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‘I don’t think I fancy the odds on the tall one,’ muttered Centurion Macro.
‘Why’s that, sir?’
‘Look at him, Cato! The man’s all skin and bones. Won’t last long against the opposition.’ Macro nodded to the other side of the makeshift arena where a short, thickset prisoner was being armed with a buckler and short sword. The man took the unfamiliar weapons reluctantly and eyed up his opponent. Cato looked over to the tall, thin Briton, naked except for a small leather loin guard. One of the legionaries assigned to arena duties thrust a long trident into his hands. The Briton hefted the trident experimentally and adjusted his grip for the best balance. He seemed to be a man who knew his weapons and moved with a certain amount of poise.
‘I’ll bet on the tall one,’ Cato decided.
Macro swung round. ‘You mad? Look at him.’
‘I have looked, sir. And I’ll back my judgement with money.’
‘Your judgement?’ The centurion’s eyebrows rose. Cato had only joined the legion the winter before, a fresh-faced youth from the imperial household in Rome. A legionary for less than a year and already throwing his judgements about like a veteran.
‘Have it your own way then.’ Macro shook his head and settled down to wait for the fight to begin. It was the last bout of the day’s games laid on by the legate, Vespasian, in a small dell in the middle of the Second Legion’s marching camp. Tomorrow the four legions and their support troops would be on the march again, driven on by General Plautius in his determination to seize Camulodunum before autumn closed in. If the enemy capital fell, the coalition of British tribes, led by Caratacus of the Catuvellauni, would be shattered. The forty thousand men under Plautius were all that Emperor Claudius could spare for the audacious invasion of the misty isles off the coast of Gaul. Every man in the army was aware that they were greatly outnumbered by the Britons. But as yet the enemy were dispersed. If the Romans could only strike quickly at the heart of British resistance before the imbalance in numbers weighed against the legions, victory would be within their grasp. The desire to push forward was in all their hearts, although the tired legionaries were grateful for this day’s rest and the entertainment provided by the fights.
Twenty Britons had been paired against each other, armed with a variety of weapons. To make things more interesting the pairs had been picked by lot out of a legionary helmet and a handful of the bouts had been entertainingly unbalanced. Like this last one appeared to be.
The legion’s eagle-bearer was acting as master of ceremonies and strode out to the centre of the arena, arms waving for silence. The eagle-bearer’s assistants rushed to take final bets and Cato sat back down beside his centurion, having got odds of five to one. Not good, but he had staked a month’s pay and if the man won, Cato would make a tidy sum. Macro had bet on the muscle-bound opponent with sword and buckler. Much less money, at much tighter odds, reflecting the assessment of the fighters.
‘Quiet! Quiet there!’ the eagle-bearer bellowed. Despite the holiday atmosphere, the automatic grip of discipline exerted itself over the gathered legionaries. Within moments over two thousand shouting, gesticulating soldiers stilled their tongues, and sat waiting for the bout to begin.
‘Last fight, then! On my right I give you a swordsman, well-built, and a skilled warrior, or so he claims.’
The crowd howled with derision. If the Briton was so bloody good, why the hell was he here fighting for his life as their prisoner? The swordsman sneered at the audience, and suddenly raised his arms, screaming out a defiant war cry. The legionaries jeered back. The eagle-bearer allowed the shouting to continue a moment, before calling for silence again. ‘On my left we have a trident. Says he’s a squire to some chief or other. A weapon-carrier by trade, not a user. So this should be nice and quick. Now then, you lazy bastards, remember that normal duties begin right after the noon signal.’
The crowd groaned rather too much to be convincing and the eagle-bearer smiled good-naturedly. ‘Right then, fighters – to your marks!’
The eagle-bearer backed away from the centre of the arena, a grassy sward, smeared with glistening patches of crimson where previous fighters had fallen. The contestants were led up behind two divots scored in the turf and made to face each other. The swordsman raised his short sword and buckler, and lowered himself into a tense crouch. By contrast the trident held his weapon vertically and almost seemed to be leaning on it, thin face completely expressionless. A legionary gave him a kick and indicated that he should prepare himself. The trident merely rubbed his shin instead, wincing painfully.
‘Hope you didn’t bet much on that one,’ Macro commented.
Cato didn’t reply. What the hell was the trident up to? Where was the poise of a moment ago? The man looked unconcerned, almost as if the whole morning had been a boring drill instead of a series of fights to the death. He had better be acting.
‘Begin!’ the eagle-bearer shouted.
At the word the swordsman howled, and hurtled forward at his opponent fifteen paces away. The trident lowered the shaft of his weapon and jabbed the wicked points towards the throat of the shorter man. The war cry died away as the latter ducked, knocking the trident to one side and thrusting for a quick kill. But the response was neatly worked. Rather than trying to recover the point of the trident, the tall Briton merely allowed the butt to swing round and smash into the side of the swordsman’s head. His opponent dropped to the ground, momentarily stunned. The trident quickly reversed the weapon and moved in for the kill.
‘Get up, you dozy bastard!’ Macro shouted, hands cupped.
The trident lanced down at the figure on the ground, but a frantic sword swipe knocked the points aside from his neck. The trident still drew blood, but only from a shallow slash on the shoulder. Those in the audience who had taken the long odds groaned in dismay as the swordsman rolled to one side and got back onto his feet. He was panting, eyes wide, all arrogance gone now that he had been so neatly tricked. His tall opponent ripped the trident free of the soil and went into a crouch, a fierce expression twisting his face. There would be no more pretending from now on, just a trial of strength and skill.
‘Get on with it!’ Macro shouted. ‘Stick the bastard in the guts!’
Cato sat silently, too self-conscious to join in with the shouting, but urgently willing his man on, fists clenched by his sides – despite his aversion to such fights.
The swordsman quickly side-stepped, testing the other man’s reactions to see if the earlier move had been a fluke. But an instant later the tips of the trident were back in line with his throat. The crowd cheered appreciatively. This had the makings of a good fight after all.
The trident suddenly feinted, matched by his opponent’s well-balanced backward hop, and the crowd cheered again.
‘Good move!’ Macro thumped one fist into the palm of the other. ‘If we’d faced more like this it’d be us fighting out there. These two are good, very good.’
‘Yes, sir,’ Cato replied tensely, eyes fixed on the pair now circling each other over bloodstained grass. The sun blazed down on the spectacle. The birds singing in the oak trees surrounding the dell seemed quite out of place. For a moment Cato felt disturbed by the comparison... -- Dieser Text bezieht sich auf eine andere Ausgabe: Taschenbuch .