Tuesday, April 07, 2020

The Tournament


Vincent Smythe hit the ground with an audible thump, his slender, elven frame kicking up a cloud of dust. The crowd roared in appreciation. As a thin flame of panic started to flare up in his head, Vincent quickly scrambled to regain his feet. Before he was able to pull himself completely upright, however, he was forced to quickly parry several more blows, the last one nearly connecting before he was finally standing once again. David Green, the hairy and muscular wolfen before him, smiled, a cockeyed and joyful grin spreading out on his snouted, toothy face.

Before going into the match that morning, the first match of King Aron’s inaugural Tournament of Trildaine, Vincent had felt pretty confident about his chances of getting through at least the first round. After all, he was the most accomplished swordsman his home village of Drenden had seen in several generations. Tall and lanky, he possessed the ideal fencing frame; add to that the almost supernatural quickness he had been blessed with at birth, and it was almost as if he had been born to the sword. Vincent had spent the past ten years honing his formidable skills, in too many local and regional tournaments and exhibitions to number, compiling in the process a spotless record unblemished by even a single loss. The elf was confident in his abilities and had been sure that he could handle this first opponent without too much worry.

Now, as he struggled to parry thrust after thrust, Vincent realized the tactical mistake he had made. In all of his matches, in all of his training, he had never before fought a wolfen. How could he have? Wolfen were rare in his parts, so rare, indeed, that until the match he had only seen one other wolfen in his life. And, at eighty-five years old, toothless and requiring a cane, that specimen had hardly been a fighter. So, only moments before, when he had entered the arena and seen the wolfen striding towards him, he had just assumed that fighting him would be much the same as fighting an elf, or a human, or a dwarf. He had assumed wrong.

From the very beginning of the match, Vincent had been taken off guard by his man-wolf opponent’s surprising strength. In all his training, in all his years of fencing, Vincent had never fought someone with anywhere near David’s formidable strength. From the very first moment of the match, as he blocked David’s first violent thrust, Vincent had been completely surprised and taken off his game, and so it was that after only a few short parries the snarling David had closed the gap between them and been able to shove the elf to the ground.

Now, as Vincent backpedaled away from the wolfen, settling into a more defensive stance to best guard against David’s far superior power, the crowd settled down. This being the first match of the first kingdom-wide tournament in many years, the large crowd that filled the arena was understandably excited, and they had reacted to the first blows of the day with excessive vigor. But, as the two fighters settled into their rhythms, so too did the crowd settle. Soon, the air inside the arena was filled with only the murmur of the anxious spectators and the sharp medicinal clang of the elf’s short-sword and the wolfen’s thinner rapier clanging harshly against each other.

The pair of fighters made for a strange picture down on the floor of the arena. David was covered from head to toe in thick, dark-gray hair the color of barely burnt charcoal. He wore a stiff, brown leather vest that left his arms exposed and a pair of matching softer leather breeches. Upon his feet there were no shoes; David, like most wolfen fighters, preferred to have the use of his sharp and strong claws for gripping—and, if necessary, fighting. David was short, especially short for a wolfen, and heavily muscled. Vincent, on the other hand, was tall and thin, built very typically for an elf. His fair features and blonde hair made for an almost comical contrast to David’s darker fur and coloring. Oddly, their weapons reflected the reverse, with Vincent’s short sword standing in short and stubby opposition to the swashbuckling David’s long, thin rapier.

After a few minutes of cautious parrying, with both the elf and the wolfen trying to get a better feel for his opponent, David suddenly pressed his attack. The few minutes of swordplay had already made clear to him just how quick the elf was, and David, encouraged by his early success at knocking the elf down, fully realized that his only chance at winning was to keep his taller opponent from using that formidable speed. Nevertheless, David was nervous. The strategy was one David was largely unfamiliar with; the opponents he was used to fighting in the woodlands of the Far East, where most wolfen made their home and where he had spent his entire life, tended to be stronger and slower than he. David, smaller and lighter than the typical wolfen, was used to being the faster and more agile opponent, and of using his speed to his advantage. Here, he was being forced to use what was normally his weakness—power and muscle—as his strength. And yet, so far at least, it seemed to be working.

Once again, David had managed to close the gap between him and his opponent, and, thinking that the same shoving move he had used at the fight’s outset would be too predictable, he instead feinted—beginning that same shove but, instead of finishing, lashing out with a hairy, clawed foot in an attempt to catch Vincent by surprise. It turned out to be a miscalculation. The kick, fast as it was for a wolfen, required too much time to connect, and the much quicker Vincent was able to easily dodge it. Then, while David was unbalanced, with one foot still in the air, Vincent lashed him in the shoulder with his short sword. At the sight of the successful blow, and the faintest splash of red against the dull brown sand of the arena floor, the immense crowd roared again, at twice the volume of before, as David howled out in pain.

Sensing his advantage, and encouraged by the sound of his opponent’s howling dismay, Vincent quickly attempted to land a second blow before David could dart away, looking to swing his short sword back at David again in a tight and narrow arc, this time aiming for the midsection. But before he could complete the first slash, David, in a move none of Vincent’s previous 178 opponents (almost all elves) had tried, lunged with his jaws, biting down on Vincent’s sword arm before the elf could land the blow. Vincent immediately cried out in fear and panic as the force of the shorter creature’s charge, and the pain of the bite on his arm, tumbled both combatants to the ground.

