While Adalmearc celebrated summer solstice and mourned winter solstice, the triumph and defeat of light, the South Cities reserved their festivities for the days of equinox when light and dark were in balance. The Evenday in spring was particularly revered, bringing new life. Revellers filled the streets at all hours, and no work was done if it could be avoided. Even slaves lazed about as the entire city let loose of all restraints.
Master Hanno’s compound was one of the few exceptions. Every area saw frenzied activity; today, his fighters would earn their keep and prove themselves. The first games would commence before noon, and the last would take place long after. Hanno had fighters participating in most of them, and all had to be ready and prepared for departure at the same time.
“First time on the sands. Nervous?” Majid asked smiling, strapping on his greaves.
“I’ve been in battle before,” Garrick reminded him, putting on bracers. “I’ve fought people actually trying to kill me. I’ll be fine.”
“You’ve never fought with a thousand eyes staring down upon you,” Majid retorted. “It will be nothing like what you have known.”
“You keep saying that, but I didn’t flinch when we fought the other night,” Garrick argued.
“You did well,” Majid acknowledged. “Just stay on your feet. Don’t take any risks. I can handle every opponent we’re up against, as long as I don’t have to drag a dead man by the chain.”
“Don’t you worry. I’ll take care of myself,” Garrick claimed. “You do the same.”
“Trust me, I will. I am this close to freedom,” Majid declared.
“Why does it matter so much to you? You seem awful satisfied being a slave,” Garrick taunted him.
“I accept my lot while working to improve it. Is that so hard for you to grasp?”
“How can you ever accept being a slave? Under someone else’s boot?”
“Most of my life has been this way. When I was a soldier, my life was not much different. I lived in the barracks, ate what I was given, trained daily, and followed orders,” Majid pointed out. “If I had tried to leave, I would be branded a deserter. Freedom was a stranger to me then as now.”
“But you choose to be a soldier,” Garrick argued. “I never chose this. I was tricked, assaulted, and sold like cattle! Prodded by strangers and measured like a horse. They made an animal of me,” he complained. “No man should endure such a fate.”
“Yet thousands do,” Majid replied prosaically. “You can continue to complain about it, or you can claw your way up. I made my choice long ago, and today, my reward is in sight. You are free to choose to do the same.”
At Hiram’s estate, an entire procession of people prepared to depart. Besides the nobility, most servants and slaves would be going to the spectacle as well. An ample number of guards was also included. Since the stable hands and bearers were not working today, there was neither horses nor litter available. As a result, everyone was walking.
“I could do without this tradition,” Dalia complained as they set into motion.
“Walking once a year will not kill you,” Jana chastised her.
“But it is so far to the theatre! My shoes are not at all suited for walking that far.”
“Then why are you wearing them?”
“They are the only pair that is suitable with this dress,” Dalia explained with a superior attitude.
Just ahead of them in the column, their brothers spoke with lowered voices. “Everything prepared?” asked Saif.
“Naturally. I would not walk with such leisure otherwise,” Jalil replied, slightly indignant.
“Just making sure. The meeting with the Council is tonight.”
“I am aware,” Jalil told him with irritation. “Until then, perhaps we can enjoy the games.” He increased his pace to fall into step with Hiram, soon engaging him in conversation.
All of Labdah was celebrating Evenday, including at the docks. Whether natives or foreign sailors, everyone was happy to indulge an excuse for revelry. Even the slaves hauling goods to and from ships took part. All across the piers, men and women were laughing, drinking, and enjoying the mood. An exception were the tavern keepers; most of them worked half the day, providing a steady stream of drink to get the festivities started.
Jawad slipped into one such establishment; although early, the place was already full. He approached the proprietor, a stocky man with sweat on his face from running around the room. “Fasih.”
Seeing the old rogue, the tavern keeper’s demeanour changed. He put down everything in his hands and nodded towards the backroom. Jawad entered, quickly followed by Fasih. “Yes, chief?”
Jawad gave him a piece of paper. “A message for Amal. Make sure it leaves today. Things are going to change fast in Labdah, I suspect, and our operations with them.”
“You got it.” Fasih accepted the missive with a meaty hand. “You found out everything you needed then, chief?”
“I did. You can withhold any payments to Maharbal.”
“We ain’t on friendly terms with him anymore?”
“We are,” Jawad clarified, “but it won’t matter much longer.”
