Excerpt from STORM OVER OLYSI
The incoming fist rapidly grew in size, filling Gerel’s vision to the point where it blotted out the light before connecting with his jaw in an explosion of sparks.
He fell back, bouncing against the side of the fighting pit, breath knocked from his lungs by the impact. By pure instinct his forearms came up, protecting his face from the rain of blows and strikes, gritting his teeth at the pain. He skipped off to the side, dodging another strike that would have decked him for sure had it connected. Sand flew away from his bare feet, drops of sweat fell to the ground as he gained more room, his head still ringing. He waggled his jaw…no teeth fell out. A good sign. Best make sure it stayed that way.
The crowd packed the tiered seats above the fighting pit, the air raucous with shouts, curses and obscenities both at the fighters and each other. Strong drink spilled from clay cups, bottles clattered underfoot, a hazard to any and all making their way through the stands. A diverse crowd, well representing Pa’a and its populace, men from every world in the system and quite a few beyond. Human for the most part, though there were a few ilurei hanging around in the back, quiet like their kind generally were. Hanging from the wall on the highest level were four giant boards, painted black and marked with chalk numbers and symbols, erased and redrawn every few seconds. A steady stream of men went back and forth, taking note of the latest odds and laying down wagers with the four bookmakers who between them held the gambling franchise (not to mention the dozens of others operating on the sly.) The touts calling out the odds kept an eye on the two men in the pit. Gerel, lean, black-skinned, moving like a panther, up against Wursung the Dread (so he named himself) six feet tall, burly and so covered with tattoos that any hint of what his actual skin might look like was now a matter of guesswork. Both men were stripped to the waist, their hands wrapped with strips of cloth. Both circled about the pit, waiting for an opening, the mob of pugilistic enthusiasts howling for blood.
Gerel struck, fists lashing out, quickly as a snake struck, hitting Wursung once, twice in the chest, sending his foe back. Gerel saw his opening, and gave another blow, putting all his strength behind it. Wursung ducked to the side, moving with uncommon grace for a man of his size, leaving Gerel off balance.
Another hit, this time to Gerel’s ribs. His arms raised again as another flurry of blows came down, more than a flew ducking under his elbows to find his gut. He was fending off the worst of it, but not for much longer….
BONG! The timekeeper slammed a wooden mallet against the metal plate, raising a watch over his head with the other hand. “Time! Fighters to your sides! Three minutes!”
Wursung lowered his fists and sauntered back to the edge of the pit, seemingly unfazed by the hits he’d taken. Gerel stumbled the other way, setting himself down on a stool and spitting out a blood-flecked gobbet. “Bastard can hit,” he growled.
A slender, olive-skinned fellow knelt beside him. “You good for the next round,” Pohtoli asked, handing his comrade in arms a cup of water.
“Bah! I’ve taken worse hits than that from my grandmother!”
“Was your grandmother the size of that monster?”
“Do you question my courage, Pohtoli?”
“Of course not! In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not the one being knocked about, that privilege is all yours my friend….”
“Enough!” A weary voice spoke above them, ending yet another incipient argument. Gaebrel Harrn glared at them both for a moment. He was tall, lean and green-eyed, his brown hair ragged after months of self-barbering with a knife by candlelight. “One minute left. Gerel, can you stand for another round?”
“Of course, who do you think….”
“How many fingers am I holding up?”
Gerel frowned. “Er…three?”
Gaebrel waggled four, then shrugged, “Eh…close enough.” The gong rang again, accompanied by a roar from the crowd. “Get out there and do some damage!”
Gerel lurched to his feet, bellowing a war cry in his native tongue as he charged out, fists at the ready. A minute later he came stumbled back against the side of the pit as Wursung hurled down blows from above like lightening bolts from a vengeful and heavily tattooed god. A drop of sweat flew away from Gerel’s head, arcing into the air to land somewhere in the crowd. A fitting metaphor, Gaebrel idly mused, that well explained the last four months.
