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Part Two: Chapter 22

The Mardothan’s head flew upwards, cleaved asunder from its body. The awkward mass fell with a thud upon the damp earth at Astelidus’ feet as he searched for his next victim. But who else was brash enough to contend with Sinia’s champion? Recently it seemed every avenue pursued by the son of Ny beneath Crûthior’s walls was devoid of glory, as if the battle ebbed as he flowed: as if King Berac’s sole strategy was to mitigate Astelidus’ mayhem in despair of eliminating it. Still the young warrior was a plague on the Mardothans, directly or indirectly, as Deserus Oen and his council took every advantage of the fear their new hero inspired in their adversaries’ minds.

Yet again—and despite all his glories compiled upon returning to the fray—Astelidus still didn’t produce a presence on the battlefield equivalent to that of the GrimHelm. The Mardothans remained emboldened by Dragan’s departure and were issuing forth from their iron gates more frequently, even so far as to harass and burn the outermost Sinian camps. Crûthior’s second wall was all but rebuilt, and the Toros River was reclaimed, with the latter of these allowing the Mardothans to accept much-needed food and provisions from Agrardob. But above all this, a new hero was treading Mardotha’s plains. Birakith the Baneful, a man who wreaked comparable havoc upon the Sinians as Astelidus did upon his enemies. The two had yet to meet, however—intentionally, it seemed, as if the Mardothan warlords were hesitant to wager on a victory. They’d no other heroes to replace Birakith. The DoomBringer had killed them all.

And although Bronwyn had since come to share his bed and also his hand in public, Astelidus sensed a hesitation in her affection: a reluctance to his love. He contributed this to a number of things (including his own paranoia), suppressing the overwhelming urge to contribute it to any lingering feelings she might have for the defector, Dragan Saedus. How could she love one who loves only himself, who laughs at others’ misfortunes, who wanders the earth as a mercenary of fame? Such as this he’d think…then always dismiss the notion to folly, blinded by the love he bore for her. Yet it irked him nonetheless.

But this day was different. The fighting around Astelidus had waxed along with the sun, and for every body he laid low there was another to take its place. The toil of his labors had drenched him with sweat, although he’d yet to fatigue under his armor’s weight or the travail of his bastard sword. Today his task was to drive a wedge into the Mardothan forces—the apex of which would culminate at the rebuilt portion of the second wall—for with this achieved, miners would hurriedly tunnel beneath and collapse the weakened section, just as they’d done not so long ago. Yet from atop his rook high on the parapets of the city’s tallest tower, King Berac and his council had descried the plot; and so, seeing no end to the destruction Astelidus waged against the mediocre of Crûthior, they’d at last summoned Birakith to vie with Sinia’s champion.

Baneful was the man’s cognomen: and rightly so, for his product was woe. A gladiator hardened through years of drudgery and combat, Birakith had risen to command a company of his own sort: resilient, brazen, and ignorantly steadfast. Unlike his kinsman Agriretrim, he was lowborn; yet, although smaller in stature, he was brawnier and more resourceful than the Lion. He’d traveled to Crûthior after hearing the tale of how a warrior known as the DoomBringer had felled his great cousin—and he was intent on discovering for himself the prowess of this Sinian hireling. Yet to his confusion and dismay, he’d found on arrival only that Dragan Saedus had since departed Mardotha like some craven in the night. But after witnessing firsthand the fresh destruction effectuated by the rogues of Sinia, he’d chosen to remain and fight.

Now Birakith and his soldiers strode through the city gates as a spectacle of steel. The product of their might…the plume of victories past…was their armor. Each man’s possession was heavy and imposing: black, cold, contoured sheets of metal sat firmly atop breasts, shoulders, thighs, and shins of the hearty warriors. Most gripped a shield, tall and rectangular, in one hand and a short sword in the other. Birakith wielded only a two-handed longsword and further distinguished himself by wearing upon his great helm a crest of brilliant red horsehair that ran transverse across the scalp. The sea of rabble gave way to this mass of iron as it marched forth to meet Astelidus Ny. Seeing his target, the Mardothan captain bellowed in the voice of ten men: “Son of Ny, hear my words. Parley!” Then he commanded his troops to pull the other Mardothans away from their adversaries and shield them from the fray—until a half moon was formed on the battlefield, shaded by the cool brick of the city’s second wall.

After hearing Birakith’s words, Astelidus ordered the same of his men until a circular section of battlefield was void of the living but full of the dead. Birakith the Baneful stepped into this ring to speak the first challenge:

“Astelidus Ny! Now that I lay eyes upon you, I marvel at why Berac held me back. I came here for revenge against the man who slew my kinsman—yet all I find is you: a freckled-faced boy whose glory lies in slaying farmhands! The ones this DoomBringer pitied enough not to kill while he remained! But a Mardothan is a Mardothan, and their deaths won’t go unanswered. What say you then, Ny, here on the eve of your demise?”

“You speak to me as the child!” the Sinian bellowed in reply, stepping also into the impromptu arena. “But it was your leader who hid you from my sight! Great must be the wisdom of Berac! For I am the son of Silinveran Uel, who—like my father before me and his father before him—has dined with kings, lain with their daughters, and counseled their enterprises. Yet you would dishonor me? An ignoramus born in a pigsty to a whore on the outreaches of civilization, come to flex the muscles of this gang of brutish lackeys? We’ll see how you fare without the iron curtain at your side!”

