Bedtime Stories . One Man's World . The Mispronouncer . Downloads . Support
HUGEPOP!!!Bedtime StoriesOne Man's WorldThe Mispronouncer

Five Inferior Swordsmen

              Of King Maryn’s Twenty Select Swordsmen, Benedict – short, blunt-nosed, and loose-limbed – was Number Fifteen. Which meant he only earned the fifteenth highest salary in exchange for keeping his sword and swordsmanship sharp, but Benedict was content. Even at Number Fifteen, the money was good and practicing his swordsmanship every once in a while was easier than working a trade or, even worse, working a plough for an entire life and then keeling over dead in a field like his father had done. Mary, Benedict’s wife, thought he should practice his swordsmanship more than he did so he would be ready if called upon to serve the kingdom, but the king’s representative who came by once a week to pay Benedict never checked up on his practice schedule and it was hard to stay motivated at Number Fifteen. A special mission requiring superior swordsmanship would surely be given to any of the fourteen Select Swordsmen above Benedict before making its way down to him. The odds of that happening seemed low. Truth be told, Benedict thought twenty seemed like an excessive amount of Select Swordsmen. If he were king, he thought he’d probably stop at five, maybe ten. Or maybe seven, he’d noticed monarchs seemed to like the number seven. Mary said it was because the number seven had religious significance, but Benedict doubted that was true.

               But only a few weeks after the ceremony wherein King Maryn officially recognized his Twenty Select Swordsmen, they started killing each other. Number Six, with his eye on a slight increase in pay and respect, challenged Number Five to a duel. Number Five accepted, and Number Six was slain. Benedict assumed King Maryn would appoint a replacement, but he didn’t. Everyone below Number Six moved up a spot and King Maryn’s Twenty Select Swordsmen became King Maryn’s Nineteen Select Swordsmen. “This is great,” said Benedict. “Now I’m Number Fourteen. I got a raise for doing nothing.”

               “A man died,” said Mary. “A member of your brotherhood.” She was a light-haired young woman with a natural tilt to her eyebrows that made her look sad even when she wasn’t.

               “Well, yeah,” said Benedict. “That part’s bad. But I didn’t really know him. I only met him briefly at the ceremony.”

               A few days later, the new Number Nine tried to make a big jump by challenging Number Three to a duel. Number Three scoffed at the suggestion – he thought dueling Number Nine was beneath him, that Number Nine should have to work his way up through Number Eight, Number Seven, and so forth – so Number Nine attacked Number Three in the street and Number Three slew him. It was also unclear to the other Select Swordsmen what would have happened had Number Nine won. Would he have jumped all the way up to the third positon? Or would everyone still only have advanced one spot? Would he have ultimately only succeeded in taking a more difficult route to Number Eight? The king’s representative told the Select Swordsmen he’d get back to them with an answer, but he didn’t.

               When Benedict received word that he was now Number Thirteen, he passed the news along to Mary with feigned solemnity.

               Mary shook her head as she stirred a kettle of soup on the hearth, her new bonnet concealing all of her profile but for the tip of her nose. “Is this what King Maryn’s Select Swordsmen are supposed to be about?” she asked. “Fighting in the street, killing each other?”

               “No,” said Benedict.

               “What are you supposed to be about?” asked Mary.

               Benedict wasn’t exactly sure. “Not this, certainly!” He hoped the outrage in his voice would compensate for the lack of a real answer.

               “I’m worried,” said Mary.

               “About what?” asked Benedict. He sat in a chair near the hearth putting laces in his new boots.

               “How long before someone challenges you?” asked Mary.

               “But I’m only Number Thirteen,” said Benedict.

               “So?” said Mary. “Doesn’t every higher position offer better pay? What if Number Fourteen decides he’d rather have your salary than his salary?”

               “I don’t think he’d want to kill me over the difference,” said Benedict. “We’re much more peaceful down here in the bottom third.” But he didn’t actually know that to be true. He was only guessing based on his own mindset.

               “You’re nervous,” said Mary. “I can tell you’re nervous.”

               “I’m not,” said Benedict. He was, though. But only a little. The higher-ranked swordsmen were undefeated so far, so if one of the five swordsmen below him were to challenge him, he liked his chances. But he didn’t know how much better he was than the swordsmen below him. Number Fourteen, for example. What if Number Fourteen was almost as good as Benedict, but he caught Benedict on a bad day, or he got lucky and won by a fluke? Benedict decided he would go back to daily swordsmanship practice. But after three days, another thought occurred to him. What if Number Fourteen was practicing twice a day? Or what if his practice session was twice as long? Or what if he did two practice sessions a day that were both twice as long as Benedict’s single practice session? How long would it take Number Fourteen to surpass Benedict’s skill? What if he already had?

               That night in bed, lying on top of a new wool-stuffed mattress in the darkness following the snuffing of his bedside candle, Benedict said, “I’m going to challenge Number Fourteen to a duel.”

