According to the Ancient Rite
The sun was beating down brightly as we stepped in, so the alcove seemed almost pitch black. We walked to the back of the dwelling I had seen only once before. The other elders seemed at ease so I joined them in leaning up against the damp rocky walls as we waited. I felt a trickle down my bare arm – not bothersome at all compared to the smell of wet limestone; like a rotten egg.
We were early as was to be expected. I’m much younger than any of the other Huthaerins, but our group is much older generally than the congregation expected from the Phelaegins. In fact, that was most of the problem. With age came a certain respect for each other and even for them. At the very least, it granted a cool perspective. Not the same could be said for them. Even by my standards, they always seemed geared up – packs and tempers – for whatever trouble they could find.
Despite being a little hot headed personally, the reason I wore the elder’s crown at such a young age was that I had learned to reel myself in for the most part. Huthaerins valued character, and character necessitated growth. Most of the men with me are 30 years my senior, and I’m not quite what they are, but I am a lot more than I was, and that’s important.
The steps of the others came to the entrance heavy. They were led by Faul just as expected. He wore a dark cherry stained leather armor over his muscular frame. His was also cut at the shoulder like mine. I was always willing to trade a little protection for mobility. His guys were dressed in the same style, but none of them were allowed to wear Faul’s red. Each of them also had their bronze elder’s crown; their twelve to match ours.
“Good to see you Faul,” Amorim said stepping forward to shake his hand. His tone was serious, but not insincere. It was indeed good that they came at all. Faul shook his hand. His stance was easy, but with his trademark conceit.
“What do you want old man?” Faul asked. Not a good start to an elders gathering.
“It is good for the 24 elders to get together from time to time for the peace of the land,” Amorim said.
“Cut the shit. I don’t want to see you any more than you want to see me.”
“Very well,” Amorim said furrowing his brow, “There is concern about the fashion of your rise to power.”
“I knew this was what it was about,” Faul said cutting him off. “It’s none of your business how we conduct our business on the West half.”
“You know full well that is not true. We share pasture lands and there have been several disputes over mineral stores. It is vital that we have a strong working relationship with the West. Moreover, the issue is also moral and legal. How can we know that you obtained the elder positions by legitimate means since we’ve had no contact with your predecessors? How are we to know that they are even living?”
“The pissers are fine, they just don’t have the reins anymore. Why don’t you admit that you’re just pissed off that you can’t push our soft, gutless old men around now? You’ve always wanted it all as one piece.” Now Faul was full on shouting. His guys stood just as cocksure as him. I edged closer to Amorim just in case, but I didn’t want to unduly provoke anything.
Amorim was speaking calmly to try and cool things off, but he didn’t shrink at all. “It is true that I have always supported one Laebria, and I will talk about that solution with whoever is in power, but…”
“You read my mind Ames! A solution for one Laebria.”
“The other elders should be…”
“Shut up about them. You are dealing with me now, and we are going to solve this right now. We appeal, according to the ancient Lebraeic rite, to the champion’s choosing.”
“Don’t be mad. There’s been no such thing for 300 years.”
“There’s nothing preventing it. Choose your champion. One-on-one combat. The loser will submit to the rule of the other. Then there will be one Laebria.”
“No, we won’t do it,” Amorim said folding his arms.
“You don’t have a choice,” said Faul pulling a pistol from his belt. He pointed it at Amorim. A gasp ran through the elders standing on our side of the enclosure and Amorim stumbled a step back. I was still at the back of the group up along the rocks, but as soon as my legs would respond to the craze of the situation I shot forward. Three paces and I was in the middle of the action. Now the pistol was pressed up against my chest. I waved my left hand behind me to move Amorim back from danger, but when I turned Lyrrad had already gotten a hold of him and I only pawed at air.
Faul tried to step aside and adjust his aim back at our leader. I felt the blood pumping through my veins like a torrent, but I could do no more than feel. I unconsciously grabbed the end of the silver six-shot pistol with my left hand and Faul’s leather collar with my right. I even managed to unbalance him for a moment, but that may have been a mistake. The other 11 men standing behind Faul quickly pulled their own weapons and trained them across the room.
“No,” Amorim finally yelled. “No more of this.” He drew a deep breath. “We will meet your challenge.” I felt my grip slowly loosen on both the gun and armor. Amorim composed himself and continued, “Give us until the next full moon to produce our champion.”
“Not on your life,” Faul shot back. “None of you are leaving this cage until this is settled.” Another gasp filled the room, now the sound was as much of disgust as surprised I thought, but I didn’t turn to see their expressions.
