The floor of the valley was sodden with blood.
Though her senses were overwhelmed with the chaos of battle – the shrieks of dying women, the uncomprehending screams of mutilated beasts and the stink of blood mingled with defecation – it was the image of the damp, purpled ground that was seared into Lysandra’s mind. She had seen death before, but never on this scale and, despite the warrior heritage she held so dear, she was not prepared for such carnage.
She tore her eyes from the earth, fighting for calm and forcing herself to analyse the horrific tableau before her. In the shallow valley the two opposing forces clashed, the formations swaying like drunken dancers as ground was lost and retaken. The bloodied soil was ripped up in clods; iron studded boots churned relentlessly over the battlefield as her pikewomen – the phalangites, on whom so much depended – held firm against the savage barbarian attack. On both wings of her battle-line, Lysandra’s small forces of cavalry rode forward, plunging into the fray.
Above it all, on the ridges that surrounded them, the iron ring of legionaries ensured the gladiatorial battle could break free of the valley. Behind the soldiers, she could see the brightly coloured tunics of spectators who had paid fortunes to watch the spectacle and, in the centre of the throng, the gleaming white togas of the imperial party. Lysandra wondered briefly if Domitian was enjoying his birthday extravaganza.
She forced her attention back to the battle and fought down a surge of panic as the dam of her Thessalian cavalry on her left wing began to break apart under the tidal wave of enemy pressure. With awful suddenness, the barbarians cleaved through and Thessalian resistance was sundered. Seizing the advantage, the expert enemy horsewomen swung about and thundered headlong into the now unprotected flanks of Lysandra’s phalanx, their savage cries keening over the cacophony of battle.
This is what Lysandra had feared the most. The Macedonian style phalanx which she had adapted for this spectacle was both irresistible and immovable from the front but if hit on the flanks the mighty formation was all too vulnerable; the closely packed troops could not bring their long pikes to bear against the enemy and were rendered all but defenceless. Lysandra watched in horror as the horsewomen, yelling in triumph, scythed into the formation. She saw her women mill about in confusion, some trying to drag out their short swords and make a stand, others shoving their way free from the bloody mêlée.
It did not take an Alexandrian understanding of tactics to know that the battle now hung in the balance. She had to intervene and thanked the gods that she had had the foresight to keep a reserve. She glanced at the women. These were her elite: all were gladiatrices, tried and tested in the arena. They were well used to the sight of blood and screams of the dying, less prone to panic than Lysandra’s newer troops. And they knew how to stay alive. Unlike the bulk of her forces, she had clad these shock troops as hoplites, kitted with heavy armour and helm. She gave her signaller an order and the buccina sounded three sharp blasts. The reserve line lurched forward, the women breaking into a trot. Like Lysandra, they would know that all was lost if they failed.
Unlike a ‘real’ battle, there could be no fleeing the field, no treating for terms: the fight would continue until the emperor called a halt – or until one side was wiped out. Lysandra pressed her lips into a thin line and urged her horse forward; black as night and dark tempered as his coat, Hades refused to budge. Lysandra was no rider, and kicked the beast savagely with her heels until he ambled reluctantly in the direction of the breach in her lines.
The enemy horsewomen were trying to disengage, but the disintegrated flank had become a seething mêlée with no room for manoeuvre. It was a small grain of fortune in the unfolding disaster – a bigger battlefield would have afforded the barbarian cavalry room to extricate themselves and charge again. As it was, though they had already wreaked havoc, they were now becoming bogged down, allowing her own soldiers to drag them from their mounts and cut them to pieces before they could rise. But these small successes were quickly expunged as the tribal infantry now leapt into the fray exploiting the gap caused by their mounted comrades. A groan went up from her troops as the sagging left wing was forced into the centre that, thus far, had held back the frontal barbarian onslaught. Lysandra looked about for answers but saw that the Thessalians were in no state to counter-attack. Too few remained and their horses were wounded and blown.
Far away on the right, her Egyptian cavalry were holding their own. Lysandra knew that their commander, Minera, would do her best to break through and ease the pressure by launching her own counter assault. But even if she succeeded, could she arrive in time? Lysandra’s plan to hold her ground and let the barbarian wave smash itself to pieces on the rock of the phalanx was teetering on the brink of failure and she could feel the courage leeching out of her women as their ranks began to collapse. In the midst of this, rode the enemy commander, Aldaberta. The huge German was roaring her troops on, her great fleshy arms wielding her sword like a club, smashing women from their feet, revelling in the carnage.
