Ser Calen Dwight swung his broadsword hard at the wooden dummy covered in hay sacks.
His aged bones creak and groan with every swing, but he pushes on. He pushes on for it could be worse in combat. He could be mangled, frozen and battered. His men dying around him and their lives residing on his ability to hold the wall. To protect his Kingdom and his people and his family. All would rely on his bones, on his muscles and his mind. His tactics and his experience could very well be the turn of the tide. For the greenhorns would look to him, would be inspired by him, and would strive to survive alongside him. So, with each swing of his heavy blade he went harder, recovered faster, and changed angles better. He did this day in and day out to ensure he was a sharp as his blade. His lone goal being not to fail at defending this wall. Not till he was long dead be it by arrow or better foe. Yet as he pushed harder, his breathing rushing out like controlled machinery, he recognized his will to make sure there was no foe better. For he would never fail the wall... the wall was his duty too…
“Calen my friend, stop for a moment or you’ll surely tear your arms from your body.” The friendly, old, voice came wafting through the wind. Its birdlike frame sweeping in and through the very soul of Ser Calen, and it would grasp his arms and pull him back away from the dummy with a stumble.
His heavy breathing would be the only thing escaping his upturned lips.
“Oh, my friend…” He spoke practically gasping, “You know that could never happen, I’m too young!”
The two friends laughed.
Calen taking the moment to look over his dear friend, his brother in arms, smiled. Ser Ulric Fendrel had the look of age beginning to set in his soft and shortly cropped brown beard, and semi-long curly brown hair. The grey had made its way with thin whiskers and strands above and below the many wrinkles and scars. His large chest heaved above a fattening abdomen not yet noticeable of its mass days of consumption.
He wore silver armor that had browned over the years. Its surface covered in small scratches where dents had been banged out. Underneath he wore newer mail by the veracious beckoning from his family and Calen. Then he was cloaked in dark blue scarfs and clothes of King Marren’s Army uniform. Calen would chuckle at the green pants, a high contrast to the uniform he would be the only one different in the entire battalion, for he had said they were more comfortable and kept him warm. Those pants set above brown boots that were left unguarded for this champion of war chose not to weigh himself down any more than he already had.
And this man was certainly a Champion.
Ulric had been named a warlord among the wall countless times by countless generations. For during combat, he was fearless. As Calen was calm and collected Ulric often ran into the enemy head on with his large iron Warhammer. Ulric would send me flying into the air onto spears and in the pathway of arrows. And any cavalry which came to strike men’s heads from their shoulders he would clear off in seconds. He had grown to become famous on every battlefield, and he would always come back to a scolding Calen with a large smile. And he would say the same thing he said every time, and the same thing he said now.
“What do you think my friend, ready to join the rank of Champion?” He rested his hands on his hips pressing his chest outward.
“Very funny my friend.” Calen gave horrendously fake laughter at that, while raises his broadsword with one hand to rest the tip of the slashed face of the combat dummy.
“Ah, my brother.” Ulric said walking over to the side wall of the armory leaning up against it, “the day has been long and my body weeps at the lack of women in my bed. I fear I need another war before my favorite tool rots and falls off.” He chuckled setting his hand on his groin. Calen chuckled, slowly swinging his blade in multiple directions in different angles. He felt his shoulders screech and scream as they were stretched. Their youthful angst a long time passed.
“Ulric, you are something else.” He responded.
“I tell you, the new troops down under Brom are just atrocious.” He began gossip.
“Brom? He’s teaching now?”
“Yeah, he’s the only one available. Everyone else is tending to repairs down at Westwall.” Ulric reached into his pockets pulling out bread wrapped in linen. He then unfolded it and began to eat.
“Oh, now they choose to do repairs when Winter’s on the way.” Calen changed his stance and began training his reach. It was something he liked to do, for when the front line broke through and apart, some lines would remain. It would be best in mind to train reach rather than step into the range of the wobbling blind spears.
