The buffaloes snorted, their breath turning into mist in the crisp air of this March morning. Hauling a heavily-laden barge along the Tiber, they approached the wharves of Rome’s river port, the Emporium. Whilst a youth of no more than fifteen led the buffaloes, kicking stones and dreaming adolescent dreams of women and glory, his father, Philo, guided the barge, more content to relish his forthcoming fee.
“It’s all there, Philo” Ajax said in his quiet, smooth voice. “Every last Denarii.”
“Even so,” said Philo. He emptied the coins into his hand and began to count them. “A man can’t be too careful, can he?”
Ajax didn’t answer. Instead, he turned to watch his gang. They had, as arranged, been waiting for the barge at the Emporium, and now they loaded Philo’s cargo onto a cart. Philo looked up from his coins to study Ajax. He’d become grey of hair and thick of belly since they had last met, thought Philo. Still, as the new leader of the Aventine Collegia, he had done well for himself. No doubt his ascension had been wrought with blood, Philo thought, and the death of his enemies—judging by the weariness in Ajax’s stance and the slope of his shoulders—weighed heavily upon the man. Either that, Philo thought, or the stories of his sister’s death were true after all.
But something else troubles him, thought Philo. He looks nervous. And with good reason...
That was no ordinary cargo, after all. With one jar alone said to be worth 150,000 Denarii, the consignment of purple Tyrian dye were worth more than he and his gang would ever live to see. Philo glanced at Ajax’s gang. Amongst them stood Constans, the biggest of Ajax’s men … and the clumsiest. No wonder Ajax looks nervous, Philo thought; for those jars to have travelled here all the way from Sidon only to smashed here on the docks...
“Where will you take the dye now, sir?” asked Philo’s son.
“Justus! Be silent!” said Philo, his voice sibilant and sharp with anger. “You do not address this man until spoken—”
“Oh, do relax, Philo,” said Ajax turned to the boy. A weary smile stumbled across his face. “He is a youthful man with a youthful man’s questions.” He ruffled Justus’ hair and winked at him as he said, “Life is so full of mystery at your age is it not?”
Justus tried to answer, but his voice caught in his throat and all he could do was gawp at Ajax as the gang leader said, “From here we take it to Spurius Sidonius et Filii. He’s a dyer in the upper Aventine. My Dominus wishes to present a gift to the Emperor. Something in purple. Something that will aid my Dominus’ political advance— What the hell?”
Three whistles sliced the morning air. In an instant Ajax dashed to the edge of the barge, gripping its rail as he bellowed, “Beware! We are ambushed!”
But it was too late. Five men—previously concealed behind the other carts and crates that littered the dock—converged on Ajax’s men. Two of the Aventine gangers went down. One who Philo recognised as Leontia fell lifeless with a javelin in her chest. Constans dropped to the floor, clutching a heavy pilum embedded in his thigh. A sound like the buzzing of angry wasps filled the air as the Suburan slingers fired their glandae into Ajax’s men.
“Justus! Get down!” shouted Philo as he lurched across the barge as best his aging knees would allow.
He reached Justus and wrapped his arms around the youth. Even as he pulled the struggling boy away from the barge’s railing, he heard Ajax give his own shrill whistle. Instantaneously a giant form—previously stood behind the cart and hidden from Philo’s view—strode forward. Muscle and scar tissue sculpted into the form of a man, this slab of destruction wore a gladiator’s armour. No stranger to the thrills of the Colosseum, Philo recognised the man at once. No one but the mighty Marcus Attillus wore that particular variant of murmillo armour.
“Let me see!” said Justus, struggling in his father’s arms. “I want to see!”
“No, son,” said Philo as he covered the boy's eyes, knowing full well what was to come. “No, you don’t.”
Attillus banged his gladius vigorously against his large rectangular scutum and bellowed a challenge to the attackers. Slingshot pinged harmlessly off his shield. The dawn’s rays reflecting in his polished mormylos-crested helm.
Philo stared as Attillus stamped his foot and lunged at the nearest attacker, impaling the hapless girl upon his gladius. In a fluid movement, he caught another assailant on the backswing as he withdrew his weapon from the lifeless Suburan. This second ganger dropped to his knees, a crimson fountain erupting from his neck and onto the dock’s paving stones.
