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It was clear to everyone that both Ateia and Leon had held back quite a bit in their fight, though their competitive sides were beginning to show through when Trajan stopped them from escalating the fight. Neither fought with anything close to the ferocity and ruthlessness they would’ve in a real battle, and neither did they use killing intent. Still, despite the lack of clear resolution, both knights walked out of the sandpit with a much higher level of respect for the other.
As a side-effect, many of the knights that wished to challenge Leon began to have second thoughts after his display of power. Since it was clear to everyone that he was holding back, it was just as obvious that he wasn’t a soft noble that coasted to the fifth-tier by flooding his body with expensive potions. But that wasn’t to say that all desire to fight him died down; on the contrary, for a few of the more battle-happy knights, that desire actually increased.
However, Leon and Ateia had fought their fight, and so earned their one round of mandatory rest. And since the fight was a draw, Ateia’s 23rd Legion had to fight again, with the Legate in charge sending out another fifth-tier Tribune.
This time, the Tribune didn’t challenge anyone; instead, he allowed anyone else to make their own challenge of him. A knight of the 21st Legion took advantage and joined the other man in the sandpit. After a flurry of swords and elemental magic, the 21st Legion knight managed to disarm the other knight and claim the victory.
The next match was between the 21st Legion and the 19th Legion, with the 19th coming out on top. Following that was a draw between the 19th and the 23rd.
Things continued on in this vein for the entire afternoon. After a while, the knights started to relax and chat amongst themselves, just as Trajan intended. Healthy rivalries were stoked, the knights were given an opportunity to fight equal opponents without their lives on the line, and all in all, everyone had a good time. Even Leon managed to relax and smile a little, as he was challenged six times including his fight with Ateia, double that of the next-most challenged knight, and he won four of the resulting duels—the last was as inconclusive as Ateia’s had been.
By lunchtime, Trajan’s retinue eked out with the most wins out of the thirty total fights, at eight compared to the 19th Legion’s six, the 21st Legion’s five, and the 23rd’s seven. The remaining four duels were declared draws when it became clear that to win, one of the knights involved would need to use significantly more lethal force than Trajan desired for the friendly competition.
When Trajan called an end to the knights’ competition and they broke for lunch, Leon was pulled into a conversation with several other knights who wanted to discuss the fights—though it was more like they talked at him while he stood there silent and awkward and very much wanting to be with his friends instead. But Henry, Charles, Alain, and Alix were all squires, and he was a knight, and he couldn’t just blow off the other knights to spend time with lower-ranked soldiers.
Fortunately, he didn’t have to endure this light social pressure for long, as Trajan called them all back to the sandpit after an hour.
“Well, we’ve all had our fun sparring with each other,” Trajan said as the knights gathered around, “but we would be remiss in our duties as teachers and leaders if we didn’t cut our subordinates in on the action a little…”
The older knights who had been around for many of these competitions that Trajan had organized started to smile, snicker, and shoot the squires appraising looks. A few even started to whisper amongst themselves, and from what little Leon was able to hear of their short exchanges, they were making bets on the squires.
“It’s time for our squires to get out there and uphold the honor of their knights!” Trajan shouted, causing many of the other knights to shout and make noise in excitement and battle-mania—not unlike sports fans, Leon noted, though the knights were significantly more invested in these fights than in gladiatorial games.
“The rules will be the same as with the knightly competition,” Trajan continued, bringing the noise level of the less restrained knights down. “Twenty-Third! You’re up first!”
The Legate of the 23rd Legion glanced over at the four squires brought with his group. All twelve squires were of the second-tier, so there weren’t any issues there to worry about, but he still didn’t know Charles, Henry, or Alain well enough to make a quick decision about who to send out. His brief indecision was brought to an end when Ateia leaned over and whispered into his ear before sending a challenging look Leon’s way.
“Henry!” the Legate boomed, causing the younger man to almost jump out of his skin.
Composing himself with remarkable swiftness, Henry nodded to the Legate and started making his way to the sandpit. Just before he passed the columns, though, he was stopped by Ateia, who whispered a few things to him that Leon couldn’t hear. Henry glanced at her, then at Leon, then nodded.
Leon felt like he knew exactly what was coming, and most of the other knights seemed to have picked up on it, too. As the other squires gathered around the sandpit to watch, Alix took her place next to Leon.
“He’s going to challenge you,” Leon said quietly to her.
“I figured,” she whispered back.
“He’s not bad with a blade, don’t hold back,” Leon replied.
“Wasn’t planning on it,” Alix stated, her face lighting up in a smile of anticipation.
Leon nodded, then sat down on the edge of the sandpit with Anzu. The griffin was sensitive to the energetic auras of all the mages around and was getting restless, so Leon pulled him closer to calm him down while he watched the fight.
Henry bowed to the Prince as all the other combatants had done, then was about to make a show of looking around at the other squires, but Alix pre-empted him by stepping directly into the sandpit. Henry chuckled, bowed slightly, and asked, “Miss Alix, would you honor me with a dance?”
Alix’s eyes immediately narrowed in anger; Henry clearly thought he was being suave and witty, and she didn’t think he meant any offense. Over the past couple weeks that they’d known each other, she understood that he was just being friendly, but the way he said it, it still came across as dismissive and arrogant.
And with the honor of herself, Leon, and even Trajan to some extent, on the line, she wasn’t going to let something like that slide.
