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Authors: Eva Scott

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BOOK: Barbarian Bride
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“Raise your finger!” Lucius hissed as Alex clung to his arm, horror etched on her pretty face. “Do it now!” There was no hope of her hearing him even if he shouted. All he could hope for was she would have the presence of mind to raise her index finger in defeat. Decimus, as
Editor
of the game, would then decide to spare her or to let her die. The crowd clearly wanted her death. Lucius swallowed hard and looked to his father. What would Decimus decide? He wouldn’t put it past the old dog to order her death. If so, then he would live to rue the day he had ever sired a son.

After what seemed like the longest moment of his life he saw Klara raise her index finger and the crowd howled in response. Decimus let the crowd bay like dogs for a little longer before rising to his feet, every inch the Senator, and gesturing for silence. Slowly the shouting stopped and Decimus waited until all that could be heard was the snap of the shade sails overhead as the wind tugged at them and the rustling of the restless audience.

Decimus then turned to look at his son, one long, searching look. Lucius remained on his feet, not caring if his feelings were exposed for all to see, braced for his father’s next move. Decimus turned back to face the combatants and slowly raised his right arm, his fist closed. Alex dug her fingernails into Lucius’ arm and he drew her close to him, grateful for her support. With a quick movement Decimus made his decision. The crowd booed and hissed while both Lucius and Alex slumped back into their chairs with relief. Klara lived to fight another today.

Down below them Klara was helped to her feet by her opponent. She limped from the arena without looking up. Lucius watched her go, his desire mixed with relief and worry. Today was a reprieve but who knew what the future held? He watched Decimus as he laughed and talked with his guests. The next bout would begin shortly. While the crowd were clearly upset about Decimus’ decision to let Klara live Lucius knew they would be rewarded with blood before long. Decimus did nothing that was not carefully calculated for effect.

“That was awful! Do you think father knew who she was?” Alex asked as she fanned herself furiously.

“Oh yes,” said Lucius softly. “He knows.” He kept his eyes trained on his father’s back.

“Well, then she was never in any
real
danger. He wouldn’t let her die knowing what she means to you.” Alex relaxed and Lucius sensed his sister’s rationalisation made her feel safe again.

He turned to face her. “Don’t fool yourself Alex. He would see Klara dead in a heartbeat. Today’s little performance was to ensure I don’t disobey him.”

Alex sat bolt upright. “But you
love
Klara. Father knows what love is—he loved Mother enough to free her and make us his legitimate heirs. Surely he wouldn’t kill the woman you love out of spite.”

“May I remind you he remains married to Claudia and has no intention of ever putting her aside in favour of Mother? Wake up, Alex! The world of the Roman elite is not about love it’s about power. We are merely expendable pieces in Father’s game. You of all people should know this.”

Alex’s eyes filled with tears. “Shh! Gaius will hear you.”

Lucius took pity on her and covered her hand with his. “Dear sister, if I could save you from your fate I would. As it is I cannot even save myself. The price is too high. It seems we are doomed to loveless marriages neither of us wants.”

“At least we have each other.” Alex offered him a watery smile as the trumpets blew announcing the next round.

***

The memory of her first fight was blurry. Klara could remember walking out into the sunshine from the darkness of the underground world of the Coliseum. The crunch of the sand beneath her feet, the deafening roar of the crowd remained clear. The way blood smeared on a bit of the wall and how everyone looked down shaking their fists haunted her dreams. Everything after that seemed lost in a haze as the trumpets had sounded and the fighting had begun. She’d thought she was ready. Sure of it. Yet the other gladiatrix had come at her with more force than she’d anticipated, driving her back. Perhaps if she hadn’t lost her footing things might have gone differently. Before she’d realised what was happening she was lying on her back with the crowd screaming something in unison she took to be a request for her death.

Klara had looked into the eyes of the other woman and seen steely resolve laced with compassion. If the roles had been reversed what would she have felt in her place? All these weeks she’d worked towards the moment she would walk out into battle yet now it was passed she realised the full import of it. Kill or be killed. While her life was spared today it just as easily could have been taken. And she may have to kill someone else in cold blood herself.

