The Tale Of Just How Ester Acquired Last Laugh
As recounted by Krantaris McCarthy Ravenscroft




We were shopping for a sword for Ester when it started raining. Normally, every student at the academy gets the weapon of their choice after their first year, as part of tuition. While we don't use it to spar, it is necessary for certain formal occasions and one-man weapon drills. It is presented to the student at their first-year ascension in a lovely ceremony that celebrates their making it through their first year, and commemorates their increasing skill at arms and so forth. Ester's first-year ascension was fast coming up, and she still had no sword.
Since I was Ester's 'big sister' at the academy, part of my task was to prepare her for such things. I had taken her to the academy weapon smith, where most of us get our weapons, but he had been no help. The moment he saw Ester's shadow darken his doorway, he suddenly remembered several other pressing tasks elsewhere. As much as it irritated me, I could understand his position. The two-handed sword is a difficult weapon to make well; with a blade that size, small imbalances can easily combine to make the weapon unwieldable. And, of course, a two-handed sword to match Ester's mass...
Perhaps this is a good time to remind the reader exactly HOW big Ester is. Saying Ester is simply big would be inaccurate. Ester is HUGE. It is nearly impossible to comprehend her size unless you've met her; for that matter, even I am constantly surprised if I run into her unexpectedly, and I've known her for a year. The closest thing that can come to it is: Do you remember that bully you knew as a kid? Bigger than everyone else, and used to beat you up for fun? Well, Ester is to a normal-sized person as that bully's FATHER was to you. Standing seven feet tall and weighing almost twenty stone, she makes priests of Azkal seem diminutive, she looks warhorses in the eye, but she couldn't pour water out of a boot that had instructions on the heel. Brave men often tremble when presented with Ester's particular combination of awesome destructive power and cheerful lack of intelligence.
After several hours of trudging, with Ester padding docilely along behind me (providing shade), I was ready to give up. And then it started to rain. Buckets.
We were forced into a nearby tavern, The Hanged Man. Rather, I should say *I* was forced in, and Ester followed me. Although Ester does seem to know enough to come out of the rain; it just doesn't seem to bother her much. Oh well, I thought, at least I can get a drink.
This was definitely *not* a respectable place. Half the people in it seemed like they would be joining the company of the man pictured on the tavern's sign, and the other half were busy serving them alcohol. Fortunately, I didn't have to ask Ester to watch her purse (we really didn't trust her to keep her money safe off-campus) but I made sure that I had more than half an eye on mine. Feeling the back of my neck prickle, I went up to the bar. It *was* raining, and I wanted a drink, damnit.
The bartender flicked me a quick glance, in between cleaning his fingernails with a stiletto.
"Get you a glass of milk, little girlie?", he smirked.
Damnit, stupid oppressive patriarchy. I was about to let him know where he could shove his glass of milk, followed by his stiletto, when Ester loomed up to the bar. I always enjoy the look on people's faces when Ester comes up to them for the first time and they see her just keep getting bigger and bigger...
I was not disappointed. He didn't drop the stiletto, but he did stop cleaning his nails.
"I'm hungry, Kris," complained Ester, "Can we eat now?"
I smiled. Some people say that men can't understand anything not directly connected to their codpiece, but I find a naked show of force works every time. Ester usually fits the bill. "My companion and I desire viands and refreshment. What is the, " I looked around at an establishment most likely chosen for matters other than the culinary, "...special of the house?"
The bartender continued to stare at Ester in something like religious awe. "Sausage. Or chicken dumplin's. With bread an' cheese, and gooseberry pie if it's not gone off." "My companion will have the sausage and dumplings; I will have simply bread and cheese. Oh, and a pitcher of ale, two mugs. Good ale, the stuff you have when you think no-one is looking."
Not taking his eyes off Ester, he was somehow able to still grab the coins before they hit the bar. I strode off, with Ester trailing behind, to one of the cleaner tables near the door. Mysteriously enough, all the tables in the corners facing the door seemed to be taken by hooded men talking in low voices, but the vaguely well-lit tables near the front windows and by the door were empty. Which suited Ester and I fine; I, at least, wanted to be able to get a better look at the food before I decided to eat it.
