The winters on Valkae were mild compared to the northern lands that lay across the Kimean Sea. Yet, the blizzards in far Mirholme paled in comparison to the sheet of ice that had developed between Hippothoe and Brisia. The comradery among the eight gladiatrices from Asteria was in many ways broken. In late November, a Nycenaean army suffered a defeat from the Asterians. This gave Hippothoe and a few others hope that they would soon be freed either by an advancing Asterian army or perhaps in an exchange of prisoners.
The Asterian army did not cross the border into Nycenae. There was no exchange of prisoners. The Asterian general had given the captured troops a choice, to enter the service of Asteria as slaves or to return to their homes in Nycenae with the promise to never make war on Asteria again. To insure that the returning Nycenaeans would keep that promise, their toes were broken and then they were forced to hobble home as best they could. As the defeated warriors filtered through Agaithia, public opinion turned against the Asterian gladiatrices in their arena.
Throughout December and into January, the noblewomen of Agaithia hired or bought the best gladiators in the surrounding districts to defeat the eight. But Margo had trained them too well. The eight survived, battered, bloodied, and scarred, but they survived.
“Hold still or you’ll start bleeding, again.” said Damara, one of the arena matrons, as she stitched up a gash in Brisia’s chin. Brisia was still covered in dust, blood, and sweat. She thought it odd that one could work up such a sweat on such a cold day, but that was the nature of killing in the arena. Brisia had mistimed her opponent and had rushed in a split second too early and caught the tip of a blade across her chin.
It was quiet in the bowels of the arena, though you could still hear the muffled roar of the crowd. Brisia noticed that she was still breathing hard and began exercises to calm her body and mind. Her chin was throbbing and Damara’s needle stung with each stitch. Just as she finished and had cut the thread, an excited dwarf ran into the room.
“Brisia! You’ve got to come see this!” exclaimed Helga. “They’ve wheeled a cage into the arena for the last match!”
“What’s in the cage?” asked Brisia.
“I don’t know, there are curtains all around.” replied the dwarf.
It reminded Brisia of the time when a sorceress created a column of smoke in the arena and a vampire stepped out of the smoke. She was chained to Hippothoe that day and they fought together against the undead. She and Hippothoe became enemies that day.
Brisia followed Helga down the long hallway to the area where the gladiators sat watching events in the arena while awaiting their turn. Margo smiled when she saw Brisia.
“Did I miss anything?” asked Helga.
“No, it’s just sitting there.” replied Ingrid.
“Who is going to fight whatever is in the cage?” asked Brisia.
“It was Antiope’s turn.” said Margo, “I offered to wait until we found out what was in the cage and then send whoever would be best. But she wanted the honor.”
The cage was surrounded by guards. A guard placed two swords on the ground in front of the cage door and quickly backed away. Trumpets sounded and servants removed the curtains.
“An elf!” exclaimed Lady Medea. “Hippolyte, what is the meaning of this?”
“I wanted something to kill Asterians.” she replied. There was ice in that reply, but Lady Medea let it go.
“Jocasta, were you in on this, too?” asked Lady Medea.
Lady Jocasta shrugged her shoulders as a noncommittal answer and then picked up her wine goblet.
A servant opened the cage door and quickly ran out of the way. The crowd was tense as the bronze-skinned elf stepped out of her cage. Unlike the great nations of elves that live on the Talomir mainland, the elves on Valkae live in small bands and served as the retinue and guards of the forest nymphs and spirits. These wood elves truly lived in the wild with no permanent dwellings. Their skin was dark and bronzed. Their hair color ranged from raven black to deep dark red, but was usually a very dark brown.
Mossbane looked around the arena, studying her surroundings. She was wearing a simple green top and loincloth. She was barefoot. She stepped forward and picked up the two swords. Rasining her head toward heaven, she shouted “Faerun shea leight tor faerun nune morte!” Immediately, the wind began blowing and swirling clouds formed
blocking out the sun.
The cage was wheeled out of the arena as Bermusa, the arena mistress, went over the simple rules of the arena. “All fights are to the death, fight hard and die well.” Antiope with sword and shield took her place with confidence. The elf, Mossbane, was shown where to stand. As Bermusa gave the command to commence fighting, rain began to fall.
“What is going on?” asked Lady Medea as the wind whipped through the viewing stand.
“The elf is a druid, my lady.” answered the sorceress Cassiopiea, “She has some power over the elements.”
“Hippolyte, what have you brought on us?” asked Lady Medea, but no one dared to answer.
Antiope moved quickly toward Mossbane. The elf seemed hesitant to start. Antiope quickly began her attack, but was surprised that Mossbane struck first. The elf’s sword bit into Antiope’s chest. Antiope staggered back in disbelief. Luckily, Mossbane didn’t follow up her attack. The rain continued to fall. The sand in the arena was becoming slippery mud.
Undaunted, Antiope charged back into the center of the arena. Mossbane counterattacked, her blows landing on Antiope’s shield. The elf twisted and found herself on Antiope’s unshielded side. Once again, the elf’s blade bit into Antiope’s chest. Antiope gasped for breath. Each breath now came with pain. She stepped back fighting to control her breathing.
Antiope again charged the elf. Mossbane hesitated to attack. Antiope rained blow after blow, but Mossbane parried each one. Mossbane also had no luck finding an opening as each blow was parried are landed on Antiope’s shield. Antiope pushed forward with her shield. Mossbane slid her blade along the bottom edge of the shield and slashed Antiope’s belly open. Antiope fell to the ground and rolled away from the elf.
This time Mossbane followed up her attack. The elf rained furious blows. Laying on the soaked ground, it was all Antiope could do to parry the elf’s swords. She couldn’t find any footing, she couldn’t stand. She tried to roll out of the way. Mossbane’s sword struck Antiope’s shield arm. She almost dropped her shield.
A peal of thunder echoed over the arena as the rain soaked crowd watched the cruel one-sided match. Antiope kept sliding and could not stand. Mossbane stayed on top of her not allowing Antiope a moment of respite. Steel rang on steel, sword on sword, sword on shield, accented with peals of thunder and flashes of lightning.
Then the inevitable happened. Mossbane’s blade again found Antiope’s chest and punctured Antiope’s lungs. Antiope began coughing up blood. Mossbane tossed away one of her swords. She stepped behind Antiope and reached down and grabbed her by the hair. She lifted Antiope off of the ground by her hair. She exposed Antiope’s neck and raised her sword back to take Antiope’s head. Antiope gurgled and spat blood. The crowd gasped in anticipation.
The elf let go of Antiope’s hair. Antiope sank back into the mud. Mossbane stepped in front of Antiope and extended her sword toward Antiope. Antiope understood the gesture and struggled to her knees. Looking into Mossbane’s eyes, Antiope said “It’s over.” She wiped blood from her mouth. “Send me home.” She raised her chin. Mossbane angled her sword and plunged into the base of Antiope’s throat and down into her heart.
“No” shouted one of the Asterians. Antiope’s body slipped to the ground. Mossbane threw her sword down and screamed a mournful cry. Brisia began sobbing. All of the remaining Asterians were crying. Even Margo shed tears.
The rain came down even harder. The crowd quickly left for home. Guards ran to Mossbane and put the grief stricken elf in chains.