Mercy is death in the arena.
A warrior must accept the weapons drawn against him. He must honor such an action with the drawing of his own weapons. He must look his opponent in the eyes, let his opponent look back, and let the best of himself rise to meet the challenges of battle.
A warrior mustn't show mercy.
Mercy is death in the arena.
The Colosseum is hot today. No clouds offer cover from the buzzing sun. The horses are not braying or bucking in their stables. Though I am a mere ten paces from the lion cages, I hear only an occasional low bellow. Even though the crowds' cheering sends rumbles throughout the corridors, the lions don't pace. The horses don't neigh. The other men sweat silently into their leather thigh guards and armored breast plates and try to breathe their fear away into the dusty air.
I pull my swords from their sheaths. When I lay the blades against my thighs, they are still cool. I do not sweat into the pads under my armor because I am not wearing any armor. I do not have a helmet to cover my head so the beads of sweat bubble up and run, unchecked, down my head and neck, down the ridges of my back and the rolling flesh of my chest and stomach. They roll over the scars from the slavers' whips, the scars from the African who ran his sword across my shoulder and face. They roll over the scars from the horseback archer's arrows, arrows he loosed before I brought him down with my spear. My flesh is a map of the roiling will of the gods.
My flesh is a map of violence.
It has always found me. From childhood, violence found me, only ever leaving for a short while, always returning again. It orbits me. My pull is too great. The constellations on my skin, wounds from sword and ax and arrow and spear, raised and discolored, circle my body. It is the night sky of my life, swirling in a dying universe.
As the sweat runs its course, tickling its way across skin and scar, down into my leather belt and the sand-colored cloth around my loins, I feel their weight. Each scar reminds me of those who gave them. Each scar echoes the cries of the dead.
To break my skin is to meet the boatman, to sway and bob across the river styx.
The weight of this is getting harder to hold. I never cared for armor. I never liked the feel of it. Mostly, I never cared for carrying the extra weight. The weight of my life was always enough.
On the farm where I lived before the soldiers came for me, my master tasked me with carrying tools for the soil workers. They tilled the ground for seed, sometimes by hand, sometimes with a plow and a horse, and I carried the leather strapping, the picks and posts for rock moving, and any smaller items my five-year-old arms could carry. I didn't share a common tongue with the slavers, or the master, but they usually gave me food at the end of the day. Sometimes they gave me more food than I'd ever had in my own house.
And they gave me my strength.
The things I carried got bigger, the amount of things more numerous. I moved from carrying leather tow straps to using them. Now, as I run my fingers along the straps of my belt and sword sheaths, I can hear the hiss of leather grinding across the calloused years. I remember the first time the leather pulled the skin from my hands into raised, shining blisters. My palms are thicker now, from plowing and moving rocks, and from wielding sword and spear. The splinters that once plunged into the skin and meat of my scrawny hands would shattered against the weathered skin now. It would take work to drive even a sharpened nail through them.
The other men are murmuring again. Another cart is making its way toward us from the arena. Will it be dead Romans, or Greeks? Maybe one of the Egyptian chariot drivers?
The cart rounds the end of the corridor. Workers are wheeling a horse out from the arena. It is on its side, motionless other than the heaving of its final breaths, and it stays still and silent even when a man tears four arrows and a spear from its flesh. One of the men across from me vomits between his feet. The men beside him try to ignore it, try to hold in their own vomit. One of the men laughs and slaps his back.
As the horse passes me, its eyes are closing. The black eyes shine like ponds in a desert. They seem to stare up clearly for a moment, seem to find me, but then the heaving of the chest stops and the horse is gone.
In my ninth year, the master's most trusted slave, Arlos, showed me how to drive a plow horse, how to guide it to keep the furrows straight, how to use the horse and plow to remove big rocks from the field without help. I plowed the smallest tracts. I was given the smallest horse. The other plow horses were stronger, faster, and easier to steer. The other slaves, when finished with their work, would hand off their horses to the stable maids and return to some other duty. Arlos made me do all of my own stable work. I didn't speak his language, and he didn't speak mine, but without a word, he showed me how to strip and clean all of the equipment. I washed the sweat and dirt from the saddle blankets, from the saddles, the bridle. I cleaned and dried the collar and the bit. He showed me how to mount them on my horse to avoid blisters and sores. He showed me how to hang them so they would dry properly and be ready for the next day. There are few things in my life I have enjoyed more than standing silently beside Arlos and seeing all of our tools and gear hanging, clean, in their proper places.
