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The Forest




The cheers of a mob.  The noise was deafening overhead.  The oppressive sound falling on Leofric’s head like a crushing weight.  The shadows lended no comfort to the anxiety gripping his body.  Enough light filtered through the slots in the upper walls to illuminate the glinting metal all around.

Leofric Lombard was a Gallus gladiator, that was a slave warrior from the north.  He was on the brink of his next battle.  Every time he faced the death and destruction about to come, he flashed back to his younger years.  It seemed like a long time ago since his days in the Marcynian forest.  Reality was, it has been much longer.  Leofric was only thirteen when the Roman’s sent the Alemenni tribe to settle the forest for them in order to remove the indigenous tribes.

His parents were murdered in front of him.  the trek to Rome had been arduous.  So many died on that long road.  He watched friends, neighbors, strangers, simply collapse; then left on the road, forgotten.  Leofric wouldn’t allow himself to succumb to anything the Romans pressed upon him.  it was the lanista, a slave trader, that defined his life.  A path he followed now for six long years.  It took a single event for his fate to be bather in blood and sweat, a constant near paralyzing fear standing at his shoulder like a specter of death waiting for its prize.

Leofric always had what were considered soft features.  Because of this he had become a prolific fighter.  Quick to anger, never thinking, always needing to prove himself.  The lanista attempted to force him into being a house servant to a wealthy family.  It only took one of the children to mock him.  the memory made him smile; he broke the boy’s nose.  It was a quick fleeting smile, the consequences he paid still haunted him.  the whipping lasted most of the night.

The ludusia gladiator training school nearly killed him.  two things gave him salvation.  The first was his heritage, a family secret passed down through each generation.  The second was his lanista, Lucius Gaius Flaccus.  When his secret was discovered, he was instantly placed in the games.  Others trained so they gave a good show.  Leofric guaranteed that fact.  After his stigma, a slave branding, he was billed as a top competitor.

A loud grinding gave way to the large doors opening.  Sunlight washed over him, the crowd’s indistinguishable sounds followed quickly behind, creating a full auditory overload.  No longer muffled by the stone surrounding him.  it was his time to battle.  Fully armored, nothing visible but leather and metal, Leofric jogged into the amphitheater.  The upcoming fight was his sole focus.

Before him stood a monster of a man.  Easily standing a head taller and weighing twice his size, Leofric didn’t break stride.  What made the crowd scream louder, a near mythic popularity encompassing him, was that he held no weapons except for the two-inch long claws protruding from his wrapped hands.

He stood there holding a typical Parma circular shield and a pugio roman short sword.  Only his sword arm was armored.  The long red hair flowing around his head alluded to his lineage, making him a Celtic warrior, they were a tougher breed.

The heavily worn blade of the sword glinted as he raised it.  Leofric had fought so many like him.  reliant upon size over skill; his confidence completely based upon intimidation.  Leofric’s armor clanked loudly as he swiftly approached the fiery-haired combatant, armor ill-fitting until the moment of battle.  The second aspect of his immense popularity coming to fruition.  Satisfying the crowd’s taste of violent entertainment.

Within an arms stretch from battle, Leofric’s armor became suddenly silent, now fitting snuggly.  He always waited until the last moment to use his family gift.  The crowd only perceived the slightest change, unaware of his true visage.  A sharp onslaught struck his senses.  Before he even saw the blade descend, he heard the rush of air; smelt the flesh of the metal as it closed in on him.  dodging the thrust easily, Leofric used his momentum to swing to his opponent’s side, wasting no movement, he brought his razor-sharp claws to bear; he raked them across the barbarian’s chest.

There was no time for blood or gore.  It was a promise he made long ago to himself.  No matter what he would never kill for their entertainment.  The fight was ingrained in him, but he would not let blood lust rule.  He would live as long as he fought.  The whipping was tolerable for disobedience.  As with most of his battles this one ended too quickly.  Without even realizing it, his body moving as it was trained to do, he brought his claw against the gladiator’s legs.  S stifled scream signified he struck his target.  As a mighty oak fell in a forest, the Celtic warrior collapsed.

