and we are bound to it.” The Captain unconsciously touched the torque around his neck; the symbol of the Oath they had all taken. The gods took oaths seriously and the punishments in the afterlife for oath breakers were beyond any mere horrors glimpsed in life.
“Win/lose,” Twitch commented, remembering the Captain’s earlier words. She continued acidly, “It sounds to me like if we are already bound by one oath, maybe you shouldn’t be offering the Red Fangs another one.”
Stump shifted and opened his mouth, but the Captain held up his hand. Fully facing Twitch, he replied coldly, “That’s a good observation, Twitch. And if I were to make a decision that brings the wrath of the gods down on the Broken Swords, I would certainly not be worthy to be your leader. But let’s think about that for a moment. I’ve been with the Swords for more than thirty years and the six Thegns chose me as the Captain, what? Almost five years ago now? That included your former Thegn, Dugar. Did you trust Dugar, Twitch? Do you trust Stump?”
Twitch was deadly beyond the understanding of most men, as silent as an owl in flight, and unfazed by the pressure of battle, but the old man’s attention, and questions, made her uncomfortable. Shifting slightly away from his unseeing gaze, she replied, “Yes.”
“Yes, what?” the old man pressed.
“Yes, Captain,” Twitch said, “I trusted Dugar and I have complete faith my Thegn, Stump.”
The old man’s intensity didn’t waver, “And they trusted me, Twitch. What does that suggest?”
“That you have a plan,” Twitch replied, somewhat subdued.
The Captain held her gaze for a moment more, then smiled, breaking the tension, “I always have a plan.”
Stump marveled at how his old mentor, Marko, even without eyes, could wither someone under his stare. He had seen the old man pull off some shit over the years, and he constantly reminded himself not to see the man before him, but the sixty years of survival that got him here. Grateful that the Captain was taking Twitch’s impertinence as a teaching opportunity instead of insubordination, Stump huffed, “Yes, you always have a plan, old man. But this one’s going to get you killed. And, if I’m honest, I still don’t really understand your angle.”
The Captain held up a finger on one hand and made a grand, sweeping gesture with the other. In his best carnival hawker voice, he said, “Imagine if you will. An old, blind, crippled man walks out to face a nine-foot tall beast of a Nosck, with nothing more than a stick.”
Stump grunted, “Your stick has a razor-sharp blade made by the finest Jotinar smiths in Valaria.”
“Your ruining the story,” the Captain replied. He went on, “The old, blind, man is jeered by the Nosck mercenaries. The champion almost refuses to fight, but decides to crush the old man as a warm up. However, the old man defeats the Nosck champion and…what happens next?”
“Ha,” Twitch laughed mirthlessly, “if that happened, they’d be so stunned, they’d sign whatever you told them to and kiss our shiny asses as they marched by.” She paused and went on coldly, “But, it’s not going to happen. That Nosck is going to kill you.”
Taking no offense, the Captain replied quietly, “That works, too.”
There was silence for a moment. “Oh,” Stump said finally, “I get it. If the Nosck champion kills you, they will take it as an insult that we sent out a helpless, old, blind man to slaughter instead of our ‘hidden’ Captain.”
“And they will attack,” Twitch said.
The old man spread his hands, addressing Twitch, “And you will get the battle you were looking for, and probably lose half your number, but we will not have broken any oaths. They will.”
“And you’ll be dead,” Stump noted.
The old man shrugged, “Yep. And you’ll be in charge. And it’s gonna suck. For you. Not me. I’ll be in the Sword Halls, having the time of my…well, not life, obviously.”
The three Broken Swords sat in silence for a moment, privately going over the scenarios. Twitch was already setting up ambush points in her head, hoping the Captain’s ruse (and impending brutal death) would enrage the Nosck so much they would get careless and leave their cover. Stump was deciding exactly what to tell his commanders and how to take advantage of the confusion after the duel. The old man just sat stoically, sipping his wine.
Finally, Stump broke the silence, “All right, Captain, what do we do next?”
The old man smirked, “Well, first, we wait for word from the Red Fangs. In the mean time, you two continue what you’ve already been doing; planning for my horrible death and the coming battle.”
Stump opened his mouth to protest, but the Captain stopped him, “No. It’s fine. What did I say? Always plan for ‘If’. But, if you’re asking what I’m going to do? I’m going to drink my wine and figure out how to kill a four-hundred-stone Nosck.”
