[begin blog post #12]
Chapter 7 – In for the Long Haul
“If a path to the better there be it begins with a full look at the worst.” (Thomas Hardy)
It’s a truism of war: short lives engender fast promotion. I’ve been promoted to unofficial trainer of new trainees. My unorthodox ways with hand weapons, especially blades has earned me some recognition.
The next few months bring little change except I am fitted with a couple of different sets of armour. One is just a basic skirt made of that same light alloy I realize now is not made of anything familiar to me. I am fitted with forearm and shinbone protectors as well and have to train with these things on. They are quite stiff and take some getting used to. I fail to understand their purpose until I begin to train with the staff. Ah, I discover that smashing the staff against bones of arms and legs is the preferred method of bringing one’s opponent down. It can break a forearm or cause such numbing pain on the shin that you simply collapse. The armour takes some of the blow allowing one to move out of range and recover. The skirt is used to protect one’s loins from a sudden thrust by the opponent. That leaves one’s thighs, ribs, hands and face exposed. But these areas are the easiest to protect.
I’m fast on this particular weapon. It’s as if I’d used it many a time before. I have. I remember reading up on this fighting method and practicing while preparing for my incarnation. Yes, I know this weapon, but I did not know it could be so deadly. These staves have pressure points in them that allow the user to shorten or extend them by as much as twelve “thumbs” (akin to inch on Old Earth) thus keeping the opponent always guessing at the distance to pull back, swing or thrust. They also have one pointed end with which to spear, unlike the ones I am familiar with.
“Can spear point of staff be poisoned, drugged as with the dagger, sir?” I ask my handler while studying the weapon.
“Yes. Done all time.” he replies.
No fighter would ever be permitted such a trick, even if such things were available to us, but for the male contenders there is no dishonour in trickery, however he brings down his opponent slave. In fact dirty, deadly tricks provide additional entertainment for a paying and braying public that always demands something new and more exciting. It is the nature of those who participate as spectators of organized sport in any society. Lust for blood and varying levels of violence dominates their minds. Deceit is always a part of the game, in sports and war.
I also train with a type of wide battle axe, by far the heaviest weapon used by female gladiators and not very popular. But we do not make the choices so we have to train and ready ourselves to handle all the officially approved weapons. With this weapon comes the other type of armour – a robe thing covering the upper body to halfway down the thighs and a helmet equipped with a chin strap. I feel encased in this contraption, quickly chafing and sweating profusely. It doesn’t have suitable slits to let me open my long legs wide enough for proper balance. Bad design, or someone forgot my stature.
I have difficulties handling the heavy weapon with sufficient speed. My cut arm gives me trouble and my ambidextrous abilities are of no use. I can only wield this thing one way, my right hand forward on the handle, my left holding back to guide the stroke. I cannot switch sides without losing connection with my brain. To make matters worse, the handle is round, straight and smooth all the way. As soon as it is coated with sweat or blood it becomes all but impossible to hang on to, never mind use it effectively against an opponent. What I wouldn’t give now for one of those real axe handles of Old Earth. I must find a way to re-design this ugly contraption if I’m to use it in combat. Ugh!
I hate this method of fighting and would forego it if weapons’ choices fell upon us. So I train the harder on this thing because I know that sooner or later someone, some spy, some paid trainer or even a female gladiator, out of spite or for some “favour” will reveal my weakness to an informant and I will pay with my life. I won’t let that happen. Too many questions left unanswered and too little accomplished in terms of touching upon the private thoughts of other gladiators. I’m not even “at bat” yet as to sharing any kind of philosophy with the other women. I’m still an outcast although the young ones’ faces light up when they train with me. With our signals and low-pitched voice I tell them stories they find fascinating. It doesn’t matter to me whether they believe me or not, enough that they consider me not only the best fight teacher but a great story-teller.
