He did not remember his true name.
His parents had given him one, of course, and although he could not remember the sound of their voices, it seemed to him that he had once known what it felt like to be called, comforted, loved.
But his memories did not begin with gentle parents. His memories began on the day his luck ran out. They began with the fall of Masada.
Screaming. Weeping. Blood on the floor, on the walls. The smell of smoke. A woman taking a sword, kissing a man, then stabbing him through the heart. The same woman turning from that dying man to hand the same sword to another, who would kill her in turn.
Hands reaching down for him, ready to send him to death.
When he became older, he understood they had wanted to spare him. They had meant for him to die with his dignity and liberty, even though he was a mere child. They had meant for their suicides to stand as a symbol that the Jews could be defeated by the Roman machine only in body, but never in spirit – that they and they alone would determine their fates. He would have agreed with that, as an adult man, and taken the sword into his own hands. But at the fall of Masada he had been only a very small, frightened boy, and he had run away to hide. His hiding place had been a clever one, too. The Roman soldiers did not find him until the third time they searched the cistern.
He was sold into slavery, to an owner so miserly as to purchase on the cheap a child hardly out of toddlerhood and force him to be useful. Like most slaves, he was given another name – a Greek one, because Greek slaves were the fashion, whether real or counterfeit. From that time on he was Erichthonius, when he was anything besides “boy” or “you there.”
He was put to work at a laundry, collecting piss from pots all day, every day, so it could be left out to turn into ammonia. It was a task even a small child could manage, and one even a small child would dislike. The work kept him busy from sunup to well into the night, most of the time; the laundry owner wouldn’t spend the money to buy enough slaves for the tasks to be done. Erichthonius hoped that he might be given something else to do once he was older, maybe hired out to an armorer or a smith. That was as far as he dared to hope.
But just as Erich began changing from a boy to a man, his master died. His stinginess proved to have been the result of vast debts – which led to them all being sold off almost before the funeral pyre had cooled.
The other laundry slaves had not been his family; Erich remembered just enough to sense the difference. Yet they were the only constants in his young life, and it was terrible to see them dragged away, realizing they would never meet again.
But the worst came when he and a couple of the other younger men heard their buyer talking. “These ones? They’re for the mines.”
The mines. Everyone knew that nobody survived the mines for long.
(In the salt mines, they said, most men died within three years. But better those than the silver mines, where almost no one lived longer than six months.)
Erichthonius was sent to the copper mines near Aleppo. From the first moment, when he saw the withered, stark forms hammering away with desperate energy, he knew – the other slaves were not working so hard because they hoped find copper. They were working so fiercely because they knew it would bring their death faster, and no one in this place hoped for anything else.
Nor did Erich. He submitted to the leg irons and took the pickaxe he was given, hardly able to imagine what he might have done with a life that was his own.
And yet despite his misery – the near starvation, the unending thirst, the pens where they were kept like animals, the lack of anything that was his own besides an increasingly ragged strip of cloth around his waist – slowly he began to realize that he did not hate being within the mine itself.
There was something … pleasant about being so near the copper. About letting the metal surround him. It was the one part of his existence that provided any happiness whatsoever, and perhaps it stood out to Erich more strongly, because of that.
The other slaves scoffed at him the first time he mentioned sensing the copper near. He had thought everyone could do that, and so their scorn shamed him. Yet when he found rich veins of copper time after time, Erichthonius began to notice that others became quicker to follow his lead.
Months went by. Years went by. He remembered nothing but work, felt no pleasure beyond finding copper. All the slaves who had been there when he arrived died in short order. Then all the slaves who had come around the same time he did. Then the ones who had come after him. They were all worn out, worn through, turned into rags and bones, then turned into corpses.
Erich grew stronger.
Over the years he became tall. Despite the miserable scraps of food they were given and the backbreaking toil, he remained healthy. His muscles filled out his form as they were strengthened and defined by years of endless physical labor. The same forces that broke the others down seemed only to give him power. For no reason he could name, Erich thought the copper had something to do with it.
How long must I endure? he wondered one night as he lay awake despite his exhaustion. They were bedded on hay, and not much of that; their “shelter” was ramshackle enough that he could look up through the roof at the stars. Will the copper keep me alive here forever? Is there no escape from this place, not even through death?
Then the word rose in his mind again, no longer as metaphor: Escape.
It was impossible and everyone knew it. If you managed to break free and tried to run, the guards would cut you down. Miles of dry, deserted country lay between these mines and the city of Aleppo – and even if Erich did somehow manage to cover the distance without being caught, what would do then? He had no money, no possessions, not even shoes. He had no family, and not one friend.
And yet he could not put it aside, the thrilling vision of running free for once in his life. One last time.
If he could not live a free man, he could die as one.
By the last hour before dawn, Erichthonius was resolved. He had wasted his first chance at Masada, but he would not waste another. So he reached out, using his affinity to metal to touch and enclose the irons around his legs. He had loosened them slightly in the past, but only for comfort’s sake, knowing himself a slave both within and without his chains. It was glorious to finally stretch them further and pull his feet free. To watch them fall.
