Every year, the city of Bosk lights up for one week to celebrate and bring together distant family and old friends who were happy enough keeping their distance; but obligated to participate in the festivities to keep their spot in the family wills.
Bakers compete for Best Pie. Children face off in archery challenges and sack races. Then, on the final day, every man, woman, and child files into the stadium to watch the main event - the mounted races.
The first time Jareem brought a donkey to the race, the riders laughed and joked. No one had ever brought anything other than a horse or camel, so there wasn't a rule against a smaller mount; but it was agreed that doing so made a mockery of the game. He took third place.
The second time that Jareem brought a donkey to the races, the Master of Games took several of the other riders aside and spoke in hushed tones about roughing up the small steed. To prevent the degradation of this institution! They were more than rough, crashing the donkey into the fence on the first turn to flop the creature over onto its rider.
This time, they made a rule. For the safety of the animals. All mounts had to weigh at least 1000 pounds to qualify. Overnight, dozens of riders with small horses were disqualified and as many wealthy stable owners ordered their underweight horses slaughtered.
It didn't make a difference to Jareem.
Jareem's family had never raised horses or camels, he didn't know how to care for them and couldn't afford one if he did. The farm had working animals. Mostly bulls and donkeys. The occasional mule. He did, however, know how to raise any animal to be as big, strong, and fast as it could possibly be. He knew how to choose which males to allow to mate. He knew what to feed them and how to raise them so that they got fat. He knew how to work them as they grew to turn that fat into hard muscle and create the perfect tool.
The third year that Jareem brought a donkey to the races, the Master of Games met him at the gate with a team of guards. They smirked at the thought of throwing this little annoyance out of the city. Jareem knew they wanted to weigh the donkey first. The Master of Games had come personally; so he had been thinking about this moment for a while. He would want to embarrass Jareem as publicly as he could. Jareem had to play along with their game until the moment they realized he had already won.
The guards took Jareem and separated him from his donkey as they passed through the courtyard. The guards that pulled the donkey along were the first to doubt their previously jovial attitude. They exchanged concerned glances behind the back of the Master of Games.
They walked Jareem to a prominent position in the courtyard and brought the donkey to the scale that had been prepared in the center. It obviously hadn’t been used yet, although several small horses were gathered past the entrance. They had gone through all of this trouble on account of one donkey.
As the donkey was brought up onto the platform, Jareem saw a change in the Master’s face. He hadn’t even looked at the animal when he had met them at the gate; but it was too late to back out now. A crowd gathered around the stage, jeering at the rider that dared to bring a donkey to the races.
The donkey stood 5 feet to its withers. Its muscles flexed in its shoulders and legs as the creature walked forward in long strides. Apart from a few tell tale signs - the ears for two - this donkey could have passed for a horse.
Thirty hay bales were stacked on one side of the scales; the Master directed the guards to bring the donkey to the opposite side.
A hush fell over the crowd as they removed the harness and side bags to get every pound off that they could. The guards stepped off and the Master reached out to pull the catch and release the scale.
He looked to Jareem with restrained disdain.
The Master of Games pulled the catch from the scale and released the weight. The donkey came down to the ground easily, waited for the platform to settle, and stepped off - sending the hay bales crashing down.
Jareem retrieved the harness and bags thankfully from the guards and made his way through the crowd to the riders’ stables to sign up. He knew that he would have to commit early this year. If he stayed with the crowd through the first turn, he wouldn’t make it to the second. Jareem signed in and brushed his donkey in the stable. He would push hard through the first straight away, getting a lead on the horses and camels. The donkey responded well to direction; but this was going to be the true test. In practice, the donkey only had to run through the course without barreling into the fence. Now, they would have to get to the inside lane as soon as they had a lead. If he was able to stay left and then shoot out to the right; he would get through the turn without losing speed and could top out on the second straight away. That would be the fastest he was going to go. From there, it was all out until the end and the donkey was going to be tiring.
That didn’t matter, it was his only chance to finish the race. Most riders would save their mounts for the final straight away; so there was a chance he might be able to get enough space between them for it to work.
None of the other riders were laughing as they lined up at the start of the race. Most of them had seen what Jareem had done with a smaller animal two years earlier. His donkey leaned back its head so far that it could nearly look him in the eye, hungry for a treat.
“You’ll get it after we win, Roki.” he whispered in its enormous ears.
