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Damn the pride of shepherds! Three days. Three whole days of negotiation to come to an agreement that was obvious from the first half hour. The gods blasted shepherds know their rights and insist upon them. Sometimes I wonder of they’ve forgotten where those rights come from. Sometimes I wonder if they’ve forgotten the responsibilities that go with those rights.
Everyone could see it was a poor grazing year. By custom they are entitled to dip into the royal feed stocks. Would they have been satisfied with my sending out a representative? No. It’s their right to negotiate with the Lord, so I had to put my mud stomping boots on and head to the high pastures. Perfectly happy to settle the issue right off, but no, they insisted on the full ceremony.
Don’t know why they bother. Maybe they like to pretend their “Lord” is a real gentleman instead of being descended from sheepherders himself. They might have forgotten after 200 years, but my family never has. We study our history. Of course, that history is also why I tramped up there. My family remembers when the vampires fed upon the blood of humans rather than the blood of sheep and other livestock.
You’d think living in the shadow of vampire castles would have kept the memory fresh.
Sometimes I wonder if our province actually wants to descend into chaos, just to fit in with the madness gripping the other twelve provinces. The old truce between humans and vampires is breaking down. Vampires are pushing for dominance in the councils while we humans squabble amongst ourselves. Vampires always could smell weakness.
If only the damn witches hadn’t broken with the rest of man. Witches are still human, aren’t they?
So, after three days negotiating about grasslands and eating boiled mutton, I could think of nothing but heading back to my humble keep. Some real food, a nice long bath, and I’d feel a bit more human.
It was not to be. I knew there was trouble when Tad the squire met me on the trail lugging my ornate fencing gear along with my fancy hat and cloak. The young lad looked burdened with a lot more than my fancy dress gear. Tension lines pulled his face taunt. He’s going to develop some nasty wrinkles if he doesn’t learn to relax.
“Bugger me Tad! What’s happening now?”
“Begging your pardon, Lord, but there’s trouble in the council hall. It’s been called in session.”
“Oh hell, on who’s authority?” I said, while swapping out my utility blades for the fancy blades of state and throwing the purple cloak and hat over my rather ordinary travel clothes.
“Lord Rupurt is there.”
Dammit to the seventh layer of hell with all Hereditary High Lords, I thought. Lord Rupurt should be back at the capital bowing and scraping to the King rather than troubling my province. But no, I’m stuck with him. Probably some scandal or another. Out here in the country he usually minds his own business, attending to his painting and music. To be fair, he does play a fair lute and when he paints I can tell the difference between the sheep and the goats.
Today, however, he decided to remember that he is a Hereditary High Lord and has the power to call our local council into session.
“OK Tad, who the hell is representing the vampires? Don Vincent?”
“He’s there, yes, but Don Gerro came down from the castle himself.” Tad’s look of tension slipped into near terror.
I patted his shoulder and forced a smile into my voice. “Well then, let’s go see what all the fuss is about.”
Tad relaxed some. His lord and master had things under control. Right!
That control lasted almost all the way to the council chamber. A crowd gathered by the gates, my way blocked by a very drunken blacksmith holding his big hammer.
“Make way George,” I said.
“I ain’t bowing and scraping to no Lord.”
“Didn’t ask you to George. I asked you to make way, politely too, I might add.”
Why does every trouble maker in the kingdom make their way to my providence? Is it because we have a long long history of not hanging insubordinate bastards who deserve it? George is perhaps the best damn blacksmith in the kingdom . . . when sober. Looks like he hadn’t been sober since breakfast.
He looked confused, but lowered his hammer. Being almost a full head taller than me, he had to bend over a bit while turning his ear towards me.
“You’re going to regret this when you’re sober,” I whispered, while kneeing him in the balls with all my might. He dropped like a speared boar -lots of rolling around and squealing. I didn’t feel too bad about it either. Any other Royal Lord of the Blood would have run him through with his fancy sword. Too much of a waste for my liking. George is a damn fine swordsmith, when sober, and would be hard to replace.
