As she paraded in front of the raucous crowd, Rawena wondered which of her ‘family’ would try to kill her today.
The spectators filled the amphitheater to the awnings, ready to see her fight. Nobles, consuls, and priests sat in the first two rows, wrapped in togas against the cool February air. Behind them, plebeians shouted and placed bets while they watched Rawena and her familia—her fellow gladiators—tread the sand of the arena. Gaunt slaves stood in the back, chatting and enjoying their freedom until the end of the games when they would carry their masters back home in gilded litters.
Since her enslavement six months ago, Rawena had fought with blunted swords and pointless spears in a gladiatorial school near the amphitheater. Although she had often won, bruises covered her body like a mosaic. Today would be her first combat with sharp, deadly weapons.
None of her familia were aware that a curse hung above her, protecting her from their weapons and exposing them to deadly peril. Although she hurt and bled like anyone else, she could only be killed by fire or beheading.
If her heart was pierced, though, it wouldn’t be Rawena but everyone around her who would face death.
Trumpets pealed and cymbals clashed as a horde of guards led the gladiators past the orchestra and to a projecting podium reserved for the emperor, the senators, and the veiled Vestal Virgins. A breastwork surrounded the podium to protect the emperor from wild beasts—although most Romans thought the emperor was the wildest beast of all.
Nero reclined on a couch inlaid with mother-of-pearl. He wore a purple tunic and a cloak embroidered with gold. Although he was only twenty-six, he had been emperor for ten years, and he looked much older. Glancing up, Rawena found him ugly, with a fleshy neck that connected his spotty face to his narrow shoulders, and with weak, thin legs that contrasted with his prominent belly.
At the guards’ order, the gladiators knelt in the sand. There were a hundred of them, all barbarians, and mostly men. Rawena was one of five gladiatrices, or female gladiators. They all wore breastplates over their tunics, but they wouldn’t be armed until the combat.
“Hail Caesar!” they said in unison, as they had practiced before every training session. “I vow to endure to be burned, to be bound, to be beaten, and to be killed by the sword.”
Scared of fire, Rawena winced as she murmured the word burned.
Nero yawned and popped a plump date into his mouth. Then he waved his thin hand, and the gladiators stood. The guards marched them to a large waiting chamber that had long benches and tables heaped with cups of water and heads of garlic.
Rawena took a few sips from a wooden cup, but she was too tense to sit. So were most of the others. They fidgeted and looked around as if they tried to guess who had been chosen to fight against them. According to the veterans, nearly a quarter of the gladiators lost their lives during each set of games. Rawena feared that a spear or a sword would make her an immortal cripple.
Someone stood beside her and cleared his throat to catch her attention. Even before she turned to him, she knew it was Crimus, a tall Briton who took every opportunity to speak to her. As usual, Crimus smiled and stared into her eyes as if they mesmerized him. Her breath quickened when she saw his admiring look.
Rawena was nearly eighty but looked young, having become immortal in her late twenties. She still had the same smooth skin, the wild mane of auburn hair, and bright, violet eyes as when she had lived with her tribe in Bohemia. Crimus was only twenty years old, and she wondered what he would think if she told him she was four times older.
Just like Rawena, Crimus was a Celt, the younger brother of Boudica, a tribal queen who had risen against the Roman invaders in southern Britain. When the Romans had quashed the revolt, they had killed all the captives, even women and children. Crimus had escaped… and run into the clutches of slave raiders.
He was kind and cheerful, despite his fate, and his long fair hair and sharp yet gentle green eyes reminded Rawena of Garux, the only man she had truly loved—and who had loved her sister, Arvasia.
Although affection was the only thing Rawena had always wanted, it seemed to avoid her like an elusive shadow… until she met Crimus. She often wondered, in the darkness of her cell at the gladiatorial school, if they could have been lovers had they met in a better place. She didn’t think it likely. Brave as he was, he would probably run away from her in horror if he knew what she was, and what she had been forced to do in her past. And yet, his fondness made her feel human again.
“I just wanted to wish you good luck, Celta,” Crimus said in his deep but good-natured voice, his smile widening. The fear of her enemies made Rawena refuse to give her real name, so everyone at the school called her Celta because of her heritage.
“Good luck to you, too, Crimus,” she replied. She couldn’t understand his Icenic tongue, and he didn’t understand her Gaulish, so they spoke in Latin. “You always let me win during practice fights. But now it’s the real thing.”
“You’ll probably fight against one of the women, and you’re the best of them,” he said in a soothing, tender voice, his eyes drowning in hers. “I’m sure you’ll be fine.”
Rawena smiled and said, “Be careful, please, Crimus.” She took his hand and squeezed it.
