Opening the tall double doors, Isídro welcomed the warmth and light, and observed the opulence of the holy order; so different from the subdued exterior of the temple. The vaulted ceiling, now damaged, was gilt with gold. The walls were draped with mural and tapestry, and lined at their bases by statues bronze of each individual god, interspersed by cauldrons alight with fire. And spiralled malachite columns jutted out of a jade green floor.
Sprawled out on the floor before a lone altar in the massive foyer was an old man in elegant myrtle robes. He was before a large bronze idol of a warrior in plate armour with his sword drawn and claws and teeth bared. A warrior with the head of a puma. It was the warrior spirit Œfion.
Isídro knew the old man to be Lord Sunai. He had taken refuge there and looked as though he had been in prayer for as long as Cebrian had said. But whether he was sleeping or praying, Isídro didn’t know. He didn’t care. And although he wasn’t a religious man like his king, he lightly bowed to the only deity he ever believed in.
It was silent in the temple save for the drizzle of rain, through the damaged roof. An incident the king apparently hadn’t noticed. Isídro needn’t shout but the strident man let his next words echo through the hall to gather the old man’s attention, “My Lord Sunai.”
Cebrian walked abreast, and together they tracked in muddy boot prints. Their soaking garbs oozed even more, and Isídro’s dripped with blood.
As if summoned from a trance, the king lifted his head and got up onto his knees, before dousing the long-burning candles on the edge of the shrine. Lord Sunai replied, though he sounded calm and unsurprised by his general’s abrupt and traitorous assault.
“General Isídro. I never thought I would live to see the day you tread in a temple of the gods.”
Isídro growled as he came closer and closer to the altar, “Believe me when I say, that you won’t live much longer.”
Lord Sunai grinned, and struggled to his feet to face the general for the first time. He saw as well one of his own guards standing behind the military leader, with his head turned away in shame. The man was familiar to him. It was Cebrian, the captain of his guard. “What did it take for them to turn you? What was your price to align yourself with him? with the rebels?”
“The threat of death was enough to inspire young Cebrian to switch his allegiance,” Isídro answered for Cebrian, “As for me, it took nothing at all. I alone am responsible for orchestrating the insurgency in our country.”
The king didn’t frown or have the look of disappointment in his amber eyes. In fact, it seemed to Isídro that he had suspected such a betrayal all along. Perhaps for years.
“Well, if you’re here to kill me, Isídro,” said Sunai, unsheathing an elegant falcata hidden within his robes, “be prepared for a fight.”
General Isídro admired the sword and compared it to his, which was already drawn. His sword was plainer, and was more like a cudgel it was so much thicker. And that his opponent was an old man was almost comical.
He in fact laughed, and inquired, “do you think there is any snake blood left in you, old man?”
So Lord Sunai hissed, “We shall see.”
Isídro aggressed and aimed for his king’s head, but Lord Sunai was quicker than Isídro expected. Blocking the strike without effort.
Both men glared as they circled around, pointing swords at one another.
Isídro struck again but the move was parried. Then a third time lashing out in anger, yet the old man deflected this as well.
Glowering, Isídro said, “You’re remarkably fast for an old fool…” He thrust again, but missed as Sunai volted to the side to avoid injury, and made contact with Isídro’s arm. However, it was a glancing blow.
He looked through the slashed cloth at the nick on his arm. He has the first blood. But ours is a fight to the death. “… and adept,” added Isídro. “Why the deception?”
“I knew long ago someone may challenge me. And when I was forced to name an ambitious man minister of war I knew an overthrow was imminent.” He grunted on the last word to block an attack.
Metal clashed thrice more, the blows in quick succession.
“And you think the histories will depict you as the wise man who was forsaken? Any mention of your name in this world I shall have erased.”
“If the gods demand I die, so be it. But don’t doubt for a moment that your end is not as near as mine.”
Isídro slammed his sword down in a broad arc, sending the king reeling after averting the foray. But Sunai rolled in the opposite direction and regained his footing. Once more, the two men circled, as enemies, waiting for the proper moment to strike.
Youthful Isídro jabbed again, but nowhere close to his enemy who kept out of range. Then he spun on his toes counter to the direction the men were turning, and taking his sword in both hands, managed a critical blow slicing into his foe’s shoulder. Lord Sunai winced in pain, as he shifted back, though maintained the defensive pose. Greedily the general slashed again, but bit only air.
Upon the next bout came a flurry of sparks as Isídro brought on another onslaught, only to be matched by the adroitness of Sunai’s wrists.
The next offense was an uppercut which dashed the king’s ankle and brought him to his knees. And like a hammer, Isídro tore his weapon down to finish off his opponent. Yet Lord Sunai stopped the manoeuvre on his back, both blades but an inch from his nose. With all his strength, he repelled the strike, and successfully pushed Isídro away, giving him just enough time to recover.
They both panted heavily, but the fight only took toll on Lord Sunai. It didn’t matter how quickly he moved, or how much he forced Isídro to run about, or how experienced he was in comparison. His old age simply did him no favours. And since the king had once been the generals fencing instructor, neither man had any illusions about who might win.
Though his trousers and tunic were also loose fitting, his royal mantle was heavy, and unwieldy, and made it difficult to fight. So he removed it. And was ready for one last blitz from Isídro.
Isídro and Sunai coiled and rotated like a serpent for a third and final time, the tips of their swords touching at the centre of their ring.
Isídro snarled, flashing first his teeth, and then his claws; summoning the strength of the great warrior Œfion as he smashed his sword into his king’s. Battering against it until one or both of them broke. Man or metal.
Lord Sunai yielded and shuffled away to safety, causing Isídro to lose balance. Suddenly, Lord Sunai launching an assault of his own.
And he came on like a hurricane of flying snakes. Unexpectedly, Isídro found himself on the defence. He was struggling to repel the squall of spry hands and quick footwork. Retreating as if terrified of the old man’s venomous bite. For it seemed he was as much the viper now as he was in his younger years when he first earned the moniker.
And the tornado didn’t stop. Isídro was beginning to tire, and needed decisive action or he would be cut down in the whirlwind. A stroke came to his throat but was blocked. Then the waist, but he parried. And in the briefest moment before a blow to the head, Sunai was distracted by another figure One who was neither Isídro nor Cebrian.
The general stepped forward to close the distance, and elbowed the old king away, knocking him off guard.
Err either man could ‘feel’ the playing field again, Isídro surged forward on the counter attack. And his heavy-handed method was more forgiving now, as he opted for speed to defeat the reptile.
Isídro’s own tempest was so out of character and so effective, a point came where Lord Sunai could no longer shield himself from any attack.
After one final block, the old man lost his grip and dropped on all fours. He hit the floor hard but seemed unaffected by the pain. He looked up at the swift approaching newcomer in awe, and Isídro waited to behead the fallen leader.