Trigger warning: this story contains violence and low-level gore.
Recommendation: If you have the Gladiator score on iTunes, play Sorrow and Progeny on loop as you read.
She could feel the roar of the crowd as it echoed through the shadows below the Colosseum. It rang in her ears, and had her gripping the hilt of her sword tighter. She spun the tip in the loose dirt beneath her feet, it flicking around in her palm and kicking up a cloud of white dust. The high keen of the blade was drowned out by the fifty thousand people all chanting her name. It was like a heartbeat. A rhythm.
She closed her eyes and listened, taking measured breaths that matched the drumming of their feet. Any minute the gates would be drawn and a guard would come for her. She'd be taken out into the blinding sunlight and onto the white sand of the arena floor. But for now she sat in silence, alone as she waited.
She could her the booming voice of her Emperor announcing the day's games. It never failed to make her heart race beneath the thick hide and thorn of her dark armour, nerves plaguing her stomach. But she had no choice; she was a slave at the mercy of the Empire. And if that meant she had to kill for their entertainment, then she would kill.
And kill she did.
Hundreds of men and women had fallen by her hand. It was a number she learnt not to think about. Each one of them was a son and a daughter. They all had families they'd never return to.
But she knew she'd be seeing them again in the next life. And she hoped against all hope that they would welcome her without malice, or hatred at her actions, but rather embrace her with open arms. It was a fool's hope, but she had to believe they would forgive her for what she had done, as she would them.
The distant grinding clunk of gears sounded to her right, the shadows disappearing in the day. A foot soldier approached her, spear in hand. She leant forward and retrieved her second broad sword from the wooden rack in front of her and got to her feet. Her swords were heavy, the black and gold hilts gripped firmly in each hand. Silently, the man gripped his pike and motioned her forward with the tip.
Her black leather skirt hit her legs with each step, and her sandals crunched against the sand. She moved swiftly from the darkness of the dungeon and took to the ramp below the arena. As she made her way up the steep incline, her muscular thighs flexed beneath the red sash on her skirt, the silk material smooth against her heated skin.
The applause from the crowd was getting louder the closer she came to them, the vibrations disturbing the rough dirt under foot. The sound enveloped her mind until it was all she saw. The heartbeat. The rhythm. It was deafening.
The man halted, still in the shadow of the structure at the very tip of the long ramp. She stood next to him and looked out upon the white sand, her vision narrowed by the slits in her helmet. It was completely baron except for several stone pillars that shot into the sky, creating a ring in the sand with thick iron chains hanging from its high iron rings.
Depending on the day or the festivities, there could be any number of obstacles set out for the combatants to use to their advantage. But those were usually reserved for the larger tournaments.
Today was different.
Today she would be facing a gladiator not unlike herself. He was moments away from his freedom, the moment when the Emperor decided he'd earned his right to leave and start his life as a free man. But she knew how it could end so quickly, one wrong move and it didn't matter how close you were. She'd seen that fate fall to so many of her fellow gladiators, ones she felt had earned their right to freedom ten times over. But once you left the shadows of the dungeons and took to the sand, nothing else mattered but the sword in your hand, not the man or woman on the tip of it.
Out in the arena, the Emperor had called for silence. It went eerie quiet. She could hear the distant caw of birds flying overhead. Any moment her name would be called to the sound of rapturous applause, and she would have to leave the safety of the shadows for the sunlight beyond. She took two calming breaths, her ears pricked, waiting for those words to leave her Emperor's mouth.
"Welcome, welcome," the gruff voice boomed from the raised balcony above her. "We are gathered here today in celebration. For this day is the day a gladiator will earn their freedom, or fall at the hand of another. He has more than proven himself over the years in front of you all, so let's see if he leaves a free man in this life, or the next."
The soldier to her right eyed her cautiously, the sound of fifty thousand people echoing down the wide passageway. She stepped from one foot to the other, warming her muscles as she waited in the shade of the high arch. It seemed to take him an eternity, but once those words hit her, she could feel the change in air.
"Ladies and gentlemen of Rome, I give you The Shadow Of The South," he announced to the ear splitting sound of applause. "Santana Maria!"
She'd crossed the invisible threshold into the monstrous arena a hundred times, but it always seemed like the first. Thousands upon thousands of men and woman, poor and wealthy were stood in ovation as she entered. Red petals fell upon her shoulders from high above. It was bright, the heat of the sand already creating a light sheen of sweat over her tanned skin.
