by Shaun Ryan
I wait in shadows, head bowed. Outside, in the sun’s blessed light, the crowd roars its delight as some man or beast meets their end. Steel clashes against steel, a song that sings in my blood. My heart quickens as brass trumpets blow a glorious fanfare. The prince has arrived.
My nephew, Galen, who serves as my arms bearer, hands me a ribbon of crimson silk. He is my brother’s son, orphaned now, my charge.
Standing, I whisper a final prayer to my grandfathers and tie the fabric around my brow. The crowd loves this minor affectation. It is part of my character, my trademark, but serves a practical purpose as well. When the heat of battle is upon me, it will prevent the sweat of my efforts from blinding me at the worst moment. I check my sword belt and scabbard, making certain they are secure. The battered leather greaves receive the same careful scrutiny, as do my boots. The sword remains sheathed. I have no doubt as to the weapon’s state of repair. It is a part of me, handed down from father to son since the beginnings of my family’s long, bloody history.
Far down the dim corridor, a gate crashes open, stout oaken planks meeting ancient stone with force. The booming echo rolls past on a breath of hot wind. I turn to face it, inhaling the sweet scent of summer. Orange blossoms dance around the tang of blood and oiled steel, sweat and tears, roasting meat and horse dung. I take these and a myriad other subtle aromas deep into myself, letting them swell my heart with lust; for battle, for life, and, yes, I must admit, for death.
I face my own mortality this day as I have faced it every other. I have looked in death’s eye and spat there, laughing. I bear the scars. My blood has spilled onto the earth, into the water, into the air.
Raising my hands at my sides, I stare at them, contemplating each line, each wrinkle, each callous, and each old wound. These hands have dealt death for three decades. Today is no different. The circumstances have changed these last few years, but the end result remains the same. I will kill all who face me or I will die trying.
The heralds blow their trumpets once more and I step toward the dusty light at the end of the tunnel. Halfway through the familiar walk, the roar of the crowd crystallizes, the incoherent cries of bloodlust resolving into a single, unified chant. Ten thousand souls stand as one and begin stamping their feet in cadence, chanting one word all the while. The word they chant is a name.
The name is mine.
The sun, just reaching its zenith, warms my upturned face as I step from darkness into its golden light. I do not squint against the glare. Many battles in this arena have taught me to linger in the mouth of the tunnel, letting my eyes adjust to the bright world beyond. The crowd’s chant dissolves again into a ceaseless roar, full of excitement and unabashed adoration. It swells to a crescendo, a wave of sound and emotion that is felt more than heard, and then subsides to near silence before the chant resumes.
I stand for a moment, my arms upraised, fists pumping. Then I cross them over my chest and bow low. When I straighten again, my sword leaps from the scabbard and gleams in the sun, sending brilliant arcs of reflected light dancing through the air. They subside to murmur, in awe of the famous blade, of me. I turn a full circle, meeting their eyes, showing them my sword. I complete my revolution and face the enclosed balcony where the prince sits among his retainers. I stab the point toward him, once, twice, a third time, and then bow lower than before; a salute to our new liege. The chant begins again as Prince Jadden gives a slight bow in return, acknowledging my show of respect.
I wonder if he knows that I offer it out of custom only, the respect I feel aimed not at him, but the thousands around him. For Jadden I feel nothing but contempt. I will not call him ‘King’, though he is. To my mind, his father was King. He remains the spoiled little cur who took pleasure in having his servants whipped for the slightest infraction; the thief who has stolen the rightful lands of my former brethren, my friends, and my brothers; the usurper who murdered his revered father. He is the key to my great success in the arena. I see his face on every foe.
The chant begins again, a low thrum that washes over me in waves as the gates on the far side of the killing ground creak open and three men emerge. They fan out as they approach the center of the broad, sandy ring, drawing their swords. I step forward to meet them, concentrating only on them now, the crowd, the prince and his treachery, the gold that will rain down upon the sand at the end of this battle, all forgotten. I fall into my familiar role, once more a soldier in service to my king. Though he has passed from the world of men, they have not forgotten him. I have not forgotten him. I lift my sword to the heavens and salute him.
The crowd stamps their feet in approval.
The three, two of whom I do not know, stop ten yards away and give a slight bow, which I return. The third man, a tall northerner I once chastised for looting the bodies of the fallen enemy, grins at me. His arrogance has not faded in the years since I retired from the king’s service and took up the life of the sport-warrior. I meet his eye and stare through him as my breathing slows and deepens. My heart settles into a steady, thumping rhythm. My hands flex with a pop of scarred knuckles. I wait.
The heralds blast a short fanfare and the crowd falls silent. The white-clad Arbitrator steps forward from his place near the western gate and stops between us, facing first me and then the three in turn, meeting our eyes for a moment and nodding. Then he turns to face the prince and bows. When he straightens, silence reigns among the crowd. Far off, beyond the towering walls, a dog barks. Silk pennants rustle and snap in the breeze overhead. Pigeons coo from the shadows beneath the parapets. Coins clink as they change hands, the wagering already begun.
