Lamia stood inside the gates of the gladiator barracks and watched the sun set. A caravan was moving towards the city, containing both caged animals and humans.
Poor devils, probably going to the dogs just like me she thought, as she saw the desperate look in the eyes of both men and beasts.
They stopped just outside the gates. She could hear the mule drivers arguing heatedly with the guards.
"P-please, where are we?" said a soft female voice in accented Latin.
She turned around to see a blond woman anxiously leaning against the bars of the cart she was caged in, seeking eye contact.
The fear in the blonde's eyes was painful to behold.
Lamia didn't fear for herself anymore. What was the point, knowing you were lost anyway? But this stranger may still have the hope of sleeping without fear.
"Do you know where you are going?"
"We have been bought by a lady. Prima Drusilla? Do you know of her? Is she like to be a good mistress?"
The trust in those bright blue eyes almost brought tears to Lamia's own.
"I'm sorry, I don't know her. But I'm sure she will be fine. If you are made a kitchen slave that can be quite the life, you know! Lots of left over food and all that."
She tried to sound cheerful. The truth about Drusilla was known all over Pompeii. These people were playthings to be sent out into the arena to be killed by wild beasts and trained gladiators. Drusilla's cruelty was surpassed only by her blood thirst. Even other patricians shunned her company. Lamia said a short prayer that this gentle stranger would be too insignificant for Drusilla's extreme tastes and her lover Angelus's sword.
The blonde licked her dry lips and swallowed with great effort.
"Would you like some water?"
She nodded gratefully. When she accepted the crude clay vessel from Lamia's hand, she scooped it with her own hand it when she drank.
The blonde's hand was soft, like she had never done hard labour before. Maybe it was for the best that she was going to die.
The life of a slave might have killed her anyway, Lamia thought to herself as she held the hand offered to her.
Gods, did it feel good to touch another human being with something else than blows and stabs.
"Is that your gladiatrix name.? You are a gladiatrix, aren't you"
"It's the get-up, isn't it? Gives me away every time..."
She tried to sound sarcastic, but just ended up sounding sad instead. She was wearing old stained leather armour, which she knew they would cut off her body when she had died to give to her successor in this house of the damned.
Tara just smiled. She didn't seem shocked or frightened by her being a gladiator, the lowest of the low.
"My real name is Willow. I'm Irish. I was taken from there three years ago".
"How come they made you a gladiatrix?"
"Failure to obey my master."
She didn't intend to say Varrenius Hirtus's name out loud ever again, but she felt the bile rise in her throat.
"But I guess the joke was on him. I've been alive for six moths now. They don't kill women in battle so often here. We're more the entertainment detail."
Except for Drusilla's slaves, that is she thought ruefully to herself.
"Why did they call you Lamia?"
"My master didn't like that I knew more than he did, so that's what he used to call me: ‘witch".
"I like Willow better. But it's a little bit funny, because the Romans called me Lamia as well when they came to our village in Gaul. I was a healer with my people".
The blonde smiled again. Willow's heart increased its pace.
"It's easier to be Lamia here". She shrugged.
"THIS IS THE WRONG PLACE! LET'S MOVE!"
The mule driver started to brandish his whip to convince the tired animal to start moving again.
"Thank you, Willow. You've been very kind".
Tara reached through the bars of the cart and let her fingers caress Willow's cheek.
The gladiatrix felt confused and disturbed. She never thought that she would be touched so kindly by anyone again. On a whim, she decided that the stranger deserved the truth.
"You are sacrificial lambs, Tara. Prepare to face the afterlife. You won't live to see the next Saturnalia... I'm sorry."
Annoyed, she tried to blink away the tears that were threatening to well out of her eyes.
"I know", Tara said calmly.
"I saw it in your face when I mentioned Prima Drusilla. Don't fear for me, Willow. If it is her will, I will join Afrodite to serve her in the afterlife as I have here on earth."
Willow held Tara's hand as long as she could. Then she stood there until the caravan had disappeared completely, trying to convince herself that she wasn't really crying.
That night she had fitful dreams about the blond stranger being killed by Angelus, who toasted Drusilla in her blood, poured in the vessel that Willow had used to serve her water. She felt grumpy and sick to her stomach as she woke up. She went to wash her face with cold water, trying to regain composure. She could still feel where Tara's fingers had touched her cheek.
She was due to fight in the arena tonight, so if she wanted to survive herself, she had better put that woman out of her mind...
She went to sit down next to Bella to eat the sloppy porridge they laughingly called breakfast. No need for condemned women to eat well...
