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© 2016 by Robert Mullin
No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form, stored in any retrieval system, posted on any website, or transmitted in any form or by any means—digital, electronic, scanning, photo-copy, recording or otherwise—without written permission from the author, except for brief excerpts in printed reviews and articles.
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.
Cover art by .
Copyright © 2016. Used with permission.
Crimson Moon Press
Blood Song is the backstory of Dania, a character from the novel Bid the Gods Arise Dania instantly became a fan favorite, and many readers begged to know more about her. For those who have not yet read Bid the Gods Arise, take heart; Dania’s tale is far from over.
Special thanks to my beta readers: , , , , , and .
Also to my good friend Mark McDonald, who inspired many of the elements of Dania’s culture, and to Victor Vieira, who not only wrote the first piece of fan fiction based on Dania, but also came up with the notion of Dania’s tattoos as “songs.” And last, but far from least, , whose spectacular art graces the cover, and who helped come up with the title.
You were all utterly indispensable.
Dedicated to Michael Lynch, whose brilliant ink renderings of Dania inspired portions of this novella.
The moment that a slave resolves he will no longer be a slave, his fetters fall.
“You’re going to get caught someday.”
Dania started at the whisper in her ear, and jerked her hand away from the grown-up’s purse. Snot-nosed Babba grinned up at her, all freckles and red curls. He wobbled his head and shook his finger at her in imitation of the elders.
Tossing black locks over her shoulder, Dania returned to the task at hand. All the men’s attention was on the little makeshift stage in the center of the pavilion, where Ysavale spun faster and faster to Callo’s increasingly energetic fiddling. The large man currently occupying Dania’s thoughts shifted to the left to get a better view, and she gently slid the blade of her dagger under the leather strap holding her prize, parting it like cloth. She didn’t even bother to see if the man had felt its loss. For some reason, whenever Ysavale danced in that particular dress, no one noticed anything Dania was doing.
Snot-nose dogged her steps as she wove her way through the crowd, slipping the purse into one of the six hidden pockets in her skirt, and the dagger into the sheath under her jacket. Ysavale did something that made the men holler and whoop, and the music came to an end. Dania covered her ears at their explosive clapping, and pressed on until she was well clear of the grown-ups.
Dania whirled to face Babba. “What do you think you are, an Enforcer?”
“You’re taking too many,” he said. “That’s at least four. You know what Callo says. People expect thieves in the caravan, but too many purses cut at one show, and they start to notice.”
“I’m not taking too many. That was the last one.”
Dania scanned through the sea of milling legs for the confectionery tent, then darted between two bickering hucksters to lose her obnoxious shadow. It didn’t work. Babba stood expectantly at her side while she purchased a stick of taffy.
“You’re not going to buy me one?” The twerp sounded genuinely outraged.
“Why should I?” She slipped back into the crowd, and took a bigger bite than she intended. “You newhah come bwack wif anyfing. I ha’to do twife de wuk”—she finished chewing and swallowed the mouthful of gummy drool—”and then you complain that I’m doing too much. What good are you, anyway?”
“Good for keeping you from getting caught, I’d say.”
Dania halted mid-stride, and turned on him. She narrowed her eyes and scowled. “Keep distracting me while I’m working, and I’ll knock you down, Snot-nose.”
Fireworks and streamers erupted from the direction of the dock where Faragow had landed just under a week ago, and a number of grown-ups cheered. Babba just stuck his hands in his pockets and grinned.
Dania drew a furious breath and clenched the fist not holding her taffy. “I think I’ll do it anyway.”
Snot-nose yelped and ran back towards the purple tent behind the stage, nearly bowling over the emerging chieftain, who gave him an affectionate cuff on his way. Chief Andon glanced at Dania with merry eyes. His latest songstaff was nearly half-full, carved with the tales of more years than Dania had been alive. The tattoos on his wrinkled face and hands bore testimony to those deeds he claimed as his own, etched into his body and soul. They clashed with his multicolored ensemble, but he never seemed to care.
He gripped Dania’s shoulder softly and leaned close. “Well, girl, have you been having a profitable time?”
Without a word, Dania procured a gold piece from behind his ear, and then, with a deft flourish, made it disappear, and a spring blossom appear in its place. She smiled innocently at the silver-and-green-uniformed Enforcer sauntering past, and offered it to him. The young man turned his nose up and ignored her.
Dania stuck her tongue out at his back.
Chief Andon chuckled. “Now, child, not everyone likes the Songsingers. They can’t help it. They’re just jealous.”
“They can’t be jealous. They have so much, and we have so little.”
“Money can be a kind of cage, too. But you’ve done well. Callo will be pleased. Go on, now.”
Dania nodded and flounced away. The Festival was held every year before winter over a period of weeks, sometime during which the Faragow would set down from its wandering among the stars. People from all around would come to buy goods from other worlds, and some came to sell their own. The arrival of the trader ship spelled life and abundance for everyone, including the Songsingers. Their traveling band provided entertainment in the form of song, dance, and tale-telling, and helped relieve the populace of the burden of some of its excess money.
Callo had taught Dania to think of it as a favor.
Dania didn’t really remember her mother. Callo said his sister’s daughter had run off to join the Normals, and he never said anything at all about her father. As long as Dania could remember, she had lived on the move in Callo’s wagon, stopping here and there as the caravan found a good place, making the best of what life handed them. Whenever people asked, Callo said he was her father, and that was good enough for her, no matter the strange looks people gave.
Songsingers wore their lives and their heritage on their bodies and worked it into their art. Every tattoo, every carving, told a tale. The marks on their skin they called songs, and were reserved for the most special stories, to be sung from the heart. Pretty Ysavale had blue flowers and lace inked all up and down her pale arms and legs, and really liked to show them to people. Dania was never quite sure what song they were supposed to sing, but it must have been a nice one.
Callo’s songs were mostly of wandering and loneliness, but Dania remembered with pride the day he had shown her the blue shapes newly etched into the reddened skin of his scrawny chest. She traced the stylized symbol gently with her finger, knowing that the songs hurt when they were first sung.
“Girl,” she had said.
“Daughter,” he corrected, and hugged her close. Unaccustomed to the touch, Dania squirmed and pulled away, then asked him when Ysavale was coming by to make them dinner. Callo had just laughed, and mussed her hair.
Dania felt the weight of the coins in her dress, and thought about going back to the wagon to wait until Callo came back. But that was boring. Better to spend a little time sightseeing, and maybe pinching another purse or two.
No. Better not push her luck today.
The Faragow perched on the dock like a big fat bird on her nest. Her golden riveted hull was pockmarked and scuffed, but still shone blindingly in the bright afternoon light. People bustled to and fro around the port buildings, and she decided to take a closer look.
She took smaller bites of her taffy, determined to make it last. Callo had told her too much would make her sick. Dania wasn’t sure whether or not to believe him, but knew that if he was right, he would know if she’d decided to test him.
Dania finished the candy, but now her hands were sticky, and worse, she needed to pee. She made a face and looked around. Far back in the alley between two tall wooden buildings stood a rain barrel almost as tall as she was. Dania made her way into the shade and dunked her hands into the scummy water. When she had rubbed all the gum off her hands, she looked both ways, then ducked down behind the barrel, hiked up her skirt, and made a puddle of her own.
When she stood up again, she gasped at the sight of two men heading down the alley. Enforcers? Her heart raced, and she instinctively clutched at her hidden bounty. Then she realized that even though they were wearing some sort of uniform, they were not local. Perhaps they were from the Faragow. Dania turned her twitch into a casual smoothing of her skirt as she crossed paths with them.
“That one will do,” one of them said in the unmelodious tones of Canoine, the trade language. Every one of the Songsingers was taught it from a young age so they could understand anyone they happened to come across, even if they did not use it in their everyday life.
One of the men gripped her arms, and she screamed. But she was lifted from her feet, and a damp cloth clamped over her mouth and nose. Though she struggled, the man’s hold was too strong, and the buildings began to warp and bend like her taffy. The clouds smeared across the sky, and the light started to hurt her eyes. Her arms and legs went slack. The man set her down, and she couldn’t feel her toes. The ground seemed to sway and roll, but she just stood there.
The smaller of the two men addressed her in a strangely muffled and echoing voice. “It’s all right, girly; no one’s going to hurt you. Just come with us, now.”
He guided her forward, and her legs obeyed, even though she couldn’t quite decide how or why. Part of Dania knew she wanted to bite, to kick the man in the shins and run, but she couldn’t quite make out how she was going to do that. She wondered where they were taking her, but it was just a passing curiosity. She didn’t really care. It was all just a dream, anyway.
Her feet took her with the men between buildings and down back alleys to a building, and a door, and a tunnel, and finally light again. Some distant part of her realized that she was still at the dock, but now at the rear, where there were no people. But the ship was there, looming over them.
The men took Dania inside and brought her to a large room full of other children. Some were Songsingers, some weren’t. Vagabonds, castaways, the homeless and orphans, she guessed, though the thought floated there without anything to attach to. Most stared listlessly at the slate-gray walls and paid her no heed. Others looked up at her entry. Dania didn’t even know when the men left or closed the door behind her.
Who would tell Callo where she had gone?
It was odd enough to be stolen; odder still to be sold. Dania was accustomed to being more or less invisible, of no particular value to anyone, except maybe to Callo. The Enforcers didn’t really count; the only value they saw in the Songsingers was the money they sometimes—all right, frequently—pilfered.
The slave market on Argoth was a strange place for a girl of eight to find her worth. According to the elegant woman who bought her, that was about five hundred Brica. She didn’t know what happened to the money she had hidden in her clothes, or how that even compared to the money here, but she suspected she wouldn’t have been able to buy her way out anyway.
She had her first song, too. Far earlier than she was supposed to get one, and certainly not a song she would have chosen. This was an ugly burn on her upper arm that marked her “slave” with some sort of filthy Canoine symbol. Everyone got one, so she didn’t feel singled out. But that didn’t stop the hate.
Or the pain.
Life as a handmaiden did not really suit Dania much. The first night, she broke into the coffers and filled her pockets with coins, and only the vigilance of the groundsman had kept her from going over Lady Vician’s wall and out into the wilds. She now had twelve burning weals on her back to remind her that slaves were supposed to stay where they were told. The second night, Dania tore one of the lady’s beautiful gowns to ribbons out of spite. That earned her another set of reminders, and a lock on the door. The other handmaidens did not approve. One little meekling informed Dania in all sincerity that she should stop trying to escape, that there were monsters in the forest that would steal her soul. Another one sneered that she was just asking for trouble, and had better shape up. Dania improved her looks with a bloody nose and a fat lip, and after that, she had her own room.
The next couple of days weren’t much of an improvement. Dania wasn’t very good at playing fetch for a middle-aged dowager, much less one that so obviously hated her. She managed to make it without a beating, but that was mostly because she used every errand as an opportunity to plot an escape. Flat-out running hadn’t worked.
Dania padded down the stairs and into the kitchen to fetch Lady Vician’s breakfast. Cook was still stirring a steaming pot, and grumbled that she wasn’t ready yet. Dania made a pastry disappear, and sneaked back to the scullery to eat her prize and wait. Pretty soon, Cook came back with a basket of cuttings. She threw open the shutters to let in the early morning light, and dumped the cuttings out the window.
Dania’s felt her eyes grow wide. Cook, who apparently thought Dania was staring at her, made a disapproving sound and reached over to brush crumbs off her cheek. “You’d best not be making a habit of that. What I hear, you’re no favorite, and that won’t improve if you keep taking things that ain’t yours.”
Dania nodded dutifully.
“Mistress’s tray will be ready in a minute,” Cook said, then bustled back into the kitchen.
Dania leapt up onto the counter. In looking over the grounds, she was pretty sure she would have noticed a pile of rotting food. Maybe she didn’t know the layout of this place as well as she had thought. With a cautious glance towards the kitchen, she popped her head out the window.
Immediately below, the remains of countless scraps decomposed against the side of a precipitous ravine. A couple of small animals scrambled out to feed on the fresher morsels. Well, that would explain why she hadn’t seen anything out of the ordinary. This side of the house didn’t have a fortified wall because it led directly to this. She leaned out further, and realized that the tiny arched window above and to her right must be her own. Excitement turned to dismay, however, when she looked straight down the wall from there. Only a narrow ledge of rock lay at the foundation before giving way to the wooded ravine. Better than the sheer drop below the scullery window, but still hazardous. Nothing but stone and branches to break her fall, and that was assuming she could make such a precise drop. To make matters worse, she would have to attempt it in the dark in order to give herself a head start.
Cook called. Dania took a deep breath, tore herself away from the window, and headed to the kitchen.
That night was too cloudy to see the lip of stone below the window. Beyond the dim fringes of the evergreens lay a sea of black. She couldn’t risk a blind jump into the abyss. The next night was even darker. She lay awake too long, straining to hear the song of Callo’s fiddle, and smell the campfire around which they sang and drank and laughed. The food here was all right, but she missed Ysavale’s hotcakes and seared venison.
Impatience made her irritable, and on the seventh evening, she muttered under her breath that no amount of primping was going to make Lady Vician any younger, and the woman dragged Dania by the hair to the reminding chair herself. Locked in her room again, Dania clenched her teeth and forced herself not to let tears fall. Callo had always said that life had a way of making you strong, and those who didn’t rise to strength would lie down to die. Lying down was too uncomfortable, so she stood on the bed and watched a spider devouring a moth, casting a grim shadow of death across the stone sill.
Heart racing, she stretched to get a better look out the window.
The twin moons shone full and unfettered in the sky.
Finally, a clear night.
Dania pursed her lips, brushed the spider away, and pressed her hands to the stone on either side of her shoulders. Getting through wouldn’t be a problem. But that drop….
She hiked herself up onto the sill and gauged the distance to the stony ground below. It couldn’t be that bad. Kind of hard to tell in the dark, and she didn’t really remember the distance that well. It was, what?—three stories at most?
She could make it.
Dania squirmed halfway through, wincing and crying out as the stone scraped against her tender back. She wondered if maybe she shouldn’t have come through feet first so she could hang onto the window ledge and drop from there. Then it should be an easy matter to steal a few purses and buy her way off this world.
She started to slide back, then froze.
Something was watching her.
Beyond the cliff was a creek, and then a wooded embankment that led to a great forest. Slanted eyes glowed with pale green flame, staring at her from between the branches. A dark, gaunt form dropped from the tree and out of her line of sight, and a wave of cold washed over her. Her stomach knotted into a block of ice, and her teeth chattered.
The throaty bellow of some great wolf broke the stillness of the night air. Deciding there must be a better way to escape, she slowly inched her way back in, her gaze locked on the blackness where the creature had just vanished.
She would get out of here.
It would just take patience.
“She won’t do anything, no matter how much you beat her. She constantly attacks the other servants for no reason whatsoever! She is a complete waste of money and effort. Get rid of this one, and get me a new one!”
Well, that solved that problem. Unfortunately, it didn’t really get her any closer to being free. Dania stared resentfully at Lady Vician as she debated with the slaver, who finally agreed to trade her for a golden-headed little mouse perfectly suited for combing hair and fetching bathwater.
Over the next couple of weeks, Dania’s surliness got her passed over by a number of Normals, each looking more disgusted with her than the last. It didn’t help that she hadn’t bathed since she was brought back to the Market. But at least the welts were going away. She would have songs to sing about this when she got back, she knew. She couldn’t wait until she was old enough to have them applied.
At the beginning of the third week, when she would have given anything just to see even Snot-nose again, two huge guards came to fetch her from the holding cell. They escorted her down a number of halls to a room in an unfamiliar part of the building.
“I’m telling you, Farel,” the slave trader said, “I think you’ll love this one. She’s perfect for you.”
The hulking stranger turned to assess the new arrival. Dania stood as tall as she could, clenching her fists defiantly as he stared her down.
“We’ll see, I guess. Let go of her and stand aside.” Once the guards had complied, the man called Farel walked over and stood in front of the door, opening it a crack. Dania eyed him calculatingly.
“If you can get past me, then you’re free,” he invited, provoking a slightly nervous look from the slaver. “That’s all you have to do, girl. Think you’re up to it?”
With a furious scream, Dania charged.
She woke in a dark room. The bed she was lying on was not as soft as the one at Lady Vician’s, but still better than she was used to in the caravan. A cool cloth brushed the tender corner of her mouth, and a large hand gently caressed her forehead. She could still taste blood, but not as badly.
“Where am I?” Dania strained to get up, but the ache in her stomach forced her back down. She groaned.
“Hush, now.” A man’s voice. Farel. “Lie still.”
So much for her freedom. Something inside her died, and despite her best efforts, she felt her face crinkle up. She rolled over on her side and curled into a ball. The harder she tried to stop it, the harder it was to hold the tears back. Finally it all burst out of her in a torrent of panicked sobs.
“I want to go home! I want Callo!” Dania sat up in spite of the pain, and grasped desperately at his tunic. “Please let me go home! Please?”
Farel didn’t seem upset at all. He patted her back and said nothing, letting her wail and shake until there was nothing left. Then he held her by the shoulders so she could see his smile. It was like Callo’s when he saw her coming back to the wagon in the evening.
“You are home,” Farel said.
“I don’t…” Dania scooted away from him and wrapped her arms around her knees. “I don’t understand….”
“You’re a fighter, little one. You’ve got a spirit the likes of which I haven’t seen in a long time. Do you know how valuable that is?”
Dania shook her head slowly. Her obstinate streak was the one thing Callo had tried to break her of. Said of all things she could have inherited from her mother, that was the worst. She wiped her nose and stared at the big man sitting on the edge of her bed.
