FOR CABBAGES AND ALE • by Robert J. Santa

“No good can come of this, Dmitry.”

Dmitry leaned into his wife and kissed her anxious face, once on the cheek beside her lips and once more on her eyebrow.

“I know not what else to do, dearest.” He lifted his sword away from the table and examined it. A nick on the false edge above the handle distracted him. How had it gotten there? Was it when the Easterners invaded? Or was it in that duel with that Teuton upstart–what was his name? Dmitry’s brain hurt from concentrating, which was never his strongest skill. He saw an imbalance, lay the sword back upon the table, and applied the whetstone in slow strokes.

“Can the Khan do nothing?” she asked.

“It is not a problem for him to solve.”

“You could be his grandfather, Dmitry!”

Anya’s words clung to him like burrs to a wooly cloak. Dmitry once again considered rejecting the Cossack’s offer. He was, after all, not just old enough to be the Cossack’s grandfather; he was an actual grandfather several times over. No reputation could offset the disadvantage of time.

A reputation that would be meaningless if he backed down now, in the face of impudent challenge. What good would it be if he allowed it to be tainted for the rest of his days, wallowing in the memory?

He took up the sword and admired its even sharpness. When he slid it into the sheath and buckled on the wide belt, Anya stared open-mouthed.

“I love you, Annushka,” he said. She closed her eyes in resignation and walked to the bedroom without a word. His horse treated him with equal indifference, accepting the blanket and saddle as if it had been only yesterday since the last time and not a plow harness. With the sun crawling over the hills, spilling winter sunlight like an overflowing drip bucket, Dmitry rode toward certain death.

The Cossack stood on Piotr’s Hill, his horse grazing nearby. He held a naked blade in one hand, though the sword called for two. He seemed lost in thought, almost anxious. But when he caught sight of Dmitry, his expression changed to the violent posturing from the night before. Dmitry touched the dao in the sheath on his hip; half the size of the Cossack’s giant sword, it seemed inadequate as he climbed the hill.

“I can’t believe you showed, old man,” he snarled.

“How could I not?” Dmitry strode to within ten paces of the Cossack. “Your challenge was issued in front of the entire town.”

“You should think twice, then, before getting between a hardened warrior and his much deserved drink.”

“I rarely go to town. I was only there to buy cabbages.” Dmitry looked around the desolate hill. “Shouldn’t there be witnesses?”

“Hah!” The Cossack spat, a tiny bead of spittle clinging to his pointed beard. “I sent them away when it was apparent you were not coming.”

“It’s a long ride.” Dmitry glanced around the hill. A single set of horse tracks dotted the far side of the hill, while hundreds of boot prints surrounded the Cossack, as if from pacing.

“A long ride to your death, old man.” The Cossack lifted his sword. To the untrained observer, surely he was a dangerous spectacle.

Dmitry drew his saber. It vibrated with deadly potential, like a bowstring pulled taught. The blade’s tip was barely clear when the Cossack charged.

His bellow came from the back of the throat, more growl than scream. The sword eased back over his head, both of the Cossack’s big hands on the handle. Dmitry watched the Cossack brace himself with his suddenly-planted lead foot, skidding only slightly in the snow. The blade flashed with descending death.

Dmitry sidestepped. The Cossack’s sword looked to amputate his leg from the knee down, but Dmitry was too near. The sword bit into the ground and halted a full four fingers from his thigh.

Dmitry sliced hard, almost a punch. His sword’s middle met the Cossack’s above the handle. The great blade flew away from the younger man’s too-tight grip. Dmitry flipped the dao against the other’s forearm, then booted him hard in the chest before the blood even flowed. The Cossack flew backwards and landed hard on his rump.

“Only a fool challenges a man he has just met,” Dmitry said, his voice rising in pitch and strength. “I am Dmitry Vasilov, the Lion of Parvograd. The Khan himself handed me this sword, forged for his mightiest lieutenant, when I slew eighteen men before him. I have had blood on my hands since before your father was born, and you were still in swaddling clothes when I killed my last man. I came here to escape this kind of bloodshed.” Dmitry saw terror in the Cossack’s eyes and knew there were no bones behind the meat of his bluster.

The fire faded, and Dmitry sighed. He simply turned his back on the Cossack and left him sitting in the snow with his defeat for company.

Warmth invaded his abdomen. The slapping of metal on leather followed close behind, accompanied by pain. His left leg buckled, and Dmitry fell to his knees. Footsteps moved quickly behind him then approached. He tried to stand, got to a crouch, then saw the front of the Cossack’s sword pierced through his chest. Dmitry’s legs lost all their strength. He fell to the ground, sliding away from the bloodied blade.

“The Lion of Parvograd?” The Cossack spoke behind him. Dmitry found his neck unable to turn. “I will tell them all it was a magnificent duel.” Dmitry saw the Cossack’s hand come down and lift his sword away. Then he felt the knife withdrawn from his kidney.

Footsteps retreated. The warmth of his blood spread across his belly, turned to ice. Dmitry closed his eyes and thought of Anya who, like everyone else, would think him an old weakling and not just a fool.

Robert J. Santa has been writing speculative fiction for more than twenty years. His work has appeared in Paradox, On Spec and Artemis. When not writing, Robert heads Ricasso Press. He lives in Rhode Island with his beautiful wife and two equally beautiful daughters.

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