‘Look,’ said one of the guards, sniggering. ‘Little Boots has ordered the awnings taken down.’
Crixus, hearing, said, ‘Likes his bit of fun, doesn’t he?’
My eyes moved upwards, dragged away from the little figures of the Thracian and the German, dancing about one another on the far side of the white-glinting circle. High above, the cloth coverings that shaded large parts of the audience from the worst of the sun were being hauled back by slaves. It was blackly amusing, I decided, that the citizens who were watching and cheering as men fought, bled and died for their entertainment should now bake in the same heat.
‘Good enough for the bastards,’ I growled. I felt a twinge of sympathy for Calpurnia, and perhaps her daughter.
Crixus turned. Rather than castigation, I saw in his expression what might have been a trace of respect. ‘The tiro has some spine, it seems,’ he said.
‘Maybe he has a chance after all,’ threw in one of the guards. ‘Three denarii says he gives iron to the secutor.’
‘He hasn’t a chance in Hades!’ cried the jaundiced-opinion guard.
Oblivious that I was standing there between them, a loud discussion began. The consensus was that I would die within moments of entering the arena, that I would only last if Sextus played with me, cat with mouse, that I would spend the entire contest running away from Sextus, hoping against hope to tire him out. The last tactic could not work, because Caligula, already angered by Dapyx’s contempt, would order me shot down in the same way.
Doggedly, the guard who had offered the wager stuck his ground. He made bets with three of his fellows, and then, clapping me on the back, told me I had better not fail him. I ignored him, because I could sense Sextus’ eyes on me. I had been a fool to say anything, I thought. I did not want him to think anything but I was a weakling with no experience, who knew he would lose, and end up as a skull-battered corpse being hauled through the Gate of Death opposite.
Our attention returned to the Thracian and the German, whose struggle had brought them much closer. Now we could see that both were hurt. The Thracian had a shallow cut across the top of his chest, and the German a through-and-through wound in the meat of his right calf. The Thracian’s entire belly was decorated in runnels of crimson, and the German left a red trail behind his right foot with each step. Neither injury was immediately fight-ending, but they were serious. The Thracian appeared to have lost a decent quantity of blood, and the German was limping heavily. I doubted he could move faster than his current shuffle.
Nonetheless, the pair continued to fight well. The Thracian was adept with his sica, shorter though it was than the German’s gladius. Using his greater speed and mobility, he leaped around his opponent, his blade ever seeking flesh. The German, solid and determined, relied on his massive shield to protect him, every so often using his greater weight to drive forward.
One-two, one-two went his gladius and shield in the classic legionary training move. Stab-punch, stab-punch. One good connection in the Thracian’s torso was all he needed. Should the gladius slide in two- to three-fingers’ depth, or the iron shield boss land with enough force, the fight would be over.