Ashirk seemed to know well how much trouble he was in, and I understood all the better as he removed the mass of fabric that covered his torso and turned. The bony ridge of his back-plate was much less pronounced than that of his opponent, with the sallow green skin looser upon it. I supposed that Ashirk was a murderer, but perhaps not a true soldier - his opponent was a leader among this mob of filthy beasts in a sort of barrack-room, a different world to his own. To lead among greenskins is to present yourself as their strongest, and though Ashirk had decapitated one boss already that night, that had been a surprise assault leading to anything-goes combat. A trial by ordeal of this nature - a simple, blunt contest of endurance - was not for a rogue of his calibre. He had meant to strike once and win, and with that card played, his situation looked bleak.
The other hobgoblin stretched himself out, and a sickening crunch of bones came from within his hunched frame as he pulled a mess of leather straps out of his robe. These turned out to be wrapped around a long, silverish blade that ended not with a handle, but a grip.
I have since consulted numerous armourers of the Order over many years, and though there is some ambiguity, the consensus they have given me is that this form of weapon is called a katar.
Wrapping the leather straps around his forearm, the hobgoblin’s larger frame was extremely apparent. He had a few inches on Ashirk, not just in height but in width, perhaps not as muscular as an orc but nevertheless - the frame of a warrior who had given more scars than he had received. There would be no leaping to enhance this strike. It would be a warrior’s blow.
Wasting no time, the hobgoblin pulled back his wrist and it exploded forward. I felt the strike in my own left shoulder, for it was targeted a little off-centre, and for some reason Ashirk threw his arm a little back as the blow connected - eating through skin easily and slicing deep into flesh.
I was aflame. I had felt a thousand bruises and shocks in my captivity but I had not ever been stabbed. The magical phantom of this sensation was a brutal agony that overwhelmed my every sense, and every inch of the dagger as it continued into flesh. I tried to hold on to a single thought - how was the knife entering so deep if it had not shattered his backbone?
The crowd erupted in their susurrus form of applause, and despite the biting pain I felt Ashirk was somehow pleased. He had been stabbed to the hilt by this wicked dagger but turned his shoulder at the last moment to deflect the knife into the flesh of his armpit, along the curved side of his bony backplate. Agonising and self-destructive, but for whatever alien reason - a victory?
Certainly the crowd seemed to think so. All I can offer to this day is that this maneuver must be to the hobgoblins like a fine piece of marksmanship or daring gymnastic feat is to men, and though it seemed utterly against the point of this contest, I supposed the treachery of such a move - combined with the raw physical bravery and skill required to pull it off - made it quite admirable from the standpoint of their twisted ethics.
The hobgoblin withdrew his blade and I felt a fresh surge of fire, but also instant relief. The greenskins are a durable sort of warrior, and it takes much to cripple them. The damage done was significant, but clearly tolerable, at least according to the magical echo I felt. Nevertheless, Ashirk staggered, and unlike his opponent fell to a knee clutching his armpit. Blood flowed heavily from the wound, and the assassin staggered to his discarded tunic, tearing a strip from a baggy sleeve and tying it tightly around the loop of his left shoulder to staunch it as best he could. The filth alone would have ensured an infection in a man, but this was no man.
Back at the game-board, Ashirk’s face was grim and he did not meet his opponent’s eye. To pull off such a move once was admirable - but it had the stench of a last gambit about it, and with both players now holding a wounded weak-point, it seemed this game could ill afford to go to a second blow for either of them - least of all the assassin.
The clack of dice was heard back and forth several times. A three for Ashirk - putting him back in the game. A one for his opponent - back in danger. I saw there was strategy here. Plow forward with one piece, or bring up ‘reinforcements’? Enmerkar’s enchanted die did not always come up with a marked corner, but it always fell last, and I had the uneasy sense that it was ‘reading’ the other dice - perhaps the game as a whole.
Ashirk’s style of play was, unsurprisingly, to follow his opponent closely behind rather than forge ahead. The tension was becoming unbearable, until his opponent successfully guided a piece through the thin midsection and out into the opposite end, where it could not be touched by Ashirk’s pieces. Home safe, as it were. This seemed to be the simplest way to win the game, to get more of your three pieces to the end of the track than your opponent - albeit hardly the true point of it.
But Ashirk had judged the situation well, and in his efforts to escape with his foremost piece, the other hobgoblin had exposed himself. Enmerkar’s cursed die popped upward again and allowed the assassin to bring his foremost piece home safe on a roll-again glyph tile, and with the second roll, he took the last of his opponent’s pieces.
The warrior stared into the darkness grimly, and stepped away, baring his back again. This time, he glanced with one uncertain, shifty eye over his shoulder, as Ashirk limbered up to strike. This time, Ashirk did not draw his kris. This time, he drew a hideous miniature trident.
It took me eight months of exchanging missives and a clumsy sketch with a Marienburg weapons-trader to determine that this form of weapon is called a sai.
It looked like nothing so much as an enormous, broad-bore knitting needle stuck to a handle and with two wickedly curved prongs as a form of guard. I could imagine a Tilean duellist catching a sword in his off-hand between blade and guard, but Ashirk folded the outer prongs back on clicking hinges, and it became a simple foot of pinpoint-tipped steel, ready to pierce. It was abundantly clear what Ashirk intended to do with it - again, a feat of skill, again, drawing murmurs from the crowd. Before there was time to think, he leapt again, eyes bulging, hands swung over his head -
The thin sliver of metal entered his opponent’s back in the dead centre of the short slit that was the kris wound. It burst into the bony backplate with a sickening crunch, and the other hobgoblin fell into the dirt, overcome. Ashirk collapsed with him, his whole weight behind the strike, and he rolled away, leaving the brute pinned into the earth by the blade of the sai.
In my aching soul, I had a momentary flash of two bare-chested green-skinned brutes, with the faces of the captive orcs in the haunted forge, brawling with one another eternally in an empty desert.
Elation flooded Ashirk and I felt it rush across our sorcerous bond. The crowd hissed and many began audibly clacking their teeth together, a new sound, and by the pose Ashirk struck - one that signalled his presumptive victory. Fists flew, into the air or into the grinning faces of hobgoblins snatching their wagered stakes, but a sound from the fallen warrior brought their silence back.
Pushing with all his might, the fallen greenskin rose out of the dirt, and reaching a grasping hand around, pulled the sai slowly from his pierced shoulder. Holding it aloft, with blackish blood leaking profusely from his front where the blade had passed all the way through, he screamed to the cavern. The crowd roared in response. Unconquered, he turned to the assassin, and yelled again, leaning forward into a snarl of fury.
“I will take your trade, hound!” he called, running at the assassin, whose arms opened wide and they embraced like two battle-brothers as a mob of watching warriors leapt from the crowd and piled in to raise them both aloft in triumph.