The End of Illusion
Part 4 - Duel
Just as promised, Allana was dressed in a true Knight’s uniform, the silver symbol of the Order shining on her left shoulder. Over it Elipson made her wear on a black cloak, too heavy for her taste, that not only included a huge hood as the metallic shoulder protections attached to it made it look like something a warlord would use.
“It’s enough that you’re so small! You have to at least look stronger or everyone will find out that you’re a girl,” she had told her as she pulled the hood over her head in a way that it covered most of her face, repeating for the tenth time she should never, in any circumstance, pull it down. “And whatever happens, do not interfere! If you do it’ll be the same as challenging Denar’s witness and you’ll have to fight him. So no hero’s stunts like the one from yesterday!”
Allana had blushed at that. But now that she stood there, in the cold shadows of the fading day, holding a sword that didn’t belong to her, she couldn’t stop her heart from beating anxiously, her hands sweaty as she watched, from under her large hood, both Knights facing each other.
“Withdraw your challenge, Elipson!” Denar demanded, cutting the silence where all she could hear were the whispers of the river running beside them, but Elipson raised her head proudly and looked at him with despise.
“Is that an order?” she asked, mockingly, and then her voice dropped to a cold threat. “Never! My challenge stands. I’m a woman of my word. Not that we can say the same about you, right?” she asked, implying a whole lot of things Allana didn’t have any knowledge of, and Denar’s green eyes went icy cold as he signal his witness for his sword. His witness walked up to him, silently handing him his weapon in exchange for his cloak. And then Elipson was signaling her too, and so Allana followed his example, walking forward in nervous footsteps.
Why did they hate each other so? Because now she was certain that that duel wasn’t only about something as foolish as today’s argument. The look on their faces as they faced each other and the almost electrified air that surrounded them told a completely different story. Even so, they crossed their swords in the air in salute, as rules demanded, and then stepped back, swords held high; Elipson holding hers with both hands in what she had learned to be one of the basic defense stands, Denar, on the other hand, holding his sword with only one hand, facing her sideways in a way Allana had never seen anyone use in a fight.
“For honor,” Elipson said in a firm tone and he nodded in cold agreement.
And then, surprisingly, she changed from a defensive stance to a lightning fast attack without even blinking, making him step back to defend her blow, no hesitation at all.
Unknowingly, Allana squeezed Elipson’s cloak against her chest while her golden eyes followed the fight in front of her, terrified but, at the same time, completely mesmerized, for she had never seen anything so amazing. Elipson’s blows were strong, stronger than any blow she had seen any man deliver, not Everlyn’s Knights or warriors, not the Knights juries from the day before. Her speed was simply amazing, the way she changed the weight of her body from one foot to another in a split second, always accurate, always unwavering, almost like she were some wild animal. Denar, on the other hand, was light and precise. There were no useless movements in his fighting style. More than once Allana thought he was going to get cut, but he always defended in the last moment, apparently effortlessly. He almost seemed to be dancing, changing from low to high stances, back to low again, his legs flexing to the point that his knees almost touched the ground, his fighting style nothing like anything she had been taught since arriving there. And she couldn’t help think that he’d probably be able to fight as good holding any other kind of weapon. He wasn’t exactly a sword fighter, she mused as he made a spin, his sword magically appearing in his back where he stopped another of Elipson’s blows. He was probably more of an all rounder, his wild stances and the way he held his sword with one hand telling her that he had probably learned to fight on his own, picking up something here a there, adapting what he had learned to what fit him better.
Both swords clashed again in mid air, the metallic sound echoing through the night, and the fight seemed to pause for a moment, although their furious expressions told a different story, each pushing as hard as they could against the other’s weapon. They both looked tired, Allana noticed, their brows coated in sweat, hairs glued to their foreheads, but the fierce glow in their eyes said that that stupid fight was far from being over.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Elipson demanded, her voice sounding furious under her heavy breath. “You think I’m one of your students?! Fight me, Denar!”
“I thought I’d told you I wouldn’t fight you, have you forgotten?” he replied, sounding somewhat more composed and certainly less tired. “I have no reason to.”
