For the second time that day, a woman stabbed Richard.
Jolted fully awake by the shock of pain, he instantly seized her bony wrist, preventing her from ripping open his thigh. A dingy dress, buttoned all the way up to her throat, covered her gaunt figure. In the dim light of distant campfires Richard saw that the square of cloth draped over her head and knotted under her angular jaw looked to be made out of a scrap of frayed burlap.
Despite her frail frame, her sunken cheeks, her stooped back, she had the glare of a predator. The woman who had stabbed him earlier that night had been heavier, and stronger. Her eyes, too, had burned with hate.
The slender blade this woman wielded was smaller as well. While it made a painful puncture wound, had she sliced across his thigh muscle, as she'd apparently intended by the way she was holding the knife, it would have been far worse. The army of the Imperial Order did not bother to care for slaves with crippling injuries; they would simply have put him to death. That had probably been her plan in the first place.
Gritting his teeth with awakened rage as he held the struggling woman's wrist in a viselike grip, Richard twisted her arm as he lifted her white-knuckled fist in order to withdraw the blade from his leg. A drop of blood dripped from the tip.
He easily muscled her under his control. She was not the powerful killer he had at first feared. Her desire, her intent, her lust, however, were just as vicious as that of any of the invading horde she followed. As she grunted in pain, vapor from each panting breath rose into the cold night air. Richard knew that to be gentle would only give her another opportunity to finish the job. Surprise had provided her with an opening; he would not foolishly grant her a second chance. Still firmly holding her wrist, he wrenched the knife from her grasp.
He didn't let up the pressure on her arm until he had possession of the blade. He could have broken her arm, and she deserved no less, but he didn't-this was not the time or place to create a disturbance. He merely wanted her away from him. Once he'd disarmed her, he shoved her back.
As soon as she stumbled to a halt, she spat at him. "You'll never beat the team of the great and glorious Emperor Jagang. You are dogs-all of you! All of you from up here in the New World are heathen dogs!"
Richard glared at her, watching to make sure she didn't pull another knife and renew the attack. He checked to the sides for an accomplice. Although there were soldiers not far away, just beyond the small enclosure of supply wagons, they were preoccupied with their own business. There didn't appear to be anyone with the woman.
When she started to spit at him again, Richard lunged at her. She gasped in fright as she flinched back. Having lost courage for the business of stabbing a man when he was awake and able to defend himself, she cast him one last hateful glare, then turned and escaped into the night. Richard had known that the length of heavy chain attached to the collar around his neck wasn't long enough to allow him to get to her, but she hadn't known that and so the threat had been convincing enough to scare her off.
Even in the middle of the night the vast army encampment into which she had vanished was ceaselessly busy. Like some great, churning beast it swallowed her up.
While many of the soldiers were sleeping, others seemed always to be at work repairing gear, making weapons, cooking, eating, or engaged in drinking and raucous stories around fires as they passed the time waiting for their next opportunity at murder, rape, and plunder. All night long, it seemed, there were men testing their strength against one another, sometimes with muscle, sometimes with knives. Small crowds gathered from time to time to watch such contests and to bet on the outcome. Patrolling guards looking for any signs of serious trouble, soldiers looking for entertainment, and camp followers looking for a handout prowled the encampment throughout the night. Occasionally men wandered by to size up Richard and his fellow captives.
Between gaps in the wagons Richard could see some of the camp followers, hoping to earn food or even a small coin, going from group to group offering to play a flute and sing for the men. Others offered to shave soldiers, wash and care for their clothes, or tattoo their flesh. A number of the shadowy figures, after brief negotiations, disappeared into tents with the men. Others wandered the camp looking to steal. And a few of those out in the night were intent on murder.
In the center of it all, in a prison island created out of a ring of supply wagons, Richard lay chained with other captive men brought in to play in the Ja'La dh Jin tournaments. Most of his team was made up of regular Imperial Order troops, but they were off sleeping in their own tents.
Hardly a city ruled by the Order was without a Ja'La team. As children these soldiers had played it almost from the time they could walk. They all expected that after the war was over Ja'La would endure for them. To many of the soldiers of the Order, Ja'La dh Jin-the Game of Life-was itself a matter of life and death, nearly equal to the cause of the Order.
Even to a scrawny old woman who followed her emperor to war and lived off the scraps of his conquest, murder was an acceptable means of helping her favored team to victory.
Having a winning Ja'La team was a source of great pride for an army division, just as it was for any city. Commander Karg, the officer responsible for Richard's team, was also intent on winning. A winning team could bring far more tangible benefits to those directly involved than mere glory. Those who ran the top teams became powerful men. Winning Ja'La players became heroes rewarded with riches of every sort, including legions of women eager to be with them.
