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Chapt. 15: The Duels
By Michael Jesse
Down on the green where the previous day they had seen sports and dancing, Jack and Laura watched in horror as at least 20 ruah males engaged in a frenzied battle, clubbing at each other with their horns. The air was thick with the crash of horn against horn and harsh songs of battle.
Yet in the middle of the melee stood Verdu and the other male they'd met named Menda, watching the fight but making no move to intervene.
"Make them stop!" Laura pleaded to Irenia, who had just reached the crest of the hill. She had forgotten to whistle, but Irenia understood her well enough.
"Oh dear, I'm sorry," Irenia said. "I should have better prepared you for this. They are only practicing." Just as she said this Verdu issued a commanding blast that meant "enough" and everyone instantly stopped fighting and all stood motionless as Verdu and Menda walked among them.
"You see?" Irenia said quietly. "No one is hurt. Now let's sit here a few minutes and watch. I don't want to distract them from their preparations, but I want you to see this."
Jack and Laura sat with Irenia under a tree and looked down on the green where the ruah stood at attention in front of Verdu and Menda.
"Not bad," Menda said. "You are well grounded in the fundamentals that you were taught growing up, and some of you are quite skilled at the routines and have earned ribbons at the fairs. But your movements are too predictable and you seem to expect only predictable moves from your opponents. This can be a fatal disadvantage in a real battle and those of you who have seen the advanced techniques will have noted that many more moves are required to compete at that level. Allow me to demonstrate."
At this, Menda turned to face Verdu and suddenly swung his horns at Verdu's head. Verdu barely moved but tilted his head to absorb the blow on one of his thickest horns. Menda swung again and Verdu again deflected it, but now he began to move in a side-step as Menda moved. They came at each other in a flurry of complex movements much more elaborate and varied than what the others had done, but each time the blows were deflected and neither Verdu nor Menda seemed in danger of being harmed though they seemed not to be holding back as they attacked each other.
After several minutes of this, Menda bowed with his horns touching the ground, exposing the back of his neck. He held the pose until Verdu reached down with his horns and touched the back of Menda's neck. Then he raised his head slowly as the watching ruah blew a series of notes in unison that seemed like a form of applause.
"As you've been taught in competitive dueling," Menda went on, "we bow to our opponent. Why do we do so?"
"To show respect and trust!" one of the youngest ruah called out.
"That is correct. And why is trust so important to this ceremony?"
Another youth called out, as if reciting a verse, "the back of his neck is a ruah's most vulnerable spot and when we bow we invite our opponent to kill us if he so chooses."
"Exactly. You bow to show trust — and you'd better be sure your opponent deserves that trust. Do the saviens deserve our trust?"
"NOOO!" all the young ruah bellowed with their lowest pipes. Laura felt ashamed and began to turn her head when she realized Verdu was looking straight up at them. She held his glance as long as she was able and then looked down at her lap.
"Here is another difference," Menda went on, "between the ceremonial dueling we've all learned as youths and real battles, which fortunately are rare in our lives. You are prepared to fight horn against horn. But the Saviens won't be fighting you with horns. They have no horns, and they're not even very big. Wouldn't stand a chance in a duel, would they?"
"Don't be so sure, young warriors. Do not be fooled by their small size and soft appearance. They have a weapon that you must defend against." Menda bent his mouth to the ground and picked up a long slender stick that was about the size of the men's spears. "It looks like this," Menda explained, "but with a knife attached to the end. You must learn to deflect this weapon and disarm the savien. Without this they pose no threat."
Menda recruited two volunteers and gave them each one of the long sticks. Each had a short crossbar attached in the middle so a ruah could hold it in his teeth and extend it horizontally as a human would with his hands. Using the special grips, Menda and the two volunteers surrounded Verdu and tried to attack him, but Verdu whirled and twisted his horns efficiently, knocking the sticks away and then lunging at each of his assailants to force them to retreat away from the fallen weapon. With a swift blow, Verdu chopped one of the sticks in half, cutting a hole a foot deep in the soft earth.
"Hey, go easy on the equipment," Menda laughed. "I still need a few of those."
Menda took one of the undamaged sticks and he and Verdu executed several moves in slow motion to show how it was done. Then the trainees were divided into groups of two or three to practice. While this was going on, a young female with long, muscular legs and a wild mane of golden hair came running at a full gallop across the pasture and slowed only as she approached Verdu, who ran out to meet her.
Irenia watched with interest. "Come with me, children," she announced and led the way down the hillside on a path to intercept Verdu as he trotted back to the greenway. The ruah youths stood respectfully as Irenia passed
When Verdu saw her he came immediately to her. "I need to go to the coast."
"No. Some university students are camped out on the beach hoping the saviens come back."
"Why would they hope for that?"
"Because," Verdu said wearily, "they are convinced that we have overreacted and that if only we had welcomed the saviens we could have mended our differences and be having tea together. Ruah that age think they know everything."
Irenia tittered. "You were never like that, were you Verdu?"
"No. I'm heading out there now to speak with them."
"Take Laura and Jack with you," Irenia said.
Verdu looked back at her, surprised. "Whatever for?"
"Because they can help you make it understood that it would be foolish to assume that ship is harmless. And besides," she added making eye-contact with Laura, "I think these children have been sent to us for a reason."
"As you wish," Verdu replied without much conviction.
At a small building nearby, Verdu began preparing supplies which he stowed in a cloth saddlebag.
Riona trotted up. "I'm going with you."
"That is not necessary," Verdu insisted. "I can easily carry both children — if indeed they must go — but you really should start restricting your travel, dear."
"I'm not due for a month, and the doctor said exercise is good for me. Besides, those are MY students, so I'm going."
Verdu emitted a single low note that conveyed his frustration with having Jack, Laura and now Riona all accompanying him on what should have been a simple trip alone, but that he knew it was pointless to argue with either his wife or her grandmother. This was a lot of information to put into a single musical note, yet everyone understood it.
"Here, Laura," Riona said. "Why don't you ride with me this time and let Jack go with Verdu." Jack's eyes widened at this, but he tried not to seem excited.
"I can easily carry them both, Riona. Surely the doctor didn't intend for you to go on three hour trips with a weight on your back."
"Oh she weighs practically nothing, Verd. I'm taking her."
Verdu played the same low note, but this time he exaggerated it intentionally, making Riona and Irenia laugh.
Riona lowered her body so that Laura could climb on. "Are you sure this is okay?" Laura whistled quietly in Riona's ear. Riona leaned her head backwards so that her flaring upside-down nostrils were near Laura's face. "Don't you start with me too, young lady."
Verdu lowered himself as far as he could and Jack happily scrambled on. As the big ruah elevated himself back to his full height, Jack tentatively put his hands on Verdu's horns as he would the handlebars of a motorcycle. He looked at Laura and grinned.
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