There it was again, the whistling. The eerie tune had been following him around for some time, yet he remained completely lost in uncovering its origin. Whenever he managed to pick up on its general direction, it would suddenly cut out and leave him doubting his sanity. Somebody out there was clearly taunting him, but who was it? What did they hope to achieve with it? One thing was certainly clear to Rotgar: Guardians weren’t much liked outside of their own district.
After a fun night of rekindling an old friendship over drinks and games, Rotgar had woken up far past his intended wakeup hour. He tried to make up for lost time by hurrying through the commoner district, but his mind was stuck on the events of the previous night.
It had been a long while since he’d been able to drop his guard and allow himself to be at ease around good people. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d laughed so heartily, or enjoyed the buzz of alcohol for a purpose other than drowning his sorrows. As dubious as the locale they’d visited was, the notable absence of the usual agendas, backhanded remarks and backstabbing had been remarkably refreshing; unlike what he was accustomed to witnessing within the palace. He’d woken up in a much more familiar state, with his clothing half-unbuttoned and with some tavern wench asleep in his lap—something unplanned but not unwelcome.
Rotgar glanced at his timepiece and knew there was a good chance he would miss the rendezvous again. To get there he would have to quietly pass through the Guardian barracks—something that would have been achievable if he had awoken much earlier, as planned. Now, as he stepped into the courtyard, he encountered a flutter of activity, green recruits running through their morning drills. None of them acknowledged his presence as they convulsed under the strain of their exercises, and for a moment he wondered if he would be able to pass by unnoticed after all.
The thick wooden door marking his escape route was clearly visible from where he stood—one that led to the hidden passageways through and beneath the city walls. This network of tunnels was known to him like the back of his hand, having used them often
during his time with the Guardians and on his more roguish adventures during his adolescence. This day’s particular route would take him outside the city borders—at least it would have, had an obstacle not suddenly stepped into view to block his path. The moment he spotted it he knew he was in trouble.
Korran, once the commander of the Guardians, was a great muscled giant of a man, tall and wide enough to have to lean over and turn sideways whenever he passed through any doorway in Azmera. Not only was he enormous but he had a temper to match, and a loyal mob of soldiers that accompanied him at all times. His ungracious dismissal from the Guardian ranks seemed to only have sharpened his anger—an anger which doubled when he found himself face-to-face with a tardy and slightly hungover Rotgar.
The former commander’s nostrils flared as his chest heaved with heavy breath and the pressure of his clenched fists drained his hands of blood. His polished scale armor reflected the sharp morning sun straight
into Rotgar’s light-sensitive eyes and made him flinch.
The last time he had seen Korran had been on the man’s last day of command. He had handed Rotgar a whip and ordered him to personally enforce a sentence of flogging upon a large group of convicted criminals. The unpleasantness of the task still left a bitter taste in his mouth.
“Well, well, if it isn’t the new General,” Korran growled, mockingly.
Recognizing Rotgar’s intent to pass through unnoticed, he repositioned himself firmly in the middle of the nearest exit from the training courtyard to block his escape. “You may have slithered your way up the ranks, Hardruna, but you won’t own your role until you manage to seize it from me.”
As tall and fit as he regarded himself, Rotgar knew he was easily overshadowed by Korran. The way this man carried himself always had such an air of authority; it was rather imposing. He sighed deeply and closed his eyes for a moment.
This was the last thing he needed. He was loathe to deal with Korran on a good day, never mind on one during which he battled a pounding hangover. He quickly realized, however, that if he hoped to gain any respect for his newfound position as the Guardians’ leader, he would need to prove himself to the men that were to follow him.
With a huff, he shifted his expression into one of nonchalant amusement—a deceptive effort to mask the exhaustion he felt after a sleepless night.
“Surely you wouldn’t want me to budge that fine armor of yours on your last day of service, Korran,” he droned.
Korran saw right through his guise and let out a boisterous laugh, one quickly mimicked by his crowd of loyal followers keeping a watchful eye on the unfolding squabble. All the commotion drew out more men from from the barracks, all eager to get a peek for themselves.
“Come, now. I have been the undefeated champion here since long before those three pitiful chin hairs of yours even started to grow in. The beard doesn’t make a boy a man,” Korran taunted, exchanging amused glances with his loyal supporters. Rotgar had never been much encouraged by his mentor, who always saw it fit to push him down rather than to elevate him. Tough love.
He let out a half-entertained snort as Korran made his way over to him, stopping so close to him that he could feel the warmth of the elder man’s heavy breath on the skin beneath those very chin hairs he had just insulted. That already was enough to spark his temper, but Korran wasn’t yet finished mocking him. The behemoth of a former commander stood in place and scanned Rotgar from head to toe before looking back up at him with an unimpressed sneer.
“You’re nothing. If it weren’t for your father’s handouts you’d—”
Within that fraction of a second Rotgar seized the opportunity to gain the upperhand of the inevitable. Without any further thought, he interrupted the affront with a swift headbutt that shattered Korran’s nose and sprayed a mist of blood over them as the commander stumbled backwards. The crack echoed throughout the courtyard, silencing the gathered crowd that looked upon their staggered leader. Rotgar immediately regretted the move as his own head felt as if it would split at any moment, but he fought to save face.
The courtyard was as quiet and still as a grave as the onlookers watched Korran and awaited his next move with bated breath. But he remained still for what felt like an eternity, until finally he moved, straightening up to his full overbearing height. The aggressive stance reflected his unmistakable temper. Korran gripped the hilt of his sword and unsheathed the weapon in one seamless movement. The crowd, realizing their former leader had every intention of fighting back, erupted in a cacophony of deafening shouts and cheers.
