The audience cheered. I dared to hope of victory.
Slap. A stinging pain across my shoulders; I turned, to be confronted by the furious summa rudis.
He waved his staff in my face. ‘It is forbidden to attack your opponent from underneath!’
‘How am I supposed to know that?’ I cried. ‘No one told me.’
‘I am telling you now,’ he snarled.
I bridled. ‘Why did the crowd not jeer or boo when I first attacked him?’
‘They are fickle.’ He pointed up at the pons. ‘Get up there, lest Caligula, who is also fickle, need I remind you, send in his archers.’
I cursed under my breath. There was no point resisting, or I would pay. Sextus was wounded, I told myself. I still had a chance of beating him.
‘Go on.’ The end of the staff poked me in the chest, and not lightly.
There were approving shouts, and I realised that the spectators had been on the cusp of turning on me. The fact that I had not known I was breaking the rules did not matter. The bloodthirsty Romans did not particularly care who won. They did not want me to win because I was the underdog. All they cared about the was being entertained, in as bloody and dramatic a fashion as possible.
I called the referee something unspeakable in Hibernian – really I was cursing the audience as well – and secured the net thong to my wrist as best I could. Then I trotted to the ramp behind Sextus.
He had been watching. Moving heavily, limping, he turned around on the pons as fast as he could.
Heart thumping off my ribs, I climbed the ramp.
Sextus came to meet me, his steps slow and laboured. There was nothing wrong with his arms, regretfully. His gladius was ready, and his shield protected his entire body. His eyeholes stared at me, alien, implacable.
I had no doubt he would kill me if he could.
‘Are your feet hurting?’ I asked.
He made no reply, but closed several more steps.
‘Looks like it,’ I said. ‘If they get infected, you could lose one. Happens easily, you know.’
‘Screw you, Midir!’ He sounded angry, which was my intent.
I flicked the net, gauging the moment to throw, and raised my trident overarm, as a fisherman would.
Sextus kept advancing. Although I could not see the pain that must be creasing his face, it was plain that each step cost him dearly.
Do not let him close with you, I thought. If he forced me backwards, and down off the ramp, I felt sure that the crowd would turn on me. I could imagine Caligula ordering his archers into the arena as the summa rudis had said, or perhaps sending another gladiator in against us, to replace Rust Spot. Anything was possible on this mad day.
Sextus moved another pace towards me.
I danced forward, staying on the balls of my feet, and hurled the net at his fish crest. In the same moment, I stabbed down with the trident, at his leading, left foot.