"I'm getting us out of here tonight." Bella said it matter-of -factly, like she had talked about the weather or something.
"Come again?" Willow couldn't believe her ears. Sure, they had talked about escaping, but she had assumed that Bella was just daydreaming, like she was...
"During the fight tonight. We're leaving. It's finally arranged."
"But Bella, you can't be serious? We'll never make it!"
"You're going to die a free woman if it kills you!" Bella smiled sadly.
"Just be there and wait for my signal. And for the gods sake keep calm. And don't die on me"
That was easy for Bella to say. She was the best female gladiator this town had ever seen. Only Fidelia had ever been a match for her.
"Rome. Let's go to Rome, Bella! We can blend in there and no-one will find us."
"What about Ireland?"
"I don't know. I'm not the same person I was when I lived there... What do you think?"
"Ok, Rome, then. But no arenas. Never again."
Willow nodded happily. No arenas. She desperately wanted to start over. Find herself again.
She took off the small sundial she carried concealed around her neck and held it up to the sky. Silently, she started to make calculations in the dry sand and draw a map of the quickest way to Rome on an old worn wax tablet she had found and kept in her pocket.
The rest of the day passed as in a haze. She had thought that she was going to die here. Hope was a lethal thing and she tried very hard to fight it, but it was too late.
When evening came and the noisy crowds started gathering, Willow was so nervous she wanted to throw up. What if this worked? What if it didn't? What if they got caught? She found herself thinking of the blond woman again. She wondered what had happened to her. Was she safe?
Bella nodded curtly at her as the ashen faced gladiators started to approach the gate to the arena, to once again take their chances.
"It's just a rumour, hut there have been whispers that some matches will be to the death tonight. I hope by the gods that it's not true. I don't have time for real fights tonight. And you need to be really, really fast, ok?"
Willow nodded. Speed was the only reason she was still alive. She had nothing on the bigger fighters, so she tired them out until they were sitting ducks. She fought with a net and a trident, which were fairly light, otherwise she would have had no chance.
She swallowed audibly. Bella had been in fights to the death and survived, but this would be her first, if the rumours were true...
"Please tell me how you mean to do this, Bella. It's not like I'm going to tell on you."
The gladiatrix sighed.
"I've volunteered to fight Angelus. I'm going to kill him."
"WHAT!? Bella, are you mad? You cant' beat Angelus!"
"Fidelia has. Well, almost. She's told me his weaknesses. And I have a joker up my sleeve."
Willow couldn't believe her ears. Angelus was like a demon from Hades, what human could conquer him?
"Don't you remember when Vergilius said that I was the one girl in all the world? Well, I guess we'll know if it's true tonight..."
Willow desperately wanted to try to talk her out of it, but too late. The bell was already sounding.
Bella was a star, so she didn't go in with all the other canon fodder in the beginning.
The herald started to shout about this evening's "delights".
"In honour of Isis, the mistress of the afterlife, the honourable Prima Drusilla has once again bestowed upon us some entertainment in her infinite wisdom."
There were some cheers, but also booing. Drusilla's taste in entertainment was too extreme even for Pompeii.
Willow was a minor favourite with the audience. Not like Bella, but still enough to warrant her own call.
"And here she is, the fire headed witch from the north, the serpent like assassin, Lamia! Tonight she's facing a real savage warrior woman from Gaul!"
Willow stepped forward, but didn't show any emotions. These bastards were getting as little "entertainment" as possible from her.
The lesser gladiators fought in groups. She took her place in the line up with a steady gaze downward into the saw dust. The less she saw of her opponent the better.
She jerked her head up to look into bright sapphire.
"Isis be merciful!" she choked out as she saw Tara standing almost naked a few feet away from her. They had hardly given her any armour to protect herself with. In fact, the craps of leather and fabric she was wearing was showing so much of her creamy white skin that Willow knew she would really have to make an effort not to hurt her.
She knew then that the last moment on earth might have come. There was no way she could injure such a gentle soul. Not even a proper weapon had they given her, the bastards...
The bell sounded again and the battle erupted all around them. Willow tried to swallow but couldn't. Her throat was parchment dry.
Tara just stood there, staring at her.
"I'm sorry, but we have to at least pretend to fight, or they'll notice. Just be really careful, I promise I won't hurt you."
She stepped tentatively closer to the blonde, who started moving insecurely.
"Ave Afrodite, m-morituri te salutant." Tara whispered and smiled a gentle sad smile.
"I will not hurt you, Tara. Never." Willow insisted as she moved quickly and gracefully closer to the blonde.
She aimed a blow and pretended to miss and hit Tara's shield by mistake.
