"The Blonde"

By Brigit M. Morgan

bmmorgan3000@hotmail.com

DISCLAIMER:

COPYRIGHT: Gabrielle and any other characters featured in the actual TV series are copyrighted to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures while the rest of the story and other characters are my own.

VIOLENCE: This story shows the effects of violence. If this offends or upsets to the point where it hinders your enjoyment of a story, please do not continue.

THANKS: As always to my Beta readers Alydar and Betabarb. And to everyone on Tavern Wall!

TIMELINE: For those who are curious…this story occurs about one year after the story "To Rest," and therefore three after FIN.

**********

The body suffers more than the soul, because the soul can always find something to hang on to, a memory, a hope.

Reinaldo Arenas

 

When the grit falls upon the caravan, she pulls the veil over her face. The winds rise unexpected and painful here, like memories. They howl and crash against the sides of the carts, blinding the donkeys and camels.

The Nomads are obsessed by the winds; they collect them as children might stones or the discarded skins of snakes. She has watched them, around the fires, whispers lost high in the dome of night, sharing collections stories, really of their encounters with the churning gyre of the desert, shared with the reverence and modesty of girls sharing tales of loves forbidden. The other tribesmen sip their water, their tea, nodding with black amazement and wonder.

She grips the side of a nearby wagon, the canvas snapping loudly against her. This wind is a thief; it pulls on her pack, her cloak, the objects hooked to her belt. A copper pot pulled from further back in the caravan rolls past, rattling across the ever-changing sands. Someone chases after it. Their arms flail madly, until the pot stops dead, too full to continue. The man raises it over his head in triumph and returns to the caravan.

The Nomads name the winds, composing hymns to them, tracing their genealogies as though the scouring dusts were some great and bizarre family, with their tragedies and dynasties and betrayals. When they are far from them, the tribesmen become lost, wander listlessly through towns and temples, moaning, scraping the walls, to try and remember the words, the deeds of their precious ones. Too long in the stark solitude of the desert, Nomads tended to be unpredictable, often frantic when in the city as if the buildings, the cluttered alleys sought to steal the silent thoughts the winds had taught them.

She can understand a wandering people’s fascination with something as intangible, as enigmatic and drifting as the winds. When we live with something long enough, it begins to have a life of its own, to resemble us. Or was it the other way around?

As fast as they have begun, the winds fall away. Soon the haze around the sun crumbles and the air is again a litany of heat. She pulls at the veil, arid grit tumbling from her skin.

Her hand goes to the half-empty skin at her waist, and then wavers above it. She swallows, her throat clogged with a thin layer of sand. She sighs. The cork grinds against granules of dust as she twists it free. Wine spills across her tongue, splashing it back to life. It falls, sour and warm to her gut, pushing it out against the taut flesh of her belly, the bones of her ribs.

Men’s voices sound in the stilling air, a camel spits into the sand nearby. The caravan continues and the momentum pushes her along the dust.

She takes another swig from the old leather skin. Her eyes dart about the maundering shapes of the nomads, watching for any change in their demeanor. She shouldn’t drink as much around them. They always seemed to know how much liquid the caravan had, who was drinking it and when they did. Whenever she had raised the wine to her lips, she found dark eyes upon her, blinking admonishingly.

Outside of the oasis at Kharga, she had broken one of their noses as he had tried to pull the skin away from her, grabbing her by the shoulder. They kept a wide berth after that, blinking disapprovingly in her direction on occasion. The nomads made no secret of their contempt for her, but she was their protection and was obviously more than their match in combat, so they remained respectful and intimidated. She can’t remember when the last time that sort of reaction had pleased her. One last drink and she puts the skin away, concentrating on the walk through the sands.

Normally they didn’t move during the day, but they hoped to reach Syene before sunset. There were bandits in the area and the city kept its gates shut during the nights. It had been hellishly hot, but their light, shallow linens and slow, steady trek had prevented the sun from taking a noticeable toll upon the caravan. They had traced the shaded sides of the dunes in a meandering arc to the south, following the river from Alexandria, with only the echoes of the winds and their thoughts as company.

