The Least of Men, Part Eleven

The desert at night

View the beginning of the story here.
View the last part here.

“You’ve become lower than the least of men.” Sword dancer Arai’s frame blocked the doorway of the tent, his blade pointed toward Isboset. Badani recognized the stance: the bow before the dance. “So what did Garethen offer you that was worth your honor?”

Isboset gripped Badani’s throat with his sharp, sharp claws. He growled.

The prince shook. This was not right. Not Isboset. Not his tutor. No. This man could never be seduced. Not by the Patriarch of Lies.

“Did he promise you revenge? The chance to be made patriarch over those who humiliated you?” Arai took a single step into the tent.

Isboset tightened his grip. “Back away, dancer! He’s mine now!”

“How low you’ve fallen. Turned against the boy you trained. It’s the third-greatest betrayal.”

The dance. Where was the music? There should be music. A beat. Something. Where was the dance? Badani searched for the rhythm. This was his fight. He should be the one dancing. He wouldn’t be rescued. Not again. He could not bear that shame. He couldn’t hear the music, though. The only sound he found as he searched was the beat of the well of his heart. How could Badani dance with no music?

Isboset’s claws dug into skin. Badani ignored the pain. He’d learned that lesson, at least.

Isboset spat, “Dancer, back away! I will leave with this child beside me or inside me!” He licked his lips. “I am very hungry.”

Still, no music.

Arai chuckled. “Of course you are. And that is why I am speaking to you and not yet dancing. You are so hungry, but you have not yet fed. There is yet something that stays you. Something that keeps you from your task, even now that you have been found out. Though your form has been twisted, perhaps some light remains. Garethen was sloppy with you.”

Shouts sounded outside the tent. Feet ran on sand. Metal slid on metal as falchions were unsheathed beyond protecting canvass.

Badani heard shouts outside the tent. The sound of feet pounding on sand. The sound of metal sliding on metal as falchions were unsheathed.

“You do not have long, garethspawn. Release him, and I will make your death swift.” Arai’s left foot began to beat the ground, ever so softly.

Badani could not find the rhythm.

The sword dancer shook his head. “You were Isboset once. I have no desire to dance with you.”

Badani understood. He heard no music because it was not his time to dance. And when a dancer does not hear music… it was time for him to rest.

He let his legs go limp.

Isboset’s claws tore at Badani’s skin as he dropped. A normal man would have shied from the pain and stood back up. Badani was accustomed to pain. The blood poured from his throat, but it did not matter. He sunk to the ground.

Isboset’s shield was gone.

Arai spun forward, blade flashing in the lamplight.

Isboset drew a rib from beneath his skin in the space of half a heartbeat. The flesh closed up after. The rib was long and sharp, a curved blade made of bone. He pushed aside Arai’s thrust and swung in with his other hand, claws raking Arai’s face.

Arai pivoted and rolled to escape even as Isboset reached with his free hand to draw another ribblade.

Badani rolled out of the action and stood at the perimeter of the tent, opposite the door flap. He staunched the bleeding at his throat as best he could with his hand, but there was little to fear. The wound was not deep.

A servant of fire plunged into the tent, falchion at the ready. A second and a third soon blocked the door. They watched the dance. Servants of fire know not to interfere with a sword dancer.

Blood dripped down Arai’s cheek and off his chin. “What did Garethen offer you? You were worth more than whatever he promised.”

Isboset roared and leapt, two ribblades spread out and ready to slice forward.

Arai rolled underneath the attack. He spun, blade out. Isboset caught the sword with one ribblade even as he struck with the second. The bone buried itself in Arai’s chest. “This isn’t your dance,” the paranai spat.

“I know,” Arai answered. He pushed his blade forward, even as it was caught on the bone blade. “But Garethen’s dirge will never overpower my music.” Arai let his legs fall beneath him. As his body dropped, he released his blade. Isboset shoved it away with his ribblade.

The gleaming metal spun through the air and landed at Badani’s feet.

The music surged. Badani dashed forward, plucking the blade from the ground and spinning it over his head as he charged forward. He could hear a trilling flute and a trumpet. Drums in a fast triplet pattern. A faint descant of voice, somewhere.

Badani danced.

The blade became a fan in his hand, constantly spinning. It struck at one of the rubblades and bounced off, reversing the rotation. It struck the underside of the other ribblade, reversed direction again, and blocked a thrust as it swung downward. Badani spun to avoid a clumsy slice and cracked the sword down atop Isboset’s head. It bounced off hard bone. No blood flowed from the split skull. Garethen had already taken all his blood.

Isboset backed away. “I mean not to battle you, my prince!”

The blade did not stop spinning. The music continued. “I made a vow to only dance against creatures of Garethen.”

A ribblade met steel. It cracked as metal bounced off bone. Again the steel spun down. The rib shattered.

“I mean you no harm! I came only to talk!”

“You came to lie. You, who taught me lies were dry wells!”

The second rib sundered under Badani’s blows.

“Mercy!”

The music thundered in Badani’s ears. The dance drove him on. And the dance could not end with both partners standing.

Badani thrust Arai’s blade into the paranai’s stomach. He twisted and swung the sword out. The blade came to rest at Badani’s side.

The rhythm held its breath.

The paranai fell to the ground.

Badani stood gasping over his foe.

Isboset struggled onto his back. “A fig.”

“What?”

“A fig. I traded with Garethen,” Isboset gasped, “for a fig. I was so hungry. So thirsty. I would give anything to live.” He gasped again. His claws grasped at his stomach, at the wound which would not close. “It was not worth it. I am worse than the least of men. Never forgive me, my prince. Never forgive me.” The paranai shuddered and moved no more.

Read the conclusion here.

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