June 18, 2014

Vladonik : A semihistorical fiction short story

This is an adapted and condensed version of the first several pages of a manuscript I've been working on. I was quite pleased with the rough draft but everyone was asked to make "radical revisions" to make it entirely new. I ended up changing it from third person (which I liked WAY better) into alternating first person (which I am significantly less pleased with). I was asked to add another scene (and I did) along with some fine adjustments and a more concrete ending (and I did) but I don't like it either. This is the end result and what I turned in for my Literature final. Commentary is welcome.
            Outside the sun was blistering. With the heat of the bodies, the stale stench of sweat, blood, and wet dirt in the air, the underground fighting rings exceeded the scorching temperatures up above.
            The young man opposite of me was thin and wiry but what he lacked in size, he made up for in speed and precision. A mixture of blood and sweat dripped down my forehead as my long limbs stumbled to regain balance. Today I was fighting Crispin, a new acquaintance I had met just a week prior. I liked him. I knew that in a different time and place, under different circumstances we probably would have been friends. Not today. Not right here. Not now. Another blow landed upon my face before I could manage to raise my hands and block it. The crowd roared.
I could not afford to lose this fight. I had to win or my loan would not be repaid. My family’s land would be lost. My brothers might starve. And for the sake of my pride, even worse, my father would be proven right. My father, Sven Svanek, had warned me not to accept money from the nobles. Father warned me not to fight, too. Of course I would not listen. I had been a fool but there was still time for redemption as long as I could win this fight. I simply could not lose. Not again. 
            For a brief second, Crispin paused to catch his breath. The timing was perfect. I caught him by surprise. A single hit was all it took for Crispin to freeze – a standing target. I struck him in the face repeatedly until the thin boy’s bony nose cracked and seeped scarlet colored blood upon his parted and gasping lips. As the young man’s spidery fingers were instinctively raised to his face, I struck him in the chest and stomach. Finally, he went down. He fell to the floor writhing in pain and struggling for breath. With ruthless bloodlust, the small crowd now riled, screamed “Finish him!” It was already clear that I would win the match. There was no need for me to continue. Reynard Ehkran, my boss, met my gaze and nodded expectantly for me to comply with the crowd’s wishes. There was no place for mercy in the Thuringian Fights—least of all when the crowd begged for more.    
            Reluctantly, I knew what I must do in order to receive my pay. I prayed that the gods would understand and excuse my excess for the sake of the situation which had risen. Peering down at the young man, whose blood had now begun to pool on the damp earth beneath our tired feet, I summoned the will to continue. A fierce cry rose up out of me as I brought my fists down upon his new acquaintance. I hit him over and over again, praying he would give up soon. Finally, Crispin’s body went limp—he had been rendered unconscious. I stood, raising my hands victoriously above my head. I forced my lips to turn upward into a large grin though I would have much rather cried for the throbbing of my face, the bruises covering my skin, the dull pain emanating from my knuckles, and the damage I had savagely dealt to my opponent for trivial pleasure of my boss.  
            Reynard sauntered over and clapped his hand upon my back. He stood there smiling at the crowd as if the outcome of the fight had been his own work. With his fat hand gripping my dirty shoulder, he leaned in and quietly stated “Well done, Vladonik. Well done indeed.” The fat man, a former fighter, the so-called patron and master of the Thuringian Fights, was quite pleased that I had taken the cue and given the crowd an entertaining fight.
            I was filled with an odd mixture of rage and pride. It was said that I was the best of all the newcomers – I was called “Vlad: The Eastern Beast”.
            When the fight was finished and the daily earnings were distributed, I limped back to Reynard’s establishment, the Thuringian Inn, where I had taken lodging all summer. The season was over. I had made as much money in a single season as the farm would produce in two. I was scarcely more than sixteen years of age but, Timofrey, my older brother, had managed to convince our family that I would be capable of making the two day journey from Romavek, our village, to Thuringia, one of the largest cities in the Eastern Lands. 
            Each of my fingers and wrists had been sprained at least once. My knuckles were scraped and scarred. My body ached.
            While other young men fought for fame, an opportunity to move to the Middle Lands and manage slave fights, or to impress a local lover, while I was in the ring, I thought of nothing but my family. Every punch was so my little brother, Ivan, would have something to eat. Every hit blocked was for the honor of my dying mother. Though my father did not condone it, I even wanted to win for him too. I would be devastated if the home of my ancestors was lost without a fight—and so I took to fighting. Every drop of blood and bead of sweat was my sacrifice to prove my love and loyalty to the Svanek family—a sacrifice I was not asked to make but was gladly willing to accept.     