Crimus took a breath to speak. Then a man beside them murmured, “Oh, shit! Fire-breath is coming.”
Rawena looked toward the entrance just as Rufio, the director of the gladiatorial school, walked in. He was short and lean, with a large bald spot surrounded by greasy black hair that looked like a rotting laurel wreath. His late father had opened the school after retiring as a general from the legion, and Rufio employed ten trainers and owned the gladiators. Although he was quick to hand out advice and criticism, nobody had ever seen him fight. Rawena had hated him ever since he’d bought her at a slave market from raiders from Delos.
“Hail pupils!” Rufio called as he stood in the middle of the hall.
“Hail patron,” the gladiators who stood nearest him mumbled. The others scowled and fidgeted.
Rawena tensed at the sight of a large wax tablet in his hand: now she would learn the name of her opponent.
“You have the enormous honor to fight in front of Caesar himself, pupils,” Rufio called to the gladiators in a gruff, pompous voice. “Now you will hear the program of the games.”
He paused and looked at the table. “What is this?” he boomed, his face reddening. “How come nobody has eaten any garlic? Are your nails too fine to peel it? Are your stomachs too delicate to handle it? You damned ladybugs!”
He pointed to the nearest gladiator, a red-haired Scandinavian giant.
“Come forward, Celos!”
Celos scowled as he shuffled toward Rufio. The other gladiators rolled their eyes.
When Celos came closer, Rufio tilted back his head, stood on his tiptoes, breathed in Celos’s face, and asked, “What do you smell, huh?”
“Garlic, patron,” Celos mumbled.
“Garlic!” Rufio boomed, victory roaring in his voice. “See? Even I, a man superior to all of you by birth and rank, a Roman and a patrician, enjoy this wonderful plant. Garlic, pupils! Garlic sharpens your eyes and mind. It gives you strength and vigor! And you scum dare turn up your barbarian snouts at it?”
Rufio glared at the gladiators, like a hawk near a field full of mice. After a while, a young Nubian lost his nerve, took a sliver of garlic, peeled it, and took a bite.
“Here’s an example to follow!” Rufio exclaimed, pointing to the Nubian, who gasped and moaned, tears running down his cheeks.
As the Nubian grabbed the nearest cup of water and emptied it, Rufio lowered his eyes to the tablet.
“Now, there will be ten skirmishes throughout the afternoon. Those whom the lack of garlic rendered too weak and unskilled for one-to-one combat will fight in groups of six or seven.”
As Rufio read the names, the slaves, who were even lower on the society’s hierarchy than the gladiators, adorned the necks of some combatants with green scarves, while they wrapped red scarves around the necks of their opponents. Rawena and Crimus weren’t among them.
Rufio continued, “The gladiatrices, except Rawena, will fight with spears against… a Barbary lion.”
A murmur of alarm rolled around the crowd, and the four women turned pale. The veterans always said it took about five weathered fighters to kill a lion.
Worrying what Rufio had planned for her, Rawena bit her tongue and clawed at the skin on her forearm, as she always did when she was nervous. She tasted the familiar tang of blood in her mouth, and she ripped scabs that hadn’t healed in decades.
“The rest of you will fight in pairs,” Rufio continued. “The first two are Celos and Erdus.”
The slaves led the two combatants into separate corners so they wouldn’t try to harm each other to gain an unfair advantage.
Rufio said, “The next two fighters are… Celta and Crimus.”
“No!” Crimus shouted, his eyes flashing with fury and dread. “You cannot do that, you garlicky bastard! Don’t you know how I feel about Celta?”
Those words went straight to Rawena’s heart. She watched with a quickened pulse as Crimus strode toward Rufio, his arms outstretched as if to strangle him. Then three guards rushed at Crimus and beat him to the floor, and she screamed with anger. The other gladiators heckled and insulted the guards, but none of them dared intervene: Rufio had their lives in his hands, and he was known to be vengeful.
Rufio reached for his dagger, and Rawena feared he would stab Crimus. On impulse, she rushed at Rufio and felled him. The impact made her stumble and fall on all fours, but she scrambled up to kneel on Rufio’s chest.
Her heart galloped with thrill when she saw the shock on his face. She screamed triumphantly as she dug her sharp nails into his cheek. Rufio screamed in pain and enveloped her head in a garlic stench. Two guards grabbed her by the shoulders and dragged her off.
Rufio scrambled to his feet, a malicious sneer on his bleeding face. A sudden silence fell on the chamber.
“A change of plans!” Rufio boomed, wiping the blood from his torn cheek. “The four gladiatrices will fight against one another. Crimus will fight alone against Celos and Erdus. And our fearless Celta will fight alone against the lion.”
