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Blood of a Barbarian

                                                                 

CHAPTER ONE

For Those About to Die…

                                             [*   *]

Rome, 268 AD

        I, Magnus Scorpus, Gladiator of Rome, previously known as Octric the Barbarian, raised my arms high into the air and entreated Mars the God of war to grant me victory over my opponent.  It was unclear whether or not he would hear my words, the words of one who up until very recently had been a sworn enemy of the Empire.  Still, my wounds were many, and it was the only hope I had left.

All about the large arena floor, torches had been stuck into the cool sand in order to illuminate us struggling fighters, so that the spectators would miss nothing.  There was also a ring of hundreds of torches mounted all along the arena wall that were attended by diligent slaves.  High up, in the gilded Imperial Box, was the Emperor, Gaius Pius Torrentius Tarantula, and he sat upon his ivory throne, surrounded by a dozen Pretorian Guards.  The audience was mired in inky darkness, but Tarantula himself was fully alight, his bright white robes, and pale face underlit by the flickering torches.

At first I had been amazed, and bewildered, to learn that the mightiest Empire in the world was ruled-over by a sickly weakling, and one barely out of his youth at that.  It was hardly my place to judge, for in the land where I came from, our chiefs had been chosen from the strongest, and the bravest, and the most cunning, and yet for many centuries past we had suffered nothing but defeat against these Romans.

Upon the edge of the moon-blue sands, a musical troupe was playing -melodic accompaniment to the slaughter.  Sometimes they were drowned out by the cheering and cat-calling crowd, but when there was a lull in the noise, the strange instruments and voices created an eerie and other-worldly effect.  One musician pounded upon a drum, while fife players scattered their notes about in no particular order.  Softly, the female chorus chanted, then swayed and chattered and sighed.  The vibrations coursed through me, and the undulating sensual tones uplifted my music-borne spirit, and made my limbs feel battle-ready.

My opponent was a large, wiry African, and a dreaded Retiarius gladiator.  He was armed with a Trident spear, which he balanced in his right hand, and a large fisherman’s net, which he draped over his left wrist.  He also carried a short dagger, that he would use as a last measure should it come to a close-contact fight.  He would do anything he could to avoid this, for his weapons were less effective when the enemy was near, while I, as a heavily-armed Secutor, would try to do everything I could to close the distance between us.

It was difficult to breath in my helmet, or to hear anything but my own gasping inhalations.  There was no ventilation, except for two small eye-holes that had been cut into the helmet's smooth, round bronze, and with those only to see through I was half blind.  I was meant to represent a fish, as represented by the crested fin upon my helm, while he was the fisherman sent to ensnare me -hence the net and the harpoon.  On my left arm I carried a scutum, or heavy, curved Legionary's shield, and this I kept close to my torso.  On my left leg I wore a greave, or fitted armour sheath, while on my right fighting arm I wore a manica, or padded arm cover.  In my right hand I clutched a pilum, or medium-length iron sword, and this I tucked into my right side, ready to lash out with a thrusting lunge should I spot any vulnerability or hesitation in my foe.

So far, he had given me little to work with.  His technique was almost flawless, and as he bobbed and weaved and circled, and looked at me through slitted eyes, I could well-imagine what it must feel like to be the prey in a game of cat-and-mouse.  I knew well this man’s fearsome reputation for cold-blooded murder on the sands of death, and could not even hope for any mercy.  I had heard his tale from the lips of others, a tale not unfamiliar to many of us gladiators.  The village where he had lived, deep in the hot plains of Africa, had been invaded by the Romans.  

They had laid waste to all, and in their ruthlessness, had burned and killed and enslaved.  When the fighting was all over, and the smoking huts had been reduced to ash, there was but one warrior of the tribe left standing.  With his bare hands alone he had taken the lives of many soldiers, and had tasted of their blood.  His new masters were both horrified and fascinated by the savagery and ferocity that flamed like fire in his eyes, and decided to take him alive -a rare and unique specimen for the games in Rome.  Even so, even with the promise of life, it had taken eight strong men to shackle him in heavy chains -no man-made rope would have held him for long.  Now, he trained and sweated and raged, and took his vengeance upon the only people he could, there in the arena.  Perhaps he did not bother, or in his anger did not care to see, a difference between those who had robbed him of his freedom, and those, like myself, who were prisoners and only fighting to stay alive. 

My strategic plan, when dealing with an opponent who was stronger than myself, was to play the game of small advantages, that is, to make feints resembling big attacks, but then to reverse course mid-lunge, and to go for a smaller wound -preferrably in the arms, neck, or thigh.  These wounds might not be vital, but they had a sort of cumulative effect, and over time served to wear down and literally bleed dry one's foe.  The only trouble was that this Retiarius was not falling for my tricks.  I got one stab in that way in his left thigh, but after that he was onto me, and guarded himself well against my attempts. 

By now the crowd was becoming impatient.  They had come to see a fight between Titans, not to see two well-trained warriors dancing around with one another.  They began their hisses and calling out, saying things like “Hit him already!” and “Attack, you ninny!”  I tried not to let this distract me, but knew I had to do something fast.  Part of being a gladiator is performing, and entertaining the crowd.  This was especially important for me, as it was my first fight in the Great Arena.  If you were not so well known, or had not fought well, the results could be dire.  There was a good chance that your fate would at some point be in the hands of the mob, or the Emperor, and if you did not want your throat to be slit, you could not afford to bore them.

The loyalty of the people is fickle, and while they had been happy to cheer for me at the beginning of the games, mainly because I had shown promise both at the gladatorial school and during my first bouts, they were now cheering on my opponent.  It was in their nature to side with the most eggressive fighter, and to distain the loser.  I decided to throw caution to the winds, and began to close in upon the nimble Retiarius as he circled me warily, looking for any weakness in his guard.

All at once I let out a cry, the kind of battle cry that would have been normal enough back in Germania, where myself and my fellow tribesmen had taken our pleasure in raiding Roman outposts and border walls, but which sounded terrifying and unfamiliar to well-bred citizens.  I then slashed wildly with my sword, aiming for the Retiarius's neck, but instead, came into contact with his bronze galerus shoulder armour.  The iron blade came down with a loud clang -a useless blow- but it woke the crowd up, and they began cheering for me again.

CHAPTER TWO

The Barbarian

Two years earlier…

Rome, 266 AD

When I awoke, I found that I was laying on a cold hard stone floor. Strange noises stirred in the dank air all about me. I was groggy. I had not eaten in two days and was parched with thirst. My long hair fell in a greasy mass over my face, and I brushed it aside as I sat up with a groan. My body ached everywhere -this was no doubt the result of my long confinement in chains, and the long jostling journey here in the back of a wagon. I was happy to see that my chains had been removed at least, but then I guessed that my owners did not feel them to be necessary any longer, as I was locked into a small iron-barred cell.

I could not have felt more dismal than I did just then. Everything that had led up to this moment now filled me with shame.

It shamed me that I had been captured at all, and that I had not yet found a way to escape. It shamed me that I had not had the courage to tried to get away, even if it meant risking my life. It was amazing the effect the Empire seemed to have on the minds of its enemies. It had a way of turning normally brave men into slaves, and slaves into heroes, when they fought in the arena. It was to the latter which I now sought as my own path to fortune, or at least freedom, but it was the former which I had so often seen with my own eyes -once fearsome warriors kneeling in supplication before the feet of Rome. Perhaps it was because they had been the biggest and the strongest for so long now that people had just capitulated in their minds already, even before there was a fight.

I, who go by the name of Octric, meaning fearsome, come from the lands that the Romans call Magna Germania, and am a son of the Sicambri tribe, though we refer to ourselves as the "People of the same land." I grew up from an early age learning to wield a sword, first taught by my father, who was called Deuderix, and then by my uncle, who was called Baetorix. Both men are dead now -slain while fighting the Romans in one pointless uprising or other. I chose not to follow their paths, and instead, fell in with a group that took its sport in making daylight raids on Roman outposts and border walls. This was an especially dangerous thing to do, but the rewards in spoils were far too great to pass up, and if I was going to risk my life, then I was intent to at least get something out of it. You see, while we of the Sicambri hated the Romans for having come to our lands to subdue our peoples, we also admired many things about their culture. A Roman-made sword, or helmet, for example, was worth its weight in gold, and could either be used, sold, or even buried as an offering to the gods.

Our gods, especially Woton, the chief God, as well as Thor, the God of thunder, and Zio, the God of war, were all strong, and had brought our tribe many victories against our neighboring enemies. And yet, it seemed as though the Roman’s gods were the strongest of all, for they always seemed to beat us all in the end. The rituals for our religion were enacted deep in the forest, in sacred groves or on hilltops, where we set up alters. Sometimes human sacrifices were made, which the Romans thought was a barbaric custom, and they had officially oulawed this, though they themselves do the same thing in the famous arena. Everyone has heard of the Great Amphitheater, even in Germania, although it was a thing we found hard to comprehend. For the Romans, ritual is more of a public display, something they do out in the open, and with thousands of spectators, either when they are sacrificing animals in great burning fires, or watching large numbers of men butcher one another.

It still shames and amazes me that after all the successful raids I had made on the border walls, that I should have been so easily captured. On that day, I had run quietly up to the border wall, and had thrown a hook up over top and climbed up easily. Archers had already taken care of the guards, so it was just a matter of sneaking into the stockade, and grabbing whatever food and weapons I could lay my hands on before returning to my comrades in the forest just beyond the wall.

I can clearly remember opening a door and going through, and then feeling a terrific blow to the back of my head. Someone must have hidden himself, then sneaked up behind and hit me as hard as he could. Judging from the very large bump on the back of my head that I had several hours later, when I woke up, the blow had probably been delivered by a strong soldier using the butt of his sword. The reason he hadn’t killed me outright was that he had probably been able to collect a hefty fee for having me sold into slavery.

After a terrible journey over hundreds of miles, I finally came face to face with the horror of my destiny. It was now my terrible fate to be forced to work in the mines as a labourer. I knew well that the average lifespan of someone working in the mines was only three weeks, or less, and so determined right away to try to find a way out of there. A full month of misery passed before my chance came. I had been flogged and beaten, and given nothing but starvation rations for this entire time, and yet somehow still clung to life, determined as I was, not to die in those stinking tunnels. I even managed to obtain, through various means, a few extra rations, mostly by taking them out of the hands of the dead or dying, and was able to keep my strength up a bit.

One day, while we labourers worked, a Mangone, or slave-trader, came to look at us, and I asked a fellow miner next to me what kind of slave the trader was looking for. I had no intention of merely going from one mine to another, and so was prepared to feign sickness and weakness if that was his intent. However, the miner, a tiny Gaul, informed me that this Mangone was looking for gladiators for a school in Rome. He himself, he knew, being of slight build, had no chance. But I, he said, being still in good physical shape, and young, and despite my recent hardships, might well stand a chance. At first, I did not take him seriously. What chance had I? And besides, I had no desire to die in an arena as lion bait, or even by the sword, all for the amusment of my enemies. Still… I thought, It could very well be my only chance I would have to get out of this hole of the underworld.

Immediatly I puffed out my chest as far as I could, and stood up straight. When the Mangone, a short fat little man who held a perfumed piece of cloth in front of his nose -apparently because of the smell of our unwashed bodies- saw me, he stopped and looked me over with an appraising eye. The fat little man turned to one of the guards, an especially cruel one who loved to whip me, and asked him, "How about this one? How long has he been here, then?"

“A month, your Lordship,” replied the guard. “But you wouldn’t be interested in him, your grace,” he said with a weasily grin, “He has no discipline, being a German.” He said this last word as though it were a curse word of some kind. No doubt the guard had some new tortures in mind for me, and did not want me to escape his sadistic grasp.

“On the contrary,’ said the Mangone. “He interests me very much. Anyone who can survive for a month in the mines and still stand up straight, must either be very stong or very cunning and resourceful, all of which are qualities well-suited to the tasks of a gladiator. Have him put with the others,” he ordered curtly.

“As you please, my Lord,” the guard said, obviously annoyed, but without any say in the matter.

The only way I had been able to understand any of this transaction was because over a life-time of haggling at markets, where I went to buy Roman goods, and then there in the mines, I had had to pick up many latin words, and though I was far from fluent, I tried to learn at least one or two new words every day.

By the next morning, I was laoded with half-a-dozen other men onto a slave-cart, and we headed out on our long over-land journey towards the great capital city of Rome. I, of course, had never been anywhere near the place before, but had naturally heard many tales of it. Nothing prepared me though, for when, three weeks later, I looked through the small view-slats in the wagon, and out onto a world that I could barely believe. The first thing I noticed was the noise. Everywhere was the noise of thousands of people, all yelling and jostling and laughing. And then there was the smell: A terrible aroma hung in the air, the smell of animals, and sweat, and dung, and any number of rotting things. The buildings though were amazing, they seemed to be made of white stone, and they soared high into the air, as high as the birds. Even in the Roman settlements in Germania there was nothing to match these gigantic buildings, and these columns, and shining white temples.

After this, our cart stopped, and we were all herded out the back, through a courtyard, and then down into a long dark corridor, where we were each locked into individual cells. Almost immediately, I lay my sore body down on the cool stone floor and fell asleep. After having awakened, I felt grateful to be there, for as uncomfortable as all this was, it was not half so bad as the mines, and I at least I had a chance of surviving -for a little while longer anyway. I had no idea what they intented to do next, but was not frightened, as my new masters would never have taken all the time and expense to bring me all this way just to kill me.

Suddenly, a Roman guard appeared, and told me to stand up. I obeyed at once, and waited for a moment until two slaves, one man and one woman, came and stood before my cell. The guard got out his keys and opened the door, then ordered me to step out. Once in the corridor I was bidden to follow the slaves, and they led myself and several of the other men down several twists and turns, until we entered a large narrow room that looked out over a small courtyard. There were what looked to be a dozen or so large wooden tubs that had been filled with water. One of the chief slaves, a medium-size balding man, came over and told us to drop our loinclothes. The cloth I wore was filthy, and I was glad to be rid of it. He then told us to get into the baths, one man per tub. I climbed into the waist-deep warm water, and felt the pleasantness of it.

