16. Sparring Practice
After the meal many of the Northerners went out to practice with their weapons while it was still fairly cool. The King had a great crate brought out in which those weapons not worn were carried, including bows, arrows, daggers and long knives, and his own great sword; and a second crate carried padded practice wear. Many of the court went out to the practice grounds to watch, saw the King remove his outer robe and hang it on a peg within the salle. Under it he wore loose dark trousers and a shirt the same color as the robe with a line of stars embroidered down its front. He found his padded shirt, then took from the larger crate sword and belt and donned them, checked the seat of his sword in its sheath, pulled from the crate a fine curved dagger and thrust it, too, into his belt. Drawing his sword, he began to move through forms with it. Others also were doing the same, those who had not borne their weapons taking from the crate their own, seeing to their condition, and then finding a cleared space to work through the forms for whatever weapon was proper to the individual.
Ankhrabi entered the salle and prepared to do the same, as did some of the other Haradri nobles. Nefiramonrani watched her husband work through his own forms, which were different from those used by the King of Gondor. Both, she thought, were supremely graceful. Finally, as the Lord Elessar sheathed his sword, Ankhrabi turned to him. "Would you care to spar?" he asked.
"With practice foils," the Northern King suggested, and her husband agreed. They both put aside their swords, and her husband took two practice foils from an attendant and tossed one to his guest, who caught it handily. The King took a stance with it and worked through a couple forms to acquaint himself with its length, weight, and balance, then nodded to Ankhrabi and prepared to spar.
It was fascinating to watch. Both he and Ankhrabi moved with grace as they worked with their weapons, as they turned and circled, thrust and parried. Always he let Ankhrabi make the move, and then would be there to counter whatever assault the Haradri made. Both seemed well matched--until suddenly the King slipped gently sideways and touched a point on his opponent. He then pulled back and gave a slight bow of his head, allowed Ankhrabi to recover, and it began again.
Each time it was the same through the four rounds they did, although Ankhrabi was changing his tactics each round. After the fourth touch he straightened. "My Lord An'Elessar," he suggested, "this time let you lead the attack and let me respond. Otherwise I shall not have an idea as to how to counter you."
The King gave a nod to his head, then started the circling. He led slowly, almost languidly, allowing Ankhrabi to realize how he would move, allowing him to realize the proper defense, let him practice it several times, then quickened the pace. Suddenly the sparring was in earnest, and within two minutes Ankhrabi was disarmed and stood holding a stinging wrist, a look of great respect and surprise on his face.
Lord Elessar stepped back and straightened, and gave his host a look of question. Ankhrabi gave a laugh as he finally lifted his foil from the ground and reached out his hand for the other. "No," he said, "I see now why my father named you a great swordsman." He turned to Rustovrid, who had joined the party and stood now near Nefiramonrani and her children. "My lord ambassador, shall you try it next?"
"Na, my lord Prince--I've matched swords against him many times in the salle and practice grounds in Minas Anor, and know I am no more fit an opponent for him than you or my father."
Ankhrabi was surprised. "But your father was the greatest swordsman I've ever seen."
"Yes, and it saved his life and that of your uncle and father more than once; but he was quickly disarmed by Horubi'ninarin when they sparred together in the Valley of the Sun. Nay, I might spar against Lord Mablung or even Captain Peregrin, but not the King."
The Dwarf had pulled from the weapons crate a war axe of different design than the one he carried. "I take it," he said in Westron, which Rustovrid translated to those who stood by him, "that Lord Rustovrid has declined to spar with you, Aragorn?" At the King's nod, he said, "Well, since the prince has had the chance to wind you a bit, we'll try the defense against axes again. No, let you not use Anduril--your weapons master will pluck my beard out hair by hair if its blade should be nicked, or if it should nick this one. Use Gilui-estel instead."
As the King exchanged the sword he'd already taken out for another, slightly shorter one from the case, he asked, laughing, "Would you truly pluck out your own beard, Gimli?"
"I'm no Elven smith to repair Anduril if it's needed. And besides, you'd most likely notch this instead, and I'm away now from my forge and don't wish to use another's."
Prince Legolas laughed also. "You mean to tell me the greatest Dwarf smith of the Age feels inferior to a mere Elven smith?"
"First, my father's yet a better smith than I am. Then, I'm but a mortal, Elf. Lord Elrond's smiths have had two and perhaps three Ages of the world to perfect their craft. And the runes they've put on Anduril's blade are counter to the powers and runes of Dwarves. No, I'll not touch it unless I must."
