One-on-One: The Dramatic Importance of the Duel
This is something of a gaming post, but also a writing post, and also something about politics. Been thinking about that debate coming up tonight (and who hasn’t been?) and whether I want to watch or not and why. To a large extent, I feel like most people have already made up their minds about Trump and Clinton. I mean, how could they not? What on earth could either of them say to change anybody’s mind at this point? Now, I don’t actually know how many people are undecided – maybe it’s a lot – but even in that case, I have a hard time imagining that this debate is going to sway them. One wonders why we have the debate at all, if everything is all pretty well set in the public imagination.
I think a lot of it is because there’s gonna be a fight, and we’re invited to watch.
The duel – facing your foe mano a mano – is an ancient and hallowed tradition not only in history, but in mythology and story as well. Beowulf against Grendel, David against Goliath, Gandalf against the Balrog, Miyamoto Musashi against Sasaki Kojiro – two opponents doing battle for honor, glory, revenge, or even simply survival is old as the hills and universal as song. It is an inherently dramatic scene; it stirs the imagination effortlessly. Each combatant, representing their ideals and their supporters, facing one another in a defining conflict that can only end in a new understanding, either of the world, themselves, or each other. The duel is the symbolic manifestation of change itself.
And yet role-playing games are so often diametrically opposed to them. One of my biggest complaints about D&D (and about the systems derived from its lineage) is that there is seldom any good way to have a one-on-one battle that is interesting. It takes a lot of gymnastics to get those things to work, since D&D is inherently an ensemble game and no fool would go into battle alone when they could have a cleric there to boost them back up to normal. Thing is, though, without duels, beating the villain just becomes a kind of curb-stomping mob scene. Six mighty “heroes” surround the giant, pull it to the ground, and stab it until its dead and there isn’t a damned thing the giant can do. Kinda underwhelming, guys.
In this sense, though, there’s a fair amount of reality in RPGs: in real life, why the hell would you fight somebody one-on-one outside of foolish notions of manhood and honor? Bring five of your friends to the hill at dawn and beat the crap out of that jerk who challenged you and go home alive, right? Historically speaking, this is one of the things the Romans figured out (borrowed from Alexander) that screwed over the Celts and other “barbaric” tribes in their way: the Roman legions operated as one cohesive fighting group, whereas many of these tribes were just groups of warriors out for individual glory. The legions just ground them down and marched over them – not perhaps personally glorious, but victory itself was glory enough for Rome.
In fiction, the author has to jump through hoops to set up their one-on-one battles. They just don’t happen by themselves, you know? No cop in real life says to his unit “leave Mendoza for me!” No soldier on the front is going to stand back while his sergeant engages in a knife fight with an enemy combatant. Notions of “honor” and “good form” are fun and all, but in the broad history of the world, they aren’t precisely “real.” And, in particular, the person who is willing to bring a gun to that knife-fight, the person who sees nothing wrong in ganging up on the lone warrior to destroy him, well, they’re the ones who usually win. Because duels are pretty foolish.
However, we hang such importance on them in our popular imagination. We crave that moment when Vader challenges Skywalker, when Inigo finally catches up with Count Rugen. We love it because we want to know that our heroes are real – that these champions of ours can walk out there and smite evil all by themselves, without us backing them up. It makes us feel good, to know our heroes are the genuine article. Never mind that such knowledge is an illusion, an orchestrated sham – our heroes in real life don’t stand by themselves, but exist as a representative of a network of people devoted to our welfare. The firefighter who carries you out of the burning building gets the glory, but the 911 dispatcher and his fellow firefighters and the engineers who designed his gear got him there. We see the individual, but we forget the legion that made victory possible.
Nowhere is this irony more pronounced than in a “debate” between two people who, while potent individuals in their own right, are standing on a stage doing battle in the most coached, stilted, and artificial of circumstances. When Clinton or Trump speak, they are not speaking as one person – they are speaking as the heads of a movement, of a political party, of an electorate whose support they seek. They have very little power of their own to shape events – not without the millions of people who they hope will vote them into office, where they will again serve as the capstone of an administrative structure that is as collective and collaborative as their campaign is now. But does any of that really matter to us on an emotional level? Not at all.
