12 September 81 CE, ROME
Decaneus staggered slowly to his feet. The guards who had dumped him on the hot, hard-packed sand of the arena were already making their hasty exit. They’d removed his chains just after dragging him from his dark cell. Now his arms felt oddly light after having worn the manacles for so long. The skin where the iron had rubbed was raw and already putrefying. He knew that unless his wounds were treated soon they’d kill him.
But maybe he wouldn’t live long enough for them to kill him. He became aware of the sounds around him now. People. Crowds of people. He looked up from studying his wrists to see in the stark midday sun thousands of people arranged in tiered rows around him. Few seemed to be looking his way. Most were chatting, oblivious to the predicament of a lone barbarian prisoner-of-war standing in the centre of the bloodstained oval.
He wasn’t stupid, nor was he ignorant. He may come from the Dacian hills in the wilds north of Illyria, but even there they’d heard of the Roman arenas where brutal spectacles were staged to amuse the masses. He knew where he stood.
But it was the size that overwhelmed him in that moment. This amphitheatre was monstrous. It stood three stories high and happily contained tens of thousands. More people than Decaneus had ever seen in his life.
He heard a short trumpet blast. His eyes were drawn to the northern gate above which stood an ostentatiously decorated box, complete with canopy to protect its occupants from the sun. It had to be the Imperial box, he decided, and there were richly dressed people in it who were only now beginning to rise to leave. Were they not staying for the fun?
A few less jaded members of the audience suddenly gasped. Decaneus registered their excitement and followed their gazes. They weren’t looking at him. Instead, they stared, open-mouthed at a lone lion that was loping into the arena to join him. The creature looked as stunned by his situation as Decaneus was.
He had never seen a lion before, but he recognised it from descriptions he’d heard. A huge golden cat with a ragged, brown ruff that made its head seem too heavy to carry. It roared ferociously at the crowd as it paced forward, obviously drawn by the smell of the fresh blood that laced the sand around them so liberally. Would it be as hungry as he was?
His thoughts were slow and sluggish. He knew he was facing danger and possible death. He knew he needed to think. But in that moment, all he could do was watch the approaching creature with awed bemusement. Those teeth were so huge and sharp. He knew how painful a domesticated cat’s teeth could be. Being bitten by its huge cousin would be infinitely worse. And the creature before him had to weigh more than two men. It would knock him to the ground in one leap and be done with him in an instant.
His gaze was diverted back to the Imperial box. He saw a flash of bright blue, as a woman threw a stola over her shoulder. Then, for some reason, the woman turned to look at him. She wasn’t young – a mature matron from her appearance – but she was still a beautiful woman in the ornate and over-coffered style of the Roman nobility. Her gaze showed curiosity. And then, when her attention was drawn to the lion by its roar, it suddenly showed concern.
It was that concern that drew him from his numbed state. It was as if the goddess Bendis looked out through that woman’s concerned eyes. Suddenly his situation was crystal clear.
The lion was turning away from the crowds above him now focusing on the only available victim for its wrath. Him. In moments, the beast would be on him. Without weapons or even a shield, he had no way to defend himself.
He had his hands. Could he do much damage with his closed fists? Unlikely. Could he choke the beast with his fingers around its thick throat? No, the neck’s massive, shaggy mane would make getting even his arms around its neck too difficult.
A memory flashed into his mind. A piece of cloth from a washing line wrapped around his throat and from behind him childish hands pulling it tight enough to suffocate.
That had been his older brother’s work when Decaneus was only seven. His older but shorter brother, Borieus, had thought it was so funny to hold him captive that way, strangling the life out of him. If a sharp yell from an observer hadn’t stopped him, Decaneus would have died that day. It was only a joke, Borieus had said afterwards. It had always just been a joke for Borieus.
But now he remembered how effective that innocent piece of fabric had been. Had his traitorous brother done him a favour teaching him that lesson? While the lion loped closer, Decaneus whipped off his filthy loincloth, the only covering on his body. It was a single length of fabric that might only just be long enough to wrap around the lion’s neck.
Pushing down his desire to run from the danger, he wrung the cloth tight like a piece of rope. He knew cats were in their element chasing after their prey. This cat would be no different. The only advantage he could garner in this moment was surprise. His actions had to be sudden and unexpected. He had to go on the attack!
Somewhere in the back of his mind, he registered the silence that had fallen over the arena. All the talking had stopped. Every eye was on him. They watched as he stalked his prey, stunned by the reversal of roles being acted out before them.
When he was close enough, he threw up his arms and yelled aggressively. The beast startled backward and turned away, looking for a way out. Decaneus took the opportunity. With a burst of speed and agility fuelled purely by terror and the desire for survival, he dashed forward and leapt onto the back of the confused lion. He whipped his arm around its neck with the tightly wound cloth in one hand.
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Genre – Historical Romance
Rating – PG