Ever since Caius was a little boy he had wanted to be a gladiator.
It had started when he was ten years old and his father had taken him to a show for his birthday. They lived in a small provincial town a few days’ travel from Rome, and the local arena was rather small, but to the young Caius it was like visiting the great Flavian Amphitheatre itself. He held his father’s hand tightly as they walked up the darkened steps and out into the bright afternoon sunlight. Everything was so bright and striking and memorable; Caius was instantly transfixed. He watched, rapt and unblinking, at the spectacles that were laid on that day. It wasn’t a very big show, but to the ten year old Caius it was the greatest thing he had ever seen.
And then the gladiators had come out.
Caius had heard his father and uncles talk of gladiator shows, but nothing they could have said would have prepared him for the impact these men had on the young Roman. He sat on the edge of his seat and devoured the glorious combat. The cries, the action, the sweat and the blood; but only the blood of those who lost, Caius noticed. The victors stood in the centre of the arena, filthy, exhausted, but triumphant. They were winners. To Caius, they were gods.
He was instantly hooked.
Caius was alive with energy on the walk home from his first gladiatorial show. He whooped and hollered and mimicked the fighting that had entranced him so. He picked up a stick from the roadside and fought invisible foes, the picture of boyish glee. His father, Aurelius, smiled to see his son so happy.
‘So, you enjoyed yourself, then?’ he asked as the boy stopped to catch his breath.
‘Oh Father,’ Caius enthused. ‘It was incredible! Can we come to the next show? Please?’
‘Of course,’ said Aurelius, kindly. ‘Now, let’s get home. Your mother will have supper waiting.’
Aurelius was good to his word and, when the next show came to the local arena, he took Caius, as promised. The boy now lived for these shows. Everything else had become secondary to him; his schooling, helping with the family wine business, everything. He was not neglectful of these things, but it had become obvious that his mind was always somewhere else.
That is, apart from when he was at the arena.
Taking in the gladiatorial shows soon became a regular thing for Caius and Aurelius. His mother, Lucia, was not in love with her son being so interested in such violent spectacles, but she was happy that Caius and Aurelius had found something to bond over. So it was that every month the local arena would be filled with eager spectators, and always amongst them would be the young Caius and his father. The more he saw the more he wanted to see. Caius felt a strange connection to these shows and the men who put their lives on the line to provide them. As he sat there, wonderstruck, he felt as if they were performing just for him. He would look around at the assembled faces and feel that he was somehow getting something more from the shows than anyone else. It was as if he was being told something, like he was being shown a path that was open only to him. Almost a year to the day when his father had taken him to his first show, Caius came to a decision that had been swirling around in his mind for some months.
He would become one of them.
He would become a gladiator.
Caius turned to his father and spoke with an earnestness that made what he said all but a certainty in his mind.
‘Father,’ he said. ‘I want to do what they do. I want to be a gladiator.’
‘Maybe someday,’ Aurelius said, kindly, thinking no more of it. Aurelius was a wine merchant, as his father had been before him, and so on. It was expected that Caius would carry on the family business in years to come, so Aurelius had dismissed his son’s declaration as mere boyish wonder.
But Caius was not be deterred.
After the show had ended, father and son were walking home in the early evening haze, and the boy was strangely quiet.
‘Is something the matter?’ asked Aurelius.
‘I meant what I said, Father,’ said Caius.
‘I want to be a gladiator.’
‘But my son,’ said Aurelius, choosing his words wisely. ‘We are wine merchants.’
‘But…’ began Caius.
‘Look,’ said Aurelius, stopping in the road to kneel in front of his impetuous son. ‘It is common for a young man such as you to be so full of ideas, but that is all they are, son, ideas.’
‘I remember when my father used to take me to the gladiator shows. Everything was so exciting! I wanted to be a part of it, too. It felt so thrilling, so adventurous. It was like a dream.’
‘That’s how I feel!’
‘But it is nothing more than a dream, my son. Your place is with the family. I will need you to carry on after I am gone. Now, let us forget about these silly whims and get on home.’
