United We Stand

Entry by: Finnbar

5th September 2017
The heat under the dome was oppressive, and sweat dripped from Alejandra’s forehead as she waited for the umpire’s whistle. The whistle would sound, the winches would lift the barricade, and the blood would flow. Like the last time, and the time before that. But this time it was noon they awaited, and she could smell the sheen of sweat accumulating under Abigail’s leathers to her left, feel the heat radiating from Hugo’s bare arms on her right.
As always, before the fight, her thoughts were troubled and strange. When they won the first fight, the crowd had bayed for blood, but Hugo showed mercy. They’d been flogged for that afterwards, in the cage below the dome. Hugo hadn’t shown mercy the second time. Alejandra could still feel the changing resistance as her short sword pierced the throat of the blonde girl, helpless and kneeling before her. She closed her eyes against the thought, tried to clear her mind.
“Alex! Focus.” When Hugo whispered it was harder to detect the high voice, unsuited to his dense frame. She opened again.
If they won, would Hugo show mercy? Had he thought the flogging more terrible, or the sawing off of heads, the vicious cheers of the thousand spectators?
And if they lost, what mercy could they expect? What had they a right to?
She looked at the sky. The sun almost directly above now, the little ring of perfect blue around it, and the yellow-orange haze stretching to the horizon in all directions. That blue had been the whole sky once, before The End. If they won today she would ask for inks and paper, she would draw the time before humanity’s dregs fought in the radioactive dust of its former glory.
There was a long, sharp blast from the whistle, a roar from the crowd, and a deep groan from the winch chains as they protested the strain of lifting the barrier. Alejandra checked the strap on her hide buckler and pulled down the half-visor on her helmet. Her sword flashed in the sun as she pulled it from the scabbard, glorious and shining.

Not long after, perhaps an hour though she had no way of knowing, her hands shook as she washed down the sword. She’d opened a man’s guts with it, and the stink of his blood, shit and bile had to be washed out of the leather handle unless she wanted to smell it forever. The heat had gotten worse, far worse, when the fighting started. That had saved them in the end, Hugo’s insistence that the three of them carry water flasks.
When the barrier went up, all seven of the enemy burst through at once, swinging maces and clubs, hoping for a quick victory. That shattered their front line. Alejandra rolled away, and Hugo and Abigail ran. The other four didn’t react so quickly. Big Axel managed to take two of them down with his spear before they caved his head in. The other were surrounded and clubbed to a pulp in moments. Then began a long, slow manoeuvring game around the dome. With lighter weapons and less armour, Alejandra’s friends didn’t dare engage. They retreated, and when they were surrounded they parried and slashed and ran, drawing blood from a dozen cuts, drinking from their flasks.
Eventually the enemy began to shed armour, but by then the sun had done its work. Slow reactions and weakened limbs meant no time to block a quick thrust, and no armour meant those thrusts were fatal. It was the last man’s guts she was now using to turn the water in her basin a sickly brown-red.
A wave of dizziness swept over her and she leant forwards, steadying herself on the basin and drawing big gasping breaths. When she opened her eyes the girl who stared back from the water didn’t look like her. Drawn around the eyes. Dried clumps of spattered flesh in her tangle of hair. Little scar like a question mark on her cheek.
She sobbed then, and vomited more than once. Wretched and hot and cold and shaking, she told herself that it would be okay. There was only one team left, only one fight remaining, and she was a survivor, like her mama had been.

In the month’s wait until the next time they entered the dome, she begged and pleaded, waited patiently and bribed with her body, and eventually she got her inks and her paper. Sitting in her three steps by three cell, cross legged, she re-made the world that had been, drawing with her fingertips the way she would with charcoal.
The first image she made was a black figure, standing on black ground, staring up at a deep, deep blue sky that stretched out forever. She showed it to Abigail and Hugo after their training the day before the fight. Abigail snorted derisively and asked why she hadn’t used her whore mouth to get them extra food before storming away, but to Alejandra’s surprise Hugo took a seat beside her and spoke to her about the picture, complementing her finger strokes and the sense of scale the figure gave. He began retying the bandage on the stump of the last two fingers on his left hand and asked “where did you learn to do that?”
“From my mama.”
“And where did she learn?”
Alejandra shrugged, she’d never thought about it, it was just something mama had known.

