48. A Half-Naked Warrior, Shining and Defiant

Lucius strips off his jacket and shirt, seats himself at his makeup table, and starts mixing greasepaint in red, white, black and ochre. “There’s cold cream by the sink,” he says. “You should take that makeup off if you plan to stay — it’s a bit of a rough crowd.”

Inglorion dabs at his makeup with a cloth and cold cream, frowning. The texture and scent are unpleasant. “How did you become a gladiator?” He asks presently. “I dabbled in pit fighting as a young man, but the two seem quite different.”

Lucius considers. “Pit fighting is a series of brawls where people bet on the outcome, right? They pair off anyone who shows up, and give a purse to the last man standing.”

“More or less, yes.”

“I suppose the main difference is that gladiators aren’t really fighting. It’s a form of melodrama, with good guys and bad guys, and there’s a story from week to week. I train with my troupe, we rehearse different bits, come up with a narrative, and the performance is a structured improvisation. The good guys are usually human, big, strapping, handsome fellows with a dwarf for muscle and comic relief. We have Dandy Dan and His Trusty Crew. The bad guys are a more rag-tag bunch.” As he talks, he uses a sponge to apply white greasepaint to his entire torso. “We’re loosely based on a Wild West show. There’s me, Terminator X, the two half-orcs, Grudge and Blunder, who play fur trappers. Smith and Wesson are cattle rustlers and outlaws. From week to week, Smith and Wesson concoct various schemes, and they’re foiled by Dandy Dan. Jingning is a Chinese servant and railroad worker, and he tells the story to the audience. In real life, Grudge owns the troupe, and Jingning manages us day-to-day — handles our bookings and pays us.”

“So the battles are staged?”

“Oh, dear, yes. You’ll see. There’s improvisation, but no one gets hurt, and Dandy Don always wins in the end. That said, there are long periods — perhaps weeks at a time — when the bad guys have the upper hand.” He begins to sketch in a series of vertical red slashes on his shoulders and chest, explaining, “Terminator X’s tribe believes that if you cover yourself with blood in advance, the gods will spare you in battle.”

As Inglorion watches, Lucius pins his hair back, covers his face in thick red pigment, then paints a horizontal stripe across his nose and cheekbones, and a black X on each temple. There’s a knock at the dressing room door, and a short, coarse-looking half-orc steps in. Lucius waves him over. “Grunge, meet my friend Inglorion. He’s here to catch the performance tonight.”

Grunge nods and smiles perfunctorily. “Nice. Are you ready for me?”

“I am, sir.” Lucius takes down his warbonnet — a spectacular feathered headdress that Inglorion somehow missed amidst the splendor of Lucius’s various feminine props. Grunge carefully settles it on Lucius’s head and pins it into place, arranging the twin feathered tails so that they trail down Lucius’s back, almost touching the floor behind him. Lucius shakes his head to be certain it’s secure. Grunge takes a handful of ostrich plumes dyed yellow and red, and uses leather cords to tie them to Lucius’s biceps, wrists and thighs, so that they float behind him as he walks. Lucius straps on two bandoliers of throwing daggers, a short bow, and a small quiver.

Throughout the whole process, they take pains to secure everything tightly, liberally using pins and two-sided tape. Grunge painstakingly ties a series of colored feathers to Lucius’s half-boots, discarding several because the quills are broken or the plumage has become thin. “Are those good?”

Lucius adjusts the tails of his bonnet, pirouettes three times, stamps his feet. They both nod, and Grunge hands Lucius an elaborately beaded belt and choker, which he knots into place. By now he’s covered in leather, feathers, paint and weapons. He paces through a series of quick dance steps, drops to one knee and mimes firing a bow. They both nod, and Grunge bends down to allow Lucius to adjust his fur cap and pin it more firmly to his sparse, coarse hair.

