Blinding was the sunlight that struck her eyes, as the doors were theatrically cast open for her. The crowd did roar as loud as the distant Ocean, as fierce as a wrathful Storm ready to vent itself upon the World. This was all she lived for. All that she had left.
No longer did anything touch her so Shrouded Soul.
She had learnt long ago to seal such a thing away. To wrap her Soul within herself so it could never be hurt or touched or damaged by the cruel existence which the Gods had chosen to loose upon her wretched young life. In this endeavour, she was most successful. Nothing could touch her Soul, though her flesh may be battered by foes or ravaged by the mercilessness of her Keepers, she could steal her Heart away from them all and keep herself for herself.
Only her eyes betrayed her self-imposed reticence.
They bespoke her Heart as her words and expressions could, nay, would not. They spoke of sorrow and of hardship of her existence. Of the suffering she had felt and the pity that had been felt for her. And they spoke out her apologies to they that she battled in this bloodied Arena. To which she now stepped out upon.
â€œ. . .And here she is!â€ cried the ever-familiar, ever-present voice of the Stadium Master from out the Deus Vox that was placed throughout the Arena. â€œThe Champion of the Acheron! Undefeated in a Thousand Battles! Famed throughout all the Senatory Realms. Mistress of the Body and of the Blade! Your favourite! Your Warrior! Your Champion! The Bound Innocent: Ennocens Catena!â€
The crowd roared and hollered, a thousand or more voices rattling fiercer than the Wind, as Catena stepped out to her mark within the Arena. She raised a hand in salute to those who cheered and called for her. A stained manacle glittering dully in the Sun as it hung upon her wrist, itâ€™s broken chain swaying with the echo of her last movements, whilst its twin lay upon her other wrist. Both counterparts for the Yoke-brace around her thick neck. Each bore the broken chains of a slave unbound but not released. She wore them as proudly as she could or would dare, despite the altered elegance of her battle costume -a trim red bodysuit that clung to every form and rigid of her muscles- and the cleanliness of her skin, as a reminder of where she had come from and what she had endured in order to stand her right now.
Bathing within the din of the raging mob.
So much the same as the mob that had stripped her of her childhood and nearly her life.
Though these memories were flushed from her as the crowd silenced; a hushed wave sweeping through their ranks.
â€œHer opponent, in celebration of this day -the Feast of the Annunciation,â€ The Stadium Master called, ringing through the Deus Vox as if he were some dramatic spirit. â€œComes all the way from the City of Omperia, our Senatorial Capital and the home of the Palace of the Prince Calablame of the House of Hyperion! The victor of Ten Thousand Arenas and the Slayer of Uzgard the Invincible! The Champion of Arena Omperia: Ulva Aranae!â€
Catena watched impassively as the gates to the challengerâ€™s side were thrown open and two broad, strong Operium guards, bedighted in their Senatorial Regalia, strode in, their brows laced with the sweat of fear.
Behind them they dragged a man straitened by cloth and with chain enlaced around his body. He did not struggle against his bonds nor even open his eyes, which lay near hidden beneath long layers of filthy hair, to the hollering crowd above.
Catena could feel a chill gallop down her spine as she watched this ghastly procession.
She knew this were no idle dramatics as she had witnessed countless times before. These guards were genuinely terrified of this man whom they did drag in. She could smell it upon them -even from such a distance; the organics of their fear and panic. She saw their hands tremble as they unbound their captive and then flinch as the cloth and chains fell. They both took two staggered steps backwards as he uncoiled his long arms and then they fled as he moved to stand.
Catena watched Ulva stand with a quaint fascination that she had denied herself for so long. He unfolded himself as if he were a bolt of silk being smoothed long and flat. She was surprised that such a tall man -for he stood almost two heads taller than she, with arms long enough fall close to his knees and legs so long they almost equalled the height of her own chest- could enfold himself into such a diminutive confine as the one in which he did enter the Arena. Even the riled crowd was quietened as he stretched himself to his full and frightening height; rolling back his shoulders as if his previous burden had been nothing and lulling his head around in a circle. His lips moving with slightly with silent words.
