Rykall swaggered across the muddy yard. His huge sword was strapped to his back and its pommel was visible over his shoulder. It looked big enough to fell a tree. Rykall was big too – a tall, broad man with wide shoulders, and yet he moved with the practiced ease of an experienced warrior. His eyes constantly flicked this way and that, instinctively assessing possible threats. Albrihn was in no doubt about how dangerous he was, and yet he had instincts of his own. He saw the way Rykall slightly favoured his right leg, and judged there was an old war wound there. His gaze was a little unfocussed too, his eyes a touch glassy. He’d been drinking, carrying on from the meeting in the palace. Not enough to be drunk, not a man his size, but enough for him to be bolder than he should be. Enough to do something foolish. He stopped maybe ten strides from Albrihn and Morrow and stood grinning at them, his men on either side, by contrast wearing stoic expressions and standing with hands on the hilts of their swords. “Commander Albrihn,” Rykall said, “I didn’t expect to see you here…”
“Don’t rise to it,” Morrow said softly.
“It’s fine.” Albrihn took a step forward. “Where else would I be? This is my regiment’s barracks.”
“Your regiment, eh? That would be the Twelfth Regiment, yes?”
Albrihn narrowed his eyes and folded his arms. He wasn’t sure where this was going. “That’s right.”
“Because I thought the Twelfth’s commander was Hadrin.”
Rykall looked at his friends in mock confusion. They didn’t so much as crack a smile, just stayed staring straight at Albrihn and Morrow. “A regiment can’t have two Commanders, Albrihn. Where exactly do you fit into the hierarchy of this unit?”
“You’d need to ask the Empress. She’s the one who promoted me.”
“Of course.” Rykall’s smile was predatory. “Are you sure you wouldn’t be happier in her bed? That’s where you belong, clearly. She can call you commander, but all I see is a strutting peacock from her gardens. A princess’s fucktoy.” His expression changed abruptly, into one of barely-contained rage. The practice yard had fallen quiet and all eyes were fixed on the two men.
“Rayke…” Morrow said. She reached out a hand.
“She’s not a princess. She’s your Empress.”
“Indeed she is. And so we must obey her commands, no matter how ludicrous they are.”
“Is there a point to any of this, Rykall?” Albrihn asked.
“Just trying to figure out how you fit into all this business. You’re going to be in command of a substantial force. Are you sure you have what it takes?”
Albrihn’s face hardened. He didn’t think he had what it took, for what it was worth, but Rykall was beginning to annoy him now. And he was annoyed at himself for allowing him to nettle him like this too. He should just walk away. “I don’t question my orders,” he said, managing to keep his tone even.
“No, don’t bite the hand that feeds. Tell me, did you two decide on this course of action before or after you fucked? Was it like payment? You keep her entertained for a night, she just throws you command of an army? Or was it a joke you cooked up while you sat there nibbling on olives on the balcony?”
Albrihn could feel his muscles tense. He was leaning towards Rykall unconsciously, all his weight pushing forward, readying his body for a headlong charge. But he carried no weapon and he tamped down his fury. This wasn’t the time or the place. He could get himself killed. Morrow’s hand was on his chest too, holding him back. He knew he could easily push past her – she was much smaller than him – but it still helped him restrain his urges. “Not worth it, Rayke,” she said, almost under her breath.
“I know,” he whispered back.
“Do you know how I became a commander?” Rykall continued. “It’s a good story. See, ten years ago, I was just a captain. Most of my regiment was in Hades, chasing bandits in the mountains. Well, officially they were bandits, but we happened to know they were renegades, former militia who’d broken their oaths. We knew this because their leader was a man called Hevell, former captain of our first company, Commander Keel’s one-time protégé. So as you can imagine, it was all pretty personal. Well, one day we were accompanying Keel up into the mountains where we knew Hevell and his men were hiding. It was broad daylight and we didn’t think he’d be fool enough to attack a column of heavy cavalry in those circumstances. We were wrong. They ambushed us in a valley. Hevell was a legendary marksman – the first arrow took Keel off his horse and he fell to the ground, breaking his ankle. I heard it snap like a dry branch. He told me to take his sword as blood filled his mouth.” He paused and touched the hilt of his weapon. “Reaper. I drew it and stood over him as those scum came down the slopes to kill us. We dismounted and formed a ring of steel. They came at us, again and again and again. Hevell wanted blood. He wanted Keel’s head, and he was determined to cut his way through us to get it. He was a good fighter. I saw him take down three of my best men. Then he was there, in front of me, a sword in each hand, like a tornado of steel. All I could do was hold him off, try to protect my commander. Reaper was heavier than I was used to, but every time I swung it, it took its toll on Hevell, just the weight of it hitting his swords. Finally, he got tired. He made a mistake, and I ran him through. His armour didn’t help him, not against Reaper. He died, and Keel lived, but not for long. Because I was the man who defended him, and because it was me that stabbed that bastard, his last order was to promote me.” He stopped. All the soldiers in the yard had been listening in rapt attention to his story, though most probably knew it already. Albrihn certainly did, although some details were different from the account he’d heard. “So you see, just like you, I was made a commander for impaling someone.” He grinned at his own joke.
