The River


Part Fifteen: Ancient Pain


Ash lay there, holding Methos, feeling his slow, deep breaths, knowing there was no chance of rest, not for her. The past haunted her, the recent past, the ancient past. It should have been Methos who couldn’t sleep, but Methos did not understand. He had no idea of how much of her pain was caused by him, his actions in the past, his selfishness. Ash's thoughts ran in a circle, ‘Aren, Aren, how can you ever forgive me, how can I ever forgive Methos, how can I ever forgive myself? Methos didn’t know what he was doing, had no conception of the havoc he would cause. It ended both our lives, but I came back, I have wished a million times that I had stayed dead with you. That was my hope, to die that day in the arena, to join you, even if only in nothingness. I fought and won, even then, if not for the treachery of Nero, I would have walked through the gate of life. I remember lying on the sand, bleeding to death from a sword through the back, glad to die, looking at the sky, loving you. I still love you. I will always love you; if I live another two thousand years I will still love you, and mourn you, even though I killed you.’


She heard Methos’ voice saying, “You saved him from agony,” and it was true, but it didn’t hurt less. She had killed him with her own hands, taking the life she had loved more than her own. She also heard Methos saying, “It wasn’t your fault,” and that was true too, it was Methos’ fault, for trying to tear Aren away from her, not knowing how dependent he really was on her, not knowing he would break under the strain. Yet she loved Methos, too. He had been there when she came back, had gently explained what she was, what he was, what it meant to be Immortal, and had begged her forgiveness for his selfish stupidity. Too late, he understood too late. He was still sorry, even now, and she had forgiven him as much as it was possible for her to. Ash would have shared Aren. She loved him, but knew he needed men, and knew he loved Methos. She had loved Methos then too, but Methos had wanted Aren all to himself and that had ended everything.

She remembered how it had been, how obsessed Methos had become, unable to let Aren out of his sight, jealous of any moment Aren spent with her. Aren grew more and more unstable, losing his grip on reality, believing that freedom was possible for both of them, that Nero would really let them go with Methos, when she knew it was Nero tormenting him, and her. Aren even believed that Methos wanted both of them, not just him. She knew that she would never be free, she was unique, a female gladiator good enough to fight men and win. Her only way out was death, and that doomed them all. Methos had not understood that Aren would never leave without her and that Nero would never let her go, she was far too valuable as an attraction in the Games. It was her fault, her fault that Aren couldn’t go, her fault that Aren needed her so much. Always her fault, always her hand that killed, from the beginning. Ash slipped down into a half dream, half memory, Rome the eternal city, Rome, the source of all authority, Rome, city of marble and rabble.

She was nineteen, a veteran of five seasons in the arena, the most well-known gladiatrix in Rome, on her way to the baths after a hard training session, when she heard screaming coming from the men’s section of the baths. The screaming was high-pitched, it sounded like a woman was being hurt, probably raped, any woman who wandered into the men’s baths would be considered fair game, and there had been a new group of slaves brought in just that morning.

Ash followed the sound as it diminished into whimpers; coming upon a group of rough gladiators gathered around two forms huddled on the floor, locked in a carnal embrace. The whimpering continued, coming from the smaller form on its knees on the bottom. All Ash could see were slender arms, splayed out on either side of a head full of long, wavy black hair, thin calves, and, between thrusts, blood spattered thighs. The blood was what made Ash step in to stop it.

The gladiators scattered before her amber glare, all but the one pleasuring himself on the whimpering body. ‘Murmax,’ Ash thought, ‘it would be you, one step away from an animal, cruel enough to rape a child.’ Ash grabbed him from behind, her arm around his neck, using leverage and her trained strength to pull the much larger man off; Murmax roared in frustration and rage, his still-engorged cock dripping blood on the floor. He turned to fight whoever it was who dared to interrupt his pleasure, drawing back his fist, stopping only when he saw who it was. Ash was inviolate, a very painful death had long been promised to anyone who harmed her. For all the years she had been here no one had ever dared.

No one dared now; Murmax lowered his fist, snarling at her, “If I ever meet you in the arena, I swear I will kill you.”

“You can try, Murmax,” Ash answered him, unafraid, she could kill the big, slow murmillo easily, and he knew it as well as she did. He raised his fist to punch the glazed tile wall, then thought better of it, much to Ash’s surprise. She hadn’t credited him with that much capacity for thought. Murmax stomped off, his erection bouncing comically. Ash managed not to laugh. Instead she crouched down to examine the figure on the floor.

Curled tightly into a ball, arms crossed, head down, back against the wall, Ash couldn’t tell if the thin body was male or female. She smoothed back the thick, tangled curls from the face, saying softly, “They won’t hurt you any more, I won’t let them, it’s all right.” She sat down on the floor and gathered the shaking body into her lap, into her arms, her voice soothing, murmuring soft nonsense. The thin arms unfolded, clutched Ash around the waist, and she felt the tension relax and the crying begin, hard, desperate crying, too intense to last for long, tapering off into ragged sobs.

