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 Fantasy Fiction posted April 10, 2021 Chapters:  ...11 11 -11- 12... 


Exceptional
This work has reached the exceptional level
Keels is bested in his own proving grounds by mysterious foe

A chapter in the book The Stoneseekers

Swordmaster Keels

by duaneculbertson

Quertin Keels scanned the courtyard below. The men were going through fencing drills. Two dozen split into pairs according to their ability. Quertin had served as Royal Swordmaster for over thirty years, and, although he had gone gray, had lost none of his quickness, nor his love of fencing. Training the Imperial Guard was an honor he would not soon relinquish, as long as he had any say in the matter.

                Passing its zenith, the sun roasted the cobblestones. The men wilted under its cruel gaze, their exertions rendered doubly onerous.  Quertin rested his hands atop the stone balustrade and scrutinized his men. Flanking him were men-at-arms, pacing along the walls of the keep, the sunlight glinting off their polished halberds.

                The clanging of metal on metal echoed off the walls of mortar and stone. Sweat ran down Quertin’s neck and into his leather jerkin. Usually eager to praise a blow well-struck or a point well-scored, his thoughts were uncharacteristically elsewhere. His vacant eyes regarded the men in a distracted fashion, as if his presence were just some perfunctory obligation.

                Normally he was not the kind to indulge in augury or give credence to omens, but the words spoken last night by the old crone troubled him. A crazy, old bat, she had somehow managed to secure the position of Royal Astrologer, an accomplishment made doubly impressive considering all the learned men of science living in the castle. Lord Alcuin simply referred to her as the Charlatan. Occasionally though, the woman predicted the truth, and it would be folly to disregard her entirely. Something in her demeanor lent weight to her words last night, and before he went to sleep a raven perched on the parapet outside his window, impudently regarding him until he had driven it off. Then there was the cryptic note earlier from Wolf Kantwohner. It simply read– Urgent need to speak with you. Something significant would happen today. He was sure of it.

                Footsteps to his right drew his attention. A woman approached. Clad in red leather, she moved with grace and elegance with her body possessing an underlying strength. His pulse quickened as he studied her curves, thin neck, thick lips and mysterious dark eyes. Her hair was the color of oil at midnight streaked in places with crimson highlights. A leather clip directed it backwards like a plume on a helmet. Such was its length that it fell about her shoulders, rich and lustrous. She stopped before him; then faced the spectacle below.

                “Don’t you just love competitive sport?” she purred in a foreign accent.

                “It’s more than sport, milady,” Quertin replied. “These drills prepare men for battle. I admit there is a certain pleasure in practicing the fighting arts; however, their instruction is always geared towards a more solemn end.”

                “Spoken like a true fighting-master,” she said. She laughed with genuine mirth and placed a hand on his shoulder.

                Quertin searched her face to divine her intentions but read only playful mischief in her actions.

                “Jocasta,” she said, extending her hand.

                “I am…”

                “Quertin Keels,” she said swiftly. “Famous throughout Etruria and beyond.”

                Her words came stilted, steeped with a curious accent he could not place. He kissed the offered hand.

                “Are you far from home?” he asked.

                “I hail from Atherspa. I’m on a diplomatic mission to see his Excellency, but I was too early, so I decided to take a walk. I chanced upon this courtyard, and the sounds of swordplay drew me. The fighting arts have always held a special place in my heart. I see your men are doing the typical war drill. Ox to plow. Zornhau to krumpau. Basic winding and binding.”

                Quertin regarded her suspiciously. The men were indeed practicing the war drill – when swords clashed, each opponent would try to predict the intentions of the other and act accordingly, either disengaging to target another opening, or winding the arms up to slide along the opponent’s blade and thrust to the chest.

                 “Such knowledge is rare in women. How do you know these things?”

                “Father taught me,” she said, favoring him with a smile revealing perfect, white teeth. “From an early age, I learned to wield a sword. In truth, swordcraft has served as the one constant companion in my life.”

                Quertin noticed a scar on the side of her cheek, its whiteness speaking to a time long ago. He wondered if it were received in battle. Was it a duel? Or an accident? Although curious, he was too chivalrous to ask.

                 “Then you must be a woman of remarkable discipline,” he offered.

                “I would like to think so…”

                Sounds in the courtyard faded as twenty-four pairs of eyes stared upwards. The woman, an unquestionable beauty, was a distraction few could ignore.

                Quertin scowled. “What are you doing?” he roared. “Did I tell you to stop? Get back to your drills!”

