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Authors: Eva Scott

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Klara was startled out of her reverie by the sound of voices approaching. She strained her ears in an effort to recognise the speakers.

“It is most unusual to get a visitor of your calibre, if you don’t mind me saying so, my lady.” Klara winced at the grovelling tone of Pulus’ voice. Who would warrant the ugly little man’s high regard? He managed the cells beneath the arena and organised the fighters, keeping the activity behind the scenes running smoothly. She’d heard him address many people but never like this.

“My brother has been called out of the city on urgent business and I am curious as to the quality of fighter he intends to invest the family’s fortunes in.” The female voice was young and light, with a teasing note to it. Yet Klara sensed the girl had steel beneath as she had Pulus eating out of her hand.

“Of course. I must warn you, the Queen of the Hun is dangerous. Just last week she nearly beat a woman to death.” His voice dropped to a dramatic whisper.

“Really? I daresay the woman must have deserved it,” came the reply.

“Nevertheless, I am reluctant to leave you alone with the creature. What if she attacks you? It would be more than my job, it would mean my head!”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” the woman scoffed. “What reason could she have for attacking me? I come as a friend and on behalf of her patron. It will be fine, I promise you. Now show me to her immediately.”

Klara listened with growing interest. Who could this woman be? Obviously someone connected to Lucius. What she said about a patron sounded very promising indeed. She moved from sitting to standing in one fluid movement, wanting to be ready for whomever Fate had brought her.

Pulus came into view, his large bald head bobbing nervously. “This is the Queen of the Hun.” He gestured towards Klara. “Step into the light you wretched woman,” he snapped. Klara stayed where she was in the half-shadow. Let him come and get her if he dare. Pulus turned to the woman, frustration clear in his voice, “She is as stubborn and difficult as she is dangerous. I really do not feel I can leave you alone with her as you request.”

A young woman stepped around Pulus to stand in the sole shaft of sunlight illuminating the dark corridor where Klara was housed. Bathed in the gentle morning light, the woman’s hair lit up as golden as a summer wheat field, her eyes as blue as a vaulted summer sky. Klara knew the moment the girl turned to her and smiled that she must be kin to Lucius. She could not help but smile back.

“See? She likes me already. My name is Alexandra and I’ve come on behalf of my brother, Lucius Aurelius.”

She turned back to Pulus. “You may leave me now.” Her slender hand outstretched for the key to the cell. Pulus looked from Alexandra’s hand to her face, a frown creasing his already wrinkled brow. “I think I should stay with you to protect you,” he said clutching the key to his chest.

Alexandra laughed sweetly. “Dear little Pulus, my personal guard will be more than sufficient to protect me.” Pulus looked nervously at the burly man standing to attention behind Alexandra. “I would hate myself if anything happened to you.” Klara watched as Alexandra’s words melted Pulus ugly face into something resembling a smile. She swore the man blushed.

“You are right. If anything happened to me the Coliseum would ground to a halt and the games would not go on!” Pulus’ chest puffed with pride as he handed his precious key to Alexandra.

“And what would Rome be without her games?” she cooed. “I shall see you before I go and return your key.” She gave him a little wave to leave him in no doubt the intention of her words. Pulus stumbled backwards clearly entranced, his eyes starry. Alexandra waited until Pulus was out of sight before turning her attention to Klara.

“I have a message from my brother. May I come in?” she said, cocking her head to one side in query.

“Of course.” Klara motioned for her to enter. Klara had never met a noble Roman woman before and it was evident in every gesture Alexandra made that she was a woman of high birth. Suddenly she was conscious of her dirty face and rough attire.

Alexandra slid the key into the crude lock and pushed the door open. “Lucius would be most upset to see you caged up in here. Is it true you nearly killed a woman with your bare hands?” Her bright blue eyes held no malice or fear, merely curiosity.

“Yes, it’s true,” said Klara, her voice slightly husky from lack of use. “I beat her in self defence. Being here is safer than being at the
luda
.”

“Ah, I see,” said Alexandra, her delicate eyebrows rising. “Well, the sooner we can get you out of here the better. Lucius is having trouble raising the money needed to buy you. Father has refused to help, which is no surprise to us but will certainly be a disappointment to you.”

