Heroes, p.35
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       Heroes, p.35

           Leigh Barker
 
The next weeks went by much faster than they would have if Woe had been waiting for a holiday, as they do. In no time at all he found himself marching with a hundred and fifty other hopeful squires down the wide street to the arena. He hoped he was marching straight, because his legs were shaking so much. Another hour or so, and it would be all over. His abilities as a warrior would have been exposed to a crowd howling with laughter, and his shame would be complete. Perhaps there would be an accident and he would be killed. It was possible. The weapons were much more realistic than the ones used for training. Yes, that would be good.

  The squires marched into the arena, their clean white robes flowing in the summer breeze. There were already two other schools there, in their school robes of blue, and saffron. Standing in their perfectly straight ranks. It was going to be a massacre. Woe could feel his heart thumping in his stomach, where it had sunk in an effort to avoid the inevitable.

  He looked slowly around the arena, at the masses of spectators filling the two-storey stadium, all eager to see a good show. With the loopball season over and the chariot racing season yet to start, this was all there was, so they were going to make the most of it. With beer and snacks, trumpets, whistles, and drums, they were looking forward to an afternoon of fun and, perhaps, a few injuries—oh, nothing too serious, just a few broken bones and black eyes to add to the spectacle. Okay, maybe just one, or two, fatalities. Nobody important, though.

  The voice of self-preservation spoke loudly in his head, telling him to leg it for the hills. But of course he didn’t, that would be even more shaming for his father than watching him getting his butt kicked. He told himself to be brave, to suck it up, to face it like a man. Self-preservation told him he was going to die, and to run for it now while he had a chance.

  At least they got to sit in the shade of the high walls while the elimination rounds ground on and the medical people carried away the injured and unconscious. The huge mallets made from compressed straw were daunting, but it was the smooth-blunted short swords that were the scariest, as they all knew some of the more unscrupulous competitors had sharpened them on the edge of the rough stone walls. Not enough to cut a person’s arm off, but sharp enough to end a bout before it had properly begun. The referees knew it too, but it was all part of the fun, and at fourteen years old, it was time these boys became men. And men bleed. Well, other men do.

  Woe sat next to Anella and watched the cracking of skulls and the squirting of blood for two hours before it was his turn to compete, if that’s what it could be called. He stood up slowly when the official with the scroll pointed at him.

  Anella stood up with him and patted him on the shoulder. She wanted to say something encouraging, something to fire him up, but they’d both seen the baby-eating monster lumber out onto the sand and stand with his over-muscled legs wide apart and the huge mallet swinging back and forth. He was grinning, but then he’d seen the size of his opponent.

  She watched her brother trudge tiredly out into the arena, and sighed heavily. She couldn’t watch, so walked back into the darkness under the first seating tier. The boards above her were streaming dust as the crowd banged their feet in appreciation of the coming spectacle of her little brother getting his head flattened.

  She leaned against one of the thick wooden supports and looked into the gloom. It wouldn’t take long. She wished she hadn’t thought that, but lying to herself wasn’t going to help Woe. She swore she would nurse him back to health. If he lived. She snatched at that thought, but it was already out there flapping about.

  The baby-eater waited until the referee raised his hand, then lurched at Woe. The referee was about to blow his whistle for a false start, but the crowd was on its feet, sensing a truly memorable, if short, head-crunching.

  Woe looked up from his sandals in time to see the blue-robed boy swinging the huge mallet in a wide arc designed to put him to sleep for a week. Self-preservation screamed, Do something! then ran away.

  Woe wanted to roll backwards, like he’d been taught, but the sword weighed a ton and anchored him to the spot. The mallet made a whistling noise, even above the roaring and stamping of the crowd. To onlookers, it appeared that he had executed a forward roll, but in fact, his legs had failed and he’d fallen forward, then rolled.

  The end result was unexpected and magnificent.

  The boy was five feet away and closing at a run, the mallet swinging in wide circles above his head. Woe’s eyes were closed as he hit the ground, tucked his head to minimise the damage, and let his momentum take him forward. It was a clumsy roll and his feet swung up and over… and slammed into his attacker’s groin with sickening force.

  The swinging mallet continued to swing, but with no hands holding it, it arced out to thud onto the sand while its owner’s face crumpled and his knees buckled.

  The crowd roared with surprise and laughter, stamped their feet, beat the drums, and blew their trumpets and whistles. This was great!

  Anella stepped back from the cascade of sand and dust and shook it out of her hair. Then she heard the cracking sound and looked to her left. The support beams were moving as the crowd stamped. Two moved, then three, then all of those supporting this section.