We want our duel. We want to see our champion victorious. We want to believe in heroes, no matter how we manipulate the world to make them seem real.
Speculative Literature’s Best Duels
I don’t know about you, but I love a good duel. The hero and the villain (or, perhaps the hero and anti-hero, or two villains, or what-have-you) facing off, one-on-one. It’s been done thousands of times and, yet, there are still so very many ways to make it fresh, to get us on the edges of our seats, hearts in our throats, waiting to see how and if our favorite characters will make it through alive. Love it. So, for this post I’ve decided to list off my top five favorite duels in scifi/fantasy literature. first, some stipulations:
Duels Not Battles: Duels are events of single combat (or nearly so). Big battles where it’s one guy against many or two big groups of people having a free-for-all don’t count.
Books Only: This is a list of duels present in books. No movies, no graphic novels, no video games, no television series. Books. The first guy who comments ‘but what about Vader/Skywalker in Empire!’ gets a giant, metaphysical dope-slap. Yes, yes – that duel was iconic. Heck, it’s probably why I love duels in the first place. It isn’t, though, what I’m talking about here.
Gotcha? Okay, let’s go:
#5: Rand al’Thor Vs High Lord Turak and (later) Ba’alzamon At Toman Head
Book: The Great Hunt, Book 2 of the Wheel of Time Series
Author: Robert Jordan
Among the interminable tales of badassery that is The Wheel of Time, there is that first time – that very first time – you realized that Rand al’Thor is, in fact, a stupendous badass and likely only to become moreso. Up until Rand crosses swords with Turak, he’s been toting around a heron-mark blade, which marks him as a blademaster. Thing is, though, he isn’t. He sucks, actually. For the first two books, Rand is, essentially, living a lie. We, the readers, are worried about him. I mean, sooner or later, his luck is going to run out and he’s actually going to have to tussle with a serious swordsman. Then he’s screwed, right?
So then Turak draws his own heron-mark blade, except we know he’s earned it. A collective ‘oh shit’ moment ensues. Will Rand’s training with Lan be enough? Jordan then treats us with a vivid swordfight told in metaphor, essentially – the descriptions of all the moves Rand’s been taught by Lan – and he wins! But that’s not enough! Then he has to fight, essentially, Satan Himself in a damned duel. Seriously, it’s awesome! What’s more, everybody else sees it and knows it’s awesome, too. Yay! This, of course, is only the beginning for Rand, but what a start, right?
#4: Bilbo Baggins Vs Gollum Beneath The Misty Mountains
Book: The Hobbit
Author: JRR Tolkien
Not all duels are fought with weapons. This one ranks as one of my favorite duels of wits ever: Bilbo, lost, alone, stuck in the dark, finds himself accosted by the sinister and creepy Gollum in his underground hideaway. They engage in a game of riddles, with the stakes being Bilbo’s escape or his being devoured by the hungry Gollum. Thinking outside the box, Bilbo wins by simply exploiting the rules of the game: “What is in my pocket?” Brilliant. Unexpected. Wonderful.
Well played, little guy. Well played.
#3: Paul Muad’Dib Atreides Vs Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen on Arrakis
Author: Frank Herbert
This duel is as much dance as fight. Everything in Paul’s long quest leads to this, and all the political ambitions of the galaxy are wrapped up in it. Tricks within tricks, feints within feints, treacheries over treacheries. Paul’s eventual victory is fitting, given that it, itself, is a trick within a trick. “I will not say it!” tells Feyd-Rautha that Paul knows, but that Paul need not use. It is still enough; death on Arrakis is often sudden.
#2: Bronn Vs Some Knight of the Vale at The Eyrie
Book: A Game of Thrones
Author: George RR Martin
Martin’s successful and expansive series involves a number of memorable fights, but this is, perhaps, the most memorable for me. First off, if you don’t love Tyrion Lannister above all other characters in that series, there is something wrong with you. So, when Fly-Off-The-Handle Catelyn Stark hauls the little guy off into the Eyrie on a bunch of nonsense charges and he finds himself faced with the lunatic Lysa Arryn, we feel pretty bad for the guy. His trial by combat looks pretty damned hopeless, but then here comes Bronn, the mercenary. Standing up for the little guy (and for his own paycheck, no doubt), so good for him.
