Pride Of The Traveler
The thick curtains parted and the traveler entered the tent. An old woman was removing talismans, scarves and necklaces from ropes attached to the tent's poles. It smelled of incense and wax. In the center of the tent was a rickety table and two stools.
"Come in and sit." The old gypsy motioned to a worn stool in the center of the room. "I am called Drabardi Fawe. What do they call you?"
The man sat on the stool. "I've been called 'Key' since I was eight or so."
The woman put the last of the scarves in a trunk and sat on the other stool. "Well, Key the traveler, if you arrived later one hour, I would be gone. But you catch. What can I do for you?"
"The man outside said you tell the future."
She shook her pointer finger in the air. "No, no, no." The deep lines on her face stretched as she smiled. "He said I tell fortunes, not I see the future."
Key smiled back. "Is there a difference?"
"Oh, yes." She put her hand on the table. "Yes, indeed."
"In that case, Drabardi Fawe, read me my fortune."
"I get some things. You wait."
Key marveled at how swiftly and gracefully she moved as she left the tent. He was certain that this gypsy was by far the oldest woman in the little town, but she went with the energy of a child.
He looked around the tent and wondered what it would looked when the old woman had it fully decorated with her many wares.
For now it was bare. And hot.
Before Key's thoughts could wander too far, Drabardi Fawe returned with a bowl of water in one hand, and a rolled piece of parchment in the other. She was now wearing a red bandanna on her head and quite a bit more jewelry on her neck and fingers.
"Why didn't you just send your lover outside for all that?"
"Lover." She smirked. "He is nephew. And flattery is welcome, but won't change price. Eight pieces."
"You have seen others, but none told you your real fortune. Eight pieces."
Key smiled. He had indeed seen several other fortune tellers in his journeys. They all gave him conflicting futures and advice, but he had always been amused. He doubted this visit would be much different. Oh, well. She was the only fortune teller in town, and she was leaving soon. He fumbled for a moment with the small leather purse attached to his belt, produced eight coins and handed them to the old woman.
She reached inside her vest and produced a smaller purse of her own. She put the coins in then put it away.
"Good." She unrolled the paper. A small blue stick fell out and rolled to the ground. "Pick up the stick."
Key looked at her for a moment, then bent over and picked it up.
Drabardi Fawe turned the paper over and it sat reasonably flat on the table.
"Now drop stick on the floor and put your hand in water."
Key wondered where this was all going, but he did it.
The water immediately turned a deep red, almost the color of blood.
Key wasn't startled. He was intrigued. He seen a bit of magic in his wanderings, and it always fascinated him. Perhaps this fortune would be different after all.
Drabardi Fawe frowned a little. She passed a wrinkled hand over the bowl. The water grew cold and a mist began to rise from it. Within moments the mist thickened and took on a life of its own. It crawled over the edge of the bowl and spilled onto the table. It crept along the table and dropped tp the floor. The bowl continued to spew mist. The whole room grew cold.
A chill ran down Key's spine. He searched for something clever to say to break the silence and shake the chill, but couldn't find the words.
The old woman put her hand again over the bowl and muttered something. The mist above the bowl swirled about and formed a column between the bowl and her hand. Ghostly shapes formed, and dissipated in the column.
Key shuttered. Something inside him wanted to jerk his hand from the bowl and run from the tent. He made a feeble attempt to stand, but found that he couldn't. It was almost like the mist was weighing him down. He looked up to the fortune teller for some kind of sign, or better yet, some kind of help.
Drabardi Fawe's eyes were closed, and she still mumbled. The face that had first appeared soft and loving now looked frozen and cold.
Key opened his mouth again, but found he couldn't speak. His eyes lost their focus for a moment, and his thoughts became muddled and slow.
Her eyes opened. She stared straight ahead.
"You live by your sword."
With those words, Key's mind cleared and his eyes focused. The mist above the bowl formed itself into two tiny personages. The figures unsheathed misty swords and fought.
"You are skilled well beyond your years."
One of the figures ran the other through, then they both swirled and disappeared.
Normally Key enjoyed any compliment, but this time it was too cold and the atmosphere too creepy for him to even smile.
"You are seeking a home, but none can match the one you left."
The gypsy waived her hand. The motion blew the mist off the table.
Key looked around and the entire floor was covered in mist.
