The fist flashed before my eyes and I saw the smile in the face that it belonged to. The Fire Aspect Dragon-Blooded always enjoyed pushing my buttons. Before I could counter, a spear came across my chest, from my left hip to the right side of my jaw. It was blunted by the layers of soft elk skin, but would still injure, at the very least it would bruise, at the most, break bones.
"There's no danger in your eyes, boy!" Soren snarled at me.
I jumped back a few feet to allow myself some distance, but he followed too quickly. He stepped in between my feet and lowered a shoulder into my chest. I felt the wind leave my lungs and my feet leave the ground.
"Where is your mind, boy?" Soren came towards me, standing over me. He was shorter, but not at this moment. "Do you believe you can out-think me? Do you believe you can predict my movements by careful planning?" He turned towards my fellow tribes-men. "I thought the Icewalker Tribes were supposed to be powerful and cunning. Is this the best progeny you have to offer?"
"I will stand against you, Soren!" Ludwig shouted.
"No, you have not earned the honor that I have!" I said.
"You have been defeated, Regner, let another have a try!"
"When you defeat me yourself, I will allow you an attempt!" By this time I had regained my feet and found myself face to face with Ludwig, shouting at him. This was my first real brush with emotion.
"Ah, so you have fire within you. It is as I expected." Soren addressed me, though it was his back that faced me. "I have traveled amongst your tribes for years and have yet to see a fighter worthy to learn my ways. I have been among you for weeks and have seen nothing but the same style and the same worthless motions. I am a man! You do not fight some worthless elk!"
Fury rose within me. To have him talk about true nobility in such a flippant way! I stepped quickly towards him, my sword held high. I brought it down with as much force as I could. My sword buried itself, elk skin or no, deep within the dirt where he had been. As I began to gaze up, his fist struck my face and I went down in a crumpled heap.
Soren had taken me away from the camp, opposite the area which held the elk herd. His spear came up from my stomach towards my face. I leaned back and grabbed his spear with my left hand. I brought my sword around to his neck, but he had ducked. He had stepped in between my feet and lowered his shoulder. I stepped around behind him and felt my kick connect. Unfortunately, it was with the spear that both he and I had within our grasp. I felt the spear twist and my hold on it was lost. I felt the butt of the spear hit my ribs.
"You still think too much, boy! Stop thinking, live the danger!" Soren bellowed as I hunched over in pain. "Move, boy! You think that you can lie hunched over during one of your raids?"
With that he brought his spear's head to bury itself within the earth where I had so recently lay. I kicked the spear from my back and heard the haft snap. I scrambled towards him on hands and knees, believing him disarmed when I felt the broken handle hit my back. I sank to the ground. Again, I felt the hit from the inch thick piece of wood. One of my ribs was certainly broken, but I managed to turn over to watch the haft come down against my face.
I found myself once again out in the woods where he endeavored to teach me something of his ways. I parried with my sword and countered with a sweep to his feet. He kicked at my face and brought his fist to where I had been. But I had since moved to the side and brought my sword to the side of his neck. He moved away, but managed a spear thrust that connected with my shoulder. I stumbled back a few steps.
"You don't understand, yet, boy. I still see the dullness in your eyes. Have you no fear of death?" Soren mocked.
He came at me again with renewed furor. He struck again and again. I could barely parry his attacks, I felt a blow against my other shoulder, then my stomach, and finally my knee, which went out from under me.
"Bah, do you care? Do you wish to die an early death?" He stared down at me as I rose from my kneeling position. "Perhaps … Ah! You don't deserve to live." His face turned to stone and I saw the elk skin fall from his spear.
"What are you doing?"
Without an answer, I felt a sudden burning in my arm as his spear pierced the outside of my shoulder. I backed up a few steps, looking at Soren in disbelief. As I looked from my arm to him, I saw him bring his spear yet again towards me, this time at my heart. I slid to my side and continued to stare. I saw the butt of his spear come to my face and hit my jaw.
"So you will just die!"
I staggered back, hunched over. I looked up in time see him bring his spear down towards my back. I thrust myself out of the way, but felt the fire again lash against my jaw.
