The drenched would-be savior of the tavern brawl, Dupree Carpenter, was bemoaning the “mere student” status that was no doubt the only thing that prevented him from personally defeating an entire tavernful of drunken brawlers armed with a wooden stick carved into the shape of a sword as Nan, Reed, and Lord Spaulding were looking for any excuse to be well away from the scene of their nonadventure and on to more interesting pastures, hopefully well away from Cago. “Master March would be so disappointed,” he moaned.
“So, you have a trainer?” inquired the ever-chatty Spaulding.
“Aye, the best! We travel from village to village, training the locals to defend themselves. There are ever so many brigands about these days, and the people need us. I would be with them now, if the Master hadn’t been so generous as to allow me a few days’ leave to see the city. If only I had done this…” he said, as he hopped on one foot while thrusting his wooden sword downward in a strange maneuver that left him looking more like a tipsy stork than a budding armsman. Catching himself as he fell, he glanced as Spaulding’s armaments. “My lord, you too know the way of the broadsword?”
Until this moment, Lord Spaulding was fully aligned with the desires of his comrades to leave this sorry bumpkin behind and get on with the serious business of hero-ing about the lands. But… “Why yes, young man… did you say Master March?”
“Oh well, I must call him so, as he is my Master, but to others he humbly presents himself as a mere student of… um… Well I’m not sure, but I’m sure that Master March’s, uh, Master must be the grandmaster of the Dancing Edge.”
“You don’t say?” Spaulding mused as Reed was seen to make exasperated appeals to Sam the valet, and Nan was making exasperated appeals to… well, nobody was quite sure exactly whom Nan thought she was talking to at times, most likely herself. Not many could figure out exactly what she was saying when she had the occasional animated argument with thin air, as it was primarily in the Ess High Tongue with a smattering of Amurkan thrown in for (profane) emphasis, and even fewer would think of interrupting her. Most of the general populace believed that all of the Ess must possess the combined array of weird powers that had been exhibited, or rumored to have been exhibited, by a select few of them, and so as long as she wasn’t setting them all on fire or turning them inside-out or freezing their brains or whatever, they were perfectly happy to let her converse with the occasional phantom companion as she wished.
In short order, it became apparent that Lord Spaulding was intent on seeing the art of this “Master Torias March” of Dupree’s, and as he was the ostensibly highest-ranking member of their party, Nan and Reed were agreeable. Besides, he owned all the horses. And so it was that the group set out on their noble nags from Cago that day, Dupree on one of the mules, Tookie on top of the supplies on the other one, the rest of them on a saddle horse apiece, Sam playing a barely passable lute accompaniment to Lord Spaulding’s improvised ballad of the greatest adventure that was what lies ahead.
Two days of uneventful journey brought the party to the sad little village of Middenton, a community that had fallen afoul of some bad fortune recently. Some pilferings, stolen chickens and a pig, and the worst of it, the son of the local cooper taking a beating in the nearby woods had the town on edge and looking for help. While not exactly the sort of troubles that lead naturally to grand adventure and songs of heroism, it did seem a tad coincidental to the skeptical Nan, who already had some suspicions about the nature of Master Torias March’s tutoring, despite the glassy-eyed faith of his star pupil.
As the travellers has arrived in the late morning, they were in time to catch Master March’s demonstration of the Dancing Edge, to be held by the river, where Dupree (after being cuffed for his lateness) was already helping two other men to erect a makeshift platform. As they had some time, there was some opportunity for the party to make some inquiries, so as Sam and Tookie went about stabling the horses and Nan tried in vain to convince Lord Spaulding that something was amiss, Reed took it upon himself to inquire after the victimized Cooper boy.
He was greeted at the door by Mrs. Cooper, wielding a stick. “What do you want?”
“My good lady, I mean you no harm. I understand that your boy was the victim of an attack?”
She narrowed her eyes. “Maybe… who are you?”
“Why, I am a companion of the visiting Lord Geoffrey Spaulding. Perhaps you have heard of him?”
“Noooo…” She eyed his tiny frame and his raggedy leathers. “Lord Spaulding? Really? Does he have a physician with him?”
“Actually, I er uh I happen to be his doctor madam. Please, take this money with the best wishes of his lordship,” he said, handing her a fistful of farthings.
She eyed his clothing again and jingled the coins. “Don’t they pay doctors a bit better?”
“Well, um, the road, you know, travelling hard, uh… can I ask what happened to the boy?”
It turned out that the Cooper boy had been hunting up some mushrooms just outside of town in the afternoon, and had not returned by dusk. A quick search had turned him up, beaten within an inch of his life, and he had been brought carefully back home, where his bones had been set and his condition stabilized. Only rest remained for him now as he recovered.
The Cooper woman, still a bit surprised about this poor-looking youth who was the companion of a lord and a physician, of sorts, maybe, nevertheless allowed him to look over the boy. Using his remarkable talents for medical diagnosis and forensic science, Reed was able to deduce that the boy had been beaten up. More surprising and disappppointing, however, was the fact that for all his wishing and hopeful inspection, it appeared that he had not in fact been mauled by a werewolf or bitten by a gryphon.
“Just what kind of doctor did you say you were?” asked Mrs. Cooper, after Reed had looked over the boy for several minutes without actually doing anything.
“An excellent one, madam,” he said, leaving the house with as much confidence as he could fake.
