Coliseum (Part 6 of 8)
Caius lay on the ground, his whole body hurting. He could feel tears stinging his eyes, but above all else he refused to let himself cry. He would not give these two thugs the satisfaction. Though they ached, he gritted his teeth and began to make his way to his feet. He would not be denied his dream, especially by two louts who didn’t know how to play fair.
‘Glutton for punishment, are you?’ said one of the boys, as he launched a kick at Caius’ already tender midsection.
A kick that didn’t connect.
The boy’s lower leg was caught by Caius, who gripped it hard and fast. The pain subsided as the anger boiled over. He now saw these boys as a threat to his dream. They were trying to put a stop to him becoming a gladiator, and that wasn’t going to happen, not while he had an ounce of fight left in him.
And then Caius struck.
Continuing to hold the boy’s lower leg in a vice-like grip, he swung his free arm up in the air and brought it down, elbow first, hard into the meaty region just next to the boy’s kneecap. The satisfying give of his flesh against the point of his elbow and the accompanying yelp of pain gave Caius his opening. As the boy with the now stricken knee collapsed to the floor, clutching at what was quite likely a dislocation at best, the second boy advanced. Reacting on a lethal mixture of instinct and rage, Caius sent the same elbow directly into the second boy’s groin, doubling him over in an instant.
If they were going to fight dirty then so was he.
With both older and larger boys now prone on the ground, Caius dragged them next to one another so that their heads were next to each other. Then, blood still pumping furiously in his ears, Caius knelt across both boys’ throats and looked them dead in the eyes as they began to squirm; their bodies suddenly deprived of oxygen.
‘Okay, that’s enough,’ said a voice from somewhere behind Caius, but he wasn’t listening.
‘I said that’s enough!’ Caius was snapped out of his violent haze by hands pulling him away. The two older boys gasped for breath as Caius’ lower leg was released from their throats, and as reality swam back into vision Caius found himself glaring into the face of Marcellus.
Breathing heavily, his fists clenched painfully tight, Caius realised that everyone in the courtyard was looking at him. He looked at the two spluttering boys and then at the master of the school before he realised exactly what he had done.
If Marcellus hadn’t stopped him he might have…
‘Come with me,’ said Marcellus, in a deadly quiet voice that sent shivers down Caius’ spine. The master of the school turned smartly on his heel and began to stalk off towards his office, but after a few steps he stopped and looked around at the rest of the class. They were all still standing in total silence. Those closer to Caius had backed away.
Marcellus glared at them.
‘The rest of you, back to work!’ he bellowed, before continuing on. As he passed the two boys whom had ganged up on Caius he stopped and looked down at them with a mixture of pity and disgust.
‘And you two,’ he said. ‘Today’s lesson is never underestimate your opponent, ever.’ Leaving the two boys to catch their breath, and the remaining students to resume their exercises, Marcellus left the courtyard, Caius slinking after him, sickened by what he had just done, and convinced that he was to be sent home in disgrace.
His dream was over.
Caius had to trot to keep up with Marcellus; he would have been surprised at how fast the old man could move, but he remembered the lightning speed with which he had applied that painful hold on his first day. Marcellus didn’t look back; he marched through the corridors of the training school until he reached his office. He roughly shoved the door open and stomped inside, finally turning to face Caius who stood like a lost lamb, still in the corridor.
‘Get in here!’ he said, through clenched teeth. As soon as Caius had crossed the threshold of Marcellus’ office the door was slammed shut; the noise making Caius jump. Marcellus glared briefly at the boy, making him feel even more wretched, before going into the corner of the room and pulling a dusty and moth-eaten blanket off of what turned out to be a battered old trunk. He flung open the lid, rummaged around inside for a moment or two and turned back to face Caius.
Onto Marcellus’ desk he slammed down the chipped old sword and tarnished breastplate of a Roman Centurion.
‘Take them,’ he said; his eyes boring into Caius’.
‘I…’ began Caius, not quite sure what to say.
‘I said take them!’
Terrified, Caius reached out with trembling hands, but before he could touch either sword or armour Marcellus spoke again.
‘If you want to kill people then take these and go and join the damn army,’ he said, now shaking with rage. ‘Because I won’t have it in my school, do you hear?’
‘But, Master…’ Caius’ fear of his teacher and mentor was now shot with confusion. What was Marcellus doing with old army surplus in his school? Caius had seen lots of weaponry and armour since arriving at the school, but it had all been gladiatorial, and this was clearly military. He looked down at the sword and breastplate and back up at Marcellus, whose expression had somehow softened, but without losing any of its anger.
