When Dahlia and Azurdanak finished setting up, they traipsed to another camp through thigh-high grass in the dark between bonfires. This camp was larger, set in the midst of the menhirs. Unknown in this camp, the rude stares began anew.
Without Rone's disarming protection, Azurdanak seized initiative. "Who among you wishes to wager lives for exorbitant wealth?" he cried.
Dahlia thought this a terrible opening gambit. No one appeared surprised or challenged.
"You do not belong here," a tribesman said with a wave like batting at flies. "Leave before I break your puny bones."
"I am no farmer to surrender my yield," Azurdanak said disdainfully. "I am Azurdanak of the eldritch blade. You shall heed my challenge!" He clapped his hands and uttered the incantation. The shimmering blue rapier sprang into his hand.
Audible gasps and whispers of "witch". People were on their feet. Some of the men fell back. Others spat, made warding signs, and drew their long knives.
"Only the one who defeats me in single combat will receive the prize, one thousand barons. Those who do not fight singly forfeit the prize... and their lives."
A murmur rose. One thousand barons would feed a clan for a year. Dahlia raised her eyebrows. If she had known 'Danak had that money, she might have just taken it. She decided he was bluffing. That's what she would do.
"I'll take your money, witch." A great muscled warrior with tangled long brown hair stepped toward Azurdanak. He stank of mead at five paces. The crowd parted around him and a chant of his name began: "Felgred! Felgred! Felgred!"
Azurdanak stepped into position. "Begin."
Felgred screamed and charged. Azurdanak stepped off line and nicked him as he stopped short. The great man rounded on him, but Azurdanak moved again, staying to the warrior's right and a little out of reach. The rapier was several inches longer than the knife. Azurdanak calculated the reach and exploited it mercilessly.
"You're not fighting," Felgred huffed. "You're dancing."
"This is fighting, oaf," Azurdanak prodded.
Felgred however, knew only one way to fight. After a few more wild charges, the barbarian was cut and bleeding badly.
"Your witch-sword saps me!" Felgred said, swooning.
"The sword has nothing to do with it. You're feeling preliminary effects of blood lo--" Azurdanak's didactics enraged the barbarian, who interrupted him with a final rush, knife held high. The Kainenlander finished with a decisive thrust between the ribs.
All Urugan warriors were on their feet now, demanding the next turn at killing the witch. One finally shouted the others down and pulled his long knife. It was exquisitely made, a masterpiece from a different era, when Urugan smiths were counted among the finest in the Five Lands. "Your witch sword won't save you this time, weakling."
Seventeen seconds later, the man fell dead, and his knife disappeared into the crowd. "He killed Gurgred!" came a cry, and the wailing of a woman rose from somewhere among the tents.
Azurdanak's face hardened. The murmur grew, and another man stepped up as the corpse was dragged away. He drew a massive greatsword and stared grimly at Azurdanak.
Like a reflex, Azurdanak shifted his stance to one more defensive and mobile. He was all feints and darts. Every time the man-mountain committed to a swing, Azurdanak stepped into the opening he left and jabbed, exploiting the rhythm of his foe's missed swings. The difference in reach and weight was significant. A mistimed jab would be the end of the lithe fighter, but azurdanak's footwork was precise. Feint, swing, jab, again and again. Dahlia grew impatient just watching the warrior who kept falling for it. This was a variation on what Azurdanak had done to her when they first met. She saw why the crowd grew bored. It was monotonous.
For nearly a full minute, each time Azurdanak was just where the great blade wasn't, until the barbarian's pelts were matted with blood. Exhausted from the effort, the great man heaved forward onto Azurdanak, where the glowing blue rapier waited to sink into his abdomen.
When his tribesmen pulled the corpse off him, Azurdanak looked a little flattened. The mageblade was gone.
"Focus stupid..." He muttered. He rattled off the incantation and the sword reappeared in his right hand.
"Where are your men now that I've defeated your simpletons and drunkards?" The taunt was feeble, but he was shaken and hoped to hide it behind the insult.
Dahlia could see however that an angrier mood had taken over the crowd. The word "witch-sword" passed more freely now in mutterings. Discontent at the ease with which Azurdanak had dispatched their warriors was growing pronounced. Dahlia had her own sword out now, but no one seemed to pay her any attention, which annoyed her.
Finally an old woman pointed at Azurdanak and shouted, "The sword! It bewitches our warriors! Fall on him, kinfolk! Destroy the Dreadseed before it takes another!"
Azurdanak and Dahlia had discussed this eventuality, but it was happening ahead of schedule. "Dahlia, your assistance please."
Dahlia sprang at the old woman, choking her with her gauntlet. "Silence, crone!"
This incensed the tribe and drew their attention to her. Clubs and flaming branches from the bonfire appeared in hands that didn't hold long knives.
"You may inform Rone that I am docking his pay for his untimely absence," Azurdanak said as he maneuvered to Dahlia's back.
"He might be the only one alive to get paid, Kainenlander," she said. But Dahlia had none of Azurdanak's grimness. She brightened in the firelight as the Urugans encircled them. Duels and footwork were for fencers. She was a scrapper. This was her joy.
The Urugans surged, fighting with fear and desperation. Dahlia sliced and punched and grappled her way into the mob, a roil of chaos in her wake. Knife blades flashed, and the sword fighters parried and returned blows as howls of "Witchcraft!" flew into the night.
Azurdanak tried to stay with her, but Dahlia had no knack for teamwork. As she drew more attention, he became her bodyguard instead, fending off knives aimed at her flank. She fought to wound--hamstring cuts, throat punches, and various soft tissue shots. Bodies fell, but the tribe fought like a wolfpack, returning in waves. Nicks and bruises began to take their toll on the pair, fighting a mob composed of sinew and hate.
As they began to falter, a great voice stilled the crowd: "Too-lagan! Chamerkosh! Your war chief commands you to stop fighting!"
The crowd stopped instantly and turned to face the largest Urugan Azurdanak had seen yet. Standing between the two largest menhirs, he held a great club in one hand and a shield in the other. To his left stood a wiry, balding Urugan. To his right stood Rone.
"Pale one, I am told you are killing my warriors in single combat with a witch-sword."
Azurdanak huffed, short of breath, "I challenged them and they accepted the stipulations."
"I am Gourlak, War Chief of this moot. Put down your swords. Eat with me tonight."
Rone barely nodded to Azurdanak, but he caught it. "I accept your gracious hospitality, War Chief."