Slave warrior queen, p.3
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       Slave, Warrior, Queen, p.3

         Part #1 of Of Crowns and Glory series by Morgan Rice
 
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  As the last fight of the first round arrived, Brennius and another warrior fought right next to where Ceres, Rexus, and her brothers were sitting. Closer and closer they came, their swords clanking, sparks flying. It was thrilling.

  Ceres watched as Sartes leaned over the railing, his eyes glued to the combatants.

  “Lean back!” she yelled at him.

  But before he could respond, all of a sudden, an omnicat jumped out from a hatch in the ground on the other side of the stadium. The huge beast licked its fangs and its claws dug into the red dirt as it made its way toward the warriors. The combatlords hadn’t yet seen the animal, and the stadium held its breath.

  “Brennius is dead,” Nesos mumbled.

  “Sartes!” Ceres yelled again. “I said get back—”

  She didn’t have a chance to finish her words. Just then, the rock beneath Sartes’s hands loosened, and before anyone could react, he tumbled down, over the rail, and fell all the way into the pit, landing with a thud.

  “Sartes!” Ceres yelled in horror as she shot to her feet.

  Ceres looked down to see Sartes, ten feet below, sit up and lean his back against the wall. His lower lip quivered, but there were no tears. No words. Holding his arm, he looked upward, his face twisted in agony.

  Seeing him down there was more than Ceres could bear. Without thinking, she drew Nesos’s sword and leapt over the rail, hopping into the pit, landing right in front of her younger brother.

  “Ceres!” Rexus yelled.

  She glanced back up and saw guards hauling Rexus and Nesos away before they could follow.

  Ceres stood in the pit, overcome with a surreal feeling to be down here with the fighters in the arena. She wanted to get Sartes out of there, but there was no time. So she stepped in front of him, determined to protect him as the omnicat roared at her. It hunched low, its wicked yellow eyes fixed on Ceres, and she could sense the danger.

  She whipped Nesos’s sword up with both hands and clenched it tight.

  “Run, girl!” Brennius yelled.

  But it was too late. Charging toward her, the omnicat was now only a few feet away. She stepped closer to Sartes and just before the animal attacked, Brennius came in from the side and sliced the beast’s ear off.

  The omnicat rose onto its hind legs and roared, clawing a chunk out of the wall behind Ceres as purple blood stained its fur.

  The crowd roared.

  The second combatlord approached, but before he could cause the beast any harm, the omnicat lifted its paw and slit the man’s throat with its claws. Clamping his hands around his neck, the warrior collapsed to the ground, blood seeping through his fingers.

  Hungry for blood, the crowd cheered.

  Snarling, the omnicat hit Ceres so hard she went flying into the air, crashing to the ground. On impact, the sword went tumbling from her hand and landed several feet away.

  Ceres lay there, her lungs refusing to open up. Dying for air, her head spinning, she tried to crawl up onto hands and knees, but quickly tumbled back down.

  Lying breathless with her face pressed against the coarse sand, she saw the omnicat heading toward Sartes. Seeing her brother in such a defenseless state, she felt her insides ignite with fire. She forced herself to take a breath and she discerned with complete clarity what she needed to do to save her brother.

  Energy rushed through her like a flood, giving her instant power, and she rose to her feet, picked up the sword, and dashed toward the beast so fast she was convinced she was flying.

  The beast was ten feet away from her now. Eight. Six. Four.

  Ceres gritted her teeth and flung herself onto the beast’s back, digging insistent fingers into its bristly fur, desperate to distract it from her brother.

  The omnicat stood up on hind legs and shook its upper body, jostling Ceres back and forth. But her iron grip and her resolve were stronger than the animal’s attempts to throw her off.

  As the creature lowered back onto all fours again, Ceres seized the opportunity. She raised her sword high into the air and stabbed the beast in the neck.

  The animal screeched and rose onto hind legs, as the crowd roared.

