Another wet dreary winter’s morning thought Sophie. The late rising sun and the icy cold mornings made it so hard to get out of a nice soft, warm bed so early. How much easier it would be if she could just stay in bed a few more hours. But she knew that attitude would not be shared by her upcoming competitors. The Westerloch Armed Combat Tournament had opened up the contest to females this year and she had more reason than most to desire the title of that tournament.
She had watched the tournament every year since her sixteenth birthday when she was allowed entry. She knew that the best fighters from all over Gormeria fought in the gruesome contest and knew that she would need to be at her very best to have a chance against these fighters. The men would all have strength against her, but her agility was bordering on supernatural – she had been trained by an elf after all. If she wanted any chance of beating these great warriors, or even leaving the ring alive, she would have to continue these early morning training sessions.
She jumped out of bed and went to fetch her heavy woollen dressing gown hanging on the hook near her door. As she reached for it, she pulled back suddenly. A warrior’s strength comes as much from the mind as from the body, her elven mentors words almost shouted in her mind. She would use the cold weather to strengthen her resolve and drive her on harder and faster. She had some breakfast and a quick wash. Returning to her bedroom she took off her night clothing and put on her tight fitting training outfit – a shiny black full bodied suit that clung to every curve of her shapely body.
Not wanting to injure herself on the day of the tournament, she took her time with her warm up stretches before venturing outside. The rain continued at a slow steady rate. It was enough to saturate Sophie’s long black hair within minutes, but she gave it no heed. Worrying about discomforts would only serve to distract her, so she ploughed on, jogging at a steady pace. She had jogged along this circuit every morning for the past twelve months since the announcement was made. Her small modest home was on the outskirts of Westerloch, so she was into the hilly countryside in no time at all. She maintained her pace around a windy road that continued steadily uphill. When she first jogged this road, she had to slow her pace many times before reaching the top of the hill. Over time these occurrences gradually decreased until finally she could maintain her pace all the way to the apex which afforded a great view of the city below. Only there would she allow herself a brief respite to watch the sun rise over the eastern horizon and cast its first light upon the great city. She let her sight focus on the large building near the centre of the city, and imagine the sights and smells she would soon be witnessing there.
The Westerloch Academy was the largest building of its type in Gormeria. The contest allowed the competitors to wield any melee weapon they desired. It would last a week and contestants could face up to three opponents in a day. A fight would last until one fighter surrendered, was deemed unfit to continue or was killed.
Sophie continued to stare at that impossibly large structure and let her mind wander. She pictured two large men in the centre arena – the crowd cheering loudly. The men looked haggard and were sweating profusely as the fight continued for longer than either man could have imagined. The large tanned man with black hair on the right wielded a great sword, while the large bald black man, wearing nothing but knee high pants on the left wielded a long sword and shield. He put that shield up now to block a wild swing from his opponent and stabbed out with his sword. The great sword thunked hard into the shield and the long sword met no resistance as the black haired man turned side on.
Sophie’s heart rate quickened. That long sword had missed by only a hairs breadth. The great sword wielder kicked out hard into the shield still being held up in its low guarding position. Such weight was behind that kick that it pushed the black man back a few steps and forced him to lose his balance momentarily. A moment was all the other man needed as he came in with a low jab. The black man had no chance to block the attack and the sword plunged into his thigh. It wasn’t overly deep but it drew blood and hindered the man’s balance. He did well to parry the next attack and pushed out with his shield arm pushing his opponent back, buying himself some time.
The two men faced off yet again, with the black man tentatively placing weight on his injured left leg. The black man made the first move this time with a low jab which was easily picked off by his opponent, but the black man had obviously anticipated that as he swung his shield in hard against his opponent’s right arm. It connected with a sickening crack and Sophie screamed from the crowd. The man with black hair dropped his sword. The black man swung his sword from right to left and cut open the leather armour of his opponent – the now weapon-less man staggered backwards. Sophie couldn’t understand why he wasn’t surrendering. He was clearly beaten. His sword was by the black man’s feet. There was no way he was going to retrieve that weapon. But he just stood there as the black man stalked in with his sword raised for another strike. The disarmed man turned and looked at Sophie. Only then did Sophie notice the blood. The man’s face was more apologetic than one of pain. Then he collapsed to the ground. Sophie screamed again, but the man lay completely still.
