Marcus danced away as the others faced him, the sun glinting feebly off their bloodstained blades. The wind whispered through his short-cropped hair, barely cooling the sweat pouring down his neck. He glanced around him, looking for a way out. The bodies of his brothers lay a short distance away, blood showing red and stark on their tunics. Telltale signs of what were most likely fatal wounds. There was no time for grief now. His three opponents stood between him and the forest, the way home. He fought to quell the panic in his gut. Three against one, he thought. There’s no way. I can’t.
He and his two brothers, Decius and Kaeso, had marched proudly from Castelmare leaving behind the cheering crowds. Their white tunics seemed to glow in the sunlight which bounced off their bronze breastplates. A spear and shield were in each hand and a short sword hung from each belt. Marcus, the youngest, had walked behind while his older brothers each carried the standards of their city and their family; a black ram on a field of white and a red oak on a field of green. They had marched mostly in silence that day, the tension mounting as they walked to the arranged meeting place. They slept under the stars, feeling and hoping that their enemies would hold up their end of the bargain and not kill them in the night. The Aemilians were their enemies, but they were generally honorable. Marcus slept fitfully, his dreams varying from scenes of victory to tableaux of blood and screams. The next day had found them face to face with their three opponents under the morning sun. The three Aemilians were similarly equipped and carried standards showing the blue Aemilian bull, set off by a background of yellow and four white stars on a purple field so dark it was almost black. A brief ritual had followed. They started by staking their standards in the ground. Then each combatant cast a stone beyond the line demarcated by their enemies’ standards and spoke the accustomed words to initiate the contest. They squared off against the Aemilian champions in pairs. Marcus focused all his attention on his opponent who was a head taller with eyes darkened by paint and a breastplate gleaming over a thick leather shirt that hung to his knees. He dodged the Aemilian’s spear and looked over in time to see Decius go down with a sword embedded in his abdomen. Kaeso was already lying on the ground, a spear emerging from his chest.
There was no escape for Marcus, but he would not run. Despite the fear gripping his chest, making it difficult to move his legs, it was his duty to stand and fight. Anything less would dishonor him and his brothers’ memories. But his legs felt leaden and weak at the same time.
Move! Marcus stepped back once, then took another step. Relief washed over him in an instant. At least I’ll die fighting. The thought was little comfort.
He would have to deal with his man first. Marcus notice that his opponent was separating him from the other two Aemilians; one was limping, the other bleeding from his belly. The big man narrowed his painted eyes and lunged. Marcus skipped to the right, the sword barely missing him. The big man motioned to the other two who started to circle around Marcus. As Marcus hoped, his opponent’s overconfidence got the better of him. When the big Aemilian lunged again, Marcus ducked and rolled under his defense, like he had done so many times training with his brothers. He buried the sword in his enemy’s groin, jumping away as the other two soldiers swarmed behind him. He escaped but tripped and fell. His sword went flying in the dust; his shield lay by the body of the dead Aemilian, discarded when he had gone in for the kill. He rolled over to see the Aemilian with the belly wound advancing on him, the limping soldier following behind. Marcus panicked. Scrambling backwards his hands and feet flailed at the ground, kicking up dust but not moving him very far. Something behind him stopped his advance. He twisted his neck and found himself staring into the lifeless eyes of his brother Decius. Blood had soaked his tunic turning the brilliant white to a deep red. He turned back and the Aemilian was bearing down on him, slowly, savoring the kill. His sword dripped with Decius’ blood. Marcus saw the smug satisfaction in his eyes turn to surprise as a spear seemed to appear in his chest. He collapsed next to Marcus, still staring in surprise. Marcus leapt to his feet and whirled around.
Kaeso lowered his arm and grabbed at his upper chest with a grimace plain on his face. “What are you waiting for? Finish it.”
Marcus turned, stooped, and pulled the spear from the Aemilian’s chest in one fluid movement. The hamstrung Aemilian limped backwards, a shocked look in his eyes. The look of a man who knows he is going to die. Marcus advanced on him, hefting the spear and preparing to drive it home. The Aemilian dropped his sword and fell to his knees, reaching for the hem of Marcus’ tunic.
“Please,” said the Aemilian. “Don’t. Spare me. My name is Regulus. I have a wife. A little boy. You win. I can just go.”
Marcus stopped short, unsure of himself. The spear fell to his side. Behind him he could hear Kaeso howling, shouting to finish him. Marcus saw his own pain in Regulus’ eyes. His head swam. Blood pounded in his ears, throbbing in his temples. He shifted, about to step back when Decius’ eyes appeared, lifeless, staring, filling his vision.
Marcus growled. “Coward.” “We both knew what we were getting ourselves into,” he heard himself lie. “And you killed my brother.”
Regulus screamed as Marcus rammed the spear home. The screams became gurgles that rose along with blood from his throat. Marcus pulled out the spear and Regulus’ face slammed into the dirt.
Marcus turned around and ran to Kaeso. “I thought you were dead.”
“I’m alright,” said Kaeso. “I hit my head when I fell. Good thing I came around when I did.”
“Decius—,” Marcus started to say.
“I know. We’ll take him home.”
They quickly lashed together the Aemilian standards and whatever bits of rope and cloth they could find to fashion a rudimentary bier. Marcus and Kaeso walked through the night, not bothering to stop to sleep, focusing only on the goal of getting home.
It was early morning. The sun, obscured by low clouds, was casting a feeble light. Marcus, exhausted, shifted the weight of the bier behind him from one hand to the other. He knew the necessity of what they had set out to do, felt the weight of responsibility and expectation lifted from him. But any feeling of victory was tinged, tainted by bitter grief for his brother and perhaps even for himself, for his lost innocence.
“I’ll remember you Decius, the way you were,” Marcus said, more to himself than to his brother’s body. The road turned one last time and reached the edge of the forest. Marcus looked up, eager to see Castelmare. “You can rest now. It’s done. We’re home.”