Originally published, Bewildering Stories, 2014
“Sire” — the boy’s eyes were as wide as an orange the old man had once seen many years ago far to the south — “men coming up the valley. King’s men on horseback, all in their green uniform, sire.”
The old man strained his tired, old, single eye down the mountain to the village. Age and injury had dictated he would never again see the full distance to the break in the old wall where travelers began their final ascent to the San Lo Gate. He patted the boy on a shoulder, reassuringly. “How many men, Neshak?”
The boy blurted excitedly, “Ten. All armed with sabers. The older one leading has gold on his uniform. He must be a great man.”
“A graying fellow with a full beard and fat because he eats too much?”
“I don’t know why he’s fat, sire, but the horse don’t like it so good.”
“But his hair and beard are both very long?”
“That’s Lord Rupert, Earl of the Realm of Justic, to the south. He serves at the King’s pleasure. Let us bide our time, Neshak. Perhaps he’s on a friendly mission.” His wizened eye knew better. Men like Rupert have no friends and never any good intention.
“He’s leading them up here. Why else but to pass through the San Lo Gate? To cross over into the Barony of Gaspard and plunder gold, women, cattle?”
“Serious talk for such a young mind. He may be lost, Neshak. Lost travelers often show up here.”
“Ten armed horsemen don’t get lost, sire. Are you going to kill them all?”
Smiling, the old man reached out and ruffled Neshak’s hair. “Perhaps, eager one, we won’t need to kill anyone.” He prodded the slender figure in the back. “Neshak, run down and find Anton Dorvak in the blacksmith shop. Tell him to bring his weapons and come up here right away.”
Neshak was gone in a heartbeat. The bent old man stepped out into the small circle of ground at the gate entry.
Sworn by the word of the King and the sacred counsel of the deity as the keeper of the San Lo Gate, the only entry through the pass from Barania to the small Barony of Gaspard, he’d fended off those of ill will many times before, coming from either direction. Should the gate be breached behind him, all of Gaspard and Barania would be open.
But most who approached were harmless, and the ones with malevolent intent had been easy enough to contain at the narrow gate. It had the width of only two men; a pair of able warriors could fend off an army.
The entire Kingdom of Barania-Gaspard was ruled jointly by a brother and sister. By agreement years before, succession had declared that King Manswell the Elder ruled Barania. Through the mountains and the San Lo Gate behind the old man, Manswell’s sister, Gertrude, ruled the much smaller companion Barony of Gaspard, accessible from the down side of the mountains only through the San Lo Gate.
The only other entrance to Gaspard was a hundred miles away to the north. Travelers who sought entrance to Gaspard by way of the San Lo Gate had to travel many miles across the plains below the summit to reach the old man’s stronghold.
He would see if Lord Rupert meant harm and how the intruder would fare in the confined space. Gamble wrong, Lord Rupert, and your head will ride the pole down at the square until the birds finish it. Rupert was an evil man. Perhaps it was time to relieve him of his head anyway.
He clambered onto a rock outcropping, straining his eye to see movement below. It was mid-afternoon, plenty of time for Rupert to make the peak by dark. Most bad men in the many years before had come in the night by stealth and on foot, hoping to surprise the old man. Many were buried down the valley, their heads serving as village decorations for many weeks. A few had fled.
He climbed down slowly. The muscles in his arms were gnarled and stubby, like the huge black oaks down on the plain. His battered face, a morass of scar tissue, was defined by a nose smashed permanently against the cheekbones. A red scar passed from his graying hairline through his left eye, ending at the jaw. The eyelid was permanently stitched shut, the result of a lucky sword thrust by an intruder twenty years earlier.
On that open plain below, his age, injuries, and pains would have reduced him to the equal if not the inferior of many younger men. Standing in the San Lo Gate in his armor and broadsword, he was as impregnable as the black oaks trees he resembled. He stepped around a kettle of stew boiling atop an open flame in the doorway of his cave and began assembling what he would need.
In minutes, Neshak re-approached, breathless, eyes wide. Downcast, he studied the ground. “Anton Dorvak wasn’t in his shop, great one. His wife says he went down to the plain to hunt meat this afternoon. She’s sounding her horn for him now, sire. Does this mean Lord Rupert is going to kill us all?”
The horn searching for Anton Dorvak sounded dolefully across the valley as he replied. “We’ll deal with Lord Rupert when he gets up the trail, Neshak. Run home to your mother now, youngster, and you’ll see. We’ll protect the gate as we’ve always done, with or without Anton Dorvak.”
The horn sounded numerous times by the time Rupert, fat and ugly in his green coat, led his crew into the clearing in front of San Lo Gate. The horses were thick with lather, wobbly in the knees. A cloudy mist, which would have been fog lower down, but carried a hint of rain above, blew in on the late afternoon air.
