Pike looked at the pine cone in his hand, and then gazed up at the magician who had given it to him. The twig of a mage smiled through a wispy beard. How the hell was he supposed to fight to the death with a small green pine cone fresh off the bough?
“Really?” he said.
The twig shrugged. “Those are the rules. You are an arborist with the Leaf and Limb, are you not?”
Across the fighting pit, a big man was receiving his weapon from another robed magician. He bleated like a deranged goat and raised a hammer to cheers of, “Plunk! Plunk! Plunk!”
“Why’s he get a hammer?” Pike asked the twig. “Seems a little unfair.”
The magician looked back over his shoulder and shrugged. “He’s a smithy, a sworn man of the Anvil and Hammer. Hence the hammer.” The twig’s grin broadened.
“Give him the damn block then.”
The twig shook his head. “We’ve awarded the anvil before, you wouldn’t want that. It was surprisingly effective and quite messy.”
“Well, as a man of the Leaf and Limb, I’m going to need you to cut me a limb. A piece of stout oak will do just fine-and make sure it’s about two thumbs thick.” He pressed his own thumbs together in front of the magician’s nose.
“You’ve already been granted a boon from your own sigil…” He stopped speaking long enough to poke at the Leaf and Limb woven into the breast of Pike’s tunic. “…it’s right there, a pine cone dangling from the limb.”
He was about to tell the twig where to plant the pine cone, but, with a flourish of cloaks and a plume of smoke, both magicians vanished from the pit. The crowd, in the gallery above, roared down their approval at the showmanship. Pike looked up at the mob and bit his thumb at them, a merchant’s gesture, but he expected the magicians and apprentices, familiars and talents, and the assembled mundane admirers of the arcane knew what it meant.
The big man leveled the hammer at Pike, and then charged across the pit with an arching overhead swing. Pike made sure his head wasn’t there to meet it. The weapon wasn’t much as far as hammers went: it was smallish with a rounded head, the kind used by metal workers for denting and shaping. But he was pretty sure it would do more than dent his skull.
He sidestepped another swing and cursed as he went.
The hammer wouldn’t kill him with one blow, it probably wouldn’t even knock him out. It would only stun him and take his wits, leaving him a teetering oak, ripe for the felling.
He danced back a few steps with the pine cone at the ready, while the brute, Plunk, regained his footing and roared again.
It wouldn’t end with a second strike either. That one would tear open a gash across his brow and drive him to his knees, while he desperately tried to wipe the blood out of his eyes.
Before Plunk could attack again, Pike hurled the pine cone at the smithy. Maybe it would knock out a tooth, or, if the druids willed it, it would go down his throat, and he’d choke on it.
It did neither.
It hit the oaf under the eye with less notice than a pestering horsefly. Then it fell to the ground and lay in the dirt at the man’s unshod feet.
Pike cursed the cheering men and women of magic, and then spat on the floor of the pit. He smiled when it elicited a course of jeers.
Plunk menaced with the hammer only a few paces away.
A third blow from the maul wouldn’t do much more to end him, but mercifully it would be the one to bring the darkness. It was somewhere in the next half-dozen strikes that mercy would be granted, and his brains would be mixed into the dirt. Maybe his head would leak enough fluid that the pine cone would take root and sprout into a tree. A cursed tree, to spite the lot of them.
This would be the last time he trifled with magicians.
Unless he survived.
Then he was going to come back with as many axemen and rootsingers as the Guild of Leaf and Limb could spare. And they wouldn’t come with little green pine cones.
Plunk took a moment and hollered to the cheering crowd. Then he charged again. The hammer cut through the air in a sweeping blow aimed for the ribs. Pike rolled underneath it with a surprising agility. He drove into the smithy at the hip, and sent his opponent crashing to the floor.
The odds-makers abruptly stopped barking out their lopsided bets. They didn’t understand a damn thing about being an arborist.
He leapt from his rolling crouch and landed with his knee sunk into the other man’s gut. He let out a mocking bleat of his own when the air bellowed out of Plunk.
No apprentice to the Leaf and Limb became a journeyman without knowing how to handle himself amidst a swarm of wood sprites. And every arborist alive bore a scar or ten from the ashen claws of an angry dryad.
He bent and pried the sunken pine cone out of the dirt with his fingers, and then held it in front of the wheezing man’s face so that they could both examine it.
“Sorry about this, Plunk,” Pike said. He held the pine cone between a thumb and forefinger and placed the hard tip against the felled man’s brow. Plunk gave a strangled laugh as he looked at the useless green pine cone pressed between his eyes, unable to grasp his own fate.
Then Pike reached down and picked up the hammer.
As a child, Hamilton Kohl was hobbled by many hard green pine cones during neighborhood skirmishes. Now he writes from his cubicle in between completing corporate tasks for his employer. It is slightly more fun than taking a pine cone to the head. He lives with his wife and children just outside of Toronto, Canada.