“Is… is this really advisable, sir?” asked Breus quietly. “After all, the young master is only twelve, and a very small lad…”
Shaddad paused in the middle of his practice swing, and glared at the Chief Steward. “Tell me, Breus le Fidéle, who is the Cthonique of Castle Terribel?”
Breus bowed his head. “You are, Dark Lord.”
Shaddad nodded. “And you--you are the Fidéle, are you not?”
“Yes, Your Magnificence,” said Breus with a long exhale of breath.
Shaddad smiled. “Well, then, I think this discussion is finished.” He turned his gaze upon Mansemat. “This shall be fought with live steel, Mansemat. Do you have a real sword?”
Mansemat turned to regard his fellows in desperation. To the increase of his already sizable discomfort, Breus and all three Kizaks sat there with looks of sad resigned horror. Morgaine was the sole exception. As Mansemat looked into his twin’s amber eyes, he saw they were lit with excitement and… hope. And somehow--somehow that gave him strength. He turned back to his father, and took a deep breath. “No, sir. Not with me.”
Shaddad nodded and glanced at Estramin de Gaheviez. “Give the boy your sword, Estramin.” The Dark Lord snickered ever so slightly. “Best make this a fair fight.”
Estramin nodded, and strode to the boy. With a swift motion, he drew his blade then stabbed it into the earth before him. Mansemat nodded impassively. “Thank you, sir.” Estramin shook his head, smirking, and walked back to the Dark Lord’s side. Mansemat stepped forward, and drew the blade from the ground. As he raised it, the blade nearly slipped from his hands.
“I think that’s a bit too much sword for him, brother!” laughed Eudrophin. “The boy’s only ‘danced’ with sticks till now.” Mansemat frowned bitterly. In point of fact, his wooden practice swords were made heavier than real ones, to better prepare him for wielding those.
It occurred to Mansemat, as he glanced at his grinning father, that he didn’t want Shaddad to know this, for some strange reason. “Are you ready, lad?” Mansemat nodded, and raised his sword over his head. “Then we--BEGIN!” shouted Shaddad, as he rushed forward and stabbed at his son.
Mansemat adroitly dodged the blow. With a snarl, Shaddad moved back and slashed again. Mansemat swiftly circled under the blade. Stillness is the key to motion, he repeated to himself. No wasted movement, no wasted blow. Conserve your force until the moment of perfect opportunity…
Shaddad pulled back his sword for another blow. Mansemat swayed, and waited for it. His father snarled, and swung. Mansemat twirled aside from the blow, and lightly tapped his father’s stomach with his sword. Shaddad stared at his son in shock, as Mansemat managed a slight smile, his bright green eyes triumphant.
And then he felt something heavy slam into his belly. As Mansemat struck the ground, his sword falling from his hands, he realized it was his father’s boot. “You… miserable… runt!” barked Shaddad, kicking Mansemat again. “Thought you had the fight won, didn’t you?” His father was smiling again, Mansemat realized. “Well, lad, this is the first lesson in fighting--the only lesson worth learning…” Shaddad brought his blade to Mansemat’s throat. “It’s over when your foe lies before you--either dead, or begging for mercy…” Mansemat gulped as the cold steel tickled his skin, and prayed silently--desperately--to Mother Night, that his father NOT decide to cut his throat.
At that moment, there was a sudden shout, and Shaddad fell to the side. “You can’t have him, you can’t have him, I won’t let you HAVE HIM,” screamed Morgaine, as she walked forward, her hands clenched into fists. Shaddad was already righting himself. He shook his head as the de Gaheviez began to move to his side.
“No, no,” said the Dark Lord. “It appears I have more lessons to give to willful children.” He regarded Morgaine calmly. “You are quite powerful, my dear daughter. However--so am I.” Shaddad raised his hand, and gestured at his daughter. “I also possess something you lack--finesse.” Morgaine’s eyes went wide as she floated off the ground. “Which is why I’ve been able to block your crude attacks, while making one of my own.” Morgaine began to gasp as if her breathing was being constricted. “Now, don’t you see, child, how much more--effective this is? I am using far less magic than you were, and yet I am getting a far greater effect.”
