Synopsis & Excerpt © 2003-2013 by Kim Headlee of System Support Services, Inc.
Revised 8 March 2013

LIBERTY by Kimberly Iverson

Synopsis

They hailed her "Liberty" but she was free only to obey...or die.

Rhyddes ferch Rudd, daughter of a Celtic farmer from northern Britain, is sold into slavery to pay her father's tax debt. Her new owner, impressed with her physique and fighting skills, trains her to become a female gladiator. Using the ironic persona of "Libertas," Latin for "liberty," Rhyddes wins bouts and hearts all over Britain.

One heart she wins is that of Marcus Calpurnius Aquila, son of Britain's governor. Marcus finds his freedom curtailed in a different though no less binding way when he becomes betrothed to the daughter of the powerful Senator Falco to further his father's political ambitions.

Senator Falco, who believes Rome's new emperor to be a weakling, harbors his own ambitions. He embroils Rhyddes and the other gladiators in a plot to foment rebellion, intending to prove the emperor's incompetence and ascend the throne himself. No lover of the empire, Rhyddes agrees to participate in exchange for the alluring promise of freedom Falco offers.

When Marcus learns of Falco's plan, and realizes that senators loyal to the emperor have been murdered, he must convince Rhyddes to help thwart Senator Falco before they become Falco's next targets.

Click on the following for more information about:
[Awards][Reviews][Interviews]
[Synopsis] [Excerpt] [Contests]

Back to: [Top of page] [Index]




Excerpt from Chapter 12

On the final day of Saturnalia, Rhyddes looked up from the floor of Isca Silurum's arena, her foot pinning her prone opponent to the ground following a hard-fought match, to find Aquila sitting in the dignitaries' box between the legion commander and a local Silurian Celt who'd been chosen by popular acclaim to preside as king of the Saturnalia festivities. The governor's son outshone his peer and pseudo-peer, bearing his silver-and-crimson ceremonial armor as if he'd been born to the uniform.

Born to conquer, as those soldiers had conquered her the night of her sale, she reminded herself sternly.

Visceral loathing vied with unbridled desire in Rhyddes's heart. Upon peering beyond the revulsion for what Aquila represented, however, she had to admit she derived more satisfaction from his smile than from the Saturnalia king's approval of her victory.

That satisfaction lasted only until Aquila tossed a holly bough, replete with ripe berries, to the sand at her feet. Whether he had intended the association or not, she interpreted the offering as a tacit invitation to a more intimate form of Saturnalia sport.

Not wishing to appear ungracious in front of five thousand spectators, she collected the holly, brandished it at the crowd, saluted and marched off the field. She cast it aside the moment the tunnel's shadows closed about her, and stomped, under guard, back to her cell.

She had no time to begin stripping off her armor before Vederi appeared at her cell's door with a summons to report to Jamil's quarters.

She had expected Aquila to be there when she arrived. What she didn't expect was that he would be alone.

He had not changed out of his armor. Her heart redoubled its assault on her head.

Aquila gave Vederi a curiously long appraisal before dismissing him. Gruffly, Rhyddes thought, which also seemed odd. After the guard had closed the chamber's outer door behind him, Aquila bade her wait while he ducked into the inner room. She averted her gaze from the iron ring and manacles to study the pattern of chisel marks in the floor's slates.

He returned a few moments later with one hand hidden behind his back. A silly grin splitting his face, he brought the hand forth to reveal a wreath of plaited fir boughs, a common Saturnalia gift among Romans.

She crossed her arms. "Have I your permission to speak freely, my lord?"

He arched an eyebrow. "During Saturnalia, you don't need my permission."

"It is your custom, my lord. Roman custom." She didn't bother to bleed the disapproval from her tone. "Not mine."

"Very well." He set the wreath on a side table, his gaze lingering upon it with muted sadness mingled with...regret?

Surely not.

"Why are you hunting me, Lord Aquila?"

"Hunting?"

She ticked the events on her fingers. "Bidding upon me in the slave market. Accosting me at every opportunity in Villa Britanniae and at banquets. Watching my matches and practice sessions. Following us on the road. Leaving for a time, long enough for me to believe you had lost interest in me . . ." She sighed but pressed on. "And now, on the eve of our departure, I find you here again. Why?"