Another elder stepped forward from behind me, “You are scoundrels and dogs, just like the father’s who raised you. If they even bothered to stay and raise you at all!” he shouted.
One of the men on their side, only 6 or 7 feet from us pointed his pistol right at the head of the man who had insulted him. His finger closed on the trigger, but Faul reach his right hand out with his palm facing his thug. “No, we wouldn’t want anyone to think we coerced them into signing the challenge,” Faul said with a sneering laugh. “Having said that, this is your last chance to sign and choose a fighter before I start putting holes in people. And I think I’ll start with this stupid one,” he said looking menacingly into my eyes.
If he thought this would make me shrink back in the slightest, he had totally miscalculated. I felt the pump of blood surge even stronger. My right fist clenched at my side, but then in a moment of sobriety I realized that I would have doomed every man at my side to death. I pushed hot air through my teeth trying to calm myself.
“If we could perhaps even choose tomorrow when we are with our entire forces,” Amorim began.
“You have 10 seconds to sign,” Faul said placing the edge of the barrel up against my forehead. A man to his left produced a ready contract and lead for signing.
Amorim shook free from Lyrrad’s grip and walked quickly towards the man with the contract, hand outstretched. He signed at the bottom without so much as even glancing at the terms.
“Wonderful,” Faul said as a smile grew on his face. “I will of course stand as our champion. Choose yours well,” he said again glancing my way.
“No weapons?” Amorim asked.
“Of course,” Faul said. “Just as custom dictates.”
Amorim walked towards the back of the area and motioned for us to follow him. “We have no choice. There must be a fight, and it will be to the death. I’m sorry to say this so bluntly. No matter what happens, we will contest this, but it would be better if we won of course….” Amorim’s voice trailed off, or maybe it didn’t but in any case I couldn’t hear him.
My mind raced and I was somewhere else in an instant. I saw my home and the vineyards it looked over. I felt smelled the first offering of spring. Suddenly, I was aware I wasn’t alone. I shifted my focus down and there on my knee was my boy. He smiled up at me and slung his hand around the back of my neck and tickled my hair. I couldn’t help but smile myself. I could think of nothing else than how much I wanted to go home to my boy. I had a moment’s doubt where my personal survival seemed vital. Who else could raise my boy like I could? Who else loved him like I did?
Then another wave of clear thinking. Any man in my village could be trusted to take care of my boy, but if we lost, he could end up in the hands of Phelaegin, and that could never happen. If there was any chance I could win…
“I won’t ask any of you to volunteer,” Amorim said.
As I came back to my surroundings I looked up at the faces of 11 old men. “I will fight,” I said as if to put an end to the matter.
Lyrrad looked genuinely shocked. “Are you mad?” he said. At first I didn’t know what he meant, but then I remembered. Before I was born Lyrrad was an arena victor. He had beaten everyone he faced from both provinces. It was because of this acclaim that he was an elder. I looked into his face and saw that he really believed he was the only choice.
“Lyrrad, I have great respect for you, and for your accomplishments of course,” I stumbled over my words not wanting to give offense, “but that was a long time ago. I’m a lot younger and stronger. I have the best chance at winning, and if that means our people…”
Lyrrad launched forward with his right hand and wrapped it around my throat. I was immediately unable to take in even a sip of air. Though I knew him as a very sweet man, I looked at the scowl on his face and in his eyes, I saw a killer. I fought to grab hold of his wrist with both of my hands, but inexplicably I felt my heels lifting off the ground.
“I don’t care how long it’s been boy. I’ve been fighting men twice your size since you were crawling,” he said with a fury that gave me serious pause.
Was I the best one to fight? I could see that in his heart, Lyrrad believed he had the best chance of us winning. With the little air I had left I thought of my son sitting on Faul’s knee and the sort of man he would become if that ever happened.
I know I’m the best man to help us. No question. And unfortunately for Lyrrad, I also know about his right knee. I swung my fist viciously into his ribs and as soon as I felt his legs buckle and my own firmly back on the ground, I used my left foot to kick at the inside of his knee. It bent at an ungodly angle just like I knew it would, and he fell to the ground with a scream. I took in as deep a breath as I could though my neck still felt the size of an inch worm.
While Lyrrad was clutching at his poor knee I stepped out from the group without looking at any of them. I squared my shoulders to Faul and looked him in the eyes. “I’ll fight.”
“Wonderful,” he said with a laugh. “Now that they’re done fighting each other they’re ready for us.” He clapped his hands together and rubbed them hurriedly in excitement. “Let’s get to it.”