Feigning a Fine Fettle

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The Soul of Combat

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Two doomed men, barely more than boys, rode at the head of a column full of women, children, and elderly out of the Rook’s Gate and underneath an overcast sky that promised wind and rain.

Behind them huddled the town of Korston on its hill. The only thing visible above the line of the town’s crumbling walls were the towers set at opposing ends of the city. One tower, lean and elegant, belonged to the House of Jornis. The other, squat and spartan, belonged to House Darrach. The two families had alternated the rule of the city for centuries.

The centuries had not been kind to the city though. Currently it was little more than a village and the population only dwindled every year. Like a starving man the city had grown lean, its harvests meager and its trade stagnant.

Shuffling along the cracked cobblestone highway, the people were a study in drabness. On a bright day, faded royal purple and deep red clothing could be seen, but on such an overcast day everyone looked grey.

Leon Darrach’s older brother was one of those doomed men. Leon rode near the front of the column, as befit his station, and could see his brother’s back, plated as it was in ornate, albeit dented and scarred, plate. The armor weighed heavily on Gregor Darrach, though he kept his head held high and his back straight. Leon had expected to be in Gregor’s place wearing that armor, had known all his life that today would be the day he died. His father, the head of House Darrach, had made this clear since Leon could remember. Gregor was to succeed as ruler of House Darrach, he was the heir, the one groomed to lead.

But Gregor had invoked his right as first born, a right that even their father could not deny.

The head of the column reached its destination and drops of water began to fall. By the time the end of the column arrived, the ancient battlefield was ringed by a wall of the living and the rain was falling in sheets. In the center lay only splintered bones and shattered weapons, coming up out of the dirt as the rain turned the ground to mud. It was like watching flesh melt of the bones. A massive tower of wood stood in the center of the field.

The men of each family were allowed words with their champion before the battle. Their father had words for neither of them.

As Leon approached, Gregor nodded. “Brother,” he said.

“Gregor. It is not too late, I can still take your place, father-“

“Had two sons if I’m not mistaken; our family will survive. You will do well as its patriarch someday. This is my duty as a son of House Darrach and my honor as your older brother. I will not condemn you to death.” They had argued about this before, but Leon couldn’t help giving it one last attempt. Like father, there was nothing he could do.

Gregor held the flask dangling around his neck up to his face. “Think this will work this time? Will I channel our ancestors when I fall or will I just die with a face full of mud like Uncle Weston did?” He tried to smile, but his mouth merely twitched grotesquely before he shuddered.

Leon put his hand on his brother’s shoulder. Part of him, it shamed him to admit, was relieved by his brother’s adamancy. The rain continued to fall down on their heads as they stood in silence for a few moments. Gregor opened his mouth as if to say something, but then clenched his teeth together, put his helm over his head, and strode out to meet his fate.

A priest blessed each combatant as the city watched and then each drank their vial. Gregor and the Jornis boy, Simon, circled one another as they took the other’s measure. Leon was confident that Gregor could beat Simon once. House Darrach was famed for its finesse in combat and the fine quality of their steel.

He had little faith that Gregor could beat Simon twice.

The priest took a torch and stabbed it into the center of the wooden tower. An inferno blazed up as the dry wood in the center took the spark.

Then a war horn bellowed across the ancient battlefield like a peal of thunder. The two men lunged at one another with sword and shield. Simon seemed to fight with reckless abandon, slashing wildly at Gregor with little regard to the vulnerabilities he opened should his attacks fail. Gregor, despite the numerous opportunities, merely parried Simon’s blows with countering, stepping backwards over the treacherous mire that the field had become.

The city soon realized Gregor was stalling.

“Come on already, I want to see the resurrection!”

“Kill him, you coward!”

“I could fight better with one leg and a wooden sword!”

Leon doubted that Gregor could actually hear any words above the wind, rain, and the clang of steel, but he was certain that he could hear the impatient rumble of the crowd.

The change was immediate. Gregor held his ground, caught Simon’s arcing sword on his own, and began to press forward. The famed Darrach swordsmanship became evident; the Darrachs almost always won the first round. Gregor parried, countered, parried, countered; Simon almost lost his footing in the mud.

Gregor didn’t squander the opportunity. A bright red gash opened between Simon’s helmet and cuirass.

The city roared its approval as Gregor stepped back. Simon’s body fell to the ground, twitching as Simon died in the mud. Silent now, the city held its breath.

Simon’s body contorted obscenely and began to shudder violently as the potion took effect. Then he rose. Blood still spurted out of his open neck. He took his helmet off. Though the face was the same, the eyes weren’t. Simon went to a weapon rack set up a few yards away and selected a war hammer.

Leon wasn’t sure what Jornis ancestor it might be, but the Jornis family across the way seemed to know. They were shouting the name Martin with exaltation.

Martin Jornis, formerly Simon, strode confidently towards Gregor. He swung his hammer with unnatural speed and grace, faster than any mortal man could hope. Gregor barely stopped the thunderous blow, angling it off his shield. Martin recovered from the swing almost instantaneously, despite the incredible momentum of the hammer. He brought the hammer back around and swung it from the opposite direction before Gregor had recovered from the last blow.

Leon saw Gregor crumple to the ground next to the bonfire as the hammer took him in the side. Martin stood over him as the city roared and raised his hammer to finish Gregor.

A sword erupted through Martin’s chest. Martin looked down in shock, his hand wrapping around the steel. The man wielding the blade swung Martin into the fire and held him there as he burned.

When Martin was nothing but a corpse again, Leon pulled his sword out. He stood in the middle of the field over Gregor, his blade painted red. What have I done?

Some random thing I wrote a long time ago, thought I might as well post it here.

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