The outcome was decided.
The amphitheatre of Ba Roux shook. The many spectators that were crowded together unanimously shouted out the victor’s name and stamped their feet, creating a racket that sounded much like a tidal wave.
While the winner was being bathed in the passionate and boisterous cheers, the one who had received the opposite fate lay motionless besides his feet. Eventually, the loser’s headless body was struck with a hook and dragged away by the hands of two slaves.
The sun was still glaring even though it was near evening. The spectators’ faces were covered with sweat and glittering brightly, as if someone smeared them with oil, and their eyes, too, were sparkling with bloodlust, as they anticipated the next fight to be yet another battle to the death. Whoever just won or lost didn’t stay on their minds for long. It was only the heat of battle that left an everlasting taste, stood in the air, and kept whirling around the arena.
“Do it, kill!”
Today was another success. Because the more virtuous people living in the city, for whom the admission fees were no more than about a child’s weekly allowance, were able to watch the games, over a thousand spectators were gathered.
The next match was a cavalry battle. Both men were armed with spears, emerging from the east and west gates, and crossed each other at a great speed. At the second charge, one of the men got flung off of his mount and, as he scrambled to get up again, the other swiftly jumped off his own horse to give the finishing blow.
Up next were two barely clothed men, who started to grapple each other with their bare hands.
They were sword-slaves, or so-called gladiators. In compensation for doing these public, life-threatening battles, these people were granted a few days of their lives and the minimum amount of food required to get by. Some of them were already born as slaves, some had been thrown into the arena for committing crimes, and there were even those who had personally applied to cast themselves into this living hell.
But if gladiators got well-known enough to become veterans, they received a different kind of popularity from the crowd. One of them, named Shique, was a handsome gladiator who was popular among women and had just won the brawling match. He was strangely pretentious, bowing in a way much like a nobleman would, and notably, shrill voices rose from the crowd.
“Did you see that, brother? Shique just won!” 
It was the voice of a girl yet in the more tender years of age, who was sitting in one of the grandstands among the front row seats. High pillars, which rose from the corners in the left and right, supported a roof that covered the stand. Only those who were able to pay a large sum of money were able to view the match from these special seats.
From the looks of it, the young man resting his chin on his hands next to her, whom she called ‘brother’, seemed to be dissatisfied. With a long cloth wrapped around his head, the ends dangling from both the left and right just like a believer of Badyne, it looked like he was concealing his face from the glances of people around him.
“Ahh, it is as you say,” he said. “The gladiator you had your eye on won. Now, isn’t that enough? Can we hurry and get something to eat? This place is giving me a headache.”
"But it is only beginning, is it not? Did the smell of blood sicken you? You, the successor of the lands of Mephius?"
“Watch your mouth.”
Not at all worried about the youth’s clear jumpiness, the girl gave a fickle laugh.
The next fight had already started, so the young man was forced to stay after all and rested his cheeks on his hands again with a bitter look on his face. How much blood had to be splattered around, and how many sweaty muscles did she have to see before getting tired of it?
He occasionally stole a sidelong glance at the young girl’s white skin and beautiful face. She had an innocence that matched her age, but a strange sensual and mature beauty as well – it was a view much more charming than that of the savage fight below.
Then, after about two battles, a new stage was being set in the arena. One huge stake got established in the centre, and a single woman was fastened to the top. She was a beautiful woman. Purposely made to wear torn clothes, each time she writhed in pain, her breasts and thighs swayed about while whistles came from the heated male audience.
However, the woman was in no position to be bothered with their obscene looks, for at the same time the stake got put up, a big cage with approximately the same height was carried in.
Inside was a raging beast that was roughly seven or eight metres long. Its slimy, green scales were flickering in the sunlight. It was a large dragon. Bred through repeated selective breeding by humans, it was of a variety called ‘Sozos’ that Mephius also used in wars.
Its clenched, humongous teeth, and each of its claws extending from six legs, were just like sharp swords. Probably because it was drugged, it seemed to have a somewhat repressed ferociousness and dulled instincts, but being hit by that bulk would nevertheless cause serious injuries, and it looked like it could blow away the steel cage like a toy.
“Now then! Gathered ladies and gentlemen!”
Suddenly an orator standing on an elevation began to speak over a loudspeaker, eager to finish his speech before the beast broke out.
“Next, is the start of our programme. The great dragons once roamed the earth and have likely established our culture, now they are no more than this bloodthirsty, simple beast we look down on. There is no need to fear. We are the brave souls, the purest of minds, that took over from an era of space voyage. Not even by the dragon’s tusks and claws – not to mention its fearsome, terrible breath! – will we be outdone. Please, take a look at the evidence. Behold the figures of these brave men who challenge this dragon of old, this beast of a terrifying false god!”
From the eastern gate, a single gladiator stepped forward. In the man’s hands, who sported a muscular body, was an iron ball connected to a chain.
The audience’s cheers became even louder, for he was a gladiator who could pride himself in being one of the most famous fighters in Ba Roux. The man was about in his mid-thirties with dark skin, and he responded by waving a hand to the ladies and gentlemen in the audience. Then,
“It’s the Tiger!”
“Look, Iron Tiger Orba!”
A swordsman, also alone, walked out, but from the western gate.
"How eccentric," the young man commented on the steel blue mask that was covering gladiator’s face. As if imitating a tiger, small fangs protruded up from the lips, leaving only a small space for the mouth of this man named Orba underneath. Cut out into two splits were openings where the tiger’s eyes would’ve been, but naturally it was only Orba’s eyes peeking through. And, despite a tiger normally having rounded ears, the mask had pointed ends at both sides instead – it was almost as if horns were coming out from the corners.
However, that was all; he had no other outstanding character features. In comparison with Verne, he had an almost feeble body build, and he only held a simple, common longsword in his hand.
The spectators started ridiculing him, saying,
“Look at his thin body. Just one hit of the ballchain will completely smash him up!”
“They say he took off Meier the Baron’s head at the Arena of Tidan after only two strikes. Let’s see him do the same to our Verne. Go on then!”
“This Iron Tiger Orba,” the girl said, as her cheeks blushed with excitement. “Isn’t this his first appearance in Ba Roux? But he seems to be famous. Do you know of him, brother?”
“How should I know?”
“My, what a cold reply. Fine, if you’re so bored with being here, why don’t we have a little bet on this game? Maybe it’ll end up getting you a little interested.”
“A wager, is it? For what, and how?”
“Simple. Of those two about to fight, who do you expect to win?”
“That’s stupid. How’s that even a bet? Even I know the name of that Verne guy. And his physique is way better. Even an amateur can see that. You're just trying to rip me off, betting on the clear victor yourself, aren't you?”
“My, you’re a difficult customer! But that’s fine. You can just sulk away like that as long as you like. And I even thought of bringing you along so you could have a little distraction. But I got it, I understand – you hate spending time with Ineli. If that’s the case, I will never invite you again, don’t worry!”
The girl stiffly turned away her face, as the young man panickingly stopped resting his chin on his hands.
“W-Wait. I was wrong,” he said. “I’ll bet on that masked swordsman. That’s what you want, right?”
“No. Ineli decided to bet on that swordsman first. You can take Ballchain Verne, brother.”
“Because I like him.”
Even though you can't see his face? – was what the young man was about to say, but he stopped himself in time. He couldn’t afford to displease her even more.
“Now then,” the orator said, raising his voice again. “Will Orba or will Verne take up the role of the hero and set that woman free? Or will these rivals be fighting in vain, as the cage breaks and this poor, beautiful lady ends up in the dragon’s stomach?”
