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Just Like the Setting Sun

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They take her for sport, because she is a woman and women are easy.

So she makes it a game; a broken wrist, three broken fingers, two broken arms and one dead. They then try to kill her, but she burns too bright to be taken out by some Roman son-of-a-whore. She bites and lashes out, and she’s thrown into a wagon, hog-tied, for her troubles.

As they travel west, it gets hotter. As they travel west they forget she is dangerous. One tries to force himself on her. She lets him get just close enough to bite out his throat; teeth gleaming white and red in the sun. She grins at the remaining men, lupine and cold like alpine air.

They cannot speak her language but her message it clear.

Try me. Try me and see what you get.

Their destination is blazing; hot sun and hot sand and hot blood in her mouth. Because they are further west, and west means forgetting and another throatless body by the wayside.

They are shackled like cattle and scrutinised just the same, hot sun blistering her shoulders and adding to the fire in her heart. Men try to check her teeth and she bites them. Try to grab her breasts and she kicks them. She receives forty lashes with thin leather, but no one gets gold for her body, so she is triumphant through the pain.

The others are bought by pampered nobility to serve, by traders who need disposable bodies and lonely men who need warm ones.

Her body runs hotter than most, but at the end of it all, all she gets is a cold cell with colder iron on her ankles.

They do not feed her that day, but she has had worse.

They are no further west, but forgetfulness seems rife in this hot land where people are valued no higher than cattle. They think the iron will stop her, but she breaks his neck with her legs and doesn’t say a word.

Another comes, fat with wealth, and commanding power. They took her for sport, but she does not scream and there is no enjoyment in those who are not cowed. Instead the fat man gives her a sword – indirectly, because he is stupid but he is not stupid – and when she has killed those within immediate reach he smiles. And though they do not share a language, his meaning is clear.

Fight for me, little girl.

She is not little, but she fights.

They are not cattle, she discovers. They are less than cattle. They are cocks and dogs, starved and beaten and let loose on each other. Creatures half mad with loss made dangerous through fear and heat and blunt weapons.

They train her up, though she does not need it and kills anyone who gets too close. They train her up and push her out into an arena of death, terraces high with people who find amusement in pain. She kills because she hates them. She kills because above all she wants to live, to live long enough to get out or die on her own terms.

They have names, those who fight, as she has hers. But together they are swordsmen, together they are Gladiator.

Together they have honour.

But she is a slave. In the end, someone got gold for her body. Possessions do not have honour. Possessions hardly have lives.

In the arena she is wolf-cunning, blood hot and dangerous. Those who are scared she kills quickly, a small mercy she can afford in this place where mercy is a weakness. But those who are cruel go slowly, hot blood on hot sand, because she has mercy, but little kindness.

There is no kindness here.

In the arena she kills a favourite, and she only survives the emperor’s vote because there are none left on the sand to carry out his judgement. But the baying mob, blood hungry and spitting venom, want retribution. She is no further west than before, but oh, how they forget.

They want her body to show her punishment, but she will not die here. Not like that.

In her cell they send in others to take the emperor’s judgement from her body. They send in others, and there they remain, dead or unconscious on the floor. Because if the emperor wants justice he should get it himself and if the crowds want a favourite they should pick better than a man who can be so easily bested.

They send in another, but now it is not because they forget. They have lowered their standards; if they can’t have her body they will try for her voice.

The voice she gives them is not the voice they want. She knows enough of their language now. It’s broken and halting but the meaning is clear.

I am a witch girl from the east. I have teeth down there as well as teeth up here. Come closer and I’ll make you bleed.

He comes closer, and he bleeds. They send in another.

She makes them pay for making her so strong, but she says nothing.

The sixth is a surprise. Like the others he is pushed in, and like the others he does not want to be there. But unlike the others he takes one look at her, defiant in her shackles and no less dangerous for being bound, and says no. It is not the word she knows for it, but the tone in unmistakeable.

He is a gladiator who would rather be beaten than force a woman. She memorises his face.

He has a brand one his forehead same as her, and as he is beaten she wonders what his homeland is like. He is tanned and has hair the colour of ripe wheat, though it is bloody now. Punishments here can be severe, and his is brutal.

She is not crippled only because she has a rich sponsor who will not see his investment damaged.

They do not enter the arena together, but a while later she sees him fight. He is graceful and deadly and his smile is familiar because it is the one she wears too; lupine and cold like alpine air.

Like her, he will not die here in any way but that of his own choosing.

Segregated barracks means that they should not meet. Her established reputation for being careless with the lives of her trainers means they end up doing so anyway. She toes the line just enough to not get an arrow in the back.

She will choose her own manner of passing, if freedom cannot be taken by force.

They have no language in common but that hardly matters. When she asks where he is from he points towards the now-setting sun. West, west and further west still. Maybe so far west that forgetfulness is not an issue. Maybe so far west that men do not need to be reminded.

She points the opposite way. East and west. Rising and setting. And here they are in the middle, in a land of harsh noon-day sun, baying crowds and hot sand. Stranded in a place where freedom is rarely given, even when earned with blood.

She is wolf-cunning and he is hawk-bright. Their sameness calls out to her and when they are close she feels like a threatening storm; like the rush of war and the crackle of lightning strikes. When they are close she feels as though freedom is within her grasp.

She knows what she wants and she will not let them keep it from her. Not her thoughts and not her freedom and not him either. His touch is like cloudburst, like one less person in the arena, one step closer to free air. They try to stop her, they try to stop him, but she has teeth and he has teeth and they figure nothing is a bigger crowd pleaser than doomed love.

But their love isn’t doomed. Their love will end in freedom, one way or another.

They collect scars as easily as smiles. A large cat takes a chunk of her leg, and he loses a finger to a man with skin so dark it shines.

She is the only woman left. She is no longer a novelty, but she is still alive.

Time passes. Not much time, not really, but it feels like more. They are by no means favourites, but they are permitted to fight on. If they wanted, they could earn their freedom. But it is not the manner of freedom he desires, and the freedom they offer her is no freedom at all.

He calls her rauðr, pointing at the blood on his fingers, the grapes on his plate, the flowers on the courtyard tree. Her hair.

Red. Like blood.

She calls him ястреб because his eyes see so clearly and his nails score lines down her back like talons.

Hawk. But wing-clipped, unable to fly.

Eventually they get sent into the arena together. Here is the culmination of their ‘doomed love’. Here they are to be laughed at; see how futile their efforts, how pointless their affection. See how the emperor’s judgement finds them at last.

There are archers ringing the stands. They will not escape.

They kill the animals, then the convicts that follow. Then the gladiators with axes and swords. They stand in blood and gore and when there is no one left to fight, they turn to each other.

When we leave, she says, will we go east or west?

I follow the sun.

The sun moves.

My sun in always in front of me, he says. Blood red. Setting.

They do not raise arms against each other and she does not feel the arrow that kills her. She only feels his lips.

They go down like the setting sun. Hot, blood red and free.