In all likelihood Alin would be dead in twenty seconds. He squinted at the pink of dawn setting the green hills of Wesserwald afire. His head pounded. And his stomach…his stomach was not pleased. It...it gurgled. He had the sweats.
"Steel at dawn," the fat bastard had said last night. Alin recalled that much, but little more. Still mostly a haze. Few specifics. What the hell had happened? How’d he let it come to this? Steel at dawn? Who talks like that? And duels are illegal, aye? The Graf expressly forbade them.
In the crowd someone was crying. A cold doleful cry shorn of all hope. He forced the cry from his mind. She would forgive him. The Ghent River churned nearby but all else was silent. Hushed, thick anxiety. Duels were not some mundane event here. Not some inane social gathering. The people he loved had come here to watch him die out of neither curiosity nor fascination. They came to say goodbye to someone they knew. Someone they loved.
A murder of crows squawked from nearby, black flapping wings roiling like rapids within the boughs of the Hellwood. A murder of crows. Perhaps the crows knew something he didn’t, squawking like that.
"Hell," he muttered, they knew the same thing he did.
"A duel. At dawn. By Ioseph." Alin lifted the small sword, two feet of steel that would puncture a man’s core like it was rotten cheese. He felt the weight, noted that even in his unskilled hands it felt deadly. It had a will of its own. It wanted to kill. He fingered the blade and his knees went wobbly again. He felt like rotten cheese. Like he’d eaten rotten cheese. "Where the hell’d you even find a sword?" He frowned at Michael, his brother. "Is it…is it dad’s?"
"Don’t touch the blade. Shades, Alin, you’ll ruin it," Michael snapped. Then he smirked. "Father? Really? Since when does Father know anything about blades? Ha. And duels?"
"Since when do I?"
"Better learn fast, big brother. Dawn’s a coming." Michael gazed east. "I rented it from Coster. It’s old but…"
"You know him. Old stinky shepherd." Michael pinched his nose. "Scraggly beard, missing a few fingers. Mother used to buy wool from him. And lamb in the spring."
"Oh. That Coster…he’s still alive?" Alin murmured, shrugged. "Why the hell’s he got a sword? And you rented it? A sword?"
"Does it matter? Look. He was in the Baron’s service when he was younger. An officer…a lieutenant or something. Mentioned a field promotion, wouldn’t stop yammering. You know geezers. Anyways, stop touching the blade. It’s expensive. I have to give it back when this is over. Here. Give it here." Michael snatched the sword and wiped down the blade with his sleeve. "Are you ready?"
"I’m still drunk."
"Good. You know how you get when you’re sober."
"I was sober, I wouldn’t be here." Alin rubbed the bridge of his nose. His brain was swelling, threatening to explode and shower them both in shards of skull. On top of that he was going to puke. Just a question of before or after he was dead. "Mike, why’m I here?"
"You remember last night?"
"I remember the festival, I think. Some of it." It’d been a grand fine time, Saint Nicolai’s Harvest Festival, the best he couldn’t remember. The start anyways. The festival was the high point of Alin’s year and most everyone’s in the Raachwald Province. Nice autumn weather. Warm day, cool night. No chores. Good wine. And the girls…well…one girl, in particular, truth be bare. "I remember the bonfire lighting and the drinking. The early drinking. I remember the Graf’s speech on the wisdom of sobriety and piety. Possibly some other ieties. Abstinence. Ascetics. And then more wine. And then eating. Lamb. Beef. Turkey legs and corn. Sweets-sticks. And singing and dancing Round About the Lass. Then the auction. And then some more wine. I remember a herd of goats stampeding through the crowd. Kicking and dancing. More wine. I remember…Mmmm…I remember riding a…a horse around the bonfire."
"That was Bess, Al."
"Bess, our pious neighbor. Buxom brunette. Pouty lips. Gorgeous. Smells like sunshine. Just recently come of age? Ring any bells? You and she’ve been talking about getting betrothed since you were four. Well, you put a saddle on her and…"
"By Ioseph, no. No, I—I could not. Did not." Alin raised a hand to ward off the lies… and then he thought about it…he screwed his eyes shut and he pictured it and…damn it, yes. Yes, he most certainly could. Even worse, he most certainly did. "What’s the damage? Did anyone see?"
"Hmmmm?" Michael counted on his fingers while performing mental sums. "Everyone. Everyone at the festival, anyways. So, yeah, most…most of Raachenheim. The Graf’s wife. Father, Mother…"
"By Ioseph, the Graf’s wife? And Mom!"
