"Banners, Men and Manners"
a short story
Gary Baker, December 2013
“Gah!” Rudolpho Mizrahi shoved his chin deep into his high-collar scarf and exhaled a bit of his body heat to warm himself up from the outside. Even with the layers of soft wool beneath the outer layers of his thick shark leather coat, mist formed where his breath escaped. “Is it just me or does it get colder the older we get?”
His companion set his jaw around a long shaft of whittled ivory, a thin gray plume barely visible at the end amidst his own exhaled fog. “Well, 's a certain thing that,” the man grumbled through grit teeth, “plus that you can't very well get colder without gettin' older now can ye?”
Mizrahi scowled. “Well by that logic you may as well say that you can't very well smoulder without getting older, too, eh?”
The gruff man snapped his mittened hands from the safety of his thick pockets and laboriously scrubbed them together beneath his unruly white beard. “Well I suppose ye might also say ye can't carry a shoulder without gettin' older, too.” Suddenly the pipe pitched to the side as the man brought his lips to one side, “no, wait, tha's not right, now, is it?”
The smaller man shrugged. “Close enough.”
“Well, come to think of it, now, I'd say we both lost it on that one, anyways,” the bearded man exclaimed with a grin. “Not unless we change older to be spelled more like oulder, now, y'see?”
“In which case we'd start sounding like a bunch of lunatics standin' out here in the cold, freezing our arses off ranting and raving like two blasted Frenchmen, wouldn't you say, Hruna?”
Hruna tugged on his beard lightly as a sign that he agreed. “Wouldn' be wantin' that, now. Not me, no way, nothin' in the Great Avery's Pub would go makin' me change my mind on that one, eh?”
Mizrahi pulled a sour face and glared. “Not true, you blasted liar!”
“Oh?” Hruna shot back. “And what makes you so certain all off a tizzy dozen, eh?”
“Well just look at you, man!” Mizrahi stepped back a pace and pretended to appraise a steer at the market. “You're all covered in bodily preserved ale! 'No way in Avery's' – why, if we weren't out here in the middle of blasted nowhere, now, I can bet your arse you'd practically brweck like a Frenchman just for a free pint!”
Hruna raised a pointed finger, “well brweck they do, Mizra. They're blasted cocks to the beak and back again, if you ask me! Every. A-one-a them.”
“So you'd lower yourself to their level, just to get a free--”
“Eyes on the field, gents!” Came the sudden deep tone of a man in gleaming, fogged armor, the red silk sash strung across his breast cradling a series of golden tassles and a small ornate knife. He made instant eye-contact with Mizrahi as the two shot their backs as straight as bolts. “Can't be letting our guard down for a wink of an eye, gentlemen. Best to keep a close eye on whats ahead.”
With that, the man moved on, crossing in front of them both before making his way down the line of bricks and fog.
Hruna snuffed, bringing his pipe back to his lips. “What's got up his arse all of a tizzy? Ye'd think we were on the blasted lines, now, wouldn't ye?” He leaned back and fell against the stones again while shoving his hands back into his pockets. “Feh! Sergeant, my arse! I'd bet he thinks he's a blasted captain, the way he struts around like a quirky little hen!”
Mizrahi grinned. “You know you just call him a hen, there?”
“Well, yeah, why?”
The smaller man stiffled a chuckle by burying his face deeper into his scarf again. “Well, it just that you may as well have called him less than a Frenchman, there!”
Hruna pushed his lips into a visible pout. “I did no such thing.” He crossed his arms and looked out into the fog, concentrating on keeping his eyes set away from Mizrahi's. “See, a hen can be useful, now, can't she? In fact, we eat hens, do we not? Well, a cock, now, on the other hand, is a tizzy of nothin' but sperm and blasted screamin' to wake us all up when the good sun has yet to peer out across the land.” He looked back to his companion suddenly with fierce eyes. “Name one time ye ever saw a cock do anythin' but fuck, fight, or scream it's blasted eyes out. An half the time they do it all at once, the mangy beasts.” Satisfied, he folded himself back against the wall. “Just. Like. A Frenchman.”