She walked to the centre and faced the large balcony overhead. Any moment he would introduce her opponent; the man she would be forced to kill. So she knelt down on one knee, driving one of her blades into the dirt and bowed her head to the man standing at the edge, his arms wide and welcoming. He was her Emperor and she was his slave. Ever since she was 11 years old. And when she turned 17 he had her competing in the games. Now at 23 she'd more than earned her right to leave this life. But it was his decision if and when he let her go.
But it was also hers.
Santana raised her head, her eyes meeting the bright hazel of the girl to his left. She wore dark navy silk, her long blonde hair flowing over her shoulders, held together by gold pins. Her perfect pink lips pulled up in the corners, but she wasn't smiling, her petite features holding indifference.
The girl was beautiful by every definition of the word. She looked down on her from the seat next to her father, those almond eyes holding her there as her knee scrapped against the rough sand.
The gate behind her clunked heavily and the Emperor's voice was drowned out by the blood that rushed to her ears. The crowd dimmed as she got to her feet, dislodging her sword and gripping it tightly. She looked back up to the girl, wondering if this was the last time she would see those beautiful eyes shine in the sunlight, or see that hint of a smile on those lips. She took a breath, Quinn giving her a short almost non-existent nod of encouragement.
It was enough.
It travelled up from her chest and out towards her arms and down through her legs, steadying her heart.
May the Gods protect me from harm, and see it just to bring me back to you.
Santana turned her back on her and looked upon the gate that was being drawn on the other side of the arena. It was slow, but she knew what faced her on the other side. She'd seen this man fight a hundred times. She'd studied his movements and his stance in case this day ever arrived. His strike was heavy and true, his thick arms the size of tree trucks. He was strong, but his armour was heavy, and it laboured the swing of his sword and prevented him from gaining any real ground.
There was a reason Santana was so loved and respected by the crowd. She was quick and agile, light on her feet. And she could make quick work of those four times her size. There was just less of her to hit. Those who had only heard whispers of her name would look upon this fight as a mockery of the games, seeing no discernable way she could win. But that is why people came from all over to see her fight, and why she was chosen by her Emperor to be his opponent. She was the Shadow, dark and hard to catch.
She gripped her helmet and shucked it off, the hot metal stifling and cumbersome. It hit the ground just as the man stepped into view across the way. He was hulking, his full body armour glinting silver in the sunlight. Santana could feel his heavy footsteps on the sand as he entered the arena, his sword and shield held high.
There weren't many entry points when it came to his armour, just a small gap where his helmet met his chest plate and the area under his arms. It wasn't much, but Santana only needed an opening, no matter the placement or size.
She strafed to the left, keeping an easy distance between them. She stayed low as she moved, but didn't once break eye contact, the man standing his ground. He cut lines through the air with his sword, watching her carefully, his face completely covered by his plated helmet. It was disconcerting. Santana could usually stay one step ahead of her opponent by the way they held their eyes, having the ability to read their next move in their features. But to him she was completely blind, having to rely on instinct alone.
The sound of the crowd was still thunderous and spurred her on, Santana going in for the first strike. It connected with his shield, the brunette parrying right and rolling out of the way of his broad swing. He hit air, Santana already behind him, steadying herself for the next blow.
She came in fast from his left side, the man twirling and meeting her left sword halfway. It was like an elaborate dance, one she'd completed a hundred times. When he would move forward she would step back, meeting him every time, both her swords coming down in quick succession.
Some people she could wait out. Dodge and duck until fatigue hit them, but not this man. He had too much to lose. He was so close, closer than most gladiators ever came to tasting freedom. He was coming at her with everything and not letting up. So she dodged and parried, waiting for an in. She only needed one shot. It was only ever one.
She deflected his heavy blows, the high keen of the folded steel and bronze ricocheting into the midday air. She sidestepped, always staying on an angle to him. If he got in a direct hit she would be forced to block and his strength would out weigh hers by at least two hundred pounds. So she steered clear, continuously circling him, her eyes never wavering. Every swing and every strike that made contact the crowd would hiss and applaud, the men and women in the stands completely transfixed by the pair.
Every few blows, she'd be turned around, the large stone balcony coming into view. She registered those eyes watching her, her back tight against her seat. Quinn stayed composed, but her gaze followed the fight intently.