The next time they waited for the barricade to lift, it was nearly midnight, and the dome was lit by flaring torches. There were only the three of them this time, no other fighters had been brought to join them. She could only guess the enemy was similarly depleted. Maybe this led to more tension for the crowd.
Abigail took a small step closer to her “We’re fucked.”
“I spoke to one of the guards this morning. There’s still six of them.”
“Six?” That was horrible odds, and they had no midday heat to aid them now. “What do we do?”
Abigail shrugged “Die like squealing pigs I guess.”
Alejandra didn’t want to die. She would fight, she would run, she would beg for mercy. Anything. She wished she had Abigail’s uncaring courage.
The umpire stood up at his podium. This was it. The whistle hung from a cord around his neck. This was maybe her final few seconds of breathing, of feeling the bright young blood pump life and vitality around her veins. She took a deep breath, trying to steel herself.
“People of El Solitario, the High Culter will address you know.”
From the shadows behind him unfolded the gaunt figure of the High Culter. White robed, head shaven, eyes burning with zeal, he was the very image of the culters. The umpire backed away and the High Culter stood surveying the crowd before he spoke. “People. People.” His voice was cracked clay, dry and hard and brittle “You are the word and the world. You are the remnant, the strain, the last descendants of the broken world that was, remade by fire into our paradise!” this last word was a thundering crescendo.
He gestured down into the dome, towards Alejandra, then swept his hand to the other side. “And this. This, though you knew it not, and nor did they, has been The Trial!”
Hugo’s breath caught beside her. Could it be? The Trial, the culters had always taught, would come from the skies, brought about a great storm. This was a cage fight, a death match. The largest tournament heard of, for sure, the most elaborate, but surely no different for all that. She dared say nothing.
“Warriors! Lay down your weapons.”
Abigail quietly growled “not a fucking chance” but Hugo gestured and embedded his long knives in the dirt. Alejandra took of her belt and laid the scabbard on the ground, rested the buckler beside it and, after a moment’s hesitation, pulled the knife out of her boot to lay it on the little pile.
When they’d finished doors opened on all sides of the cage, and culters poured out. More than she’d ever seen at once, more than she’d known existed. White robes flowing, heads gleaming in the torchlight. They flowed around the three, carrying away the weapons, stripping off the armour, and finally taking tiny scissors and cutting away their clothes, so that when they fell back Alejandra had to stop herself from covering her flesh.
A signal was given and the chains protested once again. The barricade creaked upwards. And there were the six. Four men, one woman, and a girl younger than herself, barely out of her teens. All naked. All staring, shocked, unsure how to act.
One of the culters, she couldn’t tell if it was male or female, approached and whispered in her ear “You must choose first.”
“Choose?” and she realised. The choice was not so difficult; two of the men were hulking monsters; one brutally emaciated, with a terrible glint in his eyes; the last a dark-skinned boy, with curtains of dark hair that hung to each side of his face. He cast his eyes down when she looked at him, and when she approached and placed a hand on his chest, he whispered that his name was Cain.
It was all over soon afterwards. Abigail picked the bigger of the hulks, Hugo the girl. Then the smaller hulk and the man with the eyes were each given a knife, and when the man with the eyes had opened the hulk’s throat, he took the woman by the arm.

Cain was hanging the ink painting she had finished the night before the fight on the wall next to the others. Most of her paintings had been permitted because of their melancholic tone. Alejandra cradled the bulge in front as she entered the room; the purpose of The Trial, society’s tribute The End. Cain looked up at her and smiled, then quickly supressed it. Smiling, of course, was not permitted.
There had been laughter in the beginning, when she’d first discovered the pregnancy. But that had come to a brutal end when Abigail and her huge partner were carried in, chests cut open and hearts removed, to remind them of the price of happiness.
The old world had been a happy one, and it had fallen, and failed, and died in fire. This world could not afford happiness.
She looked at Cain and wondered again if it might be better to ask him to strangle her in her sleep. She could scarcely think of a crueller fate for their son, than to come into the world and be raised by them together, to be the Saddest Boy in the World.