Back home, we always washed in cold water at a stream, using butter or bear fat as soap, but I had not even had a bath like that in over two months, and had never had one like this. I could no longer smell myself, but imagined I must be pretty rank. The slaves did a good job of seeming not to notice though, especially the women, and two of them came behind the tub and begin rubbing down my body in some sort of oil. They asked me to kneel in the water. I did, and it felt wonderful. The dirt came off of me and almost created a cloud around me. I even dunked my head fully underwater, and left it there for as long as I could, enjoying the sensation. When I came up, one of the women took hold of my hair, while the other used a pair of shears to cut my long strands off. It had not always been this long, but had become so as I had not sheared it for some time. Next, they rubbed more oil onto my face and used a sharp blade to cut all the hair off. After they were done, they rubbed more oil on to sooth the cuts, and then I dunked my head under the water again.

When this was all complete, I was dried off and taken down a different corridor this time, then was shown into a different cell, this time on an upper floor of the building, which overlooked a great arena floor full of sand. I took it that this was the training area. The cell into which I was told to enter was much cleaner and nicer than any I had ever seen before, and even had a straw mattress which was elevated off the ground on a stone platform. On the ground was a bowl of food and one cup of wine and one of water. I was told by the head slave to eat, and to rest. I would be called for in the morning.

I did not have to be told to eat, and quickly devoured all that was in the bowl, and drank the cups dry to the last drop. Then I lay down on the mattress, which felt to my bruised back, like a bed of clouds must to a reclining god.

CHAPTER THREE

The Ludus Magnus

 

 

I was awakened by the sound of jangling keys in the lock on my cell door. A harsh voice called out for me to get up, and I just had time to stumble out of bed before the door swung open and the head of a unkempt-looking uniformed guard glared into my cell.

“On your feet I said!” he growled. “You’ll learn to jump when I give orders from now on.”

I made my way out the door and onto the landing, where the scruffy guard and one of his subordinates were waiting impatiently. I knew better than to ask any questions, and so just followed them as they walked, softly padding behind them in my bare feet over the cool floor. There was still a chill in the air, and I shivered. The sun was just now beginning to come up over the roof of the school, and for the first time I got a good look at the structure. It was three stories high, and shaped as a rectangle, with the cells of the gladiators spaced out evenly on all three floors. There had to be at least a hundred and twenty cell doors by the look of it, and each floor was upheld by a series of columns.

It was the center of the building that caught my eye though, which was a huge courtyard, for though I had had a glimpse of it the day before, I had not been able to fully appreciate the sheer scale of the thing. The arena in the center of the courtyard was giant, easily big enough for a thousand men to stand in comfortably -a huge oval of sand, which the first rays of the sun were just now beginning to shine down upon. Around the arena, there was gradually inclined seating, and I guessed that there was enough room for ten thousand spectators or more. Such a number of people I had never seen before in my entire life. The seats were now empty, but I tried to imagine them full, and found it difficult. Overlooking everything, were three balconies that ran around the entire length of the building, as well as what appeared to be a fourth balcony, which ran round the rim of the arena, and upon which even more spectators could stand. I was dumbfounded by the complexity of what I was seeing, and could barely take it all in.

After having gone through a series of large doors, and down several flights of stairs, I was ushered into a rather large room. The air in this room smelled strange, much like herbs and plants and medicinal things. Several of the men I had travelled by wagon with were standing about, as though waiting for something. The guards stepped back a bit, and left us waiting. I then heard the cry: “Next!” and one of my fellow slaves stepped forward. A pale stooped old man stood up from his chair and began squeezing the man all over, and inspecting him as though he were a rare specimen of fungus. I took it that this was the Medicis, and that we were being checked for our overall health and fitness.

After a few more of the men had gone, it was my turn, and I fought the urge to recoil as the old Medicis’s knobby old hands squeezed and pinched my body all over.

“Cough,” he said curtly.

“Why?” I asked.

“You’re not here to ask questions,” he said dismissively. “Do you want to be a gladiator or not?”

“Yes, but I don’t see what coughing has to do with it.”

The man let out a cackle of a laugh, as though I had just said something very funny. “By the gods!” he sneered. “This one is a right barbarian. Doesn’t know much by the looks of it. Good muscle tone, but not much in the way of brains. If you take my advice sonny, you’ll ask no questions and do as you’re told, if you don’t want to be sent back to whatever hell-hole you came from. A slave in these parts who doesn’t know his place doesn’t usually last long, if you take my meaning. Now I am examining you, to see if you will be fit enough to withstand the rather demanding training you are to receive, so cough.”

I coughed, and then again, and again, until the Medicis was satisfied.

“Yes, yes, you’ll do.” he said tiredly. “Go stand over there with the others.”

After this rather humiliating performance, we were then ushered by the guards down another hallway, then through a large opening in the spectator stands, and out onto the sands of the arena. By now, the place had become a hubub of activity, and there were at least two- hundred men going through exercise routines, and dueling with wooden swords and spears. The early morning air resounded with their grunts and cries, and I watched them with fascination. We were then led through the still cool sand to the base of a large podium box, which was elevated far off of the arena floor. The guards ordered us to line up and stand at attention. We would be hearing from our new master soon, they said, and we were to remain silent.

We waited for a full fifteen minutes, before we saw a group of people mount the platform. This was obviously our new master, the Procurator of the entire Ludus, Tiberius Flavius Incintatus. He was a tall man, probably in his mid-fifties, and had grey hair. His body, over which he draped an elegant robe, looked powerful, and I guessed that at one time he had probably been a soldier himself. Behind him was a retinue of slaves and guards. He gazed upon we gathered men for a moment with sharp and predatorial eyes -the master surveying his wares.

"Slaves," he said, in a clear, high-born voice. "You are the lucky ones. You were, each of you, in your various ways, condemned to die. I dare say most of you deserved it. But now, thanks to myself, you have been given a second chance. In all likelihood you will still die, and very soon too, but at least now you can exit this mortal coil gloriously, and not in some hellish mine, and not as a galley slave. You have the opportunity to make something of yourselves, and to give pleasure and entertainment to your betters, if only for a moment or two. This should make you proud, because it puts you miles ahead of most other slaves... But, don't think for a second that you deserve this second chance which I have so generously bestowed upon you. If you had any real courage, you would already be dead, for no one but a coward allows himself to become a slave in the first place. If you hate me, or hate Rome, that is good, for that will make you strong. Remember, that strength is the great overcoming of weakness. We are all weak, that is the soil we grow in, and are condemned to from our birth, but the mighty strive in every way to defeat weakness in themselves and within others ceaselessly. That is the Roman way, which you will learn, and that is what Rome is, and what the games are. They are the great punishment of weakness, and its overthrowing, and when you achieve this -should you achieve it- then the crowd will cheer for you, and for a brief moment, may love, or even worship you. But you will never attain this if you do not train, and train hard with all your heart and soul. Remember that this Ludus, this gladiatorial training school, was here long before your father was a twinkle in his father's eye, and it will still be here after you are dead and forgotten. It is the greatest of all the Ludus's in all the world. We train here every type of fighter, from Myrmillo to Hoplomachus, and have more than one thousand Novicii -which is what you are- and Tirones, which you aspire to one day be. Your task is to please your trainers and myself, and then the crowds, and perhaps one day, you may even please the Emperor himself. If you fail me in this duty you will simply be sent back from whence you came, or worse. So obey my guards, and all your betters, or you will be ruthlessly punished... That is all."

And with that he turned abruptly, and strode away, taking his retinue with him.

As I was trying to absorb what I had just heard, there suddenly came from behind us a barked command: “About, turn!”

All of us immediately spun around, and did our best to remain at attention as we did so. Standing about twenty paces in front of us was a group of six men. Each of these men looked as though he had been a fighter all of his life, for not only were their stances and glares hard and intimidating, but even from where we stood it was possible to see the many scars that criss-crossed their arms. The man in the center of this group, a bald fellow with a patch over one eye, stood forward.

“I am Furius,” he said, through a clenched jaw, “And I will be one of your trainers, or Doctores. You will refer to me from now on as Doctore Furius, and you will refer to each of these men behind me by their title and name, which you will learn soon enough”

As I stood listening, the sun was beginning to shine into my eyes, and the sand beneath my feet was heating up. Doctore Furius waved a long, menacing-looking stick, which he carried in his right hand, and used to punctuate his words.

“Each of us represents a differant type of gladiator. I trained as a Secutor, and am now a Doctore Secutorum. I earned these scars you see upon the sands of the arena, and you will do likewise should I feel that you be worthy. I train Novicius dogs like you in the art of the sword and the shield. Artemis, over there,” he pointed to a tall, gangly, yet tough-looking veteran behind him who stepped forward, “He will train the Retiarius in the art of killing with a spear and a net. Training will begin in earnest tommorow, after the selections have been made. You will be chosen, if you are chosen at all, based on your body-type, speed and agility and so on. In the meantime, we will see what each of you is made of, if anything. At this point, you are all just rough material. Any one of those Tirone gladiators, who now train behind me, could kill you without even breaking a sweat. And one day, if you make it that far, you too will become a Tirone, or part of the Familia Gladatoria Incintatus, which means The Family of Gladiators of the House of Incintatus… And take these words to heart, from now until you die we are all you have, even should you live to see the day of freedom. Remember, that no respectable citizen will ever wish to associate themselves with scum like you. Starting today, you will eat together, train together, and will most likely die together. So work as one, and aspire to become something more than you are, which is nothing. From now on, you obey all Doctores, and especially your own Doctore, as though he were Jupiter himself. Is that understood?”

We all mumbled, “Yes, understood.”

“That’s Doctore to you Novicius dogs!” Furius screamed, the veins standing out on his battle-scarred neck.

“Yes, Doctore!” we all shouted in unison.

“Good. Remain at attention while you receive inspection.”

Now the Doctores all came forward, and much like the treatment we had been given from the Medicis not long before, we were again poked and prodded all over. Only this time, we were asked to do other things as well, like leaping into the air, or doing front lunges. Then they even gave us wooden spears and swords to handle and do manuevers with. Doctore Furius tested my reflexes by having me try to lunge with my sword at his open palm. He was impossibly quick, and I missed every time, but must not have done too badly, for after discussing things with the other Doctores in private, he came over and gestured for me to follow him. Myself and one other Novicius followed the Doctore through the searingly hot sand. He led us off the arena floor and into a small room. In the room was a table and several chairs. He did not ask us to sit down, but sat down himself and took out a stylus with which he began making etching marks into the wax coatings within a wooden tablet.

“Novicius,” he said simply, referring to myself. “I have seen fit to begin your training as a Secutor Gladiator. You will work under myself, or one of my assistants, both night and day. Whatever your name was, it no longer is. You will now be issued with a Roman name, as part of the process of civilizing you. You see, the crowd in the Amphitheater, should you ever be fortunate enough to fight there, will have to be able to pronounce your name, and remember it.”

“May I speak, sir?” I boldly asked.

“Yes,” said Furius. “If you make it snappy.”

“May I be known as Magnus Scorpus?”

“Why that name in particular?” asked the Doctore curiously.

“It’s just that Magnus is part of the name of the school, and means great, and Scorpus is much like the Latin word for Scorpion, which is deadly. I want to be both great and deadly, Doctore, and to become a great fighter for this school.”

I did not remind him that I was from Germania, and that my land was called Magna Germania by the Romans. I wanted to keep some connection to my homeland alive.

The Doctore, I noticed, allowed himself a brief smile.

"Yes", he said. "Many come here with great dreams. Let's just see if we can get through the first bit of training, for you might not find it so pleasant. Many dreams of glory have been shattered within these walls -more than you or I could ever count. But as for the name..." He smiled slightly again. "Yes, you may be known by this. I don't see why not. It is Roman enough... Now you are dismissed. Report at once to the mess hall, and eat well. You will need your strength for what is coming."

 

 

CHAPTER FOUR

Spectatus

 

 

On the second day of my training, I was again awakened just before dawn, only this time I was told to go straight down to the mess hall. Long lines of gladiators filed down the many passages, all the while watched vigilantely by dozens of heavily armed guards. In order to eat, one had to get a plate and then wait while the more senior gladiators, the Tirones, were served first. Then it was our turn, the Novicii, and we took our plates of food and jugs of water and sat alone on benches or leaned up against the wall. This entire process was carried out in total silence by the new men, as there was absolutely no talking allowed for the Novicii. I figured that they didn’t want any of us slaves getting together and becoming friendly. Such cliques could no doubt lead to thoughts of rebellion and escape. With total silence demanded at all times, it made it very difficult for such conspiracies to develop in the first place. He who broke this rule of silence, could expect at the very least a lash across his back from one of the guards.

I was not quite used to the food yet. It amazed me that we were expected to be doing hard training while eating nothing but lentils, barley, bread, vegetables and olive oil. To drink, we got nothing but water, and every third meal got a handful of grapes -but that was all. Back home, we ate meat and cheese three meals a day, and drank beer and milk. Such a diet, I had always believed, was necessary to keep the energy and the spirits up. And yet, in looking around myself, I could not help but notice that even those men who had been at this Ludus for some time seemed to be as fit and strong as any men I had ever seen before. Perhaps this food was just as healthy, but it certainly didn't taste anywhere near as good. As I ate, I daydreamed about roasting a big leg of mutton over a fire, and then sinking my teeth into it, while the juices ran down my chin.

After twenty minutes or so, we heard a trumpet blare which came from the arena. All the men stood, and began to file out of the mess hall, heading towards the sands of the arena. Doctore Furius was already waiting for me and his other five new Novicii, two of which were Gauls, and three of which were my fellow countrymen from across the Rhine. Furius had an area of the arena all to himself, as did the other Doctores, who each had his own section in which to train his men. There was a spot for the Thraex, the Myrmillo, the Hoplomachus, and the Retiarius. Each group trained next to the type of gladiator that they would be paired against in the arena, so that that way they could more easily spar together when the time came. These groupings themselves were then subdivided again, with the Novicii and the Tirones each occupying half of the space alotted to the group. The boundaries were marked out with small coloured flags that had been stuck into the sand.

