Twenty Three Years By The Sword
The Memoirs Of Alexandro d'Lauponze ( 5th book )
The various Guild Masters of the Dwarfin people would have you believe that they were far beyond the “crude and barbaric vice” that they label the dueling art. This is a lie; duelling is alive and well among the Dwarfs, as it is among all the peoples of the Archipelago. Whether it is to be found in its informal, back-alley form between a brace of young bravados, or in the customs-laden form so labelled as “dispute settlement between Dwarfs Of Means,” or in the legal form of the Dwarfin Judiciary Duel, the art holds many opportunities in Dwarfin lands for an aspiring duelist to make their name — or simply to cut their teeth, and perhaps a few carelessly-guarded chests.
Despite the fascinating variance in the manner of duelling to be found in Dwarfin lands, however, the squat, compact Dwarfin physiology presents certain constants which could prove the downfall of the young, unprepared duelist. If, however, my good reader, you harken well to the sound advice contained in this volume, backed by my personal experiences, (one of which I shall forthwith recount), then you shall find Dwarfin duelists a surmountable obstacle, and in fact, something of an interesting challenge.
It needn’t be mentioned that Dwarfs are a short people — besides the Goblins, they are the shortest of the civilized folk inhabiting our fair archipelago. This disparity in size between the Dwarf and nearly any other gentlebeing they may encounter presents challenges to both parties. The Dwarf will find that many of their opponent’s vital points are well above their own, necessitating upward strikes to inflict the sort of wounds that will end a duel quickly, while the other duelist has quite the opposite problem in that, beyond the Dwarf’s head, all the vital points are far lower than normal, and thus require downward strikes, or else the duelist is forced to lower their stance.
In both cases, the combatants are hampered by the shortening of effective reach, but overall the situation heavily favors the Dwarf. Experience has taught that heads are much harder to hit in the midst of combat than one might think, and the opponent’s legs are at a perfect height for the Dwarf to strike. An opponent whose legs have been cut is still perfectly dangerous, of course, but will be drastically reduced in their mobility, and Dwarfs are rightly famed for being almost preternaturally nimble. There is a saying among the Dwarfin lands that seems particularly apt: “The bigger they are, the harder they fall once you chop off their leg.”
Such were the realities of my situation, as I found myself involved in a judiciary duel in the year 1248, acting as the appointed champion to an old friend — one Bjonor Olforson, member in good standing in The Bjaetic League — in the old Dwarfin outpost of Borgáhæðinn, The Town On The Hill near to Koventry — although it would be more accurate, I believe, to call it the Town Of The Hill, given how many of the original longhouses and more modern partitions are built right into the hillside. I’m told that the hill was once covered in mighty oaks — indeed, the original name for Borgáhæðinn was Tréskegg, or “Tree Beard.” Such was the Dwarfin efficiency, however, in converting the trees into stout naval vessels, that soon all that was left of
poor Tréskegg was the logging town which they — as the Dwarfs invariably do — had built as they were working. Not wanting a perfectly good community to go to waste, the Dwarfs repurposed their sawmills to textile mills and continued right on working, never missing a beat — or a sale. Very industrious people, the Dwarfs.
But on that particular day, I was not free to enjoy the history of this old Dwarfin town. Rather, I was at the base of the hill, where a small, cleared area provided space for judiciary duels since the very founding of Borgáhæðinn. My opponent, one Olfor Bjonorson (unrelated), stood before me, his fiery mane and beard framing a fierce scowl. As is my custom when facing such opponents, I affected an air of uncaring ease, arms folded, whistling a catchy tune while the formalities of the charges were read by a most dour-faced official. Judging by the way old Olfor’s eyebrows came together, I daresay that my stratagem was working with more than its usual efficacy that day.
Unfortunately in the world of dueling, mind games may sometimes only go so far.
Dwarfin judiciary duels are steeped in the ancient traditions of their kind, back when they were raiders and pillagers in their frigid homeland of Nilhîm. Each combatant is armed with a simple, broad-bladed sword, the length of which set by long-forgotten decree, and a round, wooden shield, held in the center, reinforced with a boss over the grip. No other arms or armors are allowed — there are laws which allow for opponents to also carry a short spear, or to have a spare shield held by a second in case the first is damaged beyond use — but my opponent, as was the defendant’s right, waived those options, presumably to demonstrate his skill against a duelist of my fame and stature.
