Authors: Terry Goodkind
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Epic
Kahlan felt as if she were at the center of a boiling, churning, frenzied ritual dedicated to violence. The crowd not only yelled and cheered, but they began to chant, stamping feet in time to those chants as their team raced across the field. The ground shook under those hundreds of thousands of boots all slamming down together. The night, dark and overcast, felt like it was filled with continuous, booming thunder.
The mood was bewitching. It even caught Kahlan up in it.
She, along with all those watching, felt as if she were out there, on the field, running with the men. Her heart pounded as she watched Richard dodge tackles, duck under an outstretched arm, and slip between men diving for him. She winced, half turning away when men were hit. Many of the spectators groaned, almost as if they themselves had taken the blow.
As the hourglass marked the turns, the score went back
and forth. As she watched, though, Kahlan saw Richard fail to make scores that she felt sure he could have made. He would seem to slow just enough so that a man could catch and tackle him. One time he threw and missed.
He was falling in the mud again, so to speak. This time, she didn’t know why.
As the game wore on it became ever more clear to her that he was manipulating the score, keeping it close. When the emperor’s team would score, it wouldn’t be long before he would make an answering score to stay even, but then he would fail to follow up and make another—until the emperor’s team scored again. Turn after turn of the hourglass went scoreless. It stood at seven points each.
She could tell by the way he moved that he was not merely holding back for some reason, but he was also saving his energy. The other team was wearing themselves out. Richard did what was necessary but no more.
Such a close match only served to heat the emotions of the hillsides of spectators into fevered expectations. Many of them cheered, clapped, whistled, and yelled for the team they favored, while others shook fists and shouted curses at the team they opposed. Here and there fights broke out among the spectators. They ended up being brief because everyone wanted to watch the game.
Kahlan, having watched Nicci’s slow progress, saw that she had managed to ease herself half a dozen steps behind Jagang. No one was paying any attention to her. Jagang had glanced back twice, only half looking, satisfied that she was close enough at hand.
Kahlan could see women camp followers, out near the edge of the field, just as wildly excited as the vast crowd, beginning to bare their breasts as men ran past. While the territory up close to the sidelines was highly prized, and often fought over, women at the matches were freely allowed access right up to the edge of the field. Throngs of
men, knowing how worked up the women were, how eager they were to catch the attention of the players, egged them on. The women seemed to crave the attention. Over the deafening noise of the crowd Kahlan could hear some of the nearby women up at the sidelines yell lewd promises for the victors as players ran by.
Ordinarily, women behaving in such a manner among the men of the Order would not be free for long, but the soldiers were far more interested in the game on the field. The conduct of the women only added to the debauched atmosphere. It was all part of Ja’La dh Jin.
When Nicci slipped close enough, Jillian reached out and touched her hand. “Are you all right?” she whispered just loud enough to be heard over the noise of the crowd. “We were so worried for you.”
Cupping the girl’s cheek, Nicci smiled briefly as she nodded in answer.
“He’s up to something,” Nicci said under her breath as she leaned a little closer to Kahlan.
“This may be a chance for you to escape. I’ll do all I can to help you. Be ready.”
With the collar around her neck Kahlan didn’t know what chance she could possibly have to escape. She was heartened by the sentiment, though, even if she thought it was completely unrealistic. While Kahlan didn’t believe that she had any real chance of escape, it might be an opportunity for something else, something that could save others.
When Nicci glanced over again, Kahlan lifted out her hand just a little, hiding what was underneath, in her palm.
“Here. Take this.”
When Nicci only frowned, Kahlan turned the hand over briefly, just long enough for Nicci to see the handle of the knife. The blade was pressed up along Kahlan’s wrist, under the sleeve of her shirt.
“Keep it,” Nicci said. “You may need it.”
“I still have two.”
Nicci stared for a moment in surprise, then tilted her head, indicating that Kahlan should give the knife to Jillian. Jillian pulled her cloak open just enough to show Nicci the knife Kahlan had already given her.
Nicci looked up at Kahlan. “Knives are not my talent.”
“It’s not hard,” Kahlan said as she pressed the handle into Nicci’s hand. “When the time is right, just stick the pointed end somewhere important in someone you really don’t like.”
Nicci’s blue eyes stole a glance at Jagang. “I think I can do that much.”
Kahlan thought that Nicci, standing there in the soft torchlight, her blond hair tumbled down over her strong shoulders, was probably the most beautiful woman she had ever seen. It wasn’t just that she was beautiful, though. Despite what Jagang did to her, she remained undaunted. There was an inner strength about her, a nobility.
“Is he Richard Rahl?” Kahlan asked.
Nicci’s blue eyes turned back to Kahlan and stared for a moment.
“What’s he doing here?”
The slightest smile curved Nicci’s mouth. “He’s Richard Rahl.”
“Do you know what he’s up to?”
Nicci shook her head the slightest bit as her gaze swept over all the guards, checking to make sure none were paying any attention to either of them. Through gaps they could see men painted with wild red designs race past.
“That’s really Richard out there?” Jillian asked.
“How can you tell? I mean, with the paint all over them, how can you be sure? I know Richard and I can’t tell.”
