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First Sword of All Rome
Act 4: Ernest O’Neal, Under Barrister of the House Equis, First Knights of Christ
© 2023 James LaFond
MAR/16/24
Noon, Caesarsday, Second Day of Sepulcher
The brazen door rang under the hammer of brass that served as the door knocker to the House Equis of New York. In days of Yore a certain heathen chief of the Mohawks had affected the iconography of Nordic heathenry—twas said he was a foundling brat of some Norwegian house. Fire and hatchet scourged this then small settlement, protected by but a few bondmen organized in a weak trainband. The House Equis sent a ship. Off tramped 12 knights. Off flew the head of the hammer wielding chief into oblivion.
That brassy hammer head which Chief Thunderstick had employed to dash out Christian brains, said to have been wrought by some fiendish dwarf of Finland, was then blessed and repurposed as a door knocker, a device that echoed so sinister-like through these hallowed halls. Those brute, brazen caws, like death birds come to battle, Ernest O’Neal had never, in his fifty years of service since his elevation from the gutter not three Sarmation paces [1] from that door, gotten used to.
And here it rang again, beyond his own gritty ken. A victor in six combats, an honored survivor of two more versus rival muneral kind, Ernest remained “too kind by half” according to Chaplain Carr, who had mercifully found for him this legal post, to which he was but barely qualified. His Master Barrister, Jubal was patient in his turn with Ernest’s weak bookery, to the point of retaining his services despite the obvious fact that when Jubal passed, Ernest would not be fit to succeed him and would find himself serving a new, younger Barrister brought in from London no doubt.
Despite his dread of that drear knock, it always and again in this instant, brought out the best in Ernest, who clicked his brass usher heels together [2], looked up over his right shoulder to the awesome form of Rex Born, first and most glorious of their kind, and inquired with one narrow gaze, ‘Shall I?’
The towering, lantern-jawed paragon, shoulders so wide that Ernest ever wondered if he were entirely human, looked down over his medal hung shoulder [3], from under his still blond shelf of brow, captured Ernest with those glassy eyes of winter sky, and grinned, a grin as wide as a dinner plate, his voice rumbling, “Ernie, get your ale-bitten ass to the door.”
Ernest smiled, knowing that his superior in all things but years treasured him like a dear pet, never permitting himself to harm the merely big man of Irish descent in sparring, and looking away from his seduction by alcohol with that ever present grin.
Ernest was 57 years, an old 57.
His Master, the Legate and master of them all other than the Chaplain, was a mere 49 years, yet to show a gray hair upon his head or to have his flaxen locks thin by so much as a strand.
Ernest clicked his heels again and proceeded towards the door, the altar of brands at his back, flanked by that awesome gladiator most merely called The Sarmation. Jubal was away up Hudson Bay on an errand. The Chaplain, his dear soul so worn, would be abed until the Hour of Ascent.
Yet whatever dolt thudded on the great brass bound door of white oak, painted in actual dust of gold, was either hurried or deaf.
The Irishman in Ernest came to the fore, and he fairly bellowed, “Hold ye horses ye ass of a clod, lest I cuff ye simple I will—beggar at the First Door!”
Silence reigned now on the lesser side of that hallowed door.
Rex chuckled like a very god of mirth behind him.
Ernest seized the door handle in his left hand, turned the jury bar in the other, raised it to the lock to his right, and shoved the left hand panel of the door, an act that would take the strength of two normal men, but which Ernest prided himself on mastering one handed, curled his lip in disdain and fixed to unleash his harp of a scourging tongue on whatever waif begged a place among their trainees, and…
…He looked into a bare, branded shoulder, as thick as Rex’s, though not racked as broad and lacking a hand of height. Where Rex was seven feet minus an inch, this knob was six feet and five to Ernest’s short six feet.
A curious gaggle of tiny Jap children sketching upon pads with pencils were infesting the three stairs down to the gutter.
Ernest had to shake his head to clear that weird image from his mind, now fresh for duty.
