[ Ah! For your reading enjoyment, an entire Thyatis/Diana fight scene - in a cage, no less! We just had one too many of these... ]
Stone counterweights squealed, sliding down grooved shafts in the floor of the domed room. As the granite plugs fell, a platform rose up, surmounted by an iron cage twenty feet on a side. Gaius Julius, standing in the shadows at one side of the room, smiled in delight at the apparatus. It was modeled on the huge lifting doors that had been installed in the floor of the coliseum. His host, the lanista of the oldest of the gladiatorial schools, stood at his side leaning on a walking stick. A cluster of young men, hard bodies gleaming with oil, leather and polished metal, stood behind master Narses.
“Very nice,” breathed Gaius Julius, seeing Diana for the first time as she would appear on the floor of the amphitheatre. “Well done!”
“We have some skill with these things,” grated Narses in his gruff voice. The master of gladiators was an ancient man for his profession, almost forty years old. His left arm was only a stump, sheared off by a Thracian’s gladius in a provincial fight almost six years before. “You should sell her to me now, before these fools have a chance to see what she can do.”
Gaius smiled, remaining the shadows. A dozen other men were in the room, their faces covered with masks. It was an illegal gathering, though there was little chance that they would be discovered. Narses’ servants were on watch at every door and passage.
“Narses, I want the other editores to see her, to spread wild rumor and rampant fabrication about her. It’s good for my business.”
The master of gladiators grunted, sharing a sideways look with the tallest of his men. Hamilcar looked back, a faint smile on his full lips. Unlike his fellows, he was wearing a black half-cape over one shoulder. The slick glossy sheen of the silk matched his hair.
“She’s worth watching,” ventured the African. “What harm can it do?”
Narses grunted again, then stood back. He had no time for these party games with masks. Like the old Roman, he would let the deep shadows in the fringe of the room shield his face from prying eyes.
“This is Diana,” said Gaius Julius, raising his voice so that it carried through the cavernous room. “She is an exotic, a true Amazon.”
The assembled men chuckled, their heads leaning close to one another. ‘Amazons’ had been put into the arena many times before, to a unanimously grisly end. The legends consistently became frightened drudges and slaves, driven onto the sand with whips and barbed spears. The number of successful female gladiators could be counted on one hand. They had not lasted long, not when put against the best of the men.
“Do you doubt me?” Gaius’ wry voice echoed from the groined vaulting above, seeming to come from out of the shadows on all sides. Four tall iron torch holders lighted the cage itself. The snap and hiss of the napthene wicks threw a ruddy red light on the cage and the woman inside. “Set a man against her, a professional, someone worthy of death at her hands.”
There was chuckling again, but one of the editores motioned to his companion. There was a rustle of cheap wool falling and a man stood forth, uncloaked, unmasked before the assembled men. He took two quick steps up onto the platform of the cage, stripping away his tunic as he did so. In the shadows, Narses snorted in disgust. The man was just a wrestler, not even a gladiator, and a Dacian by the look of his squared head and rippling muscle. He wore a close-cinched loincloth of dark leather and high sandals. Broad belts of leather studded with brass crossed his chest, highlighting the gleam of his oiled pectorals and biceps. He moved with a fluid grace, grinning down at the crowd.
“Is this the best you can do?” Gaius’ voice was smooth and arch. “This boy?”
“He will do!” Called the man who had sent him forth. His mask of peregrine feathers and painted wood danced in the fitful light. “He has killed sixteen men, none of them slaves! He is Molossus, champion of Greece!”
“A worthy name,” mocked Gaius, “let us see if his mouth is so soft that he can bring her back to you!”
Narses laughed softly, though the man in the peregrine mask stiffened at the play on words.
“Open the cage,” said Gaius, motioning to the slaves standing by a wheel set into the floor. “Now, my good gentlemen, we will see something of her skill. I remind you that the bidding here begins at ten thousand gold Imperials of full weight! You may find the price low, once she proves herself. We will bid while this wrestler is alive – you should hurry, I think.”
The slaves at the wheel bent their backs to it, turning the oaken circle and the shaft that it drove. Rope wound on the shaft as the wheel spun, hissing through pulleys set into the ceiling. Within the cage, an iron screen rose up from the floor, cutting it in half. It rose smoothly, its gears and wheels well oiled. Inside the bisected space, Diana remained crouching, one hand flat on the floor, one arm across her knee. Like the wrestler, her body had been oiled to a gleaming sheen. Her hair, which had begun to grow out at last, was slicked down on her head with bear grease. Her strophium and loincloth were drawn snug to the flesh, offering an enemy no purchase. The flat hard planes of muscle on her arms, her legs, her back, glowed in the ruddy light. Like Molossus, she wore leather bands on each wrist.