Furius told us that we were to stand before him. Just in front of us, jutting up from the ground, he had placed six wooden swords, and beside them six wicker shields.

“Novicii,” he said in his stern, gravelly voice. “These will be your weapons. They are made of wood, and are called Rudis… Perhaps you are thinking that you have used a real sword before, and don’t want to bother playing with toy swords. Well I can tell you that these are no toys. They weigh twice as much as an iron sword, and hurt just about as much when you get hit with them. You will learn to respect them soon enough, when the number of bruises and bumps start to accumulate. Only when you are proficient with this weapon will you be able to take a real sword into your hands… Perhaps some of you think that you are already great swordsmen. Forget it. Forget everything you think that you know about fighting, because I can tell you from hard experience, earned both as a gladiator, and as a former Legionary in the Imperial Army, that what works in the field of war will not work in the arena. In a battle, you are protected by your fellow troops, but as a gladiator, you fight alone. That changes everything.”

Furius then looked directly at me with his one good eye as he spoke, “I know, for example, that you barbarians from across the Rhine love to slash with your swords, trying to make as big a cut as possible. You will see from the many scars I carry that I have encountered such methods many times before, all thanks to your fellow countrymen!”

This made us Germans laugh, both with a mixture of pride and relief. It seemed as though this Furius was not going to be as mean as he looked, and could at least joke with us.

“But,” he said, suddenly becoming grave, though without totally losing his mocking manner. “You can see that I am still standing, and fit enough to send any of you sorry lot to Hades besides, so don’t get too cocky!.. You see, in this Ludus, you will learn not to slash at your opponent, but to stab at him, like this.” And he made a stabbing gesture with his right hand, holding an imaginary sword. “It may not look, or feel, too impressive at first, but believe me, a deep wound beats a shallow wound anyday.”

For the next several hours, Doctore Furius took us through the basics of sword play. He was right. For those of us who already had our set ideas about how to fight, it was more difficult to unlearn our ideas, than it would have been to be starting in total ignorance. The methods he taught us were both repetitious and physically taxing, and we soon began to become more confident.

By now, the sun had fully risen, and our only relief from the heat was when young servant boys came around with jugs of water for us to drink our fill from. By mid-afternoon my confidence had already begun to soar. Furius introduced us to the Palus, which was a wooden dummy, shaped like a man, with hard sticks of wood coming out of its side. The idea was to attack this post, and try to score a certain amount of different types of hits within five beats of time, pounded out on a large drum by a slave. I did well with this, and was also amongst the quickest of the men when furius trained us on how not to blink. He, or one of his assistants, stood before us with a Rudis, and swung it at our faces. Sometimes we were actually hit, and sometimes not, but the idea was not to blink, no matter what. Some of the Novicius blinked every time, but I managed to keep my head more often than not.

Next, Furius showed us the swinging Palus, which was nicknamed "The Iron Man." It, like the stationary Palus, was a large crude man-like figure -only this one rotated, moved as it was by several slaves. The idea was to stand beneath it and get in a certain number of different types of slashes and jabs with one's Rudis, while avoiding the heavy sandbags which hung down from the arms of this figure, and which swung about unpredictably. Getting a hit was no small matter, and several of the men were knocked out cold. I myself took a knock to the back, and felt as though I had been punched by a mythical giant.

As we were training, several dozen people, Roman citizens no doubt, took up seats in the front rows of the arena, and looked down on us as we trained. Such an activity was called “Spectatus,” and they were reviewing us in a way, seeing who the up-and-comer gladiators would be this season. Most of them were older men, but I noticed that amongst them, sitting alone, was a very attractive young lady. I kept feeling her eyes following me as I went through my training, and could not help myself from showing off a bit for her. She looked young, no more than eighteen, and was dressed in the height of Roman fashion. Her long dark hair was done up in a pile on top of her head, which was the Roman way, and one could easily see, even from thirty paces away, that beneath her elegant robes she had a firm, lithe body. All of this I would barely have noticed though, so intense was the training, had it not been for the fact that whenever I glanced her way, she seemed to be smiling at me. Such a thing as this, as small as it was, after months of having been treated miserably, and not having even seen such a lady before, all boosted my ego. It also didn’t hurt that Doctore Furius himself seemed to note my high level of stamina and quickeness of movement. Perhaps, I thought, being a gladiator wouldn’t be so hard after all?

After a light lunch, taken thankfully in the shade, we returned to the arena. I looked up to the seats and my lady was still there. I wondered at such an interest from a person like her, and put it down to just one more strange thing that I would probably never understand about Roman culture. Our women back home, though sometimes as fierce as our men, would never have spent their days watching fighters train.

As we took up our positions, this time Furius said that he had a new, and infinitely more challenging test for us. I wondered what he meant by this, but was feeling elated by this point.

“Some of you,” he said, as his weathered, though not entirely old face broke into a wry grin. “those of you who have not done too badly so far, are probably feeling pretty good about yourselves. That is about to change. You are now about to face your first true challange, and those of you who pass this test will earn from me a tiny lessening of my contempt and distain for you. I must warn you though, that it is very unlikely that any of you will ever reach such an elevated status, but we shall see… It is the task of the Secutor, as you know, to engage in mortal combat with the Retiarius, and a more sneaking, low-down opponent there has never been. And oh, aren’t you lucky,” he said, the wry grin returning to his face, and his one eye twinkling, “The crowd just happens to loathe the Retiarius, or Fisherman, as he is also known, and for some unknown reason prefer the Secutor in general. But do not imagine for a second that this will help you, for Retiarius is one deadly snake, and has a longer life-expectancy than you will ever enjoy, so be wary, and never underestimate him… For those of you wise enough, or cowardly enough, to want mercy from this skulking heathen, you need only raise a finger in submission to the Umpire of the games, in what is known as “Missio.” This may very well spare you your life, but it will never spare you your pride, or my wrath, and any man who falls prey to this weakness on my training ground shall forfeit any of the bean-sized esteem I now hold him in. Remember, the greatest purpose of a true gladiator is not just to fight, and not even to die. It is to carry out the spectacle of death, as a form of ritual, and to bring to this spectacle all the dignity and honour which the people of Rome demand from their heroes. Is that clear?!”

“Clear, Doctore!” we all yelled.

“Then you will be happy to meet your first and only worthy opponent thus far: A mighty Veteran Beast if ever there was one… Thus I give you, Fabullus!”

Furius then turned, and gestured toward one of the Retiarius who was busily training in the area just beyond our own. He used a real Trident spear when he trained, and was busily slashing and jabbing at another Retiarius, who looked equally lethal. Upon hearing his name, he turned, stabbed his spear into the ground with an easy thrust, and strode confidently over to Furius. In size and shape he did not look especially powerful, for he was lean and wiry, as all Fishermen are, and yet I noticed that what he did have, was pure muscle, and there was something violent and animal-like in the way he moved, and in the hard smouldering of his eyes.

“Fabullus,” said the Doctore, “has killed eleven men in the Great Arena, and would like nothing better than to add you to his list. Is that not right Fabullus?”

“Yes, Doctore,” Fabullus said, and to emphasize his point, pounded his fist into his hand.

“Good,” said Furius. “First up… Priscus,” and he pointed at one of the Gauls.

To his credit, I noticed that Priscus strode forward without hesitation, and readily lunged forward with his attack. He used his sword and shield well, but Fabullus, armed only with his bare hands, had soon knocked both weapons out of Priscus’s hands, and soon thereafter had him down on the ground in an iron-tight wrestling hold. The fight was over almost before it had begun, with Priscus raising one of the fingers of his right hand in order to save himself from being choked to death. Fabullus let him go, though reluctantly, and while Priscus panted for breath, Fabullus didn’t even seem to have broken a sweat.

“Ah, I see that Fabullus is in excellent form this afternoon,” said Furius gloatingly, “Or is it just that we have not given him enough of a challenge. Next… Titraites.”

By the time three fights had come and gone, I had begun to wonder how things would go for myself. By now I thought that Fabullus must surely be tiring. As great as his stamina no doubt was, even he could not go on like this forever, and by the time my turn came, he would surely have weakened somewhat. I was concerned about how I would look in front of my Roman lady. She was still sitting in the stands, and her pretty eyes continued to fall upon me. I in turn looked upon her, and smiled back. I wanted nothing more than to put on a good show for her, and if I could defeat Fabullus, this would surely elevate me in her eyes.

After all the other men had been defeated, it was my turn. I wondered why Furius had waited so long to call upon me, but consoled myself with the thought that he had wanted to save the best till last.

I need not have been so arrogant, for though I was more muscular than Fabullus, he had soon knocked me to the ground. I got up, just in time, as he came in with a crushing blow. I say just in time, because if I had been still on the ground he would have knocked me out for sure. As it was, his kick merely glanced off of my leg. But if I had thought that this would save me, then I was wrong, for he simply spun around and kicked me with the other leg, sending me flying. By the time I was left panting in the sand, I had done no worse, but also no better, than any of the other men, and I was forced to raise my finger in Missio to save myself from an even worse beating.

When I stood up, I ached all over, but my pride hurt worst of all. I caste a glance back to the stands one last time before retiring to the baths, but my lady was no longer smiling at me. She had turned away. Before this poor showing I had been her potential champion, a god of the arena, but was now just another slave, one whom she would never stoop to look at.

I limped slowly across the arena, as the blood-red sun began to set on the horizon.

 

CHAPTER FIVE

Dogs of the Underworld

 

 

It felt good to soak my weary bones and muscles in the warm bath water. I took a wet towel and draped it over my face as I leaned back against the rim of the large wooden tub. Many other gladiators also congregated about in the bath area, either soaking themselves in the cold, warm or hot baths, or rubbing themselves down with oil. Both my arms and my legs were weary and bruised beyond anything I’d known before, and yet it was not my body that had taken the real beating, but my pride. I had never before been subjected to the gaze of others in the way that I had that day, and was not sure yet if I liked it or not. True, it had felt good to show off, and to know that I had been doing well, but the chances of falling flat on my face had become great, especially in front of a woman.

It did not help me much that several of the other men were deeply engrossed in a boisterous conversation about the merits of the gladatorial life. One, an especially loud and grunting Gaul by the name of Melo, now known as Vulcan, who was a well-built Myrmillo, kept on boasting of all the victories he was going to have in the arena when he got his chance, and the women who were going to adore him. The other two, one named Osthryth, a fellow German, and now called Decimus, and another man whom I did not know, were laughing and encouraged Vulcan. They too, they said, had plans to lie with “The Quality,” meaning wealthy Roman Ladies, once they were famous for their prowess in the arena.

“I,” shouted strutting Vulcan for all to hear, “shall spawn a thousand sons, some of whom, after a generation or two, may become the quality themselves. Ha!” and he let out an uproarious laugh that the others joined in with mirthfully.

Decimus the German, not to be outdone by a Gaul, shouted even louder, “I will not rest until I have ten thousand sons, and will cut short your short sword, Vulcan, before you have the chance to do any breeding!”

“Not if I can help it!” shouted Vulcan, and he lunged at Decimus, grabbing him by the throat. What followed was a playful tussle, and all the other gladiators took notice, and began cheering them on. I had had quite enough of this racket, and was in no mood for it. I didn’t need what they were saying rubbed in my face after the day I had just had.

“Why don’t you all just be still!” I yelled, “Save your energy for the sands.”

Everyone was silent all of a sudden, not because they took what I’d said seriously, but because they wished to see how Vulcan, who was notorious for his temper – even for a gladiator – would react to this challange.

“Oh, and what’s it to you?” said Vulcan, pushing Decimus aside. “Is someone upset because they got a hiding today?” He said this in a mock conciliatory tone. “You know, if it had been me, rather than Fabullus with you today, I would not have let you get up again.”

I had met far too many men like Vulcan in my time before to believe that he was making idle threats. Men like him usually meant what they said when they threatened, and I knew that I was not yet ready to take him on in a fight, especially without a sword. But still, I could not back down, or I would be forever-after viewed as a coward by the other men, men whom I would be training and living with for some years yet, and so I decided to battle Vulcan with words instead. I was still angry and resentful, not so much at this Gaulish fool, but at myself for having been bested and humiliated, and I was not going to let it happen again.

“You boast about your prowess in the arena,” I said, “and of how you will lie with the quality, but don’t you realize that most of us will die very soon, and if we get these women, it will be they who possess and choose us, not the other way around. We are just like stud horses to them, and they wouldn’t be caught dead with us except in some darkened corner somewhere. And if they ever do have your sons, they will never admit to them or to anyone else that they are the result of a gladiator. They would be ashamed, for they would be looked down upon by their fellow citizens.”

I could not stop myself now, and just kept going.

“And as for the great glories and the fortunes, one has to live long enough to see those things, and I have a feeling that you, Vulcan, are not long for this world. How many gladiators truly live to see freedom? And even if you do fulfill your four years, what will you do after? You will be a social outcast, and will hardly be able to return to your own people… We are slaves, first and foremost, and will always be. We are the dogs of the underworld, damnatio who live somewhere between the darkness and the light, in a world of shadows, and always condemned to be shackled and whipped, should it so please our masters. Even our three meals a day, and these baths, and every other luxury, are only there to ensure that we put on a good show for a baying crowd that neither loves us nor hates us, and who calls for our blood merely as a kind of spectacle. We are likened unto the gods by the Romans only as a form of amusement.”

It felt good for me to say those things, as they were things that I had been thinking about for many days now, and yet somehow I regretted having said them nonetheless. True, Vulcan was a Gaulish dog who would have kicked a lame man just for fun, but there had been no call for me to have taken my frustrations out on him, or on the others. After all, was he not a slave just like me? Perhaps he was wise to try to find the best he could out of this life.

