Excerpt from "A Thousand Miles Away" (available on Nook & Kindle)

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I woke up to find someone trying to feed me broth. My head was pounding and I reached up to find it bandaged. I remembered the other shot and felt of my chest. Finally, I found where a bullet had passed through my side, apparently hitting nothing crucial and not even particularly tender to the touch.

A voice was saying, “You need to eat this. Get your strength back up.”

Opening my eyes, I was moments focusing before I saw who was speaking. He was a skinny man, not much of a height, with just a fringe of gray hair around a smooth dome. His face didn’t look that old, though, making me think he was prematurely grey. He repeated, “You need to eat.”

I took a few spoonfuls of the broth, then looked around to try and see my surroundings. I appeared to be in a cell made of crudely cut rocks, with a metal door inset. I was on some sort of cot and there was nothing else in the room. I finally managed to ask, “Who are you?”

“Just a fellow prisoner with slight skills as a doctor.”

“Do you have a name?”

“Call me Westrun,” he replied.

I looked at him with dismay, wondering if this were somehow a joke, and told him, “I knew another doctor named Westrun, long ago.”

“Really? It is a common name, but I have not heard of any professional men with my name.” He seemed genuine in his surprise. “Well, I am not much of a doctor. I just know a little bit about treating wounds, so they let me.”

“They? Where are we?”

“We are in prison in Jefsberg and you are being resuscitated so that you may participate in the games.”

I finished off the bowl of broth, able to hold it myself, then commented, “I get the feeling these games you mention are not the sort a child plays.”

He smiled grimly at the joke, then told me, “You guess correctly. You are not Brazee, are you?”

“Does it matter?”

He shrugged and set the bowl down. Peeling back the bandage on my side, he said, “I am afraid I may have to clear you to fight soon. You’ve been laying there for a week, though, so they’ll want you to build up your strength before you participate in the games. You have quite a reputation, you know.”

The questions were piling up before I could ask them, but I finally managed, “OK, let’s start with these games. What sort of games are we talking about?”

“With your reputation, I believe they hope to engage you in sword fighting.”

“Winner goes free?” I asked hopefully.

“No. Those of us in this prison, we fight to the death.”

“And then what?”

He looked at me oddly, then corrected, “You don’t understand. To the death. If you survive one fight, you will fight again. And again. Some day, you will lose. No one can fight forever.”

“So it’s a very slow death sentence.” After he checked the wound on my head, I asked, “What exactly am I being charged with? Raiding that bordello?”

“Oh, from what I understand, there is quite a lengthy list of crimes and victims appended to your name. Fooz is dead, shot, they say. Lormon Galvin claims you killed his brother and several of his men. Ma’am Morlisent says you stole a recently purchased slave from her. And Lord Fon, well, I think he just doesn’t like you.”

Something he had said earlier registered on me and I queried, “Did you say I’d been here for a week?”

Westrun nodded, then stood up and went to the door, saying, “Guard! I am done here.”

“I’d like to talk to you some more,” I told him.

“I will be back, to check on your wounds.”

Food was brought to me later that day, just some soup and bread, but not too bad. I tried to engage the guard in conversation, but had no luck. And honestly, I wasn’t sure if anyone were out there after the food had been passed in. The only hole in the metal door was about six feet off the ground and all I could see through it was a glimpse of a long hallway. I guessed there was a guard to one side of the door or the other, but had no way of telling for sure. My cell had one window, about a foot square, also six feet off the floor. I could stand on the bed and look out into the prison courtyard. There were mountains beyond, but not much else was visible. In the courtyard I occasionally saw someone walking around, but there was not much activity. Just a flat, barren spot, without even many weeds.

On the morning of the second day, after I had eaten a meager breakfast, a guard opened the door and made me walk out. I did and was led to the courtyard. The guard told me, “You’ll be fighting in the games in five days. If there’s anything you need to do to get in shape, you had better do it.”

