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The steele wolf, p.6
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       The Steele Wolf, p.6

           Chanda Hahn
 
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  “Tsk tsk. Seems the warrior got distracted by his lover and let his guard down. Not a smart move.”

  I was at an impasse with the knife at Fenri’s throat. The drunk had surprised us both, but that just showed us what a smart adversary he was. Before I had a chance to act and try to save Fenri, the Stahler pulled his knife away from Fenri’s throat and backed away. He tucked his knives back into his furs and turned his back on us in a gesture of good will or as an insult to us.

  “Slow, both of you are slow. I was expecting more. I don’t know why I keep expecting more from the Valdyrstal, but I’m a bit let down. Tomorrow should be an easy win.” He turned and pointed a hand at Fenri. “If you’re not going to share her, then get her home. Don’t want my prize ruined. And as for you,” he pointed to me and smiled crookedly, “It’s okay, love, I’ll just claim my kiss tomorrow after I win the tourney.” He stepped backwards into the darkness of the forest and was gone.

  Chapter 10

  The next morning we headed over to the meadow. Various fighting rings were set up around the field, with a rope circle hammered to the ground. Tents were spread throughout for the clansmen that traveled here and didn’t have any family in town. Other tents held varying aromas of stews and meats that were cooking. A medical tent had been centrally set up close to the fighting rings. I ducked into a small tent that was the farthest from the fighting arena, the one I had asked Odin to set up for me.

  “Thalia, my girl, this is the daftest plan I have ever heard,” Odin said as he greeted me inside the tent. I quickly stripped out of my ceremonial outfit into my pants and shirt as Odin began to buckle me into light fitting leather armor.

  “Do you have a better one?” I called back to him cattily.

  “Nah, it’s just so crazy it might work.”

  I already felt hot as the leather covered me. I was aiming for light. Some fighters had dressed themselves with so much armor trying to impress or to look intimidating that it would be their downfall. It would also slow them down and bake them in the sun. I was actually counting on it. When I was outfitted from head to toe, I tucked up my hair and put on my helm, and then began to have serious doubts. I had never fought while wearing armor.

  “What’s your plan?” Odin asked me, his face serious as he grabbed my shoulder to stop me from leaving the tent.

  “Truthfully?”

  “Yes, truthfully, how do you expect to win?” he asked again as he handed me a sword, one that I had become familiar with since I had spent the last week practicing with it whenever Bearen was absent.

  “I plan to cheat!” I grinned and then ducked into the crowd. I felt a small pool of sweat begin to drip down my back at the thought of being caught using magic among hundreds of my clan members. It was worth the risk. I was planning to enter the competition and try to win. If I could win, then I could declare myself the Kragh Aru winner and choose to stay single. I would have proven my strength and no one could deny my right to lead or wed when I wanted to. If I somehow couldn’t win, then I would hope that Fenri would.

  Making my way towards the fighting arenas, I hung back so I could get a good view of my competition. There were over forty fighters that had shown up to compete for the title of Kragh Aru.

  Various shields, swords, axes, and bows were displayed on wooden stands and the fighters were grouped into three groups. Each group would be pitted against each other with the loser being eliminated and the winner moving on to the next round. The winner would need to achieve three points in any combination: one point for disarming the opponent, one point for breaking a shield, and one point if the opponent steps across the rope. I positioned myself so that I wouldn’t be in the same group as Fenri. I didn’t want to be the one to fight him in the first round, or even the second. I hoped I would never have to. I was counting on someone else taking him out, I didn’t know what I would do, if I was actually pitted against him.

  We were paired off and I watched as the first set of fighters paired entered my group’s ring. Two very large clan members faced off against each other. One giant of a man with long, braided red hair and beard with a two handed sword was paired against an equally sized blonde clansmen with an oversized battle axe.

  The earth shook as they ran towards each other screaming, weapons clashing and the sounds echoing through valley. I did everything I could to not give in and place my hands over my ears at the noise they made. Teeth gritted in determination, spit flying, the two were equally matched. My heart pounded as I realized I couldn’t possibly hope to match them for strength. My rounds would have to be won through speed and agility.

