King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 31, 32, 33, 34

The first clash came as the Emperor, without salute or warning, sprang across the space between the duelers and cut low at the unshielded side. Brand met the blow barely in time with the iron head of his halberd, and ducked his head under the instant vicious back-stroke. Then he too was in motion, on his toes, moving round always to the right, away from the Emperor’s sword and towards his shield, the Lance-head once more showing above it. After the first blow Brand made no attempt to parry, only to avoid the stroke, keep out of range. Even against the long-armed and ape-shouldered Emperor he had the advantage in reach. He kept back, feinting every few seconds with his ponderous weapon. As the Emperor braced for another forward spring he stepped forward and lashed out. He flicked the twenty-pound iron head with its sharp-filed edge like a boy sweeping a switch at the head of a thistle. The Emperor took it full on his shield, was beaten sideways, stumbled and recovered. He glanced for an instant anxiously at the inside of his shield, where the Holy Lance rested in its holder. Still there, though Bruno’s own blood was running down it now from a gashed arm. It ran where his Savior’s had eight hundred years before.

“Relics don’t help you now,” grunted Brand, his breath beginning to come hard. He was still moving lightly, but the spike of the halberd rested now on his right shoulder, ready to strike again.

“Blasphemer!” replied the Emperor, and stabbed low for the groin.

Brand twisted away from the thrust, slashed at the face, was blocked again. But the Emperor’s shield had taken two monstrous blows, was cut deep and splintered. Two more and he would be unprotected. Unprotected both by shield and by relic. The Emperor’s left hand was free of its shield-grip, groping across to seize the Lance, to hold on to that even if the shield should be cut away. Brand saw his uncertainty, stepped forward swinging forehand and backhand, high and low, the massive steel head singing through the air as he used the full strength in his forearms, thick as a bear’s. The Emperor’s turn to dodge away, raising his arms high as a cut hissed past his belly. He was back almost among his own supporters now and Brand backed away, taunting him with his retreat, urging him back into the center of the cleared space.

Not all eyes were on the fight. As the short Italian dusk began to fall, Hund had been seeking his opportunity. He too had heard the whispered exchange of Cwicca and Osmod. Stealthily he took one of the lines Cwicca had prepared. Svandis, looking down at the fight from the edge of the crowd of men on the battlements, felt a hand on her shoulder. Hund beckoned to her, and she turned silently away. In the growing twilight the two padded soft-footed away, reached the aqueduct up which they had come the night before. It was unguarded, the watching sentries turned the other way. Hund motioned to Svandis to drop on all fours. At a scuttling run the little man made off down the line of the channel, hidden from view by the four-foot walls. A few yards down she caught up and whispered to him, “There are guards at the other end!”

Hund showed her the line. “We will go over the side before it reaches the ground. In the shadow of a buttress. They may not see us. The Emperor’s best men are with him now inside the wall.”

The dropping sun was affecting both combatants now, but the Emperor more. Brand had the sun behind him in the west, only just above the city wall. His head and shoulders were in the light, his body already shadowed. He was striking sometimes out of the shadow, sometimes out of the sun, and the Emperor’s shield was a fragment, one strap cut through, the Holy Lance itself hanging loose. But Brand was tiring visibly, while the Emperor seemed as quick and deft as ever. The watchers had been silent at first, anxious and unsure on both sides, but now they were beginning to call out in their excitement, in a medley of tongues.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry