Aurelius and Caius arrived at the gladiator training school around dusk. They were both weary from travelling, and Caius had not said much at all since his bout of awkward questions at lunch. This worried Aurelius, but as the gates of the school loomed in front of them this worry was pushed out of his mind. Caius had seen that they had arrived and his spirits had risen considerably.
‘Father, we’re here!’ he said, excitedly. He was hopping from one foot to another – a trait from his childhood – and Aurelius could not help but smile. Here he was, giving his only son everything he had ever wanted. Despite his concerns, he felt an undeniable sense of fatherly pride as they strode confidently towards the gate.
This good feeling was short-lived.
‘Go no further!’ said a gruff voice out of the darkness. A large and muscular man stepped into view and fixed Aurelius and Caius with a stern glower. Although the man was unarmed, he was clearly a guard of some sort, and he did not seem pleased to see the two travellers.
State your business!’ he barked.
‘I’ve come to join the gladiator school!’ said Caius immediately. Aurelius knew before the guard spoke again that he was not impressed.
‘We’re closed for the night,’ said the guard, turning to walk away, considering the matter closed. ‘Come back tomorrow.’
‘Sir, if I may,’ said Aurelius, in smooth tones that Caius only heard his father use on his customers. ‘A word?’
The guard stopped and turned, still with the same perturbed expression on his face.
‘Caius, please give us a moment.’
‘Caius.’ Aurelius did not raise his voice, or even look back at his son, but Caius recognised finality when he heard it. He skulked off a few yards back up the road and sat heavily on a boulder, resting his chin in his hand. Caius watched as his father engaged the guard in a hushed conversation. He frowned in confusion as the two men eventually looked back up the road to where he was sat. Aurelius motioned for his son to return. Still confused, Caius got up and walked back over to his father and the surly guard, whose expression had softened, but not by much.
‘Marcellus will see you in the morning. Until then you can sleep in the stables.’
‘Thank you, sir,’ said Aurelius, graciously. ‘You are most kind.’
The guard merely grunted.
‘Pardon me, sir,’ said Caius, as they were being led to the stables. ‘But who is Marcellus?’
‘He owns the school,’ said the guard, not looking round. ‘And he’s the head trainer.’ Caius gasped involuntarily. He was going to meet the owner of the school and the head trainer tomorrow. His head was spinning.
When they reached the stables the guard pointed to a darkened corner.
‘You two can bed down there.’
‘Thank you, sir,’ said Caius, politely.
‘And don’t go wandering around, or you’ll have me to deal with.’ The guard fixed them both with one last hard glare before returning to his post. When he was safely out of earshot Aurelius spoke.
‘What did you say to that man to make him let us in?’
‘Ah, my boy, many’s the trader who has left my emporium with more barrels than he intended thanks to your father’s way with people.’
Caius frowned slightly. He didn’t feel that quite answered his question.
‘Come now, Caius,’ said Aurelius, chivvying him along. ‘Let’s get some rest. I imagine they have an early wake up call in this place.’
Caius got as comfortable as he could in the spiky straw and stared at the wooden beams of the stable roof. He was here. He was finally here. It almost didn’t seem real. As he eventually drifted off to sleep he said a silent prayer that when he woke it was not going to have been just a dream.
Despite their less than comfortable conditions, Caius was dreaming. In his dream he was a famous gladiator, undefeated and adored by crowd after crowd of screaming audiences. He raised his sword high in the air, and…
The gruffly barked order that punctured his dream was followed by a splash of cold water covering him from head to foot. Coughing and spluttering, Caius awoke with a start to see last night’s guard looking over him with a now empty bucket in his hands. He looked to his left and felt somewhat put out that his father had seemingly not been subjected to a similar dowsing. Aurelius gave his son a look that suggested that attempting to complain about being woken up in this way was not the best course of action. Instead, Caius wiped his eyes and stood up, dripping.
‘Marcellus is ready for you,’ said the guard, almost growling.
‘Yes, sir,’ said Caius, meekly.
‘But first, he goes.’ The guard pointed a thick, gnarled finger at Aurelius, who looked from the guard to Caius and then back to the guard.
‘Perhaps I should be heading back,’ said Aurelius. He began to gather his things.
