The midday sun shone down on the white sand of the arena, making it blaze with a heat like the fires of hell. All around the voices of the crowd roared like a chorus of the damned, hungry for blood—whose blood, they cared little. For this was a place where bloodshed was raised to the highest art, the struggle of life and death the greatest performance, and all for the profit of the Masters and the entertainment of the masses. It was truly an inhospitable place. And it could be no more so for anyone than the young girl—all of fifteen years of age—who found herself standing at one end of that circle of sand, whose immaculate, blinding whiteness would soon be stained red with gore. For this was meant to be her death sentence.
Like a caged lion the girl stood: muscles drawn taught, eyes ever moving, ever searching for some escape… but finding none. The din of the crowd was deafening in her ears. Sweat streamed down the girl’s skin—whose dusky shade, along with her features, betrayed her mixed Kemheti and Parsansharian blood—and the burning sands scorched her feet through the thin sandals she wore, forcing her to constantly shift her weight back and forth between them as she waited. No armor did she wear. Though quite tall for her age and sex, with her slender build and youthful features, she looked, in that moment, very small, and the furious betting of the onlookers above reflected it. She could hear it in their voices, though of course she could discern no actual words amidst the cacophony, but she could tell all the same: they thought she was going to lose.
The Masters of the arena, experts in the art of making from the most uneven and unlikely of competitors fights as to intrigue and tantalize the bloodthirsty natures—and more importantly, the coin-purses—of their patrons, had done their best. The girl had been dressed in an image of barbaric finery. An abbreviated leather vest covered her torso, beneath which a band had been wrapped about her chest to suppress the girl’s budding femininity—despite the loveliness of her features, many in the crowd did not even realize her for a female. Her legs were covered only with loose trousers of a light, almost sheer fabric. Armlets and bangles of gleaming bronze festooned her limbs, and her ears had been pierced and fitted with large hoops of the same—the fresh wounds still stung, and occasionally oozed droplets of blood. Lastly, a crimson sash had been tied about her waist. Her hair served the Masters’ purposes well enough in its natural state, and so had been left untouched: raggedly cut and boyishly short, the sweat-slicked black strands stood out from her skull in tufts and spikes, contributing to the wild, untamed look of the girl which the Masters desired.
She was being promoted as a corsair from the Achæan Sea, a vicious and experienced killer. But for all the effort put into making her appear fearsome, nothing could entirely disguise the fact that she was young, and terrified, and horribly out of her element—and very few of those watching, experienced and discerning connoisseurs in the sport of death, were fooled by the ruse. But long enough odds could entice some men—desperate, or else fervently optimistic—to bet on anything, and others did so for the sheer, perverse pleasure of potentially seeing their fellow aesthetes made into fools. Still, the enjoyment of the crowd and even the profit of the gambling were mere side benefits to this travesty of a duel. For again, this was intended to be not a fight, but an execution.
And there, across that empty, waiting circle of sand, stood the girl’s intended executioner. Dimly she recognized him as a member of the Aethiopi, one of the savage, warlike tribes from far to the south of her own homeland of Kemhet. Only a few years older than her, but a man grown; tall and lean, but with a wiry strength to his limbs, the youth was clad solely in a lion-skin breechclout about his hips, and a woven band about his head, from which protruded the colorful feathers of many exotic birds. His bare skin gleamed like polished ebony in the sunlight, and was marked in places with the scars of battle which showed him to already be an experienced warrior—for boys of those tribes began to learn the arts of killing nearly from the time they could walk. Completing his savage appearance, the youth’s face had been daubed with streaks of pale warpaint, transforming his features into a demonic mask. Though his feet were unshod, the youth did not so much as twitch as he waited, seemingly unaffected by the searing heat of the sands.
