1 – The Victor
Two men entered at either end of the ring, marked only by small rocks crudely laid out on the dirty ground; a mixture of sand, dry mud and the odd patch of grass which remained resistant to the foot falls of the many who had stood there. The crowd surrounding them cheering and hooting, fists pumping in the air brought to a frenzy of the spectacle they were about to witness.
The men were naked but for simple leather loincloths. Both were muscular, their bodies glistening in ritually applied oils and unguents. They stared at one another, judging the opposition, looking for an early weakness that would lead to victory.
They flexed their arms, tightening fists and rolling heads to loosen shoulder muscles; the cracks of bones audible over the braying hollers of the voyeurs. Neither had anything against their opponent, in fact only moments ago they had shared a cup of wine together, patting each on the back and wishing the other good fortune in the coming minutes. But now, now they would do everything in their power to make sure they walked out of the ring the victor.
At the sound of a horn blast the two men threw themselves forward. They met together in the middle of the ring, fingers interlocked in vice like grips. Muscles bulged out in the herculean effort each man showed, trying to gain the upper hand. Veins stood out on their skin and tendons were clearly visible in the necks of each of them.
They stood like statues locked together for minutes, sweat slowly forming on their foreheads through the great exertion each man committed to the fight. Gradually, one began to shake, then with glacial slowness, started to drop to his knees. His opponent allowed a glimmer of a smile to cross his lips, before forcing it back inside. He knew never to celebrate a victory until you have actually won.
The man on his knees, blond haired with hawk like brown eyes over a long nose, tried in vain to rise. His opponent, who had a mass of dark brown hair on his chest giving him the appearance of a bear, didn’t give him chance. He brought his knee up sharply and connected with the cheek of the blond man. A second earlier and it would have been the long nose that had been in the way had he not twisted his head at the last moment. Another smile flickered across the bears face; he knew that if he had connected with his nose he could have killed his adversary. He didn’t wish him death, and knew that the crowd would not have liked it if he had of killed him.
The hawk pushed forward and bear released his grip, causing the blond man to pitch forward face first into the sand. Nimbly sidestepping the falling figure he kicked out at the downed body, expecting to connect with ribs, or stomach, instead he was shocked when hands grabbed his foot. The prone figure stood up swiftly, still holding the foot of his attacker, and thrust his hands in the air. Quickly he changed his position and swept his leg around, connecting with the ankle of the remaining standing leg.
Already off-balance the bear crashed down to earth, landing heavily on his back in the sand, forcing the breath from his body. The blond man didn’t miss a beat and he jumped high in the air, arms spread wide like the wings of the bird he resembled, and brought his knee down on the fallen mans chest. At the last moment he rolled to one side, the attacking knee hitting the sand millimetres off target, causing a small spray of the particles on the ground to patter off his skin, some sticking to the mixture of sweat and oils that covered both of the fighter’s bodies. He carried on rolling before, in a display of acrobatic grace, pushed himself into the air to land on the balls of his feet.
Both combatants took a moment to catch their breaths before again launching themselves together. This time they avoided grappling with each other and instead traded blows. Fists rained down on each other, some connecting, a few missed and many being blocked with graceful fleetness.
Above in the heavens dark clouds started to roll in, the air becoming heavy and thick, adding to the oppressive nature of the combat.
For minutes the two warriors fought, gauging their opponent, looking for weakness but finding none. They felt pride at connecting punches and shame and receiving them. Neither fighter would give up, neither man could afford to loose. The hawk was swifter and avoided most punches easily, but the bear had the strength to cause more pain when he did connect.
The ground underfoot started to become treacherous as the sand became saturated with an amalgamation of blood and sweat, mixing to form a paste like substance. It was this that allowed the fight to come to its early conclusion.
The hawk swung a swift roundhouse punch at his opponent but slipped ever so slightly on the mixture under foot. His balance off by no more than a fraction, the blow slipped behind the bear’s right ear, leaving a perfect opening for him to exploit. The upper cut was brutal, and unchallenged, connecting firmly on the chin of the unbalanced figure. Teeth rattled in his head as his head snapped back sharply, and as quickly came forward again following the momentum, just in time for a second punch to connect squarely on his left temple.
