The Wizard's Staff

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Fantasy Realm


This is the first of four short stories contained in The Tales of Garlan, available at your favorite book sellers.



Garlan is a young wizard who has been training with Sigarick for almost fifteen years at Whitestone Castle. He has reached the point in his training that he now has to face off against another
young wizard in a contest to win his first and only staff.

Submitted: August 20, 2018

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Submitted: August 20, 2018

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“Listen up boy. If you were to put as much time and effort into your practice, as you do your wistful daydreaming, you'd become a great wizard in half the time.”

Garlan looked at the old wizard and scrunched up his lips.

“Master, if you'd give me just a short time each day where I could relax and not worry about my lessons, I could put more effort into my practice,” said Garlan.

“Oh, so you want time off. I wonder if Pendivall is giving Marnell time off in their preparation for your duel?”

Garlan breathed a deep sigh, knowing full well that he was fighting a losing battle. He could come up with reason upon reason for taking just an hour or so for rest, but Sigarick would always counter with the costs of doing so. This time it was his upcoming duel with the wizard apprentice at the Castle Greyton, who was being trained by Pendivall, a wizard of the same stature as Sigarick.

The prize for the duel was to be a staff, which would be the first and only staff the winning apprentice would ever need. These duels only took place every five years and this year it fell to Castle Greyton and Whitestone Castle to present their young charges. The apprentice that failed to win the duel would find themselves waiting at least another fifty years before their names could be submitted again.

These staffs were created by the craftsmen of the guild and they only made one every five years. The staff is what channeled the wizard's energy when they cast. But, the staffs also seemed to have minds of their own. An apprentice needed to win the duel and win it convincingly or the staff would never fully give itself to the will of the wizard.

“I'm sure that this Marnell, of whom Pendivall boasts quite highly of, is at this moment working on such castings that just might take your head off. I don't feel like cleaning up the mess.”

Garlan frowned at the old wizard.

“Master, you know as well as I do that all castings will be non-lethal and that this is mostly for sport.”

“Sport you say? Is that what you think? Here, let me show you what non-lethal can do.”

Before Garlan had time to react or protect himself, Sigarick dipped his staff slightly and a nearly invisible ball of disturbed air flew from the crystal orb at the top. The ball hit Garlan in the stomach and knocked him twenty feet through the air and landing on his back, he felt the wind get knocked out of him. He skidded another ten feet across the floor and ended up underneath the large oak, dining table, knocking over two heavy chairs in the process.

There was also a deafening crash of thunder when the ball came from the staff. It shook the windows and rattled the doors. That was probably why Sigarick's staff was known as the Staff of Thunder.

As dust wafted down from the rafters, Sigarick looked up and decided that they would need to be cleaned. A good job for the boy when he wanted some time to relax.

As Garlan lay on the floor, curled up under the table, gasping for breath, he saw Sigarick's feet walking across the room towards him. Sigarick bent over and looked under the table at his young student.

“Non-lethal you say. Hmmm. But, you're right. Why don't you take a little time off to relax and gather your thoughts. I'll go get supper started. After we eat, we can get in a little more training before we go to bed. You know, I quite like these little sessions of ours.”

Garlan could only lay there because he certainly couldn't speak at that moment and say what he really thought of the old man. He just laid there and watched Sigarick's feet as he turned and walked back across the room and into the kitchen.

It was another five minutes before Garlan could even muster the strength to crawl out from under the table and haul himself up and onto a chair. He knew he was going to be feeling that hit for the next couple of days.

He could hear Sigarick humming in the kitchen and he stood up, holding onto the edge of the table for support, then slowly started walking towards the sound. There was the sounds of pots and utensils that you would expect from a kitchen. The smell as he walked through the door almost made him forget the pain he was in.

“Ahh, did you have a nice rest?”

Garlan looked at his master with eyes that were narrowed, not in anger, but consternation.

“That ... was unfair. You gave me no warning.”

“Really? How much warning do you think this Marnell is going to give you?” asked Sigarick.

“I won't be caught off-guard like that,” said Garlan, wincing from the pain.

He walked around the counter and retrieved plates and cups from the cupboard. He set them on the counter and lifted a lid on a basket and pulled out some utensils. He picked them all up and carried them back through the door to the dining room and set the table for them to eat.

He walked back into the kitchen as Sigarick was getting ready to pull a pot with stew off the stove. Even though he had his back to the doorway, he knew Garlan was back.

“No young apprentice, you won't be caught off-guard like that again. What you just learned in the last twenty minutes is a lesson you will remember for the rest of your life.”

“That may be true master, but couldn't you have done it without trying to kill me?”

“Kill you? Non-lethal, remember?”

Sigarick looked into the second pot and saw the rice was ready and he pulled it off the fire. Garlan had already taken the stew into the dining room and came back and took the rice from Sigarick. Sigarick bent down and checked in the oven and found the biscuits were ready and pulled the pan out.

As Sigarick and Garlan sat down to the table they both went silent for a moment. All meals were gifts from the earth and thanks were offered before they were consumed. Afterwards, they helped themselves to large plates of rice covered in vegetable stew, warm biscuits with melted butter and cold water from the spring.

Sigarick looked at his young apprentice and asked, “do you remember what happened the first time you tried to pick up my staff?”

Garlan closed his eyes and winced at the memory. He was only about eight years old and had only been living with Sigarick for a couple of days. Even though it happened fifteen years ago, it might as well have been yesterday because it still hurt to think about it.

“Yes master, I remember feeling like I had taken hold of a lightning bolt. I remember that it threw me across the room and I hit that wall over there. I also remember that my right arm was useless for two days and it was over a week before the tingling finally went away.”

Sigarick smiled and nodded.

“That is correct. And on that day you learned one of the most important lessons you can learn about a wizard's staff. It belongs to one wizard and one wizard only. My staff is only safe for you to hold it if I personally hand it to you.”

Garlan remembered how, a couple of weeks after his first run-in with the staff, Sigarick held the staff out to him and told him to take it. Garlan was terrified to put his hand on it, but with Sigarick's assurances he wrapped his young fingers around it.

“I remember that when you handed it to me and I took it I could feel energy passing through my arm again, but this time it felt like an energy that made me stronger.”

“The energy you feel from the staff is what is going to help you become the wizard I know you can be,” said Sigarick.

Garlan bit into one of the warm biscuits and could feel the melted butter running down his chin. He wiped it away with the napkin.

Sigarick held out his right hand and Garlan could hear a whistling that he had heard many times before. In a second Sigarick's staff flew into his outstretched hand. He held it out to Garlan and told him to take it.

When Garlan took the staff he felt that energy again, flowing down his arm and into his chest. He could feel the pain from his earlier encounter with the thunder ball begin to lessen and gradually fade away. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. When he opened his eyes the world seemed right again.

Garlan handed the staff back to Sigarick.

“Thank you master. I feel much better now.”

Sigarick nodded to him.

“Please understand Garlan, I don't push you hard in your training because I get some perverse pleasure from it, though that is one of the rewards.”

Garlan smiled at that comment.

“I push you because there will come a time when you will have to stand on your own and you may be facing someone that won't care about using non-lethal casting. At that time you will be happy that I was tough on you.”

“Master, how long has it been since you've had to face someone that wanted to cause you real harm?”

Sigarick thought about it for a second.