“I don’t understand.” Klara shook her head. “I thought Lucius was bargaining for me. What has your father got to do with any of this?”

“Sadly, quite a lot. Do you mind if I sit?” Alex gestured at the small rickety three-legged stool, the sole piece of furniture in the cell.

“Of course not, although I cannot vouch for its cleanliness.” Klara retrieved the stool and deposited near the door, sure Alexandra would feel safer with an escape route at hand no matter how confident the girl sounded.

“No matter.” Alexandra shrugged and sat, careful to hold her dress a little from the filthy floor. “That’s better. Now where was I?”

“Your father.”

“Yes, as you no doubt know our father is the illustrious Senator Decimus Aurelius, a name which might not mean much to you but has quite an impact here in Rome. Your nasty little
lanista
, Sirom, has named such an outrageous price for you I doubt even the Emperor would have the coin to buy you. He will consider bargaining if Father would consider becoming patron of his
luda
.”

“And your father has no intention of doing any such thing.” It wasn’t a question; Klara knew instinctively Lucius’ father would have no part in the deal. While Lucius spoke little of him, what he had said left her in no doubt of the type of man he was. The news made her knees feel weak as what little hope she’d cherished evaporated. She crossed to the wall and slid down so she sat on the floor near Alexandra.

“I’m sorry to say he doesn’t. This has put Lucius in a tricky situation. He’s done the only thing he could, he has left this very morning for the frontier.”

“What?” Klara’s head snapped up. He’d abandoned her?

Alexandra must have seen her shock upon her face. “Don’t worry, he has gone to raise the money any way he can. He is quite wealthy in his own right with his trade. Unfortunately, all the trade takes place in the far flung corners of the Empire so it might be a while before he returns.”

“What if he can’t raise the money?” Klara whispered, fear tightened wrapped its cold fingers around her heart.

“There is always Uncle Hetal, wily old beast that he is. I’m sure Lucius can borrow the shortfall from him. Uncle Hetal owes my mother a great debt.” She leaned across and laid a soft hand on Klara’s shoulder. “Try not to worry. Lucius will succeed one way or the other. I
know
he will.”

Klara dropped her head between her knees. Alexandra gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze before removing her hand; the gesture of comfort did more to bring her to tears than all the cruelties she had suffered to date. Struggling to keep her tears from falling, she sniffed and squeezed her eyes tightly shut and hoped Lucius’ sister wouldn’t notice her weakness. One thing she had learnt since being captured was there was no place for weakness in Rome.

Alexandra sighed. “This is an awful place, isn’t it? I don’t know how you cope. I’d be finished before the first day was done. I do admire you.”

“Admire me?” Klara raised her head, puzzled.

“We are both slaves of a sort. You are enslaved as a gladiatrix and I am enslaved to my father who is determined to barter me to an old man for power. Neither you nor I have any say in our fate. The one difference is you stand a chance to fight your way free and you have the love of a good man. I, on the other hand, have only myself and that’s not much good to anyone.” Alexandra offered her a weak smile. “So you see I
do
understand your predicament a little, although the fighting bit I don’t understand at all.”

Both women laughed then for although what Alexandra had to say was a sad truth, Klara recognized their shared sisterhood despite their different backgrounds. And in that moment it felt good to know she didn’t suffer alone. Alexandra was possibly lonelier than she.

“See? Not so bad,” said Alexandra.

“Thank you,” said Klara. “None of this is easy. I miss my homeland. I miss my family. I miss Lucius most of all. But at least I have Lucius. Is there nothing you can do to avoid your match?”

“Nothing. It is set in stone. The only way I can avoid my awful marriage is if one of us die, and I’d prefer that to be him.” Alexandra shot Klara a wicked grin and laughter bubbled up in her chest for the second time that day.

“I cannot remember the last time I laughed,” she said. “I am so tired of being strong all the time.” She turned to face Alexandra determined to let her know how grateful she was for her support. “It is good to be able to speak about such things. Fear and anger poison everything I do and think these days. It’s hard to keep them at bay. I often wonder if I survive this hell what kind of woman I will be. I worry my heart will harden to stone and drive Lucius from me, providing we both survive that long.”

