Born under a bad sign
Baron Trendel went white as he heard the challenge, and Grants’ brother Lawrence, still lying on the sand, looked like he’d been kicked in the head.
In the Code Duello, as it had evolved in the ever-expanding and constantly threatened Borderlands, it was every mans’ right to claim insult and challenge of another over a matter of honor, but in such cases it was always a fight to the death, and the man challenged had the right to pick weapons.
And once a challenge was given, it could not be retracted without a complete loss of honor and respect.
In the Borderlands, the Code Duello was rarely if ever invoked, a stark contrast to the frequent duelling of the young blades of the decadent Coastal City kingdoms.
The Borderlands, even here in what was near the heart of Duke Arneghast’s domains, was still a growing frontier society, continually at risk of counter invasion from the Orcs they had pushed up into the mountains.
Borderlanders were the ones that did the pushing, not so very long ago, and here on the edge of the mountains, always under the threat of another Orc invasion, the need to maintain a calm, cool head under stress was paramount. There could be no leniency or forgiveness for rash acts or bloodthirsty berserker mindless rages. Only with a clear head could a man hope to survive and stand his ground with his brothers.
In his anger, Grant had let his temper overwhelm his reason, and now by his own actions he had trapped himself. His only choices were to face Mikkelson in a duel to the death, or to beg public forgiveness and live as a man without honor in a land where personal bravery and courage against the foe was more important for an adult man’s reputation than charity or mercy.
The worst part of it was that Mikkelson had done exactly as Baron Trendel had demanded of his trainee Guards day after day. For weeks he had tried to drill into their heads that there were no rules in war, except to win against the enemy and to keep your own men alive.
And although it was painful, and probably hurt his pride to fall that way, there wasn’t a damn thing in the rules saying you couldn’t incapacitate your man by giving him a good blow to the nuts, or even a long, hard crushing squeeze, any more than there was anything against throwing your weapon and shield away and grappling with an armed man in an obviously suicidal move.
And if the inevitable happened, and Mikkelson killed Grant in a duel, Grants’ brother Lawrence would undoubtedly join him in death. How could any man, even one so young as Lawrence, be expected to stand by as his brother died at the hands of another, right before his eyes?
All Trendel could think as he looked on the ring of sand was, “What a complete cock-up to a perfectly good day. More senseless death and suffering, fighting amongst ourselves instead of the damned Orcs. With the way things are going, the scroll from the Duke will be orders telling me I’ve been released from duty for gross stupidity and foul body odor.”
As the stunned silence dragged on, Baron Trendel turned to give Sergeant Hennesy a sour look, and the Sergeant, standing dazed in response to his sudden loss of the bet and the terrible aftermath of the match, jerked as if kicked, and bellowed in an awesome parade-ground voice, “Shows over, ladies, now get yer asses back to barracks and get yerselves cleaned up! Full kit inspection at 1100 hours! Get moving, arseholes!” Even louder, and directed towards the circle and the silent group of unmoving boys, “Not you, Grant! Get your ass over here!”
As the trainees dispersed, including Lawrence, Dickson and Mikkelson, Trainee Grant slowly picked himself off the sand and painfully limped over to the wooden railing that the Baron, the Lieutenant and the Sergeant were still standing beside. As Grant neared, the Lieutenant whispered to Hennesy, “Don’t forget, Sergeant, no matter how unwise or uncalled for it was, it is Grants’ legal right to call challenge. What’s done is done, and considering the odds, it won’t serve any purpose to rub his nose in it.”
Baron Trendel thought that what he just heard was at the same time the most thoughtful thing, and also the coldest damn thing he’d ever heard Lieutenant Darling say. He showed compassion and a consideration of Grants’ pride in instructing the Sergeant not to chastise him for something that he couldn’t take back, but at the same time the Lieutenant had just as much as said aloud that they were about to talk to a dead man walking, no matter what Grant may have to say about it. And for the life of him, Baron Trendel really couldn’t find it in himself to disagree.
Grant came up to the three, and facing Sergeant Hennesy, who had called him over, he saluted and said, “Trainee Grant reporting to the Sergeant as ordered, Sir!”
Sergeant Hennesy immediately took charge of the situation, and said, “Grant, you’ve done issued challenge, and nothings’ gonna happen any sooner than tomorrow morning. I’m gonna talk to Mikkelson about what weapons he’s gonna want, but I’m gonna tell him you’re getting this out of the way first thing tomorrow, at dawn. And knowing the both of you, I’d advise you to grab a broadsword from the armory and practice tonight, and then get a good nights’ sleep. You’re excused from duty for the rest of the day. I’ll have yer brother grab your gear. I want you to bunk out in the visiting fops’ hut on the south side of camp. And I’ll have someone bring yer grub to ya, and pass the word where you’ll be at so’s you can have visitors. And take pride in what you did today in the match. You did good. Damn good. Now take off.”