“You’ve got looks, too,” he continued. “That could be valuable in its own right, but you’ve got something a lot of girls with looks don’t have. A will. I can teach you how to use that will to go anywhere you want.”
“Back home?” she asked, suspicious.
Farel’s smile deepened. “Wherever you want. But you have to trust me and do what I say. It won’t be easy, and it’ll take time. But with me, you can be so much more than you ever thought you would be.”
Dania touched her puffy cheek and considered him in silence for a while. There would be no running from this man. She couldn’t fight him.
But maybe, just maybe, she could beat him anyway.
She took a deep breath.
“What do I have to do first?”
Dania blinked in the afternoon sunlight. Farel had refused to show her around until she had gotten a clean bill of health from the physician. Poked, prodded, scrubbed, and now dressed in a plain muslin tunic, she took a deep breath of the clean country air. Somewhere just outside the walls a stream burbled, and a mill chattered and clacked. A golden air chariot soared overhead and buzzed out of sight.
The rectangular compound had a single gate to the outside, guarded by some huge creatures that looked like an upright cross between an ape and a horse. Dania gaped, and they snorted at her, nostrils flaring. Songs of dread creatures, half-animal, half-human, came to life before her eyes and walked the earth. Farel told her that the elegant pronged weapon they carried produced a jolt of energy powerful enough to burn, and potentially knock her out or kill her.
“We have seventy-six fighters here,” Farel said as he strolled with her towards the barracks. At the end of the courtyard opposite the horse-heads, a couple of dozen strong men wearing very little sparred with wooden swords and blunted staffs. The ones not engaged looked curiously her way. “You will be my seventy-seventh.”
She must have made a worried face, because Farel laughed and clapped her hard on the back. “When you’re ready, of course! We’ll ease you in, start you off selling refreshments at the games; get you used to what we do here. Your training won’t begin in earnest for a while yet.”
Farel motioned to a lean teenage boy with a mop of dark curls. “Oy, Desman. Where’s Kathke?”
“She’s in the Gauntlet,” he replied with a thick accent. He tossed Dania a bright grin. “New plaything?”
Farel dismissed him with a nod, and ushered her along quicker towards the opposite side of the barracks. “Come on, girl; you’ll want to see this.”
Dania hurried along, and a couple of men opened the swinging wooden doors on their iron hinges just seconds before Farel pushed her inside.
Her jaw dropped.
The whole of the stone-walled room was a creaking tumult of swinging weights and squeaking iron. Blades and weights spun like pendulums around the edges of the planked pathway, if it could be called that, and heavy spikes poked through the wall and retracted again. At one juncture, a pole rotated, rods of various lengths jutting at random heights from its center. Ropes and pulleys connected the whole apparatus, and there was a sand pit in the center.
Dodging, ducking, and swinging through the whole mess was the tallest, strongest woman Dania had ever seen. A dyed green ponytail swung down her back, tied along its entire length with strips of hide. She wore padded greaves and vambraces, as well as leather shorts and a tight cloth binding her chest nearly flat. She was a song of motion and grace, striking out here, lunging there. Dania didn’t blink once through the entire performance. The warrior made her way to the wall, where she pulled a lever, and the whole thing slowly rattled to a halt. The room was still, save for the sound of the woman panting.
Dania clapped spontaneously. The woman looked startled, and noticed her for the first time. Farel smirked, and joined Dania with a slow clap. “Yes, very well done, Kathke. Very well done indeed. Come meet your new roommate.”
Kathke grabbed a towel off a hook and mopped the sweat off herself quickly before joining them. Slanted eyes assessed Dania without much expression. Then she nodded. “What’s your name, girl?”
Dania had to think a moment before she found her speech again, hopefully before the woman thought she was dim. “Dania,” she whispered.
Kathke’s broad face twisted into a wry look of disapproval. “Getting them awfully young these days, aren’t you, Farel?”
He chuckled. “Don’t let her fool you. It won’t be long before she’s our prize fighter, mark my words.”
Dania mustered her voice. “Can… can you….”
Kathke raised one eyebrow. “Can I what, girl?”
Dania pointed. “Can you teach me to do that?”
The woman laughed through her nose. “I see what you mean,” she said to Farel. Then she inspected the bruise on Dania’s cheek. “Someday, maybe. But why don’t we start you off with something a little more suitable?”
“That’s good, Dania. Keep your guard up. Fists up, arms close. That’s right. Now fast: scoot to his left. You see? “
“He’s too big!” Dania complained. Her bare feet kicked up tiny plumes of sand as she dodged the advances of the older boy. They circled each other in the pit in the center of the inert Gauntlet, while Kathke monitored from only a few feet away.
“Get used to that,” the warrior woman said without sympathy. “We don’t have anyone else your age, and even if we did, you’re a girl. Men will always be larger than you. And stronger. So you have to compensate with speed and precision. You will dance around him until he tires, and strike when he least expects it. Now!”
Grinning, Desman tossed his curls. Dania faltered. He made a grab for her, and she barely slipped out of the way.
Kathke circled around them, watching closely. “Men will either try to intimidate you with their size and strength, or charm you. Do not fall for either. Each is a ruse. Their reach is long; their grip is strong. Do not let them get close. Stand strong, move fast. Your strength is in your legs. They will keep you alive. They propel you forward, upward, backward. Good!”
Dania ducked and rolled behind Desman, coming up in the default combat stance—the first thing Kathke had taught her. The second was how to take a fall.
“Right now, you are young, but if I don’t miss my guess, when you get older, your center of gravity will be here.” Kathke gestured to her hips. “You will learn to read your opponent, to see where their core is. Desman’s is right here.” She gestured to her stomach. “Use that to your advantage.”
Dania darted up and slugged him as hard as she could in the gut.
Kathke did her best not to smile as Desman collapsed wheezing in the sand. “That wasn’t exactly what I meant, but I guess I can’t argue with success.”
Desman rolled around moaning, and Dania approached cautiously. “Did I really hurt you?”
Like lightning, the boy’s leg shot out and swept her leg out from under her. He rolled over and grasped her wrists, pinning her under his great bulk. Half-laughing, but still out of breath, he grinned at her.
“Gotcha,” he panted.
Dania strained and struggled, but couldn’t get out of his grip. He just laughed. Anger turned into terror, and she squealed. Alarmed, he let go of her.
“I were only fooling,” he called after her as she scrambled away.
Dania retreated to Kathke’s side. The older woman regarded her thoughtfully for a moment.
“You all right?” Desman asked as he approached with a concerned expression. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”
“Don’t you dare apologize!” Kathke snapped.
Dania jumped, and Desman froze in his tracks.
“Do you think this is your little sister, boy? Do you think the day won’t come when she could put a blade between your ribs, or you hers? Don’t you tell her you’re sorry. This girl is going to have to work twice as hard as you and be twice as tough as you just to have a fighting chance. So don’t you dare start thinking you have to be soft on her.”
Desman nodded slowly, then turned, brushed the sand off his body, and stalked out of the Gauntlet.
Kathke faced Dania then, and looked her square in the eye. “Well, did we learn a little lesson here today?”
Dania swallowed past the lump in her throat. Desman had laughed like Snot-nose, but when she couldn’t move in his grip, all she could think about was the men who took her from her home. She couldn’t reply.
Kathke squatted and put her hand on Dania’s shoulder. “You’re doing fine, girl. I’m not mad at you. But no matter how scared you are, you can’t let down your guard for an instant. Here in training, it gets you teased. In the ring, it can get you killed.”
A roar went up from the crowd of spectators, and Dania flinched. The ring, or the pit, as some called it, was annexed to the compound at the opposite end of the outer gates. One couldn’t see it from the inside, but one could always hear when a game was going on.
Not that she could have missed it today. Dania wound her way between the cheering adults, mentally going through the drills Kathke had been teaching her. The warrior woman was fighting today, and seemed pretty evenly matched.
Dania didn’t really understand how all of this worked. Today was just an arranged fight between two of the popular gladiators, Kathke and Stathin. People liked to bet on the likely winner, and Farel had Dania collecting bets today. No slipping money into secret pockets this time, though; the spectators signed off on the amount they were giving, and Dania couldn’t read or write to alter the records.
Kathke’s strategy was exactly what she taught: to wear out her opponents, to dance around them until they were tired, and then strike quickly to disable them. She and Stathin were using blunted weapons, like the ones they trained with, but someone still had to be declared the winner, and men didn’t like to surrender, especially to a woman. Kathke had told Dania to expect a little blood and a lot of bruises.
Entranced, Dania stood on the steps between the bench seats, and mimicked the darting thrusts and light footwork, imagining herself in the pit.
“Hey, girl! You gonna take my bet, or what?”
If her ticket book had been a sword, the straggly-bearded man glaring at her would have been dead. She sighed and gave him his receipt, then took everything down to the bookmaker to tally for the next match. Glancing up, she saw Farel motion to her from the owner’s box to bring the wine jug. She fetched it from the refreshments booth, then bypassed half a dozen people trying to catch her attention, and slipped over to where Farel was deep in conversation with two men.
One of them, barely out of his teens, looked bored and leaned his blond head on his fist. The other, a middle-aged man with a mustache, couldn’t take his eyes off the game. Farel nodded to Dania to fill his cup. The man accepted it without acknowledging her. He leaned forward, breathing heavily. “Is the woman for sale?”
Farel reached for the pitcher and filled his own cup almost to the brim. “Not at the moment, Lord Seides. We’re cultivating Kathke for the arena. You don’t want her to get soft waiting for the renovations, do you? Speaking of which, Daman, how are those going?”
The blond man smiled lazily. “Oh, they progress. The games should be able to start again within a couple of years. That should make Rominan here happy.”
Farel nodded, handed the nearly empty pitcher back to Dania, and dismissed her. Making sure no one was signaling for refreshments, she made her way to the wings, where she could watch the rest of the match without being bothered.
“How do you like it so far?”
Dania jumped at the voice by her ear. Desman grinned at her, looming too close and smelling like boy. She pushed him away, and returned her attention to the game.
Dania shrugged. “What’s there to like? I want to go home.”
Desman leaned against the wall opposite her, and applauded and whistled as Stathin swept a net at Kathke, nearly ensnaring her, and came close to a solid strike to her abdomen. She pivoted, however, green ponytail swinging like a serpent down her back, and brought her own wooden sword down on his arm as he overextended. He didn’t drop his weapon, but it was a near thing. The crowd howled as he recovered his balance, and the scorekeeper awarded another five points to Kathke. The match would continue until one or the other got to fifty points, or until a “fatal” move was executed.
“Really? Farel said you could buy back your freedom? So, you’re, what? Eight? Ten? You’ve still got a while to go before you’re even of age.”
She glared at him. “Don’t you think I know that? I’m going to break out. This place isn’t that well-guarded. Those horseheads look dumb.”
Desman snorted. “They’re not as dumb as you think. And it doesn’t have to be that well-guarded. You’ve got that mark that says you’re a slave, so you can’t run to the city, and the wilderness—well, that’s not a place you want to go. You’ve got the loder-cats, the bear-wolves, those flying devils, and on top of that, you never know when the soul-drinkers are going to show up.”
“Soul-drinkers?” Dania shivered, though she couldn’t imagine why.
“Demons that haunt the southern wilds. They come from the Gray Lands, they say, but you never know when or where they’ll show up.”
Dania remembered the glowing green eyes of the black ghoul outside her window at Lady Vician’s mansion. She hadn’t really thought it would be that easy, but didn’t want Desman to think that she was afraid.
“A couple of years back, before I got here, some offworlder guy tried to start a revolt.”
“Really?” Dania perked up. “What happened?”
He winced. “They put him on a stake in the middle of the city. Took him hours to die.”
Dania’s stomach clenched, and she hugged herself against the wall.
“You know, a lot of fighters don’t even live past their first real match,” Desman put in conversationally.
“Shut up,” Dania said with a scowl. “I’m trying to watch.”
Kathke took Stathin down with a sweep of the leg, followed by a truncated thrust of her wooden sword. She held the tip firmly against the base of his throat, a killing move by the scorekeeper’s count, and the match was over.
As the crowd cheered and Desman made his exit, Dania wondered what Callo would think of all this. Then she wondered if he even missed her. He would have been sad, she was sure, but would he even have searched that long for her? Or would she just join the number of faceless travelers that just came and went in the transitory lives of the caravan?
Would there be any songs sung about her?
“What’re you doing?”
Kathke flinched and bashed her head on the underside of the stone bench that served as her bed. She swore and extricated herself, then reclined on the straw mattress to rub her scalp. “Still not used to having someone else walking in on me half the time.”
“It’s okay.” Kathke gave her a half smile, and closed her eyes.
“Do you have something hidden back there?”
Kathke’s eyes opened to slits. “Not much escapes you, does it? Check and see if you’re so curious.”
Dania frowned, and got down on her knees to peer into the darkness under Kathke’s bed. Apart from a chamber pot, there was nothing under there. Nothing obvious, anyway. She thought about opening the pot, but that didn’t make any sense. She knew for a fact that was not a good hiding place.
Dania scooted the pot aside, then crawled forward on her belly. A candle would have been nice, but she could still see dimly. She ran her fingers across the cold, unyielding surface of the fitted stone floor.
The sensitive tips, trained to feel lumps in a pocket and lift purses without the slightest jostle, were hardening in their new life. But she wasn’t so calloused that she couldn’t discern the cracks, or broken mortar, or…
Or a loose stone.
“What do you use, a knife, or—oh, thanks.” Dania retrieved the slender metal fragment silently handed down to her. It was a bit of armor reinforcement, mostly straight, with a tiny bit bent at the end. Dania tried the straight edge first, but couldn’t get it to catch. So she tried the other side. That bent spot made it difficult to slide between the stones, but at one spot towards the wall, it just slipped into a gap ever-so-slightly wider than the rest.
Dania smiled, tipped the metal fragment back to wedge it, and pulled up. The stone lifted just a fraction of an inch, but she was able to grab it and pull it out the rest of the way.
Under the stone was a dark hole dug into the earth. She reached in, and pulled out several coins. Holding them up to see them better, Dania realized that her roommate had a fair hoard secreted away here. She gave a low whistle, replaced the coins, then put the stone and chamber pot back into their respective places.
Dania pulled herself out and handed the metal back to Kathke, who eyed her warily.
“That’s a lot of money,” Dania said, seating herself on her own bed and hugging her legs.
“It’s mine. I earned every bit of it.”
“I won’t steal it,” Dania promised. She wondered if most people would say that, or if she was just used to people assuming she would steal.
“I know you won’t.” Kathke smiled. “I’d know if any was missing, and I’d know who took it.”
Dania gave her a big grin, then turned serious again.
“What are you going to do with all that money?”
Kathke sighed. “I’m saving for when I’m a freedwoman. I can buy myself out pretty much any time I want, but I want to have something to live on. Maybe set up a small shop, or something. I can’t just buy myself out and then have nothing. And even though Farel gets most of the winnings, our percentage adds up over time.”
“You could buy your freedom now?” Dania felt a lump in her throat as she realized that her ticket home might just reside under a piss-pot.
“I know what you’re thinking, honey, but it’s not going to do you much good. Maybe after a few matches in the big arena, but for now, in the pit—” Kathke shook her head. “Even if I had enough to get both of us free, which I don’t, I couldn’t get you off this world, and back to your home. And from what you’ve said, I don’t even know if you would know how to find your people once you got there.”
Dania turned towards the wall, and didn’t speak again for the rest of the night.
“Hold still now; you’ve still got a lot in your hair.”
Dania stared at the blood running down her body, across the stone floor, and into the drain. Kathke scrubbed at her head with salt and oil, then dug at the insides of her ears and mopped off her face with a sponge. The bathstream running over her was warm, and under other circumstances Dania found it relaxing, but today all she could see was that last moment in the pit.
“You shouldn’t stand so close to the fight when you’re serving drinks. Sometimes they spray like that, and you’ve got to be prepared.”
Dania’s body spasmed, and she puked before she realized what was going to happen.
“Ugh!” One of the other women, who had been watching Dania with a smirk, danced aside, but not quickly enough.
“See?” Kathke said, wiping the corner of Dania’s mouth. “You never know when you’re going to get splattered.”
Months had passed since Kathke’s last fight, and Dania had been excited to see her trainer in action again. But whoever she was fighting was a stranger, someone she had never seen at the compound, and they were both using real swords. The man had been short and frightened-looking, with a shiny scalp and curly hair on his shoulders and back. He fought like a crazed animal, waving his blade wildly and shouting words in some language she didn’t recognize. Kathke had allowed him to rush at her a few times and chase her around the pit, but then she did a twisting motion with her short sword, knocking his weapon out of his hand, and with one sweeping motion, opened up the side of his neck.
The resulting jet had caught Dania full in the face.
“Would you say something, honey? I don’t think you’ve blinked once.”
Dania had some vague recollection of Farel picking her up and taking her back to her room. She didn’t remember anything else until Kathke came to fetch her.
Words struggled to form on her lips, but she wasn’t even sure what she wanted to say. What came out at last was, “W-why?”
One of the other women gave her a pitying glance, then toweled off her short dark hair and made her exit. The one Dania had vomited on finished cleaning off her feet and followed her out, leaving Dania and Kathke the last ones there. There were only nine women in the entire compound, and they generally tried to bathe together if they could. The men took different shifts washing up.
Kathke squatted so she could look up into Dania’s eyes. “It’s what we do.”