On that shoulder was scourged a brand that slew the curse in Ernest’s throat, the brand of SPQR and underneath the basket-hilt claymore and spiked targe brand of The House Thrax, commonly known as The Scots. Below that brand, and upon reflecting he had to admit beautifully so, were pressed 5 sword and nimbus brands, forming a kind of flower on the massive bicep of the man at the door, a man who snarled under his breath, held an odd candle can in his hand, and jammed that branded shoulder into Ernest’s chin and knocked him to the floor as he barged surly-and-blast-all in.
A man not easily knocked down, Ernest looked up to see the spiked nimbus of silver on black tunic, vest and pants worn by the offender, set like so many steely stars in a black sky.
“Awe, catch me strokin’ Rex!” muttered Ernest, knowing himself the butt of a brotherly jest and then wincing in shame as his Green Isled anger echoed above among the hallowed rafters of his saving place.
Rex Born answered, as usual with that grin, as the man who had just shoved him down so easily, extended a hand, and the grating voice admitted, “Apologies, Under Barrister. Max Born, of the House Thrax, to demand sacred parley with my fellow son of Rome’s First Whore.”
“No offense, Max,” grunted Ernest as he rose, seeing in the face of the elder of the Brothers Born, that life had been even more unkind than to Ernest. That great chin was thrice scarred, the left cheek twice pierced, the left brow hair whisked away into some arena not to be reattached, the great nose broken not once, but thrice, admitting no air through the left nostril it seemed, a great saber scar running across the forehead that must have blinded the man in that combat, a dent in the shaven head—mostly balded and some shaven to make of the crew cut a barber’s jest—no, three dents, proclaimed helmets battered in with shields and untold damage done to the brain within…
Max would have winced, but apparently owning a mirror, agreed with Ernest’s visual assessment of life’s rough turns, “Yes, Ole Boy, life has been brusk to us both,” then patting Ernest on his back and nudging him forward congratulated him, “Honorable Office ye earned, Ole Boy. Even if I had the brains, I’d lack the patience.”
Ernest clicked his heels and stepped Sarmation wise towards the altar and grinning Rex, noting with some sorrow that the elder of the Adulteress Prodigies of the Sword, limped in the manner suggesting a wrecked knee and a torn hip, literally on his last leg of litigation. [4]
Rex grinned as Max limped, until that less perfected and infinitely more battered giant, slammed the odd candle canister down on the Altar of Oaths, the very altar where the waif of the gutter once and again known as Ernie had pledged a life of service to Christ.
“Rex,” snarled Max, “a damned barleyman in a can? You expect me to stand for an ocular imaging so some Censorious crow may make coin hand over fist from the already poor? You expect me to whore my likeness on the back o’ yer damned pictocan!”
“Max, Max, Brother from another sire, please…” soothed the much better-looking giant.
Max growled like a bear, “Rex, how does one even eat the soup within—what tells we not a need a witch to magic da ting open!”
The official discourse had already broken down. Ernest patted Max gently on the back, a signal to relax, expecting a back hand, but earning merely a shrug.
Rex produced a small metal thing, like a single steel tooth that folded upon itself between his perfect finger and thumb. He then took the can easily in his left hand, pressed the tin gum of the tooth against the side [5] pressed down with the steely fang, pierced the tin can, and began to saw—rather chew—around the top of the can until, finally, the top end of the candle canister, was peeled back like the lid of a round box to reveal barely, beef, carrots, potatoes and gravy within. Rex then grinned, pointing to the contents with a tin spoon he produced, “You see, both of you oafs could feast from this: carrots and potatoes for Ire Ernie and beef and barely for my bastard brother’s highland taste.”
They were aghast as Rex spooned the yummy goodness into his mouth and then picked the can up and drank its contents. He swallowed, grinned his usual mirthy smile, and spread his arms, “The merchant sells the canned food and remits a portion to our funerary fund and we toss these little can openers emblazoned with the brand of our house to the poor tykes before we cut each others’ damned throats!”
Max and Ernest were still speechless, so Rex continued, patting Max on the back, examining his elder brother’s dented and scarred mug with some obvious concern, “Dear Max, when was the last time you actually avoided eating a shield edge or a pummel? There is barely enough of that mug left for our mother in her shameful tower to recognize, if we visited. The residuals, royalties if you will, for your picture on the back end of MY can, will defray your looming hospital expenses lest you beggar your own small chapterhouse with your reckless decripitude. Tiny Japanese slave girls to massage your hurts and receive your love—might dance in silken glee over the money had from standing for a single picture to grace our barleyman can!”
