As a part of GdM #6 we were lucky enough to publish The Vault of Heaven series author Peter Orullian. If you haven’t checked out Peter’s books, make sure to head over to amazon and grab The Unremembered. For now, enjoy this excerpt of A Fair Man. You can grab the rest in Grimdark Magazine Issue 6, available in Kindle, ePub and PDF through our webstore, and through the Amazon Kindle Store.
A Fair Man
A Story from The Vault of Heaven
Pit Row reeked of sweat. And fear.
Heavy sun fell across the necks of those who waited their turn in the pit. Some sat in silence, weapons like afterthoughts in their laps. Others trembled and chattered to anyone who’d spare a moment to listen. Fallow dust lazed around them all. The smell of old earth newly turned. Graves being dug constantly for those who died fighting in the pit. Mikel walked the row, one hand on his blade, the other holding the day’s list.
He passed a big man sitting in a spray of straw. The fellow wore several brands across his chest. A prisoner. More than forty fights. Each win burned into his flesh with a simple hash. He’d die in chains. Or die in the pit. Blood caked his left foot below an iron manacle that had torn up the flesh of his ankle. Dust clung to his sweaty skin. The prisoner didn’t look up at Mikel, any more than he blinked away the fly drinking at the corner of his eye. But there was something foreign about the man. And something menacing. Indifference?
Further down, a young man practiced thrust and parry combinations, his boots lifting more dust into the hot haze. The fellow narrated each movement, the tone of his voice like a man trying to convince himself he’d survive the pit. Mikel hated this type. Not because they sought glory. No one was that stupid. It was desperation. The pup had a bit of training and had almost certainly wagered on his own victory, hoping to turn a few thin plugs. The young man’s sad, nicked sword told the story of his need.
Across from the pup came a hissing laugh. Mikel turned to see an old pit survivor. Jackman. An incomplete fellow. One arm. Wood stump beneath his left knee. A face that whitened around scars when he smiled. The bastard kept a list of his own. Odds for bettors. He limped up beside Mikel to watch the pup dance.
He said nothing for a long moment, then took a deep breath through his nose. ‘Smell it?’
‘Just you.’ Mikel turned to finish his round.
Jackman caught him with his one good hand. ‘Pup’s already dead. He just doesn’t have the sense to lay down in the grave yet.’ The hissing laugh followed. ‘Ten seconds for ten coins.’
Mikel gave the pup another look. The young man would never best a pit fighter. He’d die wearing the surprised look of a man who’d thought too much of his own skill. Mikel stared into the milky eyes of the odds maker, anger burning at the truth of it.
‘Maybe,’ he finally said. He pushed two thin plugs into Jackman’s dirty palm, taking the odds, and crossed to the pup. ‘Your sword arm is slow. Don’t use it to attack, only defend. Then jab with your knife hand. You’re faster there. Be patient. Winning is more important than looking heroic.’
The boy stared, confused, but nodded. Mikel clapped his shoulder and returned to the row. And the list. Jackman called after him, ‘Don’t go frustrating my odds, you whoreson! Leave the row alone.’
Toward the end of Pit Row, he found a man with thin shoulders seated on a tree stump. List said he was a debtor. In front of the man knelt a woman beside two children. The young ones stood quietly, around them all the feeling of goodbye.
The man had calloused hands, but no weapon. The list shared no further details.
Mikel approached. ‘I don’t see a blade. Do you have one?’
‘Was told they’d give me something,’ the man said, his eyes still fixed on the ground.
‘What are you good with?’ Mikel asked.
He finally looked up. ‘I’m a cobbler.’
‘A debtor,’ Mikel added.
‘Money was for a roll of boot leather and some mink oil. And they took me in the morning on my day of payment.’
The cobbler didn’t need to say more. It was a common practice. Take a borrower before he can pay all. Especially one with an interesting story for the pit. Makes better theatre. Spectators root louder, bet emotionally. And what better story than a simple boot maker fighting against impossible odds for his wife and children. Would love prove stronger than an opponent long acquainted with this theatre court? And when the cobbler died, his death would stir a moment’s regret in its witnesses. And all would feel blessed not to be in the pit. All would feel a moment’s humanity.
Keeps the pit fights from becoming routine. Keeps its patrons from disinterest.
And it wasn’t fair. None of it.
‘You ever handle a weapon? Ever fight?’ Mikel asked, surveying the man’s family.
‘I make shoes,’ he replied.
These children would be fatherless by dusk. For the price of a hide and some bootseal. Deafened gods. Mikel stood silent and shared a knowing look with the man. The cobbler knew it, too. Only the little ones might be unaware.
This fellow was not a gambler. Not a whore-monger. Not a spender beyond his means. He was a cobbler who’d bought material enough to earn a week’s keep. And fallen behind.
Sent to Pit Row for sport. For good measure. For the law. For the entertainment of those who walked on marble floors and drank water chilled.
Mikel stared at the cobbler’s little girl and thought of his own daughter. Soon to reach her cycle. Soon to visit one of those homes with marble floors and chilled water . . .
. . . Mikel let that alone for now.
He took out his writing lead and scratched out the man’s name.
‘What are you doing?’ the cobbler asked. ‘It’ll go worse for me if I don’t—‘
Mikel raised a hand to silence him. ‘Go home.’
The cobbler stood, looking Mikel in the eyes for a long time. Then he proffered his hand in thanks. The surprise of it almost caused Mikel to smile. Almost. The man had a grip every bit as tight as Mikel’s own. He then gathered his family and left Pit Row.
Mikel looked back at the list and wrote his own name into the blank.
End of Excerpt
Check out what happens to Mikel when he enters the pits, sword and shield in hand, in Grimdark Magazine issue #6, available in Kindle, ePub and PDF through our webstore, and through the Amazon Kindle Store.