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!”

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Parenting Tips

Posting for the first time in a while to share some parenting advice.

So last year, one of my twin daughters mocked a handicapped kid at school, grabbed a bunch of boys’ crotches and laughed about it, called a classmate fat, said “you have to treat the teachers like shit,” stood up in the cafeteria and loudly said that Muslims should not be allowed to attend her school until “that whole thing can be sorted out,” told a teacher she couldn’t grade her essay fairly because she was “a Mexican,” said that if other schools didn’t have good sportsmanship during football games we should assassinate their families, called kids from Paterson rapists, lied about how dangerous the hallways were, called a fellow student who put one of her friends in the hospital a “passionate guy,” told a teacher who needed to pump breast milk on her lunch break “disgusting,” told a teacher she should shut up because she was probably on her period, spent MONTHS telling anyone who would listen that the principal was probably not born in the US and should not have his job, lied about giving money to the bake sale, called a guidance counselor who is part Native American “Pocahontas,” said that teachers with kids should stay home and change their diapers, never said a word about all of the love notes she was getting from the KKK, called a football player who intentionally drilled an opponent and paralyzed him, “a great player,” suggested a classmate’s father killed the mayor, told a lunch lady she should not be allowed to man the cashier because she was not pretty enough, repeatedly asked the principal why we couldn’t just go to rival schools and smash windows and set them on fire, said she wished she could punch classmates who disagreed with her in the face, compared her sacrificing time to do homework to a classmates’ father who lost a leg in Afghanistan, insulted more than 200 people at the school, took money from a bake sale to buy a picture of herself to hang in her room, told classmates to “watch out for kids from Paterson trying to get into the school play,” lied about a classmate having made a sex tape, called a female janitor “Miss Piggy,” and called poor classmates “morons.”

What a scamp.

Oh! And my other twin daughter did a really shitty job of managing her e-mails, so we had her arrested.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Kids Seem to Love It

So while I may pop in here from time to time, I thought it worth sharing that I've a Tumblr now, called Moments. The basic idea is to share discrete, isolated moments from pop culture pieces that strike me as worthy of noting.

Take a gander, won't you?

Until Whenever

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

2015 - Books Read

Here they are - the books I read in 2015. 30 in all. Not a bad year, but I'd certainly like to read more in 2016. Wouldn't we all?

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams – Stephen King
A wonderful story collection with maybe my favorite King tale ever at its center. (Herman Wouk Is Still Alive)

A Terry Teachout Reader – Terry Teachout
A collection of essays from one of my favorite culture writers. A wonderful overview of Sondheim in here, as well as an amusingly out-of-date piece on “quality TV” that suggests no TV series can ever stand as a true classic given that no one ever revisits an entire series the way they do a great novel or film. In today’s streaming and Peak TV world, that is simply no longer true.

Career of Evil – Robert Galbraith
The third in JK Rowling’s mystery series, the goriest, page-turniest, most personal one to date. Love that she has an ongoing mystery series going. It’s a good fit for her talents.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic – Alison Bechdel
Having listened to the cast album of the musical based on this graphic novel, reading it expanded and clarified some of the story, themes, and characters. A wonderful, personal, heart-breaking tale that never wallows in sentimentality.

Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink – Elvis Costello
An idiosyncratic, time-hopping, detail-stuffed musical memoir. I remain undecided if a firmer editorial hand would have made it better or snuffed out the flame of its shaggy charm.

Ms. Marvel, Vols 1-3 – G. Willow Wilson
Fun, feminist comics about a young Muslim teen in Jersey City navigating becoming a superhero.

Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets – David Simon
Exhaustively, devastatingly reported year in the life of the Homicide detectives in Baltimore. A dense, challenging read but a lively, passionately told one. One of those books that really opens a window on a world you thought you knew (here, from TV), but did not.

The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory – John Seabrook
A look at how pop hits are manufactured today that was fascinating, but that also felt like, having read excerpts and distillations of the book in two magazines, maybe worked better as a long-form article than a book.

The Children Act – Ian McEwan
Minor McEwan, but still worth reading. A small story about a judge whose marriage is in jeopardy and the legal case that commands her attention during this personal crisis. Explores the ethics of denying medical treatment for religious reasons with intelligence and fairness, but very clearly.

Freedom – Jonathan Franzen
A spellbinding novel about a family and its splintering told with great attention to detail and character. Franzen is a treasure.

Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates
A searing and absolutely riveting personal essay on race and America told as if written as a letter to Coates’ son. The only book I read this year that I *know* I will read again. And again.

Stardancer – Kelly Sedinger
Old-school space opera, with princesses, latent abilities to be discovered, and hidden planets in crisis. Rollicking fun.

Finders Keepers – Stephen King
King attempts to come up with his own series of novels featuring the same detective, as so many have before him and as Rowling has been doing so successfully for the last few tears, but here in his second outing he takes over half the book before actually remembering to, you know, bring the detective back. Still, he manages to make it work, and to craft a wonderfully suspenseful ending.

Forcing the Spring: Inside the Fight for Marriage Equality – Jo Becker
Closely reported accounting of the fight that led to the Supreme Court case calling California’s Proposition 8 unconstitutional.

Red Rising – Pierce Bowen
First in a sci-fi trilogy that felt cobbled by its genesis in other, worthier tales of oppressed heroes rising out of impoverishment to take on the establishment.

The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion – Meghan Daum
Collection of essays that grapple with interesting topics but that were in the end maybe too personal for me to latch on to.

The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins
Captivating mystery/thriller that for me missed the landing.

Bad Faith: When Religious Belief Undermines Modern Medicine – Paul Offit
A hackles-raising accounting of cases where children died because their parents denied medical care for religious reasons and the ongoing efforts to prevent similar tragedies.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End – Atul Gawande
A beautiful, deeply moving, immensely educational and passionate book about how we treat the elderly in this country, both in their later years and as they die. Coates notwithstanding, maybe the best book I read all year.

Paper Towns – John Green
Solid YA from the The Fault of Our Stars author that suffers in comparison to its more famous kin. Still, this is a compassionate, nicely told story about the search for identity in adolescence.

Life of Pi – Martin Yann
One of those books where you read it and say “Ah – now I get the hype.” A beautiful, lyrical mediation on faith.

Revival – Stephen King
Old school-flavored King. The ending was a little familiar and disappointing, but the journey there was fascinating and not a retread of prior stories or characters.

On Immunity: An Inoculation – Eula Biss
A beautiful little book on the history and metaphysical implications of vaccination. A bit pretentious, but sometimes that works just fine.

Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad – Brett Martin
An engrossing look behind the scenes of some of the best TV of the past decade.

Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel
A lyrical, quiet novel about the end of the world. Beautiful.

The Best American Magazine Writing 2014
A pleasure every year. I *love* these collections.

Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
A grand and successful literary experiment that tells connected stories over eons. A great novel that has me itching to read more Mitchell.

Sondheim on Music – Mark Eden Horowitz
I can’t pretend to have understood a ton of this deeply technical series of interviews with Sondheim on the musicology behind his scores, but I found it utterly fascinating all the same. 

Until Whenever