Saturday, 2 June 2018

Episode II - I Cliffs of Alsira (Shard I)

A Cliff-top Duel

Cliffs of Alsira
(Shard I)

The warm winds flowing in from the sandy deserts in the south were beginning to pick up in ferocity, from gentle breezes to hard gusts. The brightest of the twin suns had arisen to rest atop the horizon creating a rich glow as the second, dimmer sun, languished after. Grains of white-gold sand peppered against the rocky cliff-side while even more flowed like dry waves over the rocky plateau below.

A young woman stood at the cliff’s edge staring out at the desolate landscape before her. She took in the sight of the flat, rocky plateau stretching to the extents of her sight, broken only by the occasional mountain, gorge, or mesa. A thick line of turquoise waters surrounded by a dim green set of streaks snaked its way through the left-most side of her vision. Past that blue slash across the landscape, large dunes of white sand stretched further beyond. She stretched out her arms embracing the land she grew up in and swelled up her chest to drink in the cooling air.

She closed her eyes for a moment and could feel the wind tugging at her blood-stained hair; sending loose rivulets, those not constrained into tight braids, into a dance around her head. Her left hand held a long-handled klaive loosely outward while her right hand lowered down into an open palm. The wind felt comforting on her bare arms, mid-riff, and legs as beads of sweat began to dry away. The gray wolf’s fur trim around the collar of her leather armor teased at her neck as the wind blew through it.

Slowly, the young woman broke the tranquil and inviting peace of her stance to arch her back and bend her legs. She relaxed her thighs allowing herself to drop backward for a moment. As she did she strained them hard to lift herself back up ever-so-slightly. She held her chin outward as her neck extended backward and her eyes shot open.

Roughly forged metal passed by her face within a scant hair’s width from the tip of her nose. The blade of the heavy sword managed to snip a few errant strands of her hair. Her bangs caressed the reflective parts of the metal with a sanguine hue. She could see a flash of her ice-blue eyes as she saw her face reflected upon the long blade. Small flecks of sand left the pockmarked surface of the weapon to sprinkle lightly upon her freckled cheeks.

As soon as the main thrust of the sword passed by her head with a faint whistle, she allowed the muscles in her thighs to strain harder. The open palm of her right hand hit the ground and with some force, she flexed herself from a falling position back up into a crouching stance. As she pushed with her legs and hand, she swiveled her hips under her to face the wielder of the blade.

“Damn you, girl. I almost had you!” The voice was gruff and deep, containing as much annoyance as mirth. The source of the curse was a giant bearded man in full armor just an arm’s length from her. “I could have finally been done with you.” The man’s heavily muscled and tattooed arms took hold of the sword’s hilt and flipped it up from a sideways swing to a high arc as he lifted it above his head.

“You’re not done with me yet.” The young woman quickly grabbed a handful of white sand in her right hand while swiveling the hilt of her klaive in the other to point backward. She was ready for any further attacks now that she held the flat of her blade against her forearm. The lean muscles in her legs tightened as she readied to spring forth.

“A pity.” The much older man gave a slight shrug as he lifted the man-sized sword above his head and then let it crash down to earth in front of him. The blade whistled through the air as he gave a hard groan that soon erupted into a frothing howl.

The young woman’s eyes grew large as she realized the immense weight crashing down on her. She twisted her left arm upwards at an uncomfortably steep angle. She punched her left wrist with her sand-filled fist to steady her arm as the man-cleaving blade struck the flat of her klaive. Sparks erupted as metal battered metal and thunder erupted over the quietly blowing desert winds. The steep angle of her blade barely deflected the impact of the sword and pulled her downward behind it’s swinging force. Both blades slid against each other as squeals of metal-on-metal followed the impact.

Taking advantage of downward momentum, she kicked her legs up to the right allowing her left elbow to impact the dusty rock beneath her. With her legs now free of the ground she slid forward on her side while managing to wrap one of her long legs around the thick ankle of the warrior before her. With a pivot of her body, she brought her other leg up with her knee against her chest and the top of her foot pressing beneath the warrior’s inner thigh.

The large warrior narrowed his eyes as he looked down at what the young woman was attempting. His reaction was sour, reflecting his reaction towards the young woman having just entered close enough that he could not cut her down with his sword. He let the momentum carry through on his swing as his sword skipped off the stone ground.

