I should have pissed before we got here, Yorrin thought.
It wasn’t an intense need, but just enough pressure to be distracting.
“Oh, very nice! Your friend, he fights well,” Olivenco said. He held a flagon of spirits in his hand, and took a sip. “For an uncultured northerner, anyway. Little grace, but… strength and skill, si, there is no denying.”
Yorrin had held his breath for a moment, when the Svard first charged Aleksandr. But Aleksandr withstood the first strike, and now he was maneuvering to push the Svard back.
“Aleksandr’s a knight,” Yorrin said. “Of course he has skill. The uncultured northerner is that one. He has an axe.”
Aleksandr’s move worked, and the weapon clattered across the dock.
“Had an axe,” Yorrin amended, as the Svard drew a sword.
It was a one-handed blade, considerably shorter than Aleksandr’s longsword. But he had that shield, and he seemed to be able to use it quite effectively.
“Aleksandr’s leg,” Olivenco murmured. “It still pains him.”
“I think so,” Yorrin said. “He doesn’t show it much.”
“It is obvious to a man with eyes to see,” said Olivenco. “He is too inmóvil. Too still. The barbarian, he circles like a beast stalking prey.”
“Eh, he’ll find Aleksandr makes for a very tough meal,” Yorrin said with a shrug.
As if to prove Yorrin’s point, Aleksandr put the Svard on the defensive. He hewed chunks out of the face of the northman’s shield, forcing the man to keep a cautious distance.
“Si, it is so. You should not be watching for Aleksandr’s sake, anyway, but for your own.”
“I won’t be fighting that Svard,” Yorrin said. “I’ll fight one of the other ones.”
“Even so,” said Olivenco. “This style, it seems… distinct. A style of the north, si? The other man may fight the same.” He took another sip of his drink, and held it out towards Yorrin.
Yorrin accepted the flagon and took a swig, then regretted it. Not because of the drink—it was definitely Ruskan spirits, something acrid that burned pleasantly all the way to his belly. But he already felt like he needed to void his bladder, and liquor wouldn’t help.
He passed the drink back to Olivenco, and heeded his mentor’s words. He watched as the Svard again moved in to strike. The Svard forced his way in with the shield, ramming the blade into Aleksandr.
Yorrin winced, but Aleksandr’s heavy armor seemed to turn the blade. Thank God for that, Yorrin thought. Though I’m not convinced my new armored coat would’ve resisted that thrust so easily. He tried to replay the Svard’s attack in his mind, to understand exactly how it had unfolded. If Olivenco was right, he might need to know very soon.
Suddenly, Aleksandr moved. He stepped forward—I guess the leg is less bad than Olivenco thought—and then brought his longsword down with a burst of sudden speed.
Yorrin couldn’t be sure, but for an instant he almost thought he saw a glimmer of orange light on the blade of Aleksandr’s sword. The thought was drowned out by a sudden scream as Aleksandr cleaved through both the Svard’s shield and arm in the same stroke.
“Dios!” Olivenco muttered.
The Svard fell to the ground, and he died screaming while Aleksandr quietly tried to convince him to surrender.
He even offers mercy to these heathen devils, Yorrin thought. It was not something he felt he would do, but he saw the grace in the act. He knew Alaina would speak highly of it. Aleksandr truly does fight for Torath, whether he knows it or not.
The crowd mostly cheered, though Yorrin spotted a few frowning faces jeering as well. Robin shuffled through the Ruskan bystanders, collecting coins on his wagers. The Svardic High Priest stepped forward, and his men dragged the corpse off the dock.
“Are you ready?” Olivenco murmured.
Mostly. I hope. “Of course,” he said. It’s not like I could back out if I wasn’t.
“Then good luck, my friend. Stay light on your feet.”
Yorrin nodded, and edged closer to the dock.
“I cede the first victory to you,” he heard Hakon say to Aleksandr. His voice was quiet, but it carried through the crowd nonetheless.
“Da,” Aleksandr said. Yorrin saw him frown. “I am sorry about your man. I did not intend to kill him.”
“You should have. He would never have surrendered to you,” said the gnarled old priest. “Your weakness is why I am here.”
The crowd doesn’t need to hear him give another sermon.
