By the end, our parade around the perimeter, not something fighters usually did, was excruciating. The sun had been heating the sand now for many hours, and it was burning to the touch. Used to going barefoot, the soles of our feet were like leather, but they could not withstand the scorching temperature forever. I practically danced up the steep ramp to the top of the pons, delighting in the relative cool of the timber it was constructed from. I had overtaken Sextus and the other secutor, and had a moment to glance at the pulvinar. I could make out the emperor through the shimmering waves of heat. After the taking down of the awnings, it was hard not to conclude that our forced walk had all been part of Caligula’s malign plan.
If my hunch was right, it had granted me the tiniest of advantages. I could stand on the pons all day without burning my feet, while my opponents, already shifting from foot to foot, were in a considerable amount of discomfort. Inspired, I let my left hand, the net hand, trail down by my side. Judging that the audience facing me would not be paying close attention, and that my net would conceal what my fingertips were doing, I was able to tug loose the thong at the top of my greave.
I straightened. Sextus had taken up position at the foot of the ramp to my right. The secutor from Rome was moving towards the one on my left, encouraged by the summa rudis. ‘Get a move on,’ I heard him say. ‘The emperor wants the fight to start.’
‘That suits me,’ came the secutor’s irritated retort. I noted he had a large rust spot on the top of his helmet. He went on, ‘The sooner it starts, the sooner I finish the runt and get off the cursed sand.’
My anger pricked. I am no runt, I wanted to shout. I held my peace. Give away nothing, I thought. I glanced back at Sextus, who was rolling his shoulders, and came to a decision. Between the possibility of his still not wanting to kill me and Rust Spot being eager to do so, it was probable that Rust Spot would reach the top of the pons before Sextus. That meant I had to defend against him first.
With Rust Spot in position at last, the summa rudis called out to the seconda rudis, who was standing behind Sextus. ‘Ready?’
‘Ready!’ answered the seconda rudis.
The crowd, sensing that the bout was about to begin, bayed their enthusiasm. The rolling animal sound, laden with bloodlust, would have turned my bowels to water had I not been concentrating so hard on my ploy. My mouth went to open, but I held back.
The summa rudis raised high his staff of office.
Sextus and Rust Spot tensed, ready to spring up the ramp at me.