Albrihn started forward again, but now Morrow’s grip was firmer. “Commander…”
“Listen to your lieutenant, Albrihn,” Rykall said, “she may be nothing more than a drunken whorefucker riding at the head of a band of worthless mercenaries not much better than mainlander savages, but she has a point.”
“Okay, forget it. Knock this cunt on his arse.” Morrow shrugged, letting Albrihn go.
He didn’t move, but his fists were clenched and the muscles in his neck strained. “I didn’t ask for this,” he said.
Rykall’s eyes lit up and his malicious grin widened. “You want to fight me, is that it?”
“That’s what you want. We both know that.”
“I’ve heard you’re good with a sword.”
“So they tell me.”
Rykall began to walk towards the wall, where a rack of practice swords sat under an awning to keep the rain off them. It was still falling lightly from the sky, covering everything in a miserable cold spray. The mud squelched underfoot, mixing with straw and horse dung. Albrihn watched the other commander. “Don’t worry, I won’t use Reaper,” he said, unstrapping his massive sword and leaning it against the wall. “But I think fighting with wood would insult both of us.” He walked past the wooden practice swords, each one filled with a lead core so they mimicked the weight of a steel sword. Instead he came to the second rack, which held real, but blunted, swords. He selected two and nonchalantly tossed one into the mud a stride from Albrihn’s feet. Not taking his eyes of Rykall, he stooped to pick it up. It was well-made, and though the edges were dull, it could still do damage if wielded with sufficient strength.
Rykall hefted his own blade. It looked small in his hands. “I’ll wait while you get your armour,” he said, looking at Albrihn in his damp shirt and breeches.
“I don’t need armour.”
He cocked his head. “Oh?”
“Speed trumps strength. That’s what my teacher always told me.” He swung his sword in a figure of eight, testing its weight, getting used to the feel of it in his hands. The air thrummed as the pace increased, and the steel blurred before him. Abruptly he stopped and twirled it around his wrist and then back into his hand. “Hm.”
Rykall watched him. “Your teacher?” he asked.
“I was taught the sword by Captain Wenhall.”
“The Lady of the Blades?”
“Oh, you’ve heard of her?”
Rykall swung his own sword back and forth as he stepped towards Albrihn. He seemed a little less certain of himself now. “I heard she hung up her sword for good after she retired.”
“I persuaded her to make an exception. I was her last pupil.” He dropped into a fighting stance.
Ryall snorted a laugh, though there didn’t seem to be much humour in it now. “Shame you don’t get the chance to hone your skills when you’re fighting. What is it you light cavalry say? If you have to draw your sword, the battle’s already lost?”
“That’s what we say.”
“Well then.” Rykall lunged towards him, bringing his sword down in a long arc. Albrihn stepped backwards, parrying the blow aside as he did so. He got a sense of the commander’s strength, and it was impressive indeed. He could feel his sword vibrating from the impact. Rykall was as quick as he’d looked too, and he came at him again with a series of slashes. Blunt as the swords were, any of them would have knocked him to the ground if they’d connected. He dodged them all and spun around underneath the larger man’s guard to strike him across his back. His armour clanged, but the sword hit with enough force to stagger Rykall. He turned with a snarl and swung at head height. Albrihn parried it and then counter-attacked, but Rykall hadn’t faltered and he unleashed a flurry of slashes that Albrihn was hard-pressed to block. The swords sparked as they hit and Rykall’s next strike came in lower than he expected, catching him across the side of his abdomen. The strength of it stunned him and he staggered sideways, nearly slipping in the mud.
“If this was a real fight, you’d be dead,” Rykall panted. Even in the cold air, his heavy armour was causing him to sweat.
Albrihn circled him, sword held out, massaging his side with his free hand. “Maybe, but I’ve had worse.”
“Sure you have. What happened, did you ride into a low branch when you were sneaking through a forest to shoot someone in the back?”
Albrihn didn’t answer, just charged forward, taking Rykall by surprise. He struck him a ringing blow across the breastplate and followed it up with a raking slash across his face. It connected and Rykall fell backwards with a yell. There was a welt on his cheek just below his eye that would come up in a nasty bruise before too long.
