Because it is just that: a dance.
The fighting routines that we learn, that we spend so much time forcing our bodies to follow, so that they are no stranger to us than breathing, have something of the formal, the ritualistic about them. We are down here on the sand telling Rome a story about itself that it wants to hear. Rome is about bravery. Rome is about fighting. Rome is about being prepared to face – or watch – death.
Moloch and I face each other in the sun, identically armed with sword and targe, identically armoured with helmet, breastplate and greaves. Only his size and my shape make it plain who we are. Between us, the arbiter holds his staff high. Only his eyes are on the tribunal – ours are flickering lights, barely seen beneath our visors, but we know that I am staring at Moloch, and he is staring at me. Once the arbiter drops his staff and steps back, that will be the beginning of the end game. The fox will chase the geese, the geese will peck the fox, until one is dinner for the other. Mad, mad, mad! No one will step forward to separate us this time – we will only be separated by the Styx.
A gasp is the only hint that a signal has been given from above. A split second later staff and arbiter are out of our field of vision. Let us give them a show, we two creatures out of legend, one a child-eating beast, one an unnatural amazon. First they will appreciate some stalking, so we prowl around each other in a circle, letting the tension build up almost to the point where some of the crowd despair of their being any action. Even I am impatient, for I am the one who makes the first move. I make it look as though I have thrown caution aside, and dash into the attack.
The crowd begins to roar.
Moloch is no novice, and meets my attack with parries as tense and resilient as bowstrings. As we spring apart again, the roar becomes a steady buzz of excitement. And now the dance begins. If it is not precisely choreographed, it is at least made up of move and counter-move, strung together in combinations we have both seen scores of times before. One of us appears to press forward as the other falls back, then the roles are reversed.
So: right foot forward, feint a jab, rotate the wrist and change to a cut to the head which is deflected by his shield. Catch a cut to my waist with my own shield, and step in with the left, swinging my sword underarm, upwards from hip to shoulder. Parried. Backhand slash, both together, momentarily caught hilt-to-hilt, then break free. Clash shields and barge, break free again. Wide, swinging blows aimed at the neck and chest. Good stuff – faster than they’ve seen before – and hard work. Mouth slightly open, breathing easily, but beginning to sweat. Duck a cut to the head, and press on inside the follow- through, spin round and backhand slash – applause, as it bounces off his shield with a loud thump. Now his turn: right foot, lunge parried, up-and-down three times our swords clatter together. Move back, change guard, left foot leading, deflect several body-cuts with my shield.
Change: neither gives an inch. Toe-to-toe, an exchange of fast, flashing sword-blows, all with exaggeration and flourish, all easy to spot coming. The whole routine. Most of the crowd must have seen it before, but not this fast. Now I’m moving forward again, now he is and I am retreating before a winter- storm of blows. Now me again, locking swords hilt-to-hilt, and grinding them round in a circle – once, twice, again – before springing apart.
As we take a moment to re-appraise the situation, I feel so alive! I have never felt this clear, this clean, this drunk upon afternoon air before. I love life! I love the warmth in my muscles, I love the weight of my shield, I love the roaring in my ears. I have never felt so free since the first time I climbed the tree outside my villa.
We begin again; and again it is a sequence of familiar routines, but now the flourishes are less obvious, the blows are laid on in earnest, and weaknesses are looked for. The crowd’s buzz has become a mere murmur, as knowledgeable watchers realise that the real fight has begun.
It is clear now how equally matched we are. Our skills have been sharpened to the same keenness, and no blow can get through. I can anticipate and parry all of Moloch’s jabs and cuts, and can see his feints and changes of direction coming. He has the measure of mine too. Each of us is agile – some big men make the best dancers, the most light of foot, and I have found again, from somewhere, a young girl’s grace. I can leap in, attack, and leap away. He can shift from foot to foot, lean one way and then the other to change an attacking angle. We copy each other, almost in sheer mockery of style. Left and right, blows come, fast and heavy, relentless, simultaneous, full of intent and meaning. Killing blows all, notching blade on blade, blade on shield, shield on shield. The air sings with them!
Another change: I am giving ground. I am still parrying and countering all his hardest strokes, and replying with my own, just as hard. I am still easy on my feet, dodging and dancing out of reach. I still have all my strength left. But something is different now. An inequality has surfaced that I now recognise with cold lucidity. We are equally agile. We are equally adept. He is stronger. Slowly, I am being driven back. This can only mean one thing: I am going to die today.