Chapter 43: Soul of a Warrior

Melissa stood on the tatami mat in the exercise studio, trying to work the soreness out of her shoulders. Barefoot and wearing her judo gi, she waited for Mike to arrive, feeling some trepidation about whether today’s session would add to her growing collection of bruises. She was starting to feel self-conscious about looking like a battered woman. Rolling her shoulders back and forth, she laughed at the irony that her bruises were more due to Polly than Erik. She shrugged, blaming her Irish skin, which had always bruised and sunburned far too easily.

Mike came in, waving hello to her. As he walked to the edge of the tatami mat, he apologized, “Sorry I’m a little late. One of the calves is sick, so I had to wait for the vet.”

“Oh no, is it going to be okay?”

“Don’t know. We’re worried that she’s got twisted gut – a displaced abomasum – so the vet took her back to her clinic.”

“Is that serious?”

“Could be, but there’s surgery that’s about 90% effective, and it could also just be a bad case of intestinal gas, so it’s hard to tell right now.”

“Is it weird for you – to be taking care of a farm and animals, after so many years in the Army?”

Mike thought for a moment, before answering. Melissa was struck again at how carefully he listened to her and the seriousness with which he treated her questions.

“I was cross-trained as a medic on the teams. We actually got veterinarian training as well. One of the best ways to make friends of the locals is to run a clinic, taking care of their sheep and goats. I also had a couple of weeks of pediatric training, for the same reason. I learned how to deliver babies – even had to do a Cesarean delivery once, out in the field.”


“Side of the road in Africa. Her family was trying to get her to the hospital, but by the time we came across them, I didn’t think she’d make it, even if we took her in our truck. So I took out our SATCOM link and a stateside doc was able to walk me through the whole thing. Fortunately, I’d scrubbed in on a Cesarean once, during training.”

“God, that’s incredible. How’d she do?”

“She was fine. I visited her a few days afterward and then a couple of months after that. Kid was great; mom was fine; village was really grateful. All good.”

“That’s not exactly the typical macho Hollywood movie image.”

“Oh well, I’ve been on plenty of kinetic missions too. You know, during the whole Iraq/Afghanistan thing, we did a lot of direct action work – but that skewed pretty heavily away from what SF normally does. Mostly, we work with indigenous forces and the locals: training, health clinics, gathering intel, that sort of thing.”

Mike bent down to take off his boots and socks. “So Erik said you’ve been getting into this whole LARP sword thing. You’ve got a tournament coming up this weekend?”

She snorted a quiet laugh. “I don’t know how he talked me into it, but yeah, that’s me, action-girl, sword bitch. Except I’m sure I’m going to get skewered right away.”

Mike chuckled in commiseration. “I have to admit, I never was trained on sword fighting. Wrong era, I guess. I did kill a guy with a machete once, but that doesn’t really count. So, I went on-line to look at the kinds of LARP swords Erik said you’d be using, but that didn’t help me a whole lot. Do you have one of them here?”

“Um, sure.” Melissa stepped off the tatami mat to go retrieve the practice swords that Polly had left. She asked hesitantly, “Uh, you killed somebody with a machete?”

In a very matter of fact way, he said, “It was one of those weird things that happen. We were hacking our way through some heavy undergrowth with machetes, then we came out in this clearing. About thirty feet away, you know, less than from here to the door, was this guy with an AK-47. He pointed it at us and opened up on full auto, spraying bullets all over the place. All I had in my hands was this stupid machete. I didn’t have time to grab my carbine or pistol, so I just ran straight at him and killed him. The insane thing was – nobody in the team got hit. He fired off a full clip, thirty rounds, and not a single one of us got tagged. We couldn’t believe it. But sometimes, that’s what happens.”

By the time he finished talking, Melissa had come back with a hand-full of LARP swords. She offered a practice rapier to Mike, which he examined, feeling the blade edges and bending the tip. Then he stepped back to take a couple of practice swipes. 

Mike’s tone, while he was telling the story, made it seem as though he didn’t want to say much more about it. Melissa decided not to press for details. Instead, she said, “When Polly and I are doing practice matches, there’s this thing, this feeling. It’s like I’m totally alive. Everything’s firing at once. When it’s working, I’m in control, and I really want to win, which is weird, because even though it’s just a game, the whole idea is sword fighting – I mean, killing the other person. And here you are. You’ve actually killed someone with a sword. I can’t imagine that. I mean, I’m such a wimp, I can’t even begin to imagine wanting to be in a real fight like that, against someone who wants to kill me. But you sought it out, you trained for it, then you went and did it. But you’re, like, a really nice guy, not some pumped up movie badass.”

Mike asked, “I guess you want to know why?”

“Yeah… why?”