As soon as they hit the dusty earthen floor of the arena, kicking up a willowing and gritty cloud of dust at impact, David released his grasp on Vincent’s arm and quickly darted away, coming again to his feet. In the heat of battle, neither fighter noticed the delirious crowd’s roar of excitement, or the sight of that many people rising as one to their feet. Trying to ignore the pain in his arm and hoping that the leather armbands he wore were tough enough to prevent the wolfen’s teeth from having broken skin, Vincent also backed away. Warily, the two fighters circled each other, each shaken by the other’s successful first strike.

Again, the crowd slowly quieted down and watched, but with renewed and eager anticipation. The pain in Vincent’s bitten forearm was intense—so intense that he found himself unable to handle the short sword. As he circled his opponent, Vincent took the sword up in his left hand. As for David, he was making an odd mewling sound from deep in his throat and hoping that the shoulder wound he had received wasn’t bleeding too badly. After a few rotations, David, wary of his bleeding shoulder and realizing that he might not have the strength for a protracted fight, again initiated a strike, coming in with his sword at Vincent.

Quickly, Vincent brought up his short sword to block, hoping that the extensive practicing he had done fighting with his left hand would be enough. Sweating profusely, from both exertion and fear, he was once again forced to backpedal, as the now openly snarling wolfen used his superior strength to slash again and again at the elf. Almost without realizing it, Vincent was starting to panic. He had only barely been able to defend the wolfen’s earlier full-on attack, and he had then been using his good arm. As the panic grew, Vincent’s movements deteriorated and became sloppy. Within a few moments, David’s furious parries started to slip through the elf’s defenses and glance off his leather armor. Feeling those blows, and seeing the fire in the wolfen’s eyes, Vincent lost his battle against the fear that was trying to overtake him. As David continued to attack, Vincent suddenly turned and ran. The crowd roared in angry laughter.

Cries of “Fight! Fight!” and “Coward!” stung the air with the buzzing of an angry swarm of bees, but Vincent did not hear. He simply ran. Seeing his opportunity, David threw his sword aside and dropped to all fours, speeding after his opponent in long, loping bounds, moving like the wolves all wolfen were only recently evolved from. Within just a few short yards, he was upon the fleeing elf, and in one mighty leap he was in the air. David slammed into Vincent’s back with a heavy thud, knocking both fighters to the ground. Before Vincent even had a chance to respond, the speedy wolfen was astride him, with his strong, muscular jaws lightly clamped around the elf’s throat. The roar from the crowd was deafening. Just as David tensed his jaws, only a mere fraction of a second before he would have bitten down hard, Vincent disappeared.

The crowd roared its approval as David, slightly dazed, stood. After a moment, a moment in which the noise from the stands only intensified, David remembered himself. Turning, he found the king and queen’s royal box, located at the northern end of the arena up on the second level. The king and queen were standing and warmly applauding him. David bowed deeply, three times. And then, as the crowd continued to applaud and cheer, David turned and walked out of the arena.

* * *

“Cutting it a little close, aren’t you, Gregor?” the king asked. The two men were seated in the royal box, which gave its inhabitants the best possible view of the action. King Aron was dressed in his most elaborate royal finery, a deep purple cape spilling off his shoulders and accentuating his broad and muscled chest. All around the king and his court wizard the crowd continued to roar, having fully enjoyed the first bout of the Tournament.

“The lad was never in any danger, sire, never any at all—my teleportation spell whisked him away before things could get, well, ugly,” said Gregor, the king’s court wizard, remembering the somewhat disturbing image of the wolfen’s teeth clenched around the elf’s throat. “Come now, did you really think I would lose a fighter?”

“No, no, just—well, that one would have been particularly gruesome,” said the king. “Let’s not feed the crowd’s baser instincts, shall we?” 

“I thought it a wonderful fight, quite spirited,” said Queen Marda, sitting to the king’s left and dressed in the same royal purple finery as her husband. Red ringlets of hair bounced off the pale lavender cloth of her gown as she laughed and applauded the standing and bowing David.

“Well, yes my dear, but still,” said the king, still slightly blanched at the thought of the wolfen actually biting down on the young elf’s neck. 

“Now, now Aron, don’t ruin the fun,” the queen said, smiling at her older husband. “The sun is shining, the crowd is happy, the fighters are fresh and eager. Come, my king, let us rejoice! The Tournament has begun!”

“You are right, my dear; Gregor, you have my full and absolute trust. Let us carry on, shall we?” And with that, King Aron rose to his feet, the crowd silencing instantly as they saw their king rise. In a full, deep baritone, King Aron addressed the arena.

“Citizens of Trildaine, welcome guests, and all who have traveled far to be here today; sing praises for young Master David Green of the wolfen! May his people take special pride in their son today, for he has the distinct honor of being the victor in the first match of the first Tournament of Trildaine to be held in many a year! And congratulations as well to young Master Vincent Smythe of the elf clan of the Horbadia. He fought bravely and well. Now, my people, enjoy the breaking of your fast, for it will not be long before the second match of the Tournament begins!”