So I started by just walking some laps around the courtyard and swinging my arms, trying to get some feeling back into them and testing to make sure the muscles still worked. I felt weak, but not so much as I would have predicted. When I stopped, I was offered water, and at noon there was some sort of stew that was heavy on meat. Westrun came and checked my wounds once a day and, other than more headaches, I felt fairly good.

I did push-ups and sit-ups and even some jumping jacks, but mostly I just kept walking, wanting to build up my stamina most of all. As I walked, the guard might have thought I was talking to myself but I was praying to God. I prayed for Marianne and Marc and Dan and everyone else whose names I could remember. I was starting to think I would never live to see my family again, so I prayed for the boys to grow up strong and godly and to always take care of their mother. I prayed for Marianne’s physical and spiritual health. I prayed that I might somehow bring glory to God in my plight, even though I was starting to expect to die in the games.

Not at first, of course. I figured they would pair me up with someone I could easily defeat. Then, after a few bouts to build up my confidence, they would bring in some real competition. Westrun was right: eventually I would die. I would be too tired or out-numbered or just have one of those moments where I lost focus. I would look for some means of escape, but I didn’t have a lot of hope along those lines at that moment in time. Certainly, the prison seemed impregnable, from what I saw—which was just the hallway they led me to, then the vast courtyard, which was surrounded on all sides by buildings two and three stories tall that couldn’t be climbed.

In my brief moments with Westrun I tried to learn some more about my predicament, but they were short moments. What I really wanted to know was whether Kling and the others had gotten away, but I never mentioned them for I didn’t want to give away the knowledge of their existence. Surely the Brazee knew I had not tried to spring the girls on my own, but I didn’t want to give them any clue as to the number or makeup of my cohorts. I wondered if those cohorts might come for me, but rather hoped they wouldn’t. Breaking me out of a heavily guarded prison was nothing like springing two young girls from a whorehouse run by an old man.

I did wonder who had killed Looz. Had it been a shot by one of my people? The man was a slaver, after all, so it wouldn’t have surprised me to find that the shot had actually been fired by one of his own people.

From Westrun I learned that there was an arena in Jefsberg—attached to the prison, in fact—which was the host to gladiatorial games which were a popular diversion among the swells from Alenas and all across the land of the Brazee. The games were held on Saturdays—and sometimes Sundays—which meant that a man could survive the fights one day, then have six days to recuperate before fighting again. Men had been known to last for months, a couple even lasted more than a year, before fate finally caught up with them. Human nature being what it is, I’m sure many of those men had the same thoughts as I: I’ll survive and get out. According to Westrun, no one ever had. I told myself that no system is perfect so the odds were in my favor and that I would be the first. The day of the games arrived before I had completely convinced myself.

I was escorted from my cell to a series of cages beneath the Jefsberg arena. When Westrun came by to check on me, I asked, “Do you know who I will be fighting?”

“Yes. A man named Geruy, from Antequone. He’s been something of a hero for many years, until he was caught with a lord’s wife a few days ago. I am surprised, for usually they would pit a newcomer like you against, well, someone like me.”

“You said you were a prisoner, too, Westrun. Do you fight?”

“Not yet.” As he checked the stitching he had performed on my side, he explained, “Right now, I am more valuable to them in this capacity, keeping their entertainment alive. Some day, though, I’ll make one of them mad or a whim will take them and they’ll jerk the needle and thread from my hand and replace them with a sword.”

He seemed remarkably sanguine about the whole thing, so I asked, “What are you in for, Westrun?”

He smiled conspiratorially and answered, “Lord’s wives are a lonely lot.”

He moved on from my cell, then, to tend to others. I could hear cheering coming from the arena as the first fight started. It was soon over and another one was quickly met. And then another. Less than a half hour of fights had passed before a guard appeared before my door and I stood up, expecting to be taken to the arena. He stepped in close and said, in a whisper, “Your turn will be soon.” He looked around nervously, then told me, “I have heard you praying as you trained. Would you, could you … would you pray for me?”

