A crupellarius – maybe the same one who had slain our Thracian – stepped forward and with a matter-of-fact, in-out movement, stuck Calpurnia in the chest. She was dead before he even tugged the blade out and the crimson flowed.
I would have run forward, but Big Dog’s arm blocked my path. He could not have stopped me if I had shoved past, but it was enough to bring me to my senses. My ears full of Calpurnia’s daughter’s screams, I stayed where I was.
Precise, ruthless, the crupellarius next thrust at Calpurnia’s daughter. Distracted perhaps by her banshee-like ululating, he cut open one of her arms instead of delivering a death blow. Blood sprayed everywhere. The daughter shrieked. He did better the second time. Deep went the iron, sideways into her throat, cutting skin, muscle, vessels. She dropped lifeless on top of her mother.
A long, satisfied, aaahhhh sound went up from thousands of throats.
I stared at the two of them, a pathetic, bloodied, conjoined heap on the white-gold sand. Tears ran unchecked down my cheeks. A killing rage filled me. I could have murdered every last person in the audience in that moment, and not even blinked, but weak from my injury, my head swimming, I prayed instead that my soon-to-arrive end was swift and painless.
Caligula’s selection resumed, two fighters at a time. He was mostly choosing the uninjured men, pitting them against each other pair by pair. I looked out for our gladiators in this group; they were the only ones I cared anything for. Most important of all was Siccum, who, standing near me, was one of the last whole bodied individuals.
I had not counted on there being an odd number of uninjured fighters. Caligula selected a final pair, a Thracian against a Gaul, leaving only Siccum.
I glanced at him; he met my gaze.
We both suspected what would happen next. The emperor would not let Siccum return to the cells; he would just make him fight one of the wounded and maimed.
A moment later, he pointed at Siccum, who stepped forward.
I could taste sick at the back of my mouth. Against Siccum, I had less than no chance.
The emperor’s finger stabbed forward again.
Not at me.
At Big Dog.
Oh gods, I thought, with a sickening slide of dread. He – Caligula – cannot do this. I will not let him.
‘Let me go,’ I said. ‘I will volunteer.’
‘This is not your fate, Midir,’ said Big Dog, leaving the line. Over his shoulder, he said, ‘With luck, you will get that Greek with the really bad belly wound. Fortuna be with you.’
I did not reply, for reason had left me. Using my trident as a crutch, I took a big step after Big Dog. If I could catch him up, and gain Caligula’s attention, I would make the grandiose claim that I was a better opponent to take on Siccum than Big Dog. I, the killer of two gladiators in a single bout, was ready to show my skill to the emperor again. This time, my efforts would dazzle even more.
It was complete nonsense of course, and more likely to result in a spear in the guts than imperial permission to fight Siccum, but it was all I had.
I shuffled faster. Big Dog was only five or six steps ahead.
Caligula was already picking the next pair of men.
I clutched at Big Dog’s arm. ‘Wait. Let me.’
He stopped. Turned. ‘No.’
‘Yes,’ I said, my determination growing.
I never saw his fist, but it smacked into the middle of my wound.
An explosion of pain. My knees buckled. Vision dimmed to a long tunnel,
sound entering my ears as if I were deep underwater, I felt myself falling.
Hot sand against my cheek, my chest, my legs.