En Garde

The Duellists (1977)

Note: This short story uses a lot of technical fencing terms. Please refer to this key for further clarification.

Prime, Seconde, Quarte, Quinte, Sixte, Septime, Octave and Neuvieme shall all be referred to in this story. They are merely references to the areas where the blade attacks the body.

“A slight has been perceived.” intoned the droll referee. “The two parties are to engage in an honourable duel to settle the matter. As is ordained by God, the winner shall settle down once quarter is asked.”

Francois Dubois stared at the blue eyes of the man before him, and saw not a powerful Lord, but a deadly fighter.

Likewise, Lord James Allister glared into the green pearls of Matthew and beheld a formidable Officer instead of a commoner.

Both men, striking in their appearances, turned away and motioned to their seconds. The “second” was their most trusted ally, in charge of inspecting their weapons, and ensuring that the honour of the duel was respected.

Dubois looked at his long-time friend Hubert who solemnly handed him his French light cavalry sabre. Heavy, strong and brutal in its simplicity, the cavalry sabre was a fearsome weapon wielded in the right hands. Designed primarily to be used on horseback with long sweeping strokes, the sabre was designed around the principle of speed and momentum to inflict a devastating single hit.

Unsheathing his weapon, Dubois looked at the dull steel, and ran a hand along the blade, pleased to see that it had been recently sharpened. The weapon felt comfortable in his hand, his body moulded to its’ shape, after years of combat in Spain.

Hubert leaned in and took the sheath back before whispering. Are you sure about this Francois?

Dubois looked back at Lord James Allister and felt his jaw hardened in response to his resolve. I must Hubert. He slandered Esme. Her honour and mine is at stake.

Hubert frowned at the stubbornness from his childhood friend. Francois, you know, as well as I do, that Esme is allowed to do as she please. She is not your betrothed! Do not throw your life away, honouring that woman. That English Lord … there are thousands of rumours about how skilled he is.

Francois smiled ruefully at his friend’s pleas. I’m sorry Hubert. But my mind is made up. You know all too well, when it comes to women, how I am. Besides, you should have a bit more faith in your commanding officer! I am one of the Emperor’s most feared cavalrymen. How many charges have we survived?

Justice, God and Luck are on our side Hubert. Vive Le Empereur!

Dubois sharply turned around and ignored the forlorn Mon Dieu from his friend, eager to test his mettle against the English Lord who was still talking to his second, and testing the balance of his weapon.

Lord James Allister flexed his fingers over the slim handle of his English small sword, enjoying the way how the grooves prevented any signs of slippage in his hands. An left-handed fencer, Allister possessed an unusual advantage over many opponents, due to the simple fact that the two blades were pointed directly at each other, instead of having to scythe inwards towards the body for a thrust.

This evolutionary advantage over many right-handed swordsmen, meant that Allister preferred a lighter, faster blade. The English small sword he favoured was perfect, a dancing, shimmering blaze of sharp steel, that enabled more dexterity from the sword hand.

Whilst it lacked the power and cleaving ability of the French cavalry sabre, the small sword made up for this, in precision and speed. This was a weapon made to wound, slow down the opponent, then adjust for a killing stroke.

Taking off his heavy coat, Allister rolled up the sleeves of his shirt, to reveal an unfashionable tan. Handing his coat to his second, Allister inspected the square upon which they were to duel.

Flat grey cobblestones paved the ground, upon which spots of water had been splashed by the sardonic priest to ordain the duel, ensuring the sacrosanctity of the entire matter was observed by God.

Around the square, lined attractive, brick houses, that were now lightly misted by the early fog that characterised so many towns in the Napoleonic era. The fog was an indication of early dawn, the only time where privacy could be expected in a busy district like Plymouth.

Allister kept his thoughts to himself, but inside he was seething at the temerity of the whole affair.

That French bitch. Had I known … To blazes with her. Focus on this, man!

Recalling his nobleman training, he pushed the emotional thoughts of his mind, and concentrated fully on the duel. He had spilled much blood, with his skill and ruthlessness. There wasn’t a swordsman yet who could match his pace and calm efficiency.

Perhaps this Frog bastard will be different. thought Allister, relishing the idea.

