You are going to die, Sadia’s voice repeatedly rings in my ears.
I recall the feel off her palm on my shoulder, eyes red, voice husky and dry, “Timber, you don’t have to do this! You won’t win. You are going to die – doing this.”
Despair was bold on her face. For a split second, I considered her position in this, her plight – the tulmut and rumble of emotions her heart had been fighting to contain; the fear paralyzing every nerve of hers; the gleaming sweat running down her body.
I took off her hand and stared deep into her eyes, “Sadia, this is what I want to do. This has been my lifelong passion. I don’t care if I die. All I want is that championship.”
Her voice choked when she said, “You are utterly stubborn. Go ahead and die, okay? Die! That is what you want!”
Her words pricked my core and made me feel a pang of guilt.
Now, the air caresses my face. My breast-cloth feels tight around my ribs. My skirt is fluttering in the breeze. The cheer of spectators is deafening. My opponent is prancing around in the ring, waving hysterically at the crowds seated on the many steps all around us. They roar with laughter and praise, chanting his name “Yanan! Yanan!!”,then followed by a rumble of cheers.
Yanan pounds his chest boastfully and shakes his head. The long braid that trails his head swings as well. When he turns around, he is a glut of muscles with feral eyes that speak of no mercy. He offers a wry smile that exposes the cluster of unevenly shaped teeth in his mouth. His bushy eyebrows knit together as he twirls his kpiki: a weapon made of rope and a ball whose body is bedecked with spikes. The thought of those sharp points sinking into my flesh makes a sharp pain slice through my backbone. It’s a wonder I have not split into two like the upright-positioned logs of wood Aika breaks at home.
Yanan shakes his head to mean mockery. His eyes are alight with words that say, “You are a fool to think you will win the Deathbath championship.” Sweat trickles down the length of my arms. My resolve wobbles as my legs. I don’t think the amount of it present in my blood would suffice to keep my courage alive. I swallow saliva, now regretful for not listening to Sadia. I’ve always been stubborn, especially about my passion for this championship, even when it was obvious this would never work for me: my repeated failures during training, personally or collectively with other aspirants, were enough proofs for me.
Buba, my teacher as well, had persuaded me not to participate in this dangerous career. He said he was sorry, that it seems I was not truly cut out to be a Deathbath champion. I should have listened. You never listen, Timber! I am angry with myself now. I can’t tell my emotions from each other now – Anger. Regret. Fear. Desire. Sadness. Pain. My heart palpitates overtly fast in a way I can’t catch my breath. Yanan jabs a fist into his palm and poises, gripping his kpiki firmly. My heart’s pace increases. My hands visibly tremble. Yanan raises a brow at me, urging me to poise as well for combat.
Memories return to me in flashes – memories of training; memories of Zarah holding my hands affectionately and saying we would grow old together; my mother grabbing my leg in a bid to stop me from going; Aika returning home every night exhausted; Sadia weeping. Why was it so hard to see that these people mattered most? That loosing me would bear heavily on them? I let passion drive me, veil my eyes, blind me. Not even for Zarah – Zarah for whom I had sworn my life for.
The noise is dying. Silence is snaking its way in. Anticipation is heavy in the air. Every eye is on us. Sadia must be watching from behind with tear-covered eyes. Above, our Queen sits with her chest out, regal in the magnificent clothes that attire her body. Her hand is upright, waiting to snap, to give the order to begin. But the drums must roll first. They begin to sound – strong beats that threaten to crack every bone of mine. They stop. The queen snaps her fingers and shouts, “Let the battle begin!”
Yanan’s nose twitches. The brightness on his face clears away. In its place is a brazen, cutting stare that makes me think of a lion tearing its prey mercilessly. My hands wrap around the hilt of my sword, my only hope.
Yanan charges like a savage beast.