The Tournament 08: The Beginningbymadam_noe©
Copyright Nora Quick 2012.
As always, I welcomecomments and feedback!
Morrigan breathed in the air deeply, and drank in the stench of death. Women, war, blood; these things were her domain, but death was her buffet. This tiny village had fought off a Saxon incursion and death was all around. She had been the one to decide who would die, but this day she sought a living warrior.
"I seek Branna," she told the smith.
When he realized it was a goddess who addressed him he dropped his eyes and bowed his head. Pointing to the cottage at the end of the lane by the cliffs, he trembled. The fear made Morrigan smile and she tossed a basked to his feet, conjured by her magic. In it was bread and fish, more valuable to her people than gold.
The cottage was small, tiny in fact, and run down compared to its neighbors. Morrigan parted the oiled leather curtains that served as a door and entered without knocking. "Branna."
The woman whirled about, her short curved sword naked in her hand. "My goddess!" The sword dropped as did the warrior to her knees. From her name the warrior should have had hair as black as Morrigan's, but hers was reddish brown, a deep color like blood on leather. It complemented the blue tattoo that covered the left half of her body, telling the tale of her story and covered in markings to seek protection from the gods.
"Rise and let me look at you, child." The young woman did and Morrigan noted she was tall, strong, and surprisingly beautiful. The most successful warriors, male or female, were usually the ones with no looks to worry about. "They say you killed fifty on this day."
"I sent one hundred back to Wyrd!"
Morrigan smiled. Arrogance was a pleasing aspect of a warrior, but it was not the main attraction of this one. "I have come to speak with you about something which you can tell no one."
Branna smiled and sat on one of the two stools at the table, the only furniture aside from the matt of straw for sleeping. "I've the mark of someone in league with the darkness. Don't no one ask for m' help unless they need m' sword arm."
"Swear to me on your blood and life you will not reveal what I am about to say."
Grinning Branna reached for a kitchen knife that was rusted.
"No! You foolish girl, use this!" Morrigan passed her her very own dagger. The rough warrior sliced open her palm and let the blood drip onto Morrigan's hands. "I swear I won't tell no one what we say here."
Sighing Morrigan waved her hand, commanding the blood to stop, and brushed off the other stool before taking it. "In the land of those who would take Albion for their own their gods are dying. A cult has risen believing in one god."
Branna laughed and reached for a pewter pitcher of ale, pouring it into two dirty cups, slamming one before the goddess. Eschewing the filth, Morrigan continued. "It will spread, and our time, we the many gods...we will fade. I cannot tell you everything, but after the time of one god the world will need us once more.
"In Rome they have glorious combat, gladiators they call it, people whofight to the death for honor and glory surrounded by thousands of spectators. There the gods are gathering with their champions to fight for the greatest honor and glory possible. I am seeking my champion. Dozens will fight but eight will remain. At the twilight of humanity those eight will fight to the death. The winner will bring to the earth their gods once more, to save it in its darkest hour."
"Fuck! You want to make me immortal?" Branna was off her stool and reaching for her sword.
Morrigan, bored, tossed out her hand and magic froze the impetuous warrior. "I do not wish to curse you thusly, you fool! The best I could do is make you like us in small part, and that honor will not go to an impetuous illiterate half-wit. No, I will give you a better gift. I will end your ignorance.
"You already know your soul will return after death, but I will give you the gift of memory. You will remember each and every lifetime. You will learn to read, to speak properly, to fight in every way. You will become the greatest warrior ever known. Does that interest you?" With a wave she unfroze the uncouth young woman who turned to stare at her.
"I'm a god. I need a champion. I want my place among the eight. We may all gift our champions with a special power but not immortality. I will give you the next best thing; an immortal soul."
"Why me?" Branna asked her first intelligent question with fear in her eyes.
"Because I may not have a gift for prophecy, but I have a taste for seducing young men with such a talent, be they mortals or delicious blonde gods. I need you. Instead of fighting against Saxons here and the Vikings who will soon come, come with me, and fight for the fate of the world. The entire world! Lands you cannot imagine, cannot even pronounce, these people will depend on you. Come and take your place in the ultimate fight for glory!"
