Max was walking up to Keene Manor on a dark night. It was cold and snow was on the ground. He looked up at the house to see it looked almost abandoned. The only light was the glow coming through the window of the fire in the parlor. Max walked up to the portico and stepped into the entry hall.
He looked around and called out for Griffa. He received no answer. Max looked up at the stairs in the darkness and saw someone sitting at the top. Max walked up the stairs slowly. As he neared the top, he realized it was Ansel sitting on the stairs. Ansel had his head down, and his hat was in his hands. He was making a soft noise, and Max realized he was crying.
“Ansel, what is wrong?” asked Max.
Ansel looked up with red eyes at Max. “I should have known. How could I not have known? I have failed her in every way.”
“Failed who?” asked Max.
Ansel put his head down and shook it. Max felt a sick feeling in his stomach.
“Where is Griffa, Ansel?” whispered Max.
Ansel looked up at Max, and he felt a deep grief come over him.
“Where is Griffa?” asked Max more urgently as he reached out for Ansel.
Max sat up in his bed, wide awake. He looked through his window to see it was still dark. He was breathing hard, and he felt tears in his eyes. He tried to remember his dream, but it was escaping his mind. He felt scared and sad, but he didn’t know why. Max’s head started hurting, and he felt very tired. He laid down his head and closed his eyes.
As he fell asleep, he whispered, “You should have known, Ansel.”
Max woke up in the morning with no memory of his dream. He got up and walked down to breakfast with a spring in his step. He was very excited about the duels today. He had only ever dueled with Ansel and Griffa, but he felt like he was getting better. He believed he knew enough to at least not look like a fool. He was dressed in a simple black tunic. The familiar standard of his family, a sun, was stitched on each shoulder. He wore black pants and his worn in black boots.
When he got to breakfast, he found both Ansel and Griffa sitting at the table. They were talking with each other looking very pleased. Max thought they both seemed in better moods lately. Ansel was wearing a dark blue tunic with the usual tree stitched in light blue on the front. Griffa wore a simple short sleeved black dress with her own family standard of a large falcon on the bodice. Her hair was loose and wild, running down her shoulders.
“Good morning, Max,” said Griffa brightly as Max grabbed some food and took a seat. “Are you excited about the duels today?”
“Yes, very,” replied Max. “I wonder who I will get to duel. I hope it is someone I have a chance against.”
“You’ll do fine whoever you end up pairing with; just remember what you’ve learned, stay grounded and ready,” advised Ansel.
Max nodded and started on his breakfast. Soon Issa and Nora joined them. Issa looked very fresh and pretty in a simple yellow dress, and her hair pulled up with a ribbon.
“Are you coming today to watch the duels, Nora?” asked Max with his mouth full of eggs.
“Max, what have I said about talking with a full mouth? People here call you a king, but you don’t even have any decent table manners. People will think I let you run wild as a child,” said Nora, rolling her eyes.
“Sorry, Nora, but will you come watch?’
“Yes, I suppose I will. You will take care though, right? These duels sound dangerous,” said Nora with a worried look on her face.
“There are usually only minor injuries and those can be taken of quickly. Max will be fine,” reassured Ansel.
As they were finishing breakfast, a letter was brought in for Griffa. She opened in and read it. She blushed a little and then smiled before laughing and putting it down.
“Who has written you?” asked Ansel.
“Talon,” answered Griffa.
Talon Wendell was the leader of the Valley, the other main magical village in the kingdom. He was an old friend of Griffa’s. He had spent a few days with them last fall. Max looked at Ansel. He knew Ansel didn’t think much of Talon.
“What does he have to say?” asked Ansel casually.
“Oh, not much. He wants me to come spend a few weeks in the Valley this summer. He says I should bring Max if I want.”
“I supposed if you really wanted to go, Max could come with you. We could all stay in your Valley house for a few days, or even at Wendell House if Talon is offering,” said Ansel looking down at his plate.
