Thursday, August 18, 2005

The Swordsman

Perhaps the plain had once been verdant with grassy fields. Perhaps it had once been tranquil and serene, the only sounds the rustling of the leaves and the soft cries of birds.

The grass had been trampled under the boots of a hundred thousand marching warriors. Thousands of braziers obscured the battlefield in pungent smokes, dulling the sounds of life. Battle standards, multitudes of them, fluttered wildly in the wind. A battle was to be fought, a battle that would alter the lives of men- a battle that would consume the flames of conscience and set loose the rabid hounds of battle.

The lone swordsman did not march with the rest. He walked his own time, made his own gait. He wore no mail and no helm, his clothes billowed freely, a brocade of light and silken colours. His sword was long and slender, bright clean and sharp, strapped securely to his waist. But what struck his companions the most was the predatory smile of anticipation that played across his face.

The host halted, and men muttered and sweated under their armour. Destriers whickered, weighed down with armour and flesh. The tension was palpable, weapons were clutched tight. The swordsman, however, remained calm and smiling. Perhaps, deep down, that capacity for fear still existed in him, but he had not tasted true fear for a long time. His sword was his defence against fear, and fear proved to be a cowardly enemy.

And a clarion call sounded, the raising of the banners and a whistling of a woodwind. The vanguard raised their bows and released a flurry of death into the air. Biding their time, waiting for the mighty foe to respond, anticipating their reactions and gauging their style. As soon as they had set down their bows fresh arrows were nocked, bows up and pulled back to the ears. A command was shouted again, and arrows whistled once more, clouding the skies.

The enemy responded. A hail of fury resounded in return and men loosed their bowels. Even under the looseness of their formations arrows still struck home, driving their way through neck and head. It was clear that both armies cold not hope to keep this up. The real battle would have to begin. And so, the lords bannermen raised their longswords and pointed to battle. And thus did the bloodbath begin.

The swordsman ran, his steps light and quiet upon the trampled grass. His sword was still in its sheath. As the heavy infantry met on the field, the swordsman joined the bloody deluge. His was not the violent hacking and slashing of these armoured beasts. His was a dance, a dance that delivered death like a snapping snake, light and delicate and elegant. A hulking giant with broadsword in hand rose before him, leering battle. Graceful as a cheetah the swordsman swiveled low and brought his sword out in a blinding flash. No armour inhibited the sensuous beauty of his glide as he brought his sword almost daintily up the soldier's throat and stabbed through it, avoiding the jugular. He swiveled again as the man died above him and cut backwards, underhanded, through a gap in another man's armour to plunge through the heart, then brought it back out to parry a heavy blow from a third soldier, and spun low on the ground to snake his sword up the man's mailshirt and spilt his entrails on the burning ground.

His mirth knew no ends, and he laughed expansively as his weapon flitted, a shimmering ghost, through the battle, each blow perfectly timed, each thrust a lethal one. Bodies were left in his wake, bodies who died swiftly and cleanly, some not even knowing the cause of their deaths. His clothing was stained by no blood of his adversaries, and was still yet undamaged, billowing as he danced the dance of death.

Heavy calvary charged past the ongoing battle, and the force of their gallop made the ground tremble. Lances set down and bore upon the skirmish, the great warhorses biting and trampling terrified infantrymen too slow to escape their terrible rage. The swordsman felt his heart leap with excitement. As a knight decked in silver armour turned towards him and brought his huge lance to bear, the swordsman stood his ground to the last moment, then leapt aside as the dreadful lance jabbed past. Humming a tune from his youth the swordsman danced forward and made three dainty cuts along the horse's exposed flank, then, in a burst of agile confidence grabbed a stirrup and climbed up the neighing destrier, too quick for the knight to react, and slit his throat in one smooth motion. The man toppled and the swordsman shifted quickly to avoid the blood. He chided himself on a poorly-executed cut, and brushed the dust off his clothes.

The destrier was slackening, the wounds on his side were leaking blood. The swordsman grabbed the lance from the dead knight's fingers and hurled it at an approaching soldier, who took it full through the chest, and leapt off the ailing horse and rejoined the savage battle, whistling with none of the cares of this world, laughing as he plowed through the fields of men.

But no one common soldier can change the course of battle. The swordsman's fellow soldiers were dying in droves even as he danced a hundred rhythms of battle. The tides of battle turned, and men routed and escaped as the enemy plunged into their ranks and reveled in the mass slaughter. The battle became a bloodbath, and the ground puddled with blood and bile. The corpses of soldiers littered the earth as calvary drove the remnants of the once-mighty host into the seas.

The swordsman stood, alone, smiling crookedly, surrounded by a ring of the dead around him. His sword ran dark with red blood, but his clothes were immaculate and untorn, and he allowed no man to touch him. As the ground rose in waves of heat and the ranks captured the fallen and slaughtered them where they stood, the lone swordsman, now truly alone, stood and dared men to pass his sacred circle. And they did, and he killed them.

Finally the lords of battle, drunk on their victory, grew tired of the sport. The field was theirs, and there would be feasting and raping that night. Their foe was dead or scattered in the woods, save one. One who was smiling even as he stood guard over his domain, bordered by the corpses of his slain. They sent their best after him, armoured in unwieldy sacrament. They died under his sword, one by one. But when at last the sun grew dim and low at the horizon the swordsman still stood there, smiling, unbloodied, stance relaxed and full of poise. The sword was his shield and he would feel no fear.

The thick ring of men closed in, and entered his domain. A thousand against one. The swordsman brought up his sword and fought the dance of his own death, stabbing and pirouetting against the army that bore down on him, attacking him from all sides. His sword cut cleanly, but for the first time in the battle the swordsman was bloodied, wounded, and battered. His clothes became torn and dirty and bloodstained.

And when at long last, entering the deep night, the contest of wills overturned and the swordsman collapsed under the weight of a thousand wounds, there was still the hint of that enigmatic, mysterious, and satisfied smile on the shadowy contours of his face.

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