The rising door reached the top of the cage and a lever tripped in the ceiling. The slaves continued to crank the wheel slowly, breathing heavily with the effort. Now the outer door of the cage swung up, pulled by a secondary rope. Molossus paced back and forth in front of the cage, flexing his thick muscles. He preened for the crowd, though they were silent behind their feathered masks. The outer door clanged as it came to a stop, fully open. The wrestler entered the open half of the cage, crouching a little. He played to the audience, true, but he had not broken the backs of sixteen men by being foolish.
The outer door rotated back into position and then the dividing screen ratcheted back into the floor. Iron bolts rose, squeaking a little, to pin the bottom of the outer door tightly closed.
“Ten thousand aurei,” called Gaius Julius from the shadows.
Diana rose, uncoiling like a leopard, and took a stance with her right leg extended, right hand pointing in line with it and her left back and slightly bent. Molossus circled, his bare feet testing the floor. It was smooth-planed oak, polished and without flaw save for dark stains that could not be removed by slaves scrubbing with sand and pumice. Diana had already examined it in detail while she had been waiting in the pens below this room. As Molossus moved, Diana drifted away, counter-rotating around the cramped space. She took take care to let the distance between them close, moving just a little slower than the wrestler.
Her mind was very clear, filled with all the skills and memories of her life. The gutting gray pain that had held her was gone, replaced by a sharp stabbing sensation of loss. She clung to it, letting it fan her anger. There was nothing she could do to bring back her friends, but her terrible anger at the world could find release in violent action.
“Hah!” Molossus shouted and charged, his feet blurring on the planks, but he did not leap or lose contact with the floor. Diana let him come, reversing her body, then as his outstretched hands were almost upon her she spun into his attack, throwing a side kick, her heel arrowing up above her head. The wrestler dodged aside, wrenching his barrel-like torso aside. Diana’s heel brushed past his face, then whipped back before he could seize it. She sprang back, falling into a slight crouch.
“I see eleven thousand.” Gaius’ voice was filled with cheerful humor.
Molossus shook his head, sending a light spray of sweat away from his forehead. They circled again. His hands clenched slightly, his shoulders bending forward. Diana felt him watching her, marking how she moved. She was doing the same thing. This wrestler was very quick and very strong. He wasn’t some half-starved criminal denned in a pit under the Flavian. Diana continued to drift, her feet light on the floor.
Molossus lunged, a feint, but Diana attacked at the same time. She jumped up, left leg lashing out at his head. He ducked, then bulled right in, trying to grapple her. Diana had already come down on her left leg and snap-kicked him in the chest with the right. This time her blow landed with a loud crack and Molossus staggered. He twisted away, trying to interpose his left shoulder, but her right heel blurred in the air, smashing into his face and neck. She remained balanced on her left leg.
“I see twelve thousand,” caroled Gaius Julius. “Will there be thirteen?”
The wrestler staggered back and Diana fell into her half-crouch again, one arm back, one arm forward, index finger pointed up. Molossus visibly shook off the blows, though his lip had been split and blood mingled with the oil on his chest. Now Diana crabbed sideways and he moved away, cautious. She drifted in, feinting with a half-turn of her body. He jumped aside, but then lashed out with his own kick. His foot caught her square in the side, throwing her back against the bars of the cage. She twisted as she flew, taking the impact on her upper arm, then bouncing back.
Molossus swarmed in and his fist cracked hard across her face, throwing her down. Diana hit the oaken floor, then rolled onto her back, legs windmilling. Molossus had tried to jump in and pin her, but he flinched back from her spinning legs. She used the momentum of the spin to tumble aside and bounce to her feet. Blood streaked the side of her face from a cut. The wrestler had hardened his knuckles by grinding them in salt, leaving them ridged with sharp calluses.
“Fifteen!” Shouted Gaius, and the masked editores were growling in response. More slaves had crept into the room and the crowd of gladiators behind Hamilcar was growing. A low hum of excitement was building. Some of the spectators carried lanterns and the new light threw bars of shadow across the floor.
Diana, her body glowing with sweat, scuttled sideways, matching the wrestlers’ movement. He had abandoned his attempt to grapple, rising up with his fists raised like a boxer. She stepped in, left fist whipping towards his head. Molossus leaned away, throwing a counter-punch. Diana turned into the blow, slamming the side of her right hand against his fist as it flashed towards her. His arm bent, but she could feel the enormous strength in it. Her right leg flew up in a high-kick, smashing into the back of his thrown bicep.
“Kiiiii!” Her shout wavered in the air, almost disguising the sound of the man’s elbow joint cracking. Molossus staggered, his eyes wide in pain. Her left fist slammed into his diaphragm once, then twice. Breath rushed out of him, but he wrenched his arm away and staggered backwards. Diana’s right leg touched the ground, then she threw a side-kick with it after an instant of perfect balance, throwing his head to the side, blood and spittle flying from his mouth.