The sound of clashing steel ended just before I opened the council chamber doors. One thing about being Lord, I knew how to assess a room full of people in a second. It’s one of those skills drilled into my head when I would rather have been down to the mill stream spearing fish. A quick scan of the room told me all I needed to know.
Rupurt wore his heavy gold chain of state along with his jeweled hat and the very best from his rather extensive wardrobe. Things were grave indeed. Rupurt takes dress up seriously. The council chairs had been pulled back to reveal the traditional fencing strip where royal duels of honor take place. The spectator seats were filled with the usual hangers on who have any scrap of royal blood or minor title, about thirty or so, pretty much the full allotment of provincial royalty. They scented something big was up. Power might shift today and they all needed to know who’s butt to stick their nose up.
No . . . wait, there’s more to it than that, a hint of unease. Perhaps they are wondering if it’s time to inspect their villas on the kingdom’s border? Things were bad.
Very bad indeed. My dowager aunt, the Lady Bett, sat in attendance. She’d only be present if someone close to her was in grave danger.
Oh sheep dip, that someone was probably me.
On the fencing strip stood the vampire Don Varro and my cousin Lord Eaglebor. Don Varro stood arrogantly, his whole manner dripping sarcasm. Instead of sarcasm, Lord Eaglebor stood dripping blood from dozens of shallow cuts. Those fencers were the thirds. Behind Lord Eaglebor stood my Uncle Remmant, as the second. Don Vincent was second behind Don Varro.
The vampires stood in a tight knot around Don Varro. It was the end of the first bout, the formal bout. The one with rules and style. From the look of things, it would go on to the second bout -the free form brawl without rules or style. It’s called something high and fancy in the old tongue, but I always thought of it as a bar room gutter brawl, only not as polite.
Let’s see, the threes are already on the mat, the twos are in position to continue. Don Gerro, the rarely seen head vampire, waited in the first position. Ah hell, that means I’m supposed to fight Don Gerro, after the thirds and seconds are done. Not good at all. Only one thing to do. Well, only one thing to do, if I didn’t want to move to another country, under an assumed name, to take up the old family sheepherder tradition. To be honest, for just a moment, I weighed my options.
“Hold!” I bellowed, in my best Royal outrage voice, “What is the meaning of this?”
Everything stopped. We could hear birds outside. All eyes focused on me. Glad Tad fetched my fancy hat.
Lord Rupurt cleared his throat, “Lord and Protector, I received notice that all the kingdom’s councils have been called to order to address grievances brought forth by the vampires.”
“Is this true Don Gerro? You and your vampires have grievance between me and mine?”
Don Gerro came forward, a small smile on his face, just enough to reveal his fangs. He shrugged. “A grievance? Me? No, of course not. This is all regrettable.” His face, for just a moment, revealed all of his hundreds of years. “But it’s not in my hands. Our betters say matters must be settled by dueling and we, like you, must obey.”
He had me there. In case I had any doubt about my orders Lord Rupurt gave me a slight nod. That nod told me that somewhere among today’s Royal dispatch papers must be an order, signed, sealed, full of flourishy language that basically said: Fight the vampires.
No help for it then. Maybe, however, I could do something to limit the damage.
“Don Gerro,” I said, “We both know how this will go.”
“Oh?” He raised an eyebrow.
“When the duel resumes in the second part, Don Varro will cut down Lord Eaglebor. He’s been playing with him the whole time, hasn’t he?”
“True.” stated Don Gerro.
“My Lord, I protest!” said Lord Eaglebor.
“I make no disparagement on your honor cousin, just your swordsmanship. Be still.”
He shut up, remembering that his little cousin really was his Lord and master.
“Then the seconds will meet. It’ll be a tough match, but I figure there’s more than even odds that your long time retainer Don Vincent will no longer be by your side when this is over. My Uncle Lord Remmant is a blade master. ”
Don Vincent started, but Don Gerro silenced him with a glance.
“What do you propose?” he said.
“Let’s cut to the chase and go right to the duel of firsts.”