Aurelius stood and brushed the dust from his clothes. He set off down the road and stopped after a few steps when he realised that his son was not keeping pace him with. He turned around and immediately his face fell. Caius stood, rooted to the spot, and the look on his face pierced his father’s heart like a dagger. It was a look of wounded betrayal, of anger.
‘Silly?’ said Caius, slowly.
’Silly?!’ shouted Caius. Tears were now glassing the young boy’s eyes. He felt let down by his father. He had found something that made him feel more alive than he could ever remember feeling, and his father had dismissed it as silly. Aurelius took a cautious step towards his son. Caius clenched his fists and remained motionless.
‘Caius, I only meant…’
’I don’t care what you meant!’ raged the boy. ’I will be a gladiator! I will!’ With his final words echoing off of nearby buildings, Caius launched himself from where he stood and hurtled past his father, running madly for home.
How dare he?
Aurelius sighed and carried on walking towards his house. He knew that he would need to talk to his son, but he was not looking forward to trying to get him to listen.
Aurelius arrived home and found Lucia seated at the dinner table, all three meals set out in their usual places. His wife was quiet, but when she looked up at Aurelius, she smiled thinly.
‘He is outside,’ she said, gently.
‘I’ll go to him,’ said Aurelius.
‘He seemed very upset. Did you two have a disagreement?’
‘Yes,’ Aurelius sighed. ‘He says he wants to be a gladiator.’
Lucia was quiet again for a moment.
‘I told him, though, that his place is here with us. With the family.’
‘Well, no wonder he’s upset,’ said Lucia, as she poked at her food.
‘What?’ Aurelius was confused.
‘My dear, he’s eleven years old. What were you like at that age?’
Aurelius sat down and took a mouthful of his dinner. He knew where his wife was heading with this.
‘Headstrong. Ready to take on the world and win.’ He smiled.
‘Exactly,’ said Lucia, smiling.
‘Are you saying that you want our son to become a gladiator?’ asked Aurelius, cautiously, knowing that gladiatorial shows were a subject that he and his wife had always had a difference of opinion on.
‘Not particularly, no,’ said Lucia. ‘But let me ask you something, husband. What did you want to be when you were Caius’ age?’
‘I was destined for the family business, you know that.’
‘That is not what I asked.’ Lucia smiled. ‘Men may grow, but at heart they are always little boys in their dreams. So, come, what was it?’
Aurelius looked down, a little embarrassed, and smiled.
‘A chariot racer,’ he said, quietly.
‘And who was it who told you that you could not chase that dream?’
‘Lucia smiled and placed a hand on Aurelius’.
‘Go to your son.’
Lucia was right, Aurelius knew that. He loved his father, and he knew he meant well, but a small part of him had never forgiven him for trampling his youthful dreams the way he had on that day all those years ago. Aurelius looked at his wife as he replayed the conversation he had had with Caius not an hour ago. With a sinking feeling he realised he had done to his son what his father had done to him.
‘What do I say to him?’ he asked, looking to his wife for guidance.
‘Just go to him,’ she said, gently. ‘The words will come.’
Aurelius smiled, stood, and kissed his wife tenderly on the forehead. She smiled again.
‘Help him find his way, Aurelius. I do not particularly desire that our son become a gladiator, but at the same time I do not wish him to harbour resentment towards us for the rest of his life because we denied him so.’
Aurelius placed his hand on his wife’s shoulder and gave it a loving squeeze. He sighed, ran his fingers through his hair and made his way to the back of the house. Stepping outside, he could hear the noise of something being hit repeatedly against something else. In an instant Aurelius saw Caius by the old pine tree. He had a large stick in his hands and he was beating it against the trunk in silent anger.
This wasn’t going to be easy.
Aurelius approached cautiously, not saying a word. The air was filled with the sounds of the stick being hit against the tree and the grunts from Caius’ exertion. Aurelius watched as his son thrust and swung the stick at the tree with worrying ferocity. He felt as if he was intruding on a private moment between a boy and his thoughts, but he knew the matter needed dealing with.