“Oh yeah?!” she asked again and, with a fast move, released her sword avoiding his inevitable blow, and jumped sideways raising her blade, slicing at the Knight’s left arm, easily cutting through black fabric and skin. Denar stepped back in disbelief and then looked down at his bleeding arm as if unable to understand what had just happened, as Allana squeezed her lips shut in order to keep quiet.
“Have you found a reason yet?” Elipson asked once again, her gray eyes mocking him, defying him, and when he looked up at her all that was left was cold, hard anger.
If Elipson’s attacks had been fast as if she were a wild beast, Denar’s were deadly silent, his feet seeming to barely touch the ground as he moved without a sound, almost like an assassin. Allana shuddered even though she couldn’t take her eyes off him, something deep inside her trembling with excitement every time he charged or dodged his opponent’s attack.
Nothing good would come of that fight, she thought as Elipson stepped back to defend herself, clenching her teeth as her arms trembled before Denar’s strength. Even as strong as she was, she was no match for him, not when you removed her speed from the equation. And suddenly Allana knew why she had told her that, most likely, she wouldn’t be able to defeat him. Denar’s fighting style was too smart and he had been slowly cutting short the distance between them, which didn’t allow her to imprint the necessary speed into her attacks, the only thing that up till then had allow her to fight him equally. In the end, and as aggravating as it might be, Elipson’s disadvantage was that she was a woman, which meant she’d never be able to compete in terms of strength with a hard trained Knight like Denar.
And then, as unavoidable as it had become since Denar had truly started fighting her, her strength failed, her arms unable to keep resisting his blows, and her blade slid over his, that went on directly into her shoulder. Allana gasped as the blade embed itself in her flesh, the world around her seeming to stop. Elipson’s angry expression broke down to one of pure pain, and then she was moving again, her sword raising fast from below as she made him cut short his charge and jump back. Staggering for an instant before raising her weapon again she flexed her legs in a defensive position, clearly ignoring her injury. Denar too, seemed beyond caring like before, his expression cold and completely devoid of emotion, his green eyes shadowed by a killing instinct as he stood tall, holding his sword and facing her sideways, like before.
She had to put a stop to that fighting!, Allana decided clenching Elipson’s cloak in her arms. They were both beyond themselves!, she understood as she watch them. It was almost as if they were two fighting dolls with no feelings or will, only bent on destroying one another in a fight to the death. To hell with her promise and all the consequences, she thought as she stepped forward, raising her head. She was bound to be expelled anyway …
“Stop it this instant!”
The voice that resounded all around them made her heart jump, freezing her in place. Denar too, used as he was to receiving orders from that voice immediately suspended his next attack, lowering his weapon as Elian dismounted his horse.
Clenching Elipson’s cloak, Allana stepped back, keeping her head down and her face hidden amongst the shadows cast by her hood.
Denar smiled, his expression back to normal as he sheathed his sword. Elipson’s arm seemed to lose all strength and her weapon slid from her sweaty fingers, falling on the ground. Her breath was heavy, although she tried hard not to show it as she turned to face Elian, her head high as if nothing had happened.
“Finally …” Denar muttered, seeming relieved, and she looked at him in disbelif.
“What … You called him?!” she demanded, angrily, but Denar shrugged, unfazed. “How dare you?!”
“Enough!!” Elian cut in, raising his voice again, and they both fell silent, although the way they looked at each other was filled with hatred. “We will not discuss this here! Follow me!” he ordered, looking honestly angry, which was new to Allana, and, holding his horse’s reins, turned his back on them and started walking down the river.
Denar and his witness followed him and Allana waited until they were a few steps away to approach Elipson, who just stood there, holding her injured arm.
“Are you alright?” she asked, keeping her voice down, and she took a deep breath managing a weak smile.
“Yeah,” she answered, although her gray eyes gleamed feverishly with pain, and Allana placed her cloak over her shoulders, successfully hiding her injury since her black shirt was starting to get soaked in blood. She then picked up her sword, returning it to her, and, as she did so, couldn’t help noticing that blood was now dripping from the tips of her fingers, which she hid by holding her cloak in place.