Vulcan did not waver much in his violent expression through all this, but I saw for just the flicker of an instant that my words had struck home to him, and he retreated with the oath: "You are just the son of a Eunuch, afraid to fight and die like a true gladiator. All your words add up to is fear, and it is good that you fear, because if we ever spar together, you and I, I will cut your throat -by the gods I will!"

The other men, meanwhile, had gone back to their bathing and previous conversations, both disappointed and thankful that a real fight hadn’t happened. There was not much entertainment in this life, and anything to relieve the boredom was welcome. And yet no one liked to see two gladiators fight with one another, except in the arena.

Perhaps he was right, perhaps it was just fear talking through my words. I was new at this, and had not yet fully acclimatized to the harsh realities of life in a Ludus, nor to the various ways in which different men adapted to it. Some men, it seemed, men like Vulcan, took to being as agressive as they could, as a way of off-setting the brutalization that they themselves experienced every day. Other men lost themselves in the escape of gambling and women. Men like myself tended to withdraw, and to brood over our lives, sometimes praising, sometimes cursing their fates. Only time would tell which of us had a greater chance of survival in the end. Something told me though, that learning how to adapt myself to my surroundings, learning all that I could, would, at some time in the future, possibly mean the difference between life and death. One thing that I knew for certain, whatever I said about the death statistics in the arena, was that I planned to live long enough to gain my Manumission, or freedom.

As I was leaving the baths, preparing to walk back to my cell, I was approached by one of the men who had been laughing at Vulcan’s jokes. He was of middling height, and weight, and yet looked powerful beneath the fresh tunic that he had just put on.

“Hail friend.” he said cheerfully.“My name is Titus, and I just wanted you to know that much of what you said back there was true. I have been at this life for over a year, and though we all think the things that you said, I have never met a man before who had the courage to state it.”

I studied this man for a moment, not sure if he was being genuine or not, but his steady brown eyes and suprisingly innocent expression seemed real enough.

“I just can’t stand all the boasting,” I said. “I know it is hypocritical, because I also want glory in the arena, and all those things that go with it. I just can’t see what the chances of any of us are. If my gods had meant for me to succeed in life, or those of any of us, than they would never have let us fall so low as we have, to be trapped here. My gods have abandoned me.”

“Come with me,” said Titus, and he led me by the arm. At first I thought he might be leading me towards a trap, taking me off to a dark hallway or somewhere that Vulcan or one of his cronies could knock me about, or worse, but there seemed to be nothing suspicious in the man’s demeanour, and so I took a chance.

A moment later, we had entered a small room. There were no windows and the space was lit by two flaming torches on the wall. At the far end of the room was an alcove, and in this alcove there were half a dozen small statuettes of various gods. I knew little of these deities, and wondered why he had brought me here.

Titus stepped forward, reached out a hand to touch each of the figures in turn on their heads, and then knelt down on the floor. A moment later he raised himself, and came and stood beside me again.

“Your gods, who are they?” he turned and asked me with interest.

I listed them off for him, not sure why he wanted to know: “Well, there is Woton, he is the Great Chief of blessings… Then there is Thor, of thunder, and Zio, of war…”

“In my religion the God of war is called Mars,” Titus interrupted, “and our Chief God is called Jupiter. And then there is the Goddess Fortuna, whom gladiators love because she blesses them with good luck, and Mercury, God of death and so on.”

“And what people do you belong to, that these are your gods?” I asked Titus.

“They are Rome’s. Did you not know that I am a Roman, Magnus?”

“A Roman!” I said, suddenly dumbstruck, and not a little angry. “What on earth have you done to end up as a gladiator?!”

“I have done nothing wrong, if that is what you mean. Unless you think that it is my fault that my father died at an early age and left my mother and brothers and sisters with nothing but a bankrupt fish mongering business. He died when I was fifteen, fighting for Rome in Brittania, and I have been responsible for my family ever since. I could have joined the army of course, but then it barely pays enough to support oneself, let alone any dependants, and so I decided to train as a gladiator, where I can earn ten times as much!”

“But to willingly give up your freedom? That is mad. What good will you be to your family if you are dead?”

“I am not so easy to kill!” Titus said with an infectious grin. “Besides, I trained at swordplay at my father’s side by the time I could walk, and could probably show you a thing or two.”

I had very mixed feelings about what Titus was telling me. He seemed a likeable enough sort, but he still came from the other side of the camp, and in my world, if your didn’t belong to the same tribe, than chances were you were mortal enemies. It seemed insanity to me that Titus would freely mix and mingle with men from all over the Empire who hated everything to do with Rome and who would gladly kill him.

“I know what you are thinking,” he said, “But don’t worry. You will be suprised to learn that many of us in here are Roman citizens, most men in positions similiar to mine. We outnumber any single group of you barbarians.” He laughed. “Once you become a real gladiator, you will realize that the old loyalties count for nothing anymore, and that all that matters is fighting skill, and your devotion to the brotherhood of gladiators.”

I could see that there was sense to what he was saying, and I found it hard to blame this smiling young man for the ills that his people had visited upon me.

“And what of these gods?” I asked. “How will they help me in my cause?”

“They will help anyone in their cause. That is the great thing about them. You believe that your gods only protect you within your own territorial borders, but we believe that ours are more powerful than that, and if you make offerings to them, and plead your case well enough, than they will hear your prayers, and will answer.”

“Which is the strongest of all?” I asked.

“That would be Jupiter,” said Titus.

“Then it is Jupiter that I will worship,” I exclaimed.

“Whoa, hold on there,” Titus laughed. “If you wish for your opponent to be killed, and not yourself, then you must beseech Mercury, God of death. And if you wish for good fortune, then as I said, Fortuna is your best bet. Jupiter is the mightiest of all, but sometimes it is better to go straight to a particular deity, rather than to hope that Jupiter will intervene with them on your behalf. I myself cover all my bases by praying to all of them.”

Now it was my turn to laugh. I suddenly felt a weight going off of my shoulders, and thought that I would like to confide in Titus, who I could see might become a friend.

"You know, these last few days I have been thinking about the past, about my old life, and about freedom. Perhaps I have put too much value on it. After all, what was I before? I was a mercenary who fought for pay, and for booty. Then I was captured and sent to the mines. Truth be told, I am very lucky to be here at all, or to be alive. Romans usually just crucify people like me, or throw them to the beasts. Even if I got free, I would only go back to my previous life, for I know nothing else, and would probably be dead within a year, or less. This place is like a dream in some ways, unlike anything back home, and one can see that there are many fortunes to be made if one is clever. Perhaps I am still just a mercenary like before -nothing better, but nothing worse either. At least this way I have a chance of winning some real prize money. Perhaps Fortuna does shine down on me. I could not see it before, but am beginning to now. All I need to do is win the favour of these powerful divinities in order to reclaim my life."

I then stepped forward and touched the heads of all six of the gods, just as Titus had done, and then knelt down for a moment before the shrine.

“We’ll make a true gladiator of you yet,” laughed Titus, as he slapped me on the back.

 

CHAPTER SIX

Spectacula

 

 

On the next day of training, I recalled the words that Titus and I had spoken the day before, and felt that there was truth in them. While walking to and from the mess hall, and my quarters and the arena, I looked more closely at the many statues which lined the hallways and various porticos throughout the Ludus. There was even, I noticed, a statue at the head of one of the four fountains in the courtyard. All of these statues were meant to represent past gladiators who had been members of this school, and who had achieved great renown.

While the sculptors had no doubt taken liberties in their depictions, both in the size of the men’s stone muscles, and in their obviously idealized and Romanized features, they still must have been impressive figures both to look at and to watch in the arena. One man, it said at the base of one of the statues, was a Thraex, and he had won one-hundred victories in a row without a single defeat, and then died of natural causes. He was known to have been the greatest gladiator of his age.

It occured to me that the important thing was not so much what other people thought of you, but how you thought of yourself. This hero, this champion, must have felt, during his short life, that he was some sort of demi-god, and no doubt the crowds would have shouted out their agreement with him on this point. Surely it was better to live for one day as a lion than a hundred years as a sheep. It was, I decided, worth showing these Romans just how well a man of the tribe of the Sicambri could train and fight and die! If I was to prove to them what I was made of I would have to one day become a champion, and perhaps even have a sculpture made in my own likeness, and to figure in the scribbled graffiti of children, and even to appear as a vision in the dreams of Roman women and men.

Over the next weeks and months, I was taught many new skills by Doctore Furius. After our morning and afternoons training with swords and Palus, we spent the rest of the evening in the Gymnasium, a large courtyard, which was filled with various types of equipment such as weights and iron bars and sandbags, for use in training our muscles.

Our days were divided into Tetrads, which means four day cycles. On the first day, we did alot of short, high-intensity work-outs. On the second day, we did many high-intensity, and more strenuous work-outs. On the third day, we rested, but did some very light exercises, while on the fourth day we did things at a medium intensity. It was thought that we would get the best results this way.

At first, Furius yelled at us to try harder, and screamed in our ears when we did not seem to be giving our exercises the full effort they merited, but once we had learned what was expected of us, he mostly contented himself with walking around amongst us and giving instructions on how to do things more efficiently. Sometimes we did things together, in groups of half a dozen or so -things like Pankration, which is a form of wrestling. When I started out with Pankration, I was easily caught in the simplest of holds, but soon learned the right methods for squirming out of even the toughest choking grips. I had a gift for being able to outlast an opponent, and to let them weary themselves as we struggled on the ground, until I applied a knee twist or elbow-pin which caused them to yell out in pain. These fights were always ended when one person either raised a finger, or tapped the ground in surrender.

Most of the time, we worked-out alone, or in pairs. Quite often I was able to pair up with Titus, whom I had become fond of. In many ways, I could not understand why I liked his company, because we were both so different, but the fact that he could always make me see the light side of any situation probably had alot to do with it. Together, we spent hours working with Halteraes stones, one of us lifting them over our heads, while the other pushed down on them as a form of resistance.

When I had started to exercise, I had already been a strong man, but over the months, my body began to change its shape altogether. My muscle groups were now much more sharply defined, and my strength nearly doubled. Titus was an excellent partner to work with, because even though he was shorter than I, he was just as powerful, and was very good at keeping me motivated. For the first time in my life, I had a relationship with someone that wasn’t totally based on exploitation and selfishness. I genuinly cared what Titus thought of me, and craved his compliments and respect just as I knew he craved mine.

He was also able to help me in other ways, since he had been here for a year longer than I had, he was able to navigate me through some of the trickier aspects of life in a Ludus, telling me, for example, which were the nastiest guards, and what some of the tips were to making this grinding life as easy as we could make it. Every day he had some sort of story for me. He seemed to know everyone in the Ludus, and to know their personnal business, and was able to fill me in on all the foibles and quirks of each of the different men. This was useful, as it gave me an insight into the characters of those whom I might one day face in the arena, and I was happy to receive any edge I might be able to get.

The best part of the training, was the fact that it was so systematic. No one in my culture understood anything about the health of the body, other than that one must neccessarily eat and rest and do some sort of work if one was not to become fat. But these Romans seemed to have mastered the art of shaping the human body down to an art, or a science. First of all, the trainers knew that the purpose of all exercises must be to promote the kind of health and functional strength that would be useful for a gladiator, and which would make the shows in the arena last the longest.

Thus, they divided up the training into speed, balance and agility, then brute strength, endurance and stamina. There were a number of activities which we took part in that were broken up into sections, so as to ensure the greatest possible success. We picked up heavy loads, and walked around, we jumped over obstacles, boxed, ran, climbed ropes, did sit-ups and lunges with sandbags on our shoulders, and hung from a beam for as long as we could. We also warmed-up before each session, and cooled down by walking at the end of the day, which was a way of preventing injury.

This did not always work though, as one day when I was rolling a large stone in order to build up my shoulders and back, I felt something snap in my lower back. It hurt, and I asked to see the Medicis right away. He touched the spot and I jumped with pain and cursed. He told me that it was a bad injury, and that I would have to rest it, and do no more than walk for a couple of weeks. I could barely believe that it would take that long to heal, as I had hurt myself many times before, and was always fine again within a day or two. But the Medicis was right, and I was laid up in my cell for a full three weeks.

During this time, I had nothing to do but to stare at the ceiling and wonder if I would ever be able to train and fight again, so painful was it when I moved. Titus, meanwhile, though he was not able to visit me, found a way to bribe one of the slave-girls to bring me some extra food, and to pass along a joke or two every few days. This invariably raised my spirits, which had begun to sink every time I looked down at my rapidly diminishing physical condition. I didn’t know how I would ever be able to compete again against the other men who had not suffered any set-backs.

However, after I had gotten to strength back, and was able to move around, I became more determined than ever to be fully healed, and did exercises in my cell until I was able to join the other men back in the Gymnasium. Once I returned, I was overjoyed to see smiling Titus again, and we quickly reestablished our previous friendship. Once I got back to full-time training, I could barely believe how hard it was, but over the weeks, was able to rebuild all of the muscle I had lost. In many ways, I was stronger and more determined than ever. During my time in bed I had longed to escape my confinement, and so had learned to love the daily vigorous routines we trainees were forced to do.

Some days, the men all gathered for a game of Harpastum, which involved getting past the enemy team, and into their end-zone with a small leather ball. I liked this game, but as fun as it was, mostly I loved working out with Titus. We tried to outdo each other, by picking up larger and larger logs, or doing more and more arm curls or squats. I found that to get the best results, it was sometimes necessary to do something until you could barely walk afterwards. One time, Titus and I each did three-hundred squats with sandbags, and could barely keep up with the others the next day. Still, the results were great for both of us, and our legs exploded with muscles.

Sometimes, the strain of these work-outs was so great that we had to fall to the ground in a heap afterwards, just to catch our breath, but we felt it was all worthwhile to put in the extra effort. Furius, who had no tolerance for any kind of slacking off, and who would bite the head off of new recruits, rarely had a bad word for Titus and myself, and even Procurator Incintatus himself, who sometimes watched us train, commented favourably to Furius about us. I learned this afterwords from Titus of course, who knew everything.

