An Excerpt from THE SHATTERED MASK
by Richard Lee Byers
(to be published by Wizards of the Coast, 2001)
Shamur gave Thamalon time to draw his longsword and come on guard, but
not an instant longer. She immediately leaped into distance with the springing
advance called a balestra, feinted a head cut, and then, when her husband's
blade came up to parry, attempted a strike to the chest.
Thamalon reacted to the true attack in time. Retreating a step, he swept his sword just far enough to his left to close the line. The two blades rang together, and Shamur waited to counterparry his riposte. But instead of attacking in his turn, he simply took a second step backward.
"For the love of Sune," he said, his black browns drawn down in a fierce scowl, his cheek bloody from the shallow gash she'd cut there, "at least explain what this is all about."
"I told you," she said. "I know what you did." She advanced and attacked again, beating his blade aside, then lunging and driving her point at his throat.
He hopped back, and the attack fell short. Shouting, her skirts whispering on the fallen snow, she ran at him, striving to plunge her point across those last few inches. He pivoted and brushed her weapon out of line. Now her blade was pass, beyond his body and poorly positioned for either offense or defense, and the safest option was to dash on past her opponent and spin around to face him.
So that was what she attempted, meanwhile watching for his riposte so she could counterparry as best she might. Unfortunately, she was so intent on his sword that she lost sight of what his other hand was doing.
Suddenly his unlit horn lantern was hurtling down at her skull. She saw she had no hope of dodging it, so she threw up her unarmed hand and caught the blow on her forearm. One of the milky oval windows shattered, and the pewter frame around it buckled. The impact numbed her limb and knocked her stumbling off balance.
From the corner of her eye, she glimpsed him sprinting after her, the ruined lantern raised for a second blow. Frantically, her boots slipping in the snow, she wrenched herself around and thrust her broadsword at his face, an attack out of distance but one that at least served to bring him up short.
Shamur scowled. Skilled combatant that he was, Thamalon had nearly had her then. It didn't matter how furious she was, she mustn't attack so recklessly, as if there was nothing more at stake than a touch in a friendly fencing bout. This duel was life and death. More warily now, sizing up her adversary, looking for openings, waiting for an advantageous moment to attack, she moved in on him again.
"Just tell me!" Thamalon said. A snowflake drifted down to light on his shoulder. The frigid wind moaned.
"And then you'll lie and deny it, and I won't believe you," Shamur said. "Why don't we save ourselves some time, and simply fight?" She slashed at his torso, and he used the battered lantern like a buckler to block the cut. Her blade lodged in it somehow, and when she jerked it back, it tore the makeshift shield from his grasp and weighted her own weapon down, rendering it useless. Seeing his opportunity, he charged her, his longsword lifted high to brain her with the heavy round steel pommel. She retreated hastily, flailed with her own sword, and the lantern shook free to land with a clank on the ground. She extended her point, and Thamalon had to wrench himself to one side to avoid impaling himself.
That desperate attempt to check his momentum sent him reeling. He was virtually defenseless, but Shamur couldn't take advantage of it. Her scramble backwards had deprived her of her own balance, and in the instant it took her to recover, he did so as well.
But she knew there would be other openings, and, smiling, she advanced on him again.
"Tell me," he said. The blood had run down to the ermine collar of his warm winter cloak, staining the white fur red.
Shamur beat his blade to the side, then thrust at his shoulder. Hopping back a step, his glossy black boots with their gold and silver spurs crunching the hindering, treacherous snow, he deflected her blade with a lateral parry. She waited an instant for his riposte, then, when it didn't come, attempted a remise, lunging closer and renewing her attack with angulation, trying to hook around the longsword which still theoretically closed the line.
That was what Thamalon had been waiting for. With flawless timing, waiting until she was entirely committed to her action, he widened the parry. The two blades scraping together, he shoved Shamur's broadsword so far to his left that it had no hope of piercing its target. Worse, she was pass again, virtually unable to make another attack until she cocked her arm back as far as it would go or withdrew from such close quarters. Trying to take advantage of the situation, he grabbed for her wrist with his unarmed hand.