Standing over his fallen opponent Leofric closed his eyes, digging his nails deep into his palms.  A technique to gain much needed control.  Avoiding the drive to further seek blood.  The cheer was hard to push away.  His senses nearly completely overwhelmed.  Then a sudden quiet rolled over the crowd.  It was so unnatural that his eyes sprang open, concentration broken.  What was happening?

The silence was pierced by a bellowing voice.  After so long as a slave Leofric had gained a decent understanding of Latin.  The orator spoke to the crowd.  “What a spectacular show.  His excellence Emperor Nero, Ruler of Rulers, Chosen Ptah, beloved of Isis, the sturdy-armed one who struck the foreign lands, victorious of Egypt; praises you Gallus for your valor.”

After such a long-winded name Leofric couldn’t help but look up at the special platform setup for Nero.  Only a pudgy Roman stood on the balcony, a wig garnered with laurels wreathed his head.  Then Nero stood.  Draped in regal purple robes, gold leaves as a crown, he waved to the masses, then placed a hand out, thumb out to the side.

The emperor was new, a boy really.  These games were set in his honor, the first games fought in his reign.  He was about to declare the fate of his opponent.  The crowd began roaring, a sound sure to rattle the gods themselves.  Nero dropped his thumb, so it pointed down, a declaration of death.  As so many times before Leofric ignored the decree.

It caused his banishment to other outlaying territories.  He was sure his lanista would have him whipped.  He didn’t let that bother him as he stormed out of the arena, clanging loudly from his once again ill-fitting armor.  The crowd screamed incoherently.

Hearing wasn’t the same as seeing.  Watching the battle was not a disappointment.  Cynric Wolfston was new to the Roman circuit.  His lanista had been to many amphitheaters in the outlaying territories.  It was Cynric’s reputation that finally brought them to Rome.  He was a brutal, merciless fighter.  It was taught to decide whether the battle or the cheers sustained him more.

His notoriety for prolonging a battle, playing with his prey earned him a reputation as a higher billed competitor.  That suited him.  after arriving he heard of the mysterious gladiator who had never been defeated in all his years in any stadium.  The rumors went back six years.  How was that possible?  There was something strange about him, that was apparent.  They were roughly the same age, yet Cynric was captured two years ago and subjugated from his land of Germania.

Rumors were that Nero was searching for a provocatory Rudiarius, a form of an ultimate champion.  He wanted to claim this title.  Cynric was eager for the fame and lavish lifestyle that would come with it.  he needed to defeat only one real obstacle.  “Wulston, your time is here.”  Yelled lanista, Sextus Brutus Severus.

Cynric would now show these spectators, and more importantly Emperor Nero, what a true gladiator was.  Wearing a simple cross-leather strap on his chest and back with braccae woolen pants, caligae boots; he hefted his pugio and gladius long sword.  This is how he made his name.  a reckless regard of personal safety.  A true show of bravery in his mind.  He was a dimachaerus, a dual wielder.

Waiting in the arena stood two crupellarii slave gladiators.  It was insulting that he had to face two under schooled fighters.  Sextus told him he had to prove himself in order to advance his status.  Cynric knew that Sextus’s aspirations for grandeur were even just as grand as his.  Because of this he was certain he would receive some glorious matches.  He had to be patient, definitely not one of his virtues.

The Crupellarii were clad in simple armor, wielding pugios and shields.  Smiling, he strategized quickly, not to just be victorious but to give a show of his talents.  He might even let them think they had a chance to overcome him.  that would incite them to battle harder in the process helping Cynric to showcase his style of fighting.  They stood far apart.  Were they trained at all?   He thought to himself.  They were going to make this difficult.

He walked out trying to feign fear, wanting to give a false sense of security.  It worked; the two slaves moved, forming into a pincer maneuver.  Exactly what he wanted.  Thinking that since they outnumbered him, they could be victorious; they pressed forward.  Quickly thrusted jabs were easily parried, allowing Cynric to continue to give them a false sense of security.  The crowd’s cheers were minimal.

It was time to whip them into a frenzy.

With a grand flourish he tossed the sword in his left hand, catching it reversed by its hilt.  The blade now rested against his forearm.  As anticipated the slaves charged forward.  Cynric knocked aside one sword easily bringing the backward sword into an arc slicing deep into its target’s gut.  With the sword still embedded, Cynric swung his free sword to parry the other slave’s weapon.  The swing had such force behind it that the already seemingly weak gripped opponent lost his weapon. 