From there on, the two swordsmen would battle, and the winner would rescue the woman – or, as the orator stated, ‘a certain princess from a ruined country’ – from the dragon’s clutches, and also earn a night of love-making. Or so the scene was set out to be.
The two men both stepped forward at the same time. As they approached each other, the lack in Orba’s physique became all the more apparent. Verne spoke in a voice that could be heard by those in the front row seats.
“So, you call yourself a tiger, huh? I’ve heard your name. But, there’s nothing more unreliable than a rumour. You can try to hide your face, but I can see the skin underneath. You’re still young, just a kid.”
Ballchain Verne’s thick lips, in proportion to the rest of him, bended into a smile.
“I’m sure the mask is just a bluff so people won’t make fun of you. You’re not a tiger, you’re just a mangy cur! I’ll teach you what a real man’s battle truly is all about!”
Facing Verne, who was loudly laughing at his shoulders, Orba didn’t reply. Probably assuming his nerves were blown away, Verne gave a sneering look, took up a defensive stance, and slung the ballchain over his shoulder.
There was a pointed signalling voice, but it halfway disappeared into the further increasing sound of the audience’s cheers. In an instant, Verne made his move.
He wielded the iron ballchain with all his strength. At first, the masked swordsman was about to rush in, but, as if panicked by his sheer force, he quickly stepped back. There was a small spark as the iron ball chafed against the mask. It was enough for Verne to take pursuit of the stumbling Orba. The huge iron ball, which was much larger than a human head, approached with the howling of the wind, and Orba continued to avoid it by stepping back.
He rolled over the ground, excessively jumped aside, and finally bustled about by making an evasive gesture – which invited laughter from the spectators.
“Look at that, it seems the swordsman you like can’t get out of a tight spot,” the same young man said. “Or could it be that this fight isn't so fair and square?”
“You think?” the girl said, looking straight ahead as she put a finger to her plump and florid lips. “If that’s so, then why hasn’t the match ended yet?”
“That’s because his opponent keeps pitifully running from place to place.”
“I wonder why Verne can’t corner an opponent who so clumsily keeps running away.”
The young man wanted to say something in return but kept his mouth shut. As he watched, he noticed that Orba wasn’t outright retreating, but kept circling around his opponent while maintaining a fixed distance. And it looked like Verne was no longer able to attack and pursue his opponent so hastily either.
Probably because he lost his temper, Verne put all of his strength into tossing another blow. The iron ball flew past Orba’s shoulder and – although it seemed obvious to the bystanders that this was like a golden opportunity – he only returned a slight thrust with his sword, while once again taking his distance.
“Stop messing around!”
The audience stopped laughing and started jeering down at the arena. Not only at Orba, but also at Verne who didn’t seem able to take down his constantly fleeing opponent.
“You bastard!” Verne howled.
When he tried to rush at Orba diagonally, the girl suddenly raised her voice, “Ah!”, in surprise.
Orba, who had until now only retreated backwards, suddenly started to pitch forward. Stopping in his tracks, Verne, too, took the opportunity to strike another blow.
Orba tilted his body wide to the right, avoiding the iron ball and, as he rotated on his left toe, flashed his sword in a diagonal uppercut. The moment the chain got cut apart, a strange, clear sound echoed throughout the arena, then Orba twisted his body again and swung his sword downward with the force of a thunderbolt.
Verne’s cranium was split in two and the giant collapsed soon after.
“M-Magnificent!” the orator cried.
However, because it had happened so swiftly and came with such an unexpected conclusion, the audience was looking rather flabbergasted. Although the awkward silence wrapped around the arena, the victor didn’t seem to care either way and headed up to the stake, and, borrowing the hands of a number of slaves to lift it from the ground, used his sword to cut the ropes that kept the woman bound.
With a shout of delight, she joyfully clung onto his neck, only to be pushed away with a confused look on her face as Orba immediately started to return to his gate.
The girl in the special seat – she had also been staring agape at the sudden fall of the curtain – slowly began to form her lips into a smile. That gladiator named Orba didn’t seem aware of the audience at all. As if stating the only reason he was here today was to fight, and to kill as he was told.
“He… took out Verne.”
“With one blow.”
After that moment of silence, voices praising Orba began to raise little by little. Now that the mood had grown uneasy for the visitors, slowly the clapping of hands, the awkward stamping of feet, and cheers appropriate for a victor started to fill the stands. Then, almost at the instant the arena had returned to the state it was supposed to be in, the air shook heavily.
It was the roar of the Sozos Dragon.
It might have been the drug wearing off, or an instinctive reaction to the smell of blood, but all of a sudden it started swaying its enormous body from right to left, shattering a portion of its cage. One of the slaves who’d been in the process of towing everything away, was caught and raised from the head by the dragon’s claw. Before he could resist, his torso disappeared into the Sozos’s mouth.
There was the sound of breaking bones. And at the same time as the awful sound of salivated chewing could be heard, the arena grounds were suddenly filled with screams. In the midst of all the fear and panic that rapidly swept over the area, the Sozos rather calmly stretched out its limbs further and emerged from the broken cage.
Being pulled along into the crowd that strived to be the first to escape, the young man from earlier almost fell to the floor. But then, he was pulled along by a hand from the side.
“This way. Hurry!”
It was one of the soldiers who’d been guarding the special seats. As he rattled around with a sword and gun, he tried to bring the young man back inside.
Although he tried to resist, he couldn’t move freely as he kept being jostled by the crowd of people trying to escape. Then, he heard a suspiciously familiar, high-pitched scream. Right in front of the Sozos’s forepaws beyond the dividing wall, was a figure that belonged to no one other than Ineli. The girl had turned a pale colour as she had tumbled over from the gallery, and it looked like she was about to lose consciousness any minute.
The dragon’s long snout opened from top to bottom. As the rows of tusks, similar to sharp pointed swords, opened up, they formed long threads of slaver. The young man was about to involuntarily avert his eyes, when a thin streak of blood spouted from the Sozos’s neck. The gladiator arena’s employed guards had rushed in with guns. However, because they were close to the seats, they could only shoot at point-blank range, and from the way they stood, they hardly had the nerve. While they were conflicted at what to do while it approached, the Sozos turned around quickly and hit them with a single blow of its tail, fully sending several people flying.
The girl had sank down to the floor, her eyes opened wide looking at her surroundings.
Then, from those eyes, she saw.
There was a shadow that ran past the Sozos’s flank like a gust of wind. Just before it came up against the brick wall that divided the seats from the ring, the shadow kicked against it and soared up into the air. A man with a tiger-imitating iron mask jumped into the girl’s sight, the figure of Orba the gladiator landing on top of the Sozos’s head.
Even though she had just witnessed him running up to the Sozos from behind while the dragon was distracted by bullets, she couldn’t suddenly believe it.
Despite Orba’s slim body, his joints and muscles seemed to fortify his arms like steel as he grabbed a firm hold of the dragon’s neck. While further sandwiching its neck between his legs, he held on tight with one arm and, with his other, brought his sword down into the head.
It swung its long tail around and rocked the ground by stamping its feet, but the dragon still struggled, not able to shake off the gladiator. It shook off a second strike. But the third tore through its scales, as tough as iron armour, and pieces of flesh and blood got splattered about. However, the sword broke when it came to the fourth strike, but at that time the other gladiators rushed in.
Receiving a thrown sword from a brown-skinned swordsman, Orba once again raised it for a fifth attack, following the exact same process as earlier, until he fully caved the middle of the blade into the crown of the dragon’s head.