  The boy sank to his knees and pitched forward. Woe rolled out of his way and let his face meet the sand. Under the Rules of Combat, he should have stuck him with his sword, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Onlookers thought it was out of misplaced chivalry, but the truth was the sword was too heavy, and trapped under the boy’s trembling body anyway. So he smiled and waved to the crowd, who responded by shouting, stamping and generally making a fuss. Spectators surged forward to get a better look at the diminutive champion.

  Anella ran from under the seating tier and shouted at the crowd high above her. A hopeless gesture. She ran to Longfella Chip and pointed up at the crowd, but there was no way he could hear her above the din, and he simply nodded, smiled and pointed at Woe.

  She turned back to the seating and saw cross-supports falling onto the sand. It was all going to come down. There were hundreds of people on the cavea. They would be crushed to death by the massive beams, the two-foot stones from the balustrades, and by each other. She started to shake.

  Woe was still experiencing the euphoria of victory, and of not being creamed. Under the Rules of Combat, an opponent was not defeated until he was symbolically belted with a mallet or stuck with a blunt sword. The boy got to his feet. Woe turned slowly, following the crowd’s pointing. So, creaming was back on the to-do list. Bugger.

  The boy shuffled towards Woe with a look that promised much pain.

  Anella ran back to the cavea and looked up at the seating tier that was now swaying wildly. Beams and chunks of stone were beginning to rain down onto the sand. And the crowd above started to feel the movement. Some of them bolted. And that did it. They all started to scramble for the exit.

  The whole structure came away from the walls with a shower of debris. Anella stepped back against the wall. Then there was silence. She could see the panicking crowds climbing over each other to get out, and the competitors in the arena starting to sense something was very wrong, but there was no sound.

  The world slowed down, as it had done a year before, and she turned to face the sands. “Woe,” she said quietly. “Woe.”

  Woe heard her voice as if next to his ear, and turned, ignoring the shuffling boy coming to beat him to a pulp. He saw the seating tier moving. Saw the crowds fighting to get out, and the people spilling over the balustrade and falling twenty feet to the dirt. They were all going to die. Right here, on a sunny day. And beneath them all was Anella.

  He raised his hands. “No!”

  Everybody and everything froze in place. Nothing moved, even the sand was suspended midway from the beams.

  Anella looked around, overwhelmed and stunned by the instant switch from cacophony and horror to total stillness. Nobody else was moving. She walked backwards for two steps, turned and ran to Woe.

  “What did yo
u do?”

  He shrugged. “I just thought, nobody dies today, and everything…” He pointed at nothing in particular. “I guess nobody dies today.”

  Anella looked back at the crowds frozen across the seats. “Perhaps not. But what happens next?”

  He frowned.

  “Well,” said Anella, “you can’t just leave them there. And when you… unfreeze them, they’re right back where they started.”

  Which was a very good point.

  Anella looked back towards the seating tier, frozen in mid-collapse, and frowned. It could work. “This is just normal soil, right?” She tapped the sand with the toe of her sandal.

  Now Woe frowned. “Yes, I suppose so. Though a bit flatter and drier.” He shook his head to clear it. “Why? What does it matter?”

  “It matters,” said Anella, closing her eyes, “because of this.”

  Nothing appeared to be happening at first; then there was subtle movement under the seating. Slowly the soil began to rise into bumps, which cracked to reveal white shoots writhing slowly as they struggled to climb into the air.

  “What is that?” Woe gasped, taking an involuntary step back.

  “That,” said Anella, “are the plants that have been buried by all this sand, waking up.”

  “How?” Woe was seriously confused, and a little scared.

  Anella shrugged and raised her hands palm up. The shoots followed her direction and reached up towards the wooden seating tier, while those shoots close enough got purchase on the support beams and shot up among the seats. In a few minutes the whole area was covered with white and green creepers that got thicker by the second.

  “Ah, I get it!” said Woe. “That’s great. How do you do that? And when did you know you could? And why didn’t you tell me?”

  “Woe,” she said through gritted teeth as she willed the creepers to hurry up.

  “What?”

  “Shut up. Can’t you see I’m working here?”

  Woe stepped back a little and watched the seating become engulfed in vines. Along with the spectators, but, hey, it was better than being under tons of wood and masonry. But were they going to be surprised when they woke up.

  And there it was.

  How exactly were they going to wake up? He almost believed he’d put them into that… whatever it was, but getting them out? No idea.

  Anella lowered her arms and nodded in satisfaction. The whole structure was now encased in thick, green creepers. She turned to her brother and nodded. He watched her. She nodded again. He smiled a nervous smile. She sighed heavily.

  “Undo your spell, or whatever it is,” she said.

  He shrugged. “How do I do that?”

  Her jaw fell. “You don’t know?” she said eventually.

  He shrugged again. That’ll be no.