The Mardothan slowly reached behind his head, grabbed the hilt of his huge blade, and loosed it from its leather bindings. Bringing it round to his free hand, he held the weapon at an angle, tip pointing low to the earth. The matte black of his plate shimmered in the sun’s rays falling on his broad shoulders from overtop Crûthior’s high walls. “I need no aid in this fight,” he replied coldly and with no dramatics—as if the words of Ny had nettled him. Looking askance at his troops so they understood, he began slowing approaching his adversary.

“Don’t interfere unless there’s foul play,” Astelidus quickly told his captain, then he strode forth to determine the day’s lot.

For tense moments the two champions circled, each sizing up the other. The man from Agrardob, gripping his sword’s long hilt tightly with both hands, let the blade’s tip trail in the dust to one side as heavily-muscled legs carried him in a wary stance along the circuit. The young Sinian—similarly poised to strike or defend at an instant’s notice—stalked with a thick-bossed, round shield raised beneath his line of sight and his hand-and-a-half blade held overhead: the tip pointed straight up as if plunged into the belly of the sky. From the ring about them began now a deep, primal music, taken up spontaneously by both sides, effectuated by instruments that were swords bashing against shields and the guttural, staccato roars from their bearers. And to this savage ballad the heroes timed their deadly dance.

Birakith was first to strike. Suddenly the longsword rose from its trail in the dirt and was swung toward Astelidus in a wide arc parallel to the ground…its wielder spinning with the weapon into position for his next maneuver; and with this, whether the Baneful had intentionally caused it or not, the slice brought up a cascade of dirt flung straight at his opponent’s face. The follow-up strike was a brutal overhead cut that pummeled the nearly-blinded Sinian even beneath his warding shield, knocking him back a pace on unsteady legs before he could offer any counter.

The shield’s metal boss had taken and deflected that fierce blow—yet for a moment Astelidus’ arm felt totally numb, as if instead his limb had been struck clean and cleaved asunder. Daemon, he’s strong! But there was no time to think further. The crowd roared once longer and louder. Another attack was coming.

This time Birakith crouched low with his swing, attempting to take the foe’s legs off at the knees—and barely did Astelidus’ jump avoid it. The longsword’s tip drew a bloody line on his right leg just above the armored shin. Another overhead cut appeared to be following, so Astelidus raised his shield again in anticipation…only to have it crushed into his face and chest as Birakith feinted, giving up the perceived chop to send his entire bulk, shoulder first, barreling into the Sinian champion instead. The Baneful was not so quick with this move, however, to take Astelidus completely off guard, and rather than crashing to the ground, the young hero pushed off of his assailant, using the force to help spin his body in a half-revolution—then bashed his shield into the enemy’s back as he came about.

Birakith’s partially-checked momentum, aided by the slam from behind, was enough to send the Mardothan sprawling in the dirt…yet he never let go his hilt. As Astelidus sprang to make an end from behind, his opponent rolled to one side and poked the longsword straight at the threat: whereupon Ny wisely checked his lunge to avoid being skewered himself.

“Up, bug!” goaded Astelidus, suddenly remembering his honor. “Up before I squish out the guts beneath your black beetle shell!”

A near-deafening roar issued from the Sinian half of the circle. Defying the pain in his cut leg and still-tingling arm, Astelidus grinned at his prowess and his jest alike. But Birakith the Baneful was not conquered. Already returned to his feet to again initiate the pair’s wary circling, he answered: “You fools are the insects, boy! Flies swarming near an open mouth. Get too close, and in one bite we’ll devour you all!”

Another burst of Mardothan aggression followed that Astelidus found hard to repel, but at some point during the next several exchanges he found a groove and started to exploit the more cumbersome swings of his opponent. More than one of his swift cuts would’ve ended the contest had Birakith’s armor not met and turned them aside. He’s pressing too hard. He’ll wear down before me. Yet that wasn’t how Astelidus wanted this to end. Sinia’s young warriors had their eyes fixed on him. He must do more than feint and counter.

But just then a vicious blow struck Astelidus’ shield, catching it right on the edge and cleaving it down to the boss—and both longsword and buckler were cast uselessly aside. Once more the end seemed at hand. Instantly the Sinian leapt forward with seeking blade…but was foiled again, for as if from thin air a curved knife appeared in the Mardothan’s hand. Birakith dodged the thrust and slipped into stabbing range, whereupon the two men gripped one another and began to grapple for control. Not again! Astelidus recalled the sand elf’s earlier attack even as he desperately fought to avert another sting—until his thoughts were jarred by a hard butt to the head.

The beatings of sword on shield and roaring ceased as Birakith’s knife struck out toward the dazed Sinian’s midsection, and likely every man observing this held his breath. But then something unexpected happened. Instead of promptly crumpling over and spitting up his death blood (as it seemed certain he would), in a fluid series of motions Astelidus swatted the knife aside, reached behind the Mardothan’s head, pulled back on the crested helm, slammed his sword’s hilt up into Birakith’s nose, let the enemy’s then-limp body drop, and stepped back into a ready stance with blade raised high.

The fighting men of Sinia released their breaths. Their new champion’s glory was secure.

Suddenly Astelidus glared at the jet-plated figures and fancied their black armor leaking a thick crimson blood. From somewhere behind them a coward’s arrow shrieked forth and grazed his arm—yet he hardly felt it at all. Bloodlust had taken hold. With an animalistic cry, he leveled his blade at the Mardothans and charged.

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