               Mary took a long time to respond, usually a sign that she was attempting to master her frustration. “Why?” she finally asked, her question radiating toxic waves of frustration.

               “I need to do it now before he can practice more,” said Benedict.

               “Why don’t you just practice more?” asked Mary.

               “Because I’ll never know if I’m practicing enough to stay ahead of him,” said Benedict. “Better to just get rid of him now while I’m at my most confident in my superior swordsmanship. Then we can relax.”

               “But what if Number Fifteen is almost as good as Number Fourteen?” asked Mary. “But he’s practicing the most of all?”

               “You’re right,” said Benedict. “I need to challenge and defeat all five of the swordsmen below me. First Number Fourteen, then Number Fifteen, who will have become Number Fourteen by then, and then Number Sixteen, who will also have become Number Fourteen by then, and then Number Seventeen, who will also have become Number Fourteen by then, and then Number Eighteen, who will also have become Number Fourteen by then. Unless more Select Swordsmen above me have been killed by then, in which case, you know, bump all the numbers I just listed upward accordingly. Of course, some of the guys below me might kill each other first. Maybe Number Eighteen will challenge Number Seventeen, for example, and Number Seventeen will kill Number Eighteen. That would simplify my life a little.”

               Mary didn’t respond, but she didn’t need to respond for Benedict to know that he had not talked her into sharing his perspective. But she wasn’t one of King Maryn’s Eighteen Select Swordsmen. She didn’t know what it was like.


Finding Number Fourteen wasn’t difficult. All eighteen of the remaining Select Swordsmen lived in the capital city to make it easier for the king to get in touch with them if he ever needed them. And so the king’s representative didn’t have to travel far to pay them. Although Benedict had only met most of the Select Swordsmen once, Number Fourteen – who had been Number Sixteen at the time – had been standing right next to him at the ceremony and Benedict recalled him having a distinct birthmark on his neck. Although Benedict was not very social, he knew that many of the Select Swordsmen frequented a tavern called The Costly Cup where the drinks were indeed expensive, but the prices kept the rabble out. Both previous challenges from one Select Swordsman to another had been issued at The Costly Cup, so Benedict figured that was the place to go.

And sure enough, when Benedict stepped into The Costly Cup from the evening street, he found Number Fourteen seated at a table near the center of the room, the flush of inebriation making the birthmark on his neck stand out even more distinctly. He shared the table with two other men, both of whom looked vaguely familiar. Swords in ornate scabbards hung from the waists of all three men.

Benedict squeezed his way between the crowded tables and through clusters of standing patrons. It was a good reminder of why he wasn’t very social. When he arrived at Number Fourteen’s table, Benedict took a moment to straighten his clothing and adjust his own ornate scabbard on his hip while the three men blinked up at him. Then, in a voice not meant for the rest of the room, he said, “You’re Number Fourteen, right?”

“Who’s asking?” asked Number Fourteen.

“I know you are,” said Benedict. “I’m a Select Swordsman too.”

“What number?” demanded another of the men. He tapped his tankard with a long fingernail. His oily hair hung to his shoulders.

“I’d like to speak to Number Fourteen outside,” said Benedict. “Alone.”

“We’re all Select Swordsmen here,” said the third man, pale and beefy. “What you want to say to Leslie, you can say in front of us.”

Benedict winced. He would have preferred to not know Number Fourteen’s name. And the fact that his name turned out to be “Leslie” made it somehow worse. He leaned close to Leslie’s ear and said, “I want to challenge you to a duel. And I am. I’m challenging you to a duel. I challenge you.”

Leslie leaned away from Benedict and regarded him with bemusement. “Wait,” he said. “Who are you? You’re not a Select Swordsman. I know all the guys below me. Horace here is Number Seventeen.” He nodded at the beefy man. Then he craned his neck to peer blearily at the many other faces gathered in the tavern’s common room. “Let’s see, Jason is here somewhere, he’s Number Fifteen.”

“I’m not below you,” said Benedict. “I’m above you. One above you.”

“You’re Number Thirteen?” asked Leslie. He widened his eyes in an attempt to force them to focus. “You’re Number Thirteen and you’re challenging me? What for? How does that benefit you?”

“Hold on,” said Leslie’s long-haired drinking companion. “He’s challenging you to a duel, Leslie?”

“Is this true?” asked the beefy man, Horace.

Benedict felt the attention of nearby men shifting onto him. “I don’t have to say why I’m challenging you. I don’t have to answer your questions. All you need to know is that I’m challenging you.”

Someone said, “You’re challenging him while he’s drunk and you’re sober? Poor form, sir! Shame on you!”

Benedict tried to determine the speaker but couldn’t. “I didn’t know he’d be drunk. It’s not my fault he’s drunk.” He had actually been initially relieved to see how unsteady Number Fourteen appeared, but he certainly didn’t want anyone else to know that.

