Here's part of the opening of my current novel in progress. I'm wishing for comments to give me feedback.
Three hours past Sol’s zenith the major combats were set to begin. There was a full slate of contests, but a staged execution was the first item of entertainment. Metallus wanted it to be primus, the last bout of the day.
The fight manager refused, “Six against one isn’t a contest. The Lanista’s[i] would pull their champions and the crowd would riot.”
Metallus was doubly insulted. “I’m paying for the games," he yelled. "The crowd is here to see the son of Optimus reenact the last fight of his father.”
He borrowed heavily from the publicani[ii] at compound interest. People didn’t stick around to gamble if they were sated before the primus. He would be financially ruined if there wasn’t enough profit from the gambling by the end of the day. The fight manager walked away, “The order is set and won’t be changed.”
Metallus cursed and struck a wooden door with his lone hand in frustration before heading for the emperor’s seating area. As patron of the games Metallus was given the honor of sitting beside the emperor. With permission he stood and motioned for the proceedings to begin.
An orator went to the middle of the sand to stir up the crowd. “Welcome one and all,” he let his booming baritone voice echo through the stadium. “Today we have twenty engagements with the finest gladiators from five different schools. In the primus is pitted three seasoned fighters with at least five kills from the school of Fonteius and the same from the school of Paetus in a death match where only one will survive.”
There was a smattering of applause. Most were either finding seats, heading to the concessions or chatting with those around them.
“But first dear citizens,” the orator continued. “A reenactment of what all of Rome has been talking about for the last month.” He paused for effect. The crowd didn’t respond. “The fight between Sextus Cassius Optimus and six of Rome’s finest soldiers on the Campus Martius.”
He waited, but there was little or no response.
“Today this battle of epic proportions will be brought to you by the son of Optimus against the very same guards who so grievously wounded his father.”
The orator waited again, but the stands stayed quiet. He looked up at the Emperor’s box, shrugged, and left the sand.
Metallus anticipated the moment he could give the order to kill the son of the man he wished was there to die. He was content to at least make Optimus suffer knowing his whore’s son died for the father’s crime. He waved his hand to start the fight.
Epaphroditus didn’t show any emotion, but he also wanted the boy’s father dead. Watching the son suffer in the arena was some comfort for losing a valued slave.
He still remembered the day at the baths when he couldn’t stand a slave’s condescending smirk and twisted his leg so hard all heard the bone snap. He wasn’t an imperial secretary then and had little power. Optimus, a filthy plebian, who shouldn’t have been in the baths with his betters in the first place, gave him some money for the slave. Being afraid for his life he agreed to the sale. It was a pittance of what the slave was worth.
Epictetus, as the client of Optimus, became a respected philosopher, even opened a school and the beast made money off the sales of his books. The imperial secretary scowled at the thought. Money that by rights should be mine!
The crowd didn’t pay much attention as the boy walked onto the fresh sand. Stephan waited for his foes. A few of the women cheered seeing how handsome he was but followed by some boos and hisses. There was general murmuring and milling about. Not many wagered on executions, and if they didn’t have money on the contest it was of little interest.
The soldiers emerged with only swords and similarly clad in only kilt and boots. Stephan recognized them. They trained with father and helped him over the years. They tried to kill father and now will kill him.
They turned to salute the emperor. In unison they said, “Te morituri salutum.[iii]” The signal was given.
Expecting them to circle, Stephan crouched low and faced away from the sun hoping to use their shadows to warn of an attack from behind. The soldiers formed a square. Swords held high ready to strike. Confused, Stephan thought, they want me to attack. I’m not playing their game.
Standing still, the crowd started to boo and throw objects. A man with a torch started walking towards him. Not needing to feel the heat, he ran to the right side of the square. Only two would be in reach. They would strike across their bodies giving him a slight advantage. They stabbed with their swords, he quickly dodged to his right as Plautus reached for his stomach. Hacking down he severed the exposed arm below the elbow. Apollos gave a thrust but missed as Stephan ran past.
This caught the crowds’ attention. They were expecting a quick kill and it seemed the young man was going to put up a fight. With blood on the sand, those milling about found a seat. More eyes were now on the combatants.
The soldiers spread further apart in a half moon formation and rushed him. Stephan waited for them to get close knowing they’d time their thrust to launch from their left foot. As they reached the leaping spot, he took two steps back leaving the soldier’s arms exposed. Running through their line slashing to his right Stephan cleaved through an arm and pivoting around hacked at another. Circling back to the center of the ring keeping the three-remaining staring into the sun the young man panted not realizing how much energy he expended in just a few moves.
The crowd voiced its approval. Strangely it gave him a surge of strength. Raising his sword, they grew louder. Apollos and Didius, the wounded men, crawled off to the side trying to stop the flow of blood with their battle kilts.
“The six of you couldn’t kill Optimus and now you can’t even kill the son!” A loud-mouthed spectator yelled. Other cat calls and derision was meted out to the soldiers.
