Damen emerged onto the sands of the coliseum and breathed heavily.
He tried not to breathe too deeply in the holding cell near the entrance, where the air was thick with chalis. He had heard one of the other men say that the reason the guards soaked the air with chalis was to cover the stench of men losing control of their bowels in fear as they heard the screams from above and awaited their turn in the arena. That could have been true, though it did not accomplish the desired goal very well, the chalis mingling with the other nauseating scents.
Damen suspected, rather, that the chalis contributed to the savagery of the entertainment. Some of the men inhaled deeply, trying to take any escape from the reality of their situation, any excuse for what they did to each other in the arena. But Damen tried to avoid the smoke, and then he emerged onto the sands blinking into the light and catching his breath.
It was his sixteenth bout on the sands; he was becoming something of a favorite amongst the crowds for his predictable victories. He had been matched, at first, with several men who did not rival his skill with weapons, though after his easy victories he was then upgraded to face some wild animals. He fought a lion with only a dagger. They gave him a sword for the match against three hyenas, though the laughter of the animals mingled with the jeering of the crowd to unnerve him in ways that facing other men did not. Then he and four other prisoners were given spears and faced against an enormous beast he had heard one of the guards call a rhinoceros. The horned demon had apparently been brought by ship to face his demise in the coliseum arena, which gave him something in common with Damen, though Damen saw no sympathy in the beast’s eyes as he attempted to gore Damen on the field.
As the season changed and the weather began to cool it was back to men again, though larger men, brutes who were matched against Damen because they were considered to be equal in skill, and the crowd ate nuts and dried fruit slices as they watched Damen and the men hack at each other until one of them lay still on the sands.
It was a pleasant day for a visit to the coliseum, Damen supposed. The weather was warm in the sun but not unpleasantly so. If he had been one of the men or women living on the border of Vere and Akielos and had ventured to the coliseum for a day of entertainments and finger foods and socializing with his friends he would have likely said the day was beautiful. Instead, he was one of the men who were kept in filth and darkness underneath the coliseum, and the arena was the only time he saw the sunlight, and it was never beautiful.
His eyes accustomed to the light, and he scanned the sands for his opponent. It was a man. He was unarmed, as Damen was unarmed, so they were evenly matched in that regard, though as Damen took stock of his opponent he was not certain they were evenly matched in other ways. The other man was shorter than Damen by at least half a head, and slighter in build, probably at least a stone lighter than Damen. He was fair-skinned and his skin glistened as though he’d been rubbed with oil, and Damen ground his teeth together.
Veretians had a taste for sex along with their bloodsport. Damen thought that they had given up on him, after he’d failed to fuck on command after defeating the first men he’d been faced against in the ring, but here he was again, naked and weaponless, pitted against a youth likely half-incoherent with a large dose of chalis.
He walked across the sands slowly. If he did nothing, the crowds became restless, and if their entertainment refused to fight – or to fuck, he supposed – then they eventually began to throw pieces of fruit and finally rocks. Damen had no interest in killing wild beasts or fellow prisoners, but he preferred fighting to being stoned to death. While he could not do nothing, he could sometimes draw out the early part of the fight, and then speed the later part of it, when it was more merciful to simply end it.
The other man was new to the arena. Damen could tell because his skin wasn’t marked. He didn’t have any scars or bruises that would have marked him as a survivor of earlier bouts. He was fit, lightly muscled, so he was not a clerk or a merchant, but neither did he have the musculature of a laborer or a soldier. A noble, perhaps, with time for sport but no need for extreme physical exertion, and while that might explain his body, that gave Damen no clues as to what had landed this man in prison and now upon the sands.
Having assessed what he could of his opponent, Damen was contemplating his first move when the other man attacked. That was a slight surprise, but Damen was pleased; it was easier to fight an opponent who fought back, and terrible to fight one who cowered in defeat.
Neither of them had weapons, so their hands scrambled for purchase on each other’s bodies. Damen got hold of the man’s ear, though he couldn’t manage to get his other hand around, and so he could pull the man’s head back at an uncomfortable angle but could not do any serious damage.