Lucius turns back to Inglorion, who has been watching all this with quiet wonder. “I have to go backstage now, but I’ll drop you off with one of the ushers. They’ll find you a good seat, and bring you backstage afterwards.” He follows Lucius through a warren of dressing rooms and corridors. Lucius hands Inglorion off, and disappears into the wings.

“Pit or seat?” asks the usher.

“Which is better?”

“For my money, the pit. Lots of energy. It’s a bit queer-like in the seats. Too proper.”

“Pit it is, then.”

And so Inglorion finds himself working his way to the front of a crowd milling at the edge of the stage. About 20 yards back, there are rows of theater seating, and a mezzanine level above. The stage itself projects into the audience, so that the crowd is arranged in a semicircle, held back by wooden barriers. They’re a boisterous but good-natured lot, regulars who know each other and the performers well. They pass the time by placing small bets, teasing one another, shouting out catchphrases, scuffling in a joking fashion, and emitting howls and whistles. It’s mostly young men, interspersed with a few older, more reserved figures — grizzled men with cropped hair whom Inglorion judges to be ex-military or mercenaries, men not unlike himself, who fight for a living, have some pretensions to gentility, a hard-won smattering of education, and a bit of money put away.

A Chinese man takes the stage, recites a short verse summary of the previous episode, and introduces Dandy Dan and his dastardly foes. There’s a charming damsel — a good-humored, buxom brunette in a calico dress. Inglorion doesn’t trouble himself with the plot, since it’s merely an excuse to stage a series of fistfights and brawls. The trappers have a few good moments of slapstick, and Jingning pronounces sayings that sound like ancient wisdom. Dandy Dan is handsome in a beefy, florid style; his virtue seems to consist in refraining from gambling and cursing, and delegating fisticuffs to his Trusty Crew. The two sides scuffle back and forth, shouting catchphrases and hamming it up for the crowd. For the first four acts, Lucius is nowhere to be seen.

The fourth act reaches its climax with an elaborately staged barroom brawl. Just as Dandy Dan prepares to reclaim his bride Emily and ride off, the lights go out, plunging the theater into blackness. The crowd gasps with delighted horror; indignant shouts ring from the pit. There’s the sound of arrows whistling down from above. Dandy Dan shouts, “He’s got me! I’ve been pinned to the bar!”

A war cry rings out, filling the entire theater with a trilling cascade of whoops and screeches. A spotlight roars to life, picking out a figure at the very back of the mezzanine above: A slender, half-naked brave striding down the aisle, warbonnet and coup feathers streaming behind him, drawing and throwing knives to the stage below, neatly pinning each of the combatants to the bar, walls, and piano. He reaches the low wall at the edge of the mezzanine, and in a single, fluid motion, uncoils the bullwhip at his belt, strikes the chandelier overhead, and swings down onto the stage, chanting and howling as he goes.

He lands on the stage, spins to face the audience, shouts a series of taunts and threats to the white men present, snatches up the lady, throws her over his shoulder and retreats down the center aisle as she screams. Drums ring out from the wings and mezzanine — a throbbing primal beat.

“We’re surrounded, boys!” shouts Dandy Dan’s lieutenant. “They’ve got Emily!”

The spotlight plays on Dandy Dan’s noble countenance, worn with sorrow and hard-won wisdom, bright with hope. “Not for long, by God! We’ll get her back, and crush that filthy savage!”

The cattle rustlers swiftly agree to join forces with the Trusty Crew, recognizing that if Emily goes unavenged, no decent woman will consent to live in the great state of Mikewa. There’s a final oath as Dandy Dan, Smith and Wesson share a three-way masculine embrace that triggers ribald hilarity from the pit. The curtain falls, and the usher leads Inglorion backstage as the crowd disperses.

The actors are standing about and laughing in a common green room, except for Dandy Dan, who has thrown himself full-length onto an armchair, cast off his shirt and Stetson, and appears to be recruiting his strength with a tumbler of gin. Lucius has surrendered Emily to her real-life husband, Blunder, and stands chatting with the two while Grunge helps him to strip off his bonnet and coup feathers.