My fears were confirmed when a greasy man of uncertain hygiene brought our plates. I hoped his duties took him far from the kitchen, as I dunked some of the stale bread into a mug of ale. Ester dug into her meal, unconcerned that it was impossible to tell which was "dumplin's" and which was "sausage". Fortunately, the ale was at least mediocre and only slightly watered. I nursed it as I thought about what to do next.
I could have sworn that we had walked to every smithy, store, or curio shop that I had ever heard or read about during my four years at the academy. I was out of options, and Ester needed a sword for her first-year ascension. I suppose that a normal two-handed sword would have serviced, but tradition holds that a student is supposed to use that weapon until graduation, if not beyond. And we do sort of get attached to them; they make a big deal of presenting you with your weapon and telling you that a warrior's true weapon is their heart blah blah blah. I just remember how proud I was, after a year of just using practice swords, to finally wear a good blade at my side. Ester may not be much for conversation, but I had sort of got attached to her. I wanted her to feel just as proud on her day as I did on mine. Getting her a weapon that was too small for her was out of the question, I felt, but what else was there to do?
As I was musing these things, I noticed a bit of commotion at one of those tables in the back. Ester must have noticed it too, because she was up and out of her chair before I had a chance to stop her. Cursing, I went after her, but I knew I wouldn't be able to reach her before she did what Ester does best - start bar fights.
All right, she doesn't really start them. She just can't stand to see people getting bullied. So if she can't stop them by just walking up and looking mean, she stops them by getting involved personally. Which usually ends things rather quickly and spectacularly. With minimal property damage, I might add; making her a very popular customer at The Drunken Swordsman, the academy hangout. In this case, however, things could get complicated. I've never seen Ester lose a fight, but this was not your regular bar crowd. Things could get ugly.
I caught up to her as she was going into "intimidation mode". Ester has a talent of being able to remind people exactly how big she is; she kind of looms over them and flexes a couple times for good measure as she asks them if they might rather just have another drink of ale and go home. Most people do.
This guy didn't. Although, to credit his intelligence, he looked rather less happy about what he was doing.
"Oh, there's no problem *here*. Me and my friend, " he indicated a double-chinned gentleman being strong armed by another man, "...we're just going outside for some air. With my other friends. Got a problem with that?"
Two other men sat nearby, one with the uncomfortable expression consistent with threatened penetration with a sharp, possibly poisoned, object. Sleazy, here, apparently wanted to take Chins outside for a...business meeting. With the persuasive forces of thug one, while thug two handled the bodyguard, this would probably be a...hard-hitting discussion. The strength of their argument would convince Chins that he, if nothing else, had chosen the wrong scum to traffic with. Based on the lack of stir this interaction was causing, this did not seem to be an unusual occurrence at the Hanged Man. Indeed, Sleazy had probably paid off the bartender and possibly manager for the chance to discuss business 'personally' with his client. It seemed like a good time to be elsewhere, and let these gentlemen of business settle matters among themselves.
Apparently, Ester did have a problem with that. Before I could open my mouth to suggest that we leave, her huge hand was around Sleazy's scrawny throat, lifting him up toward the smoke stained ceiling. Then, almost casually, she drew her arm back and hurled him at the back wall. That done, she turned her attention to thugs one and two. Their respective charges had taken this opportunity to sprout various pointy bits, so, that when faced with the two previously restrained gentlemen who quite possibly held hard feelings, and an oncoming Ester, the thugs opted for the better part of valor. As they exited through the back, they passed by the tavern bouncer dragging away Sleazy's protesting form; apparently, forced abductions were allowed, but not when they degenerated into brawls.
Ester went off to talk with the bartender. Probably to apologize about how our little discussion had gotten "out of hand".
"My lady, " husked Chins, who had recovered his equilibrium remarkably quickly, "I would like to thank you and your noble companion for most altruistically coming to our aid. We would be honored if you joined us for our meager repast, which was so rudely interrupted."
Chins's voice escaped his throat like steam escaping a kettle. "Uh, we were just leaving..." While Sleazy's dislike of Chins spoke well in his behalf, I felt much out of my depth.
"Tut tut. I would be much disgraced if I allowed such a deed to go unnoticed. Otherwise you might leave thinking my companion and I quite mannerless, and you would be unable to sample the true cuisine of this remarkable establishment. Ah, but I see my savior has returned -- please, allow me to thank you, young lady!" Ester, seeing that I was not at our table (and, moreover, in the confusion, our plates had been removed), had come back to look for me.
