It was still mid-morning when Cat returned from her lessons with Scheherazade in the library to find Rosa waiting for her outside the house. Rosa was already dressed in her full champion armor, shining golden-bronze covering her chest, arms, and legs, and her spear leaning over one shoulder. She tried to appear casual, leaning against the doorframe while she waited for Cat, but Cat could see how tense she was in the way she held herself, not betraying any hint of nervousness or anxiety.
“Big day,” Cat said. “Time to go fight another champion.”
“Time to beat another champion, you mean,” Rosa said with a confident smile as she stood up straight and joined Cat.
“Don’t get too cocky,” Cat teased her. “I always beat you when you get cocky.”
“Heh, I’ve got this guy’s number, no way he’s going to be tougher than you and Hilde.”
“Right…” Cat nodded as they started walking toward the training field. “So…this whole duel thing…is it smart to just pick the strongest person as leader? That seems kind of…primitive, you know.”
“It’s not like I’m an animal fighting for mates and territory,” Rosa nudged her with an elbow. “We’re about equally qualified to lead. Besides, this duel isn’t just about proving who’s stronger.”
“It’s not?” Cat asked.
“Nah, it’s a sort of a…loyalty test,” Rosa said. “See, if I beat Nicomede, and Nicomede still vows to fight for the cause and follow my lead, we know he’s fit for the team. It also sort of…compels us to fight fair, you know? Would you follow my orders if I cheated in this fight?”
“I know you too well to think you’d cheat outright,” Cat said. “I don’t think you fight fair, but I don’t think you’d cheat,” she added with a light smile.
“Heh, fighting fair is for suckers,” Rosa said. “Never take on an enemy without overwhelming odds in your favor.”
“And are the odds overwhelming here?” Cat asked.
“Eh,” Rosa shrugged. “Good enough for me. Besides I’m out of time to do anything about it.”
Together the two of them approached the field where a small crowd had gathered. The word of the dueling champions had spread around the city, and numerous curious citizens, off-duty legionnaires, and other champions had come to watch. Near the front stood the rest of the team. Capitolina was there, more formally dressed than Cat knew she preferred to be. Beside her were Megame, Evangeline, Torleif, and Aurelio. Gisela was absent, likely to keep her away from a crowd where she might be recognized. Much of Nicomede’s company was there as well to cheer on their commander. To Cat’s surprise, she saw even a small radio booth had been setup nearby, where local celebrity Thalia sat next to a microphone, getting the audience riled as word of the duel spread throughout Rome.
“Wow, they even have you on radio,” Cat smiled, though as she glanced at Rosa she could see a little of the color had drained from her face.
“Didn’t really expect a crowd…” She said, glancing around as people recognized her and began to part the way to the field.
“Mmm…” Cat could see the anxiety building in her. Rosa wasn’t the type to deal with a lot of attention well.
“Hey,” Cat caught her attention, giving her a sobering slap on the back. “Forget these people, you know? You’re not here for them, and forget what they’re here for. You’re just here for one reason, remember?”
“To beat that pretty boy’s ass?” Rosa gave her a slight smirk in return.
“To beat that pretty boy’s ass,” Cat said, nodding to her as she walked her to the sparring ring. “Nothing else matters until he’s in the dirt.”
“Thanks, coach,” Rosa managed a chuckle.
“No problem…and Rosa?”
“Screw this impartial stuff. I’m cheering for you.”
“So now you’re my personal cheerleader?” Rosa cracked a grin. “Damn I’d pay to see you in one of those skirts with the…what are those fluffy wavy things on their hands?”
“No idea,” Cat said. “But kick his ass.”
“Can do, just sit back and watch me work,” Rosa nodded and walked towards the large ring of hard dirt and flattened grass.
Cat hurried to make it to Capi’s side, getting the best view and well within earshot of Thalia’s commentary.
“Heya, pup,” Capi smiled at her. “More people than I thought.”
“Yeah,” Cat nodded. “I think Rosa’s got a bit of stage fright.”
