All who fight around the Inner Sea know the story of the Aldori.
The slim, mustachioed man before me waxes grandiose upon it as he relates the honorable history of his school: the legendary baron who wagered his lands upon a duel and lost; who returned years later to win a second duel in seconds; and who triumphed over all who challenged his prowess thereafter. The power of his school flew far and wide, and men learned the skills of the baron, and proclaimed the supremacy of his style over all others.
I make no reply to his claims. I measure his reach and his stance, this Kramos Aldori, his speed and surety. Yes, he is an accomplished master of his school…this duel would not be seen as an accident. The long, slightly curved length of his blade is ready; the chisel-tip seemingly made to open a throat, poised. The Aldori sword is an elegant weapon, but it is known by other names in other places.
As is the talonblade at my side.
The people of the River Kingdoms are touchy and proud; it is easy to incite them to a duel. I easily positioned myself so that Master Kramos would run into me ‘accidentally’ while he was distracted in extolling his greatness to his cohort, and I fended him off roughly. His blade leapt to hand and struck at me instantly, and I parried with a half-draw of my blade.
His curses and mocking tongue drew no reply as he danced back, his cohort belatedly clearing steel and forming a circle, hooting excitedly.
I cleared my collar away in mute answer, let them look upon the four old, ragged furrows crossing my chest, and up across my throat, the scars of no weapon used by men. He could insult and mock me all he cared; there would never be an answer. The boredom in my expression showed what I thought of his insults.
One of his cohort brayed that I was unworthy of his master’s attention, and that they would deal with me for him. Two of them lunged in, flaunting, feints teasing me with the tips of their blades.
Estrel cleared her scabbard, swept low and under the guard of the first man, disemboweled him as she rose and fell, nested herself in the throat of the second man behind me. A flick of the wrist, his throat opened wide, and blood sprayed in a scarlet stream of death.
Master Kramos spared them only a glance. They were fools following a greater man, curs to a wolf. There was excitement in his eyes as I flicked the blood from my blade with a twist, then spun Estrel and sheathed her smoothly. I was not some clumsy oaf to humiliate for his amusement; I might actually be a challenge. Instead of leaping forwards to avenge the fallen, he pulled back and lifted his blade in a salute.
“I see you are a swordsman of some ability,” he purred, a hunter’s smile for fresh prey upon his face. “Perhaps you would care to cross blades in a more formal setting?” Never taking his eyes from me, he pointed towards the center of Mivon, where lies the famed dueling circle of the city. There he could defeat me before the eyes of his fellow swordlords, and add to his fame and reputation as a mere street duel would not.
His invitation was worthless as I glanced at his yapping, angry followers, hand staying upon the hilt of my lady-hawk.
“Away from him, dogs!” the Aldori snarled. They backed off, bearing mingled expressions of hurt pride and eagerness to be away from Estrel’s reach. They left the fallen lying in the dirt without shame; the weak are not missed in the River Kingdom of Mivon.
I bowed to him, carefully, indicated that he should take the lead. He sheathed his blade, spun proudly upon his heel, and strode away with head high and eager energy in his step. His henchmen raced away to cry the news as I followed after him.
* * *
And so now I face him before a wagering, cat-calling crowd of Mivoni here to watch a duel between an outlander and one of their own famous masters. The odds given me are not good, but that is unsurprising. I am only the ‘Silent Hawk’, for I bear no other adornments, no accent to identify me, and the voice to proclaim myself was stolen by clawed violence long ago. My silence only serves to further tilt the odds against me.
I try not to smile as I hear a familiar voice among those betting. Many are the natives willing to take Twud’s coin on the long odds.
Fisticuffs break out here and there, steel flashes. There will be more duels fought here, with a crowd already gathered to cheer on glory-seekers. I see men brown, olive, pale, red, nearly black, even yellow among the faces watching; hungry ex-slaves and rapt potential students to the art of the Aldori alike from many far lands.
My opponent is arrogant, but not foolish enough to fail to measure me in turn. He is at a disadvantage, for I have seen Aldori masters duel, while he has only seen me draw my blade. In truth, I likely know more of the true history of his style than he can imagine.
We face one another across the circle. The ring marshal cries out his terms and rules, and my opponent’s eyes are now fire and steel. His blade is out and poised as the marshal’s hand drops, and he shuffles forwards with quick, dancing steps, blade forward and high.
I take a half-step forwards and settle into my stance, waiting. My reach extends outwards, touching the cadence of my opponent’s steps, slowing now with uncertainty; his confidence returns as my blade remains sheathed. Aggressive and certain, he lunges for my shoulder, seeking first blood; in truth, a feint to get a reaction from me.
Estrel leaves her sheathe; my focus is a bowstring launching her forth. As she springs, I move the scabbard outward and up, and the same motion which would send a normal sword for a throat now sends the blade arcing up, down and around faster than any normal strike. Kramos’ instinctive attempt to parry and counter falls low, and his eyes widen as he realizes his reflexes have betrayed him. I move my head aside from his wild counter-thrust as Estrel dives, and he watches with astonishment as his thrust flows through her empty side quillons.
Estrel plunges through his leathers and down and across his chest, two inches of steel slicing at the flesh and muscle beneath. I pivot and the stroke is completed; his sword leaps from his grasp like a frightened bird as he falls.
There is a single horrified gasp from the crowd at the power and suddenness of the Aldori’s fall. Accustomed to seeing a flashing exchange of swords ending with one man bleeding at the feet of another, this exchange of single strikes is almost insulting; it is a master’s rebuke to a fool, not something done to an Aldori swordlord of Master Kramos’ repute.
An inch deeper, his insides would be spilling forth on a corpse. He knows this, and glares at me, trying to comprehend how he could be bested so. Bested, as the Aldori best other men.
Estrel reaches down to hook the ornate hilt of his blade, bring it up to my hand. I take it and turn back to Master Kramos, who is trying not to move for fear of opening his devastating wound. I lower his blade to his hand; he musters the strength to lift his arm to accept it back.
The crowd roars at the show of honor. Then his coterie is surging forwards, with them a man bearing the symbol of Gorum, God of Battle, at his throat. I step back to let them converge. The healer does his task, closing the massive cut. Master Kramos will have a great honor-scar remind him of this duel.
The Aldori rises slowly and carefully to his feet. His flesh remembers the shock even if the magic has repaired much of the physical damage. The blow to his pride and spirit will take somewhat longer to heal.
He looks back only once for me, but I, too, have left the circle. I have done what I came to do, and I have no wish to be subjected to endless challenges by prickly Aldori swordlords here.
The Minov are generous in their underestimation of foreign blades. The wagers made by my halfling companion Twud will keep us well supplied on the road to Restov, home to the greatest sword schools in the world.
Soon, the school of the Hawk’s Strike will be among them. Estrel, my lady-hawk, rests at my side, anticipating her coming glory.