Authors: Lauren Hawkeye
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General, #Erotica
This one is for my amazing editor, Chelsey Emmelhainz. Without her incredible patience, eagle eyes, and unflagging enthusiasm, this one may not have happened.
wanted to celebrate.
Behind me, the sounds issuing forth from the crowd were deafening. The entire arena vibrated with the fervor of those who had watched the day’s festivities. People vied for my attention, for a look from me, a smile, even a scowl. Some women even flashed their breasts at me, and though I was not interested in the fairer sex in that manner, I appreciated the sentiment.
They were all celebrating my victory. Celebrating me.
I had won. I was that much closer to being the champion of Rome.
My throat dry and coated with the dust of the arena, I turned away from the body of the man that I had just killed. As I rejoined the group of men who were my brothers in our
—the training school for gladiators—I focused instead on my triumph. Though I had not had a choice to become a gladiator, I had chosen to embrace the life that I had instead of chafing against it. Yet I still felt a twinge in what was left of my soul when a man fell to the kiss of my sword.
I could not dwell on that, or I would go mad. So as the few men who I allowed to call me companion patted my hard back and boasted raucously of my prowess in the arena, I grinned and took the skin of water that was pressed into my hand, dumping it over my head instead of drinking deeply.
The cool, slick wet ran in rivulets down my skin, refreshing and reviving. Reaching for another full skin, this time I drank, the water clearing my throat and wetting my mouth. It helped to rinse away the bitter taste left behind by what I had just done, and helped to remind me of who I now was.
I would never win the battle between the two emotions, forever warring as they were inside me. I knew that I damned myself with every life that I took, and I hated myself for that. At the same time, I knew that I had had no choice, and I also felt pride over my fame, which had been hard won.
I was no longer the trembling young girl who had been sold into slavery by her family. I might not have had freedom, but my life was better than many who did.
“Easy enough to kill a Gaul.” As I spoke, I bared my teeth at Darius, who was the closest thing that I had to a friend in the ludus. A massive man, he was more than twice my height, and his coal dark skin shone with the perspiration from his own bout with death as he swatted my ass with a hand the size of my head.
“We are not all so easy to defeat, you know.” A Gaul himself, Darius was the only man in the ludus who was permitted to touch me, a right that had taken him a long time to earn.
His overtures of friendship toward me had been greatly helped by the fact that he had arrived at the ludus after I had. In my mind, he was separated from those who had done me so wrong.
The others knew better than to try to touch me, which was something that had taken
a long time to convince them of. Most of them liked their testicles best where they were, hanging heavily between their legs, so they now let me be.
The corner of my mouth quirked up in a smile. This light touch was Darius’ way of saying that he was proud of me. The man who had just fallen to my sword had been highly ranked in the city of Rome, and only the best, the fiercest, had ever had a hope of making him fall.
I did my best to embrace the thrill of the victory, and to swallow down the bitter taste that my actions had left in my mouth.
“Tonight we feast, my friend.” I hooked an arm casually around the massive muscles of my friend’s own limb, wishing very slightly, not for the first time, that I was his type. “I shall use my winnings to buy us wine and fruit.”
The iron gates that led onto the arena sands were hauled open, feet away from us. The next men to face each other were forced onto the expanse of sand, one looking ready for blood, the other green with nerves. I felt a pang, deep inside of me, for the man who had so clearly not yet come to terms with his fate.
Then the gate closed, preventing the gladiators from fleeing the sands. I closed my eyes briefly, banishing the sight of the one man’s fear from my consciousness. Deliberately I moved farther away from the gate, farther into the space that ringed the arena and was closed to the public.
My friend followed me. Turning until we faced each other fully, Darius tucked a strand of my tangled honey hair behind an ear. His hand came away slick with blood, and I clapped my own hand over the appendage.
My hand came away bloody, too. I scowled at the smear of red on my hand, not liking that my opponent had gotten in a blow, no matter that it was the only one and that it was naught but a scratch.
I could not accept even a small hit from an opponent. I needed to focus on being untouchable, unbeatable—on the sands and off.
I poured the last of my water over the blood that stained my hand. It dripped onto the leather of my
—that brief leather garment that was wrapped around my body—and I grimaced at the red that now streaked my clothing.
I did not like the reminder of what I had just done.
“Fierce as always, Lilia.” Darius shook his head at me as I handed him the pouch of
that I had been presented with minutes earlier, while the blood of my opponent stained the golden sand at my feet. “And foolish. You should not trust others with your coin.”
