“This is really it?”
“Yes,” Ingolf replied, smiling briefly as he watched his men stare. He wiped sweat from his face and neck as he watched them admire the sword, hoping they would be too busy to notice how profusely he was sweating, or mark it to exertion rather than the cold fear he’d felt since this entire thing had begun.
“I cannot believe it,” said Sepp, voice full of awe. “This must be a dream. It cannot be possible.”
“It is very possible, my friends,” Ingolf said, satisfaction and pride and excitement beginning to heat his blood now that the fear was fading. “I have done it, and you hold it.”
Pancraz looked at it in wonder, eyes shining even in the dim light of the abandoned cabin they had overtaken for their own use. “The sword of the Betrayer himself,” he breathed, as if afraid to give voice to the words. “It looks precisely like the legends say. I thought for sure it would be the complete opposite.”
Ingolf gazed at the sword, seeing again the marble hands which had held it, the carved face which had seemed to stare so coldly at him. That was when the cold sweat had broken out, when those marble eyes had glared at him, and every story he’d ever heard of the Betrayer—the one the Illussor called the Holy General—flooded his mind.
He shoved the memory away, dismissed it, because it did not matter now in the least. The sword was now in their hands, and they would use it to drive back the bastards seeking to subjugate them. Most of the country had fallen to defeat — but not all of it.
They would sooner die than kneel before those filthy bastards. Hopefully the legends of it being able to block magic might be true. If so…they might stand a real chance.
“Did you hear that?” Sepp hissed.
“Shut up,” Ingolf snapped, retrieving his own sword from the floor as he did, indeed, hear something. Boots in snow, trying to be quiet, but nature preventing whoever wore them from being entirely successful.
Then the door crashed open and hit the floor with a thud as the old leather hinges finally gave in to age and mistreatment.
Ingolf drew a sharp breath despite himself. In lamplight and moonlight, their attacker was a handsome one. His hair was so pale it looked silver in the dark, and though his eyes were not clearly visible, Ingolf knew they would be just as pale, so too the skin that seemed to reflect the moonlight.
He was not slight, however, but broad in the chest and shoulders, all but filling the doorway. “Give it back,” the stranger bellowed, brandishing a sword that Ingolf was impressed he could properly use. Didn’t these people typically prefer smaller swords? He had never met an Illussor who bore a sword equal in size to any Krian sword.
Intriguing. Drawing his sword, Ingolf motioned Sepp and Pancraz back. “The sword belongs to us.”
“No, it does not,” the man said and lunged.
Ingolf blocked the swing, but just barely. Swearing loudly, he shoved the man back and lunged forward and down, retrieving the stolen sword before bolting outside.
An angry bellowed followed him, and he swung around just in time to block another swing.
“Stay out of it,” he said sharply as he saw his friends moving to join the fray. “Three against one is not fair.”
His attacker sneered. “Well, well, look at that. One of you is trying to play at honor.”
Ingolf snarled and swung angrily, laughing in cold triumph when he managed to slice a wound on the bastard’s arm. “Who are you to question my honor? I am guilty of many things, but not dishonor.”
“Stealing sounds a dishonorable crime to me, bastard,” the man replied, and the fight was on again.
“You just let it sit around collecting dust,” Ingolf replied, gasping the words out between swings, muscles aching after his earlier exertions, but some part of him thrilling at finding such a worthy opponent even amidst the unhappy reasons for the duel.
The wound had not slowed the bastard down at all — merely forced him to fight with his left rather than his right. Impressive. Under any other circumstance, Ingolf would have defeated him and then fucked him. “You leave it to rot,” he continued, “and we intend to use it.”
“Maybe you should accept your days of glory are at last come to an end, and you are getting what you have always deserved.”
“You know nothing about it,” Ingolf bellowed. “Your country is not free of taint. Who are you to question me?”
“I am the owner of that sword, and you will return it, or find yourself returning home lacking both sword and head.”
Ingolf sneered. “No man owns that sword.”
“Return it,” the man bellowed again.
“Prove it is yours and perhaps I’ll let you see it one last time before I kill you,” Ingolf returned, amused despite himself, enjoying himself though he should have been afraid because this man was proving to be his equal.
The man roared again, pale eyes flashing, and he looked like nothing so much as the moonlight come to life in the form of a fierce warrior. Beautiful. “Prove it? I have nothing to prove to you. I am Erich von Adolwulf, Duke of Korte, direct descendant of the Holy General himself. Return the sword or die.”
Ingolf charged, but it was only later that he admitted to himself that the snow was the only reason he was alive. He watched in horror as Erich moved, caught a patch of ice, and crashed hard to the ground. There was a cracking sound, a brief cry of pain, and then the Illussor man lie still.
Striding gingerly across the field, not wanting to share the man’s fate, Ingolf stared down at the body of the fallen Illussor man, then knelt to examine the head wound he had incurred from his fall on an unseen patch of ice. There was no blood, a good sign.
“Is he really related to the Betrayer?” Sepp asked, as he and Pancraz joined Ingolf.
Ingolf shrugged. “I would imagine that is not something anyone would claim to be lightly. He did say he was the Duke of Korte, which was the Betrayer’s title.”
“What are we going to do with him?” Pancraz asked.
“Take him with us,” Ingolf said. “If he has come after us, others will be on their way. That aside, if he really is the Duke of Korte, he will know things about the sword we do not, and it could help us.” His mouth tightened as he thought of all they must do, how small a chance they had—no chance, really, if they were resorting to stealing the sword of the Betrayer on the small chance the legends of its resisting Salharan magic were true.
They needed all the help they could get, unfortunately. If they did not find some way to defeat the Salharan magic waging out of control and overtaking Kria, then by the spring thaw there would no longer be a Kria.