Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Several Adventures of Hugh, Part 45

As the runners took off towards the mountain pole, Theoson began making bets with fellow trainers. He looked up at Hugh. “Standard practice,” he said, smiling.

When the runners were out of sight, the spectators and trainers moved more towards the beach in order to get a good view of the race’s end. Finally, someone was seen swimming to the shore. It was the giant, followed by the dwarf at a short distance, and then a cluster of about five young men. Once they were back on land, the dwarf closed the distance, but still reached the pole an entire arm’s length behind the giant.

The giant was lifted up and given a wreath of laurel leaves. The dwarf stood there, panting, exhausted, trying not to look bitter. Hugh came up to him and patted his shoulder. “You beat everyone else. You knew she would win on this one.”

“I… really thought… I could catch her...” the dwarf said between breaths.

“She still has a lot of steam in her. She clearly held back so she had something left for boxing tonight. You know she’s probably going to win for the day. And maybe you should let her, if you have the chance. She can’t compete the next two days, since wrestling and all-in are done in the nude.”

“Oh… she’s competing… on days two and three,” the dwarf. “She’s just going to drop out… before the final events.”

Hugh shrugged. “Honestly, I doubt she needs you to hand her the victory. I just figured you wanted some energy left to finish out the whole three day event. If you had held back a bit at the end and just accepted second–”

“Yeah, yeah,” the dwarf said. “I just wanted to beat her.”

“And now you’re tired. Let’s get you some water.”

The next event was the javelin throw. This was one of the events the giant had been practicing most, from what Hugh saw. It was her weakest event, but if she could qualify for the next round, she had a good shot of winning the first day. She just had to finish in the top half in distance javelin throw.

The dwarf was up to throw long before the giant. The order was determined by random draw. His first throw was clearly more than adequate, though not in the running for the top spot. He decided to forego his other two throws, since the measure is done from the last thrown attempt, with the opportunity for three throws. Feeling comfortable that he would qualify to move on, he sat back down.

After a while, the giant was called up. She stepped into the long box that allotted them room for a running hurl, took off, and let it fly. It had good distance, but it was not thrown very straight. The measurements were done on a line parallel to the limit of the throw-box, not as a direct distance from the point of throwing. The more off-center the throw, the more distance one lost upon measurement.

Her throw might have qualified her, depending on how the last athletes fared. It would place her two above the middle, with seven throwers left to go. If three of those seven went longer, she would be out. She decided to try again.

Her second throw was weak, and would not have qualified her at all, so she prepared for her third. Her javelin was returned to her and she took to the box one final time. Her last javelin scored her six above middle. All seven to go after her would have to beat her mark, and four didn’t.

The final event was boxing. Matchups for boxing and all the combat events were selected randomly each round. Each athlete selected a shard of pottery from a bag with a number on it, with two of each number in the bad. The matching pairs faced each other, and when there was an odd number of competitors during a round, the unmatched shard got a bye for the round.

Each competitor wore gloves which were made of thick leather, and they were covered in round metal studs. The gloves were designed to speed up the competition. Fights went on until a person gave up, passed out, or died. Any athlete who died would be considered the winner, so it was not encouraged to kill your opponent.

The giant competed in a men’s toga, and this was the only combat sport in the games that allowed one to wear anything. Most chose to fight nude, greased in olive oil. The giant and dwarf made quick work or their opponents. They clearly outperformed everyone there, and since there were no weight classes, they competed against boys as young as sixteen, the youth/adult cut-off for the events. They were a head taller than most, and their reach was several inches longer than anyone else there.

In the semi-finals, the giant and dwarf were set to face off, and the dwarf conceded without facing her. There were boos in the crowd, but he sat down and cheered on his sister as she faced her last challenger. The fight was anti-climactic, ending in fifteen seconds after she ducked a punch and delivered a counter-punch to the jaw, shattering it. Bone stuck out of the skin just below his cheek.