Then at last the reserve phalanx piled into the fray, their line holding firm as they advanced over a ground now made treacherous by dead beasts and warriors. In terrible unison, their spears plunged into horses and women alike, the onslaught carrying them deep into the fight. The triumphant cries of the tribeswomen turned to panic as the line of hoplites tore into them, their pitiless iron spearheads shearing into flesh like the teeth of Cerberus.
The reverse spread through the barbarian ranks like a slow-burning flame. Here and there the pressure of the assault slackened as groups of tribeswomen began to fall back in disarray. As they did so, the Egyptians on Lysandra’s right capitalised on the confusion and swept aside their opponents, cutting them down with ruthless efficiency. Their eerie battle cries rang out loud as they charged into the chaos, shattering the faltering courage of the enemy. What was once a battle became a rout as panic spread through the tribal ranks, and Minera’s squadron wheeled away, running down fleeing tribeswomen who had broken away from the mob. Lysandra’s infantry did not go after them in a mad rush, and she was gratified that the long months of training had paid off. Leaving the left to reorganise, her right and centre rolled forward in good order, thinning ranks to maximise their killing field.
Lysandra squeezed her eyes tight shut and puffed out her cheeks, exhaling sharply. She had come so close to defeat that even now, with the enemy fleeing, she took no joy in her victory. Unlike her triumphs in the arena, it was not only her own life she had been fighting for, but the lives of all her women. The terrible knowledge that her errors of judgement, her hesitations could – and indeed had – cost hundreds of lives was almost paralysing. As her troops began to massacre the wounded, she realised that it took a special person to be a general and, though she had been sorely tested, she was relieved that she had not been found wanting.
As their enemy closed in, knowing that their end had come, the tribal women formed a circle, determined to extract a huge toll for the ferryman before they passed into their barbarian afterlife. Lysandra saw Aldaberta force her way out of the ring, waving her bloodied longsword and screaming a challenge.
The challenge was for the ‘Spartan coward who hid behind her warriors’ to face her in single combat. As she ranted and capered about, the fighting began to die down and the abuse she spouted became increasingly obscene. Its sole purpose was to make Lysandra angry and she knew it. The last act of a desperate woman who had tested herself against Lysandra’s will and failed. If this had been a real battle, she would have simply ordered her troops to finish the job.
But this was a spectacle – entertainment for the Emperor of Rome and the privileged audience that had paid fortune to see death on an almost unimaginable scale. And she, Lysandra of Sparta, was Gladiatrix Prima. She could not refuse and Aldaberta knew it. She knew it, as the throngs watching knew it and the soldiers that protected them knew it. The men of the legions began to pound their spears rhythmically on their shields as they realised what was unfolding on the field below them, and then the spectators began to clap in time with the menacing tattoo begun by the soldiers of Rome.
Lysandra slid down from her mount and unclasped her scarlet war-cloak. Like the majority of her troops, she was protected by a shirt of chain mail and wore a gladius at her hip. She strode forward and drew the sword without ceremony.
Seeing that her wish was to be granted, Aldaberta began urging her surviving comrades to cheer, as though their efforts could bolster her power. Not, Lysandra thought, that it needed much in the way of augmentation. Like most of her ilk, the German was tall and big-boned and Aldaberta had built upon her natural size with a prodigious diet, carrying a lot of excess bulk beneath her leather-armoured torso. Lysandra had seen girthy arena fighters in the past, both male and female. They argued that a layer of fat over their muscles made them less vulnerable to serious injury than the leaner competitor. Whatever the truth of the matter, with her spiked blonde hair and porcine features, the German certainly looked like she could prove to be a handful.
Lysandra spun her sword twice and stretched her neck from side to side before settling into a fighting stance; Aldaberta simply spat on the ground and advanced, her eyes glittering with hatred. With a snarl, she leapt into the attack, her long sword arcing diagonally towards Lysandra’s neck. Rather than jump back, Lysandra stepped into the attack, knowing that with her shorter blade it was folly to stay on the outside. She thrust hard with the gladius, but the blow was not well aimed, merely scoring the dark leather of Aldaberta’s breast plate.
