Chapter 6 - Dragon's Dance
"Yes, that is Juan," Caspian said, almost as though it were an understood truth. "But it is also Croaker, the Redcap."
"And if you thought he didn't fight fair before, just wait till he gets you in the Dance."
"Thanks, Kay Neth, you are really building my confidence, here. Okay, so he's a Redcap. Trolls are ungodly strong, Eshu always know the best path, Satyrs have got mad agility and stamina ("I'll say," Kay winked at me.), and Sidhe are too beautiful to believe or ignore. He's a Redcap. What's that mean, powers wise?"
"Don't let him bite you," they both said at once.
"Why?" That kind of parity usually means something big, or something vitally important. Either that or just something already universally understood by everyone but me. It gave me pause.
"Because if a Redcap can get his mouth around something, they can eat it," Caspian said. "I've seen one eat the armor off of a vanquished knight before. Along with the knight still inside." Both Kay and I let an "Ewww!" out at that thought. "And then use the knight's sword as a toothpick before swallowing that in one gulp."
"They routinely drink stuff that's normally toxic to anyone else in order to get a buzz," Kay said. "Chances are they are draining goblets full of drain cleaner or battery acid or anti-freeze."
"Great, fae trash compactors. And he's pretty good with a sword."
"So are you, milord," Caspian said, dropping his hand onto my shoulder. His strength was a fearsome thing. I'm glad he was on my side.
"You can take him, but you're gonna have to fight him to a stand still. Literally. He wont give up unless his own life it in serious peril. You're gonna have to strike to hurt him."
"Yeah, and my cup is on the floor of your bedroom. Along with all my other gear."
"You have your new blade. That should seriously intimidate the hell out of him," Kay smiled. I was beginning to see where his Eshu side was going to get me into lots of trouble. And while that kinda worried me, I couldn't help but grin back at him. Life with Kay was never going to be boring. And I loved him for it.
"He's got some protection with that armor. But he isn't as skilled as you are," Caspian said. "I said it before, you are the most gifted sword fighter I've ever seen, Robby. You can take him, you just have to be prepared to fight as fiercely as if your life and your very soul depend on it." For a second there, Caspian and Mitch were like one person to me, there was no distinction. I nodded and took a deep breath, begging my Satyr heart to settle down a bit. We had some time to prepare though, so I had to ask a few more questions.
"Can I use armor? I see he came to the dance already wearing party clothes and all I have is this loin cloth and this fur jacket."
"You could. He more or less agreed to anything when you told him to bring what weapons he wanted. That was perhaps the one thing you shouldn't have done. If he's carrying Iron….." Kay said, trailing off.
"Should he be found with Iron in his possession, he'll have more to worry about than just Robyn's blade. Every knight here will stand against him and send him back to the Dreaming the hard way." There is just something about an angry Troll's tone of voice that gets spooky at times. No wonder they have a reputation to be feared. Wicked intimidating, he was.
"Okay, team, let's focus here. What can I use to my advantage? I need answers here." I was getting desperate. Did I mention before that in mundane reality I'm a wimp, a geek, a nerd. I might not have the glasses or the pocket protector, but I'm not the type that usually stands up to bullies. And Juan was a full on physical force of nature in the reality we were born into. He seemed to be even more of one here in the enchanted world. Panic (okay, no more Satyr puns, that's not very funny anyways, you!) was setting in.
"Sky Fire is your best advantage. If that blade is as capable as your imagination is, then his armor wont be much of a problem." Again that infectious smile. I knew there was a reason I kept him around.
"Verily, milord," Caspian agreed. "And don't neglect your own preternatural agility. He is tough and fast, we all know. But he isn't you."
"All the time you and I were fighting, Robby, I was tapping into my Eshu talent. I knew exactly what was behind me at all times. I felt the right path. I could almost feel the path to take with my blade as well. But with you and me there's more going on. I know you felt it the first time we really went at it."
"Yeah, I did. I still do, Kay. Forever." He smiled and blushed slightly.
"The point is this, though. All those athletic jumps and moves I was pulling, that was just a fraction of what you've taught me over the millennia. I was trying to bring you out with fencing."
