The Defiant – Lesley Livingston

CLEOPATRA, QUEEN OF Aegypt, was bored. And so I found myself hanging from the deck rail of a galley, cursing loudly in the moments before my vessel was rammed again by an enemy ship and I was thrown into the waves, sparkling with sunlight, far below. This, I thought, was not how the campaign was supposed to go. My shipmates and I—all students of the Ludus Achillea, foremost academy dedicated to the training of female gladiators in all of the Republic of Rome— were supposed to be victorious in this, our very first nautical outing. Instead, we were getting kicked all over the waves of Lake Sabatinus by the girls of our rival academy, the Ludus Amazona. “Fallon!” I struggled to look up to see who was calling me. It was Elka—usually the first to notice whenever I got myself into trouble. I would have hailed her back, but I was too busy not letting go of either the railing or the hand of Leander, the ludus kitchen slave, whose life I was preoccupied with trying to save. Leander couldn’t swim. He’d made that abundantly clear, even over the din of battle. So it was a bit of a mystery as to how he’d even wound up flailing around in the water in the middle of our mock sea battle, a spectacle staged at the behest of the queen of Aegypt. The spectacle, itself, was less mysterious. Gaius Julius Caesar, Consul of Rome, legendary general, owner of the Ludus Achillea, and Cleopatra’s paramour, had been gone from Rome for the better part of a year on another military campaign. Cleopatra, ensconced in his estate on the western bank of the River Tiber—but expressly unwelcome within the walls of Rome itself—had been driven to her wits’ end with restlessness. So she’d packed up her entourage and headed north up the Via Clodia, to a private villa nestled on the banks of Lake Sabatinus, where her restlessness could, at the very least, enjoy a change of scenery.

And the company of her dear friend, my sister Sorcha. Or, as she was known in Rome, the Lady Achillea, former champion gladiatrix and current Lanista of the Ludus Achillea. One morning, not long after Cleopatra had arrived with a full entourage in the lake region, Sorcha dragged me along with her to an audience at the queen’s behest. “I’m positively languishing with tedium!” Cleopatra had exclaimed that day, over roast peacock and raw oysters, served on the deck of her pleasure barge. “I want to have a celebration. A triumph of our very own to commemorate the new ownership of your ludus . ” For my part, I’d turned a surreptitious glance on Sorcha to see how she was reacting to Cleopatra’s suggestion, but my sister just nodded and calmly sipped at her goblet. “Impending new ownership, Your Highness,” she said. “Once I receive the papers from Caesar—” “Pssh.” Cleopatra silenced her with a wave.

“They’re on their way, I’m sure. And then you too will be the queen of your own domain, my dear.” She paused to choose a honey cake from a tray. They were sprinkled with gold dust and sparkled in the sunlight. “Men shouldn’t be the only ones in this wretched Republic who can stage a spectacle to flaunt their accomplishments,” Cleopatra continued. “And you, my darling Sorcha, are definitely accomplished. As is your extraordinary sister.” She turned one of her beguiling smiles on me then, and waved for my wine cup to be refilled. “The Optimates fight the Populares because they are afraid,” she said. “Afraid of change, of innovation.

They are afraid of Caesar, and they are afraid of me. Caesar is a god among men, and I’m not shy about reminding him of that. They fear his power. And so they lure him into wars far away from my bed and company. It makes me waspish. Forgive me.” “Nothing to forgive, Majesty,” I said. “Of course.” She chuckled, licking honey and gold dust from her fingers. “You, Fallon, understand my restlessness.

It was unkind of my lord to drag your handsome young decurion with him all the way to Hispania.” I felt my cheeks reddening at the mention of Caius Antonius Varro. But, in truth, I’d been feeling a bit waspish myself about his protracted absence. I steadfastly ignored the eyebrow my sister raised in my direction. “Never mind.” The queen grinned her sly grin at us. “While our boys are away . let’s throw a party.” Cleopatra’s idea of a “party” had been to commission her very own scaled-down version of one of the more preposterous spectacles of Caesar’s Quadruple Triumph—a celebratory extravaganza of performances and processions wherein Rome had run riot with feasting and games, beast hunts and contests, for an entire month. Caesar had masterminded a closing spectacle he’d dubbed the naumachia: an actual sea battle, staged in a man-made basin dug into the banks of the River Tiber, with thousands of men —captives taken in Caesar’s many campaigns—sailing real warships.

