"What do I get if I win?" I asked.
Hugh nodded at his priceless swords. "You can have anything here."
I surveyed the blades. I would be insane to turn one down. "Anything?"
"Anything in this courtyard. But if I win-"
"If I win," Hugh said, "you'll tell me how you killed Erra. What magic you did, what moves you used. You will re-create that fight for me, down to the last little detail."
George shook her head. "Kate . . ."
I shrugged off my sheath and set Slayer down by the closest rack. I needed a similar blade, something with the same reach, weight, and balance.
Hugh stalked along the racks, thinking.
Falchion . . . No. A saber would give me an advantage, but this had to be an even contest. He was stronger; I had no doubt of that. He was six inches taller, muscled like a gladiator, and outweighed me by sixty-five pounds at the very least. His shirt molded to him, and the muscle on his torso looked hard like body armor. But all that muscle mass came with a price. It would cost him in endurance and speed, and I had endurance coming out of my ears.
We stopped at the same rack. Two nearly identical swords waited before us, each thirty-two inches long. A deep bevel ran down the length of the double-edged blades. People called it the blood groove, because they imagined blood dramatically running down the bevel. In reality the groove wasn't made to channel blood, but to lighten the weight of the sword without compromising its resilience. Despite its size, one of these twin swords would likely weigh only about two and a half pounds. Let's see, a classic type six cross-guard, with widened flattened ends bent slightly toward the blade. A four-inch grip, wrapped with a leather cord. A plain round pommel. Not a work of art, but a brutally efficient tool, designed to take lives.
"Fate," Hugh said.
I took one sword; he took the other. I swung my blade. Hmm. Lighter than two and a half pounds. More like two pounds, six ounces. No, five. Point of balance about five inches. Good sword. Fast, strong, lively.
We walked away from the racks, giving ourselves some space to dance.
"Why don't you use your own sword?" George asked.
"He might break it."
"I wouldn't." Hugh put his hand on his heart.
"He would," I told George. "He's a sonovabitch."
Hugh laughed. "We just met and she knows me so well."
I shrugged my shoulders, moving them forward, stretching my back. "Rules?"
"Full contact," Hugh said. "Yield."
I had expected first blood. "Full contact, yield" meant neither of us would hold back and we wouldn't stop until one of us was backed into a corner or in real danger of losing a limb or our life. One of us had to say uncle for the fight to end.
"You sure about that?" I had a lot of aggression to work out.
"Are you afraid?" Hugh asked.
"Nope. Your funeral. Ready?"
Hugh spread his arms. "Introduce me to the afterlife."
I thought you'd never ask.
I walked toward him. He would expect a European opening with a European sword. He wouldn't get one.
If I killed him now, he would never tell Roland about me. It could be just a sparring accident. My sword slipped and cut through his aorta. Oopsies. Dreadfully sorry.
I was closing the distance. Hugh still had his hands out. He had no idea how pissed off I was.
I could make it look like an accident. I could make him pay for everything that hurt inside me.
I picked up speed, spun, and let myself off the chain, flying into movement like a pebble shot from a slingshot. The world slowed; each second stretched as if underwater.
I slashed diagonally, right to left over his chest. He stepped back to dodge.
I sliced right to left. Another step, hands up.
A low lunge, cutting left to right across his lower stomach. Hugh still dodged, but now with a purpose. He'd identified the cuts-I was hitting along eskrima's cardinal angles. About time. I reversed the slice, cutting in the opposite direction across the stomach. Hugh moved to parry, point of his blade down, body turning, planning to catch me with his left elbow.
Our swords touched.
I hammered my left fist into his jaw. The jawbone crunched and popped out of its socket. Hugh's mouth hung open, his lower jaw out of place. I've had my jaw dislocated before. Right now the pain was exploding in his skull and it had to be excruciating.
Hugh stumbled back. I drove him across the yard, striking as fast as I could. Hit. Hit. Hit. He staggered. My blade caught his biceps. Blood swelled, bright and red. The magic vibrated in it like a live electric current. First blood to me.
Hugh punched himself. The jaw slid into place. He reversed the grip and brought the sword down, cutting at me with powerful strikes. Dodge, dodge, parry. Ow. I batted his blade aside with the flat of mine, but if it had landed, the sheer power of it would have taken my arm off. Good that I wasn't planning on standing still.
He opened his mouth and growled. Ha-ha, hurts to talk, doesn't it?
"You look in pain. Do you want a time-out to pull yourself together?"
He parried. His sword came over his head, slicing forward. I dodged and too late realized he had expected me to, because as I moved, he continued the swing, drawing his blade back. For a moment he looked almost like a batter, his body angled, his hips turned, as he put all of his momentum into the underhand swing. I barely had time to thrust my blade before his.
The blow knocked me back. I staggered. He kept coming, pounding on me with methodical heavy strikes. The precision of a scalpel, the power of a sledgehammer. I shied left, right, turning, trying to keep movement to a minimum to keep from getting tired out.
I blocked, half an instant too slow. The sword grazed my right shoulder. Pain lashed my muscle. Argh.
"Dance faster, Kate!"
His jaw started working again. That was some regeneration. I ducked out of the way. Hugh rammed me with his shoulder. I flew and crashed into the wall. My back crunched from the impact. You sonovabitch. He sliced at me. I ducked under the cut and twisted away. His blade struck stone. It cost him a third of a second and I landed a mule kick to the back of his knee. The knee bent, Hugh pitched forward, and I smashed the heel of my left hand into the back of his head. Face, meet rock.
Hugh grunted, a savage sound, one part pain, three parts pure fury.
I could cut through him. I could bury my sword in his back right now. But it wouldn't look like an accident.
I launched a kick.
Hugh dropped down and swept my leg from under me. I dropped. I was still in the air when Hugh's enormous fist flashed, coming toward me. I hit the ground, flexing my stomach, as I fell.