Rustovrid smiled with recognition at the sword now girt about the King's waist, at the star set in its pommel. "That is the sword you carried when you sparred with my father."
The King looked up from where he was adjusting the hangers for it and smiled. "Yes, it is. It was wrought for me when I approached manhood, and was given me the day I came of age. I bore it until Anduril was reforged, and when he is of an age to bear a sword undoubtedly Eldarion shall carry it after me."
The King of Rohan examined the axe Lord Gimli was preparing to use. "This is a war axe from Mundolië."
"Yes. Aragorn asked Ghan Peveset for one so we could practice with it."
"But the people of Mundolië are now at peace with Gondor, are they not?"
The King drew his sword and ran through a couple of forms with it. As he finished he commented, "Yes, Mundolië is currently at peace with Rhun and Gondor--but only until such time as Ghan Peveset dies. His current heir is his brother's son, who is young and ambitious, which is not always a promising combination."
He and the Dwarf took their stances, and after a mutual salute, they began to circle. It was a match which beggared imagination, which enthralled all. Nefiramonrani had watched a few practice matches now and then, usually between her husband and other nobles or officers of the Farozi's guard; but what she saw now was fascinating even for those who did not appreciate the technical aspects of what was being done.
For better than a quarter mark Man and Dwarf circled, struck and parried, ducked and sidestepped, each seeking to get the advantage of the other. In the end the King managed to get a touch on the Dwarf's arm, gently slapping the sleeve of the mail shirt Gimli wore today with the flat of the blade; but then he lost the sword and had to roll out of the way before Gimli was able to halt the arc of the axe's swing. The King held the knuckles of his right hand, which apparently had been grazed lightly.
Prince Legolas laughed. "And how do we account as to which won that match, Aragorn?" he asked.
The one named Lord Hardorn was there immediately, was examining the wound with concern followed by relief. "Strictly a flesh wound, my Lord Cousin," he reported.
"I could have told you that," the King responded, checking it over. Hildigor held out the red satchel which had accompanied the King to the practice yard, and the King unfastened the complicated knot and drew out bandaging, went to the fountain at the side of the yard and dampened the cloth, then laid it over the knuckles. Hildigor brought out another roll, gave the King's hand a quick evaluation, then drew out scissors and cut off a length, brought it over and bound three fingers together. After an appreciative nod of approval, the King saw everything else returned to the bag, and its flap closed again.
The Elf had retrieved the sword and examined the blade, and now returned it to his friend, who also examined it, sighted down its blade, brought out a polishing cloth out of the case, and wiped it down before returning it to its sheath. He looked to the others gathered there. "I will sit and take a rest, then, and watch others spar for a time," the Lord Elessar announced, and accepting a cup of water from one of the attendants, he sat upon a bench, one foot up on the bench beside him as he sipped.
Éomer of Rohan matched himself against Faramir of Ithilien; Rustovrid against Lord Hildigor; Captain Damrod against Elfhelm; Haleth against Beregond. Several more came out of the palace, including the Queen of Gondor and Arnor carrying her son and accompanied by daughter and the Hobbit guard, Lord Sherfiramun, Lady Ankhsarani, and three others, one of them Lord Sherfiramun's personal guard. They watched the sparring between the young golden-haired Rohirrim and the older captain of Ithilien, saw how well the two appeared matched, the older far more controlled and experienced, but more conservative in his movements; the younger more aggressive and bold, but certain of his control. They sparred for slightly better than a quarter mark, first one and then the other leading the attacks, each countering competently, occasionally one slipping from defensive to offensive in an instant as opportunities presented themselves. Finally both stepped back, bowed, and saw their weapons back into their sheaths.
Sherfiramun put himself forward. "Would any wish to spar with me?" he asked.
Lord Mablung looked to the helmed figure who stood opposite him, with whom he'd obviously intended to spar. "Do you mind, Lady?" he asked in Rohirric.
The slighter figure shrugged. "I can spar with Pippin," came the muffled reply.
Mablung turned to him. He looked to the King, who nodded his intent to translate. "I will be glad to match swords with you, my lord," he offered.
Sherfiramun nodded, threw off his formal cloak into the hands of his attendant, and stepped into the practice ground. Looking at the Haradri's short sword, Mablung turned to the chest and chose out a weapon closer to its length.
"You do not trust to face me with your own sword?" asked Sherfiramun, Prince Faramir serving as translator.
"The sword I usually wield is far longer than yours and gives me an unfair advantage in length, my Lord," Mablung explained. "I would prefer to be more closely matched in weaponry to you."
