The Kaiserine's Champion
by Derek Paterson
Originally published in 2001 by
EGGPLANT LITERARY PRODUCTIONS
Raechel Henderson, Publisher
Available again on Amazon.
Being the 1st story of the adventures of Manfred, which continue in
The Vampyre's Kiss and The Werewolf's Curse.
A heavy key clattered in the lock, then the door swung open and the sergeant said, "Here's your breakfast, Manfred my boy. Enjoy your last meal!" With this he emptied the contents of the night bucket over me and stood there laughing heartily, while I choked and gagged at the rancid stench.
"You hear that?" he said, jerking a callused thumb toward the barred window. I'd been listening to the sawing and hammering since dawn. "You're going to swing soon, m'lad. Rest assured, I'll be in the front row, cheering as you gasp and kick your way to Hades."
I wiped filth off my face with my sleeve and glared at him. There really wasn't much else I could do, sitting there chained to the wall. He laughed again, turned away and made to step into the corridorthen snapped to attention, his expression changing from amusement to outright fear in the space of a single heartbeat.
I'd heard the footsteps approaching and assumed it must be one of my gaolers, but apparently not. An oil lantern came into view, held by a tall, well-dressed noble with dark eyes, a hooked nose and lips that looked as though they'd never smiled. He wore his arrogance like an impenetrable cloak. His cold, unblinking gaze studied every inch of the cell before coming to settle upon me. A shiver ran up my spine unbidden, though I'd no idea why.
"So, this is the swordsman," he said. "You have him in chains, I see."
"Yes, sir," the sergeant said. "Extremely dangerous, sir. Killed six of the Duke's Wardens single-handed, he did, and put another three in hospital. The doctor says they'll be out of action for weeks. Duke Wilhelm is"
"I know what Duke Wilhelm is," my visitor said softly, and the chill in his voice did not go unnoticed. He nudged my foot with the polished toe of his boot. "So, what have you to say for yourself, you scoundrel?"
I had nothing to say, to him or any other passing aristo who thought it might be amusing to drop in and taunt me before I died, so I kept my mouth shut.
"Cat got your tongue, mmm? Sergeant, I want to talk to this rogue in private. Close the door on your way out."
"He's chained to the wall, Sergeant," the tall man said wearily. "I think I'll be safe enough, don't you?"
The sergeant frowned, not quite sure what was going on, but did as he was told. The door clicked shut behind him. At that moment the hammering stopped, as if the two events were somehow related.
"It sounds like they're ready for you," my nameless visitor said. "In which case I'd best make this short, lest we're interrupted before we conclude our business."
Curiosity made me ask, "What business? Who are you, and what do you want of me?"
Ignoring my questions, he said, "It isn't every day I get to meet a swordsman of your caliber. Six Wardens dead and another three wounded, eh? Remarkable." He took a silk handkerchief from his sleeve and dropped it onto my lap. I hesitated to touch it, but he nodded, so I picked it up and used it to wipe my face. When I offered to return it he shook his head. "Why don't you tell me what happened last night?" he said.
"I think you already know."
"They say you picked a fight with the Duke's men."
"The Duke's ruffians, you mean." I couldn't keep the anger and resentment from my voice. "They're the ones who swaggered into the tavern and picked a fight, not me."
"They picked on you?"
I hesitated before answering. "No. A young lad, sitting quietly in a corner with his girl, doing no one any harm."
"A friend of yours, was he? Your brother? A cousin?"
I shook my head again, and my visitor chuckled darkly. "Let me guess what happened," he said. "The Duke's Wardens decided they wanted the girl for themselves, and pretended to take insult at something the boy said or did. Am I right?"
"Close enough," I said, wondering how he knew so much.
"And sofor reasons known only to yourselfyou decided to interfere, decided to help a stranger you didn't even know." He gave another humorless chuckle. "I shouldn't imagine the Wardens took kindly to your interfering in their business?"