hic abundant leones - here the lions abound (roman proverb)
The clang of the gladiator’s sword rose amidst the roars of the thousands of people who were jam-packed into the narrow stands of the Colosseum. It was a hot day, the air hung heavy upon the city, wilting ladies’ hair and men’s spirits. Everyone was eager for entertainment on such an oppressive day. So, our four deities: Adsiltia, the goddess of fire, Riothamus, the god of water, Lucan, the god of the Earth, and Terminus, the god of the air, sent their gladiators for an impromptu fight in the central city of Rome. It was going to be a good program, too. There would be a couple of fights, gladiator to gladiator. Then they’d pull out some exotic animals to liven up the killing field. And as a rare treat for such a hot day, there would be a naval reenactment. The bottom of the arena would flood to allow for naval battles even in the heart of Rome.
Of course, those with magic in their blood were allowed to fight as well. Children of the Gods, born from nobility and the women that were offered up as sacrifices. Only Adsiltia didn’t have any children - the goddess claiming no mortal man pure enough for her. No one had ever seen fire being wielded in the arena in the centuries since the Gods and Goddess created our world.
It was considered a high honor to be selected by the Gods, even though it was a gruesome event, the coupling. The women only survived the night, giving birth the same evening after the Gods had had their way with them. They burned up, their bodies unable to survive the shock of godly blood and fluids into their system. And from their mother’s ashes, a baby was born. But, the Gods didn’t raise their children, far too lofty for that. They were instead immediately placed into the gladiator service. Their lives forfeit before they were even conceived.
Yet, I wouldn’t be there for entertainment. And even if I could afford a ticket, as a slave, I was not allowed to cross the threshold of the imposing building without my master. Halfway across the city, I could still hear every sound that rose from the vast stadium. I was comforting my father as his body struggled to fight against the disease eating away at his body. I held him, tears blurring my eyes as I stroked the brown hair away from his gaunt and pale face. He’d been handsome, once upon a time. His thick brown hair, bronzed skin, and piercing ice-blue eyes, the envy of many women. And a father to be proud of, never raising his voice, and teaching me the power of brain over brawn. Now, his hair was dull and coarse, and his once-ruddy cheeks were white and sunken. His eyes outlined in gray, the blue fading away. His stomach was swollen and bloated with malnutrition and the disease in his body. The bones of his legs and arms stark beneath his gray slave’s outfit.
“Aeliana, there’s nothing more you can do for him.” I looked up to see Dulcia clasping my shoulder, a few tears sliding down her porcelain face. I don’t remember my past. Not that there’s much of it, being only seventeen years old. But I don’t remember anything from before I got picked off the streets with my father. We got taken as slaves to Julius and Dulcia Aquilla. That was only seven years ago. Ten years of my life is black. A blank slate. Not that I want to remember, mind you. I can only glimpse flashes of my past life. A few moments of gold, food, and a warm face staring down at me with pride. I don’t know who the face is, but whenever I’d mention it to my father, he’d not talk to me for days on end. I learned to let it go. If my past was that traumatic for my father to never talk about it, I didn’t want to remember it either.
All I have now is my father, and soon I won't even have him. I never knew my mother. My father would only say she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen, both outer and inner beauty, blinding. I stood up, taking Dulcia’s hand as she led me away from my father. As far as mistresses go, I was lucky to have the Aquila's. They were hard-working people who climbed the political ladder through popularity rather than money, like most politicians. They were good people. Many other slaves couldn’t say the same about their masters.
“Aeliana, I know it is tough losing your father, but with Julius also taking ill, I cannot afford any more slaves.” I looked in shock at Dulcia.
To cut down on the number of slaves that get let off by their owners, and to prevent them from cluttering the streets, they have to fight in the arena. The weak die in their first game. Some mere seconds after stepping out in the arena sand. Population control as well as showing the common folk that they have no power because they have no money. To put us in our places.
“You can’t mean that,” I whispered, wiping away a tear. Dulcia clutched my hands, looking down at me with sadness in her eyes.
“I’m sorry. You have to leave by this evening,” The shock of what was going to happen to me sunk in, and a strangled scream wrenched itself free from my throat. I flung myself onto Dulcia’s feet.
“Please, Dulcia. Don’t let me go. I can’t fight. I’ll die the second I step into the arena.” Dulcia looked away, shaking her leg.
“Aeliana, get off. What’s done is done,” I slumped to the ground and watched Dulcia walk away through eyes blurring with tears. I was going to the Colosseum, and like most slaves who were unfortunate enough to be let go, I was going to die.