On rest days, we mostly spent our time in the baths, or gambling in the rest courtyard. Some of the men even wrote letters, but they were always Roman men, as the Empire was not about to deliver the letters of slave barbarians. I had never learnt to write, and besides, had no one to write to. Most of my family were either dead or scattered to the winds, and I had lost track of them long before I had ever been captured.

I spent much of my time eating, trying to build up my strength on figs, porridge and the meat that had come from animals killed during the Venationes, or Beast Hunts, in the arena. We also drank a kind of pasty drink made of charcoal ashes and plants, and which restored our energy. When I was not eating, I tried to learn more words of Latin, with which Titus was able to help me. He joked with with me that even if I learned to speak like a civilized person, I would always smell just like a barbarian, and so would fool no one.

It’s not that I was trying to become a Roman though, so much as that I felt it would be useful to be able to know what was going on about me. Most of my fellow Germans didn’t even bother with such things as this. They either had no interest, or felt that they would soon enough be dead, and so didn’t think it worth the effort. They preferred to lose themselves in pointless arguments, or in trying to entice the slave girls who helped them to bathe. It seemed like too much of a betrayal to them, to learn the language of their enemy, but if I planned to live, and to live in this part of the world, I would first have to learn to live in it.

On days that were not as intense, we also learned other skills that would be useful for a gladiator, but that were not necessarily physical. One thing that Doctore Furius insisted upon, on pain of death even, was that each of us was to learn to perform in front of an audience. It was not enough to die, he had reminded us again and again, as it was fundamental that one die well.

“Your first allegiance,” he would tell us, “besides you allegiance to this Ludus, and to your Emperor, is to virtue. And what does it mean for a dog like you to have virtue?”

I had a sneaking suspicion that he was about to tell us.

“You, who have never done a noble thing in your lives. It is simple, and it is this: You must show the Roman citizens how they too may face death with contempt. Did you know that people regularly say to one another: ‘He died like a gladiator,’ and mean it as a compliment. You must never, in any circumstance, bring shame upon this house, or upon its master. Now…”

He began to show us what he was talking about by striking various heroic poses over the imaginary body of a fallen gladiator.

“This, this is how you show that you are victorious.”

He then raised his hands high above his head, and turned to face an imaginary crowd.

“And this,” he said, “Is how you bow in supplication before the ruler of all, his divine grace the Emperor Tarantulla. If you should live to see the day, I shall expect you to carry out these movements just as I am showing you now. I expect it, and more importantly, the crowd expects it, and they will never elevate one who does not observe and respect the rituals.”

Furius then went on to explain, and demonstrate, or to have one of his assistants demonstrate, all the various movements and rituals of the arena, everything from how to properly deliver the killer blow, to how to antagonize and hary one’s opponent. There was even a proper way to walk, and to turn, and we learnt a variety of hand signals as well. The noise of the arena, he said, was so great, that it would often be necessary to communicate with one another, before and after the fight, and with the Umpire during the games, using nothing but simple gestures.

I revelled in this aspect of the training, for it appealed to the natural showman in me. At first, I had been conflicted about the public relations side of things, but once one has felt the roar of even a small crowd, such as the kind that gathered in the stands to watch us train, one very quickly began to crave it. I found that I loved to show off my now rippling torso, which had become like bronze from being baked in the sun day after day. I had never felt physically better in my life, and enjoyed the sensation of being stared at by a hundred hungry eyes -the women desiring me, and the men desiring to be me. All of us, the ones who had made it this far, those who had not been sent back to the mines for some infraction of the rules, had started to look more and more like the really experienced gladiators, to the point where only an expert would have been able to tell us apart.

I had been training for almost a year and a half by this point, and as I got nearer and nearer to the time when I would begin to fight professionally, the tension began to grow within me. It was easy to see that I was as gifted as any of the men who had started with me, but it would be all-important to know what my official standing within the school would be. Each group of men who had begun together would be separated into four different groups, the Primus Palus being the first, and most important -meaning that we were the ones who had shown the most promise so far. Then came the Secundus Palus, the Tertius Palus, and finally the Quartus Palus. All this was meant to signify who stood best before the wooden Palus we most often trained upon with our wooden swords.

One day, while we were at the baths, Doctore Furius came through the door. This was an unusual sight, as he almost never came into this area of the Ludus.

"Men," he said "Rest well tonight -for tomorrow will come an important test. This test will determine your ultimate standing within the brotherhood of this Familia. If you do not pass it, you could very well find yourself back where you were, in the mines. Those who do well will officially become Tirones, or probationary gladiatores. This will be one of the most important steps you can take before being able to enter the minor games, and then, perhaps one day, the Great Arena itself. Not all of you who make it will deserve this honour, and not all who fail will deserve failure, but you shall fight for the first time with real swords, paired against one another, and the winner will pass onto the next level. Now is the time when all of your training will either bear fruit, or not. If not, then exclusion or injury will be your fate. If yes, then you shall stand amongst the elect, the Titans of the Ludus, and heir to all the greats who have gone before you... You will no longer just be a spectacle, but will have become spectacular... Tomorrow at dawn, we shall separate the beasts from the men, and the men from the gods!"

 

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

By Force, a Way is Made

 

 

The next day, the tension was so great amongst the men that you could have cut it with a knife. Each one of us had spent most of the night awake, pacing back and forth in our cells. That was normal. Much depended on what woud happen in the following hours, much that would determine our futures.

The only one of us who seemed light-hearted, was of course Titus. I met him out on the arena sands where everyone was gathering. In the centre of the arena, slaves had set up a large wooden structure. It was basically an elevated wooden platform, with ramps leading up both the front and the back. We had used one of these in training, and the idea was for one of the pair of fighting men to occupy the platform, while one had to try to push the other off and occupy the high ground himself. The man who would start out on the platform was decided by the flip of a piece of bone. So much of it really came down to luck.

All of those who were not yet fighting, crowded around the demarcated boundry lines set up in a square around the platform, and waited for the first match to begin. An Umpire and Doctore Furius were overseeing the games, and making sure that all of the rules were followed, while Procurator Incintatus watched the proceedings from his box seat high above. The first up were a German Myrmillo, and a Thracian Thraex. Both were armed with dull swords, which were still fairly lethal, and a helmet. They were not yet allowed to have a full complement of armour, which would have the effect of making them both far more cautious.

Titus leaned over to me, and smiling, whispered: “Shall we place a bet? I shall not deprive you of the opportunity of supporting your fellow countryman, and would never bet on a German besides, and so will place ten sesterces on the Thraex. I have seen him train and he is a real brute. I truly fear for the safety of your man.”

“I do not place bets, especially where the life of one of my countrymen are concerned,” I said seriously.

“Well, look at it this way,” said Titus with a mischievous grin, “I will bet upon the Myrmillo then, and that way, if he loses, you shall have the consolation of offering him your winnings. That should go some way towards healing his wounded pride.”

Titus sometimes displayed a remarkable skill with words, and I felt that if he were a snake, he could hypnotize you into sitting still while he bit you. I knew for sure that he was bending me to his will, but gave in anyway.

“Ten sesterces on the Thraex then,” I said skeptically.

“Did I say ten?” he replied with mock innocence. “I meant twenty.”

“Twenty then.”

We both then turned our attention to the fighters as they readied themselves. A trumpeter blew a note that signaled the beginning of the fight, and both men instantly took up a semi-crouching position, which meant that they were ready for action. Both seemed hesitant at first, as though they did not quite know how to proceed. The Myrmillo had won his place on top of the platform, and the Thraex was proceeding with infinite caution up the platform ramp. They were still a good six feet apart, had not yet traded blows.

A full minute went by and then Doctore Furius, who had been watching impatiently, yelled out for some action. “Attack now!” he bellowed.

The Thraex, breathing heavily through his bronze helmet, which he was not used to wearing, now lunged at the Myrmillo, who swung his sword at the approaching figure. This brought on a mad cheer from all of us, as much to encourage them, as anything. We all knew that soon enough we too would face our greatest test yet, and wished that there was some way that both men could come out winners. I had been talked into betting for the Thraex, but within myself I was cheering for the Myrmillo. I could never, no matter how Romanized I became, root against one of my own.

Now the fighting took on a new intensity, as both men got more and more used to the swords. It was stange to hear the clanging of iron against iron, rather than the clacking of wood upon wood. No doubt, this was the sound we would be hearing from now on, and the wooden swords would be left to the Novicii. I did not envy the men who were just now beginning on their journey here at the Ludus. It seemed an age since I myself had arrived. Titus had come earlier, but had been set back after he had failed this test one year ago. He was determined not to fail again this time. His entire financial future depended upon his skill today, and if he did fail, he would probably be sent away. As a Roman citizen he would not be punished, but would lose everything he had invested so far in his training.

One would not have known to look at Titus though, that his entire future was at stake, as he seemed far more interested in the twenty sesterces we had bet than in anything else. He cheered on his Myrmillo for all he was worth, both encouraging and taunting the man at the same time. Eventually, his efforts paid off, and the Myrmillo managed to kick the Thraex off of the platform, and then jumped down on top of him where he lay in the sand, and simulated a killer blow to the Thaex’s neck. The crowd of men went wild with excitement. My Thraex had been eliminated from the runnings, while the Myrmillo passed on to the next level.

Titus reached out his hand to collect his winnings.

“You knew that was going to happen, didn’t you?” I said. “You only pretended to be concerned about my fellow German so that I would bet against him. From now on I will leave the betting to you. You may not be much of a fighter, but you sure have a skill at being able to beat men all the same.”

I was not really mad of course, and could not help but admire Titus’s skill at knowing everything about everything, even the outcome of fights before they happened, or so it seemed. He must have had some inside information, or been keeping a close eye on how the different men were doing in their training. Of course, he knew I was not really mad at him, and he laughed as he counted the coins I had given him.

As the two weary warriors exited the field, the Umpire called out the next two names, which he read off of a scroll: “Flamma, fighting as Retiarius… Versus Magnus Scorpus, as Secutor. Both men step forward.”

Almost immediately I began to sweat, as I straightened up and stepped across the boundry line in the sand. Just then Titus reached out and grabbed my arm, and I turned to face him.

“Remember,” he said, “Overcome fear, and be the best.”

I smiled, nodded to him with a penetrating look, and then turned and strode over to the Umpire. What he had said was a personnal motto that we had come up with together – something to repeat to ourselves when life threw challenges our way.

The Umpire stood tall and erect, looking very stern as he gestured with his stick at myself and Flamma while he explained the rules.

“Any variation,” he warned, “on the rules of the games, and you will feel this stick across your backs. The gladiator motto is: ‘Glory in wounds, and a contempt of death.’ “

I liked the motto Titus and I had come up with more, but bowed respectfully to the Umpire, and then turned to receive my sword and helmet from a slave boy, while Flamma received his Triton spear -points dulled of course, as were my sword's edges- and his mesh net. The sword felt light in my hand, as it hung by my side. It was only half the weight of the wooden swords I was used to, and I had to adjust to this change. The helmet, though, which I was not used to at all, seemed to weigh a thousand pounds.

I had been hoping not to have to face someone like Flamma at my first big fight, and wished I had been given a weakling. Unfortunately, there were very few weak men about, especially if they had made it this far in a Ludus. Still, Flamma, who was also known as “The Dove,” for some reason, was about as fierce as they came. The trouble with him was that there was no fellow-feeling at all between him and any of the others, as there was between Titus and myself, for example. As a Syrian, and one of only a few such men from that region in the entire school, he did not have any of the allegiances which bound the rest of us together. He was in this game entirely for himself, and he affected a smirking and contemptuous air.

Still, this might just be the opportunity to wipe that smirk off of his face.

Once I had fitted my helmet on, I turned to face the Umpire and Furius and Flamma. The Umpire asked me if I chose heads or tails on the piece of bone, and I thought for a second before replying that I chose tails. The Umpire then threw the bone into the air, and watched as it fell into the sand.

“Heads it is,” he said flatly.

I was glad I had just sworn off betting, for luck rarely seemed to be on my side in these types of games. Hopefully, my hard training would see me through. I looked at Flamma through the two small holes in my helmet, and saw that he was smirking at me. In his own mind he had already won the fight. He was probably not wrong to think this, because as difficult as it was for one swordsman to dislodge another from the platform, the long reach of the Retiurius’s spear gave him an even greater advantage.

After we had taken our places, the trumpet sounded, and the Umpire signalled the beginning of the fight. I took a deep breath and approached the ramp. Damned difficult to see and to breath through this helmet I thought, as I tried not to stumble. From the crowd, I could clearly hear the voice of Titus cheering me on. He had no doubt placed a bet on me winning – or had he placed it on the other man? Hard to be sure with him. That made me smile to myself.

After some hesitation, I decided that there was no delaying what was to come, and so charged headlong up the ramp. Sword met spear in a sudden clanging clash, and I just narrowly missed being trapped in Flamma’s net as it swished over my head.

This bruiser knew what he was doing, and I would have to be more careful.

I retreated down the ramp for a moment in order to collect my bearings. Flamma obviously saw this as some sort of victory, for he raised his spear into the air and encouraged the crowd to cheer for him, which they were happy to oblige him by doing. Out of the corner of my eye, I risked a glance up at the box seating, where Procurator Incintatus seemed to be watching the games with a great intensity. I knew that this was the best chance I had yet had to impress him, which would no doubt be useful to me in the future, and so decided then and there that this matter must be concluded as swiftly as possible.

