Sebastien de Castell is the director of strategic program development at the Vancouver Film School and a former fight choreographer and actor, and he just published his first novel, "Traitor's Blade." De Castell contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.
On the road, the Greatcoats are accosted by their rivals, a group of Ducal Knights, men that have sworn to uphold a Duke or Duchess's laws where the Greatcoats have sworn to uphold the King's Law. Knights value honor, which means following orders no matter the vileness of the deed to be done, whereas Greatcoats value justice above all; the two groups are enemies.
"Lady Caravaner," the Knight-captain began, keeping wonderful composure - Knights are very good at that, much like trained cats - "my name is Captain Lynniac. My men and I have been sent by Isault, Duke of Aramor, to arrest and prosecute these men as the murderers of your fellow Lord Caravaner, Lord Tremondi, and to retrieve the monies they stole from him."
"Prosecute" meant "kill-on-the-spot-without-a-trial," in case you're wondering. I thought Captain Lynniac looked a lot more interested in retrieving whatever money we were supposed to have stolen than he was in avenging Tremondi's murder.
"Well, he'll just have to wait. I need these men to help guard my caravan," she said lightly. "After we reach Hervor, I'll be sure to send them back, and you can prosecute them then."
The captain didn't appreciate her tone. "The Duke is sovereign in these lands, my Lady, and his orders are that these men lay down their weapons and come with us."
"No law makes a Duke sovereign of the roads," I said casually. It was one of those phrases I'd heard the Lords Caravaner use periodically, so I thought it might light a spark. "Furthermore, the likelihood that the Duke would pursue a crime perpetrated against Lord Tremondi - who, I should tell you, despised the Duke immensely - is about as low as the chance that you plan to let the caravan go along its merry way after you take us. What, pray tell, is the Duke's interest in this caravan?"
"Shut your mouth, tatter-cloak," the captain said, his voice tight with self-righteous fury. "My Lady," he began again, "it would ill suit your purposes, whatever they might be, to make an enemy of Duke Isault."
There was a pause. I had to admit that was a very good point, and a solid counter to my legal argument that they didn't actually have any jurisdiction over the caravan routes.
"Very well," the Lady said from her carriage. "Trattari, you are hereby ordered to lay down your weapons."
Well, now this was a bind. Brasti and Kest looked at me for instruction, but I wasn't sure what the right move would be. Technically, we were the Lady's employees. If she told us to drop our weapons, we had to drop our weapons. Also, we were trapped between the men the Duke had sent to arrest us and the caravan guards who hated us.
Captain Lynniac smiled. "Wise choice, my-—"
"However," she continued, "Trattari, if you go with these men and abandon this caravan, I will consider you to have breached our contract and ensure the Caravan Council knows of your failure to fulfill your contract."
Brasti turned and stared at the closed carriage. "What? You're saying we have to lay down our weapons but not get arrested? What are we supposed to do - fight them barehanded?"
"My Lady is wise and just," Captain Lynniac said.
"Of course, any of my men who wish to assist my tatter-cloaks are welcome to do so," she said, as if in passing.
Captain Lynniac's eyes darted to the rest of the caravan guards, but not one of them made a move. That just made him smile more. He really did look familiar when he did that. Where had I seen that smile?
"Well, boy," Feltock whispered in my ear, "there's a lesson in here somewhere. Can't tell you what it is, but I'm sure you'll figure it out eventually."
The captain's men laughed. Brasti looked confused. I tried desperately to think of a way out of this, and Kest just smiled, which only made things worse.
"Kest," I said slowly, "considering we are the very definition of damned if we do and damned if we don't, would you mind telling me why in the name of Saint Felsan-who-weighs-the-world you're smiling?"
"Because," he said, dropping his sword to the ground and unrolling the bottom of his coat sleeves, "now we get to play cuffs."
You have to understand how the sleeves of a greatcoat are constructed. The leather of the sleeve is itself quite formidable and can save you from a lot of damage. Oh, you could pierce it with an arrow if you get enough force behind it, but even a fairly sharp blade won't cut into it. But the cuffs at the end of the sleeve, those are something different. They contain two carefully carved bone pieces sewn into the leather itself. They can take a hit from just about anything - Kest believes that they could even block the ball from a pistol, but we haven't yet had occasion to test his theory.
There are occasions in the course of a travelling Magister's duties where he or she might not be able to draw a weapon, either because the physical space is too tight or because, for one reason or another, you don't actually want to carve up the person who is attacking you.