Mizrahi grinned again, bringing the frost upon his cheeks into a white line of condensed ice stuck in his barely existent facial hair. “Touche.”
“Oh, don't ye dare use onna their words at me, now, ye hear, Mizra?”
“Actually my cousin? You know, Rodondo? Well, he says it's actually Italian, that word. Says the cocks took it from them and started callin' it their own.”
“And blasted well just like them, that is.” Hruna grumbled. “You know, just once I'd like to see them do somethin' worth while for once. Somethin' unique to them an not stolen from the rest of us, now.” He took a drag on his pipe, then exhaled a thick, wafting gray cloud. “That way they might focus their puny minds on somethin' other than invading an stickin their long-arse noses where they don't belong.”
“Last I checked,” Mizrahi countered, “those cocks have a mustache named after them, don't they?”
“Oh, yah, a blasted mustache. You call that a feat of culture? Ha! Anyone can curl their whiskers and call it a mane, but can it keep the frost from their lips when the cold seeps in, now, I wonder? No. It can't. Because it's so blasted small.” He stopped suddenly when he realized the smaller man had started pushing his chin deeper into his scarf. “No offense, there, Mizra.” He clapped a hand on the younger mans back, “it'll grow in soon, have no doubt. In fact, I say be careful when it does, too, for the ladies back at Avery's tend to grapple o'er a man with a new face. Don' want you spending it all on one night, now, do we?”
Mizrahi shrugged, face red from more than just the chill. “Well, I am still young....”
“Right ye are, Mizra!” He shot with a laugh and a ballast-like clap to the back again. “Young as a babe, ye still are!”
“And I do have hairs there already!” Mizrahi exclaimed with growing energy. “Well, at this rate I'll have a chin like yours in no time, I'd say!”
Hruna's hands dropped his pockets instantly, tracing a wall between himself and the smaller man. “Woah, now, Mizra, I wouldn' go that far just yet. I mean, look at this,” he yanked the tails of his beard out for Mizrahi to see, “ye see how long this, here, is? Well, that takes years o'practise, that does. Lots of battles ye need to wage before a chin like mine will come to ye.” He paused in thought for a moment, then smiled and added “come to think of it, ye need more than that, too.”
“Well? On with it. What else do I need?”
“Women, dear Mizra, ye need loads o women to grapple with you.” He grinned widely and crossed his arms with pride. “In fact, I'd go so far as to say that their hands are what cause it to grow the fastest, now, as they tend to yank and yank when ye do it right.” The grin grew and his face reddened in memory, “well, I say: the surest way to know ye got a good chin is when the women leave it hurtin' for days after, leavin you unsure if ye even have skin left to hold all that hair!”
Mizrahi leaned closer, inspecting Hruna's beard even closer now. “So you really say, eh? You mean each of those hairs were given to you by a woman?”
“Like thread in a mill, they is.”
Just then a bellowing echo reached them from beyond the bend in the stone, followed shortly by a man in thick brocades and silvery armor charging past with a pike held high. “To arms!” He screamed. “To arms to arms to arms!” As he passed, Mizrahi and Hruna leaned out to watch him bustle through several other groups of men along the wall, all huddled together for warmth and equally startled.
“What's he on about?” Hruna asked no one in particular, still watching the man disappear in the fog. Mizrahi shrugged and Hruna shook his head as if in afterthought. “See, Mizra, this is why we ain' higher-ups. 'S like the cold, but with rank. Ye see: the higher ye go, the more blasted of a lunatic ye become.” He stood back again and scowled in the direction the man had run. “I mean, they wear dresses into battle, they do. Men, wearin' dresses, where none can hide from it, either, all mounted up on horses, they are, lookin' like fancy-arse princesses waving banners and flags like i's a blasted parade!” He dropped his hands back to his pockets and shrugged off the cold again. “I tell ye one thing tha's for certain, Mizra: ye'll never see me wavin' no banner in battle, no way no how!”
