Chapter Nine – A Dark Duel

The only thing that was different during the day was that Ilrin seemed very preoccupied with something. Twice, Dilmir was sure the spell that Iliadin aimed at her would strike, but she always managed to block it in time. He, too, managed to block the spells Elmir flung at him, though not quite as gracefully. Power leaked from him like from a punctured water skin. He could barely keep it from affecting his every spell. As it was, whenever he blocked a spell, an enormous amount of magic surged through him, dying his shield green and showing just how large it was.

After yet another awkward pause as Dilmir’s gigantic shield of energy faded from sight, Elmir cleared his throat.

“Dilmir,” he said, “I can understand how you could cast such a large shield. You are simply using too much magic. What I do not understand, is how you can do so twenty times in a row.” He cocked a thick eyebrow at Dilmir expectantly.

Dilmir remained looking at the place where his shield had disappeared. “Neither do I, Ael,” he said, looking down. He decided that ignorance would be the best course to take.

The fact was, he had an excellent idea what was going on. For seven years, he had managed to keep his power in check, and use only miniscule amounts of his magic when he needed too. At least, until two nights ago.

He had reacted to Cyprien so fast that he had simply used all of his magic, not bothering to limit it to what any normal elf his age would be capable of. That was the first time he had used his full power since that night when the wolves attacked. Somehow, he seemed to have opened an invisible spring of magic within himself with that action, and now it was all he could do to keep his power in check. If this continued much longer, he would have to do something soon, though what, he knew not. Elmir had hinted that he would be using combative spells soon, and he hated to think what would happen if one of those had too much magic in it.

Elmir, apparently not sure what else to do, forced his features into a blank mask and said, “Continue then.”

Dilmir readied himself, being careful to use as little magic as he possibly could. He still couldn’t control it all, though, with the result that his shield shattered Elmir’s spell rather than simply absorbing it. Fragments of the spell whizzed throughout the training field, narrowly missing several elves. Dilmir grimaced. This was what he had been afraid of.

From shields Dilmir moved on to counter spells. Counter spells, as it turned out, required an enormous amount of concentration, as he first had to deduce what exactly Elmir had fired at him, and then had to quickly develop a spell that would neutralize it. It was a complicated process, and Dilmir’s counterspells rarely did as they were supposed to, though they were always overpowered.

Elmir remained silent on Dilmir’s obvious abundance of magic for the rest of the morning. After a particularly dramatic incident when Dilmir’s counterspell somehow caused Elmir’s spell to burst into purple flames, all he said was, “Focus harder.”

By the time the sun had reached its zenith, Dilmir was hot, tired, and getting irritable that he couldn’t control his magic. He left the field quickly when Elmir dismissed him, forgetting the usual farewell and hastening to the gates before the other elves reached it.

Ilrin caught up with him soon afterwards, but, sensing that he was in a foul mood, remained silent.

Fortunately, Dilmir’s mood improved over lunch. With the morning behind him, all he had to look forward to now was the afternoon with Ilrin, and despite the tiring nature of the training, it was more fun by far than the magical training. His spirits were reasonably high as he waved goodbye to his aunt and set off through Eld’rin towards the sparring field.

When the field came into sight, however, a few duelists already practicing upon it, Dilmir stopped dead. Standing near the edge, as if they were waiting for him, stood four elves, all clad in black leather. One of them turned and saw Dilmir, but made no other move. He nudged his companions, and one by one, they turned to look at him as well.

As Dilmir looked beyond them, he saw more Dark Elves standing about the sparring field, watching the duels. Two of them were even walking amongst the duelists, pausing to watch different pairs as they did.

It was perhaps a good thing Ilrin arrived at that point, for Dilmir had only ever seen the Dark Elves in these numbers once before, and that was years ago. She, too, faltered at the sight that met her, but Dilmir caught sight of their trainer beckoning to them, and led the way towards him, being careful to stay between the Dark Elves and Ilrin.

“Act as normal,” said their trainer quietly when they approached, his eyes on the Dark Elves. “They’re simply watching, probably looking for more recruits. If they tried anything, half a dozen mages would be on them in a moment.” He nodded covertly towards a far root, and Dilmir saw several elves resting there, intently watching the Dark Elves. They all wore the same uniform, a light green tunic with a tree threaded on its front, and he recognized them as elves of the council’s army.

“Don’t worry,” said the trainer, catching their looks. “I doubt they will seek to start anything. There are more than enough of us here. Now, begin.”

Nervously, Dilmir and Ilrin drew their swords. Dilmir found the Dark Elves distracting, but he knew that the trainer was right; they would be foolish to try anything.

The Dark Elves, or the disciples of Eltuthar as they were sometimes called, had once fought against the council in a terrible battle many long years ago. With the defeat of Eltuthar, they had surrendered; but slowly, one by one, had trickled back to him over the years. They were not permitted within Eld’rin, but as long as they remained peaceable, they were allowed to walk within its borders, excluding the city itself.

Ilrin, unlike Dilmir, appeared to be less easily convinced of the Dark Elves’ intentions. Her eyes darted from dark figure to dark figure, and with a jolt, Dilmir remembered that an uncle of hers had been a Dark Elf in the days of Eltuthar the Black.

“Come on, Ilrin,” he whispered so that only she could hear, “you wouldn’t want me to win out of distraction, would you?”

Ilrin smiled half heartedly at him, but raised her sword and focused on finding a weakness in Dilmir’s stance. Dilmir still saw her eyes occasionally flick upwards as a leather-clad figure drew near, but she was back to her old self soon enough.

With a practiced agility, she leapt forward, sword held ready. Dilmir backed up rapidly, and knocked her sword to one side as he did so. He then brought his own back up, but she ducked out from under it, and drove her own blade beneath his guard. He twisted away from the seeking metal, and sought to catch her unawares as his sword flew in a great circle towards her, only to have it met by her blade. Changing tactics suddenly, she leapt towards him, driving his sword down, and then flicked her own up so fast that it was at his throat in an instant.

And so the afternoon went. Slowly, Ilrin grew more confident, though the Dark Elves did not stop walking amongst the duelists. Dilmir nearly defeated her when one came close enough to touch, but she beat back his attack at the last moment. Oddly, the Dark Elves did not seem at all frightened by the presence of the mages. They even tried to start some conversations with them, though from what Dilmir could see, these did not last long. The Dark Elves were careful to not interfere with the training in any way, save for their presence, and the sun had just slipped below the horizon when things changed.

Dilmir and Ilrin were in the middle of a furious duel which, by some strange means, had lasted nearly a minute already. In the fast fading light, it was getting hard to see, and Dilmir was having difficulty spotting Ilrin’s thin sword as it sliced cleanly through the air towards him.

He saw it in the nick of time and rolled to the right, being careful to get up facing her. She lunged after him, but he blocked her blow, and ducked under her sword again. She leapt up, and Dilmir, taking advantage, somersaulted between her legs to come up behind her. Ilrin landed, and, with a single deft movement whirled her sword so that it pointed towards her, and then thrust it at Dilmir from under her arm. Dilmir, who had thought he was safe until she turned around, found Ilrin’s sword at his throat yet again. He sighed.

Assuming that the training was over, he turned to the trainer, and found himself three feet away from a Dark Elf.

He had not seen him approach in the half light, and his black leather had helped to hide him. He was a giant of an elf, nearly seven feet tall, and very muscular. He had oddly tanned skin, and Dilmir could have easily mistaken him for a human if it weren’t for his slightly pointed ears and angular features. Ilrin turned at that moment, saw the elf, and instinctively took a step back.

The Dark Elf grinned, not unkindly. “Fear not,” he said, “I’m not going to hurt you.” His voice was deep, and might have been reassuring if the circumstances had been different. “I have been watching you duel for some time,” he said to Ilrin, “and I have never seen a sword move so fast. I wonder if you might do me the honor of a duel.”

Ilrin looked too frightened to speak. She looked mutely from the elf to the trainer, who stood a little way behind him, frowning deeply. Dilmir, however, looked solidly at the Dark Elf.

“Why do you ask this?” he said suddenly. The elf turned to him. “The duel would be unfair. You have at least two years’ more experience than she does.” There were, of course, other reasons he didn’t want Ilrin to duel the Dark Elf, but he decided not to voice them just yet.