“That’s enough of that heathen nonsense,” Yorrin said. He nudged his cloak back, clearing the hilts of his blades.
Hakon gave him a look of disdain. “Indeed,” he said. He nodded to his men, and he stepped off the dock.
Yorrin drew Olivenco’s sword with his right hand, and Giancarlo’s stiletto with his left. Their grips felt familiar after so many hours practicing.
“Well then,” he said. “My turn?”
A Svard stepped up, axe and shield in hand. Yorrin walked out onto the dock first, passing Aleksandr.
“Yorrin,” Aleksandr murmured. “Be careful.”
Yorrin just smiled, giving Aleksandr a confident wink. No need for him to worry.
The Svard followed him out. Yorrin had noticed that, in Aleksandr’s duel, the Svard had claimed the center of the pier. He had launched himself at Aleksandr quickly, in the hopes of shoving Aleksandr back onto the muddy ground and out of the designated dueling grounds.
Yorrin wouldn’t have that problem. He turned to face the Svard once they were well out onto the dock, more than halfway to the end. Plenty of room to fight, and maneuver.
The Svard was huge. He had a bushy beard and long, tangled locks spilling out of his helm. His broad chest was covered in mail. His biceps looked as thick as Yorrin’s head. His shield was solid wood, rimmed in metal. I have no idea how Aleksandr cut through one of those, but there’s absolutely no chance of me doing it.
Yorrin held his blades up in a guard stance, sword extended out, dagger held close to his chest to parry. The Svard did not rush him the way the other one had rushed Aleksandr. He just stood there, staring at Yorrin. After what felt a long silence, his lips curled into a smile.
And he laughed. At Yorrin. At this travesty of a duel. At the obvious unfairness of it.
Some of the crowd chuckled with him. Yorrin’s blood boiled, but all he allowed to show was a thin frown.
That’s the way it’s going to be? Alright then.
Yorrin lunged forward, hoping to catch the Svard off guard. The Svard turned the thrust on his shield, keeping it angled so that Yorrin’s blade just skittered across the surface. He swung with his axe, a lazy swing that showed itself well in advance.
Yorrin took a step back, trying to parry the axe with his dagger. Instead of turning it away, he caught too much of the axe on the dagger’s hilt. He was shocked at the sheer weight of the blow, and his hand went numb as the axe knocked his dagger out of his grip.
Yorrin backpedaled furiously, even as the Svard laughed again. He raised his axe triumphantly, shouting something in Svardic. The other Svards all laughed, and once again Yorrin could hear some of the Ruskans joining in.
“You’ve got this, Yorrin!” shouted Dylan from the crowd. “Wipe that smirk off his face!”
Great advice, Whip. Yorrin gritted his teeth. I’ll get right to it.
The Svard advanced almost casually. Yorrin probed with his sword, not committing as heavily as he had before, and the Svard easily blocked the thrust. He threw out another sloppy axeblow, and Yorrin dodged back again.
Without his dagger to parry, he was at a serious disadvantage. The Svard had him outclassed in nearly every way one could measure. Heavier armor, longer reach, a shield.
You have at least one advantage. This Cutter—Amante, Olivenco calls it?— is true steel, Yorrin reminded himself. It might pierce the links of that mail if I could land a really solid thrust.
That was easier imagined than done, however. The Svard kept Yorrin on his back foot, constantly leading in with the shield and throwing out ferocious sweeping strikes with his axe. Yorrin could barely keep on dodging or parrying them, and could spare little focus for ripostes. He felt his breaths come quick as he danced around the Svard, relying on little more than speed to keep out of lethal close quarters.
His head was a jumble of half-remembered dueling advice given by Olivenco. So long as he’d held both blades, he’d had a touchstone to center himself in these recent weeks of training. But now, it all began to fall away. Proper footwork, proper grip, proper form, one by one he began to forget them.
He was a desperate footpad again. A thief with a single, slender blade going up against a seasoned warrior girded for battle. He misstepped, and grunted when the axeblade grated past the shoulder of his armored jack. He felt a pain in his cheek, and he realized the axe had bounced off the edge of his armor and opened a shallow cut on his left jawline.
Too close, he thought as he backpedaled faster, completely avoiding the Svard’s next strike. Way too close.