Leslie rose to his feet, his chair toppling sideways. “I fight better when I’m drunk. If His Majesty’s swordsmanship evaluators had tested me while I was drunk, I’d be ranked much higher. In the top ten, I’d wager. I accept your challenge. We’ll duel immediately!”

Benedict gave Leslie’s friends an uneasy look.

“It’s true,” said the long-haired man. “He’s better when he’s drunk. I’m Number Seven and we’ve been training together, and when he’s got a few drinks in him, I’d say we’re evenly matched. He might even have the edge. You screwed up, sir.” His grin was oilier than his hair.

“I...I don’t believe that,” said Benedict. “But, uh, you’re right, everyone, I’ll not take advantage of a drunk man. We’ll do this another time. Or not at all, perhaps. I retract my challenge.”

“You’ll not weasel away so easily,” cried Leslie. “I challenge you, Number Thirteen! I’m not an ambitious man, but I suppose with a bit more money, I could buy more rounds of drinks for all my good friends here at The Costly Cup!”

Everyone cheered, even the bartender. Before Benedict could declare whether or not he accepted Leslie’s challenge, he was swept aside in a flurry of activity as the excited patrons began pushing tables and chairs to the perimeter of the common room to create a dueling space in the middle. Benedict thought that he could perhaps slip away amidst the hubbub, but the exits were blocked by many of the tables and chairs cleared from the dueling space. No one seemed to care that this was an egregious hazard in the event of a fire.

Leslie, the gallant Number Fourteen, stumbled into the open middle of the room as he polished off another drink. He tossed his empty cup into the crowd and unsheathed his sword, demonstrating a few erratic practice thrusts. This display garnered more cheers. It was no mystery who the crowd was rooting for. Benedict did not relish the thought of so many people celebrating his demise. Or lamenting his victory. He could refuse to duel, but what then? Would a drunken Leslie pursue him anyway, forcing a confrontation in the street as the former Number Nine had with Number Three? It seemed likely. It seemed certain. “Come on!” shouted Leslie, searching for Benedict in the crowd. “Let’s get this over with.”

“Here he is!” cried someone behind Benedict, and he felt rough hands pushing him forward, tugging at his shoulders and his forearms until he was disgorged into the dueling space. His heart knocked against his breastbone, he tasted acid at the base of his tongue.

“Draw your sword,” said Leslie as he waggled the point of his own sword at Benedict’s scabbard. “As soon as you draw your sword, we’ll begin.” He tried to wink at someone in the audience but couldn’t manage it. Neither eye would cooperate.

Benedict looked at the wall of eager men surrounding them. “Isn’t someone going to officiate? Preside over the duel?”

“No need,” said Leslie. “Whoever dies is the loser. Come on now, draw your sword.” His chin was spittle-flecked in a manner that Benedict had never seen on a man about to wield a sword well. But Leslie was different. Number Seven said so, and everyone else who knew him seemed to agree, seemed to expect a swift end to Benedict. How to approach a duel with a man whose drunkenness made him the superior swordsman? Benedict didn’t know, but his very life hung in the balance.

“What are you thinking about?” asked Leslie. “Draw! Draw or I’ll run you through. No one would hold it against me. You’ve had ample time to draw.”

Benedict believed Leslie would murder him in front of all these people, and he believed these people would support his justification. So he drew.

As soon as the tip of Benedict’s sword cleared its scabbard, Leslie sprang at him with a bizarre overhead chop. Benedict could easily have sidestepped it, but he didn’t need to because Leslie’s sword struck the low ceiling and clattered to the floor. In a panic, Leslie fell to his hands and knees, scrabbling to regain his fallen weapon. Benedict could have killed Leslie then, but he was too shocked. Instead, he took a step back and allowed Leslie to get back on his feet.

“Leslie,” hissed Number Seven. “Your sword’s in your left hand.”

“Shut up!” shouted Leslie, whirling to confront his friend.

“You’re not left-handed,” said Number Seven.

“Shut up!” Leslie shouted again, and he brandished his sword at Number Seven in a way that would have been threatening had he not been holding it so awkwardly.

Benedict contemplated stabbing Leslie through the back – after all, it had been Leslie who had insisted on no officiating of any kind – but he decided the crowd might attack him if he did, so he again held back, thinking about how much he’d regret not taking these two chances at an easy win if Leslie did somehow kill him. Although he was getting less worried about that happening with each passing moment. He was beginning to suspect that Leslie was not, in fact, a better swordsman when drunk.

Having chastened Number Seven into silence, Leslie redirected his attention to Benedict. He shuffled forward with his sword held at an angle no swordsman of any merit would ever advise. Only his confident smile gave Benedict any cause for doubt. Beyond Leslie, Benedict saw that the faces of the spectators had gone cold, still, blank. “Harrgh!” said Leslie. But it wasn’t a battle cry, it was the sound of a small amount of vomit exiting his mouth and spattering the toes of his boots. Still, he advanced. When he was within striking range, Benedict flicked his swordpoint against the back of Leslie’s left wrist, disarming him. This time Leslie’s sword got tangled between his legs and he face-planted on the floorboards, groaning in pain.