Word came late the next morning that the Red Fangs accepted the Commander’s Duel. As the challenged party, they would pick and prepare the location and time for battle. The time was that very day, an hour before sunset. As for the location, a flat spot a few hundred yards up the dirt track from the Broken Swords camp was soon swarming with Nosck warriors; some clearing, flattening and widening the field of battle, but most just staring menacingly down the slope at the Broken Swords camp.
For their part, the Broken Swords also leapt to action, although of a different sort. A contingent of Swords were rushed to the edge of camp to stare resolutely up at the Nosck warriors, of course. That was expected, but it also helped disguise the other preparations going on in the Sword’s camp. Quietly, and as subtly as possible, the Swords were preparing for a real battle- just in case. Of course, most of the Swords had no idea what was going on. They were just following orders; move the camp followers there, prepare extra bandages and poultices for the medical tents, have the battle mages begin their ritual cleansings, etc. Some noticed that the orders were shouted a little less stridently than normal, but they were well trained and did their jobs without question.
Marko sat in the command tent. He had succumbed to appearances and moved to the big, uncomfortable Captain’s chair to hear reports and issue a few rare corrections or orders of his own. The Broken Swords were unique in their structure; from the smallest team to the largest yurl, each leader was always preparing their replacement. In battle, this meant that if a leader fell, the rest of the unit could continue to function. In the day-to-day, it meant that most commanders could trust their subordinates to know their jobs and follow orders, so Marko was not overly burdened with work despite the rushed timeline. However, he was also never alone. A steady stream of people filtered through the command tent while an attendant readied the Captain’s wardrobe on a wicker and wire dummy nearby. The old man had learned long ago to replace his growing list of deficiencies with forethought and careful attention to detail, which included his choice of clothes. But his choice didn’t make his Thegn happy. “You’re wearing that?” Stump asked on one of his many loops through the command tent.
The old man chuckled. “What’s wrong with it?” he asked, “Not good enough to be buried in?”
Stump studied the mannequin. The first notable absence was anything resembling armor. No boiled leather cuirass, no chain link shirt, not even any studded soft leather. The pants were a fine kid leather, stained a dark brown. The shirt was an imported linen in a deep red. And the doublet was an expensive looking piece in black and silver. Stump had seen the Captain in everything from beggar’s rags to full plate armor, so he knew there was a reason for the choice, but for the life of him, he couldn’t put his finger on it. Bemused, he replied, “Well, it’s pretty enough. Certainly, it is befitting for a man of your rank, if you are going to a fancy ball to dance with the ladies and broker a deal with some snobby noble. But I have to be honest, Captain, it’s not going to impress the Nosck, and I’d be a lot more comfortable if you had some protection.”
The old man’s one remaining milky eye stared blindly into the distance, a faint smile on his lips, before responding, “Stump, my friend, would you believe for once, I am doing something for myself?”
“Not really,” Stump said bluntly.
Marko shrugged in acknowledgement, “Fair enough. But, it’s true. I’m old, Stump. Bordering on fragile even. The clothes will let me move unrestricted, because we both know no amount of armor is going to help if I get hit with a great axe.” The old man sat up straight, and for a moment Stump could just see the shadow of the warrior he once was. “And if I am going to die today,” Marko went on, smiling, “I want to look good doing it.”
Stump replied evenly, “And when the time comes, old man, you will. But not today, I think.”
“Maybe,” Marko said, “but when it’s all said and done, you know I only have one weapon left.”
Stump’s brow furrowed, “What? That sword-stick?”
“No,” the old man said, slumping back into his chair, “surprise.”
The afternoon passed quickly and before too long, a contingent of a hundred or so Broken Swords marched up the hill to meet their enemy and bear witness to the Commander’s Duel. Toward the front of the group, Stump and Marko walked side by side. Stump strode in full battle dress- a breastplate over chainmail over a padded gambeson. Over his shoulder was a huge greataxe, the preferred weapon of many Nosck warriors, although Stump was deadly with any bladed weapon from a sharpened spoon on up. Marko looked for all the world like Stump’s slightly overdressed manservant. He carried nothing but a beat-up old walking stick, which he swished before him to make sure he didn’t trip and get mud all over his fine doublet.