Michael continued, "…the Tudors were all there, Bess’s mother and aunt, her brothers, her father—which reminds me. You have another duel today. At noon. If you survive this one, anyways."
"By the faith tree—if I survive? Really?" Alin smacked his own face. Perhaps he would awaken from this nightmare. "Oh lord. Is Bess alright?"
"Is she still in love with you, do you mean? After you treated her like livestock in front of the village?" Michael shrugged and then spit on the blade. He polished it with his sleeve. "Possibly. Probably. You know how she is. Sweet. Naive. Here. Irresistible." He offered the blade. "Stick him with the pointy end."
"I don’t want it." Alin retreated a step. By Ioseph. "And don’t talk about Bess like that. But why am I here? Why’s he here?" Across the green his opponent lazed against a bent old fencepost long devoid of planks connecting it to the next. He chatted with his own second, probably discussing the cost of shrubberies or the taxing effort of skewering stupid farm boys. His heavyset form was outfitted in fine wool. Clearly he was a noble, probably a year or two Alin’s senior. He didn’t seem nervous, just leaning there. Alin squinted, head pounding. Probably he had been schooled in these types of events. Duels. By Ioseph…maybe he’d fought in some, too. "Why’s he want to kill me?"
"I was drunk, too." Michael closed his eyes. Rubbed his forehead. "Hmmm. I remember he…ah…commented on your choice of steed. Bess, that is. While you were…galloping. And he mentioned how he would enjoy studding for her, or something to that sort. Volkendorf humor. Crude, but funny. Funnier the way he said it, anyways, though you didn’t think so. You stood up for Bess’s honor. After you unsaddled her, that is. After that it was a series of insults that grew and grew until finally he slapped you across the face. Steel at dawn!"
"And…I accepted?" Alin asked, simultaneously incredulous and deflated.
"You broke his nose." Michael feigned a right cross to Alin’s nose. "Bam! Which he took for a yes. Surprisingly. Impressive blow. Knocked him right down rolling across the cobbles. Got dung all on his finery. After that even Father couldn’t stop it. No one could. We tried, but…they had blades. And there was a hell load of them. The fat prick demanded satisfaction. So did his retinue. Wouldn’t take no for an answer."
"And who is he?" Alin rubbed his eyes. "Who’d I agree to let murder me?"
"Ian Volkendorf, Narcissa Volkendorf’s nephew." Alin’s red eyes nearly popped. The Grafin’s nephew? "Hopefully Ian’s not as good at killing people as his aunt. Or his second, for that matter. Sir Dietrich Von Madbury. They say he’s killed twelve men in nine duels."
"What about Volkendorf?" Alin asked. "Is he…good?"
"He’s good at eating, by the look of him," Michael smirked, then shrugged when he got no reaction. "He’s a Volkendorf." Throughout the seven provinces of the barony of Svaldrake the Volkendorf line was renowned for two things: the excellent quality of their livestock and their propensity for murder of—quite often but certainly not limited to—each other.
"There any way out of this?" Alin paced now across the crest of the hill. His stomach growled at the movement. "What’re the rules for these things? Shades, what if I apologize? What if I let him punch me in the face? Even the tally. Would that give him satisfaction?"
"I think it’s past that, Al."
"Hell yes, it’s past that. Let’s find a way to reel this monster catch back in. I was drunk. He was drunk. Everyone was drunk. He was drunk, right?" Michael nodded. "Good, then maybe he doesn’t want to do this either?"
"They live for this." Michael spat. "Nobles."
"It was just a stupid misunderstanding. I’ll go apologize."
"They’ll think you’re a coward."
"Like I give a hell, Michael. And besides, who’s gonna know? Our paths don’t exactly cross too often with the Volkendorfs’. When’s the next time I’m gonna see him? And what’s he going to brag about? How he stabbed some dumb farm boy in a duel? By Ioseph, I wish it were wrestling or fist fighting. I’d stand a chance. No, it’s done." Alin nodded to himself. "I’m going to apologize."
"What if Bess finds out?"
"She will. You know she will. Raachwald’s small."