At night Richard was chained to the wagons that held the cages that had transported him and the other captives, but in the games they had played along the way he was the point man for their team, trusted to carry Commander Karg's ambitions to glory in the tournaments at Emperor Jagang's main encampment. Richard's life depended on how well he did his job. So far he had rewarded Commander Karg's faith in him.
Richard's choice from the first had been to either join Commander Karg's effort, or be executed in the most gruesome manner possible.
Richard, though, had had other reasons for "volunteering." Those reasons were far more important to him than anything else.
He glanced over and saw that Johnrock, chained to the same transport wagon, lay on his back sound asleep. The man, a miller by trade, was built like an oak tree. Unlike the point men of other teams, Richard insisted on endless practice whenever they were not on the move. Not everyone on his team liked it, but they followed his instructions. Even in their cage as they had traveled to the Imperial Order's main force, Richard and Johnrock analyzed how they could have done better, devised and memorized codes for plays, and did endless push-ups and other exercises to build their strength.
Exhaustion had apparently overcome the noise and confusion of camp, and Johnrock was sleeping as peacefully as a baby, unaware that their reputation had brought people out into the night who wanted to end their team's chances before they reached the tournaments.
As tired as Richard was, he had only been dozing from time to time. He found himself having difficulty sleeping. Something was wrong, something not connected to all the myriad troubles swirling around him. It was not even anything to do with the immediate worldly dangers of being a captive. This was something different, something inside him, something deep within him. In a way it reminded him a little of the times he'd been sick with a fever, but that wasn't really it, either. No matter how carefully he tried to analyze it, the nature of the feeling remained elusive. He was so confused by the inexplicable sensation that he was left with nothing so much as an aching feeling of restless foreboding.
Besides that, he was too preoccupied thinking about Kahlan to be able to sleep. Held captive by Emperor Jagang himself, she was not all that far away.
Sometimes when he'd been alone with Nicci, late in the night sitting before a fire, she had stared into those flames and confided in him how Jagang had brutalized her. Those stories gnawed at Richard's insides.
He couldn't see the emperor's compound, but as they had rolled in through the sprawling encampment earlier that day he had seen the impressive command tents. To find himself looking into Kahlan's green eyes after all this time, even if for only a fleeting moment, had filled him with joy and relief. He had at long last found her, and she was alive. He had to find a way to get her out.
Reasonably sure that the latest woman to have stabbed him was no longer lurking in the shadows for another attempt, Richard finally pulled his hand away to inspect the wound. It wasn't as bad as it might have been. If he had been sound asleep, like Johnrock, it might have gone much worse.
He guessed that perhaps the odd feeling that had been keeping him awake had actually served him well.
As much as the wound in his leg stung, it wasn't serious. Holding his hand tightly over it had stopped the bleeding. The wound from earlier that night was also painful, but it, too, wasn't anywhere as bad as it might have been. His shoulder blade had caught the tip of the woman's knife and thwarted her attempt at murder.
Death had visited him twice that night and gone away empty-handed. Richard remembered the old saying that trouble sired three children. He hoped not to meet the third child.
He had just rolled onto his side to try again to get some sleep when he saw a shadow slipping up among the wagons. The stride appeared deliberate, though, rather than stealthy. Richard sat up as Commander Karg came to a halt over him.
In the dim light Richard could plainly see the tattooed scales covering the right side of the man's face. Without the leather shoulder plates and breastplates that the commander usually wore, or even a shirt, Richard could see that the pattern of scales ran down over his shoulder and covered part of his chest as well. The tattoo made him look reptilian. Among themselves, Richard and Johnrock referred to the commander as "Snake-face." The name fit in more ways than one.
"What do you think you're doing, Ruben?"
Ruben Rybnik was the name Johnrock-and everyone else on the team-knew Richard by. It was the name Richard had given when he'd been taken prisoner. If there was one place that his real name would surely get him killed, Richard now sat right in the middle of it.
"Trying to get some sleep."
"You have no business trying to force a woman to lie with you." Commander Karg pointed an accusatory finger. "She came to me and told me all about what you tried to do to her."
Richard's brow lifted. "Did she, now."
"I told you before, if you beat the emperor's team-if you beat them-then you will get your choice of a woman. But in the meantime you get no favors. I won't tolerate anyone disobeying my orders-least of all the likes of you."
"I don't know what she told you, Commander, but she came here with the intent of killing me. She wanted to make sure that the emperor's team wouldn't lose to us."
