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"Troutmaster John Voelker" by Ladislav Hanka

The Best Weapon

(A Novel Excerpt)

David Pilling and Martin Bolton




“The Best Weapon” is a fantasy novel that could be best described as a mixture of Joe Abercrombie, Rafael Sabatini and Bernard Cornwell, with a touch of H.P. Lovecraft.


The theme at the heart of the story is that man should learn to live without gods. It follows the adventures of two young men created by demons for their own purposes, and the characters only gradually become aware of their true origins throughout the course of the narrative. “The Best Weapon” of the title is a reference to the fact that the boys, named Fulk and Naiyar, are used as weapons by their creators.


Fulk is born in the Winter Realm; a bleak island in the North of the world. Fulk is orphaned as a baby and taken into the care of the Temple of Guerre, the God of War, where he is raised as a knight. Naiyar is born to a jungle tribe, the Djanki, in the far South of the world.


Fulk and Naiyar are gradually drawn together as the world around them slides into war and chaos. They suffer physical torments and the loss of their friends and loved one, until finally they are forced to confront their demonic creators in an epic battle at the heart of the world. 



The gaunt bulk of the Temple of Guerre was built on a rocky outcrop in the heart of the Ice Plains. For five hundred years its crumbling battlements and rough towers of undressed stone had dominated the bleak wintry landscape. Generations of local farmers, scraping a living from the frozen soil and the herds of shaggy-haired cattle that wandered the plains, had grown up with the imposing shadow of the Temple forever in the background.

     The Tests were held on a wide meadow at the foot of the crag that the Temple rested upon. A square was marked out with silver rods inside the meadow and a barricade of logs erected around the edges. Farmers and villagers came from miles around to witness Tests, for the people of the plains were stark and warlike and loved to witness a good fight.

     The latest challenger was a young nobleman of House Beaumont, a very old and wealthy family that could trace their ancestry back to the Founding. A pavilion, decorated in yards of expensive cloth in the red and yellow colours of their House, had been set up for them on one side of the square.

     Lord Beaumont himself, a heavy red-faced man with a bustling array of chins, sat in the seat of honour and weighed up facts and figures in his cold mind. His equally lumpen wife sat and simpered next to him. Seated to his left was a pretty young girl of about seventeen, blonde and slender and with a habit of blushing whenever anyone looked at her.  

     The other prominent members of House Beaumont were crammed onto the lower benches, eating and drinking and making too much noise, like a crowd of overexcited, richly-dressed starlings.      

      Another pavilion had been set up for the Masters of the Temple on the other side. This was a far more sombre affair, undecorated save for a shield bearing the symbol of Guerre, a black sword on a white background. The four Lesser Masters sat on a single bench, while those knights permitted time off from their duties to watch the Test were obliged to stand at the barricade below.

     Seated on a carved high-backed chair above the Lesser Masters was the Grand Master, Sibrand VI. A great knight in his time, Sibrand was now seventy-five years old. His shrunken frame was almost lost inside his chain mail, wolf skins and cloak of office, and his heavy longsword lay across his skinny knees. Another man might have refused to endure the sword’s pressing weight, but Sibrand was a Templar to his finger-tips and regarded pain as a blessing.  

     The rest of the barricades around the square were crowded with local villagers, plains farmers and their families, and the air was full of excited chatter and the cries of vendors selling roasted chestnuts, hot meat pies and gingerbread.  

     Despite the permanent wintry frost of the plains, Comrade Fulk was sweating inside his armour. His squire, Thomas, had woken him early to pray and arm himself, and nerves had prevented him from eating breakfast. Thomas was currently wrestling him into his tilting helm, a heavy bucket-shaped object padded inside with several thicknesses of leather and straw. On the opposite end of the square his opponent was enduring the same torture.

      Fulk had only briefly glimpsed his opponent’s face, and hadn’t much liked it. Etienne Beaumont had close-set blue eyes, a hooked snout and a mean mouth. He was cocky and played to the crowd, acknowledging their cheers and accepting, with much bowing and pretty speech-making, a scarf of pearls that his lady-love handed him to wear round his helm. She was the girl seated next to Lord Beaumont, and blushed prettily as Etienne kissed her white hand. Fulk felt both disgusted and envious, and would have liked nothing better than to send Etienne catapulting over his horse’s rear end.

     But that was impossible. His orders were to throw the fight, and he could feel Comrade Malet’s eyes burning into his back. The Master-at-Arms was seated beside his peers in the Temple pavilion, grim-faced as ever with his arms folded across his massive chest.

      Fulk’s squire Thomas helped him to clamber aboard his horse, a restive black stallion named Thunder.  Fulk held out his hand for his lance and felt its reassuring weight placed into his grip.

     The lance was four meters long and made of ash, and to avoid causing injury its normal sharp spear head had been replaced by a flat cup. The Test was just that, a test of skill and strength, and those that ended in serious injury or death were a severe blow to the honour of the Temple. That was why the responsibility for fighting challengers was usually given to veteran Templars, since they could be relied upon to fight with restraint. 

