Excerpt from FORTRESS OF THE DEMON, Chapter Eight: A Clash of Swords
(c) Scott Tomasheski 2015
(THE STORY THUS FAR: 17-year-old April Atherton has transported from the year 1967, her natural place in the timeline, to the 15th century, where Baron Hookfinger and his arsenal have joined in the Ottoman invasion of Western Europe. April and her associates on the Council of Time Defense are attempting to undo the Baron’s actions and their disastrous impact on the timeline. In a furious and chaotic battle at the Transylvanian castle ruled by the notorious Prince Vlad Tepic, April comes face-to-sword with Sultan Mehmed the Conquerer, ruler of the Ottoman Empire.)
Her first language was Spanish, particularly the unique dialect of urban Mexican Spanish. It was the language of the great metropolis of Mexico City, her birthplace, and her earliest teachers and trainers were locally-recruited agents of the Council. She learned English more or less concurrently, then Korean and modern Chinese due to the necessities of her changing circumstances, but she was always most comfortable in the language of the conquistadores. Other tongues such as French, Italian, Arabic, Russian, Mandarin, Greek, and others, she would learn in due course. But for April, mastering the peculiarities and conversational style of the ancient dialect of Ottoman Turkish spoken by the Sultan had always seemed a low priority.
She struggled to find the precise metaphor, the one that would most properly and accurately express the message she wished to convey.
What she came up with translated roughly as, “now we put our cooking-pots over the fire.”
But Sultan Mehmed’s reaction indicated that she had gotten something wrong in the syntax. “What cooking-pots, you silly little fool?” he said, and April understood this perfectly.
“Googly moogly,” she exclaimed, and out of frustration she switched to textbook Turkish.
“Your blade is superior to mine,” April said. “You would match a yataghan against a kilij? If you were victorious, such a victory would be without honor.”
Had this statement been made by an individual of the masculine gender, Sultan Mehmed the Conquerer would have immediately laid claim to the speaker’s head. But, like many before him, he was prone to unnecessary speech, and an inevitable degree of boastfulness, when confronted with feminine wiles.
He touched the edge of his sword, instinctively running a thumb across it, testing its sharpness.
“I am Sultan,” he said, “and my domain reaches farther than the eye can see, in all directions, to the moon and stars and beyond. And you are a pitiful and pathetic claimant to nothing more than the small piece of ground upon which you stand. Your admonitions are less than meaningless to me. I care nothing for the insect that loudly declares its honor as I crush it beneath my heel.”
The Sultan was a tall, powerfully-built man, and his sword-arm was hard as carved cedar wood, the muscles sculpted by forty years of intensive, daily exercises, and trained in warfare. He had killed dozens, maybe hundreds of men, and the vast majority had been armed, unlike the late Djemal Pasha.
“If it’s to be combat between us, Sultan, then let it come,” said April, “but rate me an insect beneath your heel, at your own peril. And I assure you, the peril is quite real. And it may be the last you ever face.”
She could not hope to match his strength, or his experience. But she was faster, and in most respects, smarter than him.
His superior experience may have burdened him with a psychological disadvantage. He had faced so many opponents that he thought he had seen it all, in a match of crossed blades. He would certainly underrate her as as swordsman, as he would any woman, particularly one of her size and apparent age. But he had never encountered April Atherton, and he was not prepared for her hyper-aggressive style of attack, augmented as it was by the terrific speed of the timeslip.
Unfortunately for April, after nearly twenty-four hours without food or significant rest, and only the occasional cupped handful of rainwater to drink, she was beginning to grow exhausted. The way she held her sword, the grip a bit loose and the point of the blade just an inch too low, would have been imperceptible to any but an expert foe.
The Sultan smiled, his eyes as dark as a serpent’s.
“You speak well the language of the warrior,” he said, “but now we will see if there is anything to your words.”
He turned the wrist of his sword-hand in a smooth motion, and the dozens of tiny bones and muscles moved in concert, the sharp point of the blade whirling through a tight figure-eight pattern.
He shifted his weight to the left, leaving an undefended opening on his lower right side. He did it purposely, deliberately, in an attempt to lure his opponent into making a mistake.
And in her current state, hungry and exhausted and dehydrated and over-eager, she went for it.
The only question was whether or not the mistake would be a fatal one.
She cursed as her sword cut the cloth of the Sultan’s flowing garment, but not his flesh.
The Sultan stepped aside, having lured her into making the stroke, and he was ready for it. April was only just able to turn away the counterstroke that came at her, sudden as a bolt of lightning, powerful as a clap of thunder. Sparks flew as the swords clashed together, and a tiny piece was cut from April’s kilij blade, the one she had taken from a common soldier, and as such, was forged from a quality of steel inferior to that of the Sultan’s mighty weapon.
Her balance thrown by the strength of his counterattack, she could not avoid the sharp, steely kneecap that he drove into her quadriceps, deadening the entire right leg down to her toe-tips.
She hit the ground hard, and though the impact drove the breath from her lungs, instinct told her to immediately roll herself away from the coming strike. But she was still a micro-second too slow to entirely avoid the point of the Sultan’s wicked yataghan as it sliced across the flesh, just a single layer of protective collagen fibers away from opening up the carotid artery. Blood began to flow, but at just a trickle, instead of the fountain that would have been the result if April were another, micro-second slower.
The powerful steel blade cut an inch-deep gash in the hard stone floor, and April rolled and tumbled, cartwheeling to her feet with a tremendous effort, and putting a little bit of distance between herself and her opponent, just enough to give her time to draw a breath.
