The Thracian's Spark

by Yoann Ré

She entered the alcove as deftly as a cat. Her stola was whiter than Divine Astraea’s immaculate robe. Her delicate fingers wrapped around the side of the alcove’s archway and her gaze caught me unawares. Her deep green eyes devoured my face as if I were a piece of sweetmeat. She let her eyes wander all over my oiled body – if I hadn’t been through this a dozen times before, I would have felt violated. In a way, I still did.

            Her skin resembled tanned leather. Her dark auburn hair was held up by what appeared to be a carefully carved bone. Her appearance shouted that her family belonged to the equestrian or senatorial class, but then again, all women who requested to see me were from wealthy families. She was graceful and attractive, but young. So very young. This time would be…interesting.

            Her lips stretched into an appreciative smile and she circled around me like a lioness does before leaping at an isolated antelope. They always like to look at the product before tasting it. As bizarre as it might sound, the arena wasn’t the most challenging part of a gladiator’s life. My heart thumped against my chest as furiously as the final blows of a fight. I was a mere object for her; a meaningless piece of meat to be enjoyed before moving on to the next attraction. I felt naked in a whole different way.

            The alcove darkened as another figure appeared in the archway. I was surprised to see a man. They usually came alone – it was socially frowned upon for a woman to personally visit a gladiator for anything other than watching him fight; it was downright condemned when they were married, which most were. Secrecy was therefore crucial. Yet the man saw the young woman loitering about me and he kept his cool. His face darkened and he barked a cold “Flora”.

            Her smile widened but she walked away from me. She hugged the man’s tense arm and brushed her cheek against his shoulder. He was older than she, but that was to be expected. It was probably his second – or third – marriage and her first. I expected them to leave right away, but the man inspected every inch of my body just like his wife had done. His stare was one of disapproval, however.

            ‘Why the oil?’ he asked.

            ‘Dominus ordered me to be oiled before your arrival.’

            The man swore and glanced behind him. ‘The pervert. I’ll crucify that lanista the first chance I get.’ He turned back to me and produced a rag from under his toga. He threw it at me as if I were a dirty beggar. ‘Brush that filth off you. I’ll feel defiled if I spend another minute in the presence of a shiny slave.’

            I fixed him with cold eyes and wished we were in the wilderness with no witnesses. The spectre of crucifixion hung over my head, and even though my master, Batiatus, would hate to lose his most lucrative asset, assaulting a member of the nobility was unforgivable. I clenched the rag and rubbed it against my arm. Flora smiled and brought a finger to her lips. She let go of her husband and disappeared behind his back, her eyes glued to my body. My success in the arena had kept me alive, but fame came with undeniable drawbacks. How I longed to be like Correus; alive and fairly unknown. How I longed to be with him now… Joking around a jug of wine for the last meal – the “unrestricted meal” as they called it, where gladiators could break from training regimen and drink and eat whatever they wanted the evening before the games. I had not imagined spending my potentially last evening with a couple of patrician pricks.

            They simply stood there and watched me as I wiped the oil off my thighs. Flora caressed her husband’s shoulders and neck, her eyes still on me, as if my degrading task aroused her. When I got to my feet and had to squat, her eyes flickered and she nibbled on the man’s earlobe. I tried to hide my genitals but the loincloth was too narrow to be fully effective.

            ‘Enough,’ the man said. ‘Are you happy now?’ he asked Flora, pulling away from her.

            ‘Not yet,’ she said in a childish voice.

            I threw the blackened rag to the side and straightened, folding my hands over the loincloth. Flora got very close to me and brought her face inches from mine. She stared at my cheekbones, my ear, and then she disappeared behind me.

            ‘The champion of the arena,’ she whispered in my other ear. She materialised in the corner of my eye. ‘The champion of Capua.’ She carefully enunciated the last word, making it sound grand. ‘You do look magnificent. And more impressive from up close.’ She glanced sideways at her husband. ‘Doesn’t he, Father?’

            Father. I gaped at the man in total disbelief. Flora saw my expression and giggled. She had been preparing for this moment all along. The father sighed and waved.

            ‘Let’s get out of here.’

            ‘Oh no, Father. I’m not done.’

            The man closed his eyes and leaned against the archway.

            ‘I’ve had time to talk to your master before coming here,’ Flora said, tilting her head sideways. ‘And I’ve learnt interesting things about you.’ Her grin grew wider.

            I feared what she would say next.

            ‘I will be attending tomorrow’s games, of course. I look very much forward to seeing you in action again. Especially since I get to choose who you will face.’

            My blood boiled in my veins. She couldn’t.

            ‘I think it will add some spice to the fight if you face your dear friend Correus.’

            ‘No.’ It came out of my mouth before I could think. Before I could control myself and deprive her of the joy of seeing my panic and desolation.

            She giggled again and it made my hair rise on my arms.

            ‘You can’t,’ I said in spite of myself. ‘You don’t get to decide this.’

            She spun round to look at her father. He left the archway and stood next to his daughter. ‘I am aedile Lucius Vedius. I am organising and offering these games to the people of Capua.’