“No, I mean—that man, you—”
The older woman nodded slowly. “He was a bad man.”
“He was? What did he do?”
Kathke shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Then how do you know he was a bad man?”
For a few moments, the fighter seemed to collect her thoughts. She pulled the lever that shut off the bathstream, and toweled Dania off.
“He had to have been bad. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have sent him in to die.”
“But you said that sometimes we even kill each other. That Desman could kill me.”
Kathke sighed, wrapped Dania in the towel, and started to comb her hair out. “Dania, we’re fighters. People like to watch us fight. They pay to watch us fight. So sometimes yes, it happens. We are trained to be warriors for people’s entertainment.” She worked at a stubborn knot, and Dania winced. “Sometimes they pit us up against animals. But most of the time, the people are prisoners or slaves who have been sentenced to death. It’s not pretty, but they wouldn’t have been sent to die if they hadn’t done something they shouldn’t. You may have to remind yourself of that a few times before it gets to be natural for you, but you’re actually doing them a service. If they’re just executed, they’re humiliated and hopeless. At least this way they have a sporting chance.”
“But they’re not fighters.”
“Some are. Some aren’t. That’s just the way it is.”
Kathke smiled and gave Dania a once-over, making sure she hadn’t missed any spots, then nodded in satisfaction. “You know what? I think we need an outing. Might help get your mind off things.”
“You’ll like it. Trust me.”
As she was speaking, a big man named Calistos swaggered into the stalls with a towel wrapped around his waist. He was almost as big as Farel, but younger. His broad jaw worked with amusement as he appraised the two of them with a strange smile. Dania didn’t really pay much attention to men the way older girls like Ysavale did, but she could see Calistos was handsome.
He smiled at her, but then looked up and down at Kathke.
“We were just finishing up,” she said coldly.
“So I see. Looks like you could use this.” He whipped off his towel and tossed it to her with a grin.
Dania’s mouth fell open.
“Do you mind?” Kathke fumed, gesturing towards Dania. “Child!” She wrapped the towel around herself before ushering Dania out.
Dania heard Calistos laughing the whole way, though he stopped as they turned the corner, and gave an angry shout.
“Hey! Did someone throw up in here?”
“I’m taking Dania with me into the city.”
Farel nodded, and handed Kathke a couple of passes. He must have noticed Dania’s eyes grow wide, because he chuckled. “Don’t get any ideas. They’re dated.”
Dania fumed, but had to admit that she was curious about her outing.
Kathke had dressed in loose trousers, walking sandals, and a blouse. Apart from the green hair, now untethered and blowing in the wind, she looked like a Normal. Dania wore her usual muslin shift, her standard outfit when not training.
The tall woman walked straight past the huge horseheads without so much as a sideways glance. This was the closest Dania had ever dared get to them. They stared impassively down at her with shiny, feral eyes. Only their armor and the weapons they bore kept them from looking like wild beasts, but their upright posture would have been disconcerting at any level. She had asked Desman where they came from, but he said that as far as he knew, they had always lived on this world.
The gates opened, and a dozen soft Normal girls dressed like Ysavale laughed and chattered their way into the compound walking the other way. A couple of strong but strangely beautiful men followed them, hair neatly brushed and smelling of spices.
“Never you mind,” Kathke said, putting her hand between Dania’s shoulder blades and guiding her towards a medium-sized gilded shuttle shaped like a sandal with fish fins. The only one left in the vehicle was the driver; apparently none of the other fighters wanted to come into town today. Dania clambered in and seated herself by a window. Kathke sat in the row across from her and stretched out across the bench seat. The driver made sure they were his only passengers before closing the door. The engines hummed to life, and Dania felt a little prickle that set the tiny hairs on her arms standing up. The shuttle rose a couple of feet off the ground and shot forward.
Dania grinned. The Normals got to ride in vehicles like this back home, but she had never been inside one. Callo had said that only the richest Normals had them anyway, which always made her feel a little better. She gaped at the countryside; she had never seen what this world looked like outside the compound. For all the dangers Desman told her were lurking in the dark spaces between the trees and the crannies in the rocks, the forests were lush and green, and the mountains stark and majestic. Yet for all that, it could have looked like a desert plain for all she cared.
Beauty looked like freedom.
Dania tried to ask Kathke where they were going, but was rebuffed by silence. Old people always thought sleep was more important than talk.
The compound wasn’t far outside the city. Dania guessed that made sense, based on the fact that all the Normals came to see the fights. From what she gathered, there was a bigger arena there where people preferred to go, but it was undergoing some sort of repairs, and wouldn’t be usable for a while. It wasn’t long before the walls of Caileen loomed from the mountains ahead. To the side, a waterfall poured beneath a bridge leading to what looked like a port for the ships that sailed between worlds.
The shuttle carried them through the main gates and into the city proper. This was more what Dania was used to. She automatically assessed the different kinds of clothing and demeanor, sorting people into Ripes, Possibles, and Don’t Bothers. But she didn’t have her little dagger, and she wouldn’t be lifting purses today. Today, or anytime to come, she suspected.
The driver took them through the center of the city, bustling with markets, and past the huge columned building where she had been sold. Dania felt herself tense with fear and anger.
“You hungry?” Kathke asked.
Dania turned away. “I guess so.”
“All right,” the older woman said, and called up to the driver. “You can stop here. We’ll walk the rest of the way.”
Dania’s mouth started watering the moment they stepped out of the shuttle. Roasted hens, vegetables, and some sort of confectioneries all vied for her attention. Kathke chuckled softly and bought an assortment to share. Dania followed her over to the stone bench of a fountain, and they put the tray between them.
“What’s this?” Dania picked a strange chunk of rubbery flesh off the golden-skinned fowl and held it up suspiciously.
“It’s a mushroom. Try it; you’ll like it.”
Dania sniffed at it, then tentatively bit at it. She gagged immediately at the slick texture, and spat it out onto the ground.
“Then again, maybe not.” Kathke shrugged. “Some things are an acquired taste.”
“What are they, anyway?”
Kathke told her, and Dania vowed never to eat one again. She was content to let the older woman have them, and focus on the bird. Its moist, savory richness made her think of campfires back home, and music and dancing. And the pastries…such sweetness. Fruit-centered pockets of flaky paradise melted in her mouth. She had once asked Callo about some fat Normals, and he told her that was what came of eating too much. The notion of eating too much was a bit strange to her; Dania wasn’t sure she had ever known what it was to eat enough in the first place.
Dania regarded the last bite of her pastry with some sorrow. She might not mind getting fat if it meant eating like this every day.
“Come on, let’s go.” Kathke handed the tray back to the man selling roasted hens, and dunked her hands in the water of the fountain. Dania mirrored her, then scurried to catch up to the warrior’s long stride.
They passed through a number of cobbled streets into alleys that seemed to loom and judge. Dania had a fleeting thought of just taking off and losing herself in the crowds of Caileen, but where would she go? Who would be willing to harbor an escaped slave? And how would she ever gain passage back home?
She stuck with Kathke as they wound their way into another alley, wider, but still somehow secretive. Not part of the main market, the shops here did not bustle with activity. The people seemed much quieter, more sure of their business.
Dania took note of a dark wooden sign posted on a wrought iron holder over a low door. She couldn’t read it, of course, but the script looked more elegant than the standard letters she had seen elsewhere.
Kathke tugged a bell-pull, and waited until a teenage girl opened the door. Dania gasped at how beautiful she was, with her gauzy silver-white dress that left her arms bare, and the slender circlet holding back her straight golden tresses. But most amazingly, this girl had a song right in the middle of her forehead. No ugly slave-mark, this, but a stylized floral bloom.
“Good afternoon, my lady.” The girl talked as gracefully as she moved, her voice soft and soothing. “I see you have brought a companion.”
“Mya, this is Dania. I thought she would enjoy meeting Mother Chayel.”
She smiled then, her teeth white and perfect. “Of course. Won’t you come in?”
Old wooden shelves full of bottles of powder and liquid lined the tiny shop. Dania breathed in the sultry fumes of a dozen different incenses, and admired the dried plants woven into intricate decorations above the doors at the front and rear. Strange symbols were carved into the door frame and painted over the counter. Mya glided through and opened the door into a huge private garden. Dania’s jaw dropped at the purple flowers on the vines scaling the stone walls and the red and yellow ones setting the dark green bushes aflame. A pathway of tiny smooth white river pebbles wove its way through the courtyard towards a wooden gazebo overgrown with foliage. A small natural fountain trickled a stream of water that disappeared somewhere under the wall. An old woman with a long gray dress plucked dead blooms from a shrub. She straightened when she saw the new arrivals.
“Welcome, sisters.” Her pure white hair spilled over her shoulders and nearly swept the ground as she bowed to Kathke.
“Mother Chayel, may I present Dania? She has come with me to experience your craft.”
The woman reached a long-fingered hand out to stroke Dania’s cheek, and regarded her with dark eyes. “May you find joy and peace here.”
Dania felt that she should say something, but did not know what to say, so merely nodded.
The two women went to work immediately. A beveled bowl decorated a plinth set between two benches lying adjacent to each other in the garden. Mother Chayel had Mya fetch a large bottle of oil, which she unstoppered and poured into the concavity. The girl then returned to the shop and brought out two mats, which she unrolled and placed on the benches. Kathke stripped down to her undergarments, and indicated that Dania should do the same. They lay facedown on the mats and waited as Mother Chayel set out a bowl of dried leaves under each bench, which she lit with a taper. Rather than catching fire, they began to smolder. She waved her hands over each bowl, scooping the sweet, thick smoke and then releasing it with a flourish. Dania began to feel pleasantly drowsy, and the woman began to speak.
“With the smoke, allow your pain to rise, to disperse.” Mother Chayel dipped her hands in the oil and gently rubbed them together, while Mya walked out of Dania’s sight and began softly blowing into some sort of panpipe. “Close your eyes. Listen to the healing song of the water, and allow it to flow over you. You are at peace, one with the world, and hearing its voice.”
Dania wasn’t quite sure what she meant, but she didn’t care, because at that moment Mother Chayel’s hands touched her shoulders, soft as a whisper, and glided down her back. Dania flinched and gasped at the unexpected caress. Since coming to this world, contact with another generally meant pain. As the old woman traced her spine and began gently kneading her arms all the way down to her fingers, Dania’s throat began to tighten. The quiet breath of the pipes became the frenzied melody of drums and strings, and the smoke from the campfire in front of which Ysavale danced. Every stroke of the deft fingers was an embrace, and Dania resented when Mother Chayel left her side to attend to Kathke. The old woman whispered to her to wait and reflect, and soon Dania welcomed those pauses as much as the touch. Between each session, Dania let her thoughts go, and while at first her mind was a jumble of images, from the fierce blood of the pit to the sweet comfort of home, at length she allowed them all to go free, and simply existed, suspended between earth and sky in this cocoon of bliss.
When the massage was over, and every inch of Dania tingled, Mother Chayel left her and Kathke to rest and get up in their own good time. Eventually they rose, moving languidly so as not to wake themselves from this dream. Covered goblets of a delicious honeyed liquid had been left out for them. Dania hardly noticed when the panpipes had stopped, and hoped that Mya had not gone anywhere. Looking around, she saw the slender girl wrapping some leaves in a bundle and tying them with twine. These she hung on the gazebo. Dania approached her shyly, not sure whether it was even appropriate to speak after the session, but one thing had stayed with her the entire time, and she could not rest until she knew the answer.
Sky blue eyes glanced up kindly at her approach. “Is all well?”
“That song. Where did you get it?”
The flower on Mya’s brow crinkled a bit as her face registered her confusion. “The one I played earlier? It’s my own composition.”
“No, that”—Dania pointed—“your flower.”
“Oh,” Mya said, laughing. “My tattoo.”
Dania nodded. “We call them songs. They tell our stories. Who did it for you?”
Elation rose in Dania, and she grinned. “Would she do one for me?”
Mya stroked her cheek. “I’m sure she would, though she will want to wait until you are older.”
“I don’t want one now. I haven’t decided what song I want to sing yet.”
“Very well.” Mya slid her hand down to Dania’s back, and guided her into the shop, where Kathke was placing some coins within a ceramic jar. “Come back to us when you have an idea.”
Dania nodded emphatically. Kathke thanked the two women.
“I hope we shall see you again soon,” Mother Chayel said with a bow and a smile.
As Callo would say to his gambling friends, that was a winning toss.
The spider is patient, waiting in stillness until just the right moment, then it overwhelms the insect caught in its web.
Dania drew back her arm, wooden dagger poised above her head. She pointed her left toe forward, her thigh parallel to the ground. Her right foot she placed in a pivot stance behind her. Another dagger waited ready in the arm held out to her side.
The wolf-bear is a hunter, always hungry, seeking its prey far and wide. It does not need to be clean in its kill. It mauls, it tears, it exalts in its strength.
“Huah!” Dania took three strong steps forward, swung around and reversed the position of her daggers, and froze in a mirror image of her starting stance. Mother Chayel’s words mixed with Kathke’s advice as she performed her routine.
The snake prefers to be left alone. But it will strike, and strike swiftly, when provoked.
Dania took three steps back in the direction in which she had come, then did a whirling kick high above her head, sand trailing in a rasping arc. She leapt, coming down on the leg she had just kicked with, and spun into a roundhouse kick with the other leg, and followed with three more repetitions. When she stopped, she rooted her feet to the ground in a solid akimbo-legged challenge.
“Haugh! Huht! Haugh!” Twisting from the waist, she thrust her daggers ahead of her one after another, twisting as she reached the end of her extension. Then she leapt into a roll and came up again, swinging her blunted blades like a serpent before returning to her default pose.
Before she could move onto the second form, a sharp clapping broke her concentration. Anger flashed for a moment, and then settled into mere annoyance when she caught sight of her audience. Desman grinned at her from the wooden bridge of the Gauntlet. Dania flung her ponytail over her sweaty shoulder, and tossed her daggers into the sand. “Do you always spy on people when they’re training?”
“Just you. I know how much you hate being watched.”
Exasperation mingled with inexplicable pleasure as she padded slowly through the sand towards him. He had grown strong in the last three years. His scrawny physique had turned to lean muscle, and there was something different about the boisterous gleam in his eyes. “Then why do you do it?”
“Well, I could say because it’s fun to annoy you, and that wouldn’t be far from true. Your mouth does this amazing”—he twisted his own face up in a caricature of fury—“when you’re mad.”
Dania stopped a few feet from him and regarded him with a raised eyebrow, hands planted firmly on her hips. “So you make me angry on purpose. That does not seem wise.”
Desman conceded with a slight tilt of the head and a half-smirk. “Truth is, I watch because you’re getting really good. I mean, Kathke says you’re going to be better than her soon.”
That took her aback. “She does not.” Then she frowned. “Really?
Desman grabbed one of the ropes and vaulted out over the sandpit in a lazy arc, then let go and braced his legs for a landing next to Dania. “Not to you. She’s trying to keep you alive, not give you a big head. Bigger than you have, anyway.”
“I do not have a big head,” Dania said, suddenly self-conscious. “Do I?”
“Figure of speech, Lightfingers.”
Her past as a cutpurse was something of a constant source of amusement for him, though she could never figure out why. She regretted ever having told him, but he was good at getting her to talk when he wanted to. Things just spilled out before she was aware of having said them. Dania didn’t really like having her past out there; he never even promised not to tell anyone else, but somehow her secrets seemed safe with him anyway.
“You should be flattered,” he said, leaning close, his breath warm on her cheek, and smelling of mint leaves. “Youngest one here, and I’m getting tips from you.”
“From me?” She pushed him in the chest, anger springing up anew. “Don’t mock me.”
“I’m not!” Desman executed the elaborate may-I-be-disemboweled-if-I-tell-not-the-truth gesture common among the older fighters. “If it makes you feel better, you aren’t the only one I’m watching these days. Farel says I’m going into the pit next week.”
Dania’s stomach froze. “Next week?”
He shrugged as casually as he could muster. “It’s time. I’m old enough, and Farel says training can’t last forever. It won’t be too long before it’s your turn. A year, maybe two at the most.”
She cast her eyes aside, not wanting to face him. Months of training, interspersed with trips into the city to see Mother Chayel and Mya, and there was still nothing that could have prepared her for this. In her heart, no matter what Farel said, she had expected to be long gone by now. But she had put off her escape attempts to the point that she wondered why she even thought about it anymore. At first, she had been afraid of the horse-headed Talormine guards and their wicked energy weapons. Then she had been afraid of the constabulary, and what kind of punishment she would have to endure if she were caught and returned. Then it was the vastness of the world itself. As a trainee, she earned no money, and it would be a long time before she could buy her way to freedom. An escape, followed by a fugitive period, followed by a successful robbery, followed by passage back home… it all seemed so unlikely as to be a dream.
How long since she had last thought of Callo? Did he even think of her? Did he ever wonder if he would see her again? Or had he grieved her loss and moved on?
Had this new world, with all its terrors and brutality, become her true home?
The thought filled her with dread, and it must have showed on her face, because Desman took her by the shoulder and spoke softly. “Hey, it’ll be okay. I’ll be fine.”
Dania twisted out from under him and stalked towards the door. “Of course you will. Just do what I do.”
Dania tossed her towel into the basket collected twice weekly by the wash-women, and pulled her shift over her head. She yanked her wet hair into a tail and impaled it with the pin of her leather hair clip. Sitting on the stone bench, she jammed her feet into her boots and jerked the laces so tight they hurt. She hated this queasy churning in her stomach. It felt too much like fear.
