OF GODS AND MEN
Chapter 4: Sword and Service
Tarsus stood at the ready. A large, haphazardly armored man with a rusty, notched sword stood poised opposite him. The look in the warrior’s eyes was clear: he meant to harm Tarsus, if he could.
Tarsus drew his own sword, a larger hand-and-a-half bastard blade that was polished and much sturdier than his enemy’s weapon. He focused on his opponent across the way, and spared a thought for what Drake had told him so many years ago.
“Forget everything but the most immediate threat,” Drake had said. “That threat is a problem with only two solutions: either you overpower it, or you surrender to it. Until that solution is decided, there is nothing more important.”
Tarsus had become expertly good at focusing on a single, immediate threat; and his opponent was now receiving the full force of that gift.
The menacing warrior broke into a dead run, raising his sword high over his head.
The sword came down in an arching strike that would have split Tarsus Cole in two…had it connected.
Tarsus sidestepped out of the path of the blade just in time. His mind jumped to the next maneuver. After a failed arching strike, the likeliest thing to do would be to bring the sword around in a horizontal, circular sweep. Every sword master Tarsus had ever studied with insisted that this correction was the only way to come out of a failed downward stroke because it was easy to transition into and could be executed quickly. Clearly, Tarsus’s opponent had the same instructors. That was not surprising; living in Briarden afforded only a handful of folk capable of teaching swordsmanship. Even fewer of those were actually skilled swordsmen themselves who could show their students the maneuvers they taught.
Tarsus automatically brought his own blade up into a defensive stance. All he had to decide was from which direction his opponent’s sword would strike. It wasn’t much of a choice. His opponent, like himself, was right handed. Tarsus brought his blade to his left side.
He had anticipated correctly. Tarsus gave a small smirk. He always anticipated correctly.
Jumping to the next maneuver he’d learned, Tarsus pushed his opponent’s sword away with his own blade, pushing the warrior off balance. Then Tarsus moved in.
The opposing warrior struggled to bring his sword up in time to shield himself.
The enemy pivoted, turning his body profile to Tarsus, to avoid being skewered. Lucky for him Tarsus’s thrust was slow.
The warrior brought his own sword up just in time for the edge of Tarsus’s blade to meet the flat side of his own long sword.
KICK TO THE BACK OF THE KNEE!
The enemy warrior went down. Before he knew what happened, he felt the edge of Tarsus’s bastard sword at the side of his neck.
“Bravo Tarsus,” the enemy said. “You got me…as always.”
The smirk melted off of Tarsus’s face. He stood still, looking down at his opponent as his mind played those final words over and over, “…as always.”
Tarsus was suddenly aware of how easy it was to beat this man. He suddenly thought back to all the men in Briarden he had fought or fought with. He remembered the handful of sword masters they had all been to; the same skills, counters and combinations they had all learned as the only good way to fight. Then he remembered Drake - the best warrior Briarden had ever seen. He remembered how Drake went to any sword master he could find, learned their method and then moved on to the next one. He remembered seeing Drake develop a different style of fighting altogether, based on what he liked most about each sword master’s technique. He remembered Drake forming his own maneuvers and philosophies based on the constant dueling he’d done with other men about town and the “good fights” he had found by traveling when the town ran out of men who posed any challenge to him.
In that moment, Tarsus truly understood what Drake had been telling him in The Good Shepherd the night before.
An older, stout man approached the two warriors. He was an imposing sight: taller than Tarsus and hairier than any man had a right to be. He struck everyone he came across as more animal than man, and so he had been christened “the bear.” His real name though, was Thaddeus Berk; and he was the commander and trainer of the Briarden militia.
Along with the bear, a group of men and women suddenly emerged from behind the bushes and trees in the forest clearing where Tarsus’s fight had just taken place. They were all around the pair of fighters, and as they emerged they began to close in. It seemed to Tarsus that the whole of the Briarden militia was set to hide as he and his fellow militiamen fought in this training exercise. Finally, Finnian emerged as the last member of the militia to have been hidden. As they all came close, Tarsus saw that the group in the very back was armed with drawn bows.
“Ya were sloppy,” Berk chastised as he approached Tarsus. “This lot was ready to rush ya, and the group in the back could have shot ya at any moment. Gods know ya left yourself wide open.”
“I was focused on my foe,” Tarsus said.
“Only on him,” Berk pointed to the still kneeling militiaman with Tarsus’s sword to his neck. “I tell ya all the time, ya have ta keep yer eyes open. Focusing on only one thing…it blinds ya.”
“Not if that one thing is about to kill you,” Tarsus retorted. But the argument was half-hearted. He knew that Thaddeus was right. But he also knew he wasn’t good enough to focus on more than one thing in a battle. But still, there was a piece of him inside that pushed him to defend himself.
“I know ya believe that because Drake can focus the most immediate threat, that you can too,” Thaddeus said, moving in close to Tarsus. “But yer not the fighter Drake is. He’s a prodigy. You’re pretty good. Ya have ta learn how to take it all in, because in war…there are no rules. On the battlefield, everything can kill ya.”
Tarsus lowered his eyes. He had nothing else to say. Even that piece of him that wanted to fight back was speechless.
Tarsus looked up, beyond Thaddeus Berk to see a knight in battered blue armor riding toward them on a grey horse. A full helm covered the rider’s face.
The knight slowed to a canter and stopped directly in front of the bear.
“I need your help,” the mysterious knight said.
“Do ya?” the commander asked suspiciously. “Then you’ll get off yer horse and talk to me face to face…man to man.”
The blue knight dismounted and stepped in close to Thaddeus Berk.
“Is this better?” the knight asked.
“Ha,” Berk gave himself a small laugh. He shook his head slightly, then looked back at the knight standing before him. “Not really, no. I like to look a person in the eye when they ask me for something. Common courtesy, ya understand. Take off yer helm girl.”
