The Balladeers -1- The Cock-and-Fish

If the King's Own Swords get out of this one it might take a minor miracle.
 

The Balladeers

by Joyce Melton 
 

They came through the windows and doors, from outside, from the kitchens, from the cellars, from the rooms upstairs -- thirty or more of the Archon's men in their fiery red-and-yellow livery. They came to arrest, subdue or kill the four men in the blue-and-white colors of the King's Own. They carried swords and pistols, nets and truncheons. The trap had been sprung.

The four stood back-to-back-to-back-to-back, as they had often done. The confines of the inn's common room favored them slightly against any uncoordinated attack. They all had their swords drawn, at the ready.

Ugly Vignis had his other hand under his cloak, fingering the two illegal pistols he kept there. The pistols' illegality rested in their charging, nine pellets rather than a single ball -- a load forbidden to be used against citizens for its indiscriminate deadliness. He had another similar pistol in the small of his back and one in the top of each loosely fitting boot.

Karmu the Giant seized the leg of the table they'd been sitting at and with just his huge left paw, shook the table to pieces leaving him with a heavy club in one hand and his long sword in the other. He growled and grimaced, showing yellow teeth as large as playing tiles.

Ruthvo held a slender blade in each hand. He smiled and made kissy-faces at the men facing him. He began to sing -- a well-known comic love song to the executioner's apprentice. "Take me by the hand, take me from the back, take me on the gallows, take me on the rack," he crooned.

Saerlot shushed him with a hand gesture, Ruthvo kept singing but more quietly. "Vignis," Saerlot said, "what are the odds?"

The tatooed and scarred man cleared his throat with a barking laugh. "The odds are that thirty more wait for us outside, or a hundred. It is a good day to die for the King's Own."

Saerlot nodded. "It is always a good day to die for the King's Own.  So four of us -- against how many of these?"

Vignis knew what Saerlot intended. "All of them," he said confidently. "All of those now inside the tavern walls or peering in the windows or doors. Karmu will slay ten, three with his sword, three more with the club, three with his bare hands and one with his teeth." The giant grunted. He always enjoyed the bit about the teeth.

The Archon's men trembled.

"Ruthvo will kill nine, five with his main hand and four more with his less-feared off hand," Vignis said, drawling in his city accent. The tall, pretty Kingsman made a moue. Vignis continued. "You and I will split killing the rest, equally."

"That's five-and-a-half apiece," Saerlot noted.

"One of them, we will both kill," said Vignis in a voice cold and flat. The scars on his cheeks pulled back from his teeth in what would have looked like a smile on another face.

"Lucky man," said Saerlot.

Vignis went on, spinning things out, delaying the inevitable. He really did have the gift of prophecy, a fact known to the whole city but he wasn't above counterfeiting predictions to serve his purposes. Prophecy was an unreliable talent as he knew. "By that time, one or two of us will be wounded," he said.

"Surely not," said Saerlot. "By such as these?"

Ugly Vignis shrugged. "Karmu will take a scratch, nothing to slow down a giant. One of us will likely take a pistol ball, it can't be helped with so many of them carrying guns."

"Not a mortal wound?" asked Saerlot.

"Even dead, I can kill my five," said Vignis.

"And a half."

"And a half," agreed the ugliest man in the room.

One of the Archon's men dared to speak. "Surrender and no one has to die."

Saerlot laughed. He addressed the crowd of enemies, ignoring the speaker. "Gentlemen, if such you be, you all know us. No one who lives in the City of the Winged Sun these last three years doesn't know us. Even peasants in Urchsey have heard of us." He tossed his weapon from hand to hand, demonstrating his casual skill.

He gestured toward the giant on his left. "There stands Karmu the Giant, the strongest swordsman in the city. His blade is a fifth longer and a half heavier than any other in all Gildenor. If you stand before him in battle, you will go down. If he's angry, hurried or pressed, he will kill you. If he's hungry, he may eat you. He's always either angry or hungry." 

Karmu rumbled in amusement because he really was hungry, the springing of the trap had interrupted a late lunch. 

Saerlot motioned with his other hand. "This is Ruthvo Gallantine, the swiftest swordsman in seven realms. If you are not ready to face him, say your prayers now because you won't get a chance later. If he has time, he'll kiss you goodbye on your way to meet the Reaper. That's the name of the sword in his main hand, the off hand blade is called Sudden Night." 

Ruthvo giggled. He enjoyed the flattery and resolved that he would name his blades -- if any of them survived this fight.

