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My Name Is For My Friends


My Name Is For My Friends
By Joe Vasicek

The stranger walked up to Jabeg’s campfire, a longsword sheathed at his waist. “Good evening,” he said. “Mind if I join you?”

Jabeg’s blood ran cold. He glanced sidelong at his sword, which lay propped up against his saddlebags just outside of his reach. He had two throwing knives in his boots, and a dagger on the rock beside him, but none of those were any match for a longsword.

“What do you want?” he asked, his voice low.

“Something to eat would be nice,” said the stranger, grunting at the question. “What are you cooking?”

Both men eyed each other uneasily. The stranger had a beard that was long for a soldier, but short for a bandit. His eyes were a bright, piercing blue, his hair an auburn blond like the men of the Northland plains. Both of his thumbs were hooked over his belt, but Jabeg didn’t doubt that he could draw his sword in a second. The fact that he’d snuck up on the camp unawares made it clear enough that he was not a naïve traveler looking only for food.

“Are you on foot?” Jabeg asked. He carefully withdrew his hand and leaned forward, bringing it within reach of his hidden throwing knife.

The stranger’s eyes narrowed. “Only a fool would travel this road by foot—and with all the bandits, he wouldn’t make it far.”

You didn’t answer my question, Jabeg thought.

“What’s cooking?” the man asked again, nodding to the cast-iron pot hanging over the campfire.

Jabeg shrugged. “Porridge, with biscuits. And a little bit of cheese.”

“I’ve got some more cheese, and a few apples as well,” said the stranger. He reached into his scrip and tossed Jabeg something round. For a fleeting instant, Jabeg’s heart leaped into his throat. He caught it instinctively, though, and found it was just an apple.

“There’s plenty more where that came from,” said the stranger as he sat down carefully on the edge of a large stone. “I could use some warm porridge, though.”

“Go ahead,” said Jabeg softly, holding the apple with a vice-like grip. He decided that if the stranger tried to leave, he would have to kill him. Though the man cultivated an air of friendly congeniality, the glint in his eyes showed that he was not stupid.

“How old were you when you killed your first man?”

The question, like the apple toss, caught Jabeg by surprise. He narrowed his eyes as he considered how best to respond. The wind whistled over the rocky, treeless plateau, while on the southern horizon, the mighty Kevona mountains looked like hoary headed warriors lined up in battle ranks.

“What makes you think I’ve killed a man?”

“Because you’re traveling the high road to Kevsura, alone. If you haven’t killed a man before coming to these parts, then by now you certainly must have to survive so long.”

Jabeg raised an eyebrow. Does that include you, stranger?

“I killed my first man when I was a boy,” he answered, picking up the dagger and using it to carve the apple. “It was the year of the long winter. I hadn’t yet grown my beard.”

“That young, eh?” said the stranger as he withdrew a wooden bowl and helped himself to the porridge. “It was the same with me. I grew up in a village by the seashore. My father was a blacksmith and made swords for the king’s armies. One day, a baron from one of the neighboring cities came to commission a sword. My father made it exactly to the specifications, but when the baron refused to pay, he refused to give it to him. The baron then seized the weapon by force and struck my father down.”

The stranger paused in his story. Behind him, the sun dipped low on the western horizon, painting the snow-capped peaks in crimson shades.

“When I saw what had happened, I challenged the baron to a duel. He laughed and sent his shield bearer to teach me a lesson. But my father had trained me well. I frightened the bearer’s horse and slew him as he fell to the ground.”

“So you’re an outlaw, then?”

The stranger scowled. “When thieves and murderers make the laws, how can a man keep his honor and not become a criminal? The baron sent his men after me, so I fled into the wilderness. In time, I met others who had also suffered injustice.”

Jabeg nodded, careful to maintain an awareness of his surroundings. If the man was supposed to distract him while his friends moved to attack, their plans would be sorely disappointed.

“What about yourself?” the stranger asked.

Jabeg set down his dagger and ate a single apple slice. His senses were so heightened that the sweetness practically exploded in his mouth.

“I come from those mountains,” he said, nodding to the line of snow-capped peaks. Though the shadows of twilight had settled across the campsite, the mountains still shone bright in the light of the setting sun.

The stranger pulled out some cheese and stirred it into the porridge. “Go on.”

“In the mountains,” Jabeg continued, “the laws are handed down to us by tradition, not the petty whims of lords or barons. My sister was raped by a young man in a neighboring clan. I was just a boy, but I slew him while he was working in the fields, together with two of his friends.”

“You killed three men as a young boy?”

“Aye—though in truth, they were all cowards who would rather run than fight. I struck the last of them in the back as he fled. If they had stood against me like men, the outcome would have been very different.”

“So what did you do afterwards?”

Jabeg sighed. “Because I had killed three men, I had incurred a debt of blood that could not be ignored. To prevent a feud war, my clan married my sister to her rapist’s brother and threw me out as an exile. My sister gave birth to a son and killed herself shortly after.”

“A bitter story,” said the stranger. “Bitter stories for bitter times, eh?”

Jabeg didn’t answer.

The wind grew stronger as the sky grew darker. Jabeg resisted the urge to throw more fuel on the fire, knowing that on the bare, stony ground of the Kevonan foothills, the light would mark the position of their camp for miles. Instead, he let the embers slowly die, pulling on his cloak to stave off the stiff wind. The stranger did the same.

“What is your name?” asked the stranger.

“My name is for my friends.”

The stranger nodded slowly. “You are a cautious man.”

“It is a trait that has served me well.”

Off to the right, the grass rustled. Jabeg’s heartbeat quickened as the crickets stopped singing. His had slowly slipped to the knife in his boot.