For these situations, the King demanded that we be able to defend ourselves even if we were weaponless. So you unfold the cuffs of your coat and loop the leather strap attached to them to your two middle fingers. You now have a way of parrying swords, maces or other weapons that might otherwise do you harm. That is, of course, if you move really, really fast and don't miss any of your blocks.
When we practiced fighting like this, which, thank Saint Gan-who-laughs-with-dice, we did a lot in the old days, we called it "playing cuffs".
"This isn't going to work, you know," I said to Kest as I flipped my cuffs over and pushed my fingers through the leather loops.
"They're going to get smart and use those crossbows to pick us off at a distance."
"You'll figure something out," he replied.
"Figure it out soon," Brasti said. He was probably the best bowman in the civilized world, but he rarely won at cuffs. I was pretty good at it. Using rapiers as your primary weapon, you have to learn precision, and I was never much good with a shield, so cuffs wasn't a bad alternative.
But being good at cuffs wasn' t a strategy. The first part would be easy enough - get them to fight us up close so that their friends with the crossbows couldn't get a clear shot. Even if we could hold them off, though, this Knight and his men would soon get tired of being made to look bad. If they couldn't get us with swords, eventually they'd just pull back and let the crossbowmen do the job. If only our "comrades" in the caravan guard had been better disposed towards us and kept their own crossbows on our opponents, we'd have stood a better chance. Unfortunately, just then they were rooting for the other guys.
"Is there a plan?" Brasti asked, looking at me. "Because if there's a plan, then I'd love to know what it is, and if there's not and I get killed going hand-to- sword with a bunch of Duke' s men, then I may start to lose respect for you, Falcio."
I did have a plan. It might have sounded like a terrible plan at first hearing, but it really was not as bad as all that . . .
"Sir Knight, before we begin, may I say something?" I called out.
"Last words? Remarkably prescient for a dog."
"I just wanted to say that all Dukes are traitors, all Knights are liars, and the road belongs to no one but the caravans."
Captain Lynniac growled, and he and his men charged us.
Brasti said, "Please tell me that wasn't the entire plan?"
"Stop talking," I said, beating the first blade out of the way as they came upon us like a thunderstorm, "and start singing."
I took Lynniac's blade on my right cuff, using a tight circle to beat it out of the way as I sidestepped to my left. The secret to playing cuffs is that you have to pair every parry or sweep with a complementary movement of the feet,otherwise You're likely to end up with broken hands and wrists from the force of the blows.
The first man behind Lynniac tried a thrust to my midsection while the Knight himself tried to get his blade back in the air for a downstroke. I slid back to the right and let the thrust go right by me and kicked Lynniac in the chest before he could ready the blow. In my periphery, Brasti was using both hands in a downwards block to counter a thrust from a war- sword. I could already hear Kest in my mind chastising Brasti for poor technique: you never want to use both hands to block a single weapon as it leaves you vulnerable to the next man. I didn't bother checking on Kest because - well, he's Kest and that would just depress me. Instead I started the song, which, after all, was the core of my plan.
"A King can make all the laws he wants, A Duke can rule all the land he wants, A woman can rule my heart if she wants,
. . . but no man rules my caravan!"
The last line coincided nicely with my backhanding one of the soldiers in the jaw as his mace missed my shoulder in a failed downstroke. Unfortunately, no one joined me on the chorus.
"The Army can tax the cow in my barn, The Duchy can tax the rest of my farm, The landlord taxes my own left arm, . . . but no man taxes my caravan!"
Kest and Brasti picked up the second verse with me. All Greatcoats learn to sing. In smaller towns and villages you often had to pass judgement by singing the verdict so that it would be easier for the townsfolk to remember. Brasti's voice was a classic baritone, well-suited to songs like this one. Kest's voice would surprise you if you heard it - it was smooth and sweet and completely out of character.
But their voices weren't the ones I needed.
One of the men with the crossbows tried to get a shot in, but I'd been waiting for just such an occasion. I was pushing off one man while another was trying to brain me with his mace, but that gave him a heavy- footed stance and by side-stepping the blow, I got on the other side of him in time for the crossbow bolt to take him square in the chest. I was starting to get a little winded, so I was glad that Kest and Brasti were holding up their end of the singing now.
