General Fiction posted May 30, 2021 Chapters:  ...41 42 -43- 44... 

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Wolf treats his team to a meal before starting their mission

A chapter in the book The Stoneseekers

Their Last Meal

by duaneculbertson

In one of the parks scattered throughout the city, the newly equipped group convened at an eating tent to enjoy an early dinner. The tent housed a dozen tables with benches. Barrels brimming with alcohol stood at attention with pints liberally supplied by serving wenches. Brick ovens blazed in the background as cooks toiled to satisfy customer orders. It was mid-afternoon and the aroma of cooking hung thick in the air. Meat was enjoyed by all, save Virriel who insisted on a repast of mixed vegetables.

Wolf clapped his hands, and serving maids sprang to his attention, bringing forth tankards of ale. His generosity had become well-known, and his popularity among the serving ladies caused several to fight over the exclusive right to take what they knew would be his final order. Demelza, Sigfried and Ralf each grabbed a tankard and raced to see who could finish theirs first. Virriel did not drink and excused herself, claiming she would return shortly. Sigfried slammed his tankard on the table. Finishing first, he smiled broadly. However, his smile faded once he saw Virriel leaving, and his eyes tracked her as she disappeared into the crowd. 

Malden Park was a popular area, one of the few places remaining where common folk could relax and play. Eating, drinking, and sleeping were all activities enjoyed here. On a nearby bench, Ketri participated in the latter, oblivious to the commotion all around. A pot-helm shielded her eyes from the faint sunlight filtering through the canopied tent. Wolf marveled at how she could sleep through all the noise. It reminded him of the incident at the Lucky Shoe. Thoughtfully, he drained his own tankard.

How extensive was her training? I still know next to nothing about her.

The slumbering dwarf wore a rusty chainmail tunic and chose a wicked looking flail known as a morning star as her primary weapon, the fearsome item hanging from her belt by a leather buckle. She had probably pocketed most of her share of Olivejem's money. Wolf did not care; he just wished he had gone with her. He could have given her some much-needed guidance. Weapons and armor were always good investments for a warrior and cutting corners or bargain shopping was never a good idea, especially when one’s life was at stake.

A welcome breeze swept through the food tent, cooling those inside and bringing with it the aroma of roasted chicken.

Wolf sat across from Sigfried. He noticed the boy still wore the same dark finery he had been wearing when they first met, almost two nights ago. It reminded him of his own recent foolishness when he spent an afternoon working on the farm dressed in a black shirt, only to remove it later and have his decision rewarded with a harsh sunburn that evening. 

                 “You know, Sigfried,” Wolf began. “You would fare much better in this heat if you were to sell or stow your finery. Woolen velvet makes a fetching garment, but it is not the coolest fabric by any means.”

                 “No thank you. I prefer style over comfort. It is important to look one's best. Were I not so richly adorned, I would not appear as superior to the common man.”

                 “Is it necessary to look superior? A confident man feels it; he needs no validation. Furthermore, a confident, decent man hides his feeling of superiority from others; he does not celebrate or revel in it. If you want to command respect, treat others well and speak properly, with thought and purpose. That is how you make a favorable impression. People care not about exterior appearances after they have spoken with you. It is diction that proclaims the man, not apparel.”

                 “Whatever you say, Wolf,” Sigfried replied impertinently. “I swear I am at a loss to know how you come to know so much. I know not who taught you, nor do I know where you learned all that knowledge, but I certainly do know you are full of it.”

Wolf pretended not to understand the boy’s disrespectful comment; he would deal with him later. “I told you the other night along with everyone else,” he replied nonchalantly. “It was Alcuin who taught me. And a finer mentor I could never hope for. In fact, you would do well to take advantage of his knowledge. I am quite sure someone in your position could learn volumes. He knows much about topics concerning the nobility too, well versed in diplomacy, heraldry, and even manners. You could benefit greatly from his tutelage. Especially regarding that last topic…”

Sigfried made a sour face, and Wolf upended his tankard to drain the remains of his beverage and avoid the boy's reproachful gaze.

Ralf rose from the table. He had just consumed his second plate of ribs, and he eagerly licked his lips, unable to resist the lure of yet another course. His jowly face and rotund figure vouched for his fondness of eating, betraying his intentions to the vendors who recognized a valuable customer when they saw one, likely altering their prices accordingly.

