Each step was sweet agony. The sand, even hotter than before, was burning my feet. Every movement of my left leg sent knives of agony outward from the wound. I could feel ooze, liquid, running down from it into my undergarment. My vision was blurring again, and but for my iron grip on the trident, I would have toppled. Somehow I kept my legs moving, left, right, left right. I knew in my gut that if I fell, Caligula would give the order to leave me where I was. Walk, I told myself. Walk. The emperor is watching. Walk. Count your steps. One, two, three, four. Focus on the Gate of Life – which was nothing more than a blurred black opening some distance in front of me.
Slow as a cripple, one of those who sit outside temples, hands outstretched for a coin from a kind-hearted devotee, I picked a tortuous path, forty, then fifty paces. From far off, I could hear echoing, mocking laughter. I felt sure it was directed at me. The fickle bastards, I thought. Truly my life meant nothing.
Ignore them, I told myself. Reach the Gate of Life, and you can collapse. The surgeon will stitch you up. Crixus might even offer some praise. There would be wine, and better, fruit juice. I could rest. Bolstered by these thoughts, I shuffled another dozen steps. If I squinted, I could now see the Gate of Life clearly. Could see a crowd watching from inside the archway, guards, arena staff, an official in a toga, and two gladiators. One was Big Dog, smiling and beckoning. My heart warmed at the sight of him, and some strength returned to me.
Next I made out the guard who had gambled on my winning the bout. He was beaming, exposing rows of brown, peg like teeth, and elbowing his comrades. ‘See,’ I heard him say, ‘I told you the little retiarius would do it. You had best pay up before the day is out!’
He got curses by way of reply.
‘Come on, Midir,’ called Big Dog, although he did not step beyond the shadow cast by the archway over the gate. ‘You can make it. What a champion you are!’
I tried to give him a smartarsed answer, but my mouth and throat were so dry, only a croak came out.
Big Dog gestured again, encouraging me. Perhaps fifteen paces separated us.
I can do it, I thought, pushing my right, stronger leg forward. I paused, sucked in a breath, and heaved my left leg in front of the right. Sheer, unadulterated pain radiated out from the wound. I gasped, but made myself repeat the movements. Right. Thirteen paces. Left. Twelve. Right. Eleven.
Big Dog took a step into the sunlight. ‘That’s it, Midir.’
One of the guards, a brute with lank, unwashed hair, laid a rough hand on his shoulder. ‘Get back inside.’
Big Dog paid no heed. He beckoned. ‘Almost there, brother.’
My lips peeled up in a cracked semblance of a smile. Ten steps, I thought.
There was no mistaking the tone of command, or the fact that it had come from the pulvinar.
With sinking heart, I recognised the voice too – it was that of Caligula.