Coliseum (Part 7 of 8)
Caius tried to think, but it wasn’t easy. He knew now that Marcellus was trying to make him angry, but at the same time he was the head trainer of the school and someone whom Caius greatly looked up to.
‘I’m not sure,’ said Caius.
‘Come on, lad, think!’ Marcellus punctuated the final word with another vicious slap, turning Caius’ face away from him. The boy snapped his head back around, his eyes full of fire and his jaw set hard.
‘That! There!’ cried Marcellus, pointing at Caius. ‘That’s what we’re after! Now, quickly, boy, tell me, what are you feeling right now? Don’t think, just tell me.”
‘I want to hit you back,’ said Caius.
‘Good!’ said Marcellus, smiling broadly. ‘But you haven’t. Why?’
Caius thought about this for a moment.
‘Because I know I’m not supposed to.’
‘Excellent! Now we’re making progress!’
Caius said nothing. He was confused, and it must have shown on his face, because Marcellus’ smile faded to a more concerned look.
‘The point is, lad, that I just made you angry, right?’
‘Yes,’ said Caius, numbly.
‘I could tell from your eyes. There’s a definite rage inside you that has to be controlled if you’re going to make it in my school.
‘But the point is, despite how angry I just made you, you didn’t fight back.’
Caius was growing more confused.
‘Are…are you saying, Master, that you don’t want me to fight back? Ever?’
‘No, of course not. Don’t be daft. There may be rage in you, boy, but there’s also potential, and I’m never one to waste talent. You just need to apply similar thinking when you’re training, and eventually when you’re out there in front of the crowds, that you just did with me. You wanted to hit me, right? But you knew that wasn’t the right thing to do, not in this situation, so you stopped yourself, didn’t you?’
‘Well, there you go then. We just needs to train you so that kind of thinking is second nature to you. Because, to be a real gladiator, a smart gladiator, isn’t about losing your rag and tearing your opponent’s head off. It’s about using what you have properly. It’s about controlling that rage and channelling it into something useful, do you hear?’
‘Good lad. Now, let’s crack on.’
* * *
Caius continued to attend the private sessions with Marcellus over the following weeks and months, in conjunction with his regular gladiator training. He was getting better. More than that, he was getting good.
‘There ain’t no such thing as good,’ Marcellus barked at him one day in the courtyard. ‘There’s trained and there’s untrained.’
Everyday Caius felt more trained. Felt more ready.
Six months in the students were called to the courtyard for an announcement. As a special treat, they were going to be visited by a professional gladiator. Marcellus wouldn’t say who, but the whole school was quickly abuzz with chatter about which gladiator it could be. Caius didn’t care who it might be; he chomped at the bit to get the opportunity to talk to a real gladiator. Well, one still actively competing. He knew that gladiators didn’t come much more decorated and revered than Marcellus, but his fighting days were long behind him, and Caius wanted desperately to pick the brains of someone still fighting.
In the days leading up to the special visit it was all Caius could think about. Not only did he want to ask so many questions about life as a gladiator, but he hoped that this visitor would be watching some of the training sessions. Caius’ chest swelled with prideful thoughts of impressing the visitor, of standing out from the rest as someone with real potential.
He wanted this special guest to remember him.
The day came, and the students were packed eagerly into the courtyard, Caius front and centre. Marcellus had remained tight-lipped about the identity of the visitor, and he remained so when he stood in front of the expectant crowd.
‘Right,’ he said, as he stood with his hands clasped behind his back. ‘You’re all here, at this school for a reason, and that reason is to become gladiators. Ain’t that so?’
‘Yes, Master!’ chorused the entire student body.
‘Well, as is tradition here, once you’re six months in I calls in a favour from a past student to come in and talk to you.’
This was it. Caius was on tenterhooks.
‘So, show him the proper respect as you would me, and welcome the mighty Brutus!’ The assembled students erupted into excited applause and hollers, as a large, muscled and scar-ridden man walked out into the courtyard, accompanied by Nonus. Caius was agog. This was the very same gladiator whom he had seen in the back room of Decimus’ tavern all those months ago. In an instant his excitement was replaced by curiosity and doubt, as the memory of that night came flooding back to him. He knew what he had seen; Brutus was definitely sat at the same table as Agrippa, who was meant to be his heated rival. He remembered seeing them sitting together as friends, the look on their faces as they noticed him, and the fight that resulted seconds later. Though unwelcome, suspicions had emerged in his mind that night, and seeing Brutus stand before him now brought them all back. Caius looked about him and realised that he was the only one not clapping. He looked down and realised that his fists were clenched. He winced as the taunting words of Gallus swirled spitefully around his head. Being a gladiator is all for show, he’d said; it was all fake. Well, now he had an opportunity to ask someone who was in the business, a competing gladiator. He would get to the truth one way or another.
