Center takes the square

Submitted into Contest #194 in response to: Write a story inspired by the phrase “Back to square one.”... view prompt


Coming of Age Fantasy Inspirational

(A couple of disclaimers. One, this is NOT a historically accurate depiction of Roman times nor of how gladiator fights are done. Second, I will not label the two protagonists as gay or straight friends or anything else. The reader is free to make their own judgements. Or not judge at all. Just enjoy, I hope. Thank you for attending my Ted Talk.) 

“No! Swing the axe at his exposed arm!” Crasir shouted over the din of the crowd at his friend of these past few years.. Either from these stands full of sweaty, bloated bored citizens or in the streets as they walked to the arena, his voice tugging at him to improve his throws, dodges and sinks. He actually knew very little of fighting, but he had ideas. Lots of ideas. They came in handy most times when he could hear her. As a gladiator, Grendal had no right to demand where he sat, but his magistri allowed the arrangement when he saw how ….inspired….he was in the fight.

He followed through with the change in angle, bringing up his gloved and armored arm to what little exposure he could find. How his opponent didn’t pick up on her shouts and changed his tactics, he didn’t know. Maybe Crasir was right. He and his arena brothers were as stupid as the sand they fought and trained on.

The midday sun beat down on him as bad as his previous opponent did with his mace and club, making him slip around inside of his leather armor. Remuti saw the change in move too late and took the axe to his midsection, nearly cleaving him in half. He went down screaming with what little air he had left in his lungs. The crowd went berserk, screaming loudly enough to drown out their dying object of hate. For this match, anyway. Grendal came close to the groaning and grunting brother of the blood and sand and wanted to pity him, to carry him to the healers for his valiant efforts. He did draw blood, so he deserved respect. But he knew this world he had grown up in since he was captured for stealing from and destroying merchant carts. The harsh, bloody and cruel teaching that he became grateful for after his first few victories. As well as meeting Carmilla. A woman of means in this day and age was rare and she took to caring for the young fighter on his way to his freedom. She could not buy him finer weapons and stronger armor, but she kept him fed well and advised him with her opinions regarding techniques. Tending to his every need when he was outside of the training ring, she watched him as often as she could. 

One evening, after a challenging bout against a superior opponent,Crasir saw him on the bench outside of the dorms leading into the vast, brutal arena. He had been patched up well by the healers, given a cup of horribly bitter juices and leaves to reduce the chance of fever so he may fight again soon. He sat, hunched over, panting, suffering. The opponent he was assigned was a master of his arts and the match came to a draw. The crowd’s booing was as much a blow to his ego as the blows to his now-shattered shield and likely shattered forearm. They sat together, Crasir watching the crowds pass. “Tell me when they’re gone.”

“Forget them, brother.” Crasir grunted just loud enough to not make a scene, but made sure he was heard by the fickle public. “They wouldn’t know a warrior if one defended them against a monster or worse yet, a Senator!” Grendal laughed, almost showing his face under his hood. He took another sip of the foul, healing brew and any sign of humor left him. 

“I’d rather he had gutted me with that scythe.” He grunted, holding his sewn-up abdomen. The slap to his arm brought a “OW” that also brought the attention of a young woman in the passing crowd leaving the arena. She did a double-take, showing that she did recognize him, but then left. 

“Don’t say things like that again.”

“Don’t hit me, then!”

“So you met your match?! So what? You’ve more than proven your worth as part of your Ludus and although they are a horribly stupid bunch….” he enhanced that last bit to be sure he was heard that time “ do have fans.”

Grendal gave some thought to his friends’ words when a soldier came to him with familiar clothes and armaments in his leather armor-covered arms.

“What’s this?” Crasir answered for his down-trodden friend.

“In the name of the Magister Rumanus Elixarius, you are commended for your many efforts in the past, but we of the House Elixarius find that you are no longer a necessary asset to the battlefield of honor and you are now effectively dismissed.” The soldier dropped Grendals’ few personal possessions on the ground, a few feet away from the two and walked away. He took the time to bully an elderly couple that were taking too long to get to a particular tent here outside the arena, but didn’t look back at the devastation he just caused.

“You…….bastard….” Crasir stood up slowly, his voice’s volume beginning to increase with each inch gained upward. Grendal grabbed his arm, even through the pain in his abdomen and arm that he grabbed his friend and supporter with.

“Stop. Stop. I expected this.”

“It doesn’t matter if you did! They can’t do this!!” Crasir got into his friends’ face by pulling his hood back, shouting. 

