We, Who Are About To Die, Salute You

We, Who Are About To Die, Salute You

A Story by Thomas Burbank
"

Death is when immortality begins. Or, at least, that’s what they say. Staring down from their lavish thrones of greed and arrogance. Noble only in blood, not in spirit. I will have my vengeance.

"

Death is an old friend.  He stands at the gates of Orcus, wings " black as the dark side of the moon, a bridge between life and the afterlife.  Watching men fight to claim their rights in the Elysian Fields, silent as the namesake he holds " Death waits for no man.  The epitome of strife, the embodiment of grief, the harbinger of hell itself, Death is what all men fear to love and love to fear.  Yet, I do not fear Death.  Rather, I welcome him.  Man fails to understand that Life and Love are what is filled with suffering.  Death is when the pain ends.  Death is when we are released from our mortal bodies and tried justly by the council of those who have passed before us.  Death is when immortality begins.  Or, at least, that’s what they say.  Staring down from their lavish thrones of greed and arrogance.  Noble only in blood, not in spirit.  Brutal in their savage pleasures.  They say a lot of things.  It’s what they make me say, however, that’s worst of all:  Morituri te salutamus.

***

I used to live on the northernmost edge of Thrace, my village tucked within a valley of the Balkan Mountains.  We lived in solitude, flourishing with the fertile soil and the fresh water carried by streams flowing down from the lush, green mountain peaks " until the Romans came.  I can remember it even now:  the harsh cries of my people as we fought to keep the land claimed by our ancestors; the blood of men, women, and children as all those who refused to swear subservience to the Roman swine were beaten into unconsciousness.  Being forced to watch as my wife and child were murdered at the hands of those godforsaken dogs, throats slit, blood splattering my face as the lights died in their eyes " because I fought against the will of Titus Vespasianus Augustus.

Taken a slave and dragged from my homeland, I was thrown in the mines, working dawn till dusk, day in and day out to provide the Republic with gold, minerals, and stone for roads.  Tanned skin blackened by the rock, torn by the lash, and branded by the Legion, I was turned into something less than a man.  A withered monster, dying from the loss of his love and love of his people.  My long dark braid, decorated with spoils of successful hunts and victories against neighboring tribes, cut.  The hide of the sacred red deer, ripped from my back, leaving me only a ragged cloth that covered only my loins.  My once vibrant green eyes, now held a sickly yellowish tinge.  Lips cracked and bleeding from lack of food and water.  But I lived on, smashing rocks and moving rubble under the whip.  I would not die " not without revenge.

There came a day when an opportunity rose from the smut and grime of the mines.  A messenger, hailing from Rome itself, white-skinned, blond-haired, and seeking able-bodied men to be gladiators.  Beasts of battle, myths of might, tales of these monsters had reached even my isolated Thracian village.  The gladiators were said to fight in magnificent arenas before vast crowds " the animals stopped only in death, for in their world it was truly kill or be killed. 

I watched as he made words with the master of the mines and walked about, inspecting the men as the sun beat down from the heavens.  When he approached me, his curious blue eyes bored into my sickly green ones " a hungry wolf stalking its prey. 

“What’s your name, slave?” the messenger asked, his voice that of one who’d never worked a day in his life.  Jaw set and lips pressed into a thin line, I stared back at him.  When I did not answer, he spoke again, coming closer to inspect me, his tender hands feeling my blackened skin and calloused fingers.  “I said, what is your name, slave?”

I glared back at him, my eyes following his every movement as he circled me, before a white hot-pain erupted on my backside.  “Did you hear the man?”  Whip!  “He asked your f*****g name!”  Whip!  “Answer him, you Thracian dog.”  Whip! 

My master continued with the lashing as I stood silent and impassive, not allowing him the satisfaction of seeing or hearing my pain.  Blow after blow, strike after strike I stood there, deathly silent, while blood flowed down my back and legs.  Eyes dancing with green flames, I glared at the messenger.  He needed to understand what I was.  What I could become.  I was not the largest man, nor was I the strongest, but he needed to know that I would not stay down.  I would never stay down.  I would never face defeat in the arena.  With each slash of the whip, the messenger’s face changed, a greedy smile emblazoning his face.  Whip!  “Jupiter’s c**k!  You’re a fighter, aren’t you, slave?”  Whip!  “And Thracian too, eh?”  Whip!  “Oh, Doctore is going to have a field day with you.”  He turned to the master.  “How much?”