Cynric brought the hilt of his sword forward, breaking the nose and jaw that met it.  he let the other body fall from his sword.  He stood over the incapacitated man both swords raised.  The cheers were thunderous.  Emperor Nero gave the thumbs down.  In a sweeping movement he decapitated the slave, to a grandiose uproar.

Whether by design or by chance Leofric and Cynric were never permitted to meet.  They watched each other though.  Unlike his predecessors, Nero considered himself an emperor of the people and in particular enjoyed the games.  It had only been a few months since his ascension to the throne, now the first major themed battle was scheduled to honor a festival of Apollo.

Leofric waited in his cell.  They called it an apartment.  Though it wasn’t surrounded with bars, the furnishings were plusher than the other slave’s cells.  He considered it a cell, a prison he could never escape.  At least until lord Pluto claimed him.  he had been in Rome so long he only knew their gods.  He expected no answers from them.

The locks ground against their frame as his cell door opened, Lucius bounding in, jovial as always.  “My dear boy, dear, dear Leo.”  Feeling it sounded more Roman, he refused to call him by his full name.  “Spectacular news.  I’ve arranged your participation in the festival games.”

“I fight as you please Lanista.”  As always Leofric showed little interest.

“I wish you would be more enthusiastic, more like that machaerus.” His mood quickly soured due to Leofric’s attitude.

“He enjoys killing.”  That statement felt ironic.  With Leofric’s heritage it should be him that loved murder.

“Well, either way I own you and you’re fighting.  You and the dimachaerus will be part of a group of barbarians replaying a massacre.”

“Wait where is he from?”

“What does it matter?”  he responded irritably.

As he left, he said, “I believe from the Marcynian Forest . . . like you.”  The door slammed and locked, the lanista’s mood improved.

“What are you saying?”  demanded Cynric.  He received similar news.  “What tribe?”

Sextus gazed at him.  “What does that matter?”

“Some tribes are nothing better than forest scum.”

“Well ask him, you will be fighting together in two days’ time.”

Even with a mass group battle gladiators trained solo or at least amongst their own camp.  Leofric and Cynric wouldn’t meet until the battle’s beginning.  However, that time came quickly.  Being an honored combatant but out of favor with the Editar, the financer, Leofric and one other were led into the amphitheater first.  They were allowed a first glance.

The battle ground had been meticulously established to look like a forest.  Columns carved as trees out of marble, but without tops; only reaching roughly seven feet, were scattered around.  Well over a couple dozen stood.  In the center a few Murillo soldiers were given legionnaire armor.  They stood at a strained attention.

The dimachaerus came out next, he emerged from a gate a short distance away, also only having one ally accompanying him.  Leofric had no idea what battle they were portraying but it was supposedly based upon his home.  So far, he had been fortunate that no one recognized his clan name.  this was a first fight where not everyone was an opponent.  Leofric needed to get some space to prepare himself.

The cheering began to die down.  Looking up, the same fat oddly dressed Roman orator stood, his hands up summoning attention for his announcement.  “Loyal citizens of Rome, his eminence Emperor Nero welcomes you to a festival of games and entertainment in honor of the sun god Apollo.  We celebrate the fall of the barbarian hordes in the norther Marcynian Forest.  The re-enactment you’re about to witness was the first barbarian offensive.”

“Scouts from both sides fought, but their massacre of Roman legionnaires brought our forces upon them expanding our glorious empire.”  As he finished the crowd gave a defining roar.

Without any hesitation Cynric watched the other group rush in.  he lost temporary sight of the famed gallus gladiator.  When once again in view he seemed larger somehow.  His armor gripping him perfectly.  There was something definitely different about him.

Cynric dashed forward, both swords at the ready.  First thing was to kill the legionnaires, then find the other group.  The columned trees annoyed him.  he loved open battle fields.  These obstacles reminded him of the territory of his childhood.  He was actually thankful when he would continue to battle to the cheers of the mob in the coliseums, a true Rudiarius, a freedman gladiator.

Six legionnaires stood, gladiuses and Parma shields ready.  The weakling sent with him lay dead already nearby.  That didn’t phase Cynric at all, he got close enough taking a fighter’s stance.  Two men broke from the group charging at him.  instincts kicked in; he ducked rolling low at them.  As one raised his sword, he opened his stance.