The decision to leave the worlds of Doran behind was not difficult to make. Over a dozen realms on half as many worlds and moons had placed prices on all their heads, ranging from merely large to outrageously extravagant. There was no port, no settlement or remote field or barren stretch of rock that wouldn’t be infested with bounty hunters clutching wanted posters in one hand and weapons in the other. Only two of their number were native to the system and neither had any desire to stay; Hurren the ursuhli was bound by his oath to die honorably in battle and could never return home. Gerel, on the other hand, yearned to see his native deserts on Charulan one last time…but was wise enough in the ways of human nature to realize that he wouldn’t last more than three days back home before a rival tribe kidnapped him for the reward. The danger this would bring to his family was something that could not be countenanced.
So they raised sail for the Celestial East, leaving Doran behind for the cold winds of the open Empyrean. To the South, the light of the distant suns of the Bright Lands, to the North the impenetrable darkness of the Bittering, that trackless reach beyond the light of the Suns, a frigid, light-less hell where the cold winds that shivered them now would feel like the warmest of summer breezes. No ship that entered it ever returned and the crew of the Sparrow certainly had no desire to try their luck. Ahead of them, growing brighter by the hour, was Olysi, that most exotic of the Suns, its worlds a byword for wealth, where their names were unknown. Where their fortunes might be restored (and this time kept firmly in their hands.)
Said fortunes took a turn for the better two months into their journey, when they came across a derelict ship floating on the wind. From the tattered nature of the sails and the thick beards of moss hanging from the spars and hull, it had been abandoned for quite some time. No sign of the crew was aboard, nothing in the way of remains…and the hull was empty save for the desiccated remains of a few rats. Gaebrel ordered rope cables be fixed to the prow and the Sparrow’s sails opened to the fullest. Towing the damnable hulk cut their speed in half, but it was worth it, once they breached the outer edges of the system and made for the moon of Pa’a, orbiting above the ocean world of Merusis. A salvage yard on the moon happily accepted the derelict as salvage, no questions asked, paying what Gaebrel considered an absurdly low price for a ship that, with a little work, could be restored fairly quickly…but they were in no position to complain. And it was still enough to pay the docking fees, restock the galley…and engage in the next scheme for quick riches and easy money. Which in Gerel’s case was proving quite painful to achieve….
Gerel stumbled back to his companions, weaving back and forth like a sapling in a strong wind. He sat down with a groan, blinking furiously at his feet. “That last punch..hit like a mule,” he muttered. “Why do I have two right feet…”
“Can you make it one more round?” Pohtoli asked.
“Course I can….”
“You sure about that?”
Before Gerel could come up with a suitable retort, Gaebrel handed him a cup of water. “Drink,” he said. He looked across the pit at Wursung, lounging on his stool as though this was a day in the sun. He met Gaebrel’s gaze with a grin, revealing a mouth full of teeth filed to sharp points, Unpleasant fellow…
The gong struck again. Gerel lurched to his feet, spitting out a mouthful of water tinged red with blood, beaten but not yet broken. Immediately his arms were up again, fending off more blows, causing many in the audience to wonder if he still had feeling below his elbows.
A stocky, blond-haired man forced his way through the baying mob, leaving behind a trail of apologies for trodden-on toes and spilled drinks. “Done!” Morrec Dheann gasped out, bumping into the rise of the pit barrier beside Gaebrel and Pohtoli.
“All of it?” asked Gaebrel.
“Every penny, spread out on all the bookmakers as you asked.”
“At what odds?”
“When I started they were giving out at four to two. By the end they were at ten to one. They might hit twenty if we wait a bit longer…” Morrec winced as he saw the carnage in the pit.
“I don’t think Gerel will make it to eleven, the way he’s going,” Pohtoli observed.
“Agreed.” They all flinched as Gerel buckled under a powerful blow that would have knocked out a horse. “Give the signal.”
Fighting pit aficionados were not the most observant of individuals, being composed largely of men drunk on a potent mixture of liquor and bloodlust, Violence was what they were after, the more brutal the better. Yet if any had taken a moment to analyze the fight from a rational standpoint, they would have noticed a few things off. First, the mere fact that a clearly outmatched Gerel was still standing, albeit just barely. Second, that every time he was knocked back against the edge of the pit, it was at a point were his opponent could see Gaebrel and Pohtoli. And finally, in between various punches and blows, Wursung would glance towards the two of them, as if waiting for something.
