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And then the litter stops and all of us, the other women, the brute in the leather apron, a tall frightened-looking boy not more than seventeen, are pushed out into a vast indoor courtyard. Weapons are piled up in heaps and hung on the walls of the buildings that surround us. At one end there is a bathing pool, and a building I later learn to be a fine bath house. At the other end was what (I later learned) we call the Doorway to Fate, for it leads into the Arena from which so many of us never return. At the other sides are living quarters and a forge where weapons are made.
In the courtyard half a dozen men are working out with swords and spears; others are in the middle of a slow dancelike exercise. All activity stops as the litter comes to a halt, and they crowd around to look at us. But the memory of the sound of clashing metal is in my ears, and I stare at the swords on the walls. I feel my fingers curving and clenching, aching for the feel of one of them in my palm. My hand is actually posed for the grip of the hilt.
The men crowd around the litter with a cry of "Women!" As we descend, they make good-natured cat-calls of welcome at the brute with the muscles, at the terrified adolescent. "Hey, what's that, gladiator or a bedbug for those as can't manage with the women?" He shrinks and I am sorry for him, but then he grabs up one of the swords from the wall and gestures with it and there is a good-natured cheer of welcome.
But there are other sounds, words I hardly understand, for the other women, and for me, when we descend. I know we have been bought for the use of these most brutish of men, and between the unused wine in my belly and my fear, I think I will besick again.
One of the men, still holding a sword casually on one arm, comes to the smallest and prettiest of the women, who reaches up to pat his ugly cheek and smile engagingly at him. He pulls her toward the door of what I later know are the sleeping quarters. A man I will soon know as the Master of Gladiators nods permission and jerks his head at one of the favored men. He comes to me, takes a crude hold of my breasts, and as I flinch backward, says something too gross for my limited language. There is rough laughter, jeers as he pulls away the skirt that does not properly cover me.
And I know that this is the moment of choice, If I back down now, if I let him take me toward that room, I will spend what remains of my life spreading my legs for these brutes....
White fire splitting my head, a blow, scream, suffocate, die, a naked animal fighting hands that part my thighs--
Better to die quickly. With one leap the sword is in my hand, my palm curves around it like an old friend. Sick, drunk, my body remembering what I do not, I fall into what I later know to be the classic pattern of defense. I use both hands on the sword; they are still manacled together and I have no choice.
With a howl of rage he raises his own sword. and I--sick, drunk, manacled--I split his skull.
"Jasric guard us! The wench is a warrior!" It is the voice of the Master of Gladiators. He strides to me through the silence around us. The last woman has been tittering nervously, falls silent as he glares at her.
He jerks his head. "Get her the key."
Someone tosses me a key. Without letting go of the sword. I bend my head and wrench the key in my teeth toward the manacles. At a signal from the Master of Gladiators, someone--I do not look at his face--comes to twist the key and set me free.
The Master of Gladiators says, "I don't usually bother with woman gladiators. They're more trouble than they're worth. But you've earned the right to a trial. Want it? Believe me, girl, whoring's an easier life." And he waits for my answer. There is no sound at all except water splashing in the fountain at the far end of the courtyard. Even the other harlot has stopped her giggling.
My voice is thick, rusty with disuse, and I have little of the language, but I struggle for the words.
"I am no harlot. If I must be one or the other, I a fighter will be."
"Your right, then, to choose," he says, and gestures; two of the men drag away the body of the man I have killed. I never find out who he was, not even his name. The Master looks at the remaining girl and stands, belligerently, arms akimbo.
"You going to fight for a chance at the sword?"
She shakes her head, backs away, glaring at me with real hate. I don't know why.
"So. Two whores are enough for the rest of you loafing cowards. Enough time wasted." He nods at one of the men, who takes away the last of the women, and glares at me.
"You, girl. Pick yourself a sword over there ... or do you like that one? I'd say it's heavy for you, but work with it and see how it goes. I'll find someone to work out with you." His eyes sweep quickly around the ring of men. He says with quiet menace, "Remember; she's a fighter, not one of your whores. Hands off. Girl, I give you leave to protect yourself, but no killing, remember."
So I become a gladiator.