Coliseum (Part 3 of 8)
‘Oh thank you, sir!’ said Caius, clasping Decimus’ hand in his and shaking it vigorously.
‘Think nothing of it, my boy. Now, come with me.’ The portly tavern owner led Aurelius and Caius through the tavern towards a curtained off doorway in the back. Through it Caius could hear the sounds of drinking, talking, and laughing. The voices were strong, big; confident. He was on tenterhooks as he and his father were ushered into the back room; into a room full of those whom Caius hoped to one day call his peers.
The sight that met his eyes was not what he expected.
Seated at a couple of rough wooden tables were large, swarthy men enjoying a well-earned drink after a hard display of combat. They were sat together as friends, sharing drinks and stories, and this confused Caius greatly.
‘Whu…?’ he began, as a frown creased his brow. These men had, mere hours earlier, been locked in deadly combat against one another, and now they were drinking together? Aurelius, expecting his son to be a ball of nervous energy and excitement, looked at his son in concern. He then looked back with a questioning glance to Decimus, who had a look of utter horror plastered across his fat face.
‘What’s happening?’ said Caius, eventually regaining the power of speech. One of the men, whom Caius recognised as Agrippa, looked up from his table and saw the boy standing there, dumbstruck. Caius’ unblinking eyes moved from him to the man seated next to him, one Brutus, who had been Agrippa’s opponent earlier that evening. The seconds stretched out to what felt like an eternity as the men at the table looked at the boy, then at each other.
Then they started fighting.
Agrippa, lightning-quick, landed an elbow in the side of Brutus’ head, sending the man crashing to the floor. He then stood, throwing the table out of his way, before shooting a warning look to Decimus.
‘Get him out of here!’ he growled. In the split second he had taken to bark this order at the tavern owner, Brutus had regained enough of his senses to jam a foot squarely into Agrippa’s midsection. He was soon on his adversary, and the two men sprawled out on the floor, sending punches and kicks in every direction.
‘Come on,’ said Aurelius, urging his son to the door.
‘But…’ said Caius, craning to see what was going on.
‘Come on!’ repeated his father, as he shoved him through the door. The sounds of fighting continued as Caius and Aurelius hastily made their way out of the tavern. Among the fighting could also be heard raised voices. Angry raised voices. Caius could only make out select words, but as he was finally ushered back out on to the street he thought he heard the phrase “I thought he knew!”
‘Well, I think that’s enough excitement for one night, don’t you?’ said Aurelius, in hasty, panicked tones.
‘Father, what was going on in there?’ asked Caius, his voice tinged with fear and uncertainty.
‘I don’t know, son. But come, let’s return home before that fight spills outside.’
‘But that was Agrippa, Father. And Brutus.’
‘I know. Now really, come…’
‘But they’re enemies.’
‘I imagine that’s why they were fighting. Now come on. Your mother will be vexed enough with me that I took you to a tavern as it is without her learning that a fight broke out while we were there.’
‘But they hate each other, Father. Why were they drinking together?’ Caius’ mind was awash with questions, none of which he liked the feel of.
‘I honestly don’t know, son. Now we really must be going.’
As they were talking, Decimus, looking extremely flustered, came trotting out of the tavern, his round face sweating.
‘So sorry you had to see that, gentlemen,’ he said as smoothly as he could manage.
‘No trouble at all,’ said Aurelius, as he gave Decimus a meaningful look. ‘Now we really need to be getting along.’
‘Sir, what happened back there?’ asked Caius. His voice had the deadly tranquillity of someone who was determined to get to the truth, no matter what.
‘Why, whatever do you mean, my boy?’ said Decimus, as he mopped at his brow.
‘Those men. I know they’re gladiators. I also know that they fought this evening with Agrippa being the victor. And then I see them sat together in your tavern.’
‘I…really don’t follow you,’ said Decimus, floundering.
‘They are bitter rivals, sir. So, why would they be sharing a drink together in your establishment?’ Caius was getting angry. He felt like something was being kept from him, and he did not like it.
‘Well…I…’ said Decimus, struggling for words.
‘I expect,’ said Aurelius, interjecting quickly. ‘That Agrippa came to Decimus’ tavern for a well-earned drink after his victory and Brutus followed him here to…settle the score.’
‘Yes!’ said Decimus, clearly grateful at this assistance. ‘That’s it exactly. I always hold a table for the victor of the main events of the Coliseum shows. Sadly, I am but a small man, and sometimes the losing combatant will want entry into my humble establishment as well. Who am I to stop such mighty warriors?’
Caius did not say anything for a moment or two. Both older men looked at him, expectant and hopeful.
‘So…Brutus wasn’t sharing a drink with Agrippa?’
‘No!’ said Decimus. ‘Perish the thought!’
‘And he was here to claim revenge against Agrippa?’
‘Precisely!’ The rotund tavern owner was sweating even more now.
