Over the next few days, the celebration continued seemingly without any end in sight, until one day it all came to a halt as everyone stopped whatever they were doing and watched an approaching war party as they thundered over the northeastern horizon toward them. There were only about fifty of them, and as they drew closer, it became apparent that they had ridden hard to get here. They halted a couple hundred yards away, and one man rode forward alone and turned sideways, almost as if he desired to put himself on display. Like all the men seemed to be in these northern districts, this man was also big, though not nearly so massive as Bull. And instead of the prevalent blond or red hair, his hair was about as black as possible.
Harris grabbed a nearby horse and moved to take up a position much like the other’s. As he moved beyond the perimeter of the fairgrounds, Greathorn called out to him, “This may be your challenge, Thunder Rider! Are you ready for it?”
Harris spotted him standing on the front edge of the crowd and saluted him briefly before riding forward. Saarloq and Juan moved to accompany him, but Harris halted them.
“No, this time I think you should remain here.” He didn’t linger to decipher the expressions on their faces. He felt strange enough riding out alone. He rode out until the other’s voice stopped him about a hundred feet away.
“I am Raven Hawk. I challenge you. I have waited all winter for you to come.”
“You challenge me, for what?” Harris called back with as much arrogance as the other. He knew he could not afford to appear intimidated here.
“If I win, you die. If you win, I die. What happens after will not matter to the dead,” said Raven, speaking sharply.
“You challenge me for the right to die? I have no wish to die, nor do I wish to kill you, and what happens after matters a great deal to me,” retorted Harris. “If I die, all I have tried to rebuild will crumble again, and more people like Kain will come. If you die, I will lose a great warrior and leader, and I have so few.”
“You call me a great warrior and leader? You do not know me; you assume a lot for a small man.”
“I don’t think so,” said Harris. “I look at you, your men and your horses, and I see that you have made only one mistake today. But I will accept your challenge, as long as it is not to the death.”
“Are you a coward, that you are afraid to die?” yelled Raven with derision, trying to goad Harris.
Jon rode out just then. He had no shirt on and he rode bareback. It was so obvious he was no threat, no one moved to intercept him. He stopped halfway between the two parties and shouted his support. “He’s not afraid. He’s a ruler, and must consider more things than just personal gratification.” Raven stiffened with indignation. Jon continued quickly, “Do not take offense, Lord Raven Hawk. Our training is the same. He also seeks to preserve your life.”
Raven was incredulous; he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Are you trying to tell me I have no chance?”
Harris spoke up again in an effort to maintain peace. “Raven Hawk, come, share a cup of mead with me and rest yourself and your men. If you still want to challenge me tomorrow, I will accept whatever terms you want.”
Raven was further confused. “You would share a cup with me, knowing that I came here intending to kill you?”
“It is still my hope that this can still be avoided, but yes, I will share a cup with you,” said Harris. “You have ridden hard. You, your men and your horses are winded. If you truly want to fight me, or anyone, you should be rested and at your best. Plus, if you accept my offer, we are both safe, at least until tomorrow.”
As Raven paused to consider his words, another man rode up from his ranks. He was younger and also had black hair. Harris figured he was probably Raven’s younger brother. “It’s a trap, Raven. If you go into their camp, you will never come out. Someone will slit your throat for you, or the cup will be poisoned.”
Bull called out from where he stood, “You wouldn’t insult the hospitality of a king, would you?”
Raven growled, and hearing it, Harris dismounted. He handed his reins to Jon and waved him back to the crowd. “Have your men set up camp right over there.” He said to Raven and pointed to an area a short distance away near a small pond. “You and I shall share a fire right here until tomorrow. We can share some food and drink, and some good conversation.”
Raven dismounted also and handed his horse to his brother, who retreated to the indicated campsite with the rest. “I don’t trust you,” he said as he stood there.
“I can see that,” replied Harris, he too just stood there.
A woman approached carrying firewood and started a small fire. When she had finished, another approached and set a tray containing a jug and some cups beside the fire. After she retreated, another came with a tray laden with food of all sorts, and after her, the first returned with another armload of firewood. With her came a girl with pads to sit on and blankets to wrap around their shoulders. The preparations complete, everyone withdrew to their home fires to wait quietly for morning.
It was only shortly after midday, but a casual observer might think everyone was either preparing for the evening meal or a funeral. All those gathered there believed that the dawning light would bring a funeral. No one could see a way out of the challenge that wouldn’t somehow demean one or the other. So, with a funeral on the horizon, no one felt much like celebrating anymore.