The young Aethiopi bore a tall ox-hide shield, and a wickedly pointed assegai—one of the short, brutal thrusting spears favored by some of the far-southern tribes. The girl was armed with only her knife. And, indeed, it was her knife: the weapon, one of her only true possessions, had been captured along with her, and now was given back to her as her only means of defense in this life-or-death struggle—though whether it was meant as some manner of cruel jest, or was done out of simple expedience, she neither knew nor cared. But the familiar weapon—the only thing left that was truly hers—was a comfort. It was an ancient, elegant thing: blade and hilt in one cast all as a single, solid piece of golden Kemheti bronze; the leaf-shaped blade was fully seven inches in length, and every bit of the surface of the round, guard-less hilt was inscribed with hieroglyphics. Sharp though it was, such a fancy blade was meant more as a symbol of prestige than a serious weapon, and it was entirely incongruous with both its wielder and her surroundings.
It was, in a sense, the knife which was responsible for the situation the girl found herself in. Glancing at the gleaming blade, she could still make out the faint, dark stains of dried blood which yet clung to its surface, tarnishing its sheen—remnants of the last man it had killed. The girl’s hand tightened angrily about the weapon’s grip until her knuckles turned white from the strain, as the memory of recent events rose to the forefront of her mind once again. Her eyes, piercing hazel orbs which flickered with mercurial fire, scanned the ranks of the crowd above, seeking the face of the man who had condemned her.
He was not hard to find, for he sat in the special box, right at the edge of the arena, which was reserved for the Masters and their honored guests. He was a pure-blooded Achæan from the north—a fat man, flabby and pale, with only the slightest wisp of beard upon his face, and a bald pate which gleamed like ivory, shining with sweat despite the awning which shaded him from the sun’s glare. But for all his lack of vigor, the coal-black eyes which were deep-set into his face burned with a certain base, vicious cunning and cruelty, the sight of which sent a shiver down the girl’s spine as their eyes briefly met. But she did not shy away from that merciless gaze, and in the end it was the Achæan who found its continuance unbearable, turning away and taking another great swill from the golden wine-cup he held, which a scantily clad slave-girl kept constantly full. The man’s constant raising and lowering of the goblet drew the girl’s gaze to the glittering rings that adorned each of his fingers: bejeweled bands of gold and silver that threw off rainbows of color with every motion of his hands.
Those rings were, really, where the trouble had all begun… For the girl, Neitha, though an accomplished thief and pickpocket by the time she had reached the age of ten, was new to the city of Gerra in the southern Empire—and new to the Empire in general. And, not yet familiar with its ways and people, she had found the trade which had kept her alive for the last seven years of her life far more trying than in times and places past. She had not eaten in three days, and the sight of those rings—so carelessly flaunted, each a small fortune unto itself; just one of them would have been worth enough to feed her for weeks—had proved irresistible; the thought of so much wealth blinding her, making her careless. Due to his foreign nature, she had taken the Achæan for an outsider, perhaps a wealthy traveling merchant—not knowing that he was, in fact, one of the most prominent and powerful nobles in the city. If she had known the truth, no matter how tempting the prize, she never would have dared steal from the man.
But she had not known, and it had seemed the simplest thing to slip free one or two of those precious, gleaming bands while the man was distracted, and then make her escape before they were missed. But the Achæan had proved far sharper and more alert than the slow movements of his corpulent bulk suggested; despite the deftness of Neitha’s hands, he had noticed the removal of his prized frippery at once, nearly managing to catch her arm as he turned to confront the thief. Neitha had slipped the man’s grasp and taken off into the crowd, for a moment thinking herself free. But the Achæan had not been alone, and his bodyguards had promptly pursued. Neitha, though not terribly strong, was a natural-born runner, and considered it a matter of pride that she could outrun most any man—something which had saved her many times in the past. But in the end, her lack of intimate familiarity with the city, and the sheer, unexpected number of her pursuers—both the Achæan’s men, and elements of the city watch who were drawn into the chase—proved her downfall.
