|Written by Rob Francis / Artwork by Lee Kuruganti
Selena was watching. In the moonlight shadows of the pinecorn trees Kriam could see her slender figure, lightly
cloaked and standing in contemplative silence, her hands folded before her. Two armed men stood at her side,
hands on the hilts of their swords. Her presence made his heart race even faster and gave him a shiver of
exhilaration. She had come to see him fight, despite the risks! He could make her proud tonight at last. Even if he
lost, his death would satisfy her honour, and his family’s.
Kriam pulled on his leather tunic and laced it, turning his thoughts over for the hundredth time. He was still unsure
how the fates had conspired to bring him to this, but it was too late to do anything about it now. Duelling was a
serious business in Tanagra, all the more so since it had been outlawed.
He looked around at the gathering crowd, the good citizens who had come to watch the bloodshed. Years ago he
and his opponent would have fought formally, in the red sand of the arena. Now anyone with a point of honour to
settle had to do it outside of town, in the desert scrub. In the cool of night, small crowds gathered to watch the
duellists bleed and die, always in a different place, its location communicated in secret. No-one wanted the Scorpion
Guard to find them breaking the law. The punishment was impalement on the town walls. Kriam had seen it done,
many times. Even the most hardened criminals screamed in agony as they were pushed against the iron spikes, and
it often took them hours to bleed out. The walls of the town were streaked brown with the blood of outlaws.
After securing his steel arm and leg greaves, Kriam picked up his shield and short sword. He felt nauseated, like he
always had when he served in the border patrols and had been called upon to skirmish with desert bandits, or the
hostile patrols of nearby towns. He’d never duelled before though, not in earnest. Only when sparring with the
other high-born officers for sport, or to settle an argument.
He’d seen real duels though. One of his comrades had once told him the secret to winning was to not care whether
you lived or died, but that was lizard shit, Kriam knew. The man who doesn’t care if he lives or not will not fight so
hard to stay alive. Kriam wanted to live. He was in love.
“Duellers, stand forth!” Marcello’s voice had the natural temper of authority. He was a retired army commander, a
bald and scarred veteran of a half dozen border wars, who knew the importance of the duels for the people of
Tanagra. It was rumoured the reason the Scorpion Guard never seemed to find the duels was because Marcello was
their clandestine organiser, and he had contacts everywhere in the city.
Kriam and his opponent stepped into the circle of rope that had been placed on the floor. He estimated it was
about thirty paces wide. The other man was large, his face bearded beneath a broken and twisted nose, his body
heavily muscled and laced with thick white scars. He had chosen a tunic of thick lizardskin to wear, and held a spiked
maul in both hands. Marcello regarded them both.
“Kriam of the High Sun, you are here to answer the grave insult done to you by Morno of the Broken Spear, when
he declared you and your family unfit to wed Selena of the Blue Oasis.” As he spoke, Marcello turned, so all could
hear his words. “Instead, he claims Selena for himself, and those of the Broken Spear.”
There was some surprised murmuring from those gathered. Kriam tightened his grip on his sword as if he could
choke the life from it. What right did Morno have to Selena? Like Kriam, she was of the nobility. She lived in the
second terrace, above all the human refuse of the lower city and only one down from the lords who governed
Tanagra. Morno was a sometime mercenary, and nothing more. This was laughable.
Besides that, Kriam had courted Selena for months, in the proper way. They had yet to affirm their love, but both
of them were sure of their feelings for each other. Morno was just baiting him, he knew. That was all to the good. It
gave some extra venom to his blood.
Marcello raised his arm, and both men tensed. When the arm fell, the crowd rumbled in anticipation as the duel
began. Morno took several quick strides forward, maul raised. Kriam circled around, keeping some distance between
himself and the larger man. Duels rarely occurred between men of equal skill, he knew, and were consequently brief
affairs. Usually it was clear early on who was the most capable and experienced fighter. After only a few moments of
manoeuvring, he knew in this case, it wasn’t him. He cursed all the gods quietly though gritted teeth as he kept his
feet moving and his eyes on the horrific maul.
For a large man, Morno moved swiftly and with good balance. The maul whipped past Kriam, and it was all he could
do to avoid its wicked spikes. He dashed in circles, trying not to fall, keeping his shield up. Then one of the spikes
caught on the shield rim, and tore it painfully from his arm. He saw blood running past his wrist where the leather
grip had sheared off the skin and exposed the raw flesh beneath. He tried to glimpse Selena in the crowd, but had
become disoriented and was no longer sure where she was.
Morno closed in again, and Kriam felt something bite into his leg. There was a gash on his thigh where one of the
spikes had clipped him, and its glistening blackness in the moonlight made him feel faint. He stumbled backwards,
sword up, expecting Morno to close in and crush his skull with the heavy maul.
Instead his opponent backed off. He saw him glance into the crowd, then he stood, waiting for Kriam to regain his
balance. Maybe he was looking for Selena as well. Perhaps the thug really did care for her opinion, and didn’t want
her to think him a cruel brute, devoid of mercy.
Kriam limped forwards, one arm out to balance, the sword held in front of him. Morno came forward again, but
more slowly. When he got closer, he raised the maul over his head and lurched forwards, but hesitantly, as if he
was suddenly unsure of his actions.
Kriam seized the only opportunity he would probably get and pushed forwards, stabbing with his sword at Morno’s
belly. He was almost surprised when the blade bit, and the big man tumbled backwards. For a moment it looked like
he would regain his footing easily, but then his ankle turned and he went over, sprawling on the ground. Kriam felt
a surge of hope grab him by the throat, and he raced forwards. Morno had dropped the maul and was scrabbling to
grasp the long handle in the sand.
Kriam skidded to a halt over the bigger man, and gracelessly jammed the point of his sword into his throat. Blood
bubbled from his mouth and ran across the ground. Morno’s eyes rolled back in his head.
Kriam let go of the sword, taking a step backwards, and then crashed to the sand himself.
“No!” There was a shriek from the crowd, and from the corner of his eye he saw a cloaked figure running into the
circle, hood fallen back, pale hair flashing in the moonlight. Selena!
His love rushed over to him, wiping his brow and planting a kiss on his cheek. She motioned to her guards. “Help
me move him!”
The two men silently reached down and lifted Kriam, sending a jolt of pain through his leg. They carried him to
Selena’s horse and draped him across the saddle. Already the crowd was dispersing, the killing seemingly over.
The guards led the horse off at a walk, Selena walking alongside.
Kriam was confused, and felt faint from pain and loss of blood.
“Where are we going?” he croaked.
Selena smiled at him. “Don’t worry, my love. I have a tent pitched nearby. We will treat you there. It’s not far.”
Something about that seemed wrong, but Kriam could not focus on anything but the throbbing pain in his leg,
which seemed to get worse every time the horse moved. He watched Selena for a moment, and realised how
strained she must have been by the duel. She looked older in the moonlight, her big round eyes darker than when
he had last seen her, her skin tighter against her skull. The horse rocked again, and he passed out.
~ * ~
When he came to he was in some kind of tent of dark cloth, lit by a smoking brazier less than an arm’s reach from
him. He was lying on a thick blanket that prickled his bare skin. Suddenly aware of his nakedness, he tried to sit up,
but found he was being held down by Selena’s guards. Their eyes were passive, their expressions unreadable, but
their grip was like iron shackles on his wrists.
Kriam swallowed hard. His eyes drifted to the brazier. “You mean to burn the wound clean?” His voice sounded
weak and pitiful to his ears.
He sensed someone approach and looked up to see Selena standing over him.
“No. The wound is not so deep, and stopped bleeding a little while ago,” she said. “It will take something more than
that to kill you, I’m afraid.”
Kriam’s heart seemed to stumble in his chest. He opened his mouth, but no words came out.
Selena smiled at his confusion. “You are not the first admirer I have lost in this way.” She raised her hand, the long
thin blade she held glowing orange in the light from the brazier.
“Thank you for fighting for me, my love. I believe the Art will be satisfied.” Her eyes flicked to the brazier and back
again. She raised her head and seemed to scent the air for a moment. When her gaze returned, her eyes seemed
pale and shrunken into her skull.
“My knowledge is old, older even than me, and those who taught me. But so difficult to use.” She put her hand on
Kriam’s chest and stroked the coarse hair there, like she was comforting a pet hound. Her eyes drifted and she
seemed to be talking to herself. “So many aspects of the Art to satisfy, or the blood will be spoiled. Always the
love, and the triumph, and the pain. All together, at the same time. So hard to get right.”