“Can you stand up?” Ash asked gently, not sure if this slave understood Latin, but the head nodded, and they shifted and stood, the arms still around her, though they moved up, the slave was taller that she was, though far too thin. Ash saw it was a boy, about fourteen, fragile looking, too pale, with fear in his dark eyes. She reached up and caressed his smooth cheek, the skin so delicate under her sword-callused hand. A look of trust came into his eyes, so dark they were almost black and so deep, and his beautifully curved lips stopped trembling. She guided him into the women’s section of the baths and washed his body, gently examining him. He had fine downy hair in his groin, pubescent, and he was circumcised, something Ash had never seen before. He was still bleeding, but only a little, and Ash applied a soothing ointment that eased the pain. He seemed to give himself up, to simply do whatever she wanted, totally passive. She washed his hair, working through the tangles, his hair blacker than his eyes, falling in silky waves down his back when she finally had it combed out, then she wrapped him in a large linen towel, and sat him down on a bench.

Ash bathed quickly, concerned only with getting the sweat off her body, not noticing the boy watching her; if she had she would have seen an enthralled expression on his face, he had never seen a woman nude before. She was beautiful, muscled, so strong, and he wanted to be close to her, to hold her, to be held by her. He noticed the bruises, the scars; these didn’t detract from her beauty, not in his eyes. She had saved him from those men, the ones who were hurting him. Why did they hurt him, it wasn’t necessary, he liked doing that, when it was gentle, when he was ready.

Ash finished bathing and wrapped herself in another large towel. She went over and sat next to him on the bench. The boy turned to her, she could see the trust still in his eyes, and she thought, ‘Now what do I do with you? I guess I’ll take you to Praxus, he may be wondering where in Hades this new slave has gone to.’ She got up, took the boy’s hand, and they walked out of the main section of the baths, to the dressing area, where Ash pulled two clean tunics off of a shelf. She unwrapped the towel and put on a tunic, and the boy imitated her, dressing himself.

Ash led the boy out of the baths, back to the main compound of the ludes gladatorium. She went straight to the wing where Praxus’ rooms were. No one stopped her, no one challenged her right to go wherever she wished, she had the run of the ludes, although she was far too smart to stray into any area where she could run into trouble. She led the boy to the door and knocked. A deep voice said, “Enter.”

Praxus sat behind a plain wooden table covered in wax tablets, going over the accounts, the ever-present goblet of wine in his hand. The former gladiator looked up at her, his dark blue eyes slightly bloodshot, his dark hair shot with gray, his powerful body going soft with the easy life. He had stopped training years ago, after retiring from the arena. Praxus was an oddity among gladiators. Not a slave, he had entered the arena voluntarily, had made enough money and retired to train others in the skills needed to survive in that vicious profession. He was an excellent trainer and manager, despite the constant drinking. Ash knew from long experience it was impossible to tell when Praxus was drunk, unless he actually passed out, and she wondered if the goblet in his hand was the fifth or the fifteenth of the day. Ash knew Praxus very well; she had shared his bed for several years, until the effects of his drinking had caused him to lose sexual interest in her, or any woman. He had been a surprisingly skillful lover and he still had a deep affection for her; it showed in the smile he gave her, and the softer tone in his voice.

“So it was you who found the lost lamb. I was getting worried, that one is here for a special reason.”

“A special reason? What? To be raped by Murmax?”

“So that’s where he disappeared to. Murmax. If he belonged to me I would see to it he died in his next match. Unfortunately he belongs to the Emperor.” Praxus drained the goblet and reached for the flagon to fill it again. “Well, this may work out after all. The Emperor wants that one trained as a gladiator, but not to fight him, he just wants the body of a gladiator. It seems that pretty face of his will keep him safe. He seems to like you, so you are in charge of him and his training, at least the gladiator part of it, the other training will be done by Limulus and Lydia.”

Limulus and Lydia. Ash liked Limulus, but Lydia was another matter. She hated Lydia, and would do anything to keep this boy out of her hands. Ash would never forget what she had endured in Lydia’s training sessions and never forgive her deliberate cruelty. “If you would allow me, I would prefer to take Lydia’s place, I think I could do a better job than she could with him.” 

“Ah, so you like him, very well, you can train him in sexual technique. I know you are more than capable at it. You should keep him with you, let him sleep in your room, it will keep him out of trouble. I leave him in your care.”

Praxus returned to his accounts. Ash turned to the boy, took his hand again, and led him to her room. They didn’t go far, Ash’s room was down the hall in the same wing. Praxus had kept her close from the beginning, for her safety when she was a child, then later, when he had asked her if she would share his bed, it had been convenient. This room had been her home for seven years, but it hardly showed. It was spartan, containing the necessities and little more. She sat the boy down and poured him a cup of wine from the small flagon on the table. He drank it down quickly, she realized he was thirsty, and she poured his cup full again. He sipped this one, and she gently asked him, “What is your name?”

“Aren.”