He held out a pudgy, beringed hand to Ester, who accepted it and pumped more gingerly than was her wont. She bent down to whisper in my ear, (Kris, did this guy say he was going to buy us lunch?) (Ix-nay on the unch-lay, Ester), I muttered back. The weather outside suddenly didn't look so bad.
Chins lifted his bulk out of his seat with surprising grace, and gave Ester a brief bow. "Young lady, you have prevented my companion and I from considerable grief. I am the Duke Frederick, and this is my faithful companion, Jeeves."
"Oh!" said Ester, attempting to bow back. "Uh, I'm, uh, Ester. And this is Kris."
I inwardly groaned, imagining my mother's face if she knew I was being introduced to nobility in this way. Avoiding entanglement with representatives of the underworld was one thing, but offending a nobleman was out of the question. Executing a proper bow, as was proper for a lady when wearing a sword, and extending my hand to be kissed, as was proper for a lady under any circumstances, I performed the proper introduction.
"Begging your pardon, Duke. I am Krantaris McCarthy Ravenscroft, senior student at the Academy. May I introduce one of my fellow students, Ester Oxshoulders."
Planting a dry kiss on my palm, the Duke hopped back onto his seat. "Then you will be joining us? Most excellent. The company of two ladies of such bearing and skills will be welcomed, especially in light of our recent altercation with some of my more unsavory business partners. Jeeves, if you could ensure us adequate victuals and drink?"
Jeeves unfolded himself from his chair and strode off for what I hoped was a productive conversation with the cook. The Duke and his manservant were an interesting study in contrasts. Jeeves was tall and spare, with sharp features that seemed carved out of stone (and might well have been for how much they moved). The Duke, on the other hand, seemed constructed of freshly risen dough, glazed with the oily sweat that so many men of weight seem to have. His face was animated; his chins fairly danced as he explained his previous exploits with Sleazy & Co. And unlike many men who tend toward excess in their food and drink, his eyes sparkled with intelligence.
"--quite a small Dukedom, really, but we call it home. Jeeves and I have been making inroads in the shipping trade; quite difficult to do from a landlocked Dukedom such as our own. We have aligned ourselves with certain interests, for which we provide financial backing and managerial support. Regrettably, we have suffered certain setbacks, necessitating my dealing with elements of a distasteful and rather unforgiving nature."
Ester nodded blankly. She brightened up when she espied one of the cleaner serving wenches in the company of Jeeves, both bearing laden trays. My nose detected food of quality so far surpassing our brief luncheon that I doubted it came from the same kitchen. The Duke produced a battered leather coin purse and dumped its contents on the table; a small handful of golds and silvers. He sighed. "They just don't pay muscle like they used to." He tossed the purse aside and flicked a coin at the wench, who made a show of making it disappear into her ample cleavage. Apparently the Duke was a good tipper.
The first course was a cream of mushroom soup in a bowl made of bread. The tangy, crispy bread was a fine contrast to the light brown soup containing both the common White Button mushroom but also the more complex (and expensive) Ogre's Ear and Fairy's Seat varieties. Ester was given a proportionately larger serving, for which she eschewed her silverware and drank the soup directly from the bowl. She consumed the bowl with similar gusto, washing it down with a pitcher of rich ale that had been given her. The Duke and I shared a fine red wine which Jeeves poured for us.
"My goodness, Lord Duke, but isn't this a Tonn red?" I was now thankful for the tedious lessons my mother had given me in the recognition of fine foods and wines.
"Delicious, isn't it?" His eyes twinkled as he daintily wiped his mouth. "I find that Tonn red complements a variety of foods."
I could see Ester sucking the remains of the soup off her fingers. She looked at me, guilty, and carefully wiped them on the napkin tucked in the front of her shirt.
"I am simply amazed at the change in quality of the food here."
"Me too." Ester chimed in. "This soup was even better than my mom's."
The Duke chuckled, as he nodded to Jeeves to bring the next course. "The Hanged Man caters many types of businessmen. It has the ability to cook for the common , as well as the more...discerning palate."
"I suppose the more gold you have, the more discerning your palate becomes?"
"Certainly, my fair lady!" I was definitely getting used to being flattered. I had forgotten what it was like dealing with men whose interests reached beyond drinking and fighting.
The Duke continued, as the second course arrived, "But it is just as true that the APPEARANCE of wealth and breeding might tip the scales in your favor. And, unlike other, more conventional inns, it is very obvious when you are not getting top-level service. Not to mention the business opportunities unique to this establishment."
