The King's Own Tournament
A fever filled the air in Baldr’s Safe. An excited hubbub swelled as people took their seats, looking down on the granite courtyard where the spectacle would soon take place. Folk were so jubilant they did not even mind the uncomfortable stone seats or the frigid wind. As they sat down, they joked and laughed and swapped tales of the last time this event had been held, speaking in tones of awe and admiration for the winners and ridicule for the losers.
It was the day of the quadrennial King’s Own Tournament.
While hundreds of people slowly shuffled through the courtyard and took their places among the tiered stands, the King of Fjelburg, Bolegard Njordson, looked on patiently from the top tier with his wife, Queen Finnig Havardax. He glanced up at the blue sky being slowly smothered by waves of white cloud and grimaced, hoping the rains would hold off – often a vain hope in the Highlands. He would not get wet, being under a canopy, but a change in the weather could ruin his visibility, not to mention saturating the other spectators and causing the fighters to skid around like ducks on ice. He was sat on a cushioned wooden chair in a large, open-fronted red-and-yellow striped pavilion – which was a little gaudy for his tastes, but Finnig loved it. A whole retinue was squeezed into the pavilion behind the royal couple; mostly the Queen’s entourage, including a make-up woman, a seamstress, two advisors and several servants.
Bolegard tugged his speckled, golden snow cat fur mantle tighter around his neck as the wind nipped him, and was glad he had brought along his elk-hide jerkin too, even if his wife said it made him look like a commoner. He knew nobody could mistake anyone wearing a mantle of snow cat fur for a commoner. She had insisted he wear his crown too. He usually forewent the pomp of it, but she had nagged until he had caved like a worn hammock. So, the uncomfortable, heavy, cold stone circlet niggled at his brow.
He glanced sidelong at his wife. “Here, Finnig, everybody’s facing the other way now, so –”
“Keep your crown on!”
He sighed. “Yes, dear.”
He glanced at her askance. She looked as young and beautiful as the day they had married, decades ago. She had skin like milk, tresses of rich auburn hair and dark, mysterious eyes, and wore a maroon wool dress beneath her ermine fur coat. Bolegard, on the other hand, was past middle age with grey hair, a bulging gut and the beginnings of wrinkles. He often wondered how Finnig had contrived to stay so youthful. She had also survived eight successful pregnancies and a miscarriage – a rarity for women in the Highlands.
Thinking of offspring, Bolegard looked to his eldest son, Einar, down in the courtyard. The young man was the spitting image of his father in his youth – or so his father liked to think. Seven-and-a-half-feet-tall and thick as an old pine, Einar was a great fighter. He was young, though, and had yet to prove himself a capable warrior in anything beyond training bouts. Bolegard had helped train the young man himself, when his exhaustive duties permitted. He and Einar would spar in one of the courtyards with weighted wooden swords – they had sparred in that very courtyard in which his son now stood – and so the King had watched his son’s skills grow. When his monarchic duties demanded his time, he delegated Einar’s training to the Major of the King’s Own, his elite bodyguards.
He glanced up toward Major Osto Valinson, who was stood beside him like he had an unbending iron rod for a spine. He was swathed in fur just like everybody else, and far from the cleanest specimen present, but he exuded steeliness. Bolegard imagined punching him would be like hitting a rock. His face was scarred and crooked, broken and mangled. A shock of white hair ran through his greying umber locks by his left temple where an Elf had almost brained him years ago, and a vicious scar ran along the right side of his neck from a wound he had received whilst fighting the Crawlers. He was still a deadly warrior, though; Bolegard knew that from their occasional sparring sessions. Osto could swing the mighty claymore strapped to his back faster than anyone the King knew.
“Osto!” the King spoke loudly over the surrounding hullaballoo, gesturing to the sixteen fighters arrayed in the courtyard. “Who’s your pick to win?”
“His Majesty’s son is a very capable fighter,” Osto grunted, not taking his eyes off the warriors below.
“I sense a ‘but’ in there,” prompted Bolegard good-naturedly.
Osto nodded slightly. “But I have scouted some of these youngsters before, considering them for the King’s Own, and I know some of them to be ferocious. They have been to the North; they have been to the Wald. They are blooded.”
“Is Einar not ferocious?”
“Einar is … untried, Your Majesty.”
“True,” admitted the King, before smacking his armrest. “A wager then, Major Osto! I wager you a hundred Fjolins that my son will win!”
“As you say, Your Majesty.”
“Just you watch, Osto,” said Bolegard. “Just you watch.”
By his side, Queen Finnig rolled her eyes and puffed on her slim, elegant, white pipe. Baui smoke wreathed her like a cloud. She had been married to the King practically as long as she could remember – certainly long enough to have come to detest him to the core. She had been so excited when she was younger at the thought of marrying a great warrior king, but now she regretted ever taking this mission from her Sisters.
