Authors: John-Philip Penny
Tags: #General Fiction
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.
When the cheering had died down, the strange alien music again began to flow through me, and my eyes narrowed their focus on the darting shape before me. In the light of the torches, the Retiarius was half cast in shadow, and looked like some being from the underworld, as the sweat glistened on his body and ran in tiny streams down his face and neck. I doubted he was as tired as myself. He had far more freedom of movement than I did, and was able to breath freely, while I had to conserve my strength and limit my movements because of my armour.
The drums began to pound menacingly in their odd rythm, and moving to their beat, I struck again! He leapt aside, and I felt a numbing jar upon my right arm. He had whacked a swift blow with the shaft of his spear, and I quickly withdrew my arm and retreated a half-step. He smiled at this and let out a cackle of a laugh, as he began weighing the mesh net in his left hand. He took a large step back, and then with a wide sweep of his left arm swished the net under my feet. I leapt over it deftly, but once more he tried again. Luckily, I had practiced this motion a thousand times during training, and even in the soft sand below, easily found my footing again. He would have to try harder than that.
Unfortunately he did, and just seconds later, by first feigning a right-handed lunge with his Trident spear at my helmet. He had hit me before with a suprise blow to the side of the head, and I had seen stars, and did not want that to happen again. I ducked in time, but found out too late that this had only been a ruse, and that he had taken advantage of my right-sided lunge to drape me with his mesh.
Now if there is one thing that a gladiator fears more than anything in the arena, it is a Retiarius's net, for it can reduce one to the helpless state of a wriggling fish in a matter of seconds, and at the total mercy of one's opponent. This is the state I now found myself in, but as I struggled I made the amateurish mistake of raising my sword arm as I did so.
This was just the opportunity that he had been waiting for, and he thrust his multi-pointed spear at my flailing sword and caught it between the prongs. He then applied a twisting pressure with his right arm, while having the foresight to let go of the net with his left hand, and to use it to apply even more pressure. Within seconds, the sword flew through the air, landing uselessly in the sand, where it lay half-buried.
While this had happened though, I had not been idle, and used this split-second to free myself from the hateful mesh, and then toss it to one side. I felt naked without my sword, but not totally, for I still had my shield. It too could be used as an offensive weapon, and I made a slicing motion with it at the fisherman. This merely had the effect of holding him at bay for a moment though, and he quickly resumed closing in upon me.
Totally unexpected was what came next, for it was an extremely unorthodox move, but then, he was no usual sort of fighter, as I had learned. He lifted up his leg and kicked the centre of my shield as hard as he could. This took me so off guard that I fell back at once, unable to retain my balance, and was left half-kneeling on the ground. Now the crowd let out an uproarious cheer! One could practically smell the raw garlic on their breath as they urged him on, yelling out, "Kill him, cut him, burn him," which was the tradional cry that went up when a man was considered finished.
The looming Retiarius obviously wanted to relish this moment of victory for a brief time, and he did not come in for the kill right away. Instead, he raised his arms and began yelling something back at the crowd in his strange tongue, probably something like, "Should I kill him?" The crowd could not understand him, but the cheered him on anyway. He was their champion, and could do no wrong. It was obviously he, they thought, who had proven himself to be the stronger warrior, and in Rome, that was all that mattered.
How had it come to this?
Had it not been my ambition to be champion in the greatest arena in the world? Had I not trained long and hard, and put in more sweat and blood and tears than anyone else, so that one day I might be victorious? And yet here I was, on my first true bout, knocked to the ground. The blow had taken the wind out of me, and my hands clutched at the sand below as I tried to catch my breath.
Such a small, simple thing was a palmful of dirt. Had not Rome itself started out as nothing more than this? Small things could take on an import well beyond their original scale if in the right hands.
Was it still possible to save myself? Just let him come a little closer, and we will see...
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.