The
Editor
had taken the longest time to decide her fate and she had truly believed he would take her life. The crowd demanded it. The relief which had flooded through her at his decision made her knees wobbly as she’d struggled to stand, aided by her opponent. The other gladiatrix said not one word as she helped Klara from the arena amidst the booing and catcalls. Somehow she’d ended up in her cell, divested of her fighting gear.

Her body began to shiver uncontrollably. Every day had been a challenge, not just physically but mentally and emotionally too. She worked so hard to keep her mind focused, her feelings locked up tightly and her body ready for the fight. The enormity of her situation shook her to the core. Shock took over as her body was racked with tremors. She was so cold. Crawling to the corner, she covered herself with the thin blanket they allowed her. Her bruised head ached from the blows received and it seemed as if the clanging sound of sword on helmet continued to ring inside her ears.

What was she to do? Lucius had not returned in time. If they scheduled her for more fights there was a very good chance she’d be dead upon his return. She could not escape; they made sure of that by keeping her locked up securely and away from the others. The only option left to her was to fight well enough to not only survive but to win the coveted
rudis
, the symbolic sword given sparingly to victorious gladiators which granted them freedom. Klara curled up in the straw, her pitiful blanket pulled over her head. Her thoughts tumbled around in her mind, refusing to line up in a proper order. Finally her eyes drooped and she gave over to sleep; the only true freedom she still possessed.

Chapter 18

Klara sat against the wall in what little shade the courtyard afforded. She wiped the dust from her arms where it had mingled with her sweat, forming a layer of grime. All she managed to do was to smear the dirt and make it worse. What did it matter when hours of training lay ahead of her meant more dirt and more sweat? The sun beat down remorselessly, casting its blinding glare across everything. She tipped her head back against the wall and closed her eyes.

Two cycles of the moon had passed and there had been no word from Lucius. His sister had not visited either. Her whole world had shrunk to the size of this courtyard where she trained daily. If she was not here then she was in her cell deep under the Coliseum. A cell of her own in the relative peace and safety of the Coliseum allowed her time to reflect, to draw on her strength and to face each day as it dawned.

A small boy carting a large jug of water approached and Klara drank gratefully from the cup he offered. She tried not to think about Lucius. He belonged to another world, one she was no longer a part of. Thoughts of him only served to remind her of the hopelessness of her situation. She could only pray he was safe and doing what he could to rescue her. The rest was up to her.

“Up!” cried Doctore. As much as Klara hated him she could not help but admire his fine physique, still strong even as he aged, but also his ability to survive this Roman nightmare. She rose to her feet, muscles protesting as they always seemed to at this time of day. The sun arced overhead making it too hot to practise. “Everyone to the baths!”

Klara turned to go. “Not you, Queen of the Hun. You stay here.” Doctore’s voice rang out across the training ground. She stopped and stood waiting in the hot sun. He approached her as the last of the gladiatrices left the courtyard.

“Sirom wants to see you,” he said. “Follow me.” She fell in behind him, the slap of their sandals loud on the marble floor as they entered the house.

Sirom’s office lay deep within the
luda
. He sat behind his impressively large hand-carved desk studying parchments. Light from torches flickered on the walls; the room was dark no matter what time of day. From somewhere the sound of water created an illusion of peace.

“No not
those
accounts. I want the other accounts.” Sirom spoke crossly to one of his slaves, waving the man away with a flick of his wrist. “Can’t you people get anything right? Ah!” he said upon seeing them enter the room. “The Queen of the Hun. How lovely to see you.” He smiled benignly and folded his arms across his stomach which had grown considerably since Klara had first met him.

She nodded in acknowledgment of his greeting, however mocking it was, then trained her eyes at a spot on the wall slightly above Sirom’s head. She stood perfectly still waiting for whatever disastrous plan he had for her, certain he hadn’t asked to see her because he wished to offer her freedom.