"Now take your hand from water and put on paper."
Key felt like a weight was lifted, and he could move again.
He did as the gypsy asked.
"And put it in your lap. Now is time for something you do not know."
She held her hand over the wet paper. The part where Key had stamped his wet hand turned dark. A tiny flame opened a whole in the center of the palm print. It burned bright red and spread impossibly slowly.
Key was transfixed. He had never seen or heard of a fortune teller doing anything like this.
The flame grew and continued to spread.
Key stared at the slow progress of the flame.
Drabardi Fawe frowned. "Here is your fortune: You sword victories over all save pride. So conquer your pride, else it drag you to defeat."
With that she smiled and snapped her fingers. A blinding flash of flame devoured the paper, leaving only ash.
The chill in the tent was swept away.
Key was awestruck at all that had just happened. He had never seen magic like that before. The images of mist and fire swirled about in his head. The words of the fortune burned into his mind. He had been circled about by strangeness. He had felt the coldness of an unseen force. And his fortune was some kind of bizarre warning.
Drabardi Fawe stood and ushered him to the door.
He stopped just inside the door. "What does it mean? Why do I need to conquer my pride?"
Her face crinkled back into another smile. "I only tell fortunes, not the future. Ask my nephew, maybe he knows."
She put a hand on his back and pushed.
Key stumbled into the bright sun. He squinted for a moment while his eyes adjusted. His head swam with visions of mist and fire. He wasn't quite sure how long he'd been in the tent. It had only seemed like a few moments, but part of him knew it had been much longer.
"Oh, you're finally done."
Key spun to his left to see who had spoken.
It was the gypsy's nephew. He was a barrel chested man with a well kept graying beard. He stood, picked up a sword, and walked toward Key.
"This is a beautiful weapon, my friend. I hope you know how to use it."
It took a moment for the comment to register. When it finally did, Key smiled.
"It would be a waste otherwise. Are you good at interpreting the old lady's fortunes?"
The large gypsy laughed and handed back the sword. "What did she tell you?"
"Something about my pride dragging me to defeat." Key sheathed the blade and stared at nothing in particular.
"I'd suggest you conquer it, then."
Key shook his head a little and tried to shake the bizarre feeling. "No matter. Here, your aunt already gouged me for eight, but you deserve something for giving back my sword."
Key reached in his pouch, tossed the other man a coin and turned to leave. ...victories over all save pride... What pride?
"Traveler, wait." The gypsy called out. "Are you planning to use that here?" He pointed to Key's sword.
"I have to, it's how I eat."
"Then be careful if one of the city guards challenges you. It is said the they use dark magic stolen from a vampire."
Key frowned and wondered if it was anything like what the gypsy had done. "Magic?"
"I've never seen them use it myself, but then we don't come through this town very often. Are you really any good with your blade?"
"Then maybe I'll come wager on you after I get this packed up."
The two men nodded a farewell.
Visitors could always smell the market long before they could see it. On one corner was a man selling dried fish brought all the way from the sea. His neighbor was a spice trader who filled the air with several exotic incenses. Next to him was a more permanent structure from which a woman sold fresh bread. Countless more tents had their own unique and powerful odors. The smells all wafted and mixed together so that they became indistinguishable from one another. It could only be described as smelling like "market."
Key wandered his way through the streets, wondering how his pride could possibly drag him to defeat.
Eventually the sounds of bartering and the sight of the crowds joined the smells.
Key made his way through row upon row of merchant.
Near the middle of the market was a raised platform. Two men were on it, swords drawn and circling. A girl knelt weeping on the ground nearby. A small crowd had gathered to watch, but they were staying clear of the crying girl.
The promise of swordplay pushed out all thoughts of the gypsy and her bizarre warning. Key squeezed his way to the front.
The match ended swiftly. The crying woman stepped up and threw her arms around the victor. The loser made his way off the platform, calling for someone to help bind his wounds.
An important looking man with a blue snake on his tunic stepped onto the platform.
"Let it be hereby known that Lady Adela is a woman of virtue, and that Marcus Archer is a scoundrel and a slanderer."
The crowd broke into laughter and more cheers. The man raised his hand to quiet them. "Enough."
The embracing couple made their way off the platform and through the crowd.
