Authors: Eva Scott
In the dust and death of the Colosseum, a slave fights for freedom, a soldier fights for his life, and they both fight for the love that has been forbidden.
Captured and enslaved by a Roman legion, Xanthe never expects to end up training for the Colosseum floor, but every night after the day’s march, she is put through her paces by a Roman soldier who challenges her, tests her, and excites her.
Titus is drawn to Xanthe, her fire and her spirit, so he breaks one of his rules and brings notice on himself, offering to train her as a gladiatrix to spare her a courtesan’s role. But training her, working with her, soon becomes too much. Titus knows the penalty for taking property that does not belong to him, but how long can he resist?
Eva Scott lives on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland with her family and three dogs. When she’s not writing, you can find her out on the water kayaking, fishing or swimming. When on dry land, it’s all about the shoes and the coffee.
Thank you to Guy Gibson for his military and editing expertise.
For Téa Cooper,
who is responsible for leading me to Ancient Rome in the first place
An unnatural silence hung over the woods. Wariness tingled along Xanthe’s spine as she moved cautiously, senses on high alert. The frost-laden grass crunched beneath the hooves of her horse, steam blowing gently from its nostrils in the cold air.
She shouldn’t be here. A child of the plains, Xanthe was left with a sense of disquiet in the enclosed space of the forest. Why had she thought she could find her brother and bring him home all by herself? The sensible thing would have been to bring along a contingent of her father’s men. Once more, her foolish pride had served her poorly.
Gentle tugging on her horse’s reins brought him to a stop. The skin at the back of her neck prickled, as if in warning. Twisting about in her saddle, Xanthe looked for the cause, one hand reaching instinctively for the hilt of her sword.
A sudden movement flickered at the corner of her vision. Spinning around the other way caused her hair—encased in a long, thick plait—to thud dully against her leather breast plate. The sound seemed too loud in the stillness. Where had all the birds gone? They had stopped singing. Something was very wrong. Dread settled heavily in the pit of her stomach, her vulnerability quickly dawning upon her. She was the daughter of a Sarmatian chief, a warrior woman, yet Xanthe knew she would be no match against multiple attackers.
Her horse snorted, restless as she urged him forward. Going back was no option: Xanthe had come to find out what had happened to her brother, and find out she would!
When she finally brought her brother home, her father Aldis would realise she was as able as any man under his command. Xanthe could fight as well as her brother, if not better. This was much to the lament of her mother, who fretted that her daughter would not make a good match in marriage. What man would want to marry a woman who couldn’t cook?
Xanthe didn’t care. She couldn’t think of a single man worth marrying in their entire tribe. She belonged at her father’s side, spear in hand, and today she would prove that to him.
A bird flapped noisily, startled as it fled its perch. She spun to watch its flight. The skin on the back of her hands tingled as the air crackled with a sense of danger. Xanthe sniffed. The unmistakable sour smell of unwashed men permeated the air.
Suddenly, her horse reared, hands grabbing at her from all sides. Xanthe fell crashing to the cold, merciless earth, helmet flying from her head with the impact. A sudden glimpse of dirty, hairy faces was the last thing she saw before the darkness overcame her.
Every muscle in Centurion Titus Valens’s body ached. After riding patrol for several cold, miserable days through the lawless woods fringing the Roman Empire, he longed for nothing more than hot water to wash with, a cup of good wine and a hot meal. Returning to camp with captives did not mean triumph to him; it simply meant he was kept longer from his bed.
Titus was aware of the grime and dirt covering his exposed skin, settling into the lines of his face and making him look as tired as he felt, but he chose to ignore his dishevelled state. He had no intention of washing, caring nothing for his appearance as he approached the tent of his commanding officer, General Sextus Aquillus. He was a soldier, not some soft-skinned patrician. They could take him as they found him.
The soldiers on duty snapped to attention at his approach. Titus could hear laughter, the smell of roasting meat wafting from inside the tent making his mouth water and nipping at his good humour.
‘Centurion Titus Valens to see the General—tell him I have some captured renegade Huns who say they have a gift for him.’
One of the guards disappeared inside the tent to deliver the message. As Titus waited he did his best to ignore the captives, three Huns, who by his reckoning smelt like they had not bathed in a year. The stench was eye-watering. His patrol had encountered them deep in the icy woods, where the group had recently captured a woman—her fate may have been different had Titus and his men not intervened.
Peace treaties between the local Hun tribes often fractured and reformed, as alliances splintered and power changed hands. Ofttimes groups of rebel Huns raided villages along the fringes of the Empire. Titus suspected these men were one such group. He had intended to turn the men over to the local chieftain, but they had begged to be allowed to present the woman to the General as a gift instead. Normally he would simply deliver the girl to the Hun Chief along with the three rogues, but something about the woman soon had him giving the order to return to camp.
