In morning bright,
For freedom fight;
A mighty beast,
With hammer smite.
The morning sun was bright in his eyes. The iron bars of the gate in front of him smelled of rust and sweat. Of fear, and death. The arena lay out before him, a circular pit of sand that offered the king’s prisoners a chance to control their own destiny. It always resulted in freedom; either by royal pardon, or death. Either way, once a man entered the arena, he had never to see the king’s prison again.
Laruuk had volunteered for the arena. For the chance at freedom. When there were no volunteers, Normaanic would have his guards shove prisoners into the arena kicking and screaming anyway, so Laruuk chose to get it over with. He considered himself a good fighter, with as good a chance as any to win his freedom, and he chose to not spend any more nights in the king’s prison.
Now he stood at the portal to freedom, peering at his adversary through the gaps between the iron bars. A large wooden post, two feet in diameter and ten foot high, stood in the very center of the arena, casting a long shadow like a huge sun dial. A large heavy chain, massive in thickness and strength, was bolted solidly to the post. It hung down on the shady side of the pole until it reached the sand. From there it stretched across the arena, where it attached to the steel collar around the neck of the Minotaur.
Its cloven hooves paced through the sand; its leash just long enough to reach the full diameter of the arena, just short enough to not allow the beast to climb the walls. The crowd yelled and taunted it; increasing its rage. It dragged its massive war hammer behind it, waiting for something to smash. With every heavy step, it kicked up dust that caught in its matted fur and stuck to its snout. It snorted and wheezed and spoke in low unintelligible grumblings. Its tiny mind couldn’t fully comprehend its situation. It only knew it wished to leave this circle of sand and couldn’t. It knew humans entered the sand and attacked him. It knew it needed to kill the humans.
Laruuk could feel his heart pounding in his chest, and his stomach climbing up his throat. His knees felt weak and sweat poured from his brow. A prison guard threw open the gate, beginning the process of Laruuk’s freedom. Frozen with fear, Laruuk hesitated. The guard shoved him from behind, sending him falling forward face first into the sand. The smell of the iron gate was suddenly replaced with the smell of farm animals; manure and hay. The crowd roared with excited anticipation. The iron gate slammed shut, the old rusting hinges making a sound familiar to the Minotaur. Like a trained dog to a dinner bell, the great beast came running, dragging chain and hammer with it.
Laruuk quickly reclaimed his footing, and with sword and shield in hand stood to face his inhuman adversary. The beast came forward on two legs, like a man. But these were not human legs. They were the legs of a massive bovine; hairy, powerfully muscular, with dark hooves that pressed deeply into the sand under its heavy weight. Its upper body was like a man’s, but enormous and grotesquely muscular. Its arms were as thick and round as Laruuk’s waist. Its wide and heavily muscled shoulders were covered with brown matted fur that rose up around an unnaturally thick neck. The beast’s head was purely that of a bull, with massive horns that curved up and outward into deadly points. Behind its black eyes, in spite of its grotesque appearance of hybrid man with beast, was an unnerving glint of intelligence.
Laruuk watched the beast approach, and all his thoughts of being a good fighter, all his desire for freedom, left him in a swift rush of purged confidence. Where he thought would be the will to make a stand, now was only fear. The great bull quickly moved in close and raised its hammer; to swing, to smash. Laruuk panicked and ran to the other side of the arena as the great hammer swooshed through the air and landed heavily upon the ground. The crowd booed loudly, urging the prisoner to make a stand, to take it like a man. Laruuk was struggling just to breathe without hyperventilating in the grip of fear.
The Minotaur re-positioned the hammer on its shoulder and snorted loudly, dust and sand blowing out of its wide black nostrils. It stomped a cloven hoof heavily on the ground in anger as it turned and began moving toward its human prey again. Laruuk steadied himself, slowed his breathing, knowing he would indeed have to make a stand. There was no turning back now.
The heavy chain dragged through the sand like a huge iron tail as it followed along behind the Minotaur, who lunged forward with unexpected speed. Laruuk had only enough time to raise his shield as the hammer came down powerfully upon it. The crowd cheered excitedly as the two combatants made contact for the first time. Laruuk had hoped to block the creature’s initial blow, and then counter strike with his own sword. If he could wound it, then dodge, then wound it again, perhaps he could whittle the beast down and win a battle of attrition.
But the hammer blow from the mighty beast came with ten times the impact Laruuk could have imagined. The black iron war hammer smashed down upon the shield with crushing force, bending it out of shape and nearly breaking Laruuk’s arm. The force knocked Laruuk down to one knee as the crowd roared with approval. Not in a position to strike back as the Minotaur began to raise the hammer again, Laruuk could only drop the mangled shield and roll to the side, rising to his feet several paces away. The mighty bull turned again to follow, the iron leash always dragging behind, its massive links clanking one against the other in the sand.
Laruuk stood near the pole at the center of the arena, his back almost against it. Somehow having one side of himself protected by the massive wooden post gave him a slight sense of security, no matter how false. He placed both hands upon the hilt of his sword, and braced himself, preparing to strike the bull with as much force as he could muster. His plan to survive was still the same; strike, move away, strike again. The Minotaur, becoming enraged by the noise of the crowd and the elusive human, stomped quickly towards Laruuk with its hammer raised high. Its massive hooves pounded into the sand, kicking up clouds of dust as it charged. Laruuk swung his sword as hard as he could as he jumped to the side to avoid the oncoming hammer. The enormous weapon barely missed him, crashing down into the wooden post with a loud boom that echoed off the walls of the arena. The crowd cheered wildly at the spectacle.
Laruuk’s sword made contact. It hit the Minotaur in the side with a blow that he was sure would kill a man. But glancing quickly at the point of impact, he could see the bull’s tough leathery skin had but a small minor wound. A thin line of red, a bit of matted fur wet with a small amount of blood, but the mighty bovine had barely flinched. A loud snort, a strange guttural growl, and suddenly the hammer was coming around again, much quicker than Laruuk had anticipated.
There was a brutal impact of heavy forged iron against mortal flesh and bone. The war hammer, swung by an inhumanly powerful arm, caught Laruuk in the hip, sending him skidding into the sand several paces away. The sound of snapping bones was quickly replaced by the rambunctious roar of the bloodthirsty crowd. Laruuk was face down in the sand, completely numb from the waist down. For a moment he thought he was paralyzed, but the tingling sensation flooded back into his legs just as he heard the cloven hooves of the Minotaur stomping ever closer.
Laruuk rolled over, spitting out sand and blood. Gazing upwards he could see the king and his entourage upon the royal platform, watching, cheering, urging the spectacle to its conclusion; urging his freedom. Laruuk felt around blindly in the sand for his sword, but couldn’t find it. He attempted to get up, but the shattered bone in his hip wouldn’t allow it. So he lay there, gazing upwards, blood and sweat running into his eyes; burning them. For the first time he noticed the flies. Flies that had been buzzing around the piles of bull feces, that now buzzed around his sweaty skin and wounds.
For a split second he considered the irony that the humans cheering him were the jailers, and the Minotaur, the chained up monster of the arena, would be his liberator. The morning sun was bright in his eyes as he heard the snorting and wheezing of the beast standing over him. Looking up, he saw the sun eclipsed by a massive hammer, that swiftly came down to grant him his freedom.