Caius spun around, the stick brandished and fire in his eyes. They blazed with anger and barely suppressed tears when they took in his father.
’What do you want?’ he said, turning back to the tree.
‘Son, I came to talk to you.’
‘Go away.’ Caius remained facing away from Aurelius as he spoke. On any normal day Aurelius would have chastised his son for such disrespect, but he felt that this moment called for a different approach. He had seen his son upset before, but never like this. Something had ignited inside him and Aurelius was afraid of what might happen if he didn’t at least try and get a handle on the situation.
Aurelius swallowed hard with an uncomfortably dry throat.
’I said go away!’ Caius shouted the last two words, causing Aurelius to take a step backwards. No, this was not the time to be meek. Caius was acting with such boldness, what was needed now was strength, conviction.
‘I will not,’ said Aurelius, firmly. ‘Not until we can talk about this.’
‘I don’t want to talk to you,’ said Caius, defiantly. He continued to bang the stick against the tree, but with somewhat less venom than before.
‘I did not mean to anger you, my son,’ said Aurelius, taking a deliberate step forward.
Caius stopped hitting the tree altogether and let his head hang low.
‘You called me silly,’ he said, quietly. Somehow, this was worse than the shouting.
‘I called the idea of you being a gladiator silly,’ reasoned Aurelius. ‘I did not call you silly.’
‘Same thing,’ snorted Caius.
‘Son, I…’ Aurelius laid a gentle hand on Caius’ shoulder, wanting desperately to have his son face him. He felt Caius tense under his touch, and, before he could register what was happening, Caius had spun around and pushed his father away, both hands shoving heavily at his chest. Unprepared for this sudden assault, Aurelius stumbled backwards and landed solidly on his backside. Anger and humiliation flared up inside him as he looked up at his son, standing over him like a conquering enemy. Neither spoke for a heart-piercing second.
‘Alright then,’ said Aurelius, quietly and coldly. Not breaking eye contact, the older man stood and faced his son. ‘Give me that stick.’
’I said give it to me!’ The insistence in Aurelius’ voice made Caius’ eyes widen in surprise. Without thinking, he handed the stick to his father, feeling momentarily chastened. Still locking his son with an iron-hard glare, Aurelius took the stick in both hands and broke it in two across his knee. Tossing one half back to his son, he backed off a pace and held his half like a weapon.
‘You want to be a gladiator?’
Caius did not say anything for a moment or two. He looked at his father standing before him, poised and ready to strike. The anger he felt towards him was now tinged with a healthy dose of fear.
‘Well?’ pressed Aurelius.
‘In that case fight me.’
‘What?’ Caius blinked in confusion.
‘You heard me, I said fight me.’
Caius looked at the stick in his hand and then back at his father.
‘You were quick enough to put your hands on your own father a moment ago. If you are so certain that you want to fight for a living then prove it.’
‘Aurelius?’ The voice of Lucia made both father and son start. They both looked to the back door of their house where Lucia stood, silhouetted from the light inside. ‘What is going on?’
‘Go back in the house,’ said Aurelius. ‘This won’t take long.’
‘What are you doing?’ she pressed.
‘Seeing if our son is as serious as his word suggests,’ said Aurelius, his gaze returning to Caius. Lucia looked concerned, but she did as she was asked. Once the back door was shut again Aurelius grinned. ‘Come on then, show me what you’ve got.’ Without warning, Aurelius made his move. Thrusting his stick towards his son, he caught Caius completely off guard, cracking his stick painfully across the boy’s knuckles.
‘That hurt!’ protested Caius.
‘Good,’ said Aurelius, as he began to circle around Caius. ‘But you’ll have to put up with a lot worse than that if you want to be a gladiator.’ He struck again, this time catching the knuckles of his other hand.
‘Stop that!’ Caius cursed himself for the whining tone that had found its way into his voice, but as angry as he was at his father, he was definitely also frightened.
