Read the first 3 chapters


VESUVIUS

From her lofty place above the sparkling crescent Bay of Napoli, Vesuvius looked down upon the surrounding towns and felt the pressure build beneath her grassy slopes.

It was true, the hot springs which bubbled up from deep within brought pleasure-seekers from the north to bathe in secluded groves, and she boasted lemon trees, and long waving grasses where wildlife grazed her foothills. True, her purple, cloud-kissed peak shone always in the sunlight.

But under it all, where the eyes of no patrician nor plebeian saw, underneath she churned with an angry force waiting to be unleashed.

She was their mother, yes. But she could destroy them all.

And she had been quiet these many years, had she not? Too many years for counting, even. She had been controlled, subdued, silent as generation after generation lived and farmed and reveled in her long shadows.

But not for long. No, not for long.

Though the people who lived beneath her believed that they controlled their own destiny, she knew otherwise.

This was her story, after all.

Prologue

 Jerusalem
August 9, 70 AD

Ariella shoved through the clogged street, defying the mob of frantic citizens. Men, women, and children crowded the alleys, senseless in their panic to flee the city. They carried all they could, packed into pouches slung across their chests and clutched in sweaty hands. Soldiers ran with them, as though they had all joined a macabre stadium footrace, with participants who clubbed and slashed at each other to get ahead. Beside her, one of the district’s tax collectors tripped and fumbled a latched wooden box. It cracked against the cobbled street and spilled its meager hoard of gold. The tax collector was dead before he hit the ground, and the Roman soldier pulled his sword from the man’s gut only to scrabble for the coins.

Ariella turned her head from the gore, but felt little pity for the tax man, cheated of life by the Romans for whom he had betrayed his people. Still, concern flickered in her chest at the sudden violence in the street.

Something has happened.

The city had been under siege for months. Three days ago her mother announced that the sacrifices in the Temple had ceased. But today, today was something new. Perhaps three days of sins not atoned for had brought the wrath of the Holy One down on them all.

Unlike those who ran the streets with her, Ariella’s destination was neither Temple nor countryside. She returned to her home—if the dim tenement could be called such—from another useless excursion to secure food.

At sixteen and as eldest child, it fell on her to search the famished city for a scrap of dried beef to feed her brother, perhaps a thimbleful of milk for the baby, crumbs for her father whose eyes had gone glassy and whose skin was now the color of the clay pots he once turned on the wheel.

But there was no food to be found. Titus, the emperor’s son, had arrived in the spring with his army of eighty thousand and his siege wall served well its double function—the people were trapped and they were starving.

Not even such a wall could prevent news from seeping through its cracks, however. From Caesarea, word escaped of twenty thousand Jews slaughtered in a day. Fifty thousand killed in Alexandria. Ten thousand met the sword in Gamla. Such numbers were incomprehensible.

Here in Jerusalem, the bodies thrown outside the city were too numerous to count, piled high in rotting mounds, as though the city itself were defiled and would forever be unclean.

Yet we are not all dead. Ariella’s hands curled into tense fists as she rounded the last corner. She would cling to life as long as she had strength, and like her untiring mother, she would hold tight to that elusive thread for each member of her family.

She pushed against the rough wood of the door and slipped out of the rush of the street. The home’s tomb-like interior had the peculiar smell of starvation. In the corner, her baby sister whimpered as if in response to Ariella’s entrance. Micah met her at the door, his sunken eyes fixed on her and his lips slightly open, as though anticipating the food she might have brought. Or perhaps he simply lacked the strength to close his jaw. She shook her head and Micah turned away, hiding his disappointment as all boys of eleven do when they are threatened by tears.

Her father did not speak from his mat on the floor. Ariella scooped the listless baby Hannah into her arms and gave her a finger to suck. Small consolation.

“Where is Mother?” She scanned the room, then looked to Micah. A low groan from her father set her heart pounding. “Where is she, Micah? Where has Mother gone?”

Micah sniffed and glanced at the door. “To the Temple. She has gone to the Temple.”

Ariella growled and pushed Hannah into her brother’s arms. “She is going to get herself killed, and then where will we be?”

She bent to her father’s side. The man had been strong once. Ariella could barely remember.  She touched the cool skin of his arm. “I will bring her back, Father. I promise.” Her father’s eyes sought her own, searching for reassurance. The hunger seemed to have stolen his voice. How long until it took his mind?

