Chapter 8

Proving Grounds

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Disclaimer: This story is not meant as 'erotica', but dark adventure-fantasy. It may contain material that sensitive readers might find uncomfortable. Please be advised.

Rising out of the darkness, Leita's first conscious perception was the sensation of someone's hands palpating her shoulder, fingers probing carefully along its contours. A sudden, but brief, lance of pain pulled her even further into awareness and consciousness, as well as caused her to flinch away from the hands.

"Still hurts, I see." Came a man's voice, calm and aloof. "Is the pain lingering?"

Leita shook her head vaguely as she settled back, realizing that she was laying not on sand, but some sort of cot. The shackles on her wrists had also been removed, as well as her tunic, though a thin drape of cloth had been lain across her bosom for modesty's sake. Opening her eyes groggily, she looked up at the veranda roof, realizing she could still hear the sounds of the gladiators sparing nearby. She started to rise back up, but a gentle hand held her in place.

"I'm not finished yet." The man beside her said, his voice soothing, though firm. "You'll be glad for it, I promise. Lingering injuries can fester and turn into far worse things than bruises."

Taking him in a moment, she recognized he as member of the Order of Hermadyne, the healer's guild, his tunic bearing the sigil prominently. His hair neatly trimmed, she could see hints of gray at the temples, his face already showing a few faint lines of age, though there was still a lot of youth there. Though not unappealing, he wasn't especially handsome or striking, almost plain in appearance. However, there was a kindness to his soft eyes that made Leita obey, believing that he earnestly wished to help her.

"You're lucky you didn't do even worse injury to yourself." He said admonishingly as he resumed probing her shoulder. "Resetting a dislocated shoulder isn't something done lightly or carelessly. I've seen good gladiators lose a lot of use of an arm, sometimes permanently, trying to prove some test of toughness."

"I...wasn't actually trying..." Leita muttered, feeling oddly abashed. "I just used that shoulder out of habit."

"Habit?" The healer chuckled. "I hear tell you were a scullery girl before getting served up as a lot. Just how often does that require you to go ramming into someone with a shoulder?"

Leita gave a cautious shrug before answering, a sheepish smile playing at the corners of her mouth. "Well, not people. The house boiler, actually. The hinges were bent a little. You had to shoulder it closed."

Pausing to peer at her, the healer chuckled again after a moment. "In other words, you did a lot more than just sweep ashes and wash floors." He ran his hands down her arm, following the curves of toned muscle there. "You have some real definition here; more than you look like you do."

"I did a lot of climbing too." She offered. "Being so short." In truth, she had done so much climbing because she'd always been naturally strong. She was usually the one called on to shimmy up shelves to reach something or climb up into eaves to clear away cobwebs. That she was so small and light only made her more ideal, as there was less chance of what she was climbing on giving under her weight.

However, her strength hadn't come only from the climbing. She had often spent what free time she had strengthening her body so that chores would be easier and she'd be less worn out by them. It had been something she'd seen some of the male slaves, who were expected to perform much harder labors, doing. When other young girls in the house were struggling to carry a bucket full of water, Leita would be hefting two without being significantly slowed.

Peering at her curiously, amusement on his face, the healer gave a dubious little chuckle. "Well, whatever the reason, you are certainly not as soft as I had expected." He said after a moment, returning his attention to her shoulder. "Likely what kept you from being more seriously injured by Kalder too. I've seen him crack the ribs of men half again your size with a punch."

"Is he...human?" She asked, turning her head to look out towards the pitch where he was currently training with another man, apparently trying to teach him how to better use a spear.

"Once, I think." He replied, looking towards the large man as well. "The tale most often told is that he was cursed, turned partially to stone. Some claim he had it purposefully done to him so he'd be stronger."

Looking back, Leita raised an eyebrow. "So, he really is...part rock?"

"As close as one can get, I think." He replied with a smirk. "He's still made of flesh, but his skin is thicker and harder than most men's is. His muscles are denser too, making him extremely strong. Still, he can be cut like any man and bleeds just the same, though it perhaps takes a little more effort to slice him. The Mistress paid a handsome sum to purchase him just because of that strange affliction he has."