Caius was silent again.
‘Then Brutus is a coward and should be ashamed. There is honour in an honest loss, but not if you complain about it like a whelp.’
‘Exactly, my boy, exactly,’ said Decimus, clapping Caius on the back. ‘Now, off you go with your father, and be sure to give my regards to your mother. I am sure that some day soon I will be holding the champion’s table for you.’
Caius smiled and shook Decimus’ hand.
‘Thank you, sir.’
‘Goodnight, Decimus,’ said Aurelius, grateful that the ordeal was over.
‘Goodnight, Aurelius. May our businesses continue to thrive. And good luck to you, my boy.’
As father and son walked away, Decimus let out a large sigh. He then returned to his tavern to survey the damage.
* * *
Caius wasn’t entirely satisfied with the explanation that his father and the tavern owner had given him about what he had seen in the back room of Decimus’ establishment. Part of him just could not seem to reconcile with seeing Agrippa and Brutus lock horns so viciously in the Coliseum, only to discover them seemingly drinking together as friends mere hours later. However, Caius respected his father, and, as he was a business associate and friend of his father’s, by extension Decimus. As time wore on Caius’ concern over that night was drowned out by his desire to become a gladiator, and soon it was forgotten.
But not forever.
Caius took every opportunity that he could to train so that he would be in peak physical condition by the time he was eighteen. In the absence of a gladiator training school this meant convincing his friends to spar with him in their spare time. As Caius grew in strength and ability, however, his friends became less and less inclined to take him up on the offer.
‘No,’ said Faustus, one of Caius’ closer friends, one sunny afternoon.
‘Oh come on,’ said Caius, holding the two wooden swords that he’d fashioned years before expectantly.
‘No,’ said Faustus again. ‘Not after last time.’
‘That was an accident,’ said Caius, shrugging.
‘You nearly knocked my teeth out!’
‘I’m sorry, but that won’t happen this time. I promise.’
‘Hmmm.’ Faustus was clearly not convinced.
‘I have to train,’ said Caius. ‘And I can’t keep using the tree in my yard.’
‘Because it doesn’t fight back.’
Faustus looked at his friend and sighed.
‘Oh, alright,’ he said, begrudgingly.
‘Yes! Thank you, old friend.’
‘But if I go home with anymore bruises you can expect a visit from my father.’
‘I understand. Now, let’s go.’ Caius enjoyed training with Faustus. He was easily the best amongst his friends, and even though Caius always felt as if he had to hold back for fear of hurting his friend, he appreciated the workouts all the same.
‘So,’ said Faustus, as they went back and forth. ‘How long before you can apply to a gladiator school?’
‘I’m going to ask to do it on my eighteenth birthday,’ said Caius, as he parried a shot from Faustus.
‘That’s good because…’
‘Gladiator school?’ A voice, rich in derision, sounded over their conversation and stopped them both in mid-swing.
It was Gallus. Both Caius and Faustus looked at each other and rolled their eyes. Gallus was known amongst the younger people of the town as a prankster and a bully. As he sauntered over to the two friends, his cruel, piggish eyes surveyed them both.
‘Did I hear you correctly, Caius? You’re training to be a gladiator?’
‘Ignore him,’ said Faustus, who sensed trouble was definitely brewing.
But Caius did not ignore him.
‘That’s right. What of it?’
‘My father says that all gladiators are either slaves or rapists.’ Gallus took an apple from a nearby market stall and chewed it malevolently.
‘Ignore him,’ repeated Faustus.
Caius said nothing. He bored holes into Gallus with eyes that flashed angrily.
‘So which are you, Caius, a slave or a rapist?’
‘Shut up, Gallus.’ Caius’ grip on his makeshift sword tightened. Faustus saw that his friend’s knuckles were turning white.
‘And’ said Gallus, revelling in the effect he was having on Caius. ‘My father also says that those gladiator fights aren’t even real.’ He chewed some more apple and swallowed it noisily.
For a moment, Caius didn’t speak, but when he did his voice was a deadly whisper.
‘What did you say?’
‘That’s right, all fake. They round up slaves and rapists and make them put on silly little shows for stupid people like you and your father.’
Faustus dropped his stick-sword and ran.
Caius did not.
Gallus had not even time to finish his mouthful before Caius was upon him.
* * *
Still seething, Caius felt the sting of his bruised and bloodied knuckles as he walked around the town. He wasn’t going in any particular direction; he just felt like walking and didn’t feel like going home. He knew Gallus; the moment he could he’d run home to his parents, who would then most likely go and see Caius’ parents.
But he didn’t care.
How dare Gallus make fun of his dream? How dare he? Caius wandered around for hours until it started to get dark. He was still angry, but it had subsided enough to where he was starting to worry what might await him when he got home. For a fleeting moment he considered not going home, but he quickly dismissed that thought as childish and stupid. He was sixteen now – a man in the eyes of many – and he knew that his father would say that part of being a man was facing the consequences of his actions.