She turned on Micah, grabbed his shoulder. “Do not let anyone inside. The streets–” She looked to the door. “The streets are full of madness.”

He nodded, still cradling Hannah.

She kissed the baby. “Take care of them, Micah.” And then she left to retrieve her mother, whose political fervor often outpaced her common sense.

The mid-summer sun had dropped in the sky, an orange disc hazy and indistinct behind rising smoke. The city burns. She smelled it, sensed it, felt it somehow on her skin as she joined the flow toward the temple – a heat of destruction that threatened to consume them all.

Her family enjoyed the privilege of living in the shadow of the Temple Mount. A privilege that today only put them closer to folly. She twisted through the crazed mob, darted around wagons and pushcarts laden with family treasures, swatted at those who shoved against her. Already, only halfway there, her heart struck against her chest and her breathing shallowed, the weakness of slow starvation.

She reached the steps to the south of the Temple platform and was swept upward with the masses. Why were so many running to the Temple? Why had her mother?

And then she heard it. A sound that was part shrieking anger, part mournful lament, a screaming funeral dirge for the city and its people. She reached the top of the steps, pushed through the Huldah Gate, dashed under the colonnade into the Court of the Gentiles, and drew up short. The crowd pressed against her back, flowed around her and surged onward, but Ariella could not move.

The Temple is on fire.

The next moments blurred. She felt herself running, running toward the Temple as if she alone could avert this monstrous evil. Joining others who must have shared her delusion. She saw Roman legionaries club women and children, voices raised in a war cry. The yells of zealot rebels and the shrieks of those impaled by swords returned like an echo. The dead began to accumulate. Soldiers climbed heaps of bodies to chase those who fled. She tasted ashes and blood in the air, breathed the stench of burning flesh, and still some pushed forward.

She fought the smoke and blood, climbed the steps and entered the Court of Women. All around her, peaceful citizens were butchered where they stood. Ahead, a current of blood ran down the curved steps before the brass Nicanor Gate. The bodies of those who had been murdered at the top slipped to the bottom.

Ariella swayed on her feet at the carnage. That her mother was one of these dead she had no doubt. Elana’s outspoken defiance of Rome had earned her a reputation among her people, one that matched the meaning of her given name, torch.

She could go no farther. The entire Temple structure flamed now, from the Court of Israel to the Holy of Holies, its beauty and riches and sanctity defiled, raped by the Romans who even now risked their own flesh to steal its treasures.

A groan at her feet drew her attention, and she saw as if from a great distance that indeed her mother lay there, a bloody slash against her chest and a vicious purpling around her eyes. She lifted a hand, claw-like, to Ariella, who bent to kneel beside her and clasp her fingers.

Ariella had no words. What use to say good-bye, when they would all be in the same place soon?

Strange, she was very cold. With the flames so near and so fierce, still her fingers felt numb as she wrapped them around her mother’s hand.

Elana whispered only “Never forget…” before she was gone, and Ariella nodded because it was the expected thing to do. She studied her mother’s face, the eyes open and unseeing, and felt nothing. Was that right? Should she feel something?

After awhile she thought perhaps she should go home. She tried to stand, slipped in some blood that had pooled on the marble beneath her, and tried again.

The noise seemed far off now, though she could see the faces of citizens, mouths gaping as though they screamed in agony, and soldiers, feral lips drawn back over their teeth. But the sounds had somehow receded.

She weaved through the upright who still lived, stepped over the prone who had already passed, and drifted back to her house. Behind her, the Temple Mount was enveloped in flames, boiling over from its base, though there seemed to be even more blood than flames.

The stupor that had fallen over her at the Temple seemed to slough away as she traveled the streets. From open doorways she heard an occasional wail, but largely it was quiet. Too quiet. As though a river of violence had washed down the street while she’d been gone and swept away all that lived.

Her own street was not so peaceful. From end to end it burned.

She searched the crowd for her father, Micah, the baby. Grabbed hollow-eyed friends and wailing neighbors. One old woman shook her head and pointed a withered hand to the end of the burning street. “Only Micah.” She coughed. “Only he escaped.”

Micah. She called his name, but the word choked in her throat. Where would he have fled?

They had whispered together, one unseasonably warm night a few months ago on their roof, of running away from Jerusalem. Child’s talk, but now… Would he have tried to leave the city, to make it two hours south to family in Bethlehem?

Minutes later, she stumbled toward the Lower City. The Dung Gate would lead her south, to the valley of Hinnom and onward to Bethlehem. If she could escape.

