The Brazen Bull
She was born in the recaptured city of Carthage, where the desert and the ocean mingled and made the air sweet. She came into being at the price of her mother—a woman whose history her seed-father never told her, perhaps because he deemed it unworthy of being told. She lived her first years, nameless, in a basket behind the man’s bread stall.
When she was eight years old, her father sold her to a vast estate that housed a family of several upon several—so many that she never did manage to learn all their names.
The pater familias, Valerius Julius Licinus, named her Valeria: he wrote his name on her when he received her, making her his before she knew what it meant to be owned. He had her wear her hair in a long braid, and he had her weave textiles like her hair was woven, like her life was now woven with the lives of the rest within the domus of Julius Licinus. For as slaves were traded like livestock, so were they treated.
Valeria lived her childhood days among the pillars of a peerless house, trying to believe, as she spun and wove flax, that she could be content living like this forever. But there were nights she would pass by her slave-aunt’s room and see her unconscious on the table, bleeding red welts across her bared back. She would walk away from those scenes with a chilling sense of foreboding.
She was a calf in the garden of Olympia: the view was extraordinary, but she saw ribs sitting in the gods' golden platters every night and she knew what it meant—that her peace was enjoyed in borrowed time.
Valeria had heard of an emperor of the realm, his name, Alexius, passing between Valerius’ daughters in the garden. He was, they said, a legendary man living in the faraway land of Constantinople, whose decree created and moulded the lives of the people around her.
Only the rich possessed names so potent that they exerted power even here. Did Emperor Alexius care about the plights of the slaves here on the northern coast of Africa, for the people whom his people’s people had stolen from their lands and sold to the houses? She supposed he must not, if his palace was beautiful enough.
The child Valeria enjoyed the warmth of touch. The people of Valerius’ household seemed kinder to her when her hands were in theirs, Valerius’ wife especially, but his sisters and children, too. She let them hold her while they conversed in the view of the stars, and they came to love her as the most beautiful child of the household—more beautiful, even, than the grey-eyed daughters of the master.
Until she was sixteen years old, Valeria spun wool with work-hardened hands. It was only that year that she learned why Valerius had named her after him, when he caught her wandering behind the domus and pinned her, spread-eagled, against a wall with his rough palms and watched her as a hyena might eye his carrion. In that moment she sensed an infinity of scents around her, sweet fig marigolds in the earth just beginning to lose the heat of the sun, layered over that the wine on his breath.
Valeria did not immediately know what he meant by his actions, but when his palm met her cheek with enough force to send her sprawling, tasting blood, she began at once to shriek like the calf before the slaughter, scrambling to grab is ankles.
And as she screamed, his eyes rolled back, and he began to gasp and spasm and froth, releasing her. By the time the other slaves came running, they found her weeping before a corpse.
No external cause of death could be ascertained by the surgeons. Valeria could have been tortured to testify, but the master had drunk without inhibition and there was nothing to suggest he had been murdered but the symptoms of poisoning.
Thus was it that her ownership—and the ownership of her entire slave family—was passed to Valerius’ brother. Thus was it that Valeria continued to live in the house that stank of him, stank of the wine on his breath, and she came to hate the sound of her name—his praenomen—on the lips of others.
The entire family saw that the girl had looked hollower in spirit ever since the fateful day, but only her slave-aunt understood why. In the dark of the courtyard at midnight, the woman slipped her a map scrawled on paper with an incomprehensible sign on the back, and hoisted her over the wall of the domus so she could begin her flight.
The kindliness of her aunt’s dark eyes was the last she ever saw of that terrible place.
For half a day Valeria ran, too starved even to cry, hating herself and hating that Valeria was the only word she had to describe her personhood. The map, almost formless on the tiny scrap, led her to a doctor in a suburban coastal town who understood her plight as soon as she saw the sign on the back.
The woman introduced herself as Tadla Junia Paetina—Tadla, her own name—and offered her employment as her apprentice and assistant. She was tall and broad and the same colour as Valeria herself, and the way she held herself told the girl she belonged to no one.