Grant saluted sharply, a look of ever-growing comprehension beginning to cross his face as the rage faded, and he seemed to just be coming down from the adrenaline and starting to think about what he had done.
He had sentenced himself to death. But it would never occur to him to realize that himself while his blood was still running so hot. The Sergeant’s matter-of-fact way of speaking of visitors clearly speeded up the process in Grant’s mind.
White as a sheet, he performed a sharp about face, and at a limping trot disappeared across the training square in the direction of the Visiting Dignitaries quarters at the south side of the compound.
Sergeant Hennesy turned to look at Baron Trendel, ignoring the Lieutenant entirely, and said “Sir, with all due respect, I have several things to see to before everybody will be doing what they’re supposed to. We don’t have much choice but to go off schedule for the rest of the day. Ain’t nobody gonna be able to focus on their lessons until this is settled one way or the other. I’ll issue orders for the rest of today’s training to be postponed til tomorrow. Since, as the highest ranking man present when it was called, you’re gonna have to officiate the damn duel, I respectfully suggest you go relax, and read up on what you’re gonna have ta do tomorrow morning. You and I both know this’ll be your first damn duel to even be seeing, Gods grant that it’ll be my last. Stupid, worthless barbaric tradition if’n ya ask me, begging yer pardon, sir.”
“And afterwards, we’re gonna have to get either Lawrence or Mikkelson out of here for awhile, or there’ll be another challenge before the weeks out, you mark my words. And won’t that play pretty hell with morale.”
With that, Sergeant Hennesy again saluted sharply to Baron Trendel, turned about and marched off in the direction of the main trainee barracks. Lieutenant Darling, obviously wanting to call after the Sergeant and dress him down for failing to salute, but hesitant to mention it in front of Baron Trendel, gave the Baron a sharp textbook salute before heading off after the Sergeant at a fast trot.
It occurred to Trendel as he watched Lieutenant Darlings’ attempt to catch up to Sergeant Hennesy without the embarrassment of breaking out into a full run, that for all Sergeant Hennesy’s lack of height, he could move pretty damn fast when he wanted to.
With nothing more to do at the moment except stay out of the way of men getting on with the business of the camp, and with the pressing weight of the scroll still needing to be read, Baron Trendel took Sergeant Hennesy’s advice and returned to his quarters. There, with the door securely closed, Trendel finally pulled the scroll from out of his harness, and opened it to read.
To my good and faithful ally, Terin Trendel, Baron of Mosley Vale, Knight of the Order of Radiance, and Commandant of the Doneghal Border Guard and Scout Academy.
It is with some urgency that I request your immediate presence at my summer hunting lodge in the foothills of the mountains in the southeastern portion of Donegal. I have need of your advice and skills upon a matter of great importance to me personally and to the Duchy of Doneghal as a whole. I ask that you tell no one of the urgency of this request, but simply say that you have been invited as my guest to spend some time with me enjoying the hunt for an indeterminate time. I assure you, all will be explained when you arrive.
Enclosed is a separate document bearing my mark and authorizing you to draw upon the Duchy funds at your discretion. I make special request that you depart the Academy equipped as if embarking upon a hunting trip, but that along the way you use your judgment and this document to acquire what additional goods and equipment you deem necessary for a prolonged trip through harsh mountainous terrain.
You will need to appoint a man you can trust to the continued operation of the Acadamy while you are away. I leave it entirely at your discretion as to who you chose to appoint, but make sure it is someone whom you are confident will discharge your duties properly, if your absence were to stretch for more than two or three months.
Again, I ask that you be patient with me, and I will explain all when you arrive. This document will change in nature, becoming a simple map across the Duchy to my hunting lodge with an equally simply worded invitation within a few moments, so read this message carefully to remember its contents.
If you have appointed a squire to be your bodyservant since last we spoke, please do not draw attention to yourself by leaving him, but bring him along as well.
I eagerly await your arrival, and until then, I remain,
Arneghast, Duke of Doneghal
As Trendel quickly re-read the letter trying to burn every word into his memory, the text changed, the bold black lines writhing across the leathery vellum to become a fully colored map indicating much of the Duchy of Doneghal, along with the suggested route from the Academy to the southwestern portion of the mountains of the Duchy, and where Trendel presumed the hunting lodge of the Duke was. Glancing at the scale, and then the course as marked, it looked to be about a 5 day trek by horse traveling at speeds that wouldn’t draw excessive notice, and would lead Trendel directly through Caer Doneghal. If there would be anyplace that would have everything Trendel would need for a surprise journey to unknown but clearly desperate events, it would be the largest fortress city of the duchy.
Baron Trendel sat down at his old campaign desk for a moment, trying to decide what the best thing to do might be.
Terin felt tired, and a good bit depressed; it came as a hell of a shock to realize that the lunch bell hadn’t been rung yet.