The second course was a pork loin, the outside crispy and seared, the inside dripping with juice. The meat was tender and fragrant, with a hint of herbs. Occasionally, one would encounter a clove of garlic that had been inserted into the meat while it had been cooking. Ester was given another loaf of the tangy bread to sop up the juice, and another mug of ale. The Duke and I continued with the Tonn red.
Although Ester had again been given a portion proportionate to her size, she rapidly out paced the Duke and I. The Duke engaged her in conversation, presumably to distract her until the next course. I suppose he thought that she would go after his meal next, after the speed and enthusiasm with which she devoured hers.
"So, young lady, what brings you to this fine establishment?" It was obvious that Ester was not used to being called 'young lady', and it took a few moments for her to realize that he was speaking to her.
"Oh. Well. We're looking for a sword, but we can't find one." I felt the need to elaborate.
"Ester is about to finish her first year at the Academy, so it's time for her to choose a weapon. Unfortunately, she has chosen the two-handed sword, and we haven't been having much luck finding one of the right size."
It was an understatement, but I didn't want to go to far into the details. I felt the unladylike urge to swill down a glass of the Tonn red just thinking about it.
"I entirely understand. Due to the presence of the Academy, Geston has become known for its many skilled weaponsmiths. But it seems that whenever one needs something slightly unusual, one might as well be in Farmington." I nodded, my palms itching to pour myself another full glass of the Tonn red.
"Yes, well, I suppose we'll keep looking until we find one".
"But you said you had been to every weaponsmith in town..."
"Yes, well, it certainly seems that way." I laughed, trying to change the subject. I had been enjoying the dinner and preferred to continue enjoying it, and not think about resuming our fruitless search.
"My lady, from the look on your face it seems to me that you have been to every weaponsmith in town, with no luck whatsoever. And why?" The Duke waved his knife for emphasis. "Because a discerning buyer of weapons deserves an artist, not some sooty tradesman."
Ester wrinkled her forehead. "Hey, my Da's a sooty tradesman..."
"And, I am sure, a brilliant one at that. But when one is looking for an unusual weapon, a special weapon, a weapon of *quality*, then one needs a man with a rare, mad, genius."
My interest was certainly piqued. I was beginning to feel that we might need the help of a madman to find Ester's sword. At that moment, Jeeves returned with the next course: a plate of fresh summer fruits with a selection of cheeses. "To cleanse the palate", said Jeeves, glancing at Ester.
Creamy, mild, pungent and sharp, the cheese was complimented by dark bread sliced thin. There were sweet, pastel colored melons, crisp red apples, and dark purple hillberries. Jeeves replaced the Tonn red with a dry Istur white.
"What does an artist know about swords?" I asked, nibbling on a wedge of Farmington cheddar. The Duke raised his glass and winked at me. "Well, take yourself, for example. You sword may be well tempered and balanced, but it isn't the right weapon." I raised an eyebrow. "Let me show you -- give me your hands."
I figured if he was flirting, it was pretty benign. And it was true, we had been to every weaponsmith in Geston. He flipped my hands over, running his fingers over the calluses. I was surprised to note that his hands had calluses as well.
"Now. Here I see that you are a woman with beautiful, long, slender fingers. But when I see your sword, it has the same stubby grip all of them have; made for ugly men with broad hands. Moreover, your weapon is balanced for a man who would use mostly the strength in his arms and shoulders. Not to mention that this seems to be a standard issue infantry sword; I expect your fighting style is probably much more imaginative."
"Are *you* that 'rare, mad genius?" I asked, looking at him over the rim of my glass.
"If only that were true. I would flee the world of business and immerse myself in my art. But I know a man under the docks who does amazing work. I believe he would find the challenge of creating a sword for your friend sufficient recompense for his time and effort."

***


We agreed to meet at the Rising Phoenix riverdocks two hours before sunset. Ester was to bring her practice sword. She was so excited, she kept looking at the sun and asking me if I thought we should leave now. I myself had more reservations, but having exhausted all other options, was willing to take a chance.