They parted, took a few steps back from each other to assess again and to draw out the suspense, and then intersected again, and a third time, each time parting to great excitement amongst the audience but to little progress in the fight. They were more evenly matched then Damen’s first impression, but he was observing something about the way the other man moved, about how he was very deliberate in how he brought their bodies together, in what moves he took and what moves he did not take. It was not that he was slow, or unskilled, since Damen had seen otherwise, but there was an opening that he missed, and then, when Damen deliberately left a second one to see what happened, he failed to take it again.
So the fourth time their bodies came together, Damen sought to restrain rather than to injure, and when he had caught the other man in a hold he spoke Veretian in a low voice intended only to be between him and his opponent. “Why are you throwing the match?”
Damen’s hold of the man’s head had left the man’s left arm free, which he used to clout Damen hard over Damen’s ear, and Damen’s hold loosened reflexively as Damen grunted.
“Why are you trying to kill me, you imbecile,” said the other man. The man spoke in Akielon, which was another surprise, since he was not Akielon in appearance.
The man did not use the advantage he’d had of clouting Damen to escape his hold, which was another argument in Damen’s head that the man was deliberately throwing the match, but it did make it easier for them to speak to each other discretely.
“That is what we do in the arena,” said Damen, switching to speak Akielon. “You are Veretian; you should understand it.”
The man bit Damen’s arm, and this time when Damen’s hold loosened again he did slip free, and they eyed each other warily. “The arena is for entertainment,” the man said. “It does not always end in death.”
“I don’t fuck on command,” said Damen.
“You will,” said the man, “Because I have a plan to escape this coliseum, and it does not involve being killed by the one prudish barbarian who would rather kill me than bend me over.” The man punctuated this announcement by throwing a handful of sand into Damen’s face, which generated great excitement amongst the audience. Damen bit off a curse, blinking furiously and wiping at his face with his wrist.
The man had used his distraction to approach behind him, and he tackled Damen from behind, and they were wrestling once again. Damen evaluated the man’s skills now against the goal of seduction, rather than victory, and the man’s choices made more sense, the way he sometimes moved up against Damen rather than away from him, the way he presented himself for display, trying to ensure that the audience had sex on their minds.
The audience played a role in the direction that each bout took, calling out their preferences, crude suggestions for the fighters, promises of rewards if certain actions were taken. They would sometimes chant in unison about whether they wished for a particular bout to end in a fight or in sex, or they might shout for mercy for a particularly popular fighter, or for death, if they had turned against one of the participants. Damen usually ignored them, focusing his attention on his opponent, on what was happening to him in the arena. But his opponent was clearly dividing his attention between Damen and the audience, which gave Damen a slight advantage.
“What’s your name?” said Damen. He had caught one of the man’s hands, and they were playing a strange game of cat and mouse as Damen used his left hand to slide down the man’s left arm in an attempt to capture his other wrist as well.
“That is so far from relevant right now,” said the man, shifting beneath him, and Damen attempted to rearrange his weight to get a better grip.
“I don’t have sex with men whose names I don’t know,” said Damen.
“Get over these quaint barbarian habits,” said the man. Damen caught the man’s left wrist, finally, and drew it above the man’s head so he could hold both wrists in one of his hands.
“Tell me your name,” said Damen. “Tell me who you are.”
“I could tell you I was Aleron himself,” said the man.
Damen had a knee in the other man’s groin; he applied pressure warningly and squeezed the man’s wrists tighter, feeling the bones beneath his fingers. “I know Aleron is dead.”
“So you’re not entirely ignorant,” said the man.
“If I fuck you, will you be quiet,” said Damen.
The man gave a choked-off, bitter laugh, turning his head to the side. It was a poor move, revealing the vulnerable line of his neck, but it made Damen realize he was starting to think of the body under him as a man, rather than as an opponent. And perhaps that was what the man intended, and it was not a poor move at all. Perhaps it was actually the perfect move, except that Damen was still measuring this man against a different pattern.
