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“Put some back into it you worthless dungshit!”
The next blow jarred Corran’s arm so much his legs wobbled under him. He gripped his sword as hard as he could, meeting it then spinning away. He circled with slow steps, not glancing in the direction of his brother’s jeers and instead focusing on his opponent. The boy, almost man, was only a little taller but he was brawnier too. Muscles strained against his tunic and a heavier sword was gripped in one hand. It flew in Corran’s direction and he ducked, making the most of his natural speed and twisting up behind to dart out his own attack. The boy parried it away and they parted once again to resume circling.
The sun was warm for this time of year and it didn’t make his task any easier. He raised a hand to brush sweat from his brow. At least it had dried all the mud he’d had to deal with during winter practices.
Corran dived forward, but the boy was ready and battered at him with a blow of his own. Their swords met in a shining clash. Weight bore down on him as the other boy pressed in. His left wrist strained and ached with the pressure. He longed to use his right arm instead. The boy grinned at him, knowing he’d won this fight.
“Ha, think you’re worthy of that sword? Just look at you!” his brother bellowed.
Corran gritted his teeth, dropped straight to the floor and rolled. He didn’t stop to catch his breath as he jumped up from the ground, spun, and dived forward. The other boy stumbled in surprise, lifting his sword halfway. A flash of familiar blonde hair made Corran’s stomach lurch and for a second he let himself glance over – and the boy’s sword smashed against his helmet.
Something solid knocked his ribs and Corran squinted up. The boy glared at him, sword pointed at his throat.
“Do you yield?”
Corran didn’t think it wasn’t the first time. He nodded, neck aching, and the boy rolled his eyes as he turned away and walked off. Corran blinked a few more times and stared up into the bright blue sky before another taunt from the side of the arena reminded him who was there. He scrambled up, glad to see he still held his sword, and sheathed it. He looked for blonde hair, but the girl who’d caught his eye was too tall and too skinny. Not Tilda. Disappointment ran through him. Shame followed for losing a fight at just the sight of a girl who looked like her.
“I told father you couldn’t handle that sword.”
The man smirking at Corran was a good foot taller, but their matching dark brown hair and angular faces named them brothers to all. Corran glared straight back and longed to blame Huw for forcing him to fight left–handed – but it would just lead to Huw saying he was making excuses. A real fighter could use either arm. He touched the bone hilt of the sword instead, reminding himself that his father had granted it to him and Huw had nothing to do with it. He was an adult by everyone’s standards; however much Huw complained, the dragon bone sword was his.
“That was quite impressive though – never seen anyone headbutt a sword so well.”
“Don’t you have stuff to do?” Corran snapped, sliding under the railing on the opposite side of the arena.
Huw shrugged, still smirking as he approached. Corran turned his back and walked away. The voice floated after him.
“But this is important – supporting my baby brother in his troubles, letting him know all the ways he has to improve if he doesn’t want to get pounded in the first round. Think what a disappointment that would be to father.”
“You wish,” Corran muttered under his breath. He would have to find somewhere more private to practice. He had thought testing out the incomplete arena would be out of the way – but no, Huw had followed the moment he saw him leaving in practice gear.
“What about jousting? I think if you carry on at this rate father might let you get a horse – ooh, maybe in twenty years. More like thirty. Or, well… never.”
The reminder of his father’s recent words on Corran getting a horse of his own scratched viciously. He put one foot in front of the other, focusing on not turning around to punch his brother in the nose. That could not end well, even if the memory would last as entertainment for weeks. Huw was seven years older than him and had no qualms about hitting back. He was quite the expert on it.
“Sir Huw!” Corran released a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding as a messenger boy ran past him. “My Lord Huwcyn wishes to speak with you.”
It was unusual to be called by their father in the middle of the day like this and Corran couldn’t help but be curious. Maybe if Glyn had been invited too he might find out later.
Huw jogged past. “So long, dear brother! Do try not to swoon again!”
The messenger boy gazed up at him with curiosity. Corran glared back so fiercely he flinched and stumbled around on his feet to sprint back into the manor.
Free of Huw’s taunts, Corran paused to gaze down at himself. Dust covered his tunic in patches and his right sleeve was torn where the other boy’s sword had come too close. Catching sight of the puckered skin beneath he set off in a brisk walk. No one dared approach him as he marched through the manor; even had his face not been a thundercloud, everyone was far too busy with the final preparations for Lord Huwcyn’s upcoming tournament. Corran felt a little sick at the reminder it was only a week away. Would he be ready? He couldn’t hope to do well fighting with his left hand for the first time, but so long as he didn’t disgrace himself it would be okay. His mother was still sympathetic enough to defend him to her husband – but if he lost in the first round like Huw had predicted, not even that would save him from his father’s wrath.
Corran pushed open the door to his room and stepped inside, slamming it behind him. The middle of his room was still bare from last night’s practice and he retook his position, unsheathing his sword. He breathed in deeply, then out, and raised it in his left hand. One week left. He would not allow himself to shame the Dunslade family name. The son of a dragonslayer would always have expectations thrust upon him, and Corran refused to fall short.
