Elias lunged forward with a sword swing that would have left Marcrum short a few ribs if he hadn’t stopped it. Ironblood was more than up to the task, though. The weathered greatsword knocked its smaller cousin aside with sparks and a sharp clang of steel.
Marcrum’s parry left his younger foe staggered. The boy—he was more that than a man—was quick to find his footing and pressed back into his attack.
He was an amateur, but Marcrum could admit the boy had good instincts for the sword. Instincts that, given time and training, could help him grow into a fighter of note.
If only Elias hadn’t challenged him.
“Are you Marcrum Grimjaw?”
It wasn’t the first time Marcrum had been asked that question, and he had recognized the tone at once. The tone of someone looking for a fight. Even without the fame he’d earned in the Battle of the Burning Lands, he’d always been a lure for conflict. He’d lost count of all the fools who had hoped to make their reputation by killing him.
Elias hadn’t come for anything like that, though. He was here for Ironblood.
“Why in the hells would you want my sword?” Marcrum had demanded, his sun-soaked face scrunching with bewilderment.
“Because it isn’t yours!” Elias had shot back without hesitation. “Ages ago your ancestors came to my clan’s lands to raid and pillage. They stole a sacred sword—what you call Ironblood! That blade was forged and blessed by the hands of my forefathers! I swore I would be the one to finally bring it back where it belongs.”
Marcrum had scoffed at giving up Ironblood. Whether or not Elias’s story was true, the sword had been in his family for generations. His father had wielded it and his grandfather before him. Marcrum himself had relied on the blade in countless bouts and battles. He knew it like an old friend, right down to its smallest notches and nicks.
But Elias wouldn’t back down. He challenged Marcrum to a blood duel and now here they were, surrounded in the town square by onlookers who could read the inevitable just as well as Marcrum.
Elias might have instincts, but Marcrum was a honed and famous fighter. He had slain giants and trolls. He’d led the charge against the rotting hordes of the Necromancer Fiernan. The slightest twitch in his opponent’s form was all Marcrum needed to predict the next move before it happened. It was harder not killing the boy than it would be to end him.
Elias’s attacks kept coming and Marcrum knew that sooner or later there would be no avoiding blood. The boy was committed to his cause. He wouldn’t stop until he had the sword or Marcrum was dead. And Marcrum had no intention of dying.
“You can’t beat me, boy,” he said gruffly, slapping aside another harrying swipe. “Give it up!”
“I won’t!” Elias declared, his face bright red from exertion. “I swore an oath! I won’t dishonor my people!”
Marcrum swung Ironblood wide, forcing the younger man to scamper away. He lost his footing on a stone and slipped into a painful crash that left him gasping and winded. Groaning and coughing, Elias scrambled back to his feet, desperately trying to reclaim some semblance of a fighter’s stance.
“I wasn’t even trying with that one, boy.”
“Shut up!” Elias snarled, panting for breath.
“You have potential,” Marcrum said. “But you’re going to die if you don’t let this go.”
“Would you?” Elias asked, still breathing hard. “Would you give up if it were you?”
Marcrum shrugged. “No,” he conceded, “I can’t say I would.” He glanced down at Ironblood in his hands. “I guess I’m no less a fool than you are.”
He gazed across the makeshift arena of sticks arranged in the dirt. Elias looked nothing like him. He was wiry and thin, with a narrow face and a chin covered in youthful fuzz barely worth calling a beard. Marcrum stood a foot taller, with limbs like copper tree trunks and a thinning head of silvering mud-colored hair.
Even so, he couldn’t help but see himself in the brashness of his foe.
Marcrum had no children to pass Ironblood down to. Decades of bedding fawning damsels and brothel women had yielded no children. The line of heroes that spawned him would end when he did.
“I don’t want to kill you, boy,” he said solemnly.
“I’m not going to stop!” Elias cried defiantly. “Not until I—”
“You can have the sword.”
A murmur rose from the townspeople watching them. Elias glared across at him with disbelief.
“Is this some sort of trick?”
Marcrum shook his head. “No trick,” he said. “But I—”
“You what?” Elias shot back, teeth bared like a beast’s and his weapon still held at the ready.
Marcrum gritted his teeth. “I’m not interested in handing it over to some pissant amateur.”
“What are you saying?”
Marcrum pushed out an exasperated sigh. “Let me teach you how to use it.”
Elias coughed out a laugh. “You were trying to kill me less than a minute ago!”
Marcrum couldn’t deny that. Swallowing the knot growing in his throat, he tossed Ironblood out onto the ground between them. The massive sword landed in the dirt with an echoing thud.
“Take it, boy,” he said. “Or I can pick it back up and we can finish this the way it was going to go.”
Elias said nothing for a moment. Marcrum could see the thoughts churning on his furrowed face, weighing if he could trust the older warrior’s word. After a moment of eternity, the boy’s glower softened. He lowered his sword and wiped the sweat from his brow. He drew in a weary breath.
“I suppose… I suppose I could let you teach me.”
The edges of Marcrum’s scarred lips curved into a small smile.
“Good,” he said, nodding softly. The crowd around them began to dissolve. “There’s definitely a few things I can show you.”
— Stew Shearer