Too many joined her. They would never be allowed to pass. She climbed crumbling steps to the rim of the city wall. Would she see a thread of refugees weaving out of Jerusalem, beyond the gates?

There was a procession of Jews, yes. But not on foot, fleeing to safety. On crosses, writhing in death throes. An endless line of them, crucified in absurd positions for the Romans’ entertainment, until they had run out of crosses, no doubt. Ariella gripped the wall. She would have retched had there been anything in her stomach.

She considered throwing herself from the wall. Was it high enough to guarantee her death? She would not want to die slowly on the ground, listening to the crucified.

The decision was made for her. From behind, a Roman soldier grabbed both her arms, laughing. She waited for the air in her face, for the spin of a freefall in her belly, that feeling she loved when her father rode the donkey cart too fast over the crest of a hill.

Instead, the soldier spun her to face him, shoved her to the stone floor, and fumbled at her tunic.

No, she was not going to die like that.

She exploded into a flailing of arms and legs, kicks and screams. She used her fingernails, used her teeth, used her knees.

From behind her head another soldier called. “That one’s a fighter, eh, Marcus?”

The soldier on top of her grunted.

“Better save her for the general. He wants the strong ones to sell off, you know.”

Ariella realized in that moment that since the siege began months ago, she had believed she would meet her death in the City of God. But as Jerusalem died without her, something far worse loomed in her future.

Life in the slave market of Rome.

 Chapter 1

 Rome
Nine years later

Night fell too soon, bringing its dark celebrations to the house of Valerius.

Ariella lingered at the fishpond in the center of the dusky atrium, slipping stale crusts to the hungry scorpion fish one tiny piece at a time. The brown and white striped creature snapped at its prey with precision, the venomous spines along its back bristling. 

The fish food ran out. There was no delaying the inevitable.

Let the debauchery begin.

Nine years a slave in this household, nine annual tributes to Dionysius. The Greek god, embraced by the Romans and renamed Bacchus, apparently demanded every sort of drunken vice performed in his honor. And Valerius would not disappoint the god.

Indeed, Valerius flaunted his association with the mystery sect, though its practice was frowned upon by the government and disdained by most citizens.

Ariella inhaled, trying to draw strength from the deadly fish her master kept as a pet. For we are both kept as such, aren’t we? The scorpion fish’s body swayed like a piece of debris, its disguise needless in its solitary enclosure.

Within an hour Valerius’s guests poured into the town house, sloshed up most of the wine she’d placed on low tables in the triclinium, and progressed to partaking of the extract of opium poppies, tended in red-tinged fields beyond the city. The sweet, pungent smoke hung like a smothering wool toga above their heads.

A traveling guild of actors somersaulted into the room, their lewd songs and costumes an affront to decency and a delight to the guests. Ariella lowered her eyes, embarrassment still finding her even after all she had endured, and cleared the toppled cups and soiled plates. She passed Valerius, sprawled on a gold-cushioned couch, and he rubbed a hand over her calf. Her muscles twitched like the flank of a horse irritated by a fly.

Her master’s high-pitched laugh floated above the general noise of the intoxicated. Ariella winced. Valerius performed tonight for his honored guest, another politician from the south somewhere.

“Perhaps we shall make a man of you yet, Maius.” Valerius waved his slender fingers at the larger man. “I shall take you out into the city and declare to all that you are one of us.”

The politician, Maius, reddened. Ariella leaned over him to refill his cup. Clearly, he was here to humor Valerius but not align himself with the vile man.

When the actors had twirled their final dance and claimed applause, the herd of guests took their revelry to the streets. Valerius dragged Ariella through the door, always his special companion this night. Her breath caught in her throat. It was not the streets she feared. It was what would come after.

Mother, why could I not be strong like you?

The insanity built to a crescendo as they wound their torch-lit way toward the Via Appia, where the procession would climax.  The Bacchanalians howled and pushed and tripped, their vacant eyes and laughing mouths like the painted frescoes of her nightmares. Hair disheveled, carrying blazing torches, they danced along the stones, uttered crazed predictions and contorted their bodies impossibly. Back in Jerusalem, her father would have said they had the demons in them. Here in Rome, Ariella rarely thought of such things.

It was enough to survive.

They passed a cluster of slaves, big men, most of them, herded into a circle amidst a few flaming torches. Strange time of day for a slave auction. Ariella met the eyes of a few, but their shared circumstance did not give them connection.

