Friday, April 4, 2014

Hound Hunting - Chapter 21.

Stane had never been much on sleeping when everyone else expected him to. He also had a natural disposition for maintaining a routine of rigid discipline. That’s how I knew that before the sun had even risen into the sky he would be up and exercising. Stane Stormaxe wasn’t known for being able to abandon his personal patterns.

Like clockwork he would rise while twilight still ruled the realm and set about swinging his broad-bladed axe. I knew the number and order his strikes would fall against those shadow-sparring shapes. I knew it well because I used to be at his side doing the same.

We had spent many an early morning by each other’s side practicing, honing ourselves endlessly. We had also spent many of those nights sleeping just as sparsely so that we needed the activity to help us clear our heads. In some ways it was a part of my past that I did miss. It was nice having someone to spend time with, someone you could count on.

Times change though; I changed. After I appealed to be released from service, it was mutually understood that our interactions would come under scrutiny. As a freelance SpellHound, any fraternization with a former peer could be seen as attempts to influence others to join me. There were those that might even charge me with manipulation, abuse of trust to call on official resources; any number of things. It was in both our interests to simply forgo any form of continued friendship and consign ourselves to being past associates.

I also couldn’t rule out the lingering chance that Stane might have taken it personally that I had chosen to leave. He was the kind of guy who took his duty very seriously. Stane had been deeply honored to serve; it was his greatest source of pride. And when the two of us had worked together we were exceedingly effective. His axe was as steadfast as any shield and twice as treacherous as a rocky ledge.

Glitch and I shuffled to a stop as I watched my old colleague block an imagined blow from above against the flat of his axe. I had to smile to myself because it was like replaying a fond memory in your mind as I looked on. Next he would seize upon the second of stunningly stopped steel to slam the head of his axe forward into his foe before twisting to roll aside from the released resistance against the weapon held over head.

In a real fight it wasn’t a guaranteed course of action. If your opponent managed to anticipate the attack they could sidestep, retreat from the surprise, or even twist their steel to seek his exposed back with swipe. That was just Stane’s style though; he fought like a raging storm. He left nothing back and he moved like a wildly whirling wind. When his axe slammed into you broadside you felt like a peal of thunder had collided through you. And if he axe’s edge cleaved past your defenses you would swear a surge of lightning had struck.

Patiently I timed our approach for a few moments more. Waiting for his cycle to end from one set into the next I drew my own sword and prepared for the opening I knew would present itself. I caught it when he grunted and whipped his axe to the side in an arc that would have carried with it any weapon that had been on its way towards him.

At that precise point I rushed forward and brought my blade up in a sharp thrust from his opposite side and a hiss escaped him. “En garde,” I greeted him playfully, using our time honored tradition of opening a friendly practice duel. Our old ritual remained remembered between us, and he answered habitually with his customary reply.

“Thanks for the warning,” Stane quipped, then raised his axe in salute. I returned the gesture and then quickly had to roll myself into a block that prevented his axe from sweeping my feet out from under me. “Still fast on your feet, I see,” my old practice partner commented as he withdrew to a defensive position.

This was how it would have to be, I decided. If I wanted to have a chance to talk anything over with Stane it would be between singing steel. There was two times when Stane could be found more inclined to speak his mind; one of them was with a tankard in his hand. Considering I had little desire to potentially repeat my most recent experience in the land of liquid refreshments I ruled that option out. That left me with its alternative; while Stane held his axe in his hands instead.

“Came for a chat, Stane,” I admitted while pivoting on one foot to twist around a crushing chop that carried more momentum than I wanted to challenge currently. “Need to ask you about something strange I stumbled into, thought maybe you might have heard a whisper or three that might help me understand where it could have come from.”

My shoulder paid for a lapse in my attention as Stane tapped it with the side of his axe using just enough effort to make me take the hit seriously. It wasn’t unusual for us to pull our punches to keep things civil, but neither of us had ever blinked at bruises or cuts before. I didn’t expect him to start now either. In his less than subtle way I took the message for what it was intended to tell me. I needed to keep my guard up unless I wished to have trouble walking away later. Stane may not slay me in a sparring match, but maiming me because I wasn’t giving him my best effort was a different matter entirely.

Flinching I dismissed the spreading sensation of numbing nerves that I knew would pass in time and adjusted my grip with my other hand. “Here I thought you were stopping by because you had found yourself growing slow and out of shape,” he chided. Another axe swing angled in to take aim at my neck and I rushed to raise me own steel to stop it. But I knew his tricks as well as he did, and already had guessed that the attack was just a distraction.

Once his axe rang against my own rigid weapon I marked the muscles in his shoulder tighten as his left hand flew forward to deliver his fist to my face. My hips twisted and my left leg followed suit to draw me into a sideways stance instead of facing my fist slinging foe. As his knuckles sailed just in front of my nose, I let my knee explode upward and it met an unsuspecting stomach. A mixture of a groan and emptying air erupted in response.

“That one is new,” Stane moaned breathlessly. Despite the appearance of my opponent being beaten, I wouldn’t get anywhere with Stane if I dropped my guard. He was a veteran warrior who prized skill in his peers as well as in his self. But when he let his axe fall from his grasp I couldn’t help but have second thoughts that I might have provided more harm than intended.

