The tavern lay in the middle of a small town, containing no more than a few thousand Chon’ith. The few young males present had either been ruled out of military service on medical grounds, or had proven themselves so unruly that their service was not required. Into construction such males typically went, and shuttles routinely ferried them to orbital shipyards, or planetary projects. A few would end up serving on freighters and transports, but the strongest were reserved for the heavy lifting.
It was not uncommon, at the end of a long day of intense, physical labour, to find such Chon’ith frequenting the drinking establishments. They wanted to purge the hard work from their systems, and they would them drag themselves along the roads, past the now closed shops, to their homes, where their mates (assuming they had one) would usually be waiting disapprovingly, having spent all day maintaining the businesses, and the home. It was hardly surprising that a number of relationships foundered where the male was undisciplined, for there was rightfully only such the females would tolerate.
To Acklaran, the lack of composure and control was sinful. Most males, be they capable of military service or not, had the decency to treat their mates with respect. After all, whilst the men fought, the women were the ones who kept Oanerth strong. To balance careers, education and raising children was the truly bravest act any Chon’ith could undertake. To behave in such an uncouth fashion was not merely against the rules of the Makers, it was abhorrent for its own sake. It was an opinion he kept to himself as he sat in one of the booths, staring at his tankard, looking up at the robust specimen of Chon’ith male.
The young man had the same red skin as his father, perhaps a shade lighter. Blue eyes held hostility and contempt, but Acklaran was less concerned by those looks, than he was the thick muscles of the arms, the clenched, angry fists, and the confident, smug look upon the face of the father.
“You reckon there is more than pure strength eh?” The elder drawled. “Fight my boy. He’s tougher, stronger than you. Beat him, and maybe you’ll start to be taken seriously.”
Acklaran took a measured sip of his drink and shuffled out of the booth. He stood, acutely aware that his opponent was taller for good measure. Still, he could hardly back down, not without making him look very foolish, not to mention cowardly.
“The courtyard, ten minutes.” The father said. “Best ditch your casual clothes, wouldn’t want your blood to ruin them.” He snarled, then patted his son on the back. “Come on, into your fightin’ gear.” The pair departed, and Acklaran followed, heading up the small concrete hill towards his little, temporary home. He did not have the luxury of ‘fighting gear’, so his simple cream shirt and trousers would be unchanged. He briefly checked his concealed data terminal for any messages, taking the absence of any as a good sign (no one had broken protocol yet), and steeled himself for a painful fight.
His boots thudded against the ground as he returned down the hilled road to the town’s small, flowering courtyard. Hues of pink, purple, blue and yellow provided vivid colour to the straw-coloured grass, and the father and son duo provided cocky grins for the gathered crowd. Many of the assembled Chon’ith had been present in the tavern over the last few nights, but some faces were unfamiliar. That troubled Acklaran more than the impending fight – he had gone to great lengths to avoid surveillance, but talking to people inevitably ran the risk of conversations spreading.
Well, if the Council has sent spies, let’s give them something to think about…
“This, is my son, Le’mekerlan.” The father spoke loudly as Acklaran approached the little circular field. “He is, without question, as you all know, the strongest Chon’ith here.”
The crowd cheered as the old man raised Le’mekerlan’s left arm to the sky. Clearly they have a favourite…
“and this…” The old man’s voice grew stern as pointed an accusing finger at Acklaran. “Is the man who thinks my son’s raw strength can be beaten.”
The crowd’s passionate cheers turned to taunting cries and jeers.
“The rules of combat are simple! The first one to be rendered unconscious… Or dead, loses!” The father bellowed as he turned to address the throng. “Acklaran…” He added as he turned a full circle. “Would you wish to be buried here, or do you have a preference for elsewhere?”
That remark drew laughter from the assembly. Acklaran ignored it, but he suddenly faced the realisation that he didn’t truly know how to demonstrate his point. How do I win this, and win over minds?
The grass field was cleared of all but the two combatants. Le’mekerlan wore a loose-fitting dark grey shirt, that covered his arms, and a hungry look in his eyes. “Let’s see how much blood you will lose.” His deep voice aggressively rumbled.
The younger Chon’ith charged, swinging a big, powerful right hook. If it connected, Acklaran would immediately be in serious trouble, so half-junped backwards. Le’mekerlan snarled as his momentum carried him into a stumble, then turned and drove his fist towards Acklaran’s face for a second time.
Acklaran darted out of the way again.
“Will you not even try to fight?” Le’mekerlan growled angrily. “Or is your special, new way? To run away?”
Acklaran bristled, but in his own anger, the seeds of an idea were growing. Everything he’d picked up from Faratarath, his memories of how the humans had fought, the strategy Seluban was trying to teach…
Le’mekerlan came forward again, moving quickly for a muscle-bound man, but again swinging his right hook. Acklaran sensed his opportunity, and this time, stepped sideways, and landed a quick right jab to the other man’s left cheek as he stumbled past. It wasn’t a hard strike, but he’d landed the first punch, and if Le’mekerlan had been angry before, he was incensed now. Quickly the brawler turned and outstretched both arms, aiming to wrap his arms around Acklaran and crush him, but Acklaran darted to his right, and quickly spun around, smashing his own clenched right fist into Le’mekerlan’s jaw as he turned back around.