The surgeon’s room was a refuge of blood and shadow in which Valeria learned physician sciences as if they were dark arts. People who entered, trembling, were soothed when Valeria laid her hands upon them. She was adept at administering herbs, and a fine hand with the scalpel, and as she worked at making shapes in skin and membrane, she let her resoluteness dilute her own seething self-hatred, although it never did leave.
Three years they worked side by side, healing the people of the bay and beyond, and the girl began to understand how it felt not to be an orphan. Her mistress’ presence anchored and protected her thoughts and, in the safety she furnished, she finally began to find herself.
Tadla—skilled as she was—told her she saw something unprecedented in her. She saw the way she stroked her patients to sleep, the way the colours of their faces changed as she cradled their heads. It both amazed and terrified her, she said. It would make her a doctor like no other.
By the time the town was once again sacked by Vandals with their broad axes and Tadla abducted never to be seen again, the girl, now nameless, had yet to understand what her mistress had meant.
She realised, as she cowered under the surgery table, nineteen years old and drenched in the smell of blood, that this portion of her life, too, she would now have to push out of her memory.
The child, no longer a child, ransacked the wasted surgeon’s room for supplies and fled.
She soon found herself in the recruitment office, hands lain gently upon the well-worn fingers of the centurion soldier at the desk. Dazed at the wondrousness of the woman whom he beheld, the man, all armour and glory, asked for her name.
“Junia Paetina,” she replied, taking the name of the only parent she had ever had. Her touch was so soothing he forgot to ask if she had been a slave before.
Rome’s fate had been changing in recent years, or so Junia Paetina heard. The armies, led and inspired by Alexius, had seen paltry resistance on the eastern fronts, tearing through the Aslama defences with ruthless efficiency. These tales were exchanged between the shopkeepers and centurions as their legion passed through the town, hefting gladius and shield. Her colleagues would drop coins for stories, or trade news with the looser-lipped townsfolk, and the stories would come: of magical fires on the battlefields, of godly voices booming from the skies, of the old Grecian legends come to life.
Junia Paetina fought smaller battles than those of the general-emperor Alexius. She fought on the battleground of Africa with nothing but her sword and her talent for influence. Together with her legion she tore Vandal camps apart, torturing captives in the grape press and the burning wheel whenever she was not holding a sword. Here, the skill that she had once used to soothe her patients aided her in the administration of pain. Alternating the torture with pleasure amplified their response, she quickly learned, and she easily became the most effective torturer among them.
For almost a year she fought and she bled, all for the mere hope of seeing Tadla’s face again—Tadla, who had once kept her alive. But if the woman had been in their camps, no one had been able to locate her—not even after every last tent had been lain waste to and every prisoner freed. As the decisive battle was declared won and the rejoicing began, she could only sit listlessly in the sand, gladius resting loosely against her shin.
Junia Paetina had done her grieving long ago. There was no more pain to be felt for the loss of the woman, only the acknowledgment of the emerging, yawning chasm of carnivorous hunger in her.
The legions of Carthage eventually drove the Vandals out of Roman Africa, and was then disbanded as required by the faraway emperor. It was a quick and surgical affair: she had allowed herself no personal connections, and when the time came it was easy to sever her ties and go her own way, gathering what little she owned.
Left with no place to go, she went where there was food and shelter and some semblance of salvation. In the deep red of the evening, she bundled herself, bloodstained fingernails and all, on a farmer’s cart to Carthage, and surrendered herself—as she’d learned to—at the office by the arena.
Before she could escape the cycle of bloodlust and fear, she once again let them push a sword into her hands.
They had not abolished the gladiatorial games, merely replaced human combatants with wild animals, as if it made the game less cruel.
Junia Paetina stared her first foe in the eye—a golden lion, back arched, teeth bared, hissing like the monsters of deepest Tartarus. Furious as it was, she saw that it was starved, for its ribs were a prominent relief beneath its combed golden fur.
Predator, who ravaged the bodies of cows. It was both what she was and what she feared, friend and foe inseparable.
The blood they had rubbed on her was driving the starved predator mad: it snapped and snarled, chains clanging and scraping with the force of its tugging. When they set the creature upon her, she took several seconds to snap out of her daze—and then the lion was only a beast again.
