12_Riding the Odds
Quod, a troll working in the dangerous world of professional dragon riding, takes a deadly chance to be with the human he loves.
“Keep moving troll. Too close to human entrance.” The ogre’s voice made the ground vibrate beneath Quod’s feet. He eyed the giant.
“Eegah, there’s no one else here. Drop the act. We still have a deal, don’t we?”
The ogre, four times Quod’s height, leaned close.
“We do not troll. Bargain is with human. No care for your kind. Move along.”
Riding the top bull-dragon on the professional circuit was enough of a life risk; Quod didn’t need to add any more danger to his day by arguing with the dim-witted guard. He turned away from Eegah and entered the paddock under the, ‘Mythics Only’ sign.
Quod walked the stables, looking for the human Wyrm-master that held his fate, and his heart, in her tiny hands. He found Tina near Rivergard’s stall. No rider had completed the full three sequoids on the country’s number one rated dragon and lived to collect the purse, which was determined by complex mathematical formulas that set the fluctuating betting lines. The bright red dragon’s muscles–nurtured on the flesh of the fallen–rippled under his thick scales. As was the custom of the dome, he feasted on the blood of his kills. Trolls were expendable, but a top dragon was better than gold.
“Tina!” Quod called her away from the stall. Rider superstition prevented him from daring to get close. Allowing a dragon to become familiar with your scent was considered bad luck. They would need all the help they could get.
She rushed to him, scanning the area to make sure they were alone, and hugged him tightly. Her small stature allowed the lovers to stand eye level with each other.
“Quod, are you sure about this? You could be killed.”
“I hope so. That’s a key part of the plan. You just have to take care of me afterwards.”
“What if it doesn’t work?”
Quod pursed his thick blue lips. “The Witch of the Wood’s instructions were very precise. As long as we do the math properly, I’ll be okay.” Even as he spoke, he wasn’t sure if he was trying to convince himself or Tina.
They needed to escape this life–both slaves to the game–if winning a fortune betting on his own demise would set them free, he had to try.
Tina reached into the front pocket of her overalls, producing a small black vial and two pocket watches. She handed the vial to him, the voice of the old crone ran in her mind.
Sixty pro through sixty post,
The time to steal life from death,
Fate suspended through love’s boast.
“Quod, remember her directions. You have to drink this at exactly the right time.”
“I’ll figure it out. Be ready for me. I won’t be able to help you.”
His part of the plan would be easy. Simple arithmetic, drink some poison, ride a fire breathing dragon, then die. What could be simpler? Tina had the hard part; place the bet that will give them the money they need to flee and then bring him back to life. No matter the outcome, she’d still be alive.
If their plan was discovered, he’d be executed and fed to the ogres, tainted and unfit for the champions of the dome. She was human, and even though she was looked down upon by her own kind–-ridiculed as a midget, or ‘dwarf’–she was still one of them. At worst, she would be banned from working as a dragon keeper. But she’d be forgiven. People would assume the troll had used an evil spell to lure her into an inter-species, relationship. Why else would a woman, even a malformed one, wish to mix with a sub-human?
“Quod, you ride last tonight. Please be careful.”
“Tina, you know I can’t be. I have to die, remember? Just hold off on the bet. It has to be placed at the last second. The odds have to be long, or it won’t be worth it. I have to make them believe I will survive the ride.”
Quod had explained it all before. The odds-makers use easily measurable factors: the speed of the flight, the height off the blood spattered dirt of the arena floor, the weights of the rider and dragon; they factor in variables of skill and experience of the pair intimately linked in a ballet of life and death, to set the fluctuating betting lines.
“I’ll make sure Rivergard and I play our part.” Said Quod
She handed one of the pocket watches to Quod. “We have to start these together, as the witch said.”
Two as one, set the hands,
Tick for tock must be done.
They embraced again, one long last kiss before Quod walked to his death.