“That will sort itself out soon,” Capi said. “Fighting has a way of erasing everything else going on.”
“Well I’m rooting for her,” Cat said.
“I need to be impartial in these kinds of events,” Capi said flatly as Cat gave her a curious glance. The mask cracked as Capi’s face split into a grin. “I’m just kidding! Of course I’m rooting for our little Rosaria.”
Cat giggled and looked to the field, listening to Thalia’s nearby commentary as she chatted excitedly into the microphone.
“And now our second challenger, the local favorite, has arrived!” The radio announcer kept a tight grip on the mic, eyes flashing as she caught every detail. “Rosaria Kokinos, Champion of Ares, and one of the finest monster-killers in recent history. Both our competitors today hail from Greece, beautiful country by the way, but Rosa’s where most of Rome is putting their money!”
Nicomede was already on the field, fully armed and armored in his darker Hellenic-styled armor with his shield slung over his back. His lance was longer than Rosa’s spear, with a long blade that gave him a lot of edge to work with. He seemed very at ease, chatting with some of the people around him as people milled into place.
“We should probably get started,” Capi said quietly to Thalia. “Before people start placing bets.”
“Too late for that” Thalia giggled, covering the microphone. “But I’ll leave the odds to your imagination.”
Soon the crowd had pulled back to the stands or stood in a broad ring around the sparring ground, with Cat and the rest of their team at the front to get the best view.
“Alright competitors! Let’s see some good sportsmanship out there. Take your marks!” Thalia’s voice rang out over the field with perfect clarity, Cat almost suspected the radio hostess was secretly a mage.
Both Nicomede and Roasaria walked to their starting marks on the sparring field, offering each other brief bows.
“May the better captain win,” Nicomede said, readying his spear.
“Agreed,” Rosa smiled, settling into what Cat recognized as her more aggressive stance.
Both of them rushed forward, Rosa surprisingly faster off the mark than Nicomede, who crept forward, shield raised towards Rosa’s lunge. Rosa threw herself against the field, dodging the first testing jab of Nicomede’s spear as she closed the distance, her spear to the side as she took hold of Nicomede’s shield, using his hold on it against him as she tried to gain leverage, ducking under the next wild spear swipe as Nicomede worked to keep his ground.
Nicomede managed to wrest his shield out of her hands, forcing Rosa onto the backstep as he launched a series of swift thrusts, his shield still raised. The head of Rosa’s spear managed to knock one of his thrusts aside before she threw herself back onto the offense.
Cat watched the furious exchange of blows, almost failing to notice Capi sidling up to stand next to her.
“Do you see what Rosa’s doing?” She asked, smiling as she tested Cat.
Cat nodded. “She’s trying to make up for her lack of defense; she doesn’t have a shield like Nicomede so she can’t afford to let him gain ground because it’s harder to take it back. She’s trying to work between the long-range of his spear and the short-range of his shield.”
“Smart girl,” Capi smiled, settling back in to watch the fight.
Cat couldn’t pull her eyes away. She’d seen Rosa fight from the outside before, when she had gone one-on-one with Hildegard or Capi, but she’d never seen Rosa fight like this. There was no hesitation, no second-guessing, every move was made with rapid precision. Cat watched the way her arms were wound like a steel trap, unbound and striking at every opportunity, the way she moved with such deliberate grace in her footwork, legs sweeping this way and that in a controlled dance with Nicomede. None of it was practiced; it wasn’t elegant choreographed combat. Rosa and Nicomede hammered at each other with all the strength they could manage, attacking every vulnerability they could find, but Rosa had a way of making it look simple.
Cat watched as Rosa weaved low, striking near the bottom of his shield with the base of her spear before striking again near the top, trying to get him off-balance as he was forced backwards, only for him to dig in his heels again shield up as he threw himself into another attack, trying to force Rosa on the more vulnerable defensive.
Rosa was faster than Nicomede when he had his shield, and much more maneuverable, she twisted across the field, spear striking like a scorpion wherever he dare let his guard down for even an instant.
