‘Wait!’ I roared.
Scowling, the summa rudis looked at me. ‘What?’
‘I have a loose tie on my greave.’
He peered, saw that I was not lying, and scowled again. ‘Can you fasten it without coming down?’ To do that would only delay the contest further.
‘I think so,’ I said, making no effort to lay down my trident and net.
‘Well, get on with it, you fool!’
I could hear noises from the crowd – demands that the fight start, names and insults being hurled at the summa rudis, and at we gladiators – but still I did not hurry. Every moment that passed increased the pain in Sextus’ and Rust Spot’s feet. Leisurely as a man lacing his sandal on the street while talking to an old friend, I set down my trident and undid the strap that attached the net to my wrist. Only then did I begin to tie the thong at the top of my greave.
‘Faster!’ ordered the summa rudis, spurred on by the audience’s growing unhappiness, and, no doubt, by images of a furious Caligula.
I paid him no heed. I did not look at Sextus either. To my left, however, at the edge of my vision, Rust Spot was bobbing about from foot to foot. Irritation and fury oozed from him. Good, I thought. The angrier you are, the better.
‘There,’ I said, completing the knot. Lifting my net and trident, but without retying my wrist strap, I beamed at the summa rudis. ‘Ready!’
His staff went up for a second time, and without hesitation, dropped. His lips moved, but so loud was the roar from the spectators that no one heard his command, ‘Begin!’
This was the moment when everything hinged on my assessment of Sextus and more importantly, Rust Spot. If I was wrong, the contest would be over before it had begun. I spun and with all my speed, ran to the top of Rust Spot’s ramp.
He was already halfway up, legs pumping, shield held out in front. I shot the fastest of glances over my shoulder. There was no sign of Sextus at the far end of the pons. Back to Rust Spot I looked. I twirled my net once, getting the feel of its weight. I would have liked another arm swing, but Rust Spot was closing fast. The eye holes of his enclosed helmet were visible over the top rim of his shield; his gladius tip glinted from halfway down its side.
I threw the net. It snagged his shield, as good an effort as I had ever made.
He came on another two paces.
I wrenched my net arm down and to the right.
I had not the power to rip the shield from his grasp, but that was not my intention. Unbalanced by the tug of the weighted net, Rust Spot staggered and then, as I heaved even harder, he tumbled from the ramp. He took the net with him, but not me – because I had not retied the wrist strap.
Without hesitation, I leaped down after him.