Chapter One - Summer of the year 5809
The day was gloriously perfect. A warm, southerly wind gently kissed the waters of a sapphire ocean, and wafted upwards to hold a flock of gulls aloft. The sharp, but not unpleasant, tang of salt spray carried on the breeze, and the tall grasses of the dunes on the nearby beach would sway with each lull and zephyr. A lone gull, feathers made warm by the unobstructed rays of the midday sun, detached itself from the flock. He was content, having just gorged himself on a number of muscles that had washed loose from a breakwater a short distance down the coast, and now wished to rest and enjoy the satisfaction of a full belly. As he approached the beach, dipping and rising with each change in the wind, a flash of silver caught his eye and he banked towards it, suddenly curious. Again and again, the bright flicker teased him with its fickle appearance, there and gone again just as quickly. The gull closed in on the flashes and began to descend for a closer look, when his keen eyes spotted the source of the flickering sprites. Two men were on the beach, circling each other a few hundred yards in front of a squat stone building, and though the gull could not be expected to comprehend it, they were engaged in a very graceful sword fight. The clash of metal on metal and the labored exhalations of the two participants reached the gull’s ears when the wind lulled to a whisper. Perhaps the action did not disturb him or he found the spectacle entertaining, but regardless the gull swept down and landed lightly above the wooden shuttered building’s closed door to watch. The two men parted and began to circle one another.
"You look tired, etuf kael. Perhaps we should rest? I have heard it is tiring - failing to achieve victory so many times. Though I do not know personally." The man who spoke was tall and had skin the color of a rich, deep wood. Though his white and red robes seemed designed to be bilious and flowing, they were cuffed in leather ties around his wrists and ankles. A wickedly curved scimitar hovered above his head, the sun gliding down its side as he circled his challenger.
"Perhaps I am simply wearing you down. Encouraging a false sense of security with my perceived lack of skill. Waiting for the perfect moment to strike." This man was younger than his opponent though just as tall, fair skinned, hair a dark brown bordering on black, and piercing blue eyes. Not nearly as exotically clothed as his counterpart, the young man had simple white shirt, open almost to the waist of his dark brown trousers. Like the other man though, he also wore leather bracers, albeit of a finer make, and had a similarly curved blade above his own head. They looked like twin steel scorpions, poised to strike.
"You are waiting for me to make a mistake? It is good that you brought a meal, for we shall be here a long while."
"Perhaps not as long as you think", the young man whispered under his breath as he raced forward, sand spouting up as he charged.
He led with a powerful overhand blow, easily caught by the older swordsman, who deflected the blade towards the sand. The young man had expected the maneuver, and slid his blade off his opponent’s faster than the other man expected, setting him off balance and opening his guard. As the older man recovered, the younger fighter spun on his left foot and came around low with his blade, attacking the other man’s knees. The recovery had been a fake, though, and as the blade came towards the elder swordsman’s right leg, he jammed his blade into the sand next to his calf, stopping the swing. As soon as the blades connected, he quickly lifted his leg and stepped on the flat of his attacker’s weapon, driving it to the ground, the shriek of metal sliding on metal causing the gull to ruffle his feathers.
Pulling his blade free, the older fighter raised it above his head to strike. Not about to be outdone, the youth pulled back and up on the blade, imperiling his opponent’s stance. Leaping back and pulling his limbs in, the older man made a harder target by denying an opportunity to strike at his limbs. Once more, the young man charged, and met his opponent in a flurry of strikes, parry’s and riposte’s. Their blades sparked off of each other time and time again, neither man willing to grant his foe the slightest piece of ground. Enraged now, the younger fighter thrust his sword toward the chest of the other man, the side of his blade hissing down the side of his rival’s. Just before the point struck his chest, the older man allowed his back leg to collapse. Turning his body away from the other man as he fell backwards, he rotated the point of his blade back towards his shoulder and hooked the young man’s hand guard with his own. The attacker had expected the sudden stop of an impact, and so was completely unprepared for his opponent’s momentum to pull him forward. Surprise danced in those bright blue eyes, as he was yanked forward and tripped over the other man’s outstretched leg. Time seemed to slow, and the young man thought about how unfair it was that he’d lost yet again, simultaneously trying to throw his arms out in front of him before his face could impact the beach. A task at which he was, unfortunately, jarringly unsuccessful.
Suddenly very tired, and embarrassed at his loss of temper and the resultant loss of the duel, the young man decided that laying face down in the sand was just as, if not more, agreeable than facing the thrust he felt was surely coming.
"I will get the water skin, etuf kael. The sand you can wash out, the taste of defeat will linger I think." And there it is, he thought, stabbed right through the pride. The older man, only mildly annoyed at the lack of discipline his young opponent showed, sheathed his scimitar at his hip and walked toward a square of cloth laid out on the sand. On it were a basket of fruits and cheeses, a loaf of bread wrapped in brown cloth, and the aforementioned water skin. The older man picked it up and walked back, throwing it next to the still prone body of the youth.
