Sir Hebdobane’s Tale
(A Throw Down Seven Story)
by C. Richard Patton
“Draw your sword, squire. Orcs in these hills will attack out of the darkness without warning. It is best to have blade in hand when they do. If they are wearing armor you may hear them before you see them,” Sir Hebdobane said. He then stepped forward and out of sight around an outcropping of the rockface that the knight and his squire, Bryce, had been following most of the afternoon. The knight was out of sight for only a moment when the young squire heard a coarse metallic clanking. Half a breath later a large corset of wrought iron orc-mail appeared around the rock accompanied by a very loud but un-orc-like shout of “Aaargh!”
Bryce widened his fighting stance on the pebbled path and raised his wooden practice sword against the onslaught of a tree branch draped with orc-mail as Sir Hebdobane thrust it toward him. This was only their second such training fight and Bryce was determined to make a better showing than in their first battle. He directed an outward slash toward a long branch that split from the stem off to his right, where a real orc might have held an axe, then reversed the stroke to strike at the collar of the mail as it hung on the main branch, where the false-orc’s shoulder met its neck. Pulling the sword back he then thrust it hard against the center of the corset. A sharp steel blade stabbed thus with enough force would penetrate the softer iron rings to lethal depth. His wooden sword merely pushed the scarecrow orc back at Sir Hebdobane who let it fall, dead.
“Well met, squire. If you were attacked by this one orc you would live on, unscathed.”
“Thank you, sir, I tried to focus on my foe as you instructed after our last battle.”
“Yes, but had the beast any brethren, or been part of a hag, or worse a full hebdomad, you would not have fared as well. You engaged this creature immediately. A point to learn here is that reaction is quicker than action. There is time to size up the situation, give a check for more foes, and consider options less risky than swinging your sword arm toward the axe of an armored orc. Of course, tonight’s puppet orc was slow no matter your approach. I am afraid I cannot wield a heavy tree branch coated with iron mail and make it a lithe opponent! But come, prepare camp. Let us have a bite and I will tell you of a time when I, alone and far from aid, dispatched an entire hebdomad, all seven bastards, with small risk to myself. Through their vile nature the strength of your enemies can be turned one against another, and even against themselves.”
Young Bryce pondered on this as he set about starting a small smokeless fire using fallen hardwood, including the dead “orc”. Once he had a bit of dried mutton warming over the flames, he asked, “Good sir, do you mean such a creature can actually be made to kill itself?”
“Indeed. It’s a rare thing, but it does happen, and it can be encouraged.” The knight leaned back against the granite wall and began.
It was just over a decade ago, I was a ranger then, not yet a knight. You were doubtless a small boy still hiding among your mother’s skirts in the castle lands, but up here there was a full hebdomad roaming. They raided the farms, taking livestock and anything of value, though farmers have little coin. They even robbed the Wayward Inn, where you and I stayed two nights back.
I was a guest that night years ago, too. The bastards waited outside until the commons was empty. The apprentice sorcerer it was that broke the door lock by the looks of it. Melted the keyhole, he used so much power. The necromancer would have frozen the lock until it cracked, neat and crisp. But it was a training exercise for the apprentice, much like you and I just had, except they killed the innkeeper. That was probably the orc and the goblin. Their kinds love killing humans almost as much as they hate each other. They had the innkeeper’s purse and most were back out the broken door before I, or any of the other guests, could get to the commons from our rooms. When the necromancer saw me on the stairs he raised his long arms above his head. The sleeves of his robe dropped to his elbows and I could see his red eyes blazing within his hood between those tattoo-blackened arms. He clapped his hands once and the steps beneath my feet exploded. He snickered as he turned away and walked out the door. I saw the imp scurrying after him with two bottles of wine clutched in one clawed hand. By the time I recovered enough to pull myself out of the broken stairs they were gone.
As the knight paused his story for a bite of mutton Bryce asked, “What about the ogre and the troll? You mentioned the necromancer, sorcerer, orc, goblin and even the imp, but what about the two big creatures? I’ve never seen either of those.”
