220 AD, Rome
He stretched his hands and stood upright, wiped the beads of sweat as his skin dazzled in the scorching sun. Time was running out. Bending down, he continued digging again- his passage to freedom.
“Pardus! Pardus! Pardus!…….” The Colosseum reverberated with the chants of thousands of spectators. Each pair of savage eyes craved for blood. And…more blood.
His aim, however, was to dig out the chest which would lead to his freedom. Beyond that gate, in front of him, lay his dream of breaking free from slavery. A free life or a bestial death, either of the one awaited him. He dug incessantly to find the hidden chest.
Three years ago
The planks made a creaking sound as the vessel sailed. Motionless bodies lay around Hubba. Some were known faces of his clan. With the little amount of sentience he could gather, he heard the waves thudding on the body of the ship. The air tasted salty. The sail fluttered while negotiating its way through the angry sea winds. He heard distant voices of banter from somewhere on the deck. The voices fainted, a curtain fell over his eyes. Blink. Everything went blank.
In his next spell of consciousness, he was getting carried somewhere. Where? He didn’t know. The air smelt of blood. The surroundings were the colour of sand. His carriage was a wooden cage driven on wheels. He felt an excruciating pain in his thigh. Unable to move his leg, he looked up. A vulture was leering at his flesh from a cage placed above his. His eyes felt heavy. Blink. Everything became black again.
He retrieved his senses again in a bustling market. How much time had elapsed? Was it hours or days? He was clueless. The ground seemed to sway beneath his feet.
His last clear memories were of when he was a free man.
The pirates attacked when his people were completely off guard. His clan was of hunters, the best of their kind. They had resisted, but were defeated by the overwhelming weapons. There was chaos everywhere. People crying, calling out to each other. Many got brutally slaughtered. A beautiful face, to whom he was betrothed, got devoured in front of his eyes. He was hard to capture, for he was known amongst his men as the son of Ososhi, the God of the forest. Only in his twenties currently, he was set to be the future leader of his clan already. It took three men to pin him down. His strong arms were restrained by two, he flung his leg at the third one. Soon his leg was brought down by a sharp jab on his thigh. The gash bled profusely. A blunt stroke on his head followed and left him incapacitated.
His dark skin glistened under the sun, a battered cloth sparsely covered his loin. He was tied to a pole, like cattle. His toned muscles and chiselled frame, however, showed no signs of starvation. Despite his weariness, he felt a gnawing void in his heart. The screams of his loved ones haunted him.
The buyers flocked the market. A robust man with curly hair, as well built as Hubba, screened the live-stock intently. The rugged lines on his bronze coloured skin bore evidence of his viciousness.
“Hello, Dracchus… We meet after a long time.” The seller greeted him with a bow and a phoney grin.
Dracchus responded in a gruff voice, “Be grateful to your God as you are fortunate enough to see me again. After our last meeting, I thought I would kill you.”
The seller frowned in astonishment, “Why? What makes you so incensed my dear friend?”
Dracchus moved closer and squeezed his neck, “You wrung from me a hefty sum for that slut, claiming her to be a virgin…” He tightened his grip, “She was an enceinte woman.” The seller coughed and struggled to free himself from Dracchus’s beefy clutches. He soon caught up with his annoying grin after getting released and cunningly diverted Dracchus’s attention towards his present stock.
Dracchus’s gaze wandered from Hubba’s toe to his glabrous head and finally settled on the pendant on his neck. It was the huntsmen’s deity carved on a small wooden leaf that dangled from a thread. “What have you been?” Dracchus looked straight into his eyes. Hubba stared back. His lips didn’t move an inch. The seller’s fist landed on his face, almost smashing his jaw. “Do I need to tell you, you are a slave and need to behave like one?” Hubba was still unfazed, he stared back again, this time even more piercingly. His eyes like that of a wild cat. Dracchus intervened to put a stop to any further confrontation. He agreed to shell out only a meagre amount for a dark-skinned slave. He presumed it was going to be a wise investment.
The deal was done. Dracchus returned with his possessions- some three slaves and four exotic animals. Hubba was segregated from the rest. He was to be trained as a gladiator. To die entertaining thousands of sadistic eyes who derive pleasure from a barbaric game. This was his destiny.
