Day two of the tournament pitted Sir Danielle Longbow against Sir Aled Cadogan. Her friend had been a knight for many years while she was a homeless beggar. He’d fought by her side and trained with her. Now they faced each other with swords in their hands.
A crowd of thousands screamed in the stands of the arena. Danielle’s girlfriend Lupita and extended family were watching from the stands below the royal box. Alongside the queen was the new wise one of the cenaga.
The crowds would hush when the bout began.
Danielle closed her eyes.
She tried to shut them all out. She hated crowds, people watching her. It was part of the job. Performance. Risking her life with a sword in her hand was one thing. Thousands of people looking at her while she did it was something else.
Ignore them. All that exists is me and Aled.
“Sir Danielle ‘The Puppet of Fate’ Longbow will now face ‘Afon’s Revenge,’ Sir Aled Cadogan.”
She raised her sword. It was expected. The crowds liked it.
Aled bowed his head to her. She bowed. They donned their helmets. Aled’s was the same one he’d brought with him from the fallen kingdom of Afon. He wore a green tabard of Crann like her, distinguished with Afon Blue sleeves.
Shields raised, they circled.
“I’m glad to be facing you today,” Aled said in the lilting voice of his homeland.
“You enjoy fighting friends?” She asked, looking at the red salmon painted on his shield.
“No. But if we’re going to lose to someone, it should be a friend.” He paced closer as they circled. “I’m glad you defeated the imperial dog yesterday.”
“You’re not going to hold a grudge if I beat you?” Danielle asked, she didn’t want to insult General Linus Lumin. He had been civil after their bout. It was never good to tar an entire nation with the same brush.
“I’ll try not to. Will you promise the same?” He raised a sword as chipped and worn as hers. She knew that it had been handed down through his family, like hers.
“I’ve lost to friends before. Any fight that doesn’t end with blood on my sword is a win in my book.”
“Agreed.” He tapped her sword tip with his. “Come on then. Let’s give them a show.”
Aled lunged. As she had been taught by Lord Castel, Danielle danced aside. He moved past her to the left. She slammed her solid metal shield against his side.
He shook himself. Grunted.
She advanced, leading with her shield. The red horned unicorn of the Longbow crest rammed into his salmon on a grey field. Dust rose in a cloud around their feet as they pushed. He stumbled as her bulk and strength overwhelmed him.
“You and that shield. It’s impossible.”
“Fabian said it’s odd to lead with my shield but it’s how my father fought.”
“I wish I’d seen him fight,” said Aled as they circled again.
“He always threw the second fight so that he could drink his winnings from the first.”
She leapt to his right and slashed her sword down over his, trying to disarm him. He let the momentum swing his arm around. His blade came back at hers.
Danielle heard booing in the crowd.
They looked. Fans of bloody combat had hands cupped around their mouths to protest at the decency of their duel.
“Fine. If that’s what they want.” Danielle threw down her shield and swung at him wildly. “Sorry Aled. We need to play dirty for them. It’s what they want.”
She thrust along his side and kicked his shield. Her foot connected with the Salmon of Afon that was leaping from a stripe of blue across the grey.
“I can fight dirty,” Aled said. He kicked dust at her until it was choking the air around them. “Can you fight what you can’t see?”
His sword pierced the dust cloud. She smacked it down. His hand grasped at air as it fell.
“Want it back?” She asked.
“Don’t stop. We finish this. One way or another.” Aled danced back, shield high.
He ran at her, all his weight behind the shield.
Sir Longbow tripped him.
Aled fell hard, armour clanging. She stood on his back and put her sword to his throat.
With two hands raised, he surrendered.
Taking her foot off she watched him roll over and then offered him her hand.
“Well done,” he said. Getting to his feet without her. “Well, I tried.”
“You fought well.”
“And died an honourable death,” he said. “Drink?”
“Let’s watch the other duel. I want to see Fabian trounce Prince Ozan.”
From the stands, holding Lupita’s hand, Danielle watched her friend. Lord Fabian Castel was a glittering war god in his new armour. He waved to the crowd, his red and black quartered heater shield on his arm. The silver sword on the white crescent moon was newly painted.
Prince Ozan Bayar of Vagral Kingdom wore gold armour more expensive than Fabian’s. Purple feathers danced on the prince’s head as he moved.
