Dancing on the Edge
Terin spoke to Hennesy in a normal tone of voice once he got back within earshot, saying “I see your boys are ready to begin. Lieutenant, do you want to count off the mark?”
Lieutenant Darling stood up straight from his slouched position, and prepared to begin the count. As he did, Terin couldn’t help but contrast the training methods he used here, with what the real thing was like in the field.
Here, the shields never broke under the impact of the soft lead swords. They always lasted for the whole match, absorbing what should have been crippling punishment. In the field, you learned to make your own shields quickly, or find an improvisation, and be grateful for whatever you could get to hold them together. And no matter what you did, they still were shattered and useless after only a brief skirmish with the massive Orc foes. Terin tried to compensate for the differences by making the trainees work with weapons, armor and shields that were far heavier than the real thing, so that once the time came to use them for real, they would be pleasantly surprised at the light and nimble maneuvers they could attempt and get away with.
With the size of the Orcs, the best tactic for a man to use was speed and mobility in the melee, or to use the weight of a charging horse and proper saddle against them. Trying to stand toe to toe and slug it out just wasn’t the way to train, except for the rare man like Curling Bryant. The Border Guards were equipped and trained as a body based on several generations of experience in fighting the Orcs and pushing them back from the plains and into the mountains, and their tactics emphasised fast marching, nimbleness and the use of cavalry forces as screening units and for flanking manuevers.
What the Duke had allowed Terin to do was bring his recent experiences in fighting the Orc tribes in the high mountains, and the education and instruction techniques he had learned from formal education among the Order, and merge them together into a kind of fast-paced boot camp to bring the best of the Duke’s forces up to speed for this new kind of mountain war.
And with the loss of his own family and people from underestimating the strength the Orcs brought to bear in the high mountains, and how much the loss of mobility on the plains the humans took for granted changed the battlefield, Terin was grateful for the chance to do what he could to prepare others.
As good as he felt the training was, there was still something lacking. Too many of the current generation just hadn’t faced an Orc in battle before, or ever seen one live.
Sometimes Terin wished he had access to just a few small Orc raiding forces to send his boys against, to get them used to the thick of it when they still had strong reserves ready to pull their chestnuts out if the fire got too hot.
Still, a wise man tries to do the best he can with what they give him, and what he can beg, borrow, steal and scrounge. Terin sighed heavily. “Well, no sense wasting time worrying over what I haven’t got!”
Lieutenant Darling called out the first of the descending count. “Three!”, “Two!”, “One!”.
The team of three young men tensed in the ring. At Darlings’ shout of “Go!”, the three boys immediately split apart, Lawrence and Dickson spreading out, sliding sideways in either direction, keeping their backs always along the outer edges of the circle, while the third, Grant, took two steps forward but remained squarely in front of Mikkelson.
Grant stopped, and tossed his shield out of the circle behind him, before gripping his lead broadsword tightly in both hands.
Before Grant’s partners had made it more than halfway around the outer perimeter of the circle to complete their flanking manuevers, Mikkelson made a sudden lunge across the center, headed directly for Grant. The lunge turned into a barrel roll in midair, and with a deceptively light impact upon the sand Mikkelson rolled forward towards Grant at high speed. Lawrence and Dickson immediately changed from circling at the flanks to close in quickly towards the center of the ring at a flat run.
Grant faced Mikkelson’s incoming roll, settled his balance low to the ground, with one leg stretched far behind the other in a knee front solid stance, a braced posture well designed to withstand a mighty impact but flexible enough to react quickly. He clenched his sword in a two handed grip, in a high overhead strike pose. Grant clearly expected Mikkelson to try to roll right into his lower body to knock him out of the ring.
From past experience, the trainees had learned that it was very nearly impossible to score a solid hit on an ‘instant kill’ area of the body while Mikkelson was rolling around like that, or worse yet when he took to windmilling in a controlled spin, and Mikkelson always twisted into hopping spins at the last moment as he came in, making it nearly impossible to anticipate where his focus would be next. Grant seemed to be setting himself to try to remain unmoved by any first impact, while ready to swing with such power from a high guard that Mikkelson would have no choice but to pause, and block it with his blade or shield or run the risk of suffering serious physical damage from the impact.
As Mikkelson, still rolling in a ball at high speed, reached near to Grants’ front knee and by sheer momentum was committed to the low offense, Grant suddenly tossed his sword away behind him overhead, flying to land well out of the ring near his shield.
With the sword still spinning through the air, Grant lunged, kicking off with his front leg to leap forward into a brutal tackle, crashing into Mikkelson, arms flailing to grapple him in a full-body bear hug.
The manuever left Grant totally wide open to blows against the legs from Mikkelson’s trapped sword, but it served to keep Mikkelson well and truly pinned down for the first time in Terins’ memory.