Saerlot lifted his chin, indicating Vignis standing behind him. "Ugly Vignis the Prophet has my back. He knows what you're going to do before you do. He's plotted out all the exits, all the strategies, all the strong points, all the risks of every fight before it begins. He never makes a mistake. Every scar on his body is five-and-a-half dead enemies, at least. He tatoos his scars so no one forgets them."

Vignis wrinkled his scarred and tatooed lips; someone in the room had shat himself and he could smell it.

Saerlot took a breath, frowning, then smiling when he recognized the stink. "If one of my friends is not the deadliest swordsman in the city then I am, Lucky Bastard Saerlot. I'm not as strong as Karmu, as swift as Ruthvo or as uncanny as Vignis but -- I've beaten each of them in single combat more than once though if we had ever been fighting in earnest, things might be different. Karmu has no stop in him, Ruthvo has no regret and Vignis has no error." 

He took a half-step without advancing and changed hands on his sword again. "And I have never taken a wound in battle. I'm the luckiest swordsman in Gildenor." He waved his sword. "Come at us and you will die. Will your friends safely outside avenge you or will they run away while they can?"

"Take them!" screamed the earlier speaker. Four pistols spoke and three balls struck Saerlot in the chest, knocking him down amidst his friends. The fourth explosion, from Vignis's gun, blew the scarlet-and-gold leader's face away and killed a man on either side of him with illegal scatter-shot.

Karmu charged the stairs, breaking heads and piercing chests. Vignis dragged Saerlot to his feet and the two friends staggered after the giant. Ruthvo covered their retreat, killing the first five men who tried to advance on them with precise strokes of lightning fast blades: throat, eye, throat, heart, mouth.

"Next time," wheezed Saerlot to Vignis, "you wear a breastplate under your cloak and draw their fire."

"I did, I tried," said the ugly man. "You had to brag that you'd never been wounded so they aimed at you."

Saerlot laughed, then coughed and cursed. "Broke a rib, I think." They each flicked out a sword, killing an attacker.

"Gun!" shouted Karmu and crouched. Vignis fired over his shoulder clearing the last enemies off the staircase. The giant charged up the steps, hurling bodies out of his way; his three friends followed. Shots rang out from below and Saerlot's sword shattered in his hand.

"Lucky bastard," muttered Vignis, meaning the shot could have easily struck his friend's hand or head. Only the luckiest man in Gildenor could accidentally use a sword as a shield against bullets.
 
Saerlot pulled a pistol from the floppy top of one of the ugly man's boots and fired down into the crowd. The smell of blood, gunpowder, shit and fear almost drowned out the screams of the wounded. Karmu hurled the table leg down, spattering the brains of what might have been a scarlet-and-gold sergeant across the tunics and faces of the enemy troopers. Ruthvo killed three more at the base of the stairs: heart, heart, eye.

"Up," said Saerlot. Vignis, Ruthvo and he rushed past while Karmu ripped the heavy railing off the stairs and used it like a flywhisk to clear the steps again. In the upper room, the three friends each ran to a barred window to look out, east, west and north. 

"More than a hundred," said Ruthvo, dodging back at a shot fired from outside.

"At least fifty here," said Vignis. He drew his next to last pistol but did not fire.

"Only twenty or so on this side," said Saerlot. "Karmu!"

The giant came charging in. Using the stair rail as a battering ram, he took out not only the bars but the window frame and part of the wall as well. Then he dropped the railing to serve as a makeshift ladder for his friends and staggered back, a pistol ball buried in his huge thigh.

Slender Ruthvo danced down the rail, his swords flicking out on either side. He settled for a few wounding blows this time just to clear room around the escape route: shoulder, heart, throat, belly, ear, hand. He sang as he fought, a little ditty he'd written himself about a skeleton bride. "Is this not a finger bone? Yes, this is a finger bone!"

Saerlot took Karmu's overlarge sword from the giant and followed Ruthvo, swinging the big cleaver two-handed and lopping off hands and heads on either side. More scarlet-and-gold came rushing around the corners of the building. When enough bodies had gathered, the giant leaped into their midst, using his enemies to cushion his landing.

Vignis waved an unfired pistol at the Archon's men rushing into the upper room, they cowered back then he too, leaped to the ground, firing as he landed, and discarding that pistol to draw his last.

Saerlot passed the heavy sword back to Karmu, taking one of Ruthvo's blades in return while the pretty Kingsman drew a poinard from his boot. Limping, Karmu led a charge toward the stables. Vignis's last illegal pistol load cleared a knot of scarlet-and-gold out of their way.

Ruthvo covered the flank: heart, eye, knee, mouth, wrist, throat. Karmu cleaved bodies in two, using the big sword bastard-fashion also. 

Vignis muttered. "Too many of them."