"So what you're saying is that I haven't really let it all go yet?"
"Milord," Caspian said, "I cannot count the times your skills in battle have saved my worthless hide."
"Mine either, Robyn. You must let it out," Kay said, casting a glance over his shoulder and then meeting my level gaze with those awesome gray eyes of his. "Cause if you don't let it out, Croaker will get the Tear."
"My pendant? What's so important about it?"
"Tis the Tear of Cerulean, milord. Without it…"
"This isn't the time, Caspian. We can talk about the Tear later. Just know this. That is no mere bauble you wear, Robyn. That is your title, your duty, your rank and even at times, your last hope against terrifying odds. If Croaker and his master Sir Korbesh get their hands on it…"
"Dreadful things will be unleashed." Damnit, Caspian! That voice is gonna give me nightmares when you say things that way! But I composed my features and took a deep breath. It wasn't helping me to relax any.
"Casp, get him some wine," Kay instructed, sitting me down in a chair that faced the center of the hall. He began kneading the muscles of my neck and shoulders, trying to loosen me up. I gotta admit, his fingers are magical. He really knows how to find the knots and unkink them. By the time Caspian returned with a flagon of wine, I was really loose, my head hanging limp against my neck.
My hand had been unconsciously holding and tracing the curves and fly-outs of Sky Fire. I had created this weapon with just the force of my own will and the ultimate power of dreams themselves, unleashed and then crafted to match me. I stared at it, at the tiny spark of blue submerged in the blue crystal. This had to work, I knew it would work. This wasn't just a sword handle, or even a mere lightsaber (sorry Mr. Lucas) but an extension of my will, my life, my very fae soul.
"Here, milord. Drink." A cup was pressed to my face and I swallowed what was in it without even tasting it, or slowing down. Yep, Satyr, for certain. The drink sloshed down my throat and coated it in fire for a second. The aftertaste was of vanilla and honey and cream (wow, does that ever sound familiar!). I burped loudly, getting a cheer from a few of the Satyrs seated around us, one even coming over to slap me companionably on the back. I don't think he quite believed I was who I claimed to be, but he was sure that I was one hundred percent Satyr after that belch.
The alcohol content of anything Satyr made was the least of my worries, though. Later on I would have one hell of a headache from whatever stuff was in that concoction. But at the time, GOD did it feel good! I almost immediately loosened up, suddenly feeling like a seasoned pro.
I stood up and peeled off the fur jacket. Since all eyes were going back and forth between me and Croaker anyways, I suddenly felt an audience and, just like in fencing class at the Y, it felt not only natural, but like I was returning home after a long time away. Several fae females and more than a few males started gossiping in earnest at the sight of my bare chest and back. I winked at a table of female Satyrs and was rewarded with a fresh batch of giggling.
A gong rang out and I knew that it was time for me to go and fight. Kay and Caspian would have to sit on the sidelines, unable to help me through this part. This time, Robyn the Blue would have to deal with something on his own. And about damn time too, some part of my brain screamed. The rest of me felt loose and limber, but about as nervous as a cat at a dog show.
I clipped Sky Fire to my belt and walked to the center of the hall. Sir Grahame had been selected as the master of ceremonies for this duel. The Countess sat in her place, a group of Trollish and Sidhe knights bearing only shields (because it was a duel, they kept their blades loose but sheathed) to protect the dais should the battle wend that way. I strode out to the center of the floor, standing on a red square, I noticed and faced Sir Grahame.
"This Dragon's Dance will be fought until submission or until one fighter cannot continue. There shall be no interference from the court and no cantrips may be cast during the duel (which was just as well, I didn't know any yet). Choice of weapons has been denigrated, so there are no restrictions. Only myself or Her Excellency the Countess may stop the duel once begun." I looked left and saw that while I had been listening to the instructions, Croaker had been staring at me, salivating through a wicked smile. I swear, his breath fairly reeked of something metallic, and his flat teeth looked like they could crush a golf ball as easily as a gummi bear.
"Enter now into the oath!" Grahame commanded. As one, Croaker and I recited thusly:
We dance the Dragon's Dance beneath the hidden moon,
And set loose the Dan, the Chariot of Dream and doom.