Cynric slashed his stomach as he stood there, throwing his weight against the dying fighter, tumbling with his dead weight into the other combatant.  His maneuver worked perfectly.  As they both fell Cynric ran his sword through the murmillo’s neck.  He barely broke a sweat.  It was then he was able to see firsthand the strange gladiator named Leofric fight.  Realization dawned on him quickly. 

Leofric barreled into view, his large, clawed hands held out; ready to maim.  Of the four remaining soldiers, three broke off to battle him.  leaving one for Cynric.  A surprise awaited the gladiators, the closest columned tree held a hidden door, an arsenal within.  As two stalked Leofric the third traded his weapons for a heavy javelin called a pilum.

He had to use another feature of his special armor now.  Something he avoided unless a dire need presented itself.  The hinged jaws of the full helmet not only gave the appearance of a wolf’s head but could be used to deliver a lethal bite.  That’s exactly what needed to happen in order to quell the rising danger presented by the murmillos.

Ut of all the skills Leofric learned at the Ludus school and over the years of combat, he learned restraint.  Using this well-honed attribute, he leapt forward surprising the closest soldier.  As a single fluid motion, Leofric tucked into his opponent chomping down on his throat, the momentum rolling the.  As the now dead man moved on top, Leofric slid his feet between them kicking hard.  The body launched as if catapulted into the spear-wielding ally.  The impact sending them against a pillared tree.

The last combatant stood statue still, a vortex of fear and disbelief sweeping across his face.  Leofric waited, he wouldn’t make the first move.  He didn’t have to though, the dimachaerus crept up running his sword though the man’s back up to the hilt, the tip protruding his chest.  Shock was the frozen expression he would take to the underworld.

“We finally meet.”  Cynric said as he released the body, they watched it crumple to the ground.  He spoke in a language of the lands of his youth.

“Who are you?” 

“I am Cynric Wulfstan.”

“You’re an Alemanni.”   Anger beginning to pulse through his veins, the surname recognizable.

The Alemanni tribe was one of the treacherous groups of people who helped the Romans conquer the Marcynian Forest.  They betrayed their own people.  It was because of tribes like his that Leofric’s tribe had been killed.  Before he could catch himself, he announced, “I am Leofric Lombards of the Marcynian Forest.  You’re a traitor to the northern people.”  His careful restraint fractured.

“You said Lombards?  I knew there was something strange about you.”  He thrust his sword forward, pointing it accusingly.

The horns blew accompanied by the thunderous roar of the crowd.  The battle was over, legionnaires marched into the stadium escorting them back to their respective exits.  Leofric knew better than to expect they wouldn’t meet in combat by revealing his identity, he guaranteed they would face off now.  An intense rivalry fueled by hatred.

Lucius entered the small training arena; it was a bright morning.  It had been over a month since Leofric had met Cynric.  The emperor had gone on a holiday to another city.  This gave a lull in the games; the morning’s interruption was not due to an inspection but the introduction of a newly acquired slave.  Being escorted in was a largely built woman with long flowing hair, brown in shadow yet flamed red in the light.  She wore typical armor. 

“Albasius, here is a new acquisition.  Get her prepared, the emperor returns soon, he wishes for a special welcoming festival with games.”

Lucius’ lorarius, his task master, approached the gladiatrix.  Leofric guessed she didn’t understand or just didn’t care as the man yelled at her.  Instead of obeying any command she turned, planting a solid fist to Albanasius’ nose, a loud wet crunch echoed in the small arena his eyes rolled up and he fell like a cut tree.  Before anyone could react, guards began flooding into the arena.

Without realizing it Leofric bolted to her aid standing between the pilum and the gladiatrix.  The guards hesitated, unsure what to do.  Taking the pause as an advantage.  “Stop, Lanista Fleccus wouldn’t want a gladiator harmed without an audience.”  He hoped this would protect them from their assault.

Albasius groaned, he was beginning to wake.  Before anything could escalate, Leofric began backing up, carefully shoving the woman as he progressed.  If he could make it to the holding cells then it would be only the two of them, as he faced down a dozen pilum points, he wondered why he risked his own life for this woman he didn’t know.  He had never acted so heroically for any other slave. 

