The Chariot

The blade thrust deep into the gladiator’s shoulder, through a narrow exposure in the leather cuirass he wore. He screamed out in pain as the metal pressed inwards severing arteries and veins, ripping through muscle and extracting dangerously high volumes of blood. His hand twitched and dropped his sword, which landed in the dry earth of the coliseum with a dull thud.

His opponent’s face was hidden behind an iron helmet with a cage-like face guard making it impossible to see if his next act was committed with remorse or sadist glee. The blade was pulled from the gladiator’s shoulder, who then fell to his knees with pitiful pleas for mercy. The victor, with a single swiped, loped off his head. The body flopped to the ground and stained the orange earth a dark red.

The crowd cheered and roared at the spectacle. The victorious gladiator raised his arms in acknowledgment then punched the air repeatedly as the crowd chanted his name.

“Gruesome,” said Aeschylus, “utterly gruesome.”

“It’s not that bad, I’ve seen, and done, far worse.” Said his older brother Titus. The two stood in the stands, in an area reserved for the rich with thick barriers separating them from the servants, slaves and vagrants who came to watch the sport.

“But it’s vile, and wholly unnecessary. That man was defeated, his weapon discarded. And he had admitted defeat.”

“You mean cried for mercy like a craven right? You’re going to have to do something about that bleeding heart of yours Aeschylus. It’ll kill you as fast as standing on the wrong end of a spear.”

“It’s a waste of a life, what if that were to happen to you?” Titus turned on Aeschylus, his height advantage over his brother never being more obvious.

“Do you doubt me brother?”

“N-no, not exactly, that is… There’s a slight possibility” Aeschylus, never the bravest man quivered slightly. It did not take much to provoke his brother to beat his own beliefs into others. Familial bonds did little to dissuade such behavour, especially not half ones like Aeschylus’s. Titus Valerius was a strong man with a brutish demeanour.

Aeschylus, his full name Spurius Aeschylus Valerius, was a runt who stood no chance in a fight or any kind let alone one against his heavyweight sibling. Besides which he was indebted to his elder brother, without whom he would probably have been enslaved or sold into indentured servitude. The Valerius family was a cutthroat environment, one in which Aeschylus could not have survived alone. The family, once it had become clear Aeschylus was weak and of no value, had elected to do away with him, the exact method of exile having yet to be decided on when Titus had announced that he would take his runt half-brother on as his personal servant.

“There is no chance I’d ever lose,” said Titus, punctuating each word with a painful jab to Aeschylus’s chest. “Besides, every man enters that coliseum knowing the dangers, knowing the risk. It is the ultimate wager, your life in exchange for fame and riches. Come, I must get ready, the chariot tournament is next.”

Titus leapt up from his stone seat and disappeared through a dark archway into the interior of the coliseum. Aeschylus looked back out across the large oval of the coliseum to see a clean up crew of slaves removing the two parts of the defeated gladiator and raking over the disturbed earth. He grimaced at the sight, then, followed his brother and liege.

A couple of hours later saw Titus striding onto the coliseum field, with Aeschylus trailing behind him, carrying the extraneous pieces of armour. A pair of chariots had already been brought to the field, with stable hands hooking up two horses to each and checking over the harnesses.

Titus leapt up onto the open back of his chariot, made primarily of copper plated timber. Four shields, with the Valerius decal had been tacked to the chariot for extra protection and easy access in a time of need and an array of weaponry, including a spear, javelins, a grapple, leather straps and a sling, were strapped to the inside for tackling various situations.

His opponent and rival was Gaius Avitus, a notable charioteer from a powerful family with a lot of money and influence in the sport. He was not, however, so accomplished as to present much of a threat to Titus, the bookies placing high odds on his victory.

Aeschylus fastened the last leather strap, completing the banded mail that Titus wore for protection. The chariot racing in the coliseum was a more evolved sport than that practised in weaker nations. The competition was similar to gladiatorial combat, the victor determined by blood. There were no finish lines only the submission of the loser or the silence of death.

“Give him mercy, my brother,” said Aeschylus, his duties finished.

“Get away with you. I’ll do what must be done for my honour and the family’s honour and that includes you.”

“I know… But there is no need for such cruelty… To end the life of another, all those years of experience, of memories and their loved ones left bereft…” Titus paused for a moment. Then he struck Aeschylus with the back of his hand, readjusting his bracer afterwards.

“There is no cruelty here, every man knows what he wages. I’ll not tell you again! Now get with you!” Aeschylus bowed low, rubbing his face, then scurried away, disappearing into an alcove of the coliseum.

Titus took the horse reins in one hand and raised a whip in the other. His opponent did much the same and on the signal, the dropping of a flag, the two combatants spurred their vehicles onwards.