The reigns of reason slip as star-hoofed horses race,
And we hear the cackle of misrule beneath their frantic pace.
Wide-eyed, the mares of terror to us draw you near –
Come, sweet Mother Dream: our love, our lot, our fear.
"Prepare yourselves for the gong, for that signal will sound on the stroke of midnight. To opposite corners!" he said, pointing to opposing red squares on the checker board. But before we parted, Croaker reached out and snagged my arm in his greasy hand, his long nails scratching lightly on my side and arm.
"How's your nuts now, Robby!" he snarled.
"Let's see if you have any after this is over, Juan," I answered back. Okay, I can admit it. He intimidated the hell out of me. He had about forty pounds of athlete on me, was taller and was tougher. I'd just have to be faster, smarter and hopefully luckier. No one was going to shout stop this time except him or me. And I had every intention of it being him.
Sir Grahame physically separated us, and I walked back to the corner I'd been assigned. All around there were murmurs of conversation in the shadowy alcoves above and the candle lit arcades around me. The dais was quiet, but I was certain that I could almost make out the image of the Countess' face over a goblet. She raised it in my direction and inclined her head slightly, that smile from before coming to her face.
Now is that a James Bond Moment or what?!
I turned my attention back to Croaker, who hefted a fairly wicked looking blade. Short in length with only one edge, it was, with a nasty series of deep serrated teeth along the thick spine. The tip curved slightly, giving it a saber look. Such a weapon would have a slightly off center feel to it, the weight and strength of the blades outer cutting edges tucked behind the handle, making it difficult to judge the balance if you didn't know what you were doing. But it also gave you the ability to rip an opponent's blade out of line with a simple flick-like move. And that serrated back edge was designed with two things in mind. One, if he caught my blade in those gaps, he could easily snap the blade in half. The other effect was that it made for a nasty place to rake me with.
I brought out Sky Fire and held it in my hand, focusing my breathing, bending my knees. I would only extend the blade when we were close. No need to show him my weapon's true face just yet. Let him worry a moment why I only have the long handle haft in my hands, and no blade.
"Didn't bring a blade, Goat!" he sang out. "Want one of mine?" His group began giggling and laughing hysterically. "Just hold still, I'll give you one in a second!"
I held my tongue for once. I wasn't about to back down, not now, but I didn't need to embarrass him with my witty repertoire. I needed to best him with a blade, clean, plain and simple. And then something funny happened. I couldn't see it all that well, but suddenly he started to flicker and glow, like he was on fire, and the loose parts of his armor caught the edges of some ethereal wind, fluttering and shaking as if in a heavy breeze.
"He's invoked the Dragon's Ire!" a nearby Sidhe shouted. "Twenty gold pieces on the Redcap!"
"Unfair!" screamed Caspian, looking towards Sir Grahame. "Robyn does not yet remember how to invoke the Dragon's Ire! This match is compromised!"
"It begins at the stroke of the gong!" Grahame shot back. "The rules were that the condition of weapons is open, thus so to the condition of the Dragon's Ire."
Caspian sat down and I felt my heart beating against my ribs like a mad xylophone player on meth. I didn't know what the Dragon's Ire was, but apparently it was a fantastic advantage. Now I had to worry. Croaker was looking like a grinning demon from my worst nightmares of hell, and he was about to come charging in to take my head off and digest it.
The gong sounded and Croaker charged, yelling in reckless abandon at me as I also charged forward. With a burst of fear and a sudden wish that I had taken a piss before hand, I leapt over his initial strike, his sword going for my legs as we closed. Whilst in the air, I brought Sky Fire up high over my head and down, willing the blade to come forth. The swing was perfect, and would have bashed straight through his right shoulder, ending the fight right away (Juan was a righty).
But the blade wasn't there. I landed and turned, looking down at Sky Fire in my hand, seeing the tiny light in the middle of the handle. Of course, I should have been watching what Croaker was up to, because he came around and kicked me in the head with his heavy leather boot. I think one of the metal ornaments on that boot left an imprint under my cheekbone. I was spun around and knocked to the floor.
