Chapter 4: Role Play
The songs of birds chirping from the cypress trees clashed with the sound of metal against metal.
Curious, I trudged through the pastures, now thickening with green undergrowth. I peeked outside a grove of olive trees to see two male figures circle each other; each wielding a long sword. I knew the two young men. One of them was Barbarius. There were no smiles. No friendly banter between the two. Just two eyes locked in deep concentration, studying the other's weakness. Weakness was dangerous in this "game." I knew from experience.
Titus lunged forward, aiming the sword straight to my brother's abdomen. Barbarius jumped back just as the tip of the blade nipped his metal belt. He swung the sword at an angle, deflecting his opponent's quick counterblow to the chest. Barbarius went on the offensive, striking Titus' exposed biceps. The blade pierced skin, before Barbarius quickly retracted his weapon at the first sign of blood. Reddening, Titus swung his sword at my brother's throat. Barbarius dodged, letting the blade slice the air above his shoulder. As Titus retracted his failed blow, Barbarius flexed his shoulders, letting the sword strike the handle that Titus gripped.
In an instant Barbarius knocked his opponent's sword right out of his hands! Titus slowly backed away as Barbarius stomped on the fallen sword. Titus retreated, taking a few steps backward before almost tripping on the gnarled tree roots that lurked from behind. Barbarius kept his sword pointed on Titus' chest until he had him completely backed to the tree, the same tree I hid behind; watching.
"You surrender Titus?" Barbarius scoffed.
"This time," he mumbled. Barbarius slid his sword back in its sheath and extended a hand to his friend. "Good job. Finally I found a worthy opponent to fight." Titus nodded before clamping his hand against his bloodied shoulder blade.
"What are you looking at?" Barbarius asked in a crossed tone. I stepped away from the tree that concealed me. For a moment I faltered, not knowing quite how to respond.
"Um, I wanted to watch. Father wants me to study you," I answered.
"Can you go study someone else? I am not some creature in the forest that you stalk as prey."
"I need to. Father says I need to be more like you so…you know…" I began. I glanced at Barbarius then watched Titus as his thick brows crinkled.
"Well I do not want to interrupt whatever training session you have going on," Titus said, excusing himself. Barbarius nodded at his friend before turning his attention back on me. His taut arms folded against his chest.
"Oh I see," Barbarius said with a growing smirk. "You want to copy my moves so you can beat me at my own game." He pulled out his sword and held it to the sun, letting the light glisten across its sleek reflective surface. Then he pointed it at my chest. I fumbled backwards while fidgeting to grab my dagger stuck in its sheath.
"This is not a battle of wits Barbarius, this is a proposition I am making. And besides I need a sword like yours to fight with you."
"So father sent you to learn from me the master?" he asked, raising a brow. "Are you really able to step into my shoes? They are much too large for you. Why not wear your own?"
"Because…" I began.
"It is not good enough!" I blurted. "You are the strongest and tallest. You were always the best swordfighter and overall a good fighter whether with swords or fists. You were always the agile one, and that is what father likes most about you. That is why you are his favorite son. It is so obvious by the way he treats and greets you."
"You almost sound jealous of me," he said. His lips curled into a half-smile as if the thought delighted him.
"Maybe it is because you are his favorite. You must admit it. After all, you remind father of himself at his age." Barbarius' fleeting smile vanished.
"You have no idea what it is like being the oldest. Everyone is counting on you to be perfect in everything and make the right decisions. You have no idea what it feels like being thrust into something you do not feel ready for!" That was a revelation I was not expecting! For the first time in years he was opening up how he really felt.
"So are you ready for your training?" he questioned, slashing the thin branches that swayed above my head. Leaves and broken twigs rained over me.
"Stop trying to intimidate me!" I snapped, raking my fingers through my scalp to brush off the leaves.
"You really are weak!"
My eyes narrowed as I eyed him swinging the sword from its handle like a pendulum. In a swift move, I kicked his wrist, causing him to drop his sword. He pounded his fists together, blowing a hot breath between his clenched teeth. His dark eyes looked like he was about to murder me. Instead he met my gaze which dropped to the ground. The sword.
Instinctively, we both lunged for the sword, elbowing and shoving each other in the frenzy.
"Let go!" he shouted, shoving me to the ground. I crumpled to my knees, falling on the sword. It lay flat against the grass, sparing me from being stabbed by its sharp edge. Immediately I reached for the handle.
"Not until you take that statement back!" I spat, curling my fingers around the handle.
"You will have to kill me first!" he retorted.
I gripped tighter onto the handle before slowly rising to face him. In a swift move, Barbarius had already scampered a stones-throw away, to pick up the sword his opponent had dropped. Those deep-set eyes squinted in the sun as he stood from the distance, waiting for me. In a simple gesture, he beckoned with his free hand to come closer. You want to see weak? I came charging ready to strike his puffed chest. I missed.