Fabian started the fight with lightning-fast stabs, shield dropped in the dust. The prince managed a single stab at Lord Castel with a jewel handled sword.
With his free hand, Fabian grabbed the prince’s sword arm and had his sword at the heir’s neck. Ending the bout just moments after it had started. When the result had been called, Lord Castel pulled his sword away and bowed deeply to the future king of Vagral.
Prince Ozan banged his head off the back of his circular gold shield. The mirrored silver surface hadn’t taken a single hit. After a pause, he nodded to Fabian. They shook hands.
They walked back together in silence.
“LORD FABIAN CASTEL, THE SWORD OF LEONOR, WINS!”
“That was fast,” Lupita said.
“Prince Ozan is known for his success in longer duels,” said Danielle. “He’s a fast learner, studying his opponents. Fabian clearly wanted to keep the prince from learning his moves.”
Most people drank that night. Tournaments were and had always been a long party for the city, bringing in a fortune for the inns and taverns. Leonor, already swollen with immigrants, was full to bursting with people from all over the continent.
Danielle went to bed early, sleeping with her arm around Lupita. Their adopted daughter Nettle snored in her hammock in the next room. Dreaming of her previous duels with Fabian, she slept fitfully.
Morning found her rested but tense. Hours of waiting were a hell she tried to block out by reading the book that Lupita was writing about her. Beautiful illustrations by Prince Consort Carl romanticised every aspect of her struggle.
“Please don’t make battle sound glorious,” Danielle said to Lupita. “You know I hate the way people talk about it. Children saying that they can’t wait to take up a sword and go to war. It’s mad.”
“I’ll write more about your wounds then, shall I?” Lupita asked. Perhaps I should massage them all before you go. You’ll have to take your shift off though.”
“What about Nettle?”
Lupita’s smile was the warm welcome of sunrise. Her lips were deep brown with warm red beneath.
“How could I refuse?”
She didn’t. With Lupita’s hands kneading at her muscles, Danielle relaxed into the bed and fell into a peaceful sleep.
Nothing in the world existed but the ground she stood on and the warrior before her. Fabian had been clear that outside the arena they were friends. On that ground, sword in hand, he would hold nothing back. Fabian would give the fight everything he had. He wanted her to do the same.
A distant roar of people turned to expectant silence.
His father’s sword slid from a red and black scabbard. His family crest was jewelled into the heart of his breastplate.
Danielle drew her sword. Fabian was, like Prince Ozan, a scholar of martial flow. If she let the match drag on, he would wear her down.
She ran, shield raised.
He danced out of her way. Searing pain across her back and shadows on the dust told her he’d got the first strike. Thanking her armour, she turned.
The point of his sword whistled past her ear. Her blade chased it through the air. The two met and kissed with a ringing blow that sent tremors through old wounds in her arm and shoulder.
A stab aimed at her heart missed as she turned side on. The stab became a slash as she moved, catching it on the unicorn of her shield. She thrust the shield into the blow. Hoping it would numb his arm as every blow did hers, she spent strength hammering her metal into his.
He was gone when her shield came down.
Ducking instinctively, she saw his sword sail over her head from behind. She kicked backwards, connecting with something.
He grunted. Shimmering armour bent over in pain from a kick to his left leg.
Danielle’s slash at his head was parried before he’d even looked up.
Testing his leg he stepped back, out of her range. She closed the distance, putting him on the defensive with slash after slash. She had strength over him more than anything. He batted every swipe aside as he moved backwards.
Sir Longbow stabbed at his arm. In slow motion she saw him roll through the air with the grace of a bird in flight. Instead of smacking her with the blade he slammed his pommel into her helmet as he sailed past her.
Ears ringing, seeing spots, she ran for space. Fabian was a skilled fighter because he knew all the good moves and the dirty ones. When times were hard, he won with tactics that set honour aside. He’d shown her that move before, but it took a speed she’d never possessed.
Throwing off her helmet because the world was spinning, Danielle saw him coming at her with a whirlwind of attacks. His blade was moving so fast it was a blur. Most things were blurry.
She blocked, retreating. He pushed her and pushed her. His breathing was a grunting rhythm of martial music. His eyes were shadows in the slits of his helmet.
His leg. I hurt it, she thought.
