Quasi-Indefatigable Xenolith



Fighting Unlikely Gladiators

On occasions, I have had encounters with bears.

The first time that I recall, it was on a hiking trip with my oldest daughter. We were rounding a turn and entering a bit of a meadow and, at the far end, some few hundred yards before us, there was the hunched rump of a cinnamon-colored bear. It seemed to sense our watching or perhaps hear our entry into its proximity, for it rose up on its hind legs and turned to look about. I have been told that bears are quite tall and it seemed that this one was not so high as had been reported, but it was still thrilling to see such a creature in the flesh and happily at a safe distance. It seemed to look about, sniff the air with a nose that is esteemed to be far better than its eyes, and chose to move off and away from us. We had cameras, but not the presence of mind to snap off a picture. As quickly as we had stumbled upon the circumstance, it was gone.

The other encounter was at a mountain camp with a bunch of girls. There had been reports of bears that were coming down off the peaks and getting into trash and tents looking for snacks. The girls all imagined themselves as potential meals, but that seemed patently silly unless they chose to dip themselves in chocolate fudge or something equally appetizing. As predicted, after nightfall, we heard the snuffling and scrapping of claws on ground and equipment, along with the shouts and screams of innumerable females. I was set, along with the handful of other men present in the camp, to "guarding" things, although I personally had no clue what I was supposed to do if the bear decided to come back and make mischief. I think sensibility overcame hunger for the poor bear, as no mere creature would probably endure the racket that a hundred or so frightened girls were willing to offer up. There was some physical evidence that the bear had ambled past, but I never saw it.

Unlike the bear, the consorts of the Convocation, branded as they were to give them status above their more common brethren, were not a basically shy sort. They dressed and exercised and moved about their duties in a very conspicuous way. How else, besides bribing influential Matrons with chocolates or sexual favors, would they be invited into the bedrooms of the Ladies?

Nature abhors a vacuum, bears abhor unexplored snacking opportunities, and Ladies abhor an empty bed, so the Convocation insists that there are more consorts in the world of the Alaed than there are ornate beds to conduct romps upon. It wouldn't do for a Lady to be put into a position of having to accept whatever boy-toy there could be found at the end of the day: each needed a good choice of men. What I am laboring here to say is that there is a surplus of consorts in this place and this happens by design.

There is one thing that all consorts have in common with bears, even the rather pathetic Daavor: testosterone. The activity of hanging about The Stable and working out their expected sexual frustrations on weight equipment as they hope to be chosen for the evening pleasure of an influential woman are good things to occupy the restless hormonal male. Those are not in themselves sufficient outlets of masculinity to keep a bunch of muscled bear-men from cruising about Port Trechiva and tearing down buildings as unfulfilled hoodlums will do. The Convocation must provide a better activities for its excess manliness and dutifully does so in the name of "sport-fighting."

In a culture that eschews war and insists that the feminine desires hold sway over the land, there must be a way for the necessarily virile men to perform their required acts of shouting, grandstanding, and general violence. Women wisely build arenas for them, throw some blunted weapons into the center, and watch with baited breath as their scantily-clad surplus stablemen lay into each other with bear-like joy and abandon. After a hard week of labor at fishing or whatever other task their Matrons set them to, the commoners, when not gawking at beauty contests, flock to the various arenas to watch unrequited consorts battle each other and dedicate their gladiatorial efforts to various Ladies that watch from ornate boxes in the arena stands. It is so successful and popular among all the classes that whole households are devoted to the support of these arenas and the training up of the consorts to engage in battle. The Lady who ostensibly rules over such activities is styled the "Duchess of Sport", a very high and lucrative title in the Convocation.

There might be more than one Lady present today that lusts for the honor of ruling over all the sport-fighting houses and being flush with attendance receipts and brawny, glistening men, but a particularly keen one sits in a somewhat less ornate box in one of the less reputable sections of the arena. She is still quite young at nineteen but has already won contests sufficient to head a somewhat prominent house that engages in the more humble task of midwifery. It is a skilled trade, it can be granted, but has nothing of the prestige of a sport-fighting house. The poor girl is surrounded by a terribly quiet group of women who are as restrained as cloistered nuns and there are practically no men about the place at all. Frankly, the Lady wants some action and color in her life and she certainly gets very little of it in her current circumstances.

There is a bit of color about her manor-house, though the Countess of Midwifery is loathe to find any pleasure in it. The Matron of her house chooses to dress in a manner so incongruous to her function that the Countess wouldn't be surprised if she were already a laughing-stock among the Ladies. All the more reason to work a bit harder at her runway poise and get herself a different title, any title at all, that gets her away from the somber world of midwifery. What she would not give or do to win the title to a sport-fighting manor!

