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Excerpt: Blood of a Gladiator

Book 1: Leonidas the Gladiator Mysteries

Rome, AD 62

The roar from thousands of throats in the Circus Gai rose like a bulwark. I closed my eyes and leaned into the noise, as if the strength of the sound would hold up my exhausted body.


They chanted my name as sand burned my bare feet, my skin not cooled by its rivers of sweat. Equally sodden was the loincloth that hung from my hips and the padded arm guard that reached from shoulder to wrist. My chest, back, and thighs were bared to the December sun, my head covered with a bronze helmet that trapped the heat. The grill of the helmet’s eyeholes allowed me a slice of the arena and no more.

But I could hear, and the cries of the men and women who’d come to the Saturnalian games grew wilder by the moment.

In the embrace of my left arm was a gladiator, a provacatur called Regulus, the secundus palus of our ludus. I was primus. “Regulus” was no more his real name than “Leonidas the Spartan” was mine, and I counted Regulus a friend.

The point of my secutor rested on Regulus’s throat. I waited, eyes closed, chest burning, for the signal that would either save Regulus’s life or tell me to drive the sword home. I smelled blood—from the animals hunted earlier in the day, the humans who’d been executed for their crimes, to the gladiators in the last fights of the afternoon, some wounded, a few dead.

The crowd did not urge me to make the kill—iugula! Nor did they scream for mercy—mitte! They were simply shouting, bellowing their cheers for Leonidas, the greatest gladiator in the Empire.

In the box of the princeps, the curly-haired, lyre-playing, actor-in-training, mother-killing Nero basked in the entertainment. As he’d sponsored the games today, he would be the one to decide what should be done with Regulus.

“Do it!” Regulus’s voice came from the level of my knees. “Kill me now. Before he chooses.”

Regulus wanted to die. He’d told me this last night, at the meal given in the gladiators’ honor. I’d eaten token pieces of meat, barely able to stomach them—I usually existed on lentils, barley, and the best greens money could buy. But those who attended the cena libera to watch our last supper wanted to see us eat flesh, like the beasts we were supposed to be.

Regulus had taken me aside after the meal. “This is my last fight, my friend.” His brown eyes had held an emptiness I sometimes saw in my own. “If I draw you, I won’t be easy on you, but I ask you to make the kill clean. Let me go with honor.”

He was tired of the life. I understood. Choosing the day of his death would let him go in some kind of peace.

I’d nodded in agreement, hating the reluctance in my heart. Now, I should honor Regulus’s request, but as my sword hovered at his throat, my hand shook and would not obey.

No more death. The words trickled through my head, as though whispered by someone outside me. A god perhaps, or the spirit of one of the creatures dead this day. I was finished with killing, finished with watching men I’d grown close to die on the sand.

Regulus was my only friend left. The others had either joined their ancestors, like Xerxes, who’d been closer than a brother, or were struggling to survive in some far corner of the empire. I barely knew the tiros, the raw young gladiators who gazed at me with both admiration and the determination to topple me.

One quick, smooth thrust would end Regulus’s life. His blood would gush over my hand and splatter my bare feet, and Regulus would be gone, his body an empty shell.

“Now!” Regulus commanded. “Hurry, you bastard.”

A faint sound came on my right. Half-blind in the helmet, I had to turn my entire head to find the source, but it was only the bulky figure of the referee in a plain tunic stepping up to us.

The man cleared his throat. “Caesar has made his decision.”

I could not stop my glance at the box, but the princeps made no signal, only watched. I couldn’t see him well at this distance, but I swore the man’s face held a smile.

The referee pitched his voice to be heard through the noise. “His command is for you to decide, Leonidas. Kill Regulus or show him mercy for a good fight.”

Rage washed over me. I was no murderer—I killed because I was ordered to. I was a weapon, pointed at another gladiator in the ring for entertainment, or at brigands when I was hired out for guard duty. 

Regulus wanted me to make the kill. Nero, with his bloodthirsty reputation, probably did too. 

No more death.

Regulus let out a breath of relief. “Make it quick, old friend.”

The tip of my blade remained unmoving on his skin. I should want to help Regulus die as he wished, to free him from this life.

Then he’d be gone, added to a long line of men I’d known, liked, admired, fought with, drank with, celebrated with. Another loss after so much already.

“Leonidas?” Regulus sounded worried. “What are you waiting for?”

It would be so easy. One push, and Regulus would drop at my feet, dead. At rest with the gods.

I would remain, alone, undefeated, lying in my cell to stare at the ceiling and the crude erotic sketches Xerxes had made there as a joke.

I withdrew my sword from Regulus’s throat. I held it high while the spectators screamed their anticipation of whatever it was I’d do. 

