The ludus at Capua, summer AD 39
It was hot, cursedly hot. Even the flies were dozing. The air was fetid with the smell of oiled leather, unwashed bodies and bean-farts. Eyes closed, I slouched on my bunk, back sweat-stuck to the wall, feet on the dirt floor, in the only position that provided a modicum of cool in the stuffy cell. My roommates sprawled on their own bunks, silent or asleep, one above me, two opposite. It amazed me how they could lie on the rough woollen blankets and straw ticks in this heat, while I could not.
And yet it was not that surprising. I, fair skinned and Hibernian, was used to cool, rainy weather, not this form of Hades, which is what the summer months in Capua felt like to me. You could say the other three had been born to it, Piye the Nubian most of all. Black as charcoal, he, I reckoned, could fall asleep in the midday sun. Big Dog, tall and long-limbed, was from the far south of Gaul, a place almost as hot as Italia. Dapyx – skin-inked on his chest and mad as a rabid wolf – was from north of Thrace. I had no real idea where that was, other than it was far to the east, and if he was to be believed, summers there were scorching, winters cold enough to freeze a man’s breath.
From the training ground, a familiar sounded started up, the thwack, thwack of wood hitting wood. It was not a time of day to be training, I thought. A man would soon get heat stroke. Curious, I leaned forward to peer through the bars. Our cell was like all the others, a ground floor, square room twelve paces by ten; it faced onto the centre of the ludus, where we exercised and trained. Opposite was another rank of cells, as well as the kitchens, dining area, hospital and the armoury. On the first floor there were offices, and living quarters for Crixus, our gloriously named lanista, and the trainers.
Thanks to the semicircle of wooden seating that occupied one half of the courtyard – used when private shows were staged – many cells had no view of the fighting area. Mine did, which meant that I could see the two unfortunates who had been set to fighting one another on the burning sand. I did not recognise either. Crixus was also there, lank-haired, pot-bellied, his whip dangling from his right hand as ever. His armed guards, whom he was never without, lounged nearby.
Tirones, I thought. Fresh from the slave block.
It was clear why Crixus had bought the pair. Both were young and well-built, and the one nearest me was a hand taller than Big Dog, which took some doing. It was impossible to assess a man’s fighting ability in the market, however, where the vendors would swear blind that this man was Hercules reborn, and that one the killer of five legionaries before he was captured. Not until Crixus got them back here and placed wooden swords in their fists, and set them at each other would he know if the coin he had paid out had been thrown away, or potentially well-spent.
‘Midir.’ Dapyx mangled whatever language he spoke, save his own, and my name was no exception.
I did not turn my head. ‘What?’ I spoke in Latin. None of us spoke it well, but it was the lingua franca that allowed we gladiators, dragged from every corner of the earth, to communicate.
‘What am I – your pissing slave? Look for yourself, you lazy bastard.’ I had no idea if I could beat Dapyx in a fight, and I did not ever want to have to try. I had never revealed my wariness, however. In the ludus, strength was everything, and weakness a sure path to Charon’s hammer.