Viktor raised his shield to deflect the incoming swing and answered it with a strike of his own. His triumphant “Hah!” was premature as his opponent parried, then riposted, wooden practice shields and swords clattering loudly with each collision. Around them, the rest of his squadmates faced off with each other, occasionally cheering, cajoling, or cursing as they continued their sparring drills on the Rekkenmark training grounds.
He paused to catch his breath, wiping sweat from his brow with the heavy sleeve of his padded jacket, then squared up for another round against Alinda Brand. Shorter and slighter than Viktor, the wiry young green-eyed blonde had proven herself more than a match so far, swift and agile even with a heavy blade and shield in her hands.
“Ready for another go, then, ‘Corporal’ Ullern?” Alinda grinned as she crouched a little, settling into the guard stance.
“As many as I need to do it right, Brand.” Viktor hefted the lead-cored wooden blade, and rolled his shoulders. “I do plan on getting promoted to Cadet Sergeant alongside you—Hrah!”
Their swords met with a loud crack as Brand parried, seemingly at the last possible moment. His disbelieving expression faded into admiration, then determination as he weathered the attacks against his shield, then lunged forward, battering his shield into hers. Their blades and eyes both locked, and they grinned fiercely at each other.
“Then,” Alinda said between heavy breaths as she worked to hold her ground, “how about you… match that muscle… with some speed…”
With a quick twist of her body, she hooked an ankle around Viktor’s, rammed her shoulder into his side, and watched him crash to the ground in an undignified heap.
“Ach, blunted…!” he spat, then rolled over, looking up warily at Cadet Brand as she slung her shield and offered a hand. She smiled, and nodded in approval at his expression, then broke into a grin as he took her hand and stood.
“Cadets, stand to!” They both turned at the voice of Garrick, the squad’s Cadet Captain, as he barked out the words. “Officer on the grounds! A-ten-shun!”
The entire squadron quickly fell into line, sparring weapons hung on belts and shields slung, as Captain Ostrow, in full academy instructor’s uniform, marched solemnly down the line. Viktor’s eyes flickered in his direction as he approached, appraising the cadets lined up before him. The captain’s gaze swept over him, and he quickly returned to eyes-front, but not before noticing the officer’s expression as he looked Viktor over—and the letter in his hands. Ostrow paused, then turned around and paced back up the line before he finally spoke, voice gravelly.
“We’ve received word that Tanar Rath has been beset by the Thranes,” he said flatly as he came to a stop. A few surprised whispers passed through the squad, but Viktor went silent and still as stone at the announcement. For a moment all he could hear was the sound of his heart hammering in his chest, the thump of his pulse filling his ears and washing out all other sensations. Next to him, Brand turned her head just enough to watch him from the corners of her eyes, as Captain Ostrow executed a sharp about-face, and continued.
“The townsfolk have taken shelter in the keep, but they are now under siege. We haven’t any reports on casualties yet, but reinforcements will be dispatched as soon as they can be assembled.” Ostrow continued pacing down the line, looking pointedly at Viktor as he approached. “Some of you, I know, have family there. But for now, you serve them best by doing your duty here.”
The captain paused before Viktor, facing him head-on, gazing sternly at him. “Do I make myself clear—Cadet-Corporal Ullern?”
Viktor’s mind overflowed with images of the Tanar Rath township, looted, sacked, burnt… its people maimed, raped, killed… The sudden insane urge to find a fast horse and ride it to death if only to get home warred with duty, honor, obligation, his own shame at the thought of disappointing Rekkenmark, his fellows, his family. He remained at attention as if nailed there, and raised a hand in sharp salute.
“Sir, yes, sir!” he answered. “For Karrnath, sir!”
Ostrow nodded grimly in return, and settled a hand on his shoulder. “We will not let this Thranish treachery stand,” he said, then raised his voice to the squad as a whole. “And you will all get your chance to show the enemy the error of their ways. For Karrnath!”
At the head of the line, Garrick drew his wooden sword and thrust it skyward, echoing the captain’s call. “For Karrnath!”
