8. Making a Point

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Moribus had plenty of time to contemplate the consequences of his outburst while he fitted the knight into his armor. His fingers were trembling so badly he could barely work the leather straps through their various rings and buckles.

What could Lord Manerion possibly have in mind? Some test of skill and prowess? Certainly, it couldn't involve a real dragon—or could it? Only yesterday, through a break in the trees they had caught their first hazy glimpse of the sawtooth mountains running along the western horizon. Might they be approaching the lair of a dragon at last? The thought of the knight's former squire in his sealed coffin filled his mind with terrible possibilities.

Accoutering was a time-consuming process, but this morning it was over all too quickly. When the last buckle was fastened tight, Lord Manerion paced around to test the fit, pausing to adjust the odd plate or binding. Satisfied, he planted himself in a fighting stance and drew his magnificent sword. "Now, for your first and probably last lesson, boy. Prepare to defend yourself."

Moribus was dumbstruck. Of all the scenarios, he had never imagined an armed duel with the knight. What tragic irony! To think he had just equipped the man who was about to kill him. He had no doubt he was going to die. While he could more than hold his own against squires and guardsmen, his swordsmanship had never been tested against the likes of a real knight, much less the great Lord Manerion. The knight had every advantage: overwhelming size, strength, experience and foot-to-crown armor. Moribus didn't even have a helmet or shield. This wasn't a duel. It was an execution.

"F-fight you?" Moribus stammered.

"You see anyone else here, boy?"

"But—I—can't—" He struggled to form words.

"Fight or be killed where you stand. It's all the same to me." Without further preamble, Lord Manerion lowered his visor and charged.

As in a nightmare, Moribus was paralyzed in place, forced to watch helplessly as the knight brought his right arm, thick as a mill-shaft, forward in a sweeping arc. At the last instant, some instinctual reflex kicked in, and his own sword sprang up to intercept the killing blow. When the two blades clashed, his arm rang like a tuning fork. Stunned, Moribus staggered backwards. But when the next stroke came, his sword magically leaped into its path too. The response was instantaneous and thoughtless, there being no time for deliberation.

The knight rained down blow after battering blow, each one powerful enough to split a skull or crush a ribcage, driving him backwards toward the forest. Moribus tripped on a root and nearly lost his footing. The misstep brought home the danger of retreat. He couldn't keep his eye on the knight and the way behind him at the same time. He had two choices: he could turn tail and flee into the woods, or he could stand his ground and fight.

The knight read his mind. "That's it, boy, run away while you still can! Just know that if you do, you can say goodbye to your royal sweetheart. She won't want to see your sorry maggot face after she hears how you fled for your measly life!"

The words struck home. When the knight delivered his next overhand blow, Moribus deflected it wide and slipped around his flank onto the level ground of the campsite. If he was destined to die here, he would go down fighting. Strangely, upon reaching that decision, his fear melted away.

While his body performed the mechanical motions that had been drilled into it from long afternoons of sparring and longer nights of practice, the calculating part of his mind took the measure of his opponent. What he saw surprised him.

Lord Manerion's technique was crude and undisciplined, as if he had learned swordplay in a back alley rather than at the hands of a skilled master. That was not to say he wasn't dangerous. What the knight lacked in skill, he more than made up for in sheer fury and towering physical strength. His most lethal weapon was intimidation, and it was lethal indeed. Moribus had nearly fallen victim to it in those first harried moments of the match. But once deprived of that key advantage, the knight was reduced to a blundering, armored colossus. Growing in confidence, Moribus shifted to the offensive.

While the knight lunged and hacked in all directions, Moribus danced just out of reach, pivoting on the balls of his feet, then darting in with quick, precision strikes that, while inflicting no injury, caused the knight to hesitate. He cringed every time his sword rang off the polished armor. If he survived this, he would have to buff out every last scratch.

Swearing unintelligibly behind his visor, Lord Manerion redoubled his efforts, carving out wide swaths which were easily evaded. Nevertheless, Moribus proceeded more cautiously than he might have, mistrusting what his senses were telling him. Surely, there was more to his adversary than met the eye. For all his superhuman strength, it was hard to believe that such a well-reputed knight could be so miraculously inept with a blade.

Lord Manerion demonstrated no hidden skills, however, and his strength soon began to flag. The weight of the armor alone would have immobilized most men, and the fury of his opening assault had taken its toll. His guard lowered, and his strokes came in brief flurries separated by ever-lengthening pauses. Still, he lurched and staggered doggedly after his elusive squire.

Striking at will, Moribus delivered a solid broad-stroke to the liver followed up by a hammer blow to the left shoulder. The blows stood no chance of penetrating the thick armor, but they were hard enough to be felt by the man inside, of that he was sure. He had seen firsthand the colorful blossoms of bruises on his predecessor's pale skin after receiving a good drubbing at practice. Lord Manerion may have been half giant, but he was still made of ordinary flesh. Another blow to the mid-section left him doubled over, clutching at his side.

"Do you yield?" Moribus asked from a safe distance.

Lord Manerion threw open his visor. His teeth were bared in pain. "Burn in Ord!" he bellowed defiantly and lurched forward once more.

So it's come to this, Moribus thought. He would have to beat the knight into submission or knock him unconscious. It was a risky proposition. If he struck too hard, he might seriously wound or even kill the dragonslayer. Tempting as it might be, he mustn't allow that to happen. Not unless he wanted to spend the rest of his days running from the headsman's axe.

Stepping inside the knight's guard, Moribus leveled a blow to the side of the head. It was his first and last mistake of the duel. With cat-like quickness, the knight ducked aside, causing the blade to glance harmlessly off the crest of his helmet. Moribus twisted out of the way of the expected counterstrike, but it came from a direction he wasn't expecting. Instead of lashing out at his exposed flank, the knight's sword flicked up from its lowered position like a sprung lever, catching him flush in the groin with its flat side. Moribus crumpled to the ground in agony.

Lord Manerion removed his helmet and wiped sweat from his brow. His side and shoulder no longer seemed to pain him in the least. He might have chopped his squire's head off at will. At the moment, Moribus would have thanked him for it. Instead, he plunked his helmet on the ground and seated himself upon it, regarding his squire with a satisfied grin.

"So what did we learn in our little lesson here today?"

"Unnnhh!" Moribus groaned through clenched teeth.

"I'm trying to teach you something important so please try to focus. I'll ask you once more. How did I beat you, boy?"

Slowly, Moribus began to recover the faculty of speech. He could only hope that he would eventually regain the use of his other faculties as well. "You—unnhh—hit me in the—unh—hoodan."

"How very observant of you. Looks like you learned your lesson but still missed the point."

"Wait," Moribus said. "I don't—unh—see what this has to do with—unh—killing dragons."

"What! Have you no bell in your belfry, boy?" Lord Manerion tapped his temple. "Deception. Overconfidence. The appearance of weakness and the element of surprise. Do any of these ring a bell? How else do you think you overcome a clearly superior enemy?"

"But, I don't understand. I didn't win. You did."

"Ah, so there youhave it." Gathering up his helmet, Lord Manerion walked off in the direction ofthe horses.

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