The following morning, a blanket of steely-grey clouds had settled over the city, bringing with them a heavy, stinking humidity and suffocating warmth that wrung the life and soul out of the world beneath them. Despite that, the populace of Rome, far from wilting in the oppressive heat, had flocked energetically to the arena. They had been promised something special; something they would remember for the rest of their lives.
They had been promised a fight to end all fights.
Three bloody bouts had already come and gone but the audience, impatient for their treat, had disregarded them with contemptuous apathy.
Now, however, the mood was growing savage, sated by the morning's spilled blood and copious amounts of wine, the crowd were growing restlessly feral, and the foot-stamping chant that was circling the arena was taking on an air of darkening menace.
Standing in the tunnel, once more facing the portcullis gate in the fetid gloom, the brothers couldn't bear to look at each other. Dean silently stared down at his filthy, sandalled feet, listening to the pounding throb of his own hammering heart. He wanted nothing more than to tell those savages out there to shove it up their ass. He'd gladly take the consequences rather than do this awful, sick thing. But then Sam, the stubborn sonofabitch, would rather stay here and rot in this hellhole than fight for a freedom without his brother.
The only way to save Sam is to hurt him, to try to kill him. It was like the punchline to a bad joke; a very unfunny, bad joke.
He didn't have to look up to know what Sam was thinking. He knew that set of Sam's jaw; that freakin' focus that no power on earth could break. Sam no more wanted to hurt Dean than Dean wanted to hurt him, but ever the pragmatist, he could see past the horror of their present situation to a time where they could resume their lives. It was a triumph of hope over expectation.
Dean knew he would falter that if it came to that final terrible act, and that would mean them both feeling the wrath of the emperor and the mob. No, if there was to be no reprieve, no way out, better to dispatch Sam himself, quickly and cleanly, than leave him to be torn apart by an angry mob or crucified, or whatever else these animals did to those that defied and disappointed them. He'd find out soon enough if it came to it, but at least Sam's troubles would be over.
With a melancholy clank, the chain on the portcullis took up its strain and the huge slab of wood began to lift in front of them
The thunderous howl of the mob filled the tunnel, whipping around them like a wild thing as they stood frozen in the moment, watching as, inch by inch, the stark light of day found them.
Neither brother had ever heard a sound so hostile, it crashed over them like a raging tide of malice and bloodlust, crushing them until they could barely breathe under the weight of savage expectation.
Dean's hand clenched around the hilt of his sword and he pulled in a deep breath, fighting to keep some semblance of control. He no longer cared how he was dressed, or where he was, he could no longer smell the dirty, sweat-imbued leather that he wore, he couldn't feel the pinch of the tight strap across his chest, or the chafe of the greaves against his ankles; his entire world had shrunk to him and Sam and what was being expected of them.
He felt the thick, heavy belt tighten around his waist as he sucked in another long breath.
Sam couldn't bear to look at his brother. He couldn't believe it had come to this; their only hope of survival, of any kind of future – a bout in which they would be expected to fight to the death. The emperor, and more importantly, the crowd would accept nothing less.
Nervously clenching his toes, he felt the sand grate beneath his bare feet, and took a long deep breath.
He couldn't see if Dean was afraid, or resentful, angry or resigned; he didn't want to see. He knew that if he looked at Dean's face, into those eyes – so much like their mother's – that had looked out for him every day of his life, his resolve would retreat like a bad army.
He knew what he was expected to do. He had been functioning on the notion that they could showboat their way through the whole ordeal, but now the moment was upon him, he wasn't so sure. How do you strike the life out of someone who has been mother, father and brother to you? But if it came to it, better Sam strike the blow than refuse and then leave Dean to the mercy of the Lanista and his thugs as a losing Gladiator.
For once in his life, Sam was questioning his wisdom, he could suddenly see no way out.
He gripped the two daggers that were his weapons for today's spectacle, and stretched his neck from side to side as he stared forlornly at the mighty portcullis which rose at an appropriately funereal pace.
The roar of the crowd dulled to a murmur as the Emperor heaved his corpulent bulk out of his throne with a hoarse grunt and stood, gesturing regally across the arena for silence.
"People of Rome," he began haughtily; "I do not need to relate how our mighty city was founded by two brothers." He paused, for theatrical effect, his thin lips stretching into that loathsome frog-like sneer as he looked out across the silent anticipation of the crowd. "The brothers, Romulus and Remus; sired by the great Warrior God, Mars; they were suckled by a she-wolf and grew strong on her milk to become great warriors in the footsteps of their father."
