Sparr closed his eyes, trying to block out the scene around him. He was sick to his stomach, revolted at the parade of human flesh, the buyers, the tearing apart of friends, siblings, and children. His heart sank at the loss of Kess, a woman whom he had known for a single night, but whose sweet touch and sighs lingered on.

A rough shove broke his inner retreat. Sparr and Efreem together were prodded to the platform, seemingly to be sold together. The assistant offered just a few words of inducement. Sparr made out strong and blade, although the second word may have been applied solely to Efreem.


Before the bidding even could begin, one of the gaunt man’s assistants called out his instruction. As he had done with Kess, the assistant ripped open the top of Sparr’s shift, then Efreem’s. Both men stood bare chested in the midday sun, Efreem’s skin so smooth and brown as to look burnished.

The gaunt man called out a bid, looking curiously toward his blue-robed neighbor. The woman’s eyes flickered toward Sparr and Efreem in what surely was a look of interest. Sparr was certain that she would offer a counter-bid. Instead, she dropped her eyes.

“Howw dou anteek,” she said dismissively. So old.

Gret cursed softly. The lack of competitive bidding had almost certainly been a disappointment. For Sparr, the slaver’s misfortune was bittersweet. His captors hadn’t profited from his sale, but for how little had his freedom been traded? How cheap was life on Kaybe? The auctioneer slipped Gret a small bag of tokens as he and Efreem were led away.


“Awake, morning!” Every day, Sparr’s implant became more and more proficient with the local language. When he found the time, he would practice along with it, sounding out new words and simple phrases until the device chirped in approval.

Not that he needed the translator to know his day had begun. As it had for the past week, Sparr’s morning began with a raucous wake-up call, a simple meal of beans and bread, and weapons practice. Groaning with bruises taken the previous day, he rolled from his pallet. Sparr resigned himself to another day of abuse. His fellow trainees joined him, uttering a score of different curses.

Whether they were being trained as an army, or as guards, Sparr had no idea. The company gathered daily for instruction in an unadorned hall, practicing with staves, blunted spears, and padded swords. The weapons master, a muscled but greying man, observed quietly from an elevated catwalk. Upon seeing something which displeased him, the man would call out to one of his lieutenants to issue a correction. There was little emphasis on discipline, no drills, or chain of command. If they were to form an army, it would be a wild and bloody one.

Once per day they were visited by the man who had purchased Sparr at the auction. His implant had no satisfactory translation for the gaunt man’s title. Sparr simply referred to him as the Governor. Usually showing up in the late morning, the man would watch a few matches with keen interest, sometimes gnawing on a drumstick or sipping wine. The man gave no indication that he recognized Sparr, or for that matter, any of the trainees. He went nowhere without guards, and spoke only with the weapons master.

Sparr was thrust into a company with a strongly established order. The more experienced warriors were obvious, veterans of conflicts unknown to Sparr, or simply those with greater tenure. None had Sparr’s height or reach, but many were younger and faster. He watched them carefully in matches, assessing their strengths, who among them was swift and sure, who was cunning and precise. One day, when the spears no longer were blunted, he might face them. Accordingly, Sparr concealed the limits of his own abilities. In matches he purposefully hesitated, blocked clumsily, or struck with restraint. As a new member of the company he would be watched by the others as intently as he studied them.

On the day they called him up, Sparr almost felt ready.

The weapons master himself selected Sparr and two others, pulling them from the hall as soon as breakfast was finished. Accompanied by a cluster of guards, the three were hustled to an open topped wagon. Each was stripped to the waist and given a red sash which they wore from shoulder to hip. Thus attired, the three were paraded through town.

The trip bore scant resemblance to Sparr’s last such journey. Then, an anonymous captive in a town which had more than its share, he had drawn scant notice. It was he who had peered with curiosity through the bars at the novel scene. Now it was Sparr and his companions that drew notice. Townspeople stared, some putting aside their work to wave. A few cheered. A gaggle of children followed, laughing and shrieking, shoving each other aside for the privilege of being closest to the wagon.

“Always one good, one bad, one new!” This declaration came from one of Sparr’s fellow companions, a skilled warrior named Ast. Sparr couldn’t remember the man previously speaking a single word. Now he was grinning broadly, waving back at the observers, especially young women. “Always!” he repeated, thumping his chest.

