Sweat poured down the back of his neck as he stood in the tunnel, preparing for the contest. His short-cropped hair and beard were beaded with perspiration. His heart was pounding in time with the stomping feet of the crowd in the grandstand above and around him. His time had come.
He pulled at the leather straps holding his breastplate in place. He checked the ties on the steel segmentata, which were heavy and warm against his forearms. His shoulderplate. His leg greaves, buckled tightly on his shins.
Cato stood behind him, checking the buckles and straps he couldn't reach. "Are you sure you want to do this, Marcus?"
"No, you don't. You can walk away."
"I can't, Cato. It's my nature. It's what I've trained for. And I'm ready to face it."
Cato pulled at Marcus' shoulder, and turned him until they were eye-to-eye. "You're not ready. There's too much you have yet to master."
Marcus narrowed his eyes. "Readiness is of no importance now. Only the choice to proceed or to run. And I don't run."
"It's not running. It's stepping back. Taking time. Being prepared."
"I've missed it too many times, waiting to be prepared. I'm ready."
Cato took a deep breath, and as he exhaled, he nodded once, holding out his hand. "Very well. Fortune upon you."
Marcus grabbed his friend's wrist with his right hand and his shoulder with his left. "Goodbye."
"Fare well, Marcus. Fare very well."
Marcus bent down and grasped his helmet. He pulled it over his head, plunging into darkness for a second before finding light again through the two small eyeholes. Inside his helmet, the sounds of the arena faded away, and the sound of his own quick breathing became a gale wind in his ears. His pulse seemed to echo inside his iron skull. His ears pounded. His eyes focused, pupils growing wide to take in as much light as possible in the dim subterranian cell.
He reached out his left hand, and felt the shield grip being placed in his palm. Then Cato pounded his fist into the shield once. Twice. Three times. This was a ritual they had walked through many times in practice, but never in truth. Now these last few movements became sacred, sanctified by the sound and the heat and the fear that they tried to block out.
Marcus reached out his right hand, and the hilt of the short sword was placed in it. Its familiar grip was almost comforting. Marcus lifted the sword, tapping the flat of the blade against his helmet, between his eyes. He then tapped the blade against his shield once. Twice. Three times.
He felt a hand on his back. Tap, tap, tap, tap. Each time the strike became harder. Smack, smack, smack, smack, smack. Marcus stomped his foot in time with the tapping.
There was a flourish of trumpets, above, beyond, and the doors of the tunnel swung wide. Marcus charged forward.
The arena was bathed in sunlight. The sun hung directly before him, piercing his weakened eyes. He stopped after three steps in, and held up his shield before his face, until his eyes could adjust to the brightness. The crowd jeered, but Marcus ignored them. None of them had the courage to stand in the sand of the arena floor. They were nothing to him.
When his eyes adjusted a little more, he lowered his shield and looked across the burning sands of the arena at his opponent. He blinked. He didn't understand. He staggered forward, sword in hand, looking to the right and the left, expecting a surprise attack. But no attack came. He was alone in the arena, save for the figure before him. He walked toward the figure and stopped, a few feet away.
The white-robed figure cast away its cloak.
Marcus gasped. Inside his helmet, the gasp sounded like the crashing of many waters.
He dropped his sword. Pulled off his helmet. Dropped his shield.
She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Her features were soft, her eyes deep. Her hair cascaded down her shoulders and back, dark and thick. She was the image of perfection. She stood, completely self-possessed and without a hint of fear. The crowd hushed at the sight of her. A light surrounded her, and she appeared godlike in her easy grace.
She smiled at him. His knees buckled. He stumbled forward. He lost himself in her eyes. He reached out his hand to touch her face, her hair. Her smile surrounded him.
A flash of steel.
The crowd erupted in cheers.
Marcus look down to see her bloody hand withdrawing the blade from his side. He looked back at her face. He didn't understand.
She never stopped smiling. But the smile he mistook for kindness was, in fact, contempt.
He fell backward into a sitting position on the sand. This pleased the crowd.
Marcus weakly grabbed his side, but the wound was too deep.
He turned to look back over his shoulder. Cato stood in the doorway of the tunnel. His head was down.
Marcus became dizzy, and lay back in the sand, looking up at the clouds.
When he was young, he and his brothers would play at being warriors, fighting in the games. When fighting was done, they would lay on their backs in the cool grasses of home, and stare up at the clouds, trying to decipher signs and portents from their shapes. "That one looks like a hare; it means I shall be fast." "That looks like a chariot; I shall be victorious in battle." "That looks like a banner; my name shall be famous." There they would lay, seeking their fortunes, waiting for their mother to call them in for the evening meal.
Marcus lay on the sand, his life seeping out in a pool around his back. A cloud passed overhead. "That looks like a serpent," he thought. "I should have been wise. And that, there, is a bird; I should have been swift in fleeing danger." He looked for more clouds to interpret, but there were none. The blue of the sky that he had loved so much before now seemed too cold as it hung over him. At that moment, he heard a sound, strange and small, but familiar.
He heard his mother calling.