Sunday, 19 May 2013

Sir Cobb and the Cage Match

"I will never love again," Avan Weatherstrong said, tears stinging at his eyes.

"You are a ridiculous man," replied the phantom Kal'hath. "You knew when first we met that our time together would be this brief."

"Had I but perfected the potion we both sought," Avan said. "Then we could be together for all time."

"We will be," the phantom replied. "For now, the change of death has come upon me. I must go on my way. I shall never forget you my prince."

"Nor I you," Avan Weatherstrong replied. Now he was alone beneath the ragblossom tree in the Wylde Woods so his words were borne away upon the wind. He did not know if his first love heard them, but he chose to believe that she had.

Prince Weatherstrong performed many great deeds, and one day he met the woman who would be the love of his life. All of these adventures will be written of, but not at this time.

Well, I don't think anyone wanted it to end like that, Frederick mused, and I didn't even like her that much. He closed the bound copy of "The Tales of Avan Weatherstronge Volume VI" that he had picked up for a half crown in Bridgetown. He had bought the volume mostly to check up on what had happened after he left.

Frederick had noted that the entire volume V was peppered with references to Avan's plucky but hapless sidekick, Sir Cobbe. He had left wondering about whether these tales had existed before his diversion into the distant past for wiser heads; ones less likely to throb at the consideration of the topic.

Now that he had concluded the adventures of volume VI with the certain knowledge that Avan's love affair with the shapeshifter Kal'Hath had probably been a bad idea he wanted to see what happened in volume VII. He also wanted to reassure Avan that he had made it back to where he had started off without too much permanent damage.

The door of the inn room opened and Lester came in.

"Phoebe said if we're not all ready to go by morning bell that she would see to it we would be very very sorry," he said. "I, for one, am inclined to believe her."

"Sorry," Frederick said, slipping the book into his knapsack. As he did so he realised that, having finished it, the volume was now an encumbrance rather than a vital piece of research material. He decided that he would have to sell it at the market while they were searching for the little girl and the goblin trader this morning.

"No need to apologise to me," Lester said. "And I don't think it would do much good with Phoebe when she's in a temper. If there's one thing I've noticed it is that she is not fun to be around when she's angry."

A brief image of Phoebe's flashing eyes and plasma filled hands impressed itself on Frederick's mind.

"Oh, I don't know," he said with a little smirk.

"Yes, well," Lester appeared to find Frederick's response flustering. He crossed to the side of his bed and knocked gently on the lid of the small wooden box that the old goblin lady had sold them. "James, time to get up."

"I've been up for the past five minutes with all your banging around," came a muted tone of annoyance from within the box. "The lid's a little heavy. Either that or it's stuck."

"Oh, hang on," Lester said. He fiddled with the lid, after a small amount of exertion it popped open. "Oops," he said. "Yes, it is a little tight."

"Tonight I think I shall sleep with the lid open, if it's all the same to you," James said, sitting up inside the box. "That was far too much like waking up in a coffin."

"I shall not be pleased," an angry female voice came floating down the corridor from outside the room. "If I have to come in there. Come on, daylight's burning."

The two men did a quick circuit of the room to check that they had not forgotten anything, once they were satisfied James was allowed to climb up on to Lester's shoulder. Locking the inn room behind them they all went downstairs to meet Phoebe.

Phoebe had found them a less than hearty breakfast of fruit which they ate as they walked out of the inn and down to the market square at Steephill Fell.

Frederick concentrated very hard on his pear and even more on his apple. He had learned, in the last couple of days, to concentrate on a variety of objects and tasks that were not Phoebe. Only a few weeks ago he had been despairing at how pathetic Prince Avan Weatherstrong had seemed besotted with an exotic maiden in black pyjamas. Frederick was determined not to make the same mistake, not that Phoebe was wearing black pyjamas, and even if she were, Frederick would be too busy concetrating on things that weren't her to notice.