The Sultan paused in his murderous attack. They eyed each other, down the length of their respective blades.
“Oh, so it’s going to be that kind of fight,” April hissed.
“You’re fast, little mouse,” the Sultan taunted her.
“That’s right. And I’m cute, too. You fight dirty, old man.”
“I fight to win. It is the only way.”
“It certainly is not the only way,” she shot back, always the proud and honorable graduate of the Hidalgo School, “but it can be that way, or any way you want it. I don’t really care.”
At the Hidalgo School, April had learned from several wise teachers. Like the great Don Pepe Hidalgo himself, to a man they were master devotees of the art of swordsmanship, adherents to the most honorable traditions, forever studying and honing their techniques, eternally fascinated by the flowing beauty of flashing, clashing blades of fine steel.
But April was also schooled by another kind of instructor, a jovial and hairy ogre known as Sanchez, who was employed as a cook and blacksmith at the Hidalgo School. He was a man who had survived a variety of combat situations, missing one ear and six of his ten fingers, and those losses had not been caused by kitchen mishaps or accidents at the forge. He offered April, and all the students, a different kind of advice.
“I’ve seen your swordwork, cucarachita. You’re terrible,” Sanchez had once told the young and aspiring student April, just as he told them all. “You are pathetic and worthless. You will never amount to anything with the blade. But maybe if you learn the other type of business, you won’t get cut to pieces the first time you face a true swordsman.”
“What other business, Sanchez?” April’s feelings were hurt by his dismissal of her skills, which were prodigious, and widely known. But Sanchez had been less interested in stroking her ego, than in doing his part to help sculpt her into a truly, uniquely dangerous type of fighter, and she was deeply intrigued by the advice he offered.
“When you hold a sword, you think you have only one weapon. You are wrong,” he had explained. “Consider the point, the blade, the flat of the sword, the hilt, your closed fist that grasps the hilt. Each of these is a weapon with its own advantages in battle.”
“I know all of that!” she complained. “I was first in the class at -...”
Sanchez cut her off mid-sentence. “And just as you attack before establishing your defensive strategy, you are quick to speak, when you should be listening. I think your tongue will be sunburned from all your boastful talk, before you ever leave this school, cucarachita.”
A grim smile came to April’s lips as she recalled fond memories of Sanchez and the advice that was particulary germane to her situation now, as she faced Sultan Mehmed the Conquerer, blade to blade. She squared her shoulders, and established her balance in spite of the crippling pain in her right leg.
They each took advantage of the momentary pause in their conflict, April to regain her breath and muster her training, the Sultan to reconsider his own strategy against an opponent who had proven to be just a bit faster than he had been led to believe.
And it was the advice of Sanchez that April incorporated in her next move, which was a counter to the Sultan’s attack.
She noticed a slightly unnatural motion of his non-sword hand, just before he began his charge, and when the Sultan swung his blade in another astonishingly clean and powerful stroke, she saw the other hand whip a short kuhl dagger from within the folds of his tunic. Recognizing the swordcut as a feint, she mostly ignored it, secure in the knowledge that it was the other weapon that would make the potential killing stroke.
He expected her to pull away, putting her into the path of the dagger’s deadly point. But instead she spun around in a tight circle, pivoting on the deadened right leg, avoiding the thrust of the dagger and the feint of the sword, and investing every ounce of strength into a vicious kick, putting a hard bootheel into the soft depth of his left kidney.
If she hadn’t been in a weakened condition, she would have held back, or risked snapping his spine. If she aimed the kick just a fraction of an inch to the distal or proximal, or delivered it with a few pounds of additional pressure, the history books would certainly have recorded that the death of Sultan Mehmed the Conquerer happened on this day.
But April knew her duty. As an appointed Officer of the Council of Time Defense, that duty was paramount.
The death of a tree, a butterfly, or a random soldier in an army that was forever at war, was something that would have a negligible impact on the timeline. It was more than just an established and proven fact, it was an article of faith, and April had subscribed to its truth for as long as she was intellectually capable of understanding it. The timeline was resilient and flexible. Changes involving people, places and things were most likely to dampen out, as events moved inexorably forward. But there was a limit to that flexibility, and April knew full well that she was now confronting one of those limits.
Minus the chain of events precipitated by Baron Hookfinger’s deliberate and malicious interference in the timeline, the Sultan would live another fifteen years, for better or worse. He was the driver of the engine moving a massive empire that would leave a permanent, visible mark upon the face of the Earth. Many would suffer and die by his whims, some would live and prosper mightily, even unfairly, but April was the defender of history’s events, not their judge.
She couldn’t kill him, or even allow him to die, if there was anything she could do about it. She had sworn an oath, and the finer points of that oath might be disputed as they applied to the current situation, but it could be argued that she was obligated to sacrifice her own life in his defense, if it became necessary.
She could not kill him.
But she could humiliate him.
And that was exactly what she chose to do, when the agony shot through every nerve in his body, and he released his grip on both dagger and sword and fell to the floor, face-down.
He was unconscious for only a fraction of a second. But when he awoke, he found himself pinned down, a heavy boot across the back of his neck.
It was a most unbecoming position for a Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.
“Gotcha, sucker!” April said with a laugh, in English, entertaining absolutely no hope or expectation that the Sultan would comprehend the words.
But he would understand their meaning. April would make certain of that.