Bolegard had proven to be a paradoxically shy, brash nincompoop, in her opinion. A doormat of a man, his face was always scrunched up in thought and he was always considering the best way to pander to everybody’s feelings. She wondered if he had ever had a backbone. She shuddered to think of their amorous interactions, preferring to bury them under baui and wine. In the moment, she tended to squeeze shut her eyes and imagine he was somebody else.
Somebody like Lampton Odorson.
She subtly shifted her gaze towards Lampton; he was one of the fighters gathered below, clad in mustard and blue. She felt her pulse quicken as her eyes roved over his muscular, rippling physique and she recalled the feel of his hands on her body. He was far younger than the King, far fitter and more handsome too, she thought, stroking her neck. Lampton caught the gesture and smiled up at her, running a hand through his long blonde hair. She could guess what he was thinking. She licked her lips at him.
“-wouldn’t you say, Finnig, my dear?”
Finnig jumped, realising the King was talking to her, and blinked at him. “What was that?” Once, she would have apologised for failing to be attentive; now, she barely bothered to veil her disinterest.
“I was saying,” said Bolegard, unperturbed, happy as a pig in muck, “we have faith in our son to win, don’t we, dear?”
“Of course,” Finnig agreed out loud.
Inwardly, she thought that if Einar ever managed to win anything, it would be a small miracle. The boy was a witless panderer like his father, out of his depth and unsure which way was up. She loved him, of course, but she was not sure ‘proud’ was a word she would use in conjunction with him.
Down in the courtyard, Einar Bolegardson waved to his parents in the red-and-yellow pavilion up on the top tier. His mother and father waved back, beaming, making him smile. His smile was shaky, however, and he suspected a whole hornet’s nest had taken residence in his gut somehow. He felt queasy, like he might puke, so he stood still and took long, deep breaths. His fellow competitors – men and women alike – tried to talk to him from time to time, but he mostly ignored them, scared that if he opened his mouth to talk, the vomit would come spilling out.
He adjusted his breeches and wished he had time to void his bladder. The wind howled by, and goosebumps stood up on his flesh, making him wish he was wearing more than a woollen tunic. His naked feet felt like blocks of ice and he wondered why the fighters were forbidden from wearing boots. Cases of frostbite were relatively common in the Highlands; going barefoot was inviting trouble, in his opinion. Nevertheless, he obeyed the rules.
He swept his gaze over all the hundreds of faces in the stands, all sat on stone seats behind sculpted limestone balustrades, all hooting and hollering at him and the other fighters. Women called out to him alluringly, men threatened and encouraged him, and children just squealed in excitement. He rubbed his aching ears and hoped they would quiet down during the bouts.
He looked back to his father and hoped he would make him proud. He felt as though the whole competition was on his shoulders; like everybody, including his father, was there to see him win, expecting him to win. The King had taught his son himself had times, so Einar knew he was heavily invested. Bolegard had been a great warrior in his youth, so it was said, and Einar prayed he could live up to his father’s reputation. He could feel its shadow stretching, trying to cast him in its shade, and he vied to stay ahead of it, to stay in the light.
As he had the thought, Osto Valinson swept down from the pavilion on the top tier of seating, leaving behind several other bodyguards to protect the King. He looked daunting and dramatic with his ceremonial white cloak billowing out behind him. He sauntered down the left staircase of the two, beside the railed dividing aisle, which was a slope of patterned stonework depicting Gods and men. When he reached the bottom step, he halted.
“Warriors,” he barked, “you know why you are here. You have been selected for your skill, strength and potential. Today is the day of the King’s Own Tournament. Today, one of you will be chosen to join the elite bodyguard, the King’s Own. Who will be chosen will depend on you. There will be a series of elimination bouts, wherein if you are defeated you will be eliminated from the competition. A defeat will be signalled when a competitor yields, bleeds or is knocked unconscious. The last fighter standing will be the victor.”
Einar grinned, ready to begin, buzzing with energy, but Osto droned on. “The King’s Own Tournament was begun by King Ulbard, son of High King Ulle himself, in this very courtyard before this very Temple, many hundreds of years ago. The exact date was lost – as was much of our history – during the Time of Witches, when they invaded Fjelburg and put our places of learning to the torch. Baldr’s Safe and his Temple, however, survived. Praise be.”
Osto gestured up at the great temple looming over them all. Conical and two-tiered, with a black roof and black eaves on the lower tier, it resembled the God of War’s hat. The circular band of wall between the eaves and the roof was blue, while the bottom band beneath the eaves was maroon. All were covered in gilded patterns, depicting men fighting men and Gods fighting Dragons. A golden ball topped the roof, a little second sun.