“I do not wish to go,” declared Griffa, picking up her teacup. “I wouldn’t mind seeing Talon again, but I think we would do better to stay here this summer.”
“If you are sure,” said Ansel looking at Griffa while she drank her tea.
“I am very sure.”
They finished breakfast and walked as a group to the large lawn behind the meeting hall. There was many people standing around talking. Max saw that a large circle had been roped off in the center of the lawn. Chairs had been set up in rows around the circle on raised platforms. Many chairs were already taken with others standing alongside the rope.
Nora and Issa found a place to sit on a platform. Max, Griffa, and Ansel stood in front of them by the rope, Max and Griffa holding their staffs. Ansel pulled his hat down low to block out the glare of the sun. More people kept coming in until the chairs were practically full and all the area in front of the rope was taken. The town bell rang, and Hector Delis stepped out into the ring with a large basket.
“Welcome all to the beginning of our summer festival. Today we start with our traditional duels. Remember these are meant to be friendly and clean. There will be no curses or spells that intend to cause serious harm. If one is seen thrown, you will be disqualified. May the gods be with us and guide us this day, this summer, and always.”
There were cheers from all over the lawn. Hector pulled two names from the basket. One was a boy a little younger than Max, and the other a man that looked a little older than Griffa. They came to the center of the ring and bowed to one another. Hector gave a signal and the duel started.
The two circled each other, each trying to knock the other one over. Eventually the boy bested the man by knocking him down long enough to jump over and hover above him. The man yielded and the boy was declared the winner. His group across from Max cheered and welcomed the boy with back slaps. The man went to his friends who laughed and gave him a drink.
More and more duels were called and completed. Max started getting anxious and nervous, waiting for his name to be called. After the sixth duel was completed, Hector Delis called Griffa’s name. Ansel patted her on the shoulder, and she winked at Max, smiling. She bent down under the rope and walked to stand in the middle of the ring. Hector drew the next name and called, “Desmona Delis.”
Ansel made a noise in his throat and said, “Now this should be interesting.” Max silently agreed.
Desmona came to the center of the ring looking as regal and beautiful as always. She had on a simple white dress with no sleeves and a blue cape. She took off her cape and handed it to a man cheering as she walked to the center.
Desmona and Griffa stared at each other. Desmona looked peaceful and calm. Griffa looked smug. Her eyes were bright with excitement. They half bowed to one another and walked to opposite ends of the roped off space. Hector gave the signal and they started circling one another. Desmona came into the area of ring where Max and Ansel stood, and Max could hear her taunt Griffa.
“Little Griffa, look at you. You look terribly wild today. Did you wake up late and not have time to have someone do your hair.”
Griffa ignored her and kept focused, her staff steady by her side. As they circled, he could see Desmona continuing to speak to Griffa, but he couldn’t make out what she was saying. Whatever it was didn’t seem to affect Griffa in any way.
Eventually Desmona made her move by pushing up her hand. Griffa stepped to her left and held out her staff deflecting the spell. Griffa then pointed her staff at Desmona sending dirt and grass flying at the enchantress. Desmona didn’t fall, but her white dress was covered in dirt and grass. He saw Desmona sneer as she made her way closer to Griffa in little circles. Desmona waved her hand and dirt nearby flew in Griffa’s face. Griffa was temporarily unable to see. Desmona got close and touched Griffa. Max could see Griffa’s eyes go dark and a smile form on her face.
“Shake her off, Griff,” muttered Ansel under his breath.
Desmona went to put a hand on Griffa’s staff, but Griffa shook her head and thrust out her hands, pushing Desmona away with a rush of wind. Griffa retreated closer to where Ansel and Max stood, standing at the ready with her staff. She threw a few spells at Desmona. Desmona dodged a few and withstood one as she made her way closer to Griffa.