“Dad,” she screamed again. But it was useless. Her father could not hear her. Her father was dead.
She replayed that fight over and over in her head each day as she came to this location. Her father was one of the greatest fighters the nation had known. He had won the tournament three years in a row and was set to win it again with that final fight against that man. Brendan Breaker, he called himself, had won the tournament two years in a row now with that fatal fight being his first. He had entered the tournament again this year, Sophie knew and now she had a chance to beat him. She just wasn’t sure if she could stay her hand if he surrendered to her.
Sophie jogged back home and after going through her usual practice routines with her long sword and dirk, she began getting herself ready for the tournament. She wore tight fitting, black leather armour. It was well made and allowed her plenty of free movement. It had a picture of a bear, raised and ready to strike stamped on the breast. Her father had the same insignia. A knock had her gathering her weapons and gear and running for the front door. She could scarcely contain her excitement. She knew it’d be Kalia, her elven trainer and best friend.
“All ready I see,” said Kalia as Sophie flung open the front door.
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” she replied as she wrapped him in a huge hug.
The two of them set off without delay and spoke very little all the way to the Westerloch Academy. She registered her arrival at the large solid oak counter as they entered the crowded building. They were shown to the corridor which would take contestants to their preparation room – there was little need as Sophie had travelled that corridor many times before with her father. She was ill prepared for the feelings that flooded over her though as she now walked this corridor without her father at her side. She fought back the tears as she focused on putting one foot in front of the other.
Finally she made her way into her allotted room with Kalia a step behind. She was early she knew, but her father had always taught her to be early. It gives you time to settle your nerves and prepare your senses, he had always said to her. She believed that now more than ever as her senses threatened to overwhelm her. She could scarcely hear the excited crowd as the first round of fights began in the main auditorium, which held the five fighting arenas – four around the edges with the main arena in the centre. She did some warm up stretches and began to spar with Kalia with the wooden swords she had brought along. This helped to reduce the tension she felt as she allowed herself to fall into her natural fighting rhythm. When she was called she confidently followed the armed guard towards the auditorium.
Her opponent was waiting in the arena. It was another woman who wielded a staff. She knew they’d likely pit woman against woman for as long as they could. Many had protested against allowing women in the tournament in the first place. Mostly the protests came from the male warriors as they didn’t want to risk hurting or killing women in the arena. Now in its trial stage likely the organisers were hoping that most women would be eliminated or too injured to continue in the first few rounds. Sophie was determined that at least one woman would make it beyond those rounds.
A loud cheer went up as she stepped into the arena. Likely this was the first female fight the spectators had seen. Her opponent certainly looked fresh – a larger woman and much more solid, but still well shaped and quite attractive. She had blonde hair tied back in a ponytail and wore thick, light brown leather armour covering her torso only. Her red cotton top with half-length sleeves and black three-quarter length pants showed her femininity clearly but clung tight enough to show some well-honed muscles. Sophie figured that this woman was more interested in playing to the crowd than she was to fighting. Sophie, a very attractive woman by anyone’s standards, was not here to appease the crowds – she was here for vengeance and wore what she figured would give her the best chance at achieving that goal.
The two contestants were announced and called to the centre of the arena where they were briefly told the rules, which was basically to avoid fatal blows. They were then asked to acknowledge each other and take a step back. The referee counted down from three and the fight began.
Getting a measure of her opponent would have to wait as the large woman charged her and stabbed out with her long staff. Sophie was taken off guard and had to dive away, narrowly avoiding being skewered by that pole. She rolled and jumped back to her feet in one fluid motion and was ready for the next clumsy charge that came in at her. Her opponent was obviously going for sheer aggression to unease her smaller opponent, but Sophie was better trained than that. This time she simply swatted the staff to the side, allowing it to narrowly miss her and stabbed out with her dirk. The woman’s own forward motion had her impaling herself on the end of Sophie’s sharp weapon. She jumped back quickly and reflexively put her right hand up to her wounded left shoulder. Sophie could have pursued easily and finished the fight right then, but figured she’d give her a chance to surrender first. To the woman’s credit she didn’t surrender and set herself for the fight once more. She stalked in at Sophie a little more warily this time and set her staff spinning.