            Flora turned back to me with a bright, white smile. ‘I choose!’ she squeaked.
 
~~~
 
The sand under my feet was wet and dark with the blood from the executions. Crimson patches were scattered all around me, a mixture of animal and human blood. A lion, a tiger and seven men had lost their lives here before I stepped on the sand. Two lions, a panther and a man – a gladiator from our rival ludus – had survived. I was the main attraction of the day. I was what these thousands of people had been looking forward to with eager impatience. 
They were shouting their lungs out, producing a deafening hubbub echoed by the circular arena. They wanted to see me spill blood. The blood of my opponent of the day – blood that was more precious to me than all the gold in the world. I looked at Correus and saw the pain in his eyes. He didn’t want to strike me any more than I wanted to strike him. We were two helpless slaves condemned to death or eternal grief. I wanted to run away, but there was no way to escape the arena – not alive, at any rate.

            The crowd slowly grew silent and I glimpsed a white figure stand up in the magistrates’ balcony. It was the aedile Lucius Vedius. Seated behind him, I could make out Flora and Batiatus among other people I didn’t know. Vedius’ voice resounded across the stadium and introduced me and my exploits with colourful words. His galling voice cried my name – immediately followed by maddening cheers – then Correus’ name and he finally declared the duel open.
My hands were moist. I tried to grip the shield and my sica but the handles kept shifting under my fingers. Correus couldn’t bring himself to look at me in the eyes, so he simply stared at my feet. His gladius and tall shield were raised, but he didn’t look ready to fight. I wasn’t either.

            We remained motionless for too long and the crowd quickly voiced its impatience. Insults rose and Vedius and his friends became agitated. We had to do something.

            Before I could summon up the courage to strike first against my closest friend, he leaped at me. His explosive energy surprised me but I parried blow after blow, moving around and staying on my toes to get out of the way as swiftly as possible. He was a powerful man, so overpowering him was not an option. However, he lacked in stamina what he had in strength, and he soon weakened.

            The fire I had seen in his eyes vanished, and I recognised my dear friend in an instant. His arms went limp, his gladius hung alongside his leg and he backed away from me. His eyes, barely visible in the shade produced by his helmet, glittered with kindness. That was the primary reason I had become quickly attached to him; I often wondered how he had managed to survive and defeat opponents in the arena, when it was against his very nature to cause harm. But here he was standing, and thousands of people were pressuring me into driving a blade into this gift of Nature.

            I rushed him and aimed at his shield. My sica hit the wood and splintered it repeatedly. I kept moving forward and sometimes Correus would stick out his gladius in a vain attempt to counter-attack, but I was in control. I soon realised there was no point in making the moment last; it only made the pain last longer. I hated myself for thinking of ending it all, but like it or not, it was my best option. I feinted a blow to his right thigh; he swung sideways to parry it and I seized the opportunity to hook his left foot in mine and trip him. He landed flatly on the hot sand and I jumped on him. I took his fallen gladius and joined it to my sica to form an X above his throat.

            I stared into his eyes. He knew I wasn’t going to move – I hope he knew, at any rate. I was about to whisper when he read my thoughts and lifted two fingers towards the sky in order to signal his surrender. I smiled inwardly. There was a way to avoid total disaster.

            I looked up hopefully at the balcony. Vedius appeared in his immaculate toga, shining brightly in the sunshine. My heart was thumping against my chest; my head felt cold, the drops of sweat icy as they rolled down my cheeks. So much rested on the will of a single man. A Roman citizen. A magistrate. I realised I knew all along what the decision would be. When he officially refused and ordered the death of Correus, I looked down at my friend with tears in my eyes.

            I couldn’t. His loving eyes were staring back at me, almost begging me to get it over with. I stood up and let the swords hang limply on the side. I was determined not to do it. I defied Vedius with my eyes, but all I saw was agitation under the balcony within the arena. Vedius was staring back at me, immobile. He was in range of a gladius throw but I reluctantly shrugged the thought off. Archers appeared, arrows notched and ready to shoot at the slightest signal.
Correus’ voice reached my ears like a divine calling. ‘Do it. Please, brother, just do it.’

            I looked at him but only saw a blurry shape through the tears. ‘I’d rather die,’ I mumbled.

            ‘Don’t be ridiculous. You will soon earn your freedom and be able to live life to the fullest.’

            It didn’t move me. I kept staring at him, feeling the tip of the arrows aimed at me.

            ‘I’m a dead man,’ Correus went on. ‘If you don’t do it, the archers will. I am not leaving this arena alive. Do you think I’ll be happy knowing you’re dead with me? Don’t you think I’ll be happier knowing that you’ll live on and have a proper life? We’ve dreamed about this, and if it’s not a possibility for me anymore, let me dream through you.’

            My chest started shaking. The dilemma was gnawing at my intestines.

            ‘I would rather die from your blade than from those dirty rotten cruts’ arrows. You would say the same.’

            He was right. Too right. He left me no choice. I bent over, placed the blades over his throat and muttered inarticulately: ‘I’m sorry.’

            As the blades crossed each other and I saw life seep out of Correus’ eyes, an incontrollable rage took over me. I spread my arms and pointed both swords to the crowd. I swung around, released an unintelligible roar, letting them believe I was responding to their cheers, and then I faced Vedius and his group. Drowned in the maddening uproar, I screamed from the bottom of my lungs:

            ‘My name is Spartacus! I will have my revenge!’