One man or thousands (Part 2)

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As Rainhart's senses expanded to fill the ring, he blocked another darting attack from his opponent.

That was the moment that he realised something was wrong.

He had seen the darkwood charm on the man's neck. He had seen Valdon put his hand over it and tuck it into Bernd's breastplate. And yet... 

He could read him.

Somehow, Rainhart could read Bernd's movements before he made them. He felt the intention of a jabbing attack before it was realised, and danced out of the way. Bernd recovered and stepped back, assessing. Rainhart could hear his thoughts: he's fast... he doesn't defend his left properly... 

Had Bernd's darkwood charm broken? Or had the great gods interceded on Rainhart's side? He narrowed his gaze on Bernd as the other man closed the gap between them again.

I'm better than him, thought Bernd. He is letting me lead the attack. The king said he was untried. This came with an image of Bernd being called into the great hall at Traumwald. Valdon lounging on a throne.

Rainhart pulled his attention back. There was danger in being able to read an opponent. Bernd was right. He was the better fighter. They both knew it. Steeling himself Rainhart launched a series of thrusts and jabs, trying to claim the initiative. For a moment he had Bernd on the defensive, but then Bernd found his balance, and the shadow of a thought was all that saved Rainhart from a punishing hit to the gut. 

Their swords closed together again. There was sweat dripping down Rainhart's back. His armour seemed to have become heavy as stones around his neck, tied to his limbs.

Bernd was ferocious in the attack, raining blows down on him. Rainhart was a little faster, but not fast enough. Bernd locked the hilts of their swords together, and Rainhart whirled, managing to avoid being disarmed, but at the cost of a sharp pain lancing up his arm from his wrist.

He broke backwards. Bernd thought, I had him then. Did I sprain his wrist?

This seemed likely to Rainhart as he sucked air though his teeth and fought to keep from showing how badly his sword hand hurt. 

They closed again. Blow met blow, parry, dodge, engage and retreat. They circled. 

Standing half-in and half-out of the still place gave Rainhart the fight the feeling of a dream. He would die before surrendering. If there was a breath left in him or an ounce of strength in his limbs he would fight for Tancred. He would stand against a world where people like Valdon, Maldwyn and Holle thrived: people who were driven by their passions, their greed, their ambition.

He would fall, and his spirit would sink through the ground and Milos would find him and bring him to the place beyond death.

Had it been minutes or hours? Had he fought well? Rainhart could hardly see through the sweat stinging his eyes. Every time his sword met Bernd's he thought his wrist would give out. There was no sensation in his fingers.

Bernd was tiring too. Rainhart could see that from his posture, and sense it from his mind. Frustration. Bernd had sized Rainhart up and knew himself for the better fighter.

This should have been over. But the boy is fast. Time to finish it, thought Bernd, and closed on Rainhart.

Rainhart put his sword up. It almost spun from his hand again and he hissed in pain. He felt the glee from Bernd.

So the boy is wounded.

Bloodied, but unbowed, thought Rainhart. He parried another stroke, slipped around Bernd's guard and put some distance between them. Bernd closed again.

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