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Less than a day's journey from Rome, 81 AD
"Look around you, Niece. The gods are punishing you."
Pelonia raised tear-swollen eyes from her beloved father's lifeless face. From where she sat on the ground, her uncle Marcus towered over her, his mouth twisted in a snarl of contempt. Blood oozed from a gash at his temple.
Dazed by his cruel words, she watched him limp toward the torched wagons and pillaged tents of their once wealthy camp. Black smoke stretched toward the heavens. Its sharp stench singed her nostrils, burning her lungs until the fetid air promised to choke her.
Her father's head in her lap, Pelonia stroked his weathered cheek with trembling fingers. Was Uncle Marcus right? Was she being punished? Had her father been wrong to reject the old ways and teach his household to embrace the Christ?
Everywhere she looked, destruction sweltered in the morning's rising heat. All of her family's accompanying servants lay massacred along both sides of the stone-paved road. Only she and Marcus survived.
Pelonia looked toward the cloudless sky. Birds of prey circled overhead. Their hungry cries echoed in the stillness, mocking her as though they sensed she would join the corpses before she had time to bury them.
On the horizon, a cloud of dust marked the direction of their attackers' retreat. The marauders had struck before first light. She'd heard their battle cry from downstream where she'd sneaked away to bathe in private. By the time she ran back to camp, they'd taken flight. The demon's spawn had stolen everything of value—animals, spices meant as a gift for her cousin's wedding in Rome, and chests packed with rare purple cloth.
Worst of all, they'd murdered her father.
A wail of anguish rose in her throat, but she bit her lip to keep from surrendering to her grief. Her father would want her to be strong. She couldn't bear to disappoint him. Instead, she bent over his precious body and buried her face in his tunic, begging her Lord to restore his life, just as He had once done for Lazarus.
Long moments passed. No miracle came from heaven, only silence.
She sat up and brushed the graying hair from his brow. Bowing her head, she rocked gently, clinging to her composure when pain threatened her sanity.
God, oh God, her heart cried out. How could You allow this? Why have You forsaken me when I have served You from my earliest days?
Her uncle's hulking shadow loomed above her. "Hurry up, girl. There's nothing more we can do here."
Pelonia's head snapped up. "We can't leave our dead exposed! Already the vultures circle above us. Soon the wolves will come. Will you have our loved ones ravaged by both fowl and beast?"
Marcus kicked a rock with his sandaled foot. "I care not. I didn't pretend death and elude our attackers to die of thirst in this glaring heat."
"You pretended death? How could you not aid my father or defend—"
"Cease," he growled so close to her nose his stale breath made her shudder. "Someone knocked me unconscious. When I awoke… Why should I have sacrificed my life for nothing?"
"Because it is your duty to defend your family. And to see the dead properly cared for."
"Don't lecture me, girl!" Color ran high across his cheekbones. "I won't suffer your guilt when all but your father have traveled to Paradise. They won't know if their flesh is left to rot, nor will they care."
Pelonia adjusted her father's tunic, wishing she had clean linen to shroud him and the others before placing them in the ground. "Father's spirit is in heaven, Uncle, as are the rest of those who've died here."
"Then their bodies are of no consequence." His upper lip curled with ill-concealed scorn. "According to your religion, your God will give them new ones."
Pelonia winced. Marcus clung to his pagan beliefs, despite her father's years of prayer and good example. She lifted her gaze and squinted at the sun glinting over his shoulder. "How can you be so cruel? Except for me, Father was your last remaining kin."
His hawkish eyes narrowed. "Pelonius is dead, but I continue to breathe. Soon scavengers will see the smoke. We won't be safe once they come to investigate. Unless you wish to join these unfortunate wretches, we must leave now."
"No!" She eased her father's head to the damp earth and stood, bristling with defiance. "I won't abandon him or our servants. It's indecent and disrespectful. I won't do it."
His hand jerked up to strike her, but she didn't flinch. Jaw flexing with unconcealed rage, he dropped his fist back to his side.
As though he couldn't bear the sight of her, Marcus glanced to a point down the road. Her instincts warned her to look, but she didn't dare take her eyes off her uncle. He'd proven on many occasions to be as crafty as the Evil One himself.
After a long moment, his mood shifted and much of his hostility seemed to evaporate. He gave her an odd smile. "Then you're a fool, but I'll help you bury them."
Surprised by his capitulation, she swayed on her feet, light-headed with relief. She glanced down the cypress-lined road. A single horse and rider traveled in their direction, but remained at a distance. He didn't look threatening, but wariness pricked her, instilling a new need for haste. She hoped the newcomer proved to be a friend, but after the events of the morning, strangers weren't to be trusted.
Her attention returned to Marcus. "Thank you, Uncle. I couldn't finish this sad task without you."
