Chapter 33: Bits Arena
While Hobble limped to the arena the next morning, he pondered the plan Gilmir had presented. It was a good scheme. All he had to do on this day was to go to the arena and lose a few fights. Until now, he had won most, but barely. He could have won all of them easy enough. But this was the arena where the consequences for the loser was, for the most part, harmless. There is only one rule in Bits Arena. You are not allowed to kill or severely injury your opponent. The punishment, like for most crimes in the town, is to fight in the stadium, the greatest arena in Sha’ton.
There are several reasons a spot in the stadium is considered a punishment.
First and foremost, there is no rule against killing or maiming in the stadium.
The second reason is that if you’re usually fighting in the Bits Arena, you’re severely under-qualified for a contest in the stadium. If you are lucky, you end up in the first bouts. Those fights are meant to warm up the crowd, and most of your opponents are just as incompetent as you are. If you happen to survive, you can look forward to more of the same the following weekend.
If you are not lucky, you spend your final moments mauled or lacerated by some exotic beast or monster from the underworld. The purpose of such a demonstration of destructive talents is, of course, to make sure the rich ladies in the stands know how fierce these beasts are when the real fighters—the gladiators—face them.
Finally, as a criminal you will receive no reward from the stadium, except for your freedom when the sentence is served. Few criminals ever made it out of the stadium alive.
Approaching the arena, Hobble moved slower and leaned heavier on the staff. He hobbled over to Faster, short for fight master. Faster was a burly man with a balding head and stubbly beard. Three teenagers were waiting in line to sign up for fights. When Hobble reached the end of the line, Faster made his typical joke.
‘Next!’ he said, lifting his hand to shield the sun while he surveyed the surrounding area, pointedly looking over Hobbles head. ‘No one else, okay, then!’
Hobble cleared his throat.
‘Oh, sorry, didn’t see you down there, cripple,’ Faster said, while the youngsters around them chuckled nervously.
‘Set me up for three fights this morning, master Faster,’ Hobble said, addressing Faster in the polite, but ridiculous, way he always did.
‘I do like to be called “master” fight master,’ the burly man said chuckling, ‘but tell me, cripple, do you get off by the beating you receive or are you paying off some debt? Yes, of course, you are! You have to pay those whores double don’t you, as they can’t feel when they are getting shagged.’ Faster wiggled his little finger in front of Hobble.
‘That makes no sense,’ Hobble muttered under his breath. The pain from his broken nose made it difficult to tolerate the customary insults.
‘What’s that?’ Faster cupped a hand behind his ear, ‘I can’t hear you down there.’
‘Do I get my three fights?’
‘Yeah, yeah, I wouldn’t stand between a man and his whore, even a half-man. Watch the board for your matches. And have someone lift you up if you can’t see it, I won’t tolerate any hold-ups in my arena.’
Hobble waited for Faster to scribble down the last contenders, and match them in pairs on the stone board. Already in the third match, he would get his first chance to lose. Faster scratched “CRIPLE” and “TOMI” on the two columns in the third row. Tomi, or Tommy, as folks who could actually spell would name him, was a farmer’s boy with big ears. In fact, Hobble would not mind losing against him. He was a decent sort and had moved to the city after his father died last winter. Hobble spotted the oversized boy in the crowd and gave him a nod. Tommy nodded back with a slight smile and a shrug of his round shoulders. Turning back to the arena, Hobble saw two youths stepping into the ring.
‘Knuckles or sticks?’ Faster asked.
In Bits Arena, the fights were either barehanded or with wooden weapons. In a heap nearby, one could find all sorts of sticks, clubs and staves. Most fighters brought their own clubs or other weapons of choice. The fighter in the first column got to choose how the match was fought.
‘Sticks,’ the boy said, lifting two clubs to emphasise his choice.
The other boy lifted his club to show that he was ready.
‘No killing, no murder, no slaying nor slaughter!’ Faster cried out raising his arms. Swinging his arm downward, he shouted, ‘Fight!’
