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A Gladiator's Tale

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The girl squinted in the harsh sunlight, blinking away the sweat stinging her eyes. She kept a wary eye on the quaking teenager standing opposite her bearing the fishing net and trident typical of the retiarius gladiators. He was obviously a tiro, a new and inexperienced gladiator, who most likely did nothing more than snatch an apple from a street vendor. The boy did not know how to properly handle his weapons, as he had already proven. His opponent sighed, resigning herself to murdering this youth.

As she watched, the boy advanced shakily toward her, inexpertly whipping his net around. The net caught on a loose stone and tugged the boy off balance, causing him to stumble and fall at the other gladiator’s feet. He frantically scrambled around for his trident, and then froze in the realization that he had dropped it in the scuffle. He slowly raised his gaze, fear palpable in his wide and anxious eyes as he looked up at the woman who would decide his fate. He did not have to worry long.

The crowd inside the Coliseum cheered in bloodthirsty ecstasy as she raised her arms in victory. She waved and smiled at the spectators yelling her name, but all she felt was exhaustion. After she was finished parading around, she strode to one of the doors connecting the arena to one of the many underground tunnels that twisted beneath the stadium. “Congratulations, girl, you survived another battle,” leered her lanista, or trainer, and the man who owned her and the other gladiators who were taught at the Ludis Magnus. She brushed past him as taunts and catcalls from male gladiators echoed behind her.

She stepped out into the afternoon sun, walking briskly toward the gladiators' barracks inside the walls of the school. She was ready to collapse onto her cot after a cold wash when she heard a commotion out by the corner of the ludi, the growls of angry men and - what was that? It sounded like a girl’s desperate cries. Knowing she would never get any sleep with this clamor outside her room, the gladiatrix ventured outside to find the source of the noise. It was not difficult. A few minutes later, she came upon three Roman soldiers hauling a group of slaves out of a wagon. The gladiatrix presumed they were prisoners of war who had been too rebellious to be sold as household slaves, and so had been sent to the ludi to be trained to fight in the arena. She was a bit taken aback, however, when she realized a young, dark-skinned girl, no older than eighteen, was being dragged forcefully out of the wagon also. She wasn’t making it easy for her captors, either; for every meter they dragged her, she lashed out at them, kicked, scratching, and biting. For a split second, the girl’s black eyes met the gladiator’s green, and the older girl felt a strange tingle run down her spine. Then someone hit the slave girl in the back of the head with the hilt of his sword, and she fell to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut. One of the soldiers instructed, “Take the kid to her room, but make sure it’s locked. This one has given us more than her fair share of trouble.” The guard nodded and tossed the girl over his shoulder like a sack of grain before striding off in the direction of the gladiators’ quarters. After a soldier snapped, “What are you lookin’ at?” in the direction of the milling gladiators, the small crowd slowly dispersed, wandering back to their respective lodgings for the night.

---

The next morning, the gladiatrix was awakened by a high, reedy keening that seemed to resonate throughout the compound and leave her rattled and uneasy. She assumed it was the foreign girl from the previous night. It seemed like a rational response given what the girl was going through, but the gladiator still felt shaken. She rolled her shoulders a few times as she sat up on her small cot and began to don the light armor and twin swords that marked her as a dimachaerius gladiatrix, and set out for the training fields.

She had had a tough training session that day, and it made the cold water of the baths even more blissful than usual. She was making her way back to her room before dinner when she heard a small noise, almost like a whimper. She realized she was passing the room in which the foreigner from the previous day had been locked up. When she peered inside, she saw the girl curled up, her eyes screwed up in an expression of pain, although the gladiatrix did not see what could be causing it. She leaned up against the wall next to the door, watching the other gladiators sparring.
She jumped when she heard an accusatory voice growl, “What do you want?” The gladiatrix glanced at the room’s occupant, who was glaring up at her with wide, accusing eyes framed lushly with dark lashes.

Pushing herself off the wall, she replied coolly, “Nothing that involves you.”

The girl looked a bit taken aback, but quickly recovered and jutted out her chin with false confidence. “Oh. Okay. Well…good.”

The gladiatrix gave a slight smirk, nodding skeptically. “All right, I guess I’ll be going then.” The girl started, quickly holding out her hand and saying, “Wait…!” The gladiatrix turned back to her, waiting expectantly. “So…why are you here?”

