The baker and the blacksmith were gathered around the inn’s fireplace on a frozen blustery night. The fire was roaring and the wooden pillars from which the inn was built were stout and sturdy. Yet with every patron who entered, a sweep of snow and a shock of chill air barged in. It was late, and most patrons had retired to their rooms. But some remained in the common room, finishing the last of their hot mead or a late meal. Or hoping that the innkeeper would overlook it if they fell asleep by the hearty fire instead of retiring to their frosty chambers.
The fires that burned warmed all the inn, but on a night such as that night, one had to be close to any fire to be relieved by its warmth and comforted by its light. The few patrons who sat farther from the fire kept their cloaks upon their heads, or took benefit of the furs and blankets that the tavern kept stacked in a corner for just such nights.
The innkeeper finished serving the last patron, who settled in a corner with a mug of mead, before heading to the fire to join her two friends. They were telling tales, though their voices were lower than they were on milder nights. On warmer nights, there was music and dance to entertain all those who decided not to retire early. But on that particular night, the fellow who usually plucked his strings on the “stage” between the kitchens and the common room was home ill.
Some things did not change with the weather however. And as usual, the blacksmith and the baker had decided upon a small wager for their final tales, which would be told upon a single subject. The one who told the best tale would win the wager.
As always, the innkeeper would be the judge and would decide upon the topic or a subject for the stories. She peered ahead as she meticulously wiped the copper cup that she’d been wiping as she walked over to join them (it was her way of reminding herself to make a final check of the kitchens before retiring to bed). She claimed to be reminded of the subject because of the weather, but it was not a subject that was far from anyone’s mind in those days. Rumor would not let it be so. She not-so-coyly suggested the subject of the Bloodless Braggart.
The air in the tavern grew tense, and despite the chill, one could imagine a bead of sweat forming on the brows of all present. Even the dogs who lounged by the fire responded. One kept his eyes closed but pricked his ears. The other raised his head and turned toward the speaker, then lowered his head and closed his eyes again. A coincidence perhaps. He may have sensed the scurrying of a mouse or the creeping of a cat nearby and decided it was not worth the trouble to investigate.
Fanfaronnade, the Bloodless Braggart.
Long had she been lost, or dead, and yet even a mention of her in a distant realm was touched by the force that filled and drove her living self. There was no love lost in the hearts of many for her. What was lost when she fell and was at last defeated by her equal, her better, was…wonder, perhaps. Awe. It was as if all heads had been raised in expectation, and then seeing their chosen one fall, had lowered their heads again, not out of mourning, but out of an understanding that they must return to a commonplace life.
While she lived—and some thought she still did—Fanfaronnade was what an over-embellishing troubadour would call the greatest sword in the realm.
It was rumored that when she struck, she could wound or kill without spilling blood. And when she herself was struck—which was not often—she did not bleed.
Others had a more honorable story to tell, that the Bloodless Braggart was called so because she never intended to spill any blood in all her many skirmishes, and was so skilled that her action would always follow her intention.
Braggarts could be forgiven if they lived up to their boasting, and Fanfaronnade always did. Until the time came when she faced an opponent who was her equal, or rather, her better.
Neither storyteller had need to start with Fanfaronnade’s beginnings, for even those outside her realm had heard those stories time and again. They were part of the history of the sovereignty.
Before she was known for her fighting skill, she became notorious for her arrogance. She would boast of all the warriors she had defeated. All the warriors she had bedded. How all the animals preferred her friendship over that of their own kind. How her hair was the blackest, her teeth the strongest, her stomach the hardiest. (She did indeed hold the champion’s chalice for many an eating contest through the region.) She would boast that she was the greatest dancer in the realm. Of how her jests could make the dourest dowager laugh. How her saddest tales could make the happiest harlequin weep.
