A sword of wrath book i.., p.7
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       A Sword Of Wrath, Book I: Blood And Dust, p.7

           K. E. MacLeod

  * * *

  "1... 2... 3, again! 1... 2... 3, again!" The gladiatorial lanista, Euric the Vandal, paced from one end of the wooden dais to the other, casually eating olives from his hand as he shouted out commands to the less than able recruits. His two trainers, Felix and Castor, weaved throughout their ranks, forcefully correcting any mistakes they saw with their giant leather whips.

  Euric shouted indignantly at the recruits in his dark, raspy voice, "Shape up, you pigs, or I swear I'll work you until your legs rot off! 1... 2... 3, again! You will learn to fight my way or die your own! 1... 2... 3, again!"

  At the end of the dais was Juko, naked and tied to a post with his arms stretched straight up above his head. He had been that way for a little over twenty-four hours as he was being used as an example for the other fighters to show them the consequence of disobedience. His punishment had come quickly and without hesitation after his adamant refusal to take to the training arena when commanded to, despite being told what would happen if he did not.

  Euric shouted down to Castor, "Take over for me before I do something to these worthless vermin that I'll regret!" The lanista walked over to the exhausted and sore N’bari and quipped, "Do you think that you impress me by not crying out?"

  "I... don't care... what... impresses you," Juko looked upon the other man with fire in his dark eyes, despite the pain that burned within his shoulders.

  Euric nonchalantly tossed another olive into his mouth, "And I don't understand why you refuse to fight. Your brother certainly never did."

  "I don't... refuse to fight," Juko answered the Vandal. "I refuse... to fight... for you."

  Euric seemed unbothered by the N'bari's response and replied simply, "Well, if you don't, you will die in the arena. Suna knew this-"

  "Stop speaking of him!" Juko shouted at the Vandal with the last reserves of his energy.

  Euric frowned, "I have told you before that I was genuinely sorry for your loss but I cannot change the rules. If you'd rather die than fight, that's your decision but it won't bring your brother back nor will it help you find out what really happened to him."

  "You do not... understand. I don't care if I die... I cannot return to my father... a failure."

  Euric snapped, "It's not your fault your brother is dead!"

  "It won't matter... to my father..."

  Euric stared at the stubborn young man before him and, despite himself, began to chuckle whilst shaking his head, "I won't be able to break you, will I?"

  "You can... try...," Juko looked up at him with hooded brown eyes.

  Euric leaned in again, whispering, "Listen to me, son, I know who killed your brother and if you want to avenge him, dying in the arena will do you no good."

  Juko swallowed, though it did nothing to alleviate his dry throat, "You know... who killed him?"

  "Yes, and I also know why," Euric stepped back to face the N'bari warrior. "You fight for me and I'll tell you everything." He popped the last olive that was in his hand into his mouth. "What do you say?"

  Juko studied the Vandal's broad face and deep-set eyes to see if he was lying. After a few moments, he stated simply, "I think... I do not like you."

  Euric laughed a deep, throaty chortle, "Your brother said the same thing when we first met and just as I told him then, I will tell you now: you do not have to like me, just fight for me."

  "Do you... really know who killed him?"

  The Vandal nodded once, "I am a great many things, my son, but a liar, I am not."

  "Then... cut me free."

  With a swift and graceful motion, Euric produced a hidden dagger from beneath his robes. He reached around the post and began to slice through the ropes that bound the N'bari's wrists to it. As he did, he moved in closer and whispered, "There are rumors that the woman escaped."

  Juko angrily whispered back, "I care not for this... 'woman'."

  "Well, your brother seemingly did. Very deeply. So deeply, in fact, that he married her - a highly illegal act in this fair city, in case you are unaware."

  Juko fell to the ground just as the ropes dropped beside him.

  The Vandal bent down and wrapped a firm arm around the young man's ribs to help him stand. As they rose, his voice took on an unexpected tone of concern, "Go and wash in the baths, Juko. Get plenty of water and I will give you a day of rest before you train. You have a long battle ahead of you, my son. A very long battle."

  Juko was silent as he limped towards the gladiators' bathhouse, which stood just past the practice field in a squat, bricked building that was built atop their quarters. His mind was overwhelmed with all that had happened to him in the last twenty-four hours and he wondered if he should trust such a person as Euric, then very quickly concluded that it did not matter, as he had no longer had any choice.

  The lanista watched Juko disappear into the bathhouse and thought of Suna, amazed at how different two men from the same family could be. Felix stepped onto the dais beside him and, breaking through his thoughts, announced, "Sir, there is an emissary from the White Palace here to see you."

  "Hm, an emissary, you say? Well," he scoffed, "that's always good news, isn't it?" He looked past Felix and saw a young man with a parchment roll in his hands speaking to his servant, Posides. He beckoned the messenger towards him.

  "My lord-," the young man stepped forward.

  "Ah, no, no, no, boy, I am no lord," Euric corrected him, "lanista will do just fine."

  "Lanista, then, the Emperor's advisor, Lucan, requests that you tend to this matter on behalf of the Emperor, urgently." He handed the parchment to Euric and, after a bow, dismissed himself from the training area without further prompt.