After placing an order for an entire chicken, he sat down again at the table, examining a sheet of paper that doubled as both placemat and advertisement. Hungry as he was, he could not fail to notice the powerful face staring at him.

                “Ooooh! There’s going to be a show at the Colosseum,” Ralf said, taking a swig and finishing another pint of ale.

                “There’s no time for that,” Wolf said dismissively.

                “Oh, come on! It’s Magnus Stentorus, the judicial champion. He’s scheduled to fight two condemned criminals at the same time! They never do that! We gotta see it! Starts in an hour. If we start walking, we’ll have plenty of time. A couple hours' delay could not possibly hurt Seydor’s quest.”

                “Silence, you fool!” Wolf hissed, casting him a look of daggers. “Speak not of the Stonequest in public while others are around.”

                “Sorry,” Ralf replied. With downcast eyes, he went back to sulk over the advertisement.

Wolf snatched up the paper, pausing to look at an artist’s rendition of Magnus Stentorus. His blood began to boil.

Arrogant murderer. Hard to believe I almost fought you.

Wolf struggled to repress the bitter memory. It won. He recalled the face of the student he had beaten to death in a saloon about a year ago. He had been asking for the whereabouts of Atelka, gleaning what information he could, when he chanced to run into an impudent noble who made unflattering remarks about his fiancé. His temper got the best of him and even the peacekeepers were unable to stop him from killing the man. Had it not been for Runcheon’s intervention, he would likely have faced Magnus in the Colosseum before a crowd of thousands.

Wolf swore. He crumpled the notice in his hands and tossed it into the trash.

                 "Hey," Ralf said, offering a weak protest.

                 “Our mission is too important!” he roared. “We cannot afford to lose time over such nonsense! We need to get going very soon. Besides, those games teach nothing but cruelty. They ought to be banned. Most decent societies do not tolerate such behavior. It only encourages civil unrest. In Xanadu, they are outlawed.”

                 “Xanadu, huh?” Sigfried remarked. “I thought such judicial practices were invented in the Orient.”

                 “A common misconception,” Wolf growled.

                 “But Judicial Champions have talent,” Ralf protested. “And they are fabulously wealthy.”

Wolf shook his head. “Until our society learns not to equate wealth with virtue, we will always be a poor country.”

Ralf stared blankly.

                 “Gold is not enduring,” Wolf continued. “When we leave this world, we take not material possessions. Our experiences are what we take with us. What we’ve done in this life, and how we’ve helped others. The children we’ve raised.   The souls we’ve touched. The Good we have brought to the world.”

Ralf absorbed the words with a blank expression. Wolf could not tell if he did not agree or simply did not understand. Perhaps the man only had one means of measuring success – a shiny, lustrous one.

                 "Overpaid athletes are seldom good role models,” Wolf continued. “While their training is admirable, there are no constraints placed on their conduct outside the arena, where they get away with the most monstrous conduct and are never punished.”

                  “But they’re a legitimate part of our justice system,” Ralf protested.

                 “Ha!” Wolf challenged, “Legitimate? You think a villain deserves the chance to redeem himself and escape Justice … just because he is a better swordsman than the man chosen to fight him? Is this not doing his victims a disservice by offering the perpetrator a means of escaping his crimes? And what if he does win? In society’s eyes this absolves him, his sins are washed away and stricken from the public record. The perpetrator can then start life anew without being pursued by the shadow of shame and disgrace. Meanwhile, the families of the victims must live each day with the bitter reminder of everything they’ve lost including the additional burden of knowing the architect of this misfortune is living free, able to enjoy life."

                 “Well, I suppose, if you put it that way…” Ralf responded feebly.

                 "And do not such policies favor the wicked, those who use their martial skills to murder others for personal gain with little fear of reprisals thanks to their own talents with weapons? Answer!”

Wolf did not particularly enjoy debating. Nor did he relish crushing an opponent’s argument, but he always felt compelled to defend Justice when he felt it threatened.

                 "The condemned man never wins, though,” Ralf stated meekly.

                 “That’s not the point. We’re discussing the ethics of the judicial system -- the silly, archaic means of Justice called Trial by Combat.”

Ralf remained silent, perhaps realizing the futility of arguing his stance with an educated person possessing greater intelligence.