Now had Croaker followed up that attack, and had he come down on the center of my back with that wicked blade of his, he'd have killed me right then and there. But he had to pander to the crowd, as if this were some sort of wrestling match. I was about to make him regret that. He was playing it up to the other Redcaps and assembled fae, swishing his sword about like he was a master. The Dragon's Ire was still his, but not its cunning, it seemed.
While his back was turned, I rolled to get my feet under me and stood up, shakily, but with growing strength. He had rocked me pretty hard with that kick, now it was time for a return.
"Yo, Asshole!" I shouted, he turned back to me and the look of stunned disbelief was one of those things you treasure for ever. I slammed a straight right hand dead center on his nose, Sky Fire still clutched in my grip like a fighting stick.
The effect on the crowd was instant. A deafening "ooooh!" went up, followed by a cheer as Croaker turned about, holding both hands and his sword over his nose. I'd broken his schnoz with one shot.
He turned completely around, looking to see where I was, and I decked him again, with the same hand. At the last minute he tried to open his mouth and take my hand inside for a bite, but I dropped my aim and slugged him in the jaw this time. The crowd again went "ooooh!" and this time I joined them. Damn but he has a wicked hard jaw. My hand felt like I'd just punched a brick wall. We kinda separated, circling. He spit out blood and I brought both hands up to Sky Fire, hoping to ignite the blade. C'mon, now! I thought at it. I made you, you are part of me. We're gonna die if this headcase gets his mouth on us! Gimme something I can fight with!
With a war cry born out of a warrior's death scream and his own primal rage, Croaker charged, bringing his sword around in a desperate move, going up in a diagonal as he charged me. Out of instinct alone I brought Sky Fire around in what should be an opposing parrying slash. I channeled all my strength into the move, since I was standing still and mostly flat footed when he came in. I closed my eyes, willing the blade to appear, willing almost anything to appear. There was a terrible moment when I felt something strike my chest, something hard and sharp and cold. That's it, I though. I'm dead now, it's just a matter of the bleeding.
But then a great cheer went through the hall from the side where most of the Satyrs were sitting. I opened my eyes and realized I was still on my feet. I took three steps and turned, looking back at Croaker and then at my own chest. I had no wound, no mark on me harsher than a tiny spot of red and some pinking from where the tip of Croaker's blade had touched me… as it fell to the ground.
I glanced over to where Croaker was crouched, turning to face me again. His sword was missing its outer third and the all important point. The sheared off part of his blade was lying between us on the ground, blackened as if by a powerful blaze, embedded into a black square tile. Sky Fire was fully lit beside my leg, clutched lightly in my hand. I raised the blade and the room again "ooooh-"ed and "ahhhhhh-"ed as the blade hummed, cutting air. It was the brightest light source in the room. Croaker's face was cast in pale light as he turned back to face me.
"You bastard! That's my best sword you've hurt! I'll Undo you for that!"
"Do you yield?" I asked, my voice coming back to me.
"There is no yield!" he snarled back and he charged in, this time the Dragon's Ire fire effect seemed to engulf his blade, making it impervious to Sky Fire's bite. We clashed five times in rapid succession, each stroke a counter hit. Neither of us scored, and we had to break to seek an advantage from each other. I circled left, into his strong side, which made him worried and he circled left as well. I stopped and stepped in at him, my blade flashing in. He parried to the left, his hand dropping into a parry in quarté move. I snapped back as he riposted over the top, attempting to coupé to my leg over the top of my blade.
But I wasn't buying it. I knew the moves he would use and I kept my defense solid. He drifted into a pattern of trying to get me to open to the left, his right, so that he could use his feint and thrust move, aiming to spear me. But this time I wasn't toying with him. I was playing it cool and canny, waiting for him to make the mistake I could capitalize on. The move that he thought was his best attack, that I already knew how to counter. We fought for several minutes before he tried to force his favored move on me.
And I let him try. He thought he had it, and actually lifted his wrist, just like I knew he would. That's when I struck, charging forward with a mighty leap, blade sweeping up and around from the inside to the out and over the top as I did.
His blade hit the ground, still being gripped by his now detached wrist.