Alin paused. What if she did find out? What would she think? He’d loved her since before he could remember. Hell, everyone who knew her was in love with her. But she loved him. Him. And he’d been waiting these past six months for her to come of age so he could ask her father’s blessing for her hand. She’d already told him yes, in secret, two years past. They’d been just kids, but… Her father’s blessing was just a formality at this point, a huge hulking monstrosity of a formality who’d watched his baby girl rode through the town square like an animal—Alin puked inside his mouth. By Ioseph. Best focus on the now, not the later. He swallowed.
"Look." Michael pointed. Through the waning dark men and women trudged along the footpath toward the two hills. They came in groups of twos and threes, trickling down the wending paths. "Can’t keep this secret, Al. Everyone’s gonna know everything by noon. That’s why we came to Wesserwald, so the Graf can’t arrest you. Bess is gonna find out eventually, if she’s not here herself. What am I saying? You know her. She’ll be here."
"Aye. She’ll be here." Alin nodded. "And she’ll understand. Our love is more important than some pissing contest. And that’s what this is. She loves me and I’m sure she’d rather I wasn’t skewered." Alin squinted at the figures in the dark, searching for Bess and failing. Michael was right, though, she was down there somewhere, or would be soon. I’ll fix everything with her father, but first things first. "I’m going to offer an apology to Volkendorf. Hell, I was riding her like a horse. I’d have probably made a joke, too. It’s not worth dying over, aye?"
"Right?" Alin grabbed Michael at the throat and shook him a bit. "Am I right?"
"You can’t go."
"Easy, Al." Michael peeled Alin’s fingers from his shirt. "I’m your second. I’ll go tell them. I’ll offer the apology. Fix things. It’s my job…as your second." Alin hesitated and Michael jogged off down the hill toward the duo. Alin stared at the two men in the distance. Fine clothes. One was bent over and the other clapped him heartily on the back. Laughing. They were laughing. What kind of man could laugh now? Alin swallowed. "Not someone who needs rent a blade." He started praying.
The ground here was flat but glistening with morning dew. Slick. He must be mindful of his step. A slip here might prove fatal.
Michael and Von Madbury had cleared the crowd back and marked the grounds with legs of fallen timber. Not much space really. A forty foot circle. Roughly. But what did it matter? Dueling grounds and boundaries. What if he went beyond them? Was there a penalty? What penalty could be more severe than being stabbed?
The last duel Alin had fought had been five years ago. He’d fought it against Michael. Twelve and ten years they’d been, and the duel had been fought with sticks at noon for the hand of the fair princess, Bess. Alin had won as he always did, handily. That duel had been to the death and ended with a black eye for Michael. This duel was only to first blood, but men died in these duels just as readily.
Across the grounds Volkendorf raised his sword in salute, and Alin in crude pantomime did so likewise. He was no duelist. No warrior. And then Volkendorf came on creeping forward, chewing up the grounds between. Alin followed suit, forcing himself to breathe as he did, holding the small sword awkwardly in his left hand. As they neared, Volkendorf stopped walking and slid into a sliding step, keeping his right hand and foot forward and ready. Ready to stab.
Sir Dietrick Von Madbury clapped his young charge on the back, perhaps taking a might too grand a gusto in the drubbing. And one more for good measure. By the Sea Lord, it’s like smacking a giant tit. He must try not to enjoy it so.
"Ho!" Von Madbury barked as Ian disgorged a large amount of something that undoubtedly had a high content of wine and harder, darker spirits. Von Madbury inspected the growing puddle. "Pork? Cheese? Wine? Is that a chicken beak? My lord has a prodigious appetite." He waved a hand and gazed off into the northern reaches of the Hellwood. "Urhg…wise, my lord. Listen well. Duels are something I’m accustomed to. Fair wrack the brain they do. In the beforehand. The waiting. The wondering. Even were you fighting a blind leper you would be wondering about him. His make up. Skill. Quickness. Handedness. Reach. Gorgons we make of sheep. Like sitting on an anthill, aye, my lord?"
"Fire ants," Volkendorf managed, wiping his mouth.
"To play a little game with oneself oft times allays the agony of the ants. The needling, aye? Tricks, of the mind. I’ve a few." Von Madbury grabbed Ian by the scruff of the neck. "Firstly, ignore the ants, my lord. Secondly, often when faced with the steel I see in my mind myself as the predatory lion. Stalking prey in the forest. Watch your prey, my lord. Watch how he moves. Reacts. Begin the stalking now." He pointed across to the other hill and began massaging Volkendorf’s neck. Volkendorf recommenced vomiting, oblivious. "Aids in honing one’s mind to the task at hand, I say. I see myself as the lion. My lord doth seize upon a different tack. A different predator. But similar, aye. To each his own. Find your own predator, I say. Sages from my homeland of Byala tell of a black suffocating serpent. A monstrous beast of the salt marshes. Capable of swallowing an entire cow. And when threatened with mortal anguish, as you feel now, it is wont to disgorge its belly’s entire content. So that it might fight all the more fiercely." He squinted at the puddle by his feet. "Truly, you have stolen scripture from the black serpent’s own bible, my lord."
