Coffee Break Read – Fight to the Death

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.

From Dues of Blood part three of Fortune’s Fools Transgressor Trilogy by E.M. Swift-Hook


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