Rite of Passage

by Michael

     This was it. This was the day Xander had been waiting for since early childhood. He was twenty now and custom said that today, his twentieth birthday, would be the day of his test. The night before he hadn't gone drinking with his friends, but had poured through all of his notes and books on fighting technique. If he botched this test, there would be no retake. This decided his future. Would he leave his position as a squire and move on to knighthood, or be put down to become a meaningless peasant. He concluded that if he achieved the latter of the two, he would surely end his life. Failure was not an option.

     That morning, Xander ate a small breakfast with his mother. She had made him biscuits and eggs. He was at first unwilling to eat the food because they were so short on money, but as per her pleads he ate his food graciously. He felt bad knowing that they were so poor because most of the meager salary his mother earned from washing clothes went towards his education. It made him happy knowing that if he passed into knighthood they would have more food than they could eat. However it made him nauseous knowing that if he failed, there would be even less money and food to go around. No, failing was indeed not an option.

     She was unable to suppress her pride. Her baby had made it this far. It didn't matter to her if he became a knight or not, she loved her boy either way. "Come here baby." she said in her soft, smooth voice.

     "Yes mother, but could you please stop calling me baby?" he tried to look solemn, but he couldn't hold back the smile. He loved his mother more than anything in the world. When he got close, she bade him to bent down and she wrapped her thin arms around his large neck. Xander returned the affection and buried his head in the long blonde hair that hung down to the middle of her back.

     She gave him a kiss and stood up so she could begin clearing the table. "I want you to promise me something Xander." she said.

     "Yes, what is it?" he would have died for his mother if she had called for it. He stretched one arm across his chest and then the other as he began to loosen up for the later battle.

"You will do your best out there. If you win, good for you. If you lose, do not do something too irrational. You will have done your best and that's all that counts."

     He thought that what he had planned if he lost was indeed irrational, but there was nothing that could take away the shame of knowing your best wasn't enough. "Yes mother. Nothing irrational." He felt horrid for lying to her, but he couldnt live with the shame of loss, and he couldnt tell her that he planned on suicide if he did lose.

     Inside the castle walls, a gigantic bell tolled, telling the competitors that they had one hour to prepare until the test would begin. Xander walked to the door and grabbed up his things. He began to attach them to various places on his pants, belt, and shirt. "Well, I guess this is it mom."

     "Indeed it is. Good luck baby." He tried to give her an indignant look, but couldnt manage to frown upon her beautiful smiling face. He tied his sword to his belt as well and his mace and pouch of medicinal herbs. He slipped his boot knife into the little sheath on the side of his boot and then performed a last minute check of his person.

     After deeming himself ready to leave he turned to his other and noticed she was crying. She ran across the room and gave him one last tight embrace. "Good luck. I love you." she whispered into his ear through small silent sobs.

"I love you too mom." he responded. Then he broke the embrace and headed out the door.

     The castle gate were only a five minute walk from his home, so he walked at a leisurely pace. They had no near neighbors, and most of the area around their home was surrounded by thick woodland. As he walked along the path in the woods, he could hear the sounds of the minstrel's singing ballads in the market for whatever change they could get. Soon the smell of roasting meat and vegetables was on the air. Xander would much rather have had a leg of lamb than biscuits and eggs, but you could only have what you could afford.

     As he walked through the market, the sea of merchants and salesmen struck him all at once. He was brandishing a sword at his hip, and that usually meant you had money. They were beginning to bother him but then he remembered what he was supposed to do. He stopped and rummaged through his pack until he found his bandanna. He tied in around his forehead and then continued walking in the direction of the training grounds.

     The bandanna marked him a squire on his way to the testing which meant that anyone hindering his progress was subject to execution. Also, the bandanna pushed his long black hair out of his eyes, which was a plus. It only hung down to just past his ears, but in the heat it could get ever so bothersome. It didn't really get in his eyes, but it stuck to his forehead.

     Soon he reached the stone corridor that led to the courtyard where the testing would take place. Standing near the door was a huge man in a black cloak. He must have been roasting in it. "Are you Xander, student of Cuthbert?" he asked in an intimidating deep voice," If so, you may enter. If not, come back later." He knew from what Cuthbert, his teacher had told him that the man would not respond. If Xander touched him, even on accident, the man had the right to kill him, so he resolved to stay as far away from him as he possible could.

     He took one last deep breath and idly scratched at his muscled chest through is thin cotton shirt. He then popped all of his fingers and any other joints he knew of that would make a satisfying cracking noise, and went into the door and down the corridor.

