The Tournament 02: The Lossbymadam_noe©
copyright Nora Quick 2012.
As always, I welcome comments and feedback!
He was a shock to my system. Stellan Kellner was the man I'd been charged to find and help me navigate my way through a dangerous world, a mentor of knowledge even if he was to be a possible opponent in a battle to the death. We were fighting to save the dying world, one champion of eight would triumph and open a gate to let in their gods to save the world, or so I'd been told. Of all the things I'd expected, it was not to find an old over.
Like most women traveling steadily north to evade radioactive fallout I'd sometimes paid for room and board working at a brothel. When the customers were young, attractive, and radiation free, it was even fun. Stellan had been a fun paying customer once, one of my first, long ago.
"I know you," he said when I walked through his door.
He owned an actual home, a cabin solidly built, not temporary quarters on the shores of the Hudson Bay. I could remember all my past lifetimes for nearly three thousand years and in the time that body of water had been known to white people it had held that name, unchanging, unlike most places. No one knew why.
"We met at a roadhouse, the Greystalks, about five years ago. I worked the top floor." When I used the slang that told him just how we'd met, his light eyes flared with flattering interest. He was still pale and tall, but his light blonde hair was long enough to be tied back now and he'd gained some muscle, broadening. Training to fight to the death would do that. I'd spent eighteen months training and had gained some myself, clashing with my child-like face and stringy red hair that made me look deceptively delicate.
"I'm Keelin of Thorpe."
The warm praise in his was replaced by shock and then a kind of anger. "Why didn't you challenge me then?"
"I didn't know. I only met my goddess over a year ago. The Chinese champion attacked me, I knew nothing, and she saved me. They, whoever they are, took her away for that. She said if no one came for me to find you and ask what the hell is going on."
I looked around the cabin which was basically one room with a bathroom that suggested indoor plumbing. Fancy. The furnishings were simple, good quality but threadbare with age, hand-me-downs. The only decoration was one wall covered with swords, bows, crossbows, and ammunition cases for a few guns behind glass, a rare find in the modern age.
His eyes followed mine as he stood, towering over me by five inches, an unusual feeling as I was six feet tall. "What makes you think I won't challenge you now?"
"Morrigan told me you would explain it to me, what we're fighting for, who we're fighting, why. If you tell me I will leave and I swear I will not challenge you, nor fight you unless it comes down to just the two of us."
In my head the chorus of voices that were my past lives argued. The fighters urged me to use surprise and attack, and the more peaceable voices tried to squelch those cries. The precious few cynics cheered me on knowing I'd lose, and lose fast.
"How do I know you'll keep your word?"
"How do I know you'll keep yours?" I tossed back.
He stood still, body tense, and considered me for a long moment. "Take off your sword, leave it inside, and let's go outside, away from all weapons, and talk there."
I didn't know how he knew I had a sword strapped to my back, a trick I'd imitated after the Chinese champion, Li Bao-Zhi, had shown me it before he tried to take my head off. Stellan turned, showing he was unarmed and so with a frown I shrugged out of my long coat and set the sword down. I was Keelin enough to scream inside at the voices to quiet and for once they did.
Following him outside, memories flashed of our previous time together. Then, as all memories did, they clashed with those over many lifetimes. Sex with love, sex with hate, rape, both as the victim and as the rapist...I'd spent lifetimes as good and evil and in this one I was determined to be neutral.
Outside it was calm. The sky was, as always, ashy grey with clouds but the trees were thick and green and wildlife still populated the area enough to make noise. He walked to a small clearing with a fire pit dug out and four benches at the cardinal directions. He motioned to one and I sat, and he took the one opposite me.
"Tyr tells me your ability is to recall all the knowledge of your past lives, so I can assume you know history."
I nodded, though a few smart-alecky voices inside grumbled that not only did they know history, they'd made it.
"When Rome was falling it was the time when the old gods, our gods, were dying. Without belief in them, faith, worshippers, the link between our worlds was thinning until they could pass into this world only as immortals with small magic. When the gate is full they are nearly omnipotent alone, but in force, one pantheon can change everything in the world.
"You see they are not truly gods. They have their own world on a different plane of existence. It's a mirror of earth but there they are immortal beings small in number with no magic. Here they have plenty of it so long as we believe. Why that is so I do not know.
"When the idea of one god rose they lost their power and they met, all the pantheons. They fought until eight remained and made an agreement. When humanity was doomed those eight pantheons would choose one champion and we fight to the death. The winner alone opens the gateway and allows their pantheon in to shape the world in their image.
"Each of us is tutored by a god or goddess, the deity of war. You should have been trained from the age of eighteen."
