“You are allowed a choice. Death by crucification or fight in the next games against a gladiator,” said the priest. “You should have known better than to desecrate the burial grounds of Yesialian.”
Hostus sighed. The dead had no need of the pretty trinkets that the living left in their graves. All that gold and silver jewellery just going to waste. “I did not disturb a single bone. So, I did not desecrate the grounds,” he argued.
“I care not for your petty distinctions,” replied the priest. “The guard found you in the grave, tribute to Yesialian in hand. Choose your fate.”
Hostus slumped between the two men standing guard over him, his heavy shackles clanging as he did so. Crucification was a certain death, but his chances against a gladiator were only slightly better. Still, every day that he lived was one more day that he might be pardoned. Or recruited to the army. Or perhaps the goddess would appear in a vision and forgive him. “I will fight in the games. When will the next games be held?”
“You are fortunate, the next games in honour of Yesialian are next week.” Hostus shuddered at the evil smile of the priest. “The goddess will be pleased, especially if you die well.”
Hostus felt a shiver go down his spine. He knew that die well meant that you died without begging for mercy or crying or last minute dodging. Depending on the mood of the gladiator and the mood of the crowd, the difference was a quick death as your throat was cut or a slow, agonising death with belly slit open.
The priest nodded at the guards, “Take him to the arena and give him to the trainers. The goddess prefers for her sacrifices to put on a show.”
The heavy shackles around his ankles made walking slow and difficult for Hostus. The guards laughed as he stumbled just turning around to leave the temple. The guard holding the chain leading to the wrist shackles pulled backward just hard enough to keep him on his feet.
Hostus regretted the decision that led him to the temple burial grounds. He had known that certain graves still held their buried goods as well as the former owners. As a precaution, his excursion to the burial grounds was at the new moon, on a rainy night. He hoped that the patrol would stay somewhere warm and dry. But curse his luck, no, they had to do their duty and make sure the graves were undisturbed. He had been so occupied with opening the grave that he hadn’t noticed the patrol, until they had surrounded him.
They had been walking for some minutes, Hostus mainly concentrating on his feet. When he looked up, he realised that they were about to pass through the busy marketplace. “Please, can’t we go another way?” asked Hostus. “I’ll be seen. I don’t want people to know.”
“They’ll all know soon enough. Get used to it,” sneered the guard as he used the chain to pull Hostus forward. “This is the quickest way to the arena.”
Hostus bowed his head and resumed watching the road just in front of his feet. He had been in the markets when a prisoner was taken through. He knew what was coming next.
“You’ll never last five minutes in the arena,” bellowed some man off to the left. The first piece of partially rotten fruit hit him on the shoulder.
The shouting and produce throwing grew more intense as they approached the centre of the markets. Hostus never once raised his head, he didn’t want to know if there was someone he knew in the mass of people shouting at him. Only the presence of the guard kept the crowd from more physical displays of violence.
By the time they left the market, Hostus was dripping with the slime from the dozens of pieces of fruit and vegetables that had hit their mark. Hostus tried to brush off the worst of the slime but his reach was limited by the chains.
The guards halted at the entrance to the arena. “Prisoner for the games,” said one to an arena guard. He offered the guard the chain holding Hostus.
“Bring him inside, then take the shackles off,” said the arena guard. “If it’s smart, it will do what it’s told. If it’s dumb, it’s dead.”
Hostus sighed with relief as the shackles were removed. His wrists and ankles bore red marks from having them on for the past two days. When he looked around, he understood the previous remark. There were many guards, he’d never get far if he tried to run.
“Third cell, on the right. Only one other customer in that one,” said the arena manager.
A guard led Hostus to the cell and then shoved him in. He heard the cell door lock while he was still trying to gain his balance.
“Finally,” said a soft voice.
“Excuse me?” replied Hostus. He looked around the cell to see a dark shape pushing itself up from the dank straw on the floor.
“I said, finally. I’ve been wondering when I’d finally get a partner for the games.” Hostus’s eyes adjusted to the dim light and he could see that the other man was lean, dark and his once fine clothes nearly ripped from his body. “My name is Lucius.”