I leaned forward, as though leaning into a stiff breeze, and with all the determination I could muster strode up the ramp again. This time I made a sudden lunge to the left, as though I were trying to get around Flamma, but when he thrust his spear in my direction, just as I had hoped he would, I swiftly dodged to the right and then brought my sword down with full force upon the shaft of the spear. It cracked, and I managed another quick blow before Flamma was able to withdraw. The second blow was enough to cause the front-end of the spear to come off, and to go tumbling to the ground below. All at once the expression of Flamma’s face changed, from that of a smirk, to one of surprise, rage and terror. In an instant he had lost his most important weapon, and was left with nothing but his net. Before he could rally himself, and use the net on me, I turned the blade of my sword sideways, and slapped the flat part of the blade across his mouth. This sent him sprawling onto the platform, while one final kick sent him over the edge and into the sand.

The crowd erupted louder than it had yet, as I strode as gracefully as I could down the ramp, to where Flamma kneeled in pain. As I approached him, however, my mood instantly changed from one of gloating victory to one of almost pity. I knew to guard against pity, as it was the enemy of the gladiator, and could get one killed, but the hunched-over shape before me was no longer a threat, and I delivered my simulated death-blow without any relish in the task. Luckily, my face was covered, so that none of my trainers could see the look of disgust upon my face. They would have reprimanded me severely had they known, for having shown weakness in combat.

As it was, all the other men congratulated me on my seemingly easy victory. It would turn out later to have been the fastest victory of the day. Still, as the men all slapped my back, I turned to watch as Flamma limped off towards the Medicis, clutching his mouth, and helped along by a slave. I had certainly humbled him, and it would be more difficult for him to smirk now with a few less teeth, and yet the only pleasure I felt about the whole thing, was when Titus told me that he had bet on me, and that he wanted to share the winnings.

Good old Titus.

As the day progressed, I fought two more times, winning both bouts, and achieved high scores for my prowess. Titus won two of his fights, and lost one, which didn’t seem to phase him a bit. In fact, he was more angry with himself when he won, as he had taken the unneccessary precaution of betting against himself. By the end of the matches he was stone-cold broke again, and I had to save him by giving him back the money he had offered me from my own fight.

Finally, the trumpet sounded one last time, and we were ordered to assemble. The results of the day and our final scores were read out. As each man’s name was called, and his record recited by the Umpire, he took his place with the other men who now shared his rank. I was placed into the Primus Palus, which was the highest ranking, while Titus took his place in the Secundus Palus, which was the second highest ranking. Below that was the Tertius Palus, and then the Quartus Palus. Below even that, were the men who had been disqualified altogether, and who’s fate was now uncertain. In all likelihood, they would be sent back from wherever they had come from. I did not envy them, and yet it was difficult to think of anything but one’s own pride as Incintatus himself came down to inspect us.

Addressing us all, but directing his words mostly towards the men of the Primus, he said: “Well, men… From now on, you will be known to your trainers, and the public at large, as ‘The Tirones,’ and it is you who now stand the most likely chance of one day becoming ‘Veteran Beasts,’ if you should win your first fight outside of these walls. But to me, as my own personnal property, you have now become ‘The Obedient…’ To ensure your loyalty to this house, you will swear a sacred oath to me personally.”

He then gestured to a slave, who stepped forward and handed a scroll to Furius, who was standing beside his master. Furius unrolled the scroll down a-ways, and then read out in his halting, gravelly voice: “I swear by almighty Jupiter, to be burned, or bound, or beaten, or killed by the sword, should my master, Tiberius Flavius Incintatus, wish it.”

We all swore the oath, and after being left for a moment in order to absorb the gravity of the words which we had just spoken, were then dismissed.

In the mess hall that evening, as Titus and I ate and talked, I couldn’t help but fall silent several times. I was occupied with my own thoughts. What was on my mind was that in all the time I had been in this Ludus, I had not yet been able to leave. Here I was, in the heart of Rome, and yet other than the brief glimpse I had had of it upon arriving here, almost two years before, I had seen nothing since. The only Romans I had seen were spectators in the stands, and I had never spoken a word with any of them. I wondered what it would be like, when we were finally allowed to step out into the wider world, chained of course, but still out in the world.

Suddenly Titus snapped me out of my reverie.

“Hey, you son of a Syrian! Off in dreamland again. Listen to this. I have a plan…” and he then proceeded to let me in on one of his many schemes…

 

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

The House of Expectation

 

 

It was a cool summer evening, and because I could not get to sleep, I went over to the small window that had been cut into the rock wall of my cell, and looked up into the night sky. Twinkling off in the distance were a thousand stars, each one a tiny torch lit by the gods to cast at least a little light upon the darkness that enshrouded the world.

Outwardly, I was calm as I breathed in the chill air, savouring its freshness, and its contrast to the heat of the day in which I had toiled. But inwardly I was restless with the nervous energy that comes from being ready for a task which has been assigned to one, and yet having to wait before being able to carry it out. Tomorrow, in the late afternoon, was to be my first ever appearance in the Great Flavian Amphitheater, and I longed for the dawn to come.

Six months had gone by since I had taken my place amongt the Primus Palus, and since being declared a true member of the Brotherhood of Gladiators. In the meantime, I had been taken in chains out beyond the walls of this Ludus at least a dozen times, either to appear before the high-born of Roman society, or to ply my trade as a fighter in some small, shabby venue, where the crowds, as always, roared for blood.

As difficult as it was to fight, I almost preferred it to the other, appearing before the high society, as such a thing did not seem to be consistant with my new role. I had been trained to fight and die in the arena, and yet during these banquets of the elite, which took place in luxurious palaces and villas, I was expected to just stand there with my fellow slaves. Our muscles were oiled, and our loinclothes as small as they could be, while we were admired and pawed at by the crowds of nobles who stood leering and gawping at us.

To them, we were just part of the entertainment of the evening, not that different in essence to the background music, or the food, or the wine. We were something that had been provided by their host -who had paid a hefty fee to Procurator Incintatus for the privilege- for the guests' amusement and pleasure. It was easier, by far, to appear before the mob, and to pretend to be a ferocious beast, than to stand there for hours staring straight ahead and not speaking.

At first, I had been suprised by the way that the city of Rome had appeared to me. Over the course of the two years of my training, during which time I hadn’t been let out of the Ludus even once, I had built up an idea of what Rome was, based mostly on what I heard the other men saying. But once I saw it, I was slightly disappointed. While it was true that the many temples and gardens and important buildings were more magnificent than anything I had ever seen before, most of the city, and particularly the places in which I was fighting, were really nothing more than slums.

In these sections, the houses were made mostly of wood, not marble, and the people were poor. Far poorer than the people of my village back home, who could at least hunt when times got tough. The small arenas in which I appeared, were really no more than a set of floorboards set in the middle of the market square. The stink of these places was incredible, with the smell of animals, and rotting food and unwashed bodies. To think that the Romans thought that we barbarians smelled! They should have smelled themselves first. I had gotten used to bathing every day since coming here, and had not realized that all inhibitants of the city did not do the same.

The games themselves that I had so far taken part in, were hardly the best that Rome could provide. Of course, I well understood that one did not just walk into the Great Arena. One first had to prove oneself in the smaller venues, and build up a following amongst the people. The best way to do this was to win, and to win with style. I now prided myself on my ability to read the mood of the crowd, and to give them what I thought they wanted. For, example, I never allowed the fight to end too quickly, even if I thought the advantage was clearly my own. It was better to draw the thing out, and to strut about the small wooden floorboards that made up the street venues, before delivering one’s next blow. This made them cheer and chant one’s name, and after the fight the children would come up to me, wanting to touch my armour, or ask me how they too could become gladiators one day.

After six months of going from one place to the other to fight, always supervised by several trainers and guards, I had managed to score a dozen victories, and no defeats. Such an unblemished record was rare, and my fellow gladiators had become more and more repectful in my presence as time went on, and as my list of victories grew. Even the Ludus guards, hardly ones to have anything but distain for anyone, had begun to treat me with a little more respect. All in all, I had been able to become something of a small celebrity, and was considered a minor champion, and Veteran Beast, who had done very well, and yet who had still to prove himself in the Great Arena.

The price for these advancements in my own fortunes had been steep though. Only one week before, Titus, my good friend, who had later become my great friend, had been killed while fighting the raging Retiarius Storax, in yet another shabby fighting pit somewhere on the edge of town. I had seen it happen, but had been powerless to stop it, and yet vowed to avenge my friend's death one day. Gladiators were not supposed to take this kind of thing personally -it was just business- but Storax had displayed a little too much enjoyment in his task, and I yearned for the day when I would be able to face him in combat. Afterwards, they had lifted Titus's body off the stage and put it on a cart. Presumably, it would be held in storage until his family could be notified to come and pick it up.

Before Titus, I had believed that all Romans were a bloodthirsty lot, or at the very least, the masters whom I must please in order not to die. But he had shown me that this was not neccessarily so. For several nights after he had died, I had wept when alone in my room, not able to bring myself to believe that the one true friend I had in this place had been ripped forever from the very fabric of existance -at least this existance. I reminded myself that he had been a firm believer in the gods -had been completely and strangely devoted to them- even as he sought out endless new ways of bribing or outsmarting them. I tried to imagine him as he must be now, as a soul, and wondered how he was getting on in the underworld. It seemed to me, that he must be occupying some chair in some dirty gambling den down below, and he was no doubt laughing, and placing impossible bets with the other souls of the dead.

Just after he had died, my training had slowed down, as my mind was distracted by my sense of loss. I had not had time to grieve, but was expected to work to full capacity out in the training sands. I had tried, but it had been difficult, as everything I was doing, everything from lifting weights, to practicing my swordsmanship, I had always done with Titus. Doctore Furius noticed my lack of focus, but had said little all that first day to me about it. Later that night, after the baths, he sought me out, and in the hallway had stopped me.

“I know that you and Titus were friends. I feel his loss as well, and not just because he was a fellow Roman. It is always a shame to see a good gladiator depart this world.”

I did not know how to respond to this, as I had never heard Furius do anything but yell orders, and tell us slaves that we were not worthy, and yet he seemed genuine enough.

“As I’ve said, I was once a Legionary, a dog’s life ago. I served in many places, and fought many battles, and in that time, many of my friends died. Later, in the arena, the same thing… Even though I am a Roman, I, like you, did not choose this life. It was chosen for me by circumstances, or by the gods, I don’t know.”

He spit onto the ground, and above our heads a torch on the wall burned, lighting the hallway, as a swarm of midges circled about the flames frenetically.

"Sometimes I cursed the gods, or Rome, for my fate, but I've learned to make the best of it... You seem to me to have a similiar outlook. The only thing to do is to keep on surviving, no matter what the price... We serve Rome, and its rulers. I have fought men all over the Empire. But men like us -fighting men- we don't make the rules. We impose them maybe, sometimes -but we don't make them. Rome has succeeded because it's been able to blend military conquest with good administration, which secures what it has taken... Mark my words, one day all the world will kneel down before Rome and its Emperors... All this is just to say that men die everywhere, every day, and far less nobly than Titus did, and for little or no cause. You should be proud that he was your friend. He died a like a Roman, and has helped to teach you something of what it means to be a member of this Ludus. Don't forget, that to be a servant of this great city, especially as a gladiator, is more noble than to be the proud Chief of a lesser race."

As he said these things, Furius stood with his hands on his hips, as though he were confronting me with the facts of life. I was not sure whether to be grateful or resentful for this lecture. As soon as he had finished, he turned and abruptly walked away, and never brought it up again. I understood his words, and what he was trying to say to me, but was still conflicted. What was I to make of this people, who watched as members of its own community fought to the death for their entertainment?

Then again, perhaps it was not really so different than many of the rituals of my own tribe of the Sicambri. One of the things that we did was to take one of our own, someone who had willingly offered himself up as a sacrifice to the gods, and then either ritually slit his throat, or threw him, still living, into a bog where he would drown. If I had learned anything about the games, it was that they were not merely entertainment, but seemed to be some sort of ritual, enacted by willing or unwilling participants, it did not seem to matter. This was meant both to appease the god’s bloodlust, as well as represent the beliefs of the people, which had to be enacted time and again as a kind of reaffirmation of their core values.

I say that Doctore Furius never brought the matter up again, but he did, either out of pity, or as some sort of reward for my many victories, send a slave girl to my cell. Her name was Lollia, or at least that was her Roman name. I never found out what her real name was, though she did say that she had come from the Island of Brittania, and had been sold into slavery as a child by her parents. Now she served in the kitchens beneath the Ludus -hard work that had prematurely aged her beyond her sixteen years by at least ten more. She still looked attractive though, especially in the shaft of moonlight which streamed through the window of my cell, and I took her gratefully. Afterwards, we had lain very still, her face against my side, neither of us saying anything, just feeling our breath slowly and steadily rising and falling in unison.

I had not had a woman in years, and had not even really had time to think about them. All day I trained, and at night I was far too exhausted to even imagine one. We fighters did not come into contact with women at all, except in the bathhouse, and we were not allowed to touch those girls. I had, of course, been briefly observed as I trained by a Roman Lady, but in the meantime, I had disciplined myself not to look up into the stands. These women were at once too aloof, high up as they were, and also too full of adulation. I took their cries and squeals as I took any that came from the crowd, and tried to focus only on fighting. I had heard rumours, of course, of some of the men being called forth to entertain some noble lady or other, but had never been asked to do this sort of thing myself. If I had been, I would certainly have had to comply.

Once Lollia had gone, and just as dawn was beginning to shed its first rays through the window, I vowed to myself that that next evening, in the arena, I would become a great champion. I looked on it as an opportunity, as a stepping stone on my path to becoming the greatest gladiator of this age, and prayed fervently to the gods to help me in this ambition. As to whom I would fight, that would be up to Procurator Incintatus and Doctore Furius, as well as with the Editor of the games, but I knew that whoever it was I woud meet in combat, they were bound for the afterlife…

 

 

CHAPTER NINE

The Gate of Life

 

 

When the sun had passed its zenith in the sky, and was slowly plummeting to earth, we were called by the Captain of the Guards to assemble.