The knight stood there a moment with the horse’s reigns in hand. Tarsus was confused. This knight was taller than most of the men in the militia, and stouter too. Clearly he, or she, had seen battle. The blue armor was faded and worn, with scratches and dents from combat evident all over.
The knight let the reigns of the horse fall and brought armored hands up to remove the helm. A tangle of red curls were the first to fall as the helm was lifted off. Tarsus was struck by the beautiful face of the woman underneath. She was pale, but not sickly, and she had piercing green eyes; eyes that, right now, were looking defiantly up at Thaddeus Berk.
“I come on behalf of the GodKing Malthus,” the woman said with intense sincerity. “I am to commandeer your militia for the sake of all Arden.”
“Oh ya?” Thaddeus questioned, without any sincerity whatsoever.
“Yes,” the woman said, speaking quickly and forcefully. “This is a more meager force than I was expecting, but the GodKing wills it and he cannot be questioned. You are relieved commander.”
“Really? Well, that’s nice,” Berk replied with a wry smile. “Tell me, what world-saving quest is this that ya need Briarden’s militia?”
“A great evil approaches,” the woman portended. “If we are to be saved, I must find Malthir and return it to the GodKing.”
“A great evil….awfully vague, I’d say,” Berk answered.
“What, in all of Arden, is Malthir?” Finnian asked from somewhere toward the back of the circle.
“The sword of Malthus,” Tarsus explained. “A powerful blade, forged by the GodKing.”
“It’s more than a mere sword,” the woman clarified. “It is an extension of Malthus himself: like a hand or arm. It completes him. And he cannot fight off this evil unless he is complete.”
“And ya need us to find it for ya, is that right?” Berk pressed on.
“The sword was locked away in the Summa Temple on the Under Isle, out in the vast expanse of the Sheltered Sea. There is no telling what safeguards have been put in place to keep it there. So Malthus guided me to you and gave me authority of command to take back what is his,” the woman concluded forcefully.
“How do you know all of this?” Tarsus found himself asking.
“Malthus told me,” the woman said maintaining eye contact with Berk.
“Where?” Berk asked.
“Why does that matter? He is your god and king,” the blue knight said.
“Where?” Berk asked commandingly.
“He came to me…in a dream,” the blue knight said.
“I see,” the bear said patiently. “Then let me fill in some of the holes of your story. You dreamt the GodKing came to ya and told ya to go on this quest for a magic sword that would save the world. Ya seem very sincere, so I’m guessing ya went to the KingsGuard with this and they laughed ya out of their halls. Then ya probably went to the Malthanon Guard who did the same, and finally the Malthanon Militia. When every force in Malthanon turned ya down, I would think ya visited every armed force from Bahadur to Brava looking for help. Any town that served Malthus, anyway. And now you’re here, demanding that a third rate militia was destined to travel with ya on an impossible quest. And third rate we are. Look around ya lass; non here are great warriors. We stop bar fights and chase off foxes to protect our sheep. We don’t fight great battles or go on dangerous missions.”
Tarsus looked around at the warriors in the circle surrounding him. They all had downcast eyes. None of them seemed as though they wanted to defend their abilities or honor, but instead accepted what Berk was saying.
As for Tarsus, it felt strange to hear the man who trained them, who only a moment ago chastised him for not being prepared for battlefield conditions, admit that none of them could actually survive a real battle.
“Like I said, I donna think you’re a liar,” Berk went on. “Ya have stones. More so’n most of the men in this lot. But I also think you’re blooming crazy. I say, go to The Good Shepherd, have a tall beer, and get some sleep. If ya decide to settle here, I’d be glad to make you a part of this militia. But there’s not a chance in all of Summanus’s underworld that I’m letting ya take my small force on an insane quest.”
“I see,” the woman said bravely.”
Tarsus saw no hint of disappointment in her eyes. But the fire from just a few moments ago had been diminished. She suddenly looked tired, and Tarsus had no trouble imagining that her journey to find help on her quest had played out exactly as Berk had described.
“Thank you commander, for your advice,” she continued. “But I cannot give up. Arden is in peril, and if I can save her…then I must do all I can.”
She turned from the bear, grabbed the reigns of her horse, and began walking away from the Briarden militia with head held high.
She turned back.
Tarsus found himself, despite himself, moving to the front of the circle. He moved ahead of Thaddeus Berk even; so that there was nothing between him and the lady knight save for a few paces of empty space.
“What is your name?” he asked.
“You are brave,” Tarsus answered. “To leave your home, all that you knew, just to follow a dream. You are strong, to approach Commander Berk with such conviction and leave him with just as much, even in the face of failure. You…inspire me, my lady. And if you permit it, I would put a name to that inspiration.”
Tarsus felt hot. He could not believe he had said that out loud in front of his fellow militiamen and women: in front of the bear. It felt as though his body was outside of his control. He imagined himself a ghost; floating on the outside of it all, waiting to see what actions he took next.
Yet while his body was foreign to him, Tarsus Cole felt it was following the orders of his heart. And his heart, while he may not have been thinking about it in those moments, was forcing him to pursue exactly what he wanted. This woman was an opportunity; an opportunity that promised something different from Briarden, from the militia, and from his failed dream; a dream that, Tarsus had to admit, only Drake could achieve.
“I am Cecily,” the woman answered. “Cecily Thorn.”
In another motion to follow the orders of his heart, Tarsus fell to one knee. He grabbed the flat of his sword-blade with one hand and the grip with the other. He lifted it up, presenting it to this woman he did not know.
“Cecily Thorn, my name is Tarsus Cole,” he proclaimed as he bowed his head to her. “I offer you my sword…and my service.”