His opponent, half his age, in an upward thrust, put his blade into Magna's throat. The maximum crowd went silent as the mighty warrior fell to his knees as his life's blood gushed from the mortal wound soaking the sand before him. Unable to draw his next breath, Magna's last gasping sound was his effort to bid farewell to those attending the gladiator event in this magnificent Colosseum. He would enter Elysian Fields to take his place among the fallen. Even his opponent was struck dumb seeing Magna lay at his feet.
The crowd began to chant a fitting eulogy starting out as a low growl until swelling into a crescendo that could not be ignored.
What had promised to be one of the greatest circuses of all time had ended in an unexpected tragedy. Once known as the best gladiator in his day, Magna Bellator had earned his freedom, but the pride that goes before the fall had not allowed him to retire without one last chance to return to glory. The prize money was too generous to turn his back on.
His wife Cassandria, urged him to retire. "Magna, it is time." She held his gigantic hand in hers, "The new fighters are stronger and so much younger. I cannot bear to lose you to this blood sport. The children need you."
"It is the life the gods have chosen for me." He looked away, unable to meet her tearful gaze, "Maximus and Marcus are nearly men. Adonios is to be married soon. Relligus has made me an offer of quite a large sum."
"Ack, Relligus is nothing more than a thief. What good is gold if you are not here to spend it?" She pleaded.
"A servant? If I win, I will hire you a servant." His eyes sparkled with delight.
"I don't want a servant." She shook her head.
"I started off as a servant." He pointed out.
"I know, I know, you have told me many times, you foolish man." She tried to hide her smile, but he caught it. He always did. "You haven't fought in the arena for a long time-"
"Six years is not that long." He shook his head, "Besides, I am going to train with Tonitrua."
"I admit he is a wonderful teacher, but he cannot teach you how to make up for the lost time." She went to the counter for a cup of water. He walked up behind her, blanketing his massive body over hers. She could feel his muscular frame, remember how safe she felt in his strong embrace.
"We will win yet again. We are unbeatable." He laughed.
Tonitrua watched Magna work the trident. He thrust the weapon like he had when he was a lot younger, but Tonitrua knew his durability was not what it had been back then. On his third thrust, Magna dropped his weapon, however, which made his mentor wince.
“If you do that in the contest, you will be slain.” Tonitrua remarked.
“I am a little rusty, but when the time comes, I will be ready.” His bravado had not changed one iota. Tonitrua had visited a few gladiator camps and knew what Manga was up against. Times had changed along with some of the training methods currently being used. He worried his former champion would not be ready for the contest.
“Remember how to grip the handle.” He picked up the trident and threw it like a spear. It struck the target dead center. A kill blow.
“You have not lost a bit of your touch.” Manga laughed.
“But you have and that worries me.” Tonitrua shook his head. His trimmed beard was now salt and peppered, but his eyes were still razor sharp and his instincts were as keen as they ever were. “Why did you agree to this contest?”
“The prize money was generous.” Manga answered.
“Prize money? You earned your freedom with your prize money six years ago. What more could you ask for?” He squinted at his pupil. “I taught you everything I knew. There is nothing more I can teach you. These young fighters are agile and quick. They have reflexes you used to possess, but don’t anymore.”
“I will win with my cunning and wiles.” He pounded his mammoth chest with his fist. Despite the impressive thump, Tonitrua knew Manga did not have the pure muscle he had in his fighting days.
“I have seen them train. I should have you come watch with me. Maybe you will see reason.”
Once Manga had entered the ring, wearing his armor and wielding his trident, the crowd would cheer, shouting out his name as he smiled just under his visor. In the short contest, he had defeated his opponents, killing three and disabling six. One of them begged to die as he bled through his breastplate. Walking over to the unfortunate victim, as the crowd cheered, Manga thrust his weapon through the combatant, granting him his wish. Tonitrua was the first to embrace Manga in the tunnel. Listening to the crowd chanting Manga’s name, Tonitrua realized his pupil had achieved stardom, something very few gladiators ever lived to see.
Manga Bellator had lived up to his name of Mighty Warrior in so many ways. He was just a Cypriot captured in a close ranks battle with a Roman legion. Pierced with a spear, Manga fell among the dead. Discovered by some beggars scavenging over the dead bodies for keepsakes and trinkets, Manga managed to stumble into the Roman camp and was taken back to Rome as a slave.
Tonitrua was a regular at the port, searching for new talent to take to the Colosseum.
“What’s your name, boy?” He asked the wounded youth.