Stepping forward, almost dancing on his feet, Allister held his small sword out to the side and sharply flourished it in a salute, as Dubois returned the gesture, his cavalry sword rotating slightly in a more military fashion.

The referee, an sanguine man whose dull intonation denoted that he had seen many duels before, stepped forward, away from the priest who was too busy muttering in Latin to notice.

Gentlemen, upon my call, you shall retreat 7 paces, before engaging each other. Any movement before is strictly prohibited and shall be punished most severely. This is a matter for God to observe and show his will.

Allister felt his heartbeat start to increase, his body prepping itself for his first initial attack. Dubois found himself beginning to sweat, as he realised that the English Lord before him, was genuinely excited.

If you will, gentlemen … take your 7 paces back.

Dubois walked away, his hand already preparing for a defensive manoeuvre. He would bide his time and wait for the perfect killing stroke. Just one hit … one hit would be all it took to kill this arrogant bastard who had wronged his darling Esme.

Allister stopped dead at 7 steps and spun around sharply, his heeled shoes clicking on the cobblestones.

En garde. announced the referee.

The Latin prayers began in rise in volume, as the priest provided a strange melody to the proceedings.

Pret.

Allister and Dubois stared at each other, their eyes clashing already over their swords.

Allez!

The first sign of emotion came from the referee as he forcefully expelled the word out of his mouth and stepped back to watch the deadly dance.

Within seconds, Allister crossed the 14 paces that separated the two men, and Dubois found himself retreating instantly, side-stepping furiously, astonished by the ferocity of the English Lord.

Allister lunged forward, his left foot stamping on the ground, as his blade darted forward to Dubois’ quarte side. Dubois, sensing the feint, ignored the sword dancing to his left breast, rotated his body away and moved his sabre across his chest, as Allister scythed the point of his sword across.

Metal scraped on metal, and Allister, whilst outstretched in a full lunge, made a circular motion downwards to Dubois’ leg.

Reacting instantly, Dubois snapped his leg away from the blade and took a few more steps back.

The opening gambit played out, Allister took a breath and took up his normal en garde position, smiling grimly, his left hand moving the small sword in a distracting manner.

Francois Dubois kept his eyes on Allister, breathing heavily after the initial exchange.

Merde. He’s fast! So damnably fast. I need to be very careful here.

Allister weaved to and fro, before sweeping his small sword to Dubois’ octave, going for his right calf. Dubois panicked and swept his sabre down. The moment he moved, Dubois knew instantly it was the wrong decision.

Without any effort, Allister flicked the point of his sword upwards and scored Dubois’ hip, along the sixte line. It would have been worse, were it not for Dubois violently twisting his body out of the way.

Touching his right side and noting the blood, Dubois felt relieved it was a small cut. Gathering his wits and remembering the speed upon which his blade worked best, Dubois charged forwards, his sabre outstretched to ward off the dancing English small sword.

Allister frowned as he beheld the charging Frenchmen and braced himself for a parry riposte that he knew would work to his advantage.

To his astonishment, the French sabre was outstretched towards his head and Allister moved awkwardly, pronating his left wrist, to sweep the sabre to the side of his body, and whilst his hand was over his head, jabbed downwards.

Dubois, sensing the danger, shifted his leg and allowed the blade to pass by him harmlessly.

The two men, were now inches away from each other, Allister’s mien reflecting one of frustration, whilst Dubois’ features were fixed in a battle scowl.

Balling his left hand in a fist, Dubois shortened the distance even more and punched Lord James Allister squarely in the face.

Allister reeled back, his nose broken and bleeding. Smearing at it with his right hand, and looking at the crimson stain on his palm in astonishment, he was almost caught unaware by the follow-up attack by Dubois.

Dodging quickly to the side of the sabre that was coming down, Allister felt rage creep into his sword arm and he arrogantly directed the sabre point that was aiming at his chest to the side, with a mere flick of his wrist, a quarte parry that immediately turned into a riposte aimed at Dubois’ sixte.

Dubois smoothly retracted his sabre blade into his en garde position, and took a step back that left the small sword’s tip a mere inch from his body.

Allister swore internally inside as he sized up his opponent once more.

Frog bastard!