The giant was adorned with ribbons and paraded around the city in a procession that led to the statue of Dyas. They burned incense and sang a song. They then all retired to a vast drinking hall, where wine was served in excess. Hugh was pressured into drinking two casks himself.

They woke up on the floor of the drinking hall to the sound of horns. They moved out to the competition grounds and prepared for the first event of the day: the armored sprint.

Every runner was to wear armor that was weighed forty-five pounds or more, or just over twenty-one kilograms. They had to include at least a helmet, breastplate, bracers, greaves, and a shield. Those elements could each weigh any amount or be of any style. Most chose to carry most of the weight in their chest piece, which was made unusually thick and made of bronze.

Once all the armor was weighed, the runners armored up and took to the starting line. A man stood off to the side and in front of the runners, then raised and waved a flag. The runners took off towards the first of nine poles.

The poles zig-zagged the track, so that the runners had to run around the outside of one, then turn and run around the outside of the next, weaving across the sand-covered floor. It became violent at each turn, as everyone vied for a chance to grab the pole and swing their momentum around it. Runners who were able to do that shaved time off their run.

Quite early, runners fell, first one, then several behind him as they tripped over his body and shield. Stragglers in the back with time to react hurdled over the obstacles.

With each turn, the field spread out a bit more. At the far end, they swung around the ninth and final pole and went back. They finished at a large stone about waist high near where they had started, where the winner would be the one who touched the top first.

The giant and dwarf finished first and second, respectively. The dwarf had been out in front for most of the race, but the giant overtook him midway through the return run when the dwarf hurt his foot on a fallen shield. After the race, Hugh helped him bandage up the gaping wound.

The hammer throw was next. The dwarf won this event, hurling his hammer much further than anyone else on his first throw. The giant qualified comfortably near the top of the competitors, happy with her second toss.

The final event of the day was wrestling. The giant dropped out of the event to prevent having to disrobe. The rules were simple: no striking, no eye gouging, no biting. Many won simply through grappling and applying knuckle locks. Others attempted to apply sleeper holds, arm and leg locks, or chokes. Others relied on throws and takedowns, and it was legal to knock someone out by slamming them into the ground.

The dwarf often won in spectacular fashion. He twice lifted and drove his opponent into the sand over and over until they submitted. He also choked several men against whom he had a long arm length advantage.

In the quarter finals, he faced off against the wrestler favored to win the day, a man named Gregof from Kole. He was almost as tall as the dwarf, and he was bulkier. The two had faced off the day before in the boxing ring and the dwarf was easily victorious, but Gregof was known more for his wrestling than his striking.

The two of them circled each other for a while, hunched over, occasionally attempting to put a hand out to reach the other. Gregof lunged in first, ducking his head low and trying to gain leverage on the dwarf. Gregof managed to get his head under his opponent’s armpit while wrapping him up with his arms. With a quick twist, Gregof was behind him and had a firm grip around him.

The dwarf leaned forward, lifting the Kole off his feet, and desperately tried to break the hold. He dug his thumb into Gregof’s wrist, but his opponent kept him locked up. The dwarf never managed to get the advantage, and Gregof slowly wore him down over a few minutes until the dwarf finally raised his finger in submission, red faced and struggling to breathe.

Gregof won his matches in the semifinals and finals. Like the giant the day before, Gregof was carried off, adorned with ribbons, and brought before the statue of Dyas. Again, there was excessive drinking, all while the giant sat with her brother, who stewed quietly amid the celebration. He had that look… like he was itching for a fight. The night’s celebration was uneventful in its repetition.

The next morning, Theoson woke up Hugh before the horn blew. They brushed down the horses and greased the axles of the chariots. When the horn blew, the giant and dwarf went with the other athletes to take the reins of their chariots in the enormous circus. The grounds were a large oval with poles on either end. The chariots would need to turn on the outside of the pole on each lap. The race was over after nine laps of there and back.