"Because it makes him a stronger fighter?"

"For one, but also because the Mistress has a sense of whimsy." He replied with a sly grin. "He is one of her 'Four Elements', which are the core and leadership of her stable."

Leita looked again out at Kalder, who had just swept the man he was training off his feet and slammed the butt of his own spear into the man's stomach. "The 'Four Elements'." She tasted the title a moment, considering it, before asking. "Colja is one too, I assume?"

"Very astute." The healer said with a nod. "Kalder represents earth and Colja for fire." He pointed towards another man, further down the field, with blue hair and lips. "Myrinus is water, an exile of a sea-faring tribe. They stain their lips and hair in youth to look like that, part of their religion and culture."

Shifting his hand to point elsewhere, he guided Leita's gaze to a fourth gladiator. "Air is represented by Sasinel there. I can't think of a better person to do so either."

Leita stared in fascination at the woman, mesmerized by the sight of the woman. Her skin and hair were almost snow white, though bright blue designs had been tattooed nearly everywhere her flesh was visible. Lean and naturally graceful, she was delicately proportioned and spectacularly beautiful, even from this distance. Though she was too far away to see them properly, Leita felt certain that her eyes and ears would have an exotic shape to them.

"A sidil." She breathed, hardly able to believe that she was seeing one.

"Born in Elsmarro, but unfortunate enough to find herself enslaved while still a child." He said sympathetically. "Tragic enough for one of her race to be put into bondage, but to be sold as a gladiator. Still, most such as her get sold to the slave brothels, so perhaps her story could be worse."

Leita watched the woman going through what seemed almost like a sort of dance, elegant and beautiful in its motions. Only the slim, short rods in her hands betrayed that it was some martial combat form. Her skill with it seemed flawless.

"If she is one of the stable leaders, why is she so far away from everyone else?" Leita asked after a moment, noting that Sasinel wasn't sparring with the others, but some distance off from them.

"She is still fairly new, for one." The healer replied, now firmly tapping at her breastbone, seemingly at random. "Many think only the luck of her appearance makes her one of the 'Elements', thus in a position of authority among them. An opinion that Kalder supports and most listen to Kalder's opinions."

Leita looked back at him. "Is that the only reason? She seems rather skilled to me."

The healer didn't immediately respond, merely tapped a few more spots before grabbing her tunic from a nearby chair and tossing it to her. "Despite how it sometimes seems, the Mistress never does anything frivolously or without reason. Her Four Elements are her pride, she'd not complete it with someone who wasn't worthy to be one. Trust me."

Sitting up and slipping back into the tunic, Leita paused a moment to probe her shoulder herself. "So, is it safe for me to go back?" She asked, glancing towards where Kalder was standing over the man he was training, who was currently on the ground again with blood pouring from his nose.

"Technically, yes, but no one says you have to." The healer replied, putting a hand on her arm in a show of sympathy. "I can have one of—"

Leita swung her feet off the side of the cot and stood, starting back towards the courtyard, but the healer rose quickly with her, his hand catching up her arm, holding it fast. "Did you not hear what I said, girl?" He said insistently. "There's no need for you to get pummeled to the ground again."

She looked back at him, seeing real concern in his face and felt momentarily touched by it. "I apologize, healer, I haven't thanked you or even asked your name." She took a breath, turning more fully towards him. "Thank you for taking care of me."

The healer relaxed, seeming relieved. "You are welcome and my name is name is Einrich. I'm the House Healer, obviously." He gave an almost fatherly smile. "Now, let me fetch—"

"I am Leita, Healer Einrich, slave to Mistress Marlowe and gladiator of House Firebridge." She returned, lowering her head in formal submission. "My place is at training."

Einrich stared at her a moment in shock, realizing that she wanted to return to the pitch. "By the Rod, girl, you're already lucky Kalder didn't break your shoulder instead of just dislocate it. He's been told—" He cut off suddenly, looking stricken.

