by K. D. Julicher
I knew the boy was going to be trouble the moment he walked into the tavern. He glared about, his hand on his sword’s hilt. “All right, where’s the joker who sent me on that fool’s errand?” he demanded.
The other patrons erupted in laughter and deep inside me, my bear growled. I eyed the boy from my table in the corner. He wasn’t from around here, not with that accent. His tunic hadn’t been washed in weeks and he’d patched the rips himself, from the look of it, but the cut said he’d paid good money for them once.
“Fool’s errand?” Wil drawled. He set down his mug and turned away from the bar. “What, you didn’t find what you were looking for?” His mocking voice grated on me like it did when he’d comment on my limp.
The boy’s eyes narrowed. Though as tall as most of the men in the room, he gave off a gawky air. If he picked a fight with Wil he was going to get a beating. My bear was restless but I wasn’t in the mood to see a fight. It was time to leave. You’re never in the mood for a fight any more, the bear whispered.
The boy folded his arms. “I asked where I could find Prince Garadon and you pointed me right off a cliff.”
I stiffened and turned away. Someone snooping around after the prince could mean trouble. Yes, trouble, the bear whispered gleefully. Something, anything to wake you up.
It’s nothing to do with me, I told the bear. Not anymore.
“Aye.” Wil drank again. “Paul, another! So did you find him?”
I glanced at the boy. He scowled. “After I climbed down the cliff, I found the graves.”
“Oh good, then you did find the prince.” Wil shrugged. I couldn’t see his face but he must have been wearing that mocking grin, the one that always reminded me of my father. He picked up the fresh mug of beer. “Him and most of his men.”
The boy shook his head, his scowl unchanged. He took another step into the room. “Impossible.”
Wil got up from the bar, carrying the beer, and walked over to the boy. He clapped him on the shoulder and thrust the mug on him. Wil was taller than the boy and being the town blacksmith he had shoulders to match. He drew the boy over to the bar. “Why are you looking for an Aradori princeling, anyway?” Wil asked. “You’re Theis like us.”
“I’m his squire,” the boy said.
Despite myself I turned to look. Wil seemed surprised. I studied the boy. I’d have sworn he was telling the truth, with that earnest look about him. But of course what he claimed was impossible. “Who are you?” Wil asked, echoing my own thoughts.
“Alan of Theianbridge.”
Now that was interesting. Theianbridge was a good hundred miles upriver. Father had spoken of the city many times, his words almost enough to make me want to visit, back when I still wanted things.
The bear snorted. Squire? What squire?
Hush, and maybe we’ll learn, I replied.
“And why would an Aradori princeling have a Theis squire?” Wil was saying.
The boy drew himself up. “My business is my own. I’m here to find my master. I went to the main Aradori army first, and they said the prince and his men left six months ago, heading this way along the coast. I’ve been chasing rumors ever since.”
“They were here,” Wil said, nodding. “First we knew about them was when they bought a couple boats from the fishing fleet. They planned to sail east along the coast, back to their homeland. Day they left, a big storm blew in. We pulled bodies out of the surf for a week.” Alan was shaking his head as Wil finished. “So you’d better just head back upriver.”
Alan dropped the mug on the bar. “That’s impossible.” In a more subdued voice he said, “Are you sure the prince drowned?”
“We buried him. Davik there helped. He can tell you.” Wil gestured, and Alan turned toward me. Damn, I should have left when the boy first came in.
Alan walked over to me. “You’re Aradori! You survived. Maybe he did too.”
“Garadon is dead,” I muttered. “I washed up on shore with the rest of the corpses.”
“No.” Alan shook his head. He was even younger than I’d thought. He wore the peach-fuzz mustache every boy tries to grow when he’s that age. “Garadon is a bear warrior.”
“So?” I said. “The bear doesn’t let you breathe water or swim through waves taller than your ship’s mast.” All it did was keep you treading water longer than the rest of your friends. The boy stared at me. I stood.