With a bow, Alix wordlessly told Trajan that she was ready to fight. She then drew her training sword and shot a glare at Henry that could’ve instantly solidified a lava flow. Henry immediately realized that he’d made a mistake somewhere along the line, but he didn’t get a chance to ask because Trajan shouted, “Begin!”
Alix moved first, lunging forward to stab at Henry’s midsection with devastating speed. Henry just barely managed to bring his own weapon up in time to block, but that did him little good. Alix hadn’t bet everything on that first assault, though she certainly held nothing back, and she put the year she’d been training with Leon and Trajan on full display as she elegantly and almost seamlessly pivoted away from Henry and slashed at his back thigh.
Henry was again able to block, but only by the skin of his teeth. Alix didn’t let up even then, twisting her blade to lock it against Henry’s and advancing forward, pushing him off balance.
But Henry wasn’t done, either, and he wasn’t about to let himself be defeated in front of so many high-ranking knights in the opening moves of the fight. In the space of those few seconds since the duel started, he managed to compose himself after his realization that he’d offended Alix had left him flustered, and he pushed back against her. He didn’t get far, but he managed to stabilize his footing and give himself a bit of room to strategize.
Seeing that Henry had pulled himself together despite her ferocious opening assault, Alix pulled back, as she knew she didn’t have enough of a strength advantage to keep up that kind of pressure. Instead, she decided to focus on her superior speed and skill.
Henry tried to take advantage of her withdrawal from their stalemate by pressing forward and stabbed toward her, putting as much of his own strength behind the blow as he could. Unfortunately for him, Alix was still faster, and she deflected the blow aimed at her chest upward and Henry’s strike passed harmlessly over her head. She then followed that up by shoulder checking Henry. She intended to knock him down, but his footing was more stable than she realized, and she almost bounced off the larger man.
Seeing the opening, Henry brought his blade back down, trying to strike the slightly off-balance Alix in the shoulder—it was heavily discouraged to strike the head or neck with training weapons, otherwise her head is what he would’ve targeted. Henry’s sword bit into Alix’s shoulder, and for a moment, Henry felt the pride of a man who’d just seized victory after a hard-fought battle.
And then he felt Alix’s blade hit him in the stomach. The pain lanced through him until it reached his head, and that’s when everything went dark.
Henry fell backward into the sand, completely unconscious. He’d over-committed to an attack that only left one of Alix’s arms disabled, leaving him open to her far more effective counter-attack.
Alix stood there in the sand, staring down at the unconscious Henry with a look of smug satisfaction on her face. Her right arm hung limply at her side, and she loosely held her sword in her left hand; she’d almost dropped it when Henry’s strike landed, but she managed to catch it with her off-hand and slice into Henry’s exposed midsection in one fluid movement.
Trajan’s knights immediately began to laugh and cheer, while the 23rd Legion’s knights were gracious in defeat, and significantly more subdued than the others.
Alix stood there and reveled in her victory for a few more seconds, then turned and walked back to Leon’s side, leaving Henry there in the sand for his comrades to pick up.
“Good job,” Leon said with a smile.
“Thanks,” Alix replied with obvious pride in her voice.
Her face was practically split in half due to her smile, and it only grew wider when Anzu crept out from behind Leon’s legs for a moment and nuzzled against her limp hand before quickly darting back behind Leon.
After carrying Henry out of the sandpit and arranging for the other squires to wake him up, Leon and Ateia quickly locked eyes. Leon grinned at the lady knight, gloating in his own understated way in his squire’s triumph over hers. For a brief moment, she considered taking offense—the well-bred noble in her certainly demanded it—but she didn’t think Leon was being too serious. Their little competition was hardly something that warranted such gravity, after all. So, her response was to simply smile and nod back at him, acknowledging Alix’s victory.
She and Leon would have to have a rematch, though, of that she was determined. She could acknowledge her defeat in a proxy battle fought between their squires, but she wasn’t going to let that be the end of it. She and Leon would spar again, and she wasn’t intending to lose. She even began to smile in anticipation of their next fight.
Noticing her smile and guessing at the reason, Leon also began to feel his heart rate increase in excited expectation. He instinctively tried to rest his hand on the sword that wasn’t at his hip, but before he could even sigh in dejection, the door to the training chamber burst open and a Tribune rushed into the room.
“What is this?!” Trajan angrily demanded. The squires that were about to fight immediately froze, as did the newcomer.
“I’m sorry, Your Highness, but I have an urgent message from Sir Constantine!” the Tribune hurriedly responded.
Trajan’s frown deepened. Constantine was the Legate he’d left in charge of the watch detail that manned the fort and accompanying watchtowers to the east. He only commanded a force of about five hundred soldiers, slightly less than half of Trajan’s personal retinue, but his position was so critical that he was seen as the de facto third-in-command for the entire fortress complex. His only job was to fan out across the few dozen square miles of Bull Kingdom territory to the east of the Bull’s Horns and watch for anything approaching the fortress. If he had sent a message of such urgency that the Tribune bearing it interrupted the competition, then Trajan knew the message didn’t contain good news.
The Tribune handed over the message he carried, then hurriedly bowed and took a few steps away from the Prince.
Trajan’s eyes fell as he read the letter. Constantine was not one to mince words, and his message was short and to the point.
“An army from the Talfar Kingdom is marching toward the border. It numbers at least two hundred thousand strong.”
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