A couple of scorpions race over a dune just ahead as the shouts come to halt. She moves swiftly toward the head of the line of carts and chattel, past the nomads, frozen with faces covered a ward against evil. She notices more wildlife scrambling in the same direction as her.

There’s too much activity for day in the desert, which can only mean two possibilities: that there is water enough to be careless and wasteful of energy, or that there is food in abundance. Her eyes dart to the sky and she finds her answer in the simple, soaring shapes of two vultures circling.

She crests the final dune and finds the cause of their delay. A body, recently slain lies face up to the sky. It is swarming with carrion, and its clothes ripple from infestation as though wind plays through it. The head is leaned back at an odd angle, indicating that its throat had probably been cut the usual method of justice for the nomads. Several men can be heard to be praying. She clutches for her skin and takes another drink.

Animals move in swells across the dunes, heading for this foul oasis. Lines of them streaking, rushing for the same point. A bird tugs viciously on a vein in the body’s ruined neck, unraveling it like a thread. She waves the caravan on and they move with a sleepy and rhythmic creaking, continuing to the southeast.

Walking backwards for a moment, she watched the birds circling. They seemed as fleeting as cries on the wind.

Soon, there would be nothing but dust where the body had been. Life turned to death and death was dust. If that was true, then the desert was the home of death, even if the nomads would disagree with her. The desert was a perfect killing machine, harsh, brutal, sublimating everything to the dust that fed it, made it grow stronger death made it stronger.

This fact was only reinforced the deeper she traveled into it. Only two days before she had been helpless to aid a man whose camel had upset a nest of asps. The camel had fallen to its knees, snakes by the dozens writhing about its legs, abdomen. Both the dromedary and the man had worn the same look of naked and stupid fear in their eyes as the animal had listed to one side, sinking like a wounded ship, its eyes drunk and numb with poison. The man had died a quick death, which had probably been painless, eventually.

Another pull from the skin, this one crashing gracelessly into her belly causing her to flush violently, her breathing to quicken. She wipes her brow. Some warrior, she thinks. She spits into the sand, eliciting an admonishing look from a nearby nomad. She scowls at him as they continue.

Just keep walking, smiley.

They are bound for the city of Syene southernmost city of the Pharaohs to pick up supplies. From there they will push for the deepest desert, the heart of it all. She will be the first outsider to see it. It is the whole point of her journey with the caravan. They will leave her there and she can lie on her back at the center of death, the entire desert trembling around her like open jaws. And then we will see who the bigger killing machine is

Her stomach lurches, causing her head to spin catastrophically. She wretches, spitting red liquid into the sand. Blood or wine, she cannot tell. It cakes quickly, as though the desert wishes to horde or destroy anything potentially life-giving. As she wipes spittle from her cracked lips, she feels their eyes on her. She laughs and shakes her head.

By mid afternoon, they crest the dunes that pour into the valley leading down to Syene. The men, the animals have smelled the river for sometime now and there is a brightening of spirits as they see it coiling muddy and umber through the cracked plain. She blinks apathetically at the city. It seems as unremarkable as most.

As dusk approaches the caravan arrives at the gates and is soon admitted into the walls of the city. They move slowly through the cluttered streets, coming to life after the dulling blaze of the afternoon. Children and dogs give chase, barking after them.

She places a hand on a nearby wagon, regaining balance. Merchants selling all manner of wares yell and sing at her. She blinks it all aside.

They break from the cluster of the city’s outer rim and come across a clearing. The sounds of drums and the roar of a crowd fill the space and emanate from a weathered-looking arena that barely dominates the open area. She smiles at how pathetic it seems in comparison to others of its kind she has seen. And still she feels that it calls to her somehow one wretched thing to another.

At night she leaves the caravan to camp at the outskirts of the arena. She gets herself a room at an inn and a warm meal, luxuries she has forbidden herself for some time. One last meal before the desert, she thinks, eating without enthusiasm. A pitcher of the harsh wine is only a few coins and she takes it to her small room that is filled with a rough bed and the stale heat of day. She stumbles into a deep and empty sleep that lasts until the sun has risen high in the sky.

