“URI . VINCIRI . ” Standing with my eyes shaded against the brightness of the rising sun, I could hear the sacred gladiatorial oath I’d spoken beneath the light of the Huntress Moon whispering like a strange, secret song in my ears. “Verberari . ferroque necari . ” I blinked and looked around, glancing over at Elka, who stood beside me in the practice yard, eyes closed, murmuring the oath. “What are you doing?” “Hm?” She opened one eye and peered at me.
“What are you doing?” I repeated. “Just going over the oath,” she said. “‘I will endure to be burned . to be bound . to be beaten . ’” “‘And to be killed by the sword,’” I finished for her. “Yes. I know. I took it too, remember?” “Right. Nothing in there about flying.” Ah, I thought. So that’s what this is about. “It’s not flying,” I said. “Think of it more as . uh, leaping large?” “Imagine you’re a stone!” Quintus called encouragingly to Elka from the stands beyond the barrier fence. “A great, heavy stone flung from a catapult, flying over an enemy rampart—” He broke off abruptly when Elka turned a glare on him that made me think she was, instead, imagining herself as the gorgon Medusa, turning him to stone. Quint had recently joined the Roman legion corps of engineers, and as a consequence, his speech was freshly littered with animated talk of siege engines and bank-and-ditch enclosures. It made him hard to understand at the best of times, but in this case, he did have a point.
So did Elka. There was no mention of flying in the oath. And yet, in spite of that particular omission, Kore and Thalassa—the Ludus Achillea’s two Cretan-born recruits—were still determined to make us do just that. Fly. Even if only for a moment . and right over the horns of an angry bull. — The two of them had first proposed we add the ancient art of bull-leaping to our collective skill set in the mess hall one afternoon. A sullen, steady rain had fallen for three days straight, making it impossible to practice in the yard without drowning in mud, and we were all restless. “I’m bored,” Damya had sighed gustily. “Don’t mope,” Ajani had consoled her.
“The sun will shine again one day. And then you can go back to hacking things to bits.” “That’s just it.” Damya shook her head. “I can hack things to bits with my eyes closed and both hands tied behind my back. I need a new challenge.” To be fair, she wasn’t the only one. It had been several months since we’d won back the ludus from our rival academy, the Ludus Amazona, and driven their master—and my own personal nightmare—Pontius Aquila into disgrace. The popularity of our fighters in subsequent matches had, unsurprisingly, risen dramatically from an already high point. The mob had gone wild for us.
But that was months ago. And now . well, the mob was the mob. “Fickle” was perhaps the politest word I could conjure. Now, when any of us stepped into the arena, there was a noticeable lull. If we weren’t leading a rebellion through the streets, it seemed, the plebs weren’t quite as interested. Neither were we. Our routines had become polished, precise . predictable. We needed something to spice up the act, as it were.
Hence Kore’s suggestion of death-defying acrobatic leaps. Through the air. Over bulls. Flying . “Sounds like a bad idea to me,” Damya had said at the time, shaking her head. “If the gods had meant for us to fly, they would have given us wings. Remember what-was-hisname? With the wax and feathers?” “You mean Icarus?” Thalassa frowned across the table at her, reaching for an olive from a clay dish and popping it into her mouth. “Don’t be silly. The gods didn’t give Icarus his wings, his father Daedalus did. So he could fly away from imprisonment.
” “Right,” Damya snorted. “And look how well that worked out for him.” “It didn’t work out well at all,” Thalassa explained patiently, either ignoring or having missed the sarcasm. “In his arrogance, Icarus flew too close to the sun and the heat melted the wax that held his wings together. He fell to his death in the sea and was mourned by sirens. It’s a warning. For men who think of themselves as gods. They all fall, eventually.” “Yes,” Kore said, elbowing her sharply. “But we’re not doing that.
No falling. We just need to find a willing bull and build a springboard that will fling one of us up into the air, high enough to avoid its horns.” Discussion grew animated at that point. I grinned and sat back, watching my ludus sisters argue and lob bread rolls at each other, and realized, at some point, that Kore and Thalassa had actually convinced them all that introducing Cretan bull-leaping into our ludus routines was the way to go. A real guaranteed crowd-pleaser. I shook my head, thinking that it would, at the very least, keep my ludus mates occupied and out of trouble for a little while. Then I realized that someone had volunteered me to make the first attempt. Seven days later, and I was down on one knee in the practice arena, tying my sandal laces and tucking them in tightly so there was no chance of me tripping over them. “I can’t believe you did that.” “What?” I looked up at where Elka stood glowering murderously down at me.
