The Apostate Saint: Chapter 6 – The Grand Melee

Swordplay was not Alaric’s greatest love. Sure, it was good exercise and he was a natural at it, but it was all just a distraction from the arts – music, in particular. His parents weren’t fond of his obsession with playing music, painting and sculpting, but Alaric was obedient to their will, so he was able to pursue his true passion in his spare time without too much objection. Still, it always seemed that the more he did to make them happy, the more they expected out of him. The pace was quickly becoming unsustainable. They wanted a son who was all man, all the time, and that meant that anything that didn’t fit in their idea of manhood didn’t really have a place in Alaric’s life. Winning the melee exhibition was the only feasible opportunity Alaric would have to finally have some breathing room.

It was interesting, to say the least, for Alaric to witness the disruption that this stranger had caused for all of the people whose smug self-importance had gone so long unchecked. Although he was not privy to what conversations must have ensued at the emergency Senate meetings, he knew his father well enough to know that the establishment was in a panic. If the stranger was truly the Son, then the City would no longer require an all-powerful Senate to control every aspect of society. Power would again rest in the hands of a new Prime Consul. No matter how the story was to play out, it was interesting to Alaric to see changes unfolding before him. He was starting to get bored of the plan that had been laid out for his life.

The hour was at hand for the battle to commence. Alaric and all of the other young nobles with whom he was well-accustomed to sparring were there, along with several others that he didn’t recognize. Most of the contenders were younger, but a few of them were more seasoned – those that were part of minor Houses but didn’t have any real influence in the Senate. Everybody wanted to bring glory to their family name, and that raw ambition was about to be exposed publicly for the whole City to see, in a grand symphony unlike anyone had experienced. Alaric was happy to exhibit his talents in front of so many people at once, but he would have preferred it if it were an instrument of love in his hand rather than an instrument of war.

There hadn’t been a need for anyone to train for actual combat since shortly after the Fall of Man, simply for the fact that there were no foreign countries left outside of the City with whom to wage war. Alaric bet that most of the people in this gathering were no more than actors playing the part of real warriors, pretenders dressed in fancy costumes carrying fancy swords with nothing of substance to support their claim they had any right to be there. Still, they would know Alaric was a talented swordsman and that would mean all of the pretenders would be climbing over one another to be the one to make him yield. Alaric would have to play this song carefully.

After the opening ceremony, when each swordsman was announced one-by-one, Alaric nearly had to rub his eyes to remove the haze that had set in. There were in total sixty three or sixty four swordsmen lined up – Alaric had lost count somewhere along the way, however. He was fairly certain there were sixty three, but the nagging need for nicely rounded numbers made him convince himself that there were sixty four. It was hard to keep track, when some people there had two names, others had all three and a few even just had their given name. Alaric assumed only those with given and family names would pose any kind of challenge as Solumians couldn’t afford the high price of a sword.

Regardless of everything else, this was a dangerous exercise and Alaric needed to be ready for the worst. The best-trained swordsmen would know to stop their blades from doing permanent harm to their opponents. He wasn’t so sure the rest of the lot would be able to hold back. Alaric wore his padded armor, so he at least was assured that any blows that he sustained would be met with some resistance outside of flesh and bone.

The herald called for everyone to find a place. Alaric worked to keep as many of the other contenders in front of him as possible. He excelled at predicting when and how a combatant would strike, but he didn’t have eyes on the back of his head.

He stretched one last time and focused on his breathing as he started imagining the onslaught that he was about to have to endure. So many eyes were upon him, from the other challengers in their wildly varying attire to the masses gathered to watch. In the corner of his eye, Alaric saw somebody pointing to him while talking to the Son on his high seat. For a fleeting moment, Alaric met the Son’s eyes and time seemed to stand still. His heartbeat rang through his ears, louder, even, than the crowds cheering for the game to begin. Counting down in eight-four time, his mind was already at tempo and ready to begin the melody.

Alaric mentally began to recite one of the songs he thought of so often to prepare himself for a longer bout. It was “Heroes of the City,” the rhythmic ode to the great heroes of the civil war of the Second Age.

Flames glowing in the depth of the dark night
A constellation of the peril that surrounds them
Ready to pounce in a heartbeat, to take flight
Drums beating, dread creeping, the night hounds them
The tired warriors with broken ranks
Shut down at every opportunity
Unprotected from further flanks
As the enemy continues to kill with impunity
Lie waiting in their bed rolls covered with sweat
Broken and beaten a hundred times before
Wounds throbbing so they never can forget
They’re living in the middle of a war
But who are these men
Who remain when so many others were defeated?
I ask again, who are these men
Whose hardened will has never been depleted?
Who are these men
Who withstood every arrow dropping like rain?
Who are these men?
They are heroes of the City and we will honor their names.

Trumpets blasted. The battle had begun.

Immediately, Alaric was assaulted by four lesser nobles who came in with his death reflecting in their eyes while the entire field became a cacophonous clash of steel on steel. Alaric deftly dodged the first swing, shifting left in an attempt to draw all of the men into a tighter line. Knowing that he couldn’t allow them to surround him, he did what he could to limit their space. Alaric was an excellent duelist, but four-on-one was simply not a situation that Alaric wanted to participate in. He needed to find any opportunity he could to limit his active foes.