“You think so?” asked the elf, watching Dilmir keenly. “She is more experienced than I would expect at her age. The fight would be fair.”

“I accept,” said Ilrin quite suddenly, startling them both. The Dark Elf’s smile broadened. Ilrin stepped forward, a steely look freezing her blank features into place.

“The name’s Felnir,” said the Dark Elf, bowing to her. “Let us begin.”

Felnir drew a sword from his back, a long, thick blade, though it was equal in length with Ilrin’s. He stepped to one side, politely waiting for Ilrin to do likewise, but neither she nor Dilmir moved.

“I’m fine,” Ilrin murmured to Dilmir before drawing away. She assumed a defensive stance. When Dilmir did not move, she motioned him towards the trainer with her eyes. He went reluctantly, keeping an eye on Felnir.

Felnir settled easily into his own defensive stance, watching Ilrin. As they watched each other, Dilmir suddenly realized what Ilrin was doing. The Dark Elves created an aura of fear and power whenever they watched the elves train. If Ilrin could beat Felnir, it would doubtless help to remove that feeling.

Ilrin and Felnir eyed each other, neither willing to strike first. Dilmir knew that Ilrin’s strength lay in her defense and lightening speed. If Felnir managed to lock her in combat for any period of time he would likely win.

With a sudden movement, Felnir charged forward, his sword swinging towards Ilrin at a frightening rate. Ilrin ducked under the blow, pricked Felnir in the stomach with her blade, and rolled past him. Felnir turned around quickly, still smiling. “You fight well,” he said.

Ilrin’s face did not change at the compliment. Her mouth remained set, her eyes fixed. Slowly, they began to circle each other, Felnir gradually drawing nearer.

By this time, a small group of elves had gathered about the pair. Dark Elves rarely ever challenged others to a duel, and they almost always won.

Ilrin suddenly made such a good feint towards Felnir that Dilmir wondered briefly where she had gone when she drew back. Evidently Felnir was taken by surprise too, for he lifted his sword to block the blow. Ilrin darted under his guard and pricked him again with her sword. Felnir’s smile slackened somewhat. “Perhaps you fight too well,” he muttered, half to himself. Ilrin did not smile.

Whirling his blade in a powerful circle, Felnir leapt at Ilrin again. She rolled to the side, easily avoiding his sword. However, in a sudden move, he dodged sideways, and managed to nick her on the arm before she could draw away. She somersaulted past him, lashing out at his legs as she did so. He spun around, trying to catch her as she rolled past, but she was too fast. She brought her blade up and brought it down hard on his sword, forcing it downwards. Normally, she would have followed with an upward stroke to the head, but this time she twisted her sword around his legs, tripping him so that he fell to the ground. He rolled to ward off any blows, only to find Ilrin’s sword inches from his throat.

Without pausing, he rolled again, nearly yanking her sword from her grasp with his own. She leapt over him to keep hold of it, switching her grip as she did so. Felnir was up in an instant, and their swords locked.

Dilmir tensed. If Ilrin couldn’t break the sword lock, Felnir could easily defeat her. It was all a matter of footing. Even as he realized this, Felnir shifted his feet, getting ready to disarm Ilrin.

Ilrin seemed to know what was coming, and struggled against Felnir’s sword, but to no avail. Felnir planted his feet, and wrenched on Ilrin’s sword, causing it to fall from her hands.

Dilmir saw it before Felnir did. Ilrin let go of her sword just before she was disarmed, and the momentum supplied by Felnir carried it towards his head. He realized a moment too late what was going to happen, and then the sword struck.

Felnir took a few staggering steps backwards, blood streaming from the gash in his head. He placed his hand on it, muttered an inaudible spell, and then straightened, fully healed.

“You do indeed fight well,” he said. “It has been an honor. May I inquire as to your name?”

Ilrin tilted her head. “No, I don’t think so,” she said calmly. Her face had lost most of its tension, and an odd gleam was in her eye.

Felnir looked at her for a moment, and then his face broke into a grin. “Very well, then,” he said, “so be it.” And, still grinning, he turned and walked away into the darkness.

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