The young woman continued to slide closer to the warrior’s feet. With her lifted leg she tightened in on the man’s immense thigh and pushing with the downward-pointed tip of her klaive, she sprung up a few inches and swung in the air. Both of her legs tightened around the man’s leg as she lifted herself up, using only the muscles in her abdomen, and flicking her head forward in a serpentine flourish. She gave a wicked smile as she punched her left arm past the man’s face.

The backward-held blade shot past the man’s face and severed a braid from his beard. His eyes grew wide with rage even before his hands could reclaim control over his sword. The young woman continued to lean against him, with her gleeful face staring up from beneath his chest. Slowly she raised her right hand, palm upturned, to her chin and as she pouted her full lips she blew the white sand she had seized into his eyes.

The large warrior coughed and took a step backward as the coarse sand blinded him. He dropped his sword and the young woman let go of her leg’s grip to drop to the ground and scurry on all fours away. The warrior wiped at his eyes with large and leather-covered hands while taking one more step backward and kneeling over while shaking his head.

“You uncouth, little runt!” The large warrior pressed his meaty thumbs into his sockets in hopes of liberating the sand from his tearing eyes. He gave one more hard cough while kneeling forward and tried to snort the sand from his nose.

The young woman remained in a crouched stance near the edge of the cliff. She stretched one of her long legs forward, aimed at the warrior. With a skittering leap, she cautiously reached to the ground to snatch up her prize. She pivoted back on her heel to restore the distance between her and the snorting man. She held up the braid of beard-hair in her right hand and waggled it slowly in front of her. The grin remained on her lips as she waited for the man to turn and stare at her.

“You’re getting slow, old man.” The young woman flipped the hilt of the klaive in her left hand as she idly spun it around in her palm. She kept the muscles of her legs tensed and ready to leap at a moment’s notice.

“Old man?” The warrior erupted with a deep laughter. “If I’ve grown old, it is only from having to put up with the likes of you.” After wiping away enough sand to see through red and bleary eyes, the warrior stepped forward and stuck the enormous toe of his leather boot beneath the hilt of his abandoned sword. With a kick, he lifted the sword up and seized upon the leather-wrapped hilt once more.

“If I’m such a burden on the great Ylethus — esteemed Vhollen of the Alsira — then why not be done with me once and for all?” The young woman ceased spinning her klaive and leveled its tip at the warrior before her. “Enough of these flirtations with death, old man. I know how it pains you to be responsible for an unwanted orphan, the cursed one that you hide away like some hidden sin.”

Ylethus lunged forward and hit his fist against his chest while making a grunt of challenge at the young woman. As soon as his feet hit the ground, she jumped away from him into a back-flip, coming dangerously within reach of the edge of the cliff. With her feet on the ground, she slowly raised herself up to standing and flourished her blade before her.

The grizzled warrior ran his free hand through the thinning and graying hair on his head while giving a short chuckle. “You’re not a hidden sin, dumb girl. You may be an orphan, and I cannot control the reactions of the other Alsira towards you, but I see you as mine. I took you in, and with me, you are wanted.” Ylethus idly let his sword slip from his hand and then seized it with a better grip. “You are correct about one thing in all your self-pity, however. Since you are mine, and I am responsible for you, your life does belong to me. It is mine to take as I wish.” A smile erupted from beneath his bushy mustache that connected to his immense beard.

With a bolt of energy that seemed unlikely from one as immense as he, Ylethus ran forward to close the distance between him and the young woman. He let the pommel of his sword hit his wrist as he lifted his sword up and outward like a lance as he ran. He gave another long howl as he rushed forward with deadly intent.

The young woman threw her severed beard-prize at the charging hulk of Ylethus limply and let the smile drop from her face. She took a single second to assess her options, realizing that the cliff’s edge was only an inch away from her heels. There was no dodging to the left or the right as the edge now surrounded her. She blinked for a moment while drawing in one last breath of dry air and then let it out in a rage-filled scream as her legs sprung forward beneath her.

She began her run towards Ylethus who continued to charge at her and with only a second to spare she leveled her blade at him while jumping with all the force her legs could give to her. As she lifted up she brought her legs up and behind her, trying to get height over the warrior’s sword. She kept her klaive pointed before her at an angle to sever the artery in Ylethus’ neck.

