The Dueling-Pit

He is a half-blood,” Lady Liralian had said of Mendaran, as she faced Lord Takanepi in the halls of Karazran. “An abomination. He should never have been born!”

Mendaran knew he should stop brooding over Liralian’s words – she was just an emotionally-scarred recluse who hated his father – but he kept wondering how many other Ankaykari felt as she did. Worry gnawed at him until he found it hard even to focus on his sword-practice.

The Ankaykari were not a numerous people, but Mendaran hardly knew any of them. He had spent his childhood in the Court of Nezruthar, living in Daramorag or the Citadels of his father’s servants. At the age of sixteen, he went away to study in Sarekordia. Now that he was finally ready to serve the Sovereign, it was time he met the rest of his father’s people.

Mendaran portaled to Karazran and sought out the courtyard where public duels were held. He had been told that the Nayusuru often gathered there to hone their skills and win glory for their courts. The thought of finding someone new to challenge appealed to him. If he was good enough to defeat Carashanza in a sword-fight, perhaps he could also win the respect of others.

A pit lay in the middle of the courtyard, surrounded by a balustrade and lit with torches, while a grand dais overlooked the dueling-ground so that the Sovereign and her Esu vassals could watch the fights. Ornately-carved benches and tables stood in the shadowed corners, sheltered beneath a gallery. When Mendaran arrived the pit was empty and no Esu were present, but several Nayusuru glanced around to look at him. A few even gave him welcoming smiles.

Mendaran’s mood lifted. He was not such an outcast as he had feared.

“Mendaran, why are you here?” asked a whispery voice behind him. Mendaran turned in surprise to see his father’s servant Yephasure emerge from the shadows. She was the most elusive of the Nezrutharans; this was the last place he had expected to find her.

“What are you doing here?” he replied defensively.

“I’ve come to gather the rumors and gossip of the Royal Court. I am always listening to what others say.” Yephasure regarded Mendaran with her cool black eyes. “Word is spreading of your quarrel with Lady Liralian. Carashanza could not keep it secret.”

“Why should she? What does it matter?”

“You have not yet told me why you are here.”

“Obviously, I’ve come to duel. This is the dueling court, isn’t it?”

“You are hurting inside. I hear it in your ill-mannered words. You swagger through the gate like you have something to prove.”

Mendaran frowned.

“If you want a fight, you will find one with ease. Look, here come the Sovereign’s servants.” Yephasure sighed, then drew back into the gloom.

Xanuspari and Kurunari strode towards Mendaran. They ranked below Zotharan, but they were still counted among the greatest Nayusuru warriors. Xanuspari, in particular, was renowned as a sword-fighter and a weapon-smith. Mendaran felt thrilled that they had chosen to speak to him.

“So, it is Wanoa’s son,” said Kurunari, studying Mendaran. “Welcome to the Royal Court. You’ve already had a spat with Lady Liralian, I hear?”

“Er… yes,” said Mendaran.

“Clearly, you have your mother’s courage – what they call ‘human spirit’.”

“Or human arrogance,” Xanuspari muttered, giving Mendaran a glare. Torch-light glinted across the vicious-looking armor that he wore over his robes. “At least we know you’re not a coward like your father. Have you come to test your skill in combat?”

“Why? Do you want to fight me?” asked Mendaran.

“If you feel brave enough.” A smile spread across Xanuspari’s features, but it did not make him look any less savage. “Who forged your blade?”

“Carashanza.”

“Carashanza? Hm. She’s not well-known for making weapons.”

“Oh, I’ve seen a few of her creations,” said Kurunari. “They’re at least as good as mine.”

“The blades you forge are pathetic,” Xanuspari sneered. “They’re always breaking.” He held out his ivory-white hands. A magnificent broad-sword appeared in his grasp, the azuhan jewels on its hilt flashing in the light. “This is a true weapon,” he said, turning to Mendaran. “This is the kind of sword that the Sovereign ought to give you, if she wants you to conquer Udaris.”

Mendaran’s eyes widened. “Is that Ikurzandoth?”

“Rage of the Fire. Yes. My finest creation.” Xanuspari smiled lovingly at the blade, then made it vanish. “I’ll not match it against that weapon of yours in an idle duel. The Sovereign would be displeased if I lopped off one of your limbs. No, I’ll use Stormshriek instead.”

A hush fell as they made their way down into the pit. Mendaran’s heart-beat quickened. This would be the most challenging duel he had fought so far, and he wanted it to be impressive.

He took a calming breath, then drew Greythorn from its scabbard.

Xanuspari was clearly surprised by the confidence of his initial attack. Mendaran did not have his millennia of experience, but he had challenged every sword-master who visited the imperial court at Sarekordia, learning whatever he could from them. His reflexes were swift and his balance never faltered. Magic sang though his blood, catching him whenever he stumbled.

Xanuspari parried his first few blows, still getting the measure of him. When he finally lunged, Mendaran skillfully deflected his blade. Xanuspari hissed in frustration.

Mendaran pressed the attack. He was not quick enough to strike Xanuspari’s breast-plate, but he tore a gnash across his fluttering sleeve. An impressed murmur rose from the crowd.

“Are you going to let the Kaniyari defeat you, Xanuspari?” Kurunari jeered.

Xanuspari scowled. “I never let anyone defeat me!”

Seeing that his foe was distracted, Mendaran lunged again. Xanuspari melted into mist and appeared just behind him. Startled, Mendaran spun on his heel to block his attack, but he was too slow. Xanuspari’s blade plunged through his chest.

