Damian and Demetrios
Slaves to Love #2
Rome, Italy. 64AD
I have never been one to enjoy a day at the games. For me, the sight of burly naked men, sweating and straining against one another in the arena, while thousands of people screamed either encouragement or debasement at them, was not the way I wished to spend a pleasant sunny day.
My sister, Portia, on the other hand, is an ardent admirer of all things gladiatorial, and because it would not have been seemly for her to go to the Circus unaccompanied, I would reluctantly escort her- if she whined, and cajoled me long enough. So it was, on the day I first saw Demetrios that I stood in the broiling heat of late May, suffering through endless boring bouts that employed slashing swords, nets, tridents and spears.
Of more interest to me had been the entertainment that preceded all that-the dancers and singers who, along with some spectacular staging, managed to transport me to a place far removed from this press of humanity that surrounded me. Everyone pushing and shoving to get a better view of the combatants, elbows thudding into my back, men and women yelling in my ear-the gods knew it was always the worst experience of my life, yet they had imbued my sister with this perverse love of the sport. Portia had her favorites of course. Usually the biggest of the men, and the hairier the better. I found all her choices revolting, and told her so. She would always laugh gaily, telling me that was a good thing, for we would never have to quarrel over men.
As the afternoon wore on, my mood became glummer. The sweating, screaming mob set my already ragged nerves on edge. Three times, I asked Portia if we could leave-and three times she shook her head, signifying ‘not yet'. Groaning aloud, I watched as one more dead or wounded gladiator was carted off, while two more entered the arena to begin yet another mindless competition of slash and cut. Then, I straightened with interest, my gaze fixed on the magnificent sight before me. I did not know it then, but the man who stood in the center of the arena, looking up at us with an indifferent air, would be the one who would change my life forever.
The crowd was chanting, "Demetrios, Demetrios!"
"Which one is Demetrios?" I asked Portia.
"The skinny one on the right. He has no chance today against Xerxes. Just look at the muscles on him!"
"He's not skinny, Portia, his body is perfectly proportioned-and the crowd favors him."
"He has won before, but never against a man like Xerxes."
I feared she was right. Xerxes was a brute-hugely muscled, and a full head taller than the man who had caught my admiring eye. Demetrios was also tall, but of a lighter build. His sleekly muscled body was a thing of beauty, a sculptor's dream, not to be abused by the brutish tactics of his hulking opponent. My artist's hands itched to reproduce his likeness in my studio. To preserve for all time, his masculine beauty.
Portia's elbow in my ribs brought me back to reality. She was jumping up and down with excitement as the two men faced off, circling each other, trying to gauge one another's strengths and weaknesses. My heart leapt into my mouth as Xerxes charged forward, his sword slashing dangerously close to Demetrios' unprotected head.
"Why does he not wear a helmet?" I had to shout in order to be heard above the roaring of the crowd. I couldn't help but admire the rich black curls that adorned his head. I really didn't want to see them coated with blood-his blood. Portia ignored me, yelling at the top of her voice for her champion to "Slit him open!" and "Bash his brains out!" My sister would lose all sense of propriety on these occasions.
Perhaps it was her excitement that I found contagious that day, or perhaps it was that I found myself wanting beyond anything else that Demetrios be the victor-and certainly not be disfigured by the brute's razor sharp sword. Whatever the reason, I was now jumping up and down alongside Portia, trying to drown out her cries of "Xerxes! Xerxes!" with my own of "Demetrios! Demetrios!"
My champion was fast on his feet, and it was easy to see the skill that had made him the victor in the past. Xerxes blundered past him, time and again, while Demetrios skipped out of his way, avoiding every blow, but managing to inflict many a stinging wound on the other man. Roaring with rage as he took yet another cut on his arm, Xerxes flung himself forward, almost knocking Demetrios on his back. I gasped with horror watching him stumble backwards, dropping his sword in the process.
"Oh, no!" I clutched Portia's arm in terror.
"Xerxes has him now," she screeched with glee. I almost slapped her for her callousness, for my hero now faced Xerxes the brute, without his weapon.
Demetrios backed away slowly, and the crowd fell silent watching what they were sure was to be his final moment on this earth. Xerxes strode forward, sword flashing-then, to my utter surprise and delight, Demetrios did a running tumble, diving between a startled Xerxes' legs. Sprawling forward, he managed to retrieve his sword. Xerxes rushed him, hoping no doubt to cleave him in two before he could get to his feet, but Demetrios did not even try to stand. Xerxes raised his sword for the deathblow, and Demetrios delivered a well-aimed, powerful kick into the big man's groin. The giant's scream of pain echoed around the arena. He dropped to his knees in front of Demetrios who put the point of his sword on the back of Xerxes' neck-and waited.
I was yelling myself hoarse with joy, while Portia muttered something about what a sissy Xerxes had turned out to be. All eyes went to the emperor's box for his verdict-life or death for the defeated gladiator. All eyes, that is, but for mine. My gaze was steadfastly fixed on Demetrios who stood, his chest heaving, the sweat glistening on his naked torso, looking for all the world, the conquering hero.
The verdict was death, for Nero had decreed it so. Xerxes was dispatched quickly, with what I perceived as mercy from Demetrios. The crowd went mad, throwing flowers and laurel leaves into the arena for Demetrios to walk upon. He raised his arms in victory, then was gone from my sight.
"Well," Portia huffed. "He was a dead loss." She meant Xerxes, of course.
"He's dead all right," I agreed.
She looked up at me with a sly grin as we threaded our way through the crowd. "So, are you in love?"
I grinned back at her. "Completely. You have to admit he is beautiful."
"Yes, he is... Not my type, of course. Too pretty. You have to wonder what he has to put up with back there."
"What do you mean?"
"You know-all those men lining up to poke him."
"Portia!" Sometimes my sister could shock even me. "After seeing what he did today, I should think he could look after himself if anyone tried to poke him."
"Yes, but imagine if they ganged up on him-held him down, that kind of thing, while they took their turn at him."
"Portia, you have a most lurid imagination. I hope you don't talk this way in front of your intended husband." Portia was betrothed to Quintus Vinicius, a centurion of handsome proportions, but somewhat devoid of a sense of humor.
"Oh, him." Portia sighed expansively. "I love him best when he's on active duty, like now. He really is a bore, Damian."
"Something you'll have to get used to when he returns to civilian life," I reminded her.