Cursing as she hits the street, she adjusts her pack and weapons, making her way toward the clearing, the arena grounds. Men are shouting behind her, she breaks into a swift jog. Shards of sun pelt her with heat and white light through cracks between buildings, the glare from windowpanes.

She knows they have left without her, even before she finds their camp broken, free of refuse or any sign. They would have come for her, would have had the innkeeper rouse her from her drunken sleep.

Apparently hostile desert bandits are preferable to her protection. She strides toward a pole and slams her fist into it. She curses again. Such a mouth, she spits at herself.

Her head throbs in the heat of the morning. She sighs, running a hand through her straw colored hair. The backs of her eyelids are bright orange as the sun tries to push them open. She blinks distractedly through the light, through the pain in her skull.

The arena is there, silent in the morning, lifeless. She walks evenly toward the front gates.

**********

Everyone thought that Otis’ big swing would finish it, but The Blonde just stepped out of its way. People in the stands started yelling and throwing down chunks of fruit and their hate tokens, but she didn’t flinch. Even with her being drunk and all, she still had it. You really couldn’t tell she hadn’t fought in three weeks.

With the broad swing, Otis left himself wide open. The Blonde let it go. She just backed off and reset herself, bouncing slightly on her back leg. The stands shook with jeers. It didn’t seem to faze her. She wasn’t there at least her mind didn’t seem to be.

Otis bellowed and beat his big chest. He had blood in his hair and all running down him from the slashes. The crowd roared again, the drums started up. Everyone loved Otis, but he was in trouble.

I heard my father somewhere down the ramp behind me.

She needs to end this, now.

The Blonde just stood there, looking in that way she had been the whole time, every time. Like she was far away but forced to look back on all of this or something. She held her sword high, two-handed in the first position. It was probably the wine making her bold, or careless, or both. You could see the gash in her side where Otis had been lucky before, the blood purple in the light of the afternoon.

The big man went at her, going low. I thought she would just come down on him, but she stepped aside and swung the sword around and upward. Otis kept running for a bit, but he was dead as soon as the blade passed through his neck. The spray of blood got a huge cheer from the stands. I’d never seen a strike like that one before. The crowd went wild, chanting for her. She just left, passing calmly through the hail of flower petals and coins, out of the pit. I thought maybe she should have taken some time to enjoy it. They never loved you forever.

**********

Down here there’s an order to things just like anyplace else. There are the weapons smiths they’re at the top of the heap. They keep the whole thing going, keeping things in working order. Then there are the carpenters, for the repairs. The animal handlers and their assistants, who clean the cages though you’d never know it by the smells. The cooks and their assistants. The cleaners. Then there’s me.

My dad is one of the fighters a good one too and I help out here, where I’m needed. Sometimes I get to sharpen blades or polish greaves and gauntlets, but most times I get the less pretty jobs. Washing out the pens, the quarters, the blood from everything. I serve meals, empty the waste pails, or clean up when someone doesn’t use them. I’ve chopped vegetables, spread hay, and chased away rats since my dad came here.

It’s been worth it. For both of us.

The pits at Syene lead to the arenas of Rome, my dad had said with a smile.

He’s been on his way up. Everyone’s saying it. He just keeps training and fighting every couple of days. Some of the big trainers have been talking to him. But he just keeps training. Has a couple of sips of the wine they bring him. The women that come with those characters all want to comb my hair and tell me to grow it long. They ask me if I like staying in this place, then they tell me it’s no place for a girl. My dad just looks at them and then back to the talking men. I can’t grow my hair if I’m going to fight eventually too. I need it short, like The Blonde.

My dad was exercising near the stables and I went out to him. The pits were just inside the town walls, so you could sometimes see caravans on their way to the bazaars. I liked watching my dad drill out there. I could watch him and then sometimes watch the nomads come in with their strange gear and animals from all over. Sometimes they would bring in strangers who were looking to make their fortune in the pits. I sat down and watched him.

