Phut and the Blood Worms

The Day of Hrumdrum was a day like no other, for it was a day the people summoned giant blood worms by beating drums and beating their feet on the ground.

That was the origin of the day, anyway. It was said that, in ages past, all the clans of Ogbun Nagali had been terrorised by the Congols – ancient, giant blood worms. So, in order to appease the beasts and save the majority of their peoples, the clan chiefs had come together to organise a sacrifice. They had honoured those they sacrificed by holding a grand celebration in their honour; the celebration had also served to awaken the worms. Then, when the worms had come, the festivities would end abruptly and the clans would flee for their lives, leaving behind the sacrifices, who had been bound at wrists and ankles. That was the origin of the day, anyway.

Then, one day, a long time ago, the festivities had not been interrupted. The clans had feasted and drank themselves into a stupor all night long, and not once had a blood worm reared its head. Those that had been bound to be sacrificed were cut free the following morning. Since that day, not a single blood worm had been seen and they were presumed extinct. The annual celebration, however, had continued. So, every year at the start of winter, all the nomadic clans would gather together on the plains of Horrok-Muur and try to awaken the worms.

Phut of the Sujjuks was far more concerned with the annual wrestling tournament held on the Day of Hrumdrum than the worms. He had been training for it all year, after all. He refused to be beaten by that pompous arse-face, Yamen of the Kirrus, again. Squatting down on one leg to stretch out the other, he coloured with shame at the memory. He had not even made it to the quarter-finals. He glanced up at the overcast sky and prayed to the Sky Father that it would not rain; that would ruin his footing.

Seeing Phut’s young face tighten with angst, his father ruffled his son’s curly black hair. “You’ll do better this year, Phut. You’ve been working hard.”

Damn right, he had been working hard. Phut had been up at dawn almost every day this last year, running with the horses instead of riding them, climbing trees and hefting logs. Then, when his brothers finally awoke each day, he would practise his wrestling moves on them, whether they were willing or not. It was better practise if they were unwilling, after all. In the afternoons, he would help his father with the clan harras, or herd, wrangling the horses and checking them over. He would clean out their hooves, brush them down, feed them oats and show them to troughs of water. As a result, he was pleased to have seen a change in himself. His sixteen-year-old body was noticeably bulkier than it had been a year ago, broader in the shoulders, taller and tauter. He stroked the soft skin on his chin and pursed his lips to one side ruefully; still no sign of a beard like the magnificent specimen his father had grown.

“I’m going to go for a jog to loosen my muscles,” said Phut, eyeing the fight in progress where two boys of his age were grappling one another, trying to heave each other out of the dirt ring amid the grass.

“Don’t over-exert yourself. Your fight is soon!” his father barked after him as he set off.

“I know. I won’t.”

The Nagali were here in force today, drinking fermented mare’s milk and smoking baui out of leaves and pipes. All the clans had shown up; all had survived the last winter. Thousands of people milled around a wide open expanse set in the middle of a sea of white yurts dotting the grassy landscape, looking like a colony of ants amid a cluster of cotton at a distance. Up close, the people were infinitely more colourful than drab ants, however. Everyone was in their finest regalia, prettied up in patterned robes, also called dels, or adorned in their most garish cotton or hemp trousers and tunics. Fur overcoats abounded, for a chill wind bespoke the plains at this time of year, and everyone was wearing their favourite fur hat.

Phut, on the other hand, was dressed in blue and red breeches that reached only to his knees, and was barefooted and topless. His golden skin was gleaming with sweat that had little to do with exertion, but paid its dues to nerves. He was facing Yamen in an early match this year; if he beat him, he might be able to make it to the quarter-finals this time, maybe even the semis …

Running past colourfully garbed folk from all clans, Phut swerved in surprise and almost tumbled into a yurt when the crowd let loose a howl to shake the skies. Swerving again, he passed the yurt and tried to sneak a peek past the press of people blocking his view of the wrestling match in progress. It looked like one of the boys had slammed the other to the ground and was now taunting him.

Phut shook his head; a waste of breath.

By the time he had completed a circuit around the open expanse in the middle of the sea of yurts, the fight was over; the taunter had won. Phut shook his head again; the victory would doubtless enforce poor lessons in the boy’s mind. One does not waste breath until one’s enemy is defeated.

His father evidently thought the same thing, for he could be seen frowning at the boy, shaking his head and muttering, “Fool of a boy.”

His father saw Phut coming. He did not smile, but his grey beard twitched as though he might be thinking about it.

He patted his son on the shoulder when he arrived by his side. “One more fight, then you’re up. Relax now, conserve your strength.”