Erich slipped out of their pens, and at first thought he might make it into the countryside yet – were the guards truly all sleeping? How good it would be to have even one night outside that would be all his own …
And then the shouts went up.
The rock pounded beneath his feet as he ran, faster and faster. He felt the points of arrows zooming toward him – and he pushed the metal arrowheads aside, sent them flying in every direction but his. The soldiers shouted in alarm and wonder, and Erichthonius felt his face curving into a fierce, angry smile.
You thought I was less than an animal. You will kill me, but before you do, I will show you how wrong you were.
Horses’ hooves pounded the earth behind him, beside him. Erich tried to tug the horses aside by the metal their riders carried, but succeeded only in flinging the guards’ swords far away.
One of the horses pulled back; apparently its rider panicked. But the other horse did not. It came closer, closer still – and then a loop of rope closed around Erich.
Worse than the fall onto stone that split the skin of his knees and face, worse even than the knowledge of his impending death, was the realization that he would die a slave after all.
Crucifixion, Erich thought as he lay on the ground, tethered there now by dozens of ropes held down by wooden stakes. That was how they’d kill him, on the cross. Usually it took a few days. He closed his eyes tightly against the misery.
With his power he reached out for the metal all around him, thinking of sawing through the ropes and forcing them to finish him faster; however, he could not do the more delicate work of removing swords from belted scabbards, or pulling free nails or coins to fashion blades of his own. It seemed to him that he ought to be able to do it – that he could if he had learned how – but he had not learned, and would now never have the chance.
Yet when the head of the guards addressed the others, he spoke gravely. “We have all seen what this one is capable of. Can there be any question of what he is?”
“He’s a Jew!” protested someone from the back. “They’ve got their own god, just the one, and a useless one at that.”
“Sometimes our gods Mark outlanders, even barbarians,” the head guard replied. “No telling why, but then, no telling why the gods do anything. Do you all agree that this one, too, is Marked?”
“By Vulcan,” whispered someone very near. “If he controls metal, then he is Marked by Vulcan.”
The murmur went through the crowd: Marked by Vulcan. Marked by Vulcan. From his place on the ground, rope rough and taut against his cheek, Erichthonius could see the faces of those closest to him; their expressions were not contemptuous, but a mixture of wariness and wonder.
Marked. Even in his isolated existence, he had heard this term. In the past generation, apparently, the vast bickering pantheon of the Roman gods had taken to marking certain people with supernatural gifts that mirrored those of the deities themselves. Some even claimed the gods were again having children with mortal women, as they had in more ancient times, and aristocratic families were proud when one of their own was shown to be Marked.
But Jews? Nubians? Barbarians from Germania and Gaul? Why would the Roman gods mark them? Certainly Erich had never sought their favor. And why would Vulcan show favor in this one way, while otherwise depriving Erich of any luck whatsoever?
Or was his luck finally about to change?
“Tie him soundly,” the head guard said. “Take him to Aleppo and tell our master what this one’s turned out to be.”
“What’ll they do with him?” asked one of the younger guards.
“Sell him for what he’s really worth, which is as much as all the rest of these wretches put together. He’ll sanctify any sacrifice in the Games, and put on a good show in the bargain.” The head guard laughed. “You’ve never seen a fight until you’ve seen two Marked gladiators go at it!”
The arena. They were going to sell him for a fighter in the arena.
So much for his luck ever changing.
“Do you know, Charelius, I don’t think you’re entirely happy here.”
Her question was so naïve that Charelius had to keep back a laugh. “I am very fortunate to serve your household, domina.”
“But you aren’t happy. You aren’t!” Emiliana sat up from her plush couch so quickly that Charelius nearly whacked her with the metal rod of the peacock-feather fan he’d been using. “You know you can’t hide it from me.”
For all her youth and arrogance – for all that she had been spoiled by her wealthy, indulgent father – Emiliana meant well, at least when it came to those she liked. Charelius knew himself to be his mistress’ favorite. Granted, he was more a fashion accessory than a friend, but he knew she would never intentionally harm him. That alone meant he was luckier than most slaves could ever hope to be.
And yet he remained a slave.
He had been captured when he was 10 years old, so he remembered what it had been like to be free. At least he’d had a childhood relatively free of cares, and the memories of laughter and play in the green fields of Britannia, as he and his little sister chased each other through the tall grass.
But this meant he also remembered the destruction of his village, the death of his parents, and the horrible day in the slave market when he and his sister had clung to each other desperately until her buyer had lifted her roughly under one arm, tearing her hands from his.
He gave the most tactful answer he could. “I was thinking of my sister, domina.”
Emiliana’s beautiful face immediately fell, as if she were crushed. “You still miss her, after all this time, don’t you?”
“Eleven years, domina.” Who knew what his sister was like now – if she yet lived?