“I’d say the ogre and the troll probably stood guard outside. The ogre may have been too big to fit through the door. Ogres are almost round, one big ball of mean muscle. Trolls are almost as big, with chiseled features, like they were carved from rock. I saw them both later, but not that night,” the knight replied, then went on with his tale.
It was almost two weeks later when I heard them enter the old tower, it’s up ahead and we’ll camp there tomorrow night. But this night, over ten years ago, I was waiting for them and when I heard them, I retreated up the tower to the empty archer’s quarters and listened.
I heard them ascending and then stop in the meeting room. There was some squabbling and eating and then the goblin shrieked. It was a blood-curdling wail that ended with a clatter and splat as the beast crashed onto the paving stones forty feet below the tower window. I used the shriek and clank of iron armor hitting the stones to cover the more delicate clink of my own steel mail and slipped into a deeper recess. The remaining six members of the hebdomad would pass through the quarters where I’d hidden on their way to the tower’s top in search of rumored treasure.
I couldn’t see it but I knew the crescent moon was already setting behind the hills. It would be a black night. I squeezed into a space between the exterior stone block wall and the wooden interior wall of an officer’s sleeping chamber, it was out of sight of the door and the steep stone staircase while also a good spot from which to launch a surprise attack should that be required. I still hoped that the beasts would do more of the killing for me themselves, and I wasn’t to be disappointed.
As I settled in I heard a smaller clatter on the stones below, and then an angry voice, the orc by the guttural tone.
“Aaargh, whad’ya toss that down for? I’d’ve sucked the marrow outta that shank!”
“I likes the way it bounces,” came a high pitched reply, the imp, “and youse can suck the sheep and the goblin’s bones too once we’ve looted this tower. Lookee, him’s bones already cracked on the rock where you throwed hims.”
“I don’t eat ‘is kind,” the orc said.
“Nar,” came a third voice, deep and rumbly. I thought it might be the troll until I heard what it said, “you won’t eat your kin, practically kissing cousins, you orcs and goblins. Ha, you’d’ve ate that whole leg o’ lamb though, wouldn’t you? And none for us, neither.”
It was the ogre, they relish taunting the smaller beasts. Only the necromancer among a full hebdomad is stronger, and that through magic. Ogres are big and strong, and look dull-witted, but they have a sharp tongue. This ogre was using it to get the orc’s goat, or his lamb, in this case. I had left that leg of lamb in the meeting room myself, intending it to start a quarrel. There’s a precarious balance within a hebdomad. Having seven different evil creatures helps keep any from teaming up together. If there were three orcs they’d be a powerful united force, even for the necromancer. The necromancer and sorcerer do both start life as human, but students of the black arts crave becoming the master. So, there is no trust between the apprentice sorcerer and his mentor.
As for my lamb, I would have eaten off that leg for a week, but such is the duty of the king’s rangers, to make what sacrifices are needed to protect his lands and subjects. A week for me, but scarcely a snack apiece for seven hungry beasts. They never share well.
The orc had no tolerance for the ogre’s jibes and I soon heard scrabbling and weapons clashing, then a brief silence followed by a clattering thud on the stones below. I guessed it was the orc that had been thrown down, for surely an ogre’s impact would send a shudder up the tower walls. An ogre has over twice an orc’s strength and if the orc was the attacker the ogre had another advantage, for remember: reaction is quicker than action. And also, one must attack with a force at least equal to the full strength that a foe can muster, not just its apparent strength at the moment, when a man, or beast, is defending its life it will muster all of its power in an instant. Of course, had the orc been more clever it would have recruited help. Or, as will be seen, an ogre’s size and strength can be used against it, but orcs aren’t real smart. Still the orc got in the last poke, it stayed silent as it fell, probably just to prove the ogre wrong about its kinship to goblins.
“Fooools,” the next voice dripped with evil. It made my spine squirm like an eel in an eagle’s talons. The necromancer, “Two dead, both our castle invaders, over a few bites of mutton. There may yet be kingsmen in this tower. Someone left that meat recently, it was not yet rancid.”
The necromancer paused. I realized I wasn’t breathing. I exhaled. Then drew in a slow breath. My memory of those glowing red eyes peering from deep under the hood of his robes a fortnight earlier was still vivid.
