Home > Malice (The Faithful and the Fallen #1)(6)

Malice (The Faithful and the Fallen #1)(6)
John Gwynne

Moving on again, Corban led them back to the roped-off ring where the sword-crossing was to take place. There was quite a crowd gathered now, all watching Tull, first-sword of the King.

The boys climbed a boulder at the back of the crowd to see better, made short work of Dath’s slab of cheese and watched as Tull, stripped to the waist, his upper body thick and corded as an old oak, effortlessly swatted his assailant to the ground with a wooden sword. Tull laughed, arms spread wide as his opponent jumped to his feet and ran at him again. Their practice swords clacked as Tull’s attacker rained rapid blows on the King’s champion, causing him to step backwards.

‘See,’ said Corban, elbowing his friend and spitting crumbs of cheese, ‘he’s in trouble now.’ But, as they watched, Tull quickly sidestepped, belying his size, and struck his off-balance opponent across the back of the knees, sending him sprawling on his face in the churned ground. Tull put a foot on the man’s back and punched the air. The crowd clapped and cheered as the fallen warrior writhed in the mud, pinned by Tull’s heavy boot.

After a few moments the old warrior stepped away, offered the fallen man his hand, only to have it slapped away as the warrior tried to rise on his own and slipped in the mud.

Tull shrugged and smiled, walking towards the rope boundary. The beaten warrior fixed his eyes on Tull’s back and suddenly ran at the old warrior. Something must have warned Tull, for he turned and blocked an overhead blow that would have cracked his skull. He set his legs and dipped his head as the attacking warrior’s momentum carried him forwards. There was a crunch as his face collided with Tull’s head, blood spurting from the man’s nose. Tull’s knee crashed into the man’s stomach and he collapsed to the ground.

Tull stood over him a moment, nostrils flaring, then he pushed his hand through long, grey-streaked hair, wiping the other man’s blood from his forehead. The crowd erupted in cheers.

‘He’s new here,’ said Corban, pointing at the warrior lying senseless in the mud. ‘I saw him arrive only a few nights ago.’

‘Not off to a good start, is he?’ chuckled Dath.

‘He’s lucky the swords were made of wood, there’s others have challenged Tull that haven’t got back up.’

‘Doesn’t look like he’s getting up any time soon,’ pointed out Dath, waving his hand at the warrior lying in the mud.

‘But he will.’

Dath glanced at Corban and suddenly lunged at him, knocking him off the rock they were sitting on. He snatched up his new practice sword and stood over Corban, imitating the scene they had just witnessed. Corban rolled away and climbed to his feet, edging slowly around Dath until he reached his own wooden sword.

‘So, you wish to challenge the mighty Tull,’ said Dath, pointing his sword at his friend. Corban laughed and ran at him, swinging a wild blow. For a while they hammered back and forth, taunting each other between frenzied bursts of energy.

Passers-by smiled at the two boys.

After a particularly furious flurry of blows Dath ended up on his back, Corban’s sword hovering over his chest.

‘Do – you – yield?’ asked Corban between ragged breaths.

‘Never,’ cried Dath and kicked at Corban’s ankles, knocking him onto his back.

They both lay there, gazing at the clear blue sky above, too weak with their exertions and laughter to rise, when suddenly, startling them, a voice spoke.

‘Well, what have we here, two hogs rutting in the mud?’

CHAPTER TWO

VERADIS

Veradis shifted in his saddle, trying to ease his aching muscles. He prided himself on being a good rider, smiled as he remembered his sixteenth nameday and his warrior trial, where he had become a man. He had executed a near-perfect running mount in front of his father’s gathered warband, all those days of youth and practice summed up in one moment, and although over two years had passed, he could still recall every detail: how he had clicked the grey stallion into a trot when his turn had arrived, run alongside it, his shield gripped in his left hand. The sound of hooves thudding on the ground, merging with the beating of his heart. Time had seemed to stand still as he grasped a handful of mane and launched himself from the ground, landing perfectly in the saddle in one fluid move. He remembered tears streaming from his eyes, the soaring sense of elation as dimly he heard the roaring of his father’s warband shouting their approval, clashing spears on shields. Even his father, Lamar, Baron of Ripa, had risen to his feet and cheered him.

He leaned forward and scratched his knee, the worn leather strips of his kilt plastered to his leg. Absently he patted the neck of the grey he was riding, a gift from his brother Krelis after his Long Night. Then he grimaced, shifting his weight again. Twelve nights straight in the saddle would test anyone, no matter how accomplished a horseman they were.

‘Sore arse, little brother?’ he heard a voice say behind him.

‘Aye. A little.’

Krelis urged his horse forward so that they rode side by side. ‘You’ll get used to it,’ he said, his black beard splitting in a smile. ‘Anyway, I’d wager your pains are nothing compared to his.’ He gestured with his thumb over his shoulder. ‘The only thing he’s ever ridden before is a ship’s deck.’

Veradis twisted in his saddle to look at the prisoner they were escorting to Jerolin. Iron rings in the man’s beard clinked gently with the rhythm of their pace as he looked straight ahead, blue eyes like chips of ice in his weathered face. He was covered in a lattice of scars, Veradis’ eyes drawn to the man’s nose, or what was left of it, its tip missing. Although his hands were bound behind his back, half a dozen warriors from Krelis’ warband still encircled the prisoner.

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