"I thought the answer would have been obvious, Libertas." After dipping his head and pointing another glance at the wreath, he stepped toward the door.

She scurried around him to block his path, feet planted solidly and fists on hips. "No, you don't. Not without answering me. My lord."

In a swift, fluid move worthy of an ex-gladiator, he latched onto her shoulders, bent forward and fastened his lips to hers, hungry and insistent. Her mouth, in league with her traitorous heart, welcomed him ravenously. Her desire surged with each stroke and thrust of his tongue twining with hers.

Gods, but she'd never felt so loved, so free!

Then she remembered who and—more to the point—what he was. She broke contact and cocked her fist but hesitated in confusion. Did she wish to strike him because she didn't like the liberty he had taken with her...or because she did?

He seized the advantage of her pause to entrap her fist in his and guide it back to her side. "I love you, Libertas," he whispered.

"Hah. You love the challenge I represent."

"That's not true—"

With a disbelieving grunt she turned and paced away. Gazing at the door, she yearned to bolt for freedom, but the attempt would be pointless.

Her victories had earned her thrice the sesterces required to buy title to her freedom, even after subtracting the penalty Jamil had imposed following her loss. But in an empire where citizenship stood paramount, where she would always be considered infamia for having fought in the arena—no better than the whores plying their trade among the men outside this fort's gates—that option also seemed pointless.

"You Romans are all alike."

She heard the muted creak of leather and metal as he drew near, but she didn't move. That, too, would be pointless.

Slowly, as if she were a skittish mare, his arms came up to encircle her waist, where the flesh lay bare between her breastplate and battle kilt. His skin felt cool upon hers, but his breath puffed warmly against her neck.

"No, Libertas, we are not all alike."

"Indeed, my lord?" She turned, annoyed, but did not break his embrace. "Your actions betray you. Romans see what they want and take it. Whether by guile or by force, the end result is the same. That kiss was your inbred Roman nature forcing its way to the fore."

He cupped her face. "My nature as a man—not a Roman—exerts itself in your presence." His thumbs lightly stroked her cheeks, tempting her.

Determined to remain stoic, she dismissed his assertion with a derisive snort, and he lowered his hands. "You play the role of the conqueror convincingly enough."

He glanced down at his armor and gave her a lopsided grin. "Point taken." With his index finger, he traced the finely tooled curves of her breastplate. "You play at being a warrior, too. We make a well-matched pair."

"We? How can there ever be a 'we' when you remain fated to marry another woman?"

His brow furrowed. "You know about Messiena?"

Not the woman's name; Rhyddes hadn't heeded the gossip that closely. But her existence, she knew well enough.

"You weren't planning to tell me about her? What do you take me for, some whore to spread her legs for the first pair of breeches to saunter by?" She blew a riff with her lips. "Not all infamiae are alike, my lord."

"Indeed."

Recovering his grin, he sidled closer, but she stepped back and flinched when her shoulder bumped the door's frame.

"I don't understand, my lord. You would defile a union sanctified by your gods?"

"My betrothal was forged for political reasons, Libertas. Only unions between Roman priests and priestesses are sanctified and inviolate. Roman law gives all other husbands perfect freedom to take whatever lovers they desire, male or female."

Rhyddes felt herself gape at him. "And you call us the barbarians?"

Shrugging, he said, "It's worked for hundreds of years."

"For the men, no doubt, but what say have your women in this abominable custom?" She branded him with her glare.

He spread his hands in a conciliatory gesture and flashed that charming smile of his. "Besides, what union could be truly sanctified without even one spark of love?"

'Twas a valid point she had no intention of conceding.

Rhyddes expelled an exasperated sigh. "Why can you not leave me alone, my lord? Do your maidservants not please you anymore?"

"I sold them the day I met you." His tone sounded oddly subdued, his gaze distant.

Still, she couldn't resist quipping, "You used and discarded those virgins that quickly, then?"

"I didn't...use...any of them, Libertas."