At the top of the hill was a wide spot in the dirt track. It has been cleared and flattened to create a rough oval about a hundred feet long and half that wide. The far end was lined with Nosck warriors. Upon sighting Stump, the Red Fang warriors broke into a huge bellowing shout. The sound rolled across the open space; an obvious challenge and attempt at intimidation. The Broken Swords ignored it, moving precisely into place, mirroring the Red Fang’s formation. The two groups faced each other, the Nosck shouting insults and banging weapons on shields while the Swords stood silently except for the occasional curt order from a team leader.
Marko turned to Stump, seemingly oblivious to the growing tension, “Tell me about the field.”
Stump grunted, “Dirt of course. Thirty paces long, fifteen wide, but I doubt you’ll leave the rut down the middle much.”
“How pronounced is the rut?” the old man asked.
“Four paces wide, wagon and a half, but pretty deep compared to the sides,” Stump replied. “You probably want to stay center if you can. It would throw off your footing if you get onto one of the slopes off to the side.”
Marko nodded. “It rained last night,” he noted. “Mud?”
“A little,” Stump said. “It will be a bit slippery, but the mud’s not deep enough to suck at your boots or anything. And I’ll give them credit; they cleared out the rocks, too. Looks like they want a fair fight.”
The old man grunted but didn’t respond as a new sound caught his attention.
A roar went up from the Red Fangs as their champion broke through their ranks and stormed on the field, followed at a more measured pace by the leader of the Red Fangs, Morak’dum. The champion strode menacingly ten paces toward the Broken Swords lines. The old man could feel the Swords’ line almost imperceptibly sway away from the hulking beast as Stump let out a low whistle.
Sighing, Marko jabbed Stump in the ribs with his walking stick, “Quickly. Morak’dum is going to give some big speech in Nosck to rile up his men. Ignore it and tell me about the champion.”
There was a long pause as Stump took in the sight. Finally, he said, “Well, he’s big.”
“He’d have to be, wouldn’t he?” Marko replied sarcastically. “Come on, Stump. Focus. Armor, weapon, stride length.”
“Right, right,” the huge Nosck replied, still clearly distracted. This didn’t bode well. Stump was a large and impressive member of his species at nearly eight feet tall and broad as a barn door. The fact that he was stunned by the champion’s size spoke volumes. But the old man was no defeatist- if it bled, it could be killed, and he still intended to survive this day. He needed information, damn it. He poked Stump in the ribs again as the bellowing, guttural voice of Morak’dum rose to fill the sudden silence.
Stump jolted and looked at his Captain, doubt creeping in around the edges. He pushed it away and focused on the task at hand, “Yes, of course. The champion is well over nine feet tall and muscled like a bull ox.”
“That would make him heavy,” Marko mused.
“Oh, yeah,” Stump exclaimed, “I’m not sure I could even guess. Not as heavy as a full-grown horse, but not too far off either. Be careful, though, that doesn’t mean he’s slow.”
The old man said curtly, “It does, actually, at least in some ways. Armor and weapons?”
Sounding surprised, Stump answered, “His armor is piecemeal. Mostly studded leather with some cuirass and metal plates at the shoulders and around the torso.” After a moment, he continued thoughtfully, “Lot of gaps, really.”
“Where?” the old man pressed.
“Knees, thighs, sides of the torso, under the arms of course,” Stump noted. “Some of the gaps are pretty big. Looks like he relies mostly on his size and strength.”
Marko was pleased that his Thegn was finally thinking, “Good. Two more things. Weapons first.”
“Really just the one,” Stump replied. “It’s a greataxe taller than a man. And probably heavier than most too, for that matter. Swings right to left.” Stump paused as the Red Fangs roared in response to something Morak’dum said, then continued, “You really don’t want to be hit with that thing, boss. Are you absolutely sure you don’t want a shield?”
The old man chuckled, “No, I’m sure. If I had one, I might be tempted to use it.”
“And?” Stump asked.
“And,” Marko replied slowly, “if he’s as strong as you say, I’d still get my arm and ribcage crushed to pulp.”
Stump thought that was likely to happen anyway, but kept it to himself.
Still, Marko knew what he was thinking. “Sounds like it’s winding down out there,” he said, “so, there is just one more thing. I need to know his running stride length as closely as you can figure.”