“Old man, in the name of King Manswell, we need water and grain for these horses, food for my men.”
The old man pointed back down the trail. “Water is yours for the taking just beyond that first boulder. Food, we have none. And men who travel on horses without grain often walk back.”
He squeezed into the narrow of the gate as Rupert’s men struggled through the awkward process of turning the horses around and watering them one by one in the spring they’d just passed. The old man watched without speaking. Men like Rupert had little time for silence. He’d declare his intention soon enough.
Down in the village, Anton Dorvak’s wife blasted the horn across the valley another time. Rupert smirked and turned to a lieutenant in the saddle just behind him. The lieutenant’s thin mustache curled as he loosened the sack from his saddle horn and tossed the head of Anton Dorvak at the old man’s feet.
“Were you expecting help, old man?”
“I have the assistance of the gods and the blessing of the King. That is why all men who have come here to conquer the gate are dead.”
“We’re not all dead, old man.”
The old man made not the slightest movement. “Not yet,” he said softly.
“It’s over for you, ancient one,” Rupert snarled.
“You’d bring those who would harm the queen beyond the gate in Gaspard behind me without consent of her brother.”
“What I do in the name of the King is none of your affair, old man.”
“You couldn’t be more wrong, Rupert. I think King Manswell the Elder knows nothing of this business. Turn back and you will be allowed to live until the King hangs you at his convenience on the gallows at St. Zennett’s.”
With no other entry from this entire region of the country, and as the old man had neither heard nor suspected any discord between the two rulers, Rupert’s intentions had to be malevolent.
“Show me the King’s papers of authorization and passage through the Gate, Rupert. Or stand and die.” The old man’s voice was scratchy, cold, edged with death.
As if pre-planned, three of Rupert’s cavalry dismounted and wedged themselves into the narrow opening of the San Lo Gate against the old man. They were tired from climbing, inexperienced, and unable to function in close quarters. The old man gutted all three in an instant.
“Stupid inept pigs,” Rupert spat.
Rupert sat back on his sweating horse. “You old fool, it’s the new order: fundamental change. Stand down and receive a cherished place at the throne of the new king. It is I who can let you live.”
“The new King?” Blood splatter, mingled with sweat tricked down the old man’s forehead falling to the ground from his nose in little droplets. “Could we assume that would be you, Rupert? Rupert, King of nothing. Come forward, King Rupert and we’ll test the thickness of your royal blood. His single eye glowed like a hot ember.
Rupert gestured wildly and the six remaining goons were upon the old man in a perspiring, screaming mass of death and blood. In seconds, all six were strewn about the ground, lifeblood coursing into the rocky ground. There would be plenty of heads for the village poles this night.
Exhausted and jostled by his butchery, the old man had turned slightly aside. Rupert’s sword ran him through, penetrating both lungs just behind the union of his armor. Without sound, the old warrior went to his knees, then collapsed face down in the dirt among the slain enemy.
Rupert, hands on triumphant hips, straddled the old man as the last breath fled his body. “Who among you mountain fools would challenge King Rupert now,” he roared to the sparse crowd of onlookers gathering in the shadows of the setting sun.
He never saw the sword. It was small, poorly constructed, of cheap quality, with a poor edge, but it was driven home by great determination. Entering Rupert’s stomach at the navel, the dull point tore through fat and degeneracy to exit between two ribs near the spine. Rupert, in astonished finality, fell, whispering his last few words into the rocky dirt.
The villagers took several hours cleaning away the raiders’ blood and dragging headless bodies to toss off the precipice that overlooked the darkened valley. The old man’s funeral would be delayed until the following afternoon in order to arrange a proper salute to their long-time protector.
The last body had just fallen over the edge when a peddler, trying to pass through the gate at night, approached. “I am the representative of Hamid the Merchant from far-off Mondavia. I demand passage though San Lo Gate immediately. Who dares bar my way now that the keeper is dead?”
The small figure was slight, the armor too large, the helmet bloody and smeared with muddy sweat. He stood in the gate, the old man’s broad, crimson-soaked sword in his right hand, held across his chest. His small, inferior, blood-soaked blade was still clutched in his left hand.
“I oppose your crossing, stranger. I, Neshak, keeper of the San Lo Gate, slayer of the impostor, Rupert, former Earl of the Realm of Justic, whose head now decorates the town square. A merchant’s business does not require passing through at night. Turn back now, citizen of Mondavia, or learn that we have more than one pole.”
The traveler melted away, back down the hill. The new keeper of the San Lo Gate stood quietly and watched him disappear into the darkness.
Copyright © 2014 by Gary Clifton