“It's been about 150 years since I've had to use my powers in any sort of fight. But that doesn't matter. What matters is the rumors that you and I have both heard. Rumors that tell us that this Marnell is a very capable wizard, but I know next to nothing about him. But, I can assure you that with Pendivall as his master, you will need to be at the top of your game. I'm also hearing that the staff being offered up at this duel is one of the finest that has ever come out of the craftsman's guild. Well worth being prepared for.”

Again they fell into silence as they finished the rest of their meal. When they were finished they took the dishes to the kitchen and placed them in the washing tub to soak.

They spent the next hour in working on Garlan's casting. He focused on Sigarick's every word and worked hard to apply his teachings to his practice.

After practice was over, Sigarick sent Garlan to bed, as he went to the kitchen to clean the dishes. Garlan wanted to protest, that it was his job to do them, but he was just too tired to argue. So he thanked his master for doing them and he slowly climbed the stairs to his room.

As Garlan lay in his bed, he looked at the moonlight streaming in through the window. He was starting to feel more and more uneasy about the coming duel. He only had ten more days before they would leave for the gathering, which was going to be a four day walk. He had two weeks to get ready for his match against Marnell.

Sigarick was right. They had only heard vague rumors about Marnell. Rumor had it that Marnell was probably going to be one of the greatest wizards of all.

Garlan didn't feel any fear about this. There were plenty of others, Sigarick included, that felt that he was going to be a great wizard in his own time.

But, he also knew that Pendivall was a legend among the wizards. Pendivall was one of the last wizards to fight in the Dragon Wars. Garlan knew that Sigarick had also fought in them, but Sigarick just didn't like to talk about it.

As Garlan drifted off to sleep, he sank into a dream of a brand new staff, feeling powerful and strong in his hand.

 

-|-|-

 

The next ten days passed quickly. More lessons from sun up to sun down, more aches and pains, and more knowledge and a better understanding of how to protect himself. Before Garlan knew it, it was time to leave the castle and head for the place of the Gathering.

He packed a small bag with a couple of changes of clothing and a few personal items. He walked out the massive front doors and into the garden. Sigarick was busy giving the plants a little extra water because they would be gone for more than a week. He really didn't need to worry about the plants because they were at the beginning of the rainy season, so the plants were going to have plenty of water to keep them going.

Garlan made no mention of the rainy season because he knew that Sigarick didn't water the plants because they would need it. He watered them to let the garden know that he cared.

A couple of small birds were sitting on a branch near where Sigarick was working. They chirped at him and Sigarick talked back to them.

“Yes, we'll be gone for about nine or ten days. So you'll look after the place, won't you?”

The birds chirped again and then flew up to some higher branches.

Garlan spoke up, “Hazel and Bill gonna guard the place for us?”

“Yes they will. And give me a full report when we return. They are expecting me to give them a full report on your winning the duel.”

“I hope I don't disappoint them.”

“Nonsense my boy. You are as prepared as any wizard apprentice can be. You will do great.”

Garlan looked around and back at the castle. Sometimes he felt that the word “castle” was a bit generous. Though this home was larger than the average home in the village at the bottom of the mountain, it was nothing like what you might find a king and queen living in.

It was three stories with a couple of turrets facing towards the road, with plenty of windows to let in the light. Sigarick loved having the light inside during the day. Its white stone walls shone brightly in the early morning sun and the garden he stood in took up the area where most castle owners would put a moat. Sigarick said there was no need for a moat because they didn't get nearly enough visitors to want to keep any of them away.

Sigarick took one last look around and walked over to the front door of the small castle. He reached inside and picked up his bag and staff and then he closed to door. He cast a quick spell to lock the door and make it impossible for anyone to open it.

He turned and looked at Garlan.

“Well, are we off?”

“Yes master, we are.”

With that they walked down the path and through the main gate and Sigarick waved his staff, closing the large iron gates and again, locking them against anyone that tried to open them.

He patted Garlan on the shoulder and they started their four day journey to the gathering place. Within a few minutes Garlan knew that if he were to turn around he would not be able to see the castle. They were really on their way.

 

-|-|-

 

On the night of the third day on the road they camped just off the road, near a small brook. They had passed through a small village just an hour before sundown and they were able to pick up a few items for their supper.

Traveling light meant not bringing any more than was necessary and that included food. Sigarick had planned the entire trip to reach certain villages each day and they would be able to buy food there.

But, Garlan knew that they would never have to buy any food. The village folk were all too happy to give them whatever food they needed.

The wizards always looked out for the villagers that were within the area of their castle. It used to be that they needed to be protected from evil wizards and some even said from dragons. But, no one had seen a dragon in over four hundred years and the evil wizards had all been dealt with a long time ago.

Now they just needed protection from minor things like bad weather and the occasional wild bear. The weather was something Garlan knew about quite well, having done a little battle against it himself a few years before.

They never needed much food, just enough for a couple of meals and a few pieces of fruit to eat while walking. And the villagers gave it to them with a smile.

This evening their meal consisted of bread and butter, some smoked pork and a couple of peaches each. The cold water from the brook made it seem like a king's feast to Garlan, who was famished from the long walk from breakfast that morning to this spot for the evening.

“Master, tell me something.”

“Anything my boy.”

“Has any wizard apprentice ever failed at the duels and then went on to succeed the next time they were matched?”

Sigarick hesitated for a moment and Garlan knew that this meant he was searching for the right words.

Then Sigarick said, “it has never happened.”

“Wait a minute. Never happened? Every five years there is an apprentice that loses the duel. That means that over the last one hundred years there have been twenty apprentices that lost the duel when they faced it. How can there be not one of them to win the next time they had the chance?”

Sigarick closed his eyes and nodded.

“What you say is true. These duels have been going on for close to four thousand years and there have been hundreds of apprentices that failed in the duel. However, this is where the story becomes sad. Not one of those apprentices was ever around long enough to have a chance at the duels again. Remember, it takes fifty years to be able to submit your name again and there is no guarantee that you will get in the first time.”

Garlan was floored by what he heard.

“Why, after all this time, has there not been at least one that stuck around and learned more and became better prepared for their next chance? I mean, surely you've had an apprentice that didn't win. How did you not convince them to try again?”

Sigarick raised his eyebrows and smiled slightly.

“No Garlan, I've never had an apprentice that failed in the duel and I would appreciate it if you would continue that string of victories for me.”

“Are you kidding me? Whitestone Castle has been to the duels with a participating apprentice close to one hundred times and you've never had a loss?”

“That's right my boy,” laughed Sigarick. “Kind of makes you wish you hadn't asked, doesn't it?”

Garlan's mouth dropped open. His mind was raging with the thoughts that he could be the one to let his master down.

“And I'll tell you something else,” said Sigarick. “Whitestone Castle has faced off against Castle Greyton five times in the past four hundred years and each time my apprentice has whipped their opponent, sometimes pretty convincingly. Pendivall is getting a little tired of watching his charges lose to mine. So when I tell you that you are in for the battle of your young life, I mean every word of it. He has kept his training of Marnell quite secret, but if I know Pendivall, it will be more than adequate. You are going to be tested to your limits day after tomorrow.”

Garlan hung his head and felt a rush of nausea sweep over him. He reached down and picked up his cup of cold water and held it to his forehead. The coolness made him feel a little better, but not much.