Sophie was somewhat surprised the woman didn’t surrender but was glad she didn’t. She wanted a chance to steady herself and get some practice at the life threatening combat. She had trained very hard all her life to gain the skills she had and sparred many times, gaining plenty of bruises and scratches. But she had never experienced a fight that threatened her very life. She knew already that she was more than a match for this woman, so she’d use her simply for practice.
The woman stopped spinning her staff, grabbed one end and swung it at Sophie’s head. Sophie easily ducked under that swing and took the chance to get in closer to her opponent. Sophie’s jab forward was much slower than she was capable off, but the woman still didn’t move away in time and the tip of Sophie’s long sword penetrated the leather armour and drew blood. The cut wasn’t deep but it still made the woman scream in pain. Sophie resisted shaking her head in disappointment at this woman. She had no right to be in the tournament, and if all women turned out to be as poorly trained as her, this may end up being the only year women were allowed to compete.
Once again Sophie could have ended the fight, but jumped back instead of pursuing. She wanted to make this look like an interesting fight instead of the one sided affair it was. The woman started twirling her staff again – she was at least good at that thought Sophie. She stopped its twirl and stabbed out to the right, Sophie dodged left. Then she quickly retracted and stabbed to the left, Sophie dodged right. Once again she retracted and stabbed again to the left, obviously trying to throw Sophie off her guard – it didn’t work. Sophie dodged again to her right and continued to spin around reversing her grip on her dirk and stabbing it into the women’s right shoulder. The dirk went in deep and the woman dropped her staff immediately. Her surrender came a moment later. Sophie acknowledged the surrender and walked back to her side of the arena. She was declared the winner and then she swiftly departed.
“What was that woman thinking? She had no chance in this tournament, surely she had to know that,” blurted Sophie as she entered her room.
“Perhaps you fail to realise how good you are Sophie. That woman may not have gone up against someone of your skill before.”
“I slowed my strike on purpose and still I scored a solid hit on her. A snail could have penetrated her defences. Who was she sparring with, an eighty-year-old man?”
Kalia laughed at this.
“You’ve been sparring with a three hundred and forty year old,” he replied.
“That’s young for your race,” blurted Sophie.
“My race is also naturally faster and more agile than humans and yet you manage to pace me. Sophie I’m not sure if you understand how exceptional you are. Yes that woman was very slow, but you are also very quick. She may have stood a chance against one of the lesser warriors here, but she was unlucky enough to be put against you on her first fight. Don’t worry, you’ll find a challenging opponent soon enough.”
Sophie acknowledged his comment with a smile, but she still couldn’t help feeling she had been cheated out of a decent fight. She knew that reasoning made no sense, but she had all this pent up energy and had nothing to release it on. She now had to wait a good few hours before her next fight. She needed to go for a walk and so she did.
As she walked she managed to calm herself. She thought about her father’s early competition fights. He dispatched warriors as quickly and as easily as she had just done, perhaps quicker. She had to take this as a good sign that she was skilled enough to win the tournament or to at least make it to the grand final fight where she would no doubt face Brendan Breaker – had she really become that good? Kalia was more than a match for her she knew and yet he had never entered the tournament. How many others were out there like Kalia who had the skill and yet were not bothered with the glory of the tournament? Or even more concerning, how many had Kalia’s skill and had entered into this year’s contest? She should be grateful for these easier fights so that she could better confront the more challenging fights that were sure to come. Once she had come to this conclusion she headed back to her room.
The walk had done her good. An hour or so after she had returned she was called up for her second fight. Once again she fought another woman, this one wielding a sword and dirk the same as her, but once again proved to be far too slow to keep pace with Sophie. The fight proved to be more challenging than the first but the result was once again beyond doubt and after little more than five minutes, Sophie’s challenger surrendered nursing a few superficial wounds and one not so superficial just below her right breast.
The third fight was perhaps the most dangerous of the day with Sophie’s opponent wielding a very cumbersome two-handed mace. The woman was larger than most men she had seen walking around. She was very talented at wielding the large mace and if any of her swings had made contact with her, Sophie had no doubt that she would have been killed. But a weapon with that sort of weight is far too slow to get near a warrior as quick and agile as Sophie. Not willing to drag the fight out for fear that her opponent had a lucky swing, Sophie made quick work of the woman and gave her a number of nasty gashes in both her legs – so badly in fact that the woman had to be carried from the arena. No doubt one of the priests would have her walking again in no time, but her time in the tournament was very short indeed.