“Maybe someday you’ll find her,” Emiliana said. Her ice-blue stola fluttered slightly in the breeze from the balcony, as did her jeweled earrings. “You’ll see her on the street, perhaps, and if you’re working as a scribe by then, why, you might have the money to buy her freedom yourself. Or if you don’t – I know – tell me and I’ll buy her for you! Then you could work here together. That would be perfect, wouldn’t it?”
“It would be very kind of you, domina.” Charelius had cherished daydreams almost identical to this. But hearing the words from Emiliana reminded him of how fanciful such notions were, how unlikely such a thing was ever to happen.
Yet he had to hope, didn’t he? Without hope, he would forget to look for his sister, and he certainly would never find her if he didn’t even look.
He was already occasionally taking jobs as a scribe; his studies were progressing nicely. His first owner had been kind, as owners went, and practical too. As soon as she’d realized the intelligence of the Briton child she’d purchased, she’d packed him off to school. If he could be hired out for clerical work in adulthood, he could make her a great deal of money, and it was customary in such arrangements to allow the slave to keep a portion of his earnings. Roman owners liked to have skilled slaves buy their own liberty eventually – the price was enough to buy another slave to take their place, and the new freeman would forever owe his former master loyalty and assistance. Beyond that, Charelius enjoyed his studies for their own sake. It was interesting to learn proper Latin, then Greek, and to read histories, poems and plays. Back then, he had indeed been happy, at least as happy as a slave could be.
But then, in late adolescence, people’s thoughts began to … whisper.
Charelius hid it as long as he could, fearing the change in his fate, and also wanting to avoid the amissiona. Those around him noticed that he was increasingly distracted, but it did not hurt his studies; when the teacher asked a question, Charelius always “overheard” the answer, unless he tried not to. His inattention and moodiness were ascribed to youth, and he was teased by those who thought he must have a secret love in a nearby household.
Then, one night, as he was pouring wine for the guests at a party, he had seen a man look straight at the mistress of the house and think something so vile, so shocking, that he’d gasped and spilled the wine.
Even as his ear stung from the cuffing he’d received, he had found a way to draw the mistress aside. “Domina, that man – Senator Corbulo – you must not trust him.”
“The Senator?” She had smiled at him despite her obvious annoyance; she had known Charelius well enough by that point to understand he would not speak so out of turn without genuine reason. “Whatever do you mean, boy?”
“He wants to marry your daughter, domina. But he is not a loving man. He imagines – imagines beating her, breaking her bones, calling her unspeakable names and keeping her away from all those who care for her – ”
“How can you say such a thing about a member of the Senate? How could you know that?”
Charelius had never wanted to admit this. He knew too well what it would mean. But the time had come to tell the truth, for the sake of a young girl’s life. “Domina, I believe I am … I am Marked. The minds of others are open to me. I have been Marked by Minerva.”
In time she had believed him. As Charelius had known she would, his mistress had then promptly sold him – his former owners were noble, but not rich enough to ignore the enormous chance for profit. At least they had kept their daughter from that terrible marriage, and sold him to what they had thought would be a good household.
After all, what could have been more charming than a wealthy merchant buying a Marked slave so that his own Marked daughter could practice her gift from Minerva?
“You’re still awfully moody, I can tell.” Emiliana rose from the couch and gestured for Charelius to put the fan aside. “Your temper’s all gray and cloudy.”
“Forgive me, domina.”
She fluttered her fingers at him, making it clear that this was trivia they would dwell on no longer. Within her mind he could sense the need for amusement, diversion, fun. “Do you know, I’m getting ready to show off my other gift. I plan to debut it in public very soon.”
“Are you sure, domina?”
“Quite sure. Everyone will be wild with envy.” Emiliana smiled with delight. She was young enough yet to revel in the jealousy of others.
Emiliana – like many of the Marked – had been touched by not one god, but two. And while she liked her gift from Minerva, she did not practice it enough, because she took such pleasure in her gift from Juno Moneta. As Charelius watched, the gift swept over her, transforming her body from human flesh and blood to glittering, near-transparent diamond.
“The aristocratic wives love to cover themselves with jewels,” Emiliana said, turning that way and this to admire her shimmering limbs. “Imagine their faces when they see I can become one.”
Even Charelius could see the humor of wiping away those prideful smiles. “I hope I shall be there to witness it, domina.”
“You will be. I intend to change at the next games. You can come along to wave the fan and watch it all!”
The games? Nothing Charelius had ever heard about gladiatorial bouts had awakened in him the slightest desire to see them. They sounded vicious, bloody and horrible. He wasn’t sure he’d even be able to get through it without being sick. He said only, “Thank you, domina.”
“So, see, now you have everything to look forward to. Brighten up those thoughts of yours!” Emiliana laughed, still seeing no deeper into his mind than she wished to see.
Thank the gods she does not know, Charelius thought. Careless and young as she is, I think she would still shudder if she had to see it.
That night, just as he began to think he would be spared until tomorrow, he heard Emiliana’s father, Lucius Emelianus, call out, “Where is that boy?”
