The Tightest Knot
Disclaimer: See Chapter 1
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Sweat; pools of it in the dust. Sweat; the stench of stale and fresh filling the air. Sweat; coating skin and glistening in the harsh light. Sweat; so sad when your life can be defined by it.
Shaking her head roughly, a heavy spray flew from her head as Hunter tried to get her mind back on track. Lazer eyes honed in on her sparing partner who looked about ready to throw in the towel. He was a very young, very fit man wholly unused to fighting. Under the harsh sun, in the centre of the grounds, after hours of gruelling drills no amount of muscle will keep you sanding. Stamina separated the men from the boys here. She has lots and, apparently, he had none.
Four months had now passed since her incarceration and as yet all she had done was train. Initially they had been concerned about the repatriated former gladiators, especially those who had been ‘stars’. The concern had been that they would have gone soft, no longer hardened or in a training regime, unfit for the battle ground. It had, indeed, been true of many who had been indulged and treated like highly trained pets, wheeled out to functions to impress before being freed after owners tired of them or rethought their ideals. The fight coordinators could not afford embarrassments, much as they could little afford the occasional deaths of their prized fighters. Hunter and others, like Thorn, who had kept up their conditioning, had soon proved that they would be anything but a liability. However, neither Hunter, nor her unhinged stable-mate, had been used in a broadcast yet. It wasn’t skill that concerned their trainers, it was desire…one had far too much and the other seemed to have none. For now it suited Hunter to sit back and be a training tool, it would be all too easy to allow herself to die in a real fight and as yet she could not do that to Francesca while there was still a glimmer of hope.
Watching the youth gasping before her finally succumb, collapsing gracelessly into the dirt, she hoped for his sake hat he would not be fighting anytime soon. Wheezing breaths sent tiny dust clouds up around his face where sweat had yet to make minute mud puddles. She noticed his eyes roll back into his head and rolled her own in derision. Sucking her teeth in exasperation, she help up her hand; four fingers splayed, thumb tucked into her palm. It was a simple signal that alerted the wranglers to a problem without stopping the drilling. They would not automatically approach a downed slave as individuals were often knocked down by their partners.
Jogging feet navigated the maze of writhing bodies and quickly came to a halt over the sprawled figure. It wasn’t Rider, mores the pity, but Pinket wasn’t too bad, for a wrangler.
“Problem, Warrior?” Pinket was one of those men whose voice was so low you had to strain to hear him, a sound that seemed to vibrate through you. It lent him a great deal of gravitas. “You know it’s not fair to flatten the newbies.”
“Ha! At least he could hold his head up if I had, Wrangler. I think he feinted, maybe too much sun…”
“You could be right,” he crouched down, noticing that the youth was no longer sweating, instead turning a dangerous shade of red and gasping for air. “Looks like it could be heat stroke. Good call Hunter.” Standing he motioned for two of the site paramedics who came hurtling over with a stretcher to scoop up the limp figure. “For how pricey that kid was he sure seems like a liability to me…Talking of expensive goods, you’re not exactly putting yourself out.” It wasn’t said harshly, she could see the question in his eyes. Like Rider, Pinket had known the gladiator for more than a decade; he could be cruel, they all could, Pinket was all about respect, though.
“Just taking me a while to get back in the groove, Wrangler.” In truth the fire that had blazed in her veins, the fire that made her a phenomenon had long since been extinguished by Francesca’s love. For years she had fought with only one thought on her mind, hatred for those who hurt Jordan. That had fuelled her rage and made her a thing of violence. Now she was less motivated, she knew how devastated Chess would be if she saw her on television; how terrified she would be if she saw her fight at her best. In training she fought skilfully, proving to be a real asset to the wranglers in their training of the newer fighters. Unfortunately that was not what the brewery were paying for. They wanted a high octane fight and soon!
“I’d say you’re in a rut, not a groove, Hunter. I think that we’ve spent too long letting you coast. How Rider has managed to keep you out of the contests I don’t know. You’re going in this weekend, be ready!” His target was to motivate her, as much as it was to keep Poison appeased. Casting his eyes around the practice field he noticed Thorn, standing over a downed woman who appeared to be cowering at her feet. “Go and join up with Thorn,” he noticed her eyes widen and her mouth open to protest, “she’s the only one out here at your calibre. I suggest you two go at it and remember that you’re not pets anymore, you’re wild.”
