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Igms issue 29, p.2

IGMS Issue 29, page 2


IGMS Issue 29

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  "My name's Caro."

  The boy stopped. "I don't like that name. I'll call you Chirgeon."

  "Chirugeon," I said, correcting his pronunciation. Caro was not an uncommon name. Perhaps he'd known a drunk or a bully of the same name. Or . . . "Where are you from?" I walked into the underground gallery, heading towards the Ludus.

  "From Carvetii. In Londinium, on the East Side."

  No surprise, then, that he still remembered the name of the Butcher. "Where's your sister?"

  "At a linen factory. She got a job as soon as we came here. She's very experienced. We're living out by the ruins for now, so we can stay together. I haven't found a job yet, but I make sure to walk her to and from the factory each day, so she doesn't ever have to walk alone. It's not good for a woman to walk alone. And during the days, I've been exploring the city."

  He chattered on non-stop about the harbor, the forum, and the markets for the next ten minutes, until we passed into the hallway that terminated in the service entrance. I'd expected the guards to be present - they always were, guarding the exit - but our timing was more opportune than I would have imagined. Three men, obviously gladiators from their builds and outfits, stood with their backs to me, facing Silus and two men I didn't recognize.

  "Father!" Stolo took off running straight at one of the gladiators, the one with the tightly braided brown hair. The gladiator - Metellus, his son had named him - turned at the call, his gruff face breaking into a smile at the sight of Stolo.

  I knew that face. I'd only seen it once before, at my trial, contorted in rage as he'd tried to reach me through the crowd only to be dragged away by the police. I'd never had a name to go with the face, though I could make the connection now. His wife's name had been Paulla.

  I slipped away before he could see me, though I knew I'd have to face him soon enough.

  Two days passed before Metellus found me. I was eating my barley and bean porridge in the common triclinium, a large room filled with tables, and, at this hour, with gladiators as well, which let out onto the ellipsoidal training arena. I'd lingered longer over breakfast than I should have, intrigued by the rumors regarding the beasts from the New World debuting at the upcoming games. It seemed the three new gladiators had been acquired less for their skill in fighting singly, but more for their ability to work as a team, be it in fights against men or beasts.

  Metellus came up behind me, grabbed my arm, and shoved me to the ground. He was flanked on either side by the two other new gladiators; I didn't know their names. The room was dead silent.

  "You killed my wife." Metellus spit the words at me.

  Perhaps there was something I could have said to head him off, but if so, I have no idea what it might have been. I had killed his wife. This was well known. There was no use in denying it. So I said nothing at all.

  "You killed my wife." His voice was pitched higher this time, and he followed the words with a kick to my groin. I curled up at the pain, but his friends grabbed my arms and pulled me up. They held me while he beat me, my face and my chest. After the first few blows, I let my legs collapse, hung limply, hoping he'd see me defeated and lose steam. It had worked when I'd been beaten in the past. I didn't think it would this time.

  "You think you've had enough, Butcher?" His voice was thick with rage, and something else. Loathing maybe. "That you can kill, and go on with your life, your profession?" He directed his friends to drop me. They held me spread-eagled, my hands flat to the ground as Metellus brought up his booted foot, held it over my hand.

  "Enough." Flavus tone was commanding, but Metellus wasn't listening. As he stomped down, Flavus tackled him. Alfred was right behind him, pushing one of Metellus' friends off me. Though Alfred was still only allowed to do light calisthenics, his build was massive and the others backed him up.

  Holding Metellus pinned down, Flavus said, "Take him to Blaesus, Alfred, then come back. We need to have a conversation with these men about how things work around here."

  Alfred helped me up, and supported me on the long walk to the surgical quarters where he left me on a cot under Blaesus' care. I tried to sit up after he left, but the pain was too much for me. I fell into blackness.

  I woke with the metallic tang of blood on my tongue. And to pain. I licked cautiously at my distended lip - the blood seemed to be dried.

  "I cleaned you up as best I could." Blaesus words were slurred, as usual. "Don't think nothing's broken, 'cept your nose. Cracked maybe."