A wrong turn had left her cornered in an alley by one of the Achæan’s bodyguards. As a thief, Neitha preferred to avoid violence, as a murderer would be sought far more doggedly than a mere pilferer. But the man who cornered her, seeing an opportunity to satisfy both his own cruel lusts as well as his duty, had decided to take advantage of her before dragging her back to his master, leaving her with no choice. The man had clearly not been expecting much trouble from the slender young girl, and Neitha had taken advantage of his lascivious overconfidence to catch him by surprise, slipping her bronze knife between his ribs and leaving him to bleed out in the alley.
But it had been for naught. For before she could make her escape, a unit of the city watch made it to the end of the alley and blocked her path, quickly overpowering her when she tried to slip past them. It was only because she had been caught by members of the city watch, and not the Achæan’s men, that she was still alive at all, Neitha knew, though the fact did not lessen her hatred of them. Ordinarily the penalty for such thievery as she had committed would have been the loss of a hand; but she had killed a man—and the servant of a powerful noble, at that. She had been held in a dank, dark cell for the better part of a day while the finer points of ‘justice’ were being argued between the Masters of the arena, who also paid for and commanded the city watch, and the Achæan. At last an agreement had been reached—the Masters never liked to pass an opportunity for moneymaking by, and their fighting-pits made for a convenient and profitable, not to mention entertaining, method for disposing of criminals and other undesirables, while providing the illusion of a fair chance for the convicted.
And so for having had the audacity to defend, by violence, her virtue, Neitha found herself condemned to the arena—sentenced to die by the hands of the older, stronger, better armed, and more experienced barbarian warrior who stood across from her. With the recollection came anger: a pure, burning, incandescent rage—hotter than the searing sands beneath her feet, more fiery than the blazing sun above—overpowering and purging from her all traces of the cold fear which had been slowly but steadily pooling in her chest, squeezing her heart with the icy grip of despair. In that moment she hated them all: the fat, cruel Achæan; the Masters, so clever and efficient in their callous barbarism; the crowd who rooted for her demise, so eager to see blood spilled as long as it was from a safe distance; even the young Aethiopi warrior who faced her—even him, though in truth he had no more say in the matter than she did. To die was one thing—the grim specter of death had ever been a close companion throughout her young life—but to be made sport of, to have her demise turned into a spectacle for the base satisfaction of such detestable people… that she could never accept.
Her chances were poor, she knew; in this fight she had not a single advantage. But her spirit burned too hotly to simply allow itself to be extinguished, no matter the odds. And after a moment the fiery anger within her began to cool, in its place crystallizing, like iron solidifying from the melt, an unyielding resolve: she would not end like this, she would not die in some arena. They wanted a spectacle, and she determined to give them one—just not the one they desired and expected. If death wished to claim her, it was free to do so—any time and any place… any, save this.
In the box above, the eldest of the Masters raised his hand, signaling that no new bets would be accepted. One of the pit-guards gave Neitha a none-too-gentle shove, urging her forwards towards the center of the circle of sand; on the opposite side of the arena, the Aethiopi youth needed no such encouragement, advancing eagerly, letting loose one of the eerie, piercing war-cries of his people. They advanced—the young girl, and the barbarian warrior—until a mere fifteen paces separated them, before halting.
A hush fell over the crowd, all eyes focused on the Master who still held his hand high. All eyes, that is, save Neitha’s. The girl’s gaze focused on one thing, and one thing only: the man she must kill. Time seemed to slow to a crawl as the two young gladiators faced each other, awaiting the signal that would begin their bloody struggle. Neitha’s arms shook with the tension of her muscles; she forced herself to relax them, to loosen the death-grip she had upon her dagger, knowing that such tension would only slow her down and tire her out at a time when she needed to be in peak condition. Her breath rasped in her throat, and her heart thundered in her breast—the only sound in the world, to her—as her body prepared to fight for its life.
After what seemed an eternity of waiting, at long last, in the farthest corner of her focused vision the girl registered a movement, as the Master’s hand dropped sharply towards the ground. The battle was begun.