Pohtoli coughed, as if clearing his throat, then idly scratched his nose. A common enough gesture, unnoticed by the crowd (or so he hoped.) Wursung eyes flickered with recognition. At which point he ceased with the relentless pounding of Gerel, grabbed the other fighter by the shoulder and hurled him back out into the center of the pit. “Enough of this!” he bellowed. “I will fight a man, not a cringing old woman!”
Gerel flushed at that, even as the crowd laughed. Raising his fists, he flung a wild blow at Wursung, driven by equal parts rage, desperation and foggy-headedness. Given the relative difference in condition between the two, the punch should have had little chance of actually hitting, and even less of causing damage. Wursung moved the moment it was thrown, Gerel’s fist clipping along his cheek. He stumbled back, arms flailing, as if kicked in the chest by a mule. Shouts of dismay came from the crowd. Gerel followed up with another punch, and another. This time Wursung raised his arms in protection, even as the howling mob screamed down at their champion of only moments before.
“He’s overselling it,” Pohtoli muttered. “A child would see through this.”
“Give them a moment.”
Wursung shoved his way free, stumbling back into the center of the pit. He raised his fist, watching Gerel stalk towards him like a panther. He blinked, swaying back and forth, groggy to the point of blacking out, or so it seemed. He stumbled forward, a clumsy punch striking out, passing before Gerel’s face and meeting only air. The crowd let out a collective groan as as their wounded champion tried to straighten up, breathing heavily, his face a mask of pain.
Gerel delivering the killing blow, striking him in the face. Wursung let out a mighty groan and collapsed to the sand, struggling for a moment to rise on one quivering elbow before falling back with a sigh
The chorus of boos, curses and general outrage all but drowned out the sound of the gong being struck. “What the hell is that!” bellowed a bearded, greasy-faced gambler down by the pit edge.
“Get up you lead sack!” shouted another.
“Horseshit! Bullshit and horseshit! You dive-taking son of a bitch!”
Bottles flew through the air, followed by mugs and fragments of bench wrenched from the floor. Gerel, raising his arms in victory, was forced to duck various pieces of debris aimed at his head. Wursung’s friends dragged him away, his heels leaving giant ruts in the sand. With all the objects being hurled towards the pit, inevitably some of them came up short, hitting other men in the audience venting their spleen and more than willing to turn their wrath on the idiot two rows back who clipped them with a beer mug. Within a minute half a dozen fist fights were roiling the stands, spreading quickly as such things tended to.
“This is not good,” Pohtoli said, stepping aside as a boot flew past his head. “We won’t collect anything if the bookmakers run off!”
“On it!” Morrec disappeared into the scrum, shoving men aside as he climbed to the booths up top, now surrounded by armed bully boys, who in turn were surrounded by a larger crowd of gamblers, a few to collect their winnings, far more to dispute their wagers.
Gaebrel helped Gerel over the side of the pit. “Excellent fight my friend, you are the new champion of this rock!”
“Indeed you did! Isn’t that right, Pohtoli?”
“Oh aye, a god of the arena is our Gerel! Now can we please get the hell out of here!”
The three men made their way along the edge of the area, Gaebrel draping a blanket across Gerel’s torso with one hand and keeping the other on his knife hilt in case anyone decided to argue the results of the fight in person. But by now the commotion had gone beyond original causes, devolving into a more common sort of brawl.
Eventually they made their way to the exit, joining a stream of other spectators whose enthusiasm for the fights ended with actually participating in one. Outside was a maze of narrow streets. A layer of muck and grim covered the bare rock of Pa’a below, above was the endless dark gray of the Empyrean. They dodged into an alley, taking a moment to collect their breath and their senses.
“Left my shirt in there,” Gerel muttered, shaking his head back and forth. The ringing was quieting, his thoughts less jumbled. He smiled as memories of the fight filtered up from the depths. “Was a good hit,” he said. “Did you see how he went down in the end? Barely had to tap him…”
Pohtoli glanced at Gaebrel. He doesn’t now, he mouthed.
Gaebrel nodded “Yes it was,” he said to their comrade. “You showed him who was boss, ain’t that right Pohtoli?”
“Yeah, sure…hey, here comes Morrec!”
