Sam spoke up to break the tense silence which had fallen between the three men; "so what happens now?" he asked.
"What happens now?" Eric began, pulling in a deep breath with immense effort; "you'll both undergo physical trials to test your strength and co-ordination; you'll be tested against various opponents and Lanista, the fat guy with a face like some ugly dude's ass, he'll decide what type of fighter you'll be depending on your strengths and weaknesses. Then, if you two are as badass as you look, it won't be long before you debut in the arena."
"Screw that," snorted Dean; "I ain't layin' my ass on the line for these friggin' douchebags."
"They'll give you new names," Eric added; "names worthy of a gladiator."
"What do they call you?" asked Sam, turning to Eric before Dean had a chance to voice his opinions.
"They don't yet," he replied; "I guess I'm just too insignificant. I'm never gonna top any bill in the arena, I'll be trotted out as some expendable stooge for the proper fighters." He smiled shakily, "I think, in later years, my sort became known as 'cannon fodder'."
Sam shook his head, lips pressed bloodlessly tight in silent fury. "They can't do that to you; this might be ancient Rome, but you're still human."
"You'll become their fighting machine and they'll use you as they see fit," Eric went on, ignoring Sam's meaningless reassurances. "Life will be one long round of harsh training and drilling, violent combat, injuries, more harsh training, more injuries and then finally the fight that you don't walk away from."
Dean's lips curled into a dangerous scowl; "well, if they think we're just gonna stand by like a pair of pussies and let them take over our lives, they can take a goddamn hike." he snorted, growing angrier by the minute; "we're gonna bust out of this craphole and if they think that was a fight we gave them earlier, then they've got a rude shock comin', we'll give them freakin' Armageddon."
"Dean, lets …" Sam could see the fuse had been lit, and tried to effect his most calming tone. This cell was way too small for a full-on Dean conniption.
"They can't do this to us … we've got FREAKIN' RIGHTS," Dean yelled furiously, kicking a shower of sand toward the massive grating that served as a door.
Eric took a deep breath. "Okay, you say you need my knowledge, so let me tell you a couple of facts about ancient Rome that might just keep you alive;" he spoke firmly, displaying an inner steel that silenced both brothers.
"Firstly, you have no rights, okay? In this society, untrained gladiators were lower than slaves, the lowest of the low. In fact, until you start winning some fights and earning your keep, you are less important to these guys than the dogs out there in the yard that keep the rats down, so if you give them trouble, they won't think twice to treat you like they would a dog they can't tame. They'd put you down without blinking."
He paused for a moment to let the impact of his words sink in.
"So if you do want to stand a chance of working out how you're gonna get away from here and, more importantly, get back to our world; you're gonna need time, and to buy yourself that you're gonna have to swallow your pride and do as you're told."
He hesitated, staring up at the brothers. Sam's eyes registered reluctant understanding, whilst Dean's blazed with furious belligerence.
"Secondly, busting out of this place is going to be hard enough, but in terms of getting back to our time, I've thought about little else, and the only way that makes any sense to me would be to win your freedom."
Two furrowed brows stared back at him.
"If a Gladiator won enough fights or impressed the crowd enough, he could win his freedom from his emperor," Eric began; "it would usually take a man years, a lifetime in the arena to achieve his freedom. But maybe if you were to give this Posthumus asshole his stupid 'fight to end all fights' you could, assuming you survive, win your freedom I guess."
"Does that mean if we got to do that, we could get back to our time?" Dean asked urgently.
Eric shrugged; "don't know man; there's not exactly a precedent for this sort of thing." He reflected silently for a moment; "but it might help."
The three men froze in a sudden silence as footsteps approached.
"Whatever you do, you're gonna need to decide real soon," Eric whispered nervously, shuffling backwards into the alcove where he had initially been resting as a key sounded in the lock and the grating swung open.
"I think your life as a gladiator is about to begin."
Dapper gentleman about town, Bob Chanteur, walked despondently away from the closed museum.
Thoughts and worries whirled around his head; questions assaulted his mind. Where were the boys? What the hell was he going to do now the exhibition was closed? Had his toes fallen off yet?
He needed caffeine; LOTS of caffeine.
Oh yeah, and he needed new shoes.
Happily, the town boasted an excellent coffee house which just happened to be nestled cosily alongside a shoe store and a news stand.
Standing behind the welcoming wooden counter, a young barista warmly thanked the smiling middle-aged gentleman in the smart suit and shiny black loafers with the label still stuck on the bottom. She liked him; he reminded her of her grandfather and he'd dropped a dollar into her tip-jar as he picked up his large double-shot Americano and slice of fruitcake.
He looked distracted, worried even, as he placed his tray down on a small table squirrelled away in the corner of the building and slipped a folded copy of the local newspaper out from under his arm.
She'd see he got a free refill. He looked like he could do with it.
Bobby sipped his coffee as he read the report on the exhibition's closure.
"HAS THE CURSE HIT?" the headline shrieked, and Bobby pondered.
He'd read a few obscure references to the curse of Posthumus over the internet that had piqued his curiosity, but not enough to give him any inspiration. The generally accepted view seemed to be that it was a load of hokum which official sources were careful not to encourage and that any disappearances that fuelled it could be adequately explained by mischief, alcohol or a combination of both, so useful facts had been frustratingly hard to come by.
Bobby needed to know more; he knew enough about the world to know that hokum usually had a basis in fact. And he also suddenly knew what he had to do. He drained his coffee enthusiastically, politely declining the free refill that the pretty young barista offered and snarfed the last few crumbs of his fruitcake.