From her vantage point, Catena could see why he had earned such a Arena Name as â€˜Ulva Aranaeâ€™ -â€œThe Grass Spiderâ€. For that is what he truly resembled that creature with his long limbs and scrawny, yet toned, body. She looked at his thin torso -clad only in thin shoulder and back plates and a piece of cloth connection them together across his spine- noting how his muscle encased his ribs as if it were armour; noting that two or three of them had previously been broken and never properly set. His stomach was gaunt thin but plated like her Matrissâ€™ tiled courtyards, strong and ridged, but she could see that he had been previously starved. He was so slender that she could see the bones of his hips as they protruded over his simple cloth trousers. She hoped that this did not make him weak in combat but, when she saw the subtle motion of his limbs, she had no more concern for such things. His arms were thin thought in the same measure as a strong rope. Muscles were coiled tight upon the bone; she could see ever line, vein and ridge under his skin of dull bronze. His bare legs were the same. Thin, long yet packed with tight muscle, twitching in eagerness of blood and battle.
In terms of form and mass, Catena knew that she had the advantage over him. His chest was smaller than her thigh, which was thick and strong from a life of labour and struggle, but she knew he was probably as strong as her in every way -despite his lack of mass and muscle. His body was honed and slim, as if it had once belonged to a Great Cat, and she knew he would be just as powerful and deadly. She knew this from the scars that racked his flesh and marked him as survivor in this Game. Barely a section of his arms were unscathed and a few large gashes almost lay right across his chest. Seeing this Catena knew he had no fear of Pain or the consequences of Battle. He fought to survive and it would appear that he knew how to survive well. A person who could claim victory over such a being as Uzgard the Invincible was not too taken lightly.
Though she had little time to fret over this now and the horns all blew their fanfare and The Stadium Masters called the combatants to their posts. And, with the crash of golden gong, the crowd was sent into a fury and their dissonance washed over Catena as her memories did, as always, in these moments.
This crowd did so much echo the one from Her past and was just as vicious. Just as harsh in their raging lusts for blood and mayhem.
All her Twenty-One years had, in one way or another, been harsh.
Harshness had been the Mark of Her existence. Her parents and those She knew as Her people, a roving merchantâ€™s caravan, had been slaughtered by brigands when She was Thirteen. Only She and two other children had survived the massacre because they had secreted themselves beneath the bodies of the dead. When they were found ten days later by another Caravan, the other two children had died of Fever and of Grief, leaving Her -before She was Ennocens Catena- alone with strangers who soon abandoned Her in some random town or settlement in the Arid Frontier of the Lands of the Omperium Senate. Leaving Her to fend for Herself in a very indifferent world.
She then spent a year drifting the Frontier regions, desperately trying to find someone -anyone- who resembled Her kin. Her motherâ€™s words forever echoing in Her skull: â€œFind those Men with your Fatherâ€™s eyes and you shall find your peopleâ€. They were the only things that drove Her forward, kept Her stubbornly alive, as She forced herself to steal and hide in order to live from day to day.
If that was considered living.
That was until the day She was caught stealing bread and the Her tunic was wretched from Her back by the furious shopkeep as he laid his grasp upon Her. She could remember the screams and hysteria of the Crowd as clear as the Sky that too bright day; as Her clothes were peeled from Her skin and Her flesh was exposed to the existence. The word â€˜Evasorâ€™ was bewailed again and again as the mob did seize Her. She was held fast and harsh by Her captors but at tender lengths, as if She was an Infectant, a Plague Carrier or even a Demon of sorts. She was jostled and kicked as She was brought to the Zelta -the Religious leader of the Settlement. As She cried, begged and screamed, She remembered a moderate in the Crowd, a kind Soul who stood by Her side, explaining to Her that the Settlement had recently been converted en masse to a new and growing religious cult calling themselves â€˜The Children of the Living Godâ€™ and that She was being taken to the Temple to be judged. He tried whispering something into Her ear but the Kind Soul was torn from Her side before he could finish his explanations and She was cast before The Zelta -a frighteningly tall man with white hair, harsh features and eyes that burned with righteous Hellfire.
