Disclaimer:I don't own The King's Blades, and I never will. The universe, characters, and situations belong to Dave Duncan. I'm just borrowing.



The Bark is Louder



Raider was furious—furious enough to do something he almost never did—and let his temper grab control of him. Wolf had started it, of course, by mouthing off about something that ought to have meant nothing to a Candidate in the Ancient and Loyal Order of the King's Blades, but that didn't really matter. What mattered was that Raider wanted to tear the Boy Wonder apart, bit by painstaking bit, to make him pay for that obnoxious, crude, and uncalled for comment.

Wolf, on the other hand, had no idea why Raider had suddenly snapped and demanded satisfaction. Had demanded that Wolfbiter back up his schoolboy posturing with more than words, with cold steel and warm blood. The best of their class had tried to talk Raider out of it, apologetic, reasoning, and calm. But Raider had had quite enough of being reasonable, quite enough of ignoring his past. It hardly mattered that Wolf hadn't meant a thing. He'd just been arrogant in the way of young men, so confident and willing to speak poorly of a dead enemy because he was just that—an enemy, and dead. What did it matter, anyway?

It really didn't, and it shouldn't have, but Raider just wanted to smash someone, and Wolfbiter was the closest.

"This is stupid, Raider," Wolf said bluntly, sword in hand. It was a live blade, of course, because they were seniors, but Wolf hadn't done more than let the saber hang limply in his hand. Yet.

"Stupid it may be, but you owe me satisfaction," Raider—Radgar—growled. "I'm sick of listening to you prattle on about things you don't understand."

"And you do?" Wolf demanded, for once showing that he was only twenty years old, just becoming more man than boy. The thought made Raider sneer. Immaturity.He was older than all of his classmates and had certainly seen more of the world outside of Ironhall. He knew the truth, knew that Chivial was not so shining and honorable as the candidates were inclined to believe.

"More than you," he snapped back before he could catch himself. Then his calculating intellect reasserted itself. "Besides, it's not your place to criticize a king."

"A dead one!"

A vision floated before Raider's eyes. His father's dead body sprawled out over the bed, blood coloring the sheets in dank and musty brownish-red. Smoke filled the air, but did not obscure his view of the empty and surprised face. The look was so alien that he had to stare. He remembered Father laughing, smiling, being a stern but good king…

Raider saw red, felt his blood sing with fury. He deserved better! Not an ignoble death followed by assassination of character—he was a king!

"A king," Raider snarled. "Get on your guard. It's time someone taught you manners."

Never mind that Wolf was likely the best mannered of them all.

"At least wear a mask," his friend relented, sighing. "When you're this angry—"

"Don't worry about me." He advanced.

"Raider!"

"Shut up and get your sword up, lackwit!" He pounced into a thrust, hardly even pausing to formulate a strategy. Wolfbiter parried out of reflex, falling back a step. His eyes finally narrowed a bit.

"Raider, I don't want to—"

"Hurt me?" he demanded angrily, attacking while Wolf continued to retreat. "Watch yourself, Puppy!"

It was a name that the beansprouts had pinned on Wolf when he'd first taken his name, and Wolf had despised it. Perhaps because of that, the nickname had persisted for years, going strong until the last of those beansprouts were bound and Wolf's classmates were of the beardless class and had the clout to make it stop. Worse by far had been the fact that the name did fit; a younger Wolf had indeed possessed the wide and wondering eyes that were reminiscent of a lady's cute little lapdog, and he'd been slow to mature. When the inevitable growth finally did happen, his appearance changed almost overnight, but the nickname stuck.

Raider and his classmates had long since vowed to never call Wolf by the dreaded name, but he wanted to make Wolf hurt. The desire wasn't logical, but he had to take his anger out on someone.

Wolf sidestepped, paused, and retaliated with an automatic Rainbow. Raider just kept pressing. His opponent looked betrayed, bewildered, and Raider's conscience prickled—but not much. Not enough.

"Is that the best you can come up with, Raider?" Wolf demanded angrily. "Schoolboy insults? Nursery taunts? I thought you claimed I was the immature one!"

"Fight, Puppy. Don't talk."

Wolf was right, of course. He usually was.

"You're a bastard, you know?" Sunlight on water. Wolf's fencing was an art of sheer beauty, even now. He was still defending himself, but was sneaking an attack in every now and then.

"Who's trying the schoolboy insults now?"

"It takes two, Raider."

But fighting only took one temper, especially when it was as volatile as Radgar's. Raider's. He couldn't get the image of Ǽled's dead body out of his head.

He advanced, hard and fast, not thinking so much as fighting, and fencing better than he ever had done in his life. "Fight, Puppy," Raider taunted again, grinning coolly. Dammit if this wasn't almost fun. "Unless you want to lose and spoil your sterling reputation."

"I am fighting. And I don't care about my reputation."

And suddenly Wolf was fighting, and Raider fell back under the unexpected onslaught. Wolfbiter was always amazing—unbeatable—even the Masters called him the best since Durendal. But this was perfection in motion. Rainbow. Eggbeater. Cockroach. Steeple. Lily. Swan.

Then somehow an Osprey followed Raider's Violet, and it was Wolf's turn to fall back a step. Raider kept smiling, watching his friend's face and advancing like mad. What had possessed him, Raider didn't know, but he was fencing in a way he'd never before allowed himself to. Instinct. Training. Flow. Suddenly, he understood how Wolf felt every time he fenced: carefree and limitless. Radgar never let himself go, but he was now.

Wolfbiter was in full retreat.

The gathering crowd was ooing and awwing, half amazed and half waiting for the joke to end. But Wolf was looking vaguely worried now. He'd not lost to anyone other than the Masters since early in their beardless year, and none of them had beaten him since Raider and Wolf were fuzzies. Raider feinted left and Wolf almost fell for it, catching himself just in time. Now Wolf seemed like the woefully slow dead tortoise that Raider sometimes felt like, and Raider the superior swordsman. Still, Wolf's footwork was perfect as he controlled his retreat.

They were almost to the opposite end of the Quad, now. Stickleback. Swan. Raider was moving like lightning. Osprey. Willow. Grasshopper.

Clatter.

Wolf's saber hit the ground with an almighty noise; even Raider jumped, which kept him from accidentally pressing the attack. Everyone stared, but no one spoke. All of Ironhall seemed to have turned out to watch the impromptu match, but for the first few seconds, no one moved. They just stared at Raider and Wolfbiter in shock, with the same look mirrored in Wolf's slack-jawed expression.

Then Wolf's face split into a grin, a rare enough occurrence for Ironhall's most serious student. "Do that again!" He snatched his saber up. "That was amazing!"

Raider glared, unable to even frame an appropriate reply. Students were cheering them both, of course—Raider for beating the unbeatable Wolfbiter, and Wolf for taking it so well. But he didn't care about the cheering. Did nothing ever phase Wolf?

"Raider?" The bastard looked concerned.

Damn him. There was nothing to do but leave, so he did. He stalked off, temper raging again but now under marginally better control. He was under better control. No more fencing on instinct or letting his feelings out. Radgar—Raider!—had too much to lose. Too much to risk. Forcefully, he banished his father's dead and living faces from his mind. He managed to sheath his saber somewhere between the Quad and the senior's dorm. No more letting go.

Wasp, of course, talked them into making up later—Wolf with his eloquent apology for offering any insult, and Raider grudgingly admitting that his temper had run away with him. He never mentioned what had really bothered him about Wolfbiter's offhand insult to the late King Ǽled of Baelmark., of course, but he later wondered. Wolf's accepting nod had been a bit too understanding, and Wolf had always been smart.