The Rising Phoenix dock was used mostly by spice traders up until ten or fifteen years ago. Trade routes had inexplicably shifted, leaving the Rising Phoenix a shadow of its former glory; only the desperate and the criminal used her now. Consequently, the neighborhood in that area left quite a bit to be desired; I feared more that we would be murdered or kidnapped than simply mugged. We both wore armor, tolerating the extra weight in the sticky heat mostly for its intimidation value.
Ester, as always, was an imposing figure. Towering above me, her chain adding additional bulk, I hoped she would scare off all but the most desperate. If not, her practice sword was a deadly weapon in its own right. I, in turn, kept my eyes open and one hand on my sword.
We welcomed the shade underneath the docks, with the smell of tar and the creaking of the tethered boats. Pausing to let my eyes adapt, I spotted the door under the dock that Duke Frederick had spoken off. I nodded to Ester to knock on the iron-banded portal.
A peep-hole appeared, revealing the taciturn eyes of Jeeves. After what seemed an eternity of unlocking, the door creaked open to admit us. To another door, apparently as festooned with locks as the first.
Jeeves was almost done re-locking the first door when we were welcomed by a happy Duke Frederick. "My dears! So glad you could make it to this out-of-the-way meeting place! I hope that it will be well worth your trouble. Come! Set your things aside and meet the artiste himself: Marmot Sirs!"
The man who appeared to answer the introduction did not appear to merit its effusiveness. A scrawny, little hunched man, who, when he moved, reminded me of nothing so much as a demented spider. First, daring to come no closer than Duke Frederick's side, he bobbed and nodded at us, punctuating his movements with muttered phrases.
"Oh, yes, yes, very big, very big..." Sirs turned from the Duke to us in a series of birdlike jerks.
"Now, my good man, when have I ever steered you wrong?" The Duke threw a friendly arm around the twitching Sirs. "But let us not be impolite -- please welcome these two fine ladies into your studio."
The Duke, leading the twitching Sirs, indicated a spot where we could leave our things. As always, I felt a slight floating sensation after divesting myself of my mail and helm. The dank air was cooling, and it was a welcome opportunity to adjust my sopping undertunic into a slightly less uncomfortable set of wrinkles. After some thought, I removed my mail's padding as well, but rebuckled my sword around my waist; compromising between safety, comfort, and the demands of etiquette.
We followed the Duke's voice into what was apparently a workroom. The Duke was installed comfortably in a leather armchair, Jeeves was offering him refreshment from a dewy pitcher. A simple assortment of grapes and cheeses rested on a table beside him. Sirs paced back and forth nervously, looking in various boxes like a bird looking for seeds. The walls of the room were covered with intricate drawings of human figures in motion, holding various weapons. Crabbed notes filled the margins, with looping and spiraling arrows almost obscuring the figures themselves. And, of course, on shelves and in boxes, were unfinished objects of various degrees of weaponness. A thick blade with a looped handle was obviously a weapon, while the gracefully curved stick next to it was less obvious.
Duke Frederick bade us seat ourselves, as Sirs scuttled out of the room on some unknown errand. I gratefully accepted a goblet of wine and juice, drinking deeply and letting the cool glass rest against my forehead. Sirs was laying siege to a bemused Ester with a variety of arcane measuring devices. Jeeves had handed her a tankard of drink and she was vainly attempting to maneuver it past Sirs' flailing limbs to her mouth.
"Oh yes, oh my, very big, yes..." Sirs muttered. Abruptly, he stepped back and began frantically scribbling on a scrap of parchment. "oh yes -- I'll need the big anvil, and -- Seth! SETH!!! Where is that boy?"
A sooty young man walked in, wiping his hands on a leather apron. I would have called him large if I had not known Ester, but he was certainly respectable. Solid as the anvils he most likely worked upon, his squared-off face had an air of unshakable tranquility. "You called, Master Sirs? 'scuse me, Ladies, Duke"
Sirs, too distracted to maintain a good rage, rushed up to the young man, grasping him by the elbows "Oh this is MOST exciting! We'll need...we'll need...Well, first of all, I'll need you to take notes for me..." I was soon lost as matters became more technical.
The Duke leaned over to me. "Marmot Sirs is an artist of the first caliber, but not the most...stable of individuals. He was finding it difficult to hold on to a good apprentice until I happened to introduce him to this young man. My good Seth makes sure that the more earthy aspects of Marmot's life are organized...that the rent gets paid, the shop is stocked with materials, that Sirs eats now and then. Consequently, Sirs's output has trebled in the last few months -- he's doing more work than ever before."
