The female of the species is more deadly clever than the male
Test of Worth
by J. Alan Brown ©2007
"You dragged me all the way out her to see this?" Merideth's ice-blue eyes stared up at her husband, Kirk, who gave a small shrug."It's a pretty big thing around here," he said, looking over the people in front of them. In the center of a shouting, hooting crowd, a square was sketched, twenty paces to a side, bound by rope. Inside were maybe a dozen leather-armored men with swords in what looked for all the world to Merideth like an organized tavern brawl. It was every man for himself. Alliances formed and dissolved in heartbeats. Two men battled one until the one fell, then they turned on each other. Men stood back-to-back, swinging swords with a fury, then pivoted to stab his compatriot in the back. Little blood was shed--the blades were corked--but the shouts of pain and foul curses were all too real. A pair of judges shuffled nimbly to announce legal blows and avoid receiving their own. In the surrounding crowd, coin changed hands rapidly as one man or another was knocked unconscious or even shoved bodily out of the arena. The deafening roar of the combatants and lusty spectators could be heard for more than a mile. Kirk had hurried himself and his new wife Merideth to catch the event. "Look, you knew what it would be like before we left home," he said. He deftly slapped a copper onto a passing serving girl's tray and grabbed two mugs of ale. The young woman took in his stone-gray eyes and broad shoulders with a promising smile. The smile frosted when Kirk handed one mug to Merideth. The serving woman raked her up and down with her eyes until Merideth leveled her own stare. With an accusatory glance back at Kirk, she melted into the jostling crowd, expertly balancing her broad tray of mugs. Merideth turned to give Kirk a look of her own, but he was on his toes, absorbed in the fight. She shook her head and tried to puzzle out the purpose of grown men fighting over . . . over what? "The Succession," said Kirk, as if hearing her thoughts. "Whoever is left standing at the end of the fight is worthy to take the Test." His emphasis on the last was obvious. At her arched eyebrow, he sighed wearily. "Twelve years ago, King Algamer, with no heir to claim the throne--" "Yes, yes," she cut in. "Went mad with grief when Queen Bethanie threw herself into a river. He wandered the surrounding countryside for days before he rode off and was never seen again." "But before that he struck the Test." "You don't know that! No one saw him do it. That story was likely coined by his old minstrel who couldn't have been sober one day in ten after Algamer disappeared." She waved a hand at him in dismissal. "I'll wager every town within a ten-day ride of here will lay some similar claim. Everyone wants to pretend Algamer spelled out some cunning test of worth to choose a successor when in reality he wandered with madness and probably fell into a river." "Look," said Kirk, more earnestly. "I grew up just a few miles from here. My father even visited Algamer's castle on occasion for Town Council business. If you could see what I've seen, talk to people, you would know the story's truth. Why else do you think Beltashire has had no king all this time, just a bunch of power-hungry, land-stealing, money-grubbing barons fighting amongst themselves?" He glanced around suddenly, mindful of his outburst. Merideth kept her opinion of barons to herself. "I agreed to come with you to this . . . fair . . . but I've better things to do than stand around and watch grown men crack each other's skulls." She looked up to see if he was listening, but his eyes were drawn to the arena. She rolled her eyes and watched the fight with mild interest. Only three men remained inside the arena. The first, an older man with an enormous mop of red hair and beard, was sweating fiercely as he circled with a tall, bareheaded man who was snarling. Red-beard's eyes darted to the third man, who stood off to one corner, away from the two circling swordsmen and just out of reach of the jabbing spectators. His blood-red armor and almond eyes marked him as a Kaufman, and he held his curved sword easily while watching his two final opponents. Apparently he was catching his breath, waiting for only one to remain before striking; neither Red-beard nor Bare-head kept their back to him for long. The roar of the crowd only increased with the lull in action. Finally Bare-head stepped forward, black sword raised in a vicious pounding stroke. Red-beard warded the blow, but his age was apparent. The younger, taller man swung and pounded with a fury until Red-beard fell to a knee. Bare-head kept swinging, even when his opponent held a hand in surrender, even with two judges tugging on his arms pulling him back, and he kept swinging until his sword clipped Red-beard on the temple. The older man's eyes rolled up into his head and he collapsed to the ground. The bigger man shrugged off the grappling judges and lifted his arms for a crushing blow to the fallen man's neck. The crowd booed and shouted as his sword came singing downward-- Only to suddenly stop with a dull chime against a curved blade held inches above Red-beard's exposed neck. Bare-head's eyes were