The entire hall gasped in surprise and shock. It had been such a quick move I barely remember doing it much less thinking about it. Juan fell back, since I had actually put my body on his the moment after the strike through his wrist happened. I think I actually head butted him with my horns, too. Musta been an instinct thing. Anyhow, I maintained balance and he was knocked down.
I released a breath and walked away six steps. I still held Sky Fire in my hand, down by my leg, but I felt the will to fight leave me. If that wound corresponds to one in the real world, I had just maimed him for life. As it was, I had probably just maimed his fae soul for this incarnation, and doubtlessly created an enemy for all incarnations to come. And to be honest, while I didn't like Juan, or Croaker, for that matter, I had no intention of harming him permanently. I just had to defeat him, not cripple him.
"Do you yield?" I asked, unable to turn to face him. I merely let my head hang to one side, my eyes flitting back to him, watching for movement only, not seeking to match his eyes.
"There is…..ughn! no yield!" he said, regaining his feet. Damn, he was tough! He reached his left hand into a slit in his armor, behind his back, and pulled something from its leather hiding place.
"Robyn! Look out!" Kay screamed, just as Croaker threw something at my head. I reacted with a speed that defied my own comprehension and jumped straight up and over the incoming projectile, somersaulted once in the air, and as I came down, I slashed it through the center with Sky Fire.
However, while my aim and my arm were true, and I know that I slashed through that thrown dagger, I watched as it passed clean through Sky Fire's blade, unharmed. It struck a pillar and embedded itself there. I rounded on Croaker in time to see him pick up his own hand and blade, bite his hand off the blade and swallow it (cannibal!) and then come at me with the sword again.
"He's carrying Iron!" one of the kith I didn't recognize said aloud. "That Redcap has Iron!"
All at once, several things happened. The knights guarding the Countess raised their shields and drifted further up the dais, forming a protective barrier of armor between her and the fight, despite her own demands to see what was occurring. The court guests in the lower area scrambled for weapons, armor and cover, some clutching at loved ones, others pulling a youngling into cover. The host up in the upper deck immediately put out the sources of illumination near them, plunging the upper tier into darkness, so as not to present a target of themselves.
For my part, I was too worried about Croaker. He was quick and in a state of anger that would have frightened me on even my best day. I parried his first slash and jumped over his second, bringing my blade around like Kenny had that first day, to block a tight return stroke from even happening. Then I had to drop into the splits as he came at my head with those vicious snapping jaws of his. He leaned forward as he bit a second time, and I dove through his legs, just coming up barely behind him. How Sky Fire didn't bite him or me as I dove under him, I'll probably never know.
As an after thought I yelled. "Yield, damnit! You've lost!"
"There is no yield!" he screamed, jumping in place and turning 180 in the air. His feet landed on opposite sides of mine as I lay on the ground, practically under him.
"Last chance!" I warned, lifting Sky Fire up and switching my grip on it, one handed, so that my right arm was ready to stab the whole length of the blade through his chest.
"No more chances for you, pretty boy!" he said, and he raised his sword to bring its entire length down through my rib cage.
He never got the chance. I lifted my right hoof and kicked, on target and true, right into his enormous cod piece. His eyes glazed over, stunned and he dropped his weapon. His remaining hand and his stump clutched protectively at his injured privates and I scrambled to my feet, bringing the business end of Sky Fire around and under his chin.
"Yield! You are beaten!"
"Never!" he whispered and he actually tried to bite Sky Fire. Actually got his teeth around it.
There was a violent booming noise and I fell over on my back, barely able to realize the difference between up and down. As the haze cleared from my mind, I looked over and saw Juan, not Croaker, lying on the ground, his mouth open, his hands, yes hands, both covering his groin in the instinctive position all boys know only too well.
Kay was at my side in an instant, as was Caspian, his huge war hammer out and held in two hands. The noise around the court began to fade and was replaced by the brief conversations one hears when one is at the center of an accident of some kind. Sky Fire still burned bright in my hand, the blade still the glowing reflection of my own eye color.
"Beloved?! Are you alright?"
"I'll live," I answered, just happy to have his hands on me again. I looked down and he was actually pressing a piece of linen over the cut on my chest. Seems that the point of Croaker's weapon did a little more damage than I initially thought. I sat up, with Kay's help and clutched the side of his head. "Croaker?"
