Tactics and Tailors
He raised his sword to guard against the tremendous weight of the blade crashing down upon him. The odors of sweat and dirt filled his nostrils as the threat of death filled his mind. Sharp metal slashed against sharp metal. He took a step back. The blade sprung towards his left side this time. Deftly, he rotated his own saber and placed it between the deathblow and himself. The man pushed against it making his opponent retreat a few steps. Now, he was on the offensive. Quickly, he charged.
Push forward. Push forward.
Forward thrust. Side swipe.
Side swipe, feint, rotate wrist.
Move to block.
The crowd surrounding the two combatants erupted in cheers. The man reached down and retrieved his opponent’s sword lying in the dust. His challenger, a young man, held out a shaking hand. He delicately placed the saber into it, and the two of them bowed to one another. The younger man stalked off happy to be alive, but not quite sure what had happened. Another young lad from the crowd stepped forward.
“Sergeant Preston, how do you make it look so easy?”
“Practice. Years of practice,” he said quietly sheathing his sword. Then he barked, “Attention!”
Immediately, the clanging of shields and armor silenced as the men snapped their heels together and stood tall.
“I propose a challenge. Winner receives an invitation to the Captain’s Feast this eve.”
Immediately, a large crowd of men sprang forward.
“Loser must keep guard along the ridge, unaccompanied.”
“But, sir, the frosts. No one can survive them,” one said.
“If that is his fate,” Preston said stone-faced.
All but two of the men retreated. The sergeant examined them in great detail.
“So – there are still men of valor left in the realm. Draw your weapons.”
Their swords scraped against the metal on their sheaths that hung about their hips. The soldiers stood facing each other. The first combatant lifted his blade high above his broad shoulders exposing his rib cage. He angled his body so as to make himself as small as possible behind his circular shield.
His guard is too high, Preston thought.
The second warrior held his steel directly in front of his shield. He set his stocky frame shoulders-width apart baring the fullness of his chest to his opponent.
He is too cocky.
Preston stood in their midst. “The fight will continue until the first stain of red falls on this dust.” Both men nodded their head without moving any other muscle. “Begin!”
The crowd of men circled around the contestants cheering with bloodlust.
The two warriors circled each other, evaluating the other. The tall soldier kicked a few small pebbles toward his opponent.
Don’t take the bait, Preston coached in his head.
When he didn’t react, the first soldier moved in closer.
Dust filled his nostrils. The must made it difficult to breathe, but he refused to spend the night on the ridge.
The stocky soldier had been in this position before. The fear in his stomach was familiar, yet he knew he only narrowly escaped last time. The scar on his side was his constant reminder.
The first man attacked swinging his sword wildly overhead from side to side. The blade crashed upon his opponent’s shield.
The second combatant thrust his bronze disk away from him throwing off the blade. With his free hand, he swung his sword horizontally across his rival’s chest. It caused a deep gash in the breastplate.
“Good, Merek,” Preston said.
The first warrior took three considerable steps backward. Merek saw the momentary hesitation and leapt upon him. He charged forward using his shield as a weapon to cut out the man’s feet under him. The tall soldier jumped and narrowly missed the hit. Merek did not let off. He swung his sword with a strong backhand toward the other’s helmet. But he did not hit his mark for the sword was met by a shield. A terrible crash resonated throughout the arena.
“Well countered, Fendrel,” Preston coached again.
The two men returned to their circular berth neither finding the other’s weakness. The restless crowd jeered at them.
How sickening! These men were unwilling to stand in combat, but all too willing to see a brother bleed. Preston spat upon the ground.
At the taunting, the two men became incensed. They no longer strategized, but instead were compelled to fight with blind aggression.
Fendrel thrust his blade forward.
Merek parried and countered.
Fendrel sidestepped and followed with a right hook catching Merek just under the bronze helmet.
Merek was taken aback. He returned the blow with one to Fendrel’s chest using his shield.
Fendrel felt the full weight of the hit as it cracked the armor along the fault that had been created earlier.
Clamors for blood rang out.
Fendrel tore off his splintered breastplate and felt the fresh breeze blow across his sweat soaked torso. The move was more psychological than physical. He continued the battle fully exposed.
Now this I have never seen before.
Block and reversal.
Merek tried to take advantage of the open back, but Fendrel anticipated it. He swung his broadsword behind him and felt the twang of another blade hitting it. He spun around and swung his sword in a vertical circle striking Merek’s out of his hands. It rattled into the dust beyond the crowd.
