The Law of Seconds
“Ah,” said Garramond, “an inn! Allow me to treat you, lad!”
The inn was as welcoming as the older man’s offer, with lights shining out into the darkening lane and a courtyard busy enough to indicate a popular establishment, but not so busy as to suggest it would be full up for the night. Having no horses or conveyance of their own to tie up, Norton followed Garramond straight into the common room. A large hearth-fire warmed several tables, the largest occupied by a loud party which cast them not unfriendly looks as they made their way to the smallest.
The travelers sat opposite each other. Garramond removed his hat, dragged his fingers through lank grey locks and came away with a few thin knots; Norton pulled off a knitted cap, causing his thick black brush of hair to prickle upright, like a dog’s hackles.
The innkeeper approached with ale already poured.
“Bread and cheese to come, my friends,” said the keeper, waiting to see that they drank. “Need a room for the night, do you?”
“Separate beds would be ideal,” said Garramond. “I only just met the lad this morning, and already he’s nearly walked the legs off me. I’m afraid he’ll keep on striding in his sleep, kick me black and blue! He’s just been a-soldiering, so the habit of marching’s stamped into him. That’s all the aid they’ve given the lad to make his own way home. I thought he deserved a hot meal and at least one night abed. I’ve not heard a single complaint from him all this day, but in respect to my own advanced years, I prefer a corpselike slumber, and that unlikely with this young’un kicking me.”
“There’s no shortage of beds. These others here are locals, only come to sup.”
“Well, that’s promising. Bring us some of whatever they’re at!”
A minute later, the table was set with a dark loaf, a wedge of green-veined cheese, stew almost as savory as the ale. The men had exhausted most superficial topics in the course of the day’s walk, so it was pleasant to sip and sup in companionable silence. Before long, they had filled their bellies.
The innkeeper approached with two small glasses and a gleaming bottle of golden spirits. “Too early for this, friends?”
“Perfectly timed as a nightcap,” said Garramond. “I think we’ll both be ready for our beds soon.”
“Well, drink up, and I’ll show you to ’em.”
As he poured, the courtyard door opened and the innkeeper’s manner suddenly stiffened. He pulled away abruptly, having overbrimmed one glass, then set down the bottle and rushed off to accommodate the newcomers. Garramond took over the duty of filling Norton’s glass and followed it with a toast: “To your darling Lucy. Before the week is out, may you lie in her arms.”
The younger man blushed. “Thank you, sir. I wish our paths were not so soon to part. It would be a pleasure to introduce you, and she would thank you for your many kindnesses. Especially tonight’s. I am much obliged for the meal and the novel prospect of a roof.”
“It’s the least I can do to repay a young man for his sacrifice.”
“I made no sacrifice, sir. Not like others of my company.”
“Your Lucy would certainly disagree.”
“Aye, she surely would. To Lucy, then. And whatever Lucy you might have waiting up for you.”
“No Lucy, sad to say. My Sally’s gone four year now, and no one waiting for me, no one caring if I live or die. So I’m free to wander any road, and be of small service to any worthy such as yourself. The world is my Sally now, and I love her as I find her, wherever I may be.”
“Well, to Sally’s memory then, and your small service, which I assure you seems very large to me.”
They downed their drinks and Garramond poured again immediately. “Let’s quaff these quickly, lad. Of course,” he added quietly, “I’ll pay if asked, but fie, it was rude of him to rush off like that.”
“Not sure I blame him,” Norton said. “Whoever these gents might be, they look flush.”
Garramond turned to get Norton’s view of the new arrivals. Both wore attire more suited to the parlor than the road. Polished boots, unsmirched by dust or mud. Wigs likewise unmussed. One stood garbed all in velvet, russet and olive; the other was a vision of embroidered chamois from ankle to throat. They shone out in that rustic setting like expensive but mismatched gloves on a sunburnt farmer’s wrists, but the innkeeper seemed to know them. Tellingly, the large and noisy party, now subdued, laid coins upon their table and melted away. As the innkeeper headed for the kitchen, sweeping their silver into his hand, he caught Garramond’s eye and gave him an apologetic smile.
“Sorry, friends, why don’t you take the bottle with you to bed, and finish it off with my compliments.”
“Excellent man!” said Garramond. “I’m tired enough to stretch out right here on a table, but I’m sure you would prefer us somewhere out of the way.”