‘Now son,’ said Aurelius, just in time to stop what looked like the threat of another onslaught from the guard. ‘This is a gladiator school. This is where you want to be, yes? I am a wine seller, and though I will miss you, home is where I want to be.’ Aurelius glanced sidelong at the menacing guard. ‘More and more by the minute,’ he whispered to Caius, inclining his head to their surly companion. Part of Caius wanted to protest, part of him wanted Aurelius to stay, but he knew that was not how it was done. He could only imagine how the other trainees would treat him if he kept his father around to watch over him. In that moment Caius realised two things: that he was going to miss his parents more than he realised, and that he could not begin his training until he was properly away from them.
He sighed and turned to face Aurelius.
‘Have a safe journey back, Father. Give my love to Mother.’
‘I will, my son.’
As father and son hugged each other goodbye, the guard called out to someone unseen to Aurelius and Caius. The force and volume of his massive voice made them both jump. A second later, a young boy, who can’t have been much older than Caius was standing dutifully at the stable entrance.
‘Show this man out,’ growled the guard, as he indicated Aurelius.
‘Yes, Nonus,’ said the boy, automatically. He took Aurelius by the arm and led him swiftly out of the stables. Caius made a mental note to remember Nonus’ name, even though, for the time being, he was going to keep playing it safe and call him sir.
‘You, come with me,’ said Nonus to Caius.
‘Yes, sir.’ Nonus tossed the bucket into a corner with a clatter and set off out of the stables. Caius trotted to keep up. Eventually they arrived at a central courtyard, which Caius instantly guessed must have been the main training area. Various apparatus and racks of weapons lined the outer edge of the space, whilst a group of young men were clustered at the centre. They parted like the ocean as Nonus strode towards them, revealing a slightly stooped and grizzled-looking man who instantly fixed Caius with a steely, penetrating glare.
This was Marcellus.
‘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?
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?’
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.’
Returning to the Coliseum, Caius saw the line of people waiting to get in, and his heart sank a little. He didn’t know what the capacity of the Coliseum was, but he would be crushed if they’d come all this way to not be able to get seats. He looked towards Marcellus, who didn’t seem fazed by it one bit.
‘Come on, lad,’ he said, as he started walking in the opposite direction to the end of the long line of people.
‘Don’t we have to queue?’ asked Caius.
‘The day I queue to get into a gladiator show is the day you can pitch me off a cliff, lad.’
‘Queuing is for other people,’ said the old man, grinning. ‘Now, come on, this way.’ Marcellus led them around to a small side door some ways around the building from the main entrance. It was ordinary and non-descript, and Marcellus banged on it with his walking stick. A slot in the upper part of the door slid back, and a suspicious pair of eyes peered out.
‘Who goes there?’ said the pair of eyes.
‘Let us in, you damn fool!’ barked Marcellus. The eyes caught sight of the old man, widened, and the slot was closed with a snap. Seconds later, the sound of bolts being slid back and locks being opened could be heard. The door was flung open and Caius and Marcellus were greeted by a man who looked to be roughly the same age as Marcellus, only with noticeably more muscles. He cut an intimidating figure, but his expression was warm and welcoming.
‘Marcellus! My old friend,’ he boomed, scooping Marcellus’ hand into a hearty shake. ‘By Jupiter, how’ve you been?’
‘Hello, Vincentius,’ said Marcellus, retrieving his hand. ‘Fine, just fine.’
‘To what do I owe the pleasure?’ asked Vincentius, eagerly.
‘We’ve come to see the show.’
‘But of course! Right this way.’ Vincentius ushered them both through the door before securing it fast again. Once all the bolts and locks were back in place, he turned again to face Caius and Marcellus. ‘And who might this be?’ he asked, looking Caius up and down.
‘One of my lads,’ said Marcellus.
‘So, you want to be a gladiator, do you?’ said Vincentius, as he slapped Caius firmly on the back.
‘Yes, sir,’ said Caius.
‘Polite too, I like that.’ Vincentius gave Caius another appraising look. ‘I always did say, Marcellus, that your young boys always had the best manners. But where are mine? You shall have the finest seats in the house; the emperor’s box. He’s not attending today, so make yourselves at home.’
‘Actually, Vincentius, the lad needs to see the show from Gorilla.’
Vincentius paused on his way to a set of stairs that led to the arena seats.
‘He does?’ said Vincentius, raising an eyebrow.
‘I do?’ said Caius, confused.
‘Yes,’ said Marcellus to both of them. Vincentius came back to them with a puzzled look on his face.
‘Marcellus, this boy…does he…?’
‘Over here, you damn fool!’ Marcellus grabbed Vincentius by the arm and led him away from Caius. ‘Stay there!’ he barked at Caius as he walked off. Out of earshot, Marcellus and Vincentius engaged in a moment’s discussion before returning.