The important looking man smiled and looked around at the gathering. "While we have such a fine crowd, are there any other matters of honor that need to be decided by the sword?"
There was a lot of noise, but no one came forward.
The man looked displeased. He obviously loved watching fights. "In that case, are there any of you who would duel for sport?"
Key put a foot on the platform. "I have long heard stories of the great swordsman in the land of the caldera. I have come to test my speed, my wits, and blade against their legend."
The man turned his head slightly, raised an eyebrow, then smiled. "It appears we have a brave traveler. Step up, now, boy. Who among you will stand and meet his challenge?"
Key stepped up and approached the man.
The man lowered his voice. "Have you ever fought here before?"
"Our process is quite simple. You can pick your challenger from any man in the crowd that wishes to fight. Your challenger will then pick the contest. You will fight until the conditions of the contest have been met, or until one of you forfeits. You must remove any armor except your gloves before you can begin. Do you have any questions?"
Key undid his cloak. "Where do I put the rest of my things?"
"You leave them off the platform over there. You needn't worry, I am captain of the guard here, and I will make sure they are left alone. Anything else?"
"No." Key pulled off his water pouch and his heavy tunic. "Well, just one. Can I wager on myself?"
The man cracked a slight smile. "Only for your own victory. Just put the coins you wish to wager in a pile in that corner. Anyone in the crowd can match up to your pile of coins. You win, you take it."
Key pulled the remaining coins from his pouch and put them where the man had pointed.
The man turned back to the crowd. "Which of you will cause this foreigner to lose his money?"
The jab sparked something inside the traveler.
Three men stepped forward from the crowd.
Key looked them over. "Which of you is the strongest?"
All three men smirked, but the middle one stepped onto the platform. He was definitely the largest, a good stretch taller than Key. He placed his effects in a pile next to the traveler's and nodded to the captain.
He looked at Key and circled to the far end of the platform. "You sure you want to let him lose all of his money on the first match?"
The remark just fanned the growing flame inside Key.
He pulled his blade from its scabbard. "Are you sure you want to be embarrassed by a foreigner?"
The challenger spat in Key's direction.
The captain held up a hand in warning. "Watch it, Goran. What contest do you choose?"
"First cut. I don't want to waste too much time."
The captain turned to Key. "That means the first person to cut the other..."
"Fine." The captain stepped off the platform. "Blades up! And, begin!"
Goran was taller and considerably thicker around than Key. He stood at guard with his right foot forward and circled to his own left.
Key watched his opponent and pivoted enough to track Goran's movement, but was otherwise perfectly still.
Goran continued circling. He turned slightly toward the crowd. "Who does this braggart think he is? He will lose his money and be nothing but a beggar in this land."
Key remained still and silent. He fought back the urge to laugh. This Goran was sloppy and out of practice. This was going to be easy money.
The crowd began to jeer and shout.
Goran fed off of their energy. "I'll show him he has no right to use the sword in our town!"
A cheers washed through the crowd.
The taunting made Key angry, but it didn't show anywhere in his physique. Besides, he'd be taking plenty of the crowd's money today.
He wanted to laugh at Goran's skill with a sword. The tall villager probably hadn't seriously trained for several years. His steps were too wide, his sword was too high, and he was paying more attention to his friends in the crowd than the matter at hand.
Goran returned his gaze to Key. "Are you just going to stand there? Are you not man enough to move at me?"
A slight smile crossed Key's lips.
Goran frowned. "Are you afraid to face a real..."
Key's shoulder straightened and his sword flashed. He snapped back to his guard position. An untrained eye might have missed the strike entirely.
Goran yelped and jumped back. A small red stain was forming on the underside of his forearm. It took him a few moments to realize he had been cut. He cursed and dropped his sword, then grabbed the wound with his other hand.
The crowd's jeers dropped to mutterings. "Did you see that?" "That was so fast." "I can't believe it."
Key kept his guard, but spoke loud enough for the crowd to hear. "You are slow, stupid and out of practice. I wonder if there is even a man here that isn't all three?"
The crowd was infuriated. They began shouting and calling for a new swordsman.
Goran gave Key a twisted look of disgust, turned and stepped off the platform.
The traveler was pleased with the outcome. He relaxed his guard and stood up straight.
He turned to the crowd. "Somebody take that fool his sword."
