Part One – The Beast
The crowd screamed, baying for blood, for death, animalistic in their fervour. Their cries reverberated around the gladiatorial pit, rising to fever pitch as man and beast fought below. Fought and often died.
In the caverns beneath the pit the sounds were dulled, yet audible still to those who waited in the gloom of smoky torches to step out into the blood stained arena. Soon they would be forced to emerge from the darkness out into the blinding sunlight, into the cauldron of the screams, to fight for their very lives for a crowd who wanted naught but blood and agony and the killing blow. Men and women paced, or checked their weapons and armour again, anything to prepare, to distract themselves, yet still the dull echo of the baying crowd reached out to them. There was no escaping what was to come.
At the heart of the caverns, one immense fighter shifted his weight, his cloven hooves pawing at the sandy floor. In the cries that came down to the caverns there existed both exhilaration and stomach knotting terror that set the heart to racing.
Nhaqosa tossed his head, sweeping horns scything at the air. Great nostrils flared as he snorted, a response to the tension that suffused the air. His tail slashed behind him as a giant hand fastened around the wolf’s head pendant that hung around his neck, red wood standing out against his bare, white hide chest. There were no wolves in those lands, Nhaqosa had discovered, no wolves to lend him strength, or lead him the far, far roads to home. Only the pendant, a gift from a stranger.
Jhatar, Jhatar, Jhatar!
Nhaqosa could hear the cry from the crowd go up. Jhatar. Their name for him. In their language it simply meant beast. They were calling for him, the crowd favourite.
An attendant came up to him, a fellow slave, tall for a human yet barely reaching Nhaqosa’s throat.
“It is time, Kwaza,” he said, deep respect in his voice. He held out a small dish to Nhaqosa, containing a red dye. Nhaqosa dipped a stubby finger into it, using it to daub at his white face and horns with the battle marks of his people. Another attendant struggled over with his immense stone maul. The maul was the weapon of his people, a cylinder of carved green stone through which a wooden handle ran. He had carved it by his own hand, engraving the patterns of square shaped spirals upon it, to mark his skill as both a worker of stone and a warrior. He took it from the attendant’s hands, lifting it easily, hefting it and feeling its familiar, comforting weight. Without it, he did not feel complete, for it was part of him, and he part of it, having put much of himself into it as he carved it. Rarely did they allow him to use it in the gladiatorial contests, which marked the coming fight as a special one.
“Die well, Kwaza.”
The waiting gladiatorial fighters called out to him, pounding fist to their hearts. Die well. Only there, where those who would soon die waited, was he respected. To them he was no beast, but instead known by the title given to him by his own people; Kwaza, Mighty One. Only in those caverns, of all place in that world so far from his own, had he found family, brothers and sisters whose lives were cut short by the whims of a fickle, blood lusting crowd.
Swinging the maul up onto his broad shoulders, hand gripping the handle tight, he walked towards the gate that led out into the pits. Golden beams of sunlight streamed through gaps of the wooden gate, almost blinding in their intensity after the dark of the caverns. Two guards stood at the gate, wearing leather jerkins and armed with spears and shields. They watched him warily, but nodded in acknowledgement, one of them swinging open the gates. Bright sunlight flooded in and Nhaqosa walked out into it, and into the baking pits.