The Svard snapped at him, sounding irritated. Yorrin couldn’t understand a lick of Svardish, but he’d heard versions of “stop running and face me like a man” enough times to recognize the annoyed cadence in any tongue. He’d never once seen a request like that actually followed, of course, and today would not be the first time for it.
But soon Yorrin found himself backing close to the edge of the pier. The Svard grinned and shifted his position, cutting off Yorrin’s path.
Cornered like a rat, Yorrin realized. In his periphery, he saw the gray waters of the Ironblood. The current was weak here, the water calm. Yorrin was a strong swimmer, and the river scared him little.
The Holmgang ends if I step off the pier, he recalled. One win, one loss… a stalemate. Not what Aleksandr and Alaina wanted, but I’m sure Aleksandr would prefer it over this northern barbarian hacking me in two. Better part of valor, fight another day, all that.
Yorrin felt his left foot reach the edge of the peer. He put weight on the ball of his foot, and his heel was hanging over empty air. The Svard watched him carefully, waiting to see if he would bolt one way or the other, reluctant to attack in case it gave Yorrin a chance to juke the other way.
Behind the Svard, Yorrin saw Aleksandr. He still held his sword, though he’d wiped away the blood. He watched the duel with a stoic expression. Yorrin saw Alaina whisper something to Aleksandr, and she looked openly worried. Aleksandr just denied her with a single curt shake of his head.
He still has faith in you, Yorrin told himself. He doesn’t think you’re going to leap off the pier and give up. And you’re not, are you?
The Svard edged closer, still obviously trying to be careful not to give Yorrin an easy out.
The Svard took another careful step forward, shield and axe ready to strike if Yorrin bolted. What he clearly wasn’t expecting was for Yorrin to bring his sword into a forward guard and lunge with all his strength and speed.
His sword streaked forward, finding a narrow path between shield and axe, and connected with the Svard’s mail-covered chest. For half an instant, it almost looked like Yorrin had impaled him. But the blade poked through the links less than a half-inch, not even enough to penetrate the layers of cloth beneath. He’d lunged from too far away, and the mail was too resilient.
And now Yorrin was fully committed.
The Svard grinned. Before Yorrin could pull his blade back into line, his foe slammed the shield against Amante with enough force to wrench it out of the strongest of grips.
But Yorrin wasn’t holding it with a firm grip. In fact, he let go the moment the shield made contact with the blade. The Svard’s forceful sweep sent the sword bouncing across the dock, but the lack of resistance also threw him off balance as the shield carried his left side forward. Yorrin immediately launched himself to the right, spinning around the Svard entirely.
Whereupon Yorrin turned and unceremoniously shoved the Svard off the pier.
Nobody cheered. The Svard made a loud splash as he landed in the river, and more splashes as he flailed about, struggling to shed his heaviest layers. The crowd watched in shocked silence for a long moment, as they realized what had just happened.
The Svard was off the dock, which meant he had lost. Yorrin crossed his arms over his chest as he watched the man thrashing in the water.
Is he going to drown? He wondered. Good riddance.
His grim satisfaction waned when recalled how Aleksandr tried to help the other Svard even as he bled out. Yorrin sighed, annoyed, and he grabbed a thick mooring rope looped around a bollard. He dropped one end of it into the water. Not too near the Svard—he didn’t mind making the heathen work for it. The Svard paddled frantically for the rope, grabbed hold and gasped for air.
While the Svard climbed up, Yorrin collected and sheathed his blades. He noticed Hakon approaching along the dock, and Aleksandr a few paces behind him. The crowd was still quiet, though a few low whispers could be heard.
The Svard made it onto the dock and collapsed, panting. His axe and shield were gone, as was his swordbelt and helm.
“He left the dock,” Yorrin said to Hakon as the priest closed in. “Means he forfeited, right?”
The Svard had gotten his knees under him, and Hakon stepped behind his kneeling huskarl. Hakon cast a venomous glare at Yorrin, and then Yorrin realized he had that hooked knife in his hand.
Before Yorrin could say anything, Hakon grabbed his own man by the hair, yanked his head back, and swept the blade across his throat. Blood gushed down his chest, and Hakon shoved him forward. The huskarl died gasping like a fish, crimson pouring across the dock.
