As a city, Halcyon is full of stuff. Buildings, people, traffic, shops, noise. Cameras. Police. People who’ll be fearful or curious to encounter two men dueling with swords. Fortunately, North Carolina as a state is full of farmlands, open fields, and quiet spaces.
The Has Beans delivery van is parked at the end of a dirt road, in a big open area that hosts a farmer’s market on Saturdays. Lucius sits in a folding lawn chair, cane laid across his lap. Jaycee stands nervously, alternating between pacing and rubbing her hands together. They watch two combatants, preparing for a fight in their own way.
Mr. Skinner is performing a slow, deliberate warm-up kata. His movements are hard, deliberate, impactful. No motion is wasted. His face doesn’t reflect any emotion. He just breathes, and moves, readying his muscles. William Eddison, Armiger, is all motion, all action, all intensity. His face is tight, and his eyes are narrow. He’s shadow-boxing, jumping from foot to foot, light as a feather.
“Present claim!” barks Lucius.
Jaycee steps forward. “I’ve been deputized…” She glances at her father, silently wondering. We’ve done this like three times before, dad, can I just skip over this bit? Skinner rolls his eyes a bit but says nothing. Apparently a little expediency is okay.
“… Anyway. Ahem. Aspirant William Eddison seeks the title and duties of squire of the grail knights. Will any challenge his claim?”
“I challenge his claim and will submit on first blood.” The words from Skinner’s mouth roll, dull, deadpan, and familiar.
“I honor the challenge,” announces Armiger, a heady mix of uncertainty and excitement flavoring his reply.
Lucius rises from his seat. “Present arms!” Three swords flash into existence as one, raised high to meet the sky. One’s ability to hold Excalibur aloft is the most basic test of knighthood. Lucius dismisses his blade, while Skinner and Armiger retain theirs.
Now comes the moment Jaycee has been dreading. The Grail Knights have faced many unusual situations in their long history. Many have become codified into traditions. Most of those have found their way into writing. The old fogeys who populate Has Beans, on the other hand, have been a surprisingly valuable source of leads on others. Jaycee has spent the week nailing shut this particular precedent until her case is airtight.
“In a battlefield situation, the rules of the duel are suspended!” she announces. “Does the master of ceremonies agree?” And she turns to Lucius.
Skinner stares at her. “What the fuck?” he mouths.
“The precedent is acknowledged,” Lucius answers. “Challenger, acknowledge.”
“There’s no fucking battlefield situation here–!”
Jaycee holds up a glass vial with a six-pointed star etched in gold on it.
Skinner’s poise was already disrupted. He looks in actual shock at Jaycee, then at the vial, then casts a sharply suspicious glance at Eddison. The fact that the young man’s face is frozen in shock and confusion seems to ease his suspicions. There’s a conspiracy here, but young Eddison clearly has no knowledge of it.
The older man’s face slides into a crooked, knowing smile. “The challenger accepts the precedent,” he announces.
Jaycee throws the vial to the ground. It shatters. An inky black smoke begins to pour forth.
“Looks like a goetic demon got loose somehow, Skinner,” Lucius announces blandly. “There’s a civilian girl present. How about you guard her, and let our young aspirant take care of this problem?”
Skinner stalks over to Lucius, and looks at him with an expression Jaycee can’t read. He rests his sword over one shoulder, ready to watch what comes next.
The smoke billows outward, taking on the distinct silhouette of a raven. Twin eyes of crimson, flickering like flame, stare out of the cloud. A hoarse voice issues forth. I know all things, I speak all secrets, I–
Armiger interrupts, as he ought to when facing a creature of chaos. “Naberius!” he shouts, voice charged with the thrill and fear of fighting. “Teach me swordplay!”
The goetic demons are keepers of all knowledge. They’ll voice their secrets freely, to anyone who will listen. One does not bargain with demons to attain knowledge, but to bind them to careful silence, lest the world end in flame and chaos and endless laughter. Sorcerers were undertaking such pacts centuries before the US and USSR negotiated their first nuclear non-proliferation treaty.