Day after numbing day, while women continue to be sent to the arena, some returning cut and bruised, some never, I train. For the time being at the very least I’ve managed to close my heart and mind to pain and the ever-present sense of fear. I turn my attention to local details, studying the small but solid hierarchy of the compounds, overseers, handlers, trainers, medics and fighters, looking for answers to my many questions about the social fabric underlying T’Sing Tarleyn. I search quietly, surreptitiously, for potential leaders, rebels, among the women, even among the men or for weaknesses in the stratified set-up. I find little to go on. I try to tap into the women’s minds and receive nothing but white noise – meaningless thought jargon in answer to my probe. Is this a trick of the mind they play, or are they so brain-dead, confused, mad? I can’t believe that. They must have some natural, instinctive method for blocking their thoughts from probes and scanners, both of which I have become aware, are in use around the compound, in our cage areas and in the arena.
That strange, advanced, inscrutable, esoteric technology that continues to haunt my mind and my dreams. Where does that come from? Who really rules this world?
From the other side of the spectrum, I’ve had sex with several of the handlers, trainers and male “nurses” or medics by now. A couple of them are quite taken by me and I’ve become their “favourite” of sorts. A dangerous play. One of them comes to me now and announces that I’ve got a turn in the arena tomorrow. I pay close attention because there has been no warning of such before. This has to be something different, unusual.
“Your challengers come soon to watch displays. You demonstrate skills with sword and dagger, staff and axe. Word of advice, demonstrate greatest ability with axe, they don’t choose. Demonstrate least with staff, they chose. Simple. That how you make success; turn things around to you, to owner advantage. So you get to choose weapons after all, huh?” and he pats me on the butt, then casually puts his hand on my breast, fondling the nipple. Reluctantly he removes his hand before he is noticed.
However flaunted, the law remains in place: no male may have intercourse with, or demonstrate affection for, any female – under pain of death. And everyone jealously watches everyone else for any advantage they may derive from blowing the whistle.
Honour, indeed, hah! I spit the word out in my head. And I remember Tiegli. I miss her terribly at night. I miss her simple wisdom and her love for me, however brief that was. And I wonder where she is now. ‘Shut up – concentrate on here and now. You are a gladiator. A fighter, nothing else.’ So I tell myself and return to my work.
Two men, simply, almost poorly dressed, appearing anxious or nervous arrive through one of the stone portals I didn’t even know existed so perfectly does it blend with the surrounding wall. They are directed to my exercise space and watch me make my moves with the weapons. I survey them through my lashes. Both shorter than I by a head – that’s normal. No unusual musculature that I can see. They do not seem to have that cat-like walk preferred by those who frequent the arena just for a chance to bet on a fight they are getting into. Yes, there are professional fighters, killers, out there who make a living by killing us for those who employ them. They are frowned upon but like bounty hunters, tolerated, as they take chances and cause the stakes to rise. The women call them drooks. These two are definitely not drooks, that much I know.
As instructed, I first use the axe and go through some rather esoteric moves, actually impossible in a real confrontation with a living opponent. I make it look real by letting the heavy weapon slip through my hand and embed itself in a wooden sparring post cut and roughly carved to the size of a man. They seem suitably impressed. I then take off my armour and naked, go through my sword routine. Again I demonstrate undeniable speed and skills with these, suddenly diving on my back and pulling the dagger, sliding it upward and stabbing the wood “man” in what would be his loins or stomach.
Putting on the light skirt and protector pads, I then heft the staff. I look at it suspiciously and thrust viciously but wildly at the wood post, missing it. I pirouette, pretending to regain my composure and aim the side of the staff at the dummy but instead of hitting high enough to break an arm, or low enough to numb a leg, I hit it straight in the middle, the most easily defended part of the body.
My trainer stops me and upbraids me loudly, bemoaning I’ve made him look ridiculous as trainer. He pulls the staff from my hands, orders me to remove the armour and sends me to wash. The ploy seems to have worked. I observe the two “contenders” choosing the staff.
[end blog post #12]