The commander squatted down, resting his forearm on his knee as he peered at the point man for his Ja'La team. He looked ready to murder Richard himself.
"A poor lie, Ruben."
The knife that only a short time ago he'd taken away from the woman was in Richard's hand, pressed up along the inside of his wrist. At this distance he could have gutted the commander before the man knew what had happened.
But this was not the time or place. It wouldn't help Richard get Kahlan back.
Without taking his gaze off the commander's eyes, Richard spun the knife through his fingers and caught the point between his first finger and thumb. It felt good to have a blade in his hand, any blade, even one this small. He held the handle of the knife out toward the commander.
"This is why my leg was bleeding. She stabbed me with it. Where else do you think I could get a knife?"
The significance -- and the danger -- of a knife being in Richard's possession was not lost on the man. He glanced at the wound on Richard's thigh and then took the knife.
"If you want us to win this tournament," Richard said with deliberate care, "then I need to get some rest. I would rest a lot easier if there were guards posted. If one skinny old woman, who probably has a bet on the emperor's team, kills me while I'm asleep, then your team will be without a point man and has no chance to win."
"Think a lot of yourself, don't you, Ruben?"
"You think a lot of me, Commander, or you would have killed me long ago back in Tamarang after I killed dozens of your men."
With his tattooed scales faintly lit by campfires, the commander looked like a snake considering a meal.
"It would appear that being point man is dangerous not just on the Ja'La field." He finally rose up over Richard. "I'll post a guard. Just keep in mind that a lot of people don't think you're so good-after all, you've already lost one game for us."
They had lost that game because Richard had tried to protect one of his men, a captive named York, whose leg had just been broken in a concentrated charge by the opposing team. He had been a valuable man, a good player, and therefore targeted. The way the Order played Ja'La, the rules allowed such things.
With a badly broken leg York had suddenly become useless as a player, and as a slave. After he had been carried from the field, Commander Karg had unceremoniously cut the man's throat. For protecting the downed player rather than continuing play by taking the broc upfield toward the opposing goal, the referee had penalized their team by banning Richard from the rest of the game. They had lost as a result.
"The emperor's team lost a game, too, as I hear tell," Richard said.
"His Excellency had that team put to death. His new team was created from the best men in all of the Old World."
Richard shrugged. "We lose players for various reasons, too, and they get replaced. Any number have been hurt and can't play. Not long ago one of our men broke a leg. You did no less than the emperor did with his losers.
"As I see it, the details of who used to be on his team don't matter all that much. We've each lost a game. That makes us even. That's all that really matters. We come into this contest on equal footing. They're no better than us."
The commander arched an eyebrow. "You think you are their equal?"
Richard didn't shrink away from the man's glare. "I am going to win us the chance to play the emperor's team, Commander, and then we will see what happens."
A sly smile curved into the scales. "Hoping for your choice of a woman, Ruben?"
Richard nodded without returning the smile. "As a matter of fact I am."
Commander Karg had no idea that Richard already knew the woman he wanted. He wanted Kahlan. He wanted her more than life itself. He intended to do whatever was necessary to get his wife away from the nightmare of captivity by Jagang and his Sisters of the Dark.
Staring down at Richard, Commander Karg finally conceded with a sigh. "I'll tell the guards that their lives depend on no one getting at my team while they sleep."
After the commander had vanished into the night, Richard lay back, at last letting his aching muscles relax. He watched guards in the distance rushing to set up a tight perimeter around the captive members of the team. The realization of what could be lost to nothing more than a conniving camp follower had spurred Commander Karg to action. At least the attack had served the purpose of making it possible for Richard to get the rest he needed. It wasn't easy sleeping when anyone who wanted to could sneak up and cut your throat.
Now, at least, he was temporarily safe, even if it had been necessary to surrender the knife. He still had the other one, though, the one he'd taken from the first woman. It was tucked away in his boot.
Richard curled into a ball on the bare ground in an effort to stay warm as he tried to go to sleep. The ground had long ago lost any heat from the previous day. Without a bedroll or blanket, he was forced to bunch up the slack in the chain to make a pillow of sorts. The next sunrise was not far off. Out on the Azrith Plain it wasn't going to be getting warmer any time soon.
Dawn would bring the first day of winter.
The noise of the camp droned on. He was so tired. Thinking about Kahlan, about the first time he'd met her, about how it had lifted his heart to at last see her alive again, about how happy it made him to look into her beautiful green eyes, finally allowed sleep to gently quiet his mind and take him.
Copyright © 2007 by Terry Goodkind. All rights reserved.