“Uh,” said Benedict. “I don’t…I’m not…do you yield?”

“Never!” Leslie bellowed. “To the death!” He flipped onto his back, clutched the hilt of his sword against his chest so that the edge of his blade nearly touched his nose, and then performed some sort of evasive roll maneuver that would not have been effective even if it hadn’t resulted in him cutting his own throat, but it did result in him cutting his own throat, and he died on the floor of The Costly Cup while the patrons shook their heads in disgust.

Feeling a potent combination of confusion, relief, and shame, Benedict sheathed his sword and offered the spectators a helpless shrug by way of explanation. He received no sympathy.

“You’re scum,” said Number Seven. “The lowest of the low.” He gathered his hair behind his head and tied it with a length of black ribbon, revealing small ears. Benedict did not recall ever before noting the smallness of someone’s ears. “What kind of a coward challenges a man while that man is drunk and he himself is sober?”

“I tried to withdraw my challenge,” said Benedict. “He insisted. You encouraged him! Everyone said he was a better swordsman when he was drunk!”

“Give me a break,” said Number Seven. “No one’s a better swordsman when they’re drunk. You know that. Everyone knows that. A child knows that.” He stepped out of the crowd and stood astride Leslie’s body. Looking down with a sorrowful expression, he said, “I will avenge you, my friend.” Then he directed a stern glare at Benedict, rested his hand on the hilt of his sword, and said, “You like challenging Select Swordsmen below you, do you? Then you won’t mind if I, Number Seven, challenge you, Number Thirteen!”

“What, now?” asked Benedict. “You’re challenging me now?”

The spectators, who had begun to lose interest, wandering back to the bar or breaking into groups to discuss the travesty of a duel they’d just witnessed, now returned in force, ready to see justice done.

“Yes,” said Number Seven. “I challenge you! And I assure you, coward, that I am not drunk. I’ve had a few drinks, but not enough to impair me, just enough to make me loose. Just enough so that I’m at my best.

“Now hold on,” said Benedict. “I’m no threat to you. I have no plans to rise through the ranks. I have no ambition at all. All I want is to be secure at Number Thirteen so I can stop practicing.”

“Of course you’re no threat to me,” said Number Seven. “This isn’t about self-preservation for me. This is about punishing you for killing my friend.”

“He killed himself!” said Benedict, embarrassed at the fearful quaver in his voice.

Some men in the crowd laughed, others began to boo and jeer.

“Duel me and die like a man or don’t duel me and die like the coward we all know you to be,” said Number Seven. “Those are your options.”

Benedict tried to think of a third, more appealing option, but he couldn’t. He knew Number Seven would kill him if he refused to fight, but he also didn’t think there was any way he could defeat a Select Swordsman ranked so many spots above him. It would take an extremely fortunate set of circumstances. A miracle, almost. He was grateful that defeating Leslie hadn’t required him to expend any energy, at least, but he didn’t think it would matter in the end. Maybe he’d be able to preserve his life for an extra minute or two, prolonging the inevitable.

With the attitude of one bearing witness to his own final moments from a distance, like from a seat in the back row of the balcony in a vast theater, Benedict drew his sword.


“You’re alive,” said Mary. She sat in her new rocking chair by the fire adding her own embroidery to her new bonnet, which was already pretty fancy for a bonnet. It was hard to read her tone, but it was positive. Not elated, certainly, but maybe that was due to her confidence in Benedict’s abilities. But there was, of course, residual disapproval over him having initiated a duel at all. And she didn’t even know about the second duel yet. Benedict considered not telling her since he knew it would upset her, but no, he had to tell her. It was too incredible to keep to himself.

When Benedict had finished his breathless recounting of the evening’s events, a long-held sigh escaped from between Mary’s lips. “I knew it wouldn’t be as simple as you said it would be.”

“But that’s the thing,” said Benedict. He knelt next to his wife and grasped her forearm with both hands, the tip of his scabbard scraping the floor. “It was easy. I was terrified to duel Number Seven, but I was so much better than him, Mary. At first I couldn’t believe it. I could have slain him almost immediately, but I thought I must be mistaken, that he was trying to lure me into a mistake. But no. No! I really was that much better than him!”

“He’d been drinking,” said Mary. “Maybe he stopped practicing. Like you want to do.”

“Maybe,” said Benedict. “Maybe both of those things contributed. But still, Mary, I was six spots behind him, and it hasn’t been that long since the ceremony. He might have been a little drunk, but no, nothing like Number Fourteen was, and maybe his practice has been lacking, but even those factors combined could not account for the difference in our abilities. It was obvious to everyone. They’re scared of me down there at the tavern, Mary, they all cleared a path for me when I left. No one would look me in the eye.”

“So what now?” asked Mary. Despite Benedict’s torrent of good news, she seemed more worried than ever. And, strange as it was, Benedict shared her concern.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know what any of it means.”

