A Winter Night’s Duel

BACKGROUND:

The PCs just learned that their archenemies, the Black Hammers, had been in Arianport for weeks or more and had been behind a local smuggling ring to earn a steady income in this northern land. Though the PCs broke up that smuggling ring, the Hammers’ leader escaped, while other Hammers almost killed some PCs by immolation, first in a rowboat and later by setting the smuggling HQ aflame while the PCs were in the basement. Later, the PCs returned to find that the Hammers had also poisoned most of their hirelings and set their hunting lodge and stables on fire, resulting in six deaths and many casualties. One PC, Sir Tomo, rode to the Old Parish Church to get the aid of their friend and ally, Father Johann.

FROM THE DM:

This encounter was the culmination of some building tension between a PC knight and a local duelist, whom the Black Hammers hired to harass the PCs. He finally managed to get Sir Tomo alone. I did not arrange this battle in the snow to be a duel to the death, but the player surprised me in demanding that it be so. He was overconfident until a few rounds into the combat. By then it was too late. Yet, we played with house rules in which armor counts provides damage reduction so this fight was a classic of speed versus power. At the end, each combatant had about three hit points. Everyone at the table was holding their breath during the duel. Any textboxes contain text that I read during the game.

CAST OF CHARACTERS:

Diego de Vargas: Fighter and party leader
Simi Longblade: Fighter, Diego’s right-hand man
Sir Tomo Daegun: Fighter, Diego’s noble friend
Gabriel Lucien: Thief, Diego’s spymaster
Darocles Soterion: Magic User, Diego’s salvage master
Ogedai: Ranger, Diego’s Illuk (think Mongol) ally
Master Holgrim: Duelist

NARRATIVE:

Across town, far from the flames and commotion, in the quiet hours of the night, all was calm and still.  Tomo made his way to the Old Parish Church.

The snow continues to fall, occasionally blasted by icy gusts of wind.  A thin layer of snow and ice has formed on the cold muddy ground.  As you near the Old Parish Church, your eyes are drawn up to the ruined bell tower, now covered in a peaceful blanket of fresh snow.  Cold, eager to be inside, and eager to retrieve the Pastor as soon as possible, you are fixated on the old church doors.  Golden light from two large lanterns bathes the front entrance of the Church.  Even in its ruined state, the place exudes a sense of peace.

For just a moment, you are caught off guard by the low whistle from behind you.  Even before you turn around, you know something is wrong, though you’d be hard put to explain how or what.  Something wicked… something violent… something that clearly doesn’t belong near this Church now addresses you in a mocking tone.  The oily voice does nothing to mask the clear sense of menace.

“The Champion of Righteousness himself, out for a walk in the snow.  You are headed for the Church, I see, perhaps seeking atonement for attempting to sully the reputation of an honorable man?”  

You spin around, your senses coming to full alert. Your eyes frantically scan the darkness.  This crossroads is somewhat off the beaten path, and few townsfolk are in sight.  Across the muddy track of road is the Jashubite orphanage.  A low crude wooden fence surrounds the property, designed mainly to keep animals in the road.  Leaning casually against one of the posts is a dark figure of a man.  Dressed in a dark green cloak, a broad-brimmed leather hat, and a huntsman’s outfit, he stands about six feet tall and weighs perhaps 200 pounds.  He has pale skin, thick brown hair that falls to his shoulders, and a thick matching goatee that seems carefully trimmed.  A longsword hangs from his belt.  

“In the last week, you have done enough talking for both of us.  It is time that you drew steel and gave that tongue a rest.  Do it quickly, for I aim to cut it out and nail it to that Church door behind you.”

The Kuldaran knight, still dressed in full battle harness, drew his sword and advanced slowly on the unarmored man.  “Master Holgrim, I presume.”  The duelist shifted his grip on his longsword, his buckler still hanging from his belt and his dagger still sheathed.  Tomo was first to press the attack.  The duelist quickly sidestepped the first blow and dealt a savage riposte.  It sliced Tomo’s arm, but the armor took most of the blow.  “You are an eager one, Sir Tomoro.  There are formalities to such things.  For honor and professionalism, I face you here, but I leave it to you to name the terms of our duel.  To first blood, to three cuts, or to the death?”

Tomo adjusted his grip and changed his footing.  “To the death,” he replied curtly.  The armored knight charged his foe, but the duelist moved in and out of range, eluding him like a dancer.  Blades clashed back and forth.  Tomo immediately realized that his opponent had more skill than he.  His mind raced, recalling in just seconds his years of training on the sparring field.  A stream of thoughts flew through his mind as he calculated odds, advantages, and disadvantages:  “He’s faster than you.  His attacks come with lightning speed, and his blocks are flawless.  Your advantage is your armor.  Use your advantage, Tomo.  Force the attack and don’t let him move…”  Tomo lunged again, the blades clashed.  Holgrim slipped under a blow, ducked sideways, and thrust his blade into the soft spot near Tomo’s right armpit.  Blood sprang anew.