“Watch out, girl!” I ducked out of the way as a trio of heavily armored gladiators rushed past, carrying a bloodied body on a stretcher. I caught a glimpse of a grit-covered face and gaping wounds covering the unfortunate boy’s body before they vanished around a corner. I shuddered and walked faster to catch up with the overseer who was walking ahead of me.
After Dulcia had let me go, I’d gathered my meager belongings and made my way to the Colosseum. When I’d explained my situation, the overseer had taken me down to the miles of tunnels under the arena floor, where everything that happened up top had its beginnings. Gladiator’s quarters, slave quarters, animal cages, warship rooms. It was intimidating.
“Catch up, Aeliana, you don’t want to get lost down here. There are some who’d eat alive a young and beautiful girl like you,” the overseer called over his shoulder with a leering look. Rage filled me all of a sudden, rising through me, crackling and burning. Frightened by the power of my emotions, I shoved the rage down. Throughout my seventeen years, I had one constant memory. Even through the blackout void of my past. The force of my emotions. My father taught me to tamper it down, but with my new situation, my emotions were getting the better of me.
We wandered down many different tunnels, getting so twisted and turned around that I felt I would never find my way out again until we stopped in front of a wooden door.
“Through here,” the overseer grunted before turning around and walking back the way we’d come. I sighed to myself, gearing up before gently pushing open the door.
I’d opened the door into a different world. At least that’s what it felt like. There were torches along the limestone walls, illuminating the lavish sofas and cushions. Two women were sitting around a tub, and when I came in they stood up and raised their hoods to cover their faces. Sweeping around me, they pulled away my belongings and put them in a corner.
“Hey!” I protested as they tugged off my clothes until I stood shivering naked in front of them. One woman led me to the tub where she proceeded to give me a thorough, albeit rough, bath.
“What’s your full name?” the second woman asked as the first soaped my long brown hair. I winced as she tugged hard on my hair.
“Aeliana Aqui-I don’t know my surname,” I was about to say Aquila, as the slaves take their master’s surname, but remembered I was no longer a slave. The second woman pursed her lips.
“What God or Goddess do you worship?” If one doesn’t know their surname, it is common to take the name of the god their city worships. As I’d lived in Viterbo with the Aquila’s, I worshiped Terminus, but the city of Rieti worshiped Adsiltia, Frosinone worshiped Riothamus, and Latina, Lucan. So my new name was Aeliana Terminus.
“Aeliana Terminus,” She said as she wrote it down on a piece of parchment, “Mother and father’s name?”
“Cyprian Tauria was my father’s name and I never knew my mother’s,” I said, as the first lady helped me out of the tub. The second woman wrote it down.
“Any fighting skills?” She asked. I shook my head. “Needs fundamental skills,” she muttered as she wrote it down. The first woman brought out a simple white sleeveless chiton, complete with a breastplate and armor straps.
“I’m going into the arena right now?” I asked, fear cracking my voice, “But what about my lack of fighting skills?”
“Of course you’re going in right now. And besides, we only provide true gladiator training to those that survive their first fight,” she replied. I scowled at her.
“But what if those slaves could have lived if you provided even a little training to them beforehand?” she laughed, a tinkling sound that told me she was a servant to a higher noble. Even possibly a God.
“Don’t be silly.” They both fell silent, finishing up preparing me for my upcoming battle. Finally, they left the room, leaving me with a final ‘Good Luck’ that sounded more like a question than a statement.
A man entered the room next, grizzled and scarred. He handed me a spear, showing me the functionalities of the weapon and how to use it. He helped me with a couple of stances, and techniques to use in the arena, before letting me practice on him for a few minutes. Both times he got me on the floor, pointing the end at my throat.
“You need to let this sink in, or you’ll be dead,” he informed me, before leaving the room. I paced, stopping to eat a couple of grapes from the platter next to the sofa. Finally, two gladiators stepped into the room.
They escorted me to a cage, supported by pulleys and levers that would raise me to the arena floor. As we slowly lifted, I could hear the roars and cheers of the audience, ready for some blood.
“Welcome, gentlemen and ladies to the first fight of the evening,” The arena announcer announced, “From the returning side, we have Limus Magnus, four-time victor, and seething for blood. This victory will gain him a gladius title, and he’ll be pushed into the ring against other gladiators to fight for a chance at freedom!” Limus stepped out, to the adoring cheers and screams of the audience.