“I’m Hostus. What do you mean partner? I thought we fought the gladiators individually.”
Lucius sat on the straw, his knees drawn up and his chin resting on them. “They decided to try something different this time. We go two against each of the warriors. They have to work a little harder.” He shrugged. “I doubt that will make a difference for us.”
“Well, if we know how to fight, maybe the two of us have a chance?”
Lucius laughed. “I was a gigolo for a wealthy woman. What she hadn’t told me was that her husband was a crusader for Yesialian. When he returned, I found myself here. I am not a fighter and a week is never going to make me one. You? Do you know enough to survive against an armed opponent?”
“Well, I was caught removing items from a grave. The dead aren’t really known for putting up a fight. But it can’t be hopeless, can it?”
The conversation was interrupted by a large man standing just outside the cell door. “Course it is hopeless. You scum against a gladiator? Best you can hope for is maybe 10 minutes, if they want the crowd to have some excitement. My name is Livy and I am to train you scum. I’m going to open this door. Try to escape and you won’t have to worry about gladiators. You’ll be dead before you can reach the main gates. Understand?”
Both prisoners nodded.
“Right then, I’ll open the door and take you to the arena,” said Livy.
“Wait, I thought we would get training first,” protested Hostus.
The man opened the door, “Where do you think you get trained, scum? We don’t have fancy training rooms for the sacrifices. You learn in the arena. There’s may even be a small audience. Men who like to weigh the scum up and then bet how long you’ll last against a gladiator. It’s rare for anyone to bet over 5 minutes for the likes of you.”
Hostus pondered briefly the wisdom of attacking the trainer. The thought lasted only a few seconds. Livy was taller than either Hostus or Lucius and his muscular body was obvious under the leather armour he wore.
“Right, scum, we’ll be working over there,” said Livy as he pointed toward one part of the arena. “First, you need to choose your weapon. You can have any one from that rack there.” Hostus shuffled closer to look over the weapons. There were several swords, some longer and some shorter. There were spears and one trident. All of the weapons showed signs of previous battles; notched blades, blood stains and the grips were dark from sweat.
“Would you recommend a sword or a spear,” he finally asked Livy.
Livy shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. It looks more impressive if you two pick different things but you’ll die no matter what you use.”
Hostus looked at Lucius who was shading his eyes against the bright sun. “I guess I’ll take a sword.”
“Unless you are used to lifting things, choose a light weight one,” suggested Livy. “You’ll know what I mean soon enough.”
Hostus selected a sword and Lucius picked up one of the spears.
Livy nodded once and walked to the area he’d previously indicated would be their practice area. There were several other teams and trainers working in the arena spaced evenly apart around the arena edge.
“So,” said Livy. “This session, I want you to get used to your weapons. Then the next couple of sessions will be individual. I’ll fight at first using just this,” he hefted a cudgel. “While you aren’t fighting me, I want you to keep your weapon in hand.” He held the cudgel as though it were a spear. “You,” he said as he pointed to Lucius. “This is what you are to do.” Livy took two steps forward, thrust the weapon, took two steps back and lowered the cudgel.
“Well?” Livy said with a motion. Lucius began the required movements. “Jab harder,” commented Livy. “You will need to poke through armour and that’s not easy. You keep going with that.”
Livy switched his grip on the cudgel so he could use it like a sword. “Now this is what you are to do,” Livy said. While he stepped forward, he moved the cudgel to chest high. As he took the second step, he swung it. Then as he took two steps back, he let the weapon drop to his side. “You go,” he told Hostus.
Hostus picked up his chosen sword and started as directed. It only took 5 minutes for him to realise why Livy recommended a light sword. It was surprising difficult to keep raising the sword to chest level and swing it with any force. Both he and Lucius were panting hard.
Lucius was the first to put down his weapon. Livy immediately whacked his stomach hard with the cudgel he still held. “You put down that weapon only when I say you can,” growled Livy. “Pick it up or do you want some more bruises?”
Lucius bent to pick up the spear, his movements slow with fatigue. He was subjected to another blow, this time across the buttocks. “Faster, scum.”
