Chapter 6: Challenge
About four hundred people turned out to see the challenge match between Rose and Zheen. Half of them were human, but there were plenty of elves, dwarves, hobbs, and even a few fairies in the throng. Buggins and some of his mates were there. They were telling everyone that they were going to bet on Rose and make a fortune, although they had a problem in that they had only a few coins to bet. Gamblers worked the crowd, taking bets. Each was accompanied by a City Watchman, just to be certain that they paid their bets and didn’t abscond with the monies they collected. Street musicians strolled about playing qatarhs, flutes, and fiddles. Food vendors brought their carts, set up their stands, and did a brisk business. The fact that it was lunchtime made this crowd a bonanza for them.
Zheen and the other guards from the Black Dragon arrived first. Daragon, the owner, was with them, as well as the cooks, bartenders, and barmaids. Daragon had closed and locked the tavern so that his staff could all attend this gala event. The last time these two had met in combat, he didn’t close the tavern, and he had to listen to complaints for months from all the staff members who had not been able to attend. Daragon strutted around the park, twirling his mustaches, and letting everyone know what a generous boss he was to let his employees have time off to see this match, and that there would be a big party at the Black Dragon afterwards. He wasn’t quite certain how to bet. On the one hand he thought his guards were tough enough to take anyone in the city one on one. On the other hand, Rose had won the last contest. On the third hand, Zheen had been practicing his wrestling for months, and knew better than to rely on brute strength for the victory. On the fourth hand he knew from experience that Rose was very tricky and didn’t always fight fairly. The odds were two to one in favor of Rose, and in the end he decided to bet on both fighters with different gamblers. He put ten gold on Rose to win with Petal, who was working the crowd, taking bets for people who wanted to bet on Rose. Winning would gain him five gold pieces. A little later he put five gold pieces on Zheen with Monjo the gambler. If Zheen won he would get ten gold pieces. The net effect was that no matter who won, Daragon would break even. Then he would be able to tell his guard that he had bet on him to win, and he could tell his tenant Rose that he had bet on her. It seemed like a good plan to him, but he forgot that both of the gamblers charged a one gold piece fee to make the bets. Losers paid the fee from their bet, and winners paid it from their winnings, but the gambler always made money.
The Duke’s Park was near the palace in the center of the city. The river flowed on one side of it, and the castle stood on the other. It was a beautiful place, several acres of grass, trees, flowers, and fountains. The trees had been cut into the shapes of wild animals—a roc, a dire wolf, a skunk, a goblin, and several other common beasts. Goblins were considered to be animals in Stormgaard, and pernicious pesty ones at that. The Wrestler’s Circle was a beautiful round plot of lush grass. Seats and benches were set up around it, but not enough to seat four hundred people. Athletes met there every day to wrestle or exercise, hence the name.
Zheen entered the circle, took off his shirt, cloak, cap, and boots and began stretching exercises. He had a magnificent physique, broad at the shoulders, narrow at the hips, with long legs and strongly muscled arms. He did toe touches and star jumps, and crunches, and when he felt limber enough he began doing back flips. The women in the crowd went ooh. The men in the crowd called him a showoff and swore they could do as well with a little practice. He worked up a small sweat, and then began to wonder where Rose was.
Calyx and Petal worked the crowd, taking bets, telling stories. Calyx carried a silver elven flute and occasionally trilled a lilting melody. A few people tossed coppers to her, but she let them drop. A High Elf did not play for pennies. Buggins and his mates were quite happy to pick up whatever coppers might fall to the ground, as were the children in the crowd. Children didn’t get any that fell near Calyx. Buggins made horrible faces that scared them away.
Rose arrived just as the sun reached zenith. She rode in a two-wheeled cart drawn by an Centaur named Horace. She carried a parasol and wore a frilly dress, looking far more like a lady of leisure than the sword-swinging adventuress that she really was.
“Here she comes!”
“Rose of Stormgaard!”
“Look at her. Is she really going to fight that brute?”