Stump didn’t have an eye for that kind of math, but being a Nosck himself and bigger than most humans, he had a pretty good idea of how much ground one could cover. Still, he wasn’t sure how to measure it or explain it to his blind Captain.
Almost as if reading his mind, Marko interrupted with, “Do it by my stride length. You’ve walked beside me often enough.”
Stump nodded and answered, “Two times at least. A bit more, I’d say. Call it two and a quarter.”
“Good enough,” Marko replied.
Morak’dum finished his speech with a flourish and the Red Fangs let out a deafening howl of excitement and bloodlust. After a moment, the shout faded to silence.
“That’s my cue,” the old man said, his head tilting to face Stump. “I want you to stay back here so there’s no confusion. Put me on the cart track a pace right of center and as I walk out, announce me as Marko, Captain of the Broken Swords. They won’t believe it, but the gods will know.”
Stump looked down at the old, blind man he had followed for a decade. He was most likely walking out to his death, all for a slim chance that he could avoid a battle that would cost half his men their lives. The battle was probably going to happen anyway, but even then, the Captain’s death would give the Swords a tactical advantage it wouldn’t have had otherwise, and a hundred Swords would be spared because of it. His words caught in his throat.
Marko knew how Stump felt, but didn’t have time for it. Even after sixty years, there was never enough time for the important things. Sighing, he said, “I’m coming back, Stump. But if I don’t, do your duty and fulfill our contract. And don’t come looking for me in the Sword Halls for at least… another twenty years or so. Agreed?”
“Agreed,” Stump huffed out.
“Let’s go,” Marko said.
Stump and Marko moved to the edge of the Swords’ lines, angling for the spot Marko wanted. As they neared the field, a great cry went up from the Red Fangs once again. But the cry died on their lips as, without pausing, Stump stopped and Marko took ten firm paces up the rut toward the center of the battlefield.
As Marko counted off ten paces and stopped, the Broken Swords all simultaneously raised their voices in a thunderous battle cry of their own. Marko smiled. He hadn’t told them to do that- it was Stump’s doing, of course- a suitable final farewell if things went wrong. As the cheer died, Stump’s booming voice echoed across the battlefield, “Presenting Marko, Captain of the Broken Swords!”
At this, shouts rose up from both sides; disbelief and anger from the Red Fangs matched by pride and challenge from the Broken Swords. Marko stood still, senses focused. This much noise was expected, of course, but he relied heavily on his ears to make sense of his surroundings, and for all he knew, the hulking Red Fangs Champion was barreling down on him right now. Unfortunately, there was nothing he could do about it. With a Nosck that big, he might be able to pick up vibrations in the ground, but… The old soldier centered himself. He reminded himself to deal with what is, not what might be. Pushing away his anxiety, Marko listened. And waited.
The Broken Swords quieted first. Stump must have realized the noise was handicapping his Captain because terse shouts, and a few sturdy kicks, quickly made their way through the Swords’ ranks, restoring order and relative quiet. The Red Fangs were still yelling angry insults, but Morak’dum was shouting at his own sergeants to get things under control. Their efforts were largely unsuccessful until Morak’dum himself strode over and lopped the head off a frothing Nosck warrior. After that, silence fell quickly.
For Marko, it was like opening your eyes after a nap; the world emerged all at once. He silently sighed in relief as he made out the sound of the Nosck Champion shuffling his feet in the mud thirty feet in front of him. He also heard the splash of heavy, confident footfalls coming toward him; Morak’dum, no doubt.
The leader of the Red Fangs marched up to the finely dressed old man and looked him up and down. Morak’dum was no fool; he noted the torque around the man’s neck, the battle scars, the missing eye from an old wound and the milky one from just being old. He even noted the way the man stood; relaxed, but at the ready, on the balls of his feet. He was wise enough to see the soldier before him instead of dismissing him as a pathetic manservant as his daft nephew had. Still, he was far past his prime, and blind.
Quietly, so as not to be overheard, Morak’dum asked, “What are you playing at, old man?”
The old man shrugged, “This is a Commander’s Duel. Per the custom of the Nosck mercenary companies, the challenger has to put forth their commander. That’s me. I’m Marko, Captain of the Broken Swords.”
Morak’dum looked the old man up and down one more time, his brows furrowed. Finally, he replied, “Well, you certainly are something, old man. But the Captain of the Broken Swords I will not believe. Did your Captain ask you to do this, or did you volunteer?”
