“I hate you,” the fighting slave muttered at his main guard, rubbing his right forearm. Under the leather armguard, the hasty stitches stung. He shifted restlessly from foot to foot, ignoring the four other guards that ringed them, saving his glare for the one man.
“Yeah, I know, Kaellyn.”
“It’s just a scratch, Tullian,” Kaellyn told his feet. “I hate you.”
“Not like you used to,” Tullian answered, grinning impudently.
“I do,” Kaellyn muttered, but without much force.
“And you didn’t need those six stitches?”
Kaellyn rolled his eyes. “You never quit.”
“I like you, since my bets are paying off!” Tullian
glanced over at another guard inquiringly, who nodded. “Be good and it could be worth your while.”
You’re a pain in the ass, Tullian, Kaellyn thought as he watched the other man walk away. But since you’ve always been fair to me, enjoy your gold. He looked around the waiting room, one of four in the Ostyon arena. Normally, it would seem spacious, but today it was crowded. It was as utilitarian as his brown leather armor, with walls constructed of grey stones fitted together. Along those walls, regularly spaced, were large iron rings, some with chains hanging down. An empty animal cage stood against one wall. Three archways dominated the room. The orange one led to the cells and an infirmary, and the blue one went to the spectators’ area. The black one led to the arena itself. Kaellyn dragged fingers through his damp blond hair. He had refused a helmet because of the day’s heat.
“Gods, you think they could die better,” snapped a guard to the slave’s right. He snorted. “Well, this is a backwater,” the man added before spitting on the wooden floor.
Kaellyn knew the guards were watching the latest match through the black archway. He steadfastly refused to look there.
“Pity it isn’t the Emperor’s Games. For one thing, we’d get more gold,” the guard to the left replied. Chuckles followed, but Kaellyn barely heard them. “At least they don’t come back from the dead!”
Instead, Kaellyn regarded the dusty drop of spittle for a long moment. Wonder how you’d meet death, jackass, he thought. Bet you’d bray to be spared. I’m alive, he thought, for now. I wonder how many bodies went in the burial pit. Kaellyn continued staring at the glob by his foot. They should have just faked death. Man fights another day that way.
“That’s an old wives’ tale! Don’t tell me you’re superstitious!” A guard laughed loudly, bringing Kaellyn back to the present.
“Supposedly they had someone return from the dead at the Senators’ Games last year,” the guard to the left insisted.
“The slave must’ve faked it really good.”
“Aye, you’re probably right.”
Kaellyn grimaced. Maybe it’s time for me to join the dead. If I can’t be free, what’s the point? If a slave came back from the dead, are they free then? Movement toward the right distracted him, and he looked over to see a female gladiator. She’d been featured in a bloodless exhibition round, but was now walking toward the doorway that led to the cells. Female fighters were popular, and their fights were often scripted. Some shows even included rapes, but those cost extra. Like Kaellyn, a knot of guards surrounded her. Her impressive bosom stirred him but he realized, I can’t think about that or I’m going to be dead.
Instead, he watched the betting for the final match. Most were locals, but there were a few visiting imperials, easy to spot with their gleaming white and blue enameled armor. The locals tended to have dull armor. Tullian’s immaculate black leather armor was also distinctive. Notations were taken in chalk, on slates, in several languages. I hear Marrisian, Corathian, Traders, and even Kusharian. No gypsy, though. Not that I expected it. I miss my clan. Kaellyn’s thoughts drifted to his lost family. Stop. Now is all.
Tullian sauntered back across the floor as if it were a ballroom with a satisfied smile. He took his customary place, nodding silent thanks at the other guard. “I’m going to be rich!”
“That makes one of us,” the slave retorted.
“Don’t worry,” the guard laughed. “I’ll get you those pepper rolls you like. You have the highest point total ever!”
Those rolls are really good, Kaellyn thought. But what little enjoyment he felt was replaced with apprehension. For the third time that day, a man entered the room, one that made even the imperials look lackluster. His black boots were so polished, and they seemed to repel the dust most others carried. Every time the man appeared, Kaellyn found himself the object of intense scrutiny. He lowered his eyes again.
Kaellyn shifted his weight from foot to foot repeatedly, unsure why he felt anxious. He pretended not to notice the guards’ hands drift to their sword’s hilts, or the fact that one actually began to draw steel several inches from its scabbard. He smirked a little. They know I’m dangerous. But where can I go?
When Kaellyn heard the announcement for the final match, he finally looked through the black archway. He saw the starting official walking across the sand.