“I do not trust others. I trust you.” The genuine happiness that my friend gave me began to dissipate as I caught sight of several of the other men from my ludus who had gathered in a herd not far from where I stood with Darius. My fingers moved involuntarily to the bloody sword that lay sheathed at my hip, hanging from my
my sword belt. Though I doubted that I would need it—I had long since proven that I was more than willing to fight back—my first horrific months as a slave in the ludus still haunted me.
“Lilia.” Darius’ words were a warning. He was not overly concerned that I would be harmed—he knew that I could take care of myself—but there was supposed to be honor among the brotherhood, a level of respect.
I was reprimanded time and again for my lack of this same respect. I always reminded our
—the trainer at our school of gladiators—that, as a woman, I was not one of the brothers.
Darius did not actually expect me to show respect—he knew how deep my true feelings ran. More, his words were a warning, a reminder to me that I needed to keep some modicum of peace.
If I pushed too far, Bavarius might strike back, just on principle. He was not a man who had taken well to being bested by a female. The threat of retaliation had been percolating in the background for years, and I was ever aware of it.
I was highly ranked in the ludus, and Bavarius’ skill hung somewhere in the middle of all of the men. This was like a festering wound to him, an ever-present source of anger.
“Darius, take that coin and secure our pleasures for the evening.” I heard the man sigh behind me, but he did as I asked. He hesitated, and I knew that his thoughts were aligned with my own.
Any one, or even two or three, of the men who were watching me and muttering would not pose a problem for me, for I was strong. However, if they were to attack me in a group, and they had before, then I was in trouble.
But for Darius to offer me help at that moment would have shown those men that I was weak, that I needed help. He knew better than that—he knew how savagely I fought to keep my reputation strong and untarnished.
With another sigh, he removed his worn
—the leather belt that we all wore to protect our waistline. Swinging it from his arm, he cast a last look at me to make certain that I was okay.
I nodded, furrowing my brow at the unnecessary protectiveness, then listened to the padding of Darius’ feet, shoed in soft leather, until I could hear his steps no more. His aggravation over my need to jump straight into a fight would fade later in the day when he had a belly full of
—that sweet mixture of honey and wine—and a hot man or two sucking his cock.
“And what of our pleasures, little Lilia?” called Bavarius. He was a Gaul like Darius, but unlike my kind friend he was a bloody brutal fellow who could have been champion if he could have but learned to rein in his base desires for food, fighting, and of course, fucking. “What shall you provide for our entertainment?” The men surrounding him—the vilest of brothers in our ludus—laughed as well, following his lead, as they always did.
My skin crawled as the man addressed me, and as the group of men eyed the expanse of skin that showed in my worn leathers. I refused to let any of them see that they still had an effect on me, and instead I rolled my eyes to the heavens. Bavarius never tired of pushing at me, and the conversation grew irritating, for I would never again be weak enough for him to lay a hand on me.
I supposed that, without Bavarius, I would not be the warrior that I was today. I did not feel as though I owed him thanks—I could never scrub the images of the abuse that I had suffered at his hands from my mind—though I was stronger now. I had to be. And so, to cut off the exchange at the start, I drew my sword from where it rested at my hip and began to polish it clean with the hem of my subligaculum.
I was not stupid enough to voluntarily take on a group of trained warriors at once. But my blood was heated from my win, and I was angry that he could still affect my thoughts and feelings. I longed to teach him a lesson, to humiliate him again as he had done to me so many times.
Part of me dared him to make a move.
From the corner of my eye I saw Bavarius staring at the blade. He was the one that I had to pay attention to—none of his cronies would lift a finger to me unless he did so first . . . and I had demonstrated to him in the past that touching me again would be bad for his health. Because of this, I was unprepared when, perhaps finally tired of being forever bested by me, or perhaps just wanting his onetime plaything back, he lunged forward and made a grab for the polished metal.
Having been trained to focus on the immediate danger, and with adrenaline pumping fast and furious, I did not turn toward the sound of the deep, warm voice when it spoke, though the sexy rasp certainly registered in my consciousness. I could have kept my sword in my own hands easily on my own, and found myself irritated when a hand far larger than my own reached out and knocked Bavarius away from me, sending him sprawling to the ground. Puffs of pale dust flew, coating the man’s already filthy flesh.