If only he had been out on some errand. Or asleep already. Every once in a while the master of the house would take someone else if Charelius was not available.
But he was here, and awake, and he dared not lie.
“I am here, dominus,” he said quietly as he went to Lucius Emelianus’ room.
“There you are. Just what I need.” The master gestured impatiently toward the bed as he began removing his tunic.
Charelius knelt on the bed, hoping the master would only use his mouth tonight. At least that didn’t hurt.
But Lucius didn’t content himself with that. As desperately as Charelius sucked at him, as much as he tried to mirror and enhance his master’s arousal to end it quickly, in the end he had to strip and get on all fours, and bite his bottom lip against the pain.
“That’s a good lad,” Lucius Emelianus wheezed as his sweaty hands gripped Charelius’ hips. “Best denarii I ever spent.”
Slaves didn’t have to pretend they took any pleasure in this act; it was a small mercy.
But he had to submit, every time, without question or hesitation.
And his Mark meant that Charelius not only had to endure the physical side of it, but also feel the delight the master took – regardless of how Charelius hurt, or bled, or felt shamed. It was not that Lucius Emilianus took pleasure in Charelius’ degradation; he acted without malice or sadism, without any sense whatsoever that he was dealing with a person, and not a thing.
That knowledge wore Charelius down as much as anything else, making every night harder to bear than the last.
The master finished, slapped impatiently at Charelius to make him move, and settled back onto his bed to sleep. Charelius walked stiffly to the peristyle to wipe himself down.
“Took it hard tonight, didn’t you?” cackled the kitchen slave, who had no more manners than he did sense. “Look at the pet, waddling around like a duck. Come on and drink your amissiona, then.”
“I’ll drink it in a moment.” He did not even glance at any of the other slaves as he made his way to the patch of grass and fresh air at the center of the house, where he could crouch beside the pool and wash himself clean.
Though sometimes he thought he would never be clean again
Lucan held out the rolled herb he smoked. “You haven’t had a hit yet? Probably they’re making you drink it. Bitter stuff?” When the new recruit nodded, Lucan laughed. “Yeah, that’s amissiona. See, they can’t deny that lowlifes like you and me got Marked by their gods, but they’re gonna make damn sure we aren’t as powerful as the Marked nobility. So they get us hooked on this shit. Weakens our powers, in case you hadn’t already noticed. We’ve still got ‘em, just can’t put ‘em to good use, like making those bastards fight in the arena while we eat grapes for a change.”
“I thought it was only that I had left the copper mine,” said the new recruit, who went by Erichthanes or Erichthanos or some other Greek name his momma hadn’t given him. He was taller than Lucan, grey-eyed and lean, muscles in him like a bronze statue. His gaze was steady, even on his first day at the ludus, which overwhelmed even those who had been soldiers before. Although Erich said he had never killed, Lucan could tell – this one could handle it.
He was harder before his first kill than some men were after their tenth.
Erich continued, “If we didn’t take the amissiona – “
“Don’t get your hopes up,” Lucan said. “One day without amissiona, your head starts to hurt. Two days without, you get the shakes. Third day, you might as well be a fucking dog for all the sense you’re gonna make. And it takes more than three days for your Mark to get stronger again. The stuff doesn’t just keep us weak; it makes us dependent on them. Exactly how those Roman bastards like it.”
“You’re not Roman either, then. Where are you from?”
For a moment Lucan remembered the deep forests of Gaul, the scent of fir trees and the white silence of falling snow. He said only, “Doesn’t matter where I’m from. Matters where I am. And I’m stuck here at this ludus same as you.”
The gladiator school was not only for Marked gladiators, but their owner prided himself on having more fighters Marked by the Roman gods than any other, and staging the most inventive challenges for their talents. At the moment, two regular fighters – Thracians, both of them – were going at it with wooden swords in the center of the sandy ring. The other fighters were watching them, studying technique if they were smart. Most of ‘em weren’t smart.
Lucan took another puff of his amissiona before he clenched it between his teeth and forced a grin. “So, Erich, which god marked you?”
“We had a guy Marked by Vulcan last year.” Colossus had been a good kid. Nobody could have hurt him when he changed his skin to metal like that, and even on the amissiona, he could always do it. His death in the arena had not been a defeat, Lucan knew; it had been suicide. Colossus had been gentle, deep down, and in the end, taking life after life had overwhelmed him. “You turn into metal like he did?”
Erich blinked. This one didn’t show surprise easily – guarded, cagey, good, that would help him – but obviously he hadn’t expected that. “No. I sense metal. I can control it.”
He held out his hand, and a metal helmet on a nearby bench rose slowly into the air, then fell again with a clatter.
“Not bad.” Lucan could already see plenty of ways that would come in handy in a fight. No doubt their master had as well.