‘What’s the matter?’ jeered Aurelius. ’Do you think your opponents will stop just because you tell them to? That’s a boy’s expectation, not a man’s!’ Aurelius struck a third time, but this one was blocked by Caius’ stick. The noise reverberated around the yard, and Aurelius felt the strength behind his son’s stick.
‘You’re not being fair!’ said Caius, very nearly shouting. He was now holding his stick with both hands, his breathing deep and purposeful.
‘Life isn’t fair, my boy, now stop thinking like a child and start acting like a warrior!’ Aurelius spun his stick around in an arcing loop, sending Caius off-balance. Pivoting rapidly on his heel, Aurelius caught his son in the back and sent him sprawling into the dirt. Caius would have felt the pain in his lower back, but the rage that boiled over in him masked it all. He remained face down on the ground for a moment, contemplating his next move.
Then Aurelius laughed.
‘I thought as much,’ he said, scornfully. ‘Just a little boy’s foolish dream.’
That was it.
Caius was on his feet and at his father in a second. His stick flew in all directions with a precision that had Aurelius reeling. He could barely parry half of the shots that his son rained down on him. Caius felt white hot with maddening anger. He wanted to hurt his father; he wanted him laid to waste before him, a quivering wreck beneath his might and power. Livid tears stung his eyes and streaked hot down his cheeks as he struck Aurelius from head to toe. Aurelius, his stick abandoned, covered his head with his hands as Caius drove him to the ground. Raising his stick over his head he was a heartbeat away from delivering what would be, were he holding a sword, the killing blow. His anger told him to do it, but, looking down at his prostrate father he saw him.
This was not the leering smile that Aurelius had taunted Caius with moments ago. This was a genuine smile of fatherly pride. Aurelius was battered and bleeding in a few places, but he looked as though nothing else on earth could please him more. It was enough to make Caius pause.
‘Well done, Caius,’ said Aurelius, talking thickly through a mouthful of blood. ‘Well done.’
Reality washed back over the young Roman as he saw his father, lying beaten on the ground and knowing it was he who had put him there. A painful lump sprang up in his throat, and he became very aware of the ugly stick that was clenched in his hand. Guiltily, he threw it away, and looked pleadingly at his father.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said in a small voice. ‘You just made me so…’
‘Angry?’ asked Aurelius, extending his hand.
‘Yes,’ said Caius, helping his father to his feet.
‘Good, because through that anger you have shown me two things.’
‘What, Father?’ Caius placed Aurelius’ arm around his shoulder and began helping him towards the house.
‘That you are indeed serious about becoming a gladiator, and that, with training, you will grow to be a great gladiator indeed.’
Caius felt a marvellous swelling in his chest as untold possibilities began to stretch out before him. He was going to be a gladiator, and he was going to be great.
‘Do you mean it, Father?’
‘I just feel sorry for your opponents,’ smiled Aurelius. ‘Now, come. Help your old father into the house so that your mother can shout at me for allowing you to beat me so.’
Aurelius was correct that Lucia was less than impressed when she laid eyes on her battered and bruised husband, but she did not shout.
‘Caius,’ she said kindly. ‘Please prepare for bed. I will bring your supper to you after I have spoken with your father.’
‘Yes, Mother,’ said Caius, a little concerned that his dream of becoming a gladiator may have been short-lived. If his mother wanted to she could talk Aurelius out of agreeing to let Caius train, and that worry must have shown on his face. Aurelius smiled at his son.
‘Go on, Caius. It’ll be alright.’ Father and son looked at one another and in that moment Caius felt buoyed that, if nothing else, Aurelius was going to argue his case. He left his parents to it, his mind swirling with images of combat and glory. Once they were alone, Lucia began tending to Aurelius’ cuts and bruises.
‘I understand why you did what you did,’ she said, as she filled a bowl with water from the jug on the table. ‘But did you have to let him get so carried away?’
‘I’ll be fine,’ said Aurelius. ‘It’s just a few scrapes.’
