barnabas_truman: (oldstyle)
Many years ago, when I served as the Teleric ambassador to Hargland, it was my privilege to play a series of games of chess against Admiral Keel.

Keel was a unique sort of fellow--born in a coastal village in the Hargan north, raised on a fishing schooner, schooled in the finest universities of High Teler, and tested on the seas of combat. A master strategist, that man. I witnessed this firsthand, for it was our custom to play a single game of chess once a season. Keel spent most of his time on his flagship, the Hand of Harga, but every few months he would dock in Lindpool, his nation's capital, to spend a day or two filling out his much-reviled bureaucratic paperwork... and who should he always find in his office but myself, setting up the board? We would make small talk, discuss families and weather and politics and war, and move the pieces through their deadly dance across rank and file. Deadly for my pieces, at any rate! It was a near thing now and then, but I never quite managed to win.

Towards the end of one particularly brutal autumn match, all that remained to me was a single knight and a ship, while Keel still held his end of the board with both ships and a priest. On his turn, Keel stared at the battlefield, lost in thought, for perhaps two or three minutes. Finally, with a cry of "Ha!", he moved his priest and declared "Checkmate!"

"Your pardon, Admiral," said I, after a moment's pause, "but my king is not even in check."

"Oh, silly me," said he; "I was thinking seventeen moves ahead."

"Seventeen moves?" said I in disbelief. "I admit that I'm beaten force for force, but unless I misjudge the board, I daresay I should be able to force a stalemate in only four!"

"Certainly," said he with a twinkling smile. "I refer, you will see, to the thirteenth move of our game this coming winter."

He was right, of course; check and mate with a pair of ships on his thirteenth turn as the snow began to fall outside the window. Master strategist indeed! Arrogant to a fault, some might say, but who can claim he has not earned it?
barnabas_truman: (oldstyle)
An old story, this one. I first heard it, or something like it, from Matt nearly ten years ago, and decided last week to try my own hand at retelling it with new names and a new twist.



Many years ago, when Elrin was a young Captain and maps had a good deal more terra incognita than they do now, the budding Teleric Empire made one campaign to conquer the distant land of Harg, and one campaign only. It was Elrin himself who boldly led the first cohort to march up the hills into Hargan territory... and it was Elrin who humbly led them back into Teleric territory the very next day.

***

The cohort crossed the Linbrook at low tide and began marching into the foothills of the Hargan highlands. Though the terrain was unfamiliar and the fog was thick, they traveled without incident and made camp in a valley about ten miles past the border. That night, Elrin sat by the campfire in front of his pavilion, discussing strategy with his lieutenants.

The full moon and clearer night air gave Elrin's sharp-eyed scouts an opportunity to prowl the surroundings and feel out the lay of the land. Around midnight, as the moon began to set, their chief returned briefly to deliver a report. Elrin held the writing-slate up to the firelight and squinted at the chalk scribblings, then passed it around to the other officers.

"It would appear that we have met the enemy, gentlemen," said Elrin. "Roughly four hundred Hargan warriors mustering less than a mile up-valley from here. That gives them a slight advantage, of course; they know their own terrain, and they'd be fools not to use it."

"Clad in leather armor, if the keenest eyes from Teler can be trusted in this gloom," muttered one of the lieutenants, reading from the slate. "Plenty of javelins, a few bows, and every man armed with a hide shield and a short sword--maybe bronze, maybe iron, say the scouts."

"Typical fare for the barbarians outside our borders, if I'm any judge," said an older and more experienced veteran. "Four hundred men, though? That's a bigger greeting party than I'd have expected for our first night here. Were they expecting us, I wonder?"

"Well, these are people of the wild, not city-folk," replied Elrin. "They could have spies in every tree from here to the river."

"Do--do you really think so?" asked a less hardened officer, glancing nervously at the nearest oak.

