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Trackside seats

with 6 comments

A new short story for you. Hope you like it, folks.

* * *

 

Lentullus leaned to his left, closing on Citus’ ear to be heard over the general hubbub.

“Should be a good one today. Prudens is up for the greens, and you know what he’s like.”

Citus’ voice came back, deep and hoarse as always.

“He’ll have a hard race against Sura, make no mistake.”

Lentullus let out a low chuckle. According to his sources, which were, after all, quality ones, Prudens stood little chance of a loss today. His team had been carefully selected from the best steeds bred by Sarmatian trainers who knew their horses better than any man. Certainly his sources damn well should be correct, given the amount he paid them. Even if Prudens walked away with a clear victory today, Lentullus’ profits would be heavily eaten into by what he owed to various people ‘in the know’. Of course the profit he cleared would still buy him the nice new estate down near Antium he had his eye on… figuratively speaking, of course.

“Andros? Are you there?”

The slave turned to his master, grateful that the latter’s long-term total blindness prevented him from seeing the expression on the young, long-suffering Greek’s face.

“I am, master.”

“What’s happening?”

Lentullus lounged back, his hand tapping along the marble of the seat toward Citus until it closed on the cheese and grapes that rested between them on a bronze plate.

“Master… the quadriga aren’t out yet, but I can see movement in the carceres. Should be any moment now.”

“Don’t miss a thing, boy. You hear? If this goes well, I’ll perhaps take you with me to Antium for the weekend.”

Andros nodded, frowning, trying to keep the ennui and sarcasm from his voice while speaking. Lentullus was sharp enough, but his equally blind friend Citus could almost hear an eyebrow rising.

“Thank you, sir.”

“Good. Now pay attention.”

Citus leaned to his friend.

“You say the boy is good?”

“Excellent. It’s almost as good as actually seeing it, though I have to admit it’s been so long I can barely remember.”

Andros leaned forward onto the rail, looking along to his left toward the starting gates. The crowd thronged the circus maximus, every stand full to capacity. He shouldn’t complain, really. How many slaves got to have trackside seats at one of the most important chariot races of the year? Glancing directly across, past the spina that ran along the centre of the circus, he could just make out the purple robe of the Emperor Domitian, himself leaning on a railing, the Praetorian Guard surrounding him and glinting in the sunlight.

No. He really shouldn’t complain. When his family had sold him eight years ago in order to have the money to keep his brothers and sisters alive after his father’s business failure and their subsequent eviction, he’d been sure the world was going to end for him. He would end up chipping marble in a quarry or fighting gladiators for the right to live another day. His father had smiled and told him he really landed on his feet with service to the ageing blind senator, while his mother cried in a corner.

Of course, his father didn’t know how strict Lentullus was. He didn’t realise that the reason the senator needed a new slave was because he’d beaten the last one to death over a petty theft. But all things considered, Lentullus wasn’t that bad. Andros had only ever been beaten twice, and both times he’d made mistakes. Now he was wise and knew how to hide his mistakes from the sightless senator. But it would be nice to be free again. He’d never experience manumission, of course, but he could still dream. There were people who could remove all traces of slave marks from you. You just needed to get far enough away and fast enough to evade the slave hunters.

But what use would escape be anyway. To be free and penniless in Rome was worse than any slavery.

He shook his head and concentrated as he heard a fanfare.

“Ah… this’ll be it” said master Citus with a smile.

“Alright boy. Here you go. The best you can and I may even give you a free day in Antium with some coin.”

That was a surprise. Lentullus was hardly noted for his generosity with money.

“The Emperor is raising his hand… and he drops the nappa cloth.”

He took a deep breath. There was an art to the commentary.

“The gates spring open. First, third and fifth are out ahead. Fourth and seventh are close behind, with the others lagging. Already they are settling into that order.”

The blind senators leaned forward instinctively, as though they could see better there. Citus opened his mouth to complain that he didn’t know which rider was in which gate, but Andros was already thundering on with his commentary.