The gates were quickly locked.  “I’ll whip you raw.”  Albasius screamed as he shakily got to his feet, shrugging off any assistance. 

The lararius’ revenge wouldn’t be a simple whipping, because of Leofric’s interference he would be punished as well.  They were slated to be the main attractions on the following day’s games.  So, he hoped they would avoid a harsh punishment.

She came from the norther isles.  A Celtic warrior captured after a revolt was quelled.  Leofric heard most of this from guards, the language barrier had been difficult to overcome.  The most he was able to ascertain was her name Deoiridh Breac.  The name was so lyrical.  He hoped to have the chance to learn more.

They were chained together at the wrist; only basic leather armor adorned them.  Leofric felt extremely exposed.  He was at a loss as to what to do.  His combat style relied too heavily upon his armor.  They were given pugio daggers only.  It was obvious they were expected to die in this challenge.  Unfortunately, he expected the same.

Deoiridh had other ideas.  Punching him in the arm she indicated in a direction where two Bengal tigers appeared from an underground ramp.  They growled and roared at them, chains tethering them to the opening.  Then the chains went slack.  The tigers charged at them; teeth bared.  They had seconds to prepare.

Deoiridh was used to fierce combat with predatory animals, she outweighed Leofric by at least thirty pounds, which was all muscle.  Because of this fact she not only dragged him into the melee but practically threw him.  swinging around he slammed into the side of one of the tigers, knocking them both prone and stunning the animal.

The other beast capitalized on this though, pouncing on her.  She was ready, twisting at the last moment the open maw clamped on the chains, momentum bringing both Leofric and Deoiridh banging into its sides.  She was better prepared, swinging her leg so she landed on its back.  Leaning forward she planted the pugio into its neck, felling it in a single sure-handed thrust.

The battle moved at such a crazy pace even Leofric had trouble compensating for the action.  He had been a weapon not a combatant.  He found a drooling, angry set of teeth encompassing his view.  Being pinned under the dead animal he couldn’t get the leverage to defend himself.  Then just as suddenly as it had appeared it fell forward doubling the crushing weight on his chest, knocking the wind from his lungs.  As his vision narrowed, unconsciousness seeping into his mind he saw a long object sticking out of the beast’s head.  A sudden sharp pain racked his shoulder.  Deoiridh yanked the chain pulling him out from under the pile of dead predators.  Once free, the shock from the pain and injuries took its toll.  Leofric saw only darkness.

Waking later he found his arm set, the Celtic warrior nearby.  Lucius, accompanied by Albasius came to escort him.  they wouldn’t reveal his destination but wherever it was it made Lucius giddy.  He didn’t feel up to it but had no choice.  Slowly they climbed up the floors of the coliseum.  Everything draped with empirical purple.  He was led to a large room, very lavishly furnished.  A teenage boy lounged on a sofa; boys and girls moved around fulfilling the teenager’s commands.  Praetorian royal guards, the best trained in all of Rome, stood at attention at certain locations.  Leofric was forced to kneel.

“Lord Nero, as requested, Gallus Leo.”  Lucius said in a subdued tone.

Nero gave a wide smile.  “Welcome, do you understand me Gallus?”

“Yes, my Lord.”

“Grand, I am most impressed with your skill. Even though that barbarian woman dominated, your performances have been extraordinary.”

“Thank you, my Lord.”  Leofric hoped this would end soon.

“I’m looking for a grand inaugural game for a new Olympic-style game of my design.  I’ve chosen you to launch it.”

Leofric had no response.  Instead, Lucius said.  “That’s great, we’re honored.”

Nero stood, approaching Leofric.  “Stand, I want to get a better look at you.  I’ve seen you only from a distance.”

His hesitation warranted two praetorians to advance.  Once on his feet Nero gestured for them to return to their stations.  He sauntered, circling around Leofric poking and grabbing at his body.  “Very impressive, yet I could swear you were larger based upon your armor.  Why is that?”

“I’ve no idea my Lord.”  He lied.  “Perhaps a trick of the Sun’s light from your balcony.”

“Perhaps.”  He stood scrutinizing him.  the intense gaze unnerving Leofric, there was more behind that look than simple physical appraisal.  He just didn’t know what.