***

            “Do you know what lies beneath your feet?”  I stood in a line on the sands of my new master’s villa, Masseus Tiberius Sisenna, listening to him address me and the new recruits from the balcony above.  Dawn had yet to break and our bodies yet to sleep after our journey from the mines, but our Dominus wanted words with us.  Masseus was a hard man, his muscles taut and his face of stone.  He had short blond hair, emulating the great Julian blood line, and stormy-grey eyes that pierced your very soul.  Behind him stood our Doctore, Horatios, whip in hand.  Horatios was the fiercest man I’d ever laid eyes upon.  The dark-skinned Gaul was heavily muscled and stood a towering mass above even the largest of warriors.  Whispers overheard from the other recruits on our journey had named him a Champion of the Arena.  Victor of the Primus of the Opening Games held at the great Colosseum " witnessed by Emperor Titus himself as he slew four undefeated champions, back-to-back, in a winner-take-all contest.  His victories and prominence within the sands of the arena had awarded him freedom " something he’d had the gall to decline in order to teach the ways of the gladiator.

            “Sacred ground,” Masseus continued, staring each one of us in the eyes, “watered with tears of blood and sweat.  The sand beneath your feet is home to the greatest gladiators Rome has ever seen.  Mars himself would tremble at the men who have trained within the walls of this house.  Maximus, Atteus, Gannicus, Crixus!  F**k, even the famed Spartacus himself once trained here " when this was but the House of Cornelius Lentulus Batiatus!  Here you will train under the legendary Horatios, learning the ways of the sword, spear, and shield.”  He paced his balcony.  “When deemed fit, you will fight against one of the proven gladiators here until submission or death.  Win, and get branded into the brotherhood of the Games.  Lose, and face the mines. Your training begins now!”  Whip!  

            From that day on, I knew nothing but combat.  I was not granted proper rest nor proper meals until I earned the mark of the gladiator.  Until I could wield the sword and shield as extensions of my limbs I was fed nothing but the piss and s**t of muddied water and moldy bread.  Stab.  Slash.  Cut.  Block.  Dodge.  Roll.  Jab.  Deflect.  Doctore taught me how to fight as a god and to fear no man, however mighty he might be.  If I, or any of the recruits, stepped out of line or failed to meet the lofty standards of our Dominus, we were tied and lashed until failure was no longer a possibility.  Our humanity was slowly severed from our minds until all that remained was the drive for survival " and my desire for revenge.  Yes, despite all that had happened and all the beatings my body had endured, I still longed for revenge.  For Rome to feel as I’d felt, watching my family die in front of me " for sport and the laughter of but a few men.  When it was my turn to take the ultimate test of the gladiator, I stood against the current champion of the house.

Night had come and flames outlined the ring of our bout.  We circled each other, him wielding spear and shield, me with two Greek xiphos.  He charged first, thrusting his spear towards my midriff as I deflected it downwards, spinning away.  I used my momentum to slash one of my swords across his chest but was met with his shield.  I dropped to one knee and thrust with my other sword but his spear was already there to meet it, not only blocking my thrust but overpowering me altogether.  I was thrown back and rolled out of the way just before his spear sunk into the sand where my face had been seconds before.  I spun back over his spear, ripping it out of his hand, covering my face with my xiphoi crossed in an x as his shield barreled down upon me.  I kicked out and caught him in the chest and he stumbled back, allowing me to scramble to my feet and face him weaponless.  I attacked relentlessly " backing him up with each blow to the shield.  Baiting him with an overhead strike, I fainted the blow when he brought his shield up, only to swipe across his exposed chest with my other sword.  Before he could recover I kicked him in the chest and knocked the shield out of his hand as he fell to the sand, my sword at his throat.  Victorious, I earned the mark of the brotherhood " an S on the forearm, marking me a gladiator for the House of Sisenna.

***

            Here I stand, about to take the sands of Flavian Amphitheatre " the Colosseum.  A lifetime of struggles behind me and a lifetime of struggles ahead.  Death would be there, as he always would be, watching, amused, as I fought to evade his grasp.  Fought to send all those I faced his way in an all but futile attempt at freedom.  Fought for my family.  Stepping out to the roars of the crowd and blasting of horns, I was brought back to a night before all this " before Rome made me the heartless monster I am today. 

            “Agrios!  Come to bed.  Bother your mind no more.  Let us split the heavens with our cries of love.”  There she stood, beautiful as ever.  Her blue eyes soft as the rippling stream.  Skin tanned and freckled from work in the fields and the woods.  Hands dirty yet remarkably smooth and tender to the touch.  Long auburn hair tied back with all but a few strands hanging loosely over her heart-shaped face " smudged with sweat and earth, yet still perfect.  She beckoned me into our tent, away from the perils of the world.  As I gazed at her, the moon shone brightly, showering her in a silvery glow that made her appear as if Diana herself were standing before me in all her beauty and might…I’m coming, my love.

            A different memory now.  Sun flooded my vision as the image of my wife faded into that of my son. “Father!  Teach me how to fight!”  No more than eight years of age, holding a sword for the first time, smile as bright as Apollo’s chariot above us.  He had my green eyes and sharp nose, but carried my wife’s rich auburn hair and bright smile.  Theos was a scrawny boy, lean from hard days of work with his mother and not yet old enough to develop muscle.  He could scarcely hold the weapon he now lifted, off balance and wobbling from side to side as he swung against an imaginary opponent while I tended the fire before evening supper.

