Arts of Dark and Light: Book 01 - A Throne of Bones (9 page)

He mused upon the centurion’s salute as they rode. God and Amorr? He didn’t see that the Immaculate had had much to do with the charnel house of this battlefield. When he looked down at the stinking blood and gore splattered across his arm, chest, and leg, it was, in fact, hard to imagine anything less immaculate.

He wasn’t even sure what Amorr had to do with it either, come to think of it. Had there ever been a goblin tribe known to march on the great city? Marcus would know, he supposed. But, to be honest, he couldn’t care less. Victory in battle was its own reward, and a man no more needed to justify war than he needed to justify wine.

The camp was in sight when he saw a tribune and a centurion riding toward him. It was Crescentius, the laticlavius, easily recognizable by the broad white strip at the bottom of his red tribune’s cape. He didn’t know the centurion’s name, although he seemed to recall the man was with the seventh cohort.

They were probably coming to fetch him on behalf of the legate, Fortex concluded. He wasn’t surprised that Saturnius would want to honor him in some way, although the infantry hadn’t been in nearly enough danger to justify anything like the grass crown. Wouldn’t that have been something, though! Magnus would have been fair to burst with pride.

Caught up in his idle daydreaming, Fortex nearly fell off Incitatus at the first words out of Crescentius’s mouth. They were, in fact, very close to the last thing he could have possibly imagined under the circumstances.

Gaius Valerius Fortex, you will accompany us now. Give the centurion your sword. I have orders in the name of Marcus Saturnius, legate of the legion, to place you under arrest.”

SEVERA

The autumn sun was unseasonably hot as it beat down on the forty thousand people sitting or standing on the stone rows of the great arena. Fortunately, the slaves had brought some thick white cloth with them and, with the use of some wooden posts, had arranged it to provide shade for Severa and the others seated in the box. Below them, a pair of female fighters in leather armor were jabbing their spears at a nearly naked male goblin armed with only a dagger, but the uneven battle held little interest for her. She was thinking about one of the attractions to come later in the day, and her stomach was tight with dread and anticipation.

Her father and three brothers were seated in front of her, to her left. As one of the women nearly managed to skewer the green-skinned inhuman with a clumsy jab, her father leaned over and said something to her oldest brother, Regulus, who threw back his head and laughed. Her mother, being more than a little squeamish, wasn’t there. She was at home with Severa’s younger sister, Severina, who was too young for the bloody violence on display.

But not Severa. What was more, she had been permitted to bring her friends Caera and Falconilla with her, both of whom were tremendously excited to be seen by everyone sitting in the princep’s box.

“Those creatures are so disgusting,” Falconilla commented, staring at the goblin with an incredulous expression on her face. “Can you imagine how they must smell? Where do they find them anyway?”

Her brother Tertius, only a year older than Severa, leaned back to reply. “Considering that House Valerius has three legions marching through their lands right now, I imagine there will soon be a surfeit of them in the markets. Would you like one, my lady Falconius?”

Falconilla didn’t deign to provide Tertius with a verbal response but merely turned up her nose at him. Tertius laughed and turned his attention back to the amateurish battle.

The goblin was nearly as tall as the shorter woman but much skinnier, and its legs and arms were disproportionately long by human standards. Its skin was a light green color with hints of yellow here and there, and a faint dusting of dark green hair covered its chest and lower belly. Whatever passed for its goblinhood was mercifully concealed by a dirty cloth that may have once been white. The goblin’s face was a mask of bestial desperation. It bared sharp and yellowed teeth at the women as it once again managed to duck a spear thrust at its chest. The women seemed to be a little slower than the goblin, and their failure to coordinate their attacks made it easy for the greenskin to evade them. But despite its long arms and greater speed, the short length of the crude dagger with which it had been provided made it difficult for the goblin to get past the iron spearheads without taking a high risk of being impaled.