"Beat me in a fight, well, I bet you can,
Cheat me at cards and I'll fall for your plan,
Take my own life if you think that you can—"
I let the dying man who'd been my shield slide down to the ground, only to see another soldier with a crossbow raising it towards me. I took a step to the right and raised my arms up to cover my face.
"—but you"ll die long a'fore you touch my caravan!"
The crossbow bolt narrowly missed me, but, fortunately, it didn't miss the man who had worked his way behind me. I suspected that Captain Lynniac would be having a severe talk with his bowmen after this fight. Even better was the fact that I thought I might have heard someone from the caravan sing that last line with us.
But our time was running out. We'd taken out half of them, but that just left more openings for the crossbows. Brasti had some blood on his temple where he'd taken a glancing blow. Kest was doing all right holding off two men, but he was getting dangerously open, and if one of the men with crossbows saw the chance . . . To make things worse, the ground beneath our feet was turning into mud and muck and it wouldn't be long before one of us slipped or tripped over another man's body. And worst of all, we were running out of verses to the damned song.
"My Lord is the one what owns my land—"
I took down the man in front of me with a kick to his knee, followed by a strike to the side of his head. I saw Kest had taken both his men down, but Brasti was struggling, swinging wildly to block the blows of the swordsman in front of him. He wasn't singing any more.
"My Saint is the one what guides my hand—"
Captain Lynniac was stepping back from the fray and shouting to his men. Two of the men with crossbows were reloading, but the third was taking aim.
"My God knows I am his to command—"
At his shout the rest of the Knight's men pulled back and I saw Brasti looking around frantically for an opponent and not seeing the crossbow aimed squarely at his chest not twenty feet away. I tried to push past my own last men in a futile effort to get there in time. I could see Kest, not moving, his overly practical nature telling him there was no point. Brasti's head turned and saw the crossbow too late. His hands started to move reflexively to guard his face when a bolt appeared in the throat of the Knight's bowman.
There was a second of dead silence, and no one moved. Then I turned my head and looked behind me at a man in one of our wagons holding an empty crossbow. It was Blondie. "But my brother is the man who guards my caravan," he sang softly.
And that, I thought, is the old saying: "The song is swifter than the sword."
I turned back to the fight. Most of the captain's men were on the ground now. Two were still standing, but they were wary, and edging back. Lynniac himself was looking straight at me as he raised his right arm up in line with my gut. He had taken the cocked crossbow from his dead man. Knights don't normally use bows - they consider them coward's weapons. And knives are good enough for a soldier's need, perhaps, but not good enough for a Knight's honor. In my entire life I'd never seen a Knight who would even touch a crossbow. But Lynniac had lost a fight, and a Knight's sense of honor could not forgive that. He had watched his men beaten by outlaws he considered less than dogs, and without weapons. And apparently he had no more use for honor and he was going to put a bolt into me out of pure spite. He gave me something that was a cross between a snarl and a smile, and again that sense of familiarity flared.
Then he started to laugh, and suddenly made himself known to me.
I remembered that laugh. At first it was just the soft touch of a sour memory, but it quickly filled up my world until I couldn't really see Captain Lynniac, and I didn't see if the sword, which I had just grabbed off the ground and thrown at him like an amateur, had hit him or missed entirely, because all I could see were the five hundred Knights who'd come to Castle Aramor to depose King Paelis and outlaw the Greatcoats. I couldn't tell if the bolt that he had loosed had lightly grazed the side of my neck or if it was jammed in my throat because all I could feel was the heat emanating from the burned wreckage of the King's library - the hundred ashen corpses of the texts that had meant so much to him. I couldn't tell if Kest's and Brasti's shouts were encouragement or warning me that someone else was behind me, because all I could hear was the laughter of the Ducal Knights as my King's head was jammed onto a pole and hoisted up atop Castle Aramor's parapet. That laugh. As impossible as it seemed, Captain Lynniac's laugh was how I remembered him, and it was both the reason and the means for me to put him out of this world.
I can't explain what happened to me except to say that my anger gave way to a recklessness that felt like a soft, grey place of infinite indifference. The first time it had happened to me had been years ago, before I'd met the King, but there had been other incidents since then, and they came closer together now. Coming out of it was getting harder and harder too. That was why I was grateful, in a distant and uninterested way, when Kest struck me down with the pommel of one of the fallen Knight's swords.
Author's Note: Excerpt from "Traitor's Blade" (Jo Fletcher Books, 2014), an imprint of Quercus, first published in the United States by Quercus July 2014 by Sebastien de Castell. All rights reserved.
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