He paused again, relishing the excited thrum of the crowd, soaking up their attention like a sponge.
"Like all great men, the brothers were strong and powerful, inspiring fear and awe in all who saw them, but as brothers are wont to be, they were also quarrelsome," he explained to an increasingly fractious crowd; "and in one final terrible fight, Romulus struck out in a rage worthy of their mighty father and killed his brother," his voice took on a solemn timbre; "in honour of that terrible occasion, I bring you two great and powerful brothers; Praegrandicus and Ferox, fighters in the mould of Romulus and Remus who will, for your delight, enact those final terrible moments in the story of our founders."
He gestured toward the dark maw of the tunnel, and the brothers were both urged forward by a fist in the back.
An expectant hush fell over the crowd as they watched the two figures slowly circling each other. They moved slowly, cautiously, each step heavy with dread of a terrible purpose.
A threateningly impatient murmur began to circulate until eventually Dean, realising that this was not an audience who would be kept waiting, dropped down into a fighting stance, his sword held across his body in front of his shield in a classic defensive position.
The reality of the situation filled Sam with dread; he could feel himself shaking so hard, he dropped one of the daggers he was carrying. Bending to pick it up, he rubbed his hand in the sand in an attempt to improve his grip, and dropped down to his haunches, shadowing Dean's motion with one dagger drawn back to protect his body, the other held out before him.
Together they crouched, the goading chant of the crowd bearing down on them. Eventually, Dean looked up to give Sam a watery smile of reassurance.
'Defend left' he whispered, and then with a roar, he attacked.
His blade flashed toward Sam's left shoulder, but with the warning, Sam was able to defend, their forearms blocking. He ducked under Dean's flashing blade, and thrust forward, his dagger brushing Dean's right side.
They fought without respite, strike after strike met and countered; lunging and pirouetting in a macabre dance of violent ferocity, striving to fight their way through each other's defences, glad not to succeed.
Each ringing clash of blades was greeted by a howl of approval, every glancing blow was cheered
Endlessly, they lashed out, the song of steel against steel, the crash of bone against bone; a kick to Dean's stomach, the hilt of a sword to Sam's jaw.
Under the sweltering heat, sweat glistened on both their bodies, mingling with blood and oil as they battled relentlessly against each other, communicating in nothing more than grunts of exertion, and gasping roars of effort.
Dean sprang forwards, pushing Sam away and gifting them with a few precious seconds rest. They stumbled apart, their breath coming in short harsh pants as the crowd screamed disapproval at the brief pause in proceedings.
Charging back into the fight, Sam struck forward, but Dean ducked sideways, grabbing Sam by the arm and flung him aside, so that he almost lost his balance.
Sam's arms wheeled uncontrollably to stop himself falling backwards, catching Dean across the chest with the tip of his blade and carving a long bloody trail.
Leaping backwards, Dean gasped at the blade's bite, and shimmied to miss Sam's deliberately wide lunge. He brought the hilt of his sword down hard over Sam's shoulder, disarming him of one of the daggers, but Sam's free arm swung across Dean in retribution, the tip of his blade glancing off the shield and threading another longer, deeper wound down Dean's flank.
Dean blinked in shock, staggering backwards and swinging his shield upwards into Sam's chest where his sword found it's mark, Sam's arm feeling its sting.
The crowd were on their feet chanting, stamping, roaring at the spectacle.
They slammed into each other again, no longer fighting at arms length, they became locked into combat, wrestling and grappling furiously; in the tangle of limbs, their blades dropped to the ground, skittering across the arena.
Dean hooked a leg around Sam's and they both tumbled to the ground. Knowing that he had to give the ravenous crowd what they wanted, Dean picked up one of the daggers, drawing it back as if to strike and gesturing with his eyes that his own sword was discarded on the ground only inches above Sam's head.
Reaching over his head, Sam gripped the sword and brought the hilt across Dean's mouth with a sickening thud, blinking back the spray of blood and saliva, and sending Dean sprawling backwards onto the ground. There came a hollow thud as his shield rolled away over the bloodsoaked sand.
Sam rolled over, slowly, giving Dean a few seconds to compose himself.
Trying to rise to his feet, Dean panted breathlessly as his bruised ribs briefly refused to co-operate, a look of indignant shock across his bloodstained face; before he lunged toward Sam, teeth bared in mock rage.