So he went home.
Stopping by a stream on his walk home to wash his now swelling hands, he grimaced as the cold water splashed over his raw knuckles. He knew he would be made to apologise to either Gallus, or his parents, or more likely both, but he wouldn’t mean it. He wasn’t sorry. He was anything but. As he walked, he clenched his fists painfully at the thought of Gallus’ smug face as he made the inevitable show of accepting Caius’ apology.
He would do it, though. He would do it because his parents would want him to.
Caius stopped momentarily as a thought froze his heart. Could this incident of him defending the path he so desperately wanted to go down be the ruin of all his plans? Would his parents forbid him from enrolling in a gladiator school when he turned eighteen? The thought of running away briefly crossed his mind again, but Caius continued on home. He knew that he shouldn’t have let Gallus get to him, but at the same time he felt a definite sense of pride for standing up so vehemently for what he believed in.
The gladiator shows were not fake!
They just were not!
Sooner than he expected, Caius was home. It was late, but somehow he knew both his mother and father would still be awake, waiting for him.
‘Come in, son,’ said Aurelius, gravely. Lucia said nothing. The expression on her face said it all. She wasn’t angry. Worse. She was disappointed. Caius felt a pang in his chest as he entered the family home.
‘Sit down, please, Caius,’ said Aurelius, still with a hauntingly flat tone to his voice.
‘Father, I can explain…’
‘I said sit down!’ Aurelius rarely raised his voice, so the effect was like being slapped in the face. Caius dutifully sat and stared shamefacedly at the floor.
Aurelius’ expression softened, but only a fraction, as he sat down opposite his son.
‘We had a visit this afternoon,’ said Aurelius.
Caius said nothing.
‘And I think you know who from.’
Caius still said nothing.
‘Well?’ said Aurelius, expectantly.
‘I’m sorry.’ Caius’ voice was almost a whisper.
‘What was that?’ said Aurelius. ‘Loud enough for your mother and me to both hear, please.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Caius, louder this time. For the first time since he was ordered to sit Caius looked up at his parents. Meeting their penetrating gazes was one of the hardest things he’d had to do in his young life to date.
‘Gallus’ father was quite upset,’ said Aurelius. ‘As are your mother and I.’
Caius resumed looking at the floor, the shame burning hot and fierce.
‘Do you want to tell us what happened?’
‘I didn’t mean to,’ said Caius, once again not looking up. He could feel tears stinging the backs of his eyes. Not because of what he had done to Gallus, not necessarily. He felt like crying because he had clearly let his parents down, and that was worse than anything.
‘You didn’t mean to what?’ asked Aurelius. ‘Leave Gallus a bloody heap in the street?’
At this Lucia looked away. Caius caught the movement in his peripheral vision and the urge to burst into tears became stronger than ever. The thought of his mother’s disappointment tore at him like angry talons.
‘I didn’t mean to go so far,’ said Caius at last.
‘No, I should hope you did not,’ said Aurelius, as he sat back in his chair. ‘What did Gallus say to provoke you?’
‘Aurelius!’ said Lucia, snapping her head around to glare at her husband.
‘That Gallus is a bully, as well you know, Lucia. Like you I’m not thrilled that our son did what he did to the extent he did, but I’m willing to wager a season’s harvest that Gallus deserved at least some of it.’
Caius looked up and into his father’s eyes.
‘Now, son, tell us what happened.’
Caius began, and before long it had all been spilled from his lips: the training with Faustus, the taunts by Gallus, and the uncontrollable rage that Caius had felt. His voice became choked with tears towards the end. He’d just felt so angry.
Aurelius and Lucia were silent for a moment or two after Caius had finished speaking. Caius waited in agony for his punishment. He felt sure that he had completely destroyed his chances of training as a gladiator. He sat, sullen, as he pictured a life of working for his father in the wine trade, a career he could not fault but for the one fact that it was not the career of a gladiator.
‘There’s no doubt about it,’ said Aurelius at last. ‘Something needs to be done about that temper of yours.’
‘Yes, Father,’ said Caius, miserably.
‘They’ll never accept you into a gladiator school if you can’t find a way to control it.’
Both Caius and Lucia shot their gazes at Aurelius, both equally dumbstruck.
‘Aurelius, what are you saying?’ asked Lucia, incredulously. ‘You’re not suggesting we let our son continue to pursue such a violent career after what happened today?’
‘I certainly am,’ said Aurelius, resolutely.
‘If there’s one thing that today has shown me, all too clearly, is that Caius needs to get a handle on his temper, as if the night he took me to task wasn’t enough to do that.’
‘But…’ said Lucia, attempting to interject.
‘And gladiator school will do that for him. We’ve been to many shows, and those men are trained not only in how to use violence, but also how not to.’