"You know, if I have to die, I'm glad it will be you, Willow."
"You have to call me Lamia here, they don't know my real name...You're in the arena and you're not afraid?"
Tara parried a fake attack from Willow with surprising skill.
"I had brothers who liked war games" she said by way of explanation. She moved really close, pretending to lock swords with the red head.
"But I think maybe Afrodite sent you to me to grant me a merciful death."
"I am NOT your death, Tara."
She was very careful not hurt any of the blondes soft exposed skin, so careful that she didn't even look where she was stepping. Suddenly, she lost her footing, trampling on a Thrakian shield another gladiatrix had dropped.
Together they tumbled to the ground. Tara landed square on top of Willow. The red head was of course caught up in survival and shouldn't have been paying attention to such things, but her mind whispered to her that the blonde felt really good against her skin.
"This isn't believable. You're a much better fighter than me."
Tara rolled them over, so that Willow became the one on top.
"Hold my hands so it looks like you're forcing me."
She put her hands over her head so that Willow could pin them to the ground.
"It's almost a shame that we're not here to celebrate Afrodite instead of Isis..." Tara smiled against her cheek.
"Tara! That's a strange thing to say. We should worry about staying alive and not about such things!"
But her throat was suddenly dry and she didn't want to leave her position.
To her immense surprise, Tara raised her head from the ground and touched her lips with her own.
Willow just stared at her.
"Why did you do that?"
"I'm a woman with nothing to loose and a Greek taste in romantic relationships. I wanted to kiss a beautiful woman before I died. Suddenly being made into a gladiatrix against your will has a tendency to make you a little bolder than usual."
Willow kept staring. She felt the normal pumping of adrenaline through her system, but also intense arousal, which really surprised her. Fighting used to make her head empty of any thought besides living to see tomorrow.
Gradually, she also became aware of the noise dimming around her. She looked up and saw that most of the duels already had a winner.
"Tara, we have to get up, before someone gets that we're not really fighting!"
She tried to jump to her feet, but her legs were shaking. Tara followed suit and as they looked around, they realised that there was only one other pair still fighting.
"Hurt me. Just a little, so they can name you victor."
Willow shook her head.
"Tara, you don't understand. If you lose, you die. If I lose, I get no dinner, or possibly a whipping. The audience knows me, so they're not going to kill me for losing once. You have to hurt me. There will have to be blood."
"No" The look in Tara's eyes was steely and determined.
Willow suddenly had the feeling that they were being watched. As she turned her head, she realised to her horror that Prima Drusilla was staring right at her and pointing.
The infamous woman clapped her heads and shouted: "TO THE DEATH!".
Willow felt how the world turned black around her.
Tara's face was a mask of sorrow as they looked into each other's eyes.
Willow knew she had to act before Tara had time to think. In a few swift steps, she was in front of the blonde and grabbed the rusty short sword they had given her for a weapon and thrust it into her own side.
The sound Tara made as Willow fell was more a sob than a scream. Prima Drusilla crowed with delight and joined in the audience cheers as Lamia's blood leaked out into the saw dust.
Tears were streaming down Tara's face as the audience granted her survival.
A dark haired man came running out into the arena and scooped the bleeding gladiatrix up in his arms. No one paid attention to him.
Bella came running into the arena like a Fury from Hades, hatred coming off her in waves. Everyone's eyes were locked with absolute concentration on the most sensational gladiator fight that Pompeii had ever seen: The cruel and invincible Angelus versus Sorrow, Hatred and Vengeance.
Tara came back from the abyss and started to run after the dark haired man.
"Get away from her! This is all your fault!" he snarled at Tara when she got closer. She realised that he must be a friend of Willow's, since he was crying too.
"I can save her. Please, you have to listen!"
"I saw how you "saved" her out there, so I think not so much."
"I understand how you feel, but you have to let me try! Please, I can't live, knowing I've hurt her."
"You should have thought about that before you plunged your sword into her!"
He pushed her away and laid Willow down on a blanket in one of the little rooms inside the barracks.
A man with strange bright blond hair appeared. He looked at Willow and tut-tutted in mock sympathy.
The dark haired man tried to punch him in the face, but he just ducked skilfully and laughed.
He spotted Tara standing outside the door, crying.
"What's with the water works, Blondie?"
"Wait a minute, why am I asking? I really don't care."
He picked his nails with a pen knife for a few moments.
"I don't know why I'm wasting my time on you deadbeats, but just trust me when I tell you that you don't really want to be here right now. And that goes for Penthesilea over there too. You need to get her way from here now-ish, or she'll really be dead."
