His hands, big and strong and scarred, clutched roughly at her, forcing a hiss from her wide mouth. Panting, she leaned forward, her warm, scented breath washing against his sweat slicked face. Lifting his head towards her, their lips met. Then Lod heard a scuffling sound from the doorway.
A skein of cold unwound in him as her panting grew urgent. Her nipples brushed his chest, but his attention lay elsewhere. The faint sound of ringing metal filled the room, and Meliandara, distracted by it, looked up and screamed.
Bucking her off, Lod rolled to his feet, grabbing the dagger from his belt, the blade glinting in the bone yellow moonlight. He readied himself to leap across the bed at whoever stood in the doorway, when a figure stepped into the light. Lod froze and the cold unwinding in his chest became a torrent.
His Imperial Majesty, the Chosen of Carnax, Marduk the Black, stood staring at the frozen tableau before him, his face white like the bust sitting next to the window. Several guardsmen loomed behind him, men Lod knew by name. Their hands rested on the hilts of their swords. Then he realised they were staring at him, faces as white as their Emperors’, and he realised his life hung by a thread.
Meliandara cowered at the end of the bed, the sheet held beneath her chin, her wide, wine dark eyes staring terrified at the Imperator, who turned his leonine head towards her like a beast scenting the air.
‘You,’ Marduk managed in a strangled voice. Lod saw a vein beating frantically in his temple, found it matched his own.
‘You’re early,’ Lod said, startled at the calm in his voice. ‘I did tell you the hunt is bad in the south this time of year.’
‘Drop the dagger, Commander.’ That was Delf, on the edge of violence. He took a step to Marduk’s right. Lod saw him loosen the sword in its scabbard.
‘Early?’ Marduk had regained his composure, though the effort seemed to have cost him dearly. His voice was low and Lod had to strain to hear it. Tears ran down Meliandara’s face and he saw her stretch a trembling hand towards Marduk.
‘Please, he forced me. I was waiting for you and he-‘
A harsh crack rang out and Meliandara fell back, clutching her face. Without seeming to move, Marduk stood over her, riding crop in his hand, a drop of blood hanging from the tip.
‘Don’t,’ he said to her, his tone conversational, like he was speaking with a courtier about a minor border dispute. ‘Don’t you lie to me in my own bedchamber.’ He turned to Lod.
‘Do as Delf says or you’ll hang with her.’
Lod’s eyes were drawn to the ring Marduk wore on the hand gripping the crop. Two rubies glinting like drops of blood on a tiny, snarling face. Chosen of the God. The words rose unbidden in his mind. The tip of his dagger wavered and he shivered, despite the warmth of the breeze against his naked skin.
‘No. Let me take her away, and you’ll never see us again.’
‘Take her?’ Marduk had the look of a man who had been told to abdicate the throne immediately. Pouting, he roughly grabbed Meliandara by the chin and jerked her head up, drawing a thin mewling sound from her. The flesh under his fingers went white. When Lod took a step towards her the guardsman drew their blades.
‘She is mine to do with as I please.’ His lips thinned, but the petulance remained. Marduk glanced at Delf. ‘Take him, but do not kill him. I think the god would like a champion for the festival.’ He turned back to Meliandara, whose eyes were luminous with tears.
‘First, a sacrifice.’ Thrusting her face away Marduk raised the crop. Lod bellowed and the guardsmen swarmed him. Amidst a rain of blows, he lashed out with the dagger, smashing the hilt into a jaw, felt bone buckle. But already he was on his knees. Delf loomed over him, his face twisted with pity and anger.
A fist connected with Lod’s temple, felling him. Vision blurred, he saw, painted black and red, Meliandara scramble away from Marduk, who stalked her across the thick rug. Her screams and the crack crack crack of leather splitting flesh carried Lod away into darkness.
‘Steady. Steady,’ Mercer muttered, his one good eye glaring at Lod’s badly swollen face. Under Lod’s left eye he held a thin bladed knife.
