“What makes you think I’ll get any sleep at all tonight?”
“Because I said so.” Septimus answered. He scratched his stubbly chin, and the sound reached Primus as clearly as his own voice. “That’s what.”
Dark had fallen. Cold bore down on Primus, making him shiver, heavy and painful as the animal dread in his chest. A few yards away, a bony tiger slept in a cage of its own. On Primus’ other side lay Septimus, wrapped up in his cloak. The shock of his braided white hair stuck out at one end, and his leathery feet stuck out of the other.
“It is likely,” Primus commented, “That I will die tomorrow.”
Septimus turned over. The chains on his ankles clanked on the wood of the cart. His old bones creaked. He poked his turtle-like neck through the cloak and squeezed his closed eyes at the glare of a nearby firepit.
“Why worry then, boy?” He chuckled. “Will anybody miss you?”
The sand on the wooden base of his cage scratched Primus’ cheek. He wished he could look up at the stars, but his back still burned. More specifically, his shoulder, where he’d been branded as a slave. His new master had a strange sense of humor: he branded his slaves a day before they entered the arena. Perhaps as a forewarning of the pain that awaited them. Perhaps so, in the unlikely case one of them won, the victory would bear the master’s stamp.
Septimus had assured him that the night was starless, but Primus didn’t believe him. The stars never abandoned the desert.
“I don’t think so.” Primus admitted.
“See? Go to sleep.” Septimus grunted.
Primus shut up for a while. He concentrated on the pain of the brand, the sound of someone weeping, the chains of a more seasoned gladiator turning over in their sleep. He stared at the tiger’s silhouette; if he squinted, he could almost see the great creature’s back rising and falling to the movement of its great lungs.
“What if I shit myself in the arena?”
Septimus cracked an eye open. A couple of guards had lit a fire a few yards away; the flame carved out Primus’ silhouette from the dark.
The boy was seventeen, tan-skinned and accustomed to difficult work. He’d been thrown in with the new fighters about a month before the master began their journey across the desert. Primus was short for his age and skinny.
The day he’d been purchased, Primus had latched on to Septimus like a baby monkey and chattered his ear off every day. He talked about the sun, the sand and the sky, the shitty food and the scrape of the chains. He talked about the slave girl who warmed the master’s bed and how beautiful she was.
“I could please her.” He had smirked.
He told her as much, too. To her credit, the girl told him to shut his fat mouth if he didn’t want the master to skin them both. Then she’d kissed him and sashayed away like the snake she was. Primus couldn’t stop smiling the next day, though that was the day they forgot to water the slaves.
If he was honest with himself, Septimus had no right to blame the woman. Sure, she didn’t have to worry about dying in the arena, and yes, she remorselessly had her fill of young gladiator bait who would not live long enough to stake a claim on her. But she gave something they wanted; Septimus gave nothing but his skill and his teaching, which only caused pain.
Watching Primus lust and trip after the whore at every chance he got, Septimus had been sure that the boy was oblivious to his fate.
But as it turned out, Primus was fully aware of the violent death that awaited him. And, like any sensible, egotistical youth, his first thought was of shit.
“There’s no shit in Elysium, boy.” Septimus smirked in the dark. He was glad Primus couldn’t see his face. “You won’t have to worry about that for long.”
Silence. Somewhere far away, an owl screeched.
Primus knelt facedown, his chest against his knees, his face pressed to the wood base of the cage. He was too tired to cry or sleep, almost too tired to breathe. Death would be a welcome release from this; not from his life as a slave, which had much to offer: stars and girls, drumming music and the thrill of a snarling tiger a few meters away from him. No, death would be a release from this waiting, this awful not-sleeping.
“Do you really think I’ll make it to Elysium?” Primus huffed out a chuckle.
“Runts like you haven’t had time to lay waste to your souls.” Septimus lay on his back and put his head over his hands, although the cold stole into his blanket and crept into his muscles. “You’ve been good to your masters. You’ve been good to your fellow wretches, which is infinitely more difficult. Even if they end you before you can lift your weapon… you’ll make it.”
Primus had been branded mere hours ago. Septimus knew what it was like, could still feel the burn of the old scar sometimes. The brand on Septimus’ back had brought his master many riches; it had practically turned Septimus’ lifeblood into gold.
By sundown on the next day, Primus might be free of that mark. Unlike Septimus; Septimus was marked in his soul, a slave to Death in the coliseums. He was old, hadn’t fought in years, but what did that matter? He still trained young fools like Primus for the killing fields. Still lived from his faithful offerings to Death.
“You’ll make it too, Septimus.” Primus said. He sounded convinced.
“Yeah?” Septimus closed his eyes. He’d done enough thinking for the night. “What makes you think that?”
“Because I said so.” Primus smirked. He unfolded himself and lay down flat, his head between his arms. “That’s what.”
Minutes later, Septimus heard Primus snoring in his sleep.
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Wow. Great story. Loved it, Sam. Love the role of Septmimus as trainer to Primus. It might perhaps be a personal quirt / glitch, but in the beginning I imagined Primus and Septimus to be the tigers themselves. I reasoned that perhaps they wouldn't have tigers as gladiators in The Colloseum. Loved the identical retort Primus dished out to Septimus in the end. Had a satisfying ring to it ! Rather enjoyed reading this !
Thanks Abhishek! Glad you enjoyed:)