"Indeed. And how convenient that is, that you should have found this talented gentleman just as he's reached the peak of his productivity."
"It is certainly true that my motives are not entirely altruistic. As well as a small commission from his sales that I...assist, I have also long been an admirer of his work."
He withdraw a wicked-looking dagger, and presented it for my inspection. "Balanced for throwing, designed for my..." flexing his pudgy hands "...unique physiometry. And with the quality required for a gentleman."
It was a beautiful weapon. The blade was strong and light, the weapon well-balanced with a good heft. I handed it back to the Duke, who swiftly made it disappear.
With assistance from Seth and Marmot Sirs, Ester had stripped down to her underclothes and was going from one fighting stance to another under the direction of Marmot Sirs. Seth had wedged this thick legs under a desk and was preparing to take notes. The quill looked absurdly small in his meaty hand, which stood out as the only clean part of his grimy body so as not to smudge the parchment.
Paradoxically, Ester looks even larger out of armor. After my time at the academy, I've become used to the added bulk that armor gives even to me. When you sees Ester au naturel, you are forced again into the realization that she really IS that big, that all that mass you see is purely her own huge body.
The baron and I moved our chairs back as Sirs led Ester in dynamic drills with her training sword. Even at her level of training, Ester is awesome in action. Like the dogs that harry a bear, you can't quite believe that someone that big can move that fast until that big paw comes out of nowhere, sending them flying. It is a brave man who will stand against Ester in a two-man drill; by now only the seniors dare drill with her. A solid hit from Ester has sent more than one student off to the infirmary; she doesn't get them often, but all it takes is one. After her first month, there were a number of informal pools based on her exploits on and off the training field.
I leaned over to look at Seth's parchment. With sure, unhurried strokes Seth drew Ester as she drilled. His sketches seemed like they were in motion, showing the coiled power in Ester's great legs, the strength it took to hold the six foot long practice blade in a parry -- and, surprisingly, even a quick sketch of her features in each drawing. Her face in each one was suffused with happiness.
Noticing my stare, Seth turned to me, slowly blinked, and said "I draw the faces so I can remember them". He turned back to Ester's drilling, drawing all the while.
"He also plays a mean game of chess".
As Duke Frederick and I talked, Ester drilled, Seth drew, and Sirs hopped about it all, piping like a magpie. Again, I was struck by how pleasant a thing it was to have the sort of conversations that used to drive me to distraction when I was younger. I suppose it was more the thought that I had nothing but those tiresome conversations amid the rustling silks and satins. But now I realized that I had missed them.
The drilling was over. Ester was sweating and blowing like a winded horse. Seth and Sirs rustled through the sketches. Frederick rose and walked to her, bringing the pitcher which she drained in one draft. "Well, my dear young lady, it was a distinct pleasure observing your art" Ester wiped her mouth with the back of her forearm "huhh...you really think so?"
"You have admirable form for one so young. It is clear that you have spent much time in practice" I responded for Ester, as she blushed and pulled her shirt back on "Ester asked for a little bit of extra help with her drills."
"On account of I don't learn so quick", said Ester, climbing back into her padding. I sighed. I was enjoying myself and had lost track of the time, but Ester's great stomach had not forgotten that dinner was served only to those who arrived before the night bell.
"Duke Frederick, Master Sirs, Prentice Seth, you must excuse us. We must take our leave now as evening draws near". I curtsied, offering my cheek to Frederick and my hand to the others as Ester struggled back into her armor.
"My dear, I have had such an diverting time with you and your companion. I count myself fortunate to have made your acquaintance. Seth will send you word when the sword is ready." Seth nodded and waved at us. Sirs, in his impatience to get to work, shooed us out the door with barely enough time for me to don my armor. I heard the snapping of the multiple locks as I finished buckling up. I nodded to Jeeves and Frederick, and turned to go. Frederick grasped my gauntleted hand, his rings clinking against the metal plates. "Lady Ravenscroft, I request the pleasure of calling on you another time."
"Of course, Lord Duke", I felt less than feminine in the creaking armor,
"It would please me to see you again." He gingerly brought the knuckles of my gauntlet to his lips, with a twinkle in his eye.

***


For the next two weeks, Ester drove me nearly to distraction. If she wasn't asking me if I'd heard, she was suggesting we go down to Marmot's shop "just to check".
"Ester, a watched pot never boils."
