A Test of His Metal, Part I

13 mins read

Dominic raised his longsword into what he hoped was a threatening stance: blade high above his left shoulder, his right elbow pointed forward. He tried to slow his breathing, lest it reveal his fear. First one foot right and then the other, he slid from the forest road, careful to avoid the fallen limbs that lay in wait just below the floor of ferns. The short man he kept in his sights, but the taller man, the one with the club, was getting behind him.
He slid again to the right, but soon found his way blocked by a gravel embankment. Any movement forward was now prevented by the short man, who brandished a long fish-knife in his right hand. Dominic dared not step backward, as the approaching stomps of the taller man rose from that direction, louder than the pounding of his heart in his ears. He considered turning his back toward the embankment. Perhaps he might keep both men before him. But lacking an avenue of retreat, such a position was hopeless.
He feigned a rush forward, but the man before him merely smiled and licked his lips. Confidence sat enthroned upon his fat face. These highwaymen had selected their post with care.
“I know this runt.” The voice came from behind. “He’s the old conjurer’s grandson. The duffer who sells tin charms near Westering.”
Dominic tried to slide to his left, but Shorty quickly cut him off, waving the long fish-knife, forcing him back toward the gravel wall. The leaf-noises to his rear grew closer, louder.
“Why a sword and not an amulet, boy? Ye might turn yerself into a blackbird and fly away.” The short man flapped his arms like wings, his fish-knife reflecting the morning sun into Dominic’s eyes. “Fly or not, you’ll be a-leaving that fancy blade with us.”
A deep laugh arose from behind Dominic. But it was halted by a thump like an arrow striking a hard target. The flapping man, still in his avian posture, craned his neck to see what had befallen his partner. His eyes widened in surprise much too late.
Dominic was already stepping forward. His blade caught the man just beside the chin, not slowing even as it severed bone and shredded leather. The fat head, half-smile frozen in place, held his eyes for a full second. Then the eyes rolled back. The head dropped into the fallen leaves. The body collapsed and then bounced, raining crimson upon the leaves in a revolting, four-legged St. Vitus dance.
Dominic suppressed the urge to retch as he turned to face his remaining assailant. His ears led his eyes to the thrashing sounds that arose from the forest floor. The taller man lay on his side in the dirt, surprise frozen on his face. His neck was transfixed by a broadhead hunting arrow. The fingers that lately sought Dominic’s coin now clawed helplessly at the fallen gold of autumn.
Dominic had never killed anything larger than a rabbit. The acid waves he felt the first time he reached inside a warm coney suddenly capsized his stomach. His eyes burned, his spine melted, and Dominic fell to his knees, vomiting upon the man’s thrashing boots. Though the man had meant to kill him, Dominic regretted that final insult all the same. A man who does wrong is still a man.
His stomach emptied and his head cleared, Dominic spit the last of the burning chunks from his mouth. Then he raised his eyes to seek the source of the arrow that had saved his life.
A youth, dressed in green from head to toe, stepped warily from behind a tree into the road that Dominic had just traveled. A hunting bow hung loose at his side. His face held a look of uncertainty that Dominic had seen many times, though it had never been so pale. It was Jack.
Not a friend so much as a sometimes playmate when they had both been much younger. Jack was the big dumb kid that Dominic wanted on his team when a game involved knocking others over and never otherwise.
Jack approached warily, like a called dog unsure whether he would receive a treat or a beating. His knuckles shone white from gripping his bow. The weapon shook nonetheless. Breaking eye contact with Dominic, he dropped his glance upon the twin corpses, now lying as still as the autumn morning.
“It’s too bad you can’t hunt men on a man-hunt,” he said quietly.
It was a terrible pun. The man-hunt, upon which both youths were presently engaged, was an annual rite of passage that doubled as a quest for glory. Those hunters who killed their first buck or wolf stood peer to the land’s other men. The youth who killed the biggest wolf or bear became a hero to his fellow hunters, his glory lasting so long as the winner continued to recount the feat, or at least until someone produced a finer trophy. Killing men was simply not considered under the rules.
