I did my best to raise my newly bruised and bleeding arm up to the less than half-cheering crowd of The Colosseum. Sounds like I wasn’t the one the crowd bet on. Again. “The winner is Argento the Fist!” The bloody pulp of a person began to get up about five feet from me. Not that I cared. I won, that’s all that mattered. This shit eater could go lick his wounds back at his master’s dorm. I turned and walked toward the slowly opening portcullis, doing my best to hide this new limp from the audience. Little bastard slashed my knee pretty bad with his spear. Master Pradraig’s servants were already in the musty Colosseum underbelly to take my arms and armor, only leaving me with the new wounds as they began tending to them. The silence in the dimly lit corridor was broken by a fatigued sounding voice. “Excellent work today Argento.” I smelled him first before he saw him. That scent of clean clothes and good wine, at least it matched Pradraig’s pudgy, overly clean face with his nearly spotless robes.
“A fine match and even finer winnings Argento. I’m glad you pulled through despite the odds. Excellent work! Excellent work indeed boy!”
“Thank you Master Pradraig. If may ask…,” my frayed nerve faltered.
The old Roman raised an eyebrow at the slave. “Speak up. I don’t have all day to guess what you want to talk about.”
No…it was too soon to ask. He was in a good mood right now but…
“Another time Master Pradraig. I do not wish to keep you from any important business.”
“On you’re way then boy. Get some rest; you deserve it.”
Without another word, my master walked up the stairs to the main exit of the arena with his servants leading me away.
A nasty cut on my forearm and an even nastier one on my thigh. I got careless. Freedom so close was clouding my judgment. I would have to ask if the next match would be my last later and not test The Fates again today. The march back towards to the school was a bit longer this time through the dusty roads and exiting spectators. Since I was just another slave being lead by their masters in the rushing crowds, I could indulge my leg’s need to limp. The Pradraig’s ludus wasn’t close enough to merit keeping up the facade of immortality around for however many fans I might have. I mostly just got glares anyway. Everyone loves an underdog, except when no one placed their bets on him. Master Pradraig seemed pleased, and that’s all that really mattered.
“Come along now Argento!” sheepishly barked the eldest of the servants.
I did my best to hobble along to their pace but I wasn’t about to blow my chances for my next bout because a couple of groomed children wanted to rest more than I did. The buildings architecture quality continued to droop and drop until we reached our destination. High walls and bars on every window. Yup, it was home. We walked in through the front and into the training yard where the few new whelps were being drilled. I didn’t get a good look, but they looked like foreign, not local, debtors like me. That meant they were getting drilled harder. The new trainer was particularly harsh on foreigners. His barking was more boisterous than the other ones Pradraig had hired in years past. I suppose he was scraping the bottom of the barrel now since fewer people were showing up and betting on our matches. The only reason our ludus was getting matches scheduled was Marcial.
With a delayed turn I looked over to see Marcial the Gold walking over from the tables with that same nearly perfect smile on his nearly perfect face.
“I heard you won your match! Good for you!”
“Thanks, Marcial.” I half grunted.
Then that same old tiny voice came out of nowhere behind me.
“Thanks? Thanks?! You get praised by our best fighter and you only say “thanks”? C’mon Argento, show our star Marcel a lil’ more respect! He’s payin’ for yer’ meals after all! Haha!” laughed Cato.
“He’s my junior Cato just like I am yours. I haven’t slogged through four years of bouts to be-”
“Relax Argento. You’re getting worked up again. You came just in time for dinner so come get some food. You can complain more to me after that,” japed Cato through a wrinkled smirk.
Marcial and Cato walked ahead and sat next to the newly drilled whelps after they got their daily portions of beans from the servants. I walked up ahead of the other whelps to get my share but was handed a leg of cooked chicken with my beans. From Pradraig no doubt. He’d be upstairs counting his money and watching us. Always did after a big match he made money in. The food was almost already down my gullet the moment it hit the table.
“So Argento, I’ve heard on good authority you’re going to be leaving us soon.” prodded Marcial.
“Depends. On. Master. Praidrag.” I replied between bites and swallows.
“You’ve been fightin’ fer’ four years boy, I’m certain yur’ almost cleared now aren’t yah’?”
