Somewhere over Italy, 2015
Howard’s teeth rattled inside his mouth as the airplane bobbled through the spell of turbulence they were passing through. And he was soon discovering that even his iron stomach had its own limit.
He felt like the toy inside of a Christmas present for the toddler who was becoming a little too anxious to find out what was inside. And if the air didn’t clear soon, the chubby businessman sitting next to Howard would see exactly what was inside of him.
Howard reached up and twisted the head of the stiff nozzle for the air conditioner above his seat. Leaning back, he let the cool air flow over his forehead. Even though he showed no discomfort in his expression, anyone could tell he wasn’t feeling well by the glistening sheen of sweat on his face.
He never wanted to fly to Italy, but his father insisted that it would be faster than taking a cruise across the Atlantic. Howard was not naturally a nervous person, but he strongly believed that if God had intended for men to fly, they would have been born with wings or had the ability to change into a bird.
At the image of a burly man like his father turning into a tiny canary, Howard let out an amused chuckle. It was a pleasant sound that rumbled in his throat.
The businessman turned to him with the least affable countenance and sneered. “What’s so funny?” he grumbled.
Despite his squinty eyes and puckered lips as if he had smelt something rank, Howard could sense his anxiety. The man probably didn’t like flying either.
“Nothing,” Howard replied in his husky baritone voice.
“Well,” the man snapped, “keep your nothingness to yourself.”
That suited Howard just fine.
He turned his green eyes towards the open window next to him and watched the clusters of clouds shoot past as the cabin of the plane rocked a little harder. The dense clouds that passed over the wings obscured the view, but Howard didn’t need to see. He didn’t care. He wasn’t in Italy to sightsee anyway. The only camera he brought with him was the one on his phone and he had no intention of using it.
Why did he have to go to Italy anyway? What did learning his family history have anything to do with being a leader today? What was he supposed to prove by learning a few facts and visiting a few museums? All he was given was a name, a place and what his ancestor was. Howard was supposed to fill in the blanks and report back to his father in Wyoming.
The intercom chimed through the cabin before the fluid voice of the head stewardess announced that they would be landing in the Verona Villafranca Airport soon. She repeated it in both English and Italian. Howard understood both. He had been preparing for this trip for a while now and could speak the language well enough to carry on a smooth conversation. He hoped that he wouldn’t have to use it too much.
Arena di Verona, 69 AD
Still clothed in the tattered garments of his enslavement, Decimus sat in the cell the Romans had confined him in. He could hear the roar of the crowds above his head, shouting for carnage and death. And they thought that he was the barbarian.
Despite the murky darkness that surrounded him, his hazel eyes could see everything as clear as day. He could distinguish the edges on the smooth stones of the walls and the iron bars that imprisoned him. He could easily tear them down, but then where would he be? Guards were posted along the halls and outside of the arena. There was no easy escape for him. Not one without bloodshed anyway.
The jingle of keys snagged his attention and he listened as they drew closer down the corridor. The keys were accompanied by the clanging of armor and weapons bashing together with every marching step.
Soon, half a dozen guards were at the door to his cell. It was unlocked and the strong arms of trained soldiers seized him. Decimus was dragged out of the cell until he could gain his own footing. He had no desire to resist them. He had spent too much of his life fighting the Romans and he was exhausted. Perhaps not physically, but in his own soul he was tired of the bitterness that had been instilled in him from a young age. It was such hatred that had led to his imprisonment. Hatred and a lust for the flesh of his enemies that he was not able to control.
The guards led him down the twisting corridors until they came to a set of steps that ascended to a portico. Beyond the gate, he could see the sand of the arena floor and the wall opposite. Just above the edge of the stone barricade, he could see a few rows of spectators shouting and waving their arms widely in a frenzy that both puzzled and fascinated him.
The guards unshackled his ankles and wrists and left him at the foot of the stairs to guard his only other way out. The cries of the spectators roared to a climactic high as the portico was raised, admitting Decimus into the arena.
Decimus glanced back to the guards and the swords they carried on their belts. He could risk an escape now, but at what cost? He turned back to the arena and made his way heavily up the steps, emerging into the bright sunlight of the amphitheater.
The hot sun beat down upon his broad shoulders and brow as he squinted to take in the view of the crowd. Men, women, children, politicians and slaves alike had gathered to see his execution. Did any of them know his name or where he was from? Or did the sponsor build them up to believe he was just another barbarian from the north, unworthy of recognition or respect for the little service he had done for the Roman Empire?
No, none of them cared. They wanted to see his blood cake the sand beneath his feet. He would have to disappoint them.
Decimus ran a dusty hand through his thick ebony hair as he turned to take in the sight of the towering arena. The blue Verona sky above him offered no cloud to reprieve him in the heat of the summer season. Not even a gentle breeze could make its way over the high walls of the amphitheater to cool his temples.
The sponsor of the event was seated in a place of honor on the front row, surrounded by his entourage of politicians and wealthy citizens. Decimus didn’t know his name or how he came to sponsor the event, but his life rested with the man that scowled down upon Decimus over his long, pointed nose.