She should return as soon as possible, Allana thought following her as she forced herself to accompany the others. She should probably seek help from someone from the White Order. Since she had seen what they did up close, Allana had started to honestly admire and respect the White Knight’s work. But she knew better. And no matter what she said Elipson would never heed her advice, quite the contrary. And so, for now, she was sure without a doubt that the best way to help her was to stay by her side, making sure she’d look for the help she needed as soon as they were both liberated from His Highness certain scolding.
Not far from where the duel had taken place there was a small wooden hut, and it was there that Elian led them to.
Elipson sat on a chair, not far from the door that was left open, her unfazed expression perfectly hiding the pain Allana knew she felt, and Denar followed her example, sitting on the other side of the small room. Allana took a deep breath as they looked at each other, the hatred almost tangible, and only then did she noticed the other Knight – Denar’s witness – right beside her, his hood also shadowing his face beyond recognition. They both stood at the entrance, as if not sure if they should really be there, but not knowing exactly how to excuse themselves.
Elian sighed as he leaned against the frail table, arms crossed over his chest, obviously extremely annoyed. His face looked paler than usual and he seemed somewhat tired, as if he had pulled an all-nighter.
“Alright … Will someone please explain to me what exactly happened here?” he asked, trying to remain calm, and Denar shrugged, facing him.
“She challenged me. I couldn’t exactly refuse,” he answered as if the matter was of no importance to him and Elipson almost jumped from her chair, her gray eyes burning furiously.
“And you have no honor! How could you call him?” she demanded with despise, which somehow managed to irk Denar once again.
“And what would you have me do? Kill you?”
“Yeah, right! Was it fear, Denar? Were you that afraid that I might win?”
“I fear nothing! Much less some petulant kid like you!”
That did it. In the next moment Elipson was on her feet, drawing her sword, her injury completely forgotten, has she prepared to jump him.
“Elipson! Sit!!” Elian commanded in a tone of voice that Allana had never heard him use before and, just like before, Elipson amazingly obeyed on the spot. With another deep sigh he turned to both witnesses. “Will you please come inside and get something to clean these wounds?” he asked in a softer tone and, not knowing what she was supposed to do, Allana decided to follow the other Knight as he crossed the room to a joining compartment.
“She has no sense of responsibility, Elian! You saw what happened yesterday …” she could still hear Denar. The room they were in now almost looked like a kitchen, and they filled two basins with clean fresh water taken from a large wooden cask.
“Denar! I don’t want to hear it anymore!” Elian scolded him, angrily, and Allana returned to the room, kneeling beside Elipson, starting to clean her arm. “What’s gotten into you two? My best Knights! I trust you both unconditionally … and you go and do something stupid like this?!”
“This has nothing to do with you, Elian,” Elipson said pulling her arm away as Allana tried to clean the blood dripping from her fingers. She couldn’t help worrying about her injury but, at the same time, was absolutely sure Elipson didn’t want the others to notice it, and so Allana just stood there, hoping her presence would go unnoticed.
“Yes it does, Elipson. Of course it does. I’m responsible for the both of you, aren’t I? Especially when you take into account things like chains of command and duties, and so on … So please, both of you, just tell me what you want once and for all!” Elian demanded, still angry, but none of his Knights answered. “What?! There must be something, right? Or you wouldn’t be fighting against each other in a duel that’s clearly forbidden!” he insisted and Denar shrugged as if the matter were of no concern to him.
“I only fought because she challenged me. I didn’t even want to do it.”
“He went against my orders in front of everyone, about matters concerning my students! They’re mine responsibility! I will not have him interfere with my work!”
“Eh! Responsibility …” Denar scorned. “You don’t even know the meaning of the word!”
“And who are you to talk? You have no honor whatsoever! Running away from a combat like a coward!”
Elian took a deep breath and closed his eyes for a moment, looking too tired, the anger that had inflamed his words from before completely gone.
“Will you two just please stop …?” he asked in a whisper that was hardly audible but still they both went immediately silent, almost as if his weary tone was more worrisome than his angry voice from a moment ago. “This is the worst time for this … I need you both.”
