Chapter One: The Wise Man's Fear
The fear of losing is similar to the fear of dying because they are one in the same. Combat, in all its shapes and forms, leaves a toll on our hearts, and we grow stronger or weaker because of them. One can only take so much defeat before they become wholly defeated. It is only those with a strong will that know defeat is not the end, but only the beginning. Defeat is just another tool, another lesson learned. Defeat will only make you stronger if you allow it to do so.
And so I stayed home for weeks on end, shut away behind a large, glass door with only everything staring at me from the outside. The entirety of the universe glaring back at me as if I had done something wrong.
But in truth, I had opened that glass door long ago, stretching my legs on the freshly mown grass. Basking in the warm sunlight as if it were meant for me and me alone. But it has been so long since then, and most of us know the feel of sunlight through glass. And it is not the same. The beams showering around you seem so close, but disappear at your fingertips when you reach out for them.
And such is defeat.
This time it was supposed to be different. Another day in the warm sunlight. Another night celebrating a hard-earned victory. Another song written in the annals of history. But it was not to be...for any of us.
Chapter Two: The Axe and the Spear
The one you call VanMeter, with his mighty beard of flame, he fell while on the summit just a week before. His mighty axe was not enough to overcome...a child? Sorcery, no doubt. While VanMeter's path might be wrought with peril, I have not seen a greater fire in a man's eye, nor have I seen such despair in a fall.
But I was not the first and will not be the last to see him fly, for his time is near, and it will come on the breath of fire and blood. The day is near, and the accursed beard of flame will leave those rosy cheeks. Those who stand between him and his prize will bend the knee, and you will know the deed is done.
And the fire will be quenched, for a time...
But the trickster you call Braun-Duin, with his malicious grin and a head smooth as looking glass, his weapons are...unique to say the least. A quick wit and sharp mind seem to wrap all of those around into a humorous mood, while only he is left to reap the fruit. And you will not know what has happened until you see the sweet juices running from the corners of his mouth, laughing all the while.
The twisted mind of a man knows no bounds. And like an arrow from the branches above, his jape will strike when least expected. And one can't help but smirk, for the jape was well-delivered, but none are as content as he. For in his heart, he knows that life is pain, and one can only escape that pain when another smiles. For this, he is the greatest man I know.
And perhaps the mightiest of all, Stephen Horne, the Mountain Who Drives. His mind has grown strong, for his wisdom was won through lifelong trials. Though stubborn in his old ways, he is not afraid to listen, and that is the greatest strength of all. One will never stop learning if he has the heart for it, and those around him will be stronger for it.
And these were my companions for the long road ahead. As we spent the long hours riding across moor and mountain alike, we waited for the sun to set on the world around us. The land we were riding for was called Indy, where a tournament awaited its competitors. The prize was grand, and we were certain it waited only for us to pluck it from where it hung.
Not so long ago, my greatest friend and ally had won the day in this great silver city. Nelson the Bard, whose voice is as sweet as honeysuckle--and though his mind is sharp, his thoughts tend to wander like a child's. In this great city was also where a good friend and I parted ways. Off to the land of Wizards or some nonsense. These were the thoughts burning in my mind, and I knew this trip would not be the same as the last.
With twilight on the horizon, my companions and I knew the ride would not end for some time.
The Mountain Who Drives continued on his path towards the gates of the silver city, and our minds reached out to them longingly. A soft bed and feather pillow to lay our heads, a warm bath, and a bowl of potato and bacon soup to fill our stomachs. But until then, we sat wrapped in our thoughts until the trickster broke the silence.
"Do you want to know why I use knives in combat? That's the point!"
An obvious jape, yes, but his smile was infectious, and our spirits lightened.
The conversation was held to a minimum, but the songs rang out as the night crept in. Some of us engrossed in tales of love and loss, others preparing their weapons of choice. I saw Brian, more than once, sharpening his blades. They were a mighty thing to behold, and deadly to say the least, though they seemed less intimidating dressed in such a bright pink color.
But perhaps that was the point.
Chris, at the head of the caravan, sat stoic, lost in thought. His eyes seemed so far away, and I could only assume he was dreaming. Dreaming of the day where he, and he alone, stood high while all comers had fallen around him, friend and foe alike. Dreaming of the night where he would sleep softly, soundly, without that dull ache to keep him awake at night.
A believer, I would become, after watching him wield his mighty axe. But that would come on the morrow, and it would be unwise to jump too far ahead in the story.
And yet I, riding where I could watch them all, watching them prepare for the battle to come, knew the truth. The battle would be long and arduous, and full of heartache for most. For that is the nature of the fight and the nature of life. There can be so few victories, and yet so many defeats. These are the things that filled my mind as I rode alongside my companions--and my enemies in truth. While victory for one would be a victory for all, it would not be as sweet as a victory for I.
And that, like one of Brian's colorful blades, stabbed me hard in the belly.
As the night came to be, our road was more clear than before though harder to see. And after much contemplation, I drummed up the nerve to speak.