It was a week later that the promised match was held.  Cynric had been approached as well but he still wasn’t slated to face Leofric.  He was arranging a plan though.  It was fortunate that a member of his camp was battling the forest dweller.  He educated him in combat techniques.  In reality he cared not what happened to a mediocre gladiator, just that his plan came to fruition.

Leofric’s opponent didn’t wait, he came barreling out of the gate, brandishing a spatha.  This man was gigantic, a mobile mountain.  Just before the large weapon fell in full arc at him, he dodged back, his armor moving easily with his body now.  However, the giant surprised him following through with a solid punch to the side of his helmet.  He had nearly supernatural speed.  The impact dented the jaw section of the helm, pain erupted in Leofric’s face.  Was that a simple fist?  Perhaps he held a hammer.  But alas, as he gathered his bearings; he saw only flesh.  No weapon visible.

Leofric couldn’t postpone this battle, this bear of a man was dangerous; he lunged at him attempting to rake his claws, but the man was ready.  Using the pummel of the sword to reinforce his strength, he slammed it squarely into the side of Leofric’s head.  Every sense was overloaded, balls of light and resounding thunder overwhelmed him echoing in the helm.  Then he couldn’t breathe.

The monster of a man had Leofric’s throat grasped in one meaty oversized hand.  He was raised off the ground, his toes couldn’t even scrape the ground.  His lungs were on fire.  Even his claws brought no release as he dug them into the man’s hand.  Then the unexpected happened.  Cynric watched in rapt anticipation as his plan came to light.  Baras grabbed the mangled helm, ripped it from Leofric’s head.  Even his own expectations had been short from reality.  Myth and rumor were true.  Men that could look like wolves.  What the Norsemen called Ulfhedinn, one in wolf-skin.

The crowd’s cheers died away.  No sounds wafted down.  He was as shocked as they were.  His secret revealed en masse.  Then the massive man pulled his arm back delivering a powerful punch to Leofric’s head. 

Disappointment washed over Leofric as he woke.  He wasn’t dead, fear was an undertow to his current consciousness.  He was in a stone cell, shackled to a wall.  What happened after he passed out?  He had no idea how long he sat in that dank, dark room.  Hunger ate away at his stomach.  It seemed to Leofric they would starve him to death.

Just as he was resigning himself to his fate the door latch clicked.  Nothing prepared him for who entered.  He expected Lorarius, even an executioner but not Lucius.  He figured the lanista would have sold him.  not speaking, he stood staring.  Another slave, a boy he hadn’t seen before rushed in setting a chair down, giving Leofric a quick glance.  As he sat, Lucius said, “your secrets out Leofric.”  His full name, no pretense of Romanism.  Now he was worried.  “Your billed price has dropped.”

He sounded like the treacherous tribes that helped the Romans invade his home.  Tribes like Cynric’s Alemanni tribe.  It was because of those attitudes that he hid his nature.  It wasn’t a curse though.  It was a gift from the gods, from Odin.  A true mix of nature and men.  Lucius sat waiting.

“Do you believe in the gods?”  do you believe the Roman gods help men?”

“Not without a price, they only punish men with powers like this.  Holy blessings don’t come in this form.”

“Only to you Romans.  Our gods bestow great honors on us.  My gift is no curse.  It has been a gift from Odin always in my family for our bravery.  Like Lupa who raised the founding twins.  Be damned your billing.”  Leofric spat out.

“What do you know of our history and gods?  Look at King Lyceaon who challenged the gods.  He was punished similarly to your gift.”  Lucius was surprised, Leofric was more intelligent than expected.

“When is my execution?”

“It’s unexpected that you mention Lupa.  For Emperor Nero believes you’re her descendant.  He wishes to see you fight armor free in you . . .”  Lucius paused to think.  “Your true heroic form.  He believes you to be of the same fiber as Heracles and Achilles.”

That really surprised Leofric.  “Can I request my opponent?”  he wanted to make the most of this unexpected gift.

Cynric had been irate for a week.  His carefully enacted plan had fallen apart.  He exposed the beast.  His anger was based more upon Leofric’s wolfish appearance, he hadn’t expected that.  He knew the tribe was rumored to be beastly but not actual beasts.  Cynric’s name meant fierce wolf.  He should be not only the champion but have the abilities also.  He would use the upcoming battle to exact revenge.  The fool had challenged him to fight.