Rosa pulled back again, lifting her spear as she readied for her next assault, the two combatants watching one another as they moved in a slow circle. Cat could see the slow deliberate movements in Rosa’s step, the way her eyes moved across Nicomede’s armor and shield, the way the light caught in her brilliant red hair. This was Rosa in her element more so than Cat had ever seen her; here on the field, she was a thing of beauty.
Rosa charged again, and this time there was a renewed ferocity in her assault. She was letting blows get through, and Cat winced every time she saw another shallow cut graze her bare arms or bounce off her armor. Rosa was playing with fire, but she could see why. Cracks were appearing in Nicomede’s defenses. He was used to fighting in a line, to having backup who could work with him, but now it was only him, with Rosa hammering on his defenses. If he didn’t find an out, he would break soon.
Nicomede pushed forward, trying to shake Rosa off of him as he launched an attack. It broke Rosa’s assault, but only for a moment. Nicomede, however, decided to abandon a losing fight. Getting what space he could, he dropped his shield to the ground.
“Coming out from under your shell?” Rosa grinned, chest rising and falling as she tried to disguise how tired she was.
“No point holding up a leaking dam,” Nicomede grinned. “But I’m no slouch without it.”
As he spoke, Nicomede lowered his stance, both hands on his spear as the long shaft of metal began to glisten and spark with electricity. Lightning danced along the spear as he held it ready, the light bouncing off his armor as he prepared his attack.
“So tell me, Champion of Ares, did the God of War grant you any other gifts?”
“Nothing quite so fancy,” Rosa’s eyes flashed blood red. It was the same color that they seemed to shine whenever she called on the full measure of her champion’s strength. The same bristling crimson energy ran the length of her spear and up her arms, sending shivers done Rosa’s spine as she summoned everything she could.
Both of them charged this time, and their battle was marked by a sudden increase in ferocity and vigor. Both of them swiped, stabbed, and thrust at one another like animals locked in combat, red and white light dancing between them as the struck again and again. Their range was close, often too close for spears, and hands, nails, and fists often struck as often as weapons did. Neither of them gave ground as their duel grew into a grapple before leaping back to a duel again. Every other moment it seemed one had the advantage before it was snatched away again.
Suddenly, a swift sweep of the leg sent Nicomede crashing down onto his back. Before he could be pinned, he rolled out of the way, getting to his feet as Rosa’s spear struck the dirt, his hand lashed out, and he nearly bent Rosa over he took tight hold of her long red ponytail in his free hand, spear in the other ready to make the finishing strike.
Cat almost didn’t see the flash of red, an expertly aimed swing brought the tip of her spear cleaving through her hair, severing the ponytail in Nico’s hand as Rosa freed herself to shoulder him hard in the chest, sending him back before she brought her spear around again, sliding it to his throat before he could summon a response.
It had taken all of three seconds, Nicomede now stood on the field, hands raised, with Rosa’s spear at his throat.
“I yield,” He smiled, raising his hands higher.
Rosa cracked a grin, lowering her spear as Nicomede took her free hand, raising it into the air as the crowd cheered the duel, Thalia announcing the results to them and the city beyond.
Soon the crowd lurched in, cheering and congratulating them as they were patted on the shoulders and had their wounds checked. Cat stumbled forward at the head of the crowd until she was standing directly in front of Rosa.
It was strange. She was tired, sweat-stained, and bloody in a few places, along with a much shorter hairdo, but with the sun on her face and a broad grin on her face, Cat had never seen Rosa quite this…beautiful?
“Told you I had it,” Rosa smiled.
“uh…” Cat stuttered for a moment, tongue lost on an answer, before a sharp push from behind sent her almost toppling into Rosa. Without realizing it, but too late to stop it, Cat had embraced the redhead around the chest.
“Oof, nearly knocked me over,” Rosa stumbled a bit, nursing more than a few bruises.
“Heh, good job, Team Leader,” Cat smiled, hugging her around the chest.
The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa