8 The Challenge
There was a hushed silence in the dimly lit bayt, of Sheikh Rashidi. The still broken only by the sibilant movements of Kedor's talwars, as he heedlessly moved through the patterns of the Dance of the Rakhshana. The tent's occupants sat entranced as his steel blades wove a flickering pattern of death. The spellbound crowd was ripped from their reverie as the tent flaps were thrown back, bright sunlight spilling across the carpeted floor of the tent. Kedor stood still, swords crossed at his waist. His back to the flap-way, he did not see the champion make his grand entrance.
The hunched ogre that ducked through the opening brought a loud hissing intake of breath from Kedor's companions. His scarred visage bore a loathsome sneer. Dressed in crudely tanned sheepskins, this eight foot hulk of muscles and scars carried a huge, nastily pitted and chipped long sword and woven wicker shield. Filthy silken pantaloons tucked into low hardily constructed boots completed his garb.
Shikha, loosening her blades in their sheaths, tattoos darkening noticeably, leaned toward Tabitha and growled, "These scars are not from the battlefield, they are from the duel. An armored warrior from the battlefront wears not the same scars an unarmored duelist displays. This does not bode well."
Clapping his hands, the freshly animated Sheikh stood. "At last Heydar of the Zuz'im arrives. Pup you may have bitten off more than you can chew this time. When your uncle Ea-Nasir was killed on the borders of Argob battling the Rapha'im; I sent a call to all of the tribes for a new champion. Remembering my meeting of your father's champion, Kay, and much impressed, I had thought to acquire a Zuz'im champion of my own. After all they are the most martially accomplished of the giant tribes. Heydar obliged by defeating all comers. There would be no shame should you retire now, before it is too late. Heydar has killed all his challengers."
A faint smile touched the corners of Kedor's mouth. His thick muscles flexed as he spun, raising his left sword above his head, tip pointed toward the grizzly giant. His right, he held vertically before his face. Tensing, the champion came forward in a shuffling lope, sword lifted for a smashing overhand blow, shield held just below eye level. Kedor stood, his sweat sheened, bronze skin glowing in the bright splash of sunlight. He remained motionless, as if he would receive the blow.
As it fell though, Kedor flowed like swirling smoke out of its path. Delivering no strike of his own, he stood poised once again. Heydar, following Kedor's movement, tried to catch him unaware with a sweeping backhand slash. Kedor simply dropped to his knees, deflecting the blow over his head with the flat of his right-hand blade. He thrust for the giant's knees with his left, testing.
Heydar growling, caught his thrust with the lower edge of his shield. Heydar's ripping forehand hack found only carpet, as Kedor fluidly rolled backward avoiding his hurried strike. As Kedor gracefully came to his feet, his left talwar flashed, drawing a shallow gash on the back of the champion's sword arm. Incensed at the sight of his blood spattering the carpets, Heydar hunched down behind his woven shield. Launching a series of fast chopping strikes right and left, he wove his sword back and forth looking for an opening. The young prince backed step by step catching each smashing blow with the flats of his talwars, silently thankful of their wootz steel construction.
Realizing Heydar could keep this up 'til he tired, he stepped forward catching the giant's blade in the raised arch of his crossed swords, stopping it dead. Feeling Heydar advance to ram him with his raised shield, Kedor back slashed with his right hand. His blow took three inches off the top of the shield as he side stepped, scoring another shallow cut across the shoulder of the giant's shield arm. Ducking and rolling again under another whistling rip from the champion, he drew a talwar across the giant's rib cage in passing. Kedor came to his feet some distance from the angry Heydar. For a moment they stood eyeing each other, Kedor calm and poised, Heydar dripping blood and panting.
Kedor smiled, beginning the Dance. With his blades weaving in a glittering hypnotic pattern, he commenced to circle the giant. Heydar, intending to end it all in one mighty strike, let out a paralyzing bellow and stepped forward, sword raised. Kedor, flowing under the champion's attack, thrust his left blade into the giant's armpit. Piercing the lung and leaving his sword lodged, he continued to move. He struck back with his right, hamstringing the astonished giant. Heydar dropped to the ground spewing blood from his mouth and nose. The giant lay suffocating on the carpeted floor of the tent, sword jutting from his body. A stunned silence fell over the watching crowd.
"YES!" Arioch's elated cry shattered the hush. "YES, YES!" He pumped his fist into the air.
Kedor looked to Shikha, who responded simply with a short nod of approval, her jade eyes gleaming.
Tabitha, her cornflower blue eyes never leaving Kedor, appeared to be in shock.
She quietly ruminated, "Perhaps I should stay purely to see what comes of this. This arrogant buffoon certainly has hidden his strengths and talents well! Even after the hareem, I had no idea he was capable of this."
"That was incredible!" Arioch crowed, practically dancing.
Kedor moved to the gasping giant's side. Kneeling, he placed his left hand on the champion's forehead. He drew his talwar across Heydar's throat, ending his wheezing struggle. Retrieving his other blade he stood, flicking them once he sheathed them.
"Sheikh Rashidi stands humbled, you truly are a Child of the Tiger. 'Twas no idle boast?" His voice rumbled, deep in thought, still standing where he had risen for his champion's entrance.
Looking vaguely unsettled, he gestured to Kedor. "As it may be, we should eat and discuss what other plans you have made for me. I'd like to avoid anymore unpleasant surprises."
Nodding his head, he mounted his mound of cushions. "Yes, your grandmother's calculating guile must have skipped a generation. She must be very proud."
This drew a sharp laugh from Shikha, her eyes sparkling. "She received an eye opening surprise of her own this morning, as will all who underestimate my young master."
"Excellent, you must tell me of this over our meal!" He clapped his hands. "Remove my Champion!"