I found myself once again on the ground as he jumped into the air with his spear pointed straight at the earth below me. I scrambled to the side just as he landed. I continued to try to move away from him, somehow hoping to gain the village so that I could call for help. Instead I felt his hand on my ankle and the dirt began to slide from beneath me as he brought me back. He lifted his spear out of the ground and brought it down, hoping to skewer me. I brought my sword to knock aside his thrust and kicked with my other foot to dislodge his hand from my leg. I rolled backwards, away from him, and regained my feet. I must have caught him in the face with my kick, because he wiped blood away from his mouth.
"Desperation will not save you forever. I'll kill you for certain if you run." He grinned maniacally at me. "You must kill me if you want to live."
I risked a glance behind me and to my left and right. I realized he was right. We were too far away from the camp and although he looked far older, he was far faster than I. I removed the elk skin padding from my sword and dropped it to the ground. I ran at him with my sword raised high. As he stepped towards me, as I knew he would, I turned myself suddenly with the aim of bringing my blade to the back of his head. Before I could complete my turn I felt his spear twist between my legs and I flew through the air far away from where I had been.
"You cannot rely on knowing your enemy. I have told you that before. The danger is real now! Do you not see the motions of Creation? Do you not feel your blood flow with the pulse of the earth?" His voice got closer as did his quick footsteps.
He kicked my stomach, but I used the force to spin back and to my feet. I came at him with my sword spinning at him, thrusting and parrying. Desperation clutched my heart and throat. I felt the blood drain from my face as I realized he was still faster.
Our fight continued, but I saw his motions begin to slow, yet so did mine. I tried to anticipate him, his thrust and block. I found that while I may be able to tell what he would do next, I could not meet him in time to counter.
"Now you see your inevitable death!"
As my sword was knocked from my hand, the blade of his spear came at my heart. I knew that I was dead.
Suddenly, a bright light flashed. I moved quickly out of the way. So fast, was I, that I could see and knew I could touch his spear if I so desired. My one thought was for my own weapon, however.
"Now you begin to learn. Death is close. As it comes closer, Truth is revealed."
He came at me again, but I was much faster now. I parried and cut his arm. He thrust and I spun and caught his thigh. He spun and I ducked and brought my sword to his neck.
"I see it! The truth is closer!" Soren's eyes looked distant. He narrowed his gaze and looked at me. "I should be dead, boy! You made a terrible mistake!" He roared.
I felt a burning deep within my abdomen and my back. The spear had gone straight through me. I felt a strange clarity. I felt so close to death and I grabbed and held it close to me. I swung my sword and I felt it bite deep into his side. I could feel his blood on my sword and the pulse of his heart slowing.
We collapsed against one another and I heard him whisper, "I have nothing more to teach you. Find the truth through death."
I felt him go limp against me and my world went black.
I sat my horse within the treeline. The city of Cherek sprawled out below me. It's triple walls were what had attracted me. No Tribe had yet been able to raid any deeper than the buildings that had spilled, like vomit, beyond the third wall. I could see from my hillside that a new wall had begun to enclose this new weakness.
I had brought my new kin south from the Icewalker lands. We had set up camp about a half a days ride from the city. We had captured a few merchants who had been on there way north to the surrounding villages. They told us of the ways of these lesser peoples. Their ways of relying on the backs of their slaves. We took what we wished from them and sent them on their way.
A plan had begun to form in my mind after the second day of our arrival. I was waiting atop this hill for the agreed upon signal to begin the raid. Careful timing and planning had been necessary. Half of my force had gone into the city under the guise of slaves and servants. Deception was not always honorable, but against these outsiders, no honor was necessary. Those that were sent in had been able to smuggle in weapons and had smuggled out information.
We were here for only one reason, food. An army lived on its stomach and this year had been particularly lean. Now that we weren't following the Elk herd as was right to do, we had to scavenge and that included taking from these outsiders.
"Draig, how long are we going to wait?" Rasmus asked.
"We wait for Halvar. He will come through," I told him. Shortly after I had spoken those words, an arrow flew, flaming, into the air. "See, he has shown us that it is safe."