Sigarick spoke up, “get some rest. Tomorrow we finish our journey and we want to walk into the Gathering looking like we belong there. Hold your head up high and walk with confidence. From the moment you get there, the rest of the wizards and apprentices will be looking at you and judging you, wondering if you really have what it takes to take your place among them.”

Garlan laid down, but sleep was never going to come. He tossed and turned for quite awhile, before sleep did find him. He never knew that Sigarick had cast a sleeping spell over him so he could get some rest. But if he had known, he would have been grateful.

 

-|-|-

 

The Gathering was like no other place on earth. Garlan had been to the Gathering twice before, but this was to be his first time as a participant. There were only twenty seven castles in the land that were home to wizards, but there were many other wizards that were not found in castles. And not all wizards took on young charges for training. Only about twenty did that.

As they walked into the Gathering, Garlan was taken with all the colors and sounds and smells. Every wizard had his own tent with his colors. Pennants flew from the top of the center pole of each tent. Each pennant had the crest of the wizard that resided in that tent.

As they walked through the Gathering Sigarick walked with his head held high and Garlan followed, a little less sure of himself. He could sense everyone looking at him, sizing him up. They had all seen him before, but this was the first time they saw him as one of the two chosen for the contest this year.

They arrived at their tent, which had already been set up and made ready for them. The colors, green and gold, shimmered in the afternoon sun and Sigarick's crest fluttered proudly in the breeze.

Sigarick ducked inside and Garlan stopped for a moment to look around. He felt like all eyes were on him, though if the truth were known, very few paid even the slightest bit of attention to him. It still felt as if he were carrying a heavy burden, now that he knew that not one of Sigarick's prior candidates had failed in the contests. He was terrified that he would be the first.

He turned and stepped into the tent. After his eyes adjusted to the low light he saw the same setup he had known before. The tent was about six paces front to back and side to side. There was a dividing wall from the back wall towards the entrance, leaving an opening between Sigarick's side and his own side. There was a cot set up on each side and Sigarick was busy emptying his bag in order to put things away. Garlan set about to doing the same thing on his side of the tent.

He could hear Sigarick humming a happy tune and that brought a smile to his face. No matter what chore Sigarick was involved in there was a tune to be hummed to make it more pleasurable.

Garlan emptied his bag and put his things in the chest next to his cot and on the shelves next to the outside wall. He didn't have much. His garments for the contest had not been delivered yet, though they were expecting it sometime between supper and sundown.

“So my boy, how does it feel to be back here?”

Garlan turned to see Sigarick standing at the opening.

“It feels much different than the times before master. I can't escape the feeling of eyes on me from every quarter when I'm outside.”

Sigarick nodded and smiled.

“That is to be expected I suppose. After all, you are the next in a long line of victors that I have trained. They just want to be able to say they were there when you claimed your staff.”

“Right, and I wish you had never told me that your candidates were undefeated. Ever.”

Sigarick laughed and said, “do you know why they were all undefeated?”

Garlan didn't say anything because he knew the answer was coming.

“It's because I am the best at training my young charges. They have all entered the contests well prepared and their opponents have all fallen because they feared what they saw. No more, no less.”

“It can't be that simple,” said Garlan.

“Oh but it is young warrior. Half the battle you face tomorrow will be won before you even step into the pit.”

Sigarick looked at his young pupil. He could see the doubt that was in his eyes.

“I realize that you don't feel you are ready for this. None of my other candidates did either. But, they were able to trust in the training and then they began to realize that their opponents felt the same way. The first to realize that puts the other at a disadvantage.”

Garlan thought about that for a moment and then nodded. He understood.

 

-|-|-

 

The next morning dawned bright and beautiful. A perfect day for the contest.

Garlan awoke and emerged from the tent to see that the Gathering was abuzz with activity. Morning meals were being eaten by friends with friends, most having not seen each other for five years. He saw Sigarick across the way, sitting and talking with Pendivall and he walked over to join them.

Pendivall looked up and saw him coming. Pendivall was dressed in his usual red and black robes. He had a beard of gray and long hair that reached well below his shoulders.

“Ahhh, the sleepy warrior awakens.”

Sigarick nodded and said, “yes, I fear my young charge likes to sleep, sometimes more than eating.”

Garlan smiled and nodded to Pendivall.

“Good morning master Pendivall. It is pleasing to see you again. It has been five long years and I feel five years too long.”

Garlan sat down on an empty seat, next to Sigarick and reached to the platter in the middle of the table for some breads, meats and cheeses.

Pendivall spoke up, “it does appear he likes to eat at times.”

Sigarick said, “oh yes, at times that suit him.”

Garlan looked at Pendivall and said, “I need to keep my strength up for today's contest. I'm sure you have brought a worthy opponent this year and it will be a challenge.”

Garlan looked around and said, “by the way, I've never met this Marnell. Seems you've done an excellent job in keeping him a secret from the rest of us. Shall he not be joining us for morning meal?”

He looked at Pendivall who pursed his lips slightly and was a bit slow to answer.

“He is a solitary figure that will most likely keep to himself until the contest begins. Last I saw, Marnell was heading up the hill for some time to be alone and prepare his mind.”

There was something in the way Pendivall spoke of his charge. Something that didn't seem quite right, but Garlan couldn't put his finger on it. As he chewed on a piece of meat, he tried to clear the mist that was surrounding that tickling sensation in the back of his mind. But, it remained elusive to him.

The conversation continued as they finished their meal. Some of the other wizards came by to renew old acquaintances and to wish them luck in the contest. When breakfast was finished there was less than an hour before the duel would begin.

 

-|-|-

 

“You must be very careful when you step into the pit. A good dose of suspicion wouldn't hurt either.”

Garlan listened to the words of his master and gave them the respect they deserved. They were in the preparatory tent on one end of the pit. This would be the last time Sigarick would be allowed to talk to and offer guidance to his young charge.

Garlan looked at his master and said, “you felt it too, didn't you?”

“Yes young wizard I did. Pendivall is hiding something. Something that I fear will be quite unexpected and it may create a bit of difficulty for you.”

“He wouldn't do something outside the rules set forth for the tournament, would he?”

“No, no he would not. He is an honorable wizard. But, he has been known to be a little sneaky at times. I have a feeling that this is going to be one of those times. Be on your guard.”

Garlan finished putting on his tournament robes. They were a beautiful green and gold, with a high collar and loose, puffy sleeves. The bottom brushed the ground slightly. Everything fit perfectly and Garlan was surprised about that. He had never been measured by anyone from the seamstress guild, but they did marvelous work.

From outside came the sound of the horn, signaling it was time for the contestants to prepare for the introductions to the crowd gathered around the pit.

It truly was a pit. It was a hole in the ground that was about twenty feet deep. It had a rough shape of a rounded rectangle. It was about one hundred paces from one end to the other and about half that from side to side.

The top of the pit was ringed by a wooden wall that was another ten feet high and the spectators could stand on platforms behind the wall and look down into the pit. They could see everything and these contests always gave them a good show.

The floor of the pit was littered with various obstacles, mostly boulders that would give the contestants places to take cover. There were a few wooden obstacles placed at certain places in the pit, but Garlan had seen enough contests to know that they didn't offer that much protection. They would do in a pinch, but were best left as a last resort.

