The chains weighed heavy on his wrists and ankles, dragging through the dust. He glowered from beneath his heavy brow, eyes like a bull; deep, brown, simmering with aggression. He was a broad and powerful man, a slab of ebony muscle and scars. To look upon him one could only imagine how he might end up in chains. The magic of the ghosts was powerful and could bring low even the strongest, so it seemed.
He lingered a moment too long before the wooden gates, head turning, always alert. The ghost behind him lashed out with his whip, opening a broad stripe across the man’s back that stung and bled down his shadowed skin.
“Git yer ass in thar slave.” The ghost drawled, spitting a brown stream of tobacco juice onto the ground. The grey uniform they all wore made them look alike to the chained man. His thick lips curled back from his teeth, feral, but he took the step into the stockade, allowing himself to be shut into the dark with the other slaves whose fates would soon be discovered.
Those soulful eyes adjusted to the darkness slowly. He arched his back, feeling the flesh sting afresh along the line of the whip with a new trickle of blood. Through the cracks in the beams lines of light shone, swimming with dust motes. It did little to disperse the stench of fear and shit from the cell. Most of the others he dismissed with but a glance. Ghost criminals, broken slaves, only one drew his eye.
A woman of the redskins, beautiful and proud. She was almost naked, her modesty covered by a beaded necklace and a waist mat of soft doeskin. He took in her proud mien – she stood when the others huddled – the way she paced like a mountain lion, testing the boundaries of their cage relentlessly. She noticed him the same moment he noticed her.
“You look like you can fight.” She said in the ghost-tongue they shared. She stepped close, her scent of fresh sweat, a feminine tang that was stirring after the perfume stink of the ghost-people’s ‘ladies’ and the stench of the other slaves.
“I can fight,” he admitted, his voice a rumbling growl. His hands pushing up his face, through the thick beard that framed his mouth, up into the tight ball of curls that crowned his head.
“So can I. I am a daughter to a great war chief of my people. I am Nizhoni.” She said, with a toss of her hair, as though he should know who she was – and be impressed.
They were interrupted, the gates at the other side opening. The ghost-people with their fire-staves standing guard as the slaves were ushered out, their chains unlocked from their limbs. He flexed his hands and rubbed his wrists as they were freed, testing his body, ready for the battle ahead.
“Whut’s yer name slave?” The older ghost snarled, looking down at his board covered in the chicken scratches his people called writing.
“Wano.” Rumbled the man, glowering at the functionary, grunting as a whip fell for a second time across his back.
“Yer slave name, ya uppity bastich,” the man snarled through crooked, brown teeth.
“Jon.” Came this time, reluctantly. He was ushered forward, a heavy sabre pressed into his hand. It was no spear, but it would do for the grim work of spilling blood.
Together they entered the arena, surrounded by the grey-adorned ghosts and their strange womenfolk. Afraid of their own bodies they swathed themselves in tents of fabric, hats and gloves, hiding from the life-giving sun beneath umbrellas. They might as well be veiled as the women of the desert-folk were. There was one amongst them all, men and women, who looked different. Clad in white, leaning on his fire-staff. The master slaver. The White Wizard of the people from across the sea.
A cheer went up from the crowd, even as the ‘ladies’ averted their eyes in shame from the red princess’ bared breasts. Harland raised his staff and stood, gesturing to the gate on the other side of the arena. With a glow from that rod the wooden doors slammed open with violent force.
A lean man in grey stepped forth to the bloodied sawdust. His hair and beard were long, neat, he was whiter still than the other ghosts and he held his sabre like it was part of him. Wano watched him, tensing his fist around his own blade. The ghost-magic could hollow out a man, take his weaknesses, his emotions, his pain, but it left him with a need to fill that hollow. That made a man dangerous beyond imagining.
Harland’s staff struck the ground with a flash of sparks and a peal of thunder, the fight was on. The lean man moved like lightning and almost immediately one of their fellow captives was gurgling his lifeblood onto the sawdust. Wano growled, this was no fair match, who could stand against the ghost magic?
Nizhani backed up against him and even in this fight for his life he could not ignore the curvaceous press of her hips as they stood together, the other slaves and prisoners dying around them one by one. The ghost’s beard stained with blood as he tore the throat from one of them to sate his need.
“We cannot win.” Nizhani hissed, a hint of fear giving her voice a tremulous flutter.
“They have their magic,” Wano rumbled, waiting for the inevitable attack “we have ours, drawn from the land. What makes land other than the blood, sweat and tears of our brothers and sisters? Distract him. I will do the rest.”
The ghost came upon them then, seeming to fly over the sawdust without touching the ground. Fast, almost too fast to see but Nizhani was barely fast enough to meet him. With every sinew and muscle straining to the task she could – just barely – hold this creature off.
Wano sprang, built like a bull but with the grace and speed of the panthers from his native land. Too late the ghost realised he was no longer slaying the broken and the helpless. These were warriors of red and black.
Overconfidence was his downfall. Wano’s blade carved the ghost’s neck clean through, a spray of blood, unnaturally dark, lost against the
darkness of Wano’s flesh even as he was drenched. He finished his wild swinging circuit and snatched the severed head from the air,
still alive, blinking, mouth working silently as Wano held it high. He fixed Harland with a wild glare, beating his chest with the fist
that held the sword, Nizhani proud at his side.
“WE WILL BE FREE!” Came their roar, together, man and woman, red and black, so powerful that the silent, shocked audience rocked back in their seats. Afraid, perhaps for the first time ever.