Dusk was upon them, the hue of an orange sky looming into the courtyard. Shuffling feet sailed through the sand, followed by a threesome clash of wood and punctuated by a dull thud of flesh, ending it all with a man driven to one knee.
Silence was instant and kept in check by two dozen surrounding onlookers, their faces taut and their staring intent on the duelists. Back in the centre the man on his knee looked up in pain; Stelinger’s devious smile belied his anger.
Cid took a step back, his own flare of rage dissipating, yet his white-knuckled fists remained painfully clenched on the staff. The two men held each other’s gaze until Stelinger finally stood up, the tension between them tangible, Cid taking another step back.
From the side the booming voice of the Commander called the duel in Cid’s favour and announced round 12. The respite was brief and by design forced both men, however tired, to stand poised in order to start the silent count.
10 counts and 10 paces between the two men facing off, and a low murmur of anticipation grew amongst the crowd again.
5 counts; Cid snapped into a stance of serpent discipline, Stelinger lazily drawing the staff across his chest, choosing an unconvincing pose of defense given his tenacity in combat.
Like the namesake of his stance Cid lunged to strike, the point of the staff lashing unerringly at Stelinger’s head. Stelinger parried skillfully, spun on the spot and retaliated with a high sweeping strike. Cid risked ducking rather than a block and it freed him to lash at Stelinger’s ribs. Stelinger rotated his staff to parry again and instantly used his momentum to drive an overhead strike. Cid blocked and was driven back by the impact, his wrists in fiery pain at the shock of the collision. Retreating a pace, Cid dodged the follow-up and lunged for another serpent strike. This time Stelinger could not react and took the hit on the shoulder.
Seeing his opponent stagger Cid burst into motion, spacing his hands inches apart on the one end and swinging the staff full force at Stelinger’s stronger right-side. Predictably Stelinger blocked the attack, but Cid felt him falter. Continuing his onslaught Cid mirrored the attack, this time spinning to strike at Stelinger’s weaker-left.
Anticipating Stelinger’s block Cid pulled back on the strike at the last moment and retained most of his momentum upon impact. Never halting for a second Cid retracted and twirled the staff furiously to brush away a feeble counter from Stelinger. With Stelinger on the back foot Cid made his lunge, lashing for the fourth and final time, the staff finding mark on his chest and knocking Stelinger from his feet.
A mix of cheers surged all around as the duel came to an end. Cid looked down coldly at Stelinger and was frustrated to no end as he saw him smiling again, as though the pain of the fight wasn’t registering.
‘That’s enough for today!’ called the Commander from the podium, his words breaking through the spell of adrenaline.
In that instant Cid felt all the tension and rage seep away, swiftly replaced by a fatigue digging into his limbs. He wiped at his forehead, trying to prevent the sting of perspiration to his eyes, closing them almost making him forget where he was.
Reluctantly Cid stuck out his hand at Stelinger, who took it with good grace. Cid pulled Stelinger to his feet and the two men stared at each other for a moment more before they turned to their corners respectively, dropping their staves.
Lethargically Cid ambled to a bucket of water he had placed at his corner beforehand, and wearily washed his face and naked upper body. Already he felt muscles knot and bruises come to life, courtesy of Stelinger’s malicious strikes.
The courtyard emptied quickly, the talk of the men fading into the barracks. Cid wasn’t sure whether or not to appreciate the fact that none of his friends had watched the duel, convinced it was bad enough being judged by the Commander.
With his mind finally releasing the intensity of 12 rounds of dueling, Cid reflected on the contest. He had won but 5 bouts; the second, fifth, sixth and the last two. During the second last round Cid had attacked quickly, taking advantage of Stelinger’s relaxed demeanor at the time. By then Stelinger could have remained in it if he wanted to, but Cid knew Stelinger would not mind losing when he had already won the contest in general. By the time Cid started drying himself he realized the courtyard was completely empty except for himself. He stared up at the built-in podium where Commander Bennam had stood.
Between the duels and breaks Cid had tried to gauge the Commander’s impressions, though could find only indifference on his face.
I’m starting to hate this place… At least most of the men got their wager right, thought Cid bitterly.
Clothing himself plainly, Cid heard the rumble of voices cumulating in the mess hall. Might as well go and get something to eat myself. He dumped the water into the courtyard sand and was about to retreat into the corridor when the darkening sky caught his eye. He turned on the spot and looked up from just underneath the entrance of the inner halls, gazing silently as the first stars lit up as adornment to the already present moons:
Ellock and Trigon were the emerald and crimson moons respectively. They were a common sight to be seen together this time of the year, but made them no less special. There was a dark side to each of them, showing only half-parts of their countenance. Cid was a soldier, not an astronomer, but knew enough about lunar movements to make the calculation.
