It had been twenty-four years since she`d last seen it, but the place looked exactly the same. Saila`s eyes watered, she sighted, reminiscing the day he became a champion.
Remembering him. The craggy arena stood in the middle of an array of old, blushing oaks, surrounded by shedding. Scattered leaves, dancing in the wind covered the three shaman pillars, each for one of the trials. The arena stood on the edge of a ridge where a soft breeze of wind brushed over the crowd. They nestled around the pillars on tender dried out the moss. The smell of freshly baked loaves of bread and still-warm fish rode the air.
Guess the ancestors who built it did have a sense of humor.
In depths of the arena, two brothers sat on rough, scrappy benches in the corners of their cell. Wark and Hiq could easily rest on the soft cushions of the flower beds in between them, easing their pain. Silence, hollow and heavy, separated the two like no wall could before. Silence, ruptured only by complaints of their stomachs, empty for the past three days. Their eyes restlessly wandered through the cell, distant and empty. If their glances ever met, they startled, like both were surprised to see the other, still in solemn imprisonment. The horns sounded in the distance aloft them and the crowd roared.
Trials of the Damned have begun. Saila lifted up the rusty crown, that ached for a new owner.
The lock clicked and fell to the ground. “Let`s go. It`s time” the guard commanded. Brothers stood up and followed the guard along the weathered corridor. Torches burned on the sides, their crackling echoing in their ears, used to the agony of bitter silence.
“I hope we honor our war father well today. Good luck you scrawny scarecrow,” laughed Wark through his cracked lips.
Hiq nodded to him, “And you, mindless stump.” Both chuckled, thundering with their raspy dried out throats.
Their guide raised an eyebrow as he heard the laugh. Wark tilted his head towards him and snarled, shoving his sharp teeth. Guard blushed and looked down to his feet, avoiding their piercing gaze. Hiq stumbled over his foot and leaned on Wark. Usually, his brother would catch his clumsy brother, help him up. Now he shoved his shoulder to the side, lining him back straight. Hiq shook his dizzy head and caressed his fingers over his shoulder. The bones protruded through his skin, sharp and cold. Any time they turned, the stairs got steeper. A thin gray hue gave in to the blues and greens of the outside, blinding the two with beams of daylight. Hiq rubbed his eyes from the scorching red light. Wark`s eyes blinked endlessly, like a bewildered firefly through the night.
“…Twenty-four years of the reign of our chieftain. Our war father. Our, champion.” Saila`s speech echoed in their ears, even tho none of them really cared to listen. “Two dozen years of our arena lost and almost forgotten.” She paused for just a moment, and that was enough.
Wark and Hiq watched her with half-closed eyes, their ears raised and turned towards her, intently waiting.
“It`s awoken again and I proudly present to you, the two competitors. My sons.” Her roar lowered, like a whisper, swaying in the wind.
“One of them a future champion, the other, soon forgotten, buried with the arena, forever.”
Wark glanced at his brother and curled up his lips. His eyes scoured Hiq from his bare cut up feet to the top of his head. Wark loudly puffed air through his nose, his mouth twitching into an eager, hungry grin. Hiq`s head remained still, his eyes lost in the distance, glazing over the barren hills and valleys, home of his kind. The roaring of the crowd lost itself in its own echo.
The top of the first pillar erupted and water streamed down the sides. Symbols, carved in the ancient stone turned into the vibrant ocean blue.
Saila looked down on her two sons and could have sworn she saw Hiq smirk. “Speed and wisdom. The first challenge of the Trials.” She announced, synergized with the creak of the ground at the edge of the arena. A hatch opened and competitors disappeared in it. Saila waved her hand, inviting the crowd to the edge of the ridge.
A horizon of a ragged forest. Oak, Torn and Willow branches entangled in the forest maze spread before them. Narrow alleys crowded each other between the bushes, wooden bridges swayed on hung scrappy vines and pathways crossed each other more than they ran across the forest.
“Run through the forest, read the carvings on the trees, and bring back the scroll of honor your father hid in it.”
Wark loudly sighed and shook his head. He leaned on a trunk and pressed his leg towards his body, stretching it out. Hiq`s head tilted restlessly in all directions, reading the initial water carvings on rough oak barks.
“On the horns, go.” The horns sounded and Hiq sprinted towards the forest. Saila squinted her eyes to his feet, splashing in the mud. He was a blur in among the turning leaves. Then her mouth dropped. Wark yawned and treaded towards a nearby Torn tree, grabbed one of its colossal leaves, and tilted it downwards. Water came splashing down into his mouth, scorching his crazed lips. After a couple minutes of crowd booing and him devouring the water, he released the leaf and snapped a nearby willow branch in half. Saila could still see Hiq, or at least where Hiq was as leaves and branches were snapping and crumbled in the distance of the maze. Wark impaled the leave on top of the willow tree and brought it down. He nestled between a trunk and bewildered bush and began munching on the leaf.
“What the hell does he think he is thinking?” the guard walked upstairs to Saila and frowned upon her. “This is heracy. He is defying the arena!”
“Guess he thinks he`s got the other two challenges. It`s first to two points, isn`t it?” she mocked, puffing air through her nose.
“This is not right.”
“There is no right way to be the cause of your brother's burial. Shut it and watch.”
Guardian blushed and wrinkles in his face got deeper carving. He opened his mouth, fidgeted, tried to speak, failed, then turned on his heels, walking away like an obedient dog. Saila rolled her eyes and waved her hand. Another portion of delicate fish with herbs was on the way.
