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Authors: Eva Scott

Barbarian Bride (21 page)

BOOK: Barbarian Bride
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Lucius had found himself in some tight spots in his life, especially in recent history, but this undertaking was crazy even by his standards. The hot afternoon slowly slid into evening as he made his way via the back alleys towards the Coliseum. Dressed in his travelling clothes and with his face grubby he hoped to pass unnoticed amongst the throng.

He kept his head down and his hand lightly on a short dagger tied at his waist. While he didn’t want to appear nervous he carried a small pouch of gold coin which made him vulnerable to Rome’s many pick pockets and thieves. He turned the corner and the Coliseum shone brilliantly in the sunlight, the white marble reflecting the rays of the setting sun. There wasn’t much time. He quickened his stride, checking behind to make sure he wasn’t being followed.

Approaching the gate to the Coliseum Lucius stood tall and walked with purpose, nodding to the guard as he entered. The man let him pass unhindered and he sauntered into the building looking for someone to bribe. He didn’t have to wait long. The place was humming in preparation for the upcoming games. Lucius approached a guard who looked like he could use the money. He’d become practised at smelling desperation on others. A quick conversation and an exchange of coin did the trick. The guard’s eyes lit up at the sight of a gold coin, chances were he’d never laid hands on one before. While Lucius had brought several, one was all it took to persuade the guard to leave his post and take him to where they were holding Klara. It was almost too easy.

A maze of corridors and cells populated the space under the Coliseum. Despite the heat outside, the temperature inside was almost chilly. Lucius followed the guard along the uneven cobblestoned floor around so many turns he began to wonder if he’d be able to find his way out again. Finally the guard stopped and indicated a short corridor housing several cells. He grunted, turned on his heel and left Lucius where he stood.

The only light emanated from torches burning in sconces overhead. Lucius let his eyes adjust to the shadows, finally making out sleeping figures in two of the cells. Slowly he made his way to the first cell. Peering in he made out a woman curled up asleep in the straw, her hair red as flame and the swirling tattoos of the Scythian tribes decorating her arms. Cautiously he moved further along the corridor, treading softly so as not to wake anyone.

Something odd happened to his heart when he saw her. She was unmistakable, lying there with her dark hair coiling in a long braid, her chest rising softly with each breath. He longed to throw upon the cell door and touch her, hold her to him, feel the length of her pressed against him. The weight of the unfairness of their situation bore down upon him. He should be marrying Klara not some woman whose name he struggled to remember. His life should be spent riding across the open plains with Klara by his side, not stuck in some drafty room listening to self-important men drone on endlessly. Lucius sighed. Things were the way they were and he was powerless to change them.

“Pssst!” he hissed through the bars. Time rolled on and was in short supply as it was. Klara sat up startled, on her feet in seconds, one hand going instinctively to her waist for a weapon that was not there. “It’s me, Lucius.”

She was with him in an instant. “Lucius! Is it really you?” She reached one slender arm though the bars grabbed a fist full of his shirt and pulled him closer, close enough to kiss. He groaned deep in his throat as their lips met awkwardly. Something in the very core of him gave way at her touch and he clutched at her, desperate to be closer.

He pulled back abruptly. “I don’t have much time. I had to bribe a guard to see you.”

“It is so good to see you,” Klara whispered, drinking in his face with her eyes. “I wondered if I would ever see you again.” Her fingers traced the outline of his lips.

He grabbed her hand and held it still against his chest. “My father agreed to be patron of the
which met Sirom’s condition of your sale.”

Klara gasped with surprised delight. “Then I won’t have to fight anymore! I will be free.”

Lucius’ shoulders sagged. How to tell her the truth without breaking her heart? “I’m sorry, my love, but it’s not as simple as that. My father has threatened me if I don’t become a magistrate and settle in Rome he will see to it you do not survive your fight. I don’t have a choice. If I defy him you will surely die.” He clutched her hand tighter as she made to pull away.

“No!” she shouted.

“Shh!” he said, an edge of desperation to his voice. “We don’t want to attract unwanted attention.” He looked down the corridor but there was no movement or indication anyone had heard. “My only hope is my father will agree to set you free once his conditions have been met. I couldn’t live with myself if you died because of me.”

