After eating, the Hugh and the twins went to the Chancellery. Inside, Walker was talking to a large group of people huddled around him. He smiled and nodded when he saw them enter. He said a few more things, excused himself, and came over to them.
“I take it liger hunting was no challenge?” asked Walker.
“I don’t think it was worth going. It was less like hunting and more like selecting a spice from the shelf,” said the giant.
“I must confess,” said Walker, “You didn’t have to do it. I mean, it had to be done, but I could have sent just about anyone. I was trying to keep you two out of the city. Your fight is stirring quite a bit of controversy among those who know the true nature of it. I’m selling it as ‘Kane vs. Lang, a battle of sibling rivalry,’ but most people won’t know it’s between a man and woman until you step out for the fight. I think that’s the best way to do it.”
The three of them looked around at each other.
“You have to understand,” said Walker, “People here think of women as… more genteel creatures. I think letting them see that a woman can fight may change some minds… though it will also rub some people the wrong way.
“I think if we spring it on people as a surprise, it will happen and people will come around to the idea after the fact. If we warned people it would be happening… people would make snap judgments before the fight even began, and we’d be lucky if it wasn’t blocked from occurring. But what’s important now is getting you guys prepared.” Walker called someone over and gave him instructions to take them to the arena.
The three of them followed the man through the streets to an enormous stone building.
“This is the Imperium, the larger of our two arenas. It seats up to around 40,000 people, and it fits more if everyone stands, like today. There might be over 50,000 people watching when you fight.”
They approached a large archway with a line of guards in front of it. The guards moved aside as they approached and passed by. Torches and lamps provide a little light in the dark hallways. The smell of sweat and damp mold hang thicker and thicker in the air the deeper they walk. The soft rumble of a crowd began to grow and grow, the hallway ahead got lighter and lighter, until finally they were looking out over a large oval arena floor surrounded by shouting fans.
“So that’s what it looks like up here,” said the man leading them. “I’ll take you down to the armory and we’ll get you all set up, then we’ll have you seated in the Chancellor’s viewing box until you’re called for.”
They walked back through a series of hallways, went down a few sets of stairs, walked through even more hallways, and they entered a room with weapon and armor racks full of equipment lining every wall.
“Kane and Lang, this is where you’ll wait before your fight, though obviously you won’t need to be outfitted. From here, they lead you to your respective entrances. Hugh, this is where you’ll obviously equip yourself. Your weapons are already there.” He pointed to a rack with a length of red ribbon tied around it. Both swords, both spears, and three shields were resting next to a suit of leather armor.
Hugh walked over to it and picked up the second sword he made. He inspected it closely, stepped back, and swung it hard. He nodded and noticed that they had sharpened the flat end of the sword. He shook his head… oh well, it wouldn’t damage the sword to have a sharpened edge that would never be used to cut.
He put the sword back and looked at the spears a bit before picking up the armor.
“They used your measurements from the tailor,” said the guide. “Feel free to try it on.”
“No, I’m sure it’s fine,” said Hugh. He stood there a bit more, looking it all over. “Go on to the box without me, I don’t want to watch any of it. I’ll go up to watch the twins, then I’ll wait down here.”
“As you wish,” said the guide. He led the twins off.
Hugh picked up the spear with the axe head. He gripped it at various points, then looked at the butt of the spear, wishing he had fashioned a counter weight. He set it back, and picked up the first, single-blade spear. He gave a few quick thrusts, handled the head gingerly in his hands a bit, then he put it back on the rack.
After looking at the three shields there, he settled on the single, equilateral triangle shaped one. He picked it up, and he knew immediately it was weak. The wood was too thin, and upon inspecting the handles, it looked like they had been fastened by someone who never used a shield in their life. Hugh set it back and found someone to ask for some tools.
Before long, he had made a few adjustments so that the shield could be reasonably used, but he was thankful that there was no chance of his life depending on it deflecting a real weapon blow. He wasn’t sure it would even stop an arrow. Before he had time to inspect his armor, the twins came down. The guide led Hugh up to the box for viewing.
The last fight hadn’t ended when they got up there. A man with a giant warhammer chased another man around the arena for a bit, before the hammer-wielding combatant managed to corner his opponent in an alcove on the outskirts of the arena floor. Spectators above the action leaned far over the side to watch as the hammer came down repeatedly on the cowering loser.
The winner held his hammer high and paraded around the arena as the crowd went wild. He exited the floor and two people dragged the lifeless body of the loser away.
