Well, at this point I think I can safely say that we’re on a new update schedule. Updates are now Tuesday afternoon and Saturday afternoon (not today, obviously. It’s not the afternoon anymore.)
As it turned out, nobody else wanted to be next that day. The people of Glimmerton watched as a stranger in rags knocked a burly nobleman (not that I knew he was a nobleman or even what that really meant at the time) out cold before their very eyes. Everyone was eager to see what I could do, but no one wanted to experience it first-hand. At least not until they had a better sense of what I was capable of. They all gave me a wide berth as I walked over to the stage where Enrico was going on and on about my history and my skills, gleefully fabricating some new lie with every passing moment. I hopped up and turned to face the crowd. They saw me, and I saw them, and some folks cheered and some folks were silent and some folks spat curses, and behind my mask, I was grinning at it all. Enrico had been right. There was something amazing about being up there and having everybody looking at you.
I stayed at the camp that night in the city square, but those who went out and mingled with the people of Glimmerton came up to me and eagerly told me that my display had been the subject on everyone’s lips. Many of the poorer citizens praised me for putting a wealthy braggart in his place, while those who were better off condemned me for entering their city and behaving like a wild animal. There was approval, vows to put me in place, desires to learn my “foreign, forbidden fighting style,” and more. I pondered aloud if I should venture into the inns and taverns and make my presence known, but Enrico dissuaded me.
“Not tonight. Tonight some drunkard may attack you in the alley or come at you with a sword. Or perhaps that son of a whore has turned to the guards and an ambush awaits you if you leave the city square. No, better to stay in the camp for a day or two. Let your reputation grow before venturing out amongst your fans.”
“And how can you be so certain of that, Enrico?”
He just smiled. Not his mischievous grin and not his fake showman’s smile, but a small genuine smile. “You will see, friend. You will see.”
I spent the day at the camp, slowly going mad with boredom as I was unable to leave and forbidden from work so as to remain fresh. I was told that my performance would begin when the sun was just starting to set, as that would be when most of the Glimmertonians were free from their chores and their daily work, and I was instructed to think of an act I could put on, just in case no one was foolish enough to fight me. I gathered some boards and some iron rods to break and bend with my hands, but I did little else to prepare. I wanted to fight, after all, not perform tricks like some kind of domesticated beast.
At last the sun begin to set, and the troupe’s show started in earnest. There was music. There was bawdy joke-telling. Little Francesco sipped at oil and breathed fire while his sister spun burning wads of cloth at the end of a rope in strange and varied patterns. I rather liked that act and wondered why I hadn’t seen them preparing it before. When it reached its conclusion, Enrico took the stage and began to rile up the crowd.
“People of Glimmerton! Are you ready to meet once more with the Mad Monk? I tell you, he is a force of a nature! Witness his superhuman strength! Marvel at his ancient and mysterious fighting techniques! Stare in awe as he bends steel and splinters wood with his bare hands!”
“You tell that bastard to come out here and get what’s coming to him!” a voice shouted from the crowd. The man who had been heckling Enrico last night had returned, it seemed, and he pushed his way forward. I studied him more closely than I had the day before. He had thinning brown hair cut short against his head, and while he was certainly not thin, I saw that the fat on his body belied considerable muscle. There were a few prominent scars on his face, and I was now more certain than ever that he had been a warrior once upon a time.
I smiled to myself. I hadn’t fought a warrior of any sort since slaying Sir Perceval. I didn’t expect this fattened, pampered nobleman to be nearly as skilled as he was, but I expected him to put up a better fight than the cowardly bandits who occasionally saw fit to accost me on my travels.
“Is he a coward, then? Will he not face me if he doesn’t have the advantage of surprise? Bring forth this so-called Mad Monk of yours and let him taste my wrath!”
This was the moment I had been waiting for. I emerged from within my tent and slowly walked over to stage. I leapt up and strode past Enrico, staring down at my would-be aggressor in silence. At last, in as deep a voice as I could manage, I said, “What is your name, Glimmertonian?”
To his credit, the man didn’t back down in the slightest. “I am Eaton Kenneth, and I demand satisfaction from you!”