Snatches of speech reached her. A gladiator troupe. A lanista, the trainer for the troupe, called out numbers, making new purchases. A memory of home flashed, the day she had been sold to Valerius’s household manager. She had thought herself fortunate then, when so many others were sold off to entertain in the arena. Foolish child.

The unruly procession passed the men bound for death and Ariella’s gaze flitted through them. Did they feel the violent shortness of their lives press down on them? Before her stretched nothing but endless misery. Was their lot not preferable?

A muscled slave with the yellow hair of the west shifted and she glimpsed a face beyond him. Her blood turned to ice, then fire.

Micah?

She yanked away from Valerius’s sweaty grip. Stood on her toes to peer into the men.

Valerius pulled away from the raucous group, wrapped a thin arm around her waist, and brought his too-red lips to her ear. “Not growing shy after all these years, are we?” His baby-sweet voice sickened her.

She leaned away. Caught another look at the boy.

Turn your head. Look this way!

Valerius tugged her toward the road, but her feet had grown roots. I must be sure.

But then he turned, the boy about to be a gladiator, and she saw that it could not be Micah. He was too young, older than she remembered her brother but not old enough to be him. Though the resemblance was so strong perhaps he was a distant cousin, she knew he was not her brother. In fact, the boy looked more like her than Micah. If she were to cut her hair, she could pass for his twin.

She let Valerius pull her back to the procession, but the moment had shaken her. Memories she had thought dead turned out to be only buried, and their resurrection was a knife-blade of pain.

She sleepwalked through the rest of the procession, until their drunken steps took them to the caves on the Via Appia, dark spots on the grassy mounds along the road where greater abuses could be carried out without reprisals.

Valerius and his guest, Maius, were arguing.

Ariella forced her attention to the men, leaving off thoughts of Micah and home. It did not pay to be ignorant of Valerius’s moods.

“And you would sully the position you’ve been given by your dissolution!” Maius’s upper lip beaded with sweat and he poked a finger into Valerius’s chest.

Valerius swiped at the meaty finger. “At least I am not a coward! Running home to pretend to be something I am not.” 

“You think me a coward? Then you are a fool. I know how to hold on to power. Yours will wash away like so much spilled wine.”

Valerius cackled. “Power? Ah yes, you are a mighty man down there in your holiday town by the sea. I daresay you couldn’t put a sword to a thief if he threatened your family!”

Ariella took a step backward. Valerius misjudged Maius, she could see. The man’s eyes held a coldness that only came of cruelty.

Before Valerius could react, Maius had unsheathed a small dagger from his belt. He grabbed for a nearby slave, one of Valerius’s special boys, wrapped a meaty arm around his forehead, and in one quick move, sliced the slave’s neck. He let the boy fall. Valerius screeched.

“There.” Maius tossed the dagger at the smaller senator’s feet and glared. “I owe you for one slave. But perhaps now you will keep your pretty mouth shut!”

“What have you done?” Valerius bent to the boy and clutched at his bloody tunic. “Not Julius! Not this one!”

The moon had risen while they marched, and now it shone down on them all, most of the guests taken with their own lustful pursuits and senseless to the drama between the two men. Ariella traced the path of moonlight down to her feet, to the glint of iron in the dirt. Maius’s dagger.

She had not held a weapon for many years. Without thought she bent and retrieved it. Held it to her side, against the loose fabric of her robe.

She could not say when the idea first planted itself in her mind. Perhaps it had been back in the city when she had seen the boy who was not Micah. Perhaps it only sprang to life at this moment. Regardless, she knew what she would do.

She would not return to Valerius’s house. Not participate once more, behind closed doors, in the mystery rites that had stolen her soul. Her nine years of torture had come to an end.

No one called out, no one pursued. She simply slipped away, into the weedy fields along the Via Appia, back to the city, the dagger hidden under her robe. She unwrapped the fabric sash at her waist and wound it around her hair. A few quiet questions and she found the yard where the newly-purchased gladiators awaited their assignment. A little flirtation with the loutish guard at the gate, enough to convince him that she was one of the many Roman women obsessed with the fighters, and he let her in with a wicked grin.

She found the boy within moments. His eyes widened as though she were his first opponent. She pulled him to the shadows, to the catcalls of his fellow fighters.

The dagger was steady in her hand and sharp enough to slice through large hanks of hair. The boy watched, wide-eyed, as she disrobed in front of him, modesty ignored.