Santana wasn't sure if this gave her the courage she needed, or made her lose composure. It always seemed to be both. But being the Emperor's daughter she was required to watch and support her father's decision to hold these games. So a part of Santana had learned to block her out when her hands gripped metal and ivory, and someone was coming at her, arms at the ready. It was all she could do to tear her eyes away from that beautiful face.
Her breathing was becoming heavy and laboured, sweat pouring down her back. The man was exerting with every swing, his movements frustrated and clipped. He couldn't get a clear shot to her, Santana always a step ahead. She ducked under his arm, his blade hitting dirt and kicking up a cloud of dust, Santana already twenty feet away.
It went on like this for the next few minutes, neither able to gain any real advantage on the other. She would deflect with one sword and strike with the next, then roll away from his powerful thrusts. That was until the towering man swung his blade wide. Santana went low, skidding against the sand beneath him. She felt hot metal bite into her left bicep, the searing pain causing her to cry out.
Her sword fell to the ground, but she kept a firm grip on her right and thrust it under his arm, and into the gap in his armour. It dug deep, bright red blood pouring over the dark blade and over her bound hand. He collapsed to his knees, his whole body trembling, and his sword and shield falling from his grasp. Santana's legs had given out under her, the brunette lying flat with her hand still on the hilt.
He choked, blood pouring down his neck and soaking the white sand. Her whole arm was drenched in a mixture of her blood and his, but the pain from her wound was numbed by the adrenaline that coursed through her veins. She let out a shaky breath and got to her feet, dust and dirt sticking to her skin in patches.
She turned her back on the disarmed gladiator still spluttering on his knees. She bent down and retrieved her second sword from where it hand fallen from her hand moments ago. She could have just gathered his in exchange, but there was nothing more insulting than finishing a man with his own weapon, and he deserved more than that fate.
With her hand gripping her black and gold sword, she looked back up at her Emperor, silently asking for his decision. He had a look of pride on his face, though it was tainted by disappointment, but not in her. He knew when he chose her that this would be the result. Santana merely assumed that for once the Emperor might have liked to see one of his slaves walk free. She had watched him over the years and gathered that he held a high respect for this man; he wouldn't have been giving him his freedom if he didn't.
The crowd roared, chanting kill, kill, kill, over and over. It was mind numbing, but she concentrated on his outstretched hand, his thumb turned out. Santana forced herself not to look at the relief that was flooding Quinn's face, or the slightest of smiles that graced her full lips. Her eyes stayed on the Emperor until after a moment he flicked his finger down, the rest of Rome screaming their misplaced encouragement as her heart sank.
She mightn't have bothered asking for his verdict; she knew this was the man's fate. Seldom did the Emperor show mercy to a man that was within an inch of his life. The merciful course would be to put him out of his agony. So Santana paced back over to him, the man still on his knees, gasping for air that was no longer there. Bright red liquid bubbled behind his helmet as she placed the tip of her blade just above his collarbone. He let out a choking whimper, Santana taking a breath and looking back up at Quinn.
Her lips were pulled down, her hands now resting on the stone ledge of the balcony. She swallowed heavily, before giving her a short nod. Turning back to the man, Santana gripped the handle in one hand and covered the end with the other. She saw his eyes close beneath the slits in his helmet, his arms going slack at his sides.
"Forgive me," she whispered, before plunging her sword deep into his throat.
Her eyes snapped open to be met with a palace guard in dark armour and flowing robes. He held a spear in his hand, waiting at attention until she sat up from her bunk and got to her feet. Her left arm ached as she stood, jagged black stitches helping her new wound to heal. A small white rag was tied over it, a spot of dried blood soaked into the material.
The man took his eyes off it and motioned her forward. A few of her fellow gladiators in the next cells roused and looked on in curiosity as she was escorted from her room.
It was dark out, the cool night air fresh against her bare skin. Goose bumps rose over her arms as she walked down a passageway and began taking stairs to the lower holding cells. The guard stayed behind her, Santana hearing his footfalls on the stone steps. The air was becoming stagnant the further she went. It was damp and musty, but she pushed forward, her sandals echoing off the cold walls. She hit the bottom, the passage opening up into a cell with no windows except for the small grate on the wooden door.
