It's the second of three pieces of an unedited, unbeta-tested excerpt. Go read this if you haven't, ya plebe.
You're reading Part 2 of the excerpt.
“And you…” Torvald says again. It sounds like a challenge. The room has gone quiet as the two lock eyes from across the room. Irdessa realizes she’s holding her breath.
“How long since your last drink?” Torvald asks.
The man’s grimace stretches over his entire face. Irdessa has a good look at him for the first time. He seemed grimy before. But something in his eyes is downright ghastly. Keswal is a place for criminals, and although Torvald has some influence on filtering Lanista Udiari’s admissions into the company, sometimes something foul creeps in. Irdessa has seen her share of murderers, cutthroats, rapers, highwaymen, pillagers, those who tamper in the dead. They enter Keswal thinking their skillset will avail them, not taking Torvald into account. In Keswal, he is your first and last chance.
Something about this man’s visage tells Irdessa he’s no simple thief, or drunk. Even the lowest thug has passion for something, the thrill of killing, of the chase, of the rape, of a bite to eat, of the next drink. This man’s eyes are a void. Emptier than an orcane’s. Something happened to him. Such apathy in Keswal is a death sentence, for you and all who are near you.
“What’s your name?” Torvald asks.
“This is your first fight in Keswal.”
Kraus doesn’t move.
“It helps me to know what my fellows were up to before joining our ranks.” Torvald’s eyes are as sharp as crushed glass.
Kraus says nothing. He’s become a gargoyle, disguised as a man, glowering, his knuckles white.
Irdessa’s stomach churns with expectation. Gods’ sake, put him with the damned and move on!
“We don’t have to discuss what landed you here,” Torvald says. The walls themselves sigh in relief.
“I’d appreciate it,” the brute says.
“What’s your plan for Keswal?”
“Seems like a good place to die,” Kraus says.
Irdessa needs no closer observation to know he is serious, and is not afraid. What an anchor. He’ll feed many birds.
“I think you’ll make a good striker,” Torvald says. “You’re with me.”
Irdessa’s mouth falls open. She shuts it quickly. Survival for the group relies on the front that all is going as planned. But this can’t be the plan. An injured man with no will to live may as well be a boulder tied to Torvald’s neck.
Torvald proceeds to sort. There’s a deserter, the one who considered armor and chose against it, who will run with Irdessa, and a heavy set butcher who will strike with Torvald. The last fighter’s a woman with small hands and silver in her hair, who was a jeweler on the outside, caught buying stolen merchandise. She is complemented on her dexterity and placed with the doomed runners. It’s not because of her crime. Torvald does not presume to judge his combatants.
Once all are accounted for, Torvald offers some finer points to the convicts; how to exploit a wound, tells that orcanes give before pouncing, the signs and calls he and Irdessa use during a fight and what they mean. All the while, a gap surrounds Kraus that no one seems willing to step within. Irdessa is smart enough to know not to express fear, but she keeps Torvald’s shoulder between herself and the man. Since Torvald mentioned his past, he’s been brooding, like he’s wrestling with an unpleasant decision. She preferred him only loud and ugly.
A muffled trumpet blast, followed by the thunder of kettle drums. The ruckus above the Last Room intensifies and thin lines of sand shower from the rafters.
“It’s time!” Torvald shouts above the ruckus. He walks to the ten-foot-tall wooden gate and stands in the archway, facing the convicts with an arched brow and a half smile. His eyes have sharpened to pins. “Look around you.” He points with the sheath of his long, curved sword. “We’re an unlikely alliance. But in an hour’s time, there will be no wets among us! If I’ve learned nothing else in my time here, there is no family like one forged in Keswal. Decide now if you’ll join.”
Irdessa’s jaw clenches. The thought of her father, who didn’t survive his first fight two years ago, leads Irdessa to believe that Keswal is more likely to destroy a family than forge one. She must stow away the thought. All eyes are on Torvald. He is a leader of men, a warlord. Surely there is no greater charisma in all of Fohrvylda’s court combined.
The ground rumbles. The portcullis outside the wooden gate is lifting. Irdessa’s blood rushes. Her chest heaves. Her javelins—her fangs—grow light.
“Now is the time to live forever!” Torvald says. “Join me and make a mark the masses will never forget!”
The one with a black eye raises his dagger and hoots, making the jeweler start. The brute throws up both hands and roars, followed by the deserter and the ex-soldier. The murderer’s tongue flicks over his lips. The heavy butcher takes a backward step, jowls aquiver.
