The Triumphant (The Valiant #3)(3)

Which it did . . .

But it also made her the only target left in range, and Tempest wasn’t about to let her slip past. Kallista ducked down behind a low wooden wall, making herself as small as she could as Tempest battered at the barrier with his horns, snorting fury and bellowing his rage. The planks splintered and bowed inward. They wouldn’t protect Kallista for very long.

Suddenly, I heard the voice of our ludus fight master ring out across the sands. “Ajani!” Kronos shouted. “Shoot that monster!”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Ajani nock an arrow to her bow.

“No!” I cried. “Ajani—no! Don’t shoot!”

She hesitated.

“I’ll solve this!” I called, not taking my focus off the animal in front of me.

Ajani lowered her bow, reluctant—as I knew she would be—to kill a poor, dumb beast that was only acting according to his nature. Kronos would be angry, but Ajani and I could face the consequences of his wrath together—once I managed to get out of the arena. I also simply couldn’t resign myself to matching wits with a farm animal—and losing. Surely I was smarter than some grumpy old bovine.

I flung my arms wide and whistled to get Tempest’s attention again.

I called out, “Kallista . . . let go of the rope!”

“If I do that, there’ll be nothing stopping him,” she answered, gritting her teeth as Tempest drove one of his horns all the way through the wood plank barrier, right next to her head. “He’ll just come for you—aiiy!” She yelped as he shouldered the barrier and tore one of the support posts right out of the ground.

“That’s the idea!” I shouted back. “Trust me—let go! Elka, throw me a towel and get to the stands above the gate!”

Without question, Elka wadded up one of the practice towels and, from where she stood in the stands, lobbed it at me. Then she ran between the benches, heading for the gate at the far end of the arena. I unwound the towel and held it unfurled in front of me. The ox had poor eyesight and swung his head from side to side trying to get a better look at me—a fresh target for his formidable horns. I’d once seen my father’s cattle master get the attention of the young bulls in the herd that way. They reacted to the movement.

“Come on, you great, smelly thing . . .”

Once he’d locked his senses on to me, I called out, “Kallista . . . walk. Slowly. Don’t run . . . just get out of the ring by the shortest path.”

She was light on her feet and over the wall in a blink. That left just me and Tempest. I waved the towel in front of me as I backed toward the gate. When I was right in front of the archway, Elka directly above me, I snapped the towel through the air, let it go, and swung my arms up, leaping high into the air as Tempest lowered his head and charged right at me, horns gleaming. With a cry of effort, Elka caught me by both my wrists and hung on with all her strength as I swung my legs up and Tempest thundered past, a handsbreadth beneath me, through the archway. I let go of Elka’s hands and dropped to the ground, running to swing the heavy gate shut. I slammed the bar through the brackets and collapsed against it, gasping in relief, and heard Tempest’s confused lowing.

We’d already closed the grate on the other side of the entrance, setting up the tunnel between as a kind of gated enclosure, and the stable boy we’d coerced into helping us with Tempest in the first place was standing by with bundles of new hay and clover to feed the beast through the grate. Tempest’s tantrums only ever lasted until he was given something sweet to eat. Then he was docile as a lamb and the boy could lead him peacefully back to his stall.

No harm done. Except, perhaps, to my pride . . .

Vorya slapped me on the shoulder as she passed and said, “Only a little shame. And you didn’t even die. I’m impressed.”

I shook my head as she walked off, whistling. But then I saw Kronos waiting for me, arms crossed over his broad chest, and I felt my neck muscles tighten. I expected him to be furious and had already resigned myself to the prospect of being relegated to laundry duty for a month.

But when I staggered over to him and sank down on a bench to catch my wind and hear my punishment, all he said was, “You want my advice? You girls need to practice the acrobatics first, Fallon. Master them. Then add in the livestock. Ask any fledgling leaving the nest: Flying’s hard enough, even when nothing else is trying to knock you out of the sky.”


ELKA SIGHED AS she settled onto the bench across from me in the massage room in the ludus baths. I nodded to one of the two attendants as she chose an oil infused with geranium for me. I lay facedown on my own bench, letting the heat and her hands work the tension from my neck and back, while skillfully avoiding the bruises I’d collected during my failed leap that morning. I felt like a lump of bread dough being punched into shape and readied for the oven.

“I miss the days when all we had to worry about was beating the living tar out of each other,” Elka said, her words muffled by the towel under her head that squished the side of her face. “Don’t you?”

“You are slightly easier to reason with than a bull, it’s true,” I said.

“And you smell better than one.” Elka grinned. “Most days.”

“If only the mob was content with just us.”

“Bah.” Elka waved away the notion with a languid hand. “The Romans and their make-believe. I wonder how they’d react if they came face-to-face with real war inside the walls of their precious city.”

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