Dirk Goes to Church
by Ron L Lahr
“Look, I think we can all agree that sometimes having friends is a real pain in the ass. They want you to do all sorts of things for them. Help them move. Kill a guy. Hide a body.” – Dirk
“The hero is a sarcastic, anti-social jerk, which is why he’s perfect.” Dan Gookin, international bestselling author.
“If David Eddings, Joe Abercrombie and Douglas Adams had their brains sucked out and blended together then reanimated they would write a book like this.” RK Billiau, author of Primeverse.
Look, I think we can all agree that sometimes having friends is a real pain in the ass. They want you to do all sorts of things for them. Help them move. Kill a guy. Hide a body. As a professional thief they have wanted me to steal something for them. And, once, I had a friend go so far as to request that I go to church with them. Which is, in my opinion, the worst of all since I’m not really a church guy. I tend to avoid churches unless I’m stealing something valuable from them. And that’s usually risky.
My friend Vone and I were having a drink at a tavern near the temple of Kefnak, who’s the God of War, and battle, and fighting, and probably of arguing, too. That just happens to be the God that good old Vone worships and also serves as a priest for. There were lots of other Kefnakian priests also drinking there which prompted me to decide not to drink very much because mouthing off about Kefnak would be very dangerous there and when Vone started talking about his God it was already hard enough for me to keep my mouth shut. If he wasn’t such a good friend to have in a fight, I would have let the friendship lapse long ago thanks to all the Gods talk. But, hey, nobody’s perfect and he never turns down a chance for action, especially when it’s likely blood will be spilled, which has come in very handy for me over the years.
He was wearing his usual Kefnakian’s cleric robe, which is bronze colored, of course. And since this was just a friendly drink, he wasn’t wearing his usual chainmail shirt under it although I was betting he had some strategic bits of leather covering important places since he’s always looking to worship his crazy God by fighting someone. “You know that Kefnak’s high priest for all of Mindolo is chosen by combat, right?” Vone said, green eyes blazing from his big, brown head. By which I mean to say he’s of Orcin descent so has brown skin. I’m Mindolan so I’m grey like most of the people in Ansdron, not that I look down on the Orcin, at least not any more than I do anyone else. I like to think I dislike everyone the same amount whether they be Mindolan, Orcin, Elves or Dwarves. I’m just a really fair guy.
I shrugged as I took a small sip of my crappy red wine. “I guess so.”
He smiled and nodded. “Great. Well, every year they hold the combat in a different city. This year it is here in Ansdron.” He paused, obviously expecting me to say something, so I did.
“Wow, that’s nice.”
“Come on, it will be quite the spectacle. Over a thousand priests of Kefnak fighting for the High Priestship? It is so inspiring!” He raised his eyebrows at me, waiting.
“I bet it is, but I’m not much of a church goer.” That was putting it mildly.
“Dirk, each combatant needs a personal attendant to help him prepare for the fight. I want you.”
I sighed loudly. I have a bit of actor in me. “Why me? Don’t you have any other friends you can bestow this great honor upon?”
Vone sighed even louder than I just had. I’m fairly sure he was mocking me. “Most of my friends are either already Kefnakians or they do not appreciate the beauty of combat.” He smiled warmly. “But with you, I know that neither of those is the case.”
I wasn’t sure what he was talking about and it must have shown on my face because he smiled and sat back, taking a drink of wine, before he continued. “I think I need to approach this in a different way. Let me tell you about the rules for the combat.”
“Alright.” I said as seriously as possible. “That sounds interesting and fun.” That earned me a look.
“The combat itself is simple. We all gather in the largest stadium in the city. In Ansdron we do not have one that is large enough so one will be constructed on the training grounds inside the palace compound. It will be consecrated as a temple of Kefnak for the day. Only wooden weapons are allowed, and they are provided by the church. You pick whatever you want as you enter the arena floor. You are not allowed any armor, except a helmet to protect your head. Any combatant that is knocked out is removed from the field by priests of Cindrem, the God of healing. At any time, you can throw down your weapons and be done, but that is frowned upon unless you have at least one broken bone.”
“Dirk, this is serious.” I was earning a lot of looks from Vone today. “Anyway, the last person standing is the high priest of Kefnak for the entire world for the next year.”
This was taking forever. “That all sounds simple enough. What do you need me for?”
Vone chuckled. “You want me to get to the point?” He waited and was obviously going to do so until I answered his ridiculous question.