“Volunteered me,” she said. “You mean after you volunteered me?” I blinked at her innocently. “That’s different.” She shook her head, her tight blonde braids swinging. “You’re always flinging yourself about on chariot poles and leaping off ships’ masts. You’re a natural.” I grinned at her. “If I can survive it, you can survive it. And then you can kill me later.” I stood and rolled the tightness out of my shoulders.
“If we survive . ” I stood and looked over to the middle of the practice ring where Kore and Thalassa were setting up their Cretan contraption. The design was based on the ones they used in the bull rings of Knossos, and they’d worked on the thing with Quint, the mighty legion engineer, for the better part of the past week. That morning, they’d dragged it proudly out of the workshop and across the sand with a flourish. “It’s . uh . a plank?” Gratia had tilted her head this way and that, looking at the thing. It was pretty much exactly that. A plank. Only balanced on a fulcrum and secured in a frame and .
there were ropes. And winches, maybe? I really didn’t understand the workings of it. I only knew that, once my foot hit one end, that would activate what Quint called the “torsion mechanism” and the thing would fling me up and—theoretically—over my arena adversary. A cantankerous cart ox named Tempest. The closest thing we could get to an actual Cretan bull. The air that morning had a bite to it that nipped at the exposed skin of my arms and legs, making me wish I’d worn my heavier tunic. But I also didn’t want anything weighing me down. The sonorous bellowing coming from the causeway leading to the practice pitch sounded like a mournful war horn. “I still think we should try this without the bull first,” I said. “Ja,” Elka agreed heartily.
“Or maybe just say we did, call it a day, and head to the baths—” “How are we supposed to tell if you can actually clear the bull with your jump if you don’t actually have a bull there to clear?” Vorya asked. Vorya was pragmatic, but she was also Varini and a fatalist—even more of a fatalist than Elka—so I didn’t trust her opinion on the matter. Also, she wasn’t the one jumping. “And besides,” she continued with a decidedly fatalistic shrug, “if it doesn’t work, this way you’ll probably die quickly and avoid the shame of failure.” I could never tell if she was joking or not. Elka and I waited, pacing the arena stands in nervous anticipation, as they finished the springboard setup and brought out the ox. He looked much larger that day, out in the middle of the practice arena, than he did in his stall. With much larger, sharper horns. We’d tied ropes around both of his horns so that some of the girls—in this case, our Amazon sisters Kallista and Selene, and Ceto and Lysa, our two newest recruits to the ludus, both with farm backgrounds—could hold his head immobile. Tempest clearly wasn’t happy about the encumbrances, though, and he snorted and bellowed.
As I threw a leg over the barrier and dropped down into the arena, he fixed a baleful glare on me and pawed at the sand with one great hoof. “I think he likes you,” Elka said dryly, landing beside me. “You better hope he likes you,” I said. “You’re going first.” That was the moment when Elka fell silent. And started reciting the gladiatorial oath. After enough shouted encouragement from Quint, Elka finally rounded on him and shouted back, “Call me a stone one more time, Quintus! I dare you!” His mouth snapped shut, and a silence rippling with anticipation descended on the pitch. Elka snorted a breath out through her nostrils—not unlike a bull herself—and turned toward the springboard. She took a hard run at it, arms and legs pumping, and hit the target spot with both feet. The board mechanism triggered and launched her up and forward through the air, just as promised! Elka sailed over the beast—perfectly framed in the curve of his horns—arms stretched out in front of her like she was swimming through the air.
She flew clear over Tempest’s withers and past his angrily swishing tail to land on her hands, tucking into a neat shoulder roll. She tumbled twice and was back up on her feet with a sprightly bounce, a look of surprise and utter delight on her face. “I did it!” she yelped, punching her fists in the air. “I flew!” An elated roar went up from our watching comrades, and I breathed a sigh of relief— for her and me—and waited with slightly less trepidation for Quint and Kore to reset the whole arrangement. The girls holding Tempest pulled tight on their ropes. I gathered my focus and steadied my breathing. Then I launched into a run. My feet hit the springboard square on target, and it launched me into the arc of a perfect forward dive—just like it had Elka—only this time, Tempest was having none of it. The great, nasty monster threw his huge head up and to one side, knocking me cartwheeling through the air with one of his horns and flinging Kallista and the others about like dolls tied on the ends of strings. I hit the ground hard and bounced until I hit the barrier.
