Jens and Megan took Amelia to what appeared on the outside to be a nearby theatre. There were old movie posters at the entrance, some featuring films going back to when she was a kid. Overhead was a sign in red on a white background that blazoned: Knights and Dragons Today. She was thus expecting a movie or a live-action play. When she went inside, she was open-mouthed, shocked by what she saw. A hundred people were seated overlooking a small stage where sawdust covered the floor, and a steel cage encapsulated much of the space. There was only one entrance into and out of this cage. If animal cruelty of any sort was involved, Amelia didn’t want to stick around.
“I know there was nothing like this in your day,” said Megan as she took a seat a few rows up from the stage. She sat down, and Jens and Amelia joined her. The seats were comfortable. They had the cushioning effect she liked, but it was not so plush she sank into it and had to be rescued. What’s more, there was a man Amelia thought might be a knight because he was shabbily dressed, selling popcorn and soft drinks. His clothes were clean but threadbare, and he had patches on the knees of his pants. Jens threw some coins his way and got a bucket of popcorn to share plus three bottles of soft drinks.
“There was nothing like this at all,” agreed Amelia, wondering if her worst fears would be confirmed. The sawdust worried her. You don’t need sawdust for a pretend fight. That’s what she was thinking. Sawdust was sometimes used to soak up blood.
“Shhh!” Jens made the quiet sign with her finger. “It’s about to begin.”
The overhead lights dimmed as two figures stepped into the cage. One was a knight dressed in plate armour, and the other was a dragon clothed in leather, his black scales shining in the dim light. Then the lights came back to full strength. An announcer on the speaker system assured the audience that, though the knight and dragon were young, both had been properly trained and were eager for action. The audience responded by clapping and cheering.
The announcer waited for quiet, and then he said, “In this corner, we have an axe-wielding knight, and over there to the left, a sword-carrying dragon. Their twin destinies will be settled here and now, on this field of battle. They await the sound of the bell to begin.”
“This is exciting.” Megan quickly polished her glasses with a tissue, so she didn’t miss anything. “The season has just begun. This is the weeding out of both knight and dragon. Is your seat okay, Amelia?”
“Yes, I’m just not used to this. Are they really going to…?”
“Just watch and you’ll find out,” Jens told her.
Megan put her glasses back on and leaning forward, looked expectantly at the combatants.
The bell rang, and they squared off; the dragon moved his sword about in his hands, getting the feel of it. Amelia thought such a weapon belonged to the Middle Ages, as did the knight’s axe. The sword blade was flat, heavy, and not very sharp looking. The knight likewise tested his weapon. It would stick to an enemy’s ribs but, since he had only one opponent this day, that didn’t matter. He could take his time retrieving it after the kill if he was successful in that endeavour. Amelia felt sick, her mouth dry and stomach queasy. She could still convince herself this was an advanced pretend, and no one was going to get hurt.
A second bell sounded, and the overhead cameras on both knight and dragon came on. Amelia understood from the book she had read that the fight would be recorded so there would be no doubt as to the legitimacy of the victor’s victory. The book, however, didn’t state the seriousness of these battles. She was still clinging to the notion that it was a contest but that no harm would come to anyone, not even the dragon.
“If the knight wins,” said Megan, “he will have forty-nine kills left before he can move up in class and, of course, in society.” Amelia then remembered the illustration in the book she’d read. One down and forty-nine to go now made sense.
“Has that ever been done?” asked Amelia. “I mean fifty kills?” The very idea of kills brought home to her just how this event was going to go.
“Not in my lifetime,” said Megan, “but the World Council agreed on fifty, so it is fifty.”
“And what does the dragon get out of this?” asked Amelia. There was nothing in the book about any reward.
“The notoriety of beating a knight plus his life,” said Megan.
“That doesn’t seem much,” murmured Amelia.
“It is more than enough for a dragon.” Jens shrugged.
Amelia noted that neither Megan nor Jens had much compassion for either knight or dragon. The upcoming fight was merely entertainment for them. They were happy to eat popcorn, drink soft drinks, and watch.
“I gave the knight my handkerchief for good luck,” said Megan. “If he survives, I may take him on as the one I look after between battles. He should be good for at least a year.”
“What then?” Amelia asked.
“My dear maiden, knights and dragons are not meant to last,” said Jens. “If he remains in good shape for the next five years, he will be doing well.”
“So every year, he will be risking his life?” Amelia asked.
“Every six months,” replied Jens. “There are two seasons. But I do believe this young knight has what it takes to last at least a year. He looks fit enough.”
“Yes,” agreed Megan.
“Oops!” cried Jens. “I was wrong! The knight is down, and the dragon victorious!”
It took the dragon some effort, but he managed to sever the knight’s head and hold it up to the onlookers. Some cheered; others were silent. Then he drank blood from the head and tossed it aside. More cheers, more silence. Amelia was stunned, all emotion drained from her because what she was taking in was, for the moment, too difficult to mentally process. Jens and Megan, however, were enjoying the spectacle. Their faces were lit up as if they were at a circus and had just witnessed a successful highwire act. Amelia, quickly getting over her shock, found the attitudes of her companions revolting.