They hailed her “Liberty,” but she was free only to obey—or die.
Betrayed by her father and sold as payment of a Roman tax debt to fight in Londinium’s arena, gladiatrix-slave Rhyddes feels like a wild beast in a gilded cage. Celtic warrior blood flows in her veins, but Roman masters own her body. She clings to her vow that no man shall claim her soul, though Marcus Calpurnius Aquila, son of the Roman governor, makes her yearn for a love she believes impossible.
Groomed to follow in his father’s footsteps and trapped in a politically advantageous betrothal, Aquila prefers the purity of combat on the amphitheater sands to the sinister intrigues of imperial politics, and the raw power and athletic grace of the flame-haired Libertas to the adoring deference of Rome’s noblewomen.
When a plot to overthrow Caesar ensnares them as pawns in the dark design, Aquila must choose between the Celtic slave who has won his heart and the empire to which they both owe allegiance. Trusting no man and knowing the opposite of obedience is death, the only liberty offered to any slave, Rhyddes must embrace her arena name—and the love of a man willing to sacrifice everything to forge a future with her.
FINGERS CRAMPING AND shoulders aching from having wielded the pitchfork all day, Rhyddes ferch Rudd tossed another load of hay onto the wagon. Sweat trickled down her back, making the lash marks sting. Marks inflicted by her father, Rudd, the day before because eighteen summers of anguish had goaded her into speaking her mind.
Physical pain couldn’t compare with the ache wringing her heart.
She slid a glance toward the author of her mood. He stood a few paces away, leaning upon his pitchfork’s handle in the loaded wagon’s shade to escape the July heat as he conversed with her oldest brother, Eoghan. She couldn’t discern their words, but their camaraderie spoke volumes her envy didn’t want to hear.
Her father’s gaze met hers, and he lowered his eyebrows. “Back to work, Rhyddes!” On Rudd’s lips, her name sounded like an insult.
In a sense, it was.
Her name in the Celtic tongue meant “freedom,” but the horse hitched to the hay wagon enjoyed more freedom than she did. Her tribe, the Votadini, had been conquered by the thieving Romans, who demanded provisions for their troops, fodder for their mounts, women for their beds, and coin to fill the purses of every Roman who wasn’t a soldier.
If those conditions weren’t bad enough, for all the kindness her father had demonstrated during her first two decades, Rhyddes may as well have been born a slave.
She scooped up more hay. Resentment-fired anger sent wisps flying everywhere, much of it sailing over the wagon rather than landing upon it.
“Hey, mind what you’re doing!”
Owen, her closest brother in age and in spirit, emerged from the wagon’s far side, hay prickling his hair and tunic like a porcupine. Rhyddes couldn’t suppress her laugh. “’Tis an improvement. Just wait till the village lasses see you.”
“Village lasses, hah!” Sporting a wicked grin, Owen snatched up a golden fistful, flung it at her, and dived for her legs.
They landed in the fragrant hay and began vying for the upper hand, cackling like a pair of witless hens. When Owen thought he’d prevailed, Rhyddes twisted and rolled from underneath him. Her fresh welts stung, but she refused to let that deter her. He lost his balance and fell backward. She pounced, planting a knee on his chest and pinning his wrists to the ground over his head.
Victory’s sweetness lasted but a moment. Fingers dug into her shoulders, and she felt herself hauled to her feet and spun around. Owen’s face contorted to chagrin as he scrambled up.
“Didn’t get enough of the lash yestermorn, eh, girl?” Rudd, his broad hands clamped around her upper arms, gave her a teeth-rattling shake.
When she didn’t respond, he released her and rounded on Owen. “As for you—”
“Da, please, no!” Rhyddes stopped herself. Well she knew the futility of pleading with Rudd. Still, for Owen’s sake, she had to try. Her father’s scowl dared her to continue. She swallowed the lump that had formed in her throat. “’Twas not Owen’s fault. I—” Sweat freshened the sting on her back, and she winced. “The fault is naught but mine.”
“Aye, that I can well believe.” Rudd grasped each sibling by an arm and strode across the hayfield toward the family’s lodge. “Owen can watch you take his lashes as well as yours. We’ll see if that won’t mend his ways.” The thin linen of her ankle-length tunic failed to shield her from his fingers, which had to be leaving bruises. Rhyddes gritted her teeth. Rudd seemed disappointed. “I doubt anything in this world or the next will make you mend yours.”
“You don’t want me to change. You’d lose your excuse to beat me.” Sheer impertinence, she knew, but she no longer cared.
“I need no excuses, girl.”
The back of his hand collided with her cheek. Pain splintered into a thousand needles across her face. She reeled and dropped to her hands and knees, her hair obscuring her vision in a copper cascade. Hay pricked her palms. Owen would have helped her rise, but their father restrained him. Owen blistered the ground with his glare, not daring to direct it at Rudd for fear of earning the same punishment.
Not that Rhyddes could blame him.
Rudd yanked her up, cocked a fist… and froze. “Raiders!”
Rhyddes whirled about. Picts were charging from the north to converge upon their settlement, the battle cries growing louder under the merciless afternoon sun. One of the storage buildings had already been set ablaze, its roof thatch marring the sky with thick black smoke.
Rudd shed his shock and sprinted for the living compound, calling his children by name to help him defend their home: Eoghan, Ian, Bloeddwyn, Arden, Dinas, Gwydion, Owen.
Every child except Rhyddes.