I apologize that, while I have been here rambling on and on, the games have already begun for this day. This is not the largest arena on the lands of the Alaed, but the stands are filled as if it were. The gladiators that have been featured in the advertisements leading up to this event are not the best that the Convocation has to offer, but they seem good enough to draw the needed crowd. My description of things rode right over the preliminary activities down on the arena floor - the processional, the heralding of each consort's prowess and achievements, the traditional comedic mock-battles among men dressed as rabbits and cows. You patient readers have even missed the first few authentic battles, though I daresay that the elegant women among their servants in the most favored seats are not particularly paying much attention either, as the real men and real battles worth watching are yet to come.

While we wait together, now may be a good time to ponder a matter that bothers me and those of you readers that might be very attentive to cultural details. I speak of the matter of Daavor, for our jaunty little chappie of an unlikely consort is also here at the arena today. If you are concerned for him, you need not be as he is not scheduled to participate in the games themselves. I imagine that, even among the uncaring ranks of the Matrons, there is still a bit of sensibility to be observed in not pitting a pale, wimpy excuse for a consort against some bronzed bear-god. Daavor's responsibility here seems to be service as a water-boy, taking an oaken bucket and a largish iron ladle around to various corners where combatants rest between their staged battles. It seems like everywhere we go, Daavor is nearby and visible in some lowly capacity that doesn't really honor the star branded on his hand.

For their part, the other consorts have quite the spelled-out existence - troubadour, Adonis, Casanova. In the case of our Daavor, it is as if some unseen hand specifically keeps him from these roles, whether it is God who denied the man physically or a Convocation that prevents him environmentally. It is more difficult to tell exactly who is pulling the strings upon the labors that our youngish man is put toward and what logic, if any, is being employed in his roles of bored fisherman, forgetful butler (which we will not see in the story), and now earnest gladiatorial refreshment technician. Beyond these un-consort-ish responsibilities, why is the attention of a full Matron, albeit the pathetic Canary, employed to keep tabs on the unassuming Daavor? There are a world of dames that could be put to such watch-keeping and not even these are employed to look after the most profitable gladiators, much less our embarrassingly unimpressive boy. What is so special about him and who would put forth the resources to protect him? I can only say that the woman who secretly keeps Daavor is here at the arena, sitting in the place set aside for the absent Grand Duchess, and is notably bored by the spectacle presenting itself in the center ring.

Symantha doesn't relish the times when she is pressed into taking her Lady's place at functions. Being a leader in the Matriarchal Council, second only to the senile Matriarch, she has far better and more appropriate things to do with her time, not the least of which is the practical administration of the Convocation as a whole from her shadowy place behind the Queen, Grand Duchess, and the rest of the Ducal Court. It is important to the system that royalty appear to be ruling, but I think everyone, upon any kind of examination of any government, understands that the "advisers" to the leader constitute the real power and everyone, Queen included, will do as instructed by those who are actually "in charge". Yes, the Queen and Grand Duchess fear Symantha and her rather imperious presence, sensing rather than knowing that this high Matron wields life and death in her hands and that crossing her might have even royal Ladies convulsing in the death-throes on an ornate birthing table. The Matron just presents that sort of aura, even when she is bored and lounging on a cushioned arena seat.

Rank pales to power as the Baroness of Midwifery looks again at Symantha and hopes to catch her eye in a positive way while seeming not to. The young Lady is vociferously chastising her colorfully flamboyant Matron and Symantha does glance in the direction of the disturbance. This is not the first time a pathetic Lady tried to attract the Matron's eye, as if it would instigate anything besides ire and disdain, and Symantha did nothing more than stare at it blandly. She would have been much more deeply interested had she noticed the raven-haired and similarly bored young trainee midwife within the silly Lady's entourage in the stands. Instead, the high Matron let her gaze move off in the direction of a more interesting fly that buzzed out of the dust-hazed arena floor.

From that cloud of dust stumbles a dazed gladiator, his fine leather breastplate scarred by several blunted blows from his current opponent. He is not faring well at all, a fact that must escape the crowd as they cheer some supposed action that really cannot even be clearly seen for all the dirt that is thrown up in the air. The bear-man slumps down on a stool and throws his head back to better suck in more oxygen. Unfairly, he hits his head against the stone edge of the ring which cruelly causes him to suck in a bit too much and get all sorts of dust in his lungs. This brings on a coughing fit and seems to attract a figure from the dirty gloom. Reflexively, the gladiator pulls up his blunted sword to deflect what is likely an attack from his current opponent, but he relaxes and lets the weapon flop to the ground: the dust is settling and it is only Daavor.

The smaller man darts up with bucket and ladle, knowing that a moment or two is all there is for watering the lagging combatant before he must defend himself further. Daavor has done this enough to work rather smoothly, dipping the ladle in the bucket and dragging the water to the thirsty man's lips without dripping. The man breaths the drink down gratefully, clearing some of the dust of battle from his throat as the smaller man dips again. Perhaps three ladles full might be managed before the scrawny consort must race away from the returning fray.

