by David Anthony Durham
Drenis hates his hands. They tremble, though he wills them not to. He should be eating, like the others, disguising his thoughts and intentions. Looking normal. They are just sitting and talking, he and Gaidres and Spartacus, his kinsmen. Around them the other gladiators move and eat and talk. They joke and insult each other. It's the dinner hour, just like any other day in the ludus of Cornelius Lentulus Vatia. But this one is not like any other day. This is the day they take oaths from other men, when they swear that they will do what they've so long whispered about doing, the day that dreams will be written in blood, with gods called upon as witnesses.
They sit at one of the long tables, in the warmth of the spring sun. Drenis leans forward, wooden bowl untouched before him. Needing to do something, he pretends to rub an ache out of his palm. He uses the motion to pinch his flesh, hoping the pain will steady him.
"Be at ease, Drenis," Spartacus says. His hands are relaxed. One of his fingers circles atop the jagged point of a thin sliver of metal that protrudes from the tabletop. A fishhook that was set there long ago. The wood around it is stained dark brown. "This is the easy part. Just a few oaths to take. We'll make many into one, and be stronger for it. Believe me."
The Galatian, Kastor, is the first to approach. He slams his cup on to the table, spilling the milky-white bone ash drink on the wood. He takes the seat across from them, with two of his companions hulking behind him. Kastor asks, loudly, if it is true that Ziles whimpered in his last moments? Did he truly call for his mother?
This, too, Drenis knew would be coming. Ziles, Gaidres' son, died the day before. A wound from the arean had festered until it took him to the afterlife. It is natural for the others to offer condolences. Or jeers. Either way, the watching eyes of the guards will see and yet not see. It had been Spartacus' idea. Take the oaths in public, he had said, where the entire transaction will be seen, but not seen for what it is.
There is a guard posted in the tower overlooking the eating area. He leans forward and studies them, though he is only mildly interested. The day is warm, and such banter between the men is standard fare. The guard looks away, as Spartacus said he would.
Gaidres, strong in the way of older men, betrays no emotion on his weatherworn face. When Kastor has spent his queries, he says, "My son died well, and you know it."
"We all know it," Spartacus says. "Kastor, do you swear yourself to our cause?"
Kastor smiles. He has bulky, over-sized features, a scar on his left cheek. His black beard is thick, and his skin is a red-hued tan at odds with blue eyes. He has an easy smile. He often boasts that he has a prick twice the length of other men. That, he claims, puts a man in good humor. "I swear."
"By what god?"
"Whichever one listens to slaves." He turns to his companions. "Who is the god of slaves? You know?"
Gaidres taps the table with his fingers.
Still smiling, Kastor sets his hand on the wood. He finds the fishhook and presses his thumb down on the metal sliver. When he pulls it away he displays his thumb, showing a knob of blood. "With this blood, I swear by Tengri. Tengri rewards and punishes. Tengri loves justice. Tengri will drive my hand. You have my oath, and my people with me." With a more somber tone, he says, "Ziles died with dignity. We all know it. He was a son as any man would wish to call his. Do not mark the words I say against him." He rises and moves away.
They sit for a moment, quiet until Spartacus says, "The Galatians are with us. One doesn't swear lightly by Tengri."
"There aren't many of them," Gaidres points out.
"No, but Kastor is worth several men."
More come to them. The Libyan, Nasah, presses his palm down on the barb, swearing to Ba'al. Kut, of the Nasamones, invokes the spirits of his ancestors. He leans down and pinches a bit of dirt from the floor and licks it. Thresu moves his palm atop the sliver of metal, carving the symbol of the Etruscan war god, Laran. Crixus of the Allobroges grasps Spartacus by the wrist. He squeezes harder than he needs to and pledges his men with an edge to his voice as if he's doing so unwillingly. Still, he says the words. The Germani leader, Oenomaus, gives his blood, but afterwards asks why the Maedians are the ones receiving the oaths? Why not he himself, since there are more Germani in the ludus than Thracians? Why not him, as he is first among the gladiators. "I have the most kills to my name. The most scars from the arena."
Each point, Drenis thinks, has a truth to it. Those of his tribe swear that Oenomaus has hidden his life force in one portion of his body and cannot be killed because of it. His wounds attest to it. The raw pucker of a spear thrust in his belly flesh. The welt that runs down his thigh. The wedge of hairless skin on the back of his head. An axe wound, it's said.
"Why are you not giving oaths to me?" Oenomaus asks.
"Because the plan is ours," Gaidres answers. "The god-talker is ours, and it was her vision."
Oenomaus pulls on one edge of his blonde mustache. He pulls so hard his lip stretches, and then snaps back into place when he releases it. "She had better be right."
"She is," Gaidres says. "You have seen her prophecies come true more than once."
"You have not even told us your plan. Will your woman kill them all by herself?"
With a motion of his hands, Spartacus stops Gaidres from responding. He says, "We have told you what you need to know. Hold to silence as long as you can. When it's broken, rise."