“It is my duty,” the old man replied firmly.
“I thought as much,” Morak’dum replied, his voice still low. “It is not too late to forsake the dog of a Captain who sent you out here. Just point him out and I will shame him into doing what honor could not.”
Marko just shook his head, “I am the Captain of the Broken Swords.”
“So be it,” Morak’dum said resolutely, “you know what comes next. Just between us, I honor what you are doing, soldier. If you were thirty years younger, I would pay handsomely to have a hundred just like you in my ranks.”
With that, Morak’dum backed away, raising his voice, “The Broken Swords claim that this pathetic, blind, old fool is their Captain!” Shouts rose in the throats of the crowd, but were quickly hushed as the leader of the Red Fangs continued, “I have asked the dog to point out the real Captain, but he has refused, showing that an old, blind servant has more honor than the leaders of the Broken Swords!” Grumbles and muffled shouts of anger rose from the Broken Swords at this, but Morak’dum wasn’t finished. He went on quickly, “I had thought to call off this duel, but it’s not the servant’s fault that he has more courage than his masters. So, to honor his sacrifice, our Champion will grant him an honorable death and then the Broken Swords will be given one… more… chance… to bring forth their Captain! Or, mark my words, The Swords will end this day judged before the gods!”
Shouts again rose from all quarters as Morak’dum backed toward his men, but Marko ignored it. Instead, the old man stood still, listening, his walking stick held loosely in his left hand. The Nosck Champion didn’t charge right away. Instead, he turned back to the Red Fangs and howling in triumph with his brutal axe raised above his head, clenched tightly in both hands. The Red Fangs responded with a cheer, but it faded as the Champion finally turned to face his enemy. For his part, the old man stood like a statue, patient and unmoving.
As the Champion took his first step toward the old man, a hush of anticipation fell over the crowd. The giant Nosck built up speed as he lumbered toward his tiny enemy, his axe raised menacingly above his right shoulder. Still, Marko barely moved, only tilting his head slightly to listen to the huge Nosck’s footfalls splashing in the mud. The crowd started to stir, most convinced that the tired-looking old man was just going to stand there and let himself be killed. The Broken Swords groaned at the thought, while the Red Fangs huffed with a mix of excitement and disappointment.
Finally, when the Nosck Champion was only two strides away, the old man moved. With surprising fluidity, Marko lunged forward and slightly to his right, adjusting to the sounds of the lumbering Nosck. At the same time, he grasped the top of his walking stick with his right hand, drawing forth a narrow, razor-sharp, fine steel blade as long as his arm. The Nosck’s right foot hit the mud. His left rose to take the final stride before engaging the wily old man, but never landed. With perfect timing, Marko dove, the scabbard in his left hand catching the heel of the giant Nosck’s left foot and pulling it forward ever so slightly. The Nosck lost his balance as his foot landed awkwardly, slipped in the mud, causing him to lurch into a forward split; his left leg stretched out in front of him, his right behind, his powerful axe swing aborted and forgotten. As the huge Nosck fell, Marko twisted in his dive. His blade flashed out into the Nosck’s lower body, so sharp it disappeared and reappeared in the blink of an eye, coming away clean. Marko landed on his back, his momentum carrying him a full body length past the Nosck along the muddy dirt track.As the Nosck howled in pain, Marco rolled to his feet. The old man moved forward quickly with the intent of finishing the Nosck Champion while he was wounded and still on the ground. However, the Nosck was not so easy a target. Still grunting in pain, he flipped his hips, pulling his right leg out from under him while lashing out with his right arm to keep the old man at bay. Marko had strayed too close and the Nosck’s giant fist caught him low in the ribs. He felt a few of his ribs give way as he was thrown from his feet, but lashed out with his sword as he fell, connecting with the Nosck’s shoulder and drawing more blood.
The old man scooted away before another blow could land and rolled to one knee, listening. The Nosck Champion pulled himself into a sitting position. He gathered his axe and tried to rise to his feet, but couldn’t. Something inside was wrong; damaged. The Nosck couldn’t actually feel the wound, but he noted the ever-widening pool of blood in the mud around him. The old man smiled when he heard the Nosck scrabble to rise and the sudden thump of his behind hitting the mud when he failed.