                Jocasta laughed, taking advantage of the opportunity. “I’ve a better idea,” she said. “Would the men like to see a duel?” she asked him in a loud voice clearly meant for the larger audience.

                The men cheered, grateful for the excuse to take a break. Many rested on their sword-pommels as they recovered. Others unfastened sweaty gorgets, casting them aside or carelessly dropping them to the ground. Some sat on stone plinths surrounding the courtyard, while others simply sank to the cobblestones. Although exhausted, they were revived by a mischievous, almost mutinous, energy which swept through them. They sensed something unusual was about to happen.

                “Come,” she whispered to Quertin, pulling him towards the stairs.

                “Um, I’m not sure what you’ve planned,” he began, “but these exercises are quite dangerous. This is no place for a woman.”

                “Oh, did you hear that, men?” she asked. “Quertin is afraid he will hurt me. Rather ironic, since I fear hurting him."

                The word afraid and the bizarre way he was being dragged to the Field of Honor offended his pride.

Who the hell was this woman?

                The tall, mysterious beauty walked to a recessed wall where she grabbed two wooden wasters. She tossed one to Quertin then strode to the center of the courtyard. She twirled her wooden sword performing moulinets and practicing her master-strikes.

                Quertin studied her gaunt face. He wondered if he should speak but decided he would allow her to dictate the contest. This was her show. Adopting the von Tag guard, the sword held high overhead, he planted his feet on the well-worn cobblestones, distributing his weight evenly. As he did so, he found himself wondering how many duels the stones under his feet had seen throughout the ages. This was probably the first one involving a woman. He would have to remember to be gentle. It would not do to egregiously wound a lady, an ambassador no less. Such conduct would surely make the rounds – the gossip spreading like wildfire. He enjoyed a low profile at the castle and wished to keep it that way. Palace intrigue and power politics were something for lifelong courtiers and statesmen. He was a warrior.

                “Ready?” asked Jocasta.

                “I’m always ready,” said Quertin a touch of bravado. He studied her body as he attempted to anticipate her attack.

                In a flash she was upon him. She dealt a mighty blow to his left side. Instinct saved Quertin. He stepped back with a shielhau, the best counter to a charging opponent. His blow struck her forearm, knocking her sword from her hands. It clattered upon the cobblestones.

                She winced, but retrieved it nearly as rapidly as she had lost it.   

                “Again,” she hissed.

                Quertin had no time to argue. An angry blur, she stole the initiative and was upon him in seconds. A flurry of strikes forced him to give ground, and in doing so, he stumbled backwards and fell. Shame colored his cheeks, and the laughter of his men boiled his blood. He could not remember the last time he was bested in combat. And he wanted to keep it that way.

                “Let’s try that again,” he said.

                “I would be disappointed if you had said anything else,” she replied, favoring him with a mischievous grin.

                Quertin took a deep breath and devised a strategy. She seemed to enjoy pressing the attack. He would use this to his advantage. If he employed the “rose” technique, he could catch her as she stepped forward. By feinting an attack from above, the rose actually delivers an undercut from below. If he mistimed it though, his entire torso would be exposed and vulnerable.

                Jocasta charged. Quertin started swinging high, then twisted his arms at the last possible second, inverting the swing. The tip caught her under the chin. Blood spurted from her mouth, and she cursed in her native tongue. Had they been using real swords, she would have been killed.

                “Caught me with the rose, I see,” she sputtered. “You are a daring bastard.”

                “Sorry if I hurt you,” Quertin replied with genuine concern. “Let’s stop and tend to your wound.”

                “No! We are not finished yet!”

                The men hooted their appreciation. By now, some had ascended the stairs to sit atop the stone balustrade for a better view. Cries of encouragement came from all around and seemed to favor both combatants.

                To his right, he heard the crunch of gravel. A lone figure approached. Recognition dawned. He started to call out when a sword-blow struck his temple. His vision melted away and everything went black.
               
As Quertin slowly regained consciousness, Wolf Kantwohner offered him water from a canteen. Another man bandaged his head. He turned and vomited yet felt much better afterwards. He took another long draught from the canteen.

                The woman’s voice with her strange accent filled the courtyard. “Here is the lesson, men – Never underestimate your opponent, and, above all, never take your eyes off him…or her as the case may be.”

                She cast the wooden sword aside and turned to regard her vanquished opponent, a look of concern finally dawning over her features.

                A large man with hands like a bricklayer bounded forward.