The very tip of the blade nicked the swollen patch of skin. Blood, thick and black, oozed free. The swelling eased, allowing the bloodshot eye to emerge. Mercer repeated the procedure on the other eye.
Throughout, Lod remained still, silent. While Mercer tended to the cuts and abrasions covering his chest and arms, Lod’s gaze never left Mercer’s face. Mercer, who had seen his share of savage beatings, kept his counsel, wondering if the concussed man in front of him would even make it up the ramp and into the arena.
Finished, Mercer stepped aside, and the guards who had shadowed Lod since his abrupt appearance at sunrise moved forward and roughly buckled on his armour. One strapped a shield to his arm, while the other thrust a sword into his free hand. Done, they dragged him to his feet and pushed him staggering up the ramp, where the crowd greeted him with a howl of anticipation.
Lod is delirious, the heat is immense, the roar of the crowd overwhelming. Out of the haze strides a huge dusky man scrawled in tattoos and armed with a black headed mace and shield. He closes like a toppling mountain. The mace, light as a feather, swings down. Lod, all instinct, lifts his shield high, takes the blow on the boss, feels the wood shatter. But it holds. He flings the remains at the southron, metal rim shattering his face. Lod watches indifferently as the man, blood bubbling through fingers clutching futilely at the ruins of his face, writhes in the sand like a broken backed snake. Lod’s blade flicks out and blood jets. A shadow moves in the imperial box. The arena is silent as Lod turns and limps back down the ramp into the shadows. He is too dazed to notice the gibbet swinging in the arid breeze, or the broken figure huddled against the bars.
Exhaustion. The word defines Lod’s world. His muscles scream with every movement and blisters cover his sword hand like the pox. The bones in his face still ache and his ribs are little better. But the swelling around his eyes has faded, leaving mottled patches that look like plague. His head throbs, and blood still mingles in his piss, but Lod stands without reeling and that is all that matters.
The crowd scream his name now; fever bright, an endless blood-mad cry of ecstasy. Twenty-four dead men in his wake; mangled flesh and wide, empty eyes leaving the crowd hungry for more. This is war, lying to himself again and again. The gibbet reminds him that it is something else entirely.
The other men look at him with a mixture of hate and hope. He ignores them, nurses his hurts, and thinks of sweat on skin, a mane of black hair and the crack of a riding crop. This is vengeance, he tells himself, and he knows this to be true.
Beneath the stadium, the chanting of the crowd pounded like the heart of a rabid beast. Lod felt his bones throb with it, that endless cadence calling his name. Despite his weariness, despite the cuts and bruises and the ache fogging his head, his pulse quickened in response.
He shifted, wincing as the stitches in his side pulled, the pain like a red hot wire burrowing beneath his skin. His muscles ached, the weariness dragging at him.
Deep within the limestone vaults, carved by slaves ten generation dead, Lod heard the harsh scream of the god. Last night, half delirious with pain and blood loss after the day’s final bout, he’d followed that sound down the low, narrow corridors. The god’s musky scent grew with each stumbling step, sour and rank.
With blood crusting his hands and face, Lod leaned against the low wall surmounting the pit, looking blearily down at the prowling beast. He’d heard the other fighters say its captivity had driven it mad. Certainly, it ate only the flesh of men, and newly killed at that.
His eyes adjusting to the gloom, Lod saw the matted, stained pelt, the missing ear and how it favoured its right front paw. Scenting the blood on him, it looked up, the air throbbing with the low rumble in its chest. Despite its reduced state, Lod sensed the god’s feral power.
Back and forth, back and forth, pacing its circumscribed world, tail twitching, slitted, sunken, maddened eyes never leaving him. It opened its jaws wide, revealing gleaming fangs like ivory daggers, and screamed.
‘Soon, my brother. Soon.’ The panther howled again, raking the stone with its claws.
