Ben Marshall and Thomas Bellmaker entered the ring of chalk powder laid out on the grass. The throng of onlookers shoved against each other for the best view. Their excited voices mingling until they were an unintelligible roar carrying through the crisp fall air. The men wore only a pair of trousers and rubbed their gooseflesh arms to ward off the cold. Thom raised his fists above his head, causing the onlookers to break into cheers. Ben grinned at the crowd’s reaction. It was easy to admire Thom. At six foot four, broad shouldered and thickly muscled, he towered over most of the villagers gathered around the circle. Thom’s blond hair was trimmed to the skin on the sides and back, but long and curled on top. The sunlight reflected off a patchy beard that did little to harden his boyish face.
In contrast, Ben had a slight, wiry build. A head shorter than his friend, he disappeared into his shadow as Thom loomed next to him. A thick mop of curly, black hair hung down in his eyes as he bounced back and forth with restless energy.
He punched his friend in the shoulder. “I told you this would be amazing. Everyone loves us.”
Thom smiled and pointed to the far end of the ring, where two men lay in the grass stretching.
“They love the thought of the beating that the Dawson brothers are about to give us.”
Ben paused his antics to size up their opponents. Like many young men in their farm community, the Dawson’s had benefited from years of hard labor and generous meals.
The men flexed hardened muscles for the surrounding audience, drawing catcalls and shouts of encouragement. For the first time, it occurred to Ben that he may not have fully thought through this latest adventure.
“How’d we get into this mess again?” Ben asked.
Thom rolled his eyes. “As usual, my sister mentioned liking the festival matches and suddenly you’re doing something stupid to impress her. At least you’re smart enough to drag me along this time. Either of these guys could break you in half.”
Ben looked over at the sidelines where Thom’s twin sister, Eliza stood. She clutched a handful of silver chips in her fist and argued loudly with a couple of older boys. Tall for a girl, she shared Thom’s athletic build. Her tangled blonde hair fell to her mid-back and was crowned with a garland of wildflowers. Noticing his attention, she gave a thumbs up and grinned her typical crooked smile, showing the chipped front tooth from one of their many childhood misadventures. Butterflies exploded in his stomach.
“You really think she’s impressed?” he asked hopefully.
“I think you’re an idiot,” Thom said. “The match is about to begin. If you didn’t make an impression by agreeing to this foolishness, you certainly will when the Dawson brothers take turns tossing you across the green.”
“No worries, I have a plan,” Ben assured him.
“Does it involve staying out of reach while I try to pin one of them?” he asked hopefully.
A bell sounded and Ben launched into a sprint, directly toward the larger of the Dawson brothers. Thom stood with his mouth hanging open.
“Unbelievable,” he muttered and broke into a run to catch up.
The crowd fell silent as Ben leaped upon his opponent. Ollen Dawson stood motionless; his brow knitted in confusion. Ben grabbed the man’s thick wrist with both hands and slipped behind him. He yanked hard on the arm, attempting to force it into an armlock. Ollen kicked back with his foot, sending Ben rolling across the green. He rubbed his wrist, which was rubbed red from Ben’s futile attempt to pull it behind his back.
Taking advantage of the distraction, Thom plowed into Ollen, knocking him to the ground. He scrambled on top and used his body weight to pin Ollen’s shoulders to the matted grass. The referee stood to the side and began counting. It lasted to the count of two before Graham Dawson came to his brother’s aid. He grabbed one of Thom’s arms and pulled him off Ollen. In trouble, Thom scrambled on all fours, trying to put distance between them. Graham gave chase not allowing Thom a moment’s respite.
Back on his feet, Ben raced across the ring. He threw himself at Graham, hitting him behind the knees. Caught by surprise, Graham fell backward atop him. A loud grunt escaped Ben as the air was knocked out of his body. He lay helpless as Graham flipped him onto his back and pinned him to the green. He gave a halfhearted struggle but was quickly counted out by the referee. Defeated, Ben walked to the edge of the ring and slumped down to watch the rest of the match play out. Unfortunately, with the odds stacked against him, it only took minutes for the two brothers working together to force Thom to the ground.