But wait, Bronn’s not wearing any armor? Huh? What? Oh no! But…oooohhhh. I get it. Smooth, Bronn. Smooth.
#1: Dappa (w/Otto Van Hoek) Vs Sir Charles White (w/Woodruff) at Tower Hill, London
Book: The System of the World, Book 3 of the Baroque Cycle
Author: Neal Stephenson
What’s better than a former slave dueling a former slave owner/present day bigot on the field of honor? A former slave and former sailor/pirate hunter dueling a bigot and swordsman with cannons. Yes, cannons; it’s a cannon duel. Suddenly, smarty-pants swordsman/bigot needs to know math to kill his enemy, the supposedly ‘inferior’ African man who has been taunting him for years now. Yes. Yes and yes.
This was among the most amazing, hilarious, wonderful, and satisfying duels I’ve ever read. I really can’t think of any that top it at the moment. It is worth wading through the umpteen thousand pages of the Baroque Cycle just to get here. Trust me.
Well those are mine. What are yours? I’m curious to hear.
The Player, Part 2
When the music changed, Artus noticed. He entertained the notion that the change was, in fact, the signal, but since no one was screaming and none of the guards were yelling ‘get him,’ he figured it wasn’t.
Artus was something of a musician himself. In the fields as a boy he had taken up the daer whistle to pass the time. It was a simple instrument with a sweet, pure voice, and he still carried one with him when they were on the road, much to Tyvian’s chagrin. Tyvian had told him, in no uncertain terms, that the whistle was ‘a crude, mechanical instrument lacking the capacity to capture true human passion of feeling.’ Artus had never really known what he was talking about, considering the violins and cellos that Tyvian favored to be squawky, fancy, and womanish. When the music started, however, Artus thought he might have changed his mind.
The sound produced by the quartet was immediately sensual and tragic at the same time. The two violins wept with a bleeding passion, rising and falling as the beating of a breaking heart, whilst the cello and bass set a deep, thrumming beat. As one violin sang to another, as two lovers bidding farewell, Artus could actually feel himself blush.
The dance floor had emptied with an almost frenzied haste when the song began. It was not until it was completely empty that Tyvian, the Lady Velitiere held close in his arms, stepped out. Artus barely suppressed a yelp. “What the hell is he doing?”
Tyvian always said that ‘the dance is nine-tenths of courtship,’ and Artus would never have believed him had he never seen Tyvian dance before. He had, as it happened, and he knew Tyvian was good—very good—and no man would practice that much if he didn’t think it was useful. Even still, Artus had never seen, much less heard of the dance Tyvian was doing now—if he had, he would have demanded that Tyvian teach it to him a long time ago.
Tyvian and Velitiere held one another cheek-to-cheek, hip-to-hip, and slid across the floor as one person. This was not a dance of formality, this was a dance of passion. As Tyvian manipulated the lovely noblewoman around his body, her hands sliding up his arms and through his hair, Artus began to get worried. Hann, she was enjoying it! A married woman nearly twice his age!
Artus looked around and tried to gauge the audience’s reaction. There was nothing but staring.
“Tell me, monsieur, who is that man?”
Artus turned around. A pretty young Akrallian woman, no more than seventeen, was gazing at the couple with her dark eyes wide. Looking around again, he discovered that she must have been talking to him. “Uhhh…who, him?”
Her tight blonde ringlets bobbed as she nodded. “Oui, monsieur. The one who is such a fine dancer.”
Artus swallowed and then adopted his best Tyvian-esque swagger. “Well, madame, he is actually a good friend of mine.”
“Artus Vedda of Jondas Crossing, madame, at your service.” He managed a bow and kissed her hand.
She giggled. “Aren’t you the gentleman? You’re a northerner, aren’t you?”
Artus blushed. How did they always bloody know? “Yes, ma’am…madame.”
She clapped. “How exciting! Do tell me about it.”
Artus began to.
* * * * * * * *
Velitiere was a good dancer, but out of practice. It took several bars on the floor before Tyvian got her to loosen up, but when she did, it was all he could do to keep her under control.