Knowing that she would be unable to sway him the blue haired woman dragged her feet as she made her way over to the blonde. Reaching the two combatants, well really one combatant and one victim, the short woman placed her hand on the cowering forms shoulder. The prone woman flinched at the touch before realising it wasn’t her partner about to deliver another series of punishing blows. Hunter jerked her head in the direction of the wrangler, the woman gratefully scrambled to her feet and moved away, leaving the two most formidable warriors on the field to face off against each other.
Thorn yawned theatrically, worrying at her thumb nail as she took her opportunity to observe the enigma that stood before her. In the weeks that she had spent back in the facility she had scrutinised the blue warrior but been unable to get close to her. She certainly is blue, the thought made Thorn snigger, the eyes and hair are like an all in one mood ring! The blonde couldn’t wait to get inside of the other woman’s head…and mess with it just a little. Ok, mess with it a lot. There was something about the star fighter that had long fascinated the lithe woman. Maybe it was the fact that she had never been a part of the other woman’s ‘inner circle’, instead always held at arms length. She planned to remedy that this time. Planned to make Hunter dependant on her as she had been dependant on Shep.
As Thorn studied Hunter; Hunter studied Thorn. Dressed, as they were, in identical clothing it was easy to assess her opponent. Skin tight Lycra sports bra and shorts moulded to mid-thigh, a warriors uniform (the men only clad in the shorts), left little to the imagination. Neither sex wore shoes, another in a long line of measures to prevent serious injury when they weren’t being filmed. Thorn was all sharp angles and jagged edges; muscles were obvious not because of their size, as Hunter’s were, instead they were obvious because of the absence of fat anywhere on her body. High metabolism mixed with near constant motion burned up far more calories than she could consume. Long, deceptively fragile limbs belied the reality that this woman could choke the life out of you. Slightly taller than Hunter, it was none of these physical traits that made her a feared foe. It was in her mind that the danger dwelled; fearless, cruel and deranged; no amount of punishment could dissuade her from pounding you into a pulp. She would fight to her last breath and had beaten the blue gladiator in the ring. She had been repaid in kind, the women were (physically at least) an evenly matched pair.
“Hello Sweet-pea!” Voice saccharinely sing-song, the hand that waved writhed like the parody of a spider crawling. “I think you’ve been avoiding me, little girl blue.” Lip jutting forward in a pout even as those same lips tried to smirk made her face look like a twisted mask of madness. All her movements were twisted, she writhed and twitched constantly, a very unsettling an unpredictable facet of her personality.
Electric eyes locked with brown as Hunter worked to keep her face passive. Thorn was able to unsettle her in a way that nobody else ever had and letting the unstable woman know that would lend her dangerous power. “Not avoiding you Thorn, keeping to my self, that’s all.” Peering over the slender shoulder of the woman in front of her she saw one of the wranglers indicating that they were time wasting. “Why don’t we…” gesturing she made it clear that they should spar.
“Ohh, you’re still not one for chatting are you, lover?” Cackling laughter pierced the air as she launched herself at the shorter woman with lethal intent.
Anticipating this, Hunter’s feet had already been firmly planted, Thorn hit a wall of muscle rather than bowling her over as she would have with a less experienced fighter. Lightening fast a forehead cracked against a nose with shattering force. A second blow caught behind the brawny woman’s ear sending her staggering back. Hunter had forgotten just how fast the slight woman was. Needing to regroup she vaulted aside; now Thorn was left stumbling as she succumbed to her own momentum.
For the first time since her arriving back, the tattooed gladiator felt her blood begin to boil. The fire of battle ignited, albeit dimly. She may not want to fight but she was nobodies punching bag. Blood coating her lips and chin, she hawked in to the dirt, leaving a crimson stain spreading in the dust. Sporting her own maniacal grin she flew at her nemesis as Thorn launched another attack.
Blows rained down with purpose. Kicks and punches assailed each woman. Strikes landed with satisfying smacks that rang out over all the other sounds of practice. Blood now liberally covered the ground around them, creating their own fighting circle. Springing forward Hunter saw her advantage and seized it. Thick arms imprisoned a slender throat and squeezed. Tangled bodies fell to the ground as Thorn started to see spots; the larger frame covered her own. Tapered fingers clawed at a bulging forearm leaving ruby track in their wake. The unrelenting pressure did not ease an inch.