‘If you’ll follow me,’ said Vincentius. He set off in a different direction to the stairs, and Caius and Marcellus followed.
‘Master?’ said Caius, as they moved through various corridors.
‘It’s a part of the backstage area.’
‘Why’s it called Gorilla?’
‘Because that’s where they keep the gorilla. Keep up.’
They eventually arrived at a set of double doors in the lower levels of the Coliseum. Vincentius turned to face them, his expression still a little odd.
‘I’ll leave you here now,’ he said. ‘I think this is something that’s best done between master and pupil.’ He gave Marcellus a quizzical look and laid a gentle hand on Caius’ shoulder. ‘Good luck, lad,’ he said. When the two of them were alone, Marcellus turned to face Caius.
‘Right, this is it, lad,’ he said, gravely. ‘The moment of truth.’
‘Master, I don’t understand. Why couldn’t we watch the show from the seats Vincentius offered us? Won’t we get a better view from there?’
’Trust me, lad, watching from backstage will allow you to see all you need. Now, I have to ask you: do you really want to be a gladiator?’
‘Of course I do!’
‘Well, just keep that in mind, okay?’
‘Yes, Master.’ Caius was confused. He couldn’t for the life of him think what could possibly lie behind those doors that could stop him wanting to be a gladiator. This was all he’d wanted since he was a little boy. To compete on the grandest stage of them all; to entertain countless audiences with his bravery and his skill; what was there to be unsure about?
Marcellus took a deep breath and opened the doors.
Whatever Caius had been expecting to see backstage at a gladiator show, this wasn’t it. There were people everywhere, and animals. Caius had been to shows that had featured wild beasts; they were always a crowd-pleaser, and the tigers and bulls and bears that had been used in those shows had always looked so ferocious. So, seeing a gladiator sitting next to a huge tiger and feeding it scraps of meat and scratching it behind its ear was definitely confusing. This was only compounded by seeing a group of men – half of them dressed in Gaulish clothing – talking amongst themselves and…
Caius made out a few words of what they were saying.
Discussing a finish?
Caius looked at Marcellus with a pleading look on his face, desperate for his master to make some kind of sense out of this. The old man, however, just looked at him, hard, and motioned them on.
‘Master, what’s going on?’
‘This is the other bit about being a gladiator, lad.’
‘The other bit?’
‘Yeah. What you see in the arena is only half of it. This,’ he gestured to the backstage area. ‘is the other half.’
Caius looked around him, an unpleasant feeling settling into his stomach.
‘But…those men…’ Caius pointed to the group of men who seemed to be practising a fight. ‘Some of them are Gauls!’
’Dressed as Gauls, lad.’
‘But Gauls only feature in gladiator shows as prisoners of war, sent to the arenas to fight the gladiators.’
‘That’s what they’re billed as, for sure.’
‘But they’re all laughing and joking like they’re friends.’
‘They are, aren’t they?’
‘And there!’ Caius’ voice was starting to be tinged with panic. ‘There’s Brutus!’ Caius pointed a shaking finger at the man he knew as Brutus. There he was, again sitting with…
Caius was instantly transported back to the night in Decimus’ tavern when he had seen the same two men enjoying a drink together, until they’d seen him, and then they’d started fighting. This time, however, when Brutus looked up and saw him and Marcellus, no fight broke out. Instead, he waved them over.
But Caius didn’t move. His legs felt like they were rooted to the spot, and there was something hot and fierce filling up his insides. He turned his head to look at Marcellus, who returned the gaze with a defiance that made Caius’ blood boil all the more.
‘You,’ he said, breathing the word more than saying it.
‘Look, lad…’ began Marcellus.
‘You lied to me!’
‘Now just wait a minute…’
’Gallus was right! It is fake! All of it!’
‘Just shut up a second and I’ll…’
’I trusted you!’ Caius found the power in his legs again and bolted from the room; the tears hot and vicious in his eyes. He felt betrayed. He felt stupid. How dare that old man lead him on like that? How foolish was he to get his hopes up, to devote his life to a lie?
He felt lost, but more than that he felt angry. Angry at Marcellus for getting him to believe in something that was false, but angry at himself as well for believing it as much as he did.
Spinning around, Caius saw Marcellus standing by the double doors: the door that led to the world of lies that now existed seemingly only to mock him. Renewed anger flashed in the boy’s eyes as he took in the old man standing in front of the doors. Bile rose in his throat, and he wanted to say things, hurtful, nasty things to Marcellus so that he could share some of the awful feeling that had overtaken him.
