The first sensation was pain. Waves of it, rolling over me like the incoming tide approaching a shore. I drowned in its deepness, went under again. The last spark of me that was left did not care. I wanted to drown, avoid all memory. To never wake again.
After a time – I have no idea how long – the surface drew near once more. The pain had eased, although it pulsed from the area above my left hip with a beat as regular as my heart, as well as from other parts. I could feel my arms, hands, fingers. My legs were still there. Voices rose and fell near me, but I could not understand what they were saying.
I prised my gummy eyelids apart, seeing a familiar brick ceiling above.
I tried to speak, but all that came out was a strangled croak.
‘He is awake,’ said a voice I recognised as the surgeon’s. ‘Praise the gods.’
I tried to lift my head from the table, and failed.
An instant later, he was standing right over me, eyes full of concern. ‘Water?’
I gave him a weak nod.
He went and came back. Gentle as a shepherd with a newborn lamb, he lifted my head so that I could put my lips to the clay cup in his hand. ‘Sip,’ he ordered. ‘Carefully.’
The water was finer than any wine or beer I had ever drunk.
After three or four mouthfuls, my throat was wet enough to speak. ‘What happened to me?’
‘After your friend’s punch? You dropped like a stone, I am told, and nothing could revive you – Caligula had the guards prick you with their spears to no avail. You were halfway to Hades, and that is where you would be had I not happened to arrive as they bore you out of the Gate of Death. To the spolarium you were bound, for an opened throat and a criminal’s end on the rubbish heap.’
‘They carried me out of the arena?’ I asked, still confused, not understanding.
‘Aye, so the fights could start.’
Big Dog. Siccum, I thought, grief tearing at me. I closed my eyes.
The surgeon took my silence as an indication to continue. ‘Stop, I told the libitinarius in charge. Stay your hand with that blade. The emperor has given no direct order for his death! That confounded him, the wretch, for I was right. In his haste to start the new contests, Caligula had not given instructions about your fate. One success often follows another, as they say, so hoping that my authority continued to prevail, I ordered the libitinarii to carry you here, and here you have been these many hours.’
My eyes opened again. That was why I could hear no cheering, no trumpets. ‘What time of day is it?’
‘Sunset was several hours ago. The moon climbs high in the sky, and Capua sleeps.’
‘All the contests are over then.’
‘A long time ago.’
My heart ached. ‘My friend – the murmillo with the leg wound?’
He shook his head.
‘And the other, the Samnite who fought him?’