There was an open avenue down the long axis of the pit and if a person were standing at the either end of the avenue, facing towards the center of the pit, their tent would be behind them and to their right. So, standing at the door of the tent you could not see to the other end of the avenue.

The next sound they heard was the booming voice of Gallen, the Grand Wizard of the wizard's council.

“My fellow wizards and young wizards to be and ladies and gentlemen who work within our world, I welcome you to this year's Wizard's Staff tournament.”

The roar from the crowd told Sigarick and Garlan that there was a very large crowd on the viewing platforms above them. The stamping of feet shook the entire ground they were standing on.

“To start, let me introduce our two wizard trainers. We all know them and we know of their work. First, from the Castle Greyton, the last wizard to come in contact with the dragons of years gone by, the holder of the Staff of Lightning, I give you Pendivall!”

Even though they couldn't see him, the crowd's reaction let Sigarick and Garlan know that Pendivall had walked from his tent to the end of the avenue. He was probably taking bows and waving to the crowd. Then a blinding flash of light rocked the entire world. Pendivall had let his staff take its bow.

“And from Whitestone Castle, the only training wizard to go completely undefeated in these contests, going back over four centuries, the wizard who led our defense against the evil of Magram The Dark and the holder of the Staff of Thunder, I give you Sigarick!”

Sigarick turned and looked at Garlan and winked and then walked through the tent opening to a thunderous applause and more stamping of feet. Garlan was sure the whole pit was going to collapse in on itself. He had seen two of these contests before, but always from the platforms up top. It was nothing like being down in the pit at this moment.

Garlan looked through the flap and saw Sigarick standing at the end of the avenue, his arms outstretched and turning slowly to acknowledge the spectators ringing the pit. He was standing on a shallow mound. It raised him a foot or so above the surrounding ground. His green and gold robes were shimmering in the bright sunlight.

His staff was glowing with power and Garlan put his fingers in his ears because he knew what was coming. A loud crack of thunder shook the entirety of the pit, from top to bottom and this only served to send the crowd into even higher states of rowdiness and anticipation.

Garlan watched as Sigarick turned back to face down the avenue, towards where Pendivall would be standing. He saw Sigarick nod low to his opponent and Garlan was sure that Pendivall had nodded back.

Garlan held his breath. Now would come the introductions of the two contestants.

Never in his life had he ever felt the urge to run, but that urge was strong within his chest now. The only thing that held him steady in his place was he knew of the embarrassment he would cause Sigarick. There was no way he would cause that. He closed his eyes and started breathing deeply and slowly, willing calmness to wash over his body.

“And now, representing the Castle Greyton, a young wizard who has already shown their true power by venturing deep into dragon territory and coming back alive, I give you, Marnell!”

Garlan was still trying to process the statement that Marnell had ventured into the land of dragons, when a collective gasp went up from the crowd.

This was not the usual welcome of a contestant to the tournament.

Garlan looked through the flap and saw Sigarick. He was looking down the avenue and then he glanced over at Garlan. The look on his face was that of uncertainty and maybe even a little fear. Even though he was drowned out by the rumbling of the crowd, Garlan could read his lips when Sigarick said, “I'm sorry son.”

Garlan thought, “what in the world have you gotten me into old man?”

Sigarick turned back to face the opponents, his shoulders a little less solid and firm. His breathing was short and labored.

“And, representing Whitestone Castle, a truly great wizard to be, having proved himself by climbing to the top of Black Mountain, against orders I might add, and casting a storm away that was threatening to wash a village into the sea, I give you, Garlan!”

The expectant roar from the crowd never came. There was a light and polite applause as Garlan walked from the tent. There were a few shouts of encouragement, but Garlan knew there was something they knew that he did not. As he walked to Sigarick's side he looked down the avenue to their opponents.

Then, he knew.

It wasn't the bright, shiny red and black wizard's robe that Marnell wore or Marnell's bright, silvery blue eyes that had subdued the crowd. It wasn't even the completely white hair that fell down over Marnell's straight, strong shoulders. None of these things had caused the look of fear and uncertainty on the face of Sigarick.

It was the fact that Marnell was a young woman.

The most beautiful young woman that Garlan had ever seen. Her skin was a pale white, almost translucent and her eyes seemed to catch every single ray the sun sent her way. She had a look on her face that told Garlan that she knew she belonged there.

Garlan also knew that he was in for the fight of his life.

Gallen spoke, “Pendivall and Sigarick, you may present your staffs to your young charges.”

Sigarick took his staff and held it straight up and down. He closed his eyes and whispered some words in the old tongue. When he reopened his eyes he handed the staff to Garlan.

Garlan saw that Pendivall was doing the same thing with Marnell.

“Pendivall and Sigarick, you can now exit the pit.”

Sigarick turned and looked at Garlan and said, “don't let her being a woman change the way you fight. That's exactly what she and Pendivall are counting on.”

With that said, Sigarick walked to the tent and through it, to a set of stairs that would take him up and out of the pit. Garlan looked to the other end of the pit and saw Pendivall climbing his set of stairs and in a few seconds, there were only two left on the floor of the pit.

Garlan took the staff and planted it on the ground in front of himself. It was a full foot taller than him. He closed his eyes and leaned his forehead on the old wood and he could feel the power that the staff contained. He breathed in and out, slowly and deliberately, using everything he had been taught to calm himself and to bring his thoughts into focus.

It was nearly impossible though. His mind was racing. Every time he closed in on calmness, he opened his eyes and saw Marnell standing about one hundred yards away, just staring at him. She did not appear to be weighed down by any feelings of fear or uncertainty.

She had her staff in her right hand, hanging parallel to the ground, with its business end pointing right at him. Garlan made a mental note to make sure he wasn't standing right there when the starting signal was given.

Garlan looked up to the platform where the wizard's council was standing. Pendivall and Sigarick had arrived there and were standing side by side. Garlan could tell that Sigarick was having a few quiet, but choice words with Pendivall. Pendivall was just standing there with a smug smile on his face. If anything, that changed Garlan's feelings of fear to something pretty close to anger.

“How dare he think I wouldn't be able to withstand this little challenge,” thought Garlan.

Pendivall looked right at Garlan and smiled, with a bit of a twinkle in his eyes. Garlan knew he was already writing him off.

Bad mistake master Pendivall, bad mistake.

Garlan closed his eyes and give a short nod of acknowledgment to Pendivall.

Then Garlan looked back at Marnell. He knew there was a couple more minutes before the signal would be given. Then the thought struck him.

He jammed the staff into the soft earth of the mound and he started walking. The crowd grew silent, wondering what he was up to. He continued walking.

Not towards the tent. He was walking down the avenue towards Marnell, who was clearly caught off guard. No signal had been given. The contest had not started.

Even those in the area of the wizard's council grew silent, including Pendivall and Sigarick. Every pair of eyes looking down from the viewing platforms were watching Garlan as he strode down the avenue.

His head was held high, his shoulders straight and strong. Garlan's green and gold robes rustled in the breeze.

As he drew closer to Marnell he could tell she had no idea what to do at this point. She just stood there, rooted like a tree.

Garlan never acknowledged the fact that the Staff of Lightning still pointed straight at him. But, he also knew that its power wouldn't be unleashed until the starting signal was given, so he was safe.

He completed his journey to the end of the pit and stepped up on the mound in front of Marnell. She was even more beautiful up close and Garlan caught the scent of jasmine coming from her hair. Her eyes truly did sparkle with the sunlight and her skin glowed as if lit from within.

