A Harvest of Broken Stars

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Chapter 46: Flags

‘The stadium manager has invented a new game. It’s called “Catch the flag”, and you guys are making history,’ Zekatar said, looking at his gladiators.

Hobble followed the dark elf’s gaze and looked around. They were gathered in one of the ‘waiting rooms’ under the stadium. Of course, it was more of a cell than a room, but at least they were not locked in. Besides Hobble and Zekatar, there were four others in the room. Two large humans called Bjorn and Bjarn, a dwarf named Craion and a female half-elf calling herself Queen. Bjorn and Bjarn were twins, muscular, blond and fair-skinned. Their bare torsos covered in dark tattoos. Craion was the prototypical dwarf. Red bearded and carrying an axe and a shield. Queen sat on a barrel looking uninterested. She wore black leather armour and dozens of knives.

‘You’ll face another team of five. And you’ll have three flags on your side of the ground. You are the red team, and you will have red flags,’ the dark elf said, and held up red ribbons. ‘The other team will have three blue flags. Your job is to defend the red flags while at the same time capture the blue flags. Once you have one of the blue flags, you will have to carry it over to your side and mount it next to one of your red ones. Once this is done, you’ll have one point. First to three points win.’

‘Are there any other rules?’ the dwarf Craion asked.

‘Not that I am aware of,’ Zekatar replied.

‘So I can decapitate the blue team and then appropriate all the flags?’

‘I guess you can,’ Zekatar said, ‘but I doubt that will be the best tactic. Remember this is a new game, and the team that adapts fastest is the team that will win. And as you know so well, I do not much enjoy losing.’

Zekatar took Hobble by the arm and led him a few paces away. ‘Between you and me—it would be good if this match lasted a while.’

Hobble gave the dark elf a questioning look.

‘Good for what comes later this night, I mean.’ With that, Zekatar left the room.

Hobble did not know what to make of that information, but seeing the other gladiators looking at him, he pushed the thought to the back of his mind. He walked over to the others. ‘So, what’s the plan?’

‘Without being privileged to all relevant information,’ the dwarf said in a nasal voice, ‘I propose a strategy where we distribute our métiers deliberately and meticulously.’

The twins looked at each other and shrugged. Queen rolled her eyes and shook her head.

‘Do you perhaps have a tangible suggestion, master dwarf?’ Hobble said. ‘And please use informal language, I am of the little people and don’t much like big words.’

‘Of course, sir. One should always strive to convey information in a distinct and comprehensible manner.’

‘Small words, Craion, small.’

‘Yes, sure. My suggestion … eh idea … is that we deploy … I mean set up … so that I stay at our middle flag, Bjarn on one side and Bjorn on the flag at the opposite side. That way we have strong defenders on each flank, and we can assist each other if need be. Our two stealthy comrades will be our attackers and runners. This way I think we’ll have a reasonable chance of winning this game of catch the flag, which of course should’ve been called “capture the flag”.’

Once more, the other gladiators looked at each other. It seemed that no one found anything lacking with the plan, and soon voiced their agreement.

The plan was set. All that remained was to wait.

*

The game was on. The red team had found their positions as suggested by Craion. The ground was littered with objects and obstacles. Torches and braziers lit up the field. The flags were spread out with about thirty feet between them. As soon as the start horn had sounded, Hobble crept behind a wheelbarrow laying on its side. From there he had moved to a huge log. The blue team was a group of orcs, practically ensuring that the match would be a bloody one. Two of the brutes had already passed Hobble on the way forward. On the right flank, Queen was stalking forward. Hobble glanced around the end of the log. At the far wall, he could see one of the orcs standing by the leftmost blue flag. Creeping forward, he kept to the shadows and moved towards the left.

A cry from behind followed by a roar from the audience told Hobble that the fight was on. He willed the shadows to engulf him and quickened his pace. Soon, he closed in at the blue flag to the left and the orc guarding it. The orc stood looking around and slapping the head of a giant axe in his palm. Hobble envisaged being hit with that axe, and a shudder went through him. A moderately good hit would cleave him. From head to hairy foot. He could not risk an open fight with the brute.