A trumpet sounded, and the crowd roared again, dragging Lod from his thoughts. The gates cranked open, two slaves sweating in the wheelhouse. Trotting past came a quartet of bare-chested men, their skin slick with oil, bronze helmets already in place. Two more slaves emerged from a side tunnel and offered weapons; two fighters each took a short, stabbing sword, the third a spike-headed mace, and the fourth, after a long hesitation, a trident. Lod noted his wide staring eyes, and the paleness of his face beneath a patchy beard. Their gaze met for a moment; his filled with fear, Lod’s cold and pitiless and indifferent. The fighter swallowed, his throat jerking up and down, then he turned and followed the others, stumbling a little on the uneven footing. Lod watched him disappear up the ramp. Alone again, returned to the gloom.
Away from the hot, scouring wind, the vaults were wrapped in humidity. Men sweated while they waited. The conversation was a low rumble, inconsequential, masking their nerves. Picking his way through, Lod sensed their attention turn to him, but he ignored it. Some nodded at him; others smiled ingratiatingly, as if he still had something to offer. That life was gone. He knew it, why didn’t they? Finding an empty cell, he lay down on a bench and closed his eyes.
Above, the crowd roared again. The Cauldron, the fighters called it. Serried row upon serried row of spectators calling and screaming and roaring as men fought and died to sate their unslakeable pleasure. Two weeks of fighting during the height of summer filled the marble-clad stadium from sunrise to sunset. The crowds would see who men and beasts die in their hundreds, turning the sands muddy with gore, all under the gaze of the god and the Imperator. And on the final day, a sacrifice would be performed, man against beast, with the bonfire’s leaping flames lighting the night as the crowd howled for blood.
One more day, he murmured to himself, feeling a brief measure of hope flare up before he ruthlessly snuffed it out. Hope was for those who yet lived.
A vast rumbling bellow rolled around the stadium, silencing all conversation in the shadowy chambers. Lod knew the men were looking at each other, wondering which of those who had just fought would be dragged down by their heels to feed the god.
The noise slowly fell away, until all that remained was an excited buzz. Lod could imagine what was being said. Men who had never lifted a sword would debate the merits of the fight, clumsily re-enacting each blow. Touts would be taking bets, men’s chances reduced to shouted odds and the clink of metal. It sickened him.
He heard a sharp rapping. Opening his eyes he saw a dark figure standing in the doorway. Lod rolled over and stood up, wincing again at the wound in his side.
‘How’s that faring?’ Mercer emerged from the shadows into the wan light falling from an aperture high in the wall. He dug a finger under the patch covering his ruined eye.
‘Not bad for a one-eyed horse doctor,’ Lod grunted, lacing up his jerkin tight.
‘You’re not in the Imperator’s guard anymore, Lod,’ the man replied, not unkindly.
‘No, I don’t suppose I am. Are they ready for me then, Mercer?’
Mercer nodded. In his hands he held a dented helmet, which he passed to Lod.
‘Six this time. What in Carnax’s name did you do to piss the Imperator off?’
Looking down at Mercer, Lod thought briefly again of that unlit chamber, the scent of burning incense and the feel of silken sheets clinging to his naked, sweat slicked skin. And of the figure riding above him, arching her back and crying out.
‘Marduk has a weakness for the grand gesture. It’s a flaw that will plunge him one day off the throne. One day. The woman in the gibbet…that’s a message to me…’ Lod broke off, swallowing the bile that had wormed its way into his throat.
‘She’s nought but a filly from his harem, caught with one of his soldiers…’
‘More than just a filly,’ Lod said, his voice like grinding millstones. ‘More than…’
Standing abruptly, ignoring the pain flaring across his body, Lod slipped the helmet onto his head. Mercer watched his face disappear beneath the nose and cheek guards, and saw his eyes harden.
‘Come on old man, let’s see what Marduk has for me today.’
