“Ha!” cried Mank as he buried his sword in the skull of the foul-smelling man by the side of the road.
“Why did you do that?” asked his companion, Aurelian the wizard.
“When you ask a man for directions, you don’t expect him to insult you!” said Mank. “I don’t know how they do things in the city, but where I come from we don’t suffer insults like that without resorting to violence.”
“What are you talking about? The poor man said nothing insulting whatsoever!”
Mank was unmoved.
“I distinctly heard him say that he bit my father.”
“Bit your father?! What is that?”
“Where I come from, saying that you’ve bitten someone’s father is a classic insult. It impugns his manliness, and thus your own.”
“But that’s not what he said, Mank. You asked him where the cave was, and he said it was ‘a bit yon farther.’ In fact, now I’ve looked in the direction he was pointing I can see the entrance.”
Mank stared at the bits of blood, skull and brains dripping from his sword.
“So the fellow was only trying to be helpful?” he asked.
“Still, ‘a bit yon farther’ — it’s not a normal way of speaking, Aurelian.”
“Oh yes. Absolutely bizarre. How dare he speak in local dialect?! I wonder if he had a family.”
“Surely not! The man stank to high heaven!”
“Perhaps his wife stinks too. Of course you’re married to her now.”
Mank ignored this remark, either wilfully or because he had become too absorbed by the sight of the leaking corpse.
“I said you’re married to her now. His wife.”
“Married to her? What?”
“It’s the custom in these parts. When you kill a man you take on responsibility for his dependants.”
“You marry her!” screeched Mank, and stomped off towards the cave.
Aurelian followed with a secret smile.
Two hours later they emerged from the darkness, covered in slime and bearing treasure. Mank sat on a rock to catch his breath, then opened his small sack and gazed woefully at the contents.
“Trinkets,” he said. “Tin and copper trinkets — barely enough to pay for a meal. Aurelian, I’m growing tired of this lifestyle. I’m not a young man, you know.”
“Mank, you can’t be more than twenty-five.”
“Where I come from that’s old. We usually die before we’re thirty. Fights and frostbite.”
“Sounds like a wonderful place. Will you retire there?”
Mank ignored him.
As they got up to leave they caught sight of the corpse Mank had felled earlier in the day. A hooded figure was dancing over it madly, in grief or joy — it was impossible to say from that distance. As they drew closer they heard the figure cry out in a voice distinctly feminine.
“Aieeee! Who hath felled my man?!”
“She’s talking about you,” whispered Aurelian.
“By Krakoc! Let’s slip by.”
“Here is the man!” cried Aurelian.
The figure looked up, drew back her hood, and hurried towards the astonished warrior.
“Is it true?” she enquired. “Didst thou slay mine husband?”
“Well,” began Mank, who found it difficult to speak in the face of the beauty before him. The woman was like none he had ever seen, save perhaps for a princess or two glimpsed from afar during a royal procession.
“Indeed fair lady!” said Aurelian. “Your husband insulted this man’s noble father and paid with his life.”
“Thank the gods!” said the woman, and threw her arms around Mank. The bewildered adventurer stared at his companion helplessly, unable to keep up with the pace of events.
“For a year now I have lived with that stinking fool!” cried the woman. “A year of torture beyond all imagining! Do you know he expected me to cook for him!? I! Princess Vespasia!”
“Princess Vespasia — is it really you? The princess married off to a peasant on a whim of her insane father?” asked Aurelian.
The story had been going round the taverns for the past year, but he had thought it just a rumour. The woman’s bearing and manner of speaking marked her as an aristocrat, however. Perhaps it was true after all.
“Yes, it is I. My father hath a cruel sense of humour. He swore he would send a troop of soldiers to kill the brute before the year was out, but it seems he forgot. But no matter, for I am saved. By the custom of our land thou art now my husband, brave warrior, and though thou art be-slimed I do love thee for thy muscles and thine air of sweet confusion.”
At that moment, a distant bugle call was heard. Three heads turned at the sound and witnessed a troop of cavalry lining up on a hill not far from where they stood.
“Ah. It seems my father did not forget after all.”
“Then,” said Mank, “then those horsemen are here to kill your… husband?”
“Yes, well,” replied the princess thoughtfully. “It is true. I was originally engaged to the captain of the troop, a nobleman by the name of Cornelius. You see him there — the one with the plumed hat, sitting at the head of the formation. It is he who will have been charged with delivering the fatal blow.”
“Unhand me, wench!” cried Mank. “I had nothing to do with the death of your husband! It is a trick of my companion Aurelian. He delights in such tomfooleries. Now we must be going, for we are weary and I do not wish to hinder your reunion with the noble Cornelius.”
Mank and Aurelian hot-footed it away from the forlorn princess, who in the heat of the moment had rather been hoping that Mank would slaughter her would-be rescuers and carry her off to a life of adventure.
At length the two men reached the cover of some trees and paused to watch the heartfelt reunion of Vespasia and Cornelius.
“What did I do to deserve such rotten luck?” asked Mank between heavy breaths.
Aurelian remained silent.
Shamus Maxwell is a writer and film-maker — at least that’s what he tells people. He joined the ranks of the living at the age of zero and has been getting older ever since. When he was a child he enjoyed this process, but recently it has begun to annoy him. If anyone has any suggestions on how it might be halted, please get in touch.