Once Lucius had the weapon in hand again, Livy spoke to both of them. “I want this to be clear. You two are my responsibility for the next week. I’m going to work you hard, so you’ll make a half decent show in battle. Anything else I deem needed to make you fight well, I can do. If I have to beat you bloody, I will. If I have to rouse you at dawn and work you until dark, I will. If you do well, I earn rewards.”
Hostus wanted to protest but he had been sentenced to death. There were no rewards on offer for the dead. Instead, he asked, “How did you become a trainer? Did you start like us?”
“I entered this arena as one of the gladiators after years of fighting in the army. After 30 successful fights, they allowed me to retire from combat and take up training instead. Now I get to teach scum how to survive a few minutes against a gladiator. Aren’t you lucky?”
Hostus and Lucius both nodded. It seemed the wisest course of action.
“Right, so scum, that was enough for a first session. You’ll go back to your cell for a rest. I’ll be back for you in a few hours. Until the big day, you’ll have 3 to 4 training sessions every day. Understand?” They both nodded again.
“Do we keep the weapons?” asked Hostus.
“Do you think we are idiots? Of course you don’t keep the weapons. You’ll put them back on the racks as we go past. You only have weapons while in the arena,” replied Livy. “Let’s go.”
After returning the weapons, the two prisoners were taken back to the cell. “Hey, can I have some water to wash myself?” asked Hostus. “Things were messy as we went through the markets.”
“No,” replied Livy. “You’ll be washed and dressed before we send you to the goddess. Until then, there’s no point. You’ll only get filthy from the arena.” Livy locked their door and left.
Lucius sat down in the straw. “Goddess but I’m exhausted. That spear gets heavy,” said Lucius.
“So does the sword. It always looked so easy,” replied Hostus. “I wonder how good we can get in a week?”
“We’ll never be good enough to live. I just hope that I can stay still for the death stroke. With any luck, they’ll knock me senseless and I won’t ever know.” Lucius dropped on some straw in one corner. “Might as well nap. Nothing better to do here.”
Hostus sat on the straw in the other corner. It stank of blood, urine and vomit. If it was a stable for his horse, he would have complained about the conditions. How fast everything had fallen apart.
Lucius was already snoring by the time Hostus had settled into straw. Exhaustion from the workout and stress caught up with Hostus and he fell asleep.
He was woken again by a hard slap on the bicep. “Eat,” Livy said as he dropped a tray in front of Hostus. “Next session is after you finish this.”
The meal was a hard roll and some over cooked piece of meat. There was also a large cup of water. Stuck in Livy’s belt was the cudgel. Hostus eyed the weapon and decided to eat as he had been told. He glanced at Lucius who was tearing into the food.
“Well, did you expect it on a gold platter?” prodded Livy. “Get that in you, we have work to do, scum.”
Hostus ate and then drank the water. “More water?” he asked as he held up the empty cup.
“Not now. You might throw up with too much water. More after you train.” He pointed toward the door. “Now move. Same weapons, same location. Get going, scum.”
“I have a name,” protested Hostus.
Livy shook his head. “You had a name. It was forfeit when you were brought here. You’ll have a name for the games but until then, you are just the scum.” He pulled out the cudgel. “Want to argue with me?”
Hostus shook his head.
“Keep being smart and I may not have to beat you senseless. Now go!”
The two prisoners went back out into the arena, picked up weapons and returned to their training location. “I don’t know if you are to be pitted against sword or spear. So I’ll drill both of you with both types. So the next few sessions are about deflecting a weapon pointed at you. I’ll be using this,” he said as he waved the cudgel toward the prisoners, “which will substitute for more serious weapons. I don’t want to cause too much damage today.” Livy pointed at Hostus, “You continue the practice from before.” Then he pointed at Lucius, “Now, let’s get started with deflecting spear thrusts.”
Hostus tried to concentrate on his steps as before but his attention kept wandering to Livy and Lucius. Livy whirled and hit him on the shoulder. “Never let your attention wander. You’ll have enough to worry about without letting distractions bother you.”