Of all her boasts, there was one she never made, but was made for her by many who met her. They were about her eyes. They glittered like a polished cabochon of smoky quartz. Her gaze fell upon one like the shadow of an oak, a sudden darkness, hard and unyielding, but also in some strange way, comforting. For who would not welcome the shade of an oak in the midst of a scorching wasteland? Who would hesitate to climb the oak when escaping the vicious snapping and tearing of some maddened beast?
She exhibited skill and brilliance in many different trades at an early age, and was therefore sent by her moderately prosperous parents to the temple academy, whose rules were so strict that claims of high birth had no bearing on admittance. It was only skill and brilliance, or the greatest raw potential for such, that could open the doors of the academy to those who sought to learn. So Fanfaronnade received the best tutelage in the realm, but was separated from her mother, father, and two sisters.
She must have missed her family now and then, and sent letters back to them. But she had been eager to enter the academy, to display her talents before the teachers, and earn their high praise, as she had once earned the high praise of her parents and the teachers in her own town. When she had first mentioned the academy to her parents, her father was excited and happy to hear such talk from his child, but her mother warned her that they were ordinary people, held to ordinary constraints. Fanfaronnade rejected such naysaying and was never as close to her mother after that. She had been boastful as a child, and her mother had always warned her against it, even though Fanfaronnade never boasted about something she was not sure she could do.
At academy, she made loose acquaintance with most every other student. But her favorites, even though they could not be called friends, were the students whom she believed might be better than her at any particular skill. These she would seek out, pay her respects, and challenge to an appropriate contest, be it a contest of wits, or a contest of strength, or even a contest of riddles.
Not all subjects were taught, but there was only one person whom she could not beat at the subjects that were. There was a boy, a year her senior, who could best her at cooking any dish. In his last year at the academy, Fanfaronnade who had studied under him, and was privy to his every secret, not because she asked, but because he wanted a worthy opponent, challenged him again. He bested her again. Out of respect, she kept her oath to him that she would not reveal his secrets and recipes to any other. He wondered if she had lost because deep in her heart, she had felt grateful for his kindness to her, and had held back. Fanfaronnade scoffed at such a notion. But she bowed more deeply to him than she ever had and ever would to any monarch.
For his part, he kept up his correspondence with her, and became a closer sibling to her than her own blood sisters.
Though she had many skills, it became clear to all that her skill with the sword was the greatest. She was slim of frame, but strong and nimble. It seemed as if her eye could see each action her opponent would take before he took it. When she moved, she moved with the grace of a feather fluttering free from the wing of a bird in flight. When she struck, she struck with the speed of a lightning bolt and the force of the thunder that followed.
Before she left the academy, skirmishes at the region’s mountain borders became worse and worse. Soon, Fanfaronnade and some of her classmates whom she, and only she, had bested, were sent out, along with a minor regiment of troops, to quell the skirmishes, and help the baron who presided over the mountain regions fight off invaders from the neighboring land.
Fanfaronnade single-handedly brought down two dozen fighters in the first moments upon arriving. That is to say, she only used a single hand, her sword hand, to bring them down. And it was on that day that she earned the “bloodless” that went before “braggart.” Perhaps the fighters did bleed but her cuts were so precise, meaning to cause pain but not death, that her efforts were magnified. She herself was unwounded that day, but so were many others among her side. They were better armed and better skilled as a whole.
Still, Fanfaronnade’s prowess did not go unnoticed by the baron. Word began to spread. And it continued to spread as Fanfaronnade finished her time at the academy, earning all honors, and setting out to find her trade. To the surprise of almost all, she sought out her old friend to see if she might find a job as a baker.
To be sure, her father was greatly disappointed, knowing that nobles were clamoring to have her in their employ before the queen discovered her. It was he who had first placed a stripped and polished branch in Fanfaronnade’s hands when she was a wee girl, and had her practice parries and thrusts. It was his dream to have a warrior-child working as personal guard to a noble, and privy to all the prestige that noble life offered.
In time, that is indeed where Fanfaronnade found her calling. For though she boasted of her skill at baking, she never bested her friend at the skill. More so, a cleaver made to hack through meat was no match for the humblest of swords.