She tried to lead, she pulled him closer, she brushed her lips along his neck. As the Revien Nu’Kasaar reached its stride, Tyvian began to lose himself in the dance. It stopped mattering who she was, it only mattered that she was there. When he spun her, he spun her hard, and when she returned, she clung to him like an old lover. They moved together, beat by beat, phrase by lovely phrase.
Her eyes passed before him, and he dove into them. Gods, they were Jaliette’s eyes. Refracting in them was the same spark that he remembered when they spent four days on that ship to Ihyn. They had rested in the captain’s cabin, and the shinh’ar wanderling on board taught her to catch fish off the side. Back when they were partners, back when Jaliette was free…back when Jaliette was his.
The Revien Nu’Kasaar’s final movement was more energetic than the others, and it was here that the dance grew taxing. Velitiere was out of breath, but was not to be stopped. Tyvian dipped and swung her like a doll, sliding from move to move with practiced grace. Her hair had come undone, her chest heaved, and her elaborate dress had been shedding jewels like leaves in autumn. As the music reached its crescendo, Tyvian’s dexterous hand slipped up Velitiere’s back, plucked the Eye of H’siri from its fastening around her neck, and secreted it in his sleeve. In the heat of the moment, and as the Revien Nu’Kasaar died a fiery death in a deep, deep dip, the Lady Velitiere never noticed.
The music stopped. Silence, a single clap, then another…and another. The whole of the ballroom erupted into applause. Tyvian, smiling to himself, pulled his partner to her feet. Everything was going according to plan. All he had to do now was walk out the door.
Then she kissed him—a deep, Akrallian kiss, tongue and all. It was a good kiss. It was also about then that everything started to go wrong.
“Mother!” Jaliette, handfuls of wedding gown bunched in her hands, rushed between Tyvian and his dancing partner.
Tyvian couldn’t resist. “I’m sorry, Jaliette, but I’m too winded for another dance just now. Maybe you and Remieux could go on a march.”
Jaliette slapped him. Remieux, in a brand new doublet, was barging through the crowd his way. The bubble of open space the dance had created was collapsing at an exponential rate.
“Monsieur!” Orsienne’s voice was thick with wine. “I would wish that you make your intentions towards my wife clear!”
Velitiere broke away from him, her chest still heaving, her eyes distant, lost. Tyvian wagered that he had approximately five seconds until she noticed the Eye was gone. He started a countdown.
Jaliette was before him. “What are you trying to do, Tyvian?”
Remieux was closer, but the gawkers, bless them, were in the way.
Tyvian caught her hand. “Jaliette, do you really love him?”
Jaliette’s mouth dropped open. “What…I…”
Everyone stopped to look at Lady Velitiere. She was shaking, a hand pawing absently at the empty clasp at her throat. “I’ve lost it!”
Lord Orsienne held up his arms. “A thousand marks to the one who finds the Eye!”
Half the guests bent over. Jaliette was with the other half. “Tyvian, you didn’t…”
“First answer my question.” Tyvian looked to see Remieux was less than three paces away. “Quickly, please.”
She inhaled, held it, released. “Of course not.”
Remieux pushed Tyvian in the chest. “Get away from my wife, Reldamar.”
Behind them, he could hear Orsienne yell. “Did anyone see it fall off? Velitiere, perhaps it’s in your dress somewhere.”
Tyvian looked at Jaliette, then at Remieux. A little voice inside him piped up. “Oh, what the hell.”
He spit in Remieux’s eye.
Remieux roared and pulled a blade-less hilt from his belt. “Veris’hassa’i LeMondaux!” At the sound of the incantation, a rapier of mageglass grew out of the hilt like some shimmering thornbush. “I call you to the field of honor, Monsieur. If you haven’t a weapon, one will be provided.”
Tyvian slipped Chance from his boot. “Veris’hassa’i Chance!” The two blades were very similar, but Chance was clearly the higher quality. Its hand guard was far more ornate and as it moved, the air sang around it.
“Remieux, don’t!” Jaliette stepped between them.
Remieux’s black eyes narrowed. “Is he your lover, then? Would you take his side over mine?”
Jaliette’s face fell as she began to speak. Tyvian could almost hear the tears coming. “Remieux, I didn’t want to tell you, but…”
Tyvian cut her off. “What she means to say, Remieux, is that she fears for your life. She’s seen me fight, you know.”