“You’re leaving?” Alan demanded. “I want to ask — “
“It’s late. Give it up, kid. Leave the dead to the dead.”
“He’s right.” Wil clapped the boy on the shoulder. “Go get a good night’s sleep, boy. Things will look better in the morning. You can put him in my hayloft, Davik, if you’re leaving anyway.” He turned back to the bar.
Alan followed me out into the street. “You work for the blacksmith?” Alan asked. “I saw you earlier, at the forge, but didn’t realize you were one of Garadon’s men.”
“Wil lets me stay on.” I made sure the boy saw my limp as we walked. “I’m not quick but I can haul wood and hammer horseshoes.”
“You were injured in the shipwreck?”
“Yes.” Even now my leg ached with every step. I led us around the back of the smithy to the barn and pulled the door open. A pair of chestnut horses leaned out of their stalls and whickered. “Yours?” I asked Alan. They were too good for any of the locals.
“Yes.” A small cart stood just inside the door. Alan pulled back the canvas. The lantern light was dim but I caught a glint of metal inside. Alan took out a blanket and re-covered the cart. “Thanks for letting me sleep here,” he said, as I pointed out the ladder up to the hayloft.
“Thank Wil, not me,” I said as I watched him climb. “Though I bet you’re paying him twice what you should to stay here.”
“He didn’t ask me for money.” Alan turned around at the top of the ladder, frowning. “Should I offer?”
“Don’t worry about it.” I scowled and eyed Alan’s cart. Wil never did anything for free.
“Can you tell me more about Prince Garadon’s death?” Alan asked. He disappeared up into the hayloft. His voice floated back down. “I have to tell Ana something.”
“Who’s Ana?” I asked. I lifted the edge of the canvas cover.
“My cousin. Princess Ana of Theianbridge.”
Whatever was in the cart glinted golden. I looked back at the ladder to the hayloft. “Why does she care about Garadon? We weren’t planning to go that far north.” I’d hoped to make it back east before winter. We’d seen enough of the idiotic campaign the king was waging out on the border, Aradori blood spilled to conquer lands hundreds of miles from our own.
“They were betrothed,” Alan said.
I blinked. “What?” My bear made a confused noise in my head.
“It was in the treaty we signed four months ago. After the prince left the front, I suppose,” Alan said. “Ana’s father, King Robert, wanted to cement the alliance between Theianbridge and the Aradori. They betrothed Ana and made me his squire, all by proxy of course. Your king loved the bargain.”
I snorted. That sounded like him. “Of course he did. Conquest by any means necessary, that’s his dream.” Never my dream. Schemes I was glad to be done with.
I reached a hand into the cart and touched cold metal. I grasped it and drew my hand out. My breath caught. It was a helmet, covered in gold. I ripped back the canvas. A thrice-damned suit of armor, with enough gold leaf to make every man in this town rich. It looked like the sort of thing my father would wear. “What the hells is this?”
“Lady Ana sent it.” Alan looked over the edge of the hayloft. “A gift for her betrothed. The finest rune-armor our smiths could make.”
I could see the runes now. They were worked in gold, too, hidden by the decorations. “What a stupid gift,” I said. “Saddle him down with a lot of heavy metal that’s going to attract every cutthroat for two hundred miles? Don’t you people know anything about bear warriors? We can’t use rune-armor.” I tossed the helmet down in disgust and covered up the rest of the cart.
“Oh.” His face fell. “It doesn’t matter, now.” He moved away and didn’t speak again. I heard him lie down, not far from the ladder.
I blew out the lantern and opened the stable door. Nothing moved in the shadows beyond. I heard singing from the pub. I limped outside and shut the door behind me. For a moment I considered going home to my shack, but something about this setup smelled. The kid had enough trouble without the likes of Wil bothering him.
I sat on the bench beside the water barrel. “Keep watch,” I told my bear, and closed my eyes.
Waves crashed over me, but I’d been soaked to the bone for days. Something rough brushed up against my feet. I kicked the shark, telling it I was still alive, telling it to find easier prey. Three men still clung to the mast with me. “Hang on,” I told them. “Just hang on.”
