[begin blog post #13]
Later I ask my trainers why there were two men. “Fight two tomorrow. They be in gambling debt owned your owners and must pay. No money so only way out is fight you. If they killed, debt cancelled, not passed on to families or guarantors. If kill you they win full amount of debt back in credits.”
Keeping my voice as low as possible yet loud enough to still be heard, I ask, “I meet together, or one after other?”
“It decided you strong. You take two, same time. Money on this big. Stakes very high when owner boasts you best two fighters at same time.
“One on one they no chance with you. Together they have. Is up to you. Kill these and you better here. Be given young lover from new batch of trainees come yesterday.” He makes a lewd gesture and sneers, “After, have authority over others. They be jealous, huh! Now get ready. Oil protectors and lace on tight tomorrow. Tie hair up before fight.” Poking my breast hard he adds, “Don’t let damage to tits.” He has an ugly down- turned smile and small malevolent eyes. I can’t decide if I even like him for helping me or if I totally hate him for being a typical male of Malefactus. I don’t want to feel either. But feelings have a way of intruding in one’s life, don’t they! I hate you! I scream inside myself. But I look as blank as I can.
“I do my best fighting. Who be owners, please?” I ask quietly in a very deferential tone. His answer should have been predictable and it was a very stupid and dangerous question.
“No. Maybe after fight tomorrow. If survive it.” Then he adds, as if he’d just been struck by the incongruity of my question: “Why you ask such thing, you stupid gora? No ask questions, understand? Next time, you flog for sure.”
I can but shrug and hope he’ll remember I wasn’t bred and raised as most females are. Most of them are getting used to some of my oddities, which they let slide as long as I don’t overtly break any rules or taboos for which I’d have to be punished. For some reason I need to find out who my owners are; who I am fighting for. It seems important.
‘If survive it’ he said. Two men at the same time, both with staves. I am reminded of those Old Earth movies of Jedi Knights fighting with light sticks. Deadly weapons, had they been real. But this is real. Maybe if I think of myself as one of those heroes, something will happen out there. I will discover skills and moves I don’t even know I possess. Better not rely on that happening.
I work my routines in my head. I’ve handled several trainers at a time, but then they were not trying to kill me. I must work out a plan. I must make them interfere with each other, perhaps even hit each other and lose whatever coordination they may have worked out – which I know they have. I must find out what their game plan is to bring me down. Tricks. What tricks will they have? Assume their staves are poisoned or drugged, certainly, but for that to work they must thrust into my flesh.
What else do they have? Ah, I have it. My hair thong. My hair piled high on top of my head. One of them will deliberately take a blow so the other can catch me off-guard, thrust his staff point in my hair and pull me off balance. I can see it, yes. Déjà vu? Strange to find that here, but definitely convenient. The one part I would not have been aware of, having no such need in training. Solution? No hair thong. Can I chance the loose hair? Will my handlers allow it, if I try to explain what I’ve worked out?
Morning comes, dark and foreboding. Clouds hang low and it looks like rain later in the day. The air is cold as we all wash in the open, always with cold water. I notice my hair has begun to mat as a result of being washed with coarse soap and cold water. My excuse. I importune a handler and ask that someone looks at my hair. I explain it’s a mess and a terrible nuisance in a fight. Anyone can grab at it and throw me off balance. Would they please cut it, or at least some of it off?
A flurry of conversation takes place. The image. What about the image of the Desert Beast with the wild hair? But I point out, almost whispering, no one ever saw me fight with my hair loose anyway. Always tied up high and behind my head. Why not just cut it shoulder length, please? I sincerely beg and put forth my most seductive energy. You want me to survive this, don’t you? Please!