I nodded. “Desperately.”
“Fine. Starting three days before the actual day of combat it is allowed to,” he paused, as if searching for just the right words, “arrange for competitors to become unable to participate.”
“What? You mean kill them? You need a bodyguard?” Religions can be scary.
Vone’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “No! Not kill them. Not exactly. Just ensure that they are unavailable to compete.”
I nodded again, even though I still wasn’t sure exactly what he meant. “So, kidnapping? Accidents? That sort of thing?”
He shrugged and took another slow sip of his wine. “Basically. Some people get poisoned.” He raised a hand to stop me when he saw that I was about to interrupt him. “Not to death. Just enough to sicken them so that they are unable to fight come the day. At least, not fight very well, if they still insist on participating.” He sighed. “There is a lot of power that comes with being the high priest. You decide where the priests of Kefnak will fight, or if they will fight at all. Many times, grudges have been settled. Extremely settled, in some cases. There is also money involved, of course.”
“Of course.” Isn’t there always? “How much, exactly?”
“There is a sizeable prize purse for winning the day of combat, and then an impressive honorarium, or salary, for the year. The high priest also determines who is awarded all of the contracts to supply the church for that year.”
“I see. So, bribes or kickbacks. Outright theft, too, I imagine.”
“So it is said. Quietly.” He leaned in so he could whisper. “Very quietly.” He sat back. “Now do you see why I have asked you to be my second? It has to be someone I can trust and unfortunately any Kefnakian I asked could be bribed, or convinced, by someone else in the church.”
“I can see that.”
He smiled warmly. “I also need your devious mind to anticipate what my competitors might try.”
I attempted a half bow from my chair. “You’re too kind, sir.”
That got a laugh, as I had hoped. “The three day period starts the day after tomorrow, so I need an answer very soon. Now, if possible.”
“Hold on a moment. I have a few questions.” He nodded for me to continue so I counted them off on my fingers. “Do you really want to be the chief High Priest of Kefnak for all of Mindolo? Do you actually think you can win this thing? Defeat a thousand opponents?”
“Is that all of them?” He asked after taking a drink to let me know I could keep going if I wanted to.
He nodded as a grin appeared on his stupid face. I don’t normally think he’s stupid but right now he was certainly being annoying. “Good. As far as answers go, I would have to say I would not mind being in charge of all of the temples of Kefnak but, no, I do not think I will win. However, you must realize that one does not need to defeat all one thousand of the other combatants to claim victory. They all fight each other, too. At most you only need to defeat maybe a dozen or so other people.”
I laughed quietly, not wanting to draw too much attention our way. “Only a dozen? That’s a relief.” Vone smiled and took another drink. “But if you don’t expect to win then why are you entering at all?”
He nodded. “Fair question. First of all, for Ansdron. We need some locals to do well or Ansdron will be a laughingstock in the church, and so will everyone from our fine city. I do not want Ansdron to become an insult in Kefnakian circles.”
“As in, you fight like you’re from Ansdron?” I couldn’t keep myself from grinning, even though I could tell Vone didn’t think I was funny.
“Exactly. I -“
“Or, what do you call somebody from Ansdron using a flail? A suicide!”
He raised a hand to quiet me. “Enough. You seem to understand my first point. My other reason is that my rise in the normal church hierarchy would be hastened by a good showing during the combat.”
“Got it.” I said. “And you need an answer now?” He nodded. “Fine. I’m in. After all the times you’ve helped me out how could I say no? Even if I really wanted to.”
Vone laughed nice and hard at that. “That was exactly what I was counting on.”
I just pretended to smile and waited for him to stop laughing long enough to take a breath. “Why don’t you come over to my place for breakfast and we can strategize. I need to think things over for a while.”
I do some of my best thinking while I’m drinking so I went home and opened a bottle of good wine, not the swill the tavern was serving. I thought and drank. Then I strategized and drank. I followed that up by planning and drinking. I finished of the bottle by just drinking. Then it was time for some sleep. I had to get up early so I could go out and get something for us to eat at breakfast.
I ended up getting us some meat pies from a nearby bakery. Then I waited around for Vone while they cooled. Before they were completely cold, I ate my two. Forget him! It’s so rude to show up late for a meal.
It was another two hours before Vone finally showed up. By then his two meat pies had long ago taken a journey into my belly. I hate wasting food.