I hauled Regulus to his feet. He was bleeding from stabs I’d landed on his gut and shoulders, but none were lethal. I too bled from his sword cuts on my chest, thighs, and stomach, but the wounds wouldn’t kill me if they didn’t take sick. We had the best medicus in the world to make sure they didn’t.

“What are you doing?” Regulus bellowed at me, his cry lost in the din of the crowd.

“Making you a champion.”

I took hold of Regulus’s left fist and raised his hand high. I pulled off my helmet and turned us slowly around, forcing Regulus to move, displaying myself—the primus palus, the champion—and Regulus, my equal in the fight. 

I spared him, I was telling them, because he’d fought valiantly and lost only by ill luck.

“You prick,” Regulus snarled. “You bloody prick. I’ll kill you for this.”

His rage cut through the delirious screams of approval, but I didn’t waver. Regulus might hate me, and he might kill me, but he’d be alive to do it.

The crowd wasn’t finished, but I was. Still holding Regulus by the wrist, I started for the edge of the arena, and the opening to the cells. This was the last game of the day, and we’d have our wounds tended before returning to our ludus not far from here. There we’d celebrate victories and make toasts to the dead.

Regulus froze in sudden shock, pulling me to a halt next to him. “Hades.” 

Three men strode toward us, two in tunics with cloaks, one in a toga. I didn’t recognize them—they hadn’t come to watch us train or negotiate our price for the games. The threesome proceeded solemnly, one toga-less man carrying an object on a square wooden platform.

I waited, wiping sweat from my shaved head, my heart hammering.

I’d seen a procession like this only twice before. First, the day I’d survived my virgin match, young and terrified, surprised to find myself alive at the end of it. The veteran I’d lost to had been honored thus. He’d beaten me by a slim chance, and my life had been spared because I’d fought skillfully and valiantly. The gladiator, who’d been about thirty summers, had wept when he’d beheld those heading for him.

The second time, the man they’d come for had been half-dead of his wounds, but still standing. He’d been carried from the ring, leaving me to become primus palus in his stead.

“I don’t believe it.” Regulus glared at the men and then me. “Why didn’t you kill me, you stupid bastard?”

I didn’t bother to speculate that the procession might be for Regulus. I knew it was not. They came for me.

They reached us, none of the three looking happy with their task. The lead man in the toga, whoever he was—senator, praetor—turned and faced the crowd. The one next to him, his tunic and cloak showing him to be of the Equestrian, or middle class, began a loud oration while the togaed man remained silent—a highborn gentleman would never waste his voice on the populous of Rome.

I paid little attention to the words that flowed around me, standard phrases praising the gods and the princeps. 

At the end of the speech, the man who carried the platform lifted what was on it and held it out to me.

The crowd’s approval rose to blot out all other sound. The noise snaked into my head, kicking up the pain already there. Regulus cursed again, long and hard, his hatred of me clear.

Paralyzed, I stared at the wooden sword, offered hilt first.

The rudis, in the shape of a gladiator’s short sword. A reward for a life spent in the games. I recognized the letters of my own name carved into the blade, the only word I could read. The rudis meant release.


I couldn’t move. The man with the sword glared at me impatiently, his distaste evident. He didn’t like gladiators, his stance proclaimed, and he didn’t want to touch one. 

Many believed the blood of a gladiator cured illness. People had crowded today to the place where the dead fighters had been carried, jamming forward to dip cloths or even bare fingers into the gladiators’ still-flowing blood. They’d take it home and store it for when it was needed.

This man didn’t want anything to do with my blood, or me. But at last he had to shake my bronze sword from my hand, and shove the wooden one into my grip.

Regulus wrenched himself from me, not gently. The sting of his rage was a distant pain, receding behind the buzzing in my head. 

I lifted my arm, the wooden sword strangely light after the heavy weapons I’d wielded this day. I heard my name pouring from the crowd, shouts of joy.

I should share the joy, but at the moment my arm ached and my fingers were lifeless. I turned in a circle, holding aloft the symbol of my freedom, without any sense that the freedom was real.

Nothing was real but the hot sand and my friend’s hatred. The noise rolled on, but the heat and blinding light from the arena floor blotted out all but the bite of wood against my palm.

* * *

I didn’t regain awareness until I tried to retire to my cell in the ludus that night. I’d been tended to and bandaged by Nonus Marcianus, the talented medicus who kept the gladiators alive to fight another day. After that came wine in great quantities, bestowed upon us by our lanista to celebrate the survivors and my new-won freedom.

I drank and drank until I brought up the wine again, disgusting sweet grapes gone to death in the corner of the training grounds. My hand stayed around the sword as I vomited, I clenching the thing as though my freedom would evaporate if I let it go.