Sergeant Hennesy looked over at Terin and grinned a big gap-toothed grin as he said “Well sir, I didn’t think Mikkelson would allow for one of the boys sacrificing hisself so that the other two could get a clear shot. Up ‘til now, all the boys have fought as individuals, even though they were three on one against him, cause all of ‘em have been afraid of looking bad on the scoreboard.”
“Mikkelson is a pure devil in the ring, so he might still come out ahead, if the boys give him a chance, but they’re gonna work as a team, as soldiers are supposed to do, and they seem willing enough to sacrifice one of themselves if doing it means taking Mikkelson down at last. Mikkelson hasn’t really faced a team working together to coordinate their attacks, and this time I think he’s gonna fall.”
Sergeant Hennesy’s prediction seemed to be accurate as Mikkelson, thrashing about wildly and trying to bring his sword to bear, remained trapped, sword and shield arms held tightly against his body by the wrapped arms and legs of Grant. Mikkelson scored multiple minor hits on Grants lower legs, coating the lower leather leggings with tar scrapings, but it was Grants’ upper thighs that gripped his legs, and there was no way for him to get leverage to break free.
As Mikkelson rolled around in the circle, Grant holding on for dear life, Lawrence and Dickson moved up until they were almost within reach, squatting down with shields raised to maintain defense against a possible low slash if Mikkelson were to break free, swords held steady and ready to jab forward at the first opening.
Baron Trendel made a grunt of approval as he saw that both Lawrence and Dickson were maintaining their defenses, and were assuming nothing where Mikkelson was concerned.
No one was prepared for what happened next, however, as Grant suddenly howled in mortal agony, releasing Mikkelson and contorting into a sobbing ball of pain on the sand.
Lawrence in particular seemed to be stunned and momentarily frozen in shock at the sudden change in his brother, but Mikkelson waited for nothing. With blinding speed he twisted on the sand, spinning away from Grant’s huddled body and uncoiling like a striking serpent, slamming his legs sideways against Lawrences’ shield, still held low and ready by the squatting boy. The sudden twisting blow to the side of the shield knocked Lawrence off balance, despite his braced posture, and as he struggled to twist back to face Mikkelson, the boy completed his spin, and as his head turned closest towards Lawrence, the soft flat lead of Mikkelsons’ blade arced up from below, passing under Lawrences’ guard in a snake-quick thrust to impact squarely on his balls. Even through the cup he wore, Lawrence went white with the sudden pain, as the watching crowd sucked in a hissing breath in sympathy, and Lawrence joined his brother in collapsing to the sand of the circle.
Suddenly finding himself alone against Mikkelson, who still lay upon his back as he spun around on the hot sand, his comrades curled up in agony and out of the fight, Dicksons’ face turned white as a sheet.
He wasted no time on panic, and responded quickly as though he had been prepared for all his teams’ plans to fall apart. Dickson let loose with a battle cry, and sprang forward in a desperate direct frontal lunge, clearly trying to take the initiative of the battle and the advantage of the high position before Mikkelson could rise from his back in the sand, maybe in the hopes that putting Mikkelson on the reactive would gain him the advantage. Perhaps too, he hoped that Mikkelson was at least a little shaken by all of the rolling and spinning around.
Baron Trendel frowned for a moment, because it seemed like an awfully obvious ploy that had never worked before.
But both Terin and Mikkelson ended up surprised when Dickson shifted aim at the last second to dip the tip of his blade and bounce it off Mikkelsons’ extended left toe.
As Lieutenant Darling shouted “Point, Dickson!” in recognition of the first legal blow struck in the match, Mikkelson flushed in shame while Sergeant Hennesy whooped in joy.
“That’s what I was looking for, sir! These sparring circles are a great idea, but our rules don’t care how hard you hit someone, or whether it was a real crippling blow or not. All we tell the boys is, is to make their mark on the limb to cripple it. They’ve been playing for real blows for so long, acting like it’s real as is good and proper, that I’d noticed nobody had caught on yet that just a tap on any part was as good as a crushing strike. Now Dickson’s alone for the moment, it’s true, but Lawrence or Grant could still come around, neither have suffered an officially judged death blow or crippling strike yet, and Mikkelson’s gonna haveta hop around on his right leg!”
Terin couldn’t help but grin at the way Hennesy had made the rules work for the three boys in this match. They had clearly had a solid plan and some good tricks to work with, but even better, he’d gotten them to stay flexible and not let Mikkelson take command of the initiative. He got them doing the attacking, even at the planned expense of one of their own, to make Mikkelson react to them, and keep him off balance. They hadn’t overwhelmed him, and their plan had quickly fallen apart in the first rush, but they had kept their heads, improvised on the fly, and had already done better than any other group had done. What’s more, it was pretty obvious that the other watching trainees were making note of the way things were going. All things considered, he was getting more valuable instruction pounded into the trainees’ heads by this one match than he’d managed in the last two months of duels combined.
As Lieutenant Darling counted off the mark for the two to resume fighting, Mikkelson now hopping on his right leg while his left was strapped up to the thigh by Sergeant Hennesy, Lawrence started showing signs of regaining control of himself enough to rejoin the match.
