Anicetus sat on the bench, head in hands; he could hear the roar of the crowd above him, the never-ending buzz, rising and falling as the duel raged. It drowned out all noise as he sat, waiting for his turn to enter that theatre of death. He had sat all afternoon as, one by one, the men and women he had trained with for six years walked out of the door and the end of the long, undecorated and ill-lit room and up the ramp to dance with death for the first time. He did not know how many had lived and how many had died in that fierce pit in which one either gained fame and adoration, or a passage down to the dead. He was the last. The last battle of the afternoon, the climax of the day’s bloody entertainment would be his to fight.
He was last because he was the best. Everyone in the school knew that he was the greatest fighter to do battle today. His strength, speed and skill were unmatched. He was expected to become a gladiatorial legend, one of the greatest fighters ever to walk the sands of the arena, hallowed in blood. Today was the day that he would graduate from the sadistic school that he had hated and grown to love since the age of twelve. He had been trained and prepared for the arena and today was the day that he entered it and became a gladiator; became a man in the eyes of the trainers he hated and respected. It did not matter who he fought, so long has he spilled the blood of another in the sand he would complete his education. He would be baptized in the blood of another, or another would be baptized in his blood.
His heart was pumping; he could feel his body shaking. He breathed deep as fear and excitement battled for dominance. He stared at the dull, stone wall of his cell, anticipation made the battle raging above him last forever. The cries of the crowed still filled his ears. He fingered the coarse horsehair plume on the large iron helmet that sat next to him. Beside it was a short sword, flat and straight along one edge, but undulating along the razor sharp edge. It had been laboriously sharpened until it could cut through flesh and slice through armour. Leaning on the bench beside him was a large shield, made of interwoven wicker and covered with hard leather.
An extra large cheer went up above him as another warrior fell in battle. His heart beat doubled; he knew he was the next to enter the dance. He rose to his full height and drew in a deep breath. Bending, he grabbed the leather belt buckle, on which his sword was sheathed, and fastened it around his waist. He donned his all encompassing helmet, the great iron mass covered his ears and cheeks, stretching down to protect his neck. The helmet caused illusions in his hearing, creating a sound much like that of the sea washing up on the shore, reminding him of home. He could no longer hear the crowd. He picked up the large shield, slung it over his shoulder and put his arms through the loops in the middle.
He walked slowly to the end of the room, his heavy breathing extenuated by the confining helmet. The sound of the sea battled with the roar of the crowd. He turned and looked up the ramp at the sun beating down at him. He had not seen the sun all afternoon. He paused, blinked a couple of times, and started walking slowly up the ramp, emerging from the underworld beneath the Area onto the living sand of the theatre in which he would give his first performance, and maybe his last. He walked into light and life and the possibility of glory, or the end of life and a return to that gloomy underworld for all eternity.
The crowd drowned out the sound of the sea now that he was out into the open. The cheer as the newest piece of fresh meat emerged from below was deafening even from within the iron cage of the helmet. He looked around the stands; the crowd was enormous, the entire stadium was full, they were all cheering and chanting and screaming. Hungry wolves, waiting to see blood spilled for the last time in the day. Drunk on the blood they had already seen and the beer that had flowed like water all day. The sun ducked behind the stand as he walked across the arena and he was bathed in the darkness of the shadows. The sand itself was awash with blood from the day’s entertainment. The sand soaked it up and thirsted for more.
The arena was empty but for a lone giant, standing in the middle of the sea of sand. He stood, bathed as Anicetus was, in shadow. He was naked from the waste up and wore no helmet; his greasy blond hair framed an ugly face. In his enormous hands he held a huge hammer, blunt and dangerous in the hands of one so huge.
The two stared at each other; cold blue eyes met cold blue eyes, unblinking and unemotional. They measured each other up, two lions readying to fight, challenging the other to make a move. The crowd screamed and bayed for blood, but the two warriors merely stood and stared at each other, unmoved. Sweat trickled down Anicetus’ face. Despite the fact that they stood in the shade the arena was still oven-like. All day the sun had beaten down and the sand was hot under his feet.
A steward approached them and explained the rules that they already knew. This was one of those battles where there were no rules; the winner would take the glory, the loser would die. The steward called for them to begin and raced from the arena. Anitecus ripped his sword from his hip and brought his shield up. The crowd rose in anticipation. He rose onto the balls of his feet and his muscled tensed. He watched his opponent over the rounded shoulder of his shield, his sword rested alongside its re-curved edge. His opponent did not change his stance, nor did he avert his gaze.
They circled one another, waiting for an opportunity to strike. The noise of the crown only grew more intense. He shut it from his mind and focused on his opponent, who watched him intently, dragging the hammer behind him, creating a circle in the sand around the two fighters. Sweat continued to trickle down his face and down his arms. He could see sweat covering his opponent’s face too.
Suddenly the giant charged at him, hefting the hammer and readying himself for a swing. Anitecus charged his opponent and raised his shield to block the hammer blow. At the last second his opponent shifted his swing, deftly handling the huge weapon. Anicetus only just managed to bring his shield down to block the blow, but the power of it sent him hurtling through the air.
Anitecus rolled as he hit the floor and brought his shield up just in time to deflect the next powerful hammer blow. This time it caught him full on in the centre of the shield. His vision exploded and he screamed in pain as the bones in his arm shattered. He cried in pain and flecks of fiery white pain danced in his eyes. He recovered he composure in time to roll away from the next blow, but pain shot up his arm and stunned him as he rolled onto the broken arm.
Scrambling to his feet, he readied to defend the next onslaught. Exhaustion and pain addled him and sweat made his eyes sting. Rage filled the giant’s eyes as he stomped towards him, preparing for another attack. He lifted the hammer up high and swung down with almighty power. Anitecus danced backwards then leaped up, onto the back of his opponent’s weapon which was half buried in the sand and used if for leverage. He reversed his sword in midair and plunged it down in-between the shoulder and collarbone to the left of the giant’s neck. The keen blade sliced down into the fleshy space inside the ribcage and pierced the man’s heart. The crowd erupted over the sound of the sea in his ears.
Anitecus landed in the sand behind the falling giant, who had gone to his knees, the life draining from him. With one step he cleared the small gulf between them and retrieved the sword still embedded in his heart. Blood fountained out of the wound, soaking his face with the blood of his dying opponent. The giant fell face down in the sand, all life gone from him; his lifeblood spilled onto the sand. It soaked into the sand as though the area were consuming it, gorging on the blood.
Anitecus smiled. Looking around at the cheering crowds he could no longer hear the sea in his ear. He unbuckled his helmet and threw it into the sand. For the first time he heard the crowd at full volume. It was deafening. He raised his sword into the air and forgot the pain in his shield arm. His roar was drowned out by the crowd as they acknowledged their new hero. He had killed for the first time; he had graduated. He had entered the arena; he had become a gladiator.