Alexandra stood up abruptly. “There is no point the two of us sitting about in the dark being gloomy about a fate we can’t change, now is there? I need to get home before my mother sends out a search party or, worse still, my father hears about my visit. And you need to rest, train and stay alive.” She stepped outside the cell and carefully closed the door. “Lucius will come for you,” she said softly. “I’d bet my very life on it.”

Klara stood, facing Alexandra through the bars. “I
am
betting my life on it.”

***

Lucius rubbed his horse’s nose affectionately. While lead filled his stomach at the thought of leaving Klara so vulnerable and his sister facing her own predicament without him, another part of him rejoiced at the prospect of being out on the open road once more. He shamelessly enjoyed a nomadic life, completely opposed to everything a good Roman should want. Perhaps his father was right; his mother’s blood ran strong within his veins. He moved to check the girth straps on his saddle, a gift from an Alan trading partner. Romans had not as yet embraced the barbarian fashion of saddle but Lucius found them extremely comfortable for long rides.

“You are determined to leave us.” Olivia stepped from the shelter of the house into the courtyard. The pale blue colour of her dress gave her an ethereal air. While she looked many seasons younger than her true age, Lucius noted fine lines about her eyes that had not been there when he last visited.

He turned to her, arms wide. “Come give me a hug, Mother. I shall return, I promise.”

Olivia stepped into his arms and hugged her son fiercely. “Yes but I am not so foolish as to believe you will return for me or your sister. Another woman holds your heart now, I fear.”

He dropped a kiss on top of his mother’s head. “True. But you will always hold sway over my heart.”

“Mmm…” Olivia pulled back, a sceptical look upon her face. “I’m quite sure…” She didn’t get to finish as the clatter of hooves sounded behind them. A messenger rode into the courtyard and the stable slaves rushed to meet him. “I recognise him. He’s your father’s man.” She stepped forward to see what he wanted.

Olivia unfurled the parchment she had been handed, a frown upon her face as she read. She handed Lucius the scroll without a word as he approached. Taking the message he read quickly. “He wants to see me, he has a proposal.”

“Are you going to go?” She did not meet his eyes and he wondered how much she may have had to do with this. He wouldn’t put it past her to do what she could to keep him in Rome. The thought his father might have changed his mind sent fissions of excitement skipping along his spine.

“Can’t hurt,” he said casually. He rolled the message up and stuck it in his belt. “You never know, he might have something to say that I want to hear.”

Chapter 16

Lucius didn’t mind the lengthy walk from his mother’s house to the Senate, the place his father had chosen for their meeting. He enjoyed the exercise and soon he’d be on the back of a horse for a long stretch of time. Whatever Decimus had to say would no doubt be less than he wanted to hear. The Forum was already bustling with the day’s business as Romans rose early and were of an industrious nature. Knowing he’d be leaving the city for the rugged countryside Lucius enjoyed the sights and sounds. His stomach growled at the smell of freshly cooked food wafting from a nearby
popina
. He took note of the restaurant’s location, determined to call in after seeing his father.

The Senate had met early and the doors to the great building were thrown open, with men walking out in groups, animatedly discussing the proceedings. Somehow Lucius wasn’t surprised his father had picked a public place for their talk. The location indicated he might find the topic unsavoury. Decimus would be counting on the lack of privacy to encourage Lucius to restrain his reaction. He sighed and braced himself, hoping the old man had come around to the idea of patronage of a
luda
was foolish.

Lucius climbed the steps of Senate and waited to one side. Many men in pristine white togas milled about debating and plotting. He went unnoticed as they poured out of the Senate, still arguing the points of the day. Decimus appeared, surrounded by a retinue of several younger men all hanging on his every word. Lucius smiled. He knew how much his father wanted him to be one of those men. Life would have been easier if he had been born with the heart of a politician, instead of the heart of his mother’s barbarian people.

“My son!” Decimus cried theatrically, throwing his arms wide in embrace. Lucius suffered his father’s affections knowing they would have been far more subdued in any other context. But here on the steps of the great Roman Senate, gestures must be larger than life and half as sincere.

BOOK: Barbarian Bride
5.63Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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