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The Thirsty Sword by Robert Leighton

Part 5 out of 5

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Now it was not without profit that, on that time many months before,
Kenric had watched the fatal duel between Roderic and his brother Alpin,
and he knew Roderic's invariable trick of aiming at his assailant's
head. His successful guarding of the first blow gave him confidence.

Again the two combatants closed as before, tapping and scraping their
blades together; and again they flung back their arms. This time Roderic
was quicker in his onslaught, and he aimed from the right. But Kenric,
instead of attempting to strike, promptly guarded his left and
intercepted the blow as before. Ere Roderic could recover for a new
attack, he felt a sharp cut across his bare neck.

He roared in pain and fury, and sprang upon Kenric with redoubled force.
The swords clashed together with mighty strokes. Roderic, amazed at
Kenric's skilful fighting, grew ever more rash in his attempts to smite
him down and conquer him by superior strength; while Kenric, with steady
watchful eye, marked every movement, coolly guarding each fearful blow,
as though he knew as surely as did his assailant where Roderic intended
to strike.

At last, completely baffled, Roderic paused, drew back, and rested the
point of his long sword upon the hard ground.

"To the death!" said Kenric solemnly, also lowering his weapon.

"Ay, to your death be it," returned Roderic, wiping the blood from his
wounded neck with his bare hand. Then again, breathing deeply, he took
his ground.

Clash, clash went their mighty swords once more as they closed together
in their deadly combat. And now Roderic threw back his weapon with a
great swing, and bent his strong body to bring the blade down with a
final swoop upon Kenric's head. He made a furious spring forward. His
sword flashed in a half-circle, whizzing through the air with frightful
speed. It was a blow that might have felled an ox.

But the ponderous weapon met nothing until, slipping from his blood-wet
hand, it fell with a crash upon the hard ground. At the same moment
Roderic uttered a groan. He staggered forward with his empty hands
outspread. He fell with a heavy thud upon his right shoulder, rolled
over, and then lay stretched upon the turf with the point of Kenric's
sword buried deep in his heart.

A deathly silence followed, broken only by the moaning of the sea waves
as they curled upon the beach. Kenric breathed a deep sigh. With
difficulty he drew his terrible weapon from the breast of his dead foe.
The Thirsty Sword had drunk its final draught.

Carrying the weapon away, Kenric stood for many moments upon the extreme
point of the jutting headland overlooking the open sea. Taking the Sword
in his two hands he swung it in a sweeping circle about his head, and
stepping forward flung it far out into the frosty air.

Away it sped like a well-aimed arrow. The moonbeams flashed upon the
bright blade as it turned in its descent, hilt downward, and plunged for
ever deep, deep into the sea.

Then Kenric stood awhile with clasped hands, looking far across to the
Arran fells, whose snowy mantles glanced like silver under the silent
moon. From the distance behind him he heard the faint tinkling of the
chapel bell, telling him that the old year, with its turmoil and
trouble, was at its end; and he dropped down upon his knees and covered
his face with his hands.

It was scarcely half an hour after midnight when Kenric walked towards
the arched doorway of St. Blane's chapel. As he drew near he saw the dim
light within, shining through the narrow windows of coloured glass, and
he heard the solemn murmur of prayer. He was about to enter when a hand
was suddenly laid upon his shoulder.

"'Tis you, my lord?" said the voice of Elspeth Blackfell. "Then it must
surely be that you have fought and vanquished. God be thanked! I feared
that it had gone ill with you, for I found your cloak lying upon the
heath. Where is the villain Roderic?"

"Roderic is no more!" answered Kenric, taking his cloak from her hands.
"And now I go within the chapel to give thanks to God, in that He hath
deigned to make me the instrument of His vengeance."

"Stay. Ere you enter, tell me, my lord, have you news of my dear Aasta?
She has not yet been seen: nor has our watch-wolf Lufa been found. Alas!
I fear me the wild maid has gone off to Gigha."

"Not so," said Kenric. "But come with me within the chapel, good
Elspeth, and when the service is over I will tell you all."

He gently pushed open the door and drew Elspeth with him. They stood
there, looking in at the many rough islanders with their heads bent in
devotion. The sonorous voice of the venerable abbot resounded in the
vaulted aisle. The cruse lamps hanging from the high rafters shed their
dim light upon the bare stone walls, where branches of red-berried holly
were entwined with tufts of larch and spruce and sprays of mistletoe.
The flickering light of many tapers shone upon the embroidered vestments
of the abbot and the gorgeous altar cloth.

Presently the prayer ended; the people rose with shuffling feet. Sir
Allan Redmain from his seat in front of the altar looked anxiously round
towards the door, as he had done many times during that service, in
search of Kenric. He now saw the bent figure of Elspeth Blackfell, and
behind her the young king.

As Kenric, leading Elspeth forward, walked slowly up the aisle, Allan
did not fail to notice that his sword was not in its accustomed place.
The abbot paused until Earl Kenric had taken his seat between Sir Allan
Redmain and Ailsa.

Kenric caught. Ailsa's hand and drew it gently to him. He looked down
into her eyes as she turned to smile upon him. Then from the choir of
white-robed friars there rose the chant of the /Gloria in Excelsis/,
swelling full and strong. To Kenric, as he stood by Ailsa's side, the
words came with a deep prophetic meaning -- "Gloria in excelsis Deo, et
in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis."

And on that first early dawn of the new year, as he left the holy place
to return to his ancestral home, he repeated them again, looking round
him on the land for which his sword had won tranquillity:

"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace towards men of goodwill."

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