“There’s no point,” Radik said feebly. “We’ll never make it. We should just give up now.”
I wanted to give up. Wanted to let my grip slack and to slip beneath the waves. I pulled myself a little higher on the mast. Inside me, the bear urged me to stay alive. We can’t give up, it whispered.
I jerked awake, my eyes adjusting to the darkness. Someone comes, the bear told me. Several men. Drunk.
I let the bear’s power sharpen my senses. Yes. Three or four men, stumbling toward us. I could smell the beer they’d been drinking, the horse droppings one had stepped in, the faint reek of charcoal that always clung to Wil. I didn’t move.
“Just grab the cart,” Wil hissed. His knife whispered as he drew it from the scabbard. I could smell the oil on it. “When the boy comes down, I’ll deal with him.”
“Not very hospitable of you,” I said.
They started. Two of the drunks stumbled into each other. Wil peered at me. “Davik?” he asked. “Is that you? Why are you here?”
I stood up, keeping the stable wall at my back. “My leg was bothering me, so I thought I’d rest. You fellows woke me up with all the noise you were making.” Inside the barn, one of the horses whinnied. I heard a board creak. Good, Alan must be awake. “Just go home,” I said.
“He’s got gold,” Wil said. “Lots of gold. Enough to make us all rich. I’ll give you a share.”
“Are you always this stupid or does the beer help?” I asked. “He’s a nobleman, from upriver. You can’t kill him and get away with it. They’ll burn down the whole village in repayment.”
“We’ll tell them he was never here.” Wil licked his lips. “Don’t be a fool, Davik. We’ll go through you first if we have to. You’re unarmed and a cripple. You’re just going to get hurt.”
I sighed and stepped in front of the door. “Don’t do something we’re both going to regret in the morning, Wil.” Months of peace and quiet, and now it was going to end over a worthless suit of golden armor.
He eyed me. I could see his muscles tense. “Get him!” he said, and they were on me.
The bear roared. Its power rushed into my limbs, gave me strength and speed. Wil started to swing his knife and I grabbed his wrist. His eyes widened. I twisted, and he screamed and dropped the knife. His friends pummeled me from both sides but with the bear in me, I barely felt their fists. Wil clawed at my face with his other hand, so I brought my knee up into his stomach and sent him to the ground.
My heart raced. The bear’s feelings infected me; the joy of combat rushed through my blood. I grabbed the two hitting me by their necks and smashed their heads together. They dropped into the mud in front of me.
The last man had a knife, too. He eyed me warily. For a moment I thought he was going to run. Then, from the ground, Wil seized my ankle and pulled hard. I went to one knee. The knife man rushed me. I scooped up Wil’s knife from where he’d dropped it and stabbed upward. The man’s knife grazed my cheek and mine sank into his gut. He dropped, groaning.
I scrambled up and kicked Wil, hard. He grunted and lay still. “Alan!” I called. “Get the cart. You can’t stay here.” Nor could I, not now. I’d have to find another backwater to bury myself in.
Alan opened the stable door behind me. He had a sword clutched in his hands and he was trembling. “I should have done something,” he said, staring at the prone men. The one I’d stabbed was moaning, clutching his stomach. There was blood everywhere. Good. He’d die fast, of blood loss. Not slow and screaming. Belly wounds were a bad death. “I didn’t know what to do,” Alan said again.
I took the sword away from him. “Let’s go,” I said.
“How did you do that?” Alan asked, hitching his horses up to the cart as I hauled the unconscious men out of our way. “You’re a cripple.”
“Don’t need my leg much in that sort of fighting,” I said. It hadn’t so much as twinged since the start of the fight.
You know if you’d let me, I could heal that leg faster than you can blink, my bear muttered. I ignored it and threw open the other door. Alan climbed into the seat and urged the horses forward. As he passed me, I grabbed on and swung myself up next to him.
He stared at me, eyes wide. The moon cast shadows on his face, making him look even younger. “What are you doing?”