“You know how things are, minds go to waste faster than muscle in the barracks. Brom is just… gods he’s making things very hard for me. I won’t even go down to Fairground anymore. It’s not even worth stepping in because the damned oafs follow his painful tactics with such loyalty its maddening.” Ulric shook his head biting more into his bread.
“Well I wouldn’t send you to step in anyways. The boys would be piles of broken bone and mush by the time you were done.” Calen retorted honestly.
With a shrug Ulric responded, “Not my fault they can’t handle real combat.”
“Real combat is for the battlefield my friend, that’s where your bones should break and your limbs should splay open. On the Fairground, you should leave bloodied yes, but only with bruises and welts instead.” Calen reminded, his reach now caused the muscles in his ribs to pull, so he decided it best to stop for now. Tomorrow he would work them again, it would heal them faster.
“You should go down there Calen, they could use your help.” Ulric offered, then with a mouthful of bread… “Maybe it will help with you staying so sharp.”
“I don’t think that’d be wise, I am no teach…” He began.
“Like the seven hells you aren’t a teacher. If it wasn’t for you, where would I be? Where?” Ulric jabbed.
“You’d be right where you are and you know it.”
“No, no. That’s not how it works my friend. This Warhammer, my reach, my tactical viewpoint all came from an ugly bastard looking the same as you with the same name and… by the gods it is you!” He laughed. Calen laughed as well sitting down beside him on a bench. He brought out his cleaning rag and began wiping his blade while saying “Arsehole” and continuing to laugh. The two then sat in silence for a short while, it was something he was finding common in their relationship. Ever since Ulric had married that whore Bani down at the Cauldron Inn. He had been distant, had talked more with “my friend” and “my brother” and spoke of Calen as if he was not speaking to him. It had worried him before, but now he was growing unusually used to it. Could be old age cursing us to strangers, he thought as quietly as he could.
“Maybe I will.” He said into the cooling air.
Ulric looked to him in almost a bit of shock. Then he reached down patting his shoulder and stuffed the empty linen back into the pouch on his hip.
“Better get started then my friend, they’ll be ending sparring just before the morning ends.” He said walking down and away, before he left he turned his head, “Patrick wants us on the wall today, I’ll see you then.” And he was gone before Calen knew it, and soon after Calen found himself standing in the Fairground watching as the young guards too-be sparred. Their large steel armor was too big for most of them, it would bounce and shift off their bodies. They would swing hard down on each other, most going off balance and falling on their asses in the dirt, others attempting to dodge and overthrowing themselves to the ground again. They would carry their shields low and away from their faces, forcing them to either stay back or dodge their heads back. This all made their counter attacks, angling, foot positioning, power, and tactical advantage obsolete. They all had one thing, and that was a wild swing’s chance hitting their opponent with any style of skill, technique, or target.
Ulric had been right, Brom was failing these boys miserably.
“SIR CALEN!” And there was Brom. His short frame and bald head above a stubbly face and large brown eyes, raised his arm and waved like a fool from across the training grounds. Calen waved to him with two fingers and went back to watching. And then under his breath he cursed when Brom ordered the sparring to halt.
“My dear brother Sir Calen, please come. TRAINEES! FORMATION LINE NOW!” He barked. Calen had to fight his head from sinking as he walked across the field and past the stumbling foolhardy greenhorns. It took them the entire time it took him to walk then stand beside Brom, to get in a clear and straight two-line formation.
If Thoric were here, we all would certainly be dead for this, he thought.
“Trainees, this is Ser Calen Crewe. As I’m sure you all know his reputation bonds him greatly to the heroes of the wall. I am not here to display an introduction for you, however you should all pay close attention to his every word and his every move. It would do nothing but help you I assure it.” He said smiling, the smile should have been a screaming sob. Brom was no fool, but did he not see what Calen saw? What Ulric had seen?
Calen tired not to shake his head and instead gave a painful smile.
“Good day boys.” He said, and the grouping bowed in return.
