Chapter 10

Hope was something that Logan hadn’t allowed himself to have for a very long time. It was hard to hope when you were a slave in a foreign country. Being taken away from everything you know and thrust into a new environment where you had no one to rely on. It was a frightening experience that Logan wouldn’t wish on anyone. Especially not when the Romans were your captors. That was a fate that Logan would not even wish upon his worst enemy.

Just as he was becoming used to it all, there was a new factor in Logan’s predicament. One that he hadn’t expected or even thought possible.

A young woman named Antonia Marie.

Logan hadn’t expected to find anyone in Rome who actually seemed concerned about him. After all, to them he was nothing more than a barbarian. Something to be played with and destroyed on a whim. Logan had understood that about the Romans.

Marie was something all together different. Marie was putting herself on the line for him and, for the life of him, Logan couldn’t figure out why. She had absolutely no reason to care about what happened to him. He should have been nothing to her. Marie shouldn’t have even acknowledged his presence... but now she was doing so much more than that.

“Pay attention, you worthless barbarian!” Pietro shouted, throwing a hunk of dirt at him. “Flavius is not paying me to let you sit around! He wants you in top condition! So get moving! You are going to disarm Claudio at least once today!”

Flexing his forearms, Logan glared at the skinny man in front of him. Having already learned the consequences of talking back to the slighter man, Logan squared his shoulders and kept his mouth shut. He kept his arms in motion so that the weight wouldn’t be pulling down on his arms. The muscles in his arms were starting to ache, but that was only because he hadn’t been in so much motion for quite some time. It had been many long months since he had last fought and his muscles were struggling to get themselves used to such actions again.

It was a good thing that Claudio was using a wooden sword or else Logan would have been dead several times over. The claw-like weapons he was using were very clumsy and Logan was having a difficult time getting used to them. Logan had always used broadswords when fighting. While the swords themselves were rather heavy, each one being only slightly heavier than each of the cages that entombed his hands, Logan had been able to wield the massive weapon with both hands rather than relying on a single hand to bear all the weight.

“You know, barbarian, I am beginning to think that you are not taking all of this very seriously,” Pietro commented, idly balancing a real sword between the index and middle fingers of his right hand. “I’m thinking that it has something to do with Claudio’s lack of a serious weapon. We shall have to remedy that....”

Swallowing nervously, Logan watched as Pietro handed the steel sword to Claudio in exchange for the wooden one. While Logan rolled his shoulders and flexed his arms, Claudio began spinning his sword in wide, graceful arcs, showing Logan just how easily he could slice at his skin.

“I suggest that you step up your defenses, barbarian, else this could become very painful for you,” Pietro hissed, stepping back and out of the way.

As he lay alone in his small room later that night, Logan realized just how correct Pietro had been in his statement. Logan felt like a mass of bruises and stinging cuts. He longed to fall into sleep’s welcome oblivion, but was unable to find a position comfortable enough to do so. Having been upgraded to simply wearing the manacle around his throat, Logan was able to stretch out however he saw fit. Not that it mattered with his inability to get comfortable.

“Three more days,” Logan whispered to himself. “Three more days then I’ll be out of this wretched city once and for all.”

For the first time in many long months, Logan was allowing himself to hope. To believe in what Marie had told him. Logan knew that he was taking a great chance by believing in Marie, but it was a risk that he was willing to take. If anyone would help him, Logan knew that it would be Marie. When he closed his eyes, he could still see the earnest look on her face as she told him of her plans. He could recall the way her lips had felt against his, so warm and soft; a caress in themselves. Marie was telling the truth when she said that they were leaving the city together in three days.

If she was lying, Logan knew that the last piece of himself, the part that the Romans had yet to conquer, would be gone. Logan was trusting Marie with more than just his freedom.... He was trusting her with the very essence of himself. He was counting on her to keep it safe. To keep him safe.

In all his life, Logan had never put so much faith in a single person.

The fact that he was doing so shocked Logan to no end. When he had first been captured, Logan had promised himself that he wouldn’t trust anyone ever again. It was just something that he didn’t think he could risk. At least not then.

Now that he thought about it, Logan was surprised at how easily Marie had gained his trust. By the end of the first night, Logan realized, he had already trusted Marie completely. Marie had come to him, unbidden, and cared for him when she shouldn’t have even given his situation a second thought. According to the rules of her society, he should have been nothing to her. The only time she should have even noticed he existed was when he was kneeling at her feet. Other than those few moments, which would not have included her raising him to his feet, Logan knew that she shouldn’t have even acknowledged him.

So when Marie had not only appeared at his cell that night, but had cleansed his back with her own hands, Logan knew that she was different. That there was something in her he could trust.

The fact that she also allowed him to touch her showed Logan just how much she trusted him as well. Until the first moment his fingertips had brushed against her pale throat, Marie had never known the touch of another person. She had spent her life protected from the world by layers of silk. The first night she had allowed him to kiss and touch her, Logan had put down to nothing more than the excitement of being able to touch another being. It wasn’t until that afternoon when she had appeared at the gates of the arena and willingly guided her lips to his that Logan had fully believed that it was his touch she craved.