livid as he growled at the Kaufman who had denied him his victory. Some shouted along with him, but most cheered the foreigner who had spared the older man's life, a man who had just before been an opponent. The judges used the brief moment to drag Red-beard out of harm's way and let the last two swordsmen face each other. "I recognize Baldy," Kirk muttered to Merideth. "Name's Calvo, and he's as mean as they come." Merideth nodded appraisingly. "The Kaufman looks like he knows what he's doing." "And weighs fifty pounds less. He'll have to be quick if he expects to win." Merideth tapped her lips with a finger. "Suppose the Kaufman does win. Does this . . . legend of yours allow a foreigner to be our new king? What if he passes the Test and the people throw him into a river?" "I didn't make up the Test," Kirk said with a shrug, "and besides, it's not a legend. 'Whoever frees the arrow will follow my path.' Those were Algamer's last words." He turned back and watched the two swordsmen, still circling. "If he's strong enough to free the arrow, then he's strong enough to be king." He didn't sound convinced. Fool man, she thought. Still doesn't know the difference between strength and power. A growing roar drew her attention back to the arena. Calvo had apparently judged the Kaufman as skilled with a blade, and was now using his size advantage to its fullest. He came on, sword in both hands swinging wildly while the foreigner retreated, blocking his opponent's sword with harsh strokes. The Kaufman might have taken advantage of openings, but Calvo left no time for counterstrokes. At best the Kaufman could only wait until his opponent spent himself. The large man pressed forward . . swinging, swinging . . . Perhaps the humidity of Beltashire finally sapped the Kaufman of his strength, or the local diet did not agree with him. Perhaps the judges did not see the spectator who had "accidentally" dropped a mug under the Kaufman's foot. Whatever the reason, he stumbled and fell to his back, his thin strip of steel his only shield against Calvo's vicious downstroke. He quickly rolled to his knees to regain his footing, but a spectator's boot into his rear plunged him forward face-first into the dirt. His sword beyond reach, the Kaufman scrambled toward the edge of the ring. Standing up again he melted into the jeering crowd, who by this time was shouting and capering for the victor. Amid curses of losing gambles, most surged into the ring toward Calvo, who roared a shout as the head judge snapped a twig in two above his head and declared the winner. Calvo thrust his sword into the dirt and let the crowd throw him up on their shoulders. Merideth had to elbow a few ribs to keep the pressing crowd from knocking her down. Calvo rode flat-backed, arms stretched to heaven in victory as his handlers rushed him up a particular hill. Kirk grabbed Merideth by an arm. "Come on, I want to see this!" He lunged forward with her in tow until she finally broke free of his grip and paced along beside him. They sidestepped the general crowd, careful to avoid the cookfires and wagons or small tents of craftsmen taking advantage of the annual festivities to ply their wares. Finally the crowd circled at the top of the hill that was mostly bare but for one gnarled and twisted oak. The tree was old, with only a few green leaves at the highest branches, and looked as ancient as King Algamer himself was when last seen. Calvo let himself down now, and spent a few minutes in exultant victory, pacing about with his back to the tree, working the mob into a shouting frenzy. Meredith shook her head at the display. He's stalling to regain his breath, the fool. Finally Calvo raised his hands; the crowd silenced almost immediately. "Now!" the towering man said in a loud, rumbling voice. "Now I claim what is rightfully mine!" At that the crowd began shouting again, even louder. Slowly, a chant began, and before long the mob picked it up . . . "test, test, Test, Test, TEST, TEST!" Calvo set to unbuckling his leather armor, and a pair of youths ran forward to help him strip down to a thin shirt and breeches, even bending down to yank off enormous black boots. Standing barefoot in the thin grass, Calvo accepted a pitcher, drank greedily, and finished by pouring the remaining ale over his head. "TEST! TEST! TEST! TEST!" Again with an upraised arm Calvo silenced the chant, then turned toward the tree for the first time, as if facing a new armored enemy. Only when Kirk pointed could Merideth see it. What first appeared to be a snapped branch, protruding an arm's length from the aged oak at chest level, was a finger-thick shaft of iron. Any feathers had long rotted away. Now there only was the arrow itself, rooted solidly into a tree whose own roots clutched deep into the earth's very bones. Calvo stepped up slowly to the arrow and ran a hand down its length, caressing it as he would the neck of a skittish horse. "A question," said Merideth, who then had to clear her throat to regain Kirk's attention. "Even if it was Algamer who plunged that arrow into the tree, why doesn't someone just cut the tree down and hack out the arrow for himself?" Kirk's face was one of shock. "That's cheating!" he said. Merideth merely cocked an eyebrow at