Once I was finished being sick, I decided I’d sleep first and then visit Lucia, on whose narrow pallet in the Subura I forgot about death, life, and pretty much everything else. I’d rest until I could better navigate the streets of Rome. 

Regulus was in my cell, lying on my bed. He didn’t bother to get up.

“Mine now, my friend,” he said to the ceiling, eyeing Xerxes’s drawings.

“Then where do I sleep?” My tongue was heavy, drink dulling my wits.

“No one cares.” Regulus slung his arm over his eyes. “You don’t belong here anymore. Go away, Leonidas.”

I felt a presence behind me and turned to the hard bulk of Aemilianus, our lanista. 

“Stay if you want.” Aemil’s scarred face, as usual, held little emotion. “I can use you to train the others.”

“No.” My answer was instant. “No more death.”

Aemil simply looked at me. As lanista, he had to herd forty gladiators through training every day and keep them confined and out of trouble. If anyone wanted to hire us as fighters in the games, or for exhibitions, or as bodyguards, they went to Aemilianus. A former gladiator himself, he knew exactly how to tame us, and one of those ways was to rein in his own emotions.

“You’ll be back,” he predicted.

“No.” I set my body stubbornly, at least as much as my drunken swaying allowed.

Regulus, on the pallet, lifted his arm. “He means, idiot, you either stay and work for him or get out. I’m primus palus now. I don’t want you here, so go.”

“I’m sorry.” My tongue, not gifted at the best of times, could not explain why I’d spared him. But Regulus was alive. He had a chance. I didn’t regret the decision.

“Hercules strike you down.” Regulus slumped back to the bed, arm shielding his face again. “I hope he does.”

Aemil continued to watch me from his mismatched Gallic eyes, one blue, one green-brown. “Are you staying?” 

I shook my head. Regretted the shake, as the world spun. 

“The gate is open for you.” Aemil gave me a nod, a dismissal. “Godspeed, Leonidas.”

I’d lived in this ludus for seven years, well beyond the sentence given to me for a crime everyone believed I’d committed. A life in the games was an almost certain death. Only the gods had assured it hadn’t happened to me.

I stumbled out of the line of cells to the gate, the sword’s wooden hilt driving slivers into my hand. I still couldn’t release the thing.

The guard at the gate, a man I’d known for years, said good-bye to me as I walked out. The gate creaked closed behind me, the only noise in the silence. 

Graffiti on the wall outside showed a crudely sketched figure with too-long legs and an optimistic phallus, my sword raised while I destroyed a retiarius. The letters beneath the figure spelled my name in crooked capitals.

The click of the gate held finality. Leonidas “The Spartan,” was no longer a gladiator, adored by crowds in the arena.

I was free, homeless, and alone in the Roman night.

* * *

I went to Lucia. She lived in a house with seven other ladies in the Subura, run by a lean woman called Floriana. They were used to me there, coming and going when I pleased, with Aemil’s blessing.

Lucia had a soft body, a wide smile, and eyes that could be kind. Her hair was dyed red, which made it brittle, but some customers liked a woman to resemble the barbarians of the north. 

I was tired, drunk, and bewildered. I said nothing at all, only took Lucia to her cubicle and drove into her like a man drowning.

I woke alone, with my hand fast around the wooden sword. I hadn’t let it go, even when I’d coupled with Lucia on the low bed, using the thing as a brace on the floor.

Lucia was gone. Sunlight stabbed into my eyes from a crack in the wall—no windows for Lucia. My hand ached but I could not make myself open it and set the rudis aside. 


The voice belonged to Floriana, scratchy and thin, like the rest of her. Very black hair curled around her sharp face.

“Bring me breakfast,” I said. My head ached like fury, and I wasn’t happy to be alone. Lucia usually stayed with me until I was ready to leave.

“Do you have the coin for it?” Floriana demanded. “And for Lucia?”

I rolled over. I wore nothing, but Floriana, who had seen any number of males with all sorts of bodies, didn’t blink.

“Coin?” I asked muzzily.

Floriana folded her arms. “You’re a freedman. Means your masters don’t fund your meals and your women anymore. I need paying.”

She had a point, one I hadn’t given a thought to. Aemil had paid Floriana handsomely for me to march to Lucia whenever I wished. I always chose Lucia, she with her quick smile and skilled hands. I pretended to myself that she liked me, and I knew I liked her.

Now I’d have to pay Floriana and buy my own breakfast, but I hadn’t the least idea what it would cost or where I’d get the money.

I lay back down and put a hand over my eyes. The sun was merciless and my head throbbed. “I’ll find the coin.” 