When he was done, he sat down all sweaty beside me. He grabbed me and hugged me to him with a laugh. I laughed too. He smelled like a wet dog. I handed him a pomegranate I had lifted from the kitchen and he raised an eyebrow at me, but took out his knife all the same. As he cut into the red fruit, he nodded to his short sword.

Run through the positions.

I worked up a sweat practicing and my dad got his lips all red from the pomegranate juice. Two men walked up the road that came from town. One was pretty big, the other small, with a patch covering his eye. I kept practicing. My dad stood up.

The smaller man approached and smiled at me, but I didn’t smile back. He turned to my dad.

Good morning, Aretus. Getting ready for your match with Ludd, I see.

My father nodded. His lips were still red, like a woman’s and I wished I could have told him, but I just stood there. The big man was standing too close.

My dad turned to me.

Valla, go. See if they need help in the kitchens.

I held the sword firmly and didn’t move. My father’s eyes met mine.

Go.

I passed into the pits and down underneath. The kitchens were on the lower levels. As it started to get hot, you knew you were getting closer. Smells met you as you came down lamb, chicken, goat roasting over the spits. Sometimes I would stand by the chimneys above ground and just let the smells come to me just let my stomach roar, and imagine the roasted food.

It turned out the cooks were busy, so I headed to the physician. There was always something that needed cleaning or dressing. I bit into one of the rolls I had stuffed into my pockets and entered the little infirmary. The physician lifted his dark head from his sharpening and smiled.

Well, Valla. Come in. Come in.

He was a wiry man, from Syene originally, and like most men from these parts he had a thick mustache that he was always fussing over. He ran it through his fingers as he looked at me.

I can’t imagine you’re here for your father. He hasn’t had a scratch on him since you both came here. And you look all right…

Need any help?

He nodded and smiled at me.

I do actually.

He stood, walking over to a clay pot full of fresh dressings.

You’ve changed dressings before, hmm?

I nodded. He handed me the pot. It was heavy. The bandages smelled of lemon and other, softer herbs. The physician rubbed my head, then started going through a chest filled with dozens of tiny vials and bottles.

The Blonde has a cut in her side, change the dressing. But first, pour some of this over it.

He handed me a small vial with a cork on top.

Don’t let her drink it.

He laughed with a laugh that sounded like the women that visited my father. I didn’t smile. He was still chuckling to himself when I left the room and headed down the hall.

**********

No one could beat her. No one could bribe her. That’s all that anyone knew for sure about The Blonde. She rarely talked, and when she did it was only a few words. She had come with one of the caravans and had asked to die. That’s what the others said. My dad didn’t believe it. She drank a lot. No one could beat her. That’s what the others said. They tried to bribe her, but it didn’t work. She broke the hand of the last one who tried. So now they just let her fight the troublemakers, the ones who wouldn’t take a dive, the old ones, the undesirables. She doesn’t fight sometimes for weeks. No one bets against her, that’s the problem. That’s what the others said.

She was usually asleep. I had only been to her cell once to bring her a meal. She had been naked, curled into a ball on the lice-infested pallet. I couldn’t stop looking at the tattoo on her back. So many colors! It was like she had gems set into her skin, as though she were a lost treasure abandoned in this dank underground.

I found her in much the same way this day. Breathing heavily, short blonde hair disheveled, back to the door. Her dressings were stained and dirty. There were two wine urns on the floor. I put the clay pot and vial down, and then picked up the urns. They were empty.

I pulled away the old dressings and took a look at the gash. I knew right where it would be, having remembered the fight. Otis got her pretty good. Her flesh was sewn shut in a four inch long cut just under her ribs. I had seen worse. By the looks of some of the scars on her body, so had she. The wound was leaking a slightly cloudy fluid. She hadn’t stirred as I had a look.

I uncorked the vial and held it under my nose. It smelled horrible, really strong, like it would work really well. I tipped it and the colorless liquid poured onto her cut.