Viktor turned his head to look back at Brand, his expression fading from worry into determination, and exchanged a nod with her, as they and the rest of the squad drew their own swords and rose them as one, the cry filling the practice ground.
“Khoot! Khoooot! Karrnath!”
At the head of the platoon, Second Lieutenant Viktor Ullern’s horse led the way into the outskirts of Tanar Rath. In the distance, the keep still bore scorch marks and signs of repaired breaks in the stone, and here and there, a few burnt-out shells of buildings in the township still awaited clearing and reconstruction.
“By the Blood,” he said, turning to Jorgen, the platoon sergeant mounted on his own horse next to him. “How long until more supplies arrive? It’s been long enough, hasn’t it?”
Sergeant Jorgen’s eyebrows still went up at the religious oath, as they did every time. “Diverted again, sir,” he answered, calmly. “Lumber to ships needed for picket duty in Scions Sound, foodstuffs to the division at the Cyran border…”
Viktor nodded soberly, still frowning at the remaining damage to the township around him. “Next time we cross paths with the Thranes, let’s see if they feel like following their Silver Flame’s words of charity. Tell me when our scouts return. I want to see if their regiment left anything cached behind during their rout. For now… just distribute what we can.” He turned in his saddle, glancing back at the relief caravan escorted by the platoon.
“Yes, sir,” Jorgen replied, and tugged his reins, riding back to begin preparing work crews from the troops. Viktor watched him, then looked ahead, trying to find the familiar shape of a home, one fortunately intact… though as for its occupants…
He reached into a hip pouch, feeling for the letter though he had all but memorized its words. His mother, writing to tell him that they had survived the siege, but not without cost… his father’s wounds, his sister’s and mother’s burns…
“Viktor? Viktor?! Over here!” A young woman’s voice, familiar despite nearly two years’ absence, shook him back to the present, and he looked up, spurring his mount forward as Lena shouted and waved to him. As he approached, he could clearly see her arm, shoulder, and side of her throat mottled with scars, but still smiling in relief as her brother returned home.
Viktor shifted impatiently as, across the clearing, Cuinas’ negotations with the minotaur leader and his Droaamish rabble drifted in and out of hearing. The Brelish hostage is as good as ours. What else need be…
His eyes narrowed and he moved a little closer, listening more intently to the minotaur’s rumbling voice, all but boasting of their siege to Orcbone. One man rescued, and so many others left to die… including this man’s father. The memory of Tanar Rath’s charred wreckage and the scars of the wounded rose in his mind, briefly threatening to blot out everything else. Viktor’s lips peeled back, teeth clenched, as he strode forward. Even with her back to him, Cuinas’ head tilted, and she turned a little, sensing his approach, his mood.
’What’s wrong, Viktor? You’ve something on your mind. I thought you were bored with all this talk, and we’re all but done here.’ he heard, as she reached out to his thoughts with her own.
He kept his eyes on the minotaur as he approached, feeling something rising in him, the feel of his heart beginning to pound, the sound of blood in his ears. ‘We could end that siege. Here. Now.’
Cuinas looked back at him, surprise and puzzlement chasing across her features. ‘Uh… how do you figure?’
“You say your force holds Orcbone at siege. Let us settle the matter the way your people do!” Viktor shouted, and the minotaur’s head raised, eyes fixing on him. “You and I, one to one. If you defeat me, then my life is forfeit.”
“And if you win?” the minotaur rumbled, tossing his head. He let out a low contemptuous snort, and his cohorts joined in the amusement.
Viktor came to a halt, a stone’s throw away, one hand on the hilt of his sword, the other beginning to unsling his shield. His vision was edged crimson, and he raised his voice over the hammering of his heartbeat. “If I defeat you… the siege is lifted. Nothing more, nothing less.”
The minotaur leader eyed him thoughtfully, tilting his head, as around him, the Droaamish edged backward, beginning to form a wide circle. Cuinas and the hostage, Ben, took notice and began to move aside. Lorak kept his distance, waiting impassively, while Xentril nodded in seeming approval, and Sier watched him thoughtfully off to one side, as if preparing to act herself.