Philo’s pulse quickened. Such a treat, he thought even as he shielded his son’s eyes from the oncoming slaughter. Those Suburans are fighting a professional gladiator now, not some dirty ganger like Ajax. Marcus Attillus himself, trained at the Ludus of Hephaestus; twenty fights with twenty victories ensuring his manumission and the nomen of ‘The Destroyer’. Now he stands alone against this Aventine rabble…
…Normally, Philo thought with a dark smile, I’d have to pay good money for this kind of entertainment.
Attillus severed the arm of another Suburan at the elbow before using his shield to batter the last two back and against a warehouse wall. They fell to their knees, begging for mercy. One wept like a child.
“Kill them!” shouted Ajax, leaning on the railing and shouting so loud the tendons on his neck stood proud and thick. “Kill them now!”
Attillus drew his gladius back in anticipation of the coup-de-grace—
“Marcus Attillus! Are you still scratching your head with one finger? Why not embrace a real challenge?”
A lithe figure stood facing Attillus from the edge of the dock. Philo peered at this new combatant. Clad in a loincloth and wearing a Manica arm guard, he also sported a Galerus to protect his right arm and shoulder identified.
Another gladiator! thought Philo, pulse quickening as he watched this slender figure heft his three pronged Fuscina effortlessly, a weighted net dangling from his left arm. And a Retarius at that!
A bass rumble issued from the Attillus’s helm. “Lucius Raecius Felix!” he said. “We meet again!” “
The Suburae and Aventini gangers fell back, catching their breath or binding wounds even as they watched this unfolding spectacle. Philo’s eyes widened even as Justus’ struggles intensified. Lucius versus Attillus … again! He had been fortunate enough to see their first fight. The giant had bested Lucius in the arena only to spare the net fighter’s life, apparently out of respect for the slender man’s skill…
… Philo doubted such mercy would be shown today.
The Retiarius kept his distance from the armoured giant, no doubt mindful of the force Attillus could unleash with those knotted, scarred muscles. Suddenly he lunged with his trident, attempting to catch his opponent in his unprotected throat. Attillus deflected the fuscina with a casual flick of his gladius and—closing the gap to the netman in a single stride—battered him in the face with his shield. Lucius staggered back, shaking his head as blood streamed from his broken nose.
He pirouetted out of reach with a balletic grace before casting his net over the murmillo. The net caught on the giant’s helm and ensnared his upper body, disabling him momentarily. But that moment was all Lucius needed; he stabbed Attillus in the right thigh, the wicked, barbed prongs piercing Attillus’ femoral artery. Collapsing sideways, the giant crashed to the floor, his life pulsing rhythmically from the mortal wound.
With his foe clutching at his spurting thigh, Lucius cast his trident aside and drew a pugio from his belt. He knelt beside over the writhing Attillus, pugio raised to deliver the final, victorious blow…
…But there was fight left in the giant gladiator.
“Futue te ipsum, cacator!” bellowed Attillus, forcing a hand through a large tear in the net.
This meaty paw, the size of a ham, seized Lucius by the throat. The retiarii’s eyes bulged as he frantically stabbed the murmillo in the chest, desperate to make the giant relinquish his hold. But to no avail. Such was the strength that remained in Attillus that he crushed the life out of his opponent even as Lucius, hacking at his enemy’s chest until his dying breath, ushered Attillus aboard Charon’s boat to Hades.
Silence reigned as the few surviving Aventini and Suburae fighters stared at the two nemeses. Entwined even in death, the two warriors lay in a creeping pool of intermingled blood. Even Philo’s jaw dropped and his grip on Justus slackened. Never in all my days at the Colosseum, he thought even as Justus finally wriggled free and dashed to the barge’s handrails to stare at the butchery and destruction, have I seen such a thing. Such violence. Such brutality…
In silence and in defeat, the two remaining Suburan gangers ran from the dock. One—a boy no older than Justus—stayed long enough to kneel beside Lucious’ body, say a quiet prayer, and kiss the dead fighter on the cheek. He spat on Attillus as he left.
Those Aventine who remained gawped at the two bodies. Even Constans—skin white and clammy as he leant against the cart and stemmed the flow of blood from his thigh with strips torn from his tunic—stared at the dead gladiators.
Justus broke the silence by vomiting loudly over the side of the barge.
“Well, that was one big fish that fought back.” Ajax clapped loudly. “Now get back to work,” he then shouted, pointing at the remaining Aventini and their cart. “In acta est fabula; the play is over!”