She was a good head shorter than Garlan, but he guessed about the same age.

He held out his right hand to her. For a second, she didn't seem to know what to do about this, but then she moved her staff to her left and reached out and took his hand.

“It is truly an honor to finally meet you Marnell. I've heard a lot of things about you and I'm sure most of them are true.”

Marnell's eyebrows raised at that statement, wondering what he had heard.

“I am the one honored,” said Marnell, “Pendivall has spoken highly of you and he says that Sigarick is one of the best at training young wizards.”

“He is indeed. I just thought we should meet before the start of this contest and I don't think we should keep these fine folks waiting.”

He was still holding her hand, not wanting to let go of the feeling of the softness of her skin. He bowed slightly, brought her hand to his lips and kissed it.

He straightened back up and released her hand.

“I wish you luck Marnell. Give everything you've got and the best of us will come out on top.”

“Goo … good luck to you master Garlan.”

“I'm not a master yet,” said Garlan with a smile. “By the end of the afternoon though.

Garlan smiled and turned and started walking away, but stopped after a few steps and turned slightly back towards her and cocked his head a little.

“Did you really go into the land of the dragons?”

Marnell smiled and nodded.

“Fabulous. You'll have to tell me all about it at supper this evening.”

He smiled one last time at her and then continued his walk back to the other end of the pit. When he got there and turned around to face her, he noticed that the Staff of Lightning was no longer pointing directly at him, but pointing straight up in the air and resting on the ground.

He reached for the Staff of Thunder, but then he stopped. He reached up to his left shoulder and undid a couple of clasps and removed his robes. He had been wearing green trousers and a tunic underneath. The gold scroll-work on his clothes shimmered in the sunlight. He knew that dressed like that it would be a lot easier to move quickly. He walked over to his tent and hung the robes on a peg just inside the door.

When he returned to the avenue and took up Sigarick's staff, he noticed that Marnell was just standing there with a look of dread on her face. Obviously she wasn't dressed to remove her robes.

Garlan smiled inwardly.

He made sure to keep his arms and the staff off to his sides so that she could see the jeweled and embroidered lion on his chest, which also shimmered in the sunlight. He began to feel the courage of that lion building in his chest. Sigarick had told him the first one to realize that they were as prepared as can be possible, would be the one at the advantage. He began to feel he was ready.

Garlan looked up towards the leaders and saw them looking down at him. Pendivall was looking directly at him when Garlan winked and nodded to him. Now it was Sigarick's turn to have a smug smile on his face.

Gallen stepped forward and said, “well, that was certainly unexpected. But then again, we are all friends here. Let that spirit rule this contest.”

Gallen turned around and picked something up and then turned back to the pit.

“This is the prize that these two young wizards will be vying for.”

He held up a staff that was more glorious that any Garlan had ever seen. Garlan was sure no one had ever seen a staff like this one. It was a dark, but bright red and had a head that was orange like fire. The orange head was made of intertwined branches that formed a cage and in that cage, there was a fiery red crystal orb.

“This is the Staff of Fire, created by the guild for this very contest. It will be bound to the victor for life.”

Garlan knew that he wanted that staff more than anything else in his young life. To win it he knew he would have to put aside any doubts and worries that his opponent was a beautiful woman and he was sure she was thinking the same exact thing at this moment.

Gallen took the Staff of Fire and placed it in a holder, where it hung out from the wall, towards the pit, for all to see.

He paused for a moment and then continued, “The rules of this duel are as such. Number one, no lethal casts. As you all witnessed, as each master prepared to hand his staff to his apprentice, he invoked a spell. This spell will keep all casts from being lethal. We are not here to kill or even maim, though there have been various injuries and such in the past.”

There was a light murmuring that went through the crowd and a lot of nodding that this was a good thing. None of the injuries seen in the contests had ever done any serious damage. Mostly just bumps to the head and various bruises all over the body. Only a couple of broken bones in the all the centuries of these battles.

“Also,” continued Gallen, “we will be blocking the view of the contestants at the bottom of the pit. They will not be able to see any of the spectators. They will be able to hear you, but all attempts to communicate with them will be garbled, so you won't be able to help or warn either contestant.

“The next rule is that there are various spells which are perfectly legal. These are clouding spells, sound spells and a few others. As each contestant knows, each one can only be used once and only five spells can be used in the entire contest. Use them wisely.”

“And lastly, as usual, this duel goes on until there is a victor. However, we can't expect them to continue dueling for hours on end, so the duel is divided up into segments. They will duel for three quarters of an hour and then have a respite of one quarter of an hour. During the rest period their masters will be allowed back down to the pit to coach them and encourage them. Though we have never seen a duel go past three time periods, there is always the possibility of being here until the wee hours of the morning.”

“And so,” said Gallen, “we begin. When the ringing of the starting bell sounds, it is begun. Good luck to both of you and to your masters.”

The first thing that happened was a shimmering glow appeared near the top of the wood wall. This kept the competitors from being able to look up and see where the crowd was looking, thus giving up a contestant's location. Garlan could still hear the crowd talking and yelling, but he also knew that any attempt to warn or help a contestant would not be heard as anything other than garbled noise.

The next thing that happened was that Gallen raised his own staff and cast a ball of light that flew into the pit. Garlan saw it come over the wall and hovered above the center of the pit, about twenty feet off the ground.

Garlan had seen this before. The ball started flashing, slowly at first, but then picking up speed. It was also rotating, starting slowly. When it reached a certain point, it would flash out of sight and there would be a ringing, much like a church bell.

Garlan watched the ball, tightening his grip on Sigarick's staff. He glanced at Marnell, who had now brought her staff back to a position of ready, again pointing the head right at him. He knew his first move was to not be there when she unleashed the first of many lightning bolts he was sure to see that afternoon.

The ball of light was flashing faster and faster now and was spinning like a crazy top. Sparks started to fly from it.

Then it flashed brighter than the noonday sun and there was a deafening ringing that rocked the pit.

The game was on.

 

-|-|-

 

Garlan used the instant of blinding light to jump to his right and rolled to a landing behind a large boulder. This was just as a lightning bolt flashed through the exact spot he had been standing on a second before.

He turned and looked over his shoulder at the smoldering spot on the pit wall behind him.

“Non lethal, huh,” he said to himself, “I'm sure it will hurt like hell if I get hit with one of those.”

He immediately moved to his right some more, staying behind the boulders and wood blockades, trying to stay out of Marnell's sight.

The crowd was worked up to a fever pitch now. The contest was on and they were keen to see the battle for which they had all journeyed so far. Garlan could hear the stamping of feet and the clatter of metal cups being banged on the top of the wooden wall. He just couldn't see any of it if he looked up towards the source of the noise.

He went all the way to the wall at the side of the pit, where he had an unobstructed view to the other end. Marnell was not in sight, but Garlan wasn't expecting her to be.

Most likely she had gone to her right and she was among the obstacles on the other side of the avenue. He sprinted forward another couple of boulders and this put him at about the mid-point in the pit.

He got away from the wall and took cover behind a couple of boulders that were placed next to each other at right angles. Each boulder stood about seven feet high and were shaped like very thick books. They formed a rough corner that he took refuge in. He was able to look through a gap between the two boulders and see a small bit of landscape across the avenue and could even see a small bit of the far wall.