"What pot?"
"You sword will be finished when it's finished. You've got to learn to be patient."
"How long does that take?"
Finally, I turned to Ester's sword instructor, a blocky Azkalite named Rolf.
"Father Rolf, I must ask you for a favor."
"The gods help those that help themselves, my child. That being said, how might I be of assistance?" He was absorbed in sharpening his sword, a battered-looking thing he called simply 'Cleaver'.
"Ester loves the Great Sword more than anything, and she's been driving me crazy waiting for her sword to be ready. Is there any way you could give her more drills, or something...tucker her out?"
"It would not be fair for me to give extra time to one student. Ester is progressing very well, and needs no lessons outside of classtime." He looked at me from under his brows, and shrugged.
"Not that I wouldn't mind. It is always a pleasure to work with a student of her enthusiasm. However, I am quite busy. There is to be a unarmed combat exhibition for the ascension ceremony, and I have agreed to enter in the wrestling competition. I must be ready." Rolf was newly arrived at the Academy, and, while he did not instruct, was a wrestler of some renown. I was looking forward to seeing him in a match. I sensed possibilities.
"Ester could help you practice."
"It takes more than size and strength to be a wrestler; Ester hasn't even taken the beginning class. No, no, I have been practicing with the seniors, which will have to be enough."
"Ester hasn't taken the beginning class because she started in the advanced class." I was rewarded by a raised eyebrow, and continued: "After she beat the instructor in two out of three throws, he let her out of that and gives her practice time after class. They're considering asking her to assist the intermediates next year."
I had been there, on Ester's first day at the academy. A paladin who had accompanied her to Geston vouched for her wrestling prowess so she had been started in the advanced class. She was the only first-year there, and Vernon had challenged her. Partly to see what she was made of, and partly because if he wiped the floor with her publicly, no one would give him any trouble if he moved her back down to the intermediates. Vernon had been very gracious about his defeat, and for a week was busy trouncing all the troublemakers emboldened by seeing their instructor flattened by a sixteen year old from the sticks. He told me once that week was one of the most enjoyable workouts he'd ever had.
Rolf rubbed his stubbled pate in thought. A slow smile crept over his face, like sunrise in the badlands. "I think that is a solution that will make everyone happy. I will speak with her after practice."
The added practice kept Ester too busy to think about her sword, or lack thereof. A strategic conversation with the kitchen staff gave her a 'snack' after her evening practice with Rolf. Cold meat from dinner, bread, cheese, apples or leftover potatoes, and sometimes a slice of pie -- the cooks loved Ester. After her meal, she would collapse on her bunk, exhausted, with a smile on her face.
Finally, the messenger arrived. Ester was so excited -- she even was willing to miss lunch if we left right away. Making our excuses, we set off again for Marmot's workshop. This time, it was Seth who opened the multitudinous locks and let us in.
Marmot Sirs was darting around the shop, muttering from room to room. He would pat Seth's shoulder each time he passed, like a running marking a lap.
"They said it could never be done -- but we did it Seth, we did it -- they laughed at us but the last laugh is ours -- heh heh -- laughed, they did but we're laughing now.."
He continued on in this vein, as Seth presented us with a large cloth-wrapped bundle. Ester took it gingerly, as if it would break. She was grinning from ear to ear, and as Seth helped her unwrap it, her grin got even wider. She stood there, for a moment, cradling the naked blade, before taking the hilt into her hands. Sirs stopped his pacing and stood by Seth. "My boy my boy we did it!", he whispered, pounding Seth's arm.
Ester stood there, turning the blade this way and that. "It's...it's.." She turned to Sirs, overcome with emotion "It's the best sword I ever saw" Holding her new sword in one hand, she gathered Sirs up with her other to give him a hug. Sirs was only able to get out a terrified squeak before he was engulfed.
It was a beautiful sword. The blade was straight and true, polished to a mirror finish; Marmot's mark was stamped into the metal. The leather wrapping the first foot of the blade had ox horns burnt onto both sides. Not that anyone would mistake Ester's sword for someone else's. It was the largest sword of any type I had ever seen. No normal-sized person could have wielded it -- but Ester was no normal-sized person. And the sword, after all, had been made for her.
"Ester, what are you going to call it?" I was expecting a simple name, 'Biter', 'Hungry' or even 'Big Death'. Knowing Ester, I wouldn't be surprised if she called her sword 'Sword'.