  I grunted. It might hurt to talk. When I tried opening my eyes, only one obliged, and I couldn't keep it open long. I don't know how long I lay there, listening to Blaesus slurp his whisky, thankful that I couldn't smell the liquor. More thankful that when he occasionally brought me a cloth to sip on, it was soaked in water, not whiskey. That made me want to laugh - the thought of Blaesus wasting whiskey on a cloth.

  The next time Blaesus spoke, I didn't understand him at first. I'd been near sleep, and his words were slurred as usual. But he repeated himself, or at least he spoke again.

  "Why'd you do it?"

  It took me a moment to realize what he meant. But really there was only one thing he could have meant. I didn't choose to be a punching bag.

  "Why'd you kill all those women and . . . and-"

  "Eviscerate them?" I rasped. That's what the papers had called it. Evisceration. Mutilation. Butchery. "Do you really want to know?"

  "There are some what worry about the Lanista's servants . . ."

  "I've never touched a woman that didn't prostitute herself." My throat felt like sandpaper. "Water?"

  "And the women the guards bring in at night for the gladiators?"

  "Water?" I asked.

  Blaesus brought me a freshly soaked rag and I waited until I'd sucked enough fluid from it to alleviate the parched feeling before I answered.

  "Those women are slaves, bought at the market, and forced to prostitute themselves at the will of their owner, a master not of their choosing. The women I killed chose their master - be it opiates or alcohol - and prostituted themselves for it, leaving their children to suffer and fend for themselves. These women the guards bring - they have nothing to fear from me."

  "And . . . the butchery?"

  "Post-mortem dissection. I wanted to know what was wrong with them." Tatiana, Camilla, Julia, Luciana, Paulla. My mother all those years ago. I didn't want to think of her, of the sound of her grunting a few feet away, or the coins the man, always a different man, would throw at me, saying, "Go buy more." It was always liquor, at first. Or the day the super evicted us from our lodging for non-payment, not that she was there to know it. I'd found her fornicating in an opium den, her legs spread for any man who would have her. That was the last day I ever saw her.

  I heard retching noises. Blaesus, though I had never seen him moved to vomit no matter how much whisky he'd imbibed.

  No one ever understood. The women I killed, they were already dead inside. I had seen that, even if Blaesus couldn't. I didn't expect Metellus to understand it either. He'd been away at war. He hadn't seen what his wife had become. She'd told me she was divorced. Had I known she was married, I might not have slashed her throat.

  I didn't kill indiscriminately, no matter what people thought.

  The crowd fell silent as the Emperor raised his arms. I could barely see him from where I stood, at the back of a group of men behind the gate leading out to the sands. It was nearly noon, the sun hidden behind the awning that stretched across the top of the Colosseum, and the first big match of the day was soon to start.

  As the Emperor began speaking - I couldn't hear him, and though criers were provided in each section of the stands with copies of the speech to read, not one was provided for us on the ground - I had to imagine what he'd be saying. It was the anniversary celebration of the founding of our glorious Empire. I was sure he'd go on about that for awhile.

  "Gomericus, Gomericus, Gomericus," the crowd chanted.

  Another man fitting of mention; I was not sur
prised the Emperor would include him in the speech. Gomericus, the father of the first Emperor, and the man who'd brokered the deals with the local tribes and won the loyalty of the local Roman troops back when the Roman Empire was recalling its men to fight battles closer to home. A hero to our great nation, but a traitor to his own. He'd defied orders to return to Rome, and had set himself up as ruler instead. A master of military strategy, he united the south and conquered the whole of the island as the old Romans never had. A traitor, but history is written by the victor. Rome fell, and Gomericus' son founded New Rome on the ruins of Camulodunum, made it his capital, and declared himself the first of the New Roman Emperors.

  A small rock hit the floor at my feet, followed by another. Looking up, I saw Stolo and a teenage girl - she looked just like her mother - leaning over the sides of the railing above me. He smiled, and waved and pointed at his father who stood up front at the gate.