"Up, up. Come now, you may not have won, but you fought well. You are too…dramatic." He said as he lightly kicked the boy’s leg.
Lifting his head and swiping the loose sand from his mouth, or at least the sand not adhered to his sweaty skin, the young man made his way to his knees. He picked up the skin, uncorked it and took a mouthful which he swished around to get the grit out of his teeth, and spit. He tipped it up over his face to wash off what was left, and got to his feet, turning to face the older man.
"You know, no matter how much you try to wash it out, it never completely works. I’ll be chewing on sand the rest of the day." He said, not meeting the other man’s eyes.
"Perhaps every grain of sand you grind between your teeth will remind you of the need to control your temper, etuf kael." The older man replied, just the right amount of disappointment on his face and in his voice to sting the already wounded honor of the other man.
"Aye, Dua. You’d like that, I’m sure." He chuckled as he, too, sheathed his blade in the scabbard hanging from his belt.
"Gaah! Three years. Three years we have done this and still you refuse to address me properly!" Dua, mock exasperation written all over his face, threw up his hands as though beseeching the heavens for respite.
"I’m not going to say Dua’emnath Halem Bitsha’amun, every time I talk to you. I don’t have that much time." The exchange had grown worn between these two, though it was the way in which a chair may become worn over time, comfortable and familiar.
"Good. You may understand my language, but every time you speak it I pray to the Ten Gods that they strike me deaf. There is more music in a dying cat. I have told you, Hamal is acceptable. If you cannot use my given name, show me the courtesy of using my title." In truth, Dua would have preferred that much at least. It was only respectful to call one’s sword-master ’master’. He would never have been so presumptuous to address his teacher as anything but master. But these northerners are rude. Charming and good natured, but almost entirely bereft of manners, he thought.
"But if I did that, you’d have nothing to complain about." The conversation was as much a test of skill as their training matches.
"Tsk. I can complain whenever you draw your sword." And with that, the battle ended, Dua once again the victor, because whatever response the young man came up with, he still lost the sword fight. Well…fights. All of them. So far.
"So why do you call me ’young lion’ then? Is the beast not supposed to be strong and fearsome?" he asked.
"Yes. But when young he is also brash and foolhardy. Sure of his own invulnerability. Youth says ’attack!’ when wisdom counsels ’patience’. There are steer, of a kind, in my country. They are large and more resemble your bulls than your cows, and they are very muscular. An older lion will take the beast when it is old or sick or stupid enough to wander from its herd. I have seen a young lion attack a healthy steer while still in a group. The lion scored the steer, to be sure, and then had its head kicked in. Youth and folly are often fast friends." Dua said this, not as a jibe, but in the hopes of teaching a valuable lesson that might save his young charge’s life.
"Be patient, be wise, but above all be smart. These things will keep you into old age, and your life will see few enemies, my lord."
"Now, it’s my turn! You know you can call me Owen, given that you beat me with a practice sword so often. Truly, what will using my first name do that bloody noses and bruises have not? Besides…if I do things your way, my life will see no excitement either." Owen smiled at his teacher and lifted the skin once more to his lips.
Just as he capped the skin and made to hand it to Dua, the wooden shutters on the windows of the stone building behind them blew off with a fwoomph followed by an angry black and orange cloud of flame. The fire extinguished itself almost immediately, but a few of the shutters were still smoldering in places. The explosion hadn’t broken any of the shutters themselves, being banded with iron on the inside, but it had knocked the hinges right out of the stone work with its force. Once they recovered from the initial shock, Owen and Dua leapt up and raced toward the building.
"My Lord! My Lord!" yelled Dua.
"Father! Father, can you hear me?!" screamed Owen.
The stout wooden door flew open and a large bundle of blackened leather shuffled out of the opening, smoke streaming out of the top of the doorway to be carried away by the wind. The gull was no longer present, though his fate will remain a mystery. Before Owen and Dua met the walking leather beast, it collapsed to its knees, and two soot covered leathern hands took off the head. The eye slits of the helmet were so black that they were no longer easily distinguishable from the rest of the helmet, so the fire must have gotten very near its wearer’s face. It was no surprise, then, that the hands of the man inside the suit went to his eyes first of all.
"My eyebrows, do I still have my eyebrows?!?! Holy God, did you see that?! Owen, Dua! Bring the buckets! Holy God…that was fantastic!" he shouted, laughing.
Dua and Owen raced toward a pair of buckets thirty or so feet from the building. The force of the explosion had knocked them over, but as they had been filled with sand anyway, the two men simply scooped them full again and dumped them all over the man in the leather suit. If he had been on any degree of fire, water would only have spread the source of the flames.
Once they were sure that any lingering flames had been suffocated with the sand, and checked that the man had indeed retained his eyebrows, Dua looked sideways at Owen.
"I doubt very much that a lack of excitement will attend your life, etuf kael. Not with this insane man as your father."