In the heat of battle a person’s true soul is revealed…is exactly the sort of nonsense people espouse when they want other people to go and die for them. The only thing battle tends to reveal is the internal organs of the combatants.– Zindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame
I should have been more concerned about a fight to the death. By definition they’re a big deal for at least one of the combatants. I wasn’t going to be the one who was bleeding out at the end of the fight though, so it didn’t seem like the most important thing I needed to worry about.
Also there was the small fact that Doxle and Enika were clearly conspiring to make the fight happen and I don’t think either one of them intended to lose one of their pacted casters. I expected I’d fight one or both Enika’s Ironbriar charges and the moment I was about to strike a killing blow, Doxle would freeze me and they’d invent some reason to declare the fight resolved.
That had the downside that some of my competitors at the Cadet Trials would know what I was capable of, but Doxle had said he wanted to see me spar so he could offer suggestions on how I could pass the Trials. I had to hope the benefit of his wisdom would outweigh giving up the element of surprise.
Of course that all assumed I was going to win.
That, as it turned out, was not a good assumption.
“As the offended party, your charges may set the terms of battle,” Doxle said. “And my charge may choose to accept them or not.”
The sister twin stepped forward, not looking me in the eyes, or even acknowledging my existence at all.
“As the younger of the aggrieved party, I claim Right of Proving.”
I glanced at Doxle. If this was something I was supposed to know about, it was on him to explain it.
“Agreed,” he said, instead of being useful. “And your terms are?”
“Conclusion on submission or death. Fleeing the arena taken as forfeiture.” She was still staring directly forward, but I couldn’t smell any fear wafting from her.
That was the first sign that I hadn’t evaluated the situation properly, but I missed it because I am occasionally stupid.
“The prize should we win?” Doxle asked.
“Your insult is forgiven.”
“And if you win?”
“A year of service.”
Doxle’s laugh held no mirth. He was about to wax poetic and spend an hour haggling for better terms.
“Fine,” I said, cutting him off. I wasn’t going to lose, so their terms didn’t matter.
The slight smile that graced my opponent’s face was the second sign that I was making a mistake, and that one I did catch. Rather than convincing me to backtrack a bit on agreeing to the fight though it only left me puzzled.
I knew the sister had stepped forward because she was a better fighter than her brother. She smelled of sweat and the oil of chainmail. Her shoulders were loose and charged with excitement instead of fear. Her brother on the other hand smelled of lavender, worked leather and underneath it all the suppressed whisps of dread I expected from someone facing a potentially deadly struggle.
“Weapons?” Doxle asked.
“Any thing she can cast is fine.”
“As the host, I will add the stipulation of no magic use outside the ring,” Doxle said. “This room was a frightful expense, I would hate for sloppy casting to ruin it.”
“You are the accused in this,” Enika said. “I don’t believe you have the right to claim the host’s privileges.”
“The term is acceptable,” the sister said.
She didn’t exactly sound as eager as I was to get this over with, but she seemed to agree with omitting as much of the needless babble as possible.
“Excellent,” Doxle said and paused. “Am I forgetting anything? I feel like I’m forgetting something?”
“They need to set a time limit,” Enika said.
“One minute,” the sister said. “If she can endure for one minute, I will forfeit.”
“Does that mean I’d fight him afterwards?” I asked.
I was sure there were official rules, they were all speaking with too much formality for this to be entirely spontaneous.
“You’re safe from that unless you have cause to claim counter-offense,” the brother said.
His tone was milder than his sisters. Whatever anger Doxle had provoked in the twin had rolled off his back I guessed. Or he thought his sister was about to kill me and didn’t see a reason to make the tiny remainder of my life any more miserable.
I nodded at him. He would probably be an enemy later, but for the moment there wasn’t any real animosity between us.
“Are these terms acceptable?” the sister asked.
She hadn’t been so quick to forgive or forget, but her anger was wrapped up in bands of steel. She wasn’t going to kill me out of malice. It would be an act of duty and honor with no personal investment. I would still be dead of course, so the difference was largely irrelevant to me, but I supposed it helped her sleep at night.
“Yeah,” I said, which seemed to annoy her. I didn’t get that at first. I’d said yes to what she wanted. People were usually happy about that.
Then I considered how I’d said yes.
I hadn’t made any effort to hide the fact that I wasn’t concerned about the fight.
Or from her point of view, that I wasn’t taking the fight seriously.
Oh! Or that I wasn’t taking her seriously.
On reflection I could see where that might annoy her.