Eight, maybe nine days. Just nine more days to go…
Cid prodded his food absently, the noise of the dining hall senseless around his cocoon of thoughts. It remained so until a great weight settled right next to him on the single piece wooden bench. A tray lined with every available dish slid in next to Cid’s and he lifted his head to behold Brunick; a face with a round jaw and the darkest of brown eyes, his short stubby hair and beard uneven at places. The man was smiling broadly and at the point of salivating.
‘I’ve already said grace on my way here so don’t mind if I do,’ announced Brunick quickly before tearing into his first drumstick.
Cid could not help but smile to himself. He had seen many big men in his life, and there were many big men in the army, but Brunick was cut from a different cloth. Brunick, an inch taller than Cid’s frame of six foot three, was a man made to battle giants. Even standing upright he had a torso like a barrel, his chest and shoulders especially heavyset with natural muscle. His arms and legs followed suit, while the recent intensity of their training had done nothing but make him even stronger. It would have been easy to stop there, but Brunick’s true danger could not be judged just by watching him eat.
In war Cid has seen and experienced the balance, endurance and agility of an athlete that did not belong to a man of Brunick’s size. Testament to the observation, Brunick was once invited to play Defender-Guardian for the Lanston Lynxes’ Bagural team. He had then, “stupidly” as Cid had put it, decided to remain in the army.
‘Enjoyed the jog?’ asked Cid.
Brunick shook his head, swallowing a large mouthful of food. ‘Got side pains halfway through, drank too much water before we started. I heard you lost my wager though.’
‘You had a wager on me?’ asked Cid, faking surprise.
‘Of course, what kind of friend would I be if I wagered on Stelinger?’
‘A smart one,’ said Cid laughingly.
‘Hey, I’d take issue with that,’ said Brunick pointedly.
‘You know I didn’t mean it.’
‘I wasn’t talking about my intelligence, which I think is better than your genius anyway - I’m pissed that you implied that Stelinger is so much better than you.’
‘I only won five rounds Brunick,’ stated Cid softly, trying to get Brunick to talk quietly as well. It was a vain pursuit he knew.
‘Yeah, sure. Counting rounds and all that. Claiming the most bouts isn’t the only way to win Cid. I’ve seen Stelinger’s lip on my way here, you smashed him through the face on the second, didn’t you?’ said Brunick with satisfaction.
Cid returned the smile and said, ‘the opening was there and it was hard to resist. It made for a marginal affair and the Commander didn’t call it.’
‘I would have punched him right there and then and knock him the hell out!’ boasted Brunick loudly.
‘You know that’s worth a disqualification,’ said Cid.
‘And that’s your problem. You attribute a set of strict rules to everything and allow exceptions and failures only to other people. Sure, that’s part of what makes you the most brilliant tactician to grace these halls, but with one crucial flaw; you’re predictable given your moral inclinations.’
‘That’s a mouthful,’ said Cid, feeling a bit battered under the storm of words.
‘Yeah,’ started Brunick, tearing into a drumstick again, ‘and if you had punched him and gotten disqualified you would have shown the Commander that you have the exact same edge that they value in Stelinger.’
‘Maybe,’ said Cid solemnly.
Brunick lost the excitement in his voice and asked, ‘did they give any indication on when they will announce?’
Cid shook his head.
‘And… have you heard anything from Elmira?’ asked Brunick with an even quieter tone.
‘No letters yet no,’ said Cid, as the name mentioned instantly stirred restlessness within him.
‘And no news on her father?’ asked Brunick.
Cid replied negative.
‘Oh, okay,’ resigned Brunick.
Cid frowned. Brunick was a man born with opinions and rarely did he refrain from expressing them. Right now Brunick’s lack of elaborate comment made Cid suspicious.
He knows something…
A harsh day brought paranoid thoughts to mind and Cid immediately sought to push them away. He would deal with his problems in Lanston in due time.
‘Where’s Alex, did he skip out on dinner?’ asked Cid.
‘Nope, he’s still on that scouting drill,’ said Brunick.
Cid made the math. ‘Tremble point and back, he should have returned by yesterday at the least.’
‘You know, you can’t predict everything with your brain!’ said Brunick, annoyed.
‘Judging by calculation and your hardly concealed annoyance I’m guessing Alex’s made some kind of detour that I’m not supposed to know about,’ answered Cid with a smirk.
Brunick then clearly turned uncomfortable and quickly said, ‘well, I think he’s met someone special on the countryside and he mus’ be visiting her or something.’
Cid smiled, curiosity taking the edge of the day away.