Such hopes are dashed as a billow of dust explodes just before the tired gladiator and his water-boy and the outline of another bear-ish hulk with club upraised emerges. There is a deep bellow and no time for the men to do anything but throw up whatever they have to hand in order to ward off the blow. The dazed gladiator scrambles for his sword, but Daavor is first to deflect the assault with a swing of his heavy oaken bucket. Water sprays everywhere about them and helps settle the dust so that the whole crowd can see. The attacker seems too absorbed in the heat of battle to realize that this chosen opponent, in attempting to get his sword, has just rolled onto the ground and the skinny man he is now fighting bears only an iron ladle as a weapon. The crowd has become very aware of this and is both cheering and laughing at what is in the ring to be seen. Instead of wisely running away as fast as he can, our young Daavor is narrowing his eyes and crouching down into a fighting stance, ladle in one hand, bucket in the other.

The overhead swing diverted, the attacker pulls the club around to take out his victim's legs, but the smaller man is fast and swings the bucket up into his now opponent's chin, causing him to stumble back. The crowd cheers this incredible feat and one voice, shouting the water-boy's name, is distinct in the noise and Daavor looks up to see the exuberant Mullicynda. It was distraction enough that the attacker recovered himself and swung his club across and sent the bucket out of the younger man's grasp and crashing into the ring wall.

The nearly-rabid bear-man lost his grip on his club, which followed the unfortunate bucket, and gave Daavor the one chance of surviving this whole scenario, which he didn't hesitate to take. Now wielding the iron ladle with two hands, he aimed as many blows at his opponent's head as physics would allow, causing the man to stumble back again and throw up his arms to ineffectively ward off the effort. The crowd when wild at the splendid nonsense that was on display below, laughing and pointing at the large gladiator being bested by the water-boy. Mulls was hopping up and down and clapping for her man. Other gladiators, who waited in the wings for their chance to enter the fray, even chuckled at the comedy of the thing and reminded themselves to stay on the water-boy's good side. However, the Matron who presided at this event was singularly unamused.

Canary was a few boxes over from her superior in the stands. Her ridiculous parasol was easy to pick out from the generally bland colors of the crowd around her and Symantha had no trouble finding her pathetic protege. The yellow-clad woman was already looking her way, half laughing and half wondering what she was supposed to do. The high Matron made a commanding move with arm and hand toward the ring, causing the sillier Matron to harrumph and move toward the arena floor. She obviously still favored her high heels as she stumbled her way through the crowd and managed finally to reach the outside of the ring.

The gladiator had finally flung Daavor off of his chest and was obviously flushed and hot for some kind of revenge on the impudent water-boy who had made him a laughing-stock. The smaller man was wisely trying to scramble away and find some sort of defense, but there seemed to be none immediately to hand. The bear was up and charging toward him, weaponless except for his rage. Daavor threw up his own arms and cowered on the dusty ground as his somewhat short life flashed before his eyes as the gladiator grabbed him and was picking him up, perhaps to fling the worm of a water-boy out of the ring entirely.

Out of the corner of her eye, Symantha first caught the obnoxious clash of color that was the Matron of the Baroness of Midwifery as she flinched at the events playing out below. The high matron's attention then fell on the habited form of a woman a foot or two away from the colorful eyesore that was on her feet and shouting her concern for the what might be the death of her water-boy. She even shouted out his name. It was enough of an incongruous reaction that Symantha made note of it, wondering why a simple midwife would have anything to do or any particular feelings for the carefully anonymous arena servant, much less know him well enough to call out his name. She would need to have this investigated. At the very least, she would have to have the consort annoyingly moved to another house yet again.

The little man was hanging in the air when the sharp command from the Canary came and caused the well-trained gladiator to freeze in mid-throw. He was commanded to put the little man down and Daavor took the opportunity to wriggle out of the iron grip and run as fast as he could to the shelter of his watering station. Canary scolded the gladiator with ridiculous venom and the large bear-man simply took it with the inbred humility that the Convocation required of him. Everything was cooling down in the arena, to the disappointment of the crowd who had not seen such unscripted entertainment in a long time.

I hope you readers are not surprised that the planned events really pale in comparison to what had just happened and that I see no reason to describe subsequent activities. Daavor has been excused from the rest of his watering chores for the event and is being escorted out of the arena by Canary, of course. The audience is still trying to wipe its eyes and blow its collective nose after the surprisingly funny turn of the day's program. Not even the advertised main events could possibly compare and the gladiators are letting forth their bear-like growls over this. Their prestige has been upstaged by the most unlikely consort in the whole Convocation and they ultimately want blood.

Symantha breathed out a sigh of relief that her little consort, so carefully protected from any real danger all of these years, had not accidentally met his end. She also noted that the nondescript midwife was also reacting similarly.

Next Chapter...

Copyright, Jason Nemrow. All rights reserved.