[begin blog post #3
Chapter 15 – Royal Politics – a Princely Challenge
Several fights were scheduled for that one week and there was an aura of unusual excitement among handlers and trainers. Two “fancies” in a decorated carriage come to watch me fight a trainer, and another female gladiator. They sit on folding chairs they had brought in their “carriage” and their driver waits, standing patiently by the vehicle. From clear bottles they pull out of a sack on their shoulder, they drink a dark liquid that smells like strong liquor. When I topple the trainer, one of them holds his bottle to me, laughing.
Momentarily confused, I freeze and wait for the trainer to regain his feet, all the while staring at the man with the bottle.
“A gift. You must take.” says the trainer. So I walk two steps to this stranger and reach for the bottle. I expect him to do something ignorant, like pulling it away and maybe pulling me off balance, so I stay with my legs apart. Or he may decide to throw it at me, or hit me with it, but instead he just holds it until I take it. Not knowing what kind of drink it is, I put it carefully to my lips and taste it. He smiles thinly at my hesitation, the smile becoming broader when he sees I definitely enjoy the taste of it. It’s at least as good tasting as the best liquors I have ever had. I drink slowly, swallowing once and offer it back. He motions for me to have another swallow. Then he takes it back.
He stands up then, comes close and touches me on the shoulders, feeling my muscles. He lifts my arms and raises them over my head then runs his hands over my neck, sides and thighs, feeling here and there. He bends down and examines my legs and even my feet. Then he stands up once more to look me in the face. He put his fingers through my short hair, lifting it and examines my head.
“It’s well made,” he says, addressing the four trainers who had gathered to prevent me from doing anything dumb, like reacting to the prodding. They had not expected me to remain docile during that examination. “It’s strong and dangerous. I’m going to enjoy this one. Maybe it will give me the satisfaction of lasting longer than the others, eh, Torlat?” He looks at his dark-faced partner who frowns and sips thoughtfully from his bottle. “What do you say I fight it with that new axe design, the double-sided one? Seems like just the thing to cut down a wild beast doesn’t it?”
Looking at the trainers and throwing them some flashy metallic coins that bounce on the flagstones, he disparagingly adds, “Don’t tire it out. I want it in the best of shape and fresh tomorrow. I’ll be the first one on – and my dear brother the King will be there to watch me kill his favourite animal.”
As soon as they hear this is one of the Royal Tassards the trainers all get down on one knee and bow to the fancy. I just lower my head, not knowing what is expected of me this time. He grabs my hair and pulls me down. I could have resisted and gotten flogged. I go down under his pull and drop to my knees, lowering my head. He releases my hair and backs away, then flicks a whip from his coat and lashes me viciously across the back, but only once. I bite my lips to stifle an involuntary cry. Their boots crunch in the sand, they mount their vehicle and it whooshes off with a powerful whine, describing a sharp banked lift and from the corner of my eye I watch it disappear over the high walls to the east, not towards the King’s castle. The trainers order me to stand and order me to raise my arms, adding four more lashes to my back to ensure I get the message.
So, gentlemen, what happened to the Royal’s injunction to not tire me out? Even such a ‘mild’ flogging will affect my performance. I shed tears, from pain, from anger close to the edge of rage; from despair. How can I ever win here? Bastards. But there is tomorrow.
Punished for failing in protocol when confronted with royalty. Now I have bloody welts and will carry new scars as reminders that you unquestioningly and instantly kneel in full obeisance when “royalty” announces itself. I should have known who he was by the shoes – that he was no ordinary challenger – stupid! But how would I have known I was supposed to kneel? How can they expect a “wild beast” to know how to behave before royal men? Well, this one certainly will from now on. And that explains the excitement: the King himself, the Royal Tassard, is going to attend the festivities. And his brother is challenging the most dangerous fighter in Hyrete.
What did that one mean when he said, ‘my dear brother the King will be there to watch me kill his favourite animal.’ That the king has invested money on the outcome of this fight – against his own brother?
Deirdre takes care of my cut back with her usual skills, washing the blood with clean cold water. The water bites into the cuts and I wince with the pain, as does Deirdre. She manages to “beg” a salve from the medics and for the rest of the day I feel fine but once in the cage when I try to lie down, straw sticks poke the wounds and that hurts more than the actual flogging. But over the years of experiencing so much physical pain within my body and so much mental torment from the suffering all around me, this is a small thing. I offer this small additional pain as a gift to myself, using this reminder as a means of scanning the sleeping women’s compound and drawing into myself as much of their pain as I can. Sorrow is my companion this night.
The biggest problem is my clumsy attempts to hide my pain from the Cholradil. I should know by now it cannot be done and I have to let her share it, distracting her with loving and with my stories from Old Earth, gentle Altaria and my experiences as a fighter pilot in the Melkiar wars which is not so painful to her because I explain we were fighting machines with no feelings, we were not killing sentient creatures. She accepts it, but still with great distaste. I change the subject to a past life when I had my own child, a daughter, whom I raised while living on the banks of a beautiful river of green waters that reflected banks covered in trees. I tell her of the birds and animals that called from the forests, and of the seals that came to the shore to sun themselves. I can feel her mood changing and a lifting of her heart. She falls asleep finally and I hope she is dreaming of a better life than this.
Too early the next morning three handlers I have not seen before, these wearing blue body-fitting uniforms with gold piping at the shoulders, also never seen in this compound, come for me and order me out of the cage wordlessly, with only hand gestures. I have a moment of panic when Deirdre is ordered to stay in the cage and about to be locked in but she rapidly opens her hand and there is a stim cube in it. I quickly palm it and the gate slides shut and locks. She stands near the gate shivering and biting her hand, her eyes wider than usual, a picture of abject misery. Quickly using the hand language we have developed to use between ourselves and some of the other fighters in the cages, I motion her to desist and lie down quietly and obediently; that her concern is hurting me and distracting me. She obeys and I feel better.