I pursed my lips. At eighteen I'd been locked in my parents' attic. At thirteen my past life memories had come rushing in, driving me mad and it was assumed I was merely schizophrenic. With no doctor to treat me in our small town I'd been stowed away as a secret, only able to run away five years ago. If my parents were still alive I had no idea, and frankly I didn't care.
"It was complicated," I said simply.
That earned me a heaving sigh. "Keelin, you may have knowledge of your past lives but without training it's nothing."
I'd searched for Stellan for a year, an immense feat in a world with no records and nothing official beyond the value of gold. In for a penny, in for a pound, one of my past selves said in my mind. "Without my goddess how can I train? Tell me something of value and I will hold up my end of the bargain."
His light eyes regarded me sternly, looking me up and down. The Morrigan had gifted me with gold, enough to keep me going. I'd eaten better and spent my time in woods like this lifting heavy logs and rocks to gain muscle just as I had in ancient lifetimes, in other bodies. I had good, lithe muscle but my gift was speed, something that didn't come easily when distracted by a chorus of voices in your head.
"You must always play to your strengths and be aware of your opponents' weaknesses."
That made me snort. "Boy, I have fought in almost every major war, I have been a mercenary and a killer more times than I can count, a professional fighter in most of my lives. Tell me something I can use in this tournament we've been forced into."
Standing, he spread his arms and turned a slow circle. "Do you notice anything about this area?"
I looked about and it struck me suddenly that at the edge of the clearing the trees were different, not the firs of most of the forest. "The trees."
He nodded. "In each pantheon there is one main god who decides our power. Odin has an overt fondness for ash and elm trees. They give me power, and so they have been planted here for me, just as they have for all the past champions waiting for the call."
Adrenaline had me on my feet. "What trickery is this?"
"No trickery but a lesson. Let us fight now, unarmed, not to the death, but until the loser cries mercy. See how I use my power and learn to use yours."
"No tricks? You swear?"
He went still for a moment, his vaguely handsome face schooled in seriousness. "I swear upon my honor and that of Odin and Tyr, no tricks."
"All right then." I rolled up my sleeves and took a defensive posture.
He didn't eve strike a pose, just turned is natural stance and footing into a beautiful dive and grabbed my shoulders. Twisting us, he brought me down and I couldn't get leverage to kick. We went down into a near bear hug as the full brunt of his weight hit me. For a brief moment a very feminine part of me thrilled at the hard, heavy press of a male body against mine, but then my voices kicked in.
He was like a constrictor, the more I fought the more his hold tightened, until I could barely breathe. I fought my past selves every bit as much as I fought Stellan, and when I realized that was my error, I went limp.
I called mercy after just a few minutes.
We struck an odd friendship then and there and spent the next three months training. I wont lie, we each felt out the other's weaknesses like patient predators, but soon enough I was getting better. The key was to organize my thoughts, quiet the voices that wouldn't help and call forth those who did. At times I even gave my body over to old selves that were better fighters and after a time I no longer feared losing myself.
Given our initial reactions to one another and shared past, one might have thought that we'd become lovers but it never came up. We focused so much on training that it never came to pass and I didn't lament it in the least. No matter, I had enough memories of all the varieties of sex to keep me warm in the night, be it with fond desire or hot shame.
We fell into an easy enough pattern. In the morning we'd grapple without weapons after breakfast. We'd break for lunch and then he would read for pleasure while I studied the other champions. On weekends we used the time to practice shooting his guns and casting new bullets. After dinner we fought with weapons and the victor got to sleep on the narrow bed, the loser slept on the hard couch with springs poking out.
From time to time our bathing times might overlap and I felt a shiver of lust, but it faded with each day. Stellan always treated me cordially, but I'd be the first to admit I was no prize, unless one had very particular tastes. It seemed he didn't, and I took no offense.
Nearly two years had passed since the Chinese champion had found me and the Morrigan had saved me, earning the wrath of all the gods who'd declared no interference. Stellan met regularly with Tyr but kept him from me. The god knew of my doings and relished feeding Stellan reports of her imprisonment and upcoming trial. If she could justify her aid to me she would return, but that didn't worry me. There was another who could take her place, Neit, the war god who'd never come for me, and Tyr was tight-lipped about him.
When winter came, even more vicious than the year before, Stellan's weekly visits to train with Tyr left him more and more morose upon his return to the cabin. On the day of the solstice when I made an altar for the Morrigan just as my past selves had always done, he returned at sunset with sad eyes.
Something in the tone told me everything was about to change. Maybe he would try to kill me, or maybe he'd send me away, or maybe Neit was outside, waiting for me. No matter what t was, I knew my life was about to change. Damn it, these three months had been the best I could remember in this life. I slept inside, had food, and after this time and trust built between us I had no fear and slept through the night. I was a better fighter and healthier than ever.
