The Twists of The Blade
We were all quiet for a moment. None of us knew what to say. Boss tells Alexis pretty well everything; or at least everything he needs to know. So I knew that he knew most of this already, but he still looked legitimately surprised. I knew it because I was the one who overheard it, and I still felt surprised. May looked surprised too, but the brothers looked curious. I guess this was all new to them. Ben’s stupid face always looks the same.
The brothers went to the back of the arena and started assembling their instruments. They had a little kind of tripod that they put their horns on, and they both set up small drums that sat on the floor in front of them, with the skins facing the sky. They tied little hammers to their right shoes, with the head of the hammer hooking from the stick toward the drum so that when they tapped their feet it hit the drum on the ground. One of the drums had bells on it too. When Boss gave the signal they took their horns and began playing a slow tune that seemed to roll slowly between one horn and then back to the other. Their feet slowly tapped their drums, one and then the other, and then they started speeding up the pace. Their tapping and playing got faster and faster and I saw the soldiers start taking their seats more and more quickly. All their bedding had been removed and there wasn’t a single seat to be seen by the end of their first tune.
there was maybe as many as 2000 soldiers there.
This was the first time Boss had put me on the program. I was wearing a collar that had about a dozen points with bells on it like the jesters wear, and matching cuffs around my wrists and ankles. Alexis gave them to me before the show. I have no idea where he got them from, but they made me feel more like I was part of it. I entered with the second song at Boss’ cue and walked to the middle of the arena. The brothers played a fun and quick tune. I held my first ball in the air, then my second and my third, placing them in front of me on the mud. It smelled terrible! I stepped back and took a fourth ball from my pocket. Then I proceeded to go through the routine that Raf taught me. I did a two ball routine, then took a bow. I did my three ball routine, then I took another bow. But then when I did my four ball routine they went wild. I guess they’d been watching the fourth ball on the ground in front of me whole time I was juggling with three. I finished the four ball routine and instead of catching them I just threw my arms in the air and let the balls hit the dirt. They went completely crazy for me! It felt amazing. I stopped noticing how bad it smelled. I had honestly never felt a rush like that before and I suddenly got it. I got why Boss, Raf, May, Alexis and the brothers performed. I got what they were feeling and getting out of that sense of appreciation that I just got. The brothers stopped playing; I took one more bow, and admittedly took perhaps too long to finish bowing, but then I left.
Boss entered the arena from the side closest to the river. Ben was holding a torch and walking beside him to keep him visible. The night seemed to be getting darker and darker by the second, and there was no sight of stars or the moon because of the thick cloud cover. Ben was carrying a pine torch, rather than the glass lanterns we would usually use; because they were still in the wagon and we needed to pretend that we didn’t need anything from there until after the show. The problem with a pine torch is that it’s literally a length of wood that’s been splintered down to about half way with an axe so that it’s a hand-held bunch of burning kindling. It gives off a thick, black smoke that billows from it. But it was the best we could do at short notice and Ben seemed pleased to have a job.
“Ladies and gentlemen! Welcome to this, our celebratory performance that honours the might of the combined forces of the Schmidt army, the Haji Army and the forces of the Pan Patrio! Tonight; for your viewing pleasure, we have for you the most celebrated gladiator of all time! A man whose last head count of slain dead was well into the thousands!! A man who stood side by side with your soldiers today as you fought off the army of Jessop and a man who tonight will continue to serve you as an example of swordsmanship! The one and only Alexis, who will be taking the highest honour available to any living man as he demonstrates his skills with the sword! But first, I present to you a talent from your very own city! The first lady of Pan! The siren of the Thanatos! I give you the one, the only, Miss May!!!!”
