By Eric Zawadzki and Matthew Schick
“Auburn is for Wisdom. Few Mar can use Wisdom well, but its power is that of illusion and deception. Though it may not seem as practical as Energy, Power or Vitality, do not underestimate Wisdom’s power. Farl enchanters ruled kingdoms in Flecterra on the strength of their command of Wisdom.”
— Nightfire Tradition, Nightfire’s Magical Primer
Einar, wearing a new red cloak, regarded Sven coolly from the other end of the walkway. His marsord hung at his right knee, the gouger and hilt peeking out through the gap in the front of his cloak.
An overcast sky hid the noon sun. The six reds and Robert stood between Sven and the temple. The Duxess of Pidel and the Duxes of Skrem, Gunne, Piljerka and Wasfal, as well as Dux Feiglin and his son — the entire Council — blocked the way to the Citadel. Nightfire and Katla stood to the right of the Council.
“Weard Takraf,” Einar said, drawing his weapon slowly and examining the saw-toothed slasher. “I warn you to step down. You are a legend whose blood I do not want on my hands.”
Sven’s gaze never left Einar, though he adjusted the leather gloves on his hands. “Weard Schwert, I admire your devotion to principles so much like mine, but I must be Mardux.”
Einar nodded and extended the marsord toward Sven in challenge. “Then let the duel begin.”
Einar’s approach to duels, Sven had found out at dinner the previous night, was an enhanced warrior gambit. Power to strengthen the sword and his body, and increased speed to get to his opponent before a spell was cast. Sven had devised a defense. Before Einar even moved, he set a spell his opponent would trigger. Einar rushed him, raw force surrounding the blade, feet leaving a trail of lightning on the ground. Sven built a shield of force and braced himself. The two crashed into each other in a blaze of blue motes, but the force of Einar’s rush threw Sven backward.
He rolled to his feet even as Einar brought the gouger down on his back, below his ribs.
Sven gasped, fell down and rolled over. A healing spell began as flames crackled in the air, aimed at his opponent’s midsection, but Einar had moved in a flicker.
Sven’s triggered spell struck Einar blind. Momentarily confused, he froze, and Sven used that moment to heal himself fully.
Einar began the counterspell, but Sven, anticipating it, twisted and corrupted it delicately. Einar regained his sight, but now he saw six Svens standing before him, none of them real.
Abandoning his enhanced warrior gambit, Einar launched spheres of fire at the illusions Sven had placed in his mind, forcing Nightfire and the other reds to counter the attacks before they hit the audience of greens and blues below. Using this moment of uncertainty, Sven added more subtle components, though he felt the strain of working with illusions in spite of his preparations. The Mar were weakest with those parts of the myst, and using them quickly tired a wizard.
To all appearances, Einar stood in one place, completely immobilized by the phantasms of his corrupted spell. Sven locked a shell of countermagic around his uninjured opponent. A murmur drifted through the crowd as Sven casually took off his gloves and plucked Einar’s marsord from clutching fingers. Even the other eighth-degrees seemed ill at ease.
They are uncertain of what I have done.
Sven ceased gathering the myst, turning the marsord over in his hands absently. The sword had a blade on either side of the hilt. The longer blade, known as the slasher, was serrated on one side and finely honed on the other. The shorter blade, or gouger, was thicker with grooves on it to let blood drain. It was a weapon for use against Mar, Drake or swamp. Sven wiped his blood off the gouger.
He knew he possessed the power to kill this man. It was the way of duels. No one was foolish enough to leave a rival alive.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ari lean forward in anticipation of the inevitable.
What interest do you have in this man?
Sven looked at Einar carefully — the aged face, the brown eyes, the grey hair. The red cloak was still clean and free of wrinkles. He checked his magic. The illusion would fade soon — half a minute, at most. He would have to choose quickly. Last night, in talking with Nightfire and Katla, he had learned much more about Einar than his fighting style, and even then, knew what he would do if his gambit worked today.
You guarded our frontier once before. I will give you a chance to do so again.
Sven placed the tip of the marsord against Einar’s chest, prepared to summon magic if the man resisted, and waited. The crowd held its breath, watching him and looking for the killing blow. Einar came to his senses with a jolt, eyes wide in shock.