The older girl shrugged casually. “Just passing by.” They both knew that wasn’t what the girl had meant. It was rare for females to be gladiators, and although it wasn’t illegal, it was never a very popular choice for women. After a short, icy pause, the gladiatrix relented, explaining, “When I was very young, my mother died. Since I never knew my father, my elder brother was the only person I had left to care for me. He worked several different jobs, but he couldn’t stand to watch people get treated unfairly by those with more power.” She rubbed the back of her neck with a calloused hand, grinning ruefully at the memory. “That’s hardly a quality the patricians want in their servants, so they got mad pretty regularly, and he would often come home all beat up. One day, he got into a fight with the wrong person, and—” Her hand dropped, and the cocky grin slid off her face.

“I didn’t have anyone left in this world. My only goal was to get revenge, and I nearly did. Beat the guy half to death. I only wish I could have given that guy what he deserved.” Her smile was back, but this one was bitter and self-deprecating, and it scared the younger girl. “Anyway, that’s why I was sent here. I guess it’s fitting; my mother always told me I was a fighter. It’s how I got my name. Amazonia. My mother would tell me stories about my ancestors, how they were wild and free and their souls flew like birds. A race of warrior women.” The expression on Amazonia’s face was more wistful now, as if in spirit she too were racing through the forests, elated and freer than she could ever be in her real life. She mentally shook herself, brushing wayward strands of her wild red hair out of her face.

Amazonia turned her gaze back to the younger girl, who found herself squirming under the steady green-eyed gaze. The girl was still wary, but she felt like she owed it to the gladiatrix to give her story. “Well, I…I grew up pretty wild. My people live up north, and we travelled from place to place whenever we felt the need or the desire. I lived a life without restraints, and I was happy…” She smiled sadly, drawing back the sheets of black hair obscuring her face and hooking them behind her delicate ears. “Soon enough the Romans wanted our land, and we were forced to fight or be driven out. My clan, we chose to fight. It was a mistake.” She looked down at her clenched hands, her hair falling back over her face. “Most of them were killed; I was one of the few that the Roman soldiers decided to bring back to be sold as slaves. The man who killed my family…when we were back in Rome, he took me for himself. He wanted—” The girl squeezed her eyes shut and shuddered with revulsion. “I refused to stay there, and after I bit him in a rather…unfortunate…place, he agreed.” Although the girl was small and delicate, her eyes glinted with mischief and defiance when her black eyes once again met Amazonia’s green ones. “And I’m called Gisele, by the way.” Amazonia returned the girl’s cocky half-smile, and she knew they were going to get along very well.

---

After that, Amazonia visited the slight gypsy girl several times a day, eventually hauling a small three-pronged wooden stool so they could have prolonged conversations without any unnecessary discomfort on Amazonia’s part. Their discussions covered nearly every topic under the sun, and before long the girls were completely inseparable.

One morning Gisele surfaced from her sleep and, eyes still closed, absorbed the sounds of birds chirping, wind blowing through the trees outside, and keys clanking right outside her door. She cocked her head in confusion, cracking her eyes open and propping herself up on an elbow, intent on discovering the reason behind the noises. The first thing she saw was a smug freckled face inset with green eyes and framed by flyaway red hair. Amazonia’s arms were crossed across her chest, and she looked as proud of herself as a cat that had just caught a rodent. Gisele discovered the reason for this as soon as she found the source of the clanking: a guard was at the door of her room to unlock it for her! She had not been allowed outside the small room for long periods of time due to her not-so-cordial treatment of the Roman soldiers upon her arrival, but now it seemed as if Amazonia had managed to convince the lanista to let her out.

She danced through the dewy grass in her bare feet, twirling and giggling as Amazonia walked beside her. Once Gisele’s initial elation ebbed, it was overtaken by curiosity. She glanced questioningly at her friend. “How in the world did you manage to convince them to let me out?!” she inquired incredulously.

Amazonia smiled tightly as she answered. “I offered to train you to become a gladiatrix and take full responsibility if you go crazy again.”

Gisele stopped walking and looked at her solemnly. “I’m going to become a gladiatrix?”

Amazonia’s smile faltered. It was clear that she was not entirely pleased with this arrangement either. “Look, I’m sorry; I just had to do something before they got rid of you. These people aren’t sentimental. If you aren’t making money for them, you have to go.”

Gisele understood, and she was grateful for what her friend had done for her. She tried to cheer the other girl up, reaching up to sling her arm around Amazonia’s broad, well-muscled shoulders. “Hey, now you won’t need to protect me anymore, right? Maybe I can even return the favor.”