A hand rested on Hugh’s shoulder. He turned to see Walker. “This is a big moment,” he said. “I hope you’re as excited as I am.”
Hugh tried not to look worried. “I guess.”
A man came out to the middle of the floor and announced the presence of the Chancellor, which drew loud applause. He then announced Kane, who entered the floor from the far end. Then Lang was announced, and Hugh struggle to see over the edge of the wall below to watch her enter. When Hugh saw her, he realized she was naked. Hugh looked again and saw the dwarf was also nude.
The announcer left the floor, and the twins ran at each other. The dwarf tried to punch his sister, but he missed and she drove her shoulder right into him at a full run, pushing him back, though he stayed standing. They grappled for a bit, the giant pushing the dwarf back for the most part. The dwarf stomped on his sister’s foot, but she remained unfazed. He tried to stomp on her foot again and she moved it and swept his anchor leg.
They tumbled to the ground, still holding onto each other, with the giant on top. The dwarf tried to roll, but the giant kept him pinned. Hugh looked over at Walker, who was laughing with a few other people.
The giant had the dwarf pinned, and before long she had one of his hand under her knee and she began punching him repeatedly in the face. He jerked violently on the ground, trying desperately to buck her off of him. He freed his hand from under her knee and he grabbed her hair. The crowd booed.
The move succeeded in allowing the dwarf to get out from under her, and he was on his feet first. He ran at her swinging, but she blocked his punch, then blocked another. She tried to kick him, but he grabbed her foot. She hopped a few times, trying to keep her balance, while the dwarf twister her foot. She tried to jump and kick him with her free leg, but he let go and backed out of the way.
Now on the ground, she crawled backwards quickly through the dirt as the dwarf took a second to catch his breath before jumping at her on the ground. Though he was on top of her, she managed to wrap her legs around his waist. She continuously grabbed at his wrists to keep her brother from striking her, and he struggled to wrestle his wrists free to get a few punches in.
She managed to get a hold of one of his hands, and it appeared that she had begun bending fingers, because he screamed and began hitting her furiously with his free hand. He went from his knees to standing up, her legs still locked around his waist. He used his free hand now to grab the wrist of his own hand, which she still held tight, and he raised her high above him. He then dropped forward and slammed her into the ground. She did not let go.
Instead, she aggressively twisted her body to gain leverage, and released one of her legs from around his waist, swung it over his head, and she now straddled the arm she was holding. She extended herself and pulled. The dwarf screamed so loud you could hear him over the crowd. He pulled his arm straight and kept bending it back until he yelled, “Stop,” and she let go.
The crowd was a mix of applause and jeers. The dwarf sat up and hung his head, rotating his sore arm and bending he elbow. The giant helped him up, they both waved in all directions, then they jogged to an exit. Walker looked over at Hugh.
“A good show, perhaps a little quick, but you couldn’t have asked for a better outcome. I think she shocked a lot of people tonight.”
“Not me,” said Hugh. “She’s always won about half of the time.”
Walker chuckled. “I should have asked before I placed my bet on her. I never would have bet on a coin toss.”
The man who led them to the arena tapped Hugh on the shoulder. “It’s time.”
Hugh was first fitted with a sort of thick, quilted, cloth poncho which was secured around his waist with a belt. The leather armor went on over that, and it fit Hugh pretty well. The helmet was too small, and after trying many others, he decided not to wear one at all. He was about to pick up the leaf-bladed spear when he heard someone behind him say, “No.”
He turned to see Herbert.
“I just came down to congratulate you on your designs. They are more than I could have hoped for, and your pole ax is going to revolutionize our army. I need you to use that one.”
Hugh picked it up, checked the edge, and asked for a whet stone. He ground the ax blade a few times, touched it again, and grabbed the triangle shield.
“Don’t forget the sword,” said Herbet.
“Where am I going to put it with no scabbard?” asked Hugh.
Herbert called over two boys, who took the sword, wrapped it in leather, fastened a small strap around it, and ran a belt through the strap. Hugh looked at it, opened and reclosed the buckle on the securing strap, then slung the whole thing over his shoulder, letting the wrapped sword hang against his back. He adjusted it so that the handle was just over his shoulder.
Hugh nodded to Herbert, who nodded back and walked off. The two boys opened a gate and motioned for Hugh, who went through and looked down a long hallway. He looked back to the boys.
“Just go to the end, turn left, and your squire will be waiting with your instructions,” said one of the boys.