During the next few days, Dracchus observed him closely. Hubba was trained for the arena at the gladiator school. To entertain the crowd. The gorier the kill, the better. A hunter in earlier life, killing was inherent in him. Dracchus had recognized his prowess. He knew, Hubba was as good a man of arms as any alive.
A month later
A bunch of gladiators stood in the enclosure at the back of the arena. Most of them were aware that they were about to die. Hubba stood tall among them. His first time at the brutal extravaganza. The continuous roar of the crowd outside made his adrenaline surge. The gates opened. Hubba could sense what awaited him outside. His strong jaws tightened and his wild eyes narrowed. He clutched the spear in one hand and the long shield in another and sprinted towards the arena through the open gate. The opponents charged, wearing grotesque masks and animal heads. Some poltroons around him wetted themselves. They cowered in trepidation, begged for mercy, but were slaughtered in the blink of an eye. The first few, who met Hubba’s spear, were killed instantly. The soil was dressed in the colour of blood in no time.
“Kill! Kill! Kill!…” chants erupted from the arena. They were hungry for more blood.
A few were left including Hubba. He crouched in his position, his arms flexed. His spear ready to skewer. He pounced on his opponent and to his opponent’s surprise, he attacked with the shield instead of the spear, ramming it into his head, which smashed like an earthen pot. He stood at the centre of the arena along with his other companion in the game. Invincible. Around him were strewn severed limbs, ripped bodies of fighters, who had entertained till their last breath.
A spectator pumped his fist in the air and hailed, “Pardus!”
Others followed suit and chanted “Pardus! Pardus! Pardus!…”. The amphitheater echoed with the crowd cheering.
This was just the beginning. Such wins continued for years.
The days were gory and the nights were confined to the dingy cells. He was a silent participant in the banters of fellow gladiators. Occasionally, a thin smile escaped his lips on their raillery. That strengthened their brotherhood, but not for long. Their camaraderie was short-lived, like their lives. New ones were quick to replace them. In his solitude, visuals of his earlier life haunted him. He longed for his homeland. His kinsmen may all have died, but their spirits were very much alive in his native land. He was the son of the forest, untamed, not born to be bound by shackles. No! He couldn’t accept his fate. He yearned for freedom, however far fetched it was.
Dracchus came to rely on Hubba to bring him more fortunes with the latter’s wins in the arena. Hubba was probably one of the most valourous gladiators that Rome had seen in a long time. But Dracchus had an inkling that he was one of those birds which refused to be caged. One day, if this arena granted him life, he might have to free him.
A day before the present day
“Dominus!” bowed Hubba. He was summoned by Dracchus on the eve of the life-changing event.
“Come here, Hubba!” Dracchus invited him to his cabin. Over the years, Hubba had earned a special place in his heart.
Dracchus moved towards the large window in his room and leaned on it with both his hands. He stared in the distance, “These people love you Hubba, but not enough to remember you. They cheer for you in the arena. The women out there, wear your sweat in their pins as an aphrodisiac. The children play with toys of your replicas. But I say, it is not enough. The day you die in that arena, it will take them only a few days to forget you.”
“What do you want of me?” Hubba asked brusquely.
Dracchus turned towards him and continued with assertion, “You have won their hearts, you have to rule their minds now. I have seen you in that arena. You have never poured your heart and soul into this game. Your kills are shallow. Show them your valour.”
Hubba smiled wryly, “You can train the wild, but you cannot tame them Dominus. You call it valour? To kill the enslaved, the innocent wild animals just to please a bunch of bloodthirsty eyes?”
Dracchus let out a sigh and looked away, “Tomorrow in that arena, if you survive, you will be a free man. But you must know, the game has been arranged to be extremely difficult; to sneer at the dreams of freedom of your likes, if any left. Caesar doesn’t want to see a slave getting freed. So, pour your heart in that bloody game tomorrow. Even if you die, your name will be etched in the hearts of the masses.”
Hubba was not wrong when he thought he saw Dracchus’s eyes moisten. With an unsettled twist to his head Dracchus blurted, “I don’t know what it is. Yes I fear losing you – my most prized possession till date. Or may be I have grown fond of you.” He took a moment’s pause to gulp his breath, “I almost feel guilty of pushing you into this dreaded game of freedom.” Hubba felt a multitude of emotions himself and nodded slightly, concurring with his master’s words.
Dracchus then opened a case and took out a gladius. The blade of which shone in the saffron light of the dusk. Dracchus gifted it to Hubba to fight his last in the arena.