     On the other side of the dark hall was an open area exactly fifty feet long, and fifty feet wide. One side was covered in mud and dusty dirt, the middle was a pleasant grassy area and the other was piled with rocks and other rubble. The only other living soul was Cuthbert, standing alone on the other side of the arena.

     "Welcome Xander. Are you prepared for your rite of passage?" Xander bowed deeply as was the custom.

     "Yes teacher, I am ready." he responded.

     "Have you brought your weapons Xander?" he asked emotionlessly.

     "Yes teacher, I have brought my weapons. I choose the short sword, the mace, and the dagger."

There was a moment of silence, and t hen Cuthbert said, "Very well. The rite of passage has begun."

     A deafening yell pierced the air as Cuthbert came towards Xander at a dead run. He appeared to have no weapons, but Xander knew better. He would have his trademark whip at his hip. And upon closer examination, Xander found that he was right.

     Xander steeled himself, preparing for the fight. He slowly drew his blade as Cuthbert closed the distance. Cuthbert's arm went to his waist, then back into the air. He had grabbed his whip. Soon the air would crack loudly and the pain would begin.

     As Cuthbert began to slow, he cracked the whip for the first time. He seemed to have missed Xander by several feet, but he knew he didn't have to miss. Xander reached down swiftly and grabbed his boot knife with his free hand and held it at the ready.

      Xander jumped to the side and narrowly avoided being struck by the next blow of the whip. He took a leap forward and came within cutting distance of his teacher. He took a swipe with the sword and it would have connected, but Cuthbert parried with the steel handle to the whip. Xander anticipated this and truck out with his dagger. Cuthbert hadn't been expecting this, and so earned a nasty cut along the inside of his forearm.

     Angry, and hurt, Cuthbert lashed the whip back and caught Xander across the back. It opened up a huge gash that was bleeding freely in no time at all. The pain brought Xander to his knees yelling in pain. Cuthbert was soon on top of him. He brought him to the ground and began bashing his head into the ground.

     Xander's world soon erupted in a sea of colors and pain. He couldnt see his master on top of him, but he could feel him. Then he realized his arm was free. He used it as leverage as he arched his back and spun over. This knocked his teacher from his back, onto the ground. With frightening speed Xander was on top of him, with the dagger mere inches from Cuthbert's neck.

Xander was overconfident in his victory. Cuthbert brought the handle of the whip up and slammed it into the side of Xander's head. Blackness then engulfed Xander's world.

     He must have only been unconscious for a few seconds because when the light came back to him, he was in much the same position that he had been a few moments ago. The only difference was that Cuthbert was on his feet walking away. Apparently he thought the blow had killed him, or at least knocked him cold. Then Xander decided to take advantage of the situation.

     He quietly got to his feet, despite his throbbing head and aching back. He quickly and stealthily came up behind his teacher. He paused only for a second to decide if he wanted to do what he was about to, and he did.

     He unhooked the mace from his belt and held it aloft. Then he planted it firmly in Cuthbert's back. After a horrible scream, his body went limp and fell to the ground. A thick puddle of blood began to collect in the grass of the courtyard. Then it occurred to him that the battle had never left the central grassy area. They never once had gone into the rocks, or the mud.

     The choking sobs of his dying teacher brought him back from that thought. Cuthbert stared up at him from the ground, paralyzed, with glazed eyes. After much effort and coughing up a considerable amount of blood, he finally spoke.

"Why did you kill me Xander?" the burly man looked almost pitiful in his death throes, "You needed only to battle me into submission."

     Then Cuthbert's eyes grew wide as saucers when he saw what Xander was going to do next. "No!" he yelled as loud as he could through the bubble of blood collecting in his mouth. Xander was holding the mace aloft again.

     "I'm killing you teacher because you have forgotten your most important rule." growled Xander through grited teeth.

     Xander began to bring the mace down. Right before the mace destroyed Cuthbert's head in a spray of blood, brain and bone, Xander finished his message, "Only turn your back on a corpse."

After he had let his adrenaline fade a bit, he dropped the mace and walked out of the courtyard. The big door man saw that it was Xander, not Cuthbert who came out victorious, he took a knee and held out his hand, open, palm up. In the massive hand, was a large key.

     "Congratulations, Knight. This key represents the opening of the door to knighthood. Go see the King, and present it to him. Should anyone try to hinder your path, show them your key and they will yield to you. Knighthood is a great, and awesome power. Be sure you don't abuse it."

     Xander took the big brass ring with shaky hands, and walked past the guard. He still couldnt believe he had won. Then he walked back to his home in a daze to show his mother their brass ticket out of poverty, starvation, and into riches, and full bellies.

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