The remaining three came at Stephan in a triangular formation. Meeting the blows of Decius and Quintus, Hector moved stabbing towards the young man’s left side.
The blade scraped against his ribs. Stephan quickly disengaged and stepped back. He felt a blade slide across his right shoulder. It was a glancing blow and stung mightily. Blood was trickling along his side and down his arm, but no internal organs or blood vessels were cut.
The crown oohed for him. Feeling pain for the first time the young man reacted by charging Hector. The soldier moved his sword out just enough, so his blade skimmed instead of blocking. Stephan ran the man through the heart. Running past letting go of the sword, he felt both of the other blades hit. They sliced into his back and he could feel more blood flowing.
I should be dead, he thought. Fighting to keep his balance he turned around and faced the two left.
The crowd roared its approval. Again, Stephan raised his arms this time turning in a circle to grow stronger from their cheers. Many cursed their stupidity in not betting on the son of Optimus.
“Kill him already,” the loudmouth yelled again. Others joined him anxious for the real fights to begin.
Nodding in respect to his remaining executioners, Stephan bent down picking up two fallen swords. Charging between Quintus and Decius as their swords clanged, the crowd screamed with every blow. He saw an opening with Decius leaving another blade in a foe’s heart. Now it was one on one.
Metallus was sweating profusely. Why are they committing suicide? He fumed. This was to be revenge for being humiliated by the scum who married my mother and soiled our bloodline. Stephan can’t be allowed to live!
Epaphroditus was at first stunned, then grew very angry. Jove’s thunderbolt! The fools thought to toy with him and he’s carving them up. Kill him, damn you!
Domitian smiled. If the son of Optimus survives, I’ll award him the rudis. The crowd will love me for my generosity. Normally the wooden sword was only awarded after many victories in the arena, but this would be the perfect exception. He also made a note to question Fuscus concerning the ability of his soldiers to fight. A good thing these men aren’t my guards anymore.
The crowd was standing, jumping up and down in anticipation as the two men caught their breath for the final clash. Yelling over the crowd, “I am Quintus Verenus.” The crowd grew quiet. “A legionnaire for fifteen years and fought alongside Cassius Optimus outside Jerusalem.” Turning to Stephan, “You have honored your father today.”
“Get on with it,” the loudmouth yelled.
Quintus charged and they parried blows. The older and heavier man forced Stephan from the center of the ring pinning him to the wall. He rained down blow after blow forcing the lad to his knees. Quintus stepped back as the crowd quieted waiting for the end.
Both men gasped for air. No permission was needed for executions. Aiming the killing blow between the neck and shoulder; the blade would enter unimpeded to the heart causing a merciful death.
By hesitating it allowed Stephan time to drive his sword under the man’s throat with the point emerging out of the back of the skull.
The boy crawled out from under the slumped form completely covered in blood. He lifted his hands and the crowd’s roar was deafening. Shaking the blood out of his hair and wiping it from his face, Stephan picked up a sword from the sand and pointed it at Metallus and spat on the ground. The crowd gave another roar.
The emperor waited a few minutes to let the people shout themselves hoarse. Then he stood. The crowd grew silent. “Well done, Stephanus Cassius…”
Augusta whispered in his ear, “I could use an educated servant.”
Pausing to think about this, Giving the young man a position in the palace would also please the people. Smiling his said, “I give you freedom and allow you the patronage of the empress.” He threw down the rudis and the crowd gave another deafening roar.
Later the wooden sword about a foot in length, would have his name and a record of his glorious victory carved into it. He was always to carry it as proof of his freedom.
The secretary’s eyes narrowed to slits within the folds of skin on his face. The empress thinks she’s getting a stud to satisfy her lust, but that will be the very thing which will get them killed.
Metallus was seething with rage and humiliation. Wanting to take an axe to Stephan and chop him into pieces; he started thinking of ways for the bastard to meet his doom.
The emperor and entourage left. Many in the crowed did likewise.
The one-armed consul was now destitute yet had to remain till darkness and the contests ended. During a lull he motioned to a senator not far from his seat. The older man graciously joined him.
With every roar from the arena Optimus wept bitter tears for his eldest son. Executions don’t make much crowd noise. Optimus knew his son was dead.
Remembrance of watching both his boys grow into well-educated disciplined men made his heart ache for them. It would have been better to never fathered them than to know how much my rash action endangered one and killed the other.
A soldier entered the tent giving a sign of the cross. “Your son lives. He is free and has the patronage of the empress.”
Together they bent on knees, Optimus prayed, “Father, thank you for sparing my son. May he continue to worship You and be of great help in Your service the rest of his life.”
[i] Owners of the Gladiatorial schools.
[ii] Money lenders
[iii] We who are about to die, salute you.
Stephanus is the sequel to Optimus:Praetorian Guard
Stephanus is the sequel to Optimus:Praetorian Guard