â€œWhat doth thou bring â€˜thisâ€™ before I, Hectorus, Zelta of the Living God?â€ he demanded, as he stared down at Her with withering eyes.
â€œWe have found The Evasor, Zelta!â€ cried the man who held Her fast by the back of Her neck. â€œHere amongst we good people. Children of the Living God!â€
A murmur of â€˜The Living Godâ€™ drifted through the now quietened crowd, as the Zelta regarded Her with wrathful eyes.
â€œShow I the Marks of the Evasor!â€ The Zelta commanded, casting his arms into the air, the sleeves of his cassock sliding down his bone thin arms.
The man who held Her by Her neck and a woman who stood dutifully by thrust Her head towards the white steps of the Temple and tore Her tunic from off Her back. The heard the Crowd gasp and moan as She felt the hot breath of the Sun upon Her naked flesh.
â€œBehold!â€ The Zelta blazoned. â€œThe Dark Wings of Our Destruction!â€
With wild fear, She jerked Her head up, holding back Her burning tears. She knew that they were speaking of Her Birthmarks. Two stains of black and red in the shape of wings that lay upon Her shoulder blades. She had always been told by Her mother to keep them hidden from all eyes. As a child, She never understood why such care and delicacy stood be attended to them, though now She why through the hail of pained screams and blows that were now cast upon Her so wretched flesh.
Chants and cries of â€˜Evasor!â€™, â€˜Strigusâ€™ and â€˜Dark Wingsâ€™ bled into the calls and shouts of â€˜burn herâ€™, â€˜kill herâ€™ and â€˜Holy Judgementâ€™ from the seething mass of Wrath and Rage that surrounded Her trembling body. She felt their blows rain down upon Her as their collective fear turned to collective violence. But She held back Her tears and chilled Her Heart, so She could not feel their anger upon Her.
The Zelta raised a thin hand to quell the Crowd and, once silence ruffled through the mass, and becried: â€œBring forth the Instruments of Judgement and let the Commands of the Living God be done!â€
Cheers rose from the Crowd and She was tossed upon the Templeâ€™s white stone steps, Her frail limbs failing to block Her fall. She was hoisted up again, held by each wrist as Her arms were pulled taut and Her shoulders screamed in pain. She cast Her pained blue eyes skyward and saw The Zelta descending the Temple stair, a large silver sickle in his thin fingers, which trembled with a zealotâ€™s fever.
â€œFor The Living God!â€ he screeched, as he swung the Sickle down.
She buried Her neck into Her chest and wished for the painless death that Her parents never received.
The sickle whistled as it tore the air and She shut tight Her eyes, awaiting Her end.
Though that was not yet to come.
All She heard was the sharp â€˜tangâ€™ of metal against metal and the clash of something against stone. She opened Her eyes when She realised that her arms had been released and the Crowd had been driven back, if but a little, away from Her. She looked up again at seeing The Zelta standing empty handed, mouth agape as the sickle lay behind him next to a black shafted arrow. His eyes were part blank with disbelief, part vexed, all fury as it stared into the dark infinite of his own righteous rage. In the silence that now came, all She could hear was the furious quake and tremble of Her Heart and, once that has quelled, She heard the dull whiny of a horse.
She turned on her knees to see a man, bedighted all in black armoured that flared with steel frills, astride a white horse. A black lacquered bow was held within his gauntlet hand, another arrow notched upon the string, aimed for The Zeltaâ€™s Heart. At his side, She recognised the Kind Soul who had earlier tried to shield Her from the rage and fury of the Mob.
â€œWhat be this action?!â€ The Zelta screamed, the froth of his wrath gathering upon his lips.
â€œYou tell I, Cultist!â€ The Ebon Knight replied, as he held fast his bow. â€œWhat crime hast this Girl committed that you punish her so?â€
The Zeltaâ€™s lips moved of their own accord before he shouted the words: â€œShe has offended the Law of Our Living God and must be made to suffer for it.â€
He stooped and reached for his sickle. Over the hushed air, the â€˜twangâ€™ of the bow string was palpable and the Crowd uttered a collective murmur as the Ebon Knightâ€™s black arrow pierced the silver sickle, pinning it to the Templeâ€™s steps.
