This story is by Delaney Conroy and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
This was it.
Everything that they have worked so hard for all these months was finally in their grasp. There was only one obstacle that stood in their way. Once this last battle was won, freedom would be as good as theirs.
The army that stood before them wasn’t the same as the one they had taken on but a few weeks prior. They stood there with the level of discipline that one would expect from a empire with as much experience in war as theirs. They were proud legionaries that had faced countless campaigns and were ready to take them seriously as the threat they were.
They outclassed them in numbers, training, and equipment, but they were stuck fighting a literal uphill battle. There were a few tactics that her brother had told her about, and after a few modifications, she was ready to use them on the battlefield. She would’ve rather tried them out on an army like the one they had taken out. But seeing as they had the gall to assume that they’d be taken down by their most pathetic and undisciplined troops, she never got the chance to do much else other than slaughter.
The only regret she felt now was in choosing to wear the slaughtered general’s armour here. He was a man, and she was barely a woman. It fit poorly, but it was better than just running out there in the toga she had had prior.
There was one last assessment of how her troops were positioned, then her eyes turned and faced the general of the opposing legion. She could see the deficit in organization, but seeing her opponent finally start to take them as a serious threat made her chest swell with pride. Just one victory, and they could make their demands of becoming proper citizens of the empire, and finally be rid of their slave status.
But the longer she looked at her opponent, she began to realize just who they were squaring off against. Her foe stood tall among her own troops, but no weapon was to be seen on her, nor did she dawn any armour. Had this been any normal general it would be nothing less than spit in the face, but this wasn’t the case.
Had they really been so afraid of them, that they had sent the strongest legion they had at their disposal? The Great General Astarte, the beast that had not only abandoned a life of luxury at the temples to boost the morale of the troops by having one of their guardian deities protecting them on the field, but also leading them in battle and glory for generations.
No longer was it just a legion, but instead the strongest army in the world whose general’s conquests generations ago were the reason why most stood here now as slaves. In her hands was no longer just the freedom of her legion, but the glory of redeeming her family, and her grandfather’s fallen homeland. All that stood in her way was a lizard. There existed no victory sweeter than this.
With a thrust of her sword upwards, the battle started. Any fears she had would have to be put aside. Hesitation in battle would only get you pointlessly killed. Her band of gladiators and slaves were in formation, she could only hope that they stayed that way. Their line seemed to be a crude imitation of the one that was drawing ever closer. Should anyone abandon now, it would all fall to pieces and any hope they had would go up in flames. But they were all trustworthy, and they were comrades in arms. If she couldn’t trust them, then she had no one.
She detached from her team. The lines were about to crash, but if she could detach the head of the legion, hers could stand a chance. There was a narrow chasm that would keep Astarte in that human form of hers and there would be no dragon nonsense. Her own troops would be fine while she worked on getting the head of the Dracterrian legion’s head. If not she’d die a warrior’s death. This was her moment.
Just as predicted, Astarte followed after her. She kept her distance, but never made the effort to close the gap. Not even the faintest hint of sweat graced the lizard’s brow, despite her human form and the distance they had both gone. She hadn’t fought back, but already she was proving to be a more than worthy opponent. Though she had also fallen for her trap, so maybe the Great General Astarte was letting her fame go to her head and was underestimating Sophie. But that was really the good general’s problem now wasn’t it?
Here is where she’d pick up where her grandfather left off. Her sword was in hand, and her moment was now.
Her hands were shaking as she began her assault. Thrust. Slash. Slash. Thrust. Slash. Slash. Slash.
The damage didn’t even break the skin. If anything, her sword had sustained the most damage from this beast’s impenetrable skin. The toga around her was a little torn, but Astarte stood there completely unphased by the barrage Sophie had just unleashed against her and continued to watch with judging reptilian eyes. Had her sword’s sharpness matched the stare, perhaps she would’ve stood a chance, but she had no such luck.
“I must commend your skill. For a human as young and as untrained as you, you’ve proven to be quite the interesting opponent. That was quite the gamble, running off like that and expecting me to follow. I had almost been worried that I had been sent off to fight a coward seeing as you didn’t even meet your opponent in battle and ran off like that. Your strategy has to be one of the more idiotic, though I can follow your train of thought. Pulling me out of battle and into a tight space like that to limit what I can do. It would be something to see what you could do with some proper training and resources. You might prove to be quite the legionnaire one day.” The general rambled, advancing closer with every word.
Sophie made an attempt to lash out again, but her wrist was grabbed and she was stopped short. For the first time in the fight Astarte had fought back, but to call what had just happened her fighting back was putting it very generously. It was a simple leg sweep and that was all it took to knock her backwards and knock the wind out of her. Her armor groaned as the weight of the general pressed down on her chest, bending a foot shaped dent into the metal chestplate so it was now making full contact with her tunic. This turn of events gave her a million other scenarios that would’ve worked better. But there would be no next time.
This was where she met her end. There was no winning this battle. She had given her own troops ample time to get the upper hand. Maybe they could somehow win by numbers alone. In her final moments, even if she hadn’t won the battle, she was no longer the slave girl she lived as. She was Sophonisba Hannibal, general of her own legion. She’d get no honors in death, but she’d die a free woman, even if she wasn’t recognised as one by the empire.
However death was not in her cards, as right before the blade touched her throat it stopped.
“My, we’re awfully quick to die. The battle is over and you have lost. I will not have you taking away my victory.” Astare chastised. The blade was pulled from Sophie’s hands and plunged into the walls of the narrow passageway they were in.
Astarte lifted her over her shoulder like a sack of potatoes. She then grabbed Sophie’s hands to keep her from scratching her own neck until she bled out. This was the ultimate indignity.
She shrieked out every word she felt as she was brought back to the now finished battle. Everything that she said could be described the same way she was: profane, crass, and pathetic. She had been so close to getting them all freedom, and now everyone that was left was going to be brought back as slaves. From the warriors that fought today, to the people in the baggage train, she had failed them all.
Even now as she was being dragged back, she could see that casualties had been minimum, and that most of her legion had made it through mostly untouched. She could feel the humiliation and the devastation, even from where she was. They too had been denied death and were forced to return to their masters.
She was Sophonisba Hannibal, and she had been denied her honor and had even failed to follow in her grandfather’s footsteps.
She was a failure.
She was a slave.