“Coming with you,” I said. I pointed at Wil and friends. “There’s one who’ll be dead by morning and three who’ll be aching for revenge. Doubt I’ll be welcome around here anymore. You owe me a debt and I intend to collect.”
We were three days north of Karls Fork, and there’d been no sign of pursuit. I helped Alan make camp each night, and he shared his food willingly enough. The first two days he’d tried to ask me questions about Prince Garadon and the shipwreck. Today he’d kept silent.
After supper, he pulled back the canvas and lifted the ornate breastplate out of the back of the cart. He slipped it on over his tunic. I laughed as he tried to fasten it himself. “Even if you could reach the straps, it’s not sized to you,” I said from my seat on a fallen log.
“I’ve worn armor before,” he puffed. He tried bending his elbow the wrong way around, which worked about as well as you’d think.
“What are you trying to do?” I asked.
“I’ve wasted months looking for Prince Garadon.” He abandoned the straps and grabbed the greaves from the cart. “I need to get back to practicing now, though.”
“Swordfighting, of course.” Alan strapped the greaves to his legs. He picked up his sword and swung it like a farmer wielding a scythe. I choked. “What’s so funny?” he demanded.
“You’re well-born. Didn’t anyone ever teach you to use a sword?”
He glared at me before ripping the breastplate off. “I had a teacher. I’m just out of practice.” He took a deep breath and went through the first sword drill. His form left openings big enough to drive a cart through.
Is this what you’re reduced to? the bear asked. Mocking someone who still has a warrior spirit?
“You’re very intent,” I said, watching him. “Why?”
“I need to be ready to fight by midsummer.” His face was red, his words clipped. “Ana needs me.”
“Ana’s your cousin, the one betrothed to Garadon?”
“We heard the rumors that he was dead, three months ago, but she wouldn’t believe them. Ana’s father is sick. Dying, probably. And my brother John wants to be king. He tried to force Ana to marry him. She stalled. Said Garadon might not be dead. The wedding is supposed to be at midsummer. John persuaded the other lords that if Garadon didn’t arrive, Ana should marry him.”
Midsummer was three weeks off. He could be in Theianbridge by then, certainly, but… “I still don’t understand why you need to be in fighting shape?”
“Ana said if she must marry, she’ll marry whoever wins the wedding tournament.” Alan must have seen my confused look. “It’s a Theis custom. There’s always a tournament at important weddings. Once or twice, a bride’s lover has challenged her betrothed. So it’s not that far out of custom. John agreed, of course. But he doesn’t expect anyone to actually face him. Ana sent me to search for Prince Garadon. She hoped the rumors were wrong. She hoped he wasn’t dead.”
I watched Alan attack the air a few more times. He changed his stance and slashed sideways. I shook my head. “Tell me you’re not planning what I think.”
“I’m going to challenge my brother.” Alan puffed mightily as he swung. “There, I’m getting the hang of it.”
“Why not just let him marry the princess? She needs a husband, he wants to be king. Seems like it’ll work out fine,” I said.
“My brother is barely a passable earl. He’ll make a dreadful king. A generation ago we didn’t even have a king. Just a bunch of squabbling lords. Theianbridge was sacked three times in forty years because none of the other Theis lords would send men to her defense. Then the Aradori arrived, and King Robert — he was just lord of Theianbridge then — allied with them.” Alan kept up a steady rhythm of swings. “That’s when we made Robert our king. I guess he shoved it down their throats. More or less said ‘you can bow to me, or you can bow to this bunch of savage berkserkers from the east, but you’ll bow’.” He turned to me, his ears pink. “Ah. Sorry. I didn’t mean…”
“No, no, we’re savage berserkers,” I agreed. “It’s a good reputation to have when you’re trying to conquer a continent.”
“Without a strong man as king, we’ll fall apart again. John’s not the man to rule. Ana knows it. I know it.”
“And you’re the right man?” I asked.
“I’m not going to marry her.” He looked away. “I just want to give her a chance to find a better man.”