But what if he didn’t like what he heard?
Caius was so lost in his thoughts that he didn’t notice that Brutus had started to talk. He’d had a laundry list of questions ready to ask whomever their special guest turned out to be, but now he had only one: was gladiatorial combat real or not? He both did and did not want to know the answer, but he felt that, either way, he must know.
As he sat listening to Brutus telling stories about competing in various arenas, travelling the road, and the numerous foes he’d beaten, Caius looked around him. The other students were completely rapt. They ate up his every word with an eagerness that was almost palpable. The more this went on the more Caius started to wonder if the one question that now burned in his mind like a poker was one he wanted to ask in front of the other students. He wasn’t exactly the most popular of people within the school, and as he thought about it he could only imagine what questioning the legitimacy of being a gladiator would do for his standing amongst the student body. The memory of that one boy putting the same question to Marcellus at the beginning of their training was all too fresh, and as good as Caius had become he didn’t relish the thought of the entire courtyard turning on him to a man. He decided that the right thing to do – not to mention the safest – was to try and speak with Brutus alone; or at least away from the other students.
When the talk was over, Brutus remained for a short while to shake hands and be patted on the shoulder by various students. Caius hung back, keeping himself by the doorway through which Brutus had entered, and through which he assumed he would leave. He was right, and several minutes later Brutus said a final goodbye and began to make his way out of the courtyard, accompanied by Marcellus and Nonus.
This was his chance.
‘Brutus!’ he called. The gladiator stopped and looked around, raising a questioning eyebrow at Caius.
‘Yes, boy?’ he said, in a rough, gravely voice.
‘May I ask you a question, please?’ Caius noticed Nonus make a move forward, but Marcellus gestured for him to remain where he was. However, the head trainer had a look on his face that suggested to Caius that he was concerned or worried about something. Brutus had stopped and was now standing facing Caius.
‘Of course, boy, what is it?’
No turning back now.
Caius took a deep breath and jumped in with both feet.
‘I saw you in the back room of Decimus’ tavern, drinking with Agrippa, but he’s supposed to be your most hated rival. You were laughing and drinking like friends, but when you both saw me you started fighting. And someone from my home town told me that being a gladiator was all for show and not really real, and I wanted to ask you about it, because you’re a gladiator and surely you’d know…’ Caius realised how much he’d said in such a short space of time. All three men: Brutus, Marcellus, and Nonus were all staring at him in silence. Caius dropped his head and averted his gaze, suddenly feeling very foolish. Any minute now the famed gladiator was going to tear into him for daring to question the validity of his storied career.
But instead Brutus burst out laughing.
‘Oh Marcellus,’ he said, hoarsely, after finally catching his breath. ‘Still refusing to smarten your lads up, eh?’ Caius looked up, confused, and saw that Brutus was grinning. Marcellus, however, was not. He didn’t look happy at all. He then felt a hand like a shovel slap him heartily on the back.
‘He’s a funny old goat, that one,’ said Brutus, indicating Marcellus. ‘Tell you what, it’s not my place to say anymore, but you have Marcellus bring you to our big show at the Coliseum next month. I think it’d be good for you. Ain’t that right, Marcellus?’
Marcellus said nothing. His face was like thunder.
‘Well, I’d better be off,’ said Brutus, still chuckling a little to himself. ‘Thank you, lad. You’ve certainly given me something to tell the boys when I get to the next show.’ He gave Caius another friendly slap on the back and then left the courtyard, followed by Nonus who was to show him out. Caius looked back at Marcellus and swallowed dryly. The look the head trainer was giving him told him that he was in trouble. Marcellus approached Caius slowly before addressing him.
‘See you at the next session,’ he said, icily. Marcellus then turned smartly about and walked off, leaving Caius feeling both apprehensive and exhilarated. He knew he was in for a roasting from Marcellus when he attended his next private session, but even that couldn’t dampen the excitement that was now growing inside him. Brutus had personally invited him to a show. And not just any show: at the Coliseum no less. There was no arena more famous for gladiatorial combat, and he was going on the invitation of one its top stars. That thought alone would get him through whatever Marcellus had in store for him.