‘I won’t have any killing,’ said the old man. ‘I can’t.’
‘Master, I’m sorry.’ Caius felt how hollow the words must have sounded, but he genuinely meant them. He didn’t want to kill those boys, but in the privacy of his own head he knew that he could have, and that scared him more than anything.
‘I know you are, boy,’ said Marcellus, his eyes now more sad than angry. ‘But tell me this, could you have stopped if I hadn’t have stopped you?’
Caius said nothing.
‘I didn’t think so,’ said Marcellus with a sigh. ‘And that means we have a lot more work to do.’
‘You mean you’re not sending me home, Master? Even after what I did?’
‘Even if I wanted to how could I now? First fight you get into when you get home you could bloody well kill someone! Not on my watch.’
‘I’m truly sorry, Master. I just felt so…’
‘Yes.’ Caius hung his head in shame, knowing that being angry was no excuse.
‘Come with me,’ said Marcellus. ‘I want to show you where anger can get you in this world.’ The old man picked up the sword and breastplate and placed them back in the trunk. He closed the lid and replaced the blanket before opening the door to his office again.
‘Come on, let’s go for a walk.’
Caius followed Marcellus out of the school gates. As they stepped into the bright sunshine, Marcellus turned away from the road that led to the school and started walking around the side of the wall that enclosed the grounds. Following dutifully, but slightly confused, Caius walked behind Marcellus until they were at the rear of the complex. There the landscape was grassland for miles, with trees dotted in clusters. Facing away from the school it looked deserted, save for a small fenced off area a little ways in the distance. It was there that Marcellus walked towards.
As they approached, Caius could make out a gate set into the fence, and something inside the small enclosure. He tried to see what it was, and as they eventually stood at the gate he realised with numbing clarity what had been fenced off.
Silently, Marcellus opened the gate and stepped inside. He held the gate open for Caius to step through; although it took the boy a second or two to realise he was expected to join his master in what was clearly a small private cemetery.
Marcellus closed the gate, turned to face the markers, and snapped to attention. He stood, motionless, for a moment or two, staring intently at the graves. Caius felt awkward and out of place. He drew himself up into a more respectful stance and bowed his head. It seemed like the right thing to do.
After what felt like hours Marcellus finally spoke.
‘This, my boy, is where anger can get you.’
Caius said nothing. He didn’t dare.
‘Before all this, lad,’ said Marcellus, gesturing vaguely behind him to the school. ‘I was a soldier. Served for fifteen years I did, man and boy. Back then, see, I was young. We all were. And was we proud? You bet we was. And strong, too. Victory seemed to come easy to us. Filled our heads and our hearts with confidence it did. Too much, though. Too much.’
Marcellus broke off for a moment and stared into the distance, as if replaying events from long ago in his mind.
‘We got cocky, the curse of all young men, I suppose. Well, I don’t suppose it matters too much to anyone if a lad gets a bit of a swagger and he’s just a…what’s your father do again, boy?’
Caius took a moment to answer. His mouth felt clumsy and dry.
‘A wine merchant, Master.’
‘Wine merchant, right. Well, as I was sayin’, it don’t amount to much if a wine merchant’s son gets his head full of himself and struts about the place, I reckon. But put that lad in a uniform and give him a sword and tell him to fight for Rome? Well now, there you’ve got yourself a problem, don’t you?’
Marcellus broke off again. Caius wasn’t sure if he was supposed to say anything, so he kept quiet. The old master seemed to be talking to himself as much as he was to Caius. They stood in silence for another few moments; the only sound the wind in the trees and the occasional bird on the wing.
‘One day,’ said Marcellus, speaking again without warning. ‘We was out on patrol in one of the provinces. I don’t care to mention the name. Anyway, some locals had been giving us some bother: questioning Rome’s authority and the like. Well, you can imagine what a cocksure bunch of young soldiers thought of that, eh? We took it as disrespect, open defiance even, and boy did that make us angry. You see, to us, to defy Rome was to defy us on a personal level. We took it as a real slap in the face, kind of thing. So, we managed to capture one of ‘em and we made him tell us where they met. Hurt that poor lad something awful, we did. But that’s nothing. Once we knew where to find ‘em we cornered ‘em and…and…’ Marcellus let out a guttering sigh. ‘Killed every last one of ‘em. Brutal we were, and fully justified in our own minds that what we was doing was right. Fools.’
‘What happened?’ asked Caius, looking from Marcellus to the grave markers.
‘Retaliated, didn’t they? Those we killed had friends, and they came after us in the night. Snuck right into our camp and caught us with our tunics down.’
‘How did you escape?’
