Vector Genius Presents – The Gladiator – December 2011
I lost my fear of men long ago. I was born in the Roman wastelands. Legend has it that I was raised by wolves, although, I truly cannot remember my childhood. There were only faint memories of being wrapped in fur pelt and licked with a rough tongue. My hands have never been soft. As long as I can recollect they have been hard as iron. My hands are able to grip weapons tighter than ropes lashed to triremes.
When I arrived in Rome, after walking through mountains and trudging over burning sands with my bloodied feet, I was treated like an animal. “Ho!” a man wearing a metal hat called out to me, “who goes there?”
“Lucius,” I replied. “My name is Lucius.”
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“There,” and I pointed at the mountains.
“From the mountains?”
“What are the names of your parents?”
“I have none.”
“Very well,” he said, nodding to another man to open the gate. The thick wooden gate rose into the air and scents of spices and cooking meat eased themselves into my nose. I had never smelled anything so delicious. I wanted to close my eyes, stand there and let the smells seep into my skin, but the man with the metal hat prodded me with the butt of his spear and yelled for me to keep moving. As I stepped through the gate, I saw, out of the corner of my eye, the guard wink to a group of haggard looking men sitting at a table. They stood, their eyes fixed on me and their hands closing around swords hanging from their sides. One was already standing in front of me with a small dagger in his hand. “Where are you heading?” he asked.
“To get food,” I said, “now let me pass.”
As soon as I had said these words, there was a sword to my throat and the ugliest man I had ever seen smiling and breathing on my face. “You’re coming with us,” he muttered to me, “we’ll feed you right nice. Won’t we, boys?”
They erupted with laughter. One of them tossed the man with a metal hat a piece of gold.
They threw me into a filthy prison. Rats scurried between my feet and into the piles of brown straw. There was another man in the corner wearing tattered pants, no shirt, with his head hanging so low that I thought it might roll off. His eyes looked up at me.
“They got you too?” he asked.
“Yes. What do they want from us?”
“The arena,” he said, “they make us fight in the arena. We are to be gladiators.”
“Who makes us fight?”
“The man who owns us. He used to be the greatest gladiator alive. Now he forces others to fight.”
“What if we win?”
“Then you fight again. You fight until you die.”
It was then that I decided, as I stared at the old man dying before my very eyes, that I would not die in a cage like him.
The man that captured me woke me up the next morning by banging on my cell with a sword. “The masters comin’ to get a good look at you. Look sharp.”
I stood at the cell door with my hands clasped to the bars. I waited for the man who claimed to own me. He was the biggest man I had ever seen. He stood about a foot taller than me and his arms were wider than most men’s waist. He looked at me and laughed. “Look at the wildness in this one’s eyes,” he said, “he’ll fight viciously and die easily.”
“I want to fight you,” I said plainly.
He stopped before my cell; his tunic almost grazing my knuckles. “What did you say, slave?”
“I said that I want you fight you, you goblin coward.”
“I was right. He is a feisty one!”
“Are you afraid to get into the arena? If they saw you fight now then they might not remember you as the greatest gladiator who ever lived. Use me and show them how you haven’t lost what you once had.”
“I don’t need to prove myself anymore, slave.”
“Yes, you do.”
He walked off, but not before meeting my eyes through the thick bars. I smiled at him. He walked down into the market place and disappeared.
It was a few hours later. The man in my cell was now beginning to talk nonsense about birds and horses descending from the sky. I tried to block him out, but his chattering was incessant. Once more, my capturer banged my cell with his sword. He held shackles in the other hand. “Put these on!” he yelled at me while slipping them through the bars.
Without questioning him, I slipped them on and allowed him to lead me away into the arena. The cries of a mob one thousand strong echoed in every direction. If I ran ten miles away I would still be able to hear them. Their feet crashed against the wooden floorboards and their hands slapped together in some strange rhythm.
“Whatever you said to the master got him thinkin’,” my capturer said to me, “now put this on.” He threw a helmet to me. The fur on its top reminded me of the wolves pelt from my childhood. I saw the world through a different light when I placed the helmet on my head. Two spikes ran down my cheekbones and the once hollow eyes were now filled with life. A door was opened before me and through it I saw an arena full of blood and sand; at the other end was my owner, covered in armor, roaring at the crowd. “Here,” my capturer said, “take this.” He smiled to me as he handed me a sword.
It was sunny in the arena. It was difficult to walk quickly because of the sand. The screams of the crowd sounded different now, more muffled, as if they were miles away and came only in whispers. Their screams were replaced by the shouts of my owner as he barreled across the arena at me, his morning star held high, swinging in circles above his armored head. His eyes were blood red and his mouth was black as tar. I ducked and the spiked balls drifted over my helmets fur. I swung my sword at him but he blocked it with his shield. He was laughing. “You can’t beat me!” he bellowed. He lunged at me with his entire body before I could get my sword back into position and took me to the ground. Ripping off my helmet, he began pounding my face. He dropped his morning star by his side so he could use both fists. My teeth were coming lose and I saw my own blood flying through the air. I shut my eyes, blocking out the pain, and felt around for a weapon. For anything I could use. My searching hand fell over one of the spiked balls of the morning star. I grabbed the ball, the spiked digging into my fingers, and swung it in front of my face, smashing the ball into his mouth. He reeled backwards and fell on his side. I pushed my body off the ground and threw my helmet to the side. Picking up the sword, I pointed it at my owner. I could hear the crowd screaming, but their words made no sense.
“Mercy,” he moaned, “please have mercy.”
“There are no pacts between wolves and men.”
“I beg you,” he said.
I thought of my home in the mountains. It was the only place I wanted to be.
“Allow me and the other man to go free, and you can live.”
“Thank you,” he groaned as he touched my feet with his hands.
I walked away from him, dropping the sword into the sand, and into the darkness and cool air of the area under the arena. My capturer smiled at me and patted me on the back. “Well done,” he said, “now that you’re a free man, where are you going to go?”
“Back to my family.”