Standing, she cinched her belt and straightened her dress. Perhaps it was time for another visit to Mother Chayel. She needed to do something to ease the turmoil in her mind. Nothing soothed frazzled nerves like the older woman’s dulcet tones as she explained the connections between the world and the soul, awakening the divine warrior within the girl.
Though it was time for dinner, the thought of oatmeal and dried fruit made her sick, and the thought of company just didn’t appeal. Maybe she should just go and lie down on her bunk for a while.
She headed down the corridor, but Calistos loomed in the light of the exit, arrogant as ever. Kathke had told her after he barged in on them in the bathstream that she should keep her distance from him, and so far Dania had been pretty successful at it.
“Hello, Dania,” he said coyly, letting his gaze flicker over her. “Found a new boyfriend, have you?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She tried to push past him, but he blocked her with an arm thicker around than her own leg.
“You and the kid seem to be getting pretty close,” Calistos whispered. “Not that I can blame him. You’re becoming quite the woman, aren’t you?”
Something in Dania froze. Calistos had always paid attention to the older women, but never to her. Indecision tore at her; part of her wanted to kick him in the stomach and run, but she knew that he could kill her if he ever laid his hands on her.
“Leave me be,” she said, and then wished she had remained silent. It was supposed to come out strong and decisive, but instead her voice betrayed her, quavering and shaking as much as her insides.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” he cajoled, firmly grasping her jaw between his thumb and forefinger. “Maybe you don’t know what it’s like to be a woman. I can show you.”
Dania’s heart hammered in her chest. All of her training escaped, leaving her mute and vulnerable as a deer before the hunter’s arrow. Calistos leaned in so close she could see the tiny veins in his eyes. He opened his mouth—
And his head jerked to the side with a soft thump. He cried out, more startled than hurt, and turned upon his attacker.
Kathke stood just outside. She knelt to retrieve the leather greave she had just thrown at Calistos’ face.
“She’s just a girl, you ape,” she said, keeping one hand firmly planted on her hip. “The Mystery isn’t even on her, and already you think you’re going to prove your manhood?”
Calistos clenched his jaw, working it silently for a moment before forcing a smile. He leaned against the wall in Kathke’s direction. “I was just having a little fun, foolin’ around. Dania knew that.”
“Is that so?” Kathke said dryly. She addressed Dania without looking at her. “Dania, were you having fun?”
Dania shook her head.
“Didn’t think so,” Kathke said, despite the fact that there was no way she could have heard the response. “Didn’t look like fun to me.”
Calistos swelled his chest and straightened up so he stood taller than Kathke. “You ought to know what you’re missing out on.”
Kathke didn’t blink. “We all make mistakes. Some of us grow up sooner than others. And some of us don’t grow up at all.”
Calistos sneered, and she turned to match his movements as he pushed past her. Dania eyed the hand Kathke had kept on her flank, only inches from the hilt of a dirk in the back of her belt.
Kathke watched Calistos until he had disappeared into the barracks, then turned to Dania. “You all right?”
Dania nodded, unable to speak.
“Don’t ever let him get close to you.” Kathke took out the knife and tapped Dania on the chest with the point. “And if he does, you remember what I’ve taught you. Never let him see weakness, and never give him the upper hand.”
Dania swallowed around the knot in her throat. “I won’t.”
“See that you don’t.” Kathke frowned, and grabbed a clean towel off the stack laid in the alcove near the door. She shook it at Dania, punctuating her words with a floppy corner. “I haven’t invested these years in training you just to see you defiled by the likes of him. You’re better than that.”
Kathke started to head down the corridor to the bathstreams, but Dania called out after her. “What is the Mystery?”
The older woman stopped in her tracks. “No one’s explained that to you? Not even Mother Chayel?”
Dania shook her head as Kathke walked back towards her.
“It’s the blood-that-gives-life. It comes with the first of the new moons. You are old enough now, but it tends to come later with fighters. You’ll know what it is when it comes, and it will mean that you are a woman.”
“And ready to fight?”
Kathke shook her head. “Ready to have children.”
That was a new thought for Dania. What would she want with children? She was barely more than a child herself.
Laughing, Kathke rumpled her hair. “Never mind. I’ll tell you what to do when the time comes. In the meantime, be more careful about when you are alone. I’d hoped that because you came in as a girl, that’s how you’d always be seen, but obviously that was just a ridiculous dream.”
Dania wasn’t sure how to reply to that, so she said nothing. Back in their room, she ran through all of the lessons Kathke had given her, showing her vulnerable spots in men and women, the comparative anatomy in animals, turning her body into a weapon, and knowing where to strike in order to kill. As she lay on her cot, she fantasized about how that could have gone differently if she had simply punched her thumbs into Calistos’ leering eyes, or reached down and grasped him in such a way that he would beg for her mercy in a heartbeat. She had discovered that last one by accident in a sparring session with Desman. Or what if she had her training daggers? They weren’t generally lethal, but you could still do someone a serious injury if you knew what you were doing. She ran through the scenario again and again, each time getting more and more upset, and her imagined response getting more and more decisive. Before long, she had leapt from her bed and began pacing the floor. She hated her fear, and determined never to let herself succumb to it.
One thing she knew.
She would never hesitate again.
Stomp stomp, clap clap.
Stomp stomp, clap clap.
The wooden bleachers reverberated with the audience’s fevered energy. This was not the lusty high spirits of one of the dances back home, but the insatiable hunger of a mob for blood. Dania sat next to Kathke in the box reserved for gladiators. While she had yet to be given armor, Farel had made it clear that her days taking bets and serving refreshments were over. Calistos sneered at them, but Kathke ignored him. Dania struggled to do likewise.
The night of the fight had come. Dania hadn’t seen Desman all day. The program said that he was to be fighting an escaped slave, but that was all she knew. Stathin spewed his drink at a joke, and Dania absently wiped off her arm.
Stomp stomp, clap clap.
Stomp stomp, clap clap.
She had seen enough of these fights to know what to expect by now. The drums would start, the fighters would enter the pits, and the signal would be given, and a good show would be put on for the spectators. No matter what else, it would end in blood and death. How many had Dania seen fall in the last few years? She had lost count.
Dania conjured Desman’s smiling face. Would that grin ever be the same once he had blood on his hands? Would she be able to look at him as a peer, or would he be just another killer, like the men and women who shared the booth with her now? She liked his easy laugh, and didn’t want to hear it become ribald and jaded like those of the older men.
Stomp stomp, clap clap.
Stomp stomp, clap clap.
The crowd roared its approval as the massive drums began to beat out their familiar relentless monotone anthem. Their cheers reached a crescendo when the gates opened at opposite ends of the pit. Dania held her breath, watching the dark corridor from which Desman would emerge. For a moment, all was black, and then his lithe form sauntered into the light. A shiny new leather breastplate and greaves broadened him somewhat, and he looked older. He held up his short sword and moon-shaped shield for the approval of the audience, and they let out another deafening cheer.
Desman looked around the ring, perhaps wondering when the other combatant would show. Then his eyes lit on Dania, and he smiled.
In that moment, she cast her misgivings aside. Her heart soared, and the fear was gone. He looked so confident, so natural. So what if he wasn’t the same after the fight? She could rejoice in his victory anyway.
The crowd cheered again, and Dania whipped her head around to see who he was up against.
It almost didn’t seem fair.
She had heard tales of the people of the woods before, but never seen one. The Maolori were a slight race, their lean bodies covered with short hair. The male cautiously entering the ring was barely taller than Dania was. His fuzz-tipped ears twitched wildly at the raucous noise of the crowd, and he shook the curly mane that grew down to the small of his back. Large, dark eyes regarded his foe. His face, slightly longer in the profile than a standard human’s, remained inscrutable. The Maolori wore no armor; nearly naked in a breechclout and armed with a simple dagger, he skirted the edge of the pit slowly.
Desman seemed to falter for a moment. No doubt he was expecting bigger competition. But he quickly recovered, and moved in closer to the wildling. Dania looked to Kathke for some sort of reassurance, but the woman remained staring straight ahead, tight-lipped and rigid.
The crowd’s gusty yells died down to a bemused murmur as the two combatants slowly circled, drawing nearer with each pass. Dania knew that Desman had to be assessing his competition, feeling for weaknesses and looking for potential threats. The Maolori kept his little dagger out, but made no move. At last, Desman initiated the fight with a broad sweep of his sword, meant to provoke rather than injure.
The Maolori quickly danced out of the way, leaping backwards as if he were on a hot rock. Then, almost faster than her eye could follow, he ran around to the Desman’s right and slashed at his sword arm.
At first, Dania thought he had missed, but then she saw the thin line bead up on Desman’s shoulder and dribble red. The crowd roared its approval; they never seemed to care who drew first blood.
Desman was taken aback, but not for long. He raised his shield to better cover his vitals, and his sword flashed in a series of moves calculated to put the Maolori off his balance. The Maolori staggered as one of the blows struck home. It was a glancing nick to the thigh, but it bled freely. Dania released a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding.
The Maolori dropped to the ground, and Desman raised his sword. Dania almost felt sorry for the little creature. At least it would be over quickly.
The wild man swept his leg out, catching Desman in the back of the knee and toppling him. Within a heartbeat, the Maolori had rolled over and mounted Desman’s chest, pinning his sword arm with his left hand and raising his dagger for a killing blow with the right.
Kathke hissed through her teeth, and Dania gasped, but Desman, in a move more instinctive than skilled, bashed the Maolori with his shield. The wild man rolled off and away, and Desman tumbled in the opposite direction.
Desman rolled his shoulders and loosened his stance.
“He still has the advantage,” Kathke murmured to Dania, not taking her eyes off the match. “He has the training, the armor, and the reach of his sword. But you see now what I mean about speed being priceless. He’s giving your friend a run for his money.”
Dania nodded and forced her fists apart. Her nails had dug trenches into her palms.
The Maolori’s eyes darted about quickly, but kept returning to his opponent. He gripped the dagger like an extension of his arm, point always towards Desman.
“Please be careful,” Dania whispered.
“What did you say?” Kathke asked.
Dania shook her head. The two men had returned to circling each other. At once, the Maolori rushed around to Desman’s left, much as he had done earlier. Desman anticipated the blow, ducked, and swept his sword around to meet his attacker.
The Maolori, however, was not caught off guard. He leapt into a diving midair flip, sailing scant inches over the whistling blade. Desman followed through, carving arcs in the Maolori’s wake as the man ran in the opposite direction.
With some distance between them, Desman cast about for a moment before catching Dania’s eye. He flashed a confident grin just for her, and started to do a salute with his sword.
The crowd gasped, and Desman’s expression changed to a grimace of shock.
He staggered a moment, and dropped his weapon to reach for his back. Dania couldn’t figure out what he was doing, but when Desman fell to his knees, she saw the Maolori. It had circled around again, impossibly fast, and buried his knife to the hilt between Desman’s shoulders. Desman struggled to fill his lungs with air, but the Maolori withdrew his weapon and struck again. And again.
Dania’s whole body went cold and numb as the dagger rose and fell, blood falling like rain. At last, Desman’s frantic thrashing ceased. The Maolori rose, then, and walked away without a single exultation.
Dania could not tear her eyes away from Desman. He lay on the sand, a look of surprise frozen on his face.
He would smile no more.
“Dania, hon, you have to eat.”
Kathke’s soft voice shrieked in her ears. Dania pulled the pillow tighter around her head and curled further into a ball. Her throat hurt so much she thought she couldn’t stand it, but it refused to stop.
“Come on, you need to get up. You haven’t been out of that bed in two days. You’re neglecting your training, and Farel won’t like that.”
“Then let him come and beat me,” Dania said through the pillow. “I don’t care.”
Something in her tone made Dania turn over and look at her. Kathke’s eyes were shining in the red light of the setting sun. “It’s just…what happens here sometimes.” She gestured helplessly. “Part of life. Desman wouldn’t have wanted you to—”
“He would have wanted to live!” Dania shouted, sitting up. “He fought because he had to. Did you know that he liked to fish, and that he wanted a house by the sea?”
Kathke shook her head.
“Of course you didn’t!” Dania leapt to her feet and paced, clenching her fists to keep from striking the other woman. “Because no one cares about that here! No one cares about anything except killing. It doesn’t even really matter who. What does someone like him matter to Farel? Nothing! Whatever money he lost investing in Desman’s training he just makes up in another match. One fighter gone, another one takes his place, life goes on. Except it doesn’t. Not for Desman.”
Dania clawed at her chest. It was so tight she couldn’t draw a full breath. The harder she tried, the harder it got, and she dropped to the floor with a strangled howl.
Suddenly, Kathke was there, wrapping her arms around her, and Dania couldn’t take it anymore. Everything in her unleashed into a scream from the bottom of her soul, and then another, and another.
“Shhhh-shhhh…I know. I know.” Kathke stroked her hair and held her.
Dania had no idea how long they stayed like that, but it was dark outside when she finally opened her eyes again. A tray with a mug and bowl rested by the door. “Did…did you bring that for me?” she managed to ask, her voice hoarse.
Dania’s hunger had not returned, but she crawled over to the tray and picked it up with shaking hands. It took all of her strength to carry it back to her cot, where she sat staring at it on her lap until Kathke cleared her throat. Dania dipped the spoon into the honey-drizzled barley gruel and brought it to her mouth. The bolus felt like a lump of dead flesh in her mouth, and she gagged.
“I’m sorry,” she said, setting the tray aside. “I can’t.”
“It’s okay.” Kathke had pulled herself up onto her own cot. “It may take time. Just try to get some rest, and tomorrow you’ll feel better.”
Dania nodded, and set the tray by the head of her bed. She lay on top of the covers, eyes open, and waited for sleep to claim her.
It never did, though it came for Kathke soon enough. Dania listened to the night-wisps singing their lullaby, and the trickle of the stream outside.
This had gone on long enough.
She sat bolt upright in bed, and waited for a reaction from Kathke, but a soft snore was all she got. Dania reached for her sandals, taking great care not to scrape them across the floor. She clenched her teeth as she fastened the straps as quietly as she could. Standing, she took stock. There wasn’t really much she could bring with her. She stared for a good long time at the floor under Kathke’s cot. The chamber pot hiding all of that treasure was just inches away. Moving it quietly would be difficult, to say nothing of the stone she would have to dislodge in the dark. Regardless, Dania didn’t like the idea of taking from Kathke. Why should she rob the woman of her future just so that Dania could have one of her own?
She crept out of the room and into the barracks. Dania had memorized every inch of this place, trying to determine where the best places to climb over the wall might reside. Ultimately, though, that had proved impractical. There was nowhere she could get a firm grip without some sort of rope, and even if she could have done that, she knew the horseheads would have spotted her by the time she was halfway up.
A thick cloud cover obscured the moons, which was perfect. As it was, Dania found herself cursing her pale skin and shift. What she wouldn’t have given for a good dark cloak. She hugged the wall, listening for any sound that would indicate that her presence had been betrayed. But she heard nothing. The Talormines at the gate snorted and gabbled in their strange language, but gave no sign of knowing she was there.
The few yards between her room and the bathhouse turned into a few miles as she slowly made her way along the wall. Then, almost before she knew it, she was inside the entryway, breathing a huge sigh of relief.
She had to feel her way one step at a time up the pitch black corridor towards her goal, but she could smell it from here. When she found it, though, she found it with her toes. Dania clamped her lips shut as hard as she could to stifle her squeal, and hopped around on one foot until the pain settled into a disgruntled throbbing.
Dania grasped the edge of the laundry cart and reached into the sour mass of wadded, damp cloth. She had to take care not to drop any over the side as she hung one after another on the edge. The smell got worse as she dug deeper, feeling her way in the dark. When she had pulled out what felt like about half of the contents, she climbed in, scraping her shin in the process. She curled up on her side and nestled into the sodden towels at the bottom, making sure that nothing was poking out. Then she reached up and pulled the towels she had hung on the edge down on top of her. When she was sure that she had gotten them all, she made sure that there was a clear passage for air, of which she was in dire need at the moment. Then she drew her arm down and closed her eyes.
Dania awoke to the cart being jostled, and only terror kept her silent. Her heart thumped wildly in her chest as she felt herself lifted and moved onto a rolling rack. Discovery loomed with every tilt and jolt, and she had to bite down on her knuckle to keep from crying out.
She tried to figure out what was happening from the movements. The bumpy ride was the cart being pushed towards the service shuttle. The grunts and bang—lifting the laundry into the cargo hold. She breathed a little more deeply, and then wished she hadn’t. She waited, and waited, and waited some more. After what seemed like an hour, she felt the unmistakable lurch of the shuttle taking off and shooting forward.
Dania almost went to sleep again as the shuttle skimmed over the earth with only the slightest lift indicating when it passed over a hillock or boulder. She had to move the towels a few times to keep them from suffocating her, but she resisted the temptation to pop her head up and look to see where she was. It didn’t matter until the shuttle got back to its origin point, and it wasn’t worth the chance of being seen. It stopped six more times, which she hadn’t expected, but it made sense. Of course the laundry service wouldn’t take care of just one place. Calculating how long it took between stops, it seemed that this was a rural route. Since the shuttle was out of Caileen, she was sure that at the end of the work day she would end up in the city. Then she would go to Mother Chayel. What she would do from there, she wasn’t sure. Perhaps Mother Chayel could put her to work as an apprentice, like Mya. Or maybe give her a little money to send her on her way.
Or perhaps she would turn Dania in.