For luck, Kaellyn touched the sun tattoo on his arm. That tattoo had inspired his ring name, which he hated: Aplion, the Marrisian sun god. He had other tattoos on his body as well, though they were simpler. When read in the proper order they showed his school lineage: the Notched Sword, Fennur’s Fang, and his current school, the Barbed Hook. But the smiling sun was special, resplendent in its intricate shading of oranges and reds. It was from before slavery--it was his family’s mark. One day. He drew in a deep breath, let it out slowly, then walked into the arena as the official gestured. Across the sands, his opponent, Cobra, did the same.
The cheering washed over him, and he grew excited. I’m not weak now, it’s time to perform. Show them who’s in charge!
Both fighters waved as they walked across the sand. When they met at the center of the arena, though, both became perfectly still, watching the governor, who stood in his box,who nodded at them. With that, each man walked toward a colored circle sketched into the sand which held weapons. The black held Aplion’s two swords, and the red held Cobra’s shield and axe. Aplion grimaced. He hated axes, and wished his swords were not the heavy and short Marrisian ones. He preferred the lighter, longer, and single edged Ephelan ones. But at least I’ve got something.
Both men took their weapons and faced the governor again, who now held aloft an orange cloth. Once the cloth dropped, it would be a free for all. The Badlands’ only rule was kill or be killed. The imperial games had intricate rules and far less killing, since the longer a man competed, the more valuable he became. There, matches celebrated skill. Here, the locals had bloodier tastes. The governor released the cloth and all eyes watched it flutter to the ground.
Once it landed, Aplion laughed as he swung his swords about in a flashy display. Cobra glared. The governor sat down to enjoy the show.
The first round of blows was a draw, despite great ferocity. Aplion gave ground, and circled cautiously. He closed again, and found forcing Cobra to make a misstep was difficult. If anything, the older man took full advantage of his slightly longer reach. He also used his shield offensively.
The crowd quieted as the men blocked and parried expertly. Only the grating of steel, along with an occasional grunt of effort, could be heard.
Cobra finally found an opening, and knocked Aplion down with his shield. He drew back the axe for the killing blow. Aplion laughed wildly, and swept Cobra’s legs out from under him with a well-placed kick. The audience cheered excitedly.
Aplion leaped up, feeling triumphant. I’ve got him now!
But Cobra was equally fast in gaining his feet. “That’s it, pretty boy?” Cobra jeered as he raised his axe.
Aplion’s only answer was a flurry of well-placed blows. However, Cobra exploited an opening, slamming his shield into the younger man’s stomach. Aplion doubled over, but managed to stagger away.
The crowd screamed, “Kill! Kill!”
Aplion floundered across the sand gracelessly. Cobra looked suspicious, but followed. Aplion dropped a sword, keeping only the one in his left hand.
Follow me. I look like a lamb. Aplion straightened, all pretense gone. He ran and launched a flying kick at Cobra that knocked the other man back a few paces.
Relentless now, Aplion followed up with more sword work, using his free hand to throw sand in Cobra’s face. Within a few minutes, blood appeared on the other man’s leather armor. Aplion disarmed Cobra and sent the axe flying. A few more powerful kicks at close range, and Cobra dropped to his knees.
Out of the corner of his eye, Aplion saw the official waving a red flag, meaning no mercy.
Aplion raised the sword in his left hand, and it flashed in the sun. Cobra knew his role, bowing his head for the killing blow. Cobra murmured, so only Aplion heard, “Just make it quick.”
“I’ll do the right thing.”
Aplion brought the sword down, but he reversed it and smashed the hilt into Cobra’s skull. The other man crumpled. You’ll fight again. Me? My master has a temper. Wait…what in Hades was I thinking? Dammit!
The crowd had grown quiet, but soon murmurs began. The official waved the flag harder. Aplion saw that the governor looked stunned.
It was quick. But I win just by points. Cobra deserves to live. He spared that one man who had never fought before. I would have, too.
The crowd began to hiss and boo, feeling cheated by the swiftness of the match. Aplion stalked over to the black circle and threw his blade down, hard. Every fighting slave had to leave their weapons, or they would be shot down by archers. He slapped his hand against the inside of his elbow, following it by dropping his hand in a cutting gesture toward the ground. It was a rude gesture, and caused silence.
“You want a show? I’ll give you one! You can all kiss my ass!” Aplion yelled. “Screw you!” He proceeded to turn and repeat the motion to the entire arena. The crowd began to shout angrily. He then laughed and began to bow. Every movement was sweeping, grand, and exaggerated. I’m the winner. You love me.
Soon, they began to laugh and cheer. With a flourish, Aplion raised both hands, extending the middle fingers several times, then bowed one last time and flipped the bottom of his armor up, displaying his bare buttocks, which he waggled at them. He dared a glance over his shoulder and saw the governor howling with laughter. The red flag was gone, and the blue all-clear was in its place. He began to walk back toward the doorway, and the applause continued.
It’s like I’m someone else in the ring, Kaellyn reflected. Hades, what was I thinking? Well, I did win.