him. "Besides, if the tree was suddenly cut down, everyone would know. It wouldn't count." They looked up as the crowd stilled. Calvo now had two beefy hands gripped around the arrow. Bracing against the foot of the tree, he pulled. He jerked backward suddenly. Someone shouted, thinking he had yanked the arrow free. No, his sweaty palms had merely slipped on the slim shaft. Standing back upright, Calvo scrubbed his palms dry on his breeches and grasped the arrow once more. For a long minute he pulled, muscles cording along his arms, veins bulging in his forehead and neck. Finally he braced his bare feet against the trunk itself. There, suspended a span above the ground, he pulled, his teeth gritted in agony. He swayed back and forth, trying to rock the arrow free. He arched his back, eyes squeezed tight with a trembling fury, until a great shout escaped his lips. He plunged backward to the ground. His chest heaved as he gulped air, and his eyes fluttered closed. The arrow remained. A collective groan rose from the crowd. A ragged cheer encouraged Calvo to try again, but most began stirring and walking away. If he could not free the arrow the first time another try would be of no use. Calvo and anyone else would just have to wait until next year's Succession. A pair of young boys had snuck up to the tree and were yanking on the arrow while glancing over their shoulders. Some stooped woman shook her finger and shouted something at Calvo who was just beginning to get to his feet. Kirk turned and began walking back down the hill also, looking to refill his mug, but Merideth did not follow. She stood staring at the tree, tapping her lips with a finger. "Meredith?" Kirk said. "You coming?" She didn't seem to hear. She pictured an aged but still powerful king picking up his longbow and fitting this special arrow. Then, straightening his back, he aimed toward this old but certainly nondescript tree. Bending the bow with all his remaining strength, Meredith could practically hear the the arrow thunk deep into the wood. As she watched the arrow quiver to a halt in her mind, she suddenly snapped her fingers. She whirled, darting glances all around, looking down at the ground. "What is it?" asked Kirk, stepping in front of her, but she only stood on her toes and brushed his lips with hers. Then she slipped away, cutting between small knots of men and women, her eyes searching, searching . . . At last she leaned down, near the cookfire of a transient blacksmith, who was haggling with an old, thin-haired man over some matter. "Hey!" the smith shouted at Merideth's back, but she marched away in a straight line for the tree. "That's mine, you filthy thief!" The burly man's shouts drew the heads of those nearby. A magistrate on a dappled horse squinted in her direction. Kirk groaned. Her pace did not let up until she plowed into a man's chest. Stepping back a pace, she looked up into the coal-black eyes of Calvo, sweat still dripping off his bare head. He held his back to the tree defensively. "Where do you think you're going?" he said. "Excuse me, please. I'm going after that arrow." Calvo sputtered. "You? A woman?" He threw his head back in vicious laughter. By now a small crowd had developed. "I could snap your arm between two fingers." "Yes. Hold this, please." She held out in a slim hand the object she had borrowed -- the smith's hammer. Calvo's forehead pursed as he instinctively reached -- until the hammer slipped from her fingers onto his bare foot. He dropped to the ground with a sharp cry of pain, clutching his broken toes as the ever-gathering crowd hooted and laughed at him. Swiftly, she bent, snatching the hammer back up, and stepped around him to stand before the tree and its rust-flecked limb. She heard the others barking at her back, but she blocked them out and took a deep breath. What's the difference between strength and power? she asked herself. Her skin prickled as she sensed something. She felt as if she were being silently assessed . . . measured. The world seemed to hold its collective breath. Suddenly she leaned back and swung the heavy hammer with both hands, striking the arrow at the tip with a sharp ring. The arrow pushed a hand's length deeper into the tree. Once more she swung, and again, and again. After a dozen strokes, the arrow's tip was flush with the gnarled, gray bark of the oak. Dropping the hammer, she stepped around to the other side of the tree . . . There, bright in the afternoon sun, was the steel-tipped head of Algamer's arrow. With her heart pounding in her chest, she wrapped her hands around the cool iron shaft and pulled . . . As Merideth stepped back around the thick and ancient oak to face the silent crowd, she looked at her husband, and his eyes were shining. Then she thrust the arrow high above her head. Across the crowded field it seemed that no one spoke or moved for a long time. Then the shouting began.
x x x
So was she crowned Merideth the First and did she rule the kingdom with an arrow as her emblem? Something tells me that this story could be the start of a series . . . and a very good one, too. What say you, Anotherealmers? Want more of Merideth and Kirk? Post your comments on our BBS. GM
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