Morrec came out of the pit entrance, one arm clutched tightly across his coat. He saw the others and came over, pulling a pair of bulging leather purses. “Ten to one odds,” he said. “Not bad for a night work, may the Suns forgive our greed and duplicity…” The look on his face was somewhere beyond merely troubled.
“Have you added honest profit to the list of sins you must avoid?”
“When it leads to the weakening of righteous resolve. This place is one step away from hellfire for a creature such as me.”
“Cheer up, Morrec!” Pohtoli took the purses from him, hefting their weight appreciatively. “You were merely betting on our behalf. And you’ve shown admirable restraint thus far when it comes to games of chance, given the numerous dice dens and card shacks in this port.”
“Only because Gaebrel threw my dice overboard before we landed and confined me to the ship afterward.”
“At your request,” Gaebrel noted.
“Doesn’t mean I have to like it.” Diatribe done, Morrec turned away for a bout of cleansing prayer, doing his best to ignore the sounds of dice clattering in the back of his mind, the sweet seduction leading him down the path of damnation as it had so many times before…
Gaebrel let him be. “How much?” he asked Pohtoli.
Another heft of the purses. “Enough,” Pohtoli answered. “We can live of this for at least three months…or use it as seed money for more profitable ventures, which I assume is our next course of action. Relying on Gerel being beaten to a pulp is not a viable option in the long term, I fear.”
“Do you question my fortitude, Pohtoli?” Gerel rasped.
“He was knocking you about like a cat playing with a mouse.”
“And yet I won in the end!”
“Yes, about that….”
As a long dark shadow filled the alley, bringing their bickering to an abrupt end. Wursung stood before them, cracking the knuckles of his right hand with the sausage-like fingers of his left. Of the injuries he’d sustained in the pit there was no sign, indeed he looked remarkably healthy and alert for a man knocked out cold only minutes before. He stared at them, meeting their gazes one by one, lingering the longest on Gerel. A long silent moment followed, filled with tension, a hairsbreadth away from blood and violence.
Pohtoli tossed him one of the purses. “Half,” he said. “As promised.”
Wursung hefting it in his meaty hand, listening to the coins inside jingle and clink. A smile crossed his lips, twisting the tattoos into new and even more disturbing shapes. “A pleasure doing business with you, gentlemen,” he said in a surprisingly cultured voice. He touched two fingers to his forehead in salute and ambled off, whistling happily.
Gerel watching him go, slow realization dawning on his face as the implications became clear. “Gaebrel, you treacherous snake…”
“In fairness, we were going to ask Hurren,” Gaebrel quickly responded, “but he’s in one of his moods….”
“This…I never would have agreed….”
“Which is why we didn’t tell you.” Gaebrel cut him off. “It’s been a long day, and you need to heal up from that fight. If it makes you feel better, I’ll arrange for a rematch with Wursung and he’ll beat you senseless honorably.”
“I’d punch that smile off your face if I wasn’t seeing three of you…”
They went down the alleyway, turning left at at intersection with a larger street and headed back to the shipfield. “It’s a good start,” Gaebrel mused out loud, his mind alive with the possibilities. “This moon is full of cargoes waiting to be shipped. We use the winnings to fill the hold with something valuable and find a destination to take it too. If Olysi is anything like Doran, there will be ample opportunity to test your mettle against pirates, bandits and other types in need of dispatch…Gerel, are you listening?”
The big man remained silent, gritting his teeth as he sulked.
“Oh, please yourself…”
They rounded another corner, Gaebrel opening his mouth as another wild idea entered his head. The words died stillborn as halted before a lowered spearhead, aimed at his belly. Holding it was a man in the brown studded jerkin. Several others, similarly armed and armored, stood beside him. Before he could even blink, another squad appeared from behind, blocking any escape.
Gaebrel recognized them – mercenaries hired by the merchant house running this trading post to keep order and run off competitors. “Is something wrong?” he finally managed to ask.
Footsteps from ahead. One of the guards stepped aside for a fellow in a velvet doublet and peaked cap with a long red feather tucked in the headband. The silver chain hanging around his neck marked him as one of the factors in charge of this place and he did not look happy. “No one throws a fight in one of my pits without my blessing,” he said.
“Apologies, we did not know…”