The bliss didn’t last long, allowing Cid only a few bites of food before another soldier tapped him on the back and relayed: ‘Colonel sir, the Commander has summoned your presence in his chamber, sir.’
Cid shot his gaze at the windows. It was dark outside, and the time had come sooner than he expected.
‘Guess I’ll have to wash and dress properly,’ said Cid anxiously to Brunick.
There were a scant few people in the dormitories; for the most part Cid found the corridors to be empty and the solitude only increased his growing brooding mood. He came to his room and sighed as he entered. The rooms were tiny, each outfitted with a single bed, bedside lamp and a dresser, the window small and curtainless. Cid gathered his neatest pair of clothes and his washing necessities, and then left for the showers.
Under a cold spray of water Cid’s thoughts began to drift. The barracks of Tavinuks was as old as any of the surrounding war memorials in the countryside. It was a three days ride from the city of Lanston, Cid’s hometown. Nowadays the barracks was used as an initiation camp for progressing soldiers in the Lanston army, and currently housed the Commander, four Colonels, thirteen captains, twenty-nine Lieutenants, eleven privates and some few other non-military staff. There were also five magi with them, but unlike normal soldiers magi were never given commanding rank and were mainly present to protect the Commander.
Jogging, dueling and scout drills were not really part and parcel of a progressing soldier’s regimen, not in order to test skill or endurance at any rate. Rather, everyone knew that this camp was an unofficial test of composure, and Cid had to admit that it did put him on edge. To spar with a fellow Colonel like some entry-level soldier was a humbling experience to say the least.
Yet there was reason in all of this; of the four attending Colonels only Cid and Stelinger were in the run to become the new Commander of the Lanston forces and the deciding announcement was deemed to happen any day now.
Several important promotions were to be made here, but this year the inauguration of a new Commander would overshadow the annual routine. Cid considered the prestige of Commander often, but recently his drive to get the promotion had more to it than just pride; he needed political influence and a higher status of authority within the Kingdom. The thought of not getting it…
In any case Cid had more evidence than just dire suspicion to point that Stelinger was the favourite in this race. Cid however had resolved to remain hopeful until the end. The summons to the Commander’s chamber was sure to have something to do with the decision.
I hope Stelinger isn’t invited.
Cid had no love for Stelinger for reasons too many to count, and Cid reckoned anyone should be able to spot his overt arrogance and self importance.
Maybe that’s what they want in a Commander? But then again Cid knew Commander Bennam as well as anyone and the Commander was nothing like Stelinger. In fact, Cid held so much respect for the wizened soldier that for now he could not even imagine how he or Stelinger will meet Bennam’s standard of authority given their current level of experience. Yet Cid knew that the Commander was well aware of what he was doing, and Cid, unbiased, agreed that one day or the other that either Stelinger or himself would make the best Commander in Bennam’s absence.
Cid suddenly realized that he had been lingering in the shower and quickly stepped out, determined not to have the Commander waiting. He clothed and groomed himself in front of one of the mirrors. On the instant he decided to forego shaving tonight, as his stubble was still agreeable. Even in the hurry it was inevitable that Cid met his own eyes in the mirror.
Self-consciously now he inspected the reflection. Cid kept his brown hair short, much like his stubble. His eyes were an earthy colour, his chin strong and his cheekbones prominent. But rather than a handsome face staring back, Cid found his mirror image tired, battered and bruised. His eyes were dull from exertion and his left cheek was swollen, while his temple was bruised purple.
It just wouldn’t be Stelinger if I didn’t get a knock on the most sensitive spot on my head.
Cid cursed him silently, his mind flaring back to the moment during round 10 when Stelinger had blindsided him and quite deliberately rapped him on the side of his head. Cid himself had collapsed then, almost losing consciousness. Fortunately the reaction that came from the crowd was enough for him to stay awake. He had lost the round, but regained his feet…
Making it worse for Cid was that people routinely compared Stelinger to himself. Indeed there were similarities, even Cid had to admit that. They were of same height and build, with Cid having a bit more weight. To their faces was a likeliness that of brothers, Stelinger sporting even shorter hair and defined by his sharper jaw and nose. Even his eyes were only a bit darker than Cid’s, and it was these eyes that Cid felt were sometimes following him, never giving him a moment’s rest. That though was all in his head he knew.
Patting his pullover jacket neatly, he felt the familiar square bump that rested inside the pocket. The casing had been there for some weeks now, carrying it over his heart at times, holding all he could hope for. Strangely, his meeting with Bennam would maybe come to determine its fate, and it was distressing enough without realizing this.
Again Cid caught himself squandering time within his thoughts.
‘Best get going,’ he said aloud to himself, tying his tie as fast as he could.