“They made me drink glasses of that bitter stuff every night of the journey. Now I realize why.” Erich’s eyes narrowed as he looked down at the tattoo. This one might be quiet, Lucan thought, but he wasn’t a man who would ever truly submit. He wanted revenge. He would always want it. His soul wouldn’t rest until he had it.
Lucan had believed the same thing about himself, once.
“What about you?” Erich said as the battle continued in the practice ring, over the cheerful obscenities the fighters shouted at each other and the clatter of wood on wood. ‘”You talk as though you’re a fighter like us, but you’re not tattooed.”
Erich’s arm bore the ink that would identify him as a slave gladiator to the whole world. Lucan’s arm remained bare. “I’m a slave like the rest of you, but o can’t be tattooed, or branded. Part of my Mark.”
“Which god Marked you?”
“Lucky me got Marked by two gods. Diana, for one. She made me a hunter. I’ve got a better sense of smell than any dog you ever met, which is pretty much the definition of a mixed blessing. But she also made me strong, and made me kin to beasts.”
“Kin to – ”
Rather than let Erich finish, Lucan simply held up his hands and – SNIKT.
You could tell a lot about a man, based on the first time he saw the claws. Some guys panicked. Others immediately became convinced Lucan was no more than an animal, that he only walked and talked like a man.
Erich simply stared at the long bone claws for a moment before saying, “How did the Romans ever catch you?”
“Made a trade. Me for our chieftain. They’d seen me fight.”
“I wish I’d seen it too.”
Lucan made up his mind: Erich was a tough son-of-a-bitch. He wasn’t the type to make friends, but he showed respect and could be respected in turn.
Better that way. The last thing you needed around here was a friend.
Erich continued, “You must be a formidable opponent.” From the tone of his voice, it was obvious Erich was already evaluating Lucan as someone he’d have to fight. Might as well put his mind at ease.
“I was, back in the days when they put me into matches. Now they use me for a different kind of show.”
Erich frowned. “You’re not a fighter?”
“Told you I got marked by two gods. The first was Diana. The second was Apollo Acestor.”
Before Erich could ask, Lucan angled his claws and – without hesitating, without flinching – thrust one of them through his own thigh.
Erich’s eyes went wide with astonishment, and then Lucan couldn’t look at him any longer, because whatever else Diana and Apollo had given him, they didn’t see fit to make him immune to pain. He stared down at his pierced flesh, the blood streaming down his leg to puddle in the sand. Then he took a sharp breath and pulled his hand back. As soon as he had, he felt muscle searching for tendon, flesh for flesh, skin for skin, all of it healing faster than any other man’s ever would.
(It happened fast, but not instantaneously. He remembered what that had been like, to hardly do more than take the wound before it had healed. What kind of fighter he had truly been, before the amissiona.)
When the last of the pain faded, Lucan straightened and put the sword back on the wall. “No fun for the Romans, putting a guy in the arena when there’s no way for him to die.”
Slowly, Erich nodded. Most people, at this point, asked what Lucan was put in the ring for instead. Looked like Erich had more sense. Good.
The trainers pulled Erich in soon after that, leaving Lucan alone. Once he’d allowed himself to grow closer to the other men enslaved to fight here; Colossus had been his last true friend. But Colossus’ death had taught Lucan the price of friendship. Now he knew better. Kept himself apart. His only companion was the emptiness inside.
I like it better that way, Lucan thought as he took a drag on the amissiona.
He’d been telling himself that long enough that by now he almost believed it.
The Flavian amphitheatre was called, by some, the Colosseum. Erich had thought that term was merely typical Roman grandiosity until he actually saw the place, and the tremendous statue that stood before it. He had not known human beings could build a thing on such a scale.
And somehow this achievement, this monument, was nothing but a temple built to worship death.
“How many are there?” Erich said as he peered up from the holding pen to get a glimpse of the crowd. He could only see a sliver of the stands, but the unbelievable roar above and around them was the loudest sound he’d ever heard. He could scarcely believe there were so many people in the world.
“Enough,” answered another fighter, one called Unus. “That’s right, waste your time looking at them. Makes it easier for me to finish you off.”
So, this was to be his first opponent. Perhaps his only opponent. Erich had not yet been at the ludus for a full week, and he’d had only a few practice rounds. No chance to see Unus in action.
Yet the sword in his hand, and the armor on his body – they sang to him.
Why am I afraid? Erich thought, feeling his heart hammering within his chest as though it were trying to forge his breastplate anew. Why should I care? What life have I ever had? Death remains my only escape.
And yet still he wanted it, this life he’d never had any chance to live.
“Isn’t it exciting?” Emeliana said as she took her place on the viewing podium reserved for senators, priests, aristocrats and the like. They had no right to it, as even Charelius knew, but her father knew how to flatter those even wealthier than he, and wrangle an invitation. “Still, the crowds aren’t so large as they are at the Circus Maximus, and you can’t sit with boys here. Well, besides you, but you don’t count.”
“Indeed not, domina,” Charelius said as poured her a glass of cool wine, watered-down to be appropriate for someone so young. No, he didn’t count. Every night Lucius Emelianus called for him proved that.
