Chapter 21:

19 - Plea For A Duel

The Fallen Diadem

“Mark, step forward,” Amaranth declared with the sun to his back. He stood at the edge of the lake, and while there had been no formal announcement to gather, he had chosen the change of the guards to have the most people up and aware. The only people who were there by command were a few of his captains, Claire included.Bookmark here

I stepped up with my lips sealed, my hands clasped behind my back as I waited for him to continue with the show.Bookmark here

“In recognition of your bravery, I have called you here. Even while injured putting your all into rowing us across the lake, you happened upon an opportunity to turn the tides. You risked your life and created an opportunity for me to finish off the ice mage who slew no fewer than ten soldiers and injured scores more. You turned what would have been a prolonged fight into a quick one and saved lives in doing so,” Amaranth said, his voice loud and carrying through the din of the camp.Bookmark here

I didn’t move, I stood with my back to the soldiers as they began to mill over and gather up to see what was happening. I heard my name on their lips, and I could hear the confusion. The captains who had been apprised of the farce kept steely faces on and watched.Bookmark here

Amaranth stamped the butt of Ascalon on the ground, striking a bit of stone. “A debt slave, held in bondage and allowed to show bravery. Honor soiled is now honor cleansed. For bravery and success against inhuman odds, I hereby annul your debt and pardon your crime. Step forward so your collar may be removed.”Bookmark here

At this, an assistant stepped forward with a few tools. I took a knee facing sideways to Amaranth as the assistant slid a piece of metal between the collar and my throat. Amaranth set the tip of Ascalon against it and scraped down, the magic blade slicing through the collar with ease. The leather sprang free and hit the ground and the assistant moved to grab it up. In that movement there was just a bit of jostle and I felt the spear prick my skin.Bookmark here

In the moment Ascalon touched me, I felt the spirit within it. My body went cold and I grew lightheaded as the spear glowed beside me. The will of the weapon, the spirit of the original Amaranth, made herself known to me and within my mind I could see the young blonde as clearly as I had encountered the diadem creature. “My, there’s something very wrong with you; isn’t there?” she asked, her words arriving directly in my mind. She smiled, tapping a finger to her chin. “I knew there was something special about you when I first saw you, but I underestimated you, didn’t I? Not just anyone would end up with friends like you have. I do apologize about the human one.”Bookmark here

“If you’re sorry, why did you do it?” I asked. The form of telepathy the spirit used was surreal to engage with, but it felt at the same time like I couldn’t speak even if I had wanted to.Bookmark here

She shrugged. “It was Arnie that did it, not me. He’s the wielder, I’m just a weapon. I would ask you to not hold it against him, but the path to the throne is a bloody one. You can’t reach it without getting your hands dirty. To turn away from it is foolish. To avoid it is hopeless.”Bookmark here

The presence vanished the moment the tip of the spear pulled out of my skin. I blinked, slapping a hand to the chafed skin and felt the trickle of blood. There was barely any blood. The contact had lasted barely an instant and yet I had spoken with Ascalon.Bookmark here

Amaranth seemed to notice what had happened. I saw him scowl and glare at the spear. I couldn’t hear the spirit anymore, but I could imagine the smug response it had just given him. The commander of the army lifted up his chin and said, “Mark, you are hereby a freeman. Your collar will be bound to your rudis as proof and I shall mark it myself so that any may see it is upon my name that you have your freedom restored to you. And now, I make you the same offer that I made you the night we met. You and I stood here the night I slew the dragon and I offered you employment among my men. The Order of the Broken Concordant is always in need of brave fighters. It is the throne of the world we seek, nothing less.”Bookmark here

I hesitated, watching as the assistant busily tacked the leather collar around the handle of a dagger. They wound it and twisted it on, putting a rough grip to the thing that anyone would recognize. “If I may ask, m’Lord,” I said as the assistant set it on the ground before Amaranth. I too spoke loudly for the troops to hear. “I’ve never heard what it is you wish the throne for?”Bookmark here

Amaranth smirked and his gaze moved from me to the masses of uncertain soldiers, to the men who had thought their time in Vichtstein was over and yet now they had to scour a collapsing castle for a diadem that might not even be there. “When I take my seat upon the throne of the world, I won’t use it for myself. Some may fight for it for shallow and vain goals. Perhaps they idolize the immortality one can attain such as the Holy Lances like Ascalon. Perhaps they wish to become as a god, travelling the world with inhuman power. Such things are trifling and the world would weep if such a person took the throne, weep for what could have been.”Bookmark here

All eyes had moved to him. They stood silent and attentive, hanging on his words as the silence dragged on and dragged them into the palm of his hand. “There is a blight upon this world. One that haunts our history and our cities, one which every soldier fears. I have seen it first hand ravage entire kingdoms. The reaper of the battlefield, the plague of armies; typhus.”Bookmark here

