Fortitude presupposes vulnerability; without vulnerability there is no possibility of fortitude. To be brave actually means to be able to suffer injury. Because man is by nature vulnerable, he can be brave.
-- Josef Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues
aarna looked up to the sound of air rushing over wings. The barbarian chieftain swooped into the canyon on a large, brown bat, his red cloak flapping about him.
As he dismounted, hundreds of his soldiers appeared on the rim of the canyon high above. Taarna glanced up at them. They thronged around brandishing their weapons, making her feel trapped and helpless. Watching avidly and confident in their warlord, they anticipated a short, one-sided spectacle. The Taarakian woman had been whipped and shot down from the air; she would now meet a quick, bloody end.
Taarna struggled to her feet. She was relieved that none of her limbs were broken. Something inside her had been seriously injured, however, because there was an exquisitely tender, swollen area just above her pelvis. The broken rib continued to make breathing difficult and painful.
She retrieved the sword from where it had fallen, several yards from the bird. Watching her opponent, she tried to ignore the disheartening crowd ringing the canyon and concentrate for the coming fight.
The barbarian leader turned away from her briefly and bent over. When he swung about, she saw that he had changed his prosthetic hand. The fingers and thumb had been replaced by thin, hooked slivers of metal. He flicked his arm quickly at the elbow, producing the high whine of an electric motor. The metal slivers clicked and whirred into life, spinning so rapidly that they could no longer be seen.
The chieftain swung his arm at a vertical pipe attached to pumping equipment near the canyon wall. There was a metallic ching as the blades cut it cleanly in two. He grinned at her malignantly and advanced.
As they circled each other warily, Taarna assumed a middle guard stance, holding her sword with both hands. The barbarian was large and powerful, and was using a weapon which would be lethal if he got in close. He did not appear particularly agile, however, and he had no shield. She would have to rely on quick footwork to keep him at an effective distance.
Unfortunately, she felt increasingly sluggish. The depletion of blood into her abdominal cavity began to make her dizzy, and she shook her head, trying to stay alert. She knew that if she did not kill him quickly, she would lose the ability to fight. If that happened, she would most certainly die. Will galvanized by a raw instinct for survival, she gathered her strength and focused all attention on her opponent.
A familiar, timeless minuet of death began. Taarna took the offensive, trying to strike, but the barbarian, also unencumbered by armor, proved more nimble than she had anticipated, avoiding her blows with rapid side steps or passes backward. At times he even dared to pass forward when she attacked, forcing her to evade his whirling blades. The seconds slipped by, accompanied only by the sounds of their mortal struggle: the shuffling of their boots on the hard-packed surface; the quiet swipe and whistle of the sword; the droning of the mechanical blades; and the labored breathing of their deadly exertions, the barbarian's occasionally broken by grunts and forceful exhalations.
He continued to find her utter silence unnerving, and he was surprised by her agile and ferocious attacks. Knowing the brutal punishment she had suffered at his hands, he had not expected her to use the sword so skillfully; even in her weakened condition she could have dispatched the best of his warriors. She connected with his forearm, but it was a rising slice made weakly from her elbow, and the shallow cut inflicted little injury. At one point, he was alarmed by a rapid swordthrust which pierced his shoulder. It would have wounded him deeply, had he not instantly leapt back.
Taarna panted heavily through clenched teeth, the stabbing pain from her broken rib continuing to plague her. She could feel her heart beating faster and faster in her chest. Her body, caked with dirt and sweat, throbbed with pain from the whipping and the falls, and her hair hung matted and damp. She sensed that she was rapidly tapping the last of her reserves. The chieftain, however, showed little sign of fatigue, and as the fight continued her strength ebbed, her precision waned, and the initiative slipped from her grasp.
Finally, as she brought her sword down in an overhead cut, the barbarian leader sidestepped in and around and struck her on the right arm. The pauldron flew off, its strap severed, and the attack left a gash across her upper arm. Blood quickly welled up in the wound and ran down toward her elbow. She could no longer raise her arm out from her body.
In the brief moment that her attention was drawn to the injury, the chieftain struck again, the spinning blades carving a deep trench through her left flank with a wet, ripping sound. She gasped harshly in surprise and fell down heavily on one knee. The cut gaped open, and from the severed renal artery a powerful freshet of bright red blood spurted out, drenching her upper thigh and splashing onto the rocky soil. Instinctively she clamped her left hand against her side, trying to staunch the flow. Sounds of approval echoed off the canyon walls from the onlookers.
The barbarian leader paused as she looked up at him with a grimace. He smiled viciously. The Taarakian had proven quite formidable, but she was slowing down and losing control, and now he had seriously wounded her. He sensed that he stood on the threshold of victory; her end was near.
He brought his deadly weapon down, intending to slice off her sword arm at the shoulder, but she parried the blow, and his rotating scythes clattered harmlessly off the shoulder of her blade. To his surprise, in the same instant she lunged up and quickly swung her sword around and over in a diagonal cut, hips and shoulders twisting to lend force to the blow. Without thinking, he parried with his mechanical hand.
The power of her strike sent a shock through his arm as the sword connected squarely with the prosthesis in a flurry of sparks. But as Taarna tried to draw back, she found her blade firmly entrapped. She pulled hard, but the sword could not be freed. Seizing the advantage, the barbarian struck her in the face. Defenseless with her hands on the hilt of her sword, she thudded to the ground onto her stomach.
The chieftain removed Taarna's sword from his prosthesis and threw it over his shoulder. End over end it spun away. High on the mountaintop, the green sphere suddenly glowed brightly, accompanied by the soldiers' shouts and hoots of approval.
Taarna lay prostrate, her world gray and hazy. She was spent; she couldn't regain her feet. Her left waist was wet and exposed; her right arm was slick with blood. Suddenly, the barbarian seized her wounded arm, sending a stabbing bolt of agony through her shoulder girdle. His fingers dug in and he pulled her roughly onto her back. He kneeled and flicked his forearm, bringing the lethal device to life once more. Seizing her neck, he prepared to slice open her throat. Face a twisted mask of evil, he hissed, "This time you die, Taarakian bitch!"
At that instant the chieftain threw his head back and screamed. Pulling herself up on her elbows, Taarna saw that Alata had saved her life: he had bitten the leader's lower leg and was dragging him away.
The chieftain struggled to right himself and lashed out at the bird, cutting him repeatedly. The animal cried out in pain and terror and released him. Grabbing his wounded leg, he groaned and staggered to his feet. The bones below his knee were crushed; his foot dangled at an impossible angle.
The barbarian leader glanced up. He was startled to see the Taarakian standing before him with the pipe that he had cut off the pump. Before he could react, she struck him squarely on the side of the head, shattering his skull. Then she grabbed his prosthetic arm and with a sharp thrust, drove it into his chest. The silver amulet went flying as the razor-like blades cut through the sternum and into his heart, their circular motion slowing as Taarna forced them deeper.
The barbarian leader gagged grotesquely and slumped to his knees. His defeat had occurred so suddenly and completely that his dying mind could not grasp it. Her legs rigidly locked in a wide stance, Taarna stood over him, glaring. She released his arm and angrily cast aside his helmet. The last thing the chieftain saw was the Taarakian grimly draw her gloved fist back and strike him squarely in the face.
Taarna hit the chieftain with all of her remaining strength. His nasal bones shattered and were driven upwards into his brain. He flopped forward, lifeless, onto his face. His followers gasped in surprise, then murmured in consternation and wonder.