When the king’s representative came by a few days later with his weekly payment, Benedict was shocked by the amount. “Why is it so much?” he asked, fearing the answer.

“You’re Number Seven now,” said the king’s representative, his pinched mouth registering neither approval nor disapproval.

“So when a lower-ranked swordsman kills a higher-ranked swordsman, the lower-ranked swordsman jumps all the way to the-”

“I don’t know,” said the king’s representative. “I’m just doing what I was told. I was told that you’re Number Seven now and to give you this amount of money, so that’s what I’m doing.”

Benedict peppered the king’s representative’s departing back with more questions, but they were all ignored. As the king’s representative passed through Benedict’s front gate and climbed into the waiting coach, Benedict wondered why a representative of the king wasn’t required to have better posture. His hunched shoulders made him appear perpetually petulant.

Mary was also freaked out by the large sum of Benedict’s payment. “Do you think the other Select Swordsmen will find out?”

“I don’t know,” said Benedict. He sat at the new dining room table opposite Mary with the money piled between them. Neither of them had yet mustered the guts to count it. “But if they do, there’s going to be trouble.”

“I know that,” said Mary. “That’s why I asked.”

“I just hope that if they do find out, they’re still too afraid of me to test me,” said Benedict.

“They’re probably all practicing their swordsmanship,” said Mary. “Day and night, all of them trying to get better and better.”

“I doubt that,” said Benedict. He could see where the conversation was headed.

“You should go practice right now,” said Mary.

Practicing was among the last things Benedict wanted to do. He had never loved practicing, but he hadn’t minded so much when it was just about improving his skills, staying in shape, learning new techniques. Now that it was all about preserving his life, practice had become truly onerous.

“Listen, Mary,” he said. “I’ve been thinking. What if the rankings are all wrong? What if they don’t correspond to ability? What if I’m actually the best Select Swordsman?”

“Sure,” said Mary. “What if the rankings are all wrong? And what if that means that the only Select Swordsmen worse than you were the two you already killed, but now you’re sitting in the Number Seven spot with however many superior swordsmen below you wishing they could make that much money?” She pointed to the heap of gold coins on the table with the authoritative finger of an argument-winner.

Benedict went out back and, with a reluctant heart, practiced his swordsmanship for almost two hours. When he finished, he knew – he could just tell – he had not improved at all.


Over the next two weeks, the number of King Maryn’s Select Swordsmen dropped so frequently that the number was also dropped from the title. They were now officially just King Maryn’s Select Swordsmen, and Benedict never knew at any given moment exactly how many of them remained. Word of Benedict’s big jump had gotten out, and as soon as it did, chaos reigned. The duels became regular occurrences. Higher ranked Select Swordsmen defeated lower ranked Select Swordsmen, lower ranked Select Swordsmen defeated higher ranked Select Swordsmen, and it soon became difficult to remember anyone’s beginning rank, not that anyone cared once it became clear that it didn’t matter, had no bearing on the probable outcome of a duel.

Then came the deaths outside of duels. Someone pushed a barrel full of nails off of a rooftop and it landed on Number Four’s head as he passed below on his way to get more ornamentation added to his scabbard. It took him three hours to die. No one was sure how this death would affect the rankings. Would whoever pushed the barrel come forward to make a claim on the Number Four spot? Would that work? Or could jumping spots only happen as the result of dueling with swords? But no one came forward – maybe it hadn’t even been the work of a Select Swordsman – so everyone below Number Four just moved up one spot. Benedict didn’t know if the authorities were making a real effort to solve the murder or not. It was nerve-wracking enough to wake up every day wondering if someone was going to challenge him to a duel without any way of estimating their skill relative to his own. Even worse to worry that attempts on his life by Select Swordsmen might not be confined to duels. And Benedict’s stress levels increased exponentially when someone poisoned several drinks at The Costly Cup and five Select Swordsmen died in one night. On one hand, it was further validation of Benedict’s antisocial tendencies. On the other hand, it was a terrifying testament to how far someone might be willing to go to rapidly advance through the ranks of the Select Swordsmen, and Benedict was not under the illusion that staying home and strictly monitoring where his food and drink came from would shield him forever. And then Number Two got stung by a bee and had such a severe allergic reaction that his puffy features caused an ignorant peasant to mistake him for a demon and kill him with a two horseshoes, wielding one in each hand. It was hard to see how that death could have been orchestrated by a rival Select Swordsman, but maybe it had? Somehow?

When the king’s representative next came knocking, Benedict opened the front door just wide enough to admit him and yanked him inside by his collar. Benedict’s new salary didn’t fit inside of one bag. It was evenly distributed between two bags. “What rank am I now?”

“You’re Number Two,” said the king’s representative, sadly attempting to straighten his stretched-out collar.

“Number Two!” cried Benedict, feeling ill. “How many Select Swordsmen are left?”

“Three,” said the king’s representative.

