We leave Taj, heading east through the forest. We spend a night under the trees before reaching the city of Rocco. Rocco used to be in the Mani Grassland, but after being burned down multiple times, it relocated to the eastern coast. It’s now the elvira’s center for marine resources.
From there we head north through the Mani Grassland, steadily nearing the border. The inhabitants of Regrolam are rather daring for living so close to the mellowmira, but they aren’t stupid. There’s a stone wall surrounding the settlement. The people there aren’t as relaxed and carefree as those in the south. Many of them openly carry knives and swords.
Zaviz, the nearest mellowmiran town, isn’t much different. Most mellowmiran women never touch a weapon, but the ones in Zaviz are armed with small knives. Everyone walks quickly, keeping their heads down.
We travel deeper into town where the inn is. Nearby, a woman sits outside her house and mends clothes while supervising her sons. The two dark-haired boys play with wooden swords. After we eat our evening meal, I tell you a story about one of the mellowmiran holidays.
* * * * *
Jorgen picked up his wooden practice sword. The grooves in the hilt fit his hand perfectly as they were worn there from his many practice sessions. While he was only ten, Jorgen had been practicing swordsmanship for years. This would give him an advantage in the upcoming Tournament of the Swords. While boys younger than ten could participate, it was informal, and there were no prizes. Now that he was ten, Jorgen could compete. He hoped to be the top swordsman in his age group. If he did really well, they might even let him spar with the older boys.
Jorgen’s older brother Viktur was also a really good swordsman. While Jorgen admired his brother, he hoped that one day soon he would surpass him. Viktur also held a wooden sword, and he and Jorgen walked outside to practice. Jorgen always waited for Viktur to make the first move. It was a sign of respect for those who were older and more competent than he. Viktur swung toward Jorgen, and Jorgen easily blocked his blade. Then Jorgen stabbed at Viktur’s unguarded leg, but Viktur danced out of the way. They continued moving back and forth, the sharp crack of wood hitting wood echoing off the neighbors’ houses.
Sparring was hard work, and they grew tired fairly quickly. This was Jorgen’s biggest weakness. When his endurance wore out, he became more vulnerable to attack, and Viktor would inevitably defeat him.
He had been working on his endurance for the past month in anticipation of the tournament. Jorgen used to get tired after only eight minutes of sparring, but now he could last fifteen. Unfortunately for him, Viktur could last twenty.
Viktur knocked Jorgen’s sword from his hand, claiming victory. Viktur picked up the sword and handed it to Jorgen. “Let’s take a break for a little while. Then we can try again.”
* * * * *
Jorgen practiced with Viktur over the next couple weeks. He could hardly sleep at night because he was so excited for the tournament. Would he be able to defeat his peers? Would he be able to fight his way to the top and show everyone just how good he was?
Jorgen wanted to be a soldier when he was older, and he often daydreamed about claiming victory over the elvira on the battlefield. He wanted to be a hero and a warrior. A lot of the older boys laughed at Jorgen when he told them. If he could win the tournament, he would prove them wrong. It’d be even better if he could spar with them and show them just how wrong they were.
* * * * *
The day of the Tournament of the Swords finally came. Jorgen was up at dawn and bouncing with excitement. He couldn’t wait to go to the tournament. While he waited for everyone else to wake up, he polished his wooden sword to make it shine.
By the time Viktur got up a few hours later, Jorgen was itching to spar with someone. “Will you spar with me?” he asked when his brother came down for breakfast.
Viktur yawned and rubbed a hand across his face. “No, I’m not going to spar with you. We need to save our energy for the tournament.”
Jorgen kept asking when they would leave and didn’t stop until his father told him he’d leave him behind if he didn’t calm down. After that, Jorgen squirmed in his chair but didn’t bother anyone.
Jorgen shouted with glee when his family finally left their house and made their way toward the clearing on the north side of town where the tournament was held. Many families were already there. The women and girls sat on benches and logs while the men and boys signed up for the festivities.
Jorgen’s father signed his name on the list of adult competitors, and Viktur signed his on the list of 15- to 17-year-olds. Jorgen proudly wrote his name on the line for 10- to 11-year-olds.
The three of them joined Jorgen’s mother and younger sister in the seating area. Jorgen barely paid attention to the younger kids. He could tell they didn’t know what they were doing. He could teach them that swordsmanship involves strategy and technique. Wildly swinging your sword wouldn’t get you very far.
The little kids finally finished their chaotic battle, and it was Jorgen’s turn. He lined up alongside the field with the other boys his age, standing tall to make his father proud. The boys were paired up and told to begin.
Jorgen’s opponent was jerky and slow, so Jorgen was able to move out of his way and sneak past his defenses. The winners of this match were paired with one another. Jorgen’s second opponent was a large boy with a sword to fit him. Jorgen wasn’t going to let himself be afraid of the other boy. His opponent made the first move, barely missing Jorgen. Jorgen parried with him for a moment before finding his weakness—an undefended part of his leg—and utilizing it. The boy inhaled sharply when Jorgen’s sword hit his leg, and Jorgen used the distraction as an opportunity to place his blade against his neck.
Jorgen continued to beat the other boys, including the 11-year-olds, making his way all the way up to the final round. Jorgen had heard about this boy before. He had a reputation for being brutal. But Jorgen wasn’t going to lose now, not when he was so close to winning.
Jorgen had to let his opponent make the first move. The boy swung at him, and Jorgen stepped backward. After that, he attacked the boy with every bit of strength he had left. He had been sparring for nearly an hour at this point and was exhausted, but so was the other boy.
The boy hit Jorgen on the arm with his sword. It hurt, but Jorgen ignored it. It wasn’t a winning hit. He hit the boy on the wrist hoping he would drop his sword, but he didn’t. Jorgen and the boy continued to swing, hit, parry, and block. Jorgen was getting really tired, but his determination kept him going. He needed to strategize and take down his opponent.
Jorgen purposefully left his leg undefended. The other boy took the bait, and Jorgen let him hit his leg. While the boy was preoccupied with his attack, Jorgen tapped him on the chest, right above his heart.
The boy got mad and threw down his sword, but Jorgen hardly noticed. His head was spinning. He had won. He had actually won the Tournament of the Swords. Now maybe they’d let him be a warrior.