"Which doom will it be?" I rose and said quietly.
He stopped, blinking. "What?"
"I'm leaving today, somehow, I can sense it."
"Do your voices tell you that?" he snapped.
"No, your tone did."
He smiled sadly and seemed to relax. "Kiss me."
The request raised my eyebrows. There had been no such desire palpable between us despite one pretty good night years past, no indication from him that his mind would go down this road. Still, I counted him as a friend, and when I left he became just one more inevitable opponent. I couldn't think of a better end to our friendship, and so I crossed to him and gently placed my hands on his hips as his encircled me.
The kiss was sad, not passionate, but nice. Human contact was something I generally preferred to avoid, but I was still human enough to desire it. After a long minute I pulled back, still in his arms and looked around the room noting every last detail. My bag was, as always, packed and ready to go, but the evidence of my stay in dirty plates and obsessively stacked books was plain.
"Tyr is outside and he will give you safe passage to Neit."
It w as then I knew. "But why?"
"He wants you gone. Another champion will come for me soon. For two of us to work together violates the rules."
Slightly shaking I pulled back with a nod. "I'll grab my bag and go. Goodbye, Stellan. I want to remember you like this, almost soft and truly sad."
My words disturbed him but he nodded and let me go. I grabbed my saddlebags and the duffel bag with my tent and other menial items, my portable home. Winter was not the best time to return to camping but I'd survive. Stellan and I had hunted and I'd made us both good jackets from a deer hide lined with mink fur, another skill from a past life.
I donned mine and hoisted my bags while he stood in the center of the room watching me until I opened the door. I took one last look at him, my friend, closed my eyes, and turned. I closed the door behind me knowing what was coming and didn't bother looking for any god. Instead I pulled the throwing knife from the interior pocket of my coat and when the door opened I dropped to my knees and rolled.
The crossbow bolt sailed past, where my head would have been. I tucked onto my side and threw the knife hitting his right shoulder. Cursing he reflexively dropped the crossbow and dove for me, pain filling his eyes with rage.
He was much bigger, much stronger, powered out here by his trees, and ultimately too good a teacher. I lay there, waiting, tapping my boot heel slightly until a device he'd never seen popped out. He'd shown me all his strengths but I had hid some of mine, including some toys Morrigan's gold had bought me.
When he hit me the knife on my boot went into his abdomen. I used his shock to roll him slightly but the knife stuck and my ankle twisted painfully. Pushed into rage he wasn't thinking and wrapped his hands around my throat, squeezing hard. I saw stars dance among the quiet trees as the sounds of his grunts and our bodies scraping the ground drove the nearby animals away into hiding.
For a moment the temptation to relax and give in threatened to take hold. I was so damn weary of living I'd welcome oblivion, but goddess knew I'd just come back to do it all over again. If any two of the seven lived long enough, in fourteen years I would have to begin anew.
At that moment a raven flew overhead, distinguishable from its beak, and I knew it was a message from Morrigan. He still squeezed my neck hard enough I began to worry about a crushed windpipe, and I gave my body over to Craig, the man I'd been when the calendar said it was early nineteenth century. It was he who grabbed for the knife from my saddlebag, he who gave me the immense strength to bring the blade crashing into the soft base of Stellan's neck. Blood exploded from his skull and the light in his eyes dimmed immediately, his body shaking as his grip loosened.
All two hundred and fifty pounds collapsed on me but I could breathe. It was pure fire and I ached, but quickly I rolled him off me and jerked my foot free. I had to limp to my bike making two trips for the bags as the sky darkened.
Snow began to fall heavy and thick and then lighting flashed across the sky. Thunder snow, a phenomena unknown in this modern age. I swear the wind howled like a mourning wail as I tied down my duffel bag, but through it all I didn't look to the corpse.
I didn't know how many others still lived. I would train and wander, seeking Neit, waiting on the Morrigan to return, but never would I seek out another champion. Let them come to me and I would fight, kill if I had to, but I had lost any taste for violence. I now held a repulsion so strong that it overcame the chorus of warriors in my soul. Yes I was the reincarnate but I was also Keelin, and I refused to kill capriciously.
I drove my bike in the snow, near whiteout, skidding several times and barely able to shift with a twisted ankle. I had to get far enough away to pitch a tent and get warm, but I wanted to be too far to give into the temptation to claim his cottage or any of his weapons as mine.
I meant it when I said I wanted to remember Stellan as my sad friend, the taste of his lips still on mine, watching him full of guilt with the knowledge that he was about to do something horrific in moments. That day we'd both lost something precious and more than anything, I wanted, needed to remember that.