It took Mendaran a moment to grasp what had happened. Blood spattered the sand at his feet. Pain blotted out all thought. Xanuspari gave Mendaran a smirk before yanking the blade free. Dimly, Mendaran heard voices screaming his name. He wanted to tell them that he was fine, but all he could do was hack up blood.

When his senses finally cleared, he found himself lying at the edge of the courtyard. Carashanza was pressing her hands over his wound, weaving a powerful healing spell. Mendaran tried not to groan. Even when his flesh had knitted back together, he still felt sick and dizzy.

“My poor, poor boy!” gasped Quenezarea, stroking his brow with trembling hands. Mendaran was upset to see that he had vomited blood all over her frost-blue robes. “He’s so pale!”

“He’s lost a lot of blood,” said Carashanza. “Don’t worry. He’ll be fine.”

“How could Xanuspari be such a savage?”

“He’s a dog!” Carashanza agreed. “I should challenge him myself. I don’t care if Lord Takanepi thinks it’s unwise to flaunt my battle-prowess. Our court must be avenged!”

Shame burned beneath Mendaran’s pain. Stupidly, he had expected Xanuspari to fight him without magic, like his step-mother. He had thought he stood a chance against an Ankaykari.

Memories returned of the duels he witnessed when he first visited the Royal Court several years ago. They had been true, magical battles, not worthless sword-fights. He had seen combatants seared with fire and lightning, ripped apart and battered to a pulp, then reform their human guises and walk from the pit. A sword-thrust through the chest was nothing to them, but it had been enough to fell him. Mendaran imagined how they must be laughing at his feebleness.

“Oh come on!” he growled, shakily lifting a hand to wipe the blood from his face. “I wasn’t mortally wounded. If Xanuspari wanted to kill me, he’d have to cut off my head.”

Yephasure glided through the shadows towards their table, holding Greythorn in her hands. “You dropped your sword in the dueling-pit, Mendaran. Quenezarea, you are covered in blood.”

Quenezarea stared at her red-stained robes in distress, then vanished. When she re-formed, she was clad in pristine new garments. She placed a towel and a basin of warm water on the ground so that Mendaran could clean himself up. At first she tried to help, but he batted her away.

Carashanza shook her head. “You can’t afford to be so reckless, Mendaran. In the mundane world, even a simple stab wound like this could leave you incapacitated for days.”

“In the mundane world, I won’t be fighting with weapons,” snapped Mendaran, rising to his feet and throwing down the towel. He slumped into one of the nearby chairs, still finding it painful to breathe. “I’ll burn the humans to ash before they have any chance to get near me.”

His gaze fell upon a dark-skinned Ankaykari lady who lingered nearby, watching them. Her slender hands were pressed together anxiously. Mendaran could tell by her timid manner and the way Carashanza ignored her that she must be one of the lower-ranking Nayusuru.

Realizing that she had been seen, she gathered the courage to approach. “Greetings, Mendaran,” she said softly. “It’s been many years since we last met.”

Mendaran raised his eyebrows. “Do I know you?”

“This is Erulorian,” said Carashanza in disdain. “Lady Liralian’s servant.”

“I was your mother’s friend,” said Erulorian quickly, seeing Mendaran’s expression turn cold. “Don’t you remember how she used to visit me when you were a child? You used to play in the garden of my Citadel, and I would read you stories.”

“No… I don’t remember that at all.” A keen sense of loss gripped Mendaran. He wished he had more memories of Wanoa.

“Your mother had many friends,” Erulorian told him. “Especially in Barezeth. Mendaran, I heard what Lady Liralian said to you.”

“Oh?”

“I want to apologize. I want you to know that she’s not herself.”

Mendaran stared ahead moodily. He did not want to forgive Liralian, but he also did not want to upset someone who had been a friend to his mother. Erulorian seemed like a nice, gentle person. Her eyes swam with pity as she glanced at the bloodied towel, but she quickly looked away when she saw Mendaran frown, as if she realized that he found her concern humiliating.

“You can’t apologize on someone else’s behalf,” Mendaran said at last.

“She’s not herself,” Erulorian pleaded again. “She hasn’t been herself for years – not since Lady Mormariul destroyed her Citadel. She suffered terrible torments in the dungeons of Gennezra.”

Mendaran felt uncomfortable. “Perhaps I shouldn’t have compared her to Lady Mormariul. That was cruel. But she was screeching like a maniac, ranting about punishing people.”

“That’s not who she really is.”

“Nevertheless, I think it’s best if I keep out of her way.”

At that moment, Xanuspari came swaggering over. Erulorian cringed back at the sight of him. Rage surged in Mendaran’s heart, thick enough to choke him.

“Are you feeling better?” Xanuspari asked.

“Ah,” said Carashanza, “so it’s finally occurred to the fool that he might have maimed the Sovereign’s Kaniyari champion! What do you think she’ll do, Xanuspari, if Mendaran isn’t able to leave when the ships reach Ekakras?”

Xanuspari’s sneer vanished. “I only stabbed him once! How pathetic is he?”

“I’m fine.” Mendaran struggled to his feet.

“Feeble half-blood!” spat Xanuspari. “What made you think you could challenge me, anyway?”

“Perhaps you should face me in Udaris.”

Xanuspari went still. In the mundane world, he would be the one at a disadvantage. Rage flashed in the Nayusuru lord’s eyes. “Perhaps I shall,” he said.

Mendaran knew that he had made a dangerous enemy, but he did not care.

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An epic fantasy saga