Just as Darling called the “Go!” command and the fight resumed, however, Mikkelson hopped directly across the circle, within reach of and past Lawrence, nailing him across the chest with his sword as he passed, leaving a deep black smudge. Lieutenant Darling shouted “Deathblow, Mikkelson!”, and several of the watching trainees winced to see Lawrence taken out of the match for good, with Grant still showing no signs of recovery. Curled up tight in a ball, sobbing his guts out, Grant remained oblivious to the events going on in the circle. According to the rules, the combatants could not move, or leave the circle, until the match was over. And neither could anyone enter to help.
As Mikkelson was hopping past Lawrence, Dickson hadn’t been standing idle. Terin noticed that Dickson had surreptitiously loosened his grip on his shields’ straps as he maneuvered to keep his face to Mikkelson and the edge of the sparring circle at his back.
Mikkelson didn’t seem to notice, but Terin did, and glanced over towards Hennesy, only to see him grinning again. The grin disturbed Terin, because the only thing he could think Dickson was getting ready to do would be to throw his shield at or past Mikkelson to distract him, and that wouldn’t work, since the instructors trained all the trainees to know better than to be distracted by a feint across a true line of attack. And then Terin realized that, when he was going over the training plan, he had added the specific lessons to avoid distraction from tricks just like this later in the curriculum. It was such an amateur thing for a skilled fighter to do, that he fit it in as an afterthought.
Throwing away your shield in battle was a foolish thing to do, so he’d never thought to anticipate that in the circle duels, it didn’t matter if you were without a shield at the end of a single match. That nobody had tried to blind an opponent by kicking sand in their face before this was a miracle. It was Terins’ duty, and to a lesser extent, his lieutenants’ and sergeants’ to see to it the men were trained to know better, and in this area, he’d completely missed the mark.
Right on cue, as Mikkelson turned his full attention on Dickson, and started to approach almost within reach, Dickson whirled as if to turn away from Mikkelson, pivoting on the ball of his foot, his shield arm swinging in an arc, building up momentum, and at the end of the arc his shield went flying loose from the force of his swing, taking it right towards Mikkelson’s face. Mikkelson reacted with blinding speed, and spinning on the ball of his own right foot he parried the high attack hard with his sword. But even as he committed to the high parry, Dickson planted his opposite foot hard and kicked off, pivoting fast, reversing the direction of his spin, wrenching back around to face Mikkelson’s exposed side in a painful-looking overextended maneuver, clearly planning to jab with his sword at Mikkelson’s exposed ribs.
What happened next could only be possible for someone with Mikkelson’s unbelievable natural grace. As the sword blow came in towards Mikkelson’s back, even though he was facing almost completely opposite the direction of the blow and totally invested in the strength necessary to follow through his parry of the shield, somehow he still sensed the attack and, instead of trying to stop and twist back around to block, he continued through on his spin, increasing speed, whipping around with lightning quickness, left knee of the bound leg flying out as a partial counterweight to his momentum, squatting in height, to bring his sword around just in time to knock away Dicksons’ thrust in a hard parry, all in one complete smooth motion. As the watching trainees erupted in spontaneous applause, even the ones that had bet against Mikkelson, the farm boy completed his impossible maneuver by coming to rest in a ready guard position, shield tucked in and close, sword held steady across the chest, looking like a grim leather-clad ostrich perched on the ball of his one right foot, facing the now shieldless Dickson with a focused black stare. Dickson began to backpedal, trying to put distance between them, but he was too weak on the parry, too dependant on his shield to block for him, to stand for more than a second against the flurry of stabbing blows Mikkelson unleashed upon him. Stabbed in the chest, arms and legs multiple times, he fell backwards on his butt in the sand, covered in sticky black marks.
For a moment, it seemed Mikkelson hadn’t realized he won. Even with the Lieutenant shouting “Deathblow, Mikkelson, and Match!”, he looked wary, as though expecting another attack from any corner, his eyes unfocused, balanced still and unmoving on his one foot, and gazing, eyes unfocused, at nothing at all.
He proved to be correct, when, from his position huddled prone on the sands, Grant raised his tear stained face, his features contorted with rage and hate, gave a wheezing cough, and cried, “That’s it, you motherless son of a whore! I challenge you to face me like a man, you honorless bastard! You worthless, cheating, bastard cocksucker! I’ll have your guts for this!”
Everyone stopped their cheering instantly and turned in shock to look down at Grant, the stocky fighter that had courageously thrown away shield and sword to grapple and restrain Mikkelson, lying propped up on one arm on the sand, glaring in blind fury at Mikkelson. The tracks of his tears had worn grooves in the sand covering his face, his nose was bloody, one eye had already started to blacken, and his left hand remained clamped over his balls. Pain warred with rage over his face as he shouted again, for all to hear, “I challenge you! You have no honor at all! You crushed my balls with your HAND, you bastard! I’ll fucking KILL you!!!”