“Sword, sword. I need a sword.”
He looked around frantically for someone to provide him a weapon. But Preston barked an order.
“Sheath you swords! Neither will receive assistance from you.”
Merek was trapped. He had no way to fight. His fate was sealed.
He made an unexpected sprint towards Fendrel and tackled him. The weight of his armor aided in taking him to the ground. He wrestled for the blade and when he couldn’t steal it, he pummeled one fist after another into his enemy’s face. A trickle of blood seeped from his mouth, and he was obviously dazed. Merek pulled himself off of his opponent and stood tall over him. The man did not move. The sergeant moved over to the men.
“Make your next move.”
“Yet, there is still breath in his lungs.”
“You would have me kill a fellow soldier?”
“He yet breathes,” Preston said again.
“Sir, I can’t.”
“If you cannot finish an enemy when he is down, you are unfit for the Sovereign’s army. Make no mistake, your enemies will not hesitate to kill you.”
As if in response, Fendrel suddenly awoke and thrust his sword through Merek’s midsection. The blade was diverted, however, by Preston so that it merely gashed his side. A stream of blood oozed onto the dirt.
“Merek, you must leave immediately for your watch on the ridge. Henry will accompany you only long enough to dress your wound. Your watch ends at dawn.”
The diminutive soldier trudged off the field followed closely by a medic. Preston turned his attention to Fendrel.
“You will accompany me to the Feast this eve. Prepare yourself with the finest garb you own. We will meet at sundown on the castle commons. The rest of you! How dare you call yourselves men, let alone soldiers. None of you had the fortitude to seek combat this day, but sought out the blood of one of your comrades. You have disgraced this company.”
He paused for effect.
“You are dismissed.”
At the command, they, in unison, pounded a fist upon their chest and grunted an “Aye, sir!”
The men dispersed and headed for the barracks across the barren field they were standing in. At the same time, another man jogged across the field towards the arena sunlight glinting off of his bronze armor.
“Sir! Captain Royce is requesting a word with you. He says he has urgent business that concerns only you.”
“Of course he does,” he said under his breath. “Tell him I’ll report in five minutes.”
“Aye, sir,” the soldier said then ran off in the direction he had come.
Half an hour later, the captain called Preston into his office in the square, marble building across the training grounds. His demeanor was as cold as he had ever seen. The captain’s face was stone, never betraying the emotions bottled up within. As he shut the large wooden door, an ominous boom echoed throughout the grounds.
“Sergeant, have you seen the condition of your recruits?”
“Then why are they the sorriest waste of space in the entire realm!” the captain said, his nose almost touching Preston’s. “Isn’t your job to turn them into warriors? My God, most days all I see is recruit after recruit headed for the healing quarters. If I had half a mind, I would report you to the Lieutenant for neglect of duty!”
Preston held his tongue as he had been trained. He did not flinch but steadily returned his commander’s gaze.
“Sergeant, I am forced to conclude that this, along with the death of that woman a month ago, takes your leadership ability into serious question.”
Preston cringed at the thought of that poor woman. Though he had dealt swiftly with the offenders, the situation had haunted him ever since.
“And possibly your loyalty,” he added, squaring his eyes at the sergeant. Preston clenched his fists until drops of blood appeared. No one had ever questioned his allegiance before.
Captain Royce took a long while to take in the moment. He did not speak, but rather bored his eyes into Preston. It was as if the moment he had waited so long for had arrived.
“Fortunately for you, those above me do not have the same concerns. You have been given an assignment,” the captain spoke suddenly, his voice echoing off the solid walls. “Lord Elton sent a priceless treasure, which had been in his family for three hundred years, to Lord Dawson for safe keeping during the Great War. The dagger has been a family heirloom for three hundred years. Lord Dawson was returning it when his envoy was attacked. Now, it has gone missing. In two days, you are to take a company of two of your most trusted men and return it safely to the Sovereign. The attack occurred at the crossroads near Rindland.”
“Understood, sir” Preston said.
“One more thing, sergeant.” The words nearly spit out of the captain’s mouth. “Fail, and I will personally see to it that you are stripped of your title and honor and removed from this army.”
“Understood,” he said through clenched teeth.
Preston made an about face and walked out of the small room letting the door slam behind him.