Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Rachel Mrotek
Copyright July 1st, 2017
This story is dedicated to my family, my friends, and my most generous subscribers, whom I have listed below. Without their help, support, and contributions, this production would not be possible.
“It’s the only way.”
“It is not the only way.”
“We’ve been over this. We don’t have time for you to earn enough money to pay for all of us, and the caravan master only offered you a free ride. We’ll have to bet what we have to make up the rest.”
Ellyn fixed her face in a stern frown. The crowd had emptied their pockets for her when she stepped off the stage: iron ingots from Selapak, old defunct coins made from silver and copper, pearls; even pea-sized nuggets of gold and shards of semi-precious stone. She’d made more in an evening than Nathanius had in months. He was beginning to think he’d gotten into the wrong line of work. It had taken them twenty minutes to pick them all up from the floor. Now they sat at a table in the back. The barman had treated them to a free meal while they planned their next move.
Asterious would have to fight.
Ellyn wasn’t convinced.
“What about when we get to Selapak? Couldn’t the caravan master let us ride for free and work it off?”
Nathanius shook his head.
“I asked about that. He wasn’t interested unless you stayed with the caravan, without us.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“I believe you, but I trust Asterious in the pits more than I trust you on the trail alone. You’ve seen him fight.”
She didn’t have an answer to that.
Nathanius sipped his ale. It was awful.
“I still have a few friends who owe me in Selapak. They’ll put us up for the long dark. After that we can do whatever we want.”
Asterious crossed his arms.
“I’ll do it.”
“What if your friends can’t help us? You said yourself that the city goes crazy during the dark. Ice storms and riots, civil unrest, wild and hungry animals, and gangs of murderers and thieves roaming the streets in packs looking for food and firewood. How long before it starts?”
“We have time. The long dark isn’t expected to start for six weeks.”
“Didn’t you say it takes three weeks just to get there?”
“So we’ll have three weeks to get ready, at most, and that’s assuming it doesn’t fall apart before then.”
“We don’t have any choice.”
“Yes we do! We can all stay with the caravan.”
“No, we can’t.”
“Oh, you can’t work for them?”
He shook his head slowly.
“No, Ellyn. They only want you.”
The table went quiet. Asterious took a bite out of a stale roll. He chewed and spoke.
“Ellyn, it’ll be okay.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Sure, I do. Ellyn, please let me do this. It’s perfect! Nobody knows me around here. The odds will be incredible! We’ll make a fortune.”
“But you could die!”
Asterious choked down the bread and sipped his drink. He’d asked for wine, as though such a thing existed on Kalkonu. They’d given him some kind of stout beer instead.
“There’s no one here I couldn’t take in a fight.”
Nathanius raised an eyebrow.
“You sound pretty sure.”
Nathanius took a breath and looked at Ellyn.
“Then we’re agreed?”
She crossed her arms and looked away.
Nathanius nodded. Asterious stood up and went to find the fight organizer.
The two of them sat. She stared at him, a kind of dark gravity in her sharp and glittering eyes. He couldn’t figure out why she suddenly cared so much, and for Asterious of all people. He hadn’t left them alone that long.
“Ellyn. It will be okay.”
She set her jaw grimly as she spoke.
“It had better be.”
Ellyn shivered. A cold wind had begun to blow through the pass.
“You don’t even know who you’re fighting?”
“They put your name in a hat, or a bucket or something. Fighters are picked at random. It makes it harder to fix the matches.”
“But what if it’s, you know…”
Asterious turned and looked back at Ellyn.
This was infuriating.
“What if it’s someone you can’t beat?”
“I can beat anyone.”
She chuckled. If his bravado weren’t so consistent it might have been charming.
They were by the pit. Nathanius was right. It wasn’t much more than a hole in the ground. Long wooden posts with sharpened tips had been driven into the sides to keep combatants from climbing out. The fights had been going on all afternoon. The stakes were red with blood and blackened with dirt and entrails.
Ellyn couldn’t watch.
The combatants lounged in a corral nearby to wait their turn, seated at tables and on benches enjoying food and free beer provided by the fight promoter, a middle-aged Halfling. He stood on a wooden dais over the pit flanked by two huge bodyguards who, judging by their enormous physique and the green-grey pallor of their skin, had more than a few monstrous kin.
Nathanius was working the bookmakers, exercising yet another example of his carefully concealed skill set: gambling. Ellyn shook her head. He was a small-time crook, and probably a career criminal.
And they were trusting him.
She turned back to Asterious. He wasn’t drinking with the others. His eyes flicked from one man to the next in subtle movements. She could only guess at the details he was attempting to discern.
“Asterious,” she said.
He looked up.
“I appreciate what you said back in the bar. It was very kind.”
“It was good to see you enjoying yourself.”