â€œThe Law of â€˜yourâ€™ God, Cultist, not mine,â€ the Knight said, as he past his bow down to the Kind Soul and dismounted his steed, laying a hand upon his swordâ€™s hilt as soon as his feet touched the ground. â€œThere are many Gods and Goddess within The Pantheon of our Land, each have their own Laws and Abidments, but none overrule the Laws of Land and the People. Your Cult is not even recognised amongst The Pantheon, so you do not have even claim to The Law.â€
â€œAnd you have claim command of these Law, do you, Heathen?!â€ The Zelta spat, cast forth the froth and foam from his mouth.
â€œI ride amongst the court of the Guardian of these Territories -the Patrice of Mount Ethonore,â€ The Knight replied, as he strode through the quietened and frightened Crowd. She could see he was quite tall, even as tall as the towering Zelta. â€œThus I am charged with the up holding of the Law of The Land and of The People. And thus I command you to release this Girl. For the rule and law of a Cult cannot stand against the Rule and Law of the Patrice or Senate which he serves!â€
The Knight and The Zelta faced off against each other, standing so close that The Zeltaâ€™s crooked nose was almost pressed against the beaver of the Knightâ€™s finned and frilled helm.
â€œBut she is The Evasor!â€ someone cried from the Crowd. â€œShe must die!â€
Quick calls of agreement filled the air until the wrathful din deafened Her again.
â€œI do not care if she be the Regorrier Itself!â€ The Knight bellowed, silencing the Crowd with the mere mentioning of the very Demon of the Crowdâ€™s Beliefs and Nightmares. â€œYou cannot judge her for and by your faulted beliefs!â€
â€œHow dare you, Heathen Knight,â€ The Zelta hissed.
â€œI dare, Cultist,â€ The Knight spat back. â€œI very much do dare!â€
â€œSo, she will be judged by your laws but not by ours?â€ The Zelta asked, in whispered tones.
â€œIndeed,â€ The Knight replied. â€œSuch â€˜areâ€™ the Laws stated.â€
â€œVery well,â€ The Zelta muttered. â€œIf you so wish to pursue such action.â€
The Zelta than stepped forth before the Crowd, cast his hands again skyward and called to his followers: â€œWho amongst you would lay before this honourable Knight of the Patrice the accusations for which we condemn this. . . â€˜Abominationâ€™?!â€
The Crowd shuffled uneasily but then an old woman stood forth and cried unto the Knight: â€œShe did steal from my table four sums of bread. Starving an old woman like me of my food.â€
Then another stood forth, claiming that She had stolen money from his pocket. Another said that She had stolen his sheep from the field. Yet another accused her slaughtering an entire herd to satisfy her blood lusts. More accusations were levelled false against her, until the Knight cried â€œenoughâ€ when a woman -apparently mad with grief- blamed Her for the poisoning of her three children and for the illness that they now suffered.
â€œSo, dear Knight,â€ The Zelta said, in a smarmy voice. â€œDoth that satisfy your law now?â€
The Knight must have stood agasp within his helmet, for he could say nothing against the Zelta nor against the lying Crowd. They had indeed followed the Course of the Law as it was set out, however false they were or may be.
â€œIs that not enough for your law and the punishment we prescribe?â€ The Zelta cried, to the Knight but playing to the Crowd. â€œIs not death deserved?â€
â€œNo!â€ The Knight yelled, to the stirring Crowd. â€œYou must first prove your charges against her!â€
This silenced the Crowd but not the Zelta, who said: â€œBut she must still be punished. It â€˜isâ€™ the law.â€
She could only imagine the look of rage upon the Knightâ€™s face as the ebon helmet glared at The Zelta.
