The tattooed face broke into an ugly snarl, as the spearhead nearly grazed one shoulder of its owner’s powerful frame. He lunged forward, the double-headed axe swinging and the crowd yelled as he claimed his kill, severing the arm of the spear-wielding warrior at the shoulder in a fountain of scarlet and removing his head with a backswing, as effortlessly as a chef might slice through a soft cheese.
It was a very popular kill. This animal, who had the fighting-name ‘Therloon’, had been the new darling of the Alfor crowds since he had arrived in the arena a couple of moons after the Fair. He was of the nomadic folk from the Eastern Continent and had their renowned tenacity and powerful build combined with a flair for the theatrical and a spectacular viciousness that was all his own. Playing to the crowd like the professional he was, Therloon swung his axe around his head and roared, his face contoured into a hideous grin which must have been visible even to those who stood furthest from the edge of the arena. The crowd responded to his signature salute and roared his name.
The powerful Easterner turned to where one opponent remained facing him. The smaller man held his sturdy frame prepared, the curving sword he gripped in one hand looked as frail as a blade of grass against the life-harvesting scythe of Therloon’s whirling axe. But the crowd expected good sport before they had their final glut of blood. For this was no ordinary combat unfolding before them and the money that rode on the outcome of this single bout would have paid the wages of half the troops Qabal Vyazin had been mustering on the outskirts of Tabruth. This was the kind of match that men waited years to see and could only be provided by this, the most prestigious Arena in Temsevar – that of the city of Alfor.
It occurred to Torwyn, watching this display as he ran a hand through his short terracotta-coloured hair, that there were many places better to be than standing less than ten paces away from the axe-wielding maniac and on the wrong side of the high barricades which protected the crowd from the fighting-slaves within.
Facing Therloon, now alone, stood the one they called the Sabre, whom the crowd had just seen defeat his own previous opponent with a classic display of athletic grace and skill. Now, invisible to all except those in the audience closest to where he stood, he shifted his weight very slightly, as if knowing what to expect. The charge, when it came, made him move quickly aside and turn to duck under the axe whilst bringing his own, lighter, blade across to cut at the bigger man’s back. It was not sufficient to do any real damage to his opponent, but enough to gain an appreciative call or two from the crowd and Torwyn could tell it had angered the Easterner.
“Sabre! Sabre!” He evidently had supporters out in strength, probably as many as were there to cheer for Therloon, but then few fighting-slaves were as well-known as the Sabre because few survived six years in the Arena as he had. Few overcame for that long the ever more creative and dangerous demands made on a crowd-pleasing favourite which turned life and death combat into gore-fest theatre or blood-drenched farce.
If it had not been for the coming war this fight would never have been allowed so soon. To end deliberately, the career and crowd-pulling earning power of a top fighting-slave was not a decision made lightly by the lanista of an Arena. More especially when the lanista was well renowned for being a tight-fisted miser, who kept his fighting-slaves in the minimum conditions and invested all his money in crowd-pleasing exhibitions and expensive exotics.
The dance of death continued on the blood-stained sand of the stadium between the unwieldy axe, made agile and serpentine in the hands of the powerful Easterner, and the insubstantial blade of the sword weaving the will of the man who held it. From the first, it had been apparent that the sword was no real match for the heavier weapon with its much longer reach. It was only because the man who held it seemed to possess almost precognitive reactions and a creatively robust athleticism, that the inevitable end was being delayed so long. The tension became palpable and the focus of the two men was absolute. For them, the world had shrunk to the circle of sand and the sweep of feet, hands and weapons.
Normally, the element of drama would have featured far more in any performance by either man. The Easterner was famed for his love of blood and to watch him fight was to watch a butcher at work in a slaughterhouse – but a butcher with a malicious streak of sadism – and the crowd, never sated, loved that. By comparison, the Sabre was known for the humour and finesse he brought to his savagery, playing with his opponents in burlesque ways which would have the crowd fired up with laughter and then stunning them into silence by the breath-taking skill of his acrobatic agility.
Even now, apparently pressed to his limits, Sabre found time to dance a brief step or two with a flower in his teeth, thrown by one of the crowd. It proved to be an expensive crowd-pleaser as the Easterner seized the moment to strike and Sabre, ducking under the blow, raised his own weapon ineffectively to deflect the lethal weight of the axe. It barely turned the heavy slicing blade but at the price of being smashed away from its owner’s grip.
Disarmed, the Sabre dived into a desperate, ground-covering roll that brought him distance from the certain death of Therloon’s backswing, and a few more precious moments of life. But his move was accompanied by the groans and boos of the watching throng. Those who had placed their money on the Sabre were most vocal in their disappointment. The fight was lost and many who had bet on the old favourite knew they would go home the poorer. But the let-down was soon overlaid by a fresh building of anticipation. There remained the catharsis of the kill itself, and Therloon was a master of spectacular, messy killing. That was something to look forward to. The Sabre’s last show would be an essay in violent, agonising death and those he had just robbed of their winnings would enjoy that revenge.
Torwyn watched the Easterner as he advanced across the floor of the arena. Therloon was fully aware that this was his moment and the exaggerated grin that split the tattooed face was as much leer of derision as smile of victory. Only those nearest the edge of the arena heard the tattooed man’s words as he approached his unarmed foe.
“You want to take back what you said before?”
The Sabre backed off step by step as the other man advanced, his arms spread wide in a gesture of pacification or surrender and the roar of contempt from the crowd at this sign of cowardice swelled close to riot.
“Take it back? Why should I?” he said as if puzzled by the question.
“Because on that depends how fast you die.”
“I don’t see why.” The Sabre’s tone was soft. “No matter how quickly or slowly you kill me it is all still true, Gant. You are an imbecile, a laughably dumb brute. You have less intelligence than the beast they named you for.”
An animal growl in his throat, the Easterner shot forward, the long axe held lightly in his hands. Sabre stepped back in a nervous retreat and in doing so missed his footing and tripped, sprawling backwards over the body of Therloon’s previous victim. He fell on his back, arms wide, body spread open and helpless.
The Easterner charged the last few paces, his face congested by anger and hate and Torwyn knew he was going to make this kill one his audience would long remember. Then the fallen man moved. His body rolled suddenly backwards, looking for all the world like a street tumbler, legs disappearing over his head and he finished the movement smoothly on one knee, the spear he had rescued in the process of completing the roll, held in his hands and braced solidly against his foot.
Therloon could no more have shifted his course at that point than taken flight and his eyes barely had time to widen in horrified comprehension, before his stomach was impaled upon the spear.
Sabre was on his feet as the impact was carried through, driving the point home deeply, twisting it to bite into the spine as the Easterner went down. Standing above his fallen foe, the sturdy fighting-slave looked down, without compassion at the tattooed face which was broken now by a rictus of agony.
“How fast do you die?” he asked savagely, for once allowing the fury and disgust to boil up through his veins. But the Easterner was beyond words, lungs pierced by the ripping barbs on the side of the spear’s head and breathing only in wheezing grunts.
The adoring ululation of the crowd ran like a hurricane around the arena and a monsoon of flowers and ribbons rained down onto the blood-drenched sand.
“Sabre! Sabre! Sabre!”
Torwyn straightened up and looked around as if seeing the scene for the first time. Then, strangely impatient and with no more than the most perfunctory of gestures to acknowledge the adulation, he ran his hand through his short rust-coloured hair and strode back through the now open gates, into the dark tunnel beyond.
The cover is designed by Ian Bristow, you can find his work at Bristow Design.