A cavalcade of servants entered bringing cushions, bowls of warm water for bathing, steaming platters, goblets of wine, and carpets to replace the bloodied ones. Kedor's party seated themselves, mingling amongst the elders. As they jockeyed for position, they were enthralled as Shikha regaled them with this morning's earlier events.
With her tale drawing gales of laughter from Rashidi, he demanded, "Sheikh Rashidi must be allowed to take part in the further bearding of that know it all, your grandmother. For years she has sat behind the throne manipulating us far and wide across this empire. She is the true power behind the throne. Though your father is a military genius and able ruler, it is she, the glue, that holds together all your father has conquered."
Ripping apart the carcass of a steaming fowl, the Sheikh absently waved a drumstick at Kedor. "Tell me, you surely have plans beyond this" tournament"..."
Kedor patiently explained. "I would take part in my father's upcoming campaign, yet at fifteen, my cataphract training barely begun, I would surely be denied. I had thought to win the tourney and be named my father's champion. This would force him to give me command of his Rostan, as custom demands. Though this I would decline for several reasons; first, Iskander is an able commander and more suited to this particular task and secondly, I would rather command the scouts. As champion of the Dulain, it would be my right to command the Bedouin scouts. "
"This "might" work." He nodded thoughtfully, as he devoured the bird.
He looked up, decisively. " Sheikh Rashidi shall attend this tournament! For I would see the faces of your grandmother and father when his new champion is unveiled!"
"It "is" working, even now honored grandfather." Kedor bowed.
Chuckling, Rashidi pointed to an astonished Tabitha. "... And her?"
"Ah yes." Kedor speared her with his steely grey eyes. "A new intrigue cooked up by grandmother and my mother. I shall get to the bottom of it soon! Yet the Valide Shah knows it not, but this dovetails nicely with my plans."
Blushing crimson, Tabitha looked down to the bowl of fruit she toyed with in her lap.
"Of course you will!" Laughing, the Sheikh spread his arms expansively. "All this to declare you are a worthy heir? Couldn't you have just made an announcement at the festival feast?"
"My actions must speak for me from now on." Kedor gave the Sheikh a solemn look. "Unfortunately, though not undeservedly, my words will no longer suffice."
Chuckling, the Sheikh stood. "Yes, I had wind of those particular rumors ... nevertheless."
At his call more servants entered, bearing two plain cedar chests, followed by five warriors all identically dressed in jalabiyya (hooded Saracen robes), sky blue kufiyya (head cloths) the long tails of which wrapped across their faces hiding their features. Each was armed with a scimitar hung at their hip and a strung reflex bow slung over their shoulder. They each approached one of Kedor's party, kneeling they presented the bows to them. Only Kedor and Shikha declined. Arioch, being of Ellesar (famous for the Larsan Archers), Leda and Tabitha of Scythian descent, all took the beautifully carved weapons with some reverence.
Arioch, almost whispering, closely examined the bow. "This is a magnificent work of fine craftsmanship."
"These have been imbued by our shaman to resist wet and other inclement weather as well as with runes of strength." Smiling proudly, the Sheikh continued. "As you well know our invested weapons are in great demand.
"Kedor, as my champion, you have inherited the possessions of your predecessor, your uncle Nasir. Heydar chose gold in place of these as they were useless to a warrior of his stature. Regardless, they are yours."
He pulled forth the finest haubergeon Kedor had ever laid eyes upon, made up of tiny, lacquered black rings, from the first chest.
"This steel mail is the lightest I have ever felt." The Sheikh marveled.
As he held it up, it shimmered darkly in the light.
He smiled as he handed it to Kedor. "You have entered a dangerous time in your life. Wear this at all times. I would have you protected."
After putting on his linen undershirt, he pulled the whispering, thigh length metal tunic over his head. He felt oddly refreshed.
"Each link has been stamped with the ancient rune of strength, not only giving the mail an integral strength but also the wearer." The Sheikh turned and pulled a matched pair of exquisitely etched, damascene steel, scimitars from the second chest. "These have been handed down through the Dulain family for generations. You will have to discover their properties yourself as they imbue each owner with different abilities as needed. They are Damar (Ruin) and Iba' Dulain (Pride of the Dulain)."
"Finally, as we seem to be finished eating, shall we remove ourselves? Your final gifts are outside." The Sheikh led them outside where they were met by more servants.
Each stood holding in one arm fine robes and headscarves matching the five warriors. In the other they held the reins of the most beautiful Tazi stallions they had ever seen. Each horse had the distinctive head shape and high tail carriage that clearly marked them as one of the most recognizable and coveted horse breeds in the world. These Arabian steeds were a magnanimous gift indeed.
"As the champion of the Dulain tribe you must dress the part. These robes should also enable you to keep your identity concealed in the tournament until you choose to reveal it." He pointed to the five warriors. "You should be indistinguishable from your new bodyguards dressed like this."
"As for the horses, the bays are for you, Arioch, and your guard." The Sheikh smiled broadly, as he indicated their tattoos. "The sabinoes are yours, Shikha, and Tabitha; painted horses for Kedor's painted women."
"The black is yours, Kedor, his name is Hilel (New Moon). He is my finest and you have proven worthy."
"Grandfather, we are most honored but we have no gift for you to match this generosity!" Kedor stammered.
Laughing, he turned to Kedor. "You have given me an afternoon that will not be soon forgotten, and hope for the future generations of the Dulain Tribe. Now you must be off before your father sends a division of his cataphracts to rescue you from the evil Bedouin."
"I will send an emissary to your father, officially entering my champion in the tournament. I have here a missive for your all knowing grandmother, as she has been seeking knowledge of the goings on in the west, and give my fondest wishes to your mother." The Sheikh grabbed him in a crushing embrace. “You make me proud, grandson.”
Turning, he reentered his tent...