Holy Sister - Mark Lawrence


The roar of a crowd invades you like a living thing, reverberating in your chest, taking its answer from your lips without permission. The press of bodies overwhelms barriers and unknowingly the many become something singular, the same emotion bleeding from the skins of different people, the same thought echoing in a hundred skulls, or a thousand. For a marjal empath it can be a thing at once both terrifying and glorious, expanding their control, making it easier to reach into the minds around them, but also allowing the possibility that in such a storm of humanity they may lose themselves, may be lifted out of their flesh, never to find it again.

Markus watched the defeated fighter being helped from the ring beneath the jeers and complaint of the crowd. The victor still stalked the perimeter of his raised battleground, arms lifted, sweat running down his ribs. But already the crowd were losing interest in him, turning to their neighbours with speculation, observation, or jest, turning to the odds-mongers to lay new wagers, turning to the counter in the far corner to fill their cups with wine. And some, seeking new thrills, now faced the second ring at the far end of the hall.

The gerant fighter waiting behind the ropes threatened nine foot in height and Markus didn’t believe that he had seen a larger man. The fighter was still young, in his early twenties perhaps, and his muscles crowded along his bones, the battle for space heaping them up in great, veined mounds. He watched the world from pale eyes beneath a thicket of short red hair.

At the Caltess the gerant contests were the most popular. The sight of enormous fighters pitting their strength against each other never failed to draw the masses, and on nights with an open ring the folk of Verity loved to see that strength turned upon hapless challengers. Bouts between hunska ring-fighters had a strong following among the more experienced watchers but the speed of the combatants often left the common crowd bewildered. Mixed matches were a rarity but the contest of speed against strength was always interesting.

From the baying press of humanity around the base of the giant’s ring a challenger emerged. A powerfully built man who stood head and shoulders above those pressing him on all sides. In normal circumstances Markus would have been impressed by the fellow’s physique and backed him against any three bar-room brawlers.

An undercurrent of whispers and speculation flowed around the hall. The man was a refugee from the port of Ren, which now lay within the Durnish incursion. He had some reputation from pit-fights in the frost towns along the north margins.

‘Five says he doesn’t last the round against Denam.’ Someone behind Markus seeking a private wager.

The roar as the newcomer climbed into the ring drowned out further conversation. Markus hadn’t ever been inside the great hall of the Caltess, though years ago he had spent hours waiting in the compound with the other children from Giljohn’s cage. The child-taker had never intended to sell Markus to Partnis Reeve though. He’d suspected Markus of marjal blood and had taken him on to be offered where such talents would fetch a richer price. The great hall had stood silent and dark on that midnight long ago, and as the night had shaded into morning young Markus had shivered and clutched himself and never suspected that he would one day stand within, part of a sweating, heaving mass baying for blood.

Even though it was Markus’s first time before the rings he knew Denam’s name. Despite his tender years the young man was the new champion among the gerant ring-fighters, famed for his brutality. For Denam open-ring night often proved to involve nothing more than glowering at the sea of resentful faces before him. Finding no one to answer his challenge he would cede his place to another fighter and once more the crowd would discover its courage.

‘Milos of Ren!’ the fight-master called out.

Milos raised his arm in acknowledgement and walked to his corner to await the bell.

Markus didn’t hear the chime above the roar but the two men closed, Milos dwarfed by Denam. The gerant full-blood kept his hands down and let Milos take a punch. It was as if he had swung at a tree. Denam’s head moved slightly to the left with the blow. Milos clubbed him two-handed across the other side of his face and Denam’s head lurched to the right. Denam returned his gaze to his