                 “You think it proper to pay a fighter a dozen aureus for one minute’s exertion?” Wolf asked. "For him to cut down an untrained, hapless criminal? No! I look forward to the day this nonsense is abolished! If I were running the Empire, I would end it right now. People ought to be treated like human beings. Not beasts.”

Ralf shrugged and went to check the status of the chicken he ordered. However, when he returned, Wolf insisted on dragging him to an open stretch of green not far from the food tent. The others followed out of curiosity. Demelza sat on a stone bench nearby. A raised platform housed a rose garden with sculpture and statuary placed at aesthetically pleasing positions therein. Much of the grass had perished under the sun's cruel gaze the past few weeks, with bleached, yellow strands offering the sole evidence to suggest that at one point the vegetation enjoyed better days. A broad plinth stood without any sculpture above its flat-topped base, and Sigfried took the opportunity to perch atop the structure like a dark bird, watching from above while drinking the remains of yet another tankard of ale.

                 “What gives?” Ralf asked.

                 “Wait here,” Wolf commanded.

Two men rested at the edge of the park under the shade of an elm tree. After a few brief words, Wolf returned carrying helmets, gloves and two padded wooden swords. He approached Ralf.

                “Those men are traveling performers,” Wolf said. “Fighting masters who earn their coin by teaching others the fighting arts. They allowed me to borrow their gear for a time and refused my offers to pay them. Let’s make the most of their generosity.”

                Wolf tossed the gear to Ralf.

                “What’s this?” he asked.

                “Padded helmet and gloves,” Wolf replied. “Put them on. Here’s a padded wooden waster too. You’re lucky. Most students do not enjoy such luxury.”

                “I can do without this luxury,” Ralf said. “Why are you giving them to me?”

                “Because it’s clear you need training in the ways of the sword.”

                “Nah. Keep your lessons. I’m good with my crossbow.”

Demelza smirked as she caught Wolf’s eye.

                “Shooting rats lurking at the bottom of your boat and fighting for your life are two very different preoccupations.”

                 “No, they’re not,” Ralf protested.

                 “They could not be more different,” Wolf insisted. “Your skill set is greatly lacking, and this deficiency could get you killed. If you want to stay employed with us, you’d better learn fast.”

With an exasperated groan, Ralf tossed the haunch of meat he was eating into a bush and donned the fencing gear.

                “Now what?” he asked.

                “You’ll fight Sigfried.”

                “What!” Ralf protested.

                “Oh, I’m gonna enjoy this,” Sigfried boasted. “I won’t even need to gear up.”

                “You’ll wear the gear, Sigfried” Wolf growled.

                “Why him?” Ralf whined.

                “Because I won’t be able to critique you if I’m fighting you. Much better to observe you from a distance.”

                “I don’t want to fight him!” Ralf exclaimed.

                “In battle, we don’t have the luxury of choosing who we fight. You simply deal with whomever is in front of you.”

Sigfried donned the gear. Despite the metal mesh, a broad smile shone beneath his helmet. 

                 “This will be fun!”

                “It better not be, Sigfried,” warned Wolf. “Your job is to help Ralf become a better fighter, not to make sport of him.”

                “Can I hurt him just a little?”

                “No, you may not! In fact, if I detect you are working to amuse yourself without considering his best interests, I will don this gear and fight you myself, and I won’t go easy on you. Understand?”

The young man said nothing, but Wolf could feel his angry eyes upon him.

A few paces apart, Ralf and Sigfried faced each other.

                “Salute your opponent,” Wolf commanded.

With a flourish, Sigfried twirled his sword through the air, brought it level with his mask, then cut down and to the right, away from his body. The action mocked proper etiquette since it was designed for a one-handed weapon such as a rapier or arming sword. The gesture looked ridiculous using a padded piece of wood meant to act as a surrogate for a two-handed longsword.

Wolf sighed.

The smuggler crouched with his sword held stiffly. He was about twice the width of Sigfried and a hand taller, but his strength advantages would be of no use in a contest where skill beats slaughter nearly every time.

                “Begin,” Wolf instructed.

Eagerly, Sigfried advanced, changing guards several times and using a mixture of Passing Steps and Gathered Steps. With fluid movements, he moved gracefully as if dancing. He knocked Ralf’s guard aside playfully and thrust a blow to his face. Ralf dropped his sword and swore.

Demelza laughed. But Wolf motioned her to be silent.