He greeted me with a counterblow to the shoulder, slashing the sleeve of my tunic. He retracted and came back, hungry with another vicious blow to my cheek.
I ducked, bending my knees to balance his sudden charge. Through the clang of metal I could hear him taunt under his breath.
"You can fight better than that! Even Apollus puts on a better fight!"
I struggled to keep up, managing to ward off his blows. He was not going to strike me like he did to Titus. I refused to give him that instant victory. I kept my feet moving in an intricate dance. Each blow would be deflected. After being on the defensive, I was taking aim now. He seemed to predict my every move and was able to dodge and retaliate with ferocious precision as the blade sliced through my flapping tunic.
"Now I know why they called you Barbarius," I muttered between breaths. He lunged forward ready to stab my arm. In a hasty move, I tripped him, sending him tumbling down. I hurried and grabbed his weapon before he could reach for it. Now two swords were pointed at him as he lay sprawled on the bed of grass. I had him where I wanted him but this was too easy. I was giving him time to get up yet he lay on the grass with his knees bent, as if waiting for defeat. The Barbarius I knew would never accept defeat. Reflecting on the several fights between him and Apollus growing up, Barbarius was relentless in winning.
He hated losing. That was a fact I knew all too well. I recalled vividly a few months back when the two grappled on the mat in the palaestra. Barbarius had lost his footing allowing Apollus to pin him. That day Apollus was bragging to all his friends he won. He even told Lydia, the girl he was fond of. Barbarius remained silent the whole day, sulking. The next day at the exercise grounds while Apollus was conversing with his friends, Barbarius tackled him without warning, slamming his head against the floor in front of their friends. Needless to say Apollus was careful about whom he gloated to.
In this moment I suspected this move was some crafty trap.
"I am not weak!" I said, panting. I kept my distance while still holding up both swords.
"Prove it. Go ahead kill me if you dare!" I stood there with both swords pointing at his beating heart. My hands were shaking. The wooden handle grew slippery from my own sweat.
"Kill me," he taunted. I closed my eyes. The sweat that tickled my brow suddenly felt cold.
This was silly. I dropped the swords beside him and turned around.
"I could never kill you," I said with my back to him.
"I knew it," Barbarius said, shaking his head as he picked himself off the ground. Still panting, I managed to ask, "Do you think father saw?"
Barbarius responded with a shrug. I glanced around the open pastures dotted with trees then at the empty vineyards in front. I got my answer.
"I… just want others to respect me," I said, sighing. My shoulders shrank.
"Well consider your training has begun. It will not be easy. But the greatest battles are not always fought with swords and fists." Those words stung me as I stood there, stunned.
"I hope this was not too intense for you." I looked down at my new short-sleeve tunic. It didn't look new anymore.
"You be the judge," I said eyeing the places where the blade made clean cuts into the fabric. While I headed back towards the villa, Apollus spotted me.
"What happened to your clothes? It looked like you got attacked by a wild animal," he exclaimed, pointing to my tattered sleeve that dangled by a few threads on one side.
"Oh nothing more than an exercise," I said in a nonchalant tone. Apollus looked at me with an exaggerated look of bewilderment.
"You do realize your sleeve is stained in blood," he said pointing to my shoulder. The raw wound stung with the faintest touch. I peeled my fingertips away, now coated in blood. "Did Barbarius do this?"
I shook my head.
Apollus let out a dry laugh. "He is quite an animal." Barbarius jab at me was so quick I had not felt nothing more than a little rip. Only to behold it was not just the fabric ripping.
"You need some bandages quick though. I will ask one of the slaves who tended to Titus to render service," he said.
"Thanks," I said. I stood waiting for an acting nurse to come by with the bandages. Restless, I ripped off a piece of my sleeve and draped it over the wound to soak up the oozing blood pulsing from the slit. It was a reminder to be wary about fighting Barbarius. Even as a child he was forceful in play, always eager to display his prowess over his opponent. After mom's death, his aggression only intensified. As he got older, physical bouts no longer were just fun and games for him. This became apparent to father who decided by the time he turned twelve that it was time for my brother to redirect his pent up vigor and anger into combat training. By the time he was transitioning into manhood, I did not bother challenging him. Even though now I was taller and stronger than a year ago; I still knew my place. Most of the time.
"Here are the bandages," the female nurse said. She dressed my wound with honey before wrapping my shoulder in cloth. I thanked the female slave acting as my nurse before dismissing her to carry on her domestic duties. As I took in the breeze of the clear spring day I saw a chariot approaching from afar. I squinted to see the small figure, coming closer, and closer. It must be Cornelius! I did not want him to see me like this. Without haste I ran inside and quickly changed into a new set of clothes. Just as I threw the tunic over my head, a firm knock came from the doorway.