  They stared in stunned silence at the entwined crowd. They were in so much trouble. If anyone ever moved again, that is.

  There was a quiet cough from behind them and they spun around. Two men stood silhouetted against the sun. But even dazzled by the light, the twins knew who these men were. The leader of the Senate, the Magnus Caseus the Third, and… Michael, their Supreme Commander.

  Anella recovered first. “We didn’t mean it, Your Majesty,” she gasped.

  Good recovery.

  The Magnus Caseus was a little old guy with yellowish skin and thin, slit eyes. His hair had been jet-black once, but was now streaked with grey. “Do I look like a king to you?” he said with a quiet chuckle.

  “Yes. No, Your Maj—” Anella stammered. Then curtsied.

  Woe stared at her in utter amazement. She was always the sensible one, the one who could keep her head no matter what was happening around her. And here she was, behaving like a loon.

  “Sir, sirs,” he said quickly, before she said something really stupid. “The arena was falling down. I don’t know what happened, but it stopped. Then those plants grew all over it. Perhaps it’s the rain we’ve been having.”

  Oh, okay, not stupid, then.

  Michael and the old man walked around them and examined the spectators’ seating tier. Michael nodded slowly and glanced sideways at the old man, and then turned back to Woe. “Can you unfreeze it?” he said softly, so as not to frighten the boy any more than he clearly was.

  Woe licked his lips nervously. “No, sir.” He scratched his head. “I don’t know how I froze it in the first place, even if it was me—”

  “It was you,” said the old man.

  “Sorry,” Woe said, kicking the sand with his toe.

  “Don’t be,” Michael said, putting a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “If you hadn’t… frozen it.” He smiled. “There would be a lot of very unhappy citizens asking for their money back.”

  The twins looked at each other and decided that was a joke. They couldn’t laugh—not that it wasn’t a hilariously funny Supreme Commander joke, but their laughter muscles were on hold while their scared-to-death muscles did their thing.

  “I’ll send for Zeffsena,” said Michael, raising his hand to some unseen person.

  “But everyone is stuck,” Anella said self-consciously.

  The old man chuckled. “Your brother is powerful, there’s no denying that.” He raised his eyebrows and looked around. “But not powerful enough to stop the world.” He pointed at the frozen crowd. “Just these people.”

  Which was a huge relief.

  “Come with us,” said Michael. “They might not be too understanding when they wake up,” he said, pointing a long finger at the people entwined by creepers halfway through their fall to the hard ground.

  “Sorry,” said Woe again, quietly.

  Michael shook his head, but said nothing, and just led the way across the arena, weaving past the squires and masters frozen in shock at the catastrophe unfolding before them. They followed the Supreme Commander to the arched exit. And stopped.

  Woe and Anella looked up at the balcony above the arch, and there was their father watching them with his usual impassive expression. He shook his head slowly. They looked from him, to each other, and then at the frozen spectators.

  Michael took a step back into the arena and looked up, then back at the twins. “Well,” he said softly. “He wouldn’t be much of a Guardian if a child’s spell could defeat him.”

  Which was true, but less of the child stuff, right. It was left unsaid; some things are better that way.

  Anella gave her father a quick wave and hurried after the departing group. Outside, everything was normal. People were doing whatever it was normal people did. Horses plodded past and deposited huge piles of dung everywhere, and wagons crashed and creaked. Woe looked back over his shoulder at the tranquil scene. Still not believing he’d done that.

  Nobody spoke as they crossed the busy square and entered the Guardian’s Headquarters, a huge, white marble structure intended to impress the pants off any visiting dignitaries. It worked its magic on the twins, and by the time a servant pulled open the wide, studded, wooden doors, their knees were trembling.

  Michael pointed at a row of ornate chairs, and they sat, guessing that’s what he intended. The chairs were lumpy, rigid, uncomfortable, and also designed with visiting dignitaries in mind. Michael and the old man stood by a massive wooden desk that was covered in leather and scattered with maps.

  “Do you think we’ve found what we need?” the old man said, and glanced at the twins. “They’re very young.”

  Michael looked at them and shrugged. His super-white robe shimmered as only the finest silk does. “They are old enough to graduate and go through Transition.”

  The old man watched them steadily through dark, almond-shaped eyes. “True, but that will have to be postponed.”

  Bugger, thought Woe, he’d known he was in trouble, and he’d dragged his sister into it with him. They were postponing their graduation. Being held back would be a terrible disgrace for their father.

  The old man caught the look, or read the signs, and strode over and sat on one of
the chairs. A moment later he flinched and stood up, with a questioning look at Michael. “You should put these in the dungeons with the rest of the torture equipment.”

  Anella gasped and Woe’s mouth fell open.

  The old man reached down and put his hands on their shoulders.