He was young enough to easily convince.

Within minutes she had donned his leathers and taken his place on the ground with the other fighters. The boy stumbled across the yard, awkward in his new robes and headscarf.

It was done.

Elana would be proud.

Chapter 2

Pompeii
June, 79 AD

In the protective embrace of Mother Vesuvius, the city of Pompeii flourished like a well-fed child, glorying in the wealth that was Rome, and offering one of the Empire’s ex-politicians an excellent place to hide.

Cato waited in the cobbled street outside his newly-purchased wine shop, shielding his eyes against the fiery morning sun. The expected delivery of new amphorae should have arrived by dawn. Already carts rattled over familiar ruts in the center of the street, and shoppers hummed along the raised sidewalks, making purchases and trading gossip. But no sign of his delivery. He shook his head at the inefficiency, then shrugged.

Relax, Cato. It’s a vacation town, remember?

The flaking red paint on the wooden sign outside the shop touted the former owner’s skills. Cato scraped at it, adding repaint the sign to his unending mental list of tasks.

Back inside the shop, he blinked to adjust to the dim light. His only employee, Remus, clucked his tongue over the rows of dusty amphorae that leaned against the stone wall and held up a dingy rag. “Not getting clean, master. Not getting clean.”

Cato had reminded Remus not to call him “master” a dozen times since hiring him last week, but as a former slave, the man couldn’t seem to break the habit.

“So we’ll have a pot-breaking holiday after we get the wine into the new amphorae, Remus.” He grinned. “Anyone whose head you’d like to invite to the event?”

Remus waved a rag in Cato’s direction and shook his head, as though refusing to be baited. “I’m at peace with the world, master. At peace with the world.”

I should be so fortunate.

In truth, the orderly rows of tan pots, balanced on their pointed ends and leaning against the walls of the shop or resting above in wooden cradles, pleased Cato very much, in spite of the accumulated grime from months of neglect. He had acquired the shop, the vineyard on the outskirts of town, and the home of the former owner all at a good price, and planned to make a success of the whole enterprise in short order. In the weeks of transition from Rome to Pompeii he had concentrated on the success ahead, and refused to acknowledge the failure behind.

He ran a finger over the dusty terracotta. “Forget the pots, Remus. Let’s get the rest of the place clean before the crowds start trampling us down.”

Remus snickered. “Grand plans you have for the place, master.”

Cato crossed the shop and slapped Remus on the shoulder. “That’s the only way to move forward, my friend. Plan for success.” He turned to the filthy shop before Remus could see the uncertainty in his eyes. Uncertainty and perhaps not a little desperation.

A voice from the doorway filled the shop, and Cato imagined the pots rattled on their shelves. “Making good progress, I see.”

He laughed at the sarcasm. “Be careful, Mother, or I’ll put a rag in your hand.”

She huffed. “I agreed to follow you to Pompeii for the weather, remember? You’ll not find me scrubbing floors on my knees, no matter how anxious you are to make this mad idea work.”

With the light of the morning behind her, Octavia could have passed for a woman half her age. Still stunning, with dark hair falling in waves around delicate features that belied her inner strength, she had left behind a list of potential suitors in Rome–crestfallen noblemen, heartbroken that Rome’s most recent widow wasn’t interested in aligning herself with a new house. Cato observed her for a moment, grateful she had agreed to come–and to bring his youngest sister with her.

“Why are you staring at me, you silly boy?” She swept into the shop, holding her shining white stola around her, as though she could protect it from the grime. The red sash at her waist and the clustered emeralds at her throat seemed as out of place as a long-stemmed rose tossed into a trash heap.

“Just wondering what a woman of your advanced age is doing out of the house at such an early hour.”

Octavia’s gaze would have cut down a lesser man, but Cato laughed, kissed the top of her head, and answered his own question. “Looking beautiful, as always.”

She sighed. “Why are we here, Quintus?”

Behind him, Remus chuckled. Since learning Cato’s praenomen, he had seemed to find it amusing that this eldest son had been given the name of “fifth.” There was, of course, a story that accompanied the name, but it was one Cato had not bothered to tell.

Cato ignored his mother’s question as to why they had come. She knew the answer. And rehearsing it would challenge his optimism, already stretched taut.

“The shop will be cleaned up soon enough.” He surveyed the red and gold frescoed walls hidden beneath their layer of soot. “And then it will be a grand success.”