In a searing moment of clarity Sparr realized that he had become a gladiator. He cursed himself for not having seen it earlier. The lack of discipline, uniforms, unit bonding, or any other hallmark of military organization should have given it away immediately. They hadn’t been taught team tactics, only how to fight one on one. And now Sparr’s first match couldn’t be more than an hour away.

“Death?” he asked.

Ast looked at him quizzically. “Death, no death,” he said. “Death good.” The limits of Sparr’s translator couldn’t have surfaced at a worse time.

Sparr found himself back at a familiar place. The square where he had been sold less than one week prior had been converted into an arena of sorts. One side was open, but the other three had been fitted with rows of seats. Where there had been a platform, the packed dirt of the square was roped off to form a circle.

“Fight place,” said Ast, still grinning.

The third of their party, the ‘bad one’, if Sparr understood correctly, stared at the scene with wild, nervous eyes. Jinn was tall, and lanky, with a fresh, angry scar on his chest and shoulder. The injury left him with limited use of his left arm, something that had been evident during training. Sparr wondered if he might flee rather than fight again.

The mood in the square was considerably more boisterous than it had been at the auction. While the center section was reserved for the Vonde elites, the sides were packed with common folk. Boys walked the perimeter, selling cups of ale or wine, lifting them to the upper rows with purpose-made sticks. Bet takers followed close behind, yelling out odds, collecting tokens, and handing back hastily marked tickets. A man at the entrance tapped out a tune on animal skulls of various sizes, calling out to passersby to show their appreciation. Had he not known the trial that awaited him, Sparr might have found the scene pleasing.

Ast leapt from the wagon almost before it had come to a stop. Around them, other competitors stretched, hefted weapons, or eyed one another warily. The guards which had accompanied them set up a simple red banner, laid out weapons, and a small bag for each of the contestants. Sparr opened his cautiously. In it were two chunks of a soft, colored stone which resembled chalk. Could this planet be any stranger, he wondered?

“See.” Jinn showed him the use of the stones. Pressing a black stone against his temple, the nervous gladiator pulled it down across his cheek, leaving a thick, dark streak. He repeated the motion twice more, then once on the other cheek with a yellow rock. It was warpaint.

Ast conducted a similar ritual using black and orange chalk. The gladiator’s approach was simpler than Jinn’s. Ast rubbed one cheek with the black chalk, creating an uneven circle, before doing the same with orange on the other cheek. It seemed the men had some liberty with their design.

Sparr had a black chalk and a somewhat crumbly gold one. He hesitated. It would be easy to follow Ast’s example, making a quick mark with each chalk and be done with it. On the other hand, he had no idea how many battles he would fight. If gladiator matches on Kaybe at all resembled Earth sports, having a memorable style could carry advantages. Looking at the gold and black chalks, Sparr thought of the Earth tiger. Impulsively, he applied a black stripe starting from the corner of his eye downward across his cheek, chin, and neck. Taking up the gold chalk he repeated the process, then again with black, and so on. When finished, Sparr had a full set of tiger stripes. Jinn and Ast nodded their appreciation.

The first matches were beginning. Sparr watched from the edge as two men entered from different sides of the arena, one with a red banner and one with blue. They planted their standards in the packed dirt, glared briefly at each other, then began to strut around the arena. The first man was an Urst, as compact and muscled as those Sparr already had encountered, but shirtless and loud. He bellowed at the crowd, swung his sword carelessly, and flexed. The other contestant, a youth of a race yet unknown to Sparr stood stoically, the tip of his sword resting against the ground. Judging from their tepid reception, neither man was a crowd favorite.

A judge announced the start of the match by waving a white flag with two diagonal stripes. This seemed to elicit greater interest on the part of the crowd, which watched with new intensity as the men began to circle each other. A bet taker made another hasty circuit, collecting more tokens and handing out another bundle of slips.

“Blood,” said Jinn.

The Urst kept up his aggressive, boasting persona, calling out a string of taunts. He rushed his opponent, then jumped back laughing and pointing. The youth kept his guard up, flinching if the Urst feinted too boldy, but mostly keeping his distance. At last he lunged, a feint of his own which earned an immediate response. The Urst threw himself forward, bringing down a savage stroke aimed at the youth’s head. The younger man deflected the blow, but was sent staggering.

