How many colours a fire can burn.
This is all the dreamer could remember thinking as his father grabbed him about the waist and ordered the brother to grab his mother. The father and son dragged son and mother from the burning colours. Thatch, wood, cloth. All burning. Later that day the dreamer would add another colour to the list. That of burning flesh.
The father set the dreamer down outside what remained of our hut. Time had made it so the dreamer could barely remember the face of the father who parted with words of love. He drew his sword and walked towards men on horseback, wearing plate armour and carrying shields.
Despite the fleeting nature of memory, the dreamer could clearly see the black shields with red crosses. The Knights of the Bloody Cross. Knowledge known now, but then all he knew was that his father came apart under their blades. As did the brother, barely able to hold his father's sword in two hands.
They played with the brother, cutting him cruelly and knocking him down as others began work on the mother. In their excesses, they forgot the lone child, barely able to understand what he saw, but still able. The lone child whose eyes burned with the sights he saw.
That day the dreamer became an orphan, no kin to turn to. The neighbours came once the knights had left. The priests were called and they ordered pyres to be made. A kindly matron took the tearless youth into her arms and kept him warm as he watched his world burn. As he watched his soul burn.
Shield in front, sword held at waist level, pointing to the ground, held slightly behind the body and angling backwards.
Shield tucked to the left. Sword flashes up and down, cutting the air at an angle. Tip ending with the point slightly down.
Whirl around, shield parrying an imaginary blade. Chop with the sword at upper arm level.
Shield back to guard the left. Sword up, drawing a counter clockwise circle in the air, before coming down and to the right, beating aside the imaginary foe's thrust. Tip pointing to the earth.
Sword remains in contact with the foe's and slides up his blade. Arm moves out to the right and angles the blade so that the point pierces the imaginary foe's breast while the foe's blade passes harmlessly to the right. Whole body is moved behind the thrust.
"Good, now break up into partners."
Angus surveyed the crowed yard before him. Orphans and the children of those who could not pay their taxes from all quarters of the countryside, rounded up and given wooden swords. A month ago they could barely hold the blades and now they were almost ready for combat.
Angus smiled to himself as he noticed the strong partnering against the strong and the fast against the fast. He also noticed the weak joining with the weak.
"Chullenn, partner with Dermit."
Chullenn looked up at the sound of his name and didn't bother to push the shoulder length black hair out of his eyes. His grey eyes pierced Dermit. 6" taller and 25 lbs. heavier then Chullenn, Dermit was a monster of a young man. Chullenn wasn't small standing at 5'11" if he didn't slouch and weighing about 185 lbs. out of his armour. All movement stopped as Chullenn advanced on the man everyone thought was his executioner.
Chullenn stood relaxed before the giant and swung his wooden broadsword loosely in his hand. His eyes betrayed no emotion.
Dermit smiled, which turned his flesh white around the scar that travelled along his left jawbone. His eyes shown with the thirst for pain.
He gripped his own sword until his hands were white and didn't bother to wait for the signal to attack. His blade flashed out in a strike that would have knocked Chullenn's head off, if it had landed. Instead it sliced the air centimetres over Chullenn's ducked head. Dermit reversed the direction of his swing and struck Chullenn a blow on the shield the almost knocked him off balance.
Chullenn quickly dodged the next strike and snaked in with his own. A slash at Dermit's scarred face. Dermit quickly back peddled. Chullenn did not give him time to regroup. He sent another blow flashing towards Dermit's face. This time Dermit raised his shield and thrust at Chullenn's belly.
Chullenn used his shield to redirect the thrust and spun around, swinging hard and fast for Dermit's head. Dermit barely raised his shield in time. Chullenn, now inside Dermit's guard and a little to his right, pushed in with his shield and threw Dermit off balance. A slash and a bruise were Dermit's reward for underestimating Chullenn.