  Metellus was armored in the fashion of the bestiarii, wearing simple leather arm and leg wraps, and a visored helmet topped by a crimson crest that matched his loin cloth. He held a spear in one hand and a small shield in the other. Thomas, to his right, was armed in a similar fashion, but Pictor, to his left, carried a whip instead of a spear and shield.

  I'd made it a point to learn the names of Metellus' team. Over the last few weeks, one of the three of them was always shadowing me, though never too closely. Flavus had made certain that I, like a vestal virgin, was never without escort.

  The crowd roared as the gates opened. Metellus and his two cronies marched out onto the sands and the gates ground shut behind them. A row of bestiary guards armed with tranq-dart rifles lined up along the gate. From the bestiaries entrance to the Colosseum, I could see a cage containing a gift from the Mayan Emperor being rolled out onto the sands by unarmed men. Damnati ad Mortem. When they reached the center, they opened the cage, and ran back towards the gated bestiaries exit.

  Three feet taller than the tallest man on the sands, the terror bird bolted from its cage, chasing the men who had released it. Its enormous beak, terminating in giant hawk-like hook, was lightening swift; it pecked at first one unarmed man, then another, knocking them down at a blow. With the last man down, it began a series of rapid downward strikes, its giant neck thrusting forward to stab its beak into first one body, then another, ripping each to shreds when it pulled back up.

  Metellus led the other gladiators across the sands towards the giant bird. I looked back up towards Stolo and his sister, but I couldn't see them anymore. When I looked back, the three gladiators were closing in on the terror bird.

  Pictor had peeled off to the left, while Metellus and Thomas circled to the right, banging their spears against their shields to attract the bird's attention. The terror bird's head jerked towards the clanking noise and, with a loud caw, it began advancing on the two men. It seemed only moments before the bird was close enough to lunge, jerking its beak down with lightning speed.

  Metellus barely raised his shield in time to block the bird's downward motion, a crack ringing out as hooked beak met metal shield. He stepped to the side, thrusting his spear forward to ward off the bird's clawed wing as Thomas ducked under the wing, thrusting up in an attempt to disable it. But the bird was too quick. Thomas' spear-head had barely punctured its flesh when the bird spun, the claw on its other wing ripping through Thomas' neck. Blood spurted into the air, onto the bird, and down to the sands as the crowd roared.

  Metellus danced backwards while Pictor advanced on the terror bird from behind as it stabbed its beak down at the fresh corpse at its feet. Pictor lashed out with his whip, the barbed length coiling about the bird's legs, then yanked back violently. The terror bird, its legs tangled, toppled to the ground, crushing Thomas' body beneath it.

  Moving in for the kill, Metellus kept his shield low to protect against the wing-claws. He thrust his spear through the bird's eye, stepped back and lifted his shield high in victory.

  The crowd screamed its appreciation, but the bird, still twitching spasmodically in its death, caught a claw in the meat of Metellus' calf. He screamed, stumbling backward, and the claw tore free, gouging out a thick ribbon of flesh with it. A fresh stream of blood stained the sands.

  Pictor circled round the terror bird's jerking body and grabbed Metellus under the arms, pulling him back towards the exit as the gate ground open and three men rushed out with a stretcher and bandages. When they reached Pictor and Metellus, two of the men quickly transferred him onto the stretcher, while the third wadded the bandage into the wound and held it in place. As the men rushed Metellus off the sands, Pictor stared after them, at me, his expression grim.

  I turned and hurried to my work quarters. I had preparations to make.

  It seemed no time at all before Metellus was sedated on the middle cot. After applying a pressure bandage just above the wound, I pulled off the blood soaked linens from his calf, exposing the shredded flesh and muscle.

  It would be safest to amputate; most surgeons would. But I knew I could save the leg - not as it had been, strong and agile, but enough that he could walk with a cane. Lanista Silus might sell him then, though it was unlikely; generally disabled gladiators were given other work within the Ludus as a show of good faith to those still fit to fight.

  Or I could botch the surgery and let him die, either on the table or by breaking the aseptic operating conditions, allowing infection to enter the wound and turn septic, poisoning his blood until he died in days, or a week. But I knew I'd do neither of these. I've never taken a life simply to make mine easier, and I never will. It was time to get to work.