He waited. If she was moving along that far wall he would certainly see her.

He waited.

A full five minutes passed and he saw nothing. He looked around behind himself, checking all spots from which she might appear, but saw nothing.

Now a bit of fear began to creep up in his mind. She was completely hidden from him and he had no idea where to look. He felt that probably scared him more than the thought of catching a lightning bolt to the chest.

He looked back through the gap between the boulders. He didn't see her, but there was something strange about the ground just on the other side of the gap. At first he couldn't place it. What was he seeing that should concern him?

He looked at the green grass beyond the gap a little closer and saw that it had a bit of a glow. It was … red! Damn!

The next thing he saw as he spun away from the opening was the head of her staff touch the space between the boulders and a lightning bolt shot out of it.

He was able to twist out of the way, but not quickly enough as the bolt grazed across his left arm.

He spun to his left and let his staff slide down in his right hand. He swung it, hooking it around the side of the boulder and cast without seeing his opponent. But he heard the results.

A sharp crack of thunder and then a cry of pain from Marnell told Garlan he had hit his mark. He cautiously looked around the edge of the boulder just in time to see that Marnell had been thrown about thirty feet and she was crawling slowly behind a boulder on the other side of the avenue.

Shame about those lovely robes he thought.

However, Marnell's attack had nearly hit its mark, too. The pain in his left arm was excruciating as he moved the staff from his right hand to his left. He felt the power of the staff going to work and within about a half a minute he knew he would be whole again.

He also knew that Marnell would be whole again.

There are really only two ways to win the contest. One contestant gives up voluntarily or is beaten so bad they can't continue. No one ever gives up. Garlan knew from having looked into Marnell's eyes that she wouldn't be the first.

Beating an opponent meant rendering them unconscious or scoring a hit while at the same time separating them from their staff, thus keeping them from getting the healing power they needed.

He really had no desire to render Marnell unconscious, so he needed to look for that opportunity to keep her from her staff after a hit.

He still had some time left before his left arm would be whole again, but he was right handed.

Gripping his staff tighter he raced across the avenue to where he had seen Marnell. He came around the boulder that was shielding her, his staff raised to the ready.

She wasn't there.

He spun around looking to see where she was, but there was no sign of her.

He looked down at the dirt behind the rock and saw some marks on the ground, the kind that a person would make if they were dragging themselves along the ground. But the marks were those she had created when she crawled behind the rock. There was nothing to suggest her departure from this hiding place.

“Oh, she's good,” he said under his breath.

And he smiled. He liked her even more.

Garlan warily crossed behind a couple more boulders and found himself at the other side wall of the pit. He carefully looked both ways and still saw no sign of her.

The crowd up top was going completely berserk. Either they were reveling in the action they had already seen or they were watching a cat hunting a mouse.

Honestly, Garlan didn't feel much like the cat at this point. If he had whiskers on the sides of his nose, they would be trembling in cold fear right now, waiting for the claws to strike.

He worked his way silently and slowly back towards the end of the pit where his tent was situated. There was nothing there that could help him in this fight. It was just some familiar ground and would give him a chance to regroup and then move from there.

He moved back to the shallow mound where he had stood at the beginning of the duel. He dropped down to one knee and pointed his staff straight down the avenue.

He closed his eyes and cast a silence over the crowd. They were still making all the noise they had been, but he blocked it out from his ears. The only sounds he would hear would come from inside the pit. From his opponent.

He opened his eyes again and the silence was surreal. One moment it was deafening in the pit, the next it was as silent as his morning meditation.

Then he started to listen. All was quiet, but he knew she was out there.

He listened even more intently. Then he heard it. Softly at first and impossible to know from which direction is was coming from. But he heard it.

It was the unmistakable sound of her legs moving against the soft silk robes she was wearing. Marnell was on the prowl again.

Garlan smiled knowing that she was feeling whole again.

From the sound he figured she was at least halfway towards the other end of the pit. But, he still couldn't tell if she was on the right or left side of the avenue.

He watched carefully down the avenue as he readied his staff.

He had no idea how long they had been at this. He knew there was a rest period coming up, but he didn't know how long until then. It felt like they had been in the pit for over half an hour, maybe even closer to the three quarter hour mark, though he was sure the truth was somewhere in between.

He backed cautiously down from the mound, moving towards the end wall of the pit, placing his tent to his right. No sense going in there he thought. He'd be blind to the rest of the pit and she would probably just set the tent on fire to burn him out. Not good.

He listened again, trying desperately to ascertain which side of the avenue she was on. He was planning a move to one of the corners, which would cut the number of directions he needed to watch from three to two. But, if he went to the wrong corner he could be walking right into her line of fire.

He heard the sound again, of her body moving inside her robes and then he got the feeling that she was on the left side of the avenue. So he started moving to his right, aiming for the right hand corner of the pit, which meant he could watch the long axis along the right hand wall and the short axis across the front of his tent.

He moved quickly and silently from the end of the avenue towards the corner he had chosen, keeping his back to the wall. He looked to the left, back towards the avenue and back to the right, towards the corner he was moving towards.

When he was just a couple of sidesteps from the corner, he glanced directly in front of himself, looking through the openings between some of the obstacles.

An uneasy feeling came over him. Three more steps and he would be in the corner and would have an unobstructed view along the wall the other end of the pit. But, fear kept him from taking those final steps.

He looked to his left again towards the avenue. He saw nothing, but he knew something was wrong. He was going to need a bit of cover if he was going to reach the corner safely.

He closed his eyes for a few seconds and cast a clouding spell. A gray cloud began to form in the corner of the pit, the corner he was heading for and it would allow him to reach the corner without being seen.

Of course, she would know that he was using the cloud for cover and could just as easily fire a lightning bolt right through the cloud. This was precisely why he decided at the last second to not walk into the cloud.

He backed up a couple of steps and cast another spell. Quite risky using up two spells in one shot, but if it worked it could bring the duel to an end.

A small glowing light came out of the end of his staff and he waved it towards the cloud. Then he started backing up, back towards the avenue.

Then it happened, just as he had planned.

The ball of light entered the cloud and then moved into the corner. But, from outside the cloud it just looked like a dim light, kind of like the glow that a staff would give off in the cloud.

A second later a lightning bolt slammed through the cloud and hit the wall in a shower of sparks.

Garlan turned on his heels and sprinted silently to the mound in the avenue and dropped to one knee. He could hear Marnell running and this time he wasn't fooled by any sound spell that she had cast. She was running through the boulders, heading for the avenue to be able to come at the corner from the other side.

When she burst into the avenue at a full run, her mind had only a split second to register the presence of Garlan on the mound before the thunder ball hit her square in the midsection.

Garlan was surprised that he felt really bad about this as he watched her body get thrown about thirty yards through the air and landing in a heap in the center of the pit.

He stood up and started walking slowly towards her as she lay still on the ground, with her back towards him. He kept his staff pointed directly at her in case this was a trick.

He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw that she was still breathing.

The crowd was ecstatic and the entire pit was shaking with their ruckus. Garlan couldn't hear it, but he could feel it.

As Garlan drew closer to her, he could see that her staff was laying about ten feet away from her.

That was the idea he thought. Separate her from her staff so she couldn't heal herself. This could be the winning moment. But he still felt an incredible pain in his soul about what he had just done.