I got down from my horse and handed the reins to one of my kinsmen.
"Come, we must move quietly."
The men moved out, with me at their head. There were twenty-five of our bravest down in the city and we sixty were coming to help take what they had found. A bloated city such as this must have plenty to pillage.
We slid quietly down the hill towards the first of the city gates. Our group split into groups of ten to filter into the outer city. We did this to go unnoticed through the streets. The cobblestone streets echoed some of our footsteps, but not loud enough to call attention. The houses were silent, like skulls sitting sprawled on a graveyard. There were a few animals that had forgotten the ways of their ancestors scattered about the streets. We came to the gate and Halvar was there to meet us.
Halvar took us within the walls and began to show us the stores of food and grain that they had found. The others began to split up into the various sections and grab the goods as well. After about half an hour we had gathered nearly a quarter of the goods that we needed.
Suddenly, a cry went out into the night. Rasmus looked at me, the other men looked towards the sound. I loosened my sword in its scabbard and ordered the men to continue.
"Every eleventh man keep a look out. Rasmus, follow me. We'll find where this sound came from." With that I took off at a light jog in the direction of the cry.
After we had moved past two more streets, We came across our men as they were dragging two bodies into a dark alley.
"Bo, what transpired?" I asked quietly.
"These two happened upon us while we were moving the goods out.," he answered.
"Weren't you paying attention?" The question was rhetorical, the answer was obvious. "Has anyone else come this way?"
"Abandon these goods and move to a new section."
At that moment I heard commands being given.
"Spread out and find them. Our source must have lied to us." This command was accompanied by dozens of soldiers' boots clattering across the cobblestones.
Another voice said, "Quickly, the commander wants at least some of them alive."
"Rasmus, find Halvar and Malte, let them know that we have a battle to fight. Bo, take as many men as you can find and secure the gate for retreat when it becomes necessary," I whispered quietly and quickly. With that, I went towards the sound of the commands hoping to find whoever was leading these men. Perhaps, he was worth my time.
As I came around the corner, there were five soldiers with their arms out and at the ready. They stalked the streets likely hoping for easy prey. As they came towards my alleyway, I darted out with all the speed I could in order to take the men by surprise. With my sword held backwards, I slashed the first mans throat, he fell gurgling to the ground. I continued on, but the other four men saw what had happened to the first. As the first raised his weapon to halt my own, I somersaulted underneath it and thrust my sword into the gut of the man behind him. As the first man turned around and brought his pike down towards my head, I brought my blade through the second man's chest and brought it up to meet the head of the pike coming down to me. I turned it aside and by that time the last two had joined their companions. One of them called out and so I brought my sword to rest in his shins. He fell to the ground writhing in pain.
I felt alive, my heart beating loudly in my ears. Battle was upon us, life and death were intertwined in an epic struggle. Things began to slow for me, as they had done so few times before. I could see the fifth soldier's eyebrows raise. I could see his lips sneer and then slacken as the point of my sword sliced between his ribs and into his heart. The first man, seeing his comrades felled by one man, began to flee. I could see his booted feet begin to leave the ground, but my blade was too quick. His hamstrings, severed, would no longer carry him away. He fell to the ground and writhed along with the man whose shins I had destroyed. I showed them the truth with a quick swipe of my blade across their throats.
I left the wide street and darted back towards my alley. I went towards the next sound of soldiers and found my kin fighting in the streets, covering the escape and loot we had come for. I joined the melee, darting in and out, cutting arms and thighs, stomachs and throats.
I turned towards Rasmus and yelled, "Move out, we'll have to leave what food we haven't gotten behind. Arvid, pick fourteen men and follow me. We'll try to find the commander." Arvid grunted and began yelling out names.
I had never asked to lead these men, I always had felt they were a burden more than a source of help, but they followed me whether I willed it or not. It was their choice to be here and therefore their choice to risk finding the truth. In either case, they always allowed me the greatest share of the wealth we were able to find and the strongest warlord to test myself against. Now, I felt that another was coming.
