"Bid the Colosseum Roar"
Characters: Ensemble Cast
Summary: There was a dream that was Rome, to those few who were brave enough to remember it.
Notes: This year I am playing around with the 50 sentence challenge over at another site - which prompts one to write four stories a month based on a set of fifty prompts. The fifty prompts result in one sentence each, and then a whole story is formed from the snapshots provided in those sentences. Obviously, this challenge will slaughter grammar, and bring out the seldom seen fandom from the muse - but is a fun and curious thing that has already been incredibly interesting. If you wish to, you can track my progress in my profile.
Table II screamed Gladiator to me, and so here we go . . .
I hope you enjoy my humble contribution to so lovely a tale.
Disclaimer: Nothing is mine, but for the words.
"While stands the Colosseum, Rome shall stand.
When falls the Colosseum, Rome shall fall.
And when Rome falls - the World."
There was a dream that was Rome; a Republic for the people and by the people, the control not in the hands of the Emperors who had enforced their reign over the centuries - but the people who held the weight of Rome high.
With hard eyes, Commodus watched as the Emperor brushed past him to embrace his favored General (his son in all but name), and his mind swirled with the weight of the future, already knowing which path he would take . . . if his father chose to push him down it.
"They do not honor me," Marcus Aurelius smiled softly as he and Maximus walked through the tired lines of the Felix Regiment – each man they passed wearily bowing their head, scratched and bloodied armor creaking as their eyes shone with admiration for the General who had led them through the long years of fighting.
"For your health, Father," Lucilla muttered as she kissed the ailing Caesar on the forehead, her eyes closing in weary resignation as she felt his weak grip about his shoulders, knowing that he would soon be leaving her world for the next.
"My reign will not pass to my son," Marcus muttered his decision softly, as if afraid that some spirit would pass by and steal his words – the dream he had forgotten over the years as fragile as the mist on the air, dissipating into the night.
"I die for Rome," the young soldier gasped like a prayer, his hand in his General's as Maximus wove a vision with his words: marble buildings, and jeweled hills - the glory that was Rome, a city he had never laid eyes on himself, but an ideathat he carried in his heart . . . and whose losses he held within his memory, never to be forsaken.
The snow crunched under his boots, but he wished that it was rich vineyard soil; just as he wished for the thick layer of cloud above traded for Spain's sun soaked fields – the grim ache of his men, and the insincere smiles of Caesar's family and Senators traded for his wife's loving warmth and the son he could hardly remember . . .
The whole act of murder was strangely silent – the Emperor's last breaths muffled as Commodus held the frail man close in a smothering embrace, killing him with a sad imitation of a child's love for his father until there was only the sound of his angry tears on the air, holding a corpse up as he had longed for his father to do in return all his life.
"Embrace me, brother," Commodus held his hand out, eyes carefully spying out the plentiful array of emotions on Maximus' face until the other man turned and left without a word, his last look accusing and fervid – sealing his fate.
That night, when the camps quieted and her brother finally slept, Lucilla walked through Maximus' tent with slow steps, her breath catching in her throat as if taken by the spirit who still loitered, her hands caressing the furs that hadn't been slept in in days and the tiny figurines that stood in place of a soldier's family for so many years . . . and with tears she finally mourned more than just the loss of her father.
The low beat of horse's hooves, and the clatter of armor was a whisper of a blessing to Alcestis, who raised a hand over her eyes to better see her husband's approach, eager for an end to their separation – his son had grown much while he was gone, and the harvest had been full and bounteous; indeed, she had much to show him.
The men of the Felix Regiment were baffled as they looked one man from the next, their whispers hesitant and pained as they took in Quintus wearing the General's insignia, and Maximus nowhere to be seen as the new Caesar strutted as a war hero before his tired troops . . .
There was no peace on the faces of his dead – the fires had encrusted agony to permanently scar the tales of betrayal, and his tears fell bitter on the ashes of the funeral mounds he built, his rage and his pain building until he wished fervently to join his family, departed before him.
The sky moved over him in a turbulent haze, clouds rolling over themselves as thunder rumbled over the deserts, the creaking of the wagons and the shout of man and beast finally awakening him from one hell into the next.
Lucilla kept her smile cool and poised when her brother looked over at her, her eyes bright when all she wanted to do was curl in on herself – the only thing keeping her calm facade possible was the knowledge of her child, awaiting her in Rome, and at the mercy of Commodus' whims.