“Did you hear something behind me?” the stranger asked.

“What?”

“If I’m not mistaken, they’re surrounding us as we speak,” he said in a calm, unhurried tone. “How quickly can you get to your sword?”

Jabeg frowned. “I—”

“The moment we stop talking is the moment they strike. Are you ready?”

Sweat trickled down the front of Jabeg’s face. He leaned forward, resting his weight on the balls of his feet.

Is he lying?

“I’m ready,” he said softly. The dying embers glowed red, causing the twilight shadows to dance.

A clattering sound of small rocks behind him made him dive for the ground. He rolled, and an arrow lodged in the earth immediately in front of the rock on which he’d been sitting. The stranger rose and drew his longsword, while Jabeg spun and threw the knife in the direction indicated by the arrow. A scream in the darkness was followed by the shouts of at least a dozen warriors.

Jabeg wasted no time. He ran to his pack and grabbed his scabbard just as movement blurred to his left. With the sword still sheathed, he blocked a heavy blow that sent him stumbling. The shouting was everywhere now, behind him and in front. The ringing clash of blades told him that the stranger was already engaged in the work of death.

Another blur, this one to his right. He blocked a blow with the scabbard, ducked beneath the second and quickly drew the blade. Before his attacker could recover, he plunged the sword deep into his stomach, twisting it once and grabbing the man by the throat. His dark eyes bulged in shock as Jabeg used his body to shield the next attack. Two blows struck the man’s back with the same dull thud of an ax striking a tree—his comrades were slow or stupid, or perhaps a little of both. Jabeg grinned.

“To me!” shouted the stranger, a hint of desperation in his voice. The ringing clash of steel sounded off to Jabeg’s rear. Wrenching his sword free, he leaped and parried a blow before sending a riposte through the attacker’s throat. The young bandit gurgled and fell to the ground, choking on his own blood.

“I’m here,” said Jabeg, risking only a brief glance to confirm that the stranger was indeed behind him. “Keep your back to me, and—”

An arrow shot past his ear, nicking his skin and making his arm spasm. A second archer—how many bandits were there? He parried another blow and forced the attacker back before dropping to his knee.

“Turn right!” he shouted. Switching his sword to a reverse grip sinister, he retrieved the second throwing knife and spring to his feet. He deflected a blow and caught sight of a figure standing on a boulder above them. The throwing knife left his hand, spinning through the air. Moments later, the archer toppled backward without a sound, his bow clattering on the rocks.

As quickly as it had begun, the attack ceased. The few remaining bandits melted into the shadows like frightened strays. Jabeg pursued and slew two of them just a few short paces from the camp, while the stranger chased another in the opposite direction. A cry cut short by the sound of steel plunging into flesh told him that the stranger’s blade had struck true.

Jabeg’s hands shook and his knees quivered, but long practice in the craft of war had taught him mastery over his own body. He drew a long breath and wiped his sword clean on th shirt of the nearest dead bandit, mentally taking inventory of himself. His arms, his legs—everything seemed fine. His ear was scratched and a thin trickle of blood traced a path down the back of his neck, but the wound was inconsequential. He was live.

How many did we kill? he wondered, surveying the scene. The sky was fully dark and the moon had not yet risen, so it was difficult to count the bodies—and harder still to recover his knives. The second archer lay not far from him, but the first was some distance away, and between them were at least half a dozen dead or dying men. Their groans grew fainter until there was nothing but the cold, empty stillness of death.

“We’ll have to move camp,” said the stranger, breaking the terrible silence. He walked up to Jabeg and sheathed his sword. “The wolves will be here as soon as they smell the blood, and that won’t be too much longer.”

He could have killed me, Jabeg realized. With my back to him, the opportunity was clearly his.

“You fight well, stranger,” he said. “I am indebted to you.”

“As am I, which makes both our debts fully paid.”

Jabeg chuckled and extended his hand. “My name is Jabeg. What’s yours, friend?”

“Lucca Argonadze.”

They clasped arms and turned to the task of breaking camp. Far off toward the snow-capped mountains, a wolf began to howl.

* * *

Joe Vasicek fell in love with science fiction and fantasy as a child when he read The Neverending Story, and hasn't looked back since. He is the author of more than twenty books, including Genesis Earth, Gunslinger to the Stars, The Sword Keeper, and the Star Wanderers series. As a young man, he studied Arabic at Brigham Young University and traveled across the Middle East and the Caucasus. He claims Utah as his home.

What advice do you have for other writers?

When you first start out, you feel like you’re bushwhacking: pushing through a thick jungle without any idea where you are or where you’re going. You’re lost and discouraged most of the time.

As you start to learn the rules of writing (or publishing), you feel like you’re on a well-defined trail. It’s a lot more comforting now because you have a sense of direction. At the same time, all you’re doing is following a trail that other people have set before you. You can only go where the trail goes, and never quite know what you’re missing out.

As you master your craft, you start to experiment with new things. In other words, you start to venture off of the trail—never so far that you can’t come back, but far enough that you start to find other trails that lead to different places. You also catch glimpses of places that aren’t on any trail at all.

Finally, you become a trailblazer. You’re confident enough to try new things and leave the trail altogether. Instead of following what others have done, you’re making a new trail for those behind you to follow. You may invent a new sub-genre. You may develop a unique and compelling voice. You may find a new way to publish, and become extremely successful with it.

To the novice writer, it doesn’t look like there’s much of a difference between bushwhacking and trailblazing. But to get to that final point of mastery, you have to go through all the other steps first.

That’s the best writing advice I’ve ever heard.

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