Hiq bolted out of a bush, scratched from vines, bloody from branches, and panting from his run through the maze. Wark stood up darted his eyes towards his brother. He clenched his jaw and nodded to Hiq, walking towards him with the sharpened stick in his hand.
Hiq sighted and shifted to the side, slid over a boulder, and pounced across a trunk. He was at the entrance of the arena with a scroll and his brother with a clenched fist, was not. Wark lowly growled, squeezing the stick until it shattered. He spat out the leaf and followed Hiq back up.
Saila`s eyes pierced right through them as they came by. Hiq`s eyes glimmered as their gazes locked. She turned to Wark, who looked down and away. He kneeled on the sand in the middle of the arena, grab a handful and let it slide through his fingers with his eyes sealed shut. Hiq waited in the other corner. He stared at his brother who refused to look at him with trembling hands.
No introduction was needed. Horn sounded and they moved to the middle of the sand. Wark lifted his face towards him and Hiq saw the reflection of his younger brother, coming for a hug, many times before.
He hesitated, and that was enough.
Wark pounced and the two rolled in the rough sand. He swung his elbow and hit Hiq right on the cheekbone. Warm, pinching pain brought Hiq back from his dream, only to see a fist closing on his face. His nose burst out blood, that covered them both. They entangled their limbs, kicking, punching, biting each other. He managed to get his feet on his brother's stomach and pushed.
Wark fell on the ground with an open mouth, eating some dirt. He bolted back up, unfazed, and shoved his bare teeth. The crowd thundered, chanting his name.
Hiq glanced down on the sand, stuck his foot under the sand. When Wark closed the gap he was ready, kicking the sand right in his face and jumping on top of the young beast. One after the other, each shock that his body received surprised Hiq more. Half-blind or not, Wark wasn`t bothered. He heard his shoulder pop out of his socket and frowned, collapsing on the ground again. Wark growled again and raised his blood-stained fist.
Horns sounded. Wark ignored them and dropped down his hand.
A lash tangled around his hand. Saila pulled his arm back, slashing it open with the thin sharp vine. Wark winced and grabbed his bleeding arm. The crowd booed, then paused, even the drunken souls held their breath. Guardian didn`t bother to step forward as Saila turned around with a lifted chin, looking down on everyone aloft her.
“The trials will continue as per tradition. Nobody will break that oath. ” her voice soared across the arena. “Not even my blood.” She whispered. Few raised up their seats to hear her, none succeeded.
The branches around the third pillar started burning.
Saila snapped the iron spear off of the guardian and dipped the flat end of the spear in the raging fire. Particles of ash lifted from the hollow pillar and dropped on the sand. Someone in the crowd bit his finger while trying to bite his nails. Eyes fidgeted and legs shifted. Many of the clan have never seen the final test.
Saila pulled the spear out and gave it to Wark, who narrowed his eyes at her. The flat part of the iron hissed in its scorching beauty. “Third part of the trials. Pick a spot and press this firmly against it.”
Guardian creeped out behind them and ripped their already worn out robes from them. Now he was the one to snarl at Wark; “Be sure to arrange them nicely, like a painting. These marks don`t go out easily.” Wark bolted forward and pressed the spear to Hiq`s chest. The skin gave in to the heat, sizzling like a steak. A drop of blood poured from the fresh wound, slicking Hiq`s bellybutton, streaming down. A single tear shed from his eye.
The spear went back in the raging fire.
Wark sighted and jumped in place, shaking his limbs and head. Sweat streamed down his face as the circle pressed on his shoulder, cooking right next to the bone. The spear passed back to the fire to reheat, then pressed on skin. Again. And again. The younger brother refused to shed even a single tear.
It was the type of smell that bursts through your nose and leave it`s scent there, hidden somewhere deep, forever. Coppery and sweet at the same time, burnt flesh left their mark in every viewer, nestled around the arena.
Wark coughed up dirt mixed with blood as he crumbled to his knees. His vast body trembled as Guardian gave the spear to his older brother. Hiq was wincing and leaning on the second pillar. Younger brother grabbed a bunch of dirt in his hand and clenched it. He looked up, caught Hiq`s eyes, and smirked.
Hiq saw that smile before.
No matter what, fight, climb, run, or something else. When Wark met his eyes, the smirk always remained the same. Hiq knew his brother expected that he would die before giving up.
He turned the burning circle towards himself and pressed it into his stomach. Then his arm. Then the shoulder. Except for the delicate flame, crackling up his body, a veil of dark silence fell upon the arena. Wark tried to stand up, stumbled upon his feet, and fell back down, watching him with watery eyes. Horizon in front of Hiq`s eyes turned black as he fell on his back like a ragged doll.
A cold stream of water poured over his face and then his wounds. Hiq blinked and opened his eyes. Two of his mother's servants held him up as the crown settled on his head. A number of shadows gathered around Wark, pulling him to his feet and from the arena.
“I command you” coughed Hiq. Servants continued. “Stop! Stop by order of your king,” his voice thundered. Servants shoved his brother on the ground in front of Hiq. Hiq reached for his arm and pulled him up, facing him. He took down his crown, and put his brother`s hand on to the side of it, grabbing one side himself. He nodded to Wark, and they pulled.
Saila'ss hands bolted over her mouth as her scream pierced through the opening.
The crown, ripped in pieces, shattered against the ground. Hiq grabbed his brother`s hand and they raised up their hands.
They grinned and their faces lit towards one another. They bared more markings on them than any king had in the past and they beat the arena. A thousand-year tradition was broken, crowd angry and confused and Saila furious, but they were together, and that was all that mattered.