Its golden eyes goggled longingly at the skies. Just before its huge body sunk from the neck, the swordsman had swooped down next to the guest seats.
The girl, still kneeling on the floor, was looking up at him. It was almost as if he came from a tale, for she felt like a princess caught by an evil wizard, and although she fixed her eyes on him with a throbbing heart, of all things, the would-be-hero gladiator continued his walk, completely ignoring her, and nimbly jumped off the dividing wall and back into the ring.
There was still a cloud of chaotic fear hanging over the arena as he showed her his back and took his leave, but rather than drifting the air of a victor, he looked more like a solitary figure that could hardly endure the stares on him.
“A-Are you okay?”
She turned her eyes to the young man she had brought with her, who came running up to her with bated breath, and suddenly got an odd sensation. She had only seen it with a passing glance earlier, but the eyes underneath that swordsman’s mask seemed to closely resemble those of the young man.
And there was yet another man who focused a long look at Orba’s back, surprised for another reason.
“No way, he is alive.”
He wiped the sweat from his slightly slacking chin with the back of his hand. Standing behind the young man’s back - he was also one of the men who’d been at the special seats - he was speaking to himself in wonder as the unique smell of blood drifted about.
“Orba was his name? Two years... Two entire years, huh.”
The gladiator, Orba, staring up at the darkness surrounding him, suddenly murmured those words in his mouth. Although only ‘two years’ into this line of work, it had been full of hardships, blood, and corpses. How many times had he struggled for his life, only to have both his feet chained at the end, spend the night in the slave pens, where his only pastime was to train all morning in order to keep living as a sword-slave? And then there would be another fight.
No one, except Orba himself, expected him to be able to live through more than five battles. Two years ago, when Orba first set foot in the arena, he’d still been fourteen years old. His body had been even thinner than it was now, and he’d hardly been able to handle the weapons.
However, at the moment of truth, he’d survived. He brandished the weapon held in his hands, chosen from one of the few weapons he was able to wield, to the limits of his power. He only knew how to fight by recklessly charging in. As he gained experience, his skill, the thickness of each of his muscle fibres, the mastery of new weapons, as well as the opponent’s corpses he stepped over, increased every time he emerged from another fight.
And so, two years passed. Orba didn’t know whether that was a long or a short time. Sometimes, he thought he was a considerably old person, but he also felt like a youngster at times who still didn’t know anything at all about battles.
Anyway, maybe it simply had to do with the fact, that he had not been blessed with the opportunity to see his own face. Lying face up, he was still wearing the same iron mask he wore in the battle ring. Because it had never been removed those two years, the other sword-slaves belonging to the same Tarkas Gladiatorial Group had no way of knowing his true face.
“Get up, slaves! You hate wakin’ up? Then get ready for your worst day yet!”
When morning came, another day for the slaves began. The one in charge of training the sword-slaves, and the slaves’ main supervisor, was Gowen, who drove everyone from their bedrooms and made them start cleaning the accommodations.
When that was finished, taking care of the lions, serpents, boars, tigers and the like – the animals that were used in the arena – was waiting. In particular, taking care of the dragons was hard work. Even taking care of the small- and medium-sized dragons was too much for a single person to handle, but taking care of the large-sized Sozos dragons was far worse. While it was expected for slaves to die by the sword, many had also been crushed underfoot by these dragons that were purposefully trained not to grow accustomed to humans.
Orba set foot in the vast dragon’s abode, which was much larger than the slaves’ dwellings – far from it – and resembled a castle courtyard, but he stopped in his tracks when he noticed the back of a woman.
She was Hou Ran. Of all the other slaves ordered to feed the dragons, she was the only one who directly touched the dragons’ scales. Of course, the dragons’ legs and necks were wrapped in chains, as it was not necessary to carry out yesterday’s example, but that was by no means an absolute guarantee. At a distance that would even cause a gladiator to hesitate, greeting each dragon one by one, she gently touched their scales with her fingers.
Calling out his name, she quickly turned around.
“So I’ve been found out.”
“I’ve been told by the ‘voice’ of the dragons.”
Ran smiled. She seemed truly unsuitable in an all-men, not to mention savage, sword-slave detention camp, and Orba still hadn’t gotten used to her defenceless smile.
Her skin like polished ebony, combined with hair that seemed to have turned pale, gave off a mysterious charm. Originating from the Dragon God worshipping nomads that roamed in the western mountains of Mephius, unlike her primarily reclusive kin, Ran had exceptionally been brimming with curiosity, secretly boarded one of her tribe’s caravan wagons and came over to the outside world. Because she never told him exactly what had happened after that, he did not know when Tarkas hired her, and how she could take care of the dragons single-handedly like this.
“Do these guys know my name?”
“Their ‘voices’ come like images into my head. They all know your face, Orba. You’re liked by the dragons.”
While it appeared idiotic, in fact, it seemed like her pupils, clearly giving the impression of being deep under the sea, held some kind of intelligence lost to civilized men. From the other side of the fence, the small-type dragons were poking out their snouts and snapping at him.
“It doesn’t look that way,” Orba said with a thin smile.
At the time Orba turned up two years ago, Hou Ran was already at the detention camp. Back then, although she didn’t make direct eye contact with the others employed by Tarkas, she didn’t even open her mouth to him. Whether they would see Orba’s face or hear Ran’s voice first, soon became the target of bets among the sword slaves short of entertainment.
But, one time, Ran was about to be roughed up by several new sword-slaves who’d recently come into the camp. Orba just happened to pass by and had beaten them up, and ever since then Ran had at least been able to speak to him a bit.
“I heard you were attacked by a Sozos at Ba Roux.”
“I was the one who attacked the Sozos,” he emphasized. “It suddenly started getting violent.”
“Even with drugs, it’s useless to imprison its heart by force. If I had been the one supervising it, such a thing would have never happened.”
She bit her lips, but it was not because she was concerned about Orba or the visitors. With the figure of a girl patting the nape of a medium-sized Baian dragon in the corner of his eye, Orba finished his own work and left the dragon’s abode behind him.
After feeding the animals and cleaning was done, it was time to tend to their weapons. Because they left their own lives in their care, they carefully did them one by one. Whenever they handled weapons, about ten guards in full armour acted as supervisors. Naturally, they were there to make sure none of the sword-slaves tried to revolt.
Then, after finishing a meal with a sorry amount of bread and soup – the survivors of yesterday’s gladiator matches were treated meat and fruit as a reward – they each began their training at the start of noon. Just like when they’d been tending the weapons, there were armed soldiers on the lookout, but this time, the chains that connected both feet were taken off.
Sword-slaves that lasted over two years like Orba were extremely rare. Lives were lost one after another, and new faces always appeared again on the next day. Gowen tirelessly taught them the step work of how to hold a sword or how to handle a gun, and trained them thoroughly until they were fully prepared.
Orba also had some of the newcomers as opponents. Sometimes they clashed swords, just like in an actual fight, and it wasn’t uncommon for someone to part with a limb or lose his life in the midst of training..
Today, there weren’t any casualties. But that did not have to mean they were lucky. The next day may hold an even more miserable fate, and grislier deaths may be awaiting for these gladiators.
When all the faces of the sword-slaves had turned dark, their skin wet with sweat and covered in dust, Orba moved to the fence separating the training grounds from an aisle on the other side, and caught sight of Tarkas’s figure.
Saying “At ease!” at the newcomer, Orba rushed up towards him.
Also noticing the masked man, Tarkas stopped in his tracks. There was a feeling of distrust slipping through his sagged cheeks.
