Last Week: Training with his Broncos, Jared “The Sabre” Sabor was taken by his team to the Perpendicular Keep, home of the Observer order and informed that his sister was being kept hostage there on behalf of Rival Grell. And that was when Jared had a brilliant idea…
Part Five (of Five)
The challenge was about to start, and Jared sat on the hastily slave-constructed dais in one of the two Theyn seats. Between himself and his opponent Dara Elys, the theyn of Rival Buros, sat the Observer. Above and behind them on a riser sat Buros and Rival Grell.
Grell leaned forward and smiled at Jared. “I’m glad to see you’ve finally accepted your position,” he said, nodding at the lizard-hound vest that Jared was wearing instead of his old Broncos t-shirt. The garb was just another of Grell’s victories over Jared since the failed escape. Jared had been beaten and tiny rebellions seemed pointless now.
“Of course,” Rival Grell continued, “you know that if you don’t win here today, you won’t even have that.”
Jared nodded respectfully. “Yes, Rival Grell,” he said, eyes down.
Usually challenged in the Contested Lands were only held every fifty-two days as the suns completed a full cycle. However, occasionally Rivals agreed on special matches with special terms. This time, the land under challenge rule was a mere token, a small desert patch between Buros’ jungle empire and the newly won Plains of Skotz, now under Grell’s rule. Instead, this match was a wager between Grell and Buros over Buros’ daughter, Gale. Apparently there had been some kind of furor a few years ago when Grell had attempted to woo the jungle king’s daughter. At the time, he was a weak enough Rival to be laughed off and dismissed. Now, though, with The Sabre’s leadership, Grell had enough influence to press his right to engagement.
What worried Jared was the stake Grell had offered. If Buros won, Grell promised the life of his Theyn. It was no secret that other Rivals feared and hated the mysterious Sabre, the Theyn who had changed the Challenge with his unorthodox tactics and foreign beliefs. Grell was going so far as to risk the secret of his success against the hand of the jungle princess. It didn’t hurt that he was angry enough lately to cut off his Theyn to spite his place. Either way, it didn’t bode well for Jared.
The Observer stood and held out both hands for attention.
“Rivals Grell and Buros,” she said with strident authority, “this is a special challenge… do you both agree to the terms presented in our earlier conclave?”
“I agree,” growled Grell.
“I also,” said Buros.
“Then this challenge is accepted; to the one whose flag spears three stones go the spoils and the gift of demesne. This is the way for all rivals to the Contested Lands!”
While the Observer spoke to the Rivals, Dara Elys leaned over behind the robed figure and whispered to Jared. “Hey, good luck on today’s game,” she said, extending a hand in good sportsmanship. Jared shook it, and came away with a strange flat coin in his own. It was round and perfectly edged, but had no markings on it. Before he could ask about it, the Observer was turning around to address the Theyns and Dara Elys was focused on the challenge once more.
“Theyns, don your galya and prepare to start your challengers,” the Observer said.
Jared put on the worn golden alien headgear that covered his ears and lower half of his face. It was chipped from centuries of use, but somehow it still worked. He could hear the breathing of his Broncos out in the challenge zone and through the galya, he knew he could speak to any or all of them with but a thought. It really was an impressive thing, even if no one knew how they actually worked.
The Observer raised a mask made of similar gold to her face, indicating the challenge had begun. While Jared could speak to his challengers, he couldn’t see them. Only the Observer could, and she was impartial. Well, as impartial as someone who held his sister hostage for a man like Grell could be.
“Nicol, Vik,” Jared said, “you’re third point. Remember the new strategy. Secure the goalstone, but don’t take it until I say.”
Jared spoke in quiet tones, trying to keep his orders inaudible to the Rivals. They were more interested in the Observer’s pronouncements, anyway, which sounded like a cross between an oracular prophecy and a color commentary.
For almost two hours, Jared maneuvered his Broncos around Buros’ challengers. He had heard that Buros and his Theyn were adept, but after a hundred minutes The Sabre had disabled three of the enemy challengers non-fatally and taken two of the goalstones. Nicol was perched behind the third, flagspear in hand.
“Hold position,” Jared said. “I’m going AFK for a minute.”
While the term was untranslatable, Jared’s challengers knew what it meant. The Sabre was disconnecting from his galya.
Jared pulled the helmet off and held it in a sweaty fist. He stood from the chair and turned to face Rival Grell.
“What are you doing, child?” Grell asked. “The challenge is not complete! Replace your galya!”
“No,” Jared said. “Remember what you said about this challenge being a renegotiation? Well, I’m sitting down at the table right now.”
“Looks more like you’re standing,” Rival Buros said, a bit of wry amusement in his tone.
“Finish. The challenge,” Grell spat.
“I know you don’t have my sister here. I know that she’s being held in the Perpendicular Keep by the Observers. If you don’t promise to free her… and all the Broncos, including Konor… then I refuse to win your game. You won’t get what you want.”
“I always get what I want, whelp.”
“Not if I don’t give it to you,” Jared said, terrified but still standing.
“See?” Rival Grell said to all gathered on the dais. “I am betrayed by my Theyn! His life is forfeit! Win or lose, The Sabre dies here today!”
Leaning in close, Jared was unnerved to see that Grell still had a smile on his face. He was even more unprepared for Grell’s venomous whisper.
“Whose idea did you think it was to show you the location of your sister? Before this, I could only take your life if you lost. Now as a traitor, I get it when I win.”
From a fold in his robe, Grell pulled out a small, golden sliver. It was galya metal. He held it to his lips. “Nicol, win the game.”
Jared scrambled to get his own galya back on but it was too late. The challenge pot at the foot of the platform exploded with a resonant boom, indicating that three flagspears had been scored.
“Thank you,” Grell sneered. “Now I have everything I wanted.”
Jared’s jaw quivered but he looked up at the Rival, eye to eye. He said nothing, but held his gaze even with the hulking man.
“Well, Observer?” Buros asked. “What say you?”
“The challenge has been won,” the woman said, removing her mask to reveal a curiously amused expression on her usually emotionless face. “Three flagstones have been scored, and the challenge–and its rewards–go to Rival Sabor.”
“Y–what?” Grell turned on her.
Jared pulled a cloth out of his leather vest and wiped his sweaty brow with it. It was the burgundy and gold flag of Rival Grell.
Out in the challenge zone, sitting in the shade of the third goalstone, Nicol breathed a heavy sigh of relief. Playing her Theyn’s betrayer–even at his suggestion–had been hard. She looked up over her shoulder at the navy blue cloth that hung from the flagspear, sewn to it this very morning. The orange head of a strange beast with a long snout was emblazoned on the… what did he call it? “Tee short?” Her Theyn said it was a “bronco,” but all in the Contested Lands would soon know it as the sign of Rival Sabre, the Champion.
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© 2013 by Douglass Barre, All Rights Reserved.