The drum pounds again, far below Bruck. He hooks onto a cross-rope and hauls himself up to a platform set near the top of the southern midfield mast. He gulps air as he takes stock of the field. The two Bulls down in the Ground Zone, Grease and LaForce, circle out to reclaim the egg. Their earthbound opponents won’t possess it for long. The Algerand Bulls are faster, stronger, ruthless hardheads.
He raises his eyes to the Sky Zone, a maze of ropes, nets, short bridges and beams suspended between a small forest of poles and raised platforms. To his left, Villus is hanging by one hand from a taut ladder, trading kicks with the rake-thin Redlake Sweeper. Below and ahead, Cindra clambers like a monkey from one platform to another, pursued by the Redlake Rover, who swings his scoop ineffectually at her heels, to the appreciative roars of the crowd.
Bruck shakes the sweat from his head and spits muddy dust. Gantler, Redlake’s Striker, is closing fast, positioning to cut off Bruck’s line of attack on the scoring funnel. The big Striker favours dive attacks, dropping from the high ropes to pummel or bounce his victims off their lines, and he has the weight and the balance to make it work.
Bruck’s crossed paths with him before – years ago, before the fall that cost Bruck his hand and his first career. With any luck Gantler hasn’t seen him play since he came out of retirement.
The crowd’s foot-stomping applause announces a conclusion to Villus’ skirmish. The Redlake Sweeper falls badly, hitting a jutting spar. He tumbles end over end into the Ground Zone dirt. He tries to rise. A passing LaForce puts him down with the heavy leather scoop strapped to her arm.
Each drumbeat is separated by a recitation of the titles and honorifics of Princess Besheba the Tempestuous, She Who Carries the Storm in her Lungs, the Searing Fire of the Principalities, the…and so on. Bruck can’t hear the herald’s sonorous repetitions. He hears the drums.
Six strikes left, and the arrayed score flags – bloody crimson for Redlake, pretentious indigo for the Algerand visitors – are evenly matched.
Bruck reaches out with his hook hand and traverses to a thicket of knots where several ropes converge. Overhead, Gantler swears, a little out of breath, and changes direction.
Cindra sweeps past, still leading her pursuer. She gives Bruck a hard look, as thick with meaning as a slap to the face. He blinks back at her like they don’t both know what’s what. As she clambers past, he tugs a guy rope with his hook. A shiver spreads through the rope network. The chasing Rover misses a handhold. But his momentum is gone, and Cindra is free to claim what spot she may.
She sneers at Bruck. He shrugs. “He should’ve brought a hook,” he says.
LaForce and Grease separate the Redlake Bulls from the egg and each other. As LaForce hip-checks one off his balance beam into a mud puddle, Grease scoops up the egg. The speckled red dodecahedron, stolen from some irate kajako bird’s nest, rests in his curved arm scoop. Grease to lock eyes on Bruck.
Grease flashes the same warning look. “Do it right,” says the look. “Or else.”
Grease launches the egg at Bruck. It’s a clean throw, right where it needs to be. Not a hint of a fumble. Nothing to say afterwards that the fix was in. This is all on Bruck.
Bruck feels the egg slap into his palm through an inch of leather.
Bruck could drop it. He could let Gantler’s coming attack rattle him, force a wild pass to Cindra or Villus. Hell, he could take his shot and just plain miss.
That’s what Harph wants, the thick-browed Algerand owner. He’s brought Bruck back from broken obscurity. He’s invested in him. He custom-built a hook to fit over the ruins of Bruck’s left hand. Made a spectacle of him.
And the crowds love him again. Nobody else used to be Bruck the Unbested. Now he’s Bruck the Hook, better on the ropes than ever before.
Two hands. One hand. No hands. Bruck’s too good to lose.
Harph wants him to lose. Harph’s invested the entire team’s winnings on an improbable tie.
Gantler makes a move. He springs from a rope, grabs a vertical pole with his free hand and swings around it, scissoring his legs to build momentum. He flings himself across the field, back and away to a patch of net close by the scoring funnel.
Bruck admires the elegance of the manoeuvre but he doesn’t stand to watch it. He sprints a short tightrope for the central mast. Finding knots and notches with his hook, he climbs.
Villus cuts off the Redlake Rover with a midsection tackle that sends them both down to the mud. Cindra bounds down the right flank, charging Gantler’s stronghold. If she flushes him out of position, Bruck has a clear throw at the funnel.
Bruck shakes his head. These kids are great players. Why throw that away on one fixed match?
Gantler sees Cindra coming. He changes tactics. He abandons the nest and heads up to the mainstay, the rope bisecting the arena at the tip of the central mast.
Bruck could let Gantler win the race to the mast’ peak. His pride decides for him. He’s a kajaka champion, once and always.
Bruck hooks to the mainstay a breath ahead of Gantler. The Redlake player wraps both legs around Bruck’s waist. They both hang by Bruck’s hook.
“Let us win, you idiot!” he hisses. “Harph’s money is good for us all!”
They slide on Bruck’s hook, gathering speed. The scoring funnel is ahead. Bruck raises the scoop out of reach of Gantler’s snatching fingers, readying his shot .
He decides. “I only play to win.”
The buckles anchoring the hook to his arm give way.
Gantler snaps, “So does Harph.”
I quite like sports dramas, but as the only real sport I can write about with any authority is cricket, I thought on the whole it might be a better idea to invent a new one. By which I mean slightly reinvent lacrosse to include such necessary improvements as rope nets, hook hands and the constant threat of falling injuries.