I ground my teeth in anticipation. “There’s no way in hell I’d submit to you.”
“None of us will,” Ylva said confidently, though Maccon hid behind her with his tail still tucked. “Where will the fight be taking place?”
“By the river,” Rezso said, shifting into his wulfen form and ripping his own clothing to shreds. His build was quite muscular, a bit larger than mine, and his hair was greying in some places from his age. “Follow me,” his grizzled mouth spoke between sharp teeth.
I hesitated before stepping after him, struggling to contain the fury clawing at my insides. He who had destroyed Oliana’s life would soon find his own at an end. I knew now that he had to be stopped; he hated humans with every fiber of his being, and having the power at his hands to kill hundreds of them, his reign had to be ended. And I would be-- had to be-- the one to stop him.
“Channel your anger,” Ylva walked at my side. “It’ll help you in the duel. Never mind that he might have Alpha blood; he’s still not a legitimate heir as you are.” I nodded, too high-strung to want to speak. “But there’s something else I want to tell you. Do you remember when I told you that I knew exactly why Oliana believes in you?”
My ears perked, and I was momentarily distracted from my enmity. “Yes?”
“In short, it’s that your heart’s as pure as the driven snow.” Her words shocked me a bit, but she offered no further explanation, as we had nearly reached the river. She rested her hand on my shoulder for a moment in reassurance. “Now go get him.”
The mass of people were made to stand back at a distance of perhaps thirty feet, including Ylva and Maccon. I stepped out to meet Rezso in the clearing that had formed between the onlookers and the wide-bodied river, which carried ice drifts along its vexed current.
While I had spent most of my life as a greywolf, it was now brought to the forefront of my mind that my actual fighting experience was quite limited. Rezso, on the other hand, was well-seasoned in the practice, as evidenced by hairless patches of scar tissue striping his body. I looked into his death-like eyes and, for a moment, all was still. Then he bound toward me, his hulking frame and wild gaze rather intimidating. But nothing could deter me from my purpose. Not now. We launched toward one another and crashed in the air. He had managed to use his weight to his advantage and pinned me down, bearing his teeth in my face.
Just as he was about to clamp down on my neck, I kicked him to the side with the strength of my legs. We distanced ourselves from each other to regain composure. I had never known this kind of danger, but rather than fearing it, I thrilled in it. This was a battle of wits and of strength. This was my fate.
We regrouped closer to the icy water’s edge, both of us fully aware that the proximity to the river would increase the stakes of each move we made. We ran for each other again, but this time, when Rezso launched himself, I slid underneath him in a dodge, then turned around as quickly as I could. I managed to deliver a bite to the back of his neck, and I held on as he tried to shake me off, but only for a few seconds. He managed to fling me down, and I landed halfway in the river, though I could pull myself back up with little trouble.
Before I knew it, I heard Rezso’s angry growl and saw the whites of his eyes stand out round the black in a wild expression. This time he ran straight at me without jumping, and he caught my shoulder as I attempted to dodge. I felt the flesh rip open as I passed him, but now was not the time to focus on injuries. I doubled back and went straight for his face, clamping my jaws over the side of his snout as hard as I could. I tasted his blood and felt some of his bone crunch under the grip. As if he felt no pain, he used the force of his neck to thrust my jaw loose before ripping up my left ear with his teeth.
I realized that the risk of being permanently maimed after the fight was very real, but in that moment, the victory was worth any cost to me. I backed away to catch my breath, and to my relief, he had done the same. Crimson fluid ran down his face, and one of his eyes was pinkish and swollen. I took a moment to try to catch a glimpse of Ylva in the crowd, but she was no longer standing where I’d left her. I began to gallop toward Rezso before even looking back toward him, hoping that a show of boldness might discourage him. Rather than running toward me, he stood his ground, and I could feel those dark eyes calculating my every subtle move.
I jumped up at the last possible moment in an attempt to surprise him, but he managed to catch one of my forelegs in his jaws. I tried to pull away, failing to move an inch. I heard sour laughter behind clenched teeth as he held fast, tearing flesh from bone. Since trying to escape proved to be of no avail, I approached him headfirst, knocking him back onto the blood-stained snow. Something had to give. With what might remained in me, I began to drag him throat-first toward the river. For a moment, I questioned my brutal actions. How could someone like me, who did what I was doing, have a pure heart? Was my motivation enough to justify my behavior?
I heard a snap and the pressure of my grip lessened. His windpipe? I released and looked down to check his condition, an action which immediately proved regrettable. He lifted up, blood spurting from his throat, and knocked both of us into the icy jaws of the river. I was swept into the middle of the current, losing sight of my opponent as I focused on my own survival. My body screamed in agony as I tried to lift myself up on a small ice flow, only succeeding to flip it over in such a way that slammed it down on the top of my head. I believe I was unconscious for an instant, but I woke in time to lift my head over the current once again. I could see that some of the wulfen members of the crowd had kept up with the fight, running along the snowy banks.
Then I looked ahead of the flow. Rapids greeted me in seconds, making me fish for breaths of air as my body slammed against jagged rocks beneath the surface. At the end of the rapids, the power of the current wained, and I somehow managed to climb upon a large rock near the bank. As I rested my aching members, I kept alert, searching for a brown corpse. Then I heard a scraping sound directly behind me. I turned to see Rezso convulsing from the cold, the entire front of his body drenched in blood and water. He lifted himself upon his four legs for a moment to proclaim his last words.
“Remember your grandfather’s advice, boy. Blood begets blood,” he croaked, then instantly collapsed, falling back into the waters and sinking in final silence into the deep.
There was no joy, or at least not at first. The feelings I experienced were mostly those of relief, a thankfulness that I could now rest. Then my mind became as numb as my paws, and time seemed to fail to pass over me. The next thing I noticed, Maccon was congratulating me. It seemed he had been one of those who had run so as to not miss the action.
“You’ve done it, Dechar. Now just hold on. You’ve done it.”
I blacked out.
I woke to the sound of humming, finding myself on a bed in a large but simple pitched tent made of stag skins. My vision took a moment to become clear, but seeing the silhouette of a standing woman, and being somewhat out of it, I called for Ylva.
“Don’t worry about her, dear. You’ve got yourself to worry for,” the voice was elderly and thin. I looked around the tent and was shocked to find Ylva in a separate bed at the other end of the dwelling. She looked asleep... or was she too still?
“Is she alright?” I slurred. I heard a flapping sound and saw what I soon perceived to be Maccon in his two-legged form.
“He’s awake,” the old woman told him. “Best he hears it from you,” she added.
“Hears what?” I asked. “What’s wrong with Ylva?”
Maccon gulped before he began. “When Ylva saw you getting hurt in the duel, she remembered the healing spring water. It had cooled, so she told me she was teleporting back to get some more. A minute later, she returned... like that,” he gestured to her comatose form.
I reminded myself again, this time with regret, that there was no turning back. A new life had taken hold of me, and I felt I had no choice but to cling to the thread of hope that Ylva could still be a part of it. Only time could tell.
Author's Note: Yes, this was a long chapter, but it marks the end of this stint of first person point of view for Dechar. The next page will be from Oliana's point of view!