The brothers started blowing their horns again. We only have one kind of music in Leyden. It’s a bamboo flute and a drum made from a hollowed bamboo with pig skins on either end. It’s not at all like the music that the brothers were playing, but I have to admit that it was quite catchy anyway. She walked out with a peculiar step. Her toes pointed outward and she paused before she placed her foot each time she stepped. Her head was tilted toward the ground and she stopped about the same place where I was juggling. Then the brothers stopped playing. She looked up at the audience and lifted her hand toward them. The brothers began a new tune and she slowly began her routine. First she went into a back arch, then threw her legs over to be doing a handstand. The soldiers went wild because her skirt fell upward, exposing her backside to them in her G string. Then she folded her body over itself backwards, then into the splits and finally pulled her ankles behind her ears, and began walking about on her hands. Again, the soldiers went absolutely crazy for her. The brothers finished their tune and she took a bow. Then she signalled for Boss and he came in from the wing. He stood beside her and she walked around him seductively. He took a slightly more stable stance and held out his right hand for her. She took it and he seemed to throw her into the air. It didn’t look at all like Raf did, but suddenly he was doing the same stunt with her and she was holding a handstand above him. Boss was at least twice the weight and size as Raf, so it didn’t look anywhere near as impressive to watch, but the audience were none the wiser and they went crazy again. Finally, as her finale, May found her way to standing on Boss’ shoulders. Once there she readied herself, standing completely still, then suddenly threw herself into a double backflip, landing behind him perfectly. The darkness made it hard to see the full stunt unless you were sitting directly to her left, but it was clear to the rest that she was either about to die or do something amazing. The audience went crazy again.
Finally, after all the cheering drew slowly back to silence, Boss took his place again, with Ben lighting them both up.
“Thank you, thank you. Now! Ladies and gentlemen! It is my great delight to present you with our final act for the evening. I bring to you a gladiator not from any of the ten communities we now find ourselves at war to protect! Not even from the communities by the sea! But from a community even further north than we! A man who found his entire village decimated by the dead nearly thirty years ago. But for pure fortune he was spared as a baby and found his way to the safety of a hollowed out tree! Raised for a short time by the savage nomads in the outermost wilderness, then finding his way to the communities by the Sea before being found by me eight years ago. I present you with the one and only, the astounding and powerful, the amazing and brilliant; Alexis the Great!”
The soldiers clapped, but not like they had for May. More of a polite clapping. Alexis entered the ring from the back of the coliseum, walking slowly down the stone stairs that led from the back of the arena to the pit. As he passed more and more of the soldiers saw him and an unnatural silence fell on the place. As he walked on each of the steps his long broad sword occasionally touched the stone steps he was walking down and made a Tink sound as he went. it echoed through the place. When he got to the bottom he took out his broad sword and placed its tip on the ground in front of him; leaning on its handle with both hands. He smiled at the audience. It’s a good moment because it seems like an unnecessarily long gesture. Just when he does that the keepers that Boss has organised release the first creature into the ring. They do so from behind him. It’s a clever bit of theatre because in that moment where he stands still, the audience always goes deathly quiet. When they see the creature released they assume that he hasn’t seen it, so they go even more quiet for a moment. This lets Alexis listen to the footsteps of it as it shuffles toward him. But this night was different.
As he stood there the audience did exactly what they usually do. They went completely silent and watched him. Then, on cue, shadows started moving near the river as the keeper Boss had organised released a creature. It staggered like it should up the hill from down near the river where it was released. It was drawn to the light. Alexis just stood there, listening. The creature stumbled and fell once just before it got to the beginning of the pit. It righted itself and continued staggering forward. I watched the soldiers as they sat and watched. Several of them who had been eating food were now sitting still in anticipation. Murmurs here and there were heard as the soldiers asked one another if Alexis was aware of the creature that was now visible to them. There were women in the audience too, because the Patrio is made up of anyone in Pan who is between 18 and 22 years old. And they were also on the edges of their seats. In fact, if it was any other show, that audience would have been a great one.
But there, as it came into the light of the pine torches, with the thick black smoke billowing across the space, we saw it for real. It was the King. Our king. The one that Boss had rounded up from god knows where, and dressed in the suit of the last king. I guessed it was a joke from the soldiers of the Pan army to tell Boss who truly was King after all. But then, just as I was underestimating him, Boss came bounding into the arena with a pole and a loop of rope on its end. He looped it over the head of the creature and held it in place. The soldiers were intently watching, but didn’t react at all. Boss secured the creature and stopped it in its tracks.
