I was assigned to one of the many platoons that were making its way across Europe liberating the towns and cities from the Nazi occupation. Fortunately I was lucky to avoid any battle and was always just one step behind the real war. By the time I arrived in one of the small towns outside of France it had already been liberated. French people and allied soldiers walked the streets casually, but something was amiss. Even in war time the liberated towns and cities always had one resounding floor, be it ally soldiers harassing the people or Nazi's attempting to retake the town.
In this case it was far tamer, but still something was up. Talk of fights in a local bar drew my attention and I began searching for it immediately. It wasn't such an easy task as I soon found out. The town was a maze of close knit buildings that all looked the same. I had trouble deciding whether I was making progress in my search or just going in circles. That is when I bumped into an allied soldier who became a big part of my wartime experience.
He was a veteran, a veteran in the sense that he has been fighting this war since the Duke got shot. He started fights and won them. When I say fights I don't mean the traditional fisticuffs, I mean real life or death revolutionary battles. When allied forces reached his neck of the war he joined up immediately, just so he could be better armed to continue his fight.
However, he wasn't fighting out of the goodness of his own heart. He fought for a different reason entirely.
Of course i didn't know any of this the moment I tripped over his boot. He helped me onto my feet and I saw he was of the rank corporal. He asked me where I was going and informed him about the fights that occurred in the local bar. He nodded, telling me he was quite aware of the fights. He led me through the streets in silence. When I asked what his name was he just asked me to call him by his rank, saying I couldn't pronounce his name in this town.
I pondered the meaning behind this, so I just referred to him as the Corporal. The Corporal spoke in an accent I did not recognize and I immediately pinned as one of the locals. This made sense at the time. He led me through the alleys without fault and then walked into the bar without so much as a, "Here it is."
I followed him into the bar to see it was silent and rather peaceful. The soldiers and local inhabitants talked among themselves casually as if there was no war. Some might have been pleased by this, but I was disappointed. I was only disappointed for a moment. One of the locals looked up from his newspaper at the Corporal, his eyes widened and said quite audibly, but didn't shout it.
Everyone seemed to do a quick look around, but it was more like a head count. The barman however walked straight towards the door, shuffling past me, closed it, locked it and closed the curtains. The room dropped din visibility, but as soon as I blinked I heard the scraping of furniture and a table was set in the center of the room with soldiers carrying placing lanterns strategically. The soldiers circled the table like some sort of cult, but there were only two chairs either side. In one of the chairs sat the Corporal. In the other sat a local.
As if in sync they slapped money on the table and a hush ran over the crowd as they eyed the money. It was a lot. Not as much as people would normally bet, but it was enough for us to crave. Before I could start asking questions of the soldiers or locals they began murmuring and laughing. The Corporal and local began arm wrestling. If this was the fights I've been hearing about then it clearly isn't as bad as what people described.
It got worse. Someone tapped the table saying one minute has passed. The two arm wrestlers took out their knives with their other hands and held the knives where the opponents hand would fall if they had won. Immediately I understood the intense interest as well as the large amounts of money they were betting on an arm wrestling battle.
I was disgusted and shocked by what I had seen, but I couldn't take my eyes away. The two now struggled and the stress began to settle on them. Finally the same man who signaled the first minute signaled the third. They both removed the knives and the Corporal won.
He pocketed the money and shook hands with the man. The local smiled despite losing so much money. When I asked the Corporal about this as the next arm wrestle began he explained the concept behind these 'fights'.
The first minute is to decide whether you can win the fight or not. The next two minutes are the stages of not going back without losing something significant, be it your life or hand. When the third minute ends you are given a ten second chance before the knives return for five minutes. It was a game of will as much as strength.
I could see the nobleness behind it, even though I disapproved it. I saw the Corporal in a different light. Before I could reply he told me he did it for money, not to test his metal. He told me he never lost and no one has ever been pushed into a knife. When truly threatened a man knows his limits. It was taking advantage of the fools that challenged him, but I could say nothing against it. I had seen soldiers beat and steal money from the locals, at least this way the locals volunteered to have their money taken away.