  Euric broke the wax seal of the parchment, the peacock upon it denoting that it had indeed come from Lucan's own hand, and unfurled the paper. As he read the words of the message, his wide face slowly took on a glowing crimson pallor and a snarl began to cross his lips. Euric suddenly balled up the note and threw it to the ground, "Complete madness! How can the Emperor expect such a production in a fortnight? Is he mad?"

  "I'm sorry, sir?" Felix asked, surprised by his employer's behavior.

  The lanista didn't answer right away. Instead, he paced slightly, his hands on his hips as he tried to compose himself and control his anger. He opened and closed his mouth several times before he finally spoke, putting a large-ringed finger in the trainer's face, "Just know that we have our work cut out for us, Felix. How far along are these men? Will they be worth their salt in a fortnight?"

  The trainer shook his head, laughing in disbelief at the question, "They're some of the weakest fighters we've ever recruited. I don't know that they'll be ready to fight in six months, let alone two weeks!"

  "That was my fear," he nodded. "How many do we have left from our previous batch?"

  "Three, sir, not counting Castor and myself."

  Euric thought for a moment, pondering his next move, then spoke as he scratched at his chin, "I know what we'll do, then. I want you to personally train that new N’bari recruit. His brother was phenomenal - there has to be some of that talent in him as well. We'll parade some hero story around town and turn that boy into a star. It's the only way. We'll bluff the audience - give them an underdog for a hero. They'll be so excited over him and the spectacle we've created that they'll never even notice how short we are on actual talent! Do you understand?"

  Felix nodded, even though he didn't, "Yes, sir."

  Euric laughed to himself, muttering beneath his breath, "That boy may be getting his revenge a whole lot sooner than he thought."

  Further afield, a fatigued and aching Juko was unimpressed with his surroundings. The inner walls of the bathhouse were covered in brightly colored mosaics depicting the past triumphs of some of Odalia's greatest gladiators but, even as he washed in its heated waters, Juko felt it was all too plain and he missed the mountains of his village.

  His mind, meanwhile, was fractured and adrift from not only the lanista's punishment, nor the still
fresh news of his brother's death but also because Juko had never intended to fight in the dust of the arena. In fact, he had never even wanted to step foot in Lycania and it was only out of love for his father and brother and loyalty to his family that he had even ever made the journey to her shores.

  Juko's heart ached with renewed grief as he thought of his brother again. He had always looked up to Suna, who had been older by nearly three full years. He was handsome, strong and quick-witted and while Suna had been well loved by all the members of their clan, their father loved him most of all.

  Growing up, almost everything that Suna did brought a smile as bright as the rising sun to their father's face. For the Chieftain, his eldest son could do no wrong - not even when, as a mischievous child of eight years old, he had added the oil of the itching plant to the Healer's muscle rub.

  But, despite bearing the inability to anger their father, Suna could break his heart like no other. Juko thought back to the night that Suna, who was next in line to be Chieftain of their clan, publicly rejected his birthright during the Inheritance Rite. The act had all but shattered their father, although the rejection had come as no surprise to anyone else in the clan - for Suna had stated time and again that he had never had any desire to lead. He had always been adventurous and restless, with a wanderlust that would never be sated in the Mountains of Selene.

  Juko remembered the last time he had seen his brother alive: the day that Suna had left Noba for Lycania. His brother's engaging smile lit up his face even as he said his farewells. "This isn't goodbye, little brother. We'll see each other again! Maybe you'll even join me in Lycania one day?"

  "No," Juko shook his head firmly. "I don't have the same desire for danger as you do. My place is here, by father's side, and nowhere else."

  Suna's face fell slightly, "I know he is angry with me right now-"

  "He's not angry, he's hurt. You've disappointed him, Suna-"

  "I know, but... I cannot live my life for him. God forgive me but I have my own path to follow - as do you, little brother."

  Juko frowned slightly, "He will never choose me as his heir."

  "Then he is a fool. You are a good son; you do what is expected of you. I," he laughed, "I, on the other hand, am a horrible son!"

  A bell clanged in the distance, signaling the last call for passengers to board the Lycanian trading ship, Minerva.

  "Goodbye, Juko," Suna hugged his smaller brother tightly, lifting him up off the ground for a brief moment. "Come and see me fight in the arena! I will give you a good show!" Then, with a last wave, Suna turned away and quickly disappeared into the trading vessel that would carry him off to adventures in faraway lands, leaving behind a hurt and angry Juko.

  For the next year and a half, Juko tried everything within his power to relieve his father's broken heart but it was of no use. The Chieftain very nearly became a recluse, shutting himself off from his wife, children and the rest of the clan, leaving Juko to act as Chieftain in his stead. But, despite his best efforts, Juko's father steadfastly refused to pass the Birthright to his younger son, holding onto it for the day that Suna would return home.

  Back in the bathhouse, Juko stepped from the water. He dried himself off, then picked up a brown training tunic from the pile of clean ones and put it on along with a pair of sandals. He silently cursed his brother, a tear forming in his eye as he laced the training sandals upwards along his calves. He resented his brother's leaving, his father's lack of favor but more than anything he resented that, even from beyond the grave, Suna was forcing him into a fight he did not want - just as he had when they were children.

  Juko gritted his teeth and stood. But, he would fight because he had given his word and a man was only as good, as honorable, as the word he gave. Juko picked up a small practice shield and a wooden gladius from the rack that stood next to the door and headed for the gladiator quarters that were now his home.

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