"Right, here's the plan for the day," Phoebe said, taking charge as always. Frederick did appreciate Phoebe's instinct to organise things but he assured himself this was just because it gave him a framework that, prior to his encounter with a certain prince of legend, he had been sorely lacking.

"We've got a couple of hours until the mid morning bell," Phoebe pressed on, "we are to spread out and search for the trader's wagon until then. At mid-morning, if we haven't found them I will go to the magic market where I will use the last of my money to buy a new blank spell book and some potions. Thereafter I can sell my services as a healer. Meanwhile Frederick will see if there's a fighting pit where he could earn us a few coins.

"Once either of us has made a Bronze Mark, or it gets to the mid afternoon bell we will come back to meet Lester under the market bell. After that we will continue to search and ask questions until evening bell. We will stay one more night in the Gryphon's Wing and then, in the morning, we must press on, unless we succeed in finding Rachel, in which case we shall come up with a new plan."

"Um, so, I just stay under the market bell?" Lester asked. He didn't sound happy with the arrangement.

"From midmorning until the both of us return, yes," Phoebe said.

"That doesn't seem like a very important job," Lester said.

"Neither selling healing services nor being beaten up for the entertainment of others are important Lester," Phoebe said. "But we all have to do what we can to keep ourselves fed on this journey. You will keep an eye on the market, you never know when we'll encounter someone who will have news of the trader's wagon."

"Just seems a bit tedious," Lester half-grumbled, half-muttered.

"You can have my book of stories to read, if you like," Frederick offered. He didn't expect Lester to greet this idea with enthusiasm. Frederick had found reading chore enough and he had been deeply invested in the contents.

"No," Lester said, "it's fine. I'll just sit quietly and wait for you to return."

"You could talk to me," James said from Lester's shoulder. "I could even read to you from the book. I like a good book."

Everyone took a moment to look at James as if he were crazy.

"What?" the mouse objected. "I find reading very relaxing."

"Look," Phoebe broke across the rapidly disintegrating conversational trajectory. "I don't really care what people do as long as they do it while sticking to the plan. We've only got two bells before mid-morning, let's see what we can find. Now."

Thus directed the party split up to cover the market at Steephill Fell and surrounding streets.

Frederick moved around the market, keeping his eyes open for signs of a goblin merchant accompanied by a young girl, or a young girl wandering alone, or a mermaid, or a mobile trader's wagon. He did have a brief conversation with a rainbow grease merchant, but the goblin's tins of product were imports from Trenchside.

He managed to get a conversation going with a general trader who bought the book from Frederick for the scandalous resale price of twenty shillings, the trader offered this as an improvement on his opening gambit of one hundred groats. Frederick was not particularly good at mental arithmetic but he believed the two figures may actually have amounted to exactly the same thing.

The point was not the poor price he attracted for the resale of the book. The point was rather that, whilst the trader was trying altogether far too hard to bamboozle Frederick, he let slip that there had been an upset in the fishmonger's alley near to the master's quarters the previous evening. As the deal was done the mid-morning bell tolled, indicating that it was time to report to the nearest fighting pit.

"I could have got you a better deal for that book," said a voice from Frederick's waist.

"Don't talk," Frederick said. "Remember Hamsamperburg."

"These are the Rolling Greens," the sword replied, "it's not some Midnight Forest backwater. Talking swords are probably commonplace in this area. Besides, I'm bored of sitting at your waist dumbly. I had myself transferred into this artifact in order to engage in social interaction."

"I thought you were transferred into the sword in order to travel and see the world," Frederick said.

"Both, I made the move for both reasons," the sword replied, its irritation showing. "Regardless, it's a good job I did, I'm clearly more worldly than you. Twenty shillings is a shocking price for a stout volume like the one you just sold."

"I needed to lighten the load, besides I obtained useful information from the deal." Frederick wasn't exactly certain why he felt he had to defend himself to a sword, he carried on nevertheless.

"You are not at all business minded, are you?" the sword asked.