Rotgar swiftly pulled his own rapier out of its scabbard, his loose belt falling to the ground as he did so. None of his clothing or armor had been properly buttoned up or fastened—courtesy of the woman from the night before—but there was no time to dawdle. A thick blade swooped down towards him and it was suddenly very clear to him that Korran intended to draw blood. Rotgar dodged every blow by sheer luck, his dexterity far from formidable after the night he had had. His clumsy stumbling was no small source of entertainment for Korran, who sneered at the sight. “Pathetic!”Rotgar took advantage of the brief window his jeer provided to lash out with a counterattack. Korran had no trouble dodging it—a surprisingly agile move for such a heavy man—and was able to quickly strike back at him. By sheer luck Rotgar managed to bounce aside from a strike that managed to draw blood right below his chin, a serious blow that could have easily slit his throat. This didn’t slow Korran in the slightest as his wide sword slid down his own thin blade, and would have found its way into his arm if Rotgar had not twisted out of the way in time.
It was apparent that he was not going to best the Champion of Azmera, certainly not while hungover and at a disadvantage in both armor and weaponry. He knew he would have to manipulate the circumstances to work in his favor, in his own area of expertise.
But he had little time to decide on a plan. Whilst deflecting the swift and skillful blows of Korran’s blade, Rotgar unexpectedly found himself disarmed of his weapon with a clever countermove. One that hooked Korran’s crossguard right into the decorated wristguard of Rotgar’s rapier and slung it from his grasp. He raised his hands high and assumed an open posture that implied defeat, while the cogs in his mind began to turn and plot his next move.
“Bravo,” he said bitterly. “I suppose congratulations are in order. You’ve bested an ill-prepared opponent.”
“Ill-prepared? I would best you any time, in any place, using any method,’ Korran said with a laugh, and sheathed his sword.
This was exactly the reaction Rotgar had hoped for. He answered the man’s boast with a swift grapple and a move he learned from the champion himself to disbalance any behemoth who’s too sporting to much chrome. The heavier they are, the harder they fall—a motto that proved true time and time again. Korran refused to stay down without a fight, and scrambled back to his feet, tackling Rotgar. The two men wrestled for a moment, but Rotgar had already gained the upper hand. His attire, lightweight and flexible, allowed for quick and agile blows, which his heavily-armored former superior was unable to counter. He delivered three more punches, splitting his lip and drawing more blood that stained the sandy fighting pit beneath them in bright red patches. Korran couldn’t do anything more than attempt to shield his face from the incoming blows and when Rotgar noticed his own barbaric display he quickly seized his attacks and stood back up.
As much as he wanted to in the heat of the moment, Rotgar was clear-minded enough to realize that beating Korran to a pulp would not only be uncalled for, but would also further alienate the men he would be taking under his command. He focused on slowing down his breathing and took a moment to retrieve his rapier from where it had landed. A quick glance at his timepiece in the meantime confirmed his initial suspicions. Shit. He was too late for the rendezvous—she was long gone by now.
In his moment of peace, Rotgar barely had time to process the sudden movement in the corner of his eye as Korran darted towards him at a frightening speed. It was not enough time for him to react, and he found himself violently slammed into the dry stone wall that lined the courtyard. The sudden rush of adrenaline triggered his years of practical fighting experience and brought him out of his dazed state, allowing him to block the first fist that Korran launched at his face. Rotgar followed up with a ferocious kick to the stomach that propelled the man backwards into the surrounding crowd with devastating force.The square again grew silent as Rotgar brushed the dust off his attire. He had not intended to tap into his reserve of unnatural brute force but missing his appointment made him grow irritated and impatient. He watched as men stepped forward to help the bewildered Champion to his feet.
“I knew... you were the demon spawn everyone… everyone suspected you to be, Eldorian...” Korran stammered between laboured breaths. “You should have died out with the rest of your kind.”
“Eldorian?” Rotgar asked, letting out an incredulous laugh. “I think you might have hit your head. What, no credit to your own training? Those drills you thought would break me only made me stronger than you had ever hoped .”
He could already feel the inner blood rage beginning to subside, and along with it his current hostility towards Korran. He lifted an open hand to his opponent. “I’ve only ever respected you, now grant me the same in return.”Korran merely spat a mouthful of blood at the ground at his opponent’s feet and backed away, rejecting the offer of peace. Rotgar could not help but feel sorry for the man when his dark eyes met with his own. They were not so dissimilar, after all. Both were self-made men, hard-working, ambitious and relentless—as they’d both demonstrated during the fight.
“Don’t think I’ll make this easy for you. A man gains respect through the way he leads, not through some fancy title,” Korran said, wiping the trail of saliva and blood from the corners of his lips. He dusted himself off and stood up a little straighter.
Rotgar’s face reflected his confusion. “Make this easy for me? Maybe you haven’t noticed, but you’re out of a job. I have replaced you as General.”
“A man in your position ought to be better informed. I’m not out of a job, I’ve been promoted,” Korran said smugly. “You’re looking at the King’s new personal advisor in all matters of security. My battle is still on, and you know how the saying goes Rotgar; the one where the quill is mightier than the sword. I need no more than ink to ruin you. Imagine that, a whole life undone by some black lines.”
----------------------------------------------- End of Chapter. -----------------------------------------------