The sponsor, clad in rich garments, waved his hand as a cue to someone within the arena. Decimus spun around to see another portico on the other side of the arena rise to open the way for his executioner.
If it were even possible, the crowd grew louder as the golden pelt and tawny mane of the lion seemed to glow in the sunlight. Decimus’s lips curled up into a snarl as the lion prowled towards him. Hunger gleamed in the dark eyes of the beast as its own whiskered mouth pulled back into a threatening roar.
Decimus braced himself for the attack that he could feel was eminent. His muscles rippled and tightened under his tanned skin, his feet shifted into the dirt to affirm his stance, hands curled and ready to counter the beast.
The lion stalked around Decimus, knowing full well that the prisoner was a real threat. He wasn’t like the others the Romans had thrown in the arena. Decimus was strong, confident and unafraid. Decimus was a predator, just as the lion was. Perhaps more.
In a single tense moment, the lion charged. Fangs and sharp claws flashed at Decimus, but he was ready. Decimus’s strong arms captured the lion around its neck, dodging past the lion’s massive paws, and wrestled him into the dirt.
The lion’s hind feet kicked wildly at Decimus, slashing at his tunic and ripping it apart. Decimus extended his own claws and dug them into the lion’s thick skin, drawing the first blood of the match as he pounded the beast into the ground.
Ducking his head close to the lion’s mane, the raging jaws were unable to find purchase into Decimus’s neck. When the frenzied jabbing of the lion’s hind legs into his gut became too much, Decimus lifted the beast off the ground and threw him several feet to the side.
The crowd was deafening. Decimus could distinguish cheers for both himself and for the lion. The tide was slowly turning in his favor.
The lion scrambled to its feet as slivers of red blood streaked down its back where Decimus’s nails had sunk in. Glancing down at his own hands, he saw his fingers drenched in the sticky, crimson blood of his opponent. The liquid dripped from his long, razor sharp claws, plopping into the sand. A surge of satisfaction coursed through him.
The lion, now angry and confused, circled Decimus once more. He was searching for a weakness and Decimus could see the thoughtful cunning in the lion’s eyes as it tried to formulate a new plan of attack. He wouldn’t give him the chance.
Decimus leapt at the lion with blinding speed. Claws slashed into his shoulder, but Decimus ignored the searing pain as he swung around to grapple the lion from behind. His legs straddled across the lion’s back and Decimus trapped the beast’s neck between his arms once more. The lion roared and reared up in an attempt to loosen Decimus’s grip. But the traitor was too determined to live and wouldn’t let go.
Decimus’s nails cut into the lion’s neck, tangling in the coarse hair of the mane. He could feel his fingertips slide past the flesh and pulsing tendons as they dug deeper into the thrashing lion. Blood poured over his palms, down his arms and over the lion’s torso, soaking them both.
Soon, the lion became weaker and crumbled to the ground, sending out a plum of sand upon impact. Decimus followed him down, his arms squeezing out more lifeblood as the lion’s legs convulsed with spasms. He could feel the euphoria of victory throb through his body, his limbs tingling with the rush of pleasure from the kill.
When the lion breathed its last ragged breath, both of them lay in a pool of blood that became muddy as it mixed with the sand of the arena. Decimus could feel it coated thick upon his skin, but he didn’t care.
He dislodged his hands from the flesh of the lion and pushed himself up, standing strong and tall. The gash in his shoulder was no longer there, but the traces of his own blood were, mingling with that of the lion’s.
The crowd was no longer cheering for the lion, but for Decimus. He turned to glare at the sponsor, whose eyes were wide in disbelief at the spectacle he just witnessed. But, Decimus was not done.
He stepped over the lion and leaned down to grab the jowls of the beast he had vanquished. In one swift motion, Decimus ripped the jaws apart. Even more blood splattered around his torso as he took the lower jaw and tossed it like a disc across the arena. He could hear the shrill screams of horror from the women and the riotous shouts from the men in the crowd.
Turning to the sponsor again, he waited. He proved his worth. He defied his own execution in the style he had heard they all hungered for. Word of this blood sport had reached him all the way through to his homeland. Even then he didn’t want to believe that the society that ruled the world as they knew it could find amusement in such carnage, in death, in suffering. But in one dreadful morning he found it to be true.
The sponsor rose from his seat and paused to listen to the will of the crowd.
They demanded life for the man who brought them such remarkable entertainment. How the mob could be turned in a matter of moments was incredible. The sponsor’s chest rose and fell with the decision he had to make. According to the will of the people, the sponsor raised his hands to dismiss the criminal, granting him his life. Not necessarily his freedom.
Guards flooded onto the field with their spears trained upon Decimus. He slowly looked at the men who would dare to capture him and he could not only sense, but also see the fear so visible in their faces. He could see the horror in their eyes that roamed over his body, so soaked and caked with blood that hardly any clear skin could be seen on him. Decimus must have looked like the god of war himself in all his victorious splendor.
He did not have to be ordered back the way he came. He went freely. Swaggering towards the open gateway that led to the corridor he had been ushered through just a little while ago, he took in the sight of the arena one last time. At least, he hoped it would be his last.