“She needs a weapon, a sword.” commanded Lady Eustace, Captain of the Queen’s Companions. A sword was thrust into Brisia’s hand. The arena’s mistress of arms offered Brisia a small buckler. As Brisia reached for it, Lady Eustace struck Brisia with a willow switch.
“No, no, you have no need for a shield. Remember, shield flinger?”
The problem was that Brisia didn’t remember. She couldn’t remember if she dropped her shield, or if an enemy wrenched it from her, or if she did indeed throw it away as she ran from the battle. Just twenty days ago, Brisia the potter was in the third rank of a company in the Asterian army. Once again the Valkae Amazon city-states Asteria and Nica were fighting over a small plain which straddled the border. Being a lowly potter, Brisia could barely afford the required spear and shield. Her lochos, or company, was made up mostly of artisans and shop keepers from the western district of the city. The officers were noblewomen descended of the Wolf Clan. They were positioned near the left end of the phalanx.
The battle was fierce. Most of the first rank of her unit and all of the officers had been killed receiving the Nican epidromos, the charge. Diana had just gone down. Brisia changed the grip on her spear from an underarm thrust to the overhand grip and stepped into the first rank. Trumpets began blasting and someone shouted “The center has been broken! Catastrophe! Catastrophe! We’re cut off!” Others picked up the cry and the line began to collapse. Ursula grabbed Brisia by the arm and dragged her back. She growled, “Don’t be a fool, potter. Run!”
The next thing Brisia knew was that she was running. She had done the most dishonorable thing in her life. She had flung her shield away. She outran the pursuing enemy warriors who in their blood lust were cutting down the fleeing amazons. She soon heard hoofbeats and dared a look behind her. A horsewoman in brilliant armor mounted on a large black steed was coming after her. She tried running faster. Her lungs were burning. The horse was getting closer. Suddenly, Brisia was lifted off of the ground by her hair and then thrown to the ground. “I’ve got you, now, shield flinger.” shouted Lady Eustace in triumph.
“I want this one in the first match. I want her miserable life over quickly, so I can enjoy the other matches.” said Lady Eustace to the guards. She struck Brisia one more time with the willow switch and said “Try not to piss yourself in the arena, shield flinger.” Lady Eustace turned sharply on her heels and strode away with her purple cape billowing after her.
“Come this way.” said one of the guards. Brisia quickly grabbed a dagger off of the table. The guards put their hands on the hilts of their swords. “Careful, girl.” said the mistress of arms. “Can you use two blades?”
“Yes, ma’am. I was born left-handed and as a potter I’ve learned to use both hands equally.”
“Well, it’s not a shield, so I guess you can use it. Fight hard; die with dignity.”
The guards led Brisia down a hallway under the arena seats to a gate. Other guards and gladiators were standing at the gate. “Change of order.” said one of the guards with Brisia. “This one goes first.” They parted allowing Brisia to walk to the gate. It was a simple wooden gate. The crowd was roaring with laughter. She peered between the slats trying to see what was happening in the arena. In the center, two dwarven maidens were cavorting and wrestling. They were nude except for loincloths, one red and one blue. As if waking from a dream, Brisia realized that she was completely naked.
The survivors were herded by their captors to the Nican camp. There, the officers and noblewomen were separated from the rest. They would be ransomed. The Nicans bound spears together to make a symbolic yoke. One hundred of their warriors were chosen to form a gauntlet and were armed with willow switches. Brisia and her fellow warriors were ordered to strip. There would be no ransom for them. There would never be a returning to home. They were destined for slavery.
They were led through the gauntlet at a slow pace while their leaders watched. The willow switches stung and in many cases bit deep into flesh. As the Asterians passed under the yoke of spears, they were no longer the free citizens of Asteria, but the property of Nica. Their wrists were bound and a noose place over their necks linking them together.