She knew her impassioned speech made her hair flow in unseen wind, and her blue eyes turned black and moved like flapping wings of a Raven. Branna was suitably impressed, and scared, but to her credit, she nodded, and took Morrigan's hand.
Rome was by far the most impressive thing either woman had ever seen. Morrigan had viewed the great pyramids, shining white and capped with gold, had seen all the wonders of the world, but the huge bustling city was something else entirely, the pinnacle of human drive.
Branna for her part was scared by the loud crowds, the strange animals. She flinched at the stares, and the children who reached out to touch her tattoos. Morrigan had tried to warn her to dress well covered, but for a woman used to fighting battles naked, clothing was a hotly debated issue.
Here men and women were not equal as they were in Morrigan's lands, and those who had money and power had more status than Branna had ever seen, but the poor outnumbered the wealthy vastly. That was what was swelling the cult of the one god, it cleaved to the poor. Soon the two emperors would figure it out, Morrigan told her, and convert to the religion of their populace.
That was when her kind would begin to fade. Soon the portals between Earth and her world would close, only to open again at the end of times. Most of the people milling about felt they had already faced the end of the world through the civil wars. Anyone could see the great society was failing, and the time of the world separated into quiet corners with ruled my a multitude of gods was at a close.
"Where do we go?" Branna asked, gaping.
"This way." Morrigan led her towards the giant Coliseum,, and as soon as it came into sight Branna's attention did not waver.
"My gods! I've never seen anything so large! Not even Lugh's wicker man! What gods built this?"
"It was none of their gods, this was people, people like you. When you learn, get educated, this is what you can accomplish." Morrigan did not speak again as they approached the stadium.
She passed a wax seal on paper to guards at an entrance and then lead her protégé into the bowels of the arena. Here it was even more crowded, and many regular gladiators, slaves, were held behind bars as others walked with trainers. The calls and stamps of animals came from below, and Morrigan led her new champion to a small room like a cell. They stood with others and then a large man began to pull some ropes and the floor shook, falling below the hallway.
"What magic is this!?"
Morrigan rolled her eyes. "We're going down to where the others are. This system is used over stairs to prevent slaves and the bestiary from escaping. Welcome to civilization."
No one paid attention to their talk, and Branna knew that no one knew their language. Still she thought it odd no one seemed to take note of how strange it was, until she realized the languages around her were all different.
The strange room lurched onto a hard packed dirt floor and everyone climbed off. Hoisting her bag Branna followed Morrigan down twisting hallways until they reached an end filled with strangeness. There were men and women like her, scarred warriors of many ages in a rumor, carrying weapons, though the men were the greater number. The finely dressed men and women with them were the strangest things she'd ever seen. They wore clothes and helmets she'd never dreamt of, and some of them seemed to have animal parts. One had multiple arms.
Morrigan smiled at her goggling and brought her to one of the small cells with the door open. There Branna recognized the occupants. Neit, a war god, Lugh, the high king who'd become a god of travelers with his three faces, Áine a goddess of love, and Essus, the fertility god with a nasty temper. All were her gods, and she dropped to one knee and bowed her head.
"Oh, do stand up," Neit barked. "Morrigan, really? Of all of our warriors you chose this one?"
"The rules say I shall be the trainer of the true champion. I chose the gift, and ours shall be her reincarnation. In each life she will remember all the past ones. It requires a strong soul, one to bear the madness to come. Branna here has the strongest soul I've ever seen."
"But can she fight?" Áine asked softly.
They all ignored her as Lugh strode forward. "Child do you know what this means? When the world dies you will fight again in a new body to bring us back to save the world. Now you must fight to earn your place among eight out of over one hunddred. Do you have the strength?"
"I live to fight. It is all I've ever known." Branna raised her head but averted her eyes.
Essus came forth and raised her chin. "Look at me child. You fight for this world and ours. You fight for all living creatures. You must fight for a purpose greater than yourself. Can you do that?"
Branna thought long and hard, meeting his dark gaze. "I can." To her shock they believed her and then set to arguing about training. Sighing she set her bag down, pulled out her weapons and began to sharpen them. Perhaps one day she could fight for something greater than herself, but what she'd said earlier had been the truth. She fought because it was all she knew.
