Arianna inhaled the damp night air and glanced over the castle tower wall to the center courts. All the inhabitants lay asleep in their chambers below, leaving only her opponent and the Elder to stand as witness to her honor or demise.

She slid her palm down her leather skirt to wipe the sweat away and stepped forward, gripping her sword tightly. The Elder’s head, shrouded in a black hood, nodded in consent to begin. Instinct propelled Arianna to attack.

Blades clanked. Tremors reverberated through Arianna’s shaking biceps. She whipped around to counter-attack. Loose strands from her braid distorted her vision of Tardon, her opponent. She swung high while he ducked.

“Certainly, you can do better.” He enunciated each word through a playful snarl.

With shoulders the size of an ox, Tardon towered over her by a foot, but she held her ground. His copper eyes bore into her soul and his contemptuous grin ignited a flame at her core. Only her burning desire to win Elite Warrior status drove her forward and allowed her to stay focused on what was important—winning.

In one fluid motion, she swept around with her leg extended and knocked him off balance. His shoulder smacked against stone and he rolled onto the ground. Before she struck again, he arched his back and flipped onto his feet, sword at the ready.

“You would do well to pay attention to your own defense or risk the slice of my blade.” Arianna squeezed her weapon so hard her knuckles ached.

Swatting his thick brown hair away from his cheekbones, he wielded the blade in his right hand and rotated it in small circles.

From high atop the Elder’s tower, she watched the thick mist roll in over the castle walls below. Swirls of gray lingered like fingers ready to grab a leg and pull her into the darkness of the outer land. A shiver shot up her spine. Too many souls have been lost to the Curse of Gremdon. Her heart ached at the memory of the last time she held her sister. She swallowed, forcing down the incessant feeling of doom.

A sharp pain swept from her side and radiated through her abdomen, taking with it the last ounce of air in her lungs. Gasping, she clutched her side and Tardon withdrew the dark hilt of his sword from her ribs.

“Distraction means death.” He pulled back then bounded toward her.

With a well-timed pivot, she diverted another blow. Leaning back on her left leg, bringing her right knee up, she thrust her foot into his gut. He stumbled back, but swiftly regained his footing.

Both stood in a ready stance.

Both gasped for air.

Neither was willing to admit defeat.

A rush of wind filled with sweat finally penetrated the barrier in her lungs.

Dull pain settled low in her stomach, but she lunged forward, blade aimed straight at Tardon’s abdomen to claim her victory.

But he parried.

A fist smashed against her cheek. Her back slammed against the stone wall. Dust and dirt plumed around her face, taunting her to sneeze. She blinked back tears.

The familiar metallic taste of blood invaded her mouth. She swiped her leather gauntlet across her lips, wiping the blood away, never removing her eyes from Tardon.

She pushed up onto shaking legs. The Elder standing on the edge of the cobblestone circle raised his arm. His gnarled hand extended from the black cloak, ashen skin matching the surrounding mist.

The breath caught in her throat while she waited for his life or death signal. A flick of a pasty white finger summoned her to continue. Icy pain raced through her body as though she’d jumped from a great height on a cold day. The Elders only demanded death once in a thousand moons. Certainly, today would not call for true bloodshed.

But things had changed recently, and no one knew what to expect.

Tardon’s pupils widened, leaving only a thin circle of copper.

She shifted and covered her bubbling despair; her emotions threatened to ruin everything. Arianna adjusted her stance in hopes no one would see her desire to run from the fight to avoid killing him, an unforgiveable sin for a warrior.

You can’t run. Too much is at stake.

She fought the facial muscles betraying her cover and coaxed her face into a blank stare. Tardon shuffled around and she followed, keeping her attention on his best assets and greatest weakness: his muscles. They twitched before he moved.

Arianna circled him, until the Elder crossed his arms with impatience. A match to claim Elite Warrior status required more than a few bruises and flesh wounds. No more time would be allowed. Tardon’s bicep twitched.

Arianna pulled a dagger from her belt, maneuvered under his blow, and slashed his upper chest. Blood flowed down his leather vest. She swept his legs out from under him. He fell to his knees and she jumped on his back, knife at his throat, sword aimed at his gut.

His Amulet of Protection glowed orange.

Her stomach twisted in knots at the thought of harming him, but she had no choice. If the Elders demanded such an offering, she’d have to slice deep and end his life. They remained motionless awaiting the life or death decision. The masculine scent of leather and earthy spices wrapped around her, testing her resolve.

The blade shook in her hands, and she steadied it against his skin. The hooded Elder lowered his arms and turned away from the fight. Loud clicks echoed from the doorway then faded with each step as the dark figure descended the Elders’ tower.

Relief flooded her. After seasons of sacrifice and training, she would receive the Elite Warrior Mark.

Arianna released Tardon and the breath she’d been holding. She stumbled down the stairs to the main passageway and collapsed in a nearby alcove. The knife clinked against the gray stone.

Tardon sauntered from the tower. He sheathed his sword and marched down the walkway but stopped briefly. Sweat rolled down his hard, striated triceps.

Warmth curled through her belly, but no, she could not care for him. One day I might have to kill him.