If the crowd had been quiet before, now they were a tomb.
Aleksandr narrowed his eyes at Hakon. “That was not necessary,” he said.
“He failed,” Hakon said, sneering. “Now at least he will find his way to Vlar’s hall.”
Alaina was moving out onto the pier as well, though she paused in horror at the sight of Hakon murdering his own vassal. The assembled crowd stared as Hakon crouched beside his fallen huskarl and dipped his hand in the blood.
The High Priest of Vlar began to paint Svardic runes with the blood of his man, chanting as he did so.
“Hakon!” Alaina said. “You and your god have lost our contest. Worse still, you’ve murdered an innocent man before our eyes. Honor our agreement and go, now.”
Hakon ignored her, continuing his heathen desecration. Yorrin’s blood ran cold, not just at the horror of it all. He swore he felt a chill gather in the air, and Hakon’s voice began to carry on the wind.
His other three Huskarls moved to stand beside him, eyeing Aleksandr and Yorrin warily. They seemed unconcerned by their master killing one of their own.
“Hakon…” Aleksandr said quietly. “Do as Alaina asks. This will not go as you hope, if you push us.”
Behind Aleksandr, a few more brave souls ventured out onto the pier. Most of them were Steelshod: Dylan, Bear, Perrin, and Conrad all approached cautiously, hands resting on their weapons. Yorrin also noted the Bogdanov captain of the guard, Boris. He was frowning, clearly unsure how best to handle this situation before it got out of control.
Finally, Hakon seemed to finish his ritual. He stood from the bloody runes.
“The battlefield has been consecrated in Vlar’s name!” he declared. “We shall honor Vlar’s will, and our agreement.”
He nodded to his huskarls. They went over to where their small, narrow boat was moored nearby and began to prepare it.
Yorrin stared at the runes, frowning. He felt unsettled, afraid even. He reacted to this fear the way he often did.
It annoyed him.
“Yeah, I don’t think so,” he said loudly. He stepped forward.
He caught a lot of nervous looks, not the least from Aleksandr. The situation was tense, of course—maybe they thought Yorrin was going to attack the priest? The one man that didn’t seem worried was Hakon himself. He watched Yorrin with a thin, cruel smile.
Yorrin walked right up to the runes, unlaced his breeches, and whipped out his cock. He’d been holding it in for a while now, and it took no effort at all to summon a considerable stream of piss. He hosed down the bloody runes, washing away every trace of Hakon’s heathen black magic.
That finally broke the spell on the crowd. The Ruskan common folk burst into laughter at the brazen sight. Yorrin continued pissing away the blood until his stream dried up, meeting Hakon’s eyes and smiling the whole time.
Finally wiped that smirk off his face, Yorrin thought with satisfaction. Hakon just stared, openmouthed, completely speechless.
“You heard Aleksandr,” Yorrin told him, stuffing his manhood back into his breeches. “Time to go.”
Hakon’s men looked furious, and one of them took a step towards Yorrin. Aleksandr stepped forward as well, blade still in hand. Behind him, the others grew closer. Hakon snapped a few words in his native tongue, and his huskarl stood down.
“Very well,” Hakon said through gritted teeth. “We shall go.”
“Da,” said Aleksandr. “This would be best.”
A palpable sigh of relief rippled through the crowd. Whoever was sympathetic to Hakon’s dark god wisely kept their mouths shut now that Torath’s supremacy had been properly established. The Svards dragged their dead away with them, piled into their little boat, and rowed their way across the Ironblood to where Hakon’s flagship waited.
“Well,” said Sir Boris when he reached them. “That was… something. I will tell my cousin the bayard what we saw today. He wished Yerevan to remain impartial, but… I did not like that bit the priest did at the end, with the blood. Bayard Bogdanov will not either. I am thinking you have done us a service again, Black Blade.”
Aleksandr frowned. He hates that moniker, Yorrin thought. Even so, Aleksandr gave a nod.
“And you.” Boris turned to look at Yorrin. His eyes flickered up and down, as if truly taking Yorrin’s measure for the first time. “That was unexpected.”
Yorrin shrugged. “I’d guess Hakon didn’t expect it either.”
