Coliseum (Part 4 of 8)
‘I don’t follow you,’ said his wife, unconvinced.
‘It’s simple. If we forbid Caius here and now to follow his dream of a life as a gladiator then this anger that he holds will have no control, no proper handling. Then what? The next time someone gets under his skin the gods know what could happen.’ Aurelius turned to face Caius. ‘I know you didn’t mean to inflict as much punishment on Gallus as you did, and that is why you need training to be able to control your temper. You have the ability to cause a person a lot of harm, and without the means to keep that in check you would be a very dangerous individual.’
‘Aurelius, I’m really not sure…’ Lucia trailed off, clearly in the throes of an internal struggle. She had had misgivings about allowing her only son to become a gladiator from the moment he had first brought it up, but she couldn’t help but see logic in Aurelius’ words. She still felt the hot weight of shame from their visit by Gallus’ father earlier. The way he had belaboured his point about Caiusbeing a danger; a menace. She was still not convinced that she wanted a gladiator for a son, but one thing she was very sure of was that she was not about to be embarrassed about her son.
She looked into the eyes of her son and felt a love that ached through her very soul.
‘I’m sorry, Mother,’ said Caius, with more conviction than he thought possible to muster. ‘I don’t want to hurt people, not like today.’
‘I know you don’t, Caius,’ said Lucia, as she cradled her son’s cheek in her palm; gentle and soft.
‘But I want to train. I want to compete.’ Caius felt his mother’s muscles stiffen for a moment, and then relax. There was fear in her eyes, and concern. But there was also love, and that stood firmer than all. ‘I want to get good. I want to be the best.’
‘And you will be the best,’ said Aurelius, laying a hand on his son’s shoulder. ‘You just need to learn to control that fire that’s inside you.’ Aurelius smiled. ‘I don’t think I could stand another beating like the last one you gave me.’
Caius looked at both his parents and his blood ran cold. He stood and backed away from them, a look of pleading horror in his eyes.
‘You…don’t think I’d do that to you, do you?’ Caius gestured with his hand to indicate outside the house, and by extension the fight with Gallus. His father’s words about him being potentially dangerous rang in his ears, and he suddenly became very scared.
‘No, son,’ said Aurelius, soothingly. ‘But you should try and see this from our perspective. Here we are with a wonderful son with such fire and passion. But today has shown us what can happen if that passion is tested in a negative way.’
Caius looked more scared than ever. If thinking that his parents were disappointed in him tore at him, then the notion of them being frightened of him ripped him to pieces. Aurelius stood and gently guided Caius back to his seat.
‘Father, I would never…’ Caius began.
‘I know you would never, son,’ said Aurelius. Lucia laid a hand on Caius’ knee to silently show that she, too, understood that he would never harm his parents. Aurelius continued: ‘But the power you yield is a frightening thing if left unchecked. And that is why you and I are going to travel to the nearest gladiator school and see about getting you enrolled early.’
Caius eyes popped wide open.
‘You mean it?’ he said, hardly daring to believe it.
‘The sooner the better, I feel.’
Caius looked from his father to his mother. Lucia said nothing, but nodded. Her eyes said that she was not completely at ease with this decision, but at the same time she understood why it must be so. Realising that his parents were serious, Caius leapt to his feet and wrapped his arms tightly around his father.
‘Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!’ he exclaimed, squeezing tighter. ‘You don’t know what this means to me!’
‘I think I might,’ wheezed Aurelius. Caius realised what he was doing and released his father. Aurelius caught his breath and straightened himself up, looking proudly at his son. ‘My boy, about to make his mark on this world. Now, go and wash up and prepare for bed. We have a big day ahead of us.’
‘Yes, Father!’ Caius bounded out of the room, all thoughts about the afternoon’s unpleasantness forgotten. When he had gone, Lucia finally spoke.
‘Does it have to be now, Aurelius?’ she said, quietly. ‘He’s still only sixteen.’
‘I know, my dear, but he needs more guidance on this path than we can give him. A fire that burns out of control can be a man’s worst enemy, but a fire that is honed, that is used properly can be his best friend.’
* * *
Caius barely slept a wink that night. He lay awake for what seemed like an eternity, turning things over in his mind. He was going to train to become a gladiator, and, what was better, sooner than he’d ever dreamed. He didn’t remember falling asleep; just staring at the ceiling wondering what his new life was going to be like. He only realised that he had been asleep at all when Aurelius roused him in the early morning.