“Um, yeah.” I moved closer to the bars and prayed for the man, not knowing whether he even knew who Jesus was or the lone God I believe in. He bowed his head reverently and, when I had finished, thanked me. Then he unlocked the cell and bade me follow him.

Blinded were my eyes by the bright sunlight on the sand of the arena floor. Thousands of people filled the stands and made much noise as I entered in shackles. The guard led me to the middle of the arena and unfastened my chains. Another guard handed me a sword warily and quickly backed away, causing some laughter from the crowd. I was taller than any of the guards, but most of them outweighed me so I imagine I appeared but a skinny kid out there, out of his element.

And perhaps I was, I thought. I hadn’t held a sword in more than two weeks, or really used one since that day against Lord Fon. At that thought, I looked around for him, but there were many finely dressed people in the stands and I had not the time to search all their faces.

Then, another person was led out into the arena, the man I guessed to be Geruy. He was almost my height, and appeared stronger. I knew, though, that strength and sword-fighting did not always go together. Was I not much skinnier years before when I fought Jonas, the hulking big man who Marcus told me was the second-greatest swordsman who ever lived?

I took a moment to take stock of my sword and was not much impressed. It was poorly balanced and, while it had been recently sharpened, whoever had done the sharpening had been in a hurry. Still, it was what I had and perhaps he would have been given a similar sword.

Geruy was presented with a sword and the guards withdrew from the arena. A voice said through some sort of megaphone, “Lay on!” and we went at it, trying to draw each other out. Soon, I was confident that Geruy was not new to fighting, but was not even on the level of Lord Fon. I thought about putting on a show, but could already feel my side becoming stiff and my arms tired, so I tried to disarm Geruy. Whatever else he might lack, he had a strong grip and I was unsuccessful. He knew what I had tried to do, though, and it angered him. In his anger, I had another chance. A moment later, his right arm hung limp at his side, the muscles connecting it to his shoulder severed and blood running down his right side.

He was game, though, and took up the sword with his left hand. I soon learned he had been attempting to sandbag me and that his left arm was his good arm. He had not counted on the weakening from the blood loss, though, and soon he was on his knees, bleeding from several wounds and too weak to hold his sword. I stepped back and began to wipe my sword on the dirt then clean it off with sand. Several voices called out, “Finish him!” or booed me, but I continued to ignore them.

Someone grabbed the megaphone and I looked up to see it was Lord Fon. He shouted, “The fight is to the death. There has been no death here. Send in another combatant!”

“How about you?” I shouted. “I can beat you just as easily this time as I did last time.”

Fon turned beet red, but handed the megaphone back to who I guessed was the “official announcer” and motioned towards the arena. The guards returned, leading out another man. He was dirty and disheveled, but I could see in his eyes that he was a fighter. His hairy body bore many scars and there was a wicked smile on his lips. When given a sword, he came forward and muttered in tones only I could hear, “I was some upset when they let Geruy go first. I’ve been here seven months and have yet to find any real competition. I heard about your fight with Fon and I’ve been wanting you ever since.”

Quoting from one of my grandfather’s favorite movies, I replied, “’Sure seems like a childish way for a grown man to make a living.’”

The signal to start was given and we went at each other. This man was a much better swordsman than Geruy and my strength was flagging, so I knew I could not take long. One of the problems, though, was that this man was also crazy. The problem with a crazy fighter is you can’t anticipate what he will do next because he doesn’t know himself what he’s about to do. Moments into the fight, I was cut in several places, though not seriously in any of them. The culmination of cuts and fatigue would soon rob me of the ability to fight.

I prayed for an opportunity and it soon presented itself. With a gasp from the crowd, the man’s head rolled across the arena. I knelt with my sword before me and prayed, though not sure how thankful I truly was to be alive if it meant that every Saturday for the rest of my short life would be spent this way. But I trusted that God had a plan for me and so allowed myself to be led back to the cells, and then back to the prison where Westrun tended my wounds.

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