            “Don’t forget the bread. You always burn it” John told me as he leaned against the wall. I rushed over to the stone oven pulled out the little loaves. He was right, I would have burned them. “Mercovena, don’t forget the ale and mead. A man can’t live without it. That’s a fact.” John said from the corner of the room. With one hand on my hip, I waived the rolling pin in the air, pointing directly at him. “Had you gone without it a little more, you’d probably still be alive.”    
            The kitchen door opened and Father came inside, his eyes scanned the kitchen. “Damn it! Are you talking to yourself again, Mercovena? You need to stop that.” I pretended not to notice but I could feel the burn of his judging eyes as they studied me. “Don’t you want to remarry? You know I’m just trying to help” he said. He continued talking. I continued trying to ignore him but I could not. I turned my back to him and began to flour my stone worktable. As I became more irritated the dough I had been rolling was pressed harder and flatter until finally it was too thin to use. I scraped it up and set it aside. It would have to wait until I was ready to start again.
            Tears began to well behind my eyes. The dough looked pathetic and out of place sitting on the table. It was a sad and disappointing lump, limp and lifeless. The table was nice. Much nicer than the one I had with John. But it was not mine. Not really. Nothing here was anybody’s. It all belonged to Father. We all belonged to Father.
            Clothilde, one of the Inn’s hired hands, pushed the heavy kitchen door open. She had been chattering about something but stopped midsentence when she saw I was not alone. “Master Ehkrin,” she bowed, “the boys are getting restless, sir. I promised I’d ask, it being the last day and all, can we serve them supper a bit early?”
            “We’ll finish this later” he told me, completely ignoring Clothilde as he left the room.
            Clothilde helped me with the trays and plates. She lifted the basket of warm bread and peeked inside. “These smell great! And you didn’t burn any this time!” Clothilde said with an innocent smile on her face. We made our way to the banquet room.            
            The fighters, young men from all corners of the region, sat together on long wooden benches. The contracts for next season were being passed around. Even though many of them could not read, a handful of men gathered in cluster arguing over the proper spelling of their names. Some were filled with disappointment as they loosened their purse strings and peered down at the handful of coins they had left. Others boasted of their earnings and plans of brothels and drunken vacations. One young man did not join the others at all. Lost deep in thought, he sat on one of the rough wooden benches which he had moved towards the edge of the room. I heard people called him “the beast” but there did not appear to be anything beastly about him. I had seen him before but we had never talked. I set some bread upon his plate and refilled his cup with ale. “Oh. No, thank you. I’ve probably had more than enough already” he said kindly.
            “Somehow I doubt that” I leaned in close and whispered “Father makes us water it down before we serve it. But you didn’t hear that from me.” He laughed. I sat on the bench beside him. “Your purse looks full. You must have done well this season. So tell me, sir, what do you have to be so sad about?” 
            “It’s not ‘sir’. I’m the son of a farmer. It’s just ‘Vladonik’.” he said as he extended his hand for me to shake. 
            He explained that he wanted to be home, to put this all behind him, he had made enough to clear his debts but he wanted to return next season as well. He was conflicted. The papers made their way towards us.. “You’ll have to make your choice. Every year we get more and more people. Sign up if you want a place to stay.” I told him.
            Vladonik seemed nice, not like the other men in the room. He seemed like somebody I could get along with, a rare thing. “Sometimes your family won’t understand you. Sometimes there are things we have to do just for ourselves” I stated confidently as I saw John standing behind him. The papers were handed to him. He took a deep breath, and smiled at me as he lightly bit his bottom lip and pressed the quill to the paper. Vladonik Svanek he scratched out.  
            I bid him farewell and gathered the contracts to give to my father. My dead husband whispered in my ear “He’s a little young for you. But you might make a nice couple. Reynard wants you married. You’d best choose your own husband before he chooses one for you.” 