The creature faced ahead and shuffled, pushing its feet down to harden the dirt. Roki braced. The horses and camels lined up with Jareem watched the flag bearer for his cue to start. Roki watched the lane in front of him, waiting for Jareem’s cue. A second before the flag hit the ground, Jareem tapped his heels against the donkey’s sides and felt the tension release under the saddle as Roki launched forward ahead of three quarters of the horses and camels.
By the time the others got started, they were no longer in Jareem’s universe. The only things that existed were him and Roki and the two horses and one camel ahead of them. Passing the first horse, the rider did a double take, realizing suddenly that he was being passed by a donkey. He pushed harder, but it was useless - Jareem had pulled ahead and the horse showed signs of fatigue.
Speeding up into the end of the straight run, Jareem passed by the camel and came up behind the back of the front runner. For a moment, all he could hear was the pounding of its hooves against the dirt until Roki pushed past and put them into the first position. The horse slowed slightly going into the turn, and the rider barely moved his head to check who was overtaking him. He continued on his course with confident determination. But alongside the steady sound of his horses' steps, Jareem could hear the roaring of a crowd in disbelief.
Coming out of the turn, Jareem was going fast and continued into the straight away pushing Roki hard, this was his one chance to push ahead. Coming up to the second turn, Roki was slowing and Jareem let off a bit so he could push through the next straight away. Behind him, he heard the steady galloping of the horse coming from behind. The horse was at his heels. Both slowed through the turn, and going into the third straight run, both riders pushed hard at their mounts to gain the upper hand. By the end of it, the horse had gained just enough length that the two creatures were running shoulder to shoulder.
Jareem knew the crowd was going wild, but he could only hear the steady beat of their running.
Keeping pace through the last turn, Roki was running on fumes. The fourth straight run was to the finish line, and Roki finished second. It wasn’t until he was coming across the finish line that Jareem realized that the other rider hadn’t tried to run him off the course. Everyone would have looked the other way and there would have been a payout from the Master of Games. But this rider wasn’t there to stop Jareem, he was there to win.
The next two years, Jareem used the same strategy. He pushed hard on the first straight run, pushed harder on the second, and kept Roki in motion through inertia for the second half of the race. Third place, then second again.
After Roki's third race, the Master of Games took his next move. Guards with covered faces snuck into the stables where Jareem slept near Roki after a race. They beat him until he was unrecognizable and took off with the donkey.
If he had wanted to continue playing their game, Jareem could have come back with another donkey. Roki was the best trained, the most fit. But he was one of many donkeys that Jareem had raised that were fast enough and massive enough to be in the races. Jareem didn’t want to play their game; he could never really win. He was ready to play his own game.
No one met Jareem at the gates this time when he got to the city. The scales that had filled the courtyard were gone. He led his mount quietly to the stables. People were used to seeing livestock being led around the market by proud farmers or by happy butchers. The animal that Jareem led hardly got a second look. After stopping by the stable to tie off, Jareem went to the sign in table without his mount to avoid an upset.
Jareem timed his arrival so that he would sign up right before they closed the list. The race started before anyone could relay news to the Master. He lined up at the start of the race. Jareem’s bull snorted hard through its nostrils and dust plumed up from the ground below. The creature was just thin enough to fit through the gate, its broad shoulders and thick legs bulging with muscle. Its horns were ground down to nubs on the bull’s enormous head to protect the other mounts. Still, the horses in the stalls next to Jareem’s pushed themselves against the opposite wall to get away from the frightening thing.
When the flag dropped, Jareem didn’t tap his bull; instead letting out a yell that scared the nearby horses into bucking. A couple of riders were dismounted; but the chaos was the real goal. Apart from a few dedicated riders who took off early, the riders were grouped in front of Jareem in a frenzy.
“Yaaww” Jareem hollered.
His bull dashed forward. The other riders with some survival instinct escaped their mounts and rushed over the fence. Those that were left, who had been beaten three years in a row by a man on a donkey, pushed on. Straightening out their horses, the riders tapped their sides to chase after the running bull. As each of the riders came up on Jareem and his bull, they tried to run him off track or knock him off. None could.
In the end, Jareem finished fourth. No one finished fifth.
About the author
Typically, I write science fiction (Mutiny); but my passion for writing has led me to write a handbook for lucid dreaming and I hope to one day write travel books from the lens of my anthropology degree. All my work is published on Amazon.