“Whatever did those poor women do to find themselves thrown in the arena?” Caera asked Severa.

“Who knows,” she answered. “Maybe they’re slaves no one wanted.”

“Do you think so?” Caera sounded surprised. “The taller one is pretty enough to be a bodyslave.”

“What of it?” Falconilla asked dismissively. “That filthy goblin is pretty enough to be an Andronican lady-in-waiting.”

“Or the wife of a Valerian,” Severa said, laughing. “Maybe that’s why House Valerius sent their legions north—it’s the only way they can find anyone to marry their sons and daughters!”

There was a scream below, and the three girls in the box looked down. The goblin had managed to slash one woman’s left arm, leaving a deep wound running nearly the length of her upper arm. The woman grimly held onto her spear with both hands even though the blood was running down her forearm and dripping onto the sand, but her next pathetic attempt at thrusting the spear at the goblin revealed that she’d been badly hurt.

“She poisoned her husband,” Tertius said unexpectedly.

“What?”

“That woman.” He pointed down at the woman who’d just been wounded. “She’s a Lucanian who poisoned her husband. The other one is an adulteress who went to a witch to kill her unborn child after she fell pregnant. I don’t know where she’s from, but she looks Epran. They’re not warriors or slaves. They’re damnatii.”

“Really?” Falconilla was staring at her brother in amazement. “How do you know that?”

“I sent Marsupor to talk with one of the trainers at the stable. It’s rather stupid to wager on combats if you know nothing of the combatants involved, don’t you think?” He picked up a wooden tablet from his lap and waved it dismissively. “The libellis bills this travesty before us as a battle to the death between two Cynothii warrior women and a goblin blademaster of the savage western tribes. But I very much doubt either of those women has ever held a spear or even been north of Amorr. So I bet on the goblin.”

“Do you always do that? Have your slave ask around the stables?” Severa attempted to sound curious rather than terrified.

“I wish I dared.” Tertius sighed ruefully. “No, only when there is cause to think something’s amiss. Such as, for example, the idea that there are any Cynothii captives of either sex to be had. If you recall, the Cynothii defeated Legio XIV a few months ago, so I imagine it is rather more likely there are Amorrans fighting for the amusement of the crowds in Cynothicum than any of their warrior women are fighting here for us.”

“To say nothing of the fact that their women are no more inclined to take to the battlefield than our own,” added their father, shaking his smoothly shaven head in disapproval. “They may be rebels and provincials, but they’re hardly barbarians.”

An air of anticipation swept over the crowd, and her father returned his attention to the sands. The two women appeared to have finally understood the need to coordinate their attacks. The taller woman, the adulteress, took a more aggressive stance and was calling out instructions to the wounded poisoner as she circled to her right and attempted to drive the goblin toward the spear of the other woman with a series of quick, conservative jabs.

The goblin also seemed to realize its danger, and it glanced back and forth between the two women, as if trying to decide which one it should attack first.

It decided quickly and bared its stained, triangular teeth. It leaped toward the wounded woman and with its free hand slapped away her feeble attempt to thrust her spear at its face.

She screamed and stumbled backward, dropping the spear and covering her face with her hands.

The crowd roared, and the goblin pounced. But it reached for the spear instead of stabbing the defenseless woman. It was seemingly unaware of the second woman rushing toward it from behind, her pretty face a mask of desperate determination.

Severa heard Tertius groan. Even she could see there was no way the goblin could pick up the spear and turn around before the charging woman plunged her spear into it. But it didn’t try. Whether it heard the sound of footsteps on the sand or its move toward the spear was never more than a feint, no one would ever know. Regardless, the goblin stopped, twisted its upper body, and hurled the dagger right into the woman’s face with all of the force in its long, wiry arm.

A gasp filled the arena. The shock of being struck by the knife sent the woman staggering off-balance to her right, and she dropped her own spear and instinctively raised her hands to her face. The goblin’s dagger fell harmlessly to the ground beside her.