Gasps and murmuring rolled around the chamber, and icy terror gripped Rawena’s soul.
“That’s not just, Rufio!” Crimus shouted, writhing in the grip of the guards who still pinned him to the floor. “Celta has never even trained against a beast. You know she has no chance!”
Rufio glowered and thundered, “That’s enough, you insubordinate barbarian hound! If you survive the combat, you’ll receive a hundred lashes with a whip. And at the next games, it will be you against the lion.”
Rawena wanted to shout in protest, but one of the guards who was restraining her clasped his hand over her mouth. When she tried to bite him, she ripped her lower lip.
Rufio turned to her and grinned. “Pray to all your primitive gods that the lion hasn’t eaten any garlic!”
* * *
A fanfare signaled that the four gladiatrices had finished their combat. One of them walked in with blood running down her shoulder but with a relieved, victorious smile on her face. A guard took her under the arm to lead her through a brick tunnel to her cell in the gladiatorial school.
Two other gladiatrices limped in, pale, bleeding, and supported by slaves who took them to the infirmary. Two more slaves brought the last gladiatrix on a stretcher. A dreadful wound to her forehead told Rawena they would take her to the morgue.
A whiff of cool air blew into the waiting chamber through the open door and made Rawena shudder. She only wore a knee-length, sleeveless tunic, and her arms and legs were exposed. But it wasn’t just the cold that covered her skin with goosebumps.
She feared Crimus would be also taken to the morgue. And what about her? Would she be ripped, maimed, and disfigured, and left to linger for eternity? And what if Rufio realized that nothing could kill her? Would he make her his prize gladiatrix and force her to fight every creature imaginable?
She recalled what he had said earlier about praying to her gods. If he only knew what kind of terrible deity held power over her!
Fifty years ago, she had accidentally awakened Pandemia, the rat-goddess of pestilence, who had turned her into a pawn in a mad game: Rawena would live forever, but if someone pierced her heart she would survive, her blood would turn pestilential—and she would have to unleash a plague during the following lunar eclipse.
To make the game more exciting, Pandemia had also made Rawena’s sister Arvasia and her lover Garux immortal, cursing them to chase Rawena through eternity and try to prevent the outbreaks. The rat-goddess had won the first round of her game, and Rawena feared that, as she had become a gladiatrix, another round would come soon.
She dreaded causing another plague. But if she destroyed herself or failed to infect someone, Pandemia would trap her soul in the skin of an eternal rat, curse her to eternity in a putrid swamp, and unleash the plague in any case.
The fanfares blared again, and Rufio shouted, “Celos and Erdus, get ready to destroy Crimus!”
The three men received their swords and walked toward the exit.
As he passed her, Crimus whispered, “Farewell, Celta.”
He gave Rawena a yearning look, but a guard pushed him out into the arena before he could say more.
Rawena’s heart leaped into her throat. Had he been going to tell her he loved her? Her instincts told her that he had—although no man had ever told her that. Not in all eighty years of her life.
The three gladiators bowed to Caesar and raised their swords. With her breath stuck in her throat, Rawena watched through the doorway as Celos and Erdus swept their swords at Crimus, making him duck, parry, and shuffle backward. She bit her tongue when they drove him toward a barrier on the other side of the arena. Then the slaves closed the door.
A dim clashing of steel still reached her ears, and she tried to guess what was happening. At one point, the crowd cheered and stomped their feet. Then they booed. She clawed at her forearm when she envisioned Crimus lying in the sand with a broken skull.
Blood trickled down her forearm and began to drip on the floor when the crowd cheered, and fanfares erupted. The door swung open, and Celos and Erdus walked into the chamber, filthy yet unscathed. Rawena pulled away from the guards to ask what had happened when two slaves carried Crimus in on a stretcher.
“No!” She ran to the stretcher, but a guard blocked her way and pushed her back.
As the slaves passed her, she saw that Crimus’s eyes were open and gliding around the chamber. Gory sand covered his hair and beard, and blood gushed from a deep gash in his thigh, pooled in the stretcher, and dribbled onto the floor. Pain wrought his face into a grimace, but when his eyes found her, he smiled and raised his hand.
Tears of relief cruised down Rawena’s cheeks. The crowd must have pleaded for Crimus’s life, and Nero must have given in.
She watched the slaves carry him to the infirmary. Then a smell of garlic told her to turn around.
“Are you ready to play with your new pet?” Rufio asked with a sneer. He dabbed at his ripped cheek with a silk handkerchief and hissed with pain. “Just wait to see the claws he has got!”
