We passed the level with the gladiator cells. Curious, I peered through the narrow doorway. Every door lay open. Not a soul was to be seen. My unease deepening, I decided that the remaining whole bodied fighters, mostly the winners, had been summoned to the arena as well. I said as much to Big Dog, who merely grunted in reply. His limp was more pronounced now, and I judged the steep stairs were no good for the wound in his thigh.
On the ground level, the guards urged us towards the Gate of Life, which I had hoped not to have pass under for quite some time. There were men standing at the sides of the passageway, Crixus, a figure I thought might be the other lanista, imperial officials. Crixus looked angrier than ever, and twice as impotent.
‘What is happening, dominus?’ Big Dog asked him as we passed.
‘You have as much clue as I, but something tells me that more of you are about to die,’ he retorted. He let out a sarcastic laugh. ‘I shall be ruined. Ruined!’
Even now, the piece of shit only thinks of himself, I thought, my hatred for him so strong that if I could have grabbed a weapon at that point, I would have happily died trying to take him with me.
We were ordered to walk the last few steps out of the Gate of Life. Waves of baking heat carried in from the sand. Squinting against the blinding light, I could see figures already waiting on the sand, a band of some thirty-odd figures. The winners, I thought. They were armed, which was odd. I said as much to Big Dog.
‘There are more fights coming, I know it,’ he answered.
Helping each other, hobbling, limping and even staggering, the group of us – about a dozen – made our slow entrance into the arena. A strange silence fell as we were noticed. There was none of the usual cheering, or the opposite, hurled insults. I looked up into the audience, and the faces I saw were shocked, even sympathetic. Here we were, the walking wounded, the sliced-up, stabbed and maimed, some as near to death as they had ever been – the living evidence of what their bloodlust had caused, and they did not like it.
Just outside, tables had been arrayed with weapons and armour. Shields were stacked up against the wall. I did not count them, but judged there were enough for each of us to arm himself. When the guards urged us towards the equipment, I glanced at Big Dog, sick to my stomach.
‘He means to make us fight again.’
‘Doubtless you are right,’ said Big Dog, sounding more tired than I had ever heard him.
I felt the same way. Even if my opponent was the one-armed man, I did not think I could fight another bout, less still survive one.
After we wounded had made our way across the burning sand to the winners, the trumpets sounded again. An expectant hush fell over the audience.
A loud announcement was made. The entertainment was not over. In his wisdom, the emperor had decided that new pairings would be made. All the remaining gladiators would have to fight again, to the death.
All for the glory of Rome, the announcer crowed, and the spectators cheered their reawakened bloodlust.