He could see others in nearby boxes staring at the two of them. It was highly unusual for a young noblewoman to have a male personal servant – especially a male personal servant who was young and handsome. (He’d been told he was handsome late at night, while her father fisted his hands in Charelius’ hair. Surely it was true, or why else use him so often?) Yet whispered questions would inspire whispered answers; after today, the few who did not know Lucius Emelianus’ daughter was Marked by the gods would have learned it.
“When do you think I should change?” Emiliana said. “Before the matches? Get it over with before I have to compete for any attention? Or maybe I should wait.” She frowned up at the enormous fabric sunshades that hung from canopies overhead, shading all but the very center of the arena. “When the afternoon sun is angled just so, I’ll sparkle more.”
“Better to wait, domina,” Charelius agreed.
Yet he found it difficult to concentrate on her, or anything else, besides the flood of thought and emotion around him.
The amissiona dulled Charelius’ Mark; he knew that much. But he also knew that his gift from Minerva was more powerful than Emiliana’s, even dulled. When he walked along the crowded streets of Rome, sometimes he picked up stray thoughts, particularly when people’s feelings were strong. He had never been near so many people at once as he was right now, and at the Colosseum, emotions ran high.
Yes, the crowds were boisterous – energized by a sick, hot, twisting feeling that Charelius was realizing had to be bloodlust. Revolting as that was, it was better than the even sharper emotion he had begun to pick up from the gladiatorial stalls: terror, and the awful, desperate, futile longing to live.
He would have given anything to be able to help them. He knew he could not. All Charelius could do was try to accept that he would have to watch what was to come.
Erich had seen men die countless times. His memories of Masada were blurred by the passage of years, but in the mines he had seen fellow slaves succumb to exhaustion, disease or despair at least every week – sometimes every day. As he watched the wretches gasp out their last, he had told himself that a quick death, however savage, would have to be better.
Now he wasn’t as certain.
The wooden gates were rolled up. Unus swaggered out into the arena, comfortable in his helmet and armor; after a moment, Erich followed.
It was like being swallowed by sound. The roar surrounded him, consumed the whole world. Nothing remained but a wide circle of bloodstained sand, and the shifting, screaming, numberless crowd. He lifted his head higher, then higher again, trying to see where the hordes ended and the sky began, but there was no sky here, only brown cloth canopies that blocked the sun.
The trainers had told Erichthonius what to say. They had told him to speak to the Emperor, were he there, but Erich had no idea what the Emperor looked like. The most luxurious box, draped in purple, was empty. Apparently their deaths were not sufficiently entertaining to warrant the Emperor’s attention. When Unus simply raised his sword, Erich did the same.
An announcer held a sort of trumpet to his face and shouted, “Behold Unus the Untouchable, Marked by Mars!” This awakened fresh cheers from the crowd; apparently Unus had won many matches before. “And his opponent, Magnus, Marked by Vulcan!”
Magnus? He’d been told he’d probably be given a different name for the arena, but this was the first he’d heard of it. Not that it mattered. Not that anything mattered.
Heat baking down on the sand. Unus stepping back into battle stance. Screams and shouts, and no hope of any way out.
I will not die a slave, Erich thought, almost wildly. I will not. I will not.
Unus shouted, “Come on, then! Going to stand there all day?”
Erich matched the battle stance and let the metal in his sword comfort him. Time to begin.
He made the first move, taking an experimental jab at Unus mostly to see what he would do. Unus dodged it easily enough, but he wasn’t fast, this one. Erich’s eyes narrowed. Why would they call him untouchable?
His next strike was swifter and surer – but at the moment the blade came within inches of Unus’ belly, some strange, unseen force seemed to block it. Erich tried again, going for the shoulder, and it happened again. Unus laughed, and the crowd roared.
It is as though his whole body is shielded, Erich realized. With some kind of invisible force like … like wind, or gravity.
How was he supposed to kill an enemy he couldn’t touch?
Unus came at him then, slashing brutally, but Erich parried the blows. He felt the metal in Unus’ blade as surely as his own; he knew which way the man would swing or thrust, could even push back slightly against the sword to take some of the weight of the blows.
(And a good thing, too – Unus’ Mark of Mars meant that he was strong, and even so muted, each blow landed against Erich’s shield so hard that his bones jostled in his arm socket.)
The crowds were all chanting “Unus! Unus!” They thought it was so impressive, that this man who could not be touched might win a fight.
I’ll show you what a real fighter can do, Erich thought. I’ll show you what a Mark of the gods really looks like.
He backed away, far enough that Unus began to laugh and the crowd to jeer. Not so far that Erich couldn’t still feel metal. Then he held out his sword – and let it go.
It hung there in midair, awaiting his bidding.
The crowd went suddenly, utterly silent; the absence of sound was more exhilarating than any cries of support could ever have been. Erich felt his mouth curling into the grimace that served him as a smile.