I finished the chicken. “You’ve been here for five and you’re still kicking.”
“I’m a slave not a debtor like you. Should’a been out by now.”
“Maybe Cato. I’m not as popular as Marcial here. His shows nearly fill out the place whenever he gets a match.”
Marcial blushed his nearly perfect blush as one of his cheeks twitched. “Please I’m not that great.”
“Bullshit boy! You’ve been at this only two years and you’ve got your endosin’ shops fer’ money” barked Cato.
Marcial got up with his bowl. “Well sirs I’m glad you think so highly of me, but I’m going to get some rest.”
I began scraping for the last of my beans. “Thats right. You got a match, your own match tomorrow.””Good luck boy!” Cato’s exclamation nearly had him spitting out his own beans as Marcel went to the beds inside.
“…He’s doomed you know?”
“The hell are you on about boy?” Cato’s beans nearly flung out of his mouth as he spun towards me. “He’s making Pradraig more money than any of us!”
“Marcials’ too good. Master’s not gonna let go of him anytime soon, and he knows it. Pressure’s getting to him. If not now, eventually. Master’s gonna get everything he can out of him, even if it kill’im. At least with us, we aren’t expected to pull in as much coin and attention as he does. Only one way to go when you’re at the bottom you know?”
Cato sighed as he got up to walk off. “Get some rest boy. He’ll be fine. We’ll all be fine.”
I just sat there as the chatter of the city around us began to quiet for the night. Cato was stuck here because he chose the wrong side in some far-off battle. He was already older, experienced but not skilled or otherwise; he wouldn’t be here. Cato often got cast as the “villain” of many fights. If he wasn’t useful in at least that, Pradraig would just sell him off to someone. Cato isn’t dumb either. He knows this. Brave face and all, but he’s under as much pressure as Marcial. His fight is just a far different one. On the other hand, Marcial was stuck here because of his skills. A victim of his fame and profitability. That’s what it all came down to. The hero the crowds couldn’t get enough of and gamblers couldn’t stop betting on. If Marcial was a victim of his natural prowess and Cato a victim of his mediocraty, where did that leave me? I’m not good enough to draw in the big crowds or win consistently. Are the Gods just toying with me?
“Argento, are you listening?”
My thoughts were brought to an abrupt stop by the servant who appeared next to me.
“Master Pradraig is waiting for you.” then the servant left without another word.
I returned my bowl and made my way up to the second floor. Pradraig’s room was guarded as always and the two let me in once they saw me. I entered the room to see Pradraig working as fast as his thick fingers would allow it. The rest of the chicken laid mangled, surrounded by his new winnings next to him on a plater. His thick fingers kept scribbling on his paper as fast as they would allow.
“Did you enjoy dinner Argento?” He didn’t look up.
“Yes Master Pradraig.”
“As you should. I paid handsomely for this fine meal.”
“Go ahead and ask.”
“By the Gods.” He slammed down his tool and looked up. “Your next match. I shall move this along if you aren’t going to. It’s going to be your last. You are almost all paid off.”
“Yes. I can’t just let you go like that. Soon as you are gone I’ll need a replacement for the roster. That means your next match has to get enough attention and bets to cover both the last of you’re debt as well as help cover the cost of a new slave.”
I didn’t say anything. I knew what he was about to say.
“I’ve scheduled a match for you in a week’s time. You’ll fight another retiring fighter.” He smirked. “It’s an excellent sell to be quiet honest. Two veterans on the cusp of freedom enter, and only one may join us up above! We’ll make a killing.”
“I…Thank you Master Pradraig.” I bowed before the screaming in my head told me to do otherwise.
“You’ve come a long way, my boy. This is the final step. Don’t falter. Now go. You need to rest for the grande finale! Get that leg and arm looked at.”
“Yes Master Pradraig.” I bowed again and took my leave. I could hear his pudgy fingers beginning to move again, even after the door closed behind me. I don’t remember what happened next, not really anyway. One minute I was eating with Cato after another loss, then I was waking up, but then I was falling asleep. A haze couldn’t even describe the week that followed. Mostly I found myself laying motionless on my bedding staring at nothing but the dark. I made it this long by not being anything other than just ordinary. I’m not good enough for desirable but not shit enough to be discarded. That didn’t mean these expectations of performance were any less draining. I was so close to getting out, so gods damn close to being free. What was I going to do when I was released?
