Coliseum (Part 5 of 8)
‘This the new lad, eh?’ he said, in a raspy voice.
‘Yes, Master,’ said Nonus, much less aggressively than he had ever addressed Caius or his father.
‘Well, boy,’ said Marcellus, stepping towards Caius and sizing him up with his eyes. ‘Your father paid handsomely for me to accept a boy of your age, so you’re either damn good or he’s damn sick of you.’
Caius didn’t know what to say. He looked blankly and swallowed.
‘I don’t normally takes on lads until they’re eighteen, but you, your father tells me you’re a special case.’
Still Caius said nothing.
‘Well, I don’t care how good you might be, boy, or how sick your Daddy might be of you, you’ll get no special treatment from me. You hear?’
‘Yes…sir,’ stammered Caius.
‘Yes, Master,’ growled Nonus from somewhere behind Caius.
‘Yes, Master,’ said Caius.
‘It’s already a hell of a thing me taking on a sixteen year old as it is. The other lads here don’t like it, so you’ve got some work ahead of you if you plan to make friends, boy.’
‘Yes, Master,’ said Caius, obediently.
‘Back to the gates, Nonus,’ said Marcellus, without taking his unwavering eyes off of Caius.
‘Yes, Master,’ said Nonus, almost snapping to attention. The large man turned on his heel and nearly knocked a couple of trainees over as he returned to his post. As he walked away, Marcellus started walking slowly around Caius, looking at him from head to foot.
‘You’ve got some muscles, boy,’ he said at last. ‘Let me guess, you don’t have a damn clue what to do with them?’
Caius said nothing.
‘Well?’ Marcellus’ gaze bored into Caius’ eyes; there was no getting away from it.
‘I…’ began Caius.
‘I…I’ve wanted to be a gladiator since I was a young boy, Master.’ A couple of the trainees who were lingering to get a glimpse of this dressing down of the new recruit sniggered behind their hands. Marcellus shot them looks that shut them up in a heartbeat.
‘You and every other lad in here,’ he said, derisively. ‘All the muscles in the world ain’t any good if you don’t know how to use them properly.’
After a few more seconds of silent appraisal, Marcellus spoke again.
‘So tell me boy, are you smart?’
Caius was confused by the question, as he didn’t think a gladiator needed much in the way of an academic education to get by. He’d always thought that his parents had him complete his schooling in case his dream of becoming a gladiator didn’t come true. Regardless of the reason for the question, Marcellus was clearly not a man to keep waiting for an answer.
‘I’ve completed all of my schooling, Master, if that’s what you mean.’ Again some sniggering from the other trainees was met with a razor-sharp stare from Marcellus. This time the culprits scuttled off to train elsewhere. Marcellus turned back to face Caius and let out a big breath through his nose.
‘I guess you’ll have to learn the hard way then,’ he said. Caius had barely time to hear what the old man had said before he was on him: hands as calloused as old wood and strong as iron gripped the boy in strange and extremely painful ways. Caius let out an involuntary shriek of pain.
‘What…?’ was all he could manage, through gritted teeth.
‘Initiation, boy,’ said Marcellus, who had barely broken a sweat. ‘Just tap my arm and I’ll stop.’ Caius had his one free hand cocked and ready to tap for his life when Marcellus spoke again: ‘But mind, if you give up now you’re out.’
Caius’ hand froze, although he was being stretched in ways he never thought possible. He felt as if his muscles were about to pop out of his skin, and his bones felt as if they were going to twist themselves into splinters. His jaw hurt from squeezing his teeth together, and the veins in his neck stood out like tree vines.
‘Just say the word, boy, and you can go home to Mommy and Daddy.’ Marcellus was not letting up. If anything, he was applying more pressure, but Caius would not give up. How could he face himself for the rest of his life if he gave up at the first hurdle?
But the pain.
Caius was vaguely aware of someone speaking off to his left, but the words were muddled to him. His entire focus was on the sensations running through his body.
He couldn’t give up, not now.
He wouldn’t give up.
And then it all went black.
* * *
This time there were no dreams. The first thing Caius noticed after being mauled by Marcellus for what felt like a lifetime was being shaken awake.
‘Wake up, lad.’
Caius’ memory clicked into focus and he tensed, waiting for another dose of cold water, but it never came. Cautiously, he opened his eyes to see what was going on. He looked around and saw that he was in what looked like a dormitory. Sitting next to the bed he was in was Marcellus. He still looked rough and frightening, but his expression was not as fierce as it has been…
A thought struck him.
‘What happened?’ he asked.
‘You passed out,’ said Marcellus, evenly.
‘How long have I been out?’