She shoved me before I realized that she had screamed. I crashed into the wall, back first, getting the wind knocked from me. She had howled, like an animal, but sadder. My mouth was opening and closing, but I couldn’t breathe yet. Her eyes were wide open and staring at me. This was the first time I had noticed they were green. They reminded me of the nuts they crushed on the flaky pastries in town. She blinked and then I heard her voice, soft and scared sounding.

Nothing takes the pain away…

She passed out, back onto the pallet. I waited for a bit. I waited for my breath to come back, and longer still. She didn’t stir. I got up and grabbed some bandages. I dressed her wound as fast as I could and left the cell. I couldn’t remember if I had picked up that empty vial or not. I just didn’t want to hear that scream again, or see those eyes open.

**********

I always remembered the first time I saw her fight. It was the first time I had seen anyone die. We had arrived a week earlier on a caravan that had crawled through the winds of the desert. My lips were split from not drinking enough water and my dad’s face was red from the sun.

After resting, getting oriented and training for a few days, we went down to watch the early matches. These were the first matches, held in the afternoon, consisting of the lesser-known fighters and the misfits those on the way up, and those on the way down. They also featured a lot of the animal bouts and any executions that needed to be taken care of. The big fights were held in the evening.

As we took our seats, my dad looked at me and smiled.

Are you sure you want to watch?

I nodded and got comfortable.

For the most part, not much happened. Some of the fighters hunted down a group of bucks with bows and arrows. Then there was a Gallic fighter, Ceverinx, who brought down a bull using a sling in three stones. The first few matches ended in draws with little blood spilled between the opponents. My dad smiled at me and bought something for us to eat.

The last match of the day was between a man called Rho and The Blonde. He entered the ring looking somewhat past it and very drunk. The crowd cheered nonetheless, throwing garlands of flowers and even sweets into the arena.

When they announced The Blonde, the crowd began to roar. People around me were yelling insults and curses and I expected to see some kind of beast walk out through the gates. Instead, there was this small, beautiful, blonde woman with a strange sword walking toward Rho.

My father shifted beside me.

She’s just as drunk as he is.

They squared off and the gong rang to start. Rho was no good. It was all he could do to get his sword up to parry, let alone attack. The Blonde was very good, although we couldn’t tell at first. She just kept backing off and only using her sword if she was attacked. The crowd began to boo, as it seemed that Rho was only going to circle and The Blonde would only defend.

Rho dashed forward with a clumsy attack and there was cheering. A quick parry sent him sprawling to the ground. The Blonde backed off and the crowd rained debris into the arena. I looked at my dad.

What’s she doing?

He shook his head, shrugging.

They danced about for another few minutes and the crowd had had all it could take. Hate tokens were thrown at the two fighters, some bouncing painfully off of them.

Rho went at her again. She blocked and they locked up. The crowd hushed and it looked like there was going to be some tussling.

The Blonde had a strange look on her face, maybe like she was expecting something to happen. A low growl could be heard from deep within her, building, growing stronger. Then, with a scream, she disengaged simply and swiped her blade through the man’s neck.

It had passed through so effortlessly we hadn’t realized what had happened, no one cheered and there was only The Blonde’s continuing scream. Rho’s head rolled from his body and bounced away. The crowd roared at the jet of blood that spewed at least twenty feet into the air. My mouth hung open, and my father placed his hand on my shoulder.

I wiped my eyes and looked to The Blonde. The ring was covered in blood and the petals of flowers and other clutter. Two men, other fighters, had run out from the wings to grab her. She had been yelling uncontrollably at the severed head of Rho, in frustration, in anger.

That night I had a dream with her in it. She cut my hair with a sharp knife as I looked out into a dark hall from a cell underground. When she was done, I turned around and she handed me the knife. I thought she was going to smile, but there was that scream. My eyes shot open in the darkness of our room. That was pretty much it for sleep that night.