"I'm a knight, I defend the helpless, I avenge wrong wherever I find it. I haven't got time for economics."

"So you're bringing a whole new level of inefficiency to your operation?" the sword countered. "Imagine the do-gooding that you could accomplish if you didn't have to spend up to a quarter of every day grubbing around for loose change."

"So what?" Frederick asked. "I should take a break and find a tutor in basic merchant craft?"

"That burly fellow, Sir Vaskorn, he's clearly had some lessons in efficient resource management," the sword said. "Look at him now."

"Oh, yes, because I really want to model myself after an enormous evil bully," Frederick said.

"Well, you won't ever beat someone like that whilst you're scrabbling on the floor after every meagre groat," the sword pointed out. "You said that you avenge wrong, difficult to do that properly when you have no liquid assets."

"So what do you suggest I do?" Frederick asked.

"Well, you're heading to the arena now," the sword said. "Why don't you simply let me do the talking?"

"If you say so," Frederick sighed, after all, what harm could it do?

Frederick asked about in the tavern and was directed down a small side street into a cellar bar where the local fighting ring was set up. The fight roster for any given pit was determined by which fighters happened to be in the room that day. There were always regular fighters of course, but then there were travelling brawlers, various monsters and, of course, wandering knights who all found occasions where they had to step into the ring of competition in order to earn a small purse.

Frederick presented himself to the bar owner and said that he would like to be added to the day's roster.

"Fights begin at noon bell," the owner said, he pulled a large, black ledger from under the bar and opened it to a fresh page. He took a pen and filled its nib from a pot of ink. "Fighting name?" the tavern keeper asked.

"Sir Cobb," Frederick said. "Champion of the Weak."

"Uh-huh," the tavern keeper said, he might have been less impressed by something he'd heard that day but, if this was the case, Frederick couldn't imagine a tone of voice any flatter or more hollow that he could have employed to indicate the fact. "Every fight earns a shilling for a win," the man said. "Amateur fights last until evening bell."

"I don't think you heard my client," piped up the sword from Frederick's side. "He said he was Sir Cobb, Champion of the Weak."

The tavern keeper looked Frederick in the eye.

"What's that?" he said, tone still flat.

"That, my good man," said the sword, "is Sir Cobb's agent. Sir Cobb is a fighter of rare character and distinction. He does not dirty his knuckles on a shilling fighter. Sir Cobb is a professional man-at-arms. You will not find a coistrel of greater skill between Bridgetown and the Shimmering Shore. I am sure you have a professional purse that would be more suited to my client's skills."

"Professional bouts begin in the evening, you need a Fighter's Guild mark to take part," the tavern keeper said, his facial arrangement moving only enough to allow his mouth to form the words.

"Are you telling me that your business would not benefit from a one-off special event, this very afternoon, against any fighter on the pit roster?" the sword asked, not in the least bit put off by the tavern keeper's manner.

"You'll fight anyone?" the tavern keeper asked Frederick, refusing to address a foot and a half of forged metal strapped to a man's waist.

"He'll beat anyone!" the sword announced proudly.

"There's been a fella here, paid for lodgings, don't like him, smells, is rude," the tavern keeper said. "He won't leave because he can't be beat. You beat him you can name your price."

"A silver crown" the sword cut in before Frederick could ask for a bronze mark.

"A sovereign," the tavern keeper shot back.

"Done," the sword said.

A slow smile spread across the tavern keeper's face. Frederick believed that he much preferred the previous stony neutrality.

"If I were you, friend," the tavern keeper said to Frederick. "I'd keep that sword from issuing edicts your backside might find it hard to enforce."

Frederick wasn't arrogant enough not to get a sinking feeling in his stomach at the tavern keeper's morbid glee. The tavern keeper's gaze slid sideways, away from Frederick, to settle on a small boy sat a table in the corner.

"Jinks!" he called out. "Go tell the crier that we got a fighter for the troll at noon. There's a bowl of Martha's gruel in it for you."