Hobble turned away from the fight and glanced around. He needed to piss. Shaking his head, he made for an alley; this always happened before a fight.
When he came back, the first fight was over. Also, the second match went fast and soon Hobble stood ready in the ring of stones. A commotion made Hobble turn his head. A tall man stood in front of Faster, talking. The fight master seemed less than happy, but in the end, he nodded. Faster stepped into the ring and cleared his throat.
‘Tommy has forfeited. Luckily this gentleman has agreed to take young Tommy’s place, so that we can keep the schedule.’ Faster indicated the tall man with his arm. A sigh went through the crowd. ‘Next fight will be Cripple against Victor,’ Faster continued. ‘Knuckles or sticks?’
Victor was tall and muscular. He appeared more like a bouncer than a typical Bits Arena fighter. Stepping into the ring with one arm raised, he let his eyes glide over the crowd with a grin on his square face. Hobble realised that losing this match would not be difficult. But more than that, he realised he was in trouble. This could not be a coincidence. He had seen Tommy less than a quartermark ago, seemingly in good spirits and ready to fight. Something was out of order, and he was the intended target. Precisely what he was the target for, he did not know. But, he was convinced that the one rule of Bits Arena would be considered a vague recommendation in the upcoming fight. Hobble tightened his grip on the staff and answered. ‘Sticks.’
Victor smiled and stepped over to the pile of wooden weapons. After picking up two clubs, he returned to the ring. Faster nodded and went into his routine.
‘No killing, no murder, no slaying nor slaughter!’ Faster said, raising his arms. ‘Fight!’
Hobble held the staff in front of him, horizontal, with both hands. Victor came forward, left stick in front of him, the right held high beside his head. Circling, Hobble tried to gauge his opponent, but Victor wasted no time. Leading with his left stick, he made three fast attacks, like a boxer’s jabs. However, he was not aiming for Hobble’s head or body, he targeted the hands holding the staff. Hobble had to move the staff sideways to avoid getting his hands cracked. When the right club came chopping down, Hobble had to jump back to avoid the blow. It took all his skill to land without falling or revealing that his club foot was not a hindrance after all. He limped more pronounced for a few steps, wincing all the while.
Victor came on, smiling. Hobble considered letting the man hit him sooner rather than later. Let the jabs connect, lose the staff and concede defeat. However, something in the man’s eyes made him doubt that he would get off that easy. He had to be careful. This man was not here to earn a few bits knocking kids and cripples around. Victor hit with his left club—once, twice, three times. Hobble parried. When the right club came hacking down, Hobble sidestepped and swung the staff towards Victor’s left foot. In the last instance, Victor parried with his left club.
Turning, Victor swung the right club in an arc towards Hobble. The counter-attack was expected but came in faster than Hobble had anticipated. He could not jump back without revealing his less than crippled physique. In the fraction of a beat he had, he decided to counter with a strike of his own. Reversing the momentum of the staff, he twisted it upwards so that the lower end circled upward towards Victor’s head. It was a desperate move.
Hobble’s strike had to land first, to take the brunt out of Victor’s swing. Closing his eyes, he braced for the impact. He heard a whooshing sound, like when a gust of wind finds its way down a chimney and makes the flames blaze. A jolt went up his arms as the staff connected. The swinging club made contact with his left upper arm, but there was no force behind it. A collective groan went through the crowd. Hobble opened his eyes.
Victor lay on his back several steps away. Out cold. He had a dent in his head. The left part of the man’s face was broken. The left eye bulged.
Hobble’s stare shifted from the man to the staff and back again. No, no, no. Not this again. Troll balls, not this shit again! For several moments everything was still, all was quiet. And then, all of a sudden, the world restarted. The people in the crowd started talking. Some shook their heads, others held hands in front of their mouths. Others laughed and pointed. Some at Victor, some at Hobble. Faster looked from Victor to Hobble, his mouth hanging open.
‘Seize him!’ someone shouted. ‘He has broken the rules. The law! Take that criminal!’