Damen realized that he had had several long moments now where he likely could have ended this, and that he hadn’t. He admitted to himself that he was regarding the man’s face and body now in a more physical way, that he was thinking about practicalities such as needing to flip the man over, and about how he could do that without loosing his grip on his wrists. He realized that he was aroused.
He became aware that the crowd was chanting, shouting at him to take the other man, jeering suggestions, urging him to take him quickly, slowly, hard and deep. Damen wondered if perhaps he had inhaled more of the chalis than he had thought.
Damen rolled them both to the side suddenly, both making his move to change positions as well as dodging a rock thrown by an impatient audience member, and amidst the movement the man shifted and got on to his hands and knees, scrambling away from Damen across the sands. The crowd’s cheers expressed their excitement at this unexpected escape. But Damen caught his hand around the man’s ankle, and he narrowly avoided being kicked in the head as he dragged the man back across the sand towards him. The man’s fingers trailed through the sand for purchase, leaving small furrows behind them like plows in the field.
Damen wrestled the man under him, somehow acutely aware of the jeering in the stands and the feel of the man's skin against his, with a fine layer of sand-coated oil in between, so that they scraped at each other as they moved against each other. He got hold of the man's wrists again, covering the other man's body with his own and using his weight advantage to keep the other man from bucking him off. He considered how to position himself without the use of one of his hands, trying to separate the man's thighs using only one of his own knees, and he found the man cooperative in a subtle way, as though his defiance were playing to the crowd.
"I am not going to tell you my name," said the man, hissing as Damen distributed his weight to press the man's head toward the sands and his hips up toward Damen's own. "Get on with it."
Through some amount of inelegant squirming, Damen managed to find the right position. The man had been prepared with oil, as Damen himself had been each time he was led to the arena, and Damen could feel himself sliding in.
He was struck suddenly by a fruit from someone in the crowd, the red-skinned fruit bouncing off his shoulder, the bite marks from whoever had been eating it before it was thrown becoming coated with wet sand as it rolled and slowed to a stop. Damen lost his balance in the distraction, flinging an arm up to shield himself from the projectile he'd spotted out of the corner of his eye, and in losing his balance he managed to shift his weight forward in a way that drove him surprisingly deep into the man beneath him. They each grunted in surprise, and Damen caught his weight on both of his hands again and fought a completely inappropriate urge to ask the other man if he was all right.
He focused his attention on the man beneath him, feeling somehow as though this were going to be the first bout in the arena that Damen himself lost. It was only a matter of time, after all. Fighters on the sands did not live to be old men. Even the best only lasted a matter of months before some injury or accident meant another man had a second of advantage, and one second was all that it might take, some days.
He had not had sex since he had been captured, and he had never had sex like this. This was not even like sex; it was just another kind of fighting, and a kind that Damen was not as good at.
But parts of him--the part enclosed in the oiled warmth of the other man's body and anxious for movement--seemed convinced that this was sex, and Damen succumbed to the urge of his body and found a rhythm, purposefully keeping his own rhythm separate from the chanting of the crowd so he could separate himself from the bloodthirsty horde if only in his own mind.
He finished, jerking helplessly as he spilled, and then he pulled out and rose to his feet once again, blinking out at the crowds and feeling as though he had just emerged from the darkness. The other man stayed on the sands, just as the men usually did when Damen was finished with them in the arena, and Damen found himself looking back to assure himself once again that there was no blood spilling out in red streaks across the arena.
The officiants of the match came out of the gated corners of the arena, and Damen told himself for the sixteenth time that it was pointless to steal one of their shields and swords, for even if he could take the four of them that approached -- which he thought he probably could -- there was still no escape from the ring, from the other soldiers who would follow after them, and from the rocks of the crowd. He wondered what the other man's plan for escape was.
Damen was awarded an emerald as a prize for his performance, which was ridiculous, as no fighter in the arena had any use for an emerald. He would have considered one of the red fruits that the audience was eating a better prize than the gem, since he had had nothing besides tough meat and gruel since being captured. There was nothing an arena fighter could buy with an emerald, which meant that none of the fighters protested very much when they were inevitably relieved of their prizes by one of the guards several minutes after receiving it, as they were thrown back into their cells.