Out on the ramp, the slaves emerged from a side tunnel. Shortsword. Spear. Flail. Trident. Lod selected a long spear, the iron head broad at the base, wickedly tipped at the end. The ash shaft felt good in his hand as he checked the balance. He nodded, then started up the ramp.
Half way up he met a group of sweating slaves dragging several corpses. Standing aside he watched the macabre parade pass. He saw the young man again, his head lolling, an ugly wound over his heart. Sand coated his eyes and a fly emerged from a bloody nostril. Lod watched them disappear through the gate and into the dark beyond. Turning, he continued up the ramp and emerged into the blinding light.
The roar that greeted him was enormous, rising and rising until it swept the Cauldron like a living thing. The sun stood directly overhead, a shimmering molten disc he could feel beating through his helmet. Squinting, he saw the familiar purple canopy. Underneath were several seated figures, one crowned in winking gold. He didn’t look at the gibbet.
Fighting the exhaustion and the pounding in his temples, Lod marched to the centre of the stadium. Heat radiated through his cracked leather boots. Sweat oozed down his face as he laced his helmet tight. The spectators settled, and the atmosphere grew tense. Lod passed the spear from one hand to the other and back, squatted, then straightened and cracked his neck. The waiting dragged on.
Finally, the sound of cranking winches drew the crowd surging to its feet as six separate gates set around the arena wall slowly lifted, revealing an armed figure in each. Pennants high on the walls snapped in the sere wind, and Lod felt his skin prickle as the heat rolled over him.
Six. Yesterday it had been four and the day before that two. Sweat stung his stitched wound. Lod fell into a crouch as men trotted towards him.
The crowd’s screaming recedes to a distant pulse. He feels his heart surge as the world becomes needle-sharp. Duck a blow, jab the spear into a knee and swing away, leaving the man on the ground clutching his leg and writhing in the burning sand. Trip a man with the spear butt then reverse and pin him to the sand through his guts. Dance away from a cut aimed at his ribs, then punch the spear point into a throat, where blood wells in a scarlet waterfall that speckles the sand.
Lod pauses, gasps for breath, sweat clings like a second skin. He skirts the man with the wounded knee, jabs the spear into his eye in passing and leaves the jittering corpse in the sand. The three who remain pause, look at each other nervously. One licks his lips, dances forward with a trident, aims a clumsy blow, then falls away, sliding off the spear point where it had burst through his spine.
By now the frenzy of the crowd is complete. They chant his name like worshippers before an idol, wild and abandoned. He allows himself the barest of grins, reveals a thin sliver of teeth and is rewarded when one of the men blanches and stumbles back. It is only then that Lod wonders where the other man is, until a shadow falls over him.
Flinging himself aside, Lod feels a line of fire scribe its way across his back. He lands awkwardly, barely retaining his hold of the spear. Stunned, the crowd falls silent, and into that gap, he hears the crunch of approaching feet.
Time slows. Lod rolls onto his back and the sun fills his eyes with fire. He flings up his free hand, thrusts out blindly with the spear. The impact shivers down his arm and hot blood spurts across his face. Blinking frantically to clear his eyes, he rolls free as the body collapses like an unstrung puppet.
Staggering back, trying to gain his bearings, Lod sees a dark shape dart towards him. Instinctively, he sways aside as a sword blade flicks out like a darting snake, clamps a hand against the sword arm, draws his attacker close.
Maddened, desperate eyes stare at him. The man’s breath is ragged and sour, and Lod feels his surging pulse. Drawing back his head he butts the man full in the face, his helmet tolling like a bell. He feels the other’s nosepiece crumple like parchment. Bone crunches and the man goes limp in his grasp. Lod grabs him by the throat and squeezes.