The crowd roared, a wordless cry of fear and anticipation, until it realized that the woman had been struck by only the hard wooden handle and not the blade.

But even if the blow wasn’t serious, it gave the goblin enough time to pick up the first spear, raise it overhead, and plunge it once, twice, three times into the chest, throat, and abdomen of the disarmed and screaming murderess. The woman’s screams subsided into the chokes and coughs of the mortally wounded, and the goblin pulled the spear from her body and turned to stalk the remaining woman.

Her right cheek was red from where the handle had hit her, but she was otherwise unharmed. She bent to retrieve her spear. But the other woman’s fall had clearly sapped her courage, and her steps became tentative, and she was forced onto the defensive.

With every thrust and jab of the goblin’s bloody spear, the woman’s determination gradually transformed into wide-eyed terror. She was soon reduced to little more than parrying its attacks. It wasn’t long before droplets of the other woman’s blood from the spear’s head sprinkled her face like freckles.

“I’d rather be executed,” Severa heard Caera say in a low voice.

“What’s that?”

“Look at that poor woman. It’s awful. If I ever did anything deserving of a death sentence, I’d rather they simply strangled me or threw me from the Rock than go through that kind of hell. I don’t care what she did—look at her. No one should ever be that terrified!”

As if to emphasize her words, the goblin let out a ghastly, inhuman shriek, and the woman lost control of her bladder. The goblin sprang upon her, first beating her spear aside with its own and then releasing it in order to grasp her throat with both its dextrous, long-fingered hands. It squeezed with all of its wiry strength, snarling and snapping at her purpling face as if it was some sort of giant, green hairless cat.

The woman, unable to pull its hands from her throat, gave up and cast desperately about for the knife, which was near her right side. Her fingers scrabbled blindly over the sand. At last she came across it.

But it was already too late. Before her fingers could curl around the handle, they suddenly straightened and went rigid, and she began to convulse in her dying straits. Finally, her hands relaxed, lifeless, as her spirit left her abused body behind, off to face its own judgment.

Tertius rose to his feet and raised a fist in triumph, but the crowd’s reaction to the goblin’s victory was less enthusiastic. Perhaps many of them had bet heavily upon the women. Perhaps they simply found the sight of two human women slain by a goblin displeasing. By whatever cause, its mood abruptly became ugly.

The crowd jeered as a pair of men wearing the colors of the Green stable, armed with clubs and whips, walked out to escort the victor back into the bowels of the arena. The goblin was no sooner divested of its crude weaponry than six slaves ran out—two pairs to drag the dead women’s bodies from the floor of the arena, and the remaining pair to follow them with rakes and eliminate the furrows in the sand left by the bodies.

The musicians struck up a jaunty tune, and a shaven dwarf walked out and began juggling small skulls to pass the time until the next match.

Caera looked at Severa with tears in her eyes. “It’s so cruel. How can you stand it?”

“Everyone dies sooner or later.” Falconilla was in high spirits. Her eyes were bright and her cheeks were flushed. She, at least, was thoroughly enjoying herself. “What difference does it make if a woman gets strangled in the prison cells or in the arena? It’s the same either way.”

Severa stared at a bloody patch of sand. “I wonder what happened to the witch.”

“What witch?” Falconilla asked.

“The one the adulteress went to to get rid of her baby. What happened to her?”

“Oh. I don’t know. Who cares? Bring her here and we’ll find out what happens to her.”

Severa looked away. As was often the case on her visits to the games, she found herself more interested in the varied reactions of the people around her to the violence than in the violence itself. The combat was exciting, to be sure, and it stirred her blood. But there was also an element of pagan, even ritual, brutality to the spectacle that she found unsettling. It felt almost as if they had witnessed a human sacrifice, although one to the greedy hunger of the crowd instead of a god. She did not find it hard to understand why more gentle souls, like Caera, had no taste for it.

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