I heard shouts from the stands and lifted my head to see the girls getting dragged across the sand by the ropes meant to hold Tempest immobile. He shook his head, yanking three of the four ropes from their hands. Kallista was the only one to hang on—barely—and she staggered to her feet as the angry beast turned his attention toward me. Selene, along with Ceto and Lysa, scampered to safety as Kallista ran to an iron ring set into the stone wall and looped the rope through, pulling it tight in the hopes of giving me a chance to escape. Which it did . But it also made her the only target left in range, and Tempest wasn’t about to let her slip past. Kallista ducked down behind a low wooden wall, making herself as small as she could as Tempest battered at the barrier with his horns, snorting fury and bellowing his rage. The planks splintered and bowed inward. They wouldn’t protect Kallista for very long. Suddenly, I heard the voice of our ludus fight master ring out across the sands.
“Ajani!” Kronos shouted. “Shoot that monster!” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Ajani nock an arrow to her bow. “No!” I cried. “Ajani—no! Don’t shoot!” She hesitated. “I’ll solve this!” I called, not taking my focus off the animal in front of me. Ajani lowered her bow, reluctant—as I knew she would be—to kill a poor, dumb beast that was only acting according to his nature. Kronos would be angry, but Ajani and I could face the consequences of his wrath together—once I managed to get out of the arena. I also simply couldn’t resign myself to matching wits with a farm animal—and losing. Surely I was smarter than some grumpy old bovine. I flung my arms wide and whistled to get Tempest’s attention again.
I called out, “Kallista . let go of the rope!” “If I do that, there’ll be nothing stopping him,” she answered, gritting her teeth as Tempest drove one of his horns all the way through the wood plank barrier, right next to her head. “He’ll just come for you—aiiy!” She yelped as he shouldered the barrier and tore one of the support posts right out of the ground. “That’s the idea!” I shouted back. “Trust me—let go! Elka, throw me a towel and get to the stands above the gate!” Without question, Elka wadded up one of the practice towels and, from where she stood in the stands, lobbed it at me. Then she ran between the benches, heading for the gate at the far end of the arena. I unwound the towel and held it unfurled in front of me. The ox had poor eyesight and swung his head from side to side trying to get a better look at me—a fresh target for his formidable horns. I’d once seen my father’s cattle master get the attention of the young bulls in the herd that way. They reacted to the movement.
“Come on, you great, smelly thing . ” Once he’d locked his senses on to me, I called out, “Kallista . walk. Slowly. Don’t run . just get out of the ring by the shortest path.” She was light on her feet and over the wall in a blink. That left just me and Tempest. I waved the towel in front of me as I backed toward the gate. When I was right in front of the archway, Elka directly above me, I snapped the towel through the air, let it go, and swung my arms up, leaping high into the air as Tempest lowered his head and charged right at me, horns gleaming.
With a cry of effort, Elka caught me by both my wrists and hung on with all her strength as I swung my legs up and Tempest thundered past, a handsbreadth beneath me, through the archway. I let go of Elka’s hands and dropped to the ground, running to swing the heavy gate shut. I slammed the bar through the brackets and collapsed against it, gasping in relief, and heard Tempest’s confused lowing. We’d already closed the grate on the other side of the entrance, setting up the tunnel between as a kind of gated enclosure, and the stable boy we’d coerced into helping us with Tempest in the first place was standing by with bundles of new hay and clover to feed the beast through the grate. Tempest’s tantrums only ever lasted until he was given something sweet to eat. Then he was docile as a lamb and the boy could lead him peacefully back to his stall. No harm done. Except, perhaps, to my pride . Vorya slapped me on the shoulder as she passed and said, “Only a little shame. And you didn’t even die.
I’m impressed.” I shook my head as she walked off, whistling. But then I saw Kronos waiting for me, arms crossed over his broad chest, and I felt my neck muscles tighten. I expected him to be furious and had already resigned myself to the prospect of being relegated to laundry duty for a month. But when I staggered over to him and sank down on a bench to catch my wind and hear my punishment, all he said was, “You want my advice? You girls need to practice the acrobatics first, Fallon. Master them. Then add in the livestock. Ask any fledgling leaving the nest: Flying’s hard enough, even when nothing else is trying to knock you out of the sky.”