Thursday, June 22, 2017

        From the verbal tales of Chane the Bard as transcribed by the Monks of Essex Abbey, dies martis, a.d. X Kal., Feb. MCIII, a.u.c. (Tuesday, 24 January 350 AD)
        …when the prince beheld the blood of his kinsmen gushing onto the field of battle, the warrior Queen’s golden chariot toppled among a mound of Iceni dead and the advancing hordes of barbarian Romans, in his heart he wept. A surge of hate filled him, blackening his soul and deranging his senses. He would rather die upon the Roman gladius fighting with his last breath than surrender as a slave!
        However, such is the hubris of the gods; for before Thane could throw his mortality against the victory of the usurpers, a child’s voice, no more than a whisper, deafened his ears to all other sound, a child’s hand quelled the madness in his head, a child’s tears fell dry upon his mad heart and stilled it. He gazed upon the illusions standing small and pure at his feet, passion froze in the searing screams of war, and the fire in his mind burned into sodden ash.
        Princess Anwen and her sister Mabyn called out to the warrior, “Father, do not leave us for the Romans to devour!”
        It is said, even in the midst of the battle roar around him, Thane threw back his head and laughed with such great power that those who heard it, whether friend or foe, halted in their places, stunned by its glee.
        In one swift plunge, the Prince buried his sword to the hilt in the blood soaked Britannia mud, hoisted his two small daughters upon his mighty shoulders and took them away, leaving the din behind him, swearing retribution for all his enemies’ crimes against his people. The Romans had won the day.
        …the wolf, they called him, for no hunter’s skill could track him, nor mongrel catch scent of his passing, yet the Roman general did not weary of the chase. Days followed hours and weeks followed days. The relentless hunt traversed forest and bog, river and rocky hill and gorse filled trenches. The gods guided the prince and his brood turning them ever east toward their own land.
        On the night of the moon’s mid-cycle, at the apex of the dying season, word reached Prince Thane’s enervated ears, decrying the horrors that awaited his return to the shores of his home. For its distant hill forts had been razed to the ground, its forests burnt, its earth drained and salted so that no living thing could grow there, so great was the Roman general’s wrath against the Trinovantes. Thane’s family had been slaughtered, every babe, every child, every man and woman. There were neither kith nor kin to greet the warrior should he return home.
        Upon hearing these tidings, he became inconsolable and sank into a deep despair. It is said that so great was his sorrow he tore out his hair, crying, “Damnation to the seeds of Rome, destroyers of the innocent. May the gods spit thee into the mouth of Belatucadros where ye will burn in his immortal fire!” His lament rose upon a strange wind of magic, echoing through all the remaining lands of the Brettaniai Albion. The young daughters, fearing his madness, piled mounds of duff and rain-soaked moss from the forest floor upon their father’s head to keep his cries from betraying them to the devils that passed in the night.
        When he returned to his senses, he took his young children to the land of the Corieltauvi where the Guardian Queen ruled with her Roman King. It was said they harbored what few of the Iceni and Trinovantes remained and hid them with enchantment and old magic from the blood thirsty general and his soldier dogs.
        When Thane crossed the border of that land, the Romans surrounded and descended upon them out of reach of their rescuers.
        In that hour, the gods, even Belatucadros himself, visited themselves upon Thane, filling his arms with the strength of the sun and his mind with the madness of Taranis; lightning spewed forth in great strikes from his hands. In the turmoil of the fight, Queen Delia and her husband secreted the girls into Corieltauvi and there hid them for many long seasons.
        Alas, when the maids were safe, the gods of the forests forsook Thane in his greatest hour as test of his conviction. Unarmed and surrounded, he fell to the might of the Romans though it took a full complement to bring him to his knees. They bound his arms with hammered iron, for no rope would hold him, and placed upon his head a band of bronze to cool his madness. By midnight, the silver red dogs had wrapped him in chains so that he could kill no more. Many of their number lay bleeding into the dirt at his feet.
        By the next day he was thrown upon a boat… by the next month he was forced to bend a knee to the heathen Emperor Nero and there condemned to the arena to fight until he died.
        Against his will, Prince Thane brawled for Rome to entertain her whores and arrogant thieves, killing many brave and true men in the name of Caesar, and training even more, biding his time for the day of his revenge.
        …and when his time came he visited such wrath upon the Roman oppressors that it would change the history of that nation for all times, armed only with his guile, his wits… and the magic of his barbarian bride.
        Loathed would forever be the name of Thane, the Gladiator Prince…
Chapter One
        Phaedra fought the chill of titillation skimming down her back as she watched the golden-skinned gladiator thrust his gladius towards her younger brother Bahar. A shudder of disgust followed. Throwing a guilty glance from side to side, she pushed her long dark hair behind one ear to cover the motion. To think she could be so moved by the flex of muscles of a nearly naked slave. Worse, a gladiator. She knew better.
        Her father would skin her alive had he caught her at the ludus, especially when the familia gladiatorium were out in force. She studied the forty-two men with skins in shades from pale birch to darkest black, fighting to the rhythm of each deadly blow of wooden gladii against beaten scutum, each exquisitely muscled and slick with sweat.