“If this was a real fight…” Albrihn said.
Rykall rubbed his cheek and spat on the floor. “Enough games.”
“If you say so.” Albrihn spun on his heel and his sword flashed out like a darting snake. He threw himself at Rykall, unleashing all the pent-up anger he’d felt since he’d returned to Atlas, his frustration at a world that was falling apart and a home he was starting to think was gone forever. Rykall was flabbergasted by the speed of his attacks, and could only manage to bat away half the strikes. Many impacted against his armour, dinging like a bell, and Albrihn knew they too would leave bruises.
“Enough,” the big man roared suddenly. As Albrihn came in high, he brought his sword down in a two-handed cleave that smashed it aside. It was Albrihn’s turn to be shocked as the strength of the parry robbed him of his momentum. Rykall swung again, slowly, but with immense force. Wide, sweeping cuts with no finesse, like a woodsman felling trees, and always pushing forwards, tramping through the thick mud. “Showy horseshit,” Rykall bellowed, “fight like a soldier!” He was breathing heavily between each mighty swing.
Albrihn gave up parrying and began to duck and dodge, letting his opponent drive him back. He was starting to get out of breath himself, and now it was as much sweat as rain that caused his shirt to cling to his flesh. His shoulder throbbed too, and he could feel a warmth in his side where Rykall had struck him – the big man had hit hard enough to break the skin, even with a blunt sword. The whole courtyard was transfixed by the fight, forming a ring of men and women around them as if they battled for their lives in an arena.
“Yield, Albrihn,” Rykall laughed, baring his white teeth, “you’re outmatched!”
“I don’t think so.”
“You can’t break through my armour! Whatever tricks Wenhall taught you won’t do you any good against solid steel.” He swung again and Albrihn sidestepped.
“I can’t argue with that.” Rykall turned slowly and as he did, Albrihn stuck his toe into a wet lump of dung and flicked it up into the air. It sailed high and splattered across the larger man’s face. He let out a cry and screwed his eyes shut, flailing wildly with his sword in his blinded state. Albrihn dodged neatly and hooked his foot around Rykall’s right leg. As he’d predicted, it gave way easily and the commander went down hard, landing flat on his back in the mud.
He was still shouting, and he wiped at his eyes to try and clear them. He was struggling to get up, weighed down by his armour. He’d dropped his sword and although it was only inches from his fingertips, he couldn’t see it to grab it. Albrihn kicked it away and planted his foot on his breastplate. As Rykall finally managed to clear his eyes, he felt the tip of Albrihn’s sword against his unarmoured throat and instinctively shied away. He rolled his eyes up and looked at Albrihn. In his filthy face, they looked very wide and white.
“When Lady Wenhall trained me,” Albrihn said calmly, “she was half-blind and walked with a cane. Do you really think she taught me to fight fair?” He pushed the blunt tip of the sword against Rykall’s flesh and the other man clenched his teeth. “If this was a real fight,” he said conversationally, “you’d be at my mercy.”
“Yield,” Rykall spat.
“What was that?”
“I said I yield!”
“That’s what I thought.” He took his foot off Rykall’s chest and stooped to pick up his sword before stepping backwards. His soldiers rushed in to help their commander to his feet.
Once up to his knees he waved them away and eyeballed Albrihn as clambered up. He was rubbing his throat. “You can swing a sword,” he admitted grudgingly, “I’ll give you that.”
Suddenly the sound of clattering hooves filled the yard. Everyone turned to the gates that led out to the street as a column of horses rode in, the familiar figure of Commander Hadrin at their head. She looked at the other two commanders as she drew up, sweaty and mud-streaked in the middle of the courtyard, surrounded by a circle of spectators. Albrihn glanced down at the two swords in his hand. Hadrin gave him a flat look. “Covering yourself in glory so soon, commander?”
“No. I don’t know how things were done in the mainlands or in Talos, but here in Atlas we still prefer our officers to brawl in private.” She swung herself down from her horse and a stable hand rushed to take the reins. She removed her gloves as she approached them. “If you’re done rolling around in the mud like little boys measuring their cocks, we have an army to organise.” She pushed between them and walked towards the dining hall. “And the rest of you do some damn training,” she barked loudly, “we have a battle to win.” All the soldiers scrambled to find something to do as she passed by. Rykall scowled and stalked after her, his men falling in behind him again. Albrihn stared at the two swords and then threw them down on the floor in disgust.
Morrow stepped up beside him. “He deserved it.”
“Of course he did. But I need to learn how to rise above men like him. I made an enemy today.”
“You’re talking like you want to be a fucking commander now…”
Albrihn considered that. “Maybe I do after all.” He rolled his shoulders and headed after Hadrin and Rykall.