The Gladiator's Woman
By Tula Neal
When the gladiator, Scipio, sees the new healer at his ludus , it's love at first sight but the gladiatorial games and Spartacus's rebellion may keep the lovers apart.
Collina Flavia leaned on the balustrade that ran around the central courtyard of the gladiator school and watched silently as the men went through their paces under the fierce guidance of their trainers.
It was three days since the lanista-Brutus Aemilius had asked her to be the doctor for his ludus, and she'd been too busy moving in and purchasing supplies to pay much more than a glancing attention to the gladiators who might soon require her services. But the tall Aethiop with skin the color of night, a man of her mother's own race, had caught her eye. He wore nothing but a loincloth and she noted how his muscles rippled and bunched as he performed his maneuvers. After practice, a masseur would attend to the men. Collina found herself wishing it was her hands that would glide over the Aethiop's oiled skin, loosening his tired muscles until he was as pliable as dough. Then, if he had no objection, she would massage him elsewhere bringing on the hardness she'd banished from the rest of his body. She'd find out if what they said about tall men with long hands was true. With luck, he'd feel obliged to return massage for massage. The thought sent a finger of fire snaking upwards from between her legs.
In front of her, the Aethiop executed a particularly complex maneuver and then sank to his knees, chest heaving, exhausted. Catching sight of her for the first time, he raised his wooden sword in a mock salute, grinning as if he knew what she'd been thinking. Collina Flavia nodded primly at him and hurried away. They had not spoken two words since she'd moved to the ludus-she didn't even know his name. Still, she couldn't get the gladiator out of her mind as she sat in her treatment room that afternoon, pounding her newly purchased supplies into powders and salves and measuring them into their individual bottles. She must at least find out his name, she decided. Maybe even strike up a conversation. How difficult could that be?
In her mind's eye she saw again his naked, finely-built torso, the muscles twisting in his arms and back, the look of concentration on his face as he put himself through his moves. He'd looked like some onyx statue carved by a master and brought to life by the breath of Jupiter. She had to meet him.
Her opportunity to talk to the Aethiop came earlier than she'd hoped. That same night, he came to sit beside her at one of the long kitchen tables where the gladiators and those who worked with them ate.
"I never saw you watch us train before," he said, bringing a heaping spoon of meat stew to his mouth.
Collina paused before answering. She wanted to make sure her voice didn't shake.
"I've been busy getting the treatment room to my liking," she said, congratulating herself on the smoothness of her delivery.
"Ah, yes. I think if Tiberius hadn't conveniently died, Brutus would have fired him. He wasn't all that good. I hope you're better."
Collina decided not to take offence. "I hope so, too," she said lightly.
"She's certainly easier on the eye," interrupted the squat, blond gladiator sitting opposite her.
The Aethiop looked her over, his heavy-lidded eyes sweeping from the top of her head to what he could see of her legs, while Collina did her best not to look as uncomfortable as she felt.
"Much easier," he agreed, chuckling.
"It came out in an edict from the Senate. Didn't you hear?" Collina asked, straight-faced.
The gladiators shook their heads.
"Oh, yes." Collina nodded vigorously. "The law now requires doctors to be, as you said, 'easy on the eyes.' It's supposed to assure patients' recovery."
The blond gladiator was open-mouthed, disbelieving. The Aethiop laughed, though-did she imagine the hint of sadness lingering in his eyes?
"You're joking, right?" he asked.
"Good one." He smiled appreciatively. "Had you going, didn't it, Marius?"
The blond gladiator shrugged sheepishly, turning away to talk to the man beside him.
"You are called Collina, is that right?" the Aethiop asked, dropping his voice.
"Yes. And you?"
"Scipio. Would you pass me the jug of mead?"
Their fingers touched as she handed it to him and Collina's eyes flew to his. The contact had jolted her, but he didn't seem to notice.