Arlos taught me about the horses. He showed me when to call out to them, when to use the whips, and when to be silent. He showed me how they liked to walk for awhile after hard work. They liked to calm down, walk free of plow or bit or rider, before returning to the stables. He showed me how to clean them, how to check for cuts or large bruises, and how to wash and rub them down. He placed my hands on the horse's hamstrings, squeezing my fingers and using my hands to massage the muscles. At first, massaging a horse seemed weird. It scared me. The second time I ever touched my horse's leg, Arlos pointed to the horse and then grabbed his own leg, massaging it the way he wanted me to massage the horse. The moment my fingertips touched the horse, the horse grunted and tried to kick me. Arlos laughed. After I picked myself up off the ground and realized I wasn't dead, I laughed, too.
Once the horse got used to me, I could tell he liked the washing and massages. His movements slowed. His breathing changed. Arlos placed my hand on the horse's chest. He brought my attention to the heartbeat. He made a sound with each beat, baboom, baboom, and made me aware of how the heartbeat would slow, how the horse would become calm. I would nod and smile. He would nod back. He showed me other signs of health or illness, in the eyes and nose, in the mouth, in the horse's piss and dung. He taught me to watch these things, to notice how taking care of things made them work better. He showed me how taking care of something else could make me feel better. I did notice. The horse always worked better the next day when I took care of him the night before. He kicked less, bit less, stopped less. Seeing him work better made me work better.
It made me feel better.
I didn't notice at the time, but I think Arlos made me do my own stable work to keep me out of the harder work in the field. I think he knew the cool and quiet of the stables would be good for me. It kept me away from some of the other, rougher men. I think he knew caring for a horse would be good for me, too.
But I didn't always do a good job. Sometimes I grew tired midday. Sometimes the work and the heat and the hunger were too much. Sometimes the memory of my family was too much. Some days, tired and angry, I would take the horse straight to the stables without a relaxing walk. I would rush through the cleaning processes and rush through the brushing and massage. The next day's work was never the same.
One day, after a rushed night of halfhearted duties, we struggled at the plow. The horse didn't want to pull. He wanted even less to be whipped, and after three hard whips he planted his front feet and let his back feet strike out at me. His hooves caught the side post for the plow and snapped the wooden supports in two places. One of the jagged edges swung up and dug into my forearm, leaving a gash and a handful of splinters I would have to cut and pick out one by one.
It took almost an hour for the workers to calm him down and return him to the stables, and more than an hour for the men to repair the broken plow base. They hissed at me and, I assume, swore in their native tongues, and I caught glances from most of them I will never forget.
Arlos laid a hand on my shoulder and spoke words I couldn't understand. Even without knowing what he was saying, I felt comforted.
The next day, we returned to the field and set to work again. But again, the horse didn't want to work. He didn't kick the plow this time, but he raised up and stomped the ground before him. He reared up and stomped, again and again, and refused to move forward. When one of the larger men came over to whip the horse, the horse took the whipping without a sound. He would not move.
The next day, he did the same.
The last day, he did the same.
It was then Arlos taught me about the way of things. If a horse works, he is serving a purpose. If something has purpose, it has value. If a work horse won't work, his purpose diminishes. His value is limited to other things. One thing a good horse can be used for is breeding. My horse did not have such value. He was the smallest, weakest horse in the stable. He was not a quick learner or a compliant worker. This limited his value as a breeder.
A work horse could be sold off. But no one would want to buy a scrawny, stubborn horse who didn't like to work, and the master wasn't one to lie about a horse's worth. The amount he could get for the horse wouldn't be worth as much as the last option.
Food. Horses could be food. A horse who isn't a worker or a breeder can feed the people who are working. Arlos expressed this to me without words, that this was the way of things.
On the fourth day, two slaves came for the horse. They unhooked him from the plow and walked him on a light lead to the black house. The black house was a separate building, away from the barn and stables, where the hunters brought their deer and where the animal workers brought their pigs and birds.
Again, after some time apart, death had circled back to me.
Now, under the Colosseum, the horse on the cart will be sold for its meat.
It served its purpose, and now will serve a final purpose.
I return my swords to their sheaths. Two swords are the only weapons I will bring into the arena. I once wore heavy armor. I once used a spear, long sword, daggers, and mace. These things fell away slowly, piece by piece, with each battle I won. The people remembered me after my third fight. By then, I'd left the spear and mace behind, settling for my swords and daggers. After my third fight – after carving out the throat of an Egyptian – I cut the leather over my shoulders and let the massive back and breastplates of armor fall from my torso to the bloodied sand. Each time I discarded a new item, the roars from the crowd grew. They grew in volume and in admiration. They grew in fearful anticipation.
Once the armor hit the sand, an archer on horseback was released into the arena. I retained my thigh armor, which is where the first arrow struck. The armor slowed the arrow down but didn't stop it, and the sharpened point tore into my leg.