  My eyes caught a flash of red fur and I moved so I could watch Fenri’s fight in the other ring. Fenri fought a much larger opponent and danced around him and used quick maneuvers. I saw him feint high and turn and bring the handle of his sword into the gut of the man. The man doubled over in pain and his sword dropped.

  Fenri kicked him and the man stumbled backward over the rope. A roar went up from the crowd. Pieces of a broken shield on the ground had indicated that Fenri had already scored one point earlier and it was two more for the win. Another roar went up as the red haired barbarian broke the wooden shield of the blonde fighter in the other ring.

  What was I thinking? I couldn’t do this. Faraway had positioned himself with a few other stock horses as close as he could to my arena. I had made sure that he was pampered, well fed and rested before this day came. He deserved it for participating with my crazy plan. And when the day was over, we both would be sore and tired.

  When my arena emptied, I was paired with a fighter who actually was shorter and stockier compared to the previous two fighters. It was the one bald headed Stahler. Today his head glimmered with sweat in the sun and he chose to forgo a helm.

  I bit my lip in trepidation as I saw the bald one’s weapon of choice. It was a large battle-axe. My sword was half the size of the axe and I stilled in fear. How was I to evade that edge? I hadn’t fought against an axe that size even in training. I almost turned and ran. I now regretted not staying and practicing that day at the Citadel when I refused to fight with a battle-axe. I’m sure Kael would be laughing now.

  My opponent grinned at me and began to bark challengingly. Walking to the stand, I picked up a heavy wooden shield and prayed that I would survive my foolish plan. I tried to calm the beating of my heart and concentrate on reaching for power as I stepped into the ring. The Dømari, or game master, started the games and kept score. When he yelled out the begin command, my opponent rushed me, swinging his heavy axe.

  Jumping to the side, I rolled to my knees and brought up my wooden shield just in time to block the downward blow at my head. I grunted in pain as the weight of the blow reverberated through my arm, and I could hear the first crack of my wooden shield. I almost dropped my sword to use two hands on my shield. Stupid, stupid, stupid, I chanted to myself.

  Pushing up with both hands against the shield, I tried to push my opponent back a foot or so. I barely won that ground when he came at me again. This time I used the shield to deflect the axe blow to the side of me and I swiped my sword downward, intent on trying to break the handle of the axe. The sound of wood being hit was the only succession I got, as the handle was far thicker than I had anticipated and I didn’t have enough strength to break through it. I pulled back on the sword to feel it stick in the long handle of the axe. I heard a bark of laughter, and I looked up to see him land a kick on my stomach and I flew, releasing the handle of my sword as it stuck fast into the wooden axe handle.

  “EIN!” the Dømari called and pointed to the bald Stahler.

  He grinned and strutted around the arena like a rooster. Walking over to the weapons rack, I glanced over them before selecting a different weapon. My eyes fastened upon a mace and chain. Grasping my shield and mace, I reentered the arena as a small plan began formulating in my brain, swinging the mace experimentally. I was down one point already. I would have to take him out, and fast.

  The Dømari sh
outed to begin and I had to hand it to him, the Stahler didn’t try anything new; he rushed me, same as before. Moving backwards, I got myself as close to the rope as I felt comfortable being. Focusing power, I waited and quickly sidestepped him and turned my back towards him in a graceful arc as I swung the mace as hard as I could towards the shield, and at the same time I focused more power behind it. The mace hit the wooden shield and I heard a grunt from him as the shield split into three pieces.

  “EIN!” the Dømari called out in my favor.

  Surprised, my bald opponent stumbled and this time I advanced, swinging the mace forward as I closed in.

  He grinned in triumph as he brought up his axe to catch the mace and wind it around the handle. He knew with one good tug he could disarm me. But that is what I was counting on. With the mace chain wrapped around the axe, he started to pull backwards on it and I held on and ran towards him. I jumped forward the same time he yanked leaping onto his bent knee, I kicked him as hard as I could in his chest using his own momentum to pull me into him, which caused him to stumble backwards over the rope and drop his hold on the axe handle.

