Laughter burst forth from those around him, and encouraged, he began to squawk like a farmyard hen. ‘Flap those bony arms, retiarius! Fly up there, why don’t you?’
Piss off, I wanted to shout. Come out here and do it yourself.
Feet burning, I moved a step to my left and then another. Sextus moved, following me. Amused, I trotted the length of the pons, forcing him to keep pace lest I reached the far end first. At the bottom of the second ramp, I smiled up at him. ‘Hot, isn’t it?’ I asked.
Inside his helmet, Sextus’ eyebrows must have gone up. Muffled, his surprised voice replied, ‘What?’
Without answer, I ran back whence I had come, again obliging him to chase after. From any other fighter, this cowardly behaviour would have brought down the crowd’s rage, but gladiatorial custom dictated that retiarii were allowed to run about the arena and especially when it made their opponent look stupid. Already I could hear hoots of laughter. I stopped midway along the pons. Sextus did the same, his chest heaving.
I danced a few steps to the left. He mimicked me. I ran ten steps to the right. So did he. Back and forth I went, and soon the audience was roaring their amusement at the foolish spectacle that Sextus made – pounding up and down the pons like some kind of great, armoured paegniarius.
I tried a sprint, to see how fast he could move. Unarmoured, far lighter than he, I reached the ramp bottom well before he had come to its top. I had no intention of pressing home a proper attack yet, but I scampered up as if that were my intention. Still with enough time to get a footing on the pons, I stopped dead a step before. Expecting a trick of some kind, Sextus checked. I took another pace forward, and turning my head towards the nearest members of the crowd, I pulled a terrified face. Then, swift as a running cat, I turned tail and retreated to the sand.
Sextus, furious, stamped to the top of the ramp and glared down at me.
I saluted him with my trident.
Sextus waved his sword angrily.
Cheering and clapping broke out. I heard voices shouting, ‘Bring back the paegniarii!’
Again I made for the far end of the pons. Sextus followed. This time, however, I twisted suddenly and whipped my net up, aiming for his feet. I caught him off guard, but misjudged my throw. Instead of curling around both his ankles – a move that would have seen me pull him off the pons – it caught only one. He staggered, cursing, but did not fall. I tugged at the net, desperate that he did not slice it to ribbons with his sword which even now was sweeping around from his right.
Lucky for me, Sextus could not resist taking a swipe at my unprotected head. I ducked low, tucking in my left arm as I did. The movement freed the net, and almost took him tumbling after it. I made a show of flicking my net at him again. Wary, he retreated a step or two.
Again the crowd applauded, but I detected less enthusiasm than before. I decided that my antics were starting to bore, and I dared not risk Caligula’s opprobrium. A cold realisation bore down on me.
I could not win the fight by staying on the sand.