The fighters faced off again and the duel continued. Sigfried circled to his right. Ralf pivoted in response. Sigfried cast a feint to his left, then rapped Ralf in the helmet with a quick blow to the head that sent the man reeling.

                “Shistra!” Ralf swore. “Is this really necessary?”

                “Ralf, you look like a tree out there,” Wolf observed. “For Seyd’sake, move around! You need to change your guard. You can’t expect to win a fight rooted like that.”

                “I don’t even know how to move!” Ralf panted.

Wolf stared aghast. “Are you saying you’ve never wielded a sword before?”

                 “Yes!” Ralf cried.

Wolf cursed. Even farmhands knew some basic level of swordsmanship, the techniques passed down from father to son. Only archers trained in the longbow lacked such training, as it took the better part of a decade to master that craft and consumed all their attention. But even those extraordinary marksmen carried a knife and a mallet for the rare occasions when battles went horribly wrong. And most archers were at least familiar with basic swordsmanship.

Demelza and Sigfried could no longer contain themselves, erupting in a paroxysm of laughter.

                “Go occupy yourself with another tankard of mead, Sigfried,” Wolf said, tossing the young man a denarius.

                “Better give me more than that! I’ll need to drink a hogshead to give that man a fighting chance.”

                “Just get out of here,” Wolf said sternly.

Sigfried removed his gear and went in search of refreshment. Demelza did not go with him, despite being his bodyguard. Apparently she was too curious to leave, watching Wolf’s fencing lesson with an amused expression.

Wolf placed a hand on Ralf’s shoulder. “This is not about winning or losing. It’s about learning and survival. I don’t care if you ever beat Sigfried. What I do care about is giving you the tools you need to stay alive on the battlefield.”

                 "Will we be fighting on a battlefield?”

                 “I was speaking metaphorically …”

                 “Oh, okay. Look, I appreciate what you are trying to do Wolf, but the truth is I’m no good wielding a sword in battle. I am fine with shooting a crossbow, but the thought of defending myself with a sword terrifies me.”

                 “Fear is almost always caused by the unknown, a lack of understanding, or unpreparedness. When a warrior is brave, it is because he knows his life is at stake yet chooses to do what must be done anyway. No matter what the costs are to himself. In contrast, a crazy person who charges a shield wall of enemy soldiers alone or a warrior made reckless through the ingestion of drugs or alcohol do not exemplify bravery. It is normal to be scared. All warriors feel fear before a battle. Any who claim otherwise are not telling the truth.”

                “Seyd’sblud! I’m no warrior! I’m a smuggler!”

                “You probably shouldn’t say that too loudly in public,” Wolf admonished.

Ralf blushed and adopted a sheepish expression.

Looking over his shoulder, Wolf noticed a couple of drunkards had heard Ralf’s outburst, but they couldn’t care less. Nor did any customs officers chance to hear. No spectators came to watch their efforts. All reasonable people had sought refuge from the sun’s cruel gaze. Besides, the sight of warriors practicing was so commonplace that the activity drew little attention. Few cared to watch. It was something that happened in parks all the time. Even the owners of the gear were too deep in conversation to take any notice, seemingly unconcerned about the fate of their possessions.

                "Everyone can learn how to handle a sword,” Wolf said, forcing calm and patience into his voice. “And everyone can benefit from sword-training. First thing, we must correct is your stance. Your weight ought to be balanced on both feet. Your left foot needs to be forward, because you will be stepping forward with each blow, bringing the weight of your dominant side forward.”

                “I’m left-handed!” Ralf protested.

Demelza pitched forward unable to control herself, racked by laughter. “Ha! That takes the cake! A left-handed swordsman? How sinister!”

                “Hush!” Wolf ordered. “Don’t mind her,” he whispered. “Everyone has to start somewhere. You just need to master the fundamentals; then you’ll be fine. Fencing takes years of practice, but if you learn a few basic techniques, your odds of survival will greatly improve."

                “Wonderful,” Ralf mumbled. He was sweating profusely, and despite his sarcasm, Wolf knew he was fearful and uncomfortable. Training him would require patience and finesse, and Wolf hoped he had enough of both qualities. He knew this endeavor would require all his willpower; it would take little provocation to lash out at his student given the oppressive heat from the unrelenting, blistering sunshine beading down from above.


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