She had no idea what to make of that remark. "But surely there must be many women who would be happy to relieve your lust."

His head jerked as if she'd slapped him. "Lust? Is that all you think I feel toward you?"

"Is it not?"

He briefly closed his eyes with a sigh. When he opened them, they revealed a pain and wistfulness that tugged at her heart.

"From the moment I saw you in the slave market, I knew you were special. Lust drove my bidding that day, I admit. But after I watched your first match, I found myself wanting to know every aspect of the woman beneath—" he tapped a neatly trimmed fingernail against her breastplate "—this." Stepping back a pace, he placed his right fist over his heart and bowed to her in a gladiator's salute. "But if it is your wish that I leave you alone, you have my word I shall never pursue you again."

Although he sounded sincere, he looked lost and forlorn. As a fortress made of sand succumbs to the invading ocean waves, so her resolve toppled. She closed the distance, lifting her hand to touch his cheek, his temple, his short, wiry, laurel-scented black hair.

"No, my lord, that is not my wish," she whispered. "But I need time."

When she would have let her hand fall to her side, he caught it. "Time? Why?"

Even his touch chipped away at her resistance. Displaying a rueful smile, she withdrew her hand before he could inflict more damage.

"In you, I see a man I desire and a man I loathe. Your armor . . ." She shut her eyes against the brutal memories. It only intensified them.

"Libertas, what is wrong?"

Sighing, she opened her eyes and looked away. "My lord, I...your armor reminds me of the soldiers who . . ." She shuddered. "The soldiers who took me." She felt his fingers slip beneath her chin to turn it back, and she didn't resist. Gazing wistfully at him and feeling her eyes moisten in response to his concern, she prayed for his understanding. "I must purge myself of the man I loathe before I can claim the man I desire."

"I'm sorry, Libertas. I had no idea they raped you."

She shook her head. "My father sold a virgin, and so by your laws a virgin had to be delivered to the slave market." Her stomach writhed at the painful recollection. "The soldiers' sport took...other forms."

"I am so, so sorry." He clutched his sword's pommel, knuckles whitening. "I would gut them myself if I knew who they were." Aquila's gaze unfocused for a moment before he regarded her earnestly. "I would never hurt you, or force you to do anything against your will. That I swear before all the gods." Again he saluted her. "I also swear to do all within my power to find and punish the soldiers who abused you."

Rhyddes gasped. "You would punish your fellow Romans for me, a Celtic gladiatrix-slave...an infamia nobody?"

"No." Aquila relaxed his fist and held his hand toward her, palm up. "But I would gladly do it for the woman I love."

Her head refused to accept his implied promise. She gazed at the floor, her cheeks heating with the recollection of the fort's whores, and dropped her voice to a whisper. "How can you, a pampered aristocrat, possibly love the likes of me?"

"Because, Libertas, you understand the likes of me."

She looked up. "What do you mean?"

His gaze seemed distant again. "That night, after your first banquet . . ." He regarded her frankly. "When we spoke in the corridor, after you vented your anger over what I'd done to Iradivus, you gave me two priceless gifts—forgiveness and acceptance. I cannot tell you how much that meant to me." Smiling, he extended his hand. "But I can show you, with your permission."

As she stared at his hand, her heart surged stronger and faster. Freedom, its beat urged. Freedom, freedom, freedom!

Against such a vibrant refrain her head couldn't possibly compete.

Rhyddes grasped his hand and entered into his embrace. Slowly his head bent toward hers. He slid his hands down her back, leaving a trail of tingles in their wake, as his heady and altogether male scent enveloped her. His lips brushed hers, sparking her desire. She stretched to reach her hands behind his head, glorying in the feel of his hair, which was far softer than it looked, and pulled him closer. Their tongues entwined, deepening the kiss and freeing her soul to soar with her eagle, if only for a short while.

Aquila had vowed to find and punish the soldiers who'd harmed her. With that kiss he could have sealed a hundred vows.

Click on the following for more information about:
[Awards][Reviews][Interviews]
[Synopsis] [Excerpt] [Contests]

Back to: [Top of page] [Index]