Outside I get the usual cold water treatment, food at the cold, wet table and my first opportunity I get to put the stim cube in my mouth. A member of the blacksmith group brings my new double-bladed axe and as the light increases I inspect it carefully, swinging it as much to test its balance as to try to warm up and stop shaking. I roll it in my hands, hold it up and gingerly balance the tip of the spike in my calloused hand to truly gauge its weight. It is a marvel of engineering and design. The handle becomes a part of me and I can tell without having to look exactly where the cutting edges are.
A trumpet sounds and I’m led, still drenched and shivering with the cold, through the tunnel. There is no sexual advance this time, probably out of fear that the fancy would smell it and feel ripped off. Such would result in certain punishment. Or perhaps these new handlers have other, more exotic ways of satisfying their desires; a sex-slave hidden in their barracks, likely.
Once in the arena, amidst the traditional booing and catcalls I pick up my armour and put it on, involuntarily wincing as it rubs against my fresh welts. Two trainers adjust my straps and help me with the helmet. The Royal is already wearing his and I can see it’s of much higher quality than mine – and in violation of their own laws, he wears more protection overall. My armour consists of a short sleeveless coat (without shoulder protectors) of the super strong and light material they call “cheelth” (pronounced “sheel”) that covers me halfway down my thighs with open side slits for leg movement, an innovation I had to insist upon at great risk of “punishment,” and a helmet with no neck mail protection.
His armour covers from shoulders all the way past his knees and he wears shoulder, arm and shin protectors as well as boots! His helmet is equipped with the neck chain mail protector also.
My heart sinks within as I watch him move and easily cover the few exposed parts where I could land a killing blow. I feel totally exposed and again I experience that edge of wild rage rising within my breast. I subdue it with a closed eye mantra. The trainer hands me my own designed “fighter sandals” which I eagerly inspect for the requested retractable blades. I’m thrilled to find them mounted and functioning properly. I slip them on, lacing them up, criss-crossing the thongs all the way up my calves. Then I notice the top of the sandals and thongs or wide laces, are cleverly made to disguise the very same cheelth material used in the coat. My confidence returns just as I bite through the stim I’d been casually just sucking on. Its effects are instantaneous and for a brief moment I feel as if I could take on the entire arena.
As I prepare to meet the Royal Tassard brother, I wonder what happens to the female gladiator who has the mischance to kill a Royal? Will they ignore her and let her live to fight another day, or will they hound her to death the rest of the day? Who are the other fighters in the arena that day, I wonder? I haven’t seen any other gladiator being prepared but me. Me? All day? Best to concentrate on this encounter. One battle at a time.
The trumpet blares the call to “center” and we walk to center ring to stand opposite each other. Gone is the pretend camaraderie of sharing a drink yesterday. He looks me over and says in a low voice – another violation: we are not allowed to speak to one-another – “You’re as good as dead, pess. Don’t disappoint me by dying too soon. I want to have some fun and entertain my dear brother. Fight well, it will do you no good, krosspeeg.” The term is used commonly by the women in the compound and I recognize a deformed term from Old Earth English: ‘gross pig.’ A new idea has just been planted in my mind, something to work on later. There is no doubt in my mind I will have a “later” following this encounter. I am not so easy to kill as they should all know by now. There is a depth of strength and resilience in this old girl’s body, especially when the old girl remembers to keep her mind on the work at hand.
I think of Deirdre. I think of her as if she were the one who was going to be killed and I was the one who could defend her. So this is for her, not for me. I have to return to her, no matter what I must do for it – I must live through this fight and through this day.
We raise our weapons. The next trumpet announces the start of the match and we are at each other. He knows how to fight and is expert at handling the long handled axe, but then I knew as much. We circle each other warily, feinting, jumping and slashing. The axes ring against each other and I notice that his is heavier than mine, of a different design and make. The handle is longer by several thumbs, another violation of strict arena rules. Why not, I think bitterly, you don’t become a member of the elites by obeying rules and laws – that is for the despised sheep.
The discrepancies in weaponry and armour do not matter that much. To a professional fighter a difference is often an advantage if noticed in time. Now I can evaluate him and gage his abilities. He is not much stronger than me, so we are even there. I’m much faster, as well as taller and longer-limbed, so I have the advantage there. The weight of his axe will help him only if he strikes when I’m off-balance or tiring but it will slow him down. I weigh my options as we perform our death dance. I have to bring him down quickly, before he tires me out. I will bring him down, I have given myself no other choice: I do not die today. And that, psychologically, is a powerful place to be: to have no choice but to perform to the uttermost of all your skills and abilities. To strip yourself of everything else in the moment and become all that your “cornered beast” self must do to overcome: total focus of energy, not an iota of waste.
‘Sorry guy,’ I say to myself, ‘but I may have to lessen some of your fun here. After all, this is my place, not yours, you know, home turf advantage and all that. These idiots in the stands, they don’t know it, but they are cheering for me, not you. You are Royals and deep down they hate you and your effete, inbred ways which they support through endless thievery and oppression.’ I decide to rile him by smiling at him as we come close enough to be face to face for a fleeting moment. His face turns into a snarl and he lunges. I parry and slash. The blade does its work and cuts between the slit in his coat. Blood gushes from his thigh and he winces, jumps back and prepares for another assault. He’ll be more careful and more dangerous now.
[end blog post #35]