Thereafter, many tales were told of the braggart Fanfaronnade. Children grew up hearing the tales of her boasting and her exploits. By the time those children began to have children of their own, the last tale of the Bloodless Braggart emerged from the midst of some darker tale that not even the best spies could drag into the light. All that was known in the histories was that Fanfaronnade fought many warriors. That she lost her right hand. That she faced an enemy that none other lived to face, for by the time she reached her enemy, her allies had all been killed.
Seventy years had passed since that time. In all those seven decades, none had seen or heard from Fanfaronnade in her native realm, or anywhere. There were rumors, of course, that she had been spied in this realm or that. There were always rumors. But she never emerged. She was deemed to be dead, failed in her quest if indeed she was set out upon one, defeated by her enemy.
Tales of her deeds lived on. But the favored tales that people told were the many versions of her final fate. And for every version, there were many poems, songs, short tales and long, riddles and limericks, and even an epic. Too many for a lone troubadour to learn and recite, much less a humble fireside storyteller.
It was such a tale that the friendly opponents would tell. Of Fanfaronnade and her final fate. The blacksmith cleared her throat and began her version of the tale.
After leaving the academy and finding her trade as a warrior fighting for barons and king, Fanfaronnade began to study a field that had encountered setbacks over the past century but had enjoyed a resurgence in the time since the braggart was born, magic. She began to practice and became quite good, but she could not best the best magicians in her region with her skill, and unlike her baker friend, none of them were forthcoming with their secrets.
But Fanfaronnade found a way to gain the powers she needed. She sought and found a very old magician, whose powers were at their peak. He had already been approached by others many times. They all offered the same things, riches and lands, a life of luxury. The old man could conjure such things for himself if he wished. He had no need of anything that anyone could offer.
Fanfaronnade offered the old magician the company of others in his retirement, for she told him all the riddles and jokes she knew. That, of course, was not sufficient. The magician asked too for her heart. If she could learn to cut out her own heart from her body without dying, then he would give her his magic. Fanfaronnade was perplexed by the challenge, for she did not think she could learn to do what the old magician proposed until she earned his powers and secrets. She wondered, briefly, if he were tricking her. If that task was truly impossible without the help of another magician.
So she did seek out another magician, many of them in fact, and had them show her piece by piece how to do what she sought to do. It took many years for her to learn, and once she did, she returned to the old magician. She performed the trick and offered up her heart to him. The old magician laughed and said she had learned more in the many years since their last meeting than he had expected. Part of his challenge included learning more than she knew upon her first visit, and practicing her skill.
In exchange for her heart, which he would use to restore his youth and extend his own life, she received all the old magician’s magic through her right hand and into the empty space where her heart once beat.
She was already fearsome and unstoppable. Without a heart to temper it, the magic within her quaked and stormed. Her new powers made her godlike, and that was why she was finally struck down for her arrogance. During a skirmish with a mysterious warrior, who wore armor that never stained, and wielded a sword that glowed through the fog and the twilit sky, Fanfaronnade found herself without her sword, for the hand that held it had been cut off. She fled the field of combat to tend to her wound, which had been seared shut, so she did not bleed. None ever saw her thereafter.
None sought her. For she fell out of favor because she had been struck down, it was said, by a true and proper god.
The innkeeper smiled and raised her empty copper cup to the blacksmith, who tipped her head to the innkeeper and to her opponent. There was a shifting among the other sleepy listeners, a mumbled “well-done” or two, and a single grunt of approval.
The baker nodded, took a thoughtful swig of his lukewarm drink, and paused a moment to peer at the fire as he began his tale.
Fanfaronnade had cut off her own hand. She did so in service to her queen and king.
Some of those who disbelieved that a commoner could be so skilled in so many disciplines, and would dare to boast of it, some envious few, claimed that she had given up her right hand so she would be the best sword in the realm.
The truth stings quickly, burns and pinches without mercy or pause, for those few. For Fanfaronnade was already the best sword in the realm when she did the deed.