  Reaching a paw around to Ceres, the creature pierced her back with its claws, and Ceres screamed from the pain, the claws feeling like daggers through her flesh. The omnicat grabbed her and hurled her into the wall, and she landed several feet away from Sartes.

  “Ceres!” Sartes yelled.

  Ears ringing, Ceres struggled to sit up, the back of her head throbbing, warm liquid running down her neck. There was no time to assess how serious the wound was. The omnicat was charging her again.

  As the beast bore down, Ceres was out of options. Not even thinking, she instinctively raised a palm and held it out before her. It was the last thing she thought she’d ever see.

  Just as the omnicat pounced, Ceres felt as if a ball of fire ignited in her chest, and suddenly she felt a ball of energy shoot out of her hand.

  Mid-air, the beast suddenly went limp.

  It crashed to the ground, skidding to a halt on top of her legs. Half-expecting the animal to come to life again and finish her off, Ceres held her breath as she watched it lie there.

  But the creature didn’t move.

  Baffled, Ceres glanced at her palm. Not having seen what transpired, the crowd probably thought the beast died because she had stabbed him with her sword earlier. But she knew better. Some mysterious force had left her hand and had killed the beast in an instant. What force was it? Never had anything like this occurred before, and she didn’t quite know what to make of it.

  Who was she to have this power?

  Afraid, she let her hand fall to the earth.

  She lifted hesitant eyes, and saw the stadium had gone silent.

  And she could not help but wonder. Had they seen it, too?

  CHAPTER TWO

  For a second that seemed to stretch on and on, Ceres felt every eye upon her as she sat there, numb with pain and disbelief. More so than the repercussions to come, she feared the supernatural power that lurked within her, that had killed the omnicat. More than all the people surrounding her, she feared to face herself—a self she no longer knew.

  Suddenly, the crowd, stunned into silence, roared. It took her a moment to realize that they were cheering for her.

  A voice cut through the roars.

  “Ceres!” Sartes yelled, beside her. “Are you hurt?”

  She turned toward her brother, still lying there on the Stade floor, too, and opened her mouth. But not a single word came out. Her breath was spent and she felt dazed. Had he seen what had really happened? She didn’t know about the others, but at this distance, it would be a near miracle if he hadn’t.

  Ceres heard footsteps, and suddenly two strong hands pulled her to a standing position.

  “Get out now!” Brennius growled, shoving her toward the open gate to her left.

  The puncture wounds in her back ached, but she forced herself back to reality and grabbed Sartes and pulled him to a standing position. Together, they darted toward the exit, trying to escape the cheers of the crowd.

  They soon arrived in the dark, stuffy, tunnel, and as they did, Ceres saw dozens of combatlords inside, awaiting their turn for a few moments of glory in the arena. Some sat on benches in deep meditation, others were tensing their muscles, pumping their arms as they paced back and forth, and yet others were preparing their weapons for the imminent bloodbath. All of them, having just witnessed the fight, looked up and stared at her, curiosity in their eyes.

  Ceres hurried down underground corridors lined with torches giving the gray bricks a warm glow, passing all manner of weapons leaning against the walls. She tried to ignore the pain in her back, but it was difficult to do so when with every step, the rough material in her dress chafed against the open wounds. The omnicat’s claws had felt like daggers going in, but it almost seemed worse now as each gash throbbed.

  “Your back is bleeding,” Sartes said, a tremor in his voic
e.

  “I’ll be fine. We need to find Nesos and Rexus. How is your arm?”

  “It hurts.”

  When they reached the exit, the door swung open, and two Empire soldiers stood there.

  “Sartes!”

  Before she could react a soldier seized her brother, and another grabbed her. It was no use resisting. The other soldier swung her over his shoulder as if she were a sack of grain, and carried her away. Fearing she had been arrested, she beat him on the back, to no avail.

  Once they were just outside the Stade, he threw her onto the ground, and Sartes landed beside her. A few onlookers formed a half-circle around her, gawking, as if hungry for her blood to be spilt.

  “Enter the Stade again,” the soldier snarled, “and you will be hanged.”