Hugh breathed deep and walked down the hallway slowly. Just after the turn was another gate with a teen-aged boy in leather leaning against it. He was chewing on a piece of straw.
“Hugh?” he asked.
“Okay, here’s the deal. After the match before yours is finished, we’re going to go through this gate, up that ramp over there, then wait at the final gate for your name to be called, which will be after all the condemned and their crimes are listed. It will take forever, so if you want to warm up, do it then, not now. Then, your name will be called, and, I’ll ask if you’re ready. You affirm that you are, and I’ll unlock the gate. Make your way to the center of the arena. The announcer will leave, then you’ll hear drums.
“There will be twenty, but you don’t have to worry about counting, because a horn will be blown before each prisoner is released into the arena. When the horns stop blowing, you can relax. Most of them will run from you, so what you want to do is walk them into an alcove with a gate. We starve them, but you can definitely tire out quickly trying to chase people who are running for their lives. If they run for too long and the crowd starts to turn, archers will shoot them, but it will still be your job to finish them off.
“Other than that… I’m told you have never seen one of these before?”
“No, I haven’t,” said Hugh.
“Well, these guys go free if they kill you. Some of them will put up a fight. One of them is huge… not huge like you, but huge for a person. You’re free to use any means necessary, as are they, so look out for them throwing dirt or using sharpened shards of pottery they may have picked up and kept hidden.”
The squire nodded. “You’ll do fine. I’ve done this for three years now, and only two people in your position ever lost in that time. And both of them were nothing compared to you. When did you eat last?”
“Around midday,” said Hugh.
The squire nodded again. “Good call, never smart to eat before going in there. You don’t want a cramp after the third guy.”
“Why is it called a Zombie Match?”
“Well, they used to beat the prisoners mercilessly, so they would limp around the arena, often with broken arms and large bruises. It got kind of boring, so they started injuring them less and less beforehand. Now, they usually get some solid blows from a mace to the knees and ankles to keep them from running at full speed, but they’re mostly just starved so they’re weakened. Plus, I guess people think of them as ‘the walking dead,’ since their execution is inevitable.”
“I guess that makes sense,” said Hugh.
“Do they have gladiator matches where you’re from?” asked the squire.
“No, we kill because we need to, not because we want to.”
“But you kill criminals, right?”
“I guess,” said Hugh.
“So, how do you kill a criminal who is condemned to die?”
“I’ve never had to do it, but I guess… I guess I would hang them or something, maybe behead them quickly.”
The squire shook his head and spit. “What a waste. Where’s the fun in that?”
Hugh looked at him and blinked a few times.
“I mean, they have to die, right? Why not make a big show of it, to make an example of them, so people know what happens if you break the law, and so that their death can give something back to the community?”
“How is this giving back to the community?” asked Hugh.
“It’s entertainment, and it provides jobs for all kinds of people, least of all me, but also the food venders, security, animal handlers, people who makes weapons and armor… it’s an entire industry. A lot of people’s livelihoods rely on this.”
“But… if they weren’t doing this, which is kind of awful, if you ask me… they would be doing something else, maybe something meaningful and worthwhile.”
“Worthwhile,” the squire repeated. He laughed. “If I wasn’t here, doing something I genuinely love, I would be at the docks loading boxes and jars in and out of ships. I would be paid less, and the work would be hard. It wouldn’t be worthwhile at all.”
“Those are your only two options?” asked Hugh.
“I’m no artisan. I don’t have any skills or education. I’m not a big strong guy like you, either. If I could be a soldier, I would, but I’m way too small. Maybe I could be a steward on a ship or something, but I don’t have any real future outside of this arena. After I get too old for this, I’ll probably work to maintain this place, keeping the gates oiled, the floors swept, the weapons sharp, the animals fed, the all the shit and bodies removed… maybe if I’m lucky, I can be the announcer one day… but these will probably be the best years of my life, the time I’ll look back on and think, ‘I did something worthwhile.’”
Hugh leaned heavily on his spear. “I hope I didn’t insult you,” he said. “I just… you’re so young, you can do anything.”
“I can do anything, huh?”
“Well,” said Hugh, “You may have to work at it.”
“If I could do anything, I’d like to piss wine and shit gold. How do I work towards that?”
A clang rings out in the distance. Two people walk towards them down the ramp. As they get closer, Hugh sees that they are dragging someone behind them, who is leaving an intermittent trail of blood in their wake.
The squire opened the gate and after they passed, he walked through it. Hugh followed.
To be continued…