When the Christian had been dressed — he offered no resistance, but no aid either, like a lifeless doll that was in need of garbing — the Roman shoved him roughly out of his cell and into the tunnel, and up toward the dim-lit turn. He heard Gnaeus Arrius call out behind them, “Salute the gods for us, dog, should you see them on your way to Hades!”
The Christian began to make the gesture again across his chest, but the Roman interrupted him, smacking him hard on the shoulder to interrupt the spell. “Do not dare try and curse us, dog,” he said, warningly.
The Christian’s eyes grew wide with a slight surprise. “It is not mine to curse or to bless, brother,” he said simply, and with a candor that quite disarmed the Roman; and before the Roman’s very eyes he then completed the gesture he had begun, looking his captor deep in the eyes as he did so. The Roman watched him nervously, wondering if he had somehow been enchanted to permit this sign, or enchanted by the sign itself. Then the Christian turned and began to walk of his own accord, untroubled as it were, up the tunnel and toward the light. The Roman followed the strange man with his eyes: that small frame all but vanishing in the overlarge robes of Saturn. A feast this day for beast and god alike. Yet the Christian was not trembling. The Roman wondered, not for the first time, if he was touched. He strode up behind him.
“These are your last moments, Christian,” he whispered into the man’s ear. “Savor them, if you can. Life is a bird that does not return once it has fled the nest.” The Christian did not pause, did not turn, but proceeded on as if he had heard nothing. “You are soon to go out like a lamplight, dog,” added the Roman harshly, “and then it is to the land of the mindless with you.”
The man inclined his head slightly to the side. “So say you,” he replied with a clear voice.
The Roman tried to chuckle. “What, do you think you will triumph out on that field? You have not even a sword, and will be bound to boot!”
“Not I will triumph, but my Lord in me.”
“Much faith you place in your God! I am aware of no wonders he has worked. Do you know how many Christians I have seen die here in this place, dog? This arena has been bathed with Christian blood. And yet he will save you?”
“All is possible to God.”
“Ah, marvelous! Pray tell, how do you fancy he will save you? Will he strike down the beasts, do you think? Or unloose your bindings and put a blade into your hand?”
“Then maybe he will draw you up into the air itself and carry you away, on plumed feet, like Mercury!” The Roman felt suddenly the glory of mocking, of gloating, the gross superiority over this being before him and the revel of it. But the Christian did not respond. “Truly, you believe you will not die!” the Roman laughed in wonderment and scorn.
The Christian stopped for the first time, and turned, and looked the Roman in the eyes. There was something unworldly about his eyes, something beautiful and brilliant, and it almost seemed as if a light was shining in them despite the dark of the tunnel. “I have already died the death of which you speak, brother,” he said.
“I am no brother of yours,” the Roman murmured, afraid suddenly of this man, infuriated by the absurdity of his fear.
“So say you.”
“Do you not understand that your time is running to the bone?” the Roman cried into his face. He felt a sudden fearsome desire, built of cruelty and desperation, to drive the point home in this Christian’s heart like a knife, to make him feel the horror of his impending doom. But the man before him did not respond, only turned and continued to walk up the tunnel, slowly but surely, as though in meditation, as though in peripatetics. “Nonetheless, some solace for you,” said the Roman, hastening again behind the Christian’s right shoulder. “Those that feed of your flesh this day will be hunted down afterward in the venatio. You will be avenged, cur. They will open the beasts’ bellies, with your flesh still inside. Though of course, you will not be here to savor it. Pity, that.” Again, no response. “Nor will you be alone up there,” the Roman continued, seeking the spot of softness in the soul of this man. “Three of you are to die this day. Though your fellows, to be sure, are not of your ilk. Mere criminals and riffraff, as I understand it. Not even Romans, like you and I: Carthaginian trash. That is what you have reduced yourself to; deathmate to alien thieves. A wretched end, dog. I wonder what kind of God is worth such an end — and for so little as well! It would be a small thing to sacrifice to the god, would it not?”
“I myself am a sacrifice to God.”
“Why surrender your life for such a pittance?”
“Is it so little?” the Christian asked, inclining his head back again and glancing with those terrible eyes into the Roman’s.
“Do you not say that our gods are false gods? Do your blasphemous teachers not teach you as much? What would it cost you, then, to burn a bit of incense before false shrines?”
“So do the hypocrites. Is it so little to bow before a lie?”