She walked through once the door was unlocked. The room was empty, a set of chains bolted to the floor, the iron rusted and heavy. Without being told she wandered over to them and stood, her arms loosely by her sides. The guard bent down, and picked up one of the metal cuffs and slipped it onto her wrist, screwing it tight. He repeated it with the other side and stepped back against the open doorway.
A hooded figure appeared beside him, pushing past to stand just beyond the entrance.
The guard did as he was told, closing the door behind him and sliding the bar into place. Once they were alone the figure pulled back the hood to reveal pale skin and a pair of startling almond eyes. A smile stretched across Santana's lips, bowing her head slightly in the girl's presence.
"My Lady," she intoned, pulling gently against her chains. They were looped into a ring on the ground, Santana not able to move one hand without the other getting yanked backwards. Quinn paced forward out of the shadows into the light of a nearby flickering candle. She was as beautiful now as she was in the daylight, even when surrounded by filthy stone walls.
"Why must you persist in calling me that?" she asked with a breathy chuckle.
"Because I know better than to talk down to the future Empress," Santana replied coolly.
She chuckled again and took a step closer. The movement stirred the air around her, Quinn's heavenly scent reaching Santana's nose and filling her senses. She pulled uselessly against her restraints, wishing she could get closer to her. She needn't have worried though, Quinn walking the rest of the way over to her until there were only inches between them.
She reached up a hand, her eyes fixed on the bandage on Santana's arm. Her fingers brushed over her skin and all the way up to the cut. The soft touch sent tingles all over her body and had her eyes closing gently against the sensation.
"Does it hurt?"
"I've had worse," Santana breathed, those fingers like fire against her skin.
"Don't remind me," Quinn murmured softly, her hands dropping to the darker girl's bare midriff. They grazed along the raised scar just under her ribcage, the skin rough and jagged where the wound had healed. "That was one of the scariest moments of my life."
"It was also the first night you came to see me," Santana recalled, Quinn's eyes flicking back up to meet hers. They shined in the dim light, her lips turning down at the corners.
"I thought you were dead."
"I think I was," Santana mused, placing her left hand over Quinn's and holding it against her toned stomach, her right getting pulled tightly behind her back. "But then you saved me."
Santana leaned forward and brushed her nose gently against Quinn's. Her skin smelled so good, like the most exotic flower with a hint of spice. It made Santana's head swim and her breath come quicker.
"Flattery will get you nowhere with me," Quinn whispered against her parted lips.
"I beg to differ, my lady," Santana husked, before closing the remaining distance.
Those soft lips melted against hers, Quinn taking in a sharp breath. Santana moved her left hand to cup her face, the rough palm of her hand brushing against creamy skin. She pushed further forward, taking her bottom lip into her mouth and sucking gently. It was truly maddening, her right wrist pulling against the metal cuff. Quinn moaned gently, breaking the kiss and leaning her forehead against Santana's, exhaling heavily.
"You might be right," she hummed as she moved lower, kissing along her exposed neck. Santana's breath hitched, her neck rolling back and her hand threading through soft hair.
"Do you ever wonder what would happen to us if someone was to find out?" Santana asked breathlessly. Quinn pulled back, her eyes searching her face for a moment.
"You are my father's pride and joy," she stated simply, moving around to Santana's back and running a finger along her heated skin. "And mine."
Santana felt the girl's lips press to her bare shoulder blade, sending a shiver down her back. She peppered them further out, before resting her head against her shoulder, her hands splayed flat against her lower back just before the hem of her belted cloth skirt. "So, I don't like to think about it," she finally mumbled into the thin material of her top. "It scares me."
Quinn looped her arms around her abdomen and held tight, her face nuzzling into the crook of her neck. Santana brought her hand up and placed it over hers, her tanned skin stark against Quinn's pale arm.
"What will we do once I win my freedom?" Santana asked.
It was a question she'd thought about a thousand times. It kept her up at night in her cell, staring at the dark stone walls. It wasn't exactly an ideal situation the two girls had found themselves in.
"I will convince my father to take you on as my personal bodyguard," Quinn answered simply, Santana feeling the grin on those lips as they pressed to her neck. "That way no one will ever question why your eyes near leave me."
"The Emperor's daughter and the slave," Santana voiced, lacing the fingers of her left hand through Quinn's and squeezing gently.
"It is a love for the ages."
Part Two coming soon... (In development as of 23/02/15)