“Just three!” cried Benedict. His mind reeled. Seventeen Select Swordsmen had died and he was one of the three who remained.

By the time Mary came downstairs to see what all the crying out was about, the king’s representative was gone. Benedict brought her up to speed. “It’s all coming to a head,” he said.

“Why aren’t you practicing?” asked Mary.

“Maybe,” said Benedict, “Number Three will duel Number One, beat him, and then I’ll be able to convince the new Number One that I’m not a threat, and we can just live out the rest of our lives as King Maryn’s Two Select Swordsmen, they can bring the number back into the title because there won’t be any more changes, it’ll just be-”

He was interrupted by someone pounding on the door. “I know you’re in there!” The voice was gruff, brutal. “Come out here and face me, Number Two! I challenge you!”

“I told you that you should have been practicing,” said Mary in a hiss.

“What, for the ten minutes since the king’s representative left?” asked Benedict.

“It would have been better than nothing,” said Mary.

“No, it wouldn’t have,” said Benedict. “I’d just be winded.”

The man at the door kicked it open. The hinges squealed and the door banged against the wall, knocking over a broom. As he stepped across the threshold into Benedict’s house, the man rested one hand on the hilt of the sword hanging from his hip in an ornate scabbard. That hand, like the rest of him, was pale, beefy; this was Horace, Leslie’s friend from the night of Benedict’s duels at The Costly Cup, the Select Swordsman who Leslie had said was Number Seventeen at the time, which meant that he had started out at Number Nineteen, one from the bottom. Not that that meant anything, of course. Benedict had been Number Fifteen, after all, and here he was at Number Two. Not that he’d done much to earn it.

“Are you Number Three or Number One?” asked Benedict.

“Number Three,” said Horace.

“Why don’t you go challenge Number One?” asked Benedict. “If you beat him, I’ll leave you alone. I’ll never challenge you.”

“Challenge Number One?” said Horace. “I’m not suicidal. After I defeat you, I’m going to Number One to tell him I plan on leaving him alone and never challenging him.”

“He’s that good?” asked Benedict.

“He’s the same one who started as Number One,” said Horace. “He’s defeated eight challengers. With ease.”

Benedict wondered if that math checked out. He himself had killed two, plus the two that had been dead before his duels, plus the barrel of nails on that Number Four, plus the five poisoned at The Costly Cup, plus the bee sting incident, plus the three of them still alive…no, eight didn’t make sense. Well, it was technically possible, but Number One would have had to have been involved in all of the other duels, and that couldn’t be right. “Eight doesn’t make sense,” Benedict said. “It doesn’t add up.”

“I’m not here to crunch numbers,” said Horace. His mounting agitation seemed to beef him up even more. “Get your sword and let’s duel.”

“All right, all right,” said Benedict. “But let’s do it out back so we don’t destroy the new furniture.”


Even though Benedict knew – as everyone knew – that the Select Swordsmen’s starting rankings had proven to have no relation to their actual swordsmanship, he couldn’t help but allow himself a bit of confidence because Horace had started off at Number Nineteen. It just wasn’t an intimidating number. And on top of that, he’d been close friends with Leslie and the Number Seven that Benedict had beaten handily, who were two quite inferior swordsmen. It was difficult not to assume that Horace belonged in roughly the same category as his friends.

But that notion was immediately dispelled when the duel began. As Horace pursued Benedict around the small, fenced-in garden behind his house that he grudgingly used as his practice area, it was all Benedict could so to fend off fatal thrust after fatal thrust. Counter-attack was out of the question. Horace was the finest swordsman Benedict had ever faced – probably the finest he had ever seen at any point in his life – and he knew that soon, sometime within the next minute, Horace would kill him. Benedict was using every ounce of his skill just to extend the length of his life by one second, by one more second, by one more second. But why bother? It wasn’t like he was enjoying these final seconds of his life. Why not just drop his guard and let Horace put him out of his misery? All Benedict needed to do was consciously override his instinct for self-preservation, and how hard could that be? People did it all the time. Of course, Benedict didn’t have a very strong will. Perhaps even weaker than average. Certainly weaker than Mary’s, weaker than his father’s. He wondered if his will was weaker than the king’s representative’s will. Did bad posture indicate an exceptionally weak will? He thought it might. He marveled, then, at his mind’s ability to wander even in these circumstances, and then marveled at his mind’s ability to marvel even in these circumstances.

And then Mary appeared in the doorway, stepped into the garden, scurried up behind Horace and jabbed one of her embroidery needles into Horace’s sweaty side. As he shouted and swatted at the prick of pain with his free hand, Benedict slew him.

“You cheated,” said Benedict as he knelt next to Horace’s body and tried to catch his breath.

“Maybe I wouldn’t have had to if you’d practiced more,” said Mary.

“Well, no one really cares,” said Benedict. “It’s just a free-for-all, that’s what it seems like.”

“His wife would probably care,” said Mary.

“You think he has a wife?” asked Benedict.