The Huns muttered amongst themselves in their guttural language; in contrast, the girl stood perfectly still, her hands bound before her. Wild hair the shade of autumn leaves framed a delicate face, but nothing delicate was reflected in the depths of her green eyes. Titus sensed she was like a coiled snake waiting to strike, and as luscious as the maid looked, he kept his distance.
‘So what is it you want, Centurion?’ Maximus Calavia, the General’s aide-de-camp appeared at the tent’s entrance. ‘The General is busy. I hope you do not intend to waste his time.’ Maximus was slender and fine-boned, like a woman. He also possessed a woman’s love of gossip and—if rumours were true—a woman’s love of men. Yet Maximus did not like him, and Titus was happy to return the sentiment.
‘My men captured these Huns out on our patrol. I suspect they are outlaws to their own people. I intended to deliver them to the Chief of the Hun Alliance. Instead, because they wished to gift the great General Sextus, I was persuaded to bring them here first.’
Maximus wrinkled his nose in distaste. ‘What on earth could these men have that the General would want?’
‘This.’ Titus nodded to one of his soldiers, who dragged the bound woman forward. He was strangely pleased to hear Maximus’s gasp of surprise.
‘Is she what I think she is?’ Maximus asked, awe tingeing his voice as he stepped forward to inspect the prisoner.
‘I believe she is Scythian, yes. She certainly carries the marks of the Scythians.’ Titus watched as Maximus inched closer to the woman. The man lacked caution.
‘Yes. What strange pictures upon her skin—and blue! How do you suppose they get them like that?’ Momentarily fascinated, Maximus strayed too close, a finger raised to touch a blue tattoo of a swirling horse prancing across creamy skin. The woman lunged at him, hissing, and he stumbled backwards in fright. Titus struggled to swallow his laughter, fearing he’d choke on it and embarrass himself.
‘Well! I don’t know what the General would want with such a creature, but that’s not for me to say,’ Maximus huffed, recovering his dignity. He pulled his cloak tighter about him against the night’s chill. ‘Bring her through.’
‘And the Huns?’ Titus asked.
Maximus looked the grimy men over. ‘Bring them, too,’ he sighed, turning to re-enter the tent.
Titus gestured to his men. ‘Get them up!’
The soldiers kicked and pushed the Huns towards the tent. The girl offered his men no resistance, yet Titus noted that her gold-flecked eyes never stopped darting, looking this way and that as if for an escape route. Sadly she would find none here, yet surely the girl’s fate would be a better one than that she left behind in the woods.
Removing his helm, he led his men into the General’s tent.
‘I trust that you find the wine to be of the highest standard,’ General Sextus spoke to the assembled men of rank, a slimy smile plastered on his ruddy face. If there were two things Titus Valens hated more than the cold, it was the filthy lying Huns and General Sextus Aurelius, his commanding officer.
Gaius Gegania, the General’s
, or second-in-command, raised his goblet in General Sextus’s direction. An insincere smile stretched its way across the thin lips of the young, ambitious patrician as he said, ‘The General knows how to live comfortably. He is truly a man of discerning taste.’ Titus wondered how Sextus could miss the man’s barely hidden sarcasm.
General Sextus often entertained the men of top rank at his table in the evening, more to have someone to lord over than for company, or so Titus suspected. Spending an evening with the odious General Sextus was not his idea of a night well spent, and looking at the other guests’ faces Titus could see he was not alone in his opinion. The General’s boorish manner did little to mask his devious nature. How he had managed to rise to his high position was still a mystery.
The General leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms over his ample belly, and nodded, looking satisfied. ‘Indeed! I have spent years studying the finer ways of the noble classes, and moreover, I believe I have exceeded all but the most illustrious in culture and taste.’
Self-satisfied swine. How amusing it would be to turn the Scythian woman loose and see how smug the man was then. Yet, he kept his temper in check. Despite being a centurion, sworn to upholding the peace of the Roman Empire, Titus would have given his eye teeth to teach General Sextus a lesson in humility.
The candlelight gleamed off the golden goblet as the General brought it to his lips. Reflected shafts of brilliance illuminated the far reaches of the tent, penetrating the dark winter shadows. A Roman military camp in winter might lack luxuries, yet General Sextus Aquillus always seemed to manage. Titus noted the fine tapestries that lined the walls to keep out the cold northern air. Furs covered the floor of the leather tent, and the men sat on finely carved chairs as they dined. An outsider would be forgiven for mistaking the scene for a feast in Rome rather than on the farthest reaches of the Empire.
‘Maximus!’ The General bellowed at his aide-de-camp. ‘What was all that commotion about? Who is bold enough to interrupt my dinner?’ He made no move to shift his large bulk from the comfort of his chair, and yet his doughy body wobbled with tension at the sight of the wild Huns.
‘Sir!’ Maximus stood ramrod straight, the very picture of soldierly calm. ‘Centurion Titus Valens has captured a trio of Hun rebels on his patrol. They claim to have a gift for you that they wish to present.’
The General relaxed at the news. ‘The hour is late Maximus. However, I am always ready to receive tribute.’