     But not in this case, Fulk thought bitterly. No veteran would consent to deliberately losing a Test for profit, so some useful idiot had been chosen instead from among the younger knights. Me.

     Then the heralds blew their trumpets for the Test to begin, the crowd raised a great yell, and Fulk set his lance in rest and drove in his spurs.

     As his horse lumbered into a ponderous gallop Fulk’s nerves evaporated, allowing him to concentrate on the task in hand.  Through the narrow slit in his visor he could see his charging opponent, equally faceless behind a steel mask.  Etienne was holding his lance diagonally in front of him, obviously hoping to impress by unhorsing Fulk with the point. The point-stroke was difficult, since it depended on the rider balancing his lance straight between finger and thumb while being jolted aboard a galloping horse. Far more experienced knights had trouble pulling it off, and Etienne’s lance tip was wavering like a reed in the wind.

     Gritting his teeth against the pain and humiliation to come, Fulk positioned his own lance so that it jutted out horizontally from his body. This was the sweep-stroke, the easiest stroke in jousting and almost certain to knock the other man off his horse – provided, of course, he didn’t strike you with the point first.

     He was trying to give Etienne every chance, deliberately riding loose in the saddle and holding his shield flat to provide an easy target for his opponent’s lance. The riders surged together, the screams and yells of the crowd echoing inside the dark stuffiness of their helms.

      The cup of Etienne’s wavering lance grazed Fulk’s shield, scraped along the steel rim and broke against the side of his helm. Fulk’s head snapped back under the force of the blow and he toppled sideways off his horse. Thunder galloped on regardless, leaving his stunned rider to land on his back in the dirt. The exultant victor galloped around the square, thrusting his lance into the air as the crowd cheered and his family went into an ecstasy of celebration.

     It was all so much noise to Fulk. He lay motionless and wondered groggily if his neck was broken. An anxious voice echoed inside his helm, asking him if he was all right, and practised fingers swiftly undid the laces of his helm. Light and air flooded Fulk’s world as the suffocating metal bucket was wrenched off his head. He found himself looking up at Thomas’s anxious young face.

     “Are you all right, master?” the lad repeated. “Can you carry on?”

     Fulk was all for being carried away on a stretcher, but knew that his humiliation was not yet complete. Etienne may have won the joust, but to pass the Test he also had to prove his worth in single combat on foot.

     “Help me up,” Fulk groaned, and between them his squire and a couple of other attendants pulled the armoured man to his feet. Gasping at the whiplash in his neck, Fulk had to be supported while Thomas ran to fetch his battle-staff.      

     The square was now a cauldron of noise. Etienne’s relatives were screaming encouragement at their boy, while the crowds of spectators heaving against the barricades were no less excited, stamping their feet and baying for blood. Only the Masters of the Temple remained aloof and silent in their pavilion, while the younger knights were agitated but dared not lose their composure. The honour of the Temple was at stake, or so they thought. None of them could understand why Fulk had allowed himself to be unhorsed so easily.

     Thomas ran back with the battle-staff and placed the heavy weapon in Fulk’s hands. It was a vicious weapon, a favourite of the Templars, and consisted of a long pole with an iron hook at one end and a steel disk at the other. The hook was used to trip up opponents or drag them off their feet, while the razor-sharp disk could slash or bludgeon them to death. For the purposes of the Test, the edges of the disk on Fulk’s staff had been sanded blunt.  

     Fulk shrugged off his attendants and limped towards his opponent, who had dismounted and was waiting for him in the middle of the square. Etienne’s squire had removed his tilting helm, and the young knight was grinning. Disdaining a shield, he intended to put on a show by fighting with a broadsword in one hand and a flanged mace in the other.

     “Feeling the strain?” Etienne shouted as Fulk warily approached him. “Never mind, you’ll be tucked up in bed soon enough. You might be there some time, after I’ve finished with you.”

     “Be silent, you cocky little pimp,” Fulk growled, raising his staff and aiming a deliberately clumsy overhead blow at Etienne’s head. The younger man laughed as he easily danced aside and slashed his sword at his opponent’s arm. The blade struck Fulk’s elbow, almost shearing through the links of his mail and sending a throb of pain shooting through his bruised neck and spine.

     Over-excited and with the blood pounding in the veins of his neck, Etienne tried to club Fulk in the chest with his mace. Fulk turned away the blow with his staff, knowing that the ridged steel head of the mace would otherwise have crushed his breastbone. Templars were supposed to fight with restraint and caution during Tests, but the challengers were under no such restrictions and often did their best to maim or kill their exalted opponents. Etienne was clearly one of these.

     Moving with a lithe grace, Etienne pressed his attack. Fulk retreated and defended as best he could, hampered by the pain in his spine and the knowledge that he must lose this fight. He had to grudgingly admit that Etienne was a fair swordsman, though still an amateur by Temple standards. Only fear of Comrade Malet’s retribution stopped him from dropping his staff and disarming the boy with his bare hands.