Fasih frowned. “We won’t need him? Is this to do with the Council and the emissaries from Alcázar?”
Jawad nodded. “If ties between Labdah and Alcázar are restored, so will trade, and there will be little profit in smuggling goods between them. If the current situation holds, it means Maharbal and his faction have become isolated on the Council,” Jawad explained. “In which case, he will be soon be ousted. Either way, we have no further need of him.”
“As you say, chief. Anything else?”
“Have a boat ready to take two passengers to Alcázar. Either late tonight or possibly tomorrow, though I aim for sooner rather than later.”
“Very good.” Fasih nodded. “You’re going through with it, then?”
“He’s important to you, this northerner?”
Jawad shrugged. “I’ve never met him before recently. But he works for the Prince, and the name of the Prince must be respected.”
“Aye.” Fasih nodded again, fervently. “I hope the master knows all the ways we’re doing his work in Labdah.”
“I’ll be sure to mention your name to him,” Jawad promised.
While the Evenday celebrations could stretch on for days, the games were only held on the actual day. This meant a steady stream of people leaving the city to reach the theatre that lay outside the walls.
“I’m not looking forward to this heat getting worse,” Garrick mumbled.
Oblivious to his remark, Majid grabbed his arm and attention. “Look! Your future and fortune lie ahead.” He pointed at a great structure coming into view as they left the city gate. Hewn into the rock, the theatre of Labdah loomed in the distance. It was rumoured to be the largest of its kind, able to accommodate many thousands. For more than twelve centuries, it had seen countless fights on its sands. Underneath these tribunes, a now forgotten Elder of the Council had enflamed the populace to war against Adalmearc eight hundred years ago. Many still spoke of the trial against Hamilcar, the captain accused of treason following the defeat against Alcázar. Today, another chapter in the history of the great theatre would be written.
Nearby, a small town of tents rose, allowing the fighters a place to prepare. Weapons and armour were being inspected, oiled, and polished everywhere. Every warrior fought in a distinct style, easily recognisable by their equipment. The style of Alcázar was among the most common, and passing through the area, Garrick saw numerous shields similar to Majid’s. The spearmen of Gadir were also popular. Here and there, an emerald warrior could be seen carrying a tower shield. The crowd adored this style as it was an homage to Labdah, but few trainers chose it for their fighters; not many warriors could handle a shield of such size with the swift manoeuvres needed to win in the arena. Reaching Hanno’s tent, Garrick saw no fighter in the northern style but himself.
“The first game is about to begin,” Majid remarked to Garrick. A few of Hanno’s warriors had already prepared themselves and departed.
“When is our fight?”
“It’ll be some hours. We participate in the grandest spectacle, my friend! Fifty warriors upon the sands at the same time. The excitement of the crowds is like a lightning bolt coursing through your veins. You have never felt anything like it, I promise you, and you will crave it ever after,” Majid told him.
Looking distracted, Garrick did not reply at first. “I wasn’t honest with you the other day,” he finally admitted.
“When you asked if I had something waiting for me back home. I didn’t quite tell you the truth.”
“Ajama, such matters are between you and your god.”
“No, I want you to know. Someone should know,” Garrick declared. “It’s been eating at me.” He continued in halting fashion. “Remember the girl I was going to marry? She got pregnant. I was a day-labourer, barely making coin for myself. So I joined the Order to get some quick silver, provide for them both.”
“That doesn’t seem like anything to shame you.”
Garrick shook his head. “As the campaign dragged on, I sent less silver home. Spent it on myself. When it was finally over, I didn’t go home for several years. I became a temple guard until they wouldn’t have me either. I only returned once my coin was gone and I had no better prospect.”
Majid inspected his weapons, letting Garrick speak without interruption.
“By then, she had found someone else. Not much of a surprise, and I hardly blame her. As for the boy, he’d never met me before.” The old soldier exhaled. “All the years I was gone, I can’t really claim to be his father, and I don’t think her new fellow cares much about the lad either. He’s going to end up like me, working himself to the bone for a few petties, or join the Order and bleed in the mud somewhere.”
“Ajama, you should not fill your head with these thoughts before a fight.”
“That’s why I accepted the task, going to Alcázar. It was enough silver that I could buy him an apprenticeship. If I could make sure he got a trade, he’d get a better life than me,” Garrick said. “Perhaps that would atone for my failings.”
“Those are good intentions. Let that comfort you,” Majid suggested, “and put your mind towards the sands.”