The lad slipped off his chair and ran off to market.

"Every fighter gets a free drink," the tavern keeper said, turning back to Frederick. "What can I get you?"

The news that he was to fight a troll was a matter of some concern to Frederick. Almost the first lesson he'd ever learned was 'if at all possible avoid any confrontation with a troll' and this fighting fixture necessarily ran counter to that general guideline. Still, there was a sovereign on the line. If Frederick could pull this off it would give the party a little financial security for the next few days.

Noon rolled by faster than Frederick might have liked. He was apprehensive at the sight of all the people who had turned out to watch him battle the troll. It appeared that the citizens of Steephill Fell were keen to see this monster get its comeuppance, or to see Frederick beaten to within an inch of his life. Perhaps they were not altogether that concerned which, as long as it was either.

At the noon bell Frederick took a step up into the caged pit area and stood under the harsh overhead dwarf crystal lamps waiting for his opponent to join him. There was a murmur from the crowd as a shadow fell across the entrance to the bar. A heavy tread crossed the distance to the cage and a familiar bulbous-nosed, bearded, warty head came into view in the light of the pit lamps.

"Well, well, well, Frederick Cobb," said Yelloweye Blackfang, grinning unpleasantly. "What a nice surprise waiting for me this afternoon, to be sure."

"You know this gentleman?" asked the sword which, within the cage fighting rules, had been strapped to the bars of the cage on the outside where Frederick could not reach it.

"We... have met on a couple of previous occasions," Frederick said. "I rescued a moon maiden from him, then, when next we crossed paths, I trapped him inside a mirror prison."

"You should have told me," the sword said. "I could have got more money for a grudge match."

"I didn't know!" Frederick complained.

"Oh, well," the sword said. "Nothing to be done about it now."

With that the cage door was closed and locked, the tavern keeper rang the pit bell and Yelloweye Blackfang hollered with wicked delight as he charged forward, intending to barge Frederick to the ground.

The one thing Frederick had going for him at this point was that, since his last encounter with the troll, he had spent three months in hero boot camp and a further month and a half in one of the strangest places that exists anywhere in the weave or beyond. He had learned plenty of good hero-ing tricks and had his capacity for being particularly freaked out by anything tested to its absolute limit.

Not feeling any more panicked than the original 'butterflies in tummy' he'd had now for over an hour he rolled his shoulder and hit the floor. Frederick tumbled to one side of the monster as it barreled past the point where Frederick had been a second previously.

The troll let out a cry of surprise as it ran straight into the stout metal bars at the edge of the cage. The troll bounced off the bars and almost fell backwards into the centre of the ring.

Excellent first move, Frederick thought as he spun to face his monstrous adversary, now, how to finish this off without dying, and without any kind of weapon?

There was really only one tactic that could end this in relative peace without anyone getting too badly hurt, Frederick hated it but the strategy was the only way to go. It didn't help that he had never actually tried to complete the move, although he had seen Avan execute it, once on an eight foot tall lizard man.

If Frederick's mentor could take down an annoyed giant gecko armed only with a length of chain Frederick could certainly apply the same technique to a troll. If he failed he probably deserved the beating.

Frederick ran towards Yelloweye Blackfang and, at the last moment before rebounding of the troll's solid torso he leaped up into the air, extending his leg to push off against the monster's right thigh. Getting a good, solid footing he pushed himself over the troll's right shoulder and, as he flew round, he reached his arms out to encircle its neck. He clamped down hard and began to squeeze, attempting to choke the creature into unconsciousness.

Frederick had been so intent on getting into position without screwing up too badly he hadn't had time to take in reactions from either his opponent or the gathered crowd. Prioritising the two Frederick noticed that Yelloweye Blackfang hadn't moved to throw Frederick off just yet. The troll must be surprised at Frederick's newfound capability but surprise wore off, Frederick did his best to tighten his hold.