For Proximo, it was a kick to the gut looking the Spaniard in the eye – for he saw a part of himself reflected, young and hungry and fierce, no more a slave than his chains would suggest, and a ripple of power to him that spoke of a river of gold to earn for one who owned such a fighter as him . . .
There was nothing at ease about Zucchabar's plains; the harsh grasses and decayed ruins infested by cast off men from their glory days, red staining the market stalls in festive strands as vultures circled overhead, their caws a thanksgiving to the dying and a warning to the living.
"And yet when you die, and die you shall – you die to applause," Proximo's voice was caught in the thrall of memory, his shrewd eyes lost to the roar of crowds and the clang of steel as he clapped his hands together in a sweeping gesture, seeing the beauty in the barbarism he participated in as only a survivor of the arena truly could.
Maximus found his lethargy and apathy leave him in a rush as his body responded to the sound of naked steel and hissed warcries where his mind would not, moving in tandem with Juba like a man possessed as he struck with the ease of a veteran . . . and around him, the crowd roared its approval.
Lucilla watched her brother's face for a flicker of guilt, regret even, as he stared at the marble bust of their father, but instead she only saw a bittersweet smile cross Commodus' lips like a knife wound – as if he stared at their father live and whole, and the two were merely sharing a secret as any beloved son might share with a father.
Senator Gracchus watched as Commodus swept through the streets of Rome like a hero returning home to his Triumph, regarding the cheering crowds as if it were his own victories in Germania and Gaul they applauded – but what had the man conquered but a dieing man, what had he ruled but an insatiable arrogance and pride?
"In two days we leave for Rome," Proximo revealed, his smile sharp and humorless as he finally found the one key to his favored fighter's sleeping heart – Rome, and all that she held there within.
"The senate is the people," Lucilla muttered carefully, "leave the people their illusions as you practice your reality – that is what it means to be Caesar, brother."
In a startling clear moment of of thought during the fighting, Maximus remembered Germania – remembered the men who wouldn't surrender, the dead men walking as they fought with desperate savagery . . . he hadn't understood at the time as he returned the tide with weary efficiency . . . but now he knows, and the strike of his blade was quick.
"Within the Colosseum, the roar of the people will honor my father in the likes of which this Empire has never seen before," Commodus declared, "and as they roar, Rome will quake at the might and the pride of her people."
"To completely disagree, Gaius – Commodus simply knows the truth of Rome better than any of us do the dream – the mob is not ruled within the marble halls of the senate . . . but by the sands of the great arena."
Lucilla pursed her lips as she read through the scrolls, realizing that her brother was selling the city's stores of grain to fund the games and buy the loyalty of the city guard; and no one would dare speak against him – for the Coliseum was greedy in its hunger, and even the most innocent of concerns were fed to its gaping maw.
The view of Rome through the wagon windows was not what Maximus would have expected – the beautiful city was much as its stories, but the beggars in the streets and the corpses ridden by plague were at odds with the nobility who rode the claustrophobic streets on gilded liters, oblivious to the suffering around them while the crowd swirled like flies upon an open wound – chaotic, and never ending.
The Colosseum was a marvel of stone and mortar – reaching up to the heavens above while from within the screams of the crowd cheered their sacrifices to Mars himself . . . and for a moment, Maximus could even feelwhere the overwhelming shadow of the building fell over him, heavy and pitiless as it swallowed him whole.
Holding the eye of the Emperor behind the shield of his helmet, Maximus turned deliberately, a sick thrill of enjoyment threading through him at Commodus' rage at seeing the back of a slave . . . but even a gladiator could stand toe to toe with Caesar when the people cheered as they now did, awed and bewildered as one of their own legends revealed himself to the sound of unceasing applause.
Battle had been men killing men – innocents lost were merely the hard truths of war; but the families slaughtered within the arena were not what Marcus Aurelius would have wanted honoring his name, and Maximus felt yet another surge of determination spill through him like the blood of the dying – determined to add these souls to the long list that Commodus had to answer for.
"The Senate has long been a thorn in the side of the Caesars," Commodus spewed venomously, his dark eyes forbidding, unfocused almost, as he stared at the vision of a future in his mind – a vision that those around him were almost afraid to see take root.