Brisia was nearing the end of the gauntlet. She could barely stand from the beating she was receiving. She bumped into the woman in front of her. The line had quit moving. In front of the yoke, Adrienne, “the Giantess” as she was known throughout the army, had dug in her heels and refused to pass under the yoke. She was receiving a terrible beating for it. She turned and addressed the Asterian noblewomen. “I am Adrienne, a free woman of Asteria. I will die a free woman.” Other women, including Brisia, surrounded Adrienne shielding her from the blows with their own bodies. The noblewomen said nothing, but turned their gaze away or looked at the ground. There would be no redemption of any of the commoners. A Nican guard stepped into the lane of the gauntlet and stabbed Adrienne in the side with a spear. Another woman lunged at the guard and she too was cut down. The line began moving again. Brisia felt a sharp sting across her hamstrings. “Get moving, bitch!” someone shouted. As she turned, Adrienne grasped her foot. She looked down into the dying woman’s pleading eyes. “Don’t let them take your dignity.” Brisia smiled weakly and nodded. Adrienne released her foot, closed her eyes, and breathed her last breath. Brisia silently said “Don’t worry, Adrienne, they can never take my dignity, I threw it away myself.”
The crowd roared with laughter and then applause. The gate swung open and the two dwarven maidens bounded into the hallway. They were bubbly and giddy. They took one look at Brisia and their jaws dropped open. “Oh, sweetie, they expect you to go out there after someone has beaten the crap out of you?” asked the one in the blue loincloth. “Shut up, Hel, don’t get involved.” replied the other.
“Hel?” asked Brisia.
“Yes, Hel, short for Helga. The surly one over there is Ingrid. Are you going out first?”
“Yes, Lady Eustace wants me killed quickly.”
“Lady Eustace?” exclaimed Ingrid. “Hel, don’t get involved.”
“Oh hush, Ingrid. What’s your name, sweetie?” asked Hel.
“So I can pray to the gods for you, win or lose.”
Brisia began to sob. “Those are the kindest words I’ve heard in weeks.”
“Now, now, you’ll do fine. You were a soldier, right?”
“Yes.” answered Brisia.
“And you’ve killed in battle?”
“It’s the same thing, only there is just you and one opponent.” said Hel.
“Just try not to get burned.” added Ingrid.
“Burned?” asked Brisia.
“Yeah, the first few times a new gladiator fights there’s a guard who stands behind you with a torch. If you freeze and can’t move to the center of the ring, or if you try to back away, she applies the torch to your backside.” said Ingrid.
“I don’t think that will be a problem for Brisia. Do you know what you’re missing, Brisia? Color! You need some color for the crowd’s eye to follow.” Hel then removed her loincloth and tied it about Brisia’s waist. “There. I think blue is a good color for you. Don’t you?”
“It certainly matches the bruises.” said Ingrid.
“Oh, hush. I wasn’t talking to you, Ingrid.”
Brisia felt better. The two dwarves had calmed and encouraged her. Even the small apron-style loincloth made her feel better.
The gate opened and two jugglers and a dog entered the hall. “That’s the last time we follow your act.” said one of the jugglers to Hel and Ingrid. “Near the end I thought they were going to start throwing vegetables.”
“Ha! You just need to get a better act!” replied Ingrid.
The gate opened again and a guard said “First gladiator.” Everyone grew silent and looked at Brisia. “Fight well. You can win this.” said Ingrid. Brisia smiled and stepped into the arena.
The noblewomen, whether from Nica or captured Asterians, were at the front of the column followed by the main body of the army. Then came the camp attendants, personal servants, cooks, and the goat herders. Choking on the dust, the bound prisoners brought up the rear. From time to time Lady Eustace would ride to the rear and randomly beat prisoners with a willow switch left over from the gauntlet. She made a special point to seek out Brisia and either give several slashes with the switch or, from her horse, kick Brisia to the ground.
