Alone, she walked through the darkness of the passageway towards the sun-filled amphitheatre.
As she drew closer to the arena, she became aware of the sound from above — a rhythmic, thrumming cadence that began at the periphery of her consciousness. Distant at first, it became hypnotic as a siren’s song, permeating the stone around her, penetrating her to the very bone.
Lysandra battled to keep her churning emotions in check. Fear flowed like ice in her veins and, for a moment, she faltered. Yet part of her surged with the desire to face this most terrible of challenges. It flared only briefly but burned hot enough to sear away her terror. From the darkness, she stepped into the harsh light of the arena.
The roar of the crowd was a living thing as it assaulted her and she staggered beneath its violent intensity. Row upon row of the screaming mob surrounded her, the amphitheatre stuffed full, as if it were a massive god gorging upon base humanity. Her vision swam as she registered innumerable faces, twisted and distorted their mouths wide open with howls of lust and anticipation.
A fetid stench rose from the freshly raked sands, filling her nostrils with the reek of blood mingled with the excrement of slaughtered animals. The venatores, wild beast hunters, had been at their work that day, butchering hundreds of creatures for the delight of the crowd. Her stomach lurched, raw nerves screaming at her to run, to flee this Tartarus made flesh, but again she fought down the urge.
The baying of the frenzied mob increased in its intensity. Her eyes narrowed as she gazed across the arena, emerging from the tunnel that faced her own was another woman.
Lysandra was only vaguely aware of an arena slave rushing up and thrusting two short swords into her sweat slick hands, as she focussed on her adversary. She realised that the combatants must have been chosen for their physical differences. Whereas she was tall and slender, her foe was short and solidly built, her limbs chunky. To Lysandra’s Spartan eyes, she looked downright vulgar. Huge, udder-like breasts heaved beneath her white tunic, threatening to burst forth from their confinement; this study of Gallic typicality was crowned by straw-coloured hair, the final contrast to the raven-black tresses of Lysandra’s own. There were but two similarities: the weapons they bore and the certain knowledge that, in scant minutes, one of them would die.
The Gaul turned towards the dignitaries’ box and raised her right arm in salute. Lysandra, though unused to arena etiquette, emulated her. She had spent her whole life in ritual observance and made the gesture with confidence. Not that it mattered. The richly clad Roman whom Lysandra assumed to be Sextus Julius Frontinus, the governor and procurator of Asia Minor, did not bother to acknowledge them, his attentions clearly focused on the dusky charms of the slave girl by his side.
Lysandra turned towards her opponent. The two women faced each other, the sea green eyes of the Gaul locked with her own. For interminable moments, they stood, their emotions mirrored in each other’s gaze, and Lysandra felt a sudden, sharp regret at their plight. Though they were not foes of their own volition, Lysandra knew she could not stay her hand. Her eyes hardened with the resoluteness to survive and she saw the other woman nod as she too came to this realisation. They raised their weapons.
For a few heartbeats, all was still. Then, with sudden violence the Gaul attacked and the strangely beautiful sound of iron striking iron sang out as Lysandra met her assault. The Celtic warrior screamed and cursed as she laid in, imbibing rage-fuelled courage. There was no order to her attack, just a constant flurry of hacking blows, dealt with all the strength the stocky body could provide. She was like an avalanche, rolling forward, crushing everything in her path.
Lysandra knew she must be as mist. Most of her life had been spent preparing for combat: a ritual training to be certain; a ceremonial skill never meant to be called upon. But now, in the stark reality of mortal threat, this hard-learnt preparation came to the fore, and her body responded instinctively.
It was as if her opponent was moving underwater. As the Gaul initiated an attack, Lysandra’s own blade moved to deflect the blow. Do not meet force with force, she told herself as she weaved away from the onslaught. Her refusal to engage in a slogging match seemed to encourage her foe, who redoubled her efforts. The Gaul’s feet churned up sand as she pursued Lysandra across the arena, slashing and cutting at thin air. As the chase wore on the crowd erupted into a chorus of boos and cat-calls, demanding more action.
Sweat now plastered the Gaul’s yellow hair to her forehead and darkened the sheer white tunic to gauzy grey. Lysandra saw her shoulders heaving with exertion as she evaded another attack. The Gaul paused momentarily, gasping for breath. It was obvious that she was weakening but, more, her confidence had drained and the insidious worm of doubt was now eating at her fighting spirit. Gamely, she raised her swords, and a sudden rush of fire filled Lysandra’s veins. Now, her instincts screamed at her. Now was the time.
Her blades whirled, blurring in their swiftness as she mercilessly turned defence to attack. Her opponent’s parries became desperate with awful suddenness as she back-stepped, swords moving frantically to deflect the onslaught.
Lysandra pressed in harder, the Gaul only stopping her now at the last possible instant. She redoubled her efforts, engaging in a final, furious exchange of blows with her desperate opponent. As the impact of blade on blade jarred her arm, she felt the last strength leech from the barbarian and smashed through her guard.
There was no remorse: just a wondrous, beautiful exultation as she felt the other woman’s flesh yield and part as she rammed home her blade. The Gaul made a choking sound, huge gouts of blood vomiting from her mouth and the gaping wound in her chest. Lysandra dragged the blade out and using her own momentum, spun about. Her sword caught the staggering woman on the neck, severing the head from her body; it arced skywards, the eyes and mouth wide open, frozen forever in shock and pain. The headless body stood wavering for what seemed like an eternity before, with an almost reverential slowness, it toppled backwards and crashed to the sand, blood spreading out behind the gaping neck like a crimson pillow.
With chilling abruptness reality crashed back down upon Lysandra, the roar of the crowd cascading over her, drenching her in a waterfall of dissonance. It was a bizarre tableau: the corpse still twitching at her feet and, approaching her, a tall man, clad as Charon, the ferryman of the dead, bearing a hooked staff. Slowly, and with a degree of ceremony, ‘Charon’ retrieved the Gaul’s head, then attached her torso to the staff. At the same formal pace, he retreated, dragging the body behind him.
Lysandra backed away, then turned and made her way towards the tunnel, her thoughts a confused morass of elation, guilt and relief.
© Russell Whitfield 2007