One of the many duties of the Grail Knights is to keep the world safe from forbidden knowledge. Anything else would lead to pandemonium. And so Armiger readies his sword.
The smoke-raven adopts a humanoid shape armed with a black blade. It’s not the thick cutting blade of the Knights - it’s a needle-thin rapier-like arm, the sword of a scholar and teacher. The weapon sweeps up into a gesture of salutation, held straight up before the face, and then forward into a fighting stance.
Armiger digs in his heels, then lunges forward. Naberius is ready. The smokey rapier moves to smack aside the thrust. But the blade is too heavy. The demon is moving as well, and only this saves it from being cut in passing.
Armiger grunts. The exertion of stopping his attack, readying himself again, is clear. The great weight of his Excalibur fragment is a double-edged sword.
Naberius takes advantage of the opening, and extends into a fleche - a fully committed attack, balanced on the forward foot. Armiger has only one way out. He falls to his knees, surrendering his stance but letting the evil needle pass harmlessly overhead. He lets go of Excalibur and reaches up, grabbing where he knows arms and wrists must be on a humanoid opponent, and throws Naberius expertly over his shoulder.
As the demon falls, Armiger regains his feet and summons Excalibur back to his hands with a thought. Naberius, worthy in every sense of teaching swordplay to anyone, has turned its fall into a tumble and comes up ready. Again the two combatants face each other.
Jaycee watches, as gambit and counter-gambit are offered, accepted, rejected, negotiated. She remembers renting “Rob Roy” with William, at his request. Some of the scenes were awkward or uncomfortable to get through, but it all led to his goal: showing her the fight at the end.
“This is what it’s really like,” he explained. “Not that Robin Hood shite with a grinning Aussie waving his metal around. Danny Kaye could fence better than ‘im, and he was a comedian. No, there’s fights where anything goes, and it’s all a mess, and you never know what’s happening half the time. This right here, though. This is a duel. Just two warriors crossin’ blades, and it all coming down to endurance, cunning, and ruthlessness. The body’ll betray you first, then the will.”
Now, Jaycee understands his words, and fears. William Eddison, for all his training, for all the work the two of them have put into steeling and strengthening his body, is mortal. Naberius has no such weaknesses. All the demon must do is outlast him. Did I fuck up?
But the two trained his mind as well as his body. William has read Girard Thibault’s Académie de l’Espée. He’s studied the martial arts, both his own (such as the Judo throw Jaycee proudly watched him execute) and others’. When Naberius thrusts and feints, he’s ready. Not tense, but ready. Jaycee watches him execute the Zornhau, a longsword technique, adapting it to the lighter and more flexible thrusting weapon the demon wields. She glances at her father, but Lucius’ face is frozen into impassivity. Of course. He’s judging this just as much as a real duel.
Skinner is another matter. The veteran warrior is leaning forward, drinking in every detail of the display. Jaycee can see his eyes flicker back and forth. I only know a little about this. He’s a master. What’s he seeing that I can’t? Is William doing well?
Armiger is getting fatigued. But his defenses have gotten better and better. Jaycee almost jumps when Skinner actually speaks. “The demon’s obeying the geometry of the mysterious circle,” he murmurs. “Its perfection is its weakness.”
Jaycee isn’t sure she understands. But then she looks, and her eyes are opened.
The dirt is full of footprints. Armiger’s chaotic stance and positional changes are all over the place. But Naberius is moving with geometric precision. There’s lines in the dirt where it made its attack, or evaded those of its enemy. It’s perfect. It’s perfectly predictable!
Naberius lunges. And Armiger does the unthinkable. He throws away his sword. Or rather, with every ounce of strength, he throws it upward, tumbling and twirling in the air, a hundred pounds of metal unguided by any technique or intent. Unpredictable.
The black rapier-like blade comes within an inch of piercing Armiger through the heart. And then - he disappears, gone in the blink of an eye. For the first time, Naberius looks confused.
In the air, as Excalibur spins, a young knight appears, hands already on the hilt. His appearance steadies the blade and rights it, point down. Weapon and wielder descend in a brutal meteoric strike. The metal pierces through Naberius, cleaving its head and impaling its body, but nothing can stop the holy blade. It comes to rest a foot deep into the soil, pinning the goetic demon in place.