He grunted. "You speak the truth for certain. You're even smaller than your mother, and she was tiny as a fawn."
"I wish I'd known her." Pelonia hurried toward the charred remains of their camp. Her mother had died giving birth to her seventeen winters past. With her father taken from her, she was an orphan. The thought penetrated her mind like the point of a sword. Her head ached. Loneliness crushed her. She and her father had always been close. He'd treated her as well as any might treat a favored son, let alone a daughter.
Her steps slowed near a destroyed tent. Using a tree branch, she poked through the smoldering ruins, searching for anything that might aid with the burials.
Finally, she found the iron head of a spade, its wooden handle nothing but ashes among the scorched stones and broken shards of pottery. With the end of the branch, she pushed the tool from the embers.
Once the metal cooled enough to touch, she picked it up and headed to the shade of an olive tree. She knelt and began to dig, breathing in the pungent aroma of rich, black earth. Here she would bury her father, her dearest friend and protector. Her chest constricted with the thought of leaving him all alone along this barren stretch of road. Silent tears streamed down her cheeks, despite her best efforts to contain them.
She licked the salty moisture from her lips and dabbed her eyes with the back of her hands. Knees sore, her lower back aching, she finished the shallow grave at last and returned to her father's body. She grasped him under his arms. He was so heavy. Her muscles strained to drag him toward the tree and place him in the grave.
As she straightened his limbs, she thanked God for blessing her with a loving parent, even as she questioned why he'd been ripped from her so brutally.
She caressed his cheek one last time, then tore away the cleanest piece of her tunic's hem. Covering his face with the linen, she choked back sobs. Her entire body shook with sorrow as she placed the dirt over his remains.
"Pelonia, are you not yet finished?"
She patted down the last handful of soil. "Yes, Uncle, I'm done."
Not far away, Marcus waited beside a shallow grave he'd dug with a second, larger shovelhead. She covered the short distance and joined him. "I'll try to be quicker and be of more help. Perhaps if you dig, I can move the bodies and cover them."
The jingle of metal and distant voices carried on the morning breeze. She glanced down the road, brushing her dark hair from her eyes to get a better view. Much closer than before, but still at a distance, the rider continued his path toward them. A large caravan followed several paces in his wake.
From her vantage point, she saw the wagons were too close for comfort. Some covered, some exposed, many were rolling cages filled with people or exotic beasts. Near-naked men, most bound in chains, walked listlessly in the glaring sun.
"A slave caravan, Uncle! We must hide until it passes."
"They won't pester me. I'm too old to be of value and my tunic verifies my rank. You, on the other hand, are a prize."
Pelonia blinked in disbelief. Her heart throbbed with fear. She knew slave traders legally bought and sold men, women and children at markets throughout the empire. Ravenous for profit, they often preyed on the weak, prowling the byways in search of free stock.
The morning's events had made her one of the weak. She was the daughter of a prosperous Roman citizen, but this far from home she held no proof of her status. None of her wealth remained to buy protection. Her household had been destroyed. Even her luxurious clothes had been stolen or burned, leaving her with nothing but the simple linen tunic she'd worn to the river.
The feral gleam in her uncle's eyes spread a chill across her skin. "You cannot mean to sell me."
"Why not? You're cursed. I have no wish to invoke the gods' displeasure by protecting you. Besides, I'm your guardian now that your father is gone. I have a legal right to do with you as I wish. After the robbery this morning, I need funds to see me home. You're a comely maiden and will fetch a fair price."
"You're mad!" She darted away, panic pumping through her veins.
His fingers curled around her long hair. He yanked her back, almost snapping her neck and ripping out some of the strands.
His thick arm banded about her throat, pressing the back of her head against his shoulder and exerting enough pressure for her to hold still or choke. "The gods have sealed your fate, Pelonia. I knew it the moment I saw the scout riding this way. I only had to keep you here until he came close enough to claim you."
Terror exploded in her chest. She kicked and twisted, realizing she should have suspected treachery when he agreed to help her bury the dead. Reaching above and behind her, she clawed at his face. Warm blood tainted her fingers. She bit his arm.
Marcus howled and let go. She ran, but he grabbed her elbow and spun her to face him, striking her hard across the side of the head. Her ears rang. Her jaw stung with pain.
Another blow. White specks of light burst behind her eyes. She tasted blood. He backhanded her left cheek. She fell to the ground, jarring her bones. The back of her head bounced against a rock. Agony lanced through her skull. Marcus's enraged countenance blurred above her. The edges of her vision dimmed, began to turn black.
"Please, Lord, help me," she whispered, just before the life she'd known ceased to exist.
As the orange glow of early evening settled over Rome, Caros Viriathos stood at the arched second story window of his bedchamber. His battle-scarred fingers stroked the smooth head of his pet tiger.
