A wyrm lunged at Hugh, and he saw it in time to swing his mace, hitting it squarely in the head. It crumpled to the ground, twitching. More came at him, and Hugh did his best to sweep his mace at each oncoming wyrm, but for every one he hit, another seemed to come at him from another direction.
Hugh sustained numerous slashes to his legs and belly as the bodies of the wyrms began to pile up around him. Hugh continued to back up until his back was almost to the wall and the lantern was right at his feet. He crushed skulls with his mace and shoved them back with his shield. He kicked and stomped, occasionally having to grapple with one as best as he could without dropping his armament.
While they were not particularly strong or even all that quick, the sheer numbers of them pouring out of the darkness almost overwhelmed Hugh in a swarm of bluish green scales and claws. Finally, there was only the sound of Hugh’s breathing and Hugh stood there panting in a pool of scaled bodies and his own blood. He stayed ready for a bit, expecting to see another toothy grin barreling towards him, but it was over.
Hugh fell back against the wall and slid down into a sitting position. He shook and shivered, though he wasn’t cold. He sat there, hugging his bloody knees for a few minutes. Finally, he stood and began to leave.
He was passing the eggs when he stopped. He crushed them all with his mace except one, which he took with him. It was agonizing to crawl back through the tunnels, all the while bleeding. By the time he was back outside, he was very light-headed.
The sky was blue but they needed to walk by lantern through the darkened valley back to the city. The sky was much darker by the time they arrived.
Hugh ate lying down while the dwarf and giant inspected his wounds. They also dug two claws out of his right leg.
“Hugh, if I had any idea it would be this bad, I would have come with you,” said the giant.
“I’m glad I stayed,” said the dwarf, moving a hanging patch of flesh back into position over one of the gaping wounds.
“Some of these need to be stitched,” the giant said.
“I’ll do it,” said Theoson. “I stitch better than most seamstresses.”
Theoson worked quickly, closing the worst wounds first. Hugh chugged wine from a skin between each wound being stitched. Before long, the giant and dwarf were applying poultices and wrapping him in bandages.
Hugh looked over to the egg. “I don’t know why I brought that with me,” he said.
“A trophy,” said Theoson.
“I guess,” Hugh said.
Leocrates approached them. He looked at Hugh. “Good, I’m glad you survived. You killed them all?”
“Yes,” said Hugh. “All except that.” He pointed to the egg, resting on the ground.
Leocrates picked it up. “Well, they make rotten omelets.”
“I don’t think I want to eat it.”
“Probably for the best,” said Leocrates. “Maybe you can find someone in your town who wants a pretty looking egg.”
It was indeed very beautiful, with intricate speckling over a vein-like pattern reminiscent of a leaf. It was leathery and yellowish-green, but it had almost a shimmer to it that caught the light.
Leocrates invited them to the gym, and they followed him there.
“Do you still compete?” Leocrates asked Theoson.
“I don’t vanquish men with my hands anymore, only my tongue.”
“Ah, so you’ve grown weak and brittle with age?” asked Leocrates.
“I can still take a punch,” said Theoson.
Leocrates jabbed him quickly in the mouth. Theoson winced in pain and spit blood, he looked back at Zeke and smiled. Without warning, he turned back and quickly kicked Leocrates in the groin, though it was partially blocked. Leocrates grunted, holding Theoson’s leg fast in his hands for a few seconds before letting go.
“Fair enough,” said Leocrates. “So, anyone up for some boxing?”
“I’ll have a go,” said the dwarf.
Leocrates disrobed in the middle of the ring and threw his cloak to the side. “What style do you box? Two point, four point, eight point of nine point?”
“I don’t know what those mean,” said the dwarf.
“It’s the points of contact which are allowed,” said Leocrates. “Two point is hands, four point is hands and feet, eight point adds elbows and knees, and nine point allows head-butting, though any odd-numbered point like 3 or 5 also includes head-butting, but those are very esoteric formats.”
“I’d just as soon do nine point, then,” said the dwarf, removing his clothes.
They each oiled up and squared off. Leocrates was clearly stronger and faster than the dwarf, even though he was slightly shorter. Leocrates made short work of him, beginning with several punches to the body, and when the dwarf lowered his guard to protect his torso, Leocrates went for the head, even getting in close and elbowing him in the chin at one point.
It was over after Leocrates swept the dwarf’s legs out from under him while he was dazed. The dwarf coughed blood and waved his hand in defeat as he knelt there, one hand steadying himself on the ground. Leocrates helped him up and directed him to a bench to sit down. By now, others had shown up and most of the circles of sand were occupied by combatants facing off.
“I want a chance,” said the giant. “I’d prefer two-point.”
“Sounds good,” said Leocrates, moving to the center of the ring again. This match didn’t even last as long as the previous, as Leocrates ducked every punch the giant threw, biding his time, and ending it with one punch to her jaw. She fell like a rag doll in the sand, and Leocrates rushed to turn her on her back and lift her legs, which increased the blood flow to her head. She woke up almost immediately and Leocrates helped her to her feet.