"Rise from within a locked cell?"
"We will take care of that. Kill those that have chained you. That is all that matters. You need do no more than that."
Oenomaus studies the Thracian's face a long time. "I have agreed to be with you in rising. After that, the Germani answer to no one. Remember that."
After he leaves, Gaidres says, "He will be hard to keep with us."
"I'll keep him," Spartacus whispers. "One way or another."
Still others come, even men who speak for no one but themselves. They each bind themselves to action in the name of their chosen gods. Such oath taking was unimaginable when Spartacus first proposed it. So many different men, different clans and races, with discordant tongues. Drenis was sure they could never be united in a single cause, even if it was their own freedom. But now it's happening. Nearly all of the gladiators are with them. Only the Latins have been left out, for they can least be trusted, and the Iberians, for none can make sense of their speech. No matter. They have enough. Those that are pledged outnumber the guards. It has taken Spartacus and Gaidres weeks to create such a union. With Astera's prophecies to support them, he won them over one by one.
And here it is, all in place for the morrow.
Chromis, the lone Mysian in the ludus, looks more nervous than the others when he sits down before Gaidres. Though a slave, he handles the keys that lock the various groups of men into their quarters, into cells or corridors or rooms, as varies with men's status and clan numbers. He is an ill-formed man, slight in the shoulders, with arms that seem to lack the full measure of muscles. One of his ears looks to have been chewed off long ago. He is no warrior. No gladiator either. For this, and his part in enslaving them, he is despised. Still, they need him.
"All is ready?" Spartacus asks.
Chromis nods. He scratches under his armpit, and then on his belly. Flea bites, likely. They all have them. Drenis makes a point of never acknowledging them.
"Valens has asked for Astera?" Gaidres asks. Valens is the cook.
"Yes." Chromis looks baffled by his own answer. "Just as she said he would. How does she know what's in men's minds?"
"He will have the key? You're sure?"
"If the women please him, he fetches sweet parcels for them. It makes them eager. Some of them. I don't imagine Astera will be eager."
"To please him?" Spartacus asks. "No. She will be eager to have his key, though." He motions for the Mysian to make a blood offering.
After Chromis leaves, Drenis mutters, "I don't trust him."
"Nor I," Gaidres says, "but he wants to be free from him as much as any of us. More, as he's a coward and he has it in his head that Vatia will soon put him in the arena to be slaughtered."
"Where would he get such an idea?" Spartacus says, wryly.
Gaidres doesn't answer. He rolls his shoulders, stands and takes his leave, saying he needs to burn seeds and speak the words for his son. It will take some time. He walks away, looking stiff in the legs.
Spartacus says, "You are right, of course. We will be betrayed. Some men, given the chance, will always disappoint. Astera dreamt of a herd of horses, all of them running. One of them began to bite the others, and each one that was bitten turned in fury and bit another. So the whole herd attacked itself. We do not know who it will be, but one of us will bite the others."
Spartacus shakes his head. "No, not him. Astera said it would not be him."
Drenis trusts the Mysian least. Dislikes him the most, but he knows that Astera has never yet been wrong, not since she arrived a couple of months ago and made it known that she was a priestess of Kotys. She is just a woman, a slight being with small, delicate features. Pretty, yes, but not a woman he can think of with lust. She is of the Dii people. Thracians, but a mountain clan, rough even by Thracian standards, with gods unique to them. Her eyes, whenever they touch on Drenis, scorch his skin. He feels the pain of it even when he doesn't know she's looking. The side of his face flares with heat and he turns and... she is there, her green eyes fixed on him. Just a woman, but with power in her that he can't fathom.
"If Astera says it is not him," Drenis admits, "it is not him. But who then? Spartacus, anyone could betray us! He would have only to get a guard's ear, to point fingers and name names. Some of them must be itching to do so already."
"You are right, of course." Spartacus nods. "Tonight every man that swore to us will lie in his cot twisting, chewing over what will happen tomorrow night. One of them, if not more, will decide his fate is more assured by winning Vatia's favor. Perhaps some are already thinking this, but tonight is when their minds will reel, thinking what boon they can win by turning against us. It was always the greatest flaw of our plan. We have to trust many to succeed; but many cannot be trusted. A great problem."
"We should never have taken the oaths," Drenis says. "Why did we? They're not doing anything in preparation anyway."
"True. But this way, once we are free, the men will be bound to us. They will think themselves part of the plot and own it. We will fly from here together instead of in a hundred different directions. We'll be stronger for it. Listen, I will tell you something." Spartacus leans forward. "Cousin, you worry too much. For every problem there is a solution. We have the men's oath. They will be true to them, whether they intend to or not. It's simple. We will not rise tomorrow, Drenis."
"We will not?"
"No," Spartacus says, humor conveyed in the shape of his eyes. "We don't rise tomorrow. We rise tonight instead."
Excerpted from The Risen by David Anthony Durham Copyright © 2016 by David Anthony Durham. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.