“From gate three, Sura in the red, has taken an early lead with a light, bronze quadriga built for speed rather than sturdiness, I’d say. His team are all blacks and pretty big, like the mountain horses from Armenia. I think that’s what they are. Seems he’s got two equally well-trained mares on the inner and outer position balancing the team.”

Citus leaned back happily. Lentullus was absolutely right. The lad was a genius at this. Hopefully he would never let the boy go.

“Behind Sura the three, Prudens came from the first gate. He has a fairly plain quadriga, pulled by three chestnuts and a piebald. The piebald is the biggest; a really powerful looking horse, on the inside to guide and control the team. The team look a little weak in themselves, but the piebald is holding them together nicely. He’s closing on Sura, but the lead driver is swerving here and there, trying not to leave enough room to pass.”

Lentullus grinned. Prudens was just playing at this point.

“The third chariot is from the fifth gate. I think its Scauvus the Sicilian for the blues. He’s got two whites and two greys. Very pretty and sleek. I think they’re chosen for their speed. He doesn’t seem to have an anchor horse in his team, but they’re working well together anyway. He’s a good length and a half behind the other leaders and the nearest to him is another red perhaps three lengths back.”

Andros cleared his throat, took a deep swig of water from his cup and a deeper breath.

“The rest are too far back to make a play for victory. It’s all going to be between Sura, Prudens and Scauvus. There’s no sign of a white until far back in the crowd. The dust cloud’s kicking up strong, but they’re coming clear into view again as they reach the end of the spina and turn.”

He grinned. A spectator at the far side had just turned round, lifted his toga and bared his backside at the third driver. Scauvus wouldn’t have been noticed, of course, but the laughter around him showed the act had been taken in good spirits.

“They’re rounding the spina. Sura is still in the lead, but he took it quite wide. I think the outer horse on his team was vying for dominance with the inner. He’s going to have trouble between the two mares before long.”

His master nodded in the darkness, smiling. It was all decided long before the day, really, by the choices of horse, driver and vehicle, but it was still always exciting.

“Prudens has pulled a much tighter turn. His guide horse is really excellent. He’s jostling for position with Sura now. There’s trouble… they’re almost touching… but Sura has pulled out a little. It’s close now.”

Another momentary pause.

“Scauvus has made a beautiful tight turn and reclaimed almost a length from the leaders. The three are in close competition now, with the next nearest far enough back that he might as well be in a different race.”

“How’s the crowd?” Lentullus enquired, tensely.

“Mostly in good spirits, though with some bad feeling. Particularly bad among the white supporters. There’s a crowd of them not far from the carceres on the other side of the track and they’re weighed down with curse tablets they’re hurling into the riders. Some of them are waiting for the leaders, I think.”

“Ha. They’ll have to throw like Hercules himself to hit the leaders near the centre.”

“Indeed, master. The three drivers are passing us.”

Hardly necessary commentary, really, given the deafening roar from the crowd and the noise from the vehicles on the sand below.

“Now they’re coming into the turn again for the end of the first lap. Sura is close enough to see the man in white at the back of the previous lap and might pass him this time. He turns and it’s tight… tighter than last time. He’s managed to keep Prudens behind him, trapped. The positions are the same as they come into the initial straight for the second time.”

The first of the gold dolphin markers that counted off the laps tipped up, to a massive roar from the crowd.

“First lap over and nothing much has changed: the lead three are all a little closer together, but no difference in position. Again, Scauvus is pushing like mad to close with the first two and, as they pass the Emperor in his box, it’s still Sura leading by half a length, Prudens fighting him desperately for first place, and Scauvus less than a length behind them.”

He swallowed another mouthful of water quickly. It was thirsty work.

“There’s trouble for the whites, but they’ve lost anyway. Their second quadriga is pulling off without even completing a lap and making for the carceres. Looks like the outer horse is lame. He’s… yes, he’s off the track and out of the race.”

“Screw him” the blind master snapped excitedly. What about the three? Are they at the corner yet?”

Andros took a deep breath.