He stopped with his feet right next to the staff on the ground and looked down at it. He knew he couldn't pick it up because it would surely knock him clear out of the pit.

He heard Marnell moan and watched as she rolled herself onto her back and then her other side facing him. She was having a hard time breathing and Garlan knew how that felt. He knew what a thunder ball to the stomach felt like.

She reached towards her staff, but Garlan stepped over it and stood between her and the one thing that would make the pain go away. She pulled her hand back into her midsection because she knew he would never let her reach the staff.

Garlan looked into her eyes and felt truly guilty.

Then he looked up towards where the wizard's council would be.

“Master Gallen, how long until the rest period?”

The shimmering curtain parted slightly and Garlan could see the wizard's council and he could also see Sigarick and Pendivall.

“Young wizard, the rest period begins in thirty seconds.”

Garlan knew that once the rest period began, Pendivall would be able to cast from the platform and could move the staff into Marnell's hand.

“Thank you master,” said Garlan as he turned his attention back to Marnell.

Then he took his staff and used the end of it to move Marnell's staff closer to her so she could get a hold on it.

He crouched down and looked her in the eyes. Then he reached down and put his left hand on hers. He could feel her heartbeat slowing down and her breathing was becoming less labored.

“We'll continue this in the next period,” said Garlan.

He squeezed her hand and then stood up and turned and walked away towards his tent, showing her his back the entire way.

The signal was given and the rest period officially began. As he got to the end of the avenue, he turned and looked back. Pendivall was rushing from their tent to his young charge. Marnell was sitting up, still holding onto the staff and letting it do its work.

Garlan smiled at her and he was sure he saw her smile back as he turned the corner and walked into his tent.

 

-|-|-

 

“You could have won the duel right then and there.”

Garlan looked at Sigarick as he walked into the tent.

“She would have recovered when the rest period began and Pendivall was able to get the staff into her hands,” Garlan said to him.

“No, not if you rendered her unconscious,” said Sigarick. “She has to be conscious for the staff to work its magic.”

Garlan nodded because he knew that was true. The wizard had to be conscious because the wizard had to have some power left in themselves to get the staff to work. If they were unconscious the staff couldn't begin its work.

“I know master, but I remembered how I felt a couple of weeks ago when I got hit with a thunder ball. I remembered how I couldn't breathe and couldn't hardly move.”

“You know,” said Sigarick, “I've always known you had a soft heart, but this time it might get you killed.”

“Non-lethal, remember?”

Sigarick smiled and nodded.

“Do you have any suggestions for this next period? She is a worthy opponent and sometimes I feel like a mouse trapped in a maze with a cat hunting me.”

“Well, casting those two spells together was a stroke of wisdom. I'm actually surprised she fell for that,” said Sigarick.

“I'm sure that won't happen again,” said Garlan.

Sigarick nodded.

“You need to use your two remaining spells very wisely. Might I suggest a shielding spell as one of them if she surprises you with a cast.”

Garlan nodded, “that's a good idea, but I have three spells left.”

Sigarick's eyebrows raised.

“Oh really? Did you or did you not cast a spell to silence the crowd from your ears?”

Garlan closed his eyes and winced.

“Oh ...”

“Use your two remaining spells wisely.”

After a few more minutes of conversation a bell sounded, signaling it was time for the contestants to return to the pit.

“Good luck my boy. And as I said before, don't think of her as a beautiful, young woman. She will wipe the ground with your face if you let her.”

Sigarick stood up and turned to the back opening and the stairs.

Garlan walked to the front flap and then turned back.

“Master.”

Sigarick stopped and turned around.

Garlan looked at him and said, “thank you for everything you've done and taught me.”

He bowed his head slightly towards his master and Sigarick nodded back. Then they both exited the tent.

 

-|-|-

 

Garlan walked up on the mound and looked to the other end. Marnell was already standing there with her staff planted firmly on the ground. Garlan looked up to the wizard's council platform and saw that Pendivall and Sigarick had not arrived yet.

He looked back at Marnell and was surprised to see that she was walking towards him. He jammed his staff into the ground and walked down off the mound towards her.

When they met in the center of the pit, she reached out her hand.

Garlan took her hand and said, “how are you feeling?”

“I am feeling completely whole again. Thank you for ending my suffering early.”

“I know what it's like to get hit with one of those things. Besides, we're just beginning to have fun, aren't we?”

Marnell smiled the most beautiful smile Garlan had ever seen.

“Yes, yes we are. I have to warn you though, I'm back to wanting to win that staff, so I'm not going to go easy on you.”

Garlan grinned and said, “I wouldn't have it any other way.”

He bent at the waist again and kissed her hand and squeezed it one more time. Then they both turned and headed back to their mounds.

 

-|-|-

 

The ball flashed.

The deafening ringing sounded.

Round two was underway.

Garlan dropped straight down on one knee in the middle of the mound. A fraction of a second later a lightning bolt shot through the air just to his right. Right through the place he would have been had he jumped off the mound like he did in the first round.

He smiled to himself. She was a very capable opponent and a great warrior, but she was a little predictable.

He had his staff at the ready as he scanned the far end of the avenue for her. She was not there. Not that he expected her to be.

He quickly moved off the mound and took refuge behind the same boulder as he had in the first round. He looked behind himself and saw two burn spots on the wall from two lightning bolts. One was still smoking.

He smiled to himself again thinking, “this girl is serious.”

Now to the task at hand. Where was she? He had long since lost the element of silence. His spell for silence had only lasted until the end of the first round and he knew he couldn't cast that one again.

He was going to have to find her by outwitting her. He was sure that would not be an easy task.

During the first round she had gone to her right and he was sure she would do it again.

He moved to the outside wall as he had before and then angled back in towards the center, keeping as many obstacles between him and where he thought she might be.

He came to the same two boulders that were placed together and stopped short. He looked down and saw the same crack between them he had used before to see across the avenue. He also remembered that those boulders had let him down and allowed her to sneak up to within a few feet of him.

Not a good choice he thought. He didn't see any telltale red glow on the ground, but that did nothing to make him want to take refuge there again.

He wished the people up top would be a little quieter, but he was out of luck on that front.

He moved back towards the outside wall and stepped from behind a boulder and almost walked right into a lightning bolt.

He threw his left hand up and cast a shield that deflected the lightning bolt away from himself. At the same time he brought up his staff and flung a thunder ball her way.

She was able to dive behind a wooden barricade, but still caught a portion of the thunder ball on one of her feet. He heard her yelp in pain and he took off down the side of the pit, heading for where she had gone down.

He rounded the barricade with his staff pointed right at her.

But, she wasn't there. Again.

He looked down at the place where she would have fallen. It was as empty as the eastern deserts five days walk from Whitestone Castle.

Great job of trying to outwit her, he thought. So, she had been on his side of the avenue all along. Maybe she wasn't as predictable as he thought.

He also knew that she couldn't be moving too fast as this moment, but the healing power of her staff would have her right again in no time.

He abandoned caution and sprinted across the avenue and dove in behind a large boulder. He was getting a little tired of this cat and mouse game.

Obviously the spectators were not tired of it. They were raising a ruckus that would clear a graveyard of all demons. Not that he believed in such things.

He quickly moved a couple more boulders towards his own end of the pit and was looking to get back to familiar ground.