An explosion of movement on the right flank made the guard in front of Hobble turn his head and take a step in that direction. That was all Hobble needed. Coming out in the torchlight a few feet from the flag, he would reach it before the orc could do anything about it. He did. However, at the same moment he got his hands on the flag, a few thousand spectators in the stands realised what was happening. The orc turned around. The hunt was on.

Hobble headed towards the red side of the ground and ran for the nearest obstacle. Coming to a cart, he slid under. Knowing that the cart would not slow the orc much, Hobble chose to change direction while in cover. He came out running to the right flank where Queen had made her move. The orc jumped over the cart before he realised what the halfling was up to. The orc growled while Hobble ran for the next obstacle, a stack of barrels. It was too far. Hobble could hear the orc gaining on him with every step. The halfling slid behind the barrels and scrambled for the shadows. Drawing on his magic, he hoped it was enough to cover him. The brute came around the barrels and looked around. Not finding what he was looking for, he sniffed the air. Hobble followed the path of shadows and did not look back.

A hush went through the spectators as they too lost sight of the halfling. Hobble crept through the shadows for a few moments more. Then he ran. Not looking back, barely glancing to the side he ran for his life. Bjarn took a step forward, cheering him on and securing Hobble’s flag run. The halfling climbed the mount and fastened the blue flag next to the red. They were one point up.

After the early lead, the match became messy. Queen scored a flag run, but the orcs came back. Chasing in a single pack, they secured two flags and stopped Queen from completing her second run in the same process. In a few moments, the tide had turned. The score was two against two, but the orcs had all the momentum. Queen was down and out, and both Bjorn and Bjarn were bleeding badly. The only chance the red team had, was to secure a quick victory. Both teams had just one flag to defend, which made the match more straightforward.

‘We push against their flag together,’ Craion said, while both teams regrouped. When the brutes are deep into the battle, you go for their flag, Hobble.’

‘Fair enough,’ Hobble replied.

Bjarn and Bjorn leaned on their heavy weapons, breathing.

‘Ready?’ The dwarf asked.

‘The sooner,’ Bjarn started.

‘The better,’ Bjorn finished.

Craion led the charge, shouting a battle cry that Hobble did not understand. Hobble followed the twins holding tight to his staff while he ran as fast as his limping allowed him. The orcs did not shy from an open fight and came to meet them in the centre of the ground. The spectators clearly appreciated the less than subtle approach and took their cheering to new heights.

Over the next quarter, the game was more a fight than a game of catching the flags. Hobble continued to weave in and out on the different targets. Swinging his staff here, dodging an axe there, all the way looking for an opening to slip away.

*

Hobble had found his opening. While the orc was consumed by the battle, he had slipped away, caught the last blue flag and found his way across the field.

Closing in on his goal, Hobble heard running feet behind him. He glanced over his shoulder and saw an orc in full pursuit. The flag mount was thirty feet away. He had to make it. A loud murmur rose as the spectators understood what was going on. The orc came closer for every step, every inch. Hobble considered calling for the wind, but had no idea how to use it to increase his pace. No, it had to go, he was so close. Closing in on the mount, he lifted the flag. Behind him, the orc growled. Hobble jumped. Raised the flag.

And slotted it home!

Hobble fell. He turned as the orc skidded to a stop above him. The brute had his axe lifted and ready to strike. His eyes were large, his brow knitted and his nostrils flaring. A growl escaped from his snarling mouth. Saliva dripped. Hobble closed his eyes.

A voice boomed over the stadium. ‘Stop! Lay down your weapons! Red team wins!’

Hobble opened one eye. The brute above held the same pose. The same feral expression. His muscles were shaking. The internal struggle plain to see in the orc’s eyes. He wanted nothing more than to plant his axe in the helpless halfling laying before him. Hobble raised a hand in front of himself, and started shuffling back and away. Inch by inch, he drew away, and at last, he could breathe again.

The orc relaxed. Straightening, he brought his weapon down to his side.

The match was won. Hobble was still alive.

The real fight yet to come.

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