Sprained left wrist cradled in his right hand, Rust Spot obeyed.
I placed my trident on the sand and tugged out the wood-handled dagger I had selected what seemed years before, under the arena. Worried that it might have grown blunt, even though I had not used it, I ran a thumb across its edge. It was reassuringly, horribly sharp.
When I lifted my gaze, Rust Spot was removing his helmet. This I had not expected; in the ludus, there was an agreement that defeated fighters would leave their helms on for the death blow, thus allowing their comrades not to look them in the eye. A stranger, hating me for having won, Rust Spot wanted my task to be as grisly and difficult as possible.
Seeing me flinch, he sneered. ‘Not got the stomach for it, little man?’
I said not a word, but stepped adroitly behind him. Seizing his chin, I drew the dagger across his throat. Hot blood gouted over my fingers. Practiced at butchering sheep since my youth, I sawed the blade to and fro, deeper, until I felt it grate off his neck bones. Skin, blood vessels, tendons, muscles, windpipe. It sliced them all, easy as a scythe cuts wheat at harvesttime. More blood sprayed, patterning the ground in front of us. Rust Spot’s head lolled in my grip, slack, lifeless. Disgusted now, I let him go. He flopped down onto the crimson-soaked sand, more resembling a limp puppet than a formidable gladiator.
‘IUGULA!’ The audience was ecstatic. ‘IUGULA! IUGULA!’
Sucking my cheeks together, I drew together enough moisture to spit my contempt. Bastard Romans, I thought. They were all bad, save Calpurnia and her daughter, perhaps. The goat-hating, hairy-armed Caligula was the worst of the lot.
A pair of libitinarii, who had been waiting close by, approached with their stretcher. Another followed, his purpose to gather up Rust Spot’s armour and weapon.
The summa rudis pointed his staff at me, and then at Sextus. ‘Ready?’
‘No,’ I said, with a show of cockiness. Wiping the dagger clean on Rust Spot’s undergarment, I reattached the strap on the net to my wrist. Trident in my right fist, net dangling from my left, I paced to the bottom of the ramp where Rust Spot had begun the fight. Sextus was standing at the top, waiting. Outlined by the sun’s blinding light, he was an ominous black figure with a shield and sword.
My stomach flip-flopped. Parched with thirst, now my mouth filled with unwelcome bile. I swallowed, hating the acid pain as it went down. My decision to jump from the pons had allowed me to beat Rust Spot, but had given Sextus the advantage of height. The bridge was his, and it was I who would have to charge up at him.
‘Begin!’ shouted the summa rudis.
Sextus did not move – he had no need.
Lost for an immediate idea, I did nothing.
‘Come on!’ shouted a man near me. ‘Get up there, scrawny legs!’