“Ser Carlen, be your day full?” Brom asked, and Calen could feel the question burning.
“Not on this day Brom,” He chose to beat him to the point, “I was actually hoping to assist in some way with the new recruits.”
That made Brom’s day, he smiled and scanned his boys twice over then set out his upturned palm while moving backwards.
“They are all yours my friend.” He then walked away and went to have a seat.
Calen then turned and moved into the center of the Fairground. A place he was well known in, for he had bled on this spot over so many occasions it could fill a decent puddle. He had fallen here, and over there, and even there from massive blows by Ulric and even Brom at some points. This was where he had been made a man… Right here. A small part of him missed it. Missed Master Rowan and his large and thick wooden stick. That stick being the one thing he wished he had now, to physically work these boys into the shape they would need to survive life guarding the walls.
“Boys, gather round.” He said in a voice which scared him. It was the voice of Rowan, and he felt his posture the same. It gave him a small smile to feel this. To feel good again. And Gods did he feel good at this moment now. The boys moved slowly, sulking their worn-out bodies. He remembered how that felt, the bruising and the bleeding and the torn and beaten muscles beneath that heavy armor. However, he did not care.
“NOW!” He yelled, and they all picked up. Encircling him and standing straighter, looking a little bit better. They would be easier than he had suspected. And he knew that by the end of this day, his mark would stay long after he left. Maybe it would even teach Brom a thing or two.
“Who be the best and the worst of you?” He asked revolving slowly. The boys looked to each other, and as suspect the best was nodded to, and stepped forward. “And the worst?”
Then a boy was pointed out.
He was the smallest of the group and by far the skinniest. His armor wore to large on his bony frame. Calen understood why the other boys would feel this way towards him, why they would single him out. The armor was too bulky and would pinch on itself and that would make him have to work almost three times as hard to block or attack. It had nothing to do with the boy and his ability to fight, he was being crippled. Calen looked up to Brom and wanted to yell at him, wanted to remind him of the lessons Rowan would put them through. For they would be forced to fight each other anywhere at almost any time when they saw. They were to fight all out, no holds barred, and with wooden swords they were carrying at all times. It had been torture, and somehow Brom had seemed to have forgotten that.
“Step here boy.” He said softly to the small fighter. And the boy walked forward with his head down, “Remove your armor and then hold your sword.”
The boy looked at him confused then did as he was told, and once he was stripped Carlen could see the slashes and welts caking his face. He had been beaten on by the others, that much was clear. Probably for the reason of falling behind. Brom would punish them all when one fell back just like Rowan, save he forgot the lesson being the other boys would make sure no one would fall behind. This was a broken chain here, none of these boys were brothers. They would not die for each other.
“You all, gather his armor and set it aside the barracks there.” He ordered then looked to the boy, “ready your sword and shield.”
He then stepped back and clapped his hands. As the other boys clambered back and sat to watch the fight he yelled to them to stand. There was no respect here, but there soon would be.
The two boys encircled each other, neither extending their swords to judge distance, or holding their shields to their ribs. Then the “better one” lunged forward swinging downwards hard. And the boy darted to the left, the swing missed wildly and the boy froze as if in shock. He looked to his arm for just a second, recognizing his advantage, recognizing what had been taken from him all this time. And Calen assumed that the smile he gave now, was the first in a long time.
Then the boy used his mind and it was beautiful. He dipped and dodged fast and nimble. Quickening his footwork and angling small stabs and jabs. The bigger trainee was winding, throwing anger into his swings and forcing his body to explode rapidly. Soon the dull iron blade began to wear on him, his neck loosening as it racked to the sides. The spit and sweat visible as it splashed out from under his armor. His feet stumbling, his legs wobbling, he kept a good heart in his chest and pushed on. The small boy gave no care and began to swing harder and strike deeper. And before long the armor was denting and pinching. Grunts of pain and tightened quiet curses started to pick up in volume. And soon, the deemed greater fighter by his peers had fallen on his back. His chest heaving, blood spattering out on his chin and his hand upturned in submission. The sword at his throat was shaky as the small boy held true power in his hands for the first time.