On the second and third day of the tournament, Sophie’s challengers remained female and she was able to beat them all quite convincingly, although the final fighter on the third day did manage to give her a deep cut on her upper left arm. Sophie had to report to a priest for the first time in the tournament and found herself amazed at how quickly the priest was able to heal her wounds. She had seen her father’s wounds tended to by these healers before and witnessed the visual healing, but she had always imagined that there would be some residual pain. Her father had told her it wasn’t the case but she thought he had only said that for her benefit. Now she knew first hand – the wound and any pain from it was fully healed within the hour, leaving behind only a faint scar.
The start of the fourth day saw Sophie facing her first male fighter. He was a similar height to her five-foot-six frame but was much more solidly built – bordering on chubby thought Sophie. He wielded a great sword like her father had and Sophie sparred with him many times so she knew how to handle that weapon. The man stalked in confidently, obviously not too concerned about having a female opponent. He swung his sword recklessly which Sophie was able to easily parry, but he was quick to pull back and swing his sword in the opposite direction – deceptively quick. His confident grin turned to one of surprise as Sophie merely ducked under that swing and jabbed forward with her sword. The man was quick enough to jump back avoiding the full weight of the attack, but Sophie’s sword still found flesh and drew blood.
The man set himself again with a more determined expression, obviously not willing to underestimate his opponent again. He went into a high, low, high, low routine with fury, but Sophie managed to parry each attack with a practiced ease and gave little ground. It was her turn to go on the offensive. She swung high, slower than she was capable and was easily parried. She jabbed out with her dirk also slower than her actual abilities. The man merely took a step back out of her reach which she knew he would. He was confident that his reach was longer as he had the larger weapon. She swung again from right to left at waist height which was once again blocked. She twisted her wrist to allow her sword to continue on which was risky as it also freed up his sword and left her in a vulnerable position. Vulnerable perhaps for a slower fighter, but she was able to turn her wrist downwards and reverse her momentum in time to push away his inevitable jab. As his body came forward with his thrust, Sophie’s left arm struck out and her dirk sank into the man’s chest deeply. He jolted back so suddenly and furiously Sophie lost her grip on her dirk. The man fell to the ground with Sophie’s dirk sticking out of his chest and his great sword clattered to the ground in the same instant. A pool of blood quickly developed around the dead man.
The dirk had pierced his heart. Sophie felt sick to her stomach. She hadn’t meant to strike so hard, but the man seeing the opening and not fully realising the speed of his opponent had thrust forward hard in an attempt to finish the fight. His thrust would have surely killed her if she had not deflected it. Sophie had never taken a life before; she knew it was a possibility coming into this tournament, and fully intended on doing so if she faced Brendan Breaker, but now that she had killed a man she wasn’t so sure that’s what she wanted. She felt like vomiting but would not show that weakness in front of the cheering crowd. Once her victory by way of fatality was announced she made her way quickly back to her room.
“He tried to kill me,” she said as soon as she entered.
“Indeed he did,” replied Kalia, “There are rumours that if a woman should be killed in this tournament, they may once again be prohibited from competing. I think some men feel it worth the effort to see to that eventuality. Unfortunately this man underestimated you, but your reputation is growing fast and a victory by fatality will see that reputation grow even quicker. You’ll need to be on your guard even more so in the future Sophie.”
Sophie was horrified, but she nodded her understanding after a moment. There were few women left in the tournament. She would be sure that she wouldn’t be killed in the arena but what of these other women? Could she be certain that they were skilled enough to avoid a killing blow?
“The other women …” Sophie began.
“Are well informed I assure you,” interrupted Kalia.
Sophie wondered how her elven friend knew this, but she had known him all her life and didn’t doubt his comment. Later that day she faced one of the women and ended her time in the tournament by surrender.
Five days in and only one other woman besides Sophie was still in the running. No woman fatalities had occurred. Sophie’s reputation continued to grow as she began dispatching her opponents quicker so as to avoid any more attempts on her life. Her speed was no longer a secret – in fact it was much talked about. She had faced an elven male and had proven to be quicker than him. That sort of speed has never been seen by a human in the history of the popular tournament. It certainly took the elf warrior by surprise, but he had taken it well and had even commended her prowess once his wounds had been tended to.