“You and me then?”
“Perhaps you think you are the best swordsman among the humans?”
“Nope, maybe the tenth or twelfth.”
“And you feel that’s sufficient to beat me?”
“Probably not, but maybe I’m having a lucky day.”
“Vampires do not believe in luck.”
“Well then, I do, so let’s just put that down on my side as one of my potential advantages.”
He smiled wider, perhaps to better reveal his fangs in case I missed them the first time. “Any other ideas, human?”
“Yes, if you are willing. I’ve had a trying day and don’t want to waste energy on the formal bout. Let’s go right to the free form open contest.”
“Ah, the Yammath Du Roola,” said Don Gerro.
I told you it had a fancy name in the old tongue.
“I’ll grant you this boon as your quicker death amuses me.”
We squared off. I drew my long blade in my right hand and the short in my left. He drew his long hand and a half sword. His short blade stayed in his sheath, but he loosened its binding and shifted the handle forward. He had reach and height on me, but was slighter of build. That might have been to my advantage had he been human, but vampires are always stronger than humans.
Many years had passed since the last time Don Gerro fenced. Had he been human, he would have been out of condition and rusty. A vampire’s skills and form are not lessened by time. I contemplated how my disadvantages kept piling up on one side of the scale and my advantages lacked the weight to tip it back.
What were my advantages? Pure heart? No. Desperation? Maybe? Oh yeah, maybe I’m having a lucky day.
Lord Rupurt was just about to signal the beginning of the duel when a flash of light, loud boom, and a cloud of smoke threw everything into confusion. Such is the way of witches when they make an entrance.
When the smoke cleared, Attasha, Witch of the High Coven, stood in the room. Her long iron gray hair framed a deceptively youthful looking face. A black dress hugged her full figured bust and flaring hips. A long thin cloak with a frilly hem billowed out behind her for a second, like wind from another place still held it.
Lord Rupurt’s eyes met her’s and for a moment I got a hint of maybe what the scandal in the capital was all about. Lords of the Realm are not supposed to consort with witches. There appeared to be a history between those two.
She glanced around the room. Even the vampires looked impressed. Attasha pulled a long black wand from her robe. Holding it in front of her she slowly turned in a circle. The witch stopped when it pointed to Lord Rupurt’s empty chair.
“There,” she said.
Attasha strode over to Lord Rupurt’s chair, a fine antique dating back three hundred years. She picked it up and smashed it down upon the council table. The legs broke off, the thick seat split in half revealing a secret compartment. There was something it in that came free. A glass ball rolled across the table. She quickly picked it up, waved her wand over it, causing it to disappear with a small popping noise.
The witch stood up tall and addressed the room. “Thunder balls have destroyed twelve of the thirteen council chambers. All the vampire and human leaders in those provinces have been killed. The Kings of both the vampires and the humans are also lost to the living.” She shook her head sadly. “There were those in our order who wanted to take over, upset the balance. We stopped them, but not in time. Only this council is left.
She looked at Lord Rupurt for a moment that seemed to stretch out beyond this time and far back into memory. I thought she might say more, but she shook her head and disappeared the same way she came in. It is said there is no leash for a witch's will.
Don Gerro recovered first. “Well, well, well,” he said. “That changes everything yet changes nothing.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Apparently we are the last of the realm’s royalty.”
“I suppose that may be true.”
“Now all that’s left is to determine who’ll rule the kingdom, humans or vampires. Prepare to resume our duel, but for greatly raised stakes.”
He was within his rights, dammit, and there was no help for it. I had to duel, and at least make a decent showing. Perhaps if I died well the humans will be treated with some respect.
“Let’s begin then.”
Lord Rupurt resumed his duties and the duel began.
Not being restricted to the dueling strip like in the formal matches, we ranged all over the room. Don Gerro attacked relentlessly. I blocked his attacks, but barely, and only by constantly giving ground. He was fast and moved with little regard for his defense. Vampires could take a lot of damage. Both hands wielded his long sword driving it with his undead strength. My small blade flew out of my left hand and disappeared under the chairs.