Alaric feinted toward the furthest assailant to bring him in line. It worked, but the closest combatant was now within successful striking distance again. Alaric met his blade directly, deflecting it. He followed up with a swift movement that pierced the man’s shoulder just enough to disable his offense.

On to the next opponent.

Alaric wasted no time and met the next man’s blade. He shifted back and dropped the angle of his blade far enough to cut the man’s side, making sure to leave a gash in his skin just below his padding. The attacker reeled back, leaving room for the third attacker to attempt his gambit. Alaric put his weight behind a backswing the hilt of his blade, crashing it hard against the man’s skull. It wouldn’t kill him, but it certainly would give him a terrible headache after the quarrel.

The last of the four attackers managed to hit Alaric, but the force he used only left a surface cut in Alaric’s padding. Rather than reacting to the pain from the blow, Alaric instead spun around in the direction of the hit to mitigate the force of the man’s swing. Alaric came back hard and disarmed the man, sending his sword flying. Alaric pointed his gladius at the man’s face, signaling only once before raising his sword into the air.

“Yield.” The man went to collect his sword and whatever was left of his pride.

The rest of the attackers were still live targets and needed addressed, but Alaric had already sized them up in his head. He had broken the first wave and managed to turn the tide. The man Alaric had stabbed in the shoulder let out a cry as he aimed to bring down his sword upon Alaric’s head. Alaric moved out of the way just fast enough to avoid the blow that certainly would have taken him out of competition and was about to swing a counterattack against him when the third man whom Alaric had struck in the head swung upon him. He had blood trailing from his nose but the look of desperation he gave was all Alaric needed to know about him. Alaric parried twice, three times and then swept the man’s legs as he sacrificed his footing. Pressing the tip of his sword against the man’s neck, Alaric forced him yield.

The man who had his side cut by Alaric apparently only wanted to tend to his wound, which allowed Alaric the opportunity to combat the shoulder wounded man alone. Alaric feinted a strike to the man’s other shoulder, and when he overreacted in order to protect himself, Alaric brought his blade down on the man’s under-protected thigh. He yelped in pain and shortly found the tip of Alaric’s blade pointed at his nose. He spat and yielded.

The remaining man just shook his head and continued to hold his side. He simply averted his eyes and walked away. He didn’t even bother to properly yield.

Now that Alaric had won his initial fight, he could properly assess the field. Several bodies were strewn across the grounds. Some of them, bloodied and gasping for air, were being dragged away by their feet. Others, lifeless, had already met their end. It was simply barbaric that this could be allowed to happen. There was no place for useless slaughter in this sport. Alaric felt immediately that some kind of innocence was lost in the sophisticated sport when he saw the pained faces of the dead men lying nearby.

As Alaric surveyed the fighters, he was glad to see that, apart from a large group off in the distance, most of the remaining groups of fighters were engaged in one-on-one duels – as he felt it should have always been. Alaric waited until an opportunity came up for him to meet with another fighter for an honorable duel, and he picked just the one he wanted. He was excited to see that his class rival Geilamir Aurumantian remained. Alaric felt much more comfortable in man-to-man combat than heaped up in conflict with a mindless horde with death on their minds.

“Nice to see you’re alive,” Geilamir said. “What was it, four brutes that came for you? How did you manage that feat?” He extended his sword arm and started to circle Alaric, in the same way he always had done when they were squaring off.

“Just did what I felt was right at the time,” Alaric said. “And you? How many did you have to fend off?”

Geilamir gave a shaky half-smile that Alaric couldn’t quite place. “Five, but thankfully not all at once.” He shifted his eyes at the ground behind Alaric but shook it off quickly and focused again. “Shall we?” he said. The two tapped the tips of their blades together and continued their exercise.

They clashed, as they had many times before. Alaric usually came out on top, but Geilamir always gave him a run for his money. This time, however, Alaric sensed a lot more desperation in Geilamir’s strikes. It made sense – there was a lot more at stake this time than bragging rights.

There was so much of their training exhibited in each of their strikes that Alaric found himself getting comfortable despite Geilamir’s extra effort. In his mind, Alaric sang the refrain to the battle chant over and over, as he so often did when he engaged in duels. Songs were one of his greatest secrets for how he could always leave his opponents guessing.

But who are these men
Who remain when so many others were defeated?

Clang! Their swords bounced off of each other, each of them regaining perfect control of their weapons after each strike.

I ask again, who are these men
Whose hardened will has never been depleted?

“Ha!” Geilamir let out a nervous laugh as he kept up with Alaric perfectly.

Who are these men
Who withstood every arrow dropping like rain?

“Hold!” Geilamir said, backing away and motioning behind Alaric. Alaric put room between him and Geilamir to see what had caused him to pause the fight. A clearly poor man with thin black hair and a beard walked toward the two young nobles carrying a bloodied gladius. Every other combatant in the arena was defeated. Geilamir turned back to Alaric. “Let me take handle this one, then we can get back to it.”