Hostus nodded briefly, wincing from the pain radiating down his arm. He went back to practicing, turning slightly away from Livy and Lucius so it wasn’t as distracting. Soon he heard a heavy thud and Lucius said, “Go ahead, kill me now.” He glanced over to see Lucius kneeling with his head bowed panting hard. Livy waited until Lucius was breathing normally. “Good, you held the weapon. Now get up, scum. You practice thrusting while I hit the other scum a few times.”
Lucius used the spear to push himself back on his feet. Once he was moving, Livy faced Hostus. “First exercise, you try to stop me from poking you with the cudgel. I’ll go slow at first but I’ll speed up.”
The first time that Hostus tried to hit the stick, Livy laughed. “You need to watch it, scum. Yes, if you hit the weapon hard enough with the sword, you might cut it in two. But it’s also a good way to dull your blade, and maybe even lose the sword if it gets caught in the wood. Use the flat of the blade to hit the other weapon. The edge is only for one thing, hitting your opponent.”
Hostus nodded and they began again. Only a few minutes passed before Hostus felt like he would drown in his own sweat and he’d never take a deep breath again. Livy moved from side to side, taunting him each time he swung the sword. The harder Hostus tried, the more often he felt another blow from the cudgel. It was only a few more minutes before Hostus dropped to his knees. “I surrender,” he cried.
“Then it’s time for the two of you to return to your cell. I’ll bring you water but I’d suggest that you drink slowly. Otherwise you may spew.” Livy motioned for the two prisoners to proceed him. They placed the weapons back on the rack without instructions and walked reluctantly to the cell.
“Good, I like scum who learn,” commented Livy. “You’ll give a better show.” He put a bucket of water in the cell before closing the door. “Rest, we’ll do one more session today.”
The third session, Livy invited them to attack him together. In spite of that, Livy still had the upper hand and hit both of them a number of times.
“When you attack, you should try and keep the gladiator between the two of you,” he said as the two of them nursed their bruises. “When you stand together, I could easily take both of you down by hitting your knees and with luck, it might be a single blow.” He lowered the stick. “Not bad for a first day. You are going to hate tomorrow.”
“Why?” asked Lucius as he rubbed a bruise.
“Tomorrow, you will wake with every muscle protesting, you’ll think you can never move again. You will though. You’ll learn to fight through that pain,” Livy told them seriously. “For tonight, you will eat, sleep and have a few nightmares.”
Hostus was depressed at the thought of another day in the arena. His right arm felt like it might fall off. He felt exhausted beyond measure, far worse than any night spent robbing a tomb had ever made him. He could see a number of bruises forming on his stomach, shoulders and legs from the blows of the cudgel. “You’ll be with us tomorrow?” was his only comment.
“This is a small event, each trainer has at most one pair to work with. So, yes, scum, you’ll see me tomorrow.” He walked away after checking that the cell door was locked.
Both men picked up their cups to dip into the water bucket. “What a way to live until we die,” sighed Hostus.
“It’s actually better,” said Lucius. “Before you came along, I never was allowed to leave this cell. At least there’s something to do other than sleep.” One corner of his mouth quirked upward in a half smile. “They said that if no one else was brought in, I’d be the last in the arena. Me and the lions who aren’t fed for a day or two before. Thank the goddess you came.”
Hostus exhaled slowly as he remembered watching prisoners in the arena with the animals. It never took the animals long to pin their prey whether the prisoner had a weapon or not. Dismembering the prisoner though, it sometimes was a while before the screaming stopped.
This set the tone of their training sessions. Little by little, they improved in handling their weapons and in their ability to block blows. The first lessons were about defence, how to protect against an attack. After that, Livy began to teach them a few fancy attack moves. The sort of thing that looked good from the audience, even if it didn’t change the outcome of the battle.
By the fifth day, Hostus had admitted to himself that the outcome of the battle was set. He and Lucius had improved quite a bit with the intense training but Livy had no trouble landing a blow on either of them when he wanted to.