The fighting had been fierce. Deadly. And the river had run red for a day and a night afterward with blood. Thankfully, Cleopatra wasn’t that bored. She’d settled for a nonlethal game of capture the flag, a competition staged between our ludus and the gladiatrices of our rival, the Ludus Amazona—“I’ll invite that odious Tribune of the Plebs to lend us his girls for you to fight against,” the queen had decided with a wicked grin—and only two boats. The large, lumbering pleasure craft had been provided by one of her wealthier neighbors who owned a villa on the opposite side of the lake from the Ludus Achillea. The queen’s slaves had dressed the boats to look like miniature versions of the warships of Rome and Carthage. And we were to perform a spirited reenactment of the historic Battle of Mylea. Wherever that was. Whatever that was.

• • • “Fallon!” Elka hollered at me again. “Stop messing around! We’re supposed to win this fight—” I opened my mouth to yell back that I wasn’t exactly taking my leisure, but Leander shrieked again and lost his grip, tumbling back down into the sapphire water below. I glanced skyward and sighed. “Be right back!” I shouted to Elka. Then I let go of the railing, plunging through the emptiness into the shock of the chill waves below. The armor I wore that day was thankfully light and flexible—leather, not bronze and iron—but it still dragged in the water, and for a few panicked moments I thrashed and kicked my legs, trying not to sink too deep. When I surfaced, gasping, and shook my hair out of my eyes, I could see Leander clutching helplessly at the air, only a few arm’s lengths away. I hadn’t been swimming in a long time—not since I’d become first a slave, then a gladiatrix—but I’d grown up on the banks of the River Dwr back home on the Island of the Mighty, and I had been swimming like a fish since I was a little girl, almost before I’d learned to fight. “Stop struggling!” I sputtered as I wrapped an arm around Leander’s torso. “Relax— I’ve got you!” He went limp, more from relief, I think, than any conscious effort to follow my command, but it made things easier.

In fairly short order, I’d managed to drag him back to shipside. I hallooed my fellow gladiatrices and, after a moment, Damya appeared at the railing, blinking down at me. “This is no time for a swim!” she shouted. “Tell him that,” I said through gritted teeth as a wave washed over my head, making my eyes sting. There was a tang to the lake water, and I glanced over at the remains of the skiff Leander had been rowing. The fragile little craft had been impaled on our boat’s elaborately carved prow when we’d run him over. He’d been ferrying over a fresh supply of libations from the ludus stores to Cleopatra’s barge and decided to row a path straight through the middle of the battle. Shattered clay amphorae leaked wine that stained the water red—as if in merry parody of Caesar’s spectacle—and a few escaped beer barrels floated serenely back toward the shore. Over on the queen’s barge, cries of outrage mingled with gales of laughter at the mishap. Truthfully, I thought, it sounded as if the revelers had already imbibed quite enough that afternoon as it was.

“Throw me a rope!” I shouted. I looped the line around Leander’s torso under his arms and waited, treading water, until Damya got him up on deck. Then she tossed the rope back down and hauled me aboard, the muscles of her arms bulging beneath the bronze bands she wore. As I threw a leg over the rail and flopped onto the deck like a landed trout, a ragged cheer went up from the barge across the water for my heroic rescue. I lay there gasping, feeling rather less heroic than ridiculous. Up in the rigging, perched high above my head, Tanis was calling out the positioning of the other ship’s flag, which they kept moving around the deck to keep it safe from our attempts to board their vessel and capture it. Tanis was a promising young archer—she’d sworn her oath the same night Elka and I had—but she’d proved herself fairly useless in close combat. So we’d sent her up to the high vantage point where we could put her keen eyes to use. Every time the ships drew abreast of each other, we exchanged fighters, with some of our girls leaping to their ship and the reverse. Even though the blades we fought with that day were wooden practice swords, accidents happened.

Not just accidents. There was still a good deal of bad blood between the Achillea and Amazona ludi. During Caesar’s Triumphs, our two schools of warriors had been pitted against each other in a huge pitched battle meant to commemorate Caesar’s conquest of Britannia, and there had been bloodshed. Even death. We’d all made enemies that day. The worst one I’d made had been originally from my own ludus. A gladiatrix named Nyx. Nyx had never been a friend. But she’d been sold to Pontius Aquila, the owner of the Ludus Amazona, after Caesar had chosen me over her to perform in the lead role of his Spirit of Victory. It wasn’t something Nyx had taken lightly or well.

Neither was the fact that, in the midst of the spectacle, I’d bested her—with a little help from Elka and her trusty spear—in a chariot duel. All of that was more than enough cause for Nyx to hate me. But I’d taken it one step further. When Caesar had conferred the ceremonial sword of freedom on me for my performance, I’d asked instead for him to grant that freedom to her. In doing so, I’d effectively had Nyx barred from ever again taking up arms as a gladiatrix in the arena. It was the worst thing I could have done to her, in her mind. The fact that I’d done it for her own good was something that I’d never been able to tell her. She wouldn’t have listened anyway. I hadn’t seen her since that day. Which was probably one of the reasons I still had all my limbs in good working order.