‘Oh really?’ Lucia pushed the bowl towards Lucia and motioned for him to look at himself in the water’s reflection. He bent over the bowl and saw a bloodied mess staring back at him.
‘By Jupiter!’ He knew that Caius had really taken it to him, but his adrenaline must have been pumping too hard for him to register just how much of a beating he had taken.
‘My thoughts exactly,’ said Lucia, pulling the bowl back towards so that she could dampen a rag to mop up the worst of her husband’s face. Despite the mangled face that had looked back at him from the water bowl, Aurelius could not help but smile.
‘I’d hardly say this was amusing,’ scolded Lucia.
‘I’m not amused,’ said Aurelius. ‘I’m proud.’
‘And you should be, too.’
‘And why is that, because our son has shown a worrying flare for violence? Oh yes, I’m thrilled.’
Aurelius winced as Lucia tended to a cut above his eye.
‘As I said to him, it has shown me that he’s serious about his dream of becoming a gladiator.’
’I understand that, but is that really the life you want for our son? Tonight he was against his father who was out to prove a point. If he becomes a gladiator he will be against men who will want to do more than prove a point.’
‘Lucia, I’m aware of that.’
’They’ll want to kill him!’
‘And he them.’
‘And you’re okay with this?’
‘I won’t lie, I’d always assumed that Caius would enter the family business, when the time was right, just as I did. However, he showed me tonight that there’s a fire inside him that would never be quenched by working as a wine merchant.’
‘You’re talking about a desire to kill. I don’t want our son to be a killer.’
‘Neither do I, particularly, but I’d like to think that what attracts Caius to this path is the glory to be found in combat, and not in killing.’
‘Look,’ said Aurelius, taking his wife’s hands in his. ‘You were right. As much as I am grateful to the gods for the life we have, I’d give anything to go back to my youth and be given the opportunity that we’re presenting Caius with. Just to find out for myself. Who knows, I could have been a champion chariot racer, or I could have been terrible at it, but at least I would have known.’
‘Hmmm,’ said Lucia.
‘Not that I don’t have faith in Caius, but it’s not as if he’s just going to walk into an arena, is it? He has to go through training first, and then only if he’s accepted into a school. Wanting it, even as badly as Caius does, is not a guarantee that he will make it. But knowing how badly he wants to try, I don’t think I could live with myself if I simply refused him the opportunity. Could you?’
‘Well, no,’ said Lucia, reluctantly. ‘But you mentioned him getting into school. What about his regular schooling? I don’t want Caius missing out on an education just so he can chase a dream that may not pan out for him.’
Aurelius felt like he was on firmer ground here, and smiled.
‘Well, that’s no problem,’ he said, confidently. ‘Caius will not be able to apply to a training school until he is at least eighteen, so there is plenty of time for him to complete his education. Then, if the path of the gladiator is not for him at least he’ll have something to fall back on.’
Lucia was silent for a moment.
‘I just don’t want him to get hurt,’ she said, quietly.
‘Neither do I, but it would be foolish of us to think that we can always prevent anything bad from happening to him.’
‘I suppose you are right.’
‘Why don’t you take Caius his supper and I’ll clean myself up?’ said Aurelius. We can talk about this some more with him in the morning.’
Lucia stood, arranged a plate of food for Caius, and kissed her husband tenderly on the forehead before leaving the room. Aurelius pulled the wash bowl towards him and looked at himself one more time before starting to wash.
‘In here, Mother.’
Lucia entered her son’s bedroom with his supper. Caius was dressed for bed and sitting at the window, looking out at the night sky.
‘I brought you something to eat,’ said Lucia, kindly. She placed the plate of food next to the bed.
‘Thank you.’ Caius spoke, but he did not look at his mother.
‘Well, goodnight, my son,’ she said.
‘I’m serious about this, Mother,’ said Caius, turning from the window to face her. Lucia released the door handle and turned back into the room.
‘I know you are,’ she said, quietly, as she sat down on the bed. ‘That is what worries me.’
