‘C’mon, Bruna, wake up!’
We’d been practising for fifteen minutes now and I wanted a break. My breath was rasping through my lungs in shorter and shorter gasps. Blood thrummed around my system as my superfit opponent exerted every gram of his formidable strength against me. I was more skilled and agile than him which was, thank the gods, more important.
‘Screw you, Livius.’ I jumped over the chain right into his field of contact and slashed at his arm. He nearly drew away in time. I left a short, red gash on his forearm which leaked slow droplets. I brought my short sword around before he could recover, feinted right in his face, jerked the chain, thrusting my foot out at the same time and tripped him up. As he hit the ground, he found the tip of my sword pressed against his larynx. He dropped his weapon and opened his arms, laying them on the ground, the palms of his hands upwards in a signal of surrender. He grinned up at me as he lay there, his blond curls dishevelled but his pale eyes laughing. Even defeated, his good humour didn’t fail. No wonder women fell for him.
I sheathed my sword and held my right hand out to him. I saw the measuring look in his eye.
‘Don’t even think about it,’ I said. He sat up, studied the ground for a few seconds and chuckled to himself. He sprang to his feet, giving me my hand back, all in one graceful movement. His tall frame hadn’t filled out a millimetre since we’d met on that first training exercise fourteen years ago. He still towered over me and I knew how crazy I’d been to accept him as my opponent. Small wonder I was still trying to catch my breath.
Lined up after a light lunch and the gods knew how much water, we occupied two sides of a cleared area, ready to start our skills demonstration. I noticed a couple of empty chairs between the exercise commander and the Latin speaker, Browning. Were they expecting guests? I sighed. Sometimes I felt we were like a circus, parading our Roman-ness, satisfying some half-baked nostalgia based on epic movies. Some clown had even wanted us to stage a mock battle against one of the Roman re-enactment groups. They forgot that while we were proud of our history, we were a forward- looking 21st century country.
Flavius got it all underway, with pairs demonstrating sword skills. Not practised these days outside the professional games arena except by the military, training with a sharp, double-edged fifty centimetre carbon steel blade tended to concentrate the mind as well as honing reaction skills. Not mandatory – we used state of the art weaponry as normal – but all members of the unit were encouraged to become proficient with a gladius, if only to get used to close physical combat with an opponent. If you got cut, you got cut, then chewed out for being careless. Contrary to popular belief, the Roman short sword was more than fine for cutting and chopping motions as well as for thrusting. Not much had changed in shape since the Pompeii pattern used in the fourth century which had been spectacularly successful.
After a while, Flavius invited the Brits to come forward to try it out. His opposite number, Johnson, and around a dozen of them did well despite their unfamiliarity with the weapon. After watching for a few minutes, I nodded to Paula and we left them to it.
In my tent, I got kitted up with Paula’s help. I stripped off my fatigues jacket, leaving my black t-shirt and donned the thin leather undershirt, lined with Kevlar fabric. I changed into my studded leather arena boots, bound my plaited red-gold hair up on top of my head. Paula clipped a leather-and-mail protective band around my neck.
‘You okay, Bruna? You seem a bit quiet.’
‘Sorry, just thinking about a strange feeling I got this morning. I was outside the showers and I got a distinct feeling of being watched.’
‘Some perv wanting an eyeful?’ she smirked. Her brown eyes reflected cynical humour.
‘No,’ I smiled back, lifting my arms for the chain mail lorica she was slipping over my undershirt. ‘More than that. I got a definite tingle of danger.’
‘Not that young officer Allia stuck her needle into? He was pretty pissed about it.’
‘I don’t think so. No, something bigger.’ I shook my head to get rid of the thought as I buckled the wide leather belt she’d handed me. She fastened the leather Kevlar-lined lower arm guards and I was ready.
As we got back to the edge of the clearing, they’d just finished demonstrating the cuneum formate, a shock tactic in the form of a wedge. Like a treble-sized sabre-toothed tiger coming at you; incredibly scary if you were on the receiving end of it.
The next thing I saw was that the two empty chairs were now occupied; a slim junior officer, sitting upright and formal, and next to her, the legate.
What in Hades was he doing here? And why had he brought the ghastly Stella?