The day of the games was sunny and hot. Hostus and Lucius were surprised when Livy arrived for the morning. Instead of the normal armour, he was dressed in a formal set of clothes, the hilt of the sword he carried in a scabbard was finely decorated. “So, today, you will be prepared for the goddess. May you die well in her honour. You,” he said as he pointed to Hostus, “are to be known as Death Slasher. You,” he said to Lucius, “are Thruster of the Veils.”
Livy opened the door to the cell. “Come, there is much to do to prepare you for the games.”
The first stop was a long table with plates and napkins. Other prisoners were already sitting there, their trainers standing close behind them. Serving girls carried plates and bowls of food, dishing out the food as the prisoners requested it. “This is your final meal. You may eat what you like, as much as you like. Do not harass the serving girls, I will punish you for that.” Livy pointed at two seats. Lucius and Hostus sat and the serving girls offered them food.
Hostus could not remember a better meal. The variety of meats, sauces, fruits and breads was almost overwhelming after a week of basic meals. They were even given wine, watered down but wine nonetheless. He ate slowly, savouring every bite. Hostus realised that he shouldn’t eat as much as he’d like. An overfull stomach would not help him in the fight to come.
Livy watched for both of his charges to stop eating. “So, it’s time to move to the next part. Follow me,” he said.
Neither prisoner knew what was in store. They only knew that they had moved further away from the cells and closer to where the gladiators lived and trained. Livy motioned them through a doorway.
It was a communal bath. Several prisoners were already in the water, again attended by slave girls. “I believe that I told you that you would be washed before being sent to the goddess. Strip and get in. The girls will take care of the rest.”
Lucius shrugged and removed the remains of his fancy tunic. Livy pointed at a large box, already a quarter full with discarded garments. “I take it we don’t wear these again?”
“You’ll have fresh tunics to meet the goddess. Now, get bathed,” growled Livy as he indicated the bath once again.
Hostus was pleased to find that the water was pleasantly warm. Each prisoner had two girls bathe him. If it hadn’t been for the knowledge of why it was happening, it would have been quite enjoyable.
Once they were cleaned, they put on fresh white tunics and were taken to seats facing the main part of the arena. Unlike the training sessions, the arena was packed with spectators.
“Now,” said Livy, “we wait. There’s a draw, they call the name of the gladiator and then the names of the opponents. I don’t know when you’ll be called but once the gates close behind you, all that is left is the fight.”
There were more guards there then they’d seen before. The reason became apparent when one of the prisoners tried to run back into the cell area when his name was called. Three guards grabbed him and dragged him through the gates. They dropped him and a weapon, then shut the gate behind him.
He didn’t last long. He was still pounding on the gates, begging for someone to open them when the gladiator sliced his tendons. The gladiator pulled him toward the centre of the arena, then sliced his belly open. After that, the gladiator focussed on the second opponent who was willing to fight. It wasn’t until that opponent had met his death courageously that the gladiator went back to finish off the dying man.
“The next gladiator will be Agrippina, the Sword of the North. She will face Death Slasher and Thruster of the Veils.”
“Die well,” said Livy as he handed them their weapons.
Hostus tried to moisten his dry mouth. He wasn’t ready to face his death, but there was no choice.
By the time he and Lucius were through the gates, their opponent was standing in the centre of the arena. Death had never looked lovelier. The Sword of the North was a tall woman with short black hair. The tunic under the armour had been dyed a deep red. Sunlight reflected off the armour, glittering as she moved. Any hope that Hostus had that perhaps a female gladiator was less able then a male died as he watched her handle her weapons as she prepared to meet them.
“Goddess Yesialian, I apologise for offending you,” prayed Hostus as he walked into the arena. “I ask for your mercy.”
As he ended his brief prayer, they reached the centre of the arena. They bowed briefly to the gladiator who returned the bow.
“Goddess Yesialian, forgive these two their trespasses against your will. Accept their sacrifice,” intoned the gladiator. The crowd roared their approval. After that, the battle began.
Agrippina was well aware of the power they would have if they managed to get on either side of her. She used blade and shield to keep them from moving apart. The crowd roared its approval each time her blade found its mark. After only a few minutes, Lucius and Hostus were bleeding from a number of minor cuts.