The prisoners were given water each time the column stopped, but were only fed a small amount of bread in the evening. Everyone dreaded the evening. The priestesses would choose three women from among the prisoners. One would have her throat cut and her blood drained into a cup as an offering to the gods of darkness. The second woman would be strangled as an offering to the gods of light. The third woman would be staked to the ground and left for the elements and the old gods.
Lady Eustace always referred to her as “shield flinger.” Brisia didn’t know what she had done to so anger Lady Eustace. She was not the only one to have discarded her shield. Perhaps it was because she was the one Lady Eustace had personally captured. Whatever the reason, Lady Eustace was determined to make Brisia’s life miserable.
At every farm, villa, and village they passed, prisoners were taken from the column and sold. On the twentith day of meandering through the countryside, the column reached the city of Agaithia.
Agaithia was a walled city and provided markets for the surrounding villages. It also served as a district garrison. The army camped outside of the city and planned to rest and to reprovision before moving on toward Nica. The city also had a slave market and several prisoners would be sold there. Lady Eustace had different plans for Brisia. She selected Brisia and eleven others to be given to the city to fight in the city’s arena as gladiators.
Upon delivering the prisoners in person, Lady Eustace insisted that Brisia be the first to fight.
Bisia took a few faltering steps into the arena and then stopped. She had never been inside of an arena before. The arena was made of wood. The walls were ten feet tall. There were bleachers at one end where the noblewomen sat in comfort. Everyone else stood or sat on top of the wall. The arena floor was dirt.
“Gladiator, that’s enough gawking.” said a guard. “It’s too early to get out the torch. Move toward the center.”
The gate on the opposite side of the arena opened and her opponent stepped forward. She was a blonde woman wearing a white chiton fastened at the right shoulder to expose the left breast, which was common among amazon warriors. She carried a red aspis, the large shield, and a nine foot spear.
In the center of the arena stood the arena mistress. It was her job to insure that the matches ran smoothly. She motioned for both gladiators to approach her. Brisia was conscious of the guard following her and noticed a guard also following her opponent. When they got to the center, the arena mistress eyed them both. “You’re ‘blue’.” she said to Brisia. “Whenever I call out ‘blue’, I’m talking to you. Understand?”
“Yes, ma’am.” replied Brisia.
“And you are ‘white’.” she said to Brisia’s opponent. “Whenever I call ‘white’, I’m talking to you.” Then she addressed both of them, “The rules here are simple. Fight hard and die with dignity. If you won’t fight, I’ll dispatch you both. If you mortally wound your opponent and not deliver the merciful killing blow, I’ll dispatch you both. The fight is to the death. Are you ready?”
“Yes, ma’am.” replied the gladiators.
The arena mistress turned to face the stand where the noblewomen sat. “Blue, you stand to my left. White, you stand to my right.” Brisia moved into position. “Ladies and citizens!” shouted the arena mistress. “Today we have a bit of drama from the recent battle. In blue, we have the shield flinging honorless Asterian versus a valiant warrior of Nica in white. Wager on the outcome! Spear, shield, and courage versus sword, dagger, and dishonor.”
“Blue, as we give them time to make their wagers, follow the guard twenty paces in that direction. When the trumpet sounds, begin fighting. White, follow your guard twenty paces in the other direction. Remember, girls, fight hard, die with dignity.”
Brisia and her opponent got into position and waited. She could hear the laughter of the crowd and the occasional cat call of “shield flinger” and “coward.” Soon enough, the trumpet sounded and Brisia began to advance to the center of the arena. Her opponent took only a few steps and then stopped. “Was she hesitating?” thought Brisia. Brisia decided to attack head on. She yelled and ran into the opponent. Indeed her opponent was hesitating, she failed to bring her spear from the ready into position to fight. Brisia crashed into her, but since Brisia had no shield, she was unable to knock her down. The crash was enough to snap “White” to life. She tried to counter attack, but was too close to bring the spear into play. Brisia’s training was with spear and shield. She had never used a sword in combat before. So instead of using the sword’s slashing ability, she was stabbing with it as though it was an extremely short spear. “White” was trying to push Brisia far enough back to be able to stab with her own spear. She tried to bash with the shield, anything to push Brisia back. Then Brisia got lucky, she cut a huge gash in the side of “White’s” head. It was mostly a scalp wound, but Brisia’s blade bit “White’s” cheek and severed most of her left ear.