She thumped gently the bulging purse at her hip and smiled.
“It was certainly profitable.”
“That wasn’t the point.”
“I know, and I wanted to thank you.”
He dusted off his hands and came to the rail.
They surveyed the gathering of fighters.
“So how do you like your odds?” Ellyn asked.
Asterious looked around.
“Pretty well. I’m younger than most of the people here, and a lot of them have old injuries, so that’s something.”
“You think you’ll win?”
“I think so.”
The crowd cheered. The promoter began to shout as a ladder was lowered into the pit and a tall human crawled out, bleeding from several slashes cut into his back. They shoved a bag of money into his chest and he staggered away. Ellyn wondered how many of the winners survived more than a few hours of glory.
They didn’t pull out the corpse.
The promoter began to shout.
“Alright, you animals! Time for the next bout!”
The crowd cheered as one of the bodyguards produced a heavy cast-iron pot. The promoter reached in, drew out a thin slat of wood, and read it.
He leaned up from the rail.
“They’re playing my song.”
He turned to her.
“Kiss for luck?”
Ellyn raised an eyebrow.
“It was worth a shot. You can kiss me after.”
She gave him a flat look.
“Only if you survive. And no.”
“Don’t worry. It’ll be a snap. Tell Nathanius to bet the farm.”
The promoter shouted again.
“And his opponent will be…Krael?!”
He turned, seeming to be a little surprised. The bodyguard holding the pot handed it off to his partner and stepped down from the dais, every bit of eight feet tall.
The promoter turned back to the crowd.
“Well, it looks like you’re in for a treat today, folks! One of my own bodyguards has volunteered to enter the ring. I guess he got bored protecting my short ass.”
The crowd laughed.
“Place your bets!”
Asterious started to leave. Ellyn gripped the railing.
He didn’t answer her. Instead he shook his head and checked his weapons: two hatchets, stolen from the shed in Misery. For the fight he’d also borrowed Krodyn’s long knives from Nathanius. In the dull light of the overcast sky they seemed to glow. Ellyn watched. His face seemed to harden and his eyes fix on a point far away. It was an expression she’d seen only once before, during the battle with the Sval.
It made her shudder.
He headed for the pit.
Asterious surveyed the sloping plane of the battlefield. It would be an uphill battle to the gates. Not an easy fight, but at least it would be the last.
The last heaven.
He could see the enemy circling the parapets. They were like a flock of migrating birds, twisting and curling through the air. They were all that remained.
He fidgeted with the pommel of his sword and turned to his father. The man regarded him calmly.
“Are you afraid?”
He forced himself to shake his head.
The king gave a slow nod and called for the horses. Asterious met his gaze. His father could always tell when he was lying. Asterious tightened the straps of his shield. It was dented and scarred, but the horse-crest of Gondavol still shone gold upon its weathered face.
His father wasn’t fooled.
“You fear death?” he asked.
Asterious shook his head.
“No. I fear for the others if I should fail.”
His father smiled as the squires approached with the horses and helped them into their seats. They left. Together they looked out over the field.
“You will not.”
Asterious kept his eyes on the field.
“You sound so sure.”
His father nodded.
“I am. For ten generations this family has protected its people with horse and sword. Now we protect the whole world. The play is the same. This is merely a grander stage.”
Asterious nodded. His father pointed across the ascending plain.
“I will lead the assault. When they descend to meet us, you will take the cavalry around the left flank and threaten the citadel. They will be forced to divide their forces in the field. In the chaos, we will be given a moment to strike.”
Asterious looked back at the cavalry. Two-hundred fresh horses, all the way from the homeland. There were no faster steeds. He turned back to his father.
“I will not fail.”
His father donned his helm. The crown of Gondavol was forged in gold into the brow. The army saluted, six-thousand men; to their right and left were the assembled hosts of a dozen other nations, all gathered for this final undertaking.
The king made his way to the center.
Asterious spoke after him.
“Luck in battle, father.”
“My son, yours is a noble fear. It will bring you courage, and strength worthy of your name.”
He kicked the horse and trotted away. He spoke his final words over his shoulder.
“Never show it. Neither to your enemies, nor to your friends.”
Asterious watched him go.
Krael’s boots landed heavily in the dirt. His left foot landed on the forearm of a corpse, snapping it with a crunch. His half-bred features bulged and jutted like boulders on a cliff. His partner hurled down a broad axe. He held it menacingly forward, growling like a wolf.
Asterious stared at him, a slim smile on his face as he brought up his small hatchets. He glanced up and out of the pit, calmly regarding Ellyn and Nathanius, now looking on in hope and fear.
He winked at them.
He turned back to the beast man and laughed.
“Okay,” he said, grinning. “Let me know when you’re ready to surrender.”
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