        It is the only place where I could find a moment’s peace, she told herself. In anticipation of her betrothal, the insistent chatter of slaves and relatives alike had driven her from the house.
        She had not met her future husband, but her father assured her of his wealth and status as an Egyptian merchant. His father was a Greek procurator from Alexandria and his mother a royal princess, no less. Phaedra’s father, Abella, said the man would make her forget her former husband’s death. He had painted pictures of exotic hot sands, endless gold and pampering that warmed Phaedra’s chilled shoulders in this sodden weather. Giving the air a haughty sniff, she wrinkled her nose and lifted her shoulders against the cold.
        She hated Britannia. Living in Rome for the past two years had made her detest it even more.
        The grand city was opulent, noisy and rich with sounds, smells, hot baths, spicy food, warm wine and cold clean water, crowded in high brightly painted buildings and even more colorful people. Everything this cursed city of Verulamium was not. Rome had been her paradise, just as Britannia was her hell. Why Abella had ordered she and Bahar back to the island was beyond her. Abella had been insistent, and she did not dare go against her father’s wish. This sudden recent betrothal had been the only high point. She looked forward to leaving this island for good. When the Egyptian’s letter had come two weeks before, it had created an uproar of glee among the slaves and free men of the house, her father not least of all.
        Turning her back and leaning against the fence, Phaedra folded her arms and let hot tears fall down her cheeks unchecked. Why hold them? Was it not her right to grieve for her lost husband making her a widow at twenty?
        Despite her efforts, reality set in, freezing a sob in her throat. The secrets she held made her tremble now that she was back in her father’s house. She swallowed them in a quick panic.
        Wiping away the tears with the back of a long fingered hand, Phaedra turned to concentrate on the rest of her young brother’s training, as she had promised him she would.
        Bahar’s curly black hair blew like reeds in the cool wind. His brown eyes shone in the late afternoon shadows of the ludus, his delicate face fierce now in concentration and slick with sweat. He reminded her so much of their mother. A pang of sadness flushed under Phaedra’s skin when she thought of the day her mother died, but she pushed it down. She would let nothing mar the excitement of her betrothal.
        Bahar was fighting well today, amazingly well considering his fifteen summers and the fact that he was a… but she did not dwell on that.
        Instead, she found her eyes drifting once again to the massive brute moving in tight perfectly graceful circles around the youth, his deeply muscled arms and legs slick with the rain now pouring onto the sand. His unusual dark red hair tied behind his neck whipped with each cat like move. He wore it long, unlike the other gladiators who usually preferred their heads shaven close.
        When he suddenly glanced in her direction, she tucked herself back into the shadows. Those azure blue eyes struck her strangely, and she pulled in a breath. They seemed to burrow into her soul when she let them linger. Phaedra snorted, took a purposeful step forward and twisted her lip in disgust. A slave, she reminded herself again, a gladiator. Not even human.
        He was famous, of course, and she had to admit curiosity had been a strong motivation earlier when Bahar had invited her to watch the training. There was nothing she considered more disgusting than men sweating like pigs as they swung wooden weapons at each other, acting like savage children.
        Prince Thane. The title made the fine hairs on the back of her arms dance in the wet air.
        Was he really a prince? She doubted it; maybe some bastard child born to one of the thousand chieftains that claim lineage on this forsaken island. Of course, everyone in the empire called him The Gladiator Prince. Some said he was more than half god. From what she could see, though he was very handsome, in a vulgar, animal kind of way, he was still only a man… like other men.
        That same chill sent a shudder through her again, and she pulled her cloak more tightly around her shoulders and put up her hood to stay the rain now crimpling her dark hair.
        Rome had been abuzz with his unparalleled showing at the Circus Maximus… then devastated when her father had left with him to tour Greece, Egypt, Gaul then the slave’s native Britannia. Roman citizens from every province paid thousands of denarii and tolerated seasickness just to follow him abroad, including, Phaedra thought with contempt, many highly pursed women. She had heard a parade of rich mistresses vied for the pleasure of his company… and his bed.
        The thought forced a small smile to her lips, imagining what it would be like to find herself in those massive arms, his breath on her neck, his manhood...
        She blew out a breath when another chill trickled up her arms and she rubbed them, moving a little closer to the slatted gate to get a better look.
        A clang off to her right caught her attention, and she noticed two well-built Thracian gladiators had donned their full regalia for what she assumed was preparation for tomorrow’s match.
        Moving to the other side of the gate she watched as the two men crouched in the sand and others gathered around them. They did no more than circle, playing at fighting, and Phaedra soon became bored.
        She knew it was scandalous for a Lanista’s daughter to detest the fights, but she could not help it. They sickened her. How much blood could one endure? It was vulgar and barbaric, and she knew if she stated her opinions to her father, he would have her whipped. Phaedra always kept her thoughts to herself.
        Thinking it was time she returned, she lifted her tunic away from the wet sand and whirled around to rush back to the house and out of the rain before her father missed her.