Lysandra followed up by lunging at her enemy, trying to knock her to the ground. The German grunted at the force of the strike but retained enough presence of mind to smash the pommel of her sword into the side of Lysandra’s head. Stunned and gasping, Lysandra fell to the side, feeling her cheek become wet as blood dripped down from a cut on her temple. She rolled to one knee – just in time to block a furious downward cut from the onrushing Aldaberta. The tribeswoman did not strike with her sword again, but lashed out with a kick, her foot slamming into Lysandra’s chest, knocking her flat on her back.
The barbarians roared their approval and Lysandra could tell that Aldaberta had begun to believe that their champion would carve up her smaller opponent. Aldaberta moved in quickly and it was all Lysandra could do to roll away and regain her footing. The German rounded on her again, cutting horizontally, seeking to slice Lysandra’s head from her body. Lysandra parried the blow and spun full circle, the movement taking her inside Aldaberta’s guard. As she turned, she slammed her elbow into her enemy’s nose, feeling the satisfying crunch of breaking bone and gristle. Using the momentum from the spin she swung about again, hoping to catch the other woman with her outstretched sword whilst she was still reeling.
Aldaberta, however, was not to be dispatched so easily and hurled herself away. She spat out a gob of blood and raised her sword. Lysandra moved in, determined to seize the initiative and put the big tribeswoman on the defensive. The short blade of the gladius flicked out like a viper’s tongue trying to tease Aldaberta into making a mistake; but the German was cool, deflecting each attack that came into her range, biding her time.
Do not lose patience, Lysandra told herself, just as her foot slipped on the blood-slicked ground. She fell hard, her weapon skidding away. Desperate fear welled up inside her as the tried to roll away. Too slow. The mail armour saved her from losing the use of her arm, but still the heavy long sword smashed into her shoulder, sending sickening waves of agony flooding through her.
Aldaberta howled in triumph, raising her sword to the sky and Lysandra used the precious moment to scramble to her feet, trying to ignore the pain. She made to run to her gladius, but the German was a veteran of the arena too and moved smoothly, cutting the Spartan off from her weapon. Her grin was smug and she brandished the long sword as though to underscore the fact the end would be soon. And she needed it to be; Lysandra noted that her foe’s shoulders moved steadily up and down and her face was florid and gleaming with sweat. Unlike Lysandra, the barbarian leader had been fighting alongside her troops and the day’s exertions were beginning to tell.
Lysandra raised her fists, dropping back into the classical pankration stance. Aldaberta sneered and moved in for the kill. She feinted, skipping in and back out again, trying to intimidate her unarmed opponent, but Lysandra would not allow herself to be drawn. Again Aldaberta lunged, this time with intent and Lysandra only stepped aside at the last instant. She twisted her lips into a contemptuous half-smile, mocking the other woman’s inability to end the fight. Snarling, Aldaberta pursued her, the long sword hissing as it cut empty air.
Despite her display of bravado, Lysandra was taken aback – the German’s stamina was phenomenal; she forced herself on long after exhaustion should have leeched the precision from her moves. Lysandra led her opponent on, allowing herself time to recover, allowing the fierce pain in her shoulder to recede to a dull ache. Albaderta’s blade hissed down in the diagonal cut, a blow designed to carve an opponent from neck to hip. As she did so, Lysandra leapt in to meet the attack, clamping her hands around the tribeswoman’s wrists. Aldaberta’s eyes bulged with anger as though she was put out by Lysandra’s temerity at trying to match her strength. She gritted her teeth, determined to force the Spartan to her knees.
Lysandra resisted, sweat bursting out on her brow as the German brought her weight to bear. Aldaberta growled as Lysandra began to buckle, the inexorable pressure forcing her down inch by painful inch. It was at that moment that Lysandra gave way, using the powerful tribeswoman’s own strength against her. The German stumbled forward and Lysandra took advantage of the momentary loss of balance, reversing her grip on the other woman’s wrists and twisting hard.
Aldaberta’s weight did Lysandra’s work for her – the German could not pull away and with a rush, the iron tip of her own weapon cleaved through her armour, deep into the flesh beneath. She made a choking sound before toppling slowly to one side, her life ebbing away.
The young Spartan stepped back aghast. She realised that as she had slain Aldaberta, so Sorina had killed Lysandra’s lover Eirianwen – the same technique used in the same way. The memories pierced her heart like a knife as she was borne aloft by her cheering soldiers. The day was hers, but in the sickening aftermath, Lysandra could take no joy in it.
© Russell Whitfield 2011