“Good, stop.” Calen spoke stepping out. The battle had been entertaining to say the least, but there were many things to learn from. Many mistakes made. Calen grabbed the boy’s sword from him moving him off to the side, then reaching down and standing the fallen trainee up. He then pushed him back and turned to face the other boys.
“First lesson here… Your enemy is not guaranteed to wear armor, especially not armor as heavy and thick as what you all wear now. I can very well tell you that most do not. They will be faster, they will be lighter, and they will hit harder than any of you can. That is why we target. Here.” He says grabbing the defeated boy, “Ready your blade.”
The trainee does so slowly, his arm fighting to stay up. Carlen then touches his blade to the other and stops. “This is the center line of your opponent. Now notice how his feet are squared to his shoulders. This is wrong, for you have many openings and hardly any leverage or ability to dodge or dart. Now look at my placement. Leaving this my shield arm in front I am now extending my right arm to touch my blade to his… yes. Now watch.”
He then darts forward, his blade angling horizontally to push the boys blade away and then bash into his face knocking him flailing backwards. “I can hit him and still manage to protect myself. Any swing he chooses, or angle he goes for on this side makes him run into my shield. Yet, any offensive our enemy uses on my right side here, will run directly into my blade. This is how we defend and how we attack. For we are protected, we keep our head on our shoulders yet still manage to take our enemy’s off.” He lowers the boy’s blade.
“Now I choose to do what my teacher did not. I choose to allow you to show me what you know, show me your talents and your worth before I waste my breath speaking on things you may already know. And I have seen nothing good. There is much work to do, but you can start, by learning how to listen.” He swings the blade around while pacing.
“A Knight, guard, warlord, warrior, berserker, killer, thief, or even peasant with a sword is only as good as his mind. Knowing your arm, knowing how to make the blade you hold part of your arm, is how you will survive on the wall. Is how you will hear your name in the war tales and your triumphs in the songs. For our mind is our greatest weapon, and our mind is what separates us from the animals we hunt. You wish to be on the wall. Then you wish to join the brotherhood. Yet a brotherhood cannot be entered if one does not understand how to be a brother. You!” He points to a boy the size of a man standing with a dulled axe and cracked shield. His finger upturned curls and uncurls three times, and the boy comes forward.
“I am going to hurt you boy. I am going to bash your helmet till it caves in and you can only take it off if you wish to rip the skin from your face. And these boys around you, are the only ones that can stop me.” The boy then becomes terrified. His head darts side to said, his arms outstretching. And when Carlen lunges it becomes worse, his hands drop his weapons and come up to guard his face. But Carlen is not watching him, he watches the others. And as the swing comes down it curls to the right coming and smacking a wide-eyed trainee on the right side of his helm. He drops to the ground instantly and his friend beside him shortly follows. Before the boys understand the situation two more and struck and one more is targeted. They rush around frantically, like wild rabbits amidst a wolf, all scatter like wildfire. Brom rushes forwards screaming at Carlen and waving his hands.
“CARLEN! CARLEN WHAT ARE YOU!” He screams.
“SILENCE!” and everything stops. Carlen stands, his blade pointed to Brom he shoots flames from his eyes. The boys all watch, the one he had targeted at the beginning of the lesson is sitting up panting heavily. The only one not scared stiff, is the boy without armor.
“Brom, I am truly ashamed. The others may not be man enough to speak the truth to you, but this is a dishonor to Windhelm to the highest extent. These boys are not worthy to bear the arms or wear the steel handed down to them now. They do not think for themselves, and they do not stand for each other. Rowan is turning in his grave now screaming your air into the night, and you know it. I am not going to stand for this, you are now relieved. I will be taking over, and if you have anything to say against that, you may raise your sword.” His word spatter out like a whip. Cracking the strands of ego bit by bit from Brom’s chest.