“But he doesn’t know that,” Garrick interjected. “In his mind, I went away again. He’ll think I left him, like the first time. I don’t want that on my conscience.” He finally looked at Majid. “One way or another, I have to leave. I won’t stay twelve years hoping to one day become champion.”
The other warrior sent him a stern look. “Tomorrow, you can set the city on fire for all I care. But today, Ajama, today you will fight!”
Warriors left and returned over the next hours. Some in triumph, some in defeat, all with wounds. At some point, the mamluk left while shooting a menacing look towards Garrick; when he returned, he was subdued, and the physician began treating his wounds.
“I’m guessing that bastard didn’t win,” Garrick said with glee.
“Keep your thoughts on your fight,” Majid cautioned him. “Keep your head where it belongs.”
Garrick examined his equipment. Besides his armour, he had been given a sword with a long blade, a helmet that covered around his eyes, and a round shield. “Why does my shield have a horse head on it? That’s the symbol for peace,” he pointed out to Majid.
“Why does a horse mean peace?” the other man asked confused.
Garrick frowned. “You know, I’m not sure. It must have something to do with Disfara. A goddess,” he added.
“If I don’t know, the crowd won’t either. As long as it’s sturdy.”
Garrick struck the steel edge of the shield against the ground a few times. “It looks to be.” An official exchanged words with their master and quickly examined Garrick, who glared back at him. “What’s that for?”
“They are checking their records. You must be new to the sands, remember? It would be a breach of sacred rules if not. One champion, one beginner,” Majid reminded him. Hanno walked over to speak a few words in Suthspeech, and Majid nodded. “We are next, Ajama. Prepare yourself.”
Garrick closed his fist around his amulet. “Rihimil, protect me,” he muttered, squeezing the wooden carving.
“Your god?” Majid asked, checking the many straps of his armour.
“Rihimil, the Black Knight,” Garrick confirmed. “I served in his temple once.”
“Black? He is like me, not pale like you?”
“No, I think it’s his armour. Never thought about that,” Garrick admitted with confusion.
“Too bad. You might have made a convert out of me,” Majid grinned. “Here! We must complete your appearance.” He brought out a jar and began to smear some of its contents on Garrick’s face. “There. That’s how a northern warrior should look.”
“I’ve never seen an islander look like this,” Garrick retorted.
“Neither has the crowd, but they expect it nonetheless. Come! It is time you stand upon the sands.”
With chains connecting their ankles, the two fighters followed Hanno. Passing through the town of tents, other combatants joined them. Those staying behind saluted them in various ways. Majid responded with a nod to each; Garrick simply breathed heavily.
“Just survive,” the Mearcian told himself. “You can do that. Just survive.”
They finally stepped onto the sands. In a semi-circle, the tribunes spread around them, and the cheers from thousands of spectators rose in greeting. Majid waved his sword in the air while Garrick craned his neck to stare all around. It seemed the entire population of Labdah had come to see them fight. The sand crunched beneath their feet; above, the sun shone down to be reflected in their armour. When all twenty-five pairs of fighters had returned the greetings of the crowd, they spread out across the arena, turning to face each other.
“Ajama! Do like me,” Majid bid him and bent down to let the grains of sand run through his hands. “Greet the sand. Let it know who stands upon it. You will do this many times before your last fight,” he told Garrick.
“Seems like silliness,” the northerner mumbled, but he did as suggested.
All the tribunes were the same except those at the very top; seats and canopies had been installed to allow the nobility of Labdah to enjoy the games in comfort. Mago, Eldest of the Council, nodded to a horn blower by his side. A sound issued from his instrument, and the fight could begin.
Fifty warriors shouted in bloodlust. Some charged forward with expert coordination, others stood fast. “Ajama!” Majid called out. One pair came at them, and Garrick found himself in desperate defence. His foe ran into him like a battering ram, knocking both of them to the ground. He stabbed as best he could, but his long blade could not find its target in such close combat. His enemy had a shorter sword and thrust it down; in the nick of time, Garrick’s shield came up to take the blow.
Blood sprayed over him as Majid’s weapon pierced the enemy fighter from behind, and his comrade used one foot to push the corpse away from Garrick. “On your feet, Ajama!”
“Just survive,” he mumbled, repeating Jawad’s words to him as he got up. He saw the other fighter, Majid’s first opponent, sitting disarmed on the ground. “Just survive.”