“What is it, Iron Tiger? Ahh… good job yesterday.” He had a look on his face as if he just now remembered he forgot to feed his pet dog. “Verne was quickly becoming a well-known gladiator. The other gladiator troupe started talking about wanting to pit him against you. ‘Can’t we earn back all the money we invested in Verne that way?’ – don’t try that sarcastic bullshit on me. Well, I suppose I feel a bit grateful as well. And killing that Sozos—”
“Tarkas, how much longer do I have to continue winning?”
“It’s been two years already. I’ve kept winning all the time. How many times do I have to be the ‘main event’ like yesterday. Isn’t it about time you take these chains off of my feet?”
Sword-slaves, all of them, were each exchanged on a contract when bought by a merchant. Although Tarkas seemed to handle it quite vaguely.
“Don’t think I can’t read. Even a slave should have the right to look into my contract. I’ve been waiting here, Tarkas. I should’ve been allowed to leave a long time ago.”
As Orba spoke right in front of him, Tarkas sharply put a squinting look in his eyes.
“So, where do you plan to go? Surely you can be released from my hands, but you’ll still be a criminal. You don’t have the money to pay off your remaining prison term. Or maybe you want to work in the Tsaga Mines along the western border? Poisonous gases, wild man-eating beasts, human-hunting Geblin tribes, and – of course – extremely miserable and rigorous labour. If it’s the same hell, or if you think you may have it better off here, hurry up and get back to your training. And don’t ever speak to me like an equal, until you’ve become a full-fledged swordsman that earns his pay.”
Thrusting his thick finger in Orba’s face, Tarkas quickly took his leave, heading for his office. Behind him, unfamiliar faces followed suit. Considering this was a place where legs were tied up in chains, they were probably newly procured slaves.
Orba was silent. His eyes were teeming with rage however, but Tarkas’s words weren’t lies either. Concerning Mephian law, you can basically either sell your life or go to prison. Like the Mines of Tsaga that Tarkas spoke of – should he apply for the country’s public service, accompanied by dangers, and sell himself off as a slave there?
Grasping the fence tightly in his hands, he lost all sense of feeling in his fingers before he knew it, Orba remained there standing in place.
“What are you doing, Orba!? Get back here!”
After finally being rebuked by Gowen, he went back to practice. As always.
A few hours after that, after washing their bodies with a cupful of water, it was time for their second meal of the day. Orba, rounding up his body like a hunchback in the corner of the dining hall, was almost grasping at his food. As a habit, he couldn’t go through a meal without reading a book.
“Orba, good job yesterday.”
Another sword-slave, the one named Shique, nestled onto his back, and Orba roughly shook him off with his hand.
“That ballchain Verne chap. When the match was decided, I didn’t know what to do. If you seemed to get into a huge disadvantage, I considered shooting him down from the outside.”
“Go away. Unless you want me to wound that smug face of yours.”
“Ooh, scary. But I wouldn’t mind any wound you give me, for it’ll become a bond between me and you.”
Even though it was hard, despite Shique’s chuckling behaviour, to make an accurate judgement on whether he was serious or making a joke, Orba didn’t socialize with him either way. The handsomely Shique had grown out his hair and even used make-up when it came to a gladiatorial battle. And just like that, because it seemed to further his degenerate good looks, he was tremendously popular among the female crowd. Even though the person himself was a self-styled, huge misogynist.
“However, I expected no less from you, Orba. Even without me lending you a hand, you managed to make a truly magnificent performance. Are you, both in name and reality, Tarkas’s top gladiator, I wonder?”
“I wouldn’t say it was magnificent.”
Gowen, the one in charge of training the gladiators, made his appearance. Although Orba showed plain the annoyance in his eyes as he sat down at the same table, he didn’t seem to mind.
“Although you did well, it’s a fact that it was also dangerous. When you broke in, your timing was still too hasty. It’s a bad habit of yours to take risks when you’re driven into a corner, only if even by a bit. You should spend more time putting an effort into ensuring your predominance. Although Verne was a brilliant swordsman, he wasn’t the type to target his opponent’s weak points. But a more observant opponent could easily see through your quick temper, and sweep you off your feet.”
He was a grey-haired man in his mid-fifties, but he still had a stout and tanned body, and the peering glances he gave the sword-slaves were filled with intensity.
“His opponent was that Verne, though. That guy was, curiously enough, in perfectly good shape,” a new voice called out, belonging to Tarkas Gladiatorial Group’s number one giant, Gilliam.
He had been in the same arena as Orba and Shique the day before, carrying a battle-ax on his shoulder, and with that the three strongest sword-slaves were gathered together. With long auburn hair in as much disorder as possible, his face, grinning with clenched teeth, had a look as intimidating as that of a wild lion.
“When I heard you had to go against Verne, I honestly thought you ran out of luck. Well, you don’t have bad skills. But, as usual, you still don’t know what it means to be a gladiator. It’s worthless if you win gracelessly. It won’t satisfy the guests. The way you carelessly kept running from place to place and then suddenly decided the match with one blow was just not entertaining at all. You’ve got to hit them up front.”
For someone like a sword-slave, it wasn’t just about winning the match. You had to be popular, in short, make sure that a lot of visitors come to see that gladiator alone. Plain gladiators, after finally having earned a pile of money, would be thrown before wild animals or dragons on their own, only to satisfy the sadistic tastes of their customers.
That was why the gladiators – every one of them – strove to hone their skills, and also tried to appeal to the audience with flashy personalities in order to survive. Some decorated their body with gaudy armours, some made a show out of dragging out their opponent’s heart after their demise, while others inked their bodies with mysterious tattoos.
As for Shique, he dramatically claimed to be ‘a descendent of an ancient royal dynasty’.
“This time, go against me, Orba. I’ll teach you what it is to fight for real.”
“Haha, are you afraid of me?”
“Oh, I am. I’m scared. So, get lost.”
As Orba continued eating his meal in his usual stooped behaviour, Gilliam pushed him in the back.
“Stop it!” Gowen commanded.
If there was a disturbance, the soldiers belonging to the gladiatorial group would rush in, so for the time being Gilliam took his leave with a reddened face.
“Come to think of it, some strange newcomers have appeared,” Gowen said, after some time had passed, as if he suddenly remembered. It looked like he was talking about the ones Orba had seen too, trailing behind Tarkas back then.
“Strange? Like, with horns in their hair, and the bulge of a tail in the back of their pants?” a sword slave named Kain interfered.
He was a boy, the same age as Orba, who came to the detention facility a year ago and took after him. He wasn’t that great physically or with a sword, but he excelled in dexterity, especially when handling handguns or rifles.
“Or maybe a survivor from the Ryuujin Tribe, doesn’t that sound romantic?”
“Ryuujin, Geblin, or whatever type of person appears now, I probably wouldn’t even be surprised. This is a sword slave company after all, a trading place for all kinds of races.”
“It’s a much simpler story. I heard every last one of those guys hardly have any skill at the sword.”
Kain looked stretched out his arms, seemingly uninterested.
“I mostly can’t believe Tarkas would have bought a bunch of good-for-nothings without a grumpy face. But he seemed in an unusually good mood.”
“Certainly. For a master like Tarkas, whose eyes are always dazzled by the shine of gold, it sounds really strange, right?”
“Good mood? That guy?” Orba said, remembering the situation with Tarkas during the day.
“I’ve known him longer than you. The only times I’ve seen Tarkas in a good mood was when he got the chance to earn a huge amount of money.”