“I will not,” snarled Max. “I demand Holy Trial by Combat.”
“With me?” tenderly asked Rex, pointing to his own heart with his left hand, the right still resting on his brother’s broad, armored left shoulder.
Max simmered, grinding his teeth.
Rex sighed, “I so informed the Chief Industrialist of Agriculture that your answer would be so.”
Max then looked into his brother’s eyes, who winked and drew out a vellum contract, “Signed by My Chaplain, and yes by your Chaplain, and by myself. This is the Writ for Holy Combat I told all you would demand. But Brother, I ask you not to sign, for before me, you cannot stand.”
Max snarled, “Oways wit da fancy words, aye, Bro!”
Holding out his right hand for an ink quill, which Ernest eventually managed to fill with the inked instrument, Max pressed the document down on the altar and labored to print:
M A X T H R A X,
Then, in a brief flourish, Max pressed the quill, which snapped, but was recovered and made an almost florid, cursive X.
Max then glared at Rex as he handed the broken quill to Ernest and Rex said, with some concern, “Jesus, Max, did you even read it?”
Max gritted his teeth stubbornly.
Rex seemed sad, “Those grunts at House Scot, didn’t even learn you up? Christ, Brother, Chaplain Pane even taught Ernie here to read, write and cipher!”
Max was simmering, the teeth no longer grinding.
Rex pointed to the words at the bottom of the contract, an after clause, Ernest could see, and read:
“The above signed to Holy Trial by Combat, is honor bound by House Thrax, to, before the appointed time of combat, report to Pictus Trent, Camera Obscurist of The Manhattan Daily, by
Internment, Breadday, Fifth Day of Sepulcher, to have his likeness preserved for plebe signification.”
Max went somewhat lax in his shoulders and jaw, a tear wetting his right eye, the left eye seeming to be too damaged to cry.
Rex said sadly, “See, Max, you’re on the can after all. Now it falls to my damned part to play Cain’s jealous hand.”
Rex sighed as Max silently turned and limped towards the door, Ernest following, and taking note that Max was using his knob-headed blackthorn riot stick as a cane to support his wrecked right leg.
Ernest hurried ahead of the visitor and held open the door, advising Max, “Max, I’ve spent some time helping in the chapterhouse hospital. The doctor of bones, advises that the cane be used on the opposite side of the hurt leg, that it be let out ahead of the good leg and then when the hurt one lurches forward a third friend leg of a sort is there already for support.”
Max looked down thankfully through his half-wrecked face, switched the stick over to his left hand, and nodded an unspoken ‘thank you’ as he departed the Brazen Bound Gold Door of the House Equis, Chapterhouse New York. The shamblethorn [6] form of Max Born was fairly swarmed by a flock of scribbling Jap Tykes, fairly twittering like doves turned to monkeys, still beautiful with the innocence of morning yet tainted with the likeness of Adam, fallen so far, Ernest thought sadly, from his intended place.
Notes
-1. A Sarmation pace is a stride and a half, as few of the Knights Equis are under six feet and those that are strive to stride in longer paces to maintain this pedestrian conceit.
-2. Ceremonial brass over shoes, without soles, employed to announce the progress of a gladiator towards an official account.
-3. The medals of a gladiator are hung as iron shoulder scales, hooped somewhat like a horseshoe but flat in the way of the scales of the manica gauntlet. As rank is achieved a new medal is added, until finally 7 overlapping plates, each faced with the raised brand of the house were added. These attached to a brass collar and gorget, the gorget worked in the SPQR brand, secured by way of a woolen and rawhide strop [tanned leather forbidden] under the right arm.
-4. Arena combats between members of rival houses to satisfy matters of debt, honor and jurisdiction, are typically called a litigation, being legally binding and contentious examinations of God’s Will.
-5. Readers born after 1975 see the P38 can opener.
-6. An Irish upon Scottish insult related to highlander riot control duties in Old Ireland.
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