My blood boiled with the anticipation of my possible death. What would reveal itself to me tonight under the full moon? Would I learn a new technique that I had no knowledge of before or possibly just a memory of things long lost to time? I thought of these things as I walked towards where I knew the commander would come from. Here, in this street, my death came ever closer.
There were bodies strewn about the streets. Many of them soldiers, almost as many my kin. I gave it one thought and then dismissed them. They had seen the truth. I saw him then, he held a man by the throat, a man I knew. He was tall, taller than I. He held a spear in the other hand and he was yelling something at the man that I had once called friend. Ludwig pointed and the Fire Aspect followed his finger to gaze at me. It was then that I saw that this man had only one eye and it glistened like an emerald in the flickering glow of the torches.
He ran forward at my command shouting epithets and curses, the others followed shortly thereafter. I moved with slow purpose, my fury building. I had to be quick and unexpected. I had to be daring and bold. I had to be filled with desire for the truth.
I cut the man to my left and shattered an arm to my right. With each step and swing, I came closer to my goal. I ducked my head and lifted my foot. Swords swung in my empty sillouette and clattered as useless as the arms holding them to the cobblestone streets.
I reached my quarry at last. The Fire Aspect smiled lazily at me and stepped forward to challenge me. He thrust his spear at my gut, I twisted around and into his body. My blade leapt out to touch my prey's head and went past the Fire Aspects shoulder and into the brain of Ludwig. I smiled as his eyes glazed over. His face seemed utterly startled by the truth he now saw. As I yanked my blade free, my thoughts turned to the Fire Aspect.
"I am Draig. I have seen a glimpse of the truth and I wish to show it to you." I bared my teeth and raised my sword.
"Draig, eh. You were a fool to stay this long. You should have fled along with the rest of your filthy barbarians. Now you will die."
"Perhaps you will bring me to the truth, but I do not see that. I see only your blood upon my blade."
He looked momentarily confused and replied, "I am Gulbrand Ferem and the only truth that you will see is the one inherent in my spear."
I crouched and moved faster than he had expected. My sword moved of its own accord and cut him along the ribs before he was able to knock it aside. He swung his spear down to strike my shoulder but I had moved beyond his reach. He thrust and swung at various parts of my body and I nimbly stepped aside from each. He seemed to get frustrated. I could see his anger leaking out between his teeth.
Suddenly, he moved with lightning speed and thrust his spear into my off-hand. My hand felt as though it caught fire. I jumped back and he sneered.
"Not as good as you thought you were."
I re-attacked with as much ferocity as I could manage. I swung my sword high, then low, towards the middle, and attacked under his guard. I scored three hits all of which immediately began to bleed. I knew that it was a matter of time before his bleeding caught up with him. He came back at me, thrusting and swinging. Using both ends of his spear equally. With all the energy I had left, I parried and moved. Staying just far enough away to give his bleeding time to show him what we both knew.
As I stepped back from what was surely his last attack, he looked down and I saw the emerald sparkle in the torch light. He looked up and was suddenly before me, his spear slashing across my chest, scraping against my ribs and finally caught on the lowest one. With excruciating pain, he ripped through it. I fell to the ground, astonished, and smiled. Finally, after two years, I had found a worthy opponent. Ferem must have seen my smile. His eyes widened. He came in for the kill, but his hesitation meant his death.
Gulbrand's spear hit the cobblestones and my foot shattered the haft. I swung to my left and dove straight towards him. My sword caught his thigh, deep this time. He called for another weapon and caught the new spear thrown to him. He seemed completely unperturbed by his numerous wounds, whereas mine had begun to throb.
As he came at me again, with the same vigor as he began with, I could feel myself slowing. He slashed my shoulder and my shin, his new spear grinding against the bone. I parried his next attacks, but I needed to end this. I jumped in towards him. He thrust his spear and I knew I could not stop from impaling myself on it.
Everything slowed. I could see his breath widening his nostrils and the blood pump through his veins. His pupils were dilated with fear and adrenaline and his spear began to adjust to my new position. A light shown from my forehead, a light, that by now, I knew well. My sword caught his spear and thrust it from in front of mine. His stare grew wider and his breath choked with horror. Again he hesitated and his eyes saw the truth.