By Atticus Ellis
“Marcus, I wish you’d just let me kill you without demur. I never like to make things messy.”
“In that case, Gaius, you just might have quite the mess to clean up.”
These were the opening jibes of the ferocious duel between Marcus Claudius, an odious specimen of Rome’s depraved elite, and Gaius Lucius, a more sober denizen of the Empire’s capital. This was not their first crossing of swords, metaphorically speaking, but now that the figurative had at last turned literal, it promised to be their last.
“You betrayed me and squandered my honour with lies,” seethed Marcus in righteous indignation, gripping his weapon with a tightly clenched fist.
“All that you squandered was your chance to take responsibility,” retorted Gaius, pointing his blade towards his adversary’s throat.
“And you honestly expected me to let you frame me for the murder of your slave?” balked Marcus, disgust rolling off his tongue. Hardly had he finished saying this when Gaius pre-emptively raised his sword above his head and charged at him with a thunderous cry of war. Marcus scrambled to prepare himself for the blow. Gaius hurled a vicious downward slash that Marcus managed to block only at the last second. Both men found their weapons locked precariously together, Gaius unable to gain the upper hand and Marcus desperately unwilling to yield. These few seconds were brief but filled both duelers with utter terror, especially the untested Marcus, who dreaded the slightest slippage of his blade. Gaius, meanwhile, put his hope in a sharp, deep kick into Marcus’ shin. Marcus, thus wounded, cried out in pain, and Gaius saw his opening to slaughter his prey once and for all. With all the ravenous anticipation of a famished wolf, Gaius flung his shining iron blade forward with enough force to drive it clean through Marcus’ tender neck. But force was gained at the expense of speed, giving Marcus enough time to leap backwards a few feet and clear of Gaius’ frenzied sword.
“You FOOL!” roared the assailant, wildly incensed by Marcus’ close escape. “You must have a lot of nerve to try and destroy me. If you’d known your place, middling scum, we wouldn’t have to be here at all.”
“Oh, I hear your point,” scowled Marcus, his knees bent and his sword held across his chest as he readied himself for Gaius’ next onslaught. “You think I’d have been better off confessing to murder for your sake.”
“More or less,” Gaius snickered, so fanatically obsessed with his one mission that only a hint of irony touched his voice.
“Well,” exclaimed Marcus as Gaius came ever closer, “I don’t think a universe exists where that’ll happen.”
Gaius grinned wickedly at Marcus’ words, assured that his earlier setback would ultimately prove meaningless against his obvious strength. “I guess you’ll die more stubborn than most,” he snickered.
Just as stubborn to see Marcus dead, Gaius launched a thunderous barrage of slashes, his sword flying this way and that with a fury born of Pluto himself, each swing bringing Marcus nearer to death. And yet, against any sane man’s wagers, the defender dodged each gust of deadly metal with as much skill as the last.
“I’ll eviscerate you, scrawny dog!” screamed Gaius with a hatred that Marcus had never before encountered, nor thought possible.
“One day, Gaius, your own hubris will trip you up,” promised Marcus, panting and beginning to perspire from his efforts.
Little did he know it, but Marcus’ living hell was to endure only a few seconds longer. On the cusp of his bloody triumph, the sole of Gaius’ sandal landed unwittingly on a small rock. For the briefest of moments – so brief that neither Gaius nor Marcus knew nothing of it then – the rock was held firm between the dusty ground and Gaius’ aging footwear. But the force of Gaius’ zealous stride, his entire leg bending backwards, dislodged the rock, tripped him up and brought him crashing to the ground. His upright sword slipped from his now-uncertain hand, landing on its hilt with mere seconds of fleeting balance to spare. As Gaius tumbled, the sword’s savage point caught his chest and buried itself inside him to the hilt. Hardly credulous of his fate, he hissed at Marcus with bitter madness in his eyes. Marcus recoiled at the horrendous sound of iron sinking inexorably into flesh, but even more disturbing was the final moan of Gaius as his limbs were loosened by sudden death, his indignant spirit fleeing to the shades below. All this was too fast for Marcus to comprehend with any clarity, and it was only moments later that he became fully cognizant of what had happened. Cautiously, as if expecting Gaius to attempt one last, futile assault against him, Marcus drew nearer to the corpse. The twin sensations of pity and relief raced through his veins as he bade the gods to show at least a modicum of mercy to the man who had shown him none at all.