Wrath flared up in the Roman’s heart at this. “Insolent dog! Soon you will bow before a lion,” he replied. “Then with your last breath you could tell me which is better, o godless one, if only you still had your voice to speak.” A scorching flame flared in his heart, hot and vivid, and suddenly he struck the Christian smartly on the back with his fist — as powerful a blow as he knew how to deliver. He knew not why he did it, against both his own discipline and against all the rules governing his post; he saw at once the pain the blow had induced, and for a moment feared he had done real damage to the man before him, whose frailness he had not accounted for in his rage. The Christian cried out at the unexpected strike and doubled up suddenly and bent over like an old man, a trembling open hand flying awkwardly near the point where the fist had fallen. The thin arm was exposed beyond the sleeve of the robe, and the Roman saw where the manacles had dug deep into the Christian’s wrist, the neat lines of blood and bruising. He felt a sudden madness, and, impossibly, through the gloom of the tunnel and the gloom of his soul, a terrible sorrow welled into his heart for what he had done —
“May Hades take your soul,” the Roman spat through gritted teeth, envenomed to his very being against this man before him, already wondering what he would tell Maximus Pedius above, already worried that the Christian would inform on him, what that would cost him — already hating this man for what he had not yet done. But then the Christian straightened stiffly, and looked up at the ceiling over their heads, and spoke weakly in his pain, yet distinctly, so that the Roman could hear, though it was not to the Roman that he was speaking: “Forgive him, Father!” And moving against the dolorous knot that the Roman’s hard knuckles had driven into his spine, he slowly straightened and proceeded forth again, still somewhat stooped, the Roman some ways behind him now.
They came at last to the turn in the corridor, and the Christian rounded it first. As he did so, he came to face the light itself flooding in from above, and for a moment he was illuminated, so that the Roman for the first time could see his face distinctly. To his surprise, he saw a handsome man, despite the great beard he wore and the dirtiness of his prison and the smudge of pale dust that still clung to his brow, fine of feature and aquiline of nose, his eyes large and green beneath his tall candid brow and the dark arcs of his eyebrows, and terribly clear somehow, terribly open even in the sudden intolerable brilliance of the light. His pupils were momentarily huge from the darkness behind them and it gave an otherworldly aspect to his unblinking countenance. There was about his lips something untroubled, no insane smirk as he might have expected from a man out of his mind, nor even the remnants of the pain he had lately felt, but only a look of readiness, peace. Death there standing before him, in the light of the open day, caged in its readiness, ready to cast him down into the land of the shades, and he with peace about his lips! — A beautiful visage, despite its besmirchment — but perhaps it was but the sudden light that made it so —
The Christian proceeded around the corner and out of his sight, and the Roman hastened to catch up. They were on the final ascent, now, the brief rise into the opening at the edge of the amphitheater. The head guard was there, Maximus Pedius, with his heavy jaw and his tiny glaring eyes, like a boar’s; he held the Christian at bay with a single huge hand flat in the air before him, and turned to spy over the broad distance of the arena. The light of this hot July day was flooding down respiteless on the pale ocher sand and the scarlet-lined walls of the stadium, illuminating the world blindingly for an instant, so that the Roman had to shield his face from the glare and squint against it, blinking painfully. At length his vision adjusted and he moved behind the Christian.
Over the wide opening, all was established and all was ready. The six great wheeled cages stood darkly to the right of the field, the three poles over their wooden bases some distance before them. The latter were naked, adorned only with ropes. In the pews of the great festooned amphitheater the many were peering down in craving and expectation. What did they feel, the Roman wondered, there in their nests? What would this be to them? Would they feel the heat, the thrill? Would they feel what he had felt that first time? Or would it be to them, as to him, but the numbness and void of blank repetition? This man before him, who had never spoken to them — what would they feel when he perished? What was he to them? What was he to him? — The cages loomed great and heavy, the twined hemp ropes hanging above them and over them on the long arms that reached over their portcullis doorways, the other ends trailing long in the dust behind the cages, to where six slaves held them, one slave to a rope. They held the ropes already wrapped about their hands, anxious and intent expressions scrawled on their faces. They were ready to pull at command, and thereby to open the gates, and then to flee as fast as they were able — an invention credited to the Consul (in idea if not execution), which would permit them to open the cages from an ostensibly safe distance, and at the same time add a bit more sport to the event itself in the uncertainty of the fate of these slaves. Previously the cages had been inset directly into the walls, but this was more scenic, more dramatic, and had been widely acclaimed by the seasoned spectators of the gore of the field. Behind the bars in their cages the blond figures paced rhythmically with a frightful grace, shimmering weirdly in the neat lines of shadow, loping in the rigor of their confinement and staring about with dumb intensity and open, salivating maws. Confined to too small a space, ravenous in all the long time they had not eaten —