Caius considered this.
‘I’m sorry, Master.’
‘What for?’ asked the old man, frowning.
‘Didn’t I fail the initiation?’ Marcellus looked at Caius for a second before erupting into a hacking laugh, which went on for several moments. Caius began to feel very embarrassed. When the old man had finally regained composure he spoke again.
‘Oh lad, you’re a green one, ain’t you?’
Caius could feel himself going red. He’d never been called green before, but he didn’t think it was a good thing.
‘And you can stop all that nonsense, too,’ barked Marcellus.
‘All that saying you’re sorry. A gladiator is never sorry, do you hear me?’
‘Yes, Master,’ said Caius, uncertainly.
‘A gladiator makes other people sorry,’ said Marcellus, grinning.
‘Anyway, lad, no you didn’t fail the initiation.’
‘I didn’t?’ Caius felt reasonably sure that passing out can’t have scored him any points with the old man.
‘I’ve seen all sorts come through here in my time, lad.’ Marcellus leant back against the wall and winced as he adjusted his back. ‘I’ve seen ‘em cry for Mommy and Daddy. I’ve seen ‘em offer me their entire family fortune for me to stop. Hell, one lad even shat himself.’
Caius listened, fascinated.
‘But they were lads of age. You being sixteen and all, well, I had to be sure, you know? The initiation is my way of weeding out the dead weight. I ain’t getting any younger, and I don’t want my time being wasted by silly little boys who think being a gladiator sounds like a lark. So I stretches ‘em to see what they’re made of.’
Caius looked at Marcellus’ large and swarthy hands, and remembered the pain they had been able to inflict.
‘But I admit to laying it on a little thicker with you, lad.’
‘’Course I did. I had to: a sixteen year old wanting to learn the ways of the gladiator. I had to make sure that you were serious. So, I stretched you longer than anyone I have before.’
Caius said nothing. He swallowed and felt that his throat was very dry.
‘I was convinced that you’d give up and I’d be rid of you,’ said Marcellus, wistfully. ‘But bugger me if you didn’t last. Hell, some of the top gladiators who I trained would have passed out in the hold I had you in.’
‘Really?’ Caius sat up in bed. He felt oddly proud about passing out now. Marcellus stood up and offered the boy one of his deadly hands.
‘Welcome aboard, lad.’
The two of them shook hands.
Caius had begun his official gladiator training.
* * *
Marcellus was right about two things: the other trainees were immediately suspicious of him, a sixteen year-old boy being allowed to enter the school when the rest of them had had to wait until they were eighteen, and that Marcellus definitely had no patience for people wasting his time. This was made painfully evident on Caius’ first morning of training, when the latest trainees were assembled in the courtyard and were being addressed by Marcellus. In the middle of the introduction speech a cocky young man put his hand up and interrupted the master mid-sentence.
‘Master, if you please,’ he said, with an air that suggested he was used to being listened to. ‘I have heard tell that gladiatorial combat is in fact all staged and we are here to train as performers rather than warriors. Is this true?’ The silence that followed was deafening. Marcellus stood, frozen to the spot, as if still trying to comprehend the fact that someone had interrupted him. Caius picked a nondescript patch of ground and stared at it intently, praying that whatever was going to happen would happen quickly. He knew the young man was done for, but still, his question brought to the surface the nagging doubts he had had about becoming a gladiator ever since that fateful afternoon when he was taunted by Gallus. It seemed like a lifetime ago, but he remembered it as clear as day. Add to that the incident in Decimus’ tavern and Caius was almost glad that someone had asked the question that had been lurking in the back of his mind. He was gladder, however, that he had not been the one to ask it.
After a second or two of excruciating silence Marcellus lowered the hand that he was gesturing with and closed his mouth. He singled out the boy who had spoken up and walked squarely up to him, stopping mere inches from his nose. To the boy’s credit, he didn’t flinch.
‘What was that, sonny?’ said Marcellus, in a dangerously low voice.
‘My father and his friends say that being a gladiator is more like being in the theatre than being a proper warrior, and I feel that, well, if it is all for show, why all this need for training?’ Caius screwed up his eyes; he couldn’t believe how monumentally stupid this boy was being. He remembered how angry he had been when Gallus had had the nerve to suggest that gladiatorial combat was staged, but this boy was suggesting it to the very face of a gladiator trainer, in his very own school! Caius wondered if this boy had suffered some sort of blow to the head and wasn’t thinking clearly.
Still he looked at the ground and listened intently.
‘Theatre, eh?’ said Marcellus after a long pause. ‘Then let me ask you this, lad. Sayin’ that’s the truth of it, what are you doin’ here? Why join my school if it’s all a show?’
