Authors: Russell Whitfield
Tags: #Roman Gladiator Gladiatrix Ancient World
Myrmidon Books Ltd
Newcastle upon Tyne
Published by Myrmidon 2011
Copyright Â© Russell Whitfield 2011
Russell Whitfield has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
Set in 11/14.25 Bembo by
Ellipsis Digital Limited, Glasgow
Printed and bound in the UK by
CPI Cox & Wyman, Reading, RG1 8EX
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written consent of the publishers.
This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
For Sally: Semper ad meliora.
Chapter I - XLI
Though her senses were overwhelmed with the chaos of battle â the shrieks of dying women, the uncomprehending screams of mutilated beasts and the stink of blood mingled with defecation â 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 â the phalangites, on whom so much depended â 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 mÃªlÃ©e.
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
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 âreal' battle, there could be no fleeing the field, no treating for terms: the fight would continue until the emperor called a halt â 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 disin-tegrated flank had become a seething mÃªlÃ©e with no room for manoeuvre. It was a small grain of fortune in the unfolding disasterÂ â 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 â and indeed had â 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 forÂ 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 âSpartan 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 â 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
. 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
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 overÂ 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
, 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 â 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.