Nyx left behind a band of cronies, but, without her driving malevolence, they were about as bothersome as horseflies. In the dining hall or the bathhouse, that is. In the arena, we were all capable—if we weren’t careful, and sometimes if we were—of inflicting a great deal of damage. But that, of course, was rather the point. For our spectators and patrons, at least. I’d long since realized that Roman civilization was a thin veneer. The spectacle of our “sea battle” with the excitement of the flag-capture challenge was entertaining for Cleopatra’s party guests, certainly, and we put on a good show. But it was the thrill of real danger that set Roman hearts racing. The idea that we were willing—and able—to maim and kill for the amusement of the mob. Even draped in silks and jewels, sipping wine and slurping oysters, that’s what the men and women on that gilded barge really were.

A bloodthirsty mob. To that end, I thought, I’d best get back in the fray and stop wasting time rescuing kitchen boys instead of satisfying that thirst. I pushed myself to hands and knees to find Leander still lying on the deck, propped up on one elbow and grinning at me. “Thank you, domina,” he said, flashing a mouthful of teeth at me. “Thank you for my life.” I rolled my eyes and hauled myself to standing. As kitchen boys went, Leander was more than just a drudge. He was a sly charmer, always chatting up one gladiatrix or another. It had gotten him in trouble—and cost him ten lashes—when Nyx had capitalized on his flirtatious ways to escape the ludus townhouse in Rome one night. All in the service of trying to end my gladiatrix career, and maybe even my life.

But Nyx had failed, and I bore no ill will toward Leander. Just a growing irritation in that moment that he was so very in the way. The ship heeled over in a tight turn as he clambered to his feet, knocking him off balance and into me—almost sending me tumbling back over the railing. “Sit!” I barked at him, taking him by the shoulders and plunking him down firmly on a coil of rope. “We’re coming around for another attack . ” “I’m not afraid.” His grin never wavered. For an instant, I contemplated running him through. “Stay there and stay down,” I snapped. “Or you’re going to get someone—probably me—killed.

” “Fallon!” Ajani shouted at me from the bow. “Leave that pot-scrubber alone! We’re closing on the other ship again. Fast.” I turned and loped across the damp-slick deck. Ajani met me halfway and fell into step alongside me. Normally, Ajani would have been carrying her bow and have a quiver full of arrows strapped across her back. But in this case, she carried a short wooden sword—like the rest of us—in one hand, and an Aegyptian-style flail in the other. It seemed she’d gotten used to the new weapon with its knotted leather lashes nicely. I was fairly certain that more than one or two of the Amazona girls would walk away from that battle with deep red welts on arms and legs. “We’re trying to get close enough this time to attempt a proper boarding,” Ajani informed me.

High above us, Tanis was calling out the other ship’s every move and the placement of their fighters. In that, we had an advantage—up until the moment one of the Amazona girls decided to put a stop to it and threw a dagger at our lookout. I saw the blade spinning through the air and gasped in anger. The sun glinting off the blade meant that it was real—not wooden—and therefore expressly against the rules of engagement. Fortunately, Tanis saw it coming. Unfortunately, she ducked out of the way as if she wasn’t perched almost thirty feet above the deck. I heard her scream as she pitched backward and into thin air. “Tanis!” I shouted. She screamed again as one of the rigging ropes tangled around her leg tightened in a loop around her ankle and jerked her to an abrupt halt about ten feet above the deck. She hung there upside down like a carcass in a butcher’s shop, howling in pain.

A roar of excitement went up from the queen’s barge. Our ship had closed broadside with the Amazona vessel and run out the boarding planks. “Ajani, go!” I barked. “Help Elka and the others—I’ll get Tanis.” “Get her how? She’s too far up!” “I’m going to have to cut her down,” I said. “Before that rope cuts off her foot. Go!” I ran back to the ship’s single mast rising up from the center of the deck. The throwing knife lay only a few feet away, and I picked it up. The blade was sharp, and I snarled at the thought of whoever had thrown it. But at least I could use it to my advantage now.