“We can begin whenever you wish to,” I said, not knowing any of the proper words but taking a stab at the right tone anyways.
“No magic outside the ring,” Doxle reminded us.
I wasn’t sure how people were normally supposed to get to a sparring ring that was forty feet off the floor. Climb the pillar? I shook my head. Doxle definitely had a more dignified option. I’d known him for less than half a day and I was already perfectly certain about that.
“If you would all follow me,” he said, confirming my suspicion by leading us to a series of disks in the floor.
Machinery began to twist and whir somewhere beneath us and one-by-one, Doxle’s first and mine last, the disks lifted gracefully into the air. Doxle, Enika, and the brother were flown to an opera viewing box which detached from the wall and hovered at what seemed like a safe distance from the top of the highest platform.
The sister and I were deposited on opposite sides of the ring, just outside a richly decorated band of silver which described a slightly smaller circle inside the platform’s edge. I recognized a few of the etchings in the silver from the ones on my jail cell’s door. These weren’t invisible but I guessed they served a similar function of limiting stray magic from splashing out of bounds.
“Wait,” I said, before stepping into the ring.
The sister’s eyes flashed with irritation as her jawline went hard.
“What?” she asked, probably assuming I was finally coming to my senses and intent on begging for some reprieve.
“What’s your name?” I asked. I didn’t have any specific need for it, but telling people I ‘fought some girl from Ironbriar’ later on seemed like it would a bit disrespectful.
“Idrina,” she said and waited.
I nodded to indicate I’d heard her reply, and she understood.
We didn’t need to talk further.
There was nothing else to say.
As though we’d rehearsed it, we both stepped over the line into the arena and settled into a fighting stance.
She wasn’t going to drag this out. Not when she’d only demanded I survive for a minute. I wasn’t sure if her initial delay was because we were supposed to wait for Doxle or Enika to signal an official start to the fight, but the next instant she launched herself at me and the battle was begun.
I don’t really know what happened next. I can piece some of it together from the scattered memories I do have, but I know I missed at least a few steps in the dance we waltzed through.
The important thing though is that I did not win.
What I recall is that Idrina crossed the space between us in a single leap. The pillar wasn’t exactly a spacious field, but at a bit under twenty feet wide there was plenty of time to see her coming. What I didn’t see coming was the spear that materialized in her hand.
I’d seen casters work their magic before. There were any number of common uses for spellcasting, but most of those casters were not working with ‘High Magic’. The ‘Low Magic’ of the commoners comes from the world around us. It takes time to gather and shape and tends to produce fairly subtle effects if that’s all that’s required.
There was nothing subtle about the spear that appeared in Idrina’s hand though, and she’d managed to cast the spell to summon it without speaking any words or performing any gestures.
I’m sure that took me by surprise largely because it ruined my plans. I’d thought to grapple her the moment she came within arms reach and bend her limbs in directions that would encourage her not to move anywhere I didn’t want her too. It was difficult to execute that plan however when my left arm was fine one moment and a shattered noodle the next.
The headbutt I hit her with was nothing more than a wild reflex and I was unfairly lucky that it connected as well as I could have ever hoped.
The impact sent her reeling back all of a half step, which was far less of a reaction than I should have gotten from such a clean hit, but still enough that I was able to fall backwards to dodge her next spear thrust and then nail her cleanly in the chest with a solid kick.
I held back a little on the force of the kick. I wanted her away from me to buy myself some recovery time. I didn’t want to put my foot through her torso.
In terms of distance, the kick worked wonderfully. I hit her at enough of a rising angle to knock her completely off her feet and into the air.
We’d gotten turned around at some point – I might have missed an exchange, which would explain the stomach wound I also had to deal with. The net result though was that when I kicked her backwards by fifteen feet or so I launched her completely out of the ring rather than simply over to the far side of it.
That should have been the end of the fight. I wasn’t happy at the idea of what a forty foot drop would do to her, but she had stabbed me at least twice.
I really should have known better than that though.
Twisting in mid-air, Idrina landed feet first on the wall and burst off it in a flash of golden light. She threw her spear ahead of herself and I was too surprised to dodge which gained me a length of metal protruding out of both sides of the center of my chest.
The obviously fatal wound didn’t stop me from swinging at her as she landed, but I was a bit too damaged at that point to make anything effective of the attack.
Bodies are difficult things. Broken bodies even more so.
I almost thought things were getting better when Idrina ripped the spear out of me but then it was my turn to be kicked from the platform and all I could think as I fell was that the forty foot drop was going to leave me a whole lot more broken than the spear had.