Amazonia grudgingly smiled down into the smaller girl’s eager black eyes. She found that it was impossible to be downhearted when the spirited girl was grinning infectiously up at her. She was significantly happier by the time the pair reached the training grounds. “All right, first we have to determine which type of weapon suits you best. That way we will know what type of gladiator you will be fighting as.”

Gisele enthusiastically complied, and the practice was going well until she suddenly cried out and collapsed onto the ground. Alarmed, Amazonia rushed over to her. “What happened? Are you all right? I didn’t hit you too hard, did I?” Gisele looked up at her and began to smile, but it quickly turned into a grimace as she winced in pain again. “No, it wasn’t your fault. It’s just my ankle. I broke it when I tried to escape the man who brought me to Rome, and it never healed quite right. I thought it would be all right, but I don’t think I am able to exert it too much without having to rest it periodically.”

Dismayed, Amazonia examined the ankle in question. It did indeed seem to be swelling up rapidly. There was no way Gisele would be able to continue practicing that day. “Well, we will just have to head back. We can try again tomorrow; I think I know a method of fighting that would work for you even with that bad ankle.”

Gisele smiled wearily, relieved. Amazonia helped her up and guided her arm around Gisele’s waist to support her as they limped back to their quarters.

As they neared the compound, the girls saw a group of about fifteen gladiators surrounding one man who they recognized as a gladiator named Spartacus. He seemed to be gesturing impassionedly for his makeshift audience. When Amazonia saw them, she tensed and quickly turned Gisele away and started walking faster toward their rooms.

Amazonia helped the smaller girl into her room, stooping to accommodate the low doorframe. She helped Gisele onto the bed and sat down herself, drawing Gisele’s head onto her lap and idly running her fingers through her friend’s long black hair. “All right, I have a plan that might allow you to still be able to fight, even with your ankle. Secutors are lightly armed gladiators who use speed and swiftness to confuse and surprise their enemy, so they are often able to end their matches relatively quickly. That would allow you to be able to fight without exerting your ankle too much or wearing yourself out.”

Gisele smiled in response, eyes closed placidly. They remained in silence for several more minutes, Amazonia rubbing lazy circles into the other girl’s scalp, before Gisele blinked up at Amazonia and asked, “Those men in the courtyard earlier with Spartacus. Were they the ones who are trying to organize an escape?”

Amazonia stiffened, and then relaxed, sighing and tipping her head back against the cool wall. “Yes. But I don’t intend to go with them.” She said this firmly, but there was hesitation in her eyes.

Gisele pushed herself up, forcing Amazonia to look at her. “What? You - it’s your dream to be free, to not have to answer to anyone but yourself. Why would you pass up a chance to have that?!”
Amazonia did not reply, simply stared straight ahead, muscles in her jaw twitching. Gisele realized with dawning horror why Amazonia refused to leave this place that she hated so much. “It’s…it’s because of me, isn’t it? I wouldn’t be able to run from the soldiers long enough for us to be able to escape. I’m right, aren’t I? Aren’t I?!” She was nearly shouting now, but her friend still refused to look at her.

Amazonia stood up abruptly, causing Gisele to scramble to catch herself. Amazonia turned around, staring straight at the gypsy girl, fists clenched tight. There was steel in her eyes, and her voice shook with emotion. “I refuse to leave you. Either we leave together or we don’t leave at all, and if you can’t escape, that means there is no way I will either.” Gisele started to protest, but Amazonia cut her off. “No, Gisele! I’m not leaving without you, no way! End of conversation!” Gisele stared at her for a few seconds, then gave a tiny nod. Amazonia held her gaze for a few more seconds, then collapsed beside her on the bed, slumping against the wall in exhaustion and relief. Gisele curled up against her.

---

They did not speak about the escape plot again for several months. In that time, Gisele trained as a secutor and won all of the contests she had been entered in. One day, they were both preparing for another competition. It was a tradition of theirs to chat while they helped each other get ready. It was a good way to beat pre-fight nerves. “It’s a shame the fights are at the same time. I won’t be able to watch you use those new techniques I taught you,” lamented Amazonia as Gisele helped her tug on her armor.

“Yeah, well, you saw them enough in practice. You made me do those moves over and over until I was even doing them in my dreams!” Gisele ribbed her.

Amazonia grinned good-naturedly in reply as she tossed Gisele’s shield to her and picked up her own double swords. “That just means you will be prepared to use them without thinking when you are in the middle of a battle. Remember everything I taught you, and best of luck.”

Gisele smiled back. “Best of luck to you as well.” Amazonia might have imagined it, but she thought the other girl’s smile was tinged with sadness as she turned away.