"Oh, don't be so nervous," said the veteran, slapping him genially on the back. "We'll soon show these primitive rabble what Teleric phalanxes are made of! I'd wager my second-best sword that they'll be begging to join the Empire by this time next month."

"I'm not so sure," replied another cautiously. "Why, I've heard that Hargan warriors can put themselves into some sort of battle-frenzy--they ignore all pain and wounds, and don't stop fighting until they're literally hacked to pieces!"

"Superstitious nonsense," countered Elrin. "These barbarians are a weak and cowardly lot, and I'm confident that they'll break and flee after the first clash of shields. Besides, based on the scouts' reports, we outnumber them three to two, and we have Teleric steel and Teleric tactics on our side as well. And speaking of tactics, it's high time we consider--"

Suddenly, the officers were interrupted by a commotion a few tents away. They turned to look, and saw in the dim light two guards struggling to keep hold of a broad-shouldered stranger, short and hirsute, dressed in ragged leather.

"Hargans!" "Spies!" "Assassins!" shouted a few officers, leaping to their feet and half-drawing their swords.

"Be calm!" ordered Elrin. "The guards have him contained well enough for now."

"Who among you is chief of this tribe?" demanded the flailing barbarian. "I must speak with him!"

"I am," said Elrin, rising and stepping forward. "With whom am I speaking?"

"Careful, sir, don't you come closer!" warned one of the guards. "'E--oof!--'e may be armed; we can't search 'im as 'e struggles so."

Elrin stood and watched the Hargan for a moment. "I have made some study of travelers' tales about your people," he said at last. "Apparently it is a custom of yours to allow your rival to grasp your throat, to demonstrate trust, when discussing a treaty. Will you agree to this, as a show of good intentions?"

The Hargan stopped struggling and raised an eyebrow. "Your travelers speak true," he said, "but if you have studied our customs, then you know I cannot agree unless you will allow me to do the same to you before we part ways tonight."

"I give you my word that I shall," swore Elrin.

"It is good." He raised his bearded chin, and Elrin cautiously gripped the man's throat with his right hand. The guards quickly searched his tattered clothing for weapons, and found none. Elrin released his grip, and the guards released their prisoner.

"Now then. Who are you?" asked Elrin.

"I am the weakest coward of the weak and cowardly lot you know as Harga," growled the barbarian spitefully.

A few of the officers chuckled. Elrin gestured for them to stop. "Well, let us hear your leader's message," he said.

"I do not fear death."

Elrin looked mildly insulted. "We are a civilized people; we do not kill messengers! You have nothing to fear from us--not tonight, at any rate. Come, tell us your message."

"You do not understand: that is the message. None of us fear death." He stepped calmly towards the campfire, a bold glare in his eyes. "Harga do not fear death. Harga do not fear you. Harga do not fear anything." Without warning, and with sudden swiftness, the barbarian thrust his right hand deep into the flames.

The Telerites were too shocked to do anything but watch in horror. Though the skin on his hand crackled and the flesh beneath began to bubble, still the Hargan stood unflinching. If he showed any sign of noticing the pain, none saw it but Elrin, for all the while the barbarian stared him in the eye, grinning fiendishly.

***

Now and then, at a state banquet in the palaces of High Teler, some young diplomat who doesn't know any better asks Grand General Elrin why the Hargan Freehold, alone of all the Far Marches, remains independent from the Empire. In response, the old General might mutter something about the economic inadvisablity of annexing a distant, resource-poor wasteland; then he will gently rub the scorch marks that still cover his neck and chin, wince, and delicately change the subject.

Let no-one say Elrin is not a man of his word.



(Historical note: in the original story, Mucius Scaevola was a young Roman warrior who thrust his own hand into the flames to demonstrate the courage and conviction of his people to the king of the invading Etruscans. Since Rome at the time was a mere city-state toying with the idea of not having a king anymore, though, I think the recharacterization still works.)

(Linguistic note: "Scaevola" roughly means "Lefty.")

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