  The soldiers, to her surprise, turned without another word and vanished back into the crowd.

  “Ceres!” a deep voice yelled over the hum of the crowd.

  Ceres looked up with relief to see Nesos and Rexus heading toward them. When Rexus threw his arms around her, she gasped. He pulled back, his eyes filled with concern.

  “I’ll be okay,” she said.

  As the throngs poured out of the Stade, Ceres and the others blended in and hurried off back into the streets, not wanting any more encounters. Walking toward Fountain Square, Ceres replayed in her mind all that had happened, still reeling. She noticed her brothers’ sideways glances, and wondered what they were thinking. Had they witnessed her powers? Likely not. The omnicat had been too close. Yet at the same time they glanced at her with a new sense of respect. She wanted more than anything to tell them what had happened. Yet she knew she could not. She was not even sure herself.

  There was so much unsaid between them, yet now, amidst this thick crowd, was not the time to say it. They needed to get home, and safe, first.

  The streets became far less crowded the further away they traveled from the Stade. Walking next to her, Rexus took one of her hands and interlaced fingers with her.

  “I’m proud of you,” he said. “You saved your brother’s life. I’m not sure how many sisters would do that.”

  He smiled, his eyes filled with compassion.

  “Those wounds look deep,” he remarked, glancing at her back.

  “I’ll be fine,” she muttered.

  It was a lie. She wasn’t at all certain she would be fine, or that she could even make it back home. She felt quite dizzy from the blood loss, and it didn’t help that her stomach rumbled, or that the sun was harassing her back, causing her to sweat bullets.

  Finally, they reached Fountain Square. As soon as they walked by the booths, a merchant trailed after them, offering a large basket of food for half price.

  Sartes grinned from ear to ear—which she thought was rather strange—and then he held up a copper coin with his healthy arm.

  “I think I owe you some food,” he said.

  Ceres gasped in shock. “Where did you get that?”

  “That rich girl in the golden carriage tossed out two coins, not one, but everyone was so focused on the fight between the men that they didn’t even notice,” Sartes replied, his smile still very much intact.

  Ceres grew angry and prepared to confiscate the coin from Sartes and throw it. That was blood money, after all. They didn’t need anything from rich people.

  As she reached to grab it, suddenly, an old woman appeared and blocked her path.

  “You!” she said, pointing at Ceres, her voice so loud Ceres felt as if it vibrated straight through her.

  The woman’s complexion was smooth, yet seemingly transparent, and her perfectly arched lips were tinted green. Acorns and mosses adorned her long, thick, black hair, and her brown eyes matched her long brown dress. She was beautiful to behold, Ceres thought, so much so that she became mesmerized for a moment.

  Ceres blinked back, stunned, certain she had never met this woman before.

  “How do you know my name?”

  Her eyes locked with the woman’s as she took a few steps toward her, and Ceres noticed the woman smelled heavily of myrrh.

  “Vein of the stars,” she said, her voice eerie.

  When the woman lifted her arm in a graceful gesture, Ceres saw that a triquetra was branded on the inside of her wrist. A witch. Based on the scent of the gods, perhaps a fortune-telling one.

  The woman took Ceres’s rose gold hair in her hand and smelled it.

  “You are no stranger to the sword,” she said. “You are no stranger to the throne. Your destiny is very great, indeed. Mighty will the change be.”

  The woman suddenly turned and hurried away, disappearing behind her booth, and Ceres stood there, numb. She felt the woman’s words penetrate her very soul. She felt that they had been more than an observation; they were a prophecy. Mighty. Change. Throne. Destiny. These were words she had never associated with herself before.

  Could they be true? Or were they just the words of a madwoman?

  Ceres looked over and saw Sartes holding a basket of food, his mouth already stuffed with more than enough bread. He held it out for her. She saw the baked good, fruits, and vegetables, and it was almost enough to break her resolve. Normally, she would have devoured it.

  Yet now, for some reason, she had lost her appetite.

  There was a future before her.

  A destiny.