Maximus lifted a triangular sapphire flag above his head and began to wave it rhythmically. It was answered by another diagonally across to their left, and then another to their right. Then the three flags were lowered, and Maximus gestured to the Roman. He pressed the Christian from behind with the flat of his palm, gently somehow, and the man moved forth into the light. It cast down upon his bare head, shimmering in his hair. He did not stop. Across the space he walked then before the Roman with simple, frank steps and a quiet dignity. A Christian, maybe, but a Roman still, he thought to himself with a certain pride. The Roman spied over the distances the other two damned ones emerge from the mouth-like entrances, as though the arena were vomiting them up — small dark men, naked both save for loincloths, and both of them struggling vainly against the force of the destiny that had caught them up in its web. The guards behind them pressed them against their struggling. One of the doomed men fell to the earth and began to moan and to call out imploringly, but the guard only drew his sword menacingly and kicked the begging figure. Yet for all those threats and all that violence, the man would not rise. The guard whistled and gestured, and another guard trotted out behind him; the two of them lifted the fallen man by his armpits and dragged him forth, his feet dangling in the dust and his head lolling before him as he moaned. The second criminal moved hesitantly, but at least upon his own feet, glancing about himself wildly, pressed on every two or three steps by the guard behind him. Only the Christian walked unforced toward the poles. The Roman heard him murmuring a strange orison in Greek as he passed over the saline earth. “Our Father, who art in heaven…”
Halfway hence and the dragged man suddenly let out a horrible wail and leaped to his feet, fighting frantically to release himself and to race away — to where? To what imaginary refuge in that field of enemies? The fool! He began screaming like a child, ignoble and deplorable, and the guards were forced to take him up, one by the torso and the other by the legs, and to haul him forth, waddling against his weight, mustard-colored clouds rising at their feet, and he squirming like a fish in their arms. The Christian glanced up but did not break stride. He was the first to arrive at the poles.
“Center,” ordered the Roman curtly; and the Christian nodded and duly stepped up onto its narrow platform, turning his back to the dark splintered wood of the pole. He lifted his hands before him and clasped them at his breast and began again to murmur. The Roman moved behind him, taking up the rope, and drew the Christian’s arms forcibly back from their oratory posture. They fell to, resistless.
He had imagined, passing over the arena, he would tie the man as tightly as he was able, binding the wounds of the Christian’s wrists as excruciatingly as he might with his hale Roman strength — squeezing this last small satisfaction out of their irksome encounter. But he found with the moment come that he would do no such thing, and it was even with a certain inexplicable firm gentleness that he put the binds upon the Christian’s wrists and about his ankles. It was done soundly and done well; the man could not escape (would he have even tried?); but there was no savagery in the act. The Roman then stood smartly to attention on the ground beneath the bound man, who was elevated above him to his left, and awaited the others. The second condemned man was already being bound, but the third would not even stand before the stake, but continued to fall limply before it, sobbing miserably, until the Roman himself had to go and help one of the two guards hold the man up while the other mewed his limbs. They managed the job well enough, tying the man harshly just to keep him from sliding down the pole again, and the Roman renewed his post beside his own charge, a certain impossible feeling of respectful comradeship tinging the gesture — as if his proper place was rightfully beside this upright Christian, and not that blubbering whelp of a criminal faltering upon his stake. The Christian, a center of calm in that scene, was gazing up, past the line of the amphitheater, toward the east, and the Roman’s eyes followed the gaze, but fell short of those distances and settled instead on the high seatbox. He could see the gross form of the Consul there ensconced at its edge, rotund and heavy and eternally lazy in its posture, looking down on them with great condescension. Beneath his seat, gaping and wide, the porta libitinaria opened into the earth, the dark gash in the arena wall where the remains of the dead would soon be lugged out of view of the spectators and into the underearth.
The trumpeters made their call then for the start of the spectacle, and the guards began to disband, returning to their respective places. But as he stepped away from the Christian, the Roman heard the voice behind him, full of an inexplicable joy, and he stopped fast, as if against his will, to listen. “Remember me, brother. God has prepared a place for you, as well, in His mansion. With my last breath I will pray to God that I meet you there. Remember me, and pray for me in turn!” The Roman turned and peered up at the bound man. The Christian’s head was inclined down, and he was smiling upon the Roman, his eyes full of light and warmth. The Roman marveled, hesitated, almost stumbled, but turned and walked swiftly away, his heart a chaos.
He came to the tunnel from whence he had debouched and, walking past Maximus Pedius without even glancing at him, began to descend into the depths, back to his subterranean post, where he was expected to wait out the remainder of the games. But suddenly he paused, lingering. Another step — and then he was still. He turned quietly, in inner trouble, and stood, looking beyond the form of the guards, out over the pristine arena of scarlet and gold to the three bound figures exposed in the wide creamy basin. The two naked men, dark of skin, were slumped at their posts, the one in what seemed exhaustion, the other weeping shamelessly. Only the central figure, in his rich robes, stood upright, his handsome face still lifted toward the sky.