She put out her hands and pushed. Griffa moved her staff across her body, deflecting the spell as Desmona moved closer and closer, keeping her hand up, forcing a strong wind to hit Griffa, trying to push her back. They were very close to one another.
Griffa put her hand up and sent her own spell towards Desmona. Desmona used one hand to block the spell and the other to keep pushing her spell towards Griffa. They were a few feet away from each other, struggling against one another to stay in their positions. Desmona looked up and saw Ansel, and a smirk formed on her face.
“Griffa, one of these days you should ask Ansel about the times we used to spend together. We were very good friends. I’ve never had such good times as the ones I had with him. Oh, the things we used to do,” taunted Desmona.
“Oh, I know all about what you did to Ansel,” said Griffa with a smirk of her own. “In fact, Ansel and I were just talking about you the other night when he was lying in my bed.”
Max looked over quickly at Ansel. Max felt his eyes widen and his mouth open in shock. Ansel had his head down low, his eyes hidden by his hat, but Max could detect a smile on his lips.
Griffa’s statement seem to shock Desmona as well because she faltered for a second which was enough time for Griffa to gain the upper hand. Griffa raised her staff up quickly and slammed it down. Desmona was knocked off her feet. She tried to get up, but Griffa pushed out her hand. Desmona was flung back. Griffa jumped high and landed softly standing over Desmona, her staff pointed at her chest.
Desmona raised her hands up and said, “I yield. I yield.”
Griffa smiled and took her staff away. She offered Desmona her free hand, and Desmona took it, letting Griffa help her up.
Griffa pulled Desmona in close and Max heard her say, “I know the damage you did to Ansel. I know how you tortured and toyed with him. If you ever hurt him again, what happened today will be a happy memory compared to what I will do to you. Are we clear?”
Desmona took her hand away from Griffa and looked at her with disgust.
“I want nothing to do with him. It seems his taste these days are far below my own,” sneered Desmona, her eyes narrowed at Griffa.
Max hear Ansel growl under his breath as Griffa rolled her eyes and walked away from Desmona towards Max and Ansel. Desmona raised her hand, and Max was about to call out to Griffa when Griffa turned around and raised her staff. Water from a nearby well rushed out and landed on Desmona soaking her and splattering her dress with mud. Desmona shrieked, and Hector Delis came out and collected his daughter. He chided her for striking out after the duel was over.
Griffa crouched under the rope as Ansel held it up for her. She stood up and shook out her hair, sending a dust cloud over Max and Ansel.
“Sorry,” Griffa said smiling.
Ansel took of his hat and dusted it. “No problem, Griffa. Good duel. She’ll remember that one for a while.”
Max smiled at Griffa and congratulated her, but he had many questions for both her and Ansel. He couldn’t ask them now, but soon he would want answers.
More duels were called, and Max once again started feeling anxious and nervous. Eventually Ansel’s name was pulled from the basket. Griffa gave him a playful shove with her hip. He handed his hat to her and made his way under the rope.
Hector Delis then pulled a name and called out “Maxwell of the blood of Adalwen.
There was a murmur that went through the crowd and everyone seem to sit and stand up straighter. Those who were drinking and laughing turned and looked at the circle. Max felt his eyes widen and his legs go weak.
Issa yelled his name. He turned, and she gave him an encouraging smile. He tried to smile back, but he was not sure his mouth did anything. His stomach was a mess of nerves.
Griffa blew out a breath of air. “Go on, Max. You can do this. You’ve been dueling Ansel for weeks. Watch him closely. Before he strikes, he gives a short breath.” She pushed him towards the rope and Max bent beneath it. He walked to the center of the ring standing face to face with Ansel.
“Max,” said Ansel with a straight face. “Good luck.”
Max couldn’t speak so he nodded. He walked away from Ansel and then turned and faced him. He saw Hector give the signal, and Max stood in a ready position. Ansel did the same across from him. They circled each other for a while as Max waited for Ansel to strike. He tried to watch him closely, looking for the breath Griffa had told him about.
