Mordred’s knees shook, and he stumbled onto Bedivere, who caught him for support. “Stand up,” the knight said. “Stand—”
Mordred seized Excalibur and ripped it from its scabbard. His hands felt alive again, carrying a blade. He pivoted, bringing the sword up in a swift deadly arc. Steel met steel with a bone-jarring clang. Somehow Bedivere had gotten his own blade out in time. Mordred laughed as his hands vibrated “Very good, mongrel.”
“Give me the sword.”
“I plan to.” He drove at him, the longsword alive in his hands. Bedivere jumped back, parrying, but Mordred followed, pressing the attack. No sooner did he turn one cut than the next was upon the mongrel.
The swords were waves, clashing, only to fall back and clash again. Mordred’s blood was singing. He balanced death on every stroke. And with my wrists chained together, the mongrel may even give me a contest. His chains forced him to use a two-handed grip.
High and low, he rained down steel upon him. Left and right, swinging so hard that sparks flew when the swords came together, upswing and sideslash, always attacking, moving into him. Stepping and striking and moving and slashing faster and faster and faster…
…Until, breathless, he stepped back and let the point of the sword fall to the ground, giving them a moment of respite. “Not half bad,” he acknowledged. “For a mongrel.”
Bedivere took a slow deep breath, watching him warily. “I swore I would not hurt you.”
“As if you could.” He whirled the blade back up above his head and flew at him again, chains rattling. This is my birthright, he thought. This is what I was born to do. Excalibur in my hand, killing traitors.
Mordred could not have said how long he pressed the attack. It might have been minutes or it might have been hours; time slept when swords woke. He drove him into the trees. Bedivere stumbled once on a root, and he went to one knee before bouncing back to his feet. Fall, damn you!
His sword leapt up to block a downcut that would have opened him from shoulder to groin, and then Bedivere cut back, again and again.
The dance went on. Mordred pinned him against an oak and cursed as he slipped away. Their duel brought them to a brook, half choked with leaves. Their footwork was done on a sodden brown mat. Steel rang, steel sang, steel screamed and scraped. Bedivere had started grunting, tiring, yet somehow Mordred could not reach him. He blocked every blow like an iron cage about him.
“Not bad at all” Mordred again acquiesced.
“For a mongrel?”
“For a squire. A green boy.” He laughed a ragged, breathless laugh. “Come on, come on! The steel’s still ringing. The music’s still playing, and might I have this dance?”
Bedivere’s steel came at him, blade whirling, and suddenly it was Mordred struggling to keep steel from skin. One of his slashes raked across his brow, and blood ran down into his right eye. God’s bloody bones, he thought. Damn him to Hell! His skills had gone to rust and rot in Tintagel, and the chains were no help. His eye closed, his shoulders were going numb from the jarring they’d taken, and his wrists were raw. He knew he was not swinging as quickly as he’d done earlier.
Bedivere forced him back into the brook again, shouting, “Yield! Throw down Excalibur!”
A slick stone turned under Mordred’s foot. As he felt himself falling, he turned mischance into a diving lunge. His point scraped past Bedivere’s parry and bit into his upper thigh. A red flower blossomed. Mordred had but an instant to savor it before his shin slammed into a jagged rock. The pain was white and blinding. Bedivere splashed into him and seized him by his hair. “YIELD!”
Mordred drove his shoulder into Bedivere’s legs, bringing the knight down on top of him. They rolled, kicking and punching until finally the mongrel was sitting astride him.
Mordred managed to get Excalibur overhead, but before he could cleave the knight, Bedivere caught his wrist and slammed his hands on a rock. Again the white pain roared. Excalibur fell from his hands and Bedivere grabbed it.
“No—” Mordred screamed, but Bedivere was already lunging for the rock in the brook that Mordred had slipped on. He drove Excalibur into the stone. Blue flame shot up and danced about it.
Morded lay there, stunned. Before he could collect himself there was a boot rushing down to meet him.
When he awoke, he was bound by the ankles again, and sitting by a fire. He smelled nothing but the iron of his blood, and he tasted copper. His face had been bandaged. He rolled over to see Bedivere poking a fire with a stick. “You didn’t kill me.”
“This is not news to me.”
“Let me free it,” Mordred said. “Let me free it from the stone. I am the true king. I can prove it.”
“Let me free it!” Mordred said, struggling against his bonds. “Let me free it.”
“No.” Bedivere rose, and put the fire out. He hauled Mordred by his collar and threw him over his horse like a sack of flour.
“Let me free it. Please.”
“No.” Bedivere swung into his saddle and booted the horse forward. Mordred watched as Excalibur shrank as Bedivere rode downhill and it looked to Mordred as though his birthright was swallowed up by the ground.
“Let me free it…”