The Hero's Lot Online - Patrick W. Carr

1

ACCUSED

SWEAT, HOT AND SALTY, flowed into Errol’s eyes in the sticky heat of the early fall afternoon. He forced a quick blink to shed the distraction, not daring to risk the split second it would take to wipe his brow. A welt as long as his hand burned his left rib cage. Its twin worked to numb his right shoulder. The staff in his hands blurred and buzzed like an angry insect, nearly invisible, but as yet he had managed only a single strike against his opponent.

And he was tiring.

The man opposite him, stronger and fresher, darted like a snake, the blade of his sword disappeared as his arms corded and he struck. Errol parried at the last moment and flowed into a counterattack. The clack of staff against sword filled his ears like the sound of a drummer’s rim beats.

For a moment he dared hope that he would penetrate his opponent’s defense, but the attack exhausted itself, and he retreated to defend against those cursed whiplike strokes of the swordsman’s counter.

Pain blossomed in his side as the sword found its mark. It was no use. Four weeks of food and rest had nearly restored him to complete health after Sarin’s attack against the kingdom. But “almost” was insufficient against such an opponent.

He backed away and grounded his staff. “Enough, Liam, I am no match for you today—perhaps not ever again.” One of the watchmen, Lieutenant Goran, offered him a wad of cloth. He lifted his shirt. A trickle of blood tracked a crooked rivulet down his side. It could have been worse. Only his foolish pride—and Weir’s goading—had impelled him to spar with Liam so soon after his release from the infirmary. All in all, he’d been lucky.

The blond-haired man across from him relaxed from his stance and favored him with the same smile that made every girl, woman, and widow in the kingdom swoon. On Errol the effect failed to dazzle, but it reminded him his fellow villager walked a bit closer to perfection than other men.

Liam inclined his head. “You’re nearly as fast as you were before the attack.”

Captain Reynald nodded his agreement from his vantage point just to the side. “The lad speaks the simple truth. Had you sparred with any other man—” he paused to glance at Weir—“you would have won, easily. As it is, there are only two men I can think of that could best either of you. Merodach and—”

“Naaman Ru,” Errol finished.

The captain grunted. “Yes.”

Eagerness flared in Liam’s eyes. “How good is he, Errol?”

“I don’t know. I never saw him in an actual fight, and we never sparred. I’m just as happy about that, though. His best student, Gram Skorik, pushed me to my limit. Rokha, his daughter, told me Ru bested Skorik without breaking a sweat.”

Liam’s eyes shone. “Wouldn’t it be glorious to go against him, the best swordsman in the world?”

A catarrhal laugh erupted from Errol’s throat before he could stop it. “Glorious? No, I don’t think so. The last time I saw Ru, he had naked steel in his hand and was furious with me.”

Errol panicked as he said this last and cursed himself for a fool. His admission might lead to questions about his escape from the caravan master he could not answer. Before Reynald or Liam could inquire after the means of his deliverance from the legendary swordsman, Adora, flanked by Weir and a dozen ladies of the court who gazed in longing toward Liam, joined the trio.

“Are you well?” the princess asked him.

His breath caught at the sight of her . . . as always. The green of her eyes unmade him, so he busied himself with his staff, twisting the knobblocks back onto each end. “A couple of welts. They’re a small price to pay for letting Weir goad me into a match with Liam.”

At the mention of his name, Lord Weir elbowed Errol on his way to congratulate Liam on his victory. “It’s too bad you called a halt, peasant. A couple of blows to the head might have taught you respect for your betters.”

Errol made a show of looking around Weir and over his head. “If I see any I’ll let you know.”

Weir yanked his hand toward the pommel of his sword, as if to draw.

Errol darted to his right. He needed space. His eyes caught Weir’s, and his hands slid to the ready position on his staff. Reynald’s voice came from behind him.

“Please do, Lord Weir. The minute you bare steel in this