Authors: Eva Scott
“So you’re to become a
, hey?” The old man next to him wheezed like a blacksmith’s bellows.
“That is indeed my father’s intentions,” Lucius worked to focus on the man’s face. “He would like to see me rise up the magisterial ranks.”
“And why not? You’ll do well in financial matters and we all have to start somewhere, hey?” The man laughed heartily and Lucius doubted he’d ever had to work his way up through the ranks, probably having been born somewhere near the top to begin with. “Fear not, I shall vote for you.”
“Thank you,” Lucius said in what he hoped was a humble tone, worried his lack of gratitude might show through. He took another mouthful of wine before he could say something he’d regret.
“May I offer our congratulations on your upcoming nuptials?” The man’s wife spoke from the other side of the couch.
Lucius choked on his wine, nearly causing it to snort out of his nose. The old man thumped him on the back. “There, there. I was nervous before my marriage. It’s normal. I wouldn’t worry about it. Have some more wine.” He gestured over a slave carrying a wine jug who topped up Lucius’ goblet.
“But I’m not—” Lucius spluttered.
“Of course you are! We’re all terrified before the big event even if it’s for different reasons.” The old man leaned past Lucius and winked at his wife who simpered like a young girl. “I hear your bride has…” he gestured with his hands to indicate large breasts. His action set off his wife’s shrill laughter. Suddenly the room seemed hot, the air cloying. Pushing himself back and up off the couch Lucius mumbled an excuse and left the grotesque couple to their lascivious giggling.
He stumbled across the dining room and out through the first door he came to. It led to a quiet courtyard where a fountain played under a patch of open sky. Sighing, Lucius slumped down onto a marble bench and gulped down great breaths of fresh, cold air. Overhead stars sparkled in the night sky immune to his growing problems.
He shook his head. How could his father arrange such a thing and not tell him? No doubt Decimus had picked some patrician’s daughter, someone befitting the son of a Senator—even if he was an illegitimate son. He dropped his head in his hands as fatigue hit him. Sleep was what he needed. If he could get some sleep he could figure a way out of this mess. Rubbing his tired eyes he sat back against the cool stone wall. Perhaps he could talk Decimus out of the match. He wasn’t ready for marriage. Not yet. By Jove, not ever! The only woman he wanted to marry was Klara and Decimus had made it very clear their union was impossible. He groaned and closed his eyes. A moment ago his future seemed bleak and boring now it appeared suffocating, an intolerable prison of his father’s making. He had to come up with a plan to get out of this mess—but what?
Klara wiped the blade of her sword with a piece of cloth, carefully removing all traces of blood and flesh. She took her time, focusing only on the weapon in her hands, careful to think of nothing else. The day had seen her first kill in the arena. Numbness invaded her limbs and froze her mind. The fight had seemed unreal as from if a dream – or a nightmare. Sirom was right; they had matched her with a woman she could easily beat. The fact they were ill-suited to each other meant the other gladiatrix appeared weak and lacking in courage. The truth was she was injured and tired, exhausted from a life of brutality. As Klara held her down with her sword point at the woman’s throat she had looked into her eyes and had seen any absence of hope.
of the games had given the signal for death, the crowd had cheered wildly. As Klara had run her blade home she rationalised her unavoidable action as releasing a tortured soul to an afterworld of peace. “May your gods protect you and hold you close,” she’d said as the light died in her opponents eyes. “May you fly free.”
What surprised her most of all was her lack of reaction. She had fought before on the Great Plains with her tribe and had felled men with her bow and arrows yet the experience of running a sword through a helpless woman bore no resemblance to anything she had done before. It was wrong, horribly wrong, but all she felt was a creeping coldness in her bones that threatened to turn her soul to ice.
After finishing cleaning her sword, she placed it in its scabbard and wrapped it in soft leather. While she was forbidden to keep it with her, the sword would be kept safe by the slave who looked after the weapons store. She would have need of it again shortly. Beckoning over one of the many slave attendants, she handed over her sword. What she needed now was a long soak in a hot bath. Whatever else might be said about these Romans she was grateful for their bath houses. Maybe the hot water would help stop her from turning entirely to ice.