The judge — The Right and Honorable Jehann Sebastain van Säbenbergen called for the duel to begin. Time slowed to my eyes, as it always did. I could see the wicked gleam in Olfor’s eyes, the same wicked gleam I’d seen in many a prior opponent — and in many cutthroats — who meant to leave my guts spilled on the ground.
Olfor’s shield and mine clashed, each of us seeking the bind, just as one would with a Serican rapier or saber. Initially, I thought myself in the superior position, for my greater height would surely afford me the advantage in leverage. I was soon shown the error of such thinking. Olfor pressed the squat crossguard of his sword against his shield, which, combined with the size of the “hammer head” pommel one finds on many older Dwarfin style blades, created an excellent brace. With two hands on his shield to my one, he easily held fast as he darted in, and I was forced to hop back just as the hard rim of his shield crashed into my legs, toppling me over like a squire on his first joust.
I had hoped my disengagement would give me a moment to reassess the situation, but old Olfor was a canny fighter, full of vigor. Using the famed Dwarfin nimbleness to full effect, he rushed me again before I could recover, his body behind and under his shield, his sword once again used to brace. Again, I hopped back, ever mindful of the border that marked the dueling circle; crossing that would have cost me the duel, as well as no small amount of reputation, for I’ve never once been driven out of bounds.
The duel continued in this fashion for some time, and I soon discerned Olfor’s stratagem. Were I to strike with my blade, his shield would ward off any blow long enough for him to bowl me over. Were I to stand and meet his charge, his smaller size put him below my center of balance, affording him an advantage I dared not let him enjoy. Were I to lower my stance in order to wrestle with him on more even terms, he would dart back, exploiting his greater nimbleness to circle round me, while I exhausted my stamina in holding such a low stance. With me on the defensive, forced to make the greater, more exhausting movements, it was but a matter of time before Olfor tired me out, and found a chink in my defenses.
It seemed that Olfor had taken my measure, and indeed, for a moment I myself wondered if this were so. Those witnessing our duel certainly seemed to think so; their faces shared a look of finality, a group consensus drawn before the final blow was struck. Poor Bjonor was hiding his eyes under his hat, so as not to witness his inevitable loss of the case. Even the judge seemed certain of my defeat, leaning forward in his seat, impatient for Olfor to end what was being seen as less a duel and more a farce.
Good reader, no blade can sting a true duelist worse than the vicious stare of one who makes small of your hard-earned skill. Duels have been won and lives lost because of such unthinking stares. In that moment, I saw how to turn my opponent’s strength against him, and prove to the Dwarfs that their stature is not always the advantage they think it to be. I flashed Bjonor a dashing smile, and told him “Worry not, old friend. I’m not out of tricks yet.”
“You’d best not be,” Bjonor moaned into his hat. “I’ll be a ruined Dwarf if you’re not!” (He really is a good friend, dear reader, though like many Dwarfs, he is prone to being a bit… short-sighted at times).
Once again, Olfor rushed at me, his shield held ready to ram into my belly. I dropped into a low stance, as if to meet him head on. His head blocked by his own shield, Olfor could not see what I was doing, but the witnesses all murmured, expecting the duel to end with this next exchange, with Olfor triumphant and me, either defeated or dead. I could see, from the corner of my eye, the judge pulling himself up straight, ready to call the final blow.
Olfor came in with the force of a charging bull. But he met only air; as he grew near, I uncoiled my legs, planting my shield flat against his. Olfor’s own momentum carried him under me, as I used our shields as a platform, vaulting over my compact opponent. I had to let go of my shield in the exchange, but the end result was well worth it: Olfor now rushing away from me, his back open and unprotected, and me with a blade in my hand, flicking out a stab with the speed and grace borne of countless hours of practice and dedication. Olfor staggered another dozen or so feet, leaving a trail of blood as he went, before he fell, a heavy wound in his side.
With no small amount of satisfaction, I bowed to The Right and Honorable Judge, and bade him to please call for the surgeon to tend to my opponent, who had fought with skill and honor, and given me a worthy challenge. Olfor, I later learned, survived his wound, and even made something of a stink about my innovative tactic “not being legal.” But the result of that bit of bombastic braying is a story for another volume. I will conclude this one by mentioning that the look of utter confoundedness that came over Jehann Sebastain van Säbenbergen’s face, as he finally processed what had happened, has remained one of my more treasured memories to this very day.