Klara sagged against the bars, the fight going out of her as suddenly as it came. “I don’t want to live without you!” she cried. “I’d rather be dead.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Lucius said curtly. “You will survive and go back to the plains, go back to your freedom. Do you understand me?” He took her by the shoulders and made her look at him. She had to understand this was the only way for them. He didn’t have the heart to mention his betrothal. One blow at a time.

Klara searched Lucius face, hoping for a clue that this was some kind of joke, a cruel joke. All she saw in his sky-blue eyes was a yearning sadness. Her chest constricted and her stomach convulsed as if someone had hit her there. She dropped to her knees, his hands slipping away, as the import of his words sank in. Grief took the place of what little hope she had harboured in her heart. Tears rolled freely down her face and she didn’t care if he saw them. This could not be happening! Had they not suffered enough?

She felt him crouch down next to her on the other side of the cell door rather than saw him. His hand stroked her head with great tenderness as she wept. “I’m so sorry Klara. If I could change the situation I would but this is the only way I can save you. My father has wanted me home for a decade. Now he has me in his grasp he’s determined to blackmail me to stay.”

Klara nodded her understanding, wiping away her tears with the back of her hand. She looked up at him, as realisation dawned. “These games, they’re his aren’t they? He’s the Editor?”

Lucius nodded. “Yes. They are to honour his father’s memory. I have to give my answer to him before the games or he’ll make sure you die one way or the other.” He held her hand, rubbing his thumb in lazy circles across her palm. “Can you forgive me?”

“There is nothing to forgive.” She laid her hand upon his cheek, taking in the sight and scent of him, knowing this may be the last time she got to touch him. “I will love you forever whatever happens next.”

He bowed his head, his voice gruff. “And I you, whatever happens next. Please remember that.” Lucius took her hand and kissed her palm gently before standing and striding away, his legs and back stiff with emotion.

She slumped on the floor and let her tears flow until there were no more to cry, until all that was left was an empty hollowness where her heart had once been.

Chapter 20

“But I’ve never had to do this before,” Klara protested.

Pulus shrugged. “You do now. Put that on and be quick about it. You’re due at your sponsor’s banquet early. They want to get a good look at you before the others arrive.” He walked away leaving a pile of garments on her bed.

Klara poked at them cautiously with a finger. They seemed harmless enough. She held up a short skirt made of soft leather and inspected it. Nothing fancy but it would do. The other item was a breast plate made of moulded leather. Not as heavy or thick as one she might use for fighting. This one was purely decorative. She snorted with derision. They wanted her to get dressed up and parade in front of the Senator’s guests as if dying on the floor of the Coliseum wasn’t entertainment enough.

The skirt fitted perfectly and the breast plate sat comfortably on her. Pulus obviously had a good eye for a woman’s size and shape. She folded up her old tunic and placed it at the top of the bed then sat quietly waiting for Pulus’ return. The tattooed Sarmatian woman slept on. Klara understood all the forms of exhaustion now; mental, physical, emotional and spiritual. Sleep provided a temporary respite from it all.

Pulus returned shortly and released her from the cell. “Follow me.”

He led her to a group of other gladiators and gladiatrices who were dressed in similar finery. Guards with long spears stood nearby ready to escort them to the banquet.

“Right! Your attention!” Pulus stood on a wooden box so he could see them all. “You are being accompanied to the house of Senator Decimus Aurelius where you will dine on a sumptuous banquet. You will be polite and attentive to any of the Senator’s guests who wish to engage you and you will
speak to anyone unless they address you first. Remember, he is the sponsor of our upcoming games and this event is to let his guests get a good look at you. You are heroes!” He threw his stumpy arms into the air but elicited no cheers with the action, a fact which didn’t seem to bother him in the least.

“Now go! And remember I hear everything so don’t misbehave.” He gestured for the guard to fall in and they surrounded the gladiators swiftly. At their Captain’s cry they marched forward out of the Coliseum and into the dusky night.

Klara trudged along with the others listening to the light-hearted banter being exchanged between hardened gladiators. She was surprised to hear they were looking forward to the feast figuring being gawked at was a fair exchange for some decent food. None were foolish enough to mention it might be their last meal but the unspoken words hung on the evening breeze all the same. They had lived this long and were hopeful to survive a little longer.

