No Innkeeper next Friday – we will be on vacation at the beach.
This was stupid, Maud decided. In fact, this was one of the dumbest things she had seen Arland do, and he was, by no means, a stupid man.
Arland eyed the two Serak knights that stepped forward to join Tellis. Both held themselves with the seasoned confidence of veterans. They had fought before, they had won, and they didn’t find Arland’s presence or his reputation especially intimidating. In a word, they seemed ready, and Maud didn’t like it one bit.
Arland raised his voice. “Are these the only brave knights House Serak has to offer?”
What is he doing?
He looked around, spreading his arms. “Is there no one else?”
Two more knights stood up from their tables on House Kozor’s side, Onda and a grizzled male knight, who looked like he would knock a charging bull out with one punch. Great, just great.
“We are up to five,” Arland said. “Fantastic.”
Maud grabbed her glass and drank.
“The Road Lodge offered me seven, but if five brave souls is the best your two mighty Houses can scrounge, I’ll make do.”
What? The wine went down the wrong way, and she choked.
Four more knights stood up, two from Serak, two from Kozor.
“That’s more like it,” Arland declared.
Nine opponents. He’d gone insane. That was the only explanation.
The weapon racks were being brought onto the lawn. The knights armed themselves. The sharp whine of blood weapons being primed sliced the quiet. Arland hefted his mace. Their stares crossed, and he grinned at her.
“He’s gone mad,” she muttered.
“Nexus,” Otubar said.
She glanced at him. “I don’t follow, my lord.”
“We have advanced quite far from the days when this castle was built,” Ilemina said. “These days the conflicts between Houses are decided in space. The ground battles are precious few. I doubt either Kozor or Serak have ever truly fought in one.”
“Nexus permits no air battles,” Otubar said. “On Nexus, ground is fought and won inch by inch, watered with blood and fertilized with corpses.”
“I knew I would have to send my son to Nexus twenty years ago.” Ilemina smiled. “His father and I did everything we could to make sure he came back alive. This is what he does best. Trust him.”
A young knight ran up to Arland and held out a round shield, about eighteen inches across, made of the same dark alloy as the syn-armor. A half-moon indentation had been cut out on one side, just large enough to trap an arm. A buckler, she realized. Not just a bucker, her buckler. She had shown him the buckler and blade technique during one of their practice sessions at Dina’s Inn. He had asked about Earth sword fighting and she had gone through several different styles with him. At the time, he’d scoffed at the buckler. Vampire shields were obsolete. The syn-armor offered superior protection without encumbering and the only shields still in use were massive and designed to protect the wielder during bombardment. Vampires either dual-wielded or favored enormous two-handed weapons that made the most of their strength and stamina. After she’d stabbed him a couple of times, he had changed his tune.
Arland gripped the buckler with his left hand. The shield whined, priming. Veins of red streaked it, and as he turned the buckler, Maud saw its red tinted edge. It was razor sharp.
Aww. He had a custom shield made based on her buckler.
Tellis, carrying twin blades, laughed. “Are you so poor that you couldn’t afford a proper shield or so stupid that you think that little toy will protect you?”
“All in good time,” Arland said. “Wait, and I’ll show you.”
Ilemina leaned forward, focused on Arland. “A shield. Interesting. But why so small?”
Otubar grimaced. “Because it’s lively.”
The nine vampires spread out, encircling Arland. Suddenly she understood. Because there were nine of them, arranged around him in a rough circle, each knight only had a forty-degree angle to work with. The ideal distance for combat was about the length of your weapon plus a step. If they had stayed at the ideal distance, they would be nearly touching. They needed room to work, so instinctively they backed up, giving themselves space, but now they were so far away from Arland, they might as well announce their attacks before launching them. He had more than enough time to react, and they could only come at him two or three at a time, or they would get in each other’s way.
The knights realized it, too, but there was no time to plan any kind of strategy. The longer they just stood there, the more it looked like they were afraid, and their plan to humiliate Arland was going belly up.
“Today!” Arland bellowed.
An older knight on his left charged, the huge two-handed sword slicing through the air in a vicious arc. Arland dodged. The vampire’s momentum carried him past Arland who smashed his mace into the back of the other man’s helmet. The force of the blow knocked the knight to the ground. He rolled and lay still.