**********

The next morning I had to peel vegetables in the kitchen. I never understood how the cooks didn’t pass out from the heat, standing all day by those ovens and cooking fires. I was close to the door and I had trouble seeing straight after awhile.

Darting insect like, in and out of the room all morning, was the physician, gathering common herbs, water and his own breakfast. I did my best to meet his gaze, but he seemed too busy. I sighed and kept peeling. If I never saw another yam again it would be too soon. I tried my best not to slice my finger with the paring knife, so that I could brag to my dad about it later.

The first meal was served at the ninth bell and I was free to leave. After a ladleful from the cistern, I headed to our quarters. The halls were starting to come alive with people pushing past. I wanted to take a short nap.

Psst Valla!

It was the physician; he was calling from the door of his chambers. I ran over. He spun a clear glass in his long fingers, inside a fizzing liquid twirled and sloshed.

I need you to take this tincture to The Blonde.

He chuckled.

It’s for her head.

I took the glass from him. The halls leading to the fighters’ quarters were pretty quiet since everyone was eating breakfast. I placed my hand on the door and waited. I cleared my throat before entering the room.

The chamber was dark and the quiet light of the hallway seemed as bright as the sun slanting into the room. There was a grumble and some movement from the pallet.

Not yet…just a few minutes more…

I smiled. Was she still drunk? Who cared if she slept in all day or not? I looked for a level place to put down the glass. There was a groan from behind me.

The door…

I tapped the door closed with my foot. The room went dark.

Thank you.

My eyes adjusted slowly, shapes appearing in the tight gloom. I turned to the vague shape on the bed.

How about a lamp?

A sigh, a shuffle.

All right…

I managed to find a small oil lamp that I had remembered from the day before. With the tinder in my pockets I soon had it lit. The light was gentle on the eyes. I still hadn’t found a suitable place for the tincture.

What is that?

Huh?

I turned. She looked at me with a surprisingly alert stare. There were dark circles under her eyes that for some reason made me feel sad. She blinked at me.

What’s that you’ve got for me? Poison, I hope.

I smiled and shook my head.

For your head…

The Blonde smirked knowingly and put out her hand. The slender fingers were covered with hundreds of tiny scars and cuts, barely visible in the lamplight. They stretched out like little roads and intersections in countries no one had ever visited. She squinted at me.

Guess I’m going to need it, huh?

I handed the still fizzing stuff over to her. She threw it back in one gulp and winced as she handed me back the glass.

Phew! I’m glad he’s the physician and not one of the cooks.

I grinned and turned to leave as she settled back onto the pallet.

What are you doing in a place like this?

I stopped at the door and turned. She was rubbing her eyes. I shrugged.

I came with my father. He’s one of the fighters. His name’s Aretus…

She shook her head.

I never learn the names…

I nodded and leaned against the door. The Blonde cracked her knuckles and put her feet to the ground.

Where you from?

It’s a small, little island. You wouldn’t know it.

She smirked.

Try me. You might be surprised.

It’s called Ios.

Her face lit up.

I’ve been to Ios. It’s a beautiful place. I’m from Greece too, from the mainland.

I nodded. The women in Ios were nothing like her. She stretched like an old tomcat.

Where’s your mother?

I blinked at her, my hands folding tightly together. There was a lot of dust on the floor of the room, even old husks of bread and rotting fruit. She sighed deeply, lying back on the bed.

I should get some sleep now. I’m sleepy…

I nodded and was about to leave the room, but remembered the lamp.

The…uhm…the lamp…

Get out of here.

The door tapped shut behind me and I moved down the hall. It was empty and quiet. I was thinking that maybe there would still be something left for me to eat at breakfast and that I should probably keep my head down if they asked for someone to bring food to those who hadn’t made it down.

**********

I woke up from my nap after the midday meal. My dad had been by, his weapons were gone and there was a small bowl with dates on the table. I grabbed a couple of the plump fruit and left, heading outside.