I blinked, surprised to recognize the name of his nemesis. He hadn’t told me the night before when the two of us concocted this stage directed scheme. I gawked at him as he drew out some of Ascalon’s electric power and pressed it to the handle of my rudis, welding the steel inlay into the haft of the dagger. It was far better than any signet ring or family seal at proving authenticity, but his words were far more captivating.Bookmark here

“When I sit upon the throne I shall eradicate this source of senseless death. I will wipe out the needless pain and suffering. Rash, fever, confusion… death; no man alive benefits from this miasma that haunts us from the shadows of the world. Follow me and give me your blood and sweat and that is what I promise you, and the world,” Amaranth said as the assistant handed him the dagger, and he offered it to me.Bookmark here

I wetted my lips, accepting the weapon before I spoke. The rudis was proof of freedom, it had nothing to do with his offer, but I had to choose my words carefully, even if he had tried to kill my best friend. “You humble me, m’Lord,” I said, bowing my head to him and holding the dagger to my chest. “But I am still injured. It is not a post I can take up until I have healed.”Bookmark here

“Of course,” the knight said, holding up a hand and lowering his voice. The announcement had been made, the scene was over. “Rest well and make yourself strong. You’ve earned it. However, I will have your answer before we leave Vichtstein.”Bookmark here

“Certainly,” I said, backing away from him. My steps and his wave was like the closing bell of school, and the soldiers began to scatter back to their tents or to their duties. Even Amaranth walked off without anything else said to me; he jumped up on the bridge and headed to the castle.Bookmark here

An arm wrapped around me and pulled me in close. “Mark! I can’t believe what you just pulled off! Come on, lunch is on me,” Claire said as she pulled me over to the mess hall tent. Her smile nearly covered her entire face and she kept laughing.Bookmark here

“You know, the day you got assigned to us, you nearly cried.”Bookmark here

“In the past, in the past. I knew there was a reason Amaranth had his eyes on you,” Claire said, giving me a squeeze.Bookmark here

“Ascalon had her eyes on me, not him. She contacted me. Didn’t know she could do that.”Bookmark here

“Hey, see! Must have been to thank you for helping Lord Amaranth, yeah?”Bookmark here

“Something like that,” I said as we walked up to the chef. We were in a lull between breakfast and lunch, but neither of us had eaten, so Claire set about shmoozing the chef for some bacon and ale. We ended up with some kind of honey beer shandy which was sweet and sugary. It was the first sweet thing I had tasted in a year and I could finally recall enough to say it reminded me of a soft drink. It didn’t have much alcohol to it either, probably just enough to sterilize it. The best part though, was that it didn’t cost me anything. I had a fat purse of silver hidden beneath my shirt, and was dining on Claire’s coin.Bookmark here

“Are you going to join? If Amaranth reinstates me over my original crew, I would accept you on,” she said as she dug her fork against some kind of pancake analog. They had put some stewed berries on top, but syrup would have been better. Butter too.Bookmark here

“I’ve got something to take care of before then. Lord Amaranth pardoned me, but not the others. And a pardon isn’t expunged. The fact that I was wrongly punished still remains. I’m going to do something about that.”Bookmark here

She thought about that for a moment, chewing a bite of food and considering the piece of fatty bacon she had bought. After swallowing, she said, “well, I suppose you could challenge him to a duel over it. Brekhart that is. You’d probably be executed if you challenged Lord Amaranth to a duel.”Bookmark here

“Tell Charlie that, not me.”Bookmark here

She smirked and cleared her throat with some of the shandy. “Still though, you’ve got no standing. Even being a member of the Order wouldn’t be enough to be certain. Sir Brekhart was born a baron. He’s noble. No one would hold it against him if, no offense Mark, some dirty war orphan came shouting at him and he ignored it. There’s a hundred kids that look like you for every noble. If they had to take every challenge, they wouldn’t have the time of day to do anything else.”Bookmark here

I looked down at my clothes. They were the only set I owned, and were threadbare and sweat stained. “Well then, I’ll have to fix that first. I don’t suppose you could loan me some money for a tailor?”Bookmark here

“So you can get yourself killed in that duel? Did I not mention that Brekhart is actually a good duelist? He’s one six recognized bouts… over philandering mostly. But still, you’re my goldberry tree. I don’t want you going off and getting yourself killed, Mark.”Bookmark here

I didn’t know what a goldberry tree was, but I got the gist. I shrugged. “I’m not afraid of a coward. I saw how he acted when he was threatened by us. I can take him. So, are you able to help me clean up?”Bookmark here

Claire looked off into the distance, mopping a bit of pancake through the bacon grease. She was weighing the pros and cons of helping me should I win or should I lose. “If you can best me in a fight, I’ll loan you as much as you need. But you have to promise that if you join the Order, you join under me. Alright?”Bookmark here

“Deal.”Bookmark here

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