CHAPTER I - Champion of the Empire


She stood in the centre of the arena, her bronze battle axes held at her sides dripping with the blood of the fallen gladiators strewn around her, each of them killed with a single strike. For the first time in her life, she was able to glory in her womanhood. Her new leather tunic, splattered with her opponents’ blood, displayed the contours of her body. She wore it proudly in the sure and certain knowledge she was as good a warrior as any man.

Staring up at the despot who’d condemned her to death, she lifted her chin in open defiance. “Octo!” declared the emperor. She steeled herself for her next challenge, knowing it would probably be her last.

She had faced many challenges in this life. Her family had once been wealthy and noble, but she had grown up in crushing poverty as they tried to rebuild their lives in the shadow of the mountain that had destroyed their world: the mighty Vesuvius. Orphaned at ten, brutally raped at eleven, she’d run away to Rome at twelve. Reaching the great city, she disguised herself as a boy. The memory of what had happened was too painful; she never wanted anyone to know she was a girl again.

Renaming herself Cassius, she eked out a meagre existence taking any work she could find, always moving on before her secret could be discovered. At fourteen, starving and with no alternative, she was caught stealing fruit from the market. She was faced with a stark choice: crucifixion or gladiator school. Both seemed like certain death, but gladiator school offered a chink of hope. Her instructors saw her as a weakling boy and picked her out as a useful target for the larger boys to practise on. On her first time in the arena, she left her crippled opponent struggling in the dirt.

For ten years, she fought her way up from provincial amphitheatres to the glory of the Colosseum. Her skills grew with every contest and, just eight days ago, she entered the ultimate gladiatorial competition, the Emperor’s Championship Tournament. She battled through to the final where she emerged victorious and was declared the Emperor’s Champion.

Her very success was her undoing. The emperor was so impressed with her skills he decreed she should be anointed in oil. It was a high honour, seldom bestowed on a mere gladiator, but she knew, for her, it would be a catastrophe.

She tried to demur, “My lord Caesar does me too much honour. I am merely his humble servant. To fight in his name is glory enough.”

But the emperor was insistent and her fate was sealed. When the priests stripped off her clothing in readiness for her anointment, they saw the truth. She was arrested and thrown into a dungeon. Two days later, she was dragged before the emperor in chains.

“What is your true name, woman?”

“Sabina, my lord Caesar”

“For a woman to pose as a man is a crime itself. But your crime is a thousand times worse. You falsely claimed the title of Emperor’s Champion, a title I hereby strip from you. I order damnatio memoriae: all records of your existence will be scrubbed; any mention of your participation in my championship tournament will be expunged. You have dishonoured me, which means you dishonour the empire, for we are one and the same. As a traitor to the empire, you are sentenced to death.”

He paused as he considered her fate, “Normally, I would order a crucifixion but, though you are a traitor, you may still serve some purpose. The people will enjoy watching you die in the arena more than on the cross. Tomorrow you fight for the last time. I sentence you to doubling.”

Doubling was a rare form of execution. The condemned had to fight for their life in the arena. First, they faced one opponent. If they survived, they faced two, then four, and so on… until they were killed. A few had faced the Quattuor, four opponents, and survived; only to be defeated in the Octo. No-one had ever beaten eight.

Her first challenger was the Greek champion, Herculaneus, best in the world with a spear in his day. He was an old rival she remembered from her early days in the arena. But he’d retired five years ago and been living a soft life since. After some ferocious combat, the old gladiator was soon tiring, and she knocked him down with a kick to the stomach. He knelt before her, dropped his spear, and pulled off his helmet, “My respect to you, noble Cassius, you are the true Champion of the Empire, woman or not.”

She looked to the emperor. He pointed his thumb to the ground, signalling she should finish Herculaneus. She hesitated, but the old fighter looked up at her, “Let me die here with dignity, not pissing in my bed an old man.” She looked down at him and nodded. He nodded back and closed his eyes, then she took his head with a single blow.

Next came two Sumerians who charged at her with vicious curved scimitars. They were fearsome but unsophisticated. She took both of them down simultaneously to a roar of approbation from the crowd.

Four German warriors armed with battle axes were sent to attack her next. The Germans were strong and brave, but slow in body and wits. She used her speed and agility to outmanoeuvre them and soon they lay dead around her.