Many another comment raced through the crowd. Rose waved to her fans and lightly stepped out of her cart. She walked into the circle with a jaunty swing of her hips.
“Hello, Zheen! You dared to come. And how buff you are! Oh, I can tell I’m in big trouble now.”
“Not yet, but you will be, Fancy Dancer!” Zheen cracked his knuckles and took a deep breath to swell out his mighty chest.
Rose smiled and waved at the crowd. Some of them, surreptitiously led by Petal, had begun to chant her name. “Rose! Rose! Rose!”
A fanfare of trumpets cut through the crowd noise, hushing it. The palace door opened and a squad of ten soldiers came out surrounding a man dressed in the finest blue silks. He wore a wide-brimmed hat with a tall blue feather in it.
“The Duke! The Duke is coming to see the match!” The news ran through the crowd like wildfire.
“Hurrah for the duke!” cried Petal. The crowd took up the cry, and the whole throng was cheering and whooping. Some of them yelled for the Duke. Some yelled for Rose. A few even yelled for Zheen. It was bedlam.
Judging by the smile on the Duke’s face he was highly gratified by the reception. His guards cleared a bench for him, and he stood up where all could see him. He beamed, and pulled out a purse and scattered silver pieces to the crowd. He only threw out about twenty, but it was a grand gesture and crowd loved it. They cheered and cheered, and the cheering attracted other people. The crowd swelled until there were nearly a thousand people in the park, and those in the places farthest from the Wrestler’s Circle really couldn’t see a thing, but they asked questions and learned about the Duke and Rose and some guardsman who had challenged her to a match, and they began to cheer also. Some of the younger, and more nimble climbed park trees, and from their lofty perches they could just make out the principals in the Wrestler’s Circle.
“My people!” bellowed Throxeus. He had a clear strong voice, one that befitted a hunter and a warrior. The people cheered wildly. “My people! Welcome to my park! Is it not a lovely day?”
It was in fact a lovely Autumn day, neither too hot nor too cold. A light breeze blew off the river. The days in Stormgaard were often fair and fine, although storms washed the streets of the city two nights out of three.
Throxeus waited for the cheering to die away. It took several minutes. When he could be heard again, he bellowed, “Bring forth the contestants!”
Rose and Zheen stepped forward and bowed to their overlord, keeping their heads down and their bodies inclined until he gave them permission to straighten. He held the tableaux for more than a minute. “You may approach me.” His voice was still pitched to carry quite deeply into the crowd.
“Come stand beside me, Rose.” He extended his hand and pulled her up on the flat stone bench with him. He towered head and shoulders above her. He raised her hand to his lips and lightly brushed a kiss on her palm.
“It is a pleasure to see you again, Your Grace! You are looking magnificent today.”
“The pleasure is mine, my lady. How fortunate that I learned of this challenge match! I cancelled a day of hunting in the hills to be here instead.”
“I’m sorry, Your Grace. I had no thought to ruin your hunting. Everyone knows that you love the chase.”
“Be not sorry. I would not miss such an occasion to be with my people, and to see you fight.”
“You may be disappointed, My Lord.”
He held her hand up in the air. “Good people of Stormgaard, I give you Rose, a champion of the City. Yesterday, she single-handedly slew fifty goblins that were marauding in our forests! Rose, Champion of Stormgaard!”
The cheering took more than five minutes to die away. They stood there grinning and waving while the crowd roared.
“It seems that Rose has already kicked your butt.” Karn nudged his friend who was not looking all that happy at the moment.
“Let her have her moment of glory.” Zheen gritted his teeth. “When the fight comes, then we’ll learn who the better man is.”
“No doubt you are the better man. But she is the Champion of the City.”
“I will be the Champion when I pin her to the ground.”
“For your sake, I hope you can do it.”
Throxeus bellowed again. “And let us also have a cheer for her brave challenger, Zhang, the Captain of the Black Dragon guards.” He beckoned for Zheen to come forward. The guardsmen turned to face the crowd and bowed.
“His name is Zheen, not Zhang, Your Grace.” Rose put in a word for her friend.