Harris and Raven stood silently across the fire from each other until everyone else had settled down and everything was quiet. Then Harris stepped forward, sat down on the pad by the fire, poured himself a drink from the jug, and waited for Raven to settle also. When he did, Harris handed him the cup from which he had been drinking. “My mother killed my father with poison and then left him to rot. I have no sympathy for a poisoner.”
Raven accepted the cup and drank. “Did you put her to death?”
“I didn’t get the chance. She was pregnant, so I waited until the baby was born. She died in childbirth.”
Raven felt that he learned a lot from this small exchange, so he grew more comfortable, no longer worried about poison or any other underhanded treachery.
They ate, drank and talked until the sun once more began to lighten the sky in the east. The only subject not spoken of was the coming challenge. Raven discovered he liked and respected this man, and regretted ever uttering the challenge, but the custom was too ingrained into their society even to consider backing out.
They paired off under the dawning sky. They ordered the sentries to say nothing of their movements, so the camps were alerted only when the clashes of their swords woke them.
The people all gathered, but no one pressed close; this was not a boxing match for spectators who cheered their favorite and kept them within a ring of bodies. Everyone watched from whatever vantage point they could find, and they watched in silence. This fight would cause a loss, and that loss would be far greater than the loss of just one man; no one could bring himself to cheer for either side because of it.
When Harris’s sword snaked past Raven’s defense, he spoke. “Understand; I will not kill you.” Then he laid a cut across Raven’s chest right above his heart cutting the back of his guarding hand in the process.
Raven did not reply, but his teacher’s words came to mind: “If you do not attack, your defense is weakened by at least half, and you must then retreat to make up for the weakness.” So he pressed his attack twice as hard, only to discover that, even though Harris did not attack, his defense was impeccable, and every time he extended to penetrate it, Harris’s sword dealt him another cut.
After a dozen or more such cuts, Raven backed up for a breath. “Do not toy with me,” he hissed. “I cannot walk away from this fight defeated.”
“Yes you can, and we would all benefit for it,” returned Harris.
“No, I can’t,” insisted Raven. “This was a challenge to the death. If I walked away defeated, my own people would set upon me and kill me.”
“They wouldn’t dare. To attack you for that reason would be an attack against me.”
“They would, either now or later, but they would.” He gave Harris no further time to consider alternatives before pressing his attack again; then he noticed the strange expression of defeat and profound regret on Harris’s face. At the same time, he saw the glint of white through the hair that covered Harris’s forehead, and then a fire lit up his chest. He looked down to see Harris’s sword buried there. He looked up again to tell Harris that it had been an awesome fight, but he had no breath for the words. Finding suddenly that he had so many things he wanted to say to this man, he grew frustrated at not being able to draw even enough breath to say farewell. Then he found himself looking up at the sky without memory of how he got there.
Sholeh reached their side in time to see that Raven was still aware. “Harris. Harris!” She got his attention. “Remove your sword - and pray. There still may be time.”
So he did just that, and there were many now close enough to hear. He knelt upon one knee and grasped the hilt of his sword with both hands. “Mother, please protect him and guide him to Your side if You must. But Mother, please . . . I need him. Allow him to serve me for a time yet.” Then he pulled the sword out and stepped aside.
Raven watched all this from the other side of a barrier of numbness, and he marveled that his opponent would pray that he survive such a fatal blow, but what held his attention most was the elegant woman who approached, unnoticed by anyone, to stand behind Harris and rest a hand on his shoulder. When Harris took his sword and moved away, she took his place and spoke to him in a soft voice reminiscent of the spring breeze. “I have provided many servants for him to do my work, but he needs many more, so I will give you to him as well. Serve him well.” She laid her hand over the cut in his chest and Raven gasped a ragged breath and fainted as the numbing buffer melted away, leaving him to struggle briefly with the pain.
Raven’s brother, Black Bear, was standing close when his brother fainted, and he believed Raven was now dead. The laws dictated that he must now swear allegiance to this man, but he had loved his brother very much and was loath to serve the man who had killed him, regardless of what the custom dictated. Even though it looked like Harris truly regretted what he had done, Black Bear could not bring himself to trust him, and he vowed that - though he would not incite any open conflict - he would not be one to capitulate either.
Everyone was surprised when Sholeh announced. “He lives. I need a campfire, water and my medicine pouch from my tent. Now!”