"Troy, are you inside?" the deep voice bellowed.
"Yes, one moment." I turned to yell at Alexander to help pull the tunic over my big head. Once I was done wrestling with my garment I ordered my slave to invite my trainer inside.
"Greetings Troy. Are you ready for your training session?" His burly frame commanded attention when he walked into a room. Even his arms were twice the size as my lanky counterparts. He was built to be a warrior, although I knew the island was too small to have a real army. I replied with a nod.
"Good. Because for a moment I thought you were trying to avoid me." I gulped. "Let us begin shall we."
The first task involved a horse. I had learned how to ride horses since I was young, so I was already feeling confident about the task. As one of the slaves guided the horse from the stable, I frowned. It was Sagrus. My least favorite horse.
"This will be your horse to start off with. I know you are well-acquainted with horse-riding and archery."
That was true. I had gotten archery lessons starting at twelve after being impressed at how precise Apollus was at striking his targets. Archery was one of the several things Apollus excelled at besides sword-fighting, music, and public speaking just to name a few.
"But," he added, pulling out his bow towards the light, "you will learn to hit moving targets. As you ride Sagrus, I want you to hit your target," he said pointing to the cypress tree where he nailed the parchment. From a distance I could see the faint red rings circling the tiny black dot serving as my target. "Any questions?"
"What if he does not obey my voice?"
"Make him obey. Pull his reins if you have to." I nodded at his words before mounting the horse. Even before I shifted my weight evenly over the saddle, Sagrus was already pounding his hooves against the ground, neighing. I yanked his reins to straighten his drooping neck. He responded by shaking his neck. I will not fail because of you! With one tug of the reins he jolted into a sprint.
"Slow down!" I shouted. I yanked his reins to slow him down. But he was one stubborn horse! With his mighty legs he galloped along the fence lining the vineyard. I felt my buttock rattle against the saddle with every uneven grove in the pasture. With the wind whipping against my curls, I held one hand tight on the reins while the other gripped the bow.
I did not see the stump shaded by the tall grass until I glanced down. I hoisted the reins, motioning the horse to pick up his legs. He leaped into the air in weightless suspension. I held my breath, clutching tight to the reins until his hooves planted back on the packed earth. As he continued his swift stride, my apprehension was replaced with a new feeling; an exhilarating rush that coursed through my veins, before pumping my fist in the air. I was not scared anymore. I felt free. But my joy was short-lived. The target. I honed in on the bright crimson rings, now growing bigger. I positioned my bow ready to aim but just then a shooting pain erupted from my shoulder as I released the bow in agony.
The arrow slipped, stabbing the thick bark around the base; far below the target.
"What happened?" Cornelius cried out. "You had such good form with your bow and then you released it prematurely," he said, cupping his hands to his shorn scalp.
"I must have miscalculated and released too early," I said, slowing the horse to a halt. Cornelius who was riding a brown female horse rode alongside me.
"He is not an easy horse, but I must commend how you handled him. But your form could use some improvement when you release." We both dismounted our horses as we walked together to the base of the tree where javelins waited for me. I rubbed my right shoulder before looking to him for approval. With arms folded against his chest, he waited for me to bend down and pick up my javelin. Training had just begun.
"I need you to throw it as far as you can. I know you can do it." I placed the javelin in my left hand and took a deep breath. I was already at a disadvantage using my left hand. But I could not afford using my right arm. I closed my eyes and hurled the javelin as hard as I could. Just then Barbarius came walking across the pasture near the path of the javelin!
"Watch out, Barbarius!" Cornelius shouted. His voice boomed across the field. "You do not want to be struck during your brother's evaluation." Barbarius relinquished a rare smiled as he scampered to where we stood.
"I am glad to have walked in at the right time. I want to see if I could beat my record."
"Go right ahead," Cornelius beamed, who was clearly delighted to see his former pupil.
Barbarius took an extra javelin lying by the base of the tree and walked about 50 feet to the north of the tree. He flexed his muscles, blew on the tip and burst into a sprint. Just as he passed the tree, he released the javelin over his head. The javelin flew, whistling through the air until it landed by a patch of shrubs bordering the road. Cornelius beamed. I rolled my eyes as our instructor expressed interested in getting the measurement of how far it traveled. Barbarius retraced the path of the javelin with a bundle of rope stemming from his starting point, as he made his way towards the patch of shrubs. I heaved a hot breath before picking up the last javelin. I blew on the tip mimicking my brother's ritual and flung it using my dominant arm. My arm dropped down in pain, after the javelin left my hands. Maybe I could beat him at his own game.
"Watch out!" Cornelius shouted. The javelin nearly hit Barbarius in the arm who stood half-way between me and where his javelin landed.