Word reached the king and queen of the realm that their children had been kidnapped, or rather held ransom by one whom had been trusted as an ally. The noble who ruled the eastern duchy, a woman who was distant cousin to the queen, had taken the young prince and princess for a holiday to the east.
When it was time for the royal children to return, she made excuse, first for the great snows that always piled upon her hilly land and made roads impassable. Then she asked that the royal children learn something from a great teacher who was passing through the duchy and into another realm, not to return for many years. Then she proposed that the children stay for the remainder of the year to see all the seasons and all the ways of the eastern duchy that one of them would one day rule, and the other one day roam. For the children were twins, and so difficult was their birthing and so joyous were all that they and the queen survived that it was not noted who had emerged first. One would rule and one would be the sovereign’s emissary.
Soon, it became clear that the prince and princess were taken hostage. A challenge and a promise was delivered to the king and queen that the children would be returned if they agreed to two conditions. One was to make a royal decree that they would never take vengeance upon the duchess, nor ever let her come to harm. The second was the prize that all believed she truly sought.
The sovereignty’s enemies feared Fanfaronnade. Its friends had no reason too. But it seemed the duchess was no longer a friend. She demanded that Fanfaronnade, of her own volition, cut off her sword hand.
If both conditions were met, the children would be returned. If they were not, the children would be held and the longer the king and queen waited, the more danger the children faced from true harm.
The king and queen relented. Fanfaronnade relented.
Then word came to the king and queen that their children were dead. Rumor spread through the sovereignty, with anger at its heels. Many of the realm’s warriors, including Fanfaronnade, swore to go and retrieve the bodies of the fallen prince and princess, so they may be put through the proper rites, and their ashes scattered in the forest of blue-green pines, as were the ashes of all their ancestors before them. But as they made preparations, more gruesome news arrived. The heads of the prince and princess had been placed upon stakes outside the courtyard of the duchess’s palace.
The duchess sought no ransom, no land, no power above the king and queen. As it was, she sought only revenge.
She had three sons once, her only children. All three sons had fallen in battle, their heads cut off and their bodies left to rot during the last war, a war that ended before Fanfaronnade was ever born. (For all her skirmishes, Fanfaronnade had never fought in a battle, nor did she ever seek to, for much as she enjoyed fighting one or a few opponents in fair combat, she abhorred the thought of wars and massacres where thousands died, and always, in the end, without good cause.)
All three of the duchess’s sons had fallen fighting by the king’s side when they invaded the land that was now the mountainous western barony.
The king collapsed in grief and could do nothing. The queen commanded in a cold rage and with only a gesture. When the chosen warriors entered the throne room, she raised her arm and pointed in the direction of the eastern duchy.
The warriors traveled to the mountains in the east through flurries and storms. Fanfaronnade went with them, wrapping the stump at the end of her right arm. She set aside the sword she had wielded all her years as a warrior, and took up a sword that was molded for the left hand. She could fight with both hands. She had practiced with her left hand more often than her right, for it was weaker. It remained weaker. She took no salves to dull the pain of her missing hand, for they would have dulled her wits. As the warriors came closer and closer to the eastern duchy, they began to be challenged.
One by one, they fell, for the duchess had many soldiers and warriors. She had an army. It was meant to fight for the king and queen. Fanfaronnade and the rest of the warriors trudged on through mud and sleet, and before long, through clean white snow. Still they fell. Fought and fell. One by one. Until only one was left.
She plunged the stump of her right arm into the snow to dull the throbbing and chill the burning. She swept her sword through the icy whipping winds to fight the soldiers and warriors who opposed her, and she moved onward still.
At last, she reached the pass that led down to the valley, where the duchess’s palace lay. She would kill all who blocked her path, kill the duchess if need be. She would find the bodies and the heads of the prince and princess. She would bundle them up with care and reverence, and unspeakable grief. She would take them back to her king and queen. She would let none stop her.
