The doors to the great hall crashed open, and King Bowen leapt from the throne. His fingers found Skull Splitter’s handle and slid the monstrous sword from its sheath.
He first saw the invader’s boot as it pounded one of his guards in the chest. The guard lost his spear and flew six–no, eight!–paces, cracking his backside then his helmeted head on the polished floor, where he lay still, arms and legs splayed. The massive boot took a step forward, followed by its twin.
The invader was a giant, at least a full head taller than Bowen who was by no means a small man. A tunic sewn with iron rings draped his chest, and there was leather enough in it to armor two normal soldiers, with remainder enough for vambraces and greaves.
And in his hand was no mere sword but a thing of beauty, not just for its blood-stained length (a full man’s height) but also the ease with which it cut patterns through the air. When a second guard lost his head, Bowen was reminded of the way a boy lops at dandelions with a switch.
Death had come many times for Bowen, both before and after he had taken the throne. If his last act as king was to protect the next in line, so be it. He would not leave his people leaderless and ran to join two more guards as they engaged the giant. As two men who had trained under the tutelage of the best swordsman in his kingdom fell before a single swipe of the giant’s sword, Bowen skidded to a halt, eyes fixed on the enemy that came next through the doors.
“Ryce!” He spat the name like venom sucked from a wound. Bowen took another step forward, heedless of the blood-spattered giant.
“Hold, Bowen,” said Ryce. “I only want an audience.” Ryce held Death of Thieves point down, and Bowen knew from long experience it was no trick of the guttering lamplight that caused the sword’s surface to ripple.
“You invade my home. You slaughter my guards. And you have the stones to request an audience?”
“It was your guards, Bowen, that kept you from me. A simple ‘yes’ would have held my son’s blade.”
A younger, nearly identical version of Bowen burst into the hall from a doorway behind the throne. His hand flashed over his shoulder, a bowstring drew back and was released, all at a run and in less than a heartbeat.
Ryce’s son punched the air. He caught the arrow behind its head. Both sons moved again. A bowstring thrummed; a great sword swept up. The second arrow fell in halves around Ryce, who didn’t so much as twitch an eyebrow.
Bowen’s son drew another arrow, but his father held up a palm.
“Speak,” said Bowen.
“Do you recall our first meeting?” asked Ryce.
“Winter in Apple Valley. We both wanted the last room in the tavern. I recall a miserable ride to the next town.”
“I spent a shivering night in the stables. Pity another took that room while we were dueling. We have been enemies since.”
“With only the foothills separating our kingdoms, it has been easy to remain so.”
“I cannot count the times our swords have crossed. Every time, it seems some small bit of destiny intervened to prevent our determining a victor.”
“Is that why you are here?” Bowen advanced another two steps, dangerously close to the giant’s naked sword. “You wish to settle our history, now in the twilight of our enmity?” He hefted Skull Splitter, both hands on a handle meant for one.
“There would be little glory in two old wardogs acting like pups. I have filled my son’s ears with words of your undoing his whole life. When I pass on my kingdom, he will continue in my stead.”
“I will gladly slay this bit of filth for you, Father,” said Ryce’s son. Bowen’s son drew a second arrow and nocked it above the first.
“Let us see you catch them both,” he hissed through clenched teeth.
“See?” Ryce walked past his son and stood mere leaping distance from Bowen. “I say enough.”
Bowen’s brow wrinkled.
“We are stupid, stubborn men, Bowen. Kings should act like kings. That tavern burned to the ground decades ago. Do we really need to spill more blood over a lost room, especially when so little of that blood has been ours?”
Bowen took another step forward. Behind him, a bowstring tightened. He lowered Skull Splitter until it touched the tip of Death of Thieves. Then he raised Ryce’s blade and pressed against the middle of it with his own.
“I would have enjoyed knowing who would have walked away from our last meeting,” he said.
“Neither of us would have.” Ryce offered his hand, and Bowen shook it. “Now we can, and our sons can as well.”
Both kings smiled as their sons spoke the words simultaneously.
“Enough,” said Bowen.
“Enough,” he said. Ryce released his grip and turned his back on Bowen’s upraised sword. As he walked past his son, he took the giant’s elbow. Together they left the great hall while a bow’s tension fell away.
“What now, Father?” asked Bowen’s son, returning two arrows to his quiver.
“Ride to the southern garrison,” Bowen said. “Tell them to come home to their families. Their king has decided to no longer be a fool.” Bowen retrieved the scabbard leaning against the throne. Skull Splitter slid into it with what sounded like a sigh of relief.
Robert J. Santa has been writing speculative fiction of all kinds for more than twenty years. His work has appeared in Paradox, Artemis, Horror Garage, and On Spec. He is the chief cook and bottle washer for Ricasso Press. Robert lives in Rhode Island with his beautiful wife and two, equally beautiful daughters.