As the chariots entered their first turn the sound of pounding hoofs and cracking whips deafened the crowd’s cheers. Gaius steered his vehicle close and the chariot began to judder as the wheels ground together. Titus staggered, but recovered quickly. He dropped his whip, taking up a spear and jabbed at Gaius Avitus in an attempt to drive him away. It worked, as they entered the straight side of the coliseum again, Gaius fearful of the sharp point made space between them.

The damage had already been done however, Titus’s wheel was torn and splintered by the studs placed in Gaius’s wheels, it rocked ungainly over the earth slowing his pace and giving his opponent the advantage of mobility.

Gaius spurred his horses onwards, pushing his chariot ahead of Titus’s and blinding him in a dust cloud. Titus caught sight through the cloud of his opponent dropping his reins and taking up a pile of short javelins.

The first throw lunged through the cloud and pierced the earth to the left of Titus’s chariot. The second javelin caused Titus to duck, but then struck the copper plating of the chariot, tearing a strip off but otherwise causing no harm. The third javelin soared through the air, and despite Titus’s belated attempt to manoeuvre out of the way, struck his right horse in the neck.

The crowd jeered and booed the action. The killing of an opponent’s horse was an effective method towards victory, the steeds being the weakest part of a chariot. They were also the most expensive and difficult to replace part often used as battering tools amongst the wealthy who had stakes in the sport. Killing a horse caused more damage to a family’s charioteer team than killing the driver. It had become taboo, with many drivers being sacked for the act and remained a tactic reserved for the desperate.

Mindlessly the horse continued to kick its legs for a few paces before succumbing and stumbling. Rapidly Titus drew a knife from his belt and leaning over the front of his chariot severed the harness and straps. The horse tumbled under the wheels and Titus was thrown back, grabbing the back edge of the chariot he narrowly avoided falling to the ground. His other horse entered the turn of the coliseum unguided as he steadied himself once more.

Gaius, out of javelins, slowed his chariot bringing the back of it and himself closer to Titus’s remaining steed. He stood ready with a long pike. Should the other horse fall the chariot would crash, shattering or grinding across the ground. Titus would either be killed or injured enough that he could be slain on foot with ease.

Titus was not about to give in so easily. He had been caught off guard by the horse slaying, expecting his opponent to be more reputable. The still living horse was the better however and as Gaius slowed Titus whipped his horse into a frenzy, exhausting it in exchange for the brief momentum. The chariot careened to the right, slipping up the right side. Gaius, slow to react, jabbed at Titus with his pike but it was deflected. Titus expecting the attack had pulled off one of the chariot’s shields to protect himself.

He snatched up a grapple and chain and flung it into Gaius’s chariot, where it caught tight and dug into the wood on the inside. The two vehicles were now linked as they sprinted around the coliseum oval, Titus’s horse feeling the exhaustion but pulled inexorably along by the other chariot now. Gaius vainly tried to pull the grapple out but was forced away from it as Titus jabbed at him with his spear.

With Gaius on the defensive Titus dropped his spear and drew a gladius as he stepped over the rim of his chariot and leapt with a slash over to Gaius’s. In close combat Titus proved to be superior, the pair parried, thrust and slashed at each other briefly before Titus had forced Gaius to retreat and turned him so that he stood on the back edge of his chariot.

One forgetful backstep later and Gaius fell to the dirt floor of the track, no doubt breaking his spine with the fall and roll. Titus took hold of the reins and pulled the horses in, his own steed forced to slow as the chariots remained attached.

The vehicles stopped and Titus jumped to the floor and marched towards the loser with cheers ringing in his ears. Gaius Avitus remained lying on the ground twitching slightly and giving pained moans. He struggled to rise as Titus approached, pleading and protesting as so many of Titus victims did.

There was much to be had in the taking of the man’s life. The way of the coliseum was complete and total victory. To ruthlessly cut an opponent’s soul from the mortal realm demanded respect, if not through reverence then through fear. His family would benefit, and this rival would not be alive to seek vengeance. Certainly the Avitus family might seek vengeance, but they could soon be placated with favours, political manoeuvring and most of all, money.

Aeschylus’s words rung in his head, slipping in amongst Gaius’s pleas. Was it cruel? A pang of doubt struck him as he stared at the whites of his opponent’s fear crazed eyes. And yet… there was nothing to be gained in not killing the man.

With his foot he kicked Gaius onto his back and thrust mightily with the gladius. Stabbing downwards into the man’s chest, through his light armour. Titus felt the blade hit the earth on the other side of Gaius, red liquid welling up around the blade and trickling away like tears. He pulled it out and with a last wheeze Gaius Avitus died.

The crowd broke into raucous applause, cheering his victory. Titus Valerius had won, the people praised him and that night the Valerius family would hold a feast in his honour. Victory is everything he thought to himself as he left the coliseum and ordered Aeschylus to undress his armour, ignoring his half-brother’s baleful eyes.

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