  “Tvier, Prir and Svegari!” Which meant two, three and winner. I thanked God that these early rounds went quickly. Walking over to a stand, I grabbed a tankard of water and drank it down, making sure to stay hydrated and to not drink any mead. Sitting in the shadows of a huge tree, I waited and watched the opponents.

  How’s Fenri doing? I asked Faraway.

  He’s won all of his matches, Faraway answered back. So have Bvork and a few others.

  My next match, I waited to see what the other opponent was bringing into the ring before selecting my weapon. Luckily it was a sword. Feeling more confident, I followed a similar procedure of fighting, only this time I made attempts to draw out the fighting a little longer and added more hard strikes to the shield before using power to crack it in two. I didn’t have to use power to work on disarming them of their swords. I used the basic training I learned from Garit and Kael.

  I grinned as I thought about Kael accusing me of not engaging in combat. I did get disarmed once again, but the score was tied one-one. It came down to sword skill and stamina. I got pushed over the rope once and then the score was two-one and I was able to push him over the rope. Finally, I was able to disarm him, and take the win. I watched tiredly as his sword hit the dirt. I heard cursing and kicking as he walked out of the ring.

  Odin slowly walked over to me and handed me more water, being careful to not show me too much attention. “You’re slowing down, lass, but not as much as the larger brutes. If you keep your focus, maybe you can do this.”

  Nodding my head, I took another swallow, refusing to say a word lest someone hear me. I was physically exhausted and losing control. I was drawing on more and more of Faraway’s strength. More cries of disappointment and shouts of congratulations were heard as another match ended.

  “I think it’s gonna be close,” Odin whispered as he covered his mouth and stroked his beard to hide his words. “I think it will be between Bvork, Fenri and that one.” Odin tilted his head towards the far arena and I felt my face turn into a disgusted frown. It was the Stahler clansmen with the dirty furs and helms who had assaulted me the night before.

  Oh, great, I thought, just what I needed. When my turn came again to fight, I noticed we were now being paired against the winners from the other arenas.

  Fenri was pitted against Bvork and they were equally matched in strength and swordsmanship. I could tell from the way they taunted each other, that there was some intense dislike between the two men. They weren’t fighting for a simple win; they were fighting for something else—pride. And they were ruthless in their pursuit. They were tied two each and I prayed that Fenri would come out on top, when Bvork took a handful of dirt and threw it into Fenri’s green eyes, blinding him. Taking full advantage, Bvork swung his sword and sliced into Fenri’s leg, bringing him down to the ground. Blood spilled from the leg wound, and dirt covered his face. Fenri tried to scrabble away holding his sword while desperately trying to wipe the dirt from his eyes.

  Bvork came up from behind and grabbed Fenri’s head and smacked it into the ground with a loud thud. Blood poured from a fresh wound coating Fenri’s forehead. The onlookers Boo’d Bvork’s unsportsmanlike conduct. Without pausing, Bvork stepped on Fenri’s hand that gripped the sword and I heard a sickening crunch and a muffled scream from Fenri.

  I turned my head so I wouldn’t see, and tears started to come to my eyes unbidden. What had I done? Because of me, Fenri was injured. An ugly laugh came from Bvork and I turned back to see him kick Fenri’s sword away from his prone body. The crowd turned silent; there was no joy in winning this way. So far very little blood had been spilled today, which was rare, but none that was done with such obvious intent and hatred. Even in the heat of the games, a warrior’s battle rage took over and there were always a few in the moment casualties. But our clan was a clan of warriors and they readily accepted any loss as normal.

  I slid to my knees and stared into the arena to see if Fenri was all right. He was flat on his back. Slowly he turned his dirt and bloodstained face towards the crowd, blinked the last of the dirt from his eyes, and stared at his crushed hand.

  His eyes then followed the path of his hand past the arena to meet up with my wide tear-stained ones. It took Fenri only a few heartbeats before his eyes widened in surprise as he recognized me in my warrior disguise. Sitting up and cradling his injured hand, I could see that his face went from astonished, to anger, to a blank mask. With all of the dignity he could muster, he pulled himself off of the ground.

