Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Dirge of the Iskandariel

(My last post was ludicrously image-heavy; it seems only fair to follow it with an old-fashioned wall of text. This is the full text of the story - as it was originally written! - published after syndication completes.)

This is the hero-dirge of the Iskanderial, of the same line of tales as told of the Century's Stand against the Southron hordes, who died but slew three thousand foes in their apssing, or the battle of the Burning Waters, where Jahn Onehand leapt from ship to ship, setting nearly three-score ablaze before a ballista-shot struck him by chance. Here we tell the core of the (much longer) Dirge of the Iskandariel, the tale of where the eponymous heroes earned their fame, in the city of Oxdale.

For three generations, the nobles of the Orindell family and of the Pettyham family had waged a bitter and essentially baseless rivalry. In all this time, the famed (infamous?) King Olgraf XVIII, also known as "The Pitiless", had ruled from the Velvet Throne, and had kept too close a watch on the Orindels and Pettyhams both for them to take any action more overt than inecessant bickering and the occasional expensive assasination. Upon the death of Olgraf XVIII, the rather less intimidating Virhush III had taken the throne, and the Baron Pettyham and Duke Orindell found a long-awaited opportunity to take revenge for all injustices, real and percieved.

But so too was it an opportunity to finally make peace; or so said the Baron's envoy to the Duke. He argued that they should be natural allies, by virtue of their close relationship (for indeed, so close were their blood ties that the Duke, lacking an heir, would upon an untimely death find his title inherited by the Baron!). Negotiations began the very week after Virhush III's ascenscion, but swiftly stalled; the envoy proposed that a direct meeting between Baron and Duke, in the neutral city of Oxdale.

The Duke agreed; but before he departed for Oxdale, he hired two foreign mercenaries of whom he'd heard good things. Their rates were absurd, and his advisors clamored against the purchase of their protection; but their reputation, that of the Iskandariel, was known to the Duke, and he considered their fees acceptable. It was in their company that he travelled to the meeting with the Baron; and it was well that he did.

The Duke and 20 of his men rode into Oxdale on the day of the meeting, having spent the night in a roadside inn. Oxdale was a small city, almost more of a walled town; being of slight size, it posessed no ruling noble, which had distinguished it for the purposes of a meeting-place. En route to the town hall, which the Baron and Duke had planned to use for their meeting, the mounted company moved slowly - it was a market day, and the streets were thick with people. The Duke diverted himself by talking to his foremost advisor, a man by the name of Nathan, while the rest of his retinue spoke amongst themselves. The foreign mercenaries remained silent and attentive; perhaps they had less in common with the others, or perhaps they were simply more disciplined. Slim and scarred, they concealed themselves within long cloaks; and they were first to notice the attackers dressed likewise.

Ten of them came from each side, drawing swords and attacking with brutal efficiency. Most of the Duke's retinue died in moments, swords and daggers still in their sheaths. A few were dragged off their horses and abducted - among them the Duke's head advisor, Nathan. The Duke himself might have suffered the same fate, or worse; but just as swiftly as the attackers appeared, the mercenary pair placed themselves at their employer's side, and they would not be overcome so easily.

Hurling themselves acrobatically from their horses, both of the Iskandariel placed themselves beside the Duke, casting off their cloaks in the same gesture. As the hurled cloaks momentarily covered and impaired the movements of the nearest attackers, the Iskandariel each drew their sword. One was slightly shorter than the other, but each possessed a craftsmanship so masterful as to be beautiful. Further, and more uniquely, both swords possessed a subtle, prismatic nimbus about their edges, its source unclear. It is not the swords' tale that is told now, though there is a tale to be told of their origins and deeds accomplished with them; rather, it is of the Iskandariel we speak, and of their swords only as they are used.

And let it be said now: The Iskandariel showed no hesitation in their use.

The Iskandariel began on the offensive. Stabbing and slicing with tremendous skill, they soon had their attackers on the backstep; it took a mere dozen heartbeats for the attackers to slaughter the Duke's retinue, and that time again for half their own number to be felled by the Iskandariel, left bleeding from neck and belly onto the cobblestone-paved street. The Baron's minions - for such the attackers were - were no match for the deadly skill of the Iskandariel, unable to launch any attack that the sword-sisters could not dodge or deflect with ease. Had their numbers remained as they were - merely ten for each of the Iskandariel! - this story would have had a much swifter ending. But reinforcements appeared quickly, pouring out from the alleyways and buildings; the Baron had prepared for stiff resistance, though he had not anticipated the Iskandariel.

To ensure that the Duke was not taken while they rampaged, the Iskandariel allowed themselves to be driven back. Now they were on the defensive; each held their ground against six sword-wielding foes, beating back a storm of blows with a shimmering blur of steel. The Duke himself had managed to draw his sword; still atop his horse, he hurled down blows at any attacker the Iskandariel let pass, driving them back. No incompetent was he, yet neither had he the grace of his defenders; three times he was wounded, each drawing a dreadful gasp of pain and a slow-swelling stain upon his tabard. He weakened steadily.