I stood up and looked around in the brush just beyond our camp. “What are you doing?” Alan asked.
“Here.” I tossed him a long stick. He caught it clumsily. I found another for myself. “Put down the sword before you put your eye out.”
He eyed me warily. “You’re going to help me?”
“No, I’m going to show you how stupid you’re being.” I flicked my wrist and struck his ribs with my stick.
“Defend yourself then.” I struck him again, on the shoulder this time. Then on the leg. Then the ribs again. He flailed about with his stick, not even close to blocking me. I thumped him a few more times. “There. If this was a sword, you’d be dead five times already,” I said.
He scowled at me. “Don’t stop. I was almost getting the hang of it.”
I sighed and hit him again. And again. And again — but this time he got his arm up and my stick landed on his wrist. “There!” he said happily.
“Yes. This time, I took off your hand instead of your head.”
“Again,” he said, squaring his shoulders.
“I can do this all night.”
“So can I.” He stuck out his jaw. “I only have three weeks. You know how to fight. Teach me.”
“Why should I?”
He frowned. “I can reward you.”
I didn’t want any reward, but something about his naiveté tugged at me. I remembered being like that. Perhaps I could find a way to make him see reason before his idealism was so painfully stripped away. The world didn’t need another washed up cynic. I circled him. My bear was very near the surface, eager for the chance to act. I didn’t need the bear to teach the boy a thing or two. But damn, it felt good to have a weapon in my hand again. Even just a broken stick. You see? the bear asked. You can take the Aradori out of the fight, but you can’t take the fight out of the Aradori.
“First,” I said. “You need to learn how to hold a sword properly.”
It took us three weeks to reach Theianbridge. Every morning I resolved to leave. Every evening Alan picked up his sword and asked for another beating. Every night after our practice, I wanted to tell Alan to give up. He’d never be ready in time. But his eagerness, the way he picked himself back up each time I knocked him down, stopped me.
It was evening when we arrived at the inn on the outskirts of Theianbridge.“We’ll lay low here and send word to Ana,” Alan said. “I need to let her know we’re here.”
“And tell her what?” I followed Alan across the yard, favoring my leg. The nightly practice sessions made my calf ache. Alan had improved. At least now he knew how to hold a sword without dropping it.
“I’ll figure that out when I see her.” A muscle in his jaw clenched. “Then if you and the smith will help, we can get the armor sized to me. I just hope we have long enough.”
“All right. Go on and see your cousin. I’ll get this armor to a smith. Come find me when you’re done.”
Alan clapped me on the back. “Thanks, Davik. I swear you’ll be rewarded, one way or another.” He hurried out the door.
I found a smith just down the street and offered to trade him an afternoon’s labor in exchange for his help with the armor fitting. A few hours later, I looked up from sweeping. Evening sun sloped in through the open smithy door. Someone was approaching, but it didn’t sound like Alan or the smith. Too light for either of them.
A trim girl stepped through the door. “You’re Alan’s friend?” she asked. She had light brown hair hanging in a pair of braids and wore a linen dress, well-cut and neatly stitched.
“Yes,” I said. “Where’s Alan?”
She glanced from me to where the armor lay on the anvil. “He really was planning to enter.” She shook her head. “Idiot.”
I shrugged. “Can’t argue with that.”
The girl looked me over. She wasn’t as young as I’d first thought. Probably nearly twenty. Her grey eyes were very pretty. “He asked me to find you,” she said. “He’s been injured.”
“What? How?” I set aside my broom. “Where?”
“It’s probably best if you just stay away,” the girl said. “You’ve done enough for him.”
“Take me to him,” I said.
Alan stared up at me. “They jumped me,” he mumbled through swollen lips. “Three of them.”
“And John was sitting in the king’s chambers the whole time,” the girl said. She looked disgusted. “He’ll deny knowing anything about it.”
“My arm,” Alan moaned. “They broke my sword arm.”