With a flick of his fingers he sent the sword zooming toward Unus, but just as Unus raised his shield, Erich sent the sword lower – just beneath the surface of the sand. When it slashed beneath Unus’ feet, Unus lost his balance and fell to his knees.
The roar of the crowd welled up again, louder than it had been before. How cheap their approval was. How easily won, how easily lost, how meaningless. They would cheer as loudly to see Erich win as they would to see him die. But they would not see him die, not today.
As Unus stumbled back to his feet, Erich surged forward, moving fast enough that he was able to slam the rim of his shield against Unus’ before Unus could get in a blow. The impact of shield on shield sent Unus back a few steps.
His Mark protects his body, but not what he holds.
Unus came at him then, and Erich summoned his sword back to his hand. As their blades struck time and time again, each scrape of metal like music amid the din, Erich concentrated on only two things: moderating Unus’ blows so that the force wouldn’t overwhelm him, and backing him closer and closer to the edge of the arena.
They were within feet. Within steps. Unus’ back was to the wall –
Erich swung wider, knowing his strokes to be amateurish and clumsy, but it didn’t matter. He could keep Unus’ sword from hitting him, and the trick was to get his stance wider. To get him to try and lash out with the shield, too.
Unus took the bait. He raised his shield, preparing for a blow, and Erich flung the full weight of his body into its edge. The shield jammed backward, the upper rim slamming into Unus’ head so hard that even over the crowd Erich could hear the crack.
For a moment Unus stood there, staring dazedly at Erich, blood welling from the shield and the indentation in his skull to coat the left side of his face. Then, when Erich stepped back, Unus fell – dead or so near it that it made no difference.
“The winner! The new champion! Magnus, favored of Vulcan!”
Now I have killed a man.
Erich felt as though he should be ashamed, or feel grief. Yes, Unus had seemed to take pleasure in the thought of killing Erich in turn, but neither of them had had any choice in the matter. They were the Romans’ playthings, no more, and in killing Unus, Erich had done precisely what the Romans wanted. And yet he felt nothing but a grim determination.
I will not die a slave.
Defiantly, Erich raised his sword hand. They would think he was celebrating his triumph. Let them think it.
He didn’t know when or where or how, but the day would come when the Romans would regret enslaving him. When he would put his Mark from the gods to better use. When the crowds around him now would stop cheering and start to scream.
“Can’t you fan any faster?” Emeliana protested weakly.
“I’m trying, domina.” But Charelius was as near fainting as she was.
To have been so near a man while he was dying – to have sensed that death – it was as horrifying an experience as could be imagined. Even to Emeliana, the impact had been stunning; Charelius felt as though he would rather have been killed himself.
“I don’t feel like changing into diamonds any longer.” Emeliana reached out to her father, who had barely paused in his politicking and flattering when his daughter had swooned. “Can’t we go home? Charelius can take me to the litter; you don’t have to come.”
Lucius Emelianus looked as though he were going to agree – but then his eyes lit upon Charelius, who realized he must be a sight: disheveled, sweaty, visibly weak. “We shall all go home,” Lucius Emelianus said, a dreamy, sickening quality to his voice. “So many better ways to spend an afternoon.”
Emeliana’s beautiful face lit up. “You are the sweetest and best father in the world.”
As Charelius had anticipated, Emeliana insisted she never wanted to go to the games again. However, he had not anticipated that she would nonetheless take a great interest in gladiators.
“Think of how tragic their lives are,” was how she would put it. “They didn’t get bought by nice families like you, who honor a Mark of the gods. They just have to fight and die out there like savages. Of course I suppose some of them are savages, as they are barbarians from uncivilized lands, but they can’t all be bad. I think it’s dreadful.”
“Dreadful indeed, domina,” Charelius said, with feeling.
“I don’t suppose we can save them all. People like the games too much, and I don’t see why, when everybody knows chariot racing is better, but they do. Still, I think we could look into buying a few of the gladiators. Don’t you? We could make Father see how prestigious it would be, to own so many Marked slaves.”
“A nice thought, domina.” But Charelius had a better idea of what it would cost to buy a Marked gladiator. For all the favor Juno had shown her, Emeliana rarely seemed to understand exactly how expensive her privileged lifestyle was.
Yet she also had her father wrapped around her little finger. Lucius Emelianus’ next big party was not just the usual dinner, but also a banquet to fete gladiators before they went into battle. Such banquets were usually led at the ludi, not private homes … but money could buy anything.
Erich had never felt so out of place in his life.
He had lived in an armed fortress, in slave quarters so inadequate they would not even have been used for animals, and in the rough-hewn barracks of his gladiator ludus. This was the first time he had ever set foot in what anyone would call a home …
… and it was a palace. A temple. Surely this was not how any human beings could really live, not unless it were the Emperor.
He had seen wooden floors before, even a few of stone, but here slabs of marble set apart ornate mosaics. Chairs and couches enough for all to sit, and each of them carved, gilded, and cushioned with fine silks. The aristocrats wore silk robes brilliantly dyed to flaunt their wealth – sky blue, deep gold, the dark green of fig leaves. Wine seemed to flow like water here, and as often as he held out his cup, someone would fill it.