Rumors always circulated in his village of Ulfhedinn, these shifters lingered in the great norther forest.  He never said anything to his family, but Cynric always dreamed of battling one and learning their secret.  He wanted, no craving to become the physical manifestation of his name’s sake.  He thought after the Roman invasions his chance was lost.  Instead, the gods answered his pleas.

Sextus said the monster would not be allowed to wear armor.  He couldn’t hide.  Cynric spent his training maiming and even killing opponents teaching his body the physical endurance he felt he needed.  However, his sparring partners were simple slaves.  Sextus had grown tired of Cynric killing valuable commodities without an audience to enjoy it.

As he slowly attached armor, savoring the tight feeling of controlled power it gave him, Cynric listened to the crowd’s cheers.  The day he had waited for his entire life had finally arrived.  He wanted to enjoy every moment.  He was more particular than usual in choosing his armor, weapons, he even practiced stances.  Two dreams would come to fruition today.  He would become champion and become a freedman gladiator.

But more importantly he would gain the secret to becoming a new being.  He would be a skin-changer but not waste it like this woodsman.  He would become a god, rivaling Fenrir of the north.  Visions of glory, conquest, and riches entrenched themselves in his mind.  He even started to believe this battle wouldn’t be difficult.  He always watched it fight.  He knew its tactics.  He no longer thought of his opponent as a human.

As Cynric was hefting an Egyptian sickle sword, Sextus entered.  “This is a big day for both of us.  The coliseum is crowded, citizens are standing, no place to sit.  Emperor Nero’s mother has arrived.  You will make me so much money.”

“There’s more than gold.”  Cynric said annoyed.

“Everything’s about money.”  He said jovially.  “Listen to that crowd.”

“They cheer the beast.”

“But soon they’ll yell your name.”

Cynric grew tired of the exchange.  Sextus made a fatal move.  He was too relaxed.  No guards, no servants, no protection.  As if wearing shoes of Mercury, he flew quickly with deadly accuracy at Sextus.  Cynric’s shoulder slammed into his sternum knocking the breath out of the man.  That was the least of his concerns.  The pugio buried in his chest.  Sextus looked like a surprised fish, his mouth agape, bloody drool oozing down his chin.  With a delighted sneer Cynric leaned in bare inches from the dying man’s face.

“You’re a fat Roman pig.  After today you’ll have no power over me.  I’ll be a Rudiarius.  A true gladiator champion.  My name will flow through time with Jason, Achilles, and Ajax.”

Leofric left the leather straps loose on his chest.  Soon he would be exposed completely in his familial form.  His nerves were tingling with lightning bolts.  He recognized Cynric for who he was.  Even indirectly he was responsible for Leofric’s loneliness.  He was the last of his kind.  Revenge would finally be his.  This battle would be an exception to his rule.  If given the chance, he would tear his opponent apart.

So lost in his thoughts he hadn’t heard the crowd, nor did he care.  This battle was for his benefit.  The time had come, Leofric slowly made his way to the arena.  He remained as a human.  He would change as normal, just before battle.  The arena was void of any obstacle.  Nero wanted no obstruction marring the view.  Looking around it was as if the coliseum was a living entity; no portion of it didn’t move.

Finishing his circuit of the audience he found Cynric standing there.  He never heard his approach.  Standing about twenty feet away he held two gladiuses like himself, he wore no armor.  They both stood glaring at each other.  Events from long ago and far away being settled in their eyes.

Anticipation of the melee hung in the air.  A slow rolling hush descended on the crowd.  Leofric lurched forward, building speed.  At a full run he changed.  As one the audience inhaled; shock overcoming them.

Cynric watched with detached fascination gripping him.  The small, framed forest boy grew, nearly doubling in height and mass.   As his muscles flexed, they bulged beyond what should have been possible.  Hair flowed like water across his body, long talon-like claws stretched from his fingers and toes.  He wondered how he hid all this for so many years in that armor.  The most bizarre occurrence was his face.