He pursed his lips together, thinking. “So, I was out running this morning, on this trail that’s an old canalboat tow path. There was this guy about fifty meters ahead of me, and we’re coming up on this bridge. I say to myself, I bet I can pass him before we get to the bridge, which was only about 300 meters away. So I did. Like when I was a kid, I played football, and wrestled, and did everything else that was physically competitive. I had to beat everyone. It was so intense, I could taste it. Almost everyone in Special Forces, we’re like that. Winning isn’t just important, it’s everything. We’re hardwired that way. To make it through the Qualification Course… well, anybody who isn’t that way simply doesn’t make it through. So for me, being a warrior is the ultimate form of competition. If I lose, I die. If I win, the other guy dies. But it’s also a lot more. It’s about serving my country. It’s about the mission. It’s about the other guys on my team. And it’s about stopping bad guys, protecting the people I love back home. And hey, sometimes it’s even about delivering a baby on the side of a dirt road.”

He paused, searching for words, before he continued, “For a long time, I thought everyone was the way I am, that everyone was competitive, but that most people were just too lazy to work hard enough to win. It took me awhile before I realized that I was the one who was different – that most people aren’t hyper-competitive. And I learned that even someone who looks like he’s really competitive, like Erik for instance, can have a whole different motivation. Sure, Erik fights hard; he works his butt off; and he can make some pretty merciless decisions, some truly cold-hearted stuff that I think some guys on the teams would flinch away from. So yeah, Erik really, really wants to win, but it’s not the same as it is for me. With Erik, I don’t think it’s about beating the other guy. If I had to guess, I’d say that what gets him up in the morning is yanking some company back from the brink and saying, ‘Here it is. Here is this thing you gave up on, but I made it whole again.’ That’s way different than what gets me going. And I think it’s great. The world probably needs a lot more people like him. But it took me awhile to learn that it wasn’t like me.”

He gestured to Melissa, “And you’re different too. You’re smart, like Erik. And you work your butt off. You’re willing to try new things. You like figuring stuff out and asking why. But I don’t think you wake up every day with a burning need to win. You don’t want to publish some paper first, just so you can beat the other guy. But with this LARP sword stuff, if you can feel a little bit of what that’s like, if you can walk in the shoes of a warrior for awhile, I think that’s great. You’ll probably learn something. Who knows, maybe it’ll even help you in the Archeology stuff, understanding the soul of a warrior and all.”

Melissa said, “Wow, that’s really deep. There’s a lot to think about in what you said. Thank you so much.”

Mike looked back at the rapier in his hand. He seemed to be a little embarrassed by what he had told her. “Sure. No problem. Besides, knowing how to use a sword ought to be useful, if you’re going to spend your life digging them up.” He swung the sword a few more times, experimentally. “It’s lighter than I expected. And the tip is bendy. That’s good. The edge is kind of soft, but I’d guess that a good wallop would still leave a bruise.” He held it up to the light, and asked, “So is this the kind with the electric discharge thingie?”

“Um, not that one.” She pulled her rapier out of the pile in her hands and gave it to him. “Here’s mine. There’s a switch on the base of the hilt to turn it on and off.”

“Got it. And these little wires here, along the edge, those are what does it?”

“Yeah, supposedly it’s not nearly as bad as a Taser, but I’ll promise you – whatever part of you gets hit by one of those, it’s going to be numb and miserable for at least a minute or two afterwards.”

“Just a touch will do it?”

“No, there’s some sort of electronics. Your thrust or cut has to be a strong enough so that if it were a real sword, you would have actually done some damage.”

“Hmmm. And those short swords you have there?”

Melissa set down the bundle she was carrying and picked up her dagger in her left hand. Then she took her rapier back from Mike in her right hand. Shifting to the basic fighting stance that Polly had taught her, she said, “So this is what Polly has been teaching me. She says that most girls in LARP use rapier and dagger, like this. The bigger swords and shields are so heavy that they’ll wear you out too fast.”

Mike nodded, “Looks like a pretty effective way to fight, you know, if swords are all you got. So, how do you win? What’s the scoring?”

“Basically, I have to get in a thrust or cut to her abdomen or her head. If it’s solid enough to discharge, that counts as a kill.”

Mike nodded again, thoughtful. He repeated her words, “Abdomen or head.”

She added, “Usually abdomen. Everyone wears helmets, and some other armor too. The electrical discharge thing only works with skin contact.”

“Hmm. So then, why doesn’t everyone get all armored up?”

“I guess some people do, but the armor is heavy. It slows you down. Also, Polly says that armoring joints, like elbows and knees – that really restricts your range of motion. So, with too much armor, you become a sitting target. Your opponent runs circles around you, then closes in for the kill.”

Mike laughed to himself, “Some things don’t change.”


He explained, “The big green Army – that’s what we Special Forces guys call the rest of the Army – you know, the guys who drive tanks and the mechanized infantry – anyway, they’re so heavy that they can really get bogged down. For us on the teams – staying light and fast – that’s what makes us effective, what keeps us safe. So yeah, too much armor? It’ll get you killed. Like I said, some things don’t change.”

Mike hefted the practice rapier that he was still holding, then reached down to pick up a dagger. Looking back to Melissa, he said, “Okay, so teach me how to do this.”

Puzzled, Melissa asked, “What?”

“The best way I ever found to really learn something is by teaching it to somebody else. So teach me.”

“Um, okay.” Melissa led him to the middle of the mat. “So, you start off…”