“I don’t suppose you want to yield,” the old, blind man called.
The Nosck screamed in rage and swung his axe toward the battered old man, but he was well out of range. “Come here, you slimy worm,” the Nosck barked, “I will kill you with my bare hands and rip out your throat with my teeth!”
“I think not,” Marko replied, intentionally adding an insulting sneer to his voice.
The Nosck railed at the insult, but replied in disgust, “Are you afraid old man? Get over here. This duel ends with one of us dead, not with you circling your better like a cowardly jackal!”
Marko cocked his head and noted coolly, “Well, you have to admit, it may not be honorable, but it’s effective. Or did you want to run on over here and prove me wrong?” The Nosck grunted in frustration, but the old man continued, “But you are right. The crowd is getting restless, so I guess we’d better finish this.”
With that, Marko surged forward, rushing the seated Nosck Champion. He heard the rustle of leather and the clink of metal. The old man knew what he was doing was foolish. He knew that the Nosck was still deadly. He knew the Champion would swing his mighty axe at him as he closed and that if it connected, he was a dead man. He knew, given the Nosck’s injuries, that he would swing parallel to the ground; a great sweeping arc that could fell a tree with a single blow. What he didn’t know was whether he would swing high… or low. Fifty/Fifty. Sometimes, no matter all your preparation, in the heat of battle, it came down to luck.
Timing it to the last second, straining for any clue, Marko made his choice. He dove high, neatly sailing over the Nosck’s viscous knee-high swing, and slammed into the Champion’s chest. His blade, aimed for where Marko hoped the beast’s heart was, skipped off his breastplate. But the blow did force the Nosck onto his back, his axe lost, the old man astride him.
Marko scrabbled to a sitting position atop the Nosck Champion’s ribcage, desperately trying to find somewhere to slip his sword through the giant warrior’s armor. The Nosck recovered and flailed at the old man, only to have his hands and arms cut by Marko’s thin, sharp blade or whacked by the hard, wooden scabbard still clutched in his left hand. This went on for several moments, both combatants becoming more desperate and their movements more chaotic. Finally, the Nosck’s right hand slipped past the old man’s defenses and closed around his left bicep. Clenching his fist to the sound of crunching bone, the wounded Nosck yanked with all his might, pulling the old man’s arm right out of its socket; nearly pulling it off entirely.
Marko grunted with pain, the scabbard falling from his limp fingers. What saved him was decades of training, slogging through the mud, fighting hopeless odds, and enduring pain. Gods, had he endured a lot of pain. Taking a deep shuddering breath, he ignored the arm. A saying he had heard, and said, countless times floated through his mind. “Use what you have; ignore what you don’t.”
Clamping his teeth against the pain, Marko leaned in close to the Nosck’s torso. Laying his sword on the Champion’s chest, point toward his head, he used the palm of his hand to shove the pommel with all of his remaining strength. The blade skipped along the Nosck’s chest, but the tip caught him under the chin, penetrated up through his mouth and into his palate, where it caught on something in the Nosck’s thick, bony head. Howling and thrashing, spitting blood, the Nosck let go of Marko’s arm, his fingers grasping futility at the razor-sharp blade. Marko scooched back on the Nosck’s body, leaned back and found the hilt of his sword with his right foot. In the process, he was nearly thrown by the Nosck’s thrashing, but managed to grasp one of the warrior’s armor straps with his remaining good hand. Using his arm to brace himself, he kicked at the hilt, driving the blade in further with each thrust of his leg. With the third kick, the blade exploded from the top of the Nosck’s skull and he stopped moving.
Silence fell. Both the Red Fangs and the Broken Swords were stunned to immobility. In the breathless stillness, the old, blind man rose unsteadily. Pulling his blood-soaked sword free, his left arm hanging useless at his side, he faced the ranks of the Red Fangs. And raised his sword. As one voice, the Broken Swords let loose with a howl of pure elation, wonder, and triumph, which resolved into a steady chant of, “Marko! Marko!” The old man smiled at the chant, but collapsed to the mud before the third refrain.
The old man’s head swam in and out of awareness. There was noise, and pain, and people touching him, but he couldn’t make sense of it. Finally, a familiar voice cut through the fog, “Are you with us, old man?”