Rufio nodded to a guard who handed her a spear and an oblong wooden shield. Another guard stuck a dagger under her belt. Then they pushed her outside.
The sudden sunlight blinded her after the shadows of the waiting chamber, and the roar of the bloodthirsty spectators thundered in her ears. The bloodied sand stuck to her bare feet as they led her to the center of the arena.
Rufio followed them and announced, “Wild gladiatrix Celta against a lion!”
The trumpeters played a fanfare, and the crowd thundered with thrill.
“Bow to the emperor!” Rufio snapped.
She bowed, unsure whether she was even facing Nero. Her eyes raced around the arena, frantically searching for the beast.
Rufio and the guards rushed back to the waiting chamber, and the slaves closed the door shut. A balding servant who stood behind a barrier on the other side of the arena rolled up a blind and revealed a tall, barred gate. A menacing roar erupted from the darkness behind the metal bars. A moment later, an enormous lion emerged from the shadows.
The cheering grew deafening. Rawena gasped and scrambled away, as far from the lion as possible. The crowd booed.
The servant tugged on a piece of rope to pull up the gate. The lion squeezed through. The servant let go of the rope, and the gate fell with a thundering boom.
The lion spotted her and trotted forward, his mouth half-open to reveal his giant fangs. Saliva dripped from his lower lip. His eyes shone with hunger. She had only seen lions on murals, and this beast seemed larger and more sinister than all of them put together.
Rawena kept retreating, her eyes gliding toward the waiting chamber as if she hoped the door would open to let her in. Then her back hit the wooden barrier.
The lion trotted forward and stood a few steps from her. He tilted his head when she lifted the spear. She felt tempted to hurl it at him, but if she didn’t fatally wound him, she would have only the dagger and shield left to defend herself.
The lion stepped closer and swung his large paw at her, like a kitten playing with his food. She thrust the spear forward, and the metal point cut through the paw. He uttered a deafening roar as his blood gushed out of the wound and steamed in the cold air.
The lion fell back, and she hoped she had scared him off. Then he sprang.
The impact knocked her to the ground like a blow from a catapult, pinning her face-up under the shield. She nearly lost her breath as the beast landed on top of her. Although she tried to shrink behind her shield like a tortoise in its shell, his fangs grazed her arm. For a moment, she didn’t feel anything. Then pain seared through the gashes and made her scream.
The spectators cheered and stomped their feet. Some of them urged her to fight. Others called to the lion to rip her head off.
Rawena dropped the spear, yanked the dagger from her belt, and sank it into the lion’s front foreleg. The lion recoiled, giving her room to maneuver. She thrust the shield upwards and slammed it into the lion’s belly. As he snarled and bit the shield’s edge, she let go and grabbed the spear.
She scrambled up and dashed to the other end of the arena. Although she tried to squeeze herself through the gate, the gaps between the bars were too narrow. Screeching in despair, she pressed her back against the gate and stared at the beast. The lion limped toward her. Her body shook with fear. She only had the spear to fight with.
Halfway across the arena, the dagger fell out of the lion’s foreleg. Blood gushed from the wound, but not enough to weaken him. Although he approached her carefully, he wasn’t discouraged.
As the lion broke into a run, Rawena lost her nerve and threw the spear. The point stuck in the lion’s back, and he roared in agony. Although he sat down and swiped at the spear to dislodge it, he couldn’t reach it.
Rawena turned to the gate. It was about ten feet high and had six transverse bars that made it look like a cage. She grabbed the bars and started to climb.
The lion stood and leaped forward. He reared, hooked one paw around a bar for support, and swung the other paw at her. She had climbed out of his reach, though, and he roared with fury.
Although the crowd booed, she allowed herself to exhale. The metal bars chilled her feet and hands, but she clung to them like an infant to a mother. Then she heard a sound below her.
She looked down through the bars just as Rufio rushed up to the gate from the inside. He had a long javelin. And he raised it toward her.
For a moment, she thought he was going to give her the weapon. However, the malicious sneer on his face told her he was going to thrust the javelin through the bars to make her fall, and so she scrambled sideways away from him. Her hands sweated and her feet trembled as they slid along the transverse bars.
Rufio followed her from the inside, and the lion from the outside, roaring at her back. The lion still couldn’t reach her, but Rufio outpaced her and thrust the javelin into her foot.
Rawena screamed in pain. And fell.
As she hit the sand, the lion slowly circled her, savoring every moment. The spectators shot to their feet and thundered with bloodlust.
Her battered foot wouldn’t let her get up, and she froze with terror. The lion got close enough to reach her with a short leap. Blood covered his back so it looked as if he wore a red saddlecloth.
But he was still strong enough to rip her apart.
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