From the balcony of their home, Etruscilla had the perfect view. She could gaze down upon the secluded sands, surrounded by walls of brilliant white marble, and marvel at the muscular men, hot and sweating from their exertions, as they went through the daily rigours of training to fight in the arena.
Muscles flexed and tensed as wooden practice swords swept at bare chests and at firm, powerful legs. Grunts and gasps of pain rang through the warm air as some were too slow to deflect blows, and through it all, Etruscilla wished for her husband's presence, so she might release the desire she was feeling as she watched.
Her enjoyment of the view was not without a measure of regret. Though Titus was not exactly someone to hide secrets from her, she knew all too well that he tried to shield her from some of his position's less... savoury aspects. He would not admit it openly, even to her, but she knew that one of the fine specimens of man dueling upon the sands below was going to leave their company soon, forever - and she also knew which one would most likely be leaving.
There was one man who stood out from the rest. Olive skin was marred by years of battle scars, accumulated over many battles in the arena, and fierce brown eyes were always scanning the training grounds for signs of greatness - or weakness. His chest was a map of past fights - the tip of a sword, tracing its way down from his left pectoral to his midriff, a slice across the right side of his abdomen, and a deep scar across the right side of his cheek, where a spear had caught him (to say nothing of the cauterization afterward) were all signs of one thing - Nimr could take severe punishment and keep going. The ones who had inflicted those wounds were all dead, at his hand.
It was strange, in a way. Nimr was not the tallest, nor the strongest, but his frame was stocky and he was built for endurance. He was leaner now than he had been a few years ago, but he was still built like a beast. His physique hid his speed though, and many an opponent had fallen afoul of just how fleet-footed he was.
As he walked around the edge of the sands, lips tight as he judged the others, Etruscilla felt her heart ache a little more. Nimr was more than another gladiator - he was also the Doctori, the one who trained and marshaled the rest, and more than that, he was a friend to Titus.
He glanced up, catching her gaze, and she smiled bravely. He bowed his head respectfully, then cracked the whip at his side against the ground.
"Gladiators, form ranks!" His voice, deep and powerful, commanded instant obedience. His 'flock' immediately lined up, some looking exhausted, but all looking determined to obey their commander.
"Let us see..." He walked down the line. "How far you have come. Some of you are ready for the arena itself, and some of you think yourselves ready. You..." He pointed at a young Greek man, Praxites, whose long, curled, messed up blond hair marred an otherwise impressive appearance (Etruscilla could not help but notice the ribbed stomach and firm upper body of the tall Grecian), who looked back at Nimr with trepidation. "You believe yourself worthy of the arena?"
Praxites looked back at Nimr with a certain degree of... was it defiance? Confidence verging on arrogance? Fear? Etruscilla didn't know the man well enough to read him.
"I do Doctori. I am ready."
"Then demonstrate readiness. Hold your ground against me in sparring, and prove yourself worthy."
Praxites stepped out from the line and held his wooden sword at his side. Another gladiator handed him a simple wooden shield, that he slipped onto his left arm.
Nimr was handed a sword, but declined a shield. He clasped the hilt tightly in his left hand, holding the tip down to the ground.
Praxites lunged forward, swinging his sword for Nimr's midriff, but the older man eased backwards and spun on his heels, knocking Praxites' blade downward with his own. His own weapon then swung back up, and Praxites could only just bring his shield up before the thick wooden sword would have cracked across his cheek. As it was, he staggered under the stronger man's blow, that made his arm shudder, and he stepped back as Nimr tried to plant a foot into his stomach, narrowly avoiding the attack.
Nimr came forward, sword cleaving from left to right and back again, as the man himself moved with grace that defied his appearance. Praxites, to his credit, parried the first two swipes, but the second sent him off-balance, and only his shield denied Nimr a solid strike as the sword came down once again. Praxites, grunting in frustration, swung his sword from right to left in a bid to catch Nimr's chest, but Nimr had stepped backward, as though expecting the attack, and drove a fist into the Grecian's face as he deflected the counter.
Staggering backward, Praxites actually did well (to Etruscilla at least) to brush aside the next two quick jabs from Nimr, but he could do nothing as Nimr hooked his left leg against Praxites' own and swept his foot out from under him. Praxites landed hard on his back, winded, and only just managed to avoid being stamped on by a large boot, as he rolled away.
Muscles on both men flexed as Praxites quickly got back on his feet, shoulders hunched, eyes focused on Nimr as the Doctori charged forward, pirruretting as his sword slashed and stabbed at Praxites. It took every bit of focus to combine shield and sword to defend against the suddenly relentless assault, but he was holding his own - until Nimr snapped a kick at his left knee. Praxites grunted in pain and could only watch as his sword was knocked out his grip. His shield came up and he grunted again as Nimr's strong arm brought his blade down hard, and Praxites went down upon his injured knee.
A swift kick sent Praxites sprawling upon the sands once again, and Nimr quickly planted his foot upon the Grecian's shield.
To the younger man's credit, he did not give up. He punched at Nimr's leg with his right arm, but Nimr was like a mountain, unmoved by Praxites' efforts, and he stuck his knee down upon his chest, pushing down.
"You fight with greater purpose and hunger than I have seen from you before... if you can bring your mind to the fight as well as your heart, you may yet survive in the arena." Nimr stood, and offered his hand to Praxites, who took it. "You defend well against sword, but not against your opponent."
Praxites was confused. "I do not understand, is that not one and the same?"
Nimr scoffed. "Clearly not. Otherwise I would not have pinned you to the floor with boot and knee. How did I beat you?"
"You were too fast, too strong..."
"No!" Nimr barked. "I have seen wiry men, smaller than you, slower than you, beat men faster and stronger than me. I myself have beaten men stronger than me. How did I beat you?"
Praxites thought for a moment, then shook his head. Nimr turned away, and when he turned back, it was to address them all.
"When you are in the arena, fighting for your life, and more importantly, for glory, you are the weapon. Your weapons are but an extension of yourself. Learn to treat them like a limb, and move them with the same freedom of motion that you move with. Use every part of yourself to attack and defend - you have fists and feet - use them."
Watching from the balcony, Etruscilla, though not especially understanding of the nuances of gladiatorial combat, knew that Nimr was right - and that his loss would see their entire house suffer.