Surely not. Would she? No, Dania didn’t think so. But the thought refused to leave. She didn’t have anywhere else to go.
Then it came to her. Lady Vician. She would go back to that child-beater’s mansion, and sneak in under cover of dark. She would take everything valuable she could carry, sell it, and hire a shuttle to take her to the Shiloan Landing. From there, she could manage to stay out of trouble until she could secure passage home.
Of course, as far as she knew, the only ship going to her home was the Faragow. Would she be able to convince the same people who had stolen her to take her back? Somehow she doubted it.
No, first she would go to Mother Chayel, as she intended. It was worth the risk, and surely she would know if there was a way.
At last, the shuttle powered down, and Dania forced herself to stay calm as the carts were unloaded. She had no idea what to expect from here. Would the laundry be tossed directly into some vat of scalding water, or left in some staging area to be collected later by someone else? She felt herself being lifted again, and set down on another rolling rack. Then the cart bumped against a solid obstacle—likely another cart—and stayed. She listened carefully to the collectors talking, their voices echoing and receding, and then, finally, blessed silence. She waited as long as she could stand it, and then pushed her way to the top of the basket to breathe free air for the first time in over three years.
“That must have been some ride.”
Dania’s heart dropped into her stomach, and she froze, half-risen from the towels. Calistos leaned against the empty shuttle, waving a small tag at her.
“I have my day pass. Do you?” He cupped his hand to his ear. “Didn’t think so.”
Her eyes darted around the room. The laundry carts were gathered in a vaulted chamber, mostly dark save for a few electric torches. Half a dozen shuttles lay dormant in their stalls. Off to the left of those, a narrow door led to a staircase, and presumably from there, outside. She didn’t think she could squeeze through the gates, now locked, through which the shuttles must have passed to get into the building. Glancing behind her, she saw that a ramp that led down into what was probably the laundering suite. It was possible that she could get out that way, but—
“There’s no exit that way,” Calistos said, as if reading her mind. He made no move towards her. He seemed content to watch her squirm as she plotted her way around him. “You know, it wasn’t a bad try, but you’re not as stealthy as you think you are. It was pretty funny watching you sneaking around last night.”
“Just let me go,” she said in a small voice. “I’m worth nothing to you.”
Calistos just shrugged. “True. But you’re apparently worth something to him.”
The side door of the shuttle popped open with a hiss of pneumatic pressure, and Farel stepped out, his face cast in iron. If you can get past me, then you’re free. That’s all you have to do, girl. Think you’re up to it?
Her stomach hurt like the first time he had punched her, and all hope of running vanished.
Farel regarded her for some time without saying anything. A solitary tear trickled down Dania’s cheek, and she wiped it away angrily.
“Dania, I am very, very disappointed. What am I going to do with you?”
Farel and Calistos both walked over to her, each took one of her arms, and helped her out of the cart. Once her feet were on the ground, Farel gripped the back of her shift, and Calistos let go of her. Neither of them said a word as they walked her outside and into a waiting shuttle.
Dania fought the quaking as she rode between them back to the compound. The men talked over her head about upcoming bouts, and who was looking promising in the barracks, and about the repairs being made on the giant arena in Caileen, and other things that had nothing to do with her. Was this how they had spent their day, just biding time until she decided to make a run for it? She kept waiting for them to threaten her, or insinuate what kind of punishment might be waiting, but it was as if she had ceased to exist. The looming fear of what Farel might do gave way quickly to anger. She forced herself to keep her eyes forward, but the loathing for Calistos grew with each mile. She started counting the ways she wanted to kill him.
Her stomach started churning as they reached the compound, all thoughts of revenge forgotten as they passed under the arch. The Talormines shut the gates, and Farel got out, dragging Dania after him. He pushed her in the direction of one of the horseheads. “Take her to the oubliette.”
The massive creature gripped her upper arm with its three-fingered hand, its tough knuckles scraping her side through the shift. Its wet, snorting breath came in erratic bursts, and it glared at her with feral yellow eyes. She had never gotten close enough to the things to smell them before, and overall, she preferred the cart of sour towels.
It seemed every fighter in the compound was out in the courtyard, watching as the Talormine marched her along. Dania caught Kathke’s eye, but the woman just looked sad.
Where was he taking her? Dania had been over most of the barracks, but there was nothing at the end where they were headed except a little alcove room with a grate in the floor. She had always figured it was an unused closet of some kind. When they arrived, the Talormine opened the wooden door, then pushed her inside. He hooked one of the prongs of its energy weapon into the grate and flipped it back, revealing a dark hole. Then, using the prong again, he flipped the coils of a knotted rope off a spike driven into the wall, and nudged the loose end into the hole.
And then she understood.
Dania pulled away with all her strength, but might as well have been trying to move a mountain. The Talormine’s grip didn’t give, no matter how much she twisted and bruised her arm. The Talormine gave her a shove, and pointed the prongs of his weapon directly at her chest. Dania dropped to her knees and sobbed, but the creature prodded her, poking holes in her shift and drawing blood.
Trying to be grateful that she hadn’t been whipped, or worse, Dania grasped the rope in fingers gone numb, and forced herself into the hole. The smell of cold and damp assailed her nostrils before she had even gotten past the grate. Gripping the knots with her feet, she lowered herself down until she touched something solid. The Talormine leaned over, nearly eclipsing the tiny circle of light so far up above. Only its fierce glare convinced her to let go of the rope, and still she couldn’t help but scream as he yanked it up and out of her reach.
“How long are you going to leave me here?”
The Talormine just snorted, and pushed the grate closed with a clang. She heard the door close, and all went black.
Dania had no idea how long she huddled in the dark, afraid to move. The utter silence of the hole had her hearing as sensitive as it had ever been. Her heart thumped in her own ears, and the occasional plink of condensation on rock ticked away. No scratching of tiny rodent claws, thank all the powers, but that was small comfort.
The first thing she noticed after she had cried herself out was that she was starving. How long had it been since her last meal, anyway? Since Desman. Three days? That thought alone was enough to let the panic in again. She couldn’t last in here with no food, no water. Did Farel intend to just leave her here to waste away and die? Or was he just trying to scare her?
“Okay, I’m scared,” she yelled hoarsely. “I won’t run away again, I promise! You can let me out now.”
“Farel, please!” she screamed. “Please don’t make me stay down here! Please!”
Dania mustered up her courage and put a quaking hand out in front of her, and slowly lowered it until she felt cool earth under her fingers. Then, inch by inch, she moved, crawling along until she reached rock. Then she traced it up to feel the curvature of the wall. It took her ages to determine that she was in a pit just a little wider in some spots than she could reach with her arms out straight, with slick, unscalable boundaries.
Having not had anything to eat in a couple of days had a minor advantage, but she still had to pick the most remote corner of her prison to do her business, and in a place this tiny, it wasn’t all that remote.
Terror alternated with boredom, and anger reigned supreme. There was no way to tell time in this absolute blackness. She screamed for mercy until she had no voice left. Consciousness drifted in and out, and she sat for hours in a near stupor, staring into the blackness and listening to the ringing of her own ears.
How long she had been down here, she could not tell. She started talking to herself, and then to Desman, and Callo, and even to Kathke and Mother Chayel. Attempting to climb the rock walls had left her fingers ragged and raw.
Then came the light. Dania blinked at the sudden intrusion, and heard the squeak of the grate being lifted. A pail tied to a string came drifting down to her, swinging as it came. No chance of being let out, then. But she forced herself to crawl over to it when it reached the ground. In what little illumination the hole above provided, she could just make out a canteen and a bowl of barley mash and dried fruit. No spoon, but that didn’t matter. She snatched them out of the bucket before they could be stolen again, and scooped warm mouthfuls out with her fingers.
The bucket rose. Dania had a fleeting thought of grabbing onto it, but there was no way the string would support her weight. And she might just be dropped for her insolence.
“I’ll bring you more tomorrow and trade you for the empties,” Kathke promised from above.
Dania stopped eating long enough to squint up at her. “How long do I have to stay down here?”
Kathke hesitated. “I don’t know, hon. Just stay strong. Do you hear me? You’re going to have to stay strong.”
And then the grate clanged shut again, and she was gone.
Stay strong? Dania finished the rest of her meal at a more leisurely pace, pondering what that was supposed to mean.
Very well. She would stay strong.
Dania set her jaw, and walked from one side of her prison to the other, pacing off the exact length and width of the floor. Then she ran her hands along every inch of the walls that she could reach, memorizing the recesses and outcroppings in the rock. By the time she was done, she could feel the life returning to her limbs, the strength the food had given her.
Strength she would use.
She dropped to the floor, catching herself on her palms, and thrust her legs out behind her. On her toes and hands, she dipped until her nose nearly touched the floor, and leapt up again, thrusting herself into the air. After multiple repetitions, she felt the burn in her muscles, so she switched to squatting and raising herself straight until her legs felt like rubber. Once she had rested, she got down on her hands and knees, and backed herself up against the wall. There she walked her feet up until she found a tiny shelf in the rock, and then balanced herself on her hands, with her feet high above her head. She had seen the men do this on benches in the bathhouse, but never done it herself. Then, arms quaking, she lowered herself to the ground, hair dragging in the dirt. When she tried to push herself back up again, she nearly broke her nose.
But the next time, she was able to do it. Only once, but she did it.
Gasping with effort, she sat with her back against the wall and grinned.
“Bet you I can do that twice next time!” she shouted, then laughed.
Dania took the food without comment for three days, and then started making requests. Kathke couldn’t promise her more than she had been getting—Dania didn’t even know if she had permission to be feeding her—but she did say that she would do what she could. The first was that she get some meat with her diet. The second was for a sponge and stick and a separate bucket of salted water. The smell was getting pretty bad already down here, but there was only so much a girl could tolerate.
The third was for her training daggers.
Kathke seemed perplexed at the last request, but the next day, they were in the bucket with the food.
Dania had already gradually integrated her fighting stances to her exercise routine, though she had to be careful. She couldn’t move freely for very far without bashing her knuckles into the walls. But now she had the balance and heft of the weapons in her hands, and it felt…so…right.
Thrust, sweep, retreat, thrust… Even a wooden training dagger could be a deadly weapon. Say, if it were inserted into an eye. Dania reviewed her anatomy as she did her drills in the dark, and practiced over and over on an imaginary Calistos.
She had lost track of time when she was first sent to the hole, but it was easy enough to calculate the days once Kathke had started bringing her food.
Three weeks. She had been down here three weeks. Dania had gotten to the point that she could anticipate when the grate would open, and her daily offering be lowered to her prison. She sat waiting on the eve of what would be her fourth week, when the squeak of the grate was followed almost immediately by a sudden thump on the ground next to her.
At first she thought it might be a trick. She tested it, and when it held, pulled herself up knot by knot towards the pale blue light.
She wasn’t sure who she was expecting when she got to the top, but it was just Gurta and Hadelid, two of the other female fighters. They seemed surprised to see her so quickly, but didn’t say a word. They grabbed Dania by the arms and led her out into the light of the moons. Dania didn’t fight; she was so overjoyed at being out of the pit that she didn’t even care what happened next. She cursed herself silently when she realized that she had left her training daggers behind.
Dania’s elation changed to confusion as she realized that they were heading to the ring.
All but one of the multiple entrances to the ring were barred from the inside. Dania turned her head to each of the women in turn, but they looked straight ahead and led her through the doors. The light from that open portal was so bright after her time in absolute dark that her vision blurred, and her eyes hurt. The women ushered her forward until she was almost outside, and then stopped.
“What are you…”
Gurta and Hadelid each took her shift by a shoulder and ripped it all the way down, then tossed the scraps aside, leaving her in nothing but her scanty breechclout and kemben. Dania shrieked, as much from the sudden cold as from the shock, but before she could turn around and run, the women shoved her in the back and pushed her out into the ring.
Dania gasped as she hit the ground, and turned to run back into the safety of the arch, but caught just a glimpse of Hadelid as the doors slammed shut. The sound of the steel bolt being drawn filled her heart with dread.
A cheer went up. Dania forced herself to turn around, hugging herself tightly.
The ring wasn’t packed, but all of the gladiators were there. Her eyes swam, but she could make out a few familiar faces. Farel stood with both hands on the edge of the box, watching her with an inscrutable expression.
Dania felt the anger rising. Was she to be humiliated, then? Thrown into the ring to parade around nearly naked as penance for escaping? Wasn’t three weeks in the oubliette enough?
She saw Kathke, then. The woman was gesturing at her frantically, pointing off to her left and shouting. She couldn’t make out what she was saying, though; it sounded like…
A dark blur appeared in Dania’s peripheral vision, and she leapt and rolled out of instinct. When she returned to her feet, she screamed and ran off to the right.
Like many things on this world, she had heard about loder-cats, but never seen them. The creature in the pit with her was far grander and more terrifying than anything her imagination had associated with it. It stood as high as her shoulder, padding along on enormous clawed paws. A gray and black streaked silky mane bearded its fearsome yellow-eyed face, and its thick-furred tail twitched in anticipation. It stalked back and forth, just a couple of yards from her, but no closer. What kept it from killing her?
Flat against the wall, breathing heavily, Dania forced herself to assess the situation. She glanced back at Kathke, who seemed relieved, but tense. She pointed again, and Dania followed her friend’s finger to the center of the pit.
The cat was tethered. A chain kept it from reaching the edges of the pit. The chain terminated in a shackle set about a heavy plinth. And atop the plinth—
Thick wood tipped with a steel barb like a harpoon, the spear stood there erect in a tiny base, easy to retrieve, yet completely inaccessible.
“I know you can do this, Dania.” Farel’s voice echoed through a trumpet used to make announcements throughout the games. “I have faith in my girl.”
Incredulous, Dania pulled herself together. The loder-cat’s bass growl vibrated the air around her, and it snarled, baring yellow fangs longer than her hand.
Pleading would do nothing. She had learned that well enough.
Time to prove herself.
Gathering her courage, she waited until the cat had paced to the opposite end of the chain, and darted out towards the plinth. For a split second, she thought she might make it, but just as quickly had to sprint back to the wall as the giant cat returned in a leaping bound. The chain jerked and rattled as it landed only inches from her, and she rolled out of the way again. The cat roared, and foul saliva sprayed out of its mouth, spattering her and the wall behind her.
The gladiators on the side opposite her started yelling. Dania couldn’t tell if they were cheering for her or just excited about the prospect of someone being eaten. The cat turned and ran in their direction, and Dania realized they were trying to distract it. She glanced at Farel; he didn’t seem pleased, but he didn’t seem terribly angry, either.
The loder-cat roared and swiped at them, and Dania knew this was her chance. She had to run faster, not catch its attention…
Her feet wouldn’t move.
Dania cursed herself. Hesitation was going to get her killed, she knew it. Gladiators around the ring saw what happened, and took up the call, but that didn’t help. So many of them yelling at once just sounded like so much noise, and the cat ran around back and forth, coming close to Dania as often as not. She resolved that the next time it went to the far end, she would go for it.
The cat, nearly in a frenzy by now, dug up clods of dirt with its claws as it dashed to the people shouting at it the loudest, and Dania launched herself off the wall.
She had never run so fast in her life. The spear got closer and closer, and her heart pounded with her feet.
And then it saw her.
With an angry snarl, it spun.
Dania dashed back towards the safety of the wall, then felt parallel flames burning her right leg. She dove into the sand as far as she could. Then she lay grimacing and gasping, mere feet from her death, convinced that only the fact that the cat had paused for a split second before running at her full tilt had saved her life.
The smell of blood drove the cat mad, and it pulled harder at its chain, snarling and snapping. Dania forced herself to ignore it. Squinting through the pain, she made herself look at the wound. She gritted her teeth and gripped her thigh.
Two slices. Deep enough, but not much worse than if she had been climbing one of the thorn trees back home.
“Is that the worst you can do? Scratch me? Try harder next time!” Dania leapt up and threw her arms out towards the cat. It jerked and backed up, startled, then hissed at her.
And she knew what she had to do.
“Come on, you great mog. Come and get me.”
She took off running.
But this time, she ran around the perimeter of the pit. The cat was on her heels the whole way. She looked back, and saw that the chain had wrapped around the plinth once. With a mad grin, she increased her speed. On the second lap, she saw the droplets of her own blood in the earth, and counted it as a sign that she was alive. On the third lap, she had to run further away from the wall to stay within a few feet of the galloping beast. With every lap she made, the chain shortened, and she made herself leave the perceived safety of the wall. Now she was halfway between the wall and the center of the ring. Now three-quarters. Her breath rasped in her throat. The cat snarled in a frenzy.
Closer, closer… Only a few more laps…
The cat rebounded with a jerk when it came to the end of its tether, and made a strangled sound.
And Dania did not hesitate.
She ran around behind it, vaulted up on the plinth, and snatched the spear. Then she leapt down onto the other side of the animal.
Dania visualized the creature, not as a cat, but as a collection of mechanical and pneumatic pressure points. The shields of bone, the tubes of blood known as arteries, all the things that could kill a human could kill another mammal, just in different places and ways.
But one thing remained consistent:
The quickest way to the heart was under the rib cage.
The cat whipped its head around, but it was too late. Dania threw all of her strength into the lunge, and drove the spear home.
She hadn’t expected the pitiful scream, nor the violent lurch that threw her over the cat’s head and onto her back. Left without her spear, she struggled to draw a breath, and scrabbled backwards as fast as her legs would move.
But the cat wasn’t following her. The great beast shuddered and lay still.