"I think the spear will be my weapon of choice. It can be weak at times, though it is familiar, and I will pick them apart rather than bludgeon them."
Nods of approval and apathy from all around. It had been long since I had fought a battle in this manner, and I was not yet able to wield the axe with efficiency or finesse. VanMeter did not leave the cave of his mind, yet uttered the words I'd heard him say many times before, "The axe is strong, and you would be wise to learn it sooner rather than later."
It was the following silence that crept into me more than the words themselves, but I was doubtful of their truth. Yes, the axe is strong and sharp, but it does not give me pleasure to bash a man's head in. The spear, now that was a weapon. Sharp and clean strikes, deadly all the same.
We arrived in the great silver city of Indy well past the witching hour, but there was still enough time to shut our eyes for a good while. The sun seemed to rise too soon, and we were clean and eager for blood before the rooster crowed.
Chapter Three: The First Day
It has been quite a span since I had received such a thrashing. The pain was bearable, but my pride stung most. The spear had been a poor choice for this particular fight, much to the humor of VanMeter. Time and time again, my spear would shatter under the blow of axe and hammer alike. But while I fell, my companions fought on valiantly.
But a rather odd occurrence happened in the opening bout of the day between VanMeter and a man who I did not know. His voice was like honey, but his daggers were sharp. In quick fashion, he dispatched VanMeter, tossing his axe and body to the ground. But, instead of a killing blow, the man extended his hand in peace. VanMeter, on his back, lay stunned in both body and mind. What was this trick? This foul play?
"I can see a man cursed, his heart troubled. I have heard your tale and I know of your journey, for I was once that man the same. It is you, and you alone, who shall stand victorious at the end of this day, my friend. I yield."
A yield? He had come all this way to yield? But why? He had VanMeter on his back! He should have finished the deed! He is a man greater than I, for yielding is not in my blood. This man, this champion of peace, seemed to instill a great power in VanMeter's heart. I could see a change in his eyes, as a man reborn from the throes of defeat. I would have bet a golden dragon, right then and there, that no man would stand in his way this day. The prize would be his.
One-by-one, the rest of my companions felled their opponents without mercy. Brian's knives cut fast and deep, as few of his opponents knew how to defend from them. It was difficult to see him fall, in the end. His knives were struck from his hands by a spear, and his blood ran red as wine.
But his defeat was avenged quickly after by the fire-bearded VanMeter. His mighty axe split the head of the man who had cut Brian down, and we knew by the gods that the prize was as good as won. It would be his, and his alone. No longer would that accursed beard wring his neck, and he would be free of the demons that it kept.
The battle would break before the morn, with only four competitors left to fight. One-by-one, they would tear each other apart until only one remained.
We rode back solemnly to the hovel we called home for the evening, all of us defeated except for he. VanMeter's many victories throughout the day were grand, but he was not done yet. With a steady hand and burning heart, we rode back to the battlefield in the morning.
"Be done with it, Chris! Toss these three aside and claim your rite!"
But it was not to be. Early in the morn, with the sun still dancing along the tops of the mountains, VanMeter fell at the hands of another (with an axe, no less). It was a difficult thing to see, a man with such ferocity fall. But we four travelers were not done yet.
Chapter Four: The Second Day
One more tournament. One more day, and this one would be mine. My fingers clenched the hammer I had brought, and I knew it would strike true. My knuckles turned white against the grip, and I imagined myself champion of the second day.
The Hammer aka Sneak and Show
My companions, weary from the battles before, were not so lucky this day. But I, I was the one with the hammer, and the shields of my foes could not bear the weight. One-by-one, they fell, with nary a blow or cut landed.
With the gods on my side, it seemed the tournament would be mine this day. The spectators watched in silent awe as my hammer struck down the unfortunate souls that had been paired against me. And without mercy, I reveled in their doom. One-by-one, until just eight of us remained.
But that foul, cunning demon..Joseph Bernal.
His enchanted sword cut deep. And this time, I was the one lying with my back on the ground. I had missed the killing blow by an inch, and I paid the price for my mistake. After bandaging my wounds and collecting the meager prizes of a man defeated, we would begin our long journey home, as someone else held what could have been mine own.
As I drove for hours in the dead of night, the three slumbering giants snored so loudly that I assumed the mountains were moving aside for me to pass between them. I found myself wandering in thought as they dreamed of glory. The wounds fresh on my mind and body, I found myself at a place of contentment. I had been defeated, yes, but I was there. I was right there on the precipice of greatness. I had fallen, to be sure, but not every man gets to stand, just inches, from that which he desires. I counted myself among the lucky.
And as for my companions? Their drive, their determination, it was a gust of cool air on this hot summer night. For months now, I had found myself shaking at the thought of losing, time after time, until it broke me. Fists pounded against paved stone, and curses flung into the air like birds. But this time was not as before. There is a certain victory in defeat, if you are strong enough to find it. And one that I am proud to have earned with blood.