I held out my hand and indicated the stage to the man. “Then come, Eaton Kenneth. Come and take it, if you can.”
With a snarl, the man hopped onto the stage, his bulk belying his agility. He was unarmed save for a pair of heavy leather gloves on his fist. I saw a glint of something shining against the dull leather that covered his knuckles, and I realized the gloves were studded with bits of metal.
I grinned. This Eaton Kenneth thought that he would make a grim, bloody show of me in front of the crowd and so regain his honor. He was sorely mistaken.
He raised his fists to cover his face once more, and the lessons the wizard had taught me came back to me. The wizard had never been in a real fight in his life, of course. He couldn’t have ever hoped to win one. He was far too puny. But as he’d studied dark magic, he’d dissected many humans and animals and tested many different spells and potions on them. Before he’d been killed, I bet he’d known more about the human body than anyone else alive, and he shared his knowledge with me to make me a better fighter. “Look at the way the ribs form a protective cage around the organs. Look at this nerve cluster and how it runs to the spine and the heart. Look how the arm can be pinned in such a way that it can’t free itself at all. Look. Look. Look.”
I looked into Eaton Kenneth’s eyes, blue and narrowed to slits and framed by his leather and metal gloves, and I saw nothing but hate there. I don’t know if he could have seen mine, but if he had, he would have seen nothing but joy.
He punched at my head, but I dodged. I wasn’t going to let him bash my face in with those metal-studded gloves of his. He struck at my body, landed a few jabs with his left and a strong hook with his right. The right hurt, I’ll admit, but his jabs didn’t do anything but put some distance between us. At least, that’s all they seemed to do.
I circled around Eaton, drawing back when he seemed ready to attack me and moving in when he seemed ready to draw back himself. He chased me around the stage some, but the years that had been kind to his stomach hadn’t done anything for his stamina, it seemed.
I let him tag me with a few more jabs, wanting to get him in close and wanting to put on a good show for the crowd all the same. “Time to end this,” I thought, and I stepped forward and roared in his face. It was a dumb mistake, looking back on it. I might as well have given him an invitation to punch me right in my mouth.
Lucky for me, he wasn’t expecting it. His eyes went ride, and his hands came up to protect his face. I feinted with my left and he drew his arms up tighter around his head. I drove my right into the space between the bottom of his ribs and the top of his stomach as hard as I could, so hard his feet actually left the ground. He doubled over, gasping for air and clutching himself. Maybe if he were younger, fitter, he would have had enough muscle there to keep from getting the wind knocked out of him. But maybe not.
I lowered my body and tackled him. He landed flat on his back, myself on top of him. My instinct was to lay into his face until he was nothing but a bloody mess, but I stopped myself. It wouldn’t do to beat a man so in front of the Glimmertonians. I didn’t want them terrified of me; I wanted them in awe of me.
I rolled Eaton Kenneth onto his stomach, pulled his arms behind his back, and pushed them upwards. He screamed. I grinned. I wasn’t pushing hard enough to break his joints, to tear his shoulders from their sockets, but I knew this was hurting him. “Apologize, Eaton Kenneth!” I said loud enough for everyone to hear. “Apologize to my friends for your cruel words last night, you no good grot!”
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry! By the gods, stop!”
“Tell the people of Glimmerton who the strongest feller around is!”
“You are! Gods, save me!”
“That’s right! Now, don’t come back unless you’re going to give me a real fight!” I let go of his arms, and stood backwards. Eaton scrambled to his feet and ran back into the crowd. There was laughing and booing and cheering, and I stood there with my arms up over my head, my fists beating the air. I’d never felt so excited in all my life. I felt better than I had fighting adventurers back in the wizard’s tower. I let my eyes run over the crowd, taking in their faces, their smiling, angry faces, and that’s when I saw them.
Three figures dressed all in white. All three of them had their faces covered, but two of them were soldiers of some sort. They had white armor and white helmets and swords in sheathes at their side. The third wore only robes, with a bright red veil covering their face. They watched me motionlessly from the back of the crowd, and I stared at them, my joy replaced by a cold feeling down in my gut. And then the one with the red veil turned and walked away, and the two soldiers followed, and Enrico’s voice and the crowd and everything seemed very soft and far away.