Ian dry heaved. His round back spasmed again then subsided. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and then clung to the old fence post as though it were the mast of a ship amidst a maelstrom.
Von Madbury glanced over his shoulder and noticed one of the serfs marching down the opposing hill. Was it the brave duelist or his second? Von Madbury had trouble telling peasants apart. They all looked like ill made scarecrows to him. "Buck up, my lord." He smashed Ian on the back again, even harder than before. "Ho! There’s a brave lad. Now try to hold it in, but if you must, do so behind the post. More fearsome to not see you puking, aye? Good. Duty calls. For honor!"
Mist sat thick and stagnant in the cleft between the two hills. The scarecrow had arrived first and stood waiting, a fell apparition in the gloom. Ho! A stiff breeze might blow this one over. What do these scarecrows eat? Straw? Not much, whatever it is.
"My Lord Scarecrow, shall we hash out the details?" Von Madbury announced with utmost bravado. His voice did not carry in this muffled air.
"Aye, your grace."
"I’m no king, lad."
"No priest, either. Ask around at the Seven Sisters if you doubt it." Von Madbury whisked his own sword free of his scabbard and held it above his head. It was no small sword. No pretty dueling pinker. A staid weapon of war his was. "Listen lad, and listen true. Count Ivan Svaldrake himself knighted me. Not far from that very copse, truth be told. Side by side, upon a field of death we fought King Dracul and his men. How many I slew shall never be known. Lord forgive me, the Ghent ran crimson. For a day and a night and a day again we fought, hammering them with steel and fire and horse before we broke them. Finally. The Battle of Brund’s Hill it is now known. We took the battle. Lost the war. It was over yonder I became a knight, and you shall address me as such." Was this whelp even alive for the War of Crowns? Had he seen fifteen summers? Most like not. Von Madbury stifled a snicker. Give the peasants something to jaw about.
The scarecrow’s eyes quivered, glued to Von Madbury’s sword. Would he run? No. Not in front of his own people and more than a few were meandering in. There’s a brave scarecrow. Let’s hope your own man lacks that trait. "M-my apologies, Sir Madbury." The scarecrow bent a half bow as though he were inviting a maid to a pony-step jig. He straightened back up, swallowed.
Von Madbury stifled a laugh. He stared at the scarecrow and then executed a bow low enough to satisfy a queen. Then he rose, elegance incarnate.
"My Lord Volkendorf is even now finishing the purifying of his body that he be even with the maker for the spilling of blood this morning." Von Madbury’s composure nearly broke but he maintained. "All through the long darkness he has undergone the rituals and prayers of combat. He has lashed himself to cleanse the sins he is loathe but willing to incur this dawn. I trust your man has as well, that he might meet the Redeemor with clean spirit."
The scarecrow half nodded, half winced, and then possibly he burped. Von Madbury glanced up at the scarecrow’s man. Your man’s piss drunk, too, eh lad? No worries. Von Madbury spared a glance back up the hill at his own charge. Volkendorf had managed to reign in his vomit and for the time being appeared…well…fat. Can’t have him skewered, though. Not on Von Madbury’s watch, anyhow. His aunt might not take kindly to someone other than herself murdering her nephew. "The conventions of the code shall be honored in strictest form, I trust?"
"Conventions…strictest form…aye." The scarecrow swallowed. Nodded. Did he even know the meaning of the word? Von Madbury confessed he himself was somewhat shady on it. But it was a word a knight might use whether he understand it or not. And what was a knight but a glorified mercenary, anyways. "Your choice of small swords stands?" Von Madbury raised an eyebrow.