Standing outside the Coliseum, Amazonia mentally readied herself for the challenge ahead. She stepped into the streaming sunlight of the amphitheater, squinting as she waved to the screaming crowds. She kept her confident smile firmly on her face as she turned to face her opponent.

After she saw who it was, she felt significantly less confident. Gisele was standing opposite her, wearing her signature cocky half-smile, although it looked as if it pained her to look so cavalier.
Amazonia had no idea what to think. She stepped slowly toward her friend. “What- Gisele, what in the world…?!”

The small gypsy girl pressed her lips together. “I asked for this. I requested to fight you.” Amazonia was dumbfounded and could not even find words to express her thoughts. In fact, she was so blindsided by this new revelation that she didn’t even know what she thought. Gisele took this as a cue to continue. “I want you to kill me.”

Amazonia was startled back into action. “What?! No, stop. This is ridiculous. You’re—you must have lost your mind, there is no way I would—”

Her friend cut her off. “You know the rules of the gladiator games; only one of us is going to leave this arena. Amazonia, I want it to be you. I don’t want to be a burden to you anymore. I want you to be able to make your own choices.”

Amazonia’s mouth was hanging open. She was aghast and speechless.

Gisele gazed wistfully at the person she loved most in the world, a small smile on her face and tears in her eyes. She stepped toward Amazonia, closing the distance between them with a few short steps. She gently laid her hand on her friend’s face, stroking her pale, freckled cheek. “I’m doing this for you, I know you understand. Believe me, this is what I want.” Amazonia’s face was a mixture of shock and guilt, and she was so overwhelmed that she could not choke out anything more than a faint sob.

Gisele continued. “Now you won’t have to worry about me. You can be free, the master of your own fate. You—” Gisele’s smile faltered and slipped, giving way to a wet cough, spraying the coppery skin of her lips with a faint spray of blood. Amazonia slowly dragged her gaze downward in horror, to see one of her own swords protruding from Gisele’s abdomen. Gisele had walked directly into it when she stepped closer to Amazonia, and judging by the look on Gisele’s face, it was her full intention to do so.

Gisele’s smile returned again, sweet and innocent. “See? You were always the one who protected me; this is just my chance to return the favor. I always wanted to be able to keep you safe. I’m helping you see what’s best for you. Find your freedom, please. For me.”

Amazonia fell to her knees, still cradling Gisele in her arms. She started sobbing, gut-wrenching cries that seemed to claw out of her body and rip her apart. “No…no! You don’t understand! You are what is best for me; you are all I need to—” She broke off as Gisele’s trembling hand reached up to touch her face once again to stroke the tears off Amazonia’s face. Gisele smiled so sadly, so beautifully that it broke Amazonia’s heart. She looked like an angel.

Amazonia clutched the delicate hand to her face, protesting incomprehensibly, but she knew it was pointless when the hand went limp in her own. The two eyes that had once held the entire universe in their depths were now starless voids, black and empty and lifeless. Amazonia knelt there, paralyzed, before her world began moving again. “No,” she breathed hoarsely, feeling like she had been punched in the gut. No, it was far worse. This pain was more intense than any physical pain she had ever felt in her life. She repeated the word, louder this time. “No!” She started kissing the girl’s forehead, her nose, her wet cheeks, her hair that still smelled of wildflowers, becoming more and more frenzied.

It was useless. Gisele, the vibrant, incorrigible, boundless girl that she had known was gone, her body as light as a bird’s in Amazonia’s grasp. “No,” she whispered, pleading, one last time. The sickening reality hit her, and the desolation she felt slammed into her full-force, leaving her gasping and desperate for breath. She tipped back her head and screamed, the sound of raw grief cutting like a knife through the stagnant air of the arena. The roar of blood in her ears drowned out the cries of the spectators in the stadium until she could hear nothing else. She vaguely remembered feeling broken sobs wrack her body, remembered being torn away from Gisele’s rapidly cooling body, before she remembered nothing more.

 

EPILOGUE
The rebellion of the gladiator Spartacus and those who followed him in the year 73 BC was, ultimately, a failure. Eventually he was defeated in one final battle in April of 71 BC, which ended what came to be known as the Third Servile War, or Spartacus’ War. Thousands of gladiators and slaves were killed, and even more were taken back to Rome to be executed. If anyone had walked among the bodies of those peasants who had died defending what they believed in, they would have eventually come to the body of a female gladiator with long, wild red hair. It was not this that was distinctive, however: it was the expression of pure and innocent joy on the woman’s face, as if she had taken the hand of a loved one as they beckoned her toward the world beyond this one.