The next day started badly – the female fighter was killed in the first fight. The fight lasted for 10 minutes and both warriors looked evenly matched. Sophie had been watching this woman fight and cheering her on – wanting her to succeed as badly as she herself wanted to succeed. Sophie saw the killing strike coming and it took her thoughts back to the same strike that killed her father. The woman’s guard was open and the man took full advantage of it. He could have eased off on the strike and still claimed a victory without killing her, but Sophie saw the eager look in his eyes – he wanted the kill. The woman was still alive as she hit the floor, but died as she was being carried off to the priests.
Tempers were flaring amidst the crowd – shouts of protest that women should never have been allowed to compete. Raised voices saying Sophie should be expelled from the tournament before there were 2 dead women. Sophie tuned out to the noisy crowd as she noticed a figure in the distance. A face she would never forget. A large muscled black body, wearing no armour – in fact wearing only his knee length pants. Brendan Breaker had a smug look on his face and his arm around the man who had killed the female warrior. Sophie could see that they were talking but had no chance of hearing their words above the tumultuous crowd. Only then did she realise that her friend was pulling on her arm – he was pleading with her to come back into her room as many faces began to look her way. She turned and followed her elven mentor. He locked the door and went off to find some answers, leaving Sophie to her thoughts.
She was so close. Two more victories and she would find herself in the grand final fight. Her journey started as mere vengeance, but with each victory she found herself revelling in the glory – loving the crowd for chanting her name and spurring her on all the more. Then the conspiracy against the women competitors began and her focus was more on saving the rights of women. The tournament became less about her and more about the strength of women and their fight for equality in the arena. Why should a woman’s life be more or less valuable than a man’s in the arena? All competitors know the risk and choose to accept it or not before ever setting foot inside the arena. If a woman feels herself skilled enough, why should she not have a chance to prove it? So much more was resting on Sophie’s victory now. Should she be allowed to continue in the tournament, her victories would be a statement to all that women can and should compete. If she was successful in winning the tournament, it’d be a testament to her own skills and courage. Finally, if she was to meet Brendan Breaker in that final showdown, it’d give her a chance to mend a very large wound that she had been carrying around for the last few years. Her swirling thoughts and emotions drained her of energy and before long she fell into a deep sleep.
A knock at the door some time later woke her. She unlocked the door and opened it tentatively. It was Kalia. He told her that it was decided to let the tournament go on as planned. The decision about women in future tournaments would be held off until after this tournament. He also told her that Brendan Breaker had won his latest fight and only needed one more victory to secure his place in the grand final fight.
The crowd began more sombre than it had in her recent fights but as the fight went on against this latest opponent, the shouts and cheers gained volume. Sophie took this as a good sign and allowed it to spur her on all the harder. She finished the fight with an impossibly fast manoeuvre. Her opponent would live, but it’d be a close thing. Meanwhile she had a number of wounds that needed attention as well.
As she returned from the priests, Kalia informed her that her next opponent was not Brendan Breaker – it was the man who had killed the woman warrior. Emotions once again began to stir in Sophie. She held an image of this man talking quietly with Brendan Breaker and could only imagine their cold and callous words along with their scheming. Her blood began to boil and her muscles tensed. Two fights til ultimate victory and both of them against men she despised. Could she keep her emotions out of these fights, she wondered.
A few hours later found Sophie in the arena with the man she now considered as the woman killer. He wielded two long swords and was a perfect build for a warrior – well muscled but not overly large so as to slow his movements. He walked and moved with confidence and wielded his swords as though they were extensions of his arms. He was quick, Sophie discovered early on with almost disastrous results, but she was still quicker and that speed saved her life. He wanted her dead – Sophie could see it in his eyes. She would not give him that satisfaction. The fight went on for what seemed to be hours to Sophie but in reality it had only been 15 minutes. Still it had been a vigorous 15 minutes and perspiration showed thick and clear on both their faces. Sophie’s speed was diminished by the man’s anticipation of her movements. He always seemed to have his sword in the right place for a parry.
