The following night found Alden and his band gathered together in the staging area under the arena.
A small square space with stubby, pine fences and pine benches provided the Sacram band an area to store their gear and prepare for the upcoming match. Shouts of encouragement, grunts from warmup exercises, and the clatter of weaponry filled the hall as all the other teams prepared themselves as well. Torches guttered in their wall brackets, and the room stank of stress sweat.
Alden finished checking the buckles for his vambraces for the second time. Next, he began checking the baldrics for both swords, which hung perpendicular in an X pattern across his back, with the hilt of the bone sword above his left shoulder and the hilt of the metal sword above his right.
Beside him, Braden was doing some lunges to warm up. “You gonna check again?” the Trickster asked. “What if they loosened up since last time?”
Alden scowled, and his mischievous friend grinned.
Lalaine and Grath were putting the finishing touches on sharpening their blades, while Jincra was shaking his shield around to check the flexibility in the straps.
Alden gave up on rechecking his gear, sat down on the wooden bench, and sighed. “I guess we’re all a little nervous, huh?”
Lalaine and Jincra nodded.
Grath kept sharpening his axe.
Braden shrugged. “We’re just going to fight an unknown monster in the middle of the night, with only scattered fires to light the arena. It’s not like we need to ask your mother if we can borrow the family weapons to go camping outside the walls again.”
Alden laughed. “She wasn’t pleased, to be sure.”
“Wasn’t pleased?” Braden said with mock incredulity. “She made us stand on the roof holding all the weapons over our heads from sunset to sunrise. I could barely lift my arms for three days.”
“I remember,” Lalaine said. “I had to hand-feed you soup.”
“And you spilled most of it on me whenever I made a joke,” Braden said.
Lalaine sighed fondly. “Good times.”
The band laughed. Even Grath chuckled.
Alden felt a little better. He slapped one knee and stood up. “I’m going to go ahead and grab us some seats to watch the first two bouts. We’re lucky because we’re not up until the third slot, so we can see what the other teams do.”
“Alden,” Lalaine said, “your shirt is mangled.”
Alden looked down at his wool shirt. The golden fabric poked out along the top, sides, and bottom of his leather breastplate. In all the fighting and tumbling from Sacram Village to their current trial, the garment had seen plenty of action. Ragged tears and pulled seams marred the front, and the sides weren’t much better.
“It’s probably fine,” Alden said.
Lalaine arched one eyebrow at him and frowned. “You look terrible. Your mother would be livid.”
Alden thought back and remembered his mother scolding him about this very eventuality. “I’ll take care of it after the battle today.”
“You’d better.” The blonde huntress gave her friend another critical once-over. The longer she looked, the more arched her eyebrow became. “Any woman you meet here in the city is going to run screaming when she sees how much work you’d be for her. You don’t want to meet your future wife and drive her off in a panic.”
Alden gave a visible start. “Lalaine, I absolutely will not be marrying any woman I’ve met in this city.” Surreptitiously, the fingers of his left hand reached back and touched the sheath of the metal sword by his hip, then pulled sharply away as if burned. “Definitely not.”
Lalaine peered curiously at Alden, but she didn’t press him for an explanation. “I’ll remind you after. Your mother will be furious with me if I don’t.”
Alden sighed and walked to the entrance of their little cubicle, but Grath stopped him.
“Remember to call out orders this time, Alden,” the Aibeck said. “We did well in the forest when you started directing the band. You forgot during the first bout because we were all nervous. Let’s keep the team coordinated this time.”
Alden nodded. “Thanks for the reminder.” He walked toward the tunnel leading up to the stands but stopped halfway through the shadowy tunnel. He glanced around but saw no one, and the only sound was the crackle of torches. Alden drew the metal sword from over his right shoulder and clasped the hilt in both hands.
The brunette ghost appeared in the tunnel before him.
“I want to ask one more time,” Alden said. “Please work with me. I need to save my village.”
“That indeed seems a reasonable request,” the ghost said, “but I’ve heard requests like it before. In the end, fame and glory are what you truly seek.” The brunette gave Alden the same appraising look Lalaine had. “And your friend is correct, your shirt looks appalling.”
Alden sighed and walked through the ghost. Again, he felt nothing as he passed through her, not even a tingle. He strode up the tunnel without looking back for her reaction. As he walked, the hunter slid the metal sword back into its sheath on his back.
The young band leader reached the mouth of the tunnel and entered the dark stands. The roar of the crowd all talking at once was deafening. All around him were the smells of pine from the mountain and cooked meats from vendors. Alden’s mouth watered, but he didn’t trust himself to hold down food on a nervous stomach. Instead, he took a seat and laid his bone sword across the benches to hold places for his friends.
Overhead, three colored moons stared down from the night sky upon the arena: green, blue, and pink. The night sky glittered like a sea of stars.
Ahken and Moxi were amusing the crowd with random tidbits of information.
“Did you know,” Ahken asked, “that Kilna has won this tournament five times in a row?”
“Everyone knows that,” Moxi pouted. “It’s becoming a little predictable.”
“And they’re favored to win again this time. But that Avyh band is the one I’m rooting for. Their team composition is the weirdest I’ve ever seen.”
Moxi giggled. “That’s the truth, darling. I love watching those Avyh Tricksters pull the beasts in every direction. Gives me some ideas for when I find myself a husband.”
The crowd laughed.
Jincra, Braden, Lalaine, and Grath arrived. Alden sheathed his bone sword as they all took their seats. Within minutes, the crowd filled the stands to capacity.
“Looks like it’s finally time to begin!” Moxi squeaked.
“We’ve got a real treat planned tonight, folks,” the dark-skinned announcer roared as he stood up to address the crowd. “Night fighting is a special hazard for us hunters. Whether it’s a predatory ambush on a hunting party or a midnight raid on a village, hunters need to be prepared to fight in darkness. Tonight we simulate that terror.”
“I can’t wait any longer!” Moxi hopped up and down on the table as she spoke into her conch shell. “The arena staff have painstakingly built dozens of campfires all around the arena, with one large bonfire in the center. They’ll be replacing the fires between each fight to make sure everyone has the same lighting conditions. Not only is vision cut down, but the fires create a burning hazard as well.” The colorful Siki shivered dramatically from head to toe, and her fox tail puffed up. “Oh, the tension makes my fur stand on end!”
“That’s right, Moxi. We’re going deep into the hazards of the wilderness.” Ahken gestured toward the pit below, where staff were busy lighting the fires. “Primal terror meets destructive energy. Tonight, under the three eyes of Swollen Mother, our hunter bands battle their darkest fears!”
“Up first,” shouted Moxi, “are the Avyh of Kash Village!”
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Author, ghostwriter, author coach, retired psychotherapist, husband, and father. I've written 25 books, both fiction and non-fiction, and scored a couple #1 Amazon bestsellers in my various categories.
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