“But now, ladies and gentlemen, as we present you with this amazing display of prowess and agility, I would like to introduce you to something very special. This, that we have brought to you today is a man who comes from the Kingdom of Jessop! You see the unusual clothes that he wears? We captured him today as he was approaching Pan. He is a Jessop trader who deals with the communities by the sea, but today was trying to enter Pan with plans of sabotage!! However, as he approached the city one of Jessop’s own creatures bit him, so we took both monsters captive!! This man, and the creature that bit him. Carefully we rounded them up to bring to you tonight to show you first hand just how feeble and weak they in fact are! But the victory, ladies and gentlemen, is to be ours tonight as we release this creature into the ring with the greatest dead-slayer in the entire world!” As Boss spoke the audience began murmuring sounds and grunt in waves of support. But by the end they broke into a loud and ruckus cheer for him. When they abated he continued. “I don’t want to give away any surprises, but please let me assure you that tonight you will see not just the enemy of Pan slain, but we will see an even more terrifying and astounding display of good triumphing over evil when we release the next creature! So without further hesitation, I present you with our shared victory!!” He released the creature from its loop and poked it hard in the shoulder to steer it back toward Alexis, who amazingly hadn’t moved the entire time Boss was presenting.
The creature saw Alexis and went straight for him. I’d seen this routine lots of times before but this time he waited far longer than he ever had to make his first move. The creature’s hands must have come within an inch of Alexis before he swooped to the floor, rolling into a tumble over his sword and landed on his back facing the sky, allowing the creature’s momentum to keep it travelling after him. As it fell forwards Alexis drove his sword up into the middle of its chest; leaving it impaled and draped directly above him. He lifted his legs and heaved them forward, away from the creature, and threw his weight away, letting the creature hit the dirt with a thud. Ordinarily any living being would have stayed on the ground after being wounded like that, and the roaring audience went silent instantly as the king began to lift itself from the floor of the pit. Alexis was standing with his back to it again, arms in the air, seeming to be revelling in the applause. Even though the cheering had finished he kept on gesturing to the audience with cocky smirks; his back to the king. The audience began yelling at Alexis, warning him about the approaching beast. But as per usual, he had it all perfectly timed, and as the creature approached he acted. Unbeknown to the soldiers in his audience Alexis’ arms were up in the air all that time because he was using his broad sword as a mirror to watch behind him in its blade. As the creature came toward him again Alexis plunged the sword downward, thrusting it under his arm and again into the chest of the king. He spun, pulled the sword free, pivoted on his left foot and spun again. Now, standing behind the king Alexis swung his sword twice in the air, round about his head, and then on the third approach landed it into the neck of the king. Its head rolled clean off, hitting the ground before his knees did. Then its body followed and the soldiers jumped to their feet, cheering and screaming with delight. Alexis took a bow, walked over to the head of the king and took its hat off. He placed it on his own head and took another bow to the delight of the crowds. That was the sign for Boss to release the next creature. But since I suspected that Boss had nothing to do with the release of the last one I guessed he’d have as little to do with the release of the next one either. I was also keen to see the next one because I was sure I knew who it would be. The creature in the cage with the king was enormous and I couldn’t resist being excited to see how Alexis was going to deal with it. But then, to all our surprise, the next creature appeared; along with two others. One of them was, as I’d suspected, the creature we had in the cage with the king, but following it were two others. I was standing next to May over on the side, and last I saw Ben and Boss were over on the other side of the pit. But suddenly I realised that Boss had found his way with Ben to our side of the arena floor. I saw Boss beside me about the time that he saw the two other creatures following our Jessop creature and he let out three short, sharp whistles. It was interesting to see, because it was another moment where I saw the workings behind the façade that the audience didn’t see. Those three sharp whistles made Alexis know that there wasn’t just one of them coming after him. There were three.
The three dead that were heading up the grassy slope from the river weren’t like the king. He was old. About 60 years old by my judgement. But these three silhouettes were all those of young, nimble people. They had only been dead for a few days at most. The smell was now in the arena with them. It stank something terrible. To my surprise, one of the approaching dead was a woman. I saw her hips as she came into the torch light. But my eyes were more firmly on the big one that used to be in our cage. The other thing that made me more excited was that all three of them moved far faster than the king did. Either the king had been dead longer, or he was just older in life than these three; but either way he moved a lot slower.
It was very exciting for me and the soldiers in the audience were again screaming to alert Alexis of the danger he was facing as he stood with his back to them. I moved as close to the audience as I could to see as much of the show as possible when I saw something that made my heart sink. The muscly creature that we’d had in our cage ran toward Alexis in a very fast jog. He was followed by the female creature, with her boobies bouncing around with every step. But as the third one came into the light it made my blood run cold. It couldn’t have been deliberate, and whoever sent the dead into the ring couldn’t have known who it was. But running just behind the female creature was a younger man in parts of a Patrio outfit. He had the rapier in his hand. I could make out most of his silhouette from where I stood, but May recognised him before I did and she screamed!