Hot wind blows against Talia’s naked back, while strands of stiff twisted hemp bite into her bare desert-hardened feet. The rope sways as if it conspires with her torturers, seeking only a halfway attempt, a humiliating somersault.
A header straight to death.
The weight of the pole is new to her shoulders and arms. They shake under the weight of it, but it counterbalances her enough to make worth the ache. The idea of falling is unbearable, but she won’t look down, because she knows the down is looking up, waiting for her.
The clattering below of hungry insects, canine-sized carnivores made blood-hungry by the constant flow of prey that falls into the burrow.
She can smell the insects, the musk of thousands of them fighting over the last gladiators, five who fought to avoid being the last on a slowly withdrawing bridge, the irony being none of them survived. Four bought iron. Hard, sharp edges tearing flesh, bleeding out, losing limbs, falling over the side with nothing more to save them.
They were brothers.
Taken alive in a battle to save their village.
In the end they saw their women raped.
Their children carted off as slaves.
Their lives voided as entertainment for the masses.
Who knows what they fought for on that bridge. Maybe they don’t even know. Maybe they fought to die. Maybe the survivors wanted to make sure he alone faced whatever future remained. What torture the empire had in store.
Truly altruistic murders.
Talia will not cry for them, or when the time comes, for herself.
If she cries, she will lose sight of what matters.
Her daughter on the other side of the rope.
She knows neither of them will survive the day, but if she can make it to the other side they can die in each other’s arms. That much is a wish she is willing to play this game for.
The cheering crowd is a sea of clamor, it buffets her, it surrounds her, it’s hot wet nasty toothlessness, the stench of burnt animal flesh and badly fermented barley, the sickly sweet and sour smell of sweat and sex and unwashed masses glued together for too long.
In the center of it, the hot air dries the sweat from her skin before it has a chance to drip off like a horrible smelling clay-brick oven.
Her mouth is so parched, her tongue hurts to move. Her feet bleed. Her hands blister.
The crowd yells for her; they like her nudity. Her body. Her breasts. They yell promises to her. They offer her leisure. A night. Money. Food. A big one. Everything. They are collectively rude and inconsiderate and beguiling and sweet.
She cannot drown them out.
No voice is distinct.
The crowd washes abuse over her in one torrent of filthy, disgusting, spit-filled storm.
She is an outsider.
One of the wanderers. A thief.
To the empire, she is not worth a thousand of any of them.
Her son and husband have been sold into slavery, or killed for sport, or eaten at a feast, or tortured for fun, or sacrificed to some minor deity, or hoisted as decoration on the main road into the capitol. It doesn’t matter which, they are gone. Soon, so will she and so will her daughter. And one day, they will all be dust on the bottom of some traveler’s sandal, grit stuck between two teeth.
The mysteries of death answered.
She feels the rope sway and risks a quick glance behind.
It’s the fat buffoon with a stun-staff. His foot on the rope. She must be taking too long. He shocked her out onto the rope and he is longing for her to hurry up. He is filthy with blackened teeth and a huge gut. He touched her and she felt safer on the rope than on the platform. On the opposite side, a similar man does the same to her daughter.
She wants to hurry.
But dares not, for fear of missing a step.
He sways the rope again.
Talia finds herself picking up speed despite herself.
She is more than midway across and the rope sways for a third time. She is sure will fall off, that it is over, that there is nothing more she can do.
She closes her eyes and thinks about her life before this hell. About traveling with her clan.
About the day to day.
Forging the desert.
Going from spring to spring, the hunting, the root gathering, the herbs and the healing.
The working with other clans.
The raiding of the empire travel convoys when they got lost.
That was okay because of what they did to her people when they found them.
They always made the deaths quick though. They never lingered over a kill like this. Killed for fun. A quick slice across the throat and it would be over. Burial in the desert and sand and time would help forget they ever existed.
Time will forget Talia and her clan ever existed, she was positive that was okay.
Time was the great equalizer.
Time will eventually erase the Empire also.
Rub everything down to a nub and something else would be built over top of it.
The rope stops swaying and Talia opens her eyes and finds she has managed to work herself all the way across.
She stands just on the cusp of safety.
The ugly man stares at her disbelieving. He has wicked black-inked scars running down in jagged lines across his chest and hard bulbous belly. He remembers himself and laughs through a gap toothed smile and shoves Sary out onto the rope.
Talia drops the balance bar and grabs her daughter and for a moment it feels good to feel love in the form of flesh and bone, but only for a second and before gravity takes them both and they fall off the rope into the skithe nest.
Five hundred yards, they fall into the mulch of chewed and digested human bone. They hit hard and if they weren’t about to be eaten alive by hundreds of giants ants, they could expect to be very sore tomorrow.
The crowd spits half-chewed food in ecstatic excitement. The clamor reaches orgasmic levels as the skithes swarm over the two women. The stadium shakes in response.
A giant black face looms over Talia.
Its eyes glossy and emotionless. Its arm-sized pincers opening and closing. Another joins the first. Then a third.
The crowd continues its frenzy. They toss half eaten food into the pit and clothes and in the excitement an old man finds himself thrown in. He lays on the ground, broken and dazed. The ants don’t seem so inclined to study him and set upon him instantly, tearing at his loose flesh, devouring him and what once was there is only a few drops of deep red blood on the ground as proof he ever was.
Other weaker members of the crowd are tossed in also. A woman with no teeth who had been begging drinks for sex in the cheaper seats made the best show of things when she attempted to run from the skithes and even made it halfway up the wall before falling back into the pit becoming even less when the skithes were finished.
By the time the crowd calmed down the pit was once again void of all human life.
Talia and Sary find themselves deep underground next to the last surviving gladiator huddled in a fetal position. He shakes with tears pouring from his eyes.
“He will recover.”
Talia turns towards the voice. A skithe speaking easy common, but sounding like two hollow poles banging together. The giant ant is shiny black with huge gossamer wings that look brittle, she is certain even a light wind would shatter them.
“What is happening?” Talia asks aware for the first time how badly her body hurts. A large pile of black cloth bundled on the ground by her feet. She wraps herself in it, happy to be no longer nude. Under the first is a second, which she hands to her child.
“Welcome to the death throes of the Empire.”