15th of Pargan, Cycle 1000 Post Sundering
Aerion ducked under a blow and brought his shield around to block another. Aerion’s face was drawn in concentration. His opponent struck again, faster than he had expected and far faster than he could react, and the blow caught him painfully in the left arm. His wooden practice blade spun out of his numb arm, his fingers unable to hold its weight.
Aerion took several steps back and held up a hand, “Alright, enough, I yield!”
“So quickly, then, Swordbreaker? You may one day find yourself fighting without a blade, perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to practice that,” Simonel Greeneye said with a smile as he lowered his own practice weapon. The other man didn’t use a shield or another weapon in his off hand, instead he wielded the long blade ambidextrously and sometimes with two hands. Of course, his ‘practice blade’ was almost as ornate as his actual sword, what Aerion had heard called Mede Khmali. Simonel was tall for a Wold, a bit taller than Aerion’s own six feet of height, lean and muscular. His long, raven black hair normally hung free, though for their sparring session he had it braided, while his reddish bronze skin had a light sheen of sweat.
Aerion, on the other hand, was well aware that his blonde hair, pulled back into a tail for the sparring session, had come loose and was sodden with sweat. His skin and clothing were both drenched as well, and he caught a whiff of himself, a mix of rust and oil from his scale mail and sweat from exertion. The tall Wold was disgustingly capable, to the point that Aerion had come to judge his own success not on scoring hits, but upon lasting a few seconds longer in one of their sparring sessions.
It would have been disheartening, yet it seemed that the Wold King was just as effective against his own people, some of whom had not just decades or centuries but thousands of cycles of experience. As if to punctuate that thought, Aerion felt a hand clap his shoulder, and he turned to find another of the Wold. Ceratul smiled at him, “Well fought, young one. If nothing else, your persistence is admirable.”
Aerion flushed a bit, but he gave the other man a smile. Ceratul was the Wold’s Warmaster, their military commander, though, from what he had seen, Simonel took a large part of that authority himself. While Amelia, the other royal guest, had said that Ceratul seemed to dislike non-Wold in general and Starborn in particular, Aerion had found Ceratul to be nothing but friendly.
“Though if we doubted that, our first meeting would have proven your determination,” Ceratul said. Aerion shook his head at the reminder. The long, running fight that had led him to the Eastwood was almost a blur now. He was more amazed at his own survival than anything else, particularly after the fight in the ravine where he had faced a seemingly unending stream of Armen raiders and their Noric allies. Aerion had led them away from Lady Katarina and the rest of his friends, fully expectant that he would not survive, yet the Wold had appeared at the last minute, apparently drawn by the horn he had found in the ruined fortress of Southwatch.
Simonel seemed to notice his discomfort, “Ready to go again?”
Aerion bent to pick up his practice blade. It was new, made by one of the Wold craftsmen, and it was almost exactly the same weight, length and shape as the broken blade he had also found at Southwatch. When Simonel had first offered to spar and Aerion had declined with the excuse that he only had the weapons he carried. The next day, the Wold King had gifted him with the weighted wooden practice blade.
Aerion gave the other man a nod, still somewhat uneasy at the free ways of the Wold. They seemed to hold Simonel with great respect, but their informality still caught him off guard at times. Aerion settled into a defensive stance and waited, his feet set and his weight centered. Simonel gave him a slight smile, “You’ll never win if you fight entirely on the defense, Swordbreaker.”
Aerion felt his face flush at the title. He had told Amelia about the label given to him by his friends, for his knack of breaking every sword he’d ever taken into combat. The only exception was the broken blade he’d retrieved at Southwatch. Since that’s crafted out of star metal and already broken, Aerion thought dryly, that isn’t saying much. Still he hadn’t expected the Boir noblewoman to take such glee in spreading the story.
Yet the amusement that the Wold showed when they used the title was tempered with something like respect, Aerion knew, which embarrassed him all the more. I’m a low-born, commoner, from a remote village, who will never know his father’s name, Aerion thought, somewhat bitterly. He knew he had accomplished much, but he also felt uncertain about the praise, almost as if he took credit for the deeds of someone else.
Simonel gave a war cry and came in. His long practice blade flashed in a sharp, downward arc. Aerion caught the strike with his shield, confident that his own strength could match that of the Wold King. Despite the fact that they were nearly even in height, Aerion had a heavier frame, with muscle gained from cycles of working the forge as a boy and months of combat and training. Simonel backed a bit, “I forget how strong you are, sometimes, Aerion.”
