A Final Toll by W. David Wood

Orris Mann walked from under the tavern’s awning and felt the heat of the pre-noon sun pressing down on him like firm hands resting heavily on his shoulders. He paused, looking at the crowd gathering around the perimeter of the town’s small market square. He smiled and waved at them, and continued walking to his place near the center of the cobbled pavement. The gestures were returned half-heartedly by a few in the crowd, but most heartedly by his entourage, following him from the tavern and spreading among the spectators behind him.

He stopped and stared down his nose at the dark little man he had come to meet and, assuredly, kill. He flicked an imaginary piece of lint from the sleeve of his silk blouse as the small man regarded him with an even, unreadable look from across the square. His clothing was a jumble of styles and colors from various lands, giving him a well travelled if threadbare look. A pair of worn kukris hung from his hips, and various pouches and packs about his person completed his kit .

Orris was not impressed with him, and had not been since meeting him at one of the tavern’s gaming tables. He had asked to join Orris and his companions at their table and, sensing an easy mark, they invited him into the next round. An hour later the stranger was up and Orris was the only one still giving him a run for the growing pot. Finally, his frustration coming to a head, Orris heatedly accused him of cheating.

“That’s a lie.” The small man had said, without anger but in a way that carried across the tavern’s main hall, and silence followed it. The other patrons froze, all waiting for what came next, the only noise being Orris’ empty-headed friends snickering the way children do when hearing a sibling getting into trouble with the parents. The small dark man remained seated, but his weathered eyes took in the movements of anything around him, and of Orris, as the young Taldoran dandy rose from his chair and leaned over the table, lightly resting his fists, knuckles down, on its wine-stained surface.

“What was that?” He asked.

“I said, ‘That’s a lie’.”

“You’re calling me a liar?”

“If you say I am cheating, then yes, you are a liar.”

Orris stood up, spreading his hands wide. “Did you all hear that?” He said, turning slowly and addressing the crowded hall. “This little ramshackle crud just insulted my honor! What does that demand?”

“Satisfaction!” His friends cried, almost in unison.

“What say you all, my fellow patrons?” Orris said, calling out like a street stall peddler. The crowd murmured, assenting out of what seemed habit than actual agreement. They had seen this before. Orris Mann was a consummate duelist, a devil with a crossbow, and that horrid skill alone kept the people of Yanmass from speaking out against him or his friends. He fancied himself the town’s champion, and was too arrogant or stupid to see the truth; most likely he didn’t care either way.

He spun to face the upstart. “So, it comes to this- you meet me in the square, five minutes till high sun, for the purpose of my gaining satisfaction.”

“Or?” The little man said, voice even, still sitting, his expression neutral.

Orris chuckled. “Or, my companions and I will scrape it from your flayed hide.” With that his friends rose from their chairs and stood in ways the little man assumed were supposed to be menacing, cracking knuckles and resting hands very obviously on the pommels of various blades. “What will it be?” Orris asked.

“Well,” The little man said. “It appears that I have little choice. Satisfaction it will be.”

“Excellent!” Orris cried. “It will, of course, be crossbows, raised and fired at the strike of high sun-”

“Excuse me, but I thought the challenged party had the choice of weapon?”

Orris chuckled yet again, a sly grin squirming across his face. “Not in this town, little man. It’s the offended party that chooses weapons here. See you in the square!” And with that he flounced (actually flounced!) out of the tavern, his compatriots in tow, all laughing at the prospect of the dark little man’s skewering. The little man rose. “Does anyone have a crossbow I may borrow?” He asked of the crowd hall. His expression had not changed, and the tone of his voice was still quite even.

A quarter of an hour later they were in the square, fifteen paces apart, staring. Orris, the picture of confidence, resplendent in his silks and fine leathers, turned and raised a hand toward his friends behind him and made a beckoning gesture, not once taking his eyes from the his opponent. A gangly youth, adoring smile plastered on his face, walked briskly to Orris, a fine crossbow in his hands. “Here you are, milord Mann, oiled and ready, as always.” He handed the weapon over. Orris looked it over, couched the stock on one hip and cocked it with a deft, precise motion. He looked over to the little man.

“Katapeshti?” He asked simply. The man nodded. “Hmph. You’ve come a long way to die, then.” The man shrugged. “When the clock bell strikes high sun, we raise and fire. Any questions?”

“One- I thought Taldoran duelists used swords. Shouldn’t we be using those?” Still calm as ever. It was becoming…unsettling. The little man acted as if this were nothing more than an inconvenience. He shook himself, thinking it ridiculous the katapeshti seemed not to be taking this seriously. Didn’t he know his life was about to end? Didn’t he know who he faced? Orris’ face colored briefly.

“No.” He said. “I like the crossbow. That’s what we use.” His voice was starting to sound a bit less calm than the small man’s. He glanced at the clock tower. “You have only four or so minutes to live. Any last words?” He asked, his friends chuckling behind him. The grim crowd remained silent. Duels were entertaining, but executions were another matter.
“Yes. I still need someone to lend me a crossbow.” He said calmly, eliciting scattered chuckles from the crowd. Orris shook his head. Pathetic, he thought.

“Will someone please lend this fool a crossbow?” he said to the crowd.

“I have one.” A voice called out. A man, tall and wiry, walked with a measured stride to the small man. Curiously enough, Orris observed, this man was also Katapeshti. This was not lost on some in the crowd, and murmurs rose here and there. The tall one handed the other a battered crossbow and a single bolt. The big man smiled, turned, and jogged lightly from the open square, the crowd parting for him as he continued on and out of sight. The little man readied his weapon.

A minute passed, and Orris began to feel as if something was happening that he was no longer a part of. His friends were exchanging unsure glances, and his palm was beginning to sweat around the grip of his weapon.

Another minute. Two minutes left. Orris switched his weapon from hand to hand, flexing his fingers, sweat beading his brow. The little Katapeshti looked infuriatingly calm. He should be sobbing, pleading, begging others for help. That’s what all the others did. That’s what was supposed to happen. Not this utter…disregard.

He risked a look at the clock’s face. The long hand clicked to just a minute before. Ah, Orris thought, only a min-
BONG. “Wha-” and something slammed into his throat, pain exploding through his neck and head.

He sat heavily onto the cobbles, cracking his tailbone. He managed a weak, chirping gurgle and dropped his crossbow. He wanted to swallow the lump in his throat away but sucked blood into his lungs instead. He raised his hands to his neck and felt the fletching of the quarrel buried in his throat. He saw the small dark man rest the crossbow over his shoulder and walk toward him. He fell onto his back. The little man paused over him.

“You were right.” He whispered. “I did cheat. I just wanted to see what you would do about it.” He bent over and snatched Orris’ purse from his belt. “For my troubles.”

The tower finally began tolling the hour of high sun. Orris Mann wheezed once and died. The little man turned and walked calmly from the square, the stunned silence of the crowd marking his passage.

A mile outside the town he met up with the other Katapeshti. “Nice shot, Omas.” The tall man said, handing him a short bow.

“Yours hitting the bell was better, Rulhor.” He handed the crossbow back to its owner.

“Next town.” Omas said, hefting the dead man’s purse.

“Aye.”

The open road beckoned them, and on they walked.