Dinner that night was more crowded than usual; the contestants travelling the furthest had started to arrive. At the head of the table were Lord Huwcyn and his wife, Corran’s mother, Siana. On either side of them were Huw with his wife and their other brother, Floyd, then a few of the most well known professional warriors from around Auland. Corran sat near the middle of the table, between his final brother Glyn and a tall, thin man named Arwel. He had come from the border city of Ostley with the sole purpose of watching and betting. He told of his escapades out of the country to the trading islands of Mayelas and marvelled at the items on display in the hall – much to Lord Huwcyn’s pleasure.
Corran took a bite of sausage and glanced around. So much effort had been put into polishing up the hall. The floor shone and any signs of tarnish on the many gold items had vanished. Colourful tapestries replaced the old faded ones, but they held the same scenes as before; the Dragon War. The Battle of Orvale Mine, the trekking of the mountains, the defeat of Baltair, the King’s Circus. Corran knew the history perfectly. His father had taken personal responsibility for their education in that area.
His eyes lingered on the King’s Circus. He had been just two at the time. Their mother had feared the worst, hearing of the upcoming final battle. Having never been a woman to stay at home and wait for news, she had packed up their family and travelled to join the King’s Circus to find her husband. It had always been an irritation that he had been so close to history being made and could not remember a thing of it.
The tapestries had been noticed by others too and Lord Huwcyn eagerly turned the conversation to his role in the war. As his father launched into the tale of how he had killed the dragon whose skull was now speared on his gates, Corran straightened his high collar and let the talk flow over him. He had heard the story many times and had no particular desire to hear its embellished retelling for the benefit of their guests. It would be repeated several times over the next two weeks.
“So what about these dragon sympathisers?” someone called from the end of the table. “I heard they’ve been around this area. Never thought they’d come so far south!”
“Such people are no better than the monsters themselves,” Lord Huwcyn growled at the same time as Corran perked up. Dragon sympathisers?
Arwel shook his head minutely and Corran felt a moment of disdain for the man who would admire his father’s riches but did not want to admit where they came from. Like so many others, he thought of the Dragon War as something to be regretted. Corran bet the gold miners didn’t feel the same.
“They’re simply misguided,” Glyn said. “They don’t know their history. They romanticise the creatures and remember those who used to ride them – after all, who wouldn’t want to fly?”
“I’ll keep my feet happily on the ground,” Lord Huwcyn rebuked.
Glyn looked suitably chastened, but several of the guests stared down at the table or around the room rather than at Lord Huwcyn. Corran wished he could yell at all of them to leave if they didn’t like it. They would not make any Dunslade ashamed of their role in history!
“We never had such barbarism in the south, we defended our land ourselves before the Wall was built!” his father continued. “Made us stronger than those mountain folk, no wonder they needed our help when the dragons turned! Battle of Orvale Mine, I had a dragon grab my arm and sweep me off my feet–”
Corran slumped back again as a new story started, but his mind had awakened. Who would bother sympathising with dragons now? When the Dragon War had taken place some humans had fought on their side. He had always assumed they had been forced into it by dragons who would burn their villages if they didn’t help. There couldn’t be that threat now. And even if there were dragon sympathisers, why were they here in Dunslade Town? What could they hope to achieve?
The minutes ticked by. Corran longed to ask Glyn about it, but knew better than to try when his father had so obviously changed the subject. The talk turned away from dragons and onto the upcoming tournament, with discussions of who might turn up. Corran knew he would be targeted as the youngest son of Lord Huwcyn; a supposedly easy win, but with the status of a dragonslayer’s son. He knew he should be as excited for this tournament as the others, but with the extra pressure of fighting with his left hand and knowing his family would be watching his every move, he couldn’t help dreading it. At least with so many people around it would be harder for Huw to taunt him.
Finally the dinner ended and Arwel bade them farewell at the doorway to the hall. Corran walked side by side with Glyn up the stairs to the family wing of the house. As they walked through the corridor of portraits, Corran stared ahead so he didn’t have to look at the paintings involving himself. Thankfully there weren’t too many, but he hated how he was the shortest – even shorter than his mother. They turned out of the portrait corridor and Corran asked the question that had been bugging him all night.
Glyn laughed and shoved him with one hand. “Don’t get ideas in your head, Corran. Father’s up in arms about it but what are they gonna do? Try and make people feel bad about killing the dragons? Firesouls.” He snorted, shaking his head. “Ridiculous name for ridiculous people.”
“Where did they come from?”
He was certain that this was what Huw had been summoned about earlier and he refused to be left out just because he was the youngest. He was an adult now! He should have been invited!
“Mountains, probably. I don’t know, no one seems to know much about them. It’s just rumours.”
“Well what did father say about it?”
“He just told us to keep an eye out and make sure no one got any funny ideas about dragons, especially with all the northerners around. It’s absurd that people are still going on about this.”
Corran nodded in distracted disagreement. Would these dragon sympathisers – ‘Firesouls’ – dare come to Dunslade Town, home of a dragonslayer? Well if they did, he would be ready. Never mind surviving the tournament – if he could hunt down a Firesoul and find out what they wanted, no one could say he was not worthy of his sword. He would prove himself so not even Huw could doubt his worth. What better way than to bring down the Firesouls?