"Aye…yes. Small swords." The scarecrow’s blond head bobbed. Eh? An odd choice for a scarecrow. A weapon of precision. Skill. A nobleman’s truly. It required rigorous training. Did he not know that since his man had been challenged that he had the choice of weapons? Perhaps pitchforks or cow flops might be more appropriate. Was it possible this scarecrow was trained with a small sword? Somehow? Why else pick it? A wave of nausea passed through Von Madbury. His meals and stipend being skewered flashed before his eyes. He slung a black glare up the hill at the other scarecrow. A well made lad, tall and straight and handsome, in truth. Indeed, no scarecrow at all. Appears strong, healthy, if a somewhat…lopsided at the moment. Maybe good, maybe bad. The drink can have different effects on different men. Provide a courage otherwise lacking in some. And he wasn’t puking and whining like Von Madbury’s own charge. Sweat began to bead upon his brow, his neck, down his back, but Von Madbury did what he always did when cornered. He attacked. "The duel shall be fought to the death, of course, as the slight to my lord’s honor was grievous and beyond hopes of all repair."
"To the death?" The scarecrow gulped. Good. He realizes the dead weight of all this. He’ll make a reconciliatory offer. Von Madbury waited. He sniffed. Swallowed. He’d expected some sort of rump kissing apology. Something. Anything. Whimpering. Blubberousness? Maybe an offer of chickens or goats or some wretched farm animal in the half assed form of country wergild. He stewed a moment. It would come. Aye…aye, it would come…perhaps? The scarecrow waited, obviously having no idea of what he was doing. Shit. It would not come. Scarecrow would need some prodding, of course. How could he expect a scarecrow to understand the conventions of the high art of dueling? Von Madbury glanced around at the small folk meandering into the valley and stepped closer to the scarecrow. He flinched. This must be done quickly, even scarecrows have face, it seems.
"My Lord Volkendorf stated in confidence that were an apology made," Von Madbury whispered from the corner of his mouth, "he might be magnanimous enough to forego dueling to the death in exchange for a duel to first blood. Or, if the apology were grand enough, or sincere enough, to forego the duel altogether. All honor satisfied. What do you say to that?" Von Madbury crossed his arms and smiled.
"An apology, sir? Oh, yes, my brother wanted me to offer one…"
The tips of their swords hovered like bees, no more than an inch apart now, two quivering jags of steel. Squint and he couldn’t see them. So sharp. Almost nothing unless it slid into him. Volkendorf was circling now, maintaining his distance and Alin, again, following suit, gave chase.
Volkendorf’s blade flicked out and beat Alin’s own blade aside. Alin whipped his back, smashing Volkendorf’s blade with a satisfying clang. He gulped. Then Volkendorf repeated, and Alin smashed it back the opposite way. Volkendorf grunted, then tried his attack a third time. Alin made to smash his sword again—missed Volkendorf’s suddenly absent blade and found himself on his heels flailing backwards, whipping his sword about blindly as Volkendorf’s own blade thrust suddenly a hare’s whisker from his throat. The fat bastard gave chase, chuffing and grunting and thrusting again and again.
Alin retreated backwards, stumbling, slipping on the slick grass. In a blink he crashed and found himself splayed out upon the cold wet grass, a point of steel quivering inches from his face. Dew soaked into his shirt and pants. He began to shiver.
The fall had saved him. Volkendorf pulled back to allow Alin to regain his feet, as the conventions apparently deemed proper. Alin patted his body, checking for wounds as he rose. He scoured his arms, his face. Begging for wounds. Praying for wounds. But nothing. A bloody miracle. Damn. It would go on. A fall was no touch.
As Alin grunted to his feet, he noticed a streak of red running down Volkendorf’s sleeve. He was bleeding from the wrist.
Alin looked at his own blade. Crimson at the tip.
He had won.
"Look, I have glad tidings and bad tidings," Michael said. He had to play this right. Alin was drunk, not stupid. Well, not completely stupid, compared to most of Raachwald.
"Oh shit." Alin closed his eyes. "Give me the bad—no, good first."
"No, the bad." Alin clutched at Michael’s chest.
"Whoa, watch the blade, Al," Michael pushed it aside. "And quit touching it." At least he didn’t stab me. And it wouldn’t rust in a day. As long as he could get his deposit back from Coster. He’d promised the blade back unharmed. If it wasn’t…well, Coster was old and likely to die anytime soon. Michael could avoid him until then.
"Okay, the bad tidings…the duel’s still on—"
"He didn’t accept the apology? What’d he say—what’d you say?"
"Easy, big brother." Michael pried Alin’s manticore claws from his chest. "Take a breath. Breathe. Easy. The good tidings are it’s only to first blood."
"First blood? What’s that?"