Another pair approached, more cautiously. Garrick and his counterpart measured each other; he faced a spearman. The tip came jabbing at him, which he blocked with his shield. He tried to advance, but found himself held back; at every attempt to move forward, the spearman skilfully attacked, forcing him to step back and defend. Finally, he attempted the same manoeuvre as in Hiram’s palace. When his enemy lunged forward to stab the spear at him, Garrick dropped his shield and reached out to grab the shaft, pulling it towards him.
It had worked in the cramped space of Hiram’s hall; here, the spearman had enough distance to balance himself and stop his own momentum. With both hands, he tore the spear out of Garrick’s grip. Despair clawed across the northerner’s face as he saw his discarded shield on the ground.
Majid’s blade came swinging into the spearman’s helm, making a dent and sending him tumbling to the ground. “Stop acting the fool!” Majid cried out to Garrick, who hurried to pick up his shield. “Just defend yourself!” The spearman’s comrade already lay on the ground with arms stretched out in surrender. “They come!”
Another pair of enemies. An emerald warrior charged Garrick, and they exchanged blows. Trying to find a way past the tower shield seemed impossible; it covered the wielder nearly from head to toe. Daring a look towards Majid, he was also hard pressed; he faced a warrior in the same style as himself, apparently of equal skill.
Garrick shifted slightly until the sun was behind him, making his opponent squint against the harsh light. With this small advantage, Garrick launched himself forward but immediately dropped to the ground, stabbing his enemy in the foot. The emerald warrior gave a cry of pain and stumbled backwards, out of reach, while swinging his sword to keep Garrick at bay. That was not needed; on his feet again and with one enemy in retreat, Garrick turned to slash Majid’s opponent across the back.
Majid did not waste the opening and sent him to the ground. Two against one, they turned on the emerald warrior, circling around him like wolves finding a wounded deer. A feint from Garrick drew his attention, letting Majid move in close; one moment later, he lay down in defeat.
Across the sands, few remained standing. None were eager to rush into the next fight; all appraised their remaining opposition. In response to this, the roar from the crowds lessened while anticipation built. Garrick pushed his helmet up to wipe the sweat from his brow. “What now?”
“We make someone else than us the target.” Majid nodded towards another pair. “Keep pace.” They began walking with the chain between them rattling like a snake across the sand.
Their chosen opponents noticed the threat and turned to defend themselves, thereby making themselves vulnerable from another angle. This was not lost on another pair of fighters, who moved to take advantage of this. Two pairs against one left nothing to chance.
Majid shouted a few words over the din to their temporary allies, and an agreement was reached. All of them moved to face the third pair on the sands, repeating their strategy. As before, isolation proved disastrous. One of them managed to surrender; the other had the choice ripped from him with a sword through his chest.
Only two pairs remained. “Just survive,” Garrick mumbled.
“Just keep yours at bay,” Majid instructed him. “Don’t fall, don’t leave me vulnerable. Stay on your feet, keep your weapons in hand. It’ll be over soon.”
For the first time since the fight had begun, Garrick faced a mirrored opponent; his enemy held a long blade and round shield in the northern style, same as himself. Blue eyes met his own of the same hue; it seemed likely he stood against another Mearcian.
His opponent lunged forward to launch an attack; on the sands, they were all enemies, Mearcian or not. To the side, Majid engaged his own counterpart likewise.
Sword and shield clashed repeatedly; Garrick was constantly pressed back, having met his match. The chain around his ankle stretched out, objecting to any further retreat.
“Ajama!” Majid called out upon feeling the chain pull at him, threatening his balance.
Blows rained down against Garrick, forcing him further back. The shackles stretched, encouraging his enemy to press on. Sun glared into his face, sweat poured into his eyes, defeat loomed over him. With a quick stroke, his foe struck a gash across his right arm, making Garrick drop his sword. In a desperate act, Garrick threw his shield against his enemy. It bought him a moment, which he used to jump to the side. The chain between him and Majid stretched out and became a snare to entangle his enemy’s legs, and he fell to the ground.
Immediately, Garrick fell upon him, seizing his dropped shield and bashing its edge into the throat of his enemy. His windpipe crushed, the man gargled and suffocated. Getting up, pulling his chain free and picking up his sword, Garrick stalked towards the last remaining foe. Attacking from behind, he slashed him across the hamstrings. With an anguished scream, the fighter fell to his knees, dropping his weapons in surrender.
