The tension in the stands was thick as a fog at sea. Excitement for the games, terror for a loved one still in the competition, anger at bets lost time and time again as the tournament progressed. The stench of human sweat, dirt, rust, filth from mounts tethered on the grounds – they all faded to the back of his mind when he’d entered the arena this time. His heart hammered in his chest, his pulse raced so fast he worried that again he would feel the unreasoning stab of pain of a muscle or a nerve pinned by the overlapping plates of his armour. Was a true breeze whipping at and cooling his face or was it the mad rush of his own movement that created a manufactured wind of its own?
When the trumpets had blared, there had been no time for a formal bow or a last conversation. The herald’s cry traditionally marked the drawing of swords, the first clash – not an exchange of words or formalities. When a match began, the only dialogue was that of steel upon steel. Three knights full-trained and four blades honed to fine edge did not promise a battle to be taken lightly. The first rounds had been enough to set the blood afire. In these last ones, the two matches of the semi-finals, the very sky bled and burned bright with the intensity of both roaring crowd and proud combatants.
’Brother, this was not how I had envisioned we would meet again after so long,’ Ghaent thought as he slashed with his bastard blade, cutting upwards to meet the air close to Saul’s already-scarred nose. He only wanted to intimidate. He was here to disarm, not to draw blood.
It was nothing more than a gamble, with one his equal in height and surpassing him in girth and in mass, with one his equal in the art of intimidation itself.
They were of an ilk and in their sword clashes, a calculated exchange of blows and deflections, Ghaent found renewed challenge again and again with steel ringing in the air. He feinted to the right and just barely struck the paladin's left arm guard. His own left arm, protected by his large battle shield, still braced hard against a powerful strike of Saul’s heavy sabre. There would be deep scratches and new shallow dents to account for come sunrise tomorrow. He bent low his right leg to compensate for Saul’s force and greater weight, his own next attack – a strike with the flat of his blade – aimed for the paladin’s left flank to unbalance him and hopefully send him crashing to the ground.
RIIIIIP! Ghaent felt a faint yank and the tearing of part of his cape. He aborted his attack, manoeuvred to face this new assailant even as he just barely blocked Saul's downward cut along the side of his shield. Sir Hygyth – he’d thought Saul would have been the dark knight’s next target after he'd fended him off last time. He was wrong. It was at Ghaent’s back that he aimed at least one of his cobra-quick strikes. Only a layer each of leather and chain stood in the dark knight’s way.
Sir Hygyth, younger than himself, was of a dextrous and agile build, and had relied on serpentine quick attacks to fell his previous foes. A weak breeze wafted a touch of fear into Ghaent’s nose on and off in the match. The younger man was fighting bravely against his very self to mask it, striking when opportunity arose, when he thought that his two more encumbered opponents were not fully aware of him. His tact, his difference in build and in style of attack, maximized his advantage.
Ghaent forced himself to turn faster, to push Saul back with his shield, slicing sideways at Sir Hygyth’s vari-plated chest armour. His sword-tip snagged at and ripped the jacket the winged knight wore over the steel suit with a drawn-out tearing sound. Sir Hygyth moved off to the side and deflected the brunt of his attack with one of his short swords. His other hand had not been idle. Ghaent caught sight of the rip across Saul’s mid-section from one of their agile opponent’s strikes. He saw the now-uncovered steel glint in the waning light.
Capes and scarves snapped in the air from the momentum of their attacks and quick blocks. Ghaent blocked Sir Hygyth’s twin blades with his shield just as Saul’s sabre grazed the tips of those raven-dark wings. Alas, too quick the dark knight proved a rival, using the paladin’s chest plate to launch himself forward and to slide to the side of the chevalier’s shield, cutting through Ghaent’s surcoat in two places before the other man could retaliate.
Brother on brother — Ghaent was struck suddenly that he and Saul were like two colossi crashing against each other's defences while watching for the human projectile that was Sir Hygyth and his two serpent-quick blades. It was a compendium of all Ghaent’s past battles over and over again – sans killer intent. The goal was clearly to disarm or disable. Torn cloth and stray feathers replaced rivulets and founts of blood but it was all, in the end, the same. There was so much left unsaid between Ghaent and his brother-in-arms, so much that had changed in such a stretch of time. And yet on this field – ‘Brother, your attacks have grown more precise with training,’ – the single-minded drive that dominated them and drew them to each other did not wane. It had simply blazed high into a wildfire inferno of blinding force. And Sir Hygyth was an unpredictable volcano in their midst.
The sun was setting fast in the horizon and torches would soon have to be lit around the arena if the match were to continue into the night. Ghaent forced his right leg to lock in place as he shoved Sir Hygyth back and onto the ground with his shield. He twisted and charged forward with a low growl, straight for Saul across the field.
His brother moved forward with the same rapid pace, it seemed. Between them, Ghaent felt the ground shake with each pounding step. The match had to end soon. One of them had to be disarmed. And at the same time, there was Sir Hygyth to divest of his two short but cunning swords.
The dust kicked up around their steel-clad legs as they raced to each other to strike. Ghaent’s hackles were raised. He could see Saul’s determination not to allow him a clear opening. And all at once, instinct screamed that Sir Hygyth would dart in and seize his chance to strike when weak spots were in the process exposed.
Ghaent braced himself for impact on two fronts. Either he would be pitting himself against both Saul’s own force and fending off Sir Hygyth’s next precise strike or he would have to find opportunity to break his brother’s defence while he was partly distracted by one or both of those fast-slashing blades.
Time was running out. Time was against them. And in the end – time was the enemy they needed to vanquish.