Phut stood by his father, amid the people of his clan, and watched the next wrestlers square off. He didn’t know the wrestlers; two boys from other clans, also topless, barefoot and wearing breeches similar to his own. Both were relatively sparsely built, whip-lean but small. Phut thought the weight seemed evenly distributed across the ring; it would be a fair, interesting fight.

The boys names were announced as Kult of the Anjaks and Tirin of the Hassumats. Then, the announcer – a big man in a black coat – called for the match to begin in a booming baritone.

The two youths hurled themselves at one another, crashing together like headbutting rams. It occurred to Phut that they did it for the same purpose as rams, too – for prestige and to impress the ladies. More than wrestling matches were arranged on the Day of Hrumdrum. Phut felt his pulse quicken as his eyes wandered from the fight to scout out a few girls about his age opposite him across the great open expanse of grass. They saw him watching and giggled and pointed. He blushed and looked away, forced his eyes back to the fight, pretended that was where they had always lain.

The two boys were tugging one another round in circles, arms interlocked, heads knocking. They acknowledged the stalemate and separated, then clashed like cymbals once more, trying to get a new hold with better leverage. Tirin went especially low and tried to grab at the other’s waist, which is normally a good tactic, for it is easier to upheave someone from lower down. In this instance, however, the ploy did not work. Kult grabbed, twisted and tripped his opponent cleverly and the crowd hollered, thousands of feet thumping the ground in approval.

Tirin went down, but stayed in the ring. As the rules require, Kult let his opponent rise again. They faced off once more, then Kult charged in, evidently overconfident. It was Tirin’s turn to skip to the side and grab his opponent, using his momentum against him and trying to fling him out of the ring by one arm. It was a common, effective strategy, but Kult seized Tirin’s arm even as it gripped him. So, they whirled together, both teetering on the edge of the ring for a moment while the watchers cheered them on in a deafening, discordant chorus.

Finally, Kult threw Tirin out of the ring to sprawl on the grass and the clans whooped and hooted and booed and cried out in a thousand conflicting voices. The very earth shook with their stomping. Kult turned in a slow circle, panting and grinning, his arms raised above his head.

“You’re next,” said Phut’s father.

As if Phut needed reminding.

Kult exited the ring, and the announcer called out, “Continuing with the same age group, the next match will be between Yamen of the Kirrus and Phut of the Sujjuks!”

Phut and Yamen made their way to the dirt ring in the midst of the onlookers. The sky was still woolly, but it was not spitting, for which Phut thanked the Sky Father. His heart felt like a bird fluttering, trying to fly away. His stomach dropped out of him as he crossed into the ring, and his knees wobbled. He gritted his teeth and ignored the sensations, reminding himself that he had been training hard all year for this moment. He would not fail.

He looked Yamen up and down. The damn boy had gotten bigger over the last year. He was a head taller than Phut, just as he had been the year before, and built like a gorilla with a barrel chest and massive arms, shoulders and hands. His round face was grinning arrogantly, just as it had been the year before. He too wore only breeches, his black and yellow.

“Phut!” he said, as if they were old friends. “It’s good to see you again. Hard to believe it’s been a whole year since I put you on your back, eh? How’ve you been? Hope I didn’t cause any permanent damage, haha!”

Phut wanted to smack that stupid smile off his stupid face. There are rules in wrestling, though; no punches, only grappling. So, he ignored Yamen, waiting for the announcer to call the start of the match. The announcer was taking his time, though, chatting to a friend between bouts. Phut’s stomach was full of butterflies.

Yamen was still grinning. “So, how quick d’you think you’ll go down this time, little Phut? A minute? Two? I don’t think you’re likely to last much longer than that, to be honest. Let’s say two, shall we? Let’s be optimistic, haha!”

Phut ground his teeth. His rage was like a furnace in his chest, but he would not waste breath on this fool.

Eventually, the announcer turned back to the combatants and called out, “Yamen of the Kirrus, Phut of the Sujjuks, are you ready to begin?”

“I am!” they said together, not taking their eyes off one another.

“Then, begin!”

They both crouched into fighting stances, lowering the centres and making it more difficult for the other to lift them or get a hold. They began to circle one another like prowling wildcats, movements lithe and smooth. For all his brawn, Yamen did not move like a dumb animal. He knew how to fight – more was the pity, thought Phut.

Then, like frisky young rams, they butted heads. Their shoulders smashed together, arms interwoven, hands scrabbling for a hold. Their faces were so close together Phut could smell Yamen’s breath and musk. He snarled and heaved, trying to heft his opponent off-balance, even as Yamen did the same to him. As a result, they spun together, staggering like a pair of drunks clutching one another for support. The roar of the crowd had dimmed to background noise now, muted in Phut’s mind. His whole world had become the little dirt circle that he could not be thrown out of.