Grendal shoved at Crasir hard, pushing him into the crowd. “That’s enough!” The crowd finally paid attention to him. Something else he didn’t want. Some pointed and gasped. Some with children put hands on the little one’s shoulders and lead them away quickly, refusing to allow them to be seen by a vanquished loser. “Listen to me! This is how things are REALLY done at a Ludus! It’s victory or NOTHING! All of your tricks, your advice…it’s all made up! You’ve never fought a day in your life! If you don’t like it, then leave me alone!!” Grendal grabbed his now-dirty garments, the only things left from his former life as a child of a convicted felon, and turned away to…..somewhere.

“Maybe I make up my advice and tricks, but I’ve only done it…” came a familiar voice next to Grendal’s bulk making his way through the crowded, talking masses and the beaten, dusty streets.

“ you can watch me in action and cheer me on. I get it.” Crasir’s hand on Grendal’s broad back told volumes other than “I’m sorry.”

“Now what? Another Ludus takes you in? Maybe a bodyguard job?”

“No. No, this is it. I’m disgraced in the eyes of all the Houses of gladiators. My only chance would be to travel as far from here as I can and fight for other Masters, other Majestri. But, it would be a matter of time before I was discovered and dismissed there too.”

“I don’t believe this. I can’t….”

“Trust me, I have no choice but to believe this. I’m not sure what I’m going to do now.”

“You mean, we.”

Grendal grinned broadly down at his companion and supporter. “Right. We.”

“Let’s start with some food. Being let down with bad news gives me a voracious appetite.”

Agreeing with a brisk walk next to Crasir, “Good news gives you a voracious appetite, as well. I hope that you have enough money to feed an unemployed gladiator.”

“I may have a cure for that bad news.” came a strong elderly voice from the darkness of an alley behind a market cart. Crasir and Grendal both halted in their hungry strides, looking in their individual opinioned direction of where the words came from. “Warmer. Warmer. Lost me again. Cold. Now warm. Almost there.”

“Are you in the habit of interrupting conversations and giving inaccurate weather predictions?” Crasir asked the moving shadow that began to grow strong, but aged hands as their owner moved out from behind the now moving cart. 

“Not always. I’m usually more accurate about the weather. Especially since I’ve seen it all before and will afterwards.”

“Now, you’re making less sense. Unless my head is still ringing from that arena battle.”

“A little of both, but in a different time, you gave them a headache that they will never forget.”

“Pardon?” Both of them replied at once, tilting their heads like the exotic birds available at another cart here in the square. 

“You two seem to have no prospects, no idea where you’re going or what you’re going to do and how you’re going to get there. Am I at least accurate there since I’m a poor weather diviner?”

Grendal nodded while Crasir waved his hands, shaking his head passionately disagreeing. He ignored his large friends’ opinion. 

“Either way, I offer you both a proposal. A way to start over. Have either of you played Carnelia?” Grendal looked down at Crasir who rolled his eyes and folded his arms. 

“What are you talking about?” he asked, dodging his embarrassment and Grendals’ amused grin.

“The game board has black and white squares and the players move their pieces, their armies around. When one’s king piece is captured, the game is over and the loser has to rearrange his pieces differently than the previous game while the winner can place them anywhere he chooses, giving him the advantage. The loser has to…..start over at square one. The worst place to start after losing a turn.”

“Sounds easy once the rules are learned correctly.”

Grendal took his turn rolling his eyes and looking away, giving his best effort not to laugh out loud. Crasir knew his friend long enough to tell when he was trying not to bust out laughing. 

The learned man under the hood removed it with one hand and grasped a cube that glowed alternating colors, shifting and looked warm to the touch. He had no trouble holding it and continued. “This, gentlemen, is a beginners’ square. A name I came up with when I discovered it….somewhere far from here.”

The mysterious answer didn’t seem to faze the two and he went on. He thought surely that in this time period, the idea of traveling in their past or futures would amaze them. Maybe they were hungrier than he thought.

“Come, gentlemen. What passes for food in this time is on me!” The two were confused why he would place food on himself. He didn’t seem like a servant, but they considered that he was going to buy their dinner, so they followed him gratefully.

Instantly, they found themselves sitting in an open eatery. Not just because they talked and lost track of time to this semi-reputable dining area. One moment in memory, they were hungry, the next, the gathered found themselves in the middle of a crowd. 

“Gentlemen…and I use the term loosely, from what I’ve known about you….my name is Paul Regardie. I come from another future. Not your future or even mine. Or anyone else’s.” The stares from them both showed he was in danger of losing them already. “It would be easier if I just say it. I’m a time traveler. I invented this….” he held up the color changing cube “...some thousand or so years from now and I’ve been testing it out. If you refuse to believe me and that this works, watch this.” Another lost instant found themselves standing on a hill, overlooking the arena and the long-dispersed crowd. Empty and with the sunset approaching behind them, their jaws loosened and dropped. Looking at each other, the overlook view and to Paul. “What magic did you use to project us here??” Grendel asked with an edge of panic in his voice. Crasir would normally try to calm him, but he was in a similar state himself.

