Nepos arrived back to his villa just before the sun had reached its peak. The heat was slowly baking the earth into what felt like rock, and he was starting to sweat. His discomfort however, stemmed from the conversation he was about to have.
He had wanted to tell Paulus exactly where to put his offer. ‘Nimr was more than just a Gladiator’, he had said- it was true. Not only was Nimr the best, but Nepos considered him to be a friend. It seemed outrageous to think he would have to part company with him.
But, Paulus was right. The Ludus of Nepos had seen better days. Fallen gladiators- good fighters, who for whatever reason had failed to live up to expectations- had cost him dearly. Fewer fighters meant less opportunity to win coin, which meant it became harder to pay taxes and duties. That would lead to destitution before long.
New gladiators- fifteen of them, would go some way toward offsetting things, especially if they were as skilled as Paulus claimed. Still, to lose Nimr…
One of his four servants was waiting in the main chamber of the villa when Nepos arrived.
“Wine, Dominus?” She asked
“No, thank you Servilia. Please attend to the midday meal.”
“Yes, Dominus.” She backed away, toward the kitchens.
With a sigh Nepos flopped down upon one of the cushions by the chamber’s central table, and considered the difficult decision he had to make.
So lost was he in his considerations that he didn’t notice his wife, Etruscilla, enter the room. She had elected to wear her simple robes today, but Nepos didn’t notice her at all until she sat down beside him.
She took his hand in her own. “You look troubled my husband. Speak to me.” She urged gently.
Nepos sighed. “If this ludus is to survive I must sell Nimr.”
Etriscilla looked down for a moment, then back into her husband’s eyes. “This is painful for you.”
“Yes.” Nepos stood, started to pace the room. “Nimr is the finest gladiator I have ever seen. He is also a good friend. To see him pass from these walls and become opposition to this house… it would tear the heart from me.”
Etriscilla gazed up at him, her eyes very clear. “And if you do not sell?”
Nepos grimaced. “If I do not sell, we will end up as beggars on the streets, barring a miracle from the gods.”
Etriscilla stood, crossed the room to him, and wrapped her arms around him, holding him tight.
“You are a good man placed in a bad position, through no fault of your own. If you must sell Nimr, you know he will understand.”
“In his head he might. In his heart, he will feel betrayed.” Bemoaned Nepos.
“Perhaps he will, for a time. He will also know that this ludus is safe. Surely he desires this outcome more than the other? Speak to him.”
Nepos shook his head. “There isn’t time. Today’s games are to begin soon, and Nimr must be focused on the task at hand. I will speak with him afterward.”
“Ok. See that you do.” Etriscilla offered him a sad little smile. “Shall we prepare for the games?”
Nepos ran a hand through his wife’s hair. “Let us prepare.”
“Remember what I have taught you.” Nimr clasped Praxites by the shoulders. “Your whole body can be a weapon. Be light on your feet, and don’t overthink it. And above all else, remember your opponents will be doing everything in their power to kill you.”
Praxites nodded, but the fear was all to plain to see on his face. The gates to the arena were still closed, whilst the noblemen gave pompous speeches and bigged up their fighters. This was to be Praxites’ first time in the arena, and he was terrified.
“And now, I present to you all, for the first time, a gladiator of much promise! Good people of Rome, I give you, Praxites!” Nepos’ voice boomed. The guards pushed open the gate, and Nimr nodded. With a deep breath, Praxites stepped out onto the sands, arms aloft.
The crowd cheered. They roared. They applauded. Praxites, clad in simple leather armour, equipped with a small sword and small shield, felt small himself. Yet there was something strangely exhilarating about the occasion, as the crowd chanted his name.
I hope I don’t die badly. Strange that this worried him more than just death.
“His opponents are five in number!” Bellowed Nepos. Praxites tried not to look aghast. “Thieves, who have tormented shopkeepers and market stalls for the past year, caught at last by our determined guards. They have caused much hardship with their crimes, but now they answer for them! Execution, by gladiator!”
The crowd roared again. Five young men, not much older than twenty, were ushered out onto the stands by the guards. Two were already trembling. Another began to piss himself- the sand darkening and turning to sludge beneath his feet.
“Numerius, Mamercus, Titus, Servius and Appius, you have one final chance to rise above yourselves. Fight well, and you may yet be spared. If you at least die with honour, you will have demonstrated some redemption!”
As the five made their way toward the centre of the arena, the crowd booed them viciously. For Praxites, their own nerves were soothing his own- this might be easier than I thought.
Nepos gestured from his balcony for the crowd to fall silent. Then he bellowed again.
The crowd let out another huge cheer. Praxites bolted forward, toward his opponents.
They each had a simple wooden shield on their left arms, with small swords to strike back with. The only clothing they had been granted were their boots and leather underwear- they were horribly exposed in every other way.
The first of them, Numerius, was a short, non-descript man with little in the way of fat on him but not much muscle either. Praxites snarled as he approached, but to Numerius credit he didn’t back away like the rest. Instead he lashed out with his sword, but his attack was uncoordinated, and Praxites easily avoided every slash.
Numerius came at him again, sword swiping for Praxites’ stomach. Praxites leaped clear, then brought his shield not only up but forward, knocking Numerius’ sword back and knocking Numerius off-balance. He stepped forward, and quick as a flash snapped his own sword forward. He caught Numerius on the left side of his stomach, his sword piercing flesh and then withdrawing quickly. Numerius cried out in pain- the wound was serious but not fatal, yet it was most certainly painful.
Praxites followed up quickly. His shield became the weapon, slamming hard into Numerius’ face. His nose was broken, with blood spattering everywhere. Now disorientated, Numerius stumbled, and Praxites slashed again, slicing across his chest. Before Numerius could even gasp, the shield cracked across his right cheek, cracking it instantly. Praxites flipped his sword around so the hilt was pointing toward his opponent, and slammed it into his teeth. Next, he turned his sword back around and cut into Numerius’ left thigh. Sword slammed into chest, and for good measure Praxites sliced across stomach, not quite deep enough to spill the intestines.
Blood was pouring from Numerius’ various wounds, watering the arena sands. The thief staggered, tried to bring his sword back up, and even took a weak swipe that Praxites easily parried with his own sword. But now the game changed.
Appius stepped forward to help his colleague. It was too little too late- but it was an unwelcome distraction. His sword was aiming for Praxites’ throat, but he quickly raised his shield to block, and swung his own sword back.
It clattered against Appius’ shield, who was at least showing some sense of fight. But Praxites was starting to enjoy himself now. He was beginning to understand why Nimr reveled in the fight. His sword came back, and he span round, parrying another attack from Appius, before stepping forward, knocking a defensive swipe from Appius down, and stabbing forward. Appius managed to block with his own shield, but wasn’t expecting Praxites’ boot to connect hard with his right knee. He grunted in pain, but held his ground, and now the other three were coming forward…