The Duel

A man sat on the edge of a chair, elbows resting on his knees. He was looking out a window. His face was tilted slightly upward, so that the pallid sunlight sifting in cast dim light upon his features. A yellow goatee trickled down his chin like liquid gold in the thin light. His upper lip was concealed by a crisp moustache of the same color, its ends waxed and twisted upward with utmost care. The window pane was grimy and clouded, so that the dusty light that reached his face cast crude shadows on his hollow, gaunt cheeks. His eyes were heavily shadowed by his brow, but dark circles beside his nose gave away their presence, along with a furtive shimmer as he shifted restlessly.
He moved very little. Held relaxed in his hands was a long, thin rapier—unsheathed. Its polished steel caught the musty light and sparkled deceptively. Its sheath was attached to his belt, twisted uncomfortably to accommodate his seated form. Next to his chair sat a large hat; tall and brimmed, covered in oily black hair and festooned with golden braids. It shrouded the splintering, hard wood floor behind it in shadow. The hair glistened in the light like coal. A navy blue jacket draped over the man’s tense shoulders. It, too, had golden decorations like those of the hat. A thick belt was wrapped around it. The man had on a spotless pair of clean white breeches, undecorated compared to the rest of his attire. The pants led down to brown leather boots, still encrusted with a thin layer of dry mud. The man seemed to have made no attempt to brush them off. He sat, instead, in that musty old room, lit by a single dusty windowpane. There was an old desk in one corner. It had a book on it, the cover of which had been ripped off.
The man stroked the blade with the tips of his fingers. Lit by the faded daylight, the lines on his waxy face stood out in sharp relief; black on white. The slightly receding nature of his hairline presented a stark contrast to the youthfulness of its coloration. His nose was straight and sharp. His forehead glistened, and beads of sweat worked their way down from his temples, even in the cool air of morning. He had shifted now and the whites of his eyes shone like pearls from beneath the darkness of his brow.
Suddenly, the man’s breath came out sharply. There was a clatter as his hands fell open. He stood up quickly, making the rickety old chair wobble precariously. He moved away from the needle-like sword, now prone on the floor. He strode to the window, and his white face, corpselike in its complexion, gazed outside with the curiosity of a child. There was a tall oak right outside; it must have been eighty feet tall. Lying strewn around it were the remnants of its reddish-brown leaves, its branches completely bare. About halfway up its trunk was a long black scar, where it had been hit by lightning. The wound reached all the way down, twisting around the great, cracked tree, peeling away the smooth grey bark, and leaving in its wake a streak of sooty black. Beyond the tree the ground was carpeted with brilliant hues of red, orange and yellow. The trees towering above the fallen leaves were grey, black brown and white. Occasionally there was a flash of bright pigment in their midst, one leaf that still held on in defiance of nature. But it was only a matter of time. Already the air held a foreboding chill. The man clenched his clammy hands to get the blood flowing. His Adam’s apple dipped quickly, then rose again.
The man turned and walked stiffly back to his chair, the old wood floor creaking under his boots. He moved the chair to the side and knelt down, picking up the sword and hat. He stood up. He put the tall, black hat on his head, and fastened its golden strap around his chin with clumsy fingers. He took the long, needle-like sword and slid it into the scabbard on his belt. He turned as the door creaked. A dark-haired man in similar uniform peered through the doorway to look at him.
“You ready, George? He’s here.”
“Of course,” said the man.  “Of course. I’ll be out shortly.”
“How are you feeling?”
“Fine…fine. Thank you, William.”
George stood still as the door creaked shut. Then he picked up his chair from where it sat in the center of the room and carried it over to the desk, careful not to let the chair-legs drag on the uneven floor. He slid it back under the desk. He picked up the book, and gazed at the front. Its coverless page shook so much that he couldn’t make out a word. He put it down quickly. He fumbled in his jacket pocket, and pulled out a handkerchief.  He wiped his brow, and stuffed the crumpled square of white silk back in his pocket. Then, arms held at his sides, George walked briskly to the door. Opening it, he left the room without a backward glance.
The earth’s festive carpet rustled in the breeze. The air was brisk; cold. Men stood silent, their shadows made longer by the great hats protruding from their heads. A sudden wind blew through the trees, and the last leaves, releasing their stubborn grip, drifted slowly to the ground. In the sharp, crisp air of autumn, lit by the pale, clear light of daybreak, the clash of steel rang out.


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