Holgrim smiled at him maliciously.  “You are sluggish, and your footwork is sloppy.”  The duelist then pounced.  Cut, thrust, parry, riposte.  Tomo grimaced anew as blood seeped from his inner arm and from the back of his thigh.  They closed again, and then again.  Tomo took heart as his stroke cut neatly across Holgrim’s forearm, causing him to wince in pain.  Yet, the duelist whirled, faked left, threw himself to the right, and thrust his blade into Tomo’s waist, just beneath the lip of the breastplate.  Tomo grunted in pain and staggered back, his mind still racing:  “He’s too fast.  You’ll lose this way.  You can’t corner him.  He’s too smart.  He can outrun you too.  How the hell do I immobilize him?”  As the two circled each other, looking for an opening, a thought came to Tomo.  “Overwhelm him with power.  Knock him from his feet.  He can sense that he’s faster, and he can sense that you KNOW he’s faster.  He’s got you trying to play his game, trying to match his speed.  Don’t play his game, Tomo.  Knock him off his feet and then press the attack.”

Tomo stepped back, shifting his guard, feigning nervousness.  Holgrim eyed him up and down.  His eyes narrowed, sensing weakness, and he moved in for the kill, thrusting twice and then lunging for a devastating thrust to the throat.  It never made contact.  Tomo feigned withdrawal but then stutter-stepped and threw his weight forward, swinging his longsword with all his might.  The blow knocked aside the duelists’s blade and cut deeply into his shoulder.  Tomo didn’t hesitate, throwing all his weight forward and dipping his shoulder.  He crashed into his unarmored foe, struck with the pommel of his sword, connected with Holgrim’s chin, and dropped him to his knees.  Holgrim almost lost his sword, but Tomo didn’t wait to see the result.  He swung the longsword in a deadly arc.  Again the blow crashed through Holgrim’s block, this time biting savagely into his shoulder.  Holgrim grunted loudly in pain, and blood began to wick through his tunic.  Realizing his advantage, Tomo was relentless in his attack.  The longsword flashed out again, but this time Holgrim’s blade dropped perfectly into position.  From his knees, the duelist blocked and parried.  His sword tip bit first into the back of Tomo’s thigh and then into the back of his calf.  Tomo grimaced in pain and staggered in disbelief.  “Even from his knees, this guy can strike me at will!”

Trying to keep his advantage, Tomo hacked at his foe with gusto.  Holgrim blocked once, twice, and thrice.  Blades clashed again and again.  Again, the duelist struck home, causing Tomo to stagger back a few feet.  Holgrim rolled free and rose to his feet, the smile returning to his face, despite the blood that dripped down his arm and shoulder.  “You have skill, knight.  I’ll give you that.  But I have bested better men.”  He slipped the buckler from his waist and took it in his left hand.  Clanking the sword and buckler together twice in a mock salute, he advanced on the Kuldaran knight.  Tomo forced himself to focus, and time seemed to slow.  “Ignore the blade and watch his shoulder.  As soon as you pick up the block, knock the bastard down.”  It seemed as if they moved in slow motion.  Holgrim advanced furiously.  A feint, a feint, a feint, and a thrust.  Despite Tomo’s best efforts, it hit home, digging deeply into his other armpit and causing his left arm to go numb.  Yet, Tomo retained his focus.  Despite the pain, he forced his muscles to move.  He whirled his body around, brought the longsword up abruptly, deflected the duelist’s blade, and hacked at his foe.  Holgrim had no room to maneuver, and the blow landed solidly on his collarbone.  Tomo heard the crack and the duelist’s cry.  “You still have a chance,” Tomo told himself.

Tomo felt faint.  His head swam and his limbs were heavy as lead.  Worse, every cut and nick burned like acid.  Every step, every block, and every attack brought pain and irritation. Worse, his left arm was numb, and he had a difficult time keeping his footing without staggering. Yet, just when despair seemed imminent, he realized that his foe was in similar shape.  Holgrim no longer moved like cat.  He staggered and panted as well.  With a crystal’s clarity, he realized that the one who landed the next blow would stand victorious over the other, who would die in this back alley, covered in blood-spattered snow and ice.  As they circled each other, Tomo caught sight of the Old Parish Church.  Though only for an instant, his eyes took in the golden glow of the Church’s lamps and the large wooden Dominite cross that adorned the side of the building.  From somewhere deep in his subconscious, the thoughts came to him.  “Have no fear, for I am with you.”  For an instant, Tomo forgot his pain.  He forgot the numbness, the darkness, the burning, and the exhaustion.  He had clarity.  They lunged at each other.  Holgrim feinted, feinted again, and drove his blade toward the knight’s throat.  It rode up the knight’s longsword, but he whirled and struck again, thrusting at the knight’s bleeding armpit.  Again, Tomo dropped his sword perfectly into position.  Then Tomo struck back, pushing off, whirling about, and bringing his blade down with all his might.  He anticipated the duelist’s last-second dodge, and his longsword lodged itself into Holgrim’s skull.  His adversary suddenly went limp and collapsed into the snow, dragging down Tomo’s blade.

To Tomo, it seemed terribly strange that the whole episode had gone unnoticed.  The snow fell lightly from the night sky, just as before, as if nothing significant had occurred.  Tomo placed his bloody boot on the duelist’s head, and yanked his sword free.  He turned, exhausted, and lumbered toward the Church doors, leaving bloody tracks in the snow.  His vision was clouded and his head swam.  Finding the large wooden doors locked, he banged heavily with the wrought-iron knocker.  Seconds seemed like days, but finally the door opened.  A kindly looking man, somewhat gray and balding and dressed in deacon’s robes, recoiled slightly at the sight of Tomo.  Then he reached for Tomo’s arm to help him inside.  Tomo winced in pain as the man helped him in, and then all went black.

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