End of the Line
Martin Hooijmans | Lars de Ruyter
Ben stood ready in the courtyard, protected by his padded vest, waster held firmly at his side. The master-at-arms had sent his summons the night before. It was an early start, well before the rising of anyone else, the first gleam of morning light creeping over the high walls.
When a shadow made the presence of the other man known, Ben stood at attention. But something felt off. The figure lacked the slight limp, and moved a pace faster. The shadow was longer. Indeed, the man who appeared was not Ben’s teacher. He was a stranger, a stranger armed with well-forged steel, drawn against the boy.
“Who are you?” Ben asked, guarded.
“Merely a hired blade,” the stranger answered. “Your line must end, it seems.”
Ben remembered the warning his father had given him on his deathbed. His rule would be disputed, so he had to arm himself. That they would come for him at his doing so seemed clever beyond comprehension. “Come then,” he said, with more courage than coursed inside of him, “and end it.”
The stranger did not hesitate. He came at Ben, who tried desperately to remember his lessons, and barely parried the first blow. The wood his sword consisted of groaned. It would not endure more punishment. Ben dodged the next swing, sidestepped a thrust, and believed he saw an opening. It landed him an elbow on the nose, a consecutive sickening blow to the side of his head, and the hard dirt, where he saw and tasted his blood. In a blur, he saw the strike fall that would end him, and brought up his waster. It snapped in two, but stopped the full force of the attack, instead cutting into his arm.
Adrenaline rushed through the pain, and with a howl Ben struck with the jagged wood of his broken blade, planting it in his assailant’s upper leg. The man gave out a yell and staggered, but Ben knew it would delay the inevitable by mere seconds.
“Halt!” The cry seemed distant. The stranger turned, and Ben saw the real master-at-arms, a grey man with more strength than his physique betrayed. Apparently the assassin was fooled, as he laughed and raised his blade. Seconds later his body lay still in the dirt, his blood joining with Ben’s.
The master’s shadow appeared over Ben, who forced a smile through his pain. “Well done, lad,” the master said, but Ben had already drifted out of consciousness.