“I didn’t transport you both. I moved us quickly through what you know of as time. From outside of the arena where I overheard your trouble, to the cafe… ate a LOT even for someone of your size, Grendel….and you both and I walked up this hill and. Here. We. Are. Now, do you believe me?”

“I don’t know if I have any other choice. Grendel?” He looked up at the disgraced gladiator who kept blinking and stammering. “Grendel?”

He held up a hand to his long-time friend, needing room to think. “I guess I don’t either. I don’t know what witchcraft or sorcery you used, but I can’t fight magic. At least, that’s what my teachers taught me that supposedly have fought magic-users.” He shrugged, looking around, hoping for somebody, a god or demon or such to help make sense of this. “Go ahead. What would you have of us?”

“Son…or great-great-great-great..etc. grandfather, I travel through different periods of time here on earth, looking for stories, for opportunities and chances to improve lives. Sort of a savior of the time lines.” He held up a hand as well. “Don’t try to make sense of that, either. Just let me explain my offer.” He motioned for them to sit on the grassy slope and they obliged. The dimming sun still warmed them. “I want to take you both back to a time before you stepped into arena.” he said to Grendel. Turning to Crasir, “...and I want to show you what it would have been like if you obeyed your father and interned as a Senator. You’re both at a point where you can’t go forward to continue as you were, and since you don’t have one of these awesome cubes, you can’t go back. I’m offering you a chance to go back. Back to square one. Start over. Do things differently.” He nodded to a thinking Grendel. “You could go into something like working at a brothel, an inn, even a stable, perhaps owning it, making your family proud…” To Crasir “...and you could sit at the bench of the Senate, writing laws and enjoying fine company, wine and watching gladiators fight for YOUR amusement.”

Thoughts and images and spoken words turned over and over in their heads, new imaginings of different days rolling in their minds’ eyes as this speeded-up rough day was nearly at an end for now. Welcome successes, bearable hardships and people wishing them the best. Maybe growth in their families and social circles, further growth to hear stories of their glory days. Sharing them with their maybe-future families in the arena. Two different families on an outing. On different ends of the coliseum, different seating arrangements, separated only by status. 


“Pardon?” Paul said, holding out the cube, expecting them to take hold of it and begin their journey. 

“No?” Crasir looked up at Grendal at his reply. “It’s not like we have a lot of options now. Maybe we need to see how we can change things for the better….”

“Crasir, there’s nothing better to me than this.” Grendel leaned toward him, patting him on the shoulder. “You’ve been supportive and kind to me and patched me up both when I won and lost better than a physician can. Inside and outside.”

Crasir paused, hearing his friend. “Somebody has to let you know how bad you’ve done in the arena. How pitiful you’ve fought that day.” They laughed for the first time today, despite the odd circumstances they found themselves in and the incident outside of the arena. “And for myself, you know as well as I do that I would be miserable on the Senate floor. And marriage…come on. Really?” He shook his head. The reason that I’m Grendels’ number one fan is for the fun. I’ve never been friends with someone of his station before….no offense…and I’m thoroughly enjoying myself. I know that, someday, I will have to change things, find some better way to make money to support myself….and us…but for now. I don’t want things different.” He looked back toward the time-traveler, self-style savior and shook his head. “No from me as well. Thank you for your……time.” He winked and motioned Grendel to his feet to walk downhill and back to the trail out of the city. They both waved and left, chatting and maybe planning what to do now, but doing it together.

Paul Regardie got up and shrugged, squeezed the cube at certain deliberate points and vanished. No one except the first person that saw him in whatever time of day he happened to pop back into view. Maybe starting his sales pitch all over again.

“Some people are too stubborn to go back to square one for a proper reset.” he said before vanishing to the people in this time.

“Hey! What’s the matter with this game??!” Paul Regardie dropped the controller and slapped the console. The second-hand store cartridge that his mother picked up at the pawn shop rattled in the ancient faded and cracked white player that probably suffered more than he was. “I don’t believe this. I still don’t get why I can’t get a *real* console!” His mom probably heard that whining, but if so, she didn’t respond, probably having heard it more than once a day since begging for a game console. That cubed machine undergoing punishment at his hands was the best that she could afford for now. And a time traveling game? What’s with that?

Okay. Just get over it.

He got up and turned the glowing cube off. Like with all electronics, just restart it. Start over at square one. Like with the chess board that he ignores on his desk.

April 22, 2023 02:06

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