A young boy darted on stage, grabbed the fallen sword and set off through the crowd.
The captain stepped back onto the platform. He raised his arms to hush the crowd.
At length, they calmed down.
He lowered his arms and flared his nostrils. "Who among you will silence the foreigner? Who will reclaim the honor of our good city?"
At least a dozen hands shot up.
The second duel went much the same as the first. And the third. And the fourth.
With each duel, Key grew more and more brash with his commentary. And why shouldn't he mock these simpletons, he thought. After all, he was the best, wasn't he?
The crowd just cried louder and louder in support of their hometown swordsmen. However, with each round, even though the crowd was getting larger and louder, fewer and fewer would dare bet against the traveler.
After the sixth match, the captain was furious and could take it no longer. He leapt onto the platform.
"You have filthied our good name long enough! It's time someone put stop to your insolence!"
The captain whipped off the blue tunic and flung it to the side.
Several more men dressed in blue tunics pushed to the front.
Key smirked. "So the guard has come to watch their captain's defeat."
The captain ripped his sword from its scabbard. "The contest is until surrender!"
He lunged at Key.
Most other men would have been caught unawares by the shameless blindside. Key, however, had half expected it. He spun, parried the strike, and leapt to the side.
"That was fairly dishonorable for a captain of the guard."
"It might be if I had an honorable opponent."
Key and the captain stood at guard and slowly circled each other.
Folks from the crowd clamored to place money on the captain's side of the betting line.
A meaty hand pushed two of the gamblers aside and placed a large sack of coins on the traveler's side.
Key spared a single glance.
Next to his coins stood the large gypsy man, he smiled and folded his arms.
Key waited only a moment, and then exploded at the captain.
Blades flashed and clanged with frightening speed.
The two masters whirled and spun, their bodies and blades locked in a gruesome dance.
The duel flew about the platform, many times close to the edge, but never did a combatant seem off balance or likely to fall from its edge. These master swordsmen were in top form, focused and furious.
The crowd grew silent in awe of the savage battle. No one in the crowd had ever seen a match as passionate and precise as this, nor is it likely they ever would get a chance to see one again.
The grunts of physical exertion and the clanging of steel filled the air. For a time it appeared that neither fighter could gain an advantage.
After several minutes of unmatched fury, the captain began to tire.
Key controlled more and more of the movement on the platform. It was only a matter of time now, and he knew it.
The captain knew it, too, and so he decided to try for a final, desperate lunge.
The combatants were close, and even in his tiredness the captain was faster than most.
Key brought his sword left and parried just enough.
The captain's weight carried him forward.
Key dug in with his heel put all of his might into and elbow strike.
The blow landed hard on the captain's chest. His feet came out from under him and he crashed backward to the platform.
Key took a step back. "Do you surrender?"
The captain rolled backwards onto his feet. "I have no need of surrender. Only to up the stakes."
The traveler took a step forward and then stopped.
The captain stood with his sword held at guard in his right hand, and his left hand extended. The stance was strangely open, especially for a master.
Something wasn't right.
Key paused and wondered what the captain had up his sleeve.
And then it began.
The captain's left hand grew dark. It was as if a shadow was gathering around it.
Key's eyes widened a little. Magic stolen from a vampire...
The captain muttered a bizarre incantation and the ball of shadow grew larger.
Only one chance, thought Key. He dove forward with an unguarded thrust.
The captain was too focused on his spell and to tired to react quickly enough.
The blade pierced the darkness and the hand.
The darkness dissipated.
The captain screamed in pain and dropped to his knees.
Key took a step back. "Your magic is even worse than your skill with a sword. Do you want this to go on?"
Key backed away, toward the edge of the platform. He had total control now. It wouldn't matter how many times the captain could stand and attack.
The captain's face was twisted in anger and defeat.
The crowd stared silently in disbelief.
Key gave a smug smile and whispered to himself. "The gypsy was right, my sword really does victory over..."
He was cut off by the quickly approaching ground.
Two of the guard in the crowd had grabbed his boots and pulled his legs out from under him.
Key's face smacked against the platform. He dropped his sword.
The crowd exploded in rage. Violent voices called for a beating and a burning.
The two guards dragged him from the platform.
The traveler watched in horror as his sword and money disappeared from view.
...drag you to defeat...
The gypsy was right about everything.