Then Maximus turned, gazing at the Roman analytically with his swinish eyes, the light blinding behind him. The Roman was afraid suddenly that he would be sent back down into the dark, that he would not be given to bear witness to what was coming — but Maximus only grinned, smugly somehow. “Want a little fun, too, eh, Lucius Torquatus? Well, I won’t begrudge it to you — just this once. Don’t dream of making a habit of it, however!” The Roman nodded quickly at this stern admonition, almost too distracted even to calculate his superior’s words, and swallowed painfully against a tightening throat. He stood a ways back in the shadow of the exit, and from this retracted position could no longer see the cages; but he knew when they had been opened from the maddened roaring of the public, the glorying and dark revelry rushing through the world and the arena, filled as it was with men who had come here for this and for this alone, to see other men suffer and die before them, to be the vicarious kings of the day, the proxy masters of the lives of their fallen brethren. He heard a vicious snarling — perhaps the beasts were at one another’s throats, as sometimes happened, or perhaps one of them had lighted after the slaves that had opened the caves. One way or another, it was a matter now of moments. The heart leaped in him, but it was not as it had been once, so long ago, and he naught but a boy there over the winedark sea and the haze-thrown distances as one man prepared to claim the life of another in public combat; it was not this conquering elation and transport that ripped a man almost sickeningly to a place beside himself; nay, it was not that, but now something altogether greater, and far more inexplicable, a nameless surge upon him, a wave that rose and flooded in and smashed upon the soul, leaving its mark surely on more than memory alone — The time was come: the figures on their poles were writhing now in the horror of it, in the grips of last animal instinct to break free and flee, somehow escape, somehow survive — all of them but the Christian, who stood yet, straight-backed and to all outward evidences unmoved, though it seemed he was speaking. And was it the distance and the trick of distance that but tinted this fancy into his view, but it did seem to him that the Christian was smiling as he murmured those last words —
Suddenly his eyes jerked away, for the two naked men were screaming. His vision settled there with a fond fascination upon the cause of it: they were approaching, those tawny beasts swaying in the harsh light, zig-zagging languidly across the open space and watching the bound men with a skeptic inquiry — judging them, weighing them, measuring them for danger against their tremendous hunger. They roamed forth ineluctable now, seeking someone to seize upon and devour. It was a magnificent male that headed them, the largest the Roman had ever seen, its golden eyes fixed upon the men, its honeydark mane and tufted tail and white beard swaying and twitching as it stalked. Its mouth hung open about its terrible fangs, and though it was thin with the hunger that had been induced in it, and though its ribs showed plainly beneath its blond pelt, still it was a gargantuan and terrible monster, a challenge even for the hunters who were to follow this first macabre scene.
Maximus Pedius was hollering now, forgetting even the dignity of his station, lost to the bloodcraving, as the lion determined its status and began its charge with a frightening speed that one would not have thought possible for so great a beast as that, plummeting forth with a terrible might of limb, a terrible force of motion — and surely now the Christian would crumble and break before the sight of it…?
In an instant the giant had leaped upon the robed figure and with paw and maw grappled about him in a final and intricate embrace. Such was the power of its leap that the doughty beast overturned the pole itself, riding the body down like a doll onto the ground, and thereupon set to greedy feeding, joined swift by the others that it warded off with rageful growls and powerful swipes of its reddened claws. It seemed in this contest that that the other prisoners had been forgotten by the beasts altogether. But then one of the latecome lions leaped upon the second criminal and tore him where he hung, and so only the blubbering criminal was left alive, screaming now continuously with every gasp of his lungs in an unconquerable terror which would not abate, until the lions fell upon him as well.
Maximus was laughing, a high, wild giggle, and beating his hands against one another with an almost frantic violence. He looked swiftly and repeatedly from the scene to the other guard who stood there at the entryway beside him. “Ha-ha! The Christian, the Christian! I told you, Priscus, I told you they’d go for him first! Hah! So I win our little wager, yet again! You should stop playing me, Priscus, you will never have the better of it! Don’t you know I can see all things?” He laughed madly and smacked the smaller crestfallen guard so hard upon the back that the man stumbled forward a step into the light. “Haha! Your Christian first, eh, Lucius? The lions know, they always know!” he cried out in a bestial kind of jubilation, turning his hot, gloating, swollen face to peer back at the Roman behind him. “Don’t they —”
But he broke off, and frowned. The way below was empty, and only the light fell into it, beating upon the far wall and reflecting, perchance, into the long dark of the tunnels below.