I was still laughing when Ingesbror attacked.
He wasn’t slow. Large, and hulking, his mass naturally hampered his agility somewhat, but he wasn’t slow. But there was a weight to his speed, the heavy charge of a bull rather than a more lithe creature, and I leaned back to avoid the first swing without difficulty. The return stroke, designed to take my head off, similarly missed. No subtlety – plenty of power, but not an ounce of grace, just as I had expected. I admit I giggled, and was momentarily embarrassed at how childish the noise sounded as I ducked under another series of swipes that left Ingesbror overbalanced. I didn’t take advantage of the opening, however, but kept giggling. Growling in anger, he recovered quickly and came at me with a series of vicious swings. With this many eyes focused on the attack, however, I saw the attacks coming long before they reached me. It was almost pitiably easy to avoid them.
Tatianna, Laissa, Syman, Fotti, Wilhar, and Ingesbror’s second were all focused on the fight, and with them I could see far more than he, his own eyes were even more eloquent, telling me where he would strike in the split seconds before he did. Another laugh slipped from my lips as I swayed my body aside from one attack, then danced back to avoid the next and the next and the next. The norn’s movements were easy to read, an open book written in a language I knew well. There was nothing new here – nothing I’d not encountered a dozen times before.
“Coward!” Ingesbror swore.
“Because I won’t stand still and let you kill me?” I mocked, weaving around his attacks as he pressed his assault. “Oh yes, very cowardly that.”
“Fight back!” He roared, drawing another giggle. His rage, the impotence of it, tickled something in me. “Fight me, insect!”
“If you insist.” I stepped to right, turning my body sideways to avoid a downwards cleave and flicked my rapier out, a lightning cut that scored a tiny gash in his upper lip. His head jerked back, but to his credit, he merely grunted as blood began reddening his beard, coming back with his sword swinging at my knees as though I were some tree he intended to fell. He was a blur of movement, and to anyone else it might have been unexpected.
I hopped lightly over his sword, let him follow through before stamp lunging and poking a hole in his exposed shoulder. He roared, but I darted around his furious return, coming up behind him again and slashing diagonally upwards across his back.
The norn staggered. His wounds weren’t severe, but his pride was slowly crumbling as he began to recognise his situation. I didn’t bother turning to face him as he came at me again, evading another series of attacks before drawing a deep red line on his upper thigh, as he lunged for me.
“Starting to see it, aren’t you?” I snickered as he stumbled back, glaring at me in a black rage. “I’m guessing you were third in command because you tried, and failed, to supplant Sahir and Levaunt, am I right?” He came again, all blind fury and pointless brutality, hitting nothing but air as I gave ground, only to return in a flurry of thrusts that left him with half a dozen small holes and cuts along chest and arms. Nothing fatal, but small, stinging wounds. “You’re big, you’re strong, and you’re not green, but there’s a thing that they had that you didn’t. A thing that I have that you don’t.”
“You talk too much!” Ingesbror roared, charging me shoulder first. I leapt to one side, and he slammed into one of the walls with enough force to break several of the wooden panels.
“And you clearly don’t learn.” I retorted, stepping aside to avoid the chair he hurled at me with what would have been impressive strength had it not all been so useless. It exploded into pieces as it struck the far wall behind me.
“Die!” He came at me again.
“Training, you idiot.” I barked a short laugh, redirecting a thrust to open his guard and stabbing a shallow hole in his upper chest. “You’ve probably been in more fights than I, and I’ve been in a few.” I went on, stepping back to avoid a backhanded blow from his free hand and opening up his calf with a contemptuous flick of my wrist. “So, it’s only natural that you’d assume yourself to be a warrior.” He stumbled, a low growl of pain escaping him. “But you’re just a thug.” I opened a gash along his jaw deep enough to expose the white of bone, and he reeled back as I stepped closer. “Just a bar room brawler with a sword instead of a broken bottle.” I spun into his guard, the pommel of my rapier slamming into his wounded jaw and he howled in pain, clutching his face as he stumbled back. “You have no idea what fighting actually is.”
I let him withdraw a few paces, trying to decide where I was going to hurt him next. It was simple – I picked a spot on his body and it would start to bleed. It was so simple, in fact, that I was disappointed. This was the way that this dramatic threat was going to end? Over a week of cowering in this half-rate mansion, preparing ourselves for a siege, for an all out war, and it was going to resolve itself with this?
“This is a waste of my time.” I sneered. “I’ve been preparing for much tougher prey than you, but still, I was hoping that you’d be more of a challenge. Armour might have made things more interesting, or maybe we should have just let you have a gun. Maybe then you’d at least have looked intimidating.” I waited till the very moment he’d righted himself before slashing him across his leathery forehead, sending a heavy flow of blood dribbling down into his right eye. He fell back again, his would-be assault halted. “You know, I was worried about this sword.” I held it up, rolling my wrist a little. “It’s not mine, and I don’t usually like fighting with a foreign weapon, but now that I’m using it I think I’d rather not have sullied my favourite with the blood of an imbecile like you.” I poked another hole in him, this one in his upper arm, then another through his left cheek. “How many times can I stab you, do you think, before you’ll just die from blood loss?” I advanced on him. “Shall we find out?”
“Kaede…” Tatianna’s voice broke into my thoughts, and I stopped mid-step.
“What?” I snapped, irritated at the distraction.
“Just… finish him.” She said, quietly. “It’s over.”
“I…” I bit back my response and sighed, studying myself in her eyes for a moment. Aside from the splatters of blood across my pale skin, I looked pristine. My expression was relaxed, the smile on my face that of a casual, pleased sophisticate. I’d seen the same look on myself and my peers when we’d just enjoyed a particularly fine vintage or a heard a pleasing melody. The simple pleasure of experiencing something beautiful. “I suppose every suffering animal deserves to put down.”
Ingesbror stiffened, staggering to his feet, weapon coming up. He wasn’t fatally injured, far from it, but I assumed at this point he had come to realise that it was only by my choice that he hadn’t been killed in the first few seconds of the duel. His eyes flickered back and forth – from me, to Tatianna, to his gaunt-faced second, whose expression was now a mask of furrowed lines.
“Come on then, pirate.” I said. “Time to put you to slaughter.”
“You’re’nna die, bitch.” He snarled through clenched teeth. “Slowly.”
“Creative threat.” I said derisively. “Now come on, at least try to make the last moments of your life worthwhile.”
Ingesbror spat a bloody gobbet of saliva at his feet, and I caught on a moment too late.
The norn’s second, the only pirate he’d brought in with him, tossed something small, black, and hissing with sparks before both he and his superior leapt for cover.
Tatianna was shouting at me, and I turned to face her as I saw her running, reaching out for me. The grenade bounced off the ground, going back up into the air. It was too close – I was dead, why was she coming towards me when she could have been – should have been – running for her life?
I seemed to have plenty of time to ponder this before she tackled me, her arms pinning mine to my side as she embraced me. Her body pressed against mine, and she was saying something, whispering something so quietly I could barely make it out over the chaos as I struggled to free myself.
Why wasn’t she running? Why was she here?
I tried to wrench myself away, managing to free one of my arms. I tried to push her away, shouting at her to run, but she spun me around, putting herself between me and the grenade.
The whispering went on, but her desperate, muted words were drowned in the fury of the explosion that sent us spinning across the room.
“Kaede, I’m sorry.”