The Duke shrugged. “Sorry, my man,” he said sotto voce to the man standing at his feet. “I was misinformed.”
“It matters not, My Lord,” Zheen answered.
The Duke raised his hands for silence. Eventually the crowd noise died down to where he could be heard again. “In honor of this fine competition, I hereby offer a purse of one hundred golden rocs to the winner, and another of one hundred silver eels to the loser!”
The crowd roared again. At that moment Duke Throxeus of Stormgaard was the most popular man in the city.
“Let the contest begin!”
Rose jumped down and landed beside Zheen. “I’m sorry,” she whispered to him. “I did not think this would turn into such a circus. Promise me that no matter what happens, you will remain my friend.”
“You are asking a lot of me, Rose!”
“But I do ask it. Your friendship is important to me, and I would not want to lose it.”
“If I win, and I will, then I will certainly be your friend. If I lose,” he hesitated, “I don’t know. This is an awful lot to take.”
“Did you bring the oil?” She changed the subject.
Zheen snapped his fingers. Karn stepped forward and held out a small vial of golden fluid, stoppered with wax. “In your honor I have acquired the finest Essence of Roses.” He pulled out the waxen plug and offered it to her.
She breathed the strong perfume. “Very nice.”
“Essence of roses,” commented the duke. “I know that aroma well. Fiona, my favorite concubine, likes to wear it.”
“You are not wearing that silky dress in our fight, are you, Rose? I would tear it to shreds in the first minute.”
“That would be a shame. It is my nicest gown. No, Zheen, I have something more practical underneath.” She turned her back to him. “Please help me with these buttons.”
He undid four black buttons down her back, and she shrugged out of the dress.
Underneath she was practically naked. A band of red silk bound her generous breasts tightly to her torso. She could not have them flopping about in a fight. The nipples were visible, hard and perky, poking against the smooth cloth. Around her loins was a wrestler’s twist of red silk.
“By the gods, the woman is shameless,” gasped Karn. “I can see the curls of her thatch, I can see the “.
“Don’t look!” Zheen’s voice came out as a snarl. “She’s mine.”
“Zheen, honey, would you oil me up?” Rose pitched her voice deep and husky. “Lay it on thickly, please. I may need to slip away from you.”
The guard poured some oil in his palm and waited for his body temperature to warm it a little. Then he rubbed his hands together, approached her, and began to spread the smooth warm oil all over her body. He began with her neck and shoulders, put some on her collar bones, and the upper slopes of her bosoms, down her supple back, onto the taut stomach, put some on the wide hips, and the lissome legs, thighs, knees, shins. Rose moaned softly as his hands caressed her. “Oh, that is so good. Mmmm. Zheen, you certainly know how to please a woman.”
Zheen found himself grinning like an idiot. Any anger he felt toward her dissipated as she complimented his every stroke.
All too soon he finished his ministrations. “Ah, that was nice. You’re good. Now, my turn, let me do you,” she told him.
The double meaning of what she said gave him an erection. Fortunately for his dignity, the tight leather of his leggings suppressed the rising flesh. He closed his eyes, briefly imagining her kneeling before him, and doing him. At the moment he wanted that more than anything else on Trollworld.
“Rose is setting him up,” Petal told Thorn. “And she’s good at it. The poor guy will be so crazed with lust that he will forget whatever he knows about wrestling.”
“He’s double her weight at least. She needs whatever advantage she can find,” the dwarf answered.
Rose took some oil in her hands and let it warm. She applied it liberally to the man’s chest and stomach, to his shoulders, arms, hands, and to his legs. “Now turn around and let me do your back.”
Zheen loved the feel of her hands upon his body, and hoped this match might lead to it happening more often.. “Now turn around. You’re so tall, bend over just a little.” Zheen turned and put his hands on his knees. Rose took one step backwards, then launched a swift kick to his right gluteus. Zheen went staggering forward and almost fell. The watching crowd erupted in a roar of laughter.
“Did you see that? She kicked him in the butt. Never saw a wrestling match start that way before.” Throxeus addressed his remarks to Thorn or any of his guards standing nearby.