“MY LIEGE,” the Arbitrator bellows, “LORDS AND LADIES, FELLOW FREE MEN, I OFFER YOU THIS DAY, THE CONTEST YOU HAVE ALL AWAITED!”
The crowd murmurs approval.
“FROM THE RANKS OF THE KING’S ARMY, RETIRED OFFICER AND BRAVE LEADER OF MEN, WINNER OF UNCOUNTED BATTLES AND CONTESTS OF ARMS…”
He turns to me with a sly smile and a wink, which I acknowledge only with the slightest nod.
The chant begins anew, my name swelling the hearts and minds of those who have come to be entertained by my prowess, those whom I have served in countless battles. I bow low to the arbitrator, my old friend, and thus to them as well.
“ALSO FROM THE MIGHTY FORCES OF RHUMANON…”
He turns to the three men, who bow in turn as he offers their names, which are lost in the roar of the crowd. I smile. It is their way of offering tribute to me before a drop of blood has been spilled. They do not care what names these men answer to, only that they are brave enough to face me in battle.
The noise subsides and the Arbitrator takes our oaths.
“DO YOU SWEAR THAT YOU HAVE COME TODAY AS FREE MEN, OF YOUR OWN WILL, TO FIGHT AND DIE FOR GOLD AND GLORY?”
All four of us shout in unison.
The oath is sacred. It is taken so that none may doubt the authenticity of these battles and, more importantly, so that all know and acknowledge that no man is a slave in our country, something our prince has forgotten. He would make slaves of us all.
“THEN FIGHT! WITH HONOR, WITH SKILL, WITH FEROCITY AND VALOR, FIGHT!”
On his final word, the crowd roars and the Arbitrator wheels and flees the circle.
My world narrows as the three advance, swords naked in their hands. I already know which will become sport for the crowd. The man I recognized, though I do not recall his name, will pay for his arrogance and brutality with blood and pain. He will please the crowd with his death-dance. But he will be honored as well, though he does not deserve such. The others will die cleanly at the first opportunity, as befits soldiers.
The first comes in low and fast and I parry the stroke meant to disembowel me. Steel meets steel with a ringing clash and all sense of the crowd, the arena, the world, vanishes from my mind. There is only the battle. Another ringing flurry of steel and I force him back. In the corner of my eye, the tall one leaps forward.
I kick him in the guts as he closes, his blade arcing toward my head. I duck its deadly kiss and slash the point of my own weapon across the throat of the third man. His battle ends there, with his life. Blood flies from the gaping wound, hanging in the air like a flock of tiny, crimson insects before spattering onto the sand. His stroke peels a flap of skin from my back before the sword flies from his lifeless hands and he falls.
Relishing the sting, I grin at my two remaining opponents as they circle. The tall one rushes in and I rebuke him harshly, smashing the pommel of my sword into his jaw as I leap over his arcing blade. He stumbles back, blood spraying from between broken teeth. The other man draws a dirk from his belt and, from somewhere far away, a hiss escapes the crowd. My smile widens.
I take the battle to him, putting distance between myself and the tall man. Feinting a slash to his head, I step inside the arc of his blade as he brings the sword up to parry and seize his other wrist in my left hand. The dirk plunges toward my heart. Bone snaps as I twist his hand around and stab him with his own weapon. The hilt of his sword pounds my shoulder, but the stroke is weak and ineffectual.
The whistle of steel through air teases my ears and I let my legs go boneless, crumpling as the dying man stumbles from me. The tall one’s blade stirs the hair on my head before crunching into the falling man’s ribs. I roll sideways and come to my feet as the body hits the ground.
One man remains. The sport begins.
Gratitude fills the tall man’s eyes and then the life fades from them. Blood seeps from the gashes in his body. He knows that I have made his dying a game. But he also knows he has been given a place of honor in the eyes of the crowd. He leaves this world a hero; the man who stood against Kheron for nearly half a watch before falling. He dies happy, if that is possible. He dies like a warrior, his blade wetted by my blood. He deserves less.
I do not feel the sting of the wounds I have allowed him to inflict, do not hear the roar of the crowd, do not see the twinkling of gold and silver coins as they rain down onto the bloody sand. I nod slightly to the tall man who once fought under my command and then lift my gaze to the prince, willing my eyes to burn the heart from his body.
Galen rushes from the tunnel and begins collecting the coins that are my due. I put the thought of the prince’s tax collector and his piggish eyes from my mind as I raise my sword to the heavens once more. A bellow of fury escapes me, an animal cry of victory that only those who have survived battles can utter. The crowd bellows back, approving. They stamp their feet and the chant begins anew. Blood runs down my blade and drips from the hands that wield the sword in the name of my grandfathers. I can only hope that I honor them this day.
Victory rings in my ears as I turn and leave the arena. I ignore the slight pain deep in my chest, the way my lungs struggle to capture air. How long I may continue to do so is a question that weighs heavily upon my heart in the depths of the night.