But the words wouldn’t come. He was too angry. Instead he turned away, defiantly. It didn’t even matter that Marcellus had chosen to use his actual name for only the second time. It was too late. The old man was probably feeling guilty anyway, as he should be.
‘Caius, I want to ask you something.’
How dare he speak to him! Hadn’t he done enough?
‘Caius!’ The word was barked like an order, and it shook some of the initial anger from his mind. He found his muscles twitching, wanting to obey Marcellus like they had done a hundred times before, but there was still enough anger left in him to remain facing away from the old man. Marcellus wasn’t to be deterred, though.
‘Do you still want to be a gladiator?’ This did make Caius turn. He fixed Marcellus with a look of utmost incredulity.
‘How can you ask me something like that after what I’ve just seen?’
‘And what have you just seen, lad? Hmm?’
‘A lie! It’s not real! None of it is!’ Caius’ words were cut off abruptly by Marcellus’ hand, as it slapped the boy into silence.
‘Was that real?’
‘Felt real, didn’t it?’
Caius couldn’t find the words to speak, so he just nodded, mutely.
‘So I ask you again, what did you see in there?’ Marcellus motioned behind to the double doors.
‘Professionals,’ said Marcellus, interjecting. ’Athletes. Gladiators!’
‘Let me ask you something else,’ said Marcellus. ‘Would you have worked as hard, trained as long, if I’d told you everything from the very start? Would you?’ The answer was in Caius’ mind in a heartbeat: no, he wouldn’t, and Marcellus seemed to know this. ‘Of course you bloody wouldn’t! You came to me all bright-eyed and green as grass. If I’d smartened you up on day one you’d have been on the next cart home. Either that or you wouldn’t have given it your all, and that’s what I got from you lad, your all. The lads I take in to my school come to me at eighteen and they all know the score. They also know enough to respect the business and not to go about flapping their lips that it ain’t as real as the crowd thinks it is. But tell me this, in all the time you spent going to those shows with your father, did you ever once get a sense that it might not be real?’
Caius dropped his head a little, realising that Marcellus was exactly right.
‘No,’ he said. ‘I never did. I was too busy enjoying myself.’
‘Exactly! Now, come with me. I want to show you something.’ Drained of most of his anger now, Caius followed Marcellus to a part of the backstage area where the gladiators made their entrance. As they walked towards an archway with a thick curtain hanging from it, Caius noticed a large gorilla sat beside it, calmly picking its way through a plate of fruit. Marcellus stopped at the curtain and pulled it aside just enough to see the crowd beyond.
‘There. See that?’ Caius peered through the curtain, but wasn’t sure what he was meant to be looking for.
‘See what?’ Caius heard Marcellus sigh, and was then shoved gently aside.
‘That. There.’ Marcellus was pointing into the crowd. ‘Halfway up, by the stairs.’ Caius followed Marcellus’ finger and saw…
A young boy with his father. The boy couldn’t have been much older than Caius was when Aurelius had taken him to see his first gladiator show. Caius looked at the boy and saw sheer joy captured in those features. He was having the time of his life, and the father looked happy and contented that his son was enjoying himself so much.
That’s me, thought Caius. I was that boy once. Things started falling into place, and Caius/ world was revolving around him.
‘That, lad,’ said Marcellus. ‘Is what we do this for.’ Caius watched the father and son take in the show for a few moments. He remembered feeling like that. It didn’t matter what else was going on in the world: for that one beautiful moment two people were sharing in something that was special to them, and that made it worthwhile. That made it important.
‘I think I understand now,’ said Caius, quietly. Marcellus nodded an approval.
‘You see, lad, I told you, didn’t I? This game isn’t about making piles of money or having girls throwing themselves at your feet. It’s things like that that keep us doing what we do. You can call it fake if you want, but that right there, that’s real.’
Caius turned to face Marcellus, his expression very much softened.
‘Master, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I disrespected this.’
‘I understand, lad. You didn’t come at it like a lot of us did, so I had to choose whether to break you in as I did or just clobber you with the truth from the get go.’
Caius turned back to look at the crowd. The son was now sitting on his father’s shoulders. He was cheering and yelling and looked the picture of happiness.
‘So, lad. You still want to be a gladiator?’
He did, very much.
After all, Caius had wanted to be a gladiator ever since he was a little boy.
- November 2016