Lucius barely had a foot in the front door before Alexandra fell on him.
“Klara is back! They’ve brought her back to Rome,” she said breathlessly, as if she’d been running.
He stopped with a jolt in the entrance as the heavy door slammed shut behind him. “When?”
“Two days ago. Lucius you have to tell her what’s going on. She thinks the two of you are going to be together once she’s free and that’s not true.”
“Don’t you think I know that? I can’t exactly go and see her now, can I?” He didn’t bother to hide his annoyance. “I suppose you have some wonderful idea of how to sort this out.” He folded his arms across his chest and glared down at his sister. She barely let him draw breath before her attack and he was under enough pressure as it was.
“Of course I don’t!” Alexandra snapped, sounding equally as vexed. “I just think you need to speak to her about what’s going on. How do you think she’ll feel if she hears about your wedding from anyone other than you?”
Alex had a good point. Lucius had been putting off telling Klara they could never be together. He hadn’t a clue how to have that conversation.
I love you, I’m marrying someone else but look on the bright side you’ll be free! That makes one of us
. When she was sent out to the provinces his fears for her safety increased while a strange sort of relief settled on him. Her absence bought him time even though he knew no amount of time was going to alter his situation. If he didn’t marry the girl Decimus had chosen for him then Klara would die one way or the other.
“You know I can’t saunter down to the Coliseum and have a chat with her openly.” Alex opened her mouth to speak and he held up his hand to stop her. “And before you offer your services let me remind you Father has both of us followed. He’ll ask questions about why a fine Roman young lady such as yourself is hanging about with a barbarian gladiatrix. And there is no answer you can give him other than the truth. Any contact we have with Klara puts her life in danger.”
Alex stared him down, hands on her hips. “I know that. Just because the situation is
doesn’t mean you should give up.”
“Did I say I’d given up? I just haven’t found a solution as yet. You may have noticed there are preparations underway for my upcoming betrothal and my appointment as a
. Not to mention I have to find somewhere to live. I can’t very well go on living here. I’ve got a lot to think about.”
“There is nothing to think about as far as I can see.” She waved away his concerns with a slender hand. “You have no choice so you turn up, say what needs to be said and keep a smile on your face. Just like me.”
He captured her hand in his, his voice gentle. “I am truly trying to find a way out for both of us. Any choice I make has consequences and I can guarantee you they won’t be nice. I need to think of Mother too. How is Father going to react when he discovers both his children have rebelled?”
“I didn’t think of that,” whispered Alex, tears gathering in her eyes. “Oh, Lucius it’s all so hopeless. I’d rather be dead than married to that old toad.”
He gathered her to him, enveloping her in a brotherly hug. “Shh! Don’t say such a thing. We’ll get through this, we’ll manage. As you’re always saying, at least we have each other.”
She looked up at him, offering him a watery smile. “I never realised until just now how annoying that sounds.”
Lucius laughed. “You’ve still got your sense of humour, I see. Now come along and let’s find something to eat. Sitting about listening to Senators pontificate all morning has given me an appetite.”
A pleasant surprise descended upon Klara like an unexpected gift. Sirom was returning her to her cell beneath the Coliseum, not to the
as she had feared. Solitude and peace at last! Her tour of provincial games had not only exhausted her with long stretches of travel, the journey her soul had been forced to undertake had left her hollow and numb.
“Welcome home.” Pulus, the ugly little man who managed the underground comings and goings of the Coliseum ushered her into her cell. In the corner stood a bed crudely constructed of wood with what looked like a straw-stuffed mattress. Klara raised her eyebrows in surprise.
“It’s good to be back,” she said meaning the words.
Pulus smiled showing his broken, blackened teeth. “Good. Don’t go thinking the bed means anything. Your patron wants you rested for a big event. All of Rome has heard about the Queen of the Hun. Sirom has had his men running about the city scrawling graffiti everywhere.” He secured the door to her cell with a deft, practised move. “The game is scheduled for three days. You should draw a good crowd. I’m expecting a Scythian warrior woman later. They’re making her fight a man, can you believe it? The Coliseum will be packed. She’ll be housed down here with you. Seems like the
is full these days.” He chuckled which set off a coughing fit. Klara watched him impassively through the bars. “Sleep well!” he said once he’d recovered. Pulus turned and limped down the corridor leaving her alone with her thoughts.
