The Triumphant (The Valiant #3)(2)

Seven days later, and I was down on one knee in the practice arena, tying my sandal laces and tucking them in tightly so there was no chance of me tripping over them.

“I can’t believe you did that.”

“What?” I looked up at where Elka stood glowering murderously down at me.

“Volunteered me,” she said.

“You mean after you volunteered me?” I blinked at her innocently.

“That’s different.” She shook her head, her tight blonde braids swinging. “You’re always flinging yourself about on chariot poles and leaping off ships’ masts. You’re a natural.”

I grinned at her. “If I can survive it, you can survive it. And then you can kill me later.” I stood and rolled the tightness out of my shoulders. “If we survive . . .”

I stood and looked over to the middle of the practice ring where Kore and Thalassa were setting up their Cretan contraption. The design was based on the ones they used in the bull rings of Knossos, and they’d worked on the thing with Quint, the mighty legion engineer, for the better part of the past week. That morning, they’d dragged it proudly out of the workshop and across the sand with a flourish.

“It’s . . . uh . . . a plank?” Gratia had tilted her head this way and that, looking at the thing.

It was pretty much exactly that. A plank. Only balanced on a fulcrum and secured in a frame and . . . there were ropes. And winches, maybe? I really didn’t understand the workings of it. I only knew that, once my foot hit one end, that would activate what Quint called the “torsion mechanism” and the thing would fling me up and—theoretically—over my arena adversary.

A cantankerous cart ox named Tempest.

The closest thing we could get to an actual Cretan bull.

The air that morning had a bite to it that nipped at the exposed skin of my arms and legs, making me wish I’d worn my heavier tunic. But I also didn’t want anything weighing me down. The sonorous bellowing coming from the causeway leading to the practice pitch sounded like a mournful war horn.

“I still think we should try this without the bull first,” I said.

“Ja,” Elka agreed heartily. “Or maybe just say we did, call it a day, and head to the baths—”

“How are we supposed to tell if you can actually clear the bull with your jump if you don’t actually have a bull there to clear?” Vorya asked.

Vorya was pragmatic, but she was also Varini and a fatalist—even more of a fatalist than Elka—so I didn’t trust her opinion on the matter. Also, she wasn’t the one jumping.

“And besides,” she continued with a decidedly fatalistic shrug, “if it doesn’t work, this way you’ll probably die quickly and avoid the shame of failure.”

I could never tell if she was joking or not.

Elka and I waited, pacing the arena stands in nervous anticipation, as they finished the springboard setup and brought out the ox. He looked much larger that day, out in the middle of the practice arena, than he did in his stall. With much larger, sharper horns. We’d tied ropes around both of his horns so that some of the girls—in this case, our Amazon sisters Kallista and Selene, and Ceto and Lysa, our two newest recruits to the ludus, both with farm backgrounds—could hold his head immobile. Tempest clearly wasn’t happy about the encumbrances, though, and he snorted and bellowed. As I threw a leg over the barrier and dropped down into the arena, he fixed a baleful glare on me and pawed at the sand with one great hoof.

“I think he likes you,” Elka said dryly, landing beside me.

“You better hope he likes you,” I said. “You’re going first.”

That was the moment when Elka fell silent.

And started reciting the gladiatorial oath.

After enough shouted encouragement from Quint, Elka finally rounded on him and shouted back, “Call me a stone one more time, Quintus! I dare you!”

His mouth snapped shut, and a silence rippling with anticipation descended on the pitch. Elka snorted a breath out through her nostrils—not unlike a bull herself—and turned toward the springboard. She took a hard run at it, arms and legs pumping, and hit the target spot with both feet. The board mechanism triggered and launched her up and forward through the air, just as promised!

Elka sailed over the beast—perfectly framed in the curve of his horns—arms stretched out in front of her like she was swimming through the air. She flew clear over Tempest’s withers and past his angrily swishing tail to land on her hands, tucking into a neat shoulder roll. She tumbled twice and was back up on her feet with a sprightly bounce, a look of surprise and utter delight on her face.

“I did it!” she yelped, punching her fists in the air. “I flew!”

An elated roar went up from our watching comrades, and I breathed a sigh of relief—for her and me—and waited with slightly less trepidation for Quint and Kore to reset the whole arrangement. The girls holding Tempest pulled tight on their ropes. I gathered my focus and steadied my breathing. Then I launched into a run.

My feet hit the springboard square on target, and it launched me into the arc of a perfect forward dive—just like it had Elka—only this time, Tempest was having none of it. The great, nasty monster threw his huge head up and to one side, knocking me cartwheeling through the air with one of his horns and flinging Kallista and the others about like dolls tied on the ends of strings. I hit the ground hard and bounced until I hit the barrier. I heard shouts from the stands and lifted my head to see the girls getting dragged across the sand by the ropes meant to hold Tempest immobile. He shook his head, yanking three of the four ropes from their hands. Kallista was the only one to hang on—barely—and she staggered to her feet as the angry beast turned his attention toward me. Selene, along with Ceto and Lysa, scampered to safety as Kallista ran to an iron ring set into the stone wall and looped the rope through, pulling it tight in the hopes of giving me a chance to escape.

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