‘Why, for glory, Master,’ said the boy, confidently. ‘I want to be famous.’
‘You want to be famous,’ said Marcellus, repeating the boy’s words back to him slowly. ‘Well, in that case…’ Caius didn’t see what Marcellus did, but one moment the boy was standing perfectly upright, the next he was a crumpled heap on the floor. There had been no noise: no smack of flesh on flesh, no cry of pain; the boy was simply standing one minute and not the next. Marcellus stood over him for a second, a look of pitying disdain in his eyes.
‘Now you’re famous, lad,’ he said, with a tinge of sadness to his voice.
‘You’ll be talked about in these walls for generations to come on account of your bloody stupidity. Nonus!’ The guard Caius now recognised as Nonus came dutifully stalking into the scene, his general demeanour as unpleasant as ever.
‘Put this boy somewhere out of the way until his parents get here to collect him.’
‘Yes, Master.’ Nonus unceremoniously picked up the prone figure of the boy and slung him over his shoulder. Without another word he marched him away to another part of the school.
‘Now, I hope you were all paying attention just then,’ said Marcellus, turning to face the rest of the new recruits. ‘If anyone else amongst you has any daft ideas of using my school to make it rich and famous you can pack up and bugger off right now, or else you might end up sharing a bed with smart-arse back there while I sends for your parents.’
Caius risked moving his gaze from the ground and saw Marcellus pacing back and forth. The altercation with the boy had clearly bothered him.
‘I don’t care what you’ve heard about being a gladiator from your father, your mother, or the bloody gods themselves! In here I trains people to fight and to win. If you get good then yes, you can make a name for yourself, but I’ll warn each and every one of you now. If all you’re interested in is girls throwing themselves at you or having piles of money to throw around then I’ll weed you out one by one. I train warriors, not glory-hounds. Is that clear?’
‘Yes, Master,’ chorused the new recruits.
‘What was that?’ barked Marcellus.
‘Yes, Master!’ shouted the recruits.
‘Right, let’s get to work. Group off into three as I go down the line.’ A couple of minutes later the class was split into groups of three, and Caius found himself being glared at by two much larger recruits who were clearly of the mind that him being underage was not okay in their book. He tried a feeble smile to show that they were all friends here. He looked to one of the boys.
‘You’re dead meat,’ he said, staring at Caius like he was an insect.
Swallowing nervously, Caius looked to the other boy.
‘I’m going to tear you apart,’ he said.
Caius felt an unpleasant knot in his stomach. He didn’t want his first training session to end up with him being scraped off the walls. He was so preoccupied with the menacing looks that his two training partners were giving him that he barely caught any of Marcellus’ instructions. He was snapped violently back to reality when the head trainer shouted ‘Go!’
Out of the corner of his eye, Caius saw a fist like a ham-hock come swinging for him. Miraculously, he was able to dodge it, but as the two older boys flanked him it became immediately clear that this was now a two on one affair. The two older boys looked at each other with savage approval, nodded to one another, and advanced. They were big, and clearly a lot stronger than Caius, but with his smaller stature came speed. He dodged the first boy as he came lunging for him, stepping smartly to the side, but this brought him directly into the path of the second boy, who was ready for him. An explosion of pain in Caius’ side told him that he had just been hit, hard. He winced and grunted, feeling his legs give way slightly underneath him.
‘Come on, lads,’ Caius said, spluttering. ‘This is hardly fair, is it?’ He knew it was the wrong thing to say, but he felt as if he might as well at least try and appeal to their better judgement; if they had any.
Holding his side and backing off from his two adversaries, Caius saw nothing but spiteful pleasure on the faces of the two older boys. They were clearly enjoying the opportunity to beat on a younger trainee. Mind racing, Caius immediately pegged these two as bullies. He couldn’t stand bullies. As he rapidly ran through mental strategies that would reduce the pounding he was facing he pictured these two in their respective home towns, picking on smaller children, making others’ lives miserable. This made him think of Gallus and suddenly the anger was building within him again, hot and fierce.
Then they came at him again, this time together.
The lead boy took him at the midriff with a vicious shoulder tackle, knocking the wind clean out of him. The second boy followed up with a forearm to the jaw that made Caius feel as if his teeth were on fire and would soon erupt from his mouth. He crumpled to the ground as his two opponents got to their feet to admire their handiwork.
‘Not so tough now, are you?’ said the first boy, leering.
‘Best go home to Mommy and Daddy,’ said the second boy, before spitting on him.
Through the pain the anger shot forth again.
How dare they?
How dare they?