     A passing blow from the mace got through his guard and clattered against his thigh. He staggered, cursing the pain and his own sloppiness, and Etienne’s sword stabbed him in the stomach. His mail saved him from being run through, but he was badly winded and crumpled to his knees, gasping for air.

     Etienne was jubilant and raised his arms to acknowledge the roars of the crowd. “Hear that, fool?” he gloated, lashing out with his foot to kick Fulk in the ribs. “That’s the sound of glory. I’ll make you an offer – beg me for mercy, in front of all these people, and I’ll spare your life. Not your knighthood, though. I’ll insist on your spurs being struck off, and then maybe you can serve as my groom. A more fitting trade for you, don’t you think?”

     Etienne punctuated his words with another kick. Still fighting for breath, Fulk rolled onto his side and glanced up at House Beaumont’s pavilion. He saw the pretty blonde girl, laughing and squealing in her chair as she applauded her dashing knight. Her bright blue eyes flashed with blood-lust as she exhorted him to greater efforts:

     “Go on, Etienne; give the ruffian what for! Thrash him senseless, my sweet, and you can come to my chamber tonight!”

     And then the red rage prowled forth from the pit of Fulk’s soul. Years of Temple discipline had curbed it somewhat, but Fulk could still rely on it to burst out at the worst moments and make a complete hash of his life. The sight of that lovely blonde girl in the pavilion, the kind of girl he had only encountered before in his dreams, cooing and clapping as her lover beat him into the dirt, made him forget his pain. And his orders.

     “Come on, get up and fight! Why don’t you get up and fight, you coward?”

     Etienne paused for breath, and decided it would be a good idea to spit on his fallen opponent before making him surrender. That would show these arrogant Temple dogs what kind of man they were dealing with. To think that he, Etienne Beaumont of House Beaumont, should be obliged to go through this farce of a Test before he was allowed to join their ranks!

     He threw away his mace and reached down to cup Fulk’s face in his hand, intending to deposit a good lump of phlegm right between the man’s eyes.

     As he did so Fulk’s right hand shot out and grasped a handful of the Beaumont family jewels.

     “I fear your girl will have little use for you in her chamber tonight,” Fulk hissed through bloody teeth as he gave a savage twist to the collection of soft objects in his hand, “after I’ve finished with you.”

     Etienne squealed and dropped his sword. Fulk gave another twist and he collapsed into a heap, sobbing and clutching his affected parts. Then the young Templar stood up and tossed away his staff.

     “Get up, you coward,” he mimicked, grinning and cracking his knuckles, “let’s see what you’re really made of.”

     The spectators had grown quieter now, particularly those in House Beaumont’s pavilion, and the only cheers came from one or two young Templars who couldn’t contain themselves any longer. Comrade Malet sat rigid in his seat and clenched his fists.

     To his credit, Etienne had some courage, and despite the exquisite pain in his groin managed to get to his feet. His reward was a vicious uppercut to his jaw that sent him reeling across the square. Etienne tasted something warm and salty in his mouth, and to his horror realised it was blood. The stuff was gushing from his mangled lower lip, his own precious, warm, noble blood.

     “Wait!” he squealed as Fulk came striding towards him, “this is supposed to be a duel at arms, not a pot-house brawl! Gentlemen do not fight with their fists like common thugs!”

     “I am a Knight of Guerre, not a gentleman,” growled Fulk, unleashing a straight right, “and I fight however I damn well please.”

     This time his punch caught Etienne square on his over-sized snout, squashing it like a ripe tomato in a welter of blood and shattered cartilage. He followed up with a swift one-two to the boy’s ribcage, and for good measure delivered a contemptuous open-handed slap to the gory wreckage of his face.

     It wasn't a hard slap, but enough to knock the punch-drunk Etienne to the floor. Before he could fall Fulk stepped in and grabbed him by the hair. For the next few moments or so he amused himself by holding his opponent upright with one hand and pummelling him with the other    

     Fulk was only vaguely aware of the shocked noises from the crowd. Nor did he take much notice of the attendants and men-at-arms that tried to drag him off his opponent, or the outraged shouts coming from the Beaumont pavilion. Etienne's mother had gone into a swoon, while Lord Beaumont was on his feet and screaming that the Templars could whistle for their money. Etienne’s lady-love had gone into hysterics, tears streaming down her delicate cheeks and ruining her carefully applied cosmetics.

     It took six men to wrench Fulk away from his victim, by which time his rage was ebbing. He was conscious of his surroundings again, and through the fading red mist saw the remains of his opponent being scraped off the ground and carried away in a stretcher. Fulk grinned savagely as he observed the shattered ruin of Etienne's face: all those years of pounding away at the Block hadn't been a total waste of time.

     Cries of "Shame!" and "Barbarian!" followed him as he was escorted from the field.


David Pilling has been writing short fiction for several years and his work has been published by Solander, Anotherrealm, Beat to A Pulp, Short.Story.Me! and Abandoned Towers. His co-writer Martin Bolton is a London-based musician and MC. This is their first novel.

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