He forced me back until my legs bumped against the table. I picked up Lord Rupurt’s chair leg as a poor substitute for my missing second blade. Don Gerro’s blade chipped big chunks off the age hardened wood. Sparks flew when our long blades met. Luck favored me then. While vampires don’t get rusty, metal blades are not so impervious to the ravages of time. His blade broke off near the hilt.
While he fumbled for his second blade, I jammed the splintered chair leg into his side, right under the ribs. Black blood spilled from his lips as I punctured his lung. Still not a fatal wound for a vampire, but certainly a painful one. However, one sharp push and the stake would pierce his heart ending his unnaturally long life.
I stared him in the eyes, and for once, a vampire broke eye contact with a human. Victory was mine, yet I paused.
“Yield to me and I will save your life,” I said.
Surprise came over his face, but only for a moment, he quickly jumped back. The sharp fragment of chair leg pulled free with a sucking sound. For a moment I thought he was going for his knife. The advantage was no longer mine.
No, he had something else in his hand. It seemed to be a dull lead colored thing about the length of a man’s little finger. He smiled and I froze. With the thing in his hand he traced a line running just below my left eyebrow and down the side of my nose. The mark felt cold and heavy.
“My life is yours, but yours is also mine. I yield. The kingdom will continue to be ruled by humans.”
It occurred to me that since I was probably the senior surviving member of the royal house, if what the witch said was true, then I had to make kingly decisions. Might as well start now.
“I reaffirm the old treaty between humans and vampires with no loss of honor. The blood tribute will continue to be paid.”
“Acceptable . . . my King,” said Don Gerro. “Our people will hold up our end of the bargain . . . and perhaps more.”
He took his leave then, half carried by the other vampires. Even vampires have physical limits and I had given him a near fatal blow. It must be something to be reminded of one’s mortality after hundreds of years.
The next day confirmed what the witch had said. All the other council halls had been destroyed, along with much of the kingdom’s royalty, both human and vampire. The survivors were making their way to my hall to confirm me as king. I was going to be busy, but so were those under my command.
My Uncle Remmant I put to work preparing for the arrival of royal visitors and retainers. We’d have to open up the closed west wing of the keep. As soon as he recovered from his wounds, I had work for my cousin Eaglebor to do. He owed me and I intended to collect. Sure, a king holds his subjects lives in his hand, but I figure I at least earned Eaglebor’s life. I won’t feel too badly about risking it, should the need come up.
After a while it was just High Lord Rupurt and myself. “I have diplomatic work for you Lord Rupurt.”
“As my King commands.”
It still sounded odd to my ears. “Yeah, well.” I cleared my throat. “Can you contact the witches?”
“There may be a way my lord.”
“Right, when you contact Attasha give her my thanks for saving our lives. Also, do what you have to do to make peace with the witches. The kingdom cannot afford to be weakened by internal strife.”
“Yes, my King.”
“Oh, and another thing, Lord Rupurt, I don’t give a rat’s ass about who it’s seemly for you to consort with or not. Do you understand me?”
“Indeed your highness, and thank you.”
“On your way out, send in the blacksmith -assuming he’s sober. I have a fine sword to commission. I think I’ll replace one I broke recently.”
Finally I was alone for a minute. The mark above my left eye, while hardly visible, itched something fierce. I wonder what it meant to be marked by a vampire lord. I sighed. One more thing to look up in the achieves. Oh well, I supposed a King can afford to hire a scholar to dig through the dust and cobwebs. Maybe being king isn’t all bad.
Then the weight of the job fell upon my shoulders. We had to find who planted the thunderball in our council chamber. It had to be someone local. Once found, he'd hang by my command. Hope it's not someone I'm going to miss too terribly much.
I sighed. Command has its burdens.
I shook the mood off. Too much to do.
Now where is that blacksmith?
sound boring as i was expecting a fatal action and more but mind you, it has some lessons to pick and learn. well, not bad at all.
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