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I have taken part in forty-seven duels with forty-five different duelists. I count my brief duel with Askuwheteau on the shores of Rowatokon among the more difficult, as I do all duels with Crade warriors, although not the the most. Those, I reserve for duels with spirits, with Weckar and with the two-hearted khren Leuvesuis and with the Leaf Cutter.
What followed was the most important duel of my life. I have only lost one duel.
I stood across from de Trastorces in a ring of conscripts and soldiers on the packed earth of the fort muster. He took up his smallsword, a straight, light weapon made for thrusting, a refined and modern blade, and slashed the air. In his white undershirt and uniform trousers, he cut a strange figure to a young man who had only ever seen him in armor or in full dress. His forearms were thin, his hair and mustache more rakish than I remembered.
Back on my side, the lieutenant moved off, taking the shovel with him.
I looked from the waiting captain to the scabbard-clad sword in my ash-clad hand.
My word against his. I hadn’t meant to, but I’d made him a liar. I’d questioned him in front of everyone. I’d cast doubt on the might of Lonireil itself.
Again I glanced up. De Trastorces hadn’t moved. Beside me, the lieutenant said something. “What?” I asked without a look.
“When you’re ready, move forward. Give me the scabbard.”
Near de Trastorces, Estevo pushed to the front of the circle. On another arc, I caught a glimpse of The Tash through the movements of the crowd. Never had she focused so intently as she did on me.
The captain paced to and fro, watching. He swished his sword again.
The eyes. I remembered the first time I’d seen him, commanding his men to take my house, beat my family, harm us, steal from us. He’d stolen me. My whole life. My sister’s life. And here I stood, staring across a circle of dry earth with the metal-and-leather grip of a sword pressing into my palm as my fist tightened around it. No consequence. The stars would judge.
I’d seen de Trastorces fight. He stood behind his men and shouted. He ordered and pointed with a stick, not a spear. When the barrages came, he cowered lowest. When the raiders got through the line, he went back, not forward.
I gripped the scabbard in a shaking fist and ripped it from the steel. The sound of the blade tore out, slashing the voices, shaping the following silence.
The scabbard rattled away as I threw it in the dirt. I marched forward. My heart hammered against my ribs, high and tight. My arms quivered with rage and my face twisted into a snarl. Each footfall was a drumbeat.
He was a commander, not a fighter. I’d fucking kill him.
He saluted, but I took my opportunity. I lunged.
With a sharp clang, he batted my blade aside and moved in a circle. Before I could bring my sword back, he slashed my forearm.
While he strolled away, I staggered, almost dropping my blade. My whole arm seized. Roaring, I swung about, cutting, but he stepped out of range. I followed, slashing back, swiping. Again, he batted my weapon aside. With a thrust, he jabbed his sword into my shoulder.
A shoulder wound is often shown to be the best of results. With a pained expression and manageable effort, our hero once again hefts his blade.
Not so. My arm hung dead and useless. Blood slicked the grip and the smallsword slipped out of my clutching, weak fingers. My ears roared and my breath raked.
“Pick it up.” De Trastorces strolled away, his back turned.
I hesitated, staring down at the bloodstained weapon, but all the blood was on the wrong end. My swagger had deserted me. I was hollow. The shaking of my hands had been from anger, but now…
“Pick it up!” He faced me. All around, the faces of my fellow conscripts and soldiers gaped, no longer excited, but somber. As ones watching a funeral.
Bending down, I picked up the sword in my off hand. The weight was unfamiliar, the hand unresponsive. This was my shield hand. But I had no more time to think on it, for de Trastorces came on with fury in his pale eyes.
I fell back but he came too fast. With one swipe, he smashed the sword out of my hand. It arced away and the watchers dived to avoid it. But still he came on, and before the steel landed in the dust he cut, backhanded.
The sense was red-white. A searing agony shrieked with urgency, blossomed, flooded through me from my belly outward, consuming.
I fell, for a moment blinded. The agony was immediately, somehow, distant. I looked.
The cut had knocked me down, or perhaps I’d tried to avoid it. In the dirt, looking up through the ash and smoke at a darkening sky, I lay, unsure what had happened. When I looked down, it was at a wash of red spreading over my stomach through my undershirt.
The pain began to return. I reached for the end of the shirt and pulled it up as de Trastorces began to speak, addressing the watchers. He sounded as if he was far away, in a high wind. No one moved to help me. With fingers that moved slow and heavy, as they do in a dream, I gripped the warm, wet shirt.
De Trastorces finished what he was saying. The crowd dispersed as he approached me, the sword still hanging from his hands, its tip stained red.
“Next time you question me, boy, I’ll cut the worms out of you.”
I barely heard him. My eyes were dragged down as I slowly, so slowly, pulled up my shirt.
My stomach was sliced. Blood sluiced out over my skin. That is all I remember.
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