Should they but hold in place, the Iskandariel would inevitably be defeated; and they knew it. One, she who bore the longer blade, broke from her defensive pattern and launched an attack; not a lethal blow, but enough to send the foe back reeling. She of the longer blade charged forward, beating back two more opponents with powerful strikes; so occupied, the other attackers were able to penetrate her defense and land a handful of hits. They bruised, and provoked hisses of pain, but did not cut; for the Iskandariel had come prepared for treachery, and wore chain-mail beneath their clothes.

By this time the Iskandariel of the shorter blade had also begun a sequence of attacks. They drove their foes back, blades flashing to a half-dozen places at once; the enemy began to die, momentary vulnerabilities exploited to deadly effect. The Baron's men were utterly unable to penetate the Iskandariel's guard with any blow strong enough to pierce their chainmail as well. They filled the street, but could not defeat the two warriors fighting against them; they began to give the Iskandariel more and more room, seeming nearly ready to break and flee.

The Duke had taken advantage of the momentary lapse in the fighting near him to improvise bandages for his wounds. Hearing a noise, he looked up, and at once cried out "Halt!" to his bodyguards. The Iskandariel fell back a step, looked at the Duke their master, and followed his gaze, and at once returned to his side; for they saw upon the rooftops a clutch of archers, readying themselves to shoot.

With the fighting stopped, all was quiet for a moment. The archers, surely more of the Baron's minions, kept themselves ready, but did not fire; the footmen held position, both keeping a safe distance from their deadly foes and allowing the archers a clear killing ground. The Iskandariel produced oil cloths and began to wipe down their rainbow-shrouded swords. This eerie calm persisted for several minutes, broken only by the sound of flies buzzing about the corpses of the slain and the nickering of the Duke's horse; then the sound of hoof-beats came from further down the street. They grew louder, then their source became visible as the footmen gave way: it was the Baron himself, horseback amist a crowd of mounted guardsmen.

"So you've finally showed your hand," the Duke said, coughing into a cloth as the speech irritated his wounds. "I should have known I could never trust a Pettyham."

"Oh, come now," the Baron said, sneering. "You must have expected this. Really, I'm disappointed that you brought so small a force against me - have the Orindells become so impoverished as to muster a mere two mercenaries for protection - and women, at that?"

"They seem to have done well enough," the Duke replied. "Perhaps it is the quality of your men you should look to."

The Baron nudged his horse closer, face growing red with anger. "You would say that?" he cried, outraged. "The bodies of your retinue and the blood on your tunic tells a different tale! Had you not called them back, the bodies of your precious mercenaries would lie on the cobbles even now!"

The Duke noticed the Iskandariel of the shorter blade loosening her weapon in her sheath, the action concealed by the Duke's own figure. He deliberately cast his gaze directly at the Baron, ignoring her actions. "Let me tell you a story," he suggested to the Baron. "There once was an archery contest held in the nearby village of Previce. Bards spread the news far and wide before the event itself occured, and many a freeman rose to the challenge. Among the contestants were two men-at-arms, one in the service of Pettyham, another in the service of Orindell."

"They met before the contest began, and made a pair of bets. Firstly: should either of them reach first place in the contest, the other would be forced to pay their drinking tab for a fortnight. Second: Should either fail to pass the first tier of competition, they would be forced to pay the other's feed for the same span of time."

The Duke paused for effect, and then finished his tale. "Let's just say that the Orindell man became very happy and very plump for the next two weeks."

The Baron was utterly livid. "I cannot abide these taunts!" he cried. "I had hoped to keep you alive - you would be very useful as a pawn, testifying to my innocence in this whole sad matter, with your few remaining followers under threat should you act otherwise. But these insults - I will kill you in person, and will deal with the King some other way!"

"Very well," the Duke agreed condescendingly. "I can't think of any other way you can recover what shreds of honor and competence remain to you than dueling with a thrice-injured man." Holding his sword at the ready, and still very carefully keeping his gaze directly on the Baron, he asked, "Shall we?"

The Baron roared, drew his own sword, and spurred his horse forward. His bodyguards watched with dismay. As the Baron neared, the Duke noticed one of the Iskandariel giving him a questioning look. He nodded, as subtly as he could, being certain still to keep his gaze fixed upon the Baron. Seconds later, at the moment of the Baron's closest approach, that same Iskandariel leapt, bore the Baron down from his horse, and buried her sword in his chest with one swift motion.