Weakened by the journey and his healing wound, he answered in Greek, “Helios Dametric.”
“I will purchase you, Helios.” He smiled.
“What would you do with me then?” His dark eyes seemed to probe Tonitrua.
“I will turn you into a prized warrior.” He helped the youth to his bare feet that were covered with sores.
In six months time, Tonitrua kept his word and turned his mighty warrior into a champion and a crowd favorite.
Rome had conquered most of the known world and while this seemed to place them at the center of the universe, Tonitrua wondered if Rome's fortune was a good thing. He noticed a complacency among the average citizenry. He had also heard stories from the foot soldiers in the bathhouses about political corruption among the legion commanders. His father had been a senator who was suspicious of the emperor from where all power flowed. Such a government structure was dangerous since it encouraged corruption and was heavy at the top.
His father was seized one night concerning some essays he had written voicing his objections to some government sanctions. He was told that his father became food for the lions. Armed with that information, he entered the world of the gladiator. During A contest, one of his opponents sliced his tendon on his leg. He would never be able to fight again, but he made a deal with one of the managers and became a trainer. His reputation grew with each gladiator he trained.
Manga came during the zenith of Toritau’s power. Upon entering the school for gladiators, Manga was just a skinny runt. Tonitrau fed him a high protein diet, turning this skinny runt blossomed into a brute with all the skills of a true warrior.
“Never flinch. When you show that moment of fear, it will become your weakness that your opponent will exploit.” He held the wooden sword as Manga stood before him listening intently holding his wooden weapon at his side. Without warning Tonitrua lunged at him, his sword striking him on the shoulder. To ward off the unexpected blow, Manga brought up his own sword and knocked Tonitrua back a couple of steps.
“Excellent recovery.” He complimented his pupil.
“I wasn’t expecting you to strike me.” He rubbed his shoulder.
“Be glad it was wood and not sharpened steel.” He laughed. “You must always expect the unexpected in mortal combat. Come let us run the course.”
The course as it turned out was a two mile run through the Mediterranean Cypress and oak trees that ended at the school. All students lived in the dormitories and ate the meager meals from the mess hall. After meals, the students would clean the great hall from mopping the floors to clearing the tables for the next meal. After the chores, the students would file out into the courtyard and play games to sharpen their skills.
Two years later, Manga graduated from the school and was scheduled for his first contest. He joined a dozen of his former classmates. The gates opened and the young men toddled out into the combat arena. Once the horn sounded they began to fight each other using the weapons they chose. Manga had chosen a trident as he would for the remainder of his career. One of the older combatants charged him, waving his sword. Without hesitating, he thrust his trident into his abdomen. He watched as two of the tines went through him, halting his charge. The gladiator grunted and fell to his knees as Manga fought to remove the trident from his bleeding wounds. He twisted and pulled as the gladiator lay in the dirt screaming in pain. Placing his foot on the young man’s chest, he managed to pull his weapon free.
“May the gods have mercy on you.” He croaked as his eyes flickered. Manga had killed his first combatant. Standing there stunned at what he had done, another combatant came rushing at him and he repeated what he had done to the other young man.
In a short time, Manga stood alone in the arena with one surviving combatant who was waving a bloody ax. After repelling several attempts, Manga thrust his trident into his opponent’s neck. Unable to scream in pain, he fell to his knees. Manga Bellator had won his first contest. His eyes saw them remove the bodies of his former classmates from the arena. His emotion caught him in the throat.
“You are victorious.” Toritrua slapped his pupil on the shoulder.
“I am…” His words failed him.
“It’s alright. It’s part of the contest.” He understood Manga’s feelings about the carnage of these contests. A warrior had to overcome these emotions if he was to survive. Over time this would happen as it always did for the champions. There was no room for regret or empathy for the fallen. It was a hard life, but it was better than being a servant to Patricians who often held their servants in contempt. Rather to die in combat than on your knees.
“Thrust! Thrust!” He yelled to Manga as he fumbled with the trident. “You must learn to keep your weapon ready to strike!”
“I am feeling a bit winded.” He panted.
“You have been out here for a few minutes.” Toritrua shook his head. “What if the contest lasts more than a few minutes? Will you tell them that you need a rest?”
“I will build my stamina as we go.” He put his hands on his knees.
“I sure hope so.” He said in disgust watching Manga pant like a puppy.
He continued for another few minutes before he called the session. Manga was in no shape for a contest and he doubted that he would be in time before the contest.