“I think you should stay here until the big fight starts.” I said as I let Vone in and then shut and barred the door.
“I think so, too.” He said, setting his shield and mace next to the door frame. “I thought that was the idea when you invited me over for breakfast yesterday.”
“If it’s such a great idea then why didn’t you pack a bag?”
Vone smiled. “That would have told everyone that I was not going to be coming back. This way I am obviously planning on returning to my room tonight.”
I nodded. “Just in time to be abducted!” I shook my head in admiration. “Great thinking!” I didn’t want Vone to realize that I hadn’t planned this at all by telling him I didn’t have enough food to last four days so I just didn’t say anything. I knew I would figure it out later. We settled in to just hang out and have fun. Two buddies relaxing. Drinking and talking. Playing cards not for money. It was going to be a long four days.
At least my place was secure. As a thief I understand the need for a secure home. Both my doors had reinforced frames and two metal bars that extended a good foot to each side of them when set into place. The windows also had iron bars so we could relax as long as we were inside. Anybody trying to get in couldn’t do it without being so loud that the city watch would show up well before they were successful. Of course, to be truly comfortable we’d need more food, but that was a problem for later.
The weird thing about writing this is that you learn so much about me, but I don’t know anything about you. You could be a pretty barmaid, or a pretty waitress, or a pretty prostitute or a pretty something else. I’ll never know. I also don’t know if you’re married, or in a long-term exclusive relationship, but I’m going to assume you are since it will help me explain what happened.
As a married person you know how annoying your spouse gets after a while. They aren’t funny anymore, everything about them annoys you. That’s what happened with Vone. The first day we had a good time. Sharing stories, drinking, and planning. He told me all about Kefnakians in the past making alliances and even sacrificing themselves during the combat to help make sure a certain person won with the understanding that they would be taken care of for the following year by the winner. If that person actually did win.
I also learned that no matter what happens it is frowned upon to kill anyone who comes after a priest to prevent them from participating in the ceremonial combat. I knew that part already but what I didn’t know was that if it happens by accident it is usually okay. After all, the attackers set it up and knew more about what was going to happen so if they still manage to die it is kind of assumed to be their fault. To my tipsy mind that meant I just had to make it look like an accident. I can be very accidental looking.
The second day he started to annoy me. By the time I served us lunch even the way he breathed was aggravating me and I was sure that he knew it and was doing it on purpose. I kept myself from snapping at him to shut his stupid mouth and breathe through his nose like a normal person, but only because I have tremendous willpower. Stupid mouth breather.
“That’s the end of my food. We either don’t eat anything else before your precious ceremony or I have to go out and get some more.” I thought that I had put that very politely, considering how annoying Vone had become.
“What?” he said, obviously angry. “How did you miscalculate so badly? You knew we needed enough for four days.”
“I miscalculated about the food. The same way that I thought you would be an enjoyable houseguest.”
Vone sighed. “I apologize. I guess it is true that fish and guests begin to stink after but a couple of days.” He smiled. “I shall endeavor to smell sweeter.”
I shrugged. “I think It’s just cabin fever. Going out to get some more food should also serve to improve my mood.”
“Unfortunately, if anyone knows, or even suspects, that I am here, as soon as you leave you will become a target.”
I smirked as I slipped a throwing knife out of my sleeve and into my hand. “A little fight might just cheer me up, as well.”
“Unless there are five of them.” Vone said, pushing back his chair and standing up.
“Very funny. Where are you going?”
“I think now would be a good time to get my chainmail back on.” He smiled like he was actually hoping for a fight, which he probably was.
Even though I wasn’t it did seem smart to be prepared so I changed my clothes as well, choosing my leather reinforced clothes that protected most of my important parts. I also made sure I was carrying as many knives and daggers as I could. How many is that, you ask? Like I’d ever tell you. Rest assured it was enough and more than anyone would think. I even buckled on my sword belt although it’s mostly for show. I’m okay with a sword but it’s knives and daggers where I am most deadly. Wearing a sword does serve to warn people not to give you any trouble, unless they are really good with one themselves. Those people are best avoided, or failing that, stabbed in the back when they aren’t expecting it. I’m about surviving, not honor.
When I was armed to the teeth and had enough money to buy more food then we could eat in a month I had Vone help me unbar the front door. Then he opened it so I could keep both my hands free in case there was any trouble. There wasn’t. Just a lot of people going about their business. I smiled. I enjoy it when annoying people are wrong, who doesn’t? I started walking toward my favorite tavern where I knew I could get everything we needed, if not at the best price. Sometimes convenience is worth it, though, don’t you agree?
