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An 11,000-word short story by Mercedes Vox
Included in Fairytales Slashed, Volume 8
Published by Less Than Three Press
June 19, 2017
Based on The Lion and the Mouse, an Aesop’s Fable.
Noctua Audax is a champion gladiator in an outskirt city of Ancient Rome, forced by his ambitious lanista to battle a lion on the sands of the arena to show up a rival. But the lion, Atlas, is no ordinary beast . . . .
17 Augustus, 117
Storm clouds never failed to form over the arena after I won a match, as if the gods themselves were angry with me for exiting victorious.
I leaned an aching shoulder against the archway separating the barrack of the resident familia gladiatorium from the sands of the Amphitheater at Rusellae. For five years, I had been champion of the venue. Although I wasn’t the tallest, the most muscular, or even the strongest of Messalla’s gladiators, I was by far the best, cherished by my master and revered by Rusellae’s citizens. A double-edged sword accompanied that degree of adoration. While I had earned privileges denied to other gladiators, my popularity kept the wooden hilt of the coveted rudis of freedom far from my grasp. Messalla would sooner separate his cock from his body than free me.
My reprieve from this life of deadly servitude would come only at the expense of my own blood reddening the sands of the arena. I put the mouth of the wine-filled amphora to my lips and drank deeply to dull the pain of that knowledge. As the last bout of the day entered its waning moments, the closest of my brothers came to stand beside me.
Naevius slung an arm across my shoulders. “Messalla will gift us with wine and women for such decisive victory.” One side of his mouth quirked up into a lopsided grin, and he nodded toward my amphora. “Your presence guarantees less of the former and more of the latter for the rest of us. Gratitude for your preference of cock over cunt, Noctua Audax.”
I took another swallow of wine before handing the amphora to Naevius. “What do you know of the special event planned by Messalla to close today’s games? Your ability to ferret out villa gossip is far keener than my own.”
After partaking of the drink, Naevius barked out a sardonic laugh. “As if Messalla needs more reason to envy hated rival, House of Bucco has made acquisition of a renowned Aegyptian bestiarius, who will grace our sands on this day before Apollo’s four horses escort the sun from the sky.”
There would not be enough wine in all the Roman Empire to douse the flames of covetousness burning in the breast of our master, Decimus Fabius Messalla. He had long been obsessively jealous of the House of Bucco’s location in the seaport city of Ostia, due to trade advantage and proximity to Rome. Only rarely did senators or citizens of Rome holding high station ever visit Rusellae, whereas the practice was common in the Amphitheater at Ostia. Even the fact that our home arena was a hundred years newer than its counterpart in Ostia provided Messalla with cause for envy, as Romans often valued antiquity and pedigree to a ludicrous extent. Ambition to place his name on the lips of Emperor Hadrian, on the throne for merely a week, would most certainly result in Messalla endeavoring to equalize the talent composition of his training ludus against that of Bucco.
I retrieved the amphora from Naevius and emptied half the remaining contents into my belly. This day would not end well, and I intended to see it out with as much liquid salve for my soul as I could swallow and remain standing.
The final gladiatorial match of the day ended with Bucco’s injured combatant declaring surrender by raising the two-fingered gesture of the missio. Trumpets sounded from the pulvinus box overlooking the arena, and Messalla rose from his ornate daybed cushion to address the crowd. With no dignitaries from Rome in attendance, it fell to the lanista, as owner of the local house sponsoring the games, to also act as judge and decide the fallen man’s fate.
Messalla opened his arms as if embracing the crowd. “On this auspicious day, when esteemed colleague from House of Bucco honors House of Messalla with his presence, I am inclined to exercise leniency toward his wounded slave. What say the people of Rusellae?”
Although typically rife for blood, the crowd of almost five thousand responded to Messalla’s query with a resounding, collective chant. “Let him live! Let him live! Let him live!”
With a smile as bright as the sun, Messalla thrust his right hand forward with his thumb extended parallel to the ground. With a quarter turn, he pointed the digit skyward. The crowd erupted into cheers, applause, and stomping, with the resulting noise loud enough to shake the very ground under my feet.
“Send him away standing,” Messalla shouted over the din. “Recall my generosity when you speak of me!”
Two attendants from the visitors’ barrack on the opposite side of the arena ran onto the field to render aid to the injured Bucco gladiator. Once they had disappeared into the bowels of the amphitheater, Messalla held up a hand to silence the spectators.
Messalla turned toward his right and smiled at Servius Modius Bucco, the gluttonous collection of lard from Ostia. “I grant you the honor, respected lanista, of introducing the newest gladiator representing your prestigious house.”
Bucco struggled off his daybed, not bothering to put down the roasted leg of hare on which he had been feasting. Red-faced and out of breath, he addressed the crowd. “From the uncivilized wilds of Aegyptus, I bring you Volcacius the Lion-Slayer and his quarry, the king of beasts!”
A tall, black-skinned man strode onto the sand from the visitors’ barrack. Armor fashioned of expensive hammered-bronze and links of iron rings adorned him, and he carried both a net and a spear. The trapdoor in the center of the arena opened. A heavy iron chain affixed to a wide collar attached a massive Barbary lion, muscular and dark of mane, to the rising platform. The animal roared, displaying impressive fangs made for rending meat from bones.
Volcacius’s proficiency proved impressive, his demeanor confident to the point of arrogance as he circled the lion and teased it with taunting jabs of his spear. Just as I thought Volcacius bore the net only as a prop of intimidation, he spun the lead-weighted web of rope over his head and let it fly at ground level. Although the lion did not become entangled in the net, the force knocked the animal’s legs out from under its body, leaving it vulnerable to close-up attack.
Contest between man and beast concluded with more speed than I had anticipated, ending with the Lion-Slayer’s spear piercing the animal’s chest in a mortal blow.
Sensing eyes upon me, I looked toward the pulvinus box, where Messalla had his cruel gaze locked on me. I knew the man, likely better than he knew his own mind. In that moment, I resigned myself to the notion I would soon share living space with a lion.