For the first time in many moons, Key was afraid.
He had to escape.
The crowd kicked clumsily at him as the two guards tried to drag him away.
Key turned, curled his body forward, and grabbed the boot of one of the guards.
The guard faltered forward, dropping Key's foot and grabbing for anything that might help him catch his balance.
He caught hold of the other guard.
The first guard fell, and the second guard was pulled off balance.
The traveler thrashed and pulled his leg free, then kicked hard against the back of the second guard's knee.
The guard dropped to the ground.
Key and the guards scrambled to stand in the shifting mob.
The crowd pressed harder in around them.
Key took a couple more kicks to the side, but got his feet under him.
Angry villagers lashed out with clumsy strikes, hoping to injure the arrogant traveler.
Key raised his arms in front of his face and kicked hard against the ground.
At least a dozen hands grabbed at Key, hoping to stop his flight.
Key twisted side to side as he swung his bent elbows.
He connected with several heads and chests.
The crowd pressed him even harder.
In didn't matter. He had all the momentum he needed.
The crowd was furious, but they were not large enough to stop him.
In a moment, the traveler had kicked, pushed and punched his way out of the mob.
A roar went up over the crowd.
Key ran for the first row of merchants.
In one mass, the angry mob gave chase.
Key jumped on a jeweler's table and glanced back.
His sword was no longer laying on the platform.
His heart sank. He had really liked that sword. He hopped from the table and dashed under a clothier's canopy.
The mob crashed into the jeweler's table, sending its contents flying, its owner crying and several of the crowd's front runners falling.
Key grabbed a rack of dresses and over turned it before bolting from the canopy.
The crowd collided not only with the clothier's canopy, but the tent to its left as well.
The canopy and the tent collapsed.
The entire market seemed to go insane at once.
Merchants screamed at the crowd to stop and scrambled to gather their goods. The crowd continued to bowl over tables and tents. Panic spread fast and thick. Many of those who had not watched the duels thought the city was under attack.
And in reality it was. From itself.
Key sprinted between two tents and lost sight of the angry crowd that had watched the duels.
In the chaos, someone overturned an iron fire pit. A neighboring tent caught fire. A stiff breeze fanned the flames, smoke billowed, and somewhere a bell started to ring.
Key fled the market and took to the city streets, hoping to make it back the way he came.
Townsfolk ran from their homes to answer the bell's call.
Key slowed his pace to see if he was still being followed.
Everyone was running toward the market.
He ran on, just to be sure.
Soon, the traveler burst from the rows of houses and inns. He caught sight of the gate.
Echoing down the street he heard someone shout, "Find that foreigner! Somebody close the gate!"
A large wooden wagon drawn by oxen was just leaving the city and almost to the gate.
He reached the gate at the same time as the wagon. The gate was not much larger than the wagon itself.
Key squeezed by on one side. He could smell the freedom on the other side of the gate.
A meaty hand clamped down on his back.
Key heard his assailant give a hearty laugh as he was hoisted into the air.
Key was plopped down on the driver's bench. Key turned to see who had grabbed him.
It was the gypsy.
A smile spread on the large man's bearded face. "I was hoping I'd run into you. Now hurry and climb through that window."
He pointed just behind himself.
Key scrambled through the small open window into the wagon.
The old gypsy woman was sitting back there. Next to her lay a neat little pile containing Key's things.
Key gasped to catch his breath.
The woman raised a finger to her lips, signaling his silence.
The driver pulled the wooden window closed.
Outside a few men were yelling, "Stop!"
The gypsy stopped the wagon. "You looking for someone? A man ran by my wagon just as I left the city. He went that way."
The men must have believed it. Their voices faded quickly. Key had escaped.
A smile crossed Drabardi Fawe's wrinkled face. "I tried to warn you."
The driver popped the window open.
Key gathered his thoughts. "Thank you."
The bearded gypsy laughed. "No, thank you. Those fools were betting four to one against you. You made me a lot of money."
Key shrugged and smiled back.
"And that was quite a mess you left back there, too. The whole market probably caught fire. I think from now on I'll call you Kasimir."
He laughed again, and this time the old woman joined in.
Key raised an eyebrow. "What's so funny?"
"Your new name." The gypsy woman reached out and patted the traveler's knee. "It means, 'He who commands peace.'"