“And a few ribs from the sound of you,” I said. Both his eyes were black. There was a purpling bruise on his cheek, and every time he breathed he winced. All my training had done was get him a beating.
“I failed.” He shook his head and groaned. “I failed. I’m sorry, Ana.”
“Don’t be.” The girl laid her hand on his forehead. “You tried. Nobody else did that much.” She looked away from him, toward me. Tears glistened in her eyes.
“You’re the princess?” I said. She didn’t look like one. The stubborn set of her jaw reminded me of my mother.
Alan crooked a finger at me. “Davik. You could take her away. Hide her.”
“That won’t do any good.” Ana shook her head. “I can’t escape my fate by running from it. No. I made my pledge. Maybe John will make a better king than we expect.”
Alan made a noise that started as a laugh and turned into a groan. “Do you really think there’s any chance of that?”
“What made you think Garadon would be any better?” I asked her.
Our eyes met briefly. She looked away. “I never met him but I told myself the son of a conqueror would know how to keep Father’s kingdom together. I had hoped . . . I was a fool.” Ana stood up. “I need to go. Father will miss me.” She hurried out of the room.
I knew the look in her eyes. A quiet despair. I’d seen it on my friends’ faces, as they clung to their scraps of wreckage, as they lost strength and one by one slipped into the sea. She’d been clinging to hope for so long, she didn’t know how to give up on it. Even though the waves were crashing over her and her soaked clothing pulled her down and she could feel the sharks brushing against her legs.
Alan stared at the ceiling. “Why did you bother teaching me, Davik? I’m pathetic. They took my sword away from me and beat me with it.”
“We didn’t have enough time. You’ll be a great warrior someday.” You had to know when you were beaten. He needed to learn that or he’d just get hurt again.
“I’m worthless. I wanted to do something great. It wasn’t just about Ana you know. John’s always been better than me.” Alan’s voice wavered. “I was so excited to squire for Prince Garadon. A chance for me to prove myself to someone who didn’t know my brother, didn’t judge me by him.”
“Is John a good fighter?” I asked.
“The best. I don’t see why he had his men attack me. He’d have beaten me tomorrow anyway.” Alan closed his eyes. “And I thought… well, I never met Prince Garadon. But I was his squire anyway. A squire is supposed to protect his master’s interests. Seemed like I shouldn’t let someone else steal his bride without even trying to stop it.”
I stared down at Alan. The bruises made him look older. Less like a boy. He has a warrior’s heart, my bear said. So does the girl.
Neither of them knew how to give up. The circling sharks smelled blood, but they still clung to the wreckage. I couldn’t just watch them go down.
“Rest,” I said. “You need your strength.”
“For the tournament.” I went to the door. “You should be there. Even if you have to get someone to carry you.”
The thrice-damned runes took all night to remove. Every time I thought I had the last of them, I spotted another. I could have just scraped off all the gold leaf, but I wanted the armor to look preposterous. Because in the crowd’s eyes, flashy meant powerful. I finished around dawn and went to find something to eat and a bucket of water to wash in. It felt good to have worked up a real sweat.
I should never have laughed at Alan; you really do feel like a fool trying to put armor on by yourself. I got the smith to help me. I took the sword that went with the armor. My own was at the bottom of the sea. Mounting up wasn’t bad. I wasn’t used to armor this awkward. Give me good chain mail any day. But Alan’s horse cooperated. Clearly she was trained for riding, not hauling a cart, and didn’t object to her new, blank livery. She answered my lightest touch.
The sun was high in the sky by the time I got to the tournament ground. I’d heard the Theis went in for elaborate tournaments, but I’d never seen one of their amphitheaters before. The arena, just outside town, had stone walls twenty feet high. I could hear the thrum of the crowd from the street.
Two armed men lounged near the back entrance. They straightened up as I dismounted. “Good, I didn’t think there’d be anyone to take my horse,” I said. “Glad to see you on the job.”
The taller of the two cracked his knuckles while his comrade drew a sword. “We’re not here to take your horse, we’re here to keep anyone from causing trouble.”
