Authors: Alan Burt Akers
Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Fantasy
I took two strands of the net into my fists and wrenched, and wrenched two more, and so tore a hole in the net.
I thrust up through the net, kicking it from me.
The first man was upon me.
I slid his sword, chopped him across the neck, took his sword away, and parried the immediately following onslaught from three of his fellows.
They sought to strike me with the flat and so knock me senseless.
I used the edge, for I cared nothing of them.
They wore armor and billowing cloaks, very romantic in the streaming moonlight. I was near naked, clad only in an old scarlet breechclout I had had no time to fasten properly.
That I, Dray Prescot, Krozair of Zy, Lord of Strombor — and much else besides — should be laid low by a breechclout!
And — my own old scarlet breechclout, at that.
I sprang and leaped and fought and beat them back and so took stock of a fine half-vove and readied myself to leap upon his broad back and so urge him away with those special clansmen’s words that only we and the voves may understand.
I leaped all right — but I was heading downward instead of upward.
The scarlet breechclout had finally untwisted and fallen about my legs. Tripped, I pitched headlong.
In the next moment something extraordinarily hard and heavy sledged alongside my head and there was no time for a single chime from the bells of Beng-Kishi.
In the Jikhorkdun
Nath the Arm glowered on the recruits as we stood on silver sand in the wooden-walled ring, blinking in the suns-light, shuffling our feet. We were coys, for anything that is young and green and untested on Kregen is often dubbed a coy, with a sly laugh, and we screwed up our eyes and stared up at Nath the Arm as he looked down on us from his pedestal.
“Unequal combat is the secret,” he roared at us. “That is what pulls the crowds. You’ll be unequal, and if you live, maybe you’ll be unequal the other way.” Nath the Arm chortled, his massive black beard oiled and threaded with gold, his wide-winged ruby-colored jerkin of supple voskskin brilliant with gems, his kilt a splash of vivid saffron. He wore silver greaves. His black hair, graying at the temples, was savagely cut back around his ears.
The villainous fellow with the black hair who had thrashed about with the sword, back where I had chastised the Rhaclaws, swallowed and grimaced at me. “Unequal?”
“Silence, rasts!” Nath the Arm thumped a meaty fist onto the wooden rail before him. His face, leathery, whiskered, and lined, crisscrossed with old scars, loomed above us, the huge blue-black beard glittering with gold. “You talk when I tell you. You do
when I tell you.”
As though we had been faced with a victorious render crew we had been given the alternatives. We could become slaves and work on the farms or in industry or the mines. We might become fodder for the Jikhorkdun. We might, if we thought ourselves apt enough with a weapon, become kaidurs, beginning, of course, as coys. Or, we could be slaughtered, there and then, out of hand.
Some, who with a shake of the head said they knew of these things, had chosen to go as slaves.
Those of us here, in the small sanded practice ring hot and sticky beneath the Suns of Scorpio, had chosen to become coys and so perhaps, one day, if we lived, to become kaidurs.
Escape, we had been told, was impossible, and then, with many a sly wink and nod, Nath the Arm pointed out to us the wonderful advantages enjoyed by a great kaidur: the gold he received as purses, the girls who sighed and lusted for him, the wine he might quaff, the soft living between bouts in the Jikhorkdun where the maddened crowd showered him with plaudits.
The arena, Nath the Arm told us, was the life for a man.
Well, I had heard a little of the arenas of Hamal and of Hyrklana, and we were in the capital city of Hyrklana, Huringa, just as the scorpion had promised me.
Listening as Nath the Arm threatened and promised I had already agreed with myself that at the first opportunity I would test if escape was impossible or not. I needed to get back to Migla and discover what was going on there, after the great Battle of the Crimson Missals, and assure myself that Delia was safe. I shuddered more than a little, as you may well judge, at the thought that any of my comrades might discover how I had tripped over my own scarlet breechclout. How Seg and Inch would roar! How Hap Loder and Prince Varden would chuckle! How Turko would lift a quizzical eyebrow! How, in short, all my good comrades would think it a great jest that I, Dray Prescot, had been brought low by a breechclout.