"He was told to humble me." Leita finished for him. "I overheard. If I don't go back to him, he'll tell the Mistress to make me a houseslave. I have to prove I'm strong enough to be a fighter."

"Would that be so bad?" Einrich asked, looking incredulously at her. "The houseslaves are not treated so poorly here and they most certainly do not face the threat of being crippled or worse in the arena."

Leita glanced back towards the pitch a moment, taking in the gathering of fighters all battering each other with practice weapons. She noted that Colja was standing to one side of the group, watching her with a note of interest. "I was purchased to be a gladiator. My responsibility is to try. I was still chained and unready." Her words came out calmly, almost sedate in their tone. When she looked back to Einrich, she could see the confusion in his face. "I don't want to just be a houseslave. I want to fight."

The healer's posture shifted, as though a revelation had struck him. "You think that you can earn freedom. Cookie put that idea in your head, I wager. I'm afraid she is a special case, my dear. The Mistress doesn't release her gladiators, even if they can no longer fight."

Leita gave him a sad smile. "I have no desire to be free. I wouldn't know what to do with freedom. But I was purchased to fight. Mistress expects me to be a fighter. I would not want to disobey that expectation."

The look on the healer's face was an expression of fear and sympathy, but he sighed, seeming resigned to letting her return. "Then I will wait here for when he sends you back and hope I can set whatever he breaks."

Leita gave him a nod, though the only thing she was afraid of having broken was her will. She just had to prove that she had some sort of potential. Though, as she walked across the green towards the knot of gladiators, she questioned her motives herself, wondering just why she didn't take the easy path and let herself become a houseslave.

Perhaps it was because of the price the Mistress had paid, far more than any scullery girl would be worth. Or perhaps it was just her pride, so inflated from having survived her lot, wanting to show it hadn't just been luck. Or maybe, just maybe, it was the desire to hear the sound of the cheering again, to feel the rush of it all.

"Kalder, it seems you have someone asking for another chance." Colja's words cut across her thoughts, bringing her focus back to the towering grey man she was approaching. He didn't seem to need the aljin to tell him she was approaching, as he'd already turned towards her, leaning on the training spear as she came up.

"You really are a stupid girl." He said venomously as she came to a stop in front of him. "I guess I didn't hit you hard enough."

"I just want a fair chance." She said levelly, her eyes low, respectful. He was a leader of the stable, she would show him respect. "Please."

For a moment, Kalder looked as though he intended to break the spear handle across her head, make sure she didn't get back up. However, he tossed it to her instead, Leita nearly fumbling it in surprise. "Show me then."

For a long moment, she just stared at the practice weapon dumbly, unsure what to do with it. Then she took a breath, closed her eyes, and thought back to Maslo and how he'd set himself when he'd prepared to fight. Placing her feet, she let her knees bend slightly, and took the spear in both hands, trying to improvise how best to hold it.

Kalder said nothing, just looked at her as though she were a child pretending something silly. "Who taught you that?" He said finally.

"No one." She replied. "This was how the other man stood when we fought."

Kalder's eyes narrowed a moment, then turned, calling to a man standing next to one of the racks of practice weapons. "Bring her a sword and shield." He looked back at her, holding his hand out for her to toss the spear back to him. "That's a sword stance, little girl. Trying to use that with a spear will just get you off balance."

The man brought her a wooden shield and sword, both felt heavier than they looked. Again, she tried to recall how Maslo had held himself holding these things, put herself in the pose. Kalder walked around her a moment, slipped the spear shaft down to tap one foot to get her to shift it slightly. "Well, you seem to know how to at least stand like someone who's ready to fight."

He paused, as though seeming to notice for the first time that everyone was standing and watching them. "GET BACK TO PRACTICING!" He bellowed at them, instantly being obeyed. He turned to look at Colja, who was still standing to the side watching with enigmatic interest. "You want the honors?"

"I would not deprive you of your sadism, my friend." The aljin replied with a slight smirk.