“An entire day’s training, and at least one good life pissed away, all in a morning”, he thought.
Still, while he reflected on the order of things that he must accomplish before the next sunrise, he decided that a few things would need to be discussed with his senior training officer, Lieutenant Darling, and with Sergeant Hennesy to ensure the Academy would keep on without him.
Reaching over his desk for the signal rope, he gave it a sharp tug downward. Above his shack, a bell began to toll with a strong bass tone, before fading off into low harmonics.
Moments later, the trainee assigned to adjutant duty for the day pounded on the outside of the door, and Baron Trendel called him inside. The adjutant for the day turned out to be one of the older men that had been in the Border Guards for at least ten years before being given the opportunity for the advanced training of the Academy.
For a moment, just a fleeting moment, a whim crossed Terin’s mind, a bit of curiosity over whether everything to this point was worth it from the viewpoint of the men. Trendel was curious, and for once decided to act on his chance thought.
“I believe your name is Farthan, isn’t it? You were one of the Corporals from the North Riding that volunteered for the second class? Am I correct?”
Trainee Farthan snapped to attention, and said, “Sir, yes sir!”
“Well, I have to admit I’m a bit curious, Farthan. Why would a man well into his thirties volunteer for this training? The first batch of men I ran through the course had no idea what to expect, and they were all older men I needed for my training cadre. But I would think after thirteen of them died during the training that another older man like yourself would have been a bit slow to sign right up. And you were a Corporal, as well! You must’ve heard the rumors that all trainees would be treated as new men, no matter what rank they came here with. So tell me, what about this place inspired you to take a chance and volunteer?”
Trainee Farthan shifted a bit nervously, but finally said, “Well sir, it’s pretty simple, really. There have been a lot of rumors going around about what’s been happening with the southern Duchies during this round of war, but we really haven’t seen a lot of action up in the North Riding. A bunch of us had been getting real soft, and I didn’t really like it, but there wasn’t nuthin I could think of to change things. But then the Duke called up a bunch of the senior officers and sergeants that had been in some real action, and my squad leader, Sergeant Mathers, was one of ‘em. Yeah, he had been a real hard man back in the early days, but lately he’d been going to fat and getting pretty laid back about scouting and patrols. Well, he went to your instructors course, and when he came back he was all lit up and ready to chew nails, and he got everyone else motivated to get back in shape. I guess I figured that anybody that could get Moldy Mathers dusted off, in shape, and back in the spirit was somebody I wanted to learn from, sir.”
Terin thought about that for a moment. “Well, that’s certainly something I’m glad to know, Corp. I appreciate your candor. It’s good to know that some of the men at least realize this isn’t all to make some officers feel good about being shouty men, but to try and get some fire back and the Border Guards prepared for when the war reaches us of the north.”
“Now, I need you to go find Lieutenant Darling and Sergeant Hennesy for me, and tell Sergeant Hennesy I want to see him here at my quarters one half hour before dinner, and then tell the Lieutenant I want to see him here fifteen minutes before the dinner bell. When you’ve finished that, go to the mess building and tell Mess Captain Wills that I’ll be taking dinner in my office this evening. Do you have all that?”
Trainee Farthan saluted and said, “Yes sir. I’ll attend to it immediately.” The man then performed a sharp about face, and marched out of Trendel’s office.
Trendel decided to start packing his gear in preparation for an early ride out. For some reason, he felt the pressing need to keep busy doing something.
While he packed, he ran through his head what would happen in the morning. “Trainee Grant gave the challenge, and I have to admit that, for a hot tempered man, he received reasonable offense as the Border Guards would define it for calling in the first place. So if Grant were somehow to win, he’d be in the clear and wouldn’t face a serious investigation for his reasons in calling challenge. Hah! Well, for tomorrow’s little engagement each man will be returned to his original rank. It will do no one any good to have Grant die a trainee instead of a PFC. And I’m sure his kin will appreciate the difference.”
“So, I’ll have to officiate tomorrow, and I need to make sure that Darling gets the identities of their seconds so we can get things organized. And I have to admit Hennesy was smart. No sense letting them pick and choose the options. They’ll fight at dawn in the training circle with broadswords, and if they don’t like it they shouldn’t be in a challenge. Although, considering the timing of the damn summons, perhaps that’s not the best idea. Perhaps I’d better talk to Hennesy first.”
Once Baron Trendel finished his packing, he decided to prepare his journal notes and organize the lesson plans he had been working on to make sure the Academy could continue to run properly over the next few months. The idea for the log run competition was too good to let slip, and it was time to make sure the men started training to ignore distractions at an earlier point.”
“For some reason, Trendel felt a fleeting sensation of loss, a premonition that he would never see the Academy again as its Commandant. But speaking to Corporal Farthan reassured him that what he had started was having a powerful impact on the men he trained, as well as the Border Guards as a whole. It would have to be enough for now.”