They talked under cover of the noise rising from the other men in the room. He told her that his father sold him as a child to an Arabian spice trader who, years later, traded him to a Roman grain merchant. The merchant gave him to Brutus more than three months ago in payment of a debt.
"You're a tiro?" He'd looked so good out in the courtyard, she wouldn't have known. Not until he was in the arena. Her heart lurched at the thought of his being bested by a veteran.
"Brutus didn't let me fight in the last games, but he thinks I'm ready now," he said with pride.
"Ah," Collina said, not knowing what else to say. If, dear gods, he wasn't ready, his first fight could very well be his last.
"Do you worry for me?"
"I worry for anyone who puts himself in the way of death," she answered. She had never been a big fan of the games. The sight of animals and men, lying on the sand, broken and bleeding, tore at her heart. She knew this sensitivity was an aberration, a weakness even. Few felt as she did but she couldn't help it.
"I will not die in the arena. A priestess told me so. She told me I will live to see my children's hair turn gray."
Collina's heart sank. "You have children?"
"None that I know of as yet. I want my children to have a free man for their father."
"A laudable aim, my friend," said the blond gladiator, breaking in. "I, myself, have six." He grinned triumphantly.
"Surely you find it difficult to support so many," Collina said.
"Not so." His grin spread and his eyes twinkled. "I take care to plough only other men's fields." Laughing now, he lifted his goblet of mead as if making a celebratory toast. The gladiators around him, Scipio included, clinked their glasses against his, enjoying the joke.
"And you, Scipio, do you do the same?" Collina asked, emboldened by her curiosity. Women, particularly well born women, buzzed around gladiators like bees over flowering jasmines. Had he given his heart to any?
"No," he said, still chuckling. "I reserve my seed for my own field."
It was an answer, but it still left her in the dark. Collina remained silent, wondering how she could discover what she really wanted to know about him.
"Do you have no more questions for me?"
"A few, but I'll ask them another time."
"Then come with me for a walk. I am not yet ready to lie abed."
Collina rose slowly to her feet, careful not to let him see how much his invitation pleased her.
"I'll come, too," said another gladiator, lurching to his feet.
"The good healer is company enough for me, Gaius. We did settle this already." Scipio gave the gladiator a gentle push so that he fell back onto his seat. The man's face darkened, but then he shrugged and poured himself another drink.
"Scipio wants her all to himself," Marcus said. He winked at Collina. "Don't stay out too late," another called out. "Bring her back as you found her," yet another quipped.
Scipio took it all in good part, merely waving his hand to his brother gladiators, but Collina could feel her cheeks burning as they exited the room. Outside, she took a couple deep breaths of the cool evening air.
"What made you decide to become a healer?" Scipio asked as they turned down a nearby alley.
"When my father became ill, my mother had to look after our shop, so I took care of him. I liked doing it. I felt useful."
"Did he recover?"
"He did for a while, but then the illness took him again and he was too weak to fight it off. I was thirteen when he first fell ill. Nineteen when he died."
"I am very sorry. It is a hard thing to lose a parent so young."
Collina nodded. Her father's death had hit her hard. The physicians who'd attended him had said it was a miracle he'd held on so long. They'd said there was nothing more she could have done, but their kindness hadn't eased her pain.
"Your mother. She still lives?"
"Yes. Thank the gods."
"Make way," a man cried behind them. "Make way."
Scipio grabbed Collina's arm and pulled her back against the wall as four litter-bearers passed hurriedly by.
"This alley is too small for litters," he snapped. "They didn't step on you, did they?"
"No," Collina said. Her heart was racing. He had still not let go of her arm. "I'm fine."
"Good. I don't know what I'd say to the others if harm came your way while you were with me." He smiled. "Maybe I should keep holding on to you. For your protection, of course."
Collina nodded. "That would be good of you." Inside, she was singing.
"My offer doesn't spring from goodness alone," he said.
Collina glanced at him.
"Surely, you know that."
He shook his head and gave her a small smile. "Wait until we get to the little square by Drusus, the wine-seller. We can talk better there."