Now all that remained was Cilean’s match with Mealla and Jura had to fight the winner.
Cilean’s match with Mealla had already begun and the crowd recognized this as the most serious contest. From the look of the two women, it was like an eagle fighting a hummingbird. Mealla outweighed Cilean by at least fifty pounds and Cilean’s main defenses were intelligence, speed, and agility—none of which meant much when an oak tree was wrapping its limbs around you and crushing.
Jura joined the line of contestants along the palisades wall and watched the match. She did not shout like the others, but quite calmly prayed with all her being.
Mealla wrapped her big arms around Cilean’s ribs and squeezed.
“Gouge!” Jura whispered. “Go for her weak points. Don’t let her beat you.” She willed her words to reach her friend and Cilean seemed to hear them as she pushed her thumbs into Mealla’s neck and the pain caused the bigger woman to release.
Jura’s breath released as the two contestants circled each other. Involuntarily, she looked up into the stands to see Rowan looking down at her. His expression was one of concern. Behind him Daire was also watching Jura. She looked back at the match.
Mealla threw Cilean to the ground then started to jump, but Cilean was too fast as she rolled away and Mealla fell onto empty, hard ground. Instantly, Cilean was on her, twisting her arm behind her back.
Mealla’s lack of agility played against her as she could not reach Cilean to push her off. She was trapped.
Cilean held Mealla down for a long while, until the crowd began to scream, “Forfeit! Forfeit!” After a long time of agony for Cilean, Mealla did forfeit the match.
Cilean stood, but her face was not triumphant. It was gray and ashen with pain and exhaustion and she raised only one arm in victory, keeping her other arm to her side.
Jura knew her friend was hurt and ran to her side to see how much damage was done. “Quiet!” Jura commanded when Cilean started to protest. “Lean on me but do not let the crowd see you leaning. How bad are you hurt?”
“At least three ribs are broken,” Cilean said quietly, her voice catching. “Should I forfeit to you?”
“No, we will start our match immediately. I will lose it within moments. If you rest, you will not be able to stand. Now turn and smile and wave at the crowd. It will be over very soon.”
Jura’s heart was pounding wildly as she took up her pole in preparation for her “fight” with Cilean. She had no intention of trying to make the fight look good. All she wanted was to get it over with, to have her friend declared the winner, then at last she would be able to escape the Englishman’s hold on her.
She and Cilean marched to the center of the field side by side.
“When the match begins, lift your pole and hit my head,” Jura whispered. “I will fall and you will be the winner. Do it quickly. Do not risk a rib through your lung. Understand me?”
Cilean nodded. There was almost no color in her face.
The two women faced each other in the center of the field. The crowd was silent now, for this was the deciding match.
Trumpets were raised and blown and the match began.
Jura moved to her left. “Hit me,” she whispered.
Cilean just stood there, her eyes glazed with pain. Bruises were turning purple under her skin.
“Hit me!” Jura said, beginning to circle. “Think of your precious Rowan. To get him all you have to do is hit me once. Or do you want me to have him? You want me in his bed, touching him, caressing him?”
Cilean raised the right side of her pole to strike, and Jura, out of instinct and years of practice, lifted her pole to defend herself. The reverberations of the clashing poles shook Cilean and her hand dropped as Jura’s pole lightly clipped her on the temple. It was too much for Cilean’s broken body. She fainted, her body crumpling at Jura’s feet.
For a moment all was silence as Jura and the crowd stared stupidly at Cilean’s inert body. Then Jura fell to her knees just as the crowd began to chant, “Jura, Jura, Jura.”
“Cilean!” Jura screamed over the noise. “Wake up! You must win.” She began to slap her friend’s cheeks but Cilean was dead to the world. “Cilean!” Jura screamed over and over again in desperation.
The crowd reached them and hands began to pull Jura away from Cilean.
“No, no,” Jura yelled. “She has only fainted. There was no match. Cilean did not forfeit. I did not win. Cilean is the winner. Cilean, wake up and tell them.”
No one heard her as she was lifted onto men’s shoulders. Irial trainees ran to Cilean to protect her from trampling feet and watch Jura being carried away. They were jubilant that an Irial had won.
Jura kept screaming and pleading, trying her best to get away from the men carrying her, but she was treated like a bag of grain and paid as much heed. The noise of rejoicing was too loud for her to be heard.
By the time they reached the city walls she was frantic. She couldn’t make anyone understand. Cilean had won, not her. Cilean was to b