Taslin and Lansesh were serving as backup for the six-year Gladiator Rantoness Kallesh-Red in a five-on-three match against another Pit’s lead team. It wasn’t a fair fight. It wasn’t even in the same league as a fair fight. But Taslin was having more fun than she’d had in any match so far.
She ducked at Lanesh’s call, and took the prompt to swing out with her mace. Her attacker’s sword swung over her head, clipping off a few curls of hair and nicking her ear. Taslin’s mace slammed into the shorter woman’s knee.
“Swarm!” The woman’s curse was short, and she swung at Taslin again even as she went down. Taslin took that one on her shield, fell backwards, and squirmed to the side just in time to catch a hammer-blow meant for Ranton.
She caught it the way Ganlenrel had taught her, on her shield and rolling with it, using the spike just so on the edge of the hammer so she disarmed the man. “Up,” she called to Ranton, and nearly missed the damn woman with the longsword coming at the back of her knees.
It didn’t matter. Ranton got the man Taslin had disarmed, and that freed up Lanesh to shield-bash the second man of the team in the face. The woman’s sword caught Taslin, not a major wound but a heavy enough nick to make her swear. That was going to bleed like a butchered deer.
Use it, Ganlenral was fond of saying. Bleeding? Use it. Limping? Using it. Screaming? Use it. So all right, she could use it. She finished her roll to her feet in front of the opposing team’s heavy hitter. Skuskrin Takrin: she knew rhi from the posters, yet another reason this wasn’t a fair fight. Rhi wore a goatee in two long, long beaded braids, and rhis hair the same way. It was said there was a bead on there for every opponent Skuskrin had beaten in the pit.
Taslin didn’t stop to count. She swung her shield in a feint – they were known for shield-bashes, people Ganlenrel taught – and caught Skuskrin’s beard-braids with the tip of her sword.
The fighter would have been on guard against a throat-cut or a proper thrust, but that caught rhi by surprise. Not as much surprise as Taslin was hoping for, but it was something. Skuskrin hollered as the braid went flying and flailed with one blade.
It was enough. Taslin got a backhanded swing in against the fighter’s face and a second one, quick and dirty, against Skuskrin’s throat. The big fighter went down, and Taslin rode rhi down to the ground.
She could see Lanesh and Ranton to her left, both of them taking down the lead from the other team. She rested the flat of her blade against Skuskrin’s throat with all her weight, moving quickly before the bigger fighter regained control of rhiself.
Skuskrin grabbed her wrist; she stepped on his wrist and ground her boot into the sand. He flailed and she pushed down harder, until rhi could feel the edge of the blade on his throat.
Skuskrin dropped both hands to the ground, flat-palmed, in surrender, just as rhis lead Gladiator fell to the ground with a thunk.
The Master of Ceremonies shouted, and shouted again. Taslin’s eyes went to the high box, where a First Circle woman sat, watching. She watched Skuskrin’s eyes roll back in rhis head, trying to see the woman. She let up on the fighter; rhi had surrendered, after all, and nobody who’d made it this far in the pit would ignore a proper surrender.
The First Circle woman held her hand out. Even from here, you could see she enjoyed it, the way her sleeve draped dramatically, the way she listened to the crowd roar.
This was the loudest crowd Taslin had heard yet, the biggest crowd she’d had at a fight. Of course, it wasn’t her crowd; they were here to see Rantoness Kallesh-Red. Taslin and Lanesh were, like the ribbons on her sleeves and the bright patterns on her armor, just part of the show.
The First Circle woman, too, was part of the show, and loving it. She waited for the crowd’s roar to reach its peak. They rarely called for death when the fight had been good – even if the fight had been mediocre – but if they paid for that box, they could make that choice.
“Come on…” She didn’t think she was supposed to hear Skuskrin’s mutter, but, given the circumstance, she also couldn’t blame rhi. “Come on.“
The roar kept rising. The crowd was on its feet. It was an animal, a beast. Had it ever overrun the fighters? Had the mob ever carried out the judgment itself? They could take maybe twenty of them, thirty if they could work together as a team. There were hundreds there, maybe thousands. Even Ranton couldn’t handle that.