A moment of silence ensued, and then the gladiators erupted in a cheer. The fighters vaulted over the edge and ran across the dirt towards her, while others threw open the doors and flooded the ring. The first one to reach her flung a robe around her and picked her up. The others helped, and hoisted her above their heads, shouting her praise and spraying her with wine.
“Let me through, let me through,” Farel’s voice boomed. “Go on, set her down.”
The gladiators complied, and Dania found herself standing completely stunned in front of the man who had chosen her when no one else wanted her. Kathke stood just beside him, relief and pride beaming from her face.
Farel knelt and embraced Dania, then held her at arms’ length and gazed fondly into her eyes. “I told you one day you would be our prize fighter. Now let’s get that leg looked at.”
“You want your freedom.” Farel laid a pair of parchment-thin leaves out on the desk and dipped his finger in a resin pot. “I understand that. You didn’t choose this life.”
“No, I didn’t.” Dania stood before him, and ran her fingers over the twin pink ridges on her thigh.
Farel ran the resin over the edge of one leaf and laid the other atop it. “But you know I can’t have you escaping on me. I’ve invested in you. Not just money, you see, but time. You’ve been a part of this little family for a few years now, and I feel almost like your father.”
“You’re not my father.” Callo had been the closest thing she had to a father, and after what he had said of her real one, she wasn’t sure that a father was really necessary anyway. She shifted her weight to her other foot.
Farel selected a small handful of dried leaves from three different pots to his right, and mixed them together. He laid them out on the two leaves already in front of him. “You’re right. I’m not. But I care about what happens to you. And given recent events, I don’t see any reason you shouldn’t start earning your way free. Kathke is doing that, you know.”
Dania crossed her arms. “Kathke has been here a long time.”
“True. But she could go anytime she likes. She just knows that this is good money, and worth the risks.” He laid down another line of resin on the edge of the base leaf, and rolled the whole thing into a tight cylinder. “The question is”—he nipped the tips off the completed tube with a tiny, sharp blade—“how much are you willing to risk to earn your freedom?”
Dania snorted. “How much more can I risk than my life?”
Farel examined his handiwork, then rose and dipped the end of his newly-minted cigar into the candle on the shelf behind him. He blew out a cloud of thick, foul smoke, and nodded to himself. “Well, yes, that is a point. But what I meant was, Kathke might well make more than she does, but she tends to take the low-risk matches when given a choice.”
That didn’t sound right. Kathke was the bravest person Dania had ever met.
Farel returned to his seat and put his boots up on the desk, crossing his legs at the ankle. He exhaled again, and looked right at Dania. “You want to accelerate your training and get out of here sooner?”
Dania nodded. Right now, she didn’t care what she had to do.
“Okay. Well, you’ve shown you’re smart. There’s not one of the fighters out there who wasn’t impressed by your little trick with the loder-cat. But your opponents, no matter how big they are, aren’t always going to be chained, and you won’t always have the advantage of brains. So now we have to go beyond smart. You’re going to have to be mean.”
Oh, she could be mean. Try to dump her down a dark hole again, and he would see just how mean she could be.
Dania said nothing.
Farel took her silence as an invitation to continue. “You’ve mostly been practicing drills so far. Have you mastered the Gauntlet yet?”
Dania flushed and shook her head. Kathke had allowed her to attempt the first stage once, but within a few seconds, she had ended up in the sand, clutching her pummeled ribs and counting herself lucky that she hadn’t lost an eye.
“All right.” Farel rose and ushered her out the door, his hand lingering on her shoulder. “I want you to go back to Kathke, and come to me when you’re ready. I want to watch you beat it. Then we’ll graduate you to the next phase.”
Dania stood staring at the door to his office for a long time after he’d closed it. She clenched and unclenched her fists, and finally stalked away.
The Gauntlet awaited.
“The Gauntlet isn’t an exact replica of what you face in the ring.” Kathke walked slowly around the device, pushing against a sandbag here, running her fingers over a blade there. “It’s complex, but it’s predictable. You essentially memorize your way through it. But what it does do is to get you to pay attention to every movement, to every slight variation in timing.”
Dania followed her in the sand below. “But there are so many different things. How do you keep track of them?”
Kathke stopped and smiled down at her. “There is only one thing to keep track of: your goal. Everything else is just an obstacle or a distraction.”
The lever at the end of the Gauntlet looked innocuous enough, simply one more moving part on a symphony of moving parts. But that one moving part controlled all the others. If the Gauntlet were a shackle, the lever would be the key.
Get to the key, and the shackles would fall.
Dania listened and watched while Kathke explained how to keep her eyes moving, and how to be patient and wait for an opening when instinct told her to plow through.
At last, Dania thought she was ready to have a go at it. She did her stretches and shook her arms and legs to loosen up the taut muscles. But before she nodded to Kathke to set the whole thing in motion, she paused, trying to think of how to phrase what she wanted to say.
In the end, all that came out was “Thank you.”
Kathke didn’t ask her what she meant. Thanks for training her, thanks for being a decent human being in a sea of filth, thanks for keeping her alive … it didn’t matter. The woman hesitated, then nodded, and Dania knew that she didn’t even need to say it.
Faces floated before her, and she took a deep breath. Desman. Callo. Ysavale. Farel. Calistos.
Keep your eye on the goal…
She dove in.
Dania spat blood at Farel’s feet, and gazed up at him defiantly. Five weeks and countless contusions after going to Kathke, she had finally defeated the Gauntlet. Never mind a couple of new scars to add to the ones the loder-cat had given her; they reminded her to keep her guard up at all times.
Farel applauded slowly and inclined his head. “Well done. Well done.”
Dania acknowledged the praise, but didn’t let it into her heart. It was not for her. It was for the investment Farel made and saw paying off before him. “What next?”
“Next, my dear,” Farel said as he put his arm around her shoulders and squeezed, “we turn you into a killer.”
The next several months went by in a blur. Farel put her in the ring again and again, each time with a different vicious animal. The first was a young wolf-bear called an Oarar. The second was a bird that towered over her on pillar-like legs terminating in razor talons. The third was some ape-like bat from the southern wilds. Its wings had been tied, but if anything, that just made it more aggressive. A gigantic serpent smuggled in from a land leagues away nearly finished her, but fortunately she had kept her wits about her. The creature had impaled itself on the double-bladed axe she had been given before she was able to end it with a quick blow to the neck.
Dania learned quickly that as Farel said, it was kill or be killed.
She didn’t want to die.
It got easier each time.
Though she had been trained with a number of different weapons to meet with her variety of opponents, she gravitated towards two well-balanced daggers. They were light, lethal, and allowed her to move with all the grace and speed her body afforded her. No longer was she restricted to simple muslin shifts. She had her own armor now, too. She got to know it like a friend. Every strength, every weakness, every possible way it could bolster her or let her down.
By the time the Mystery came upon her, Dania was so accustomed to blood that she viewed it more with annoyance than disgust. She hadn’t seen Mother Chayel since her imprisonment, but Kathke threw her a sort of banquet with just the women to mark the occasion. It was a little hard to feel celebratory with people who had stripped you and thrown you to your death, but they all seemed to be impressed by her victory, and treated her like one of the fighters now. They brought actual wine, and got her so drunk that she wasn’t fit for training the next day.
Farel, meanwhile, had stepped in as her primary trainer. He would shout encouragement and suggestions to her from the sidelines, teaching her always to nurture her fury. It was hard to get truly worked into a lather over animals who were just doing what they were born to do, but a couple of lacerations and near-misses taught her that she could still use her adrenaline against them. And when that wasn’t enough, she called on the anger she had felt growing in her since the day she was taken from her home.
The fury fed her, even as she fed it.
And it grew strong.
“I won’t be seeing you again after tonight, Dania.”
“What?” Dania stopped in the middle of tightening the laces of Kathke’s cuirass. “What are you talking about?”
Kathke motioned to her to finish. “This will be my last fight. I’m leaving. I could have gone a while ago, but I wanted to make sure you were safe first.”
Dania slapped her in the back to let her know she was done. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Kathke sat to double-check the straps and buckles on her greaves. “I wasn’t really sure until today. But you’re ready. I’ve taught you all I know. You’ve gone through the Gauntlet a dozen times without being touched once, and you put down every animal Farel throws at you.”
Dania sprawled on the bed opposite her. “Animal, yes. I haven’t graduated to people yet.”
“And that’s another thing. I don’t want to be here when you do.”
Dania considered that in silence. Was she afraid she would fail? Or did she not want to see her succeed? Either way, it was understandable. Still hurt, though. “I thought you were going to go on to the Arena.”
Kathke nodded. “To tell you the truth, I don’t think I want to wait that long. I might not have exactly all I was hoping to when I got out of here, but I have enough. And I’m beginning to wonder if I’m just afraid to leave this place. It’s all I’ve done for so long that the idea of anything else frightens me.”
Dania grinned. “Most people are afraid of dying in the pit. You’re afraid of selling pastries.”
Kathke pulled the thong binding her hair tight against her head, and tucked the end into the little leather cup that made her green-dyed tail look so serpentine. “I’m afraid of failing. But there are other, worse ways to fail. And I’m ready.”
“I’ll miss you.” Dania wasn’t sure she had ever spoken those words to anyone. But it was true. Kathke was all that made this place bearable.
Kathke pulled her off the bed and into a tight embrace. “I’ll miss you, too, honey. Don’t ever let your guard down, okay?”
“I won’t,” Dania said, her voice muffled.
The walk to the pit was a tangle of emotions for her. Dania wanted to be happy for her friend, but nothing would ever be the same after tonight. As long as Kathke was there, she had an advocate in the compound. She hardly needed protecting anymore, but Kathke was always a buffer between Dania and the other women, and most importantly, between Dania and the other men. Dania was accustomed to being watched by now, but she was starting to see some looks she wasn’t used to coming from a number of the men, and it didn’t exactly make her feel safer.
Still, she resolved to celebrate her roommate and mentor’s decision, and tried to keep a smile on her face all the way up to the point where they parted ways, and Dania went to sit with the noncombatants in the gladiators’ box.
Farel sat in the owner’s box with the young lord Daman Argoneis and his older friend, Rominan Seides. Dania didn’t like a lot of people, but from what little time she had spent around them, she didn’t like those people a lot.
She scanned the crowd. They seemed pretty easygoing tonight. No stomping and clapping; just a lot of idle chatter. In contrast, the gladiators seemed much more energized, and whispered amongst themselves. Gurta and Hadelid sat on the bench next to Dania, and she had a fleeting thought about pushing them out into the pit.
The drums began, and the doors opened. Dania popped up to see the last person she thought Kathke would be pitted against.
It was Calistos.
Dania nearly swallowed her tongue. The seventy-six gladiators had gone down by about five in the time she had been here. The handful of matches that had not been against criminals were held with blunted weapons. But Kathke had mentioned none of this to her, and when she entered the circle, she was using her favored short sword, and Calistos definitely had his own. Dania’s heart raced. From the look on Kathke’s face, she had not expected this, either. Seides gripped Argoneis’ shoulder eagerly, and Dania wondered if the fact that the two gladiators were matched had anything to do with them. Had they paid extra on the side for a better spectacle? Certainly they could afford to compensate Farel for the potential loss of even one of his prize fighters. Anxiety wrestled with glee as Dania thought about her betrayer and would-be molester going down once and for all in the ring.
Some of the gladiators shouted at her to get out of the way, but Dania was riveted to the edge. Watching the two combatants circle each other was amazing. They had trained and sparred with each other, had loved and hated each other, and no doubt knew each other’s weakness better than anyone here.
Neither Calistos nor Kathke had a shield. A shield tended to give a male a stronger advantage, since he could heft it and use it as an extended arm, and a woman, while afforded greater protection, frequently tired of wielding one more quickly. The outcome of this duel would be strictly based on skill.
Dania pushed aside thoughts of Desman, and assured herself that while Calistos was clearly taller and stronger, Kathke had always been the faster, and the more proficient with a blade.
Calistos struck first, an overhead sweep meant to cleave the woman in two. Kathke dodged by leaning back and to the left, then snapped back and barely missed him with a slash intended to end his career as a male. The first blow didn’t always set the stage for the fight, but he was sending a message to the audience: he wasn’t fooling around. But neither was she.
Calistos swept out low, intending to take Kathke’s legs out from under her, and immediately had to duck even lower because she had aimed for his head. Her leap and his duck were so quick as to be almost simultaneous. The crowd roared its approval.
Kathke pressed the advantage, then, with a series of arcs that drove Calistos backwards, having to deflect her blows with dismayed parries to the side. He looked so silly that the crowd started laughing, and his face flushed. He swung out with all his strength just as he was almost backed against the wall, and Kathke’s sword flew out of her hand.
As quick as Calistos was to turn the tide, Kathke was even quicker retrieving her blade. His sword gouged a chunk out of the ground just as she rolled away and came up again with the weapon in her hand. Dania wrung her own wrist in sympathy; she knew that Kathke had to be pushing through the pain of sprained tendons.
Calistos sneered and retreated several feet, allowing them both time to breathe. Dania gripped the wall and shouted encouragement to Kathke. She was too lost to even know what she said, but the woman heard and smiled.
Kathke had once broken down a fight into basic categories. A blade was designed to defeat the opponent by one of two means: mechanical or hydraulic. A person could either have vital parts of his body disabled, or bleed out to the point that he could not function. Either way, the idea was to inflict enough of either kind of damage to the opponent before they could do the same to you.
Dania held her breath as Calistos charged again, and Kathke twisted her body under another blow intended to disarm her. She continued the spin, and then kicked high, catching Calistos in the side of the head. He staggered, and while her leg was still raised but on the way down, she tap-kicked him in the stomach. The blow wouldn’t have had much power, but he doubled over nonetheless, dazed and winded. Kathke had a split second to finish lowering her leg and finish him.
She made the exact move Dania anticipated, spinning around and using her momentum to bring her sword to the back of Calistos’ neck while he was on his knees.
But she pulled the stroke, ending it just at the base of his scalp. Dania could barely hear the words “Do you yield?” over the roar of the crowd. Calistos remained frozen in a penitent position, while Argoneis and Seides scowled from the owners’ box, no doubt disappointed that their investment in blood had not paid off.
Calistos ducked his head in what Dania took for assent.
Kathke exhaled deeply, and turned towards the crowd, face alight with newfound freedom.
Roaring in humiliated rage at her back, Calistos leapt up and grabbed the swinging serpent of her hair.
The horror in Kathke’s eyes burned into Dania in the eternity of a split second. Calistos yanked her head down by the tail, and thrust his blade into her all the way up to the hilt.
All the strength went out of Dania’s legs, and she dropped to her knees even as Kathke dropped to hers.
The ring was suddenly far away and hazy, and swam before Dania’s eyes. Kathke fell, and Calistos raised his arms, and Dania’s world perished in a drowning bellow of celebration.
The funeral of a fighter was a quiet affair, generally cheap and efficient. Dania had not gone to Desman’s; she didn’t think she could have borne it. But she made herself go to Kathke’s. The sun shone incongruously bright on the hillside reserved for the fallen, and the hole into which they lowered her cloth-wrapped body marked only with a small stone. Kathke’s armor and sword were laid in state with her, and then the gladiators who attended each said whatever small thing that came to mind about the woman. Some praised her character, others her skill. Still others wished her peace in whatever lay beyond this mortal world.
Nothing came to mind to say about the woman who had done so much for Dania, and would now never enjoy the fruits of her labors. She hummed an old warrior lullaby quietly to herself; Ysavale used to sing it when the campfire had gone low and men were well into their cups, but Dania had never really understood what it meant.
Sing a song of blood and sorrow
Sing a song of tears
Though the world be all ash tomorrow
Nary a thing need you fear
No family to come mourn Kathke. Dania wondered if she should have dug out money from the warrior’s own stash to pay for a better funeral, but no doubt Farel would have wondered where she got it. As it was, they might simply have taken it from her, and forced the secret of its location out of her, and where would that have gotten her? Nowhere.
With a start, Dania realized that she was the only one who knew where the money was, and that there was no doubt more than enough for her to buy her way home. She would still have to escape, of course; no way would Farel allow her to buy her freedom with what he knew well to be someone else’s money. But after that…
After that, she couldn’t imagine.
Dania hadn’t known anything could hurt worse than Desman’s death, but the ache tore her from the inside out. She couldn’t stop the screaming in her heart; it was as if a voice cried out ceaselessly day and night, and would not let her rest.
The days passed in a gray haze. Dania followed her feet as they led her to the mess hall and then back to her room, again and again. Calistos’ absence hung over the compound just as markedly as Kathke’s. Every time she thought of him and how lightly he had gotten off, her gorge rose, and she couldn’t finish her meal.
A month after the funeral, Farel let Calistos out of the oubliette. Though the gladiator seemed a bit subdued, nothing could hide the satisfaction in his eyes when he glanced her way.
“She was a worthy opponent,” he said with a smirk, and casually dusted the earth off his filthy hands.
Fury such as Dania had never known rose and threatened to choke her. She flew at him, clawing her way up his chest and flailing at his face. “How dare you! I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you…!”
She felt hands pulling her away as she screamed and kicked, and Farel glanced at her with something resembling sympathy as Stathin carried her off. Dania howled all the way back to her quarters, but was too exhausted by then to resist any further. Stathin deposited her on the bed, muttered something meant to be conciliatory, and then closed the door on her.