  It was as if a warm breeze had blown over them and it was their birthday and New Year party all rolled up. They felt deliriously happy. And totally safe.

  “No one is going to harm you,” said the old man with a smile that tickled their skin like the air before an electric storm. “We came to the games today in the hope of seeing a hero.” He glanced back at Michael. “A forlorn hope, I might add. Instead, we found you.”

  “And that’s a good thing?” said Anella.

  “Yes,” said the old man, still smiling. “That’s a very good thing.”

  “So no being held back from graduation. No… postponing?”

  The old man chuckled. “What will have to be postponed—if we decide your talents are what we need—will be your tour in Transition.”

  Except they had no idea what he was talking about, and their mouths forming an O indicated that loudly enough.

  The old man sat back down on the torture chair and folded his hand in his lap like an old teacher about to impart a long story. “Transition,” he began and stopped for a moment, as if considering what to say, or whether he should actually say it. “You know about the Academy?”

  They nodded. Of course they did. They could hardly miss the three-storey, hundred-room building at the edge of the market square.

  “Yes,” said Anella, first again. “The Academy is where kids go who have finished regular school and want to move up in the world.”

  The old man nodded a little. “Well, yes. Partly.” He glanced at Michael and received a shrug in response. Okay then. “Except it isn’t an ordinary place of learning. Once a transitioner enters the Academy, the medics give him a… medicine and he sleeps for three years.”

  The twins looked at each other in horror.

  “No, no. It isn’t scary,” said the old man. “While you are asleep, your consciousness is sent to another reality called the Other Place. There you get to live another life. A life where you can make all the mistakes you need to in order to achieve true wisdom. When your time is done, or all your lessons have been learned, you return to Eden.” He smiled. “At that point, you have passed through Transition and can enter the government, military or Senate administration at the highest level.”

  The twins were still staring at each other, their eyes speaking their thoughts. But it was all right, old people did get like that. Something called doe-mention.

  “You won’t have to do that,” Michael added, seeing the way the thing was going. “At least not before we complete your special training.”

  Special training. That was always a bad thing.

  “The Other Place the Leader spoke of,” Michael continued, ignoring the doubting looks, “is a reality constantly under threat from forces that would do us harm.”

  Anella frowned as a question formed, but she cut it off.

  “Go on,” said the old man softly.

  “It’s just…” She took a breath. “If this… Other Place, is just a dream, then how can anybody threaten it?”

  Good question.

  “If it was simply a dream, then you are right,” the old man said. “But it is not a dream, it is another reality created by the Architects of all things, at the very beginning of time.” He could see that wasn’t working. “It is a real place. A place of learning for our young people. People like you. There are many Other Places that provide environments where specific lessons can be learned.”

  Okay, yes, they could see that. Like different classes in school.

  “The last place, the one from which transitioners graduate, is called Earth by those who complete their training there.” He nodded as he saw them getting it. “This is the one the evil forces would occupy. If they ever take this Earth reality, then they would be able to influence all transitioners who have completed their tour. It would be the end of us.”

  “And this place is under threat now?” Woe asked, still not completely convinced.

  “It is always under threat,” said Michael firmly. “Which is why we prepare. Why we hold the Games. To find special young people to be trained to defend it, and us.”

  The twins shifted uneasily on the hard seats.

  “And we passed?” Anella asked doubtfully.

  “You certainly show promise,” the old man said. He waved a hand and chuckled. “A bit undisciplined, but I’d say effective. Wouldn’t you?” He raised an eyebrow and looked at Michael.

  “Possibly,” Michael said, returning to his desk. “We still have an arena full of people frozen in time… and wrapped in weeds.” He fixed Anella with a long look.

  “Zeffsena will sort that out,” said the old man. “Nobody will remember anything. Except having a great time at the Games.”

  “And us?” asked Woe, getting that old bad feeling again.

  “We shall see,” Michael said, taking a little bell from his desk and tinkling it gently.

  A hidden door in the panelling opened, and a fat, greasy-skinned little man waddled into the room, his eyes downcast. Far too humble to be in the presence of such august beings.

  “Obadiah will show you out,” said Michael, shifting his attention to the maps on his desk.

  The twins stood slowly, confused.

  “What will happen to us?” Woe said, self-preservation having come back from its outing.

  “Oh,” said Michael, without looking up. “Nothing. At least not yet. We’ll be in touch.”

  The old man smiled the warm smile again, and everything was just fine.

  As the door closed behind the twins, the Magnus Caseus turned slowly to his Supreme Commander, took a long breath, and asked the question he already knew the answer to. “Are the Norsemen coming?”

  Michael looked up from the maps and at his leader, and nodded slowly. “Yes,” he said in a hushed tone. “The Norsemen are coming.”

 
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