The only other weapons I carried were wooden. Shoving the knife into my belt, I reached for the rope ladder that led up to the yardarm and started to climb. Just below the yardarm, in the lee of the billowing sail, I stopped to catch my breath and looked down to see that our boarding attempt had been successful this time. The Amazona ship deck was filled, shoulder to shoulder, with pairs of combatants. The two vessels were grappled together with hooks, and even the skeleton crew of galley slaves who sailed the boat for us had abandoned their posts, joining with the gladiatrices in gleefully bashing away at their counterparts as part of the whole ridiculous pantomime. The deck of the Achillea ship beneath me was deserted. Except for Leander, who had an axe and was busily hewing away at the ship mast as if it was a mighty oak tree in the forests of home that needed felling for the great fire. “What in Hades are you doing, you lunatic?” I shouted from where I was perched on top of that very same mast. A silly question. It was obvious what he was doing.

But for a moment, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Kitchen slave that he was, I’d seen Leander day after day in the little yard by the stables, chopping firewood for the cooks to feed the small army of gladiatrices that lived at the Ludus. His sun-browned arms were taut with long muscles, and he was very good at chopping. I just didn’t know why he was chopping down our mast. The mast shuddered with each bite of the blade, and the deck was littered with splintered chunks of wood. All ships, I knew, carried axes on deck in case a mast was damaged in a storm and had to be cut loose—so I knew how Leander had come by the thing—but that certainly wasn’t the case here. Another roar went up from Cleopatra’s barge and gave me my answer. A group of partygoers stood at the rail, madly urging Leander on with each stroke of the axe, frantically trading wagers. Someone, I suspected, had paid Leander to even the odds in favor of the Amazona side. I could hardly believe he thought a few coins were worth the hell I would unleash when I got my hands on him.

But in that moment, there was nothing for me to do but hope the mast would withstand Leander’s woodsmanship long enough for me to rescue Tanis. I edged out over the yardarm, placing my feet in the sailors’ footropes as carefully as haste would allow. Below me, I could see Tanis’s face had turned almost purple. So had her left foot, where the rope bit into her flesh. After what seemed an eternity, I reached the rope where the line was caught in the rigging and frantically sawed through the tough hairy fibers. Sweat ran in streams down my face and back, into my eyes, and between my fingers, making the knife hilt slick. The mast was beginning to sway perilously. I paused for a moment to draw my wooden blades from their scabbards and lob them at Leander’s head. The second one glanced off his ear, and he yelped and dropped the axe. It spun across the deck and he scrambled after it, yelling curses at me.

Another chorus of shouts—half cheering, half jeers—sounded from the barge crowd as I turned back to working feverishly on the rope. “Tanis!” I shouted. “Be ready!” She twisted and writhed, staring up at me with fear in her eyes. The distance she would fall wouldn’t kill her. Unless she landed on her head or broke her neck . I shoved the thought from my mind. If I didn’t cut her loose—and soon—the falling mast would probably kill her anyway. The last rope strand finally parted, and I watched her throw her arms up around her head, curling inward as she fell. I winced as she hit the planking with a hard thud, but she rolled and was up on her hands and knees a moment later. She’d be fine.

Now I was the one in trouble. Down below, I could see some of the fighting had spilled back over onto our ship. But in the din of battle, all of my friends were far too occupied to notice my predicament. The entire rigging was becoming dangerously unstable with each hewing stroke. Leander was nothing if not industrious, but thankfully the axe he wielded was a dull old thing, and that alone gave me the opportunity to do something incredibly stupid. The sail beneath me shivered, and the yardarm tipped drunkenly. I didn’t have time to shimmy back to the ladder and climb down, and if I fell when the mast toppled, I would most likely hit the deck and break every bone in my body. My options were limited. The yardarm wobbled and one end swung out over the open water . As fast as I could, I unbuckled one side of my breastplate and threw it to the deck, narrowly missing Leander again and making him back off.

Then I heaved myself up into a crouch on top of the yardarm. The wood beam was straight and about as wide as the yoke pole on a chariot, if a little longer . The single act that had made me famous in the ring was a chariot maneuver called the Morrigan’s Flight—running the length of the yoke pole between two racing ponies, balancing, and running back . I could do this. The rigging shuddered and began to drift-fall toward the other ship. I heard the panicked screams of the girls below as they watched it go. And I ran. Like an acrobat, arms wide, feet curving around the pole to grip with each fleeting step, I held my breath and ran the length of the spar and—as the mast finally toppled—I leaped out over the water in a swan dive, just like I used to do back home from the cliffs above the River Dwr. The world went from bright sunlight to chill darkness in a moment as I hit the water with a splash. When I surfaced again, sputtering, it was to see the rail lined with Achillea fighters, all peering down at me in astonishment.

“What in Hel’s name was that lunatic trying to prove?” Elka shouted over the roaring of the spectators, gesticulating at the chaos caused by the fallen mast. “Never mind!” I shouted back. “Grab their flag!” I could see where the Amazona flag had been left unattended at the bow of the other ship when the gladiatrices scattered. “The flag!”

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