Moments later, Lod stands surrounded by a tangle of bodies, sustained by willpower and the chanting of the crowd. Wiping the blood and sweat from his eyes, he looks up, searching the pavilion. It stands empty, the silken panels flapping in the hot wind. The emptiness gnaws at him. He turns and stumbles back to the ramp, his back on fire, his mind screaming vengeance.
‘Hold steady, damn you.’ Biting deep into the leather strap, Lod stifled a groan as Mercer tied off the last stitch. He had time to relax then Mercer dashed vinegar over the wound, which flared like the noonday sun.
‘Damn your eye,’ Lod snarled, rolling off the bench and onto his feet. The pain in his back subsided into a dull ache, matching the pain in his barely healed side. Stars danced in front of his eyes, and he felt the stitches tug. By the flaring light of the torches, Lod checked Mercer’s work in the filmy reflection of a stained, corroded piece of metal propped against the rough wall.
‘Good enough,’ he grunted, then tugged on a loose linen shirt, stained and reeking of sweat.
‘It’s the best you’ll get.’ Mercer sloshed a bucket of water across the table, washing blood onto the floor, where it ran along a channel carved into the stone. Tossing his instruments into a basin, he wiped his hands on a rag, which he threw into the brazier. It flared briefly, casting shadows tall and distorted against the wall. Down the corridor, Lod heard men groaning.
‘How many today?’ he asked, while Mercer stretched his back, which popped and cracked. Overhead, the stadium lay empty, the sharpened horns of the crescent moon riding the cool night sky.
‘Injured? Eighteen. With this heat it’ll be dicey if all of them see out the night.’ He looked across the bench at Lod, waiting patiently the next question.
‘And dead?’ Lod felt the pain in his back throbbing with his heartbeat. He closed his eyes briefly then opened them to find Mercer staring at him. Mercer paused, shaking his head.
‘Thirty four. His Imperial Majesty’s favour was scarce today. Perhaps the heat makes him prickly?’
‘Or my continued survival does,’ Lod muttered. His gaze dropped, and he contemplated a scarred hand which he convulsively clenched.
The silence grew between them, until Mercer broke it with desperate urgency.
‘One more day, Lod. Surely you can survive another day of this, and then you’re free?’
Lod laughed bitterly.
‘Come now, Mercer. You’ve seen enough of the Cauldron to know that miracles are in short supply. And I have the benefit of being by Marduk’s side these past three years. I know his moods, his whims, his…jealousies. Once his mind is set, nothing, not man or the Gods, will change his course. If I don’t die tomorrow, then after the presentation, he will have me strangled before the sun rises again. It is his way.’
‘And all for a woman.’ Mercer shook his head and Lod felt a sharp anger kindle in him.
‘Aye, all for a woman. And for her, I would do it again.’
‘Your life, for his woman?’
‘Not his. Never his.’
‘Perhaps the bards will turn it into a tale the rest will understand. I never will.’ There was a jangle of metal at the door and Mercer flinched. The guards stood with swords drawn. Mercer sighed.
‘Go, Mercer,’ Lod said, smiling a little. ‘While my friends tuck me in for the night, go find an inn and a good wench and tell us all about it tomorrow.’
‘Tomorrow,’ Mercer said. ‘The last day.’
‘Aye. One way or another, there will be an end to this.’
Mercer nodded tightly then exited the room, pushing roughly passed the guards who ignored him.
‘Come on,’ the taller of the two said, indicating the corridor with a curt nod of his head. ‘Back to your cell.’
Sunlight crept slowly into the vaults. The humidity of the night, thick with blood and sweat, had vanished in the pre-dawn, replaced by a clammy chill. Lod was up and waiting when the guards came for him. Stepping into the corridor, he walked down to the open chamber, aware of the eyes watching him. Settling on a stone bench, Lod waited.
The crowds filtered in early, eager for the best vantage point. The priests observed the rituals, genuflected to the snarling image of Carnax fixed above the Imperator’s platform, before sidling off down a tunnel. After that, the fighting began. Minor bouts, prisoners and slaves sacrificed for the amusement of the god and of the crowd. Around noon, chariot races were held, men swinging wildly at each other with blades as their foam flecked horses charged madly around the arena’s circumference. Through all this, Lod brooded.
