Our first inkling that something unusual was going on came at the end of what most thought would be the final bout, between the best of our Thracians and a crupellarius, a fully armoured fighter rarely seen in the arena. The contest ended with a win for the invulnerable crupellarius, unsurprisingly, and the cries of ‘Hoc habet!’ were still rolling around the amphitheatre when the trumpets blared, strident and commanding.
‘What’s that for?’ I asked Big Dog. This had not happened the day I had first fought on the sand.
‘No idea,’ he said, frowning. ‘But I do not like it.’
We were still talking about what the fanfare meant when armed guards came clattering down the stairs. The door was opened, and in they came, swaggering like dogs with two cocks.
‘On your feet!’ ordered their leader, a stubble-jawed brute with an irregular, purple cicatrice on his neck. ‘All of you!’
I looked at him in disbelief, and glanced at Big Dog. He seemed as amazed as I.
‘Do you know what is happening, friend?’ Big Dog asked.
‘No questions! Up, I say, up!’ The leader prodded the man who had lost an arm with his spear.
He yelped with pain, and snarled, ‘Are you blind, cocksucker? I have one arm!’
‘One arm, one leg, blind, it matters not! The emperor has ordered you all into the arena. Now I do not care if a few of you die here first – Caligula doesn’t know how many of you vermin are still breathing – it is your choice. So I say, once more, get on your stinking feet!’
He jabbed at the one-armed man again, who quickly stood up. The leader chuckled. ‘See, that was easy, wasn’t it?’
Big Dog came over and threw an arm around my shoulders. I slipped my right hand around his back and gripped the top of his right arm. Supported like that, I was able to stand. The one-armed man could do so, and so could many others, but there were a handful of fighters who were too badly hurt to get up. To my horror, they were stabbed harder and harder by the guards. One managed to get on his feet, bleeding from multiple wounds, but two others merely cried and moaned. The braver ones among the orderlies protested in vain as, at a gesture from the leader, they were slain.
In a file of misery, we shuffled up the stairwell that led to the upper levels. So narrow was it that we were forced to go single file – Big Dog could not help, but I was able to use my hands on the walls to keep me upright.
‘What in all the gods’ names is going on?’ I whispered to Big Dog.
‘I have no idea,’ came his answer.
There was no reason he should have known, but the doom in his voice, and the still-blaring trumpets, sent my spirits spiralling down into the dark.
The devil in my head had a theory. Caligula is going to execute you all, it jeered.
You are probably right, I thought, too weary and in too much pain to think about anything beyond the next step.