At once the Aethiopi warrior loosed another of his war-cries, and charged, shield held before him, the iron point of his assegai protruding threateningly past it, ready for a fatal thrust. Neitha responded in kind, loosing an incoherent scream as she sprinted to meet her foe—their combined speed bridging the gap between them in a heartbeat. To close with such an enemy was a terrible risk, she knew; for if the youth ever got his hands on her, or managed to bear her to the ground, his greater strength and weight would seal her doom in an instant. But to remain at a distance was certain death: the Aethiopi’s spear, short though it was, gave the warrior a far greater reach than she had with her knife; he could safely skewer her from a distance at which she could not even touch him. Desperate as it was, she had no choice but to get in close to her foe—close enough that the length of his spear might become more a detriment than an advantage.
The tall oval of the Aethiopi’s shield was large enough that it covered the entire left side of his body from ankles to cheekbones—wonderful protection, but it also limited his ability to attack to that side of himself. And so, as the combatants came together, it was her opponent’s shield which Neitha aimed for. Slipping aside by a hair’s-breadth the lethal lunge of the warrior’s spear, she ducked to the right and hit the youth’s shield shoulder-first; rolling with the impact, she grabbed the shield’s rear edge, yanking it aside and opening a gap through which her other hand swept, dragging the golden blade of her dagger across the bicep of the Aethiopi’s left arm, cutting deeply into the muscle.
But her enemy reacted even more quickly than she had anticipated; seemingly unaffected by the injury, the warrior immediately lashed out with his shield as she tried to retreat, catching her full in the face and tossing her to the ground some feet away. The blow from the shield and the impact with the ground drove the breath from Neitha’s body, though she managed to retain the presence of mind to convert her fall into a roll that would bring her to her feet. She almost made it—but was only able to rise as far as a crouch before her enemy was upon her, driving his spear with murderous aim straight for her throat.
A flash of desperate inspiration took her and, reacting instantly, she threw herself out of the way of the deadly strike—not backwards, not to the side, but forwards: diving beneath the thrust, towards her opponent’s legs. As she hit the ground she rolled again, at the same time lashing out with her blade, drawing a line of blood across the back of the Aethiopi’s right calf. Continuing her roll, she made it to her feet and braced herself for the next charge—only to suddenly become aware of a terrible stinging pain shooting through her skull. Reflexively she clapped her free hand to the back of her head, only for it to come away wet with her blood. For all the speed and cleverness of her reaction, she had not been quite fast enough: the razor-edged point of the assegai had torn into her scalp as it brushed by overhead.
The wound was not deadly; but the throbbing, knife-sharp pulses of agony it sent through Neitha’s skull, along with the sensation of hot wetness as her blood seeped into her hair and down the back of her neck, caused her vision to blur slightly, and her stomach to rebel as she was claimed by a sudden wave of dizziness. Fear trickled into her veins, and her fiery will to live rose up to meet it; by sheer willpower she forced the pain from her mind, forced her body to obey her, her eyes to bring the world back into focus. Fortunately for her in her momentary incapacitation, her opponent was not fairing terribly well either; with his injured leg, the Aethiopi was somewhat slow in recovering from his previous attack and turning to face her.
And then the moment was past, and the two combatants faced each other once more, ready to continue their bloody struggle. As before, the Aethiopi initiated the attack; but unlike before, this time the barbarian youth advanced slowly, cautiously, gauging his opponent’s reactions—having been bitten twice, there would be no more wild charges for him. Neitha likewise advanced in a cautious manner, desperately trying to think of some new angle of attack. And then the distance between them vanished to almost nothing, and there was no more time to think—only desperate, instinctive action and reaction.
Although she had at times been forced to kill in her young life, Neitha had never been much of a fighter. But there existed deep in the heart of every human the capacity—more easily awakened in some than others—the animalistic willingness to do whatever was required for survival: the drive to fight, and the necessary viciousness that such a mortal struggle required. And as she closed with her foe once more, as the blood dripped hotly across her skin, the fragile barrier isolating those ancient, savage instincts from her conscious mind, which had already been beginning to show cracks, was at last shattered utterly.