“What happened, Elian? There’s something … Where have you been all day?” Denar asked looking suddenly worried, almost as if only then he’d been able to real see him, and Elian sighed heavily.
“Most of the time in Council, with the other members of the Court. Early in the morning our scouts returned. As we’d feared the Northern Armies are on the move.”
“At this point, no one really thought they’d simply turn around and return home,” Elipson added and Elian nodded in agreement.
“Yes. But we won’t be sending any help … Father won’t allow it. And I don’t know what else to do!” he confessed, turning towards Denar, and Denar shook his head with a sigh.
“That’s why I told you not to get involve in the matter …”
“What are you talking about?” Elipson asked, looking from one to the other, but Allana, at her side, already knew the answer, her heart almost jumping from her chest, making her hands sweaty and her stomach turn.
“What would you have had me do? Just leave things as they were? You yourself were against what was happening!”
“Simply killing that asshole would have solved the problem perfectly!”
Denar answered darkly.
“Hey! What are you talking about?!” Elipson demanded once more and once more was ignored.
“And now they’d be completely lost!”
Denar sighed, respectfully pushing back the Knight that took care of his injured arm.
“As things stand there’s only one solution. Tell the truth.”
“And how can I do that? She’ll feel obliged to leave!”
Elipson seemed to have given up on getting an answer, but Allana, at her side, didn’t need any answer. In fact, she didn’t want to hear anymore and just thinking about it made her chest hurt, making it hard to breathe. She didn’t want any obligations or duties anymore. All she wanted was a tomorrow just like the day before …
“It’s her right to do so.”
“And what?! I just go up to her and tell her that her Kingdom will be attacked in a few days? That it will most likely fall and that nothing will be left?!” Elian asked, sounding desperate, and Allana stood up, trembling, her sudden movement silencing the entire room.
She didn’t want to hear anymore!, she decided feeling her eyes burn with tears she didn’t want to cry. Memories of what once had been her home flooded her mind, even though she didn’t want to remember, at least not like that! She didn’t want to have anything more to do with Everlyn! She wasn’t Allana anymore! She was Darna! A cadet training to be a Knight of Mihir! And yet … Elian seemed to believe that she wouldn’t be able to simply abandon all she had left behind. Even though that was exactly what she wanted to do! After all, they had Heric! Precious Heric, to whom they’d been prepared to sacrifice her life to, just to grant him the necessary power exactly for a moment like this! Why would they need her now?! It wasn’t fair that someone would even think she had the obligation to go back, after all she’d been through! But then, why did she feel so miserable?! Why were there tears in her eyes …?!
“Darna …?!” She blinked at the worried sound of that name … her new name, and only then noticed that they were all looking at her, Elian’s face growing paler as he became aware of who she was. And suddenly she was out the door, running away from that place as fast as she could. “Darna!” she still heard Elipson’s voice calling to her, but nothing in the world could have made her turn back!
She had to run! Run away as fast as she could! As far away as she could! Yes! Please! Do run away!, she heard her own scorning voice sounding from inside her head and she ran even faster, as if she couldn’t help but obey. Why don’t you run away once and for all, you silly girl, and let me take over? I’ll solve all your problems in a second.
Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!, she breathed, trying to silence that horrible voice, the voice of her own weakness, the voice that only brought her pain and dark memories …
Her head hurting, her heart pounding against her chest, tears making her vision blurry, she didn’t have the slightest idea of where she was going. All she knew was she wanted to escape far, far away. Escape from the need to make a decision. Escape from the horrible fate that awaited her. Could destiny be any crueler? To have given her all that she now possessed to simply just take it all away in a single instant, just like that? If she only hadn’t been in that hut … maybe Elian wouldn’t have told her about what was going on … maybe she could have stayed exactly the way she was, living her life one day at a time. But now … knowledge was a terrible thing, as she had learned a long time ago. After acquiring it one could never go back to the way things were before …
You coward girl! If life is so unbearable just go to sleep already and let me take your place!
Anything but that!, Allana answered to the thoughts in her head, tears sliding down her face, her chest burning from the lack of air. Just go away! Just stay quiet! You monster!!