One morning she woke up and realized that Callo had waited this long for her; he could wait a little longer. Kathke had kept a tiny dagger under her pillow. The fighters weren’t supposed to have weapons in their rooms, so Dania hid it in the nook under the chamber pot. She pulled it out and gazed into the rusted looking glass Kathke used when she wanted to paint her face for the ring. Dania took a hank of her long black hair and pulled it up tight, then drew the dagger across it. The hair fell away with a whisper, and with a feeling approaching giddiness, she did it again. And again.
She noted the startled double-takes when she emerged from her room, naked scalp tingling in the breeze of the summer afternoon. The conversation of the mess hall turned into murmurs of disbelief as she strode between the tables and up to Calistos. She slapped his plate off the table, and it shattered into a mess of vegetables and ceramic shards on the floor. He nearly choked.
“I’m going to face you in the ring someday,” she swore, “and when I do, you’re not going to have anything to hold onto.”
Farel nearly swallowed his cigar when he saw Dania’s new look. Convincing him to put her in the pit had been easier than she thought it would be. He conceded that she was ready for the next phase.
The “next phase” was a stage fight between her and some other gladiator named Yorgan. The big man was a familiar face in the compound, of course, but it wasn’t as if she had any intention of getting to know each of them personally. And it didn’t help that Yorgan spoke about as much Canoine as a two-year-old. He taunted Dania in some guttural off-world language she didn’t recognize, punctuating his sentences with “ha?” and a questing jab with his prop sword. His beaded blond mustache drooped beyond his chin, swaying as he moved.
Dania didn’t want to play. Even the audience seemed bored. No doubt they wanted to see real blood spilled, and Dania didn’t blame them. She wanted that, too.
Just not Yorgan’s.
She sighed, and half-cartwheeled out of range as he made his first move, using her shield as a base. The crowd laughed in astonishment, and seemed to collectively sit up a bit straighter. If she was going to play, she might as well make it a game worth their attention. Most particularly, worth Farel’s attention.
Dania would have preferred her daggers, but some wit decided that she and Yorgan should be as equally matched as possible, which meant a shield and wooden short sword for them both. Somehow the fact that this would put her at even more of a disadvantage hadn’t occurred to Farel, or else he wanted to see how she did in some sort of trial by fire.
Dania whipped her falchion low and caught Yorgan on the back of his calf, raising a pink weal. The surprise on his face turned to a flush of rage as the spectators cheered at the equivalent of first blood. He launched himself at her, and swung in an arc that would have broken her jaw if she had been a heartbeat slower.
Apparently, he was going to take this one pretty seriously.
Dania’s blood raced, and she risked a glance over at the owner’s box. Lord Argoneis and Baron Seides had come again, and the older man seemed to be watching her intently. She filed this fact away, then ignored it. Dania had been introduced formally to the audience for the first time; her prior successes with animals had not merited her a real presence in the ring, and with her new look, chances were good that no one would have recognized her anyway. Farel’s scrutinizing gaze burned from across the pit, and she steeled herself. Game or no, this would be her best chance to make a good impression of her skills against a human opponent. He wasn’t Calistos, but he would have to do.
With a flurry designed to keep Yorgan on the defensive, Dania threw herself into pursuing another strike. Every time she hit flesh, she would gain points, and if she could do it enough, she could be declared the winner.
And if she won, she was that much closer to being matched to Calistos.
Yorgan’s shield and sword met most of her blows, but he growled and cursed as she landed a sting to his unprotected side. He swung at her with his shield, and connected with her stomach.
All the air went out of her in a rush, and Dania fell on her back, gasping. Kathke had taught her how to move past her instincts, to stay in the fight when otherwise she could have been killed. Every part of her wanted to curl up and cradle her injured middle. She did not let herself. Dania pulled the shield up to protect her torso. As Yorgan straddled her to make a match-ending “kill,” she whipped her sword up to connect solidly between his legs.
His howl was immediately drowned out by the laughter of the crowd, but Dania didn’t have a moment to enjoy it. She scrambled back even as he fought to keep on his feet, now shielding himself somewhat lower than before.
Glowering at each other from yards away, Dania and Yorgan called an unspoken temporary reprieve while they recovered. Clearly he did not like being the source of amusement, but there wasn’t much she could do about that. He was so much bigger; a blow that might merely bruise a man could crack her ribs, and his strikes had so much more strength that she wasn’t sure how long she could block them. Already her wrists and shoulders ached, and that was just from his resistance to her attack.
Long reach. Stronger body. Ability to wield the shield better. Harder to draw a killing mark.
Yes, this would be tricky.
Yorgan catapulted himself towards her, and she readied herself. Standing her ground would leave her crushed in his wake. Running would make her look weak.
Sword high, shield swinging…
The big man roared, and cleaved at her with his sword. Dania dropped, spun, and connected with the back of his right leg with a straight kick, only inches from where she had struck him before. Yorgan tumbled forward and sideways, nearly crushing her with his bulk.
She scored a glancing blow across his shoulder blade, and then cursed herself as he rolled and picked himself up. It was a clumsy move; she might have garnered a few points, but ultimately it was just considered a flesh wound. A more precise hit to the back of his neck would have ended the match.
And now he was angrier than before. This wasn’t looking good.
Breathing hard, Dania kept her feet moving as Yorgan rose to his feet, his sword extended towards her.
Moving faster than she would have given him credit for, he rained down blows designed to intimidate. Each one jarred her shoulder in its socket as she met it with her shield, and she gasped in pain. She didn’t have the reach to strike with her sword while she was concentrating on keeping him from beating her brains out with a wooden sword. Every time she tried, he would bat her away with his shield, and keep coming. If she moved right, he did, as well, and pushed forward. The same if she tried to duck to the left. She didn’t have to glance back to realize that he was going to drive her against the wall, and then pin her there and end the match.
Even as she had the thought, she hit the solid curve of the ring, driving her breath out again. Yorgan’s eyes flashed with triumph, and he risked exposure for a broad sweep that tore the shield from her hand and sent it flying.
Dania gasped in shock and pain. She ducked her head and raised her sword to block the incoming blow from his shield.
The wood connected with a crack, driving her arm back and against the wall. Dania felt something fall against her shoulder.
A quick glance told her that he had broken her sword. Now only a shard of wood remained jutting up from the handle. He had completely disarmed her, and the match was over.
But Yorgan wasn’t finished with her yet. With a manic grin, he thrust his sword hard enough to impale her to the wall. She deflected the blow by striking his forearm with all her strength, but only a slippery dodge to the right allowed her to slip under his shield and sprint away.
Yorgan spun and came at her full tilt, murder in his eyes. Seides was grinning from the owner’s box. Lord Argoneis seemed amused. Dania expected Farel to be racing to the announcing horn to declare Yorgan the winner, but he was doing nothing. He just sat there, one finger pressed thoughtfully to his lips as he leaned on his hand.
“You’ve won!” Dania screamed as she ran off to Yorgan’s left, trying to keep on his shield side. “What are you doing?”
The blond man just laughed, shouted in his strange tongue, and kept coming. He feinted with his shield and struck with his sword, scraping a gash on her left arm. Before the pain from that even registered, he swung his shield in an arc intended to crush her skull.
And still Farel did not end the match.
Dania heard herself shriek as if from a distance as blow after blow came at her. Rolling to avoid the falchion, she ended up on her back, unable to protect herself from this madman.
Strike swift like a viper.
Her arm moved as if of its own accord, responding to Kathke’s words. Dania jammed the splintered remnant of her sword up into Yorgan’s inner thigh, and pulled it out again just as quickly. Suddenly warm, slick, and wet, she scrabbled out from under him and darted out of reach.
The man didn’t even cry out. He took a step towards her, then another. And then he seemed to realize something was wrong. He just stood there looking confused as his lifeblood jetted onto the ground. His rage turned to panic, and his face drained of color.
The tumult from the crowd grew as more of them realized what was happening, and Dania distantly heard her name being called in jubilation. Yorgan stumbled after her, his sword dropping from limp fingers, and then his shield.
Then he slumped forward, and the place went insane.
Dania glared at Farel as he slowly approached the trumpet, but he just favored her with a secretive smile.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I think we have a winner.”
“Did you do that on purpose?” Dania asked, glowering.
Farel leaned back in his chair and put his feet up on his desk, then blew out a cloud of smoke. “Do what on purpose?”
“Did you tell Yorgan to keep coming at me even if he won?”
Farel casually drew the smoke into his mouth and let it dribble out as he said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Dania resisted the urge to launch herself across the desk and ram the cigar down his lying throat. “He was going to kill me.”
“Better get used to that.” Farel gave her a half smile. “I told him to give you a run for your money. This was your first match against a human. I wanted to see how you fared if you thought your life was in danger. Maybe he didn’t understand what I was asking, but you won that match square. Maybe this will help take some of the sting away.” He reached into the pocket of his jerkin and withdrew a small pouch. He threw it to her, and it jingled as she caught it midair.
Dania pulled the strings open, and saw a handful of gold coins glistening within. “For me?”
Farel nodded, his grin growing wider. “I told you that you would go far with me. This is just a taste of things to come.”
Her mind raced. The shock of having taken her first life had gradually dissipated over the last several hours, leaving nothing but ire behind. Callo had always made clear to her the difference between deception and betrayal.
But she already knew that she couldn’t trust anyone here, or count on anything.
Callo would have told her to use that to her advantage.
“All right,” she said, tying the bag closed again. “I want a day pass.”
Farel raised an eyebrow. “You think I’m going to let you leave again after your little outing?”
Dania raised one right back. “You think I would ask for a pass if I wanted to escape?”
He considered her for a moment in silence, sucking on his cigar.
“I can leave this as collateral.” Dania held out the pouch.
Farel shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
“Then I’ll go chaperoned. Send Ramous with me.”
Farel tapped the ash into a brass pot, and sighed. “All right. You can take the eunuch. But I warn you, I will not be so merciful if you try to get away again.”
Dania smiled. “Don’t worry about that.”
As long as Calistos drew breath, this place was home.
She tossed the bag in the air and caught it again over and over as she went back to her room. The shuttle wouldn’t be coming until tomorrow, so she had all night to think about what she was going to do next. Kathke had taught her the rudiments of money, so she had some idea what she could and couldn’t do with what was in her little pouch.
But one thing was foremost on her mind.
Dania boarded the shuttle the next morning with Ramous the eunuch and a couple of other gladiators. She remembered the day that Kathke explained what a eunuch was; she hadn’t known whether to laugh or shudder. His gold bracelets and earrings set off his dark skin, and the loose white outfit and purple turban he wore made him look almost like a Normal. He stayed by her side from the moment she left the shuttle, but spoke not a word to her as she first went to purchase pastries from the market vendors, then got herself an outfit more suited to the city.
The last stop would be the most important, and she had allotted the largest chunk of time for it. It actually required more than a day, but when Farel heard what she had in mind, he approved the pass, so long as she was willing to pay for the overnight lodging for Ramous.
She left the eunuch waiting outside Mother Chayel’s shop. Mya greeted her with joy, and led her out back to where Mother Chayel tended her garden.
Dania acknowledged the old woman’s joyful greeting, then held out her sword arm. “I want you to sing me a song.”
The serpent slithered down her arm, singing a song of power. Lethal in quietude. Strength through subtlety. A stylized fire-spirit in blue ink, it emerged from a sun on her shoulder and wrapped around her biceps like a wedding ribbon, its diamond head coming to rest on the outside of her forearm.
Those who do not rise to strength will lie down to die.
Dania flexed her grip on the dagger, watching the muscle shift under the song. The flesh burned and wept blood at first, but that had not lasted long. She counted the pain as a reminder of the life she lived, and the focus she would need to kill Calistos.
Kathke’s death was the sword that pierced her heart every day, but she would weep no more. Never would she show her fear, or allow herself to be weak.
I am the serpent. I am the wolf-bear. I am the spider. I am all that is swift and deadly, and will bring fear to my enemies.
Farel had approved of her new adornment, not that she cared. But since Kathke’s death, he had taken more time out to watch her katas and instruct her on upcoming matches. Don’t worry so much about control, he would say. You’ve been training long enough that it’s instinctive. Focus now on your power. You’re at your best when you let yourself go.
Dania pulled herself out of the trance, and stepped over the body of the convict. It had happened so fast the audience had taken a few moments to react in stunned disbelief. The impressed gasps and cheers intermingled with complaints that they hadn’t gotten their money’s worth.
She strode to the owner’s box and glared at Farel, who slowly descended the steps to meet her at the wall.
“They don’t seem happy,” she said uncertainly.
Farel tried unsuccessfully to hide a smirk. “No, they don’t, do they?”
“What do they want, to see it again?”
“I think so.”
Dania twirled her daggers, regarded the crowd for a moment, then shrugged. “Then send out another.”
After each victory in the pit, Dania rewarded herself with a visit to Caileen. Every time, she came back with a new appreciation for good food and a new song to add to her collection. An abstract wolf’s head adorned her scalp, and a torch blazed on her left arm above a stylized dagger. A spider straddled her left calf.
Dania had followers now; the people who loved to bet on her called her Blood Goddess. She accepted it. She had steeled herself against the faces in the pit. Stepping stones, obstacles. Nothing mattered but the goal.
With the passing months, she saw the unease grow in the eyes of the other fighters. Calistos avoided her, though she didn’t flatter herself enough to think that it was out of fear. Though he never admitted it, Farel most likely told him to steer clear. He had never put them together, and in the three years since Kathke’s death, Dania grew impatient.
The moons shone full on the compound. Dania had long eschewed the women’s time at the bathstream, preferring to bathe alone. The one time that one of the men had decided to follow her in, Farel lost one of his prize gladiators.
He hadn’t been happy about it, but he said nothing, and no one else had bothered her since.
Dania frowned at the sound of running water and the humid waves of steam wafting up the corridor. She really didn’t want to have to deal with this again.
Quietly, she padded around the corner.
Farel stood in the bathstream, leaning with his palms against the wall and letting the water sluice over his muscular body. He had once called himself her father, and while he was old enough, he had kept himself fit over the years, and hardly aged since he first selected her at the slave market.
Noticing her presence, Farel turned his head and mopped the water out of his eyes. For a moment, he regarded her with uncertainty, then gave a lopsided grin. “The pipes are blocked in my suite. Until it’s fixed, I’m stuck using these.”
Dania said nothing as he stood there, making no effort to go for his towel. He was vulnerable now, but then, so was she. With no armor or weapons, she wasn’t sure she could kill him, or at least do so cleanly. The notion was tantalizing. With Farel dead, no one would stop her from confronting Calistos. And then she would be free.
But then, Farel had not killed her when he had a chance. He had rebuked her and taken her back under his wing. His hard face had always softened when he looked at her, and he was always so proud of her victories. He wanted her to win her freedom, not merely be given it like a cheap trinket.
“What are you staring at?”
Dania’s tongue failed her.
Farel stepped towards her, hand held out invitingly. “Dania, in the years you’ve been here, I’ve shown you how to be a fighter. Maybe it’s time to show you how to be a woman.”
Thief. Slave. Killer.
The words hardly had any meaning to Dania. They defined her, and yet failed to describe the raging inferno within. Freedom called to her from under a dusty chamber pot in an empty room, and yet day after day she said no to the beckoning. Not until Calistos lay dead at her feet, she swore.
Farel’s words, so similar to Calistos’, should have sent her into a fury. But she found herself walking forward in a daze, ready for something, anything, to give her life a modicum of pleasure, her heart an iota of warmth.
Shortly after their first encounter, Farel had her start drinking a draft that put a halt to the Mystery. It made her feel edgy and angry half the time, but he said that was good for her fight, and she didn’t need any little ones putting her out of commission or distracting her. She was too valuable.
Not surprisingly, Farel was not much tenderer in love than he was in battle. But he was always there, and it was good to have something to look forward to.
Farel stopped telling her who her next opponent would be, so she was always prepared for anything. Team fights were rare; people tended to prefer watching her set against opponents on her own. That was fine. It meant that she didn’t have to look out for anyone besides herself.
Life was so much simpler when everyone around you was an enemy.
Despite the fact that Dania had spent a fair amount on the songs that now practically covered her body, her rewards had grown substantially. Some had openly wondered what she was doing with all that money, but she didn’t oblige them with an answer. She had dug the hole under the unused bed even larger to accommodate her earnings. When she was finally out of here, she would be able to do whatever she wanted.
If only she could figure out what that was.
Dania regarded the nape of Farel’s neck as he slept, and thumbed the tip of the stiletto she had discovered hidden under his bed. Typically, he sent her back to her own quarters, but last night he had fallen asleep, and so she had stayed, pondering what to do next.
She was getting too good at what she did. Farel was starting to lose money on her, because no one would bet against him anymore. Moreover, Dania tended to kill everyone put in the pit with her, so she was not matched with anyone Farel didn’t want dead.
At this rate, she would have to take matters into her own hands.
Dania leaned closer, the point of the stiletto hovering over his heart, her own pounding in tense indecision.
Farel started at the motion, then rolled over and opened his eyes.
She didn’t have time to hide the knife.
He coughed, and for a moment, neither of them moved.
Then, as if coming to an inward decision, he nodded. “Sleep well, did you?”
“Not very, no.” Dania did not lower the stiletto.
Farel eyed the cigar on the stand next to him, as if that were the most important thing to him at this moment, but spread his palms out on the bed to show her that he was not going to do anything. “You know,” he said, clearing his throat, “I’ve been doing some thinking.”
“Have you, now.”
“I told you when I first got you that you’re my prize fighter, and I’ll be honest; I’ve been reluctant to lose you.” He leaned against the headboard when he saw that she made no movement to attack. “But you’ve done your part. You’ve earned back my investment and more. In short, I think it’s time to let you go, if you want to go.”
