Authors: K. J. Parker
But what the hell.
The first fish-man was a full stride ahead of the rest. Forza barged straight into him, trusting to the best armour in the world, took a savage thrust in the stomach, which the brigandine turned; because he wasn’t dead, as he should have been, he was able to reach over the fish-man’s arms and flick his sword under his chin, a light but firm scoring motion. While the man was dying, Forza kicked him straight at the man behind, then saw a tiny chance and cut off the hand of the fish-man on the extreme right. As he doubled up with pain (pain debilitates, said the fencing master, use it whenever you can) Forza skirted him, using him to block the remaining three – just for a second, but that was long enough to stretch out (he got hit on the head in doing so, but the fish-men didn’t know how much he’d paid for that helmet) and slid his edge purposefully over the unprotected tendons on the back of an outstretched leg. He drew his arm back smartly enough that the ferocious cut that landed on it wasn’t quite well enough placed to break the bone; the manica turned the edge, of course, and he was able to place a neat little jab into the gap between the bottom of the fish-man’s helmet and the roped neck-guard of his cuirass. All he’d achieved, of course, was to clear away the hindrance and clutter obstructing his last opponent and give him room to swing and move his feet. No matter; Forza was just nicely warmed up now, totally confident and enjoying himself more than he’d done for twenty years, and this time his father wasn’t there to stop him. He opened himself right up so the fish-man couldn’t help but be drawn in; the fish-man obligingly took his swing, and Forza winced as the blow hammered down on his pauldron. It should’ve smashed his collarbone, but the best armourer in the world understood the art of padding as well as the heat treatment of steel. Then Forza grabbed the sword hand before he could snatch it away and held it just long enough while he cut the fish-man’s throat.
Then he looked up.
Senza was staring at him, and he recognised that expression; so like the one his father had worn that time, but, then, Senza definitely had a look of the old man about him, especially as he’d got older. The same blend of horror and disgust; and, once again, it made Forza want to laugh. “Now if it’d been ten,” he said, and Senza slashed at his head.
He felt it this time; he felt his brain move. But he’d learned this sequence, and how to counter it, from the same teacher as his brother; he gave ground, pivoting on his back foot, and gave himself a clear cut at the back of Senza’s neck, remembering as he launched the blow just why he’d chosen that specific armourer and no other; because he’d made a suit for Senza, and it was just as good. At least Senza staggered; his head was probably spinning, too, and he was probably seeing double. Forza cut low, Senza anticipated and stepped back, giving himself measure for the stop thrust; it slid off Forza’s double-proof chest-plates and exposed Senza’s right side, whose armour shrugged off his counter-thrust. But he’d felt something give, a rib maybe; he could read pain in Senza’s movements as he wound up for a cut to Forza’s exposed neck, then aborted and gave ground. A good move, and he knew exactly what Senza had in mind. In particular, Senza would know he wouldn’t risk a rising backhand cut to the chin, since, if Senza trusted his helmet and let the blow go home, it’d expose the unarmoured patch under Forza’s armpit. So he did just that; taken off guard, Senza’s head flew back, giving Forza just enough time to step in and grab for the sword arm – except that it wasn’t there, it was low, stabbing the sword point up into the tiny crack between the cuirass and the scale skirt. He felt a searing pain and immediately gave ground (how the hell did he do that, I never expected—) and Senza, stepping forward, kicked his exposed left knee sideways and dropped him neatly on the ground; and, as he fell, Forza glimpsed out of the corner of his eye a Parrhasian archer bending his bow, taking aim—
“No!” he yelled, because Senza was directly in front of the tent, and the archer might miss or the arrow might glance off, and she was inside. He tried to push himself up off the ground, but all his strength had gone off somewhere; he pushed, and it was like arm-wrestling, the ground was pushing back and it won. “Don’t shoot,” he tried to say, but his voice didn’t work, and all he could see was the deep black hole he was falling into.
K. J. Parker
is the pseudonym of Tom Holt, a full-time writer living in the south-west of England. When not writing, Holt is a barely competent stockman, carpenter and metalworker, a two-left-footed fencer, an accomplished textile worker and a crack shot. He is married to a professional cake decorator and has one daughter.
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Read on in
The Two of Swords: Part 6.