“How did you ...?”
“Einar Schwert, you are defeated. Yield.”
Einar attempted to cast a spell, but the shell held his magic at bay. He stared hard at Sven.
What are you thinking, old man? Sven kept his face passive. Are you thinking, why would Sven Takraf want the Chair? Or why tell me to yield if you are going to kill me anyway?
Finally Einar nodded. “You have indeed bested me, Weard Takraf. The Chair is yours if you can hold it against them.”
Sven did not stir. “Swear your loyalty to me.”
The crowd murmured. Robert whispered something furiously to the other eighth-degree wizards.
“I understand.” Einar raised his right hand solemnly. “By the Oathbinder, and Marrish, my patron, I swear my fealty to you, Sven Takraf, Guardian of Marrishland.”
The signs are everywhere! How many others have noted them as he has?
Sven removed the blade and returned it. “You serve your patron loyally, Weard Schwert.”
Einar stepped back and out of Sven’s way. Sven stuffed the gloves behind his utility vest and drew out another pair from the pouch at his side.
As he put them on, he met Nightfire’s eyes, skimmed past the Duxess of Pidel and the duxes of the southern duxies and rested on Dux Volund Feiglin. Volund glared back in undisguised fury and prodded his son, Ketil, forward.
Sven deliberately turned his back on Ketil and spoke to the remaining six reds.
“Who disputes my ascent? Step forward and speak.”
Solvi looked past his shoulder at the spurned dux’s son and stepped forward with a confident smile. Vigfus’ smile had finally reached his eyes. Sven sized up his opponent, considering this man’s value to his plan. Alive, Solvi would turn against him someday. Dead, then. But … Sven steeled himself.
You will make a valuable lesson for my enemies.
“I warn you, Weard Zorn,” Sven said coldly, stretching his fingers out in front of him. “Yours will not be the fate of Weard Schwert if you oppose me. Step down and swear fealty to me, and I will spare you.”
Solvi sneered. “You may have survived Tortz, but you will not survive me, now that you have exhausted yourself with farl tricks.”
Sven kept his left hand up, stretching the fingers wider. “Then let the duel begin.”
Solvi was still readying his first attack as Sven closed his hand into a fist and a green beam of fire burned into his challenger’s throat, melting it closed. Solvi clutched at his neck, all thought of attack forgotten. He mended his windpipe and prepared to throw up a hasty defense. Sven didn’t wait for him.
Slices of fire slapped off Solvi’s hands and cauterized his wrists. Tiny beams of light burned out his eyes. Invisible hammers snapped his shinbones and kneecaps. Knives of force filleted his skin. Bolt after bolt of intensely focused energy struck the wizard, hacking him limb from limb. The smell of burnt flesh made Sven gag. Ari whimpered. Someone at the edge of the square vomited.
They have seen my mercy. Now I will live up to my reputation for ruthlessness.
Numbly, Sven continued. After the eighth or ninth bolt of fire, the man was surely dead. But he continued until there was little more than a steaming pile of burnt flesh bubbling on the walkway.
Sven stripped off his gloves to dead silence and stuffed them behind his vest, retrieving a fresh pair from a pouch at his side. He turned to the other five reds. He could see the uncertainty on their faces and knew the reason why. Wizards never put on such displays when fighting for the Chair, because it was imperative they save their strength for the large number of challengers they might face. The use of illusions to subdue an opponent would have worn out all but the most powerful wizards. To win the second duel so flamboyantly might be possible for the strongest magic-wielders, but afterward, a green could defeat them.
And they are right. The duel with Einar should have left me too weak to set dry tinder alight.
“Are there any others who would challenge my authority?” he demanded. His voice could have frozen the swamp.
Prodded by his comrades, Horik stepped forward hesitantly.
They test me, Sven thought.
He allowed Horik two nervous steps, and the challenger was looking back at his companions when Sven struck. The melon-sized fireball made barely a noise as it struck, leaving sparks licking the other wizards’ robes. A headless Horik Neid slumped at their feet. Ari turned and vomited.
“A challenge must be issued!” Volund exclaimed. “That was cold-blooded murder, and the weard should be tried for it.”