‘Get up, son,’ Aurelius said, cheerily. ‘We’ve quite the walk ahead of us.’ Caius needed no further encouragement; he leapt out of bed and prepared to set off on the most important journey of his young life.
Though sad to her see her son go, Lucia prepared a hearty breakfast for him and Aurelius, and did her best to hide her concern and sadness that her son was going away in this fashion. She knew what Aurelius had said the night before was true – Caius did need proper training to keep that temper of his in check – but it didn’t make it any less unpleasant. Caius didn’t notice one bit of it, though, he bolted his breakfast down and, when he didn’t have a mouthful of food, waxed rhapsodic about what it was going to be like at the training school.
‘I wonder what they’ll have us do first! I wonder what the other students will be like! I wonder how long it will be until I’m ready to properly compete!’
‘Slow down there, son,’ said Aurelius. ‘We haven’t even set off yet.’ Caius continued his breakfast, but was still brimming with excitement.
After they had finished eating, Caius made what felt like his thousandth promise to Lucia that he would be careful, kissed his fretting mother goodbye, shouldered the sack containing his spare clothes, and he and his father set out on the road to the gladiator training school. Caius was a chatterbox the entire way there; going over and over the same points again and again, a ball of nervous energy. He kept asking Aurelius how much further it was, but no matter how close they got it felt like a hundred miles away at all times.
They stopped for lunch at a little roadside tavern around midday; an establishment not unlike Decimus’. The similarity of the two places reminded Caius of that confusing night when he had seen rival gladiators seemingly drinking together as friends. He hadn’t wanted to think too much about it, especially not after what Gallus had said to him about gladiator fights being fake, but now that he thought about it again it nagged at him.
‘Do you think gladiators come here like they do to Decimus’ tavern?’
Aurelius swallowed, knowing that his son could well be about to ask some rather awkward questions.
‘I wouldn’t know about that, son,’ he said. ‘I only knew those gladiators might be at Decimus’ because he’s a client and a friend.’
‘I see,’ said Caius. The boy went quiet for a moment or two. Aurelius dared to relax a little, hoping that he was off the hook.
Aurelius sighed internally.
‘I still don’t understand what I saw in Decimus’ back room.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean I know what I saw. Agrippa and Brutus were definitely sat together, at the same table, and they’d been fighting tooth and nail not hours before.’
Aurelius made a non-committal noise of acknowledgement.
‘Why would such bitter enemies go to the same tavern at all, let alone sit at the same table in the same back room? It doesn’t make any sense.’
Aurelius looked at his son, saw the burning questioning in Caius’ face, and realised that he was not the man and this was not the time to tell his son such things.
‘My son, I am but a simple wine seller. I know nothing of the ways of these mighty warriors. Soon you will be amongst them and I’m sure all of your questions will be answered.’
Caius was silent for a moment or two.
‘Yes, Father,’ he said, eventually.
Inside the privacy of his own head, Aurelius cursed himself for being such a coward.
* * *
Aurelius and Caius arrived at the gladiator training school around dusk. They were both weary from travelling, and Caius had not said much at all since his bout of awkward questions at lunch. This worried Aurelius, but as the gates of the school loomed in front of them this worry was pushed out of his mind. Caius had seen that they had arrived and his spirits had risen considerably.
‘Father, we’re here!’ he said, excitedly. He was hopping from one foot to another – a trait from his childhood – and Aurelius could not help but smile. Here he was, giving his only son everything he had ever wanted. Despite his concerns, he felt an undeniable sense of fatherly pride as they strode confidently towards the gate.
This good feeling was short-lived.
‘Go no further!’ said a gruff voice out of the darkness. A large and muscular man stepped into view and fixed Aurelius and Caius with a stern glower. Although the man was unarmed, he was clearly a guard of some sort, and he did not seem pleased to see the two travellers.
State your business!’ he barked.
‘I’ve come to join the gladiator school!’ said Caius immediately. Aurelius knew before the guard spoke again that he was not impressed.
‘We’re closed for the night,’ said the guard, turning to walk away, considering the matter closed. ‘Come back tomorrow.’
‘Sir, if I may,’ said Aurelius, in smooth tones that Caius only heard his father use on his customers. ‘A word?’
The guard stopped and turned, still with the same perturbed expression on his face.
‘Caius, please give us a moment.’