Again, the Urst leapt forward, and the two traded a flurry of blows. The youth gave ground steadily, stumbling to the side. Just when Sparr thought the Urst would press his advantage, the squat man instead stepped back. He gestured dismissively toward the youth and raised his hands to the crowd for encouragement. He was rewarded with a modest chorus of cheers.

That’s when the youth struck. Aiming low, the young man threw himself toward his opponent’s blind spot. The Urst noticed, frantically spinning and sweeping down clumsily with his sword. The square rang with the sound of blades colliding. The youth fell to the ground. Enraged, the Urst turned to raise his blade for a final strike. Before he could land it, the sound of a horn filled the air. The judge had called an end to the match.

The Urst spun toward the judge, confused. Only when a gasp went up from the crowd did the gladiator look down to see the blood pouring down his leg. He cursed. A keeper rushed forward to escort him away as the youth stood. He seemed stunned by his victory.

“Blood,” repeated Jinn, nodding somberly.

“Blood, no death,” added Ast, seemingly disappointed.

A banner with two diagonal stripes signified a match held to first blood, though Sparr learned that judging could be somewhat subjective. In the next match two men faced off with long knives, spinning, leaping and wildly slashing each other as they danced about the pit. Both men took several minor cuts, seemingly of no interest to the crowd or the judge. Only when one took a gruesome looking cut to his forearm did the judge call a halt. All the while the bet takers and wine merchants conducted a brisk trade.

Jinn was up next. The man shrunk back when his name was called but the guards hustled him forward. The judge raised a banner with a circle as both fighters were given stout wooden staves. The bet takers collected at most a few tokens.

“Down,” said Ast morosely.

Jinn faced a taller but stooped man who looked no more pleased to be fighting than Jinn himself. The two listlessly circled each other, jabbing with the staves. After a minute of this, the crowd began to get restless. A growing barrage of jeers and insults issued forth, accompanied by a rain of fruit rinds and bones. Still the men were tentative. Once Jinn darted forth to deliver a cautious blow to his opponent but, as if surprised by his own boldness, quickly skittered back.

A piercing whistle rang out across the pit. For the first time Sparr noticed that the Governor had joined the spectators. He stood now, his imposing figure drawing attention to him much as had his shrill whistle. The two fighters stopped, staring at the man in fear.

“Jinn,” he commanded. “Now!”

Jinn was little more than the Governor’s property. If the stooped man wasn’t alarmed at the Governor’s anger, Jinn certainly was. He leapt forward, pressing his attack with a series of artless but enthusiastic blows. The stooped man fell back at first, blocking clumsily, and taking as many blows as he deflected. Then, perhaps fueled by pain, he fought back, matching Jinn. The two men tore into each other, grunting with pain and panting with exertion. Only when Jinn struck a seemingly random blow against the stooped man’s knee did the fellow finally drop. Jinn had won.

The Governor clapped once, then sat, shaking his head. There was an empty seat beside him. Either the blue-robed woman disliked combat, or perhaps planned to arrive fashionably late.

Two more bouts were fought, each to first blood. Ast spoke with great animation toward Jinn, who sat panting and bruised at the end of the wagon, but Sparr watched the fighters carefully. He looked for moves he hadn’t seen in training sessions, for strategies permitted by the size of the pit, and for the effect the crowd had upon the contestants. He saw how some fighters, even in blood matches, still sought to deliver a killing blow.

As Sparr considered what he had learned, a murmur ran through the crowd. Immediately, the onlookers broke out into a hundred exclamations as a new warrior entered the pit. “Syreet!” they called out. “Syreeeeeeeet!”

At close to six feet tall, Syreet was as imposing a woman as Sparr had ever laid eyes on, confident and strong. Like an Amazon, she went bare breasted and wore only a pair of short, billowy trousers fastened by an ornate clasp. Her body was strong and taut, with prominent abs and flashes of muscle at her shoulders and back. Light brown hair spilled past her neck, mostly wild, but bound with a gold ring. Sparr watched in admiration as she leapt into the pit, performed a flip, then raised her hands to the crowd. Cheers rained down.