Despite the redness, Ylethus’ eyes twinkled as he anticipated the young woman’s attack. He let the momentum behind his blade drag it forth as his hand slid along the hilt. He flicked his meaty fingers around the pommel and pulled the sword back sharply with two fingers. He let his girth carry him as he slid on the sand-dusted rock. Within the span of a heartbeat he was able to slide his hand down to the middle of the blade and with a snap of his wrist he brought the tip in towards his chest.

The woman was undaunted by the handiwork that Ylethus pulled off before her. She continued soaring a few feet further in the air, allowing the world’s weight to draw her toward her target. She had left herself open in the air and had to commit to her attack.

Ylethus grabbed the tip of his sword with his free hand and felt the sharpness of the blade dig into the exposed parts of his palm. The cool metal felt comforting and the callouses of war insulated his hand from any pain. He held his stance to the very last moment and with one last groan he seized upon his sword and jerked it forward with all his strength.

The pommel of the great sword flew through the air to make contact with the young woman’s face. A savage crack erupted as metal impacted flesh and bone. As soon as the sword’s end made contact with the woman’s face, Ylethus pushed the blade’s tip over his chest like a pinwheel. The blade swiveled without a grip on it until he could seize upon it with his other hand. Once he could feel the leather between his fingers he swept upwards with the flat of his blade to impact the woman in the ribs.

Ylethus turned his body as he slid, easily dodging past the woman’s blade by a few inches and allowed his feet to skitter to a halt near the cliff’s edge. He let his sword drop and threw it into the air to catch it with his preferred hand. The young woman impacted the ground hard and she remained there for several moments as embarrassment and rage tore through her.

“You think you’re so deceptive.” Ylethus gave another chuckle as he took a step towards his wounded prey. “I’ve trained you to fight since you could hold a sword. You have the skill, but you refuse to temper it with wisdom.” He lifted his sword up and let it drop into his scabbard with a single motion. “You still haven’t mastered the most important lesson I’ve given you after all these years; honor.”

Ylethus closed the distance to the young woman and knelt down with his arm outstretched, hoping that she would grab it and get back up to her feet. The woman looked up at him with tear-filled eyes and blood dribbling from her nose. He could see in her eyes that he had wounded her pride more than her face. She lifted herself up to a crouching position and pushed away his hand with her own. She stumbled to her feet and stepped back from him.

“Ghelta…” Ylethus started and then ended his words. “It was just a little sword-bite, don’t be like that.” He took another step toward her with his arm still outstretched, this time not to help her to her feet, but more for comfort.

Ghelta wiped the blood from her face with the back of her hand. All she managed to accomplish was to spread the blood across her cheek and allow new rivulets of crimson to drip over her lip. She flicked a scabbard at her waist and dropped her klaive into it. She took one more step away from Ylethus and lifted her top lip into a snarl.

“So, this is why you brought me up to these cliffs. Just so you could remind me of my place and hit me in the face?” Ghelta tried to aim her words like weapons at Ylethus. She could see in his eyes the concern he had for her well-being. The weapons may have been sheathed, but she knew she could slash at him with her tongue just as well as metal.

Ylethus stared at her with worry for a few more moments and then let his face fall to the ground. “I brought you up here for training.” He let his outstretched arm fall and brought it in to cross over his chest. “The bloody nose is just my way of caring for you.” He gave a sardonic grin at her.

“We usually train at the barracks. Why are we out here, in the middle of nowhere?” Ghelta outstretched her arms to indicate the cliffs around them. “I appreciate the change of scenery, don’t get me wrong. Some fresh air compared to all the stink of the warriors back in Alsira Thaenat.”

“Today is a special day.” Ylethus lifted his eyes up and focused intently upon Ghelta. “Not only do I need to beat some honor into you, but I need to know if you can handle yourself for what’s about to come.”

Ghelta took a few cautious steps forward and turned her head to the side to stare at Ylethus skeptically. “Is this my Kollishi Thaulp?” She narrowed her eyes and watched his every moment with anticipation.

Ylethus let both of his arms drop to his sides and gave a belabored sigh. “No.” He rolled his eyes and turned away from the young woman. “You’re not ready for that, yet.”