‘Caius.’ Aurelius did not raise his voice, or even look back at his son, but Caius recognised finality when he heard it. He skulked off a few yards back up the road and sat heavily on a boulder, resting his chin in his hand. Caius watched as his father engaged the guard in a hushed conversation. He frowned in confusion as the two men eventually looked back up the road to where he was sat. Aurelius motioned for his son to return. Still confused, Caius got up and walked back over to his father and the surly guard, whose expression had softened, but not by much.
‘Marcellus will see you in the morning. Until then you can sleep in the stables.’
‘Thank you, sir,’ said Aurelius, graciously. ‘You are most kind.’
The guard merely grunted.
‘Pardon me, sir,’ said Caius, as they were being led to the stables. ‘But who is Marcellus?’
‘He owns the school,’ said the guard, not looking round. ‘And he’s the head trainer.’ Caius gasped involuntarily. He was going to meet the owner of the school and the head trainer tomorrow. His head was spinning.
When they reached the stables the guard pointed to a darkened corner.
‘You two can bed down there.’
‘Thank you, sir,’ said Caius, politely.
‘And don’t go wandering around, or you’ll have me to deal with.’ The guard fixed them both with one last hard glare before returning to his post. When he was safely out of earshot Aurelius spoke.
‘What did you say to that man to make him let us in?’
‘Ah, my boy, many’s the trader who has left my emporium with more barrels than he intended thanks to your father’s way with people.’
Caius frowned slightly. He didn’t feel that quite answered his question.
‘Come now, Caius,’ said Aurelius, chivvying him along. ‘Let’s get some rest. I imagine they have an early wake up call in this place.’
Caius got as comfortable as he could in the spiky straw and stared at the wooden beams of the stable roof. He was here. He was finally here. It almost didn’t seem real. As he eventually drifted off to sleep he said a silent prayer that when he woke it was not going to have been just a dream.
* * *
Despite their less than comfortable conditions, Caius was dreaming. In his dream he was a famous gladiator, undefeated and adored by crowd after crowd of screaming audiences. He raised his sword high in the air, and…
The gruffly barked order that punctured his dream was followed by a splash of cold water covering him from head to foot. Coughing and spluttering, Caius awoke with a start to see last night’s guard looking over him with a now empty bucket in his hands. He looked to his left and felt somewhat put out that his father had seemingly not been subjected to a similar dowsing. Aurelius gave his son a look that suggested that attempting to complain about being woken up in this way was not the best course of action. Instead, Caius wiped his eyes and stood up, dripping.
‘Marcellus is ready for you,’ said the guard, almost growling.
‘Yes, sir,’ said Caius, meekly.
‘But first, he goes.’ The guard pointed a thick, gnarled finger at Aurelius, who looked from the guard to Caius and then back to the guard.
‘Perhaps I should be heading back,’ said Aurelius. He began to gather his things.
‘Now son,’ said Aurelius, just in time to stop what looked like the threat of another onslaught from the guard. ‘This is a gladiator school. This is where you want to be, yes? I am a wine seller, and though I will miss you, home is where I want to be.’ Aurelius glanced sidelong at the menacing guard. ‘More and more by the minute,’ he whispered to Caius, inclining his head to their surly companion. Part of Caius wanted to protest, part of him wanted Aurelius to stay, but he knew that was not how it was done. He could only imagine how the other trainees would treat him if he kept his father around to watch over him. In that moment Caius realised two things: that he was going to miss his parents more than he realised, and that he could not begin his training until he was properly away from them.
He sighed and turned to face Aurelius.
‘Have a safe journey back, Father. Give my love to Mother.’
‘I will, my son.’
As father and son hugged each other goodbye, the guard called out to someone unseen to Aurelius and Caius. The force and volume of his massive voice made them both jump. A second later, a young boy, who can’t have been much older than Caius was standing dutifully at the stable entrance.
‘Show this man out,’ growled the guard, as he indicated Aurelius.
‘Yes, Nonus,’ said the boy, automatically. He took Aurelius by the arm and led him swiftly out of the stables. Caius made a mental note to remember Nonus’ name, even though, for the time being, he was going to keep playing it safe and call him sir.
‘You, come with me,’ said Nonus to Caius.
‘Yes, sir.’ Nonus tossed the bucket into a corner with a clatter and set off out of the stables. Caius trotted to keep up. Eventually they arrived at a central courtyard, which Caius instantly guessed must have been the main training area. Various apparatus and racks of weapons lined the outer edge of the space, whilst a group of young men were clustered at the centre. They parted like the ocean as Nonus strode towards them, revealing a slightly stooped and grizzled-looking man who instantly fixed Caius with a steely, penetrating glare.
This was Marcellus.