His voice was deep for his age, and he looked at her, his dark eyes soft, the trust in them still there. His face was beautiful, though too thin. He seemed tired, almost exhausted, and Ash realized she should have given him food first. She sent for bread, cheese, and some fruit, and the boy, Aren, she reminded herself, ate ravenously, but neatly, showing the manners of a person more high born than a slave. She didn’t bother him with questions, he was occupied with the food, after the food and wine he became obviously sleepy, his eyes heavy lidded and his head nodding, Ash had to help him up and lead him to her bed. He stripped off the tunic and lay down, Ash started to cover him, but he reached up to her, his arms open like a child wanting picked up and held. He said, “Please stay with me.”

Ash lay down, leaving on her tunic, feeling that it would not be right for her to lay with him nude. He was a child, well not quite, but he was too young for that. Aren cuddled against her, settled, and fell asleep in minutes. It was obvious that he had been far more abused than she had realized, and that he had attached to her irrevocably. Ash wondered what she had let herself in for.

She had let herself in for months of training, turning the slender boy into a beautifully muscled adolescent. Though not a gladiator, he lacked the killer instinct; it was just as well he would never fight in the arena. But the arena was not where his talents lay, or were used. Ash had discovered his talent, sleeping with him night after night, it was inevitable that he would become sexually involved with her, and sexual was the word. Aren loved sex, with her, and with the men he was taught to please. It was far more than the training in sexual technique required, he needed sex like he needed food or water, almost like he needed air, his sex drive was intense. At first, Aren had shared her bed, afraid to sleep alone, but soon Ash found that he wanted more than sleep. The first time it happened Aren started it. Ash woke to the sensation of her breasts being caressed. Aren was touching her, feeling her breasts, totally absorbed in the way they felt in his hands, in the silky skin under his fingers, the hardened nipples fascinating him.

“Aren, what are you doing?”

“I want to touch you.” Aren’s voice had been husky, in the dark he sounded like a man, not a boy. He shifted and Ash felt his arousal. He pushed against her, needy, wanting, and he said, “I want to be in you, please, show me how.” There was a tone in his voice that went straight to her core. She wanted to do just what he was asking, but hesitated, Aren began to rub his thumbs back and forth across her still-hard nipples, the sensation making her ache to be filled, but still she hesitated, then he bent his head and took one over-sensitive pink tip in his mouth, instinctively sucking on it, and Ash lost any ability to resist. She opened her legs, and Aren willingly moved between them. She reached down, he filled her hand and she was surprised at the size of him, then she guided him into her hot center. Aren slid into her deeply, slowly; stunned by the way it felt to be inside her, on top of her, all the way in, and he held still, savoring the feeling, incredibly sensual. Ash moaned, arched up against him, somehow he was even deeper inside, and he had to move, out, then in, each thrust seeming to bring him closer to touching her molten core, each thrust taking him closer to an explosion of ecstasy. Aren was moaning now, overcome by the intensity of the sensation, Ash was crying out, swept away by her orgasm. Aren felt her clench tight around him, like a fist, it was more than he could bear and he came with a strangled scream. After that, they made love every chance they had. Aren’s need for her was almost insatiable, and her need for him was almost as vast.   

Ash discovered, over time, that sex was the reason why Aren had been sold into bondage. The son of a Pharisee, born in Jerusalem, raised to follow his father’s path, Aren had been caught by his father having sex with another boy. Outraged at what his religion considered an abomination, his own father had sold the pampered, almost spoiled boy into slavery. The alternative had been turning him over to the religious authorities who would have had him stoned to death. Aren had been thrown into a cell, then loaded onto a ship, ultimately bound for Rome. He was in shock, he’d never been treated like this, he’d been raised to be in authority, not subjugated to it. He refused to eat, barely drank enough to keep from dying of thirst, too panicked to sleep, by the time Ash had found him he was close to collapse. It was no wonder that he attached to her; she had been the first person to be kind to him since he was torn from his home and the only life he had known. But the attachment grew; Aren loved Ash more than she knew. Every time she fought in the arena he felt he would die if he lost her, and that fear preyed on his mind.

For Ash it was different. She had deliberately not become close to anyone, with the possible exception of Praxus. Gladiators didn’t become friends, you never knew when you may have to kill someone familiar, but Aren’s trust, his need for her breached all her carefully constructed defenses, and she loved him with the depth of the deeply lonely.

They were together almost all the time, except when Aren was being trained by Limulus, a master in pleasuring men. Aren took to this training, he enjoyed pleasing men, but the only woman he would touch sexually was Ash. Aren tried to explain this to Limulus, how Ash was the only woman he loved, how it was different with men, but Limulus could only believe that Ash knew some sexual trick, something that kept Aren by her side, and every chance Limulus had he would study Ash with his characteristic sidelong glance. It was Aren’s refusal to perform with any other woman that caused them both to be sent to the palace, to enact erotic myths as entertainment for Nero, and Nero’s favored guests, such as Methos.

Methos. Full circle, back to the ancient Immortal asleep in her arms. Ash looked down at him, the sweep of his eyelashes against his sculpted cheekbones, the patrician nose, the straight, dark hair, and she vowed again, “We won’t tear him apart between us. No matter how much I love Duncan, no matter how much I love you, I won’t stand in the way of your love for each other.” Ash closed her eyes, and a single tear fell, tracing a silver path down her cheek.

                    
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