Fighters returned to the vaults, victorious or broken or dead and gradually, the number waiting shrank. By the time the sun had begun its descent, only Lod remained. Sipping from a flask of water, feeling the tension knotting his stomach, he sensed someone approach.
‘Mercer,’ he said, not bothering to look up. He stoppered the flask and set it aside. The buzz from the crowd grew, impatient for the final bout.
‘The god is old and tired. You’ve a chance, if you want it.’ Lod smiled briefly, bitterly.
‘The god and I are old comrades, Mercer. We’ve outlasted everyone else, except each other. We’ll see who Marduk salutes.’
Mercer clapped him on the shoulder and squeezed, then turned and left. A bell tolled and Lod stood. There was movement behind him, and the surviving fighters came up to him. Wordlessly, they formed a double line, farewelling Lod as he left to meet the god.
Lod strode onto the arena and into the blazing sunlight. The sun hung above the horizon, a lidless eye dripping red, casting the arena into black and rust. The crowd rose to its feet as one, a vast, shuddering, amorphous whole that chanted and clapped, stomped and whistled, howled and roared. In one hand he held his sword, its blade a width of blackness in the fading light. Approaching the centre of the stadium, he saw bonfires flare along its rim. The gloom lifted, and vast shadows writhed and crawled up and down the serried stadium tiers.
Heat radiated from the sand. Wind trickled across his sweaty face and he heard again the creak of the gibbet. Forcing himself not to look at it, he instead glared up at the pavilion.
The Imperator stood and stepped forward, out of the shade and into the light. The crowd fell silent in anticipation. Sweat prickled Lod's back and arms. Seeing Marduk, he sensed something red pulse at the edges of his vision.
'My friends,' Marduk called, his voice carrying easily around the arena. 'My friends, tonight we celebrate the Rite of Carnax, who has strengthened our arm these many centuries as we have fought and conquered and built the mightiest empire the world has known.' A roar went up and thousands of feet stamped. Lod watched, and waited.
'Before you stands the Festival champion. He has fought and won, day after day, winning Carnax’s favour. I give him my congratulations. And now, I give him to the god.'
The crowd rose again, chanting the god's name, while Marduk receded into the shadows. Ignoring the crowd, Lod speared his blade into the sand, then began to strip his armour off.
First he unbuckled the greaves, then the heavy scaled armour. He kept the toughened leather jerkin and the spaulders and bracers and gauntlets. Those in the crowd who knew a little of combat nodded to each other. The rest, mostly well into their cups, hooted and shouted insults.
Lod ignored it all, relishing the freedom and the feel of the breeze. A gate clanged then the clatter of chains. The crowd fell silent, leaving the wind to hiss across the sand. Lod focussed his attention on the western gate.
A howl rang out from that black maw and a ripple of excitement ran through the crowd. Lod pulled his sword from the sand and fell into a crouch. He felt his temples pounding, and heard the rasp of his breath.
A pair of glaring red eyes was the first thing he saw. Then, an inky black shape slipped into the open, massive paws padding forward, the tail sliding hypnotically from side to side.
The sight of the panther elicited a renewed frenzy in the stands. Lod did his best to ignore it as the great cat jerked its head left and right. It paced about, screamed defiance. It froze at the sight of Lod. A heartbeat. Another. And then it bounded towards him.
Lod watched the panther close the gap between them with great bounding strides, not seeming to favour its injured paw. Head down, it loped towards him, coiling and uncoiling as it gathered speed. There was a gasp from the crowd as it leaped, claws extended, jaws wide. Lod flashed to his right, landing painfully but rolling quickly to his feet, searching frantically for it.