The evening’s first rider, Fungl, didn’t live to see the end of the first sequoid, known as The Bucking. One foot slipped from the stirrups, allowing the flying beast full control of the flight. It was a deadly mistake. A simple full-body shiver, like a Minotaur shaking water from its back, toppled the rider. The dragon sliced the falling troll in half with his razor-sharp tail. Less than halfway through the sixty-second run, the rider’s career, and life, were through.
The second, a troll named Truot, died during the Trigon phase.
From Quod’s vantage point, a quarter of the way up the thousand-foot-high dome, he watched the event’s penultimate ride. As Truot’s run progressed, Quod thought about the watching odds-makers, and how their decisions would affect Tina’s timing for the wager on his life.
Thirty seconds in, trumpets signaled the next phase, The Rising. Quod watched as Truot drew back on the dragon’s reins, while pushing forward on the stirrups strapped around its hind ankles. Pulling the animal into itself forced it to flap wildly in order to retain flight. Quod knew the speed of the climb would determine who was in control, the rider or the dragon. Odds changed, money was won and lost. With fifteen seconds left in the match, a final horn marked the time for capture of the Trigon.
Reaching the top of the dome, Truot released the pressure holding the flying serpent in check. The result was the most spectacular moment of the event. It was also the precursor to the most dangerous sequiod, The Plummet. Regrettably, Truot wouldn’t live to see its end.
Freed from the restraints on his body, the dragon arched his back, spread his wings and spewed a geyser of fire. The heat of the flame below his open wings caused the great beast to hover high above the hard earth, near the silver triangle of the Trigon, which was suspended at the pinnacle of the dome. As the mesmerized audience watched, Truot reached up to snatch the dangling icon. And missed.
Quod knew what was happening high above the breathless crowd. He watched helplessly as the dragon felt the sudden shift in the rider’s weight, spun, and dove. Truot was too high on the dragon’s back when The Plummet began. In his match, Quod knew this would be the moment Tina would be waiting for: the final betting line would be set, for or against, the rider’s survival.
Truot’s odds fell as the men setting the betting line dropped the chances of Truot surviving into the negative. In their eyes, his fate was already decided. They were usually right.
During The Plummet, riders normally leaned forward out of the airflow until below the height of the bucking chute. If they waited too long to pull out of the dive, the dragon will flip over onto its back and slam the rider into the earth. Truot never had that chance.
The scaled beast folded his, bat-like wings flat as he turned and easily shook his passenger. As they fell, the dragon flew circles around the arena, disgorging flames at Truot, roasting him alive. The troll hit the ground accompanied by cheers from the bloodthirsty crowd.
When the elven medic held a red flag over Truot’s blackened corpse, a mixture of cheers and groans sprang from the crowd.
Quod watched the traditional team of six unicorns parade Rivergard around the arena. Then pegasus-riding humans guided the great dragon into the chute as tufts of smoke and yellow-orange flames licked from his horned snout. Quod studied the giant screens that showed the current odds on his death.
A fanfare sounded One minute until the gate would open, beginning Quod’s first sequoid.He pulled the pocketwatch and vial from his breast pocket.
Sixty pro through sixty post…
Two as one, set the hands.
He drank the foul contents and pushed the small button on the side of the watch. Somewhere down in the betting pit, Tina had also started the countdown to his death.
Quod settled onto Rivergard’s hard scales, secured his stubby feet into the stirrups, and wrapped the reins around his right fist. His left hand would be free, as required by the sport’s rules, in order to grab the Trigon. Quod had to put on a good show to keep the odds low until The Plummet. Timing, and danger were intertwined. The betting line for his death had to be high. He had to put on the show of a lifetime, even if his life was in the balance.
The massive wrought iron gate opened releasing Rivergard from the pen. A ball of fire erupted from the horned demon’s maw as he leapt into flight. Holding tight to the reins, Quod forced the dragon down, circling low around the ring. Allowing the animal the freedom to kick his feet, while steering his head, made for a good show. It also demonstrated that the rider controlled the flight. In the open bleachers, at the lowest level of the arena, the sub-humans screamed their wagers in a dozen indecipherable tongues. Humans watched from their comfortable box seats, enclosed to protect them from the dragon’s flames or wayward disembodied troll parts.