An abandoned exhibition sitting idle in an empty museum for a few days before it's all packed up and shipped back to Rome?
The respectable Bob Chanteur may be newly-retired, but he was about to embark on a new line of work …
Breaking and entering.
The brothers froze against the wall as the hollow scrape of key in lock preceded the pained creak of the heavy grating swinging openinto the dim space toward them.
Despite their seemingly dire circumstances, Dean was mildly satisfied to see that the Lanista had felt it necessary to bring a delegation of six burly guards to protect him from his new treasures.
With a sharp grunt of command, he gestured casually toward the six thugs standing around him and then toward the Winchesters. A pustulent smirk spread across his bloated jowls as his eyes trailed with discomforting admiration over Winchesters, making them squirm.
"We can take 'em," Dean whispered, "they're pussies; one of them's limping and …"
"Remember what Eric said;" Sam hissed back sharply; we gotta buy ourselves some time."
Dean scowled darkly. Common sense be damned; he still preferred the option of going down fighting.
Against their every instinct, the brothers swallowed back the urge to lash out as the six massive figures closed around them and, without ceremony or word, snapped iron shackles around their wrists before releasing their ankles to enable them to walk.
Stumbling toward the door courtesy of a fist thrust harshly into the small of his back, Dean glanced sideways to see Sam standing beside him as they were both goaded forward by their unfriendly entourage.
Behind them Eric's bruised body burrowed back against the wall and he sat, drawing his knees up to his chest. He closed his eyes in despair and wondered if he would ever see his friends again.
"Dude, I'm wearing a frickin skirt," Dean grumbled, deeply uncomfortable at the unfamiliar sensation of the warm, humid air billowing around his bare legs as the brothers were frogmarched barefoot through the soulless grounds of the training camp . "I can take bein' beaten half senseless, but do they have to make me look like a freakin' dick as they do it?"
"It's a slave's tunic," Sam replied flatly, keeping his voice low; "it just shows your status as a peasant."
"That's not all it shows," Dean snorted, his manacled hands clumsily and unsuccessfully attempting to tug down the frayed hem of the drab garment.
"Tell me about it," sighed Sam, for once cursing his extra height.
He stumbled forward with a breathless grunt as the head of a club struck him between the shoulder blades.
Eventually, the brothers found themselves standing in the familiar dusty yard where they had first been dragged out of the cart. Around them, a sagging rope fence measured out a small enclosure; it could have been a boxing ring.
They both watched through narrowed eyes as their Lanista casually stepped back toward a specially placed chair beside the ropes. Arranging his voluminous robes, he sprawled back into it, settling like a liquid, and smiled his reptilian, toothless smile. His yellowing eyes, glimmering with expectation, had suddenly fixed intently on Dean and it was only as Dean turned away to look across the roped ground to Sam, who stood cursing and squirming furiously between the six guards holding him back, that he caught sight of what he presumed was to be his 'sparring partner'.
There weren't many people in the world who, it could truthfully be said, made Sam look small; but Dean's eyes widened in fascinated horror as they scanned the behemoth who had stepped from his peripheral vision into his direct line of sight and now stood before him.
Mouth hanging open in wordless awe, Dean stared unblinking at the looming titan, starting at the massive dirt-caked bare feet planted deep into the sun-caked ground, all the way up to his vast, darkly stubbled crown; taking in on the way, herculean calves bulging like two trapped piglets, and gleaming, musclebound thighs each of which were broader than Dean's chest.
Wearing only an untidily wrapped grey loincloth held fast by a thick leather belt, the man's sculpted, mahogany brown torso stood high and wide and rugged. An Everest made flesh and bone which almost blotted out Dean's daylight. His face was heavy and square, weathered to a deep nut-brown and ravaged by a life of brutality. A long, ragged scar ran haphazardly from his right temple to his mighty lantern jaw, all but obliterating his right eye.
His one remaining eye stared intently at Dean with ill-disguised contempt.
The nightmarish Goliath stood stock-still. Mighty knotted arms, longer and thicker than Dean's legs, outstretched; inviting any foolish challenge, and in his right hand he clutched a wooden training sword. Although not a real blade, it looked a fearsome enough weapon; long, substantial and sufficiently tapering to inflict a serious wound if wielded fiercely enough. In this man's elephantine grip it looked comically tiny; like a child's toy.
"Holy crap," Dean croaked weakly; "I thought mammoths were freakin' extinct."
Dean glanced back across at Sam who had momentarily stopped fighting against his guards and stood, like his brother, staring blankly at the newcomer, chin dangling somewhere around ground level.
Posturing like a king on a throne, the Lanista waved a hand airily in Dean's direction, and one of his attending guards stepped forward to unlock the shackles on Dean's wrists, handing him another wooden sword as he did so.
Dean glanced down at the sword; it was identical to the one the sun-baked monolith was waving at him, but in Dean's hand it actually looked like a goddamn sword, and not a freakin' cocktail stick.
His mind whirled as he tried to think of all the golden rules of fighting a bigger, heavier adversary; did he have to use this stupid pigsticker or could he just get down and dirty with his fists, his feet – even his goddamn teeth if that's what it took?
What about Sam; was he going to have to fight someone even bigger? Holy shit; they really could die here – what a stupid way to …
Dean was so lost in a whirling tumult of thoughts and questions, he barely heard Sam's panicked cry a split second before the force of a hundred freight trains struck him in the side of the face.