“My heart is yours, Logan. Yours to keep forever.”

Even now, as he repeated those two sentences in his head, it was Marie’s voice that spoke them. He could feel the heat of her breath against his lips and hear the pain in her voice as she whispered those words before they were forced to part. His skin still tingled where her hands had touched. As he tilted his head to the side, Logan imagined he could feel her delicate hand cupping his cheeks.

Each of them had put off their inevitable departure as long as possible. They had seen each other on four individual occasions and each time they met it was harder for them to separate even when they knew they must. Logan longed for the day when he would be able to hold Marie to his heart’s content and never have to let her go. On that day, Logan would give thanks to the gods that he had once thought abandoned him.

Eventually, as the cold of the night began to seep into his bones, Logan could feel exhaustion pulling his eyelids down. His body was past caring whether it was comfortable or not, simply demanding sleep.

Sleep that was long in coming....

And quick to end.

“On your feet, barbarian!” Pietro barked as he emptied a bucket of cold water over Logan’s prone form.

Gasping and sputtering, Logan surged to his feet. His arms burned with the slightest twitch of a muscle and a long scratch that stretched from just below his left nipple to his navel screamed as he it was stretched. Knowing that Pietro could care less about his discomfort, Logan stood stock still before the smaller man, fat droplets of water sliding down his tanned skin. Logan couldn’t contain a shudder as one particular drop of water slid down his spine, pooling in the small of his back.

“You have five minutes to eat, barbarian,” Pietro said, shoving a wooden bowl of drammach-- oats mixed with cold water --into Logan’s hands.

Pietro disappeared then and Logan flopped back down onto his scratchy, and now soaked, mattress of hay. He hurriedly shoved spoonfuls of the thick mix into his mouth, swallowing hard as it stuck to his throat. Still, it was food and something that Logan had eaten often throughout his life. Logan was just scraping the last of it from the bowl when Pietro reappeared, a dark scowl on his face.

“Yesterday proved to be very discouraging,” the slighter man informed him. “I will not tolerate such things again today. I do not train warriors to lose. I train them to win. And win you shall even if I nearly have to kill you these next two days to get you to fight back to your full potential. Now get off your lazy ass and follow me.”

Keeping his features stoic, Logan followed silently after Pietro. The present didn’t matter. All that counted was staying alive for the next three days. If he could do that, things would turn out all right. In three days he and Marie would be free. Logan kept repeating that to himself like a mantra, keeping the thought ever present in his mind.

Logan didn’t react as he was taken into the bowels of the gladiator arena. It was a dark and eerie place where even breathing was a challenge because of the thick smoke from the ever-burning forges. Logan was forced to blink a few times to help his vision adjust to the murky darkness of the place. It wasn’t the first time Logan had been down here, but that didn’t make it any better for him. Logan knew exactly why he was down there and didn’t like it one bit.

“Give me your hands, barbarian,” Pietro said, picking up a thin strip of leather that would be used to wrap Logan’s fingers and protect them from the lethal blades of the claws. “Stubbornness will get you nowhere. If you think you can get away with refusing to fight, I’m here to tell you that you’re sorely mistaken. You will fight or you will die. It’s as simple as that.”

Logan kept his glare up, refusing to acknowledge the smaller man.

“Now it doesn’t matter to me whether you live or die,” Pietro told him rather bluntly. “For all I care you can let Claudio kill you in the practice arena.... The only problem with that is that Flavius is paying me to care. That means I can’t allow you to die until you get in front of a crowd. So you are going to fight back when Claudio attacks, are we understood?”

All that Logan did was hold up his other hand for Pietro to wrap in the leather bands. Logan refused to respond to the other man, to let him know that what he said had any bearing on him. Pietro became silent as well. He didn’t say a single word as he finished wrapping the protective leather around Logan’s vulnerable fingers or when he placed Logan’s hands inside the steel contraptions that acted as the base for the sharp metal claws.

It wasn’t until they were heading back up to the main area of the practice arena that Pietro spoke again, his voice filled with an odd mixture of indifference and malice.

“If you are to stand any chance of making it past your first battle as a gladiator, I strongly suggest that you learn to best Claudio,” Pietro said as he removed the heavy metal collar from around Logan’s throat. “After all, the man you will be facing is much bigger than Claudio. A barbarian, much like yourself. His name is Vittorio and I do believe that if you look to your right, you will see him practicing. The blonde man with the bizarre tattoo about his throat.”

Logan turned his attention to where Pietro had directed and immediately felt his blood run cold. The man was a veritable monster, standing at least head and shoulders above Logan himself and half again as wide. There were five men encircling the monster, each attempting to disarm him.

As Logan watched, each of them fell to the ground, never to rise again.

Doing his best not to react to the sight, Logan turned to face Claudio. He had two days to master his weapons. Two days to figure out a way past Vittorio’s defenses if he was to survive.

After all, in three days he was leaving with Marie.

That alone would be his motivation to survive.

And survive he would.