"He is into the Mists, milord," Sir Grahame stated, checking on Juan's sleeping form. "You have won the duel, and the right to your former title, Sir Robyn." Grudging respect wasn't something Trolls usually did well, I was to learn. So Grahame's words actually meant a lot more than it sounded like at the time. I had impressed him.
The guards on the dais parted to let the Countess down. She wanted to examine the damage to her court room herself. There was a blast mark on the middle of the checkerboard, roughly where Croaker had tried to devour my blade. Remarkably, aside from that mark and the iron dagger sticking out of one of the columns, nothing else was damaged.
"Who knew that this changeling brought iron into my freehold?!" she demanded. The assembled kith, most of them barely recovered from the sound and fury of the blast were totally shocked by the power of the Countess' voice. She was obviously used to hearing her demands answered immediately.
"He acted of his own accord, Your Excellency," Sir Korbesh answered. "I had no knowledge that he carried Cold Iron with him. It is forbidden."
"I will brook no use of Cold Iron in my demesnes! None! Korbesh?"
"Take this wildling from here and deal with him properly. Let the Mists wash this event from us." And she turned to look at me. "Sir Robyn the Blue, you have won this day, but I advise you to watch your step in my lands. I will not look favorably upon a knight that flaunts tradition and honor in order to get back at his enemies. Nor will I appreciate a free knight roaming my lands making enemies among my loyal subjects, is that clear?" The second part was obviously aimed at me, a warning not to stir up old troubles.
"I understand, Excellency," I responded. She flipped the coin at me from the end of her thumb. I caught it and grinned, politely, although I was heartsick at what gaining that coin full of dross cost me.
"It was spectacular watching you fight, Robyn. Perhaps one day I will have need of your skills."
I simply nodded at that, letting the nod end in a low bow (low, I was already sitting on the ground!). She turned to her knights and walked away.
"Court is at an end for this day!" Sir Grahame shouted. "Be well and goodnight to all!" Kith began leaving the hall, some headed deeper into the structure, seeking chambers elsewhere. I would have to wait to explore this place between places for a later time. I was exhausted and hurting. Hurting from more than just the kick to the head and the chest cut. I had fought Croaker's fae spirit into submission, but also into hiding within his mortal shell. I felt pretty low.
Sky Fire shimmered and then dimmed, the blade sinking back into the tiny spot of bright in the center of the haft. With Kay's help I regained my feet and clipped the handle to my belt. We left for the SUV, parked back at Barnie's, near the playground. This poor playground and woods would never mean quite the same thing for me, and I felt a tear slip over my cheek as we walked to the SUV.
"Robby?" Kenny said from beside me, his arm up around my shoulders. "Are you hurt?"
"I'm hurting inside, Kenny. I'm hurting inside." His hand was off my chest now, and there was no blood, but that didn't mean that my fae self wasn't still healing a different sort of wound.
Once back in the SUV and headed back through in-town traffic for their house, I asked a question that had been burning in my head since the duel, well, a couple of questions came to mind, but only one was piercing me with dread.
"Why did everyone scatter when Croaker pulled that iron knife?"
"Not just iron, Robby." The tone of Mitch's voice was such that he seemed to be almost crying. "Cold Iron. What we commonly call wrought iron. It's like garlic or holy water for a vampire to our kind. The touch of Cold Iron against your fae self is pure poison death. Even holding such items is dangerous enough. Carrying and using Iron knives is about as bad a crime as anyone can commit. I don't think we'll be seeing Juan at Jedi practice for a while."
"I didn't want to hurt him like that," I said, whimpering. Kenny held me close in the back seat, moving me around so that I lay with my head in his lap, belly up. He stroked through my hair and I felt the tiredness from the battle, the stress of undergoing chrysalis and just the activities Kenny and I had enjoyed earlier all coming at me at once, and I drifted off into a deep, dreamless slumber. I don't know how I got into the house or how I wound up in bed with Kenny, the two of us wearing only the dirt of the day, but I was very much relieved the next morning to have Kenny's smiling face gazing down on me, his hand on my chest, feeling the rise and fall of my breathing, the beating of my ticker.