Clayton Emery

Sword Play

Chapter 1

They'd seen him climbing, and he'd seen them following. He'd scaled as high and fast as he could, but they'd pursued, and now he was trapped.

Making the best of a bad situation, the young barbarian selected a pocket in the sheer wall of red-gray granite. The pocket curled around to his left, then broke off jaggedly. A trail trickling through the mountains kissed the jagged edge, but after that descended into a gorge full of shadows. The shadows he could have used to hide in, despite the midday sun, but he'd peered over the edge and seen the trail was too steep. He'd be tripping down it, wary of breaking his neck and unable to turn around, his back a perfect target when his enemies arrived. He settled for rolling a round boulder into the trail as a temporary barricade. Then he stayed put. They could attack only from the front and the left, and would have to mount a short slope to do it, so they couldn't flank him. As long as they didn't have missile weapons-arrows or slings-he could fight hand to hand to match any warrior.

The sunny cliff was warm against his back as he waited-perhaps to die. It was coming on winter, especially here in the high country bordering the Barren Mountains. The thin wind that sighed and soughed around his legs was cool, but would bite after sundown-if he were still alive to feel it. Away from the warm cliff, patches of snow hugged the northern side of the rocks. It was all rocks here above the tree line, which was a clean cut, as if by the knife of a titan. Sunbright wondered if the gods were closer up here, and if so, to whom he should pray. Garagos, god of war, to give him strength in the fight to come? Or Tyche, Lady Luck? Somehow neither seemed appropriate, so he sent a common prayer for help and guidance to Chauntea, the Earthmother. She was laid out before his feet, miles and miles of scrubby trees down a long sweeping valley over which red-tailed hawks and vultures soared. Sunbright might be visiting her soonest, after all. But if so, he wouldn't go alone. A grunt from below brought his sword up.

They skulked out of the tree line, seven of them. Orcs, but not the usual variety. These had gray-green skin, lank black hair, pug noses, and long knotted arms. They moved warily, watching him and not charging to crush his skull as the usual idiots did.

But this lot, seen for the first time close up, were oddly neat. They wore actual uniforms, almost like human soldiers. Tunics of various leathers had been dyed a consistent lichen gray, and painted on each breast was a not- so-smeary red hand of five spread fingers. Rather than go barefoot, and thus cripple themselves on the scree, they wore sturdy, scuffed boots that came to their knobby knees. And each orc soldier wore a rusty kettle helmet, round with a short brim. In their hands trailed clubs studded with black obsidian, which Sunbright knew to be sharper than his own steel blade, for the layered stone presented not one but a dozen razor edges.

Sunbright could have shot his few arrows, but didn't bother. Somehow it didn't seem right on this momentous, lonely day. He'd work with what the gods had given him, take the contest as it came.

Still, to die now seemed unfair when he'd been so careful to cover his tracks, stepping from stone to stone all morning. How had they discovered him? Were the orcs' gods favouring them?

The orcs grunted again and stopped, consulting about how to attack. They could see their prey, a young human male, tall and gangly, yet laid with ropy muscle. His hair was sun-bright blond, shaved at the temples, then gathered into a topknot from which dangled a short tail. He wore a faded linen shirt that fell to his knees, stout boots of many leather straps and iron rings, and a jerkin made of brown- and white-blotched goatskin, laced across his chest. A rolled blanket was carried over one shoulder, a longbow and quiver over the other, along with his scabbard,

But most curious was his sword. As long as his arm, the blade widened at the tip to make a graceful arc, its back face deeply cut into a hook. It looked more like an elongated brush cutter than a sword, and gave the orcs pause.

'You like this sword?' The young man shook his weapon, impatient to fight, to get the trial over. 'Its name is Harvester of Blood. Come up, orcish offal, and hear it sing its name and that of its wielder, Sunbright Steelshanks!'

The ritual battle curses didn't seem to impress the orcs, who merely fanned out along the short slope below him, from the rock he'd propped in the trail to the cliff wall at his right elbow. Strangely, they said nothing until the captain, which had a red hand painted on a placard in the band of its helmet, bellowed, 'Rag-faa!'

Then they charged, howling.

Careful not to lift his feet lest he slip on the scree and pebbles, Sunbright hoisted the long blade high over his right shoulder and simultaneously scooted his left foot forward for balance. Then he contracted like a coiled spring. The foot snapped back, and the sword came almost to meet it. Caught between was an orc that had scampered up quicker than its fellows. Keen-eyed, Sunbright avoided the steel helm that might nick his blade. He struck at the juncture of neck and shoulder, steel shaving the orc's collarbone and hunting a major vein. He struck hard, but not hard enough to fetch up the blade in bone. The blow was perfect. At the solid cut, the orc's blood squirted in three directions. The creature dropped more from shock than the actual blow, though the wound would kill within a minute.

Sunbright didn't linger to gloat, or even watch. Conserving every ounce of strength for the battle yet to come, he ripped the blade free and slung it backhand at the next encroaching orc.

Harvester lived up to its name. The deep hook in the blade lodged under an orc's upraised arm. Slashed in the armpit, the orc was knocked off-balance, away from Sunbright, then dragged back by the boy's twisting yank. The hook tore more flesh, skinning muscle from bone, throwing the orc onto its side to writhe in agony.

Normally Sunbright would have ripped out his opponent's throat, finishing it, but he could hear the voices of Thornwing and Blindhawk, who'd schooled the children in swordplay. 'Don't focus on one enemy, but on all. Keep your vision wide, like the reindeer and snow wolf. Track movement, not details.'

Good advice, for the orc captain had taken the rightmost wing of the attack. Counting on gaining the man's blind side, the creature came silently at a rush, club in its left hand to be out of sight, aiming to hit the human behind the knee.

Sunbright saw all of this, in a half second, as a gray, threatening blur. He didn't really understand the threat before he swung instinctively.

Slinging the long sword blade so fast and viciously it hissed in the thin mountain air, Sunbright aimed for the orc's head below its helmet. Harvester's tip sounded a splotch as it split the captain's face, then a clang as it struck and bounced off the red-gray granite. A well-struck blow and a mistake, dulling a spot on his blade. How would Blindhawk and Thornwing rate that?

Yet even the mistake he exploited. If the sword wanted to bounce off the cliff, so be it. Throwing his shoulders behind the flying steel, he sheared into an orc's arm as it swept for his head. The blow clipped off the wrist so club and hand flew in one direction and the orc's scarlet blood in another.

But so fast, so clean was the blow, the orc failed to notice it had lost a hand. The spurting hand chopped at the barbarian's head, spraying him with blood. Then the orc stumbled-and crashed full into Sunbright.

This is bad, screamed his two phantom instructors.

Stinking like a flyblown goat, the orc sagged against Sunbright's chest, bowling him back against the granite wall. Directly under the young man's nose was a dirty neck speckled with coarse black hairs and flea bites on gray skin. And over that ugly sight, a horde of orcs-How many? He hadn't counted his kills! — pressed him, howling in triumph. The dying orc hung on Sunbright's right arm, dragging it down, entangling Harvester's long blade. Before he could yank free or shove the orc off, a stone-studded club whipped at his head. Ducking, he felt the greasy smoke-stained wood brush his topknot, heard black obsidian teeth crunch on the cliff wall. Another orc punched at his face with a club, and Sunbright almost snapped his neck whipping the other way.

Use what you have, urged his teachers. Use what the gods have given you, Sunbright had told himself moments ago. But what was it?

'Ah!' he gasped aloud. Sensing more than seeing, he judged there was one orc crowding his left, two still

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