He saw Ansel slightly exhale. That’s it, thought Max. He raised his staff ready as Ansel pushed out his hand. Max moved his staff in a downward motion, blocking Ansel’s spell. He then pushed his free hand forward sending his own spell towards Ansel. Ansel quickly moved to his left and stuck out his hands, blocking Max’s spell.
They went on for a few minutes, trading spells and blocks. Max felt his feet slip a few times, but he managed not to go down. Ansel started throwing spell after spell at Max as he blocked them with his staff and hands. Ansel came closer and closer to Max. Max could fell himself getting weak. His back foot was slipping.
He heard Griffa yell, “Keep steady, Max. Find a way to break his chain.”
Max quickly turned to his right. He felt Ansel’s spell go by him. He then turned and sent a blast of wind at Ansel. Ansel was blown back a little but stayed upright. They were close now. Max was tired, and he wasn’t sure what to try next. The sweat on his forehead was dripping in his eyes. He didn’t want to lose, but knew it was going to happen.
Max lifted his staff, but before he could do anything, Ansel was thrown off his feet by something. Max hadn’t sent a spell, but something had knocked Ansel down. Ansel got up quickly but looked to his right to see where it had come from. Ansel’s eyes widened, and Max took advantage of Ansel’s momentary lack of attention. He jammed his staff into the ground and the ground around Ansel started to shake. Ansel stayed up right for a moment, but then fell onto his side.
Max ran over and placed his staff at Ansel’s throat before he could get up.
Ansel gave Max a little smirk and said, “I yield.”
Max looked over to where the mystery spell had come from and saw Griffa there looking at both him and Ansel. She shrugged a bit and gave a wink to them both. Max smiled and looked over at Ansel. He had an odd look on his face. His eyes looked unfocused, and he was frowning. Ansel stared at Griffa and tilted his head. Max was concerned as he thought Ansel looked angry.
“Ansel, are you ok?” asked Max.
Ansel looked at Max like he didn’t know who he was. He blinked his eyes rapidly and then said, “I’m fine, Max. Good job.”
Max offered Ansel his hand who took it and let Max help him up. They walked over to where Griffa was, but she was gone.
“Where’s Griffa?” asked Max
Ansel looked around, “I don’t know. She was just here.”
“I hope you aren’t mad at her, Ansel. I know she helped me, but she was just trying to give me a good showing in front of all the people,” said Max. He was afraid Ansel was displeased with Griffa.
“Mad at Griffa?” asked Ansel with a confused look on her face. “No, I’m not mad at her Max, definitely not mad. Why would you think that?”
“The look you gave her after the duel. It was angry. I thought maybe you didn’t like what she did.”
Ansel turned his head and looked sharply at Max. It seemed as if he was going to say something when they were interrupted.
Issa and Nora came up to Max and Ansel to congratulate Max. Issa threw her arms around Max and kissed him on the check. “You did so well, Max!”
Nora patted him on the back and smiled. “Great job, Max! I wasn’t really sure what was going on, but you looked very impressive. You did well too, Ansel.” She handed Ansel his hat.
Ansel put his hat on his head and asked, “Where did Griffa go?”
“She said she was going to head home and clean up. She said she was tired and had seen enough duels for the day,” answered Nora.
The crowd was cheering as other duels were taking place. Issa had linked her arm with Max.
“Do you want to watch the rest of the duels?” asked Issa. “They are quite fascinating.”
Max was torn. He wanted to stay and please Issa, but he was worried about Griffa. He looked at Ansel with a questioning look, wondering what he should do.
Ansel seem to understand. “You should stay here, Max. The people will want to greet you and congratulate you. I’ll go home and check on Griffa. She got pretty dirty during her duel. She probably just wanted a hot bath,” said Ansel. He bowed to them all and walked towards the manor.
Max watched him go until Issa squeezed his arm and smiled. Max escorted her back to her seat on the platform.