Like the lethal dance of cobra and mongoose, for many minutes their battle swept back and forth across the sands of the arena, evenly matched. The point of the Aethiopi’s assegai lunged again and again, as quick and deadly as the fangs of any serpent; and again and again Neitha slipped the seeking weapon’s lethal tip with the lighting reflexes of the snake-hunter, only to drive savagely forwards into the slightest of openings, ever seeking her opponent’s flesh with the point of her own blade. But it could not last; Neitha could feel herself tiring. Between the heat and the exertion, the throbbing pain in her head had only grown, to the point where she could no longer entirely ignore it, and every muscle in her body burned with weariness. Though her opponent had slowed somewhat, too, the experienced warrior was still in far better shape than her. She was running out of time; before long she would be too weak, too slow to avoid that murderous assegai, and then it would all be over.
The ebb and flow of their combat momentarily separated the pair. And that was when Neitha made her last, desperate attempt. Taking advantage of the space which had opened between them to build speed, she sprinted straight at her foe, as she had in their very first clash. She could see the Aethiopi bracing himself, preparing to repulse her with a blow from his shield like before. But this time she did not aim to grapple the shield; instead, when she was close enough she leapt with all the force her long legs could muster, passing over the warrior’s confused thrust, planting her hand on the shield’s top edge, forcing its bottom into the dirt with her weight as she vaulted clean over her enemy, lashing out and opening his back from shoulder to spine on the way down. But the Aethiopi had already begun to counter; releasing his grip on the shield, lightning-quick he turned into her maneuver, thrusting with his wicked short spear. Even as Neitha’s feet touched the ground, the murderously sharp point of the assegai struck home in her left arm, tearing a line of fire from just above her wrist, up through her bicep and into her shoulder.
A pained cry burst from her mouth, and she landed badly, stumbling backwards, and avoiding a second thrust of her foe’s spear by mere chance. Great streamers of crimson poured down her arm, which hung uselessly at her side, to drip from her fingers and stain the white sands red. Shock and pain overwhelmed her; panic clouded her thoughts, and the world seemed to rock and swim around her. She could not think, could do nothing but continue her flight, staggering back away from her foe as fast as her wobbly legs could carry her, barely managing to maintain her balance. But there was no escape: on and on the Aethiopi came, limping, and unprotected now—the great ox-hide shield left to lie where it had fallen, for the warrior’s left arm hung limp and weak as well, his injuries having finally taken their toll. But he did not falter in his advance; slowly but steadily he came, his hellishly painted ebony visage promising death.
At last Neitha took a final step backwards, only for her back to come into contact with the unyielding wall of the arena. This was it. She had nowhere to go; she had nothing save her one hand and the knife it held—a paltry thing in the face of such a foe. But, as that final wave of ultimate despair sought to claim her, one tiny spark of her indomitable spirit stood firm—a defiant flame before the blackness that clouded her mind, refusing to be quenched. After a moment this flame took form, crystallizing into a single idea—the rankest and most desperate audacity. And so, as the Maazti closed, the injured youth pushing himself into a final, murderous sprint, seeking to end things in one strike, Neitha’s deft fingers flipped the bronze dagger around in her grip to grasp the weapon by its blood-slick blade. Her foe was scarcely ten paces away when Neitha’s arm whipped up and snapped straight, defiantly hurling the golden blade in the face of her oncoming death; so short was the distance that the knife did not even revolve end-for-end once before it struck home, the long blade burying itself deep into the soft tissue of the Aethiopi’s throat.
The warrior staggered, blood bubbling from between his lips, though sheer momentum carried him on. But his final thrust was clumsy, and Neitha was able to bat it aside; unbalanced by the act, the Aethiopi stumbled and fell, landing in a heap on the sandy floor of the arena. But, impossible though it seemed, despite his dire wound he immediately began to attempt to struggle to his feet, and his deadly assegai was still clenched tightly in his hand. A madness seized Neitha then, and she threw herself upon her fallen foe, pinning his weapon arm with the full weight of her body. Fighting his increasingly feeble struggles, she reached down and grasped the hilt of her dagger where it protruded from the young warrior’s throat, wrenching it free only to raise it and immediately bring it back down, stabbing deep into his chest, only to draw it back for yet another thrust—and another, and another, and another. Again and again she drove her blade deep into the body of her foe, until finally the last, manic burst of strength which had fueled her was all consumed, and she fell still.