“Trouble? I thought the princess’s challenge was for anyone who cared to enter.”
“It is. But nobody except our master cares to enter.” The tall man drew his sword too. “Now will you go or shall we break both your legs?”
I hoped these were the thugs who had attacked Alan. “Come, you’re wasting my time.” I beckoned to them and called my bear. It came roaring to meet me.
I stepped out onto the floor of the arena. The stands erupted in cheers as I strode toward the center of the ring. There I stopped and turned slowly, taking it in. There must be ten thousand people here. I hadn’t seen so many since the day I left my father’s army behind me and headed back east. And they were all cheering. Their shouts filled my ears and warmed my blood.
“Who are you?” someone shouted. “Why are you here?”
There she was, right in front. I called the bear, who answered with power and a murmur of laughter. My eyes sharpened. Lady Ana sat on a throne, her hands clasped together, between a blotchy-faced fat man wearing a crown and a narrow-eyed younger man. She leaned forward in her seat, looking at me, hope on her face. She must recognize the armor. She must be wondering what it meant. Near her, Alan sat propped up on a litter. His eyes were wide, his mouth wider. He knew the armor, all right.
Ana turned to the younger man beside her, who wore armor and a scowl. She said something to him. The man shook his head and turned away. That had to be John. “Are you a coward?” I called up to him.
He stood up, glaring at me. He wore his armor like a fighter. Leaning out on the rail, he shouted down, “Who are you?”
“Someone who doesn’t like bullies. Who are you?”
“I am the Earl of Vindersham, you fool,” he snarled.
I stood with my back straight, legs apart, shoulders square. “I challenge you, Earl Vindersham, in front of all these people. Come down here and fight me, or admit yourself a coward and go home!”
His face red, he spat, “You’ll wish you hadn’t crossed me. Someone bring me my sword!”
The crowd went wild.
We faced each other and the crowd cheered. The sun had started down from its peak. I held myself loose. Vindersham lowered his faceplate. I called the bear and it leapt to meet me.
Our swords met, and his strength matched mine. With the rune armor, he could go head-to-head with my bear. We struck at each other, swords clanging as we trod the grass to mud.
After a while, we broke apart. Attendants brought water. Vindersham studied me as we drank. Let him look; my face would tell him nothing. “Why did you challenge me?” he asked, handing his water back. “You’re the Aradori lout my brother brought back with him. But he said you were a cripple.”
“Did he.” My leg wasn’t even twinging. I told you I’d fix it if you gave me a chance, my bear said smugly. “I challenged because you are a coward who had his own brother beaten for standing up to him.” I lowered my own visor and picked my sword back up.
The sun was low in the sky when we paused again. The crowd had stopped cheering. They sat silent, expectant. We were well matched. Too well matched. I hadn’t expected Vindersham to be able to counter my bear. I could hear my father now, scoffing at the idea of Theis warriors being any match for Aradori. Father was an idiot. Always had been. What was the point of allying with the Theis if they had nothing to offer us?
“Give up now,” Vindersham panted. “I’ll make it worth your while. You can’t win, and even if you did, you won’t get Ana. Her father will put a stop to it.”
I laughed. “This isn’t about your princess.” Her drowning look still haunted me. Whatever happened here, I wanted to give her a chance. “This is between you and me.”
“No need for us to be enemies. My men were overenthusiastic. I’ve already punished them. Why do you care what happens to the boy?”
“Because he’s my squire,” I said, and attacked again.
Vindersham kept his guard up as night fell. They brought out torches to light the field. We fought, slower than before. Both of us were worn down, drawing on our reserves. I didn’t know how long a good set of rune-armor could last, but my bear was near its limit. I pressed Vindersham. He surged back, smashing his sword into the side of my helmet. “Don’t you know when you’re defeated?” he panted.
No. I didn’t. I’d never learned how to give up. Even draped over a mast with the sharks at my heels, even as all my friends and followers drowned, even as I was powerless to save them. I hadn’t been able to give up.