They give in. I’m put on my knees and a wood chopping block is shoved between my legs from behind and propped tightly against my shoulders. My hair is pulled back roughly and as I gaze straight up, a trainer hefts a battle axe, swinging it down in a lazy arc, looking for all the world as if he’s about to cut me through the throat. I refuse to wince, thinking that this sort of death is preferable to the one waiting for me in the arena. But the axe is angled to miss my head and go through the matted, dying hair spread on the block. It all comes off at one blow and I’m ordered to stand. I can but imagine what that kind of cut looks like, but no matter. I feel much lighter and freer, and there goes at least one of my opponents’ cards.
I am led into the arena wearing my light armour and carrying my staff this time. A sign of growing recognition and worth? The crowd hisses and boos loudly: I’m the enemy, the one to be killed, something I fully understand by now. I am assailed by another bout of vertigo that dulls the crowd’s noise. I can distinctly hear my own heart-beat. I shake my head to clear this weird sensation and it’s my turn to study my challengers.
Unlike my first, these are not interested in engaging the mindless crowd in theatrics. They are carefully going over their armour and weapons and testing the pressure points, making sure the mechanism of their staff works. I notice they are careful not to let the pointed end touch the ground or each other. Poisoned or drugged.
The first trumpet sounds and we face each other at center ring, holding our staves in a kind of salute. The second, shriller trumpet blares and we instantly and viciously engage each other. Parry, jump forward, attack, jump back and parry. Blow after blow ring upon the weapons or thud upon our bodies. I connect on the side of one’s face leaving a bloody streak and turn to perform a lightning fast, vicious jab into the other’s defence, cracking a rib. He doubles over but his partner has returned. I’m slammed on the side of my right shoulder and the shock almost makes me loose my grip – that damn arm will never heal properly now. I recover, keeping my face blank and hoping they cannot see my searing pain by my sweat. Blame that on the humidity, I think as I parry two thrusts and sliding down, slip a jerk-hook on his staff and send it flying high in the air, disarming him. He jumps back fast enough to avoid my killing stroke. I turn to the other.
For a few seconds I have but one of them to deal with. I inflict heavy punishment on him, finding an opening and bringing my staff hard between his legs. That’s it. His armour-skirt is no protection and he instinctively reaches for his mangled genitals. He doubles over and I break his back, laying him flat out, face down in the trodden, bloody coating of sand. His partner returns to the attack but I jump upon the body of the fallen one to gain height, swing the staff fully extended now to bring it down upon his back. He parries to protect his back but my intent was to smash his head with the butt of the staff. Before he recovers from his mistake he lies face down in the sand, dying.
It’s over. Again my “success” is greeted with spitting, loud boos and curses. I bow my head and wait to be led out into the tunnel to the wash troughs. I can barely stand from the hard blows I’ve received, it seems, on every part of my body, but particularly on my thighs. I cannot use my right arm at all. Still I walk.
Pain is not something you seek to avoid here; it’s something you learn to call a friend. For many, it’s the only true and reliable friend they will ever have, the one who keeps reminding them of the necessity to fight to their utmost if they would live to see another day.
My body will now wear new welts that will never go away. My right arm will never be “normal” again and will be slower than the other. A cracked rib will never heal properly and I will have a permanent swelling that will cause me constant pain, especially at night when I try to sleep on my back and when I breathe deeply. I feel the long but shallow cut across my forehead that reaches behind my left ear. Another permanent scar. My hair is a tangle of sweat, sand, mud and blood. Thankfully, it is now short – more of a ragged mane than a woman’s hair.
I stagger to the washing stalls and let the ice-cold water run over my body. I am shivering and sick. I throw up, heaving until it feels as if there is nothing left inside me. It’s not just the physical pain, I realize. It’s the whole mess of it. This whole world, lost in its decadent depravity. The inflicting of pain; the destruction and killing of beauty raised to the level of honour. I was beautiful when I awoke on that sand dune – wasn’t it just the other day? Now I’m on the way to becoming a scarred and battered crone, for indeed I’m now the oldest in the line-ups. I cry silently, blending my “illegal” tears into the water I keep pouring over myself, despite my shaking.
No matter how much water I use, it seems this place will never allow me to become clean.
[end blog post #13]