Nicci glanced down at Jillian. “It’s him.”
Her tone was of such calm certainty that it left no reason to question. Kahlan thought that Nicci would probably be able to recognize the man in total darkness.
“How does he know me?” she asked.
Nicci again stared into Kahlan’s eyes for a long moment. “This is not the place for a conversation. Just be ready.”
“For what?” Kahlan asked. “What do you think he’s going to do? What do you think he
“If I know Richard, I expect that he’s about to start a war.”
Kahlan blinked in surprise. “All by himself?”
“If he has to.”
Out on the field, the emperor’s team scored a point just before the horn blew, signaling the end of their turn. The crowd went crazy. Kahlan winced at the roar. The level of noise was withering.
Richard’s team was now behind by one point.
Waiting for the men to take their place and the horn to start the play for Richard’s team, the entire crowd started in chanting in a deep, harsh, rhythmic grunt. The horde stamped a boot between each of those grunts.
It seemed like the whole world moved with each of those
s. The ground shook with each thump. Even Jagang and his royal guards joined in. It gave the night an eerie, savage, primeval feel, as if everything civilized had been abandoned to the spectacle of raw savagery.
The supporters of the emperor’s team wanted the men to rip the challengers apart rather than let them score. The supporters of Richard’s team wanted their men to crush those trying to stop them.
The chanting was a call for blood.
With only one timed turn left, Richard’s team had to score during this play or they would lose. If they scored
only one point during their time at play, though, the game would be tied and go into overtime.
Kahlan caught glimpses of Richard, showing no emotion, as he gathered with his men. He gave them a brief, covert hand signal. As he turned, his gaze swept past. For an instant, their eyes met.
The power in that connection made Kahlan’s heart pound and her knees weak.
Just as fast as it had come, Richard’s scrutiny moved on. No one but Kahlan would have known that he had looked directly at her or, if they had, they wouldn’t have understood why.
He was checking her position.
This was the moment for which he had painted himself with those strange symbols. This was the moment for which he had kept the score even. He had crushed every other team they had come up against so that he could be sure that he was here, in this place, at this moment.
She couldn’t imagine why, but it was for this moment.
He abruptly yelled a battle cry and started the charge.
Seeing him covered in the frightening red symbols, his tense muscles, his raptor glare, his focused power, his fluid movement…Kahlan thought that surely her hammering heart might burst.
Every eye was on Richard as he ran with the broc tucked under his left arm. Kahlan, too, having taken a step forward, stood transfixed. The crowd, in tense expectation, held its collective breath.
Jagang’s team, at the other end of the field, began their rush across open ground to stop the charge. If they could keep Richard’s team from scoring they would win the championship. They were experienced players who knew that victory was within their grasp and they didn’t intend to let anything change that.
Richard, screened by blockers and his remaining wing man, cut to the right. He hugged the right boundary of the field as he ran at breakneck speed. The flames of torches whooshed and flapped as he flew by. Women reached out to try to touch him as they yelled along with everyone else.
Richard was suddenly right there, right in front of them, racing past the emperor. Jagang looked like he wanted to tackle Richard himself as he ran past.
Kahlan expected Richard to stop, to wheel on the emperor, and kill the man as he had so efficiently killed others, but he didn’t. He didn’t even glance to the side as he flew by.
Richard had his chance to attempt an assassination and hadn’t taken it.
Kahlan couldn’t imagine why not, if as Nicci thought, he really had intended to do something. Perhaps it was only wishful thinking on Nicci’s part…and on Kahlan’s.
In an instant Richard and his men were past and gone, charging up the field.
The men of Jagang’s team, watching them come and seeing that they were relatively close together in their headlong rush, rather than scattered all over the field as they sometimes had been in the past, converged to form into an impenetrable wall of bone and muscle sure to stop their advance.
In past turns at play the emperor’s team had kept Richard’s team from scoring. They knew that they would win if they merely contained their adversary and kept them from scoring during this turn. They appeared to want more, though. They didn’t simply want to win; they wanted to punish the challengers. They looked fiercely determined to end it in as brutal a fashion as possible.
As they ran, Richard’s men, rather than scattering, or even moving into positions designed to try to engage the formation of waiting blockers, instead suddenly and inexplicably came together. Even more surprising, they meshed into a single column. As the men ran they all stacked in close together, with the largest men in the front. At the same time, each man reached out and fastened a hand on the shoulder of the man in front of him, locking the entire column together. Their long, breakneck strides moved in unison.
In an instant, Richard’s entire team had connected itself together into a solid, human battering ram.
That column, Richard near the back, wasn’t moving as fast as each of the men could have run by himself, but they didn’t need to be fast, and what they gave up in a little
speed was more than offset by their massive collective weight giving them staggering momentum.
Even though the individual big men of Jagang’s team braced themselves, the runaway line of men crashed through them like a tree trunk through a pauper’s door.
Jagang’s men were all accustomed to their huge size serving them in good stead but, despite how big they were, they were no match for the prodigious weight of Richard’s entire team body-slamming into them in such a focused manner. With such overpowering weight, the column punched through without being slowed, transferring the power of the collision to the defending blockers, sending them flying.
