I’m not a sports fan, but I do love me some hollow earth adventure. THE CHAMPION is my way of learning to like one by mixing it liberally with the other. It’s also written for my first born son, Kieran Danger Barre, who’ll be reading it in the podcast.
Part One (of Five)
Konor ducked as the stone knife cut the air where his throat had just been. The enemy Finger had been hiding behind a tall rock just waiting for one of the Sabre’s men to move through the clearing. Fortunately, the second sun had been behind the man and cast a shadow that moved as Konor’s opponent took a killing position. It had been just enough warning to save Konor’s life.
His first impulse as he rolled in the tall pampas was to strike back with his flagspear. The spear end was sharp enough to cut into stone; it would easily find a home in his enemy’s heart. But, no, Konor remembered the first and most important of Sabre’s laws: Bronkos do not kill.
It was still strange to have a name for their… what did the Sabre call it? A “team?” Before the new Theyn had come along, they were just slaves. Now the Fingers who served in Rival Grell’s challenges had an identity. They were not just slaves. They were Bronkos. And Bronkos did not kill.
Konor used the momentum of his dodge to roll away from the enemy Finger and his knife. He had faced many opponents in his years of challenges who wanted to spill his blood and he knew the best strategy to avoid that was not to let them get close enough to use their weapon.
“Konor,” came the Sabre’s voice over his galya, the helmet that also served as his connection to his Theyn. “The Observer says you’re in h-2-h. I’m sending Vik as backup, just maintain your position.”
The Sabre had only been Theyn for Rival Grell’s challengers for two months but already his strange accent was a welcome sound. Most Theyns only spoke through the galya to bark orders or directions to their Fingers. Not so the Sabre. He even went so far as to listen to what his Fingers said. It was working, too. Rival Grell had won the last two challenges, increasing his rule over the Contested Lands by several dominions.
The enemy Finger had apparently figured out Konor’s strategy and was moving in closer, his flagspear wielded point out in one hand, stone knife in the other.
“Vik’s got eyes on you,” the Theyn said. “He’s opposite you, flanking D’allyn’s guy. Keep your man’s attention.”
Fortunately the galya covered enough of Konor’s face that the approaching Finger couldn’t see Konor glance at the tall trees behind him. There was Vik, who had apparently already planted his flagspear in one of the goalstones because he was wielding a long bamboo pole with both hands. Vik was a large man, but surprisingly quiet, both in word and stride. Konor pretended to stumble, giving the enemy Finger an opening to move in on him.
“Haaaaiii!” Konor’s opponent screamed, breaking another of the Sabre’s rules: never make noise if you don’t have to. Vik hadn’t forgotten, of course, and just as D’allyn’s man lunged at Konor, the large Bronko hit him in the back of the head with the pole. He fell down, knife and flagspear dropping into the tall grass at Konor’s feet.
“One less spear to score on our stone,” Konor said, picking up the enemy’s flagspear but only kicking the blade away.
“Yep,” Vik nodded.
“Everything five by five?” the Sabre asked.
“I do not understand, my Theyn,” Konor said. The Sabre often used language from his home realm… somewhere far beyond the Contested Lands, he claimed.
“Are you guys okay?”
“Yes,” Konor said. “The enemy is down. And disarmed.”
“Awesome,” said the Sabre. “Mathu and Atum have already staked their goalstone and Brayd and Nicol have home plate secured. If you guys can get a third pin on their stone we’ve won the challenge!” The exuberance in the voice of the Bronko’s theyn reminded Konor of how young he really was. Still, even though a boy, the Sabre had earned the respect of every Finger serving Rival Grell. There was no question as Konor and Vik turned and raced into the jungle.
The enemy goalstone was just where the Sabre had said it would be.
It stood at the foot of a great banyan tree, about three feet high and black as a double shadow. Two flags hung from its side, obviously Mathu and Atum’s. Unfortuately, since the Bronkos had scored twice already, D’Allyn’s Fingers had moved into a defensive position. Three men, all armed with the traditional chipped stone knives of the western dominions, stood waiting. There was no sneaking past them. They had even discarded their own flagspears to focus on killing anyone who approached.
“Three guards,” Vik said, more to the Sabre than to Konor.
“Did you take their flagspear?” the Theyn asked.
“As you suggested,” Vik said.
“But Sabre,” Konor pointed out, “a score with their flag will not count for us. We must use our own colors.”
“I know, Konor, but thanks. This is going to be what in Denver we call a fakeout. Be ready to stake it.”
The Sabre’s voice vanished from Konor’s galya, but he was obviously giving Vik instructions, as the big man nodded once, then twice. Then, gripping the wrong flagspear in both hands, he suddenly ran out of cover, straight at the enemy goalstone. The scream he let out was louder than any Konor had ever heard. Apparently Vik was quiet by choice.
Surprised by the sudden rush, the three guards moved into position in front of the stone. Vik ran right at them, then, just before he reached the stone, turned sharply to the right and began to circle the banyan. Two of D’allyn’s Fingers broke off and followed him, while the other, obviously realizing Vik’s obvious attempt to circle the tree, turned the other way, knife ready to thrust into the chest of the big man when he rounded.
All three had turned their back on the goalstone.
“Now,” was all the Sabre needed to say.
Konor ran forward, kneeling as low as he could. He was five feet away before the guard realized what he was doing and turned to ward him off. The stone knife cut into Konor’s left arm at the very same moment as his flagspear slid into the alien stone like a fork into fruit.
A second later, the boom of the challenge pot echoed through the jungle signaling the challenge had ended. The Bronkos had won their third victory in as many twinning suns. Rival Grell was now the ruler of the K’hadryk Dominion, won fairly from Rival Orias Klyndt. All thanks to the Sabre.
Before Konor could celebrate the victory, though, the Finger who had failed to defend the stone suddenly stabbed his blooded blade deep into Konor’s chest.
The last thing Konor thought was a word the Sabre had taught them all. A word that the Bronkos had sworn against… but apparently the Fingers of D’Allyn had not.
Jared Sabor said nothing. He waited to see if the Observer was going to say anything more about Konor, but the robed figure had removed her mask. Jared felt no victory.
Despite being seated in one of the finest chairs ever built inside the hollow Earth, his whole body ached. He wouldn’t know if Konor survived until the rest of his players–sorry, “Fingers”–returned from the challenge circle. Sweat ran down his dark brow and his stomach hurt. He just wanted to go home.
As if to remind him why he couldn’t, Rival Grell clapped a meaty hand over Jared’s chubby brown arm. “It seems your sister will get to live another day,” Grell smirked. “You truly are a champion.”
The boy in the tattered Broncos t-shirt said nothing.
© 2013 by Douglass Barre, All Rights Reserved.