“Ajama!” Majid roared in wonder. “We did it! We won!”
“We won?” Garrick asked in a daze. He stared around the arena and saw it to be true. He raised his bloodied sword in triumph. “We won!”
“Those are your champions, are they not?” asked Saif of Hiram.
“They are indeed. Master Hanno has proven worthy of my patronage,” Hiram said pleased. “As his patron, I have the fortune of naming one of them as champion.”
“You decide between these two?” asked Jalil.
“Custom is the experienced fighter receives that honour,” Jana explained. She was the only woman among them; Dalia sat with Maharbal. “Along with his freedom.”
“Customs change,” Jalil claimed. “Letting such a skilled warrior go free seems a waste.”
“That particular pair is interesting,” Hiram declared. “It is no coincidence they fight in the style of Alcázar and Adalmearc. The taller one is from your city, and the other hails from the North, I was told.”
“And the taller was the experienced fighter, correct?” asked Jalil.
“Indeed. But was he the better? It seems almost auspicious that Alcázar and Adalmearc should fight on the sands. But a real fight has only one winner, does it not?” Hiram looked at the princes seated by his sides.
“In this case, they worked together,” Saif pointed out.
“Lord Hiram is right. War has only one victor,” Jalil declared. Smiling, Hiram rose from his seat.
The multitudes of spectators were still in a frenzy after the game; it took a while for them to notice the expensively clad man at the top of the tribunes, raising his hands to gesture for silence.
“Good people of Labdah, what games we have had today!” Hiram declared. The crowds roared back in agreement. “I am Lord Hiram, Elder of the Council and patron of the fighters who stand victorious upon the sands this day!” He paused with a beaming smile. “It is tradition that the champion of the chained games shall be set free. While I strongly believe that Labdah stands upon the traditions of our ancestors, I also believe that Labdah should stand with its friends. Before us, we have a warrior of Alcázar and a warrior of Adalmearc. Who is stronger?”
Hiram waited to let the question take root. “There is only one way to know!” he continued. “Let the sands decide! Two men stand before us – only one may be free. Only one may live. To the death! Let the sands decide!” he repeated with a roar.
Both Majid and Garrick had worn smiles while Hiram spoke. Now, their smiles faded as the truth became apparent.
“Fight!” yelled the crowd.
“You said we had won,” Garrick said confused. “You promised!”
“This is unheard of,” Majid mumbled.
“I don’t want to fight you,” Garrick declared, but he kept his sword angled towards Majid.
“I’m sorry,” Majid muttered. “I’ve waited too long for this.”
Garrick leapt forward without warning, raising his blade. As he struck down, Majid parried every blow, quickly recovering. The northerner swung in an arc, aiming to cut Majid’s throat. The latter leaned backwards with cold-blooded calculation, and the tip of Garrick’s sword passed by within an inch of his skin. Before Garrick could stop the momentum of his swing, Majid closed the distance and plunged his short blade into flesh.
Garrick’s sword fell from his hand, and he sank to the sands. He sought to speak to no avail. By the time Majid knelt by his side, only dead eyes stared up. “I’m sorry, Ajama,” Majid told the dead man. He reached out and grabbed hold of Garrick’s pendant, pulling it free. “You deserved better.” Clutching the carving of Rihimil in one hand and his sword hilt in the other, Majid rose to receive the adulation of the crowd and his freedom.
“The people certainly do not mind this departure from custom,” Saif remarked casually.
“It proved beneficial today,” Jana admitted. “But abandoning tradition means abandoning its protection.”
“Labdah has far too long been in the grip of tradition,” Hiram declared with a touch of scorn. “Twelve men cannot steer a ship or ride a horse. This is how it should be.” He gestured towards the arena. “One champion. Today, the sands showed us the truth.”
“It would not have looked well if the northerner had won,” Jalil pointed out.
“There was no danger of that. He was far less skilled,” Jana argued. “I am sure Lord Hiram had taken that into account.”
“Of course.” Hiram smiled. “This display of Alcázar’s strength is a good omen for our negotiations tonight with the Elder Council.”
Jana stared down upon the arena where the bodies of the slain fighters were being retrieved. “A bloody omen, to be sure.” But already, the sand was being replaced, removing all traces of bloodshed.
From the tribunes, Jawad watched Garrick’s corpse being dragged away, and he gave a sigh.