And they stand for a moment, before Brom nods.
“I understand Carlen. You are right to do what must be done.” He says sullenly, then he looks to his trainees and turns his back ashamed and bashful. Carlen watches as he moves into the Master’s Quarters, most likely to gather his things. And for a moment Carlen feels shame in himself, till he looks to the grouping around him.
` “You will polish your armor tonight, this ground I stand on will be smoothed of all leaves and scuffs. It will be smooth by the time I step out here tomorrow morning. Before the sun rises you will all be standing with your gear at your feet, your weapons in your hands and your clothes thin. I want you to feel what it is like to be hit. Understood?” He orders.
“Yes Master…” They all stumble on the last word.
“Crewe.” The skinny boy finishes.
Carlen then walks off leaving them to their chores, knowing they will be done long before the day is done. He hopes they will discuss him, maybe practice or plot the situation. For he knows what comes tomorrow, or the weeks after. He feels Maestar Rowan surging through his veins as he walks up the hill, and when his head looks up towards the front entrance to the market.
He sees Jyla Lyien with her two boys Kiya and Tyron standing outside a broken carriage. The left back wheel fallen out, the Leadsman bent down attempting to fix it as the large bags filled with rugs and clothes and other goods sit atop. He feels his gut twinge as he sees her face. Her husband Ser Heath Marren was his brother, was a brother to all of them at the wall. One of the best warriors and the most loved knights of all. Yet when he looked on her face now, expecting to see pain he instead saw love. She had transferred that emotion to her children, saw her husband in them and was living life for them. Within seconds he felt himself smiling as he moved up, and when Jyla’s eyes met his he felt warmth surge through his body.
“Ser Carlen?” She said giving a laugh, she then walked up from the Leadsman and gave him a great hug. The two boys then saw this and…
“BEAR!” They both yelled running up and into his legs. He laughed tickling them.
“Ahh yes! Yes, I’m the big bear! The BIG BEAR! RAWWWR!” He yelled laughing. He then stood taking a deep breath and smiled at Jyla.
“Big Bear?” Kiya then questioned, Carlen looked down in curiosity.
“Yes, little cub?”
“Would you teach us to swords?” Kiya asked, Tyron’s little head perked up as well.
“Gods.” Jyla spoke turning a chuckling.
“That is… well… you two are very young I…” Carlen tried to explain as softly as he could.
“We can do it!” Kiya yelled.
“We can.” Tyron said softer, and at that Jyla looked interested. She then changed her eyes to Calen. In those eyes carrying a curious seriousness.
“Would you let them try?” She asked. Their little heads spun backwards so fast it was audible.
Calen then took a moment. He nodded and looked to them both.
“Every morning you must be here at the Fairground, I’ll have one of the trainees bring you, weekends you’ll be free. You are both too young to spar, but you can learn technique. If you do good, I’ll show you more. But all, all must be cleared by that woman there.” He pointed to Jyla, the boys looked back at their Mother and she nodded.
“Say your thanks.” She said softly.
They hugged his legs tighter than they ever had before. Their thanks was deeper and more heartfelt, and as their mother ordered them to run off and play they were more excited and happy than he had ever seen before. His heart tugged harshly as he watched, knowing how deeply it would have spread Joy into poor Heath.
“My gods it is great to see you Calen. How have you been?” She asked resting her hands on her hips.
“Been good m’lady. Been very good. I see you’re having some… troubles.” He said nodding to her carriage.
“Days have been better than this one, but I’m taking them kindly as they come.” She nodded, then she looked him up and down and her head moved left to the Fairground, “How’s your shoulder feeling?”
He then paused and felt himself out for a second. And with a short laugh he rubbed it.
“Well m’lady, it seems for the first time in three months I’ve forgotten my pain and I don’t know how!” He laughed.
“I’d say you’d found your true calling… Maestar.” She said with a nod towards Fairground.
He looked over himself and felt a warmth rise in his back. Maybe she was right.