On the archer's second pass, his arrow sang past my neck, ripping through the air near my ear. My long sword deflected the third arrow. As he rode toward me for his fourth pass, I took the long sword in both hands. I didn't wait for him to come to me. I charged out into the horse's path and the archer was too busy lining up his shot to steer the beast in a new direction. The arrow ripped through the ribs on the right side of my chest, sending white hot pain down into my pelvis and into the center of my spine. I stumbled, but regained my balance as the horse was about to past. The arrow wound screamed as I reared back and prepared the sword for flight. As it left my hands, I knew it would find its mark.
The blade rolled end over end before crashing into the archer's helmet. The impact echoed in the arena and pulled gasps from the crowd. The archer toppled from his horse and fell headlong to the ground. The clatter of his armor covered the sound of his neck snapping, and the crowd gasped collectively again. I retrieved the long sword and the crowd murmured. I walked to the downed archer and the crowd sizzled with anticipation. I removed my helmet and threw it to the ground. The crowd was ready. When I raised the long sword above the archer's quivering body, the crowd was ready. When I brought it down into his chest, the arena erupted.
I wouldn't wear a helmet again.
I left the long sword buried in his chest and took the gladius from his belt. His short sword and my own would be my weapons. A blade in each hand and nothing more. I cut the thigh pads from my legs and laid them out on his chest. I could feel the blood running down my side from the arrow wound. I knew, under the chanting and roars of the Colosseum, that to leave myself unprotected would almost certainly mean death in the next battle. The people knew it, too. I could hear, in the center of their blood-crazed revelry, a disbelieving admiration. I could hear their pity and their pleasure. They were awed by my boldness. They hungered for my death knowing they would be saddened when it came. I could hear in their chants the desire for me to win and the knowing that I would lose.
I'd felt the same feelings. When the Roman soldiers came and burned the farm and killed most of the workers, those they didn't kill were pitted against each other in fights to the death. The soldiers placed bets. When I, the smallest male left alive, threw my sword into the face of my larger, stronger opponent, and stabbed into his unconscious body until two soldiers finally pulled my off of him, they saw in me what the Colosseum sees in me. They saw a wild animal. They saw insane desperation against impossible odds.
In each fight I became bolder, more reckless. I felt, at the same time, the desire to live and the desire to die. I threw myself at my opponents and tried, ferociously, to kill them all, but something deeper hoped in throwing myself wildly and recklessly forward that I would meet a quicker and more painless death for myself.
No matter how near I sat to the executioner, his blade ignored me.
No matter how loudly I cried for death to finally embrace me, his arms remained ever folded, his back turned.
The chants are rising in the Colosseum. Dust is rattling from the walls and ceiling of our holding room beneath the stadium. The people are stomping their feet. Their voices are a twisting, thunderous chaos. It sounds like the ravenous howling of beasts from the underworld. It is a noise that must anger the gods.
From the crazed screams, a word is emerging.
Two lines of soldiers approach me. Most warriors are marched out at spear point. Others are dragged, screaming, and thrown to the dusty ground in the center of the arena. For me, the soldiers line up along each wall and turn their backs. I take a position in their midst and we march to the entrance gate. The people seated on the far side of the Colosseum see us first. Their cries rise up and spread, left and right, until the noise has rolled like a wave around the entire stadium and back again. The ungodly sounds we heard beneath pale before the sounds that are now shaking all of Rome.
“Arlos! Arlos! Arlos!”
The slavers took my name. I do not now even remember what it ever was. They called me something in their native tongue that I will never know. The soldiers called me “puer ferox.” I have come to discover this means “wild boy.” This is what they called me but it is not my name. When they came for me on the farm and thrust their spears into the only person I ever loved, I took his name. I swing these swords for him. My hands do his work, my feet run for him. The only pleasure I feel in my life now is in this last moment before battle, as the soldiers turn and march back beneath the seats. My single, beautiful moment among all of the dark terror comes once a week when they shout his name to the heavens.
“Arlos immortales! Arlos immortales!”
Arlos, the immortal. I carry these swords for him. I carry these scars for him. I carry on his glorious name, and to hear it shouted by the farmers, the merchants, by sentries and Senators and slaves, and to see and hear it shouted, maybe loudest of all, by the Emperor himself, is the closest I will come to finding favor with the gods.
The men they have pitted me against today are slaves like me. They are men who were taken from their homes and forced to do things they never wished to do. No matter. If I must slay them to hear the name of my true father shouted before the gods, I will slay them. If the Emperor offers other men, I will slay them, too. His name will be shouted in this arena. His name will flow out along the endless roads of Rome until the empire's end. And if I have to kill every slave in every kindgom in all the world to continue the echo of his name throughout the entire Earth and all of history, I will. I'll kill them.
The men cry out, their weapons drawn. They run toward me on dead men's legs.
Arlos, the immortal.
I'll kill them all.