Lord Orsienne looked up from his search. “Great Gods, whatever is going on now?”
Between the dance, the kiss, the lost diamond, the duel, and the restrictive nature of the corset, some women at the ball passed out from the excitement. This, of course, led to more excitement, which in turn led to more women passing out. The end result was that of mass chaos. Men called for water from all over the ballroom. The women who managed to remain conscious tried very hard to find somewhere to sit down. Guards carried the unconscious to the guest rooms upstairs. Lord Orsienne tried to console his panicking wife. Jaliette tried to console a panicking Lord Orsienne, and, in the middle of it all, Remieux and Tyvian faced off across a strip of well-inlaid ballroom floor.
“To the death, is it?” Tyvian assumed the en garde position.
Remieux did the same. “I’ve no wish to kill you—first blood.”
“To the death then!”
“A little drastic for a spit in the eye, wouldn’t you say?” Tyvian grinned.
“Silence!” Remieux flechéd, which is to say, he performed a running leap with his sword out. Tyvian parried effortlessly and turned him aside.
They squared off once more. Remieux moved like a hunter, each foot placed deliberately, every motion of his blade precise. Tyvian danced, his blade a consistent blur of motion. They clashed in a quick series of attacks and counter-attacks once, twice. Remieux was strong, and Tyvian could feel the force of his blows travel through Chance and up his arm. If the captain connected, Tyvian was spitted like a hog and he knew it.
“Why are you here, Saldorian?” Remieux’s sword twisted to a pronated position. “Trying to steal Jaliette from me?”
“Something like that.” Tyvian lunged, Remieux was ready. He retreated past Chance’s reach and counter-lunged. The point of his blade, LeMondaux, made a ribbon of blood across Tyvian’s cheek.
“You are no kind of man, Reldamar.” Remieux continued, changing his guard position again. Tyvian had been expecting to fight a man who was using Bon’chaire, the Akrallian school of fencing, but the military officer kept switching from style to style. Until Tyvian could nail down a pattern, he wouldn’t know what to expect. If he wasn’t careful, he could walk into another trap.
Remieux kept talking. “A man should get a woman and keep a woman. He should give her a home and a family. You? You are nothing but a toy they play with and throw away.”
Tyvian feinted, Remieux fell for it. He could have gone for the heart, but he simply cut a ribbon along the captain’s cheek. “Look, Remieux, we’re twins!”
Remieux attacked hard and fast. Tyvian parried blow after blow, retreating quickly. He fell backwards over a servant, still searching for the Eye. Remieux shot forward for a final blow. Tyvian threw himself to the right as the tip of LeMondaux buried itself in the wood floor. As Tyvian scrambled to his feet, the Eye opted to slip out of a hidden sleeve pocket and inconveniently skitter across the ballroom floor.
The Eye could not have been more conspicuous if it had been accompanied by war drums. It clattered against the floor in a staccato rhythm, breaking the crowd into an awkward silence. Everyone saw it, and everyone saw Tyvian run over to grab it.
Lord Orsienne yelled the first obligatory word. “Thief!” He then followed it up with the second. “Guards!”
Before ‘seize him’ managed to cross Orsienne’s mind, Remieux stepped in the way. “No! He’s mine.”
Tyvian entertained a few theories as to how Remieux could have become so ridiculously stupid. “Artus, now!”
Remieux attacked, Tyvian defended. “Artus, now!”
Tyvian was driven back again. He’d figured out Remieux’s pattern now, he could take him at any time, but killing him wouldn’t solve anything. The longer they fought, the more time he had to figure out an escape. If the captain fell, the guards fell on him. Still, pattern or no, he couldn’t hold off Remieux forever. “ARTUS!”
* * * * * * * *
Her name was Ysabette, and she was perfect. Perfect little turned up nose, perfect delicate hands, perfect gentle voice—everything was just perfect. Ysabette had invited Artus out to sit in the garden until the song was over, so they could talk some more.
She was actually fascinated with his common past. She kept asking questions about the sheep, and about all his brothers and sisters, and about whether he had ever seen a real arahk or not. He told her story after story, and she just kept laughing! It was simply amazing. Artus didn’t think noble blood could produce such girls.
“Artus, why did you run away from home?” Ysabette nestled her head against his shoulder.