The pause in the fighting grew longer, as both men drew in heavy breaths to recuperate their exertions. Allister’s en garde was becoming sloppier, whilst Dubois’ sabre grew heavier with each parry, slowing down the potent weapon’s swing.

As Dubois reeled back from a flurry of attacks from Allister, he felt a second wind come in, as he learned to read the English Lord’s favourite move, which was to feint to Dubois’ quarte, then circle his parry and thrust towards octave, in the hopes of wounding Dubois’ legs.

The only obstacle that stood in the way of that attack, was Dubois’ low centre of gravity and his instinctual desperation to protect his legs, a habit garnered from years as a cavalryman. Dubois had seen too many of his compatriots’ legs sawn off by the doctor, after wounds became infected on the battlefield and gangrene set in.

The duel continued, with both men slowly getting more tired, only their desperation and anger fueled their sloppy swordsmanship.

But unlike Allister, Dubois kept his cool. He had too many years charging into battle to waste his energy. His strategy from the beginning of the duel was about to pay off.

A neuvieme attack was launched by Allister, whose finesse was beginning to wear off, the small sword clashing with a metallic tang, as Dubois blocked the blade from hitting his head.

Batting the lighter sword away, Dubois gathered all his energy and with a roar, brought his heavy cavalry sabre down in a diagonal motion that went from quarte to octave, mirroring Allister’s favourite combination.

Allister staggered backwards, his shirt ripped across his torso, his face aghast at the devastating killing blow.

Falling on his back, Allister stared up at the sky, only to be disappointed that he would not see the blue horizon, as the fog was still thick enough to obscure everything. Taking a ragged breath, he closed his eyes and felt the fog envelope him into nothingness.

Dubois sank to his knees, as the priest and doctor rushed forward and inspected the dead English Lord. Checking his pulse, the doctor shook his head at the referee and stepped aside, doing the sign of the cross, as the priest took over the last rites.

The referee looked at Allister’s second, a humble servant, who merely nodded coldly and walked away with his dead Lord’s belongings.

Scoffing at the back of the second, who he knew was going to pilfer everything that was valuable in his dead master’s house, the referee motioned the graveyard men forward, who were keen to take the body and see what they could sell.

It is done, by God’s will. I will leave you gentlemen now. Have a good morning.

With a tip of his hat to Dubois, the referee shuffled off into the town, no doubt unhappy to be the tiding of bad news to the local magistrate who was going to be apoplectic that a nobleman had died in a duel in his town.

Hubert rushed forwards to Dubois and looked at the wound on his hip. It was nasty, but nothing too serious, despite the huge red patch that had spread across Dubois’ white shirt.

Doctor, over here now! yelled Hubert at the doctor, who was startled out of his stare at the dead Allister, being carried unceremoniously away by graveyard men.

As the doctor bandanged the wound, Dubois looked at Hubert cockily.

I told you my friend. We had everything on our side to win. But mon dieu, he was fucking fast.

Hubert shook his head at his friend’s bravado.

To nearly die for the affections of Esme … you are aware that she was invited to that Lord’s party right?

Dubois looked at Hubert in shock. No, I thought she was taken by force …

Hubert shook his head sadly. Francois, you fool. How many times have I warned you to stay away from Esme? Now an English Lord is dead because of her and you, a fugitive.

But this was a fair duel, Hubert shook Dubois in consternation and dawning realisation.

A dead Lord is still worth more than a dead French officer. said Hubert forlornly.

The magnitude of what had happened hit Dubois instantly, and his adrenaline was filled with dread. This was not going to go unpunished. Fair duel or not, noble blood was spilled and such matters wasn’t going to be taken lightly. His beloved Emperor would have to exile Dubois immediately or risk further English wrath.

Merde whispered Dubois.

Author’s Note.

Drawing heavily from my own experience as a past fencer and my obsession with the Hawkwood series of book by James McGee, this was surprisingly difficult to write, with only a vague idea on how I should pace the fight. I also struggled to insert technical terms whilst still making the flow of the swordplay exciting.

I will probably come back and write more fight scenes, which I think I have a decent grasp on, but still need a lot more practice.

Onto the next one!

~ Damocles.

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