Over two dozen of us gladiators had been warming up our muscles by engaging in some light sword-play in the Ludus arena. All day we had been hearing the screams and cries of both the crowds, and the participants of the Great Flavian Amphitheater, which was only about three-hundred paces away from the school. In the mornings, they always staged the beast hunts first, wherein specially-trained hunters, called Venators, tried their best to kill all sorts of exotic animals, while trying not to be killed themselves. Beasts like hippos, elephants and tigers had been shipped all the way from Africa, and beyond, to serve as entertainment for the ever-voracious public.

After a short break, the afternoon show featured public executions of criminals, which involved everything from whippings, to crucifixions, and burnings at the stake. I felt sorry for those who did not even get a chance to defend themselves. At least I would have a sword. After this spectacle, came the highlight of the day, the Munis, or sword-combat, which I was to fight in for the first time ever. This time, on orders from the Emperor himself, the Munis had been delayed till the sun set, because he preferred to watch death in partial darkness as a way of heightening the mystery. We were on his orders, and had to obey without question. The only thing I hadn’t like about this was that it delayed the whole thing, and set my nerves on edge.

Dropping our swords where we stood, we put our woolen togas back on, in order to keep our muscles loose and warm, and lined up in single file before the entrance to the passageway that would lead us into the bowels of the arena. Long ago, a tunnel had been dug under the street by engineers, and it connected the Ludus with the arena. It was much better for the spectators if they did not catch a glimpse of us before the show, so that we should be seen to just enter the arena as if from out of nowhere, which served to heighten the mystique of gladiators. At the mouth of the passageway was a large iron gate, and this the Captain of the Guards unlocked with a key. Two junior guards then swung it open with a creak.

Inside the tunnel it was pitch black, except for the dim illumination cast by the torches that lined the walls. We followed the guards down a steep incline, which soon enough levelled out. We walked in silence for about two-hundred paces in the cool ehoey tunnel, till we came to another gate. Behind the gate was a guard, who unlocked it from his side, and then let us pass through. What I noticed right away, was the terrible smell that assaulted my nostrils as soon as I walked in. It was as if every rancorous odour in the world had been mixed together to create some new and ten-times more terrible smell.

It was clear that most of the stink came from the many animal cages that lined the hallways. We had now entered the Hypogeum, which was a system of tunnels and cells which lay directly beneath the arena floor. As we made our way through the maze of cells and chambers, I saw several dozen separate pens, each housing a different type of animal. In one pen there were about six snapping, leering hyenas, which I had never seen before, and in another, there were what looked to be three half-starved lions. In the largest of the pens was a giant grey creature, which I took to be what they call an elephant. I had always heard that elephants were vicious creatures, though this one actually appeared to be sad.

This did not suprise me, as these poor creatures had obviously been forced to endure all sorts of miseries beyond calculation, both on their long, and no-doubt arduous journeys to Rome, as well as in the arena. About everything, there hung an almost palpable stink of excrement and sweat and blood, and over all this horror-show presided the Beastmaster himself, a big fat man who wore a thick leather apron -to protect against tooth and claw, and who carried a bullwhip. It was he who oversaw the workings of the Hypogeum.

Now he shouted unintelligibly at two slaves who were trying as best they could to manhandle a hissing tiger down a narrow shaft. It appeared that there were dozens of these narrow passages that led up to the arena floor, coupled with platforms and cages that could be hoisted by ropes up to the top levels. These platforms were being pulled down by half a dozen men, and there were small trees, and exotic-looking plants being unlaoded and carried away. I imagined that these had been used as stage-props for the earlier shows. The intricacy of these operations amazed me. I had had no idea of the level of work and sophistication that went into the games, nor the number of slaves it took to keep things running smoothly and on time.

It seemed impossible that anyone could survive for long toiling under these conditions. In many ways, it was worse than the mines, as the heat and sense of claustrophobia were far more terrible, as well as the noise. We had been told that it would be loud here, but I had never imagined it to be this bad. Already, the crowds were getting impatient to see us fighters, and they stamped out a steady beat with their feet to show their displeasure. This, mixed with the rythmic beat of the music which accompanied the games, caused vibrations that sent sand sifting through the floorbaords of the arena, and this fell into our eyes as we walked.

Suddenly, the smell of death was even more present in the air than it had been, and I heard the cries of men in pain even above the sounds of the cheering crowd. We passed by what I assumed was the Saniarium, where Venators, or beast hunters, who had been wounded earlier, were having their wounds stitched up by the Medici. As we passed the room in the near-darkness, two slaves emerged from the doorway carrying a stretcher. On it, lay a man who was now dead. He had obviously succumbed to the wounds he had received. It looked as though he had been badly mauled by a bear, judging by the claw-scratches gauged into his torso. We stepped to the side to let them pass as they headed for the Spoliarium, where the dead were sent to be stripped of their armour.

All around us were the sounds of death and glory: A sword being sharpened, the groans of dying men, and the sharp crack of the beastmaster’s whip.

Eventually, we came to the Armanentarium, which was a large room just off the main passageway. At the end of the passage was the Gate of Life, through which we would soon be passing, and through which, the flickering shafts of torch-light danced and played on the stone walls. I received from the armourer my full complement of Secutor equipment, excepting my sword. No gladiator was ever trusted with a blade before he actually stepped into the arena, all thanks to the Spartacus revolt some three-hundred or more years ago, which had been made up of rebelling slaves. Because another such revolt had since been feared, guards were posted every forty paces or so throughout the Hypogeum.

I took my armour and put it onto the ground out in the passageway. The Gate of Life itself was really a large iron grill, which, when the time came, would be hoisted up on its ropes by several guards. Through the grill I could see most of the arena floor, and off in the distant center two junior gladiators warmed up the crowd by engaging in combat. They were armed only with wooden swords, but fought fiercly against one another. This would make the mob even more excited, for they wanted to hear the sounds of real iron clanging off of iron, and the sense of anticipation seething from the masses had become, by that time, almost palpable.

I tried just to focus on putting on my equipment properly. I didn’t want to subvert my own chances of victory simply because I’d not tightened one of my many draw-strings well enough, or forgotten something.

First, I removed my tunic, then put on my subligacalum, or loincloth, which had to be tied in a very particular way. I let one end hang down the back, while the other two ends I wound round my waist, and then knotted at the front. The hanging end I then passed between my legs and through the knot, and then allowed the cloth to hang loosely at the front. Next, I put on my leather cingulum, or metal-studded belt, which went over the top of the loincloth, and fastened at the back with two small hooks. My torso was to be left open, mostly because the Romans love to see a well-toned and sweaty abdomen twisting and turning in the light, as well as the fact that it was neccessary to leave something exposed – some chink in the armour to make the fight more exciting.

I then put on my manicae, or arm-sleeve, with the assistance of a slave, and the subarmallis, which went around my legs. The purpose of this straw-filled linen padding was not only to protect my legs, but also to act as a cushion for the greaves, or curved amour, which guarded my shins. Next, I put on my balteus, which was a sort of sheath for the sword which I was soon to receive, and lastly, took my knitted woolen arming cap, which I would later slip on over my head like a hood. I put this into the basin of my Secutor helmet, which I placed beside my curved shield. These three items, as well as the sword, would only be taken up in the moments before the fight.

As I did a final check on everything, I couldn't help but wonder to myself how many men had already fought, and bled, and died in this armour -it had been alot judging by the smell of it.

Beside me stood Vulcan, the Gaulish Myrmillo with whom I had had an argument years before in the baths. We had never quite become close in the meantime, but we were at least no longer enemies. I leaned over to him, and nodded my head toward the sound of the noise streaming in through the gate. “We are no longer the Dogs of the Underworld,” I said with a grin, “but the Gods of the Underworld!” Vulcan nodded and gave me a wink. He knew that I meant that all these people out there were cheering for us, and that in their eyes, we were, for an instant anyway, at least the equal to the demi-gods and heroes of Heaven and Earth.

I took a brief moment of silence to remember Titus, and inside myself dedicated the games tonight that I woud play a part in to him. He had, after all, helped me with my training, and if I survived, than it would at least partially be due to the role he had played in my life. I then made a silent entreaty to the gods, to Fortuna, the Goddess of Fortune, and to Mars, the God of war, and lastly to Jupiter, the God of all, asking for victory this day.

Behind me, the other men parted away, and I heard the gruff voice of Doctore Furius. He marched through us, followed by a slave carrying a box, which he lay down on the ground before the steps. Furius stepped up onto it.

“Men,” he said. “Gladiators… Can you hear them out there?! Do you hear how they are cheering? They are cheering for you! They are calling out for men brave enough to show them the way, to show them how to die, and to show them how to live… So go out there, and die well, or through the merit of your skill with the blade, earn your lives for another day!”

We all let out a loud shout, to show our approval of his words. We were happy that Furius didn’t bore us woth long speeches, and didn’t try to insult us with false praise or unwarranted threats.

“Gladiators!” Furius called out again as he stepped off of his box. “Take up your positions!”

As the highest ranked man present, it would be my task to lead the men out into the open, and so taking my helmet from under my arm, I stood at the center front of the two lines of men. We had rehearsed what was to come at least a hundred times, and I tried not to forget my role.

All at once, and blaring loudly, came the sound of the Imperial trumpets, which blasted out three long notes.

That was the signal, and immediatly the guards began to hoist the iron gate up by its ropes. Slowly, it began to creakingly ascend, and as it did, we all felt every eye in the audience turn toward the entrance, and toward the Gate of Life. The sudden silence seemed to be almost more deafening than the noise of the cheering had been, and I waited for Furius’s signal to step forward, forward into the torch-lit night, and out onto the cool sands of the arena floor…

 

CHAPTER TEN

The First Sword

 

 

The sun had now gone fully down, and darkness had enshrouded the Amphitheater as though a black curtain had been laid over it. I strode up the short flight of stone steps that led up to the Gate of Life, and as I appeared, the crowd went wild with cheering. Their faces appeared to me as no more than a blur, a dark confused writhing mass in an inky night, but they were enthralled with the sight of us. Our bodies were resplendant and dazzling. Just moments before, slaves had draped all of us gladiators in long golden gowns, and they must have made quite a spectacle as they glimmered in the flickering light of the torches that had been set up all over the arena floor.

Just then, I noticed something coming down from the sky. It was actually thousands upon thousands of flower petals that had been thrown by men high up on the rafters of the stadium. These petals came down like rain, and landed on our sweat-soaked bodies and faces, and filled the air with their sweet scent. This was called The Flower Rain, and the purpose of it was to make the air in the stands, which was rank with the smell of people’s garlicy breath and sweat, a little more bearable. I couldn’t help but feel that the petals, especially when the red ones landed on our skin, were a kind of prefiguring of all the wounds yet to come, and they mingled in with the patches of blood that already littered the sandy ground, from where men and beasts had died earlier this day.

As I walked through the sand, trying my best to steer the other men in a complete loop around the stadium, I raised my arms and several times saluted to the cheering masses. This was their chance to look down upon us, and to lay bets on the men they thought looked the fittest. Behind me, there were other Secutors like myself, as well as several Samnites, with their large shields and plumed helmets, which they held by their sides. Next to them, strode the scissores, with their hook-slashers and bent Sica swords -I was glad I didn't have to fight them! Then there were the Dimachaeri, who wielded two swords, and of course the Thraex, the Myrmillos, and the Hoplomachus, who were of the heavily armoured type. Then there was my own personnel adversaries, the Retiarius.

Behind our Procession, or Pompa, as the Romans called it, was a long train of local dignitaries, Vestal Virgins, and page boys, as well as the Lictor and other officials. Some had a role in the games as judges or as sponsors, while most just wanted to trail behind us and enjoy, second-hand, some of the applause which we gladiators were basking in. It was always helpful for a Roman citizen to be able to associate themselves, however remotely, with the glory which we earned with our blood.

Most interesting for the crowds though, besides the fighters, were the many tame exotic beasts which were led by slaves in our wake. There were zebras, and ostriches, and wild deer of many different varieties, which the people seemed to adore seeing. The whole thing was just an show, a kind of play-acting, and yet there was nothing unreal about the spectacle of death and the horror which was soon to be enacted out for the pleasure of the masses.

I had been instructed to make one full lap around, and then to assemble the men before the Imperial Box, which was in the front and center of the arena. As First Sword, it was my honour to line the men up into their correct alignment, while we waited for the arrival of the Emperor, who always entered last. We were to present ourselves to him, and offer our weapons to his service, weapons which, only now, were being handed to us by several trainee-gladiators. This presentation was called The Pantheon of the Gods, on account of the fact that this assembly of men was meant to represent the highest manifestation, outside of the Emperor himself, of the divine made flesh. It was our bodies, which had been honed to such perfection, and our skill with weapons, that best symbolized the true strength and virtue of Rome.

Just as we had settled into our positions, an official, known as a Lictor, stepped forward. He was a wizened old man, and his task was to examine both our armour, as well as our weapons, to make sure that no tricks were played. In times past, it had not been uncommon for men to put metal spikes on their knuckles, or to hide an extra weapon in their manica, or greaves, and so a careful and thorough inspection was made before an assembled group of judges. When all was declared satisfactory, the men stepped back, and disappeared through a door in the wall, as we men stowed our swords into our balteus.

We stood for a brief moment in the cool night air, neatly lined up in two rows before the gilded Imperial Box, and soon after, there came the shrill cry from the Imperial trumpets, announcing the arrival of the Emperor. At first we saw nothing, for the Box was elevated quite high, but we heard the roar go up from those assembled, and they all rose from their seats in order to applaud the Royal Family, who entered with their Pretorian Guard. The Emperor took his seat slowly, arranged his purple toga, and then raised his hands as a signal to proceed. Everyone in the audience then took their seat, and the musicians on the far side of the arena began to play. It was a haunting tune, and the strange vocals made by the male and female chorus-line made it all the more so. This was the signal, and I withdrew my sword and raised it high before the Emperor. The pale, weak-looking figure in the Imperial Box acknowleged us, and then slowly stood on his wavering and uncertain legs.

