Hope you enjoy it:
Sixteen-year-old Devon, his heart beating very fast, his knuckles white on the hilt of his weapon, reached up a gloved hand and pushed his dark hair out of his eyes. Already, beads of sweat were gathering on his brow, making his eyes smart and his vision cloud. Slowly, he walked with deliberate steps, as though they might be his very last, to his place: a black marble square to the right of the exarch. He was a chevalier, and the emblem of a blue horse was emblazoned on his surcoat. To his right was the rook.
That was the game, although to call it a game would be almost an outright lie. It was a battle—a brutal, bloody battle. It was fought every two years at the field of Starlion, a no-man’s-land for Terryl and Taska. The players consisted of one Monarch, one Crown, two Exarches, two Cavaliers, two Rooks, and sixteen Pawns for each team. Players from ages fourteen to eighteen were chosen during the spring—twenty-four Warriors from Terryl, and twenty-four Lockborns from Taska, whether it was against their will or not. It was fought to keep peace between the two countries. The treaty stated:
The winner of the tournament shall receive a contract that grants trading rights, quest rights, and settlement privileges. This contract will hold for a year until the next tournament.
I do hereby agree to this contract,
Roland of Chetny, King of Terryl
I do hereby agree to this contract,
Garzman of Ranl, Warlock of Taska
Everyone from the two countries abided by these rules, but that didn’t make the fighting any easier.
Devon looked at the playing field: a giant marble slab with ebony and ivory squares for fighters to stand on. The black and white stretched on and on across to the far side, and tall marble pillars flanked all the sides like silent sentries. Vines and tangled briars wound their way up columns, creating an eerie and beautiful atmosphere that contrasted starkly with the deadly undercurrent that flowed throughout the combatants and spectators alike.
On the other side, facing the Warriorkind youths, were the Lockborns from Taska. They were arrayed differently than the Warriors, not wearing heavy armor and carrying broad swords, but dressed in light chain mail and tunics. Some carried thin swords and long daggers, others carried staffs or clubs. But all of them—lockborn, warlock, warrior, nobility—knew that this was no fun game. It was war. Death. And they’d been chosen to play it.
He looked around at his teammates: some were taut, their muscles tight and waiting, while others rolled their arms around to loosen the kinks. Devon himself tried to relax his body, forcing it to obey him. That was the key to winning a fight: being in control of your reflexes and abilities. This was ensured by a calm and loose stance.
He didn’t want to look into the adversaries’ faces, read their eyes: the fear, the hate, the survival that was written there. He didn’t think that he would hesitate when the time came to kill. They’d all been training for the past months to become killers with a high amount of skill. And when it came to life or death—and when the other player was doing his best to kill him—he knew he would choose life.
And that thought sickened him.
Devon looked up at the raised table above on the grass that surrounded the whole Starlion dais, and saw Roland and Garzman—king and warlock—draw slips of paper from a goblet. That would decide who would move first. Devon steeled himself to look away and focus only on the playing ground.
Garzman’s voice rang out across the deadly silence.
“Sixteen pawn to 8-6.”
Lockborns first. A youth carrying a short sword and a cat's claw on his tunic stepped forward two black squares on the marble board. First move. One down. No fighting yet.
Then it was King Roland’s turn.
“Fifteen pawn to 7-4.”
There it was. The first challenge. Devon winced as Fal walked forward, his hand shaking slightly on the hilt of his weapon. Decon knew almost every teammate he had—memorized their names and faces pointlessly—and Fal was going to be the first to fight, first to draw blood, either his or the other player’s. The two pawns were diagonal to each other and therefore had the right to engage. But it was Garzman’s turn. He had to call it.
A simple word—one word that rang out across the dais like a thunderclap—that held the power to kill either of the two youths. Immediately, the Lockborn—a tall boy arrayed in chainmail and carrying a thin sword—stepped onto the Fal’s square and the two faced off. Circling, armor clinking, leather creaking—every little sound magnified in the choking silence. The spectators surrounding the dais and standing in the Starlion field were holding their breaths, waiting for the first blow to fall, the first blood to drop.
And it did. The Lockborn stepped in quickly and did an overhead blow that Fal barely managed to parry, then spun quickly around with a feint and followed with a deadly back cut. It was over in an instant—Fal’s muffled cry of surprise and pain, his body slowly crumpling—and the cheers started.
Devon forced himself to stare straight ahead, to breathe evenly—he couldn’t do anything else. Two surgeons came and collected Fal’s body, carrying him off on a makeshift stretcher. The Lockborn now stood on Fal’s square.
Slowly, but surely, Devon watched as the pawns began to move out onto the playing squares—fighting, dying, winning, and loosing for their country. The board was opened up, spaces cleared, and the serious moves with the exarches, rooks, and cavaliers began.
“First exarch to 4-3.”
King Roland’s exarch was challenged by a Lockborn pawn, and the exarch claimed the square. That opened up a space, and Devon knew what was coming next. By now he felt numb, as if he didn’t have any feelings at all, as if his body were of lead—not flesh and bone. His heart was ice, not a beating heart of blood capable of any feelings. This wasn’t him doing it; it was his body, not his soul. He was forced, forced to fight, kill, and be killed. It wasn’t him.