Octavia sniffed, as though the odor of failure lingered around the shop and even around Cato himself, overwhelming her own perfume. “You could have had grand success in Rome.”

Cato forced a smile and turned away. “Ah, well. They will have to struggle along without me, I suppose.”

She sighed again. “At least tell me you will find a wife here. There are many good families with holiday villas–”

“Ha! Between you and Isabella, I am surrounded by women! Why, by all the gods, would I want to acquire another?” He pulled a small wooden box from under the front counter and dug through the paltry supply of coins, readying the payment for the new amphorae. A twinge of concern bloomed in his chest. The purchase of shop and fields and home had all but annihilated the family fortune, and there was little left for building the business. Along with his list of tasks, the list of costs was also lengthening. Would there be enough? He slammed the lid on the money box and clenched his fist around the coins. There must be.

As though his heart were the fertile black soil of his vineyard, the determination to thrive here had taken root inside him like a stubborn vine, curling around his heart, drawing nourishment from the pain of the past, longing to bear fruit.

He turned back to Octavia. “Don’t worry, Mother. Portia is sure to give you all the grandchildren your arms can hold.”

The marble of his mother’s stately features seemed to quiver and she dropped her eyes. Cursing his mistake, he set the coins on the counter, crossed to where Octavia stood in the center of the shop, and gripped her arms. “She still believes she cannot conceive?” Cato’s eldest sister had been a resident of Pompeii for five years before them, after meeting Lucius while vacationing here and marrying him in what seemed an instant. The two were exceedingly in love–and still childless.

Octavia glanced at Remus, as though reluctant to share family secrets in front of the help. As if on cue, Remus began whistling a tune, a bawdy melody straight out of the taverns. Octavia’s eyes returned to Cato and glistened. “She despairs. As do I.”

He patted her arm. “The gods will smile, Mother. Portia is a good woman.”

She turned away and straightened the folds of her stola.

Cato went to the doorway again, still looking for his overdue delivery. The sea-tinged air was already heavy with the coming heat of the day, and the cloth awning jutting from his shop did little to relieve it. The shoppers that pushed past him seemed damp and harried.

His was only one of the busy streets that criss-crossed Pompeii in a grid that held both shops and homes, some little more than huts and others with doors opening to grand villas. The city moved with surprising intensity, even in these early summer months when the vacationers were fewer, choosing to remain in Rome while the weather was pleasant.

Unlike Octavia, he had not come to Pompeii for the weather, but he meant to enjoy it nonetheless. In truth, he meant to enjoy everything about his new life.

A familiar figure moved toward him from across the street. Not his delivery, but just as welcome. He waved at Isabella and could see his youngest sister brighten, even from this distance. She skipped across the three large stepping stones, placed to raise pedestrians out of the daily rush of water that cleaned the streets, and continued toward him on his side. He lost sight of her amidst the other shoppers, but her wide eyes and big smile soon reappeared. At fourteen, she was becoming a woman. This she should not know.

 He leaned forward as if to kiss her cheek, but pinched her side instead and waited for her reaction.

“Quintus!” She slapped his arm. “I came to save you from Mother, and that’s how you repay me?”

He laughed. “Not even your wisdom could convince Mother that my plans are worthy, I’m afraid.”

“Hmmm. She was complaining before she even left the villa.”

Cato pulled his sister into the shop, and didn’t miss the way she lifted her own stola off the dirty floor. She was her mother’s daughter, after all. Octavia raised her eyebrows at Isabella, and they seemed to share a common opinion.

“I thought you were planning to open soon.” Isabella scowled. “This place is disastrous.”

Cato shrugged. “We’re using that as a selling point.” He spread his hands to the room. “’Our wine is so good, even the shop is aged.”

Isabella rolled her eyes, not amused. “Seriously, Quintus, who is going to come – “

“It was a good price, sister. Bargains come with drawbacks. Nothing we can’t fix.”

Behind them, Remus cursed suddenly, and the expletive was followed by the sound of smashing pottery. Cato whirled, in time to see the line of amphorae balanced on their pointed ends going down like wheat falling beneath a scythe.

“Remus!” He dove for the jars, but Remus was already there, down on one knee with his hands thrust forward to catch the next one. He righted it before it could take down another, then sat back on his heels. Six terracotta jars lay cracked on the floor, their blood-red contents leaking or surging from cracks of varying widths.

Cato grabbed two with slow leaks and balanced them against the wall before they could contribute to the mess. The rest were already empty.