Onda and a blond knight to her right charged at the same time and collided. A leaner red headed knight dashed in at Arland, thrusting his sword. Funny thing about bucklers: held close to the body, they offered very little protection, but when held out at arm’s length, not only did they protect most of you, they also cut your opponent’s view down to nothing. Arland let the blow glance off the buckler, directing it to his right and brought his mace down like a hammer on the knight’s exposed right shoulder. Bone crunched as the armor failed to fully absorb the force of the hit. The red headed vampire dropped his sword, but Arland was already turning to meet Tellis attacking him from behind.
Tellis’ left sword met Arland’s mace, his right glanced off the buckler, leaving Tellis wide open for a fraction of a second, and Arland sank a vicious front kick in his stomach. Tellis stumbled back.
A broad shouldered female knight leaped at Arland from the left, while a tall male knight charged from the right. He stepped back, and the female knight plowed into the male, both collapsing in a heap. Arland smashed the woman’s back with his mace. She screamed and rolled off the knight flailing under her. The knight tried to rise and got a face full of buckler.
Onda smashed her hammer into Arland’s back. He must’ve sensed the blow but with no way to avoid it, he simply hunched his shoulders and took the hit. Onda must have expected him to go down, because she stared at him for half a second. Maud knew from experience that giving Arland half a second was a lethal mistake. He spun around, putting all of his weight behind a horizontal strike. His mace connected with Onda’s ribs. The hit swept her off her feet. It was almost comical – one moment she was there, brandishing her hammer, and the next she was gone, lying somewhere on the grass.
The six knights still standing attacked. Arland worked through his attackers with methodical precision, crushing limbs, smashing bone, ramming his buckler into their joints. They swarmed him, and he broke them one by one, until they could no longer move. It was a cold, controlled rage, harnessed and channeled into carnage.
Finally, only Tellis and Arland remained standing. Arland bled from a cut on his left temple. Gouges and dents marked his armor. The right side of his jaw swelled. Maud feverishly tried to remember all the hits he had taken. There was no way to tell if he was okay or bleeding inside that damn armor.
Tellis was breathing like he had ran a marathon. A bruise darkened his left cheek. The armor over his left forearm had lost integrity, turning dull.
Arland dropped his buckler and attacked. His mace whistled through the air. Tellis blocked, letting the blow glance from his right sword and stabbed with his left. The blade sliced a hair above Arland’s right shoulder. Arland lunged forward and punched Tellis. It was a devastating left cross. Tellis stumbled and Arland brought his mace onto Tellis’ left arm. The groom shied back. Arland swung again and Tellis danced away.
They circled the battle field, Tellis fast and agile, Arland unstoppable like a tank on a rampage.
They made a full circle.
Tellis kept backing up. Arland stalked him, but the other knight never let him get within reach.
Arland stopped and waited. Tellis stopped too.
The lawn was silent.
Arland took a step forward. Tellis took a step back.
Otubar called out, “It’s not a dance. Fight or get off the field.”
Tellis looked at the eight bodies lying on the grass. Some moaned, others simply laid still. His eyes were wide and glassy. Maud had seen that look before. It was the look of someone who had seen his own death. Tellis had forgotten that this wasn’t a real battle field. The urge to survive had taken over. He had nowhere to go. Back was dishonor, forward was Arland, pain, and death. So, like the bodies on the grass, Tellis held still, too.
Arland shrugged his massive shoulders, powered down his mace, turned his back to Tellis, and walked off the field. Maud let out a breath she didn’t know she was holding.
He stopped by the table, beat up and splattered with blood, and looked at her. You could hear a pin drop.
“We didn’t finish our discussion, my lady.”
Oh, she was more than ready to have a discussion. It would feature topics like Why the hell would you let nine knights pummel you? and What were you thinking? If he were bleeding internally, this was the only way for him to make a graceful exit. She had to get him out of here and out of that armor.
Maud rose, aware of every stare. “In that case, my lord, I suggest we retire to your quarters, so we may carry out our debate in private.”
“I’d be delighted.” Arland extended his hand towards the path.
Maud bowed her head to Ilemina and Otubar. “My apologies.”
Ilemina waved at her. “Think nothing of it, my dear.”
Maud started down the path, aware of Arland only a step behind her.
“Ahh, young love,” Ilemina’s voice floated to her. “Where is our medic?”