Chaos ensued. The other of the Iskandariel was already dragging the Duke off his own horse, pulling him towards the door of the nearby house. The asssassin - she of the shorter blade - was already in motion again, rolling aside from a shower of arrows and leaping directly into the ranks of the foe. In the distraction, still there were those among the Baron's men who ran to pursue the Duke. Now half-stumbling as his bodyguard tugged him, the Duke and his companion burst through the nearby house's door, through the confused and frightened family inside, and up the stairs to the second story. The Iskandariel stopped a moment, pulled a concealed dagger from her pack and hurled it through the window directly atop the stairs; then she smashed a window to her left and jumped through onto the roof, the Duke following less gracefully. The Duke was exhausted by the end of the chase; but the improvised diversion bought them enough time to get out of sight. The Iskandariel of the longer blade kept them running for five minutes longer, until she deemed they'd reached a safe distance from their pursuit.

After descending from the rooftops and beginning to walk towards the city gate at a more moderate pace, the Iskandariel asked, "Why did you allow my sister to kill the Baron for you? You had agreed to a duel."

"It would have been no fair contest," the Duke told her. "I'm an older man, and I'm already wounded. We've already established that the Baron has no honour - if I looked to have an edge, his bodyguards would have set upon me at once."

"Also," he added, "I never agreed to a duel. It was the Baron's assumption that there would be such."

"A flexible morality," the Iskandariel suggested; and said no more.

But as the duke and his bodyguard leave the city, it should be noted that this is the Dirge of both the Iskandariel. In the moments after the Baron's assassination, the assassin found herself surrounded by foes. Surprise and confusion both were on her sides in the first moments; cutting men down like a scythe through wheat, she hacked her way through the Baron's bodyguards, using their horseback-augmented height for both cover against both the archers above and the men-at-arms all around. She reached the rear of the foe, but there her luck ran out; the Baron's men rallied, and surrounded her in the alley to which she had fled. Attacked from two sides by the most skilled of Pettyham's men, assailed with arrows whenever a space cleared around her, it seemed surely that the Iskandariel of the shorter blade was doomed to perish that day.

But - as the mere phrasing of that statements says - she did not. Attacks from the front were defeated with swift parries and swifter counter-strikes; attacks from the rear were dodged and retaliated against in turn. Pike-men were brought up, but the heads of their spears were lopped off before they could strike, or wrested from their hands and turned against them; armoured knights lumbered toward her - forced to dismount by the narrowness of the alley - but they were far too slow to even scratch the Iskandariel, and were felled by blows to the seams of their armour that cut them apart. It seemed a shield of a thousand shades formed around the Iskandariel, created by the blurred strokes of her blade. Some say that even the arrows of the archers above she deflected; if so, she did not block them all, as testified by a set of scars upon her face and arms that marked her for the rest of her days. But the arrows did not stop her, no more than any of the thousand other attacks against her in that narrow alley in Oxhaven; and after the bodies were heaped a story high by the indefagitable blade of the Iskandariel, the Baron's men, three hundred strong, broke and fled from their lone foe. The archers remained; and she of the shorter blade outran their arrows as she left the place of her greatest glory.

The Duke and his companion met the other Iskandariel again at the inn they'd spent the previous night at; the Iskandariel accompanying the Duke implied that this was a plan they'd arranged beforehand, in the event of some disastrous separation. When the assassin-Iskandariel arrived, it was in a carriage of the Baron's insigia, nearly driving the Duke and his bodyguard to flight before they realized the driver. Inside were the survivors of the Duke's retinue, taken from their prison without opposition from the terrified guards. The Duke spoke to them, assured himself of their health, and then announced: "It is time we go home."

On the trip back, the Iskandariel told each-other of what had happened in their separation. The Duke listened quietly, interrupting only once. "Could you match that feat, do you think?" he asked of the Iskandariel who had accompanied him. "Could you stand for as long as your sister did, against so many foes?"

The subject of the Duke's inquiry was silent. Her sister answered instead. "She beats me in practice, two times out of three," she informed the Duke.

He asked no more questions of them for the remainer of the trip back; and thus concludes the tale of the Iskandariel in Oxdale.

Two epilogues may be fairly added to this story, for the satisfaction of the reader. The first tells of the Duke, who thrived in the years following the confrontation in Oxdale. As punishment for the attack on his person, he seized a number of Pettyham holdings, an action overlooked by the King. The Pettyham heir himself, upon growing to adulthood, was far more amenable to honest bargaining; the treaties the Duke and the new Baron lasted would secure peace for two generations. The Duke himself lived to a happy old age, dying at fifty-seven of a burst appendix.

The Iskandariel lived a long and fabled life, of which the full Dirge would be required to tell in full. Their fame was established after Oxdale, though, and their services became eagerly bid for among the great powers all about the Nine Seas. Twice more they entered the service of the Orindells, perhaps out of some sense of loyalty only they truly understood; each time they charged far less than their usual rates. Their battle against the so-called "Dragon of Ulbrook", ending in the deaths of all three combatants amidst the fires set by the Dragon, ended the Iskandariel's lives in a manner so heroic as to suit the lives they lived; and as it ended them, so does it end the Dirge of the Iskandariel, and so does it end this tale.

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