But when she reached the pass, there was someone waiting for her. It was the duchess herself. She was clothed in white garb that flowed and fluttered with the wind. Even her hair was tucked within a white scarf, and she floated like a fresh snowflake as she descended upon Fanfaronnade.
The Bloodless Braggart had trudged many miles, leaving her horse behind, sleeping little, fighting always. She was drained of all strength but the strength of her will. She fought. She swung and parried, twisted and sprung away, ducked and lunged. But at last, she blinked and saw only snow and white, and the duchess appeared out of that endless white, and knocked the sword from her hand.
Fanfaronnade charged. She threw the weight of her body at the duchess, but was thwarted, again by the illusion of white in which the duchess hid her true form. She was a giantess compared to Fanfaronnade, and though the Braggart’s arms were strong, they were not strong enough. She was bested.
The duchess raised her sword above the fallen Fanfaronnade, and then lowered it. For the greatest punishment for such a shameless braggart was to be bested at the very moment when those who were helpless most needed her to be the best.
Thus defeated, Fanfaronnade faded from the world, but not from memory.
The blacksmith clapped her hands, as if acknowledging that she too had been bested. There was more shifting, more mumbles of “well-done,” a single “that was a good one.” But the innkeeper was the judge.
“I would have preferred it,” the innkeeper said, “if Fanfaronnade had battled and won, and found that the gruesome news was false and the children were still alive.”
“If that were true, she did a cruelty to the king and queen never bringing them back,” the baker replied.
“She could have sent word to them,” the innkeeper said. “And they could have ordered her to keep the children safe and far from the court. The realm did enter a rather grim period during those years, didn’t it?”
“Yes, until the reign of that kindly but strict fellow with the halting voice. What is his name?”
“You’re stalling,” the blacksmith said, and she turned to the innkeeper. “What say you, judge?”
The innkeeper glanced at the baker. “No matter how good the tale may otherwise be, I can’t abide a story where children suffer.”
The baker threw up her hands and nodded as the innkeeper handed a coin to the smiling and triumphant blacksmith.
A shadow fell between the three friends then, and yet, the chill seemed to lift, even beyond the reach of the blazing fire. All present felt a sense of anticipation, as if they were on the verge of something. It was that feeling in a dream of receiving a box that one knew was filled with something one wanted to see, to lift out and marvel at, and just as one lifted the lid—
—one woke up.
The shadow passed, and the figure of the stranger who had cast it, a cloaked and hooded woman, approached the trio before the fire. Her gloved hand emerged from the folds of her storm-blue cloak, and that hand held a small rough coin sack. She offered it to the baker, who hesitated, until she bowed her head, obliging him to accept the prize out of good manners.
The innkeeper chuckled. “Come now, friend, tell us why you like that story best.”
The woman threw back her hood to reveal her long hair, black as a raven’s feather, and eyes that glittered in hues of gold and brown, like a polished stone. “Both tales were well-told,” she said, “but I always prefer the baker.”
“Still, no teller of tales should go un-thanked,” the stranger said.
She tossed a coin to the blacksmith, who deftly caught it. Then she handed another bag to the innkeeper who claimed it was far too much for any room in her inn.
“The rest is for your good thoughts for those who suffered in the stories told.”
The stranger bowed to them. She raised her hood and her face was once again hidden in its shadows. She turned and strode away toward the creaky but sturdy steps that led to the upper rooms. The innkeeper thought she glimpsed something within the folds of the stranger’s cloak as she turned. The stranger had offered up her riches with her left hand. Her right, the innkeeper thought, had been bundled up in bandages of silvery silk. Keen curiosity followed the stranger as she climbed the stairs. But that was all that followed.
And the trio who sat by the fire, who had been so free to speak, were silent in the midst of their own thoughts. They would share those thoughts perhaps, once the stranger had gone, more freely than they shared their furtive glances at each other. But for the moment, none spoke their thoughts aloud.
Copyright © 2017. Story by Nila L. Patel. Artwork: “Fanfaronnade” by Sanjay Patel.