Author: Ian Hill
“Alright, lads; go pick some sick.”
Firs and the others went out under the risen portcullis, backs humped with bloodstained baskets and heads low beneath burlap hoods. The sand of the round was a dazzling white, streaked in short, vibrant slashes and pocked with footprints. Firs, as always, stuck to the edges where the poor ones got hacked up.
It was a good day! After only a few steps, the scavenger shuffled up to a mangled leg, a fistful of sand-crusted coagulate, and some unaccountably mangled viscera that may have been lung. Firs used his barb-tipped spar and greedily hooked the limb right in its palest, fattiest meat; swung it overhead in a practiced arc; and scooped it into his basket. The congealed blob he pocketed, and the miscellaneous organ he wrung out and stuffed in an old sock. Spirits high, he moved on around the gritty pit, ears deaf to the calls and hoots of an impatient crowd.
There were bits of armor and shattered weapons strewn about, but the rustmongers had claim to such metallic baubles; Firs had eyes only for that severed and cloven hand, for this bit of ear, for yonder tongue hewn in victor’s pride. He picked about like a trash collector, bent and intent on his work. Soon, he could feel the familiar warm seep down the back of his legs; soon, each taken appendage thumped soft and damp in his basket. It was a satisfying heft that crushed his already stooped spine. The closer his face bowed to the blood-browned sand, the wider his grin reached.
At length, Firs came to a truly ripe patch where some mauling had transpired. Though he hadn’t seen the match, it was apparent from the profusion of bodiless arms that a beast had been let loose. Firs paused as he stared at a pile of nine, maybe ten of the sweet limbs. With jealous focus, he ignored his spar and fell to work, wrenching the arms up from the sticky sand in a display of avarice that sent nearby quarters of the throng into delighted jeers. A foot and a kidney rolled from the top of his basket, bumping his head and tumbling with soft plops. Firs didn’t mind; these arms—these delicate, tooth-marked, sallow-skinned extremities—were his favorite. One even had a few rings, which he hastily twisted off and dropped into one of his more precious inner pockets.
And suddenly, with iron finality, the four hemming portcullises clanged shut, and the palisade stakes flipped down, training their angry goads interiorly at the round. Firs, still on hands and knees like an old, hunched crone, felt all of his normally glazed senses sharpen. The crowd was quiet for a moment. Then, laughter rippled through the eager ranks, echoing about the raked seats of the amphitheater like the inarticulate cackles of a thousand dumb hyenas.
“Face me, meatpusher.”
Firs refused. A gauntleted hand closed on his collar and heaved him up. The poor scavenger’s hood fell back, and he hung quivering there, an arm dangling from each hand. His eyes and mouth twitched as he looked out to the helmeted, musclebound behemoth of a man jerking him aloft.
“Your greed is imprudent, methinks,” the gloating voice said.
In the glare of sunlight most potent, Firs saw, over the gladiator’s shoulder, a vendor moving among the lowest tier of the audience. He carried a great sack, and onlookers excitedly threw money his way. The vendor would retrieve a maimed arm from the sack and hand it out, ready to be thrown as bait after the next massacre. Firs even thought he recognized some of the arms as ones he had picked.
“What a strange life it is,” he slurred.
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