The twelve men seated around the scarred oak table rise as I enter the dim cellar. Sweet tobacco smoke curls into the haze that hangs above their heads. They greet me with the warrior’s salute, sword arms pounding their breasts. I nod to them in turn, meeting their eyes for a moment, acknowledging their loyalty, their friendship, their willingness to risk all for honor and justice.
They resume their seats as I take my place at table’s head. I sit as well. Galen pours a tankard of ale and sets it at my elbow before moving to stand behind me, arms crossed over his thickening chest. He has grown into a strapping young lad in the years since his father’s death and serves me well. A pang of sorrow stabs me for the burden he must soon shoulder. But he has learned much under my tutelage and is a valiant warrior in his own right, though he has yet to face true battle. I know that he will make his father and uncle proud when that day comes.
“All is in readiness?” I ask these brave men. Graying heads nod affirmation. I lift my tankard in salute before drinking. The cool ale washes away the dust of the arena, soothing my throat if not my soul.
Every man follows suit. This will be our last gathering around this table. The next time we meet, we will celebrate our victory. Or we will burn in hell.
Adreanna, my beloved wife, great with the child I may never know, stirs as I enter our bedchamber. My heart swells with love for her and our unborn son. I know the child will be male, because I have seen his face in dreams. I pray those dreams may not be my only glimpse of him. His name shall be Korek, in honor of the king whom I served for so long. He shall grow tall and strong and wise.
A smile lights Adreanna’s face as I sit at her side and stroke her golden hair. She takes my hand in hers and places it upon her swollen belly. I feel the life stirring there. I sigh with both delight and regret. This child will be our first and I cannot contain the joy I feel at receiving such a gift. I caress my wife and child, head bowed as I whisper a prayer to my grandfathers.
“Must you do this thing, husband?” she asks.
“I must. There is no other, as you well know.”
“Aye, so I do. So I do.” She falls silent then, words a paltry conveyance for the conflicting emotions stirring her heart. We sit in silence, our love a river, wide and deep, flowing from my heart to hers, hers to mine. I am blessed.
After a time, I know not how long, for I am lost among the faint heartbeat beneath my scarred hands, Adreanna rises and fetches a bowl of cool, clear water. She removes my sword belt and boots, strips me of my stained breechclout, and rinses away the blood and grime before binding my wounds. Next, she washes and braids my long, graying hair. My wife kisses my hands, my forehead, and my lips. Then we lie together for what may be the last time. I hold her in my arms until her breathing settles into the slow pattern of sleep.
I envy her. I will not sleep this night.
When darkness has settled to its greatest depth upon the land, I rise and don my old uniform; the gray and green of Korek’s guard, which has not been seen for many seasons. My King’s colors will be seen this day once more. They will be remembered.
I touch my wife’s cheek, her skin soft and delicate. I marvel at her beauty as I have always done. She shines from within as well as without and carries my heart in her hand always. A single tear trails down my cheek as I bend to kiss her. She smiles in her sleep, grips my hand for a moment and squeezes gently. I smile in turn. Her face will guide me through the chaos and bloodshed to come, a beacon.
“Know that I love thee with all my heart,” I whisper as I leave the room. The ancient words ring true and that is more than many men can say. Should I fail, the provisions I have made will keep her from suffering at the hands of my enemies.
Galen meets me in the hall. He too wears his king’s garb and I am proud to see him so. He nods, resolute as he hands me a steaming mug of tea. We speak in low tones of justice, of the rightness of what we are about to do.
The twelve wait in the courtyard, seasoned veterans all. They offer the warrior’s salute once more. They speak a name. It is not my name. It is the name of our fallen king. I nod my approval and open the gates.
Four-score and six-hundred of Korek’s loyal men snap to attention. Arms rise to breasts as one in salute. I return it with pride. Blades hiss from scabbards and point to the sky, my own among them. We stand thus for a moment, fierce and devoted and free, determined that, if we cannot continue to live so, we shall die so.
The twelve move to the heads of their respective columns and I take my place at their head, Galen at my side. He meets my eye and I see his father in him.
“Should I not live to see the end of this day,” I say, “watch over my wife and son for me. All is in readiness for their flight, should the worst come to pass. You must guide them. They are your family now. You are a son to me and I hope that I have been a good uncle, if not a father.”
He smiles. “You are the greatest of fathers, uncle. You are father to us all.”
I can only nod, my throat suddenly unable to open for words. We begin our march.
I look back a final time at my home. It is a good home, with good soil and a good well that offers clean, plentiful water. I risk its loss, but that pales in comparison to the loss I have already suffered beneath a tyrant’s hand, that we have all suffered. We go now to end tyranny and if I must die to achieve that goal, so be it. The riches and fame I have earned in the arena mean nothing without freedom; mean nothing when compared to the honor of serving a just king.
I raise my hands at my sides and stare at them as we march. This day, these hands will not fight for gold or silver or the adoration of the crowd. This day, these hands will fight for honor; my own, my king’s, my brothers’, my country’s. My son’s.
These hands will wield my grandfathers’ sword, perhaps for the final time. But I would rather fall in battle for a just cause than wither beneath the weight of age until the day I am finally vanquished for a usurper’s entertainment.
These hands would have it no other way