It was only then, as the red haze of adrenaline and bloodlust fell from her eyes, that she realized the body beneath her had long since stopped moving; with clear gaze she now saw that the Aethiopi was indeed dead, his torso pierced by more than a score of gory punctures. It was over. The last of the fire went out of her, and once more there was only a girl, terribly young, her lovely features spattered with blood—her own, her enemy’s, it was impossible to tell the difference anymore. Slowly, painfully, the girl withdrew her blade for the last time, and stood.
Still young, still a girl… but not the same. For that fragile wall which separated the civilized from the savage, once broken, could never be repaired. Though for the moment it slumbered, bereft of energy, deep inside her the newly awakened beast still lurked—ever alert, waiting. As she came to her feet, unconscious of her actions, her lips pulled apart in a feral grin—the instinctive celebration of life’s triumph over death, of the primal thrill of victory in the ultimate struggle.
Silence greeted her. Above, the watching crowd gawked open-mouthed, stunned into speechlessness by the reversal of fortunes, as well as the speed and savagery with which it had been achieved. A moment passed, and then another. And then everyone began shouting at once, the thunder of the crowd washing over the girl. Some voices were raised in joy, their owners having won big from her surprise victory. Others were raised in anger at having lost the bet… but there were fewer of these than one might have expected; for though those in the crowd held their money almost as dearly as life itself, even to this the quality of the fight took precedence—and the sheer, surprising brutality which had been put on display was enough to delight even the most jaded connoisseur of bloodshed.
But Neitha paid no attention to the clamoring masses; she had eyes only for those in the Masters’ box. The Achæan was livid: his fat, pale face purpled with rage; his blubbery jowls flapping absurdly as he furiously lambasted the Masters sitting beside him—whose faces, to the girl’s surprise, bore only expressions of mild amusement… as if they had not truly cared as to the outcome of the match.
Shortly a pair of pit-guards came to remove her from the arena, and Neitha found she had not the strength to resist, and was easily disarmed, her dagger plucked from her limp, unresisting fingers. Doubtless she would be executed soon—assuredly the Achæan was presently demanding that very thing, and she fully expected him to get it, after the way she had cheated the Masters’ so-called justice. But she discovered she could not care about that. She had accomplished her goal, she had survived the arena—had beaten the Masters’ sick, lopsided game—and no one could take that away from her… anything beyond that was out of her hands, and mattered little.
But to her surprise, the pit-guards brought her not to the chopping-block, but a healer, who dispassionately cleaned her injuries before binding them with strips of white linen. Afterwards the guards handed her over to a pair from the city watch, who unceremoniously dragged her back to her cell—not a long walk, for the city’s prison stood right beside the arena complex. So weak had she become that the moment they released her she fell unchecked to the hard stone floor, barely managing not to crack her head as she landed. She had just enough strength remaining to pull herself the short distance across the rough stone to the opposite end of her cell where, exhausted body, mind, and spirit, she lapsed into unconsciousness the instant her head touched the pile of damp straw which served as a bed.
The jangling of keys, and the metallic thunk as the heavy iron bolt of her cell door was unlocked finally roused Neitha from her comatose state. It was late in the evening of the same day, she thought, though she could not know for sure—as in the cells there was nothing by which to judge the passage of time. To her surprise, the man who entered her cell, flanked by two members of the city watch, was one of the Masters: a tall, thin, hawk-nosed man with a heavy beard of black curls, and—like most in Gerra—no small amount of southern blood in his ancestry, to judge by his skin tone. He was dressed in embroidered robes that were fancy, but tastefully so. Neitha drew herself up as best she could to face him, though, weak from her injuries, she could not manage to summon the strength to stand, and had to settle for a crouch; her hazel eyes flickered in the gloom of the cell as she glared at the man, though he seemed unperturbed.