“You there!” Mizrahi and Hruna turned to see the captain back again with a banner held in hand, pointing at the larger man with his free hand.
“What?” Hruna grumbled. “Me?”
The embroidered man quickly made his way over and thrust the banner into Hruna's hands. “Take it, man! Take it and go! Keep the banner safe. Bring it to the inner sanctum walls – if it falls, we fall!”
“Oh?” Hruna lifted an eyebrow and glanced at the smirk growing across Mizrahi's face. “Well then, I guess I'll jus' have to--” turning away, Hruna seemed to trip, though on what Mizrahi couldn't tell, and down the banner went, launched across the stones by a last glimmer of a flicked wrist as the big man went down. “Oh, no!” Hruna mocked. “What have I done?” He played a scrambling man on all fours over ice, trying to get to his feet as fast as he could, all to no avail after minutes of acting. “Looks like another failed drill, again, sir! I am soo sorry.”
The captain rushed passed and brought the banner high again, waving it about as if to show it off to his friends on the other side of the wall. “You fool!” He shouted with dreadful malice, “this isn't a drill!”
Mizrahi grinned and tucked his chin back into his scarf. “Right, there, Captain. Just like last time, eh? Or how about the time before that, now?”
The captain came back again with his teeth bared and his free hand back on the hilt of the wicked sword at his hip. “If we weren't in desperate need of men right now, I'd--!” Mizrahi flinched as a sudden arrow came through the man's neck and skittered, bloodily, across the stone pathway. The captain slumped against the banner, then, and slowly leaned forward with his jaw working in useless motions, his voice mere gurgles and burbles in place of the restless anger he usually had.
Mizrahi gaped, blood trickling down his chin and across his cheeks, the sudden warmth causing a hiddeous steam to rise from all about the small man. Hruna, likewise, stared in utter silence as the captain tilted toward the wall, threatening to tumble over and fall into the depths of the beard-like gray fog.
“Mizra!” Hruna shouted as though into deaf ears, “the banner!”
But he was too slow. Mizrahi lurched forward and swung numb fingers for the metal pole, only to flick it sideways and off another stone. Hruna vaulted forward and grasped at it the same, sending it back Mizrahi's way. “Mizra! Grab it!”
The big man watched as the captain finally lost the battle to hold on and fell over and into the deep, lost forever so far as the lesser soldiers were concerned. Hruna almost wailed, knowing the tide of the battle had just been waged. “We lost it!” He whispered, gaping at the small man with his upper half dangling over the side. “Mizra, get back from there!” Hruna reached forth and yanked his companion back atop the wall... and saw the lesser man grin like a newborn colt. “What're you on about, Mizra?” The gruff man asked.
“Oh,” Mizrahi stifled an obvious grin, “it's nothing... just, well, this.” At that, he finally pulled his left arm over the rest of the way and brought with it, the golden pole and the silk banner hanging from the end.
Hruna gaped in awe. “But... how?”
“Well, funny story, that is,” Mizrahi beamed. “You see, when we was fumblin' about with it, I had an idea. So I licked my palm and slapped the pole as it fell over... and wouldn' you know it stuck like it was ice!”
Hruna felt his lips draw tight in a long grin. “Yer a clever bastard, ye are!”
As if on cue more bolts parted the fog and clacked about their feet, barely missing as they danced about with arms overhead. “Hruna!” Mizrahi shouted, “what do we do now?”
Hruna shot a glance toward the glowing orange of the pyres at the castle deep inside the keep. Eyes wide, he grit his teeth and took another long draw on his pipe before tipping it upside down to dump the contents. Stuffing it into his coat hastily, the gruff man held out a hand for his younger companion, “we run, Mizra! Run like we ain' never run before!”