As I concentrated on breathing steadily I heard the necromancer start speaking again, “At least we—” but he was cut off by the sound of a grotesque belch. I was thankful to be elsewhere since such a belch undoubtedly stunk. Perhaps it was the stench, or the interruption, or maybe just a swelling greed and the recognition that a belching troll is a vulnerable troll, but the necromancer snarled, “Grab him! Both of you! Now out the window like the other two.”
There was no clattering of armor. Trolls don’t wear any; their angular rock-like hide can repel all but the sharpest blades. Instead there was a very solid thud accompanied by a cracking sound that may have been one of the paving stones splitting. Trolls have hard skulls, too. So far, with only the barest of encouragement from me, three out of the seven would never trouble these hills again.
Without a single word for their dead what remained of the hebdomad left the meeting hall. A moment later I heard the iron-bound door to the archers’ quarters open and felt a rush of fresh air hit my hiding spot. I listened as the four traipsed through and up: the scuttling imp, the sorcerer tapping his staff and oddly clinking, mages typically don’t wear armor. Next were the heavy footfalls and hand placements of the ogre, then finally the necromancer swishing faintly in his robes.
I waited; then followed up the stairs, sword in hand. I crept forward within the alcove at the top, just enough to see. They had some torches burning and were scouring the battlements for a small treasure chest of gems. A treasure hidden in the old tower had become the talk of the countryside once I had seeded such a rumor at the Wayward Inn. Imps are excellent eavesdroppers.
“Move this stone with the numbers on it, seems a likely marker,” the sorcerer said to the ogre. The stone was large, heavy, and on the tower’s edge, good cover for bowmen. “Nothing, put it back.”
As the ogre released the carven stone his weight shifted away from his burden, the sorcerer raised the butt of his staff and gave the ogre a hard shove in the chest. Already off balance the ogre tripped neatly over a bundle of unlit torches that the imp had placed behind the ogre’s ankles. The thud when the ogre hit the stones fifty feet below did indeed send a shudder all the way back up the tower.
At this point the necromancer twirled on the murderous imp and sorcerer. “Oh, it’s like that, is it?!” He raised his arms, his loose sleeves falling beyond his elbows, and sent a clap of thunder at the sorcerer. But the sorcerer was ready. He dropped his staff and opened his cloak to reveal two polished brass shields. Holding them backwards, the concave side facing the necromancer, the sorcerer hid behind them as best he could. The thunderclap reflected back at the necromancer blowing him off the tower. His was a lesser thud on the stones below.
The sorcerer now lay dazed and scorched between the two shields. The imp acted quickly lest the sorcerer recover and it dragged the larger man to the edge and shoved him over. Thud. The imp rubbed his clawed hands together as he looked down at his six fallen comrades.
Meanwhile I was working on my own little scheme. As the imp was dragging the sorcerer to his vertical demise, I slunk out and grabbed a lit torch and one of the brass shields then ducked behind a stone block at the tower’s front edge, two blocks away from the imp and his dirty work. I thrust the torch in front of the shield, sending as much light as possible toward the imp and advanced. The sudden shadow against the faceted block, the imp’s own shadow, startled it so much that the imp fell without a shove. The last sound out of those seven was more of a soft thump than a thud.
The knight finished his tale with a pat of his open hand on the stone beside where he sat. After a moment added, “That’s the deed for which the king knighted me and gave me the name Hebdobane. He cited me for service and bravery; there are no knighthoods for stealth and trickery, I’m sad to say.”
Squire Bryce had listened to the tale intently. He said, “So the imp did kill itself, in a way. And I guess the necromancer did himself in, as well. It was very clever, the way you got some of them to kill each other, too. And it was a great service to king and countryside.” Bryce paused for a moment, then asked, “Have you ever gone up against a dragon?”
“Yes, lad, indeed I have,” Sir Hebdobane replied, “but dragon baiting is a different game and a story for another evening. Good night.”
C. Richard Patton had had stories published by Fiction 365 (“Curiosity”) and Daily Science Fiction (“A Measure of You”) and completed the Writing Excuses Retreat. He lives and creates in northern Alabama.