Fast losing the battle with consciousness Thorn took one last ditch chance for victory. Going suddenly limp the arm around her loosened fractionally, giving her enough of an opening to buck her head back and once again hit her assailants nose. This time a wet squelch was the payout. The arms remained though the warrior was stunned allowing the blond to get her legs beneath her and spring up, dislodging her human blanket. Scrambling to her feet, Thorn once again stood facing Hunter. Both women were breathing heavily and covered in growing bruises and blood. Noticing, for the first time, the crowd of onlookers that had surrounded then the blonde growled low in her throat, angered that she may yet be humiliated.
Screaming like a thing possessed she charged at Hunter. Hunter dodged out of her way, pivoting to grasp the lighter woman around the waist. Swinging the smaller frame, using the power of her own charge to lift her, Hunter them slammed her partner into the ground. Hitting the ground caused pain to radiate up Thorns spine, leaving her writhing in pain. Vomit exploded out of her mouth as the pain radiated through her. Hunter, disgusted by the pungent excretion prepared to end it, elbow poised at the other woman’s back, ready to land a heavy blow when…
“Enough!” The boom of the voice was matched by the crack of a gunshot fired into the air. Onlookers quickly scurried off, leaving the two women alone, almost locked into their final position. They looked like a statue of success and defeat. Heavy breaths filled they air as they remained frozen on the floor, far too caught up in the heat of battle to completely give up now.
Large hands tore the women apart; two men held Hunter, one at either side with her arms forced into the small of her back to stop her lunging forward, though how successful they would be at holding her back was not something they wanted to test. Thorn was dragged to her feet, legs still slightly weak and held up by one wrangler. Unwilling to trust either of these dangerous and charged up creates lose with the paramedics, Pinket (who had joined the group after supervising the roundup of the rest of the slaves) led them off of the field and towards the infirmary. As yet they had yet to utter a word.
Once in the infirmary, both women were led to beds and shackled by one wrist to the underside of the bed using the built in cuff. Pinket remained as the other three wranglers went back to their duties. Looking between the women, who had been placed in beds side by side, he decided that the distance between them was great enough to prevent further injury and went in search of a doctor. Left alone, Hunter took the time to compose herself. The red haze that engulfed her during battle had lifted leaving her both elated and incredibly guilty about what had transpired. Puffing out a large breath she attempted to get her heart rate down to something resembling normal as she felt Thorn’s eyes on her. Refusing to turn to meet that gaze just that, she instead visualised Francesca and tried to use that to help her calm. The problem was, that in visualising her childhood sweetheart, all she could see was disappointment in blue eyes and the guilt only increased.
Thorn had no such pangs. Elated and still very much fired up she wanted to continue to spar with her bed-mate, though now it would be verbal it would still do. She could see the mask-like cast to the other woman’s face and knew she would get little out of her right now. Resigning herself to boredom, at least momentarily, she took inventory of her body. Though Hunter may look worse for wear with her flattened nose and blackened eyes it was Thorn who had come out worse. Every muscle along her back was in spasm, her throat was swollen and her butt hurt!
Drumming her fingers on her thigh, brown eyes looked towards the door to see if a doctor was imminent. It looked like they might be waiting a while. Unable to keep quiet any longer she fixed her attention on her prey. “Nice to know you’ve still got it, blueberry!”
“What?” Turning distractedly to her right, she eyed the woman that only minutes before she had been hell bent on dominating. Much to her surprise the blonde was smiling, rather genuinely, and seemed to want a chat.
“I said you still have your edge,” shifting in an effort to gain a more comfortable position, she ended up laying on her side. “I’ve been watching you out there day after dull, boring day. I thought you’d been turned into a lapdog by your starlet…or maybe a sex toy?” The other woman didn’t even twitch at the inference and Thorn knew she would have to try a lot harder to get any information about that out of her neighbour. “Ok, look, you’ve just been going through the motions, practically training those green kids for the wranglers. That’s great and everything but you aren’t paid for that…hell you’re not paid. We’re trained monkeys, remember? The fighting, the crowd cheering our names! You can’t tell me that you don’t miss the thrill at least a little.” Seeing the blue head duck as if to demure, she pushed on. “I saw the look in your eyes out there. You were you again, you wanted to put me down and keep me there, why are you lying to yourself?” It was an honest inquiry.