She lifted her sword in time to catch it perpendicular between the jaws, its teeth immediately crunching down upon the weapon—the action was answered by gasps. For a minute they wrestled, metal screeching, her fingers aching against the grip of the hilt; in the lion’s eyes were the fires of Hades, in its claws the rage of Cerberus.
Then Junia Paetina wound up her arms, and twisted the weapon, with a roar to match the beast’s. She severed its mandible clean off, to a surge of yells and screams. The piece of bone and muscle bounced and splashed across the ground.
Rendered powerless, the lion wheezed and whimpered until its life bled out and it collapsed to its knees. Junia Paetina planted a sandaled foot on its head and—because its slow bleeding death had not quenched her—stabbed it through the eyes. Drawing the sword from its sheath of flesh, she lifted it for the crowd, allowing the red iron liquid to splash on her forehead amid their yelling.
Seeing in her a flair for theatricality, the game makers began throwing her challenges of increasing creativity, which she met head-on on the hot, steaming sand, each time to growing applause. In one, she began on a platform over a pack of six cackling hyenas, which she did not best till one had sunk its teeth in her arm so she saw her own blood spattered across the earth.
The audience, she was told, loved the unconventionality of her brutality, the surprise of each of her kills. She played that to her advantage. She surprised them even more, snapping spines, nailing torsos to the ground, tricking the creatures into strangling themselves with their own chains. Each death left her grieving, left her a little less of the person she had been before.
As she learned to perform, Junia Paetina’s name began to travel—far enough that Constantinople caught wind of her matches.
One day, while she was rubbing oil on her arms, they came to her in the dungeons and offered to buy her over. Suddenly, the young woman had been promised enough money to buy herself a life of normalcy: a chance to be the doctor Tadla had almost made of her, perhaps—a chance to be the true heir to the woman she’d made herself the foster-daughter of.
It had been a year since her loss, however, and Junia Paetina had found something else, something of the persistent sting of vengeance, quelled only by murder in the coliseum, murder to which thousands were privy. She could not but kill, and kill, and kill.
Junia Paetina took their document and signed. That evening, she waited among the harbour stalls for the ship in which she would depart, under the sponsorship of the Constantinople spokesperson. It arrived within the hour, casting its shadow over the workers as it moored.
Up the gangplank stood the spokesperson’s brown-eyed slave, ignored and unnamed as she had been once. When the ship had left port in the darkness and the master had fallen asleep, Junia Paetina stole the slave from her cabin, weaving fingers with hers on the deck. Before long they were stealing kisses in the cloudy moonlight, although the kissing never advanced to anything else.
Constantinople smelled of sea breeze, like Carthage, but the air was not the parched desert air in which she had been raised, nor was the shimmering audience quite so bloodthirsty and wild. She saw it at the coast of the sea, glittering on the waters. Entering the excess of the greatest city in the world was a shock she never did overcome; the people spilled food on the roadsides and there was always a grand ship on the Bosphorus, thrice as big as anything she’d seen in her old city, all aglow with lights.
She became acquainted with the game-maker and the coliseum managers, welcomed into their midst with a dinner just like the city: rich and sumptuous, and dripping with unfamiliar sauces. Never one to turn down food, she ate until she felt dirty, then left to watch the sea until she no longer ached with disgust.
Junia Paetina was trained with local gladiators. Humans, she quickly came to understand, were betrayed by their intelligence. They were all obsessed with force, and rendered complacent by her looks. A man complimented her pretty dark eyes minutes before he found himself knocked cold by an impact against the arena wall.
On a cliff overlooking the bay, she asked the Marmara Sea where she was going. The sea did not give an answer, so she answered herself: as far as she could, until she was no longer property.
So it was, that Junia Paetina found herself striding, a blood-red cloak over her shoulders, into the audience of five pawing, head-tossing bulls. Down in the dungeons, they had replaced her gladiator’s helmet with a horned helm, perhaps designed to confuse her foes into thinking her a rival: she wore it proudly, raising her head to the audience so they could see the fearsome image it made.
Among them sat Emperor Alexius himself, curious, she was told, about the gladiator who had recently come into the public eye.