“Then again, I wonder if it’s nobles who came to visit. About an exhibition match, or something like that. Those newcomers could’ve also been nobles who were asking to be bought. Or maybe they’re political offenders who opposed the Mephius Empire. Could there be a request for them to be gruesomely fed to dragons in public?”
“There’s a strange intensity to your words, because I can’t read your face.”
“Anyway, where’s the new book? It’s been three months since I’ve asked for it.”
Losing interest in the conversation, Orba inquired about something else. The other guys had all started raising different topics among themselves. By tomorrow, they were likely to fight as opponents even if they were gladiators working for the same firm. The idea of deepening a friendship more than necessary had never been in Orba’s mind from the start.
“Ahh, it’s been purchased. It’ll be here tomorrow. However… although it seems a little late to say this, you’re a bit unusual too. Of the guys here, even those that can read and write letters, I doubt they’ve ever read more than a hundred in their life.”
Plucking at a skin of chicken, Gowen glanced over at Orba.
“Sometimes, even I’m almost driven with the impulse to tear off that mask. What’s the true face that lies underneath? There are times I think you’re only a young wild brat, and there are times the cool-headedness of a man who has survived many battlefields peeks through. Yesterday was like that. You took the appropriate actions against a Sozos without flinching.”
“Are you praising me or not?”
“I’m praising you. Other than taking up a sword and fighting for yourself, you calmly consider the circumstances. Although I think you may actually be better suited as a leader, if not for that quick temper of yours. You like books about history and people, get absorbed reading them late into the night, and swallow their knowledge.”
When meeting him for the first time, basically from the time he was bought by the Tarkas company, Orba’s face had been covered by a mask. Ever since then, he hadn’t taken it off even once. Of course, everybody wanted to know why. They wanted to see his face. They wondered about his origins.
In the beginning, it worried Gowen that Orba met fists with them in response to their curiosity and suspicions. But when half a year had passed, he thought of the makeshift excuse that ‘a magician put a curse on it’ and after a year the teasing stopped, and soon nobody asked him about it anymore. Although some newcomers occasionally asked him about it, Orba was able to turn a blind eye.
“What do you gain from reading a book? At least, at the place where I was born and raised, you didn’t gain respect no matter how many books you owned.”
“It sounds like you’ve been raised by ape men or Geblin.”
“Watch your language, Orba. I think I’m especially kind to you considering the circumstances. If it doesn’t matter to you, I too can adopt that same attitude.”
Behaving like a man who couldn’t understand a joke was one of Gowen’s beloved habits. Orba revealed a stifled smile, but the deep-wrinkled sword-slave training official unexpectedly gave a serious look.
“As a sword-slave, normally, you only try your best to survive for the day. Some go back out into this corrupted world, but, because they can’t live without committing yet another crime, there are some people who are content being a sword-slave for the rest of their life, – although, for most, their ‘whole life’ would probably be very short – but, you’re different. You, at least, do not get absorbed in the killing and focus on the future. After that, I always think: Hey, what should I say to such a man? Should I tell him to throw away a future like that? When it’s only hard, even if you hold onto it with such devotion? Or should I tell him to seriously hold on to that hope? Because it will be the strength for him to live this through?”
“Did you secretly drink some alcohol, gramps? You’re talkative.”
“I’m being serious.”
Gowen stubbornly shook his head. Orba decided he had truly gotten drunk. Usually, Gowen wouldn’t have remained silent after being called ‘gramps’.
“Who is it that you fight for? The other sword-slaves, yourself, or do you have some other goal in mind?”
“I don’t know.”
Scuffing his words like a boy, Orba turned away his face. He didn’t want his inner feelings to be seen, where he was trembling like a child.
Finishing his meal, Orba quickly left the dining hall. Although the sword-slaves could walk about freely, there was nothing but the dining hall and the bedrooms at the detention camp. It was called a bedroom, but it wasn’t much different from a stable to keep livestock. As he lay down in a corner, Orba stared at his own hands.
It had been two years since then. Even today, he could remember it so well. And if he hadn’t confirmed it himself, those ‘two years’ would’ve been no more than a number. For two years, Orba had barely stayed alive, surrounded by the smell of blood, guts, and iron.
However, he killed, survived, did it all over again, and what was the point in all of that?
Orba turned over on the floor. He had already grown accustomed to the feel of his hard mask touching the ground. It was as Tarkas said. Even if he was freed from being a slave, he didn’t know more of how to live the ‘clever’ way of life, but it seemed that Gowen had misunderstood something – he was not waiting with hopes for a future like that. Supposing he did…
Under the thin shadow formed by fangs, Orba tightly gnashed his teeth.
If I do live through this, then what do I do?
It was decided. He was tired of doing things over and over in the arena, the massacres, the blood, the fights, killing each other. On the way back, he was never able to think of things like ‘it’s okay’ or ‘it’ll get easier’.
An inexplicable anger was stuck in the glitter of his eyes, on the other side of the mask.
I’ll get it back. I’ll take it back. And for the ones who took it away from me, even though it is not enough, I will have them fully taste the pain of the agonizing cries from all the people I’ve killed these past two years.
“So you were here, Orba.”
Roan suddenly showed his face.
Orba, who had been looking up at the night sky, rudely averted his eyes. As a punishment for neglecting to take care of the animals and play instead, his mother had taken away his supper, and now he was just outside the barn, sulking on his own. His face, as well as both knees he buried his face in, was full of scratches.
“Did you have another fight?”
The quick-tempered Orba often quarrelled with the other children in the neighbourhood. Swinging around a wooden sword, he even went as far as the neighbouring village to pick fights. The villagers that caught sight of his figure, almost falling forward as he raced through the fields, half-jokingly said,
“Oh, Orba’s doing his best again,” as they waved their hands and watched over him. Of course, after having his fights, his mother scolded him to no end.
“Why don’t you follow your brother’s example,” was what she would always say.
His older brother was able to do anything. In the old days, he looked through a single book their father brought back when coming from the city for several times, and from that alone he was able to memorize reading and writing letters by himself. He also learned how to do basic math at a very young age. Around the time he turned ten, after begging a merchant from the city to take him in as an assistant, he was also supporting his poor family’s living expenses.
Orba on the other hand, although he’d learned reading and writing letters from his older brother, was terrible at math, and above all, he didn’t know what to do with his boiling hot blood.
Almost every night, he spent sleepless hours staring at the ceiling. His blood was always screaming in the dark. After fist fights and such, the prickling pain of his injuries seemed to overflow with the hotter, more painful black blood from deeper inside, as if it would simply jump out into the open.
At those times, he’d jump to his feet and go outside. And he’d pick up his wooden sword that was leaning against the barn. No matter how many times it had been confiscated by his mother, he always made a new one from scratch. It wasn’t uncommon, either, for him to swing around his sword until the break of dawn.
“It’s okay if you get into fights,” Roan said, sitting down next to Orba. “But you have to help mother out properly. Working as a single woman is very hard. You know that too, right?”
Along the southern border of the Mephius Empire, was a place commonly known as Drought Valley. While a valley where the river had dried up was quite common terrain in Mephius, this poor village in barren lands, whose name was not even written down on any maps, was where Orba had grown up.
Orba didn’t have many memories of his father. He passed away when he was two or three. While he’d been engaged in additional construction work for the Apta Fortress that protected the border south of the village, his father had unluckily fallen victim to a cave-in while he’d been digging through the cliff. Cutting through the valley’s steep cliffs instead of creating houses or buildings was often the case in Mephius, and his father had been such a construction worker.
“Father was a man born only to dig a dark hole in the ground.”
