Defender of Rome

Defender of Rome by Douglas Jackson Read Free Book Online

Book: Defender of Rome by Douglas Jackson Read Free Book Online
Authors: Douglas Jackson
Tags: Fiction, Historical, Action & Adventure, War & Military
layers of seasoned ash hit solid flesh. If the shield had been equipped with a metal boss he might have disabled his opponent, and as Serpentius retired he kept up the onslaught, always following and never allowing him to set his feet for an attack. He knew he couldn’t maintain this pace for long, but it was enough for now to keep him on the run and make an occasional touch with point or edge. Batter forward with the shield to pull in Serpentius’s sword, then twist to attack from his undefended side. Always moving. Dictate. Cripple the bastard if you get the chance. No. Kill him if you get the chance.
    Serpentius was surprised by his opponent’s recovery, but not concerned. His feet would keep him out of serious trouble and he knew he was still going to win. A man carrying a shield had to tire before a man who didn’t. All he had to do was bide his time. He’d make the Roman pay for the bruises.
    But the Roman was turning out to be tougher than he’d thought. Valerius was still moving when Marcus called the next break, even though he could barely speak when the former gladiator came to stand at his side and he didn’t dare crouch in case he couldn’t get up again. Instead, he leaned on his shield like a drunkard.
    ‘Better,’ Marcus said. ‘You’re wearing him down.’
    Valerius smiled at the joke, but it hurt his eyes. Dried sweat caked them as if he was staring out of a salt mask. Above, the sun beat down from a cloudless sky and his flesh felt as if it was on fire. ‘If I don’t finish it soon he’s going to kill me.’
    ‘Then finish it.’
    From the word of command, Valerius attempted the same tactic as he had in the second session, but this time it was obvious to everyone watching that he was too slow. The other fights had come to a halt as the gladiators were drawn to the epic, mismatched contest between the crippled former tribune and the born killer who hated every Roman. They whispered bets to each other and no man put his money on Valerius except old Marcus, who accepted the odds with the distracted air of a gambler who knew he had already lost. You could almost feel sorry for him.
    Each time Valerius attempted to use the shield to pin Serpentius back, the Spaniard was able to skip clear and launch an attack from another angle. Time and again it appeared he had made the decisive strike, but somehow Valerius always managed to get sword or shield in the way, just enough to avoid what would have been a broken bone or gouged eye. But it couldn’t last. Serpentius was laughing now, mocking his opponent as a coward and a cripple, mimicking the staggering steps as Valerius attempted to stay on his feet. Then he saw his opening. It was the shield. Valerius had held it shoulder-high all the heat-blasted morning, his arm a single bar of agony and the pain in his stump long since transformed into a silent scream. Now the shield wavered and fell to one side and Serpentius swept past it with a snarl of pent-up frustration, the point of the heavy gladius aimed not for the eyes but in a killing blow at the throat that would leave Valerius choking on his own blood. At least the Spaniard’s mind told him he was past it. The Roman could barely hold the shield, never mind move it. So how could the upper edge be slicing towards Serpentius’s jaw, and his head be jolted backwards with a force that made the sky fall in and darkness come several hours early? When he regained consciousness he found he couldn’t raise his head and his throat felt as if it had someone’s boot on it. He opened his eyes and far above him at the end of the long pale slope of the shield was a red-eyed vision of Hades.
    ‘What is it you do with a snake, Marcus? Cut off its head?’
    Serpentius heard Marcus laugh. The pressure on his throat increased and he said a choked prayer to Mars, at the same time cursing the fickle god for deserting him.
    Valerius stared down at the pinned man. He only had to shift his weight to break Serpentius’s

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