“Let me just get these fine gentlemen settled and I will be once more at your service.”
The innkeeper vanished into the kitchen. The splendiferous pair did not appear to care whose attention they had. The volume of their conversation continued to rise until one of the hands from the courtyard looked in to see who was shouting. The topic of dispute was some matter relating to the weather, no doubt taken up in jest; but however innocuous it seemed at first, it had become contentious.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen!” the keeper said, hurrying back in. “Calm yourselves! Here, have another drink and let’s dissolve your quarrel in good spirits.”
The gentlemen settled themselves, accepting two glasses of the same stuff Garramond and Norton had been sipping. But while the spirit had hastened the weary hikers toward slumber, it had the opposite effect on the irritable gentlemen. They were soon arguing again, this time about clouds.
By now, the door to the courtyard was propped open, holding a collection of faces summoned from the dark. Garramond, who had given up trying to find any sense in the argument, attempted to catch the innkeeper’s attention, but the proprietor was focused on preventing trouble in his establishment by encouraging the gentlemen to take their disagreement out of doors.
It was at the low, narrow door of the inn, as each man attempted to assert primacy over the threshold, that velvet and chamois legs grew tangled and both gentlemen were suddenly reduced to a heap. The day had been dry and devoid of puddles, but there were still some fresh equine leavings the stable hands had yet to clear away. The men rose with their fine garments lightly dusted; yet each one, surveying himself in the light from the door, gave rise to such looks of horror and disgust that one would have thought they had both been dipped head to toe in excrement.
For a moment neither spoke, and then both did so at once.
Said Velvet: “You have stained not only my honor, sir, but my outfit!”
And Chamois: “You have fouled not only my garments, but my very name!”
Garramond looked at Norton and asked, “What is his name, I wonder?”
In the stillness of the scene, Garramond’s whisper might have been a shout.
Both gentlemen turned to the travelers, who had come to stand just within the doorway.
“You, sir!” Chamois called. “And you! Both of you have witnessed this insult!”
“Indeed!” said Velvet. “I’m sure you will attest how I’ve been wronged!”
Garramond put up his hands. “No, sirs, no. I do assure you, we observed no such thing. We have missed it all, our entire beings bent only toward bed.”
“Your quarrel is none of our business,” Norton said.
The gentlemen seemed unpersuaded, but most of their energy was still reserved for one another.
“There must be a duel,” said Chamois.
“A duel indeed,” said Velvet. “You cannot challenge me, because I have already challenged you.”
“You, challenge me? What audacity!”
“Your accusation of audacity is practiced impudence!”
“The only thing I have practiced, sir, is my marksmanship, which you will regret on the morrow!”
“Dawn, then, and I’ll see you pierced with as many holes as I care to spend bullets.”
From the now-crowded courtyard, which included Garramond and Norton who had come out to argue their case, emerged a constable alerted to the commotion. “Gentlemen, gentlemen. Has it really come to this?”
“It appears it has,” Garramond whispered to his companion.
“A duel is my right,” declared Chamois, “according to both custom and law.”
“My right, you mean!” Velvet rejoined.
“Well, sirs,” said the constable, “it is indeed the right of both by custom and law, and as the law, I will attend to it. At dawn, in this very courtyard, unless its proprietor objects?”
The innkeeper sighed and spread his hands.
“And seconds?” said the constable. “What of the seconds required by custom and by law?”
“Our witnesses will do,” said Velvet.
With these words, Velvet found common ground with Chamois, who applauded the decision. “Capital!”
“Don’t be absurd,” said Garramond. “We are merely sightseers, passing through your district.”
“And this is the sight you’ve seen,” said the constable. “Which makes you witnesses, suitable for seconds.”
“We mean to be off before first light,” said Norton.
“To serve as seconds will take but a few minutes of your time. We will reconvene in this very courtyard at dawn, and it will all be over before breakfast.”
“I will not require even a fraction of the dawn,” said Velvet.
“True enough, sir,” said Chamois, “seeing as you will be dead before the cock has finished crowing.”
“Whoever’s demise it may be, it will inconvenience you agreeable fellows very little,” said the constable. “Stand as seconds at dawn, and then resume your peregrinations. It will be done by law and custom.”