He remembered that, one day, his mother had said those words in a tone that was neither complaining nor at grief. With that said, his mother too, was a person who had no pleasure in always working hard from morning till evening, every day. She ploughed the barren fields, sold native clothes and towels she made at the City of Apta once every month, and made the nearly tasteless stew for the young brothers every day without ever getting tired of it.
Orba too, also passed through life without change or colour, but his only pleasure was when his brother came back home for a break, two or three times a month, and brought along many different books.
Books written about the Old World where humankind once left its nest, books about Magic King Zodias, and, above all, historical novels with colourful illustrations or heroic stories, got Orba fully absorbed into them. Brave heroes swinging their swords to rescue a country full of dangers, beautiful maidens in thin clothes that were imprisoned in tall towers, vicious dragons revived from ancient ruins — things he’d never experience in a lifetime and the many dazzling adventures in those worlds made Orba engrossed, and whenever he closed a book, being back in that small, miserable reality surrounding him only made him despair.
He longed for the olden days, like the age where longsword-wielding barbarians were once kings. But the truth was, from the moment he was born, it was decided Orba would live his life sipping muddy waters, and if he wanted to do more in the future, it would be be much more difficult than bringing the dead back to life.
“You know, aniki,” Orba said, burying his head between his arm-wrapped knees. “I feel like doing something more.”
“You’re not even ten years old, are you? Worrying about such things doesn’t suit you.”
“I’m being serious. Look at all the adults here. Even I’ll become like that within another few years. Day after day, you work and work, but life won’t get any easier. I’ll marry someone sooner or later, a child gets born, and if the child’s an ‘unruly boy’ like me, one day he’ll surely say he wants to go to the city, be a soldier for Mephius, or ride a Garberan airship, and I’ll say something like, ‘Oh, in the old days, your father also held onto dreams like that’, and then I’ll probably laugh along with the other adults while drinking my tea.”
“Everyone’s like that,” Roan laughed, bathing in the pale moonlight.
Around this time, you could always hear singing voices coming from the house on the other side of the road. Listening to the cheerful voices of men who got drunk, although he wasn’t really paying attention, he said,
“Nobody knows what kind of person he’ll be. There are people who can’t live without working hard every day, people who sail over violent waves by boat, old philosophers who’ve buried themselves in thousand-year-old books, priests of Badyne who will preach their truth to numerous believers, many renowned generals who soar through the skies in dragonstone ships, and even country leaders who’ve subdued many territories at their feet. What they do in a day may be surprisingly different, whether they soak their swords with blood, drown in the letters of the alphabet, or even chant the name of God, but I think even they can’t provide you with an answer.”
“They don’t ever think about our living conditions. Even the king, who’s surrounded by luxuries I wouldn’t have the money for within a lifetime, and stuffing his stomach with delicious food every night. He sometimes takes a large army on a campaign, or gets shocked by betrayal, but every day he’s alive. I can’t even think of living such a life. I’ll never be able to. Neither the king nor the nobles, can even imagine what’s inside our dreams. Those people… Yes, take this night for example, they don’t even consider themselves to be looking up at the same moon as I am.”
“I wonder. It could be that, exactly because the king spends every day like that, he may sometimes feel a yearning to spending his life out in town. Maybe, to get away from the constraining life in the imperial court, he wants to go out to a sour-smelling bar sometimes and drown in cheap wine, listening to ridiculous stories, disgusted that, every day, he cannot relax his guard, not even for blood relatives. And he’ll probably think, ‘Ahh, wouldn’t it be easy to just go through life breaking a sweat', with no more worries about being targeted?’”
“That’s just a delusion. You mean he’s yearning for a life like ours? Just because he doesn’t know the difficulties and insecurities of such a life, he’ll only think of it on a whim.”
“Exactly. Isn’t that what I said? There isn’t a human being anywhere who understands everything, knows what he really wants, or knows who he truly is. I think everybody longs for what they don’t know, what they have not experienced, and they’re also looking for wherever there their true course may lie. In this sense, they’re no different from us.”
“I don’t know. Then, you mean even the king, even the great priest, is someone who’s not completely satisfied?”
But when his brother was about to answer,
“Why are you talking about such difficult things?”
Suddenly Alice appeared, swaying her dark brown hair slightly. It was then that they noticed the singing voices from the house across had completely stopped. It looked like the girl had finally come to put them to sleep.
While she seemed to have overheard just a little, Alice showed a dimpled smile,
“In the end, it’s nothing but pointless stuff. In this world, no matter where you’re from, first of all, Orba, you have to start by taking care of your mother and work earnestly, so that you can get to eat tomorrow.”
“Hear that, aniki? When they’re not interested in the conversation, women immediately find it difficult, insignificant, or have more important things to do.”
“That, too, is the truth,” Roan laughed merrily.
Alice was two years younger than his brother and three years older than Orba. And when Orba was even younger, they played as if Alice was a sister among the three.
Soon after, they enjoyed talking about memories of those days. When, by Alice’s suggestion, they went fishing at the river, and that same Alice nearly drowned as she slipped on the rocks. Or the time they went to see the caravan’s horses as it arrived at their village, and Orba got into trouble secretly trying to mount one, causing it to go berserk. Or when, because a boy from the nearby village said he ‘saw a wild dragon’, the three went to the rumoured place and got completely lost on the canyon’s intricate path. Although they finally did come home late, all three had to suffer though a good scolding…
“Anyway, wasn’t it because Doug from that village deceived us? Ever since that time, you’ve had a bad relationship, right? Even your opponent from today’s fight……”
The nail hitting him right on the head, Orba turned away his face. Although the reason he picked a fight with Doug was all because of Alice, he never spoke of it.
However, as they laughed and reminisced together like that for the entire evening, it was the last time he spoke with his brother in peace.
In those days, the Imperial Dynasty of Mephius and the Kingdom of Garbera were already at war with each other. It was said the Garberan cavalry recently crossed their border, although the two countries had a history of repeated conflict for some time, concerning the very definition of that border. The southern Apta Fortress, which was close to Orba’s village, had also suffered from attacks by Garbera’s mounted troops on many occasions.
Eventually, Garbera temporarily gave up on capturing Apta Fortress, and aimed for striking them by another route. And that was by setting up a trap. Targeting them when the majority of the troops stationed in Apta had been pulled back to the imperial capital, they immediately drove them into a siege.
Naturally, Apta Fortress was forced to a desperate, defensive battle. As it soon turned into holding out until the reinforcements came from the imperial capital, the Mephian army forcibly commandeered soldiers from the surrounding villages. And Orba’s older brother Roan was also one of them.
Of course, his mother screamed, crying. If there was only one hope his mother worked for within her nearly colourless life, it was probably his brother. Although she clung onto the soldier that tried to take away his brother, Roan gently placed a hand on her shoulder and said,
“It’s okay. Help will come from the imperial capital soon enough, so be patient until then.”
Besides, the pay was much better than that of a merchant’s assistant, he added with a laugh.
Orba, standing next to Alice, was seeing him off, watching the backs of several of the village’s youths crossing over the layers of rock.
If I were just a little bigger, Orba thought. I could go to the fortress instead of my brother. Then, mother would not have to be so sad either, and I may even receive a distinguished service among the soldiers.
After his brother disappeared, his mother, who had always been so devoted to work, spent almost entire days in prayer, as if something inside her completely snapped. Although she sometimes remembered to stand in the kitchen and prepare a meal, when it came to the menu, she acted as if his brother Roan was about to return from the city, making only his favourite food. But when she recalled that he wouldn’t be at the dining table after all, his mother threw it all away in the backyard.