Questions as to dates produced the same bewildering and conflicting replies as one would find over all of Kregen. Men called their days by names they fancied themselves, and sennights likewise. With seven moons floating in the sky the month — surprisingly moon-cycle mensuration was known and practiced — hardly counted. As for seasons, men dated the beginning of a seasonal cycle from many and various occurrences. Usually it would be from the founding of a city, as in the case of Rome on Earth, or a great game cycle, as of the Greeks and their Olympiads, or the birth of a great philosopher, or the travel of a seer from the place of his birth to the place of his ministry, very familiar to us on Earth. Hyrklana dated her seasons from the foundation of the Lily City Klana — the old capital away down in the south of the island, long since tumbled into ruin. By that reckoning this was the year 2076. A relatively new nation, on Kregen, then, the people of Hyrklana.
I wondered if I would meet Princess Lilah. That, I owned as I sweated through the drills prescribed by Nath the Arm, would be pleasurable. I was human enough to admit that a great deal of the pleasure would come from what I hoped would be her immediate adoption of me as friend and her instant removal of my ugly old carcass from the arena. But I knew, too, that the deeper part of that pleasure would be in the knowledge she had escaped successfully astride that fluttrell from the Manhounds of Faol.
We were afforded an early opportunity to see what occurred in the Jikhorkdun of this city of Huringa.
The suns shot their brilliant rays across the raked silver sand. Blood spots were covered with fresh sprinkled sand, raked and leveled. Deeply into the ground, in a great natural hollow, had been set the arena. Around it and sloping up the sides of the honeycombed hill rose tier after tier of seats and private boxes. Above these towered the walls, lofting high, carrying the terraced seating away up to dizzying heights. I have mentioned that the telescope is known on Kregen, and a spectator up there would have need of one when the combats were staged down in the arena. When the peculiar Kregan form of vol-combat was produced, then everyone had his or her own chance to see everything that might occur.
The coys clustered at iron bars covering the exit from an apprentice kaidurs tunnel.
I could see the opposite loft of the amphitheater. The spectacle presented a dizzying perspective of towering multicolored masses, of thousands of faces, mere white or tan or black dots, thousands of people, both halfling and apim, cheering and screaming and gesticulating, hurling down flowers or fruit rinds, old cheeses, rotten gregarians, hurling down golden deldys and silver sinvers and copper obs.
The roar, the noise, the sheer caterwauling bedlam of it all broke about our heads like a rashoon bursting in primitive violence.
“By Opaz!” breathed Naghan the Gnat, at my side. A little fellow, all gristle and bone, he stared out in great apprehension.
“No wild beast will wish you to fill his belly, Naghan the Gnat!” bellowed Lart the Stink. He was aptly named and we gave him a wide berth. We had fallen into a rough comradeship, these coys in this training bunch, about twenty of us. We lived and ate and talked together. We trained in the wooden-walled ring, one of many set in the complex of buildings and courtyards to the rear of the amphitheater. Now we were watching what we would be doing in a sennight or less.
Men strutted out there, their armor blinding in the light of Far and Havil, the twin Suns of Scorpio, named thus here in Havilfar. We saw the quick twinkle of swords, the bright gush of blood. We saw and understood what Nath the Arm meant about unequal combat, for swordsman was not pitted against swordsman; rather, the Hyrklanish relished a swordsman against a stux-man, or a rapier-and-dagger man against a shield-and-buckler man, a retiarius against a slinger. We saw the way the fights went. We sweated out all one long afternoon there, clutching those iron bars, hearing the horrid yells of the crowd and the despairing screams of the dying. As a final fillip a bunch of slaves who had not been selected for anything useful in the land were herded out, and wild neemus, black and sleek and deadly, devoured them with a great crunching of bones and a spilling of blood.
There were many things that went on in the Jikhorkdun of Huringa I will not mention to you, for we are supposed to be civilized people, and such things are abhorrent to us.
Yet was not the land of Hyrklana civilized? Did they not manufacture airboats? And was not that beautiful girl, the Princess Lilah of Hyrklana, one of the inhabitants of this island? Truly, civilization means many different things in the different worlds of space.
Naghan the Gnat said, “They will not get me out there!”