The first thing she did was pull off her sandals and collapse on the bed. The straw was lumpy. Whoever stuffed it did so without care but Klara didn’t mind. It made a nice change to sleeping on a hard cold floor. Rolling on her side, she cradled her head on her arm. The sounds of the Coliseum were strangely familiar and comforting. Someone shouted an obscenity to which they received an equally passionate reply. Klara smiled. She had become quite adept at the language of Rome. Not much passed her by these days.
In the distance a lion roared. If the big animals were already housed in their stalls then the game Pulus spoke of must be close indeed. Normally they would keep the animals caged elsewhere until they were needed. Pulus hated cleaning the animal stalls, especially if the animal was inclined to eat him or his slaves. Her mind turned towards the upcoming game. No doubt they would pair her with a stronger gladiatrix than those she had been fighting. If she had been brought back to Rome then Decimus Aurelius had a plan for her. Long months with no word from Lucius caused her to suspect he had been unsuccessful with his plans. Perhaps he had not returned from his travels. Perhaps he was already dead. She had no way of knowing, yet deep down inside she thought she’d know if he were dead, that she would
Faith was something she had spent hard hours cultivating. Fear of becoming so hard and cold no love could save her stalked the edges of her mind. She had to believe Lucius was out there somewhere, still alive. She had to believe not only could she save herself but she would. The Romans were renowned for their blood thirst. They would not be kind to her if she failed to win.
Rolling on her back she closed her eyes and relived as much of her first bout as she could remember. Great chunks of memory were blurred or missing entirely. This time would be different. She had learned a lot and she was stronger now than ever before. They would not find her wanting in the arena. Her limbs relaxed, cradled by the lumpy bed. Taking a deep breath she allowed herself to fall from the edge of waking into a dreamless sea of sleep.
Pulus’ voice woke her. “You’ll stay down here until the fight,” he said. “After that, well, let’s just say we know which gate you’ll be leaving by.” He wheezed with laughter. “What are these pictures on your skin? You look more barbarian than any other gladiatrix. The crowds are going to love you.” Klara heard a cell door open. “Now stand still while I get this off you.” Then the door closed again and she heard Pulus shuffle off down the corridor without another word, as if he’d suddenly lost interest.
She swung her legs off the bed and crossed her small cell. Peering out between the bars she could see a woman sitting on the floor looking forlorn.
“So you are the Scythian Warrior Woman?” Klara asked, careful to speak her native tongue so the newcomer would understand her.
“My name is Xanthe and I am Sarmatian” she replied.
“Whatever you are you will be dead by tomorrow.” Pity laced Klara’s voice. They weren’t giving this poor girl a chance. Fresh from whatever slave market she’d come from and straight into the arena.
“And you? Who are you?” The woman chose to ignore Klara’s prophesy which showed strength of character.
“I am Klara. A Hun. They keep me here because I am… untrustworthy.” Klara laughed, dirty and low.
“Truly? Where else would they keep you?”
“The Gladiator training school of course, but I don’t like doing what I am told. I won’t have to after tomorrow. It will be my last fight and I will be free.” Klara had made up her mind to fight so well the
, whoever he was, would have no choice but to give her the
“Perhaps we will fight each other.” The Sarmatian sounded nervous.
Klara laughed again. “I don’t think so. You are to fight a man. Big spectacle. Everyone will be talking about it. This almost never happens so the crowd will go wild. Of course, you cannot survive such an encounter but no doubt you will fight hard. Why else would they bother pitting you against a gladiator? It would be no sport at all if you could not hold your own.”
A blazing fierceness gripped Klara. The Sarmatian had to understand there were no second chances in the arena—lose and it could cost you your life. “My advice to you, kill as quickly as you can. Do not hold back. He will be fighting for his life; never forget that. Now you should sleep while you can.” Fatigue overtook her, a deep weariness for this life. She sighed and withdrew to a shadowy corner of her cell, wrapping herself in a blanket. Before long the warm tendrils of sleep wrapped about her and she gave herself up to them once more.