He threw the dagger down and laid into Sam, but Sam was too strong, throwing Dean down once again, heavily onto his back. He loomed over him with Dean's sword, but Dean's hips thrust upwards, applying his favourite trick, a foot to the ass knocking Sam headlong over him to faceplant into the sand. Dean rolled onto his belly, his aching biceps shaking as he lifted his face from the sand. Fatigue was taking hold to both combatants, and Sam, having managed to reclaim one of his daggers and stand was staggering like a drunk.
With titanic effort, Dean raised himself to his own unco-ordinated feet, and reached for his sword. Gritting his teeth, he stumbled toward his brother and lashed out, taking Sam's ankles from under him.
His strengthless legs offering no resistance, Sam crashed to the ground, his full two hundred pounds tumbled bonelessly onto Dean, flattening him as an elbow made it's mark into Dean's bloodstained chest, once more knocking the air from his lungs.
Around them the roars and whoops of a delighted crowd drowned out the roars of the combatants.
As the battle continued, it became bestial. Two bodies, barely recognisable through a coating of blood and sand, grappling on hands and knees or on their feet when their fading strength allowed; colliding like the walls of a falling building. There was no longer any skill or elegance on display; just visceral brute strength and a burning will to fight.
Exhaustion was overwhelming them both; the kicks and punches were becoming slower and more laboured. Blow was traded for blow, blades were thrust and deflected with fierce aggression. Their bodies were spent, broken and drained; only their determination and purpose was keeping them moving and conscious.
Inflamed by bloodlust, the crowd were on their feet to a man as they watched the spectacle below them; if the brothers could have looked up into the banks of spectators they would have seen that even the emperor was on his feet, clapping and roaring encouragement in a most un-regal manner.
He was awed by their skill and determined courage. Even at times when they had lost their weapons, and he had been convinced the battle would be over, another disappointment to accompany all the others, but to his surprise and delight, these brothers seemed prepared to slaughter each other with their bare hands.
It was truly a fight to end all fights; he had never seen it's equal.
Weakly pushing Dean aside, Sam rolled onto his back into the sand, gurgling through blood which flooded his mouth as he prepared himself for another assault when he suddenly saw Dean's bloodied figure recede upwards into the distance. He hadn't seen the two praetorian guards who had walked onto the arena and pulled Dean to his feet.
Two more guards similarly did the same for Sam, picking him up and dragging his boneless body upright.
The brothers were too exhausted and broken to be in any way surprised or even interested when the emperor stepped between them, glancing sideways to ensure his praetorians had a good firm hold on the two combatants.
He held up his hand for quiet, and the screaming crowd grudgingly obliged.
"People of Rome," he began; "much is spoken of the great arena and the spectacles of blood that are seen here. I have borne witness to many such events, but it is my honour to tell you that none I have ever seen can match the display I have been privileged to enjoy today."
He looked around him to the slumped figures either side of him, only the firm grip of the guards on their arms keeping them subsiding to the ground.
"I state, here in front of you good people, that even the fabled final battle between Romulus and Remus could not match this spectacle."
He bowed his head and stood listening to the rhythmic chant of the thrilled crowd.
"These two men have provided such a battle that will live through the ages, one that your children and their children will read of, and it is my intention to reward them for their service."
The crowd rose to their feet and the chant broke into an exuberant roar.
A fifth guard passed a long wooden box to the emperor, which he took without thanks and opened. It contained two wooden swords.
"This, my friends, is the rudis," he explained, his wide, thin lipped smile, lifting his drooping jowls into a grin like a graveyard full of rotting tombstones; "this is the symbol of your release from the bonds of slavery. It is not my will to make you fight more; you have done enough to earn the pleasure of the mighty god, Mars and by his honour you will walk as free men."
His fat, calloused hand pressed one sword each into the numb hands of the barely conscious brothers, seemingly unconcerned about their complete lack of response.
He reached inside his robe and drew out two small leather pouches, pressing them into each of their free hands.
"A small gift of gold to fund your new lives;" he announced over the cheering, stamping crowd; "live them well my fine warriors."
Standing weakly on boneless legs, being supported between the arms of the guards that held him, Dean glanced across at Sam. It wasn't until he saw Sam return the glance with a faint smile lifting his blooded, swollen mouth, that Dean allowed his eyes to droop closed and everything went dark.