This was the event Hugh was most worried about. Neither the dwarf nor the giant had much experience in chariot racing. In fact, the only experience they had was under the watchful eye of Theoson in the last week or so. There was also the small matter of this being the event where a competitor was most likely to die or become gravely injured.

“Half of it is about the horses,” said Theoson. “Half of the remainder is about the chariot. We have some of the best horses and chariots in the kingdom, so that only leaves twenty-five percent for them to screw up.”

Hugh frowned. “I’m more worried about how dangerous it is.”

Theoson nodded. “It’s serious business, and obviously they won’t win the race, but they have a good chance of qualifying. But then later is archery, which they both excel at, and what I think is Kane’s strongest event, no holds-barred fighting, should be easy for him if he doesn’t get hurt.”

The chariots took off from the starting point. On the first turn, a few chariots overturned, sending their drivers to the ground. They scrambled to the outskirts of the track to avoid being run over, then turned their chariots upright and continued on if they could. One of the chariots appeared to have a broken axel, and the driver led the horse off the track, dragging the chariot along.

At the next turn, there was further bedlam. This time, someone got trampled. Hugh could see his body being kicked along by horses, run over by wheels. Once the racers had moved on, his team ran out to the track and lifted his limp body off the track. Someone unhitched his horse and led it away, but the chariot remained on its side right in the path of the race.

The giant and dwarf worked together, racing side-by-side, preventing people from easily passing them. They maintained their position near the middle of the pack, and after a final pile-up knocked out several of those near the front, they easily qualified to move on.

The archery event was very simple: nine targets were set up, composed of a white linen cloth hung over a bundle of straw, with a brass ring about the size of a man’s palm hanging down. The archers stand in place and must shoot at each target, which are at varying distances and heights. They score a point for each arrow that hits inside a ring, and while they can fire on any target as many times as they wish, they only get nine arrows and can only score on the same ring once.

The giant went near the beginning, and she scored on eight of nine rings. As more shot, it became apparent that she would not be eliminated, though it was a bitter sweet realization, seeing as how she was going to bow out of the final event. The dwarf shot next to last. He was only the second to score a perfect nine.

As expected, the giant forfeited her first match in the next round. The dwarf won several bouts with ease, most against much smaller opponents. He faced Gregof for the third time in combat, and he beat the Kole to a bloody pulp, for he refused to submit. It was not until his body lay limp on the ground, bleeding from his nose and one of his ears, that the dwarf was declared the winner of the match.

After a few more rounds, the dwarf faced his final opponent. Based on the betting going on around him, Hugh ascertained that the dwarf was the heavy favorite.

The dwarf tried his best to keep the fight standing, but his opponent lunged in quickly a few times after taking some punches. After a few attempts, he was able to wrap up the dwarf and they went to the ground. The dwarf did his best to wear down his opponent, primarily throwing weak elbows to his head, but his opponent seemed unfazed, though unable to gain an advantage.

The dwarf caught a break when his opponent “inadvertently” gouged him in the eye. The referee ran in with a large rod and pried the two of them apart. The dwarf was given a moment to compose himself, and now that they were both standing again, he took advantage by striking his opponent.

It ended not with one of the numerous blows to the head delivered by the dwarf, but with a kick to his opposition’s knee, which bent inward, clearly broken. He fell in a crumpled pile to the floor while the dwarf stood over him.

A cheer went up from the crowd and the dwarf was lifted into the air. He was given a large belt made of leather, adorned with gold and silver. Theoson and Hugh congratulated him, then Theoson led Hugh off to find someone, who was given a large purse full of money. Theoson told Hugh that the man was a sculptor, and he was being commissioned to make a statue of the dwarf.

Again, there was a procession through the city and the dwarf was brought before the statue of Dyas, where he was joined with the giant and Gregof as being celebrated. That night, the dwarf drank excessively for the first time. As the festivities progressed, Hugh walked outside the drinking hall. He couldn’t bear another night of rowdiness.

To be continued…

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