“Master, I–” Remus’s voice caught. Was the man near to tears?

“An accident, Remus!” He placed a hand on the man’s shoulder. “I suppose you were just getting started on our pot-breaking, eh?”

“But the wine, master–”

“Saturninus’s wine wasn’t very good, anyway, and we both know it. No doubt why he went out of business.” He stepped across the widening puddle. “Perhaps it will do more good washing away the grime of the floor!”

Octavia and Isabella had backed away to the doorway, and Cato didn’t need to look at the two women in his life to know what they were thinking.

He and Remus set to work cleaning up the spilled wine and cracked pottery with the women looking on. “Saturninus didn’t go out of business because of the quality of his wine, master.”

“He must have been a poor businessman, then, for he was certainly bankrupt.”

Remus knelt to sop up the wine with a rag. “Yes. But driven there. Driven to bankruptcy by the crook who owns half the city and controls the other. Gnaeus Nigidius Maius.”

“The duovir. He had heard the politician’s name muttered a few times by disgruntled citizens, but knew nothing more of the elected official.

“Don’t let the position fool you. The city is united in its hatred for him. He would sell his mother for a vote, and when Saturninus refused to give him a take of the shop’s profits, Maius destroyed him. That’s why you were able to buy everything the man owned for a sestertius on every aureus.”

Cato straightened, two shards of pottery in his hands. “Maius forced him out of business?”

“Indeed. The man’s a–”

Remus’s sentence hung unfinished as the doorway darkened, and Cato looked up, still expecting his delivery. His mother and sister turned, and seemed dwarfed by the bulk of the man who filled the frame.

“Please, finish.” The large man dipped his head toward Remus. “You have me so curious.”

Cato looked from the stylish visitor to the cowering Remus, and instinct told him that this was the man himself.

Gnaeus Nigidius Maius. Enemy of the people.

 Chapter 3

 The journey from Napoli to the foot of the beautiful mountain had taken half the day, and Ariella was footsore and thirsty by the time Drusus called a halt to the forced march. She waited for instructions, hoping they would be allowed to rest.

The mountain–Vesuvius, they called it–had loomed to the south of the troupe when they left Napoli, looming larger until they traveled the narrow channel of land between the mountain to the east and the sea to the west. Now it was behind them, with the sun beginning to fall toward its pointed peak.

Drusus declared that they were only an hour out from Pompeii. “But we will camp here, and enter the city tomorrow.” A cheer went up from the troupe, as though tomorrow’s arrival would be a triumphant procession of honored soldiers returning from victory, rather than a column of ragtag gladiators hauled in to entertain the masses with their blood.

Drusus directed the slaves that accompanied them to begin setting up camp alongside the road. To the troupe, he called out sharp instructions. “Take some water, men.” He pointed to an open area beside the road, bordered on one side by a grove of trees. “We begin practice shortly.”

The collective groan was more subdued than the cheer had been, for good reason. Drusus was a harsh master, and reluctance to train only resulted in more of it.

One of the other gladiators, Celadus, nudged Ariella. “You’d better get some water, Ari. You’re not looking well.” Celadus was a bear of a Roman with his front teeth missing, but usually kind.

Another fighter chuckled without mercy. “These young boys are more likely to fall between cities than in the amphitheatre. I don’t know why Drusus keeps buying them.”

Ariella lowered her chin to hide the flash of anger in her eyes. It was difficult enough to masquerade as a young man, but to be seen as weak infuriated her. She beat back her exhaustion and shrugged. “I’ll outlast you in the arena, Paris. Larger is not always better, you know.”

“Hah!” Paris, the Greek favorite, was as chiseled as one of his forefathers’ statues, but his grin held ugly animosity. “Perhaps not against animals. Wait until you face a real opponent.”

Celadus passed a water skin to Ariella, saving her from a reply.

The afternoon sun hammered down on her head, making her grateful she had chopped her hair off at the neck weeks earlier. With no head covering, her usual mane of thick hair would have been like a heavy blanket in the Junius heat.

Is the month still Junius? The thought wandered through her exhausted mind as she swigged from the water skin. She had lost track, which she found both bothersome and somewhat terrifying. As though she were leaving parts of herself along the sides of the road, including her awareness of time.

All too soon, Drusus called an end to the break and instructed the men to begin drills. Each of them went to the equipment wagon and sought out their personal training weapons. Ariella’s wooden sword, the traditional rudis, was blackened and dented already, even though it had only been three weeks since she had disguised herself, escaped Rome and Valerius and all that made life unbearable, and fallen in with this gladiator troupe.