The smooth end of a stick poked me in the ribs. I growled and lunged for it, but Floriana danced away.

“Out, Leonidas. I need the bed.”

I sat up. Out where? I dimly remembered Regulus stealing my cell last night. Now Floriana was turning me out of this one.

So this was freedom. Nothing to eat, nowhere to sleep, and no money to buy even my basic needs. 

Aemil had offered a solution to me. Remain at the ludus, train others to kill, fight a few exhibition matches to show off my prowess. That was what former gladiators did, Aemil among them. Perhaps one day I’d start my own ludus.

No more death.

I growled at Floriana. Any number of men, gladiators included, shrank from that growl, but not Floriana. She knew me too well.

Smothering a grunt of pain, I heaved myself from the bed. I towered over Floriana, filling the cell, but she never flinched. 

“Man outside wants to speak to you,” she said as I reached for my tunic. “Wants to hire you, perhaps. If he does, first person you pay with what he gives you is me.”

I gave her a nod, finding this only fair. I couldn’t imagine who waited for me, and I didn’t much care. I wanted only to sleep and not wake for several days. I’d done that before, after horrific matches. When Xerxes had died, I’d not emerged for almost a month.

It was not easy to don my tunic while I still held the sword, but even now I could not make myself release it. My hand was cramped, locked around the wooden hilt.

I managed to slide on the tunic, the sword tearing the fabric. Floriana watched me with great amusement. I gave her another growl as I ducked out of the cell, nearly banging my head on the low lintel.

The house was quiet as I strode down its middle passage, making for the square of too-bright sunshine that awaited me at the end. 

I emerged from the doorway into December coolness and the glare of light on pavement. The sun was well up, and even the high buildings that lined the street provided no shade.

A small man in a fine tunic waited outside. He had a neat, slim face, trimmed hair, and wore shoes rather than sandals, well-made pieces of leather that fit his feet exactly.

“Leonidas the Spartan.” The greeting held a touch of derision.

I gave him a curt nod. 

“The gods have smiled upon you,” the man went on in the same tone. “Freedom and a benefactor. How fortunate you are.”

“Benefactor …” I said in confusion. I had no benefactor that I knew of. 

“The person responsible for your freedom. He has followed your career, noting every victory, and decided you deserved to walk away from the games a champion. I have been sent to tell you that.” The man eyed me with some disparagement.

“Who is he? Who are you?”

“I am called Hesiodos. You need to remember that name because I can give you no other.”

Hesiodos carried the slightly pompous sneer many Greeks did—Rome was still rustic backwater to a man from mighty Athens. 

Hesiodos wore the garb of a freedman, but I guessed he’d begun life as slave. His contemptuous regard told me he didn’t want me making comparisons between us. We were both freedmen now, but I was infamis, the lowest of the low. All gladiators were, current and former.

When I said nothing, he continued, “What I mean is, I am forbidden to give you your benefactor’s name.”

I’d find this odd if I could think more clearly. Most Romans who assisted others wanted the fact shouted far and wide, so all would admire their generosity. The recipients of their charity would be obligated to the benefactor for life.

But perhaps the man—or woman—might not want it known that they’d raised a gladiator from his bondage. We were animals fighting for the pleasure of others. No pride in rescuing one. If it were a woman, she would definitely keep it a secret. Hesiodos had said “he,” but he’d just admitted he was hiding the benefactor’s identity.

I gave Hesiodos another nod to show I understood then jerked my thumb at the door behind me. “I owe Floriana a sestertius. Pay her, if you will.”

Hesiodos didn’t move. “You misunderstand. This person has not bestowed a legacy upon you. You will have to work for your pay, as any other freedman in this city. Your benefactor has provided you freedom, a place to live, and a slave to serve your needs.”

This benefactor sounded less and less reasonable. “What place? And I don’t need a slave.”

“Your benefactor seems to think you do. Someone to keep an eye on you and report to me.” He flicked his fingers toward a corner of a wall across the street.

A bundle of clothes that had crouched in a sliver of shade made its way across to us, stepping carefully in the damp street. It was a woman, swathed and cloaked like a patrician matron, but her plain cloak and sandals told me she was a slave.

“This is Cassia,” Hesiodos said. “She will not belong to you—she too is in debt to your benefactor. She will look after you, and provide you anything you need.”

The woman reached us. Instead of bowing her head and cowering behind Hesiodos, she moved a fold of her cloak and looked directly at me. 

Brown eyes regarded me from the face of a young woman I would guess not far past her twentieth year. 

I saw in those eyes, beneath the fear of being handed to a gladiator, a determination that blazed forth more potently than any I’d beheld in the brutal fighters I’d faced in the arena.

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