“I can have my freedom anytime I want. You know what I’ve been waiting for.”
Farel took a deep breath, and nodded. “Calistos.”
“You’ve put me against others in the compound. I know those two lords pay extra for those matches. Why haven’t you put me in the ring with him?” Dania pointed the stiletto at him accusingly, and he flinched, though most wouldn’t have noticed it.
He looked questioningly at his cigar again, and Dania nodded. It wasn’t as if he could do much to her at this point. Farel took it with a grateful look, then glanced about for a means to light it. There wasn’t one, and Dania didn’t feel like letting him get up to search. He settled for sticking it in his mouth and sucking lightly at the tip.
“I’ve been taking an account of your winnings. I do that with all the fighters, so don’t give me that look. I know that you’re as good as gone as soon as you … get what you want. I’ve been wanting to propose a couple of things to you, but there never seemed to be a good time.”
Finally, he looked so miserable that Dania gestured with her stiletto towards the fireplace, where a few embers still burned from last night’s fire. Farel grasped the sheet and wrapped it around himself, then thrust the cigar into the ashen wood until it began to smoke.
He shuddered as he took in a mouthful of the dense vapor, then dropped into the chair in the corner and eyed her. “I’ve thought about a lot of things, Dania, including partnership in the school. But something tells me that wouldn’t interest you.”
Dania shook her head.
“Yeah, I didn’t think so.” Farel tapped ash onto the hearth. “I can promise you Calistos, but I need you to make a good showing on your last match. Something a little special. Lord Seides has taken a liking to you, you see, and promised a goodly increase to his usual stipend if he could see you in what he calls a real fight.”
Dania shrugged, and set the stiletto aside. She paced in and out of the beam of sunlight warming the floor. “Fine. He wants a challenge, I’m up to it. Just give me Calistos.”
Farel sat in the chair in the corner, eying her. “I can do that. And I’ll sweeten the pot for you.”
Dania raised an eyebrow.
“Finish this one, and I’ll let you go for nothing. You don’t have to buy your freedom. Keep your earnings, and start the life you want.”
“What’s the catch?”
Farel exhaled a large cloud. “Multiple fighters.”
She shrugged. “I’ve done plurals before.”
“Three. Seides wants to see you take on seven.”
Dania halted in the sun. “SEVEN?”
Farel nodded. “He rolled dice for the number. I’ve been putting him off. He and Lord Argoneis have been privately raising the stakes with each other on this.”
“Does he want to see me die?” she asked, incredulous.
“He wants to test you, I think.” He favored her with a wistful smile. “Like I said, I don’t want to lose you.”
Just live through this, and you’re done.
Dania ignored the chants of “Blood Goddess” as she slowly walked to the center of the ring. What the crowd did was immaterial. She needed to focus as she had never focused before. Eight doors lay open. One of those she had just come through. Seven fighters would be coming through the others, all with one goal:
To eliminate her.
Seides and Argoneis sat in the owner’s box, nearly giddy, it seemed. Farel watched her from his position near the announcing trumpet. He was letting the audience garner energy. Just as the commotion died down, he nodded, and the drumming began.
True to form, the frenzy started to build. Dania’s heart hammered against her ribs as one after another of her opponents emerged from the dark, each from a separate door. Hadelid, with her slender spear. Gurta with her long sword. Stathin with his short sword and shield. Nurn the giant, standing a span above the tallest man and wielding a spear and shield. Lean Falner, a convicted murderer, with his broken nose and trident and net. Heavy Porthes, who always seemed to suffer from too much drink, brandishing his shield and swinging his flail. Handur, a small man spinning long twin daggers with forked hand guards.
All eight doors closed at once, leaving her irrevocably trapped with these killers. She drew one of her daggers from its sheath, leaving the other at her waist.
When Dania fought, she was accustomed to the sounds around her dropping into a muted garble in the background. Her vision tended to tunnel, occluding everything to the sides, honing in on her opponent.
As the drums continued and the fighters advanced, she felt herself being lifted outside her body, rising above the tumult to a clear solitary voice. For all she knew, it was the song her spirit sang to her of freedom. But she saw all of her opponents with clarity, cataloging their strengths and weaknesses in a heartbeat.
The drums stopped, and so did the other fighters, arranged in a ring around her.
Leaders first was the rule of multiple opponents.
There were no leaders here.
Just seven individual killers.
Nurn the giant lunged forward, putting all his strength into a blow meant to impale her to the ground. Dania grabbed his arm and punched into his jugular, withdrawing in a split second. She used a kick to his stomach to launch herself away from his bulk and grasping arms so he couldn’t overwhelm her before he realized he was dead.
As she landed, Porthes grazed Dania’s arm with his flail, tearing the flesh and eliciting a scream. A direct hit would have shattered bone and crippled her, no doubt precipitating the end of the fight. But the pain just enraged her. Meanwhile, the giant, heart pumping a geyser of blood from his neck, flung his shield arm out wildly as he spun and fell. He nearly brained Stathin, who swore and leapt back.
Falner grinned at the opportunity to rush in, and swung his net in an attempt to sweep Dania’s feet out from under her. She leapt and rolled out of the way, only to feel the slender steel tip of Hadelid’s spear graze the laces of her cuirass. The leather armor loosened, but held. Dania leapt up, kicked Hadelid in the stomach, then the face, and did a swift back-kick to the woman behind her, collapsing her knee.
A swift thrust through the eye put Hadelid out of commission, and Dania whirled to boot Gurta in the side of the head. Falner, no longer grinning, swiped at her again with the net, but caught Porthes’ flail mid-swing instead.
Dania’s blood pounded in her temples. While Porthes swore and tried to disentangle his flail, she plunged her dagger into the back of his knee, then slid the blade over to cut the tendon. Falner abandoned his net and came at her with his trident, keeping his pauldroned arm forward so as to protect his exposed side. Dania dodged, seized his arm, and used his momentum to pull him into the knee she brought up to meet his stomach. As he doubled over, she buried her dagger to the hilt in his back. He fell with a gurgling scream.
Porthes wept and gripped his fat leg, trying to push himself away from the fray with his functioning one, while Falner clawed at the dirt and gasped, blood flecking his mouth. Nurn lay crumpled in the earth alongside Hadelid, and Gurta hopped on one leg and dragged the other, doing her best to keep Dania at bay with her long sword.
Handur’s expression was hidden by his long black mustache, but he regarded her with something approaching respect. Stathin shifted the grip on his sword nervously.
Every fighter had tells. Of course, they had all seen her in action, but she had seen them as well. Stathin always drew a breath before attacking.
This time was no different.
He inhaled, and drew his sword back. Dania allowed it to pass over her, bracing herself on the ground, then swung her leg up and broke his nose. Unbelievably, Gurta had made her way back into their midst. She lunged forward in a move calculated to disembowel Dania.
Dania ducked to the side, but icy fire seared across her upper thigh.
Gurta raised her sword to finish Dania while she was on the ground. Dania rolled into the back of Stathin’s thighs, and he collapsed on top of her. Gurta’s sword found his abdomen, and he screamed. Dania scooted out from under his writhing legs and forced herself to her feet, her leg burning. She withdrew her second dagger and ran around behind Gurta.
Dania drove her foot into the back of Gurta’s good knee. The woman screamed and dropped to the ground. Dania crossed her daggers in front of Gurta’s throat and withdrew with a whisper of steel.
Handur, who had been waiting until he had a clear shot, suddenly danced forward, dark hair swinging as his long-bladed daggers carved an intricate weave of death in the air. She attempted to block, but he was too fast, and with a swift twist, had used the blade and handguard of his own weapon to flip one of Dania’s out of her hand. She had no choice but to retreat before he carved her into ribbons. She shoved her remaining dagger back into its sheath and dashed to where Porthes groveled in the earth. Without missing a beat, she ducked and snatched his flail.
She knew she couldn’t last much longer at this rate. Blood soaked her arm and leg, and every movement hurt. Dania started swinging the heavy flail, hating the feel of it. It was an ugly weapon, a spiked ball on a chain, clearly designed for someone stronger and crueler than she. But she turned and faced Handur, and smashed it into his left hand. He gasped, and one of his daggers went flying. Then, and only then, did she see fear in his eyes. Still, he let his maimed hand fall, and came after her with the remaining blade.
Dania swung with all her might, wrapping the chain around his wrist, and jerked. Her torn arm sent waves of agony through her, but that second was all she needed. As he stumbled forward, she brought her leg out and around him, then pulled him to the ground.
The next moment, her dagger was out of its sheath and buried in his brain.
Thunderous cheers erupted as she realized that she stood alone in the pit. Panting, she pressed her hands to her thighs, then limped up to the owner’s box where a surly Daman Argoneis was counting out coins into a jubilant Baron Seides’ palm.
“Well done,” Farel shouted proudly above the din. “I knew you could do it.”
She looked him straight in the eye.“You’ll keep your word?”
With a faint smile, he nodded. “You’ve earned it.”
The drums began again, and the crowd, still cheering, roared anew. Dania whirled, and the ring spun around her. She needed to get to the medics.
The doors directly opposite the box were open.
And dead ahead of her, there was Calistos, as smug as she had ever seen him.
Dania cast a dismayed glance back at Farel, but he simply shrugged and took his seat again.
So this was how she was going to be awarded her prize. Beaten to the point of exhaustion, nearly passing out with blood loss. Hope fled like a skittish bird. She saw her death in the eyes of Kathke’s killer as he calmly made his way towards her, strength in his gait.
Gasping with pain, Dania slowly moved towards the bodies strewn in her wake. She stumbled and knelt by Handur’s body. She tried to retrieve her weapon, but it was stuck in Handur’s skull. So she pried the dagger out of his hand and retrieved the other from the ground a few feet away. Although one always hoped to begin and end a fight with one’s own weapons, sometimes you had to improvise.
Then she forced herself to her feet, weaving a bit. Eyes on Calistos, she tested the weight of Handur’s daggers and settled them into her grip. Good balance, nice feel.
Calistos no longer looked smug, but he was no idiot. He approached her with caution, keeping his shield high and his sword ready. His feet slithered sideways across the earth as he circled her, looking for an opening. “So I hear you’ve been asking for me. You know you could have had me anytime.”
I am the serpent. Dania panted as she turned in the sand to stay facing him. “The only place I want you is in the ground.”
Calistos twirled his sword lightly. “You’ll beat me there, I’m afraid.”
I am the wolf-bear. I bring fear to my enemies. Dania lurched forward, dagger flashing towards his exposed midriff.
Calistos gazed at her with disbelief and fury, then drove her backwards towards the dead in a series of flashing sweeps of the sword. Her daggers rang with each blow she deflected, and she could feel her grip weakening. The nerves in her fingers tingled, and she knew it was only a matter of time before she could no longer hold on. She had to get ahead of him somehow, perhaps far enough that she could throw a dagger. She needed a ranged weapon; these would not do. The spear? Gurta’s sword? Stathin’s? The blows kept coming faster and harder, and her skull throbbed.
A hand gripped her ankle, and she tumbled onto her back, the wind going out of her in a rush. Porthes, still alive, had grabbed her as she walked over him.
Calistos seized the moment. He rushed forward and thrust downward with all his might. Dania barely had the strength to bring her dagger up and out to deflect the blow. She felt a dreadful pinch in her left side, and looked down in terror. The sword which would have impaled her at the navel instead had pinned the exposed skin of her flank to the ground.
Calistos grinned in triumph.
Dania gritted her teeth and let the daggers fall from her hands, clutching her fingers in the air in agony. Somewhere in the distance, the crowd howled in dismay and shock.
“Thought you’d take me out, did you?” Calistos knelt down and leered at her. “Did you really think you could beat me?”
Dania choked for breath, and did not answer.
Calistos shook his head. “All those years, waiting for revenge for one woman you shared a room with. Were they worth it?”
Dania mouthed words, but no sound came out.
Calistos leaned closer. “What’s that? I can’t hear you.”
She whispered again.
He frowned and brought his face within inches of hers. “What?”
Dania grasped him by the face and plunged her thumbs into his eyes, burying them deep. He screamed and jerked away, blood running from ruined sockets.
“…I’ve never liked the way you looked at me.”
Calistos staggered, making incoherent sounds as he tried to flee. The crowd’s jubilation washed over her as she forced herself to work the blade out of her side and stand up.
Dania limped after him, dragging his sword dripping with her blood.
Time to finish this.
With a single slash to the back of his ankles, she hamstrung him. Then, as he dropped to his knees and held his hands out to catch himself, she swept upward and cleaved his throat to the bone.
Calistos gurgled, then crumpled to the earth.
It was over. It was finally all over.
The roar of the spectators assailed her ears, and her vision blurred. The doors opened, and Dania didn’t even bother to see Farel’s reaction. She planted the sword in Porthes’ chest for good measure as she plodded over, willing herself not to fall. A couple of men waited in the hallway to escort her to the healers.
Before she could react, one of them clapped shackles onto her wrists.
Dania bucked, but was too weak to resist. One of the men covered her mouth and nose with a damp cloth, and she choked on the odor of something she hadn’t smelled since that fateful day with the Faragow. She felt the hauntingly familiar effects of the drug taking over, but tried to force her mind to stay focused and alert. The two men escorted her along the hallway, still heading in the direction of the medics.
They came to one of the unused sparring stalls, and told her to sit on the bench. Though she tried to resist, her body obeyed.
Male voices echoed in her head, coming closer. It sounded to Dania as if they were arguing about the price of some commodity.
Baron Seides came around the corner, and eyed her with hunger. “Ah, there’s our little fighter. Yes, of course you’re right, Farel. What a performance! Now that the repairs are done on the arena, it’s time to graduate her to a venue more appropriate to her skill.”
Farel followed him, and stood watching her for any movement. “She’s a valuable asset, Baron. I can’t afford to let her go.”
What was going on? In some distantly raging part of her mind, she realized that she had been betrayed. But surely Farel wouldn’t do this to her. It must be just for show. He did sound as if he were trying to discourage the Baron.
Seides walked over to her with some trepidation, then, as if daring himself, stretched out his hand and caressed Dania’s cheek. Then, with renewed excitement, he jumped back as if he had come close to a dangerous animal. “I must have her! Name your price, Farel; she’s an absolute gem!”
Farel looked skeptical. “You give her half a chance,” he warned, “she’ll rip you to shreds.”
He was serious.
So be it. Dania would wait this drug out, escape, and collect all of the money she had been saving for this day. And then she would kill Farel on her way out the door.
The other man’s eyes filled with lust. “I must have her,” he repeated, shaking his head and smiling with wonder and anticipation.
Farel pulled him aside and murmured in the Baron’s ear. The man nodded eagerly.
The medics finally showed up, scolding Farel for keeping her from them for so long. Dania almost welcomed the needle and the warmth that ensued, wrapping her in a blanket of detached comfort.
The room began swimming…
Dania woke up inexplicably cold. She tried to get up, but found herself unable to move her limbs. She looked down at herself, and real panic set in for the first time. Her arms and legs were bound with leather restraints. The walls were stone, like those of the compound, but she didn’t recognize this place. She had to have been moved while she was unconscious.
Baron Seides was there, eying her, waiting for her to come to consciousness. She struggled, but the leather didn’t budge. He drew closer, and stood over her exposed form.
“The healers say you will need some time,” he said. “But when you have recovered, I will have you.”
How many times have I said it? One day, I shall be free, and I shall kill you.
Dania tugged at the chain again.
The chain was connected to a steel plate. The plate was bolted to the stone wall. The stone wall was part of the dank room she now called home, a tiny cell in the basement of Baron Seides’ mansion.
She had lost track of the years. Freedom was nothing but a distant memory. She was a thing, a puppet; sent to kill during the day, fetched, bound, and used at night. Each new victory just reinforced the fact that the song of her life was blood and sorrow.
Every night, she pulled at this chain until she grew too weary to continue. In the mornings, she would resume it until it was time for her breakfast.
Another round of games was scheduled for today. Some gladiator upstart named Andrus was to be her match, a graduate from Farel’s school, no doubt. She hardly ever saw Farel anymore. She scarcely remembered her life before Baron Seides and the arena. Death meant nothing to her; she was the Blood Goddess, and her life with Callo was a dream.
The steel plate came free, swinging at the end of her shackle before clattering to the floor. For a long time, Dania just stared at it, incredulous.
Seides’ guards would be coming soon to collect her and take her to the arena. She would have to give this some careful thought. She replaced the plate in the wall, taking care to brush away any loose rock. Lacing her hands behind her head, she leaned back.
Then, for the first time in years, Dania smiled.
Dania’s story continues in
Bid the Gods Arise
Available in print and ebook at all major online retailers.
Coming soon from
Crimson Moon Press
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robert Mullin is a cryptozoologist who has traveled to Africa three times in search of a living dinosaur. He was featured on an episode of the History Channel’s television show, MONSTER QUEST. He is also the creator of , one of the premier fan timelines. Rob is currently working on book two of .
In BID THE GODS ARISE, readers were introduced to the hardened gladiatrix, Dania. Now, in this standalone prequel novella, we learn the story of how the orphaned pickpocket comes of age and grows to become the Blood Goddess of the gladiatorial arena of a distant world. Young Dania never imagined a life beyond the caravan and her cutpurse youth, but when she is kidnapped and sold as a slave, her life takes a violent turn. Raised in the barracks of a pit-fighting compound, she yearns to return to her beloved home. Misled, seduced, and betrayed, will she choose freedom ... or revenge?