“White” screamed and gave Brisia a hard push with the shield knocking Brisia’s breath out. “White” fell to the ground, but Brisia didn’t have the breath to follow up. “White” staggered back up just as Brisia rushed her again. This time Brisia was able to get under the spear and on “White’s” unshielded side. Brisia was able to land another blow to the head, this time on top of the forehead. Again, “White” used her shield to push Brisia away. “White” tried to catch her breath when Brisia rushed her again with another head on attack. Brisia’s inexperience with the sword was frustrating. She couldn’t figure out how to get around “White’s” shield. Again and again, Brisia rushed only to be pushed back by the shield. Brisia was closing fast enough that “White” couldn’t use her spear. But in time, Brisia would tire and the spear would become an advantage for “White.”
Brisia was beginning to tire. After being pushed back, she paused to catch her own breath and to her surprise, “White” attacked her. Brisia was just able to parry the spear. She found herself again on “White’s” unshielded side. She lunged for the head, but “White” sidestepped. As Brisia stumbled past “White,” “White” landed a blow with the spear’s butt spike. The “lizard sticker” tore a gash in the back of Brisia’s scalp. A few inches lower and the spear would have found her neck.
Both women paused to catch their breath. The guards and the arena mistress began moving toward them. Brisia screamed and charged. Her dagger caught the shaft of the spear and turned “White’s” unshielded side into her. This time the sword sank into “White’s” belly. “White” uttered a sickening scream and crumpled down. Brisia pulled the sword free and stepped back to catch her breath.
“White” was resolute. Using her spear, she somehow stood up. Brisia had to end this. She rushed into “White” again. “White” was using the spear as a crutch to stand with, so she did her best to block Brisia’s attack with her shield. But she wasn’t fast enough. Brisia’s sword glanced off of the shield and into her leg, where the sword severed the femoral artery. “White” crumpled to the ground. Brisia staggered up to deliver the killing blow, but “White” was already gone. Her life had bled into the ground. Brisia cried.
Brisia didn’t remember what happened after the fight. She didn’t remember leaving the arena. One of the arena matrons cleaned her wound and sewed her scalp back together, while Helga, Ingrid and some of the guards looked on. She was in a cell with fresh straw on the floor and a clean blanket on top of the straw. “All done.” said the matron cutting the thread. “Off to bed with you. We’ll do the collar tomorrow and the branding when you are stronger.”
“That won’t be necessary.” said a voice. Everyone turned to see Lady Eustace standing in the hall outside of the cell. “I’ll be taking the shield flinger with me.”
“You can’t do that.” said Hel. “She’s one of us now.”
“Another word from you, slave, and I’ll have you beaten. The shield flinger is mine and I’m taking her with me.”
“Even though the slave spoke out of line, Lady Eustace, I’m afraid she’s right.”
It was Lady Eustace this time who turned in surprise to see the arena mistress and one of the city elders.
“Yes, I came tonight to have a look at the twelve gladiators that you so graciously gave to our city. Your ‘shield flinger’ did fight in our arena today, did she not?”
“Then she is a gladiator of the city of Agaithia and therefore the property of the citizens of Agaithia. I think it would be in very bad form and a bad omen as well for you to take back a gift that has already seen use in the arena. Take a walk with me Eustace and let these people get back to their work.”
When the two noblewomen had left the arena cells, the matron said, “All right, everyone to your cells. Guards to your posts. It’s time to start locking up.”
Brisia collapsed onto the straw. Helga spread the blanket over her. “Well, Brisia, you survived. That was one of the ugliest fights I’ve ever seen, but you survived. Goodnight, or as they say around here: ‘Fight hard and die with dignity.'”