Geilamir approached the muscled Solumian with little regard for his size or apparent skill, even though this man had just emerged victorious from a non-trivial group of fighters. Alaric caught his breath as Geilamir began to circle the outsider. Geilamir feinted once to see if he could get the man to make a mistake, but the man didn’t fall for it. Geilamir laughed as he feinted again, this time more convincingly. Still, the man stood stoic, his eyes trained on Geilamir’s. This time, Geilamir went in for a true strike, but, to Alaric’s shock and amazement, the man riposted the blow and pressed in. He utilized the full weight of his body behind his attack. Geilamir’s eyes looked down in disbelief at the blade pressed directly against his throat, his sword cast onto the ground.

Who are these men?

Geilamir yielded.

Suddenly it was down to only two. Alaric didn’t know this man, although he looked just like the man he had said a few words to during the registration. The man approached Alaric, determination flaring in his face. Just who was this man? How could a random Solumian have so quickly and fairly bested Geilamir, who, like Alaric, had been trained by the best instructors ever since he could hold a sword in his hand? This man was unlike any foe Alaric had measured up before, like a mysterious song sung in a foreign tongue – alien to Alaric but still beautiful in its own way. Alaric put up his guard and watched to see what the man would do.

“I’ve been waiting for this opportunity my whole life,” the man said. Alaric tried to gauge how this man would fight based upon his body language, but simply didn’t know how to predict his movement – he wasn’t projecting his movements like the unseasoned fighters Alaric had just defeated. He was strong, though, so Alaric knew his blows would have a lot of force behind them. They squared off and began to circle one another.

Nobody made the first move for many seconds. Alaric always tended to wait until his opponents made the first move to react. That was one of the primary reasons he had been able to beat so many challengers for so many years. So much could be learned about a fighter in the first half-second of their attack, but this man was not giving Alaric what he needed. The crowd’s cheering and jeering grew louder as Alaric saw the remainders of the bodies being carted away from the field out of the corner of his eye.

It was when the crowd’s noise grew loudest that Alaric betrayed his own governing strategy and went in for the first strike. Perhaps it was the musician in him that made him do it, the poetry of striking as the noises crescendoed overtaking him and causing him to make a terrible mistake.

The man parried the sword and immediately counter-attacked. He swung hard and fast, and if it were not for Alaric’s padded armor, he would have been sliced through from top to bottom of his chest. It hurt, regardless of the armor, and Alaric was forced to jump back, nearly losing his footing. The man gave no quarter, however, and pressed in for another strike. Alaric just barely managed to dodge the attack and couldn’t even form a counter-attack without sacrificing his footing. Not only was he on the defensive, he was actually losing this fight.

Just as Alaric felt the nagging thought of failure trying to take root within him, he noticed something that he would be able to use to his advantage. The man’s sword from far away looked like slightly different than the gladiuses that Alaric had seen most commonly used by nobility. Upon further inspection, he could see clearly the faults in its make. Right in the middle of the blade, there was a weakness that Alaric could potentially exploit.

The man swung down upon Alaric and Alaric met the blade this time with his own, directly in the spot that Alaric had noted. The sword remained intact, which caused Alaric to feel the whole force of the man’s blow. It sent an offensive shock up the entire length of his arm. The man swung again and Alaric again defended with his sword striking the same place on the man’s sword. This time, Alaric was barely able to maintain a grip on his sword as the shockwaves traveled all the way up his back and into his spine. The man took three more paces in a circle around Alaric and brought his sword down one last time upon Alaric.

This time, Alaric’s theory was proven right. The sword shattered in twain from the force of the attack, the lion’s share of the blade deflecting away aimlessly. Alaric actually felt bad for the man as he saw the look of surprise come over his face. Alaric held his sword to the man’s chest. He had beaten him only thanks to the superior make of his own blade.

The Solumian challenger hung his head and yielded, much to the excitement of the audience. Alaric had won the melee against all odds and had secured his place upon whatever new path was destined for him.

After being hoisted up and celebrated by the crowds, Alaric allowed the excitement to pour through him. He almost didn’t realize that the Son of the Toriad had come down from his high place to meet him. Suddenly, the crowds split and it was just Alaric and the Son.

“You have fought bravely and have proven you have what it takes to join my crusade,” the Son said. “But you are not the only sword I require. I call upon the two runners-up to join us as well, for we will need their strength in the coming trials.”

Geilamir met Alaric’s eyes and immediately burst out in laughter. He made his way to Alaric and embraced him. Together, they had achieved something that would bring great honor upon their Houses. They held their swords up high, basking in the glory of the moment.

And even though the dark haired man had also won his own glory, he had no sword to raise. He stood lost in thought, away from the center of the crowd, holding the shards of his sword in his hands. A moment later, too many celebrants obscured his vision of the man who had nearly beaten him, and then the words of triumph rang through Alaric’s head.

They are heroes of the City and we will honor their names.

2 thoughts on “The Apostate Saint: Chapter 6 – The Grand Melee”

  1. Again, I find this story thrilling. I can’t wait for the next installment!

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