That was the first thing he noticed. The boy wasn't heavy. 16 or 17 summers at most and still a good two years away from his full strength. Someone who didn't know what they were talking about had also told him he was fast, and he had believed them. The boy was all toes and bounce, sway and move. Well, all to the good, he'd seen off light and fast often enough and he'd do so again.
The boy's mail shirt was just a bit too big and the helmet looked uncomfortably, a bit too tight. Who was he covering for? Father? Older brother? This certainly was not the hero he had been led to believe he would be facing, but sometimes it happened. Oh well, if this was the best they could do, so be it. Shake off the beer haze, concentrate, this was not the man, this was not the day. Growl and clash axe on shield. Give the locals crowding around the edge of the ring something to marvel at. Not one in ten of them knew what they were watching and not one in a hundred would be any better than the boy, but their baying, foul-breathed, spittle-streaked reek was what mattered today.
Time was when the dance came easy, when the tricks weren't needed and the killing was simple. But that was a long time ago, before they added "of the hundred battles" whenever his name was mentioned, and when he could have drunk twice as much as he had last night and still been able to fuck the serving girl, regardless of whose daughter she turned out to be in the morning. Time was. But times change, and now it's all about not offending, making treaties and keeping alliances. Until some mud-Jarl with two and a half goats and a stinking little burgh to his name gets ideas above his station and one of his sheep needs to be slaughtered to show him who is in charge, that is. Then the old champion gets called out again and all is forgiven once more.
The boy is getting bored of circling, he can sense it. Watch the eyes, watch the eyes, here he comes! Whoa! Spear point snaking! So, he is a bit quick, but he falls away badly to his right and his shield grip is poor. Does no-one teach these boys any technique anymore! Shake off the beer haze, concentrate, this is not the man, this is not the day. Pose and growl, get the crowd going, draw him in, don't chase him. Here he comes again! Spear point snakes in low this time, not so much fall to the right, but the footwork isn't good and the power isn't there. Just as well because he is quick!
Shake off the beer haze. Time to slow this lad down a bit. He tries to come in low and fast again, so step in hard this time, pivot and slam the shield boss up and out. There is a metallic crunch and the boy reels away, blood already showing on the side of his face next to the helmet cheek piece. That'll do it!
This is not the man, this is not the day. The boy's pride is hurt, it's in his eyes. He circles a while to clear his head, but he recovers fast and he comes back in quick and hard. This time the boy's defence is better the shields crunch and grate and the spear point snakes in again, this time over the top. But the axe is starting to sing in the old champion's hand once more, like she used to. She sings and bites and the spear head falls lifeless.
The boy throws away the severed spear shaft and draws his sword. Now he will have to fight in close. Time to finish this. The boy comes in off a three step run, fast and airborne to give the sword slash greater force, but the old champion has seen it all before. Drop, down and forward, shield up, axe swinging in a perfect arc, biting into the boy's left knee. It buckles, almost sliced through. He falls away unable to support himself, agonised surprise on his face. The old champion continues the axe's swing, pivoting his whole body around and accelerating the singing axe head. The boy is still falling as the axe kisses his neck just below the ill-fitting helmet.
This was not the man, this was not the day. Strut and growl, clash axe on shield, make sure the onlookers know what has happened here today, as the boy chokes and squirms his last on the bloody grass.What was it they called him?
There will be another man, there will be another day.