“Thirty! I see thirty-five!” The editores were shouting bids, their voices filled with excitement. The gladiators had begun to chant, clapping their fists against their broad chests. Sound reverberated from the vaulted ceiling.
Molossus blocked another snap kick with his left arm, backing away, but Diana felt her limbs rushing with blood-fire. She felt transported, invincible. She stormed in, throwing a flurry of kicks and punches. Molossus cried out, one of his ribs cracking, but counter-charged, catching her with his shoulder. The blow slapped like a bull crashing into the side of a plank fence and she was thrown back sprawling on the ground. He leapt and she rolled sideways, her face a mask of rage.
The wrestler hit the floor where she had been and Diana rolled back, her right heel knifing down over her body and grinding into the back of his knee. The man grunted in pain, then jerked his body up, rolling away from her second blow. This time her fist cracked against the floor, leaving a smear of blood. Molossus got his feet under him and came up in a crouch, his broken arm turned away from her.
“Thirty-seven! Do I see thirty-eight?”
Diana feinted at the wrestler, running lightly forward, wary of a kick or a lunge. Molossus slid backwards, then fetched up against the iron bars. In the instant that he was reacting to contact with the wall of the cage, Diana attacked. She threw a high punch, aiming for his nose, but the wrestler blocked with a massive forearm. Two more followed, aiming for his neck. The sound of her fist striking his muscled arm was sharp in the humid air as he blocked and blocked again. She danced back, waiting for a counter-blow. None came, Molossus panted heavily, leaning against the bars of the cage.
“Forty? I see forty! Come, gentlemen, his time is running out!”
The mocking words sparked an angry light in Molossus’ eyes and he angrily pushed himself away from the iron bars. Diana circled, waiting, her bare feet whispering on the floor. The wrestler shifted his body, leading with his damaged arm, which he held close to his side. He rushed at her, his body turned in line with his attack. Diana skipped back, then staggered her movement, leaving her a yard short of where she should have been. Molossus plowed into her, but he was still in motion, unprepared and she was ready. Her feet planted and she seized him and threw him over the lever of her hip and shoulder. His undamaged arm snaked out, wrapping around her neck. Diana grunted, gasping for breath, but gave a convulsive heave.
“No one will give me more than forty? Will you set aside such a prize?”
Molossus flew through the air, arm still locked at her neck and slammed into the plank floor with a boom. Diana, thrown herself, rolled up in the air, then tried to twist away. Molossus slammed his arm down, throwing her into the floor as well. She fell hard on her back and breath gushed out of her in a sharp oof!
He rolled, trying to pin her with his thigh. Diana stabbed at his eyes with stiff fingers and drew her knees in to her chest. Ducking his head, Molossus levered himself up, throwing a forearm at her face. She twisted, then lashed out with both feet, catching him on the shoulders. Her muscles screamed in agony, but with a massive heave, she threw him back into the wall of the cage.
His head cracked against one of the iron bars and Diana did a forward flip onto her feet. Molossus was stunned for just a second, shaking his bloody head like a massive dog.
“Haaiiiii!” The shout burst from her, ringing back from the ceiling and Diana leapt up, spinning and smashed the back of her left heel into the man’s forehead. His squarish head slammed back into one of the spaces between the iron bars and there was a ripping sound as his left ear tore away. Diana came down, found her balance in an instant of stillness, then lashed out again with her heel. This time his head popped through the space between the bar, blood gouting from his ruined ears.
A lilting voice seemed to plead with Diana from a great distance, but the roaring in her ears drowned it out.
“Kiiiiii!” Diana brought her right thigh up, smashing the trapped man in the groin. Molossus jerked, arms scrabbling against the bars for purchase, and blood gouted from his mouth. Her face transformed by uninhibited rage, Diana drove her knee into the wrestler’s diaphragm, sending a convulsive wave through his torso.
She stepped back, her foot sliding on the blood-slick floor and fell into a guard crouch, her breath hollow. Despite the balance in her stance, she was trembling from head to foot. She could see nothing but a tunnel of gray and the broken face of Molossus framed by the iron bars. The body of the wrestler twitched and spasmed and then his bowels loosed with a shudder.
“I have a bid of forty-five thousand aurei!” Gaius Julius’ voice rang into the shocked stillness in the chamber. No one was breathing. “Forty-five! Do I hear fifty?”
“No?” The old Roman dropped his hand, a grim pleased smile on his face. “No one?”
“The Amazon, Diana, is sold for forty-five thousand aurei to Narses, master of the gladiators of the Ludus Magnus.”
Hamilcar stepped forward from the shadows, his white teeth gleaming in the half-light. He pressed a heavy bag of double-weight coins into Gaius Julius’ hand. The old Roman hefted it – just the first portion of the payment – and met the lithe young man’s smile with his own.