The Spirit War

 Legend of Eli Monpress - 4  


Rachel Aaron

For Peggy, without whom this book would not have been.


The old swordsman was kneeling in the dirt, blowing on the embers of last night’s fire when he saw the boy approaching. He paused, keeping low to the dusty ground as he watched the boy start up the hill toward his campsite. The boy was a tall one, skinny and fair but with the large shoulders and wide ribs that spoke of the man he’d become once he finished growing into them. The swordsman pegged him at seventeen, maybe a little younger, but he wore the two short swords at his hips like he knew how to use them.

The swordsman sat back with a long sigh and glanced at the great black sword stabbed in the sand beside him.

“They never give up, do they?”

“No,” the sword answered. “Thank the Powers. I think we’d both die of boredom if they stopped coming.”

The swordsman sighed. “Speak for yourself.”

The sword didn’t answer, but the ground creaked as it settled itself deeper. The old swordsman shook his head and sat back to wait.

It took the boy the better part of an hour to climb to the top of the old swordsman’s hill. At last, he pulled himself over the final boulders and stepped panting into the circle of dusty brush outside the cave where the swordsman made his home. He caught his breath and straightened up, fixing his eyes on the swordsman with a challenging glare.

“I’m looking for Milo Burch,” he announced. “You him?”

The old swordsman frowned. “Why would a boy like you be looking for an old has-been like Burch?”

The boy stepped forward, planting his feet in first position. “I’ve heard he’s the greatest swordsman in the world, wielder of the legendary Heart of War. I’ve come to challenge him.”

“Really?” The old man rubbed his graying beard. “How did you get here?”

The boy paused, thrown for a second. “I walked.”

The swordsman looked at him, and then looked out over the scrubby, flat desert that stretched as far as he could see in all directions. “You walked?” he said. “Alone?”

“Yes, alone.” The boy’s voice was growing frustrated. “Are you Milo Burch or not? I was told he lived out here. If you’re not him, then I’ll be going.”

“Let’s say I am,” the swordsman said. “Who would be asking?”

The boy straightened up. “I am Josef Liechten, and I demand a duel for the title of greatest swordsman.”

The swordsman started to laugh. “You demand it, do you?” he choked out at last, wiping his eyes. “I’m afraid you’ll be a little disappointed. ‘Greatest swordsman’ isn’t a hat you can pass around, and it’s not like there’s anyone out here to see your victory over an old man.” The wind blew as he spoke, its lonely whistle a sharp reminder of the vast emptiness around them.

The boy set his jaw stubbornly. “Doesn’t matter,” he said. “Are you going to fight or not? I didn’t walk all the way out here to stand around talking.”

The old swordsman stood with a deep sigh and walked over to the scrabbly tree that grew just beside the little space he used as his fire pit. “You certainly sound determined, Josef Liechten,” he said, reaching up to break off a dry branch. “I’m too old to go tumbling around with kids, but I can see that trying to talk you out of this duel nonsense would be nothing but a waste of breath.”

The boy, Josef, nodded.

The swordsman turned, holding up the branch he’d just taken from the tree. “How about we make a deal? If you can break this, I’ll fight you.”

Josef stared at the stick in the man’s hand. It was a sad thing, knobby and dead, its ends already cracking under the force of the old man’s grip.

“I think it would be a greater challenge not to break it,” he said, his voice turning cautious. “Is this some kind of trick?”

“If it was, I certainly wouldn’t tell you,” the old man said, his tanned, leathery face breaking into a grin. “Then again, the greatest swordsman in the world would hardly have to resort to tricks, don’t you think?”

Josef glowered and shifted his feet. “All I have to do is break the stick,” he said slowly. “Just break it, and you’ll fight me for real?”

The old swordsman nodded. “That’s it.”

Josef scowled, and then he drew his swords. They were good work, the old man noticed. Well balanced and a good size for Josef’s reach. It seemed the boy knew something. That was good. He was too old to waste energy on idiots.

“Come at me whenever you’re ready,” he said, lifting his stick.

With one final, annoyed look, Josef charged.

It was a good assault, a straight-on rush and then, three steps in, a feint to the left. Milo Burch stayed still just long enough to let the boy think he’d fallen for it and then quietly ducked out of the way. The boy charged past him and stopped, boots skidding on the loose dirt. He turned around, panting. Milo smiled at him, resting the stick on his shoulder.

“That was good,” he said. “Perhaps you should try—”

Josef was running before he could finish, cutting around to Milo’s left. Again, Milo let him get just close enough to commit to the blow before ducking down. Josef’s sword whistled over his head, and the boy stumbled past him. Josef cursed loudly, and Milo stepped right to avoid the second sword that thrust from below. He spun around as Josef carried the thrust through, bopping the boy on the head with the stick as he passed.

Josef yelped in surprise and stumbled, falling to the ground. Milo sighed.

“If I’d taken your duel, that would have been the end, you know,” he said, swinging his stick. “I won’t think less of you if you want to give up.”

He’d barely finished when Josef dropped the sword in his left hand. The knife came a second later. Milo opened his hand, letting the stick drop in his grip just before the knife sliced through the air where it had been. As soon as the knife was past, he sidestepped again as Josef followed through with a lunge at his legs.

“Again, not bad,” Milo said, grinning. “Why don’t you—”

“Shut up!” Josef shouted, grabbing for the stick with his now-empty left hand.

Milo stepped neatly out of his reach, making Josef stumble as he overbalanced. The boy was panting now, his face red from the sun and slick with sweat.

“You’re not a bad fighter, you know,” Milo said gently. “Surely you’re good enough to see the difference between us. You know you can’t win. There’s no point in pushing yourself.”

Josef scowled at him, breathing hard, and then flicked another knife right at Milo’s hand.

This went on all afternoon. Josef would attack and Milo would step out of the way. Josef never attacked the same way twice, but the end result never changed. As day wore into evening, Josef’s lunges grew slower, but he did not stop until finally, as the sun sank below the horizon, he tripped and fell and did not get up again.

Milo leaned on his stick. “Are we done?”

Josef didn’t answer. He just lay in the dirt, panting. Milo sighed and set the stick on the ground beside the fire. He walked over, shoved his hands under Josef’s arms, and began dragging him toward the cave.

“What are you doing?” Josef gasped.

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