It was exactly the kind of reaction he had hoped to find me with and I didn’t have the time to respond. With both his hands free he launched himself up towards me. A steel buckled bracer on his forearm clanked against the metal of my blade and batted it aside. His other hand clasped my throat in an iron grip and the impact carried us to the ground.

My sword arm was pinned between dirt and the weight of Stane’s frame, my throat likewise imprisoned by an unrelenting pressure. “New… too…” I managed to choke out in between uncomfortable gulped attempts for air. Stane sat on top of me just long enough to leave me a moment of doubt before his mouth could no longer repress a broad friendly grin.

Chuckling he released his hold and rose back up, the absence of his weight at once welcoming. I coughed to appease my body’s demands for clear avenues for oxygen and Stane was dusting his pants off with informal slaps of his hand. “You forgot the golden rule,” Stane declared while I sheathed my sword and returned myself to the upright world.

“Yeah, I know,” I confessed with a little more defeat in my tone than I cared to hear. The golden rule of any fight we had long ago decided was a simple, yet all too easily overlooked one. It lies in understanding that even an unarmed foe still has weapons to make use of. They had their minds, arms, legs, head, elbows, knees – an entire body as well as the environment. Even a talented tongue can be a capable of turning the tide in a fight.

It was a lesson that I remember teaching Stane in one of our first practice fights. Irony must be really having a field day with me lately. “Well done,” I congratulated my former colleague and gave him a bow of my head in salute.

“What manner of curiosity has caught your attention this time that brings you here,” Stane asked as he retrieved his axe and began inspecting it for any nicks. I rubbed at my own shoulder and neck trying to ease the remaining soreness while he wasn’t looking. We were both male, I was certain that when my back was turned he would admit to his mid-section being sore as well.

“Found this strange old artifact that was being used to warp all magical traces around it,” I explained. “Had it examined and some of what we found didn’t make a lot of sense. Figured maybe if anything like it had popped up lately you would be the guy to see who might have heard something. You Interdictors all like to brief each other after a battle on things to keep an eye out for.”

Stane hadn’t looked back up yet, nor had he made any move to comment on what I had said. So I decided to press forward just a little more. Either he really didn’t know anything that could help, or I was going to need to provide a bit more bait to hook the information out of him. I couldn’t blame him if he was hesitant about potentially providing a no longer trusted fellow member among the SpellHounds with information.

As a freelance SpellHound now, I was sure some might expect me to simply be digging for anything that I could use for fast coin or perhaps they thought I had legitimately be involved in illicit dealings. Who knows, but Stane had been a friend before, if he was going to be tempted to put himself on the line I needed to at least give him some reason to step towards making that decision.

“Come on, it’s me,” I reaffirmed. “You’ve known me long enough to know I wouldn’t come seeking favors frivolously. I came across an amulet of amber Stane; the thing almost left me unable to sniff out anything around it. When we dug into it further we found the kind of aged arcane working that is virtually unheard of anymore. That kind of stuff doesn’t just appear out of nowhere, we both know that.

Have you seen or heard anything that could be connected?” Something in my words must have stirred Stane, because when he looked up at me there was a struggle behind his eyes. His face pulled tight into a frown and I could read the conflicting emotions written there. Stane had always been firmly rooted to a personal foundation of being a man of either offense or defense. Any course of action that required a mixed approach or called on weighing multiple options was the type of burden he hated to bear.

On the one hand I could presume he had his understanding of me and my reasons for coming to him. Yet on the other I could only guess at what might be making him mull over whether to tell me what he may or not. Had been ordered not to divulge any working knowledge to anyone outside the ranks of royal service? I wouldn’t put it past the throne to have issued such an edict. But that just didn’t feel like the answer to me.

“What is it Stane,” I tried to redouble my efforts at ingratiating myself, trusting our bond was still strong enough to purchase me that much influence at least. “I could really use the help on this one. I’ve already been shot at, a girl has had her mind shattered – her mother slain, her father beat near to death in his own home and her nephew that she took in to raise witnessed it all. I promised them I would get to the bottom of this and that deceitful device is my main clue currently. Anything you can tell me would be a treasure. Not only that, but I’d owe you a big one.”

I stopped myself short of any further speech, seeing Stane’s eyes narrow and his hands grip his axe as it was brought to bear beside him in a position of readiness. Instead of centering his attention on me I noticed his aim was past me, over my shoulder and beyond. A lone figure had appeared cast in the first rays of dawn that cloaked any identity from us. But something was in his raise hand and drawn back ready to take flight.

In a single fluid jerk it sailed into the early morning sky towards us and a muffled cry came with it – cut off immediately by the thud of two tarnished throwing blades imbedding themselves into his neck and torso. I only had a split second to track the source of the slung steel back to Glitch who had already drawn another duo of daggers held ready to throw again.

“Heads up,” my gremlin gadgeteer called out in warning. Without any idea of what was hurled our way I reached for my sword and slipped it free once more. I already knew Stane had his axe to hand and ready so I wasn’t worried about him. A part of me was pleased at the aspect of standing by his side in a scuffle again. Let what may come and do its worse; thanks to Stane I had already been warmed up for further fighting.