            “You are too young, Theos,” I laughed, roasting meat above the flames.  “But do not worry.  When you have been blessed with muscle and can swing my sword as if it were light as feather, I will turn you into the fiercest warrior the world has ever seen.”

            This image now faded into that day.  The day my world was ripped from me " the gods themselves cursing me to live out my life blindly searching for loves who would never return.  “Sara!  Take Theos and run!  I’ll hold them off!” 

The Legion had attacked without warning or reason.  Half our tribe lay dead or captured before we even knew what was happening.  Storming out of our tent with a vicious battle cry and my Thracian sword, I became an arc of pure destruction.  Five Romans lay dead at my feet before I was surrounded.  Looking over my shoulder, I saw my wife and son captured, swords at their throats.  Tents were aflame and hundreds upon the ground, breathing no more. 

            “Stand down, Thracian!” commanded an officer, his red-plumed helmet gleaming in the gods-forsaken sun as he glared down upon me from his horse.  “Bow before the might of Rome.”

            I glanced at my love, tears in her eyes as the sword dug into her neck, drops of blood running down her chest " at my son, frozen in terror as his mother and father stood at the mercy of these golden warriors.  “Whatever fault lies with my tribe or my people, my wife and son took no part of it,” I told them, trying to remain strong in front of my boy.  “Let them go.  Do what you wish with me, but they go free.”  The officer dismounted and walked over to Sara, leaning down to get eye level before grasping her face with his hand.

            “She is fine, is she not?” he mocked, lust filling his eyes.  “You’re right, dog.  Killing her would be a waste of c**t and pleasure.”  He let her go and turned to face me.  “Your son, on the other hand…”  At a quick hand motion, the soldier behind him moved without hesitation.  A flash of silver, and blood sprayed the earth at Theos’s feet, his eyes pale and lifeless as he fell, dead in moments.

            “No!”  I screamed, thrashing out with my sword before being stabbed from behind.  I fell to the ground, dropping my sword as blood poured from my side.  I stared at the lifeless body in front of me.  Failing to believe that this was my son.  Just the night before I had given him his first sword lesson.  Hours ago, he was full of life, laughing and smiling as we ate our dinner by the fire.

            “You see?” laughed the Roman officer, raising his arms to his auxiliary, “the Thracian finally finds his place before us " on his knees.”

            At that moment, I did not care about anything else in the world.  The hole in my side was numbed by the loss of my son and the pure rage building within me.  I grabbed the sword at my feet and flung it at the soldier holding my wife.  As the blade flew, he tried to block it, but he was too late, as it embedded itself in his neck, missing my wife completely.  I tried to get up and run to my wife, my Sara, but was wrestled to the ground by three soldiers, bound, and held up by my hair as the officer glared at me in pure loathing.

            “You worthless s**t!”  he exclaimed, drawing his sword and digging it under my jaw.  “You don’t know when to give up do you, dog?  I think I’ll have to put you down.”

“Try your best, you Roman f**k,” I spat, unafraid of Death. 

           He raised his sword and was about to strike when he faltered, a feral smile on his lips.  “Or, I could just put down the dog’s b***h, couldn’t I?”

            “No!”  I screamed, desperate, all pretense of bravery gone.  “Don’t!”

            “Aww,” crooned the officer.  “You don’t like that?”  He backed up, the smile never leaving his lips as, sword in hand, he came upon my wife.  “It’s a shame she has to die.  What a beautiful soul, lost to the underworld.”  I screamed, begging, pleading, my dignity and honor set aside as the life of my wife hung in the balance.  “Say goodbye, Thracian.”  And he slit her throat, her mouth shaping my name as she too fell lifeless to the ground beside my son.

            I stood at the gates of the Colosseum, a man " stripped to nothing, lifeless, unafraid of Death.  Every day I saw flashes of my family, memories forever playing in my mind.  They were gone, but I would live on.  I would live on because I would have vengeance.  No matter how weary I got, how hopeless it felt, I would fight on.  A man is never too weak or too wounded to fight if the cause is greater than his own life.  The Romans took everything from me, and the gods as my witness, I would have my revenge.  I would not rest until the Roman officer who took my wife and son’s life lay dead before my feet.  Sara always told me that a man must accept his fate or be destroyed by it.  I prayed to all the gods that my fate held that of Roman blood upon my feet, for I would not rest until I felt their blood. 

© 2016 Thomas Burbank


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Added on June 1, 2016
Last Updated on June 1, 2016
Tags: we, who, are, about, to, die, salute, you, rome, gladiator, death, vengeance, adventure, action

Author

Thomas Burbank
Thomas Burbank

Ann Arbor, MI



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Undergraduate Researcher at the University of Michigan more..

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