“Damn you to Gehemol!” Ghelta threw up her arms in the air and clenched her hands into fists. “I’m almost twenty Summers old, you stubborn bastard. There are young-lings half my age being allowed to prove themselves to become warriors, and here you are keeping me cooped up as your little plaything!”

Ylethus turned back with a snarl. “You’re not my plaything, girl. You’re the closest thing I have to a daughter. I tell you when you’re an adult.” Ylethus’ sky-blue eyes shone hotly beneath his bushy brow. “You are not yet ready to prove yourself in such a ritual.”

“You have no idea what it’s like.” Ghelta brought her clenched fists up to her chest and could feel her face growing flush. “I may be like your daughter, but I’m still an orphan. You won’t let me fight as a warrior. The other members of the Vhulkhovyr whisper things about me all the time. They call me the runt of the litter. They call me strange things like the ‘Witchling’ and the ‘Cursed.’ The only way I can get any respect is to carry my weight as a warrior.”

“You’re mine and I’m the gods-damned Vhollen of this city!” Ylethus bellowed his words, but he wasn’t as mad at Ghelta as he was at the situation that surrounded her. “I know how to command warriors. I’ve lived my life on the battlefield, Ghelta, I know what is best. You don’t know what the world outside is like. I don’t care what they call you. All I care about is that you’re safe and that you learn to fight well.”

“I know how to fight.” Ghelta wiped the drying blood from her lip once more. She grabbed the bridge of her nose with her index finger and thumb and snapped it back into place. Some more blood flowed freely.

“You know how to wield weapons. You don’t yet have the honor and the bravery to truly fight.” Ylethus began to fidget his fingers over the pommel of his sword. He stared away from Ghelta towards the distant Jol River that sliced its way through the deserts and rocky plateaus beyond the cliffs. “You don’t know what the battlefield is like. You don’t know loss, fear, and true rage.”

“You’re just mad that I threw sand in your face.” Ghelta smirked and began to dab at her face with her hand. She pressed her fingers to her cheek and winced at the soreness that tore through her.

“That proves you’re not yet ready. You may know how to win, but you don’t know the point of the fight.” Ylethus pulled himself away from whatever was worrying him in his mind. He lowered his head and looked back to Ghelta with a sideways glance. “I think I’ve been too lenient with you over these years.”

“Lenient?” Ghelta lowered her hand away from her face to stare slack-jawed at Ylethus. “You have me train almost every day. My first toy as a child was a gods-damned sword! The only books you’d read to me at night were the tales of the old Alsira battles and the conquests of Bulithol Gaereth.”

Ylethus gave another sigh at the knowledge that he wasn’t reaching the young woman. “I’ll show you today the lessons that I’ve failed to get through to you in the past.” He lifted his chest up to give a deep breath and continued. “Maybe if you can prove yourself to me this day, I’ll think about giving you a chance to prove yourself to the tribe with a Kollishi Thaulp.”

Ghelta’s crimson eyebrows peaked at the last two words. “Really?” She took two steps towards Ylethus while curling her hand under her chin and grabbing her elbow with the other. “You swear?”

“Upon your empty, blood-shaded skull.” Ylethus closed the distance and grabbed Ghelta by the head with his meaty fingers. He leaned down and kissed the top of her head. He could feel her pull slightly from beneath him, and he released his grip to let his hand slide slowly through her long hair.

“Well…” Ghelta finally got free and stood before Ylethus on her tip-toes. She leaned backward and forward from toes to heels and crossed her arms behind her. “Okay, then.”

“Good.” Ylethus stepped away and lifted his sword out of his scabbard. He looked the blade over in his hands and then let it swivel back into his dominant hand. “You’re going to get some lessons in honor from me, whether you like it or not.”

“Fighting, I’m fine with.” Ghelta lowered herself into a crouch and flicked her klaive free of her scabbard with her thumb. “Just tell me you’re not going to go on one of your rants.”

“They aren’t rants, girl! They’re lessons.” Ylethus shook his head, causing his beard to sway around his chest. “My words will temper you with wisdom. While my sword will beat those lessons into your thick skull.” Ylethus grinned wide, showing his large teeth above his beard. “Now prepare yourself!”

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