            It was not until the second season of fighting that I discovered this profession was not as easy as I had expected. My motivations having shifted from survival to luxury, despite my larger size and increased skill, lacked the passion and adrenaline necessary to relentlessly win without injury. By half-way through my second season, I had won just as many fights as he had lost. Even my victories were bittersweet and not so easily enjoyed as they now came with pain and injuries.

            It was already dark when my eyes fluttered open. I had awoken with that strange sensation that I was home but as my eyes adjusted to the dim light and the strange shapes around the room became clearer, I knew this was not the case. Thus I was faced with the overwhelming disappointment of realizing I was still in Ehkrin’s lodge. It would seem this alone was not enough, for fate also brought me the deep and lasting pain borne by those that have known defeat wrought by the bare and bloodied fists of another. So, as I lay on his little bed in the center of my small, private quarters, with my body aching, my cheek scraped open, my nose broken, dried blood crusted upon my face and chest, and eyes surveying the room, there was a faint knock on the door.
            “Come in,” I instructed. The iron hinges squeaked as the large wooden door to the room was slowly forced open. It was a heavy and stubborn door, one that required a bit of effort to pry open. With some difficulty, I left my bed and pulled the door as the person outside pushed. Suddenly, it flew open and Mercovena was flung into the little room where she landed upon me, heightening my already excruciating pain. She apologized profusely as she helped me off the floor and produced a candle from her apron pocket. The white little stick of wax was lit. Even in the dim light of the candle, I could not hide my injuries from Mercovena. She wrapped my arm around her shoulder, “Here, lean on me,” she told me, “I’ll help you back to bed.” I obeyed.  
            Mercovena disappeared for a few minutes, almost long enough for me to doze off. When she reappeared in the doorway, her arms were filled with a wash basin, fresh white cloths, and a little sewing set. Mercovena calmly sat beside me as she cleaned and sewed shut my grotesque open wounds.
            When she finished, she washed her hands and reached into her pockets to pull out a folded scrap of paper. It was not the thick white pages sewn into books or the brown scraps women used to record their recipes and secrets. It was thin, coarse, and cheap; every letter scratched out onto its surface left thick black blobs bleeding through the backside. She handed it to me. “I found it on my father’s desk. I snatched it before he could open it. I’ve had it few a days, trying to find the right time to give it to you.” she explained.
            The paper would scarcely cooperate as Vlad rushed to untie the twine knotted around it. His brother Timofrey’s handwriting was scrawled across the page.
Father’s health is failing. Mother has not improved. You need not be alarmed. I was going to wait until you returned but Ivan made me promise that I would tell you. It is not fair for me to ask but I must. Please, spend your money wisely, we may need it soon.
Oh! Father says “Make haste and win that woman over already. You aren’t getting any younger!” 
            Mercovena must have noticed my change in expression, she was always good at reading me. She asked about the content of the letter. I looked at the paper once more, debating on how much to reveal. I read it out loud, making sure to omit the last few lines. Mercovena reached for my hand and placed it in hers.
            Together we sat his bed in the dark, holding hands, our bodies close to one another. Together we fell silent. Eventually, Mercovena stood and immediately returned. She informed me that her father, Reynard Ehkrin, wished to meet with me in the private area of the Inn.
            I rose to meet her at the door. As we lingered, in the soft glow of the candlelight, we whispered to one another. I was nervous; I could not help but wonder why her father would request an audience with me. I worried and wondered if I would be sent home early given the extent of my injuries.
            Carefully and slowly, I descended the creaking steps of the wooden stair case. At the end of the hall, light shone from the crevice of the opened door. There Ehkrin sat scribbling numbers in columns of his ledger hunched over the wooden table and a cup of ale.

