Dia didn’t sleep well that night. She tossed and turned, restless like the sea that churned miles behind the castle under the cloudy, starless sky.
“I really want to be the one that challenges the winner of the game. But I can’t help but worry about what will happen if I don’t win the challenge. How will I ever be able to give up archery?”, she thought.
Dia didn’t show it often, but was an empathetic person and found it easy to see things from other people’s standpoint. She wondered how the champion of the games she’d end up challenging would feel. If he had to lose the very thing that he had won the tournament for…that seemed like an unfair and brutal punishment.
She couldn’t lay in her bed anymore. She went to the window and looked at the churning sea. It was dark but she could make out the outline of waves crashing into the coastline. Cool air caressed her face. It seemed to clear her mind a little.
She wondered if she was willing to pay the price of giving up archery if she lost the challenge. What was the alternative, though? Not challenge and sit on the sidelines forever wondering if she was good enough? When would she get a chance to test herself? All her life, she’d practiced this art covertly. Practicing and honing her skills to the point of obsession. She was at a point where she could no longer hide her love for archery. She wanted to do more with it, test it in the real world. What better a platform than the Septimus games?
And if she won…it would prove her prowess. Her father wouldn’t be able to deny that this was her destiny. Her brother would take her on expeditions to neighbouring kingdoms as an equal. Her people would recognize her as the person who brought glory to Dacior at the Septimus games.
She thought about the victor of the games she’d challenge. Suddenly she didn’t feel as worried for the other person or herself. The very fact that they were taking part in the games meant that they’d signed up for all the consequences. As had she.
She decided that she wouldn’t let her brother know. She wasn’t sure if he would be supportive of her move. He wouldn’t understand that this is something she had to do for herself. It wasn’t just about winning the Septimus games. It was all that she was preparing for since she was 6. It was life’s test to see if she was worthy enough to embrace archery as her destiny. Daius would never get that.
The archery games were slated to be held at the arena the next day. She felt oddly calm given that was the case. She practiced for a few hours at the clearing and was on her way back to the castle when she ran into Parun.
“Good evening, Princess”, he said bowing politely to her.
“Good evening”, she said, eyeing him with mild interest. Was he going to be the champion she would challenge? He seemed polite and well-mannered. It would be a shame if he lost at the challenge. She shook herself out of her meandering thoughts and said, “Hope you’re having a pleasant stay?”
“It’s excellent. Thank you, Princess. I’m Parun, by the way”, he added.
“Call me Dia, please. It’s good to make your acquaintance, Parun. Hope the games go well for you”, said Dia as she made to depart.
“Hope you’ll be there to see them, Dia. It was good meeting you”, he responded, smiling slightly. Dia noticed how his eyes crinkled at the corners as he did so. He had a good-natured face, she concluded. She smiled at him and made her way back to the castle, her thoughts already on the archery games the next day. She didn’t notice that Parun lingered at the spot just a tad longer, watching her walk away, the ghost of a smile still lingering on his face.
The games were in full swing. Dia sat in the row behind her father and brother on the balcony that overlooked the arena in front of them. She felt grim even as a trickle of nervous sweat traced down her hairline and into her neck. She felt rather bulky and hot too, as she was wearing her archery attire underneath her gown which didn’t help. But she welcomed this discomfort; this set up meant that all she had to do was slip on her armour and wear her helmet before going onto the arena.
In the arena, the last 2 archers remained, fighting tooth and nail. The crowd held its breath as a blindfolded Parun sent an arrow right through the apple perched on top of the head of a little girl who sang with her eyes closed, 300 ft away. His opponent, Gehan of Avagdh, had shot the arrow a tad higher and missed his target altogether. That left Parun the winner. The crowd went crazy.
Amidst the chaos, came the booming voice of the announcer. “Before we move on to the ceremony, is there anyone who wishes to challenge the champion? If yes, step forth now else hold your tongue forever!”
This was it. This was the moment. Dia found herself shaking.
She stood up. “I wish to challenge the champion”, she said. Every head in the audience turned toward her. Her father was looking at her, dumbfounded. Her brother started to say, “Dia…”. She raised her voice, drowning him out, and shouted, “I wish to challenge the champion!”. Before she knew it, she was walking down to the arena. Before she entered the arena, she stood a moment to slip off her gown which tore a little in her frenzy to take it off. She adjusted her helmet on her head as a servant helped her put the armour on. She picked her bow and entered the arena. She walked as if in a trance, the noise from the audience barely a whisper in the background.
She stood face to face with Parun who was looking at her with a mixture of incredulity and interest. Her gaze was steady; the only thought in her mind was to win this challenge. Parun’s stance changed from one of curiosity to grim determination in a trice. He sensed that he was facing no ordinary woman and archer. The referee stepped forward and gave the instructions –
“This challenge comes with consequences. The loser forfeits his or her right to ever use a bow and an arrow again. Is that understood?”
Dia nodded, unable to find her voice. Parun said in an even voice, “yes”.
The opponents would be given tasks until one of them failed to carry it out. The first task was to hit 8 different targets while rushing past them in a chariot. Both Parun and Dia cleared it without much difficulty. King Sian was finding it hard to believe his eyes. Next to him, Daius couldn’t help a smile that kept tugging at his lips. His little Di was showing the world just how good at archery she’d trained herself into becoming. Arthur stood stock still, sending out silent prayers.
The next task was to ignite a small stack of hay by shooting the arrow with a burning tip through a narrow passage in a block of ice. This was tricky but both Parun and Dia were master archers – they both set the hay on fire.
And on and on it went. By round 15, they were both neck to neck, neither showing any inclination of failing. Sunset would be in an hour. The crowd was getting quite restless. This was an unprecedented situation. The referee called a time out and went to discuss the situation with the organizing committee.
“They are both equally good”, he said. “I don’t see a way either of them is going to fail or forfeit. What can we do?”, he asked.
The eldest committee member thoughtfully chimed it. “You know, it’s very possible that the two are so good that we won’t really be able to get a ‘winner’. Unless…we declare them both winners”. The others agreed. The committee approached the King and told him of their plan. “Sire, Parun and Dia both need to be crowned as the winner. That’s the only way”.
Daius exhaled in relief. Yes! This was the only resolution. He leaned forward and said to his father, “Father, they are right. Clearly, the two champions are par excellence. They both deserve the honours. There’s no way this challenge will end otherwise. This is a rather unusual situation but we need to do something. This seems like the ideal solution!”
The King was still reeling from watching this master archer who was also his little daughter. The boy Parun was clearly excellent as well. He could do nothing else but agree. He nodded his head saying, “Yes, conclude the challenge, please and crown them both as winners”.
It was almost sundown when this news was broken to the crowd. Dia’s gaze found Parun’s. She smiled faintly and nodded her head as if to say, “well done”. Parun smiled back and bowed to her. They held each other’s gaze for a few seconds before Dia realised what she was doing. With a final glance at Parun, he turned and walked away to meet her father who stood with his arms outstretched.
Parun stood there, smiling as he watched the lithe form from behind getting smaller with distance. “Well done, Dia of Dacior”, he said.