The arena opened before him, a high-walled circle of impenetrable black granite. He had been told there would be no escape, but as fear gripped him the boy found himself roving over the walls with his eyes, looking for an escape. As he had been told, there was none. And those walls were not his primary concern.
In the centre of the rocky floor stood another youth. Leather wrapped around his wrists was his only armour, he stood bare-chested before him, his legs spread in a fighting stance. He was almost twice Cortes’ size.
What had he gotten himself into?! The thought reared unbidden in the boy’s mind, as his stomach lurched and threatened to heave up the scant breakfast he had been allowed, that he had barely been able to stomach as it was.
A roar rose from those seated in the stands that circled the granite walls. High above and safe from what was about to take place below. The threat of an audience added to his terror.
He would never had done this. Christophe had promised he would return in a few days, but it had been over two weeks. Cortes had waited, but grown hungry, he had to look out for himself otherwise he knew he would not survive. He felt a rage build in his belly at the thought of his brother. The bastard had abandoned him – at least that’s what Cortes chose to think. Nothing had happened to him, he could not had been murdered as had their parents and half residents of the bloc they had inhabited; his brother was too smart for that. He had simply abandoned him, and Cortes knew he would have to look out for himself.
If he was going to fight, he decided, after getting into a scuffle with a smaller child over a loaf of bread, nearly getting knifed for his efforts, he may as well get paid for it.
The woman whom he had presented himself to had looked him over with a casual disdain, studying as she might a cut of beef she wasn’t sure was quite up to scratch. “You’re a little scrawny,” she had finally pronounced.
Cortes had drawn in a quick breath of irritation. He’d made his decision to do this, and wasn’t going to be turned away so easily. “That doesn’t mean I can’t fight,” he’d growled. “My brother’s older, and taller, and he knows not to mess with me.”
“Perhaps he goes easy on you,” she’d replied. And then, quick as flash, she’d whipped out some sort of baton or stick from her belt and brought it swinging around.
Cortes had barely managed to duck the assault. He’d stood there, his fists raised in front of the woman, his breath coming in jagged gasps, but she did not try to hit him again.
“Good reactions. And you didn’t bolt, despite the obvious exit.”
Cortes had lowered his fists, glancing behind him at the open door.
“You angry?” the woman asked.
“Of course I’m fucking angry!” he’d screeched at her, his voice cracking.
“Good. Come with me. We’ll see how you go in the ring.”
Only hours later and here he was. Cortes was no longer sure about anger. He was terrified.
The other boy moved towards him, and then he was suddenly upon him. The roar of the crowd disappeared in a ringing as the boy’s fist connected with the side of Cortes’ head, tossing him to the ground. He was on top of him, slamming fists into Cortes’ torso and head and pinning him beneath his larger body.
The blows finally subsided, and the weight lifted off him. Cortes only had the strength to lift his pounding head, the rest of his body weighed down by the blossoming pain. He turned to the side and retched. When he looked up again, he saw the other boy had gone to a rack of weapons off to the side.
Weapons?! His blow addled brain finally caught on. The gladiator ring was not just some street scrap. If this boy had been stealing his money or food, there was just as good a chance he’d be left as he now was. But he was going to finish him off.
Somehow, in the state he was in, this didn’t seem to bother Cortes. He moaned and watched the boy make his choice. There was a selection of nasty looking weapons there, maces, long swords and chains with heavy metal balls on the end, but the boy simply selected a long knife. He studied it, and then held it up to the crowd. Cortes followed his gaze. A man was up there, probably the boy’s handler. He wore a tight fitting white uniform, a blue-grey stylised S on his left breast.
Cortes felt bile rise in his throat. This boy was with them?!
His vision blurred. He could hear the ships again, the whine of weapons fire and the stomp of metal boots worn by metal soldiers that had torn and burned everything Cortes had ever known. And above them all, watching, that white uniform with the S.
Cortes felt his rage build, he could hear his own ragged breathing, and that brought him back to the gladiator ring, just in time to see the other boy moving cautiously towards him with the knife. But not cautiously enough.
Cortes rolled out of his way, kicking out as he did and catching the boy in the back of the knee. He dropped to a roar of approval from the crowd above.
Cortes didn’t hear them. He threw himself on the boy and snatched at the knife the boy held, not feeling as the blade sliced at his arms and palms, until he managed to slam a fist into the boy’s face, and then slam his knife arm into the ground, releasing the blade. Cortes threw punches in a flurry. “How can you fight for them?! You don’t know what they did! I couldn’t stop them!” Even he could not hear his own words, lost as all sound was in the roar of the crowd.
The boy finally managed to shift his weight beneath Cortes, and threw him off. Cortes landed with a thump and rolled onto his back, and found his hand resting on the knife’s blade. He drew the weapon towards him. The boy threw a punch downwards, his arm arcing wide, and at the same moment Cortes brought the knife up and buried it in the boy’s armpit. He pulled away from it and the knife slipped free, followed by a spurt of blood.
The boy staggered, dropping down across Cortes’ prone body. Cortes didn’t want him anywhere near him. He brought the knife around again, catching the skin of the boy’s belly, pushing upwards to get him off. Instead of shoving the boy off, the sharp blade sliced through skin and tore deep. A wash of blood and warm entrails sluiced from the wound and soaked Cortes’ thin shirt in an instant. He shifted, released the knife, and shoved again, and this time was able to heave the heavier body away from him.
The boy lay completely still, staring unseeing up at the sky.
Cortes staggered to his feet. Blood soaked his front, and his right arm and hands were stained red. He stared at his hands, and felt a shake overcome his whole body.
Again, the crowd roared. Cortes looked up and around him, but did not settle on anyone until he came upon that white uniform that looked down on him from the ring’s very side. He stared at the man, and for a moment they made eye contact.
Cortes felt his rage build again, but there was nothing he could do from down here. As fatigue took him over and he dropped to his knees, he made himself a promise. Fight in the ring he might, but one day he would learn to scale that wall and when he did he would put a knife straight through that S, and stain the white uniform red.