â€œShe shall be taken to the Immura of Ethonore,â€ The Knight cried unto the Crowd. â€œBefore being brought before The Patrice himself for judgement. Where all your charges shall be heard. Does that satisfy you?â€
A murmur of acceptance spilled throughout the Crowd and The Zelta smiled his cunning smile.
â€œTake her to the Immura,â€ he commanded of the town guards, who stood at the very back of the Crowd, awaiting for their orders. â€œAnd see that she has her chance to see the Patrice.â€
But, by the very tone of the Zeltaâ€™s voice, The Knight knew that she would never get such a chance. He tried to push his way to Her, through the vicious, swarming crowd. He got to Her side but was forced back by a Guard, shove knocked him heavily with the butt of his spear. But he managed to grab Her by the Shoulder and whisper in Her ear: â€œDo not fear. I will come for you. No matter how long it takes. Remember by words: â€˜Keillasorta mesqua besqâ€™. May our Guardians bare your suffering.â€
But She knew he would not and that was the last time that She did see the Ebon Knight, struggling vainly against the surging crowd.
All this washed over Catena as a wave or wind would. Quick and sharp but swiftly dismissed from her mind as she focussed on the Here and Now of her being.
The Arena and the coming fight.
That was all she had and all that would ever matter to her.
Catena took her stance. Placing her feet a shoulderâ€™s width apart, turning her torso sidelong to him and stretching her arms out. One forward with its elbow crooked, the other cocked up slightly behind, slightly to the side. Her weight was low but centred, giving agility to her mighty legs. This was one of the secret motions of her fighting art. If her wrists were still connected by chains, this stance would give her a natural sense of distance between her hands and thus allow her to know her limitation and then, by extension, know the distances to work against her opponent. It allowed her hands and body to work in concert. To understand itâ€™s limitations and to work within them. To make the most of the space around her and within herself. That is the basis of her fighting art. And in this stance she made ready for Ulvaâ€™s first attack.
What Ulva did next both confused her and strengthened her understanding of how he fought.
He fell forward, going from standing to laying, just off the ground, on the balls of his feet and his very finger tips. His limbs were all spread wide so no other part of his body touched the ground. He then drew his arms in at the elbows and twisted to one side, lowering one shoulder towards the dirt of the Arena floor and coiling himself up as if he were a snake or spring.
Cautiously, he reached one arm sideways and then shifted his entire body swiftly crabwise, circling Catena with a mixture of speed and care. He never crossed one arm or leg under the other nor let his balance waver. She knew it was a near prefect stance for both attack and defence. If she moved forward, he would have her trapped yet he could move quickly at will and quite possibly overcome her with ease.
Though what Catena found most surprising and interesting about his style and stance is that he did all this with his eyes closed. Since he had entered the Arena had they not even flickered or been cast open. She knew he was not blind because she could see their subtle orbits as they shifted behind his sealed eyelids, confirming their workings. But yet, he kept them barred against the world.
Catena did not know whether this was merely a ruse or part of the deeper secrets of his style. Either way, she knew she had to be more weary of him than any other opponent for he must have a way or technique to compensate with this self-imposed sightlessness. She also knew that she could not allow him to press any advantage against he may have against her and she must be as swift and as merciless as she could afford to be.
With a speed that seemed impossible for some of her muscular bulk, she lowered her back arm, thrust her back hip forward and sprung towards Ulva, rolling her body in a tight circle. With an open palm she scooped up a hand full of dust and dirt, throwing it into Ulvaâ€™s face; testing whether or not he was truly as sightless as he seemed. He merely smiled as the detritus sailed past him, dropping his shoulder slightly and then bring both forearms up in order to block and avoid Catenaâ€™s in coming kick. She moved in close, as the edicts of her style dictated, making a sharp arc with her arm, her hand aimed at Ulvaâ€™s gaunt, smiling face. He, for his part, merely leant his body backwards to avoid her blow and, with the subtlest of muscle control, held himself there until Catena came around with her next attack -a spinning back elbow held close to her body and then whipped out to a backfist at the last moment- and then dropped to the utter reversal of his original stance. He lay on the ground, balanced on his fingers and the heels of his feet. Catena stomped down at his exposed flank. Again, Ulva moved with the subtlest of muscle control, flipping himself around in time with her blow, so it missed him by the barest of margins, and landing back on all fours, belly down. Catena pressed in with four more attacks and again, Ulva avoided them all by the barest of margins, yet never counted them.