Angus was about to call the match over, but Dermit attacked again. It was a wide and sloppy slash at waist height, but it was strong. Chullenn tried to match it blade for blade, but he was swept aside. He stumbled and landed on his shield. Dermit was up in a flash and threw his entire bodyweight into his strike. Chullenn barely rolled in time to interpose his shield. He lashed out with his booted foot at Dermit's knee. The knee failed to break, but again Dermit was thrown off balance. The few seconds the manoeuvre bought Chullenn were enough. He whirled onto his feet and completed the turn by bringing his sword to chest height and adding all his weight to the spin.
Dermit spun back to face Chullenn and saw the blade at the last moment. There was nothing Dermit could do, but accept the strike. Time seemed to stop as the blade struck his jaw. Chullenn felt the substance that his blade hit change. He had expected the jarring vibration of wood, but instead felt the hard resistance of bone that gave way to the sick ease of flesh. Time returned to normal as Chullenn looked at the mess at his feet.
Blood bathed the courtyard and his blade. One of the other students's wiped blood from his paling face and stared at it with horror. One would expect blood on a battle field, not in training. The wreck at Chullenn's feet moaned as Angus stepped forward and delegated the most lily-livered students to pick Dermit up and take him to the healer's.
Chullenn looked down the length of his blade and saw that it had splintered. That was all that kept the memory at bay. Then the blade had been steel, not wood. The memory drifted close to his consciousness, but he could not find it. He dropped the blade into the pool of blood that Dermit had left behind and picked up the clean blade that Dermit had cast aside in his fall.
Angus looked into Chullenn eyes for a moment before he dismissed the group. For a moment he thought he had seen some emotion there, but then it was gone. When dismissed the group stood there for a moment while they tried to understand what had happened. Chullenn didn't bother. He walked away towards the kitchen and let Dermit's ruined face leave his memory.
"His Lordship, Duke Liam Buttler, has of this day, the 15th of May in the Year of our Lord 1565..."
"Get on with it, you peacock," growled Angus, "Who do we fight?"
The crier looked from his parchment and licked his lips nervously. It was obvious that the weapons master was not happy. He rubbed his sweating palms against his good linen pants and called out in a plain voice.
"Tomorrow we march to war against Fitzgerald over a matter of honour."
"Right then, go back to our good lord and tell him that his message had been delivered."
"Yes Sir," The crier said and moved off a little to fast to be considered dignified for one of his position.
Angus turned back to the sword practice. He roared out the order to form up and waited as the squads gathered around their leaders. One group was leaderless and just milled around.
"You there. What the hell do you think you're doing? Form up!" Angus called out at the youths.
"Sir, Dermit is still with the healer. Jaw's broken."
"In all the fiery Hells. Kevin, take Dermit's squad."
Angus looked out at the expectant faces of the group before him and knew that this was going to be the last training they will get.
"Remember on the battlefield. Keep your shield up and your blade unstuck. Loose your blade, loose your life. Dismissed."
He turned to walk away but stopped suddenly. He turned and called out that all of them should go to confession before they leave on the morrow.
"Forgive me father, for I have sinned. It has been three days since my last confession."
"And what have you done, my son, in the last three days that demands such a hasty confession?" The priest asked from his side of the confessional panel.
"I have done many things, father, but most importantly we head to battle in the morning so I come to be shriven."
The priest nodded and bade Chullenn to continue with his usual accounting of his sins. Always the same sins. Cheating, lying, stealing, disobedience. But today a new one was added to the list. That of beating another so badly that they needed the healer's skills. The priest did not need to hear who the victim had been. Everyone in the castle knew and they were all grateful.
"Chullenn, Dermit's actions led to his injury, not yours. You did this entire town a great service when you put him in his place. It is because of Dermit's kind that we are going to war. Fitzgerald and his knights, now I use that term loosely, are not that different from Dermit. Those knights are a disgrace to the cross they use on their shields. Barely better then animals."
"Yes, father, they are, but Dermit was one of us. He was trained with us..."
"Do not argue with a priest about what is a sin and what is not. You are forgiven and for penance say five Our Fathers and think on the nature of the evil you will face tomorrow. God be with you, my son, for you are his holy warrior fighting for what is right."
Chullenn was no stranger to the human heart, though many swore that his did not beat. He looked around the ranks of his peers and knew, as most of them did, that many would not return today.