The gate ascends, grinding upward so that blinding sunlight creeps over the sand and up Torvald’s ankles. Irdessa bounces lightly on the balls of her feet. Her javelins are extensions of her arms. Among her stand not men but meat, some destined to be delicacies for monsters. They are all tools at the disposal of herself and Torvald. Her eyes are fire, her muscles wings. She rolls her head on her shoulders and the bones of her neck loosen and snap. Beside her Torvald has turned to face the rising gate. He’s still. Calm. The gale from under the door sends his straight black hair billowing off his shoulders. He is the anchor. She is the sail. He gives her a sidelong glance, and the very corner of his mouth curls in a secret smile.
With three feet of arena exposed under the gate Irdessa can contain herself no longer. “I’m tired of this dust,” she yells to no one in particular. “Let’s wash it off with orcane blood!” She is met with battle cries from the convicts. She rolls under the massive gate into the Last Hall and stamps toward her destiny.
At the tunnel’s mouth, across the highest point in the arch, hangs a placard. On it is etched the phrase,
ERST YYS HAEDISUA
Irdessa raps it with the butt of her javelin and strides onto the red earth of the arena, thrusting her weapons high. The response from the masses is deafening. Flower petals rain down from the northern and southern stands.
“What does the doorway say?” Prancer yells, somewhere behind her.
“Just hit it,” comes Torvald. “I’ll tell you if you live.”
Irdessa struts toward center arena from the Holder’s wall. Iron clouds band across the sky, leaving a crimson sunset visible in stripes, out over the Faithless Sea. The battleground is a pentagon, roughly eighty yards across. To her left, above the two southern walls, are the unadorned rows of seats lined with the convicts and general rabble. To the right, above the northernmost wall, are the plush booths and shaded seating for gentry, landowners, merchants, and military. The westernmost edge is no wall at all but an expanse of open sky and a vertical drop of several hundred feet to the ocean.
At the center of the arena, Irdessa holds aloft her weapons in the sun—twin hardwood javelins some five feet long, thin and ending in sharpened steel, flanged down its length to facilitate the liberation of blood—and turns slowly, to the audience’s delight. Thousands of people chanting your name surely has a way of boosting morale but that’s not the only reason she does this. These are the sparse moments in her life when she can watch people not enslaved by Fohrvylda, as she has been for two years. It’s a glimpse into a life to which she hopes to return one day, however unlikely that might be. From her view little seems to have changed. Those with money and influence on the north are ever garish. The southern seating is drab. Both seem equally thirsty for blood.
The Holder’s wall, on the east, is the actual cliff face, from which Keswal was carved. Standing fifty feet tall is the hewn relief of a giant, the Holder, half trapped in the stone. He seems to have kicked through the wall and gotten stuck in the process of squeezing from the cliff. His right arm extends upward toward Vretos’ booth, high within the northern seating. From his fingers hangs a thin chain. The chain would probably be unperceivable were it not for the gleaming crystal that adorns it, reflecting the setting sun in a brilliant pinpoint. The statue’s face is smooth. His hair defies gravity, rising upward like torch fire. He wears a look of anguish, as if the chain brings him great pain and he yearns for Vretos to take it. The opening of the Last Hall is just beside his right calf. Irdessa’s fellow combatants have streamed forth cautiously and are joining her.
“What now?” Pinprae yells over the crowd. His bruised, purple eye darts all over. The dagger shakes in his fist. Irdessa considers giving his face the butt of a javelin, maybe knock some nerves out of him. She’s no longer infected by the nervous energy rampant in the fresh convicts. Now it’s more of an impatient buzzing.
“The orcanes will be released all at once, from three points around the arena,” Torvald says. “Form teams. Stay alert.”
Irdessa scans the various gates lining the battlefield on the northern and southern walls. If she’s learned nothing else, there is no time to let anxiety encroach. This fight has already started. “Be ready to run!” she says, for Pinprae and the deserter.
A thump! from the southern wall. Two more from the northern walls. A thunderous howl tears through the shouts of the masses, tapering up at the end into a raspy squeal. It’s as healthy an orcane call as she’s ever heard. The tattooed murderer drops his sword and falls to his knees, holding his ears. Godsdammit Torvald, you said they’d be retired. She meets his eye. He offers an apologetic smile and a shrug. Son of a bitch.
Irdessa feels the pounding of their paws before she sees them. Two orcanes are closing in from the north, one from the south.“Thief! Deserter! Your fate is now!” Irdessa sprints directly toward the southern orcane. “Hug my heels if you want to live!”
Continued in Part 3