‘Don’t you believe in me?’ There was an undeniable look of pleading in Caius’ eyes. In that moment he needed his mother’s faith, her trust. Somehow, he felt that would legitimise everything.
‘Caius, I believe that you can do anything you set your heart to.’ Caius’ eyes brightened momentarily. ‘But,’ continued Lucia. ‘It would be dishonest of me to say that you being a gladiator did not scare me.’
‘It scares me,’ said Lucia, interjecting. ‘But nowhere near as much as the thought of your disappoint in me scares me.’
‘Do you mean…?’ Caius hopped up on to his knees, excitement building inside him like a volcano.
’If this is what you want, what you truly want…’
‘Then you have our support.’
Caius scooped his mother up into a tight hug that knocked the breath out of her.
’Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!’ said the boy, bouncing up and down with joy.
‘On one condition,’ said Lucia, hoarsely, as she was jangled about by her clamouring son.
‘Anything! Anything! Name it!’ Caius felt on top of the world. He would agree to any caveat if it meant being allowed to chase his dream.
‘You finish your schooling first so that you have an education to fall back on.’
Caius released Lucia, looking a little crestfallen.
‘Just in case,’ smiled Lucia, ruffling her son’s hair. ‘You can’t begin training officially as a gladiator until you’re eighteen anyway, so that gives you plenty of time to build up your mind as well as your body.’
‘But I can still train at home between now and then, can’t I? To make sure I’m good enough to apply to a training school when I’m eighteen?’
‘As long as it doesn’t interfere with your schoolwork or your chores then yes, you can start as soon as you like.’
Caius beamed. He was back on top of the world.
‘Oh, there is one more thing,’ said Lucia.
‘What?’ said Caius, instantly anxious that another potential spoke was about to be put into the wheels of his plan.
‘Find another sparring partner besides your father.’ She smiled. ‘Our customers will not want to trade with a man who looks like he was trampled by a herd of oxen.’
‘Now get some sleep, my big, strong gladiator.’ Lucia leaned over and kissed her son on the forehead. She then stood and made her way out of the room.
‘Goodnight, my son.’
Caius went to sleep happy that night. His dream was coming true. It would be a long road, but with his parents’ support he felt nothing could stand in his way.
Both Caius and his parents were true to their word. Aurelius and Lucia gave their son their blessing to set his sights on becoming a gladiator, and Caius continued his schooling and carried on helping with the family wine business. As the boy grew and entered his teen years, any time that was not spent learning or working was spent training. Caius knew that what he was doing was not real training – that would come when he enrolled in a gladiatorial school – but while his schooling was exercising his mind, his spare time was devoted to exercising his body. He knew, or at the very least strongly suspected, that to be in with a chance of being accepted to a gladiator school he was going to need to be in top physical condition when he finally got the chance to apply.
He still attended local shows with his father, as well. That had become a mainstay of their relationship. Caius lapped up every bit of gladiatorial competition that he could feast his eyes on. He would sit there, barely talking to Aurelius – sometimes not at all – and drink it all in. He studied the gladiators in every detail; how they walked; how they carried their weapons; and how they fought. Winner or loser, the gladiators had become heroes to young Caius. He would sit at these shows with one thought firmly in his head: one day. One day that will be me down there.
Then, on Caius’ sixteenth birthday, Aurelius surprised his son with a trip to Rome to see a show at the Coliseum. Caius was beside himself with excitement, and all the way from their home to the centre of Rome he waxed rhapsodic about the Coliseum and the calibre of competition that they were going to see. Aurelius smiled at his son’s incessant chatter. Caius was taller than his father now, and noticeably physically honed. The boy had proved his seriousness, and then some. Many was the evening that Aurelius had watched his son train after supper. His dedication was truly admirable. As they entered the massive structure of the Flavian Amphitheatre, Aurelius thought back to when Caius had first expressed a desire to train to be a gladiator. Seeing his son so full of life and showing such perseverance made him realise how close he had come to stamping out a fire in his son’s heart. He would never have forgiven himself.