And now she stood ready to face the Octo, eight warriors would be sent into the arena to kill her. She waited for her fate to unfold. She was not afraid, soon she would join her parents in the Elysian Fields and they would know she had honoured them. Herculaneus’s words came back to her and gave her strength; she was the true Champion of the Empire.

She heard the creaking of gates in the passageway leading from the gladiator pens, then the stamping of sixteen bare feet hitting the dusty ground in perfect rhythm. Eight giant Nubian warriors trotted into the arena in ranks of two. They circled the perimeter, the sharp blades topping their long spears glinting in the sun, their helmets adorned with huge black feathers, making them appear even taller. As they started to move in closer, they seemed to tower over her. Suddenly, they broke formation and fanned out to form a ring around her, a ring of death.

The Nubians began to sing. They stamped their feet and pounded the shafts of their spears into the ground in time with their singing. The performance went on for over a hundred heartbeats, she knew it was meant to intimidate her, but she couldn’t help being mesmerised by their beautiful voices. Abruptly, the singing stopped and the men lunged at her, all of them, in unison. She was almost taken by surprise, but swiftly turned herself into a deadly spinning top, whirling around, her battle axes lashing out as she spun. Three of the Nubians fell, the others withdrew.

Five warriors still surrounded her, but now they kept a respectful distance. One threw his spear. She swerved and the projectile flew harmlessly past, then darted forwards and cut the unarmed man down. Another man closed in behind her, his spear raised, ready to stab her in the back. She ducked beneath his thrust, twisted around and sliced his legs from under him. Crouched low, she kept turning, back towards the others, and saw one rushing at her, his spear in a throwing position. Continuing the same fluid movement, she flung one of her axes at the charging warrior. The weapon span through the air and embedded itself in his chest, sending him flying backwards.

Standing up, she faced the last of her challengers as they began to advance towards her, attempting to flank her. With one axe, it would be impossible to fight them both off at once. She backed away slowly, waiting for them to rush her. Her leg hit something warm and soft. She glanced down. It was one of the Sumerians, his scimitar lying beside him. The Nubians kept coming. She crouched down and grabbed for the weapon. The Nubians rushed at her, their spears raised high. She sprang back to her feet and hurled her axe at the man to her right, splitting his head in two.

The man to the left thrust his spear at her chest. She deflected it with the scimitar, but it plunged into her side, beneath her rib cage. She sliced upwards with the sword, opening a deep gash in the man’s chest and knocking off his helmet.

Both of them recoiled, clutching at their wound. She looked into the warrior’s face, now exposed for the first time. The Nubian’s deep brown eyes stared back at her. Suddenly, she felt an incredible connection to this dark warrior from a distant land.

“I know you,” she said.

He replied in a language she couldn’t understand, but she knew he had the same sense of belonging. The blood was streaming from his chest. He dropped his spear and reached out to her, but the stream turned to a flood and he fell to his knees. He began to topple forwards. She dropped her sword and caught him in her arms.

“I am sorry... I... I...” she looked down at him from eyes filling with tears of regret.

“You champion queen,” his Latin was poor and heavily accented; “I happy meet you. No be sorry, he make we fight.” He pointed at the emperor with an unsteady hand then reached up and gently stroked her cheek, “You make I free. We be together in next time, my queen.”

His eyes fluttered and closed then he slumped in her arms. She kissed him on the lips as the breath left his body.

The crowd watched in stunned silence as she knelt there weeping for the man she had just killed and fallen in love with at the same time. After a while, she got back to her feet. She kept herself bent, favouring the wound in her side. She was bleeding heavily, feeling light-headed. Nonetheless, she retrieved her battle axes and turned to face the emperor. Painfully, she pulled herself upright and stared defiantly at her tormentor. “Marcus Ulpius Traianus Caesar,” her voice sounded clearly in the hushed Colosseum, “how many noble warriors must die before you accept I am the true Champion of the Empire?”

The emperor stared back at her and smiled. He stood with his arms outstretched and, in a loud, clear voice, proclaimed, “Sedecim.”

She heard the sound of the gates over the roar of the crowd. Sixteen Celtic warriors, their torsos naked, their faces painted blue, ran screaming into the arena.