If it hadn’t been for the training, they would have already collapsed in the blood stained dirt of the arena. As it was, Hortus knew that he would soon be too tired to block the incoming blows at all.
All three were thrown to their knees when a tremor shook the arena. Hostus felt a pull from behind him and saw Agrippina’s eyes go wide in horror. He wanted to scream as the pull grew stronger, moving him backwards. Then the arena vanished.
He came to in a meadow. Hostus sat up wondering where he was and how he could have possibly ended up there. He noticed that both Lucius and Agrippina were nearby and also just waking up.
“Truce?” he said to Agrippina.
“Agreed,” she replied. “There’s no reason for us to fight here.” She paused as she looked around, confused. “Wherever here is. I’ve never been out of the city before. I haven’t even been out of the arena in ten years.”
Hostus stared at her in belief. “You don’t look that old.”
“I was sold to the temple to pay my parent’s debts when I was 8,” she said with a small sigh. “About a year later of the priests tried to force himself on me. I screamed. He decided to leave me with one of the biggest gladiators for a few days, he expected that I’d be grateful when he returned to ‘rescue’ me. But the gladiator, Claudius, took a liking to me. He adopted me as his own and started to teach me how to fight. Claudius defended me when that priest returned and protected me from anyone else until I was strong enough and fast enough to protect myself.”
“So, you don’t remember a different life?”
Agrippina shook her head. “Not really. I became a gladiator a couple of years ago and that’s been how I live.” She stared around. “I don’t know what I can do out of the arena.”
“Where do we go?” asked Hostus.
Lucius looked around at their surroundings. “I don’t know about you, but I’m not going back to that city. Though I do feel as though I owe the goddess my service.”
Agrippina shook her head. “I have spent my entire life in her service. While I am grateful that I am no longer in the arena, I’m not nearly grateful enough to dedicate any more of my life to her.”
“That, child, is a disappointment. For this is what I wish of you.” The low sultry female voice caused all three in the meadow to gasp. The female form that had suddenly manifested was in full battle armour, not the abbreviated style that Agrippina wore. “I have rescued the three of you for a purpose.”
It was Hostus who first found his voice. “Goddess Yesialian. What purpose would that be?”
“I am displeased by that which happens in my name. I am not only the goddess of war and strategy. I am the goddess of peace and wisdom. The games are a mere show, not worthy of me. Too many die falsely, they are not warriors. You two,” she said to Lucius and Hostus, “are not warriors. Why did you battle with one?”
“I was given the choice between an immediate painful death or battling in the arena. The arena seemed like a better option, goddess,” explained Hostus. He glanced at Yesialian during his speech but never for more than a few moments.
“I see,” replied the goddess. “I wish for the games in my name to cease. Enough are sacrificed in time of war to satisfy me. You will undertake this,” she said to Agrippina.
“But goddess, the priests gain much money from the games. They will never take my word that you want it to stop,” protested Agrippina in a faint voice. She was terrified of saying no to a goddess but saying no to priests would be only slightly easier to do.
The goddess stared at Agrippina. “I see. I will give you three gifts, child.” The goddess took one step toward the girl and motioned toward her. Agrippina’s outfit became a copy of the goddess’s dress, down to the last detail. “The first gift, the clothing of the goddess. It will not tear, nor stain but always look exactly as it should.”
“Thank you, goddess,” said Agrippina as she stared downward at the fine workmanship used to construct the armour.
“Those that have seen true art of me will know this armour. To prove that you wear it as a favourite of mine, I give you this.” The goddess handed Agrippina a small box. “This contains my emblem. It will further prove that you are in my favour.”
“And the third gift?”
“Your two companions. Their lives were already sworn to me, I bind them in your service. Until they are released from this, they are your companions, to help you when they are able.” The goddess faced the men. “This is agreeable to you, is it not?”
They both bowed to Yesilian. “Yes goddess. We are sworn to you. We will do what you request.”
“This will be a difficult task for you but I have faith that you will be able to accomplish it.” With that, the goddess vanished.
“I suppose at least I know what to do with my life. I wasn’t sure once I had left the arena behind,” said Agrippina.