"Sorry. I did not mean to," I said in a rueful voice. As the training continued on, I pushed through ignoring my nagging thirst and pain. Although I continued my javelin throws and archery using my left hand, the pain in my upper arm only worsened. But I did not want to end training. That would make me look weak. But I needed to rest. I retreated in the shade of the olive trees to nurse my arm before another round of lessons would resume. I prayed that hand-to-hand combat was not next.
"So you tried to beat Barbarius at his own game?" I did not respond at the ridiculous grin Apollus wore when he found my leaning against the trunk. "You are not even half of what he is capable of. Just take it easy Troy. I would hate to see you hurt."
"I am not weak if that is what you saying," I said, resting my hands on my knees.
"I did not say that."
"But you implied it. Look, I am just trying to do my best to impress Cornelius."
"Oh I see what this is about. You really want Cornelius to write a good report about you, so father will actually like you, and then maybe father will think you are worthy enough to be called his son." Once again, Apollus wielded his favorite weapon to crush my confidence.
"You would never understand, Apollus. The one that excels at everything he touches! The only thing we have in common is that we are weak compared to Barbarius' brute strength."
"Speak for yourself! I may be the most articulate and most handsome, but I also know how to fight, unlike some boys. I proved it to Barbarius on several occasions and I will prove it again."
"I really do not want to fight you Apollus. Not now."
"What is the matter? Are you afraid I might beat you?" he taunted. "I am not the effeminate one." My eyes flashed with rage. He was the last one to call anyone effeminate; the same one who worshipped his own vain image! I whipped out my dagger and aimed it at his throbbing chest.
"Are you challenging me?" Apollus said in a cynical tone. Apollus quickly pulled out his sword, wagging it in my face. He then tried to jab me as I took a step back.
"I am just playing Troy; I am not going to really hit you. Why so serious?"
"Just in case." My voice was so unaffected and cold I surprised myself.
"In case of what?" Apollus asked getting testy.
"You decide you want to make the first blow," I completed.
"Oh is that so?" Apollus said. Without warning his sword came swinging at me. My shortened dagger matched his, as they crossed in the middle. We both retracted as we circled each other, waiting for the perfect time to attack. In the corner of my eye I saw Cornelius approaching us. Apollus nipped my other sleeve, while I was caught looking away. Apollus smirked at his clear advantage. I leaned in close to swing at his collarbone, only for our weapons to collide. I was angry at Apollus for questioning my manhood, mad that I had friends that proved false, mad that Barbarius was the favored heir, and mad that father never thought I was good enough. My heart was pumping harder with each swing. I was not just striking air. I was aiming to draw blood. That was how real men fought.
"Woe!" Apollus exclaimed. I accidentally knocked an overhanging branch sending it leaves fluttering. A lose twig almost smacked Apollus in the face. I hardly noticed Cornelius who was now silent. With one last swing, he blocked my blow. It was a draw as we both stood there with the other not wanting to make a move in a deadly stalemate.
"You are fighting fierce; is this due to bad blood between us? This is more than play, even more than an exercise. I could have easily hit you but I do not want to hurt you," he said. There was an edge to his voice. "I will go easy," he continued as he withdrew his sword. "See look"… he jabbed me in my right arm without warning.
"I did not mean for it to hurt that badly."
"Well it does!" I snapped. Some of the bandages, now caked with dry blood were already trying to unravel.
"Sorry," he said in a half-hearted tone. "I did not know that was the same arm Barbarius stabbed you." I dropped my sword. You idiot.
"Save it!" I shouted, clutching my arm. "I think I am done for today," I told Cornelius.
"That is understandable. Just tend to the wound for the moment," he said in a collected tone. I could feel my cheeks warm with blood.
"Let me see your arm," Apollus inquired, reaching out to touch.
"I will have the nurse look. I do not need any help from you!" I stormed inside the villa while still wincing in pain. I was so angry I didn't bother to thank Cornelius for his training. I did not care if he was slighted. The only thing on my mind was the shooting pain that rendered my arm useless. After getting my wound cleaned and redressed by the nurse, I walked over to the pool in the atrium. Stooping over, I scooped a handful of cool water, letting it quench my raw throat. Cupping more with my palms, I splashed my face letting the water drizzle down my forehead, collecting beads of sweat in its descent back into the impluvium. It was then I stopped to notice my reflection. My hair clung to my temple as my skin returned to its natural olive complexion.
Then Barbarius reflection appeared in the water replacing my own. His brown eyes mirrored mines although his were smaller and deep-set much like father's features. His face, chiseled and stoic like the statues that adorned the atrium, was hard to decipher. Behind the mask hid his deepest thoughts and feelings. Startled, I turned around to face Barbarius standing over me. Without a word he shuffled his feet across the mosaic tiles. I wanted to become Barbarius so badly for father to like me and for a moment I became him. I lost my temper and my identity all in one afternoon. Training was transforming me, but I was not so certain I liked who I was becoming.