As he was thinking about his next move the level of excitement from above was ramping up again and he could feel the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. Obviously they saw something that was getting them excited and he was sure it wasn't just him retreating to the end of the pit.

“Oh great, where is she now?” he thought out loud.

Just then a lightning bolt slammed into a boulder on the other side of the avenue.

“What in the world was she aiming at?” he wondered. The shot was so far off the mark he had no explanation.

Then something even scarier happened. The noise from the crowd dropped. It dropped to almost nothing.

What was going on?

He moved back towards the outside wall, stopping just short of exposing himself in that open space.

He crouched down behind a small boulder and started scanning the area for anything. He couldn't figure out what had quieted the crowd. It wasn't anything he had done, so it had to be whatever she was doing. But it still shouldn't have caused the crowd to pipe down. He had been to two other contests and there was nothing that could quell the enthusiasm of the spectators.

He kept scanning and then he saw it.

A red glow on a wooden barricade about thirty paces from where he was.

He started making his move towards the glow, moving behind boulders and wooden barricades. He got to within just a few yards from the barricade she was hiding behind.

There was a slight breeze blowing through the pit and he caught a glimpse of the bottom of her red robe, fluttering out from behind the barricade.

Gripping his staff tighter, he circled around one last boulder, sure that this would put him behind her.

With one last step he jumped out and took aim with his staff. This would be the end of the contest.

Then he saw it. He saw the reason that the crowd had gone quiet.

Her bright, red robes were behind barricade, but she was not in them. They were just hanging on the backside of the barricade, fluttering in the breeze.

His heart sank directly into the pit of his stomach, knowing he had just walked into a trap.

As he swung around he saw her. Yes, this was the reason the crowd had gone quiet.

She stood there with fire in her eyes, her blond hair blowing in the breeze and wearing nothing, but her knee-high leather boots, a flimsy cotton top and some bright, red, silky bottoms.

He was completely dumbfounded. And awestruck at the same time. Oh, she was beautiful.

This was, of course, the last thing he was able to comprehend before the lightning bolt hit him square in the middle.

Garlan felt like he had been kicked in the gut by a mule and had the wind knocked out of him. He flew over a short boulder and slammed backwards into the wooden barricade. His staff was ripped from his hand and cartwheeled over the barricade and was now completely out of his reach.

The last thing he saw was her robes falling down on top of him.

He was only unconscious for a few seconds and when he regained his sight, he saw an angel walking towards him. He was still laying on the ground at the base of the barricade with her robes covering him from his shoulders down. He could not have been tucked in any nicer if she had tried. He felt her robes tighten slightly around him and he knew she was casting a spell to make that happen.

Even through the pain he felt, he could smell the scent of jasmine from her robes.

Marnell knelt down in front of him. He looked up into her blue eyes and saw a faint hint of a tear.

He was struggling to breathe and trying to push himself up, but it was of no use. He had no strength for either task and her robes held him down securely.

Marnell leaned down and kissed him on the cheek and then placed her hand on his head.

“Sleep master Garlan,” she said.

He felt the pain starting to lift as his eyes fell shut. His breathing came easier as he fell into a deep slumber.

Marnell stood up and looked down at Garlan and felt a twinge of pain in her own heart.

Then she walked to the center of the pit and looked up towards the wizard's council. The shimmering screen dissipated and she nodded towards all the wizards that were there.

Then she moved Pendivall's staff to her left hand and held her right hand out. The red Staff of Fire wiggled in its holder and then it flew from the top of the wall, down into the pit and into her outstretched hand.

She saw Pendivall clapping with delight.

It didn't make her feel any better.

 

-|-|-

 

Marnell looked for Sigarick, but she couldn't see him. He was not standing next to Pendivall as she had expected.

Then she saw him. He had already come down to the pit and was moving quickly towards his fallen charge.

He stopped and picked up his staff and moved around the other side of the barricade and stood for a moment, looking down at his injured apprentice. The last thing on his mind was that he had just been handed his first defeat. He just wanted Garlan to be made whole again.

As he knelt down next to Garlan, Marnell walked over to them and reached down and pulled her robes off of Garlan. She knelt down next to Sigarick and reached out and took his hand.

“Take care of him master Sigarick,” said Marnell.

Sigarick looked at her, marveling at her beautiful, blue eyes.

“You fought well today young wizard. It is a victory well deserved.”

“Master, he also fought well.”

Sigarick raised her hand to his lips and kissed it.

She smiled and said, “now I see where he learned his manners.”

They turned their attention back to Garlan. Sigarick took the young apprentices' hand and wrapped his fingers around the staff, holding his hand firmly to the staff.

“Shall I wake him now?” asked Marnell.

“It needs to be done.”

Marnell placed her hand on Garlan's head and closed her eyes. Then she leaned down, as before, but this time she kissed him on his lips. The feeling of his soft lips meeting hers was a feeling she was sure she could get lost in forever.

After a few seconds, Garlan opened his eyes.

 

-|-|-

 

As Garlan sat by himself at the table, he wondered what his future held for him. He had brought Sigarick his very first loss in the contests.

He was beginning to understand why no losing contestant had ever gone on to win their staff. He was pretty sure he couldn't wait another fifty years for another chance.

He was hungry and he was eating, but the food in front of him just didn't bring the satisfaction that it usually did. It tasted drab and ordinary, though he was quite sure that those that prepared it had done so with their usual, consummate skill.

Sigarick walked past him and sat down across from him. He sat there and stared long and hard.

“Master, I am embarrassed and ultimately sorry that I brought this disgrace upon you.”

Sigarick was not smiling. He wasn't betraying any of the emotions he was surely feeling at this time.

Garlan looked at him and thought, “surely he is never going to talk to me again.”

Sigarick looked even more intensely, making Garlan even more uneasy.

Then Sigarick smiled. Then he laughed.

“My boy, I'm surprised you lasted as long as you did.”

Garlan was taken aback by that statement.

“So you don't think I was nearly as prepared as I could have been?”

Sigarick shook his head.

“No Garlan, that is not what I mean. Neither one of us thought to prepare you to battle against the most beautiful woman either of us had ever seen,” said Sigarick with a small laugh in his voice.

Sigarick's eyes twinkled and Garlan knew that he still had his master's respect.

“Even the crowd was subdued when she disrobed and I knew at that moment, your fight would have been easier against the king of the dragons.”

Garlan smiled at the thought of Marnell standing in front of him, half naked.

Sigarick reached across the table and patted Garlan's hand.

“You did just fine today. Don't let this get you down. You are still destined to become a great wizard.”

Sigarick looked past Garlan and smiled at something he saw.

He stood up and said, “I think it's time for this old wizard to think about getting some sleep. We will be starting back home early in the morning.”

Garlan nodded.

As Sigarick walked past Garlan he said, “the seat is all yours young lady.”

Garlan turned to see who Sigarick was talking to as a shimmering white angel moved to sit down in the seat Sigarick had just vacated.

Marnell was dressed in a magical, white gown, with a red starfire gem hanging from a gold chain around her neck. She leaned the Staff of Fire against the table. Garlan never paid any attention to it.

He had other things filling his eyes. Her eyes twinkled with starlight and when she smiled, her teeth were as white as snow.

Garlan was completely at a loss for words.

“So, you wanted to talk about the land of the dragons.”

 

The End

(for now)


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