“You’re not that much better looking than him,” said Mary. “If at all. Some women like a man with more meat on his bones. I’m not saying I do.”


Number One was not at The Costly Cup, but everyone there knew where he lived. A man with a crutch and spicy breath gave Benedict directions. Benedict had thought the patrons of The Costly Cup would be excited by the prospect of a final duel between the last two of King Maryn’s Select Swordsmen. He had thought there would be groans of disappointment when he called for quiet and then announced that he did not intend to challenge Number One to a duel, but rather to propose peace between them, a promise of non-aggression. But no one cared one way or the other. They were sick of Select Swordsmen business. In fact, on Benedict’s way out the door, the bartender told him never to come back. Benedict told him he didn’t intend to, that he hated taverns, and that this one was especially obnoxious, and not because of the drink prices, he understood the drink price thing, that it was supposed to keep undesirables out, but that the tavern was obnoxious for other reasons, it was just an unpleasant place to hang out, an unpleasant place to be at. Having said his piece, Benedict headed for his encounter with Number One.

The house was not in a nice part of town, was not itself nice. It didn’t appear as if Number One had spent any of his weeks of no-doubt substantial earnings on his residence. It was a one-story box with a roof that appeared leaky even from the outside. The front door opened directly onto the muddy, rutted street and the single window was coated with grime. When Benedict calmed his nerves and rapped on the door, it swung part-way inward. “Hello?” called Benedict.

A cart rumbled past behind him and its giant, wobbly wheel missed crushing his heel by an inch. “Hello?” Benedict called again, and he pushed the door the rest of the way open. Late afternoon sunlight cast his shadow across the floor to the base of the sole piece of furniture in the front room, a blocky wooden chair upon which sat a man with his eyes closed and a naked sword resting across his knees.

“You’ve come,” said Number One in a croaking voice.

“Yes,” said Benedict. “But not to duel. We’re the last two, and I’m thinking we should just leave it this way. You’re Number One, I’m Number Two, and that’s great by me, I don’t see any reason to, you know, upset that arrangement. You’re Number One and I’m like your backup, your understudy, however you want to see it.”

“Wouldn’t that be nice?” said Number One. He rose from his chair, catching his sword by the hilt before it could slide to the floor. He wore no shoes and the tops of his bare feet were spattered with old blood. “Unfortunately, it cannot be that way. This was always the intention. That only one should remain. So you must draw your sword. And we must duel, as I have with the twelve who came before you.”

               “Twelve?” said Benedict. “Horace told me eight, and I thought that sounded far-fetched, but twelve, no, the math definitely doesn’t check out.”

               Number One opened his eyes for the first time. “There will be no one to check my math when you’re gone. Draw, sir, and let us end your pedantry.” He raised his sword, and Benedict could tell by the way he held it, the position of his feet, the angle of his shoulders, the tilt of his head, that he wasn’t a very good swordsman.


               The king’s representative wasn’t scheduled to come back to Benedict’s house to deliver his payment for six days, but he showed up the next morning to summon Benedict for an audience with the king.

               “Do I have time to buy some new clothes?” asked Benedict.

               “Yes,” said the king’s representative.

               “Oh,” said Benedict. “Well, I actually think I have something nice enough here.”

“Whatever you prefer,” said the king’s representative, and Benedict could see him choking down his disdain.

After Benedict changed, Mary stopped him on his way out the door. The king’s representative was already in the coach waiting for him. “Make sure you make it clear to King Maryn that you’re going to keep practicing,” said Mary. “That you’re going to stay in top form. That he doesn’t have to worry about you getting complacent.”

“Mmm,” said Benedict.

Once they reached the palace courtyard, the king’s representative turned Benedict over to a fussy man in a tight, one-piece garment of bright green that Benedict would have fought a duel to avoid wearing. This man led Benedict not to the throne room as Benedict had assumed, but through the winding halls of the palace to a smaller, more intimate room where there was another throne, yes, but it wasn’t a throne room per se. Benedict had only ever seen the king from a distance, but up close, seated on this alternate throne and attended by a few servants, an elderly knight, and three members of the royal council, King Maryn looked pudgy, red-faced, and tired. “So you’re the one,” said King Maryn. “The last of my Select Swordsmen standing. The Select Swordsman. Swordsman, singular. With an ‘a.’”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” said Benedict. He bowed. Mary had been on him to practice bowing all morning, and that was before either of them knew he’d be seeing the king today.

“So before we discuss your duties,” said King Maryn. “Do you have any questions? Anything you’d like to know about our process?”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” said Benedict. “What did the rankings mean? Why did I start out at Number Fifteen?”

“Oh, that,” said King Maryn. “We ranked you at random. All the rankings meant was how much you got paid.”

“But the days of swordsmanship evaluation by your own swordsmanship evaluators…”

King Maryn flapped a dismissive hand. “A fraud,” he said. “The only way to evaluate swordsmanship is to have people kill each other, and not many of you would have signed up for that, or not enough of you, anyway. Would you have signed up for that? And yet, here you are. Number One. The Only One.”