  Fenri walked towards me and stopped, leaning in to me to whisper angrily, “Is this what you wanted?” Glaring at the people around us, who backed away in fear, he went on. “I could have made you happy. I thought you wanted me to prove to you that I was strong enough to be your lifemate. I had no idea that this is what you had in mind. What were you thinking?”

  Holding still, I shook my head and raised my shoulders in answer.

  “Well, I hope you win, or that you are ready to live with the consequences,” he said, nodding toward my cousin who was speaking with my uncle Rayneld, a great bear of a man. With that last warning still ringing in my ears, Fenri pushed past me roughly and headed away from the crowds, steering clear of the medical tent.

  Dropping my head in shame, I looked at my scuffed boot. I felt defeated. My only hope now was to win the competition and maybe try to convince him of what I was trying to do later. I gripped my sword in anger and waited until it was my turn to enter the ring.

  The crowd parted for Bvork. Raising his hands to the crowds, he saluted them and then strutted in carrying a two-handed broad sword and no shield. He fought with a shield with Fenri. He must be changing his tactics after talking to his father.

  Looking at Rayneld, I saw that his black beady eyes narrowed as he studied me and then nodded to his son. Sweat started to pool down my back as I looked at his son too. He must be extremely confident in his blocking abilities if he chose to fight without a shield.

  There went my plan. He must have heard that I won most of my fights by breaking the shield. Now I would have to win by disarming him or pushing him out of the ring. Licking my lips nervously, I waited in the center for him to approach me.

  “Ah, what’s this? How did a young boy like you make it this far in the competition without getting skewered alive?” Bvork spoke, his crooked bottom teeth showing. “How do you plan to win the Kragh Aru, eh? You’re barely a man. I don’t think you’re man enough for our clan leader’s daughter!” Loud, raucous laughter rose up from the crowd around him.

  I gritted my teeth in anger and watched him carefully. Making a quick decision, I went to the sidelines and handed off my shield as well. I was tiring quickly and I needed to lighten the load.

  Bvork’s eyebrow rose disbelievingly, and then he chuckled as I came back and gripped my sword. When the match started, I decided to attack instead of waiti
ng for him to. Rushing forward, I swung as he stepped to the side, bringing his sword up to block. Then he swung and I parried.

  We continued to dance around the ring, and sweat dripped freely down my back and face and into my eyes. It wasn’t until I saw him grin in triumph that I realized he was purposely trying to drag me along and wear me down. He wasn’t using his full strength to fight me, he was toying with me and it was working.

  The next swing, I blocked. Gritting my teeth, I felt the vibrations ring and I lost hold of my sword. I watched as it hit the ground, a puff of dirt surrounded it.

  “Ein!”

  Quickly, I opened myself up to Faraway.

  Help! I need you. And immediately warmth encompassed me, and I felt renewed. This time it was my turn to grin in triumph as my footwork and sword work became faster and I paraded him around the ring. His grin turned down as he went on the defense. With a large sword it was hard to disarm him, so I quickly pushed him back and kept attacking until he stepped on the rope.

  “Ein” was called. I grinned and Bvork’s face turned downright ugly, which wiped my smile right off. Bvork walked over to the weapons rack and picked up a second sword and quickly entered the ring and engaged me in combat before I could even think of picking up a shield.

  I marveled at his strength as he maneuvered both swords easily. That marvel turned to fear as I was quickly put on the defense. I felt the sting of the sword rip through the flesh of my upper arm and I blanched in surprise. Backing up, I felt the boundary rope hit the heel of my boot and I ducked as both swords swung at my head in an effort to take it off. Rolling, I turned and barely got up before another sword came at my midsection. Jumping back, I felt the sword nick my midsection. If this kept up, I would bleed out through numerous wounds.

  Gasping for breath, I tried to focus my powers but Bvork came at me like a mad man, crisscrossing his swords in a complicated maneuver. I watched and counted as the weight of the heavier sword made the pattern a little off. Feinting to the right, I dodged left and thrust my sword sideways into the swirling vortex near his hands and gritted my teeth as both swords came to a halt and my blade made contact and nicked his hands. Bvork yelled and dropped one sword. I had hoped for two.

 
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