“As you are well aware several weeks have passed since your first fight. I believe the time has come to put you back in the arena.” Klara’s eyes snapped to Sirom’s face at his words. “Oh, don’t worry. I won’t be pitting you against anyone you can
lose
to. You’re far too valuable a commodity to risk. Our new patron, the great Senator Decimus Aurelius, has a personal interest in you it seems. Only the gods know why, but who are we to question our betters, hey?” He laughed and threw up his hands as if they all found the joke funny.

Klara noted Doctore didn’t crack a smile. Sirom continued as if he hadn’t noticed the lack of response. “So we’ll begin with some of the older, tired gladiatrices. You need to get your sword bloody and learn to kill without conscience. I can’t have you letting us down at the last minute in front of the elite and powerful. To that end we’ll be sending you out of Rome to some of the lesser stadiums. You need to build a reputation and I think the provinces are as good a place as any to begin.”

Klara’s mind reeled at the influx of information. Senator Decimus Aurelius was Lucius’ father. If he had agreed to become patron of the
luda
then surely her freedom must not be far behind. Lucius must have cut a deal with his father. It was the only explanation as to why such a man would suddenly be involved with a creature like Sirom. But she was being sent out of the city to the countryside. To learn to kill cleanly. She didn’t know which fact was worse. She harboured no desire to kill for the entertainment of others and if she was in the country how would Lucius find her? Panic began to rise in her chest, constricting her throat. Gulping a breath in an effort to remain calm she returned her eyes to the spot above Sirom’s head and counted her hammering heartbeats. It would not do to let Sirom see how his words had rattled her.

“Doctore, arrange a guard to accompany our Hun Queen. I don’t want anything happening to her on the road. She’ll leave tomorrow morning so have her good and ready.” Sirom turned his attention to Klara. “I trust you will see this as the opportunity it is and not cause me trouble or bring shame upon the house of Livius. Don’t think the favour of our patron will protect you if you misbehave. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, sir.” Klara answered with what she hoped was a strong voice. She sounded scared to her own ears and hoped no one else noticed.

“Good. Dismissed!” Sirom turned back to his scrolls, bellowing to his slaves. “Where are those damned accounts? I asked for them ages ago! Don’t make me whip you.”

Klara followed Doctore out of Sirom’s office and down the long cool corridor leading to the training courtyard.

“You heard Sirom,” Doctore spoke not breaking stride nor turning to look at her. “Make yourself ready to leave in the morning.”

Her heart had not stopped pounding. Questions buzzed about her head and the need for answers overrode her natural caution. “Where are they sending me?”

“You will discover that when you arrive,” said Doctore before he stepped out into the sunshine leaving her standing forlornly on the step, more alone than ever before.

***

“I shall be delighted to vote for your son. He’ll make an excellent
quaesitor
. Think of all his experience with finance and trade. Just what the Senate needs.”

Lucius let the conversation wash over him as he struggled to keep his heavy eyes from drooping shut. In the last two months he’d been dragged around to a countless number of banquets by his father, where he sat bored and restless while Decimus pressed the other guests for their vote. To become a
magistrate
of Rome one had to be elected, hence the relentless campaigning. Lucius stifled a yawn. How much longer could the evening last? The thought of Klara and the need to keep her safe was the only thing keeping him in his seat.

He let his eyes wander about the room as his thoughts drifted away. The banquet had been sumptuous with larks tongues and stuffed swan served to guests reclining on slightly elevated couches arranged around a low table. Each one held space for three guests. Lucius found himself wedged between a large gentleman and his even larger wife. Personally he preferred the straight forward customs of the barbarians—sitting around a fire cross-legged with food in a bowl. All this reclining couldn’t be good for the digestion.

He beckoned a slave over to fill his glass. The wine took the edge off the excruciating boredom he experienced at these events. How was he going to manage living out his life as a Roman public servant if he struggled through a simple dinner? Taking a large gulp of wine he studied the floor mosaic depicting the legend of Apollo and Cassandra. He wondered what future Cassandra would see for him, if she could. Right now things seemed bleak indeed from where he sat. No doubt Cassandra would agree.

BOOK: Barbarian Bride
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