"Wake up, Alin." Michael threw up his hands, exasperated. "How many times did we play duel when we were kids? A hundred? A thousand? You know what first blood is. It means it stops whenever someone gets pinked."
"Whoever…" Michael closed his eyes even as he said it, "gets touched first."
"Okay, whoever bleeds first."
"Bleeds. First." Alin’s eyes opened like a cow’s in a slaughterhouse. Alin had always been flighty around blood, his own, anyways. "Clarify for me. You mean it ends when someone gets stabbed, yeah?" He was clutching again. "Stabbed!"
"Pinked. They call it pinked." Michael’s voice trailed off.
"Pinked? Fuck your pinked! I don’t want to get pinked! How would you like getting pinked? With this?" He brandished the small sword. "This thing’s only good for one thing and that’s stabbing. Not pinking! I could pink you and your two best friends with one thrust. If you had two friends. Why not call it getting gushing crimsoned?"
"Look, just get a cut on your wrist. Or your arm, or get one on his. Honor will be satisfied and that’s that. It’s nothing."
"Nothing? What if I get pinked through the chest? Or my face or, by Ioseph, my eye? How about my balls? Is that nothing? You want to be pinked in your balls, Michael? Huh?"
"Ah…well, no. But no worries, the surgeon’ll take care of everything."
"Surgeon? There’s a surgeon? Since when can surgeons sew balls back on?"
"Just relax. You’ll be fine."
Alin was near blubbering now. "I don’t see him. Is he down there?"
"He’s right down there. Next to the cart." Michael pointed at a hunched figure at the bottom of the hill, fighting to open the gate on his cart. "See? He just got here. He’s setting up shop. You’ll be fine."
Alin teetered, squinting. "Is it the guy standing behind Orlof?"
Michael rolled his eyes. Here it comes. "It is Orlof."
"Orlof’s not a surgeon—"
"Practically a surgeon."
"He’s journeyman barber, which qualifies him to pull teeth and drain boils."
"I’m sure he’s adequate."
"He sucks at both!"
"I hope not literally… er…at least with the boils." Michael grinned, saw the look of horror and disgust on Alin’s face and stopped. Perhaps not the best time for boil sucking jokes. "Look, I’m sorry. You’ll be fine. We’re gonna go down there. Now. It’ll go like this. You both bow. You both salute with your sword, like this," Michael bowed like a soft lad and then executed a crude salute, "and then you get to it. You only have to pink him. Scratch his hand or arm. Don’t go mad. And if he stabs at you, try to block it with your sword. Like this." He pantomimed a block and then a thrust. "Hell, block it with your hand, even. As long as he draws blood, it’s over. Okay? And then you stand. Salute and then shake hands? Okay? You have to do this."
"I need my hand. How can I work if I’m a cripple? I’ve got fences to build, cows to milk—"
"You’ve a long winter to heal up."
"What if I get the blackrot? What if I lose it? What good’s a farmer with one hand? Why do I have to do this?"
"Because half the town’s down there waiting. Bess is there, watching. You want to let that son of shit noble make you look like a flaccid cock in front of your lady love? You know how that would make all of us look?"
"Fuck how all of us look. I have a life to live. I ain’t throwing it all away over some drunken jibe. I’m not fighting. To hell with all this shit."
Ian held onto the fence post for dear life. Thankfully, he was no longer drunk. He was nigh on positive. That the axis of the world seemed to be spinning in line with this very fence post was surprising, though. God, what was that smell? Was it him? He just wanted to go home. Sleep. A hot bath. Massage. He burped. Maybe he was still a little drunk. What had he drank last night? What hadn’t he drank? Footsteps. Ian turned toward Von Madbury. Good. No doubt the one eyed bitch’s son will have bullied an apology from the peasant. Von Madbury was aces at bullying. I can go home. Sleep. I can die and rot in peace and not have to listen to that blowhard jaw on about the time he fought the battle of this or that, and slew some ogre with naught but a bunker shovel. The peasant would apologize before his own people and this farce could be done with.
"Well?" Ian stood up straight but his stomach disagreed and he grabbed the post again.
"The little prick wants to duel to the death," Von Madbury announced and Ian’s stomach lurched.