Ten days later Branna regretted ever accepting this endeavor. The same day she arrived she'd gone into the arena. Before combat had always been on the field of battle. Often each side would make walls of their shields and spend days approaching one another. Then fighting was on the open plains, but in close quarters in the press of bodies. Here they had a giant space barely filled but the stands were filled with people. The two co-emperors never came, but everyone else in Rome did.
Day by day, as often as six times a day, she fought. Sometimes the arena would be divided and while she fought on the other side criminals were fed to large animals of legend, roaring lions and the like. Sometimes the arena was divided into four or eight parts with fights all around.
At each fight she had won. To a warrior it had first been exciting, killing people she had never dreamed existed. Men and women from lands whispered about only in legend fell, many of them by sheer luck. Branna saw fighting styles she'd never dreamed of, people who flipped from feet to hands and back in the blink of an eye. No matter what it came down to determination and concentration, and those were two things Branna had in spades.
Today was the final battle. Rimming the arena were the gods of those left, thirty-six champions. The entire arena floor was theirs, the guts of the last battle swept away, the blood covered in sawdust. Glancing up she saw Morrigan speaking with a blonde god, Apollo she recognized. It was his prophecy that had brought this all about.
She had wounds on her shoulder, legs, and left arm, and two ribs were cracked. If she lived through the battle slow death was likely possible from poison made by her own body. Feeling weak as they waited for the call she looked to those near her.
One was a strange man. He was short and wide, and wore so much metal armor he appeared to be a god himself. Underneath his skin had an almost yellow cast to it and his eyes were most strange. On her other side stood a tall woman, taller than her, with the white-blond hair of the Saxons, yet she proclaimed she was a land further north. The man was called "Oh-gin" and the woman "Hill-der." They had tried to write their names in the sand and dust but Branna could not read their strange symbols.
"We fight together." This proclamation startled them. "If we work together we have a better chance. If we swear to unite we can earn our places as three of eight. They say the final eight places will be held, that our descendants will be the ones to battle to the death long in the future. We need not be enemies today, and combat is always better survived in numbers."
Oh-gin turned to her. They could speak to one another by the magic of the gods, though when the gods were not near few champions could speak to one another. "Swear to me red-woman that you will not betray me."
Placing a hand over her heart Branna bowed her head. "I swear I will not betray either of you, that I will fight by your side, and give my life to you if so needed."
"She speaks wisely. I offer my life in the service of this bond, though we should aim to live," Hill-der spoke softly.
Oh-gin nodded at last. "I will join with you and fight, our backs together. Honor above all, and victory shall be ours."
The horn blew and suddenly weapons rose. At first it was chaos, thirty-six bodies moving in battle, but this was Branna's domain. She and Hill-der fought back to back with their large reach and Oh-gin kept close. His style was suited to very close combat and so he followed n their wake as they moved from one heated center of battle to the next.
She saw others had formed up in pairs, but none were so effective as the three in the thick fighting. All manner of weapons were present from poison-tipped spears to swords and to weapons she could not name. Soft bronze daggers hit her leather and were repelled, harder iron swords cut her.
Hill-der was quickly bleeding too, and though it slowed him, soon they envied Oh-gin's cover.
Branna broke off to fight a man covered in furs, whirling his sword like a dancer. Over and over she struck him, his fast slashing movements easily deflecting her. He cut at the joint of her arm and blood seeped, her wound aching, but Branna danced back, watching, He had a pattern and when she realized it she waited and then struck. He sword cut through the fur and stabbed him in the back.
"Bran-nah!" Hil-der cried.
She ran back to where the woman fought two men who viciously backed her to a fallen body. One more step and she would fall, Branna realized, and then she did. Branna dove and her sword caught both of theirs. She nearly lost her balance but it gave the other woman time to regain her feet, and together they faced the pair.
The men both had dark skin and strange clothes that matched nothing in all of legend. Branna faced the smaller one clothed only in a skirt and he fought viciously. There was no cruelty in his dark eyes, just the determination of a warrior. Hill-der's opponent wore feathers and had madness in his eyes.