Some of Richard’s men in the front were peeled away by the violence of the contact, but as each broke off it exposed a new man in the lead so that the file itself remained intact as it plunged through the defending wall of men.
Once they were in the defenders’ territory and at the first scoring line, long before they reached the regular scoring zone, the column of men burst apart, crashing into the blockers converging on them. For an instant, it opened a pocket of safety for Richard.
He heaved the broc from that rear line. It was a long way to the goal. As the broc arced through the night air, illuminated by torches, the crowd leaned forward as one, all holding their breath, all eyes watching.
With a thunk, the broc landed solidly in the net, scoring two points.
The crowed exploded with a thunderous roar that made the air tremble and the ground shudder.
Richard’s team was now ahead by one point. The emperor’s team had no more turns of the hourglass; there was no way for them to win. Even though there was time left on the play for Richard’s team, they didn’t need it. The game was as good as won, even though it wasn’t yet over and the sand in the hourglass continued to drizzle down.
Emperor Jagang stood stone-faced. His guards, looking grim, put their weight into holding back the excited crowds to each side as the cheering went on unabated.
Jagang finally thrust an arm up high. The wild celebration began to die out as attention turned to see what the emperor would do. Jagang signaled for the referee.
Kahlan shared a brief look with Nicci. They couldn’t hear as the men conferred, heads together.
The referee, looking a little pale, gave the emperor a nod and then ran out to the center of the field, holding up a hand to indicate a ruling.
“The challenger went out of bounds as he ran along the sideline,” the referee called into the still night air. “The points don’t count. His excellency’s team still leads by one. Play must resume until time runs out.”
If the crowd had gone wild when Richard had scored, they now went berserk. The entire army watching the game was in turmoil.
Richard, though, didn’t look at all moved by the ruling. In fact, he was already down at his end along with his men, as if he had expected it. His men, looking all business, didn’t seem discouraged, either.
As the referee tossed them the broc, they were ready. In Ja’La, play couldn’t be interrupted. Jagang’s team, however, had been celebrating their sudden turn of fortune and weren’t yet formed up to defend their goals. Richard’s team, having little time left, didn’t waste any and charged away immediately.
As they raced up the field they went to their left this time, to the opposite side of the field from where Kahlan stood watching. Again, they formed into the same tight column, the hand of each man resting on the shoulder of the man in front of him. They were running the same play, but reversing it.
The other difference was that this time they kept well away from the sideline—far enough away that anyone, especially
the crowd on that side of the field, could see that they were nowhere near the side boundary.
Jagang’s team saw what was coming but hadn’t yet organized a defense to stop the formation bearing down on them. They realized the jeopardy and raced to block the advancing team.
When Richard’s team plowed through the loose net of blockers and reached the same scoring line as the play before, to the rear of the regular scoring zone, the men again scattered to create a pocket to protect their point man. In that instant, clear of defenders, Richard heaved the broc.
It sailed over the outstretched arms of Jagang’s team and thunked into the net for two points.
The crowd erupted in wild cheering.
The horn blew, hardly heard over the thunderous roar.
The game was over. Richard’s team had won the championship—several times over.
Jagang, his face red with rage, took a long step back, reached out, seized Nicci’s upper arm, and then yanked her forward to his side.
He thrust his other arm into the air to halt the proceedings. The referee and his assistants stood frozen, watching Jagang. The cheering faltered and the dismayed crowd slowly fell to silence.
“Their point man stepped over the boundary line!” Jagang roared into the cold night air. “He ran out of bounds!”
When he had run the play before last, since he had been so close, Kahlan had been able to see that he was not over the boundary line. In fact, people standing right along the boundary line had been reaching out, trying to touch him, and he’d been out of reach. This time, even if Richard really had run out of bounds, there was no way Jagang could have seen it all the way across the field.
“The play was dead!” Jagang yelled. “No points scored! Game over! The royal team wins the championship!”
The hillsides of men stared in disbelief.
“Jagang the Just has spoken!” Nicci shouted out to the crowd, mocking Jagang’s decree.
Richard had just forced Jagang the Just to demonstrate to all that under the Order justice was a meaningless slogan. And Nicci had twisted the knife for him.
Jagang backhanded her hard enough to send her sprawling at Kahlan’s feet.
The supporters of the emperor’s team went crazy with jubilation. Men jumped up and down as they shouted and cheered, as if they themselves had actually accomplished something.
The supporters of Richard’s team went crazy with rage.
Kahlan, holding her breath, gripped the knife tightly in her fist, checking the position of her guards as Jillian bent to help the woman bleeding on the ground at their feet.
Supporters of Jagang’s team shouted taunts at men who shouted back that their team were cheats and had lost. Men started shoving one another. Fists started flying. Men everywhere sided with one group or the other as weapons were drawn.
In an instant the entire camp was in riot.
The hillsides of men seemed to break, then suddenly begin to avalanche down toward the Ja’La field. In the frantic melee it seemed the entire army was unexpectedly caught up in pitched battle.
Kahlan wouldn’t have believed it was possible, but Nicci was right.
Richard had just started a war.