"Always looking on the bright side," Saerlot grunted. He whistled, a keen piercing note. In the stables ahead, a warhorse bugled a response.

Karmu stumbled. Ruthvo sang about corbies feasting on eyes and lips. He killed one-handed now, having dropped his poinard when an unlucky stroke had pierced his wrist. Vignis went down, tripped by a thrown net. Saerlot whistled again; hooves thundered in the stable as trained war beasts broke down walls and gates.

Ruthvo and Saerlot stood back to back but no one came close enough to be killed. Karmu pulled himself upright, sticking a big thumb into the spurting wound in his thigh. 

Ugly Vignis cut the net away from his own legs. "One more charge and they've got us," he said.

"They're too cowed. Namue and Shando will free the other horses and be here in less than a minute," said Saerlot.

"Hurt," said Karmu. He looked pale.

"Can you ride?" asked Ruthvo.

"If I have a horse," Karmu said, reasonably. Ruthvo made a pretty face at him.

Vignis grunted. "Buy us that minute," the ugly man told Saerlot.

The four men in blue-and-white stood back-to-back-to-back-to-back again, surrounded by more than a hundred red-and-yellow tunics, though none of them close enough to strike at.

"Surrender!" shouted Saerlot.

"You surrender?" called a scarlet-and-gold leader in amazement.

"No! Fool! I'm offering you terms! Surrender and we'll let you live!"

"Oh, that's good." Karmu chuckled.

"We are legend!" shouted Saerlot. Then in a conversational voice, he asked, "What's the name of this inn?"

"The Cockerel-and-Turbot," Ruthvo told him.

"The Battle of the Cock-and-Fish will be famous! Those of you who survive will be able to drink off your tales for the rest of your lives and your grandchildren will be proud rulers of playgrounds across the city!" Saerlot shouted. "And those of you who die will be scorned for fools who went open-eyed to their deaths at the hands of legendary heroes!"

"Heroes? Rubbish!" shouted the Archon's sergeant. He added a few choice expletives.

"Half of you can surely get away while we kill the rest," said Saerlot, only loud enough to be heard by all. "If you start running now, you can be home for supper!"

"Rush them!" ordered the sergeant. 

"Certainly! Rush us! C'mon! Why do so many hold back?" Saerlot taunted. "Are the sergeant's boots planted in cement? You've got a choice! Die now or sometime far in the future! Vignis, what are the odds?"

"Four of us against almost six score of them," said Vignis, his tone level.

"I like those odds!" shouted Saerlot.

The stable doors went down with a crash. Namue trumpeted to her master and charged into the crowd. Shando, Felsca and the great lumbering Bogfoot that Karmu rode, followed her out.

* * *

"We're saved!" Karl yelped, unable to contain himself any longer. "Our warhorses will save us!" He danced in his seat.

Andrew, the current game master, warned him. "Watch it. My mom will skin you if we break another chair."

"Can we get on the warhorses in the middle of melee if the Archon's men charge us?" Victor asked. "They won't be saddled or have reins," he pointed out to his fellow players who nodded. Victor was the group's other GM and sometimes behaved as if he were playing both ends of the table.

Andrew nodded. "Yes, these are your own trained mounts. Just make an ordinary horseriding roll to mount up; their training bonus will cancel out the situation minus. Except you, Karl. Take a minus four for that wounded leg. Let me see if anyone gets hit while you're mounting up." He rolled dice behind his screen and practiced his evil laugh for a few moments.

"I wish he wouldn't do that," commented Shawn. "Gives me the willies."

Rodney grinned and slugged his friend on the shoulder. "Way to roll the dice on those inspire and intimidate skill checks! That's what saved our bacon."

Shawn shrugged, but the praise pleased him. "Nothing like a few critical successes in just the right spot. But if you hadn't been singing for morale bonus, I would have had to and I couldn't have used my mad skills."

"Crap," muttered Karl. "Can I cancel the wound adjustment with my high jump skill?"

"Two points," said Andrew, looking something up in his notes.

"Crap," Karl said more loudly. "I run alongside Bogfoot and try again next segment."

Victor had been watching Andrew's slow smile. "Uh oh," he said. 

 

Sweet

Test or not this was nice!
hugs
grover

Thanks :)

I actually dreamed this, almost just as it happens in the story. It went further in the dream but got more and more confused.

- Joyce 

The Balladeers

Great read. I laughed out loud at the thought of someone actually losing control to such a degree as to... Well you know.

Nice opener.

NB

Posted as a short story

I'm not sure I'll ever be able to continue this. I hope it stands alone as a short story.

- Joyce 

a little role playing

doesn't look like D&D or AD&D

something else

I've done in many an orc in my time.

at your service,
Dale M. Cannon

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