There were only ten left and as she fought Branna saw the Roman champion, the local hero, rush to Hill-der's aid. Oh-gin fought with the Greek but the rest watched, content to let two more fall until their place could be taken.
Suddenly the feathered opponent cut and ran towards Branna and the other. To her shock he stabbed the half-naked man and then turned on her. Branna skittered back and then she saw a woman with a poisoned spear who had stopped fighting. Oh-gin's helmet was off, and the woman aimed for him.
Hild-der and the Roman stared panting. Remembering her oath taken such a short time ago Branna ran as the woman pulled her spear back. Oh-gin!" she cried and dove.
The spear flew just as she took to the air and she knocked Oh-gin aside. The spear hit her arm, slicing it open and she gasped in pain as they tumbled. With a war cry that was strange and menacing the man with the nearly red-skin and feathered clothes dove for the unarmed woman now and slashed up, opening her chest. Branna crumpled atop Oh-gin and the crowd fell silent. Eight remained, but Branna had the poison now and was sure to die.
Gods rushed to the arena as she rolled aside to her back, gasping. Already pain wracked her and she fought to calm her heartbeat, knowing it would sow the poison. u came I many languages, she heard her own calling to drop weapons, and then her pantheon and that of Oh-gin looked down at her.
"If she dies we are left with seven!" Áine cried.
"We need eight or all is forfeit," Essus said.
"We have won our place, we need not this champion. I have one of my own!" Neit crowed.
Morrigan elbowed him aside. "If she dies, she dies as a result of combat, leaving only seven. Essus can you do anything?" The other god shook his head. Suddenly Morrigan;s attention was claimed by Apollo who pulled her aside to whisper.
Oh-gin rose to his feet and argued with his gods in a rapid strange language Branna could not understand. The gods argued back and all the while she felt her body shiver and grow cold with pain. Morrigan returned and knelt, drawing her into her arms. "I am not a goddess of life but we will find a way, Branna. I will not let you die. I am, after a, your god who decides who lives and who dies."
Finally the other pantheon quieted and Oh-gin walked to her with a handsome but bald god behind him. "You fought with honor and kept your vow, Bran-nah. Such bravery will not be forgotten, marked as all the more valiant by your nature as a woman."
She laughed and spat blood from an earlier wound. "You would think by now you would understand women have great honor as well."
The bald one knelt beside her. "I am Hachiman. We owe you a debt for saving our champion. I can remove the poison but it will be painful."
"Do it," Morrigan said. Branna coughed and nodded.
Hachiman moved his robes aside and brought his hands over the wound. As she watched a glowing mass like water formed, and began to spin in a vortex. It seemed as if his soul pulled from the god's body into the vortex until in the spinning glow she saw a face, then another, and finally a third.
They screamed wordlessly as it spun faster and faster, the tail sinking into her wound. Branna screamed at the pain but she felt it pull from her body faster and faster. Time came to a standstill as more crowded around and then it was over.
She felt weak but no longer cold, and sank back against Morrigan, dazed. "Thank you."
He looked shaken as the vortex melted into his body, his soul expanding and filling him again.
"Honor has been restored," Oh-gin said, and turned to leave with the other gods until only Hachiman remained.
He looked to Morrigan. "Her soul-"
"I know." Morrigan rose and brought Branna to her feet, aiding her to stand. All the gods pulled back to reveal the eight. There was the Greek, the Egyptian, the Roman, Branna, the North woman, Oh-gin, another man who resembled Oh-gin, and the feathered man with the madness in his eyes.
"The eight are in place! The gates is closing!" The god Jupiter cried. The crowd cheered, and Branna closed eyes and felt each and every one of her aching wounds, wondering just what madness she had committed herself to..
"Keelin, Keelin, wake up, it's just a nightmare!"
I opened my eyes to see my lover John shaking me. It was still dark and the dream faded. I hated dreaming of past lives, it always seemed so real. "Damn it, sorry, did I hit you?"
"You thrashed a lot. Must have been a doozy."
"There's only three left now. I just have this feeling I will face Tanaka again, just us two. I don't think I can beat him."