Artus looked through a space in the branches of the briarleaf tree above them and watched the half moon. “I didn’t want to go to war, like my brothers did.”
“Why? You weren’t scared, were you? I can’t imagine you being scared.”
“No, I wasn’t scared…well, not really. I didn’t want to put Ma through it. I was the last boy in the house—I had four brothers, and all of them went to fight the arahk. Marik was the only one come back. I figured, if I ran away, at least I’d be alive, and Ma’d know that, and she’d be happier than if I was dead in some marsh in Roon.”
“Oh.” Ysabette took his hand and traced the tendons on the back with one finger. “I would love to have a sheep. My mother won’t let me have any pets except stupid birds, and they always die. It isn’t my fault, either—they just get a chill and then drop dead.”
“Mmm-hmm.” Artus closed his eyes. He heard a lot of noise coming from the ball room. He wondered vaguely what Tyvian was up to.
Ysabette perked up. “Did you hear your name just now?”
“Don’t think so, why?”
She shrugged, then shivered. “It is a cool night, Artus. I love it.”
Artus stood and gave her his jacket. “Here. Where I’m from, this is a hot summer day.”
Ysabette giggled and curled up under the coat. In the background, the roar of the ballroom faded into his subconscious like a crowd that cheered only for him.
On the Holy Hill
Author’s Note: This is a discarded chapter from a novel I’ve been working on the past few years. Hool’s story has changed somewhat, but this little scene is still worth a gander, I suppose. Not perfect, but not bad, either.
Snow. Not yet, but very soon. Brekhool could smell it in the air—a clean, fresh scent that burned her nostrils. She looked up at the sun—a cold metal plate shining through the gray autumn sky—it was early in the year for snow. A long winter was ahead.
“Hool.” Hapta growled. Brekhool laid her ears back against her broad skull as she looked over at her pack-sister’s whelp. Hapta was ten years old now—practically grown—but he was lean and his gray fur was thin around his back and shoulders. She hoped he would not survive this winter’s frost.
Hapta flared his nostrils and showed his teeth between black lips. “Momma waits on the hill, Hool. Jump.”
Hool closed her left paw into a fist and rolled her broad shoulders into a backhand slap that sent Hapta tumbling into the dirt. When he rolled to get up, she put her knee on his back and pinned him. Twisting his ear to her muzzle, she let her snarl rumble around his flat head for a moment before speaking. “You are not so big to show teeth, pup. Next time you try, I will skin you.”
Hapta went limp, but did not beg. Hool thought about making him, but he was right—everyone was waiting on the hill, and they had been waiting long enough.
Settling down on to all four limbs, Hool trotted off to the south across the vast grasslands of her home. Ahead, she could see the holy hill named Adoo—the highest point for a very long way. At its top stood the grotto of sacred trees where the whole of Hool’s pack was gathered around, watching her approach. In the crowd, she could pick out her eldest daughter, Groodan, and her second son, Hoodrad, but the pups were nowhere to be seen. Sniffing the breeze, she could catch the barest hint of their scent, and guessed they were near the center of the grotto—probably to get a better view. She reminded herself to scold Groodan for letting them slip away again. The girl-pup would be a terrible mother. Half her litter would end up griffon food for certain.
She stood and climbed on two legs up the slope of the hill. The pack, their eyes down and ears low, parted around her, some rattling bone charms and muttering to themselves. Hool could only catch pieces of their prayers, so it was difficult to say who was with her or against her.
It was cold at the top of the hill. She wished she could have brought a hide to wear, but Mogro the shaman had been very specific—no hides, no charms, no weapons. A shaman speaking from a holy hill was not to be denied, and so she came naked. As she suspected, she spied her youngest—Brana and Opa—sitting quietly at the front of the pack. Their ears perked up when she passed by and Brana opened his mouth to speak, but she stilled him with a hard glare and he sat down again—such a good pup, he was.
At the center of the grotto, in a ring of dirt and dry leaves, waited Broda. She had shaved parts of her black fur to the skin in the traditional patterns of a warrior, though the effect was not flattering—Broda was always too bony to look menacing. As Hool entered the ring, Broda showed her teeth and stomped on the ground. Hool did not meet her gaze, and instead looked at Mogro, who came to stand between them.