Aerion smiled in return, “Best to play to my strengths.”
“Indeed,” Simonel said with a smile of his own. A moment later, without changing expression, he leapt forward into a lunge. Aerion managed to deflect it with his shield, but Simonel spun into a series of attacks, mixing fast slashes, lunges and blows from his feet and hands that forced Aerion to parry and block more and more desperately, until finally, the Wold King swept Aerion’s feet out from under him to drop Aerion on his back.
Aerion grunted as he forced his lungs to draw breath, “Well fought.”
Simonel offered him a hand and pulled Aerion to his feet. “Well fought, yourself, you’re improving, Aerion.” His voice was warm and reassuring, but Aerion didn’t miss an edge of something else there, almost concern, though he couldn’t guess why.
“I’ll take your word for it,” Aerion said with a snort. “I certainly can’t match your speed and skill.”
“I’m only human, Aerion Swordbreaker,” Simonel said with a frown, “And don’t underestimate your skills, I think you’ve a natural talent, and once you reach your full growth, by Amuz Nebeli, you’ll really be a monster to face.”
“Thanks,” Aerion said, “Though I think I’m done sparring for the day.” Aerion was only eight cycles of age, he knew, but he still towered over many older men and many of the Wold.
“Giving up so soon?” A light voice asked from behind him. Aerion turned to find Lady Amelia Tarken. “I thought the indomitable Swordbreaker would last longer.”
Aerion gave her a quick bow, “Thank you, Lady, but I’m afraid that King Simonel has the advantage.” While she had been friendly and seemed to adopt much of the Wold informality, she was still a Starborn noblewoman and part of Aerion rejected any notion of treating her as anything else. In the outside world, no one would care how he might interact with the Wold, who were almost mythical due to their isolation. However, a low-born commoner showing familiarity to a noblewoman was likely to have very bad things happen as a consequence. While he was unlikely to encounter Lady Amelia in the greater world, she wasn’t the one he was really worried about, he could privately admit.
And it’s a good practice to maintain here, he thought, to better prepare myself for when I rejoin Lady Katarina. Even at that thought he felt his heart ache a bit. He had known all along that he should never dream of friendship, much less the attraction he felt for the exiled heir to the Duchy of Masov. Still, her words at Southwatch had hurt, especially the acknowledgment that she felt that same attraction… and that they could never give into it.
Amelia’s companion cleared her throat and Aerion started a bit, realizing that he had paused longer than was socially acceptable. “Princess Tirianis,” Aerion nodded respectfully.
King Simonel’s sister gave him a wicked smile in return, “So formal, still, young Swordbreaker? We’ll have to break you of that, else the outside world will come to doubt our savage ways and decadent natures.” She was almost as tall as her brother, with the same raven black hair and bright leaf-green eyes, though her skin was a red-gold color somehow softer than Simonel’s. Instead of Simonel’s leather sparring armor, she wore a green dress that clung to her figure in a fashion that would have made him blush and stammer only a few weeks earlier.
Aerion flushed a bit, suddenly reminded of the bathing area where men and women gathered irrespective of sex. It had been an enlightening experience upon his first visit. Combined with the variety of behavior and the odd ways they had tried to make him feel welcome, he could only shake his head and smile, “Don’t worry, Princess Tirianis, I’m sure they won’t believe my tales anyway.”
Here’s the back cover blurb:
Civilization is dying.
The lands of the Five Duchies are in chaos. They are leaderless and each land stands alone. Besieged by barbarians, savages, fell beasts, and infighting, few doubt that the end times are upon them.
Yet all is not lost. In the East, Lady Katarina Emberhill has begun an uprising against the Usurper and those who follow her carry relics from the time of the High Kings. In Boir, Lord Admiral Christoffer Tarken forges alliances and defends his lands. And in the Eastwood, powers that have been silent for eons are stirring and turning their eyes to the outside world.
But the key is the Usurper Duke, a man drawn to savagery and battle. His victories in his personal war against the Armen have swelled the ranks of his army. Who will draw the wrath of the Usurper: will he turn it against his own rebellious people or levy his forces against the threats to all civilized men?
Once again, Wrath of the Usurper will be available tomorrow, 30 May, 2015.