No one was crowding me or even paying me too much attention. I was really looking forward to rubbing Vone’s nose in it when I heard the sounds of a struggle and a strangled cry from the alley to my right. It was no business of mine but I couldn’t help taking a look. Two large men were locked together, the larger one had his hands at the smaller guy’s throat. The little guy, who was still a bit bigger than me, was holding his friend’s wrists, trying to pull them off his neck, but with no success. The big one was shaking the smaller one around and it must have been working because his hands fell to his side and his eyes closed.
I turned to continue on my way and found two men with daggers out blocking my path. Their smiles were even uglier than the rest of their faces as they stepped closer to me. “Take it easy, friend. We don’t want to hurt you.” I doubted that. They looked exactly like the type of guys who enjoy hurting people. And they were definitely not my friends. Never will be.
“It’s true.” I heard from behind me in the alley. “We don’t want to, but we will if you force us to.” I risked a quick glance behind me and saw the two men who had been pretending to fight as a distraction now grinning and moving in my direction, also with daggers out.
I’m a good knife fighter but four against one is not a smart choice so I raised my empty hands and stood still. I figured they wanted something from me and probably wouldn’t kill me in the street before they got a chance to tell me what it was. As usual, I was right.
“We just need to talk to your house guest, friend.” The larger thug from the alley said, attempting to relax me by letting me know we were buddies. Idiots. “We don’t mean him any permanent harm. We’re just hired to keep him out of the tournament.” He smiled. “You just keep your head, and do as you’re told and nobody will get hurt.”
I nodded, with my hands still in the air.
“Good. Now lower your hands. No need to draw any more attention.” He motioned for his men to hide their daggers and they did. The two of them in the street even sheathed them but the two from the alley just tried to conceal them. They all gathered close around me, the two from the alley at my back, and I could feel the tips of their daggers prodding me back to my house.
I started moving. “Hey, I’m doing what you want, there’s no need to ruin my clothes.” The daggers remained but the pressure eased up a bit. I couldn’t think of any way to kill all four of them, or even get away. All I could think of was how wrong Vone had been. There weren’t five of them, only four. I could hardly wait to give him crap about it. It motivated me.
“When we get to your door ask Vone to open it because your hands are full.” The leader said right over my shoulder.
“With what?” I asked.
“I don’t know! Weapons! Armor! Who cares? Why did you leave?”
“I had to get out of there. We were driving each other crazy.”
“Then just say you bought him some new weapons to make it up to him. And don’t try anything or you’ll get a blade in your back.” The guy was a real charmer. I decided that was his name from now on. Charmer poked me in the back with his dagger in case I’d forgotten it was there even with all the other times he poked me with it. I was looking forward to killing him. Screw the rules. Or maybe it was okay since they started it. I don’t know, I’m not a big rules guy.
We arrived at my door very quickly since I hadn’t gotten very far before Charmer’s clever ambush that I fell for like an idiot. I needed to kill all four of these guys just to keep them from telling anyone. I planned on lying to Vone, since I try not to kill my friends.
Charmer nudged me with his dagger again. “Knock on the door.”
“Thanks.” I said sarcastically. “I was just going to wait here until it magically opened on its own. Thank the Gods you’re here.” That got me a really hard poke. I was going to need to get this shirt repaired when all the killing was done. I knocked.
“Who is it?” Vone asked a few moments later.
“It’s me. I’m sorry about fighting earlier. I bought you some weapons as an apology. My hands are full so could you open the door?” The other guy behind me, Little Guy, stuck the tip of his dagger snuggly against my back and grabbed me by the shoulder to pull me back from the door. Charmer moved in front of me.
Vone threw open the door, his shield on his arm. As soon as it started moving I stomped on the foot of Little Guy while dropping a knife into each of my hands. Little guy yelled and I moved forward to attack Charmer and his friends. Unfortunately, Little guy wasn’t quite as distracted by my stomping as I was hoping for. He may have yelled but he also stabbed me in the back. Since I was moving forward it didn’t go in as far as he was planning but it still hurt. Too bad he didn’t hit a leather reinforced area, but you can’t have everything you want. I stuck my knives in Charmer and one of his friends’ neck, then just left them there as I pulled out my two largest daggers and turned to face Little Guy. He had pulled his dagger out of my back and was grinning as he came at me with an underhand thrust.