“Rose is unpredictable.” Dwarves had a rare ability to state the obvious as if it were a deep insight.
Zheen recovered his balance. The red footprint on his butt matched the embarrassed color of his face. “WHAT WAS THAT FOR?”
“Do you remember last night? What did I tell you?”
“You said you could beat me in a wrestling match.”
“No. I said I could kick your butt, and I have just done that. You lose our bet and must buy my drinks for the rest of the year.”
“I’m a witness,” yelled Daragon. “I hope she doesn’t drink too much, Zheen. You could wind up poor.”
All friends of either Rose or Zheen laughed.
“She drinks like a fish,” Thorn told the Duke. “He’s in trouble now.”
“Grrrr!” The growling noise came from Zheen of the Black Dragon guards. Forgetting all his intentions of fighting calmly, using his superior weight and reach to overwhelm her, he charged, hands stretched out to grab her. Rose tossed the vial of oil aside and crouched, ready to receive his charge. As he closed, and almost grabbed her, she suddenly dropped below his clutching hands, catching herself on both hands, lifted her feet from the ground, spun them around, and took his ankles neatly out from under him.. He went down on his face and skidded across the grass.
“She should jump on his back and pin him now while he’s down,” commented the Duke.
Thorn contradicted him without even thinking about who she was talking to. “Nay! Rose doesn’t have the muscle or the mass for that maneuver. He’d rise, throw her off, and she’d lose her advantage.”
Zheen started to rise, getting his hands underneath him. Rose leaped into the air, did a somersault, and came down with her heels together right on the back of his head. A man with less impressive muscles might have suffered a terrible fate right then, but Zheen’s neck, shoulders, and arms were corded with muscle. Not only that, but his hands, which Rose had made a point of oiling, slipped out from under him sideways. Rose rode his head down into the grass. He hit hard, and when he did, she bounded off to the side with a kick that turned his head ninety degrees and left him half stunned.
The crowd roared with amazed approval. This was not at all like any wrestling they had ever seen, but they suddenly understood how a woman like Rose might stand up to a man like Zheen.
Zheen rolled over on his back. He wouldn’t let Rose blindside him like that again. He lay there, half stunned, until he heard Thorn counting. “One, two . . .” He realized that even though Rose was ten feet away, he was flat on his back with his shoulders touching the grass. A referee could rule that the same as a pin. He rolled up onto his shoulders, and then with an impressive effort, vaulted back to his feet.
“You’re tricky, Rose. Everyone knows that. You got a few cheap shots in, but that won’t win the match for you. Neither of those tricks will work again.”
“I’m just playing with you so far, Zheeny.” She pranced around the circle with her hands in the air—ignoring him, taunting him.
Zheen stalked her slowly, confident that if he could just catch her, his superior weight and strength could bring this match to a satisfactory end. He had grass stains on his face, and blood trickled from his nose, and his neck ached and felt strangely weak. However these minor concerns were not about to stop him. Second by second he closed on her as she sidled away, looking for an opening or a way past him.
Rose knew that Zheen would catch her in the next few seconds, and if he ever got a good grip on her, that could be the end of the fight. She needed to surprise him again. Suddenly she threw herself at his feet, head down and body curled into a somersault. Her neck and shoulders struck the grass; her body followed in a roll, and she straightened her legs in a mighty kick right to Zheen’s midsection. A kick six inches lower might have been a fight ender, but Rose wouldn’t do that to a friend. Her heels drove into his rock-hard stomach, and forced him backwards. He reached down and caught one ankle, but her other foot kicked him in the jaw and knocked his head back. His fingers slipped on her oily leg, and she pulled herself free. In a second she was back up and circling.
Half dazed by the tremendous kick he had just taken, and feeling like some of his bottom teeth were loose, Zheen staggered aimlessly for a moment. Rose got behind him. She leaped on him, encircled his waist with her legs, She shot her arms under his shoulders, clasped her hands together tightly on the back of his head, and she had him in a submission hold. The pressure on his already injured neck shot bolts of red lightning through his head. It hurt so much that he considered dropping and surrendering. He didn’t want a broken neck.