* * *
‘Pack a bag,’ was what greeted Caius when he entered Marcellus’ office on the night of their next one to one session. The head trainer was standing by his desk with a travelling bag seemingly ready to go. At first Caius didn’t know what to make of it. He stood silently for a moment, looking at the old man and the bag.
‘Erm…’ said Caius, unsure of what to make of the situation.
‘Marcellus rolled his eyes.
‘You want to see the Coliseum or not, boy?’ he said, impatiently.
‘What? Oh, yes. Yes, Master. Very much. Please.’
‘Then pack a bag.’
Caius didn’t need telling a third time. He practically sprinted out of Marcellus’ office and threw his belongings together in an excited hurry. In a matter of moments he was outside the school gates climbing into a cart that was to bear them to Rome.
‘One word from you on the journey and I’ll bloody well turn this cart around, do you hear?’ said Marcellus, grumpily.
‘Right, let’s get on with it then. You’re so desperate to peer behind the curtain, let’s go and take in a show.’
The journey was exquisite torture for Caius. He had a hundred questions and more that he wanted desperately to ask Marcellus about the Coliseum, but he didn’t dare test the old man on his threat to cut the trip short at a moment’s notice. Instead he busied himself with anticipatory daydreams about what it was going to be like.
It was going to be like home. Caius could feel his future stretching out before him, and in that future was definitely the Coliseum.
A day and a night’s travel brought them to the city limits of Rome. As weary from the road as he was, Caius was wide-eyed and attentive towards everything around him. Rome was, after all, the centre of the civilised world, and it was here that he felt sure he was to make a name for himself.
The cart rattled through the streets and Caius took it all in: the people; the buildings; the sheer press of life all around him. And then, as they rounded a corner, there it was.
It was even grander than Caius had ever dreamed. It towered above them; a true marvel of the architect’s craft. He stared, open-mouthed, and was sharply nudged in the ribs by Marcellus for his troubles.
‘Stop day-dreamin’, boy, and help me down.’ Caius jumped from the cart and helped Marcellus to the street. ‘We’ve a few hours until show time,’ he said. ‘Let’s go and get something to eat.’ Marcellus took off at a brisk pace, leaving Caius to collect the bags from the cart and trot to catch him up.
They ate dinner at a nearby tavern; Caius not realising how hungry he was until his food was placed in front of him. As he ate, an older man approached their table.
‘By the gods,’ he said. ‘Marcellus! Can’t remember the last time I saw you in town.’
‘Hello, Paulus,’ said Marcellus, indifferently.
‘This lad one of yours?’ asked Paulus, indicating Caius, who looked up from his food.
‘That depends,’ said Marcellus, sharply. ‘I’m taking him to see the show at the Coliseum today. After that, who knows?’
‘Don’t mind this one,’ said Paulus to Caius. ‘He’s always been a misery.’ Paulus chuckled, while Marcellus fixed Caius with a deadly look, silently daring him to laugh as well.
‘Business looks good, Paulus,’ said Marcellus, changing the subject. ‘You still running those independent shows in all the little backwaters?’
‘Someone’s got to,’ said Paulus. ‘Not everyone can work the Coliseum.’ A silence descended upon the conversation that suggested it was over. Caius sat there, chewing, wanting to join in but knowing that he shouldn’t.
‘Well, it was nice seeing you again,’ said Paulus. ‘Good luck, lad,’ he added to Caius.
‘Thank you, sir,’ said Caius, after swallowing his mouthful. As Paulus walked away Caius risked a questioning look at Marcellus.
‘Paulus,’ said the old man. ‘He owns this place, and he’s a bit of a small time promoter on the side.’
‘Promoter?’ Caius held his breath and hoped not to have his head torn off for asking a question.
‘Gladiator shows. Keep up, lad.’
‘Was Paulus a gladiator, too?’ This made Marcellus laugh out loud. It startled Caius.
‘Paulus? I doubt he’d even know which end to hold a sword. No, lad, Paulus isn’t one for combat, but there are few who can book a show like he can.’
‘Are his shows good?’
‘A bit extreme for my tastes, but the crowds seem to like ‘em.’
Caius took another mouthful before speaking again.
‘Maybe I’ll work for him one day. Once I’m trained, of course.’
Marcellus looked at Caius for a few seconds.
‘If you do, lad, just remember one thing: make sure that he pays you upfront.’
‘Come on, finish up, the gates will be opening soon.’
* * *