There was a thump as Dapyx hopped down onto the floor and came to see. He grunted something foul-sounding at me in his own tongue. Wondering if, hoping I had not gone too far, I ignored him. The unfolding duel soon grabbed my attention. I quickly decided that the two newcomers were strangers, because they were going at each other like there was a blood feud between them. I had been in the ludus only a few months, but that was long enough to spot friends who arrived together. It often took a thorough whipping before they were prepared to harm one another. This pair, however, were holding back not at all.
The taller one was slim, but he had a longer reach, and was using that advantage to belt the other every chance he got. His opponent, who by his skin colour and chlamys garment could have been Greek or Illyrian, already had red welts on both his muscular arms and on one side of his face. He was angry too, snarling and trying to close with the tall man, who, light on his feet as a Minoan bull rider, kept skipping back and out of the way. Then he got a punch in with his left fist, a solid blow to the midriff that made the tall man oofff with surprise and pain.
‘He…strong,’ said Dapyx. ‘Another punch, and…over.’
‘I think you are right,’ I said.
I thought of a smart answer, and swallowed it down.
‘You are talking out of your arse, Dapyx.’ Piye had come to watch as well. ‘The way you always do.’
Dapyx snorted. ‘Piss off.’
I listened to the banter, jealous of it; the two were friends, mismatched, the complete opposite of each other, and yet close as brothers. As yet, I had no idea why.
Whack, whack. The tall man landed one blow on the Greek – as I had come to think of him – and then another. Throwing the second was risky, because it was still not a bout-ending strike, and it allowed the Greek to close on him. The punch he took as a result was so powerful that we heard his teeth snap shut as if he had been standing beside us. It lifted him up in the air, and, already unconscious, he flew backwards, landing in a heap before an impassive-faced Crixus.
Dapyx elbowed me hard. ‘What…I say?’
Ribs stinging, losing control for an instant, I shoved at him. ‘Anyone could see he was going to win.’
Dapyx bared his teeth at me, and my skin crawled. I stared at him to show that I was not afraid – I was, though, a little – and he glared back at me.
To my relief, Big Dog had woken, and clambered down from his bunk over mine. He came ambling up to the bars. ‘Tirones?’ he asked, shoving between me and Dapyx.
‘Yes. One good fighter, one show-off.’ Dapyx’s attention shifted, as it tended to do. Like the mad creature he was, he paid me no more heed.
I kept the thought to myself that the tall man was quite skilled. If he had used more force, his blows might have downed the Greek before the sucker punch.
Big Dog peered out into the blinding sunlight. Directed by Crixus, a slave was upturning a bucket of water over the tall fighter. Coughing and spluttering, he woke. The Greek watched, no doubt wondering what would happen next.
Crixus began the speech he gave to all rookies, blood and guts, dire threats and flicks of his whip to and fro across the sand. I had heard it so many times now that I knew it almost by heart.
Big Dog chuckled. ‘Drunken sot Crixus may be, but he can deliver.’
‘True enough.’ I glanced sideways at him, who was as near to a friend as I had in the cell. We had shared a joke or two, and neither of us farted too much.
He and Dapyx had had one fight before, when Dapyx had arrived in our cell half a month earlier. Separated by a trainer, it had been a brutal affair – cuts and bruises had marked them for days after – and to all intents, a draw. An odd truce had sprung up between them since, which both seemed content to observe. It left me as the only potential enemy for Dapyx, a situation which I did not like one bit. Trouble simmered between us, but not in any predictable way. He was not a one for throttling a man in his sleep – nor was I – but the harsh words we had just exchanged might have sent him into one of his killing rages.
There was no way of predicting his reaction to the most banal thing, which meant that I constantly had to be on my guard, and my nerves were the worse for it.
I had wondered about trying to earn his friendship, but nothing had presented itself.
Maybe I should just kill him in his sleep, and have done, I thought. An image of the last fighter to murder another sprang into my mind: crucified in the yard, he had taken three full days and nights to die. His moans had been our lullabies at night, and his cries for water the cockcrow at dawn. It had been a mercy when he finally succumbed.
I could not slay Dapyx. I could not avoid him.
We had to become comrades, I decided, but quite how a man could befriend a dog as likely to bite him as wag its tail, I had no idea. It was either that or become a gladiator even better than Dapyx, something I was not sure I could do. Lean as a gazehound I am, you see, with the ribs to show it. ‘All sinew, you are,’ my mother had always said. ‘Born to run.’
Scarcely ideal gladiator material.
I had only survived my own tiro bout by using the old ruse of flinging sand into my opponent’s eyes. Momentarily blinded, he had fallen before my determined assault. Crixus had sneered, and told me that I would need better tricks than that if I was to survive even my first bout.
Which was how I became a retiarius, a fisherman.