The man made a forward lunge forcing Sophie back a step, but as she did she tripped herself. The man’s smile grew instantly as he changed his grip on his right handed long sword intending to plunge it down into her chest. But Sophie had tripped deliberately and spun herself around on her back and slashed her sword at the man’s legs. He saw the strike coming but couldn’t move his leg in time as Sophie’s sword hit its mark. The sword stopped as it hit bone and the man bent over in agony. Sophie plunged her dirk through the man’s right shoulder as he did so with such force it threw him back and to the floor. Sophie quickly regained her feet and stood over the man with her sword point to his throat. His surrender was reluctant but valid.
After a sleepless night Sophie wearily dragged herself out of bed. The rain that had been relentless all week had now stopped but Sophie barely noticed as she went through her normal routines. All her efforts and all her training had been for this day. Now the results meant so much more to her. Victory would put so much to rest. Defeat would leave a very hollow feeling inside of her she didn’t doubt. Few were surprised to see Brendan Breaker victorious the day before. Many were surprised that his opponent this year would be a woman. The story of her father was once again the main topic of conversation. The fight was being promoted as the most anticipated fight in history. Sophie could not disagree.
The other arenas had been covered over with additional seating now on top of where the arenas were. The pre-fight entertainment already had the crowd almost uncontrollable. Sophie blocked it all out. There was no crowd. There was no noise. There was only this big black man in front of her. This man was between her and ultimate victory. He must be defeated.
She barely nodded at the man when they were told to acknowledge one another. The very sight of him made her sick. She took a step back without thinking. The countdown finished and she readied her weapons in a flash. Did she detect a bit of uncertainty in the man’s approach? He had no grin, merely a focused expression. He stepped forward, shield leading with his sword jabbing in from the side of it. Sophie easily parried the sword and jumped back as the shield swung in hard towards her. She had seen this man make that move before but he rarely started with it. Was it to unnerve her?
He must have thought it worked as he stalked in confidently, blocking her sword strike with his shield and swinging down with his sword to push her back. He kept coming, giving her no room to steady and little time to react. But her speed was her strength and she quickly sidestepped his rapid approach, forcing him to turn and meet her. Still he came on, blocking all her strikes with his shield. This continued for some time and Sophie started to wonder how she’d ever get past that shield. Her thoughts went back to her father. He had managed to get past the shield by kicking it hard and forcing the man back. But her father had the strength to do so – she did not. Her main asset had always been her speed. Still she had to try something different. She went into a flurry of motion, forcing the man back with sheer ferocity. Brendan didn’t try to strike back, simply kept his shield in the way of her blows obviously hoping she’d wear herself out. She continued on for longer than she thought possible, letting her anger give her strength. As the man stepped back yet again she didn’t pursue, she jumped in the air and kicked forward with both her legs. Brendan wasn’t prepared for this and was already slightly off balance. The force sent him flying backwards and to the ground. Sophie also landed on the ground but sprang back up immediately. Brendan being somewhat encumbered by his shield and slower by nature was still on the ground as Sophie came at him. He blocked her first few strikes but wasn’t able to regain his feet. Sophie cut his leg open and the man roared in pain. He thrust his shield forward to try to push Sophie back, but she simply turned side on and poked her sword into his belly. He still didn’t surrender and so she struck him again in his shoulder with her dirk. When he still didn’t surrender she held her sword to his throat.
“Kill me,” he said.
Sophie couldn’t believe what she was hearing. The man would prefer death over surrendering to her. She wasn’t sure what to do. She had wanted to kill this man since the day he killed her father, but she didn’t have the strength to do so now – certainly not in cold blood. Victory was hers, but he was denying her of it by not surrendering. She caught sight of some movement out of the corner of her eye. Brendan gripped his sword and swung it at her furiously. She dived to the side just in time. She rolled and jumped back to her feet ready for the inevitable charge. But it didn’t come. Looking at Brendan’s neck she could see why. She had slit his throat as she dodged his strike. He was dead before she walked back over to him. She looked into those dark eyes with confusion. She had wanted this end for so long. Now she had it – she had won the tournament; she had killed the man responsible for her father’s death and had perhaps ensured women a place in the tournament for years to come. But she will now forever wonder why it was that Brendan Breaker could not surrender to her.