Hawk spun round and tumbled to the earth, a grunt escaping his lips. He landed hard, face first and was rewarded with a mouthful of wet dirt, mixing with the blood and saliva that filled his maw. Any other man would have been unconscious before he had hit the ground but he was made of sterner stuff. Still the impact had been perfect and his resistance gave out. His body gave up and with a great effort he rolled onto his back to look up at the outline standing over him; the blood flowing freely from the cut on his temple pouring into his eyes, stinging him and bringing a shameful tear to his eyes. Mustering his last reserves of strength he raised his right hand, his fingers closed in a fist but for his index and middle finger together, pointing upwards in the sign of surrender.
The brown haired man, the victor, nodded his acceptance and offered his hand to the loser. The loser gripped it as best as he could and was pulled to his feet. He stood shakily, using the winner as his crutch. He spat the red, gritty phlegm from his mouth and winced slightly in pain as his opponent embraced him
“Well fought, brother,” the victor whispered close in his ear has he held his fallen comrade.
Two men, mere dwarfs compared to the fighters, ran into the ring and bore the weight of the loser on their shoulders as they half led, half dragged him out of the ring.
The victor raised both arms in the air and screamed, releasing his pent up fury and relief. It was as if the Gods recognised his win as a long, rolling boom of thunder swept across the wooden walls of the small settlement that encased the celebrating crowds surrounding the stone ring that held the triumphant victor.
Two more men entered the ring and dropped to bended knee in front of the victor. He lowered his arms and nodded his acceptance to the subservient men. The stood and led him away.
2 – The spoils
The loser allowed the two men to support his weights as they carried him to the top of the wooden battlements. They held him out over the edge and through half closed eyes he gazed out over the hoards of corpses that surged against the wooden walls of the settlement. Men and women of all ages stretched out before him, a sea of grey faces that had plagued them for weeks now.
The army had marched out to face them, but had all but fallen in a single night; the survivors making their way back to the camp to preserve their strength. Now all them stood in defiance of the assemblage before their home were those brave enough to face them again, this time single handily. They could no longer afford to lose so many in one go.
A single drop of blood fell from his cut lips and like a red rain drop plummeted to the undead now reaching up to grasp at the meal a few metres out of reach.
The drop landed in the mouth of a woman, her clothing mere shreds of the expensive dress she once wore. It drove her into an ever greater frenzy and, as more blood leaked from his multiple cuts, they all became even more agitated, pushing and shoving each other in an attempt to be the one under the prey they wanted.
The loser looked to his left at the sound of creaking wood. The inner gate to the settlement slowly raised and before it reached its pinnacle the winner ducked under and waited before the outer gate. He was now clad in bronze armour, the muscles of the breastplate not doing justice to the true muscles underneath. A helmet covered his head; the leering face set in a grimace which the loser knew to be nothing like the smile which no doubt now resided on the winners triumphant lips. A viciously sharp curved sword held in his right hand, a bronze shield with a spike in the centre strapped to his left.
His shoulders rose and dropped with each heavy breath he took. His body shaking, almost unperceivable, due to a combination of fear and adrenaline from the fight just won.
A drop of moisture ran from the loser’s right ear down his cheek and he knew it wasn’t sweat. Another drop caressed the back of his neck and he knew the Gods were crying; whether it was in joy of the winners’ victory or sadness of what was to come, he was unsure.
He continued to look at the victor as he stood between the closed outer gate and open inner gate. The victor turned to his right and looked at the loser through the slits of his helm. They made eye contact and in that moment they were one. The loser could not see the expression on the victor’s face but he knew he had lost his smile. He needed validation. He needed to know he was forgiven for what he had done.
It took all his strength but the loser forced a smile on his face and tipped his head to the victor. He truly wished him well.
The victor looked to his left and nodded, almost unnoticeably and with a crash the inner gate slammed to ground, throwing up a cloud of dust. At the same time the rains came, a downpour like a waterfall from the skies.
