One-Minute Epics are new micro tales from John Klobucher’s Lore of the Underlings, a lyrical fantasy-fiction world. Here’s the latest installment…
The Fighting Pit
It was still dark when the ram horn sounded. Jury and Morio jumped to their feet and scrambled outside with the other recruits, falling in line just in time for their drill lords to kill them. “Let the hell begin!” The trainers were robed and hooded and growled in unison; they dwarfed mortal men.
“Watch out for that one with the bullwhip,” Morio whispered to his tall teen friend. Just the thought made the scars on Jury’s back sting.
“Silence! At attention!”
This is how they’d lived for months since the conscripts had been rounded up and dumped at this nameless, spartan camp somewhere in the hinterlands. There were scores of them, young men and women, the fruit of Nord, here under the Legion’s thumb. All had been bruised, some fallen and left to rot — a harvest of bitterness. But the trainers wanted only the few left standing. They had one last test.
“Today you duel,” the masters announced. “Sharpen your pikes. May the weak die young!”
Jury gave his friend a look while shushing a whimper from behind. His pet changeling, Ogdog, hid there like a rucksack. “Hush, don’t worry boy.”
At the heart of the camp lay a fighting pit cut in the hillside like an amphitheater, a deep bowl filled to the brim this morning with spectators wearing festive masks. The only exception was Governor Rippen Plesh who’d come to inspect his troops. He watched with keen interest, seemingly taking notes as the culling bouts began.
Ario Rill was a small, clever girl but when called she surprisingly shunned her armor. Not her opponent, the brutish lad Teed Parfnik; he had steeled for war. And so as their match tipped off with a clash of pikes in the sandy oval pit, Ario seemed to have no prayer. Teed taunted her, “Done, Rill? Beg for mercy!” But she had a plan and ran rings around him till he fell dizzy to the ground. The impact alone was enough to knock him silly, amusing the raucous crowd.
Teed was cleared out of the way and the games went on, tallied in blood on the sand.
At twilight the final duel was set, a grudge match between two Doontown delinquents. Jury and Morio breathed a sigh of relief — till they were picked as well. “How do we get out of this one?” Morio worried. “Just follow my lead,” Jury said. And he whispered over his shoulder to Ogdog, “Time to use our secret weapon.”
In no time the og rolled up to resemble a battle stick, landing in Morio’s hands. “Well hello there!” he chirped and gave it a swing… which downed the Doontowners who’d ganged up behind him. “Sorry about that, chaps,” he winced. But the bloodthirsty crowd only wanted more.
“They won’t let us both walk outta here,” Jury warned, pretending to fight his friend. “You’ll have to kill me too. Just trust me, Yooper.” The trooper dropped his guard.
“Sorry?” A puzzled Morio froze in place. “I didn’t catch that, mate,” he said and cocked his ear to listen. But all he heard was a cascade of boos raining down, so Ogdog took command. The battle stick flew at Jury’s head and felled him. The madding crowd went wild.
Morio knelt by his friend’s still body until he was ordered to cart it off. “Old chum,” he mumbled with wet red eyes, “farewell. I promise to tell your story.” Morio fought back a tear. “We needed a miracle…”
Jury winked at him.
“Ch-ch-chum?!” Morio almost fell over.
“Shhh!” Jury whispered, “I’ll explain later. Go — before the lords catch on.”
But high above the pit the Governor grinned, like he’d seen everything.