“Hear me, o muse,” muttered Dylan Fugue, as he descended the lowest staircase of the great square barbican, “as I shuffle my shoes. Lead me not to confuse. For I’ve hearkened the news. And I’m paying my...”
Someone dropped something heavy and metallic, a couple of floors above him, and the echoing slam took him out of his incantation.
“...dues,” he concluded. With a sigh of resignation, he let the spell unravel.
He walked across the landing. A pair of halberd-wielding pikers guarding the side archway allowed him to pass, without further shaking his concentration with a greeting or a salute. He stepped out into the cobblestone street in the shade of the main gate of Opencola.
There were at least forty soldiers standing there in rigid formation, all facing the gate. Still others were hurrying back and forth between the gatehouse doors. Smalley, the city steward, gave him a curt nod.
The crowded space left the Rhyme-o-mancer little room to maneuver. Although, he did have a maneuver in mind.
That slamming sound had come from the great iron-bound portcullis; it was squeaking and clattering its way upward now. Through the gaps in its oaken lattice, he could see the cloud of dust being thrown up by the approaching column of troops. In a few moments, Lord Thomas Gunn would ride through this gate, and Dylan had every intention of stepping right out in front of the Chief Warlord’s stone pony.
He stood off to one side, putting his back up against the cold masonry. The caster gathered up the pieces of his magical construct, and decided that it had all been crap anyway. That “use/news/choose” schema was a favorite of his, but it was too much of a crutch, too familiar to have any real boosting power left in it. He reached back into Language, chose a more ambitious rhyme base, and began again.
“A magician in my position,” he said, as quietly as he could, “with a mission from my patrician, to render a rendition of a most epic edition, the creation of an incantation to cause elation to my ruler and nation, mustn’t fluster and blunder. I must muster the bluster, master the blaster. This caster is courting disaster at court. It’s a last resort. Thomas the psalmless’ lasting sport: my task to thwart, alas! In short, I need a fast retort, to at last exhort and compel the nonpareil to timely tell enough to cast my spell, and not to sell himself so short!”
Horns had begun blaring an anthem from the ramparts above as he was weaving his last few pairings, but he had found the focus to force himself through it, and complete the enchantment.
It was a good one. This felt right. It would work. He would stop the Chief in his tracks the moment his mount set a hoof within the city, and make him agree to an interview. Overlady Bibi would get her epic poem. And then he could, in peace and good conscience, go back to making trinkets and talismans and little dinner verses for the amusement of whoever would listen.
Hoofbeats now. Steward Smalley shouted out some kind of an order, and the forty guardsmen stomped their boots and did something ceremonial with their spears. Dylan didn’t watch. He was waiting to pick his moment.
Timing—physical timing, with his body—was not a strength of his, and he knew it. With meter and scansion, he could manage elaborate rhythms and cadences, yet he frequently walked into furniture, or tripped over paving stones. He’d have to get this just right.
The problem was, he couldn’t see the road now. Several soldiers had decided to line up along the wall with him, and their armor was blocking his view. He had only the sound of the pony’s heavy hooves, and the anticipatory looks of those who could see the approaching warlord, to estimate his leap.
He didn’t really trust either indicator. The hoofbeats sounded too fast: fiddly-dump, fiddly-dump, fiddly-dump...not slowing down. Fiddly-dump, fiddle-dee-dee. Overlady Bibi. If I don’t make this happen, she’ll surely croak me.
Also, the expressions on the faces of the soldiers weren’t right. They looked less like a proud home guard welcoming their returning hero and more like a last contingent of a garrison, facing a charging enemy.
“Erm...” said Smalley, who was standing directly below the spikes of the raised portcullis.
Dylan squirmed forward to see what was happening, but unfortunately, so did most of the soldiers along the wall with him. He grabbed the shoulder plate of a man who was at least two heads taller than him, and jerked him aside, just to get a glimpse.
The Chief Warlord was about eight pony-lengths from the gate, and going at a full gallop.
There is something about the act of winding a spring, though, which makes its uncoiling inevitable. His plan was a spring he had been winding for days, however unsensible it now was. The magic of his discipline coursed through him, giving him a confidence that the situation didn’t exactly merit.
He threw himself forward with no thought more complicated than, “It must be now!”
As he leaped, he didn’t really hear Smalley shout, “Company, part!” What he heard was the rattling percussion of a hundred different weapons and armor pieces haphazardly slamming together, as the ranks broke into two mobs of soldiers, each diving in opposite directions out of the onrushing rider's way. Dylan's dash forward was instantly met and canceled by a wave of steel plate and muscle, as half of the assembled guardsmen dove aside to let Lord Thomas gallop through. The other half had rushed for the other side of the gate.
Dylan’s face impacted the back of some soldier’s chest plate, and he was caught in a weirdly slow, inexorable wave of collapse. Twenty or thirty fighters clapped together and bonded in a tight heap, then collectively slumped to the pavement along the wall. The caster found himself wedged like a trowel full of mortar between soldier-shaped bricks.
His only view was of a piece of the brick archway overhead, but he could hear the pounding hooves. “Fiddly-dump. Fiddly-dump! FIDDLY-CLACK! CLOPPITY-CLACK! Clackety-clack! Clippety-clop. Clappety-clack. Clickety-click. Clickety-clack. Clickety-click...”
The sound faded, lost amid the closer groaning and grinding, the sound of soldiers sorting themselves out and getting to their feet.
With a too-amused grin, one of them offered Dylan a hand up. But the Rhyme-o-mancer just lay there, slumped against the wall, looking up at the man.
“Whose head shall we lose, if the warlord refuse?” he said, falling back on his earlier phonology. “I will not be excused,” he said, shaking his head at the man, whose face now fell into puzzlement. Dylan sighed. “They’ll put me to the screws.”