Friday, May 31, 2013

The Fairy Duel

The Fairy Duel
Bobby Derie

William Boyd Morgan and Jonathan Livermore Green had been too close of friends, else they would never have come to blows. They had been students together at Oxford, and after members of the same club in London. In the summers Morgan and his sister Catherine would visit Baddon Hall in the north of England, the ancient seat of the Greens from before the Conquest, and in the winters Green would come south to the isle-keep of Sealachia, where the Morgans had always made their home. At university the two men had discovered a mutual love of fairy-lore, and this formed the basis for their mutual appreciation; twice each year on their visits they would regale each other and Catherine with the stories and superstitions they had gathered, from nurses and old men and women in the country, and every Christmas Eve the three would stay up until the first church-bell’s rang, telling the hoary old ghost-stories, each more ancient than the last.

Perhaps if Catherine had been more pretty, or the Morgans more rich, and she had as many gentlemen admirers as her friends her eye would never have fallen on Jack Green. Perhaps if Green had more time for the society of London he would have found a wife, and the whole debacle could have been avoided. Perhaps again if William had been more aware of his sister and his friend, he could have put a stop to it before it came as far as it did, until one day two weeks before Christmas she announced herself with child and without a ring, and Jack Green could only stare at the floor before his outraged friend and offer to do the gentlemanly thing. Had it been any other man that stood before him, perhaps William Morgan might have accepted. Yet he had trusted and loved Jack Green as no other equal in the whole of England or the world beyond it, so he threw down the ancient gauntlet.

“You may have my sister only over my own blood!”

Jack nodded. They arranged terms—the courtyard of Sealachia, on Christmas Eve in two weeks time. Their secretaries, Gull and Swanson, would act as seconds. As for weapons, Green stared Morgan in the eye and said only.

“Charm swords.”

And they were agreed. Catherine only looked on with tears, before her brother not unkindly ordered her into the house, for the health of herself and her child.

Now for a week William Morgan shut himself up in his library, poring over every bit of fairy-lore he knew. There were many tales of fairy-blessed blades, from all across the length and breadth of England, but he knew well that all he knew he had shared with his friend. This then was a duel of wits and daring and wisdom as much as martial skill. In three days in study, Morgan knew as much about charming a sword as any man in England had every known; in six he had surpassed them all, and cracked the leather of books his grandfathers had written in spidery Latin three centuries gone. On the seventh day he went forth in his coach and returned with what, for two hundred guineas, was proclaimed the best yard of Toledo steel that could be found in all of London.

The hall was locked, that week before Christmas. The circle was drawn, the milk and meat laid out on the table in cups and plates of old Roman silver. With care and precision did William speak the words. From the shadows, as though he had waited there all along, strode the fairy. There was a crown of ice upon his brow that did not melt, set with crystals of adamant, and hair as pale and fine as spidersilk fell wild down upon his shoulders and to the small of his back. The dark cloak was gathered at the shoulder in a curious amulet of ancient gold, and at his side hung an empty scabbard. A price was named, and promised. The blade was drawn forth, just an inch, and that pale finger with a nail like a dark talon crossed the blade, steaming slightly where it touched the metal. Then he unsheathed the blade, and took forth from a pouch a small dark stone studded with diamonds, and ran the whetstone down each edge, letting fall a hair-like peel of watered steel to fall to the floor. The bargain done, the elf-king supped up the meat in one bite, drained the goblet, and stepped back beneath the world.

For the remaining week, William Morgan practiced day and night with the fencing masters. He did not use his charmed sword, for he still knew not what Jack Green might bring. Better he thought to improve his own skill and strength, so that coupled with the might of his blade he might avenge the betrayal of his own flesh and blood.

On Christmas Eve, the carriage arrived from Baddon Hall, and Swanson stepped forth to open the door for his master. William was there to receive him, flanked by Catherine and Gull. Green stepped forth with a pair of gaily wrapped presents in his hand. Seeing Morgan’s face, Green handed these to Swanson, who in turn presented them to Gull. Then Jack Green brought forth a long yellow wooden box from the carriage, and the driver struggled to hold the horses.