“You wouldn’t understand, Thorn.” It wasn’t said cruelly, it was simply a fact that both women knew was true.
“Probably not, sweet-pea. What I do know, what I am absolutely fuckin’ certain of, is that you ain’t going back…Nobody here, right now, is ever going back. And, if you’re never going back, you have to get in the game or you’re going to be very dead out there.” Again she didn’t let the other woman interject. “As mush as you might hate being back in this life, I don’t think you want to end it. You’re not the type.”
“They wouldn’t let me die out there even if I wanted to.” It was a truth that they all knew, yes occasionally a hapless gladiator fell foul and died in the ring but they were too precious a commodity to allow it to happen regularly. Nobody felt cheated if a fallen gladiator was out again to prove themselves the next week, the purpose of battle was defeat not death. Many were seriously injured, unable to fight again and were put out to stud; breeding stock. “Maybe if it was sweeps.” They shared a laugh, it was an urban myth in the stables that they pedalled to the newbies to increase their fear. It made life more interesting.
Before Thorn could go on a white coated doctor swept into the room. In the presence of the health care professional, the pair went silent. Although the wranglers liked and, in most cases, respected their charges the doctors and other workers in the facility viewed them as pieces of meat. Working on these particular slaves was a lucrative position and one where experimentation was encouraged, so long as it would not damage the goods. He moved first to the more obviously injured woman.
Cruising along the brightly lit street in the back of the limousine Francesca admired the neon displays that were able to turn night into day. On her way to the premiere she tried to distract herself. The last red carpet event she had attended had been with Rhani and had not ended well, in fact it had been the beginning of the spiral down into darkness that she now felt trapped in. Shifting in her seat she tried not to wrinkle the elaborate gown she wore. In the interests of keeping up her façade, she was meeting Rashid at the premier. He had wanted to accompany her in the car, she had refused. The place by her side, in the car and on the carpet, was Hunter’s so she made some sacrifices, yet could not go all the way.
Seeing the venue draw closer she arranged herself, accessories firmly in place and put on her best showbiz smile. The limo slowed to a smooth stop at the end of the red carpet and she could see Raz waiting for her to alight. The concierge of the event smoothly opened the door and held out his arm to help her make a smooth exit and a stunning entrance. Straightening from the confines of the car, she was almost blinded by the flashes of the paparazzi. Stepping forward to give the best angles of her dress, she felt the PR man move to her side and wrap his arm possessively around her waist. The move made her edgy, propriety dictated that she could not shrug him off and in fact needed to behave as though she welcomed his advances even though she loathed them. More bulbs flashed as the press tried to get the best shot of this hot new couple.
On the move down the carpet, allowing the next car to drop its passengers, they moved to the area where the journalists clamoured for a sound-bite, camera flashes following them all the way. Queries about her dress and vacuous questions about her expectations of the film floated out to her from the gaggle of microphone wielding men and women. Walking further down the throng, the inevitable questions about her and Rashid’s relationship were hurled at them.
“We’re very happy.”
“It’s so exciting to be in a new relationship.”
“We’ve known each other for years.”
“No; I think it’s a bit early to be thinking about that.”
“It’s a lot of fun.” These were just some of the stoke answers to enquiries that had been fired at her time and time again, she almost didn’t need to hear the correspondents words in order to wheel out more of the same.
Almost at the doors that would shield them from the prying eyes and inane chatter, she felt Rashid’s arm suddenly stiffen around her. Suddenly she found herself off balance as he spun her into his body, pulling her closer so that they were chest to chest. Dazed by the unexpected act, all she wanted to do was pull away indignantly the presence of so many prying eyes prevented that. Then he was kissing her deeply and she had to put her arms around him; she felt the gasp of dozens of people, more than heard it as each camera man and photographer vied to get the best view of this, their ‘first’ kiss on film. If only they knew it was their first kiss, period!
