Alvin Garabaldi pointed to the small, thin light alabaster-skinned girl. She was wearing a brown tunic and slight darker brown shorts, making her look like someone painted her picture in sepia tone.
“It's her first list,” his father returned. “And your second. It will seem like cowardice.”
“I don't care,” said the eighteen-year old boy fire wizard. “I fought my last battle only last month. They will look past the second easy victory since I re-listed so quickly. Most people wait at least six months before they re-enter.”
There were seventeen fire wizards in the list this month. Fourteen men, some barely men like Alvin, and three women, two of which were older. One of the women, Lek Ambusto, was seventeen, the minimum age to enter the list. The Ambusto family lived on the edge of town and, though not poor, had fallen on hard times more than a generation ago. The Ambusto family was large. The Ambusto name was above the front doors of many of the local shops in the city and the nearby townships, such as the bakery and the grocery. Good businesses, but nothing prestigious.
The Garabaldis owned Tournesville township’s largest bank, as well as the largest bank branches in three of the four surrounding townships. Alvin worked daily with some of the finest weapons and magic trainers in town. And, weekly, he studied war theory with one of the unit commanders for the army, a family friend.
However, a battle to the death was never something to be taken lightly, and with eight victories needed, meaning eight opponents equally motivated to end his life, he was not willing to take big risks every time. Last one was a risk. Quinn Lange. A firster, like himself, but a tough challenge. Lange was known as the most technically capable fire mage novice. The most feared firster in many years. The victory put Alvin on the map.
Before he challenged Quinn, he and his father had the same discussion. His father did not like the decision, saying it was too much of a challenge and there were far lower risk options. But Alvin wanted to make a statement. He knew, from talking to Quinn, that Quinn wanted an easier first battle. Alvin also knew that if he openly challenged Quinn that he would be accepted. Quinn could not back down. As Alvin expected, Quinn was not mentally prepared for such a hard first challenge. Though he was a precision mage, he was not ready for Alvin’s aggressive style, practiced warfare, or creativity.
This time, though, Alvin simply wanted the second victory. He no longer needed to make a point. He also could feel that some of the more powerful spells were only inches out of his reach. A touch more power and he would be there. And then, then, he could try some of the ideas he had for new spells, which would take his next few challengers by surprise.
“That one,” he said again and walked over to the small girl. She was sitting on the ground, legs and arms crossed as well, hunched forward so her elbows were resting on her knees. She was staring at the ground. He stood in front of her and held the coin out to her.
The ritual was that she would accept his coin and hand hers to him. It was a ritual they would repeat again, at the start of their battle, proving to all watching and to the officials, that this battle was willingly accepted, not once but twice. She did not look up. He tapped her with the coin on the top of her head. Still, she did not look upwards. Was she meditating? Or too scared to acknowledge the challenge?
He dropped the coin on the ground right in front of her, to where she was staring. The small woman unfolded her arms and picked up the coin. She placed the coin on her knee, without looking up at him. Still without looking at him or even at the coin now on her knee, she reached into the small breast pocket of her brown tunic and removed her coin.
She did not hand it to him, but dropped it on the ground in the same place he had dropped his coin. In front of her shins and his feet.
This was not what Alvin had expected. He expected she would look up at him, recognize the challenge and either act with misplaced bravado or decline from fear. She did not seem to react at all. Or care that he, Alvin, likely the strongest of the firsters and seconds on the field was her challenger. In fact, all she probably knew about her challenger, about him, was the boots he wore.
Alvin thought about not taking the coin, but there were too many others watching. She was a firster and he was, now, an experienced battler. This was to the death and, though suddenly unnerved, he bent down to pick up her coin. Once touched, the challenge would be accepted. His hand hovered above the coin, his head and face now inches from hers and, still, she did not make eye contact. Her eyes remained fixed on the ground by her feet, a space which now included his hand and her coin.
His hand lingered and then, understanding he was now committed, picked the coin up off the ground. He stood up, turned towards the audience, which included most of the other combatants, the list official, and at least thirty other watchers, many family members of the combatant and many wizards themselves. He closed his fist around the coin and shook the fist quickly back and forth.
The onlookers applauded. A challenge accepted!
He forced himself to smile broadly, as if he were confident of the battle and inevitable victory. He could not, however, understand her complete disregard for the challenge or lack of interest in even looking to see who had challenged her.
