(Content warning: blood)
The magistrate deliberated with his counsel for a few minutes, before returning to the court to declare that there would be a duel. The onlookers seated around him were uproariously excited: executions were good, quick fun, but a duel could be an afternoon’s entertainment. Plaintiff and defendant both grimaced and sank at the shoulders. Both cast shamed but also furious glances at one another as armed soldiers dragged them from their benches to prepare.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this, Aggard muttered. But Rifus had pushed him too far. Aggard had had no recourse except to make a formal accusation. It should have been a matter of pleading his case before the Magistrate, who would surely have agreed, had the lights not shown. Instead, the sky was illuminated with the glowing threads of Brither’s Lace, the bloodlust was awoken, and Aggard was being fitted for ceremonial armor.
The duel was scheduled for five days hence. Time enough, in theory, for the combatants to become familiar with weapons and fighting, since most of the time it would be the only fight in either of their lives. Aggard had some experience, hunting scarecrows in his youth and sometimes defending himself from attacks from mindless plagueland diaspora coming through his tribe’s ranch. All of that was long ago, but he at least remembered the feel of a spur strapped to his wrist, the weight of forearm and thigh shields. He didn’t know anything about Rifus’s history, anything before the sponger had come to work in his quarry. Rifus was hale and, while not young, youthful. He handled his tools well, was the best his employer had ever seen at goading the evil out of quarterstone and sequestering it in his exotic sea sponges. But he had muscles and scars that worried Aggard. Had the quarrymaster been sentenced to fight a retired sellsword?
The five days that might have been his last, Aggard spent meditating and praying and practicing with a spur. His cell was open-air, upon a dais in the town square where the crowd that had cheered his sentence could look on. For the first day they did so eagerly, throwing things at him and jeering, sometimes trying to climb onto the dais and losing fingers and noses to the barrier field. After that day, though, Brither’s Lace faded from the sky and its spell passed, bloodlust slipping from the townspeople’s hearts as through a sieve. From then on they barely spared him a glance; those who had been present at the sentencing hid their faces and hurried on.
Aggard saw them. He knew them. But what could he do? He was only an aging ranch child, who directed workers with chisels to pull stone off a mountainside. They had bought their bloodsport, and he hoped they were there to watch when he was put to it. And that they hated it.
On the day of the duel, soldiers brought him to the field. He and Rifus were made to bathe in the shrine of the Placid Souls, each had a tooth extracted to decorate the town’s third statue of Brile the justice god. That had been carved from Aggar’s quarterstone, and his was the final tooth needed to cover its entire surface. The three fully tooth-studded statues overlooked a circle of pressed grass outside the official border, and were nearly the only audience. A public combatant arrived late to be the neutral party, stripping off plainclothes as he jogged and carrying plates and spur. He smiled pleasantly at both his opponents.
The grass field, flattened for the first time in years for this duel, was hot in the direct sun, and crawled with biting limpets searching for the burrows they had been ousted from. The quarrymaster scrubbed his short beard with his fingers, breathed and took the traditional kneeling position to start, arms out at his sides. The others did the same.
“Brile will act through one of you,” the magistrate said, standing among the statues. He was as ashamed of this sentence as the crowd in town. “Open yourselves to her and she will choose who is just.”
There was an opportunity for final protestations, but no one took it. Rifus knew that the evil he soaked from the stone and sold instead of destroying always found its way back to the quarrymaster’s tribe in one way or another, infecting his cousins with delusions and untoward aggression that had never been their way before. Knew that, furthermore, he had repeatedly taken advantage of his employer’s kindness by refusing to stop. Were it not for the damn lights, that would have been clear to the magistrate. But since he had not accepted his guilt in the first place, the fight was inevitable.
At the magistrate’s subtle nod, the three raised their weapons and leapt toward the center of the field. Rifus dispatched the public combatant instantly with a spur to his lower back: Brile had apparently decided it was not a petty squabble. The pleasant-faced man fell, and slowed Aggar’s first blow, so that it glanced off the other’s thigh shield. As the quarrymaster had feared, his sponger was indeed fast and competent, and very nearly put a spur through his neck in the opening seconds. He managed to get away, however, and pull back to circle warily.
They closed again and this time, miraculously, Aggar struck his opponent in the chin with the corner of his forearm shield and drew blood both from the socket of his pulled tooth and from a scrape down the side of his bare arm with the tip of his spur. The other recovered from this quickly, but did not manage to land a blow in return. They separated again.
Rifus called on Blood, and the spirit tightened his muscles. Aggar called on Sky, and that spirit sharpened his senses. Rifus, then, on Hyena, who made him shiver with tense energy; Aggar on Escape, who made his aging limbs nimbler.
“Two each!” the magistrate called out, as Rifus began to call another spirit. “Only two.”
The battle closed in earnest, then. Glancing blows on one another’s trunks, kicks to knock each other off balance, desperate swings of arms and legs to avoid a ten-inch spur sinking perpendicularly into flesh. Sky helped Aggar detect Rifus’s quick and tense movements as he wound up to execute them and Escape helped him dance heavily out of the way. Even so, the stab the sponger managed up under his ribs from behind may prove to be fatal, he would find out if his lungs filled with blood. Even so, what won it was when Aggar trapped Rifus in a desperate bear hug that plunged his spur deep into the other’s back.
There was some little cheering as Aggar bore the other to the ground. It was not a spectacular victory, much as the man’s heart had surely exploded. The slow descent, as the survivor dropped to his knee to let the spasming victim rest on the grass, was too gentle for those in the audience who did not need the lights to feel Brither’s gift. Even the shudder and smoky explosion as Blood and Hyena left the dying body did not excite anyone.
“Aggar the quarrymaster,” the magistrate said after some time. “Brile has decided that Rifus son of Suri wronged you. Your charges against him will be written in the county annals as fact. Feel no guilt for your victory, but feel no pride, the pride is Brile’s.”
Aggar did not need to be told, not the latter. There was a time, years ago, that he had loved the man he just killed, even if he had not really known him.
“To half the hells with Brile,” he said to himself. “And to every hell with Brither.”