They went directly to the courtyard, where preparations had been made. A short table had been set out, with the Toledo blade set upon it, as well as goblets and a bottle of wine. The family physician attended, an old surgeon with sad eyes beneath shaggy white brows that had grown back after the first had been lost in a burst of cannon-fire in his youth. So too there was a priest, not an honest vicar or rector but a member of some older sect that nervously caressed the knotwork cross upon his breast.

The gentlemen took off their coats. Jack rolled up his sleeves to the elbow and removed his tie; William tightened his cuffs and tucked in his cravat. Gull withdrew the charm sword from its sheath, which he left on the table. Catherine near to wept at the sight, and the priest blanched a little, but the physician only raised one shaggy eyebrow and opened up the bag at his feet, layout out needles, thread, and bandages. Jack Green opened the box. The inside was lined with rabbit-fur, and on it lay a curious and ancient construction—a blade of flint with chipped edges and a crooked spike for a point, the hilt a looped cross of bronze, wood, and leather. William Morgan stroked his beard and looked hard at his erstwhile friend, then grunted.

The seconds came forward, examined the blades. First blood was shed by each man, testing point and edge, and the doctor smiled and handed forth red handkerchiefs and a small bottle of spirits. Satisfied, each man took his own blade, and took up a position some three arm’s lengths from each other.

No one came forward to ask if the parties could be reconciled.

Morgan advanced first to engage, and followed with a lunge. Green beat the steel aside with the flat of the flint blade, tried a cut. Almost of its own, the steel leapt in Morgan’s hand to parry, and he remembered to pull up his rear leg, bringing the sword back up en garde. There was the whisper of flint on steel and the sword felt warm in his hand, his pulse pounding in his temples. Green tried again, a downward slash at Morgan’s inside, attempting to insist through Green’s defense with the heavier blade. Again, Morgan parried, felt the blade grow hot under his hand, but it held. Morgan took a step back, and did not smile. Whatever enchantment was laid on the strange blade Green held was at least the equal of his own, but the archaic form of the weapon was against his opponent; heavy and slow, intended mainly to cut.

Green adjusted his grip to two hands, then advanced with a diagonal slash. Morgan made to parry the heavy blow, felt the white heat shoot up his arm as he deflected the blade, then moved into a circular cut that left a crimson stain spreading on the outside of Green’s right shoulder. The northerner shuddered as if elf-shot, retreated a step, then raised his blade once more. They circled for a moment, the blade slowly cooling in Morgan’s hand. He wondered then at the empty scabbard the elf-king bore, and wondered more at the audacity of Jack Green. They moved again to engage.

Jack changed hands again, moving it to his left hand, and raised the flint blade to shoulder level. A thrust point-in-line, the wicked point moving at Morgan’s heart, and William was well prepared for it, moved again to parry the flint blade aside, but Jack surprised him, sliding the flint down across the steel and stepping forward bringing them into a clinch. William Morgan felt a prick at his throat, right beneath the beard, and Catherine screamed. He glanced down to see a small bronze dagger in Jack’s right hand—what he had taken for a decoration on the flint sword, not a concealed weapon.

“Yield…brother-in-law.” Jack Green said.

The blades lowered. The doctor sat Jack down to sew his shoulder, and Gull poured the wine while Swanson made the arrangements with the priest—a Christmas wedding, in the chapel. Undo haste, perhaps, or long past due. The two men sat as friends again, admiring of each other’s weapons and techniques, and Catherine clutched at both of them.

“But tell me.” said Morgan. “What did you offer the elf-king for the use of his blade?”

The happiness died from Green’s eyes.

“My unborn, firstborn son, and a changeling to raise as my own.”
Now it was Morgan’s turn to look unhappy, and he groaned.

“I too made that promise. Catherine’s boychild for the charm on the sword, and an elf child to foster.”

Catherine made a sound in the back of her throat, and reached to finish off her soon-to-be-husband’s goblet of wine.

“You both should have asked me first. The child in my belly’s a girl. Though from the sound of it,” she set down the goblet and reached for her brother’s “we may be in for triplets.”


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