As noon approached, Nan decided to stay in town under the pretense of not wishing to witness such rough business as might be conducted by the river, a rationale that made perfect sense to Lord Spaulding. She proceeded to wander about town, quietly peering into the minds of those around her, hoping to uncover something, anything that might give her an idea of why these things might be happening at once, perhaps an inside man. The thought had also occurred to her that this demonstration may be a ruse to keep the able-bodied away from the village for a surprise raid; the thought of what she might do in such a circumstance, as of yet, had escaped her.
Her suspicions were ultimately rewarded with the droning thoughts that accompany village life… *Churn, churn, stupid butter…* *I’m making socks!* *This potage is smelling particularly disgusting today…* *I made some socks!* She came across the Reeve, who had stayed behind in the village, making sure that the glorious work of scratching out a meager existence continued in the face of a live-action sales pitch, so she decided to engage him in conversation.
The Reeve, unfortunately, also knew little about any sinister plots or incoming barbarian invasions. He did, however, notice something strange recently, in addition to the thefts of livestock and the beating of a village boy. It turns out that his poor village had been recently visited by an eccentric nobleman, his valet, a spooky Ess waif, a grunty menial, and a skinny stableboy! With this valuable information in hand, Nan proceeded to have various conversations with her phantom companions, and made her way toward the river.
Meanwhile, a rickety demonstration platform in place as well as an audience of murmuring villagers, a flamboyant and charismatic man in worn leathers and a padded practice sword took to the stage and made his presentation.
“Fellow citizens, are you tired of being victimized? Are you tired of being abused? Are you tired of having the sweat of your brow, the fruits of your toils, taken away from you by those who do not value work as you do, just because you cannot defend yourselves? Because those who you pay your taxes to are unable, nay, unwilling to be here when you most need them? Why should you, your children, suffer because you are weak? You are not weak! You are strong! You just need to know that, how best to channel your strength, to avoid the clumsy attacks of those who would take all from you…” He danced adroitly to the side, avoiding the swoosh of a phantom blow, “… and strike with that strength back against the thugs and bandits that terrorize the land! I can teach you this, although a mere student myself. Yes I, Torias March, a mere student of the greatest swordsman I have ever laid eyes on… whom anyone has laid eyes on, master of the Dancing Edge!” He said this last with a dextrous two-step and a flourish of his practice blade that drew an appreciative ooh from the crowd.
“I was like you once, unaware of what I could do, and yet I was sent forward against the enemy, the vicious Cromen, off in the west. My company was lost, defeated to a man. I escaped death only because I was too weak to move, lying in a charnel field of the dead and dying, waiting for the black to take me. Yet I was saved, taken from that fate by unseen hands, nursed to health, and taught the way of the Dancing Edge, a style of swordsmanship never seen before in the whole of the lands of Cago.”
“I would have stayed there, waiting to achieve mastery myself, but in his wisdom the Master sent me forward saying, ‘Go Torias, teach others as I have taught you, live on the goodwill of those you teach and help them to defend themselves against the wicked. When you have helped enough perhaps I shall accept you here again, and you may take on the mantle of Master after I am gone.” He lowered his eyes and stifled a sob, then brought his gaze back up at the crowd. “And I swore to do so, although I wished to not leave the side of my Master, and I do his bidding. I have forsaken the life of a rich master in Cago,” he said with distaste, “and I travel with my disciples here, going from village to village, always hearing tales of victims, the downtrodden, and for a minimal charge I teach them to protect all that they own. As I stand here today, to teach you.”
A still bruised (but somewhat made-up) Dupree then took to the stage, helping to demonstrate the effectiveness of the Dancing Edge against a bruised and unskilled opponent, all of which was mightily impressive to the villagers. After a few of these passes, a huge ugly morag climbed onto the stage and challenged Torias. With a padded practice sword proffered carefully by Dupree, the morag clumsily charged Torias, who deftly dodged twice, and on the third such charge tripped the morag, sending him sprawling to the deck with the tip of a wooden sword at the back of his neck, eliciting a great deal of applause from the audience.
Naturally, at this point Lord Spaulding himself offered a challenge. Torias was reluctant (“Great Lord, I am but a commoner; I would be glad to offer one such as yourself private instruction if such is your wish,”), but an insistent Nat lord and an encouraging crowd made it a somewhat academic point, and so Lord Spaulding took to the platform, fully mailed but sans shield (“My opponent has no shield, after all,”) and was handed a badly balanced padded practice sword, and the fight began.
Spaulding charged more or less headlong at Torias, who for the most part seemed content to circle and probe, but after a quick exchange of touches it became apparent that Torias seemed at least evenly matched, if not overmatched. An opening presented itself as Spaulding launched a quick feint and swing, barely ducked by Torias, who then leapt into the air and landed hard on the platform at Spaulding’s feet, sweeping the latter’s ankle and knocking him off balance. Spaulding crashed hard on the platform, his mail weighing him down, and his sword hand cracked through the platform, planting it in the dirt while simultaneously his practice sword caught on the edge of the hole and levered up hard, smacking him right in the face. A weak attempt at a leg kick from this undignified position was for naught, as Torias danced away, turning to the crowd to accept their applause. Spaudling also offered his congratulations (after extricating himself from his undignified pratfall), and while Torias made his pitch to the villagers (some of whom were taking out their purses), Reed noticed that the platform seemed unusually weak right about where Spaulding fell…