“Its time Argento.”
Then I was there before I could even say anything, my gladius was being put in my hand, my helmet set and armor placed all the while being led over to the same portcullis. Try as I might, my limp still wouldn’t unlatch its claws fully from me. The crowd was already screaming outside. That old bastard must have actually garnered enough attention for this fight. This was really happening. This was it. I felt faint and nearly fell on the servant as he fastened my pauldrons into place. The gate began moving ever slowly upward but somehow it was all moving too fast.
“Now for our first fighter in their final bouts: Argento the Fist!”
I couldn’t breathe. This was the last step, but I couldn’t move. A shove from one of the servants knocked me out of my panic, and I entered that gods damned circus again. The crowd was actually happy to see me this time. Their cries started to blend together into one noise as it bored into my ears. I started looking for a way out. It was all I could do to keep myself from running up the walls. I had to succeed. I had to, but I’m not strong like Marcial or at least wise like Cato. I’m just Argento, just ordinary.
“And his opponent! Bronze Emil!”
Then he was just there. That man Emil was walking out of his own portcullis as the singular noise from the crowd flared up. His arms and armor were as old and beaten as he was. He raised his shield and spear up to the crowd. If he was phased by any of this at all, he hid it well. Suddenly the crowd wasn’t there. The screams stopped and even the sand at our feet failed to carry the scent. I think I heard the wood on my gladius’ handle cracking as my grip tightened. Once he was gone, this pressure would go. No more performing for others. I didn’t even hear the start of the match, but as soon as Emil raised his weapons to me, I snapped. The old fighter kept his shield up and his spear out so getting close with a gladius wasn’t going to be easy…especially with my leg. He gave out a probing thrust but I just knocked it away with my left arm. The denser armor let it bounce off. I rushed in keeping my weapon up and my arm ready to block. His shield crashed into my helmet the moment I was within reach. The ringing in my head was sadly too familiar but familiar enough that I was able to shrug it off fast enough to avoid his spear impaling my stomach. His reach was his one advantage, and if I got close it would be over. I prodded back with my own slash that merely bounced off his shield. Emil responded with a defensive thrust exactly how I wanted him to, but I wasn’t fast enough. For my gambit to work, I’d need him to keep prodding back, leaving myself open. Slash was replied with the spear, and soon my body was covered in nicks and cuts almost all over. Emil overextended his thrust, a major blow in his mind no doubt. I quickly wrapped my arm around his spear and tried to lock it before he pulled back and reopened my arm. Yanking him forward with all my might I tried thrusting down at him but found no purchase as his shield came up to protect him. Then I saw my opening as his lower half was now exposed. He nearly fell over as my kick knocked out all the air in his lungs. I released my grip on his spear, closed the distance and broke his left ribs. The heavier armor on my left always let me punch harder than usual. Then…that was it. He had dropped his shield as he gripped his quickly bruising chest. I know I was supposed to back off, to give a good show, but that rationale was all but gone. I wasn’t going to wait any longer. The gladius cleaved into his neck easily. He tried to raise his spear in defense, but another swift punch to his red and purple side killed that motion. One more hard kick, and he crumpled to the ground. Then I could hear the crowd again. This time their screams were deafening.
“The winner is Argento!”
Everything was so much clearer now. All the voices, all the sights and even the smell of the fresh blood on my blade. The portcullis opened again, queuing my departure, and I did as I was told. It didn’t feel real. I was done. My debt was cleared. Again the servants disarmed me; again I listened to Pradraig’s prattle of my efforts; and again I found myself being marched back to the ludus, but I didn’t feel relieved. I was about to be free, but was I really?
It has been several days since, and as I stand here outside of the gates of the ludus. Marcial came to wish me goodbye with Cato but no proper reaction came. I can’t shake this thought from my mind: am I really free? That pressure to succeed, to win and achieve isn’t going to just go away. If I became a farmer, I would be a slave to the elements and the seasons. Should I become a servant or guard, my days would be spent taking orders from someone else. No matter where I went, that same pressure and expectation for success would follow me everywhere. I’m not free, my stage just got bigger.