Osto continued in monotone, “King Ulbard began the Tournament in order to be sure he was surrounded by the finest warriors in the Kingdom at a time when civil war looked likely. His father had held on to the crown with a precarious grip, juggling all the warchiefs of the various clans and trying to force them forget old feuds. Ulbard’s grip was even more tenuous as questions about inheritance arose; should the crown be inherited or should it be earned? For a time, it looked like the newfound Kingdom of Fjelburg would crumble. Ulbard, however, refused to let it, and as luck would have it, the Gods were on his side.
“They gave Ulbard enemies. People say the first year he was King was a dreadful year, and they are right. The Crawlers poured out of the North and passed Northbane – the only time they have ever done so – and the Elves came out of the Alfa Wald in a flock of thousands to terrorise the towns and villages in the west. Despite his youth, Ulbard was a master strategist, however, and he corralled together the warchiefs and brought them under one banner just as his father had done. He managed to constrain and harry back the Crawlers with one half of his force while building the Elfguard forts in record time with the other half, even while under attack from the Elves.
“Some say he designed those forts himself and that his tactics are the ones we still use today. Some say he used magic to defeat the Crawlers and erect the fortresses, that he was in league with Witches, but these are incorrect. He was a tactician and a great leader, nothing more. He died just before seeing the final Elfguard fort, Najuzna, built, but he secured the lineage of the Stonebrow line. His intelligence and fortitude cemented the inheritance of the crown and the continuation of the dynasty. His son, Faragon, was crowned King and took over the construction of Najuzna and saw it built within a year after his death. So, we continue the noble tradition of the Tournament not only to honour the finest warriors, but also to honour King Ulbard, to whom we owe so much. Thank you, King Ulbard.”
He and everyone else bowed their heads for a second.
“Now,” shouted Osto, “the Tournament will begin! When I shout out your names, pair off – and remember, the fight is to yield, first blood, or until one is unconscious. We don’t want any deaths today.”
The Major began barking out names in pairs, and Einar waited with bated breath for his own moniker.
“Kamor and Einar!”
Einar stepped out of line and surveyed his opponent as he did the same. Kamor was a seven-foot birch whip, wolf-lean to the point of being skeletal. His dark hair was tied back in a ponytail, as were Einar’s fiery red locks. He walked off to one side of the courtyard with a smooth, rolling gait, and Einar saw he had a longsword in hand.
Major Osto came over and set them in place, taking up one half of the courtyard while another fight took the other half.
Then, he resumed his position on the bottom step and barked, “Fighters, ready?”
Einar was so nervous he almost tripped over instantaneously when Kamor leapt at him, sword singing out. Einar managed to get his own short sword in the way, and there was a screech of steel as the blades met. Kamor came at him again, and this time Einar dodged to the side to regain his balance. That done, he forced himself to stand his ground until the last possible moment as Kamor’s sword sought him out again, even though every instinct screamed at him to move out of the way sooner. Sweat dripped in his eye. The sword came down and Einar stepped smoothly to the side just in time to avoid it, watching it clang on the stone flagging. He swung the hatchet in his other hand and Kamor leapt back, abruptly ungainly.
Seeing this, Einar felt a grin contort his face as he took the offensive. He swung his sword and axe in a fast, rhythmic pattern that had them humming and had Kamor backing away across the courtyard. Concentrating, Einar waited until his pattern led him to a high blow with his sword and then he broke pattern, stabbing with his axe at Kamor’s belly unexpectedly. Einar smelled Kamor’s breath as it all whooshed out of his lungs, and then he kicked his opponent down to the ground and stood over him with his sword at Kamor’s throat. Kamor was unhurt, thanks to the flat top of the blade of the axe, which was why Einar had selected a hatchet. For a real battle, he would have chosen a war axe with a larger blade that swept up above the haft with a counterweighing spike for balance; such a weapon could have potentially disembowelled his opponent.
“Do you yield?” asked Einar, feeling the grin tug irresistibly at his lips again, smelling the musk of sweating bodies.
“I yield,” gulped Kamor, eyeing the blunted blade ticking his neck.
Einar’s grin fully bloomed once he let it. He withdrew his sword and offered his opponent his hand; Kamor took it and Einar pulled him up. While they shook hands, the crowd went wild, cheering and whooping. Einar blushed with embarrassment when they chanted his name.
He had a break then while the other warriors fought their bouts, during which time he did nothing more than sip a little water and then sit twitchily on the steps between the seating stands, awaiting his next fight. He was half-deafened by the surrounding ruckus. The shouts did not, it seemed, die down during the bouts at all. He reflected that he had been so focussed, however, that he had not noticed the noise during his first fight. He had become sweatier than he would have dreamed possible in such a short span of time, though, and now the wind chilled him to his bones. He could not have sat there for longer than a few minutes, but it felt like an age was passing him by. By the time Osto called his name again, he was prancing with eagerness and sprang up from his seat like a startled cat.
“Einar and Grindul!”
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