The crowd had been half-cheering Le’mekerlan, and jeering at Acklaran. Now they stunned into silence as Le’mekerlan staggered back, more from shock than pain or injury. Blood leaked from a split lip, and he spat out a blood-stained tooth. Surprise changed to pure, animalistic fury. Thumping his chest, Le’mekerlan came forward once again, broad strides across the grass, desiring to wrap his fingers around Acklaran’s neck and choke the life from him. Acklaran backed away, trying to keep his distance, but then rocked the confidence of the crowd once more by suddenly stepping forward, into the attack, with a savage right jab to Le’mekerlan’s left cheek. Acklaran had used his own step to provide more weight to his punch, but more importantly, he’d used Le’mekerlan’s pace too. The energy behind the strike rocked Le’mekerlan’s head backwards, forcing a grunt of pain from his lips. As he stumbled, momentarily dazed, he was unprepared for Acklaran’s boot, that connected with his stomach, sending him sprawling upon the grass.
Acklaran couldn’t help but feel pleased with himself. He was feeling pleased with himself, as he eyed the crowd knowingly, right up until his world violently and abruptly shifted, as Le’mekerlan hoisted him into the air and slammed him back down upon the earth, knocking the air from his lungs. One moment of cockiness…
The fight wasn’t over. Though Le’mekerlan’s hands were attempting to find his airway and crush it, Acklaran still had his senses. The sheer weight of the other man was making it hard to draw air, and he could feel his ribs protesting in pain, but Acklaran wasn’t beaten, not yet. He drove a knee upwards, as hard as he could, into Le’mekerlan’s groin – a cheap move, but an effective one, for he felt Le’mekerlan’s grip slacken. His left fist came up and grabbed the big right incisor, yanking at it, which poured more pain into Le’mekerlan. Acklaran tugged it to his left and pushed up with his right shoulder, heaving his opponent off him, and quickly sprang to his feet, gratefully gulping air.
Le’mekerlan was shaking his head, as though trying to clear it, but Acklaran wasn’t going to afford him the opportunity. A right jab connected where he’d previously landed a blow, and a left jab followed, just about Le’mekerlan’s right eye. Acklaran followed up quickly – a punch to the stomach, then another one, and another left jab to the eye opened up a small cut. He was about to land another right jab, when Le’mekerlan’s fist came up and grasped his wrist tight, and the next thing he was aware of was a throbbing in his skull – and blood pouring from his nose as he nearly fell back to the floor.
The headbutt had left its mark, but through the dim haze of the injury, Acklaran noticed Le’mekerlan hadn’t fared too well himself. It had been a sloppy maneuver, and Acklaran, despite the fresh pain of what almost certainly a broken nose, got back to his feet and stared into Le’mekerlan’s eyes.
“Not the easy victory for pure strength that everyone thought.” He said, loud enough for the crowd to hear.
Le’mekerlan growled and lunged clumsily forward, allowing himself to be goaded far too easily. He swung his fists wildly at Acklaran, who kept ducking and darting backwards, and then, when the moment presented itself, Acklaran slapped Le’mekerlan’s right fist down, putting the other man completely off balance, and placed his hands on Le’mekerlan’s head and back, forcing him down upon an upwards-moving knee. Le’mekerlan’s nose burst with blood, and he yelped in pain and dazed confusion. A quick, powerful left jab yet again found the bruised point on Le’mekerlan’s cheek, sending him to the grass.
Pressing his advantage, it was Acklaran on top of Le’mekerlan, slamming yet another right into the other man’s face, then another, and a third, at which point he felt Le’mekerlan go slack. Enjoying the thrill of combat, Acklaran had to take several deep breaths to rein himself in, before clambering off his now unconscious opponent.
“What… what was it you said?” He asked as he staggered to his feet, his gaze aimed at the boy’s father. “That the winner would be the first to render his enemy asleep? Well, I have done that. I believe the point has been made.” His eyes now swept the crowd. “Strength and power have their place, of course they do. Every Chon’ith knows this. What every Chon’ith does not know is that strength and power can be married to cunning, to thought, to strategy. It’s a truth the Makers do not hide from us; we hide it from ourselves.”
No one spoke. Some looked angry, hardened against Acklaran’s words. Others looked pensive, uncertain – the seeds of doubt planted. It was early days, but Acklaran believed he might have swayed a few townsfolk to his way of thinking.
“I will take my leave of you all.” He declared. “I doubt you will desire my presence among you, not after today. I ask only that you remember this day, reflect upon it, and reflect upon what you are told, against what you can see.” With that, Acklaran left the courtyard, preparing to depart to yet another town, hoping he would not have to get into a fight in each and every one.