Boris smiled. “Da. Congratulations on your victories, then. Both of you.” He looked to Alaina. “And to you as well, Mother. Your champions won the day.”
“I am truly blessed,” Alaina said with a smile.
Boris turned to go, slipping between the members of Steelshod that had come up along with him. Alaina went too, and she began speaking to the crowd. Praying, it sounded like. Or at least Alaina’s version of praying, which involved a lot more talking in Middish and a lot less chanting in Temple Torathi, compared to the prayers Yorrin recalled from the churches in Nasarat.
“That went well,” said the Whip, clapping Yorrin on the shoulder.
“Naturally,” said Yorrin. “We put ourselves in God’s coils, after all.”
“You’re bleeding,” the Whip noted, nodding at Yorrin’s jaw.
He’d scarcely noticed it during the fight, but now Yorrin felt all-too aware of the stinging pain that radiated from the shallow cut.
“I am,” he agreed. “Just a scratch.”
“Was good fight!” Bear declared. “Will make good scar, to remember by.”
“I don’t think I’ll need a scar to remember this one, Bear,” Yorrin said.
“Da, true,” Bear admitted. “Was very fun to watch. I liked part where you pissed on dock!”
“I think we all did,” said Robin as he joined them.
More Steelshod had come up once the Svards left, it seemed. Orson approached Yorrin with a few rags of clean linen, wiping away the blood on his chin and inspecting the wound. Yorrin winced at the stinging pain this caused, and he was tempted to shoo the man away, but he knew it was best to let the healer do his job.
“Olivenco,” Yorrin replied through clenched teeth. He forced himself to smile despite the pain. “I stayed light on my feet.”
“Si, that is true,” Olivenco said. “You fought terribly, of course. But, si, very light.”
“He won,” said the Whip. “If he fought terribly, I guess that means the Svard was even worse.”
“No, not really,” Olivenco said. “The Svard, he was quite skilled. He had Yorrin caught, like a mouse. This was obvious to everyone, no?”
Olivenco glanced around the various faces of Steelshod. The responses he got were completely inconsistent—it was clear that a few saw the same things he had seen, but many more did not. Olivenco was quite happy to explain exactly how Yorrin’s form had failed, and how much danger he would have been in, had that last gambit not paid off.
Yes, I had no idea what I was doing, Yorrin thought, annoyed. Does it matter? I got him off the dock. Winning is a hell of a lot more important than keeping proper form.
He held his tongue, and tried not to flinch as Orson took out a needle and thread and began stitching the wound closed right there on the dock.
“Is that necessary?” Yorrin murmured.
“Yes,” was all Orson said.
Soon Yorrin’s wound was closed, and Olivenco gave up on explaining the finer points of swordplay to the few obstinate members—mostly Bear—that refused to acknowledge the nuances he was trying to explain. Alaina rejoined them, and they all looked out across the river. Hakon’s galley hadn’t moved, not yet at least.
“Thank you,” Alaina said. Mostly to Aleksandr, of course, but also to Yorrin. “I did not like the idea of that man remaining here after you left.”
“I don’t think any of us liked that prospect, priestess,” Yorrin agreed.
“Da,” Aleksandr said. He had been staring at the ship the longest, his expression impassive save for his furrowed brow. “But… is done, now.”
“Si!” Giancarlo Rossi piped up from the crowd of Steelshod. Yorrin hadn’t noticed him join them. “The last business you had in Yerevan, was it not?”
“I suppose so,” Aleksandr said. Yorrin didn’t miss that he glanced involuntarily at Alaina.
Leaving will be hard on them, Yorrin thought. She’s a good woman. They’re good for each other, not that I know much about these things. But even so… it was a foolish thing to get tangled up here if he intends to leave.
“Si, good. And I have nearly acquired all the wares I hoped for,” said Giancarlo. “So… soon we leave. You will escort me to Caedia, to sell my goods to the armies there. And you intend to stay on?”
Aleksandr nodded. “If they will have us, da. This war… the Svards…” He hesitated.
“Hakon has proved twice over that fighting against these savages is a worthy cause,” Yorrin said.
“Da. I hope we see him again,” said Aleksandr. “In battle.”