After a moment the man let out a low chuckle. “Such a fiery spirit! That is good” said the Master, before introducing himself as Tamir Atwan. “But there is no cause for such spite. For I am here to deliver you from the wrath of the man you so grievously offended by stealing his property and killing his servant.”
Neitha’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “How?” was her growled response.
Tamir grinned. “You owe a debt of justice to our Achæan friend. But I have just purchased that debt from him—and not at all cheaply, I must say—which means that your life now belongs to me.” He paused for a moment and gave the girl an appraising look that sent shivers down her spine. “Your performance in the arena, for an amateur, was most impressive. With the proper training… well, one can only imagine. So I have spared your life, and in return you will fight for me and, I hope, make me a great deal of money.” He nodded then, as if satisfied all that needed saying had been said.
“Bring her” he ordered, and at a gesture from Tamir, the two guards moved forwards, lifting Neitha between them and, half-dragging, half-carrying her, followed the Master out of the prison and into one of the outer buildings attached to the arena, within which she was deposited into a new cell. “Welcome to your new home” Tamir said, gesturing broadly. “You should get some rest. For once your wounds are healed, your training will begin.” With that, he departed; the door was shut behind him, and there was the dull thunk of a heavy bolt slotting into place. And then Neitha was alone.
The quarters she found herself in were at least twice the size of the prison cell and, though spartan, were lavish by comparison: the straw making up the bed was dry, and stuffed into an actual mattress, with a woolen blanket on top with which to cover oneself; the floor and walls were dry to the touch, and there was no hint of dampness in the air; an ornate copper brazier against one wall provided a measure of warmth and illumination; there was a window, small and barred, set high in the back wall, allowing a glimpse of the night sky; and even the door was an improvement, its bottom edge nearly flush to the floor, so neither rats nor mice could squeeze under it to gain entrance. Staggering, but managing not to fall this time, Neitha limped her way across the room and collapsed onto the mattress.
But, though bone-tired and in pain, she found she could not sleep, her mind filled with bleak and disquieting thoughts. Despite her sudden and surprising reversal of fortune, it was a stay of execution—nothing more. She would be forced to go out in that arena again and again—every time to fight desperately for her life, until inevitably her luck ran out. Compared to that slow, drawn-out waiting game, every day wondering if it would be her last, the swift, sure stroke of the headsman’s blade seemed almost a mercy.
But even more disquieting to the girl was the fact that not all of her felt this way. The newly awakened feral aspect of her nature, which burned like a flame in her chest, looked back on her recent desperate, terrifying struggle in the arena with a sort of fondness. In the aftermath, the pain and fear of the fight itself seemed to pale in comparison to what had come after: the feeling of power, the knowledge that she had proven herself superior in the only way that truly mattered in this harsh and brutish world, and the drug-like flush of pure survival—even the excited roaring of the crowd… it was heady stuff to a girl so young, and who had grown accustomed to being powerless.
Yes, that bright, primal spark within her seemed to say. It was possible. She had made a promise to herself—to never die in an arena—and she had just proven that she could keep it. She would fight their fights, and she would win. …And, she vowed—in the dimness of her cell making a new promise to herself—one day, one way or another she would escape this place; for to be a slave was so against the grain of her spirit that she could never accept it, in the long run. But for the moment, this life would provide her with food and drink, and even training in the art of battle—everything she needed to grow strong, strong enough to make her own way. And then, one day…
Dreaming of times to come, of a future she had never thought she would have, Neitha at last gave in to the pressing needs of her body and drifted off into the quiet, healing realms of slumber, the ghost of a savage, determined grin upon her young features.
The first fight of her new life was over. But there would be many more to come. She would win, she would survive—and never would she die in an arena. And if she could survive the horrors of the arena, then she could survive anything the violent and uncaring world might throw at her.
She could, and she would.