She moved away, down near Kriam’s feet, so he could only hear her voice. She sighed deeply. “And creating a new
identity for oneself is always a chore.” Her felt her fingers creep up his thigh, over the wound. “But the Art tells me
I have a part to play in this world, and I cannot rest yet.”
He gasped as he felt the blade enter his groin, and then blew out a long breath as the blood began to pour. As his
vision swam, her face appeared once more, her expression unbearably sad. “You won’t believe me, but I envy you
Kriam opened his mouth to voice his doubts, but couldn’t find the strength.
~ * ~
Captain Loraq of the Dry Valley halted his patrol and dismounted. His Scorpions fanned out, some riding ahead to
scout, some exploring the dry ground around the body, looking for tracks. He had heard there was to be some
sort of duel last night, but once again they had been unable to find the site until the next morning. They had
already discovered the body of that drunkard Morno, about half a league back. Here was the other, it would seem.
He looked at the pale corpse. Something was strange about this one. He was naked, lying on his back. A large gash
in his thigh looked like it might be the work of Morno’s notorious maul, but there was blood all over both legs, and
it looked like there was a deep puncture wound at the groin, where the blood would have flown fast. The man had
made it this far, and then had been stripped and slaughtered, like a pig.
Loraq wondered who had done it. He then reappraised the situation. The sand had no blood on it, which meant the
body had bled out somewhere else. Then it had been dumped here. Someone had had it in for this man, win or lose.
He took a swig of water from his skin, rinsed his mouth and spat the desert dust back where it came from. He
hated patrolling the sands. He signalled to his two nearest men to take the body and lash it to one of the horses. It
wasn’t his problem. He’d bring it back to the city and let one of the officials worry about who it was.
He took another look around, and saw one of his scouts riding across the scrub towards him. As he approached,
the man took out his bone whistle and gave two sharp blasts. _Riders approaching_. Loraq trotted out to meet
him. It was Devlin, one of the younger scouts.
“Captain, three riders approach. They ask for escort to the city walls.” Devlin was grinning widely, and Loraq
wondered what the joke was.
“Why do they need escort?”
“It’s a woman and two of her household guards. She says she’s had some unwelcome attention on the road from
Vishtan, and desires to get to the city as swiftly as possible.” The scout’s grin widened. “She’s very…well, I could
see why she got some unwelcome attention.”
Loraq grunted, and whistled for his Scorpions to move out. A further half league on, they came across the party of
three, travelling side by side on well-bred desert horses. A pack horse at the rear was laden with sacks and bags.
When Loraq got closer, he saw what Devlin meant. The woman was beautiful—so wondrous, in fact, he doubted he
had ever seen anyone more divine. Her dark skin and hair shimmered in the sunlight, and her figure astride the
horse spoke of great grace and power. He felt proud he might have the chance to escort this lady, even a short
Her guards were quiet, solemn-faced and stern. They nodded as he approached, but did not speak. The lady did,
with a voice like soft skin sliding across the finest silk.
“I am Lady Temlain of the Winter Moon.” She had a delicious accent, just slightly redolent of the far north. “I have
travelled from far Vishtan on business. Quite a journey at this time of year, as I’m sure you can imagine.” Loraq
nodded in sympathy. “I will be staying in Tanagra for some time, and would appreciate your protection for the next
few leagues. My good captain…?” She flashed a smile that seemed to make the day grow twice as bright. Loraq felt
his chest grow tight.
“Captain Loraq,” he said. “And I would welcome the honour of protecting you, my lady.” He turned his horse so he
could ride alongside her.
The Lady Temlain suddenly noticed the dead man tied across the back of one of the spare horses, and gasped. “Oh
my! What happened here?”
Loraq grunted. “Some criminal, my lady. Killed in a duel. No-one of importance, come to the kind of end they
deserved. I’m sorry you had to see it. Take the body on ahead!” he barked, and two of his men set off, leading the
horse with its sorry load behind them.
The Lady Temlain looked sad, as if the sight troubled her. Loraq did his best to look contrite and considerate. “I do
hope that has not upset you too much, my lady.”
She smiled sadly. “Not at all. In my time, I have seen much worse.” She nudged her horse forward, and on toward
Rob Francis is an academic and writer based in London,
UK. He has published numerous scientific articles and
books, and recently started writing short speculative
fiction. His stories have appeared (or are forthcoming)
in SpeckLit, Swords & Sorcery Magazine, SQ Mag, Every
Day Fiction, and 365 tomorrows.