After this bout, Catena moved back, realising what Ulva was doing.
She was his chain.
He was gauging her attacks, her timing and the distances in which she moved. She knew that he did not need to see her or them in order to judge them. She knew, within her fighting spirit, that he could sense her and what she was doing. Whether he felt the air she pushed when she moved or sensed something else more subtly through his skin -such as the aura that she projected which her Old Master would always speak of- she did not know. All that she knew is that his blindness was more of a help than a hindrance and he would be a tougher opponent than she had experienced in the past year of Arena battles.
She changed stance to a move defensive posture, dropping her broad shoulders forward to protect her chest and allow more power from her hips, and readied herself for the next pass.
Ulva, from his Spider stance, leapt forward onto his feet, thrusting out an arm as if it were a spear. Catena shifted her head and shoulders slightly, allowing the blow to whistle past her ear. She knew that it was a fast and powerful strike by the way it had ruffled her short, yellow hair -cropped for comfort and combat- and the quiet noise it had made as it tore the air.
It was then that she noticed another sound, near silent, crushed beneath the cheers and jeers of the crowd above. It was a song. A song that flowed from out Ulvaâ€™s cracked and caked lips. It was a song of her childhood and of her imprisonment at the hands of The Children of The Living God.
Before the rising of the Karna Moon, Her punishment begun.
She was not taken to Immura Ethonore as The Ebon Knight had promised but was instead sent to the Prison Camp, Ballacreous, a bastion of the Cult of The Living God and said to be the Earthly incarnation of their vision of Turakla, the Realms of Punishment. Here the Prisoners were forced to mine and to build for the Cult, forging the bases of their weapons and armour as well as make and design their everyday wares. In short: it was a labour camp owned and controlled by the Cult and housing not only every form of criminal in existence, from petty thieves to rapist and murderers, but any other who has questioned and stood against the Cult in an Area controlled by them. There were men and women within, as well as children of all size and ages. Entire families lived and died within those harsh confines, which was now Her home.
She was dragged in a line of other prisoners, mainly elders and other children, all too weak to struggle or protest. She tried in vain to search for The Ebon Knight amongst the crowd of Warders, Guards and Overseers but he was no where to be seen. She knew that his black tinted armour would stand out against the leather and cloth of Her captorsâ€™ attire. She knew that The Knight would never arrive to this place though, in Her deepest Heart, She knew that he would not abandon Her. Upon her arrival She had tried to espy any who might carry Her Fatherâ€™s Eyes, though they were all of mortal men and were nothing unto her Fatherâ€™s orbs.
She was alone here, as She had been before.
She was thankful that they had not singled Her out here as they had in the Frontier Town. No one even mentioned the word â€˜Evasorâ€™ but She did Her best to keep Her back covered and Her face hidden beneath her long stringy hair to stop from being discovered. She was grateful that She just seemed to blend in with all the other children there. Even though She was elder to most, She had a similar stature to them. Being small and very much sickly thin, but shaped with a wiry build that She had developed from a year of constantly running and hiding. Her luck only lasted until the end of Her first terrifying week, when She was forced into the communal bathing area. A half mad woman spotted Her birthmarks and started screaming about them. Calling for the guards until the other female prisoners fell upon her, muffling her hysterics. She was terrified, fearing a repeat of what happened to Her in the Town, but She was quickly swaddled by the other women and placed in the corner, away from any guards who may come looking. Another woman, tall and proud, came in and looked over the situation. In the space of a breath, she had taken everything in, walked over to the crazed woman and slapped her so hard that the blow echoed and the bathing chamber.