Most of the fighters were out working through various drills and sparring. The trainers, sponsors and even some spectators formed a large, shaky ring around them. I sat down on the small embankment just beyond most of the outsiders. I popped a date into my mouth and watched Ludd, Vargas, Soldarius and the others run through their routines. I didn’t see The Blonde anywhere, although I was looking for my dad. He was nowhere in sight as well.

Footsteps scraped on the gravel behind me. I looked up, squinting into the sun. It was the small, one-eyed man from the day before. He smiled at me with his yellow teeth. I stood up.

Hello, little one. Waiting for your father?

I nodded. He stood up straight, staring off toward the fighters. He wasn’t much taller than I was.

I’m sure he’ll be by soon enough.

He turned to me again, his smile getting larger. His lips were cracked, split open.

He’s going to be something else, isn’t he? One of the greatest maybe…

I blinked at him.

He is the greatest.

He laughed and put his hand on my shoulder. His breath smelled sour as it fell upon me.

I’m sure he is…

Without a sound, my dad appeared behind the man. His arms were crossed and he looked angry, angrier than I had ever seen him. His nostrils were flared like the street dogs’ when they fought over scraps. The big man from the day before stood behind him, his arm bent all strange, his eye swollen and black. The one-eyed man turned suddenly and cursed.

Stupid. Very stupid.

My father squinted down on him. The one-eyed man began to walk away with his large friend in tow. He turned.

Xerkis will not be pleased.

I blinked at them as they made their way back into town. My dad picked me up and asked if I was all right. I told him I was fine. I popped a date into his mouth, which he ate but didn’t smile once about it.

**********

My dad took me into town and we ate dinner on the soft cushions by the gardens. The people walked by, some pointing at my father, as they often did. Usually he would smile his big smile, but that night he only nodded.

Sometimes the merchants would pass by, with their songbirds, or kohl, or sweets. One time my dad bought me a little jewelry box decorated with chips of a white stone that he said came from the sea. That night he waved them along.

He watched me as I ate, but I was too hungry to ask why. Sometimes he would run his hand through my hair and sigh. I offered him some of the pastry, but he wouldn’t eat. He just puffed on his pipe, swirled his coffee around. It was good pastry, flaky, soaked in honey.

I finished our food and he sipped absently at his dark coffee. The cup looked real tiny in his big hands. The night crowds were arriving, laughing and moving brightly through the streets. More townspeople waved and pointed.

He’s yours tomorrow, Aretus!

The girls smiled at him. He finished his coffee and turned to me.

Let’s go.

We didn’t say anything as we headed back to the pits. I looked up at the old thing. It was hard to believe there were ones like it out there that were bigger. Dad had said the ones in Rome were ten times as big. It was hard to believe. When it was quiet and empty, with the birds passing through it into the night, the pits seemed awful big. I grabbed his hand.

We got to our quarters and I went into the back and got out my dad’s bag. He began packing everything up. Folding clothes and taking care to wrap them around any breakable stuff. His face seemed different than it usually did. I hoped he wouldn’t give me the usual talk. It seemed like he wouldn’t for a bit as he packed everything up. I looked at my jewelry box. He sat down on his bed, placed the bag on the floor and looked at me.

C’mere…

I sat beside him. He looked at his hands.

I don’t want you to stay here…after tomorrow.

Usually I just nodded. I don’t know why I tried to say anything this time.

But…

I don’t want you to stay here. Do you understand?

I nodded. He looked back to his hands.

We have enough to get you home, and more.

I nodded again. He patted his legs and I lay my head against them, lifting my feet up onto the pallet. He ran his big fingers through my hair.

Soft like your mother’s was…

I smiled. When I woke up, I was alone on the bed. I figured it was a little after sunrise and he was just finishing up his morning drills. I rolled over trying to get some extra rest for the day ahead.

**********

I paced up and down the ramp to the arena and my dad just sat in his place watching me. The others did too. The Blonde had her eyes closed, but you could tell she wasn’t asleep.

They had just called a match between Soldarius and Ludd. The two opponents had taken to the pits and were circling each other. You could hear the crowd the roar shaking the gate at the mouth of the ramp.

