Wren & Hess
The age of gladiators was long over. No more fights to the death. No more warrior versus beast. No more lives offered up for the entertainment of the savage masses.
The guards stationed at the door surveyed Wren and Hess. Nobody liked constables visiting The Pit. Not The Pit’s managers, who knew it was bad for business. Not the Tower, which knew it was mostly a waste of time. Still, there were rules, and those rules, loose as they were, needed to be enforced. A reminder was due every now and then.
The guards reluctantly stepped aside, and Wren and Hess entered The Pit. It stank of sweat and blood and violence. The crowd cheered as two fighters battered each other in the sunken arena. No more axes or spears. Nothing but fists and flesh. The orc bruiser landed a crushing uppercut on his human opponent who fell over. The orc pounced on his staggered foe and commenced to rain more blows to the satisfied roars of the audience.
Wren and Hess went to the back, where the warriors waited between fights. The fighters cleared a path for them, but a lanky man stood in front of them. Gold John, so-named because of his habit of draping himself in so many gold chains he couldn’t stand straight, stabbed a finger at Wren.
“My boy hasn’t done nothing wrong,” said John. “He fought fair and square, and if you’re here to arrest him, you don’t have a leg to stand on.”
“Nobody’s here to arrest anyone,” said Wren. “We just need to ask a few questions.”
The massive ogre sitting on a bench in the back snorted. “It’s fine, John. They’re just doing their job.”
Gold John moved aside. It was understood that Wren would do the talking. The Pit put Hess on edge. His long tail whipped back and forth with sharp snaps and his frills straightened. He was always like that when they had to come down here.
“You’re Victus?” asked Wren of the ogre.
The blue-skinned giant nodded. “Is the kid all right?”
“He’ll live,” she said. “Lost an eye. Might lose a leg.”
Victus slumped. “Idiot.”
“Did anyone mention he pulled a knife on my fighter?” asked Gold John. “That’s against the rules.”
“Shut up, John.” Victus stared at his hands. They still sported the bloodied wrappings. “He was just a little guy.”
“Do you want to tell us what happened?” asked Wren.
“Like John said. He got a knife in there. I defended myself.”
He nodded to John who handed Wren the weapon. It was only a few inches of cheap steel.
“Is this it?” she asked.
“It’s still a weapon,” said Gold John. “It’s still against the rules.”
Wren gave the knife to Hess. “Doesn’t look like much of a threat against your fighter here.”
“Rules are rules,” said John. “And if we let someone pull that kind of thing without being punished, it’ll only get worse.”
“So you were punishing him?”
“Never said that. Don’t put words in my mouth.”
Victus grunted. “I did it. He broke the rules, and it pissed me off. I hit him, and he fell. And then I hit him again. And again. I heard him break, and I still hit him a couple more times.”
“That’s it. No more. You want to talk to my fighter, you call him to the Tower. We’re done here.”
Wren held up her hand. “Take it easy. We’re not here to arrest anyone. The kid pulled a knife, and things got out of control. The Tower accepts that will happen now and then. What I want to know is why this scrawny kid was in the arena with Victus anyway.”
“He paid. If you pay enough, you get your shot at the champ. Stupid kids come along all the time. Victus usually just gives them a smack and sends them on their way. No real harm done.”
“A couple of months ago, didn’t a challenger get his neck broken?”
“That was an accident,” said Gold John.
“I hit him too hard,” said Victus. “I didn’t mean to. They’re just so fragile.” He squeezed his hands into fists and closed his eyes.
“That challenger was this kid’s brother. He was here for revenge,” said Wren. “It’s clear he was at fault.”
“I want to press charges,” said Gold John.
“Shut up, John,” said Victus. “Tell the kid I’m sorry, all right. Tell him . . . just tell him that.”
Hess’s tail stopped swishing. He inhaled and flicked the air with his tongue.
“This place always reminds me of home. It’s the smell, just like my hatchery. They never gave us enough food. Let the strong survive. Earn your life. I was bigger than most. I managed. But there was another who was biggest. He was taken away to become a soldier. Never had a choice in it. I think of him sometimes. Never chose to be the strongest. Never had much of a choice at all. I got out. He probably died somewhere on some battlefield, fighting some other poor bastard over some stupid thing nobody cared about. And, sure, it wasn’t his choice, and maybe that comforted him. I’d like to think so.”
The cheers of the arena echoed through The Pit.
“Doesn’t change things. Doesn’t wash away the blood. Doesn’t give that kid his eye back. Doesn’t bring back his brother. But what’s done is done. But you weren’t hatched here, and the only thing keeping you here is you. You’re sorry? You tell him.”
“I really hate this place.”
They finished up, reassuring Gold John and Victus that charges were unlikely. It was ugly business, but all within what was acceptable for The Pit.
“Think he’ll do it?” asked Wren.
Hess shrugged. “Probably not.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Probably not.”
They left The Pit and its stink of dried blood behind.