â€œHuss ya-sef, wombâ€™n!â€ she chided, in an iron voice, thick with a strange accent that sounded like itâ€™s own mysterious language, cutting some words short whilst completely altering others. â€œDo ya wanâ€™ briâ€™ tâ€™e Livies oâ€™ we?!â€
This calmed the mad woman, who headed out of the bathing chamber, shame faced and escorted by several other ladies. The Iron Woman with the commanding voice watched her go and then turned her attentions on to Her. The Iron Woman strode boldly over to where She huddled, trembling with fear. She watched as another woman whisper in the Iron Womanâ€™s sharp ears. The Iron Woman nodded her head as she stared upon Her. Finally she said: â€œSo yay be tâ€™e wo tâ€™ey aâ€™ fusâ€™ ova?â€
She nodded her scared replied.
â€œTâ€™en coâ€™ witâ€™ mi, girl!â€ the Iron Woman commanded. â€œWe haâ€™ ma tae do.â€
So, She stood and She followed the Iron Woman out of the Bathing Chamber and into the dusty courtyard. They strode past the firepits and the forges, down to the entrances to the Mines.
â€œWhaâ€™ bae ye nom, shilâ€™?â€ the Iron Woman asked, as they stood outside of the main Mineshaft entrance.
She said nothing in reply, merely buried Her head into her scrawny chest.
â€œWâ€™ll, matta no, shilâ€™,â€ the Iron Woman said, with a sigh. â€œJâ€™ gotta keeâ€™ a ya way froâ€™ a tâ€™e Livies. Coâ€™me wit mi.â€
She gave a stern look and entered the Mine.
â€œWho are the Livies?â€ She asked, her first words since entering Ballacreous.
â€œTuo, ya dae a hev a licca,â€ the Iron Woman clicked her tongue. â€œGouâ€™de.â€
â€œWho are the Livies?â€ She repeated.
â€œTâ€™ey a be tâ€™e Livies,â€ the Iron Woman replied, nodding her head in the direction of a group of guards. â€œTâ€™ey a all a bae Livies. Eer lea one of a tâ€™em.â€
â€œWhy do you call them Livies?â€ She asked, accepting she had to understand things at last.
â€œBeâ€™cau tâ€™ey whorâ€™sip tâ€™ey God hae nah bae deaâ€™,â€ the Iron Woman replied, striding through the upper mine with purpose, ignoring those around her as they moved out of matronly respect.
â€œWhich Gods do you worship?â€ She asked, trying her best to keep up.
In the flickering light of the blazing torches and dull braziers, She caught the traces of the Iron Womanâ€™s smile.
â€œTâ€™I bae a folâ€™lore of tâ€™e Skae,â€ she replied, not even breaking step. â€œShae tâ€™e Goâ€™tess who lea abovâ€™ wae.â€
â€œYou worship Goddess of The Sky?â€ She asked. â€œWhere do you come from?â€
â€œTâ€™I coâ€™ froâ€™ heâ€™e,â€ the Iron Woman replied. â€œTâ€™is bae me lanâ€™. Livies coâ€™ anâ€™ tae froâ€™ we. Slave we tâ€™ey do. Beaâ€™ we tâ€™ey do. Tae we lanâ€™ and mae slaves oâ€™ we.â€
The Iron Womanâ€™s face showed no sign of how she felt about this matter, her voice was even and firm. If she was angry, She could not tell. So She merely followed the Iron Woman until they came to a quiet area, lit only by a dully warm fire. The gentle sound of song drifting upon the stale air.
â€œAâ€™gaeâ€™tiâ€™ous!â€ the Iron Woman called down toward the fire.
She heard the singer stop, if for a moment, and saw something shift in the edges of the firelight.
â€œBae Aeguis!â€ the Iron Woman called. â€œTâ€™I bae haevâ€™ing somâ€™ tâ€™ing fae ye!â€
â€œBring her down here, Aegine,â€ the singer called back, as if all this was expected.
The Iron Woman, Aegine, ushered Her forward until She stood before a tall man, dressed in the thick covering of a miner and with what they called â€˜Minerâ€™s Eyesâ€ stuck to his face. A pair of goggles with tinted lenses for those who have spent far too much time underground and can no longer handle the light of the Overworld. He stared up at the ceiling of the cave, still singing his song. He sang even when Aegine lent over and whispered something in her strange native language into his ear. He merely nodded and dismissed her with a clicking of his tongue. Aegine lent back and gave Her a reassuring pat on Her frail shoulder before she simply strode away.