The gladiators, decked up in heavy metallic armours and helmets, greeted the Caesar in unison, “Ave Caesar! Morituri te salutant.”
A man in a tacky attire played the host and announced aloud, “Today our ever merciful Caesar will buy the freedom of the worthy. The door on the west of the Amphitheatre leads to freedom.” He pointed towards an arched door. “The key of which is hidden in a chest in this very arena. Around one of the three poles.” He indicated with his fingers towards the three poles on the ground. “Today, before the sun goes down, the one who finds the chest will be free.”
The drum beats signaled the onset of the macabre game.
The first pole and its surrounding ground was ravaged for the chest. Time ran out. A platoon of archers barged in the arena and showered numerous arrows at the gladiators. Hubba dodged a few. He crouched behind his shield. He rolled swiftly and covered for two of his companions. One of them threw a net on an approaching archer, Hubba pounced and stabbed his gladius in his chest with a loud scream. Within moments a few more archers were slain. The rest who survived left the arena. The next round continued with the handful of gladiators who had lived.
By the end of the next search at the second pole, Hubba had lost all his companions. He stood alone – battered and bruised. The cheer of the crowd grew louder. He started digging again at the third pole. A lion was held by fetters of iron at the farthest corner from the pole in the arena.
The shackles felt weak at the beast’s feet, who continuously jerked to get free and devour its prey. The last grains of sand were slipping through the hourglass. The sun prepared to retire for the day. If he failed, the beast would be unleashed at him. He kept on digging incessantly with the gladius bestowed by his master, with his last ounce of energy. Then it happened; his gladius clanged on hitting something in the ground. But…was it too late? The sun had just set, trailing behind were some of its last rays, which would leave soon too. Before he could dig out the chest completely, the lion was unleashed. The animal which was kept hungry for a day, didn’t wait to charge at its prey.
Hubba, who was still digging, became alert when he heard a prominent shout from the gallery, “Hubba! Watch out…” It was Dracchus.
His hunter instincts kicked in. He faced the charging animal; his gladius and shield ready to defend the attack. The lion jumped up for its last leap towards its prey, but suddenly fell inches short of Hubba and dug its paw in his limb. Its eyes fixed on the pendant dangling around Hubba’s neck. The engraved deity livened up in the last rays of the sun. The beast’s belligerence softened. He took advantage of its momentary trance and jumped at its side. He jabbed at its thigh rendering it incapable to move. The lion let out a prolonged growl before slumping to the ground.
The gallery thundered with applause, the spectators kept repeating, “Libertas! Libertas!…, ” as Hubba limped and carried the excavated chest in his hands.
All this while, the Caesar wore a condescending smile. But to his utter disbelief, a slave had earned his freedom. A deadly beast was paralysed in front of him. His smirks were now a forced smile. Considering his popularity, he couldn’t refuse Hubba his freedom. With rue, he saw Hubba proceed towards the gate with his key to freedom.
Dracchus put the pileus hat on Hubba’s head, like a true patron. His heart was filled with love and pride for Hubba.
The sail waited for Hubba, who was to return to his homeland.
He stood on the deck. The freedom smelt good to him. A contented smile adorned his face. The sea breeze caressed his elevated cheekbones. He clutched his pendant, looked above at the expansive sky and uttered a prayer. His homeland beckoned him, he would return there, he would return to his people.
Et invicta (Latin)- the invincible
Pardus (Latin)- Panther
Gladius- a short sword used by the gladiators.
Dominus- a master to a slave
Ave Caesar! Morituri te salutant (Latin) – Hail Caesar! We who are about to die salute you.
Manumission- the act of owners freeing their slaves
Pileus- pileus hat was a symbol of the freed slave and manumission
Prompt: The protagonist stretched his/her hands and stood upright, while the beads of sweat as his/her skin dazzled in the scorching sun. Time was running out. Bending down, the protagonist continued digging again- his/her passage to freedom. Take the story forward.
This is an entry in ArtoonsInn ArttrA-5 hosted at Writers Room.
This ArttrA is sponsored by Tanima Das Mitra, Claws Club Member – ArtoonsInn, and hosted by the Watchers of ArtoonsInn.
Cover Photo By Mohamed Hassan
Get a Free website and 1-month free hosting from ArtoonsInn Geeks Room during ArttrA. No technical knowledge required. Click here to talk to the Builders at The Geeks Room.