By comparison with Broda, Mogro was a giant. Though old and graying around the muzzle, he was broad as a stallion and stood head and shoulders above all the gnolls present, even Brekhool herself. He wore many necklaces of holy bones that clattered in the wind, and he leaned upon a great staff that bore the ears, fingers, and teeth of defeated foes on long rawhide strings. It was said that when Mogro grew angry, even the earth trembled.
What little noise there had been before Hool entered the ring at the center of the grotto was now gone. All eyes were on the shaman. For long moments only the rustle of the dead leaves in the wind and the faint clatter of Mogro’s holy bones disturbed the silence of the hill. Then, some of the younger pups began to grumble and whine at the delay, and their mothers snarled for them to be quiet. Behind her, Hool knew that Brana was fidgeting, but he made no sound. Such a good pup! She would make certain to hunt him a fine scatterlark for breakfast tomorrow.
“Do not listen for your children, Brekhool. You have other worries at this moment.” Mogro’s deep voice was like a thunderclap. Dead silence followed his words. Even the wind died.
Hool bowed her head. “Sorry, Wise Mogro.”
He held up a hand and then raised his staff. “Brekhool, daughter of Agmor, why do you come to Adoo?”
“I come to be First of my pack.”
Mogro shook the staff twice. “Your pack has its First, and it is Broda.”
Brekhool’s ears flattened against her head. “Then I will throw her down.”
Mogro shook the staff twice more, and turned to Broda. “What say you, Broda, First of your pack?”
Broda’s yellow eyes burned. “Let her come.”
“So be it.” Said Mogro, and he drove the staff into the earth.
Broda roared and leapt at Hool. Bearing her teeth, Hool threw her shoulder into her rival’s path, and knocked the lighter gnoll sprawling on the ground. Teeth bared, Hool pressed her advantage, leaping on Broda’s back and bringing her fists down on the back of her head. Flipping over, Broda and Hool grappled and rolled in the dirt.
Around them, the yips and barks of the pack cheered them on. Hool heard Opa singing, “Momma mighty, big and tall! Momma mighty make her fall! She is ugly, she is mean! Break her bottom, make her scream!”
Brekhool was far stronger than Broda, but Broda was very quick, and so the two wrestled for some time without either gaining the advantage. Finally, Hool managed to wrap her jaws around Broda’s forearm and bore down, breaking it. Broda yelped and punched Hool in the nose hard enough to make lights dance in her eyes. They broke apart, and circled one another around the ring.
Broda snarled, nursing her arm. “You will not win, Hool. The sky and the earth are singing for me.”
Brekhool wiped blood from her nose. “The sky and the earth sound a lot like my pups.”
Broda charged in again. Hool evaded her jaws and kicked her in the knee. As she went down, Hool was on top of her, raining blows on her face and neck. She heard Brana and Opa cheering as she smashed Broda’s head into the ground over and over.
Sitting on Broda’s chest, Hool roared in her face. “You killed Agmor so you could be First!”
Broda twisted and tried to scramble away, but Hool grabbed her ears and wrenched her back into the hold, still roaring. “You killed him with poison, like a dirty human!”
“No!” Broda yelped, weakly trying to ward off the blows.
Rage thrilled through Hool’s body, and she smashed her rival’s head against the ground so hard that one of Broda’s teeth came loose. “You will say it! You will say you poisoned my Dadda, or I swear I will take your throat, and wear your skin as a coat!”
Broda made another escape attempt, but did not get far. Hool sat on her chest, her golden eyes blazing with anger. This was it! This was her moment of triumph! A whole year she had waited for this moment, waited for the murderess to be at her mercy. No more being called a liar. No more ugly whispers behind her back, no more vicious rumors being spread by Broda and her brood. It all ended here and now.
“Say it!” Brekhool roared, striking Broda again. One of her rival’s eyes was swollen shut, and blood was pouring from her nose and mouth.
Broda coughed and barked a single word, “Wind!”
At that moment, a great gust blew through the grotto and hit Hool with such force that she was thrown across the ring and against the trunk of a tree. Her breath rushed past her lips, and she fell to the ground, dazed and gasping. Her thoughts screamed, “No! Get up!”