"Why, what are you talking about?" The dark haired man snarled impatiently.
Suddenly, they heard an infernal roar in from the arena.
"Because I've just let a black bear and a leopard out of their cages", he sad with a cocky grin.
"Are you insane or something!?"
"Bella!" He jerked head up, trying to see her in the arena.
"Keep your strophum on, Nancy Boy. She's the one who asked me to do it. Mars Ultor, you're dim, aren't you?"
"By the way, I think our girl is winning..."
"She's not your girl!
He did a double take.
"She's WINNING? Against Angelus!?"
Tara ran out into the arena and saw Angelus lying in the saw dust, the woman obviously called Bella leaning over him. The blood was dripping on him from a gash in her shoulder, but she was smiling. The crowd was beside itself.
The noise was changing nature however, as some of the people were becoming aware of the predators set free of their cages. The screams switched to sounds of horror.
Bella looked up and quick as a whip, she showed the knife into Angelus, whose face wore an almost comical look of surprise.
The she was running, before anyone could react.
"XANDROS, WILLOW!! Get ready!"
When she reached them and saw Willow, she stopped.
"Well, I said I would get her out of here, dead or alive."
Her face was white and pinched as she gently touched Willow's forehead.
"Right, we have to leave. Xandros, you take her. The horses are over here."
She turned to the man with the strange hair.
"Are you coming?"
"Nah. Someone had to entertain these bastards now that you've killed Angelus. Besides, I'll be free soon anyway. Saved me up some money, I have."
"And you know you don't really want me to." He added in a quiet voice, free of attitude.
Bella walked up to him and kissed him deeply, before running her hand over his cheek.
"Survive." She said curtly and turned to leave.
"Always." The blond man answered.
Xandros nodded curtly at the blond man before scooping the lifeless Willow up into his arms.
"Take me. I can save her! You have to take me with you!"
Tara stood in her path with red rimmed eyes and white-knuckled fists.
"You killed her. Why should I bring you?" Bella said without rancor.
"If you don't bring me, you'll kill her." Tara met Bella's gaze firmly.
Willow started moving in Xandros arms.
"Bella? Xandros..?" Her voice was small and weak. She sounded like a child.
"I'm here. We got to go, Will. We'll make you better later, but we have to go."
"Why did you do it, Will?" she added in a pained voice.
"Couldn't put the light... out. Her eyes..."
Her eyes flew open abruptly.
"Tara! Where's Tara!?"
Bella glared at her as Tara walked up to the injured woman and took her hand.
"I'm sorry." She forced out, trying not to cry.
Willow smiled weakly.
"I liked it when you kissed me..." She whispered, before lifting the blonde's hand to her dry lips.
"Kissed her? What? When?" Xandros whispered to Bella who rolled her eyes and shoved him in the ribs.
"Bella, we have to take Tara." There was no mistaking the resolve in her weak voice.
Bella looked at Tara briefly before walking towards the tied up horses.
"Right, get a move on. Will wants you to come, so you're on. But don't mess with me, or I'll kill you myself."
Xandros got on a horse with Willow snuggled up in his arms and Buffy motioned to Tara to get behind her as the rode away from the chaos and mayhem of screaming people and roaring beasts. No-one saw them go, except for the lonely blond man watching them disappear into the distance.
A few hours from Pompeii they stopped and Tara set to work on Willow's wounds. The first few days were difficult, not knowing of Willow was going to live through the fever haunting her body.
Bella didn't want to admit it to herself, but she found it difficult that Tara was the first person Willow asked for when she was awake and the one she talked about in her sleep, not her or Xandros. How long had she known her for? A few days?
Also she found it frustrating to have to sit here and wait. She was itching to ride on for Rome. But Tara fulfilled her promise of curing her and the woman formerly known as the gladiatrix Lamia was now back on her rather unsteady feet.
Bella sat down by the fire and looked around.
"Behind that tree. With Tara."
"Behind a tree!? I didn't even know she was up walking!"
"Yup. Since like five minutes ago."
"What are the doing behind a tree?"
"You know..." Xandros smiled and made a funny face.
"No I don't! Wait...oh, right."
Behind a tree, 5 hours from Pompeii.
"Darling, you have to be careful, you're still week."
"Never you mind that. Just kiss me again. You know what really heals my wounds."
Tara leant closer again.
She was facing Pompeii. Her eyes widened when she saw a thin black pillar of smoke raise above Vesuvius. A slight tremor shook the ground.
"W-willow... There's a fire. And did you feel the earth move?"
"Tell me about it..." Willow whispered against Tara's lips and kissed her again.