His head elongated, nose and mouth seemed to merge then flatten.  Long pointed ears sprouted from his head. Deep crimson eyes glared out at him as if Tartarus’s flames lit them.  Just before they collided, only seconds had passed, Leofric let out a deep guttural growl.  Cynric stepped a bracing leg back, lowering one sword while raising the other; he was prepared for the assault.  Leofric lunged forward, teeth bared, a clawed hand raised.  Cynric used his opponent’s momentum rolling back as Leofric’s monstrous form charged over him, he thrust up.  The sword sank deeply into the exposed flesh of his stomach.  However, the force created as he passed forced him to release his weapon.  Turning, Leofric plucked the blade from his abdomen tossing it aside.  Cynric got to his feet, unfazed by the attempted onslaught.

He expected the wound wouldn’t kill the beast.  It made Cynric lust after Leofric’s secrets even more.  It dawned on him that the woodsman might be immortal.  So, he may not be able to defeat him, concern crept into him.  even as the blood flowed freely from the wound it wasn’t phasing Leofric.  He started to lumber forward, Cynric prepared to fight.  He was anticipating another charge at him but instead, with a pouncing leap, Leofric landed low, shoulder tackling Cynric.

The impact knocked them both to the ground.  Searing pain shot across Cynric’s face.  Two of the dagger-sized claws had raked across his cheek and jaw.  As Leofric rose, jaws ready to deal a fatal blow, Cynric said through gritted teeth.  “Do it.  Bite me.”

Leofric stopped, of course this hypocrite wanted him to bite him.  the fabled story of the curse.  Even though it was simply a fairy tale, he wouldn’t cater even to the roaring crowd.  Using a claw, he pierced Cynric’s wrist forcing him to release his sword.  Then he shifted back, grabbing the weapon as he stood.

“No!  you will not deny me.  I am Cynric Wulfstan.  I’m the fierce wolf of the north.”

“You’re wrong.  You’re a traitor to the people of the north.  Your kind killed my parents, my people.”  Leofric’s rage bubbled to overflowing.

Not able to contain it any longer he swung.  Using all the strength his human body could muster.  The arc of the blade went true, severing Cynric’s head from his body.  He felt he avenged all those who died.  The crowd went wild, but it didn’t matter.  The wound to his stomach finally drained him.  all the sounds died away, Leofric collapsed to the ground, sweet darkness cradling him in its embrace.

Realization that death hadn’t claimed him slowly manifested itself as his senses became more aware.  Pain, searing excruciating pain ran all through his body.  The little he was able to open his eyes he only thankfully found darkness.  Each breath brought new waves of pain.  As he lay there in an ocean of misery, he became aware of another presence.

“Who’s there?”  his voice was a raspy whisper.

At first no one appeared, he began to question his sanity then a small light flickered in a corner of the room.  He could barely move, let alone see who was present.  “Please come closer.  Who are you?”  Even if it was an executioner, he welcomed any respite from his current woes.

A young boy approached his side.  At first there was no recognition then Leofric placed the face.  It was the slave boy that followed Lucius.  He held a single candle while he stood there staring at Leofric.

“Who are you?  What is it you want boy?  Tell Lucius I’ll fight no more.”  It hurt to speak but he needed to say that last part.  No matter what, his days as a slave of Rome were over.

“Sir, you’ll not fight again.  The emperor declared you a freedman.  Relief overwhelmed him as the boy held up the staff that symbolized his newfound freedom.  Then it dawned on him the boy was speaking his native tongue.

“Who are you?”

He stood there quietly, scrutinizing Leofric.  “Erlwin, I watched you fight.  You are from the north?’

“Yes, as I bet you are as well.”

“I-I . . . I thought I was alone.”

Leofric was confused.  “Why do you say that?”  though painful he sat up to better look at Erlwin.  There were other Northman here.

No more words were spoken, Erlwin changed.  Leofric became flooded with emotions.  Apparently not everyone was murdered.  Maybe more lived.  He was a freedman, he could leave now, but he wouldn’t leave Erlwin behind.  As soon as he healed, they would go home.  Laying down to rest he said, “Erlwin, tell no one.  stay near, we’ll leave Rome soon.”

“To go where?  Master Lucius will be angry.”

“I’ll let no one stop us, we’re going home little brother.”  With that word leaving his lips he smiled, falling into his first fitful sleep in years.  Knowing nothing in Rome would stop them and he was no longer alone.  The souls blessed his revenge.

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