‘I’d taken the canteens to the river to fill them up for the morning. As I was coming back I heard…the screams.’
Marcellus fell silent again. As he closed his eyes, Caius thought he could see a glassiness to them. His stance to attention had flagged a little, and in that moment Caius saw the frail old man as well as the wizened gladiator trainer.
‘I wasn’t able to recover any of the bodies,’ the old man continued. ‘But I had these markers put here so as never to forget my men. And also to never forget where anger can take you in this life. This is why we have to get a handle on that temper of yours, Caius.’ Marcellus had never addressed Caius by his name before, and it felt odd. Caius would have almost preferred being called “boy” or “lad” again.
‘Yes, Master,’ said Caius, dutifully.
‘Come on, let’s get back,’ said Marcellus.
Master and student left the makeshift cemetery and returned to the school. Neither said anything on the walk back. Caius wondered how many other students had been taken to see the grave markers, how many others had needed to be shown them. Regardless, the point was not lost on him. He wanted to be a gladiator, not a murderer. That thought alone was enough to resolve Caius to do whatever it took – and whatever Marcellus told him to do – to bring his fiery temper under control.
Once back in the school, Caius went to rejoin his fellow trainees in the courtyard. As he was about to part from Marcellus the old master caught him by the arm.
‘One minute, lad,’ he said. Caius felt a return to the familiar at being called “lad.” He turned to face Marcellus.
‘I’d appreciate it if you didn’t go about telling any and all about what I’ve shown and told you about today.’ Caius looked into the head trainer’s eyes; in amongst the usual sternness was a suggestion of pleading. Caius knew he was being entrusted with something important, and that, by extension, made him feel important.
‘Of course, Master,’ he said, respectfully.
‘I don’t make it a habit of letting everyone know my business, and I’d like to keep it that way.’
‘I won’t say a word, Master.’
‘Good lad. Now, your training will continue as normal, but I’m going to work with you personally to get that temper of yours in line.’
‘Yes, Master. Thank you, Master.’
‘That too is to be kept secret, do you hear?’
‘That’s for your own good, that is. A lot of the other lads already resent you for being let in at 16, so we don’t want to make it worse, do we?’
‘Take those two earlier,’ said Marcellus, indicating the courtyard. ‘I had a feeling they’d gang up on you, but I wanted to see how you handled yourself, because if you do make it as a gladiator, lad, there’s going to be plenty of times when you’re outnumbered in the arena.’
‘Your father told you had a temper, but obviously I didn’t know it could go as far as it did. So, you’ll come and see me once a week for one to one sessions so’s we can get a lid on it.’
‘Thank you, Master.’
‘Now go on, get back to the lesson.’
‘And if anyone asks, you just tell ‘em I tore a strip off you and you’re on punishment detail. That’ll explain you coming to see me each week.’
‘Now go on, off with you.’
Caius returned to the courtyard, his head awash with curiosity about how his sessions with Marcellus were going to go. As he thought about it the image of the grave markers flashed before his eyes. That was a thought that he was not going to be able to forget in a hurry, and he knew that was the point.
* * *
Marcellus had been right; there was indeed a great deal of curiosity about him being marched off by the head trainer when he returned to the courtyard. He fielded questions and accusations as best he could, but his focus was on the training, and the waiting to be called upon again by Marcellus.
This happened precisely one week after the trip to the grave markers; Marcellus sent for Caius in the evening after the day’s training had been completed. Some of the other trainees had questions, others had jibes, and some didn’t care, but Caius found himself once again in the office of the head trainer. As he entered he saw the now familiar shape in the corner of the room that he knew to be the old trunk covered with the blanket. He closed the door and was met with a hard slap to the face. Eyes watering, Caius staggered backwards, wondering what he had done to offend Marcellus so.
‘Angry?’ said Marcellus.
‘I said, are you angry?’
Caius wasn’t sure what to feel; he’d just been slapped in the face by a man whom he thought he was forging some kind of positive relationship with. Still holding his cheek, Caius couldn’t think of anything to say.
‘If I’m to help you get a hold of that temper of yours,’ said Marcellus. ‘You’re going to have to get used to getting angry and not losing control, do you hear me?’
Caius tried to answer, but Marcellus went for another slap. This time, however, Caius was able to block it. The old man nodded in approval.
‘Good,’ he said. ‘Now, tell me, how do you feel?’
‘I want you to stop hitting me,’ said Caius, honestly. This made the old man laugh out loud. It was an odd, wheezing sound that suggested Marcellus didn’t laugh very often.
‘Excellent. Now, really concentrate on how you felt when I slapped you. How close do you think you were to losing your temper?’