Then it was over and, waving gaily at the gawping throng, they passed through the doors into the relative privacy of the foyer, Francesca instantly breaking away from the unwanted embrace. Glowering, she pulled him forcefully into an out of the way alcove and forcing him to look at her. Rashid’s face was grimly set as he looked her in the eye, waiting for what he knew was inevitable when he made the move outside.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Even hidden as they were raised voices would be a huge mistake, instead her voice was a harsh whisper.
“I’m making you chose! I know what you’ve been doing, using me as some sort of shield. I love you Francesca but I will not let you play with me like this.” Reaching up he tries to rest a hand on her shoulder, only to have it shrugged away. As his arm fell dejectedly back to his side he ploughed on, “Hunter is gone! Even if slavery is repealed it will be years, maybe decades. Live now, with me!” Blue eyes remained stony. “I won’t be here forever, Princess,” the name was snarled.
The slap was not entirely unexpected though the force behind it was. Hand raised to rub his reddening cheek he was left to stare after the rapidly retreating finger as she disappeared from view in a swirl of crimson velvet. Tactical error, my boy tactical error, Rashid couldn’t help but agree with the voice in his head.
“I can’t quite put my finger on it but there’s something different about you!” Laughing at her own attempt at humour, Thorn continued to taunt her now regular sparring partner.
Indeed there was something different about the shorter woman, both physically and psychologically. Her nose, shattered by the woman in front of her, had been set but had not healed well. It was now noticeably flatter and crooked, although her breathing had not been affected. She also seemed more motivated to fight and with a looming televised battle only two days away it was no bad thing. There was a growing level of camaraderie between her and the blonde which had never existed before. She remained wary of the slim woman, as one would be wary of a wild animal, however they were spending increasingly more time with each other over the course of the week.
No punishment had been meted out after their fracas which had surprised both of them. Thorn had figured that they were pleased with her for goading the Poison property into real volatility. They were obviously pleased with Hunter for showing some of the old spark. That isn’t to say that they had been rewarded either. Patched up and sent back out to their normal routine, it was still more than either had expected three days before.
“Yuck it up loon,” There was an ease between them now. Thorn hadn’t tried to ask too many prying questions and was acting decidedly more normal. The humanitarian part of the blue woman wondered if her companion had simply needed a friend she could not bully to make her a little more stable. She could have been deluding herself, it helped her to feel that she was helping somebody else.
The two formidable gladiators would both be fighting at the weekend, it would be Hunter’s first bout, though Thorn was already an old hand again. They would have no idea who they would fight on the day, the only real certainty was that they wouldn’t be battling each other. As only a handful of the old guard, they were being carefully kept apart in the fights to attract more viewers for longer. They had also been scattered to many different facilities, Whale and many other members of Thorn’s former group had been shipped out, even those who had not been out in the world. It was a shake up of the format to intrigue the home audience.
Grappling together they scrabbled in the dirt but since the incident had been careful not to get too carried away. Thorn loved being paired with the more muscular woman as it meant that she could fight harder with knocking her out and watching her whimper. Hunter was confident in their confrontations as she too knew that it was far more difficult to hurt her newly assigned partner.
The gong signalling the end of the session rang out and the combatants broke up. The crush of bodies moved through the large doors, headed towards the mess hall and a much needed lunch break. Sitting at one of the long lunch tables, Hunter patiently waited her turn to get her tray of food. Minutes passed before it was her tables turn. Walking between tables, she got to the line and received her perfectly balanced, nutritionally valuable and frankly bland meal. On her way back she noticed a discarded newspaper laying on the floor. Unable to resist the opportunity to connect with the real world she surreptitiously snatched it up, being careful not to be seen.
Back on her bench she unfolded the paper on her lap, beneath the lip of the table. Carefully she flicked through the pages; there it was, the dagger through her heart! In full colour, covering an entire page was Francesca, locked in an embrace and a kiss with that damn PR letch! Blood pounded in her ears. Anger flowed through her, bubbling towards the surface. Francesca had betrayed her! How could she after everything? The words on the page blurred until…
Screaming in rage she surged from the bench and launched the table into the air. Men and women all around her dived away from the heavy wood as it came crashing back to the ground. Wranglers sped towards her from every side of the room, cattle prods at the ready.
Snapping straight as a board, the first burst of electricity shot between her shoulder blades. A myriad of others followed and, as she lost consciousness, her last sight was Thorn’s smirk as she reached to pick up the paper that had fluttered to the floor.
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