Laughter filled her mind startling her, making her trip on a tree root, and she would have fallen flat on her face, if not for the hand that held her by an arm. However, the only thing that occurred to her was how urgent it was to keep her distance and, turning around, she pulled her arm away, hard, stepping back, stumbling and almost falling again, but managing to escape the grip that tried to catch her once again.
“Get away from me!” she ordered, fiercely, and he stopped as if he were standing before a wild animal that could attack him at any moment.
“Allana … I’m sorry …” Elian said, softly, trying to calm her down, but as soon as he took a step towards her she backed away again, hugging herself tightly; nails biting into her own arms; her golden tearful eyes glowing dangerously amongst her disheveled hair. “I’m sorry … I know I should have told you sooner …”
“Shut up!!” she cut him off, holding her head between her hands, the pain searing through her brain. “Just go away! Leave me alone!” The voice in her head laughed again, scornfully, making the blood boil in her veins. If only she could simply faint …
The warm hand on her arm made her jump. And all she knew, all she could think of, was that she had to keep him away from her!; and then it was done. For a split second everything seemed to stop and she couldn’t feel, hear or see anything, almost as if she had been taken somewhere else, far away … And then the world came rushing back in again, filing her with all the usual sensations that, as they returned all at once, felt almost unbearable. Until she saw him … And for an instant she couldn’t exactly tell what she was seeing, But then the horror washed over her like a hot, smothering wave, and the world around her spun, making her dizzy and sick to the stomach.
His lifeless body had fallen against a tree, the red of his blood dripping down the side his face making him look deadly pale.
She walked towards him without knowing what she was doing, her legs shaking violently with each step until they lost all strength, dropping on her knees before him. Blood soaked his torn shirt over his chest where fresh torn flesh shone brightly red, rapidly draining him of his life. The smell of blood saturated the air making her dizzy, filling her mouth, sticking to the back of her throat, making her gag and gasp for air. He was dying, she knew … she could feel it in her own body; the thrill, the pleasure, the slowing of his dying heart … Even as her own heart broke into pieces, as she was filled with horror and despair, even then, part of her was filled with glee … When darkness surrounded her she welcomed the silence, the numbness, and wished she’d never wake up again …
Elian caught her has she fell, and a grimace of pain twisted his face. He’d open his eyes just then, and could only stretch his arms to catch her. Of course his careless gesture had cost him dearly, and pain seared through his entire body. And so he allowed himself to rest against that tree a bit longer. He tried to take a deep breath and gave up immediately. Everything hurt, making him clench his teeth as he patiently waited for the pain to subside.
Lowering his gaze he looked at her, trying to hold her without pressing her against his bloodied chest. Like before, she seemed too frail, her body almost too small, to light to be alive. She was burning up, he could feel it even through his clothes, but her young face seemed relaxed now, at peace, far from the terrified and ferocious look he had seen before. It was true she had warned him about the horrible things she was able to do, he thought as his breath slowly went back to normal, the pain on his chest becoming less unbearable. But he could have never imagined in his wildest dreams that she'd be able do something like that …! Any other person would have surly died, he concluded with a shiver as he watched her peaceful and innocent sleeping face. And she was aware of what she was able to do, which could only mean that something like that had probably happened at least once before …
With a sigh he freed one hand, resting her unconscious body against his knee, and touched his own chest, feeling as the injury was practically gone, perfect smooth skin covering the place from where he had been bleeding to death just moments ago. Of course the pain persisted, he thought as he sat up, holding her in his arms, trying to stand up. Although his injury may seem healed on the surface, bone and muscle would take longer to completely mend.
Still unsure of his own ability to stand, Elian carried her across the small grove he knew so well. Those were His Majesty’s hunting grounds and small huts had been built here and there, to offer rest and a hot meal to the King and His Majesty’s guests during the hunting season.
The hut where he so hurriedly had left Denar and Elipson was too far from where they were now, and he didn’t feel up to the challenge of trying to reach it taking into account his shaky legs. There was another one, closer by, also deserted at this time of the year, where he hoped to find a place to lay her down and get some rest, allowing his injuries to fully heal.