The boys circle each other in the firelight- wide-eyed, sweating, terrified.
The knives they have had forced upon them shake in their hands, but they do not drop them, dare not drop them.
A hundred eyes watch them from beyond the circle of torches, sneering voices ring in their ears, the stink of sweat and blood and fire and death overpowering everything but the fear of what will happen if they drop them...
...If they fail to entertain their new masters.
One boy lunges and the other dodges- a cheer goes up from the crowd. Bloodlust is thicker than treacle in the air- Death lurks close at every shoulder...
...and on the throne as well.
The second boy lunges now, bigger than his opponent but not as skilled, and he staggers into the wall of flesh that comprises the circle. A fist strikes him in the kidneys and he cries out- he is but a boy for all his size, after all. The crowd jeer as he staggers back to the fight, tears streaming down his cheeks- they want a fight, not tears- they have their women for that.
"Get it over with!"
"Make him scream!"
The voices are harsh and hateful in the torchlight, but the two boys know there is no escape, no chance of overpowering their captors- the heads of the last two who tried that trick are even now rotting on pikes by the throne where the monster sits, eyes baleful and black as the furs he wears, as the beast he is named for.
"Rip his guts out!"
"Give him a real reason to cry!"
The larger boy lunges again and the smaller boy ducks under his swing, taking the opportunity to open a bloody gash across his fat stomach. The larger boy wails, and the crowd cheer his slaughter.
They cheer it.
The smaller boy darts hither and yon, ducking every ponderous blow of his opponent, opening up two, three, four cuts for every one he receives.
The floor of the ring is slick with blood now- beautiful tiles forever marred. The monster on the throne cares not.
"Slaughter him like the pig he is!"
"Geld him before it's too late!"
The faces of the men in the circle are those of demons now, shifting and melting in every flicker of the torches, bestial in their clamour for death.
The boys do not fear them, though, far from it- them they merely hate as fools and foes.
No, the one they fear is the silent, faceless monster on the throne.
As if on cue, the smaller boy spots an opening and darts forward.
One slash, one slice…
It is done.
The bigger boy groans piteously as he sinks to his knees and tries in vain to stop his entrails falling through his fingers.
The smaller boy shows no pity, and delivers the coup de grace- one final savage stab through his foe's eye.
The crowd roar their delight, but there is no victory here- just one dead boy and one whose innocence is forever lost. He stares daggers at the monster on the throne…
…and is rewarded by a single crooked finger- the gesture of a huntsman summoning a favourite hound. The crowd roars triumphantly and surges forwards, pushing the boy towards the dais in their enthusiasm until he is face-to-face with the monster.
Strangely, he is smaller than the boy imagined, smaller and more perfect. He had imagined a craggy, scar-faced monster…
…what he sees is a boy little older than the one he has just slain.
The two boys stare at each other in silence for a moment that seems like an eternity.
Nothing exists but the crackling of the torches and the moon that glares down on them through the hole in the roof of the ruined hall that the monster has perversely chosen as his arena.
The crowd is forgotten- the fight is forgotten- all is forgotten.
"Tell me your name."
The boy is startled- the monster's voice is soft, almost sweet- he had imagined it would be guttural, grotesque.
"Aethelfrith, son of Aelfrith."
The monster nods, gestures to the still-cooling corpse.
"What was his name?"
"Aelfred… eldest son of Aelfrith"
The monster nods again and a smile spreads across his face worthy of the beast he is named for.
"You did well, Aethelfrith, son of Aelfrith."
The monster stands from his throne- his stolen throne, the boy thinks- and gestures about him.
"Not a man here could have done as well, I think."
There is a grumble of dissent from the crowd, but the monster settles it with a single raised finger.
"Aelfred was bigger than you and stronger than you and older than you, yet you beat him."
The boy nods, confused.
"He was your own blood, and yet you slaughtered him like a pig."
The boy is lost now, lost in the black-eyed stare of the monster.
"I applaud you, Aethelfrith son of Aelfrith."
The monster claps him on the shoulder…
"...and so I give you your reward."
Six inches of steel drives deep into his gut.
Aethelfrith gasps with the crowd as the monster twists the blade this way and that.
"I promised you a gift if you won, did I not?"
The monster steps backwards, soaked with blood.
"I give you the gift that Helm the Hammer-hand gave my father."
Aethelfrith topples to his knees, clutching at the knife in his belly.
"I give you the freedom that Helm the Hammer-hand gave me."
"WULF! WULF! WULF!"
The torches flicker as the boy groans his last.
"WULF! WULF! WULF!"
The monster retakes his throne as his men chant his name.
"WULF! WULF! WULF!"
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.