But Rose didn’t apply her full strength. As Zheen reached backwards desperately, futilely, because she ducked in close to his head, she hissed in a voice only he could hear. “Do you want to win?”
“Yes, “ he answered before he realized what she was doing.
“You will owe me big time.”
“Throw yourself over backwards and roll. I’ll lose my grip. You will wind up on top, and pin me with your superior strength, and you’ll be the victor.”
“Why would you do this?” he asked quietly, realizing that she had slackened the pressure on his injured neck.
“I have my reasons, including half the winner’s purse. Do you agree?”
For answer he threw himself violently backwards. One of Rose’s hands flew free, and she yelped in dismay. When they hit the ground, she ducked her chin and took the impact on her mane of curly hair. It still hurt, but it wasn’t the stunning blow that it appeared to be to the audience. Her legs flew wide, and she grunted as if winded. Zheen rolled to the left, and suddenly Rose was below him.
“Groin guard,” she whispered as she looked him point blank in the face. She brought one leg up as if to knee him in the balls, but he twisted his hips and took the blow on his thigh. It did no damage.
“Now pin me,” she whispered. He let his full weight collapse upon her and held her shoulders down with his hands, her head down with his forehead. She bucked and twisted. Her legs flailed the air. A great groan rose from the audience, broken by a few cheers from the men who had bet on Zheen against the odds.
He held her down for a full minute. Finally she called out loudly, “I surrender. You are too strong for me!”
“What a fight! What a man!” chortled the Duke. “I thought for certain that she would win after that kick to the jaw, but the man’s strength prevailed.” He seemed extremely pleased.
“I declare this fight ended,” bellowed the Duke. The crowd cheered again. Zheen stood up, still swaying a bit. He reached down, grabbed Rose’s hand, and pulled her to her feet.
“You got lucky,” snarled Rose.
“You underestimated me. I told you I was stronger than last time. You went for the kill too soon.”
Those in the crowd nearest began repeating his words so that those farther away could know what the combatants said to each other. Men nodded sagely at the analysis. Many repeated it. “She struck too soon. She could have won if only she had inflicted more damage before going for the pin.” The story of the fight would be retold in every tavern in the city before the day ended, and actually became a proverb in the months to come. The words “She struck too soon” became a byword for making a critical mistake.”
In the crowd Calyx and Petal re-united under a tree cut to look like a swan. “How did we do, Forest Elf?”
“I took forty-eight golden rocs, three hundred twenty silver eels, and one thousand two hundred sixty copper pennies in bets. All of it was bet on Rose. We don’t have to give any of it back. The High Elf and the Forest Elf smiled mysterious elven smiles at each other and slipped away, headed back for the Black Dragon.
“Well done, Zheen!” chortled the Duke, placing a bulging purse in the fighter’s hand. “Your strength won that match for you.”
“Thank you, Your Grace. You are invited to the party at the Black Dragon.”
“I will be there! And if you ever tire of your employment as a tavern guard, there is an honored place for you with my soldiers.” Zheen simply bowed and took the purse.
“I honestly thought you were going to win, Rose.” The Duke put the purse with one hundred silver eels in her hand.
“He is a very strong man, Your Grace, and not as stupid as he looks.” She glared at Zheen, but it was play-acting and he knew it. “Next time, I’ll soften him up a bit more.”
“Be sure to tell me if you two fight again. I wouldn’t want to miss it.”
“I hate losing,” said Rose, “and these eels will simply remind me that I came out second best today. People of Stormgaard,” she yelled. The crowd was still watching intently. “I feel that I let you down today. I do not deserve this reward. And so I give it to you instead!” She opened the purse and began scattering the silver coins in all directions. Hands went up and tried to catch the money raining down upon them. Some of those who caught the coins kept them for the rest of their lives as a memento of this day.
“Rose! Rose! Rose! Rose!” the crowd roared. Even in defeat she remained their favorite.
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