Marko knew that voice. Was it Top yelling at him? No, that couldn’t be. Top was long gone. They all were. Well, all except… but that was a secret he wouldn’t even let himself remember. No, it was more recent. Fast forward through gods knew how many commanders until all that’s left is subordinates. That’s right. His current protégé. What was his name? Uhhhh… Stump! Right.
The old man’s mouth felt like a latrine, but he sucked at it until he felt wetness there. Huh… most of it wasn’t blood. That’s nice. Finally, he spoke, still in a whisper, “Stump… did we win?”
“Of course, we did!” Stump bellowed entirely too loudly.
“Ugggh… don’t shout, Stump,” Marko croaked.
“I’m not shouting!” Stump shouted.
“Whisper,” the old man responded, his mouth twitching at a sudden memory. He could tell he still wasn’t all in the here and now, but he was trying.
“Sorry,” Stump said in a normal tone, “you’ve probably got a splitting headache, don’t you?”
Marko winced and tried to sit up. He failed.
“Whoa, there,” cautioned Stump, “you’re still pretty banged up. We’ve had the Water Witches working on you day and night, but you’ve been out for three days.”
The old man mused. He couldn’t feel his left arm. He wanted to ask about it, but ultimately decided that the fortunes of the Broken Swords came first. “Fine,” he said, “tell me what happened.”
“Well, let’s see,” Stump mused. “After you killed their Champion and collapsed, the Red Fangs almost charged. I don’t think anyone really ordered it. They’re Nosck, so it was probably just sort of instinct. Twitch and her archers dropped a volley of arrows in the mud between you and their lines. The smarter ones realized they didn’t know where the barrage came from and that was the sort of thing you should know if you wanted to live through the day, which caused enough confusion that their commanders got them under control. So, then, I had to take over negotiations.”
Something about the way Stump said ‘negotiations’ caught the old man’s attention. He asked, “Stump, exactly what kind of negotiations?”
There was a pause, but Stump eventually answered, “No, no. Everything is fine. I did have to kill Morak’dum’s nephew, though.”
Marko didn’t say anything, but his silence was enough to urge Stump to barrel on, “Look, we had you sorted out and moved back to the healers, so a few of the commanders and I moved up to talk to Morak’dum and his men. It was all going well enough, but that nephew of his just couldn’t let it go. Some people are too thickheaded, even when the evidence is right in front of them. He still thought I was the Captain and you were just some lucky idiot. I told him if he said it again, we were going to have a problem. He charged me, and so I killed him.”
Marko was silent for a long moment, but finally asked, “And how did that go?”
Stump’s voice was noticeably relaxed as he answered, “Oh, fine. Morak’dum and I got along a lot better after that. He seems like a good commander.”
The old man unconsciously nodded his head and instantly regretted it, but manage to choke out, “He does, doesn’t he? So, is he on board?”
“Yes,” Stump replied, “all the documents signed and everything. The Red Fangs left this morning to report to Wolfrun Fen. The Swords have secured Razorback Pass as per our contract and all it cost was one Nosck Champion and a mouthy Nosck lieutenant.”
“Good,” the old man sighed. He paused, listening to the bustling around him. Now that he was clearer, he could make out the sounds of a medical tent, and the camp beyond. Familiar, comfortable sounds. Finally, he turned his attention back to his waiting Thegn, “Speaking of the cost, Stump, did I lose the arm?”
Marko felt a large, but surprisingly gentle, hand settle on his chest. Stump replied quietly, “No. It’s still there. There is some question of how long it’s going to take to heal and how much use you will have of it once it does. Mother says you’ll probably get most of the movement back. Maybe half the strength. And she isn’t sure how much of the feeling will return.” There was a pause as Marko absorbed that. After a moment, the hand gently patted the old man’s chest like a hammer striking an anvil, and Stump continued cheerfully, “No, old man, you’re still mostly in one piece. And get to add one more chapter to your legend at that. Rest now. You deserve it.”
Stump rose to leave. The old man settled back into the comfortable cushions and blankets that engulfed him, surrounded by the only family he’d ever really known.
Stump made it to the tent flap when Marko called to him, “Hey, Stump.”
“Yes, Captain,” the towering Nosck replied.
“Just so you know. I’m thinking of retiring,” the old man said.
Stump smiled. “No, you’re not,” he replied, and let the tent flap close behind him.