“But I wasn’t the best swordsman,” said Benedict. “Horace, at least, was far better than me.”

King Maryn shrugged. “Things happen. Besides, I’m not as much interested in pure swordsmanship as I am in results. You lived and the others didn’t. I like that! That’s what I’m looking for! You’re certainly the superior swordsman now, eh? Now that he’s dead?” He chuckled. “Which I suppose is a good way to transition into talking about your duties.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” said Benedict. “I’m just happy to be finished with duels!”

King Maryn gave Benedict a funny smile. “But my Only Select Swordsman,” he said. “You’re not finished with duels. Far from it! You’ll be dueling more than ever, and when not dueling you’ll be practicing. Practice, practice, practice, something I’m sure you’re already well-accustomed to.”

“But your Majesty,” said Benedict. “More duels? Who? What for?”

King Maryn sighed. “It’s ridiculous. I agree! But unfortunately there’s this custom in all the kingdoms around here. A stupid custom, but one that everyone still adheres to, for some reason. I can’t understand it. Trial by combat? Have you heard of this? But it isn’t just trials, as in legal trials. All kinds of disagreements and grievances get decided by duels. It’s preposterous. But you can imagine – I mean, just look at me, you can probably imagine what caliber of swordsman I am. So when our rival rulers issue challenges to solve various disputes, I can’t represent our interests. OK. That’s established. But most of the other kings don’t represent themselves either. They send a champion on their behalf. Proxies, kind of. Well, I’ve never had a champion. Just, you know, this or that knight, but knights are no good for trials by combat, they aren’t swordsmen, they’re only good for butchery, really, they’re just rich enough to afford decent armor. No offense intended, Sir Buddlet.” The elderly night nodded graciously. “So that’s where this whole experiment comes in,” King Maryn continued. “And where you come in. I obviously don’t need twenty champions. That’s too expensive. I just need one good one, and I need him to be good at doing whatever it takes to win. And that, I think, is you. I mean, you won, right? Yes, we had to speed things up a little here and there, but you outlasted them all, and here you are.”

Benedict stood in despondent silence for several long moments. A lifetime of duels, a lifetime of practice. He discovered that he hated swords, hated his sword the most. Suddenly, he wanted nothing more than to work a plough his entire life before keeling over dead in a field. Like his father. It sounded nice! “Your Majesty,” he finally said. “Who can challenge a king to a duel in order to resolve a disagreement?”

“It’s so ridiculous,” said King Maryn. “So dumb. An idiotic custom. Anyone can challenge a king to a duel for any reason, really. Fortunately, most people don’t know that, or if they do, they aren’t skilled enough swordsmen to risk a duel against even one of my pitiful knight champions, no offense Sir Buddlet.” Sir Buddlet nodded with slightly less graciousness. “Anyway,” said King Maryn. “So you can see why we need you.”

“Your Majesty,” said Benedict. “King Maryn. I request that you relieve me of my duties as your Select Swordsman.”

“What?” said King Maryn. “No. Absolutely not. Are you nuts? We went through a lot of trouble to set this all up. And for you, I mean, come on, it’s great money.”

“In that case,” said Benedict. “I challenge you to a duel for my right to refuse to serve you as your Select Swordsman.”

King Maryn’s eyes went wide, then he drooped in his seat and sighed. “See? This is why I despise this custom.”

“Or you could just grant my request,” said Benedict. “Either way, you lose me as your champion. Why not avoid the violence?”

“That’d made a lot more sense,” said King Maryn. “But it doesn’t work that way.” His smile was quite tight. “I’m telling you, it’s the worst custom of all time.” He turned to the elderly knight and said, “Sir Buddlet, I guess you’re my champion. Go get ready.”

Sir Buddlet nodded and gave Benedict a look that was hard to read, but not fearful.

“Who knows?” said King Maryn. “Maybe there’s an upset brewing. Stranger things have happened.” When Sir Buddlet was gone, King Maryn said, “He was hurt by this Select Swordsmen plan, he was against it from the beginning. He thinks my champion should always be a knight, he thinks they have some kind of mystical connection to me.” The king rolled his eyes. “Anyway, you’re probably going to trounce him, but he has been practicing a lot.

“Practicing like how much, exactly?” asked Benedict.

“I don’t know,” said the king. “A lot.”

Discussion Questions

  • What should you probably be practicing right now?

  • Do you tend to react to those suffering allergic reactions to bee-stings like an ignorant medieval peasant or a citizen of a more enlightened age?

  • All right, if you’re so smart, how would YOU evaluate swordsmanship without making the swordsmen try to kill each other?

  • What’s a conflict in your life that you would be willing to resolve with a duel to the death, and who would you appoint as your champion to either kill or die on your behalf?

  • How predisposed are you to trust an official ranking? And how does your interest or lack thereof in college football influence that predisposition?