“As they round the far corner again, positions are the same. It’s tight, though… so tight you wouldn’t believe. Now, there’s hardly room to separate the three. Sura and Prudens are almost alongside, with Scauvus close behind. They’re putting on extra speed as they close to our corner again.”

Lentullus nodded eagerly.

“Yes, yes. Are they here? I can’t hear the horses for all the shouting. Are they at the next turn?”

“They’re closing on it now, master. Here they come: Sura first, but his two mares are still arguing and…” his voice rose a notch. “Yes… they’ve pulled out too wide for the turn and Prudens has found the room. He’s in now, neck and neck. As they come back into our straight, it could go either way by the end of this lap!”

Something was happening in the crowd off to his left, but he kept his eyes riveted on the action just left of straight ahead.

“Scauvus is still closing. It’s so tense and overwhelming. If we’re lucky we might see all three of them jostling for first by the time they straighten out!”

But the cause of the commotion in the crowd suddenly became apparent, with a roar and screams. Half a brick, cast with anger and deadly accuracy, hurtled out from the stand, smashing into the nearest guide horse of Sura’s team. The blow was not hard enough to damage the horse, but the shock did enough. The black Armenian mare reared desperately in pain, and the entire team foundered, chaos ensuing.

Desperately, seeing what had happened, Prudens hauled on his reins and steered his chariot in so close to the spina that the wheel hub raised sparks from the stonework. In a heart-stopping moment, he pulled out past the rolling disaster that was Sura’s quadriga.

Half the crowd cheered, not entirely sure what was happening but aware that, whatever it was, Prudens was out clear now and in the lead.

But the disaster wasn’t over. Unable to swerve enough from his following position, Scaurus’ team drove straight into the former leader’s chariot, the two vehicles slamming together. Horses went down in squeals of pain, while the one wounded by the brick broke free from the trouble and galloped off ahead down the track, yanking the hapless rider straight from the wreckage of his chariot and throwing him to the sand of the arena, where it proceeded to race away, dragging the broken charioteer away by the rein-wrapped arms.

Chaos and death.

Disaster for the teams.

Financial ruin for many spectators.

But what had immediately occurred to Andros in that flash of panic as the accident began, was just how close to the track they were and the location and direction of the two chariots as they collided. A tiny mental calculation based on the approach angles, and he was already leaping away through the crowd at the very moment Scauvus’ quadriga smashed into that of Sura, running up the stands.

The great, broken wooden bulk of the chariot, borne aloft by the momentum of the crash, the yoke sheared away and freeing the poor horses, hurtled through the air and into the stands.

Lentullus turned to his sightless friend.

“Where’s the boy. What’s going on?”

A whistling noise and growing rush of air was the last thing either of them ever heard.

 

Andros, his heart still racing, watched the panicked and miserable crowd filing out of the circus. In the chaos following the fatal crash that had demolished part of the stands and killed or injured more than a dozen people, nobody thought to question the young Greek slave as he made his way to the raised seating area where senator Paulinus sat.

The ageing man had barely raised an eyebrow, given the scale of his losses today, as he paid the young man with a large leather bag of coins. After all, the boy was Lentullus’ slave, and had the legal chitty.

Andros grinned.

Life was going to be rather nice. By the time the chaos was under control, and he was missed, he would be at Ostia boarding the first ship bound for home.

And he’d be going home richer than the Gods.

“Bless you, Prudens the master charioteer.”

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Written by SJAT

October 20, 2011 at 4:22 pm

Posted in Short Story

Tagged with , , , , , ,

6 Responses

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  1. Great stories here, my friend! More!

    Like

    poolagirl

    October 20, 2011 at 5:16 pm

  2. I felt like I was right there…..great detail….

    Like

    Terri T.

    October 20, 2011 at 8:53 pm

  3. I hope there is a book of short stories coming out of this.

    Like

    prue batten

    October 20, 2011 at 10:24 pm

    • That is currently the plan. Freebies, though.

      Like

      SJAT

      October 24, 2011 at 3:46 pm


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