Once Aegine, had gone, the Singing Man stood and looked down at Her.
He was tall and built strong. His hands were as large of shovels, yet, She would always remember, as soft and gentle as lily-pads. The firelight reflected in his Minerâ€™s Eyes, blanking out any feeling or emotion his face might have otherwise shown. She looked down and saw the thick manacles upon his wrists and then up to see the yoke upon his neck. The manaclesâ€™ chains softly rattled with every moment that he made, adding a docile rhythm to the song that he sung.
â€œMy name is August,â€ he said, as he sat back down and patted the rock at his side, biding Her to sit with him. â€œAnd I am to make you strong.â€
And then he resumed his song.
Catena, even after so many years and trails, was sure that this was the same song that Ulva now uttered. It was the same restless melody that August had hummed throughout his days. A Prayer for the Helpless he had once called it. Sung only by those beyond Help and Hope, except for what of them they make themselves. Even though Ulvaâ€™s tune was near wordless in his rendition, Catena knew it to be the said same song.
Though she was not sure even how he managed to sing it as he fought and as he moved around her. His breath seemed to move in an endless cyclic flow -having no beginning nor ending. Just this endless chant. This ceaseless Song.
She knew that she had let it distract her too much when she felt his knuckles graze past her scarred right cheek, grating her flesh with his bony finger joints. But he was now well within her prime space -the distance she was most comfortable in fighting. The distance slaves have between each other when placed ten men deep within a forge or a firepit or merely two people within the hollowed confines of a Mineshaft. It was all done close, no longer than the chains that bound you to yourself and to each other, it was swift and it was brutal.
Catena struck him hard in his spongy ribs with the heel of her palm before he could even retract his arm. But his latched his outstretched fingers around the back of her head and used the force of her own blow to drag her down. Lithely, he spread his free limbs and anchored all of his weight down, slamming Catenaâ€™s face into the sandy ground. Auspiciously, she had enough wits about her to thrust her chest forward and her arms out as to absorb as much of the impact as she could. She turned her head, despite Ulvaâ€™s fierce grip, so her left check slapped against the ground but not hard enough to hurt her.
She knew that whilst she was down here, she was in his territory. His space of comfort. He could play with her as he wished but Catena knew she was far from beaten.
Despite her impressive size and muscular bulk, she was prided by her Keepers on being uncannily agile. The incredible strength of her arms and legs only added to this ability. Allowing her to push herself up and off the ground from virtually any position and give herself great distance from her opponent. With a powerful heave of her mighty arms, she flung herself upwards and tucked her knees up into her chiselled chest to give herself more momentum. She curled and coiled away from Ulva, who had recoiled from her sudden motion, landing several body lengths away from him. She grunted as she wiped her dirt-covered check with her bandaged hand and readied herself from the next Clash.
She stood set, watching Ulva and for his next move. She was deaf to the din of the crowd, she had learnt to block it out so long ago that she barely remembered ever having heard it. She could still hear his song though. Every whispered, murmured note that left his long shattered lips. They were a delirious drone; raped of the Heartful melody that she so remembered. Then, as if he wished to further infuriate her, he rose up and took a stance that either mocked or mimicked her own.
Though how could he see it?
With his eyes so shut?
Sure his senses were not so strong that he could feel how she stood in readiness? No. That could not be.
Maybe he did, in some way or fashion, see? Maybe he had learnt how to glimpse things for mere seconds and assimilate them quicker than any other? Maybe this was the secret to his Art?
He could not know her Fighting Art.
For it was known only to those who had been slaves of centuries, past from one cruel master to the next. It was used against those who stood above you or, more commonly, those who stood beside to you. It was the style of an individual trapped within a group, forced to survive anyway they could. And August was the master of this Art, swearing that only few remained who knew itâ€™s depths and secrets, and that she would be the last to learn from him.