She secured leather straps around her left hand and turned with her rudis, waiting to be partnered for the drills. The three weeks had passed in a blur of dogged determination to survive, alternating with periods of fatigue so severe, she had to call up angry memories of both the distant and immediate past to find the strength to continue.

And today would be no different. She would fight, and she would survive. As she always had.

But for how long?

“Ari, you’re with Celadus,” the trainer called out.

She gave Celadus a half-smile, and he rolled his eyes in mock disgust. “Not again.” He spoke so only she could hear it. Drusus had been pairing them often, though Celadus was much bigger. An apparent effort to “broaden the boy’s shoulders,” as he said, eyeing Ariella with dissatisfaction.

She and Celadus found an open space in the grass among the other twenty-nine pairs and squared off. “You’re never going to fight anyone but the animals and the little men,” Celadus called to her, in the time-honored insults of gladiator training. She was expected to return with angering words for him, to get the blood boiling, but her thoughts were fuzzy today, and even her vision seemed to blur with weariness.

She raised her arm, though. Raised her wooden rudis above her head, and ran at Celadus with a snarl of defiance, as much toward her own fatigue and doubts as toward Celadus and his taunts.

Their battered swords clacked together with the artificial smack of dull wood, and Celadus laughed, revealing the wide gap in his smile, and pulled back to reposition. “Like an angry little dog kicked too many times by a cruel master.”

More truth to that than you realize.

They sparred for what seemed hours, but Ariella did not back down. Even when she saw the beige tents go up nearby and imagined falling into one and sleeping until autumn. Her short tunic grew damp with sweat and dingy with kicked-up dust, and the collective odor of the men hung heavy over the field. Her sword felt weighted in her hand, and the grunts and calls of the fighters muddled together.

Would that I had an arm of iron rather than flesh. But still she did not yield.

It was not until the mountain loomed purple to the southwest, with the sun hiding behind it, that Drusus called an end to the drills. For the rest of the troupe, the declaration brought relief. For Ariella, the true challenge had just begun.

To be a woman disguised as a man, in a group of sixty-five men, presented difficulties that far outweighed those of the training–or even her single experience of combat in Napoli, when Drusus had put her in the ring with first a wild boar and then an ibex. Those fights had been only for show. She had not been expected to kill either of the beasts, only to provide a prelude of entertainment before the real fighters flooded into the arena. But the battle she would face in the remaining hours of daylight today, and even beyond, was not for show.

It was life or death.

She trudged to the blazing campfire with the others, passed the equipment wagon and secured her sword. The five slaves that traveled with the troupe were already passing out plates of spicy  meat and bread, and the men fell around the large fire and dug into the food. Ariella took her meat, then pulled away from the crowd and found a lonely spot in the scratchy grass. Her stomach heaved with physical and emotional unrest, but she forced the food down for the sake of her strength.

She watched the gang of men wolf down their meal. Most of these Gentiles were indeed wolves. If they discovered that she was not a slightly built young man, but a woman–she shuddered to think of the outcome. They were a long way from Rome and its laws, and even there, women were not so protected that men did not take advantage.

But even life as an effeminate young man, among older, well-muscled men who had long been far from women, presented challenges. There were a number of them who would not be put off by her gender, even believing she was a man. She was on guard always—slept with muscles tensed, ate with only one eye on her food, and when she slipped into the woods to attend to hygiene she walked nearly backwards to be certain she was not followed.

She shrugged to herself. In her twenty-five years she had survived worse, first in Jerusalem and then in Rome. She would survive this. Perhaps her arm could not be made of iron, but her heart had long been smelted into something harder than flesh and blood.

No doubts allowed.

And what better place to hide from Valerius? Though he must be scouring the Roman countryside for her, he would never to think to look in the center of a gladiator troupe.

The meal ended as quickly as it begun. The fighters tossed their greasy plates at the waiting servants, and began to prepare for much-needed sleep. Ariella returned her own plate to the pile and eyed the nearby verdant grove of trees. She needed to disappear there and attend to personal matters, then find a way to change her clothing without being observed in the tent she shared with five other men, and finally to settle into a night of half-sleep before marching into Pompeii. Such had been the past three weeks. Tonight was no different, she told herself.

And she refused to listen to the small voice that told her that perhaps she was not as invincible as she believed.

© Copyright Tracy L. Higley