Rust Spot landed heavily, still gripping his shield, and because of that, twisted his left wrist. A muted cry of pain came from within his iron domed helmet. With its narrow field of vision, he didn’t see me coming either. He heard the thump of my feet on the sand, however, and desperate, struggled to get up. His sword flailed about in the air, like a toy brandished by a small boy.
I jabbed my trident into the hollow at the base of his neck, and he froze. I was sorely tempted to stick it in, end his life fast, but I restrained myself. I must not anger Caligula.
‘Yield!’ I shouted.
In his eyes, just visible behind the eyeholes, I saw fear, rage and a flash of devilry. I pricked his throat. He jerked back, and three fat drops of blood welled in the wounds the prongs had made.
‘Drop the sword!’ I shouted, acutely aware – terrified – that Sextus might drop on me from on high. Until Rust Spot surrendered, he could attack me with no consequences. Again I roared, ‘YIELD!’
His fingers tightened on the sword hilt, and I thought I was going to have to give him iron. Then the last of his spirit crumpled, and he let go. Thump went the blade on the sand. Up went his index finger. ‘Missio!’ he cried.
The din – cheering, laughter, whistles and catcalls – was so loud no one heard.
I yelled for the summa rudis. ‘Missio! He asks for missio!’
Thankfully, the referee reached my side before Sextus, on the planking above and behind, had the chance to leap down and end me. Staff raised so that the emperor and audience knew the bout was paused, the summa rudis waited for a modicum of calm.
So excited – and disbelieving – was the crowd’s reaction that we just had to stand there and wait.
They were glorious moments, I admit, and I drank them in. Beyond all hope, I had beaten the more skilled of my two opponents. The battle was only half over, however. Do not lose the run of yourself, I told myself, something my mother had often said to me as a boy. My trident firm on Rust Spot’s throat, I kept my gaze directed at the pulvinar, and Caligula.
At last the noise diminished enough for the summa rudis to call to the emperor that Rust Spot had been beaten, and was requesting missio.
A veritable barrage of abuse filled the air – the spectators wanted no mercy today.
Caligula wasted no time. Out went his right arm, straight, stiff-elbowed, and then without ceremony, he jerked his thumb back towards his throat.
‘IUGULA!’ The mob – there was no other word for the baying crowd – screamed with joy. ‘IUGULA!’
The emperor’s command was no surprise, and yet my heart gave a painful thump off my ribs. The Romans were savages, I thought. Brutes. My determination did not waver, though, not even a fraction. The mountain-heavy door that had been closing on my fate remained – just – ajar. Fail to execute Rust Spot, and its inexorable momentum would continue.
‘You are sentenced to death,’ said the summa rudis to Rust Spot.
He nodded, the gesture so resigned that I felt a trace of pity.
‘Kneel,’ I said, my dry mouth bringing the word out as a croak.