Art Pact 269 - Dawn Battles

We fought at dawn, the smack of rough punches echoing through the quiet valley and closer to the noises of exertion and exhaustion, coughing and panting and the crunch of knuckles and jaws and other bones that we could not identify as we hammered away at them. My hands were raw from blows, my knuckles just red ruins perched atop the milk-white of my fists, and I could see the crimson streams of blood rolling down my opponent's skin, darkened by the colour beneath. We punched and punched and punched, tore and kicked at each other, we wrestled so that at one moment my thumbs were pressing into his eyes, at the next his arm was around my throat and the world was all spots and lights and the sound seemed very far away. I stamped or wriggled or punched, or more likely I did all of those things, and I was free again to continue my assault, and to continue the sanctioned assault against my own body by means of a contractor. We tore at each others's faces with our nails like wild cats, we bludgeoned and spat and bit where we could, so that our mouths were full of blood and the taste of flesh and salt, and when we parted or fell to the ground we threw rocks and stones at each other, although we had agreed that there would be no weapons involved, so despite the fact that there were sticks within arm's reach we let them lie where they were.

After an hour of this punishment, though, the thought of finishing it off once and for all began to get the better of me, and I could see too that Spritzer was sending longing glances off to one side, into the undergrowth beneath the arid trees where their slow death was measured in unruly stacks of wood, fuel for some future brushfire that might in a month or two sweep down from the hills and devour the forest. There were sticks in there the size of a man's arm, perfect for cudgels, we could both have run for them and the first to reach it would have been able to deliver the coup de grace to the other. I thought that I might still be fleet enough of foot to survive, but looking at Spritzer there was much uncertainty in my assessment. I moved towards the pile of sticks - just a step. Spritzer did the same. We both took another step, and another, and I could feel every muscle in my body simultaneous screaming in agony and taut in preparation. I expected to begin to run at any moment - I willed myself to run, to be the first away and so gain vital seconds - vital in the most literal sense, since they would keep me alive and lead to Spritzer's death. But I could not make myself move, no matter how earnestly I wanted it. It was as if my feet were in lead. I knew that I was defeated then, but when I looked back at Spritzer I could see the same agony of paralysis in his eyes. His feet were covered in the blood streaming down from his legs, but they were pressed tight against the ground as if they could with one push spring away, sending him flying into the high heavens. I waited. Waited. There was no movement.

"Why are we fighting?" he said suddenly.

I had not heard him speak for close to four years, since we had sat opposite each other at the great table at my father's house, when Spritzer had sat beside his captain and laid out the terms of the treaty. His rumbling voice was the same - deep and melodic, but scratchy at the edges somehow, so that you knew that at any moment it might break and turn into an awkward falsetto.

I stared at him, then at the woodpile. It seemed so far away now, and also - as if his question had broken a spell - so pointless. I did not want to kill Spritzer. I wanted to defeat him, of course, but why would I want to kill him? The idea seemed insane, the thought of a blood-thirsty wolf more than a man.

"I..." I croaked. There was a tooth loose in my mouth, and I spat it out along with an arc of blood-red saliva.

"Why here?" he asked. "Why now?"

"We were to fight at dawn," I said. "To settle matters once and for all. One way or the other."

He shook his head.

"What matters?"

There had been something, I was sure of it. Something that was so important that it might well have led to my death, had I let it run away with me. But something, too, that I knew could not be solved by Spritzer's death, nor by mine. I felt the tension in my legs begin to turn into cramp, and I slowly shifted my weight back upright again. If he ran now, he would have the length on me by an arm or more, full enough to turn into my death. But a second later I saw him relax too - in fact, more than I had. Blood began to trickly out of wounds that the tension of his muscles had been holding almost closed, and his face began to grow hideous pale, so that it seemed left there he would eventually be as ghastly white as I was. He moved, and the move turned into a stumble, and the stumble to a topple, and my rush forward to catch him unfooted me too, so that the two of us landed full-length beside each other, felled by our own weakness. I turned my head with some effort to look at him - it was even with his elbow, and I could see the awful blotches that my blows had left on his arms.

"Are you alive?" I asked, my lips cracking.

He coughed once.

"Are you alive?" I repeated, after a few seconds of silence. "Are you-"

"I'm alive," he said.

"Good."

We lay like that for a while. I could feel that somewhere within me the fight had broken something important. My lungs felt tight, but I could not tell if they were constricted in some unnatural way or if it were just that I was lying on them. I took as deep a breath as I could and then let it out in a long painful wheeze. The flow of air was visible in a pathetic ripple of grass leaves extending out from my mouth, although everything looked grey or red to me, so that the grass looked too alien to be real. I watched a drip of blood roll out of a wound on Spritzer's arm and wondered for a moment who had put it there, before I remembered that it was me, my mouth or hands or feet that had somehow cut through him.

"Why were we fighting?" I asked.

"I don't know."

His arm squirmed, the hand grasping feebly at the earth to try to get some kind of grip. At first I thought he was trying to pull himself towards me to attack me again (although I knew now that he did not want to), but it moved closer to his body, trying to raise the arm up behind it until it was upright enough to push against the ground. I saw the muscles tighten, but his body remained where it was.

"I think I'm dying," he told me.

"Me too," I agreed.

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