The second sequoid began. Quod maneuvered the beast into position in the center of the ring, pulled back on its head, and pushed forward on the stirrups. The duo rose as great leather wings pushed them upward. Tina watched the boards and saw that his survival odds had increased. Demonstrating control over the flight showed he had a better chance of living to ride another day. Quod’s every move had to convey his power over the dragon in preparation for the final drop.
The start of the third sequiod marked the last 15 seconds of Quod’s life. He had to play this final act perfectly. Sitting upright, he released the reins and reached up with both hands for the Trigon. Rivergard, feeling the pressure of the stirrups slacken, stretched to his full size and let out a blast of flame that made the crowd gasp in fear. With both hands, Quod grabbed the prizeand released it from the clasp holding it in place.
Tina watched, along with the screaming throng, as Quod snatched the flailing reins from mid-air while Rivergard tucked his massive head and dove. All those around her were yelling in unison, chanting Quod’s name. He was more than just another rider, he was a God.
As Rivergard tucked in his wings and fell, the book-makers changed the betting line one last time. Fifty to one. No rider had ever had odds this high placed on his demise. They were virtually certain he would safely land the fire-breathing behemoth.
Tina grabbed the arm of a nearby leprechaun bet-taker and placed her wager. Although he couldn’t believe the amount of human money she was betting, he accepted the cash.
Knowing his final chance at controlling the dragon was near, Quod gently pushed on the right stirrup; the diving beast rolled as Quod blacked out.
Rivergard skimmed the arena floor. Quod dropped free of the dragon’s back and rolled along the ground. The crowd fell silent.
Tina held her breath as the ogre guards waddled out to pick up the fallen troll. The pegasus team corralled Rivergard through the exit chute as the elven medics checked on Quod.
As the red flag rose on the arena floor, Tina burst into tears. She ripped the winning marker from the hand of the confused leprechaun, and rushed back to the stables.
As Wyrm-master, one of her duties was to strip the food for victorious dragons. She would be the one in charge of feeding Quod to Rivergard. She paced near the arena gate, glancing apprehensively at time ticking across the face of the witch’s watch. Eegah carried Quod’s limp body into the stable and dropped it at her feet.
“I think him really dead.” Eegah held out his fat hand.
“That will be all, ogre. I’ll take care of him. And thank you.” Her voice cracked as she spoke.
“No thank. Just pay.”
The sack of coins seemed tiny in his palm. He turned and lumbered back into the arena, leaving Tina with her lifeless love.
Without bothering to ensure they were alone, she pulled the watch from his pocket.
Tick for tock must be done.
The watch was smashed; the hands bent and immobile.
Tina leaned back, remembering the final instructions the Dark Witch had given them.
Six times fifty, the time from death.
No greater, no lesser,
Else the spell be for naught.
She studied the ancient timepieces the woman in the woods had given them; they were no longer in sync. Tina alone knew the price of their freedom. Her very soul. Quod could never know she gave her eternal life for their mortal time together.
Her working second hand ticked the minutes by. Each tiny mark seemed to take too long to pass. No longer able to determine the exact timing, at the four-minute mark by her watch, she leaned to his lips. Blackened, bloody, lifeless. She caressed his scarred and muddy face. Other humans saw him as a hideous troll, a sub-human mythical animal. To Tina, he was the most handsome man in the world.
With 15 seconds left to the five-minute mark, she closed her eyes and kissed him. The sorceress didn’t say how long the kiss should be, Tina hoped–-prayed to all the Gods of good and evil–that she would hit that magic moment of Six by sixty.
She leaned back, holding tight to his callused hand, and prayed again.
Slowly, his dark green color began to return. His chest rose. Gently at first, but as her tears fell onto his cheeks, the rhythm became stronger.
Quod’s eyelids opened. His beautiful yellow eyes began to glow.
“Quod? Are you…” Her voice choked in her throat as the words caught.
“Tina, my love.” He squeezed her hand. “We’re free.”