Garramond and Norton gave each other a long look.
“Law and custom then,” Garramond said.
“Can’t be helped, apparently,” said Norton with a shrug.
“It is settled,” said the constable. He beckoned them forward and peered at them closely. “Are you guests of the inn?”
“They are,” said the keeper.
“How convenient for you,” said Chamois. “I must travel all the way home and back again before first light. I will hardly have time to sleep.”
“Of course he complains without a thought to anyone but himself,” said Velvet. “The truth is, I live even farther off. It is I who will be truly inconvenienced.”
“If you wish, I could suggest several more agreeable locations,” the innkeeper began.
“No, no, let’s be mindful of our seconds!” said the constable. “Such honorable volunteers must not be put to further trouble.”
“Well then, friends,” said the innkeeper, putting himself between Norton and Garramond, and steering them back to the inn with his arms draped over their shoulders, “let us hope that you at least can get a full night’s rest. Remember that bottle.”
Upstairs, Garramond and Norton were shown a plain room with two beds, a rude table between them, and above that a dark window. Garramond uncorked the bottle and offered it to the innkeeper.
“I’d not dream of it,” the keeper said, starting to withdraw. “And speaking of dreams, I hope you have pleasant ones.”
“More likely none at all,” said Garramond. He swigged and handed the bottle to Norton. They sat facing each other on opposite beds, trading swallows till the bottle was done. With sleep the remotest imaginable possibility, they joined forces for a journey to the jakes. The stairs were dark and the common room quiet, and they passed outside and found their way to the rear of the inn, not far from the stables. When both had concluded their business, they lingered a moment.
“I don’t see much point in returning, do you?” said Garramond. “I’d never sleep a wink, whether I go back to bed or keep on down the road. It’s cold tonight, but clear enough to see our way even without much moon.”
“I’m inclined to agree,” said Norton.
“Did you leave anything in our chamber?”
Norton lifted his cloak to show that he had secreted his small haversack at his waist, alongside his pistol.
“I took similar precautions,” said Garramond. “Well, then, shall we be off?”
Avoiding the courtyard, they passed behind the stables, keeping among the trees. Being unsure of the course of the road, they rejoined the lane as soon as they dared. One particular rooster kept crowing from the innyard, as if calling after them. They quickened their pace, as much to keep warm as to put miles between them and their unsought obligation. But within a hundred paces, a light blinded them. A lamp, uncovered, swung in the upraised hand of the constable, on foot in the middle of the lane.
“Gentlemen,” said he, “we take law and custom very seriously in this district. I had my suspicions that it might be otherwise, whence-ever it is you hail. Allow me and my deputies to escort you back to your comfortable beds.”
Several more men in shadow appeared athwart the lane.
With no rejoinder, Garramond and Norton permitted themselves to be thus escorted.
Back at the inn, in beds as comfortable as the constable had hinted, neither man seemed inclined to sleep. The night was interminable. A further stroll, to work off restlessness, was out of the question. Garramond suggested bothering the innkeeper for another bottle, but both men agreed they had better face the dawn with clear heads. Norton climbed up on the table and opened the window, inviting the older man to study the distance to the ground.
“Go on without me, lad,” said Garramond. “I’d likely twist an ankle if I tried. I don’t mind making excuses in the morning.”
“I couldn’t do that, sir,” said Norton, “you’ve shown me too many kindnesses. I’ll not abandon you. We’ll see this through together.”
They lay down on their beds in the dark. After a time, Garramond muttered, “Sally,” and then began to snore. Norton sat up and lit a candle, and took out a slip of paper. Leaning over the table, he wrote,
My Dearest Lucy,
If all goes well I plan to reach you before this letter can. Not sure how I will post it and could well hand it to you myself. Each day a shorter distance lies between us yet I feel as tho the trail will never end. The miles unroll out of nowhere as if the road itself gives rise to them. But have faith dear heart that I am determined to let nothing stop me. I hope to read this letter over your sweet shoulder sooner than you know.
Norton’s body twitched, and he woke with a start to find himself bent sleeping over the table. He had written nothing at all, lacking pen or paper. The candle, so tall in his dream, was a stub. He snuffed it and lay once more sleepless on the bed until that too seemed a dream.
