He sat rigidly, impassively, upon the cold stone of the mountain plaza–ice wind in his hair, a naked blade in his lap. He wore white silks of spotless hue. He had seen a thousand battles, had killed at least as many men, and yet his skin bore no mark for no blade had ever touched him. In battle he was a devil, in peace a stone. He was Karn, the Perfect Swordsman, and racked behind him were the hundred hundred swords of men who had climbed his mountain looking for a duel and found instead death at his hand.
He stirred. Two men approached, one a short way behind the other. He closed his eyes and began to wake his numbed flesh, sending tendrils of will throughout his frozen body. Soon, his blood again pumped hot.
The first man stumbled up upon the plaza, his straw-stuffed peasant’s sandals catching on the flagstone. He paused to admire the view, looking out over a spread of glittering rice lands like bands of burnished gold. Collecting himself, he turned to Karn and bowed, clumsily.
Karn opened his eyes and looked the man over, noting his physique and the crude sword sticking halfway out of a goatskin sheath at his side. Karn closed his eyes and did not move. In a voice like revealed truth he said, “Go away.”
The portly man smiled. Rubbing his hands together and blowing on them for warmth, he took a seat upon the plaza. “I thought I would have lunch first, the way is long and not always easy to find.” He produced a crust of bread and a leather flagon of wine from a pouch at his side.
“You would throw your life away. You are no swordsman.” Karn spoke serenely above the wind.
“True,” the man said, pouring wine into an earthenware cup. “My name is Daog, Master Karn. And I am no swordsman, sure as you’re a perfect one.”
“The Perfect Swordsman. I have no equal, and none better has, or ever will, walk this earth. Take your fat body and cheap blade off my mountain.”
But at that moment the second man arrived, an armored giant bellowing in challenge. Hair the color of rust whipped around the iron mask that blanked his face, a lamellar hauberk of verdigrised bronze encased his muscled form, and a double strand of plucked eyeballs hung around his neck. He yipped and screeched like a hyena, raised high his serrated sword, and charged.
Karn stood, took two steps to the left as the giant stormed past, and flicked out his blade in one fluid, silver streak of steel. He sat back down, facing away from the teetering savage, and wiped blood from his sword.
“I again advise you to leave,” he said as the giant crashed dead to the ground behind him.
Daog gulped the wine from his cup, and poured another. “Would you like some?”
Karn fixed a stern look on the peasant and said nothing.
Shrugging, Daog drank. Belching lightly he flashed a cherubic grin and winked at Karn. “Notice anything about my cup?”
“Crude peasantware.” Karn sighed. “I may kill you in a moment.”
Daog nodded, and brandished his cup. It was of simple, course clay but flawlessly symmetrical save for one fold in the material, a deep cleft running up the side. “It’s imperfect. The man who made it was wise enough to include a flaw–he knew that there wasn’t such a thing as perfection. Knew it wasn’t a state for men to aspire to.” Daog winked again and drained the cup. “You’ve been perfect for too long, Master Karn.”
Karn could smell the man’s stinking breath over the wind. He stood, blade held casually at his side. Daog nodded, and got unsteadily to his feet. He drew his poorly balanced broadsword, the specks of rust along its length standing out like freckles.
“Why come here? You will die like a fool.”
Daog shrugged, “I will, as you say, die like a fool–someday. For I am a fool, I follow the Path, and like a fool I do nothing but achieve everything. I go wherever the Path leads. At dice I won this blade. For a week’s labor mending the roof of a widow’s cottage I received this flagon of good, strong wine. I heard a temple bell one day and followed the sound, and spoke to the monks who rang it. We spoke of you,” Daog, swaying with drink, pointed his sword eastward, “we spoke of the man who thinks himself perfect, and we gazed upon your mountain from the temple steps and laughed.”
Karn frowned. “You speak of what and of who, but I asked you why.”
Karn shook his head sadly. “I will be swift,” he said, and like a raptor diving for its prey he thrust his fine blade at Daog’s throat.
Daog, eyes wide with surprise, fumbled his blade forward in a clumsy arc, and tripped over his own feet as he moved to meet the swordsman. Karn’s slender sword nicked his ear as Daog collapsed face-first upon the stones.
Sputtering, Daog lifted himself and saw the deep cut he had made. Karn lay dead, wreathed in crimson upon the flagstones, Daog’s blade buried in his belly.
A little later, sun setting red-gold at his back, Daog placed the last stone upon the cairn of the Perfect Swordsman. He added the slender sword to the racks of captured trophies, and placed a cup of wine as an offering to the spirits of that place upon the plaza. After a careful search he found the path he wanted–or, rather, the one that wanted him–and walked confidently down the mountain, sandals clapping on turf.
The last light of the sun found the flaw in the cup of wine that sat alone upon the plaza floor, casting it in sharp relief for a moment, before night finally came to the mountaintop.
Bill Ward has sold fiction to Flashing Swords e-zine and the forthcoming anthologies Desolate Places and The Return of the Sword. He is co-editor of the Magic & Mechanica anthology from Ricasso Press.