Meanwhile, Orba ploughed the neglected fields, and also took care of their few animals on his own. During the evenings, Orba would climb up a narrow road carved into the cliffs and always stare at the direction of the imperial capital, looking for rows of gorgeous armours, vast dust clouds from military dragons during their march, and the majestic figures of dragonstone battleships – but he never saw the sight he was hoping for.
And, when about three weeks had passed since his brother left, residents from a village beyond the valley, which was closer to the fortress than theirs, were bounding in, out of breath.
“The fortress has fallen!”
They came with the worst news.
Apta Fortress had fallen before the approaching Garbera forces. They said the commanders and main staff who guarded the fortress had started on the escape, leaving their soldiers behind. There were no reinforcements from the imperial capital at Apta, for they’d been sent to the natural stronghold of Birac, next to the ravine further to the north. So it seemed the imperial capital had already decided that that would be heart of the southern border’s line of defence. Apta had only been used to buy time.
And, concerning the land in between, the Garberan forces that were camped at the fortress, started ravaging the surrounding villages. There were acts of plunder and assault – raiding, so to speak.
The people of the village were in a hurry to gather their few belongings, although there was hardly any food with the harvest being near and they were limited to holding their own crops, and left the village in a rush. Those who had acquaintances in the vicinity hurried over there, while the people who did not, took a temporary refuge in the valley, until the Garberan soldiers left their village.
Obviously, Orba followed them, but in the midst of his escape, he noticed that his mother wasn’t around.
Startled out of his wits, Orba turned back to the village. Beyond the rocks towering over the area like hills, he could see the complete panorama of his village sinking behind the evening mists. Surely, she was still there. She was waiting for his brother to come back. For his brother, who may possibly never come back again.
“Orba, where are you going? Orba!”
As Alice’s voice called out behind him, he pushed the crowd aside and headed back in a hurry.
And when he managed to arrive at his destination, there wasn’t a single soul, the village had become as silent as death. Because he was familiar with the scenery, there was an eeriness as if he had wandered into another dimension instead.
From the other side of the valley, he could see a group of men and horses approaching, and Orba ran towards his house in a hurry. When he opened the back door, his mother was there. She was trying to prepare a meal as usual.
“Roan?” his mother said, turning around, but when her eyes fixed on Orba’s sweaty figure, she, miraculously, shrugged her shoulders. “Were you still playing, Orba? Just help me out a little, your brother will be coming home soon.”
Outside, sounds could slightly be heard of the voices of soldiers, chasing the animals that were left behind. Afraid of the smoke rising up, he hurriedly tried to stop his mother. However,
“What’s this, there’s nothing!”
“What a measly village. Even though those guys at Gascon had it better. It seemed they slept with all of the girls.”
“Isn’t there at least any alcohol? Go and look!”
As soon as he thought he heard those voices coming closer, the door was violently kicked down.
Three soldiers came in noisily, each of them equipped with a simple chainmail, lance, and sword. On their faces, blackened by dust clouds, only the eyes casted a unique white light.
“Oh, there’s a woman!”
“What, isn’t she too old? Besides, isn’t there any alcohol? Or something to eat?”
After staring at his mother, who was protectively holding the crouched Orba in her hands, they started vandalizing the house, doing as they pleased. Orba was crouching down completely, concealing his breath like a herbivore trying not to attract the attention of wild beasts.
When the Garberan soldiers smashed through the door, his eyes had caught sight of the wooden sword, which had been resting against it, rolling over the floor. But in the end, it was nothing more than a child’s toy. He hated being told that more than anything, and was more than eager to stare back at those kind of people, but now he understood it painfully.
Then, as the soldiers were ransacking through to the shelves, they grabbed the crude ceramic tableware from inside and carelessly tossed them aside. Making a loud sound, the broken pieces scattered over the floor. It took Orba by surprise, as they were the things his brother Roan used, and his mother, who had been submissive until now, rose up with such force that Orba got pushed aside. From there, she started clinging onto one of the soldiers’ back.
“Hey, what? What?”
“It looks like she wants to play with me!”
A red-faced soldier unwrapped his mother, turned her around, and pushed her down in place. He placed his hand in front of her mouth when she tried to raise a piercing cry, then took out a pointed knife hidden inside his chainmail, and thrust it before his mother’s pale face.
“Stop it, you’d take any woman, wouldn’t you?”
“The taste of a young lass is nice, but an old flower like her ain’t bad either.”
As he spoke his red face showed a vulgar smile, and the thread holding Orba’s tensed up feelings snapped. Raising an awkward cry, he charged in. It was a desperate assault, however, and he was easily blown back by a single arm.
Knocking the back of his head against the shelves, although stunned for a moment, Orba gnashed his teeth and immediately faced forward again. And, from the top of the shelf, there was something that fell down with a loud crash. It was something long and narrow wrapped in a bundle and, with the front part of it torn, it was emitting a silver shine before Orba’s eyes.
Hiding it by reflex, Orba hurriedly tore apart the bundle. As he’d expected, it was a shortsword about sixty centimetres long. The round pommel had Mephian-made characteristics. Matching its slender blade, the handle was also a little thin, fitting nicely into a child’s hand.
As he took a hold of it, several letters carved into the blade jumped into his eyes.
O, R, B, A...
It was only for an instant – with his mother’s screams, the sound of the red-faced soldier disorderedly throwing off his chainmail, and the noise of the soldiers laying waste to the house. Although the frightening surge of black blood boiled in his body, he drove it far away and, in that instant, the thoughts squeezed together guided him to an explanation.
The blade was engraved only with ‘Orba’. Of course, he hadn’t known such a thing was in his house. He didn’t think his mother or other acquaintances would’ve especially prepared it for him. For all he knew, couldn’t this be anything but a present from his brother Roan?
But Roan should’ve handed over the money he got for his services to his mother. Besides, a blade like this could not be purchased in ordinary towns. Most likely, after going to Apta Fortress, he got provided with weapons as a soldier, and he’d asked the blacksmith stationed at the fort to engrave his name.
And then, he left it with the caravan that went circled the fortress and the towns. But when it arrived at his house, his mother must have accepted it. Thinking, afterwards, that it shouldn’t be crossed over into Orba’s hands, she most likely intended to keep it from her son’s sight. She probably thought that it was too dangerous for Orba, or maybe she was afraid that Orba would go away like Roan if he had a sword in hand.
At any rate…
“Hey, what’s that you’re holding?” a soldier called out from Orba’s crouched back. “It looks like you’re holding something valuable. Hey, why don’t you show me?”
“This is mine!”
“That’s not for you decide, but for me. Now, give it here.”
The soldier ridiculing Orba put a hand on his shoulder trying to get him out of the way with force. It was more than enough.
That’s right, Orba, he responded to his own inner voice.
“I said, show me — gyahh!”
Turning around, Orba swung his sword downward. With blood spraying from the man’s shoulder, Orba slipped under the staggered soldier’s arm and raced towards the man who was bent over his mother.
The red-faced man tore his eyes away from his mother and jumped back. Quickly picking up his hand-axe, he then received Orba’s blow that was coming at him. Orba stood firm on both his legs and somehow tried to get his sword through, but still, the blade was short, and a child’s strength couldn’t push a hand-axe aside like that. However, instead of easily getting overmatched, Orba made himself fall to the side.