Eventually, out of the unendurable murk, light taps sounded at the door–a break from the monotony of the rooster in the courtyard, which had crowed throughout night. The yawning innkeeper bore steaming mugs, hot strong toddies for each of them, which was well as their noses and fingertips were numb in the morning chill. Blowing and sipping, they descended the stairs to the common room, where the constable waited, holding the door.
“Our honored seconds,” the constable said. “Allow me to settle their bill.”
“No need,” said the innkeeper, “I’ve waived it entirely, to express our thanks for their service.”
“There you go, fellows,” said the constable. “You come out ahead in all this, eh?”
“Indeed,” said Garramond. “We are very grateful.”
“Too kind,” said Norton.
“Will you take breakfast, after?” the innkeeper asked.
“I believe we’ll walk a few hours before we sup, eh, Norton?” said Garramond. “But thank you for your hospitality. This brew was especially welcome.” He handed over the mug, still steaming but now empty.
“I wish you good day, friends, and the pleasure of the road.”
The innkeeper shut the door.
As if dawn had loitered in the trees, awaiting their attention before coming forward, the courtyard began to fill with light. It was already full of people with chapped cheeks and red noses. Word of the duel had spread overnight, summoning whatever local souls could afford to put off morning errands for this interruption of their routine.
The constable positioned Garramond and Norton away from the crowd and went to talk with one of his deputies. The knot of onlookers grew, tightening around the authorities. Horses passed on the lane, ordinary rural traffic, until one horseman in velvet riding attire drew up near the constable, leaned down, and spoke a few words. The constable’s reply was sharp and unhappy, but the horseman met it with a shrug and trotted off the way he had come.
The roosters now crowed with better reason.
There was still no sign of either of the duelists.
Garramond edged through the crowd to the constable. “Sir, might we inquire as to the delay? Could it be these lords disagree upon even the timing of the dawn?”
The constable sighed. “Some of us take appointments more seriously than others, I’m afraid. I have just had word that one of the challengers elected to stay in bed this morning. It is too early to say with certainty, but I suspect the other gentleman will not bother even to send word. I don’t wish to waste any more of your time, but if you could just bear with us a bit longer, perhaps we will be rewarded with some definite answer.”
“I will take this information to my companion,” said Garramond.
“I heard,” said Norton, blowing on his hands and then retracting them beneath his cloak, where they continued to work nervously.
The courtyard began to show edged shadows. Dawn was turning to morning. It promised to be a fine day for walking.
At last the constable beckoned them over to a quiet corner of the courtyard.
“Well, sirs, it looks as though our principals have chosen not to appear.”
“What a farce,” said Garramond.
“Is law then a farce?” said the constable. “Is custom a farce?”
“In this district, apparently so,” Garramond said, despite Norton’s restraining hand. “You have wasted our morning. We could have been a mile down the road by now if not for your much-vaunted law and custom. Two or three miles even! Come, Norton. Let us make up for lost time.”
“Duty comes first, sir,” said the constable, bringing Garramond short with an open palm on his chest.
“And we’ve done ours, waiting on your ridiculous custom through the night and now halfway into the morning.”
“Not yet you haven’t. In the absence of principals, the obligation falls on the seconds.”
“The original insult still stands, does it not?”
“How should I know? Ask the gentlemen who demanded satisfaction! It’s nothing to us!”
“It is nothing to me, you mean. But to seconds, it is everything.” The constable nodded to one of his deputies, who stepped forward with a polished wooden case. “Now, as you are unarmed, it is my duty, by custom and law, to provide you each with a weapon.”
Ignoring the case, Garramond drew himself upright, becoming almost rigid. “Why don’t you go to these lazy lords with this law of yours and compel them to appear and settle their argument for themselves!”
“That is not the custom,” said the constable.
He gave a nod to the deputy, who opened the case.
Twin pistols rested in a divided compartment, half velvet and half chamois.
“Which would you have, sir?” the constable asked Garramond.
Garramond, sagging, turned a bloodless face to Norton. “Do…do you have a preference, lad?”
The young soldier shook his head. “None, sir. Help yourself to the one you like. I have my own gun.”
Which he now took out from under his cloak, already primed, and cocked.
“The Law of Seconds” copyright 2019 by Marc Laidlaw. First appeared in Weird Fiction Review #10, Centipede Press, Fall 2019.