Things got no better for Manga when he got home. Cassandria was with the boys who were wrestling in the yard.
“Toritrau told me about the session.” She crossed her arms across her chest. He could tell by her expression she was not pleased.
“I will be fine.” He said as he walked past her into their home.
“Really, because that is not what he told me.” She tilted her head.
“Dad, I beat him in our match.” Marcus boasted.
“Great.” He said halfheartedly.
“You did not.” Maximus gave Marcus a brotherly shove.
“Boys, please.” Cassandria admonished them. “Your father and I have some things to discuss.”
“Sorry.” They said in unison.
“If I back out now, what will people say? That I was a phony. That my championship was a sham.” He was hurt.
“At least you will be alive.” She hissed.
“At what cost? To live the rest of my life in the shadow of shame?” He did not turn around to look at her, because he could not stand to see the expression on her face.
“Your sons are thinking about becoming gladiators. It is a brutal life not fitting for them in any way. I don’t want to see them in that arena, do you?” Her voice rose to meet her anger.
“No…no I don’t.” He let his head sag to his broad chest.
“You were lucky. The fates showed you mercy. They made you a champion.”
“No Toritrau did that.” He snorted defiantly.
“Yes, yes, he was a good teacher.” She admitted. “But your best days are behind you. The children need you.”
He looked at his sons, both shame faced after being scolded.
"No man wants to hear that his best days are over." He looked at her, but she did not flinch. "If I walk away, what will that say about me?"
"That you are alive." She felt her eyes sting with tears.
"I miss it." He sighed.
"How can you say that? Your life was A brutal fight to survive. There was no peace until I came along. If you go back, you turn your back on all that I have given you." She put her hand on his rough cheek, "Isn't that enough? Does my love mean enough to you?"
He stood silent for several minutes. He looked at her and then to his sons.
"It is who I am. Please don't ask me to be any less than that." He leaned on the table.
"What if you are killed? What happens to us? I don't want to lose you." She covered her face with her hand as she sobbed uncontrollably. Not knowing what to do, he put his arm around her, but she shook him off and walked to the bedroom. Maximus and Marcus turned their heads pretending they were not listening.
"What are you looking for? Validation? I think you are taking a grave chance if I'm being honest." Toritrua said as he toyed with a dagger. Absent-mindedly, he threw it into a plank a few feet away where it stuck fast to the wood. "I am doing this because you are my friend."
"I was a champion. You helped make me one and after all that, you are telling me that I am A fool for doing this?" Manga was hurt.
"Have you seen some of these new warriors? They are strong and ruthless-"
"As I once was. You brought it out in me." He took his helmet off and held it under his arm. Tonitrua noticed his thick jawline and settling of a second chin. Domestic life had made him soft, not something a warrior was supposed to be.
"I just want to see you another body carried from the arena-"
"You think I'm going to lose." He was incensed that his mentor had lost faith in his ability.
"You and I are older. We have earned the right to a softer, gentler life. We survived where others have not. Let's savor the victories of our past." Tonitrua explained, "Let us be content with the spoils of our victory."
"I wish I could walk away, but I remember how they called out my name, cheering me onto my championship-"
"It would have been someone else's name they cheered for had you fallen. Fame is so fleeting. The golden memory is tarnished in time, can't you see that? Glory is ours only for a short time and then it's someone else's place on the podium." Tonitrua put his arm on Manga, but he shrugged him off. "I won't abandon you. I will do what I can to give one more victory."
They shook hands, but three weeks later, Manga lay dead in the arena. Tonitrua went into a private room weeping bitterly over the death of his pupil, his friend.
In a Smokey auditorium, Cleon "The Kid" Allison, age thirty eight stepped into the ring in Chicago. After a concussion three years before, the doctor told him that another blow to his head would most likely kill him. Once a welterweight champion, Cleon watched his prize money blow away from some poor investments he was told were like gushing oil wells to a crooked business manager that embezzled from him leaving him nearly broke and destitute. Facing the boxer in the other corner who was half his age, Cleon knew his chances of winning the purse wasn't very good.
The bell rang and he walked to the center of the ring where they began to jab at each other, feeling each other out when suddenly the young fuel three delivered a head shot that made Cleon stagger before falling to his knees. The coroner would type aneurysm as the cause of death.
While two millennia separated their deaths, both Manga Bellator and Cleon "The Kid" Allison's deaths resulted from a fatalistic belief that once the sweet nectar of victory has been tasted, immortality has been granted. Both became victims of their misguided pride.