"Call it?" Ester looked dazed.
I sighed. "What are you going to name the sword?"
She looked at me as if I was crazy. I was beginning to think I was. "But it already has a name." I closed my eyes, and begged Soltana for patience. "I didn't know it had a name. What is it's name?"
Ester blushed, and looked down. "Well, I mean, it's okay that it has a name. I wouldn't think of a good one anyway." She took a deep breath and said proudly: "Master Sirs called it 'Last Laugh'"
The room was silent. Suddenly, there was a choking sound from Sirs. Tears were streaming down his cheeks, as he gasped and cackled, slapping his thighs. He patted Ester on the shoulder, trying to control himself. "My dear, I think you've got it. That is it's name. Wait. Wait." Marmot disappeared. Seth turned to us, gave us a brief smile.
Marmot Sirs returned with a glowing piece of metal. With a careful hand, he burnt 'Last Laugh', next to the ox horns. He looked straight at Ester -- it was the longest I had yet seen him stand still -- and said solemnly "This blade was forged with the blessings of Azkal -- may you so use it."
Ester nodded, we all shook hands, and Seth escorted us back to the sweltering underside of the docks. Ester walked gingerly with her sword, going around the pilings with exaggerated care, tipping the sword back on her shoulder as we walked back up to street level. I remember being the same way when I first belted on my sword, but managing to knock over my chair three times out of four anyway for the first month. For the sake of innocent furniture and buildings that wouldn't be able to duck in time, I hoped Ester learned a little faster than I did.
When we reached the dark streets that connected the pier to the city proper, I sensed something was wrong. A hunter in the forest may notice that the birdsong suddenly disappears when a predator is near -- so, in the city, there is a sort of stillness that startles one more than any sound. I paused, nervous, feeling the sweat creep under my armor. There was the scrape of a foot on stone, and half-a-dozen ruffians were upon us.
Ester had managed to back away from the mass, but I was grasped between two of them. I felt cold metal at my neck, forcing my head back. Looking down my nose, I could see what appeared to be the leader approaching Ester with his hands out.
"Now here, lass, there's no need for any trouble, see...we've got your friend here, we just want you to give up that big sharp sword of yours...talk things over real businesslike."
I could see two more of that number, with rope and truncheon, stealthily approaching Ester from behind. Force against me, trickery against Ester -- all he had to do would be to keep talking, with me held captive before her, as his cronies overtook her from behind. Trying to save my life, she would drop her sword, and then most likely they would kill us both.
"Yes, real quiet like, we don't want anyone getting hurt now..." He was mistaking her immobility for compliance. In truth, she was probably still pondering what to do -- no one had discussed hostage situations with her in class.
"Ester, kill him" I hoped I was faster than the fellow holding the knife to my neck.
The leader of the ruffians only had time for a look of disbelief as Ester deftly shrugged her sword up from guard and flicked it down in an overhand stroke, dropping him in the middle of the alley. My captors were so stunned that I had a brief chance to see her recovery stroke fling his body against the wall, as she came at the one on my left. I turned, elbowing with my left and drawing my sword with my right, rushing past Ester at the two behind her. They had collected their wits enough by this time to decide that discretion was the better part of valor and all of profit, and were fleeing towards the piers.
I turned back to Ester. The last survivor was sprinting down the alley, taking his chance to live to rob another day while Ester chopped his buddy in two. I wrinkled my nose as I got splattered with grue by her backswing.
"Ester, you can stop now. The rest ran away. We're going back to the academy now." I patted her on the shoulder, as I would calm a restive horse.
"Oh -- huh -- Okay." Her face was pale, and she was breathing harder than I would have expected for such a brief exercise.
"You did a good job, Ester. Those men were probably going to kill us anyway. They didn't really care if you surrendered."
"I was worried that they might have hurt you. Then I wouldn't have known what to do."
"Do you want to discuss skirmish tactics on the way home?"
"Yeah." She looked a little better.
I handed her a bit of jerkin from one of the cleaner bodies "You better clean Last Laugh off before the blood dries."
"Oh" She wiped the blade carefully. I wanted to leave the alley, but didn't feel it prudent to walk around in public red-handed, as it were.
"Kris?" Ester asked, as I tried to get the worst of the splatters off our armor. "Do you think we could get something to eat before we head back home?"

-- fin




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