"Even if I was to return to my family, I have lost who I was – a man who kills where there is no need is the most dishonorable of men," Juba said softly, his hands heavy on the hilt of his sword, his eyes closed as he remembered home and the illusive dream that it now represented to him.
Lucilla's little boy was much the same age as his own would have been, his small hands upon the bars swallowed by Maximus' own shadow, and at the contrast, he felt a too fresh grief curl inside of him – one not yet cured by lives lost and vengeance taken.
Gracchus looked in distaste at the twisting passages he had been led through, his white senatorial robes sullied by the mire of the Colusseum's underbelly – but the man before him stood with a regal grace Commodus would never understand, and upon seeing the fervor that Lucilla spoke of, he once again felt hope for Rome and her future.
When the Emperor once again took to the arena floor to address the crowd's favorite, his arrogant mask broke on the pitiless spite that loitered in his gaze, insidiously smirking as he raised his hands to the roar of the crowd – no choice but to let the other man live, even when his eyes hollered for bloodshed.
Her father killed her husband for politics, and her brother had killed her father for a crown; and soon Commodus would take the life of the man she had always loved – now, she only wished to end the circle of death that surrounded the Caesars . . . and give her son a clean throne to rule, free of the blood of his predecessors.
"I would rather die fighting for a friend rather than for bloodied gold – you have the allegiance of us all, General," Juba swore without a trace of hesitation, and at his side Hagen nodded, the two men as true to Maximus as any of the soldiers he had prided in leading before.
"You laughed more then," Maximus whispered, drawing the faintest smile from her, the rough weight of his callused hand a benediction and a blessing upon her skin, bringing back old memories best left as ghosts . . . aware that as she spoke to him she would most likely not see him again; and ready to mourn his loss once more.
"I'm not a legionnaire," Lucius grinned at his uncle, swinging his small wooden sword through the air with a choppy grace, "I'm a gladiator – merciful, with a will of iron."
Her brother's tale fell on Lucius' ears, but it was for the mother it was spun; and Lucilla felt herself reeling as she read the threat in Commodus' hand (gentle, but heavy) on her son's shoulder, his eyes painted a shade of black by Hades himself, twisted with betrayal and insidious intent until Lucilla found her own tale to tell as well . . .
"Do you remember what it was like to fight, and not for coin?" Maximus rebuked softly, seeing Proximo's eyes close long and slow – for the night was a night of deaths and sides to choose, and the old entertainer had to find it within himself to once again pick up his sword in the name of Marcus Aurelius.
But the dream that had sustained them wasn't enough as betrayals and secrets spoken made the night fall through – Lucilla watching the far off plume of smoke from Commodus' chambers even as a Praetorian guard came in to whisper that all had been done just as Caesar ordered.
"Embrace me, brother," Commodus kissed the bound man on the cheek in a gross parody of a sibling's affection, even as he planted his dagger deep in Maximus' side, taking no chances for the battle to come.
Marcus had favored Maximus over his own son; Lucilla had loved Maximus over her own brother; and the people had chanted the name of Maximus the General as loudly as the did as Maximus the Slave . . . and their Caesar would no longer settle for second placed affections.
Maximus found his vision swimming – overlaying the reality of the arena before him with the land that awaited him after, Proserpina's fields of wheat a welcoming embrace in Plouton's realms, his wife's smile and son's peals of laughter beckoning him past the hate in his opponents eyes and the roar of the crowd.
The tide of the battle twisted and turned, sand coating sweating bodies of both Emperor and Slave until both were made equal on the arena floor – and then slowly, one overcome the other; returning the pain of so many deaths in one final blow until even the crowd was silent.
Her nightmare had an end as her brother fell; and from that one last death the dream could live for as long as if could before it was time to fight to uphold it again.
Struggling to ignore the welcoming mirage of the next world, Maximus breathed the last words of a tormented Emperor – and then delivered, he gave up his final breath; senators, guards, slaves and citizens all rising to honor their fallen own . . . leaving their Caesar to be reclaimed by the dust he had soaked with the blood of so many.
"Maximus?" he heard the whisper of his wife on the dead breeze, and when he opened his eyes, he awakened to the dream that had been fought for, but realized only in death – a life of peace and simple enjoyment, with his family eternally by his side.