Torches lit the large walled yard below where a dozen of his best gladiators trained with a variety of weapons, perfecting their skills with each other and several wild animals.
While Caros listened to the clang of clashing metal and the roar of angry lions, his gaze traveled from one pair of opponents to another. He studied each fighter's footwork, his speed, every sword thrust and jab of a trident. At sunrise, he would speak with each man in private, point out his flaws and demand perfection. Death might be inevitable, but it could be postponed. And sending men into the arena untrained was a waste of life and capital.
He knew from experience. For ten brutal years, he'd fought in the games, a slave ripped from his Iberian home and forced to serve a cruel master. As an unrivaled champion, he'd won the mob's fickle affections. They rewarded him three years ago by demanding his freedom as the prize of a particularly bloody competition. Since then, he'd begun his own training grounds, the Ludus Maximus, and amassed a fortune. Even his former master acknowledged no one prepared gladiators more suited for combat than he.
He should have been pleased with his life, or at least his comfortable situation, but deep inside, he yearned for peace.
By day, his work kept him occupied, his mind focused on the task of teaching his men the art of battle. But it would soon be dark and the silence of night allowed the Furies to torment him for his past.
Fists clenched, Caros leaned against the marble window-sill. The aroma of roasting meats signaled the dinner hour. His men had finished training for the day. Their teasing gibes and easy laughter replaced the clash of weapons as they disappeared into the cookhouse. After the evening meal, they'd seek out their beds in the barracks, exhausted and ready for slumber.
Wishing his sleep came as easily, Caros had given up hope of ever winning the battle that waged in his head. For years, he'd fought the riot inside him, arguing with his conscience that he'd been forced to kill in the ring or be killed. He'd sampled every diversion Rome offered in an effort to distract him from the guilt gnawing at his soul. Nothing soothed him. Everything he'd tried proved empty until he had more and more difficulty suppressing the cries of all those he'd slain.
The tiger's tail swished on the mosaic-tiled floor, the only sound in the evening's stillness. Footsteps approached in the corridor, drawing his attention and a low growl from Cat.
A fist pounded on the door. "Master," Gaius, his elderly steward, called through the heavy wooden portal, "a slave caravan has arrived. There are a few good prospects. Do you wish to have a look?"
Eager for a distraction from his thoughts, Caros left his post at the window. He'd lost four men in the ring the day before and needed to replace them. "I'll be down in a moment, Gaius. Tell them to wait."
Caros pulled on a fresh tunic and reached for a weighty bag of coins on his desk. Moments later, he joined Gaius in one of the long side yards that ran the length of the house. The stench of animal dung and unwashed bodies made him grimace.
The slave trader, a stout man, paced the straw-covered stones next to a swaying elephant.
In the torchlight, the newcomer came to an abrupt halt when he noticed Caros approaching. He flashed his rotten teeth and his eyes sparkled with the thrill of a probable sale. He stepped forward, sweeping his stubby arms wide to prove he carried no weapons.
"Sir, I am Aulus Menus. You are known as the Bone Grinder, no? It is an honor to meet you." The slave trader bent at the waist in a flamboyant bow. "I saw you fight once four years ago. You took down five gladiators without a single wound to yourself. I can still hear the crowd chanting your name. It is easy to understand why your reputation as Rome's greatest champion is hailed far and wide."
"I'm sure you exaggerate." Unimpressed by the trader's flattery or the odor wafting from his person, Caros hoped the man visited one of the city's baths at the first opportunity.
"I assure you I don't exaggerate. I've heard your name praised as far as Alexandria. Some even hint you're a son of Jupiter. They whisper your name in hallowed tones and—"
"Enough. If you seek to gain my favor with compliments, be warned, you will not. I'm in need of four able-bodied men, no more. The taller, stronger and healthier the better."
"No more than four?" Some of the gleam left the slave trader's eyes. "I have thirty such men."
Caros looked toward the row of ragged beggars on offer. Sitting in the dirt, most appeared too weak to stand. Others sat beside them, skinny, dejected, already defeated. A few slightly stronger ones leaned against the wall. None of them would do. "Are you trying to swindle me? I need men for gladiators, not lion fodder."
In the torchlight, Aulus's face grew red, as though he sensed a hefty profit slipping through his fingers. "This is not my best merchandise. Follow me and I'll show you a host of potential champions."
Unconvinced, Caros nodded and followed anyway. Aulus carried a torch as they walked past the wheeled cages filled with reeking animals and all manner of degraded humanity. The sight of dirty, hollow-eyed children clenched his stomach. A youth sitting beside them reminded him of his own capture and sale into slavery. His loving mother and sisters had been tortured that day, then crucified while he was forced to watch.
Caros pushed the nightmare away. Resigned to the ways of the world, he hardened his heart and continued after Aulus.