The Hyrklanish who organized the games for the arena employed Rhaclaws and other beast-men to control the kaidurs. They told Naghan the Gnat what would happen to him if he did not venture out upon the silver sand with us. He shivered; but he took his stux in hand and crept out with us when it was our turn, the day appointed for us to show if we could live through the unequal combat and so begin the long path of combat and victory that might lead to perhaps just one of us becoming a kaidur.
The amphitheater had been built in a classically oval shape. The lofting terraces had been divided vertically into four sections, each section, rather naturally, with one of the four full colors: blue, green, yellow, red. It fell to our lot to walk out onto the sand wearing red breechclouts, a red favor tied about our left arms, and a small leather helmet with tall red feathers. As you may imagine, I was not displeased that chance had brought me to fight once again under the red.
We each had two stuxes.
From the blue corner trotted half-men wearing half-armor, with blue favors and feathers, and carrying thraxters and shields. I frowned. This was unequal combat with a vengeance!
And yet there were twenty of us and only fifteen of the blues.
The beast roar from the crowded benches had to be ignored, to be rubbed away from the consciousness. We advanced over the silver sand and the suns burned down and the smell of beasts and the smell of human blood and sweat dizzied us. The blues formed a neat line and walked slowly towards us. We had been told what we must do. If we won, very well. But, as Nath the Arm had said, one thick hand searching his gold-threaded beard: “Whatever happens, you reds! Die well! Die like men! In dying show that you might have become kaidur!”
Each color had its own complex of training rings behind the amphitheater. I could not fail to understand Nath the Arm’s passionate desire for the reds to do well. This utter obsession with the Jikhorkdun besotted almost everyone in the city. Huge bets were wagered. Enormous sums of money, and land, zorcas, and vollers too, changed hands every day.
Through that crazed blood-lusting thunder of voices we heard Nath the Arm’s fierce last words.
“Fight well, reds! Fight for the ruby drang!”
The thought that for almost no extra reason at all Nath the Arm would leap out after us and join us in the fight was not an idle one. Nothing in Hyrklanan Huringa could arouse the passions as the chances and thrills and excitement of the Jikhorkdun.
The reds fought for the ruby drang.
The blues fought for the sapphire graint.
I knew that the yellows fought for the diamond zhantil.
The greens fought for the emerald neemu.
People were still crowding into the amphitheater, running down the steeply sloping stairs and edging along the terraces. This was still early in the day and the coys were put on as a mere appetizer, to keep the crowds amused before the main bouts. All the important combats would take place just before and during and after noon, so that the twin suns shining down would cast as few shadows as possible from the uplifting walls. After that, the spectacles tended more to the mammoth and bloodletting-in-droves style, with the skill and professional daring of the kaidurs over for the day. Usually — not always, as I was to find.
The blues advanced in their neat line. I judged they were apprentice kaidurs, just out of the coy stage. They were not apims. They were Blegs. If you have seen a representation of the face of a Persian leaf bat you may have some faint idea of the appearance of the faces of the Blegs. They do not possess the large and typical bat ears; their coloring is brilliant green and yellow and purple, with bright fur and skin patches; their lower jaws hang and the thin membrane there droops, to reveal a row of small, thin, and intensely sharp teeth. They have arms and shoulders very apimlike; their bodies are not unlike a man’s; but they have four legs from which the trunk springs almost vertically, rather like a tower rising from a four-legged support. Over their backs lies an atrophied carapace and it is thought they once had the power of flight.
The Blegs are considered, on a planet famed for its prolific life, as among the most hideous of quasi-humans.
Like almost any species on Kregen, the Blegs may be found in any of the continents and islands; but they are more usually to be found on Havilfar. Given that wide spread of the temperate regions north and south of the equator that makes so much of Kregen comfortably habitable to intelligent beings, one would expect to find a wide spreading of life-forms, flora and fauna, particularly as through the use of fliers, seeds and spores and people may move relatively freely from landmass to landmass.
The beast roar of the crowd, the reek of thousands of people crammed together, the heat of the suns, the crisp sliding feel of sand beneath my feet — I can feel them all as though they happened this morning. Yet I felt no animosity toward these hideous Blegs. They were halflings, beast-men, and yet I was being forced into fighting them for the debased amusement of these decadent spectators massed around me in the amphitheater.