        In a flash, she found herself entwined in two massive arms belonging to a monster in a gladiatorial loincloth and nothing else.
        Where the man had come from, she had no idea. He stank of sweat, stale fish oil and rancid food, towering a good two heads above her. She had to twist her neck back all the way just to see his face. The sweat and dirt from his arms left black streaks on her white tunic and cloak.
        “Excuse me,” she squeaked, hoping it would be a polite way of extricating herself.
        Fear gripped her when instead of loosening his arms the man opened a dark smile and pulled her closer to his naked chest. Bending his face down to leer into her eyes, he squeezed the breath from her so she could not scream.
        Panic rang in her ears when the man scanned her face, his eyes beaming as if she were a hunk of lamb. The more she struggled the tighter his embrace became until blackness tinged the periphery of her vision. She could not take in any air.
        He murmured to her in some strange language, running his tongue against his rotten upper teeth. The world began to spin.
        She managed to get her face turned away from him and only then noticed the gate where she had been standing was wide open and the other gladiators were congregating around them, peals of laughter rising like a storm as they approached.
        A blur rushed through the crowd knocking many aside that finally landed on the giant’s neck. The vision of Bahar materialized as he pulled his arm tight around the man’s throat. He seemed no larger than a child next to the massive Iberian.
        When the gladiator let Phaedra go, she fell backwards and landed square on her rear in a messy puddle of runny sand to the men’s hoots. In a blinding fast move, the Iberian pulled Bahar from his neck and clutched the boy’s shoulders in both hands in front of him. He began to squeeze.
        Phaedra leapt to her feet and smashed her tiny fists against the massive arm muscles of the monster. Two gladiators pulled her out of harm’s way. She tried to kick them, but they held her tight. All she could do was watch in horror.
        Bahar managed to get a sandal buried in the giant’s gonads. The man dropped the boy and fell to his knees with a high-pitched squeal. What Bahar lacked in size, he made up in agility for he sidestepped a grab by the gladiator, whirled around with this right foot and smashed it solidly against the man’s left eye. A ferocious growl made the ground shake as the man went down onto one arm.
        The other gladiators howled in delight, one slapping Bahar’s shoulder hard enough to send him flying sideways where he landed in an immense pair of hands.
        “Intentio!” Thane snarled.
        To Phaedra’s surprise, every man froze at attention. The only sound was the mewing of the gladiator who Bahar had bested and Phaedra’s complaint as she pulled her shoulders out of the grip of the two gladiators.
        Shaking with anger and fear, Phaedra brushed the dirt from her tunic with both hands and fought the tears trying to escape.
        “How dare you!” she sputtered to no one in particular. “You will all be whipped, I swear to you…” When she threw her chin up, Thane’s eyes caught hers, and the words trembled in her mouth and died.
        His angry blue gaze cut her to the spine, turning her knees to water and squeezing the breath from her chest. “I…I did not mean…” He stood no more than a foot from her, his teeth clinched. Bahar appeared at Phaedra’s side, grabbing her elbow.
        “You have no right to be here,” Thane said to Phaedra. His thick accent trickled down her vertebrae like ice water. “Take your sister home,” he hissed to Bahar. “Your father need not hear of this. Then you will…”
        Without warning, the giant gladiator on the ground hauled himself up with a rumbling foreign curse and jumped at Thane.
        It happened so quickly. Phaedra could have sworn the Brit had not even moved. He caught the broader man by both wrists, twisted hard, pulling one in front of the other, then spun him around until the man faced away from him, his arms crossed. In an audible crunch, the Iberian spasmed once then went completely still. His eyes closed, and his head fell onto his chest. Without taking his eyes off her, Thane released his grip on the gladiator, and the giant slumped into the sand.
        The others quickly gathered their companion and pulled him into the shadow of the outlining building, obviously knowing not to question the Brit.
        “Abano is new,” he said quietly. “He did not know better, mistress, but he will be flogged for his mistake. It is a pity the high born are not likely punished for theirs.” A spark of humor flashed in his eyes, and for an instant, Phaedra thought he was laughing at her. “Take her home, Bahar. When she is where she should be, return and we will finish your lesson.”
        “Yes, Doctores.”
        Thane turned and crossed the sand to where two wooden swords lay and picked them up in one hand. Without turning back, he strode into the shadows of another building.
        “You are an idiot, big sister,” Bahar whispered as he pulled Phaedra from the arena.
        Her face was ablaze in a raging storm of emotions: humiliation, fear, anger and one or two others she could not fathom. Trembling erupted in her breasts, her thighs, her ears, leaving her shocked and confused.
        There was no denying what that man had done to her in those few words; he had loosened her hold on the wild beast that lay just underneath the haughty cool exterior she had spent a lifetime establishing. Phaedra felt soiled to the center of her core… and it thrilled her. Pins of pleasure triggered a surprising need. The reaction horrified her.
        Biting down her body’s betrayal by sinking teeth into her bottom lip, she glared after him. She had never hated anyone more than the arrogant Briton slave and swore he would pay for his insolence.

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