Lucius catches sight of Inglorion and says, “Viola, Jackson, may I introduce my friend Inglorion?” They shake hands all around, and Dandy Dan gives a little wave from his armchair.

“I enjoyed it immensely,” Inglorion says. “Excellent staging of that last brawl, and a well-executed abduction — very slick.”

Lucius smiles and gives a little bow. “It wasn’t always so slick, was it, Viola?”

“Oh, dear, no. The first time he abducted me, I resisted too vigorously, and nearly knocked him out. Jinging stepped in and covered up until poor Lucius regained his senses and could carry me off properly.”

“I still don’t remember what happened,” says Lucius. “I saw stars, and then we were offstage, abduction complete. It was a group effort, I’m sure. Now we’re both old hands. I carry Emily off regularly, and she spends as much time in captivity as she does free.” There’s more laughter and banter, and after a time, Lucius says, “I believe I’ll retire and get rid of this warpaint. Inglorion, you’re welcome to come with me. I’ll need a hand shedding the remaining feathers.”

The two chat idly as Lucius cleans up in his dressing room. Inglorion enjoys seeing him strip away each layer, and slowly descend from post-show excitement to the shy, sober young man who greeted him at the door hours ago.

When Lucius is finally back in civilian clothing, black curls neatly braided, Inglorion says, “You never did tell me where you got the idea — how you became Terminator X.”

“It’s an idea I’ve had for a long time,” says Lucius. “I’ve always been fascinated with Plains Indians.” He’s toying with his warbonnet, smoothing the ruffled pinions back into place. “When I was 10 or 12, my mother took me to a Wild West show — they have such things in Amakir — and there was a man there, an Indian. I don’t know what tribe. I was enchanted — begged her to take me again and again. She knew one of the guys, and he would let me in for free. As long as they were in town, a month or two, I got to hang around backstage and run errands for them. He taught me to ride a bit — really just to sit on the pony and guide it here and there. And — I can’t quite explain, but it all seemed so magical. He had a book of engravings — pictures of buffalo and Indians hunting them on horseback — and it just seemed —” He breaks off, looks down shyly. “I’m sorry to run on about it. I really can’t explain. It just seemed… I knew even then that I wasn’t a Dandy Dan type — that I didn’t fit in.”

He falls silent, and Inglorion waits for him to continue.

“After they left, I thought about it all the time — the things he told me. He was half-white, but had been raised as an Indian, fought and signed treaties for them. He was a very old man. I liked the things that he told me about courage and manhood — silly things, but not having a father —” He breaks off and shrugs. “They moved on, of course, but he gave me the book before the left, which was very kind, I thought. I imagined going there, to a place called Utah, and riding the plains. I taught myself all about it, read anything I could find, collected more books and prints. Maman was so good about it — we had very little money, but she knew it was important to me.

“A few years ago, this troupe came through town. I knew Grunge and Blunder from my mother’s circles, so I told them, ‘Look, you need an Indian,’ and they agreed, and were patient with me while I learned to do it.” He smiles gently as he says this, then looks up at Inglorion and says with sudden fierceness, almost defiantly, “In my heart I really am one — a Plains Indian, riding and hunting buffalo and counting coup.” His gaze drops again. “They think I’m funny, that I take it too seriously, and I probably do. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” says Inglorion. “That’s exactly what I wanted to know. Thank you, Lucius.”

Inglorion leaves soon thereafter. It’s late, and the streets are quiet as he strolls back to his flat. He marvels at how Lucius transformed himself from a shy and unremarkable young elf to a half-naked warrior, shining and defiant. He’s clearly invested tremendous effort in learning to control his voice and gestures. He taught himself shoot using darkvision, and to swing from a chandelier!

It’s truly as if he’s met a younger version of himself. Their temperaments and circumstances are different, but Lucius’s seriousness and fragility, the intensity of his longing — these feel deeply familiar.

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