  In the last month I'd spent more time away from the surgical quarters than in the three that preceded it, because Metellus was still there recuperating under Blaesus' drunken eye and I found it more comfortable to be elsewhere. Aside from checking his wound twice daily and applying fresh bandages, there was not much I could do for him. Were I not pleased with how cleanly the wound was healing - not a hint of infection - those checks might have been my least favorite times of the day. But I enjoyed seeing the outcome of my work.

  The falling sun, a blood-red orange on the horizon, was my signal to return to the infirmary for my evening check of Metellus' leg. I enjoyed the walk from the outside training area, through the underground tunnel, to my quarters. With Thomas dead, Metellus injured, and Pictor assigned to train with a new team, I no longer had a constant looming shadow or a protective escort. I much preferred it that way.

  When I arrived at the surgical quarters, Metellus was propped up on one of the cots staring at a piece of cheap paper he held in his hands, his crutches near to hand. Blaesus, sitting on the cot next to him, was bleary-eyed and near to sleep. After washing my hands, I went to check on Metellus' wound. He'd crumpled the paper in his fist. Just as I started to remove the bandages, Metellus snarled, grabbed one of the crutches, and swung it at my head. It cracked into my jaw, spinning me to the ground.

  Blaesus shrieked.

  I could taste blood in my mouth; I prodded at my teeth with my tongue as I scrambled away from the cot and turned about, looking for Metellus. He'd stood up, a crutch under each arm.

  "He admires you, you sack of shit. You! You're nothing but dirt. Less than dirt, and I'll see you dead."

  Blaesus, shocked out of his stupor, fled out into the tunnel.

  If Metellus hadn't stood between me and the exit I would have fled as well. As it was, I stood, half-crouched, with an eye on the cots. Metellus might be stronger than me, but with his injured leg, I was the more agile. If I could keep the cots between us, he'd be hard-pressed to reach me. I could circle towards the door, get him to follow, then run. But as I moved to the right, he hobbled further back, slamming the door to the tunnel shut. There was no lock, but it would take time to open the door, time I might not have.

  "I'll gut you like you did my wife, string out your entrails, and piss on them."

  Did I wait, and hope Blaesus had run for help, and not just fled? Given time, Me
tellus might find a way to block the door from being opened. Or did I goad Metellus into coming for me, giving myself a chance to break past him or a chance to be taken out by him.

  "She deserved it, your wife. She was a drunk and a whore. I did your children a favor when I ripped my knife through her flesh."

  "Butcher!" Metellus stabbed his crutches into the floor in front of him, swinging himself forward at a breakneck pace. I held my ground, waiting until he was a body length from me, and committed to his forward momentum, before I ducked to the side, ran around the cots, and dashed for the door. Metellus bellowed as I pulled it open. I ran straight into Flavus' chest.

  Flavus pushed me out into the hallway, and he and Alfred entered the quarters, shutting the door behind them. I backed way down the tunnel, towards the closed gate of the Colosseum, and waited in a shadowed alcove. Out of sight, out of sound. Minutes passed - it seemed like hours - before I ducked my head out. The door to the surgical quarters was open.

  More minutes passed before I crept back to the surgical quarters and peered in. No one was there. In the silence, I noticed details I'd begun to take for granted: the scent of antiseptic underscored by whisky, and the smoke stains on the ceiling from the gas lamps. And one detail that was new: the crumpled paper on the floor by the center cot. Picking it up, I smoothed the paper out on the surface of the cot.

  A letter, the handwriting unpracticed, but legible. It was addressed to Father, signed by Stolo. Certain phrases jumped out at me:

  . . . glad to get your letter . . . sorry it took so long to write back . . . excited when you stabbed the terror bird . . . couldn't breathe when you fell, but I didn't cry . . . haven't cried since mother died . . . thank the chirugeon for saving you . . . wish to study surgery, to be like him someday . . .

  One phrase I re-read: haven't cried since mother died.

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