From his place at the back of the pack of reds, Robert granted Sven a small smile.
I learned your lessons, but I was never your pupil.
Sven turned away from Robert to face Volund.
Nightfire spoke. “Weard Takraf issued the challenge. Weard Neid took the step forward. The Law says nothing about waiting for your opponent to be ready. That is a courtesy developed from centuries of challenges.” He glared at Sven.
Courtesies are well and good, but the Law is the part you must follow, Sven thought. He considered if they would change the Law for this.
It will do them no good, for I will change the Law more dramatically.
“We will be back tomorrow,” Volund said.
“Then you will lose another of your sons to me, Dux Feiglin,” Sven replied disinterestedly.
Ketil shivered, turned to his father and whispered hurriedly in his ear. Volund slapped his son away. He made no effort to mask his hatred. “We will be back tomorrow.”
Volund grabbed Ketil by the arm and stalked away. Sven waited as the carrion eaters passed him to follow the dux. Vigfus offered him a shaky grin while sweat poured off his brow. Arnora nodded respectfully, and Valgird ignored him. Ari’s head was bent in almost supplication, but Robert met Sven’s eyes with a knowing smile that sent a chill down his spine.
Yellow-garbed priests took the bodies of Solvi and Horik. Sven started toward the citadel, but Katla approached him in the middle of the walkway. The audience remained hushed, and even Nightfire seemed on his heels, ready to stop what appeared to be a challenge.
“You are trying to boil soup in a wooden bowl,” she said quietly, stepping in very close as though congratulating him. “When it burns through, you will have neither bowl nor soup.”
Sven leaned back and met her stony green eyes. He looked away, annoyed. “I refuse to show mercy to Marrishland’s enemies.”
“Volund and his reds are not Marrishland’s enemies — only yours.”
“Nor are they Marrishland’s allies — only your master’s.”
She frowned. “The path you are taking prevents you from taking any other roads.”
“Are you now my enemy, too?”
“A fire does not refuse to bend in the wind. It bows that it might spread more quickly.”
“A friend of mine tried that, once. The wind snuffed him out.”
“Mother would have said ...”
Sven’s patience slipped. This was an old argument. “Mother was enslaved by your precious dux before I was eight,” he said coldly. “Tyra Gematsud raised you, not me.”
She closed her mouth. Her eyes glistening with tears, she teleported away.
Sven marched toward the citadel, Einar at his heels.
Sven opened his mouth to answer but changed his mind. If he knows who she is and who she serves, he may yet turn against me.
“I am in no mood, Weard Schwert.”
Sven knew he should be horrified by the day’s activities, sick to his stomach for his behavior on the square. Two men dead by his hands, but he felt nothing.
It was the only way to win three consecutive duels. My display of superhuman power today will keep other wizards from challenging me each year. My enemies will have to find other ways of fighting me, ways that don’t force me to give away my weaknesses.
Sven removed the gloves from his utility vest and returned them to the pouch at his side. He had killed men who had done nothing wrong before, as he protected innocent people from the wrath of a magocrat. Horik and Solvi had deserved their fates.
For Marrishland, I must beat those who would be her enemies. I must learn their strengths and weaknesses and use that knowledge against them. Now I am the most powerful wizard in Marrishland. I must use this position to my advantage.
Slaves and mundanes of the Citadel stepped forward until they surrounded him, asking his command. Sven flinched slightly at this servility in fellow Mar.
This, too, will I change.
He gave them instructions patiently, asking for food and a room. Sitting at a table before a narrow opening, he ate the soup they brought. It was delicious and thick with meat. He ate it in silence, noting with some sadness that it was the best he had ever tasted.
While many mundanes risk their lives daily in the swamps to feed themselves, the most powerful weards do not even have to boil their own soup.
He vowed he would not allow such meals to become a habit. Wild rice and laurita soup with a little meat had sustained him all his life. There was no reason he should eat better food than that.
If I did, I would be no better than Vigfus.
When he had finished his meal, he withdrew to his quarters to rest. He stayed awake just long enough to offer a prayer of thanksgiving to his patrons for his success in battle that day, and for the gifts they had given him.