THE CHAMPION, Part 3

Last Week: Jared “The Sabre” Sabor, a teenager from Denver has somehow found himself in the inner world known only as The Contested Lands. Kidnapped by a warlord and held hostage on the life of his sister, he has been forced to use his sports knowledge to train Rival Grell’s challengers. His demand to keep his people alive, though, is tested as one of his wounded players stabs the servant assigned to monitor Jared!

champion2THE CHOP BLOCK

Part Three (of Five)

“What did you do?” Jared demanded as his wounded challenger slipped the bloody knife into his belt. “I’ve been busting my hump to keep you alive and you… you kill her like it was nothing!”

“If I did not kill her, she would have killed me. She would have killed you. Look,” Konor emphasized, tearing away the wide light blue scarf sewn around Keyvessa’s young neck. Beneath it was a mark, something like a cross between a tattoo and a brand, two circles intersecting around a black diamond.

“Hessen. Silent killer.” Before Jared could take a second look at the sigil, Konor was already pushing him ahead out of the minimal shelter of the tents of the wounded and towards the slave-dug runoff arroyo.

“She was… an assassin?”

Konor frowned, the word unfamiliar.

“An, um, ordered killer,” Jared tried to explain. Another loud boom echoed across the campsite from the direction of the roiling black plumes of nightsmoke.

“Everyone in the Contested Lands is a killer,” Konor said, wincing at the pain of trying to run with a deep wound as if to emphasize his point. “She was just the one chosen to be yours.”

Sweat was beading on Jared’s wrinkled brow as he followed Konor into the blood-black mud of the gully. The stench of the rotting meat beneath their boots was filling Jared with a barely-suppressible nausea.

This didn’t make any sense… why would Rival Grell be trying to kill him now? He was winning Grell territory in the challenges faster than had been seen in a century. (Well, at least according to what people kept telling him, Jared corrected himself.) The Rival had Jared by the short hairs as long as he held Josie. Jared was more valuable to Rival Grell alive.

Konor coughed twice and leaned forward, stopping. Blood ran down from the corner of his mouth.

“Don’t do this, Konor,” Jared said.

“I’m dead anyway, my theyn,” the challenger rasped. “This way you can be free.”

And that was it, Jared realized. His team was taking one for their coach. They must have planned this together while they were still on the field for the last challenge… whispers to keep from being heard over the galya. Konor had almost a foot over Jared, but even the overweight Jared had more strength than the bent and bleeding man. When he looked up at Jared’s pained expression, though, there was a depth of loyalty and sacrifice there that crumbled the boy’s spirit.

“I… c-can’t,” was all the Sabre could say.

He wanted to tell Konor about Josie, that he hated Grell as much as any of them. He wanted to offer his own plan, something as game changing for all of them as the west coast defense. As Rival Grell’s stooge, he had taught them what victory and sportsmanship were. As a free man–a free boy–all he could offer Konor was disappointment and betrayal.

“You… you must, my theyn,” Konor coughed. From the corner of his eye, Jared could see that the black nightsmoke was starting to dissipate. Whatever distraction the Broncos had arranged during the Feast of Celebration had been stopped. Rival Grell’s warriors–no, Jared corrected, his killers–would be here soon.

“Run!” Konor pleaded, but Jared couldn’t move his legs. He was already praying that Josie wouldn’t pay for what he had inspired his team to try.

And then it was too late.

Two metal lashes wrapped themselves around Konor’s neck and chest, tiny sharp barbs drawing blood in red snakelike wounds. There was only a second to see the lost look in Konor’s eyes before rough hands in bark gloves forced Jared face down into the bloody earth and held him there.

His rescuer was dragged off and Jared was sure he would never see Konor again. Still he was kept barely able to breathe, his face to the ground. The humiliation was classic Grell, even a kid like Jared could see that. When hard fingers finally dug into his cheeks and pulled his face forward there was no accompanying lessening of pressure on his back. Grell wanted him looking up.

All the Sabre could see from his vantage were Rival Grell’s white boots, standing on a woven reed mat, just over a yard away.

“Escape, my theyn?” came Grell’s barely-repressed scorn. “And here I thought you were a wiser champion than all that.”

Between Jared’s eyes and Grell’s boots, a body was unceremoniously dumped in the mud. It was Keyvessa’s and her eyes stared through open holes with the empty gaze of the dead.

As if he was using the dead girl as a platform for his theyn’s attentions, Rival Grell leaned over and took position on the other side of Jared’s field of vision. The older man didn’t betray any lapse in control, but there was something angry in him now that hadn’t been there before. Before Jared’s deal with this devil had been broken.

“No killing, you said,” Grell mocked. “Civilized, you called it. Saying that to me. To. Me.”

The pressure on Jared’s back lessened and he could watch as Rival Grell stood and retook his position on the mat, above the blood and the dirt of the Contested Lands. With his wider view, Jared was surprised to see Konor, still alive. Lashed to a yoke with the same metal spurred leather and bleeding from more wounds than Jared could count, sure, but still alive. Noticing Jared’s attentions, Grell smirked.

“And your boy is still here! Am I not the civilized one now?” he shouted, his upper lip twitching angrily as he addressed the boy from Denver, emphasizing his point by stepping hard on Keyvessa’s motionless back.

Jared said nothing.

“I had wondered if it was worth risking you and your Brickles for a last challenge this year,” Grell continued. “I think I’ve made my decision now.”

Grell drew his lashsword from the curved scabbard on his left flank. The thin metal blade shimmered and flowed in the air between them.

“First, though, we’re going to renegotiate your ‘contract.'”

To be continued…

© 2013 by Douglass Barre, All Rights Reserved.

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