He swung down another blow with murderous intent. Orba rolled over to the side. After doing one rotation, the axe’s edge bit down there, right in front of his eyes. In that very instant, his blood froze up,
His mother was clinging onto the red-faced man’s feet. Flying into a rage, the man kicked at her hands, turned around, and raised his axe even higher. When Orba saw it, the tension of his black blood – the anxiety, irritation, rage and other various emotions that had simmering in the boy’s body for such a long time – was about to be released from one single point, as if it had only now taken its final shape.
He stood up. Holding his sword with both hands, he forced it under his arm and slammed it, along with the rest of his body, into the soldier’s defenceless back.
The man’s back, as he’d taken off his armour, first received the blade considerably easy. Then there was a little firm resistance, but it also went through smoothly as Orba’s pushed it through with both hands, until, in the blink of an eye, the point of his sword finally pierced through the man’s chest.
Because Orba was also being dragged while the red-faced man staggered, he hurriedly let go of the sword. The man clashed with his back against the wall. After turning around to face the triumphant Orba, he made his mouth flap open and close, probably trying to say some sort of grudge, and threw up a huge amount of blood as he sank to the floor, until his bright red tongue drooped out and he no longer moved.
“You bastard!” the soldier who had his shoulder cut shouted, grimacing in pain.
“You killed Douga. You lowly brat.”
The other also shouted in a loud voice, and came rushing over at Orba. No longer holding a sword, Orba received a full body blow and rolled over on the floor again. He got kicked in the stomach, and stepped on his back.
“Mother and child both, I’ll hang your heads under the eaves.”
Crawling on all fours, the tip of the sword was thrust before the nape of Orba’s neck. His mother too, was lifted up, twisted by the hand, and placed in the same position next to Orba. No matter how much he wrested his body with all his strength, he couldn’t get rid of the weight of the man standing on his back.
“Let me go!”
“Ahh, right away. After you’ve turned into a corpse, that is!”
Orba, raising a bestial cry, was suddenly hovering in the moment that came between life and death. With a whishing sound of wind being cut as it was brought straight down. Finally, he shouted out his brother Roan’s name, when,
“What’s going on?”
Suddenly, the wind-cutting sound ceased. Orba, scrambled thoughts mulling in his head, realized it wasn’t his brother who’d appeared though.
The one who had newly come inside the house, was a Garberan soldier after all. However, unlike the soldiers that had broken in, he was armed all over his body, with not a single part untouched, and his armour too was shining in silver. He still had a young face.
For a short time the soldiers could be seen flinching from the intruder, but then,
“It is as you can see, Knight Apprentice Sir.”
“We’ve come to receive our fair reward after winning the battle. Just because you stood in distinguished service for a while, you’re clad as a knight after all, surely you haven’t come to stop such unrefined things like these, right?” the two explained grimly.
Feigning a courteous manner, there was clearly an air that they were making light of the man.
“Besides, look. Our comrade was killed. There’s no way soldiers with Garberan pride can let this go by without getting vengeance, right?”
The soldier who spoke tipped Orba’s body over at his foot, and established the sword’s aim with his other hand. What Orba’s eyes saw as he looked up at the ceiling, was the point of the sword, but then a single string of light came flashing from the side.
“What are you doing!”
“How pitiable. Vengeance, is it? You mean to say there’s any pride in that against a child?”
The armoured youth had drawn his sword. It seemed like the man had felled that one soldier, for Orba realized the sword that should’ve pierced through his heart had somehow been repelled the to the side. The other roared something in a hoarse voice nearby. It sounded like he’d called out the armoured man’s name, but Orba didn’t catch it at the time.
“Y-Your comrade… how dare you, bastard!”
“I don’t want to be called a comrade or such by inferior people like you.”
As he thrust out the blooded tip of his sword, the soldier stepped back.
“Inferior, you say? Even though you’ve got the same history. Just because you were blessed with the opportunity to make a distinguished service, you get carried away. Always chanting, knight, knight as if it’s your favourite word, but did you become a real knight? You don’t share a bloodline with the Garberan royal family, you’ll be an ‘apprentice’ your whole life. Know your place!”
Soon, the solider who seemed to be stepping back, quickly pulled something out from behind his back and brought it in front of him. It was a crossbow, fixed with a long and slender pedestal, and he released the trigger.
That instant, the armoured youth nimbly turned aside. Making a single spin, as if dancing, he narrowly avoided the arrow and decapitated the soldier’s head. There wasn’t the slightest hesitation. The decapitated head whirled through the air, struck the house’s wall and rolled over the floor.
“Garbera is a country of knights. Instead of further defiling its name, receive the honour of being killed in action.”
His handsome looks, his way of fighting, and those words he murmured – it was all as if a hero had emerged from the books Orba read all the time.
“Commander, what’s the commotion!?”
A voice was raised from the outside, but he replied with “It’s nothing,” as he wiped the blood from his sword.
“You’re a child of Mephius?”
Orba didn’t immediately know what was a good answer to the question raised. It was not that he was especially conscious of the name of the country called Mephius, either. The people of Orba’s village, generally living in a world of only about ten kilometres surrounding the village, weren’t very interested in the country or its territorial disputes.
The man gave Orba a thin smile when he gave no answer, and glanced over at the soldier who’d sunk in a puddle of blood. Orba, his body suddenly freezing up, tightly held onto his mother’s shoulders. He started looking if there was any weapon within reach, when,
“Hurry and get away from here,” the young man said. “It was to protect your mother – right? You truly hold the spirit of a knight inside of you. Much more than the people of Garbera, who seem to have forgotten all about the knight’s way. Now, you may get out of here. I’ll try to stop the plunder and assaults as much as possible, but I can’t catch a hold on all of them.”
Those eyes, for some reason, resembled those of his brother Roan. Supporting the shoulder of his sobbing mother, Orba slowly faced the back door, then, pulling his mother by the hand, he ran away at full speed. A wintry wind blowing through the streets after sunset, struck his cheeks. Urging his mother, who kept muttering ‘Roan, Roan’, sometimes even shouting at her, they finally united with Alice and the village people after an hour.
After that, they followed behind Alice’s father and headed for a village that was fifteen kilometres upriver to the north.
Orba didn’t know if the young armoured man had been true to his words, but at least from there on the random plundering was no longer carried out around Apta, which later became the territory of Garbera.
However, the flames were still approaching the village that Orba and the rest had succeeded in running away to earlier.
There were hardly any signs. Suddenly, ‘they’ came at them in full force and immediately started plundering. They were men who were completely harnessed in black. Provisions, clothes, and of course money and goods, all the things of possible value were taken by force. The people, too, were no exception. As soon as they arrived at the village they took the women, and impaled any man who tried to resist with spears from atop their horses, decapitated their heads with swords, and exposed them to gunfire.
Amidst all of the confusion, Orba lost sight of his mother. Just when he stumbled forward with impatience and fright,
He spotted Alice getting bound by a soldier with her arms behind her back. Even though she was about to be dragged away, Alice was still screaming at him to run away. Completely losing himself, Orba leapt forward. The feeling of killing that one person still remained in his hands. And now he’d decided to do the same thing. He reached out his hand for the sword the soldier was carrying.
But, the moment he took a hold of the handle, he received a strong blow to the back of his head. The sight flickered before his eyes, and his consciousness was soon about to fade. Just before it did, he had a feeling he heard Alice’s voice calling out his name.
When he came to, Orba was lying on his back, spread-eagled, on the ground. His head was throbbing painfully. His consciousness was still a little dim, and he wasn’t even sure if he was dreaming or not.
“General Oubary , what do you want to do?”
He didn’t know how much time had passed when he heard that voice. Amongst the screams of men and women nearby, and firing in the distance, Orba secretly peeked through half-opened eyes at the one who had been called out to earlier.