“I accept!” the beast suddenly bellowed, and stabbed out a hand. With a loud crack, a stroke of lightning lanced from his fingertips, crashing into Viktor’s breastplate.
The pain was incredible, threatening to drive him to his knees, but he remained standing as if nailed upright. As his sword cleared its scabbard, sparks dancing along its edge, he bared his fangs and charged at full, furious speed, answering the minotaur with an enraged howl of his own.
With a satisfied sigh, Viktor leaned his shield on the edge of the cot and wiped his hands on a rag, looking over the armor arrayed on the woolen blanket. Notched and nicked, scratched and battered, the armor plates and the underlying chainmail layers still held, sturdy despite their years of use—and now, finally, clean again of any last traces of blood and grime that might hide and spread rust.
Viktor sat down heavily on a nearby stool, leaning back against the wall and closing his eyes, letting himself relax for a moment. Beyond the thin sheet strung up to divide his section of the room where they were billeted, Sier, Xentril and the rest slept, cleaned their equipment, and waited for word from Orcbone’s commander. As to how this might affect their journey to the Shadow Marches, who could yet say, but after their many days on the road, even this rough accommodation was still a near-luxury.
It could be much worse. Kimon and his warriors could be laying siege to this place. He let out a soft, amused snort, and opened his eyes again, nodding in thought as he reached for his sword. Steel and leather rasped as he drew the blade, critically examining the edges for any cracks or flaws.
Viktor let the battle replay itself in his mind as he oiled a whetstone and set to work, running it smoothly down the length of the blade. The minotaur’s contemptuous response to his challenge… the violent back-and-forth tide of the conflict… spell and prayer, blade and shield… the enemy disappearing in an eyeblink before each strike landed… the final desperate lunge…
He paused and closed his eyes again as the memory unreeled, bringing back that final victorious moment. His enemy toppling, felled by Viktor’s blade, finally brought down, and him finally giving into the hunger… He traced the faint, but razor-sharp points of his teeth with the tip of his tongue, almost feeling his mouth filling with the hot iron taste of blood once again. Each time the hunger had come, it had been harder to resist—and even more rewarding to give in.
Is that so terrible a thing? To channel it, to use it, instead of the other way around? The Emerald Claw necromancer probably had meant to curse him at Saerun Road—but she had fallen that day, and he had thrived. Perhaps it should be… cultivated. Encouraged. Did his own faith not suggest finding strength within, overcoming all limitations? The limits of steel, of flesh—even perhaps mortality itself?
“The Blood is the Life,” Viktor whispered, opening his eyes and readying the stone once more.
_The Blood is of Life,_ came an unbidden thought from somewhere within, and he halted, letting the thought play out. But Life is not Blood. Life… Life is…
He carefully rested the sword across his knees, placing a hand over his heart, feeling its slow, steady beat—and another sensation. Something coiling, gathering within him. A faint cold heat moved under his fingertips, as through shrouding, embracing his heart… not painfully, but almost protectively.
For a moment his thoughts filled with images, each struggling to be seen above the others: Himself, pale and dark-eyed, fangs gleaming—the river of blood beneath the world’s surface, like a vein or artery under the skin—arching, angular lines, forming an unknown design that spread and weaved itself larger and larger—wings unfolding against a clouded sky—the dragon in the cavern on the Lhazaar Isles, speaking of destinies—an iron stand set with red candles, all ablaze—the conversation at the temple in Sharn—other, less clear visions…
Viktor jerked upright as the whetstone slipped from loose fingers and clanged against the tip of the blade, landing on the floor and rattling to a stop by his boot. He stared stupidly at it, then rubbed his eyes and shook his head.
“Dreams?,” he said softly, reaching to pick it up. “Maybe more tired than I think.”
Or something more? he thought, as he set to work with the whetstone again. The recitation came easily to memory: ‘…Seek the divine within, for the blood is the life, and in its call can be heard the promise of eternal life. One has but to listen…’
He wiped the blade clean and gave it one more careful examination before sheathing the sword, still feeling that faint cold heat within… waiting…