  *

  The walk home had taken almost an hour longer than usual, and they had all remained silent the entire way, each lost in their own thoughts. Ceres could only wonder what the people she loved most in the world thought of her. She hardly knew what to think of herself.

  She looked up and saw her humble home, and she was surprised she had made it all the way, given how her head and back ached.

  The others had parted with her some time ago, to run an errand for her father, and Ceres stepped alone across the creaky threshold, bracing herself, hoping she did not run into her mother.

  She entered a bath of heat. She made her way over to the small vial of cleaning alcohol her mother had stored under her bed and uncorked it, careful not to use so much that it went noticed. Bracing herself for the sting, she pried her shirt and poured it down her back.

  Ceres cried out from the pain, clenching her fist and leaning her head against the wall, feeling a thousand stings from the omnicat’s claws. It felt as if this wound would never heal.

  The door slammed open and Ceres flinched. She was relieved to see it was only Sartes.

  “Father needs to see you, Ceres,” he said.

  Ceres noticed his eyes were slightly red.

  “How’s your arm?” she asked, assuming he was crying from the pain of his injured arm.

  “It’s not broken. Just sprained.” He stepped closer and his face turned serious. “Thank you for saving me today.”

  She offered him a smile. “How could I be anywhere else?” she said.

  He smiled.

  “Go see Father now,” he said. “I’ll burn your dress and the cloth.”

  She didn’t know how she’d be able to explain to her mother how her dress had suddenly vanished, but the hand-me-down definitely needed to be burned. If her mother found it in its current condition—bloodied and riddled with holes—there’d be no saying how severe her punishment would be.

  Ceres left and walked down the downtrodden grass path toward the shed behind the house. There was one tree left on their humble lot—the others had been chopped into firewood and burned in the hearth to heat the house during cold winter nights—and its branches hovered over the house like a protecting energy. Every time Ceres saw it, it reminded her of her grandmother, who passed away the year before last. Her grandmother had been the one who had planted the tree when she was a child. It was her temple, in a way. And her father’s too. When life was too much to handle, they would lie underneath the stars and open their hearts to Nana as if she were still alive.

  Ceres entered the shed and greeted her father with a smile. To her surprise, she noticed that most of his to
ols had been cleared from the worktable, and that no swords waited by the hearth to be forged. She couldn’t ever remember seeing the floor swept this clean, or the walls and ceiling so lacking in tools.

  Her father’s blue eyes lit up, the way they always did when he saw her.

  “Ceres,” he said, rising.

  This past year, his dark hair had turned much grayer, his short beard, too, and the bags under his loving eyes had doubled in size. In the past, he had been large in stature and almost as muscular as Nesos; yet recently, Ceres noticed, he had lost weight and his formerly perfect posture was sagging.

  He joined her at the door and placed a calloused hand to the small of her back.

  “Walk with me.”

  Her chest tightened a little. When he wanted to talk and walk, that meant he was about to share something significant.

  Side by side, they meandered to the back of the shed and into the small field. Dark clouds loomed in the near distance, sending in gusts of warm, temperamental wind. She hoped they would produce the rain needed to recover from this seemingly never-ending drought, yet as before, they probably held just empty promises of showers.

  The earth crunched beneath her feet as she walked, the soil dry, the plants yellow, brown, and dead. This patch of land behind their subdivision was King Claudius’s, yet it hadn’t been sowed for years.

  They crested a hill and stopped, looking across the field. Her father remained silent, his hands clasped behind his back as he looked up into the sky. It was unlike him, and her dread deepened.

  Then he spoke, seeming to select his words with care.

  “Sometimes we don’t have the luxury of choosing our paths,” he said. “We must sacrifice all that we want for our loved ones. Even ourselves, if needed.”

  He sighed, and in the long silence, interrupted only by the wind, Ceres’s heart pounded, wondering where he was going with this.

  “What I wouldn’t give to hold onto your childhood forever,” he added, peering into the heavens, his face twisted in pain before it relaxed again.

  “What’s wrong?” Ceres asked, placing a hand on his arm.

 
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