Hello! This story was published in the National Library Board (NLB) Anthology, a collection of stories and poems from local writers, and I’m feeling rather darn proud at this moment. Well, happy reading! 🙂
We are going to walk into the arena now. Tension is high in the little tents scattered around the perimeter as we, the unwilling participants, are briefed about the rules. Above us, the babble of thousands of voices can be heard—they’re speculating about who will come out alive. We can hear the chink of coins as bets are collected. And of course, there are the quieter voices, the ones that somehow remain distinctly separated from the rest– they belong to the ones who will be judging us, the ones who will keep their eyes peeled for anyone who breaks the rules.
The man is reading out the rules now, reading in a monotonous voice from the piece of parchment in his hand. All is silent, as we participants – all twenty of us – fidget in our seats, eyes sliding uneasily about. No one dares to meet anyone’s gaze.
I listen with half-lidded eyes, reducing my surroundings into thin slits, the colours blending and blurring in confusing hues. I am already preparing myself for this game, or the fight for survival, depending on your point of view. Go for the weakest, I tell myself. Once you overcome that, you will be let out of the arena.
The rules are always the same, and will remain that way for years to come. I have heard them read to me every year for the past ten years and can recite them word for word. No weapons allowed, only the short silver knife they provide. No running away – for that disgrace, the punishment is particularly harsh. No teaming up, either. That means instant disqualification and banishment – you’ll be sent away with the knowledge that you’ve deeply shamed your family, the judges’ snide voices still ringing in your ears. Finish the task, though, and you will be led out of the arena for another year of training, before returning again the following year. That’s just the way it is for our kind, for our class of citizen.
But now the man’s voice sounds softer, apologetic even. For those who don’t finish the task … well, you know what happens. He clears his throat uncomfortably. I cock my head at him, eyeing him suspiciously. He has been overseeing this game for quite a few years now. He should be quite used to witnessing what happens to those who fail.
I snap out of my daze as a hand enters my field of vision. The hand gestures for me to take the short knife in its palm, the same knife given to every participant. I grasp the hilt, the leather rubbing against my palms. I stare at the knife, running a thumb across the blade. A thin line of red appears on my skin, and I nod to myself. It will do.
Although I know using this knife and entering the arena to face the task will be equivalent to bringing a butter knife to perform, say, a butcher’s work, this is all that we’ve got. It has to do.
We have to wait for ten minutes now, to allow the task to be set up in the arena. There are appreciative murmurs and whoops from the spectators, which obviously mean that whatever we are going to face is not going to be good. I allow myself a grimace.
I shut my eyes, reviewing what I have learnt from them in this past year. During training, they allowed us to practice with swords and arrows, taught us fifty ways of beheading an opponent. I mentally run through the methods, deciding which I should go for first.
A shrill whistle breaks my train of thought. It is time to line up, to wait for the countdown before we make our entrance. I fall into line, glancing at the other participants. Who will I see again, who will I not? All of us have not come willingly, as it is ordered. It is compulsory that children from each family must be present. The pale, clammy faces around me remind me of how my sibling failed, so many years ago, how she didn’t come home for dinner that night.
A participant, a boy I recognise from training, steps out of line suddenly, retching onto the ground. The man shoves the boy back into line, even as the guards block the entrance to freedom, ensuring that none will escape. As I gaze at the boy ahead, who is whimpering and pleading with the man, I allow my lips to curl into a sneer. There is only one word to describe the boy—weak. He probably won’t make it.
The tent flaps leading to the opening of the arena are yanked back, and we are shoved forward into the arena. The participants begin to shuffle forward, some with heads held high, like mine, and some hanging low. I already know these are the ones who probably won’t be able to complete their task.
It has begun.
Cheers and raucous laughter come from the spectators above as I hold my head high and march into the arena, the sunlight momentarily blinding me. Snarls and hisses confront me, and I stare at the task at hand—lions, snakes and bears. One for each participant. I experience a flare of panic, before angrily suppressing it. I had taken a lion before, during my training. I can do it again.
But not with the pathetic knife! A voice of doubt sounds in my mind.
Shut up. I growl to myself. I shall not let doubt weaken my limbs, nor will it soften my blows.
We are made to spread out before the supervisors join the spectators, leaving us alone. Another blow of the whistle, and the beasts are led out of their cages, released onto the grounds. To the loud cheers sounding from above, it begins – the fight for our lives.
My heart thumps loud and uneven, and I take a deep, calming breath. Coming towards me faster than I’d imagined possible is a giant snake, sinuously coiling and uncoiling as it moves. Its body leaves twisting, strange patterns on the soil, and the earth crunches beneath my boots, as I ready my stance and brandish the pathetic knife.
Screams surround me as the other participants face their opponents. Some are anguished shrieks, others are battle cries. There’s an abrupt yell on my immediate right and I turn to see a savage lion pounce on a girl, his claws ripping easily through her skin, tearing off an arm. Limp flesh hang from the gaping hole in her side, the soil around her turning a deep crimson. Her frantic cries pierce the air around us, before being drowned out by loud cries of ‘boo!’ from the spectators.
Every fibre in my being wants to run towards her so we can face the lion together, and bring it down. But I know the rules. Cursing bitterly underneath my breath, I turn to face my opponent again. To my horror, it is now only a few feet in front of me, rearing its triangular head, its neck spreading out ferociously, fangs bared, mouth open so wide I can see the pink flesh of its gums and flickering forked-tongue.
I swear loudly, and colourfully too, as I brandish my knife towards it. The snake lunges at me, and with quick, nimble movements, I leap aside, away from the gaping jaws. It misses me by an inch, and hisses in frustration. A snarl tears in my throat in response.
We pause, eyes fixed on each other. The vertical pupils of the snake’s eyes send shudders down my spine, before I squish down the rising fear in me, eyeing it back in return. I began to shuffle to my right, and its head follows my actions, in fast and jerky motions. I shuffle back to my left, trying to get past those venomous fangs. The neck of the snake weaves about as it follows my movements, like a snake charmer and his pet.
Except this beast is no pet. Its eyes are wild, a cruel intelligence glittering in its slit-like pupils. Its scales glisten like armour in the sun, seemingly impenetrable, unyielding. Its forked tongue slips out of its mouth, tasting the air, tasting me. I bare my teeth at it, letting out a cat-like hiss
Blade against fangs, feet against scales. A dance to the death. Who will be the victor?
So that’s the end of The Arena. Did you enjoy it? 🙂 What do you think of the ending? Do share your thoughts below! 🙂