In a flash, six trails of light extend out from the blade, then branch off into new ones, forming a hexagram - the Seal of Solomon. It gathers every trace of Naberius’ essence into itself. The sword in turn swallows up the seal, leaving nothing behind but an exhausted warrior on his knees, grinning.
Jaycee and Lucius both turn to look at Skinner. The happy ending to this story would involve the older knight recognizing the young man’s accomplishments and promoting him to squire. But Skinner isn’t making any such pronouncements. Instead, he swings his own Excalibur fragment off his shoulder, and readies it.
“Ten Stone,” he calls out. “Prepare yourself.” And with lightning speed, and a skill that makes Jaycee gasp, he rushes Armiger.
William Eddison throws himself to his feet, grabbing Excalibur and tugging it free of the soil. He holds it behind him - an insane move, thinks Jaycee in the moment, how will he parry?
Skinner raises his sword to make a downward cutting motion. Eddison simply releases Excalibur again and falls to the ground, out of the way, a far more refined form of the maneuver he used early against Naberius.
The older knight can’t stop on a dime. As he passes parallel to Armiger’s blade, Eddison teleports again, hand on hilt, and nudges it ever so slightly. All it takes is inches, and the cutting edge slides along Skinner’s ribs.
Skinner comes to a stop, facing away from Armiger. The younger man has his blade up. There’s a thin red line running the length of it.
“The kid finally made the cut,” observes Skinner. None of the others can see his face, but they can hear the smile from his voice.
“First blood is drawn. The challenge has been met.” Lucius actually grins, and makes his way toward Armiger with the help of his cane. “William Eddison, I grant you the title of squire and invest upon you all the rights and responsibilities that accompany it.”
Jaycee runs forward and grabs William in a big congratulatory hug. She doesn’t kiss him on the cheek, but for a moment she feels the urge. Especially since he shifted from confident warrior to shy puppy-dog the moment she got ahold of him.
Skinner doesn’t catch a ride back to town in the Has Beans van. He has other matters to attend to, and a motorcycle to get him there. He even refuses Jaycee’s offer of a bandage, dismissing the cut in his side as “just a scratch”. But she does manage to overhear some kind of planned rendezvous he’ll have with Lucius later, undoubtedly involving alcohol.
“That was a gutsy move,” her dad tells her in the van. “I take it you didn’t have much confidence in young Eddison’s ability to win a conventional duel?”
Jaycee flushes and sputters. “I … no! I mean, I know he can fight, but the duels are stupid and–”
“You were entirely correct.” Lucius goes on ahead with his point in spite of anything she was about to say. “Skinner was going to hand him his ass in a formal fight. That’s the point. It’s Grail Knight orthodoxy, a way to teach you a certain way to fight. I promise you, the use of Naberius - perfect, but predictable, and restorer of lost dignities and honors - was not lost on Skinner. That last attack was just him protecting his pride, and a little blood was a cheap price to pay for that.”
“So uh…” William has started to speak. Jaycee looks back at him via the rear-view mirror. “Wasn’t that… I dunno, cheatin’ or somethin? Shouldn’t I be disqualified?”
Lucius chuckles, and Jaycee rolls her eyes. “What ingratitude! I put a lot of work into researching that tradition, just to help you out, and now you’re accusing me of cheating?”
“Sorry. I just… I wanted to do it fairly.” William lowers his eyes.
Jaycee can’t stay mad when he makes a face like that. She smiles fondly, hoping he doesn’t see it, and keeps driving.
Lucius rubs his chin. “Now that you’re a squire, I can finally send you on a proper assignment. In addition to your duties with the Irregulators - which will now become formalized, by the way - I have something else for you.”
William raises his head again, excited. “Yeah? Wossat?”
“You’ll be the chivalrous champion to a very charming and proper young lady.”
Jaycee, eyes burning, almost buries the brake into the floorboards with both feet, sending the van screeching to a halt.
author: Bill G.