“Don’t let this go to your head,” Lucan had told Erich before the fighters left that night. “Every single one of those bastards is just wondering how much they ought to bet on your staying alive. Or not.”
Go to his head? Erich wasn’t such a fool. All he could think was that these people dwelled in Olympian luxury, thanks to the toil and suffering of those he had worked beside in the mines.
How many meals for the miners could have been bought with the price of this banquet alone? Thousands. And a good barracks could have been built too, so that at least they might have had beds instead of hay to lie upon as they rested between bouts of working themselves to death.
Erich felt his temper rising, yet knew it would do him no good. Unobtrusively he fell toward the back of the crowd, then made his way to the peristyle at the center of the great house. To breathe fresh air for a moment, to be surrounded by green plants and quietness: At the moment it seemed like the only luxury in the world worth having.
As he walked outside, he looked up at the sky. No stars to be seen – it was a cloudy night. Moonless. The only light came from the lamps within the home.
So it took him several moments to realize he wasn’t alone.
“I’m sorry,” came a male voice, cultured and pleasant. Erich peered suspiciously through the darkness to see someone rising to his feet; apparently he’d been sitting by the small fountain in the center of the peristyle garden. “I didn’t mean to be secretive. Just thought – you’d go back into the party in a moment.”
“Not if I can help it,” Erich said.
The other man laughed. He wore a coarse brown tunic, and a small bronze placard around his neck – a slave, then. “You don’t care much for that sort of scene? No. You don’t. You’re an honest man. But I can’t tell whether you hate dishonesty or simply don’t understand it.”
“How would you know any of that?” Erich stepped closer to see who he was dealing with. A young man – younger than Erich was himself, though he could hazard no more exact guess. He was not tall, though his form was so well-proportioned that he gave the illusion of more height than he possessed. The most arresting thing about him was his face – angular chin, dark mouth, and sharply defined brows above eyes so blue that they shone even in the darkness. “Who are you?”
“I’m called Charelius. A Latin bastardization of my real name, but as no one outside Britannia can pronounce that, I’m stuck with this. I’m used to it, by now.” He looked up at Erich with a stare so all-seeing that it unnerved him – and yet, perversely, also fascinated him. “And you … you were the one I saw at the Colosseum. I recognize you now. Magnus, right? Though I suppose that’s not your real name either.”
Erich shook his head. “You recognize me?” He would not have thought anybody could even see his face with that helmet on.
“Not your face. Your mind.” His surprise must have showed, even in the dark, because Charelius smiled. “I’m Marked too, you see. By Minerva. I can sense what’s in people’s minds, most of the time. So I knew you hated it out there – hated it so much – but you wouldn’t be beaten. Not by your opponent, nor by the Romans …”
Charelius’ voice trailed off, and he leaned heavily against a nearby statue of a faun. Only then did Erich realize the paleness of Charelius’ skin was not only because he was a Briton. ”You’re not well.”
“I don’t sleep. Sometimes I forget to eat. Stupid of me, I know. But I’m distracted these days. Not myself.” Charelius laughed slightly as he pushed back his brown hair. “I’m not making any sense, am I? Don’t pay me any attention.”
Thus far Erich’s life had given him little chance to feel pity; he could not think of any reason why he should feel sorry for anyone who got to live in this house, even if that were another slave. And yet there was something in the shadows of Charelius’ face that cut deep, and awakened a strange, sympathetic pain. “Here,” Erich said, holding out his cup of wine.
“This is going to make me very silly, you know.” But after Charelius took a gulp of it, he did not become giddy. Instead, as he looked up from the metal goblet, his face became very still. The blue eyes were searching Erich’s now. What did he think to find?
Suddenly Erich felt very aware of his own humble tunic, his scarred and calloused hands, and his ragged scrap of a beard. “You’re better, then,” he said, gruffly.
Charelius nodded slowly. “I hope you get it.”
“Freedom. One moment’s freedom, even if that only comes with your death. I hope you get it.” Charelius placed the goblet back in Erich’s hands; their fingers brushed against each other, a momentary warmth that somehow seemed to linger.
The words seem to rise from Erich unbidden: “And you. I hope that for you as well.”
“You’re kind. Or you could be, if someone gave you the chance. I’m sorry they haven’t.” With an uncertain smile, Charelius turned to go. But he kept speaking as he walked into the house, back to his duties. “Who knows what we might be if we had the chance?”
The question stayed with Erich all that night, through the party and the trip back to the ludus and Lucan’s bawdy questions about whether any oversexed Roman matrons had thrown themselves at him, until he was lying in his bunk. Everyone else fell asleep before him, so it seemed to Erich that he spent a long time that night thinking about Charelius’ question. And the sadness that had surrounded him. And the brief, brief touch of their fingers before Charelius had turned to go.