Damen allowed the officiants to usher him off toward the lowering platform, walking that direction willingly, though some of the officiants liked to poke at the fighters with their spears even when they cooperated, with the instinct of a coward to poke at those whom he knows cannot fight back.
Damen was almost surprised, however, to find that one of the officiants was not herding him off toward the platform but had instead focused his attention on the other man, who was allowing himself to be half-dragged, half walked to the platform as well. Damen watched him carefully. The other man was not injured, so this must all be part of the performance, the seduction that saved him from being killed, and the feigned-vulnerability that allowed him to be carried alive out of the arena.
Below the coliseum Damen was relieved of his emerald by a smug-looking guard wearing a helmet with a crest, and then tossed into a cell. It wasn't the cell he'd been in before, but it was just the same. Stone floor covered with a smattering of not-too-fresh straw, a bowl that might be filled with food or water if the guards felt inclined once a day. There were no windows, no light save what reflected through the stone hallway through the metal bars across the grate. What was different, however, was that his opponent was tossed in after him, and Damen looked up in surprise to see the same crested guard sneering at him. "Since you enjoy each other so much," said the guard, and then he left, his footsteps echoing back down the hall, out to watch the next match.
The other man rose up slightly from where he had been thrown, taking a seated position, and then, with a look of distaste on his face, shifted his weight uncomfortably until he balanced into a lounging position. Damen watched him with interest. “So,” said Damen, adopting a relaxed tone he might have used to ask his father after the day’s hunt at dinner. “Is everything progressing according to your plan?”
The man glared at him, pursed his lips tightly together, and said, “Yes. Be silent.” Damen breathed out through his nose, huffs of air that quietly expressed his disbelief and amusement, but there was not really much else to say, so he simply watched the other man carefully not look at Damen, and waited.
The fights progressed on through the afternoon, and then towards the close of the day they could hear the dispersal of the crowds through the benches and the stairs, the background noise of voices decreasing in volume until the noises left were the just the scattering of rats in the empty cell next to them.
A different guard came in the evening with food, filling the bowl with gruel and leaving also a separate pitcher of water. The other man made no move toward the food, so Damen carefully ate half of the gruel and drank half of the water, and then offered the bowl to his cellmate. The man waved it away with a dismissive gesture, so Damen ate the second half of the food as well. The man must be confident in his plan if he refused food, or else new to the arena and foolish. The crested guard returned through his rounds again and took back the empty bowl and the pitcher, and he stopped in front of the grate at their cell with an interested unpleasant expression on his face. He glanced at Damen, dismissed him with his eyes, and then focused his attention on Damen’s cellmate sitting on the other side of the cell.
“Hey sweetheart,” said the guard. The other man did not look up. “Come here and show me if you’re as good with your mouth as you looked in the arena.”
Damen looked back and forth between the guard, who was armed, and the other man, who was ignoring him. “Is this part of the plan?” said Damen. The guard had spoke in Veretian, so Damen spoke to the other man in Akielon.
“Fuck off,” said the other man to Damen, still resolutely ignoring the guard.
Damen stood up, walking over toward the grate. He was taller than the guard, even with the crested helmet. “He prefers me,” said Damen, in Veretian now. “If you want him, you’ll have to impress him in the arena first.”
The guard spat in his face, which Damen ignored, and they were saved from what might have happened next by some kind of commotion that drew the guard’s attention down the hall.
The commotion turned out to be a Veretian noblewoman. She emerged down the hall, looking distastefully at the grime on the floor and placing each silken slippered foot carefully. She stopped in front of their cell a few moments later, and announced, “Yes, these two. Hurry.”