                “What’s your game, woman?” he bellowed. “Treachery like that has no place on the Field of Honor!”

                “It’s only sparing,” she replied innocently. “He was distracted. I saw opportunity and claimed it.”

                “Seyd’sblood, woman! Curse you and your piss poor conduct! I don’t care where you come from, but before you go back, I’ll forge you a lesson you won’t soon forget!”

From his supine position, Quertin watched the rapidly unfolding drama. He was dazed, yet lucid enough to fear for Jocasta’s safety. Her fine swordsmanship would not save her from the savage beating the squad leader promised.

                “Stand down, Thorne!” Quertin growled. “Calm yourself, everyone. This woman is right. A proper swordsman never takes his eyes off his opponent. It was my mistake, not hers. Advantages are taken, not handed out. She has demonstrated this today. Mark her lesson well.”

                Thorne locked eyes with Jocasta, scowled, and pushed past her. Quertin could tell he wanted to hurt her badly. Fortunately, the chain of command was so ingrained in every soldier that it was nearly impossible to disregard.

                “Company dismissed!” Thorne bellowed.

The spectators sauntered from the courtyard, happy to escape the sun’s cruel gaze.

                “I should be going,” Jocasta said softly.

                “Just give me a second,” said Quertin. “You rang my bell pretty good, but I suppose it was a proper lesson. I’m not too old to learn. Nor too proud to admit when I’ve been bested. Never imagined a woman would possess such skills.”

                “Well, now you’ve met me,” she said, flashing her perfect smile.

                “My eyes still see spots before me, but unless I’m much mistaken, this is my good friend, Wolf Kantwohner.”

                “Nice to meet you,” said Wolf. He shook Jocasta’s hand respectfully.

                Quertin nodded his approval. Normally, his friend would have kissed the hand of a lady, but this lady was no lady; she was a warrior.

                Turning his attention to Wolf, he saw his student looked the same as he did two years ago, before he left for the Roadwardens. Quertin would probably always remember him too as the awkward boy who could barely hold a sword on his first day, yet somehow managed to beat all his best students by the end of the year.

                When Wolf went off to war, Quertin’s greatest fear was that his protégé would meet some ignoble, valor-starved end like catching a crossbow bolt in the chest on some god-forsaken battlefield. He would often tell his students that a warrior deserved to live and die by his own skill, not by some blind shot launched from the cold hands of some mechanical device.

                Wolf possessed the qualities one simply could not train – lightning reflexes, the ability to sense danger, and the intuition to exploit an opponent’s weakness. Moreover, he had excellent sword presence. When entering a bind, at the instant of contact when a critical decision had to be made, he knew whether his opponent was “hard” or “soft” at the sword and acted accordingly. Wolf was by far his best student. And he held him in such high regard that before the young grandprince went off to serve in his first campaign, Quertin presented him with his family’s ancestral sword, an honor usually passed from father to son.

Jocasta roused him from his thoughts.

                 “Are you feeling better?” she asked. “I’m sorry if I hurt you. Let me help you to your feet.”

                Quertin rose but held onto Wolf for support.

                “That was some good swordsmanship, Jocasta,” Wolf said. “I’ve rarely seen Quertin bested.”

                “Except when you fight me, right?” said Quertin. “Don’t be fooled by his modesty, Jocasta. Wolf is the finest swordsman I’ve ever trained. Without shame, I admit he has beaten me on more than one occasion.”

Jocasta’s dark eyebrows arched as she favored Wolf with an appraising glance. “Well, it is an honor to meet you then. I thought Quertin was the best in the land.”

                “We’re both good,” said Wolf, dismissively. “Any swordsman can beat any other swordsman on any given day, as long as the Fates are with him. But tell me, how did you learn to wield a sword like that? Is your sword for hire?”

                “My father taught me,” Jocasta said. “And, no, it is not for hire. I am no mercenary.”

                “I’m on an important mission and I need great warriors like yourself. Perhaps I can change your mind.”

                “Intrigued, I am. But I have an important mission of my own. Then I’m back to Atherspa. Perhaps one day our paths will cross.”

                “I hope so,” said Wolf. “I would love to see you fighting by my side. I certainly would not want to fight against you.”

                Jocasta bowed, accepting the compliment.

                “Please help me get Quertin back to his quarters,” Wolf said. “I’ve a matter of great importance to discuss with him. A matter of discretion.”

                Jocasta nodded. They each took an arm and helped the wobbly man to negotiate the winding stairs to the highest turret of the castle.


 


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