It couldn’t be him.
“First cavalier to 5-2.”
Devon slowly stepped forward a square, then turned and walked two squares to the left. He was now on an ivory tile. He was immune to the sounds of battle around him, as one after another of the players were pitted against each other. Everything was a blur of cheers, sweat, cries, and fear.
“Take.” Garzman’s voice was strong, confident.
And then suddenly, Devon was facing a challenger who had walked onto his square: a tall, broad youth with the image of a turret on his tunic holding a plain spear with a long head—a rook. Devon looked into his eyes and saw hate and contempt, and he wondered how someone actually dueled with only a spear. Maybe he would have a better chance with his broadsword.
But just then the youth lunged forward with a blow intended to cleave Devon’s head from his shoulders, the raw force of gathered muscle behind it. As Devon ducked and reached up to parry, he was nearly knocked down by the force which jarred his blade. It was like strong current of pure energy was flowing in the spear, determined to knock everything else aside. He scrambled to his feet in time to block another wide sideswipe, and this time his sword absorbed most of the shock.
Both contenders backed up and faced off again.
So this was how it was to fight a Warlock, thought Devon, breathing hard. And he realized that he was going to have no more advantage over his enemy than his enemy had over him—just pure skill. He processed this in his brain and was dull to everything else going on: the cheers, the crowd, the other players. This was his fight—he would either live or die.
The youth rushed forward with a back cut, which Devon neatly avoided while bring his own sword around to meet the blow that followed. Again sword and spear clanged; again they separated. The Lockborn feinted to Devon’s left then swung around again, and as Devon dove forward in a roll to miss the blow, the Lockborn brought his spear tip down upon him, piercing the skin where the breastplate ended.
Devon felt a dull, fiery sensation in his left shoulder; he felt a warm, sticky stuff soaking his sleeve as it trickled down his arm. But he didn’t care and was too much absorbed with the fight to feel the pain.
The youth’s lips curled contemptuously as Devon scrambled up, and somehow that made it easier for what Devon had to do. He rushed forward, and again they were locked in a dangerous game of footwork, strength, and agility—in which only one would be the victor. And finally, as the youth made a stab meant to end Devon, the latter threw himself to the right and forward, and took his move—his one chance, his heavy blade standing between him and death.
It was over.
Devon stood shakily up and watched as they carried the body away, the body who once had a name, a family, a life. He felt sick—horror-stricken. But there was nothing he could do. Kill, or be killed.
“First cavalier to 6-4.”
Devon changed his place. It struck him as odd, right then, how almost orderly everything seemed. He could have an enemy on the square next to you, or right in front of him, but unless they were a crown or monarch, they couldn’t attack. And even then, it had to be with a command. Exarches attacked diagonally, so did pawns—although they could only move forward—and rooks could only go straight forward or sideways. It wasn’t him doing the fighting; someone else was pulling the strings, holding sway over his life, choosing whom he would fight. It wasn’t a battle, but a deadly sport of two minds without any thought to the cost of casualties.
Devon turned his attention back to the scene in front of him as a Warrior exarch engaged in a deadly duel with a female Lockborn. She was slim and small of stature, but lithe and fast. And she was using this to her great advantage. Sparks were licking at her red curls and flames were spitting down her curved blade, hissing and snapping: she was a Firelock. Her eyes were focused and concentrated as she stepped in, out, and under the reach of her opponent’s broadsword, like a cat or a slippery eel. He hacked at her, testing his weight and strength against her agility. She swung around, feinting with her blade, and, moving with lightning speed, brought it around in a neat thrust that finished her rival. All the Warriors on the board groaned as the girl took the fallen youth’s place, while the Lockborns cheered on their player. Her face was deathly white, her lips trembling a bit—as if she just now realized the deed she’d done and could do nothing to take it back.
“First Cavalier to 7-3.”
As Devon stepped backward a square the two slabs to the right, he knew what was coming. He was right across the diagonal line of the red-haired girl.
“Second exarch to 7-3.”
The girl did not look at Devon, as she strode down the crosswise ivory tiles until she was facing him. Devon glanced into her eyes—steely grey that snapped and flashed with terror and anger—and knew that his fear was probably written in his own eyes as well.
He was a puppet on strings. He couldn’t chose what he wanted to do, whom he wanted to fight, or whether he wanted to fight at all. He had to obey, move where the King wanted him to, being used as a sacrifice to open up moves for other players. If the girl took him, then she’d have to fight the pawn that was directly behind Devon. And she’d be trapped, either having to fight the rook or monarch. King Roland was clearly trying to take her out, and was willing to risk Devon to do it.
As Garzman’s voice said, “Take,” Devon knew he couldn’t do it. He wouldn’t do it. With a clang, his sword fell to the marble, and the silence that followed was almost tangible.
“Take him,” said Garzman quietly with a cold gaze.
And then the girl’s weapon clanged to the ground as well.“I refuse,” she said in a clear voice that didn’t hold a tremor of fear