Broadening his perspective Frederick realised that the cellar bar had fallen silent. His perception of time probably wasn't exactly normal at the moment. He had probably only taken maybe ten seconds to roll up to a standing position, decide on a strategy, enact it and end up here but in Frederick's mind the fight had already been going on for hours.

"He's choking the troll!" came a cry from the crowd.

"Go on! Give 'im what for!" a second voice piped up.

Suddenly the cage was awash with a lusty roar of excited fight spectators. Frederick didn't have any time to enjoy his sudden popularity as the sound of the crowd broke Yelloweye Blackfang's trance of shock.

"Get off me!" gargled the troll reaching up to grab at Frederick's arm. The advantage of the back position was that it made it an awkward job for the chokee to get a good grip on the choker.

Even as the troll grappled ineffectively with Frederick's arm it also staggered backwards, stumble-stepped but remaining upright. It hit the edge of the cage backwards at some momentum, Frederick had one of many opportunities that had come his way recently to have the wind knocked out of him.

As little flashing spots danced in front of his eyes Frederick marvelled to think that, as recently as ten weeks ago, he might have let go after being winded like that. Now he clung on for grim life and hoped that the troll was finding things a lot more unpleasant where he was standing.

Thankfully Yelloweye Blackfang appeared to be finding it harder to think, which, to be fair, probably wasn't the easiest activity for a troll to engage in even in optimum conditions. The troll staggered and stepped in lazy, broken circles, the grip on Frederick's arm was loosening. The troll dropped to one knee and then, in a desperation move, threw itself backwards onto the floor.

This time 'winding' wasn't the term for what Frederick experienced, this was far more like 'crushing'. Yelloweye Blackfang rolled away as Frederick let go of its neck but the damage was mostly done. Frederick's chest felt as if it had been on the wrong end of a dozen mallet blows, he was struggling for breath, his limbs lay in a sprawl not responding to his commands to get him to his feet.

He saw Yelloweye Blackfang stood, gulping down great lungfuls of oxygen, bent double, its hands on its knees. Frederick knew he did not have it in him to repeat the chokehold position. Now he was in serious trouble.

His body began to respond to his urgent commands to move. The first couple of serious fights Frederick had been involved in he had allowed the pain to keep him down. Very quickly the fledgling knight learned that it often wasn't the one who put people down you had to beware of it was the one who kept getting back up. Since then Frederick had always committed himself to a serious effort to get back up from anything that he possibly could.

He found himself on his feet with unexpected speed, the sound of his heart hammered in his chest, which, incidentally, felt like someone had filled it with broken glass and sand. He had, at most, a second to decide how to attack next, if he slowed for a second the troll would beat him bloody.

He didn't even really know what he was doing, his legs appeared to run towards the bars at the edge of the cage all by themselves. He jumped into the air, gripped the bars further up and hauled his body into the air.

Pushing off from the bars Frederick aimed his entire body towards Yelloweye Blackfang's head and attempted to ram both of his elbows into the top of the troll's skull. The blow made devastating contact sending spikes of agony up and down Frederick's arms.

The pain must have been mutual, Yelloweye Blackfang slumped forward, Frederick flopped down on top of the troll. For a few seconds there was nothing in the whole world except for the blessed relief of being laid out flat and not moving.

Then Frederick heard the cheering.

A couple of pairs of hands urged him upright again and held his aching, wobbly arms aloft in victory.

"The new ring champion!" announced the tavernkeeper, "Sir Cobb! Champion of the Weak!" He sounded a lot more enthusastic about the appellation post-victory.

After that incidents proceeded in a bit of a whirl. Frederick received his sovereign along with many cheers and admiring comments from the fight fans. Before long Frederick was walking slowly back towards the market bell to meet with the others.

He had to tread carefully because his head was still spinning a bit from the fight but as he reached the edge of the market square he was urged on to action. Something exploded on the side of the square near to the market bell and Frederick found himself jogging to return to the place where he expected to find Lester and James.

What had exploded and the things that happened when he got there are both things that I will tell you at another time.

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