It landed and stumbled, its injured paw giving way beneath its weight. Howling, it turned and gathered itself, the heavy, wedge shaped head fixed on him. Again, it rushed forward, and again Lod threw himself to one side, feeling the heat coming off it as it flew passed. On his way to his feet, he grabbed a handful of sand and flung it into the panther’s eyes as it came at him again.
Momentum carried it forward, but its head was down and shaking and Lod took his chance. Ducking in low, he swung his blade out, gouging a furrow along one flank. Blood flew onto the sand like discarded coins and the crowd roared, drowning out the panther’s cry. Enraged, it turned quicker than his eye could follow and pounced.
Caught off balance, Lod felt the paw strike him like a hammer blow. A rib cracked and he found himself lying on the sand. Sensing blood, the crowd roared. Stunned, Lod fumbled weakly for his sword, which lay just outside the reach of his grasping fingers. A shadow eclipsed half the sky and then the panther was on him.
Its hot, rancid breath overwhelmed him. Gagging, Lod thrust out blindly, one gauntleted fist bouncing off the side of its head. He felt an enormous pressure envelope his other hand as the massive jaws clamped on it. Opening his eyes, he found himself staring straight into the panther’s bulging eyes.
Lod tried to scramble away, his boots slipping in the sand. The panther tugged on his hand, and he felt muscles tear. Instead of fighting it, Lod lunged forward, wrapped his arm around its neck, and shoved his trapped hand forward.
The crowd fell silent in shock. Shaking the sweat from his face, Lod tightened his grip on the panther’s neck, feeling the muscles bunching underneath his bicep. An eye, mad and red rolled up towards him, as he fed his hand deeper and deeper down its throat. It gagged, the heavy head twisting and turning, but he hung on grimly.
A scattered chant began, echoing flatly around the stadium. Quickly, it was taken up with exuberance. Crying it, shrieking it, roaring it, his name rolled around the arena like a war cry.
‘Lod, Lod, Lod,’ his name like a benediction to the god, whose avatar he had wrestled to a standstill before them.
His arm went deeper, the metal and hardened leather buckling under the strain, but never failing. Red drool fell from the creature’s snarling mouth, and he opened his hand, tearing and crushing the soft flesh around it. With a mighty effort, the panther reared up, its front paws lashing out. Buffeted, Lod fought to maintain his grip. He felt something wet give way and he burrowed deeper.
Convulsing, the panther fell back, taking Lod with him. They crashed together into the sand, Lod’s arm around its neck trapped beneath its weight. Eye to eye, Lod watched the life drain from it, the body giving one final shudder before its head rolled to one side, and the last of its breath sighed away.
His name ringing in the air, Lod struggled to his knees, slipped his trapped arm free then pulled the other from the panther’s throat. It came out covered in gore, his bunched hand uncurling with a spasm as it left the mouth, snapping off one of the large incisors. Lod looked numbly at the bloody fang, then around at the cheering crowd. Palming it, he stood, swaying in the fading light.
The stands were in a near riot. Glancing behind, he saw the other fighters gathered at the top of the ramp, all cheering his name. He saw Mercer, standing a little apart from the group, looking grim. Lod nodded once to him, and Mercer returned it.
There was a rattle and the gates at the base of the steps leading up to the Imperator’s box squealed open. Guards lined the steps down to the sand as a dark figure, swathed in purple, descended slowly, holding something golden in one hand. Staggering a little, Lod went to meet him.
Lod saw Marduk stop at the bottom step, just above the sand. The crowd noise had died away, until only a low buzzing noise remained. Looking over his shoulder, Lod saw the dim shape of the panther lying in the blood soaked dust, and felt again the fang in his hand, its weight, and how so like a dagger it was. Fingers tightening around it, he went to receive his reward, and to give his own in return.
© May, 2013 Robert Mammone
Robert Mammone is a banker by day and a writer or horror and fantasy by night. He has been writing since 1989.