Laughing, the Dawson brothers each grabbed a hand and pulled Thom to his feet. They clapped him on the back in a show of comradery. The official stepped into the center of the ring and lifted each of the Dawson’s brothers’ arms in the air. They would compete against other challengers later in the day, unlike Thom and Ben, who’d been eliminated in the first round. The boys walked out of the ring to the good-natured jeers and laughter of the spectators. Once free of the crowd, they pulled on their shirts and boots.
Eliza sauntered over and put her arms around each of the boys’ shoulders.
“You were amazing. I won four silver chips on this match,” she said excitedly. She held out the thin coins as proof.
Thom glared at his twin. “You bet against us?”
His sister grinned. “Don’t be like that. You may be built like a bear, but the Dawson brothers are the size of oxen, and it was two on one.”
“Hey!” Ben yelped in indignation. “I was in the circle too.”
Stepping ahead, she spun to face them.
“You boys are missing the point here. I’ve enough chips for a pie for each of us. As long as we get there before they’re all gone.”
She turned and walked hurriedly toward the collection of festival tents in the field’s corner. Merchants stood beside their brightly colored tents, yelling at those passing by, tempting them with their wares. The smell of roasting meats and baked goods wafted across the festival grounds, and Ben’s stomach let out a loud growl. But instead of giving chase, Ben stood watching her walk away. His admiration earned him a slap across the back of the head.
“Hey bonehead, that’s my sister you’re ogling,” Thom reminded him.
“Then it’s a real shame that you can’t appreciate the view,” Ben said, wiggling his eyebrows. He gave Thom a playful shove and ran to catch up with Eliza.
After purchasing their pies, the three friends sat in the grass beneath an oak tree. They laughed as they bit gingerly into the scalding pastries, doing their best to keep the sweet fruit syrup from escaping.
“Hey, isn’t that your brother Alexander?” asked Ben, pointing to a man herding three small children toward the merchant tents. Damina, his wife, trailed after them, carrying a newborn in her arms.
“I thought they’d moved out East,” Ben said.
“They did, but with Pa getting older and only me and Eliza left at home, the brothers come home regularly to help keep up the farm. Alexander’s staying with us for the week of festival,” Thom replied. He waved to his older brother.
“I always envied that the two of you come from a big family. It’s just me and Esme and she is always busy helping Aunt Millie manage the manor. It must be nice having all of your nieces and nephews around,” Ben said.
“Sure, if you aren’t the only girl with seven brothers in the family,” Eliza replied. “Then it’s all, ‘you’re nearly seventeen, when are you going to find a husband’ or ‘why don’t you help with the children so you can learn how it’s done’.”
“They only want what’s best for you,” Thom replied.
“No, they want me to be trapped like the other girls my age with a husband and an inevitable brood of children. Keeping house and wiping noses is not the life for me. There are fortunes to be made and a world to explore, and as soon as I’ve saved the money, I’m off to the capital to start a new life. I want more than the sleepy little township of Marshall’s Landing has to offer,” she said.
“You keep saying that, but you know that you’ll never actually leave,” Thom replied. “You don’t know anything about the capital. How would you make a living?”
“I’d join the guard,” she replied hotly. “I hear that they’re always looking for people willing to join, and they provide barracks and two silver a week. I could do that until I learn enough to be able to go adventuring.”
“You saw how that turned out for my uncles,” Ben replied. “Besides, you can’t go to the capital without us. The three of us have done everything together for as long as I can remember.”
“Well, then the two of you will just have to swear that you’ll come to the capital with me when I leave and we’ll all join the guard together,” Eliza pressed.
“I’ll go, but instead of being a guard I could try to get into the University again,” Ben said.
The twins frowned at him.
“Give it up,” Thom said. “I know how badly you want it, but they’ll never let you in.”
“You don’t understand what’s it’s like to have an uncle who was one of the greatest casters of our age and I’m not allowed to even touch a stone,” Ben said. “I know I have the gift; I just need to figure out how to use it.”
“Or you join Thom and I in the guardhouse and the three of us become legendary heroes together,” Eliza said excitedly.
“I never said I’d--” Thom started.
“Then it’s agreed. We’ll all go to the capital together!” Eliza concluded, shoving the cooled pie into her mouth with a grin.