I wondered why they cancelled my dad’s match. I didn’t want to ask him there, though. His eyes didn’t tell me anything.

I watched another fighter, Gabbon, punch at the far wall. Plaster chipped and fell in smoky dust to the ground. When he pulled back to feint, you could see his knuckles all white and powdery, then bright pink where the blood mixed in.

Soon they were carrying Soldarius off his arm was hurt, but he would live. Ludd had won again. My dad had his head down. They were announcing the next match.

My dad got up and walked toward me, he smiled and passed through the rusted gate as it opened. I rubbed my eyes and watched him take the center of the arena. There were flowers and cheers for him there. The Blonde stepped out into the sun from the ramp, the crowd roaring in a weird way, like they didn’t know what to feel about her. I guess I felt the same way.

**********

My dad had set her up again, but again The Blonde had managed to parry his final blow. She was sporting a swollen eye where he had bashed her with his sword handle, but was still unhurt. My dad had been slashed across the arm and was bleeding pretty good. There were small pools of blood that picked up the shine of the sun before soaking up the dirt and dust of the arena floor.

They circled each other. I was gripping the bars of the gate. Ludd stood beside me, a hand on my shoulder. My face was almost squeezed through the metal.

Their swords clashed and the crowd roared. My heart was racing in my chest. There was nothing better than a quick flurry of blows. Sparks would shoot off the blades and the sound was something that I would still hear lying in bed sometimes.

They locked blades, chanting poured down from the stands. My dad shoved her aside, catching her halter and ripping it slightly at the back. She spun and batted his hand away with her forearm. The colors of her tattoo made it appear that she had a shirt below her ripped clothing.

She went on the attack again, knocking him off balance. When she wasn’t drunk, she was even better. My dad put his sword up and parried as best as he could. Ludd’s hand tightened on my shoulder. The Blonde feinted and went to strike at my dad’s injured arm. He brought his blade up and she paused. Then she spun the opposite way. She spun right around, her blade with her and upward. There was no sound as she stopped behind my dad, her blade dripping red in the afternoon.

I kept thinking, Why won’t he move? Why won’t he move? But then I was crying and sobbing and Ludd was pulling me away from the gates and the crowd was cheering. I had trouble breathing from all the crying. I had trouble seeing in the half-dark of the ramp, but I could see the rose petals floating to the ground, some blowing in as the gate opened. The Blonde walked in and headed straight down the hall. I yelled something at her but she just kept going. In the end, they wouldn’t let me see my father until later and by then I was nothing but numb about it.

**********

When I made my way from the kitchens up toward her quarters, it was pretty late. She was probably drunk. The pits were silent, save for the occasional stirring. I put my ear to her door and then quietly let myself in.

I had to wait to let my eyes adjust to the dark. I could hear her breathing. There was a sour smell in the air.

Soon I could make out her curled form on the pallet, the tattoo, the blonde head. I pulled the knife from my tunic and stepped toward her. I would put it right between the dragon’s eyes. The point was just above her skin.

Calmly, she turned over, and looking at me with those green eyes, she gently moved the blade to her left breast.

Here is better.

I blinked at her. My fingers quivered, my wrist shook. My throat was closing over. I was choking. I was sobbing. I wanted to run out of there, but instead I fell back against the wall again. The knife clattered to the floor. My hand touched something cold. The empty vial lay on the floor where I had dropped it.

The Blonde sighed.

Don’t hate yourself. All you would have done was make it easier for me, and harder for you…

After that I left. I took our things and went home like he asked. It was a long way, but a promise is a promise. The town is quiet mostly, no visitors, no caravans. There’s nothing like the pits here, just tall cypresses and stubborn, old olive trees. I don’t miss it much, except for my father, of course. I still look at the jewelry box now and then, and go for walks along the seashore where those white stones come from. The sunsets are beautiful, the nights are quiet everything is quiet. Sometimes I miss the noise of the pits. Sometimes I think about them. Sometimes I think about my dad, and The Blonde and what she said, and wonder if maybe she had it all wrong.

August-October 2002

 


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