I’d almost managed, after I washed up on shore. With my men dead and my life gone, I’d had nothing to live for. But I hadn’t quite been able to stop breathing. And then Alan had come and shaken me out of my slumber. Now here I was, fighting a man whose skill was equal to mine. Who hadn’t spent the last six months letting his muscles turn to fat. Six months ago I could have beaten him easily. Today, I should give up and lie down. But I couldn’t.
I raised my sword and thrust. He sidestepped and tottered, off-balance, giving me the opening I needed. I swung and caught him under the arm. I felt his armor give. I stepped in and smashed my sabaton against his leg, sent him staggering back. I slammed my gauntlets down on his helmet and Vindersham crashed to the ground. I stood panting, staring down. The torchlight flickered across his armor. I bent and pulled off his helmet. His eyes were closed. Knocked out cold. I wasn’t much better off myself.
They were cheering, they were all cheering. I didn’t have the strength to salute. Where was the damned bear now? I needed to leave before someone caught me and made me answer questions. I called for the bear and it didn’t answer. My legs buckled and I collapsed to my knees, exhausted.
And it was too late. They came spilling down onto the field, well-dressed men and well-armed men and Lady Ana, wearing gray silk and moving through the crowd like a swan through water. “Halt,” she told the men with her, and approached me alone. She stared down at me. I couldn’t read her expression at all. Resignation, despair? Or was she still clinging to hope? It was such a treacherous companion. As bad as the bear. It kept you from drowning yourself and then left you when you most needed it.
“Rise, my lord and husband,” she said, extending her hand to me.
How could I take her hand? What did I have to offer? Stop waiting to die, the bear whispered. Start living again.
Alan hobbled onto the field, followed by what seemed like half the crowd. Now what?
I had come to give them a show. I might as well make it a good one. I called the bear again and this time it answered. I got to my feet. Lady Ana stared up at me. “I know your armor. Now let me see your face.”
I took off my helmet and gave it to her. “Thank you for your gift,” I said.
Alan gaped at me. “Davik?”
I could see the hope in Ana’s eyes. And the fear. She didn’t know anything about me, but she’d just called me her husband in front of her entire city. Her courage was like a roaring fire, warming life back into me. Alan wasn’t the only one who needed me after all. “Who are you, really?” she asked.
“I am Garadon,” I said, and the bear roared. “Prince of the Aradori.”
“Garadon.” Ana’s eyes widened. “Then you will keep the agreement that my father drew up with yours? To wed me and unite our peoples?”
I could hear the intake of breath, like a gasp, from the crowd. I let them wait for ten heartbeats. Twenty. My last chance to run and drown myself in the crowd. “No,” I said, and Ana’s face fell and the crowd’s sigh swept past me. “No, Lady Ana, I will not be bound by my father’s word.” Ana opened her mouth, but I didn’t let her speak. “I will be bound by yours. I do not come as a prince of the conquerers, but as the man who answered your challenge.” I stood straight. I didn’t have to favor my leg any more. “If you’ll marry me, then I am your husband.”
“My husband,” she breathed. She held out a hand.
“My wife.” I leaned over and kissed her hand. “Thank you for throwing me a life-line.” She looked confused. “When you sent Alan.” Her smile brightened again.
The crowd cheered. I looked up and Alan was staring at me. “As soon as that arm’s healed, I’m teaching you how to win an unfair fight,” I said. “I can’t have my squire beaten up every time some lowlife decides to send me a message.”
A slow smile spread across Alan’s face. “Yes, sir!” he said.
Copyright © 2014 K.D. Julicher
K.D. Julicher is the first place winner of the 2014 Baen Fantasy Adventure Award, announced at GenCon, the premiere gaming convention, in August. The award goes to the best piece of original short fiction that captures the spirit and tradition of such great storytellers as Larry Correia, Robert E. Howard, Mercedes Lackey, Elizabeth Moon, Andre Norton, J.R.R. Tolkien and David Weber. More information on the contest can be found here.