Alin marched down the hill and froze a stone’s throw from the dueling grounds. Ian Volkendorf stood glaring across from the grounds. The smug bastard looked like a bloated bullfrog in wool finery. Well, this was it. Alin took a deep breath. Who cares what anyone thinks. Forget them. Better to be alive and whole than dead. Or a cripple. By Ioseph, he would not be a cripple. He would end his own life before he became a burden to Bess or Michael or any of his family. "My Lord Volkendorf, last evening’s events were regrettable and entirely my own fault…" That’s what he would say, at the start anyway. Don’t give him any leeway. Take responsibility for the whole incident. Apologize and be done. Alin strode toward Volkendorf.
"Alin?" A whisper from behind and Alin froze. Turned. "Alin, I love you."
It was Bess. Beautiful, sweet Bess. Michael stood at her side and pushed her forward. She’d come to stop him. By Ioseph he loved her. An instant later her arms were wrapped around his neck and her face was buried in his chest. She smelled of honey and spring and Alin felt his knees wobble and head pound anew as he enveloped her in his arms and squeezed back. He could feel the soft crush of her breasts against his chest and the thunder of her heartbeat within.
She kissed him then. And in front of everyone! And Alin kissed back, and not the kisses of childhood. Not the hen pecks stolen behind the barn. This was a kiss! Long. Smooth. He could taste her…smell her. This is where he wanted to be. Forever. He ran his fingers through her long auburn hair and drank her in. She pried herself away for an instant. "Oh, Alin, this is so foolish."
"You could be killed."
"Don’t do it! I love you too much to lose you."
"And I you, Bess. I could never lose you. Could never be without you." He held her and damn it if she didn’t feel good to hold. Better than good. Maybe too good at this very moment. He might have trouble walking over to Volkendorf in his present condition. His gaze rose to Volkendorf, regarding him with pig eyes across the dueling grounds. You’re not worth losing this over.
"Bess, I love you too much to lose you and so—"
"Oh, Alin, I know. I could never lose you, either. And that’s why this means so much. That you would risk all we have for my honor. That someone would do all that for me. There’s no one like you. No one. Anywhere, Alin. Anywhere. The Redeemor will watch over you. Protect you. I’ve prayed all night as hard I could. You can’t lose, God won’t let you."
"Err…hmmm…" Alin managed to choke out.
"You’ll win. You’ll stab that fat toad and then you’ll come back to me." Bess’ voice was a crooning murmur. "And then we’ll be together. Married. Proper. In a church. And then I can show you how much I love you. And thank you proper."
"Ahem. Well, Bess…I will…uh, ahem…stab him for you…"
Alin blinked, then pointed at Volkendorf’s sword arm, where a long red slice had slid spiraling from mid-forearm to elbow. Blood was streaming down to Volkendorf’s hand and dripping like an icicle in spring. Volkendorf had retreated five feet. His eyes twitched to his arm and then back to Alin. Fear and rage burned within.
A few spotty cheers erupted from the crowd, shouts of, "Alin! Ho!" from his friends Karl and James but that was all. Alin didn’t know what to do. He’d won. He’d won a duel against a trained swordsman. A noble. Maybe it had been luck—okay, so it was all luck, but he’d pinked the noble whelp first. And so he’d won.
Alin saluted again.
Then he stepped forward with his hand extended and found suddenly a foot and a half of Volkendorf’s blade disappearing into his chest. He could feel it scrape along his ribs like a blade on a whetstone and a dull warmth as it tore out his back.
And then Volkendorf let go of his blade and Alin slumped to the ground.
Tears streamed down Michael’s cheeks as he watched Orlof paw his brother’s pallid corpse. Michael shook, shivered. What in Ioseph’s name is Orlof doing?
Michael covered his mouth and turned to stare at Bess. Shattered. Broken. Bess. Tears cascaded down her face and for all her sorrow she was more beautiful. Her fists were balled at her sides and she moved not except for the tremors. The tears.
"Is he…?" Bess’s lips quivered. Her body trembled.
"Don’t’ look. Come." Michael wiped the tears from his face as he strode to her and took her in his arms. She acquiesced, a wooden puppet…then slowly…tentatively she returned his embrace with a gentle softness Michael had only dreamed of until now. "I’m so sorry, Bess. I tried to stop him. He was too proud. Loved you too much." He buried his face in her long tresses. Inhaled. They smelled of honey blossoms and springtime mornings, as he knew they would. Her skin was so soft.
"Oh, Michael," Bess sobbed, "how will we ever get through this?"
"Together, Bess. Together," Michael whispered close in her ear as he stifled the smirk that was so wont to come to his lips.