The Senator’s villa was nothing of note from the outside with high walls and a sloping roof offering no glimpse of the courtyard and gardens which lay within. Klara stepped through the heavy wooden door and into a world she never knew existed—Lucius’ world. She gasped at exquisite murals on the walls as they passed through connecting rooms to the banquet hall. The eyes of the figures in the painting followed her, watching her every move.

A servant led them to the banqueting room. The Senator had set up a long table with chairs as opposed to the reclining couches the Romans favoured. Each of them took a seat. As they did so, doors at the end of the room swung open releasing a gaggle of intoxicated Romans. They chatted and laughed amongst themselves as they lined the walls, wine in hand, ready to watch the gladiators eat their last meal.

Klara watched them, careful not to make eye contact with anyone. She glanced surreptitiously left and right, seeking Lucius amongst the guests. Surely he would be here. Plates laden with roasted chicken, lamb and goat began to arrive, the aroma making her mouth water. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a proper meal, one that left her full and satiated. If this was to be her last meal then she’d make sure she would avail herself of the offerings. The other gladiators tucked into the food with little ceremony, ignoring the Romans and the music which suddenly began to play. She noted a small group of musicians tucked away in a corner. Reaching for a chicken leg she sunk her teeth into the tender flesh, letting the flavour explode on her tongue.

Wine was poured and Klara took a gulp. She was surprised at the quality, grateful that Decimus was generous to his fighters. The food and wine began to have their effect and she relaxed enough to take a proper look at her surroundings. The walls of the room were stained a deep red, no mural marked these walls. Apart from the table in the around which the fighters sat the room was devoid of furniture. The Senator’s guests milled about along the walls, their needs tended to by slaves who scurried back and forth bringing jugs of wine from elsewhere in the house. Sconces held torches, the only features which could be called decoration.

Klara popped a piece of chicken in her mouth and chewed thoughtfully. She knew enough of Roman customs to know the wealthy preferred to banquet on couches, although why one would want to eat while reclining escaped her. Surely indigestion would be a problem? So tonight’s little feast around the table was pure show for the guests. Watch the barbarians eat! Romans disgusted her. Despite the fact all the gladiators were dressed in finery and dining on delicacies the intention was to entertain the Romans, not benefit the fighters. Tomorrow the same Romans would watch them die, cheering for every drop of their blood spilled on the sand. Anger and hatred stirred in her belly causing her bile to rise. Damn them all!

Beyond the doorway a commotion sounded. Into the room came more gladiators, both men and women. Klara recognised the red-headed woman. Watching her walk into the room suddenly filled Klara with ire, not specifically for the Sarmatian girl but for all within the confines of the Senator’s dining room.

“Look everyone!” she cried in her own dialect knowing few but the fighters would understand her. “It is the great Scythian warrior woman come to join our feast. Let us raise a toast to her last day in the mortal realm!” Klara held her cup high as she smiled as if this was simply an ordinary feast. Xanthe made her way to a seat next to the prickly Hun. “I am Sarmatian” she hissed as she sat.

Klara offered her a shrug of indifference and gestured with a chicken bone at the heavily laden table. “Eat. It is expected. Another part of the great Roman spectacle. The people like to watch us eat our final meal.” She shrugged. “The Romans are barbarians at heart.”

The girl said nothing by way of reply and Klara turned her attention elsewhere. The noise level in the room rose as the wine did its work. People around her talked loudly, laughed and argued yet they all appeared to be down the end of one of those clever Roman tunnels. She had to be careful, any more wine and the fate of tomorrow’s fight would be sealed before she set foot in the arena.

The Sarmatian woman rose and went to speak to someone down the far end of the table. Pity bubbled up in her heart for the girl but was quickly squashed by the steely self-preservation she had cultivated so carefully over the months. The girl had her own lessons to learn. Klara could not afford softness and kindness, not here. She drained her cup and pushed it into the centre of the table, away from the ever present wine jugs. Where was Lucius? Surely he’d be here tonight at the demand of his father.

BOOK: Barbarian Bride
4.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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