As she blocked another blur of slashes, she kicked his left leg again. He danced over the kick and tripped her.
Gravity welcomed her into the dust. The ground’s cruel embrace kicked the air from her lungs. She expected a sword at her throat. Rolling onto her front she picked herself up.
Fabian was playing to the crowds, arms raised. He waved her towards him as she had done with General Linus Lumin in her first duel of the tournament. He was playing with her. Danielle doubted he had broken a sweat.
“Come on Fabian. We’re not finished.”
“I hope not,” he said with a voice that told her he was smiling. “I love this. You’ve come so far since I met you. A challenge, more than anyone else who’s faced me so far.”
“You taught me everything I know,” she said.
“But not everything I know.” His voice was that of the villain with an evil grin. He pointed his blade at her again.
“Then we’ll have to practice more often.”
“Starting now!” he raced towards her. When he was close enough, he ducked low and swiped a wide arc towards her ankles.
Danielle jumped and kicked him in the face. “That’s for hitting me with the pommel.” He fell to his side and rolled out of her way. “Get up.”
His dusty armour didn’t shine the way it had. Placing a hand on the Castel crest on his heart he straightened. He met her attacks with his own.
They leapt in and out of range, testing the tips of their swords. Caught together after one tussle the blades slide back and forth, grinding each other.
The two swung their blades together with all their might, their swords met. Fabian’s continued, slowed by the blow. Danielle’s sword snapped, half of the blade spinning up into the air and over her head. She held the broken sword, dumbfounded, as Sir Castel held his sword to her throat.
The world returned with a roar that shook her world as much as her broken heirloom.
“We’ll get it fixed Danielle,” said Fabian. With a hand on her shoulder, he was her friend again. “Lupita’s father can fix anything. Every blade breaks one day. It happened to my father as well, a few times.”
Danielle shook his hand and retrieved the broken blade of her sword.
While most of the city was celebrating Sir Castel’s win, Sir Longbow was at the forge with Atwanda Smith, Lupita’s father.
“It’s an old blade. It was going to happen at some point. Nothing is unbreakable. The walls of Leonor found that out. I can remake it though. The same metal, the same design if you want.” He looked at her. “I had been thinking about swords with some features for fighting monsters, since that’s your job half the time.”
Sweating from the heat of a furnace, she listened. Shock from the destruction and then losing to Fabian dominated her thoughts.
“Silver isn’t a strong metal, not something you make the blade from, but some lines of it worked into the flat of the blade wouldn’t hurt the strength of the sword. It would mean you could use the sword against harpies and vampires and whatever.” Atwanda said it almost casually. He’d had time to process the flood of monsters which had been drawn to the bloodshed of war and faded away afterwards.
“I have some designs if you want to have a look. I know how much the sword means to you Sir Longbow,” he said.
“Danielle, call me Danielle please.” She handed him the handle of the blade. Realising that she was grieving for it was an odd moment. “This and the shield are all I have from my father.”
She felt his hand on her shoulder. He hugged her. “They’re not everything. You fight like him, except you keep going.” Atwanda held her as if she was his own daughter. His arms were among few in the city thicker than hers. Two tree trunks wrapped around her back. Lupita smiled with a sparkle of happy tears in her eyes.
“I can help the forging with magic,” Lupita said.
“No magic, I don’t trust it,” Danielle said.
“Sir Long-” Atwanda stopped himself. “Danielle is right. Swords don’t need magic. Like the trees have told us, magic and swords don’t mix well. I’ll fold the steel to remake this myself. I’ll use the old forge. It will be as good as new, better than before.” He retrieved another sword from racks that covered the walls. “Until it’s ready you’ll need this though. You can’t go without a sword.
Look at my designs, we’ll talk about how many times you want the steel folded. The length is another thing to think about. You should have a drink first.”
“We all should,” Lupita agreed.
“Something stronger than beer,” Danielle nodded. “I need to congratulate Fabian tomorrow. I should be with him.” Fabian deserved his victory; she didn’t want to snub him.
“Tomorrow,” Atwanda put a hand the size of a shovel on her shoulder. “I have some delicious whiskey you should try. Second place in the duels is nothing to be humble about, especially against Lord Castel.”
They drank. They talked. Danielle calmed enough to talk about what she wanted from her remade sword. In the dark of night, she walked home with Lupita, hand in hand.