Sparr found her intoxicating. Syreet had rubbed her skin with something like the gold chalk that Sparr used, but smoother and oilier, with a shine which glinted in the sun’s orange glow. As the gladiator pranced around the pit her breasts bounced enticingly. Syreet’s grin as she drank in the crowd’s adulation was half sweet, half lupine. She was a creature of violence and desire.

Only once the crowd favorite had finished her dramatic entrance did the judge call the other contestant forward. Slyn looked as thick and sluggish as Syreet was graceful and swift. She must have outweighed her competitor by at least thirty kilos, most of which, even if concealed by a layer of fat, no doubt was muscle. Not bothering to seek the approval of the crowd, she stood glowering and still.

“Blood,” said Ast, noting the judge’s banner. The match had begun.

The competitors each wielded a curious weapon, a staff with a hooked end. But while Syreet brandished her weapon with both hands, Slyn carried a thick shield in one hand and wielded the staff with the other. No sooner did they face off, Syreet bounded forward. She feinted to Slyn’s right, then, even as the other woman moved her shield for a block, changed direction. Syreet’s blow just found Slyn’s left shoulder, landing with a slap.

Slyn grunted in pain, raised her shield, and resumed her stance. The style of the two combatants was starkly different. Whereas Syreet kept her staff forward, Slyn kept hers pulled back, ready for a powerful strike. The two circled each other as the crowd cheered them on. Twice more Syreet attacked, each time aiming at Slyn’s head or upper body. The second time Slyn counter-attacked, crashing her shield toward her athletic opponent, then delivering a powerful, sweeping blow. Syreet was knocked back, but leapt easily over Slyn’s staff.

Sparr noticed a pattern. After each of Syreet’s leaping attacks, Slyn lifted her shield higher than before. The thick-set woman would move it aside to deliver her own assault, before swiftly returning to a guard stance. Syreet’s approach seemed doomed. How, Sparr wondered, could such a seemingly accomplished gladiator waste so much of her energy? He got his answer almost immediately.

Slyn lumbered forward, delivering two more heavy attacks, then raised her shield. With a war cry, Syreet leapt up, then dropped. Her low swing snuck under Slyn’s shield and caught her leg. Syreet pulled back, hooking her opponent’s ankle, then twisted hard. Slyn shrieked, striking wildly at Syreet’s staff, but to no avail. She fell, rolling in an attempt to free her leg. Slyn wriggled free, but Syreet immediately struck her twice on her weapon arm, eliciting a howl of pain The judge quickly sounded the horn.

But was it over? Sparr watched in confusion as Syreet pulled a knife from her waist and, with Slyn offering no resistance, drew it across the woman’s fleshy shoulder. She held the dripping blade aloft.

“Blood!” laughed Ast, enthusiastically slapping Sparr on his back.

The crowd erupted. What had only a few minutes earlier been an almost docile gathering turned into a circus. Observers applauded frantically or gestured wildly toward their companions. The boys serving wine scrambled to keep up with the sudden thirst of their customers. Sparr noticed the Governor smiling. Syreet performed a prancing victory lap, brandishing the bloody knife and winking at the crowd. Her barely contained hair bounced crazily behind her. Her performance was captivating.

“Alain. Alain!” Someone was calling to him.

“Huh?” Sparr tore his attention from Syreet.

“You!” The weapons master gestured at him frantically. Sparr’s turn had come all too soon.

A guard handed Sparr a weapon he had practiced with in training. The long club had a piece of blunt scrap metal embedded in one side of the head. The weapon was plenty dangerous. In the hands of a skilled warrior it could break bones long before drawing blood. Sparr hefted it with a growing sense of foreboding. Sighing, he entered the pit.

The judge moved to raise a banner, but stopped. To Sparr’s astonishment, Syreet slunk back into the pit. A murmur once again rose in the crowd. The warrior woman, still bare breasted and glistening with oil, approached Sparr. Syreet pursed her lips, looking him up and down as if assessing a piece of meat. She gestured toward one of the guards, who practically fell over his own feet to obey. In no time, the man brought forth Sparr’s black and gold chalk.

“Mmmmm,” said Syreet, running her fingers down Sparr’s chest and abs, stopping just short of his belt. Before he could react, she took the black chalk and continued a stripe from Sparr’s neck to his waist. Syreet switched chalks, this time to extend a gold stripe Sparr himself had started earlier. Her free hand drifted toward his cock. She pressed her glittering breasts against him.

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