“Surprised she accepted you,” his father said as they reconnected on the edge of the field. There had been three other battles accepted by then. “She must not value her life,” he continued.
Alvin knew this was meant to increase his confidence, but it added to his apprehension. He knew, from strategic training, that a lack of fear in your opponent was not a good sign if you were the opponent. You usually needed to break your opponent before you could kill them. This one, Lek Ambusto, even though it was her first ever fire duel to the death, might not break before she was killed.
There were five announced battles that day. The combatants would exchange coins once more, re-accepting the challenge. They would then remove all jewelry and weapons, except an approved fillet knife, and then enter the woods from different sides of the list. They would circle around and, out of view of any audience, battle to the death. There were no rules. You could use any weapon you could find, or recover from having hidden earlier, in the woods. If your opponent died by falling from a tree or animal attack, or even from a human who managed to enter the woods unnoticed, you got credit for the victory and were awarded the combatants body as your prize. Or what was left of it.
Alvin and Lek were scheduled to go fourth by random draw. Assuming anything was random in the officiating of the lists. Alvin knew, however, that any gaming on the side of the officials would likely be in his favor, either out of respect for his family or dislike of hers.
Still, he felt no comfort as Tory Gullin re-entered the field barely thirty minutes after he entered the forest, looking though he was wandering back from a light picnic, meaning that Alvin’s battle was now one battle closer.
During the other battles, Alvin spent most of the time watching Lek. There was not much to see. A few of the other combatants and those who did not find or accept a challenge walked over to her to wish her luck, but otherwise no one paid her much attention.
Alvin’s father, uncle and two of his older siblings were there. His aunt was also there, but in official capacity as a list guardian. The guardian’s job was to help recover the body or bodies from the woods after the battle and make sure that no one entered the woods during the battles, and that everyone who did enter returned before the next one. Even so, Alvin had family support in the clearing, which helped. Lek seemed to have none.
The second victor returned to the clearing. She was supporting herself with a thick branch, her left leg a red mass of flesh. While others were hurrying over to her and into the forest to recover the body, Alvin pulled his father aside.
He whispered, “I no longer feel good about this challenge.” His father misunderstood the reason behind the comment.
“Yes, you could have easily beaten any of the last four combatants. You, being willful, chose the easiest opponent. Backing out now would be shameful.” Alvin nodded. “Next time, we can pick more carefully and you can earn more honor.”
Soon enough, the list herald called out, “Alvin Garabaldi and Lek Ambusto.” The more senior wizard’s name was always called first.
Alvin was already in the center of the field, at the designated place, when his name was called. He watched Lek stand up. She was even smaller and thinner than he thought. She showed no emotion and her brown eyes looked dead. She located his position on the field, but did not make eye contact. He watched her walk slowly and robotically towards him. He breathed deeply and told himself that she was simply looking to be killed and this was an easier, far more respectable method than suicide. He told himself it was the only reason she would accept a challenge with so little consideration for the opponent or the stakes. He told himself this, but he was not convinced. He knew he needed to be wary and take her very seriously, despite her experience and size. This was the right strategy.
He heard the voice of his advisor: “No matter his weakness, respect your opponent fully, as if he were at full strength. Assume the greatest possible danger from him. Until he is dead. Until, in fact, you have made certain he is dead.”
There was no handshake. The ritual was that they could not even touch when they exchanged coins. He handed her coin, the one she gave him, to the list master and Lek, without even looking at the list master, handed the other coin over.
The list master then said, “You acknowledge you freely accept the challenge by accepting the coin of your opponent. By accepting the coin, you acknowledge you understand that the rules are as follows: This challenge, called a battle, is to the death. The prize for the victor is the body of the vanquished. You are not allowed to touch the other opponent, or cause them to be touched, prior to entering the forest. Once the gun sounds, signifying the start of the battle, there are no rules, except that no one currently in the field at the start of the battle can effect the battle in any way. Failure to adhere to that rule will result in permanent ban for the combatant that breaks the rule and, even if victorious, that combatant will not win the prize of the vanquished opponent’s body. Once you accept the challenge, by taking hold of your opponent’s coin for the second time today, the challenge does not end until at least one of the combatants is dead. There is no surrender.”