With light blond hair, dark eyes, and golden skin, he was every bit the gladiator the crowds wanted him to be. He raised his spear, egging on the audience’s cheers until I felt I was going to go deaf. Limus walked over to the Gods and Goddess’s sector and bowed to them, offering his body in sacrifice. I took in the deities.
Lucan was a tall man, with ebony skin, and dark brown hair. His eyes flashed amber as he raised a cup to Limus. Riothamus, on his right, was the opposite of his brother. He was short, with fair skin, and blue-black hair that seemed to shimmer in the sunlight. His green eyes crinkled in laughter at something Terminus said, and he nodded to Limus. Terminus, on Lucan's left, was not as tall as Lucan, but not as short as Riothamus, and his golden skin gleamed. He was lean, muscular, and the air seemed to bend around him, casting him in the best light. His blond hair fell across his ice-blue eyes as he talked quietly to Riothamus. Adsiltia was every part of her brothers and yet was entirely unique. She was taller than all of them, leaner than all of them, had multi-colored irises, and her red hair fell just past her shoulders. They were all grossly beautiful, and they excluded power.
“And on the visiting side, we have Aeliana Terminus, a former slave ready to show the audience her worth.” My blurb in comparison was pretty short, and the gladiators escorting me shoved me into the arena. I stumbled a little but walked into the middle. The audience roared, not for me, but against me. They wanted my death. I looked at the Gods and Goddesses, but they were already bored, talking amongst themselves. They couldn’t care less about me, a lowly slave, doomed from the beginning. Anger began to simmer low in my stomach, and the air crackled strangely. Nobody else seemed to notice it, though.
“Fighters, on my mark,” I walked into my corner, and Limus did the same. I dug my foot into the sand and took a deep breath. “FIGHT!!” Limus roared, running toward me with his spear held aloft. I ran to meet him, adrenaline running through me, and our blades clanged together with the accompanying scream of rabid fans. I sliced at him, and he ducked, kicking out at my knees. I leaped away, nicking at his side as he whirled to meet me. We were in a sick form of dance, each of us trying to gain the upper hand while not getting ourselves killed in the process.
I managed to cut his arm but didn’t move out of the way fast enough. He sliced through my armor and down the front of my body. Not death-inducing, but bad. A sudden gush of pain jolted throughout my body. My stomach ached, my arms lost tension and my legs began to weaken.
He will not get the better of me I thought as I dropped to the ground. My tongue was soaked in the taste of blood. Bruised and winded, with a leg in agony, I grabbed Limus’s foot and pulled him to the ground. My head was pounding. I brought a fist to his face, snapping his nose into a grotesquerie.
He roared, and with a renewed sense of rage, brought his hands up to my neck, wrapping them around my throat. He squeezed, and black spots darkened my vision. I was done for. A slave dead in the arena once more. But as my gaze darkened, I heard my father’s voice in my mind, screaming at me to never give up. That was what jolted me back awake. My father never screamed. I burrowed deep into the recesses of my mind to give me strength, rage building in the arteries and veins of my body, and exploded, feeling heat lick at my face. My eyes still closed, I felt, rather than saw, the audience’s collective intake.
Something dusted my face. I opened my eyes. What was left of Lumus’s face was a charred slab of meat. Bile rose in my stomach as his hands crumbled into ash. I kicked away his body, as the rest of him caved in. All that was left of the gladius-hopeful in front of me was a pile of ash.
The audience was quiet. I scrambled to my feet, wanting someone, anyone to explain what I had just done. A sharp ‘pop’ made me jump, and I looked down at my hands. I nearly fell out of my skin. My hands were alight with orange, yellow, and red flames. Licking up and down my arms, but not singeing me at all, they crackled and hissed in tune with my racing heartbeat. Desperately, I looked at the stands and saw Lucan, Riothamus, and Terminus lean forward, their eyes like lions fixed on their prey. Adsiltia's expression flickered, both with relief and panic, and before her brothers could do anything, she vanished in a column of fire. My fire. Which meant…my mother.
There was no other explanation for it. I was the daughter of Adsiltia. Sudden clarity rushed over me. That was why I couldn’t remember my past. My mother burned it all out of me. Why? I didn’t want to know. If she could leave my father and me to struggle, to become slaves, to die, she was no better than the Gods jumping to their feet in the stands above me, who killed the mothers of their children.
“Seize her!” I heard through the roaring of my heart in my ears. Gladiators and overseers ran into the arena, wearing armor and attempting to surround me. I threw up my hands to defend myself, anger, pain, betrayal, and fear all running through my already hot blood, and in a move to mimic my mother, I vanished in a searing blast of fire.