"Do not think you need to do this," Sherfiramun said, his head raised in disdain. "I can match you no matter what the length of the blade."
The King straightened. "No, my lord," he said in Haradri. "I do not wish either of you hurt. I will not allow him to fight you with live steel. Use foils, or I shall not allow it to go forward."
At last the match began, both armed with foils. The Gondorian soldier let the Haradri noble lead, kept up his defense with ease. Again and again Sherfiramun saw an opening, sought to take advantage of it, only to find the move was already foreseen and the counter in place when the blow fell. He was a good swordsman, but impatient; and finally he grew reckless, taking too wild a swing. In an instant he was disarmed, his foil spinning on the ground. But where all the rest had taken their defeats in good humor, Sherfiramun grew angry, seeming to take the loss of the foil as a personal affront. His face darkened with rage, and he would have begun to splutter if Ankhrabi hadn't come to his side and placed a restraining hand on his shoulder.
"No, brother, it was eminently fair. Several have I seen disarmed this day, including the King An'Elessar, and yet none has become enraged. Those of Gondor have fought for their lives for many lives of Men and have had to grow highly skilled with their weapons. Feel honored it took this long to disarm you, and seek to learn what skills you can from what you have done. Now let us clear the ground that another pair might take their turn." He drew Sherfiramun to the side of the enclosure, and watched as the one wearing the helm entered the open space, drawing a fair sword from its sheath.
"I'll take over for you," Lord Hardorn said to the Hobbit guard, who nodded, removed his tabard and hung it near that of the King, moved to the crate and drew out a smaller padded shirt to wear, unfastened his swordbelt, quickly donned the shirt and took out his sword, hung belt and sheath from another of the pegs, then turned to face his opponent. The two bowed, then took their stances and began the sparring. Again it was a match which roused great interest, as the Hobbit and the helmed warrior each tried to turn the situation to his advantage. For a quarter mark the two circled, struck and parried; the taller warrior had the advantage of a longer reach, but the Hobbit was able several times to slip inside that reach and offer a serious threat to his opponent, causing that one to have to draw the sword inward to do an effective guard. It could not be decided by the onlookers which would have held the advantage had the match been for real. They were remarkably well matched for skill, and finally the King gave a shrill whistle to indicate it was enough.
Both drew back, and the one in the helm quickly unfastened the strap and drew it off, revealing this one was the Lady Éowyn. She was laughing. "A good match, Pippin," she called out, accepting a cup of water from her brother. "You must give your cousin a true fight when the two of you practice together."
Captain Peregin nodded, accepting a drink from the Dwarf. After taking a deep draught of it, he wiped his face with his sleeve. "I'm glad Strider called time, though. I can truly feel the heat now." He handed the cup back to Gimli, checked his weapon and sheathed it, fumbled at the fastenings of the practice garment. The Elf was there swiftly to undo the lacings, helped him shrug out of it. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, then reached once more for the water.
The two of them moved to the side, and now Legolas moved forward, drawing his white knife. "Well, mellon nin," he said to the King. "Shall we try long knives?"
Aragorn laughed, drawing his dagger with his bandaged hand as he stepped back into the ring.
The moves this time would be slow and languid at one moment, then swifter than lightning the next. They were the best matched yet, and both clearly deadly. At last the King slipped sideways, almost scored a touch, then was watching again as his weapon left his grasp. He shook his head and laughed merrily. "I almost never best you or my brothers, Legolas," he said as he reached to pick the knife up again. Both he and his friend checked their weapons, replaced them, smiling and bowing to one another.
"You are improving," Legolas commented. "That last sidestep almost had me."
"Do you wish to practice with your bow?" the King asked.
"No--it grows indeed warm. We archers will practice tomorrow morn early."
Practice garb was replaced in the smaller crate, weapons in the larger one; it was fastened shut again, and Lords Hildigor and Damrod carried it between them back to the suite put at the King's disposal. The weapons master for the Haradri court indicated they could leave the crate of padded practice gear in the cover of the salle. The Lord Elessar thanked him, carefully drew over himself again the figured robe and slipped the red satchel over his shoulder, then approached his wife, leaned forward and kissed her. Taking his son on one arm and reaching down to take his daughter's hand with his bandaged hand, he returned to the palace, now followed by the Lord Hardorn on guard.
Captain Peregrin commented to the Lady Éowyn as he reached up to take her helm from her, "I believe I am now ready for a good second breakfast," to which she answered with laughter, drawing him near to her as they walked, then releasing him to walk by her husband, smiling happily into his eyes.