The arena was already cleared of the blood and gristle of the last fight between gladiators; dust settled on the empty booths. The spectators have gone home, satiated by yet another deathmatch between those who were condemned to fight — where only one emerged with his life spared and the other unfortunate, at day’s end, was carrion for the waiting vultures.
In the coliseum’s dungeons, a silent celebration took place. The moss-covered walls served as witness as each gladiator partook of a goblet of wine raised in honor of the one who lived. There was no fanfare, as gaiety and mirth were unknown in the dimness of the dungeons, where fighters — strong men and women though they are — were still subject to the whims and evil designs of the Usurper Princess Catatonia.
The one who lived, Marco Antonius Johanus, sat in the shadows. He has not changed out of his bloody rusty mail shirt, and the stench of blood from himself and from his fellow gladiator, who was now at peace with the gods, rose from his body like acrid perfume. He sat in the dark and watched his companions pledge to his health, with the single torch lighted for the occasion casting a copper glow on their scarred faces. He looked on and saw arms ripple with strong muscles; his fellow gladiators’ faces were hardened with despair and anguish, never certain who among their own comrades they must kill, or must be killed by, on the dirt-packed floor of the arena come the next daybreak.
For that was the fate of each of them; they were warriors cast into the dungeons because in one way or another, each one had displeased the Usurper Princess Catatonia. To regain their freedom, they were governed by the rule of survival, to participate in battle under the banner of Death herself. They must kill the other in order to gain a lease on one’s own life. The one who lived shall be set free and banished from the territory of the Empire of the Cube.
Marco Antonius Johanus savored the moments of his final eve as a gladiator. Bitterness and hate and despair and anguish mingled in his heart in his last eve among his own people. The one he killed earlier, with a sword pierced through the heart, was his own cousin.
His hate was reserved for the usurper. When the Usurper Princess Catatonia knew that two of her gladiators were related by blood, the ruler of the empire immediately arranged that Johanus shall fight him that day. Before the fight, the evil usurper even came down the dungeons and ordered both fighters to “give the empire the best entertainment for the feast of Lupercalia.”
The one who lived shall be taken out from the dungeons tomorrow, and he will be driven on a horsecart to the outskirts of the empire, where he will be left to walk across a vast desert to the next empire, the City of the Maze. Guards will make sure that he will never return to the Empire of the Cube.
And Marco Antonius Johanus had no intention of returning to the empire as long as the Usurper Princess Catatonia has the land in her death grip. He aims for better horizons. He thanked the soul of his cousin, who, before the fight, had wounded himself by plunging a dagger on his shoulder to give Johanus a better chance of winning. “Death is another form of freedom, cousin,” the fallen warrior had told him when the horrified Johanus discovered his cousin’s sacrifice. “Be free. Roam where evil is an unknown entity.”
The sun was at its zenith when Marco Antonius Johanus, once fallen warrior for the Usurper Princess Catatonia, reached the closed gates of the City of the Maze. He had traveled across the vast desert for three days and two nights to reach the city, and now, he was here.
Lookouts have spotted his limping ragged form approaching their citadel. One of them raised a horn to his lips and blew. The solemn sound reverberated through the desert floor, forcing Johanus to look around him to see if a battalion has appeared to shoot him down with poisoned arrows. He was tired of violence and so threw his rusty sword, which still had dried blood on its blade, and his cracked shield on the ground. The mail shirt that he had always worn as a badge of his gladiator status for the usurper princess, this he also threw down with his sword and shield. If the army of the City of the Maze should come now, he will welcome them and their arrows, but he himself will not fight anymore.
But the desert was silent.
Some moments later, the city gates opened. And a man, dressed in a white robe, came out and approached Johanus.
“Friend,” the man said, with his arms spread wide, welcoming the tired Johanus. He led the former warrior inside. “Our city’s gates are open only for those who aim high.”
Marco Antonius Johanus looked up at the sun. There, against the bluest sky, a lone eagle soared.
[Obviously, this is for Master Joh.]
[gladiator photo courtesy of http://huehueteotl.files.wordpress.com]