It was a mistake. He might be as good a fencer as she, but she very much suspected she was the better brawler, a skill she'd honed in disreputable taverns, thieves' dens, and alleys from Sembia to the Moonsea. She whipped her sword arm far to the side, easily avoiding his attempt to seize and immobilize it, and at the same time smashed the heel of her empty hand into her husband's jaw.
Thamalon's head snapped back, and he stumbled. Shamur recovered forward from her lunge and swept the broadsword in a savage cut at his torso.
By the time he saw the blow coming, it was too late to parry, but he managed to jump back. Her attack, which should have sheared through ribs and into the lung beneath, merely grazed him, ripping his lambskin jacket, doublet, and shirt and scoring the flesh beneath. Snarling, she instantly attacked again. He retreated out of distance. She started to rush after him, then stopped, reminding herself again that, vengeful as she was, she couldn't let it make her wild or rash. Thamalon would take advantage of any mistake. So, taking her time, catching her breath, she stalked closer, then began to advance and retreat, advance and retreat, with the mincing, cadenced, subtle steps of a fencer attempting to hoodwink his opponent's perception of the distance. He hitched back and forth in time with her. "I drew first blood, old man," she sneered. Perhaps she could rattle him with taunts and insults, although actually, she doubted it. As far as she knew, none of his other foes had ever succeeded with such a ploy.
"Second," said Thamalon, calmly as she'd expected, "depending on how you're counting."
"I don't count the scratch on the cheek," she said. "You hadn't drawn a weapon. That was just to rouse you from your usual senescent daze."
"Well," he replied, "if I'm all that senile, and you can kill me any time you like, then what harm would it do for you to explain to me what in Valkur's name this is all abou--"
As he spoke, she stepped forward, but then did not retreat again. Lulled by and still following the rhythm she'd established and now abandoned, Thamalon advanced into distance. She instantly cut at his head. It was the perfect moment for it, because even the greatest warrior who ever lived couldn't retreat at the same instant he was stepping forward. But Thamalon whipped the longsword just in time to stop her weapon from splitting his head. The impact rang like a bell, and notched both of their blades.
He riposted with a cut at her leg. She counterparried, feinted an attack to the flank, then tried for his head again. He skipped back out of distance, his point extended to hold her back.
He continued to fight in much the same manner, constantly giving ground. Many swordsmen habitually relied on the edge, sometimes carrying blades which scarcely even possessed a point. But the tip of Thamalon's weapon was sharp as a needle, and he knew as well as Shamur how to use it. As she advanced, he constantly threatened her wrist. Knowing that a combatant is most vulnerable at the moment he attacks, he clearly wanted her to try to penetrate deep into the distance with killing strokes at his torso and head. Since his sword wouldn't have as far to travel, he planned to catch her with a stop thrust to the forearm before her blade could touch him.
It was a patient, defensive mode of fighting such as might be expected of such a careful, calculating man. Shamur's natural inclination was to fight far more aggressively, yet she comprehended Thamalon's style of swordplay very well. She'd often employed it in her youth, when robbing her fellow merchant-nobles in the street. Not wishing to kill them or their bodyguards either, she'd waited for the chance to inflict wounds that incapacitated but would neither slay nor permanently cripple. Or better still, to capture her opponent's blade in an envelopment and spin it out of his grasp.
Given her understanding of Thamalon's strategy, she doubted it would serve him well in the long run. He couldn't retreat forever, not with the tangle of bare oaks, maples, and brush surrounding the clearing. Every time he fetched up against it, it halted him as effectively as a wall, and provided her with an excellent chance to attack. Besides, if one didn't count the half century that the rest of the world had somehow experienced without her, he was more than ten years her senior, and already bleeding as well. Therefore, let him play his waiting game. She was willing to wager that his stamina would flag before hers.
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