Dominic wiped his burning mouth with his left sleeve then extended his gloved right hand. Jack warily took it, then shook it firmly. A smile grew upon his lips and a bit of his ruddy color returned.
“Thanks. I owe you my life and all that.” Dominic worried that he sounded too flippant, but chose not to re-address this uncomfortable new debt. “Why were you following me?” he asked instead.
Jack’s face reddened and he began to stammer. “When we started this man-hunt, you were the only one of us who looked like he knew where he was going. Plus you carried that sword instead of a bow. I was curious, ok? I’m sorry.” He kicked at the muddy road with one of his huge feet. If he ever grows into those feet he’ll pass for a half-giant, Dominic thought.
“Don’t apologize, Jack. If you hadn’t followed me I’d be dead.” He left enough frost in his voice to remind Jack of his place. “The truth is that I’m going somewhere quite specific. I’m going to kill the Wilderman.”
Curiosity and bewilderment chased one another around Jack’s face. He started to say something, then stopped. The words burst out anyway.
“You know it’s not real, right?”
“That’s what I told my grandfather,” Dominic replied.
* * *
“Of course it’s real, boy,” Grandfather had said. “As real as me standing before you.” He rose from his chair and adjusted the blue woven trousers that ended in ragged shreds just above his bare feet. Dominic wondered if he owned any other.
“How come no one has ever seen it?”
“Many have seen it, boy.” Grandfather pointed at Dominic with a shaking finger, then he burst into a cough that made his eyes bulge and white hair stand straight from his nostrils. He shook and quivered, and Dominic wondered if this would be the time he didn’t recover.
Dominic glanced about for a cup of water, but his own lay empty on the ground. Grandfather seemed to be recovering anyway. At last his chest stopped rattling.
“But few have seen it and lived,” the old man continued. “Do you think mothers recount tales of its blood thirst to scare their children to sleep? Now stop thinking and get to slashing.”
Grandfather should have said “chopping.” Before Dominic stood an oak, as broad as his shoulders, rising into the forest canopy. Four feet off the ground the tree was ringed with shallow sword cuts. Upon the ground around lay Dominic’s footprints, hundreds of them, pressed into the soft dirt as he chopped the tree with a red longsword, hour upon tiresome hour. He chopped until his shoulders burned. He chopped until the blisters in his palms burst like tiny volcanoes. He chopped until the sound of steel on wood rang in his ears, even as he lay in bed at night. Then he sharpened the blade and began again, until he came to hate the sword almost as much as he hated the stubborn old tree.
But not the stubborn old man. Two weeks before the man-hunt, the tree fell at last, smashing into the forest floor right where Grandfather had demanded. Dominic noted with satisfaction that his shoulders now stood broader than the foe he had at last vanquished. Thick calluses guarded his palms and fingers, while veins arose inside his elbows and ran up his biceps. He might already be a man. But for the kill, he reminded himself. And per Grandfather’s promise, the sword was now his. He looked at his grandfather, who sat enthroned before his cottage, nearly hidden among the hanging trinkets and dried garlic bulbs that announced his trade. Grandfather coughed quietly into his hand, but his eyes burned with excitement.
“Sharpen your blade,” he said. “You must kill the Wilderman with a single swing. A fast kill is a merciful kill. No suffering for man or beast. You will win your man-hunt, just as I won mine and our fathers won theirs. There is no other path for men like us. Only victory, no matter the cost.”
“Not ‘won fair and square?’” Dominic repeated the mantra that usually followed his grandfather’s homilies. One of the old man’s hairy eyebrows rose, then his eyes dropped and his head shook almost imperceptibly.
“Second place is first place for losers,” Grandfather replied. Then he turned and, suppressing another cough, limped into his cottage.
Dominic wiped the sawdust from his blade with an oiled cloth then reached for his whetstone. If the Wilderman were real, he thought, its neck must be softer than that elm. But its head would make a trophy that would impress for many years. Grandfather would be proud.
Part II can be found here.

El Borak is an historian by training, an IT Director by vocation, and a writer when the mood strikes him. He lives in rural Kansas with his wife of thirty years, where he works to fix the little things.

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