Duel (40 Years Ago)
This is the prologue I wrote for my work-in-progress novel THE TWO STAVES. There is some controversy about including prologues in novels, perhaps because they sometimes have a tendency to be mere information dumps, and are therefore frequently not read (I personally can’t imagine this). So at some point I decided to avoid the controversy altogether and write the novel in a way that doesn’t require this piece. It’s still an important part of the backstory, though. Who knows, perhaps someday it will see its way into print.
The stroke of giant wings whistled in Irthaul’s ears, and powerful muscles flexed beneath his harnessed legs. With a gloved hand, he reached down and rubbed the smooth, rippling skin of his mount. Turning his head, he listened to the low whoosh of air that accompanied each upward stroke, and the familiar song of every powerful downward wing beat.
His mount, Arelyn, curved her neck and looked back at him with one opal eye, her pupil narrowing as it focused on him. The notorious wyvern grin molded on her gray snout made him smile. I’m okay, girl, he thought. He could never be certain what mischievous thoughts fluttered behind those clever eyes. Still, he trusted Arelyn with his life.
Irthaul squinted against the wind rushing past his half-covered face. The glass visor that helped protect his eyes from sun and weather could not keep out the cold. The air had grown chill this late afternoon. He looked down the hundreds of reaches to the rough landscape of Istok Fells passing beneath him, then ahead to the approaching green of the forest. Gazing farther northward he saw the darker wood of Eladrehan on the horizon, and made a quick gesture of forfending. Even seeing the banewood, however, didn’t quell the exhilaration he felt as he flew. He and Arelyn belonged to the sky.
A lone gray cloud, its tattered edges swirling, rode the wind from the northwest. Running from some ocean storm, he imagined. On the ground, the cloud’s shadow caught his gaze as it broke away from the forest and raced across the Fells toward them. He thought he saw something in the shadow — an instant of brightness, a flame quickly extinguished. He stared, but whatever it was had vanished.
The shadow caught up with them a few moments later. Irthaul shivered as the sun fell behind its gray curtain. In that short span of time when his eyes were free of glare, he saw something else, another bright flash to the north, in the same area on the ground where the previous one had been. He wondered if he’d simply noticed the reflection of a pond, or some other natural landmark. Or perhaps his weary eyes had begun to play tricks on him.
He gazed at that spot on the ground, a place where the natural forest and Eladrehan bordered each other. As he watched, another glittering light shot upward from the ground like a nightman’s flare. The sun broke out from behind the cloud then, and he had to squint to keep his gaze locked on that location.
He turned Arelyn toward that place, with a gentle pressure on her right shoulder with his leg. She responded swiftly, and stopped her turn the moment he relaxed his leg. He signaled the wyvern also to climb higher, with a tap of his feet in their locked stirrups. His caution outweighed his curiosity, and he did not want to endanger Arelyn, nor himself, while investigating the mysterious light.
He saw another flash a moment later, brighter than the previous two, even against the glaring sun. Its edges were tinged blue and orange, and it lingered on the ground and burned its image onto his eyes before fading.
Moments after the next flash, Irthaul heard and felt a concussion. He leaned forward against Arelyn’s neck, though he knew he was in little danger as yet. When he and his mount finally came close enough to see the source of the light, he gripped the wyvern’s neck in shock.
Bolts of energy, many more than he had seen from a distance, crackled between the two unexpected opponents on the ground, shaking the air with detonations like claps of thunder. He recognized the two wizards battling below immediately, even from so far above.
Corolun and Ethuelin. These were two of only three wizards on the island.
Irthaul hugged Arelyn’s neck as the wyvern circled high above the battlefield. Unnatural wind whipped the clearing where the two men stood below. Deflected blasts splintered nearby trees and set others aflame. Smoke already began to obscure the battle.
Irthaul watched in disbelief as the two wizards, once friends, methodically destroyed one another, with more violence than he realized even wizards possessed.
When it ended, only Corolun remained in the glade below. The grass where he lay, for a pace or two in each direction, remained virtually untouched in the surrounding devastation, an emerald cushion floating on a sea of ashes. But the wizard’s robes had been burned; in an instant of weakness his defense had failed.
Smoke still rose from burning trees as Irthaul and Arelyn descended in narrowing circles to the blackened clearing. Nothing at all remained where Ethuelin had stood. Moments before, Irthaul had gasped as one huge, final ball of flame engulfed that wizard, just before Corolun’s collapse. One final blow; a testament to who, in the end, had been stronger.
Arelyn slowed with several powerful back-strokes, sending streamers of smoke curling off her wingtips, before coming to rest on the ground several paces from Corolun. Irthaul reached down and unclipped his stirrups, dismounted. Moving cautiously toward the wizard, he unbuckled the leather scarf that covered the lower half of his face, and pulled it out of the way. The air smelled of smoke and burning wood. He reached for the hilt of his sword, but thought better of unsheathing it. Corolun was no enemy.
Kneeling down beside the body, Irthaul jerked back when a cough escaped the wizard’s cracked lips. He raised the wizard’s head, took his hand. “Corolun?”
The wizard opened his eyes slightly, his gaze unfocused. He took a raspy breath. “A Knight,” he murmured.
“Yes, I’m Irthaul, Vanen. I’m here to help you. I can fly you to Ithra. To a healer.” He did not think Corolun would make it. He struggled to keep a telling tremor from his voice.
“No,” the wizard said more firmly. “Tell the Council.” His voice weakened. “Tell them. I tried to stop him. I tried to strip him of his power. I didn’t want to kill him.” He swallowed. “Now he’s gone.” Irthaul read only sadness in the wizard’s voice.
“Yes, I will tell them,” he said.
Corolun looked up into his eyes. The wizard’s hand squeezed his own. “Tell my son,” he said. A lifetime of love showed in the dying man’s eyes then, and Irthaul felt sudden tears spring to his own. He let several teardrops fall in silence as he waited for the wizard to continue.
But when he blinked his tears away, the life in the other’s eyes was gone.