A fanfare of horns was followed by a loud cheer and a sudden pyrotechnic display. Junia Paetina raised her sword to the animals behind the bars and swung it to taunt them, with an easy smile that none but those in the first seats saw. They answered with haunting bellows, their soul-rending voices reminding her of the war horns of home.
Rippling with muscle and sinew, these bulls were not the same as the scrappy predators of Carthage. They were the primes of their herds, towering behind the retractable fences, and in their eyes she saw no empathy nor hunger, only a soulless urge for destruction. The bull at the centre stood taller than the rest, pawing and moaning.
In that moment, Junia Paetina was overcome by a brief sadness, for the bull was no predator, as drunk on its own rage as it may be. It was not the lion she had first looked in the eye; it was massive, rippling—towering and male and vulnerable in its grandeur. She could not help but to respect it, to want its stature even.
When the bell rang and the fences retreated into the ground, loosing the bulls upon her, Junia Paetina sheathed her sword—to an audible gasp—and flung herself forward. Dashing forth upon the sure leather of her sandals, she counted the seconds, then leapt with force and vaulted onto the head of the centre bull, right between its horns. Then she dropped into position atop the grand beast’s neck, and crouched low, heart booming loud.
As it bounced along across the sand, dizzied by her manoeuvre, she leapt to a squat atop its back, armour clattering. With another twist and swing she reversed her orientation, snatching at its horns to stabilise herself and letting go before it could fling her off with them.
Today Junia Paetina did not subdue her prey with injury. She let her hand rest upon its neck, digging her fingers through its fur until it touched the hide beneath. At once the beast ceased to toss its head, entering instead a steady, measured run. Grinning, she kicked its right flank with her heel: at once it regained pace, swerving left in answer to her kick—straight towards the second bull, readying its horns as it was overcome by a sudden inexplicable spate of rage.
The greater bull gored the lesser one with ease, frothing fearsomely as it bellowed at the crowd.
A good five minutes she steered and commanded the bull after the others across the sun-baked arena, like some bizarre hippodrome tamer, the audience gasping endlessly down. One by one her bull sank its horns into the others and then trampled them, again and again, until they were but mangled piles of meat, hide and bone.
Soon, all four others were dead. Junia Paetina brought her own mount to a thundering, dusty halt beneath the Emperor’s seat, raising her head to the blazing heat of the sun. Her shadow was one with the bull’s, beast indistinguishable from master. The emperor met her eye for the first time. She stared resolutely back.
Then, with a movement so deft and so swift it was not seen by most, Junia Paetina raised her sword high, and plunged it into the creature’s spine. A collective gasp burst out from amid the cheering.
She twisted. Her bull mount collapsed, bringing her to the ground with it, the jarring impact deadened by its body. It died briefly after, although she knew it died painlessly, for she had been touching it and willing it be so, clenching her jaw with a fearsome grin to hide all the emotion that boiled beneath it.
Death to her fear, her hatred, her history, herself, all at once. Everything was iron and rust in the air around her.
Amid a cloud of descending dust, she lifted her gaze to stare at the Emperor once more—this mythical man of the stories, who could take her life and twist it between his hands if he so much as pleased.
He stared back, applauding her slowly, and soon the audience followed suit.
The girl, nameless once more, left footprints of blood as she rose and walked away.
Emperor Alexius was so pleased with her performance, she later learned, that he had decided there and then to honour her with a grant and an agnomen. Junia Paetina Marcia, he called her, and so the people on the streets called her—for her chilling fearsomeness, worthy of the god of war himself, unmatched by that of any they’d seen before.
She wore her bull helmet out into the crowds on the street, where they had already named her something else: the Brazen Bull, or so she learned when they came flocking to shower her in wreaths and chants amid the heat and dust. The god Baal, of bronze flesh, in whose belly the Sicilian executioners boiled their victims to death.
They tried to invite her to drink, but the thought of alcohol tugged too hard at a memory of something she wished to forget. Nevertheless they paraded her through the streets, following her half a mile to the plaza where the musicians were playing merry tunes and the pedestrians were dancing to them.
Marcia, the Brazen Bull, they called her. She listened as they said it. The name Marcia. And she found that she liked it, for it felt like her own.