I parried it with the dagger in my left hand and then started stabbing him all over the place with the one in my right hand. I might have lost it a little bit for a few moments. Pretty soon he was dead, and I turned around to see if Vone needed any help. He did. He had backed away from the door a little bit, I think to draw his three attackers away from me. He’s such a good friend. Anyway, Charmer had turned to face me, probably with my knife still in his neck. The other guy I had knifed was down on the ground with Vone’s dagger sticking out of his chest. Oh. Maybe that was why he backed up. He only carries one dagger. Perhaps this will teach him that he needs a few more. The only one of the attackers I hadn’t stabbed yet was trying to get at Vone, but the guy knows how to use a shield. I did hear stuff breaking in my house, though, so he’s not perfect with it.
I had to stop thinking about Vone then because Charmer was coming at me with a look on his face that clearly told me he wanted to kill me. “Sorry about your friends.” I said with a smile.
“Now you and the priest will both die.”
“Oh? You have more men?” Crap, I hope he didn’t have more men. I’d be in real trouble then. Luckily, he didn’t. So, I used my favorite move on him, which is to throw the dagger in my left hand at his face to distract him and then kill him with the dagger in my right hand. It worked out great. He swatted at it the way you do when anything is coming at your face and I stabbed him in the heart and he died. Try telling stories about me now, Charmer. While I was doing that Vone was forcing the last guy back out the door by repeatedly slamming into him with his shield. So, I killed him, too. From behind. Honor, who cares?
Vone dropped his shield in the doorway. “Did you have to kill him? Could you not have just knocked him out?” He looked at the other three bodies. “You killed them all?”
“They attacked my home, Vone. They shouldn’t have done that. Now, can you get a bandage on my back? Little Guy stuck me pretty good.”
He didn’t get a chance because a handful of patrollers from the city watch showed up but once they verified that it was my house, and that Vone was a Kefnakian priest who was to compete in the tournament they sent for an actual healer. They didn’t seem to care much about the dead guys. They even let me confiscate their purses and weapons. I mean, I can never have too many daggers and I could probably think of something to do with their swords, too. I used all of the money I collected, and some of my own, to thank the city watch and encourage them to stop by the tavern I was going to go to and have them send me a week’s worth of food.
Everything worked out fine, although Vone’s strong disapproval lasted until the food showed up. After we ate he was more relaxed. “Well, one good thing will probably come of this.”
“I doubt anyone else will interfere with me before the combat. You killing everyone is a great deterrent.”
I raised my glass of wine to him. “At your service.” I took a drink then set it down. “I don’t usually say this but anyone else you want killed just say the word.”
He laughed so hard he had to struggle to keep from choking on his mouthful of wine. “I will, indeed.” He said after he calmed himself.
“Gods, I hope not.”
Nothing else exciting happened and I got Vone to the religious tournament thing safe and sound. He picked a wooden club as his weapon and won the whole thing. Just kidding! He took out five or six of his fellow priests before someone knocked him out with a blow to the head from behind, impressively denting his helmet. He was happy, though, because it was the best that any Kefnakian priest from Ansdron did. He wasn’t part of the first five hundred out. Those losers are called ‘the half-hearted.’ It’s a play on words. But they are called that only by other priests of Kefnak who competed and made it into the top five hundred. Vone was the only one in Ansdron who accomplished that, so he gave people a lot of crap all year long. I didn’t say a thing. Those Kefnakians are crazy.
The day after the combat I visited Vone at his rooms in the temple of Kefnak. “How are you doing?” I asked after being shown in.
Vone was sitting in bed propped up against the headboard by some pillows. “My head hurts and I am quite bored. Thank you for coming by. You are the most exciting thing to happen all day.”
He chuckled. “I am well aware of that. But I have been excited to hear what you thought of the combat. Did it affect you as a religious experience?”
“A bunch of priests beating on each other with sticks?” I shook my head. “No. It was an impressive sight but it didn’t seem very religious. Insane, maybe. All in all, it wasn’t the worst experience I’ve had going to church. And I really like one of the daggers I got off one of the corpses, so I’m glad I said yes.”
He nodded. “Next year the combat is in Rey Hibb. It is a long trip to get there but I hear that they really do it right. You are going to love it.”
I didn’t even bother to answer.