            “I sent the girl to bring you, what took you so long?” I asked as I glanced up from my book. “It just took me a little while to get down the stairs, sir; that was all.” Vladonik said. He sat on the smooth wooden chair beside me. “Your daughter’s quite beautiful, sir, and sews an open wound well, if I might say so. I haven’t a wife yet,” he continued, shakily, “but I should imagine I’d like mine to be like her.”       
            I stared at the young man suspiciously. “What are you trying to say, boy, my girl’s too good for the likes of you. Ha! A fighter wanting to marry me only daughter. I think not, lad!” Vladonik’s cheeks reddened and his eyes widened in embarrassment. “No, Master Ehkrin, I think you misunderstand me, sir. I said I would like a wife like your daughter, sir, not that I want your daughter as my wife.”
            “Aye, so now you’re too good for her? Is that it lad?” I teased the young man. He looked like he was close to fainting. Unnerving him was almost too easy. He was taking some of the fun out of it.  
            I ignored the farm boy as he rattled on and on without stopping for a breath of air. He was what people would call an “honest man”. Usually I would say a “stupid man” but it would not hurt to have my daughter with a kinder and gentler soul than the last man. I would need a man willing to take care of her, not just marry her. After John’s death I had given only an occasional thought to having my daughter remarry but the local Thuringian men sensed that she was crazy and I generally kept her away from the young men I patronized.
            “Would you want to marry her? Given the chance?” I asked.
            “Oh, yes sir! She is wonderful and I would like nothing more than to do that. I believe we would both like that. If I might be so bold, sir” Vladonik said.
            I berated him “She’s a bit old for you isn’t she? What is this? Who marries a woman their own age? We aren’t savages. You’re a strange boy, you know that?”
            “Yes, sir, I have been told that before” Vlad admitted
“I don’t know if I want my Mercovena with a weirdo” I trailed off, hoping to bait the boy. “Please sir, I’m not that weird. I’m just a little different. Different in a good way though.” Vladonik rambled on in an attempt to redeem his chances.
            I entertained the idea with feigned resistance hoping Vladonik will make an offer without asking for a dowry or inheritance. Fighter or not, the son of a farmer should count himself lucky to marry a woman with a good family.  
            The light in the room began to dim until it faded into utter darkness. The candles on the table had been consumed and they would need more should they wish to see each other’s faces.
I push Vladonik towards the adjoining room and sit near the fireplace with a cup of ale each. Vlad’s cheeks redden more and more with every sip he took. The boy looked as if he knew he should stop but did not have the courage to talk without it. I did nothing to slow him down either. I had nothing to lose from loosening the wits of the young man before him. At last, I had found a young man that I could coax into marrying my crazy, aging, daughter. 
            The door burst open. A tall man just a few years older than Vladonik rushed in followed by a lad a several years younger. Vlad stood immediately and rushed over to them “Timofrey! Ivan! What are you doing here?” he asked. “Father and Mother have died. We’ve come to bring you home.” the tall one explained in a deep voice.
            “You can’t” I protested thinking quickly for an excuse. “He signed a contract, he must pay me if he wants to leave before the season has ended.” I had him.
            “Surely you can waive that rule, he isn’t running away, our parents are dead. We need him home. Now” Timofrey said calmly. “But, if I waive the rules for him I would have to do it for everyone.” I insisted. “There is an arrangement we could make though. Vladonik and I were just discussing his interest in my daughter, Mercovena. I’ll allow him to break his contract only if he agrees to a marriage without a dowry. All the wedding costs would be your responsibility.”
            “That’s fine” Timofrey said without hesitation. He turned to Vladonik and instructed him to pack his belongings, they would leave at dawn.

            In all the commotion, Mercovena had entered the room, unnoticed until now. “Pack your things. You’re going to Romavek where you’ll wed Vlad” I told her before leaving the room.  

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