The winner flexed his arms slightly embracing the cool water that pattered off his armour, and after a long, deep breath nodded again. The outer gate slid open and the undead surged into the void.
He didn’t wait for them to come to him, the winner charged them. His shield held out in front, one fell, impaled on the spike, before a second and third went down with a massive swing of the sword.
With a refinement honed through years of training the winner swept through the front of the undead lines like a sickle through wheat. The loser looked on as the winner reigned down destruction upon the shambling corpses that threatened to tear down the walls that kept the small community safe. He hated himself for the envy he suddenly felt. He wanted to be happy, but the primordial part of him knew it should be him down there. But for a simple act of fate it would have been.
The winner tore through the undead like a whirlwind of death, but he was greatly outnumbered. Exhaustion started to set in and the bear began to slow. The undead swarmed the winner, but still he fought on. A slam to his left told him the outer gate had been closed; the winner was now on his own. The ‘thwip’ of arrows could just be heard over the moans, and the loser knew the undead that had been trapped between the two gates were being put down. Those arrows would be recovered later and used again. Nothing could be wasted. The community was running low on everything.
The winner started to become swamped. His exposed arms ran with blood from multiple scratches and bites, but still he somehow forced himself into greater feats of heroism. The corpses of the dead lay around him, trampled into paste by the uncaring cadavers who only had one desire.
The winner’s sword swept back and forth like a pendulum, each swipe removing limbs and cutting rotten flesh; his shield smashing bone and impaling corpses on its fearsome spike. The black liquid which replaced their blood spraying into the air, joining the rain as it fell upon the ground.
Just as it looked like he might fall the winner seemed to find a reserve of strength. He threw out his arms and roared like the bear he closely resembled, unheard by the watching crowd due to a combination of the storm and moans of the dead, but visible by his head thrown back and his mouth open wide.
The Gods approved and answered in kind with another boom of thunder. The winner doubled his efforts and fought like a man possessed. The circle of dead around him grew, and for the first time since he had stepped beyond the gates he had room to move. Allowed a second of space the winner readjusted himself and prepared for the next wave.
From his vantage point the loser could see it was all in vain. Already the undead had doubled in size from those who pounded at the walls. More had been drawn from the surrounding fields and woods at the prospect of a fresh meal. They may be on the edge of the group but they added their weight to the mass that already were so close.
The winner carried on his cyclone of death, hacking and slashing, ignoring the wounds which now covered every inch of exposed flesh, but the undead closed all around him, swamping him like flies on a pile of dung. Every time he swatted at them they fell back, only to come again, undeterred.
Little by little they started to gain the upper hand until eventually the winner fell. His final act was to remove the legs of an old man who shambled towards him. It fell forward, his jaw landing on the small amount of exposed flesh between the winners helmet and chest plate.
The loser was proud that the winner didn’t even scream as he was set upon by the hoards spread out before him. The small circle of space he had won himself was quickly swallowed up, until the only thing that marked it was ever there was the small epicentre of furiously animated corpses. Within minutes the distraction had passed and the surviving undead, along with their new companions made their way back to the camp, to continue pounding on the wooden walls, waiting for the next meal to face them.
The two men who support the loser knew it was time and turned him away from the scene and led him to the healers.
It would take a few days, maybe a week, before he was fit to fight again, but next time he would win. He had lost to the best, barely, which meant that next time he would emerge victorious. He would be the saviour of the community. He would march out there and destroy them all.
He felt himself being laid out on the straw mattress in the healers hut and knew his body was ready to give up the fight. In the distance he could hear the sound of the crowd being stirred into anticipation of the next round.
As exhaustion caught up with him, he prayed to the Gods that the victor of the next fight failed. Immediately he regretted the thought, they were fighting to be the honoured warrior who would next face the hoard, but he knew it came from a desire to protect the community. The next time he was out there he would win. He would face them in combat. He would destroy the hoards at his walls. He would lead his people to victory. He would move on and save the next village. He would save them all. He would cleanse this land. He would be the victor, and to him would be the spoils.
Dedicated to my Grandfather
2nd October 1923 – 12th July 2012
A fighter and a winner to the very end