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This was it. The final duel. The one she had been waiting all her life for. Terror gripped her as she stood before the huge oak doors, her blonde hair hung loose and damp around her face. Her sweaty hands gripped the slender steel sword tightly, the leather-bound hilt sticking to her palms. A fierce wind sprung up and whipped her hair across her face. Angrily, she pulled it back and secured it with a leather band; it would just be a nuisance when she fought. As time slipped away, she attempted to relax herself; unclenching her fists, she brushed away a smudge of dirt on her forest green tunic. She glared down at herself, at her dirty bare feet, her torn tan leggings, the leather sword belt at her waist.
A fidgety guard approached, and she lifted her calm stare to meet his eyes. She inclined her head and he began to speak.
"Uh... begging your pardon miss, er, the-uh-your duel is about to begin," he stammered, clearly intimidated in her presence. She allowed herself a serene smile, and, taking this as a dismissal, the guard skittered away.
This was it.
She took a deep breath to prepare herself. Thoughts attacked her, roiled in her mind, blocked her senses. Maybe she would win. Maybe she wouldn't. Whatever the outcome, she would try her best. These past weeks, months, years of practice would not be for nothing. All her talent led up to this one event, this one chance to prove herself, or die trying.
A loud clunk alerted her to the slowly opening double doors. She breathed quietly as the creaking hinges gradually expanded. It seemed to take forever. Each inch was another bead of sweat gathering on her forehead, another squeeze of her lungs to push breath though her slender frame. Each second seemed like an eternity, bringing her closer to her triumphant victory or impending doom.
At last the doors stopped, their rusty hinges extended almost to breaking point. Maintaining her inner calm, she took a step forward. She prepared herself for the loud, raucous cheering of the crowd, but her steps fell in silence. Her ears rang in the ultimate stillness, and she paused a second to reassess the situation. The audience was completely still, all eyes in one of two places: at her or at the other side of the dirt field where a beast of a man was leisurely approaching. She glanced among the crowd, outwardly casual as she took another step forward, her eyes coming to rest on the man. He strode forward confidently; two steps to one of her own, but his speed wouldn't faze her. She continued at her steady pace and watched as the man reached the middle, way ahead of her. The crowd waited, expectant, some half on their feet. Tension was stretched tightly through the air.
Ten steps away, eight, five, three, and she was there; a foot away from this hulking man that had to look down to meet her eyes. Her grey eyes met his blue, and she probed into his mind, staring unblinkingly at the man who might be her executioner. Terrified though she was, she showed no sign and she stood defiantly while a knight orderly walked up. The orderly began explaining the rules in a slow monotone. She tuned him out, thinking back though her training, picturing moves that she would try in her head. Trying to size up her opponent's weaknesses and strengths, she glanced up at him and realized that he was doing the same. His eyes were distracted and bright, thinking and poring into her mind, trying to discover some hidden factor that made her who she was. She shrugged imperceptibly and turned her attention to the orderly.
"…to the death. Only swords, no other weapons, and no mercy. Ready? Start in ten," he explained and slowly stepped away. A loud voice rang out over the stillness, starting at ten and counting down. The opponents faced each other, swords drawn, glaring into each other's eyes.
"Three…" the loud voice echoed over the stadium.
She could do this.
She couldn't do this.
She must do this.
The man lunged wildly and she easily parried his strike. Lashing out with her sword, she caught it on the edge of his massive broadsword. He flung her back and she landed, stumbling, on her right foot. Before she could regain her balance, however, he was at it again, strike against strike, trying to find a weakness. She tried her best to parry each assault while balancing on one foot. A violent swing missed her neck by inches and she had the opening she needed. Stamping her left foot into the dirt, she gripped her sword tightly and swung with all her might toward her opponent's chest. He stepped back and overbalanced, toppling into the dirt. She advanced, but he was up off the ground already, back again for another volley of strikes. This time he took a different approach. Starting off with a series of swift jabs toward her stomach, all of which she carefully blocked, he faked to her right and swung at her left, clipping across her left forearm. She winced but kept blocking, ignoring the blood now dripping down her arm. Taking a page out of her opponent's book, she made as if to swing towards his legs but she swung up and over, knocking her sword into his sword arm. The crowd gasped and he gasped, staring at the huge welt beginning to form on his right arm. This was what she wanted. Stepping forward, she quickly struck at his head, but he was faster. Gripping his sword in his left hand, he blocked the harsh swing and continued his attack.
This time he was watching her, and she tried to be creative to dissuade him. Dancing lightly on her toes, she sneaked in and out of his strikes, every time getting nearer to his flesh but never quite making it. He let out a ferocious growl and redoubled his efforts, pushing her back almost to the wall. She wasn't afraid however, she just kept blocking and blocking, allowing him to get tired. Now that she was in the midst of the fight, she no longer felt nervous. Her adrenaline was pumping and she made every move with confidence. Her opponent was obviously tiring and she only needed a small opening to finally beat him. Each of his strikes brought her closer to the wall and she feigned surprise, letting him think he was beating her. As soon as her back hit the wall, however, she started attacking in earnest. She let out all her strength and skill to push him back toward the middle of the field. Her attack was so strong that her opponent lost his sword after three of her strikes. The huge blade flung backwards and through the air, sun glimmering off the silver metal. After what seemed like an eternity, it landed, burying itself deep into the dirt on the other side of the stadium.
She could do it.
He tried to run backwards toward his sword, keeping her in his sight at all times. She had the upper hand, though, and knocked him to the ground with one hit. He knelt and lowered his head, staring at the dull brown dirt. She lifted her sword a little, preparing for the fatal strike.
"You don't have to do this," he muttered. "You can be a good person. Be a better person than I am. Don't kill me." How could she kill him?
What was it the orderly said? No mercy. Slowly she placed her sword under her neck and he lifted his head up to meet her eyes. She was the one looking down at him now. She was the one that had beaten him. A fight to the death. She started to swing her sword back. His eyes were filled with sorrow.
She couldn't kill him.
A fight to the death.....
But she couldn't kill him!
His eyes dug into hers, beseeching her, explaining to her why he shouldn't die, why his kingdom needed him, why his wife and children needed him. How, when everyday he came home, his children ran up to their dad and hugged him. How his wife kissed him after he returned from a long trip. How he had to live for their youngest, only five months old. She had to fight the tears now welling in her eyes.
No mercy, she reminded herself. She gripped her sword tighter, preparing to swing. The crowd gasped in unison, everybody slowly rising to their feet. She clenched her palms even tighter.
"No!" he moaned; a small anguished noise. She stopped for a second.
Then she swung.
The crowd jerked as the sword hit. Blood spattered on her hardened face. She turned around and strode steadily out, still fighting the tears that were already halfway down her cheeks.
The crowd stared at the bleeding stump where his head used to be.