Turning back to Leita, Kalder shrugged. "Guess that the last of your luck, little girl. He'd have had some mercy." He paused, considering her a moment. "You want a chance? Then here's my deal. I put you on the ground three times before you can get the better of me and you report to straight to the kitchens."

Leita couldn't help but notice that this sounded less like a deal than a statement of intent, but she gave a nod of agreement. She only had to get the upper hand on him, even if for a moment. She silently prayed that she could manage at least that.

Raising the spear up, Kalder fell instantly into a combat stance, pausing only long enough to take a breath before he came in with a brutal thrust. Leita's instinct was to leap back from the attack, but something else made her step right instead, bringing up the shield. The power of the blow nearly sent her sprawling, but the shield absorbed enough for her keep her footing and stay moving.

Kalder stepped with her, re-angling the spear for another thrust, but Leita managed to repeat her defense, this time with even better effect, deflecting the force of the attack rather than absorbing it. However, the large man instantly spun the haft in his hands bringing the butt around her shield cracking her hard in the belly. The blow took the wind from her and she was unable to react at all when he rotated the weapon back the other way and caught her solidly across the side of head, sending her to ground.

"You're predictable." He grunted, but stepped back to wait for her to collect herself and stand up.

Her whole world seemed to be spinning and shifting colors as she struggled to get back up, but fought to shake it off. She wondered again why she this was important to her. Blowing out a hard breath, she took up her ready stance again, fighting the disorientation.

Kalder came in fast, making a darting thrust to get her to bring up her shield, but stopped the move short and dropped the weapon down, spinning to sweep it across her calves, taking her once again to the ground. "And you're sloppy."

She sat up, taking a moment to let her head settle this time, seeing that Kalder was allowing her to do so. She looked around, found where two others were sparring, one with sword and shield and the other a spear. She tried to focus on them as an anchor to get her senses back. Watched how they moved and how the sword-wielder reacted.

"I'm starting to think you're done." Kalder snapped impatiently, pulling her from her revere. She looked up at him to see he looked ready to end the charade. "Quit now and I'll not send you to the kitchens naked.

Silently, she got back to her feet, slowly fell back into a stance, adjusted her posture a little before settling in. Kalder barely let her prepare before he came at her, spear jabbing in a quick series of strikes. She backed up as he came forward, snapping the shield almost wildly about in an effort to keep the jabs at bay. When he drew back for a heavier thrust, she shifted her stance and prepared her arm.

When the attack came, she folded the arm up and let her shoulder partially brace the shield, the way she'd just watched the other gladiator do it, pivoting slightly so that the spear skidded across the surface and went wide. When Kalder let the inertia of the deflection aid his rotation of the shaft, she snapped the arm back open, putting the shield in the way of the oncoming butt, letting the weaker blow be absorbed.

Instantly, she spun back the other direction, closing back up her arm and raising the shield, correctly anticipating the counterspin of the spear and halting it part-way into the action. More importantly, as she did this, she advanced quickly forward and thrust with her own sword, planting it firmly into Kalder's abdomen. It connected with enough force to make him cough and pause long enough for her to whip it up and around, bringing across his left forearm.

Though the blow wasn't especially powerful, the unexpected move caused Kalder to lose grip with that hand and Leita cocked her left shoulder down, then back up, slamming the shield into the haft of the spear, dislodging it from Kalder's other hand. Suddenly disarmed and surprised, Kalder failed to react in time as she brought the sword back in and into his ribcage. She let out a squeal of fury as the blow landed, a primal utterance that seemed to rise from some deeper part of her.

The sound of the spear hitting the ground seemed to echo across the pitch, mingling with the fading sound of her yelp. Every eye was on her, most looking shocked. None seeming more so than Kalder. Though he seemed barely fazed by her assault, the expression of utter amazement was worth more than seeing him on the ground.

Leita was so pleased with herself that she completely failed to see Kalder's punch coming, planting itself squarely between her eyes and knocking her, once again, back into the dark oblivion of unconsciousness.