“Don’t feel bad, now,” said Leocrates. “I’ve been fighting since I was a child. I’ve been winning boxing and wrestling tournaments since I was eight. I got to where I am because I was the best. I see a lot of potential in both of you, granted it is very raw, but both of you have the build for combat. You just need to hone your skills.”
“We learned to fight by fighting each other, really,” said the dwarf.
“And we learned what Hugh taught us,” added the giant.
“You should ask Theoson for a lesson, sometime,” said Leocrates. “He was one of my best coaches.”
“I can’t say you were one of my best students,” said Theoson.
Leocrates laughed. “You old bastard, you say that of all your best students.”
Leocrates found another opponent to beat from among his countrymen, though the fights were far more balanced. This went on for hours into the night before the men began to leave individually to go home. Eventually, even Theoson, the giant, the dwarf and Zeke left to get some sleep before heading home in the morning. In the end, it was just Hugh and Leocrates.
“I don’t suppose you’d want a match in your state.”
“I suppose. I wouldn’t want to feel left out,” said Hugh.
“Let’s keep it to two-point.”
Hugh hobbled into the ring while Leocrates grinned. “I guess this would be the only time I have a legitimate shot of beating you in one on one combat, huh?”
“I wouldn’t say that,” replied Hugh.
Leocrates circled Hugh, but he just stood there. Leocrates punched Hugh in the lower back, then again with the other hand, swinging away in tight combinations, one after the other. Hugh stepped forward and pivoted on one foot to face Leocrates, who approached him.
Hugh swung high, and Leocrates tried to duck it, but Hugh clipped his head enough to cause Leocrates to wobble. Hugh used his other hand to open-palmed push Leocrates back, who awkwardly managed to keep his balance and stay in the circle despite being shoved a few meters.
Leocrate raised his guard and approached cautiously, weaving his head back and forth in a rhythmic fashion. He punched one of Hugh’s wounds, and Hugh turned to expose his back again. Leocrated punched the back of Hugh’s knee as hard as he could, but it didn’t give way at all. Hugh blindly spun around, making a broad, low swing, and whacked Leocrates right under the armpit.
Leocrates tried to mask his pain, but Hugh thought he felt ribs break.
“Let’s stop,” said Hugh.
“Fuck that,” said Leocrates, who lunged at Hugh and delivered a series of blows to various areas covered in bandages. Hugh didn’t even seem to wince, he just swung broadly again, this time even lower, hitting Leocrates in the pelvis so hard that it sent him staggering out of the circle and to the ground. He quickly got back to his feet, his lips pursed and his eyes squinting.
“If you don’t give up, I will,” said Hugh.
“Let’s just call it a draw,” Leocrates said. He stood up straight, stretched a little, then sponged himself off before swinging his cloak back on. They walked back to his home in silence, though Hugh could tell he wasn’t angry. It was the silence of mutual respect.
They ate lentil soup from a large pot which Hugh all but finished off himself when they finally got back. In the morning, Leocrates handed them a lead tablet with the agreement spelled out. They were loaded up with supplies, including fresh bandages for Hugh, and they set out again for Polity.
Again, the journey was largely uneventful, and when they arrived back in Polity, it was late at night. Hugh and the twins were let into Walker’s estate and fell asleep as soon as their heads hit the pillow.
The next morning, there was a lot of activity in the house. Hugh was the last to wake up, and both the dwarf and giant were hurrying from room to room.
“Grab your things, you won’t believe this,” said the giant.
“Way to go, Hugh,” the dwarf said, giving him a playful punch.
Hugh collected his things and was led through town in the direction of the forge. Except… when they got to where the forge was, it was no longer there. In its place was the covered veranda of a large stone structure.
“Every worker in the city was used for a week,” said the dwarf.
“Yeah, apparently they even stopped construction of the wall to build it,” said the giant.
“What is it?” asked Hugh.
“It’s our new home!” said the giant.
“You have to see inside, it’s huge. It’s almost as big as Walker’s place,” the dwarf said.
“Where’s my forge?” asked Hugh.
Walker came up from behind Hugh and stood next to him, saying “It’s been taken apart, brick by brick, and skillfully rebuilt by some of our finest craftsmen.”
“Oh, hi,” said Hugh. “Thanks.”
“It’s the least we could do after you saved the city,” said Walker. “Come, I’ll give you the grand tour of your new home.”
Through the entry was a small lobby, with benches on each side, beyond which was a large room. Through a colonnade that framed the entire room in a square was a section open to the sky with a small garden, including benches and a little fish pond.
They circled the garden a bit, then looked in each room. The whole place was largely unfurnished, but three of the rooms had beds, including a large one for Hugh. There were six rooms in all, two on each side of the home except the front. Between the rooms in the back was an exit. A little ways behind the home was Hugh’s forge, exactly as he remembered it. The whole place had very tall ceilings and no low-hanging doorways.
“I don’t know what to say,” said Hugh.
“Just promise you’ll stay,” said Walker.
To be continued…