A hush fell over the expectant crowd and then a murmur, growing like a gale wind coming in off the fjord, of eagerness to witness bloodshed.
“Kill ‘em!” screamed the village hag, whose toothless mouth writhed into an ugly sneer aimed squarely at Gruelbane.
Gruelbane didn’t take it personally: Gram hadn’t been right in the head since that thing with the dragon back in ’88.
Besides, he was too busy sizing up his opponent—“size” being the operative word. Gruelbane swallowed hard and tried not to vomit on his boots, for Henke was tall—taller than Sunthwart by at least a head—and broad-shouldered, with hulking muscles that shifted as he moved his sword from hand to hand, the ambidextrous bastard.
He was blonde, with deep blue eyes and a face carved from granite, high cheekbones, a defined chin, and dimples like twin caverns bracketing his mouth. His smile was blinding, white teeth gleaming in the bright spring sunshine.
Hands that could crush walnuts to dust flexed on the handle of his huge broadsword, and at his finely tooled belt there hung a wicked, double-edged blade, the very knife that had earned him his Name.
As Gruelbane’s shaking hand pulled his ladle from its sheath, Henke gave him a bloodthirsty smirk and quirked the fingers of one hand, palm up, in a “Bring it on!” gesture.
Behind Gruelbane, a single, reedy voice said, “You can do it, Gru!”
Sunthwart’s support did very little to ease Gru’s quaking guts, and before he could take three more steps into the center of the competition space, he let out a series of nervous farts that sent the audience into paroxysms of vicious laughter.
Henke’s sneer deepened the dimple of his left cheek, and Gru reflected that it wasn’t a good look for the village hero.
And then he was reflecting on very little as the great, shining broadsword whistled at him, and he brought his ladle up instinctively to meet the sword with a ridiculous CLANG that resounded over the meadow and raised the volume of the crowd’s cheers to an ear-splitting level.
The force of the blow numbed his hand, and Gru stumbled back, switching the ladle to his weaker left hand, to shake off the pins and needles. Henke pushed his advantage, stepping boldly into Gru’s reach and swinging again, one-handed, aiming for Gru’s cheek, doubtless to leave a permanent reminder of Gru’s ignominious defeat.
Gru ducked, tripped over his own feet, and sprawled on his arse, dust flying up around him and causing him to sneeze. The move, though inelegant, at least spared him being cut, and as the sword sang for him, coming down in a vertical blow sure to cleave him from navel to neck, he tried to roll to one side.
Without momentum to lever his bulk off the ground, however, Gru could do nothing but rock side to side in an increasingly frantic motion, until at last he was over on his knees, crawling away, ladle digging a bowl-shaped furrow in the dirt as he tried to escape Henke’s broadsword long enough to stand.
He struggled to his feet, gasping for breath, and heard Henke’s step close behind him. He tried to turn but was prevented by the wide, flat THWAP of the sword coming down across his arse.
It made him jump and reach for the offended appendage. The crowd laughed uproariously, and as he turned toward them, still rubbing his rump, he saw Henke with his back turned, arms raised as if inviting further acclaim.
Gru saw his advantage and took it, raising his ladle and charging, all his weight lending force to the blow as he brought the heavy metal utensil down on Henke’s head.
At least, that’s what Gru intended. At the last moment, however, the hero, alerted perhaps by the expression on the face of his sister, turned, sword still high, and took the blow on his bicep.
The ladle panged harmlessly against the bunched muscles, and Henke grinned through his teeth and said, “I’m going to gut you like the bloated whale that you are.”
Henke crooked his elbow and brought the great blade back as if to punch it through Gru’s quivering belly, but Gru stumbled back out of reach of the thrust and brought his ladle between them, using both hands to fend off the blow.
Henke took a step back. It wasn’t a big step—he might have been seeking more room to maneuver—but Gru took it for a sign that he’d gained his own ground in the fight, and remembering all those sweaty afternoons on their secret training ground, the fumbling, stupid injuries, the cursing and the sweating and the pain, and hearing Sunthwart’s warbled encouragement, Gru brought his ladle around two-handed like he was taking an ax to a particularly stubborn tree, feinting for Henke’s throat and counting on the hero to raise his right arm to deflect the blow.
It worked like a charm. With the inevitability of fate, the ladle swung ponderously toward Henke, and as the champion raised his arm to take it, Gru changed the aim just enough to strike him right on the point of his elbow.
Henke’s expression of gloating triumph slid from his face like ice calving from a glacier. As if utter disbelief slowed his motion, his right hand left the hilt of his great sword finger by finger even as his left hand came up to cradle the smarting elbow and his mouth opened in a wide rictus of mixed laughter and agony.
Gru wasted a moment just breathing and another, longer one shaking off his confusion; never had he expected to find himself in this position, armed in front of his weaponless nemesis.
Then Sunthwart’s voice cut through to Gru’s adrenaline-addled brain, “Finish him, Gruelbane! Live up to your Name!”
Henke seemed to have heard Sunny too, for his left hand stopped cradling his elbow, and he began to reach for his sword. In that moment, Gru raised his mighty weapon once more and brought it down with a sharp THWACK that seemed to echo across the field of battle.
The heavy bowl of the ladle struck Henke in the back of the head where it met his neck. It might have been a killing blow were Gru armed with a sword. As it was, it staggered Henke, who forgot his quest for his broadsword in favor of spinning around to come at Gru in a wrestling stance, as if he was going to pick Gru up and toss him.
Just then, a commanding voice boomed out across the field. “The match is decided in favor of Gruelbane, who has delivered the deathblow.”
Henke, his handsome face twisted into a look of mingled dismay and disgust, turned toward the voice of their King, Everhard the Prolific, whose beringed hand was raised in a gesture of blessing—over Gruelbane, who was panting, right hand raised to salute the befuddled crowd with his winning weapon.
The villagers stood, eyes going from their king to their fallen champion to the unlikely victor in the match, who himself had eyes only for Hilda.
For her part, Hilda was red with embarrassment—whether because her brother had been so ignominiously defeated or because the sweaty, beet-red Gru was grinning at her smittenly, no one could tell.
As Sunthwart alone rushed onto the field to slap Gru on the back and congratulate him, the assembled village gave a half-hearted mumble of approval, muttering about luck and freak accidents and the foolishness of wasting time on games when they could be planting, and then the Horde was around Henke talking loudly about the match being fixed and suggesting what they’d do to get even with Gruelbane.
Sunthwart, recognizing that Gru’s moment had already passed, hustled his friend off the field of victory.
“Hey, let’s get some mead to celebrate. Whaddya say?”
But Gru was still looking at Hilda, who at long last was looking back at him, the unlikeliest of champions.
And then she winked.
And winked again.
Or maybe she had dust in her eye or had just been pelted by a gnat.
Whatever the case, Gru chose to take it as a sign, along with his victory, that things were looking up for him.
“Mead sounds great, Sunny,” Gru answered, lumbering off the field and toward Gudrin’s tavern, where he bellied up to a barstool and promptly felt the ptwang of his beleaguered belt finally giving up the ghost.
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