Mansemat glanced to the side. His sword was just within reach. If he could just… move a little, and grab it he could do--something. What exactly he wasn’t really sure. Just that…
A foot slammed into his stomach. Mansemat tried to scream but couldn’t--he simply didn’t have the breath. “Ahh, like a dog returning to his vomit, ehhh, Mansemat?” Shaddad pressed his foot into his son’s form even more. “Thought I was distracted, didn’t you?” His father began to idly swing the blade over Mansemat’s head. “Don’t you know your father at all, son? I do not get distracted.” Mansemat winced as the blade came ever closer to him, a slight breeze passing through his hair as it parted the air. “Not.” Swish. “A.” Swish. “Jot.” Swish…
“Lady’s Name, sir!” shouted Breus. “They’re children!”
“Who is the Cthonique of Castle Terribel?” asked Shaddad, glaring at his Steward. “Who is le Fidéle?” He turned to regard Morgaine, still struggling futilely in midair. “Yes, they are children. Willful, bad children, who do not do as they are told, and who bring shame to their father…”
And then there came a sound like thunder. “Salutations, all!” proclaimed Nisrioch Cthonique, as he floated down into the courtyard. “My apologies for my extreme tardiness! I had horoscopes to cast!” His rainbow-colored eyes focused on his father. “My goodness,” said Nisrioch, his right hand raising slightly. “What have you been up to, Lord Shaddad?”
Estramin and Eudropin quickly flanked Shaddad. The Dark Lord stared at his eldest son for a long, uncomfortable minute. “Teaching lessons to those who need them,” Shaddad stated at last.
“And we must all trust your judgment on that, must we?” said Nisrioch, raising one white eyebrow. “Still--I think you’ve… taught everyone here exactly what they need to know. Don’t you?”
Shaddad frowned for a moment, then nodded. “My point has been made,” he said, pulling his hand back. Morgaine fell to the ground, and began to hyperventilate. Shaddad turned back to Nisrioch, and seemed about to say something, when Morgaine raised herself off the ground and gave a shout. The de Gaheviez brothers were thrown to the ground, while Shaddad continued to stand serenely. “Hmm. It appears I was mistaken,” said the Dark Lord, flicking his wrist. Morgaine fell back again, the visible imprint of a hand on her face. Shaddad gave a sad shake of his head, and then brought his sword down to Mansemat’s right arm. Then, with one quick motion, he sliced down it, leaving a bleeding gash along its length. Mansemat began to shriek. “There now, Morgaine,” said Shaddad quietly. “Do you see what you made me do?”
He stepped back from his son, and began to casually clean his blade. “Ahh, well. Enough of these distractions.” He looked at the de Gaheviez brothers, who were lifting themselves off the ground, and dusting themselves off. “We have an invasion to plan.” A small smile came on the Dark Lord’s face. “The Great War begins very soon. And also, ends.”
“Indeed, sir,” said Estramin. He fell in behind Shaddad, as the Dark Lord left the Courtyard. “I meant to mention this, before our… distraction. Orrill has sent word from the Marsh. The Badb continues to cause trouble…”
“The Badb’s daughter, you mean,” said Shaddad as he walked into the Hall of Sorrow. “Elaine Blanchemains was the last Badb. Viviane du Lac is nothing but a gnat of a pretender, who shall be swatted at our leisure. The age of Witch Queens is over, gentlemen…”
Morgaine rushed to her brother. “I’m sorry--I’m sorry--I’m sorry--I’m sorry,” she muttered, embracing his head, and kissing his forehead. Breus and Nisrioch looked the fallen young Erl over.
“What do you think?” said Nisrioch.
“Looks worse than it is,” muttered Breus. “I’ll rush over to the Folly and get Maude Lynne. You do what you can…”
The young Kizaks sat nearby, eyes still wide with horror. “My father once kicked a man to death,” said Enryk bin Jerzy. “This was worse.”
“Thank you for sharing that,” said Nisrioch with a sigh.
Breus came with the witch, as he’d said he would, and she took care of the wound. Sleep came late that night for Mansemat, and with it strange dreams. In one, he was in a library, and a man handed him a book. In it, he saw that Shaddad Cthonique’s was a footnote in history, noted most of all for being the father of the great Mansemat Cthonique. That was all of the dream he recalled when he woke up--save for a bit where he was being chased by a large group of wheels, who wished to turn him into cheese, for some strange reason--and it left him feeling awkward, and a little ashamed.
In a week, his wound had healed, though it left a scar. As soon as it had, he began to practice his Sword Dance again.