It was too late. Hool rolled to her feet just in time to catch Broda’s charge in the chest. Her head hit the tree trunk with a crack, and the world spun. She heard the pack howling, but whether it was from joy or shock, she couldn’t tell. The next thing she felt was Broda’s teeth at her throat.
She had lost.
“Enough!” Mogro took his staff from the ground. “The challenge is ended.”
Broda released Hool’s throat and limped to Mogro’s side. “Thank the wind and earth.”
“She is a liar, Wise Mogro!” Hool had pulled herself up by the tree and was still dizzy.
Broda growled. “You are not First, pup! You are defeated!”
“You nasty, dirty human-pet! You used magic, that was human magic that threw me!” Hool looked around at the pack. Their eyes were downcast. “Listen to me—the wind does not pick gnolls up and hurl them against trees. Don’t be stupid!”
Only Mogro looked at her. “The wind does what the wind wills, Brekhool. All the stories tell this. Did not Broda call out to the wind for aid?”
Hool snorted. “The wind does not obey Broda.”
Mogro nodded his head. “It did just now. You must accept it.”
“I will not. It isn’t possible.” How could it be? Broda? A wind-master? No. Never—she cheated. She had to have cheated. This couldn’t be happening.
“You will submit to me, Hool.” Broda said, showing her bloody and uneven teeth.
Hool looked to the rest of the pack. “Are all of you blind? Can’t you see what happened? It isn’t possible! She is a liar! I have seen her with the humans—she makes deals, she trades with them, she goes to their cities. How can you follow her?” Her voice cracked, and she realized she was close to howling. She closed her mouth and took a deep breath. “Mogro, please.”
Mogro shook his head. “The battle is finished, and you are the loser. You must obey Broda.”
“She will never obey me.” Broda snorted. “She thinks that just because she was Agmor’s favorite pup, she is special.”
“Do not speak his name, Broda. I will kill you for it.”
Broda looked to the pack. “You see? Even when beaten she threatens me! This is against the laws of the pack. Brekhool is dangerous, and a threat to us all.”
The pack kept its eyes lowered to their First, but there were a few snorts and yips of assent. Hool looked at Brana and Opa; their eyes were not dropped. They glared at Broda, and showed their teeth. Broda saw them, and growled. “Look at her pups—even the littlest ones defy me!”
Hapta was the first to speak, “What should we do, Momma?”
Broda turned slowly to Hool, her battered face leering. “Brekhool, daughter of Agmor, you are not our pack any longer.”
Gasps and barks of shock all around. Brekhool herself blinked. “Wh…what?!”
“You heard me, Hool. You are not of our pack. Go away and never come back.”
“No.” Hool looked to Mogro, “She can’t do that!”
Mogro heaved a great sigh that caused his jowls to flutter, and shook his staff three times. “It is so. Broda, the First of her pack, has banished Brekhool. She is never to return.”
“No! My puppies!” Brekhool yelped.
Mogro’s black eyes were stern, impassive. “You must go. Your puppies remain with their pack, as it should be.”
Terror made a knot in Hool’s stomach. It couldn’t be. It couldn’t be. “But…where? Where can I go? There is nowhere else!”
One by one, the pack turned their backs. An older gnoll picked up Opa and Brana and turned them around as well, even as Brana’s soft voice asked, “But why? Why does Momma have to go?”
Broda, snickering, turned her back as well, leaving only Mogro. Hool threw herself to his feet. “No, I won’t go! I won’t leave!”
Mogro kicked her back. “You must go.” Then he turned away.
Hool remained at the top of the holy hill named Adoo for many hours, howling at her pack to look at her, but none did. Brana and Opa had to be carried off, so that they could not speak to her. Finally, weeping, she slowly made her way through the crowd and down the hill again. Every step was heavy, and with every foot she drew away from her family, her home, her people, she felt an unbearable anguish build in the depths of her body. It was as though she were slowly tearing off an arm, so great was the desire to turn back, to stop the pain growing greater and greater. When she finally turned to look, the pack had moved on and the hill was empty, but for one.
Brana sat at the edge of the grove, his fluffy mane of gold fur waving in the wind. The little gnoll, no more than two years old, raised his head and howled.
It was the last time Brekhool heard his voice.