‘Thank you, Father, so much,’ said Caius, as they took their seats.
‘It is my pleasure, son,’ said Aurelius, warmly.
Those were the last words Caius spoke to Aurelius during the entirety of the show. Everything else that came out of his mouth during that time was directed at the action in the arena. Whoops of triumph, groans of disappointment; Caius was completely transfixed. It wasn’t until after the show had finished, completely filled with adrenaline and excitement that he addressed his father again.
’That was incredible!’ he enthused, as they filed out of their seats and made their way towards the nearest exit.
‘I’m glad you enjoyed it,’ said Aurelius, smiling.
Caius couldn’t remember a time when he had enjoyed himself more, but Aurelius was not finished with the birthday surprises.
‘You know,’ he said, casually, as they left the Coliseum for the teeming street outside. ‘A certain someone might just have found out where the gladiators like to go after a show.’
There was a moment of silence as Caius comprehended what his father had just told him.
‘Father, do you mean…?’
‘As luck would have it, it’s a little tavern a few streets away that we supply to.’
Caius’ eyes widened in surprise and anticipation.
‘What do you say to a quick drink before we call it a day, then?’
‘Yes!’ said Caius, pumping his fist in the air in excitement. ‘I have so much that I want to ask them!’
‘Let’s go and see, then.’
Father and son walked through the city towards the tavern, Caius a bundle of raw nerves and Aurelius glad to still be able to surprise his son. As with any evening after a big show at the Coliseum, the tavern was busy, and the communal area out front was thronged with people talking and drinking. Caius craned his neck to try and see any faces he recognised from the arena. Aurelius smiled.
‘Come, son, let’s go inside. I doubt any gladiators who might be here are drinking outside with the rest of us.’
Aurelius led the way as they eased their way to the tavern’s interior. He nodded at a few people he knew, before spotting the tavern’s owner.
From across the tavern, a squat, bald man looked over. His expression brightened when he saw Aurelius.
‘Aurelius, dear friend, welcome!’ The two men shook hands warmly, as Caius continued to look about the tavern, trying to spot anything that looked remotely like a gladiator. As Decimus withdrew his hand, he looked at Caius.
‘This cannot be Caius!’ he exclaimed. ‘Your son is but a boy, surely. What I see here is very much a man!’ Decimus clapped Caius on the back as he finished speaking.
Aurelius smiled, proudly.
‘This is indeed my son, Caius,’ said Aurelius. ‘Sixteen and in every way a man.’
‘Well, by the gods,’ said Decimus, slapping himself on his large, round head. ‘How time slips by us, eh?’
‘A pleasure to meet you, sir,’ said Caius, politely, extending his hand.
‘Most welcome,’ said Decimus, shaking Caius enthusiastically by the hand. ‘Most welcome. My, the grip on this lad! Aurelius, have you sold your oxen in favour of the strength of your son?’
Both Aurelius and Decimus smiled at Caius, who looked down, sheepishly.
‘It’s funny you should mention his strength, Decimus, because Caius wants to train to become a gladiator when he’s of age.’
‘Does he now?’ said Decimus, once again eyeing up Caius, approvingly.
‘And that’s why we’re here this evening.’
‘Oh?’ The tavern owner’s eyebrows raised and he looked momentarily confused.
‘Yes. We’ve just been to the show at the Coliseum, and…’
‘Are there any gladiators here tonight?’ asked Caius, interrupting his father.
‘My son would like to meet some, if at all possible.’
Decimus smiled and puffed out his expansive belly.
‘Well, as you well know, Aurelius, my tavern is favoured by many a fighting man.’ At this, Caius’ eyes lit up. ‘I have room in the back that I keep for certain clientele.’
‘Can we…?’ asked Caius, hopping excitedly from foot to foot.
‘I don’t normally allow other customers into the back room.’ Decimus began. He smiled upon seeing Caius start to look crestfallen. ‘However, my boy, your father and I go back many years, and if it’s gladiators you desire then it’s gladiators you shall have.’
‘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.’
‘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 Caius being 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.