The list master handed the coins back to their respective owners. Alvin hoped that Lek would not re-exchange her coin, but she reached out to accept the coin from the list master and did not even slightly bend her elbow back as she presented it to Alvin. They exchanged coins. There was no turning back.
Suddenly she made eye contact with him. She smiled widely, her lips still covering her teeth.
He had never seen anything so malicious in his whole life. Alvin felt his knees weaken and, ever so slightly, buckle. He was not battling a human. He was about to enter a life and death battle with a devil. A thin, pale demon.
Alvin shook his fist and smiled back at the audience as he entered the forest. It was the opposite side of the clearing from his opponent. Lek. The tiny alabaster demon. But he needed to shake that thought from his head or he would never re-enter the clearing again. He knew these battles were to the death and had a sick feeling in his stomach the last time he dueled, but that time his knees were strong. Last time he was wired, butterflies. This time it was something else. Is this what dread felt like? The gun went off, signifying the start of the battle. They are both in the forest. Only one would re-emerge.
It had to be him. It would be him.
He squeezed his fists and felt the heat. He reached out and grabbed a pine tree branch and releasing the slightest touch of magic, he melted the branch, letting it drip fiery green needles towards the forest’s dirt floor. The needles hit the ground as black ash. He was strong. He could do this.
The plan was simple. Simple was always the plan. The more complex, the more variables that could go awry. His strategic advisor beat this mantra into his head. Locate the enemy. Find the better ground. Open ground for them, but defenses for you. Then strike first and do not let up until your opponent is dead. And strike again, and again to make sure.
Circling immediately towards the opponent was a rookie move. They would meet face-to-face, no time to find the best location. And, if she were to simply hole up, find a hiding place, he would wander right into it. Best to go deeper in to the forest than anyone would expect and then circle across. But not a perfect arc. Further out and further in, serpentining in large waves, as he moved towards where she entered.
He edged, step by step, towards her entrance, looking left and right, as well as up. He was careful to step lightly, ensuring his feet hit dirt and not leaves, so as not to make any sounds as he edged across the arc. In this way, Alvin slowly, carefully, made his way across the arc, looping across the forest to the other entrance to the clearing. He had progressed the entire arc. Had he missed her?
He saw, a few feet from the entrance a large pine tree with branches that drooped all the way to the ground. Was she hiding in there? Had she simply holed up as soon as she hit the forest and waited for him?
Was that a rookie move or a smart one? In some sense, it was smart. Wait for your enemy. The most patient side is almost always the side that wins. She was in there. He knew it.
He stepped behind a large oak tree and remained still. Should he wait her out? No. She was hidden inside a needle tent, not quite an open area, but less protection than his oak tree. If he could lure her into a direct attack, the oak tree would absorb far more damage.
He eyed the pine tree. It was dying from the bottom up. Brown, dead needles on the lower branches, where she was hiding. The brown needles and dead branches would make perfect kindling.
She had made a huge mistake, he thought. A fatal one. Not that he could burn her up, since a wood fire meant little to a fire magician’s skin, but he could burn away her hiding place. He would have the perfect position for a frontal attack. Plus the smoke would suck away a lot of her oxygen and obscure her vision, making her less effective at casting spells.
Alvin grabbed a fallen branch from the ground, soundless, and ran his hand along the top, catching it on fire – using almost no magic – and, quickly, threw it toward the bottom of the pine tree. He readied for the attack. The lower branches burned fast and, soon, he could see most of the pine’s tree trunk. No one was there. However, there were a few unburned branches covering the far side of the trunk. Not a large hiding place, but enough for a child or a tiny adult. He decided that’s where she was hiding.
The fire, normal fire, would burn out a normal person, but not a fire wizard. He had to burn the remaining branch and then he’d have the upper hand. Lesson learned, though, never pick the smallest opponent. They can hide too easily. And, he realized she was smart to wear all brown and hide in a similarly colored space.
He picked up another stick from the ground, lit it on fire and, hugging the oak trunk, tossed the branch towards the far side of the pine tree. A perfect throw! The fiery stick hit the very bottom of the drooping pine branch. All that eye hand coordination training paid off, he thought.
He watched the drooping branch burn until he could see the entire trunk. Nothing, no one was there. Where could she be?
He started edging back around the oak tree. Suddenly, thin fingers closed around his neck and a fiery pain shot towards the base of his skull.