Suddenly, there was silence. The First Circle woman had held up both hands. A whisper grew from the far end of the amphitheater and moved like water across the crowd. Death? Or life? From here, it was just more noise.
The First Circle woman’s hands parted and dropped. Life. The crowd erupted. Taslin stood, finding her place by Raslin; she watched the opposing team – those that were conscious – find their feet. As a group, they faced the stands. And the stands faced them.
The applause was insane, starting from a roar and rising, louder, louder, until it seemed to shake the foundations. Taslin had been too close to a Flow Storm once, when a thunderstorm and Flow spurt had mixed. That sound, loud enough to pop her eardrums, had been nothing compared to this.
She’d heard cheers before. She’d won battles before. There was always a rush, always the warm feeling of success and the even-warmer feeling of all those people cheering, cheering for her.
This was a good match times a thousand. Her back straightened. She knew they were supposed to be solemn as they saluted the crowd – and especially when they saluted that First Circle woman, who might want to be a patron of one of them at some point – but a sidelong glance told her Ranton and Lanesh were grinning already. So she grinned, her fist over her chest in salute, all of her aches and bloody cuts fading under the rush and the noise.
It must have been a good match to watch, because the Master of Ceremonies had to quiet the cheering. Usually, it trailed off on its own. “Good gentles of New Indapala,” the M.C. bellowed, voice made to carry by a small application of magic. “I give you the Gladiators: Rantoness Kallesh-Red, Lanesh, and Taslin!”
One by one they bowed, and each time the crowd cheered. Even when the M.C. introduced the opposing fighters, the crowd cheered.
“We thank you for your cheers and your attendance. Please save your gifts and put them in the boxes as you exit; throwing them onto the Pit floor is not encouraged.” The M.C. was being pelted with flowers and gifts even as he encouraged people to do exactly the opposite; but that happened, in a smaller scale, even in the tiniest, least-attended matches. “Thank you, thank you.”
“Thank you, thank all of your for your attendance.” The M.C. continued to lavish praise on the crowd, and Taslin and the other fighters continued to bow and salute, to smile and wave, bow and salute again.
The gifts piled up around the M.C. and at their feet, the cheering shifted and flowed, first chanting Ranton’s name, then Skuskrin’s, and then, much to her surprise, Lanesh and Taslin’s names.
She was giddy by the time the crowd began to trickle away – giddy, and weary, beginning to sway on her feet and her wounds beginning to ache. Still, she smiled and waved, bowed and saluted, caught gifts and passed them to Ranton.
A normal match – a match that Taslin was used to – the crowd cleared right out, and the gladiators were free to go the medics, to go back to their dorms, or, as she had done a time or two, flop down on the hard dirt of the pit for a while.
When the last of this crowd faded away, Taslin wasn’t sure if she could move. But when Skuskrin, beside her, shifted his weight, she found her hand on her blade and a hand-width bared.
“Easy.” Rhi held out both hands, palms flat up, bare of weapons. In rhis left, the forlorn beard-braid was draped. “I am not one of those amateurs you have fought before.”
“You… you know who I’ve fought?”
“There are always amateurs.”
“Of course.” Taslin ducked her head. Why would Skuskrin Takrin know who she was?
“And I have watched your fights.”
Taslin kept her head down but didn’t even bother trying to hide the smile. “Ix.”
“I’m not an ix, I’m Suskrin. Especially to you, Taslin Gladiator.” Rhi held a hand. “You are a pleasure to fight against.”
She took the hand and shook it, as firmly as she could. “I am honored.”
“Then I will pile on the honors. You took this – you should keep this.” Suskrin put the beard-braid in Taslin’s hand and closed her hand around it. “Consider it your first Pit trophy – if indeed, it’s your first.”
“It’s my first.” She held the braid tight. “Thank you.” She turned her head-duck into a bow. “I hope you won’t take any offense if I say I hope I never see you in the Pit again.”
“And likewise. Good hunting, young fighter.”
Suskrin bowed to her, and Taslin bowed one more time.
“Good hunting, Gladiator Skuskrin Takrin, ix.”