She ran to the wagon, unhitched the horse, found her pitchfork, scrambled onto the animal’s back, and kicked him into a jolting canter. The stench of smoke strengthened with each stride. Her mount pinned back his ears and wrestled her for control of the bit, but she bent the frightened horse to her will. She understood how he felt.
As they loped past the cow byre, a Pict leaped at them, knocking Rhyddes from the horse’s back. The ground jarred the pitchfork from her grasp. The horse galloped toward the pastures as Rhyddes fumbled for her dagger. Although her brothers had taught her how to wield it in a fight, until now she’d used it only to ease dying animals from this world.
But the accursed blade wouldn’t come free of the hilt.
Sword aloft, the Pict closed on her.
Time distorted, assaulting Rhyddes with her attacker’s every detail: lime-spiked hair, weird blue symbols smothering the face and arms, long sharp sword, ebony leather boots and leggings, breastplate tooled to fit female curves . . .
The warrior-woman’s sword began its descent.
From the corner of her eye Rhyddes saw her pitchfork. Grunting, she rolled toward it, praying to avoid her attacker’s blow.
Her left arm stung where the sword grazed it, but she snagged her pitchfork and scrambled to her feet. Unexpected eagerness flooded her veins.
As the Pict freed her weapon from where it had embedded in the ground, Rhyddes aimed the pitchfork and lunged. The tines hooked the warrior-woman’s sword, and Rhyddes twisted with all her strength. The Pict yelped as the sword ripped from her hand to go flying over the sty’s fence.
Squealing in alarm, the sow lumbered for cover, trying to wedge her bulk under the trough.
With a savage scream, the warrior-woman whipped out a dagger and charged. Rhyddes reversed the pitchfork and jammed its butt into the Pict’s gut, under the breastplate’s bottom edge, robbing her of breath. She reversed it again and caught the raider under the chin with the pitchfork’s tines. As the woman staggered backward, flailing her arms and flashing the red punctures that marred her white neck, Rhyddes struck hard and knocked her down.
The warrior-woman looked heavier by at least two stone, but Rhyddes pinned her chest with her knee. She dropped the pitchfork and grasped her dagger, yanking it free. Grabbing a fistful of limed hair, she wrestled the woman’s head to one side to expose her neck.
The Pict bucked and twisted, trying to break Rhyddes’s grip. ’Twas not much different than wrestling a fever-mad calf.
Rhyddes’s deft slice ended the threat.
Blood spurted from the woman’s neck in sickening pulses.
Rhyddes stood, panting, her stomach churning with the magnitude of what she’d done. ’Twas no suffering animal she’d killed—and it could have been her lying there, pumping her lifeblood into the mud.
Bile seared her throat, making her gag. Pain lanced her stomach. Bent double, she retched out the remains of her morning meal, spattering the corpse.
After spitting out the last bitter mouthful and wiping her lips with the back of her hand, she drew a deep breath and straightened. As she turned a slow circle, her senses taking in the sights and sounds and stench of the devastation surrounding her, she wished she had not prevailed.
The news grew worse as she sprinted toward the lodge.
Of her seven brothers, the Picts had left Ian and Gwydion dead, her father and Owen wounded, the lodge and three outbuildings torched. She ran a fingertip over the crusted blood of her scratch, and she couldn’t suppress a surge of guilt.
Mayhap, she thought through the blinding tears as she ran to help what was left of her family, ’twould have been better had she died in the Pict’s stead.
The surviving raiders were galloping toward the tree line with half the cattle. The remaining stock lay stiffening in the fields, already attracting carrion birds.
Three days later, the disaster attracted scavengers of an altogether different sort.
I am Rhyddes ferch Rudd, which in your tongue means Freedom daughter of Red. The blood of ancient Celtic warriors flows in my veins, though I am a farmer’s daughter by the circumstance of my birth. My life spans much of the reign of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, one of a very few men ever to claim that title who did not abuse his power for personal gain—but I care not who rules and who dies in this gods-cursed empire.
More than anything—even more than my freedom—I yearn to be my lover Aquila’s equal. As a foreign slave in an empire where citizenship stands paramount, where an arena fighter such as I can only be considered the equal of other gladiators, actors, undertakers, and whores, this goal seems impossibly remote. Although Aquila is the son of a powerful Roman, he has declared that he would renounce his aristocratic status, wealth, and power for me, but I cannot in good conscience allow him to destroy himself on my account.
And yet the gods have granted the impossible to other mortals. I pray that I am worthy to receive such a boon from them, for surely divine assistance is the only way for Aquila and I to bridge the vast social chasm that separates us from enjoying a future together.
About the Author
Kim Headlee lives on a farm in southwestern Virginia with her family, cats, goats, and assorted wildlife. People & creatures come and go, but the cave and the 250-year-old house ruins—the latter having been occupied as recently as the mid-20th century—seem to be sticking around for a while yet.
Kim is a Seattle native (when she used to live in the Metro DC area, she loved telling people she was from “the other Washington”) and a direct descendent of twentieth-century Russian nobility. Her grandmother was a childhood friend of the doomed Grand Duchess Anastasia, and the romantic yet tragic story of how Lydia escaped Communist Russia with the aid of her American husband will most certainly one day fuel one of Kim’s novels. Another novel in the queue will involve her husband’s ancestor, the seventh-century proto-Viking king of the Swedish colony in Russia.
For the time being, however, Kim has plenty of work to do in creating her projected 8-book Arthurian series, The Dragon’s Dove Chronicles, and other novels under her new imprint, Pendragon Cove Press.
YouTube video interview: http://youtu.be/DV5iKrEIROk
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