Damen and the other man were manacled and prodded out of their cell and down the hall into a wagon. Money exchanged hands between the woman’s manservant and the guards. Damen had heard talk amongst the prisoners that some of the men were loaned out as though the arena were a brothel as well as a prison, if they caught the interest of someone with a taste for danger and enough money to entice the guards to bother. “Give the nice lady a good show,” said the crested guard as he bolted them in to the back of the wagon. “No biting, sweetheart,” he said to the other man, displaying his teeth and making a crude gesture with his hands.
“The lady might care for that,” said the other man in return, and the guard laughed as the wagon pulled away into the night.
Damen might have asked a question, such as whether this too was part of the plan, but the other man’s eyes caught his and narrowed, and Damen kept silent as the wagon drove off. They were not heading toward the city proper, but out into the desert. Damen could tell by the sounds that surrounded the road, and the quality of the road was decreasing as they became further away.
After a time the wagon stopped. The other man stood up, and moved over to the bolted door, and after a moment the door opened, and the lady’s manservant gestured for them to step out into the night. The other man went out first, and Damen stepped out after, taking in their situation.
They were at a point where the road faded into merely a path in the desert, and the only people in sight were the lady, her manservant, and a groom who was holding the reins on two horses. The other man held out his manacled hands to the manservant, who produced a key and freed the man’s wrists, and then the man gestured that the manservant should do the same to Damen. Damen flexed his wrists gratefully once they were free and nodded his thanks.
“There are two horses,” said the other man to the noblewoman.
“There are two of you,” said the noblewoman, pointing at Damen. The other man frowned at him as though Damen were a complication in his plan, but then he nodded.
“This will do,” the other man said.
“I should hope so,” said the noblewoman. “You have taught me to never bet against you at cards again, you are entirely unfair in collecting upon your wagers.”
“It doesn’t seem as though I’ll be playing cards again any time soon,” said the man, inspecting the horses and taking the reins from the groom.
“What are you going to do?” asked the noblewoman, nodding at the groom to join her manservant at the front of the carriage that led the wagon.
“Best if you don’t know,” said the man, leading the horses toward Damen and handing him the reins to one of the animals.
“All right,” said the woman. “I’m back to make tearful explanations about the tragic demise of the gladiators who tried to escape my private entertainments. Torn apart by my dogs, very gruesome.”
The other man nodded, and the noblewoman returned into her carriage, and the carriage and the wagon turned around the direction from which they had come and left. Damen and the other man stood for long minutes and watched it disappear around a bend in the road.
Finally, when the jangling of the carriage axle was lost in the desert wind, Damen turned to the horse whose reins he was holding. He patted the beast on the head, and then swung himself into the saddle.
The other man mounted the second horse next to him, though he settled himself into the saddle more gingerly.
“Can you ride?” said Damen, fighting to keep a smile off his lips, and enjoying this new freedom.
The other man glared at him yet again. “I could have left you to rot in that coliseum,” he said.
“It seems it was more the woman’s doing than yours,” said Damen mildly. “But thank you. I appreciate my freedom more than anything, and though I have just been warned by your woman friend against owing you a favor, I must admit that if there is something I can do for you, you have earned it.”
The man turned his head to look at Damen, a somewhat disbelieving look on his face. “We are even,” he said after a moment, and Damen nodded.
Damen was taking stock of the horizon, and when he recognized the outline of the mountain to the west, he laughed aloud to himself, giddy with the joy of being out of the arena.
The other man was also looking around, but did not seem to be observing anything he found familiar. “You must have been hit too many times on the head,” said the man.
Damen smiled broadly.
“We have nothing,” said the other man. “We are in the middle of nowhere, in the desert with no water, and we have less than five hours until the sun rises, and when the sun comes to its peak it burns the flesh off of men alive, and you are laughing.”
“We have two horses,” said Damen, “We are near the Losseil oasis, which is an area where I have gone hunting, and there are caves no more than three hours to the west of us where we can take shelter.”
The other man looked at him evenly. “Perhaps it would be advantageous for us to throw our fortunes in together.”
Damen turned his horse toward the west and started the animal walking in that direction, laughing yet again as the other man did the same a few steps behind. “I don’t know,” said Damen. “You still have not told me your name.”