The purity of the fight made his heart swell and his eyes focus more sharply than ever. The purity came from singlemindedness. In a fight, there were no extraneous thoughts; only necessities. Sometimes, in a perfect fighting state, there were no thoughts at all; only instincts and reflexes, action and reaction. Such transcendence felt akin to enlightenment to the boy, and he knew it was a common trait across all the Nagali. They were warriors born, his father had always said. Battle was in their blood.

His lungs heaved in breath quickly and easily, and he felt flexible and strong. His body moved in the patterns to which it was attuned; the patterns to which he had trained it. Despite this, he fell back a step. Knowing he could not overpower the other through sheer force, Phut turned the pushing contest into a scuffle. Spinning and pulling his opponent with him, trying to trip him and keep him off-balance, Phut darted around the ring while Yamen lumbered after him. Phut felt like a possum taking on a black bear, but Yamen could not get a decent hold on him as long as he kept moving, so that was what he did. Like Tirin had done to Kult, Phut tried to use his opponent’s momentum and weight against him, tugging him by the arm toward the edge of the ring.

Yamen refused to be defeated by such simple tactics, however, and Phut found – to his ire – that he had hissed, “Sky Father!” invoking the Nagali’s God.

Yamen was grinning again as they squared off once more. “Getting annoyed, Phut? Thought you had me there, did you? Haha, I don’t think so, my little friend! You won’t get me so easily.”

Yamen came at Phut low, but being naturally shorter, Phut simply lowered himself and met the attack head on, twisting and trying to throw Yamen down as he did so. Yamen stumbled, but did not go down, and Phut cursed inwardly. How could the damn boy be so tall and yet so balanced?

He tried again, but he was getting desperate and he overbalanced in his excitement. He realised too late, when he was already off-balance and he felt Yamen’s leg sweeping his own. The sky whirled above him, and then the ground struck him on the back, hard. He wheezed for a moment after his wind abandoned him. He glanced to one side and saw that, thankfully, he lay in the dirt ring. His pride was wounded more than his body; he hated that Yamen had put him on his back again.

Waiting until his breath returned, he then got back to his feet, barely aware of the cheering surrounding him, although he could feel the ground vibrating beneath his bare toes from the pounding of a thousand feet.

Facing Yameg again, he forced his anger down and reprimanded himself. One must not fight with anger, one must fight with skill. He had allowed his emotions to dictate his movement, and he had made a mistake. He resolved that it would not happen again. He waited patiently for Yamen to attack, but when he did not, Phut decided to take the initiative himself. He darted at his foe low, lower than Yamen could comfortably go and quick enough that he could not stop the smaller boy. Phut managed to hook his thumbs into Yamen’s breeches, and though the larger lad grappled him from above, Phut was now in a position of power with the lower leverage.

Bending his legs, he hoisted the other boy up with all his strength, wedging Yamen’s breeches up his buttcrack. He barely managed to heft the heavy boy off the ground, but – with red face and tendons popping out – he just managed it, tottered forward a step and slammed Yamen down to the ground on his back, hard. He cursed inwardly when he saw that he had not gone far enough to throw the bigger lad out of the ring, but he recognised that he had gone as far as he could and that he had done well. The other boy would be weaker now.

While Yamen lay gasping for breath, Phut finally heard the cheers. It felt good to be cheered, and he was tempted to look around, to bask in the adoration, but he knew he must not lose focus. One must not lose focus until the fight is over. So, although he heard the hooting, he did not acknowledge it in any way. He stood still, sucking in ragged breaths and watching Yamen do the same on the ground. He felt the earth shaking beneath his feet, shaking so violently that he wondered if another thousand people had joined the celebrations while he wasn’t looking.

The cheers died down, but the shaking continued, which was odd. Why would the people still be stamping if they weren’t shouting? The ground was distractingly turbulent, juddering visibly now as if in the grip of an earthquake. Phut wished the clans would stop their damned stomping before he lost his balance and fell on his arse. Realising he had been looking at the ground, Phut guiltily returned his gaze to Yamen and saw something strange in the boy’s expression. Yamen was not looking at him; he was looking past him, and he was deadly afraid.

Phut was convinced it was a ruse to trick him into looking away so that Yamen could jump up and seize him from behind. He kept his eyes on the boy a while longer, but then he could take the ignorance no longer. He turned and looked, knowing his father would give him a smack for doing so.

What he saw made him forget about any punishments his father might have for him, made him forget about his father, about Yamen, about the fight, about almost everything in fact.

What he saw was that the Nagali were not stomping, not one of them. They were not shaking the ground. The ground was shaking on its own.

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