“You may proceed with the games,” he said, in a voice that was barely above a whisper, and then sat down again. I had heard rumours that this man enjoyed studying the expression in a dying man’s eyes, the better perhaps to understand the enigma of death, and for this reason, he best enjoyed fights that featured my opponents, the Retiurius. The fisherman did not wear an obstructing mask, and this obviously afforded the Emperor the best possible view of a man’s face as he died. It was my intention to give him just such a show, when later I took to the sands myself with a fisherman.

Now the musicians stopped their melody, and the sound of a single instrument, a Tibia Impares, or oboe, blasted out one long note. That was the sign for the games to begin. Most of us filed out of the arena in an orderly manner, and went back through the Gate of Life to await our turns. The only two who stayed behind were the Gaulish Myrmillo, Vulcan, and my fellow German, Decimus, who was a Hoplomachus. Both men were about equally matched when it came to skill, strength and armour, but they were also good friends, and it horrified me to think that they had been pitted against one another.

We all gathered at the open Gate of Life to get a good view of the proceedings, and by the time I had elbowed my way to the front of the men, the fight had already begun. Both were fighting well, and hard, and any doubts I had had about them being willing to fight one another were obviously unfounded, as they were busily slashing at one another as though they had been bitter foes all their lives.

Vulcan got the first really good blow in, straight on Decimus’s helmet, and he staggered backwards for a moment before regaining his composure. Decimus did not waste any time before launching his retaliatory assualt though, and when he slashed at Vulcan’s arm, it looked as though he might have cut through the manicae. Still, that would not be enough to stop a beast like Vulcan, and he only redoubled his efforts to keep Decimus on the defensive. The crowd, meanwhile, was loving it, and could not seem to stay in their seats. Even the Senators, usually so dignified, were hooting and jeering at the two men, yelling “Hit him!” and “Again, that’s it!”

No doubt Procurator Incintatus, who would be sitting somewhere near to the Imperial Box, was well-pleased that his gladiators were performing as they were. His own honour or disgrace rested upon our shoulders, for if we performed well, he was a hero, and if we performed badly, it would bring him into disrepute, not only with the people of Rome, but with the Emperor himself.

After about five minutes of fighting, both men were starting to tire, and it looked as though the Umpire was about to call a short rest, when Vulcan, summoning his last reserves, struck a vital hit to Decimus. The wound did not seem vital at first, but to my practiced eye I could see that it was only a matter of time. The blow had been struck into the upper left thigh, and Decimus now hobbled backwards, trying to hold off Vulcan with his small round shield. But it was no use, and with one swift movement, the Myrmillo dug his sword in, just behind the Hoplomachus’s left shoulder blade. Decimus let out a cry, and as he did so, he threw back his helmeted head, which exposed his throat. Vulcan ruthlessly exploited the gap in Decimus’s defenses, and struck upwards with his sword at the bare neck. His blade struck home, and Decimus, his friend of over two years, fell to the sands, dead.

Everyone in the crowd roared their approval. It had been a good, clean kill. The public loved to see a warrior who knew his business, and who did not hesitate to strike when opportunity presented itself. All in all, a good showing.

As Vulcan raised his arms in victory, two officials, one dressed as the God Dis Pater, ferryman who led the souls of the dead across the River Styx, and another, his assistant, dressed as Mercury, the God of the dead, made their way toward the body of Decimus. Dis Pater carried a red hot-rod of steel, which he touched to the the gladiator’s exposed leg, sending up a puff of smoke from the charred flesh. Mercury then took the man’s helmet off, raised a large wooden mallet, and brought it down with some force upon Decimus’s lifeless head. And then again. All this was done in accordance with the rules, in order to make sure that the fighter was not merely playing dead, but was actually so. At this sight, I could not help but be sickened, not least because the man had been a fellow German, but also because he had fought and died so well.

This brutal ritual over, the body was now loaded onto a stretcher, and carried solemnly off the arena floor by two slaves. Decimus’s body exited by way of the Port of Liberation, which was a small door in the wall. The Emperor, who had been sipping wine from his goblet, now signaled for the next pair to emerge. As a weary Vulcan returned to join us, I saw that he was disgusted with what he had had to do, and he went to sit alone on the recovery bench.

Doctore Furius, meanwhile, called us to attention, and looked down at the scroll which he had kept tucked into his belt.

Slowly he read off the names of the next two men to fight together.

“Magnus Scorpus, Secutor, Primus Palus,” he intoned slowly, “will face off with Storax, Retiarius, also Primus Palus.”

My heart leapt at the reading of the names! Not only was this to be my first fight in the Great Arena, but it was to be against the man I most hated in this world, the man who had taken the life of my friend Titus. This was to be my chance at retribution, and if I succeeded, and fought well enough, I stood the chance of being named the Grand Champion of the Games. This would bring me one step closer to my goal of earning enough money so that I might one day be able to buy my freedom.

As I began to step forward, I caught a glance from Furius, who looked at me seriously. “Don’t take any chances out there,” he said quietly. “Storax isn’t like any of the other men you’ve fought before. He doesn’t play by the rules, and has never been defeated.”

“Neither have I,” I said.

I was amazed that Furius had taken the time to give me this advice, and nodded respectfully to him.

As Storax and I walked towards the place where we would take up our positions, I felt his eyes boring into the back of my head, and knew that he was mentally sizing me up, the way one fighter does to another. Little did he know that I had been watching him as he trained for some months now, studying his moves and his bad habits, looking for any flaws to exploit. I had been planning this fight for some time in my mind, and wanted to go into it with my eyes wide open.

Both of us took up our places before the Emperor, and raised our swords to him in salute. From the musician’s oboe came the long plaintive note that signaled the beginning of the match. We both turned and faced one another. Storax was pacing back and forth not ten steps in front of me, and looking for all the world just like a hungry black panther. I tried not to be disconcerted by his white eyes, as they stared at me unblinkingly in the flickering torchlight…

 

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN

We Salute You

 

 

I knelt upon the ground, panting and gasping, my hands clutching at palmfuls of sand. Storax, who had been revelling in the cheers of the crowd, now turned towards me, and the smile slowly vanished from his lips as he lowered his gaze. The intensity of it was searing, and it is obvious that now the time has come for me to die. Slowly he raised his spear, and then let out a primeval cry, something from the depths of his being, as he charged towards me. Little did he know that while I knelt, I was actually resting myself, and now, with a renewed burst of energy I leapt to my feet in a single bound, and threw my handful of sand straight into his blazing eyes.

The howl he let out was not one of certain victory, but of pain, and confusion. I knew that his surprise would not last for long though, and I took advantage of every second that I had to rush over to where my sword lay. My choice was simple: Do I keep the shield, or do I abandon it, and try to get the sword instead? The answer was obvious, and so now brandishing the sword, I spun around to meet Storax’s rage.

He looked at me with hatred, his eyes blinking, and his vision no doubt unclear. Still, I couldn't become too overconfident. He did not need to be able to see me very well to be able to aim his spear, and in the meantime he had regained his net. The roar from the crowd was terrific, and many people were leaning over the edge of the wall in order to get a better view. It was difficult to see and to hear what was happening with my helmet on, so in a fit of frustration, I took it off and flung it to the side. This caused Storax to grin again -he thought me a fool for removing my helmet- but I knew that at this point in the fight, with my energy flagging, I needed the advantage that more air and greater range of vision would give me.

At once I felt my strength returning, as I sucked in deep lungfuls of air, and even took the time to spin my sword in my hand and strike several poses for the crowd. This was the Magnus Scorpus that they knew and loved, not the one who fought desperately for his life, but the one who thumbs his nose at convention, and who plays by his own rules. They had been waiting for me to make my move, and seemed to collectively sense that now was the time.

It was obvious from his body language, that Storax too had sensed the shift in the mood of the crowd. They had been cheering for him, but were now on my side. To see a downed man rally himself, and then to strike back at his tormentor was for them the highest point in the games, and they let me know they were with me by chanting out my name over and over, “Magnus! Magnus!”

Storax would not give in without a fight though, and I saw that his footwork and agile spear-handling were as skillful and as deadly as ever. He spun, and side-stepped, and ducked with as much agility as though he were fresh from a good night's rest. The points of his Triton brushed against my greaves and shoulders several times, sometimes leaving shallow slash- marks, but I swung my sword with purpose, and he was forced into a general retreat, and at last I found a weak spot in his seemingly invulnerable defenses.

In many ways, Storax was a pure fighting animal, his timing was perfect, both for his attacks, and for stepping back to defend. His strength was obvious, and the thrusts of his spear, either when sweeping, or with slashing, were both powerful and precise. And yet there was something almost a little too memorized about his fighting style. I had noticed it before while watching him train -it was as though he had too perfectly memorized the correct moves for a Retiarius, and did not think outside of the box. Most of the time, this served him well, but I wondered how he would do against someone who was unpredictable.

I thought that a little counter-intuition was called for now.

One last time, I looked up to the heavens, and asked the gods to help me clear my mind, so that I might think less, and do more.

“Storax!” I yelled out at him. “You are the greatest gladiator I have ever seen. I wish I did not have to kill you.”

In a way, I meant what I said, for even though he had killed Titus, and even though he was trying his best to kill me, I had very little taste for vengeance anymore. I realized, in this moment, that one way or another, as gladiators, life itself would finish us all off in the end, both the just and the wicked. Whether I killed him or someone else did, it will all be the same. The same, except that was not my intention to die, and if I was to live, than Storax would have to be killed, for he would never surrender.

“I would hate to die,” he replied, and the intensity of his gaze never wavered.

I approached him now, knowing that this was the final test, the final clash, and tried to keep my mind clear. The movements I made seemed to come from deep within, not conscious movements, but much more spontaneous, flowing and connected, not staggered and disjointed. These blows I struck caught Storax off-guard, and he reeled backwards under the onslaught. His spear thrusts were easily parried, and I finished with a final flourish, a quick, lethal stab to Storax’s neck, just above the galerus shoulder-guard.

All at once, he knew that he was finished, and slumped forward, not dead, but slowly dying. The crowd erupted into wild applause, and began to chant out the words “Ferum Recipere!” or “Receive the Iron!”

This was their way of telling me that they wanted him to be killed with my iron sword. I looked up to the people, and up to the Emperor. All were shouting for blood. They wanted me to kill Storax. I looked down to the man beneath me, my sword raised high. To his credit, he decided to make his last moments as dignified as he could, and turned and knelt, exposing the back of his neck. I waited a moment, as the people cheered all the louder, and then brang the sword down in one swift motion. The blade slid easily into his spine, severing it completely. His nervous system twitched and fluttered for a moment beneath my blade, and then he went still, falling forward into the blood-stained sand.

Immediately, the trumpets of victory sounded, and the Umpire of the games ushered me up a long flight of marble steps. I was incredibly weary, but managed to struggle up. At the top of the steps was the Editor of the games, who sat on a gilded stool. He gestured to a slave-boy, who held in his hands a crown made out of laurel leaves. I took the crown, and turning towards the crowd of cheering fans, placed it upon my head.

The Editor spoke solemnly. “Young beast,” he said. “Today you have won one of the highest honours that may be bestowed upon a gladiator. Today you are the Grand Champion of the games… Such glory though, will be yours but for a brief moment… And what of tomorrow?” He asked, seeming earnestly interested.

“Tomorrow,” I replied, “I will seek my freedom.”

“A noble goaI, and one to be envied,” he said philisophically.

“Envied?” I ventured boldly. “But you yourself were born free.”

“Freedom,” he said, “is something that few men truly possess. We are all subject to the will of the gods, or to fate. It is a state of mind, and I wish you well on your journey toward it, so long as this freedom of yours serves Rome.”

Only a man born into freedom, I thought to myself, could believe that it is something intangible, something granted by the gods. It was far more difficult for those of us in chains of iron to reconcile ourselves to our fates.

I then turned, and began to descend the long flight of marble steps, until I came down again onto the sands. I knew that I was expected to complete a victory lap around the arena, thus giving the spectators one last chance to express their enthusiasm. Once I completed the lap, I again went through the Gate of Life, and joined my comrades, who congratulated me.

“Now I can rest,” I thought, and began to walk back through the maze of underground passages, until I arrived back at the Ludus. Things were quiet there, as almost everyone was at the games. Only a few guards milled about, playing dice on a flight of steps.

All at once I heard a cheer coming from the arena, and I knew that a man, a man not unlike myself, had either been spared from death, or had died. One has gained his life for another day, I thought, and one has left this cruel world behind for good. I remembered the words of Furius, who had said that in this Ludus, untold numbers of dreams have been, and would be, shattered. Today I was Grand Champion, and that meant something, of course. It meant coins in my hand, and glory, and yet another step on the way to the end of my bondage. More than anything, that was what I now craved.

I looked to all the statues of fallen gladiators that lined the Ludus walls. Great men all, but at what price did I buy a place for myself in history? To have my name scrawled all over the dirty walls of Rome, and to have my deeds recounted in grisly detail by children and Senators alike -was that honour? Titus was dead, and many more would surely follow, all so that a few might receive the crown of glory and the cheers of the mob. Must a thousand men die just so that one can be free? And yet I knew that there was only one real way to escape this life, only one way out, and that was to become so proficient at the art of blood-shedding, that the Emperor himself would willingly hand you the wooden Rudis sword, the symbol of freedom. Only when you had either fought so heroically that the people demanded that you be released, or until you have served out the full four years of service -only then might you walk without chains.

I looked up to the dark sky high above, searching for some sign from the Roman gods, but saw only infinite blackness, and the million fine points of distant light. I then reached up and took the laurels off of my head and threw them to the ground.

“Freedom or death,” I said to myself, and then louder, so that the guards looked up from their dice game at me.

“Freedom or death!” I cried.

 

 

The end, or, The Beginning…

 


Blood of a Barbarian

  • ISBN: 9781370119936
  • Author: John-Philip Penny
  • Published: 2016-08-03 00:05:09
  • Words: 26991
Blood of a Barbarian Blood of a Barbarian