This is a story I wrote many years ago that was first published on Ether Books.
My fingers press into the dirt for maximum traction, legs chambered, trembling with tension. Heat beats down on my bare back. I need to win this. I’m running out of chances.
A yell and it begins. I launch myself, purposefully swerving to nudge the runner next to me off balance. He trips and tumbles. My legs pump, feet slamming into the ground and thrusting off again, flinging my body forward. Soon the muscles in my legs are burning, my lungs like bellows. On the final stretch I approach the leader, nearly touching him. He shows the whites of his eyes as he spots how close I am. I peel back my lips to show him my own whites but it’s too late – he bursts through the finish line. I curse.
Overhead, in the centre of a perfectly blue sky, the sun is a white coin, and all around the arena crowds are cheering. Sweat is pouring down my body, puddling in cavities left by the gruelling training regime of recent weeks.
My hunger to qualify for the final battle is multiplied by my secret. These arrogant people, always acting superior. Too great to allow foreigners to play in their sports games.
But here I am.
Only, the long jump is my final shot.
I raise my face to the beauty of the golden statues lining the high wall surrounding the arena; winners of years past. Immortal in glory.
The man before prepares, sprints, launches… skids into the sand, sending up a wave of spray. Not bad. Not great though. The old man was right.
I glance up to the sponsors’ stand and spot him there; leathery skin, sharp yellow teeth. There’s not much to like, but who needs affection in a business deal? I don’t have the luxury of having a family member up there. And bitter though he may be, the old man came through as more than sponsor – greasing palms and keeping me unnoticed. I’ve learned that great civilization means ritual, and punishment for faking it and failing is harsh.
My turn. I focus on the spot where I want to land, ignoring all else. It’s time for tunnel vision. I start to run. Slowly at first, then faster, faster, then launch!
I’m flying! I’m like a hawk, gliding through the air, my body built for soaring –
And then I’m down, crashing into the hot sand, which sears the soles of my feet. I look up at the judges…
I’ve done it. I curse again, but in joy.
I will take part in the battle.
I’m buzzing with excitement as we wait just outside the ring in small groups, snorting and stamping like bullocks.
We can all smell blood, though still encased in skin. Running, jumping: they’re for children. Fighting is a man’s game, and my grisly sponsor can vouch for my skills.
Men have said many things to me as I’ve held a knife to their throats, but he was the first to make me pause. More wealth than in a lifetime of robbery, glory in the eyes of the greatest of men, joining golden immortals looking down on the city for all eternity. My imagination had never been that big, but it grew to accommodate such splendour quick enough.
I’ve made it. About to slash my way to victory over the greatest civilization that ever existed. My chest swells in anticipated pride.
The doors swing open. I’m first through, battering an opponent before he even enters the ring. Then I turn and slash the others down as they are bottlenecked through the entrance, laughing at their pathetic lack of strategy. They deserve to die for it.
The battle begins in earnest. Olympians wear only helmet, shield and sword in the battle, so there’s much bare skin, unprotected flesh. My sword is accustomed to leather, even armour, so the blade slips through arms and legs like butter. It puts me in mind of good steak. My stomach rumbles. I lick my lips.
Time passes. There is blood. In jets, streaks, splashes and droplets. Limbs litter the packed sand, sun glints blindingly off fallen steel. After I remove the left midsection of the man before me, I spin to find only three of us left.
Across the ring a man the size of a bear has driven his opponent to one knee. The man looks like he’s about to propose. I run towards them. My only chance is to slice down the beast while he’s distracted. But I’m too late – he turns.
He’s flushed, grinning. Until he sees me. Then his expression drops. He glances to either side of him comically, adding to the effect by checking behind him. As if I am the behemoth and not him.
I raise my sword, readying for the final fight. Odds may not be in my favour, but nobody comes this close to victory and backs out.
He drops his sword. “I yield,” he grunts. Then he smiles.
I gape, sword still raised.
A whistle blows. The arena erupts.
Among the cheering and dancing I see the old man, clapping and laughing. He fights his way through the crowd to slap me on the back, beaming his horrible teeth. As unknown hands lift me onto shoulders, I catch his words.
“Enjoy your prize, foreigner.”
On the victory stage, the Emperor awaits, surrounded by guards.
“Congratulations,” he says, smiling broadly. “Stand there, and try to stay still.”
Obviously another ritual. The old man never told me about this one – didn’t want to tempt fate, perhaps. I stand where he indicates, under a pitched roof suspended by four poles.
Once underneath I see a cauldron concealed in the roof. Uneasiness seizes me with uncharacteristic vigour. Considering their bulk, cauldrons tip faster than you might expect. A moment later I see the oozing molten gold inside. A moment later still my body is coated in the boiling metal. In that instant I realise the price of immortality.