The gladiator entered the arena to the tumultuous applause of the three thousand spectators. He raised his arms and turned to face each direction in turn, finishing with a bow to the Empress.
He was tall, muscular, his body bronzed by the hot sun and toned by the months of training. He carried two weapons, yet neither seemed fit for such a figure. Wrapped round his left arm was a net of strong cord, large enough when unfurled to encompass an opponent completely with a rope to draw the mesh tight around any unfortunate captive. In his right arm was a long-handled whip, its single vicious tail snaking across the ground as he moved and ready to inflict serious pain to anyone caught by its crack when he wielded it.
Instead of the full gladiatorís tunic with armoured breastplate, he wore only the shortened lower tunic which hung like a heavy, short kilt from his waist belt. His feet were bare. Around his head he wore a cloth band, fashioned to resemble a victorís laurel wreath.
The crowd loved him, many of them on their feet clapping and cheering as he flexed his muscles in front of them, showing off his strength and his perfect shape that every man envied and every woman desired.
As the applause died away there was a roll of drums and into the arena came his opponents, ten of them. Each was unarmed, wearing just a thin, full tunic belted at the waist and reaching only a few inches down below their hips. Apart from that they were completely naked and unadorned.
In contrast to the gladiator they looked weak, white, frail. Their bare feet trod lightly on the sandy arena floor, shifting nervously and glancing at the murmuring crowd. A thin ripple of applause went round the arena, but there was no doubt that the eyes of the crowd remained on the gladiator rather than on these ten newcomers, these ten young women.
The Empress raised her small flag, holding it aloft until she was certain that both the contestants and the audience had seen it. A hush fell over the stadium and birds rose from the back of the stands, frightened from their roosts by the unacustom silence.
The Empress dropped her flag, and the game commenced.
First, the women circled the gladiator, careful to keep out of reach of his whip and far enough away to be out of any possible throw of the net. He whirled the whip round his head, its long tail whistling in the air as it hurtled in a full circle around him. Contact with human skin would cut and bruise, a long, thin, red line that spread as the blood flowed through the open wound. The women knew, and kept their distance.
The odds were not in his favour. Armed though he was, outnumbered ten to one his chances of overcoming his opponents were not good, and he knew it. His only tactic was to take his chance, any chance they inadvertently gave him, to eliminate or disable them one by one until he could win over those remaining by his sheer superior strength. If there was one, just one, a little further from her companions than the others, then he would make his move.
They continued to circle, none wanting to make the first move. The sun glared down on them as it did on him. The crowd grew restless. The Empress sat back in her seat, disappointed, and still they circled.
He saw a chance. One woman, slightly smaller than the others, was a little close to him than the rest, straying from the circle to almost within range of his whip. He lunged, taking three steps towards her and bringing the whip at the extent of its circle behind him in a straight line at her with a crack that was audible in the furthest seats at the back of the stadium.
She shrieked, not in fear but in pain as the lash cut into her skin right through her thin tunic. She stumbled, losing her footing for a moment, and at once his net was unfurled and flying through the air towards her. The mesh hit her flat and open, the edges continuing their flight and wrapping round her. He tugged the cords he still held in his left fist, drawing the net tightly around her and pulling so that she lost balance completely and fell towards him. A practised swerve to one side and several steps backwards, and she was bundled completely within the tightening net and being dragged across the ground towards him.
The others were too slow. It happened so quickly they did not react in time to take advantage of it. In those few second his concentration was entirely focused on netting his victim, the others could easily have rushed in and taken him. They missed the opportunity.
She was at his feet now, a pathetic bundle in his net, her tunic slashed and ripped and barely covering any of her. He should have despatched her quickly and cleanly, freed the net and looked for the next opportunity, but he too missed his chance. Those few seconds when the shock of losing one of their team made any attack on him unlikely was gone, as he looked down at the naked flesh of the beautiful young women in his net. Those few seconds cost him that advantage, and without the whirling whip the others had already started to close in on him. Frantically he knotted the netís cords instead, knowing in his heart that reducing the odds to nine-to-one was not enough, and now he had lost his most important weapon.
The whip on its own was not enough. From all sides they rushed in on him, ignoring the cry of one woman when the whip caught her, wrapped round her and sent her headlong and bleeding onto her face on the arena floor.
Their hands were on him, grasping him and throwing him onto his back. He fought, hitting and kicking with all his strength, hearing bone crack when he made contact. Two, three of them fell backwards screaming and unable to continue, but finally they had him. Four of them struggled to hold his wrists and ankles, one sat astride his stomach and the other sat astride his head, grinding herself onto his face in an effort to subdue him. The fight went out of him, and he lay still. She sat back on his chest.
All six young women looked up to where the spectator were, without exception, on their feet cheering. The cheers died away, and the rest of the audience too all looked in the same direction, at one seat right in the centre of the stands.
The Empress stood up and raised one arm, fist clenched. What should she do?
Her thumb was outstretched from her fist, parallel with the ground and neither pointing up nor down. She looked at the crowd where the majority were imitating her action, but some with their thumb up and some with it down.
Her choice. She could let him live and take him. She could have him as her personal slave for her most personal satisfaction, that was her right. She could use that muscular bronzed body for her pleasure, and certainly she knew and loved that pleasure well, very well.
Yet, there seemed little point. On this hot day the thought of forcing her perspiring body onto him as he lay bound and helpless had little appeal to her. In any case, the last slave she had let live had lasted only two days. There was little likelihood he would last any longer.
Slowly, she turned her thumb downwards.
The young women gripped him tightly, knowing he would struggle again. The woman on his chest raised herself and moved forward. Slowly and deliberately she descended on him, gripping his head between her thighs to keep him still and covering his nose and mouth underneath her. She sank her weight onto him to seal him in completely.
She stayed there for fifteen minutes.
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